National Anthem For The Imbrian Empire of Nocht,
“The Sun’s Blessing.”
Unite! Beneath the banner,
The shining sun above,
With fertile soil and honest toil,
A mighty nation grows
Sun’s blessings do abound,
The greatest land beneath the waves,
Thy enemies be drowned
Our Might! Beneath the banners,
Our glory to uphold,
Through sun-blessed reach, penumbral depths,
Our fleets His’s Peace protect
Sun’s blessings do abound,
The submarines of our great fleet,
Triumph o’er battlegrounds
Sunlight! Beneath the banners,
God’s grace knows no bounds,
From Skarsgaard to Palatine,
The Sovereign’s honor crowned
Sun’s blessings do abound,
God’s grace and King’s prosperity,
With glory for eternity,
The Sovereign’s will resounds!
Rue Skalbeck stood in the middle of the Greater Imbria’s bridge, arms crossed over her chest, teeth grit, waiting. She berated herself. If she had been able to communicate with the entry teams Sawyer would not have had to go out there herself. There was no helping the station’s age and lack of outputs that Rue could use, and the progress of the entry team. Nevertheless, Rue was ready to blame herself if anything happened to Heidelinde Sawyer, rising star of their movement.
She was ready for the excoriating discipline she would receive for her failure.
There was nothing she could do at this point. She felt completely trapped.
Trapped by her own choices, trapped by the developing situation.
“Forward movement is better than stagnation.”
Rue murmured this to herself. She believed it. It was one of her ethos.
Sawyer maybe shared that ethos with her. It was tough to say.
“Captain, lets get closer to the Vogelheim pillar.” Rue said.
From just below her position, the Captain looked up and over his shoulder at her.
“Can you explain this course of action to me, Acting Fuhrer?”
Rue did not quite like the tone of that question. She did not know whether he meant that he wanted to suss out her intentions or if he literally believed she could not explain it to him because she was a genetic inferior. She tried to keep her tone moderated when addressing him in return.
“Closing in on the pillar serves two purposes. It makes it easier for us to extract our men and women when their mission is complete. And when the enemy reinforcements arrive, they may decide to stay their guns if the Greater Imbria is within the firing margin of error of the Station. I believe it is the best place to reform our fleet and prepare our escape route.”
“Strategically, it sounds reasonable. But what about our rescue efforts?”
That response dissipated Rue’s anxieties but brought others to the fore.
Rue shook her head silently at the Captain in response. With a dreadnought coming, they could not hope to rescue anyone except by surrendering and throwing themselves on the enemy’s mercy, which they would never do. Engaging the Irmingard class in battle could be terribly destructive for the flotilla in their disorganized state. They could not hope to attempt it.
The only choice they had left was to abandon the rescue effort.
“Understood.” The Captain turned to his subordinates. “Relay all ships–“
He passed on her commands to the communications officers, who made sure the orders were picked up by the rest of the flotilla. Within minutes the Cruiser and its retinue began to move toward the pillar. There was a new formation diagram on the main screen, and it showed the fleet’s progress toward forming up around the pillar. Rue briefly went back to worrying about Sawyer.
Then, one of the communications officers stood up to face Rue.
“Acting Fuhrer, we’re receiving a communications request from a civilian Frigate that is leaving the Vogelheim pillar through the port. Should I put them through on laser?”
Rue narrowed her eyes. “Put them through. Tell team Dora not to fire on them yet.”
She hid her surprise that the entry teams let anyone escape from the station.
What was going on in Vogelheim? Was it a breakdown of discipline?
Had Sawyer given new orders?
On the screen, a young, foppish man with a heavily manicured mustache and golden hair appeared, dressed in finery. His eyes were red and tears stained his cosmetics. He immediately threw himself upon Rue’s mercy as soon as he saw her appear on the laser video feeed.
“Esteemed commander of these brilliant forces, my name is William von Valwitz, and I was chosen to represent a group of fine gentlemen and ladies who have been caught in these extreme circumstances through no fault of our own. We will gladly sever all ties with the House of Fueller, which has insulted us greatly, in exchange for your mercy. There are fifty aristocrats of high standing on this ship, and their retinues, whom are innocent, and plot no violence.”
Rue narrowed her eyes at him, but smiled at the end of the man’s plea.
“On the mercy of the National Proletariat, I will free you from this predicament, von Valwitz. You and your company go where you will, and do not forget your encounter with the Volkisch Movement. I will require a transfer of your ship roster so we may know the indebted.”
Von Valmitz did not see this as anything but a miracle and a blessing.
“Oh, thank you commander. You are most merciful.”
Within moments, Rue had the entire passenger roster of the aristocrats on her computers.
Rue ended the laser communication with the aristocrat’s frigate.
Briefly and with only vague interest, she glanced over the list.
She then turned to the Captain.
“The National Proletariat has no mercy for backstabbing aristocrats. Open fire.”
There was no pushback from the Captain. He obediently relayed the order.
On the screen, the aristocrats’ frigate appeared. It was close enough that the algorithmic prediction was nearly immaculate. A magnificent curved hull with large pale dome structures over several compartments, affording a view of the sea. It was the sort of beautiful plaything in which rich boys and girls gallivanted across the oceans. There was just enough metal between them and the ocean to protect them from the environment while letting them enjoy themselves as if at home.
Sailing easily out of Vogelheim’s port, the ship turned its broad side to the Volkisch.
This made it a much easier target. There was no chance to miss it and hit the station.
At that moment, the flotilla obeyed its order to fire.
Light gunfire from the frigates pummeled the side of the ship, smashing open the domes, scoring massive gashes on the metal through which water would easily enter. Then the main gun of the Greater Imbria put both rounds on the center of the ship. Enormous vapor bubbles tore open the entire flank of the ship and expelled ground flesh and blood into the Imbrium. There was nothing recognizable of that beautiful ship. A twisted heap of metal descended to the ocean floor.
“There’s the political victory we sorely needed from this excursion.” Rue said.
“Oh? How so?” asked the Captain.
“Erich von Fueller will condemn us for attacking a living station, but we will argue that he was unable to protect the Houses who entrusted their heirs to him for political alliance, and tout our own strength. He might act like a great humanitarian in criticizing our actions, but his infallible mystique will take a blow with the aristocrats, who only care about protecting their own skins.”
“I see. I wonder whether the Sturmbannführer would agree.”
“I believe her actions would have been the same even if her rationale could be different.”
“Yes, I suppose that is ultimately all that matters.”
The Greater Imbria neared the Vogelheim pillar, and the flotilla formed up near the port. While the gun frigates screened the flank, the missile frigates began to extract their divers, who dove back into the missile pods from where they had launched. It had been Sawyer’s idea to use missile frigates in this fashion. They could get the frigates from the collaborators at Rhineland Shipyards but acquiring missiles was a different story. Divers, however, they had a surplus of.
All they needed to do was shave a bit of armor off the rotund Volkers to fit them in.
In one of the stations forward of Rue’s podium, a sonar operator hailed the Acting Fuhrer.
“What is it? Any more surprises?” Rue asked.
“There’s a Diver leaving Vogelheim through the engineering deck. Based on the acoustic signature, I think it’s the Sturmbannführer’s Panzer unit. But ma’am, there’s more. We’re getting a lot of shocks out into the water from the Vogelheim pillar. It sounds like a mess in there.”
“Run an active scan, update the predictive imaging. See if we can get the interior.”
Rue turned from the sonar operator to the Captain with great urgency in her movements.
“Captain, the Sturmbannführer is returning. Focus all efforts on recovering her.”
Once more, the orders went out. A recovery craft was sent out from the Greater Imbria to meet Sawyer and see if she needed a tow or an energy recharge. Meanwhile, some of her bridge personnel began scanning the Vogelheim pillar. They could use its collapse to make an escape.
Rue, who was just standing on the bridge, could not really do anything but give orders. She was not unused to it: she used to be higher up the chain of command than Sawyer, until she joined Sawyer’s mutiny. That was ages ago. But she preferred being the subordinate because she liked to take action. A part of her simply did not trust important business to someone else. Sawyer was a true-blue aristocrat, even as much as she denied it. She found it easy to tell people what to do.
Where she differed, is she would throw a punch too after asking you to throw a punch.
This is why Rue loved– esteemed her greatly, despite everything.
She thought of connecting herself to the cameras outside when an alarm went off.
On the main screen, an algorithmic prediction of an approaching vessel grew larger.
Two objects flashed from the vessel.
By the time they were identified as projectiles, it was too late.
An Irmingard class had fired its main guns at the flotilla.
The Greater Imbria shook. Even in the command pod they felt the ship rock.
“Status report!” Rue shouted.
“Minor breach over Commons. It was automatically remediated, and the area is sealed.”
On the screen, one of the cameras showed an allied frigate sinking, a massive hole through its center. The Greater Imbria had been merely grazed, and the explosion was still bad enough to cause a breach. This was the 203 mm main gun on an Irmingard class. Firepower unlike any other.
“Acting Fuhrer, the Iron Lady wishes to speak with us!” The Captain called out.
“Has the Sturmbannführer been recovered?” Rue replied.
Both the Captain and Rue turned to the communications officer, who stood up in alarm.
“Yes! She’s aboard!”
Rue sighed with relief.
“Ignore the requests for a hail. All ships escape in formation!”
Below her the Captain put on a grim expression.
“Acting Fuhrer, at the moment, the militia frigates are exposed to the enemy’s gunfire.”
“They will die valiantly for the cause of the National Proletariat.”
Rue’s reply silenced the bridge, but nobody pushed back.
The Greater Imbria and the two missile frigates began to round the Vogelheim pillar.
On the exposed flank of the formation, the Frigates, having been given unbearable orders, began to break discipline, and started to move out of formation in whichever direction they desired. This attracted the Iron Lady’s fire even more, as the two Frigates in an unlucky coincidence decided to go separate directions, and thus appeared to be trying a clumsy pincer maneuver.
In the background of the Cruiser Greater Imbria’s retreat, the mighty Irmingard class Dreadnought, The Iron Lady, traded devastating fire with the remaining Frigates, scouring the Volkisch militias off the face of the Imbrium with its unmatched main guns. There was no looking back to it for Rue and her crew. She had planned from the beginning to sacrifice them.
“Any moment now–”
Pinned on one of the screens was the visible condition of Vogelheim.
As the Greater Imbria made its escape, the pillar began to collapse, with the cap sliding down through the broken eastern wall that was unable to bear its weight any longer. This was an event of monumental force, as thousands of tons of metal displaced water and kicked up debris. A vast underwater wave spread out from the pillar and scattered the remains of the frigates, the patrol cutters, and any other surrounding structures. Even inside the stabilized rooms of the Greater Imbria the disturbance was readily felt, and it was as if there was an earthquake within the ship.
“Status report!” Rue shouted, clinging to Sawyer’s chair behind her, nearly falling.
One of the bridge girls shouted back at her, holding on to her station monitor.
“Some electronics and sensor damage, propulsion is still 100%! Hull is holding up!”
Within seconds, the shaking stopped. Collectively the crew breathed sighs of relief.
“Set a course south! We need to escape pursuit!” Rue shouted.
She spared no more time for the bridge. She wanted run down to the hangar.
She wanted to see Sawyer.
When she turned to leave, however, the Captain of the ship stood up.
“Unterführer Rue Skallbeck. I wish to say something, ma’am.”
A thrill of anxiety ran down Rue’s spine like electricity. She turned around to meet him.
“What is it, Captain?”
He looked serious at first. But then the older gentleman smiled at her.
“There are people within our movement who would view you as an inferior. But your will to survive and your ruthlessness in battle are second only to Fuhrer Sawyer herself. It has been enlightening to serve under you.”
Suddenly, the Captain saluted her.
“For all our comrades who gave their lives for our great cause! Heil!”
Everyone watching, who was not involved in an essential task, joined the salute also.
Rue did not know how to feel about it. She felt a pang of horror, but also satisfaction.
Which of the disparate things this “movement” stood for did they all believe?
All Rue believed in was moving forward. That the world needed to change.
To her, the Volkisch dream was completely amorphous and borderline incoherent.
All she wanted was the force of their arms. And she had finally wielded it today.
To push the stagnant, dispossessed people of Imbria to some kind of end of this history.
Nevertheless, she saluted them back, told them to be at ease, and left the bridge.
She had a bitter taste in her mouth. She knew she had plenty of blood on her hands. There was nothing she could do but move forward. Rue had made her choice during Sawyer’s mutiny.
Down at the hangar, she found a curious scene. There were medics and engineers around Sawyer, extracting her from the Panzer. Her Diver had taken an enormous beating. Sawyer herself looked undignified. She was still and unconscious but with wide, blank eyes and a clenched jaw.
Rue joined the side of the medical team, who had her stabilized in that strange condition.
“It’s so unfair of you to check out and leave everything on my shoulders.” She murmured.
She sighed, and bent down, between the medics. She reached down to close Sawyer’s eyes.
“You started this whole mess. But maybe I’m the bigger fool for following you into it.”
Rue thought she saw the corner of Sawyer’s lip curl into a little smile at her touch.
For this woman, and the violence she wrought for her ideals, Rue made her choice.
“An unfortunate amount of time has passed without word from her.”
On a mission far from its home, the Cruiser El Dragon meandered through the waters on the borders between the Palatinate, Bosporus, Rhinea and Sverland for hours, swimming in a circle at maximum velocity and keeping an eye for enemies. Commercial traffic was stalled. News was getting out about Vogelheim; the waters were dead silent. Careful to avoid the verboten Khyber Mountain region, they waited for the ship’s commander to return. Hopes were beginning to dim.
On the bridge, the captain, an older man with a heavy white beard, was quite pessimistic.
“Our spy drone saw the station in ruins. It’s crawling with Inquisition forces too.”
“Have faith in her. She’s special. That girl will always, assuredly, return to her beloved.”
At his side, his First Officer, a certain young Lieutenant, tried to keep everyone cheerful.
“Nephew you’re too romantic. I think you picked a losing horse in this race.”
“You’ve always had a poor aptitude for picking horses. At any rate, if we return without the duchess’ favorite, your gambling debts will be pardoned by having you drawn and quartered. So, I suggest you keep a cheerful mood, as I do, since our lives depend on a cheerful outcome.”
“Mijo, do you really think she would do that? To an old man like me?”
“Is her rise to power not predicated on egalitarianism? That’s why I follow her. I would not expect her to have mercy for you based on such outdated norms. I would die by her hand as a young man and you would die by her hand as an old man. Maybe even Seneca, a woman in her golden years, will also be struck down as an accomplice. It is what I would call justice.”
At that point, the communications officer raised her head, having heard name spoken.
“Keep me out of your ridiculous discussions! And I’m only 34, so have some decency!”
In this way, she inadvertently joined the ridiculous discussion in the center of the bridge.
They whiled away their time in this fashion, waiting for their special charge to return.
Finally, the computers sounded the return of their brave little hope.
“Captain, we have detected an object approaching. Its acoustic signature matches a Jagd.”
The Captain’s sleepy expression suddenly lit up.
“Confirm it’s her, and bring her in!”
No rescue mission was launched, however.
The Jagd was moving under its own power and made its way to the underside chutes.
Unable to climb up due to a missing arm and dying battery, the Jagd sought assistance. Once it entered the chute, and the opening was closed, drained and pressurized appropriately, a group of engineers lifted the machine up with a pair of cranes and deposited it on the appropriate gantry in the Diver hangar. Due to damage it had suffered, the cockpit hatch was also stuck.
The First Officer came down from the bridge in time to watch the engineers deploy and engage a massive pneumatic arm to pry open the Jagd’s hatches using one of the chassis handholds. When the hatches finally opened, a girl tumbled out of the opening and into the waiting arms of medics who had been instructing her as the engineers worked out how to open the hatches.
She was a young Shimii, olive-skinned, brown-haired. Soaked in sweat, one side of her head was caked in blood that had run just below one ear, down the forehead and over her cheek. She had a bruise in her neck that was the precise shape of a punch-injector of stimulant drugs. Her eyes were hazy and distant, her movements clumsy. She was disheveled: her hair was half done up in one pigtail, and the rest shaken loose, not of her own accord. Her dress had a rip in it, perhaps where it caught on something in the cockpit.
Though she could barely stand, she saw the First Officer approach, and saluted.
“Victoria van Veka has returned.” She said weakly.
“Welcome back.” He said, smiling at her.
“I am afraid the mission was not a success. Vogelheim has been destroyed.”
“We saw it for ourselves. That said, I wouldn’t declare it unsuccessful.” He looked over the machine. “I wager you gave them a black eye, didn’t you?”
Victoria felt prompted by him to look at the Jagd as well. “Perhaps I did.”
She turned back to him, feeling slightly appreciative of his words.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Might I have your name?” She asked.
He ran a hand through his blond hair, beaming broadly.
“Raul von Drachen.”
“Von Drachen. I appreciate your kindness towards a girl at a low point.”
“I like to think of myself as an ally to girls.” He said. “You should hurry to the infirmary and rest.”
Victoria had been holding up admirably since coming out of the Jagd, but still fading.
Perhaps it was the relief of going home, or the fact that she was among friends, but Victoria began to teeter almost as soon as von Drachen suggested she rest. One of the medics had been watching her, and quickly swooped in and grabbed hold of her when she looked like she would drop completely. She was utterly exhausted, and the medics took her away quickly after that.
Raul von Drachen remained in the hangar, staring at the broken-down Jagd for a moment.
“These are interesting times we find ourselves in.” He said, with a grin on his face.
An ominous wave was sweeping through the oceans.
He could feel it.
Though she could not let herself voice her horror, there was only one word running through Gertrude Lichtenberg’s mind at that point.
No, no, no.
Her face drained of color, and her eyes drew wide.
She was not alone. Captain Dreschner was also horrified at the state in which they found the Vogelheim pillar. On the main screen, the imaging computers showed them dreadful sights before they had even come close. Behind the battered remains of the cutters and frigates floating eerily.
That beautiful sanctuary where Elena von Fueller led her storybook life was ruined completely. There was a cloud of debris that had been thrown into the surrounding water by the shock of the pillar half-collapsing on itself. She could not describe it as anything but rubble. Her beloved Elena’s home had been reduced to rubble. Gertrude’s heart caught in her chest.
Her head felt airy, her brain in a fog, as though everything was a bad dream. She felt like she was piloting her own body like a diver, rather than being present. Noises felt like they were being filtered. Her vision was foggy.
At all times, however, she was conscious that it was real. All of it was real.
Because she could not ignore the cold, squeezing pain she felt in her chest.
She could not cry. Not in front of the men.
But she wanted so dearly to break down.
She wanted to blame herself, to beat her head against a wall bloody, to scream and punch until her fingers broke. She wanted to say she was so stupid to have left. That she should have just taken Elena. That she should have known that the Imbrium could not return to order after all that had happened. She had been so naïve, and now Elena was– no, she would not say it! She refused.
“Captain, launch a search party. Now.”
Her voice trembled. It felt distant, like it was coming out of the floor.
“Of course. Right away.” Dreschner said.
She can’t be dead.
Gertrude could not conceive of it.
Elena could not have been dead. That would have meant she failed her. She left her alone to face annihilation. She turned back as fast as she could, and she could not have been too late to save her. Gertrude refused to believe that Elena was buried in that rubble due to her own failures. She had promised to protect her. She had made herself into a soldier to protect her.
All of her life, Elena had been her star, her sun. Her idol of warmth and comfort.
Gertrude’s breathing quickened.
It was not possible that everything would end so pointlessly.
So suddenly and senselessly. After they had finally consummated their love.
It couldn’t be that, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Elena could be gone forever.
Her fists, curled tight at her sides, started to shake.
She could not control the tapping of her feet, the clenching of her jaw.
It was all she could do to fight the tears welling up in her eyes.
Gertrude had been shot and stabbed. She’d been caught in explosions and gas attacks.
All kinds of pain, she had withstood it, to protect Elena and her ocean.
She had wounds on her body that were fresh and healing even as the two made love.
Telling herself that if she could get back to Elena for even a moment, it would be bearable.
That this was the only way she could be with Elena for any amount of time.
Now she was wracked by the greatest agony she had ever felt.
She wanted so badly to cry that despite all of her effort tears began to flow.
At her side, Captain Dreschner said nothing, but pulled his hat down over his own eyes.
“Järveläinen and Clostermann have deployed in the Jagd and Grenadier.” He said.
Gertrude said nothing. She did not wish to speak. She did not wish to be seen by anyone.
She stood in the middle of the bridge like a statue, staring at the monitors, silent.
One of the sensors personnel spoke up to the Captain. She had a professional tone of voice. There was no shouting and panicking on their bridge. That was part of what kept Gertrude mum.
“Moving vessel on sonar and ladar, Captain, Lady Inquisitor.” She said.
“Track it. We’ll get closer. Any algorithmic predictions?” Dreschner asked.
“An older model of civilian ship. Maybe a shuttle. Could maybe hold 40 people in some measure of comfort, or 80 if they just crammed bodies.”
“A shuttle? Let us pray it is friendly, and not more Volkisch chicanery.” Dreshner said.
Thus, methodically, with neither hope nor dread, the crew of the Iron Lady sailed their vessel stoically toward the source of the signature, around the Vogelheim pillar. The closer they got, the more accurate the picture of the devastation they could see. It was very rare to see damage to a station to this degree. Some among the bridge crew wiped tears from their eyes or covered their mouths as they beheld the extent of it. Stations were built extremely tough, even backwater art projects like Vogelheim.
Survival under the sea depended on a degree of mechanical reliability and routine maintenance, coupled with exhaustive training of dedicated engineers, that made such devastation vanishingly rare. If it happened, it was never a deliberate tragedy, but a series of unlucky circumstances. All of Aer’s civilizations had a shared taboo surrounding station damage. Terrorists and saboteurs killed and hurt people; military forces fought people, and if they had to, they occupied their homes to control them.
Nobody would just shoot at a station.
Nobody would just destroy a station deliberately.
Not even that animal Sawyer could have been so bloodthirsty.
The Volkisch flotilla themselves had not accepted her communications.
However, they had talked with the patrol fleet.
That information was disseminated following the patrol fleet’s call for reinforcements. Gertrude was fully aware of the culprit of this tragedy.
Her old schoolmate Heidelinde Sawyer. Their relationship was characterized mainly by the word ‘almost.’ Sawyer was almost as tall as her, almost as strong. She was almost Elena’s crush in school, for reasons that still escaped Gertrude. She could almost see something in her worth that attention, but not quite. All the times they came to blows; Sawyer almost got her before Gertrude knocked her down. She was almost her friend, and she thought, before they were separated, that they had almost come to an understanding. When she left them, Gertrude almost felt pity for her.
Everything she had done since then, however, was not almost, but fully monstrous.
Gertrude squeezed her fists so tight she thought her fingers might go through her palm.
From grief, Gertrude’s thoughts immediately flowed into vengeance. She thought of all the things she would do to Sawyer in some dark, desolate room at the bottom of the ocean. If Elena was dead (she could not be dead), she would make Sawyer unrecognizable, nothing but a lump of meat screaming soundlessly in agony for as long as it took before she wasted away to hell–
“We’re at the site! I’ve got a drone set up. You won’t like what we see.”
On the main screen, Ingrid appeared in her pilot suit. Her ears drooped; her tail twitched pathetically.
They had gone out in Divers. They must have entered the Vogelheim ruins.
They had taken a wired drone with them with a direct connection to the ship.
As long as the cable didn’t snag on anything, it let them connect via laser back to the ship.
That drone’s main body was also equipped with a suite of sensors and imaging equipment. It could send them predictive pictures of the Vogelheim landscape in a way the mechas could not. This made it a valuable addition to the reconnaissance team. Soon, they got those pictures moving.
When the drone began to broadcast, Ingrid vanished from the main screen. Replacing her was a camera feed from the drone. Clostermann was holding the drone with the arms of his Grenadier model. At first the drone was pointed at Ingrid’s Jagd, but then Clostermann moved it, sweeping slowly across the sunken landscape of Vogelheim. It was eerie. In many places the earth had been moved, massive gashes cut into the hills and plains where water had flooded directly through. In other areas, it was preserved underwater. Sunken trees swayed their arms to the gentle flow of the water around them. A field of roses and tulips now cast in dim blue and green.
Wreckage, of several mecha it seemed, shattered and scattered about the landscape.
And the rubble that remained of the Villa, distinctive in its ornate style.
“No survivors so far.” Ingrid said.
Dreschner nodded solemnly. Ingrid could see it through her video feed.
“Continue searching. We want as much footage as we can collect of this tragedy.”
“Yessir. I’ll go poke at the remains of the mechas. There might be a sealed cockpit.”
Ingrid was taking things in stride. She did not look too troubled by the situation.
“If you find any Volkisch, remember they are under arrest.” Dreschner said.
“Of course, I won’t kill ‘em! Getting drilled into is too good for them. We gotta get ‘em nice and slow, Captain. You leave me with them, I’ll make them sing the anthem.” Ingrid said.
Dreschner sighed. “Duly noted. But enough chatter. Carry on with your orders.”
In expressing her own quiet fury, Ingrid almost comforted Gertrude.
At least Gertrude was not the only one whose head was filling with vengeful atrocities.
Once the drone’s video feed departed the main screen, and Ingrid and Clostermann returned to their exploration, there was another familiar face, appearing on the central island of the bridge. Security Chief Vogt appeared on a smaller screen attached to the Captain’s position but angled so the Inquisitor could be part of the call as well. He was in the hangar surrounded by his forces.
“Captain, Inquisitor; we’re securing the shuttle that was detected earlier.”
“We’ve received no communications from them.” Dreschner said.
Vogt nodded. “If they were near the pillar collapse, their comms gear may be damaged. Judging by their course, they have been drifting around the pillar without much real power.”
“Alright. Be careful.” Dreschner said.
“I’d appreciate the Lady Grand Inquisitor’s presence at the hangar.” Vogt said before the Captain could end the call. “If it turns out to be a Volkisch escape craft, I’m afraid the lads may need a figure of authority to remind them of their discipline. Emotions are at their peak in here.”
Gertrude grit her teeth behind closed lips.
She would not be the one telling her forces not to rip apart any of those conspiracist psychopaths they got their hands on. But nevertheless, she quietly acquiesced, turning her back on Dreschner so sharply her cape swung behind her. Though Dreschner seemed like he wanted to say something to her, Gertrude barely heard as she departed.
Alone, her head filled with a mixture of sorrows and furies, Gertrude walked the corridors of the Iron Lady, taking the elevator down, imagining what could be in that ship. Maybe Elena had managed to escape (she could not be dead). Maybe it was full of Volkisch, and the moment her men rioted and began to brutalize them, Gertrude would join them in breaking the norms bloody. Maybe it was entirely unrelated, and she was building up to absolutely nothing.
Once she was alone in the elevator, Gertrude let herself weep.
She hugged her arms around herself, and she sobbed, and cried into her own gloved hand.
Thirty or forty seconds worth of grieving. That was all she let herself have.
When those doors opened, Gertrude took a deep breath and wiped her face.
Down in the hangar, Vogt had a dozen men with him. Vogt himself had brought an automatic shotgun that was armed with pellet shot, deadly to a crowd but fairly harmless to the instruments inside the ship. Six of his men had riot shields, four had vibro-batons and two had vibro-blades. He had not trusted any of his rank and file with firearms themselves.
Shuttle craft were uncomfortable and poorly hydrodynamic but built to carry many people. A Dreadnought could bear a few of these vessels. The very back of the hangar was built for it. Like a Diver, a shuttle would swim into a hatch on the Dreadnought’s underside, where it would enter a deployment and recovery chamber that would be drained and pressurized. Then it was safely raised onto its place in the main hangar space.
For extra security, a dreadnought’s hangar had a sectioned glass divider that would unfold from the roof and clamp into the floor between the shuttle bay and the rest of the hangar space. It could stop water from flooding anywhere else. Once the shuttle was recovered, Vogt had the glass lifted, and Gertrude and the men approached the craft. She waited for the rear hatch to open, wondering whom she would see escaping from it.
Instead, however, one of the side bulkhead doors to the shuttle clanked open. From the craft emerged several girls, breathing heavily, crying with joy at being rescued. All of them were dressed in black with white aprons.
They were the Villa’s maids, shaken, but whole and alive.
Gertrude’s heart exploded with sudden relief.
She rushed from the side of the men over to the girls and past them. She looked inside the shuttle craft herself with a desperate urgency. She climbed one step into the shuttle compartment. There were all kinds of people inside, huddling, many exhausted from lack of oxygen.
Not one lilac hair, not one pair of indigo eyes.
She found no trace of Elena.
In that instant her heart sank ever deeper. As high as it had soared, it crashed. Then, she heard a voice. A series of girlish voices, calling her.
“Lady Lichtenberg! Inquisitor Lichtenberg!”
Dazed with shock and grief, Gertrude looked behind herself, her eyes distant, her mouth hanging a little. There were three maids. One had a dirty apron; she looked like she had spat up on herself. She had two others supporting her. Together, the three of them approached Gertrude. At first, they stared just as dumbly as Gertrude stared at them.
Then they gained the courage to speak.
“The Princess is alive! She’s alive, we know it! We saw her be taken!”
“We know you were her dear friend! We helped you at the party. When you came running, we understood. We know you must be hurting now. Please do not despair! A strange woman took her! She was not in the collapse!”
For a moment Gertrude could not comprehend what she was hearing. Then, her heart alight with sorrow, fury, brief and elation all together, she put her hands gently on the shoulders of one of the maids. She could contain the tears in her eyes or the shaking in her hands anymore.
“Tell me everything you know. Please.” She said desperately.
“Rootless children of Imbria! Throw your bodies before the fires of war!”
“For what else are you good for? What other value do you hold?”
No voice said this that the people of the Imbrium ocean would recognize.
But overwhelmingly this was what the world was screaming at them.
A wave swept across the Imbrium Empire that began as the pillar of Vogelheim collapsed upon itself from a Volkisch gun. News of the attack began to trickle out, first from the panicked cries of the patrolmen, then from the stories of survivors, and finally the official condemnation from Erich von Fueller, heir apparent to the throne of the Imbrium Empire.
Each territory of the Empire knew the status quo could no longer be maintained by the delusion of a shared history.
And so, as invisibly as they were first created, the boundaries of the Empire were dissolved.
Rhinea became a “National-Socialist Republic.”
Skarsgaard styled itself “The Holy Empire of Solsea.”
From the Imbrium’s eastern borders rose the “Empire of Greater Veka.”
Bosporus’ youth led a wave of anarchist upheaval on lands stolen from the Shimii.
Icy, impenetrable Volgia closed its borders hoping to withstand the tide of history.
Militarily beheaded, Sverland gathered misfits and refugees from all over.
Buren shocked the world by declaring its intention to join the mordecist Union.
Only the Palatinate, mourning Vogelheim, still dubbed itself “The Imbrian Empire.”
Across the Imbrium, a people whose food grew scarcer, whose shelter they stood to lose, whose hard work earned ever more meager dividends, who saw nothing ahead of themselves already, now lost the last measure of security their lives had. Quietly, despondently, they watched as the very nations and institutions they were trained to exalt above all else simply disintegrated around them. For the average Imbrian, it was impossible to connect all the dots and truly grasp what was happening. To them, war was a thrumming under their skin, a creeping dread in the back of their heads. Life seemed to go on all around them with an eerie shadow across their sky.
Somewhere battles would be fought and won and lost that decided matters unknown.
Sometimes resources grew scarcer and the list of materiel sacrifices grew longer.
Sometimes bodies that were once people disappeared, for one reason or another.
Somehow the simple inertia of organic needs kept life moving on with surreal normalcy.
Ships came and went. Goods were bought and sold. People lived, played, and loved.
While the status of the borders was unknown, cargo continued to move quietly along its prescribed routes. Owing to the invisible momentum of corporate profits, a ship could still travel from Bosporus to Sverland, ferrying industrial goods to Serrano station — and one unmarked crate. An unmarked crate that, at its destination, would be quietly moved to a new ship by the organized dockworkers who knew what they were doing with it. Dockworkers who quite well did what they pleased with Serrano’s port on threat of stalling Sverland’s teetering economy with a strike.
At least, that was the plan upon which Marina McKennedy’s escape hinged.
As she sailed with the cargo ship, stowing away with a complicit crew, she remained in the cargo bay looking out onto the ocean through a digital window. She was no longer in the Imbrium Ocean but in the southern reaches of the world, known as Nectaris. That name had been given to this Ocean by the Imbrians who settled massive resource colonies there using slave labor, that would render them the sweet nectar of profit and cheap goods that would usher in a new golden era for the Empire.
Her destination was the Union. An aberration of the Empire’s invincible history.
Perhaps even the spark that precipitated the utter undoing of the Empire’s contiguity.
A nation a third of the size of the broader Empire that still stood in brave opposition to it.
Though, of course, more than a week out from the tragedy of Vogelheim, and more removed than that from the death Emperor Konstantin von Fueller, the idea of a “broader Empire” had become pretty blurry at that point. There was all sorts of mess happening that she could barely keep up with on the news. But cargo ships were still running, so it must not have been so terrible, she supposed.
Everywhere she looked, however, the ocean still seemed the same.
Dark, blue and green, and impossible to see through.
“I’m going to go pace around or something before I go crazy.”
“If you need something to do, lets go over the plan one more time–”
There was no response from Elena von Fueller as she stormed off around the crates.
Marina had dyed Elena’s hair black and given her a matching gray pantsuit to wear in order to disguise her. When anyone complicit asked who she was, Marina told them she was a G.I.A. analyst just like herself. When they had to talk to civilians, she was nobody. She had not even picked a fake name, despite ample time and multiple suggestions, much to Marina’s vexation.
“How about Leda?” Marina suggested.
“Go fuck yourself.” Elena shouted back.
That had been the result of the last such conversation.
They had not spoken much and every time they did, Marina hardly knew what to say.
So, most of the time, they said nothing to each other.
Elena continued to follow her. And Marina was content enough with that outcome.
When they finally had some peace and could settle down, Marina would try to fix things.
That’s what she told herself whenever Elena had one of her furies.
Until then she just needed to move on. Marina had moved on; she had to, for Elena’s sake.
“That’s an interesting ship.”
As they approached Serrano station, Marina caught sight of a ship anchored to one of the lower docks as their own cargo ship searched for its own anchor point. It was an old hauler, she thought, the kind of ship that had a lot of character, and had probably taken a beating across the decades. That thick, unadorned prow was a bit odd — maybe it had been an icebreaker in Volgia in a past life. That angular profile probably suggested fairly expedient construction.
“You get all kinds down here, huh? I guess Sverland is an island of peace right now.”
An island of peace amid the storm of brewing civil war.
And only because its own government was just too weak to have any ambitions.
Or maybe because nobody had figured out how to conduct this war quite yet.
Marina thought it would’ve been morbidly funny if they needed another catalyst now.
Vogelheim wasn’t enough — the next provocation will tip things over.
She cracked a dumb little smile and she didn’t even know what for.
When the cargo ship docked into Serrano, a member of the crew ushered Marina and Elena into a crate. In silence and darkness, the pair waited, while their environment shook around them. That crate, along with the crate carrying Marina’s S.E.A.L, was moved to a warehouse in the port by labor suits. Once everything was properly warehoused and discretely inventoried, they cracked open Marina’s crate and let her out. With that, she and Elena had just illegally entered Serrano.
“Thanks for the help.” Marina said.
In the warehouse, she met a member of the crew and one of the dockworkers.
Both of them looked briefly around themselves then got to business.
“You’ll be leaving again today, with your cargo. We just need to know the ship that you’ll be taking. We don’t organize any of that, but we got a guy. He sets the itinerary. You go to him, you come back here, you tell us where to move the cargo, and then you’re out again. Nobody knows anything they don’t need to, and nobody messes with each other’s business.”
Marina nodded. “Where’s this guy located?” She asked.
“He’s in Long-Term Warehousing No. 6. It’s on this tier, deeper into the city. Call him Benny, he runs the front office. He’ll know you. Just tell him the last station you were at before.”
There was no tension between anybody, despite the nature of their business. Everyone was professional, direct, and their heads ran cool. It was almost chummy. Marina got the sense that this was pretty routine for the dockworkers and the crews they smuggled with. They had been running this operation for a while and had everything down to a science. Unless there was a big shakeup in security or someone made a grievous mistake, these guys could just keep doing this forever.
When she walked out of the warehouse it was with a renewed confidence.
Everything was going to be just fine.
“How are you feeling? Ever been to a Station like this before?”
Marina glanced sideways at Elena, who was staring up at the sky with wide-eyed wonder.
“Of course, I’ve been to them, but–”
“Never to the lower level?”
Serrano was a tiered, pillar-type city. Unlike Vogelheim, they did not waste real estate by simulating a massive artificial sky. Instead, up above they could see the bottom of the next tier of habitations, maybe 80-100 meters up. Serrano was an enormous station, and had three tiers of habitat and two ports. With its base some 1200 meters beneath the Nectaris, it rose up to around the 800-meter line to the surface. Still perfectly safe, but thoroughly massive.
Light was provided mainly on the street level of each tier, with some hovering fixtures farther above simulating a slightly broader “daytime” light that still held no candle to the idyllic brightness of Vogelheim. Marina supposed the upper tiers were probably nicer and brighter than the lower. On the bottom tier, outside the port, the layout took the form of a somewhat crowded urban core. There were hundreds of streets and alleys that wound around rectangular buildings of nearly identical, mass-produced construction that loomed overhead like concrete and steel giants. Video signs were plastered everywhere to advertise shops and businesses small and large, shining colorful lights and singing catchy slogans. Everything was so busy. There was nowhere without a crowd.
Elena looked quite ridiculous with her innocent, gawping face paired with her pantsuit and tie.
“Try not to stare quite so much.” Marina said, as they walked through the crowd.
“What do all these people do? Where do they go?” Elena said, overwhelmed by the sight.
“What are you asking me for? To their jobs. To go buy food. To get out of town.”
“I’m asking you because you’re my escort! Because of your own schemes, you bastard!”
In response, Elena turned her head away in a huff. At least she didn’t take off running.
Marina sighed a little bit. She did not know why she had gotten so impatient.
“Hey, look, I’m sorry El– Ellie, I’m a little bit on edge about everything–”
Elena shot her a furious glare.
“Go to hell.”
She said nothing the rest of the way to the warehouse.
Breaking up the landscape of looming eight and ten story buildings was a park full of very wide warehousing buildings that were fenced off and lower to the ground. Marina found the one with the “no. 6” label in big yellow letters and made her way to its front office. It was a sleepy place. There seemed to be a few workers outside the other warehouses, but almost nobody at the sixth one. There was a labor suit parked outside that looked like it was collecting dust.
“Good morning! We’re here from Pluto station, to see about a ship?”
Marina walked in through the front door. Elena despondently followed.
Warehouse No. 6’s front office was entirely plain. A boxy room with a few chairs that folded out of the wall, a single long desk, a poster on the wall that explained the “cargo cycle” as if it was an organic, circular process. A tantalizing door into a dark room. There was nobody at the desk until Marina called out, then an unassuming older man in a work vest walked out to the desk.
“Pluto station? Yeah, I was expecting you. I’m Benny.”
He reached out a hand and gave Marina a firm shake.
“You got a strong shake for a lady! Ever thought of giving up all the subterfuge and going into logistics? It’s honest work, nobody bothers you, and you get to see all kinds of stuff come in.”
“Not interested.” Marina said quickly. She didn’t want to chit-chat or listen to an old man’s jokes. “I’d like to move quickly, if that’s alright with you.”
“No time for a coffee?”
He smiled affably. Marina narrowed her eyes at him.
“Who’s that back there? Want me to explain the poster?”
Marina glanced back at Elena, who was deep in contemplation of the poster of the wall. Benny smiled at her and tried to direct attention to her.
This was much too obvious.
“She’s fine.” Marina said bluntly. “Benny, why are you wasting my time?”
As collected as he looked, Marina saw through the façade immediately.
He was clearly stalling. She reached her hand behind her back for her gun.
“Whoa, whoa!” Benny said. “Okay! Look. You just have to wait a bit– There’s been a bit of a change of plans– but you still have a ride out of here. You just need to wait a bit longer, and I’ll get you out of here, I promise.”
“Change of plans?”
Marina reached across the desk and grabbed Benny by the neck.
“What changed about the plans, Benny? Go over it with me.”
Elena looked taken aback by the sudden violence.
“M-Marina! That’s a bit much isn’t it? He said he still has a ship for us!”
“Don’t call me that!” Marina shouted back at her.
In that moment, squeezing some random warehouse worker’s neck while screaming at the Princess really made Marina hate herself. Not that she could do anything different. This just seemed to be her lot in life; already, nothing was going according to plan. Her heart was drumming to a frightening beat. She needed to know what had gone wrong and how.
Marina shoved him back against the wall.
“Okay! Cooler heads, please!” Benny grabbed hold of his neck, breathing rapidly. “We had a ship lined up to smuggle a bunch of stuff to the Union including you. We do this all the time. All kinda people want to get down there or up here. But the ship got stopped on the way. That also happens all the time! It doesn’t mean anything to you, they don’t know who you are!”
He was trying to calm her down, and Marina did not believe any of that.
“Benny, what do you mean the ship was stopped?”
“You sound so dangerous! Look, there’s a lot of security with the present situation. All our crews know what to do when they get inspected, and the ship is clean. It’s when it gets here that it gets dirty, so all it is, is that it’s late. I’m getting you a new ride, that is gonna be here on time. I promise you!”
Marina breathed out.
If it was just that, then maybe she had nothing to worry about.
“I paid a lot of money for professional smuggling down to the border.”
“These guys are more than professionals, okay?”
“I’m really skeptical right now, Benny.”
Benny had a nervous excitement in his voice that Marina didn’t like at all.
“Listen, you won’t regret this one, ok? This is fresh information, so you’re in luck. Just listen here: there’s a Union ship that just arrived at the port, and you can get on board, no extra charges. That’s how communists do business, you know? Everything already got worked out between us.” He said.
Marina crossed her arms. “I thought the smuggling here was all done by private ships?”
“Sometimes the Union sneaks themselves across. They got spies and such, you know?”
“Okay, so these are Union spies?”
“These are some real deal Union commissars. Forgive my language, but real spec-ops motherfuckers, you know? You won’t meet anyone more elite.”
“Why are you marketing them to me? How do you even know all of this?”
Benny looked briefly taken aback at Marina’s constant skepticism.
“I’m trying to get you to calm down so you won’t do anything crazy!”
Marina moved on to the next phase of intimidation and took her gun out.
She slammed her hand, with the gun, on the front desk. She leaned forward.
“How the hell am I supposed to trust you? The ship that was SUPPOSED to take me south has suddenly disappeared, but just as suddenly you’ve got a new ship, that just came in? Just what the fuck is the Union doing down here, Benny? What kind of operation are YOU running out of this dump?”
Benny raised in his hands in his own defense.
“Look, I’m just one part of a chain, ok? I don’t have all the answers. I’m someone’s guy, and someone’s my guy. I’m telling you all I know, because it’s all I was told. That’s how we do business here. Now me, I’m here because I’m good at de-escalation. So, I’ll tell you this: if you want to get out of here, today, or ever, just sit tight and wait for the nice commies to show up.”
Elena stomped her foot on the ground at that point.
Both Benny and Marina looked over to her with surprise.
“Mari– Mary–” Elena began.
Marina groaned. “That’s not even the right–”
“Mary, please stop fighting with the gentleman, it’s getting us nowhere.”
Benny pointed at Elena with a grin.
“Listen to the girl. Good head on her shoulders, that one.”
Marina ignored the interruption.
“Why are Union special operations coming to this trash heap?”
“They’re picking up something!” Benny said. “They can pick you up too!”
“What something are they picking up? This makes no goddamn sense!”
“I’m not gonna tell you about their business! Ask them when they show up.”
“Stop fighting!” Elena shouted.
At that moment, the office door opened again.
“Good morning! We’re here to pick up?”
Through the door entered three women in the same uniform, a teal half-jacket over a button-down shirt and long pants. One was clearly in front of the pack, a tall, dark-haired and dark-skinned young woman with an awkward smile. Behind her, unsmiling, was a younger woman with long white hair, and a third inexpressive woman with a spiraling silver ponytail and a pair of thick grey antennae. All three barged into the office quite suddenly, stopped, and stared at the occupants for a few moments.
“Um. I’m Murati,” the taller one said, “I mean– I came from Cyril station!”