Arc 1 Intermissions [I.5]

Content warning: This story contains themes of suicide and mental illness.

The Martyr

Polity: Duchy of Buren

Naval strength: 500 ships (National Front of Buren), plus Irregulars

There would have been war in Buren even if the Emperor had survived to see it.

Throughout the dark, deep, rocky state of Buren, which straddled the corrupted continent once known as “Nobilis” on three sides, a cry had sounded for generations. It sounded in the mines where deadly Agarthicite could claim the lives of hundreds of workers in an instant. It sounded quietly in the bunks of rank-and-file sailors who dreamt of the legends their grandparents told them about the free nation that they once were. It sounded in the factories that made weapons and goods for the consumption of the rich in Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the rest of the Imperial heartland. It was the cry of the disposessed and the cry of quietly suffering.

“Buren shall be free again!” 

A similar cry sounded from the halls of the ducal palace.

“The Nationalists have come to set Buren free!”

Though it was a word that inspired terror in the left across the Ocean, they adopted it.

“Nationalist” made sense to the Bureni folk. Their goal was to become a nation again.

Their freedom fighters named themselves the “National Front of Buren.”

“Buren shall be free again!”

Automatic bursts from Volker rifles muffled but could not silence their cries.

Inside the flat, square station of Lithopolis, the LCD paneled false sky intercut with gray static bands as power fluctuated suddenly. A powerful explosion rocked the station as the waters around it were heavily disturbed. A Koenig-class Dreadnought of the Bureni Defense Forces, struck by multiple torpedoes, sank and smashed into the seafloor around the base of the pillar, setting off a second series of shocks. For a moment, the ground forces that had penetrated the station stumbled, holding on to whatever they could grab for support.

“Have we captured an entry point?”

Radio coverage was spotty as the Diver transitioned from the water to the port interior.

“Yes, commander! You can come up!”

A pair of nationalist Divers arrived through the captured lower port and quickly made their way up into the city through cargo elevators. Blood and corpses and the detritus of ruined divers and weapon emplacements met them as they went. There had been a hellish battle for those elevators, but they were now being held by the nationalists. Both Divers stepped onto the platform.

“Are you ready, Sophia? I have your back, so let’s put a beautiful wax seal on this coup.”

“Irene. If I died today, could you continue the fight without me?”

Neither pilot could see the other’s face, they were moving too quicky and had not established a laser call between their cockpits. But those dire words and their reaction were clear enough from the emotion in both tones of voice. One was exhausted, resigned; and the other was emotional, highly emotional, but trying her best not to let it overcome her as she spoke.

“There is no way in hell you would die here, Sophia. Not when we made it this far.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Sophia was sorry for the task she had made herself carry out.


She could not explain to her companion the storm of emotions rolling in her mind.

All she could hope for was that Irene would not be there at the end.

Sophia put on the mask that befit the esteemed commander of the Nationalist Fleet.

Her personal conflicts had to remain hidden. She was walking into a battlefield.

As the elevator rose to its destination the sounds of gunfire intensified. Once the Divers were lifted up into the station proper, they first thing they saw was smoke. There were pits all over the false turf that made the palace look like a rural countryside. Buildings had taken shell blows and half-collapsed into rubble, or been hollowed out by fires. Sophia hoped the palace staff had been able to evacuate. Everywhere she turned, the results of the fight were terribly brutal.

Sophia switched her communications to a radio frequency and called the infantry liaison.

“Command has arrived at the front. I need a situation report.”

“Everything is in place for the final push, Commander! We’re awaiting your orders!”

Inside the cockpit of a Reschold-Kolt license-produced Panzer unit now appearing on the front lines, was the commander of the main nationalist force, Sophia Tzanavaras. All of her comrades had chosen her to lead the attack on Lithopolis, and despite her misgivings, she accepted the responsibility. She arrived at a mustering point on the outer edge of the capitol center, held by a mix of militiamen, riot-armored troops and a few pilots who constituted the first boarding party.

“Were the civilians able to evacuate?” Sophia asked.

“We didn’t see any civvies ma’am, but the port was in disarray. I think a lot of people fled really suddenly. Even the security forces were in chaos. It’s just us and the palace guards now.”

Lithopolis consisted of an outer ring of tenement habitation for service workers and servants surrounding the vast ducal estate. After invading the dock and taking the cargo elevators, the Nationalist troops mustered with the large tenement buildings between themselves and the firing lines from the ducal grounds. Shells and periodic rifle fire flew in between and over the buildings as if to remind the nationalists that there were enemies watching them approach.

 Predominantly flat, green terrain surrounded the palace, dotted with buildings. The ducal estate encompassed private farmland, a small pond, a horse track, a gymnasium, and the palace itself in the middle ring. Its buildings were all white, pillared, artistic architecture for the pleasure of the nobles. Through Sophia’s eyes, what she saw was not the beautiful ducal parcels but a complex battlefield with multiple terrain features that was nonetheless quite open to assault.

Outside Lithopolis, the waters sang with the eerie sound of ordnance. The Nationalist fleet had the remnants of the Bureni Defense Forces in the midst of a rout. Sophia had started her rebellion with her own kampfgruppe of defected naval forces and some militias on converted civilian ships or stolen navy ships. Now through the defection of her countrymen and vast mutinies against the officer class, her naval troops outnumbered those of the Duke. Her wish was to provoke further defections, and enhance her own numbers. That was all that prevented her from ordering the outright slaughter of the Defense Forces. Losing the BDF’s leading dreadnought was a pity.

“I’m going through our options. Is this everybody?” Sophia asked.

On the auxiliary video screen of her Panzer, Sophia spoke with a young man, who looked barely old enough to drink, sitting in front of an unfolded communicator box that was sending an encrypted laser video to her mecha. She could also see him in the camera feeds. He was dressed in riot armor. On the floor near him there was a ballistic shield, stained dark brown with blood, as well as an unloaded jet lance. There were six other riot-armored men and women in the mustering point geared up with shields, rifles, jet lances, vibro-swords, and about a half-dozen shoulder-fired, portable missile tubes. Everyone had blood on them, either on their weapons or their armor.

“The boarding party got hit hard ma’am. The enemy’s Divers and ours took each other out almost immediately inside the dock. Then their riot troops came out and set up machine guns and grenade launchers. They tried to block us out of the cargo elevator. We had them outnumbered but they were really entrenched. When the naval battle swung in our favor, they retreated into the sanctum. We weren’t in any good shape to stop them, so we just held onto the elevators. I’m sorry.”

“You all fought valiantly. Stand tall. Buren will commemorate all of your names.”

Around the boy there were also a few dozen militiamen equipped with nothing but worker coverall coats worn over bodysuits for armor. They had surplus rifles loaded with frangible spike ammo to prevent them from damaging sensitive gear inside the station corridors and in the city.

Station fighting was brutal. Layouts were tight and favored the defender as long as they had gear and supplies. Against an enemy force with armor, shields and lethal weapons holding a natural chokepoint in any ordinary station layout, the invading force was bound to suffer losses. Despite the cost in blood, they had been able to come this far. Any armor would break with enough bullets. Even if it took a few squadrons, Sophia and her forces had managed to break through.

Ordinary people could fight the insurmountable juggernaut of the Empire. Any defense could be broken, any stolen land taken back. The history of the Union had taught her as much. In prison, she had found hope in the histories of the Union’s rebellion. It was this hope that led her to join Buren’s own rebellion. For atonement, she sacrificed all of herself that she could and led numerous battles to get here. Despite the odds, they had made it to the heart of Buren’s darkness.

For the bloodletting to end definitively she had to kill the people hiding at the center of this ring.

To atone for having supported the aristocrats, she told herself she had to be the one to slaughter them.

“We could press the assault with what we have, or wait to muster more troops.”

Sophia saw a new feed appear on one of her monitors and address her. This was the interior of the other Diver cockpit. A young woman gave her a gentle smile — an unlikely companion for an unlikely commander. Everything that surrounded them had been a game of pure chance.

“If we give them a chance to regroup, they’ll cost more lives to dislodge.” Sophia replied. “We need to keep the pressure on them, but we might not need the infantry to commit themselves to an assault. I can punch a hole through to the palace myself, if I could get a distraction.”

“You have an army, Sophia. I’m prepared to fight too. I won’t let you martyr yourself.”

On the screen was the face of her adjutant, Irene Dimitros, piloting a Jagd model Diver.

Irene was the only other member of Sophia’s own fireteam.

“It’s not like that.” Sophia said. She stammered, just a bit. “It’s just my responsibility.”

“You don’t have to bear that responsibility alone! Sophia, I’m always at your side!”

Irene looked concerned. Sophia shook her head.

“Irene, I think it would just be better, for less of us to be at the palace in the final hour.”

Her companion’s eyes drew wide. She understood what Sophia meant, and deferred to her.

Sophia turned away from Irene and gave her orders to the infantry over encrypted radio.

“We’ll need coordination to pull this off. On my signal, we will deploy chaff and colored gas to cover the left flank and open fire on the guard compound. I want you to fire on the move but not launch an assault. Stay mobile, commit to nothing, and leave your options open. I need the armored troops to take responsibility for our unarmored comrades. Lieutenant Dimitros and I will launch our own attack after yours. Once we have disabled their fire support, I’ll throw a flare. When you see that flare, then, and only then, will you commit all forces to assault. Understood?”

She waited for acknowledgment, and all the squadron members saluted her Diver.

“Break open a quick ration and catch your breath. We move out in 10 minutes!”

There was a flurry of activity around Sophia’s Diver. Men and women dug into their rations, checked their equipment, stood up from the walls they had been sitting against. Some took off their helmets to rearrange their hair. Riflemen took turns laying down suppressing fire on the sanctum from around the tenement walls, to keep the enemy entertained while everyone prepared.

Sophia took a bite of a seaweed stick and drank down an energy gel as quickly as she could.

“We can do this, Sophia.” Irene said. “In fact, this will be the easy part.”

Irene was right. There would be more battles after this for the National Front of Buren.

For them— but maybe not for her. She was no longer sure.

When the ten minutes were up, her forces started moving again with coordination. From the tenements, the nationalist squadrons advanced northeast around the left flank of the palace defenders, moving through the sparse urban environment on Lithopolis’ outer ring. They employed whatever cover they could find to mask their movements, from abandoned buildings to generator control boxes, wireless towers and discarded monorail cars, to concrete guardrails and vacant guard outposts. In order to sustain the nationalist’s deception, Sophia and Irene moved their Divers into position near the edge of the tenements, where their squadrons had once been. They fired their assault rifles around the blind corners created by the buildings, causing small blasts to go off on the broad green separating them from the palace. Their enemy easily took notice of this activity.

In response, gunfire from heavy machine guns and light explosives fired by stationary tube launchers soared in between the tenement buildings and churned up the fake turf in a series of volleys. Irene and Sophia hid quickly and avoided the retaliation. Judging by the direction of fire, Sophia began to plot how she would move when the time came, and passed the data to Irene. Her enemy’s attention remained squarely on the center, and that was what Sophia wanted for now.

Soon her squadrons had moved beyond her ability to follow with her own sight, but she could track their progress and view their surroundings via a direct link to a camera drone employed by the teams. Inside the station, she had access to reliable, fast wireless data transfer. It was the kind of boon that was easy to forget for soldiers trained to fight in the ocean, disconnected from most communications. Through the eyes of her drone, she watched as her team got into position.

Colored smoke crept across the open field on the eastern half of the palace ground.

Smoke and pops of gray anti-sensor chaff, like glittering trails falling from the sky.

Shoulder-fired missiles soared out of the clouds and crashed into the guard compound.

Fire engulfed several buildings, all of which had been abandoned. No guards were hit.

But the message being sent was clear. An assault was coming from the left flank.

Withering gunfire erupted from defensive positions in the guard compound and the palace farther behind it. Grenades and missiles hurtled back across the field and smashed into the shops, streets and the monorail station from which the nationalist missiles had come from. Massed rifle and machine gun fire from both infantry weapons and a few Volker class Divers raked the cloud of colored smoke. Because of the chaff, their instruments could not penetrate the smokescreen.

The defenders of the palace assumed the nationalists were assaulting the guard compound.

Meanwhile, the nationalists did not tarry in the monorail station or any of the shops.

They were constantly on the move, and more colored gas and chaff covered them.

It covered where they had been, and where they were going, blanketing the entire east.

Their enemy could not tell a direction for the assault except, broadly, “the left flank.”

All of the gunfire that had once massed against the southern, central approach, turned away to the east.

Her enemy had fully redeployed their defenses to what they assumed was the new axis of attack.

“Irene, now’s our chance! Stick close to me!”

Sophia and Irene charged from the tenement buildings out into the field.

The Panzer was heavy, but its chassis developed a lot of power, and its gait allowed Sophia to advance faster than a human could run across the estate grounds. Meanwhile the Jagd was lighter and had a more complex chassis that flowed somewhat easily through the air. Both pilots opened their turbines, sucking in air that kept them in balance as they ran. In the short term this would damage the turbines, which were designed to accelerate cold water rather than warm air, but it supported their charge overland.

Lithopolis was not a fortress. It was not designed as a defensible position. Even the guard compound was just a collection of barracks buildings and training grounds meant to house the guards rather than defend the palace. Though built on a hill, the palace was surrounded by pretty gardens and tended green fields, by tracks and hunting ground and a pond, not by trenches and gun turrets. Even the placement of building cover was purely incidental. There were no defensive walls, no fences, no barbed wire, nothing to stop them.

Weapon emplacements had been set up on the broad, semi-circular portico façade of the palace, and hidden in the second story windows. Divers stood atop the hill, shooting from their vantage down to the green below. Every element of the defense was exposed, and it was only their commanding position that allowed them to disrupt attacks effectively. There was nothing between Sophia’s charge and the enemy in front of her except the distance it took to get near them.

And now they were not even looking her way. All their weapons were turned east.

Once the enemy recognized their approach, it was too late to split their fire.

Sophia charged up the hill as an enemy Volker half-turned and fired its assault rifle.

Chunks of her armor went flying but the Panzer was built sturdy enough for rifle fire and could not be stopped so easily.

Sophia swung her vibro-sword and cleaved an enormous dent into the rotund chassis.

Briefly exposed to the vibrating edge of the blade, the pilot inside collapsed in agony.

From behind Sophia, a pair of jet anchors soared overhead and smashed through two individual windows in the second story of the palace. Each of the ornate bowed windows disgorged a team of men and their tripod missile launcher, crushed or in pieces from the force of the blow and the jets, blade and cables on the anchors — whichever part made contact was enough to kill.

Irene retracted the anchors and climbed up the stone steps to the portico.

Walking forward through small arms fire, she retaliated with devastating bursts of 20 mm explosive bullets from the shoulder guns on her Jagd. Each snapping blast sent casing fragments and chunks of colonnades into the ranks of the infantry. There were scores of the dead, hunkered down where they could be buried in rubble or blown apart as their own weapons detonated. Sensing the plight of the infantry, a second Volker turned from the guard compound and ran to the portico, only to meet an immediate end as Sophia easily put dozens of assault rifle rounds upon it before it could even heft its gun. It fell backward, oozing lubricants, fuel, battery acid and the blood of the pilot through innumerable penetrations in its armor.

Sophia reloaded. There was not much of the defense now left.

She charged around the eastern wall of the palace, coming to face the colored smoke far in the distance. From the shoulder of her mecha, she launched a flare that sailed up into the sky, and burst in a pattern of red and green colors that signaled the infantry to assault. She remained still only long enough to confirm the movement of people past the dying chaff clouds, before turning her assault rifle on the palace itself.

She lifted the rifle one-handed and took aim with it.

Facing the upper stories, she pressed the trigger down and turned her gun systematically from one window to another, putting three rounds into each. Explosions rocked the entire top floor of the palace, one room at a time in turn, until Sophia’s magazine emptied. Glass, concrete and brick expulsed from the building bounced off the pitted armor of her Panzer suit in a rain of debris. Anyone in those rooms would be reduced to pieces.

Once her computer could detect no further hostile activity, she had the Panzer bow down.

Sophia exited the suit, jumping down from the cockpit, between her sword and her gun.

She took off her helmet, freeing her voluminous, sweat-soaked blond hair. Her skin was clammy, and her golden eyes teared up when exposed to unfiltered light and air. She had been fighting for so long. It almost felt like she was taking her first breath of fresh air in weeks. She had nothing but her pilot suit covering her, and even so Lithopolis felt oppressively hot and damp.

Sophia recovered her senses quickly. Her fingers quivered with the knowledge of what she would do. Catching her breath, she produced her sidearm and ran heedlessly into the palace.

She found herself stepping over all manner of broken human remains, spreading pools of blood and molten fat from bodies caught in explosives or set ablaze when their weapon emplacements detonated on them. Irene had completely ruined the place before she moved on from the portico. No glass stood unshattered, every door was off its hinges, every tile cracked by shrapnel if not direct explosive trauma. Sophia rushed through the front hall, a grotesque corridor of dead and dying soldiers. She kicked open the double doors into the inner sanctum of the palace. Imposing as they were, they were not designed to lock securely.

Inside the high-walled, gold and pearlescent white inner sanctum was a shrine to Solceanos, the great sun-deity depicted as a man with a burning halo and surrounded in rays of smoke and fire. At the base of this being, as if he were looking down on them in their hour of desperation, were two figures huddled together. Sophia recognized both, dressed in embroidered silk cloth, bedecked with jewelry, their beauty well contrived even in this hour of wrath, even surrounded by blood and bullets. That was the way of the aristocracy.

Her features twisted with anger at the sight of the Duke and his daughter.

“Duke Pascheladis!” Sophia said. “Stand up! Own up to your sins and face me!”

It was not the Duke who stood first. His daughter Nereida approached Sophia.

“Please, have some humanity! You cannot do this! Look at father, look at what has–”

Nereida didn’t recognize her. Sophia retrained her aim and fired a single round.

As soon as she stood, Nereida fell aside with a hole the width of a finger through her brow.

There was no emotion in Sophia’s eyes. Nereida meant nothing to her anymore.

“Stand up, Pascheladis!” Sophia shouted, spitting fury at the villain before her.

There was no way that this man would stand up to her. She soon recognized this.

On the floor, the Duke was at his most wretched.

Shaking, teeth chattering in the grip of madness. He could not say a word to her. He would not even make eye contact. It was as if he was trying to crawl endlessly against an invisible wall. He scratched at the base of the statue until his fingers had gone purple and red. He wept, and shouted. It was as if the terror of the palace coming under attack had fully robbed him of his wits. Had he ever shown such frailty before this?

Nereida had been tending to him because he had completely broken down.

Sophia’s eye twitched. Her heart beat faster and faster. Her head felt red-hot with anger.

At the sight of the panicking, crying, incoherent Duke, whom she had once respected.

Whom she had once followed as honorably as she could.

“Look at you.”

She turned her pistol on him. He continued to clutch the statue for no reason at all.

Was he begging Solceanos for forgiveness?

It was not he who needed such forgiveness. Forgiveness was for those who would live.

“Look at you squirming there. Do you know even know why you will die? You made me think that it was righteous to beat down hungry, desperate men. To gas crowds with women and children. To send to the deepest holes of the earth people whom you gave no choice but to steal and kill to live. How could I ever believe this? I’m the one here who must have been insane. I must have been insane to follow your orders.”

She walked up to him, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face into the statue.

There was no catharsis in it. She could torture him all day and feel nothing from it.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that you can afford to lose your wits like this and I can’t.”

Surgically, without emotion, she put a single round through the back of his skull.

Duke Pascheladis’ head crashed against the statue plaque, smearing it with blood.

Sophia stared at the revolting sight of the corpse, unable to tear herself away.

In her mind, this moment had gone very differently.

Filled with passionate eloquence Sophia would have confronted the Duke about her transformation. She would explain the clarity she gained from disobeying her orders, from imprisonment, from suffering torture and being made an example of. She would describe to him the power she had found in her comrades, in their rebellion and the leftist militancy that turned so many to her side. He would have argued back that she was betraying her duty, betraying the honor of her position as a soldier, as an inquisitor, as a ducal guard. He would say that if she believed so strongly in the rantings of Mordecai, then she had to die as well!

Sophia would say to him, that she was prepared to meet him in hell right away.

None of this happened in reality. None of it could ever happen.

How long had the Duke been driven into madness? Was this entire battle so pointless?

Sophia was robbed of her revenge and she was robbed of a chance to convince herself of her own atonement.

Pascheladis had to die. But to Sophia, he had to die struggling, cursing her and clinging to his life.

She wanted to be able to condemn him. To watch his eyes water as he begged her for mercy.

Sophia looked down at the weapon with which she had ended the Pascheladis dukedom.

Even if she had not told him as such, she was prepared to meet him in hell.

“I’ve hurt too many people. Innocent people without hope. I’m no better than those two.”

She lifted the pistol to her own head.

She felt her hands shake, her blood run cold. She started to apply pressure to the trigger.

In the middle of that empty sanctum, she would die.

“I’m as guilty as these bastards. I hope– I hope she’ll forgive me–”

“No! Sophia, please, oh my god, please stop!”

Tears streaming down her eyes, Sophia turned around, the barrel of the pistol warm against her skin. She saw a woman her age in a matching pilot suit come running into the sanctum. Without her helmet, she was easy to identify. Irene had such a dignified face, the face of a truly noble soul, expressive, strikingly beautiful, with bright orange eyes and smooth, orderly brown hair, cut to the neck and curling inward.

Seeing Irene weep at the sight of Sophia’s decision was touching to her.

They were unlikely partners, unlikely allies. So much had to happen for them to meet.

She wished so strongly that Irene had not been there. That she would have just found a corpse.

“This is why you wanted to be alone? Sophia, you don’t have to do this!” Irene pleaded.

“I can’t bear to keep lying to myself. My hands are full of innocent blood.” Sophia said.

Irene’s face twisted with fear and pain. “You were a kid! You didn’t know anything!”

“I was old enough! I believed in what I was doing. I caused so much suffering.”

Sophia smiled bitterly. To think they were having an argument like this one last time.

“You reformed! You went to prison for standing against the government! You changed!”

“Changing does not absolve me of what I did. It only made me realize how horrible it was.”

“Quit running away then!” Irene shouted. “Live so you can take responsibility for yourself!”

Irene stomped her foot. Her cries grew more desperate through a flood of helpless tears.

“We chose you, Sophia! Out of everyone, we still chose to follow you! We believe in you!”

“I had military skills, respectability within the officer corps, and access. I was a good tool to radicalize the ducal navy in this time of crisis.” Sophia said. “Irene I can’t in good conscience volunteer to lead the people of Buren. I was a collaborator in their suffering and I will never be able to live that down.”

Her companion was starting to falter, to fall to helplessness. Irene hugged herself, shaking.

Through quivering lips, she began to mutter words that hit Sophia as hard as any bullet.

“Sophia, if I you told that– if I told you that all this time, I had feelings for–”

Sophia felt her heart sink and shouted back. “Please don’t say it! Irene, please! Not here!”

Those would have been the most painful last words she could have possibly heard.

“Please put that gun down! If you want to atone, then do so in life! Atone by my side!”

Irene stepped forward suddenly, holding out her hand, her eyes fixed on Sophia’s own.

Sophia was startled, but she was restrained enough not to pull the trigger out of fear. She thought for a second to threaten to shoot, but she was her own hostage. Her voice caught in her throat, and she could not move as Irene slowly approached her. Their eyes were fixed on one another.

“Give me the gun. Please, Sophia. I will help you; I will do anything for you.”

Irene got so close Sophia could smell the plastic scent of her suit, and the sweat in her hair.

Her hands reached up to Sophia’s own and touched her.

At first Sophia resisted. She did not allow the barrel to be brought down from her head.

Their gazes were locked together with such intensity. Sophia could not shut her eyes.

Irene persisted, tugging gently on Sophia’s hand.

Slowly, the barrel of the gun lifted off from Sophia’s skin.

Her companion turned the gun toward the ground and finally took it from her hand.

Sophia felt all the blood drain from her face. An overwhelming sense of shame overcame her. Like ice water dumped over her head. She wanted to fall to the floor, but Irene wrapped her arms around her.

Shorter by several centimeters, her face came rest against Sophia’s chest.

Sophia could not return her embrace. She felt so unworthy, and laid so low. Everything was supposed to end in this sanctum. There was not supposed to be another day for her; for the Sophia Tzanavaras who had gone from guarding this palace, to being the revolutionary seizing it.

“I never understood how much you were suffering.” Irene said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Irene, I– I don’t deserve this.” Sophia said weakly. She could not protest it much more.

Held in the arms of her faithful companion, and bearing the hopes of so many people, who saw her as a hero who was saving Buren from the evil aristocrats, Sophia could not conceive of how she would move forward from this moment. She felt as if her legs could never move again.

Despite everything, Irene was there supporting her. Sophia could not explain it.

Somehow, her legs would move again. There would be another day in her life.

Shaken by the knowledge that it could have all ended in that sanctum.

And bearing the uncertainty of a life she did not plan to lead.

In that sense, Sophia was just like Buren itself.

Having her past life torn to pieces in front of her eyes. Rediscovering herself as her ideas of justice were completely transformed. Throwing herself into battle after battle to defer the problem of mending her many wounds in a time of peace. Treading blindly to an uncertain future that was full of enemies and difficult questions about herself. What her role would be, how people viewed her, how she could protect their revolution. As much as she hated and feared the thought of living with the pain she caused and the pain she felt, Sophia Tzanavaras was Buren in flesh, and like Buren, her history would not end so simply.

“She could not do it after all. Well, I’m glad. It would’ve been a huge downer.”

Sophia and Irene wept into each other’s chests while a certain busybody peered from afar. Sitting above the Solceanos monument, her hands behind her head, giving her sore body a breather after a long day. She was glad that she did not get out of bed this morning to witness a suicide. That would have wrecked her day.

From a pouch in the ballistic vest worn over her double-layered tactical bodysuit, the spy produced a portable radio and tuned it to a special nationalist frequency. She put the receiver up to her red lips and spoke gently, so that her physical voice would not be overhead in the sanctum below.

“Commander Tzanavaras, it’s me. I apologize for going dark. I infiltrated the palace.”

She played with a lock of graying brown hair as Sophia, far below and unaware of her current position, took notice of the radio call. As soon as she spoke, she sent that tender moment between Commander and Adjutant into a sudden anxiety. Sophia scrambled to take the call by tapping her earpiece, and looked to Irene for support, who simply nodded to her in sympathy and stood by her side to support her. How touching.

“This is Tzanavaras.” Sophia said. She had done a magnificent job at code switching out from a vulnerable, broken-hearted girl’s weeping voice to the imperious, commanding voice they all knew and followed. “Daksha Kansal. Your support has been invaluable. Were you successful? Is everything clear on your end?”

The spy rolled her eyes a little. She should have never trusted this kid enough to have her name.

Even if it was a cheap and easy way to get her trust.

“It’s all clear. I prevented them from destroying any data or locking down the systems, so feel free to send your engineers to the control center. The security forces routed easily due to rumors that the Duke had gone mad and hid in the sanctum to die. Only the zealots stood and fought. Judging by the ruckus I heard, I think you can safely call this your win. On a related note: don’t call me Daksha Kansal anymore, alright Sophia?”

Below, Sophia started pacing out of the sanctum, with Irene in tow. Her movements seemed mechanical, as if a bit lost on how she should be putting one foot in front of the other. She was clearly still shaken. “What should I call you? You are a proletarian hero and founder of the Union. We honor your name quite highly.”

“That’s precisely why you should all forget about that name in the future. We don’t want Buren to live in the shadow of the Union’s deeds — you won’t inspire confidence just by relying on my name. Call me Ganges instead. But anyway, we’ll talk in person soon, Tzanavaras. I’ve got good news from down South.”

“Very well, Ganges. I look forward to our meeting, then.”

Atop the Solceanos monument, Ganges shut the radio antennae and laid back, sighing.

For a moment, she waited for Sophia and Irene to leave the sanctum.

Then she lifted her hand up to the roof.

There was a red glow in her eyes that she could feel as a gentle heat, as she pulled open a trapdoor on the roof from afar. Ganges stood up on the statue, and withdrew her hookshot. She would make her escape soon.

Her body ached in various places. Twenty years had passed since the Union fought off the Empire.

To think rather than lounging in house arrest like Ahwalia, she was still running around like this.

The things I do for my treasured students. She thought. I hope those two appreciate it.

It wasn’t like she hated her position entirely, however.

In fact, she felt privileged, whenever she closed her eyes and felt the wave spreading across the Oceans.

“Being called Ganges again sure makes me feel something.”

Once again, she was part of that revolutionary wave that would change everything.

Hours after the assault on Lithopolis, Bureni stations across the Duchy received word from the nationalists which then spread to the common people. Crowds formed in the parks and squares of several stations, with some crowds celebrating the fall of the ducal government and confronting dissenters against the nationalist cause. Station authorities were threatened to swear their loyalty to the Nationalists and to avoid retaliatory actions. Police forces initially organized to suppress pro-nationalist sentiments, but the total rout of the BDF and the approach of the new People’s Defense Corps fleets forced the surrender of station security forces.

Across the duchy, industrial workers overthrew their bosses, backed by nationalists, and took over the mining and refining of agarthicite and other products. Private transport companies in the state were blockaded by the nationalists and their ships confiscated and nationalized. There would be no more exporting of Bureni wealth to the rest of the Empire. Within days, the state had closed its borders, and one by one, its stations came under the control of the National Front, either peacefully or surrounded by nationalist ships.

Once the National Front could credibly claim to control all organs of state, there was a broadcast across all station monitors from Lithopolis. Inside a Sanctum that once housed an altar to Solceanos, now there was a simple podium where one woman addressed the nation. She dressed in an ornate dark-purple ceremonial military uniform that harkened back to the uniforms of the previous Kingdom of Buren, before annexation by the Empire. There was no mistaking her for a simple functionary or spokeswoman. She was tall, with strong shoulders and long, lean limbs, and a bountiful head of golden hair atop which rested a military beret. Her eyes were as golden as her hair; her pearl-olive skin was done up professionally, as were her lightly red lips.

“My beloved people of Buren! Our country is free!”

This was the beginning of her declaration. Everyone watching felt their heart soar at those words.

“For too long, we Burenis suffered under the tyranny of the ducal state, which turned countryman against countryman, destroyed our identity and history, and made us slaves to the Imbrian Empire! Duke Pascheladis and the ducal court have been broken by the hand of the National Front of Buren. We fought for so long to get to this day, and the fighting is not yet over. But today, my people, the wave of revolution which began in the Union twenty years ago has reached us here in Buren. Konstantin von Fueller, tyrant of the Imbrian ocean, is dead, and his Empire has no power over us anymore. We Burenis are now free to forge our own destinies.”

On every screen in Buren, that woman’s passionate words inspired crowds to roar and cheer.

With the weight of history bearing down on her shoulders, she declared her challenge against fate.

“My name is Sophia Tzanavaras! With your mandate, I have taken up the mantle of Supreme Marshal of the National Front of Buren, to tirelessly protect our revolution! To protect the rights and dignity of all workers, the peace and security of the common folk, and the autonomy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren!”

At this point, the camera zoomed out just enough for the people watching to see two Union Streloks appear, unarmed, and kneel at Sophia’s sides. For Imperial citizens, the Strelok’s silhouette was often propaganda for an evil enemy. To see them kneeling around Sophia displayed some degree of martial prowess to the viewers.

“In the coming months, there will be many challenges to our cause, but together, we will overcome anything! We will build upon our history of brave warriors, and the teachings of modern revolution, and triumph!”

When Sophia’s face finally disappeared from the screens, the people watching were already thinking of themselves as the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren, whether they were optimistic of its future or not.

Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.4]

The Holy Body

Polity: Holy Kingdom of Solsea

Naval Strength:  Papal Guard (400 ships), plus Solceanist irregulars.

“Skarsgaard retainers! Cease your heretical resistance at once! Her Holiness is guided by God and goes where He wills! You are all her subjects, and must turn from the abdicator to her!”

Volleys of coilgun shells crossed paths in the waters over Amaryllis station, seat of power of the Skarsgaard duchy. Though Amaryllis was a small pillar-type station housing only one major domicile, it was fiercely defended. Barrages of light and fast rocket-propelled missiles launched from recessed racks on the station surface, forcing the attackers to keep up a massive flak barrage to defend themselves from the projectiles and slowing down their progress. A fleet of several dozen frigates held their ground around the station’s waters, forming a defensive formation that maximized their ability to fire on the invaders.

Such a scene could have come out of any station invasion scenario in any military textbook.

However, it was the identity of the attackers that shook the confidence of the defenders.

Rather than a flotilla of bandits or anarchists, the invaders composed a massive fleet with dozens of ships, all of which were painted stark white, red and gold and decorated with the cross and sun of the Church of Solceanos. They did not fire the first shot, not with ordnance. The Papal Guard and the Church Paladins demanded entry and occupation of the station. Such a demand itself constituted violence as the station belonged entirely to the Duke of Skarsgaard’s House.

However, the young Duke Carthus von Skarsgaard had all but abdicated his duties.

He had left with his close friend Prince Erich von Fueller, and there he remained.

Amaryllis was abandoned. The Skarsgaard family retainers would not be relieved.

Skarsgaard’s own history precipitated the conflict.

While Skarsgaard had always contained the holy see of the Solceanos church, there had always been tension between the Ducal estate and the Holy See over the state’s coffers, military power and social policy. It did not matter to the Dukes and Duchesses of Skarsgaard that the Church was sacred and sanctioned by the Empire, and beloved by the people — affairs of power trumped any affairs of the afterlife. A separation of powers and thus of influence kept a delicate peace. The influence of the Emperor prevented either force from fully taking control of the state. Now, however, there was an additional problem for Skarsgaard’s secular military forces.

Emperor Konstantin von Fueller was dead. With his death, the balance was sundered.

To complicate matters, the current head of the Holy See was Millenia von Skarsgaard II. The disinherited youngest daughter of the ducal family, who had risen through the ranks of the church, acknowledged as a holy woman touched by God. This woman, who had been denied the secular control of the state, had achieved comparable power through control of its religion.

This produced a standoff, in which the detachment sent to take the Station for the Holy See met with the Skarsgaard defenders. While the defenders stood their ground and upheld their secular duty to defend the Skarsgaard family holdings, they had no leadership and were outgunned. All they could do was harass the Papal Fleet with missiles, forcing them to slowly move forward under a massive curtain of flak, largely unable or unwilling to deliver much firepower in return.

“Skarsgaard retainers! You stand against God and all that his holy! You will drown in the flooded hell and be barred from the warmth of heaven! We do not wish to condemn any more souls to the horrors of the Deep! Surrender yourselves and your weapons, and repent for your evil!”

In the center of the Papal Guard fleet was the state-of-the-art Irmingard-class Dreadnought Anointed One, a massive and beautiful ship with its stark white armor decorated with swirling gold patterns. The Anointed One used its superior electronic warfare package to push acoustic messages on the lesser and older Frigates of the Skargaard retainers. All of the messages were sent by the military leader of the church, Paladin-General Rosemont, a radiant older woman clad in shining armor. Had the retainers been able to see her furious face as she conveyed the messages their morale may not have survived it. Anything she said seemed powered by the utmost righteousness.

Behind her, raised on a throne in the middle of the bridge, was Pontiff Millennia herself.

Long, flowing robes of a vinyl-like material trailed down her lean body, bedecked with gold. She wore a tabard with two horizontal red stripes along the edges and the sun and cross of the church. A habit partially covered her rusty-red hair, but messy bangs could be seen to come out of the front, and the sheer length of it could be seen to come out the back. She had a bored expression on her lightly painted lips, propped her olive-colored cheeks up with her hands.

Her wine-red eyes developed a glowing ring around them. A small cross-shaped ornament hovered in mid-air near her, spinning as the Pontiff turned it over and over in her mind, distracting her from the tension around herself. This sort of thing happened around the woman known as “The Holy Body.” Her miracles were well known, and over time they came to be seen as a qualification to lead the church. Objects would move by themselves; common people would become inspired to sing holy words in her presence; messages from God would appear spontaneously on the walls.

“Sister Rosemont, I would like to address the leader of the enemy fleet if possible.”

Around the bridge, all of the officers wore white and red uniforms. They were all faithful of the church, but also military personnel with full Navy training. Being able to work on this vessel was a privilege for them, and they cared about the Pontiff. They hung on her every word. When she spoke, they paid attention. They pored over her every word very carefully and silently.

Rosemont turned and kneeled in front of the Pontiff.

“We shall do always as you command, Pontiff. I am deeply sorry.”

Millennia narrowed her eyes. “There is nothing to be sorry for. I am not so unmovable that I demand my retainers do the impossible for me. These heretics will learn their place, not because your faith was not strong enough to show them, but because their ignorance was too dreadful. Besides, we could do battle with these heretics, but I do not wish to cause any harm to the station.”

“Thank you, most Holy one. Your mercy and understanding bring me joy.”

A laser request was sent from the Anointed One to the defending fleet.

The Skarsgaard retainer’s fleet selected a missile Frigate, the Unwavering, to answer.

This was predictable. Missile Frigates had more experienced crews than Gun Frigates did. When asked for a representative, an unled flotilla would always select the most experienced crew to do so. Millenia had counted on being able to talk to the Captain of that one particular frigate. An unremarkable uniformed man appeared soon on her personal screen, trying to look confident.

“This is Captain Emmett–”

She could instantly feel it. A weak, unguarded mind with no potential whatsoever.

He was not only unguarded, but afraid, and that also compounded things. Those without potential had few mental barriers, and confidence and force of will could still decide the contest, but fear always undid them. Even the slightest lick of psionic power would have made her switch strategies. Such a weak-willed nonbeliever, and already in a vulnerable state, had no defenses.

“It is unnecessary for me to introduce myself.”

Millenia had him where she wanted him the instant their eyes made contact.

Red rings appeared around her eyes which his eyes took on as well.

Those around him who lacked psychic ability could not tell he was being controlled.

“Put me on the main screen and use the upper room camera to show me the whole bridge.”

Emerich obeyed instantly. Millenia felt a sting as her neurons burned with effort.

On her screen, the video expanded so she could see all the confused faces on the bridge.

All of them looked at her with the red glow around their eyes.

Nonchalantly, she declared her orders.

“Fire all of your missiles at any surrounding ships. Use instant tracking and do not monitor their progress. Simply fire at will. Then turn your ship around and flee at maximum speed.”

Complicated, suicidal orders would have been much more difficult to execute.

This was not simply pushing on their arms to make them hit buttons.

Millenia was overriding the crew’s will. She was controlling their minds directly.

All of them broke eye contact, and began to do as Millenia ordered.

On her main screen, Rosemont and the crew watched as the algorithmic predictor picked up a dozen heavy missiles flying out of the center of the Skarsgaard retainers’ defensive formation. Explosions went off around the fleet, and ships began to list and sink, such that the remaining undamaged ships could do nothing but flee and there was total chaos among the defenders.

To those watching in the bridge of the Anointed One, it was nothing short of a miracle.

They crossed themselves, gave prayer, and a few prostrated themselves before Millenia.

“Praise be, Pontiff,”

Rosemont turned to meet her Pontiff again and venerate her, but gasped when she did so.

Blood flowed copiously out of Millenia’s nose and down her lips.

From the sides of her eyes, tears of blood began to trickle down her cheeks.

She felt a burning inside her skull as if her brain had been cleaved in half.

Her hands grabbed hold of the armrests of her seat, squeezing as she endured the pain.

Backlash. A monumental amount of psychic backlash.

Even with all that she practiced; she was still not completely ready.

It did not matter. She was still alive. As long as she lived, God would be with her.

To her subjects, however, the sight of her bleeding body was quite shocking.

“Pontiff, is this the stigmata?” Rosemont asked. That large armored woman kneeled beside Millenia and tenderly held her hand and kissed it. “Can we do anything to ease your suffering?”

Millenia grit her teeth. She could not speak, not immediately.

For minutes, she rode out the pain of the backlash.

Finally, she gasped for breath, released from the fog and agony that had taken her mind.


“I am fine, Rosemont.”

Millenia smiled, her mouth, tongue and lips soaked in her own blood.

“This is the price that must be paid to God to beseech his divine presence into the Deep to which we are condemned.” she said. On some level, she believed this, even if only as the explanation she had concocted for abilities she understood to be beyond the purview of Man. God had never spoken to her directly.

She imagined God did not Speak. He made his presence known in other ways.

Weakly, she stood from her throne. She wiped the blood from her mouth with her hand.

Everyone on the bridge watched her raise that bloody hand.

Today was not the first time she had killed, or even killed many.

Only she knew that it was herself who killed them. To her faithful, it was God’s doing.

“Miracles are not solely the purview of the Holy Body. Your own faith can make miracles if you can make the commensurate sacrifice. Faith is key; the ignorant will never reach God.”

There was a reverent silence as the crew took in the Pontiff’s words.

“Now, unleash the Divers and take the station. Without the fleet’s flak, they can’t stop us from boarding them. Continue to interdict any missiles. Once the station is secure, I will board it.”

She sat back down on the chair, and requested an attendant come clean her face.

A long time ago, Millenia had learned that it was possible to manifest her powers against anything she could see. To make “miracles” happen she moved things by spying on them with drones or video cameras. For sentient beings, they could come under its effects if they could see her live. They could not be affected by video recordings, images, or any such thing, but if she could see and speak to them with a connection lag time of a few seconds or less, such as with a laser connection. Furthermore, she understood that there were powerful people other than herself.

There was a limit to what she could do. Pushing and pulling did not hurt her too much.

At least, not when using those powers on small objects or on weak people.

More complicated psychic tasks took far more of a toll on her health.

This made it vitally important to use her powers strategically, on the weakest targets.

Through politics and trickery, she had exposed and crushed most of the people with strong potential in the Church. There were only a few, who were loyal to her, or too important to get rid of, that remained. One such person arrived at the Bridge at the command of the Pontiff herself.

Dressed in a red and white habit, matching the Pontiff, if not as ornate. This sister was a young woman, olive-skinned with very light red hair, almost pink, and slightly pointed ears. She had a tidy, shoulder-length bob and a regal beauty to her facial features. Everything about her appeared collected, calm. Inexpressive. Almost doll-like, save for the small smile she gave the Pontiff as she arrived. With a portable basin of warm water and a cloth, she began to clean the face of the Holy Body, tinging the water a rusty red color as more blood came off the dipped cloth.

Once we’ve taken Amaryllis, I’ll use the network override hub to declare myself Holy Empress of the Empire of Solcea on every government screen that can broadcast a picture. Carthus will be excommunicated. Anyway, what do you think of the name? Good branding?

Outwardly, Millenia was just resting, recovering from her miracle.

Sounds impressive. It will certainly draw the attention of our opponents.

Her attendant, Sister Salvatrice Vittoria, appeared only to be cleaning the Holy Body.

And yet, the two them carried out a conversation. They spoke directly to the other’s mind.

Like with any psychic ability, if this was done to the unaware it would be more difficult.

Millenia had Salvatrice’s consent, so it was effortless to use her powers to speak to her.

I would like you to try dreaming again, Millenia said.

My dreams have been of little use to us, and I don’t enjoy them, Salvatrice replied.

I am curious. We need more information, and you have uncovered some useful things.

Only as a fluke. I’d rather put my efforts into something more concrete.

Millenia acknowledged her psychically. As if sending a “nod of the head” via their link.

How have your dreams ended lately? Did you die again?

Salvatrice sent a distressed, somewhat silly expression over the link.

Forget about that for now. I have important news. I found Faiyad Ayari.

Millenia sent her an annoyed Millenia face into her thoughts, with big, round, angry eyes.

Do you realize how scary that guy’s aura is? I almost felt like he would notice I was looking for him in the aether and that he would just link to me from that far away and attack me.

Where is he?

I traced it to Sverland. Millenia, we should be careful the hornet’s nests we stir.

What should I be afraid of?

Things we are not meant to see, know, or dig up. People we should not mess with.

More concretely, please.

Faiyad Ayari.

I’m not afraid of him. The Church kept him locked up for years.

Millenia, he escaped! He escaped from your Church!

He is just an opportunist. I will expand the search for Maryam and we will leave our options open when it comes to dealing with Faiyad. Unfortunately, we may have to struggle for physical control of Sverland with the Volkisch and the Noble Alliance. And if we cross that line, our Southern and Eastern fronts may be opened to Veka. We may have to be underhanded instead. We can use the flock to apply pressure beyond our borders.

Salvatrice crossed her arms and nodded sagely, in Millenia’s mind.

We should let Sverland be fought over by the Rhineans. They’ll weaken themselves.

We’ll let the military dictate battle strategy. Rosemont is a bootlicker, but she’s smart. But like I said, I’m leaving my options open for dealing with all of this. From where I’m sitting, I have no shortage of assets to use.

Soon it came to pass that Salvatrice had completely cleaned Millenia’s face.

They had very little reason at that point to stand beside one another any longer.

Salvatrice was a civilian, and Millenia did not want her to draw too much attention.

“Thank you for your service, Sister.”

“It is my honor and pleasure to serve you.”

“I will see you again tonight. You must attend to my meal, bath and bedchamber.”

“Of course. It is the honor and privilege of my life to render such service.”

Salvatrice dried Millenia’s face with a new towel, took the basin and left.

Millenia would be able to speak more with Salvatrice.

When they ate, when they bathed, in bed. There would be opportunities.

There was no sense feeling like they needed to have the whole conversation right then.

Nevertheless, Millenia felt frustrated.

Eager to make her wishes come true. Salvatrice lacked ambition. She didn’t understand.

Millenia was beginning to develop a concept of how the world really worked and if she was correct in her assumptions then the Imbrian Empire was small potatoes compared to what was hidden from her in the aether. However, the Empire and its resources were necessary to fulfill her ambitions. Skarsgaard had a developed industrial sector able to exploit its mineral resources, and create any necessary weapons for a war. Their agriculture could sustain hardship in the near term. By ruling Skarsgaard with a regime of religious authoritarianism she could keep the social and political sphere stable and expand from there.

Scrambling the right brains would help with that ambition as well.

No one would dare defect or flee, if they knew the agony that she could subject them to.

Millenia needed more and greater scientific development. And the right sort of development.

Imbrians seemed to develop psionic power the least. Could the power be genetic in nature?

However, the ethnic makeup of most Imbrians was complicated.

Salvatrice was a Kattaran elf. Millenia suspected she was not purely Imbrian herself.

Without proper facilities, personnel, equipment and resources, she could never unravel this mystery. She needed more than just Salvatrice’s dreams. She needed more brains, more minds to throw at these questions in order to decipher the mystery. They had to be the correct minds, as well.

If she was successful, she might be able to ascend beyond this fallen place, beyond this accursed ocean beneath a dying sky.

Millenia dreamed of an Empire that spanned more than just the territory of Aer.

And if she was correct about the world; and if Salvatrice’s dreams proved true–

“Pontiff, the defenders of the inner sanctum have surrendered.”

Rosemont reported the good news. On the bridge’s main screen, they connected to cameras showing the interior of Amaryllis being surrendered to several Volker and Jagd class Divers that had been sent from the Papal Guard fleet. Millenia’s Paladins had routed the opposition. Amaryllis was hers. With it, Skarsgaard’s secular government was no more. All of the state bowed to her.

Millenia grinned from ear to ear. She wanted to burst out laughing, but controlled herself.

This was just a small step on a journey that promised to take her past heaven itself.

Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.3]

Election Night

Polity: Duchy of Rhinea (“Rhinean National-Socialist Republic”)

Naval Strength: Rhinean Defense Force (In flux), Volkisch Movement (~400 ships)

As the night wore on and the votes were tallied, the crowds marching through the streets of Thurin station grew ever volatile. Protesters and counter-protesters clashed in each borough. Because it was a square arcology-type Station, the upper classes of Thurin had no “upper level” to fleet to that would have seen nothing of the fires and riots. Instead, the police presence was stretched thin guarding the gates to the government district and to the wealthy properties north of the city.

Much to the anger of the protesting crowds, the authorities gave a clear preference to “right-wing” figures, defending them from crowds with high security including riot forces and even Divers at their homes and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, just that morning, a “left-wing” member of the Constituent Assembly was assassinated by a member of the Volkisch movement. There was no official protection for people who were known supporters of the “left-wing” agenda in Thurin.

Philosophically, both sides claimed that what was at stake was the soul of the nation.

Concretely, the night’s vote for Governor was taken as a referendum.

Rhinea’s hereditary Dukedom had become politically and economically powerless over the years. Increasingly, private industries became fiefdoms of their own, particularly large institutions that made key goods, like Rhineanmetalle and Volwitz Foods. Enterprises began to provide the lion’s share of employment and standard of living and in turn commanded a greater share of the nation’s wealth. Aristocrats invested in Enterprises and ignored their dues to the Duke.

While in other Duchies the governing aristocracy, the Duke and his closest Lords, had used personal investments, political alliances and military threats to remain firmly in control, in Rhinea, Duke Pfefner had inherited young and was too timid to spare himself becoming a figurehead. The moneyed class had de-facto control and the nation liberalized around the rule of the Purse. Contract and profit took over for blood. Rhinea was increasingly bourgeois, rather than aristocratic.

They paid dues to the Imperial crown and enriched their own coffers; who would care about the Duke?

Rhinea’s upper class made a gesture of sharing their economic control by allowing the population of Rhinea’s stations to vote for a chief executive to manage “ducal” affairs, as well as voting for members of the aristocracy and corporate boards to serve as politicians in a legislative Assembly. It was this system that brought the acrimonious situation in which the station found itself.

Everyone knew the election was a referendum based on the three candidates available for Governor. Ossof Heidemann, a stakeholder in Volwitz Foods turned political activist, ran for increased democratic reform and liberal, Post-Imperial government. Adam Lehner, a right-wing politician from a bourgeois background, assembled a coalition of military, academic, religious and middle-class people with a message of nationalist populism. Karl Schlieffer stood for status quo; an aging ex-Admiral who sought rapprochement and to continue the unity of the Empire in some way.

As far as the streets were concerned it was a contest between Lehner and Heidemann.

“It is time for the people of Rhinea to stake a claim on that which the idle, the ennobled, and the ignorant demand to take from them! For far too long, our land, food, labor and treasure have supported the lives of bloodsucking parasites! Real Imbrians rise to retake Imbria!” shouted Lehner.

“Rhinea has more than enough food, fuel and shelter for all of us! But the Empire is a relic of darker times and inefficient governance! We need greater democratic control of our resources! We should, all of us, give and get our fair share, so we can prosper together!” said Heidemann.

Everyone agreed that the Empire’s days were numbered in Rhinea. Konstantin von Fueller was dead and Erich von Fueller couldn’t protect Vogelheim. Pure-blooded aristocrats were fleeing the state, afraid of populist violence no matter the political winner. And yet, history had two paths.

Heidemann courted the nascent liberal political awakening. He received the begrudging support of more radical left-wing forces inspired by the student anarchist wave in Bosporus, but he did not acknowledge them for fear of inciting the average Rhinean into Lehner’s arms. So, with dark irony, there were anarchist riots essentially happening for him, sans his actual support.

Lehner, meanwhile, was known to be a darling among the Volkisch Movement. They were a motley collection of violent people. Conspiracy theorists, free-market capitalists, pseudo-science believers, militants and patriots, and an odd contingent of “leftists” who had been swayed to the rather different conception of “the working class” that was at the crux of Volkisch populism.

This was Lehner’s “National Proletariat,” the Volk for whom he enthusiastically fought for.

These were the “counter-protesters” exchanging blows with the “rioters” on the streets.

Above these demonstrations, video screens blared up to the minute election updates. Voting had begun that afternoon and was essentially completed before night. One particular detail that had agitated the rioters was how long the tallying was taking. Everyone voted by machine. Results should have been tallied very quickly. Both sides accused the other of vote fixing.

Thurin’s streets raged with protests. Beneath the large, looming broadcast screens and the pale light of false star-lamps on the black steel sky, lit by the dim pink and blue neon of shop video-signs and the red and yellow of holographic directional signs, street markers and pedestrian warnings. The two sides waved signs, screamed slogans, and made sudden, opportunistic attacks.

Particularly ferocious were the confrontations in Hertha Park. Atop the grasses and around the trees there was enough open space for a massive battle line to form. A sparse force of police stood with the Volkisch “counter-protesters.” Across from them, the leftist “rioters” had fashioned shields out of chassis pieces of overturned vending machines, lids ripped off the tops of municipal cleaning robots, and any other boards of polymer or thin sheets of metal they could scrape together.

For weapons the leftists had anything they stole or scavenged that could be swung, as well as balloons full of paint or, for the craftier and more resourceful people, makeshift incendiaries. Meanwhile, it was no secret that the police had simply handed the Volkisch riot shields and vibro-batons in matching quantities and essentially deputized them to contain the “rioting” in Thurin.

Hiedemann himself made no comment disrespecting the integrity of the election, or police conduct.

From the Lutz Hotel south of the central district, closer to the heart of the insurgency but not so much as to become directly involved or associated, Heidemann urged the rioters to calm down and return home a single, solitary time. This was his only communication with the rioters, delivered at the end of an election night speech thanking Thurin’s elections committee.

“I admire their courage and professionalism on this occasion.” He said about Thurin’s authorities.

This did little to assuage the crowd. Skirmishing continued to flare up across the city.

Hertha Park in particular remained on the verge of exploding.

Everyone who wished to remain uninvolved hid in their apartment rooms.

At the doors to the hotel, the small amount of police officers there were given an order to relocate to Hertha Park, officially to shore up reinforcements since the Lutz was away from the violence. A small group of liberal protesters and a token presence of leftist militia replaced them. Not at all at Heidemman’s orders, but because they collectively thought they knew better than the old man what he needed at the moment, and conspiracist thinking was at all time high among them. They essentially became the only security detail Heidemman had beside his campaign staff.

Midnight neared, and Hertha Park continued to deteriorate. Amid the dim, ethereal scene of Thurin’s nighttime cycle, the protest lines that had been jockeying for position finally and irreversibly collided. Shields smashed into unguarded bodies, pipes and vibrobatons swung and clashed. Scant firearms, stolen or smuggled in by both sides, went off in the distance. Cops within the rioting fired gas grenades that went up into green and yellow clouds among the warring sides.

There was blood, there were bruises and broken bones. Both sides took terrible wounds.

At first, the leftist side outnumbered the right-wing. They had an enormous crowd, and whenever someone was pushed back, clubbed, pepper sprayed, gassed, or otherwise routed, they had helping hands who could surround and protect them from further attack, if not with fighters then at least with supporters. Even when the only opposition was unarmed, the numbers were so out of proportion that individual right-wing attackers could not penetrate the left’s ranks. Because they themselves had no better organization than the left, they went on the defensive very quickly.

Police prepared to escalate their presence as the violence started to grow out of control.

Fighting went on inconclusively for what seemed like hours to the protesters. Fires started to rise and spread, police vehicles were captured and overturned. From many wounded, the night managed a few dead. Then, with blood still pooling on the ground in Thurin, the results came in.

45.4% Heidemann.

49.1% Lehner.

Lehner was broadcast widely as the projected winner of the election.

He was winner beyond any margin of error.

Due to the chaotic situation, this information took some time to disseminate to the crowds.

As the realization set in, the rightists started to grow emboldened.

And the massive crowd of Heidemann supporters began to falter.

Those who had been only chanting slogans or carrying signs for Heidemann stumbled first. They had been buoyed enough by the confidence of their peers to stay in the crowd, not engaged in fighting but able to bolster the leftist presence. These people started to peel away from the press of bodies, demoralized by the turn of events and unwilling to join a greater uprising. They had made themselves believe that the chaos of this night was permissible because it would end with Lehner’s defeat. Anyone on their side throwing a punch was throwing it for Heidemann.

Unable to see a world where they could resist the Volkisch without their political leader, they retreated. Only the militant leftists remained, a front line left without hope of reinforcement.

When the rightists saw the thinning of the crowds, they capitalized on the fear and disorder and pressed their attack. Now that they had the advantage of numbers, they could throw themselves into the leftists without fear of being overwhelmed. Cowardly as they had been when outnumbered, they grew ferocious against weakened prey. Those right-wing attackers who had individually been powerful grew more so, and rightists who didn’t dare throw a punch before now joined the fight.

That night would be bloody for the leftist remnants in Hertha who stuck with the uprising.

Once the night turned in the Right wing’s favor, police activity dropped dramatically.

Open murder was essentially sanctioned in Hertha Park by the retreating authorities.

Soon as the news reached him, Heidemann moved to announce a concession.

“If I can’t change the outcome, I can at least try to stop the violence.” He said to his staff.

He came down from his hotel suite, hoping to deliver a speech in the street outside.

On the way down, he met with the grim-faced crowd of leftists who had come to the Lutz.

Heidemann could not look them in the eye. He started to move through them.

They had nothing to say to each other. It was farcical for the anarchists to remain there.

However, the weight of history was dropping on all of them. Nobody knew what to do.

Then into the flagging fire of their wills, a young woman spilled a tank of gasoline.

“Drop your weapons and back away from the old man, now!”

From around the corner, a small group came running in to confront Heidemann.

Those accursed black uniforms awakened the spirit of the anarchist defenders on sight. They immediately formed a protective ring. Heidemman’s supporters grabbed him and pushed him and his staff back up to the door of the Lutz as the anarchists positioned themselves on the street to protect them. On the landing from the door to the Lutz, a confrontation suddenly brewed.

A squad of Volkisch had arrived at the Lutz: led by a recognizable young woman.

Heidelinde Sawyer, sporting a riot shield and a vibro-baton, stood at the front. She was flanked by a skinny, red-headed young woman holding on to a large weapon. And around them were four men in uniform. Likely they were all former Navy. Like Sawyer herself, a lot of the Rhinean Defence Force had defected to the Volkisch. Very few Navy defectors joined the leftists that night. It came to pass that one side had riot gear and the other improvised weapons.

“We’re taking Heidemann into custody. Drop your weapons and leave.” Sawyer said.

Before her stood at least fifteen leftists, armed with makeshift shields, knives and clubs.

“We’re not giving up shit to you.” Said one of the leftists. “You bastards aren’t the law to us.”

At Sawyer’s side, the young woman accompanying her put on a sadistic grin.

“Listen to the boss lady, unless of course, you wanna show me a little red tonight.”

Sawyer grunted. “Make yourself useful and apprehend Heidemann.”

Her companion stepped forward. In her hands, she held what looked like a miniaturized Diver weapon. Though it resembled a jet lance, the pole did not appear to be coil-driven, since coil weapons had not been produced small enough for a human to wield. Instead, it had a thick handle like a vibroblade and trigger, attached to a magazine at the base of the spear. Those magazine-fed cartridges fired unfolding, arrow-like stakes. It was a Jet Harpoon, an expensive military weapon more common to K-9 boarding units, intended to shred humans without damaging ship interiors.

 Her opponents shook at the sight of it.

Unlike Sawyer, who wore riot armor and padding over her black uniform, sans helmet, this woman menaced the crowd in nothing but a black Volkisch uniform and peaked cap. A playful, mocking expression played about her lips, and her wine-red hair was collected into an ornate bun with two little brown sticks made to look like wood. But on a military salary, they had to be fake.

As she stepped in front of the crowd, she swung her weapon to scare them.

Sweeping in a harmless arc between herself and the anxious mob around Heidemann.

Seeing their terrified reactions made her titter with joy.

“Who do you think you people are?” Heidemann yelped, sweating bullets.

Again, the woman accompanying Sawyer put on a grin.

“Ever heard of the Samurai?” She laughed. “Ancient warriors who could cleave opponents in half with a swing of their sword? It’s an old Hanwan legend. I’m like a Samurai of the streets.”

At that moment Sawyer rolled her eyes, instantly regretting her command decisions.

“I’m not letting this crazy bitch scare me!”

One of the leftists took a swing with a crowbar.

“Hazel!” Sawyer shouted.

In the next instant, Hazel caught the crowbar with her Jet Harpoon, blocking the swing. She pushed against the man who had attacked her, holding her weapon with both hands, pressing him with the blunt surface of the thick, cylindrical pole structure. Her speartip was pointed elsewhere as the two of them struggled, the man trying to push her back, her trying to push forward.

Two other leftists in the formation moved to support him, hoping to throw the woman back. At first the confrontation appeared almost juvenile, like the false blows of a random street brawl.

Then Volkisch Rottenführer Hazel Streichter pressed the trigger.

A stake went flying past the man Hazel grappled and stabbed through two leftists in the wings of the phalanx. It went right through their shields. They must have been polymer or plastic boards with no way to withstand the jet-driven stake. Blood spilled onto the steps of the Lutz.

Blood sprayed onto Heidemann’s staff and a speck upon his coat.

He looked at it with widening eyes and his body began to shake.

At the sight of his fallen comrades, the man grappling with Hazel fell back, shaken.

Hazel retreated a step and pointed her jet harpoon confidently at the rest.

“Anyone else want a taste of my steel?” She said coyly.

“Oh my god, Hazel, shut up! Just shut the fuck up and go grab him for fuck’s sakes!”

Sawyer stepped in front of her companion and swung her shield in a wide, brutal sweep.

That blow knocked back the remaining few leftists in front of Heidemann and his staff.

One more desperate phalanx cracked by the Volkisch that night.

Sawyer stood before the cowering crowd and two dying people.

She set her boot into an expanding pool of blood.

Her eye had developed a twitch, and the arm she had swung with was shaking.

Whether she was angry or mentally affected by the violence, no one knew.

“Listen. None of you are worth my time. You can return to your lives tomorrow like none of this crap ever happened if you leave my sight right now. Otherwise, I’m going to break every last fucking bone in your fucking bodies. Do you understand? All of you lost. Step aside. Now!”

“We can be more persuasive than that, Sawyer.”

Over Sawyer’s radio, a third female voice spoke up.

Around the corner, a sudden rumbling made the stones on the pavement shake.

All of the leftist crowd lost their will to defend the failed politician in that instant.

“Diver!” They shouted. “It’s a Diver! Disperse! We don’t have shit against that!”

Sawyer put up her shield and Hazel raised her weapon to guard, but nobody took a swing.

Rather than fighters, the people in front of them became panicked pedestrians.

Everyone suddenly abandoned Heidemann and ran in different directions past the Volkisch squadron. Even the press and his secretary had fled along with the leftist militants. They left behind nothing but Heidemann, and a pair of discarded corpses that had once been their comrades.

From around the same corner where the Volkisch squadron had come from, a Diver ambled over the cobblestones. A black and red Jagd model with a pair of black antennae sticking out of the head. This Diver resembled its pilot somewhat, as the voice on the radio was none other than Rue Skalbeck’s, coming from inside this machine. Nobody would dare stand up to this machine’s jet lance, and the machine guns on the shoulders also presented an insurmountable challenge.

After the peak of violence and emotion that it had seen all night, the Lutz was silent again.

“Ugh, what a drag. That was barely a proper fight at all.” Hazel lamented.

“Strip off your uniform and go to Hertha Park if you just want a fight, dumbass.” Sawyer said. She jabbed hard on Hazel’s chest with her baton, asserting physical dominance. “You’re not in a fucking gang anymore. I don’t care how much you run your stupid mouth while carrying out my orders, but when I tell you to do something, you do exactly that without fucking theatrics.”

Hazel raised her hands up. “I followed your orders! I was trying to disperse the crowd–”

“I didn’t tell you to fire your weapon!” Sawyer shouted. “I told you to apprehend the old man! He’s standing there listening to this fucking tirade, so go do it! Or is that so fucking hard?”

“Fine, fine, fine!”

With an exaggerated sigh, Hazel walked over to Heidemann. Since the Jagd appeared, the old man backed up against the Lutz’ locked doors. Employees must have closed the doors behind him when the confrontation began. Everyone had abandoned him to the claws of the Volkisch.

She grabbed hold of him brusquely with one hand, much stronger than she looked.

“Old man, if you don’t want to die, cooperate, ok?” Hazel said.

She lifted the tip of the jet harpoon to his face, grinning violently at the defeated man.

Sawyer shouted again. “Watch your trigger discipline you stupid fuck! We need him alive.”

At Sawyer’s continued, very loud insistence, Hazel dragged Heidemann over to the group. Their men grabbed hold of the old man and cuffed him, and put a black bag over his head, muffling his protests. If he said anything coherent, nobody was listening. At that point, he was an object.

“We’ve got him. Rue, get us a ride out of here.” Sawyer said into the radio. She then turned to the men. With some disgust evident in her expression, she pointed a shaking finger at the bodies. “And someone clean that up. I don’t care about the blood, but dispose of the bodies immediately.”

On the radio, Rue’s voice sounded again.

“Roger. City seems to be quieting down, judging by police radio chatter.” Rue said.

“Good.” Sawyer said. “Keep your eyes on those sensors of yours.”

“I’ll keep you safe.” Rue said. Betraying perhaps a bit more emotion than intended.

Soon a boxy electric coach arrived. Hazel nonchalantly stuffed Heidemann in the back.

Sawyer took control, leaving behind their men to take care of the scene as they drove off. In her Jagd, Rue followed as best as she could. Their destination was not too far off. They were going to the Rhinean News Network’s main building, a tall, daunting spire in the city’s southwest.

Lehner’s family owned R.N.N., and it was there that he awaited the delivery.

When the bag next came off Heidemann’s head he was in a twentieth-floor office.

Sawyer, Rue and Hazel stood alongside the night’s ultimate victor, Adam Lehner.

Blond-haired, flashing a smile full of white teeth, a lithe man with a delicate complexion.

He hardly appeared the militant type in his silk suit, black tie and shiny shoes.

He seemed like just a different kind of dandy than the hedonistic aristocrats he hated.

He was Governor of Rhinea. And he was the unifying mind behind the Volkisch.

Flanked by black military uniforms who carried out his will all through the night.

He had Heidemann seated across from his desk. There were a lot of model ships in the office, in cases, in bottles, atop the desk. They were all old models. There was a certain exhibited fondness in the decorations for the old Koenig-class Dreadnought, with its beaked prow and winged fins. It was one of these models that Lehner picked up and turned on his fingers.

“What is the meaning of this, Lehner? Does winning a vote put you above the law?”

Heidemann broke the silence first. His voice was desperate, pleading. Defeated.

Lehner shot a glance at him from behind his desk. He was still fixated on the ship model.

“It’s so funny to me that I beat you in the vote. It’s convenient, but so funny.”

He set the model down on the desk, and turned a bemused expression at Heidemann.

“All this time, you’ve been thanking the electors, talking about running a clean race and having pride in our institutions. You had so much confidence in our institutions, our fucking institutions, and look where you are? It was so incredible to me how much we weren’t even playing the same game. I was on an entirely different board, and there you were, going on video every day talking about decorum and respect. Thinking that you would stop me with votes? By voting?”

Lehner burst out laughing. Heidemann could not muster up a retort.

The Volkisch leader turned to his subordinates as if expecting them to laugh with him.

Sawyer and Rue made no expression. Hazel cracked an uncomfortable little grin.

Lehner quickly turned back to Heidemann with a shrug.

“That’s the difference between us. I’m a go-getter. I’m an innovator. You left your entire future up to others to hand you. I went out, I put together the plan, the money, the people, the gear– I made it happen.” Lehner circled around to Heidemann’s chair and gave him a mock sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “It’s funny that I won the vote, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. Wow! Bag him up again.”

Lehner turned his back and began to pace near the broad glass wall at the back of the room.

When Heidemann started to protest, Hazel put a black bag over his head again.

This muffled his voice, but he started kicking, and trying to swing his cuffed arms.

“Sawyer, can you please?” Lehner said, clearly starting to become irritated.

Stepping up behind Heidemann, Sawyer pushed Hazel aside and knocked the old man in the back of the head. He slumped forward, his bagged head hanging. He struggled no more. He was out cold. That one strike wouldn’t kill him alone, but it had knocked all sense out of him.

“Thank you.” Lehner said. He turned to his retinue, putting his back on the gorgeous view of the city at night, that they had from such a high place through such expansive glass walls. “Everything is working as planned. The nobles have fled from Thurin, Weimar and Bremen. Some of the old-school Navy went with them, but we got about 400 ships on our side. A majority in the Constituent Assembly declared themselves for the Volkisch. We will motion to refuse to sit non-Volkisch members for supporting the riots or the nobles — whatever makes sense. So now what I want, is I want this guy to vanish like the nobles did. Nobody can find a trace of him.”

“Understood.” Sawyer said simply.

“I don’t care if you kill him, frankly, but you should. You’re going to, right?”

Lehner crooked an eyebrow at them, waiting for a response.

Sawyer did not even blink. “I have no sympathy for him. We’ll dispose of him.”

“Solid. Love that response. I’m pleased with you all, you know? I’m gonna make you all big deals here. So much of the Rhinean Defense Force has been running around like their dicks are on fire; leave it to the militia women to be the most trustworthy fighters I got.” Lehner said.

“We’re all behind you, Fuhrer.” Sawyer said. Her characteristic passion was missing.

Despite her seeming lack of enthusiasm, however, she followed orders to the letter.

At the moment, that was the best that Lehner had access to.

He had defectors and militia, and he would have to cobble them together into a new Navy.

Just after the destruction of Vogelheim, Rhinea’s aristocrats began to flee. Sizable portions of the Rhinean Defense Force, the territory’s contingent of the Imperial Navy, fled too. Half joined the Volkisch Movement outright. Whether the rest ran away as individual ships, organized under the fleeing aristocrats or outright defecting to other territories, the fact of the matter was that the new Volkisch government had lost many troops without even engaging in any hostilities. Sawyer and her flotilla were one bright spot amid this chaos. They seeded the fear that routed the nobles.

Lehner turned an amicable grin on Sawyer.

“We’ve got the gear, the discipline, the training, the morale. We just need people. And you three are a great starting point. Sawyer, you already have many achievements under your belt. I’m keeping a close eye on you. That’s why I wanted you in the city while all of this happened.”

He walked close to her and poked her in the chest playfully.

At that moment, his eyes settled on Rue Skalbeck, standing inconspicuously with Hazel.

He looked at her with a crooked little smile.

“And this one is interesting to me. Hah, some of our guys would be pissed. Name?”

Sawyer stiffened up.

“Rue Skalbeck.” Rue said. She replied in a strict monotone.

“She’s with me, Fuhrer.” Sawyer said. She was starting to raise her voice. “She’s fine.”

Lehner ignored Sawyer’s remark.

He eyed Rue’s antennae.

“Why did you get these installed? Did you need them? Are they an augmentation?”

“Hartz Syndrome, sir.”

Anyone paying closer attention to Sawyer than to Rue would have seen discomfort in her face. She was unsettled by Lehner’s sudden attentions on her subordinate, but there was nothing she could say about it. Lehner continued to hover around Rue. Rue herself stayed expressionless. Her hands could be seen to shake slightly, but she mastered herself well under interrogation.

“Tell me about your condition, Skalbeck. What brought you here?” Lehner asked.

He was testing her. He had to already know what it was. It was impossible not to.

Hartz Syndrome was an uncommon but well-known neurological development issue that afflicted many people in the Empire. While it was extensively studied, there was no biological cure that could prevent or revert the symptoms. There was simply something in a certain percentage of children that caused poor development of the brain and audiovisual senses. Cybernetics were the only way to save those children. Brain cybernetics were extremely dangerous. Hartz sufferers had an appalling death rate under the knife. That Rue was standing before them at all was a miracle.

She described that miracle directly and without emotion.

“Rhinea Medical College used me as testing material to develop new surgery methods, so I was able to get my corrective augmentations that way. I received cybernetic lobes; biosynthetic eyes; and the antennae act as cybernetic ears in a sense. They help me maintain my balance and allow me to pick up sound. My cybernetics help process audiovisual data that my brain alone lost the ability for. Due to Hartz, I was not able to complete my studies as a teen. So, after my recovery, I joined the Navy, and I studied part time so I could complete my schooling there.”

Lehner was nodding his head all along as Rue described her ordeal.

He clapped his hands together once.

“So, you studied while completing your training? What prompted you to do that?”

“After I regained the fullness of my faculties, I wanted to make up for the time I lost.”

Her response made Lehner clap his hands even more.

Sawyer sighed with relief.

“Amazing. Wonderful. Inspirational, even. You gave your body up for science! Holy shit. I have talked with a lot of our rank and file, Rue, believe it or not. I’ve seen so many sentiments of patriotism and self-sacrifice. But I’ve never seen someone sacrifice to that degree. Holy shit.”

Lehner reached out and gave playful, soft smacks on Rue’s cheek like she was a child.

“See this girl? In my ideal world, every inferior being would work as hard as she did.”

He turned to Sawyer with an elated expression. “You got really lucky with this one.”

“Sir?” Sawyer asked. She had flinched when he referred to Rue as an inferior.

Lehner continued to speak, gliding around the room in a passion.

“Despite all that was set against her, she never whined and bemoaned her situation. She never begged someone else to take pity on her and give her a handout. At every turn, she fought, she sacrificed, and she paid her dues. She sacrificed for the National Proletariat. Rue Skalbeck has given back to society. She’s not perfect, but she is exemplary. Sawyer, keep this critter close by.”

Rue was speechless, clearly mortified. Her jaw hung just a little at this description of her.

“Yes, sir.” Sawyer said. Her fingers curled up into fists.

Lehner did not notice this. He returned to his desk and sat on it.

“You’re all the future of our movement. I’m so proud of all of you. Great job tonight.”

He yawned. He checked his watch. He glanced over to Heidemann with disgust.

“Anyway, all of you can go now, we’re done here. Take him.” Lehner said, nonchalantly.

Without a word, his subordinates silently, obediently, took Heidemann out of his sight.

Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.2]

The Queen

Polity:  Empire of Greater Veka

Naval Strength: Grand Eastern Fleet (1200 ships)

A succession of events precipitated the de-facto, if not strictly legal or official, partitioning of the Imbrian Empire into its constituent ducal states. Chief among them was the death of Emperor Konstantin von Fueller, but this only provided the gasoline. Vogelheim withdrew a match from the box; and the uprising in Bosporus lit the match and threw it. While the Volkisch’s violence had the aristocrats on edge, it was the leftists who truly terrified the upper classes into organizing.

To protect their own interests, the ducal governments sought the loyalty of military and industrial leaders within their own territory. What followed was a time of logistic flux, where ships defected, enterprises fled to their preferred states, and assets shuffled between the various territories. There was a state of war that was both open and public, and unacknowledged and subtle. Loyal military vessels would set up “defensive patrols” in stations to occupy them for “their” side; corporations based in multiple nations began to “transfer” their assets to the side they picked, as fast as they could; stocks of food, weapons and ammunition were bought up, stolen, lost, taken.

In this preamble to war there were only two military forces that suffered no defections.

First was Erich von Fueller’s Grand Western Fleet.

Second, Carmilla von Veka’s Grand Eastern Fleet.

The Vekan state held together strongly while other nations fell into their organized chaos.

In Veka, all enterprises were state-owned. Food and jobs were essentially state-subsidized.

In the decades before the Emperor’s death, the Vekan state’s free market experiments ended in the collapse of many of its native industries. Wracked with corruption and inefficiency, Veka became characterized by the broader Imperial culture as a failing state that was gobbling up Imperial money into the coffers of incompetent and hedonistic oriental lords. Quietly, and slowly, Veka’s ducal government “bailed out” its failing enterprises and managed them directly.

For years, Veka lived up to its negative image. While Rhinea’s industrial monopolies grew to post profits unmatched by any other state, production and growth in Veka lagged behind. Veka was important to the Empire as a bulwark against what they saw as the savagery across its borders to the Mare Crisium in the east. Especially the warlike Kingdom of Hanwa and the collapsed, chaotic state of Katarre, a massive territory whose people were trapped in a perpetual civil war threatening to spill into Imbria. For this reason alone, Veka was propped up with military spending and deliveries of state of the art hardware. The House of Fueller refused to open its purse strings for Vekan agriculture or industry, however, due to its history.

Slowly, steadily, with patience and diligence, largely unacknowledged, Veka recovered. Within the past five years, while Rhinean workers saw their standard of living decline as the profits of the monopolies soared, the Vekan people saw gradual improvement in their caloric intake and wages. More people were employed, food prices slowly stabilized, and trade in luxury goods rose.

When this first, phony stage of the civil war began, Veka remained highly stable.

Its military forces were by and large composed of ethnic Vekans, with the odd foreigners here and there such as Yuyenese or Katarran. Unlike the more complicated ethnic and state identities of the Imbrians, Vekans in the Imperial Navy could all reasonably claim to be serving in and thus defending their own homes. Therefore, the Grand Eastern Fleet easily became a “Vekan” fleet at the outset of the civil war, and not one man in the fleet had any reason to flee outside Veka.

All of Veka’s important industries were owned by the House of Veka and managed by the state. While they were more modest in size and scope than a firm like Rhineanmetalle, they could produce enough goods at a decent enough quality standard to sustain the Imperial art of war as Veka practiced it. They could produce in every key sector from energy, to weapons platforms, to ammunition. There was no economic upheaval, because the firms could not just decide to transport all their plants to Skarsgaard in exchange for preferential taxation or cheaper labor. In essence, for the past few decades, Veka had somehow stolen a march on its civil war rivals, and nobody had even known that these conditions would have prepared Veka so well.

Compared to the rest of the Empire, Veka had a particularly tolerant culture that also helped prevent widespread social chaos at the start of the civil war. Leftist uprisings fizzled out quickly in Veka, finding little grassroots support. Most people simply did not live poorly enough in Veka to be convinced to fight the government that by and large employed and thereby fed and clothed them. And those who did try to organize against the ducal government were crushed brutally. One place Vekan cruelty did greatly exceed that of its rival states, was in its carceral culture.

By and large, however, most people felt somewhat comfortable with their lot in Veka.

One of those tolerated transplants who had come to enjoy Veka’s hospitality, was a Shimii from the north, who had been given the name Victoria van Veka. She had sat out the first days of civil war aboard a ship, with scarce access to news or intelligence. Once she arrived at the Vekan capital of Ulan, she was happy to see the city life continuing as she remembered it before.

There were crowds, bustling in the streets. Government trucks ferried raw materials such as metal and raw foodstuffs to be processed into goods, or in some cases, to sell the raw material for the use of craftsmanship. Shops of all sorts flanked her as she walked down the main city street. Most of them sold government goods at a small profit, but the economy was liberalizing slowly, and many shops began to sell goods that were made by small private groups with raw materials.

Up above, flat panels projected a very false blue sky that still gave Victoria some comfort. It was nothing like the sky over Vogelheim in its artifice, not even close. And yet, the falsity of it was what reminded her of home. She was home, and it was safe. Her wounds had almost healed, she had rest and clean clothes. Vogelheim was far behind her, but her hands brimmed with nervous energy nonetheless. She was still coming down from the fight, somewhere inside herself.

Victoria was a student of history, so she was not expecting Ulan to be in disarray.

She was still impressed, judging by how the situation appeared in other places.

And perhaps, she was impressed, because having been in chaos, she expected no reprieve.

“No more tarrying, then. I will go see her. Then I will definitely feel better.”

Victoria made her way to the white and brown, palatial manse of the House of Veka.

Like the rest of Ulan, the Vekan ducal estate had an earthy, lived-in atmosphere. Unlike the Villa at Vogelheim there were no wooden walls. There was no wood anywhere. But the metal was painted and textured so it seemed like varnished wood. Dark umber, gold and pearl were common colors and surface patterns in the décor. Thin trailing green vines rose up in the interior in certain places, such as the side of the main staircase, the columns on the second-floor landing, and various walls. They grew small, pretty white and gold blooms. These were genetically modified “designer plants” that were fed by the misting systems that periodically cleaned the walls.

While the Estate was vast, it housed few people these days. Government functions were now hosted in a bunkered office beneath the center of town, and the Estate was exclusively housing the Duchess, Carmilla von Veka, and a small coterie. There were two maids who helped her with cleaning and clothes, an Estate purser who managed their goods and the Duchess’ personal finance, a personal doctor, and a few security guards. And then, Victoria herself also lived there now.

She was home. These were the walls she had known for many years now.

From the landing on the second floor, she followed a long hallway, flanked with portraits.

All of the grandiose men and women who had ruled Veka looked down at her.

When she first entered this estate, she was twenty, and terrified of this gothic scenery.

Now she was twenty-five, just like Elena, and the portraits struck her far differently.

She would not be crushed by their grandeur. In fact, their brand of rulership was obsolete.

At the end of the hallway, behind a set of double doors, there was an office.

Victoria hesitated for a moment.

“I’ve returned, ma’am.”

She had not hesitated out of fear. She just wanted to have the perfect greeting.

Soon as the door opened, she found herself scooped up into a woman’s chest.

Picked up, with an arm around her waist, a second behind her head, stroking her hair.

Carmilla von Veka pushed her against a wall and took her lips into a passionate kiss.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Victoria let her defenses down in the other woman’s warmth.

She was tall, strong, safe. She was Victoria’s home, and Victoria gave back the passion she was given.

Their kiss lasted precious, healing seconds where neither of them had to be on guard.

They parted and locked eyes. The taste of that kiss lingered on Victoria’s lips.

A kiss that tasted like fragrant tea. Carmilla had taken that kiss and many before.

She stood before Victoria in the throes of a passion. Her golden eyes wept with joy.

“My precious jewel, you’ve returned safe and sound! I’m so relieved to see you.”

Had anyone seen the two women in such a state of vulnerability they may have found it ridiculous.

That cold Shimii and the Empire’s own “Queen of the Eastern Wilderness.”

Thankfully they were very much alone.

Victoria was so happy; she was nearly moved to tears herself.

“I’m home.” She said, taking in the sight of her lover, her heart beating wildly.

She could do nothing but drink of the sight of that woman and think, she’s perfect.

Carmilla von Veka was a statuesque woman, as if a mythical figure that had been carved from pale gold. Victoria would have composed poetry about the sight of her body, even though creative pursuits were not her strong point. The Duchess was lithe and long-limbed with an excellent figure, visibly fit with slim muscles on her shoulders, stomach and limbs and yet a warm, ample bosom soft enough for Victoria to sink into. She was taller than Victoria by over a head.

She was ten years her senior, but Carmilla had a beauty that Victoria could only call eternal.

Among the Vekan court she was once complimented by saying she was “built like a horse.” Such a compliment would have meant death in any other part of the Empire, but in Veka it referred to her grace, beauty and strength, found only in those rare and legendary animals which they raised only for their magnificence. In Victoria’s fancy, she sometimes compared her to a fertility idol.

Her face had an arresting majesty that Victoria could never forget, no matter how separated they were. A soft-featured but striking profile with skin a gentle olive-brown, and she wore makeup just as gently, a touch of red on her lips and a touch of blue around her eyes. She had what Victoria considered to be perfect facial features. High cheekbones, but gentle cheeks that gave her jaw a good angle, neither too gaunt nor too round. An elegant nose with a gentle brow. Her hair was a magnificent dark golden-brown, voluminous and falling in silky waves. While much of it tied back into a business-like ponytail that day, there remained several long locks framing her face.

She could wear anything, from a formal suit, to a military uniform, but on that date, she wore a long-sleeved, black outfit ornamented with patterns of gold leaves. It was stark, grandiose. While the top looked much like the fancy bodice of a dress, below the waist, the outfit seamlessly became a pair of tight pants. There were gaps along the hips and back, and the completely exposed shoulders and collarbone, that revealed the white bodysuit she wore beneath that dramatic one-piece. Complex, geometric, translucent heels cheekily exposed her feet.

Victoria was moved further and further to tears the more she looked over Carmilla.

She was perfect; she was perfect! Beautiful, smart, compassionate.

She was hers. She was her Carmilla. And she was Carmilla’s precious Victoria.

Nobody ever made her feel so wanted, so supported, so safe.

For Carmilla, Victoria could sink a fleet. She could exterminate an army.

This was the profundity of the love that Victoria felt in the arms of that woman.

A depth of emotion swelled in her breast that she could feel for no other person.

“You were this worried about me?” Victoria asked.

“Of course, I was worried!” Carmilla replied. “I’m well aware of the danger you were in.”

“But despite that, you let me go?”

“Of course I let you go!”

Carmilla put Victoria down, her feet gently touching the floor again.

She let go of her, and looked at her with a serious expression, no petting or fussing.

“I respect you and I trust you! I won’t belittle your convictions. But I will worry.”

“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

Victoria looked her in the eyes again, this time looking up at Carmilla.

She averted her gaze. “I– I failed, ma’am. I don’t know the status of Elena von Fueller, but Vogelheim was destroyed. The Volkisch Movement were the perpetrators. Like in my dream.”

“I know, dear. You’ve been through so much. Sit down with me. Please.”

An invitation to sit was an invitation for Victoria to let down her guard and relax.

Sighing gently, her heart beating strongly, Victoria followed Carmilla’s lead.

Carmilla’s office was spacious and comfortable. In the back of the room she had her desk, mainly taken up by a keyboard, touchpad and a monitor installed on an adjustable arm. The actual mainframe was buried underground, and everything they used on a daily basis was a thin client that made use of its computing power. Aside from the computer, Carmilla had little on her desk. All of her reading, review and signing was done digitally.

There was a much larger monitor installed on an adjustable arm attached to a rail in the ceiling. It could function as a display for videoconferencing, or it could be tuned to the 24-hour broadcasts by the state network. Carmilla used a small remote control to set it to the state music channel, which played soft, relaxing folk tunes most of the day. It created a comfortable ambiance in the room. As the network had expanded so significantly the past few years, Carmilla could have possibly conferred with her counterparts in other nations through video calls from that monitor.

Finally, there was a large couch along the left-hand wall, dark red, firm but plush.

Carmilla sat on the couch, and patted her hand at her side, urging Victoria to join her.

Smiling, Victoria took her place beside the Duchess. It was rare that she felt so comfortable.

She relaxed against the back of the couch and let her body lean against Carmilla’s side, feeling her warmth through her tight clothes. Victoria felt the Duchess’ hand settle on her shoulder first, and then glide up the nape of her neck, behind the back of her head, up to the base of her fluffy brown cat ears.

Victoria’s tail swayed contentedly as Carmilla’s fingers traced the firm cartilage.

Her fingers were so slender, so soft, brushing over the ear flap from the base to the tip.

Victoria’s whole body stirred as the duchess stroked her so gently.

She closed her eyes. From her chest, she let out a soft purr.

“How is this?” Carmilla asked.

A trimmed fingernail scraped where her ears met her head, delivering a rough sensation.

At first teasingly, but then with a firm and continuous rhythm.

Victoria’s hands kneaded on the couch. Her hips trembled. Tiny, almost surprised gasps escaped the Shimii’s lips. Carmilla teased her ears in the exact way that drove her mad.

First a scratch, then a firm rub from the fingertip, bending the ear; draw back for another scratch; repeat. Faster, building up heat each time. Victoria pressed her body against Carmilla’s, moaning gently.

“That’s what I love to see. My precious Varisha, in the glow of happiness.”

Hearing the Duchess’ voice cooing her secret name while scratching her ears, while feeling the warmth of her body and the firmness of her grip. It sent a thrill through Victoria’s chest and down her body.

“Call me by my special name, Varisha.”

In the midst of her passion, Victoria murmured it. “Mishagh–”

She felt Carmilla’s finger moving faster. “Beautiful. Such a good girl.”

Victoria’s tail shot straight up, quivering. She started to bow her head under the intensity of that touch.

The Duchess’ finger slid down Victoria’s ears a final time before lifting off of her head.

Victoria’s eyes drew wide with surprise.  Carmilla took her by the waist, pulling her close.

“You’ll get more scritches soon. In the royal bed, next time.” She said, winking.

Carmilla’s finger traveled down Victoria’s cheek.

She lifted the Shimii’s chin and bent down to kiss her. Gentle, brief, but reassuring.

As their lips parted, Victoria’s head felt airy with contentedness.

“Soon.” Victoria cooed. She was letting herself be vulnerable. Letting herself savor it.

Soon. Right now, I want you up and by my side. A historic event is about to unfold.”

Victoria obediently sat up again.

Carmilla’s gentle smile faded into her queenly mask. She turned a serious look on Victoria.

They stared at each other for a moment, before the Duchess put on a little smile.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be an amicable chat. But this is someone who can’t see my gentle side.”

Carmilla leaned back, and stretched one arm around Victoria’s shoulder.

Her other hand reached out to her desk.

Red rings formed around her golden eyes.

A long, thin vaporizer pipe with fake wood finish rose into the air out of an open drawer.

If she focused, Victoria could see the tiny threads of power lifting the pipe like fingers.

That pipe hovered all the way to the couch, to be held tantalizingly in Carmilla’s other hand. A woman in one arm, a smoke in the other. She looked strong; business-like. It was the aura of the Empire’s “Queen of the Eastern Wilderness.” Victoria could feel the transformation occur.

“We’ll begin shortly. Please watch me, Varisha. I’m stronger with your support.”

Victoria nodded her head silently.

She sidled closed to Carmilla, keeping her hands on her own lap.

Soon after, the office’s main screen came down in front of them with a countdown.

At the appointed time, a video call bridged a divide that had been broken decades ago. Through fiber relays and laser networks stretching many kilometers, Ulan in Veka connected with Mt. Raja in Solstice. It was the first Union-Imperial video conference between national leaders.

In front of them, on the screen, two women with dark skin and hair appeared. They were both wearing military uniforms. Premier Bhavani Jayasankar was dressed in an ornate green uniform with numerous decorations. Beside her stood her own attendant, Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi, in a black and red uniform. Comparing attire, Carmilla looked downright casual. It was as if the Union was trying to project an image of pervasive militancy to them.

Carmilla leaned forward, grinning. “Greetings, Union. We can speak; so, let us talk.”

Premier Jayasankar returned a similar expression. She seemed to ignore the presence of Victoria in the room. “When we received a request to reestablish the trans-national network, I was quite ready to blow it off if it was traced to Skarsgaard or Rhinea. Those two hives of Imbrian supremacist thinking would have nothing to say that I wanted to hear. I’m only on this call because I am aware of the Empire’s attitudes toward Veka, historically. Therefore, you should talk first.”

“Are we hoping to speak as equally racialized subjects then?” Carmilla said sweetly.

“Let’s just say I have a small amount of sympathy for your position, but only that much.”

“I understand, Premier. As a sign of my hospitality, I have an offer that will cost you little.”

“We’re listening.”

Carmilla lounged back in her seat and took a breath of her vaporizer.

She blew a gentle-smelling smoke. Victoria likened it to the scent of fragrant tea.

“Recently, the Empire changed its categorization of Union citizens, from ‘runaway slaves’ to ‘bandits and rebels’. It was part of a push to abolish slavery and slave-like legal conditions, mind you, but it still constituted a positive change in the Union’s status here.” Carmilla said.

Wow. Color me grateful for such generosity.” Premier Bhavani said, laughing.

“I am ready to give the Union official recognition as a peer nation of the Empire.”

“Well then. I suppose that is no small thing for you. And in exchange, you want–?”

Carmilla smiled, and she leaned forward again as if whispering to the two communists. “I want a ceasefire, mutual intelligence cooperation, and recognition of the Empire of Greater Veka.”            

Premier Bhavani’s face stretched into a broad grin. “Consider my interest piqued.”

Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.1]


For fifty seconds the image was unclear. Predominantly cut through by bands of grey static. But there was color; tantalizing color. Whether the color was a result of the video’s degradation or smeared because of it, unknown, but there were a few stray bands of color. There was audio, wind gushing, metal rattling. Something like a rope and chain clanked periodically. The algorithm tried to sort out the colors.

Once the algorithm ran, the video began to play anew.

Fifty seconds.

This was the buried treasure in the coffin. Nothing organic had withstood the brutality the coffin was subjected to, nothing but the most trace amounts of fluid that might have contained some DNA.

Nevertheless, the technology was magnificent, and some of it had survived.

Nothing but seconds. Fifty seconds from a mythical time and place.

Some grain was removed from the video.

Was that a blue sky?

Could she trust the picture of that blue sky she had never seen in the flesh?

There was no sense in being skeptical. She had nothing to lose by believing.

She ran the video against the computers, again and again.


Obsession characterized the Sunlight Foundation.

Obsession characterized her.

In a past life she had spent several painful decades working to repair the first ever bit of Surface Era footage ever recovered by the Foundation. She acquired a good solid chunk of silicon storage, full of data marred by a tongue of purple agarthic energy. She had worked so obsessively to make that footage visible that she gave herself a second problem to solve, absentmindedly, while she was at it — how to keep living long enough to somehow, sometime, finish repairing that piece of video.

Both of those endeavors made everything that followed so much easier.

That fifty seconds of video, garbled beyond recognition, was run against recovered video from several other sources. Heavily trained computers began to sharpen the image, to undo the damage that had been done to it, to replace elements according to what she knew to be correct. Soon, she could see it again. That beautiful, sunny sky. There were clouds, distant, licking the earth with tongues of glowing purple lightning.

There was enough sky that she could place it.

She had divided the history of the Surface Era into a few broad periods.

Those clouds told her that this video was situated just before the end of that world.

Much of that video was a blue sky, a beautiful blue sky.

A portion of the picture was taken up by a close gray object. Like a concrete pillar.

She imagined the context. A concrete pillar, flying in the sky? Chains and ropes?

Perhaps it was the camera of an ancient station. About to be dropped into the Ocean.

Her curiosity peaked. Her mind filled with questions out of that unconfirmed assumption.

Who dropped it? Where? Why had this camera ended up in their Imbrium Ocean?

She was so excited that it flooded over into a different emotion: frustration.

How was it that they collectively forgot about something so magnificent?

She knew the answer to that last question, of course. Why did they forget? That one was the easiest mysteries to solve even if she did not account for her own biases. After their descent into the oceans, Humanity were just homesick monkeys who turned to religion and war and ruined everything beautiful. That was why these ocean-bound degenerates had forgotten the utopia that they had come from. Somehow, around the time she was born, they had already destroyed so much of their heritage. And for what?

For control of these dismal prisons within the Ocean?

They destroyed so much, lost so much, forgot so much, that she had to stand in a cold room under the Ocean scrobbling a fifty second video over and over, like a starving woman gnawing–

No. Not that metaphor. Any other metaphor but that one. She held her head in pain.

“I should do something about that memory. I don’t want to think about that again.”

It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter why the ocean-dwellers lost this knowledge.

All that mattered was learning everything they could and reclaiming their knowledge.

Reclaiming and using the secrets of the Surface Era to return where humanity belonged.

She looked through the video again, frame by frame.

At one point, she saw something moving, something fast and metallic.

 She paused the video. She focused the computer’s attention on that frame, that object.

Her eyes drew wide with excitement, and she put on a child-like smile.

Once the object in the image was enhanced, she understood what it was.

“A jet fighter! That is a jet fighter! So, they were flying! Flying in the sky!”

She waved her hand at one of the screens, and a dossier on the Surface Era objects known to the Foundation as “jet fighters” appeared. A sleek vehicle used to deliver explosives to a target. Flying through the air, without the density and resistance of water to slow them down, they were faster than anything that could ever live underwater. A testament to the Surface Era humans’ superiority. Divers did not even slightly compare.

“I’m coming in.”

Sovereign “Yangtze” of the Sunlight Foundation looked over her shoulder.

The door to the laboratory opened, and a woman walked calmly inside.

A woman of ageless beauty, pearl-pink skin and soft features frozen in young adulthood. Dark blue hair, very slightly curly, reached down just below a sleek jawline. Extremely tiny digits danced over her bright blue cybernetic eyes, nearly imperceptible to anyone with an inferior body and senses than those their kind possessed. Her clothes were simple, a sleeveless vest over a button-down shirt, a suit jacket and pants, over which she wore a white coat. However, in the pathetic societies of the Ocean-dwelling, the all-organic suit and shirt were worth a king’s ransom.

Only the coats were synthetic. They got dirty or broken often. It was easier that way.

Real clothes helped remind them of their stature, and of the things they coveted.

But Euphrates was different. She lacked Yangtze’s obsession. In fact, she criticized it.

An absolute fool; her brain must have been addled after being alive too long.

Euphrates turned that familiar unfriendly face at Yangtze.

“I’m back from the Northern Imbrium. It was a bigger nest than we thought.”

“Did it provide a stimulating challenge?”

“It was nothing we couldn’t handle; the problem is they’re gradually growing faster and more diverse.”

“It’s good, isn’t it? Someday they’ll repopulate this dreadful Ocean.”

“Yangtze, those things are practically anathema to natural life. I know you like them, but–”

“Do you ever think about how this world has lost such a ridiculously large amount of life?” Yangtze said. She was trying to get Euphrates to think of things in a different way. And yet, she began to lose herself in the middle of her rhetoric as well, to the point that she could only distantly hear herself speak. “Billions of humans died in the recent memory of those who mourned them. Don’t you think it’s insane how little we care now? Our biodiversity here in the Ocean utterly collapsed. Ninety percent of the species that were alive are dead. Maybe that’s why the early years of the Ocean-dwellers were so chaotic and destructive. We worked out the insanity of our grief back then.” In the end, she knew she had not said anything effectively convincing.

Maybe she needed more than a few memory edits to keep her brain going.

Euphrates narrowed her eyes, perhaps frustrated. Yangtze sighed, feeling bullied.

“You don’t have to be quite so strict; you know?” She finally said.

Euphrates shrugged.

“If we’re going to talk about lost life; Vogelheim station was destroyed.”


Yangtze had spoken a bit thoughtlessly, but she genuinely just did not care.

Euphrates, putting her hands in her coat pockets, shot her a sharp glare.

“They’re still working out the casualty figures, but the fact remains–”

“During the strife, six or seven hundred years ago, 40% of all standing stations were destroyed.”

“Does that make it fine that habitations are being destroyed right now?”

Yangtze shrugged. “A single station was lost, but the Republic and the Empire can both build new kinds of stations. Yes, they are smaller than the stations they inherited after the strife, and not as sophisticated, but they can. Even the Union can build agri-spheres! If you’re worried about the extinction of humanity, then you should be here helping me. But I don’t begrudge you that. I just don’t really care about stations.”

Euphrates lifted an eyebrow.

“You care about life, but not stations. Is your brain doing okay? Did you do your cognitive exercises lately?”

Yangtze put on a weary expression.

“I maybe dissociated a little today. I will have my memory checked soon.”

Euphrates nodded with understanding, maybe even compassion.

“Why did you have me leak information to intervene in Vogelheim?”

Euphrates liked to use the phrase ‘intervene’ casually. The Sunlight Foundation was not supposed to ‘intervene’ in foreign affairs. They were supposed to do their best not to ‘intervene’ with the ocean-dwellers. Yangtze had far different criteria for what ‘intervening’ meant. After all, they were citizens of this Ocean too. It was inevitable they would have to take action sometimes.

“It wasn’t for the station. It was returning a favor to someone.” Yangtze said.

“How did you come to owe some G.I.A. agent a favor?” Euphrates said.

“It wasn’t for the G.I.A. agent. It wasn’t even for the Princess or anybody there.”

“I don’t follow.”

“It was for someone who died.”

Euphrates smiled a little. “I didn’t take you for someone with respect for the dead.”

“It’s not really respect, and it was not I who really felt it. I saw a chance, due to the situation, to assuage some irrational feelings. Let’s call it pity. Pity that an earlier version of me possessed. Or perhaps, if it strikes you as more authentic, we can say I did it purely out of personal whimsy.”

“I suppose I would call this version of you whimsical.” Euphrates said.

Behind Yangtze, there was a ding, as the computers recovered something new in the video.

She turned around to monitor, and saw a series of numbers.

Her eyes and smile spread wider and wider.

“Yes! These could be coordinates! Or some other kind of metadata! Oh I must decipher this!”            

Euphrates watched with a perplexed expression, as Yangtze returned to her obsession.

“She wasn’t always like this, was she?” Euphrates murmured.

Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.10]

National Anthem For The Imbrian Empire of Nocht,

“The Sun’s Blessing.”

Unite! Beneath the banner,
The shining sun above,
With fertile soil and honest toil,
A mighty nation grows


Sun’s blessings do abound,
The greatest land beneath the waves,
Thy enemies be drowned

Our Might! Beneath the banners,
Our glory to uphold,
Through sun-blessed reach, penumbral depths,
Our fleets His’s Peace protect


Sun’s blessings do abound,
The submarines of our great fleet,
Triumph o’er battlegrounds

Sunlight! Beneath the banners,
God’s grace knows no bounds,
From Skarsgaard to Palatine,
The Sovereign’s honor crowned


Sun’s blessings do abound,
God’s grace and King’s prosperity,
With glory for eternity,
The Sovereign’s will resounds!

Rue Skalbeck stood in the middle of the Greater Imbria’s bridge, arms crossed over her chest, teeth grit, waiting. She berated herself. If she had been able to communicate with the entry teams Sawyer would not have had to go out there herself. There was no helping the station’s age and lack of outputs that Rue could use, and the progress of the entry team. Nevertheless, Rue was ready to blame herself if anything happened to Heidelinde Sawyer, rising star of their movement.

She was ready for the excoriating discipline she would receive for her failure.

There was nothing she could do at this point. She felt completely trapped.

Trapped by her own choices, trapped by the developing situation.

“Forward movement is better than stagnation.”

Rue murmured this to herself. She believed it. It was one of her ethos.

Sawyer maybe shared that ethos with her. It was tough to say.

“Captain, lets get closer to the Vogelheim pillar.” Rue said.

From just below her position, the Captain looked up and over his shoulder at her.

“Can you explain this course of action to me, Acting Fuhrer?”

Rue did not quite like the tone of that question. She did not know whether he meant that he wanted to suss out her intentions or if he literally believed she could not explain it to him because she was a genetic inferior. She tried to keep her tone moderated when addressing him in return.

“Closing in on the pillar serves two purposes. It makes it easier for us to extract our men and women when their mission is complete. And when the enemy reinforcements arrive, they may decide to stay their guns if the Greater Imbria is within the firing margin of error of the Station. I believe it is the best place to reform our fleet and prepare our escape route.”

“Strategically, it sounds reasonable. But what about our rescue efforts?”

That response dissipated Rue’s anxieties but brought others to the fore.

Rue shook her head silently at the Captain in response. With a dreadnought coming, they could not hope to rescue anyone except by surrendering and throwing themselves on the enemy’s mercy, which they would never do. Engaging the Irmingard class in battle could be terribly destructive for the flotilla in their disorganized state. They could not hope to attempt it.

The only choice they had left was to abandon the rescue effort.

“Understood.” The Captain turned to his subordinates. “Relay all ships–“

He passed on her commands to the communications officers, who made sure the orders were picked up by the rest of the flotilla. Within minutes the Cruiser and its retinue began to move toward the pillar. There was a new formation diagram on the main screen, and it showed the fleet’s progress toward forming up around the pillar. Rue briefly went back to worrying about Sawyer.

Then, one of the communications officers stood up to face Rue.

“Acting Fuhrer, we’re receiving a communications request from a civilian Frigate that is leaving the Vogelheim pillar through the port. Should I put them through on laser?”

Rue narrowed her eyes. “Put them through. Tell team Dora not to fire on them yet.”

She hid her surprise that the entry teams let anyone escape from the station.

What was going on in Vogelheim? Was it a breakdown of discipline?

Had Sawyer given new orders?

On the screen, a young, foppish man with a heavily manicured mustache and golden hair appeared, dressed in finery. His eyes were red and tears stained his cosmetics. He immediately threw himself upon Rue’s mercy as soon as he saw her appear on the laser video feeed.

“Esteemed commander of these brilliant forces, my name is William von Valwitz, and I was chosen to represent a group of fine gentlemen and ladies who have been caught in these extreme circumstances through no fault of our own. We will gladly sever all ties with the House of Fueller, which has insulted us greatly, in exchange for your mercy. There are fifty aristocrats of high standing on this ship, and their retinues, whom are innocent, and plot no violence.”

Rue narrowed her eyes at him, but smiled at the end of the man’s plea.

“On the mercy of the National Proletariat, I will free you from this predicament, von Valwitz. You and your company go where you will, and do not forget your encounter with the Volkisch Movement. I will require a transfer of your ship roster so we may know the indebted.”

Von Valmitz did not see this as anything but a miracle and a blessing.

“Oh, thank you commander. You are most merciful.”

Within moments, Rue had the entire passenger roster of the aristocrats on her computers.

Rue ended the laser communication with the aristocrat’s frigate.

Briefly and with only vague interest, she glanced over the list.

She then turned to the Captain.

“The National Proletariat has no mercy for backstabbing aristocrats. Open fire.”

There was no pushback from the Captain. He obediently relayed the order.

On the screen, the aristocrats’ frigate appeared. It was close enough that the algorithmic prediction was nearly immaculate. A magnificent curved hull with large pale dome structures over several compartments, affording a view of the sea. It was the sort of beautiful plaything in which rich boys and girls gallivanted across the oceans. There was just enough metal between them and the ocean to protect them from the environment while letting them enjoy themselves as if at home.

Sailing easily out of Vogelheim’s port, the ship turned its broad side to the Volkisch.

This made it a much easier target. There was no chance to miss it and hit the station.

At that moment, the flotilla obeyed its order to fire.

Light gunfire from the frigates pummeled the side of the ship, smashing open the domes, scoring massive gashes on the metal through which water would easily enter. Then the main gun of the Greater Imbria put both rounds on the center of the ship. Enormous vapor bubbles tore open the entire flank of the ship and expelled ground flesh and blood into the Imbrium. There was nothing recognizable of that beautiful ship. A twisted heap of metal descended to the ocean floor.

“There’s the political victory we sorely needed from this excursion.” Rue said.

“Oh? How so?” asked the Captain.

Rue grinned.

“Erich von Fueller will condemn us for attacking a living station, but we will argue that he was unable to protect the Houses who entrusted their heirs to him for political alliance, and tout our own strength. He might act like a great humanitarian in criticizing our actions, but his infallible mystique will take a blow with the aristocrats, who only care about protecting their own skins.”

“I see. I wonder whether the Sturmbannführer would agree.”

“I believe her actions would have been the same even if her rationale could be different.”

“Yes, I suppose that is ultimately all that matters.”

The Greater Imbria neared the Vogelheim pillar, and the flotilla formed up near the port. While the gun frigates screened the flank, the missile frigates began to extract their divers, who dove back into the missile pods from where they had launched. It had been Sawyer’s idea to use missile frigates in this fashion. They could get the frigates from the collaborators at Rhineland Shipyards but acquiring missiles was a different story. Divers, however, they had a surplus of.

All they needed to do was shave a bit of armor off the rotund Volkers to fit them in.


In one of the stations forward of Rue’s podium, a sonar operator hailed the Acting Fuhrer.

“What is it? Any more surprises?” Rue asked.

“There’s a Diver leaving Vogelheim through the engineering deck. Based on the acoustic signature, I think it’s the Sturmbannführer’s Panzer unit. But ma’am, there’s more. We’re getting a lot of shocks out into the water from the Vogelheim pillar. It sounds like a mess in there.”

“Run an active scan, update the predictive imaging. See if we can get the interior.”

Rue turned from the sonar operator to the Captain with great urgency in her movements.

“Captain, the Sturmbannführer is returning. Focus all efforts on recovering her.”

“Of course.”

Once more, the orders went out. A recovery craft was sent out from the Greater Imbria to meet Sawyer and see if she needed a tow or an energy recharge. Meanwhile, some of her bridge personnel began scanning the Vogelheim pillar. They could use its collapse to make an escape.

Rue, who was just standing on the bridge, could not really do anything but give orders. She was not unused to it: she used to be higher up the chain of command than Sawyer, until she joined Sawyer’s mutiny. That was ages ago. But she preferred being the subordinate because she liked to take action. A part of her simply did not trust important business to someone else. Sawyer was a true-blue aristocrat, even as much as she denied it. She found it easy to tell people what to do.

Where she differed, is she would throw a punch too after asking you to throw a punch.

This is why Rue loved– esteemed her greatly, despite everything.

She thought of connecting herself to the cameras outside when an alarm went off.

On the main screen, an algorithmic prediction of an approaching vessel grew larger.

Two objects flashed from the vessel.

By the time they were identified as projectiles, it was too late.

An Irmingard class had fired its main guns at the flotilla.

The Greater Imbria shook. Even in the command pod they felt the ship rock.

“Status report!” Rue shouted.

“Minor breach over Commons. It was automatically remediated, and the area is sealed.”

On the screen, one of the cameras showed an allied frigate sinking, a massive hole through its center. The Greater Imbria had been merely grazed, and the explosion was still bad enough to cause a breach. This was the 203 mm main gun on an Irmingard class. Firepower unlike any other.

“Acting Fuhrer, the Iron Lady wishes to speak with us!” The Captain called out.

“Has the Sturmbannführer been recovered?” Rue replied.

Both the Captain and Rue turned to the communications officer, who stood up in alarm.

“Yes! She’s aboard!” 

Rue sighed with relief.

“Ignore the requests for a hail. All ships escape in formation!”

Below her the Captain put on a grim expression.

“Acting Fuhrer, at the moment, the militia frigates are exposed to the enemy’s gunfire.”

“They will die valiantly for the cause of the National Proletariat.”

Rue’s reply silenced the bridge, but nobody pushed back.

The Greater Imbria and the two missile frigates began to round the Vogelheim pillar.

On the exposed flank of the formation, the Frigates, having been given unbearable orders, began to break discipline, and started to move out of formation in whichever direction they desired. This attracted the Iron Lady’s fire even more, as the two Frigates in an unlucky coincidence decided to go separate directions, and thus appeared to be trying a clumsy pincer maneuver.

In the background of the Cruiser Greater Imbria’s retreat, the mighty Irmingard class Dreadnought, The Iron Lady, traded devastating fire with the remaining Frigates, scouring the Volkisch militias off the face of the Imbrium with its unmatched main guns. There was no looking back to it for Rue and her crew. She had planned from the beginning to sacrifice them.

“Any moment now–”

Pinned on one of the screens was the visible condition of Vogelheim.

As the Greater Imbria made its escape, the pillar began to collapse, with the cap sliding down through the broken eastern wall that was unable to bear its weight any longer. This was an event of monumental force, as thousands of tons of metal displaced water and kicked up debris. A vast underwater wave spread out from the pillar and scattered the remains of the frigates, the patrol cutters, and any other surrounding structures. Even inside the stabilized rooms of the Greater Imbria the disturbance was readily felt, and it was as if there was an earthquake within the ship.

“Status report!” Rue shouted, clinging to Sawyer’s chair behind her, nearly falling.

One of the bridge girls shouted back at her, holding on to her station monitor.

“Some electronics and sensor damage, propulsion is still 100%! Hull is holding up!”

Within seconds, the shaking stopped. Collectively the crew breathed sighs of relief.

“Set a course south! We need to escape pursuit!” Rue shouted.

She spared no more time for the bridge. She wanted run down to the hangar.

She wanted to see Sawyer.

When she turned to leave, however, the Captain of the ship stood up.

“Unterführer Rue Skallbeck. I wish to say something, ma’am.”

A thrill of anxiety ran down Rue’s spine like electricity. She turned around to meet him.

“What is it, Captain?”

He looked serious at first. But then the older gentleman smiled at her.

“There are people within our movement who would view you as an inferior. But your will to survive and your ruthlessness in battle are second only to Fuhrer Sawyer herself. It has been enlightening to serve under you.”

Suddenly, the Captain saluted her.

“For all our comrades who gave their lives for our great cause! Heil!

Everyone watching, who was not involved in an essential task, joined the salute also.

Rue did not know how to feel about it. She felt a pang of horror, but also satisfaction.

Which of the disparate things this “movement” stood for did they all believe?

All Rue believed in was moving forward. That the world needed to change.

To her, the Volkisch dream was completely amorphous and borderline incoherent.

All she wanted was the force of their arms. And she had finally wielded it today.

To push the stagnant, dispossessed people of Imbria to some kind of end of this history.

Nevertheless, she saluted them back, told them to be at ease, and left the bridge.

She had a bitter taste in her mouth. She knew she had plenty of blood on her hands. There was nothing she could do but move forward. Rue had made her choice during Sawyer’s mutiny.

Down at the hangar, she found a curious scene. There were medics and engineers around Sawyer, extracting her from the Panzer. Her Diver had taken an enormous beating. Sawyer herself looked undignified. She was still and unconscious but with wide, blank eyes and a clenched jaw.

Rue joined the side of the medical team, who had her stabilized in that strange condition.

“It’s so unfair of you to check out and leave everything on my shoulders.” She murmured.

She sighed, and bent down, between the medics. She reached down to close Sawyer’s eyes.

“You started this whole mess. But maybe I’m the bigger fool for following you into it.”

Rue thought she saw the corner of Sawyer’s lip curl into a little smile at her touch. 

For this woman, and the violence she wrought for her ideals, Rue made her choice.

“An unfortunate amount of time has passed without word from her.”

On a mission far from its home, the Cruiser El Dragon meandered through the waters on the borders between the Palatinate, Bosporus, Rhinea and Sverland for hours, swimming in a circle at maximum velocity and keeping an eye for enemies. Commercial traffic was stalled. News was getting out about Vogelheim; the waters were dead silent. Careful to avoid the verboten Khyber Mountain region, they waited for the ship’s commander to return. Hopes were beginning to dim.

On the bridge, the captain, an older man with a heavy white beard, was quite pessimistic.

“Our spy drone saw the station in ruins. It’s crawling with Inquisition forces too.”

“Have faith in her. She’s special. That girl will always, assuredly, return to her beloved.”

At his side, his First Officer, a certain young Lieutenant, tried to keep everyone cheerful.

“Nephew you’re too romantic. I think you picked a losing horse in this race.”

“You’ve always had a poor aptitude for picking horses. At any rate, if we return without the duchess’ favorite, your gambling debts will be pardoned by having you drawn and quartered. So, I suggest you keep a cheerful mood, as I do, since our lives depend on a cheerful outcome.”

Mijo, do you really think she would do that? To an old man like me?”

“Is her rise to power not predicated on egalitarianism? That’s why I follow her. I would not expect her to have mercy for you based on such outdated norms. I would die by her hand as a young man and you would die by her hand as an old man. Maybe even Seneca, a woman in her golden years, will also be struck down as an accomplice. It is what I would call justice.”

At that point, the communications officer raised her head, having heard name spoken.

“Keep me out of your ridiculous discussions! And I’m only 34, so have some decency!”

In this way, she inadvertently joined the ridiculous discussion in the center of the bridge.

They whiled away their time in this fashion, waiting for their special charge to return.

Finally, the computers sounded the return of their brave little hope.

 “Captain, we have detected an object approaching. Its acoustic signature matches a Jagd.”

The Captain’s sleepy expression suddenly lit up.

“Confirm it’s her, and bring her in!”

No rescue mission was launched, however.

The Jagd was moving under its own power and made its way to the underside chutes.

Unable to climb up due to a missing arm and dying battery, the Jagd sought assistance. Once it entered the chute, and the opening was closed, drained and pressurized appropriately, a group of engineers lifted the machine up with a pair of cranes and deposited it on the appropriate gantry in the Diver hangar. Due to damage it had suffered, the cockpit hatch was also stuck.

The First Officer came down from the bridge in time to watch the engineers deploy and engage a massive pneumatic arm to pry open the Jagd’s hatches using one of the chassis handholds. When the hatches finally opened, a girl tumbled out of the opening and into the waiting arms of medics who had been instructing her as the engineers worked out how to open the hatches.

She was a young Shimii, olive-skinned, brown-haired. Soaked in sweat, one side of her head was caked in blood that had run just below one ear, down the forehead and over her cheek. She had a bruise in her neck that was the precise shape of a punch-injector of stimulant drugs. Her eyes were hazy and distant, her movements clumsy. She was disheveled: her hair was half done up in one pigtail, and the rest shaken loose, not of her own accord. Her dress had a rip in it, perhaps where it caught on something in the cockpit.

Though she could barely stand, she saw the First Officer approach, and saluted.

“Victoria van Veka has returned.” She said weakly.

“Welcome back.” He said, smiling at her.

“I am afraid the mission was not a success. Vogelheim has been destroyed.”

“We saw it for ourselves. That said, I wouldn’t declare it unsuccessful.” He looked over the machine. “I wager you gave them a black eye, didn’t you?”

Victoria felt prompted by him to look at the Jagd as well. “Perhaps I did.”

She turned back to him, feeling slightly appreciative of his words.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Might I have your name?” She asked.

“Of course!”

He ran a hand through his blond hair, beaming broadly.

“Raul von Drachen.”

“Von Drachen. I appreciate your kindness towards a girl at a low point.”

“I like to think of myself as an ally to girls.” He said. “You should hurry to the infirmary and rest.”

Victoria had been holding up admirably since coming out of the Jagd, but still fading.

Perhaps it was the relief of going home, or the fact that she was among friends, but Victoria began to teeter almost as soon as von Drachen suggested she rest. One of the medics had been watching her, and quickly swooped in and grabbed hold of her when she looked like she would drop completely. She was utterly exhausted, and the medics took her away quickly after that.

Raul von Drachen remained in the hangar, staring at the broken-down Jagd for a moment.

“These are interesting times we find ourselves in.” He said, with a grin on his face.

An ominous wave was sweeping through the oceans. 

He could feel it.

Though she could not let herself voice her horror, there was only one word running through Gertrude Lichtenberg’s mind at that point.

No, no, no.

Her face drained of color, and her eyes drew wide.

She was not alone. Captain Dreschner was also horrified at the state in which they found the Vogelheim pillar. On the main screen, the imaging computers showed them dreadful sights before they had even come close. Behind the battered remains of the cutters and frigates floating eerily.

That beautiful sanctuary where Elena von Fueller led her storybook life was ruined completely. There was a cloud of debris that had been thrown into the surrounding water by the shock of the pillar half-collapsing on itself. She could not describe it as anything but rubble. Her beloved Elena’s home had been reduced to rubble. Gertrude’s heart caught in her chest.

Her head felt airy, her brain in a fog, as though everything was a bad dream. She felt like she was piloting her own body like a diver, rather than being present. Noises felt like they were being filtered. Her vision was foggy.

At all times, however, she was conscious that it was real. All of it was real.

Because she could not ignore the cold, squeezing pain she felt in her chest.

She could not cry. Not in front of the men.

But she wanted so dearly to break down.

She wanted to blame herself, to beat her head against a wall bloody, to scream and punch until her fingers broke. She wanted to say she was so stupid to have left. That she should have just taken Elena. That she should have known that the Imbrium could not return to order after all that had happened. She had been so naïve, and now Elena was– no, she would not say it! She refused.

“Captain, launch a search party. Now.”

Her voice trembled. It felt distant, like it was coming out of the floor.

“Of course. Right away.” Dreschner said.

She can’t be dead.

Gertrude could not conceive of it.

Elena could not have been dead. That would have meant she failed her. She left her alone to face annihilation. She turned back as fast as she could, and she could not have been too late to save her. Gertrude refused to believe that Elena was buried in that rubble due to her own failures. She had promised to protect her. She had made herself into a soldier to protect her.

All of her life, Elena had been her star, her sun. Her idol of warmth and comfort.

Gertrude’s breathing quickened.

It was not possible that everything would end so pointlessly.

So suddenly and senselessly. After they had finally consummated their love.

It couldn’t be that, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Elena could be gone forever.

Her fists, curled tight at her sides, started to shake.

She could not control the tapping of her feet, the clenching of her jaw.

It was all she could do to fight the tears welling up in her eyes.

Gertrude had been shot and stabbed. She’d been caught in explosions and gas attacks.

All kinds of pain, she had withstood it, to protect Elena and her ocean.

She had wounds on her body that were fresh and healing even as the two made love.

Telling herself that if she could get back to Elena for even a moment, it would be bearable.

That this was the only way she could be with Elena for any amount of time.

Now she was wracked by the greatest agony she had ever felt.

She wanted so badly to cry that despite all of her effort tears began to flow.

At her side, Captain Dreschner said nothing, but pulled his hat down over his own eyes.

“Järveläinen and Clostermann have deployed in the Jagd and Grenadier.” He said.

Gertrude said nothing. She did not wish to speak. She did not wish to be seen by anyone.

She stood in the middle of the bridge like a statue, staring at the monitors, silent.

One of the sensors personnel spoke up to the Captain. She had a professional tone of voice. There was no shouting and panicking on their bridge. That was part of what kept Gertrude mum.

“Moving vessel on sonar and ladar, Captain, Lady Inquisitor.” She said.

“Track it. We’ll get closer. Any algorithmic predictions?” Dreschner asked.

“An older model of civilian ship. Maybe a shuttle. Could maybe hold 40 people in some measure of comfort, or 80 if they just crammed bodies.”

“A shuttle? Let us pray it is friendly, and not more Volkisch chicanery.” Dreshner said.

Thus, methodically, with neither hope nor dread, the crew of the Iron Lady sailed their vessel stoically toward the source of the signature, around the Vogelheim pillar. The closer they got, the more accurate the picture of the devastation they could see. It was very rare to see damage to a station to this degree. Some among the bridge crew wiped tears from their eyes or covered their mouths as they beheld the extent of it. Stations were built extremely tough, even backwater art projects like Vogelheim.

Survival under the sea depended on a degree of mechanical reliability and routine maintenance, coupled with exhaustive training of dedicated engineers, that made such devastation vanishingly rare. If it happened, it was never a deliberate tragedy, but a series of unlucky circumstances. All of Aer’s civilizations had a shared taboo surrounding station damage. Terrorists and saboteurs killed and hurt people; military forces fought people, and if they had to, they occupied their homes to control them.

Nobody would just shoot at a station.

Nobody would just destroy a station deliberately.

Not even that animal Sawyer could have been so bloodthirsty.


Heidelinde Sawyer.

The Volkisch flotilla themselves had not accepted her communications.

However, they had talked with the patrol fleet.

That information was disseminated following the patrol fleet’s call for reinforcements. Gertrude was fully aware of the culprit of this tragedy.

Her old schoolmate Heidelinde Sawyer. Their relationship was characterized mainly by the word ‘almost.’ Sawyer was almost as tall as her, almost as strong. She was almost Elena’s crush in school, for reasons that still escaped Gertrude. She could almost see something in her worth that attention, but not quite. All the times they came to blows; Sawyer almost got her before Gertrude knocked her down. She was almost her friend, and she thought, before they were separated, that they had almost come to an understanding. When she left them, Gertrude almost felt pity for her.

Everything she had done since then, however, was not almost, but fully monstrous.

Gertrude squeezed her fists so tight she thought her fingers might go through her palm.

From grief, Gertrude’s thoughts immediately flowed into vengeance. She thought of all the things she would do to Sawyer in some dark, desolate room at the bottom of the ocean. If Elena was dead (she could not be dead), she would make Sawyer unrecognizable, nothing but a lump of meat screaming soundlessly in agony for as long as it took before she wasted away to hell–

“We’re at the site! I’ve got a drone set up. You won’t like what we see.”

On the main screen, Ingrid appeared in her pilot suit. Her ears drooped; her tail twitched pathetically.

They had gone out in Divers. They must have entered the Vogelheim ruins.

“Broadcasting now.”

They had taken a wired drone with them with a direct connection to the ship.

As long as the cable didn’t snag on anything, it let them connect via laser back to the ship.

That drone’s main body was also equipped with a suite of sensors and imaging equipment. It could send them predictive pictures of the Vogelheim landscape in a way the mechas could not. This made it a valuable addition to the reconnaissance team. Soon, they got those pictures moving.

When the drone began to broadcast, Ingrid vanished from the main screen. Replacing her was a camera feed from the drone. Clostermann was holding the drone with the arms of his Grenadier model. At first the drone was pointed at Ingrid’s Jagd, but then Clostermann moved it, sweeping slowly across the sunken landscape of Vogelheim. It was eerie. In many places the earth had been moved, massive gashes cut into the hills and plains where water had flooded directly through. In other areas, it was preserved underwater. Sunken trees swayed their arms to the gentle flow of the water around them. A field of roses and tulips now cast in dim blue and green.

Wreckage, of several mecha it seemed, shattered and scattered about the landscape.

And the rubble that remained of the Villa, distinctive in its ornate style.

“No survivors so far.” Ingrid said.

Dreschner nodded solemnly. Ingrid could see it through her video feed.

“Continue searching. We want as much footage as we can collect of this tragedy.”

“Yessir. I’ll go poke at the remains of the mechas. There might be a sealed cockpit.”

Ingrid was taking things in stride. She did not look too troubled by the situation.

“If you find any Volkisch, remember they are under arrest.” Dreschner said.

“Of course, I won’t kill ‘em! Getting drilled into is too good for them. We gotta get ‘em nice and slow, Captain. You leave me with them, I’ll make them sing the anthem.” Ingrid said.

Dreschner sighed. “Duly noted. But enough chatter. Carry on with your orders.”

In expressing her own quiet fury, Ingrid almost comforted Gertrude.

At least Gertrude was not the only one whose head was filling with vengeful atrocities.

Once the drone’s video feed departed the main screen, and Ingrid and Clostermann returned to their exploration, there was another familiar face, appearing on the central island of the bridge. Security Chief Vogt appeared on a smaller screen attached to the Captain’s position but angled so the Inquisitor could be part of the call as well. He was in the hangar surrounded by his forces.

“Captain, Inquisitor; we’re securing the shuttle that was detected earlier.”

“We’ve received no communications from them.” Dreschner said.

Vogt nodded. “If they were near the pillar collapse, their comms gear may be damaged. Judging by their course, they have been drifting around the pillar without much real power.”

“Alright. Be careful.” Dreschner said.

“I’d appreciate the Lady Grand Inquisitor’s presence at the hangar.” Vogt said before the Captain could end the call. “If it turns out to be a Volkisch escape craft, I’m afraid the lads may need a figure of authority to remind them of their discipline. Emotions are at their peak in here.”

Gertrude grit her teeth behind closed lips.

She would not be the one telling her forces not to rip apart any of those conspiracist psychopaths they got their hands on. But nevertheless, she quietly acquiesced, turning her back on Dreschner so sharply her cape swung behind her. Though Dreschner seemed like he wanted to say something to her, Gertrude barely heard as she departed.

Alone, her head filled with a mixture of sorrows and furies, Gertrude walked the corridors of the Iron Lady, taking the elevator down, imagining what could be in that ship. Maybe Elena had managed to escape (she could not be dead). Maybe it was full of Volkisch, and the moment her men rioted and began to brutalize them, Gertrude would join them in breaking the norms bloody. Maybe it was entirely unrelated, and she was building up to absolutely nothing.

Once she was alone in the elevator, Gertrude let herself weep.

She hugged her arms around herself, and she sobbed, and cried into her own gloved hand.

Thirty or forty seconds worth of grieving. That was all she let herself have.

When those doors opened, Gertrude took a deep breath and wiped her face.

Down in the hangar, Vogt had a dozen men with him. Vogt himself had brought an automatic shotgun that was armed with pellet shot, deadly to a crowd but fairly harmless to the instruments inside the ship. Six of his men had riot shields, four had vibro-batons and two had vibro-blades. He had not trusted any of his rank and file with firearms themselves.

Shuttle craft were uncomfortable and poorly hydrodynamic but built to carry many people. A Dreadnought could bear a few of these vessels. The very back of the hangar was built for it. Like a Diver, a shuttle would swim into a hatch on the Dreadnought’s underside, where it would enter a deployment and recovery chamber that would be drained and pressurized. Then it was safely raised onto its place in the main hangar space.

For extra security, a dreadnought’s hangar had a sectioned glass divider that would unfold from the roof and clamp into the floor between the shuttle bay and the rest of the hangar space. It could stop water from flooding anywhere else. Once the shuttle was recovered, Vogt had the glass lifted, and Gertrude and the men approached the craft. She waited for the rear hatch to open, wondering whom she would see escaping from it.

Instead, however, one of the side bulkhead doors to the shuttle clanked open. From the craft emerged several girls, breathing heavily, crying with joy at being rescued. All of them were dressed in black with white aprons.

They were the Villa’s maids, shaken, but whole and alive.

Gertrude’s heart exploded with sudden relief.

She rushed from the side of the men over to the girls and past them. She looked inside the shuttle craft herself with a desperate urgency. She climbed one step into the shuttle compartment. There were all kinds of people inside, huddling, many exhausted from lack of oxygen.

Not one lilac hair, not one pair of indigo eyes.

She found no trace of Elena.

In that instant her heart sank ever deeper. As high as it had soared, it crashed. Then, she heard a voice. A series of girlish voices, calling her.

“Lady Lichtenberg! Inquisitor Lichtenberg!”

Dazed with shock and grief, Gertrude looked behind herself, her eyes distant, her mouth hanging a little. There were three maids. One had a dirty apron; she looked like she had spat up on herself. She had two others supporting her. Together, the three of them approached Gertrude. At first, they stared just as dumbly as Gertrude stared at them.

Then they gained the courage to speak.

“The Princess is alive! She’s alive, we know it! We saw her be taken!”

“We know you were her dear friend! We helped you at the party. When you came running, we understood. We know you must be hurting now. Please do not despair! A strange woman took her! She was not in the collapse!”

For a moment Gertrude could not comprehend what she was hearing. Then, her heart alight with sorrow, fury, brief and elation all together, she put her hands gently on the shoulders of one of the maids. She could contain the tears in her eyes or the shaking in her hands anymore.

“Tell me everything you know. Please.” She said desperately.

“Rootless children of Imbria! Throw your bodies before the fires of war!”

“For what else are you good for? What other value do you hold?”

No voice said this that the people of the Imbrium ocean would recognize.

But overwhelmingly this was what the world was screaming at them.

A wave swept across the Imbrium Empire that began as the pillar of Vogelheim collapsed upon itself from a Volkisch gun. News of the attack began to trickle out, first from the panicked cries of the patrolmen, then from the stories of survivors, and finally the official condemnation from Erich von Fueller, heir apparent to the throne of the Imbrium Empire.

Each territory of the Empire knew the status quo could no longer be maintained by the delusion of a shared history.

And so, as invisibly as they were first created, the boundaries of the Empire were dissolved.

Rhinea became a “National-Socialist Republic.”

Skarsgaard styled itself “The Holy Empire of Solsea.”

From the Imbrium’s eastern borders rose the “Empire of Greater Veka.”

Bosporus’ youth led a wave of anarchist upheaval on lands stolen from the Shimii.

Icy, impenetrable Volgia closed its borders hoping to withstand the tide of history.

Militarily beheaded, Sverland gathered misfits and refugees from all over.

Buren shocked the world by declaring its intention to join the mordecist Union.

Only the Palatinate, mourning Vogelheim, still dubbed itself “The Imbrian Empire.”

Across the Imbrium, a people whose food grew scarcer, whose shelter they stood to lose, whose hard work earned ever more meager dividends, who saw nothing ahead of themselves already, now lost the last measure of security their lives had. Quietly, despondently, they watched as the very nations and institutions they were trained to exalt above all else simply disintegrated around them. For the average Imbrian, it was impossible to connect all the dots and truly grasp what was happening. To them, war was a thrumming under their skin, a creeping dread in the back of their heads. Life seemed to go on all around them with an eerie shadow across their sky.

Somewhere battles would be fought and won and lost that decided matters unknown.

Sometimes resources grew scarcer and the list of materiel sacrifices grew longer.

Sometimes bodies that were once people disappeared, for one reason or another.

Somehow the simple inertia of organic needs kept life moving on with surreal normalcy.

Ships came and went. Goods were bought and sold. People lived, played, and loved.

While the status of the borders was unknown, cargo continued to move quietly along its prescribed routes. Owing to the invisible momentum of corporate profits, a ship could still travel from Bosporus to Sverland, ferrying industrial goods to Serrano station — and one unmarked crate. An unmarked crate that, at its destination, would be quietly moved to a new ship by the organized dockworkers who knew what they were doing with it. Dockworkers who quite well did what they pleased with Serrano’s port on threat of stalling Sverland’s teetering economy with a strike.

At least, that was the plan upon which Marina McKennedy’s escape hinged.

As she sailed with the cargo ship, stowing away with a complicit crew, she remained in the cargo bay looking out onto the ocean through a digital window. She was no longer in the Imbrium Ocean but in the southern reaches of the world, known as Nectaris. That name had been given to this Ocean by the Imbrians who settled massive resource colonies there using slave labor, that would render them the sweet nectar of profit and cheap goods that would usher in a new golden era for the Empire.

Her destination was the Union. An aberration of the Empire’s invincible history.

Perhaps even the spark that precipitated the utter undoing of the Empire’s contiguity.

A nation a third of the size of the broader Empire that still stood in brave opposition to it.

Though, of course, more than a week out from the tragedy of Vogelheim, and more removed than that from the death Emperor Konstantin von Fueller, the idea of a “broader Empire” had become pretty blurry at that point. There was all sorts of mess happening that she could barely keep up with on the news. But cargo ships were still running, so it must not have been so terrible, she supposed.

Everywhere she looked, however, the ocean still seemed the same.

Dark, blue and green, and impossible to see through.

“I’m going to go pace around or something before I go crazy.”

“If you need something to do, lets go over the plan one more time–”

There was no response from Elena von Fueller as she stormed off around the crates.

Marina had dyed Elena’s hair black and given her a matching gray pantsuit to wear in order to disguise her. When anyone complicit asked who she was, Marina told them she was a G.I.A. analyst just like herself. When they had to talk to civilians, she was nobody. She had not even picked a fake name, despite ample time and multiple suggestions, much to Marina’s vexation.

“How about Leda?” Marina suggested.

“Go fuck yourself.” Elena shouted back.

That had been the result of the last such conversation.

They had not spoken much and every time they did, Marina hardly knew what to say.

So, most of the time, they said nothing to each other.

Elena continued to follow her. And Marina was content enough with that outcome.

When they finally had some peace and could settle down, Marina would try to fix things.

That’s what she told herself whenever Elena had one of her furies.

Until then she just needed to move on. Marina had moved on; she had to, for Elena’s sake.

“That’s an interesting ship.”

As they approached Serrano station, Marina caught sight of a ship anchored to one of the lower docks as their own cargo ship searched for its own anchor point. It was an old hauler, she thought, the kind of ship that had a lot of character, and had probably taken a beating across the decades. That thick, unadorned prow was a bit odd — maybe it had been an icebreaker in Volgia in a past life. That angular profile probably suggested fairly expedient construction.

“You get all kinds down here, huh? I guess Sverland is an island of peace right now.”

An island of peace amid the storm of brewing civil war.

And only because its own government was just too weak to have any ambitions.

Or maybe because nobody had figured out how to conduct this war quite yet.

Marina thought it would’ve been morbidly funny if they needed another catalyst now.

Vogelheim wasn’t enough — the next provocation will tip things over.

She cracked a dumb little smile and she didn’t even know what for.

When the cargo ship docked into Serrano, a member of the crew ushered Marina and Elena into a crate. In silence and darkness, the pair waited, while their environment shook around them. That crate, along with the crate carrying Marina’s S.E.A.L, was moved to a warehouse in the port by labor suits. Once everything was properly warehoused and discretely inventoried, they cracked open Marina’s crate and let her out. With that, she and Elena had just illegally entered Serrano.

“Thanks for the help.” Marina said.

In the warehouse, she met a member of the crew and one of the dockworkers.

Both of them looked briefly around themselves then got to business.

“You’ll be leaving again today, with your cargo. We just need to know the ship that you’ll be taking. We don’t organize any of that, but we got a guy. He sets the itinerary. You go to him, you come back here, you tell us where to move the cargo, and then you’re out again. Nobody knows anything they don’t need to, and nobody messes with each other’s business.”

Marina nodded. “Where’s this guy located?” She asked.

“He’s in Long-Term Warehousing No. 6. It’s on this tier, deeper into the city. Call him Benny, he runs the front office. He’ll know you. Just tell him the last station you were at before.”

There was no tension between anybody, despite the nature of their business. Everyone was professional, direct, and their heads ran cool. It was almost chummy. Marina got the sense that this was pretty routine for the dockworkers and the crews they smuggled with. They had been running this operation for a while and had everything down to a science. Unless there was a big shakeup in security or someone made a grievous mistake, these guys could just keep doing this forever.

When she walked out of the warehouse it was with a renewed confidence.

Everything was going to be just fine.

“How are you feeling? Ever been to a Station like this before?”

Marina glanced sideways at Elena, who was staring up at the sky with wide-eyed wonder.

“Of course, I’ve been to them, but–”

“Never to the lower level?”

“Well, no.”

Serrano was a tiered, pillar-type city. Unlike Vogelheim, they did not waste real estate by simulating a massive artificial sky. Instead, up above they could see the bottom of the next tier of habitations, maybe 80-100 meters up. Serrano was an enormous station, and had three tiers of habitat and two ports. With its base some 1200 meters beneath the Nectaris, it rose up to around the 800-meter line to the surface. Still perfectly safe, but thoroughly massive.

Light was provided mainly on the street level of each tier, with some hovering fixtures farther above simulating a slightly broader “daytime” light that still held no candle to the idyllic brightness of Vogelheim. Marina supposed the upper tiers were probably nicer and brighter than the lower. On the bottom tier, outside the port, the layout took the form of a somewhat crowded urban core. There were hundreds of streets and alleys that wound around rectangular buildings of nearly identical, mass-produced construction that loomed overhead like concrete and steel giants. Video signs were plastered everywhere to advertise shops and businesses small and large, shining colorful lights and singing catchy slogans. Everything was so busy. There was nowhere without a crowd.

Elena looked quite ridiculous with her innocent, gawping face paired with her pantsuit and tie.

“Try not to stare quite so much.” Marina said, as they walked through the crowd.

“What do all these people do? Where do they go?” Elena said, overwhelmed by the sight.

“What are you asking me for? To their jobs. To go buy food. To get out of town.”

“I’m asking you because you’re my escort! Because of your own schemes, you bastard!”

In response, Elena turned her head away in a huff. At least she didn’t take off running.

Marina sighed a little bit. She did not know why she had gotten so impatient.

“Hey, look, I’m sorry El– Ellie, I’m a little bit on edge about everything–”

Elena shot her a furious glare.

“Go to hell.”

She said nothing the rest of the way to the warehouse.

Breaking up the landscape of looming eight and ten story buildings was a park full of very wide warehousing buildings that were fenced off and lower to the ground. Marina found the one with the “no. 6” label in big yellow letters and made her way to its front office. It was a sleepy place. There seemed to be a few workers outside the other warehouses, but almost nobody at the sixth one. There was a labor suit parked outside that looked like it was collecting dust.

“Good morning! We’re here from Pluto station, to see about a ship?”

Marina walked in through the front door. Elena despondently followed.

Warehouse No. 6’s front office was entirely plain. A boxy room with a few chairs that folded out of the wall, a single long desk, a poster on the wall that explained the “cargo cycle” as if it was an organic, circular process. A tantalizing door into a dark room. There was nobody at the desk until Marina called out, then an unassuming older man in a work vest walked out to the desk.

“Pluto station? Yeah, I was expecting you. I’m Benny.”

He reached out a hand and gave Marina a firm shake.

“You got a strong shake for a lady! Ever thought of giving up all the subterfuge and going into logistics? It’s honest work, nobody bothers you, and you get to see all kinds of stuff come in.”

“Not interested.” Marina said quickly. She didn’t want to chit-chat or listen to an old man’s jokes. “I’d like to move quickly, if that’s alright with you.”

“No time for a coffee?”

He smiled affably. Marina narrowed her eyes at him.

“Who’s that back there? Want me to explain the poster?”

Marina glanced back at Elena, who was deep in contemplation of the poster of the wall. Benny smiled at her and tried to direct attention to her.

This was much too obvious.

“She’s fine.” Marina said bluntly. “Benny, why are you wasting my time?”

As collected as he looked, Marina saw through the façade immediately.

He was clearly stalling. She reached her hand behind her back for her gun.

“Whoa, whoa!” Benny said. “Okay! Look. You just have to wait a bit– There’s been a bit of a change of plans– but you still have a ride out of here. You just need to wait a bit longer, and I’ll get you out of here, I promise.”

“Change of plans?”

Marina reached across the desk and grabbed Benny by the neck.

“What changed about the plans, Benny? Go over it with me.”

Elena looked taken aback by the sudden violence.

“M-Marina! That’s a bit much isn’t it? He said he still has a ship for us!”

“Don’t call me that!” Marina shouted back at her.

Elena flinched.

In that moment, squeezing some random warehouse worker’s neck while screaming at the Princess really made Marina hate herself. Not that she could do anything different. This just seemed to be her lot in life; already, nothing was going according to plan. Her heart was drumming to a frightening beat. She needed to know what had gone wrong and how.

“Benny, talk!”

Marina shoved him back against the wall.

“Okay! Cooler heads, please!” Benny grabbed hold of his neck, breathing rapidly. “We had a ship lined up to smuggle a bunch of stuff to the Union including you. We do this all the time. All kinda people want to get down there or up here. But the ship got stopped on the way. That also happens all the time! It doesn’t mean anything to you, they don’t know who you are!”

He was trying to calm her down, and Marina did not believe any of that.

“Benny, what do you mean the ship was stopped?”

“You sound so dangerous! Look, there’s a lot of security with the present situation. All our crews know what to do when they get inspected, and the ship is clean. It’s when it gets here that it gets dirty, so all it is, is that it’s late. I’m getting you a new ride, that is gonna be here on time. I promise you!”

Marina breathed out.

If it was just that, then maybe she had nothing to worry about.

“I paid a lot of money for professional smuggling down to the border.”

“These guys are more than professionals, okay?”

“I’m really skeptical right now, Benny.”

Benny had a nervous excitement in his voice that Marina didn’t like at all.

“Listen, you won’t regret this one, ok? This is fresh information, so you’re in luck. Just listen here: there’s a Union ship that just arrived at the port, and you can get on board, no extra charges. That’s how communists do business, you know? Everything already got worked out between us.” He said.

Marina crossed her arms. “I thought the smuggling here was all done by private ships?”

“Sometimes the Union sneaks themselves across. They got spies and such, you know?”

“Okay, so these are Union spies?”

“These are some real deal Union commissars. Forgive my language, but real spec-ops motherfuckers, you know? You won’t meet anyone more elite.”

“Why are you marketing them to me? How do you even know all of this?”

Benny looked briefly taken aback at Marina’s constant skepticism.

“I’m trying to get you to calm down so you won’t do anything crazy!”

Marina moved on to the next phase of intimidation and took her gun out.

She slammed her hand, with the gun, on the front desk. She leaned forward.

“How the hell am I supposed to trust you? The ship that was SUPPOSED to take me south has suddenly disappeared, but just as suddenly you’ve got a new ship, that just came in? Just what the fuck is the Union doing down here, Benny? What kind of operation are YOU running out of this dump?”

Benny raised in his hands in his own defense.

“Look, I’m just one part of a chain, ok? I don’t have all the answers. I’m someone’s guy, and someone’s my guy. I’m telling you all I know, because it’s all I was told. That’s how we do business here. Now me, I’m here because I’m good at de-escalation. So, I’ll tell you this: if you want to get out of here, today, or ever, just sit tight and wait for the nice commies to show up.”

Elena stomped her foot on the ground at that point.

Both Benny and Marina looked over to her with surprise.

“Mari– Mary–” Elena began.

Marina groaned. “That’s not even the right–”

“Mary, please stop fighting with the gentleman, it’s getting us nowhere.”

Benny pointed at Elena with a grin.

“Listen to the girl. Good head on her shoulders, that one.”

Marina ignored the interruption.

“Why are Union special operations coming to this trash heap?”

“They’re picking up something!” Benny said. “They can pick you up too!”

“What something are they picking up? This makes no goddamn sense!”

“I’m not gonna tell you about their business! Ask them when they show up.”

“Stop fighting!” Elena shouted.

At that moment, the office door opened again.

“Good morning! We’re here to pick up?”

Through the door entered three women in the same uniform, a teal half-jacket over a button-down shirt and long pants. One was clearly in front of the pack, a tall, dark-haired and dark-skinned young woman with an awkward smile. Behind her, unsmiling, was a younger woman with long white hair, and a third inexpressive woman with a spiraling silver ponytail and a pair of thick grey antennae. All three barged into the office quite suddenly, stopped, and stared at the occupants for a few moments.

“Um. I’m Murati,” the taller one said, “I mean– I came from Cyril station!”

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