Sinners Under The Firmament [9.1]

For Ulyana Korabiskaya, her lowest point in life came when she awoke without warning within a chaotic, white-walled medbay in an adjacent substation to Mount Raja. Disoriented, with her hair cut off on one side rendering half her head more susceptible to the stale, chill air. She reached a hand to her head and ran her shaking fingers along heavy stitches. They hurt to touch, sending a jolt of pain into her skull.

Tears came to her eyes unbidden, teeth chattering.

Despite the pain she still felt trapped in a nightmare. Her vision had swam in and out of dreamscapes where her body floated amid suffociating steel rooms, water up to her chest. Ripped pipes vented gas and smoke, fires danced atop shreds of steel sewn with fiber-optic cables torn from the wall. There were people screaming, drowning, burning, dying. She tried to reach out to them, but she would vanish in one dreamscape, passed out, maybe killed– only to arrive at another with the same hopeless scene.

When her eyes adjusted to the light in that bright white room–

There were dozens, maybe a hundred people in the medbay with her. Alive, dead, dying.

Everything suffused by the din of the suffering, the hopeless whimper of human injury.

In adjacent beds were people with all manner of wounds, many maimed, some beyond recognition.

Burn victims patched from head to toe in bloody gauze. Moaning bodies with painful but not life threatening injuries who were last in line for medicine while nurses cried for more anesthetic and painkillers. A soldier assuring the medical staff that a shuttle from Mount Raja would restock them soon. Amputees, at least some of whom were, perhaps by virtue of their time of admittance, already having the remains of the limb prepared for a cybernetic implant to prevent them from being disabled permanently.

This involved bio- and ferro- stitching on the wound in cold blood. These were the loudest cries.

Ulyana did not understand at first. Everything had a very hazy, distant, surreal logic to it.

Had she not been in her bridge? Was she not– was she not the Captain of the Pravda

Through the door to the medbay, a figure dressed in black and red strode through.

She navigated the packed beds, the struggling nurses and doctors.

Her eyes did not once waver, she hardly took any of the scene around her.

Perfectly composed, she arrived at Ulyana’s bed and took off her hat.

“Yana. Are you awake? I’m so sorry. But you’re alive, for that we must be thankful.”

Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.

Ulyana’s eyes shut, filled with tears. She gritted her teeth, grabbed hold of her blankets.

“No, please, Parvati, please tell me it’s not– please tell me–” Ulyana begged.

“It’s not your fault.”

Nagavanshi reached out and took her hand for comfort.

Ulyana Korabiskaya broke down into sobbing, crying, and finally screaming.


As soon as she maneuvered her Strelok out of the deployment chute and onto the hangar proper, Khadija al-Shajara slammed the button to open the cockpit and practically leaped out of the machine before the doors even fully opened. She fell between a group of engineers. Cranes attached to the roof of the hangar were moved along rails, lowered to the chutes to help the more damaged machines up into the hangar to be secured on their gantries. Red, gaudy red– Khadija was looking for the Grenadier.

“I’ll leave it to you all to get my machine sorted. Where’s the Imperial?”

She saw the briefest hint of a red helmet and shoulders, steel lifting hooks around the hull.

Khadija ran through the mechanics and stopped at the edge of the chute.

Waiting for the machine to be lifted, and the upper hatch of the chute to close.

And then for the machine to be set down and its hatch to open.

The instant that the bottom half of the hatch lowered enough to be used as a handhold, Khadija practically leaped up into the cockpit, charged the seat and grabbed hold with both hands on Sieglinde von Castille’s collar. While the whole hangar seemed to watch, Khadija, eyes afire, fangs bared, teeth gritted, stared into the Baron’s eyes, and held her as if sustaining that gaze would kill her.

“So this is who you are.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde von Castille gazed back, eyes mournful, shoulders slouched, hands shaking.

She was almost a head taller than Khadija but looked so much smaller then.

“Red Baron.” Khadija cursed.

“Lion of Cascabel.” Sieglinde’s voice was almost a whimper.

They stared at each other for what seemed like breathless minutes, the hangar at a standstill.

Khadija clicked her tongue and shoved Sieglinde back into her cockpit.

She leaped down onto the floor of the hangar and walked away, hands balled into fists.

Chief of Security Evgenya Akulantova parted the crowd of mechanics and approached the machine, drawing her grenade launcher in one hand, though it was a two-handed weapon for most. With a rubber padded missile loaded into it, she aimed inside the cockpit and tipped her head to the side to motion for Sieglinde to come out of it. There was a gentle smile on the Chief’s soft grey face, bearing sharp teeth in an almost disarmingly amiable fashion. A gentle, maidenly giant with a brutal weapon.

“You are Sieglinde von Castille, is that correct? Until the Captain gets to talk to you in-depth, we are treating you as a prisoner rather than a defector. Peer titles don’t mean anything in here, but I hope you find the brig hospitable, nevertheless. I strongly suggest to step out of the cockpit with your hands up, and let my subordinates inspect you.” she nodded now towards Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian, who had arrived with similar grenade launchers on slings around their shoulders.

Silent, Sieglinde did as she was told and made no move to resist being pat down.

She was escorted to the brig, and the hangar resumed gawking and returned to its normal operation.

Out of the other tubes, the HELIOS of Murati Nakara and Karuniya Maharapratham was collected next, along with the remains of the SEAL of Marina McKennedy. Sameera’s Cossack was in almost perfect condition and hardly needed assistance lifting itself out of the water. Once all the Divers were collected, they were lined up abreast on gantries at each opposing wall so that they could be inspected. Chief Lebedova took one look at them and lifted her hand over her eyes, shaking her head vigorously.

“Some of these are in deplorable condition. We just got done reassembling that Cheka too.”

As had become usual, the Cheka’s electronics had nearly burnt out and several of the power cells distributed across the chassis as well as a few internal systems would need to be replaced. On one end of the hangar Sonya Shalikova and Murati Nakara (who was blamed as well despite being uninvolved this time) were both being lectured by Gunther Cohen about their repeated misuse of the machine.

Sameera’s, Khadija’s and Valya’s Streloks were all in decent condition.

The Strelkannon was already a maintenance-intensive machine so every sortie meant that a dozen people had to take care of it. That would not change here, and the Chief was already in her mind plotting out the service schedule for it. It had taken a few bumps, and specifically the torpedo launcher was damaged, and it would be a delicate operation to remove the remaining munitions and fix the pod.

Aiden Ahwalia’s Strelok was recovered from the seafloor. He himself was unharmed, but the machine was in pieces, only the cockpit was untouched. It was as if a monster had torn it apart with its bare hands. They could salvage some of the electrical parts and hydrojet components, but the chassis was basically nothing but food for the Ferricycler so they could ferrostitch simple metal parts from it.

They had no spare parts for the S.E.A.L. so that one was a complete write-off.

Sieglinde’s Grenadier was in the same category. They would probably disassemble it.

The HELIOS was in decent condition thanks to its sturdiness, but it was missing an arm which would have to be replaced by kitbashing a Strelok arm, since they, also, had no spare parts for that machine either. It had come out of the container that the Solarflare ladies had asked them to label as “spare parts.” Thankfully the most complicated part of the system, the drones that it launched, were in perfect condition. Those, Lebedova thought, would be impossible to replace if anything happened.

“We have to clone the software on this thing and get a look at the guts.” She noted.

As for the Brigand itself, there was damage practically everywhere.

No breaches, but plenty of electrical systems to replace, armor plates to sub out.

The Ferrostitcher and the Ferricycler would be running day and night.

“I’ll let the reactor engineer know just to be on the safe side.”

This time around there was no round of applause for the pilots.

Not for a lack of strong feelings, as everyone was grateful for their efforts. But because they were recovered in the middle of a continuing alert, where the sailors were still working all around the ship looking for leaks and electrical damage, or in the hangar assessing damage and beginning to put together tools and parts to begin repairs. Even with the pilots recovered, that alert was not rescinded. The Antenora was still being closely monitored as it began its retreat and the record-breaking levels of Katov mass in the water were a concern. Everyone was busy, and there was no time for heartfelt pleasantries.

It was at that point that the bridge informed the hangar of a new development.

They were so busy, and so incredulous, that at first, the danger barely registered.

But they understood implicitly — the danger was not yet over.


Sonya Shalikova stood outside the medbay doors for a moment.

Collecting the military greatcoat she was wearing over her pilot’s suit for warmth.

Clutching it to her chest, heart beating as if she had run a marathon.

The Cheka’s environment control system had broken down during the battle with Selene, so as a precaution, she was being sent to rest in the medbay for observation. However, she had a certain powerful desire pursue as well, having learned that Maryam Karahailos was also being kept in the medbay for observation. Something she had steeled herself about doing when she was out at sea.

“Ugh, is this stupid? I haven’t known her for that long.”

And yet, didn’t people go out on dates as perfect strangers? Didn’t they even have sex?

She probably knew a lot more about Maryam than most people did on their first date.

So then if she wanted to– then it made sense– it wasn’t anything weird–

“You only live once.”

It was a silly refrain but it encapsulated her current motives.

Fighting Selene pushed her to stand on the border to the afterlife and to interrogate herself. She could no longer punish herself and berate herself and live sternly in repentance for her sister’s passing. There was a vast ocean that was full of mysteries, and many people who depended on her. Shalikova had to move on from her past. She had to forgive herself as her sister would have forgiven her, and start to truly live.

And part of living was being honest with herself about what she treasured, what she desired.

This wasn’t some erratic feeling for a stranger. It was Maryam! It was different!

She could do it for Maryam!

Shalikova gathered her breath and strode through the medbay door.

Murati’s and Sameera’s beds were empty– they were both still in the hangar. She had gone ahead.

Farther down the aisle, however, a certain purple cuttlefish girl sat up in bed, humming.

Bobbing her head from side, shuffling her legs under the bedsheets, amusing herself.

She was– she was really cute– wasn’t she? Shalikova felt a fluttering in her chest.

It was as if over the past few days she had put on lenses that made her see Maryam differently.

“Oh! Sonya! Is it really you? I’m not having a medicine hallucination am I?”

Maryam put on a truly sunny smile upon seeing Shalikova enter the room.

Shalikova knew if she responded and started talking to her, that she would lose her guts.

So she strode quickly past all of the beds and up beside Maryam’s without saying a word.

Tracked unerringly by those w-shaped irises from the door all the way into her space.

“Sonya? Did I do something to make you mad–?”

At Maryam’s bedside, Shalikova bent at the waist and grabbed the sister’s shoulders.

Pulling Maryam into a clumsy kiss on the lips. Holding for a second and parting.

Looking deep into those magnificent Katarran eyes.

For Shalikova, savoring the experience of her very first kiss–

It barely felt like anything. In fact it was almost embarrassing how normal she felt about it.

Had she expected firecrackers to go off? Tongue? Her pale skin turned red as beets.

Maryam was also turning red, putting her hands up to her cheeks, swooning and giggling.

Those fins atop her head started to wiggle with delight.

“Sonya–!”

“I– I think I love you, Maryam.” Shalikova said and instantly wanted to kick herself for it.

While the two had their moment, the bearing monitors in the medbay blared a silent alarm.

Unbeknownst to the young lovers, the Brigand was dealing with a crisis yet again.


“Start moving away from it as fast as you can! Now! Right now!”

Ulyana Korabiskaya briefly stood up from her seat to punctuate the urgency of this order.

Helmsman Kamarik did not need to be told twice. The Brigand turned its prow away from Goryk’s Gorge and began to accelerate as much as it could with the damage it had previously sustained. On the main screen, amid a mass of red matter, the predictive imaging attempted to block out a “shape” for the “dreadnought” it had spotted and assigned mechanical explanations to the biological details it was seeing. Everyone on the bridge focused on their stations rather than look at the main screen.

From the electronic warfare station, Alex Geninov waved frantically at the Captain.

“Uh, ma’am, I started to clone the storage on that HELIOS thing like the hangar was asking for, and the HELIOS Information System seems to have data on that Leviathan. As soon as I started a connection to that Diver it started trying to image the Leviathan through the network. Take a look.”

“Feed it to the main screen. Let’s see what Solarflare LLC has dug up.”

Alex did just that, and after a moment to think, the predictive imager discarded the idea that the Leviathan rising out of Goryk was a known dreadnought model. Instead a fully biological classification appeared, and the picture became crystal clear as to the features of the gargantuan monster roaring to life right in front of their eyes. In the HELIOS Information System, this beast was described as a “Fortress-class” Leviathan with a unique name. It was known as “Dagon.” And there was more–

“Syzygy flagship Dagon– what the hell does that even mean? Flagship?” Ulyana said.

“Flagship implies its leading something.” Aaliyah said. “I can’t imagine this is correct.”

“I think the pictures are correct, I dunno about the description text.” Alex hesitantly added.

On the main screen the clarified image showed a creature with a long body that seemed covered in some kind of fur or fibers, black and brown. Upon its back were two sets of appendages that resembled more than anything the wings of a bird, folding on clawed joints. One pair of wings had a truly enormous span and a second, smaller pair guarded what appeared to be attached bio-hydrojets. A smaller set of these hydrojets rested on the creature’s tapering rear, where a massive dolphin-like tail stretched.

Toward the front of the creature was a small serpent-like head adorned with forward and side-facing horns, and a mouth that unhinged horribly to let out great, shrill bellows that Fatima al-Suhar described as sounding like the shrieking of a woman. She was clearly unnerved by them. As more data was fed in and more of the picture was clarified, bio-weapons could be seen, two large bio-cannons on the back and numerous remora-like “Sprayfish” class Leviathans burying into the monster’s skin like gas guns.

“It’s imitating a dreadnought?” Ulyana said. “Damn it, what on Aer is going on here?”

“Oh! Looks like my intuition was right. All of you really are still in horrible danger!”

There was an incongruously delighted voice coming from the door to the bridge.

Braya Zachikova arrived, quiet, with a sullen expression.

And she arrived with a guest.


In the middle of the near-lightless utility room, framed by the dim rays of the LEDs out in the hall, Braya Zachikova had found a woman where she had expected the corpse of a fish. Around her was a puddle of oily colorless flesh like raw leather or wet innards, sliding off her back and limbs like she was dropping a coat from her slender shoulders. That movement, the easy wet peeling of meat from off a human body, when Zachikova looked at it she felt her vision distorted, as if her brain was a predictive imager trying to make sense of something, framerate lagging, pixels out of place. An alien imitation of motion.

At first the smell of her was disgustingly fishy and salty, clinging to Zachikova’s nostrils like the flecks of oil in the puddle below, as if it would be impossible to clean the aroma out of herself. Then however it became sweet, almost floral, as the flesh further contracted and more of the creature’s new, human body appeared in its place. It stirred something inside Zachikova, something under her gut.

There was a quivering feeling, a sense of pressure or contraction in her.

Something new, never before felt.

Speechless, she took a step back, and the lights behind her shed on the woman instead.

The creature’s eyes shut for a brief moment and slowly reopened, as she adjusted to the light.

Seeing her, truly seeing her, Zachikova felt her heart stir as it had done for the dancer.

She was pale as porcelain, skin stark white except for the two thin, smooth, small, upright horns that grew from her forehead, parting her long, swept, red-streaked white bangs. Her eyes were no longer lilac but gold irises on black sclera, reflecting nothing, but striking Zachikova as containing a truly unfathomable intellect. Her hair, red and white, fell in waves of silk behind her back and over her shoulders.

Her pallid figure was slim, long limbed, slender, lithe, every adjective that could come to Zachikova’s mind as her eyes followed the smooth, gentle curve of her round shoulders, crested the hill of her breasts, followed her flat belly and the slight, firm roundness of her hips. From her hips, calves, and forearms, thin white and red fins grew sleek, diaphanous and moist. They resembled the koi fish-like profile that had so enamored Zachikova. Her slender, long fingers looked temptingly soft as the features of her face. Curled behind her was a white tail that could reach to the floor, parting at the end like a dolphin’s or whale’s.

For Zachikova, who had rarely felt physical attraction, looking at this woman sent jolts of titillating electricity into her core, over the tips of her own fingers and to the ends of her own breasts.

“Braya.”

She spoke her name, cooing it softly.

It felt as if there were flesh in her metal ears for that voice to caress.

“Braya. Do you like this form? I wanted to enter the next phase of our courtship.”

Zachikova couldn’t respond to that. She couldn’t master herself enough to speak.

When she had found something aesthetically pleasing in the past, it had often been a design, a machine, or a clever bit of software. She had felt a sense of titillation toward such things in the past on rare occasions, but she knew it was incongruous and ignored it. People had hardly ever interested her, and when she felt that she became taken with her Dancer she knew intellectually that physical affection from it, true skin to skin affection, was something impossible. But it was no more impossible to her than having sex with Semyonova, Geninov, Murati or any human person she had ever felt even the vaguest physical attraction towards. Physical and social permissibility were no different to a heart as closed shut as hers.

In short: to her she it was equally impossible to fuck machines, fish, or people.

So it never mattered. It shouldn’t have mattered. She had been happy to love her Dancer from afar.

To acknowledge her as a superlative design, and feel happy as a witness.

Knowing there was a gap in their species did not blunt her appreciation.

Now however it was as if hormones that had been repressed for decades flowed heedless.

Now– it was permissible. It was permissible to think– in physical terms–

Her imagination could scarcely handle the feelings flooding in.

She thought initially that it had to be the smell– it was enchanting her somehow.

Pheromones. Like an animal– it’s got pheromones– the sweat, the sebum, it attracts me–

“Braya~”

Zachikova stood frozen still as the body in the puddle stood clumsily on her sleek, human legs.

On her soft, delicate-looking feet, balancing herself by that long, graceful tail.

There was a brief red flash in her eyes, clearly visible amid the inky black of them.

Beneath their feet the puddle of flesh stirred one final time.

Gore and guts that had peeled from the woman began to coil around her arm as if alive again and beckoned by her. Glistening grey and brown flesh thinned, dried, and blood dribbled out from it as if wrung out, all while the mass snaked as if on the creature’s fingertips. When it finally settled, she took the mass and casually spread it, having formed a white robe parted down the middle, which she draped over her shoulders, wearing it in a way that her breasts and everything else was still exposed.

At her feet the puddle had turned dark red from all the blood and fluid drained from the robe.

Zachikova watched her, unblinking, as she approached to within a few steps of her.

“Braya. Braya, Braya, Braya– I love saying your name like this. Hearing it in my throat.”

She smiled, her cheeks spreading ever so softly on that smooth, immaculate face.

One hand laid upon Zachikova’s shoulder, and the second gripped her firmly on the hip.

Her touch was like pure ecstasy, being in her presence, held by her, a sweet warm feeling–

It wasn’t pheromones. Zachikova wanted this. Her heart pounded and not out of fear.

Everything that she thought it would feel like, to touch, to be held, to be enveloped in the flesh of another close enough to feel her heartbeat through the touch. This really was her– it really was the Leviathan who had enamored her with its graceful dance. Had she been human all along or had by some miracle a human form been given to her Leviathan, to meet Zachikova like this? Regardless, the press of physical intimacy destroyed all other thoughts in the officer’s mind. She was starving for touch.

Rather than her fantasies of swimming in the ocean together– Dancer had come to her.

That hand laid upon her shoulder glided across, to the back of her neck.

Skin to skin, for the first time. Like a wave that touch reverberated across Zachikova’s body.

As if touching not just the skin of her neck but touching every skin, even the deepest.

“Braya~”

Taller than Zachikova, the woman guided her head to tip slightly up for her access.

While her lips drew near and pressed, touching, at first, glancing.

Zachikova felt the hand behind her press on her flesh and the hand on her hip nearly lift her.

Despite the differences in size and strength Zachikova did not wait.

Reciprocating, she pushed back onto the creature with her own needy kiss.

With ardor they locked lips again and again, lingering breaches inviting brief mutual taste.

Parting less than a millimeter for less than a second before they joined again.

At first their opens eyes were fixed together as tightly as their lips, but as if one the two shut out the light, feeling only each other in the darkness. There was a trust built between their flesh, suspended in an all-encompassing embrace. Zachikova felt her mouth parted by the creature’s tongue and gave no resistance. She felt the weight of her bear slowly down. Compliant, wanting, needy, she let the creature sit her down and let her lay atop her, tongue crawling deep as throat, slender roaming fingers. Undoing Zachikova’s pants and sliding teasingly down her lower belly, across her quivering inner thigh–

Pause–

Zachikova opened her eyes with a start. The woman had turned her head to the wall, eyes glowing red.

Her distracted long tongue retreated leaving Zachikova gasping, shuddering between breaths–

Sloshing thick fluid spilled from her once invaded lips tasting salty-sweet–

Those fingers on her thighs slackening in their grip, ending the fantasy–

What had been pure physical instinct before gave way to the squeamishness of intellect. Realizing there was a woman on top of her of unknown provenance whose fingers were just about to go inside her, whose tongue she had tasted to her throat, Zachikova crawled out from under her in a sudden panic. Everything felt suddenly irrational, though not wholly unwanted– she could no longer lose herself to the longing flesh having been given time to think, and made herself deny the pleasure then.

She retreated back to the unemotional logic that governed her mind.

And away from the intoxicating taste of another body–

“Who are you? I’ll sound the alarm!” Zachikova said.

Pulling her pants up, she put her back to a wall and her hand over a red emergency button.

The creature’s fluids still trailed from Zachikova’s own lips. She had to brush it off.

Her flight triggered no chase. Her counterpart was serene in tone.

An unconcerned, gentle smile adorned the face of the creature as she stood back up.

“Of course you know who I am, Braya.”

“Quit being coy!”

Something distracted her again– the creature kept looking to the wall.

“Oh Braya. Well. I’m afraid that this vessel is not out of danger. We should sort that out first.”

“Do I need to either repeat what I said, or push this button?”

At this, the creature pouted. That expression– Zachikova’s loins stirred again.

She was so beautiful– so beautiful, with an alien eroticism to her every movement.

No, calm down– quit acting so stupid, Braya Zachikova!

“Oh dear, my little Braya– ah, well. I should have known you’d be a little closed minded at first. That’s fine then. We can start over from the beginning. You’re worth it to me.” The creature took the makeshift robe which she had put over her shoulders, and slipped her arms in the sleeves, fastening it around her hips, such that it split tantalizingly just above the knees. Zachikova tried not to stare at her.

“Give me a name or I’ll have security sort you out.” Zachikova threatened.

“You can call me Arbitrator One.” She said. “We write the number in the ancient tally.”

So it was actually written as Arbitrator I, but it was not pronounced that way.

“What kind of a name is that? It’s more like a made-up title isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

“No, it’s my name. But if you want, you and you alone can call me Arabella.”

“You’re Arbitrator I then.” Zachikova said. Trying to make herself be cold to her. To reject her.

It almost hurt. She– she wanted to treat this creature lovingly. It was irrational! She had to resist it.

Braya Zachikova was a machine. She couldn’t let herself act so foolish around this thing.

“Braya, I’m a bit disappointed.” Arbitrator I put her hands behind her back and leaned forward, her eyes narrowed, giving Zachikova a petty, hurt look. “I thought you of all people would understand me.”

“Are you the Dancer?” Zachikova said. Then she realized suddenly– would she even know that name? And before Arbitrator I could respond, clarified. “The Leviathan that– that died in the Gorge–”

“That was a part of me. I am as much exclusively it as you are only the last skin you shed.”

Her eyes lit up again and she started to look around the room again with a sudden urgency.

“It’s really surfaced.” She said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Braya, you’re all in danger. Please believe me.”

She kept repeating that. Was it true?

Then again–

At this point it hardly mattered. Zachikova felt a stab of anxiety. She had to report this– all of this.

The Captain would have to sort it out. Whether Arbitrator I was lying or not.

Zachikova lifted her hand from the emergency alarm, feeling dazed by everything that happened.

“Braya, you need to navigate this vessel away from here.” Arbitrator I insisted.

“Away to where?” Zachikova said, sighing as she humored her.

“Hmm. Preferably we’d go that way.” Arbitrator I pointed her hand straight up.


At this point, in this particular day, the bridge officers on the Brigand had seen enough people come in and make mysterious pronouncements that the moment Zachikova came through the door with her mystery guest, everyone had already made time in their busy schedules to stare at her. However, the last few people that had come in, like “Euphemia Rontgen” and “Elena” were ordinary-looking folks.

Even for a Katarran (they assumed) this new entrant was particular.

Bare-foot, wearing a tight white robe, overlong red and white hair– and those horns!

Those eyes— then again, Maryam Karahailos had strange eyes too.

However, the most salient thing for the officers was where this woman had come from.

Everyone had formally been told of the Solarflare LLC employees, and of Maryam and Marina.

“Zachikova, who is this woman? Where did she come from? Why is she on the bridge?”

Ulyana Korabiskaya was firm but not necessarily adamant.

A lot had happened that day. For the moment she was in a fey mood in which she believed she was ready for anything. Come what may! She was rolling with the punches. Her scientist guests lying about their names and what was in their crates? Fine. Marina had fooled them all into escorting the Imperial Princess this whole time? Sure. She had always expected Marina to be lying, though not with such grandiosity. An enormous Leviathan was bursting out of the Goryk Abyss? Why not, at this point. Bring it on.

She did not want to admit it, but this was a nascent panic beginning to snake through her brain.

“She came from– Um–” Zachikova paused. She raised a hand to her lips. Her face was a bit more expressive than usual, in that her brow was ever so slightly furrowed. She then proceeded to speak, after gathering her thoughts, unsmiling and with a neutral gaze. “She came from outside the ship.”

“From outside the ship? From the open ocean? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

Zachikova made no expression. Ulyana narrowed her eyes. The mystery woman smiled.

“Did the Antenora fire a boarding torpedo at us?” Ulyana said.

“We’d know if that had happened.” Aaliyah interjected, listening to the whole exchange.

“Was she a stowaway with Solarflare LLC’s cargo?” Ulyana asked Zachikova.

“No.” Zachikova said. Ulyana crossed her arms with exasperation.

“Then did she crawl through the vents? What the hell is going on?”

Aaliyah groaned and put her head against the computer terminal arm on her seat.

Ulyana’s brain had briefly pored over the realistic possibilities. None of it made sense.

Zachikova seemed unable to say anything but, “She really came from outside the ship.”

So Ulyana then turned to the mystery woman herself. “Okay, you, identify yourself now.”

“I am Arbitrator One, written with ‘I’. I come from the people known as the Omenseers.”

That woman crossed one arm over her chest and performed a short bow, smiling.

“I’ve been contending with liars all day, so forgive me, but– No, you’re not!” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I shrugged with her palms up. “Then you may call me Arabella then, I suppose.”

“Don’t call her that.” Zachikova said suddenly. “That’s– That’s clearly the fake one.”

“Aww. Little Braya is jealous– you’re right, that name is only for Braya.” Arbitrator I said.

Zachikova turned sharply to her. “Knock that shit off, they’ll misunderstand!”

Ulyana stared at Zachikova then at Arbitrator I in turn. One flustered, the other grinning.

In her mind she ran through the things she knew about Zachikova.

And the things she knew about the present situation.

Something was connecting, but she didn’t want it to connect.

Because it was too absurd. It was a desperate bit of pattern recognition and nothing more.

Last time she saw Zachikova she had run out after her pet Leviathan had sacrificed itself to save them. Ulyana had heard reports from the sailors of Zachikova running across the hangar to the utility chute near the rearmost part of the ship’s habitable pods. That was where she had recalled her drone to after the previous events. Ulyana, at the time, figured that Zachikova was in a vulnerable state and that she wanted to collect a final memento of the creature from the drone. Now she was on the bridge with–

Now–

Zachikova was here on the bridge– with a mysterious woman who–

–who looked a little bit like if someone was trying to cosplay that Leviathan,

and was saying weird things and had come out of nowhere

Oh no no no no no Absolutely no Absolutely no That is completely insane

“I’m–” Ulyana had an involuntary twitch. “I’m going to ask again and I want a rational answer.”

“Esteemed Captain,” Arbitrator I performed another little bow and raised her voice as if speaking to an audience. “This vessel is in grave danger, from which you may not be able to escape without my particular expertise. I implore you to defer the matter of my identity at least temporarily until such a time as Braya– and of course other hominins aboard– are safe from Dagon’s emergence out of Agartha.”

Ulyana only heard one word of that. “Did you say ‘Dagon’? Did I hear you correctly?”

“Indeed, that is the name of the creature.” Arbitrator I said.

“Then you’re with Solarflare LLC! Quit making up ridiculous–”

“Uhh, Captain! That big guy is doing something!” Alex Geninov shouted.

On the main screen, a Radiation warning suddenly appeared.

They had been scanned by LADAR, the sensors detected the lasers. This was shortly followed by the sensors detecting that a sonar pulse had bounced off the hull. And then another– Fatima al-Suhar withdrew from her ears her headphones, rubbing the sides of her head in pain. She must have heard the pulse, but she was too dazed– Ulyana realized that all the roaring may have been bio-sonar pulses.

That LADAR warning could not have come from the Antenora either.

Both ships had gone their own ways and the Antenora knew the Brigand’s position already.

“Fatima, are you alright?” Ulyana asked.

“That noise felt a knife cutting across my skull.” Fatima replied, nearly weeping.

Ulyana was speechless. She felt pure anxiety vibrating between her skin and flesh.

“Have you heard any technological noises since the Antenora fled?” She asked.

“It couldn’t have been technological.” Fatima said. “It had to be biological, Captain.”

There was no denying the terrible hypothesis in the back of her mind.

“Take a rest. You’ve done more than enough today.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you Captain. I’m very sorry. I should be stronger–”

“Don’t worry. Please just take care of yourself.”

Fatima nodded her head and leaned back on the padding of her chair, gently sobbing.

Ulyana trusted her. There really were no mechanical ships being caught on their sonar.

So that LADAR had to have come from the Leviathan. It really was an imitation battleship.

Leviathans were much faster than ships. This creature had seen them. Would it give chase?

And if it gave chase could they escape it? Could they fight it off in their current state?

On the main screen, the creature looked to still be extricating its bulk from the Gorge.

They still had some time to react, but how much? How vehemently would it attack?

Ulyana called on Semyonova, on the station adjacent to the despondent Fatima.

“Have Maharapratham called to the bridge right away. She needs to see this.” She said.

Semyonova nodded and began to work on her task when she was interrupted.

A pale white hand gently patted her shoulder as if to say that wouldn’t be necessary.

“Have you perhaps a clearer picture of the danger you are in?”

Arbitrator I chimed in again, reminding Ulyana and the officers of her presence once more.

“Captain, I can tell from your aura, you have acknowledged an idea of what I am. It disgusts you, but it’s the only explanation that makes sense, isn’t it? For now, we can leave it at that– I am indeed the Leviathan that was outside. I am friendly– I want nothing more than to save this vessel. Right now, understanding the situation won’t save you. You will have to trust me and verify later.”

Those eyes of hers, yellow on black like a beast. Even Katarrans didn’t have eyes like that.

Meeting those eyes and the depth of their alien intellect, Ulyana felt her heart quaver.

Then as Ulyana’s own ordinary eyes locked deep with Arbitrator I’s exotic eyes–

The latter’s, in a blink, became ordinary green irises on white sclera just like her own.

She had changed them– right? She had transformed them. They weren’t like that before.

Was she seeing things now? Ulyana relented. She wasn’t equipped to tackle this now.

“Aaliyah, are you okay with adding this to the pile of interrogations we need to do?”

“At this point, I don’t think we have a choice.” Aaliyah replied.

On the main screen, there was a sudden gust of red biomass from the gorge.

As with a flap of its “wings” the massive Dagon finally emerged fully into open water.

They were uncomfortably close to the Gorge and therefore to the creature.

The Captain tried not to show it but her breathing was accelerating heavily.

She felt a pressure so powerful that it was crushing her against her seat.

Watching that lumbering creature begin to move, and begin to turn–

Was she going to lose this ship and the lives of everyone in it, like the Pravda?

Ulyana’s voice caught in her throat. Her chest heaved, her skin felt tense over her flesh.

Her head filled with hazy thoughts of flooding, electrical fires, gorey images of the injured swimming in and out of her vision. Reaching for them, unable to take their hands and save them. Surrounded by the bodies. Would it happen again? Was she destined to lose everything again? Her own life was meaningless to her in that instant. She thought of her crew– what would happen to them? The events of the past few weeks sped through her mind like a blur, could she have done anything, anything at all to forestall this?

Could she do anything now? She was practically choking.

“It’s unmistakable now! It’s bearing right toward us!” Semyonova shouted.

Ulyana felt a stone sinking down her throat and landing heavy in her stomach.

Despite their vaunted position there was nothing a Captain could do but give orders.

They weren’t the heroes– they sent people to their deaths. She was nothing without this crew. This magnificent crew had already done so much, proved themselves so extraordinary while against horrific odds and in less-than-ideal circumstances. Despite their eccentricities, despite their differences, they had survived to this point even as things always seemed to crumble around them.

Ulyana esteemed them dearly. She would give anything to protect them.

Now however she felt like any order she could give would be suicidal.

Where could they run? How could they fight? She had no directions to give.

Every choice available felt like it would lead to their deaths.

I couldn’t redeem myself Nagavanshi. I’m still useless. I’m still powerless.

Staring at that monster on the main screen, she felt like there was nothing she could do–

“Captain.”

She felt a hand caress her shoulder and pat on her back, coming from beside her.

Ulyana glanced at her Commissar, Aaliyah, her ears erect and tail swaying gently.

Her orange eyes fixed Ulyana’s own in a way that sent a tremor into her chest.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I haven’t seen you pull off miracle after miracle just to give up now.”

“Aaliyah–”

“We can talk later. Right now, they need the Captain to be decisive. Take a leap, however insane; I’ll follow you, no matter what it is. I trust you. You’ve more than won that trust. We can interrogate all that happened, and all that we did right or wrong, after the fact. You’re not alone; I won’t let you be.”

Ulyana looked into Aaliyah’s unwavering eyes feeling foolish for her lapse in strength.

For everyone’s sake couldn’t let this become like the Pravda. So she had no other choice.

She let go of her trepidation. When it came down to it, she only had one asset remaining.

“‘Arbitrator I’, you clearly are tied into this, so tell me how we can escape.” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I stared at the main screen with those newly green eyes, smiling contentedly.

As if knowing that her time had come. She gestured her white hands to the main screen.

“Dagon is still immature. I believe its juvenile body will not allow it to rise without being damaged by the changes in water pressure. It needs the deep water to support itself.” She said matter-of-factly, with mysterious confidence. “Therefore, we can escape by going up, Captain.” With that same odd cheerfulness to her pallid expression, she pointed her index up at the ceiling.

Zachikova blinked incredulously at this.

“She mentioned this to me before, but I thought it was nonsense.” Zachikova said.

It was true that the body plans of deep sea fish meant that their flesh and organs could collapse in lower pressure water if they ascended to the photic zone, something that the Brigand as a pressurized steel vessel did not have to contend with. That would potentially prevent Dagon from pursuing if the Brigand performed a “rapid blowout” ascent. However, even if it was true that Dagon was not equipped to rise up the water table, there was nothing waiting for them in the sunlit ocean but more death.

Arbitrator I smiled as if she knew what Ulyana was worried about.

“I can keep the vessel safe from wild Leviathans. I can do nothing against Dagon.” She said.

There was no time. Ulyana had to be decisive. She had to trust this ‘Arbitrator I’ figure.

They only had one choice. They could not possibly stay and fight Dagon in their condition.

And so it was– like in the legends, like in fables told to scare and fascinate children.

To survive, they would have to make myth reality and ascend to the surface waters.

“Helmsman, blow all the ballast water! Angle fins for rapid ascent!” Ulyana declared.

Everyone on the bridge, even the gas gunners two tiers below the Captain, turned their heads over to stare at her as if they couldn’t understand. In response, Ulyana stood from her seat aiming a hand at the main screen with a flourish. “Quit tarrying! Prepare to ascend the photic zone!” For most people, heading surfaceward was an insane endeavor– but on the main screen, there was an even more insane sight, the hulking Dagon looming nearer and nearer, and appearing large and larger than their ship.

Helmsman Kamarik looked back at Ulyana from his station, first surprised then unnerved.

“Captain I– I gotta confess, I’ve never even simulated a rapid ascent.” He said.

“I’ve read about the process.” Ulyana said. She struggled not to stutter or get tongue-tied.

“Well. Okay. You’re the boss. I guess I’ll get the ballast going then.” Kamarik said.

He spoke almost as if in the form of a question but began the process.

As part of their mobility options, ships, whether Imperial or Union, had a suite of control surfaces on the exterior, particularly the main fins and the mast/conning tower fins, and internally, they had ballast tanks to control mass and density at different parts of the ship. Ballast tanks were filled with water that could be pumped into and out of the water system. The amount of water ballast could be reduced by filling them with air from vents to make the ship float more, or increased for negative buoyancy.

Truly expert helmsmen used all of these elements to their advantage for combat maneuvering.

Ascent was normal for ships — naval combat was three dimensional.

Those same mechanisms that could be used to move up and down in a controlled fashion within the aphotic waters could be used for an extreme ascent into the photic zone, the forbidden realm of sunlit ocean beyond the upper scattering layer. Nothing physically prevented them from doing so. There was less pressure in the photic zone, so it was even mechanically safer to operate there. However, the presence of corrupted weather and Leviathans made it a fool’s errand. Only a scant few rapid ascents had ever been performed by Union ships, and it was something that was useless to teach to new crews.

“Helmsman, the only tricky part will be stopping our ascent short of the surface.”

Once the ballast was blown and the ship started climbing rapidly, the water system would be strained.

In order to stop themselves quickly to prevent breaching the surface and exposing the ship to the full extent of the Corruption, they would have to dump water back into the ballast tanks and level out.

Cutters and most civilian vessels did not have internal water systems strong enough to refill the tanks in the middle of an ascension, so they never blew their tanks. Anything Frigate size or larger could do it provided there was water in the system ready to route into the tanks. Ulyana knew, theoretically, that even if water collection was compromised during the ascent, there was always enough water in one place: the reactor cooling. It could be routed into ballast temporarily, leaving the reactor to run hot for a time.

“At 150 depth, we should be able to level out if we pump heavy water into the tanks.” Ulyana said.

Helmsman Kamarik whistled admiringly. “Ma’am, this is fuckin’ crazy. But here it goes.”

“Semyonova, relay to the hangar!” Aaliyah said. “Tell everyone to secure tools, now.”

“Um, yes!”

Semyonova quickly broadcast to the ship– but she had maybe twenty or thirty seconds.

Not nearly enough time to warn everyone–

“Alright, here goes nothing!” Kamarik said. “Blowing the ballast and angling up!”

At first there was a periodic vibration, that traveled from the ship into the bodies within.

As the ballast water blasted out of its hatches and the ship tilted it became a quake.

Rumbling that presaged the beginning of a mythical flight.

Parvati Nagavanshi had been right. Ulyana could either become the greatest Captain the Union had ever seen, or a washed up nobody, reaper of ships, a death-omen if she even survived the madness she had been thrust into. She thought she had come to terms with the last crazy task she had to confront and then there would suddenly be a new, even more startling development to test her resolve.

This time, it wouldn’t be like the Pravda. They couldn’t be any more different.

She watched the main screen as the monster called Dagon left their sight.

Grabbing hold of her chair as the ship angled almost 40 degrees toward the firmament.

Shooting up faster and faster, rattling and shaking, the main computer blaring statuses.

Turbines and pumps and air vents in the water system struggled and cried out for aid.

Already damaged electrical systems reported sporadic failures with lights, circulators, network boards.

Every officer grabbed hold as best they could as the ship climbed.

Arbitrator I seized Zachikova into an embrace and held on to the post of Semyonova’s chair with her tail. Geninov, Fatima, and the rest grabbed on to their chairs which were bolted to the ground. Helmsman Kamarik struggled between holding on for life and limb and continuing to operate his station. As the Brigand tilted to an ever more violent angle and picked up speed, anything freestanding on the officer’s stations like half-empty cups of coffee or broth or cans of protein stew went flying to the back of the bridge, spilling and rattling. Every human body threatened to fly to the back as well.

It was a spectacular insanity. Nobody was prepared for this. Nobody could prepare for it.

Ulyana went from being almost sick with nerves to grinning at the sheer chaos of it.

She felt as if the judgment of God was being cast upon her. Her sins weighed like the ballast.

And despite everything, she had blown them out to begin her climb to paradise.

Having surmounted so much danger, staring the sky in the face, it led Ulyana to finally realize: the Pravda had not been her own fault. She had made no decisions as the Captain of the Pravda, she had no agency in the midst of the disaster. She was a victim. She was in command of a test voyage and the ship’s guts failed that test. It was not like the decision to fight back against the Iron Lady, to charge into Norn’s claws, to trust Elena Lettiere, or now, the decision to follow Arbitrator I, a being who had appeared and spoken mere sentences before suggesting that they ascend the heavens to escape their fate.

Those were pivotal moments where she had affected the lives of her crew.

As Captain of the Brigand, Ulyana had made several choices, pored over, and reasoned to the best of her ability, with all the information at her disposal at the time she made those choices. She gave orders, oversaw plans and organization. People, and the ship, moved as she commanded. On the Brigand, she had been responsible for the lives of many. It was not so when the Pravda met its demise.

That had been a tragedy, a wound in history which she was truly helpless to forestall.

And by contrast, on the Brigand, Ulyana was not helpless or hopeless. She had agency.

She was exercising the power and judgment she had to the best of her ability.

As the ship became free of its water weight and rose, Ulyana shed her own burdens.

No regrets. At every turn, I’ve done the best I could. Thank you, Aaliyah.

With one hand holding onto her chair, Ulyana stretched out the other.

Around Aaliyah Bashara’s shoulder, as the commissar struggled to hold on as well.

“Are you ready to follow me into hell, Commissar?” She cried out, over the rumbling and rattling.

“Always, Captain!” Aaliyah shouted as well.

On the cameras, the red waters were quickly left behind.

Katov biomass readings plummeted, and the water turned from red to black to blue.

Dagon had vanished, and the sight in front of them was a thick cloud of organisms.

“Crossing the upper scattering layer!” Kamarik shouted. “Hold on, baby, hold on!”

Sensing the advance of the ship the teeming mass of pelagic fish and the ordinary predators that thrived on them spread open suddenly as if forming among them a door. A biological gate to the heaven that was barred to humanity, and there were less than seconds of recognition of this grand feat and what it signified as the Brigand hurtled through the 100 meter strata of marine life at immense speed.

“400 depth– and climbing!” Geninov cried out in mixed awe and terror.

On their cameras the surroundings were beautiful and alien.

Blue water all around them. They could see— the water was streaked with light.

Directly above was God, white disk adorned with grand rays. 400 meters, 300 meters–

Beams of light shooting eerily into the water. It was the corrupted surface directly above.

Mere hundreds of meters away. Closing in. Humanity’s forbidden, fallen holy land.

Sinners who had been cast from heaven now leaped toward the firmament.

“Pump the reactor cooling water into the tanks! Level us out now! Right now!”

Against the force of the water the Brigand’s fins returned to their horizontal, level plane.

Through a herculean effort of every available mechanism the reactor cooling pods drained heavy water into the ballast tanks at maximum pump. Red alerts screeched as various components strained under the pressure, turbines grinding, pumps screaming. There was compounding damage everywhere–

“She’ll make it! She’ll make it!” Kamarik yelled.

Ulyana held on to hope as the ship struggled, shaking itself apart.

At her side, Aaliyah threw her own arm around the Captain, clinging tight to her.

With her at my side– we won’t fail.

Judged–

–and found worthy.

Directly below the sun disk, body of God, the Brigand leveled out, avoiding the surface.

A mere 50 meters below the edge of their world.

On the bridge, the officers nearly stumbled out of their chairs, having been leaning to keep themselves level while the ship had been tilted and now finding themselves in obscene angles with the ship righted. All the cans and cups rattled one more time. One final quake spread through the ship that rumbled right into Ulyana’s chest as they stabilized. On the main screen there was bright, blue ocean all around them.

Final labored breaths shook the terror out of their chests. They were– they were safe?

“Damage report.” Ulyana said, exhibiting a slight trepidation.

“We might have some leaky pipes and a few pumps to replace.” Kamarik said.

“We have electrical damage basically everywhere. Core’s heating up.” Geninov added.

“The hangar’s a mess. Tools everywhere.” Semyonova moaned. “A few injuries. No deaths.”

Subhaan Allah.” Fatima said, holding a hand against her breast and breathing deep.

Ulyana laid a hand over her face. What a mess. “At least we’re alive. Kamarik, get us down to 200 or 300 depth again. Take it slow and start phasing out the heavy water from the system and refilling with sea water. Prioritize refilling the core, even if we have to move at one knot or stay still. Semyonova, tell everyone not to use the faucets or anything right now, it’s going to be full of agarthic salt if they do. God, what a mess. Everyone run checks on your own systems. Are all the sensors still up? We need to plan repairs too. Get Lebedova on it if she isn’t. If she needs additional manpower the pilots can help.”

It was a lot easier to resume the act of being Captain than to take in what had happened.

At his station, however, Kamarik was smiling placidly, leaning back on his chair.

“Something wrong?” Ulyana asked, near breathless from everything that had transpired.

Kamarik shook his head. “No, just taking this whole shit in. We’re naval legends now, Captain.”

He ran his hand over his station screen like he was comforting it. “This dame really did it.”

“We’re gonna be dead legends soon!” Geninov shouted from Zachikova’s station.

Dozens of red flashes appeared on the main screen, target boxes around incoming objects.

Leviathans. Sprayfish class, Barding class, Greathorn class– leviathans of all sizes.

Great maws, long bodies, numerous jets, bio-cannons. All kinds of body plans.

They had detected the Brigand and were approaching, cautiously, curiously, in numbers.

“We traded a big one for every fucking little one in a ten kilometer radius!” Geninov cried.

Ulyana shut her eyes and drew in a breath. She tried not to panic. It was another moment.

One of many that would characterize their journey from here. All she could do was face it.

“You said you would handle this? Show me you aren’t a fraud then– or die with us.”

She turned a glare on Arbitrator I, who seemed perfectly calm with the situation.

Letting go of Zachikova, whom she had been tenderly embracing during the ascent.

She walked forward, between all the stations on the middle tier, just below the Captain.

“Of course. Please observe. I am who I say I am. And with this, I seal an oath to this vessel.”

On the main screen the pack of Leviathans approached, circling, spiraling, hurtling forth–

Arbitrator I raised her hand to the main screen, eyes glowing with red rings.

“Raise not your arms against the master of Lemuria and chosen of Shalash. Omensight.”

Ulyana felt something stir. Something that made the tiniest hairs on her skin stand on end.

In front of her Arbitrator I glowed for a split second with a myriad of colors.

It could’ve been the lights, or it could’ve been Ulyana’s own exhaustion.

These brief explanations could encompass none of what happening, however.

At her command (at her command?), the Leviathans drawing visibly nearer to the Brigand were given sudden pause, those with fish-like bodies hovering briefly in place before turning away, those with serpentine bodies directing their snaking masses in directions away from the Brigand and coiling at a distance. Those with whale-like bodies that could not easily turn their bulk dove deep to swim beneath the Brigand, unable to swim over due to the proximity to the surface. That teeming mass of life which they had attracted crossed past them and dispersed. Ahead of them the ocean became clear again.

Clear of the Leviathans, but in their place, the sunlit world was still filled with life.

With the danger passed, the main screen filled with the beauty of paradise.

White rays of sunlight penetrated the water’s surface and illuminated schools of small fish swimming in their thousands. Jellyfish with surfaces cycling through the colors of natural rainbows rose and fell in their natural diligence. Larger fish preyed on the small as if nothing had disturbed their hidden world. Those Leviathans went from being threats to rejoining nature, navigating with their own majesty amid the ordinary creatures. In contact with the light, and separated from the benthic world of humanity, nature flourished in the photic zone. Ulyana watched this serene landscape, with quiet reverence, as if still counting the seconds of life that she had left in the face of a danger now, finally, abated.

A collective sigh reverberated across the bridge. They were finally safe.

They had survived.

Exhausted officers put their heads on their station desks, deflating after the danger washed over them. Geninov was loudly sobbing. Fatima and Semyonova openly crying. Kamarik repeatedly tapped his fist on the wall near him. Fernanda stood up from her station and bowed her head over it, shifting her feet as if to keep from kicking. Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah’s ears and tail drooped so low they might have fallen off.

In place of the adrenaline and the blood boiling stalwartly in her veins, Ulyana felt a sharp stab of pain in the middle of her forehead. She hardly felt a migraine like this since she stopped drinking herself drunk. Life had stopped moving second by labored second, but she still felt the inertia brimming inside her. All of it was over, finally over. No enemies on their sensors. Just them, alone, and the open sea.

Her crew could rest. A Captain’s work was never done, however.

“Hey,”

Leaning back for comfort, calmly breathing, Ulyana fixed her attention back on Arbitrator I.

“What was all that shit you just said? Explain what the hell just happened. Right now.”

She jabbed an accusing finger at the pale woman below.

Arbitrator I beamed, bobbing her head from side to side with her hands behind her back.

“It was just the incantation to my magic spell!” She declared cheerfully.

Beside the Captain’s chair, Zachikova raised both of her hands to her face, groaning.

Ulyana felt a familiar gentle pat on the shoulder.

“We’ll save it for the interrogation, Captain.”

At her side, Aaliyah Bashare smiled, relieved and cheerful, while comforting Ulyana.

Her face might as well have glowed for how beautiful it looked at that moment.

“To hell and back again, Captain. Or I couldn’t call myself your Commissar.” She said.

Ulyana returned the smile gratefully. “You have no idea how much that means to me, Aaliyah.”

While the ship slowly got underway again, the two of them fixed gentle eyes on one another.

So it went.

For the first time in what felt like forever, the Brigand was free from external, violent threats.

It would take time for Ulyana to feel safe about everything she had learned today, however.

Their horizon was filled with fog and smoke. But they could do nothing but go forth through it.

For the next leg of their journey, the Brigand’s path would be lit by the sun itself.

An even grander journey awaited them. At least Ulyana would not have to command it alone.


Within the roiling red cloud that had burst from Goryk’s Abyss lumbered a great tyrant of the seas.

Rising out of a wound in the earth, roaring its entrance into the world of “human civilization.”

Avoiding its strength, the humans which had borne witness to its rise fled in every direction.

Its name was Dagon. With six eyes on its head and several across its body, the monster watched the machine it had sought to pursue shoot skyward at a bewildering pace. In itself, the beast scarcely understood what it was seeing or what had happened– but deep within the pressurized cavities of the monster there were symbiotic intelligences that understood what had transpired. They guided the creature to resume its flight within the shadowed wilderness of what was known as “Sverland.”

These intelligences did not answer to the beast, however, nor did the beast truly answer to them.

Both Dagon and its navigators bowed before the authority of the being Dagon was born to protect.

“We were tracking a ship, weren’t we? How come nobody’s updated me on it?”

Her voice reverberated across the interior of Dagon’s cerebral pod, stirring semi-transparent teal-blue organelles on the surrounding walls, like sinewy boils in which humanoid bodies could be seen to float, suspended in a film of dimly glowing gel, and affixed by their slender, pale necks to great bundles of nerves and arteries. Moisture glistened on the leather-pink surfaces which hardened black at the edges of the organelles. They shuddered with understanding of her requests and spoke silently to her.

Numbers and coordinates and data filtered into her mind from the minds surrounding her.

“Huh? You all let it get away? Why? There was no reason to engage it? Putting those vile excuses for homo sapiens in their place is good enough for me. It would have taken us no effort to crush them utterly, no? What do you mean? What do you mean it would have been dangerous?”

She developed an angry twitch as she conversed verbally with beings speaking mentally.

“Autarch, the vessel rose to the surface. It was a powerful vessel. We did not engage in pursuit.”

“I know. Navigation told me. But thank you for appearing, Enforcer II, to take the blame.”

In the middle of the womb-like cavity rose a black, crab-legged armored throne upon which sat the exalted Autarch of the Omenseers, known as Arbitrator II. Her current body was still immature, a slender pale figure with red hair longer than herself and a single curled horn on the side of her head. Dressed in a white robe bedecked with biologically luminescent cuticles, a tail twice her size curling around her throne.

At her feet, a pale woman with wavy brown hair kneeled. She had arrived from a sphincter leading down into the lower womb, within which prepared combat bodies were maintained. Her white and black dress had a trim of brown fibers and colored algae and flattered her mature figure. If at present the Autarch appeared like an older teen or younger adult, the creature before her was a middle aged woman.

“Autarch,” Enforcer II began, “Forgive me for the miscalculation, but I’m afraid Dagon is not yet mature enough to rise any further. It was grown in the Agartha, and its body is still soft. It must adapt to the waters of the homo sapiens and must then adapt to the waters farther above. It will take time.”

Arbitrator II rolled her eyes. “Okay but why didn’t we fire at the ship? How mature are the weapons?”

“I’m afraid the bio-cannons have only reached 40% maturity. Missiles are at 50%. Forgive me, milord.”

The Autarch’s voice became slower, deeper, evident of her displeasure. “Hold out your arm. Right now.”

Enforcer II quietly and dutifully outstretched her arm. Arbitrator II did not even move in her seat.

In a split second arm fell from elbow with a violent, bloody discharge as if sliced off.

Blood sprayed in a streak over Enforcer II’s beautiful features. She grimaced, enduring the pain.

On the ground, the severed arm rolled down the pod before the floor itself opened to consume it.

Absorbing the flesh into the surroundings such that it could not be recovered.

“While you reflect upon your gross miscalculations you can restore your arm bit by bit. Dismissed.”

Enforcer II mustered a pained smile and bowed to Arbitrator II, arm still bleeding.

Arbitrator II laid back, sighing. “Oh well. No matter. For now, I’ll just savor the journey.”

Gazing around the kingdom in miniature from which she would survey the “human” world.

Grinning with self-satisfaction. Soon, she knew. Soon, the time of the Syzygy would be upon them.

Dagon glided over the ocean surface, beginning its path through the fringes of human existence.

A great shadow of once-dormant secrets now probing out from within the depths of Aer.

Arbitrator II drummed fingers on her cheek. Idly recalling visions of her previous selves.

She had airy glimpses, passing feelings, of a great history to which she was a crucial part.

“Why hurry, after all? Let’s toy with them a bit. The Titan of Aether has an unchangeable destiny.”


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The Day [4.3]

Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)

There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.

As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.

“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.

Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.

“It’s a beautiful sight.”

“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”

Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.

“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.

Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.

She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.

“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”

“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”

She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.

“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”

Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.

“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.

“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”

Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.

Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.

“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”

“Gertrude?”

“Thank you. I love you, so much.”

Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.

She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.

Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.

Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.

No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.

Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.

And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.

Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.

Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.

There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.

They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.

Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.

“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.

Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”

“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”

“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”

Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.

“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.

“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.

This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.

She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.

“Whoa!”

“Hang on!”

Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!

Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.

On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.

Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.

Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.

“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”

“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”

“Oh my!”

“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”

Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’

But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.

It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.

Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.

And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.

Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.

Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.

She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.

Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.

And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.

Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.

They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.

Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.

They would not have to hide anything.

There were few people to even hide from anyway.

At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.

“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.

She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.

“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”

There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.

“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”

Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.

“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.

“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.

The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.

Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”

“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”

“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”

Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.

One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.

Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.

Before, they would just spend time indoors.

Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.

Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.

“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.

Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.

“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.

“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”

Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.

“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”

“You think something will happen?”

Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.

She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.

Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”

Elena knew that was wishful thinking.

Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.

“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.

She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.

It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.

“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”

Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.

“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”

A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.

Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.

Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.

“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”

Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.


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