Sinners Under The Firmament [9.4]

This chapter contains a reference to suicidal ideation.

“All of us trust Murati Nakara. So let me show her the truth.”

Murati stood at her edge of the table, speechless, as Euphrates reached out her hand.

Colors floated off her, at first like wisps of vapor from the end of a vaporizer pipe. They spread and grew, and it was difficult to understand the dimensions of them, the breadth and depth, even the composition. Sometimes they felt like lights, an aura, or a rainbow that if touched would have no interaction with the skin, but at other times, viewed in different angles, it seemed like the gas of a nebula from images of outer space passed down through time by the remains of surface scientific discoveries. There were other feelings associated with the colors that did not even relate to Murati’s visual recollection.

When she focused on them for too long, she felt–

Sounds (soft and whiny like a tinnitus)

Textures (impeccably smooth like cellophane)

Tastes (chalky, salty, like putting sand in the mouth)

— there was no way to square these with the fact that she was still, only, looking.

Murati briefly licked her lips; she closed and opened her hands. She was not scared, but enthralled. Those sensations came and went with the intensity of the colors. Sometimes in focus, in sharp relief; sometimes gone as if they had never been there; but her mind wanted to chase them. She felt like a child staring at the world for the first time, wanting to see, longing to understand, boundlessly curious.

“What are you seeing, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Is she surrounded by colors?”

“You can see it too?” Murati said, turning to face the captain, to see her response.

Ulyana nodded. Aaliyah closed her orange eyes, rubbed her fingers over them.

“I’m seeing something too.” Aaliyah replied. “La Hawla Wala.” She whimpered after.

Murati did not understand the Shimii speech, but the sentiment was clear to her.

Everyone in the room was seeing something. It wasn’t just her– she wasn’t going insane.

“Fantastic. Colors are what you should be seeing.” Euphrates said with a smile.

“We know those colors as Aether.” Tigris explained. “For us jaded old hags, it’s really difficult to describe these feelings to someone– it’s easier if you can come to grips with it, Murati, and tell everyone else how it feels to you. That’s what Euphrates is getting at. She’ll teach you all about it– and Omenseeing will make a bit more sense to you. But what we do isn’t Omenseeing, so take it with a grain of salt.”

“If it’s not Omenseeing, what is it?” Murati asked.

“What Omenseers call ‘Omenseeing’ we refer to as psionics.” Euphrates said.

“Psionics? Like mind reading and clairvoyance? That’s all fantasy!” Ulyana shouted.

“She just moved an object in front of you without moving a muscle!” Tigris objected.

“That’s–”

Ulyana could hardly formulate a reply to that. She was just lashing out emotionally.

“You’ll see that it isn’t fantasy– if Murati Nakara accepts my proposal.” Euphrates said. “You can say all you want about us and what we are doing. You can claim that it’s all tricks, that we have gotten co-conspirators on-board to rig the room, or that we have prepared special devices– I’ve heard all kinds of explanations in the past from people who won’t accept the truth. But if Murati accepts, I can show her immediately how to access the same power. Would you believe Murati is faking it?”

“What if this is some kind of wild escape plan?” Aaliyah joined Ulyana in shouting.

“They couldn’t escape– they’d be in the photic zone without Arbitrator I’s protection.”

Murati’s was the calmest voice in the room. Though it was she they were all addressing and putting under pressure, there was something in the back of her mind that prevented panic. It was an almost nostalgic feeling. As if these sights and sensations weren’t entirely unfamiliar. She tried to recall– had she seen the colors before? Had she felt the presence of psionics, like she now felt from Euphrates?

Was that sensation of synesthesia she got from the colors truly alien to her?

There were no concrete recollections– but there was a feeling. A feeling kept her steady.

“Correct. Psionics isn’t exactly like Omenseeing. I’m not trying to escape.” Euphrates said.

“We can’t even put a toe out of place right now anyway.” Tigris said.

She vaguely gestured behind herself.

Illya and Valeriya had the two of them in the sights of their assault rifles.

“By any chance can you call off the hounds? I’m worried about accidents here.”

“It’s our duty to keep this crew safe. Be a good girl or I’ll shoot.” Illya said.

“I told the two of you to stand down. I wasn’t just shouting at the wall.” Aaliyah said.

“We’re all tense here, but we’re not shooting each other tense just yet.” Ulyana added.

“Okay.” A sad little monotone voice.

Valeriya stepped back, raised her rifle, and reached out a hand to pat Illya on the chest armor.

Begrudingly, Illya did the same a moment later, withdrawing from the confrontation.

Valeriya then lifted a mask over her face and averted her gaze to the door nearby.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad at you, so don’t worry.” Illya said to her.

“We’re going to have to talk about you two getting some problem-solving skills that don’t involve killing people, if you’re going to play a bigger role in this security team.” Ulyana said. She sighed, exasperated, almost grunted. “Murati this situation is insane, but I want to hear from you.”

Now everyone in the room was staring Murati’s way rather than Euphrates’ way.

She was not unused to this sensation either. After all, she delivered so many petitions.

In all of those petitions, she had to get up in front of a crowd, and then explain something which was deeply emotional to her in very rational terms. She had to make her aspiration to heroic military deeds and her belief in radical military action toward the Empire sound reasoned and cost-effective, and not just like the inner workings of a grandiose, self-indulgent fantasy. It was not so different here.

Murati was calmer than she thought she might be and thought she could explain.

“Captain, Commissar; I think I trust Euphrates. She came to visit me in the medbay to talk about my parents. She knew them– she also knew Daksha Kansal. I’d never heard anyone talk about Kansal the way that she did– she even compared me to her a few times, which I found very touching. I don’t know a lot about my parents, but I’d like to believe if Daksha Kansal is a name that comes out of a person’s lips with such affection, rather than scorn or slander, then that person is probably worth listening to.”

“Murati, Euphrates wants to do something to you, who knows what.” Aaliyah said. “You want to trust her because she spoke glowingly about one of your role models? Don’t you agree that’s a bit facile?”

“I’m glad that all of you are worried, but if it’s my choice, then I will talk to Euphrates.”

Murati turned to face Euphrates. She felt her heart stir, but she was determined.

When she first fired a gun, when she first learned to pilot, when she first killed–

In each of those situations Murati was also unlocking powers of the mind and emotion.

There was a frightening sense, each time, that the world would be very different afterward.

She felt shivers when she first touched a gun, first entered a Strelok’s cockpit.

When she took aim and put out a human life, it was an earthquake of horrific feeling.

But at no point, did she cease to be Murati Nakara. Each time, she did what she found just.

After each of these things, she could weep, she could laugh, she could live and love.

And her goals, passions, the duties she accepted and people she loved, did not disappear.

“Euphrates, you say I can access psionics immediately with your help?” She asked.

“All I need to do is touch your forehead for a minute.” Euphrates replied.

“Explain the mechanism by which this will work.” Murati calmly said.

“Of course. Those colors that you see around you, the Aether, are imprints of human emotional and mental activity, left upon the world by our existence.” Euphrates began to explain. Nobody interrupted her. “Aether will resonate more strongly with people who are psionic. We leave our aether not just in places we go to, but even in objects we have an attachment to, and even in people who care about us. Eventually, those people’s minds will develop their own psionics and begin to see our aether, whether fleetingly or in full, via a process we call Aether Baptism. I can accelerate that process.”

“Wait a moment.” Ulyana said. “Can we see your aether, then, because of Arbitrator I?”

Murati knew that what she was actually asking was–

–when did we change? Are we fundamentally different than normal people, and if so–

–when was the crew of the Brigand baptized by Aether if Euphrates is speaking the truth?

Euphrates in turn looked almost excited to be sharing this information.

Her tone was animated, friendly, calm. Even despite the evident tension in her ‘students’.

“It takes a long time for baptism by environmental aether to awaken a person’s psionics. What I’m about to say is pure speculation, but there are a few possibilities: very traumatic and sweeping emotional events, like the Union’s revolution, could have awakened tiny kernels of the power. The Sunlight Foundation has observed that Shimii and Katarrans, who suffered massive ethnic hardships, have more psionic potential. So it is possible that Union folk are also ‘more psionic’ than others. Maybe you also had parents or colleagues with powerful psionics. Contact with Murati would certainly do something— I didn’t choose her solely for emotional reasons. Korabiskaya and Bashara would be more difficult to baptize. Korabiskaya, you, particularly– I can tell you have a near-impenetrable will. Even Norn couldn’t overcome it.”

Ulyana blinked, with Aaliyah staring at her momentarily.

“A near-impenetrable will, huh?”

“Norn was psionic too then?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah looked like pieces of something were falling into place for them.

“We should evaluate the narrative here only after we have a concrete demonstration.”

Zachikova spoke up, uncharacteristically interjecting in the course of events.

It was a rational enough point. Euphrates had set a condition by which ‘psionics would be proven to be definitely true’ — clearly Aaliyah and Ulyana wanted to believe it was true, more than they wanted to be skeptical. But in terms of the scenario, they needed to confirm things before devolving into wild speculation. Not only that, but Murati would have been able to prove that ‘psionics work exactly as Euphrates said’ by having access to psionics herself. In that case, there was only one solution.

“Does everyone trust me and trust my decision?” Murati said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other and spoke up at almost the same time:

“I thought that was self-evident.”

“Of course we trust you Murati.”

The two of them looked at each other, smiled, sighed, and acquiesced visibly.

Murati nodded in acknowledgment. “Then I accept the terms as discussed. Once I have been given access to psionics, I’ll try to explain what I felt and demonstrate its use, and depending on what happens, we’ll decide whether we believe all or part of Euphrates and Tigris have been saying.”

She didn’t really know why– but she still felt that burgeoning confidence in this task.

Just like learning to pilot, learning to shoot, learning history, learning military tactics–

–and an even more salient example, learning about communism and capitalism.

All of these things fundamentally altered Murati’s perspectives and abilities.

She was not afraid that Euphrates would change how she viewed the world.

In fact, there was a part of her that was excited. A part of her that realized before the rest of her faculties that she might become part of uncovering a great, hidden truth about the world. Communism became a clearer and clear example in her mind of a paradigm as magic as this. She imagined Mordecai in his study, when he first drafted a history of productive relations that had been physically present in the world but never named, never truly observed in an analytical way, and explained to people.

Murati thought he must have felt the same way as her.

Trepidation about the world that would follow; and a determination to change it anyway.

In a world before Mordecai, capitalism might as well have been a force of nature.

Things that simply existed; things that were simply done. As invisible as magic was.

When that hidden power was finally exposed and surgically understood–

It created a paroxysm of revolutionary grief at the injustice of it all, lasting to this day.

Understanding communism as an alternative to capitalism could change someone’s world.

And perhaps that knowledge could drive the person a little insane.

But to build a better world, the truth had to be exposed, understood, analyzed.

Murati had to peel back layer of reality– she would not back away from this truth now.

It might even expose something that could help achieve her ambitions.

“It’s the duty of a communist not to shy away from reality. Euphrates, I am ready.”

Murati stepped forward, closer to Euphrates.

With the consent of the room, Euphrates stood, and raised her hand to Murati’s head.

Putting her palm on Murati’s forehead, the fingers gently brushing her hair aside.

“Whether your eyes are open or closed, you’ll see and feel things. Let them come and go.”

For an instant, Murati saw Euphrates’ eyes flash with red rings around the irises.

She felt something push against her, for long enough for her body to record feeling but too quickly to contemplate it. For that infinitesimally small instant of sensation, she felt hot and cold, wet, and dry, and in the next instant, her vision was clouded. She was overwhelmed by color and could not see Euphrates, or the room around her anymore. Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, orange, and tight bands of black and white at the far edges, sweeping toward her like a tidal wave so tall that Murati could see nothing but the body of those great bands of color, near and far, rapid, and slow. She was submerged in them.

Then — she did not know when, could have been minutes, hours — she was drawn back.

Rather than a tidal wave, now the colors appeared as a great vortex in a black, empty space.

As her vision focused on it, and she realized the length and breadth of the phenomenon and the notion of the space around it, she began to see trails far above that fed into the vortex, like the clouds that were known to science but impossible to see from humanity’s new home. These trails fed into the whirling body of the vortex. And the more she focused, the more Murati could see thousands, millions, billions of trails all individual, each its own color. It was not an object, but a mass– made up of innumerable lines.

Murati felt a great shame that she had not known it was so complicated at first.

Now she felt a desire to see, not just each individual line, but how they all connected.

They were a mass, a community, a language, in contact and interaction, communicating.

She wanted to understand– she wanted to know–

if the system was just, if it was worth maintaining and if it needed to change,

if there was someone to help, if there was a battle that needed fighting,

if there was a pain, and if there could be healing, if there was need, that she could fill,

It was difficult to think, to keep her thoughts from drifting, but–

Euphrates had said to let them come and so she did.

Her soul screamed for understanding, justice, and redress.

Suddenly the vortex flashed as if in response to her desires, overwhelming white.

In the blink of an eye, Murati saw out of her eyes not a void but a world.

White walls, white lights, but steel enclosures, LCD screens, beakers, fluids, artificial light. Machines and the logic by which they were operated. She saw humans; she saw, primarily, a man in a coat, shirt, red tie, shiny brown shoes. He approached an enclosure where there was someone trapped, a woman. Her skin was mottled with red rashes and yellow pustules. She was starkly naked and reclining against the back of the enclosure. There was scarring across much of her face, but her mouth could still open, and she had one eye and half a head of pristinely blue hair which was strikingly beautiful.

“Good morning, doctor.” She said. Murati understood the language.

But she also understood it was not her own. There was a strange texture to the words.

Her soul knew what they were saying– not her ears.

Outside the enclosure, sickly green and yellow colors surrounded the man.

While the woman was clad in pristine, euphoric white despite her physical condition.

“Good morning, Euphie.” He said.

That unmarred half of the woman’s face stretched, with visible effort, into a smile.

“It’s dire outside, isn’t it? Your troubles follow you in. I can see them.”

“Everything is dire, Euphie. But you’re doing good. You’re our little miracle.”

His aura writhed as he said those words. Clear, painful lies filled with regret.

There was an increasingly black band filling the edges.

“You’ll cure it soon. You cured the last two. We’ll save the world, doctor.” She said.

She heaved a tired little sigh and closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I can’t keep fighting it. Death. I’ll talk again soon. Once I’ve recovered.”

Murati stood uncomprehendingly as she saw, for a brief second, what she thought were lashing tentacles or worms bursting from the pustules on the woman’s body and striking the enclosure. Blood and fluid splashed on the glass of the enclosure and the woman’s body grew limp inside. Then, she vanished in a cloud of white gas released inside the airtight chamber that had become her grave. There was still something writhing inside– but before Murati could truly understand the horror of it, she, too, vanished.

Disappeared in a white flash and ferried somewhere else.

Above her, there was suddenly a ring of blue sky.

In the distance, seething fog that pulsed bright purple with frayed red edges.

There was a mass of people. Screaming, crying, fighting against a line of armored men.

On the edge of the sky, and the edge of the ocean, there were great, enormous structures, metallic struts and scaffolds of vast size, imprinted with symbols of patriotism that Murati did not understand, flags and insignias. There was an unbroken line of people moving shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, into the great machines. There were colors everywhere, vaporous, and furious, red, and yellow and black, deep and broad black auras, everyone was certain of death, and everyone was afraid of death.

Amid that crowd, a woman with blue hair stood out from the masses.

Wrapped up in a thick coat and fedora, gazing over her shoulder mournfully.

She forced herself to look forward, shook her head, and kept walking to the machines.

“I have to keep moving forward. That’s my curse in this world.”

And she knew, and now Murati knew as well– it would be her curse in the next world too.

For all that she suffered fighting for humanity.

She would be spared the bliss of death.

Murati’s world shifted again, the sight before her eyes–

–dimming

–darkening

She smelled oil and smoke, soot, and concrete dust in the air. Yellow air that dried the mouth.

Amid the ruins of some place, a habitation of some kind, roofs and walls, shattered streets.

Overhead the sky was grey and below the earth was muddy and strangely yellowed.

“We killed more of the civilians than anything. This is a god damned mess.”

Two men in black uniforms with masks over their faces trudged through the mud.

Red armbands on their sleeves contained a strange symbol like a lightning bolt.

“How much gas will it take to kill two million Ayvartan troops?”

“How many did this take out? A battalion? We’re fucked. I’m not even reporting this.”

“We have to say something. Lowball it. Say it was a squadron or something pathetic.”

“That won’t work. They’re dead set on this. They’ll say even that much is progress.”

“Fuck me. We can’t possibly keep doing this shit, can we?”

“Wait–”

The two men paused for a moment. It was impossible to see their faces under the masks.

However, their emotions were not inscrutable. Murati could see the colors wisp from them.

They were surprised and shocked– and there was a brief flash of death in their eyes.

“Is that a kid?”

They walked forward, into a dilapidated house. Murati could see inside it.

“This is– she looks clean as a newborn baby. How the fuck did she survive this?”

There was a girl. Svelte, maybe malnourished. Her little dress was in tatters.

Skin pale as pearl, untouched, not a nick on her. Breathing gently, as if asleep.

Her hair a shocking, pristine blue, long, and loose, lightly curled.

“I– I don’t know. But we can’t just leave her here. Help me with her, quick.”

“Messiah defend, there’s not a scratch on her. She’s breathing. And what’s with her hair?”

“Forget her hair. Look. Her feet have blisters, from the poison in the mud. The rest of her is fine. There’s corpses everywhere. Everyone else around her died. How did she survive the shelling?”

“How would I know? Let’s take her to the medics, we’ve got bigger problems.”

In the distance, Murati heard a whirring noise, and she saw the clouds parting–

Numerous machines, flying high in the air, explosions following in their wake–

As she vanished into a white light with the surroundings she knew Euphrates survived this.

In the next instant–

Metal walls. Vanishing colors.

No texture, except the smoothness of her uniform when she touched it.

Just to feel something– something familiar.

Smell– treated air, circulated by machines. Vaguely sweet, inoffensive.

Surrounded by people and silence.

And the comparatively low pressure of 300 meters of water above them, threatening to crush them any second, with the only comfort being that the ship was used to surmounting over a thousand meters more and could survive close to 8000 meters deep in total. She was back on the UNX-001 Brigand. She was Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara; she was alive. She was back in her own world.

On the shoulders of Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara, she noticed wispy bands of green color with a little band of green and yellow. Aaliyah had just a little bit of red at the edges. These things communicated to Murati’s mind, she understood them as if they were facial expressions or body language. They were waiting, afraid that something had happened to Murati. Aaliyah was trying to restrain her anger that this situation had taken this turn, struggling to take control of it back.

She realized that her eyes felt warm. She knew that there were red rings around the irises.

Though she couldn’t see them she knew that this was the case.

Murati turned around from them and quietly faced the woman in front of her again.

Euphrates retreated back a step, having withdrawn her hand.

“How do you feel?” She said gently.

Looking down at her–

There was a flash in Murati’s mind. Visions of a blue haired girl, lonely and in pain. Tortured endlessly. Places whose forms sat just on the edge of her memory, speech in a language she barely understood, some events in motion like a grainy film with frames missing, her mind had the texture of these things, but the complete form was just out of reach. There was an outpouring of them in her mind’s eye.

Murati’s warm auburn eyes began to weep uncontrollably. Her lip trembled. Her body shook.

She bowed slightly and grabbed hold of Euphrates suddenly, embracing her tightly.

Weeping profusely on her shoulder, stroking her hair, wanting her to feel any comfort.

“I’m sorry!” She shouted. “I’m so sorry! What they did to you– I’m– I–” Murati wailed with an agony she did not understand even in part. Words cascaded out of her lips that sounded less connected to anything concrete with each passing second, channeling the formless pain of another body, as the things she saw and felt in the aether moved farther and farther from the mind but remained in the heart.

Euphrates, smiling, weeping gently herself, silently returned the embrace.


“I apologize. I acted too familiar.”

“That’s quite alright. It just tells me you have a very big heart, Murati.”

Murati sat back down on the table, raising a hand to her chest to feel her pounding heart.

She was red in the face and feeling a little nervous after everything that happened.

“How are your faculties, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Anything feeling off?”

“I had a strange experience. I went to places and saw things– but I can’t really tell you all of the substance of it. I had visions– I think I saw bits and pieces of Euphrates’ life, maybe.” Murati said, stumbling over words just a bit. “I don’t feel comfortable sharing what I can recall unless she allows it. However, I think I am actually ready to try to move an object without touching it.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms. That red portion of her colors got just a little bit wider.

Murati turned to Euphrates, who walked over to Murati and bent close to her, looking over her shoulder. She took Murati’s hand and guided her to stretch her arm out toward another, intact pen which also sat in the middle of the table. It was out of Murati’s reach and away from the other pen which Euphrates had allegedly collapsed into a sphere of carbon, still sitting at the far edge of the table.

“Alright, Murati, focus on the object you want to move. You’ve seen the Aether auras, the colors, around other people now, right? Did you focus your eyes on them to make them sharper?”

“I think so. I think I can do that.” Murati said. She had done so with Aaliyah, she thought.

At first the “auras” were just colors and a vague understanding.

If she focused on them, she could appraise them better. She realized this now.

It was like the trigger of a gun. She could pull it with her mind to set off the effects.

“Now, try to focus on this object, using the same method. Compel it to move away from you. Trace a line to where you want it to go. It’ll get easier, but for the very first time you attempt this you will really need to focus. Create from nothing a reality where this object is moving.” Euphrates said.

She stepped back from Murati and took seat next to Tigris again.

“By the way, if you want to relay anything you saw in the Aether to the Captain and Commissar, you are free to do so. Those memories are irrelevant to the world of today, and I do not let them govern how I live my life in the here and now. But thank you for the hug. It was very warm.” Euphrates added.

Murati nodded her head. She breathed in deep and then reached out her hand to the pen.

She tried to focus on the pen. She spent a few seconds staring at it.

Move. Move. Move.

She felt like when she was assigned to a psychologist at school, after her biggest protests.

Ink blots and mental exercises– stuff that felt too abstract for her to get a hold of.

It felt silly, talking in her own head like she was talking to the pen.

As the seconds passed, she began to fear she had created a reality where the pen had not moved, and one in which she did not know what would happen next. After all this anticipation, they would be going back to grilling Euphrates about this, trying to prize from her what was real and false about her, about her intentions, her narrative. Murati really wanted to spare her any more pain.

She could not remember in exact terms what she had seen in those visions.

But she knew that Euphrates was extremely old, ancient despite her pretty face, and her long life was filled with such pain that Murati couldn’t even imagine feeling. She felt compelled by her own humanity, even if this feeling was not fully substantiated, to try to do what she could to help Euphrates, to absolve her of other’s doubts and suspicions. Murati’s skepticism told her that it was possible Euphrates was now deceiving her. It just didn’t make sense though– the medbay visit, the HELIOS, all of this.

Meeting her was perhaps serendipitous. One of the greatest coincidences of her life.

Murati had the feeling, however, that Euphrates was not a malicious person.

Even had they never met, even though they disagreed philosophically about certain things.

Euphrates was following her convictions and doing what she believed was right.

Move, damn you!

In the next instant, the pen did not just move at Murati’s command.

It sailed to the opposite wall like a projectile and shattered upon striking it.

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at it, speechless for a moment.

“Oh. I think I have the hang of this a bit.”

Murati shifted her gaze to the sphere that Euphrates had crushed the other pen into.

She reached out her hand and compelled to move toward her instead.

A microsecond later, an instant of thought, and the little ball shot toward Murati.

Striking her in the chest, and then dropping on the table with a series of little thuds.

Murati grabbed hold of her chest, wincing with pain. Gunther turned to check on her.

“Agh! Damn it!” She cried out.

She had just told her doctor her ribs were okay, and now her sternum hurt like hell.

It did not feel like anything was broken, but she nearly doubled over from the pain.

That would almost certainly bruise.

“Be careful!” Euphrates said cheerfully at the unfolding theater. “You don’t know your own strength. But you’re a very fast learner. You applied the concept of moving the object away to pull the object toward you! Not everyone figures that out within seconds of their first telekinetic thrust. You’ll be learning about vectors in no time with that level of conceptualization– I knew you’d be impressive, Murati.”

“Hmph. I learned it pretty quickly too, you know.” Tigris butted in.

“Yes, and I praised you for it in the moment– many, many, MANY years ago.”

Euphrates laughed and Tigris scowled at her and turned her back once more.

“Hmph!”

Murati could hardly see the humor in the situation because her sternum was still hurting.

“Murati, do you need to go to the medbay?” Ulyana asked.

She glanced toward her officers, trying to appraise their current emotions.

All of the red and yellow had melted from both the captain’s and commissar’s auras.

In their place, thin bands of purple and white appeared to compliment the blue and green.

Pride, Murati thought. Pride and awe or euphoria.

They were both anxious, but they also were starting to realize, perhaps–

–that their worlds had changed a bit too now.

Murati shook her head, in response to the medbay comment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah almost at the same time brought their hands up to their faces.

“What is this even going to look like in a report?” Ulyana lamented.

“It’s not.” Aaliyah said. “I am not going to report any of this. What would I even say?”

“How is this possible? I want to wake up from this.” Ulyana continued to lament.

Zachikova had her arms crossed, deep in thought. Gunther looked quietly shocked.

Euphrates sat back, clearly less tense now that she appeared to be getting her way.

“You are free to disclose any information I’ve given you to your authorities. However, I won’t be able to provide physical evidence of anything at this moment, so I recommend to withhold your reports for now. I do have a condition I must set for myself and Tigris’ continued support, however.”

“Hey, don’t assume I’ll just do anything you want. I’m pretty pissed at you.” Tigris said.

“I would be heartbroken if my irreplaceable partner left me.” Euphrates said.

Tigris’ shoulders tensed. “Ugh. Shut up. Fine. I’m in for whatever, then.”

Ulyana ran her hands over her face, through her long blond locks. She tossed her hair.

Resetting herself. Letting off a bit of steam.

After heaving a sigh, she responded, clearly frustrated. “What do you want, Euphrates?”

“I want to hire all of you. I promise I won’t interfere with your ‘mission profile’.”

“Hire us? Like the original agreement we had with Solarflare LLC?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates reached out a hand across the table, symbolically.

“Exactly. Take me to Rhinea and help me investigate Yangtze’s actions. I need to confirm her true intentions. All of us need more information to determine our next moves. Yangtze has ties to the Imperial factions, so ultimately, if you help me, you’ll gain a lot of juicy information on some very bad people. While we are there, you can continue your own activities. I’ll support you as a consultant, and this lady here will help maintain the HELIOS, and help out around the ship. She’s handier than she looks.”

“You’re the one who looks, and is, useless!” Tigris cried out. “They know I’m helpful.”

“Both of us can teach Murati Nakara more about psionics,” Euphrates continued speaking, ignoring Tigris, “then you’ll be able to determine whether it is safe or useful based on her progress. You don’t trust us completely, but Murati is someone you know for sure that you can trust, right?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged a look. Both of them stood up as if to speak definitively.

“Murati has nearly died for this crew multiple times. Of course I trust her.” Ulyana said. “To be clear– you’re quite right. I don’t trust you anymore, Euphrates, but not because of your actions. I still want to be able to trust and cooperate with you. However, too many unknowns have been introduced.” She paused briefly to gather her breath. “So I’ll tentatively agree to your terms because I don’t have much choice. However, if you step out of line, I am quite ready to shred the paper and do something about you.”

Aaliyah’s ears and tail stood up, tense; but her eyes smoldered with determination.

“I agree with the Captain. This whole situation has gotten out of hand. We’ll have to think carefully about what this means. Psionics, Aether, Omenseers and the Sunlight Foundation– all these capital letter terms hint at a world we were not prepared to tackle with our own resources. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how much of this I’m even prepared to believe. I’m ready to wake up at any moment. But in the material reality of the here and now, we have few choices. However, there’s one whale in the room here.”

Ulyana glanced over to Aaliyah, looking a little bit surprised.

“I think I understand what you’re going to ask. Go ahead.” Euphrates said.

Now it was Aaliyah’s turn to breathe deep and sigh.

“You must have known all along, Euphrates, but we are soldiers beholden to the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. We are on a Union mission. Your Sunlight Foundation has stayed hidden all this time, but now you are sharing all this knowledge with us. It seems to me that you are desperate for shelter from your organization, so you need us. In that case, I have conditions of my own. Everything you have told us will have to be formally told to the Union government. All these secrets have to be confirmed and reported.”

Murati scanned Euphrates’ face for any sign of concern. There were none.

She was calm as she ever had been, and her aura was as soft and pristine as before.

“Of course. I understand. Here’s my response: help me find Daksha Kansal. I trust her and I want to talk to her about the Union. Depending what she and I decide, we can make formal disclosures to the Union.”

Euphrates truly had a gift for saying things that rendered the floor speechless.

Ulyana raised a hand to her own lips and grinned to herself, laughing a little at the prospect.

Finding Daksha Kansal, the first Premier and legendary hero of the Revolution–

“Daksha Kansal left the Union to foment revolution in the Imperial territories, many years ago. If she’s still alive– well, it could actually be very useful to our mission as well to find her and see what she has been up to all these years. However, none of us have any idea where she could be right now.”

“We all want to believe she’s alive, but we can’t guarantee that.” Aaliyah said in support of Ulyana.

“Don’t worry. I’ll help you find her. Let’s just tack that on the agenda as an item, then.”

Euphrates stood from her chair, reaching out her hand for a shake, still smiling affably.

“Do we have a deal then? Make Rhinea our next destination, and I promise you with your military power and my knowledge and resources, we can absolutely find Daksha Kansal, investigate and overturn Yangtze’s ambitions, and tackle the next phase of your own mission, whatever that might be.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged another glance, but both of them smiled. Hearing the name Daksha Kansal, and perhaps having the thought of finding her again, clearly lifted their spirits. It was insane, but it was perhaps the least insane of all the things they had talked about today. It was insanely hopeful.

“You better not dare to betray us after all of your theater, Euphrates.” Aaliyah said.

“Bah, if she steps out of line after all this, I’ll be the first one in line to kill her.” Tigris said.

Euphrates laughed.

“I feel excited about this partnership. I think we will do fantastic work together.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked around the table and shook hands with Euphrates and Tigris.

They had sealed a deal of absolutely monumental proportions, brought together by fate.

A casual handshake between the material and supernatural worlds.

Murati could hardly fathom where this would lead them all. Those colors eluded her.

Looking down at the little ball, spinning rapidly atop her palm, at her mental command.

Everything felt terribly ominous– but she couldn’t turn her back from it.

Just like when she first understood communism, imperialism, and the war for the heart of the world.

If the world was bigger; then there was more of it to fight for, more of it to liberate.

If there were more enemies; then she would still take them all on as they came.

Her ambition was to set things right. Short of achieving her justice, she knew she would not stop.

“We need to get you a room, then. Maybe move Fernanda and Alex together.” Ulyana said.

“Whatever you decide is fine. Oh, and whenever you’re ready, Captain, we can go over the data from the HELIOS too. First, though, I want to check up on our little empath over here and see how she’s doing.”

Euphrates left the captain’s side for a moment, and given freedom to move, went to Murati’s side.

“Are you asking yourself right now, ‘why me’?” Euphrates said, smiling, patting Murati on the shoulder.

Murati looked up at her, wearily. She saw the colors around Euphrates, calm and unmoving.

She shook her head, smiling a bit herself. “I’m just asking myself what happens now.”


While the Brigand at large put another eerily quiet day in the photic zone behind them, the Captain and Commissar completed their inquiries about the previous run of events, to what was a satisfactory conclusion for the two of them. Both of them agreed to the following immediate terms:

Marina McKennedy’s final G.I.A. rank of Ensign would be respected, and she would hold a position on the Brigand as an intelligence analyst with the rights of any other officer. She agreed to support the Brigand’s endeavors until the formal end of the Brigand’s mission or until they could secure passage for Marina and for Elena Lettiere into the Union. She would work in the conference room next to the bridge, and she would have main screen access from there, to prevent the bridge from becoming too crowded.

Arbitrator I was inducted into the Brigand’s crew as Petty Officer Arabella Oikonomou, a Katarran surname as her appearance could be easily explained that way. As far as the sailors were concerned, she was rescued in Goryk’s Gorge, and anything else about her was classified. She would consult on navigation. While she was also initially meant to work in the conference room with Marina, she demanded to sit down on the floor near Braya Zachikova’s station. This would block one of the four-step staircases up from the gas gunner’s tier below the main bridge floor, but her cheerful insistence wore the officers down.

“I don’t mind it. If a fire breaks out, I’ll throw her in it to open the stairs.” Braya Zachikova said.

“Don’t.” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied.

Zachikova grumbled. “It was a joke.”

“She’s so funny.” Arbitrator I smiled. “Braya! We’ll get to work together every day!”

Euphrates and Tigris were each given the rank of Specialist. Euphrates was placed under Karuniya Maharapratham, formally as a laboratory assistant. Karuniya, who was not privy to the interrogation, stared quizzically at her new charge, instantly recognizing her– but quickly grew fond of the idea of having what she described as a “minion.” She vowed to make Euphrates work hard and earn her keep.

Tigris was subordinated to Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova, who was happy to have her.

“Ah, fantastic! She was a real workhorse during the repairs.”

Tigris puffed herself up with pride. “Good to be back ma’am. What’s there to fix?”

Unbeknownst to Ulyana, the two of them had really hit it off.

They chatted away like old friends about all the menial maintenance work there was to do.

In this way, their new acquaintances would be able to quietly integrate into ship life.

However, as part of the terms, both of them were also asked to reveal their “actual” names.

“We’re not going to use Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday. Tell us your real names.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah clearly still felt somewhat slighted about being lied to by them.

“We’ve gone by our codenames for so long it really doesn’t matter. But sure, for you.”

Euphrates was actually Euphemia Levi, while Tigris was Agni Pradesh.

“Levi? That’s an Eloist surname, isn’t it? Pradesh sounds North Bosporan.” Ulyana asked.

“Pradesh is just the High Bosporan word for ‘region’, I didn’t have parents.” Tigris said.

“Eloim is how they are known now.” Euphrates said. “But that surname is as old as I am, so it is as irrelevant as its origin. Humor me, Captain: does the word ‘jew’ mean anything to you?”

“Fine. I get your point. But I’m putting both these down on the roster, end of story.”

“How old is this lady supposed to be, anyway?” Aaliyah mumbled to herself.

“It’s a new world out there, Captain, Commissar! Free of the contrivances of the old and replete with its own. Let’s agree to focus on the things that matter in this world.” Euphrates winked at them.

Aaliyah and Ulyana shared annoyed looks with each other and agreed not to ask her to elaborate.

Xenia Laskaris, meanwhile, was fired by Euphrates and Tigris, which didn’t surprise her.

Ulyana and Aaliyah promised to let her go in Rhinea with enough supplies to tide her over.

Shrugging, the Katarran mercenary simply went back to reading what looked like old issues of fashion magazines. She talked back while her eyes were peeled on pictures of trends from years past.

“I won’t say no to free food, but don’t worry about me. I wouldn’t have cut it as a merc if I didn’t plan for this type of sitch. It was worth it to take this job to see Illya and Valeriya again, even if I didn’t get paid much. Besides, I get a free ride to Rhinea– I hear there’s a Katarran warlord stuck there on a business trip who’s supposed to be a big deal. Don’t tell anyone I told you– but I’ll get another job soon.”

She winked. Ulyana and Aaliyah narrowed their eyes at her casual behavior.

Clearly, she wanted to be dropped off at a specific place, then.

With that smart mouth of hers, it was a wonder she ever got any work.

“How do you know Illya and Valeriya, exactly?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s classified. Ask Parvati Nagavanshi– or better yet, don’t.”

Xenia smirked at them. Both Captain and Commissar dropped the subject, for their mental health.

There was one final, unrelated task the two of them had to take on that day.

It was a discussion where there wouldn’t be a committee.

Ulyana and Aaliyah made their way to the brig. Because of the soundproof cells it was always quiet even when there were multiple people being kept captive. However, with almost all the occupants released, the brig felt emptier and more disused than it had been when the two of them last visited. There was one last prisoner whom they had to speak to that day: this one they left for last because it was one to whom they had no connection, and they had to be delicate with her. She had not made deals with them, fought alongside them, or saved them from a major catastrophe. Quite the opposite in fact.

They did not know, for example, how some of the more gung-ho communists among them might react to her presence on the ship. Or even worse– how Khadija al-Shajara might have reacted to her based on their tragic history. It was their duty nonetheless to evaluate whether Sieglinde von Castille was a serious defector, and what her agenda was. There were processes surrounding defectors to the Union, but these were drafted for the border forces to induct refugees, or for surrendering vessels. A single aristocrat who turned in the middle of the battlefield fell largely to the discretion of Captain and Commissar.

Complicating things further was the fact that this escapee was the famous “Red Baron.”

At the door, Ulyana and Aaliyah met with Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian. Since the crises of the past few days, the two amicable security girls had been kitted out for combat on a daily basis, wearing armored suits consisting of neoprene bodystockings with interlocking, flexible Kevlar and ceramic plates over the chest, arms, shoulders, and legs. They had been armed with shotshell shotguns, which they wielded with deadly seriousness, fingers off trigger, held at an angle away from people when idle.

Only Illya and Valeriya were formally trained and licensed for safe handling of AK-pattern assault rifles inside ships, so in a situation where the security team was allowed lethal force, but could not risk damaging ship infrastructure, the junior security girls were given shotguns armed with lethal shot. On a Union ship, it was seen as an extraordinary circumstance for security officers to bear lethal arms. It was not viewed the same as arming marines or sailors to secure a station landing.

But after all, they had been guarding a lot of strange individuals– like an imperial ace pilot.

These measures were not overkill when it came to such an unknown situation.

And especially now that Ulyana and Aaliyah had to worry about psychic powers too.

They were both ultimately glad that they decided to open the armory to these girls.

Even if nothing had happened–yet.

“Stay here, we’ll call out of anything happens.” Ulyana said.

She patted Zhu Lian in the shoulder, and the security girls nodded their acknowledgment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked into the brig, to the first door. They undid the sound-proofing both ways and opened one of the sliding plates on the door, allowing Ulyana to see inside. The Red Baron sat on the bed, her long blond hair flowing down her back. Her pristine uniform coat she had folded and set down as an additional pillow, exposing her skin-tight, long-sleeved under-shirt. She was a very tall woman, fair skinned, blond, with strikingly pretty face. Ulyana thought she had the build of a fencer, tall with lean, strong, long, and flexible limbs, but her features were like an idealized Imbrian princess.

She reminded Ulyana a bit of herself– not entirely by way of self-flattery.

However, Sieglinde von Castille was apparently Ulyana’s senior by two years.

“Baron, apologies for the delay. We would like to speak to you. We are opening the door.”

Sieglinde nodded her head, stood, and remained at the back of the cell.

Fully upright, she really was taller than Ulyana and Aaliyah.

Her countenance was so strikingly fair and regal, even as she avoided their gaze.

“Sieglinde von Castille, correct?” Ulyana asked.

“Correct.”

“During the battle, you retreated toward our side and broadcast that you were defecting.”

“I did.”

Her responses were quick, but more than enough to communicate her mournful tone.

She sounded on the verge of tears. Her voice was coming out of a ragged throat.

“I couldn’t bear serving that ravening beast Lichtenberg any longer. I felt disgusted with her.”

“And you are looking to replace servitude to her with what? Servitude to us?”

Sieglinde looked at Ulyana in the eyes and seemed to realize the trouble she was in.

“I won’t defend that dreadful Inquisitor; if it was up to me alone then I would be happy for you leaving that volatile tinpot tyrant behind and seeking brighter waters.” Ulyana continued, “However, the tricky thing about defectors is that our first and only impression of one is who they have betrayed. For the sake of my crew, I need to know more about your story and about what you are hoping to accomplish. We have a few people aboard who have good reasons to be wary of your presence, Red Baron.”

“Please don’t call me that.” Sieglinde whimpered.

“That is who you are. You are the Red Baron and you can’t avoid that.” Aaliyah said.

Her tone was rather more biting than Ulyana would have wanted in that situation.

Sieglinde’s gaze dropped to the floor.

“It’s– It’s not who I want to be. I swear to you. I would do anything to put it behind me.”

“And put behind you the lives that you took also?” Aaliyah said.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” Ulyana said. “Not unwarranted but– harsh.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms and fixed her eyes on Sieglinde.

“All I’m saying, is that she can’t just run away from the title of Red Baron. Sieglinde von Castille fought with the Empire as the Red Baron. She killed our comrades in the revolution, she served Norn and Lichtenberg, fought against us, and endangered our pilots. She has to be held accountable for those things. She can’t run away from that and pretend she can be righteous from today onward by looking the other way. I might be acting harsh, but that’d be a bit too easy for a murderer, don’t you think?”

Sieglinde remained quiet for a moment, avoiding Aaliyah’s gaze.

She raised her hands up to her face. Rubbing her palms over her eyes, digging her nails.

“She’s right.” Sieglinde said. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could be born again today free of this sin, but that will not happen. I want to change– but she’s right. I’m the Red Baron, and I’ll never be able to give back the lives I took. But I want to face justice for what I’ve done. I– I’ve thought about taking my own life.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana both drew their eyes wide open at that statement.

“Absolutely not!” Ulyana said. “That would not serve justice! Nobody here wants that!”

“I do not wish death on you!” Aaliyah added. “Forgive me– I really was being too harsh!”

She really meant it. Ulyana could actually hear the contrition in her voice all of a sudden.

“I– I want to tell you my story then. I’m not actually of noble stock.” Sieglinde said suddenly. She clutched the fabric of her bodysuit over her breast as if to feel her heart through her fist. “Please hear me out. I was an orphan, but I was blond, fair, and blue-eyed, so I was adopted by the Castille family. They were a rich military family with a heroic lineage, but they were recent Peers, and had been stricken by many tragedies and left without young heirs. But because my race could not be confirmed, they knew that the Imbrian aristocrats would be prejudice toward me unless I earned achievements equal to the Castille name.”

“Your parents pressured you to fight in the war. So the aristocracy would accept you.” Ulyana replied.

Sieglinde nodded her head solemnly. Ulyana could hear the bitterness in her voice.

“I was eighteen during the Colonial War. I was a Diver pilot, I became known as the Red Baron, one of the very first Imperial aces. But it wasn’t prestigious. They expected us to die at any time and treated us badly. Every time I sortied, I was terrified. I was killing people out of fear. I was doing everything I could to survive without a point to it all. I couldn’t turn back for fear of being killed by my superiors for cowardice or disowned by my parents for retreating. After the war, they glorified everything to save face.”

Aaliyah averted her gaze. Twenty years ago– she would have been seven years old, just a kitten.

Ulyana had fought in the Revolution herself. She had been sixteen years old back then, even younger than Sieglinde. She understood all too well what it was like; in the moment, there was no killing for righteous reasons, there was only killing. Ideology was ascribed to her battles before and after. In the lead-up to a battle, it was righteous, and after the battle, it was liberatory. In the middle of battle she was killing to survive. It was still very different from Sieglinde’s plight, however. The communists didn’t have a home to return to if they failed. Their meager homes in the colonies were the ones invaded by the Empire.

In her mind that did not diminish Sieglinde’s tragedy, however. Ulyana was sixteen, and this woman had been only eighteen. Both of them had been children, compared to their leadership. Sieglinde had been thrown into war, used as a tool by every authority in her life. She was told that treading upon slaves and peasants was righteous, that it would clad her in honor and make her worthy. And she had to wear that cloak of blood to be legitimate, or her life as she had been raised to know it would end.

“That war taught me that the aristocracy has no ‘nobility’. It was not justice. We were not protecting our families or homes, we were fighting for the greed of the imperial landlords. I hated myself for my participation in it; but I convinced myself there was no changing the path life had given me. I was the Red Baron. Eventually my parents died of illness, the pure blood aristocrats kept me at arm’s length, I fought even more wars that I did not believe in– and I told myself each step of the way that all I could do was conduct myself personally with honor, even as I was surrounded by injustices. I wasted years like this.”

Sieglinde started weeping again. She sank against the back wall of the cell.

One fist held up over her eyes. Her lips quivering with fresh sobs.

“I wasted twenty years. Lamenting, pitying myself, but doing nothing to absolve my sins. I even fought for people like Lichtenberg– I told myself I was doing it to save Elena, but the princess was right to turn away that demon of an Inquisitor. But these past few weeks have been my life in miniature. A servant of evil.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah remained quiet, allowing Sieglinde to continue speaking as she wept.

“I’m so sorry. I know this is pathetic. I know that it is too late. I know I can’t reverse the evil deeds I committed. But even if I’m never forgiven, even if I am always hated– I can’t continue to live in self-delusion, believing my self-justifications while fighting for such depraved agendas! I can’t go back!”

Sieglinde raised her voice and was finally overcome by her tears.

Sobbing too profusely to speak, she slouched her shoulders, covered her face in her hands.

It was difficult to watch this woman so visibly overcome with a lifetime of agony.

She had looked every bit as regal as a princess from a storybook before.

Mixed with a bit of the gallant knight that usually saved such princesses.

Her story showed the ugly reality of such pretty fables. It was now written on her suffering face.

In the Imbrian Empire, princely knights like Sieglinde fought and died for the avarice of callous overlords who would never accept them as equals. Honor and justice were concepts they used exclusively to fool girls like her into protecting the wealth and power of the rich. People only had as much use to them as what they could be used for, and Sieglinde had been used. All of her life, since she was a child, to the current day, made to murder innocent people. Justifying the lies she was told, to live with herself.

For Ulyana, who had been born into the Empire, it was certainly possible she could have ended up the same. If the Imbrian Empire had not purged masses of Volgians like herself, she, and many more people like her and Sieglinde would have been raised to support the Empire, to fight and to die for its values.

Had she not been repressed, Ulyana would have not learned of repression, and rebelled.

The Imbrian Empire had seared into her skin and eyes the will she needed to fight them.

That was the only thing that dictated their opposing sides in the Revolution.

Back then, she wasn’t a communist yet. She was a scared kid fighting for her only home.

Sieglinde wasn’t an imperialist. She was a teenager, in over her head, pressured to fight.

Now despite her privileged position, Sieglinde moved closer to understanding exploitation.

Ulyana did not want to deny her a chance to break free of the Empire’s control.

But it was not so easy. Sieglinde had done their country and people several injustices.

“We will let you recover for a moment, Sieglinde, and then return.” Ulyana said.

She did not want to call her Baron, or Red Baron, or von Castille– not after that story.

Aaliyah nodded her acquiescence and followed Ulyana out of the brig, to the adjacent hall.

Zhu Lian and Klara van Der Smidse entered the brig and stood guard over the cell.

“What do you think?” Ulyana said. “She’s in pieces. I feel really sorry for her right now.”

“We shouldn’t let an Imperial officer’s life’s story sway our decisions.” Aaliyah said.

“Aaliyah, she was just a kid. They raised her like this– and she still turned her back on it.”

“She’s more admirable than other Imperial officers, you’re correct.” Aaliyah sighed.

“I understand your hesitation. It might cause a stink. She’s not a civilian, not G.I.A, not innocent.”

“Everyone saw her come in here on an enemy Diver and get arrested. She’s the Red Baron.”

“Right. But Aaliyah, out there– there’s nothing but Imperials, you know? You said it yourself, before.”

When they were discussing the mission previously, their positions had been reversed. It was Aaliyah who was advocating for working pragmatically with Imperials, even the Volkisch, if it would enable them to diminish Imperial power and support the anti-Imperialist revolution. They did not have the luxury to hold their allies to perfection. Ulyana at the time thought that it was impossible to work with Imperials. She was a communist revolutionary and could not trust them. In the abstract it felt so difficult, such a bitter pill to swallow, to shake hands with an enemy. Now, Aaliyah was confronted by a ghost of the old war, and she was hesitant to accept such cooperation, while Ulyana finally put a face on those nebulous dissenters she was supposed to help nurture, and she felt an emotional connection to their plight.

“I know, Captain. But I wager very few Imperial dissidents actually fought in the Revolution.” She said.

“You don’t know that. We can’t be that picky either. Let’s think of it pragmatically: what matters now, is that she wants to work with us. She wants to take concrete steps to fight against the Empire. She feels duped, she has no path forward, she insinuated suicide— we should welcome her aboard, Aaliyah.”

“She could just be acting.” Aaliyah replied. Her argument sounded feebler than before.

Ulyana smiled at her. She held back the urge to laugh at her pouting Commissar.

“We’ve seen better actors, haven’t we? We’ve been lied to a lot lately.” Ulyana said.

“I can’t disagree with your logic Captain. But I also can’t deny my own anxieties here.”

Aaliyah’s orange eyes met Ulyana’s green eyes. She was ashamed, indecisive, struggling.

Commissars were a visible symbol of communist orthodoxy. They were supposed to be “the best of us.” Learned in theory, law, and philosophy, good at speaking, good with people. With their every step and their every breath, wherever they went, the spirit of Mordecai was supposed to follow them. Aaliyah was a bit of a party girl, and her relationship to her religion was probably a complicated factor in her upholding the secular mores of the Union’s Mordecism. Therefore– could she really work with an imperial soldier?

But above everything– she was a good person. With a kind heart and a clear head.

She wanted to be kind to Sieglinde von Castille. She just forced herself to be harsh.

Commissars locked up imperialists. Imperial soldiers were symbols of reaction, counterrevolution.

But Aaliyah was not just a Commissar. Ulyana understood what she needed to do.

“You don’t have to be responsible for her. I will clean up the broken plates, don’t worry.” Ulyana said.

“Captain– But– I–” She looked surprised at that declaration. She stumbled over her words.

“That’s why there’s two of us, right? Each of us can handle what the other one cannot.”

Aaliyah’s serious face ceded to a very small smile. “Well. I can’t exactly disagree with that.”

“I’ll keep an eye on her. You can hold me accountable for my bad judgment if she betrays us.”

Ulyana reached out a hand as if to shake in order to strike a deal with the Commissar.

“If anything happens you can pass judgment and you can decide the issue. But please– trust me.”

In response, Aaliyah suddenly reached out with both of her hands and squeezed Ulyana’s hand.

The Commissar smiled brightly at her. Her cat-like ears folded ever so slightly, her tail quivering gently.

Her voice was so placid. For a moment, Ulyana was taken aback by Aaliyah.

“Of course I trust you. Ulyana, you are better Captain– and person– than I ever gave you credit for.”

Her fingers squeezed Ulyana’s hand gently before retreating slowly back to her sides.

She was overcome with emotion. Allowing it to wash over her soft face.

Absolutely beautiful. It was impossible to turn her eyes away. Ulyana was stricken utterly.

“I will support your decision. You are right– I was being overly emotional.” She said.

Her tone of voice shifted, she was trying to sound less elated than she was before.

Perhaps she realized how absolutely cute she looked before. Ulyana could’ve kissed her.

But she would not– not right now. She was happy enough to have seen Aaliyah relax.

“Thank you. Commissar, let’s talk to Sieglinde again, and come up with a plan.”

“You take the lead then, Captain. I will be at your side as always.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah returned to the brig with renewed energy. Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse must have been wondering why they were returning to the brig with such big smiles on their faces given everything that was going on. With the officers coming in, the security girls moved to stand by the door again. The Captain and Commissar reentered Sieglinde’s cell, where she was seated back on her head. Her eyes and cheeks were very red from the violent fit of crying that had wrung through her.

She looked up at the two of them, silently pleading. Ulyana spoke first.

“Sieglinde, we apologize for the treatment so far. We want to welcome you aboard.”

Aaliyah quickly added context.

“There are conditions. We will be monitoring you, and you will work to earn our trust.”

Ulyana clapped her hands together with satisfaction. Another situation resolved!

“You will be formally debriefed at a later date. We’ll move some folks to give you a room.”

Sieglinde stared up at the two of them from the bed, initially speechless.

For a moment, there was silence between the cheerful officers and the awestruck captive.

Then Sieglinde’s eyes filled with tears again.

She threw herself to the floor and bowed, putting her head right to the ground.

It was stunning– at that moment, she was no longer an Imperial noble.

“Thank you. I am overcome by your mercy. I swear I will right my wrongs. I am oathbound to it.”

When Ulyana and Aaliyah were about to tell her to get up, Sieglinde lifted her head again.

Her tear-stained red eyes pleaded.

From the floor, her voice trembled. “I– I apologize but– I also have a request. To meet with someone.”


It happened that evening in the cafeteria.

Because it was time for the sailors to change shifts, there was a decent size crowd in the cafeteria. Nothing like the rush hours that sometimes overwhelmed the poor Chef Minardo, but at least two dozen people, enough to occupy a sizeable percentage of the cafeteria seats. These folks were eating, and making merry, happy that the ship seemed to be faring surprisingly well in the photic zone.

At the Captain’s suggestion, Minardo released some of the ship’s liquor to diners that night.

As such, Khadija al-Shajara found herself sitting on the edge of the cafeteria, turning over in her hands a small square can of corn wine. Shimii religious scholars had lively debates over the legitimacy of liquor-drinking. For hardliners, all alcoholic drinks were haram. However, there also were those more liberal mufti who believed that the prohibitions extended only to grape wine, not grain liquor. Grape wine was an indulgence of the devil, delicate and sensual, that tempted people to sin. Corn wine was just booze.

Khadija, a lively woman who enjoyed a good party, naturally sided with that camp, and popped the top of her can. She took a sip. It was sweet– possibly sweetened to hide the blandness of mass production.

However, it had a nice boozy bite to it, and it would certainly fuck her up.

And getting fucked up was all she wanted in that moment, inshallah.

“Um. Excuse me.”

That voice within the din of the crowd was not as familiar as it should have been.

Before she could chug the contents of the can and try to finagle any more out of Minardo, however, someone had appeared at the side of her table. Khadija looked up, but from her seat, it was tough for her gaze to make it up any higher than a sizable pair of breasts in a button-down synthetic shirt, without staring directly up at the LED banks on the ceiling. Trying to be polite, she stood up from her table, still holding her drink in her hands, and found herself closer to the face of her sudden guest.

Fair-skinned, long blond hair, bright eyes, a striking countenance. Tall, taller than her certainly.

Teal half-jacket, button-down white shirt, black pants, red tie. The Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Khadija’s teeth spontaneously grit together. Her hand squeezed the can she was holding.

She was standing in front of– that shameless bitch

Sieglinde von Castille. Lower lip quivering, shoulders unsteady, face flushed light red.

“Khadija al-Shajara, Lion of Cascabel– I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I’ll– I’ll do anything–”

She started to lower her head to bow–

In the next instant, Khadija’s hand cracked across the air like a whip.

Slapping Sieglinde across the face with such force it nearly knocked her over.

Leaving a red impression of her fingers on the woman’s pink-white cheek.

Without saying a word, Khadija stormed off, her own cheeks almost as red as Sieglinde’s had been left after the attack. Sieglinde watched her go with a dumbfounded expression, while everyone in the cafeteria and in the halls, literally everyone, stared directly at the two of them, held in suspense.

Standing opposite the cafeteria, Ulyana and Aaliyah covered their faces with their hands.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.11]

Even with floodlights the creature loomed menacingly as if in shadows of its own making.

“It’ll kill her if I don’t do something.”

She felt so small, weak, useless in the cockpit of the stolen Strelok, its seat much bigger than her, the controls difficult to turn, tuned for a grown adult rather than a skinny teenaged trainee. Taking breathless glances between her monitors as if one of the cameras would offer a solution, flipping through her weapons on the touchscreen as if begging for a grenade launcher or torpedo to appear.

Between the thick steel struts holding up the substation the creature danced, snaking its way around the captive Strelok in its thick, slimy worm-like body. Hundreds of tiny crab-like legs flailing needlessly as most of the control was provided by long dorsal fins like black curtains swaying off its thick blue segmented hide like it was both crab and eel. All of its thrust came from pairs of hydrojets coming out of its body on adjustable limbs. Its snake-like head peeled back to reveal fangs that unfolded like four extra pairs of crushing legs, tentatively scratching the surface of the mecha in its grasp.

Around it was a cloud of sheer malicious black gas that Shalikova could not place.

Perhaps it was exuded by the hydrojets? Was it corrosive?

It was not the fear of what it could do that stilled her, that forced her to watch helplessly.

It was the fear of it that paralyzed her completely, irrationally. Drowning her in evil emotion.

She thought she was brave.

She thought she could come out here and save everyone. That she would be the big hero.

That she would kill the bad guy– if she could shoot, she would kill it–

“Zasha– It’ll kill her– if I don’t something, it’ll kill her–”

They were only supposed to be training! Nothing was supposed to go wrong!

Suspended in the ocean immobile in her prison of steel.

Shalikova watched the creature squeeze, the fangs scratch curiously on metal.

She could have pressed the trigger.

She could have moved the sticks.

She could have killed it– she needed to kill it–

Done anything but sink gently centimeter by centimeter on idle thrust.

But despite all her training and all her ambition she was frozen in place.

“Sonya! Stay back!”

Reacting on impulse as if the voice had activated her paralyzed muscles, Shalikova pushed the sticks forward until her arms and shoulders went sore, slammed the pedals down until her legs could stretch no further. Her fingers twitched on the trigger and the Strelok began firing wildly as it charged the monster in front laying down a spray of explosive rounds on the back of the beast’s hide drawing blood the thickness of mud and gore a bright red color that seemed unreal to bear witness–

Six eyes fixed on her that seemed to expand to cover her entire screen–

Alien malice-filled eyes showed killing intention–

Until there was nothing around her not even steel but eyes and black cloud bloodlust–

Screaming, Shalikova found herself transition without pause to a place all white.

She felt her blood rush, her skin brim, but she was seated, she was weighed down.

Thick blankets had been put over her body. There was a pillow behind her.

She was in an all-white room in the medbay, in her own bed. Shaking. She began to weep.

Looking around–

–there was no ocean, no cameras, no metal, no guns, or monsters.

Through foggy eyes she saw two women seated next to her.

Wearing tight black pilot suits with green uniform coats loosely draped over the shoulders.

One was a blond, long hair, soft but avoidant expression;

One silver-grey haired like a proud wolf, cold pink eyes with a smile bittersweet;

They were both looking at her with tears in their eyes. Hesitant to speak.

“Where’s Zasha?”

Shalikova’s words made Illya Rostova bring a hand up to her own face.

While Valeriya Peterberg averted her gaze and whimpered, “It’s not your fault.”

Drawing her eyes wider and wider, her jaw slackening, her shoulders quivering.

That young girl in the bed felt her whole world crashing around her.

“You’re lying.” Shalikova said. “You’re lying Valeriya. It was my fault.”

Shalikova clapped her hands over her eyes, weeping, shaking, she screamed.

“It was my fault! It was my fault! It was my fault!”

Screamed helplessly and beat her own head as she realized rather than save Zasha–

“Sonya, please!” Illya said. “Please don’t. Please don’t hurt yourself.”

“It’s not your fault!” Valeriya whimpered again almost as helplessly.

Both of them leaned over the bed and grabbed Shalikova into their embrace, each of them grabbing Shalikova’s arms to prevent her from hitting herself anymore. Held in their strong grip, watching them weep on her almost as strongly as she herself was weeping, unable to run from it all–

Shalikova felt more helpless, useless, worthless, than she could possibly imagine.

She was no hero. It was her fault that Zasha was killed.


Around the enemy the cloud of colors and textures and feelings intensified.

Shalikova felt a strange heat in the back of her eyes that drew tears.

For a moment she was chilled in place by the sight of the enemy Diver.

It had taken Ahwalia apart like he was nothing– how had he not had any time to react?

She had to be careful around it. She felt– She felt power from it.

It was an insane thing to feel, but this was no Volker, this was not piloted by a patrolman.

There was no sense to thinking such a thing, she had fought soldiers before!

And still she could not deny that this enemy felt different, despite her rational self.

Around the machine some forty odd meters away a cloud of black, red, and purple roiled and seethed. Larger than the Cheka by nearly a meter, with the sleek design of the Jagd that made the shoulders and chest seem like a single unbroken triangular piece, armed with beastly claws, an autocannon, and a strange projectile on the shoulder opposite the gun. Rather than an integrated water system it had some novel-looking external jets affixed in wing-like mounts on the shoulders, hips, and legs.

Rather than a symbolically humanoid head it had an animal-like, pointed face.

She could feel sounds and thoughts sloughing off as if the machine was broadcasting, as if its eldritch signals were so powerful that they could not help but affect the surrounding waters. Without bidding the help of her nascent powers, Shalikova felt as if the machine was drawing out her psionics–

–maybe even pulling her paranormal sixth sense into its orbit.

Hah! I’ll make you bow before me too, you and the pretty little toy soldier you’re riding!

Again, a girl’s voice–

From the machine’s right shoulder, a 20 mm autocannon flashed.

With that, battle was joined. The enemy made the first move and Shalikova had to react.

It was the same kind and caliber as the defensive gas guns on ships, and in an instant dozens of vapor bubbles the size of a head began to burst all around Shalikova, forming chaotic gas bubbles and sending shockwaves rattling into her machine. Shalikova took the Cheka into a sudden dive to avoid the attack and shook her head to clear out the airy thoughts the machine had momentarily provoked in her.

She had to think about maneuver, she had to focus– build up speed, plan her attack–

Behind her, the machine pursued her, diving toward the sea floor at her back.

Despite its bulk, it was a sleek shadow when it moved, quick and agile.

Water ejected behind it in great waves that made it seem it wore a shimmering cloak.

Shalikova’s fingers tightened on the controls. “It’ll catch up if I don’t do something.”

Khadija hadn’t just taught her to move quickly but to move effectively for the situation.

In this case, the most effective move to seize the initiative back was–

Shalikova swung her sticks back and to the side and shifted pedals from the accelerator.

Without thrust, the density of the water very quickly halted her movement.

Executing a fluid turn, she came to face the enemy.

In that instant, she had her rifle trained right at the center of the approaching machine.

It was a game of chicken that the enemy unit gave up by losing its nerve.

Correcting itself haphazardly due to the suddenness of the Cheka’s stall in front of it, the enemy machine lost its own momentum and became a prime target for a few seconds of focused gunfire.

Shalikova held down the trigger on her AK-96, and firing two-handed from the hip, she sprayed a long burst of over a dozen 37 mm shells that impacted and exploded in rapid succession, obscuring her target in a cloud of bubbles and vapor, and burst shockwaves in the water.

Her sharp sight picked up nearly instantly that she had not destroyed her target–

–but its actual status bewildered her, nonetheless.

What she saw as the gas slowly wafted away from the enemy machine was its dimly glowing outstretched left arm, digits now spread radially around a palm with what seemed like the mouth of a mechanical lamprey in the center. Held out in front of it like a shield, the hand was entirely undamaged. Shalikova quickly ran through the filters on her cameras and realized that the hand was generating heat.

It was electrified or energized somehow– was it some close-in defense system?

“She just stopped and took all the shots dead-on.” Shalikova whispered to herself.

Let’s stand around staring! I could do this all day! Don’t you feel helpless?

The voice again– but it wasn’t entirely coherent because it wasn’t speech, it was thoughts–

It wasn’t that the enemy pilot lost her nerve to chase.

She wanted to prove that such an attack would not even faze her.

Shalikova could feel her heart pounding and her veins pulsing beneath her own skin.

This enemy was different — she felt less like a soldier and more like she enjoyed killing.

Like a monster–

Head pounding, fear pulsing in her veins, Shalikova took off running again.

Moving in a sweeping zig-zag to avoid gunfire that did not come.

Within seconds Shalikova realized the enemy had not charged full-tilt after her.

But her keen eyes detected the tiniest bit of movement–

That projectile from its shoulder detached and took flight through the water on its own.

Shalikova saw it arc around her flank at a devastating speed.

For an instant, swimming alongside her, there was this silver cylindrical object the size of a torpedo. She could see a small jet and some hydrodynamic surfaces on its hull, but no cables or things that she could recognize as sensors. How was it guided? Had it been anyone else that would’ve been chalked up to the imagination, but Shalikova had an eye for details, and if she could not see a cable in that moment, there had to be none. But then, how was that unit being controlled wirelessly with such responsiveness?

Nothing about this projectile made sense to her, not its speed, not its design–

Then as she almost doubted she was even seeing it the projectile it turned its nose to face her.

Arrayed around its cylindrical nosecone were four barrels that began to spin up.

Buzzing and booming like the cry of a beast barely muffled by water.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and she pulled on her controls–

As dozens of 37 mm projectiles flew from her side in a furious spray of metal.

Slicing the water over and around her, low booming as the shockwaves buffeted her.

Shalikova launched her Cheka skyward and hurtled abruptly out of the fire with every bit of thrust she could find leaving dozens of seething orbs of vapor and gas behind her. With miraculous dexterity she prevented the Cheka from being overwhelmed and escaped with barely a scrape– but behind her the lines of supercavitating gunfire paused only briefly as the pursuing gun executed a turn.

It darted behind her with incredible acceleration almost as if it was unaffected by the water.

Once its nose swung her way again its barrels started to flash once more.

Bursts of exploding shells firing with control and precision, tracking her, firing ahead and behind and around her– trying to suppress her? Alter her movement? Shalikova jerked her sticks, thrusting up and fluidly arcing back down in a dive, swinging from side to side, losing the enemy’s fire only briefly before the flashing barrels sent the next burst crashing her way creeping closer and closer.

Had she been in the Strelok that slightest loss of maneuverability would have cost her dearly.

She was barely staying ahead, barely surviving– “It’ll kill me if I don’t do something!” she thought.

Waiting until she was in the peak of an ascent–

Shalikova dove and in the same movement, turned on her heel.

She fired her rifle behind her, spraying in the direction of the autonomous gun.

As soon as she rapped the trigger she knew she was not going to hit.

Aborting from that maneuver she threw her weight forward into a dive–

And jerked back, pulling so hard she felt the joysticks would tear off their mounts.

Her forward cameras filled with bubbles and gas for a split second.

As the glowing red claw on the mecha’s right arm sliced through the water right in front of her.

That claw belonged to a beast– an alien beast that was filled with intention to kill–


All of you are getting written up! All of you! I have so many complaints!

Dominika Rybolovskaya was seething.

Never in her life had she worked with such a collection of rockheaded martyr complexes!

She could understand the squad leader feeling responsible for Ahwalia, but the rest–

“Lebedova, up front!”

With McKennedy, al-Shajara and Shalikova having dispersed suddenly, Valya Lebedova in their Strelok was all that stood between Rybolovskaya and the remaining enemies. Lebedova, having been given lead of the squadron, was probably deliberating in their cockpit– but the enemy would not wait. Just moments after the two of them were abandoned a Jagd swept out of the marine fog to attack.

Rybolovskaya hefted the heavy rifle in her Strelkannon’s hands and fired a timed shot.

Despite the chaos she managed to land the shell right where she wanted–

A vapor bubble bloomed between Lebedova and the Jagd, forcing the latter to disengage.

At that moment Lebedova seemed to realize the danger and began to fire on the Jagd.

Lines of supercavitating rounds sliced across water, making a lot of noise without effect.

The Jagd fluidly recovered from its failed attack and took off to circle around them.

That sleek, slippery mech was going to be a problem, and one that could kill them all.

She needed Lebedova to be more aggressive! She had to chase it off!

Shit. Shit. I can’t believe I wish that idiot was out of the hospital and out here with me.

Supporting fire underwater was almost a cruel joke.

Despite all the firepower she was laden with, Dominika could not target anything too far away.

Passive acoustic detection on Divers was not very precise at long ranges. It could, basically, alert the pilot that a target was coming and posit a rough angle of attack, but it was not something she could target with in any precise way. It was just a big warning box on the screen showing her in which direction something could have been coming from based on low fidelity sounds. The only way to get a precise lock in order to shoot from a long distance was a target paint from another machine. Short of a laser effector painting a target for her, all Rybolovskaya could rely on to aim her weapons was her sight.

Her sight was an extremely poor substitute for a full-fledged targeting sensor package.

In the water, Rybolovskaya’s vision was theoretically effective out to around 50 meters, and this did not account for the sub-cameras having a significantly worse resolution than the main camera on the mecha’s head, so a lot of the time her vision was essentially 50 meters in front and 25-30 behind. This was also in perfectly lit conditions– normally she was only seeing what she had her floodlight cluster pointed toward, because the rear LED effectors were far less bright than the forward floodlights anyway.

In essence, when Rybolovskaya stared at her monitors, she saw mostly a dark blue environment, made slightly brownish by the marine fog, in the direction of her lights. Otherwise everything was black. In this cone of well-lit vision she could see the figures of the Jagd and the Volkannon that had remained to fight them, but the Jagd, which was in motion, quickly darted up and over the range of the main camera, and as it circled around, the sub-cameras could barely capture it. Rybolovskaya’s Strelkannon was too heavily burdened to chase or dance with the Jagd, so she needed to anticipate its attack and then throw herself away from it with a shot of the vernier boosters. This is why she needed an escort!

“Lebedova, I can’t avoid its attack! You need to engage it!”

“I’m trying! I can’t overextend, that Jagd is fast!”

Lebedova was technically proficient, but they were hesitating due to the circumstances.

Sticking to the orbit of the Strelkannon, trying to interdict the Jagd, it became a game.

That Jagd began circling around them, taunting, making as if it would approach before backing off and going up or around them, keeping a distance of just over 30 meters as the bubbles in its wake outlined the cage that it had trapped them in. It knew the limitations of the mecha it was preying on.

The Jagd could always face them as it dove and banked around its prey, allowing it to make full use of its lights and sensors while its enemies had to rely on passive acoustics and lower resolution subcameras to track it. It was making full use of its speed and the fact that it possessed the initiative. If Lebedova never challenged it, the Jagd could simply bide its time, pick a moment and attack from any direction.

Rybolovskaya wanted to shout again and again for Lebedova to go attack it but–

She understood all too well that one could only fight in the ways one was motivated to.

They’re just not up to it. I’d be asking them to go get cleaved. No, I have to do something.

“Firing 88-mm anti-ship torpedo!”

Lebedova cried out. “Wait what? I didn’t give an order though–!”

Aiming at the empty ocean around the Jagd, Rybolovskaya loosed a single torpedo.

“Lebedova, dive down!”

Lebedova obediently launched into a dive, while Rybolovskaya took her mech climbing up.

Within the confines of the Jagd’s cage–

Its prey escaped in opposite directions, and a massive explosion went off in the center.

Caught while circling close to the center, the Jagd paused suddenly and pulled away.

For a brief moment, Rybolovskaya had her floodlights and main camera trained on it.

One snap shot from her 50 mm rifle–

There’s no shot!

There’s a shot!

In the smallest possible unit of time Dominika adjusted her aim just before executing a full press of the trigger; the tiniest movement of a muscle prompted by the briefest movement of her eyes; signals processing and acted upon in an impossible instant of human action; there’s a shot!

Like the simultaneous step and strike of a trained sword fighter, acting within thought.

One supercavitating shell cut right through the center of the explosion and struck.

One of the Jagd’s arms severed, splitting just below the shoulder, ejecting metal.

Dominika felt a rush but could not savor the victory for long.

Her cockpit monitors flashed a rare warning: a radiation effect had been detected.

That could only mean–

She was painted for an attack! That Jagd was painting her!

In the next instant, a round from out of sight impacted her shoulder, nearly destroying the missile mount that was set upon it. She was lucky it didn’t blow– she was forced to detach and abandon it.

“That Volkannon!”

After chastising Valya in her head for their poor performance, she got drawn away by that Jagd and ignored the presence of the Volkannon– now she couldn’t even see where it had gone after shooting! She had no idea where it had come from! With one hand she set the flank camera about tracing the angle of the shot from its footage, a subroutine already programmed into it, while the other hand remained on one stick, taking the Diver in a steep diagonal dive away from the Jagd, anticipating more shells.

“Valya, sniper!” Dominika shouted.

“Can you go after it? I’ll try to put any pressure I can on that Jagd!”

Can you go after it? They were supposed to be the leader!

Everything had gone to crap! Dominika could hardly believe this turn of events.

“But I’m also completely helpless here!” She shouted back. It was painful to admit.

Around her there was only the vast, dark expanse of the ocean.

Even Valya was beginning to disappear from her cameras.

She could expend some or all of her ordnance to take out the Volkannon if she knew where it was located. That would render her unable to attack the Antenora with anything but her rifle, but the plan was already cocked up. If they could at least the disable the enemy’s escorts then they had more room for the Brigand itself to become their weapon against the enemy ship, freeing Dominika from this burden.

Dominika grit her teeth. Everything was too quiet, too dark.

Alone, she was useless.


“Let Gertrude and Samoylovych do most of the work.” Norn had said. “You have nothing to prove to me, but Gertrude Lichtenberg certainly does. You’ve got one cartridge loaded by the way. Don’t use it unless I tell you to. There’s no need for you to push yourself for this mob, so don’t overdo it.”

Selene grinned and giggled to herself. Swelling with emotion and expected triumph.

Why would she leave anything to those two muscleheads?

In the water, she was the mightiest– she would fight to her heart’s content.

Norn always warned her about the cartridges, but at this rate she would not even need one. She had already taken apart one of the mercenaries and she had the other one cornered like a lab rat in an experiment box. Selene Anahid, pilot of the Jagdkaiser, was luxuriating in the sense of power that the Jagdkaiser fed into her mind. She knew who she was now: a perfectly created specimen.

All that was left was to demonstrate her superiority to one meager prey after another.

“You’re only alive because I only have one Option left, little mouse.”

That machine quivering before her was certainly interesting.

Its profile and performance put it strikingly close to a Magellan class mecha, sleek and fast and with a pilot who was no slouch, but there was no comparison between it and the Jagdkaiser. It was workman-like compared to her mighty steed. And of course, that pilot, crafty as they had proven in the few blows they had traded, could not measure up to Selene’s vast psionic abilities in the slightest.

Pirouetting about in the water to avoid the Option’s line of fire.

That pilot didn’t understand Selene’s intentions.

Corralling them about the water by denying space, Selene had trapped them into melee.

Now they were meters before her, in the grasp of her claws. She dodged once–

“It’s over, little mouse!”

Selene’s antennae stood on end, dimly glowing with sinews the colors of a rainbow.

With her mind, she guided the Option and controlled its weapon system, a four-barreled chain gun firing 37 mm rounds. Its maximum rate of fire would empty its enormous magazine in twenty seconds, so Selene fired it in quick bursts of 20-30 rounds at a time. Even this seemingly small amount of rounds was far more impressive than the 5-10 round bursts from an ordinary 37 mm rifle. Her enemy would see enormous slashing lines of gunfire chasing them across the ocean, saturating the water around them with orbs of gas and fire creating a no man’s land wherever they dared to move, trapping them.

Not only was the Option controlled psionically, but with a thought, Selene could push it with kinetics in any direction easily overcoming water resistance. Between efficient control surfaces, tightly packaged thrusters and a bit of psionic aid, the Option could turn in water with alacrity unknown to any man-made weapon or even any native of the sea. It was the ultimate psionic weapon, entrusted only to her hands. Its only small flaw was that it could not shoot while being pushed, or it would misfire. Irrelevant.

Her superheated claw slashed at the little mouse with passion and ferocity.

Dancing to the flute song of Selene’s violence the mecha thrust itself up over the claw.

Trails of frothing vapor rose from the red-hot digits nearly slashing the mecha’s leg.

With a grin on her face and a fire in her chest that burned hotter than the claws, Selene sent a snap thought to the Option and swung it in a tight spiraling turn. Circling around her, rising in the water column above even the enemy and then snapping its nose to face the little mouse in a space of mere seconds. She was trapped, no place to escape, the Jagdkaiser below, the gun above.

Lines of slashing bullets–

And the rising, surging claws of the Jagdkaiser–

“You’re mine now mouse!”

No matter which direction they fled to–

Down–?

Suddenly the mecha threw itself down at the Jagdkaiser.

Selene impulsively swung the heat claw and found her digits digging into the metal–

of an assault rifle–!

That mecha slammed rifle into claw slowly melting it into a blob over the sharp digits–

–and got past it, into the Jagdkaiser’s guard, with a burst of solid fuel thrust.

Her head camera was taken up fully by the shadow of the mech bull rushing her.

Then all of the fire from the Option came raining down upon them.

And as it did, the enemy boosted out of the Jagdkaiser’s embrace and around her flank.

A dozen rounds crashed upon the Jagdkaiser’s armor, pitting the thick hull, and severing a chunk of the shoulder with the Option’s mount, smashing a sharp bit of plate off the skirt, before Selene could spin down the guns. Gritting her teeth she ordered the gun to circle back around to the other side while she turned in place and slashed behind her, aided by a lick of solid fuel thrust on the shoulder and arm to overcome the water. A curtain of vapor swept in front of her and the molten assault rifle slid off her claw but she caught no more metal as her disarmed enemy backed just enough away.

“Damn it! God damn it! Psynadium, now!”

On command the tubes connected to the back of her neck pumped the drug through her.

She felt power surging through her like hot glass slicing through the veins in her brain. She gritted teeth, enduring a brief instant of the most horrific pain but rewarded with the clearest view of the ocean any living creature could possibly have. Her eyes glowed not red but with a rainbow gradient that matched the colorful sinews of her antennae. The Aether trails flashed and swirled before her in the sea.

Within the water she saw the outline of the enemy like a shadow in all of the lights.

Selene awaited a flash of insight as to its next movements.

The Jagdkaiser’s homunculus enhanced psionic power, along with the boost of Psynadium.

When her antennae were loose and connected to this system as well, her clairvoyance became so powerful she could vividly see everything her enemy would do before they even tried to do it. Their emotions and thereby their intentions fed into her through the aether seconds before their bodies took action. The hands of fate gesticulated for her eyes only, and she read the sign language to deadly effect.

“A cunning little mouse.” Selene cursed to herself, furious, near breathless.

This time the trap was the same, but rather than a vertical snare the two mecha stood on a horizontal plane before the fateful blow. Her enemy before her, the gun at its back and the claw to its chest. Once she charged the enemy would move up or down– she did not need to guess or use the logic of battle because she would have the truth of it. Whatever it decided in the next second she would know.

Not only that but it was disarmed of its rifle. There was no weapon at its disposal.

Clever athletics would do no good. It could no longer inflict any damage.

She was almost positive it was about to move any given microsecond of thought–

When it did–

That little mouse turned around to face her and launched– something–

Acting before thinking, Selene raised the Jagdkaiser’s special claw.

Glowing with an electric field, it deflected the projectile launched at her.

Causing it to arc around the Jagdkaiser’s body harmlessly.

Rather than being heated, the larger, rotating claw that held the muzzle for the agarthic cannon possessed a powerful magnetic field generator in the wrist with effectors located beneath the digits. While the claw could be swung as a large, sharp piece of metal it was far less capable of slashing than the heated, vibrating claw on the other arm. Designed to shape the agarthic energy from the cartridge away from the Jagdkaiser’s hull, Selene pioneered using the magnetic field on this claw defensively.

In this way bullets could be made to arc away from the claw and explode uselessly.

Instead of a weapon it became her unbreakable shield.

Selene felt momentarily like a genius, however–

It was not a bullet which she had deflected around her flank.

Her enemy had launched a grenade.

She realized it within a split second of the projectile exploding at her side.

Her cockpit vibrated wildly as she tore herself away from the blast leaving in the water a small chunk of the Jagdkaiser’s flank and a strip of the shoulder and arm plates. Wild eyes snapped to each camera looking for that enemy mech and finding it suddenly rushing her directly from the front.

“Why? Why couldn’t I see that?!”

Her head was foggy with rage, her whole body shaking as more of the drug injected.

In a rush Selene positioned the Option like a knife to the enemy’s back–

Plunging and driving the blade, the blades–

Spinning up in half a second the bullets came flying in dozens–

That enemy mecha still unarmed rushed her fool-hardy–

Selene had expected a blade but–

Mid-charge the enemy feinted her, throwing itself into a dive to avoid crashing into her.

And leaving her once again exposed to her own gunfire.

“Using me as a shield?! God damn it!”

Her own bullets arced around her claw and exploded around her harmlessly.

Again the gun spun down, again she forced it to arc to the enemy trying to take her back.

“You won’t get away! You won’t! I’ll tear you out of that cockpit and melt your guts–!”

Selene lunged behind herself opening and snapping her heat claw, trying to snatch the enemy.

A vortex of vaporized water briefly burst between her fiery claws as she seized nothing.

She could have sworn– she could have sworn it would be there–

Why wasn’t she seeing–?

On one of her monitors, something she wasn’t used to paying attention to.

Her acoustic system painted a red targeting box to alert her.

As soon as her eyes snapped down to the lower camera and back up to main.

That enemy had flown under her, behind her, and to the side in quick motion–

She had deluded herself as to its trajectory thinking that a vision would come that did not.

And in the next instant, a diamond sword swung and sliced clean off one of the metal digits.

In that brief instant in which it had gone cold after her last attack with the claw.

I’m not a lab rat! I’m Sonya Shalikova! You think this is fun? Are you enjoying yourself?

Thoughts broadcast into the aether. A girl’s voice– a girl just like her– no. Not quite.

Selene raised a hand to her glowing eyes, slouching her shoulders. Her heart leaping.

Grinning. Laughing. From the absurdity of it. So her little mouse had fangs? SO WHAT?!

This girl was clever, and apparently psionic too, a worthy opponent perhaps– but INFERIOR.

Selene’s eyes burned as her emotions surged in her chest like white-hot flames at her core–

The name of your killer is Selene Anahid, she projected, and you’ll die one order evolved, kitty!


Everything was quiet, orderly, there was a sweet scent and gentle lighting.

“It’s so peaceful here. I’m sure she loves it.”

Zasha Shalikova felt a sense of trepidation as she sought out the right door, walking down a special hall in the middle deck of Sevastopol Station. The Children’s Hall was cozy and earthy, made up with very fake wood panels and relaxing yellow light and the walls had beautiful posters with colorful characters. The posters in the hall exhorted the children to be kind to each other, to be on time for tasks and appointments, to eat their fill and instructions for using the computers to hail adults for help.

It was the year 966 AD. She was twenty years old and her sister was ten years old.

Her sister–

Yes, it was her sister who lived in a warm little room in this children’s hall.

Just beyond one of these doors. She told herself, it was important to remember.

She was a sister now, and Zasha was beyond happy for her.

Her trepidation did not come from that change in their positions.

Rather, Zasha was always afraid that Sim–

Sonya. Yes, Sonya. She was named after their mother now, not their father.

Anyway– Zasha feared that Sonya would be– too independent, perhaps?

In the Children’s Hall, the kids were taught to be responsible for their environment and toward each other. They did their own cleaning, they made their own beds, they were responsible for dressing themselves and going to their classes. They could even, once or twice a week, prepare their own meals. They could call adults for help at any point and the help would be given easily and cheerfully, but the Children’s Hall was supposed to be like their own little enclave that taught them to value the home and to value community with each other, to take care of their own space and make use of their own time.

It was part of the ideology of their ex-Premier, Daksha Kansal.

In honor of her, the current Premier, Elias Ahwalia, continued the practice.

The government wanted children to not be beholden to parents or caretakers entirely.

So the default was for children to live in children’s halls or at specific school dorms.

Parents had to beg for exceptions if they wanted to exclusively raise their children.

And if the reasons weren’t good enough, then they had to gracefully accept separation.

Zasha gracefully accepted separation. At least, outwardly so–

She had always been very protective. So it was hard to let go, but it was for the best.

There were many visit days on the calendar, but Zasha had been busy.

Hopefully, her Sonya would not resent her as she took her first visit day in a year.

Producing a portable terminal from her bag, Zasha double checked the room number.

And she found herself in front of it. 102417. She approached it and took a deep breath.

Before she could knock on it, the door opened– her perceptive sibling had noticed her.

Sonya had always had keen senses.

“Zasha! I heard you shuffling behind the door! It’s so nice to see you in meatspace!”

Sonya smiled brightly, her bright indigo eyes shining, her soft little cheeks turning up.

Zasha laid a hand on her silvery-white hair and patted her head vigorously.

“Are you being a good girl, Sonya?” She asked.

“Hee hee, you called me a girl, Zasha.”

“Of course I did! You’re my sweet little sister.”

“Ahh! I’m so happy Zasha!”

“I’m glad. Everything feels ok, right? No stomachaches or anything?

“No! It’s great! I love the medicines. Now I can be as cool as you are!”

Zasha laughed a little. What an impressionable kid– but Zasha always trusted her choices and let her have what she wanted. That was the ethos of the Children’s Hall after all. When Sonya confessed on a video-call about being Sonya and sent her a digital pamphlet about hormone therapy that a caretaker had given her, Zasha was nothing but pleased. It was important to her, more than anything else, that Sonya Shalikova got to have a say in who she was. That she wouldn’t be funneled down a path that anyone else wanted or expected. If that meant taking hormones, then Zasha was happy for her.

And if it meant living away in the Children’s Hall, then that was fine too.

“I suppose I’m so cool, you definitely needed a doctor to help you catch up.” She joked.

Sonya’s eyes stared at her wide and round. She then made a bashful little pout.

“Oh no, Sonya, I meant nothing by that. You’ve always been very cool you know?”

“I knooooow.”

She was such a sensitive kid too sometimes.

“Come in. My room is so huge!”

Zasha smiled. It really was not. And it looked like she was sharing it too.

Rather it was a standard Union single, but for a kid, it was a lot of space. And they really went all out on the kid’s decorations. The walls of the room were projecting a fake wood texture but if one touched any of them it would feel like a smooth resistive touchpad, which it all was. There were two little desks, for Sonya and a roommate, along with a combination shower, toilet and wash basin accessible behind a retractable wall panel. More colorful posters decorated the walls too. A Union single, but for kids.

“I have a roommate, Klob Hondros, but I gave her one of my recreation tickets and a bunch of credits so she would go see a movie or stuff herself or do whatever for the afternoon so we could hang out alone, Zasha.” Sonya said. “I don’t use the credits for anything, and I get them all the time.”

“I see.” Kids were paid a small wage for going to school, and bonuses for exceptional behavior.

Zasha was not concerned by Sonya’s money habits, which didn’t matter, but rather–

“I would have liked to meet your friend.” She said gently.

“Klob? I wouldn’t call her my friend– we study and do stuff together I guess.”

She was still so antisocial. They would have to work on that somehow.

“Well, maybe I’ll stick around long enough to meet her.”

“Ehhh, if you want to. She’s kind of cool I guess. She’s a fish I think. She has horns.”

Sonya sat on her bed kicking her feet happily while Zasha looked around the room.

“If you have enough money to bribe her to leave–”

“–It wasn’t a bribe–!”

“–then you must be doing really well academically.” Zasha said.

“Oh!” Sonya smiled again. “Yep! I’m doing so good. It’s like crazy how good I am.”

“Keep working hard!” Zasha said. “I’m so proud of you!”

“What about you?” Sonya asked. “Did you kill any bad guys?”

“There’s no bad guys to kill. And that’s not really what I do, you know.” Zasha said.

She cringed just a little bit– she did not want Sonya to have such bloody-minded ideas.

Nevertheless, as a child who lived through the revolution, it was inevitable.

Death and killing were always going to be part of her mind. Sad as it was to think about it.

She had not been old enough back then to understand what was happening with any nuance.

“Zasha.”

Sonya’s voice turned serious. Zasha turned around to make eye contact. She had been looking at a shelf where one of Sonya’s sewn stuffies was sitting. It looked like a big purple blob of a cuttlefish, a simple beginner stuffie. Zasha dearly wished Sonya would do more sewing and less thinking about war.

“Yes dear?”

Looking her eye to eye, Sonya stood up and seemed to be trying to look tall.

“I want to be a hero like you!” She declared.

“I see.”

Could she say ‘no’ to that? Had Sonya finally done something utterly unacceptable?

“In your own words–”

“–huh? you sound like my teacher–”

“–what does it mean to be a hero, Sonya?” Zasha asked with a firm tone but a smiling face.

Sonya’s bright round eyes glimmered with excitement.

“A hero is like, strong! They know how to fight really good and kill the bad guys!”

“Hmm. Why would you kill the bad guys though?”

“Because they’re bad, duh?”

“Not quite.” Zasha said.

She bent down a little and stroked Sonya’s head gently.

“Sonya, if you want to be a hero like me, first, you must be kind and responsible. You must make friends and help people. Take care of your tasks and avoid hurting others. Those are the important things that makes your big sister Zasha cool– it’s not my rank or being in the navy, and not ‘killing bad guys’.”

Zasha would defer telling Sonya that she had been inducted into the special forces.

For as long as humanly possible now, given the circumstances.

It would give her some funny ideas about this lecture.

Still– she wouldn’t say no if Sonya wanted to join the armed forces.

It was not in her nature to tell Sonya not to do something. Even something like this.

But she had to do it for the right reasons. She had to really understand it.

“Don’t you need to fight to be a hero?” Shalikova asked.

“Hmm, not quite!” Zasha smiled. “There’s all kinds of ways to be a hero. Heroes aren’t only those who fight. The lady at the cafeteria is a hero; your teachers are big heroes too.”

Sonya puffed her cheeks up a bit. “Big nags, actually.”

“Sonya~”

“Okay, okay. But you fight bad guys, or you train to fight bad guys, don’t you?”

“Well, yes–”

“Then why do you do that? If it isn’t to be a hero?”

Zasha continued to smile. Sonya was asking the right questions. “In my case, Sonya, I want to fight so that other people don’t have to. Fighting isn’t something soldiers want to do. But we will fight so that the cafeteria lady, and your teachers at school, and even you yourself, don’t have to do that. So you can do other things that help people more, like cook or sew cute stuffed animals.”

“You don’t think fighting helps?” Sonya asked.

There was a tiny little shudder in Zasha’s heart, but she never ceased to smile.

Whatever Sonya wanted to do– Zasha would support it with a smile and proper guidance.

“I think that we need to be really careful about fighting.” Zasha said. “We need to think a lot about why we do it and most of the time we need to find ways of sorting things out that aren’t fighting. That’s part of my job too, you know. If you can think of a really good reason to fight, Sonya, and you find that fighting is the only way that you can help or save people, only then should you fight.”

Sonya looked determined and smiled. “I’ll fight to protect you, Zasha!”

Zasha suddenly took Sonya into a tight embrace.

For some reason she felt tears in her eyes. Tears for everything her sister had been through.

“Sonya, you’re full of love. I know you’ll understand my lesson someday.”

She whispered this almost to herself, holding her fragile little sister in her hands.

And praying that everything would really turn out well for her.


Zasha

Being a hero– what Zasha had said it meant– Could Shalikova really–?

Cold sweat built on her sharply rising chest. Her breath came in fits.

Thoughts unbidden. She was getting emotional, she was swimming in pure emotion.

Everything was so desperate that she had begun to think about her sister.

After trying to push her out of her mind for so long.

What would Zasha have done? What would Zasha had said?

It was painful to remember– but the confrontation was forced–

Emotions flooding, cascading in brilliant colors, inescapable–

Black and red, she was wreathed in the ferocious void-fire of killing–

Was that her only emotion too–? Was she only colored with intention to kill–?

“Focus! Tight focus!” Sonya Shalikova told herself, trying to break free of this spiral.

She would need every neuron she could spare to survive let alone achieve any victory.

“Zasha, I have to fight.”

For the difference in power between their machines, Sonya had been doing admirably.

The Cheka had only taken a bit of cosmetic damage– and one melted rifle.

But that enemy machine had not lost any speed or power from the damage that it took.

Its armor was pitted and shredded in places, but it was still moving like a juggernaut.

Shalikova had not intended to do much damage with her tricks anyway.

She had planted a seed of possibility. That keenness she couldn’t escape had guided her.

Now Selene would nurse an expectation of how Shalikova would move in reaction to the projectile’s gunfire. If Shalikova tried to use her as a shield again, would the reaction be different?

Would she shoot at herself, or reposition it differently, or make a more adverse move in response? Any wrong move and those molten claws would destroy her completely, or she would be shredded by that flying chain-gun but when this fight had started, she was far more helpless than now.

She had an opportunity. But she had to convert it into a way to disable that machine.

Or at least try to disarm it. If only her sword could have cut that entire claw off!

“She wants to kill me. She would love to. That’s the feeling I get in the aura, but–?”

All that bleak anger and hatred radiating from that machine–

Was it really a window into the heart of the person inside?

Was Selene Anahid a monster as ferocious and evil as the one that had taken Zasha?

“No. She’s a human being just like me. I can stop her.” She said.

Selene was clearly psionic, however. Since she learned about psionics, Shalikova had been dimly considering the possibility that they might confront someone who knew about psionics too. As much as she hated the thought of relying on this strange new power, Shalikova had to give as good as she was getting– and the machine’s wild aura told Shalikova that psionics was involved here.

Remembering what Maryam had shown her–

Shalikova pulled the mental trigger and her eyes felt hot from inside.

That irregular cloud of colors in front of her came more sharply into focus.

“So I was right–”

As she had been fighting Selene she had felt that an attack was coming and this was heralded by the intensifying of the machine’s red and black aura. It was like she could feel the decision to attack before Selene made it. This allowed her to be somewhat more confident in taking risks with very tight timing, like dropping into and escaping from the machine’s grasp in order to lead its attacks into itself. It was something she only acknowledged after the fact– in the middle of things it just felt like she really good instincts and coordination. Now she recognized the source of those instincts clearly.

Because now she could see the patterns in the water among all the other colors.

Trails of red and black slowly dissipating behind their machines like scars of their battle in the aether– and trails of possibility extending ever so subtly from the machine like tendrils ready to imprint the next scar of their violent fate onto that ocean-spanning cloud of human emotions. It was tricky– she was seeing the aura shift this way and that as if nothing in the future had been settled yet.

Was Selene seeing this too? Shalikova recalled something else– Maryam’s fortune telling.

“That’s it!”

Sword in hand, suddenly inspired, Shalikova drew the Cheka back to provoke a reaction.

In the next instant Selene’s claw swiped right in front of her.

A cloud of bubbles and vapor from the superheated claws hid her intention. A burst of 20 mm bullets from the autocannon on her right shoulder kept Shalikova at bay, popping one after another in little bursts of vapor and metal. Shalikova could not see the sea floor but she knew she was close to the bottom now and so she dove further with the space created by the last exchange of attacks.

If she could drag Selene to the benthic surface there would be one less plane of movement.

Normally that would be an enormous disadvantage, but Shalikova was counting on that.

And counting on Selene’s reaction to having a sudden, seemingly massive advantage.

In response to Shalikova’s dive the flying chain gun appeared at her side.

Following her with alien ease and agility, the machine spun up its barrels to attack from her flank.

With Selene above and behind, chasing, the chain gun could safely attack from the flanks.

As soon as she saw it, Shalikova struck a button on her joystick that had been glowing green.

“Sorry Murati and Gunther!”

On a supplementary screen, the Cheka’s Energy Recovery System status appeared.

Gathered power deployed from hidden battery cells and supercharged the water system.

In an instant, the Cheka began moving much faster than it had been.

Selene’s gunfire flew right past her, not even close–

Dozens of flashing red status warnings popped up for every conceivable system.

Everything was overheating or stressed, nothing was handling the increased power well.

Shalikova began to plea silently with the machine, hold together, hold together, hold–

Below her, she could suddenly see the grey, sandy rock of the Goryk plain dominating her vision.

She had been diving headfirst, but when she saw the ground Shalikova twisted her body around and glided across the dusty surface– with her back to the ocean floor and her head and chest facing up at the machine approaching. Its horns glowing with all the colors of the rainbow, veins of color playing about its hull, and that demonic red and black aura growing thicker and thicker as it approached.

And as Shalikova glided over the surface, her water jets kicked up all the loose sand.

There was sediment! There was enough sediment–!

For an enormous cloud to blow over Shalikova and for a few dozen meters all around.

Just as she hoped– as she planned.

WHAT? GOD DAMN IT.

Shalikova heard a psychic wail emanate from the enemy machine.

She stopped, briefly caught her footing, standing up the Cheka inside the cloud.

Praying that she was right– and with each passing instant believing in her observations.

Though her cameras were blinded by the cloud seafloor deposits she could still see the enemy machine’s aura. Hovering overhead, losing initiative, moving slower and with less confidence–

Selene couldn’t predict her movements.

GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT–

Psychic screams of frustration, the red and black aura began to grow a sickly green stripe–

Maryam had said–

“When I tried to read you I couldn’t see any surface thoughts at all,”

That machine was generating such an intense amount of emotion that it stirred the aether.

Shalikova had put everything together, she knew she must have been correct in thinking–

She generated no ambient emotions for Selene to pick up. She was invisible to psionic senses.

Unless she deliberately broadcast her emotions to Selene, her enemy could see nothing.

Just like a certain powerfully psionic cuttlefish had failed to read her before too.

“Maryam, when I get back I’m going to kiss you!”

Shalikova leaned on her controls with a burst of determination.

Overhead, the machine and its projectile positioned themselves over the center of the cloud.

Within seconds, massive amounts of gunfire burst from the chain gun and the autocannon.

Since they couldn’t see her, they made use of the high ground to furiously bombard the seafloor.

Got you.

That last thought was Shalikova’s– and she made sure not to broadcast it.

Selene had already seen how fast the Cheka could dive with E.R.S. on–

–but she had no idea how quickly its horizontal and vertical maneuvering would be–

As Shalikova burst out of the cloud, still on the sea floor, right behind Selene’s machine.

Launching up nearly forty meters in just over a second as her systems cried from the strain.

Almost instantaneously the alien projectile’s chain gun snapped up from the sea floor–

Hesitating.

Selene must have realized–

–that once again she was between Shalikova and the gun.

So she made a correction.

Throwing the gun into a climb so it would shoot over her at an angle on Shalikova.

Exposing the chain gun to retaliation.

Soon as Shalikova’s keen eyes spotted that cluster of aura rising separate from Selene–

From her shoulders two jet anchors fired on their rocket boosters, cables instantly cut.

They sailed over Selene like a pair of thrown daggers.

One crashed into the center of the chain gun barrels.

Second dug between a control fin deep enough into the chassis to hit the magazine.

Shalikova knew instantly that while it could still move that gun would never shoot again.

Feral psionic screams erupted from her enemy.

As Selene furiously swung the machine’s bulk around to attack her, Shalikova threw all of her weight and thrust into a two-handed, overhead swing aimed down the middle of the mecha’s shoulder.

She only ever attacked with this claw and the shoulder cannon–

Destroying the machine was out of the question–

But if she could disable its weapons–

Shalikova’s sword plunged smashing and slicing through the new style thruster on the winged mount atop the shoulder guard and biting through to the housing for the autocannon. Diamond teeth ground furiously, chewing through the metal and composite and churning debris from all ends of the wound glowing red hot and irregular, gnawing cabling, electric cells, armor, inner supports and tubes–

For an instant it caught within the steel of the arm suspension–

Chewing up its teeth hot, violence briefly stopped–

Please, cut through, cut harder, cut deeper, push! Push!

Shalikova begged and pleaded and cried for the sword’s deadly jaws–

Her eyes welled up hot vapor streaming from her tears–

If she could only sever that arm– she could stop all of this–

“I understand, Zasha! I understand now! I just need a little more strength!”

Shalikova physically could not kill this behemoth. Had she tried she would be dead.

Aiming for the cockpit hull would have done nothing. It was thick enough to shrug off an explosion.

But the arm– she felt like if she gave everything she had she could disable that arm–

Then she would not need to kill Selene. She could make her surrender, take her prisoner–

“I don’t want to kill her! I don’t want to! I want to– I want to save her!”

Answering Selene’s cry with a determined scream of her own that sent her aura flaring–

Spurring the diamond jaws to a snap instant of violence severing the entire shoulder.

Exiting shattered ejecting the diamond chain in pieces as Selene’s gutted arm descended.

The Cheka’s entire hands snapped from the pressure and ceased to respond, letting go of what was left of the diamond sword. All of these instruments severed from their masters and descended gently out of sight onto the cloudy seafloor, the sword, the hot-clawed arm and its shoulder cannon, and the chain-gun, suddenly losing power. A silent cloud of metal debris drifted in the marine fog.

For an instant Shalikova found herself in total darkness.

Abusing the E.R.S. had downed all of the Cheka’s power. She stood blind and in silence.

Then the power came back on– and Shalikova reached for an air mask.

On the diagnostic screen, she saw that the E.R.S. had burned out the main turbines.

Smoke began to seep into the cockpit. Propulsion completely died.

She donned a mask from the emergency supplies, giving her about an hour of life–

And then glanced through her cameras in a panic.

But the enemy machine was not moving. It could not take advantage.

Shalikova sank back in her chair, sucking air through her mask while her mind reeled.

You can’t– You can’t possibly– I was born, I was made, stronger than you! I was! I am!

From the enemy machine the cloud of colors became tinged with all shades sickly and sad.

A roiling vortex that had it been physical looked like it would have crushed the machine.

Selene’s panicked, morbid, self-hating, self-hurting thoughts cascaded out of the mecha.

I’m complete, I’m perfect, I was made perfect, how can she be stronger than me? Mother, why?

Shalikova’s own thoughts poured painfully out of her own soul in return–

Please stop. Please just surrender. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.

Within the clashing aether where all human hurt and suffering had left its mark.

Shalikova felt like crying– she was crying– there was so much pouring out of her.

She knew it was irrational, but she was so affected by the emotions she felt from Selene.

As if that keenness which had haunted her eyes all her life was haunting her mind now.

All of those emotions were so much more violent than anyone could possibly feel.

And she felt them so keenly, as if they were her own, flashes of pain and insight–

Cold, indistinct halls–

Distant people’s words hung with enormity never understood–

Authorities she rejected– figures she refused to let herself rely upon– so much to prove–

Shalikova had never seen an aura like it. Even Ahwalia driven to attack Illya because of their past. Shalikova had seen that anger. She had even seen intention to kill, from when Valeriya struck Ahwalia back that same night. Those were human emotions pushed to their limits, but Selene’s intensity led Shalikova to think maybe the machine was doing something to Selene Anahid inside. Making her worse.

None of those people wanted to powerfully, so strongly, to kill, to hate, to commit violence.

None of those people had been so purposeless in their pursuit of tragedy.

We don’t have to kill each other. We don’t. Selene, please.

Above all what she felt from Selene was a great, exceptional loneliness and isolation.

There was a hole inside Selene that had been filled inside Sonya.

Thoughts of her sister Zasha and all the hurt and inadequacy that she felt came to her unbidden.

All of these years she had run away from it.

It was painful, forcing herself not to think about Zasha while living without her, it was so painful.

It was painful, pain beyond any, to accept that she was gone.

To accept she couldn’t save her. That jumping in that mecha and killing the monster did not change anything. Suspended in the middle of the ocean having fought a battle to a violent standstill, Shalikova finally stared sharply into years old scars that she had been scared to acknowledge. Zasha was gone. She had failed to save her. But she wasn’t alone– Shalikova still had everything Zasha ever left to her.

Had it not been for Zasha–

For Illya and Valeriya–

For Murati and Khadija–

For that kind and gentle Maryam Karahailos–

For what purpose or meaning would Shalikova have been comitting violence and taking lives?

Would she have been in Selene’s shoes, roaring with self-assured but morally empty anger?

Heroes kill bad guys.

Superior beings triumph over inferior ones.

Those childish things which they had both thought– had they been so dissimilar at all?

Selene, I want to save you–

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, lit up purple in the dim cockpit. An agarthic radiation warning.

Camera filters drawing a flashing purple box around Selene’s mecha as she lifted the remaining arm.

Hitherto unused except as a defense system, Shalikova had thought it wasn’t a weapon.

Claws separating radially around a hole in the palm creating a magnetic field.

Vapor vented from the thicker part of the arm closer to the shoulder as it generated heat.

A furious, rising, incredible heat– and a purple glow through a wound in the arm’s plates.

Tongues of agarthic energy each the width of hairs leaped across the surface of the machine.

“Sonya Shalikova. You are the one who needs saving. Not me– I am the strongest of us.”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.10]

“Khadija al-Shajara, Strelok ‘I~bis’, deploying!”

Setting her jaw and shoulders stiff so as to not betray a bit of a shake as she dropped.

She was an old hat at this– she was not about to let the situation scare her.

There was an altogether different feeling than the last time she deployed, however.

Back then, she had been so prepared to die, to do anything to throw her life at her enemy like a fireball that would engulf everything, including herself. Now, as her camera feed transitioned from the metal of the deployment chute to the misty water of the Nectaris, her enemy hidden somewhere in the thickness of the marine fog and the darkness of the deep sea, she could not help a bit of anxiety.

It was so much more difficult to live than to die.

Her whole body still ached from days and days of training, but it would ache regardless.

She was old. Something always ached.

Her fingers around the sticks ached, her ankles ached as she pushed them down on the pedals, her back was hurting, the back of her neck hurt, her shoulders throbbed, the muscles on her chest and belly. The muscles connecting her ears to her head hurt, her tail hurt where it attached to her lower back. And yet those fingers effortlessly guided her way, those feet exerted graceful control of her thrust, and she sat on the chair not hunched and half-broken but upright and proud. She was ready to fight.

As soon as Squadron 114’s formation began to move she could already feel the improvements that had been made to this Strelok over the basic model. Khadija had rejected the machine at first, because part of her advantage was the intimate knowledge she had over every movement an ordinary Strelok could make, and this allowed her to be precise — but that wily Shalikova knew how to get to her.

“If you don’t take my machine I’ll give it to Aiden Ahwalia.” She said.

Incredible. What an evil-minded little girl– Khadija had no choice but to accept it.

Thankfully it was not so different from a Strelok that it hindered Khadija’s piloting style.

The weight distribution was similar, control response exactly the same, it was like piloting a Strelok but getting more from it. Khadija could tell immediately she could push it harder, she could get more thrust and get it quicker, she could make slightly tighter corrections due to the improved hydrodynamics. She tested here and there as the formation charged out into the ocean, quickly getting a feel for it.

Then–

“That little fucking worm!”

Shalikova went after Aiden Ahwalia after he brazenly took off from the formation.

Leaving her to lead it temporarily. Khadija hardly wanted that responsibility–

And she would not have it for long.

Seconds after Shalikova split off from the group, the 114th Diver Squadron caught their first glimpses of the incoming enemy. Four enemy figures appeared shrouded in the marine fog. Probing fire flew from both sides, rifle rounds briefly lighting the pitch black ocean, vapor bubbles blossoming randomly where each side last saw the enemy. Both groups broke through each other, momentarily seeing each other in plain sight as they sped past each other. Different machines then split off to probe different angles of attack, some sweeping up, some dropping down. Khadija tried to make out the models–

In that instant, Khadija caught sight of that mecha once again.

And this time, it was painted red, as if begging for her acknowledgment.

That new Diver model that had fought in defense of the Iron Lady.

Her computer had wanted to label it a Jagd before, but they had come to name this model after its pilot, Red Baron, when they updated the data on their predictors. Its triangular body plan resembled the Jagd, but it was sturdier, with swept pauldron shoulders, a helmeted humanoid head, thicker arms and legs. Unlike the hyper-aggressive Jagd built only for raw speed and close combat, the Red Baron could have replaced the Volker as a sturdy main-line grunt unit, in the same way as the Cheka was likely to replace the Strelok. It was archetype of a new generation; a new body to vanguard the imperial cause.

Clad in striking red, it looked ever more like Khadija’s recollection of her old arch-enemy.

“Valya, stick to Rybolovskaya and command her fire! I’m going after the break-aways!”

“Ma’am–? Are you passing me lead?”

“Yes! Go!”

Those were the last words of leadership that Khadija issued over the squadron’s communications before she rushed full ahead after the Red Baron. Following that red shadow up into the thickening marine fog, firing her assault rifle at the figure who immediately took her up on the offer to dance. Valya would have to contend with the rest. Khadija always knew this time would come, sooner or later.

Shalikova was nearly killed by her, Murati too. It could only be her who put an end to this history.

I’m the only one who can stop her. She’ll run circles around the rest of them.

The Red Baron thrust higher up the water table and Khadija gave chase.

Both of them breaking off from their formations, leaving their squadrons behind.

Khadija kept her main camera trained on the Red Baron, her eyes fixed on even the slightest movement by the machine. She fired one-handed from the chest in semi-automatic mode, one shot per one trigger pull, the Red Baron skillfully sweeping from side to side to avoid the explosions of the 37 mm rounds. In turn the Red Baron fired her own rifle behind herself and forced Khadija to dodge in the same way.

In the net neither gained nor was able to escape from the other, and the two Divers appeared like opposing poles spiraling within a cylinder of their own making, vapor bubbles from stray explosions foaming in their wake. Dancing as they had danced before, each a mirror of the other.

It was not that either of them was an excellent or inept marksman.

Rather they were so equal to each other’s skill and their equipment too near performance.

Khadija knew that this dance could not last, and her counterpart must have known also.

This was a distraction, buying time, making space, probing, trying to find an advantage.

Two masked killers in the final ballroom, watching each other dance with hidden knives.

It’ll be decided in melee. We both came up in a time where melee decided these fights.

She was ready to take up the sword at any second–

Drifting perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters above the battle below–

When suddenly a cloud of bubbles blew into her and blinded her.

The Red Baron had run an emergency routine and blown oxygen through her jets.

Doing so stalled her, but she fluidly executed a complete turn out of the stall–

Attacking through the cover of the cloud to forestall retaliation.

Khadija recognized it as a ploy and pulled everything back with her front leg verniers.

Throwing herself down and to one side as a wave of renewed gunfire swept past her.

She began trading fire back as the Red Baron tried to circle her with the trigger pressed down.

Lines of supercavitating shells cut through the water between them at near intersecting angles–

Still moving as opposing poles–

but the circle they formed began to tighten–

in a brief instant within the dance of evasion and counterfire–

Khadija realized first that she was within range of a charge.

Holding her rifle in front of her chest like a shield, Khadija threw herself at the Red Baron with abandon.

Through a series of explosions the size of human bodies, spreading wildly around her–

Bits of metal sheared off her shoulder, arm and leg plates–

She burst through the fire and smoke with a defiant battle cry.

Everything happened too fast for any aiming and shooting, so it became a show of dumb blunt force at arm’s reach. Boosting herself into the Red Baron’s attacks, Khadija turned a close range shootout into a melee. Swinging the broad side of her assault rifle like a battering ram, she smashed the Red Baron’s rifle, forcing the digits to release lest they be ripped from the hand and tossing the weapon aside.

Disarmed of her rifle, the Red Baron drew and dodged back in one stroke.

Khadija dodged back in turn, avoiding the wild counterslash of the hastily drawn vibroblade.

Now I have you.

Instead of drawing her sword in return she grabbed and threw a grenade.

Between the two of them an enormous shockwave spread from a growing bubble of hot gases.

The Red Baron, awaiting a melee, beat a full retreat from the ensuing explosion.

Parts of her own armor tore off from the push and pull of the blast and her own escape.

Khadija, dashing down apart from her, created a gap of two dozen meters between them.

Now it was a proper shootout again and she had the advantage.

She still had a working assault rifle in hand and her target was in a vulnerable position.

Thrown off by the shockwave, dashing back in a panic, The Red Baron was lit up in her sights–

Tasting blood Khadija pulled the trigger–

Click.

Her empty magazine immediately detached from the AK-96 having been fired empty.

It’s always something.

She immediately, desperately reached for a new magazine but–

About forty meters away, on the edge of visibility, the Red Baron suddenly stopped moving.

Sword drawn but pointed aside, her mecha posed like a regal knight suspended in the water.

An invitation to a formal duel, perhaps. Or a call to parley.

Both had been bloodied to an even degree, each attack had been perfectly answered.

Out of a sense of pride, Khadija acquiesced and tuned her communicator to the liaison channel used during the old war. There she heard the voice of the Red Baron, cutting in: “we’ll both die for–”

“Come again you miserable lout? I want to hear your last words clearly.” Khadija taunted.

“I am saying, if we keep fighting, I’m confident that we’ll both die for nothing.”

“You’ll be the only one dying if you have such little confidence in yourself.”

“We need to stop fighting. I’m not the only monster on my side. We’ll all kill each other without reason.”

“I have plenty of reason to reduce you to ground lamb in your cockpit.”

Khadija thought she heard a sigh, maybe even a sob, crackling over the low quality audio.

“You are the Lion of Cascabel. Why must we keep fighting? Both of our lives ended twenty years ago.”

Even with how distorted the channel was, Khadija still thought she felt the emotion in that voice.

She was no longer so shocked to hear it, she understood that the Red Baron was a human being, that they were both flesh and blood and not just machines when they fought each other in the past. Now she found herself facing another revelation. There were humans who though flesh and blood made themselves machines, cold and ruthless, remorseless, murder incarnate. Even if she could believe the Red Baron was human, Khadija conceived of her as inhuman in this way, in order to keep hating her.

This woman was challenging that notion. All of that emotion in her voice, almost uncontrollable.

“If only I had never met that damned woman, we could have left everything in the past.”

This girl who sounded like she would cry over the acoustic communicator–

Could she possibly be the same Red Baron? But if she called her The Lion, then she knew.

And with the way she fought, it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

But now Khadija was thinking to herself: how did I imagine this confrontation would transpire?

Khadija responded almost out of impulse. “If you are afraid to die, then surrender to me!”

Surrender? That those words came out of her mouth at all only signified how pathetic the Red Baron sounded to her, tone a prostration, a bowed head, and slack shoulders before Khadija. When she thought of her she no longer thought of an iron pillar full of blades dressed in a grey uniform. There were the features of a girl forming in Khadija’s mind, despite the fact that they were nearly the same age.

“Lion, since we last fought, our time has been frozen in Cascabel. You and I are the same.” She said, her voice almost cracking again. “Our paths are set into stone. We can neither change the past nor can we alter the future. There is no possible way that us meeting again, can end in anything but our mutual deaths. I know we will find some way to kill one another. We fought in a ruthless age, out of desperation. Now we are meeting with the weight of our pasts on our shoulders. We will both die here the same.”

Khadija clutched her fingers tight against the control sticks. She felt pain, frustration, anger.

How dare this woman come to her with this childish sophistry?

When all Khadija wanted was a snickering evil monster to kill! To put behind them that rotten past!

“I gave you an alternative! Surrender! If you have remorse then put down your weapons!”

There was that word again. Surrender.

There was a brief pause– then the Red Baron’s voice became void of emotion. That voice and the words that it spoke finally sounded like an old and embittered soul, rather than a scared, weepy little girl. She felt she could see a face like her own now, eyes staring into the distance, ears ringing with death.

“It’s impossible for me to make amends to you. I can’t surrender– what would I even do?”

Khadija smiled bitterly to herself. “So be it, Red Baron. We can only kill each other then.”

For a moment Khadija stewed in how much she hated that in her mind’s eye, the Red Baron’s face was coming to resemble her own. In total silence, she tried hard to put the image out of her mind.

Then they raised their weapons, engaged their hydrojets, and resumed the dance of death.


I’ve let too many fucking people die. Too many. I can’t– I can’t fucking lose her too.

“Marina McKennedy, Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: deploying!”

Leda, if you’re watching over me, give us a miracle.

Marina McKennedy considered herself an absolutely middling Diver pilot.

Nevertheless, she was useless inside of the ship during a naval battle, and the communists needed absolutely every gun they could put out into the water right now even if they didn’t realize it. God only knew why they weren’t throwing everyone they could possibly get in a suit out with them, they had like eighteen of the fucking things aboard didn’t they? Some misplaced sense of ethics? Marina did not fucking know. All she could do was throw her own body too with everyone else willing. There was no use trying to change how they operated at the last second. She just had to nut up and fight.

Taking a deep breath, remembering all the times she scraped by on the skin of her teeth.

She had been shot, blown up, stabbed, tied up and whipped, had a knife put to her cock–

Going out in a Diver was good clean fun compared to all of her previous escapades.

Somehow, she was starting to psyche herself up a bit. These commies had beaten the Iron Lady before, against all odds. Maybe if anyone could Norn a black eye it was these brainwashed fools.

“McKennedy.”

Once she got out into the water, she received a transmission from the ship.

It was the Chief of the Brigand’s mechanics, Galina Lebedova, on the main video feed.

A fairly big lady with a pretty face; soft-cheeked, long hair in a braid– god those shoulders, those arms though, the sleeveless overalls really flattered her. Not an unwelcome sight whatsoever.

“We haven’t touched your weapons, but we don’t have any Republic supplies aboard, so we had to ferrostitch some extra magazines for your rifle based on the spare you brought aboard. Don’t expect them to be flawless, but they’ll fit, and they have thirty rounds of Union 37 mm loaded in.”

“Copy. I can’t say anything but thanks to that — I’d be fucked with just one mag out here. Say, Chief, when I get back can we get a coffee together? No one’s properly shown me around this boat yet.”

Lebedova smiled a little but shut off the video in response.

“Worth a try.” Marina said to herself.

Beneath the ship, she formed up around the Brigand’s other Divers, awaiting orders.

Once they sallied forth she quickly got the hang of piloting her S.E.A.L. again.

Movement was probably her strong suit. She had used this S.E.A.L. on a few infiltrations.

All of them leading up to Vogelheim.

It’s not going to be a cock-up like that again. I won’t let it turn out that way.

All of this was for Elena. Even if she’d fucked up communicating that to her thus far.

“I can’t die regretting how I left things off with her.”

Last time they looked each other in the eyes, Elena had completely broken down. Marina herself had been in bad shape. She could barely remember what happened afterward, but it was an awful, hurtful confrontation. Since then they avoided one another. She thought eventually Elena would come around but maybe that was gutless of her. She had to come back and actually show she cared.

“There’s too much you’d leave undone if you died, Marina McKennedy.”

She smiled bitterly to herself, her reflection in one of the dark screens.

She looked so tired.

As much as she sometimes wanted to join Leda and Bethany and be in peace–

Marina had to see this through. Everything was for Elena. Everything left of her.

This must have been what it was like, being a parent.

Having a commitment you couldn’t just walk away from when it was inconvenient.

She had not been thinking too much about the formation until the Ahwalia kid ran off–

Then everything went into a tailspin. The squad leader ran off, the Shimii started yelling–

“I thought you commies were supposed to be disciplined?!”

Marina hardly had time to ask who was in charge when the enemy finally appeared.

In an uncanny turn the enemy formation was much like theirs. Two close combat mecha, one strange silvery-white unit, formed up around a Volkannon with a sniper rifle that was lagging behind them. The instant that the two sides saw the very faintest outline of each other, targeting computers lit up with warnings and assault rifle fire saturated the battlefield, creating a brief chaos. The Shimii communist ran off to chase a gaudy red unit on the other side– but the Union formation remained tighter than the enemy, who split off in every direction as if probing the flanks or trying to encircle them–

Marina tried to cling tight to the Katarran with the Strelkannon to guard against that–

Until she realized that one enemy unit had just charged right past them.

Heading straight for the Brigand.

“Shit! They’re not flanking, one’s going for the ship!”

It was that silver-white unit!

Marina hardly had time to communicate any further before she reacted.

Leaving Valya behind with the Strelkannon, Marina took off after the unidentified unit.

Their plan wouldn’t matter if the enemy took out the Brigand and stranded them–

–and killed Elena along with them.

“I’m going after it!”

“Huh?”

Ignoring the cry from Valya Lebedova, Marina launched herself in full pursuit.

Her head was pounding. You’re no good at this. That’s a new model. You’ll die.

You’ll die.

There was too much left to do to die now.

But if Elena was hurt it would all be meaningless, all of it.

Leda.

Bethany.

They all poured their love into Elena. Everything they did was not just for each other.

Marina still had that unfulfilled promise to free Elena from Konstantin von Fueller.

So Marina leaned into her sticks and slammed her pedals down with all her might.

And the S.E.A.L. took off with all the thrust of its jets and boosters to gain on the enemy.

A wild barrage of fully automatic fire blazed from its M480 assault rifle, launching 37 mm bullets that cut the gap between the silver-white enemy and Marina in an instant, bursting into vapor bubbles in a chaotic pattern around the enemy diver and forcing it to acknowledge pursuit. It fired its own rifle from around its flank, backwards, but Marina easily avoided the counterfire and pressed her attack.

Her reticle danced around the aiming screen, the yellow targeting box around the enemy unit beginning to turn red, a proximity alert blaring as Marina neared and neared. She reloaded her gun and reopened fire, doing everything she could to put that reticle on that silver-white figure looming larger ahead but holding down the trigger for automatic fire, knowing she didn’t have the aim to snipe it down.

It could no longer run away, in seconds they would be practically chest to back–

Folding its rifle in one shocking instant, the enemy turned around on a dime–

Marina halted with all possible counterthrust just in time to avoid the edge of a vibroblade.

Slashing directly in front of the main camera in a swift arc out of the turn.

“It’s fast!”

She gasped for breath and held it.

In the next instant the enemy rushed her, lifting a shield held in its other arm in front of itself.

An enormous ballistic shield the right size to cover the Diver, with a thick block in the center for–

–the short stub barrel of an 81 mm launcher.

There was a thumping noise and a discharge of gas as a rocket-propelled grenade flew from it.

Marina thrust back narrowly avoiding the explosion.

Barely centimeters from annihilation as the ordnance went off.

Struggling with her controls as the explosion sent shockwaves bashing against her cockpit, while the vaporized water bubble expanded and contracted warping the water directly in front of the SEAL. Everything rattled, her cameras were blocked by the vapor and water, and hot gases got pulled into her intakes which briefly stunted her hydrojet thrust. She lost sight of the enemy machine.

Marina thought it must have been a distraction in order to get her to give up the chase–

When from over the rapidly dispersing gas bubble the machine reappeared.

Vibrosword in hand, it dropped down with a two-handed slash, its shield affixed to its arm.

Drawing her vibroaxe in an instant she caught the blade at the last second with its thick, sturdy head.

That brief second of struggle as the sword dug into her axe–

Gave her the closest look she had at this new model.

Sleek, rounded and beveled white and silver armor, rounded shoulders, lots of smooth interlocking plates, it was as if the model had been cast in this form and not assembled out of a collection of individual segments. Marina knew no Imperial, Union or Republic model with such a high quality and sleek design. Those jets on the shoulders, she had never seen their like. And its performance was incredible.

That pilot, too, was no joke.

Shooting an 81 mm shell that close, to make space for a melee attack, it was nuts. It took balls.

In that moment, clashing blades with this grand and mighty paladin, Marina had one bitter thought.

Grinning in her cockpit, face lit up by the bright freedom-blue of the SEAL’s user interface.

Shit, I’m going to die here, aren’t I?

A steel knight with a red glare like death– had it come to finally punish her sins?


Ulyana Korabiskaya stood up from her chair for emphasis as the battle began to escalate.

“Report! What’s happening with the Divers?” She shouted.

“Pure chaos.” Zachikova replied.

Up on a side panel of the main video feed the projected positions and trajectories of the Divers appeared, having been found and tracked through periodic weak sonar pulses launched by the drone swimming along the edge of the cliffs. Ulyana watched them with some consternation as it appeared that they had broken up from their units and launched individual attacks instead.

“What the hell is going on?” Aaliyah asked. “Why are they so dispersed?”

She stood up at once, standing beside Ulyana in support.

Zachikova turned to face them with glassy, half-gone eyes. Her concentration was split.

“Ahwalia did something stupid.” She said, in a belabored drawl, her mind split between her body and the drone. “Shalikova had to correct. Then the enemy broke through our formation. We are chasing breakaway individuals to prevent them reaching the Brigand. Battle has been successfully kept to over a hundred meters away from the Brigand itself. We have not visually acquired any of the Divers.”

“At least they blocked them. Fine. We have to focus on what we can do.”

Ulyana sat back down and with a flourish pointed at the main screen.

“Focus all our efforts on attacking the Antenora! Gunnery section, fire main guns!”

“Acknowledged!”

Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa responded in maybe the briefest sentence she had ever spoken.

The Antenora was closing in between 1.5 and 1 kilometers away, but it was not moving directly toward them. Like the Brigand itself it was trying to snake around the flank, hoping to maximize not just the proximity of its weapons to its target, but the ability to hit a broader part of the ship for more damage.

In ship combat, the ultimate objective was to inflict enough damage on the enemy that would breach several sections of the ship, hoping to overwhelm the flood mitigation systems to compromise the ship. If possible, attacking from behind could also cripple a ship by destroying its hydrojets. Attacking from below could potentially destroy the ship’s highly complicated water system, which would at the minimum slow or stop it as ships relied on pulling the water into themselves and ejecting it out to thrust.

At its worst, it would eject the ballast and make the ship uncontrollable.

In effect, the ships were circling in orbit of the Diver battle, each hoping to take the other’s tail or flank.

Whether the Antenora or Brigand would have the opportunity depending on their helmsmen.

“Kamarik, keep us steady but slippery!”

“Don’t worry ma’am, I’m more finely tuned than ever to how this lady dances.”

Kamarik was experienced, and he kept them unpredictable, applying variable thrust to create opportunities and deceive their enemies as to their movements. The Antenora was not acting so surreptitious. It maintained a roughly even thrust, as if it had an advantage and did not need to resort to any trickery to win. Perhaps Norn the Praetorian was correct to be so unbothered by them.

But it was Ulyana’s job to find a way to rattle Norn– from her bridge and to her grave.

As the sharks circled, their weapons trained on one another.

“Main gun ready! High-Explosive Cluster round firing for effect!” Fernanda declared.

Atop the Brigand, the dual-barrel 150 mm gun turret rose from out of hiding and acquired the Antenora as a target. From Fernanda’s station, the firing solution and type of ammunition was selected.

In this case, Fernanda was firing a ranging shot with wide, spread explosive effect.

It would be optimistic to kill with this shot, but it would acquire valuable data.

Within an instant, the firing prediction appeared on the main screen.

This was the bridge crew’s window into the war they were fighting.

They were not out in the water, and even there they would have hardly been able to see anything in front of their faces. What they did see, the video put together by the ship’s supercomputer, was a best-guess prediction created by using several sources of sensory data, ingested, and interpreted by several complicated programs in a span of seconds. That blue, visible ocean, the figure of the Antenora in the distance, accompanied by an overview map that showed the terrain and all actors in semi-realtime, it was all the creation of a computer. It could be wrong, but it was more than their eyes could ever see.

War waged through screens, unfolding before them like a movie in a theater.

A movie of the circling Antenora and the cold, black ocean around them.

The projectiles had already launched by the time the screen updated.

And the hits were registered in an instant. Supercavitating cannon rounds were incredibly fast.

On the screen two explosions were drawn around the figure of the Antenora.

Broad circular bubbles with information about the predicted and recorded impact.

“No effect! Targeting data reacquired, gun draining and priming!”

Fernanda was never as professional as when she was shooting, it seemed.

“Recalibrate and get back on it.” Ulyana said. “Torpedo section, I want one fire, record effect!”

Alexandra Geninov in the torpedo section lit up with excitement.

“Yes ma’am! Firing Torpedo!”

Within moments of receiving the order, Alex triggered the launch of a 120 mm explosive torpedo from the Brigand’s forward tube. Using the control stick on her station, Alex directly guided the ordnance via a fiber-optic wire, allowing her to potentially snake it around the enemy’s close-range gas gun defenses. She had a camera on the torpedo and that feed appeared on her screen, but it was subject to a slight delay. A skilled torpedo officer had to make whatever use they could of that visual data and its delay.

Torpedoes could reach a speed of over a hundred knots, much faster than a Diver’s max speed.

Less than a coilgun round’s incredible speed, but much more precise.

Alex could currently put a round on the Antenora in somewhere under thirty seconds.

That was enough time for maneuvers. And it was enough for Ulyana to be able to watch the little blip of the torpedo on the sonar picture moving farther and farther away. It was almost maddening every time she glanced at it, and heard the rattling of Alex’s stick as she made a series of snap corrections, trying to send the torpedo on her desired path toward the enemy vessel and avoid the defensive fire.

Within 50-70 meters, Alex would be able to see the Antenora visually on the cameras.

And then she would have around one and a half seconds to react before it smashed into it.

One and a half seconds without accounting for the delay.

“Huh? What the fuck? Ma’am, something’s up!”

Alex turned from her station in a snap as the main screen despawned the screen with the torpedo video feed. That side panel became dynamically populated with a different video feed. Losing its place of semi-prominence because its camera exploded. No impact registered; as the torpedo specialist protested.

“What’s wrong now, Geninov?” Ulyana asked.

In that precise moment, the main screen flashed an alert–

And an instant later, the Brigand shook enough to rattle the crew in their chairs, struck by the Antenora’s 150 mm guns. It was a testament to the construction of the ship and the brilliance of Union engineering. Despite the violent shockwaves which rippled across the surface armor, enough to be felt on the bridge and to have caused any freestanding personnel to lose balance, the lights barely flickered, and the main screen picture remained up to the second accurate and streaming new data in flawlessly.

“Status report!” Ulyana shouted.

“No direct hit!” Semyonova reported. “Very minor surface damage off the port side!”

“God damn it! We just got done fixing the port side!” Ulyana lamented.

Aaliyah interrupted. “Captain, Geninov had something to report.”

“Right,” Ulyana said, turning to face Alex again. “Report Geninov, what’s going on?”

In any other situation, and with any other look on Geninov’s face, Ulyana might have just dismissed whatever Alex had to say as to probable nonsense. However, rather than looking scared or smug, Alex had a befuddled look on her face, as if she had seen something completely incongruous, which was an expression Ulyana was not used to seeing. And indeed, Alex had seen something odd.

“Ma’am, the instruments on the torpedo send a final snapshot just prior to impact. This has final camera data but also has data from the other sensors. According to this, we did impact the Antenora, because we exploded inside the minimum range of the gas guns, which would’ve had effect. This is recording we blew up like two meters above the armor, but it had zero effect on it, we can tell, it shot us right after.”

“Put the image on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

Alex nodded nervously, and she swiped her finger at her touchscreen to move the image over. For a moment, it shared prominence with the video feed on the main screen. Everyone who saw it looked speechless for a moment. Most of it was taken up by the silver-grey armor of the Antenora as one might aspect from an impact camera on a torpedo. But there was a purple flash captured also. Like a sheen of agarthic energy warping over some of the armor close to the center of the image.

“What the hell is that?” Aaliyah shouted. “Is it some kind of close-in defense?”

Ulyana’s heart sank. She remembered Theresa Faraday’s demonstration before the battle.

About a potential next-generation armor system that the Brigand could possibly have.

And she now began to fear the Antenora possessed a functioning example.

What can I possibly do about this?

“Semyonova, where the hell is Theresa Faraday? Order her to the bridge now!”

Semyonova ran a search, using the computer to locate Theresa through the cameras–

She turned around suddenly. “Ma’am, she’s in the hangar! She’s– something’s deploying?”


What am I doing? What am I doing?

Sieglinde von Castille labored for breath, feeling a passenger in her own body.

Watching as if from over her own shoulder as her body pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go and rammed her pedals, throwing the Grenadier into a full speed attack upon the Lion of Cascabel. Sword in hand, rifle damaged and discarded, the Grenadier cut the distance to the Lion near instantly and swung a ferocious horizontal slash that forced the Lion to launch deeper down to avoid it.

Despite her keen reactions, the Lion was unable to counter, as Sieglinde flowed out of the horizontal feint with a sudden downward slash with both arms, engaging the booster on the blade itself as well as the shoulder boosters for added thrust. The Lion lunged suddenly to the side, the Baron’s vibrosword slicing the control fin on her Strelok’s shoulder clean off as she scarcely evaded the attack.

Why am I fighting? Why am I here? Why can’t we stop?

Her own internal voice grew more desperate and distant.

And yet her downward slash flowed smoothly into a dive, giving chase to the Lion.

Their machines were face to face, the Lion jetting down, unable to turn her back without giving up advantage, while the Red Baron lifted her blade as she bore down on the Lion. Like figures in a biblical painting, a wrathful god with a thundering blade captured amid descent, and a defiant human gazing at the firmament with stolen fire in her hands, a terrible collision imminent. All around them, the dark blue of the depths, such that they were alone in battle, and nothing could be seen but their aggression.

Fully automatic rifle fire went hurtling past the Grenadier, tearing off one of the arm joint plates and chunks of skirt armor but not enough bullets struck where needed, there was no time to aim. Undaunted the Red Baron fell upon the Lion and brought her sword barely centimeters from the cockpit slicing across the plates keeping her opponent out of water and laying upon them a deep, smoking scar.

I’m going to kill her!

Like fencers stepping forward and back, the two mecha became ensnared in a melee.

Sieglinde swung again from her last successful attack, pressing her advantage.

The Lion had to pick a direction. Sieglinde read her as diving deeper, it was easiest–

Instead she thrust upward, and as she did she fired her assault rifle down at an angle.

She’s going to kill me!

Sieglinde turned out of her attack and jerked her sword up in a desperate slash.

As the Lion opened fire the Grenadier’s vibrosword sliced across the barrel of the rifle.

An explosive round went off just outside the chamber and against the blade.

Chipping the edge of the Baron’s sword and bursting the Lion’s rifle in a miraculous turn.

Please stop, please turn around, please.

No matter how much she begged herself, Sieglinde was fighting as if automatically, as if without control of herself, a passenger in her body’s war. For a brief instant she thought she might have been under mind control, but she wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t. This was not something to blame on magic or monsters or on anything but the damnable, monstrous machinations of her own fate. She was fighting despite the pounding of her heart, the tears in her eyes and the cries of her humanity because there was no other place for her to go, no other future for her to seek. Her time had frozen; this was all she had.

Her eyes could only seek enemies to fight.

Her arms could only wield weapons of war.

Her legs could only take her from one battlefield to another.

Her chest could only draw breath to keep her living from one kill to the next.

She had no power to stop the atrocities her body carried out.

No matter how much her heart hurt. This was the legend she bore: the Red Baron.

The Red Baron would continue fighting her war until it took her from the face of Aer.

As soon as she saw the opportunity to attack, she took it with a devastating finality.

The Lion was off-balance, stunned by that one-in-a-million occurrence that disarmed her.

Converting that miracle to further tragedy–

The Red Baron threw everything she had into the charge, her final charge.

Sweeping under and behind the Strelok and using all the momentum of that graceful arc.

Her signature slash went weaving across the back of her foe at an unexpected angle.

Where it was caught instantly between two sets of grinding jaws–?

What?

Sieglinde could not comprehend what had happened. Sweat streaked down her blank face.

Her sword arm drew back instantly, her entire self disbelieving–

As she saw in all of her cameras a Strelok holding two chainsaw-bladed “diamond swords” behind its back in a cross that had briefly caught her blade in the middle of its arc and nearly snapped off the already damaged tip from it. Such a sword catch as she had never seen executed, never thought even possible in all of her years of fighting, in all of her training and with all of her experience of war.

She drew back instinctively from her failed attack, creating distance with her boosters.

The Strelok turned and faced her, wielding in each hand a revving, furious diamond sword.

“You’re so predictable. I knew I could bait you into doing that move.”

Over the communicator the Lion spoke again. Her voice was just a bit shaken, but–

“War flattered your image, Baron! That flip of yours would catch any pilot off-guard the first time they see it. And fooling them once is all it takes for you to kill them and preserve your secret. However, if a pilot lived twenty years ago and survived that attack when your technique was in its infancy– well!”

She laughed. The Lion was laughing. Her voice sent shivers down Sieglinde’s back.

“You say you haven’t changed, Red Baron? But I’m still learning!”

The Lion’s Strelok charged with roaring blades and the Red Baron froze in response.

Sieglinde’s eyes darted between cameras. She had no time to close the comm channel.

She was looking for her opponent’s sword arm– but there were two!

The Strelok swung both swords horizontally from opposite sides like a closing vice–

Sieglinde threw the Grenadier down below the Strelok to try to avoid and counterattack–

Dodging out of the counterstroke, the Lion’s Strelok dove past her flank, circled quickly around her back and thrust up again. Trying to follow the dizzying attack, Sieglinde turned and slashed behind her, then she boosted down and back for space and sliced above herself, but the Lion was still moving, constantly.

Circling her diagonally in a way that made full use of the fact that they were suspended in water, a three-dimensional space in which they could move in all possible angles around each other. Sieglinde was speechless, eyes rushing from camera to camera hoping to predict the opponent’s next move–

–then the Lion inverted the arc she was taking at its peak, diving suddenly, and she appeared where Sieglinde had not been looking. Launching both blades in a powerful swing with all of the momentum they had built and clubbing the Grenadier in the flank. It was more of a smashing attack than a slash, delivered with such brutality there was no time for the blades to cut into the armor, and it sent the Grenadier tumbling down in the water. Pieces of armor chipped and sunk in, and a part of the skirt went flying. Sieglinde rattled in her cockpit, gritting her teeth involuntarily, her stomach turning.

This Strelok is faster! How is that possible? Or did I get slower?

It was not just the slightly upgraded Diver model– nor Sieglinde’s own weakness–

The Lion herself was faster, stronger, swifter than in Cascabel.

She had gotten stronger! But how was that possible? How had she changed so much?

As if their minds were attuned to this realization, the Lion answered.

“I am fighting for something, Red Baron! If your time froze at Cascabel, then what are you still fighting for? Can you even say? Why did you come here? Are you fighting for an Empire that has broken into pieces? Are you trying to recover colonies that you’ve completely lost? Say something!”

Too much was happening too fast.

“I– I–”

Sieglinde’s voice caught in her shuddering throat before the Lion’s next blow.

Bubbles blew overhead from the diamond swords as they displaced and evaporated water.

Engaging her boosters Sieglinde quickly corrected herself out of her ungainly dive.

The Strelok had briefly stopped moving to attack! This was her chance to counter!

The Grenadier pressed back, both hands on her sword, hoping to slice off the Strelok’s arm–

One of the Lion’s blades caught her attack on the flat piece of armor guarding the chainsaw motor.

And the second slashed across her cockpit, leaving the same scar she had left on the Strelok.

Sieglinde was reacting so fast, she was still reacting as if the opponent had one sword.

Her reflexes that had been perfected in the Colonial War– became nothing but a hindrance!

“You’re just refusing culpability! You’re a coward! Red Baron! A miserable coward!”

Again Sieglinde retreated, her diminishing solid fuel boosters worked to their limits.

Creating space, opportunity, buying time, desperately, as her eyes sought any weakness.

The Lion’s coordination was astounding. Most pilots were much clumsier with one sword let alone two, but the Lion maneuvered her blades ambidextrously, covering any weakness, any gap, able to attack and defend swiftly. She was taking full advantage of the greater strength and stability offered by mechanical arms. Not only that, but despite the fact that they were only boosting around each other in short range, her movements were nonetheless fluid and three dimensional without hesitation.

Sieglinde needed her to make a mistake, but–

There was no opening! She could find no means to attack her!

Sieglinde’s will was flagging, and the Lion was completely focused.

All she could do was live second to second, reacting without initiative, without a plan.

Sieglinde found herself forced to draw back her sword up in front of the Grenadier as a makeshift shield, desperately blocking blow after brutal blow from the Lion’s Strelok, smashing from every direction against the flat of her vibrosword. Bubbles blew and water displaced in the violent wake of the Lion’s relentless assault, creating a cloud of exhaust and vapor within which the onslaught took place.

“You had a choice! You always had a choice! What brought you to this ocean to fight me except your own damned choices? And you want to blame fate for this? That’s far too convenient!”

Her swords slammed against the Grenadier’s sword driving Sieglinde back with each blow.

There was no opening to retaliate, no place where she could breathe.

Sieglinde watched the blows rain down metal on metal, helpless before the sparks.

 “I’m not like you! How dare you say that? My time was never frozen! I still have something to fight for! Despite everyone begging me to retire! Teach here, train there, let the new kids have a shot, you’re a symbol, you’re the Lion of Cascabel they all said! I’m 42, unmarried, I have no partner, no kids, no legacy! But my time is still moving! I’m still alive and my story is still being written! I won’t give up!”

While between strikes her words sliced open Sieglinde and laid her soul horribly bare.

She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me!

The Red Baron had lost all control. Staring death with empty eyes and trembling lips. Tasting her own sweat and tears that ran in rivulets. Her monitors screamed about the degrading condition of her blade, of the mech’s wrists, the draining vernier fuel, and she felt the whole cockpit shake with each strike.

No! I can’t die here! I can’t! I can’t!

Out of a raging biological instinct to survive Sieglinde burned the very last of her solid fuel thrust in one desperate burst of bubbles and heat, throwing herself straight forward into the middle of the frenzied attacks, slamming into the Strelok with her whole body. Chainsaw blades tore great gashes into her shoulders, tearing out jet anchors but digging no deeper where water could enter.

Her mood swung as chaotically as the blades against her: I caught you! I can still fight!

Flushing more of her oxygen into the water system, Sieglinde kicked off enemy machine and laid a cloud of bubbles. In the momentary space she created with this maneuver, Sieglinde drew her vibrodagger.

On one hand her weapon of last resort; on the other her full-length vibrosword.

Roaring with the desperation of a cornered beast, she threw herself back into the attack.

Just like she had seen the Lion, she swung both weapons to meet her opponent’s own–

–and misjudging the length of the dagger, found a diamond sabre sawing through her arm at the elbow.

On her monitor, all of her boosters signaled empty, her only thrust coming from the hydrojets. Her sword arm sank toward the bottom of the sea, a hull integrity warning flashing. In the middle of that oppressive cockpit, the synthetic fiber of her regal uniform clung to a sweating chest, hands shaking on the controls.

She watched helplessly as the Strelok’s arms reared for a strike against her midsection.

To slice her cockpit apart, expose her to the sea and kill her.

She watched as the twin cruel-sawed blades–

–drew back and swung forward the famous claws of the Lion of Cascabel,

and pointed at the Grenadier’s chest and flank, just short of plunging into its iron flesh.

Diamond-toothed jaws revved and seethed just centimeters from her but no violence followed.

“I won’t satisfy your idea of fate. I won’t let you die and escape justice.” The Lion said.

Sieglinde sat speechless. Her arms lifted off her controls and hung limply at her side. The Red Baron, legend of the Imperial Colonial War, had been utterly defeated. Her heart pounded, her breathing labored. She struggled for something dignified to say, after how far her honor had plunged, how much the Lion of Cascabel had torn the clothes off her manicured self-image and broken her down.

She had been left with nothing. The Red Baron was practically dead even if Sieglinde lived.

Just as she began to speak, to try to absolve herself, her eyes became drawn to something.

She became mesmerized, by a streak of unnatural colors that flashed in the distance.

The Lion’s Strelok also turned to face it. She was seeing it too, the explosion of colors.

And the glowing outline of the Jagdkaiser and the Cheka locked in combat within them.

Furious reds, evil-feeling black, and the texture of an open wound in the middle of the sea.


Karuniya Maharapratham sat in the medbay, a chair pulled up next to the bed of Murati Nakara.

She held on to her partner’s arm, gently, as the ship rocked from an explosion.

On the wall, the bearing monitor and a communication screen showed data and footage of the blast.

“All that rumbling.” Murati lamented weakly. “I wish there was something we could do.”

They were in the middle of a battle, even in their isolated little pod they could feel it.

Murati turned to Karuniya with a small smile, a helpless little expression.

“If there was– I would support you, no matter what, but–” Karuniya said.

“Thank you. Don’t worry. I won’t do anything dangerous, for your sake.”

“For my sake, huh.”

Karuniya sighed. She recalled a conversation that happened not long before the battle began.

Out in the hall, between a certain Euphemia Rontgen and herself. After their conversation had petered out, and Rontgen left the room, Karuniya had gone as well since Murati had wanted to rest for a moment. At that point, she found Rontgen still in the hall, as if waiting specifically to be able to talk to her alone.

“From scientist to scientist,” she asked, “would you ever fight for Murati Nakara’s sake?”

At the time Karuniya had brushed it off. “That’s far too vague.”

“Interesting that it wasn’t an immediate yes.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s an immediate yes — if it’s really necessary. If she truly needs it. I worry about her, but I’m not going to do something stupid and get in her way. I trust her. Murati’s always been the fighter. She doesn’t need me or anyone to protect her. It’d have to be an extreme situation.”

“I see. I’m glad Murati Nakara can have such a mature relationship.”

“Tch. Weirdo. Is that all you wanted to say?”

She was starting to get irritated. Ever since she saw her in the hall.

Euphemia Rontgent was pleasant enough, but she was being deliberately cryptic.

And Karuniya was hardly in the mood to be stopped in the hall for cryptic question.

“My answer is far more cowardly. For Theresa– I wouldn’t fight. I reckon myself a pacifist of sorts.”

Karuniya glanced at her. She almost wanted to say something nasty.

Something about how they must not have been so close if that was her response.

“However, know this– because of who Murati Nakara is and the path she’s chosen to take, it’s a question that’s much more important to you than it would ever be to me.” Rontgen said by way of parting.

Some time later Karuniya returned to medbay, sat beside her fiance and tried to pore it over.

How did she really feel about fighting? Murati had very strong opinions herself, but–

–aside from silly disagreements how did Karuniya really feel? Did she had a serious opinion?

Her mind went in a loop, unproductive, without a point.

But quite suddenly, the question returned in human form.

In the middle of the battle, Theresa Faraday suddenly visited the medbay.

Dressed in a mechanic’s garb with a white coat over it, some kind of tool in her hand.

Her red hair tossed as she reared back and asked, with a grin and a surprising amount of levity:

“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.9]

While Norn began speaking to the enemy commander, Adelheid sat next to her with an active terminal and oversaw their preparations for battle. She had cameras on the hangar and logging on the mainframe for all the work done at the bridge stations. There was not much that she needed to do, because the crew was so efficient and disciplined. She thought she might at least have to yell at Selene or Samoylovych, but the two of them, Petra Chornyi and the Red Baron were ready to deploy the second Norn commanded it. Turrets were ready, torpedoes had been loaded. The Antenora was primed for battle.

Norn’s Magellan was also assembled, serviced by a crane rather than a proper gantry.

“Are you really going out there?” Adelheid had asked, prior to the hostilities.

She was already concerned the instant the sonar pulse came back with an imaged ship.

So before battle was even joined, the anxiety was clear on her face.

“I have no intention to deploy. Yangtze and Potomac can go fuck themselves.” Norn said.

Adelheid’s eyes drew open in surprise. She had nursed a fear of Norn fighting personally.

“But I thought you were going to get Elena for Gertrude too. It’s not just them.”

Norn nodded solemnly. “That is Gertrude’s business. I plan to send her out to complete it.”

“You’re right.” Adelheid said, feeling relief. “You shouldn’t be responsible for any of this.”

“You really do understand me better than anyone, Adelheid.”

Norn gave her a gentle, confident smile and stroked a few locks of Adelheid’s hair.

Seated side by side on the bridge of this ship with had committed so much violence.

That firm hand caressing her lifted Adelheid’s spirits just a bit. Her heart felt warm.

“If this ship really did that much damage to the Iron Lady, it must be dangerous.” She said.

“I know.” Norn said simply. “But Gertrude will have no better chance than this.”

“Right.” Adelheid replied. “We’re probably better armed than the Iron Lady overall.”

“There’s my adjutant sounding like all of those battle analysis courses she aced.”

Norn returned her attention to the main screen, still stroking Adelheid’s hair with affection.

“I can’t fight everyone’s battles for them. I refuse to be used like that anymore.” She said.

Miming Norn’s words, Adelheid replied, “Now there’s the rebellious Praetorian I love.”

Adelheid had been with Norn for over six years now. Their relationship was only slightly younger than their acquaintance. She had been on the receiving end of Norn’s speech about opportunity; but Adelheid refused to use her. Back then, she felt strongly that she wanted to prove her own power.

And she had succeeded in her goals, despite everything that followed.

With a lot of Norn’s help that had ultimately been freely given.

She had gone on many voyages with the Antenora since then. It never got easier. Adelheid was not someone who was used to fighting. Even if Norn ended up essentially bullying and toying with the opponents they were usually given, she was still nervous. She kept it under control. She was not so stupid as to act out and become a liability if it would put Norn in danger. So when it came time to fight, Adelheid set everything aside and played the dignified adjutant as best as she could.

Adelheid stole a glance at Norn while she was speaking.

She seemed to have everything under control. She always did. She was strong.

That strength which had held Adelheid firm, had freed her, had given her new life.

But Adelheid knew that too many people relied on Norn, viewed her only as a weapon for their ends. She could never fool herself into feeling that Norn was invincible. Because she understood Norn more than anyone. Norn would falter someday. She couldn’t hold the world on her shoulders all alone.

So she worried. Whenever they fought, she pined anxiously for everyone’s safety.

And she did her best to be ready to support Norn on the day her strength was questioned.

Once the Pandora’s Box opened negotiations, Norn instantly demonstrated her superiority.

She looked like a goddess to Adelheid. A shining being not from this world.

Ulyana Korabiskaya was a looker herself — maybe Adelheid had a thing for blondes — but nobody could match how incredibly hot Norn was when she took control. They had watched footage of the discussions between Gertrude and Korabiskaya so Norn knew to expect a few attempts at second-rate fast talking from the mercenary commander. Adelheid knew Norn would try to influence the enemy captain psionically and end the conflict easily, so she “flipped” on her psionic vision.

Focusing on the aura of Korabiskaya and Norn, she saw the brief contest that ensued.

However, the outcome was not what she predicted.

Korabiskaya resisted; she had some potential.

Not enough to fight back. Norn had simply stopped, rather than being actively countered.

When it came to psionic mind games, Adelheid knew the basics.

If Norn couldn’t control someone immediately, it was unlikely to be worth bothering with.

So the discussion continued.

“Euphrates,”

Adelheid felt a chill when she heard that name.

Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

And foremost among the people Norn wanted to revenge herself against.

While she didn’t lose her cool, Adelheid could tell that Norn was immediately altered.

As soon as she saw Euphrates, a violent red band began to widen across her aura.

“Agh!”

Then in the middle of the conversation that she appeared to be dominating–

Norn raised her hands to her face, flinching as if in pain.

Shaking briefly, drawing back against the seat.

And coming to rest, as if sleeping.

Video connection to the Brigand cut off.

Immediately, Adelheid concentrated on the aura around Norn, switching on her “sight.”

White–?

All of her aura had become a pale, soft white. Black was death– what the hell was white?!

How had this happened?

She whipped around to the adjacent station and shouted at the drone. “Communications, send orders to the hangar to deploy Selene, Samoylovych, Chorniy, and von Castille at once!”

Negotiations were over. Whether or not the Pandora’s Box was even truly aware of what had happened, a situation like this could only be dealt with by defending themselves militarily. When there was tension, they could not afford to leave an opening just to appear magnanimous. Adelheid knew enough about war to assume the Pandora’s Box would try to exploit this event.

But what had happened? How could she help Norn?

Euphrates was an Immortal, psionically powerful. Adelheid turned to face Norn again and took her into her arms, shaking her, trying to wake her. Her body was still warm, she was breathing, and there was no bleeding or other signs that she was psychically exerting herself. Adelheid knew that mental psionic attacks were extremely difficult, and the most easily resisted by gifted psions. She suspected Euphrates must have attacked Norn but how? What exactly did she do to Norn?

She could not panic. Despite everything– Norn was depending on her!

“Hunter III! Come here! Something happened to Norn!”

Though she understood psionics differently, Hunter III was more powerful than Adelheid.

She could see and understand things Adelheid did not. Maybe she would understand!

“Whatcha yellin’ about? Huh? What happened to the boss?”

Hunter III shambled to Norn’s seat with a drowsy expression, her skinny arms hanging at her sides. She pulled her hood off her white hair and set her bright eyes on Norn. One slender ghost white finger rose to poke the praetorian in the cheek. Upon touching her Hunter III immediately seemed to realize something was wrong, like a dog sniffing an intruder, and her eyes went red, she was using psionics herself.

“Huh? Her brainself is gone. Who did that?” Hunter III said.

“Brainself? What the hell are you saying?”

Adelheid yelled; and Hunter III was so taken by Norn’s condition she didn’t yell back.

Hunter III looked around the room with her glowing eyes. “Her brainself’s off swimmin’ somewhere–”

From beneath her hooded robe, a stubby tail became suddenly erect.

“Adelheid, she’s lookin’ for you! You gotta do somethin’ to reach back out!”

Hunter III turned innocent eyes and a calm expression on Adelheid–

–as if she was supposed to understand what she meant!!

Adelheid was about to start shouting back at the little fish-tailed runt–

But she did start feeling something–

–as if there was something carried on all the tiny sounds of the ship, the clicking on keyboards, the hum of the air system, the very subtle vibrations of the floor panels, the rustling of synthetic cloth. She could hear something else, distant, whispered, in the coalescing of all the noise around her. As if spoken between syllables of every voice, an enunciation in each button press, a sigh in the ventilation.

Had she been anyone else, with less experience in these matters, she would have said it was the stress and muted panic of the moment that was cause these hallucinations around her.

Norn had taught her about the powers of the mind.

About the meaning behind the colors that she could sometimes see people give off.

She looked at Hunter III briefly and saw the shades of her, blue and green and thin black.

She looked down at her own hands and saw the multitude of muddled colors of her own.

She looked at Norn’s pale white aura that had begun expanding, thinning, wafting.

Reaching.

Focusing on the color she reached her own hand down to Norn.

Approaching the white fog which had come to enshroud her lover and carried her sensation.

Her fingers crossed some kind of threshold and color diffused across the white cloud.

Adelheid felt like she had punctured a membrane. There was a brief, tactile resistance.

One final push and her hand finally touched Norn’s skin, felt the warmth of her.

And transferred the warmth of her own touch to that skin.

Adelheid saw a flash of something in her mind.

Images, sounds, feelings, years of information compressed to a flash.

There was no possible way that she could understand it. All of it was gone in an instant.

Not even the barest scraps of a dream remained of it.

In that instant of fleeting hallucination, when Adelheid’s eyes blinked–

Norn’s eyes opened. Their gazes met. For a moment, neither of them said a word.

Her eyes had red rings around them, but they followed movement, they were aware.

Her lips spread very slightly to speak–

Adelheid interrupted immediately. She threw herself atop Norn, silently weeping.

Norn’s arms wrapped firmly around Adelheid, embracing her tightly.

“I knew I could count on you.” Norn said, stroking her hair.

Adelheid separated herself, grabbed hold of Norn’s shirt, fixed her a serious look.

Norn’s eyes had red rings around them. So there was still in danger.

“What’s going on?” Adelheid asked. “Your eyes– you’re still doing psionics.”

Norn looked surprised to hear this. She looked around the room in confusion.

“Her brainself is still kinda gone. I can kinda feel the veins though.” Hunter III said.

She started wandering around the room like a dog following a trail. Incomprehensible.

Adelheid could not see whatever it was they were both following or searching for.

She felt frustrated at her own lack of power– but at least Norn was here.

“Norn, what’s happening? How can we help?” Adelheid asked, still tight on Norn’s chest.

“Euphrates dragged me into the aether current. I’m not sure exactly what she did so I can’t explain it. I think I’m puppeteering my own body right now.” Norn said. “I can sense through the currents by using Adelheid as an anchor, but it’s hazy. I need to find a permanent solution, but for right now, we need to capture the Pandora’s Box. I’m putting Gertrude in command of the Diver attack. First–”

Suddenly she grabbed hold of Adelheid by the collar and tie–

–pulling her into a deep, forceful kiss.

That instant of dominance, the taste of her tongue– it almost knocked Adelheid senseless.

When their lips parted, Norn had a grin on her face and some of Adelheid’s lipstick as well.

“All you need to do is stay by my side and believe in me.” Norn said. “Do you understand?”

“Y-Yes. Master.” Adelheid said. “I’m yours to command.”

Norn grin turned into a gentle, praising smile just for her. “Good girl. Let’s get them.”


“Master, I don’t understand.”

Time was of the essence. A combat alert had been put into place.

Samoylovych and the Red Baron were already deploying, as well as Petra Chornyi. Selene just had to know whether or not the Jagdkaiser should have a cartridge loaded, other than that she was good to go. Enemy activity was starting to pick up, with the sonar operators picking up the tell-tale sounds of the Pandora’s Box preparing its chutes to deploy Divers. The Antenora was rushing into battle.

From the hangar, Gertrude Lichtenberg called the bridge to speak to Norn.

She knew that they did not have a lot of time, but she needed to know why she was being ordered to deploy in the Magellan. Without her acquiescence, the machine had been assigned to her, and its weapons, a 30 mm autocannon ballistic shield and a vibrosword, had been prepared and linked to it. Norn’s crew had beckoned her into the machine– and it nearly caused her panic.

“I thought this machine was for your own use.” Gertrude asked.

On a terminal in the hangar, Norn and Adelheid appeared on video seated side-side.

“Potomac didn’t chain it to my leg.” Norn said. “I’m assigning it to you. It’s an effective piece of equipment and you are more than capable to operate it. Or have you forgotten how to fight for yourself after all these years leading phalanxes of ambulant body armor into battle?”

Gertrude chafed at the criticism. She knew she couldn’t get offended at Norn, however.

Trying her best to moderate her tone, she began to reply, “I sought out your assistance–”

Norn then interrupted immediately. “I’m giving you an opportunity, the best opportunity you will ever have, to rescue princess Elena from those mercenaries. If you truly believe in this endeavor and you want to see it through, then you will take responsibility for it. I never once said that I would go out and personally fight these mercenaries in your stead, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“Master,”

Gertrude was practically gritting her teeth. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt it right in her veins, the rush of blood to her extremities had become a palpable drumbeat beneath her skin. Her whole body was tense, she felt like she could hardly move or speak. She had assumed that Norn would use her powers to rescue Elena easily from the Pandora’s Box. She had been so sure that she could seize victory if Norn was leading the charge to finally crush that damnable ship once and for all.

Now her long fantasized victory was thrown into complete chaos.

“Gertrude,”

Norn interrupted again. A cruel grin spread across her soft face.

“Perhaps I am being too harsh. Here is my offer then, Gertrude. Only for you, a precious student, a part of my legacy. I will save Elena von Fueller on the condition that she be turned over to the Fueller family’s stewardship immediately. I will control all of her affairs personally from the moment she returns to this ship. Now if you rescue her, of course, you’ll become her steward.”

She clapped her hands together with satisfaction, evil red glinting eyes scanning Gertrude.

Gertrude felt her heart sink.

All of this time, she had also fantasized about being the sole steward of Elena von Fueller.

Never once did she think Norn would push the idea of returning her to the Fueller family.

Norn knew about Gertrude’s deep-seated passion for Elena.

Gertrude could not lie to her. And Norn had demanded to know when they met. More than anyone, Norn von Fueller understood the lustful covetousness that really drove Gertrude Lichtenberg to action. She knew how much Elena meant to Gertrude and she had already, several times, pulled strings so that Gertrude could inch closer to the storybook ending she desired for her and Elena. For Norn to then make this impossible, cruel “deal” was to say in many, humiliating words that Gertrude had no choice but to deploy and fight instead of Norn. It was to make her command utterly absolute.

In this single moment, Gertrude’s dreams could crumble right in front of her. All of her work, suffering, sacrifice, all the begging and cheating and the corpses she climbed– for nothing.

“I am not merely doing this to be cruel to you.” Norn said.

Her fists closed at her side, Gertrude felt like a child being scolded.

“You say that master, but this may be the cruelest thing you’ve ever done to me.”

“I’m giving you a choice, as I’ve always given you.” Norn replied, more coldly.

Gertrude openly gritted her teeth. “You know this isn’t a choice! You’re manipulating me!”

“Really? A coattail rider like you, and you believe I’m the one being manipulative?”

“Master,” Gertrude clapped her hands together. “I’ve always respected you, so please–”

She was getting ready to beg. Getting ready to drop to her knees right on the video feed.

“Stop being such a coward, Gertrude! You need to man up, this instant!”

It was not Norn who spoke then.

Adelheid interjected suddenly, in a way that completely chilled Gertrude.

Her eyes looked as imperious as those of Norn herself. A disdainful glare, and sharp words.

“Don’t you realize how cruel you are being, begging Norn to fight this battle for you?” Adelheid shouted. “Don’t you see the company that puts you in, don’t you see how sound like all of the other evil cowards who only see her as a weapon? Don’t you see that Norn wants to give you the power to take Elena away with you? Gertrude, if you can’t even defeat these mercenaries, can you possibly defend Elena from the Volkisch movement, the Royal Alliance, Veka or Millennia Skarsgaard? How can you survive all the schemes that Norn has shielded you from and continue to be so spineless? Do you want to hide behind other people forever, or do you want to be able to take control of your own damn life?”

Adelheid practically shouted herself hoarse. There were furious tears in her eyes.

Gertrude stood speechless. She almost wanted to cry herself– she was so stunned.

All of the begging and sniveling that she had done to wear her grandiose uniform.

Not just Norn, but Dreschner, Ingrid, Sieglinde, even Elena herself–

So many people had rescued her across her life, so she stood half a chance of reaching this moment, of reaching the cusp of having the love of her life in her grasp, where nobody could take her again, where they could finally stand together until death. That storybook ending she wanted ever since she was enchanted by those beautiful indigo eyes as a small child. Gertrude was not so deluded as to think she had ever boasted prodigious personal strength, she knew, acknowledged, that she had begged and scraped and needed intervention and serendipity to survive to where she was and yet–

She had never felt so seen, so seen and found pathetic, found to be truly what she was.

Another soul had never struck a blow so chillingly powerful to the edifice of her person.

And for it to not even be Norn, but Adelheid, that bratty girl perpetually fixed in her orbit.

For those words to cut as deep and hard as they did. Gertrude was left reeling, shaking.

She could have taken the scolding if it came from Norn– but Norn hardly made a gesture.

It had been Adelheid, of all people, who had cut her down to the bone instead.

Had she been told of this event without experiencing it herself, Gertrude would have laughed.

Now in the moment all she wanted to do was cry, but she fought back the tears.

“Thank you Adelheid.” Norn said. “But that’s quite enough. Gertrude, your decision.”

Even if her heart was full of trepidation, it was impossible to object. Gertrude was trapped.

All of her rebelliousness was destroyed. Adelheid was completely correct about her.

Gertrude had run too much, hid too much, begged, and bartered too much by now.

There was always going to be a battle she would have had to stand and fight through alone.

She thought when it came she would be prepared for it.

Instead she was a shuddering mess. In tears, her skin shaking over cold-feeling flesh.

Pathetic. She was pathetic, powerless, useless, a coward, a craven half-wit schemer–

“Gertrude, I need you to do this.” Norn pressed her. “But more than that: you need it too.”

Gertrude raised a shaking salute. Norn and Adelheid were right.

She needed to do this. There was nobody to champion her. Gertrude had to fight herself.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg, deploying in the SF-07 Magellan.” She said.

Steeling herself to put on the most dignified response that she could muster.

“Good. Show them your strength, High Inquisitor.” Norn said.

Gertrude bowed her head and severed the connection. When she turned her back on the terminal, her cape fluttering behind her, feeling the weight of the black and gold uniform and the tall hat on her head, Gertrude felt like nothing so much as an imposter. She had been exposed and could no longer run away. All she could was convince the world that she had any power at all in her own self.


Maryam Karahailos stepped off the elevator to the Brigand’s upper deck with her hands behind her back, her head bowed, and the chromatophores in her skin and hair dull and dark. She felt her brain fog over with worry, her skin feeling tight with tension. The Brigand was embroiled in a dangerous situation, and her beloved Sonya had taken charge of her unit and deployed for battle. Watching them go, even a girl as supernaturally gifted as her felt completely helpless and useless in this situation.

When it came to fighting a battle like this, the Apostle of Air was completely useless!

She did not want to trouble Sonya, so she did not insist on staying in the hangar.

Soon as Sonya got ready to leave, they briefly held hands, and Maryam made for the bridge.

“As long as you’re safe, I’ll have peace of mind.” Sonya said.

“You’ll definitely come back, right?”

“Of course. I still have a lot to learn from you.”

Their final exchange, out of earshot, before Sonya told her to depart and ran to the mecha.

Maryam sighed deeply.

She had spent so much time with Sonya lately, it had been such a blessing!

Now she was gone, and Maryam might never– no she couldn’t even contemplate that!

It broke her heart to even consider it!

Moping to herself, she ambled without enthusiasm down the hall.

She stumbled upon a commotion.

Out in the middle of the hall, someone had been set down on the floor. There was a woman looming over her on the ground — that doctor with the colorful hair, Kappel. Alongside her were the two women Sonya had introduced to Maryam last night: Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg. As soon as Maryam approached, Valeriya seemed to notice, and immediately lifted her mask over her nose.

She tugged gently on Illya’s sleeve and pointed behind them at Maryam.

“Run along to the bridge, we don’t want too many people getting in the way here.”

Illya was firm but not brusque. Maryam had not intended to stay in the hall but–

She noticed the blue hair and blood-soaked white coat of the woman in Kappel’s care.

Euphrates– no, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen, she was calling herself.

On the floor, unresponsive save for recurring bloody coughing, streams of blood down her nose, convulsions infrequent enough that they startled Maryam as she stared. Her eyes were blank, like the cold gaze of a corpse. Kappel had brought her out to the hall, took her pulse, checked her breathing, injected her with a drug, but she seemed helpless to provide first aid in this situation.

“She’s breathing, heart’s normal, the portable scanner shows nothing ruptured.”

Maryam stared in confusion. People spoke but the voices made no sense to her.

All of the blood, and the way her body would sometimes jump without stimuli, it was surreal, the smell of bloody iron and gauze, but not just that, not just the physical things– all around Euphrates a black cloud thicker and denser and darker than any Maryam had ever seen shrouded her until her physical body seemed almost an outline beneath its fog. Death, death, death, death was everywhere, the smell of rot, the texture of flayed flesh, the taste of blood, it clung slick like slime to the body and yet–

–she wasn’t dead. Was she? She couldn’t have been.

Maryam could vaguely see the sinewy outer edges of her aura.

Not dissipating from distance to the body, but reaching out, flowing.

The Aether Current– all of that darkness was spilling out into the aether current.

Maryam realized that Euphrates’ condition must have had to do with psionics, but–

“Hey, aren’t you going to the bridge? We don’t want people loitering around.”

Illya, clearly nervous at the unnatural sight playing out behind her.

“I– I’m sorry. I’ll keep going. It’s– it’s a lot of blood. Sorry.”

“I get it. The Captain and the Commissar are awaiting you.” Illya said gently.

Maryam did not know how to feel and what she should do.

Euphrates had been a teacher of sorts to her, a mentor. Self-described and self-imposed.

She felt a sense of great trepidation when she found “Euphemia” embroiling herself in the Brigand’s affairs. They acknowledged their familiarity in front of the Captain and the crew but did not reveal the truth about their association. Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation, a conspiratorial group that Maryam had joined and briefly worked within — all Apostles held a high and respected rank in the group, even if they did not want to, so Maryam found refuge with them.

While Euphrates taught her many things about herself and about psionics–

Maryam could not help but hate the selfish way that she behaved. To believe that you were helping the world solely by advancing knowledge and technology, but that the ethical response to conflict was to retreat from the world and hide your knowledge and technology from them; it was anathema to everything Maryam wanted to accomplish in the world. She could not abide any of it.

So if Euphrates was dying, what should Maryam do? How should she have reacted?

Mourned? Seethed? Intervened?

Maybe the world would have been better without Euphrates in it.

With a deep breath followed by a heavy sigh, Maryam started walking past the scene.

And stopped right beside Doctor Kappel, fists shaking at her sides.

“I– I can help!” Maryam shouted suddenly, unable to abandon her gentle nature.

Doctor Kappel looked up at her, blinking with confusion. She fiddled absentmindedly with some of her blue hair and got some blood on it. Behind her, Illya looked annoyed and Valeriya turned the other way to avoid the scene. The doctor looked pale as a ghost, practically in tears, her hands were shaking on the portable medical computer in her fingers. “Maryam Karahailos? How can you possibly–?”

“Please don’t ask me about what I’m about to do! I’ll explain everything later!”

Maryam dropped to her knees next to Euphrates’ body and held out her hands.

Her eyes felt hot, and she pushed her senses out to the air around her.

Just as she had shown Shalikova before a globe of air gathered quickly in her hands–

–and then dispersed.

Illya’s, Kappel’s and Valeriya’s hair blew suddenly as if there was a strong breeze.

All of them watched, dumbfounded, as the air became a visible glow around Euphrates.

Molecular Control.

Air seeped its way through Euphrates’ skin, into the tissues, sinews, into the blood.

Her gentle touch glided over wounds, through spilled blood and ruptured vessels.

While Maryam’s intellect and will traveled through the muscles, to the marrow, to the brain.

She caught the briefest glimpse, the most fleeting intimation of Euphrates’ intentions.

Norn von Fueller– Somewhere Euphrates was dueling the mighty Apostle of Ice–

Her body was here, however, in great, roaring agony–

As she tried to sew back tissues that bled indefinitely, as she tried to mend bones that broke forever and muscles that tore repeatedly, Maryam realized suddenly why Euphrates’ body was not dying. Life blossomed inside of her abnormal body every time a cell met death, like a big bang of genetic rebirth recreating the universe of Euphrates with every stroke against her skin and every twist against her bones. She was like a cancer infinitely fed of herself, and Maryam could hardly comprehend where the energy came from to sustain her. She realized in an instant how vastly old and hurt this body was.

Glimpsing for less than a second the thousand-year history of Euphrates–

From Maryam’s gentle lips ripped a wail of agony.

She fell back from Euphrates’ body, from Kappel and Illya who tried to reach out to her, shuddering and shaking on the floor with the horror of understanding. Her head felt split open with pain, and she held herself as if trying to squeeze numb all of the burning in her sinews. Even for an Apostle, where she had delved, what she had touched, memories of cells with infinitely long telomeres–

Psionic feedback ripped through Maryam’s entire body. She was not powerful enough!

“Maryam! Oh my god–!”

Illya rushed to the side of the girl clearly in pain, tearing open a plastic-bagged first aid kit–

Suddenly everything began to shake.

That first aid kit hit the floor and the security officers nearly fell with it.

Dr. Kappel grit her teeth and clung on to a handhold in the wall near the Bridge door.

Lights flashed in and out in the hallways for a few seconds before stabilizing.

“It’s started!” Valeriya said.

“Shit. This one’s going to be really serious huh?” Illya replied.

She helped Maryam to settle on her side and injected her with a punch tube from the first aid kit. Psionic feedback was already subsiding, and the painkillers flooding Maryam’s body had little to do with it, but she felt her head clearing and peace returning. Those instant, eldritch images that had terrorized her neurons for a split second were gone save for the leftover anxious tension under her skin. The world, which was still spinning around her, overcome with disorienting color as she lost control, came into sharper focus, slowly, like a picture on a faulty screen coaxed into mechanical clarity.

“Maryam, please say something. Shalikova’s already upset enough with me as it is.”

Illya laid a comforting hand on Maryam’s shoulder, as if nudging her back to life.

Joined by Valeriya, who knelt beside Illya and offered her own silent support.

Maryam promised not to make trouble– she tried her best to sit up and acknowledge them.

She thought of saying something but– It was not Maryam who raised her voice to speak.

From the lips of the presumed corpse came the smallest, weakest of pleas–

“Tigris– please–”

“She’s speaking?! Security, call Syracuse, we may be able to move her to operations now!”

Doctor Kappel looked as shocked as she was elated to see a sign of consciousness.

Euphemia Rontgen– no, Euphrates, slowly sat up, trying to speak.

Through a trickle of blood and vomit escaping from her throat.

With eyes glowing bright red, tears steaming into wisps of vapor as they were shed.

She reached out to the sleeve on Kappel’s coat and tugged weakly on it.

“Theresa– Tigris– please bring her–”

“Tigris? God help me, what is happening on this ship?” Kappel whimpered.

In that instant, there was another sudden quake all along the ship again as if in answer.


“Don’t try to be a hero. Stay in the back and offer fire support. You got that?”

Shalikova was unused to being the tough CO in a group. She was almost always the quiet workhorse who did everything she was ordered to do without objections. So it felt strange to be in the position of having to tell a contrite Aiden Ahwalia that he was on the team, for now, and that he was going out into battle. And then to have to try her best to smash down the glint he got in his eyes after.

“Of course. Of course.” He said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“You really shouldn’t be happy we’re in this position.” Shalikova sighed.

Behind her, the deployment chutes for Khadija and Valya were being drained. Both of them had gone out first. A wise decision– Khadija would have certainly had something to say about Aiden’s inclusion. She was hopefully professional enough not to complain once Aiden was actually outside with them. It was a dreadful situation to be in. Two of their most accomplished pilots in their last sortie were out of the fight, and the enemy was likely to be armed to the teeth. These weren’t just going to be patrolmen haphazardly thrown into battle. The Antenora was the Fueller flagship, part of the former ruling dynasty.

Shalikova imagined royal knights who trained constantly to protect the imperial family.

Complete opposite of the ragtag group she was working with.

But all she could do was believe; believe in her comrades and do her best.

Murati would have said something like that.

She would have also had a more complicated plan, perhaps.

“Our goal will be to distract the enemy while the Strelkannon gets into position. Between the Strelkannon’s anti-ship package and the Brigand’s weapons we should be able to overwhelm the Cruiser. If we can’t sink it, we’ll hopefully do enough damage to force a rout. You need to be ready to retreat at any point we find an opportunity to run. You got that? Don’t be a hero, Aiden.”

“Don’t worry about me! I won’t do anything foolish.” Aiden said.

His tone was much more compliant.

Not only because he was finally getting what he wanted and being allowed to pilot, but likely also because of the beating he took and the subsequent dressing down from the Security Chief. He had a bruised neck and a bandage on his forehead where Valeriya had stricken him. Nothing broken, nothing he couldn’t sleep off. Otherwise Shalikova would not have had any reserve pilots to draw upon now, except maybe asking if Valeriya and Illya could be lent to her from security.

She knew those two could pilot well.

“You’ll be with her.” Shalikova said. “But you follow my orders, understand?”

Beside the spare Strelok which had been assigned to Aiden, Marina’s S.E.A.L was set up on a gantry. It was a little rounder than a Strelok here and there, attesting to the Republic’s higher capability in precise machining, with rounded off edges and a beveled, semi-oblong body. They attached the backpack lower, and the entire mass was just a bit squatter in profile. This was the legacy of the combat data which had been given by the Union to the republic. They made a slightly prettier and stockier Strelok.

It would do as well enough as any of their machines in the right hands.

Shalikova would just have to trust Marina McKennedy’s skill too.

When Marina appeared, Shalikova took Aiden to her side for a quick introduction.

“McKennedy, this is Aiden Ahwalia, he’ll be providing fire support for you.” She said.

Aiden waved half-heartedly.

Marina nodded her head. “Okay, I’ll paint targets if I need him to coordinate.”

“Good call. Aiden, shoot what she’s shooting at, and we’ll get through this.”

Shalikova patted Aiden in the back, trying to be a bit chummy.

Murati did that sort of thing much better– she couldn’t help but compare herself.

She then hurried back to the Cheka, set up next to the Strelkannon, ready to deploy.

On either shoulder, the Strelkannon was set up with a six-slot rack for 88 mm light torpedoes.

Rybolovskaya would in addition be deploying with a 50 mm high velocity cannon.

This was essentially a Diver “sniper rifle,” firing supercavitating two-stage projectiles.

But because the Diver and its pilot could hardly “see” to the full range of this weapon, it would be up to Shalikova or the rest of the team to paint digital targets for the Strelkannon to fire upon. They had all been equipped with laser effectors on their Diver’s gauntlets for this purpose. They could also use these to help guide the torpedoes she would be firing. Their entire gambit was based around supporting this one platform. Murati might’ve balked at having such a stark failure point.

Murati was not here, however.

Shalikova was doing her best with the weapons and tactics she knew. This kind of thing was bread and butter for pilots, but the Academy must’ve taught it to her because it was effective.

Right? She wished the little nagging voice in her head was more supportive.

She raised a thumbs up to Rybolovskaya, who nodded and descended into her cockpit.

Shalikova then started to climb into her own.

Murati’s Cheka was quite an imposing monument in the hangar, at least for Shalikova’s eyes. Climbing onto its dark painted body, subsuming herself in that sleek, modern hull, it put into stark relief that she was being asked to take on far more responsibility than she ever had. For years she had been piloting Streloks as a cadet and then as arguably a professional. This design bore resemblances to the mecha she had been piloting all of this time, but it represented the turning of an era also. This machine, if the Union survived long enough, would probably supplant all of the machines Shalikova piloted.

Just as she, and Murati, and all of them, were being asked to follow in the footsteps of the previous generation of the Union’s warriors and ultimately supersede them. Khadija was among the Brigand’s pilots, sure, but other than her, Shalikova felt, for maybe the first time, the absence of veterans, of the old revolutionaries, and the placing of weight on her slender shoulders alone. When Murati could not lead them, she had been chosen instead. A mere girl barely into her twenties.

ISU-100 Cheka. For the workers’ revolution!

Shalikova closed the cockpit and watched the Diver’s computer boot up.

A thousand generations reside in you.

That was the final part of the boot-up message before her cameras came online.

“You don’t have to keep reminding me.” She mumbled.

She took in a deep breath and let it out. She grabbed hold of her control sticks.

In the absence of that tenacious generation which brought liberty to the Nectaris Ocean, it would simply have to be her and her peers who continued the fight for freedom. There was no one else here that could protect the Brigand, and she would be damned if she let everything fall on poor Khadija, who had suffered so much, and Murati, who was always throwing herself in death’s way for them.

For Zasha’s sake too. She– she didn’t die for nothing.

“Big sis– the road we chose just keeps getting more treacherous, huh?”

Shalikova put a hand to her heart, and for the first time in a long time–

–remembered Zasha’s face, her words, her encouragement, without crying.

For her sake. Shalikova had to be soldier Zasha dreamed of being but could never become.

To protect the work of all of those generations who resided in her–

–and now, she who resided in Shalikova too.

Below her, the engineers released the Cheka from its gantry and unlocked the power plant.

She hefted up her rifle and stowed a folding sword and a grenade on her magnetic strip.

The voice that left her lips was stronger and firmer than she could’ve imagined.

ISU-100 Cheka, Sonya Shalikova! Deploying!”

When she dropped into the water, her hands were at the controls, her eyes on the cameras.

Her initial fear and trepidation left her as the ocean surrounded her hull.

“How is it looking out here?”

Beneath the ship, Khadija and Valya had been standing guard, moving just enough to keep up with the Brigand as it began to turn in on the Antenora’s flank from over a kilometer away. The Strelkannon dropped down with her, and Aiden’s Strelok along with Marina’s SEAL dropped shortly after. Shalikova synced the final up to date algorithmic prediction of the surroundings that she would get to her dive computer and cameras, getting a sense of the terrain beneath and the waters around them.

She noted the position of Zachikova’s drone near the ocean floor below, trailed closely by the Leviathan she had discovered. They would be connecting to the drone for laser communication and alternate sonar positioning, since the drone had a complete sonar kit and their Divers did not possess one.

“They’re starting to make a move.” Khadija said over the acoustic comms.

Shalikova adjusted herself to face the Antenora’s direction.

Advanced soundwave detection from the drone’s instruments passed to her computer, alerting her that there was indeed movement from underneath the Antenora, and the general direction of the movement. A tight formation was headed their way. All around her the ocean was murky, brown dust floating in near black waters, but she could trust the instruments to see where her eyes could never.

“Form up around the Strelkannon. I’ll take the lead– Marina and Aiden hold the rear!”

“Aye aye!” came the voices on the communicator.

Like a cluster of missiles hurtling out from beneath the ship, the Brigand’s divers charged out into the open water to intersect their counterparts. Positional data from the drone sent and received with a slight delay every few seconds, and at the speed they were moving they would find and confront the enemy group in forty or so seconds. Shalikova took the lead, Khadija and Valya beside her.

The Cheka was a dream to pilot, completely smooth, responsive, fast.

She must have had at least eight knots advantage on the Strelok.

I can do this–

“One of them is breaking off! I’m intercepting!”

Seconds later, Aiden suddenly swerved away from the formation.

“Aiden, what? Stop right now!”

Shalikova chastised him, then received the update from the drone.

One of the enemy mecha had torn away from their formation too.

It was clearly a trick! They didn’t know what kind of enemy it was!

“Don’t chase after it! Aiden! God damn it!”

“That little fucking worm! He’s going to get slaughtered!” Khadija cursed.

“Khadija, quiet and take the lead! I’ll go after him!”

Shalikova tore from the lead of the formation and charged to the flank as well.

There was no objection. She was the squad leader and they had their orders.

She was furious but she couldn’t let Aiden be killed no matter how foolish he was acting!

Once they got back she would punch him in his stupid nose, but for now she had to save him.

Aiden had quickly vanished into the marine fog, but Shalikova could catch up. The Cheka was faster than his Strelok. She could still create an opportunity if she could take out the enemy’s flanker with Aiden and then turn this stunt into their own flanking attack. In mere seconds the battle would be joined by the main group, so as she hurtled into the open ocean at their left flank, Shalikova kept the time in her head and prepared her weapons, knowing that she would soon catch a glimpse of the enemy–

“AHH–!”

A guttural, horrified scream from Aiden sounded through the communicator.

Outlines came into view through the biomass and the dark waters lit only by floodlights.

It happened in an instant–

Horns, a great dark body like a demon, claws, and shimmering, evil red eyes.

Aiden’s assault rifle floated down toward the seafloor with the Strelok’s hand attached.

Firing into nothingness as the hand was severed before he could attack.

He swung his sword at the demon but its glowing claw seized his entire arm.

When he screamed Shalikova could hear the wailing alert sounds from inside his cockpit.

His arm tore off along with the water intakes adjacent to the joint, causing his hydrojets to seize up, and the demon let the mass of his machine float uselessly away as if it was done playing with the carcass. Its horns glowed with a rainbow gradient that trailed across the body like faint outlines of the veins beneath skin. Shalikova saw dark armor and a snout-like head, felt the palpable heft of its body–

No, not its body. Not anything physical. Those waves were coming from the pilot.

Around her was a mass of red and black color with a spreading band of purple.

Furious killing intent and a sense of warrior’s pride.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide and her breathing caught. She raised her assault rifle.

She could hear a laugh– a girl’s uproarious laughter at her own superiority.

Her eyes, even through the water and the machines, she thought she could see–

–a girl like her? Long-haired, golden-eyed, in a pilot’s bodysuit, too young–

Oh? What’s this? Another helpless rat took a wrong turn in the maze?

Shalikova blinked, and the machine turned and charged as if propelled by billowing cloak of water.

In the next instant, the clawed metal horror descended on her quicker than its bulk suggested.

She reacted with alacrity, drawing back, avoiding the first attack of the enormous, vibrating, superheated claws. Opening the vortex of destruction which inexorably drew the currents of these generational peers. Out of every possible enemy released from the bowels of the Fueller flagship’s collection of monsters, Shalikova had now come face to face with a terror that shook the deeps with its alien power.

The Antenora’s Jagdkaiser Type I fixed its eyes and those of Selene Anahid on Shalikova’s own.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.5]

Upon exiting the Brigand, a certain wily cat was trying to think of something mischievous to say.

“Make it back in one piece, squad leader; I wouldn’t want to have to tease a corpse for its owner’s mistakes.”

Murati, of course, had no reply to that. It was her youth and inexperience perhaps.

With a macabre flair sharpened by her long military service, Khadija al-Shajara broke off from the rest of the squadron, leading Valya Lebedova through the gloomy seas towards the left flank of the enemy’s formation. Khadija controlled her mech with practiced ease, each turn of the stick or press of the pedal as smooth or as harsh as it needed to be. Their Streloks were basic in comparison to some of the customized models favored by the other pilots, but Khadija liked hers basic. She had a relationship to this kind of machine that no one else could ever match.

She tried to purge herself of useless emotions when she went out into the water.

Deep breath, lifting her shoulders, stretching her legs.

Remembering the wine she had back on board the Brigand.

“Valya, how do I sound?”

“Legible!”

“Good. Mind if I take the lead?”

“You’re in the lead ma’am!”

“That’s a good little enby. Judging by how much ordnance is strapped to that Strelkannon I think Sam and Nika will be fine in the front. We should prioritize trying to cripple the Frigate’s flak on our end. If the Cutters are destroyed or rout, those Frigates will try to move up to encircle the center team. Does that sound like a plan?”

“I’m fine with it! We can put a couple bursts in those gas gun pods at least.”

“One shot beneath the left barrel will set off the magazine. No need to seal it with a kiss.”

“I don’t know that I can fire just one shot off this AK, but I’ll try ma’am!”

Valya sounded slightly nervous.

Khadija’s flighty sense of humor never left her, but she was speaking with a stern tone of voice even as she compared the killing of a gas gun pod to the writing of a letter. There was a professional ease that came over whenever she piloted, a sense of giving up responsibility. It allowed her to be honest with herself and everyone around her.

She made the best of every day precisely so she could go out into the water without regret.

An old– mature woman, no children, unmarried, no family: it didn’t matter if she died.

Twenty years in the cockpit made those things seem small.

And the stakes involved in this particular mission made them even smaller.

Khadija flew through the water like a missile. Rookie pilots felt a sense of disorientation or confusion fighting in the Ocean because they could see nothing on their cameras most of the time, save for the overlays labeled by their predictive computers. Then when they found a landmark, they’d suddenly start orienting themselves in two dimensions, as if trying to plant their feet on it. And if anything came at them too suddenly it would be like a jump scare in a movie.

Even back when she started piloting, she never gave in to such vulnerabilities. Khadija was suspended in the water. As long as she had power she would not fall. Nevertheless, she did not hold inexperience against most people in the Navy. Her baptism under fire had taken place in an entirely different era, after all. She could not begrudge them being a little soft now.

It’s why she fought in the first place.

If they were too soft, it only meant those hard old veterans like her should set an example.

“Contacts.” Valya said.

“I see them. I’ll engage. Break off from me, lock your thrust and strafe the ship.”

“Uhh, wait, ma’am who locks their thrust ever? I don’t–”

Without responding, Khadija used the tips of her feet to flip two locking switches.

This would keep her pedals jammed down.

She lifted her AK rifle and fired a three round burst blindly into the ocean below.

Valya shouted. “What was that?”

“Relax and stick to the plan.”

Dead ahead of them was the red square for the Frigate and one additional red square most likely representing a pair of enemy Divers moving close together. Some twenty or thirty meters farther out from these squares was the great and murky looming shadow of the Irmingard class flagship. Quietly, inexorably advancing toward the Brigand.

That was not her concern for now.

Moving at the speed she was Khadija knew she would see the enemy Divers on her camera in seconds.

When they appeared on her screen, the two Volkers were swimming ahead with their rifles to their chests, pointing at nothing and descending rapidly. Toward the last thing that their predictors had pointed them to. The loudest noise they could hear in the middle of the murky ocean: a burst of rifle bullets blowing up in the middle of nowhere. This was how a Rookie saw the world underwater. Large overlay boxes representing “enemies,” and the loudest noise in the box.

As I thought. You fellas are half-baked.

“Ma’am–”

“Stop calling me ma’am and do what I tell you.”

“Yes! Sorry!”

Valya hurtled onward to attack the Frigate moving rapidly into full view.

While Khadija swooped down from above to attack the two Divers below.

Without stopping to aim, she glanced at the rifle’s camera and put a burst into the water.

Like gas gun bullets, rifle bullets were mainly explosive and had special fuzes. Her burst flew off into the blue surrounding the Volkers and detonated around them. She did not aim and had not meant to hit. Startled, the Volkers thrust backwards in opposite directions away from the explosions, separating them from one another.

Never once slowing down or stopping, Khadija fluidly descended in a wide arc circling around the enemy Volkers. Rather than turn her entire chassis to face them, she kept her chest forward, head down, and jets thrusting, strafing past the enemy in tight coiling lines that framed them like a cage of water and bubbles. Her gun camera and one shoulder camera kept her locked on her targets. She did not need to stop and stand among them to shoot.

Khadija rapped the trigger, waiting a fraction of a second between each pull.

For each careful press, she sent a bullet toward the enemy.

Her gunfire arced into the Volkers, exploding into vapor bubbles the size of a dog.

Both Volkers finally set their sights on her and turned their rifles, laying down fire.

A trail of bullets exploded in her wake, never making their mark.

Khadija kept moving. In and around them, like a serpent, leaving them in confusion.

Her chassis cut through the water with great alacrity, weaving, climbing, and rolling, never stopping, keeping as much speed as she could between maneuvers. While strafing the Volkers, her speed protected her from their fire. She could manipulate the arms and cameras to fire a few ranging shots back at them in the middle of her maneuvers. Her enemy, meanwhile, was reduced to lurching in place, jerking ungracefully away from the direction of her gunfire.

Against a two-man section that knew how to defend itself Khadija would have been cut down by coordinated gunfire or dragged into a melee. She could not have been so cocky. But she knew what she was dealing with, and amateurs stuck in two dimensions could never hope to stop her. She had the measure of them, and it was time to end it.

Sweeping up suddenly and unexpectedly, she stopped overhead for just a moment.

The Volkers expected her to keep moving and overshot their next bursts of gunfire, leaving themselves completely open. Khadija braced her assault rifle with both arms to control her aim more tightly.

Two trigger pulls, two bullets, with just one snap correction between each shot.

Two explosions through the heads of the two Volkers below her.

Bubbles blew up from each chassis. A tell-tale sign: gases were escaping.

Without staying for a moment longer to inspect her handiwork, Khadija took off again.

She discarded her magazine and loaded a fresh one into the AK-96.

A brief glance at the rear camera as she headed toward the Frigate.

Both Volkers were sinking, barely damaged but damaged where it mattered.

Khadija knew that an overhead shot on a Volker could penetrate the head on the pure kinetic energy of a 37 mm round which would then detonate inside the camera housing. That meant the explosion would damage the pressure hull at the top of the cockpit through the thin aperture where the visual electronics connected and routed through. As much as the Volker’s camera housing looked like a helmet, it was not well armored and represented a vulnerability.

From one target to another. No use thinking about the debris.

She had a Frigate to sink.

Imperial Marder class Frigates were wide, boxy ships with tear-drop prows and squat conning towers, with large, steeply angled fins like wings attached to the flared rear end. The Irmingard’s Marders served as Diver tenders, loaded with external gantries, two on each side of the ship. Overburdened with these modifications, they were slower and less stable in the water than ordinary Marders, but still able to serve as a wall between Khadija and the flagship.

On the deck, several gas gun turrets spun around firing trails of bullets out of their double barrels as they chased Valya’s Strelok. Their movements were predictable, overflying the deck and circling back around the fin several times; but the fire discipline from the Frigate was abysmal. It was a pathetic chase as the Strelok that moved fast but without particular splendor stayed a step ahead of sputtering lines of bullets– even so, Valya was hardly able to shoot back.

They made a wonderful distraction, however.

 “Valya, watch yourself, they’ll range you soon enough! I’m coming in!”

Khadija approached from below the Frigate.

While the deck guns were all busy with Valya, the ventral guns had been lying in wait for targets. Several were out of position however, their barrels facing the sides of the vessel. Waiting for Valya to come down perhaps, which they never did. So Khadija flew right down the middle of the keel between the distracted guns. She would not have been so cocky if all the guns were tracking her, but they were clearly in no position to fire upon her.

Twisting her chassis around, she soared under the Frigate with her chest facing it.

All the while rapping finger on the trigger, three times, pause, three times.

Shifting her aim quickly from one side of the keel to the other.

Her 37 mm bullets ripped into the bases of several ventral turrets, going off against the keel armor. In her wake, a series of explosions rocked the underside of the vessel. When she pulled out from under the ship and soared behind the flared rear armor and around the wings. As its keel reeled with secondary explosions and ballast started to leak, the ship was forced to accelerate in order to correct itself as it was beginning to tip to one side. Aft gas guns followed Khadija’s ascent with a hail of gunfire, but the ship’s rocky course shattered their ability to aim.

Attached to the magnetic strip beneath the backpack of her Strelok there was a single rocket-propelled grenade with a 50 mm explosive head. Standard issue for ordinary Streloks like hers, it could be thrown, and unguided it would burn solid fuel, race forward and go off like a light torpedo. Rising behind the Frigate, Khadija had the perfect target in mind as she avoided the turbulent outwash from three large hydrojets exposed so directly in front of her.

She took the grenade by the handle, armed it, reared just as she came level to the top jet–

A red flash on the corner of her eye alerted her–

Khadija veered to the right on her climb and twisted out of the way of a burst of gunfire.

This guy is different!

She disarmed her grenade, stowed it away and focused on movement.

Her opponent was barely on her cameras, a red box marking its relative position behind.

Automatic fire peppered everywhere she had been, a trail of explosions creeping on her.

From both the Frigate and the new assailant. Keeping both in mind, she had to act quickly.

To break a chase she had to either shake him or challenge his position.

Keeping on the move, trying to retain her momentum while maneuvering her way around the Frigate’s left fins, Khadija climbed and angled the Strelok’s fins and thrusters steeply. As she climbed she shifted her weight in the opposite direction and turned in an arc, coming to face and charge the enemy she now saw for the first time. Her movements were so fast and tight that her opponent was forced to give up the chase as she came suddenly toward them.

The enemy Diver broke away from her with a burst of solid fuel thrust and took off his own way.

Turning in another steep arc, she was suddenly behind them and chasing.

“Not an amateur, but not on my level.”

There was no reason that pilot had to stop– except that they were not confident they could avoid her without halting their momentum and throwing themselves in an entirely different direction than they had been moving in. Such jerking maneuvers were standard for pilots who saw engagements as two foot soldiers scrambling in terrain. Khadija, however, knew she was flying. And she knew objects flying through the water needed to retain as much speed as they could.

He stopped then restarted movement, and so Khadija had gone from prey to predator.

Rather than a Volker, this new enemy was a brand new Jagd, armed with a jet lance.

Its power-to-weight advantages and hydrodynamic triangle shape were wasted on its pilot.

Had it been her, she would have met any charge with that lance and let physics transpire.

Now, however, Khadija was right on his heels–

From outside her cameras, a sudden burst of gunfire crashed into the Jagd’s hull.

Suffering extensive hull damage, and attacked from two directions, the enemy suddenly showed its acumen for battle in a far more shameful fashion — it retreated. Breaking off from Khadija’s pursuit with all available thrust in its frame, heedless of energy or fuel concerns, the Jagd suddenly disappeared into the murk, likely tailing back to the Irmingard. Valya reappeared on Khadija’s cameras then and rejoined Khadija’s side, just barely keeping up as they maneuvered back toward the troubled Frigate. In minutes, the left wing of the enemy’s escort had been broken.

“How was that ma’am?” Valya asked, laughing to themselves with satisfaction.

Khadija laughed. “Quite acceptable.” And only that much.


After their formal introduction, the pilot group had some time to themselves before their arrival at Serrano Station.

Shalikova wanted to get in some practice in the simulator, which had just been set up in the hangar along with the rest of their equipment. That particular night would be the best chance she had prior to arrival. After a late dinner, she made her way back down to the nearly-deserted hangar on the lower deck. She approached what looked, to the unknowing eye, like pair of odd metal boxes suspended on stilts and struts, shoved off into a corner of the hangar.

Inside them, however, was a full set of Diver controls and monitors. They were constructed so that they would tilt and turn like a Diver would, with cameras that could be specifically oriented, and weights that simulated every kind of movement one could make in a Strelok. This would provide accurate control feedback, even though the pilot would be staring at computer-generated environments and opponents. As fake-looking as the graphics were, the physicality of holding the controls, and building up accurate muscle memory, was invaluable, at least to Shalikova.

There were two paired units set up so that pilots could spar with each other.

At that moment however, Shalikova only wanted to try her luck with the AI–

Until she heard a voice calling out to her from a nearby elevator door.

“Ah ha, lovely to see another pilot tuned to the same frequency.”

Arriving at Shalikova’s side was Khadija al-Shajara, sipping from a half-drunk mug of something richly red. A frequent member of the kitchen crew and supposedly veteran pilot, her sly expression was accented by all her makeup.

Shalikova had just come down from dinner, where Khadija would have observed her. It was no coincidence for the cat to suddenly appear to tease her. That mug of alcohol was the prize she received for helping Logia Minardo so often.

“Such a friendless expression. I just wanted to thank you properly for helping with the kitchen sometimes.”

“Well, I didn’t help tonight, so there’s no reason to thank me.”

“Ah, but I see you’re doing something interesting, so I can’t help but butt in.”

Her ears did a little twitch and her tail swayed gently as she gestured to the simulator pod.

“Why don’t we have a little spar? I’d love to see what my fellow pilots can do!”

Shalikova had heard that Khadija fought in the revolution and that she was a real hot-shot ace.

Nevertheless, she had not earned being so flighty, vain and above-it-all.

“I just wanted to warm up before anything happens.” Shalikova said bluntly, hoping that would end it.

Khadija winked and crossed her arms. “I can be as docile as the Novice AI if you want!”

Shalikova grunted and glared daggers at the older Shimii, frustration bubbling up.

There was a conceited pang in her heart that simply hated being underestimated.

Being observed was bad enough; being praised was rather annoying.

Fundamentally, however, Shalikova was familiar with praise. Praise heaped on her constantly.

Not so much with being looked down upon.

Without another word she stepped into the pod nearest her.

Khadija left her teal half-jacket and her drink outside and wordlessly stepped into the other pod.

When her challenge appeared on Shalikova’s screen, the younger pilot accepted almost impulsively.

Because she was annoyed with this old cat; she planned to be thoroughly discourteous.

“Ah, how lovely! Let’s have a clean match! Show me what you can do!”

As soon as her controls unlocked to simulate deployment, Shalikova charged Khadija.

It was a simulation, so she did not have to care about the health of her battery or turbines, the amount of ammunition she was carrying, the damage she might sustain. She could slam the pedals and hold down the trigger and declare unrelenting aggression. In an academic setting there would be points docked off her piloting, but Shalikova was no longer in school. This was war. She would use every advantage to put down this annoying old woman.

When her first magazine depleted and Khadija’s frame remained at its full integrity despite the violent outburst of automatic fire, Shalikova got an inkling that there was a problem. Then within a single blinking instant Khadija fully disappeared from her field of view, perfectly rolling over and under the hurtling Strelok and taking Shalikova’s back, fully within the blind spots of her cameras as she had set them up. It was only by rotating the backpack cameras to a torturous extent that she found Khadija’s gun barrel stuck right between the backpack and waist of her Strelok.

At that point, the younger pilot realized the extent to which there was a problem.

“Was your thrust locked? Happens sometimes out of the gate with these old sims.”

Shalikova could feel Khadija’s shitty little grin through the radio.

“Reset?” She offered sweetly. “We can break off and approach properly for a spar–”

Instead of a reset, Shalikova engaged her solid fuel vernier boosters.

She expected Khadija to attack, so she jerked herself away and retaliated; shooting only water as her opponent sped away. For the briefest instant she thought she had Khadija on the run, but this was quickly disproven.

Shalikova never even came close to putting a single bullet on her.

Though she would desperately shoot, dodge, reposition, and try to aim ahead of her enemy; Khadija snaked around her like a serpent, evading her blow and firing back at her leisure. Their match grew thoroughly one-sided.

By the time the simulator pods wound down and let the pilots out, Shalikova had gone the full range of emotions from annoyed to furious to deeply ashamed and humiliated, watching herself caught in a whirlpool within which she could do nothing. These machines kept all kinds of data, but Shalikova did not want to look at any of the comparisons.

She was upset. Not even just with Khadija but the way she herself acted. After all, had she not gotten it in her head to fight Khadija she would not have been in this situation to begin with. What rottenness had gotten into her anyway?

More than anything, she felt stupid. Like she had just wasted her time.

Shaking her head, Shalikova fully intended to walk away from the pods and go to bed.

“In a real fight you wouldn’t have time to sulk, you know. I just want to help you.”

With twitching ears and hands on her hips, her Shimii senior stepped out of her pod.

Khadija’s voice had lost its playful tone. She sounded soft and concerned.

It was this tone of voice only that caused Shalikova to pause and hear the rest.

A caring voice uncharacteristic of this particular cat. A voice begging to be listened to.

“You’re a good pilot; I want to believe you’re a pilot who can be great, too.”

Shalikova grit her teeth and balled up her fists. “I’d settle for alive.” She said.

Her frustration was still talking, but Khadija continued to respond gently.

“No you wouldn’t. Not with the way you swam back there. Come back and let’s talk.”

Khadija picked her cup up, took a gentle sip, and led the way, her bushy tail swaying gently.

Still hanging her head, and avoiding eye contact, Shalikova followed Khadija to an empty workbench.

During the night shift, there were few sailors out in the hangar. Those who did work late were tasked with inspecting the pressure and atmospheric conditions, looking for leaks, and otherwise passing through rather than staying in the hangar. This at least meant Shalikova was seen by nobody else but Khadija in this state of obvious depression.

Sitting across from the cat, Shalikova could not even look at her face at first.

Even as much as she was chastising herself for being sulky, she couldn’t help but sulk.

Her senior emptied her mug, and pushed it down onto the table with a thud.

“Shalikova! Chin up now! You’re a good pilot and you must not forget that.” Khadija said, after a brief moment of simply staring at Shalikova. Her tail swayed gently behind her. She was very relaxed, despite how intensely she must have been piloting to pull those amazing stunts Shalikova had seen firsthand. “You have great reflexes, you’re quick and accurate with your movement and thrust, and you have good control of your weapon even in burst fire. In any ordinary battle, you would charge out of your ship, engage an enemy, get the first shot on them, and go home.”

Was that not enough? What else was there to Piloting then? Shalikova grumbled.

“I won’t respond to flattery. Just tell me what I did wrong already.”

She finally raised her head to look at Khadija. Her indigo eyes met the Shimii’s bright green eyes, carefully manicured with wine-colored shadow. She almost saw herself reflected there, in the depths of those old wily eyes.

Khadija was looking directly at her with a smile. Her gaze was confident, unbroken.

“It’s not ‘what you did wrong.’ You did well. What I want is for you to do better.”

She raised her hands and used her thumb and forefinger to make a box shape.

“You have good awareness of what is occupying your surroundings Shalikova, but you are not understanding what your surroundings are and how they work, nor how you can best navigate them. It’s not about your basic piloting skill but getting the most you can out of the machine. That’s how you’ll get to the next level in your career.”

Shalikova frowned. “I don’t get what you mean. I thought I was being pretty agile in that fight.”

“Let’s look at it more broadly. Tell me, what are you moving through?”

“I mean. Water? What are you getting at? I’m not stupid.”

“Relax! Don’t take everything so personally. Alright, here.” Khadija raised her palm, wiggling her fingers. “Look at my hand. First, think of my hand as your Diver. You were moving primarily like this.” Khadija thrust her hand forward, palm out, as if to shove someone. “I was moving like this. Can you spot the difference?” She lowered her palm and pushed forward fingertips first. Shalikova blinked. She was trying to imagine a Diver moving like this instead of a hand.

“No? We’re both going forward.” Shalikova said. She immediately felt stupid for saying so.

Surface area. Water is not like air!” Khadija said. “Most of your thrust is in the backpack. So in the Academy they teach you to move forward while standing upright, like a soldier on the march, holding your gun in two hands: many Divers still fundamentally move this way because it is easier to orient yourself, watch your surroundings and respond. However, you will actually move faster if you tilt the Diver’s upper body forward of the rest. You present less surface area to the water; there’s less tension! You get more out of the leg jets too. Think of how you swim in a pool!”

Thinking about it further, Shalikova herself did swim parallel to the bottom of the pool. It was just– natural.

“By tilting forward, your upper body and shoulders break the water for the rest of you.”

Khadija lowered her chest and stuck her shoulders out with a wink, as if demonstrating.

Shalikova recalled Khadija’s magnificent, snaking movements.

Dashing through the water like– like a torpedo, a missile, a bullet. All the objects Shalikova wanted to compare it to were flat and long. There was indeed much less surface area trying to break through the water if the object was shaped like a bullet and launched out of a barrel with the same orientation a bullet had. That made some kind of sense.

“You weren’t always moving that way.” Shalikova said, trying to find some kind of caveat.

Khadija rested her head on her heads and shut her eyes in a placid little expression.

“Of course. You have to know when to use every tool in your arsenal. You are not piloting a bulkhead door through the sea, you know? Your Diver has four backpack jets, two leg jets, solid fuel boosters on the arms, legs and shoulders, fins on the hips, shoulders; you can pivot your upper body slightly, you can move the arms up and down, you can tilt the chest forward, you can tuck the legs back. All this range of movement gives you options. You can’t move any one way forever. It’s too predictable! I prefer to remain moving as much as possible, but even stopping can be a tool.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Shalikova said. “I guess I never really thought about it.”

It made sense. It got her thinking, imagining herself back in the cockpit. Moving.

“Another thing of fundamental importance.” Khadija said, smiling ever more broadly, perhaps realizing she had Shalikova’s attention. She really could pull an rector’s voice out of herself. “Underwater, you can move in any direction. You can dive deeper, you can climb the water table, you can thrust upward in a diagonal trajectory, you can move upside down, you can face the surface or the sea floor while thrusting yourself forward. You have to move in three dimensions. Most pilots will just move parallel to their enemy. It’s too easy to exploit them.”

There was a smug look to the cat’s red lips as she explained herself.

Shalikova blinked. Her eyes drew a little wide. She started thinking, ever deeper and with more detail. She could see her Diver, the ocean, every piece of gear, every possible movement. She was indeed not on a flat plane.

Khadija’s fluid movements had seemed so stunning in the moment.

Now Shalikova truly felt like she could see them. She saw herself at the controls–

“If you want, we can hop back in and I can show you what I mean.” Khadija said.

Shalikova stood up immediately. Her heart was surging. She wanted to fight Khadija again.

“Let’s go. One more round.” She said, trying her best to restrain her energy.

Khadija beamed at her and quietly accented.

They had a few more matches that night.

Her low opinion of Khadija improved somewhat. She was, at least, a decent teacher.


I did my quota of freaking out on the ship. Now I have to be firm. Shalikova told herself.

This was not a simulation. That was days ago. It was the real thing, out in the open Ocean.

There wouldn’t be thirty other Divers and a fleet picking up the slack like in Thassal either.

She was one of two, and she had to make every bullet and every moment count.

When the 114th Diver squadron left the Brigand’s orbit and separated into their sections, Shalikova followed Murati on an almost fifty meter climb up the water table. They would need the altitude to go over the Destroyer’s deck. Most of the gas guns on an Imperial Wespe class Destroyer were ventral double-barrel pods, so the escort would float several meters above its charge and spray down at its enemies. This forced any engaging Divers to separate physically.

Ascending through the murk was more difficult than simply charging ahead. She had no landmarks to go off of except the vague “enemy squares” on the predictor overlay, each of which represented a square area several meters across and not a direct, pinpoint location. So she had to orient herself and keep track of her direction to the square that represented the Destroyer while hurtling through the water, unable to see anything but particles of biological matter dancing in the beams of her flashlights, black specks on white, against the dark blue of the surrounding ocean.

She was also mindful, however, not to move wholly relative to the Destroyer either.

“Contact!” Murati shouted.

Before she knew it, Shalikova was met with a withering fusillade from just out of sight.

Wespe class destroyers were like a dagger-shape covered in double-barreled gas gun pods, slicing through the Ocean. A gunmetal grey sentinel looming over the behemoth below, hundreds, thousands of lines of bullets flew from it and saturated the surrounding water with the small pops and bangs of gas gun bullets exploding all around them.

Against that wall of fire Shalikova felt suddenly dwarfed.

As she looked at Murati ahead, she saw her orienting the Cheka’s chest forward.

“Give it everything you have Shalikova! Follow me!”

Shalikova tilted her own chest forward, with her teeth grit, kicked the thrust pedals down.

She was used to speeds of 60 or 70 knots; suddenly she felt she was going past 80!

Hurtling over the deck of the destroyer, she and Murati buzzed right past the conning tower in an instant, leaving in their wake the trails of enemy bullets. Dozens of muted muzzle flashes below like ephemeral spotlights in the nearby murk. It felt like there was not one meter of surface on that Destroyer that was not spitting bullets at them. Vapor bubbles swarmed all around them, beset on all sides by rattling shockwaves, it was like swimming in the middle of an underwater storm. On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but the snapping of the guns and bursting of the shells.

Out of that great roaring barrage, not one bullet had struck her directly.

It was some combination of Shalikova’s own acumen and the ship’s poor fire control.

“Shalikova!” Murati called over the radio. “Good maneuvering! We’re staying ahead of the barrage, but we can’t take out every pod individually with this much gunfire. I have an idea. You have a grenade on you, right?”

While maneuvering over the raging Destroyer, Shalikova checked her magnetic strip for inventory.

A diagnostic display showed the objects attached to it.

“I do, but only one.” She said.

“Good! We’ll strike one of its jets! Even if it doesn’t sink, it’ll lag behind the Irmingard!”

“Got it!”

Just as Shalikova began to reach for her grenade, a burst of gunfire soared past them.

She stowed her grenade on her magnetic strip and swerved. Bullets went off around them leaving bubbles size of a small animal. A larger caliber than the gas gun bullets flying everywhere before.

Judging by the angle and the caliber, it had not come from the ship but from–

A red flash, and a new box appeared on one of her side monitors.

“Incoming! Shalikova, get around behind the Destroyer–”

Shalikova cut Murati off.

“No, I’ll break off the Destroyer and tie them up! You have bombing to do!”

Without waiting for Murati’s assent, Shalikova turned fluidly around in an arc and darted toward a pair of Volkers coming in from below them. They appeared from around the side fins of the Destroyer but quickly separated from it into the open water between the escorts and the Irmingard. If they stuck too close to either ship, they would risk becoming victims to friendly fire.

Thinking about what Khadija taught her, Shalikova soared past the Destroyer, zigzagging the flak curtain, and moving to intercept the Divers. She fought her instinct to straighten out her Strelok and shoot at them from the shoulder– it was difficult not to treat the mecha exactly as she would her own body, while still remaining as immersed in her maneuvers as she normally was.

Khadija could fire from the chest at these speeds, whether charging or strafing–

But Shalikova could hardly pull trigger before the Volkers grew enormous in her cameras.

She sped right into their midst, dodging a second round of gunfire as she neared them.

Her enemies threw themselves aside, perhaps fearing that she intended to ram them.

Breaking in between them, and roaring well past, she threw her Strelok into a climb.

“God damn it.”

She was trying to fight like Khadija, but she was unused to shooting while moving this fast.

In the simulator, Khadija had time to set up her cameras–

Because she created space for it! Shalikova realized that’s why she circled around so much.

“I’m an idiot! I just flew in without thinking!”

At these speeds, she wasn’t able to shoot! She couldn’t even think fast enough to shoot!

She had to slow down, but–

“I know!”

In the middle of her climb, Shalikova twisted her Strelok around, going over the Volkers.

Bursting the top two jets in the backpack– along with the legs, and solid fuel boost from the shoulders– manipulating the fins– moving more weight into the shoulder– her little hands moved all over the controls in her cockpit, flipping what felt like every switch and every button– she hardly realized Khadija had to put this much effort into moving, she was sweating so much–

Her frantic actions within the cockpit, invisible to her opponent, had a dramatic result.

She tumbled, head over feet, descending behind her opponents while upside down.

Much of the momentum she built up dissipated in the snap changes in directions.

But her bewildered enemies could not even turn as she riddled their backs with bullets.

Dozens of rounds of fully automatic fire, until the magazine ejected. Impact after impact crashing into the first Volker, before she jerked the gun toward the second. Bullets smashing into ducts, blowing up on top of the jets, perforating the spare magazines kept on the rear magnetic strip and causing secondary explosions, the Volkers twisted and torn by the blasts. Severed cockpits leaking oxygen and blood slowly descending with arms gone limp and legs asunder.

Shalikova’s snap maneuver took her beneath the ruined Volkers, now swimming chest up.

For a brief instant she was a girl floating as if on the surface of a vast pool.

Gazing up at a sky of broken metal falling around her.

She could almost see colors, colors other than the dim, dark blue of the water.

Red, anguished colors.

Green, sickly colors.

Blueish-Black, the specter of death–

Silvery white. Peace and departure–

Shalikova shook her head and climbed as a wave of renewed flak swept past her position.

Dozens of small explosions dissipated the colors and further tore up the remains.

“What colors?” She murmured to herself. “There weren’t any colors.”

Rising in a wide arc to retain speed and avoid fire, Shalikova doubled back to the Destroyer.

“Volkers down. Squad leader, I thought you’d have blown it up by–”

Before Shalikova could finish, she heard two loud shocks over the hydrophone.

Dozens of meters ahead of them, an earthshaking blast sent the Frigate on the Irmingard’s right wing plummeting into the sea floor. A shockwave rippled out from the explosion that had even Shalikova’s chassis vibrating. It could only have been one of the bombs since the Brigand’s 76 mm aft guns could not have had such a dramatic effect. Only a moment later, she heard the sound of knocking metal and realized that the Destroyer was descending and stalling.

“You were saying, Shalikova?” Murati laughed.

That thundering curtain of flak slowed to a sputter of feeble warding fire.

Unable to fight off Murati or keep up with the fleet, it began to turn and flee.

She must have done some damage to the rear like she planned.

All of the fighting they were doing took place in the context of the Irmingard chasing the Brigand. It was easy to forget with how fast their mecha were moving, and how massive all of the ships around them were, that the entire battlefield was in motion. It was only when the Irmingard fleet’s tight formation was broken so completely that Shalikova paid heed to this fact once again. The Irmingard lumbered forward, while its escorts were now falling or fleeing.

Shalikova could find no more ship contacts in the immediate vicinity.

“We’ve opened the way. Sameera used her bomb, but I’ve still got mine.” Murati said.

The Cheka regrouped with Shalikova. There was mild cosmetic damage on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?”

Murati sounded unshaken. “Just got exposed to a bit of ventral fire– it’s not a big deal.”

“If you say so. I’ll go on ahead of you and draw the flagship’s fire.” Shalikova said.

“Good job taking care of those Divers by yourself. I have full confidence in you.”

“It’s nothing. Could’ve gone better even.”

“Do you have damage?”

“No. I just mean– it’s not worthy of praise.”

Before her squad leader could continue flattering her Shalikova charged ahead.

The Cheka was not very far behind. Shalikova reloaded her weapon and grit her teeth.

When they turned away from the Destroyer their view was dominated by the colossal grey frame of the Irmingard class dreadnought. A Frigate or a Destroyer was already many, many times the size of a Diver. And yet there was no comparison to how that flagship made Shalikova feel like a speck of plankton helplessly spinning in the water. Its vaguely spoon-shaped prow and thick, enormous cylindrical chassis with its swept wing fins and sharply flared rear were so regal and aggressive. There was no truer representation of the fearful violence they were up against.

That ship was the Imbrian Empire, cruel tyrant over half of what remained of their world.

Shalikova’s grip tightened on her controls. Her hands were cold, her palms moist.

For the sake of everything they believed in, they had to be the arrow that hobbled this beast.

As they approached, homing in on the center of that wall of grey, long lines of flak erupted from the gas gun pods lined up in front of them. Different pods coordinated to fire together in groups of six barrels. Their fire discipline was completely unlike that of the other ships. Shalikova found herself swerving far more violently away from gunfire that crept closer and closer.

Her chassis rattled as a bullet deflected right off the left shoulder.

Thankfully, it didn’t explode right on the armor. She accelerated even more.

“I’m breaking off, they’re on me.” Shalikova said.

“I think they’re on both of us!”

Shalikova threw the Strelok into a sudden climb, wrenching up with a kick of the vernier thrusters. While boosting up and momentarily out of the gunfire she glanced at one of the side camera feeds.

Murati’s Cheka was targeted wholly independently of her own Strelok.

Different sections of the Irmingard’s flak guns were coordinating different targets.

A half-dozen barrels peppered Shalikova’s surroundings and a half-dozen harried Murati.

It was nothing like the basic saturation fire of the other ships.

They would not take Shalikova as a piece of bait so easily. They were more experienced.

“With this much gunfire I won’t be able to get to the aft. I’ll bomb the main guns!”

Murati’s Cheka broke off from Shalikova and into its own climb, spiraling away from intense gunfire. Her destination lay atop the Irmingard’s deck, central to the hull and just behind the spoon prow, a squat, double-barrel turret: the feared 203 mm main guns that supported the smaller guns fixed on the prow itself. As a military flagship, the Irmingard bore its guns fixed on the deck, they could never be hidden or stowed unlike the Brigand’s guns. Shalikova knew the main magazine was buried deeper in the ship and would not go off if the turret itself was destroyed.

Preventing the Irmingard from shooting effectively would accomplish their mission.

Even if the ship itself was not sent to the bottom of the sea floor.

Shalikova did not like it– but perhaps it was an object lesson on their lack of power.

As they climbed higher, flak intensified. Deck gas guns joined the port-side guns in firing.

Murati accelerated in a high arc, leaving behind the port-side fire but trailed by the deck guns. Dozens of vapor bubbles bloomed around her. Shalikova’s own chassis vibrated relentlessly with the shockwaves of bullets going off all around her, their impacts just close enough to make her feel it without tearing off any metal.

While Murati kept climbing Shalikova overflew the prow.

Her side camera was not just for following Murati’s positioning.

It was also coordinating with the camera on her assault rifle, held to her chest.

Shalikova ranged the triangle formation of gas gun pods covering center of the deck.

Their barrels lifted high as they chased Murati, flashing repeatedly in the dim water.

“Here’s your opening, Murati!”

Short, practiced rapping on the triggers, three presses, pause, three presses.

She saw the bursts of gunfire fly off into the blue on her gun camera.

Her bullets flew amid the gas gun pods and struck metal with brilliant, fleeting blasts.

A brighter flash, erupting suddenly from among the gas gun formation.

One pod went off, its magazine cooked.

Dozens of popping, flashing blasts from the pod’s magazine sent metal spraying.

Meanwhile the other pods went dead silent.

Whether Shalikova struck them, or damaged the electronics or optics, she did not know.

Nevertheless, she realized she had quieted the deck fire on Murati’s side.

Her own safety on the prow was far less certain.

All around her, gas gun pods on the prow now enfiladed her, firing from every direction.

Bullets crashed into her hip armor and a stray shell even smashed into the cockpit armor.

Warnings flashed on her diagnostics. Real hull damage. No breaches.

Shalikova nearly had a heart attack. “Warn me about any breaches first you trash!”

Cockpit shaking violently, Shalikova threw herself into a roll and dove, touching down on the actual surface of the enemy ship and crouching. She hoped to avoid most of the gunfire this way, and for the briefest moment she found respite from the shooting– until she realized that there were no barrels flashing anymore.

All of the flak on the deck had quieted down just as she landed.

She was pointing her assault rifle at completely dormant gun pods.

“They’re avoiding friendly fire– Murati!”

Her suspicion proved correct almost immediately. Murati’s crackling voice responded:

“No chance to bomb–! Incoming!”

Shalikova leaped off the prow surface with microsecond boost from the vernier thrusters.

Charging across the shallow curve of the prow, in time to spot the enemy attacking Murati.

When she got close enough to see both of their figures clearly–

Murati leaped back off the deck as an enemy Diver pounced.

A trail of assault fire struck where she stood, and her enemy glided over the deck.

The attacker smoothly overflew the deck surface while raising her rifle.

Accurate, disciplined bursts crept closer and closer to Murati’s position.

Murati had been facing the enemy, climbing diagonally away from it with all of her thrust.

When she opened fire, the enemy below side-stepped it without losing any speed.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide. It reminded her of the gulf between her and–

“Murati! I’m coming! Hold on!”

As her words carried through the communicator the enemy Diver launched up.

In an instant the Diver drew a vibroblade from its magnetic strip with its free hand.

In the open water just off of the Irmingard’s surface the duelists clashed.

Sword met steel– Murati’s assault rifle, held by barrel and stock to block the overhead slash.

Shalikova drew closer and closer but not soon enough.

She thought the Diver would hack through Murati’s rifle but when it found its slash blocked, the machine moved fluidly with its own sword and leaped over Murati with a kick of its own auxiliary vernier thrusters, leaving a cloud of vaporized water and solid fuel exhaust where Murati was once clashing with it. The attacker rolled its body over Murati’s Cheka, and in a flash that sword swung once again, upside down at the Cheka’s shoulder.

There was an ephemeral red burst as the sword’s thruster briefly kicked in.

A burning crimson wound as the monomolecular, vibrating edge cut through the Cheka’s shoulder.

Murati threw her weight down and aside.

A chunk of metal blew off the Cheka, the shoulder in pieces, the roll of steel cable floating away in the debris as her left jet anchor pod ejected from the machine’s body. Murati torturously wrenched her mecha to face the attacker and shoot, but she was out of balance, damaged, and her enemy was still moving. Now fearless with a tumbling, dazed opponent, the attacker flew right through Murati’s desperate gunfire and swung its sword, this time to take the head–

“Murati! Get back!”

Shalikova shouted in desperation and surged ahead.

Shoulder set, she rammed herself in between Murati and the attacker.

Reacting with incredible alacrity, the enemy threw itself back from Shalikova.

There was no word from Murati, but the Cheka still looked stable in the water.

“Damn it.”

Every time, just like Khadija, the attacker went from motion to motion, fluidly, perfectly.

Others would have been disoriented for even a second having to wrench their machine back. This pilot expertly used the verniers to retreat as Shalikova entered their space, and to then thrust upward and resume maneuver. It all happened so fast that there was no distinction between the two separate instances of thrust. Just like Khadija, who moved like a serpent through the waters, perfectly conserving momentum throughout. This was a whole other level from the enemies they had faced so far, and it was only from observing a veteran like Khadija as keenly as she had that Shalikova understood the gulf between herself and this foe. She understood enough to fear them.

That machine was no ordinary Volker either.

Volkers were almost comical in how round they were, the arms practically came out of the central orb with slanted shoulders barely covering the joint, their helmeted heads affixed in an exposed mount right atop the hull. Any angled armor surfaces were clearly bolted on as an afterthought. Nothing like the machine now in front of her.

In place of the orb-like body was a robust, three-piece, interlocking chest, waist/hip, and shoulder chassis. Armored surfaces concealing the cockpit boasted complex geometry to help deflect and absorb impacts. Broadly triangular, the silhouette had wider shoulders and a humanoid, helmeted “head” with multi-directional, almost snake-eyed, visor-like cameras. Its arms and legs were modified with light but steeply angled armor over the joints. There was no bulge anywhere for a battery, and an extra jet on the back, with small intakes all around the machine, all “second gen” traits.

A new second generation mecha, to add to the Empire’s advantage–

Nevertheless, Shalikova charged after this enemy.

“That cat wouldn’t turn away from something like this!”

Her voice coming out of her lips was desperate, exhausted, cracking with fear.

Her mind was working so fast her brain pounded with pain.

And still, she went after that enemy with all her might, just moments after it bested Murati.

There was no reason to attack the Irmingard if she was not willing to lunge at the monsters that came from it. That flagship already outclassed the Brigand in every way. The Imbrian Empire already outclassed the Union in every way. And yet, Khadija, that brilliant pilot who had mastered the sea, still fought these unspeakable odds in the revolution. She saw herself dwarfed and outmatched by enormous guns and ships and fought on regardless.

Shalikova couldn’t bear losing to that woman in this too.

Steeled by her fear, with beasts of death before and behind her, she attacked.

“Where will it move, where–”

Shalikova centered the enemy in her vision and opened fire with her assault rifle.

Once more the opponent thrust upward out of the firing line.

“You like going up, huh?”

She tried to put her barrel ahead of where the enemy would go, rapping the trigger.

With graceful banking movements the enemy avoided fire and arced toward her. A quick burst of gunfire responded, and Shalikova thrust herself deeper down to avoid it. All the while facing the enemy, shooting up at them at the edge of her vision. Chasing a shadow that moved faster than she could hope to track, briefly lighting it with feeble bursts of gunfire that did not even graze the wake of its jets. Between her own evasive maneuvers and the dexterous way her enemy moved she was shooting into the water and doing nothing but stirring up empty bubbles. She was shooting more wastefully than her opponent, and soon found herself close to having to reload.

Luckily, she wasn’t trying to hit them directly.

She was just trying to get them moving.

Shalikova ceased running away from the enemy and burst forward in their direction.

Already facing the enemy as she retreated, the abrupt switch to charging in her direction caused her no disorientation. Firing all her solid fuel thrusters and ramming down the pedals for all the jet power she could muster, Shalikova threw herself at an enemy that was dashing at her, cutting their distance dramatically. From the magnetic strip behind her mecha she withdrew and quickly unfolded her diamond sword, revved up the motor and spun the teeth. Along with taking the sword she also threw out everything else on her magnetic strip, shedding some precious weight.

In a second, she was in the enemy’s face, sword out, swinging, with all her momentum.

Her opponent did not stand for such a thing and with a snap thrust, leaped over her.

Just like with Murati she was trying to swing at her from behind.

“I’ve already seen that trick!”

Practically cackling, Shalikova angled every fin, reallocated all the movable weight, and threw all of her thrust into a lurching motion that took her suddenly down and to the left. Her body wrenched in her chair at the sudden twisting of the chassis, but the enemy’s swing completely missed her, slicing through the water and leaving her overextended.

She was in no position to fight back and that mecha was now right behind her–

“Got you! I got you, you bastard!”

Behind her, a grenade that had been on her magnetic strip, armed and discarded, went off.

Water vaporized rapidly around the explosion forming an enormous bubble just a handful of meters away.

The shockwave threw Shalikova into total disarray. She spun feet over head, carried on the sudden wave generated by the explosion. Too close, suicidally close, but–

Struggling with her controls and trying to right herself she adjusted the cameras–

Looking for debris–

From behind her, that mecha suddenly reappeared, sword overhead and coming down.

There was nothing Shalikova could do. She had no time to respond.

She closed eyes that were stinging with sweat and tears and grit her teeth.

Her hydrophone picked up the clanging of metal on metal in the waters.

When she heard it over the headset, she also heard herself breathe.

Felt her heart beating, faster and faster.

Then a burst of gunfire.

Shalikova’s eyes opened wide, and she looked frantically at her cameras.

Murati’s Cheka was approaching, opening fire with a shaking arm and a damaged rifle.

Clearly limping in the water, having lost some energy cells from the attack it endured.

Her shooting was missing the mark, no better than the flak from the patrol ships–

But between Shalikova and the enemy, a different ally stood, suddenly formidable.

“You did good, Shali~”

Over the communicator, sounded the soft, playful, calm voice of Khadija al-Shajara.

Holding her own sword and standing face to face with the mecha in front of them.

Both having stopped moving for an instant as if respecting each other.

That enemy did not fear Murati’s shooting or Shalikova’s tricks, but this gave her pause.

“Khadija–”

Shalikova was almost going to apologize. She felt so helpless.

Khadija interrupted her immediately.

“Leave this to me. You’ve done everything you could. Give Valya the other bomb and take Murati’s limping remains away from here before she hurts herself or us.” She paused, and after a deep breath, released a bit of laughter. Her tone changed. “I’m not one to recite the name of the Lord for every detail like some other Shimii do, but this is fated, Shalikova. The Red Baron of Cascabel. I was fated to meet her here. We’re gonna settle a little score, she and I.”

Her voice was slick with a bloodthirst that Shalikova had never heard from her before.

Had the fighting gotten to her so badly? What was she babbling about?

Shalikova was in no position to do anything but what she was told, however.

Without openly questioning Khadija, she started to move away.

It was at that point, that whatever fated bell tolled for Khadija tolled for the rest of them.

Twin, massive, concussive shocks into the water that left the Union soldiers speechless.

In that moment, the Irmingard dreadnought fired its 203mm guns in anger.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.4]

“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’, Sameera–”

There was always a brief pause in her mind when she was about to leave the deployment chute. No matter what was happening, whether a Leviathan was coiled around the ship, or a group of smugglers was getting away. It spanned the briefest period of time that one might acknowledge as a complete thought. Pilots always stated their designation and name as a courtesy to the Bridge crew, so the officers could confirm exactly who was going out and in which machine.

What was her name? She surely couldn’t say the whole damned thing–

“Sameera Al-Shahouh. Deploying!”

Whenever she launched off a ship, she always chose the side of her Shimii mother. It was confusing. She had never felt like either a Loup or a Shimii. Thankfully it was a short-lived anxiety. Her name ceased to matter once she was launched into the endless blue of the ocean. Her Diver pushed down into the water from the deployment chute, free of the ship, adrift in the waters. From the earbuds Sameera wore in lieu of a pilot’s headphones, she caught Dominika’s voice.

“UND-114-C, ‘Strelkannon’, Dominika Rybolovskaya– Deploying!”

Around her, in that dark, murky blue, Sameera picked up the other Divers in her cameras. She had been one of the first to deploy alongside Dominika, Murati and Sonya; Khadija and Valya would be coming out in a few moments. She fixed one camera on Dominika to try to keep her position in mind at all times. More than being a beautiful girl, she was her squad mate, after all.

“Nika, is your heartbeat rising?” She asked.

“I’m closing the audio channel too if you’re going to keep being annoying.”

Sameera smiled, but Nika pointedly kept their video channel closed. “I’m just being nice!”

“Whatever.”

Sameera’s own heartbeat was certainly quickening. Those moments just after deployment but right before the melee were excruciating. It was too surreal to be sitting around idly in a war machine. She became preoccupied with the isolation of her human body within the cold cockpit. It was only the promise of the glorious hunt that lay ahead which steeled her resolve.

“Good hunting!” She finally said. Nika did not return the sentiment.

Dominika’s “Strelkannon” was armed with a launcher for underwater rockets on one shoulder and a semi-automatic cannon in the other. In her Diver’s humanoid hands she carried a 20 mm Gepard SMG just like the one Sameera was carrying too, but that was a last resort weapon.

Sameera’s job in a squadron like this was to make sure Dominika never had to fire that type of weapon. Murati must have known this was a role she was familiar with and thinking about this fact flattered Sameera. As part of the Border Forces’ Leviathan control squadrons, she often partnered with Strelkannon pilots, acting as a bodyguard for those bigger, slower frames.

“Keep steady for a moment, until Khadija and Valya are ready.” Murati said.

After deploying from the chute, the Divers immediately engaged their engines. Because the Brigand was moving, and the enemy fleet was moving, they had to actively pursue the Brigand for a few moments in order to stick with it themselves. At full tilt, their Divers could move much faster than the Brigand, which itself was not moving too quickly at the moment. So it was not much effort for them to orbit the ship’s keel for a few seconds to maintain formation.

Khadija and Valya descended shortly thereafter. All six frames were in the water.

Over the communicator, the voice of Electronic Warfare Officer Zachikova sounded.

“Jamming munition going out!”

Something then emerged from the utility chute near the Brigand’s aft in a flurry of bubbles.

“Everyone, switch off your audio for the next minute and follow me.” Murati said.

Sameera acknowledged.

Beneath the armrest to which her control stick was attached there were physical controls for some of the touchscreen functions. Sameera preferred these, to quickly get her hands back on the sticks if she needed. She switched off the audio from there. With the audio off, it also meant all the predictors, which used acoustic data, became useless, frozen on their last prediction of what the surroundings looked like. Sameera focused on the physical cameras.

She then engaged her accelerator, pushing the pedal into a slot in the chair to lock it in.

Her ‘Cossack’ thrust out from under the Brigand, propelling itself on jets of ocean water.

Murati’s Cheka, with its sleek design and dark paint job led the charge into the murky ocean ahead, Shalikova’s slightly modified Strelok keeping close behind. Sameera had tested the Cheka, so knowing its speed, she knew exactly how fast she needed to go in order to keep some kind of pace with it, while also staying near Dominika, who was definitely bringing up the rear. The Strelkannon’s armament made it a couple knots slower than everyone else in all respects.

At first the loose assemblage of Divers stuck close beneath the keel of the Brigand, but after clearing the jets on the back of the mothership and entering the open water between their ship and the enemy fleet, the group broke into their sections with practiced understanding. Even without communication, they all knew the prerogatives of a Diver pilot in a combat situation. Don’t stack up, or a flurry of torpedoes or concentrated gunfire could kill the whole squad; keep moving with your squadmate toward your objective. Always assume your squadmate is going after the objective and move together. Sameera and Dominika dropped altitude together. Fifteen meters apart from each other, and many more from Murati or Khadija, they charged directly through the center.

Without the predictor, there was nothing concrete on her cameras but Dominika. No ground below them, nothing ahead but the dark blue water and dusty traces of organic matter filtering down from the photic zone. She was suspended in water. It was sometimes hard to come to terms with. Within her metal bubble, the movements of her machine felt dream-like without an enemy in sight or any landmarks to give her any feedback. She felt airy, as if descending forward; it felt like gravity was taking her through the murky nothingness around her more than her own power.

All she had to go on was the last positions of the fleet and her own instincts.

Her heart beating fast, a cold sweat building on her chest, Sameera counted the seconds.

She hated those slow, vulnerable moments. She wanted to be in the fight– sixty seconds.

Electronic Warfare was sophisticated enough now that it was basically impossible for such a munition to jam the enemy’s acoustic computers for very long. Computers by themselves could digitally attenuate the noise with surprising speed, and a skilled Electronic Warfare officer could potentially take less than a minute to shut out the attack and restore functionality. Because the jamming munition was so disruptive to its owner too, it was set to disable itself within a minute. It was a distraction, nothing more, but blinding every acoustic data device for a minute was enough.

Like every weapon, it was not just the capabilities, but the tactical use, that mattered.

At their top speeds, the enemy fleet was well over a minute away.

Being able to cut any amount of that distance undetected was a blessing.

For those sixty nerve-wracking seconds there was nothing but the feeling of her clammy, slick skin, the sound of her heightened breathing, and the sight of the empty ocean all around her. She waited two additional seconds just in case, since the munition’s noise could have hurt her hearing; she then flipped on the audio.

She was greeted by Murati’s crackly, low quality voice.

“Stay in contact with your squadmate and keep moving! We’ll see them ahead soon!”

Her computer began collecting acoustic information again.

Though her predictor and sonar were nowhere near as sophisticated as those on the Brigand, they could cross-reference data compiled by the Brigand to keep track of objects as overlays on the cameras. Before she could see them physically, the enemy fleet appeared as red squares denoting hostile positions dead ahead.

Seeing something, anything, in her cameras stilled Sameera’s heartbeat just a bit.

Being able to hear the ocean and her squad again also calming.

It helped her ease out of the physical isolation of her body and become her machine instead.

And her machine saw four smaller squares, flanked by two larger squares, and a massive one even farther out ahead. As she got closer, the shapes became slowly more and more distinct in the dark water. She picked up speed to approach. For the next few seconds, every reaction counted.

Ignoring the massive square representing the Irmingard class flagship, she focused instead on the lighter prey. Attacking from below enabled them to get at the keels and maybe pop some of the ballast tanks. She dove several dozen meters down with Dominika before turning back up toward the fleet. Moments later she saw the first hint of metal appearing in the waters overhead.

Dozens of rounds of gas gun ammunition from the ventral guns rained down on them.

Though she could hardly see the guns, she did see the lines of bullets cutting through water.

All around her, explosions went off leaving vapor bubbles the size of an adult’s head.

Her cockpit stirred as weak shockwaves flowed past her machine from every direction. No direct hits; just pervasive weak vibration. Gas gun bullets had proximity and flight fuzes so they would go off even without a direct impact. Their goal was for at least some of those blasts to nip at her armor, at her gear. If the ocean could stick even a finger into her cockpit, she would die.

In Sameera’s mind, the best defense against this was a rapid offense.

“Nika, I’m engaging the–!” Sameera called out.

Launching missile,”

Before Sameera could finish her sentence, a rocket sailed past her on a trail of vapor.

One of the cutter’s keels erupted with an enormous vapor bubble, disgorging metal. From the epicenter of the explosion, a shockwave shook the waters around the vessel. Gunfire from the stricken craft ceased instantly, and the conning tower tipped sideways as the ship began to sink.

Three remaining cutters began to swerve close together to put up a tighter curtain of fire.

“Jump left; I’ll release another missile!” Dominika called out.

“Got it!” Sameera replied.

From behind her, Dominika’s Strelkannon launched a second missile.

With the increasing volume of enemy flak all around them, Dominika’s missile detonated just short of the mark, struck by the errant gunfire. Vapor from the explosion created a brief screen between themselves and the fleet that the pair used to reposition. Sameera engaged her jets and solid fuel boosters and veered quickly to avoid the guns, keeping her cameras trained on both the enemy and Dominika to insure they were not separated. Dominika hit a sharp right instead.

Rising up the water table, Sameera swept up and to the left out from under the ships.

While the ventral guns shot at nothing, the dorsal guns retrained on Sameera as she rose.

All around her the water parted in white lines pushed aside by supercavitating bullets. Brief muzzle flashes indicated continuing gunfire. Bubbles and water vapor dispersed like fog around the Cutters as the disturbances from previous explosions settled and the white clouds of fresh blasts bloomed amid the dim blue ocean. A geyser of water bubbles erupted from the sinking cutter below as another section failed due to pressure. Soon it would fall out of sight and strike the sea floor.

All of this was happening in such a brief span of time, it could hardly be thought about. Seconds, moments, instants of Sameera’s life, flashes too minute to ever be memories. Punctuated with more violence than any ordinary person would ever see in a lifetime. Sameera let out a breath, her eyes were starting to tear up from the stale air in the cockpit. She was focused, steeled.

I was insane enough to stare those fucking things in the face. I can handle this.

Sameera always put her body on the line. She had to; it was the only place she belonged.

For a brief instant, on the edge of one of her cameras a new, flashing red square appeared.

Sameera noticed it and reacted immediately, darting at full speed in its direction.

“Incoming contacts, Nika.”

“Intercept them and quit calling my nickname so much.” A calm, stoic voice immediately responded.

Sameera loved that. She didn’t have any expectation that Nika would ever like her anyway.

Grinning to herself, she withdrew a weapon from behind the Cossack’s backpack.

Upon taking the gear off the magnetic strip it was attached to, this seemingly rectangular, unintelligible object sprang to life in her mech’s hand. One half released and snapped into place atop the other. A handle attached to a blade with an armored rear end protecting a rail, battery and driving gear for the saw-blade cutting surface. Called variously diamond swords or diamond cutters, depending on the size and shape, these were the Union’s simpler version of the Imperial vibrosword. A long, spinning blade made of diamond and depleted agarthicite, wielded in hand.

Sameera’s sword could have cut into a ship, but it would not be turned on them for now.

Her “Cossack” shone brightest when it came to fighting other Divers.

It was almost the same as cutting up Leviathan meat. They were prey; she was the hunter.

“Sorry fellas, but I’m the only one who has a date with this lady~!”

Swerving to avoid flak, she launched into a sudden charge toward the incoming Divers.

Within sight a pair of rotund imperial Volkers appeared from the murk with 37 mm rifles in hand. Like an egg tapering down into a waist where legs could go, and shoulders that arms could slide into, these were quite basic enemy Divers. They had traced the explosions to Dominika’s Strelkannon and were moving in the direction their predictors told them the missiles came from.

Their rear cameras must have seen Sameera closing in.

Likely it was the inexperience of the pilots that led them not to pay attention to their flank.

Sameera raised her SMG and fired a burst of 20 mm gunfire ahead of them, mid-charge.

Five bullets exploded harmlessly in their vicinity, and in a panic, they came to a dead stop.

Sameera was on top of them in the next instant.

Bursting up above them and then suddenly shifting all her thrust downward, she smashed her sword on nearest Volker, digging into the shoulder and the helmeted head at the front of the round chassis. Her sword’s spinning teeth ripped a jagged wound right over the enemy’s cockpit.

Dead. Not even the faintest response from that unit as Sameera changed targets.

Acting fluidly in that same instant of violence, she ripped her sword from her first victim and raised her Gepard to the second, firing off a five-round burst into the side of the second Volker point blank. Fist sized blasts tore bits of armor off the arm and hip, but one bullet got deep into the arm joint before exploding under the shoulder. Bubbles and foam burst out of this tiny orifice.

Pressure ripped open the machine, spewing gore and debris from the expanding wound.

Dead. A lucky shot from Sameera and an unlucky one for this pilot.

One finger of the Ocean had gotten into the cockpits through the leg joint. One instant amid this dance of steel; enough for two lives to end so suddenly. But she was not alone, and the fighting had not stopped because a few targets were dead. As she threw herself into that melee, she was well aware that they were dancing within a storm of steel as the enemy flak trained on her.

It took seconds to score those kills, and then she had to run again.

In response to her charge a fusillade erupted from the Frigates’ own gas gun turrets ahead.

Matching the intensity of the fire from the nearby Cutters, it threatened to enfilade her.

Engaging her jets, she retreated from before the Frigates to arc back over the Cutters.

She beheld the looming, murky shadow of the flagship, the Irmingard class, moving ever closer. Tangling with the Volkers was like fighting a duel in front of a monument shrouded by fog. She was so dwarfed, that what she could see of the enemy ship occupied all of her field of vision. Even the Frigates also moving into range did not make up anywhere near as much of the space.

To that ship, Sameera and the Volkers were nothing but specks of dust dancing in the water.

For a moment, she thought of herself, a tiny thing framed before that colossal figure.

But only for a moment. Sameera’s innocence toward battle had been taken long ago.

And she hated thinking of herself as small. She had to be huge; she had to be the biggest.

All the while she thought this she sped away toward Dominika’s position. There were at least six other Divers lurking somewhere and she had made it her personal mission that none of them would touch a hair on her precious Nika’s head. It was this sort of thing that most easily motivated her to action. Fighting, not only to survive, but to excel, to prove herself, for glory.

“I’ve dealt with our rude onlookers! Nika, has my absence made your heart grow fonder?”

As if in response Sameera saw a flash from just ahead.

Nika’s remaining rockets rained down on the remaining Cutters from above.

Four missiles crashed onto the decks and towers of two cutters and detonated into bubbles broad enough they vanished the ocean directly in front of Sameera for several seconds. Ordnance that went off in the water evaporated and created a bubble. Both the volatile forces within the vapor bubble, the disturbed water around it, and the water then moving in to refill the bubble, placed massive pressures on whatever the ordnance targeted. When fleets full of heavy guns went to war, the blue expanse of the ocean filled with these deadly clouds, shearing, and pounding on the metal.

Sameera engaged rearward thrust to avoid the blasts and circled to the front of the fleet.

There was a massive hole in the flak cover as two cutters sank with heavy damage.

One remaining Cutter began to rise up the water table, dumping ballast to make an escape.

There was nothing in the fleet’s center but debris and two Streloks a hundred meters apart.

Sameera saw the door opening in front of them. That massive Irmingard, dead ahead.

“We’ve opened up the center.” Sameera said.

“Link back up with me now and stop mumbling, we’ve still got the Frigates.”

She wished Dominika would say something more emotional than that.

Not even out of a particular interest in her per se– simply to alter the mood.

Would it have hurt her to say I need you? Not that anyone ever told Sameera that.

“Right now, the way to the flagship is clear.”

“Are you nuts? It’s teeming with enemies around here still. Don’t be a hero!”

“The Lieutenant said we should take opportunities! We could end this battle right now.”

“This is an opportunity to get yourself killed. I’m coming to you, so just wait there–”

Sameera felt a growing frustration. She was not even asking Dominika to go with her.

Right in front of that Irmingard, the way had never looked more open. On the left flank, the Frigate was not moving to cover the gap. Maybe Khadija and Valya? And on the right flank, the other Frigate was starting to catch on to what was happening. Meanwhile that remaining Cutter had fully deserted its position and was no longer firing. Above them, the Destroyer’s gunfire was trailing after something Sameera could not see, likely Murati and Shalikova’s doing.

They had it right there– a breakthrough!

And the more they tarried, the more it closed! Only Sameera had this shot to secure victory. When she hunted Leviathans, every instant with the snapping predators invited death. Even the slightest twitch that allowed Sameera to attack was one she had to exploit. Squad or no squad, she was done negotiating with Dominika about this.

“I’ll take my chances with being a hero. Hang back and avoid the enemy Divers!”

“No! Absolutely not! Cossack– Stop! Sameera! SAMEERA!

Dominika shouted at her over the comms but Sameera paid no heed as she hurtled forward.

Even though it did feel good to have a lady shout her name– her eyes were full of glory.

Sameera always went for the biggest prey. She had to. Nobody would acknowledge her otherwise. Bigger prey, a bigger fight, escalating, drawing more and more blood– it was where she belonged!

Before the second Frigate could accelerate far enough ahead of the Irmingard to cover the gap left by the broken vanguard, Sameera rushed in among the fleet with everything her machine could give her. Stray gunfire from the accelerating, maneuvering Frigate flew well past her as she hurtled toward that metallic grey beast ahead. Looming larger and larger, that thick spoon-like prow like the head of a monster, and more of the enormous body behind it taking up her vision.

Her computers ran down the numbers every microsecond, closing in–

75 meters, 67 meters, 56 meters, 42 meters, faster, faster, she almost had the trophy–

Flashing red–

Sameera responded in an instant.

Engaging rearward thrust, she avoided an object rushing at her from below.

A vibrosword swung past her, the edge barely sliding off the skirt armor on the left hip.

“You’re no ordinary mercenaries! This’ll be fun!”

In front of her appeared an enemy Diver, a semi-triangular chassis with a flat head.

Jagd. Transmitting into the water; the acoustics picked up the voice.

Sameera had studied the second generation models like the Jagd. When she tested the Cheka, leaked design information for the Jagd was part of the project. Armed with a claw, a sword, and built-in SMGs, it could develop higher speeds than a Strelok due to its light weight, but it wasn’t all-powerful. That small performance gap that existed between the Volker and the Strelok was about how much a Jagd had on a Strelok too: in the simulations anyway.

Everything would depend on the pilot.

The Jagd had probably come out of the flagship. There was no flak coming in their direction anymore. It could have shot down the Imperial diver. For a moment, the two pilots floated on low thrust with maybe twenty meters between.

“Complying, merc? Good idea. Your jailer today is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

That pilot was taunting her. She had a woman’s voice, but a deep, violent register.

Judging by that name–

She was a loup, an actual Imperial loup. Sameera had heard the stories.

That was half her bloodline, the Empire’s vicious vanguard and recon troops. Attack dogs.

Sameera switched to the public frequency. Her hair was standing on end.

For a moment, she almost hesitated before speaking: “Sameera Raisanen-Morningsun.”

Giving her Loup surname– what did she even think it would do?

Ingrid’s crackling laughter erupted from the radio. It almost shook Sameera.

Her ears hung on that voice, that was so familiar, so like her own, like her father’s–

“You’ve got an interesting name, you stray! You ought to have stayed in your village and left the mercenary work to the Katarrans! Fitting that I’ll be the one to discipline you. I’m not unkind to my people! I have no love for the Empire. I’m only doing this for the lady in that ship. You mercenaries have no more conviction than to follow who is feeding you, so I’ll make you a deal. Come here where you belong, like a good puppy, and help us apprehend these criminals–”

No, it was nothing like her father!

It was nothing like her!

In that instant, Sameera had enough of Ingrid’s evil words.

This woman was nothing else but an enemy. Nothing else mattered.

“Absolutely not!”

Sameera felt her heart surge as she threw the Cossack into a sudden charge.

Her sword clashed with the Jagd’s claw and sent a finger flying into the water.

“Go fuck yourself! I’d sooner die than end up like you!” She shouted, seeing red.

She was almost angrier at herself and taking that frustration out– but she wouldn’t admit it.

Ingrid was utterly unfazed by the sudden attack.

“Happy to oblige then! I have nothing against tearing the throat off a hollering stray!”

From the shoulder, the Jagd launched into a thrust with its bladed arm.

Sameera disengaged the rotation of her blade to have a solid block to parry with.

She pounded the Jagd’s sword aside, reengaged the motor on the blade, swung–

From the moment she parried, however, that Jagd had her where she wanted.

As if fluidly playing along with the parry, Ingrid suddenly slipped past Sameera.

Those four remaining digits of her claw glowed red and gave off vapor.

Imperial claw weapons used both heat and sudden, snapping pressure to tear off metal.

Swinging right into her exposed flank, hoping to tear a chunk right out of her belly–

Sensing the danger, Sameera gave up her attack.

Using all available thrust she threw herself away from the Jagd to create space.

“Aww, the puppy is running away! After all that barking!”

Ingrid met speed with speed and charged after Sameera almost instantly. Her sword came down on the Cossack’s in a blink. This was nothing like fighting those Serrano patrolmen.

She was a Loup, a real Loup! She was vicious and had the reflexes and hardware to support it.

Sameera found herself on the defensive as a rain of blows came down.

That Jagd’s arm sword snapped back and forth through the water with punishing ease. Repeatedly the blows came, and all Sameera could do was meet each of them with the flat, armored back of her sword, watching the integrity of the wrist and arm joint on the Cossack. As soon as Sameera tried to create space that Jagd was back on top of her, the difference in power-to-weight proving horribly decisive.

With every move, Ingrid would chase her down, leaving her no chance to retaliate.

If she could even lift her gun– but Sameera hesitated– the arm might be sliced off–!  

“Trying to shoot? And I thought we had a nice duel going!”

Ingrid backed off just suddenly as she once attacked.

The Jagd’s twin shoulder guns flashed. Dozens of rounds of 20 mm erupted from the barrels.

Explosions bloomed all around the Cossack and followed it as Sameera fled.

She thrust directly upward, her cockpit shaking as a few blasts pitted her chest armor.

Gaining just a bit of distance and height on the Jagd. Couldn’t shoot– couldn’t swing–

In a flash of inspiration, Sameera smashed the utility buttons on her sticks.

“What?” Ingrid shouted, confounded by what followed.

The Cossack’s shoulder hooks blasted out of their pods and slammed into the Jagd.

Sameera barely had time to check if she hooked anything on the steel line.

She engaged both forward thrust and the motors for the hooks to reel in.

One hook had slammed hard into the left shoulder gun and jammed it–

But a second hook had grabbed hold of the complicated shoulder joint on the claw arm.

Thicker and larger because of the power supply for the claw’s heating elements and motors.

There was a lot of surface area for the hook to grab tight.

As she engaged the hook motors, the Cossack hurtled forward and snapped the Jagd up.

Ingrid’s gunfire went nowhere as the two mechs careened toward each other.

Sameera’s gambit had paid off.

Unable to think or plan ahead, relying on the pure feral instinct of hunter and prey.

She sped to the Jagd, barely swung her sword, and smashed right into the enemy mech with the blade between them. Her blade bit furiously into the central chassis for a second, chewing metal and kicking up fragments, before the Jagd rocketed back with every lick of thrust it could afford. Kicking up a brief cloud of vapor between itself and Sameera’s Cossack, snapping off the hook with the force of its flight, the Jagd retreated over thirty meters out of the melee.

In the surrounding waters, parts of the shoulder and one of the gun barrels floated as debris.

For a brief moment, a pinprick of agarrthic energy licked the water surrounding it. Some of the Jagd’s battery cells must have shorted out. Like the Cheka, they were distributed throughout the body: a second generation trait. Less weight overall, but the arrangement had some drawbacks.

Ingrid’s furious breathing was all that was coming through. No more taunts.

Sameera’s nervous eyes turned briefly to the diagnostics display.

Her sword was going. Ingrid’s attacks had deformed the motor housing. It was seizing.

Hull integrity was starting to dip right in the center of the chest, but still ocean-worthy.

And the left leg intake was partially compromised. That would affect her speed–

“Sameera!”

That was not Ingrid’s voice–

Dominika!

Shit. Sameera thought. Shit, shit, SHIT.

She had been so stupid. She had let herself get separated; diverted to fight one measly unit!

“Sameera, I need backup, now!”

There was not even an instant of thought or hesitation in Sameera’s mind.

If Nika was killed due to her stupidity, Sameera’s soul would have died with her.

Her body was put into the world to protect others– how could she have forgotten?

“Sameera! I need you!”

Without another pointless word exchanged with Ingrid, Sameera took off at full thrust.

“I’m coming! Hold on!” She shouted.

One of her cameras and monitors had always been set to track Nika.

Her attention had been drawn off it for her brief skirmish with Ingrid, but it had always been doing its best to track her. Each Strelok had a unique acoustic signature — slightly different hydrodynamic structures would create unique wakes. Dive computers were able to keep track of team members this way.

On this camera, a green square overlayed in the distance represented Nika’s general area.

Two red squares overlapped with hers.

Sameera saw a yellow warning on the diagnostic screen.

She was losing thrust on the left leg.

Would she make it? It was a matter of seconds she didn’t have–

As she got away from Ingrid, gunfire from the Irmingard class intensified.

Long lines of gas gun bullets flew past her and burst, a constellation of dangerous blasts.

Sameera swerved, losing even more speed as she evaded the fire.

At the head of the fleet, the Frigate had advanced to close the gap in the flagship’s defenses just as Sameera had predicted. There was a red square around it as well, overlayed on the camera, but Sameera did not need it to see the clear danger it presented. Gunfire from this Frigate framed the melee between Nika and the enemy Divers, preventing her from escaping. She was completely surrounded. Sameera rammed her pedals, trying to get the left leg to push more water through, but it did nothing but physically vent her frustration. She could not go any faster than she was.

“They’ll kill her.” Sameera’s eyes drew wide, cold sweat streaking down her face.

Her sword was useless; her SMG didn’t have the range to respond; and she was losing thrust.

Murati or Khadija would not make it in time. It had to be her; only she could do anything!

She wracked her brain thinking about all the weapons and systems she had at her disposal.

Her mind flashed back to her fight with Ingrid. She had one hook that hadn’t broken.

One hook– and a bomb. She still had the bomb!

Sameera mumbled to herself, her mind stumbling over possibility.

“Murati, I’m so sorry. If we survive, I’ll accept any punishment.”

Beneath the backpack jets on her Diver’s chassis, there was a magnetic strip. Her sword attached to it when it folded, but her bomb was also there. She withdrew the pipe-shaped demolition charge. It was a pure chunk of explosive without any lining or penetrators, fixed with a simple detonator connected by wire and triggered with a switch in her cockpit. Sameera popped out her one remaining hook from its shoulder pod and affixed the bomb to the hook.

“If I throw it, and then start up the hook’s hydrojet–”

Sameera faced her mecha toward the overlapping red boxes of the Frigate and Volkers.

And the green box, Nika.

“Nika! Pull away from them now!”

She pulled back her arm, engaged one of the solid fuel boosters and made a snap throw.

Smashing the utility button on her trigger, she engaged the hook’s jet.

At once, the hook sped away fully unimpeded.

Farther and faster than Sameera’s Cossack could ever go in this instant.

It was so fast it was hard to track.

She had about 80 meters of cable, and she could also cut the cable loose–

“Shit, with the explosion–!”

Realizing she had no idea how wide the blast would be, she did release the tow cable.

“Nika, please get away!”

As soon as the green square of the bomb overlapped the red squares of the enemy, all outside of Sameera’s direct field of vision, she took a deep breath and pressed the second of her utility triggers. Through the enormous length of thin electric wire to which the bomb was attached, a digital detonation command was sent from the Diver to the pipe, and the detonator engaged.

With a second press, Sameera overrode the detonator and set the bomb off immediately.

In the next instant, the murky shadows ahead of her lit up for less than a second.

Sameera heard the muffled booming sound of the explosion through her hydrophone.

Then there was a shockwave that reached all the way to her and rattled her cockpit.

Water instantly evaporated and collapsed around the bomb’s blast radius. An enormous bubble formed in the sea as the heat from the explosives evaporated the water around it and pushed away the rest. Extreme heat and pressures in and around the bubble sheared and crushed metal, and there was no more gas gun fire coming from that general area. All of the red squares vanished, her predictor telling her that the hostile objects had ceased moving or were unavailable to track.

From afar, there was only murky ocean and a rapidly collapsing cloud of vapor.

As Sameera approached, she witnessed the devastation for herself.

Parts of the Frigate’s underside had been disgorged by the explosion, the ship listing on its side and sinking slowly amid a cloud of its own debris. There was nothing of the enemy Divers to be seen, just a cloud of drifting, falling metal chunks robbed of any semblance of form. There was a sudden, intense calm upon the ocean as all the gunfire forward of the Irmingard was silenced.

“Nika! Nika, respond!”

Sameera looked through each of her cameras on the separate monitors, hoping to find any trace of Dominika. That explosion had disturbed the acoustic predictors enough that everything being tracked in that area was momentarily lost. She adjusted and readjusted the cameras, feeling a dawning realization that her desperate attempt to save her could have just as easily killed her too.

“Nika!”

She swept through the area, as the debris drifted slowly down to the ocean floor.

One hand moved thoughtlessly to the communications equipment, fingers trembling.

Could she switch to the squadron channel? Call for help?

What would she even say to Murati about all of this? Everything had spiraled out of control.

Sameera grit her teeth. She had been so stupid, so completely, impossibly stupid.

Her desperation to be the hero, to be the one acknowledged, the one sang about–

“Where the fuck do you belong now? You stupid, useless mutt.” She berated herself.

Tears started to well up in her eyes.

Nothing in the cameras, nothing anywhere around.

Her hand retreated from the communicator.

She could not face Murati like this.

“Nika, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled into her microphone.

“If you weren’t I’d make you be sorry.”

One of the top cameras placed a green box several meters above.

Sameera’s eyes drew wide. She lifted her head, staring at the ceiling of her mecha.

Her lips drew wide in a trembling smile.

“Nika!”

From the murk above, the Strelkannon slowly descended to join the Cossack’s side.

Armor pockmarked with gunshot wounds, the head battered; but functional, with its owner very much alive.

She had escaped in time. Sameera had managed to save her.

“When we get back, I’m slapping you across the fucking face, hero.” Dominika growled.

Sameera felt a mixture of relief and apprehension at those words.


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