The Day [4.10]

National Anthem For The Imbrian Empire of Nocht,

“The Sun’s Blessing.”

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

Imbria!
Imbria!

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

Imbria!
Imbria!

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

Imbria!
Imbria!

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


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

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

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

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

“Forward movement is better than stagnation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had Sawyer given new orders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She then turned to the Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? How so?” asked the Captain.

Rue grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two objects flashed from the vessel.

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

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

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

“Status report!” Rue shouted.

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

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

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

“Has the Sturmbannführer been recovered?” Rue replied.

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

“Yes! She’s aboard!” 

Rue sighed with relief.

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

Below her the Captain put on a grim expression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any moment now–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wanted to see Sawyer.

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

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

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

“What is it, Captain?”

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

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

Suddenly, the Captain saluted her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For this woman, and the violence she wrought for her ideals, Rue made her choice.


“An unfortunate amount of time has passed without word from her.”

On a mission far from its home, the Cruiser El Dragon meandered through the waters on the borders between the Palatinate, Bosporus, Rhinea and Sverland for hours, swimming in a circle at maximum velocity and keeping an eye for enemies. Commercial traffic was stalled. News was getting out about Vogelheim; the waters were dead silent. Careful to avoid the verboten Khyber Mountain region, they waited for the ship’s commander to return. Hopes were beginning to dim.

On the bridge, the captain, an older man with a heavy white beard, was quite pessimistic.

“Our spy drone saw the station in ruins. It’s crawling with Inquisition forces too.”

“Have faith in her. She’s special. That girl will always, assuredly, return to her beloved.”

At his side, his First Officer, a certain young Lieutenant, tried to keep everyone cheerful.

“Nephew you’re too romantic. I think you picked a losing horse in this race.”

“You’ve always had a poor aptitude for picking horses. At any rate, if we return without the duchess’ favorite, your gambling debts will be pardoned by having you drawn and quartered. So, I suggest you keep a cheerful mood, as I do, since our lives depend on a cheerful outcome.”

Mijo, do you really think she would do that? To an old man like me?”

“Is her rise to power not predicated on egalitarianism? That’s why I follow her. I would not expect her to have mercy for you based on such outdated norms. I would die by her hand as a young man and you would die by her hand as an old man. Maybe even Seneca, a woman in her golden years, will also be struck down as an accomplice. It is what I would call justice.”

At that point, the communications officer raised her head, having heard name spoken.

“Keep me out of your ridiculous discussions! And I’m only 34, so have some decency!”

In this way, she inadvertently joined the ridiculous discussion in the center of the bridge.

They whiled away their time in this fashion, waiting for their special charge to return.

Finally, the computers sounded the return of their brave little hope.

 “Captain, we have detected an object approaching. Its acoustic signature matches a Jagd.”

The Captain’s sleepy expression suddenly lit up.

“Confirm it’s her, and bring her in!”

No rescue mission was launched, however.

The Jagd was moving under its own power and made its way to the underside chutes.

Unable to climb up due to a missing arm and dying battery, the Jagd sought assistance. Once it entered the chute, and the opening was closed, drained and pressurized appropriately, a group of engineers lifted the machine up with a pair of cranes and deposited it on the appropriate gantry in the Diver hangar. Due to damage it had suffered, the cockpit hatch was also stuck.

The First Officer came down from the bridge in time to watch the engineers deploy and engage a massive pneumatic arm to pry open the Jagd’s hatches using one of the chassis handholds. When the hatches finally opened, a girl tumbled out of the opening and into the waiting arms of medics who had been instructing her as the engineers worked out how to open the hatches.

She was a young Shimii, olive-skinned, brown-haired. Soaked in sweat, one side of her head was caked in blood that had run just below one ear, down the forehead and over her cheek. She had a bruise in her neck that was the precise shape of a punch-injector of stimulant drugs. Her eyes were hazy and distant, her movements clumsy. She was disheveled: her hair was half done up in one pigtail, and the rest shaken loose, not of her own accord. Her dress had a rip in it, perhaps where it caught on something in the cockpit.

Though she could barely stand, she saw the First Officer approach, and saluted.

“Victoria van Veka has returned.” She said weakly.

“Welcome back.” He said, smiling at her.

“I am afraid the mission was not a success. Vogelheim has been destroyed.”

“We saw it for ourselves. That said, I wouldn’t declare it unsuccessful.” He looked over the machine. “I wager you gave them a black eye, didn’t you?”

Victoria felt prompted by him to look at the Jagd as well. “Perhaps I did.”

She turned back to him, feeling slightly appreciative of his words.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Might I have your name?” She asked.

“Of course!”

He ran a hand through his blond hair, beaming broadly.

“Raul von Drachen.”

“Von Drachen. I appreciate your kindness towards a girl at a low point.”

“I like to think of myself as an ally to girls.” He said. “You should hurry to the infirmary and rest.”

Victoria had been holding up admirably since coming out of the Jagd, but still fading.

Perhaps it was the relief of going home, or the fact that she was among friends, but Victoria began to teeter almost as soon as von Drachen suggested she rest. One of the medics had been watching her, and quickly swooped in and grabbed hold of her when she looked like she would drop completely. She was utterly exhausted, and the medics took her away quickly after that.

Raul von Drachen remained in the hangar, staring at the broken-down Jagd for a moment.

“These are interesting times we find ourselves in.” He said, with a grin on his face.

An ominous wave was sweeping through the oceans. 

He could feel it.


Though she could not let herself voice her horror, there was only one word running through Gertrude Lichtenberg’s mind at that point.

No, no, no.

Her face drained of color, and her eyes drew wide.

She was not alone. Captain Dreschner was also horrified at the state in which they found the Vogelheim pillar. On the main screen, the imaging computers showed them dreadful sights before they had even come close. Behind the battered remains of the cutters and frigates floating eerily.

That beautiful sanctuary where Elena von Fueller led her storybook life was ruined completely. There was a cloud of debris that had been thrown into the surrounding water by the shock of the pillar half-collapsing on itself. She could not describe it as anything but rubble. Her beloved Elena’s home had been reduced to rubble. Gertrude’s heart caught in her chest.

Her head felt airy, her brain in a fog, as though everything was a bad dream. She felt like she was piloting her own body like a diver, rather than being present. Noises felt like they were being filtered. Her vision was foggy.

At all times, however, she was conscious that it was real. All of it was real.

Because she could not ignore the cold, squeezing pain she felt in her chest.

She could not cry. Not in front of the men.

But she wanted so dearly to break down.

She wanted to blame herself, to beat her head against a wall bloody, to scream and punch until her fingers broke. She wanted to say she was so stupid to have left. That she should have just taken Elena. That she should have known that the Imbrium could not return to order after all that had happened. She had been so naïve, and now Elena was– no, she would not say it! She refused.

“Captain, launch a search party. Now.”

Her voice trembled. It felt distant, like it was coming out of the floor.

“Of course. Right away.” Dreschner said.

She can’t be dead.

Gertrude could not conceive of it.

Elena could not have been dead. That would have meant she failed her. She left her alone to face annihilation. She turned back as fast as she could, and she could not have been too late to save her. Gertrude refused to believe that Elena was buried in that rubble due to her own failures. She had promised to protect her. She had made herself into a soldier to protect her.

All of her life, Elena had been her star, her sun. Her idol of warmth and comfort.

Gertrude’s breathing quickened.

It was not possible that everything would end so pointlessly.

So suddenly and senselessly. After they had finally consummated their love.

It couldn’t be that, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Elena could be gone forever.

Her fists, curled tight at her sides, started to shake.

She could not control the tapping of her feet, the clenching of her jaw.

It was all she could do to fight the tears welling up in her eyes.

Gertrude had been shot and stabbed. She’d been caught in explosions and gas attacks.

All kinds of pain, she had withstood it, to protect Elena and her ocean.

She had wounds on her body that were fresh and healing even as the two made love.

Telling herself that if she could get back to Elena for even a moment, it would be bearable.

That this was the only way she could be with Elena for any amount of time.

Now she was wracked by the greatest agony she had ever felt.

She wanted so badly to cry that despite all of her effort tears began to flow.

At her side, Captain Dreschner said nothing, but pulled his hat down over his own eyes.

“Järveläinen and Clostermann have deployed in the Jagd and Grenadier.” He said.

Gertrude said nothing. She did not wish to speak. She did not wish to be seen by anyone.

She stood in the middle of the bridge like a statue, staring at the monitors, silent.

One of the sensors personnel spoke up to the Captain. She had a professional tone of voice. There was no shouting and panicking on their bridge. That was part of what kept Gertrude mum.

“Moving vessel on sonar and ladar, Captain, Lady Inquisitor.” She said.

“Track it. We’ll get closer. Any algorithmic predictions?” Dreschner asked.

“An older model of civilian ship. Maybe a shuttle. Could maybe hold 40 people in some measure of comfort, or 80 if they just crammed bodies.”

“A shuttle? Let us pray it is friendly, and not more Volkisch chicanery.” Dreshner said.

Thus, methodically, with neither hope nor dread, the crew of the Iron Lady sailed their vessel stoically toward the source of the signature, around the Vogelheim pillar. The closer they got, the more accurate the picture of the devastation they could see. It was very rare to see damage to a station to this degree. Some among the bridge crew wiped tears from their eyes or covered their mouths as they beheld the extent of it. Stations were built extremely tough, even backwater art projects like Vogelheim.

Survival under the sea depended on a degree of mechanical reliability and routine maintenance, coupled with exhaustive training of dedicated engineers, that made such devastation vanishingly rare. If it happened, it was never a deliberate tragedy, but a series of unlucky circumstances. All of Aer’s civilizations had a shared taboo surrounding station damage. Terrorists and saboteurs killed and hurt people; military forces fought people, and if they had to, they occupied their homes to control them.

Nobody would just shoot at a station.

Nobody would just destroy a station deliberately.

Not even that animal Sawyer could have been so bloodthirsty.

Sawyer.

Heidelinde Sawyer.

The Volkisch flotilla themselves had not accepted her communications.

However, they had talked with the patrol fleet.

That information was disseminated following the patrol fleet’s call for reinforcements. Gertrude was fully aware of the culprit of this tragedy.

Her old schoolmate Heidelinde Sawyer. Their relationship was characterized mainly by the word ‘almost.’ Sawyer was almost as tall as her, almost as strong. She was almost Elena’s crush in school, for reasons that still escaped Gertrude. She could almost see something in her worth that attention, but not quite. All the times they came to blows; Sawyer almost got her before Gertrude knocked her down. She was almost her friend, and she thought, before they were separated, that they had almost come to an understanding. When she left them, Gertrude almost felt pity for her.

Everything she had done since then, however, was not almost, but fully monstrous.

Gertrude squeezed her fists so tight she thought her fingers might go through her palm.

From grief, Gertrude’s thoughts immediately flowed into vengeance. She thought of all the things she would do to Sawyer in some dark, desolate room at the bottom of the ocean. If Elena was dead (she could not be dead), she would make Sawyer unrecognizable, nothing but a lump of meat screaming soundlessly in agony for as long as it took before she wasted away to hell–

“We’re at the site! I’ve got a drone set up. You won’t like what we see.”

On the main screen, Ingrid appeared in her pilot suit. Her ears drooped; her tail twitched pathetically.

They had gone out in Divers. They must have entered the Vogelheim ruins.

“Broadcasting now.”

They had taken a wired drone with them with a direct connection to the ship.

As long as the cable didn’t snag on anything, it let them connect via laser back to the ship.

That drone’s main body was also equipped with a suite of sensors and imaging equipment. It could send them predictive pictures of the Vogelheim landscape in a way the mechas could not. This made it a valuable addition to the reconnaissance team. Soon, they got those pictures moving.

When the drone began to broadcast, Ingrid vanished from the main screen. Replacing her was a camera feed from the drone. Clostermann was holding the drone with the arms of his Grenadier model. At first the drone was pointed at Ingrid’s Jagd, but then Clostermann moved it, sweeping slowly across the sunken landscape of Vogelheim. It was eerie. In many places the earth had been moved, massive gashes cut into the hills and plains where water had flooded directly through. In other areas, it was preserved underwater. Sunken trees swayed their arms to the gentle flow of the water around them. A field of roses and tulips now cast in dim blue and green.

Wreckage, of several mecha it seemed, shattered and scattered about the landscape.

And the rubble that remained of the Villa, distinctive in its ornate style.

“No survivors so far.” Ingrid said.

Dreschner nodded solemnly. Ingrid could see it through her video feed.

“Continue searching. We want as much footage as we can collect of this tragedy.”

“Yessir. I’ll go poke at the remains of the mechas. There might be a sealed cockpit.”

Ingrid was taking things in stride. She did not look too troubled by the situation.

“If you find any Volkisch, remember they are under arrest.” Dreschner said.

“Of course, I won’t kill ‘em! Getting drilled into is too good for them. We gotta get ‘em nice and slow, Captain. You leave me with them, I’ll make them sing the anthem.” Ingrid said.

Dreschner sighed. “Duly noted. But enough chatter. Carry on with your orders.”

In expressing her own quiet fury, Ingrid almost comforted Gertrude.

At least Gertrude was not the only one whose head was filling with vengeful atrocities.

Once the drone’s video feed departed the main screen, and Ingrid and Clostermann returned to their exploration, there was another familiar face, appearing on the central island of the bridge. Security Chief Vogt appeared on a smaller screen attached to the Captain’s position but angled so the Inquisitor could be part of the call as well. He was in the hangar surrounded by his forces.

“Captain, Inquisitor; we’re securing the shuttle that was detected earlier.”

“We’ve received no communications from them.” Dreschner said.

Vogt nodded. “If they were near the pillar collapse, their comms gear may be damaged. Judging by their course, they have been drifting around the pillar without much real power.”

“Alright. Be careful.” Dreschner said.

“I’d appreciate the Lady Grand Inquisitor’s presence at the hangar.” Vogt said before the Captain could end the call. “If it turns out to be a Volkisch escape craft, I’m afraid the lads may need a figure of authority to remind them of their discipline. Emotions are at their peak in here.”

Gertrude grit her teeth behind closed lips.

She would not be the one telling her forces not to rip apart any of those conspiracist psychopaths they got their hands on. But nevertheless, she quietly acquiesced, turning her back on Dreschner so sharply her cape swung behind her. Though Dreschner seemed like he wanted to say something to her, Gertrude barely heard as she departed.

Alone, her head filled with a mixture of sorrows and furies, Gertrude walked the corridors of the Iron Lady, taking the elevator down, imagining what could be in that ship. Maybe Elena had managed to escape (she could not be dead). Maybe it was full of Volkisch, and the moment her men rioted and began to brutalize them, Gertrude would join them in breaking the norms bloody. Maybe it was entirely unrelated, and she was building up to absolutely nothing.

Once she was alone in the elevator, Gertrude let herself weep.

She hugged her arms around herself, and she sobbed, and cried into her own gloved hand.

Thirty or forty seconds worth of grieving. That was all she let herself have.

When those doors opened, Gertrude took a deep breath and wiped her face.

Down in the hangar, Vogt had a dozen men with him. Vogt himself had brought an automatic shotgun that was armed with pellet shot, deadly to a crowd but fairly harmless to the instruments inside the ship. Six of his men had riot shields, four had vibro-batons and two had vibro-blades. He had not trusted any of his rank and file with firearms themselves.

Shuttle craft were uncomfortable and poorly hydrodynamic but built to carry many people. A Dreadnought could bear a few of these vessels. The very back of the hangar was built for it. Like a Diver, a shuttle would swim into a hatch on the Dreadnought’s underside, where it would enter a deployment and recovery chamber that would be drained and pressurized. Then it was safely raised onto its place in the main hangar space.

For extra security, a dreadnought’s hangar had a sectioned glass divider that would unfold from the roof and clamp into the floor between the shuttle bay and the rest of the hangar space. It could stop water from flooding anywhere else. Once the shuttle was recovered, Vogt had the glass lifted, and Gertrude and the men approached the craft. She waited for the rear hatch to open, wondering whom she would see escaping from it.

Instead, however, one of the side bulkhead doors to the shuttle clanked open. From the craft emerged several girls, breathing heavily, crying with joy at being rescued. All of them were dressed in black with white aprons.

They were the Villa’s maids, shaken, but whole and alive.

Gertrude’s heart exploded with sudden relief.

She rushed from the side of the men over to the girls and past them. She looked inside the shuttle craft herself with a desperate urgency. She climbed one step into the shuttle compartment. There were all kinds of people inside, huddling, many exhausted from lack of oxygen.

Not one lilac hair, not one pair of indigo eyes.

She found no trace of Elena.

In that instant her heart sank ever deeper. As high as it had soared, it crashed. Then, she heard a voice. A series of girlish voices, calling her.

“Lady Lichtenberg! Inquisitor Lichtenberg!”

Dazed with shock and grief, Gertrude looked behind herself, her eyes distant, her mouth hanging a little. There were three maids. One had a dirty apron; she looked like she had spat up on herself. She had two others supporting her. Together, the three of them approached Gertrude. At first, they stared just as dumbly as Gertrude stared at them.

Then they gained the courage to speak.

“The Princess is alive! She’s alive, we know it! We saw her be taken!”

“We know you were her dear friend! We helped you at the party. When you came running, we understood. We know you must be hurting now. Please do not despair! A strange woman took her! She was not in the collapse!”

For a moment Gertrude could not comprehend what she was hearing. Then, her heart alight with sorrow, fury, brief and elation all together, she put her hands gently on the shoulders of one of the maids. She could contain the tears in her eyes or the shaking in her hands anymore.

“Tell me everything you know. Please.” She said desperately.


“Rootless children of Imbria! Throw your bodies before the fires of war!”

“For what else are you good for? What other value do you hold?”

No voice said this that the people of the Imbrium ocean would recognize.

But overwhelmingly this was what the world was screaming at them.

A wave swept across the Imbrium Empire that began as the pillar of Vogelheim collapsed upon itself from a Volkisch gun. News of the attack began to trickle out, first from the panicked cries of the patrolmen, then from the stories of survivors, and finally the official condemnation from Erich von Fueller, heir apparent to the throne of the Imbrium Empire.

Each territory of the Empire knew the status quo could no longer be maintained by the delusion of a shared history.

And so, as invisibly as they were first created, the boundaries of the Empire were dissolved.

Rhinea became a “National-Socialist Republic.”

Skarsgaard styled itself “The Holy Empire of Solsea.”

From the Imbrium’s eastern borders rose the “Empire of Greater Veka.”

Bosporus’ youth led a wave of anarchist upheaval on lands stolen from the Shimii.

Icy, impenetrable Volgia closed its borders hoping to withstand the tide of history.

Militarily beheaded, Sverland gathered misfits and refugees from all over.

Buren shocked the world by declaring its intention to join the mordecist Union.

Only the Palatinate, mourning Vogelheim, still dubbed itself “The Imbrian Empire.”

Across the Imbrium, a people whose food grew scarcer, whose shelter they stood to lose, whose hard work earned ever more meager dividends, who saw nothing ahead of themselves already, now lost the last measure of security their lives had. Quietly, despondently, they watched as the very nations and institutions they were trained to exalt above all else simply disintegrated around them. For the average Imbrian, it was impossible to connect all the dots and truly grasp what was happening. To them, war was a thrumming under their skin, a creeping dread in the back of their heads. Life seemed to go on all around them with an eerie shadow across their sky.

Somewhere battles would be fought and won and lost that decided matters unknown.

Sometimes resources grew scarcer and the list of materiel sacrifices grew longer.

Sometimes bodies that were once people disappeared, for one reason or another.

Somehow the simple inertia of organic needs kept life moving on with surreal normalcy.

Ships came and went. Goods were bought and sold. People lived, played, and loved.


While the status of the borders was unknown, cargo continued to move quietly along its prescribed routes. Owing to the invisible momentum of corporate profits, a ship could still travel from Bosporus to Sverland, ferrying industrial goods to Serrano station — and one unmarked crate. An unmarked crate that, at its destination, would be quietly moved to a new ship by the organized dockworkers who knew what they were doing with it. Dockworkers who quite well did what they pleased with Serrano’s port on threat of stalling Sverland’s teetering economy with a strike.

At least, that was the plan upon which Marina McKennedy’s escape hinged.

As she sailed with the cargo ship, stowing away with a complicit crew, she remained in the cargo bay looking out onto the ocean through a digital window. She was no longer in the Imbrium Ocean but in the southern reaches of the world, known as Nectaris. That name had been given to this Ocean by the Imbrians who settled massive resource colonies there using slave labor, that would render them the sweet nectar of profit and cheap goods that would usher in a new golden era for the Empire.

Her destination was the Union. An aberration of the Empire’s invincible history.

Perhaps even the spark that precipitated the utter undoing of the Empire’s contiguity.

A nation a third of the size of the broader Empire that still stood in brave opposition to it.

Though, of course, a week out from the tragedy of Vogelheim, and even more removed from the death Emperor Konstantin von Fueller, the idea of a “broader Empire” had become pretty blurry at that point. There was all sorts of mess happening that she could barely keep up with on the news. But cargo ships were still running, so it must not have been so terrible, she supposed.

Everywhere she looked, however, the ocean still seemed the same.

Dark, blue and green, and impossible to see through.

“I’m going to go pace around or something before I go crazy.”

“If you need something to do, lets go over the plan one more time–”

There was no response from Elena von Fueller as she stormed off around the crates.

Marina had dyed Elena’s hair black and given her a matching gray pantsuit to wear in order to disguise her. When anyone complicit asked who she was, Marina told them she was a G.I.A. analyst just like herself. When they had to talk to civilians, she was nobody. She had not even picked a fake name, despite ample time and multiple suggestions, much to Marina’s vexation.

“How about Leda?” Marina suggested.

“Go fuck yourself.” Elena shouted back.

That had been the result of the last such conversation.

They had not spoken much and every time they did, Marina hardly knew what to say.

So, most of the time, they said nothing to each other.

Elena continued to follow her. And Marina was content enough with that outcome.

When they finally had some peace and could settle down, Marina would try to fix things.

That’s what she told herself whenever Elena had one of her furies.

Until then she just needed to move on. Marina had moved on; she had to, for Elena’s sake.

“That’s an interesting ship.”

As they approached Serrano station, Marina caught sight of a ship anchored to one of the lower docks as their own cargo ship searched for its own anchor point. It was an old hauler, she thought, the kind of ship that had a lot of character, and had probably taken a beating across the decades. That thick, unadorned prow was a bit odd — maybe it had been an icebreaker in Volgia in a past life. That angular profile probably suggested fairly expedient construction.

“You get all kinds down here, huh? I guess Sverland is an island of peace right now.”

An island of peace amid the storm of brewing civil war.

And only because its own government was just too weak to have any ambitions.

Or maybe because nobody had figured out how to conduct this war quite yet.

Marina thought it would’ve been morbidly funny if they needed another catalyst now.

Vogelheim wasn’t enough — the next provocation will tip things over.

She cracked a dumb little smile and she didn’t even know what for.

When the cargo ship docked into Serrano, a member of the crew ushered Marina and Elena into a crate. In silence and darkness, the pair waited, while their environment shook around them. That crate, along with the crate carrying Marina’s S.E.A.L, was moved to a warehouse in the port by labor suits. Once everything was properly warehoused and discretely inventoried, they cracked open Marina’s crate and let her out. With that, she and Elena had just illegally entered Serrano.

“Thanks for the help.” Marina said.

In the warehouse, she met a member of the crew and one of the dockworkers.

Both of them looked briefly around themselves then got to business.

“You’ll be leaving again today, with your cargo. We just need to know the ship that you’ll be taking. We don’t organize any of that, but we got a guy. He sets the itinerary. You go to him, you come back here, you tell us where to move the cargo, and then you’re out again. Nobody knows anything they don’t need to, and nobody messes with each other’s business.”

Marina nodded. “Where’s this guy located?” She asked.

“He’s in Long-Term Warehousing No. 6. It’s on this tier, deeper into the city. Call him Benny, he runs the front office. He’ll know you. Just tell him the last station you were at before.”

There was no tension between anybody, despite the nature of their business. Everyone was professional, direct, and their heads ran cool. It was almost chummy. Marina got the sense that this was pretty routine for the dockworkers and the crews they smuggled with. They had been running this operation for a while and had everything down to a science. Unless there was a big shakeup in security or someone made a grievous mistake, these guys could just keep doing this forever.

When she walked out of the warehouse it was with a renewed confidence.

Everything was going to be just fine.

“How are you feeling? Ever been to a Station like this before?”

Marina glanced sideways at Elena, who was staring up at the sky with wide-eyed wonder.

“Of course, I’ve been to them, but–”

“Never to the lower level?”

“Well, no.”

Serrano was a tiered, pillar-type city. Unlike Vogelheim, they did not waste real estate by simulating a massive artificial sky. Instead, up above they could see the bottom of the next tier of habitations, maybe 80-100 meters up. Serrano was an enormous station, and had three tiers of habitat and two ports. With its base some 1200 meters beneath the Nectaris, it rose up to around the 800-meter line to the surface. Still perfectly safe, but thoroughly massive.

Light was provided mainly on the street level of each tier, with some hovering fixtures farther above simulating a slightly broader “daytime” light that still held no candle to the idyllic brightness of Vogelheim. Marina supposed the upper tiers were probably nicer and brighter than the lower. On the bottom tier, outside the port, the layout took the form of a somewhat crowded urban core. There were hundreds of streets and alleys that wound around rectangular buildings of nearly identical, mass-produced construction that loomed overhead like concrete and steel giants. Video signs were plastered everywhere to advertise shops and businesses small and large, shining colorful lights and singing catchy slogans. Everything was so busy. There was nowhere without a crowd.

Elena looked quite ridiculous with her innocent, gawping face paired with her pantsuit and tie.

“Try not to stare quite so much.” Marina said, as they walked through the crowd.

“What do all these people do? Where do they go?” Elena said, overwhelmed by the sight.

“What are you asking me for? To their jobs. To go buy food. To get out of town.”

“I’m asking you because you’re my escort! Because of your own schemes, you bastard!”

In response, Elena turned her head away in a huff. At least she didn’t take off running.

Marina sighed a little bit. She did not know why she had gotten so impatient.

“Hey, look, I’m sorry El– Ellie, I’m a little bit on edge about everything–”

Elena shot her a furious glare.

“Go to hell.”

She said nothing the rest of the way to the warehouse.

Breaking up the landscape of looming eight and ten story buildings was a park full of very wide warehousing buildings that were fenced off and lower to the ground. Marina found the one with the “no. 6” label in big yellow letters and made her way to its front office. It was a sleepy place. There seemed to be a few workers outside the other warehouses, but almost nobody at the sixth one. There was a labor suit parked outside that looked like it was collecting dust.

“Good morning! We’re here from Pluto station, to see about a ship?”

Marina walked in through the front door. Elena despondently followed.

Warehouse No. 6’s front office was entirely plain. A boxy room with a few chairs that folded out of the wall, a single long desk, a poster on the wall that explained the “cargo cycle” as if it was an organic, circular process. A tantalizing door into a dark room. There was nobody at the desk until Marina called out, then an unassuming older man in a work vest walked out to the desk.

“Pluto station? Yeah, I was expecting you. I’m Benny.”

He reached out a hand and gave Marina a firm shake.

“You got a strong shake for a lady! Ever thought of giving up all the subterfuge and going into logistics? It’s honest work, nobody bothers you, and you get to see all kinds of stuff come in.”

“Not interested.” Marina said quickly. She didn’t want to chit-chat or listen to an old man’s jokes. “I’d like to move quickly, if that’s alright with you.”

“No time for a coffee?”

He smiled affably. Marina narrowed her eyes at him.

“Who’s that back there? Want me to explain the poster?”

Marina glanced back at Elena, who was deep in contemplation of the poster of the wall. Benny smiled at her and tried to direct attention to her.

This was much too obvious.

“She’s fine.” Marina said bluntly. “Benny, why are you wasting my time?”

As collected as he looked, Marina saw through the façade immediately.

He was clearly stalling. She reached her hand behind her back for her gun.

“Whoa, whoa!” Benny said. “Okay! Look. You just have to wait a bit– There’s been a bit of a change of plans– but you still have a ride out of here. You just need to wait a bit longer, and I’ll get you out of here, I promise.”

“Change of plans?”

Marina reached across the desk and grabbed Benny by the neck.

“What changed about the plans, Benny? Go over it with me.”

Elena looked taken aback by the sudden violence.

“M-Marina! That’s a bit much isn’t it? He said he still has a ship for us!”

“Don’t call me that!” Marina shouted back at her.

Elena flinched.

In that moment, squeezing some random warehouse worker’s neck while screaming at the Princess really made Marina hate herself. Not that she could do anything different. This just seemed to be her lot in life; already, nothing was going according to plan. Her heart was drumming to a frightening beat. She needed to know what had gone wrong and how.

“Benny, talk!”

Marina shoved him back against the wall.

“Okay! Cooler heads, please!” Benny grabbed hold of his neck, breathing rapidly. “We had a ship lined up to smuggle a bunch of stuff to the Union including you. We do this all the time. All kinda people want to get down there or up here. But the ship got stopped on the way. That also happens all the time! It doesn’t mean anything to you, they don’t know who you are!”

He was trying to calm her down, and Marina did not believe any of that.

“Benny, what do you mean the ship was stopped?”

“You sound so dangerous! Look, there’s a lot of security with the present situation. All our crews know what to do when they get inspected, and the ship is clean. It’s when it gets here that it gets dirty, so all it is, is that it’s late. I’m getting you a new ride, that is gonna be here on time. I promise you!”

Marina breathed out.

If it was just that, then maybe she had nothing to worry about.

“I paid a lot of money for professional smuggling down to the border.”

“These guys are more than professionals, okay?”

“I’m really skeptical right now, Benny.”

Benny had a nervous excitement in his voice that Marina didn’t like at all.

“Listen, you won’t regret this one, ok? This is fresh information, so you’re in luck. Just listen here: there’s a Union ship that just arrived at the port, and you can get on board, no extra charges. That’s how communists do business, you know? Everything already got worked out between us.” He said.

Marina crossed her arms. “I thought the smuggling here was all done by private ships?”

“Sometimes the Union sneaks themselves across. They got spies and such, you know?”

“Okay, so these are Union spies?”

“These are some real deal Union commissars. Forgive my language, but real spec-ops motherfuckers, you know? You won’t meet anyone more elite.”

“Why are you marketing them to me? How do you even know all of this?”

Benny looked briefly taken aback at Marina’s constant skepticism.

“I’m trying to get you to calm down so you won’t do anything crazy!”

Marina moved on to the next phase of intimidation and took her gun out.

She slammed her hand, with the gun, on the front desk. She leaned forward.

“How the hell am I supposed to trust you? The ship that was SUPPOSED to take me south has suddenly disappeared, but just as suddenly you’ve got a new ship, that just came in? Just what the fuck is the Union doing down here, Benny? What kind of operation are YOU running out of this dump?”

Benny raised in his hands in his own defense.

“Look, I’m just one part of a chain, ok? I don’t have all the answers. I’m someone’s guy, and someone’s my guy. I’m telling you all I know, because it’s all I was told. That’s how we do business here. Now me, I’m here because I’m good at de-escalation. So, I’ll tell you this: if you want to get out of here, today, or ever, just sit tight and wait for the nice commies to show up.”

Elena stomped her foot on the ground at that point.

Both Benny and Marina looked over to her with surprise.

“Mari– Mary–” Elena began.

Marina groaned. “That’s not even the right–”

“Mary, please stop fighting with the gentleman, it’s getting us nowhere.”

Benny pointed at Elena with a grin.

“Listen to the girl. Good head on her shoulders, that one.”

Marina ignored the interruption.

“Why are Union special operations coming to this trash heap?”

“They’re picking up something!” Benny said. “They can pick you up too!”

“What something are they picking up? This makes no goddamn sense!”

“I’m not gonna tell you about their business! Ask them when they show up.”

“Stop fighting!” Elena shouted.

At that moment, the office door opened again.

“Good morning! We’re here to pick up?”

Through the door entered three women in the same uniform, a teal half-jacket over a button-down shirt and long pants. One was clearly in front of the pack, a tall, dark-haired and dark-skinned young woman with an awkward smile. Behind her, unsmiling, was a younger woman with long white hair, and a third inexpressive woman with a spiraling silver ponytail and a pair of thick grey antennae. All three barged into the office quite suddenly, stopped, and stared at the occupants for a few moments.

“Um. I’m Murati,” the taller one said, “I mean– I came from Cyril station!”


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.8]

“I fucked it all up. God damn it. God fucking damn it.”

Marina McKennedy had extensively compelled herself to think of herself in that way: to think of herself as “Marina McKennedy.” But that particular I was primeval in nature. It cut deep, to the most recessed parts of her very self. She was so full of self-loathing and disgust that she felt like vomiting — even more than she already had. Her whole body shook with that revulsion.

A meltdown had been long since coming.

Even when she was with Bethany–

Maybe even because of that.

She had let her guard down.

Because she had to play it cool; but also, because she fooled herself.

Slowly, she staggered to her feet. Her skin burning and itching and shaking.

When that Shimii girl grabbed her (did she? Was that her?) it brought to the surface a vortex of emotions that had been brimming under the surface of her skin for years now. She felt the fingers, felt the knives, holding her, by her arms, by her hair, pinning her down– it brought to mind the darkest rooms she had ever been in. She could even smell the blood.

And while the timing was inconvenient, it was not the weakness itself that disgusted her.

She had aimed and fired out of emotion, out of passion, out of panic.

And she regretted immediately that she had done so.

She had hurt that girl; but also Elena.

Elena. She had hurt Elena.

Maybe worse than anyone in her life, so far, had hurt her.

Seeing Elena’s broken-down expression over the corpse of that girl–

With a streak of her friend’s blood on her cheek–

Bearing witness to the horrors of war–

Marina got herself standing against a tree and averted her eyes.

Her face reminded her of Leda.

It was like Leda’s, but softer, less mature. More vulnerable.

“Leda could do that. She could– she could touch you from afar. Right?”

For a moment, memories of rusty iron rooms with drains in the center and chains on the walls disappeared from her subconscious, slowly melting into a sunny vineyard balcony. She saw a towering, strikingly beautiful woman, with skin as unblemished white as porcelain and shining, indigo colored hair. She was dressed in a pure silk dress that clung closely to her body, and she moved as though a wind followed in her wake, swift and gracefully.

Leda. Leda Lettiere.

She had so much power, will, charisma.

Maybe even– magic.

“When I rule the world, will you leave the Republic and come with me?”

Marina said yes. Of course she said yes. They were just flirting.

How could she say no?

She couldn’t have known how suddenly everything would turn against them.

Elena was feeling this now too.

Just like Leda– everything crumbled for her, suddenly, brutally, with no time to process.

“Protect her for me.”

Marina had crawled out of the deepest pits of hell to do that.

Her eyes stung; she found herself weeping.  

She tried to move toward Elena, and Elena briefly looked back at her.

For a moment, for one painful instant, she did see so much of Leda in her.

She then tripped and fell.

As Marina hit the ground unceremoniously the sky tore apart and the earth shook.

Off in the distance, in the gaps between trees, she could see the Imbrium Ocean in place of the horizon. And in that cruel ocean, a flotilla of ships seemed to be approaching Vogelheim.

I can’t protect anyone. God damn it.

Even in Leda’s paradise, even for her daughter–

Marina forced herself to stand again.

She had been forcing herself to move for so long. Just a little bit longer.

Once Elena was safe.

She could give up on this whole dirty business of living.

She took stock of the situation. There was no water coming in where she could see, but there was internal damage to the station. So it must have taken a sizable hit. Probably from the Cruiser looming enormously on the algorithmic projection. If the station were under attack from the exterior, there would be a boarding team coming in soon. Probably in Heavy Divers.

If she could get Elena to her S.E.A.L unit she would have a chance to escape.

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Marina snapped out of her contemplation.

That girl she had shot, Victoria, started to stand back up. Elena helped her, gently holding her back and waist, taking one of the girl’s arms over her shoulder. Victoria reached into her hair and produced a tiny piece of metal, blunted into a flat circle and covered in blood. She gestured for Elena to let her go and was able to stand firm. She turned the piece in her fingers.

It was Marina’s bullet.

Her tail twitched as she stared at the bullet that had not killed her.

She turned it over in her fingers with one hand and touched her head with the other.

With Elena watching nervously, she then turned to face Marina.

“I don’t trust you. But can you actually get Elena away from Vogelheim safely?”

Her voice was cold and unshaken as it had always been.


Marina hesitated, as if not knowing what to say in return.

Victoria van Veka narrowed her eyes and looked over the G.I.A. agent with skepticism.

She could feel Marina’s surface level thoughts, mired in anguish and regret. She did not want to look too much further inside: it was nearly useless to read someone’s mind, as the thoughts were too complicated and abstract. And when they weren’t, they were too painful. Victoria saw what Elena went through when she empathized too strongly with Marina.

Victoria would avoid it.

To think Elena had such a degree of power with no control over it.

But there was not enough time to do anything about that.

Surface level thoughts and emotions were more useful to read. When she first appeared, there was a palpable aggression to Marina that put Victoria on edge. Now, Marina looked spent. And though Victoria had tried to kill her, and certainly the animosity must remain, she seemed much more sedate now, having seen Victoria’s abilities. Victoria did not trust her, but she knew that at this moment, Marina’s intentions were not violent, and that was good enough.

“I’ll keep Elena safe. I’ll give my life for her if I have to.” Marina said.

She finally spoke. Was she trying to sound tough? It wasn’t a lie, however.

Elena was shocked to hear such a thing and stared at Marina with her jaw trembling.

Victoria shook her head.

“Nothing but useless posturing that nobody wants from you. That said, I’ll believe you.”

She felt a sting in her forehead. She had blocked the bullet. By exerting a massive amount of kinetic force against the bullet she blunted the impact. Her head had been stricken as if by a truncheon or a club, rather than perforated by a bullet. She was bleeding, and probably concussed, but not dead. In her state, she still fancied her chances in a fight if it came to it.

However, she realized that if she tried to escape with Elena at this point, without any more assistance, Sawyer would likely catch them. So Victoria ran through a different possibility.

“You have a craft you came in, right? Take Elena and escape. I’ll distract Sawyer’s men.”

“You’ll distract them? How?”

Marina crossed her arms, staring Victoria down in confusion.

Elena balked at Victoria’s words.

Her eyes spread wide with surprise and she put her hands on Victoria’s shoulders.

“Victoria, no, absolutely not!” Elena shouted. “You’ll be killed!”

“If Sawyer has to split her forces, we have a better chance of escaping.” Victoria said.

“That doesn’t matter!” Elena said. “I don’t want anyone to– to get hurt defending me!”

She couldn’t even say ‘die’. Maybe she thought it would jinx everything.

There was something a little cute about it. Even Victoria had to admit that.

But it was a fact that they had no other options.

Victoria felt a grave anxiety toward the unfolding situation, but she did not show it.

She had thought of her options and made up her mind that this was the best one.

When she came up with a pragmatic solution, all she could do was execute.

“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to die here. I have a lot of things I want to do.”

Elena knew she was this way. Elena called it “stubbornness”, but Victoria did not see herself as stubborn. She was right; she made a correct decision. There was no sense, if she had found the best option available, to choose to do something else for the sake of anyone’s feelings. Her plan had the best chances of success, so she set her trepidation aside and committed to it.

“What will you do? Can you use your weird magic on ships?” Marina said.

“It’s not magic.” Victoria replied. “And I’m not strong enough to use it against a ship.”

“Of course she can’t!” Elena shouted, almost as soon as Victoria answered. She did not know anything about Victoria’s psionic powers. Rather, she was just being emotional, so she just screamed an objection. “She’s just a girl, she can’t do anything to stop a whole fleet! That’s why she can’t go!”

“That’s not fully correct. I have an answer to that hidden nearby.”

From her dress, Victoria produced a small, square object.

She pressed a button on it. “Reinhardt, please move the Jagd over here.”

Marina drew back a step. “Wait, a Jagd?”

From the woods, a small, hovering drone suddenly appeared and took Victoria’s side.

“That’s not a Jagd.” Marina said.

The drone, “Reinhardt,” was a hexagonal body on four air-jets for propulsion, a camera and a manipulator arm. It was pulling something. As it reached Victoria, the drone pulled far enough to reveal that the hazy object it was dragging was an active-camouflage tarp. Once the tarp was off, a large piece of equipment was revealed to have been in the woods nearby.

That piece of equipment was a Diver unit that began to stomp its way out into the open.

Marina blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.

That’s a Jagd.”

Developed originally by Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Equipment GmbH and produced with a license in Veka, the Jagd was among the Empire’s new 2nd Generation Diver suits and shared little DNA with the Volker. The objective of the Jagd’s design was to make a faster, lighter close combat Diver with built-in weapons, such that it could deploy quickly “unarmed.” Among Veka’s stock of Divers, the Jagd had become Victoria’s preferred machine.

Throughout her rescue mission, it had been her hidden trump card.

Among its design innovations was its “one-piece” sleek, loosely triangular hull, boasting a curved and flared shoulder design. Most of the suit appeared to be one contiguous piece because of this. Sloped armor plates over the chest peeled back into three separate elements to open the way for the pilot. Between the long arms and the shoulder armor on each side there was a 20-mm autocannon that fired from internal cylindrical magazines. The two guns formed a pair. Housed in the shoulders were a pair of jet anchors. The “head” sensor array was a subtle, dome-like “face.”

This chassis stood on a pair of sturdy legs that economized space and weight with efficient shapes and vernier thrusters better incorporated into the design than they were on the chunkier Volker legs. Meanwhile the arms were just a bit out of proportion in length, such that the profile appeared more “slouched” than that of the Volker, but the arms ended in a weapon, rather than digits with which the suit could hold tools. One arm ended in a “jet sabre,” a vibroblade with a thrust booster, while the second arm was mostly taken up by the cylindrical launcher for a retractable coil-spike. These were the Jagd’s chief weapons, able to cut or smash her enemies.

Volkers had been born out of labor machinery.

The Jagd was exclusively made to kill.

Behind the back of the Jagd was its other major innovation. Rather than the four jets on a Volker, the Jagd had a slightly larger, more powerful housing for six Hydrojets. Rather than a few large intakes, the Jagd had multiple subtle intakes that channeled much more water (or air) through its turbines and allowed it to adjust the weight on any side of the hull on the fly.

Both Elena and Marina were struck dumb by the appearance of this incredible machine. To think Victoria, and Veka, had acquired such things.

“You can control that by remote?” Marina shouted.

“Only simple commands. My custom drone ‘Reinhardt’ helps me with it.”

Marina had her hackles up, but Victoria was not concerned.

“I can hold off the enemy while you two escape.” Victoria proposed.

“What’s with the change of heart? Did the bullet scramble your brain?” Marina said. “No offense, but I can’t trust someone who– who did that sort of thing to me. I can’t trust you with our safety as it stands.”

Victoria had not meant to inflict as much psychological harm on Marina as she did.

In the moment, the way she saw it, eliminating her instantly, humanely, with one bullet, was better than choking her to death, twisting her neck, impaling her on a tree branch, bashing her head in with a rock, slicing her throat, or any other way she had come up with to kill Marina.

It was only after she was already in the middle of the attack that she felt the complex feelings in Marina’s response. And at that point it wouldn’t have mattered if it violated her trauma — she’d be dead in a few moments.

She had not counted on Elena being able to feel all of that too.

She had not counted on a lot of what transpired.

All of her plans were useless at this point.

All she could do was think on her feet.

“I promised Elena I wouldn’t hurt you anymore.” Victoria replied.

As far as Victoria was concerned that should have fixed everything.

Unfortunately, people were more complicated than that.

“Color me skeptical.” Marina said. “Time is of the essence here, but it’d be useless for me to try to survive with a backstabber in tow. Give me something useful. Prove that I can trust you.”

This was starting to get frustrating.

She realized how little time they had but she was still playing these cheap rhetorical games?

Victoria sighed openly. Her tail curled around her waist from the stress.

“As a gesture of good faith: my ability is known as psionics. Elena possesses the same ability. You, on the other hand, don’t have a shred of potential and are susceptible to it. I could make you do what I say, but as I said: as a gesture of good faith. I will not use my powers on you.”

Victoria looked down at a rock on the ground.

She saw a rock, and in her mind, she thought about pulling it toward her.

That rock started levitating off the ground, rising higher and higher alongside Victoria.

Marina flinched, as if expecting the rock to be turned against her.

Elena watched, speechless.

Victoria dropped it shortly thereafter.

“A brief demonstration. We don’t have time for a full lesson. So, G.I.A., do you accept my proposal? I’ve shown you what I had hidden, and I’m not asking anything from your end. I want your cooperation, so I am asking you and not using my powers to compel you in any way.”

“Having felt what it was like when you controlled me before, it’s obvious you aren’t now.”

Marina looked past Victoria, over the tops of the trees, at the deep blue outside the station.

“Fine. That works for me.” Marina said. “I will take Elena to the villa, and we will use the emergency escape there to get down to my escape craft. You do whatever you want, Victoria van Veka. If you want to shoot us in the back, I guess I can do nothing to stop you anyway.”

What an absolutely frustrating woman.

“I will not. I made a promise. I already said this.”

Elena looked between the two of them in disbelief.

She had been quiet up until then.

She suddenly let out her pent-up feelings again.

She started to cry with renewed fury.

“Stop it! Neither of you are considering my feelings here!”

Elena grabbed hold of Victoria’s hands.

“Victoria, come with us. If we have to run away, then come with us!”

She looked at Victoria directly in the eyes, pleading.

Years and years ago, god almost a decade ago, Victoria would have acquiesced. How could she ignore those bright, beautiful, innocent eyes?

Even Sawyer could not deny Elena when she made those eyes in the past.

Things had changed. Back then, the worst trouble they ever got in was ending up in places they shouldn’t be or sneaking off when they weren’t supposed to. They had some scary, close calls of their own stupid making, more than most noble kids. But they were problems within the scope of teenagers to solve. Everything had changed, but it seemed, Elena had not.

Elena did not know the Empire was as broken as her little group of friends.

That, just like them, it had crumbled overnight and could not be mended.

Suddenly and terribly, without much hope of reconciliation.

Victoria smiled, and reached out to touch Elena’s cheek.

“Deep down, you’re still so selfish. You have to grow up, Elena.”

Victoria was comforting her and distracting her.

She could see what was coming.

In the next instant, Elena’s eyes emptied, and she twitched forward, limp.

From behind her, Marina scooped her up.

She quickly holstered the stun gun in her hands.

Stricken in the back of the neck, Elena had fallen unconscious immediately.

“No objections?” Marina asked.

“No. I was trying to do the same, essentially.” Victoria said.

“Alright. Well. Godspeed.”

Marina turned around, holding Elena’s unconscious body in both arms.

Victoria stood there and watched her go.

She allowed herself one last childish outburst of her own.

“We will meet again G.I.A. And I will take her from you.”

Marina said nothing in response.

She began to pick up the pace, disappearing out of the wood.

Victoria sighed.

Why did she even say that?

She wondered if Elena knew more than she let on and was using telepathy on her.

Then, the cockpit of the Jagd opened to admit Victoria into the control seat.

“I guess it’s our turn to meet, Sawyer.” Victoria put on a bitter little smile now that she was alone. Her eyes teared up a little. She tried to push those feelings out, into her aura, into the air. “Elena was half right. I did have a crush on her. Maybe I still do. But idiot that I was– I liked you, Sawyer. It was weird how we got along sometimes. I still remember that time– ah, forget it. No matter how much I project this, you won’t hear it.”

Victoria raised a hand to her wound.

What was she even feeling so sentimental for?

 Her head felt airy.

At her side, her drone was prodding her to enter the Jagd.

The Diver’s claw arm moved to aid Victoria in climbing aboard.

She leaped onto the arm, climbed into the cockpit and took her seat and the controls. Darkness closed all around her as the Jagd’s hatch shut.

Vogelheim briefly disappeared, and the control screens lit up in front of her.

RKD-004 JAGD [TRIUMPH] appeared on the operating system boot screen.

Beneath that text was the Vekan motto, “Our first gunshot sounds the hunt.”

To some, it symbolized the duplicitous nature of Veka.

Shooting first from ambush.

Victoria viewed it as a positive.

Sounding a horn, or crying out for battle, was just hubris.

She reached beside her seat for a medicinal kit. Dispassionate, untroubled, she jabbed a dispenser full of “combat drugs” into her neck.

“I will dedicate the first victory of this war to Empress Carmilla von Veka.”

Pressing down on her pedals and forward on her sticks, the Jagd broke into a sprint. Her prey would soon hear the commencement of the hunt.


Sawyer left the bridge of the Greater Imbria, headed for the hangar.

“Rue; have the Panzer prepared for me.”

She said this into an ear-piece.

On the bridge, Rue, who was left in charge, heard it clearly.

“It’s already being done. But I’m against this. You’re our leader.”

“That’s why I have to go lead. Don’t worry; everyone here will listen to you.”

“That’s not what concerns me.”

“I’ll be safe, don’t get fucking sentimental on me.”

Sawyer rushed down the stepladder hatches to the bottom-aft hangar.

There was no way to contact the entry team except to join the attack herself.

She knew they still had time.

They still had a chance to save the station. They had to.

Even if they only spared it complete destruction and not widespread damage.

Sawyer’s head overflowed with macabre thoughts.

She tried to focus on the physicality of running, on the mechanism of her steps, on the gray steel bulkheads and the regal corridors that they connected. She tried her hardest to turn the world into a fast-moving blur and become lost in its lack of definition. To avoid grappling with it.

 Turn the pain into a muscle action. That was Sawyer’s coping mechanism.

Aggravation? Hit something, hit someone. Break something.

Depression? Run, jump, move. Leave it behind. Sweat it out.

Confusion? Stab it; strangle it; kill it; bury it. Tangible things bled and died.

Physicality was easy to understand.

Emotion tortured her.

She didn’t even want to think what her foremost emotion was at that time.

When she finally got down to the hangar she spared no time for the engineers and officers working frantically to prepare the sudden deployment. Urging them to hurry, she climbed aboard her prepared Diver, a slightly larger, bulkier and more intimidating example than the rest, the Rhineanmetall Group’s own 2nd Generation Diver, the Panzer model.

Unlike the Volker, the cockpit was placed in a rectangular chassis, though the sloping armor surfaces on the chest, as well as those connecting the shoulders and the legs were as refined as the complex surfaces on other Imperial Divers. Rectangular shapes were prevalent on the shoulders, arms and on the legs, giving the Panzer a much more distinctly humanoid silhouette. Even the sensor array appeared to be a heavyset, helmeted head.

Sawyer soon found her weapons were loaded.

Her chute was also set up for her.

Inside the cockpit, alone, surrounded by lights, soundless.

She was vulnerable again.

In the midst of her stress high she felt a thought bubble up to the surface.

Her other two “friends” had come to mind before.

She remembered the third: Victoria.

That antisocial Shimii with a twisted personality.

She remembered when they ran off and got stranded in an old station–

Victoria had stuck with her when Elena and Gertrude couldn’t stand her attitude.

As much as Sawyer wanted to take her anger out on her, Victoria stuck around with her.

And she thought– she thought she heard Victoria say something to her back then–

“You’re straightforward; you don’t hide anything. That’s what I really like about you.”

“Fuck you. What are you even saying? At a time like this?”

“I followed you because I like you best, Sawyer. That’s what I’m saying.”

Sawyer punched herself in the forehead.

In that restrained way that one did, where it was impossible to hurt oneself as badly as such a strike might hurt others. But enough that it shook her out of the train of thought that she had been following. Why the fuck would she be thinking about Victoria, and about their school years? What the fuck did it matter? None of them were those people anymore. None of it mattered!

None of them were teenagers who were lost and confused and begging for attention.

Sawyer certainly wasn’t. Not anymore. She was an adult; she had power.

Neither Victoria, nor Gertrude, nor Elena, mattered anymore. Only Sawyer mattered here.

And only the Sawyer that was here right now.

She had severed that past a long time ago.

“Sturmbannführer, you read?”

She heard Rue in her earpiece. There was a sense of urgency in her voice.

As soon as she hit the water, Sawyer wouldn’t be able to hear her again.

“Any last minute updates?” She asked, clearly aggravated.

“Yes. We have a vessel coming in. Our spy drone picked it up a few kilometers away.”

“What? At combat speed?”

“They’re flooring it. It’s got to be reinforcements. Profile is Irmingard class.”

“Rue, that’s fucking impossible! It can’t be a fucking dreadnought, Rue!”

She was shouting.

Sawyer reached out and punched the wall of the cockpit.

Gertrude.

She commanded an Irmingard class.

Could she be coming here for Elena?

“We knew the patrol fleet would call for reinforcement when they spotted us.” Rue said.

“We weren’t prepared for a capital ship! We were prepared for more fast attack craft!”

Rue sighed into the microphone.

“What will you do, Sawyer?” She asked. “Come back to the bridge?”

Was she stupid? There was only one thing to do!

“Of course I’m still launching, idiot! I can’t just turn tail and run now.”

Sawyer was going to be seen as a mass murderer.

Unless she did everything she could to stop the station from collapsing.

Politically, it wouldn’t hurt her.

The Volkisch were ready to do anything for power.

Despite herself, however, Sawyer did not just act out of power politics.

There was more going on in her head than Volkisch ideology.

“What should we do when the cavalry arrives?” Rue asked.

“Slow them down, but–”

She paused, hesitated. “Rue, prioritize yourself– I mean the fleet.”

Sawyer misspoke. She had let out her actual feelings. Rue let it go, however.

“Heard you loud and clear. But I– we won’t abandon you. So make it quick.”

Sawyer sighed. She took the controls.

The Panzer started walking toward the chute, dropped in, and closed the door.

There was no escape from her thoughts, nor from offering Rue a final response.

“I’ll try.” She said grimly. Rue’s signal disconnected.

On the screen, the Diver’s OS was loaded up and doing initial checks.

RMD-006 PANZER [SIEG] was prominently displayed.

Below the model was the motto, Ein volk! Ein kampf! One people, one struggle.

“Heidelinde Sawyer, Panzer Sieg. Deploying!”

Beneath her, the way to the Imbrium opened. No more dwelling, no more doubts.

Sawyer was ready to lose herself in the violence outside.


Gunshots and explosions sounded in the distance.

At the door to the villa, Bethany Skoll watched the path, gritting her teeth with anxiety.

Marina had gone to get Elena. Neither of them had returned.

And then everything to went hell.

Bethany and Elena’s maids had been watching the chaos unfold, up until the breach.

“All of you need to evacuate. Now. No talking back.”

All of the maids were speechless. They were terrified, but they also, collectively, could not endure abandoning Bethany here. The Villa staff had a special evacuation route, and enough craft to get everyone out along with the Princess in an emergency. Surely, they could all stay and help, and they could all leave together. That was the argument cried back at Bethany.

“None of you understand the situation. I want all of you out, now. Someone has to stay behind to secure the princess. I’m the only one of you with real security training. Please listen to me when I say you girls have to leave, now. I want no deaths on my conscience!”

That speech seemed to imply Bethany had no thoughts of self-sacrifice. As such, it placated the maid’s worries, and the gaggle of them joined a miserable march down into the basement. Bethany would stay behind and bring up the rear, with Marina and Elena, once they arrived.

“It has been a pleasure working with you girls. I hope you go on to better things.”

Bethany said this mostly to herself, after the maids had left.

All of them were well educated and hard-working and could ply their skills elsewhere.

If it had just been a natural disaster they could have all left together.

However, it was an invasion.

So someone had to delay and distract the invaders.

“Ronda, Illya, Gwendolyn, Charlotte, Yennefer,”

She started reciting to herself the names of the staff, hoping to bring them all luck.

In this ominous hour in Vogelheim’s history, Bethany regretted that their relationship, despite working here for so long, had been so contractual. She knew their names and special skills and weaknesses. She was their management. But she had never truly been their friend. As much as she passively liked them as workers, and for all the good times they shared putting things together for the Princess, and taking pride in their skills, she just never knew them as people. It was the same between Elena and her.

She had wanted to be like a mother to her.

But really, all she could be, was a maid.

Just a maid, and the others, just her assistants and specialists.

She had a thought that sent a chill through her body.

There would not be a tomorrow where she could assuage these regrets.

Even if they all survived, Vogelheim would not. Neither physically nor what it represented.

There was a buzzing in the pocket of her maid dress. A security device.

Warning her of a perimeter breach. An enemy, moving, coming closer and closer.

Bethany sighed. Once she was sure that everyone was gone, she input a code into the side of a glass display in the foyer housing an old, reproduction flintlock and matchlock hunting guns.

In the Old Era, on the surface world, these weapons had been used, and like many other things they stayed in the imagination of humanity even after the Descent. As far as anyone knew, the codes would just allow the opening of the glass and metal case, and extraction of the repro antiques.

Instead, the code Bethany put in caused the wall to slide open entirely. Inside, was a small armory with a modest, modern arsenal. There were light automatic weapons, chambered in 7.62 mm rifle cartridges. There was riot gear: vibroblades, gas grenades, bullet-shields, even a flamethrower. Those would be useless against Divers, so she did not even bother them.

Bethany grabbed a pair of tube launchers from the wall, each loaded with a HESH missile.

She set them down.

She did not fancy her chances using them, even though they would be effective.

Instead, behind the launchers, there was a console on the wall.

Bethany stuck her master key into a slot in the console, turned it, and put in a code.

Leda Lettiere.

A name only Bethany (and Marina) would really remember her by.

On the console screen, diagnostics were quickly being run on a Volker class Diver.

She could neither hear nor feel it, but she knew at that moment the flower bed was stirring.

Behind the Villa’s main building, where the gantry had been hidden away.

She did not fancy her chances using this weapon either.

But it was the only thing in the armory that could give her any hope of defending Elena.

Bethany was all too aware of the current situation.

The Villa’s security room was plugged in to the rest of the station’s communication network. When the patrol fleet sounded the alarm, she was alerted as well. Using the station’s own powerful computers she was able to watch in horrifying detail as the patrol fleet sank, and with it, Vogelheim’s best chances to defend itself. Reinforcements were coming, but not soon.

The station was compromised: a blast caused a breach in the outer wall, and the impact and subsequent slow flooding had damaged the artificial sky. The situation could only worsen. Enemy Divers had seized the lower deck engineering and the public port. It was only a matter of time until they occupied the villa. And while they fought, the station was going terminal.

All the while, her tiny portable buzzed, shaking with a warning for every alarm triggered.

Bethany rushed back to the door, hoping to see Marina.

There was still nobody on the roads outside. She heard another stray series of gunshots.

But from where? Who was shooting? At what? How close were they now?

“Betty!”

In that instant, Marina suddenly appeared, jumping through the bushes from the east.

Bethany was blindsided, and nearly fell back. “Marina! Wait–”

She immediately noticed Elena unconscious in Marina’s arms.

“What happened to her?”

Bethany grabbed hold of Marina’s shoulders.

Marina tensed up and pulled away suddenly, shaking Bethany’s hands off.

Her reaction left Bethany feeling like she had made a mistake. Something had happened.

“Marina, what happened? Is Elena going to be ok? Are you?”

“I’m never ok, Betty. Elena will come around.” Marina sighed heavily. She regretted that she reacted the way she did. Bethany thought she saw shame in her eyes. “Look, I’m sorry.”

She set Elena’s limp, feather-light body by the door.

Then she threw her arms around Bethany.

Bethany was surprised, but she returned Marina’s embrace.

“Everything’s fucked. We need to get out of here.” Marina said.

“I know. I’ve made some preparations. You can evacuate from that corridor.”

We can evacuate. I’ve got– I’ve got an asset. I’ve got an asset who will buy us time.”

She had stopped briefly, parting from Bethany, who could tell that there was more to that.

She and Marina locked eyes, standing apart on the cobblestones just outside the door, at arm’s length in physical distance, but their hearts and souls drifting as if in the endless ocean outside. Overhead the sky had been torn asunder, and it was grey and shifting as the panels went out or overloaded or glitched. A cold wind blew through the Villa, throwing Bethany’s long hair out and lightly rustling Marina’s messy bun and the bangs she combed over one of her eyes.

To think– A maid and a spy! They made such an unlikely pair.

Giving each other weary, tired looks under the collapsing skies of their future.

Bethany felt strangely fond of Marina then. She reached out to her.

“Can I touch you?” She asked. She had come to realize Marina needed it.

“Yes.”

She brushed Marina’s cheek, gently lifting her hair.

“Why do you part it this way?”

Beneath the bangs, Marina’s eye was a slightly different color than the other.

Bethany saw tiny digits dancing over the surface of the orb.

“Cybernetic?” She asked.

“You don’t wanna know what happened to it.”

Nodding, Bethany stepped forward.

“Can I kiss you, Marina?”

Marina looked briefly confused and wary, before nodding her head.

Slowly, Bethany leaned in, as if the world were not collapsing around her.

She took Marina’s lips and rather than smoke and liquor she tasted like iron.

Bethany loved it. She would not have had it any other way.

Because it was Marina– she could love it that way.

She knew they both wanted nothing more than to freeze time on that moment.

Well– perhaps the only thing they wanted more was to freeze a moment with Leda.

When the two of them finally parted, it was mutual, as if they both knew it was time.

“We have to go.” Marina said. She was so filled with determination.

She picked up Elena once more and held her in her arms.

Not once had the elfin girl stirred. She was peaceful, her chest rising and falling gently.

Her face looked serene. She was untroubled by the world. Protected from it, even.

Bethany, meanwhile, tried to ignore the buzzing in her pocket just a little while longer.

“I wish she could stay like this. Things are going to be so difficult for her.” She said.

“Well, we’ll be there to pick her up.” Marina said.

Bethany hesitated. “Yes, that’s true.”

“We’ll tell her about Leda together. No matter what our circumstances are going forward, we’ll be there to support her. She’ll be fine.” Marina said. She cracked a little smile.

In the midst of everything, Bethany really wanted to hold on to that idea of the future.

But she knew it was not possible.

Marina walked inside the villa, Elena in tow, and Bethany followed them.

From the foyer, the evacuation bulkhead was just ahead.

A gaping maw of metal breaking up the beautiful wooden décor.

That would be their escape from all of this.

Their.

Marina started explaining her plan as she crossed the bulkhead.

“I snuck in here in a Diver, a Republic S.E.A.L [Spec Ops] unit. We should be able to get to it from the Maintenance access, according to the leaked station layout.” Marina said. “It’ll be tight, but we’ll all fit. It has a long-range travel unit attached. It’s almost spent, so we’ll ditch it as soon as we’re clear away from any enemies. Then we can go to Pluto station, then Serrano–”

“Marina, I have one last task to do here as Head Maid.” Bethany said.

Please don’t fight it. Bethany kept begging Marina, silently, over and over.

While making an innocent smile at her, hoping to calm her.

“Huh? Well, make it quick then.” Marina said. She was confused but not aggravated.

“I will. I just have to send a command to the mainframe to delete all sensitive data.”

“Is there anything there that an enemy force can use?”

“Elena’s entire biological profile, including genetic, print, retinal–”

“Ok, ok. Make it quick. Judging by the noises, my asset is hanging in there.”

Sounds of fighting played out intermittently in the distance.

Closer, and closer, or so Bethany thought.

Marina turned around to start going down.

Buzz, buzz, right in her pocket. She cursed everything; cursed the circumstances of her life.

Marina was so close still. She could still reach out and touch her. Grab her; hold her.

They were only separated by the open bulkhead, standing each on one side of a threshold.

Bethany looked down at Marina, on the first steps to the descent down the evacuation route.

She reached her hand to the side of the door and inserted her master key into a console.

 Before her, the bulkhead slammed shut and locked tight. Only she could open it now.

Marina disappeared near instantly from her sight.

That was it. She had made her decision.

Bethany turned her back on the door.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”

A muffled voice, shouting loud enough to be heard through the steel when close.

It gave Bethany pause. She wished Marina had not noticed anything.

“Bethany! Open the door!”

Marina started slamming her fist on the metal.

“Save Elena! You’ll never make it out without a rearguard!” Bethany shouted back.

Her back was still turned to the door. She felt ridiculous shouting at the Villa doorway.

And yet, tears starting to fill her eyes, she felt Marina was owed this explanation.

“No! You don’t need to! I’ve got someone distracting them already! Please, Bethany!”

“Marina, there’s more enemies than you anticipated. I need to do this.”

Whatever it was that Marina’s “asset” was doing, if such a person really existed, was not enough. Bethany knew, from the device in her pocket, and if she headed to the security room she could confirm the same thing. A force large enough to trigger all the alarms, everywhere, and nobody stood against it. They would be upon them soon — if nobody stopped them.

“No, no, no! No! You can’t do this!”

There was so much pain in her voice. Marina was utterly distraught.

Bethany briefly questioned what she was doing. Would it make any difference?

And yet– if she cost Marina and Elena their lives, she could never forgive herself in hell.

Despite everything, she still denied herself heaven. Even if Leda was waiting there.

The secret that only Bethany and Marina shared, is that they had both accepted Hell in order to protect their Leda. That was something that they had together, which Leda never had with them. Perhaps, that was part of the character of the unique love that they had for one another.

“Marina, something I learned a long time ago was that, loving someone isn’t just having them for yourself in the moment. It’s also accepting what they want for their future. Loving someone is more than a night; it’s coming back, even years later, and having a home. What I did for Leda, I did out of love. What I’m doing for you now, I’m doing because I love you, Marina.”

“You can’t say that! You can’t say that to me! Please come back! Please!”

“Fulfill your promise to her. I love you. Despite everything– you really made me happy.”

Bethany turned her back on the door and walked away.

Marina’s shouting voice became more distant, muffled and impossible to understand.

Down Bethany’s eyes ran bittersweet tears.

Her heart fluttered with the declaration of love she made, but she felt such a deep and cutting regret that she did not say those words when she and Marina really had a chance together.

Bethany accepted the finality of what she was doing.

For Marina, and for Elena.

And so, with the perfectly confident stride of the perfect maid, Bethany Skoll left the villa.

Out in the flower bed, a suit of armor waited for her to resume her self-appointed role as Leda’s knight.


Marina banged on the door, furiously, to no avail.

“You don’t have to do this! You don’t! Please Bethany! Come with me! Please!”

No answer.

“Please don’t leave me alone! Please! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! Please come back!”

No matter how much she shouted, how many tears she shed, no matter how much she punched and kicked and screamed that door would not open. Bethany was not coming back through. Marina put her forehead to the door, slumping forward, defeated. Broken. Empty.

Teeth grit, eyes shut. It was settling in. She would never see Bethany again.

She had lost everything dear to her. She had not been able to protect anybody.

Marina wanted to slump beside that door and wait for death. She was shaking, sweating.

But in the shadows of that hallway, she saw Elena. Helpless. Because of Marina’s actions.

Marina felt like a ghost, wandering in a world with no evidence she had ever truly lived.

Elena, however, was alive. Elena was alive and– and Marina had promised Leda.

So, weeping, sobbing, groaning, she picked her up again. And she started her descent.

Every step felt like she was taking it right through 96 atmospheres of the Imbrium itself.

Or the thick, burning, shifting soil of Hell itself.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.7]

“Victoria, what are you talking about?”

Elena hardly knew what to say, think or do.

Amid the trees of Vogelheim, suddenly the falsest element of her landscape had become the face of her cat-eared childhood friend, reappearing after years of absence. What did she mean it wasn’t safe for her? How could she possibly know anything after all this time? And it was absurd to think Elena would simply go with her. To where?

Was she plotting to take her back to the Duchy of Veka?

Furthermore, that surname, van Veka. It made Elena fear for what may have happened to Victoria. She had heard a lot of things about the eccentricity of Duchess von Veka, ruler of her family’s ancestral holding, the Duchy of Veka. To the heartland Imbrians of Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the Palatinate, the land of Veka was a wild frontier, and its aristocracy were often viewed as exotic foreigners in the court. Elena fell to such prejudices:  she easily believed the stories of Veka as a wild, rapacious witch. What if Victoria had been abducted? What if she was being coerced into doing this?

“You weren’t at my party last night because Gertrude would have objected to all of this.”

Victoria sighed openly at Elena’s response, as if it were the dumbest thing in the world.

She lifted a hand to Elena, but it was not in offering.

Instead, she closed her fingers as if she were trying to squeeze Elena’s head from afar.

Her eyes glowed red, with bright rings around the pupils. Normally– they were blue.

Was this all a delusion? Was Elena truly seeing such a thing transpire?

Elena felt a breeze blow by the two of them.

This was not a dream. It was really happening.

She was taken aback. She thought she felt something brush her shoulder.

What was Victoria doing?

Elena could almost see it.

A projection, a dim, translucent aura, scarcely real–

Victoria lowered her hand. She looked, for the first time, to be worried.

“You resisted it? But you came here, so you answered my suggestion.”

“Your suggestion? What are you talking about?”

Elena remembered something then. Her dream.

She had dreamt of Victoria’s parting.

Back then, had Victoria really said they would meet again?

Had that part happened?

She wracked her memory. Suddenly, she could not remember the specifics.

But it was insane to think that Victoria had made herself appear in her dreams.

What was Victoria doing?!

“Victoria, I need you to talk like a person right now, or I’m calling for help.”

She wanted to believe that Victoria was merely confused.

Her friend had always been bad at speaking. In school she used to be shy and reserved. Others would call her cold and attribute this to her being a Shimii. But Elena had seen her when she opened up. Victoria could be kind and expressive in her own way. Elena hoped she could appeal to this better nature. Maybe even help Victoria out of whatever trouble she was in.

She extended her hand.

Victoria, blue-eyed again, briefly flinched as if she expected to be struck from meters away.

But Elena simply wanted to reach out a hand for her friend to hold.

“I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in, but I can help you.”

Elena intended her words to carry her conviction, her sympathy.

Victoria, however, just seemed annoyed with her.

Her tail dipped low and started flicking.

“I’m here to help you. There’s nothing you can do, Elena. That’s the problem.”

Her words carried no venom. They were blunt and matter of fact, like when she was a child.

“Of course I can help you! I’m the Imperial princess!” Elena said.

Even she, however, no longer believed that mattered. And Victoria certainly didn’t.

“Times are changing.” Victoria said. “A lot has changed already, as a matter of fact.”

“Victoria, this is frustrating. You’ve always been difficult to talk to, but you’re so cryptic I can’t even understand you. Just come to the Villa and have tea with me.” Elena said, pleading.

Victoria shook her head. “I don’t require accommodations. As it is, I’m not far enough ahead of Sawyer. Look, I’m anxious too Elena! I don’t want to force you to do anything, but I will have to if you don’t make up your own mind to come with me. Gertrude will not make it back in time. Nobody is here to rescue you except this one right here. So come with me, now.”

Something in Elena’s head simply snapped the wrong way at that time.

To the princess, everything Victoria was saying was nonsense. It was sudden, it was insane, and it simply did not fit with anything Elena knew. She was not in danger. Vogelheim could not be in danger. Vogelheim was her sacred home; her brother’s home for her. Her brother had always protected her, and her brother was the strongest man in the Empire, the most respected. Nobody could target Vogelheim. Nobody would even try.

They all understood how impossible that was.

So Elena’s logic threw everything Victoria was saying right out.

She quieted a tiny screaming voice that was telling her to run, to hide, to do anything.

Instead, Elena smiled charmingly, tipped her head, put her hands behind her back.

“I know what’s up.” She said in a funny little voice. “Vicky, you still have a crush on me.”

Victoria, for a moment, put on an expression like she couldn’t believe she heard that.

Elena, however, continued to pile on what she viewed as friendly, teasing charm.

She really, for a moment, thought she had everything figured out.

That she had seen through a mild deception, and everything around her was still normal.

“You and Gertrude fought over me back in school. I kind of– I kind of realized that, but I didn’t want to believe it. You know, for a while, I had a crush on Sawyer; but Gertrude was always there for me, and I came to treasure her most. Vicky, I still love you as a friend. You don’t need to do any kind of stunts to try to get my attention. You must have gone through a lot of effort to become titled, but Gertrude isn’t, and I still hold her as my most precious person, so–”

“Elena, you’re being absolutely, frustratingly ridiculous.”

Victoria swept her hand.

At Elena’s side, the ground burst up into the air, as if something had struck.

As if a massive force had struck–

Something strong enough to make a watermelon-sized dent in the ground.

Elena screeched and drew back from the hole.

She nearly fell backwards in shock. Barely able to stay standing.

Victoria’s eyes had those red rings again.

Red glowing rings around her eyes.

Was Victoria doing this?

What was– Victoria– WHAT WAS VICTORIA DOING?

“You can resist telepathy, but I can just knock you out and take you away.”

Victoria mumbled that almost as if to herself.

Her eyes then returned to their normal blue.

“I got over my infatuation with you. I am not here for that! I am here as your friend because I don’t want to see you killed by the Volkisch, which is what will happen soon Elena!” Victoria was screaming. Elena’s mind was a blur. What was Victoria screaming about? None of what she said made sense. It was almost like Elena was hearing it through a filter. Was she going insane? Victoria saw Elena’s blank eyes and fearful, broken expression, and moderated her tone. “Elena. In all of her graciousness and wisdom, my beloved mistress, the Grand Duchess Carmilla von Veka, signed off on my mission and gave me the resources to come take you to the east. She’s very powerful, Elena; she will keep you safe even if things continue to worsen.”

Elena was not ready to hear that impassioned declaration.

“What do you think is going to happen?” Elena said. She was stammering.

“You know what Sawyer was like! She’s even more dangerous now, Elena!”

“Sawyer?”

It was unimaginable to Elena that not one, but two of her lost childhood friends could possibly return on the same day, with grand pronunciations about their newfound powers. It was so sudden that it simply felt impossible, fake, delusional. Elena would have been assured that she was dreaming, but when Victoria rent the earth next to her, a tiny peddle made a tiny cut on her legs. That cut itched, stung. It itched bad enough that it continued to drag Elena back to her flesh. She was not in a dream.

She was sweating, her head felt airy, her vision was clouded with tears.

Her entire world felt like it was collapsing right on top of her.

“Victoria, you said Sawyer right? Sawyer is coming? Why? Why does she–”

“She thinks Erich is here! Elena, please come with me. We’re out of time.”

“Gertrude will come back– I have to be here for Gertrude to–”

Elena’s mind twisted and wrenched in an entirely different direction.

“She will not make it in time.”

Victoria’s eyes turned red again.

Something grabbed hold of Elena.

She felt a strong, invisible power gripping her, pulling her forward.

Toward Victoria; she squealed and resisted and was barely able to remain standing in place.

It was like the force trying to drag her had an arm that Elena could somehow outmuscle.

Frustrated again, Victoria cried out, “How are you this gifted, and still so powerless?”

Elena finally fell to the ground. Unable to resist, or escape, but Victoria could not pull her.

She started to weep openly, to cry and to scream where she sat.

She was powerless! She could neither understand, deflect nor resist what Victoria told her.

All of Elena’s static little world had made so much sense.

It was the only form of control that she had. Understanding the falsity all around her.

Everything was happening too suddenly, too urgently. Sawyer; Victoria–

“Victoria, I can’t leave here. Gertrude is waiting for me here. Please just leave, Victoria.”

Elena managed to say this between panicked little sobs.

“I can’t leave here. Bethany is here. This is my home, Victoria. It’s safe here, it really is.”

Victoria started to walk toward her. Her eyes were blue again. No red rings.

“Elena you’ve always known this was a cage but you keep choosing to stay here! All of this was built to delude ourselves of what our world is, and now you can’t leave when you need to! But it’s not safe! Six meters beneath this soft bed of earth there is just metal. Maintenance passages for the climate control and water systems, cargo elevators for the port and warehousing, secret passages for your security detail. This place is not impregnable. I snuck in here and I can take you with me in the same way. Sawyer cares even less about this place than me. Sawyer will shoot her way in, Elena!”

She finally reached where Elena was sitting, and physically grabbed her arm.

“Come with me, now.”

“That’s no way to talk to a lady.”

From Victoria’s side came a rushing figure.

Fast enough it took Elena by surprise.

She delivered a kick right to Victoria’s gut and sent her staggering back to the ground.

Then she placed herself in front of Elena with an arm outstretched.

“Thanks for the intel. If this place is unsafe, I will be the one evacuating her highness.”

At first, Elena had a crazy thought that it was Bethany who rescued her.

But nothing matched. Her defender was taller, with a head of black hair, partially in a haphazard bun, bangs partially over one eye. Messy. She was wearing a suit, it seemed. Pants, a sportcoat or a blazer, and a grey bodysuit that was translucent in the front. When she turned briefly toward Elena, her shirt and coat and suit exposed enough of her to see a scar on her chest.

“Marina McKennedy, G.I.A. Princess, I know this will sound crazy, but I’m on your side.”

She cracked a confident smile and drew a pistol on Victoria.

Victoria slowly drew herself up, and wiped dust from her dress.

She was winded, but those red-ringed eyes turned on Marina with the fullness of her malice.

“That’s a cute look.” Marina said. “But you don’t scare me. I’ve fought 2-meter tall Pelagis who could snap my spine in half before.”

“You have no idea. Get out of my way, republican.” Victoria said.

Marine laughed. “I got here in time to catch the gist of the conversation. Let the adults handle it, little girl. If you want to keep Elena safe, all you have to do is leave her to me. But you’re not just here out of altruism, so stop pretending you have Elena’s best interests in mind.”

Elena was so speechless.

She wanted to warn Marina that Victoria had some dangerous power that Marina was likely unaware of, and had not seen, if she arrived at the events unfolding too late. But her entire body refused to move, and her tongue was as trapped in her mouth as all of them were in Vogelheim. She was unable to say anything. All she could do was weep helplessly.

Then, Victoria’s eyes flashed their deadly red again.


Lieutenant Ionu Patrosku sat on the bridge of his Cutter with great trepidation.

He was shaking but could not let anyone know. He was sure he would not get out alive.

He was in command of a Cutter. A Cutter was all a Lieutenant could command.

Cutters were torturously cramped. His command seat was only slightly raised above the gunner, helmsman and torpedo man. All communications and sonar went through his first officer on an adjacent seat. They sat as if in adjacent rows in a cramped little movie theater, but with the roof barely a meter overhead, and the screens not much farther out. It was maddening.

It was a cage. He was going to die screaming in this cage.

These were brand new model cutters too. There was no excuse. Whoever designed these ships simply wanted them to be this way. Armed with one gas gun, one 75mm light coilgun, and one torpedo tube. Barely 60 meters long in total, most of it taken up by the reactor, engines, control surfaces and weapons, carrying no amenities. They were staring down the barrel of an absolutely massive Cruiser and its 150mm heavy coilguns and all their conviction to fight was leaving them.

And yet, the strength of the merciless training they received, was such that they remained rooted in place, knowing they could not hope to win and yet could not run. It was their sacred duty to defend the Palatinate, the holiest of the Empire’s domains. Vogelheim was a backwater, and what this Sawyer character was saying was absolutely insane, but they had to stand their ground.

Patrosku, however, knew differently than most how sacred their duty was.

The Lieutenant was one of the men directly in charge of Vogelheim’s security.

He knew it was the home of Elena von Fueller.

He had been specifically tasked by Erich von Fueller with his sister’s naval defense.

Patrosku knew, more than anyone, that Erich von Fueller was not present to be arrested by these extremist nationalists. And he also knew why they might have such a suspicion. He was not a stupid man. He was putting together the details of what might be happening with Vogelheim.

And he could do nothing anyway. He could only stand his ground in defense.

Even besides the great authority such a man commanded, Patrosku knew firsthand how terrifying the wrath of Erich von Fueller was, and how far it could reach. He almost felt that the Prince would make sure he suffered in hell for failing him, so even if he died, Patrosku could not run from what was expected of him. He might even go after Patrosku’s family and friends.

His compatriots had trusted him to open communications with the Volkisch.

So he stared down their commander on his screen.

He had no choice but to appear strong.

“Heidelinde Sawyer, if you are keen on a peaceful solution then turn your fleet around.” Patrosku replied, to the brown-haired woman on the screen with fiery eyes and words. “Erich von Fueller does not reside in this station. Starting a battle here will get you no closer to him.”

“Of course you are covering for the traitor. You think my conviction is this weak?”

Patrosku braced himself for her to fire. Thankfully, the Cruiser made no moves.

Was she just giving him a chance to respond?

“We are all proud citizens of the Empire. None of us want to fight you or any of our brothers and sisters here.” He said. He thought he had tapped into a font of eloquence and felt confident. “Soon our leaders will convene. Let them render justice and trust their decisions!”

The Volkisch leader, Sawyer, looked thoroughly unamused with his answer.

“Let them render justice? You suggest we allow the tyrant Fueller to convene with the foreigner harlot Veka and all those who have made a mockery of Imbria, and parcel out our homes among themselves, to continue to exploit us and guide us down into ruin? You and I are not both proud citizens! We are the Volkisch of Rhinea, and we will make our own destinies. You can join us, or you stand against us. We have been preparing to fight, and now we are here to do so.”

At that moment, through sound-wave detection, laser imaging and other predictive methods, the computers aboard Patrosku’s Cutter began to yell about some kind of movement coming from the missile frigates. They were beyond visual range, but he did not need to be a genius to know what was happening: the hatches were opening, which meant the missiles were primed.

Sawyer cut off her laser communications abruptly. Every computer sounded alerts.

There was no avoiding it. Hesitating further would mean certain death.

“All ships to combat speed! Target the frigates first, move to isolate the Cruiser!”

Patrosku called out, and the Cutters advanced on the enemy fleet.

Single-barreled light coilguns sought targets and began to fire. Light torpedoes leaped from the tubes at the front of each cutter. Because there were twenty cutters, they managed to whip up a brilliant fusillade for their side, and hundreds of rounds hurtled across the Vogelheim plains toward the enemy. The double-barreled 20mm gas gun turret on each Cutter readied to intercept incoming enemy missiles from the Frigates.

Battle had finally been joined for Vogelheim.

Accelerating, the Cutters sliced the distance to the enemy flotilla.

Before them, the Cruiser stood unflinching as dozens of rounds shot past its flanks.

On the top deck, the main gun rose and adjusted its barrels.

One pair of 150mm coilgun rounds loosed from the gun and punched through the water.

In an instant, one of Patrosku’s allied cutters had its prow disappear in a vapor bubble.

Between the massive forward damage and the shock of the impact, all of the stricken Cutter’s electronics would have failed and it is unlikely the crew inside could survive. As the Cutters advanced, their downed ally descended miserably, trailing bubbles and bits of debris.

“Keep moving! Once we’re on top of it, it will have to surrender!”

Mobbing was the only tactic they could count on against that ship, with their light weapons.

The Cutters advanced in a snaking envelopment, like nineteen fingers trying to wrap around the enemy fleet from all directions. Each individual ship kept enough distance from each other so that no one enemy weapon could destroy multiple ships. They stayed in enough of an orbit to maintain laser communication and coordinate their attacks, while having room to maneuver.

Meanwhile the enemy frigates responded quickly with their own barrage, peppering the Cutters with light coilgun and gas gun fire. Deadly vapor bubbles erupted around the Cutters, signifying the explosions of ordnance. Even being grazed by such a blast would put incredible stress on the hull and could compound into internal damage, and even cause slow breaches.

Vogelheim’s plain took on the eerie characteristic of underwater war.

A storm of vapor bubbles and lines of displaced water formed by explosive ordnance and supercavitating munitions stirred between the opposing sides as they advanced toward each other. Due to the dimness of the ocean, it would have been impossible to see the spectacle of it from afar, but their computers could see the ocean whipped into a frenzy amid all the barrages.

Even with this horrifying chaos before them, the patrol fleet did not slow their charge.

Taking a haphazard trajectory, the speedy little ships made themselves hard to hit, a quality that only they possessed in this engagement. Cutters’ only defense was being able to move around larger ships like the insects that they were. As they advanced they pummeled the enemy with a rhythmic barrage from their little guns. One round, a swift cooldown and drain of the gun housing, a second round; the Cutters sent over a dozen rounds flying at the enemy every minute.

 While the Cruiser was cooling down, the Cutters cut the distance, to 500 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters, swerving and rising and making looping trails of bubbles in the water as they avoided enemy gunfire. Then the Cruiser’s heavy coilgun emplacement was once again ready to fire. Two massive rounds erupted from the barrels; two cavitation lines linked the gun to a cutter.

Upon striking their targets, or even flying near them, the supercavitating rounds detonated.

Underwater, kinetic energy was constantly lost. Even supercavitation designs had limits.

Explosive force, however, was magnified through the medium of the ocean water.

So even the kinetic rounds were rigged with explosives and made to blow.

For a Cutter to suffer two direct hits and the two explosions that followed was unlucky.

Nothing was left of the ship but piles of bubbling slag, sheared beyond recognition.

All of this gunfire, death and mayhem had transpired in mere minutes.

Patrosku barely registered the loss from his command pod. He was gritting his teeth.

On the edges of the Volkisch formation, one of the gun frigates altered its elevation.

“Any ships that can spare a torpedo, hit that Frigate! It moved out of place!”

At his side, a pair of his allied Cutters were able to heed his command.

Two light torpedoes burst from their tubes and soared ahead of the fleet.

Guided by the torpedo gunners in each respective ship, the projectiles snaked through enemy gunfire and exploited a hole in the enemy’s interception fire that had opened when that one Frigate moved suddenly out of formation. In so doing, it had blocked a nearby Frigate’s vital covering fire from its top deck gas guns, and exposed the entire left flank of the Volkisch flotilla.

Both torpedoes swooped past the Cruiser and dove into the sides of the raised Frigate.

Two impacts blossomed into vapor bubbles that rent massive holes in the metal.

More and more plates began to peel from the Frigate’s side due to the sheer pressure.

An entire compartment disgorged crates and equipment and mangled bodies into the ocean.

It was as if the torpedo was a hand reaching into the Frigate’s gut, pulling out the viscera.

There was no more gunfire from that Frigate. It began to list, its engine firing off haphazardly and sending it on a terminal dive into the ocean floor. Around it, the Volkisch flotilla adjusted their positions quickly to avoid the stricken ship. And yet, an opportunity to rout them did not appear. Gas gun fire intensified, and the Volkisch returned to a disciplined formation.

Once more, the Cruiser at the head opened fire.

This time, the shells flew past their intended targets.

Not too far past.

Detonating right behind one of the Cutters, the vapor bubble grazed an engine.

Patrosku felt his own Cutter shake, and for an instant thought himself dead.

Such was the sheer explosive power of both shells detonating so close by.

He survived; the Cutter on his direct right lost its engines and became a sitting duck.

It was not long before the Gun-Frigates noticed.

Relentless gunfire tore the stranded Cutter apart where it stood motionless.

Patrosku thought claiming that Frigate kill would have given them momentum.

In truth, the situation remained the same. And it was about to worsen.

Within 200 meters, or two or three ship lengths of the enemy, the Cutters began to put themselves into position to sweep through the enemy formation, and come out behind them, around their flanks, and above them, ultimately enveloping the enemy. At this range, their instruments gave them a form of visibility using predictive imaging. Though they could not “see” physically farther than maybe 75 meters, their computers created a picture from other forms of sensory data.

As such, when Patrosku “saw” what was about to happen next, it was all on the computer.

And for an instant, he disbelieved it. Predictions were not flawless, and what separated a seasoned veteran of undersea warfare from a rookie was not relying on instruments but using them as a tool. So Patrosku trusted his gut that what was happening ahead of him was impossible.

He was wrong, and the computer was right, and he discovered this very quickly.

Objects began to appear as emerging from the hatches on the missile frigates.

Though the computers identified these as Volker class Divers, Patrosku felt it had to be a glitch. Volkers rising out of missile launch bays was ridiculous.

Would Volkers even fit inside them?

Obviously, those were the missiles. Missile Frigates carried slim, fast torpedoes powered by rockets that launched overhead and then arced down. They were not guided by wire, but they were fast and disruptive and provoked an answer whenever they were fired.

So Patrosku answered.

“We need a curtain of fire to intercept those missiles! Now!”

“Sir, those are Divers, the computer is saying–”

“I know what it’s saying! Curtain fire, now!”

The Cutters responded to the predicted incoming missiles — until a squadron of five Volkers swam into their formation.

Just as a Cutter was lighter and faster than any other ship, a Diver was lighter and faster than a Cutter. Dashing through the water with a grace seemingly mismatched with their rounded chassis, the Volkers suddenly skirted the rapid-fire gas guns on the Cutters and brought to bear their 37mm Sturmgewehr assault rifles at shockingly close range.

Disciplined, three-round bursts from the assault rifles punched holes the size of a fist into the armor of several of the Cutters. Alarms sounded, and exposed compartments were locked quickly, with the Cutters’ automated self-repair deploying emergency sealants to close the gaps and bind the armor together enough to resist pressure again. But Cutters were so small that these disruptions ended up disabling several systems and rendering the limping ships unable to fight.

Suddenly, the battle was hopeless again as the patrol fleet fell into complete disarray.

To think, the Volkisch contrived such a way to deploy Divers!

Patrosku watched in terror as amid the barrage from the Flotilla, several Volkers charged right past the patrol fleet and headed straight for Vogelheim. His computer calculated at least fifteen Divers deployed, maybe twenty. There was no hope of stopping them anymore.


Sturmbannführer Hiedelinde Sawyer stood on a raised platform in the middle of the bridge of the battlecruiser Greater Imbria, arms crossed, her chair empty right behind her. They had lost the Venable and who knew how many souls aboard, but the Volkisch were not deterred so easily by loss.

Once the battle was won they could mount a rescue operation.

Sawyer was confident in her plan. And she knew the leadership was behind her. Lehner had personally given his approval for her mission.

Greater Imbria and its crew, as well as the two missile frigates Gladius and Spartan, had professional staff who had been turned to the side of the national proletariat by agents of the Volkisch. They had essentially defected from the Imperial Navy to join the Volkisch. But the gun Frigates were staffed by militia and the vessels were fresh out of Rhineland Shipyards.

Sawyer knew who she could and could not rely upon.

“Order the Divers to attack! I want a squadron to defend us, another to secure the station exterior and two squadrons to enter the station. All groups be careful when firing your weapons!”

As she said this, one of the gun frigates discharged a volley of 75 mm coilgun rounds that flew straight through the enemy Cutters and past.

It was impossible to tell whether damage had been done to the station, but Sawyer grit her teeth. Telling them to stop firing was not an option, but the undisciplined gunners might do more harm than good.

She had to get a hold of the situation.

“Tell the Frigates to mind their guns! We can’t damage the station!”

“We should moderate our own fire as well.”

Her yelling attracted the attention of the First Officer, returning from doing rounds around the ship to inspect the combat stations. She put on a little grin as she arrived. Sawyer glanced over to her when the door opened and then turned back around to continue following the battle on the monitors. She hopped up onto the island in the middle of the bridge and patted Sawyer on the shoulder. “We’ve taken minor damage, mostly to the armor.”

“I knew I could count on you to move fast, but even I’m impressed.”

Sawyer had sent her to check the hangar and weapons when the battle started.

For her to have returned in a few minutes was extraordinary considering the ship’s size.

“I didn’t have to go too far. I have these, remember?”

Sawyer barely looked at her while she spoke, but that remark prompted her to glance at her first officer. Holding the rank of Untersturmführer in the Volkisch, her name was Rue Skalbeck. She was a fit young woman, blond hair decorated with red highlights, wearing a pristine, all-black uniform much like Sawyer’s. She was neither as tall, nor as strong as Sawyer but the closest physical match to her on the ship. Her most distinctive feature, however, were the cybernetics on her body, a pair of black antennae the width and length of a finger along the sides of her head.

Those implants helped correct deformities in her brain, and allowed her to interface easily with machines, as well as perform some often-forgotten tasks of electronic warfare that were usually delegated to algorithms and subroutines of the computers automatically. There were some strains of Volkisch ideology that balked at people such as Rue being allowed to serve, or even to live; but for Sawyer, military power and potential was everything, and Rue was strong enough. It was the fact that she would kill for the National Proletariat that made her a peer member of it.

Her relationship with Rue exemplified the essence of the Volkisch modus.

It was the barest simplicity in the world. There were those who deserved, or indeed, who had to be killed, and those who would kill them, for the volk to survive. Other fringe theories aside, it was this strand of thought that unified the Volkisch. At the present, they agreed on who had to be killed to protect the future of the National Proletariat, and its core in Rhinea.

Sawyer would end Erich von Fueller’s reign here.

And perhaps commence her own.

One step at a time; dialing back from that bloodthirsty series of thoughts, Sawyer merely smiled. “Sometimes I forget that you have those bits.” She said, looking Rue in the eyes.

“That’s kind of you. I knew you were sweet for me.”

Rue put on an antagonistically cheerful expression, full of mockery.

Sawyer stopped looking at her at that point.

Before joining the Volkisch Movement, Rue outranked her in the Imperial Navy.

Within the Volkisch she was the equivalent of a Leutnant due to her “physical deformity.”

Not that you could tell that cheerful, pretty girl was “deformed” without a lot of ideology.

“Did you beam the instructions over to the entry team?” She asked.

“Taken care of a long time ago. The Entry Team is already past the enemy fleet.”

“Good. Do you think those blueprints were authentic?”

“You’ve asked me this three times.”

“Answer a fourth time then, Untersturmführer.”

Rue rolled her eyes. She could do this precisely because of Sawyer’s constant tough girl act. She really wasn’t even looking at Rue and couldn’t have seen her expressions behind her.

“Yes, I fully believe in their integrity. I know you’d punch me in the face if I did things half-assed, so of course I wouldn’t show you any bullshit. As soon as I scraped the contents of the leaks off the network, I compared similar station diagrams which are public. Vogelheim is just another NewType-Castle Mod. IV station. Since the similarities are so exact, the differences must be the real deal, or else, structurally, the diagram wouldn’t make any sense in comparison.”

“I’m counting on you.” Sawyer said.

“Yes, I’m the degenerate, subhuman brain to your ubermenschen brawn.”

“Oh, shut up. You chose to be here.”

“I do it all for you, my love.”

Rue blew a kiss behind her back, but Sawyer didn’t see it.

In the stations around them, the men and women looked briefly concerned.

But it was far, far above their station to say anything.

Sawyer sighed openly but gave no response to the love-comedy Rue was putting on.

Rue took notice and sighed herself. She then changed the subject.

“At any rate, you’re overlooking the piece of information that can’t be corroborated.”

“The presence of Erich von Fueller, you mean?” Sawyer said. Rue smiled.

“According to the leaks, Vogelheim has been the home slash prison of Elena von Fueller for the past several years. She could be anywhere, so it doesn’t really matter, but Erich von Fueller’s visit coinciding with her birthday is time sensitive. For all we know, he came and went already, or he never came at all. That’s information that we are basically just gambling on.”

Sawyer hadn’t really thought of that name in a long time.

Elena von Fueller.

She remembered that bitchy elf girl from Luxembourg who drew together a band of other weirdos who fit in nowhere else. Self-absorbed, and stubborn, and sickeningly kind, never wanting to see the faults in others. And yet, she was not popular at the school. Nobody else wanted to deal with her and her baggage; everyone else was terrified of her. So she had no one in the world, but Sawyer; and her other two “friends,” Victoria and Gertrude.

Gertrude: that bitch never saw eye to eye with her.

Another nasty name to remember.

Sawyer almost felt a grim satisfaction at being able to potentially snatch something from Gertrude.

Elena was useless in and of herself but could be an asset with the nobles.

Rue shrugged, continuing to speak. “So really, this could all just be tragically pointless.”

“It’s not pointless.”

Sawyer replied brusquely. Rue took note of her tone and checked herself.

“Someone had to make the first move. We’re making an example. We can attack deep into the Palatinate’s territory. Those useless aristocrats will have to take us seriously after today and come to terms with our uprising. We will make them see that nobody can protect them anymore.”

Rue grinned at her.

“Will you break the taboo then? Take down the whole station as a show of force?”

“Of course not.”

Sawyer snapped back. Something like that was unthinkable.

Living space in the Imbrium was precious. Destroying a station was an unholy act.

For Rue to even consider it showed her utter morbidity of character.

But also why Sawyer treasured her as a companion.

Rue, ultimately, was her kind of crazy.

“We’re going to claim this station, minimize damage–”

“Then we should restrain our violence. Sawyer, the main gun–”

At that point both of them were interrupted. Both by a shouting voice and a screen.

“Heavy coilgun ready to fire again, Sturmbannführer!” shouted a gunnery officer.

“What are you waiting for then? Fire at will! Destroy those patrol cutters!”

“Sawyer, wait–”

Before Rue could explain herself further, the main operations screen displayed a prow-facing camera that briefly showed high-definition footage of the main gun firing. Two projectiles launched carving neat, symmetrical lines into the water around them. Quickly the screen switched from the camera view to a broader view which was not possible underwater with cameras: it was an algorithmic reconstruction of the battlefield, rendered to enable them to “see” the battle.

Water was displayed as a pale blue filter over a world of floating objects, and these objects were outlined within so that they were crisp and easy to perceive out to several hundred meters — if only real water was anything like that! In areas where an explosion had gone off the water was darkened or reddened, using sensor data to show the intensity of the explosion or how recently the water was disturbed in the wake of a fading blast. It was like watching the world through the eyes of a God with mastery over the ocean. Like seeing through air instead of water. Hundreds of lines split the water, representing the trajectories of the shells being exchanged. Divers rushing to destroy enemy ships at close range and enemy ships fighting them were all marked for the viewer.

They could see the terrifying fusillade raging between their fleets in all of its glory. On camera, only the closest explosions registered. You could die before you ever saw what killed you. You might see the projectile a split second before it smashes into the deck. Sawyer and Rue were both used to staring at these screens, and so was anyone who was a veteran of aquatic combat.

“Sawyer, the main gun alignment is off!” Rue finally said.

“What? How did it–?”

On the algorithmic display, the digital “camera” that was once placed so as to mimic a real camera watching the ocean from the prow of the ship, pulled out into an “overhead” view that was impossible with any cameras they had deployed. This view showed the topography, predicted trajectories of enemy and allied ships, divers, and of course, all of the ordnance travelling between.

Both the rounds fired from the main gun appeared quickly on this view.

An alert then sounded. Something had misaligned. A shot had “missed.”

One round carved into the side of an enemy Cutter and split the ship in half.

A red bubble was placed around the second round to alert Sawyer of the problem.

That second 150mm round was predicted to fly past the enemy to strike Vogelheim.

According to the computer it would climb and detonate on the station pillar’s outer layer.

A breach was predicted: sizable enough that it would need a containment response.

There would be no response. Wireless communication was short distance underwater. They could not contact their entry teams to tell them. And the entry teams would be fighting the guards and engineers at Vogelheim, preventing them from responding. It would be a disaster.

At the speeds that they were dealing with, by the time Sawyer and Rue fully viewed the alert on the screen, if the prediction was correct, the munition had already hit Vogelheim. Every second precipitated calamity.

And this time, it was not something that they could see or confirm unless they charged ahead. Until they had an entry team tapped into Vogelheim, they could not contact them in any way. All of this had happened without them seeing with no time to respond.

Silence fell upon the bridge for a moment.

Everyone felt the vibrations of an intercepted torpedo, transferring through the floor. It was that silent, silent enough that all the things their loud lives hid from them were suddenly laid bare. There were explosions going off all around them. When they were engaged in work it was easy to forget the sheer hostility that was outside the ship. And yet, now, they were all transfixed. Nobody said a word, and everyone raised their heads from their personal screens to stare at the alerts.

In that moment they had destroyed a station. It was starting to dawn on them.

“Rue, connect us to the Socrates!” Sawyer said suddenly. Socrates was their engineering ship, which had been working on battlefield communications. “If they’ve got the groundline ready, you can tap into the station network and contact the entry team! Get creative, use whatever you can! We have to tell them to check for a breach. Emergency sealant can slow it down!”

Sawyer was gripped in a passion, her eyes fiery, her words loud — but trembling.

Rue could not muster such passion. Almost bleary-eyed, she saluted.

It was an eerie, surreal feeling. To have destroyed a little world without even seeing it.

That was the nature of war under the ocean.


What did it mean when Victoria’s eyes turned red?

Elena could not figure it out.

“I’m not in the business of shooting at girls. I’d like to think of myself as a friend to all girls. So, since you care so much about Elena, just turn around and go. She’ll be safe.”

Marina continued to taunt her.

Elena wished she knew what to do to set things right.

For a moment, there was tense silence between them. Marina had her gun out but wasn’t shooting. Victoria had fully stood up from the ground but was not moving. They were sizing each other up. Marina had obviously discarded any possibility that Victoria could be a threat to anyone but the weak and panicking princess on the ground behind her. She had no weapons to threaten Marina with, while Marina had a pistol.

Victoria was clearly clever; but was she outmatched?

Then Victoria lifted her hand to Marina, who was puzzled by the reaction.

“Stop right now. I’ll shoot your fucking knee. No ballroom dancing for you anymore. I said stop it–!”

Victoria made a pulling motion with her hands, her eyes glowing bright red.

“What the–? I’m not joking you little twerp, I’ll shoot–”

Before Marina could get out another threat, the floor suddenly slipped out from under her.

Something had struck at her feet and shifted the dirt she was standing on.

Marina fell over backwards, almost on top of Elena, who scampered away in shock.

Her gun remained in her hands.

As she hit the ground she raised the weapon.

Then her finger stopped right inside the trigger guard, unable to press down.

Her hand tensed and shook. From a seated position, she had the gun trained on Victoria.

Her hand wouldn’t fire. And it was not her own trepidation.

It was if something was holding her trigger finger.

Victoria twisted her hand in mid-air.

Marina’s whole body tensed up. Her jaw clenched. She choked out words.

“Stop– Stop touching me– Stop–”

In that instant, Elena was suddenly bombarded with sensation.

She understood what Marina was feeling.

She could almost hear what Marina was thinking.

Sparks were flying just under Marina’s skin. She hated being touched; she was afraid of it. So many people had touched her in terribly wrong, terribly painful ways. That traumatic sense of danger she felt whenever someone touched her started to flare up, but nothing was touching her. Elena was not, and Victoria was nowhere near. But something was grabbing her hair, twisting her wrists, squeezing her fingers, stepping on her feet, and forcing her mouth to grit closed.

Elena could almost see it, like millions of little fingers all pressing on her at once.

All of Marina’s senses were firing, screaming.

And so, in turn, did all of Elena’s.

Elena nearly vomited. Her eyes were burning.

She was overwhelmed with empathy for Marina’s overwhelming disgust.

Her eyes started to weep. It wasn’t even her own tears.

They were Marina’s. Tears for Marina’s own unweeping eyes.

And when Elena looked at those eyes, physically, rather than mentally–

Red rings appeared around Marina’s eyes, matching those around Victoria’s.

She was shaking from the peak of her head to the tips of her fingers.

Then, suddenly, Marina’s hand started to move, irrespective of her own wishes.

Her arms and legs were used to stand her body up, despite all of her resistance.

Slowly, trembling, she removed the magazine from her pistol and discarded it.

There was one round in the chamber still.

Victoria dispassionately watched with those frightening eyes as Marina lifted the pistol up to her head, putting the barrel over one of her eyes. Her struggling jaw and tongue made whimpering, terrified noises, but she could not speak, move or resist. She was completely helpless.

Elena had to finally stand.

She could not endure anymore what was happening.

“Victoria! Stop! Please, oh my god, stop!”

Elena rushed from the floor and embraced Victoria, throwing her arms around her.

She could think of nothing else to do. Nothing that would fix what was happening.

She wept openly in Victoria’s shoulders, while the Shimii continued to glare past her.

“Stop it! Please stop! I can’t– I can’t bear to see this! Please! Please! This isn’t you!”

“You’re wrong. This is me. I have the fullness of my faculties.”

Victoria swept her hand. Elena screamed and shut her eyes.

Rather than a bang, she heard a dull thump.

Marina was lifted bodily and thrown back against a tree, where she came to feebly slump.

Victoria’s eyes turned a clear blue color again. Her voice was as cold as ever.

She shoved Elena’s arms from around her, and then grabbed her by the wrist.

“Are you finally going to do what I say?” Victoria asked.

Elena, eyes swollen with tears, her body trembling, gave a despondent nod of the head.  

“I’ll go with you. Please, just don’t hurt anyone here.”

“Fine. For you, I’ll promise I won’t.”

Elena tried to smile, but a sudden report shut out all of her senses.

She heard a discharge so loud that the noise ripped through her stomach.

Victoria’s head bobbed suddenly.

Something splashed on Elena’s chest, on her cheek.

Blood.

A streak of blood.

There was a clatter on the ground behind them.

Marina dropped her empty gun, fell to her side, and started to retch and vomit.

Victoria toppled over.

“No. Please. No. No. No! No–”

Elena sank to her knees next to Victoria’s body and tried to pick her up, to shake her. There was so much blood running down her forehead that it was impossible to see a wound, but Elena was sure she was dead.

Her fingertips could not feel anything anymore, but she was sure all the warmth was draining from Victoria as she held her.

Marina had killed her; she had killed Victoria.

Little Victoria from school who loved books and was quiet and a little cold, and nobody could get along with– except perhaps the forgotten, useless princess, the brusque school bully, and the stuck-up aspiring knight whom fate had brought together and then so suddenly torn apart.

People who had overnight disappeared from her life.

And here, maybe she had a second chance and then– and then everything happened. It was so sudden that Elena’s life had gone from the stasis of her prison in Vogelheim, to recalling the day to day shocks of her school days with her rocky little group and having to reconcile it.

Why was all of this happening? Why now?

What had gone wrong? What could she have done to avert all of this?

You’re really hard to love— had Sawyer been right?

Was all of this Elena’s fault? Her mind was racing through the horrible possibility.

Behind them, Marina was starting to stand on shaking legs.

She appeared almost as shocked at her own actions as Elena was with them.

“God damn it.” She mumbled. She grabbed hold of her own stomach.

Marina stumbled.

She dropped back to her knees, holding herself up by her hands, gagging.

Elena felt the ground shake.

She nearly fell back herself, and she was just sitting.

The quake transferred through her body, from deep in her gut to the tips of her fingers–

Victoria stirred.

Elena looked down at her, eyes drawn wide.

Fresh tears immediately followed.

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Through the blood that had spilled over them, Victoria opened her eyes.

Staring past Elena, up into the sky overhead.

“It’s failing.” She said, breathlessly.

Again the ground rumbled.

Victoria’s cat-like ears twitched. She raised her hand toward the heavens.

Elena looked up at the sky, following Victoria’s fingers.

Bands of color began to break across the blue sky and its fake clouds.

Something formed that split the firmament. A streak, a crack of visual noise.

There was a brief flash as the sky fully lost its contours.

What was once the sun was revealed to be a complex array of mechanical lights.

All around them, the illusion of a horizon and a sky was fully torn down.

Those massive panels that once created a sky now showed what was really outside.

When the heavens came down, there was only the dim, endless blue of the Imbrium.

Elena could not identify it, but what she was seeing was an algorithmic predictive image of the ocean. That was why she saw in all its vivid horror and glory the massive Cruiser Greater Imbria approaching Vogelheim, surrounded by the shattered and shattering remains of several other vessels which had failed to protect the station and flanked by many other ships and divers.

Her mind was reeling from the sight of her little storybook world coming suddenly down.

Victoria’s voice strained. “You can’t run from this anymore, Elena.”


Unjust Depths

Series 1: The Death March To Buren

Episode 4.7: The Day [[Her Sky Shattered]]

Even if it brings the world to the brink of ruin, you must demand justice.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.6]

This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.

Every soldier dreamed about their beloved on long, lonely voyages.

Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.

She expected nothing, knowing the impossible social positions they occupied.

And yet, despite everything, on this one insane, false nightfall in this forgotten island–

Was it actually a dream? Would she wake up in the Iron Lady, alone again?

Gertrude scolded herself internally.

No fantasy could ever measure up to the feeling of lying in bed, holding Elena in her arms, squeezing the princess’ back against her chest. Skin to skin, with nothing between them. Sweating profusely despite the best efforts of the climate control system. Shivering when touched, still tender and sensitive. Gertrude could have never imagined the Princess would have sought her out not just for emotional support but physical pleasure.

She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!

It was a sight, that indigo head of hair enthusiastically exploring between Gertrude’s legs, clumsily returning the affection that Gertrude had given without expecting anything back. The memory would last her a few more years at sea, though hopefully it would not be so long. It could have never been a dream; Gertrude would not have let herself dream it.

“Gertrude.”

Agitated, a little weakened, facing away from Gertrude, the Princess’ voice rose up.

“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not staying the night.”

Gertrude held her even tighter.

Elena felt almost diaphanous in her hands. Like she was made of silk.

She had her strengths. She didn’t see herself as weak.

But she was frail, delicate, precious.

In the times that they lived in now she was more vulnerable than ever before.

“I have to go. But I will stay until the very last second I can.”

“Just– just hold me for a bit. If you do that, I’ll last a few more years too, like you said.”

Elena giggled a little. Gertrude was surprised to hear it.

She turned around in Gertrude’s arms, locking eyes with her.

“I’m glad you were my first time.”

She craned her head and kissed Gertrude softly on the lips.

Gertrude laid a hand on Elena’s hair and pulled her head into her chest.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. You were my first too, Princess.”


“Those two remind you of yourself and Leda. That’s why you let her into Vogelheim.”

“Shut up. Don’t bring that up. The Prince made his decision, and so I made mine.”

“So then, it’s true. After all, if you wanted to, you could have stopped her–”

Bethany struck Marina’s bare back with her palm. Marina nearly jumped.

“You don’t get to be cheeky, you whimpering little spoon. Be glad I’m this kind to you.”

Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.

“Fine, fine. Be tender with me! I can’t ask this of just anyone I seduce, you know?”

“God, I feel so special right now.”

Save for a few indiscretions over the years, Bethany’s sex life was nonexistent.

So, she could not help but actually feel a bit special about Marina.

Not that she would tell the fucking spy those honest feelings.

Moreso than just sex, as good as the sex had been, Marina wanted to be held and comforted, and in a way, that comforted Bethany as well. It had been even longer since she had a lover who stayed the night, who stayed in her bed, with whom she could share a bit of warmth. A lover whose hair she could smell, whose sweat she could taste as she nuzzled her neck. In the same way that Marina could not ask this “of just anyone,” Bethany was also restricted in whom she could have this kind of affection with. This was the sort of simulacra of love that required a shared history to maintain the illusion. Anyone else whom Bethany could love like this was already dead.

Marina and Bethany had a connection: revolving around a third woman they had loved.

A colossus of a woman who was going to shake the entire world, and certainly shook theirs.

A dead woman that both of them failed in their own ways, and then abandoned.

These two women lay in a big, ornate bed together like royalty, one holding the other.

Bethany rubbed Marina’s back briefly. As she suspected, Marina had artificially hidden her scars. It felt like there were even new ones.

Her only visible scar was the one Leda put on her chest; so Bethany would recall it.

Were you tortured? What have you been doing? Why are you Marina now?

Why didn’t you return to the Republic when the plot failed?

Those were the questions she wanted to ask. But that just wasn’t their relationship.

“Might I hope for a massage tonight? Dare I dream of such luxury?”

“Maybe. You’re so pathetic that I’m considering it.”

“Do you have a smoke around?”

“No. Your lungs will thank you for it.”

“I could really go for one.”

Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.

All of this was far too nostalgic and idyllic for Bethany.

She knew that the world was a bleak place where people used and abused each other.

“Marina, why are you here? You didn’t come to Vogelheim just for me.” She said.

She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.

“I told you, completely honestly, I wanted to reconnect. It’s our last chance for that.”

Marina was not lying. Bethany knew that. But she was not telling the whole truth.

“You want to take Elena away. Tell me why.” Bethany said.

There was no other possible reason.

Had it been anyone else, she might have said ‘You want to kill Elena.’

But she knew that, even for the G.I.A., this particular spy would not do such a thing.

“She just looks so much like her mother. I can’t help myself.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“Yeah, I was grossed out by myself the moment I said it. I apologize.”

“Apologize by telling me the truth.”

Bethany started to rub Marina’s back, working her way up to her stiff shoulders.

Marina was quiet for a few moments, taking in the touch.

She still quivered, every so often, when there was a new movement she was not used to.

It was obvious that she had been hurt. She had been hurt really badly.

“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”

“The Union? Are you insane?”

Bethany was quite scandalized. Even someone like her, who had been part of subversive plots in the Empire, and who held quite a few grudges against her government, still nursed the Empire’s prejudice against the vicious communists to the South. What was the G.I.A. doing?

“We’re allies. The Union and the Republic; right now, the communists are our only remaining military power in the Western oceans. We can depend on them. They’re more reliable than you think.”

“Marina, I could understand taking her to the Republic, but–”

“How? The Empire is occupying the Ayre Reach. If we take Elena to the Union she can be safe until the Republic’s counteroffensive opens a route to get her to Alayze. That’s my plan. Listen, Bethany, I got some new contacts. I have some assets I can rely on to smuggle me and Elena into the Union. This is incumbent on us moving quickly. I can have her in the Union in a week.”

Bethany sighed into Marina’s back. She squeezed her shoulders a bit harder than before.

“Hey, careful.”

“I’ve done unthinkable things for Elena’s safety. And yet, this is giving me pause.”

“Bethany, this location won’t be safe anymore. Erich leaked it for a reason. It’s his way of telling you that he will not protect Elena anymore. They are not blood related, and she has no place in his Empire. I don’t know what kind of resources you have or what sort of deal you had with him, but it’s done now. He invited a bunch of nobles to meet him here, then he stood you all up. That’s his signal. Those people are on the chopping block and so is this entire island now.”

Bethany turned Marina around to face her.

For a moment, Marina struggled. She turned a pair of blank, panicked eyes on Bethany.

“Solceanos defend, I thought you wanted to garrote me or something!”

“Garrote you?”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m running an anxiety high here.”

Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.

She was tired, weary. Spent, even. Why was she doing all of this?

“It’s incredibly lame for a spy to keep telling me how fucked up she is.”

“It’s all part of my play, darling.”

“Marina tell me what you know. Do you have information on a plot against Elena?”

Bethany looked Marina dead in eyes. Not with anger, but with hope.

Hope for some kind of cooperation. To break the barrier that made them lie to each other.

Marina looked back at her. Again, her eyes were completely weary.

“I don’t have anything on an actual plot, but I can surmise one will happen. Vogelheim’s location has made it outside the ring of nobles invited to this meeting. I know because the info was sold to me. Ever since the Web network expanded to encompass the Empire instead of individual station LANs, it’s become huge in the underworld. Elena’s location is spreading, Bethany.”

“I’m not so savvy about this interweb stuff. But I get the point. Vogelheim is not secret anymore. So you’re afraid that Elena can’t stay here because someone could possibly target her.”

Marina sighed, as if it were worse than Bethany described.

“Erich told the nobles that he invited to Vogelheim that he would be meeting them here. You know this. If one of those nobles leaked that information then they leaked his presence too.”

At that point, the real danger of the situation finally hit Bethany.

She had been so stupid! She had been so stupid about everything!

It was not just that Elena was here. It was not in fact about Elena at all.

Outside entities had information that led them to believe that Erich was in a vulnerable location. He was not among his invincible, all-conquering fleet, he was hiding in a backwater station. He had gone to Vogelheim, a place that was now known to be important, to those who sought such information, to celebrate his sister’s birthday with a coterie of close aristocrats.

To know about Vogelheim was one thing. To know Erich would be there was much more.

For all of his rivals, it would seem a perfect chance to squash him and any alliances he was hoping to build within the aristocracy. Elena and Vogelheim would just be collateral damage.

“Solceanos protect us.”

“No, I will protect her. You have to let me take her, Bethany.”

Bethany was stunned speechless.

All those years ago, she had promised Leda that she would protect Elena.

She had stood by Elena’s side through her teenage and adult life.

Under the guise of teaching her, seeing to her, being the servant every noblewoman needed to have at hand to succeed in high society. Bethany also protected her. Marina was right when she said Bethany could have refused Gertrude entrance to Vogelheim. She had that right; that power. It was not only Erich who had granted it. Bethany had prepared defenses and contingencies.

She had never prepared for Erich himself to betray Elena. It was impossible to prepare for such a thing. It was like preparing against the wrath of God. Like trying to stop heaven from falling.

“I can protect her, Bethany.”

Marina looked into her eyes again. There was suddenly conviction, behind them.

Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.

“Tomorrow. Please. Let her have this for tonight. Let– let me have this.”

Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.

She returned Bethany’s embrace. Slowly; probing, as if fleetingly afraid of the touch.


The Iron Lady was the seventh ship of the Irmingard class of dreadnoughts designed in the 970s, and she was the latest to launch.

Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.

Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.

At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.

Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.

Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.

Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.

She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.

And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.

For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.

Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.

Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.

Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.

So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.

Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.

“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.

Gertrude winked at him.

“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”

“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”

“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”

“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”

“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”

“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”

Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”

“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”

Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.

After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”

He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.

How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.

Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.

Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.

Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.

“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.

“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”

“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”

Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.

Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.

She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.

Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.

“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”

“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”

Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.

“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.

Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.

“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”

“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”

“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”

“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”

Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.

She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.

“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”

“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”

That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.

“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”

“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.

“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.

She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”

Gertrude smiled.

“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”

The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.

“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.

“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”

Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dreschner shook his head.

“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”

Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.

“Perhaps.”

He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.

“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”

“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.

She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.

Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.

Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.

“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”

That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.

“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”

“I’m always decent.”

Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.

As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.

She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.

‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.

“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.

“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.

Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.

She did perfume herself before she left–

Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.

Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.

“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”

Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”

“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”

She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.

“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”

Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.

She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.

“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”

Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.

She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.

“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”

“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.

She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.

Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.

“As a matter of fact–”

Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.

“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”

“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”

Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.

“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.

She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.

Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.

She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.

“Awoo! This is amazing!”

She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.

“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”

Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.

“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”

“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”

Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.

In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.

Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.

“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”

For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.

Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.

“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”

Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.

“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”

“Oh my god, Ingrid–”

“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”

For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.

“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.

“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”

Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”

Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.

That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.

“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.

Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.

Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.

“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.

“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.

“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”

For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.

When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.

“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”

“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”

Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.

“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”

Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.

Ingrid was too headstrong for it.

She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.

Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”

“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”

“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”

Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.

“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?

“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”

“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”

“Not this one!”

Gertrude was once again laughing.

Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.

“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”

“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.

“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”

“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”

“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”

“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”

“Ok, let’s trade then.”

“Shut up!”

Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.


In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.

There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.

Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.

She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.

Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.

Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.

She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.

Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.

Words were exchanged.

Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.

Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.

“Victoria–”

Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.

She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.

She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.

There were no answers to be found in dreams.

There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.

“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.

Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.

She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.

“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”

There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.

Sawyer.

Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.

Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.

Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.

“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”

Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.

But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–

–In a nightmare,

“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”

She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.

“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”

In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.

“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”

Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.

She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.

Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.

A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.

“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”

She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.

Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.

She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!

And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.

In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.

Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.

Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.

She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.

She was lonely.

For how much longer would things go on like this?

Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?

Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.

And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.

Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?

Had she really done all those things?

Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?

Did her mother have to suffer like this too?

Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.

But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.

She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.

Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.

Fresh air would do her good.

Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.

It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.

She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.

A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.

All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.

It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.

Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.

Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.

There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.

Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.

For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.

Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.

She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.

While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.

Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.

Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.

It induced mourning.

“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”

She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.

That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.

Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.

She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.

And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.

“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”

Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.

“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.

In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.

She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.

Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.

Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.

“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”

“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”

Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.

A familiar voice.

When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.

“Victoria?”

The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.

The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.

Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.

Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.

“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.

Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.

She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.

“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”

“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”

Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.

“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”

Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”

For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?

Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–

“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.

“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”

Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.

“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”


Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.

Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.

Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.

Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.

This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.

Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.

When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.

“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”

At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.

“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”

After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.4]

Go fuck yourself, you drunk, womanizing cad.

Yana found a response written on a massive computer window left open in her room’s wall.

Her overnight partner, Aaliyah, was long gone. There was no trace for her. Even on the bed, any fluids they expelled in their passion would have been evaporated by the room as part of its cleaning routine. Yana sighed heavily, sinking into her bed. At least she would be leaving soon.

Maybe if she survived all of this mess she would skip town and move to Lyser.

Throwing her casual clothes on the ground, she laid in bed in her wetsuit for hours.

She asked herself, constantly: What should I feel about this?

For the past five years she had avoided work on ships.

Nagavanshi was right. She blamed herself for the Pravda. Nothing would change that.

Yana had thought the best medicine was to disappear.

She had served ten years in the military, from cadet to Captain. She had been promoted faster than any of her peer group and completed many more assignments. For years she had been obsessed with work. It was her right to retire to a peaceful life. And she had some good years, some great parties, some amazing exes. Fun stories to tell. Those first few years of drinking away the memory of the disaster that had befallen her served to erase her past; but also her future.

Now that she was older, she felt pressured to change herself. To become somebody.

Old habits die hard.

“That’s just stupid excuses, Yana.” She told herself. “I keep wanting to do this shit.”

Anyone who wanted could judge her, for the drinking, (for the womanizing.)

None of them could hurt her more than she hurt herself.

None of them could her feel more ashamed than she did.

And none of them could change her or what she felt.

In fact, no one had even tried. Everyone, including herself, found it easier to give up.

Until Nagavanshi — that woman was a demon.

She had a way of dominating anyone.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya of the UNX-001 Brigand.

Why was she doing this? Nagavanshi had placed so much importance on this ship.

Yana almost felt scared. To think that she would be responsible for a crew again.

After all she had done, for years, to avoid any responsibility for her actions.

“It’s Nagavanshi who wants me there. She said all that crap, didn’t she?”

There was a part of her, buried deep beneath the detritus of the past few years, that felt a strange thrill at the idea of commanding a ship again. And it was a ship on a historic mission, too. Nagavanshi had called her a hero. She had praised her so much. That praise pissed her off; it was so presumptive. Yana did not see herself that way– but she hated that she couldn’t feel that pride.

“But what if I could earn it again? What if–”

Nagavanshi’s voice in her head interrupted her thoughts.

What if she could redeem herself?

That was what Nagavanshi had explicitly offered her.

Could she ever actually redeem herself? Was she redeemable at all?

Yana grit her teeth, shook her head. She could not keep thinking about this.

She was so exhausted. Her head was pounding.

Manipulating the wall computer, she summoned a gentle violin melody.

All around her the lights dimmed.

“Wake me up an hour before the meeting.” She murmured as she typed the words.

Yana threw herself back against the bed, shut her eyes, and had a long, dreamless nap.

Hours passed. All of the darkness of the past few hours washed out of her body in sleep.

She awakened a few minutes before her alarm, in time to hear it go off and feel annoyed.

Purged of emotion, and cured of her headache, Yana felt as ready she could ever be.

Standing at the door to her wardrobe, she hesitated, fingers hovering over the door handle.

“Nagavanshi said it can only be me. So, let her bear the responsibility then.”

Disabusing herself of the burden of her fate allowed Yana to throw open those doors and push aside the cocktail dresses, the tailored blazers and pants, the erotic lingerie, and other regalia of the life she had pursued. Behind all of it was her military uniform. Thankfully, her figure had not changed overmuch from when she was active duty. She had kept fit enough for uniform.

For the first time in years, she donned a full bodysuit, dress shirt, uniform skirt and coat. Her rank insignia, a yellow bar with three circles with a small star inside for Senior Captain, shone proudly on both the lapel of her coat, and just above her breasts. Her blonde hair was again tidied up behind the back of her head with a claw hair clip. Professional; confident; maybe even austere.

Maybe even too austere. She dabbed a bit of red lipstick on before leaving the apartment.

Having just a little bit of party girl in her would not hurt crew discipline.

With makeup, her face looked remarkably like she remembered it before the Pravda.

Was the woman staring back at her truly 36 years old? Had that much time passed?

Yana touched her own face.

“God, I still look like a girl.”

Having lost perspective on this, her idea of a girl was herself, in her late 20s.

That was the face she saw looking back, the face that surprised her.

For some reason she expected she looked much more wearied, worn.

“I guess there’s a little bit around my eyes.”

Yana really had to strain to see the tiny wrinkles there.

Nevertheless, she dabbed a little concealer from her makeup kit around her eyes.

Seeing herself in uniform, all made up, and moving on to a new ship, it surprised her. All of these touchstones to a past she felt had been completely obliterated, gave her a tiny bit of hope that allowed her to gird herself for the future. To go back to the Naval HQ, after half a decade of military abstinence. She almost enjoyed how she looked in the coat and skirt.

She struck a pose with her fists on her hips, leaning forward.

Mustering up her most commanding voice, she pointed a finger at her reflection.

“Launch torpedo #8! Go for the enemy’s forward ballast!”

Even more surprising, she found herself smiling in front of the mirror.

“My, oh my.”

She winked at her reflection before departing her room.

Nagavanshi had not given her a specific time she should appear at the HQ, so she figured she could make it in by 1800. That was the second shift at the offices. To simulate “night,” a concept which was scientifically understood but not experienced beneath the sea, the lights around the station started to dim. By 1800 the Station would start to transition to its night life. People would open up co-op bars and even tiny pop-ups in the halls and plazas. There was music and dancing, and a flurry of colors provided by party drones, balls of LED lights with basic programming.

All industrial production in the Union was controlled by cadres of workers that answered to the central Union government. This is what gave the Union its name at first. It had risen out of labor unionization. This continued to be the case, but the Union allowed home-made goods, and anyone who wanted could apply to purchase or trade the raw materials to make their own textiles, alcohol, and computerized devices. When there was a surplus, some materials were even free.

For alcohol in particular, there was an additional restriction that home-made drinks could not be sold during the “day” when people worked. So walking the halls at night, one would see all manner of tiny places open out of personal rooms or shared workspaces, selling their own brews.

Yana was tempted, but she valiantly resisted. She had work to go to, after all.

Her journey took her past a few makeshift clubs, like the ones she would have loved to frequent on any other night. There was beautiful music and gorgeous singing, people dressed in the nicest outfit they owned (or could borrow), close dancing. There was a tight, sweaty, sensual atmosphere to the clubs that, in the most intense places, would even waft out into the hall.

She pushed herself to walk faster and avoided looking through those doors.

For people who lived in and worked either in small, thriftily organized spaces, often by themselves or in tiny groups that would rarely deviate from their work; or worse, out in the terrifying void that was the Ocean surrounding the Station; there was something about the clubs, which formed in open or mid-size spaces, that gave the inhabitants like Yana a lot of comfort. Even the most packed club felt lived in, organic, in a way the Station halls and room could not be.

“No clubbing for you. You’ve decided to be a responsible adult, remember Yana?”

Finally she reached the elevators and took them up to the docks and the Naval HQ.

During the day, the Naval HQ was a chaotic flurry of activity, but at night, it was downright serene. Aside from a few Rabochiy still moving cargo, and a paltry few security officers patrolling with rubber-grenade rifles in hand, there was little traffic, and one could see how broad the thoroughfares were in the Docks and around the Naval HQ. Up above, and all around her, the glass panels looking out onto the berths were brightly lit and allowed Yana to see many ships at rest.

None of those berths contained the ship in the picture, the Brigand. (Her own ship?)

Yana wandered into the Naval HQ, where a receptionist was organizing the front desk, perhaps for want of anything else to do. When Yana arrived, she quickly made herself available.

“Commissar-General Nagavanshi is waiting for me.”

“Oh! Authenticate in the elevator and then tell it to take you to the Observation Spire.” The receptionist said. “While you’re here, by the way, did you see too many people outside?”

Yana shook her head.

“Great! Time for a break.”

With that, the receptionist pressed a button on her desk, and a window appeared on an LCD panel on the adjoining wall, indicating that the reception was closed for 25 minutes.

“Enjoy your break.”

Smiling, Yana ambled past the reception desk and into the elevator.

Inside, a robotic voice acknowledged her presence.

“Senior Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

It had detected the computer chip embedded in her coat. Her credentials still worked.

She saw a few buttons on the wall, but those manual controls were only for the publically accessible floors. In order to access the highest levels of the HQ building, one required credentials that had to be authenticated by machine. Yana had been authorized, so she could verbally select a normally classified destination. Those who were prohibited access didn’t even have the option.

“Observation spire.” She said.

There was no answer from the elevator.

“Observation spire. OX-1917.”

“Location not recognized!”

The elevator was not a thinking entity — no machines could think for themselves, no matter how advanced. It was designed to receive certain input and to take action in response. Clearly it was not working. Yana sighed. She got closer to the control panel and found a manual input for location codes. That was also the location of the elevator microphone. She put her lips near it.

“Observation spire.”

“Location not recognized!”

Grumbling, she put the manual code in for the Spire into the elevator.

Finally there was a slight vibration as it got going.

So much for the glitzy, computerized future.

There was a significant amount of computerization in the Union. They had less manpower than the Empire and less space. Any job a computer could handle was a job that a human did not have to do and freed those humans up to do jobs a computer could not be programmed or trusted to perform — such as firing weapons or offering good service. It was plain to see however that some automation decisions had been poorly thought out, poorly implemented, or both.

Once the elevator got moving it quickly raised Yana through the interior structure of the Thassal mound, and the core pylon holding up the mound and the station. She was lifted up to a point just over the docks. She exited out onto a room with a domed roof that appeared as if it was glass. In reality, it was all LCDs displaying feeds from high-powered cameras outside, making it seem like they were windows and that she was under a dome of glass. A central set of steps led up to three tiers of bulbous observation rooms that offered their guests an unimpressive view of the outside. It was all dark and murky, no matter how well lit or how powerful the cameras.

She could see the outline of at least one ship out there in the dark, however.

As she stepped out of the elevator, she saw a few people loitering about the area in uniform.

Two approached her. One was Nagavanshi, who had a friendless look on her face as usual. Beside her stood a woman in uniform.

Black coat with red trim, and a skirt, over a body stocking.

“There you are, Korabiskaya. I want to introduce you to the Commissar here–”

The Commissar accompanying Nagavanshi was a young woman. Her light olive skin and long dark hair looked devastatingly familiar, as did a pair of fluffy cat-like ears sticking out of the top of her head. Her slender figure, gentle orange eyes and thin, lightly reddened lips brought Yana back to a place she would have rather forgotten all about, and a time similarly fraught. Clubs, liquor pop-ups, the dimly lit station streets. Sweet words, invigorating conversation. A bedroom, the pair desperately undressing. Lifting her up, teasing her, gently nipping the tips of her breasts–

Yana wanted to sink through the floor and be crushed by the sea outside.

And the woman staring daggers at her looked no less mortified, but far more furious.

“This is Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. You two will share command of the Brigand.”

Nagavanshi introduced them. She seemed unaware of the volatile auras between them.

Aaliyah extended her hand silently when prompted.

Filled with a desperate need to cause no further trouble, Yana took the hand.

They exchanged a single, extremely stiff shake, before averting their gazes.

“Her role will be to help you with discipline and personnel decisions. I still expect you to take charge of strategy, but she is a great strategist also and will advise you. I fully vouch for her.”

Curiously, Aaliyah did not have a matching Naga armband. Nobody else in the room did.

That was perhaps the only comforting observation Yana had made of the situation.

“I’ll convene everyone for a briefing in a few minutes.”

Suddenly, Nagavanshi turned around and left them, heading upstairs.

An awkward silence ensued as Aaliyah and Yana stared at one another.

“Got anything to say to me?”

Aaliyah moved first, crossing her arms. Yana withered under her piercing glare.

Despite thinking over everything she could say, the words practically stumbled out of her.

“I hope we can have a professional relationship.”

It was so bad! The worst thing to say!

Aaliyah’s face softened at first as if she could not believe what she heard. Her ears stood on end, and her tail was curled. Then her shaking hands became fists. She bore her fangs.

“I’ll be perfectly professional. A word of professional advice: if you think a girl is so easy you can just fuck her and leave without aftercare, maybe you shouldn’t whisper so many sweet words to her and make yourself out to be so sensitive and caring and oh so in love. Be honest about playing me. Playing me so hard, you didn’t even want to see me wake up, or even two hours later.”

Like Nagavanshi, she turned around and walked away the instant of her last words. Yana was left standing there speechless, mortified, unable to mutter an apology.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.3]

“If this is what married life might look like, sign me up right now!”

Karuniya leaned back until her head came to rest on Murati’s lap.

“We are trying to sign up. It takes a while.”

“Oh, shut up. You know what I mean!”

She looked up with those precious emerald eyes, full of warmth. Setting aside her mini-computer, Murati caressed Karuniya’s hair, returning the wide, beaming smile that her girlfriend gave her. She put her back against the wall adjacent her bed and sighed contentedly. She did know exactly what Karuniya meant. Their feelings were entwined more than ever.

Something about surviving certain death cast new light on what was profoundly important.

One part of their resolution from the battle at Thassal was that they had to spend more time together. Once Murati got out of the hospital, they immediately put their date back on the calendar. Both of them had committed to the Reserve due to the intense fighting they saw in Thassal, and due to the arrival of more experienced troops from Solstice. So they had nothing but free time.

For this date, they agreed to take it a little easier than they had during their last rendezvous.

They gathered everything they could want for a lazy afternoon.

Rented mini-computers, and the proper cables for a direct LAN connection; beet-sugar sodas; and a big bowl of toasted corn and peanuts, drizzled with a little bit of oil and yeast flakes. They could eat snacks, watch and listen to different media, maybe even play some video games.

There was also another pressing bit of business the computers would allow them to tackle.

Once they were ready, the two of them convened in Murati’s room with fluttering hearts.

They booted the computers they had taken out. They felt the anticipation in their fingertips.

Sitting together on the bed, holding hands, they locked eyes, with serious expressions.

“Let’s make it official then.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! Official, above-board girlfriends!” Karuniya replied.

This determination led them to the Union government’s intranet portal for Thassal.

Together, they filled out the computer form and applied for permanent cohabitation.

For now, they were registered as authorized administrators of each other’s rooms.

Eventually, they hoped to apply for a double-wide apartment and free up their singles.

All it took was a few taps on the screen. Technology had really come quite far.

It had been so easy and instantaneous that the dramatic tension they both felt had dissipated.

At that point, they collapsed against one another and played around on the computers.

Murati was seated, holding her minicomputer up, and Karuniya had her head on her lap.

“Murati, let me show this BBS I found! It’s so full of haughty students.”

She gave Murati the numbered address of the BBS and Murati navigated directly to it. While the design of the page was very sparse, it had all they needed for a spirited conversation on Union civics. Columned text posts, the perpetrators of them, and all of the associated metadata.

Some posts had photographs attached of the posters. Others had symbols or identifying marks. Any wall camera could take a picture for you and upload it to your room or a minicomputer as was convenient for you, but some folks got creative. There was a poster named ‘Agora’ who had as their avatar a picture of a barter table. Another, ‘Baerotrauma69’ had a more avant-garde style, known only to them. Murati had been in the Academy when intranet forums usage began to rise sharply. Originally intended for educational discussion, they had become an outlet for a very room-bound population to make friends and accost their enemies, as more and more computers were built and made accessible to the public through the government lending libraries.

Murati and Karuniya had a mutual fascination with ‘the net’.

Neither of them felt like using it for educational purposes.

Smirking, Karuniya began to type. “Judging by your avatar you must be a Camposist, as it is evident you’ve been on quite a conquest for bread.” Her fingers hovered over the keys waiting for Murati’s approval. Her loving partner cuddled up beside her and read the message.

“That’s so mean. Send it. Let me look at his picture– ok, yeah, send it.”

A tiny ‘hehehe’ accompanied Karuniya striking the “send” key on the contextual keyboard.

“The debate room is too easy.” Murati said. “Here’s where the real artisanal grief can be stricken. They’ve got a BBS for video games. Those kinds of posters can’t help themselves.”

Murati raised her eyes to the ceiling, thinking for a moment, then began to thumb-type. “I found a secret in the 8th level ‘Climbing Comrades’. Walk off the ledge just before the castle exit!”

“Seriously? That’s kids’ stuff.” Karuniya said. “Try making a case for ‘Constant Attack II’ being a puzzle game. People will get way angrier if you just assert things like that without basis.”

“Oatmeal is a soup.” Murati said in direct voice, perfectly suppressing the urge to laugh.

Karuniya stuck her tongue out at her. Murati laughed and continued her intranet journey.

“There’s a BBS for trading stuff. Want to look? There’s handmade goods, room mods–”

In response Karuniya rolled her head around on Murati’s lap, flailing her arms.

“We’re thinking about new a room this early huh?” She wailed. “Overwhelming.”

“Oh don’t be like that. We could get some nice things to make it feel cozy.”

“I just don’t want to think about difficult things. I’m done making choices for the day.”

“It’s not difficult at all!” Murati said. “Look, someone is trading a virtual aquarium. Hand-made pixel art wallpapers on diskette for room computers. An old cleaning drone that is programmed to whine and act like an animal to work as a cyber-pet. Isn’t that fun sounding?”

Karuniya scowled. “Should we get a crib for the baby?”

Murati instantly petrified. For a split second she went over the night they spent together. She vividly remembered a condom; how could she forget who put it on, and how? Then Karuniya started to laugh openly at her, before her imagination could get any further carried away.

“Hey, don’t joke about that.” Murati said, her tone of voice lower and more severe.

“I wouldn’t try to raise a kid if we had one anyway.” Karuniya mumbled.

“I really don’t want to think about anything like that, Karu.”

“Now you know how I feel.”

“It’s entirely different! Orders of magnitude different! I’m asking you about wallpaper!”

“Yes, and I don’t want to think about it.”

Karuniya poked at Murati’s inner thigh with her finger while mumbling childishly.

Murati was exasperated at first.

She could not help but slowly devolve into sniffling laughter. What a ridiculous woman! She put a hand on Karuniya’s head and rubbed her hair all over, flooded with affection for her.

“Who is being a troublemaker now?” Murati said mockingly.

“Ah! Stop it! It’s your fault! You’re rubbing off on me!”

“You’re being so petty!”

“I love you!”

Karuniya sat up suddenly and planted a kiss on Murati’s cheek.

She whispered in a sultry voice in Murati’s ear.

“Shut up for a little bit and I’ll kiss somewhere else.”

When she dropped back onto her lap, Murati was dead silent, smiling down at her.

“Unfortunately for you, I’m not actually in the mood.”

Murati reached down and started to tickle Karuniya’s stomach.

“Ah! No!”

This affectionate battle characterized their cohabitation for a few minutes.

Then peace returned to the apartment as the two of them settled back down.

“Oh, this is interesting.”

Sitting up, Karuniya showed Murati her own minicomputer. There was a board for sharing pictures of life on the station. One post had a photo attached which had been taken by an exterior berth camera. It showed the hundreds of ships saturating the waters of Thassal Station. Many of them had recognizable hulls for a pair of soldiers who had just fought a fleet action not long ago.

There was one ship in the photo that looked markedly different.

“Everyone’s talking about this one. Nobody can identify the class it’s supposed to be.”

“It’s gigantic. Must be at least cruiser sized. Maybe it’s an old hauler.” Murati said.

Murati got up close to the computer, taking in the picture. It was a remarkable ship.

“It looks so worn out.” Karuniya said. “I knew you’d love it. Why do you think it’s here?”

“Maybe it is bringing supplies. It looks a bit like an old hauler, but not any of our newer transporters. We could have brought it out of reserve to make up for a shortfall of cargo ships.”

“I hope that’s not the case. I’d hate to think we’re having logistical problems this early.”

This early — in the war they were both sure would be coming now.

In their little island of peace, with their thoughts for a romantic future.

All around there were hundreds of warships, and far beyond, lay thousands of enemy ships.

“I don’t want to think about it!”

Karuniya raised her arms in protest and pushed Murati to stand up off the bed.

Confused, Murati quietly acquiesced.

“Go fetch us some lunch. I want to use the bandwidth we have to download a film.”

“Karuniya, that will take hours. The LAN speed for non-government stuff is atrocious.”

“Which is why you can use the time to have a nice walk, and I can have a nice nap!”

Karuniya took up all of the bed, setting the computer aside to download several hundred megabytes worth of a movie file at 256 kbps. From the look of the file name and the particular FTP site she was getting it from it appeared to be a schlocky horror film. Murati heaved a sigh, but it truly seemed that Karuniya wanted to be lazy and nothing would convince her otherwise.

Murati knew how troubled she was, even though she tried to blow it off.

Before the battle for Thassal, her partner had not been saccharine about their relationship. That she sincerely wanted to live together and make big steps in their relationship meant she had been affected by everything that transpired. Murati felt blessed by this. Getting lunch for her was a simple task, and the reward of coming back into the room and seeing her there waiting was enough.

“I’ll be back!”

With a spring in her step, Murati headed over to the canteen at Bubble. There was a buzz of activity around the lower Block. Several new arrivals had to be housed, at least temporarily, so there were people in front of every door, being led to their new accommodations, shown the amenities and being read the Thassal housing charter. A few rooms looked like they would be crowded with three soldiers at a time. With a hundred more ships at the station than before, and no immediate mission, it meant thousands of off-duty soldiers mixed up with the familiar neighbors.

At the canteen, she chose one of each menu item. When there were two to feed, it didn’t make sense to pick two A menus or two B menus: they could share every item. It turned out to be a great haul this time. Pickled eggs, tomato relish, broth-soaked biscuits, eggplant; it was a king’s ransom. She wondered if they were being grandiose with the meals as a celebration of the battle. Soldiers returning to the station or being rotated out to the reserve could use the extra comfort.

When she was on her way back, Murati found someone waiting at the entrance to the block.

Her eyes first noticed the armband, with a stylized serpent.

Ashura.

That armband represented the communist party’s elite forces. They served in security and intelligence roles, as well as in arbitration of civil conflicts. And the person before her was not just any Ashura. Judging by the insignia on her uniform, four red and gold stars, she would have been an Admiral. There were no Admirals among the Ashura, however. They had different ranks.

Those stylized stars were instead meant to be read as “Commissar-General.”

When she fully realized this, Murati stopped in front of the woman with a wide-eyed stare.

“Murati Nakara, correct? I am Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.”

Murati shifted the way she was carrying her boxes so she could salute Nagavanshi.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “No need for formalities. You’re in the reserve. Is civilian life treating you and Maharapratham well? I heard you took the first step with her a few hours ago.”

The first step— it was a euphemism. Cohabitation was the first step to marriage. In the Union, marriage was chiefly tied to space. Couples that wanted to live together needed larger rooms, and they freed up smaller living spaces for others, like young adults who were leaving the school dorms. To be married, to live in a space befitting two people, was the next step.

For those who wanted to raise their own families, rather than put their children in government custody, there was another step beyond marriage, to acquiring a larger living space. Such faculties were rare. But that was the cultural touchstone Nagavanshi was alluding to. The steps two people took.

And it haunted Murati when she realized how much Nagavanshi knew about her. All of those records were public, but it meant Nagavanshi was searching for information about her. And she had been searching as recently as a few hours ago when Karuniya joined her to make the first request, for cohabitation. Perhaps she was still collecting data about her even as they spoke.

The intelligence services really were a force to be feared.

Now Murati was even more worried about the Commissar-General’s presence.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“I read about the battle of Thassalid Trench. You were recorded by Deshnov as one of the architects of that battle’s strategy. We won because of you; of course you would earn notoriety.”

“I know. I am being considered for a position at HQ in the Strategy department, by Rear Admiral Goswani. Until my review I was asked to remain in the Reserve.” Murati said.

“That is not what you want, right?”

Nagavanshi produced from her black and gold coat a document in a folder.

“You’ve made the most petitions out of anyone in your peer group. You don’t want to plot behind a desk at the HQ. You want to command; you want to be in the middle of the action.”

She opened the folder briefly. It was full of review documents for Murati’s petitions.

Murati’s words caught in her throat.

Maybe a week or two ago she would have responded with confidence. She would have said in the affirmative that she was destined to Captain a ship. She was born to fight the enemies of the Union. She would live to take the Union’s justice to the Empire that threatened to destroy them. All of these things she so staunchly believed where shaken now, however.

At the battle of Thassal she had killed many people and won victory.

It had shown her the suddenness, the terror, the surreal insanity of war.

Karuniya and her were starting to assemble a different kind of life.

“Commissar-General, at the moment I’m in the Navy reserve, so–”

She tried to deflect, but Nagavanshi was not letting her escape so easily.

“I’m assembling a crew. I’ve got a ship, and a revolutionary mission that cannot succeed without you.” Nagavanshi said. “I hope that you will join us because as a staunch mordecist you understand our historic conditions. We can assemble all the ships we want at Ferris. Our Navy is at best 1000 strong, which is maybe a fifth of active Imperial war power, not to mention reserves. We can hide away and build our strength and bide our time, but we will never build 4000 ships in a year or two. Our time is short. I want to take decisive action; to take the fight to the Empire within a week.”

What frightened Murati the most was this was not someone’s lunatic raving.

Nagavanshi was speaking unopposed, but she spoke with a casual confidence.

Everything she was saying, she had thought through with immense care.

And yet there was an underlying contradiction that made her sound insane.

“That isn’t possible.” Murati said. “You just said we don’t have enough fighting strength. Then you’re saying we need to confront the Empire. With one ship? I don’t understand ma’am.”

Nagavanshi did not waver. Her voice was steadied by a palpable conviction.

“All of the fighting power we need is mustering in the Empire as we speak. They are going to take advantage of their own historic conditions and take a gamble for their futures. They might fail without us. I’m not asking you to fight alone. I’m asking you to join my one ship so you can take up arms with all of the dispossessed in the Empire itself and help them follow our footsteps.”

 A revolution was brewing– in the Empire itself. How was this possible?

“Will you turn away from their revolution? When they need you?”

Nagavanshi was extremely dangerous.

She knew exactly how to pitch something to Murati that she could not resist.

All of this time, Murati had devoted herself to fighting in memory of her revolution.

A thousand generations lived inside her. That’s what the Union told its youth.

Was the Empire truly on the cusp of revolution? An event that all of her life had seemed outside the realm of possibility; something never spoken to her, never taught to her, something that was in no books she had ever read. The Empire’s poor and the Empire’s weak, the Empire’s young; would they too, spill the blood of an entire generation to overturn their oppression?

Murati’s fist shook with frustration.

It was the part of her Karuniya called “a troublemaker” preventing her from turning away.

A part of her that would always agitate for what was right, what was fair.

That would always stand with those who faced injustice.

That would always take the comfortable and the elite to task for their complacency.

And yet, she was so conflicted. Because she had become complacent herself.

“Commissar-General, I’m not convinced the Empire can have revolutionary potential. And even if it were to be developed I’m not convinced that it can be truly effective.” She was lying, she was practically lying to herself and to Nagavanshi, and it was evident in her face, eyes closed, her jaw trembling with anxiety. “I’m furthermore not convinced your idea of sending one ship out into the Empire to do who-knows-what, could possibly further that potential. So I’m afraid–”

“I’m disappointed, and unmoved.”

Nagavanshi produced from the other side of her coat a minicomputer.

It was smaller than most of its kind and emblazoned with her logo.

But the screen was bright and clear. And Karuniya’s face was on that screen.

“I’ve dispatched a message to your fiancé. She will not refuse my offer.”

Her golden eyes locked onto Murati’s own auburn eyes with imperious contempt.

“I had hoped you would join us out of your own intellect and moral development. Clearly I overestimated you. Nonetheless, I will do whatever it takes to launch this mission, Lieutenant.”

Murati dropped her lunch boxes and grabbed hold of Nagavanshi by her coat.

By force, she practically lifted her opponent.

She was a head taller; the Commissar-General could not resist her.

Nagavanshi never tried to struggle. She was completely unfazed.

Those terrifying golden eyes remained steadily locked on Murati’s own.

“Everyone feels entitled to put their hands on me today.” Nagavanshi lamented.

Murati felt ridiculous and furious in equal proportion.

To do this was a flagrant, violent act that was wholly unwarranted.

And yet she wanted nothing more than to rip Nagavanshi’s head clean off.

“Leave Karuniya out of this.” Murati said through a stiff, fang-bearing grimace.

Nagavanshi made no expression in return.

“So you would leave without taking your fiancé? It had always been my intention for the two of you to go together. In fact I planned such a thing for your sake. I could have gotten any Oceanographer, but she is the best choice to make sure you are operating at maximum efficiency.”

“What?”

It had not even occurred to Murati that all of this would involve Karuniya.

Was she wrong to think so? She wanted to protect Karuniya.

To protect her– but they had sworn to be together now.

Nagavanshi saw the opportunity and interjected.

“I don’t mean to pry into private matters, but if you were intending to leave by yourself, it would void your cohabitation agreement, and probably also your partner’s affection and trust–”

Murati had enough.

She slammed Nagavanshi down to the ground.

The Commissar-General toppled over easily as if she had no physical strength to respond.

She looked the silliest that she had the entire conversation. Her cap went rolling. She fell into her own cape and looked more like a heap of clothes than a person for a few seconds. Her hair broke from its neat bun and fell down the front of her face. Her arm band nearly slid off her arm.

Slowly, the Commissar-General collected herself.

Murati was frozen in place.

Her head was spinning, drunk on a cocktail of impossible emotions and sensations.

She had never known herself to be this impulsive. She had struck a superior officer.

“Solceanos defend! Commissar, I’m so sorry–”

She genuinely meant it. And maybe Nagavanshi even knew that to be the case.

As before, the Ashura’s chief betrayed no emotion. When she stood back up, it was as if she had never been thrown, save for her wild hair and the slightest tremor in her hands.

“As a sign of goodwill, I will not press any charges or hold what you have done against you.” Nagavanshi said. “I will be expecting you in the Naval HQ for further debriefing tonight. You shall be pleased to know that commensurate with your new position as First Officer and Diver Leader of the UNX-001 Brigand, you will be promoted to Senior Lieutenant.”

Her black-gloved hand thrust something into Murati’s chest. A picture of the ship?

Then, without another word, she walked away. Murati almost wanted to describe it as “storming off” in her own reckoning. She felt that the Commissar-General was clearly aggravated in her body language despite her inexpressive face. Soon as she had appeared, she had vanished.

The entire discussion had felt like a flood swept over Murati. Had her lunch boxes not been on the ground, she might have wondered whether she was hallucinating in the middle of the hall.

At least the lunch boxes were clasped shut and sturdy.

She picked them up, took them under her arms and took off in a full sprint towards home.

As she ran, she almost wanted to cry.

Because they lived in the Union, there was truly no escaping war with the Empire.

To have even thought she could for an instant made Murati feel so foolish.

Nagavanshi had been right. She had been naïve to think she would just stay at the station.

Murati’s ideas had changed the battle at Thassal. She was inextricably linked to this war.

As she arrived at her room, she tried to compose herself before opening the door.

Inside, Karuniya was reading something. A message had appeared on the wall.

“Are you alright, Murati?” She asked. She did not look distressed.

Murati could not make out the wall message from the door. Because Karuniya had summoned it from her vantage on the bed, the text was big enough for her, but not for Murati. So she could not tell what kind of message Karuniya had received. She had a guess, however.

“I’m fine.”

She put on a smile and walked in with a lunchbox in each hand.

“There was some good stuff today.” Murati said. “I think you’ll love the eggplant–”

“Knock it off.”

Karuniya stopped her while she was going to put the lunches on the bed.

She looked up at Murati from the bed, her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed.

“Murati, never do that again. Don’t hide things from me. You’re terrible at it.”

Karuniya reached out and took Murati’s hands into her own.

Feeling those soft hands, seeing Karuniya right in front of her.

It really was a blessing, even though everything else seemed to grow ever darker.

“I’ll be with you no matter what.” Karuniya said.

Murati threw her arms around her in embrace, holding her tight, in complete silence. On the wall behind them, the message from Nagavanshi updated with a picture of the ship.

“You’re going to do this?” Murati asked.

“She contacted you too?”

They parted briefly, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Murati, I don’t think we have a choice.”

Karuniya touched Murati’s cheek.

“Yes, she offered me a lab and all kinds of things so I would join whatever mission they are getting up to. But the instant I saw the messages I knew that what the Ashura really wanted was ‘The Genius of Thassal’ to join their ship. And being honest, I thought you would love to go.”

“I’m conflicted.”

Murati averted her gaze.

Karuniya gently guided Murati’s eyes back to her own. Slowly, she kissed Murati on the lips. They shared a moment that was brief, warm, and immeasurably kind. Murati nearly wept with emotion.

“Besides being a scientist, I’m a soldier. That’s how things are in the Union. And besides being citizens of the Union, we’re soldiers. Besides even that, we’re revolutionaries. And the Murati I fell in love would cause no end of trouble for her own rights and those of others.”

Murati sighed. She looked well and truly resigned.

“It’ll put you in danger.” She said, weakly.            

Karuniya embraced her. No more was discussed about this.

Both of them had made their decision together. They held each other in enduring silence as if to say ‘no, it will put us in danger.’ They accepted it.


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