“I fucked it all up. God damn it. God fucking damn it.”
Marina McKennedy had extensively compelled herself to think of herself in that way: to think of herself as “Marina McKennedy.” But that particular I was primeval in nature. It cut deep, to the most recessed parts of her very self. She was so full of self-loathing and disgust that she felt like vomiting — even more than she already had. Her whole body shook with that revulsion.
A meltdown had been long since coming.
Even when she was with Bethany–
Maybe even because of that.
She had let her guard down.
Because she had to play it cool; but also, because she fooled herself.
Slowly, she staggered to her feet. Her skin burning and itching and shaking.
When that Shimii girl grabbed her (did she? Was that her?) it brought to the surface a vortex of emotions that had been brimming under the surface of her skin for years now. She felt the fingers, felt the knives, holding her, by her arms, by her hair, pinning her down– it brought to mind the darkest rooms she had ever been in. She could even smell the blood.
And while the timing was inconvenient, it was not the weakness itself that disgusted her.
She had aimed and fired out of emotion, out of passion, out of panic.
And she regretted immediately that she had done so.
She had hurt that girl; but also Elena.
Elena. She had hurt Elena.
Maybe worse than anyone in her life, so far, had hurt her.
Seeing Elena’s broken-down expression over the corpse of that girl–
With a streak of her friend’s blood on her cheek–
Bearing witness to the horrors of war–
Marina got herself standing against a tree and averted her eyes.
Her face reminded her of Leda.
It was like Leda’s, but softer, less mature. More vulnerable.
“Leda could do that. She could– she could touch you from afar. Right?”
For a moment, memories of rusty iron rooms with drains in the center and chains on the walls disappeared from her subconscious, slowly melting into a sunny vineyard balcony. She saw a towering, strikingly beautiful woman, with skin as unblemished white as porcelain and shining, indigo colored hair. She was dressed in a pure silk dress that clung closely to her body, and she moved as though a wind followed in her wake, swift and gracefully.
Leda. Leda Lettiere.
She had so much power, will, charisma.
Maybe even– magic.
“When I rule the world, will you leave the Republic and come with me?”
Marina said yes. Of course she said yes. They were just flirting.
How could she say no?
She couldn’t have known how suddenly everything would turn against them.
Elena was feeling this now too.
Just like Leda– everything crumbled for her, suddenly, brutally, with no time to process.
“Protect her for me.”
Marina had crawled out of the deepest pits of hell to do that.
Her eyes stung; she found herself weeping.
She tried to move toward Elena, and Elena briefly looked back at her.
For a moment, for one painful instant, she did see so much of Leda in her.
She then tripped and fell.
As Marina hit the ground unceremoniously the sky tore apart and the earth shook.
Off in the distance, in the gaps between trees, she could see the Imbrium Ocean in place of the horizon. And in that cruel ocean, a flotilla of ships seemed to be approaching Vogelheim.
I can’t protect anyone. God damn it.
Even in Leda’s paradise, even for her daughter–
Marina forced herself to stand again.
She had been forcing herself to move for so long. Just a little bit longer.
Once Elena was safe.
She could give up on this whole dirty business of living.
She took stock of the situation. There was no water coming in where she could see, but there was internal damage to the station. So it must have taken a sizable hit. Probably from the Cruiser looming enormously on the algorithmic projection. If the station were under attack from the exterior, there would be a boarding team coming in soon. Probably in Heavy Divers.
If she could get Elena to her S.E.A.L unit she would have a chance to escape.
“Victoria! You’re alive!”
Marina snapped out of her contemplation.
That girl she had shot, Victoria, started to stand back up. Elena helped her, gently holding her back and waist, taking one of the girl’s arms over her shoulder. Victoria reached into her hair and produced a tiny piece of metal, blunted into a flat circle and covered in blood. She gestured for Elena to let her go and was able to stand firm. She turned the piece in her fingers.
It was Marina’s bullet.
Her tail twitched as she stared at the bullet that had not killed her.
She turned it over in her fingers with one hand and touched her head with the other.
With Elena watching nervously, she then turned to face Marina.
“I don’t trust you. But can you actually get Elena away from Vogelheim safely?”
Her voice was cold and unshaken as it had always been.
Marina hesitated, as if not knowing what to say in return.
Victoria van Veka narrowed her eyes and looked over the G.I.A. agent with skepticism.
She could feel Marina’s surface level thoughts, mired in anguish and regret. She did not want to look too much further inside: it was nearly useless to read someone’s mind, as the thoughts were too complicated and abstract. And when they weren’t, they were too painful. Victoria saw what Elena went through when she empathized too strongly with Marina.
Victoria would avoid it.
To think Elena had such a degree of power with no control over it.
But there was not enough time to do anything about that.
Surface level thoughts and emotions were more useful to read. When she first appeared, there was a palpable aggression to Marina that put Victoria on edge. Now, Marina looked spent. And though Victoria had tried to kill her, and certainly the animosity must remain, she seemed much more sedate now, having seen Victoria’s abilities. Victoria did not trust her, but she knew that at this moment, Marina’s intentions were not violent, and that was good enough.
“I’ll keep Elena safe. I’ll give my life for her if I have to.” Marina said.
She finally spoke. Was she trying to sound tough? It wasn’t a lie, however.
Elena was shocked to hear such a thing and stared at Marina with her jaw trembling.
Victoria shook her head.
“Nothing but useless posturing that nobody wants from you. That said, I’ll believe you.”
She felt a sting in her forehead. She had blocked the bullet. By exerting a massive amount of kinetic force against the bullet she blunted the impact. Her head had been stricken as if by a truncheon or a club, rather than perforated by a bullet. She was bleeding, and probably concussed, but not dead. In her state, she still fancied her chances in a fight if it came to it.
However, she realized that if she tried to escape with Elena at this point, without any more assistance, Sawyer would likely catch them. So Victoria ran through a different possibility.
“You have a craft you came in, right? Take Elena and escape. I’ll distract Sawyer’s men.”
“You’ll distract them? How?”
Marina crossed her arms, staring Victoria down in confusion.
Elena balked at Victoria’s words.
Her eyes spread wide with surprise and she put her hands on Victoria’s shoulders.
“Victoria, no, absolutely not!” Elena shouted. “You’ll be killed!”
“If Sawyer has to split her forces, we have a better chance of escaping.” Victoria said.
“That doesn’t matter!” Elena said. “I don’t want anyone to– to get hurt defending me!”
She couldn’t even say ‘die’. Maybe she thought it would jinx everything.
There was something a little cute about it. Even Victoria had to admit that.
But it was a fact that they had no other options.
Victoria felt a grave anxiety toward the unfolding situation, but she did not show it.
She had thought of her options and made up her mind that this was the best one.
When she came up with a pragmatic solution, all she could do was execute.
“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to die here. I have a lot of things I want to do.”
Elena knew she was this way. Elena called it “stubbornness”, but Victoria did not see herself as stubborn. She was right; she made a correct decision. There was no sense, if she had found the best option available, to choose to do something else for the sake of anyone’s feelings. Her plan had the best chances of success, so she set her trepidation aside and committed to it.
“What will you do? Can you use your weird magic on ships?” Marina said.
“It’s not magic.” Victoria replied. “And I’m not strong enough to use it against a ship.”
“Of course she can’t!” Elena shouted, almost as soon as Victoria answered. She did not know anything about Victoria’s psionic powers. Rather, she was just being emotional, so she just screamed an objection. “She’s just a girl, she can’t do anything to stop a whole fleet! That’s why she can’t go!”
“That’s not fully correct. I have an answer to that hidden nearby.”
From her dress, Victoria produced a small, square object.
She pressed a button on it. “Reinhardt, please move the Jagd over here.”
Marina drew back a step. “Wait, a Jagd?”
From the woods, a small, hovering drone suddenly appeared and took Victoria’s side.
“That’s not a Jagd.” Marina said.
The drone, “Reinhardt,” was a hexagonal body on four air-jets for propulsion, a camera and a manipulator arm. It was pulling something. As it reached Victoria, the drone pulled far enough to reveal that the hazy object it was dragging was an active-camouflage tarp. Once the tarp was off, a large piece of equipment was revealed to have been in the woods nearby.
That piece of equipment was a Diver unit that began to stomp its way out into the open.
Marina blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.
“That’s a Jagd.”
Developed originally by Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Equipment GmbH and produced with a license in Veka, the Jagd was among the Empire’s new 2nd Generation Diver suits and shared little DNA with the Volker. The objective of the Jagd’s design was to make a faster, lighter close combat Diver with built-in weapons, such that it could deploy quickly “unarmed.” Among Veka’s stock of Divers, the Jagd had become Victoria’s preferred machine.
Throughout her rescue mission, it had been her hidden trump card.
Among its design innovations was its “one-piece” sleek, loosely triangular hull, boasting a curved and flared shoulder design. Most of the suit appeared to be one contiguous piece because of this. Sloped armor plates over the chest peeled back into three separate elements to open the way for the pilot. Between the long arms and the shoulder armor on each side there was a 20-mm autocannon that fired from internal cylindrical magazines. The two guns formed a pair. Housed in the shoulders were a pair of jet anchors. The “head” sensor array was a subtle, dome-like “face.”
This chassis stood on a pair of sturdy legs that economized space and weight with efficient shapes and vernier thrusters better incorporated into the design than they were on the chunkier Volker legs. Meanwhile the arms were just a bit out of proportion in length, such that the profile appeared more “slouched” than that of the Volker, but the arms ended in a weapon, rather than digits with which the suit could hold tools. One arm ended in a “jet sabre,” a vibroblade with a thrust booster, while the second arm was mostly taken up by the cylindrical launcher for a retractable coil-spike. These were the Jagd’s chief weapons, able to cut or smash her enemies.
Volkers had been born out of labor machinery.
The Jagd was exclusively made to kill.
Behind the back of the Jagd was its other major innovation. Rather than the four jets on a Volker, the Jagd had a slightly larger, more powerful housing for six Hydrojets. Rather than a few large intakes, the Jagd had multiple subtle intakes that channeled much more water (or air) through its turbines and allowed it to adjust the weight on any side of the hull on the fly.
Both Elena and Marina were struck dumb by the appearance of this incredible machine. To think Victoria, and Veka, had acquired such things.
“You can control that by remote?” Marina shouted.
“Only simple commands. My custom drone ‘Reinhardt’ helps me with it.”
Marina had her hackles up, but Victoria was not concerned.
“I can hold off the enemy while you two escape.” Victoria proposed.
“What’s with the change of heart? Did the bullet scramble your brain?” Marina said. “No offense, but I can’t trust someone who– who did that sort of thing to me. I can’t trust you with our safety as it stands.”
Victoria had not meant to inflict as much psychological harm on Marina as she did.
In the moment, the way she saw it, eliminating her instantly, humanely, with one bullet, was better than choking her to death, twisting her neck, impaling her on a tree branch, bashing her head in with a rock, slicing her throat, or any other way she had come up with to kill Marina.
It was only after she was already in the middle of the attack that she felt the complex feelings in Marina’s response. And at that point it wouldn’t have mattered if it violated her trauma — she’d be dead in a few moments.
She had not counted on Elena being able to feel all of that too.
She had not counted on a lot of what transpired.
All of her plans were useless at this point.
All she could do was think on her feet.
“I promised Elena I wouldn’t hurt you anymore.” Victoria replied.
As far as Victoria was concerned that should have fixed everything.
Unfortunately, people were more complicated than that.
“Color me skeptical.” Marina said. “Time is of the essence here, but it’d be useless for me to try to survive with a backstabber in tow. Give me something useful. Prove that I can trust you.”
This was starting to get frustrating.
She realized how little time they had but she was still playing these cheap rhetorical games?
Victoria sighed openly. Her tail curled around her waist from the stress.
“As a gesture of good faith: my ability is known as psionics. Elena possesses the same ability. You, on the other hand, don’t have a shred of potential and are susceptible to it. I could make you do what I say, but as I said: as a gesture of good faith. I will not use my powers on you.”
Victoria looked down at a rock on the ground.
She saw a rock, and in her mind, she thought about pulling it toward her.
That rock started levitating off the ground, rising higher and higher alongside Victoria.
Marina flinched, as if expecting the rock to be turned against her.
Elena watched, speechless.
Victoria dropped it shortly thereafter.
“A brief demonstration. We don’t have time for a full lesson. So, G.I.A., do you accept my proposal? I’ve shown you what I had hidden, and I’m not asking anything from your end. I want your cooperation, so I am asking you and not using my powers to compel you in any way.”
“Having felt what it was like when you controlled me before, it’s obvious you aren’t now.”
Marina looked past Victoria, over the tops of the trees, at the deep blue outside the station.
“Fine. That works for me.” Marina said. “I will take Elena to the villa, and we will use the emergency escape there to get down to my escape craft. You do whatever you want, Victoria van Veka. If you want to shoot us in the back, I guess I can do nothing to stop you anyway.”
What an absolutely frustrating woman.
“I will not. I made a promise. I already said this.”
Elena looked between the two of them in disbelief.
She had been quiet up until then.
She suddenly let out her pent-up feelings again.
She started to cry with renewed fury.
“Stop it! Neither of you are considering my feelings here!”
Elena grabbed hold of Victoria’s hands.
“Victoria, come with us. If we have to run away, then come with us!”
She looked at Victoria directly in the eyes, pleading.
Years and years ago, god almost a decade ago, Victoria would have acquiesced. How could she ignore those bright, beautiful, innocent eyes?
Even Sawyer could not deny Elena when she made those eyes in the past.
Things had changed. Back then, the worst trouble they ever got in was ending up in places they shouldn’t be or sneaking off when they weren’t supposed to. They had some scary, close calls of their own stupid making, more than most noble kids. But they were problems within the scope of teenagers to solve. Everything had changed, but it seemed, Elena had not.
Elena did not know the Empire was as broken as her little group of friends.
That, just like them, it had crumbled overnight and could not be mended.
Suddenly and terribly, without much hope of reconciliation.
Victoria smiled, and reached out to touch Elena’s cheek.
“Deep down, you’re still so selfish. You have to grow up, Elena.”
Victoria was comforting her and distracting her.
She could see what was coming.
In the next instant, Elena’s eyes emptied, and she twitched forward, limp.
From behind her, Marina scooped her up.
She quickly holstered the stun gun in her hands.
Stricken in the back of the neck, Elena had fallen unconscious immediately.
“No objections?” Marina asked.
“No. I was trying to do the same, essentially.” Victoria said.
“Alright. Well. Godspeed.”
Marina turned around, holding Elena’s unconscious body in both arms.
Victoria stood there and watched her go.
She allowed herself one last childish outburst of her own.
“We will meet again G.I.A. And I will take her from you.”
Marina said nothing in response.
She began to pick up the pace, disappearing out of the wood.
Why did she even say that?
She wondered if Elena knew more than she let on and was using telepathy on her.
Then, the cockpit of the Jagd opened to admit Victoria into the control seat.
“I guess it’s our turn to meet, Sawyer.” Victoria put on a bitter little smile now that she was alone. Her eyes teared up a little. She tried to push those feelings out, into her aura, into the air. “Elena was half right. I did have a crush on her. Maybe I still do. But idiot that I was– I liked you, Sawyer. It was weird how we got along sometimes. I still remember that time– ah, forget it. No matter how much I project this, you won’t hear it.”
Victoria raised a hand to her wound.
What was she even feeling so sentimental for?
Her head felt airy.
At her side, her drone was prodding her to enter the Jagd.
The Diver’s claw arm moved to aid Victoria in climbing aboard.
She leaped onto the arm, climbed into the cockpit and took her seat and the controls. Darkness closed all around her as the Jagd’s hatch shut.
Vogelheim briefly disappeared, and the control screens lit up in front of her.
RKD-004 JAGD [TRIUMPH] appeared on the operating system boot screen.
Beneath that text was the Vekan motto, “Our first gunshot sounds the hunt.”
To some, it symbolized the duplicitous nature of Veka.
Shooting first from ambush.
Victoria viewed it as a positive.
Sounding a horn, or crying out for battle, was just hubris.
She reached beside her seat for a medicinal kit. Dispassionate, untroubled, she jabbed a dispenser full of “combat drugs” into her neck.
“I will dedicate the first victory of this war to Empress Carmilla von Veka.”
Pressing down on her pedals and forward on her sticks, the Jagd broke into a sprint. Her prey would soon hear the commencement of the hunt.
Sawyer left the bridge of the Greater Imbria, headed for the hangar.
“Rue; have the Panzer prepared for me.”
She said this into an ear-piece.
On the bridge, Rue, who was left in charge, heard it clearly.
“It’s already being done. But I’m against this. You’re our leader.”
“That’s why I have to go lead. Don’t worry; everyone here will listen to you.”
“That’s not what concerns me.”
“I’ll be safe, don’t get fucking sentimental on me.”
Sawyer rushed down the stepladder hatches to the bottom-aft hangar.
There was no way to contact the entry team except to join the attack herself.
She knew they still had time.
They still had a chance to save the station. They had to.
Even if they only spared it complete destruction and not widespread damage.
Sawyer’s head overflowed with macabre thoughts.
She tried to focus on the physicality of running, on the mechanism of her steps, on the gray steel bulkheads and the regal corridors that they connected. She tried her hardest to turn the world into a fast-moving blur and become lost in its lack of definition. To avoid grappling with it.
Turn the pain into a muscle action. That was Sawyer’s coping mechanism.
Aggravation? Hit something, hit someone. Break something.
Depression? Run, jump, move. Leave it behind. Sweat it out.
Confusion? Stab it; strangle it; kill it; bury it. Tangible things bled and died.
Physicality was easy to understand.
Emotion tortured her.
She didn’t even want to think what her foremost emotion was at that time.
When she finally got down to the hangar she spared no time for the engineers and officers working frantically to prepare the sudden deployment. Urging them to hurry, she climbed aboard her prepared Diver, a slightly larger, bulkier and more intimidating example than the rest, the Rhineanmetall Group’s own 2nd Generation Diver, the Panzer model.
Unlike the Volker, the cockpit was placed in a rectangular chassis, though the sloping armor surfaces on the chest, as well as those connecting the shoulders and the legs were as refined as the complex surfaces on other Imperial Divers. Rectangular shapes were prevalent on the shoulders, arms and on the legs, giving the Panzer a much more distinctly humanoid silhouette. Even the sensor array appeared to be a heavyset, helmeted head.
Sawyer soon found her weapons were loaded.
Her chute was also set up for her.
Inside the cockpit, alone, surrounded by lights, soundless.
She was vulnerable again.
In the midst of her stress high she felt a thought bubble up to the surface.
Her other two “friends” had come to mind before.
She remembered the third: Victoria.
That antisocial Shimii with a twisted personality.
She remembered when they ran off and got stranded in an old station–
Victoria had stuck with her when Elena and Gertrude couldn’t stand her attitude.
As much as Sawyer wanted to take her anger out on her, Victoria stuck around with her.
And she thought– she thought she heard Victoria say something to her back then–
“You’re straightforward; you don’t hide anything. That’s what I really like about you.”
“Fuck you. What are you even saying? At a time like this?”
“I followed you because I like you best, Sawyer. That’s what I’m saying.”
Sawyer punched herself in the forehead.
In that restrained way that one did, where it was impossible to hurt oneself as badly as such a strike might hurt others. But enough that it shook her out of the train of thought that she had been following. Why the fuck would she be thinking about Victoria, and about their school years? What the fuck did it matter? None of them were those people anymore. None of it mattered!
None of them were teenagers who were lost and confused and begging for attention.
Sawyer certainly wasn’t. Not anymore. She was an adult; she had power.
Neither Victoria, nor Gertrude, nor Elena, mattered anymore. Only Sawyer mattered here.
And only the Sawyer that was here right now.
She had severed that past a long time ago.
“Sturmbannführer, you read?”
She heard Rue in her earpiece. There was a sense of urgency in her voice.
As soon as she hit the water, Sawyer wouldn’t be able to hear her again.
“Any last minute updates?” She asked, clearly aggravated.
“Yes. We have a vessel coming in. Our spy drone picked it up a few kilometers away.”
“What? At combat speed?”
“They’re flooring it. It’s got to be reinforcements. Profile is Irmingard class.”
“Rue, that’s fucking impossible! It can’t be a fucking dreadnought, Rue!”
She was shouting.
Sawyer reached out and punched the wall of the cockpit.
She commanded an Irmingard class.
Could she be coming here for Elena?
“We knew the patrol fleet would call for reinforcement when they spotted us.” Rue said.
“We weren’t prepared for a capital ship! We were prepared for more fast attack craft!”
Rue sighed into the microphone.
“What will you do, Sawyer?” She asked. “Come back to the bridge?”
Was she stupid? There was only one thing to do!
“Of course I’m still launching, idiot! I can’t just turn tail and run now.”
Sawyer was going to be seen as a mass murderer.
Unless she did everything she could to stop the station from collapsing.
Politically, it wouldn’t hurt her.
The Volkisch were ready to do anything for power.
Despite herself, however, Sawyer did not just act out of power politics.
There was more going on in her head than Volkisch ideology.
“What should we do when the cavalry arrives?” Rue asked.
“Slow them down, but–”
She paused, hesitated. “Rue, prioritize yourself– I mean the fleet.”
Sawyer misspoke. She had let out her actual feelings. Rue let it go, however.
“Heard you loud and clear. But I– we won’t abandon you. So make it quick.”
Sawyer sighed. She took the controls.
The Panzer started walking toward the chute, dropped in, and closed the door.
There was no escape from her thoughts, nor from offering Rue a final response.
“I’ll try.” She said grimly. Rue’s signal disconnected.
On the screen, the Diver’s OS was loaded up and doing initial checks.
RMD-006 PANZER [SIEG] was prominently displayed.
Below the model was the motto, Ein volk! Ein kampf! One people, one struggle.
“Heidelinde Sawyer, Panzer Sieg. Deploying!”
Beneath her, the way to the Imbrium opened. No more dwelling, no more doubts.
Sawyer was ready to lose herself in the violence outside.
Gunshots and explosions sounded in the distance.
At the door to the villa, Bethany Skoll watched the path, gritting her teeth with anxiety.
Marina had gone to get Elena. Neither of them had returned.
And then everything to went hell.
Bethany and Elena’s maids had been watching the chaos unfold, up until the breach.
“All of you need to evacuate. Now. No talking back.”
All of the maids were speechless. They were terrified, but they also, collectively, could not endure abandoning Bethany here. The Villa staff had a special evacuation route, and enough craft to get everyone out along with the Princess in an emergency. Surely, they could all stay and help, and they could all leave together. That was the argument cried back at Bethany.
“None of you understand the situation. I want all of you out, now. Someone has to stay behind to secure the princess. I’m the only one of you with real security training. Please listen to me when I say you girls have to leave, now. I want no deaths on my conscience!”
That speech seemed to imply Bethany had no thoughts of self-sacrifice. As such, it placated the maid’s worries, and the gaggle of them joined a miserable march down into the basement. Bethany would stay behind and bring up the rear, with Marina and Elena, once they arrived.
“It has been a pleasure working with you girls. I hope you go on to better things.”
Bethany said this mostly to herself, after the maids had left.
All of them were well educated and hard-working and could ply their skills elsewhere.
If it had just been a natural disaster they could have all left together.
However, it was an invasion.
So someone had to delay and distract the invaders.
“Ronda, Illya, Gwendolyn, Charlotte, Yennefer,”
She started reciting to herself the names of the staff, hoping to bring them all luck.
In this ominous hour in Vogelheim’s history, Bethany regretted that their relationship, despite working here for so long, had been so contractual. She knew their names and special skills and weaknesses. She was their management. But she had never truly been their friend. As much as she passively liked them as workers, and for all the good times they shared putting things together for the Princess, and taking pride in their skills, she just never knew them as people. It was the same between Elena and her.
She had wanted to be like a mother to her.
But really, all she could be, was a maid.
Just a maid, and the others, just her assistants and specialists.
She had a thought that sent a chill through her body.
There would not be a tomorrow where she could assuage these regrets.
Even if they all survived, Vogelheim would not. Neither physically nor what it represented.
There was a buzzing in the pocket of her maid dress. A security device.
Warning her of a perimeter breach. An enemy, moving, coming closer and closer.
Bethany sighed. Once she was sure that everyone was gone, she input a code into the side of a glass display in the foyer housing an old, reproduction flintlock and matchlock hunting guns.
In the Old Era, on the surface world, these weapons had been used, and like many other things they stayed in the imagination of humanity even after the Descent. As far as anyone knew, the codes would just allow the opening of the glass and metal case, and extraction of the repro antiques.
Instead, the code Bethany put in caused the wall to slide open entirely. Inside, was a small armory with a modest, modern arsenal. There were light automatic weapons, chambered in 7.62 mm rifle cartridges. There was riot gear: vibroblades, gas grenades, bullet-shields, even a flamethrower. Those would be useless against Divers, so she did not even bother them.
Bethany grabbed a pair of tube launchers from the wall, each loaded with a HESH missile.
She set them down.
She did not fancy her chances using them, even though they would be effective.
Instead, behind the launchers, there was a console on the wall.
Bethany stuck her master key into a slot in the console, turned it, and put in a code.
A name only Bethany (and Marina) would really remember her by.
On the console screen, diagnostics were quickly being run on a Volker class Diver.
She could neither hear nor feel it, but she knew at that moment the flower bed was stirring.
Behind the Villa’s main building, where the gantry had been hidden away.
She did not fancy her chances using this weapon either.
But it was the only thing in the armory that could give her any hope of defending Elena.
Bethany was all too aware of the current situation.
The Villa’s security room was plugged in to the rest of the station’s communication network. When the patrol fleet sounded the alarm, she was alerted as well. Using the station’s own powerful computers she was able to watch in horrifying detail as the patrol fleet sank, and with it, Vogelheim’s best chances to defend itself. Reinforcements were coming, but not soon.
The station was compromised: a blast caused a breach in the outer wall, and the impact and subsequent slow flooding had damaged the artificial sky. The situation could only worsen. Enemy Divers had seized the lower deck engineering and the public port. It was only a matter of time until they occupied the villa. And while they fought, the station was going terminal.
All the while, her tiny portable buzzed, shaking with a warning for every alarm triggered.
Bethany rushed back to the door, hoping to see Marina.
There was still nobody on the roads outside. She heard another stray series of gunshots.
But from where? Who was shooting? At what? How close were they now?
In that instant, Marina suddenly appeared, jumping through the bushes from the east.
Bethany was blindsided, and nearly fell back. “Marina! Wait–”
She immediately noticed Elena unconscious in Marina’s arms.
“What happened to her?”
Bethany grabbed hold of Marina’s shoulders.
Marina tensed up and pulled away suddenly, shaking Bethany’s hands off.
Her reaction left Bethany feeling like she had made a mistake. Something had happened.
“Marina, what happened? Is Elena going to be ok? Are you?”
“I’m never ok, Betty. Elena will come around.” Marina sighed heavily. She regretted that she reacted the way she did. Bethany thought she saw shame in her eyes. “Look, I’m sorry.”
She set Elena’s limp, feather-light body by the door.
Then she threw her arms around Bethany.
Bethany was surprised, but she returned Marina’s embrace.
“Everything’s fucked. We need to get out of here.” Marina said.
“I know. I’ve made some preparations. You can evacuate from that corridor.”
“We can evacuate. I’ve got– I’ve got an asset. I’ve got an asset who will buy us time.”
She had stopped briefly, parting from Bethany, who could tell that there was more to that.
She and Marina locked eyes, standing apart on the cobblestones just outside the door, at arm’s length in physical distance, but their hearts and souls drifting as if in the endless ocean outside. Overhead the sky had been torn asunder, and it was grey and shifting as the panels went out or overloaded or glitched. A cold wind blew through the Villa, throwing Bethany’s long hair out and lightly rustling Marina’s messy bun and the bangs she combed over one of her eyes.
To think– A maid and a spy! They made such an unlikely pair.
Giving each other weary, tired looks under the collapsing skies of their future.
Bethany felt strangely fond of Marina then. She reached out to her.
“Can I touch you?” She asked. She had come to realize Marina needed it.
She brushed Marina’s cheek, gently lifting her hair.
“Why do you part it this way?”
Beneath the bangs, Marina’s eye was a slightly different color than the other.
Bethany saw tiny digits dancing over the surface of the orb.
“Cybernetic?” She asked.
“You don’t wanna know what happened to it.”
Nodding, Bethany stepped forward.
“Can I kiss you, Marina?”
Marina looked briefly confused and wary, before nodding her head.
Slowly, Bethany leaned in, as if the world were not collapsing around her.
She took Marina’s lips and rather than smoke and liquor she tasted like iron.
Bethany loved it. She would not have had it any other way.
Because it was Marina– she could love it that way.
She knew they both wanted nothing more than to freeze time on that moment.
Well– perhaps the only thing they wanted more was to freeze a moment with Leda.
When the two of them finally parted, it was mutual, as if they both knew it was time.
“We have to go.” Marina said. She was so filled with determination.
She picked up Elena once more and held her in her arms.
Not once had the elfin girl stirred. She was peaceful, her chest rising and falling gently.
Her face looked serene. She was untroubled by the world. Protected from it, even.
Bethany, meanwhile, tried to ignore the buzzing in her pocket just a little while longer.
“I wish she could stay like this. Things are going to be so difficult for her.” She said.
“Well, we’ll be there to pick her up.” Marina said.
Bethany hesitated. “Yes, that’s true.”
“We’ll tell her about Leda together. No matter what our circumstances are going forward, we’ll be there to support her. She’ll be fine.” Marina said. She cracked a little smile.
In the midst of everything, Bethany really wanted to hold on to that idea of the future.
But she knew it was not possible.
Marina walked inside the villa, Elena in tow, and Bethany followed them.
From the foyer, the evacuation bulkhead was just ahead.
A gaping maw of metal breaking up the beautiful wooden décor.
That would be their escape from all of this.
Marina started explaining her plan as she crossed the bulkhead.
“I snuck in here in a Diver, a Republic S.E.A.L [Spec Ops] unit. We should be able to get to it from the Maintenance access, according to the leaked station layout.” Marina said. “It’ll be tight, but we’ll all fit. It has a long-range travel unit attached. It’s almost spent, so we’ll ditch it as soon as we’re clear away from any enemies. Then we can go to Pluto station, then Serrano–”
“Marina, I have one last task to do here as Head Maid.” Bethany said.
Please don’t fight it. Bethany kept begging Marina, silently, over and over.
While making an innocent smile at her, hoping to calm her.
“Huh? Well, make it quick then.” Marina said. She was confused but not aggravated.
“I will. I just have to send a command to the mainframe to delete all sensitive data.”
“Is there anything there that an enemy force can use?”
“Elena’s entire biological profile, including genetic, print, retinal–”
“Ok, ok. Make it quick. Judging by the noises, my asset is hanging in there.”
Sounds of fighting played out intermittently in the distance.
Closer, and closer, or so Bethany thought.
Marina turned around to start going down.
Buzz, buzz, right in her pocket. She cursed everything; cursed the circumstances of her life.
Marina was so close still. She could still reach out and touch her. Grab her; hold her.
They were only separated by the open bulkhead, standing each on one side of a threshold.
Bethany looked down at Marina, on the first steps to the descent down the evacuation route.
She reached her hand to the side of the door and inserted her master key into a console.
Before her, the bulkhead slammed shut and locked tight. Only she could open it now.
Marina disappeared near instantly from her sight.
That was it. She had made her decision.
Bethany turned her back on the door.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”
A muffled voice, shouting loud enough to be heard through the steel when close.
It gave Bethany pause. She wished Marina had not noticed anything.
“Bethany! Open the door!”
Marina started slamming her fist on the metal.
“Save Elena! You’ll never make it out without a rearguard!” Bethany shouted back.
Her back was still turned to the door. She felt ridiculous shouting at the Villa doorway.
And yet, tears starting to fill her eyes, she felt Marina was owed this explanation.
“No! You don’t need to! I’ve got someone distracting them already! Please, Bethany!”
“Marina, there’s more enemies than you anticipated. I need to do this.”
Whatever it was that Marina’s “asset” was doing, if such a person really existed, was not enough. Bethany knew, from the device in her pocket, and if she headed to the security room she could confirm the same thing. A force large enough to trigger all the alarms, everywhere, and nobody stood against it. They would be upon them soon — if nobody stopped them.
“No, no, no! No! You can’t do this!”
There was so much pain in her voice. Marina was utterly distraught.
Bethany briefly questioned what she was doing. Would it make any difference?
And yet– if she cost Marina and Elena their lives, she could never forgive herself in hell.
Despite everything, she still denied herself heaven. Even if Leda was waiting there.
The secret that only Bethany and Marina shared, is that they had both accepted Hell in order to protect their Leda. That was something that they had together, which Leda never had with them. Perhaps, that was part of the character of the unique love that they had for one another.
“Marina, something I learned a long time ago was that, loving someone isn’t just having them for yourself in the moment. It’s also accepting what they want for their future. Loving someone is more than a night; it’s coming back, even years later, and having a home. What I did for Leda, I did out of love. What I’m doing for you now, I’m doing because I love you, Marina.”
“You can’t say that! You can’t say that to me! Please come back! Please!”
“Fulfill your promise to her. I love you. Despite everything– you really made me happy.”
Bethany turned her back on the door and walked away.
Marina’s shouting voice became more distant, muffled and impossible to understand.
Down Bethany’s eyes ran bittersweet tears.
Her heart fluttered with the declaration of love she made, but she felt such a deep and cutting regret that she did not say those words when she and Marina really had a chance together.
Bethany accepted the finality of what she was doing.
For Marina, and for Elena.
And so, with the perfectly confident stride of the perfect maid, Bethany Skoll left the villa.
Out in the flower bed, a suit of armor waited for her to resume her self-appointed role as Leda’s knight.
Marina banged on the door, furiously, to no avail.
“You don’t have to do this! You don’t! Please Bethany! Come with me! Please!”
“Please don’t leave me alone! Please! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! Please come back!”
No matter how much she shouted, how many tears she shed, no matter how much she punched and kicked and screamed that door would not open. Bethany was not coming back through. Marina put her forehead to the door, slumping forward, defeated. Broken. Empty.
Teeth grit, eyes shut. It was settling in. She would never see Bethany again.
She had lost everything dear to her. She had not been able to protect anybody.
Marina wanted to slump beside that door and wait for death. She was shaking, sweating.
But in the shadows of that hallway, she saw Elena. Helpless. Because of Marina’s actions.
Marina felt like a ghost, wandering in a world with no evidence she had ever truly lived.
Elena, however, was alive. Elena was alive and– and Marina had promised Leda.
So, weeping, sobbing, groaning, she picked her up again. And she started her descent.
Every step felt like she was taking it right through 96 atmospheres of the Imbrium itself.
Or the thick, burning, shifting soil of Hell itself.