Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.4]

“Let me at that mouthy little bitch Gertrude! This is none of your business!”

“You’re getting violent over nothing! Calm down!”

“Don’t tell me to calm down, Gertrude! Don’t FUCKING tell me to calm down!”

Four girls in a metal room full of eerie tubing, lit intermittently by LEDs and their own lamp. They had snuck down here after hours, below the beautified illusion of green grass, tall trees and blue skies that pervaded Luxembourg School For Girls for the unremarkable guts of the station. It began as a little challenge, then became a sleepover. But their little adventure had turned sour– while a violet-haired girl sat on the floor with her gaze averted, hands nervously grasping her skirt, the other three girls were locked in a standoff. A tall girl with brown hair and broad shoulders and a fiery expression locked eyes with a taller girl, swarthy and black-haired, a bit leaner but equally strong. Behind her was a smaller girl, light chestnut hair collected into two long pigtails, shaken and hiding behind the black-haired girl.

“She treats me like shit! All the time! And you always fucking ignore it!” Sawyer shouted.

“She’s not doing it on purpose!” Gertrude shouted back. “You should fucking know by now! That’s how she talks! She can’t help it! She’s not trying to disrespect you for fuck’s sake! Sit back down!”

“Please, the two of you–” Elena whimpered from the floor, but couldn’t finish her sentence.

Heedless of the outcome, Sawyer took two steps forward and got up in Gertrude’s face.

Close enough to smell the candies they had been eating in Sawyer’s breath.

Close enough to kiss, even–

“Gertrude, if you want to stand in the way, then you’re taking the punches for her!”

As soon as the words left Sawyer’s mouth, Gertrude punched first.

Her fist collided with Sawyer’s throat. Staggering backward, eyes drawn wide, the surprise attack caused Sawyer to trip over her own feet and topple backward. Gertrude rushed to her, despite a brief pull on her shirt by Victoria and a shout from Elena, both trying to stop her, but she lunged nonetheless. Throwing herself on top of Sawyer, punching her in the chest, in the shoulder, barely avoiding her face–

Until Gertrude saw Sawyer holding up her own hands in self-defense, weeping–

“Fuck. Please. I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please, I’ll stop. I’ll stop.”

In that empty maintenance tunnel, the shouting and crying of her other friends felt suddenly distant.

Muffled.

Everything but the sounds of Sawyer’s own cries, folding under Gertrude so easily despite her bravado.

Whatever it was that Sawyer intended to do– in that moment, Gertrude had thrown the first punch.

She had done it to protect Victoria, but nobody was happy with her.

And looking down at the battered, whimpering Sawyer, Gertrude was not satisfied with herself.

She had thrown the first punch, escalated the violence– and she hated herself for having that reaction.

She would be forgiven, after several days of awkwardness and the little private pains of teenage friends.

Forgiven, this time, in the ways that teenagers can forgive while remaining wary, hurt, for some time–

This time–

This time– but if something didn’t change, there would be more–

And Gertrude, at the time, did not have the ability to change herself, or anyone else.

Especially not someone like Sawyer.


Depth Gauge: 3002 m
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)

The Iron Lady maneuvered slowly such that the anarchist Cutter floated at its port-side.

From the dreadnought’s own sidepod, a boarding chute extended and locked onto the sidepod airlock door of the Cutter. Once Monika and the engineers deemed the connection stable, they opened the chute door on the Iron Lady’s side. One of the engineers donned a pressurized suit and crossed the chute to the Cutter’s door, while the Iron Lady’s door temporarily closed behind him. With Monika on the radio, he checked the Cutter’s airlock door and found it to be sealed. He returned to procure needed tools.

“Looks like we’ll have to drill into this and unlock it with a tentacle. This will take a while.” Monika advised.

While engineering worked on the door, the boarding team got ready to move.

Some of the security team’s female members brought out armor supplies and assist in fitting them.

Gertrude would be taking point, and she dressed for the occasion. Her grandiose uniform was discarded in favor of more practical clothes. She had a blue, long-sleeved uniform with long blue pants, plain, but what was inside the sleeves and pants was important. With the advent of ferristitching, her sleeves and pants were lightly armored with liners of tough and thin nanomail which could ablate stray small arms fire as well as partially deflect the force of a stab from a knife, or blunt force from a club. It wouldn’t prevent injury altogether, but it could turn a messy and fatal exit wound into bruises and broken bones.

To augment this protection, Gertrude also wore a chestplate with the letters IMP in block white, for “Inquisitorial Military Police.” The chestplate had nanomail as well, but it also had kevlar and a ceramic plate. Between these three materials, Gertrude could get shot by an assault rifle and experience the attack as a blast of blunt force distributed across her chest, rather than a fatal sucking chest wound. It would hurt, but she would live. She had similar plates in multiple pieces on her upper leg and forearms, as well as separate guards on her knees and elbows, and a smaller and thinner liner in her tall boots. Thick black gloves protected her hands. She had her black hair tied up in a tight bun behind her head, out of the way.

Gertrude forewent a helmet, and opted instead for a clear flip-up visor of bulletproof glass. She carried a ballistic shield, a riot club and a vibroknife. She took a pistol with her, armed with a single magazine of eight frangible 10 mm bullets. In the tight quarters of a Cutter, shooting was usually out of the question, since it could damage something important or cause unpredictable ricocheting inside. Frangible bullets would shatter on impact with the walls to avoid penetrating anything important, but ultimately, firearms were a weapon of last resort in this particular scenario. Gertrude would not count upon this weapon.

“A suit that befits the vanguard.” Victoria said, upon spying Gertrude getting outfitted in the hangar.

“You’re getting one too.” Gertrude said. “I’m not letting you go in nothing but your little dandy shirt.”

“Well– Of course I wasn’t planning to do that.” Victoria said, briefly averting her gaze.

Victoria was presented with similar protections at first but there were problems with fitting. Gertrude’s musculature was well honed and practiced in bearing such loads and she kept in shape for it. Because Victoria found it troubling to move in a full suit of riot armor, she ended up wearing light armor pieces fastened with straps over her arms and legs, along with a lighter chestguard sans the ceramic plate. K9-spec ear and tail armor was fastened over her Shimii ears and tail and fit decently well, and she was given a visor to wear just like Gertrude. She insisted on carrying her vibrosabre, and resisted taking a pistol.

“I can manage. I’ve been in close quarters fights before. Just trust me.” Victoria protested.

“Fine. I will be trusting you to have my back. So if you go down, I will– keep that in mind.” Gertrude said.

Victoria held her hand to her chest and locked Gertrude’s eyes with a fierce gaze.

“I swear that will not allow an enemy to touch a single strand of your hair.” Victoria said.

“Um– Well. I can’t possibly turn away an oath like that, can I?”

Gertrude was slightly taken aback by Victoria’s smoldering eyes, and held them for some time.

She smiled. Victoria’s emotions were hard to read sometimes, and she had difficulty emoting.

But when she did, there was so much passion in that pampered cat.

Gertrude could not help but– admire her.

Off to the side, Ingrid, dressed in a pilot’s bodysuit, stared at the two of them with a sulky expression and her arms crossed. She was going to be the pilot on standby, so she was already not the first candidate for an entry team, and with how tight Cutter interiors were, it was standard to use two personnel per team, and employ only one or two teams for entry. Victoria was dead set on going, and Gertrude wanted to make herself personally responsible for their diplomatic guest– so the team was instantly configured.

Was she jealous? Gertrude noticed and felt an instant spike of anxiety.

“Hey, listen, I trust you with my life, and I’d take you if she wasn’t insisting.” She tried to mollify her.

Ingrid narrowed her eyes, throwing a look at Victoria. She then sighed and shrugged.

“It’s fine. I’m on standby anyway, and we don’t have that many pilots.” Ingrid put on a mischievous expression while staring at Victoria. “If there’s anyone I’d trust you with, it’s a Vekan ‘special agent’ anyway. You don’t know this Gertrude, because you just keep hearing and saying ‘special agent’ in Low Imbrian, but the Vekans actually have a specific word for that title, and boy, does it have history.”

Clearly this was some attempt to make fun of Victoria and raise her hackles.

Gertrude frowned. She was curious, but she knew what this was. “Come on, don’t antagonize her.”

Ingrid stared, perplexed. “Huh? I’m not antagonizing her! Hey, am I bothering you?”

Sighing, Gertrude looked to Victoria, about to apologize for Ingrid trying to bait a response.

Victoria, however, had no expression on her face. She didn’t seem to even recognize it as mockery.

“I’m not bothered.” Victoria said. “She’s correct about my title. She can tell you the story if she wants.”

“So then, you do have the title of Bayatar?” Ingrid pressed. “Is that what you mean by special agent?”

Her eyes were wild with some strange fascination. Gertrude did not like this interaction.

If she could have helped it, she would have prevented Ingrid from ever talking to Victoria, but–

“Yes. I am a Bayatar appointed by Empress Carmilla von Veka.” Victoria said nonchalantly.

Victoria responded simply as if she did not understand Ingrid’s tone.

Didn’t she realize she was being made fun of? Ingrid sounded like she was just mocking her.

Perhaps– was Ingrid really not making fun of her–?

“Can somebody explain?” Gertrude mumbled.

Ingrid grinned wider. “That’s so wicked! I guess I gotta trust whatever Veka sees in you.” She turned back to a confused Gertrude to explain. “Gertrude, Bayatar is the High Vekan word that this girl keeps saying means ‘special agent.’ In reality, it means hero, but even that doesn’t explain it at all. For the Vekans, the Bayatar are the greatest warriors. Even just saying ‘special forces’ doesn’t cut it. Bayatars kill so that their rulers do not have to fight unworthy battles. This ruffled-up kitty cat is invested by the Empress with the power to kill anyone— and to attain that title, she must have demonstrated a lot of fighting ability.”

“That’s correct. She knows her Vekan history.” Victoria said. She had seemingly no additional response based on Ingrid’s tone of voice or the bloodthirsty pleasure in which she spoke about the title.

Gertrude had been afraid Ingrid was going to joke about Victoria prostituting herself or something equally heinous, but she seemed to be just stating facts. It was rare to see Ingrid extend any kind of courtesy to strangers, especially to Shimii or Vekans, who were widely maligned in the Empire. Now Gertrude just felt bad for assuming Ingrid was going to be discourteous to Victoria automatically.

“I see.” Gertrude said, feeling awkward. “Ingrid, I didn’t know you had a thing for Vekan history.”

“It’s not just Vekan history. It’s also my family history here.” Ingrid said.

“How so?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. She paused for a second before speaking.

“During the Fueller rebellion, the Northern Host of the Loup sided with the Fuellers, while the Southern Host of the Loup sided with the Nocht dynasty.” Ingrid said. “At the time there was a Loup Bayatar. You’ve heard the surname, Samoylovych, from that one fucking bitch. Well, her ancestor in this story was Bayatar Samoylovych-Daybringer. My grandfather Arvokas Järveläinenn Tenderheart nearly died fighting him, but got the upper hand in the end. I heard all about this story– our family honored that duel a lot.”

Samoylovych– the old High Inquisitor was perhaps related to Samoylovych-Daybringer. Certainly that woman Samoylovych-Darkestdays was related. Perhaps that explained some part of her freakish strength.

Gertrude nodded silently as Ingrid spoke. She had never heard of this story in detail from her lover.

She knew the basics, but it seemed like every time Ingrid was prompted to bring it up, she learned something new that her lover had never wanted to say before. On the one hand, she was happy to understand her better– but on the other, she felt a stab of anxiety at this conversation. She rarely saw Ingrid approach others in this way– she was someone who was often incurious and brusque toward strangers. Victoria prompting Ingrid to delve into her family’s past was probably not wholly positive.

“The Samoylovych family ended up traitorous to Veka.” Victoria said. “Your grandfather did us a service.”

“Wonder if that confrontation would be any different today.” Ingrid said, in a slightly altered tone of voice.

There it was– now that was a provocation. Gertrude was prepared to step in again–

“Back then, the Fueller forces were simply superior. It would depend on who is backing you, I suppose.”

Once again, Victoria wasn’t taking the bait. Ingrid sighed openly, shook her head and walked off.

“You’re no fun whatsoever, Victoria van Veka. Watch how you speak of other’s families in the future.”

Gertrude also sighed and ran her hand down her face, feeling the culmination of her mute panic.

“Did I offend her? I apologize. It wasn’t my intention.” Victoria said.

“You– forget it. Just forget it right now. God, it’s just like before. We’ll talk about it later.”

Please don’t turn out like Sawyer with her, Ingrid. That’s the last thing I need.


Finally, Gertrude and Victoria were equipped, and stacked at the end of the boarding chute.

Entry from the Iron Lady into the boarding chute remained closed in order to mitigate potential damage in case the boarding chute collapsed or something happened with the Cutter’s airlock. . Communicating via radio, the engineers let Monika know of their progress, and she in turn let Gertrude know.

They had drilled through the length of the bulkhead door and inserted a spy tentacle. This was a little legged drone with a camera for a head, at the end of a long, ribbed cable. Snaking it through the hole, they saw that the airlock was open on the other side, into the interior of the Cutter. None of the heliolights that provided “sun” to the humans aboard were on, but there was very dim bluelight from devices still receiving electricity, like the airlock door touchpad. With this brief foray inside completed, the engineers crawled the spy tentacle to the bulkhead door’s physical lock and pulled the lever.

A shunting metal noise reverberated across the boarding chute.

Gertrude felt her guts tighten–

It was nothing. Just the door mechanisms. The engineers called back in. The Cutter was open.

“I’ll stay here in case emergency engineering is needed.” Monika said. “I have some combat training.”

Monika would remain in the Iron Lady’s airlock room along with one guard chosen by Vogt.

The bulkhead into the Iron Lady’s hangar would remain locked behind them. Then the door into the boarding chute would be opened. This precaution meant if anything happened, the tragedy would be limited to the four people in the airlock. Thankfully, work had been done to prevent such an occurrence. The anarchist cutter was tied to the Iron Lady by jet anchors, and remained buoyant of its own accord. They had been working in the boarding chute for over an hour to open the door and there had been no incidents. Precautions were part of the protocol, but so far, the situation had been very stable.

Once the bulkhead door behind them was locked, Gertrude and Victoria bid farewell to Monika and the guard, and walked through the boarding chute, a 5 meter long tunnel that extended from within one ship’s sidepod to another ship’s airlock door. It was equipped so that the opposite end of the chute could attach to a ship’s sidepod and hold it tightly for boarding. Pumps and pipes emptied the chute’s interior of water and normalized the pressure between the two vessels, so that when the doors opened on either side, it would be as natural as walking from one room to another in the same building.

Then, they stood on the threshold into the Cutter’s airlock, which was already open into the ship interior.

Through their earpieces, Monika could communicate with the two of them if they hailed her.

“We briefly tested the atmosphere and it seems fine. Nevertheless, you should both have respirators handy, just in case.” Monika advised, as the team stacked up at the outer bulkhead.

“Got it. They’re on our belts. We’ll be limiting radio contact when go in.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Hail if you need anything. Good luck.” Monika said.

“Thank you. I’ll be back without a scratch. Victoria promised.”

“I’ll give her an earful if she fails.”

Victoria’s ears twitched as she seemed to start paying attention. “Hmm?”

Monika was just being friendly, but Gertrude hoped that she was feeling better too.

It was hard to tell whether she was still mad at Gertrude through her radio chatter.

At the door, Victoria remained largely unaffected by the circumstances.

Gertrude’s heart was pounding.

She had breached a lot of doors in her life in the Inquisition– it never got easier.

Even with an open threshold. Anything could be out of sight, and anything she overlooked could be fatal.

Not just for herself, but for her team, whose lives had been entrusted to her.

“Ready, Victoria?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course.” Victoria replied.

“Lights on.”

Both of them switched on the torches attached to their visors, parting some of the shadows ahead.

Shield up, club in hand, Gertrude walked through the open threshold into the dim interior of the ship.

Behind her, Victoria stuck close, with one hand on her vibrosaber and another on Gertrude.

Gertrude could feel the Shimii’s body close to her own back.

Imperial Cutters were often built to between 50 meters and 80 meters in length, depending on the equipment aboard. Much of the difference was made up by the size of their sensor arrays– patrol Cutters were smaller because they could offload their imaging and sonar array burdens partially to buoys, relays and stations in their patrol area. A long Cutter like the one these anarchists had claimed was fully equipped to sail on its lonesome, able to detect and respond to threats of its own accord.

However, the width of any Cutter was very similar and the true source of the cramped interiors– under fifteen meters, generally. The Iron Lady was over 300 meters long and maybe nine or ten times the width, so it was equipped with far more internal space. Much of the Cutter’s width was the watertight hull of the exterior of the ship. Inside the pressure hull where people lived, the ceilings were only 2.5 meters overhead, whereas inside the Iron Lady, they would be 3 or 4 in the upper deck, and close to 10 meters tall in the hangar. The halls of Cutter were in places a little over a meter wide, with necessary equipment in the walls and tightly packed little side-rooms making up much of the space of the pressure hull. The place with the most leg and arm room was the galley and staging rooms– maybe the reactor too.

Gertrude had led that life for a bit, and did not miss it. And she was not very happy to be back.

Directly from the threshold into the ship, Gertrude and Victoria found themselves in an absolutely tiny landing. They had a tight and dark hall directly to their left, and to the right, the room opened up ever so slightly more into a galley, divided into two parts. One had tight seating arrangements in an open side-room. The other was enclosed by a prep table with a waist-high door, that served as the partial wall of the hall in which they arrived, it looked like it contained a pair of electric ovens and a wall-mounted microwave, along with storage space for plastic plates and cutlery, and a dishwasher. The touchpad LCDs on the appliances were dimly lit in standby mode, counting down to the next “chow time.”

Aside from their visor torches and the LCDs, there was no other light inside the hull.

And everything smelled strange– this was because of the chemicals used by the CO2 scrubbers. On a larger ship, there would be scent purifiers, in addition to the oxygen generators, CO2 scrubbers, and other environmental controls. Purifiers rendered the air a bit “stale” but concealed the fouler odors of the equipment hidden in the walls. On a Cutter, sacrifices had to be made for the space involved, and to bring down costs. Those scent purifiers, a luxury, were among the first things sacrificed, and so the entire hull interior often smelled salty and fishy because of the particular chemical used in the CO2 scrubbers.

“I’m going to look down. Keep an eye on the hall behind me.” Gertrude said.

“Acknowledged.” Victoria replied.

Gertrude had thought she had seen something on the floor in the hall when she scanned over the galley.

In the hall, she and Victoria could not fit side to side. Gertrude needed room to move her shield.

So they continued in a single file. Gertrude stepped inside, Victoria followed, watching her back.

Then, Gertrude brought her gaze, and her light, down to the floor of the Cutter.

Lighting up a pair of glassy eyes and a pale head–

“Found a corpse.” Gertrude said. “Moving closer.”

“Acknowledged.”

There was no tremble in Victoria’s voice, no hesitation.

She had become much stronger since Gertrude last saw her. Perhaps more used to death.

Ahead of them, the tight center hall led to few rooms. First up would be the staging rooms, containing needed equipment in lockers, such as basic clothes, a few pressure suits, heavy tools for the mechanics and engineers, and any firearms. Then farther behind, were the dormitories. At the far end of the hall, there was a bulkhead door locking up the reactor and engine room. But much closer to Gertrude than all of these, was the body– the bodies. As she got closer, she saw there were two people on the floor.

“Two men– maybe? Hard to say– kinda androgynous–“

“What does that matter?” Victoria asked. “What happened to them?”

“They fell together, it looks like. They’re almost on top of each other.”

Both bodies were pale, but that was in the light of Gertrude’s torch. It was hard for her to tell how long they had been dead, but they were dead. She knelt, with her shield up in front of her, and stowed her club briefly on her belt, to check their pulse. They were truly dead. There was no visible signs of injury however. Both were wearing grey jumpsuits partially unzipped with white shirts beneath. There was no blood on them, no signs of shooting, stabbing. They could not have been beaten to death, not bloodlessly.

“Respirators?” Victoria asked. Her tone of voice was a little more agitated.

“I don’t think it was poison gas or anything like that.” Gertrude said. “They’re all leftists, right? Why would they gas each other? To me that scenario doesn’t make sense– in addition, if they were dying out in this hall from poison, the end result would look different. They fell over together like this, and didn’t even hit their heads that hard. Their eyes aren’t bloodshot, their mouths look normal, there’s no discoloration, it doesn’t seem like poison. It’s like they laid down to sleep here and just passed away quietly.”

“How much crew would this ship have? There’s only two people in this hall.”

“Sixty or seventy in the Imperial Navy. You can run as lean as twenty though, and if these are anarchists then they don’t need to follow regulations. They may have stolen this ship and ran it very lean.”

None of the bodies had any imperial identification. No tags, no security cards on lanyards.

“If they weren’t using keycards, then everything must be unlocked.” Gertrude said.

“We should find a terminal and test your theory.” Victoria said. “We could get all their data that way.”

“Let’s go to one of the staging rooms ahead. Are you doing okay back there?”

“Don’t worry about me. There’s nothing behind and I’m keeping sharp.”

“Okay. Watch your step. I’m advancing.”

Gertrude stood up from her knees, and began to move step by step further into the hall.

Club once again gripped tightly in hand.

She thought she felt Victoria’s fingers tighten on her back as they crossed over the bodies.

“I’ve only ever served on Cruisers or Dreadnoughts. I had no idea Cutters were this tight.”

“It’s tough, but the crew gets to commiserate. You know everyone’s names and get familiar. You don’t have that on a dreadnought. It’s too big and there’s too many people to keep track of closely.”

Victoria had finally expressed some genuine emotion, so Gertrude did the same in return.

She thought of giving her a hard time for being pampered– but she refrained.

Step by step as they inched along the hall together, they finally got to talking in whispers.

“My flag is in the Aranjagaan, but in reality, I go wherever the Empress needs. I’ve worked on a few ships over the past few years. I have never formed the kind of bond you have with your crew.” Victoria said.

“It’s the nature of your work and I’m sure your crew respects it. You shouldn’t compare it.”

“Perhaps you’re right. But, you know– I was surprised by how professional your crew was.”

“You thought I wouldn’t run a tight ship?”

“It’s not that. I felt that they were proud of you and proud to be there.”

“They’re serving on a dreadnought. They’re elites– that’s what they’re proud of.”

“No. It’s more than that. I could see it– maybe we’ll talk about it later.”

“Right. I’d love to. Door on the left?”

“Got it.”

“Usually the left staging room is equipment. Right is food storage.”

“I trust your judgment.”

Gertrude truly wished they had a chance to sit down and talk over coffee.

Maybe it could be possible to mend their broken bonds. But not in this situation, of course.

Her heart was buoyed by Victoria’s trust– but it was just necessary professionalism.

During an operation, they sank or swam together. Gertrude just wanted to believe it was more.

In the derelict Cutter, they made it between the doors without any surprises.

With her club, Gertrude prodded the door on their left.

Then she extended a finger off the club and used it to open the door via its touchpad.

The door slid open. There was a mess of shadows inside the room. Gertrude swept her visor across.

“It’s chaos in here.” Gertrude said. “Watch your step.”

“Noted.”

Inside the staging room, three of the walls were occupied with lockers, with an aisle down the middle were men and women could sit to suit up. At the far end of the room, a chain-link door fenced off an area where bigger tools were once kept locked up. But the door was thrown open, and the tools scattered in the room. Several lockers hung open, their contents spilled. There were six or seven people on the floor, men and women both it seemed. Gertrude stepped further into the room, allowing Victoria inside.

Victoria sat on her knees beside one of them, turning the body of a woman around.

“No wounds. She fell on her face, but it doesn’t look like she hit her head very hard.”

Gertrude grit her teeth. “It’s almost like she laid down on her belly deliberately. What the hell?”

She was a woman with cropped blond hair, fit, heavyset, wearing nothing but a tanktop and pants. There was a preponderance of tools beside her body that she might have reached for to hit someone, a crowbar, a hammer, wrenches, thick industrial flashlights, likely ripped from the open lockers that loomed over her body. There were no wounds anywhere on her. There were several other people in varying states of dress around the room. One of them had apparently managed to take the vibrocutter tool from the unlocked storage area, but he was laid back against a wall with the tool discarded at his side.

No uniforms. A lot of different hairstyles. Tattoos, body modifications; no wounds, on anyone.

“I don’t get it. It’s like they were trying to grab the tools? But then they fell?” Gertrude asked.

At her side, she thought she saw a brief flash and turned partially to face Victoria.

Whose eyes, she could have sworn, had gone briefly red– but only for a split second.

Enough that the red almost felt like a fabrication of her mind–

“They were panicking. Not acting rationally.” Victoria said.

Not a farfetched conclusion.

But the gravity with which she spoke– it felt like there was something more to her words.

Gertrude had suspected Victoria might possess a strange ability, like Norn.

Maybe she really could see something in this room that Gertrude could not.

“I can’t explain it any other way, I guess. Let’s check the dorm and then double back to the bridge.”

“I’m dreading the amount of bodies we’ll find.” Victoria said.

Gertrude lifted her shield and directed Victoria to follow her again.

In the same formation and process as before, they carefully made their way a few meters down the hall from the staging rooms to the dorm doors. Cutter dorms were essentially bed bunks packed into every square centimeter of wall that could be afforded to hold them, with a gap in the floor plan between them so people could actually get into and out of the room. They were even more cramped than the eight-man sailor rooms on Frigates and Cruisers. There were dozens of beds packed into only two small rooms. Each bunk had barely enough space to fit an adult body lying down. Everyone had a small drawer to hold a few personal necessities and that was the extent of their space– clothing was kept in the staging room lockers. Each bunk had some additional amenities, like lights, a fan, and headphones that played music.

Gertrude presumed that everyone aboard had met the same strange fate, and she expected to find dozens of people dead in behind this door. However, for completeness’ sake, they had to look. There was something deeply wrong about this situation, and every room was a new piece of evidence.

At the door, Gertrude heard a low, continuous noise from inside the room.

“Something from inside. Keep sharp.” Gertrude whispered.

“I have your back.” Victoria whispered.

Gertrude touched the door’s pad and it slid open.

Immediately she caught sight of a body on the floor, surrounded by all the beds.

One red-headed girl in a long, brown one-piece dress.

She looked like she had come into the room and immediately collapsed.

“She was being chased.” Victoria said.

“By what?”

“I don’t know.”

“It makes as much sense as anything based on her posture, but how do you figure?”

“Just a hunch. Nevermind me.”

Gertrude went down to one knee, and found that the girl was clutching a portable.

It was a newer type, one of those handheld, slate-type personal terminals.

That noise was coming from the slate. It had been recording something and ran out of space.

So it was throwing errors and making noise.

“This is a personal device with its own storage. We’ll take it back with us.”

She picked up the portable and tucked it into a pouch behind her back.

“If it’s still active, maybe these people haven’t been dead for very long.” Victoria said.

“We detected them last night. These devices have a long battery life. It’s possible.”

Victoria waited at the door as Gertrude checked the beds. There was not enough room for both of them and the body in the middle of the dormitory, not without stepping directly over it. As she scanned across the bunks, she found at least ten more people. Not as many as there were bunks. She surmised that the ship was being run very lean. She took the pulses of the bodies she could reach and found them in the same state as the previous ones. Untouched and dead– no signs of struggle, choking, anything at all.

“Now I’m starting to worry about gas.” Gertrude said. Though it went against her experience.

“It’s not gas. I think something did attack them.” Victoria said. “I know this will make no sense to you, but you should trust me– I feel a lot of fear in this place. These people witnessed something terrifying.”

Gertrude believed her. But she did not want to let on the extent to which she understood this type of talk.

Norn was like this too. Like she could see through people. Maybe Victoria could see through the dead.

“Some secret Vekan detective technique I’m unaware of?” She said, to brush it off.

“Let’s go to the bridge.” Victoria said.

“Sorry– I didn’t mean to offend you.” Gertrude said.

“I’m not offended. There’s just no point in responding to that.”

Gertrude supposed Victoria was not about to give her an explanation of her ability any time soon.

From the dormitory, the two of them ventured back the way they came, down the hall, briefly peering over the separator between the galley and the hall and finding nothing of note, and then venturing toward the ship’s prow. Checking doors as they went, stumbling upon a few utility closets before finally opening the door into the Cutter’s bridge. Immediately upon entering, Gertrude had to bow her head.

The Bridge was no larger than the rest of the ship’s spaces. From the door, the ceiling slanted down, and there were a few steps leading down to additional stations, all of which were packed tight together, with their monitors, station desks and seats and barely any additional legroom. At the highest point of the bridge, just off of the entrance, there was a recess for the captain’s seat and terminal. To reach it, Gertrude had to duck down at the entrance, and then walk with her shoulders slouched for a few steps, before slipping a foot into the recess so she could begin to slide between the chair and desk and finally sit. She discarded her shield at her side and slid her fingers along the side of the monitor, feeling for buttons.

“Good lord.” Gertrude sighed. “I don’t miss this.”

Victoria walked inside and leaned over Gertrude’s shoulder, looking at the Captain’s terminal monitor.

Her sudden weight and warmth, the closeness of her cheek to Gertrude’s own–

It sent a shiver down the Inquisitor’s spine.

“Is something wrong?” Victoria asked. “You must be able to operate this.”

“Yes, I can do it. Nothing is wrong. This seat is just uncomfortable.” Gertrude deflected.

Victoria leaned forward a little more. Had she not been wearing that breastplate–

Gertrude powered on the display with the button on the side.

Everything turned on without a hitch. The Inquisitor breathed a sigh of relief.

She found herself on the Administration dashboard for the Captain. No prompt for a passphrase or to insert a keycard or provide any kind of authentication. It was just unlocked, and dumped her right in the middle of a trove of information. The Captain’s terminal home screen was an Administration dashboard with a summary of everything the Captain needed to know. Statuses of the main modules, agenda items set by the Communications officer or by an adjutant, a small and abstracted map of their current position, bearing and destination supplied by the helm, and easy access links to communicate with other officers.

“They departed from Antioch in Bosporus. Looks like they were headed to the Union– specifically to that little Campos anarchist state in the far south.” Gertrude said. “Judging by the bearing anyway.”

“That makes sense.” Victoria said. “They would have never reached it though. The Union keeps significant skirmishing forces surrounding it. Under Jayasankar’s regime it has been practically blockaded, ever since the anarchists took action against her. But even the Republic just recognizes it as an unruly chunk of the Union rather than its own state. These anarchists were on a doomed journey from the beginning.”

“What does Veka think about ‘Campos Mountain’?” Gertrude asked, suddenly curious.

“We acknowledge the Union’s sovereignty over it, and would support its annexation.”

“Would the Union really attack these little lost anarchists?”

“The word ‘attack’ implies a greater effort than would be necessary.” Victoria said. “They would run into a Union patrol frigate and stand no chance of anything but capture. It is my understanding that the Union gives captives like this the option of joining Union society under invasive surveillance for a few years until they assimilate and acknowledge Mordecism-Jayasankarist Thought, or to self-righteously opt for jail time so as to not betray their ideologies. If they choose the latter, the Union drops them in the deepest pit it can find and they’re never heard from again. The Union’s Internal Security doesn’t mess around.”

Gertrude snickered. “So you can be chatty when you want to be.”

Victoria made a slightly grumbling noise.

“These are basic facts about the Union that aren’t too hard to uncover, not top secret Vekan information.”

“Fair enough. But tell me– do you really trust the Union’s forces at all?”

“I trust in their self-interest. Same as anybody else’s.”

At the top of this dashboard there were tabs that opened up more detailed pages for communications, helm, gunnery, electronic warfare, sensors and so on. Gertrude immediately went to the tab for Core Engineering and held her breath as the status of the Reactor updated. Thankfully, everything looked green. At the behest of what seemed like a random person, the Reactor core had been put into resting mode. It would fill the backup batteries and keep the environment on, as well as power on any devices that were deliberately accessed, but everything else would be shut down until further notice.

“I’m tired of the darkness in here. What do you say?” Gertrude asked.

“It looks safe to turn things back on. It’s not like we’ll awaken the corpses.” Victoria replied.

“The Lady has spoken. Let there be light.”

Gertrude sent a command to begin the Core wakeup sequence.

She watched as a command line prompt appeared with dozens of lines of text indicating the status of each computerized operation necessary to bring the Core back from its resting state. While the main computer slowly brought the Reactor back to full functionality, Gertrude sat back on the chair, sighing. Their adventure was almost over and without incident. Once the ship was powered up, they would connect to the Iron Lady and allow Schicksal and the Electronic Warfare station to remotely operate it, ceding all functions to the Dreadnought. It would be easy to do, since the permissions were unlocked.

“All of these systems are unlocked and the permission scheme was edited so everyone aboard the ship could access any of the functions. These anarchists were certifiably insane. Imagine they have some nutcase among them that is plotting something– would they even be suspicious of anything?”

“It’s non-hierarchical thinking. It makes sense for them, even though we wouldn’t adopt it.”

“But you want to be the big boss of things, right Bayatar?” Gertrude teased.

“I want my orders to be followed unquestioningly.” Victoria said.

Gertrude glanced at her shoulder, where the Shimii was looking the slightest bit sulky.

“We make a good team, don’t you think? We were pretty in sync.” Gertrude said.

“We’re both professionals who have had good training. And nothing really happened.”

“I’m a little hurt that you disagree.” Gertrude said, with a little laugh to show it wasn’t serious.

“I didn’t disagree, I qualified.” Victoria said. “I just said exactly what I wanted to say.”

While it made Gertrude smile warmly, this was the kind of attitude that always got this cat in trouble.

Still, she couldn’t help but notice a tiny but glowing little smile appearing on Victoria’s lips.

Within a few minutes, all of the heliolights suddenly turned on in the Bridge, and possibly throughout the ship, illuminating everything with the soft yellow light of human life and activity. Immediately, Gertrude caught sight of a body bent over one of the lower stations. She turned off the torch on her visor, and Victoria did the same. The Shimii left Gertrude’s side and went to check the body further below.

Gertrude switched over to the networking tab and issued a request to the Communication station to connect to a nearby vessel– in this case, the Iron Lady. She asked for Victoria to accept it on the communication station below, on the way to the body. The Bayatar gracefully slid her finger across the screen to accept and carry out the order automatically. Within minutes, the mousy-haired Karen Schicksal appeared on the main screen of the Cutter’s bridge, her lips quivering and shoulders shaking, breathing in and out heavily, clearly slick with sweat. Her eyes drew wide with relief upon seeing Gertrude.

“Ma’am! I’m– We’re all glad to see you safe– IS THAT A CORPSE?”

An enormous Schicksal on the high-resolution main display pointed down nervously.

Her index finger vaguely pointed at the dead man on the lower station.

Victoria looked up from taking the body’s pulse. “Yes, I’m afraid that it is.”

“It’s a long story, Schicksal.” Gertrude said. “I’m giving you and the bridge full control over the derelict. Download all operation logs, chronicles and recent camera footage from the supercomputer– no need to copy the protocols or any infrastructural stuff, they left that all the same. We’re heading back.”

“Yes ma’am–” Schicksal fidgeted nervously. “We can send a team to escort–“

“No need. Don’t worry about us. There’s nothing in here.” Gertrude said.

“Acknowledged! We’ll carry out our orders and see you soon, ma’am!”

Schicksal saluted and the main screen shut back off with the call ending.

Gertrude cautiously stood back up from the Captain’s chair, trying not to hit her head.

Below, Victoria nonchalantly walked back up from the lower stations.

Her very gently smiling face looked quite arresting to Gertrude in the heliolights.

“You can probably imagine by this point. But that man was also dead.” Victoria said.

“There has to be something in the main computer that can tell us more. Let’s go back.”

“Acknowledged. Good work, Gertrude. I appreciated your calm professionalism.”

“Likewise. I do think we make a good team.”

“Hmm.”

As Victoria moved past her and began to walk out of the room, Gertrude noticed something that had been impossible to see when the heliolights were shut off. In the focused light of their torches, it was impossible to discern in the environment, but there was something in the air– it was so fine, that it was hard to tell whether it was her eyes adjusting to the light or an actual phenomenon. But Gertrude thought she saw a fine red powdery mist playing about the room. Exceedingly fine but eerily textured and yet completely without volume. It very well could have been a trick of her tired eyes, it was so thin.

“Victoria, do you see something red around us?” Gertrude asked.

“Red?”

Gertrude followed Victoria out of the room, the Shimii inadvertently leading since the mission was over.

Victoria turned over her shoulder.

Her eyes flashed briefly red–

As they did, they drew wide with a sudden and wild panic.

“Gertrude! Behind–!”

In a snap reaction, Gertrude half-turned and it was enough to see–

At the dead end of the hall which led to a service door to access the sensor array for maintenance–

Stood a figure–

Wispy, red and black, bound up in frayed cloth and chains, amorphous, tall, thin–

Masked face carved jagged smile red giving off furious red eyes–

Lifting

a dragging arm fused iron and flesh

metal point drawn back like a jet spear

giving off furious red heat

as the spike launched to Gertrude’s face,

“Gertrude!”

In the next instant, Victoria leaped past Gertrude with incredible speed and precision.

Her vibrosaber swung, its blade picking up the red in the air and becoming wreathed in it.

Like pale digital fire, translucent, insubstantial but extant and hot and filled with power.

Saint’s skin!

She thought she heard Victoria’s voice emanate from the surroundings–

The Bayatar’s keen edge met the metal spike with that red sheen that coated the blow.

Deflecting the thrust, Victoria transitioned into a horizontal slice that flashed bright red.

Her blade hung in the air after completing its arc, having cut through–

Nothing.

There was nothing at the end of the hall.

Gertrude stood speechless. She had been unable to move her body to respond.

But– respond to what–?

She thought she had seen a metal spike launching at her head.

She thought she had seen a horrific mangled figure wielding the weapon.

She was sure she felt the weight, the impact of Victoria’s parrying the enemy attack.

Victoria stood in front of her, coiled into a stance with her sword in front of her.

Her breathing heavy, turning to face every which way.

“You saw it, right?” She cried out.

“I did. There was something there.” Gertrude said.

“It’s– It’s gone.”

Victoria’s eyes had red rings around the irises as she looked around the hall.

Gertrude could notice them plainly. She kept herself from remarking upon the fact.

“It’s gone. It’s not anywhere.” Victoria said. “Anger. It was cloaked in so much– anger–“

Coming down from the terror of that moment–

In the next instant, Gertrude stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Victoria from behind.

“Agh! Gertrude!”

Her face sank into the Shimii’s shoulder. She could smell her hair, feel her warmth.

Victoria’s tail stood on end and she was paralyzed in Gertrude’s embrace.

“You saved my life. From whatever that was– thank you. Thank you, Victoria.”

In that moment, Gertrude felt like she could cry, she was so overwhelmed with–

“It’s nothing–! We’re allies! Let me go– we have to leave this place!”

Feeling foolish, Gertrude suddenly withdrew back a step from Victoria.

“Sorry. It was the stress. You’re right– let’s form up again.”

Victoria’s cheeks and the fleshy interior of her cat-like ears were a little bit red.

Clearly flustered, she followed behind Gertrude, who led with her shield up.

There was nothing around them, but they were both suddenly tense.

“Victoria– you know something, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

“I don’t know— I’ll tell you about my hunches when I’m sure we’re safe and alone.”

“You saw that creature too. Is it still around?”

“I don’t think so. I– I think I repelled it. But we should still be cautious.”

“Nobody can come back in here. I’ll tell Schicksal to melt the core down.”

“Good idea. Nothing will survive that.”

Gertrude began to think that whatever that creature had been, it must have been responsible for all of the deaths aboard the Cutter. In the past she would have felt foolish and irrational, but after seeing what Norn could do, she had become more open to strange events. She imagined a phantom that hurled its invisible weapon to kill without leaving wounds– it made no rational sense, but if she invited the idea of the supernatural, it cold explain what her eyes had seen and her mind had actually felt.

Had that spike gone through her head, would she have fallen to her knees, peacefully dead?

It was insane– it wasn’t something that she could decipher by reasoning through it.

But it was the closest thing she had to an answer to everything she saw.

“Victoria, I’m not insane, right?” Gertrude asked.

“I saw something attack you and I kept my oath not to let harm come to you.” Victoria said.

Gertrude understood the subtext. If she was seeing things and had gone insane– Victoria was even crazier for reacting physically and launching an attack as if against a real enemy. She was right. Both of them had seen something. They had been affected by a presence. They couldn’t pretend it was fake and they couldn’t rationalize it away. Gertrude at least wasn’t alone in having reacted to that figure.

“Trust me, Gertrude, there was something. But let’s keep it to ourselves for now.”

“I need to know, Victoria.”

“I’ll tell you when I’m ready– until then, please believe that I’ll protect you. Will that suffice?”

She felt powerless and ignorant, having to rely on others so much.

But there was no use fighting Victoria on this. She was cooperating more than before.

And– the thought of Victoria swearing to protect her, put a little warmth in Gertrude’s heart.

“I’ll trust you. Confirm your hunch, but please tell me what you know as soon as possible.”

“Thank you. I swear, I won’t let anything happen to you. I won’t let it end like on this ship.”

“You have sworn a lot of oaths today– but I’ve not heard what you are swearing by.”

Gertrude cracked a little grin, feeling just a little bit cocky toward Victoria again.

Only to be immediately disarmed–

“I swear by us, Gertrude. I swear my oath on the friendship we had and could have.”

Gertrude felt her heart skip a beat. She kept walking, pace by pace, shield up.

But it hit her like a battering ram. She felt Victoria’s hand on her back closer than ever.

“It’s no use swearing by the Empress. You don’t believe in that. You don’t believe in my sincerity where it regards Veka. But you said you still believed in us. As part of that, you must trust me.”

Victoria’s voice was so full of determination.

Gertrude couldn’t see her face, but she imagined the expression. It filled her chest with fond feelings.

She almost laughed. “You got me there. Then, on us, I’ll swear to trust you.”

“I would shake hands on it, but let’s skip that. You already hugged me pretty tight, that’s enough.”

Despite the grave atmosphere inside the derelict, Gertrude felt her heartstrings strum along to the melody of an undeserved affection. She had been longing terribly for any sign of it.

For the first time– it felt possible.

And carried on that wind of determination, the two of them escaped the derelict without further incident.


Once the data from the derelict Cutter had been collected, the Iron Lady retracted its boarding chute back into its sidepod, and the armored hatch which allowed it to deploy sealed the armor shut over it. Again the derelict was released into the water, but this time, the derelict was remotely operated to sever its anchor cables, and to descend far into the gorge. Three kilometers away from the Iron Lady, it would autopilot to the seafloor and then withdraw all cooling and shielding from its reactor while draining maximum power from it. Having voided all advanced permissions on their ship, the anarchists made this task easy to accomplish. Soon, the cutter would disappear in a flash of purple far out of sight.

“There’s something a little macabre about sending a ship to its death this way, I must admit.”

In a meeting room, Schicksal and Gertrude had a monitor with a diagram of the cutter as well as a live feed from one of its cameras as it descended, for as long as the connection could hold up in the katov mass– which wouldn’t be very long at all. Seated around a table, they went over preliminary discoveries by the analysts of the recovered data. Gertrude turned her head from the monitor and crossed her arms.

It was macabre indeed– everything about that ship was macabre.

“We couldn’t have done anything else for them. At least they’ll have a burial at sea.” Gertrude said.

“In a sense, however, they’re still ‘lost forever’ aren’t they? I don’t know– it gives me the creeps.”

Karen Schicksal let out a little yawn. Her eyes glanced aside at nothing. Fidgeting; nervous.

“We have a roster. If we wanted to, we could notify Bosporus about this.” Gertrude said.

“Well– my pity doesn’t extend that far.” Schicksal said. “I apologize Inquisitor. I’m being silly.”

“It’s okay. I’ve never asked you not to be human. But there’s nothing we can do for the dead.”

“Right. Then let’s focus on what we’re doing for ourselves, the living.”

Aside from telling Vogt to keep rotating patrols in the halls, just in case, Gertrude had not yet ordered her crew to perform any tasks that might be seen as a reaction to her adventure on the derelict. She had not informed them of the mysterious phantom, or anything about Victoria’s “hunches.” All she had told them were the basics: mysterious deaths, uncertain timeline– a mystery scenario. She could not appear too shaken up or paranoid. It would only cause undue concern. Gertrude figured that the analysts would organically turn up a smoking gun within the data, and at that point, she could take action on it.

She had not gotten a chance to talk to Victoria yet, either. They would need to prepare for their next adventure into the mystery habitat below, and the Inquisitor felt that the adventure in the derelict was too fresh anyway. Victoria was a blunt person who said what she wanted and did what she wanted. She would approach Gertrude when she was ready, and approaching her before that was likely pointless. Judging from her guardedness on the derelict, it would take more than a few hours distance to coax her.

And so, Gertrude was left in a bit of a lurch. She could only move forward, but on unsteady ground.

Schicksal put down on the table a portable terminal in the shape of a clipboard.

She slid it over to Gertrude, who picked it up.

“I have a preliminary report on the data we collected.” Schicksal said, stifling another yawn. She leaned over the table and pointed her finger at the items recorded on the portable, which Gertrude was already looking at. “Unfortunately, it’s going to take us longer to determine a timeline of events. Everything on the computer was classified as personal data, and there is only partial metadata for the entries. Upon learning of this, we initially hoped to narrow our efforts by isolating and analyzing only the data logged by the bridge crew. But it looks like the crew had no specified roles, and traded duties between all members. Everyone also wrote in the ship’s chronicle on a rotating basis. Because of this, we’ll have to parse through every crew member’s contributions as a big blob of data, separating items of importance out from the random junk, while also going over hundreds of hours of camera footage.”

Gertrude knew the job could not possibly have been done in thirty minutes or an hour.

But she felt a tight knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach upon hearing the magnitude of it.

God damn anarchists– their utter disorder was only going to slow her down even more.

They had paid the ultimate prize for having no discipline– but she still begrudged them for it.

“What about that little personal portable I found?” She asked.

Schicksal nodded her head in acknowledgment, and then looked at her own hands on the table.

“That portable belonged to the youngest member of the crew. She was just a girl.” Schicksal averted her gaze. “It was used for keeping video diaries. Addressed to family members. They vary in length from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes, but most recent one is four hours long. We have a hunch that she was recording an entry, and then the catastrophe struck– so we’re watching it. But it’s long, and we’ve only gotten started– we’re doing our very best to extract every clue from the material, ma’am.”

There were tricks that analysts could use to quickly get a big picture from a lot of data, but in this case, it was not going to yield results. Algorithmic video profiling would be useless because what had happened to the ship was so mysterious that they could not rely on the computer to draw any patterns from the footage. They weren’t looking at a billion samey camera frames for the ones that had faces. And because the metadata on all the log files was screwed up, they could not use an algorithmic text parser. Because the sample size was still an amorphous blob of all the computer’s data, it would distort the results, since useless personal anecdotes were mixed in with official records of the ship’s operation.

It was going to take good old fashioned detective work– pouring over dozens of terabytes of data.

“I know it’s a tough ask, but it’s important.” Gertrude said. “I want every forensic analyst on this. If it’s going to take brute force, then pile on the force. Hell, if there’s engineers who have nothing to do, have them watch video too. I think the camera footage will be the most important material here.”

“I agree. I’ve already gotten all of forensics on the job. But still– I’m sorry ma’am. It’ll take time.”

Schicksal averted her gaze again. Gertrude handed her back the portable with a smile.

“It’s fine. It’s just my job to spur people on, you know?” Gertrude said. “So then– what next?”

“We’ve set a course for the suspected habitat, as you requested.” Schicksal said. “It’ll be a few hours ma’am. If I can make a suggestion, you ought to get some rest, if you’ll be going out again.”

Gertrude sighed openly. “Good idea. I slept horribly last night.”

“May I escort you out ma’am?”

“No, return to the bridge. You’ve been fantastic at organizing all this, Schicksal. Keep it up.”

Schicksal looked down at her hands and rubbed her two index fingers together.

“Thank you ma’am– I’m quite unworthy, I’ve only been doing what I can is all–“

“Without you, this ship would fall apart.” Gertrude said. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

“Ma’am– Yes!”

Schicksal saluted stiffly. She must have been taken off-guard by the praise.

While she was just a little bit neurotic, Schicksal was a dreadnought-tier officer in action.

She had good instincts, communicated well between teams, and delegated work efficiently.

Her nervousness caused her to be slow to react to shocks sometimes– but once she got a hold of herself she exceeded the expectations of a Chief Communications Officer. Of her own accord, Schicksal could take Gertrude’s orders and immediately find the right teams and prioritize the right tasks to maximize effort, drawing on her experience without needing a thorough strategy plotted out. She could see that Dreschner did not choose her out of pity or obligation. Schicksal was a prodigal talent of her own.

“Alright, I’ll see myself back to my room. Tell forensics I wish them luck. I’ll swing by myself later.”

“Yes ma’am! Rest up!”

As she said this, Schicksal stifled another yawn.

This caused Gertrude to have to stifle her own yawning as she walked out of the meeting room.

Everything felt both stuck in place and yet inexorably in motion.

In a few hours, she would finally be able to see–

Norn– what did you want me to see here? What happened to you here?

Thinking about the woman she once called “master,” who taught her much and yet precious little–

Gertrude, stripped of much of her armor, dropped into her bed. Soaked in sweat, exhausted.

Her arm, extended out at her side, fell upon the object which Nile had given her, discarded on her bed.

Fingers curled around the band. She picked it up and lifted it in front of her eyes.

She looked at the face of the watch and saw the fluid gather on the blue part of the gradient.

Strobing wildly it formed a pattern of hexagons, twisting on itself. What did that even mean?

Gertrude tied it around her wrist. She would ask Nile about it later. Maybe show it to Victoria.

For the moment, it was all too easy to sleep and wait to see how events played out.

As the Iron Lady descended ever further into the depths of Kesar.

Depth Gauge: 3108 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.3]

Depth Gauge: 2155 m

“Alright, lets calm down. We’re all in this together now.”

In an unremarkable meeting room, Gertrude sat across the table from a very remarkable pair of guests. The Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation known as “Nile,” and the special agent of the Vekan Empire, Victoria van Veka. Circumstances had brought these three together on the Inquisitorial flagship Iron Lady, and not a minute had gone by since they sat next to each other, but antagonism was already brimming. Gertrude wanted to get on the topic of the abyssal expedition, but Victoria would not allow it. She launched into accusations without a moment’s rest, while Nile simply sat there with her arms crossed.

“Gertrude, this woman is extremely dangerous. You think you can make use of her, but you’re completely out of your depth. She stands accused of not only building clandestine infrastructure, but we have found evidence of human experimentation, including organs and tissue cultures from god-only-knows-where.”

Gertrude could have imagined it was something like that, with it being the Sunlight Foundation and all–

Nile turned her cheek and scoffed, her tail wagging so fast it was drumming on the chair.

“You completely misunderstand the assets you stole from me. I use my own tissue and DNA to test my products. But of course, you Vekans and your ignorant government are entirely run by biofascist superstitions. If you think an organoid is a living person, then I am a genocidaire par excellence.”

Nile fired back with some science, but allowing this debate was an intolerable can of worms to open.

“This is not the time or the place to define the meaning of human life.” Gertrude interrupted.

Victoria turned her own cheek. “The fact remains, Gertrude, she assembled a large amount of clandestine infrastructure for the purpose of drug manufacturing, away from prying eyes. God knows how many years it took to build all of this, where the funding came from, how it was staffed– other than being full of Katarran mercenaries! I don’t believe she is being altruistic for one second. She and this ‘Sunlight Foundation’ of hers cannot be trusted, and with her capture, the Vekan Empire would be one step closer to unraveling this syndicate and their misdeeds. Even with all of our resources, we’ve only scratched the very tip of the iceberg of what they’ve been doing. You must at least sympathize with that goal.”

Gertrude sighed. “I’m willing to share with you any information we uncover, and any information that Nile wishes to disclose. However, I am curious how you intended to extract information from her if you were to take her into custody. Nile did not strike me as someone who was willing to cooperate with you.”

Nile scoffed. “The Vekans would torture me, obviously. I’m from there, I know what it’s like. Especially to Loup who don’t practice Orthodoxy. Shimiist Loup like me are outright persecuted by the old believers, and Veka has always supported such savagery. Oh, am I getting to you now, you puffed up kitten?”

Victoria had her fists balled up at her side. “We would not have tortured her. This is ridiculous.”

“Trude, I’ll disclose to you our operating methods– but only in the Holy Land of Konstantinople, at the seat of the Inquisition. I am claiming Asylum from the Vekan Empire’s persecution. Until then, I demand that I be judged by my character and deeds, rather than by inferences marred by her bias.” Nile said.

These two were tearing Gertrude apart already. She almost wanted to scream at them.

However, she had her own convictions and her own beliefs which were playing a part.

Though she could believe that Victoria would not support torture herself, Gertrude was not so naive as to believe the Vekans would share her objections. When the Vekan Empire was just the Duchy of Veka, it was widely known to be a less civilized place than the broader Imbrian Empire. Vekans declared clan feuds, engaged in dueling, committed honor killings, practiced blood oaths and rituals, and certainly torture was neither novel nor rare for their military. High Inquisitor Samoylovych, one of Gertrude’s predecessors, had rescued Monika Erke-Tendercloud from a Vekan Sanitarium for the mentally ill. Her Orthodox family had interned her in this facility to “fix her,” and she was awfully abused. Such things were not uncommon in the hinterlands, and upon accession to the office of High Inquisitor, Gertrude witnessed them too.

Though Gertrude tried not to develop a bias, it was hard for her to ignore all the horror stories.

It was convenient for the Empire that Veka had a “warrior culture” that was internally stimulated.

This made them excellent guards for the Empire’s flank to the Mare Crisium and its strange cultures.

Despite fearing them and being disgusted by some of their traditions, the Imbrians let Veka be.

They wrote off the unsavory aspects as simply “Vekan culture” that couldn’t or shouldn’t be opposed.

So if it was Vekan culture and couldn’t be changed, then Victoria had to deal with the consequences.

“Victoria, the fact of the matter is that Nile is under my custody now.” Gertrude said, putting up a firm front. “I have a strong suspicion, and it is growing stronger, that she would have been abused in the custody of the Vekans. This is not a judgment on you personally, but releasing her to your allies is out of the question as they cannot be trusted not to violate her humanity. Since it is out of the question, I demand the issue be dropped, and I further demand that the two of you cease these needless hostilities.”

She laid out her concerns and conditions as gently but firmly as she could, hoping to stifle further tension.

First she looked to Victoria–

“Fine. I will pay close attention to your own much-vaunted ethics and see if there is any merit to your treatment of this criminal.” Victoria said, arms crossed, tongue dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“Thank you. I will endeavor be so inspiring that you come to mean that sincerely.” Gertrude replied.

Then she turned to face Nile–

“I will cherish the trust you put in me, ‘Trude.” Nile said, wagging her tail and smiling with her eyes.

Gertrude frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t trust either of you quite yet. But I hope I can at least expect you to be honorable. I want you two to shake hands right now, and at the very least, to swear to stay out of each other’s way. I don’t want to have to summon Vogt every time you two meet eyes. Are we clear on this?”

Then she stepped between the two of them, grabbed their hands, and brought them close.

Are we clear?” Gertrude asked again.

Begrudgingly, Victoria and Nile shook hands, neither making eye contact with the other.

No curses under their breath at least, not that Gertrude could detect.

“Anyway. I’ll describe the Expedition I am undertaking. Please hold your tongues until I’m done.”

And so, Gertrude began–


The Imbrian Empire officially dated its founding to A.D. 418 with the rise of Heitzing as a city-state in the northeastern Imbrium Ocean. Before this date, records were scarce, owing to a vast underwater conflict known as the “Age of Strife,” where Stations acted individually to cut each other off, sabotage each other, fight each other or steal from each other without an overarching authority– presumably after the ultimate fall of the remaining surface civilizations and total loss of contact. Owing to this mass hysteria and a resulting regression in society of hundreds of years, little was empirically known about the Strife.

Because of this, the Strife era was thought of as a sort of tribulation that ended in a miracle, where divinity graced humanity and saved them from assured extinction. There were a multitude of stories, myths, legends. Some of these were recorded into the remains of the early station computers which had lost much of their function due to civil collapse and neglect. It was from these accounts that Solceanism’s first precepts were drawn; as well as the only records of the origins of the first Emperor of the Imbrium.

Azazel Nocht I had a number of associated legends, but the most common was that he descended into what would become known as the Abyss of Nocht, now the site of the Imperial Capital of Heitzing, and from the abyss, he returned with the power to end the strife and unite the stations of what would become the Palatine state. By some accounts he pulled Heitzing from the Abyss, and this explained why Nocht’s Gorge had collapsed and shut. Others said he was graced by the divine and accepted as a God Emperor.

From Heitzing and the formation of the Palatine, the Empire expanded to encompass Rhinea (displacing declining Shimii kingdoms in the process), as well as Bosporus’ North and South (subjugating more Shimii, Loup and dark-skinned Bosporan peoples), to Buren to the northeast, with Katarre as the limit, and what would become Skarsgaard, or now the Holy Empire of Solcea (previously the Gallian Kingdoms and other small station-states.) Contact was made with the Vekan proto-state which was vassalized, and the Empire stabilized, slowed down, but eventually, expanded to the Nectaris to form the Colonies.

Azazel Nocht I crowned his own sons, establishing a dynastic line and creating the Imbrian Empire, but from 516 A.D., where the Empire first encountered the Republic of Alayze and went to war with them, records of Nocht I became scarce, and his dynasty took prominence. He must not have been a God, and thus met mortality. This is what was commonly accepted to have occurred and taught in schools.

Even with station computers and other such technology, time and political convenience eroded what was known and shaped what was thought. Over time, the Nochts became more divine than human, until they ceased to be either of the two. Eventually, the line of Nocht ended with the Fueller Reformation between 932 and 934 A.D. All record of the divinity of the Nocht family and their mythical exploits was expunged and driven from the public consciousness. Konstantin von Fueller, the first non-Nocht Emperor, struck the name of Nocht from the Empire itself, and declared that the “hypnosis” that the Nocht family had put over the Empire was now broken. The Nochts were mere men, and they had been defeated. The Engineers of the Fueller family brought about an age of secularism and materialist rhetoric.

But of course, hundreds of years of superstitions did not just die with one man nor with his family.

There still remained the mythical descent, etched into the collective imagination.

The Abyss continued to tempt the people of the Imbrium with its alluring legends of power and splendor. It had almost the same reputation as the photic zone, of a place where daredevil explorers could find mythical realms and lost islands of Strife era civilization to plunder. But such people were only legends. Outside of the Katarran mercenary culture and its tall tales, there were few successful stories of descent into the Abyss. Horrific beasts, sights so terrible they melt the mind of the beholder, disorientation and the threat of being spirited away– people who ventured into the abyss never came back. Or perhaps, it was easier to believe that if they came back whole and hale, then they never went at all and were lying.

Most of them were probably lying; but who could determine truth from fiction in such a situation?

The governments of the Imbrium, whose base of control lay in the zone of human activity, had let the Abyss rest unperturbed for hundreds of years. There was always a greater problem or a more lucrative venture right in front of them, between 1000 and 2000 meters– governments rarely saw need to venture further. Whenever they did, they sponsored some quackish expedition that was already dead set on doing so. If they came back, it was always in failure with nothing to show for it. If they never came back, it didn’t matter one bit. Even the secular Fueller regime had done little to stir the pot of Abyssal exploration, sponsoring ultimately less such trips than even the Nocht family, and publicizing none of them at all.

Perhaps that was the influence of a certain someone at play– someone who had experience in this realm.

According to Norn von Fueller, Kesar’s Gorge held a habitat below 3000 meters depth. Gertrude Lichtenberg believed staunchly that this habitat held her origin story, and perhaps the origin of her power. And she did not intend to stop there. Norn had taunted her to go even deeper into the Katov mass, and Gertrude intended to do so. This was her last gambit. She would retrace Nocht’s steps into the eldritch shadow that lay beneath humanity’s eternal coffin in the depths of the Imbrium. Come hell, high water, or madness.

She already felt like she had been through hell in spirit. So now she would sink in it, and rise again.


“Norn is just trying to get rid of you. She is sending you on a suicide mission.” Victoria bluntly said.

After a brief explanation of the history of abyssal exploration as Gertrude understood it, Gertrude laid out her grand ambitions for the trip to Kesar’s Gorge. Of course, it was immediately shot down by Victoria.

“Norn would not do that. We have a history together. I know her better than you.” Gertrude said.

Victoria briefly seemed to bristle at the idea. As if offended in a snap reaction to the second statement.

“You don’t understand.” Gertrude continued. “Norn doesn’t lie. She doesn’t feel the need to do so. Norn believes she is so powerful that deception is beneath her. If Norn wanted me dead she would have killed me. She thinks she’s above the law. She was being sincere, Victoria. There is something in the Gorge she wants me to find and I’m going to get it. And If I need to, I’ll turn it against her. That’s my goal here.”

Gertrude of course withheld that Norn delivered this information after nearly killing her.

That detail made Gertrude all the more certain that Norn was not cheating her.

But she had no ill will toward Norn and some part of her didn’t want Victoria to think ill of Norn either.

Some part of her was still a bit soft-hearted about her “Master,” to whom she owed so much.

She had to pretend that Norn was an antagonist– but deep down, she felt like she had wronged her.

“How has Veka’s abyssal exploration turned out? I’m genuinely curious.” Nile asked.

“I don’t need to disclose anything to you.” Victoria responded.

She was back to her emotionless and blunt tone of voice. Gertrude took this to mean she was calm.

However, she was still being uncooperative.

Nile meanwhile–

“The Sunlight Foundation has never ventured too deep into the Abyss.” Nile said. She gestured with a palm toward the floor. As if in response to Victoria’s uncooperative demeanor, she started an impromptu lecture that surprised Gertrude. “We have sent instruments into those holes which picked up all kinds of anomalous readings. It is difficult to communicate between the Abyss and the Aphotic Zone, and there are problems with navigation also. Euphrates and Tigris, two of my colleagues, have the most experience with such things, and even they limit their activity to no more than 3500 depth. For an outfit like ours, which has to be careful with the assets it is moving, there’s always something more important to do, relative to the effort. The Abyss is teeming with life that is only rarely agitated by human activity– they respond aggressively and view us as prey. Scientific expeditions cannot hope to survive. They must be accompanied by military assets. This massive ship might give us a ghost of a chance to succeed.”

“Um. Thank you for the disclosure.” Gertrude said. “I take it you’re invested in giving it a shot?”

“I’m uninterested in the Abyss.” Nile said. “I am only speaking as a Doctor hoping to mitigate what will be obvious harm. I am willing to offer the limited expertise I have in order to prevent possible casualties. Speaking of which, Trude, do you have a clinic aboard? I don’t believe I saw one open.”

Gertrude blinked at her. Ship’s clinics were established at the discretion of the commander, and–

“We have medics aboard, with the security team. They can administer first-aid. Our doctrine entails we should go to a Station or to a Hospital Ship after we have stabilized people for follow-up care. We’re an elite and fast-moving unit that gets a lot of requests, it’s not a good environment for long-term care.”

–she had never recruited a ship’s doctor to the Iron Lady. It had not seemed necessary before.

Inquisition soldiers could get care anywhere– until now, when that was impossible.

“You don’t have any stations or Hospital ships to go to now. Let me open a clinic here.” Nile said.

She wasn’t entirely wrong, but Gertrude was still immediately nervous about the idea.

Victoria shot Gertrude a skeptical glare. Nile sounded quite invested in her request.

“At least let me give a health check to your crew. I bet they haven’t had preventive care in months. I’ll show you how much you need a doctor, and you can decide whether you approve of my care or not.”

Gertrude glanced at Victoria, meeting her suddenly evil-looking stare. She then looked back at Nile.

“It can’t hurt, I guess. You can set up in one of the meeting rooms to do check-ups, and only check-ups, with a limited selection of tools overseen by Security. Then I’ll evaluate whether to keep it or close it.”

Victoria crossed her arms. Nile wagged her tail more vigorously and smiled with her eyes again.

“So, then–” Gertrude tried to steer back to the main topic–

“Veka’s attempts to explore the Abyss have not been successful.”

Suddenly, Victoria spoke up. Arms crossed, eyes shut, cheek turned. Her own tail stood straight out.

“There are three Abyssal gorges in Veka, the Abyss of Temujin, the Abyss of Mansa and the Abyss of Hus. We sent small military expeditions into the Temujin and Mansa gorges down to 4000 meters. Both of which were attacked by Leviathans as well as buffeted by strange weather patterns and returned with damage and not much else to show for it. In the Abyss of Hus, we found the main base of this individual at 3000 depth and aborted our mission to go deeper.” It seemed this was the most polite way that Victoria could refer to Nile in that moment. “Then we tracked her down again to a smaller, lower depth site within an inactive subaquatic volcano. I am willing to disclose that it was not only that we desired to bring her to justice– we wanted to acquire someone who had real experience with depth sites.”

“You’ve got the wrong woman for that. You want Euphrates instead. Good luck.” Nile replied.

“Hence,” Victoria ignored her and continued speaking, “why I am here now, why I was chasing her, and why I have interest both in this individual but also in your expedition Gertrude. Not everyone has an Irmingard class dreadnought to spare for a journey like this. So it is beneficial for me to join you. Perhaps if you can uncover something valuable, I will rescind my intentions toward this individual.”

Gertrude felt her heart leap. That withdrawn cat had finally begun to cooperate!

“I am glad you actually opened up. It looks like everyone stands to profit here.” She said.

“Don’t get used to it. I’m only here to safeguard Vekan interests.”

Gertrude felt her heart tumble off a rooftop and crash into the street.

Nevertheless, at least everyone could finally agree that they wanted to be here now.

“Since it appears everything else is in order, the meeting is adjourned. You two have room assignments in the officer’s hall, get some rest.” Gertrude said. “I need some too. Your quarrel woke me up at like 0200.”

“Of course. A poor sleep schedule does explain your depressed countenance.” Nile said.

“I don’t care what you do. Just inform me if I’m required for anything.” Victoria said.

Without another word, Gertrude left the room feeling thoroughly exhausted by those two.


Depth Gauge: 2498 m

Gertrude shut the door to her room behind herself. She promptly dropped her coat on a nearby chair, undid her tie and the buttons of her shirt, and practically ripped her hair loose from its bun, and fell down into bed. Her black bra clung close to her swarthy olive skin, slick with sweat. She began feebly reaching around behind her back, but aborted trying to unhook the bra. She was completely wiped out.

Staring at the roof, at first without expression. Then, compelled as if by a mad passion to smile.

To laugh– to crack up into nearly sobbing laughter.

“What a farce! What a stupid farce!”

She raised her arm over her eyes, covering them with her sleeve.

“Do I really think I’m capable of any of this? Am I suddenly dreaming of being Emperor Nocht now?”

She was so exhausted. That burst of laughter felt like it took the last of her strength.

Unable to move, all she had was the ceiling above and her own wicked passions.

Gertrude was nothing more than a trumped-up military policewoman.

This enormous ship, all of her weapons and her crew, all of it was just from playing politics.

She hadn’t won any of it from just her strength.

Her weakness and helplessness frustrated her to no end.

Ultimately, she was just a coward. Hiding behind Norn without ever truly understanding her.

Without an Imbrian Empire, she was nothing. Her uniform meant nothing, and so she herself didn’t.

But it was not just the expedition that felt farcical either–

No. That was just the very start. Beneath the skin, everything about Gertrude was despicable.

“What rotten luck. Victoria is here too. God, I’m so pathetic. She reminds me of–“

Don’t even say it.

Don’t even think it.

Stop now. There’s only hurt down that way.

Gertrude laughed. Heavy on the bitter notes this time. Weak, sputtering laughter.

“What if I want her? Why can’t I have anything? Why do I have to lose everything?”

No response from that inner voice of self loathing.

After all, what did her mixed-up, wicked heart truly even want now?

Could she have Elena back?

Could she keep Ingrid?

Could she have–

Gertrude heard the door luck to her room slide open.

In a panic, she sat up instantly in bed–

Finding herself staring up from the edge, with legs spread and her shirt open, at Nile.

She had moved so fast that her vision was blurry, her brain rattled. She couldn’t believe this.

“I wanted us to talk alone.” Nile said. Her eyes scanned over Gertrude.

“I locked that door.” Gertrude said incredulously. Too confused to be upset.

Nile reached out and dropped a tube shaped thing with a trigger on it and a tiny screen.

“Masterkey. Creative name, isn’t it? Some irascible little woman made it. You can have it now.”

Gertrude realized how bad her posture was.

She closed her legs and held her shirt closed with one hand.

“I am this close to having you locked up in a black room for the rest of the journey.” Gertrude said.

“That would be a pity. There’s so much I can do for you after all.” Nile said.

God damn it, don’t respond to that–

Her body was instantly responding to it. But Gertrude still had her mind to resist with.

Even if her loins did stir–

“What the hell do you want? Ingrid’ll tear you apart if she notices you snuck in here.”

“That lovely lass in the next room over? She’s sleeping like a log. Relax. I am not here on any nefarious purpose. I just wanted to ask if you knew about Agarthic Weather. I have something for you.”

From her coat, she produced another object. It looked like a watch.

However, the face was completely different. Rather than numbers and hands, the face of the watch had a gradient etched into the back, and some kind of fluid trapped behind the glass. Gertrude had never seen anything like it. Nile dropped it on the bed next to the Masterkey without a second’s hesitation. She picked it up but no amount of observation could elucidate the true purpose of the little gadget.

“What is this? Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“That’s an Aetherometer. You can use it to tell the color and intensity of Agarthic Weather.” Nile said. “And I wanted you to be prepared. We’re already very close to the boundary line after all.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about!” Gertrude said.

Nile’s face looked like she was smiling behind her mask. Mysteriously pleased to be able to explain.

“Cocytus clearly didn’t train you. But I’ll oblige– our world has a layer of passively resonant emotional energy that is everywhere humans are, but invisible. This is called Aether. You can think of it almost like dark matter or the quantum world. It is observable with the right tools, but not with human eyes– most human eyes, anyway. But unlike other observable phenomena, which neatly conform to behaviors that can be documented, Aether can be as irrational as humans themselves are. Are you following me?”

In that moment, Gertrude could not possibly have responded. She was tired and aggravated and hearing nonsense which, indeed, not even Norn had ever spoken about to her. So she made no response to Nile’s sudden pseudoscience lesson beyond drawing her brows in and narrowing her eyes at the Loup.

“In the Abyss,” Nile continued, “the Aether exists in a state of agitation that has profound psychological effects on humans. It starts anywhere from 2500 to 3000 meters deep. I will make recommendations as to how to deal with the Weather once I see which color of weather we are going into, and you can use that Aetherometer to keep track of the weather and its severity, so you won’t be caught off-guard.”

Nonsense, pure complete nonsense.

She might as well have been whispering gibberish words like a baby.

And all the while Gertrude was trying to keep her own tits in her shirt–

“Get out of my room.” Gertrude said. “Get out. Right now.”

“As you wish. Perhaps I can accompany you some other time.”

Gertrude stood up from bed, but Nile retreated quickly with a little bow, the door locking behind her.

She stared at the locked door, briefly, her legs wavering under her weight.

Looking back at the bed with the aetherometer on it.

“God damn it.”

She lost her temper. And she was losing the battle she had been fighting with her own stamina.

“Ingrid is right. I’ve been running myself too ragged for too long.”

She practically collapsed into bed moments later, sleeping deeply and dreamlessly.

While on her bed, the fluid on the discarded aetherometer turned a pale blue.


Depth Gauge: 2540 m

True horror reared its head the next day, after a night that felt like a blur.

“I’m not even well rested! I still feel like crap!”

Gertrude put her head down against the cafeteria table. Her muscles ached, her head was pounding.

Opposite her, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong reached a hand and brushed the top of her head gently.

In that moment, Gertrude’s heart was filled with love for that wild and beautiful brunette.

“There, there.” She cooed. “You’ll be okay. Why not rest your head on my lap?”

A lap pillow– the panacea which had cured the ails of many heroes.

Ingrid was an angel. Gertrude ill deserved her kindness.

However, she couldn’t be seen to rest her head atop Ingrid’s lean, alluring thighs.

Such a thing would call into question the High Inquisitor’s vigor and alertness.

Alas– Gertrude could have nothing. She truly was not allowed any happiness!

“Thank you. But I probably just need strong coffee. And something to eat.” Gertrude groaned.

“I’ll go get you some food. But stop whining. If you’re going to be pathetic then go all in on it and let me take care of you. This tiptoeing shit you have going on just ends up annoying me.” Ingrid said.

“I’ll rest on your lap when we’re out of this place.” Gertrude moaned.

“I’ve half a mind to break into your room somehow and make damn sure about it.”

Ingrid winked at her.

Gertrude looked up at her blearily.

“Please don’t sneak into my room. I have enough trouble with that already.”

“Huh?”

“Nevermind! Please get me some food and coffee, my head is killing me.”

“God. You’re being extra whiny today. Hopefully coffee is really all you need.”

Ingrid gave her a worried look before leaving for the cafeteria’s serving counter.

Breakfast that morning was a savory porridge with dried beef and frozen spinach mixed in, topped with a dab of margarine. It was rich, creamy, just lukewarm, imbued with a meaty flavor from having the dried beef and dry rolled oats cooked slowly in the same pot of reconstituted milk. It went down easy, just the sort of unchallenging dish Gertrude could really appreciate that morning. It was served with a side of “compote” that was essentially just tangy fruit mush as the frozen fruits disintegrated upon defrosting, and a piece of plain biscuit that had been steamed soft, presumably to spread the compote over.

Ingrid, however, had other ideas.

“Trude, where would you be without me? Here.”

She took the compote and dabbed it into the beef porridge before bringing the spoon into her lips.

Her tail wagged vigorously.

Gertrude mimed her and found the combination surprisingly tasty.

“You need to think outside the box more, Trude. Defy norms and shit!” Ingrid said.

She guffawed with a spoon in her mouth and Gertrude almost felt like kissing her.

Her smile, her enthusiastic unpretentiousness in both kindness and criticism– she was a treasure.

I wish I could feel like I haven’t lost anything just from having you.

It was a sick thought that sawed her heart in two. But she couldn’t help thinking it.

Along with the meal, Ingrid had brought her a strong black coffee.

Gertrude practically downed the whole thing as if hoping to drown her thoughts.

“Whoa! Jeez. I didn’t know you were such a coffee freak. I’ve never seen you tear into alcohol that enthusiastically.” Ingrid said, watching with wide-eyed horror as Gertrude drank and drank.

Immediately after putting her glass down Gertrude felt an immense headache.

But the dagger with which she had stabbed her brain had quieted her evil thoughts.

She did feel much more alert too.

“I’m fine.” Gertrude said, through a slight bodily tremble. “Let’s check in at the bridge.”

“Alright. But hey– is something the matter?” Ingrid asked.

She stood up and followed Gertrude along the Iron Lady’s halls.

While they walked, Gertrude thought of how to put her feelings delicately.

“Victoria van Veka is an old school friend of mine.” Gertrude said. “She and I and Elena von Fueller went to school together. I was horrible to her in the past. It was rather painful to get her cooperation now.”

Gertrude expected the worst after mentioning the circumstances to Ingrid. It might have stoked her envy.

But her bristly-tailed lover was not offended or threatened by the sound of it.

“You can’t take back bullying her in school or whatever the hell you did, and you won’t ever change her mind if she doesn’t want it.” Ingrid said, with casual ease. “It sucks, but you can’t go back and change it. Nothing you do in the present will make the past hurt less. All you can do is ask for forgiveness. Tell her you want to put in the effort to mend things, and ask her if there’s anything that can be done.”

“What if the answer’s no?” Gertrude said. It felt like an immediately childish question.

Ingrid smiled gently. “Trude, I know really, really well what it’s like having something you can’t take back and that you will never, ever be forgiven for. It’s fucked– but you have to live with it. Be happy for her; she’s alive, and she moved up in the world. And then carry on your own way with your chin up.”

Her words brought to mind the episode with the Antenora’s crew. Gertrude remembered the insinuations made by Norn’s subordinate, Yurii Anneccy Samoylovych Darkestdays, that Ingrid’s family had killed their own kind, and particularly, killed southern Loups. This was different than what Gertrude had gone through. While the scale was monumentally different, it was also the case that Gertrude was personally responsible for her own troubles. Ingrid was damned not by her own sin, but her grandfather’s crimes. Her response to that accusation was unfortunate, but it had been Samoylovych’s intention to needle her about it. Among Loup, maybe Ingrid had to deal with that situation so much, she could only get angry. Maybe that same scenario over and over drilled into her head that there was nothing she could do.

Gertrude had made her mistakes with her own hands, and would have to carry the weight of them. But that advice was still resonant. She felt gently happy that Ingrid had demonstrated such sympathy to her, even though her worries felt so pointless and childish. Ingrid was right– whether she could mend things with Victoria or not, Gertrude would have to live with the result. There was nothing else she could do.

If Ingrid could live with the legacy of her grandfather’s murders–

Gertrude could survive Victoria’s disdain.

“Ingrid, you’re really strong, you know that?” Gertrude said, smiling at her lover.

“Of course I do. I’m extremely sexy too.” Ingrid laughed. Her tail started wagging incessantly.

“I’m extremely lucky to have you by my side.” Gertrude said.

“You are! Praise me more!” Ingrid laughed raucously.

God– she was so beautiful. Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid! Gertrude momentarily felt her troubles leave her.


Average days on the Iron Lady still found themselves subject to a background hum of anxiety.

It was the stereotype that sailors and mechanics are a little bit more personable and salt of the earth, and officers are either a bit more stodgy or far more eccentric; but on a Dreadnought, the whole affair was colored through the lens of an unshakeable elite status. For naval personnel, service on a dreadnought was “making it.” A dreadnought, with its thick armor and powerful guns, was the safest ship to be on. It was the most prestigious, often in a command position in its fleet group. And because it was the largest, it had better amenities. Sailors had actual ranks, and the best of the sailors slept four to a room instead of eight to a room. Chief mechanics and engineers as well as work managers had their own rooms.

There was better food and more of it. There was a gym, the showers had stalls separating them, there was a social area, people could take more personal belongings with them on voyages. There was more freedom and more luxury, relative to other vessels. All of these incentives gave the crew the feeling that their hard work was finally being rewarded. There were few dreadnoughts in service. There was stiff competition for these posts. They had made it; they had gotten to the peak of their sailing career.

With those rewards came an expectation. Elite status had to be maintained through elite work. Sailors were expected to maintain a spotless standard of maintenance on the ship. Service level expectations were prompt. A service ticket could never “wait,” even a second. Preventive care was of the utmost importance. Not one centimeter of the ship could be overlooked. Meanwhile, officers had to be exemplary. Service on a dreadnought was such a sought after and exclusive position that an officer who made a mistake could be replaced by thousands of others that might not. Officers were expected to be highly experienced, experts in their fields and stations, with the most developed military thinking.

Orders could never be questioned. You made it to the peak; you followed along or fell from it.

Backchat was for low ratings on Frigates, dime a dozen people on dime a dozen vessels.

That expectation was not always fulfilled, and failing to live up to it was not always punished. It was said that Gertrude Lichtenberg ran a tight but compassionate operation in the Iron Lady. Because she valued long term stability, she only discarded flagrantly abusive people or those with unsalvageable failings. She did not see herself as having a crew that was elite in and of itself, but that became elite through hard work and demonstrated its status by growing stronger and tighter throughout its operations.

Nevertheless, that did not diminish the existence of that expectation. Walking down the halls was not like seeing happy faces in a station hallway, but almost like a line of students on a permanent examination period. Focused expressions, nervous expressions, confident but inwardly contrite expressions. A low hum of anxiety– this was the public life aboard a dreadnought, as one crossed the halls to and from work.

But everyone had friends, everyone had moments where they could privately let themselves be a little silly or a little loose. They were in this together, and trying to help each other succeed. Having good friends made up a good crew, and a good crew didn’t lose any of its members to outside recruitment. A good crew stayed together and grew together, and that was the feeling within dreadnoughts as well. This camaraderie protected the individuals by protecting the group, and kept everyone honest. Pure social climbers existed, but they risked shaking apart a stable house for the rest, and were not well liked.

Gertrude Lichtenberg and her closest confidantes shared such moments of lighthearted camaraderie.

They were not alone in doing so– perhaps it was the actual truth, that everyone on a dreadnought was a bit eccentric, but that everyone, also, could put on a strong face and get their work done when needed.

Perhaps the same could be said of all people, writ large.


On the bridge, the main screen had a split view.

One half had an expanded picture from the conning tower cameras. Outside the ship, the environment, wherever it was lit by the ship’s spotlights, had turned an unexpectedly deep blue. Gertrude had expected that with the katov mass density, everything outside would look red. One could still see the thick cloud of particulate matter all around the ship, but it was a deep, almost algal blue, like staring into a growth tank. On the port side of the ship, it was possible to see the distant, vague shadow of the rocky gorge wall.

On the other half of the main screen, there was a topographical map generated by sonar and laser imaging. It showed the Iron Lady as a wireframe object within a simulation of the gorge, to allow the crew to gauge its position relative to the surroundings. There were a few objects in the gorge with the ship. At that moment, they were maintaining 2500 depth. 500 meters below them in the murk, and a kilometer east, there was an object which was floating in the middle of the gorge. At 3500 depth, there was an object that appeared to be wedged into the gorge’s wall. At 5000 depth, the gorge widened, and there was a seafloor, but 2 kilometers farther east, there was a hole through which they could descend further.

“Inquisitor, Sotnyk.” Karen Schicksal greeted Gertrude and Ingrid, stifling a little yawn as she did.

On the center island seats, Captain Dreschner covered his mouth, yawning as if infected with it.

Throughout the bridge, everyone seemed a little bit fatigued and less alert than normal.

“Not just me, huh?” Gertrude asked. “Pass around vitamin drinks to everyone.”

Their vitamin jelly drinks not only contained vitamins– in fact they had more caffeine than vitamins.

“Yes ma’am. Good idea. I’ll call the kitchen.” Schicksal replied.

Gertrude and Ingrid climbed the steps to the center island and stood next to Dreschner, looking over the main screen. Ingrid whistled, impressed by the depth of the gorge, and the objects within it. Certainly, Gertrude never thought she would be down here, and she had never thought it would look blue. It was almost beautiful to behold, though truly there was nothing to actually see. All that beautiful color was just murky water and contaminated biomass wafting up from the abyss. It was a cloud of beautiful emptiness.

There was something out there, just beyond Gertrude’s reach. Centimeters from her fingertips.

That emptiness had to mean something. It had to contain something she could not see.

Otherwise, her entire life up to this point had led her to nothing, and she would die with nothing.

“What’s the situation so far, Captain?” Gertrude asked. “Anything dangerous?”

“No leviathans quite yet.” Dreschner said. He pointed at the map. “We’ve found two points of interest. There appears to be an 80 meter long metallic object below us. It could be a derelict ship. Might be worth looking into. There is additionally a larger object farther below, which may be what Norn the Praetorian desired you to find, Lady Lichtenberg. From what we can see, the exterior is at least 100 meters across and 50 meters tall. It is embedded into the gorge wall, so there is likely more to it than we can see.”

“Why is everything blue? Isn’t all that stuff out there just katov gunk?” Ingrid asked.

“Affirmative, Lady Jarvelainen.” Dreschner said. “You are correct, everything we are seeing is still shrouded in ordinary Katov mass. It has become blue instead of red, and I can scarcely imagine a reason why.”

“Is still just acting like Katov stuff normally does? Nothing is different?” Ingrid’s ears folded a little.

“As far as we have observed, it is exactly like any other cloud of Katov mass based on its turbidity. The Katov scale is still accurately predicting laser and visual fall-off. It is simply blue instead of red.”

Hadn’t there been something about blue–? It was just off the edge of Gertrude’s memory.

“It’s kinda creepy, you know?”

“Indeed. But it is still predictable, at least.”

Despite Ingrid’s lower rank, the Captain treated her respectfully as a courtesy to Gertrude.

Ingrid and Gertrude were common enough companions aboard the ship. Even before they started having clandestine trysts. Everyone knew from observing them that they were good friends and they never hid this aspect of their relationship. But Dreschner was keener still– if anyone suspected the depth to which Gertrude favored her loyal Sotnyk, it had to be him. Thankfully, he would never air such thoughts.

“What’s the scale of the mass out there?” Gertrude asked.

“At the moment, 200 Katov. We can expect worse to come.” Dreschner said.

“What’s our current speed of descent?” Gertrude said. “I’m surprised we aren’t deeper yet.”

“I ordered the helm to limit our speed to a small handful of knots.” Dreschner said. “The Iron Lady is such a large vessel that we wouldn’t have time to correct any mistakes if we descend quickly. Visibility, communications and detection are all going to get poorer and poorer, so we need to be careful.”

“I don’t want to spend more time here than we have to. But your concerns are valid.” Gertrude said.

“At our pace, we can reach the derelict or the suspected habitat in an hour or three.” Dreschner said.

“Alright. Let’s go look at the nearest object first then.” Gertrude said, without much hesitation. She understood the concerns and deferred to Dreschner’s experience here. “If it’s a derelict then we need to see what the status of its core might be. I don’t want to leave a ticking time bomb out here.”

“I was going to suggest that as well, Inquisitor. I will inform the helm of our course.” Dreschner said.

While they talked, Ingrid stood off to the side, arms crossed, tail wagging gently, staring at the screen.

“I’ll leave it to you. I’m going to go check on the hangar crews. Ingrid, coming with?” Gertrude asked.

Ingrid yawned a little. “Of course. Let’s grab one of those vitamin drinks before we go though.”

“We’re all at 10% battery, aren’t we?” Gertrude said. “Captain, tell the crew to relax a little.”

Dreschner nodded solemnly. “I know they will appreciate a more measured pace. Thank you, milady.”

Gertrude could not afford for her crew to fall apart now. Especially not by her own hands.

They were so close, so tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. There was something down there.

She stared at the diagram of the gorge, at the small Iron Lady on the screen descending meter by meter.

There had to be something down in the dark. And she had to claim it and live to tell the tale.

Or else– everything was meaningless–


Depth Gauge: 2625

Down in the hangar, the crew had put up the gantry for Victoria’s Jagd, which was painted royal purple but otherwise appeared a fairly ordinary member of its class. Now the hangar engineers were engaged in the production of small spare parts using the ferristitcher and CNC machines located in the workshop near the shuttle bay. Melted down pieces from damaged equipment could be recycled to some degree in this fashion, making for new pushrods, bolts, pump parts for hydrojets, steel tubing, turbine blades, even bullets as long as there was available powder. They could easily ferristitch a whole assault rifle out of junk.

In this case, much of the junk had come from the formerly torn to pieces Jagdkaiser, which had been largely reassembled from Jagd parts. And now, much of the reconstituted junk seemed to be going into the Magellan, which had been its torso suspended, and the limbs separated to different parts of the hangar. Work seemed to have started on it. In front of the torso, Gertrude and Ingrid found Monika Erke Tendercloud, the small woman seated on the floor and looking up at the mecha with a drawing tablet in hand. She yawned audibly, and dropped onto her back, lying down. She then saw the arrivals looming.

“Oh, hello.” She said. Gertrude thought her voice sounded a little sad. Though perhaps she was just tired.

“Is everyone having trouble sleeping?” Gertrude asked.

“I think I just overdid it. I pulled an all-nighter preparing a work program for this thing.” Monika said.

Her cheerful, hopping around levels of energy were clearly gone.

Now instead, she fidgeted slowly with the tablet, drumming fingers on it, spinning the pen.

She pointed the digital pen from her drawing tablet at the Magellan’s torso.

“I’ve got plans to turn it into a cool super-robot.” She said.

Gertrude sat down on the floor next to her, unprompted, and looked up at the Magellan.

As if it was the most casual thing in the world, and it was. It was easy to sit next to Monika.

Ingrid stared at the two of them briefly before sitting down herself.

So that the three of them were all together on the cold floor, staring up at the enormous machine.

In the presence of company, Monika’s tail began swishing gently behind her.

“Monika, I wanted to apologize–“

“No harm, no foul.” Monika replied immediately, shutting Gertrude down.

Gertrude tried to quiet her instinctual doubling down on her own guilt, and accept Monika’s grace.

Still, she felt like she should make amends somehow. She would have to think of a way.

“Puppy, do you think Gertrude is good enough to pilot a third generation super-Diver?” Monika asked.

“Don’t call me that.” Ingrid grumbled. “I think she ought to stay in the ship, to be honest.”

“Your feedback is acknowledged, appreciated and discarded.” Gertrude replied.

“Go to hell.” Ingrid said.

“Manners, puppy.” Monika replied.

“You runt, just because you’re older–“

“Manners, puppy.” Gertrude added.

“I’m going to knock both your heads together.”

Monika and Gertrude laughed.

Eventually Ingrid let herself have a bit of a snicker toward the moment.

“I’m serious though. I want to know what you think of the Inquisitor’s piloting skills.” Monika said.

“Gertrude is a fancier pilot than me.” Ingrid said. “But she lacks aggression, so she can’t capitalize on it.”

“You have too much aggression.” Gertrude said.

“She’s a fucking pussy.” Ingrid finally said.

“Manners, puppy–“

“Gertrude, don’t even.”

For the slightest moment, Gertrude let herself loosen up a bit and laughed. She glanced at Monika.

“Monika, are you just joking, or do you have a plan to push this thing’s performance even higher?”

She was briefly excited– the Magellan was already so strong–

Suddenly, Monika’s ears drooped and her gaze went down to the floor.

To her surprise, she found the previously cheerful demeanor of her chief engineer quickly darkening.

“I was just joking. I’m not good enough to beat all the brains at Rhineametalle and Rescholdt-Kolt. Or this mysterious Sunlight Foundation of yours. But I think I can at least get it back to ordinary working order.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down.” Gertrude said. “You’re fantastic, Monika. You’re a miracle-worker here.”

Ingrid wrapped an arm around Monika’s shoulder and pulled the woman’s head close to her own chest.

“Now who’s behaving like a puppy? Come on, you’re a huge brain. Biggest among the Loup.”

“I heard you brought one of them aboard, and that she was a Loup.” Monika said.

“What? Are you sulky because of that? No one is gonna replace our runt.” Ingrid said.

“I’m not a runt and I’m not sulky about that.” Monika said, averting her gaze.

“Nile is a medical doctor. She has no idea what to do with this.” Gertrude said, pointed at the Magellan.

Ingrid let go of Monika, who sighed and stared at her own feet.

“I was just thinking I’d like to chat with her about the cartridges. Pick her brain.” Monika said. “See what being a genius with the resources to make magic happen feels like. Their whole situation fascinates me. I wonder what they’re up to? Trying to make a difference in this horrible world– or making it worse?”

Of course– Gertrude should have known this could happen.

She knew Monika was a bit fragile when it came to her feelings, even though she was quite grown.

For Gertrude to have caused all this commotion to bring aboard a new scientist–

She should have considered how it would look to Monika.

“Nile will be around. You can always talk to her. But you’re worth ten of her around here.”

Gertrude reached out and fussed with Monika’s blonde hair, vigorously petting her head and dog ears.

Monika had an annoyed little expression but leaned into Gertrude’s hand a few times as she stroked her.

“Thanks for trying to cheer me up.” Monika said. “I’ve been feeling out of sorts. You can probably tell on my face, huh? I’ve been trying to get this thing fixed, but it’s been an uphill battle. All kinds of awful things have happened and I haven’t been able to do anything about it. Repairing the Divers isn’t good enough for me. I need to come up with more power. I feel awful about Baron von Castille too. I couldn’t even develop any kind of rapport with her, and she took the Grenadier. I– I should’ve done more.”

Gertrude could sympathize with Monika to such a degree that it almost hurt.

Those words sounded frighteningly like the ones swimming in the most toxic sludge of her own mind.

She felt guilty that all her failures were affecting the poor little woman, who had done no wrong.

“That Castille woman was a mess. It wasn’t your fault. She didn’t talk to anyone.” Ingrid said.

“I guess. I don’t know. It’s not enough for me to forget it like I had no involvement.” Monika replied.

“All of our tribulations are my responsibility.” Gertrude said suddenly. “I’m the one who failed.”

“Gertrude–“

“Monika, none of this reflects on you. I’m the one who has to–“

Monika closed her fists, averted her eyes, and then stood up just as suddenly as Gertrude had started.

“Gertrude, this ship doesn’t run on your own passion alone, you know?” Monika said.

And the way her words sounded, almost like a low growl, alerted Gertrude– she was mad.

“You can’t just keep saying ‘don’t worry, it was all my fault.’ You can’t keep pretending like all of us didn’t individually fall short of our own aspirations. We were all part of this. We failed in our roles. Trying to collect all our injuries on your own body doesn’t help any of us heal. It’s just frustrating, okay?”

Monika turned her back and walked away, half-running. Gertrude tried to say something, but felt Ingrid’s firm hand on her shoulder and pulled her back, forcing her to sit back on the floor and quieting her.

“Let her go.” Ingrid said firmly.

“But–“

Gertrude watched Monika storm off feeling an upswell of worry for the fragile little Loup–

“She needed to tell you that and she needs you to listen. Not to patronize her further.” Ingrid said.

“God damn it.” Gertrude put her fist to the floor. “That’s the last thing I wanted with her.”

“Monika doesn’t hate you, she’s just trying to help you. And she’s right.” Ingrid said.

“How is she right? She’s blaming herself! Did you see her? She’s so depressed!” Gertrude shot back.

Ingrid’s expression darkened.

“None of us feel proud of what’s happened since we left Vogelheim.” Ingrid said. “We fucked up, Gertrude, and now we’ve fallen from our big deal status to all of this mess. But you fucking piling it all up on your shoulders– it sucks! It doesn’t acknowledge that the rest of us are trying really hard to make up for that, and to work harder and keep this thing afloat. If it’s all your fault, where does that leave us? People who are only on this ship because you made a big deal for them to be here? And now we don’t have anywhere else to go, and can’t do anything to fix it? We don’t need this from you right now.”

Gertrude raised her hands to cover her face. She almost wanted to cry into them.

“Ugh.”

She couldn’t ever win, could she? Everything was always a fucking failure–

“Listen, I don’t want you to have a meltdown about this.” Ingrid said. “Just think about it, okay? Think about Monika’s feelings, and my feelings– not just your own for once. All of us admire you for achieving your rank, despite being just some bitch– that’s where we all want to be too. So you need to act like you deserve to be here, so that we can deserve it too. Anyway. Fuck– I’m gonna go– it’s my turn on standby. You should check in on that Sunlight Foundation creep you brought in. Keep yourself busy.”

Every word was like jamming a knife into the cracks of glass in Gertrude’s soul.

“Not you too–“

Gertrude mumbled. Ingrid fixed a sharp glare on her.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” Gertrude sighed. She had to calm down. Ingrid was right. “Okay. I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah.” Ingrid said. “I’m not abandoning you, okay? But you need time to think. For Monika’s sake.”

Ingrid patted Gertrude on the shoulder twice, stood up, and left, waving at the Jagdkaiser’s mechanics.

Leaving the High Inquisitor seated on the floor with her cape collected behind her, hugging her knees.

Staring up at the hanging torso of the Magellan, still pockmarked with the battle damage Gertrude took.

“It’s frustrating for me too.” Gertrude mumbled. “I just don’t want the rest of you to hurt like this.”

There was nobody to hear it. Nothing but the machine that had fallen apart due to her failure.


Eventually, Gertrude did pick herself up off the floor and went to inquire about Nile.

The Iron Lady had an upper and lower tier of modules, and in the upper tier, near the bridge, there was a hall that had a dozen meeting rooms. After Nile expressed her intention to open a clinic and Gertrude accepted it, she had blearily told Dreschner to allow her to set up in a meeting room of her choice. Apparently, Nile had taken up two. One had much of its furniture pushed to the second, adjacent room, which had become a warehouse for Nile’s medical supplies. In the other, she was seeing patients.

Gertrude found the room because a portable LCD had been pinned to the wall with signage.

There was a hand-drawn logo of a sunburst, a streak of water, and letters spelling NILE’S CLINIC.

Below the name, it also read FREE HEALTH CHECKUPS!

Gertrude walked up to the threshold and knocked on the wall beside the door twice.

“Letting myself in, Doc.” She called out.

“Of course! I’m almost done here. I can see you next.” Nile said.

“Inquisitor? Ma’am?”

Inside the meeting room, everything had been removed except for a small table and a pair of chairs. Nile had a wheeled table beside her chair for her tools: a stethoscope and blood pressure monitor, a roll of measuring tape and a portable scale to measure weight, and a portable with a pen, acting as a digital clipboard. Seated on the second chair was Karen Schicksal, who was taken by surprise by Gertrude’s arrival and looked like she had gone pale with fright. Nile was taking her blood pressure at the time.

“The High Inquisitor’s appearance is causing your heart rate to spike immensely.” Nile said. “That’s not unusual since she’s your boss, but I just want you to know, this clinic is a safe space, and if you don’t feel safe at your job, I will do everything in my power to protect and advocate for you, Miss Schicksal.”

“Um! It’s really fine!” Schicksal said, putting on a fake, nervous smile. “She’s quite kind to me!”

Nile held Schicksal’s hand gently in both her own, which nearly caused Schicksal to jump out of her chair.

Stroking her skin, she cooed. “If I am allowed to continue operating, I’d like to discuss the possibility of a short term of anti-anxiety medications, just to see whether they help you cope with these episodes.”

“Episodes?!” Schicksal pulled at her own collar. “Uhh, ma’am, I’m fine! I’m truly fine, and alright.”

Gertrude stood by the door like a looming shadow and watched this play out without expression.

Once Schicksal had left, in a particular hurry, Nile jotted down something on her digital clipboard while patting the chair that Schicksal had just vacated with the palm of her hand. Signaling for Gertrude to approach. But for a while, Gertrude remained at the door, because she noticed that Nile was not wearing her respirator that morning. She also noticed another thing– that Nile was quite beautiful, with a delicately curved nose, a rosy-red gloss on her lips, a smooth jaw. Her features fit her striking eyes.

Her ears twitched slightly, and their eyes met briefly, contact which the Inquisitor quickly broke.

Gertrude’s gaze then fell upon and lingered on Nile’s neck, where her infection monitor–

–was brightly green.

“I already told you; you can trust me to be responsible. I’ve been living with this for decades.” Nile said.

“Right.” Decades?! How old–? “I just didn’t think– you’d discard the respirator so soon.” Gertrude said.

She raised a fist to her mouth and cleared her throat to avoid putting her foot in her mouth any further.

“I wear it the majority of the time.” Nile said. “But with new patients, I like to show them my face as a proof of my sincerity. Of course, if there’s even the slightest risk of infection, I will wear my mask.”

She patted the chair again with her hand.

“Alright, alright. I’ll get to see first-hand how you work.” Gertrude said.

Conceding, Gertrude sat on the chair. As she was arranging her cape, Nile shook her head.

“Take the cape off. And the coat too, I need better access to your body.”

Sighing, Gertrude’s hands went from the cape to its clasps, undoing it completely. She went button to golden button on her black coat, pulling it off the long-sleeved button-down shirt she wore under it. There was the visible impression of her back swimsuit top beneath– she did not wear lingerie under it. The underwear Nile had seen her in before was a result of being woken for battle past midnight.

Feeling surprisingly freer without the coat and cape, Gertrude let them fall on the floor.

Alight with a mixture of disdain and catharsis from the sound of them sliding off.

“Good.” Nile said. They were seated next to each other–

For the first time Gertrude realized how close she was and her heart skipped a little beat.

As Nile’s hand firmly took her own arm and ran fingers down the length of it.

“Keeping fit, that’s good. Lean and firm muscles, flexible, what I’d expect from a soldier.”

Her fingers traveled to Gertrude’s shoulders, to her neck– the Inquisitor grimaced–

“Can I touch your chest? I’m just trying to get a sense of your physique.” Nile asked.

“Um. Sure.”

Gertrude imagined Nile’s hands squeezing her breasts like stress bags–

But much like before, her fingers just ran across her chest and belly, gently but firmly.

“Raise your arms over your head.”

Gertrude did as instructed. Nile narrowed her eyes and shook her head.

“You’re so stiff.” She said. “Do you stretch in the morning? How long do you spend seated?”

“I guess I sit still for a lot of my day. I never really thought about it.”

“You need to get up more. Stand up, stretch your arms, back, waist and legs. Gently– don’t treat it like a workout. Every two hours or so, more often if you don’t feel any soreness when sitting back down. Honestly, you should take this opportunity to make this a crew standard. It’d help everyone.”

Her hands slid down Gertrude’s back. “Can I get the contour of your legs?”

“Um. Yes, just–“

Gertrude sat up straight as Nile’s hands squeezed briefly around her black pants at the thigh.

“Skinny, but lean. You need to incorporate leg exercises. I bet you also skip meals regularly.”

“I–“

Before the Inquisitor could defend her self-destructive work habits any further, she stiffened up again.

Nile had picked up the digital pen and tapped on one of Gertrude’s breasts.

“That’s why these stayed such a humble size.” Nile smiled at her, her tall dog ears shaking a little bit.

“HEY.”

“It does contribute to your handsome profile.”

Gertrude would have shouted more if Nile didn’t look so lovely when she was cheerful–

“You’re the sort of person who is pretending to be healthy while destroying herself behind the scenes. As your doctor, I’m going to make sure we take the last step together to actually leading a healthy life.” Nile took her digital clipboard and jotted down something. It was the sort of portable touchscreen device that could turn her vibrant swishes of the pen into neat block text on the page. “You have to eat 3 meals a day, of regular size cafeteria portions, and I am recommending a morning and evening snack that has protein but also a healthy fat content. Furthermore, you have to stand more. Moving your body is not something you should only do at the gym after work. Your body is very stiff and your posture is not helping.”

For a moment Gertrude felt extremely self-conscious of how she was sitting and straightened up.

“You can tell all that just by manhandling me?” She replied, fixing Nile with a critical stare.

“And from watching you move around and interact with people for a few hours.” Nile said. “I can make educated guesses as to your lifestyle from my own experience. You’re not the first person I’ve told this. I have been working with the most self destructive people on this planet for decades. Chasing them around about their health, whenever I had the chance to, has prepared me for practically any patient.”

“Fair enough.” Gertrude sighed. “You really are a doctor, huh?”

Nile stared at her blinking. “You thought I was joking?”

“I thought you were some mad scientist type, not a kindly pediatrician type.”

“What do you think now?”

Gertrude felt compelled to smile. “I’m still thinking.”

Nile smiled brightly back at her. She looked amused. “Then let us continue the assessment.”

Measurements and weight came next, then reflex tests on the knee. Throughout, Gertrude allowed Nile to move her around like a doll, posing her in whatever way was needed so she could observe everything she needed to and take down all of the data that she desired. Sit up, arms out, sit down, knees bent– there was something that warm and comfortable, almost liberating, about having someone’s close attention.

They had a very animated discussion as the assessment continued.

“How many people have you seen so far?”

“Twenty-six, with you. Mostly officers. Mind releasing some sailors to me soon?” Nile asked.

“I’ll think about it. Can I get a look at their assessments?”

“Denied. As their boss, you could use any healthcare data I give you against your employees.”

“I wouldn’t do that!”

“Doesn’t matter. Doctor-patient confidentiality is a pillar of medical work. Period, end of story.”

“I just want to know if anyone needs help.”

“That’s my job. I’ll recommend changes to the work process on the ship once we are done.”

“Fair enough. But I’m telling you– I wouldn’t use the information in a biased way!”

“I don’t care. Not everything is about you personally.”

Gertrude snickered to herself, feeling like she had found a weakness in this unshakeable woman’s facade. “I thought that you joined a clandestine organization to defy norms, and here you are insisting about doctor-patient confidentiality. Are ethics only important when they’re convenient for you?”

She was being childish but– damn it, she was allowed to be childish sometimes!

Nile met her eyes, confidently, firmly. “Ethics between people are important. Confidentiality engenders trust, which creates an environment of compassion, and allows medical work to be efficient and tailored to the patient. Legislating against good tools and bold projects, are just barriers to progress.”

“Are you pro-human experimentation?”

“An unfair and loaded question.”

“How so?”

“I believe a person, given the full context and understanding of what a procedure might do to their body, should be allowed to have it from a provider who will undertake it. That is the side of bodily autonomy that our biofascist society doesn’t want to accept, including yourself, asking that question.”

“Can you give a person a ‘full context and understanding’ of being experimented on?”

“You’re missing the point. They’re not being ‘experimented on’. You are treating it like an attack on them from a mysterious source. Yes, I can fully explain to a human person with full faculties, what a gene therapy drug or a new treatment tool could do to them. Then I can trust them to make a decision for themselves, and honor it. Especially, if the alternative is certain death or a lifelong disability.”

Nile withdrew her stethoscope and began to listen to Gertrude’s body, first on her arms, her back.

Gertrude felt a little shiver wherever the doctor touched.

“I guess that’s not really what I viewed as ‘human experimentation’.” She said.

“That’s your problem, and why it’s a loaded question.” Nile replied.

Despite her passion, Gertrude never got the sense Nile was angry at her for asking.

In the clinic, her tone of voice was always measured, she was always calm.

Unlike when their video call got a bit heated yesterday. Maybe it was her bedside manner.

Maybe she didn’t feel she was being judged by a complete stranger anymore.

Still, Gertrude felt a bit better being able to converse with her like this.

“Victoria said she found evidence of human experimentation, and you told Victoria that you experimented on yourself. I guess I imagined you might be drugging people or performing surgery–“

“–without their consent? Like some boogeyman with a scalpel, maybe kidnapping babies?”

Gertrude felt like an idiot for bringing it up. “I apologize. I put it in a sensationalized way.”

Was there any other way to think about the “Sunlight Foundation” but sensationalized?

How could an Imbrium-wide conspiracy to commit scientific and medical fraud be anything but?

Still, Nile’s gentle responses made Gertrude feel like the villain, made her feel contrite.

“I use my own cells as well as special stem cells to create organoids for first round medical testing.” Nile said. “These things are living organisms, but they are not ‘people.’ You can be disgusted about that if you wish, but they are important tools. I can create a beating heart, or a semi-functional brain, or some other individual piece of a body, and then I can infect it with disease and treat it with drugs, tools, therapies, without violating a person. Once I am more certain of the effects, I seek an affected individual to care for.”

Gertrude tried to hold her own tongue and not judge Nile for her approach.

Everything she said still sounded kind of disgusting. Gertrude didn’t fully trust her about all of it.

“Has anyone turned you down?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes. There are people who would rather die or suffer on their own terms. That’s the fault of our society.”

She sat Gertrude down, and pointed with her pen at her shirt.

“Open a few buttons and hold this to your heart.”

Nile handed her the contact for the stethoscope and Gertrude did as instructed.

Unbuttoned her shirt a bit, holding the end of the scope in place while Nile listened.

“Agitated. Your blood pressure is a bit high, but it might be a temporary spike due to anxiety. Next time I check up on you, we’ll avoid difficult subjects and I will ask you to relax alone for a bit before we take the reading. To be safe, I think you ought to make sure to drink water and take your breaks from work. Avoid salting your food further after it comes out of the cafeteria– your diet is likely high in sodium already.”

She was assuming that there would be a next time– and Gertrude found herself wanting it to be so.

Gertrude began to believe this woman was a real doctor, and a good doctor at that.

Finally, Nile was done the assessments. She had been jotting everything down on her touch clipboard.

“Stand up.”

Gertrude did as instructed. Behind her, the door to the room closed.

Nile also stood with her, and took a step forward.

“Can I embrace you, in a chaste, private and professional manner?” Nile asked.

It was in the same tone as her other instructions, but the request affected the patient differently.

In a moment, the Inquisitor found herself answering as if a dam had broken and her emotions spilled out.

Her reaction was rapid and unreasoning.

“Please.”

Then, just as quickly Gertrude found herself swept up into Nile’s chest.

Her arms around Gertrude’s back, one hand stroking her head, guiding her face to the doctor’s shoulder.

“You’ve had a very difficult time of things.” Her voice cooed in Gertrude’s ear. “All of that pain is inscribed on your body and blood. Tensions bound up like knots inside you. Because you’re the Commander, you can’t let yourself falter, so you keep everything shut tightly, and you don’t show it even to your friends. You’ve done well to come this far, and you are someone who is indeed strong and strong-willed. But I am your doctor; you can let yourself be honest here. Your doctor won’t tell anybody. You can cry, if you want to. Crying to a person, honestly and without judgment, can be different than crying to yourself.”

Gertrude hardly needed prompting. Hiding her eyes in Nile’s shirt, she was already crying.

Feeling the gentle hand stroking her hair, and the soft, sweet words in her ears.

She did vent her frustration, crying, gripping the woman hard, letting herself be lost in irrationality.

She did not know for how long, but Nile held her exactly as long as she needed.


Gertrude donned her coat and cape once more. Nile unlocked the door to the clinic again.

Despite how hard and for how long she cried, the Inquisitor felt curiously refreshed.

“You can run your clinic.” She said, unprompted. “Judging by all the yawning I’m seeing around, we do have need for a ship’s doctor, and you feel like a real doctor. I’ll have you formally inducted as a member of the crew when I can. You’ll be on a Chief Petty Officer’s pay scale to start with.”

“I don’t need a wage.” Nile said. “I just need food, lodging, sundries and medical supplies.”

“You’re getting a wage. Don’t be difficult about it. It’ll be easier to justify to Victoria.”

“Do you need to justify anything to her?” Nile asked.

“Just let me handle things and don’t cause me any more stress.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Your health is my utmost concern. I will play along, then.”

Gertrude stared at her. Her skepticism had been fading, but was not completely gone.

“Is it really your utmost concern? You’re not thinking about escaping?”

Nile immediately smiled at her and wagged her tail. She looked her most girlish, almost innocent.

“Escaping? Not at all! Initially I was desperate to prove my value so I wouldn’t be imprisoned– but after today, I’m simply happy to be working on a ship again. Research environments, particularly the ones Sunlight Foundation Immortals have set up for ourselves, are lonely and sterile places. I forgot how good it feels to care for living people. How motivating other people can be for me. I’ve been working in an isolated and antisocial way for so long– it’s good to have gotten out. Do I like the circumstances perfectly well? Not at all– but the work is good. So I’ll stay, earn your trust, and clear my name to you.”

Nile winked on eye and saluted with one hand. “Commander– I look forward to taking care of you.”

Such a coquettish little response– Gertrude saluted back. Laughing a little inside.

Outside, smiling in a professional, chaste and measured way.

“Glad to have you aboard, doctor.”

When Gertrude turned to leave, Nile exclaimed to herself and hailed her again.

“Oh! Inquisitor– did you wear the aetherometer that I gave you?”

Gertrude paused, and half turned to meet Nile’s gaze again.

“That thing you gave me when you snuck into my room? I want to forget that whole episode.”

She had left it in her bedroom, completely forgotten.

“It’s important. Right now, I believe a lot of the crew are becoming fatigued due to the Blue Weather.”

“Blue Weather?”

Nile put her fists to her hips. “You really retained none of what I told you?”

Gertrude had a snippy response. “It was late! I was in lingerie almost collapsing! Look, if the crew is fatigued, I’ll let Dreschner and Schicksal know you have authority to issue nutritional supplements and raise concerns as ship’s doctor. Work with them to adjust the work schedule. You can debrief me about your color theory later. We’re about to embark on a mission and I need to be available.”

“Ya Allah!” Nile groaned, momentarily lapsing into Shimii-speak. “You need to work on that stubborn attitude of yours– Fine then. I’ll do what I can about the crew without bothering you for now.”

“Look, I’ll be available later. Thank you for everything Doctor. I have to go.”

“My pleasure.”

Folding her ears with a bit of a sigh and a bit of shrug, Nile let Gertrude leave the clinic.

It had been close to two hours since she left the Bridge and she felt a sense of urgency.

They must have been close to the “object” by now. Gertrude started running in the hall.

By the time she arrived at the bridge, Gertrude found Victoria standing by the center isle–

–and something enormous on the main screen that was captivating all eyes on the bridge.

“We were just about to call you, Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “Look there!”

Gertrude stood off to Victoria’s side, staring up at the main screen, taking in the picture.

“It’s an anarchist ship. Look at that rough marking on the hull.” Victoria said.

Just ahead of the Iron Lady’s spoon-shaped prow, there was an Imperial cutter, close to 80 meters in length, holding depth but unmoving. A pair of jet anchors led from it into the marine fog, and judging by the stiffness of the cables, they had dug into the cliff wall about 150 meters to the left. One of its fins was turned up and the other down for no particular reason. Its 76 mm single gun turret mounted on the deck was pointed backward from the prow as if aiming for its own conning tower. On the hull, where the flag of the ducal or station patrol fleet or the specific naval insignia might be found, the old livery was scratched out. In its place, there was a rough red A within a circle and framed by a drawing compass.

“Have we had any contact with them?” Gertrude asked.

“We tried. No response.” Schicksal said. “What’s eerie is that we can ping the ship and get an automated signature packet back from the acoustic router, so the ship has electric power but the crew isn’t communicating even in the simple ways. For a derelict, we would expect nothing back, and if there’s people to rescue, and operational systems, we would receive an SOS back. It’s– It’s kinda scary.”

Gertrude looked back at the screen. She had expected a derelict, but not like this.

An unresponsive but operating anarchist ship, stuck in place amid the blue biomass.

Not what she had come into the abyss for– but maybe something she should have been expecting.

“Are you planning to board it?” Victoria asked.

“I am. I want to see what happened to them. So we can avert it here.” Gertrude replied.

“Good. I will join the boarding team then. No objections.” Victoria said.

An alarming declaration, but there was nothing Gertrude could do to dissuade her from this course. Not with the determination on her face. All she could do, then, was to join the boarding party herself as well. Because the Cutter was tight, the boarding party would be small. It might just be the two of them, even.

Delving into the bowels of a ghost ship in the Abyss. What could possibly have happened?

Depth Gauge: 3002 meters
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins Of The End [S1.2]

“Gertrude,”

A soft voice that was difficult to read into. Void of emotion, but direct and determined.

She was blunt, and never wore her thoughts on her face. Gertrude knew this very well.

That chestnut-brown haired, cat-eared girl with the olive skin, much fairer than Gertrude’s own.

She was a head shorter, but she never spoke as if she had to speak up, or endure being spoken down to.

“Her life is going to be far more dangerous and complicated than you seem to realize. It’s not enough to have this little dream world with her here. She’ll be taken away from you. You need to start thinking about how you’re going to protect her. If you don’t– then I’ll take her away from you myself.”

There was no one else whom Victoria spoke to with such conviction and passion.

It was because she actually respected Gertrude enough to criticize her.

Nevertheless, Gertrude slapped her across the face.

She was a teenager. She couldn’t control herself. It didn’t matter that they had a rapport.

It didn’t matter that they could have had feelings for each other.

Gertrude swung her hand with so much more strength than the girl in front of her.

Victoria face snapped aside, red in the cheek. She lost her balance and fell, heaping insult on injury.

Her accusatory gaze met Gertrude’s again very quickly. Defiant, righteous, because she was.

She didn’t say anything else. She’d said what she wanted to, and Gertrude gave her response.

Gertrude had saved Victoria from such abuses from their “friend” Sawyer before.

Striking Victoria was a horrifically low moment. A snap instant that destroyed possibility. Perhaps, had she any power to conceptualize, she would have realized back then what an omen this was. How it presaged all the evil she was capable of, all the harm she would do, how she would hurt everyone she loved.

Back then, she was full of wicked feelings, but–

In her heart, through all the wickedness she felt in that moment, she was ashamed of what she had done. Immediately ashamed as soon as she swung her hand, as soon as fingers struck the soft, fair flesh of Victoria’s cheek. That was not how she wanted to conduct herself, but it was never how she had intended to behave toward that girl specifically. She had always wanted to view her as someone she could protect. So she was ashamed of failing to live to that. Ashamed if Elena found out about that unjust deed.

But shame was not enough to set her on the right path. She lost something– but not enough.

Victoria.

Victoria,

Victoria–! as much as Gertrude hated to admit it, back then, she was becoming someone–

Someone, in the gentle haze of her school memories, whom Gertrude thought she might– feel–

burgeoning– but like everything about those unlucky girls, it was nipped in the bud–

Watching her walk away, back then, a younger Gertrude felt an immense frustration with herself.

But her path did not change at Luxembourg School For Girls.

It led, painfully, inexorably, to where she stood a decade later.


Depth Gauge: 2112m

“Situation report! I saw the preliminaries but I need a status update now!”

Gertrude rushed into the Iron Lady‘s bridge, fully in uniform, sucking down a vitamin jelly pouch and discarding it into a waste chute as she stepped onto the center island next to Captain Dreschner. She made her declaration, but there was already a good amount of information just on the main screen. There was a positional map that showed the inner and outer radius of a sonar and imaging scan, with the Iron Lady at its center. Five kilometers away and approaching, there was a small ship, perhaps a custom civilian vessel. Fifteen kilometers away and approaching, was a much larger ship– an Imperial Ritter-class.

“Ma’am!”

Karen Schicksal stepped below the center island and saluted.

“At 0200 hours, our sensors issued a warning that we had been struck by a powerful active pulse from an enemy detection array. Per protocol, we responded with our detection and imaging efforts, and discovered two approaching vessels from the Vekan direction!” Her voice was trembling only slightly. Her posture was stiff and her shoulders deliberately locked as if keeping her head in place. Despite looking a little ridiculous, Karen was delivering her report quite well. “We have no prior profile data on the smaller vessel, but it is the size of a personal yacht, so we believe it must be a custom civilian model. Such models hit the private market every year. But the larger ship had its profile entered into the Navy Database. It’s the Vekan Ritter-class Cruiser Leader, Aranjagaan! Both vessels are moving toward us at top speed! Neither ship made any attempt to disguise its posture ma’am! I believe they may be in combat!”

She was sputtering out a little at the end, but Gertrude nonetheless smiled affirmingly.

“Thank you, Communications Officer! Captain, what is your read on the situation?” Gertrude asked.

At her side, Dreschner briefly shut his eyes to consider his words.

Gertrude had a hunch that the smaller vessel might be victim of some kind of persecution.

For a military Cruiser to be chasing a private yacht, it had to be a political crime.

Otherwise patrol cutters would have been the ones going after smugglers or enforcing border crossings.

“There is a possibility that the smaller vessel is a runaway Vekan aristocrat or industrialist.” Dreschner said. “Or an otherwise high society or connected individual. Otherwise, for a high profile vessel like the Aranjagaan to be chasing it doesn’t make sense to me. One thing we’ve witnessed since the death of the Emperor is the rise of many highly ideological factions– it could be that this is someone hoping to flee to Rhinea, Heitzing or even the Union. It may be worth contacting them and ascertaining the situation.”

“I agree, Captain.” Gertrude said. “But what rotten luck. All we wanted to do was go into this gorge.”

There was an element to this confrontation which hung foremost in Gertrude’s heart, sending a painful chill through her core. She would not tell it to anyone. But she knew well who was in command of the Aranjagaan now. Before the Empire fully collapsed, when such information was still being shared willingly into the databases at Naval HQ. Gertrude had already learned of Victoria selling herself to the Vekan monarch Carmilla, but she would thereafter discover her appointment as a “special agent” whose flag was borne by the Ritter-class Aranjagaan, fastest and newest of the Grand Eastern Fleet’s Cruisers.

God damn it, I don’t want to hurt her.

Out of that ill-fated little clique of lost souls at Luxembourg School For Girls–

Fighting Sawyer was not a problem, she had always despised Sawyer anyway and even at their friendliest moments their repressed antagonism was only barely affable in nature. They couldn’t have been said to be rivals, even that was too positive. When they laughed together, when they smiled at each other, it never moved them more than centimeters away from blows. Sawyer was someone Gertrude wanted to draw and quarter her, to strip and brand her with hot iron. She could have tortured her and laughed.

Such vitriol rose out of her heart when she heard that name, it almost caused her to feel ashamed.

But, the thought of fighting Victoria was awful– Victoria was someone that Gertrude had once–

I can’t even say it. I can’t even say it. I’m such a god-damned coward.

Their school days at Luxembourg had been a whirlwind of confusing emotions.

But all of them had been broken apart too quickly to resolve them.

They were too young to sort anything out before all their decisions were made for them.

Despite this– Gertrude did not want to have to fight Victoria (van Veka.)

However, she was torn, because this could also be a good opportunity. Veka was riding pretty high and mighty at the moment, and an escapee with sensitive information could help Gertrude’s position. She needed intelligence, desperately. She at least had to confirm with the smaller vessel what situation they were in. Even if it led to a confrontation with Victoria. She couldn’t escape the drama hurtling toward her, because she needed to enter the abyss. So she might as well see if she could turn it into some advantage.

There was nothing to decide. There was only one card to play if she wanted to stand her ground here.

It really was such devastatingly bad luck that they would come here of all places.

Gertrude stood from her seat and made her declaration to the crew.

“As soon as the smaller ship is in laser range we must hail it immediately and demand a connection. We need to take custody of it so we strengthen our position here when the Vekans arrive. Depending on what their story is, we will release them to the Vekans or grant asylum– so we must make preparations to resist the Vekans as well. Have Jarvelainen sortie in the Jagdkaiser, and Clostermann in the Jagd. We will negotiate with the Vekans but we must maintain standoff posture. I want weapons ready, just in case. In the event of battle we will want to quickly disable the Aranjagaan’s weapons and preferably capture it.”

In a shooting battle, the Iron Lady had all the advantages on the Aranjagaan.

That was not the tension Gertrude felt in that moment. She was confident she could win if it became a battle, but she did not want a battle to proceed to begin with. She did not want to start a shooting war with the Vekan side of this border, or worse, to kill Victoria van Veka in such an event. She dearly hoped that everything could be resolved smoothly, somehow– but she had to be ready for the worst.

“Tell Erke–“

For a moment, Gertrude felt the weight of what she was saying and it made her pause.

“Tell Erke to load the cartridge, but instruct Jarvelainen that she cannot fire without permission.”

“Cartridge, ma’am?” Schicksal asked. The crew had not all been briefed on what the Jagdkaiser could do.

To avoid unnecessary anxiety among them.

“Monika Erke-Tendercloud will know what it means.” Gertrude replied. “And so does the pilot.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Schicksal was a professional. She would not complain about classified information.

The crew at the hangar got underway with combat preparations, and the helm turned the Iron Lady to face the direction of the enemy. Detection staff paid close attention to the data sources being fed into the prediction model from the sensors, with hydrophone witnesses keeping an ear out for anomalous sounds in case the computers missed anything. Gunnery and missile staff ran health checks on their weapons.

Gertrude sat back on her chair and watched the blips on the map inch closer to Kesar’s Gorge.

She took her tall inquisitor’s hat off and laid at her side, revealing her dark hair, tied in bun.

“Crown feeling too heavy?” Dreschner asked.

“I don’t think of it as a crown. It’s been closer to horse blinders.” Gertrude said bitterly.

“Well, if you take full control of the Inquisition, you can decree a new hat design.” Dreschner replied.

That drew a bit of a laugh from Gertrude.

While the Inquisition had been her vehicle to try to remain at Elena’s side, it alienated her from almost every other possible friend and ally. The Inquisitor was a figure of dread. The uniform of the High Inquisitor was proof of Gertrude’s single-minded devotion to serving Elena– a devotion that now felt foolish and shameful. She couldn’t discard everything, but she could discard the stupid hat.

Fifteen minutes later, the smaller, faster-moving vessel had entered the Iron Lady’s communication range.

“We’ve sent an acoustic text message to the ship demanding they stop and open laser communication.”

Gertrude nodded her acknowledgment.

“Schicksal, if they respond, put them through to my personal terminal.” She said.

“Yes ma’am!”

No resistance from the runaway vessel. They stopped 1.5 kilometers away as instructed, and opened a line of laser communication, transmitting video to the Iron Lady for a teleconference. Gertrude pulled up the flat LCD which was attached to an arm on the side of her chair, bringing the screen forward so she could watch, and so it could broadcast her own face back to the yacht. In a few seconds, the video quality of both sides normalized enough for them to see and hear each other almost in real time.

“This is High Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. You will follow all of my directions or I will arrest you.”

“Greetings, High Inquisitor. I may be the happiest woman you’ve ever threatened to arrest, right now.”

On Gertrude’s screen appeared a woman, clearly seated in the tight bridge of a personal yacht, lit primarily by her main screen and various instruments. Some of the objects around her looked just a little too complicated to be in a commercial yacht– Gertrude thought she saw a sonar monitoring station over her shoulder. Nevertheless, this confirmed some of her conjectures about the smaller vessel.

Her appearance brought up several fresher questions however.

Immediately, Gertrude took notice of the woman’s tall, narrow dog ears, dark brown bordering on black with a lighter brown streak partially on one side. She had very bright golden eyes and earth-toned skin, from what Gertrude could see of her face. Much of it was taken up by a mask. Stylized as a dog’s snout, it also resembled a muzzle to Gertrude’s imagination. There were vents on the sides, and when the woman spoke, her voice was clearly being output by equipment on the mask. It gave the impression it was not a simple facial covering but actually a respiration mask, like the kind issued to powered armor troops. On her neck, there was also a collar, with a square-shaped device that had a series of LEDs glowing yellow.

Beside the mask, she appeared an ordinary Loup– ordinary in the sense that she was not abnormal, but not plain. Gertrude admitted a certain affinity for Loup, but she imagined under the mask the woman must have been very beautiful, as she appeared quite arresting even while wearing it. Her hair was back-length, smooth and well kept, shiny in the lighting of the woman’s bridge, parted down the middle with short, side-swept bangs. She wore a green turtleneck sweater and black pants with a white coat, with a lanyard full of ID cards around her neck that were illegible with the quality of the video call. Her figure, from what Gertrude could tell and what her imagination automatically filled in, was tall and buxom.

“I’ll take that as intent to cooperate then. So, whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to so late in my ship’s night cycle, and what is her business that has the Vekan Empire mounting a combat response?”

“I’m afraid names are a very distant formality for me. I suppose you can call me Nile.”

Gertrude narrowed her eyes at her. A one-word codename, and she had never heard the word before–

“You will suppose nothing. Give me a real name that I can search in a database.” Gertrude replied.

Could this woman be related to that group Norn was affiliated with? The Sunlight Foundation?

“Fine.” Nile’s eyes shut briefly and she sighed in her mask. “A name I never use is Hilana Tarik.”

That did not sound like a Loup surname–

“Before you say anything, I’m a Khedivate Loup. Or was– whatever. We’re rare these days, but we exist.”

“Don’t presume I’m so ignorant, Hilana Tarik.”

Gertrude was just about to ask why she had a Shimii name. Thankfully the woman interjected.

And so Gertrude could pretend she was not about to make an ass of herself.

“Ugh. I’d honestly rather you call me Prisoner B or anything else.” Nile said.

“Fine. I’ll call you Nile on one condition–“

It was a gamble, but at worst she would just look foolish. She needed to confirm her hunch.

Gertrude flicked a switch, and a shield of soundproof sheets rose around the island in the middle of the bridge. It encompassed Gertrude and Dreschner’s raised seats only, leaving out even Schicksal.

Dreschner gave her a brief look before turning his gaze back to the main screen.

Once she was sure the crew would not be listening to her speaking out loud, Gertrude continued.

“–Are you familiar with the ‘Sunlight Foundation’?” She asked.

“Oh. Interesting. Very well. In that case, you should call me Nile. I am a boss of that outfit, after all.”

Behind the mask, the woman’s expression was hard to read, but she sounded obviously elated.

Gertrude’s hunch was right. An eccentric-looking woman insisting on a one-word name.

Gallivanting around the ocean doing whatever she wanted, even if it flew in the face of the law.

Norn had always kept the Sunlight Foundation’s affairs distant from Gertrude.

Though she knew of them through Norn, she knew little else, little overall. Only that they were helping to supply equipment for Imperial clandestine operations under Prince Erich’s orders. She had interacted only briefly with Potomac, the SF’s representative aboard the Antenora, who kept largely to herself. Norn had attacked Potomac, so their relationship must have been fractious. Based on the technology in the Jagdkaiser, this was a dangerous group and did not seem like the sort of people Norn would get along with. Not that Gertrude could judge Norn for her affiliation whatsoever– the Inquisition had their fair share of grotesqueries at their beck and call, such as the Jäger corps, that Gertrude also kept hidden.

“I am an acquaintance of Norn von Fueller. Through her, I came into contact with your organization.”

“Cocytus? Oh dear. You must have a very negative impression of us, I assume.” Nile said.

“You’re correct. I don’t think highly of you whatsoever.” Gertrude said. “But it is not negative enough that I’d let the Vekans strip you and tear your in half on a rack when I could make use of you myself.”

“Ah, what an interesting imagination you have. I wouldn’t mind letting you use me, Lady Lichtenberg.”

Gertrude saw the woman’s golden eyes narrow and briefly lost composure at that lustful tone of voice.

“Keep it professional or you’re coming with me in chains.” Gertrude demanded. “I know you people are not normal. I won’t fall for your tricks, Nile. Without mincing words or playing games, explain yourself.”

“Of course, High Inquisitor.” Nile replied. “It is as you suspected– I am part of the Sunlight Foundation and I am in fact one of its managers, or ‘Immortals’ as a certain theatrical woman deemed to term us. I don’t have as much of a big head as her. I am part of this organization because they are at the bleeding edge of science. Without arbitrary regulations or religious proscriptions. I have no grander interests.”

She sounded like a psychopath who wanted to toy with human lives outside the bounds of ethics.

Or maybe that’s just what they all sounded like to her after learning about the Jagdkaiser.

“I see. What did you do for this organization, Nile? Tell me about your role.”

Nile shut her eyes again and crossed her arms. “I am by profession a medical doctor, specifically an epidemiologist, but lately I have been working in logistics. I founded a project within our organization to find ways to increase production of certain medical drugs and lower the cost to produce.”

Now she sounded proud. Gertrude did not really believe the magnanimity she was trying to imply.

“Then I assume this has to do with why a Vekan Cruiser is on your tail.” Gertrude said.

“Normally, our facilities are hidden inside abyssal gorges, just within the concealment of red biomass waves but not deep enough to create further difficulties. Unfortunately, the Vekan Empire has of late become very interested in abyssal exploration. Veka was my territory, so it’s been an issue.”

“The Vekans found your drug lab, toppled over your operation, and put you to flight.” Gertrude replied.

In that instant, the woman’s ears rose straighter than ever and she shot a glare at the Inquisitor.

“Leave it to an Inquisitor to make it sound so criminal.” Nile grunted, sounding aggravated. “My ‘drug lab’ as you put it, was working on gene therapy and anti-retroviral solutions. Imbrian companies charge hundreds of thousands of marks per treatment for these, while I have been working to make them available at cost of production. I am not some street dealer feeding people’s vices. You can hand me right back to the Vekans if you think the misgivings of Cocytus are enough to condemn my work.”

Gertrude was taken aback by that sudden passion. For a moment she felt like a child put in her place.

Her impression of the woman completely changed. That wasn’t the sound of a cynical profiteer.

She wanted to apologize, but it would have betrayed too much weakness in the middle of this discussion.

“I believe you. Your passion sounds genuine.” Gertrude said. Her voice trembled very slightly at first as she said her first words since Nile raised her voice so potently. “It explains your equipment as well.”

“My equipment? You mean this?” Nile ran a finger along her muzzle. “This is for the protection of others, not myself. I am a victim of orphan diseases as well, Inquisitor. That’s where my passion comes from.”

Gertrude blinked. She struggled to find an inoffensive way to ask what she wanted.

“Is it– Is it safe to have you aboard? Do you need to quarantine?” She asked.

She was sure that despite her best efforts she had made an ass of herself.

“No, I am fine. My personal protective equipment is more of a precaution.” Nile pointed out her collar. She sounded, thankfully, like Gertrude’s bumbling about her condition did not offend her. “These lights represent my viral load. I’m only infectious when they are Red. Yellow means I’m due for treatment, which I’ll administer as soon as I have time and a sense of safety. As long as they’re Green, I am a completely ordinary individual. I can join the crowds, be close to people, even have penetrative sex, without issue.”

Gertrude tried not to think anything at all about the last item– and failed to do so.

She was composed enough to say nothing about it, however, and air none of her lurid visions.

“Alright– Umm, well, thank you. For being up front about it.” Gertrude replied.

“It’s nothing. So– we had business we got sidetracked from.”

“Right. Nile– if you request asylum, I will grant it. But to the Vekans, I’ll present it as an arrest.”

“I must admit I don’t quite relish coming into the custody of anyone involved with Cocytus.” Nile replied. “But I have no choice at this juncture. You do feel different from Cocytus– and even kind of cute.”

Gertrude tried not to visibly wither under the attention. “I am not a copy of Norn. I make my own decisions. I’ll be up front. I’m only taking you in to acquire more information. I am on a journey into the abyss here to unearth Norn’s secrets. Since I am only using you, you had better prove useful.”

Nile laughed. “It’s as I said before, High Inquisitor. I don’t mind you using me. In any capacity.”

“Quiet with the innuendos.” Gertrude grumbled. “You better behave when we bring you in.”

“I’ll be as a puppy on her leash.” Nile replied, clearly smiling behind her muzzle, her ears wiggling.

Gertrude would have been lying to herself if she pretended it was only a naked power grab.

Her soft spot for Loup, an exploited and oppressed people, made Gertrude want to view Nile through a lens of sympathy, especially after what she said. She had to be cautious about having a narrative spun on her, but it was difficult to be stone-hearted toward her story. Perhaps Nile was different from Potomac. Maybe there was merit to the Sunlight Foundation. She would hope to find out through Nile’s conduct.

However, that was not something the High Inquisitor could admit to anyone.

To everyone else, she would only say what was the most obvious truth about the situation.

Gertrude had to use the law and position she was invested in, or it would become meaningless.

On some level, she had to resist the Vekans to prove the Inquisition still had independence.

Furthermore, anything the Vekans took was something Gertrude herself would never have access to.

This was an opportunity to potentially recruit a talent Gertrude would need to reach Norn’s level.

Or if she had any faint aspiration of surpassing her and winding her own path in this era of chaos.

It only made sense in the moment to take Nile from them– whatever the future consequences.

However, now, it was impossible not to confront Victoria. But perhaps that had always been impossible.

“Nile, dock into the port sidepod chute. We’ll help you extract any equipment from your vessel. I’m afraid we can’t bring the entire thing into the Iron Lady, so we’ll have to ditch it afterward.” Gertrude said.

“I won’t miss it, don’t worry. I look forward to meeting you in person, Lady Lichtenberg.”

Nile bowed with one hand over her chest, and ended the video call.

Before lowering the soundproofing and giving her directions–

Gertrude fell back against her chair with a deep sigh.

I’m in over my head, aren’t I?

At her side, Dreschner had pretended not to hear anything he wasn’t told, as usual.


“We have met with the guest. We are processing her with caution and inspecting the vessel.”

Gertrude received a call from her head of security, Vogt, a broad, burly, and big-shouldered blond boy with a nearly blank expression. He and his men and women were armored up and had plastic visors over their faces. Nile was on camera, in the background behind Vogt, and looked pretty calm and collected for a woman surrounded by burly men with shields and prods. Nobody was being aggressive– Gertrude’s forces were very well trained and disciplined. Anyone who had broken under pressure while Gertrude was in command was dismissed immediately. She had no use for loose cannons or cowards.

These were not only her standards, but those of a dreadnought crew.

An Irmingard’s bountiful amenities were reserved for elite and prodigies.

Lesser-thans served in Frigates.

“Thank you Vogt. I’m about to get into another lengthy discussion. Hold Nile for now. Treat her well.”

“She will be treated with the utmost courtesy, High Inquisitor.” Vogt said.

That of course meant– if she threatens you, High Inquisitor, she’s paste. Until then, she’s perfectly safe.

Gertrude was glad to have found someone like Vogt in the trenches of the Inquisitorial police.

“High Inquisitor, the Aranjagaan entered communication range.” Schicksal said. Her voice was firm, but her face was shimmering with sweat. Her hair was damp. That woman’s anxiety always came out somehow. Nevertheless, she carried on professionally. “We sent an acoustic text to desist at a 3 kilometer range. We have instructed them send comm buoys one kilometer out and that we will do the same.”

“Good idea. A meet in the middle buoy relay– it’ll keep both of us in standoff range.”

“Yes ma’am– I thought it would be amenable to all parties, ma’am– prevent an escalation–“

“You’re doing a great job Schicksal. Keep it up.”

A little bit of praise–

Schicksal’s eyes drew wide and she nodded her head vigorously. “Thank you ma’am!”

–and the desired result. Schicksal was a good soldier. She just needed to be built up a bit.

On the main screen, Gertrude kept her eyes peeled for any signs of compliance.

Moments later–

“Ma’am, the Aranjagaan has stopped at the 3 kilometer standoff range.”

Her sonar and imaging detection team updated her on the situation.

Gertrude breathed out, relieved. “Send out a drone buoy and try to connect to them.”

“Yes m’am!”

Her electronic warfare section was ready with the drone as well.

Everything that was process-driven was going smoothly.

But soon, the human element would be fully at play. For both the Vekans– and herself.

“We are receiving a video communication from the Aranjagaan.” Schicksal said.

“Put them through to me.” Gertrude replied.

It was the moment of truth.

And immediately–

Gertrude saw the face she wished she wouldn’t have on the other end of the call.

“It’s been a long time, Gertrude. Misfortune compels us to meet once again.”

“I am still hopeful that we can have a pleasant chat, Victoria.”

She smiled, but inside, she was twisted in a knot.

Bah– why did she have to look so good–

Gertrude did not know what to expect. She was surprised, in a complicated fashion, by how closely Victoria still resembled the girl in her fondest old memories. As a woman, she still looked young and petite, with almost as much of a babyface as Elena. Rather than the pigtails Gertrude remembered, she wore her light chestnut-brown hair in a ponytail. Her ears were rounded, fluffy and soft-looking. Her olive skinned and soft features were so exact to the memories, those appraising eyes and guarded expression.

Victoria hardly ever smiled. To see her neutral, unsmiling face was the most familiar sight of all.

Her style was quite different, however.

Gertrude was used to seeing Victoria in little dresses, blouses, bloomers. She had really taken to the imperial lifestyle of late, it seemed. She was dressed in what appeared to be a button-down shirt and tie, the collar peering out of a dark green waistcoat. She had on high dark colored socks along with very dark blue shorts that met the socks mid-thigh. On top of this attire she wore a cape that fanned out from her back, almost triangular, clipped on her shoulders, black outside and dark green in the interior.

Had it been the old days Gertrude would have jokingly referred to her by “young master.”

Unfortunately those days were as far removed now as Veka was from Konstantinople.

“Let’s skip the pleasantries.” Victoria said. Her voice and mannerisms were always blunt. She spoke her mind. It was one of the reasons Sawyer often wanted to tear her in half back then. “I am a special agent for the Vekan throne and I am pursuit of a wanted individual. Hand her over, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

She always was a little softer with Elena– with Gertrude, the fullness of her personality came out.

“I’m on the Sverland side of the gorge.” Gertrude replied. “I’ve not intruded on Vekan territory. So from the start, the Vekan Navy has no reason to advance any further, or pursue anyone beyond these bounds. Furthermore, I have already made an arrest for this individual to stand fair trail in Konstantinople, on the grounds that she is potentially being unfairly persecuted in her home nation. She is a Loup, and there are special provisions for her legal safety. This is a critical role that the Inquisition plays in our legal system. I am willing to listen to your case, Victoria, as to why this individual should be released to you.”

Gertrude had hoped that Victoria would divulge some information she could use against Nile, but–

Victoria was completely unmoved.

Her expression did not once change during Gertrude’s entire speech.

Until she was done speaking.

“Your rhetoric is entirely empty.” Victoria said. “There is no Sverland side of this gorge anymore. Sverland has ceased to exist as a state. The Inquisition, also, has ceased to exist as a force for law in this region. The law here is on my side now. I am going to contact my Union liaison and summon a Union Fleet Combat Group to protect the Union side of this gorge. Even your mighty ship can’t stand against that much firepower. And you won’t receive the slightest bit of sympathy from them. So I suggest you give up.”

Gertrude was taken aback. She knew Victoria was blunt but this sudden aggression?

She was bluffing. She had to be bluffing. Gertrude held her tongue to avoid a snap response.

A Union Fleet Combat Group was 30 to 40 ships; they could not possibly be loitering nearby.

“Victoria, let’s not escalate to threats. Especially to threats as equally empty as you say my rhetoric is.”

“I’m sending you some data. Think of it as good will from me to help speed this discussion along.”

Gertrude looked down and to the side at Schicksal’s station. Schicksal nodded her head vigorously.

“We’re definitely receiving something! It looks like a few minutes of real time imaging data.”

“Put it on the main screen.”

For a moment, Victoria cracked a tiny smile on Gertrude’s screen.

As the High Inquisitor looked up at the main screen and for a moment couldn’t control her expression.

Disbelief flashed clear on her face.

“Impossible.” Under her breath, but, barely audible.

Victoria crossed her arms.

On the main screen, an image of the farther off surroundings of Kesar’s Gorge, to dozens of kilometers.

Closer to the Narodnaya range, about twenty five kilometers south, was a clearly labeled Union FCG.

Thirty ships, led by the Yaksha, a Union Cruiser under Admiral Chinedu Kimani.

How are they this far out already? I knew the Serrano Region had fallen, but this rate of advance–

Victoria finally spoke up.

“To support our cooperation, Veka and the Union set up coordinate exchanges near our borders. I will offer the Union your Irmingard-class vessel in exchange for taking custody of the crew under force of arms and turning them over to Veka. I hold all the cards here Gertrude. You don’t have a choice.”

This bitch— this fucking expression-less self-absorbed snake-tongued BITCH

I’m going to get my hands around that pretty neck and choke you

Gertrude tried to put a chain around all the wickedness spewing from her evil heart.

Melting down is exactly what Victoria wanted. Victoria knew Gertrude as well as Gertrude knew her.

“Schicksal, keep everyone on alert. But this discussion has become sensitive now.”

“Yes ma’am! I understand!”

In a moment, Schicksal and the rest of the bridge disappeared behind soundproof shutters again.

Dreschner gave Gertrude a worried look that she did not return.

She was focused back on Victoria van Veka. Nothing else existed for them.

“You could have fabricated this data.” Gertrude said, trying to be calm. “I have no way to verify.”

“Try me then.”

Snap.

“You egocentric bitch–“

“I don’t care if you insult me.”

Victoria had done it again. She’d gotten a rise out of Gertrude.

Pathetic– so pathetic–

God damn it.

“Enough.” Gertrude grunted. “Is this person really so valuable to you as to confront the Inquisition?”

“Yes. There’s no Inquisition Gertrude, just you. Turn her over and I’ll allow you get on with your business.”

“Allow me? You have no authority and I will not be swayed by your threats. Take her from me then.”

Victoria shut her eyes and breathed a little sigh.

“I should have known that you would respond like this. Block-headed to the last.”

They weren’t getting anywhere. It was exactly the worst situation Gertrude envisioned.

And she still stupidly walked into it anyway.

“Victoria,”

Gertrude brought up a hand to her chest, and locked eyes with her counterpart seriously.

“I swear to you that I do not want to fight with you.”

Again, Victoria was infuriatingly blank in the face.

“Then don’t.” She said simply.

“God damn it! Give me even a centimeter here! We’re on the verge of shooting here!”

“Any blood is on your hands. I am acting fully within the moral rights and self determination of Veka.”

It didn’t help that Gertrude knew she was ultimately the one without a case.

She only wanted to retain Nile for her own selfish purposes.

Maybe Victoria did have a good and just reason to pursue her.

But at that moment, if Gertrude gave up, she was not just giving up Nile.

She was giving up the Inquisition’s ability to resist the tyrants of this era.

And Gertrude’s ability to resist them as well.

“The Inquisition doesn’t surrender its prisoners to ducal authority. It is the Inquisition’s role to see justice done across the Empire, and above regional bias, and I still believe in that, even if the Empire has been fragmented. I am on the side of justice, Victoria, and I will see justice done in the end.”

Pure sophistry, empty rhetoric–

Victoria narrowed her eyes.

“You’re lying to me, but you’re also lying to yourself. This is bordering on pathetic. You pursued a higher status for your own self-gain and the Inquisition was the opportunity available to you. That’s it.”

“Then I’m only following your lead, Victoria van Veka! You seduced a woman decades your senior and shamelessly claim moral authority drawn from her? And you have the gall to criticize me?”

She snapped without thinking. Again– she had lost her composure like a fool.

And this time she’d said something truly horrible–

A bitter little laugh escaped from Victoria’s lips. An uncharacteristic sound from the stoic girl.

“You and I are like oil and water still, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

Gertrude grit her teeth.

God damn it. She kept fucking up! She kept fucking everything up! With all of her friends!

“We don’t have to be, Victoria! We can let this go and avoid escalating it. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Victoria met Gertrude’s eyes with an unfamiliar expression on her face. A little grin.

And sharp, glowing red rings around her eyes– familiar ones–

“How is Elena?” She asked.

Gertrude grit her teeth. This woman had grown capable of much greater cruelty.

She now knew who Victoria reminded her of. That expression– Norn.

“Thanks to our mutual acquaintance, she is gone from me forever.” Gertrude said.

“No, that’s thanks to you Gertrude, isn’t it? It’s not just Sawyer who is responsible anymore.”

Her voice had an unsettling tone of voice. Her entire presence–

Power. She radiated power. Power that Gertrude did not have.

Was this real? Was Gertrude going insane and cracking under the pressure?

“Sawyer attacked Vogelheim, and you were nowhere. But I saved Elena– you should owe me for the second chance that you got. A chance that you squandered. You pushed her away again.”

It was like she could see through Gertrude now, like the Inquisitor’s facade was just paper burning away to reveal the secrets beneath. Victoria had always been perceptive and intelligent, but this was beyond the bounds of perception. For the first time since leaving Norn, Gertrude felt the awful presence of a power beyond her understanding, the chill of helplessness that came with being read and the guardedness that it engendered in her. There was nothing Gertrude could do about it.

But how did Victoria acquire this power?

It was frustrating– everyone else had come so far, and she was always a step behind–

“You don’t know anything, Victoria. Neither now nor back then. But you love to run your mouth.”

All she could do was talk! And anything she could say wasn’t worth a damn!

Victoria was again utterly unaffected by her words.

“I never ‘run my mouth.’ I always say what I want to say. Gertrude, there’s no more Inquisition. All of your remaining subordinates are hiding in Konstantinople, even the Inquisition’s precious Jagers have not made a move. It’s only you, out here, with nothing to back you. You must accede to my demands.”

She even knew about the Jagers— and she was more informed on current events.

Gertrude felt the shame and helplessness growing inside her. She had lost the verbal spar.

Or maybe she could have never won it to begin with. Not in this kind of scenario.

Victoria had all the cards. Gertrude was isolated.

It was the worst situation. Victoria did not know about the Jagdkaiser, but it did not matter. Firepower did not matter. Gertrude could kill Victoria, could run heedlessly at her and annihilate her in one blow, to no avail. It accomplished nothing. The Union would be tipped off to attack her immediately; she would not be able to stay in Kesar and uncover its secrets. She would have failed in every way. In this game, there was only one possible winner no matter the circumstance, and it was Victoria van Veka. She was the only winner because Gertrude could only possibly lose, no matter what action she decided to take.

That was the story of her life. No matter what, she was always losing everything she loved.

But still– her heart continued to fly with a tiny, smothered conviction she could not repress.

There was more to the game. There was them, the two of them.

And what Gertrude’s heart desired.

Something that perhaps superseded the game of ships and guns and politics being played.

If she could let herself drop the mask and speak from the heart–

“Victoria, I wasn’t lying when I said I don’t want to hurt you. To me, you are still someone whose life I cherish. I am sorry. I am really sorry and I am really ashamed about everything I’ve done to you.”

She was defeated. So she let herself be honest. It was the most sincere thing she had said yet.

Victoria’s self-satisfied smile disappeared from her face. She broke eye contact with Gertrude.

“Cut the theatrics.” Victoria replied. “Done to me? I don’t care–“

“I’m sorry that I slapped you back then. It wasn’t right. I threw away our friendship.”

“What? Slapped me?” Victoria blinked, bewildered. “That was years ago.”

“Like a whole other world. And I’ve carried that weight forever. It wasn’t just Elena I fucked up with.”

Gertrude tried to fight tears building in her eyes, but a few did slip out.

“God damn it. I don’t want to be put in this situation. I don’t want to keep fighting all of you.”

Victoria looked confused, for the first time in their confrontation.

“Gertrude–“

“Victoria, I want to work together with you. If you’ll cooperate, I can be on your side.”

Victoria looked like she had taken a blow to the chest. She had clearly not expected this.

And to a great extent, neither had Gertrude expected it.

“I can’t possibly trust you. You are Erich von Fueller’s pawn now, Gertrude.”

“I’m nobody’s pawn. Prince Erich didn’t lift a finger to save Elena. In fact– he’s responsible for it.”

Her anger when she spoke that sentence was palpable. And Victoria clearly felt it too.

Dreschner looked like it was taking all of his willpower to pretend not to be interested in this.

Gertrude continued to make impassioned declarations.

“I am nobody’s pawn, not Erich’s, not Norn’s. I am not going to be your pawn either, Victoria. But I can extend my hand to you as an ally. I need your criminal on my side, Victoria. She, and the abyss, hold answers that I seek. In Imbrian literature, Nocht, the first Emperor, descended into the abyss for power. Norn did as well– and I am here to uncover this secret. Then I will take command of Konstantinople and make it my fortress. I have no intention of it becoming another foothold for Erich von Fueller.”

On the screen, the Shimii closed her fists. Her posture tightened ever so slightly.

“So you want me to stand aside and let you go on your little quest, based on nothing but your word? It’s all well and good to say this when it’ll get you out of trouble!” Victoria said, raising her voice. “But if Erich comes knocking, what will you do then? Will you also promise him things with gilded words?”

“I will attain the power to become a bulwark against Erich von Fueller.”

Gertrude smiled at her, weeping but full of determination. She had finally stated her aim.

Airing words and thoughts that had been formless in her mind since Vogelheim.

At first spoken in wild anger after the loss of Elena– but now fully reasoned.

If the price of power was losing the support of the Fuellers– then she would choose power.

If she had to lose Victoria as well to remain on the side of the Fuellers– then she would betray them.

It was too unjust to live otherwise. To keep losing everything she loved and gaining nothing.

“Everything that I am doing is to try, however much in vain it is, to protect the people I love and the people who swore fealty to me, from this era of chaos and injustice. I know I am a hypocrite, because I helped bring all of these tragedies about and I helped support the people responsible. I was completely heedless to the consequences of my actions. But I want to make amends. Let me make amends, Victoria. Under my own power, but for your benefit as well as mine. I want to protect you.”

Gertrude reached out her hand to the screen. Tears glinting in the sides of her eyes.

Victoria reached a hand up to her face. Eyes shut, lips slightly drawn.

“Protect me?”

“I never gave up hope for us. I want you to be safe.”

“Liar. You awful, damned liar.”

Her ears twitched. Her frustration was clear and visible and it was tearing her up.

She did not speak for several seconds. Gertrude’s smoldering gaze continued to lock on to her.

Finally, she heaved a sigh as if she had been holding a breath since they first saw each other.

“Very well. The Vekan Empire will look the other way, just this once, on one condition.”

“Name it.” Gertrude quickly said.

Victoria lifted her hand from over her eyes and pinned a serious gaze back on Gertrude.

“I will join you on your expedition. The Vekan Empire is also trying to explore the abyss. I will join you on the Iron Lady as a temporary liaison and intelligence agent. I will ascertain your intentions, freely record any information you encounter explicitly for Vekan use, and if you harm me or Vekan interests, then as soon as you come back up, this journey is over for you. I will be watching the criminal Nile as well. If you prove unable or unwilling to manage the criminal’s affairs, Veka will also turn against you.”

Gertrude had to roll with the punches but she was briefly stunned herself at this concession(?).

Maybe as stunned as she had left Victoria when she first started speaking from the heart.

“Of course. You are welcome aboard. But won’t your allies feel uncertain about this?”

“My allies have unquestioning faith in me, as the Empress’ special agent. You are my ally too now; so I demand unquestioning faith from you. I will set my affairs in order and depart on a shuttle.”

“Well– I suppose I will be seeing you in the flesh shortly.”

“I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. But at least it’s amicable to both parties, without bloodshed.”

Gertrude thought she saw a small smile before the video connection severed.

Without the Shimii to yell at on the other end, the entire exchange felt utterly surreal.

As if Gertrude had exited a wind tunnel, and her body was still shaking, her senses confused.

Victoria might still have a soft spot in that hard heart for her old school friends.

Just like me.

Gertrude sighed. She really was in over her head. Everything was in turmoil.

“Hmm.”

Dreschner glanced at her briefly before returning his gaze to his own computer.

“With me, or against me, on this one?” Gertrude asked.

Dreschner let out a short laugh. “I am always with you, Inquisitor. Or should I say, Emperor?”

Her expression darkened immediately. “Oh, don’t even joke about it.”

“You’re right, I should treat it as seriously as you do. We shall see where your ambition takes us.”

Dreschner was far too enthused about this.

Gertrude fell back on her chair, wishing she could become a soft jelly and slide right off.


After a tense couple of hours, the Aranjagaan backed off from standoff range. The Cruiser retreated to a 5 kilometer line further into Veka, and informed the Union 8th Fleet FCG-F of a Vekan operation in the Kesar’s Gorge area, in order to avoid potential hostilities between allies. The Union acceded to this, and the Aranjagaan shared all information with the Iron Lady pertaining to the Union position in the area. Before leaving, the Aranjagaan released Victoria van Veka, and then awaited the return of their shuttle.

Collectively, the crew of the Iron Lady breathed a sigh of relief.

“You are such a shrewd negotiator, High Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “We got out without a bullet fired!”

Gertrude laughed, more than a little nervously.

Please, God, let me have a power other than groveling someday.

Nile’s vessel was fully unloaded, and the woman was admitted into the Iron Lady’s interior. Aside from a pitiable amount of food and water, Nile’s vessel was packed almost wall to wall and corner to corner, in every possible place she could find, with boxes and vials and bags of medicines. Gertrude’s security team was greatly confused. There were large amounts of staple antibiotics, painkillers, sterilizing and saline fluids, gauze and stitches, scalpels and scissors and picks and other cutting and twining tools, but also bio-stitcher cartridges of various sorts, hormone therapy drugs, insulin for diabetics, inhalers for asthmatics, eye drops, in addition to rarer and more exotic drugs. Rather than being named, some of the boxes had long formulas and strings of compounds to designate them and were full of vials.

Everyone had assumed there would be weapons somewhere but found not a single one.

“Why would I need weapons? I’m a medical doctor. Medicine is my weapon.” Nile said.

Nile was unbothered by the attention of the security team and cooperated fully throughout the inspection. After overseeing the unloading of her medical supplies and leaving behind instructions for their safe long term storage, Nile was gently ushered to a meeting room to await debriefing.

Shortly thereafter, a small, cylindrical shuttle arrived to convey Victoria van Veka to the Iron lady.

Victoria brought with her one wheeled trunk full of luggage, which was scanned on entry and found to be inoffensive, full of nothing but clothes and needed sundries. On her hip, she had a ceremonial vibrosaber which was given to Vekan armored cavalry. Since it was a symbol of office, and as a gesture of good will, she was allowed to keep it. Processing her into the ship was much faster and less tense than with Nile.

On the shuttle there was only one piece of larger equipment that had been brought from the Aranjagaan for Victoria’s use– a Jagd model Diver. This item was cleared by security and brought aboard into the hangar through the underside cargo hatch. Monika and the engineers would have to set up another wall gantry to hold it. Until then it was sat up against the wall like a sad, claw-armed child in timeout.

With such deference, the Iron lady welcomed Victoria van Veka to their quest for the Abyss of Kesar.

Despite the verbal scuffle with Gertrude, Victoria was unfailingly polite to the Iron Lady’s crew.

“Such a splendid security detail. I hope that choleric woman treats you properly.” Victoria said.

“The Inquisitor is a good commander. Please do not insult her, milady.” Vogt replied gently.

It did not escape anyone that the target of the phrase “that choleric woman” was immediately known.

Gertrude was not too fond of that when she reviewed the processing reports and footage.

Nevertheless, once Victoria’s shuttle departed, the Iron Lady’s expedition officially resumed.

Thus, Gertrude found herself in a meeting room sitting across a table from Nile and Victoria.

A black-eared dog and a light-eared cat– the tension was thick enough to coat a spoon.

Gertrude had to debrief them on the situation and the coming expedition, but–

Victoria was staring daggers sidelong at Nile, who was untroubled by the antagonism.

And Nile was smiling too noticeably behind her mask, and clearly up to something.

“Lichtenberg, your name is too long to say formally. Let me call you ‘Trude.” Nile said.

“Absolutely do not let her call you that.” Victoria said suddenly.

Gertrude briefly felt like hurling herself through the outer bulkhead.

What have I gotten myself into?!


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.8]

“It seems hopeless right now, but we are beginning to turn the tide.”

Raul von Drachen reassured his bedraggled-looking intelligence staff, all of whom looked at him with dire expressions before returning to their tasks. Around him, every monitor had some scene of pure chaos. Dozens of dead bodies in failed frontal assaults on B.S.W. dock; some kind of Shimii-related altercation out of Tower Eight that led to tram hijackings and confrontations with the K.P.S.D; all of the concerted ship to ship and diver to diver fighting around the towers themselves which was already inflicting some infrastructure damage; and the continuing presence of armed forces in Kreuzung’s Core Pylon.

It was all darkness and no dawn thus far for them.

He would have described every front of this situation as “fluid.” In the most polite terms.

“Inform the K.P.S.D. that they will suffer retribution from the 7th Fleet if they harm the Shimii from Tower Eight.” Von Drachen told his subordinates. “I am but the messenger and that is my only role, but we have about 10,000 Shimii troops bound for here, and Violet Lehner is very fond of the culture.”

“Sir, the K.P.S.D is voluntarily withdrawing from the southeastern Kreuzung blocks.”

One of the intelligence agents described an unfolding situation–

“It’s probably a coincidence sir, but after the Shimii began their exodus from Tower Eight, a heavily armed group engaged the K.P.S.D lines in the western interstice. They have military grade weapons. K.P.S.D tactical teams are being moved to prevent them from escaping through the southwest main bulkhead. They don’t seem to be trying to stop the Shimii anymore sir. So we may not need to warn them after all.”

How serendipitous! Everything was starting to look up for the Volkisch!

At least, in the long-term strategic lens.

Anything that befell the K.P.S.D. was ultimately good for the Volkisch forces.

They only needed to hang on enough to prevent a total collapse of order in the station.

And only long enough for the rest of the Volkisch’s reinforcements to arrive.

“Interesting. A heavily armed group openly engaging the K.P.S.D?” Von Drachen said.

“There is a Cruiser size ship fighting out of the conveyor belt. It’s very strange.”

Because it was the K.P.S.D’s operational area, the Volkisch did not have good visibility.

Von Drachen would have to review the K.P.S.D. footage after this was all over.

“Why does the K.P.S.D not simply let them go?”

“Sir, I think the K.P.S.D is trying to justify its continued existence at this point.”

“What is your name?”

Raul von Drachen smiled at the female officer, a middle aged woman with beige hair tied into a bun and a very conservative approach to her uniform. She looked up at him bashfully from her chair and took a moment before answering. “Sir? My name is Josephine Reim. I’m– nobody important, sir.” She said.

“You are keen and a hard worker. I will be sure to put in a good word for you.”

“Um. Thank you sir.”

He turned to face the screens again. There was little they could do at Laurentius anymore.

Von Drachen had accomplished his tasks to their bare minimum. That was good enough.

All he could do was observe, with a great unearned pride in his calm inaction.

Now it was all up to Vesna Nasser to sort out the rest, in the waters of the Imbrium.


First and most immediately, she realized she was going much faster than she ever had.

Piloting a machine without battery-saving modes and impositions on fuel usage and parts wastage allowed Homa Baumann the freedom to squeeze every last bit of performance out of the components. As soon as she escaped Kreuzung’s core station and emerged into the waters of the Imbrium Ocean she plunged into an incredibly fast dive, unaware that her peak acceleration and slightly downward angle would carry her so far down so fast. Pulling back on her control sticks, she arrested her momentum quickly, the density of the water helping her to stop completely just above baseplate.

She realized that this machine felt entirely different to pilot than her Volker.

“If I can’t get the hang of this I’ll just get myself killed. I should do an equipment check.”

Homa was never unaware of the danger she was in. Off in the distance, her acoustic sensors passively warned her of the dozens of explosions, some of the largest of which generated shockwaves that carried even as far down as where she stood, gently rolling over the hull of her mech but still perceptible. Her combat computer overlaid large yellow targeting boxes on her screen to show her the estimated direction of targets generating large amounts of noise. Nevertheless, Homa stood still in the water.

Going through her controls, extending her arms, twisting the joints, moving the legs.

Boosting, briefly up and briefly back down.

She made a few adjustments to the control sticks and pedals now that she was in the water.

When it came to movement, she was fairly versed in it. She was also handy with Diver melee weapons.

She hoped it wouldn’t come down to shooting the gun– but she felt ready to do it if needed.

In a few minutes, she mapped the limitations and natural habits of the machine that she could observe from its reaction to her controls. It was heavier than the stripped-down Volker she piloted for old Bertrand, and yet, its range of movements was greater, its arms were more flexible, it could execute pretty tight turns, it could accelerate much more quickly to a higher top speed. She needed to know all of these things if she was going to effectively pilot it up above, where there was an actual battle. Homa had no illusions about winning battles, but at least she could take advantage of the agility she had to avoid danger and make her way to the Eisenhower as Kitty had told her. She could stop all of this.

Sitting back in her chair, breathing in. Sweat-soaked, tear-stained, fatigued, hurting.

Homa had never felt the enclosure of a Diver as much as she did in that moment.

Because Kreuzung had become forbidden to her. She could not go back where she came.

Docking at B.S.W. again was out of the question. And now that she was out here in this machine, she had become more of an enemy to the Volkisch authorities than ever before. Homa could no longer envision going back to Kreuzung. Materially, of course; but even psychologically as well. She had left home and could not turn back, not now. So she only had one direction in which she could go.

And therefore, no safety net. Only the walls of the Delta to keep the water out.

She raised a hand from her left stick briefly and put it to her head, sighing.

“Your longest day isn’t over yet, Homa Baumann. Concentrate. It’s all to play for now.”

She tried to psyche herself up, but there was no humor to be had.

This was the grimmest situation she had ever been in. It was nothing short of nightmarish.

That girlish impulse to make light of things and try to act cool couldn’t make a dent in it.

She saw herself briefly in one of the dark monitors, eyes distant, hair disheveled.

In her mind there was a nasty flashback– to Kitty McRoosevelt’s gory wounds–

Homa cringed. “At least I don’t want to end up like that. Let’s just go!”

Her destination was over a kilometer above.

At the site of the naval battle between the Republic and the Volkisch.

Homa slammed her pedals, pulled her sticks back, and the Delta launched skyward.

Water rushed past her, her main camera faced the endless, dark Imbrium. There was no sign of a sky, she could only tell she was rising because she was close enough to the main tower to see the steel structures on its exterior, the laser router contact points and the gates and bridges and berth doors and other landmarks, descending rapidly past her. Marine fog and tiny animals swept down at her. Held breaths as if any second she would see a change, as if the waters would part to let her through.

On the edge of the screen a flashing red box appeared noting the direction of an attack.

A flurry of shells detonated around Homa, forcing her to cease climbing and turn sharply.

Homa traced the intensifying lines of gunfire to a trio of distant Divers quickly closing in.

Each shell exploded into a shockwave that transferred gently into her body, not enough to rock her Diver individually but since there were dozens of shells the continuous shaking unsettled her. Grazes and near-impacts on her armor chipped away at it, not enough to penetrate, but in aggregate she was taking damage. Homa could not tell the caliber but each vapor bubble resulting from the detonations grew to about the size of her head in an instant before collapsing. Her cameras filled with water vapor from the detonations, over and behind and beside her as she swung a semi-circular turn out of her climb.

When the Divers came closer, Homa saw they were the Volkisch Sturmvolker model.

Volkers were known for their rotund armor that made them almost cartoonish, but the Volkisch Sturmvolkers made away with the bathyspheric chassis. Instead, rectangular plates of light armor were packed tight around the square cockpit, and square shoulders and hip joints were added to attach the arms and legs, the silhouette resembling her stripped down Volker. A new, sleeker, more aggressive head was used instead of the traditional Volker head, with more cameras and some helmet armor, and the whole thing was painted black and armed. Homa had seen them around Kreuzung on patrols and saw them on the news as well. She learned about them from a news program, in fact.

Those were not full-length, high-caliber rifles they were holding, but compact bullpups.

Despite this, the hail of automatic fire they were capable of had Homa on edge.

They had come in guns blazing and were repositioning to give chase as she tried to escape.

The Delta was in surprisingly good condition despite all the gunfire, but she couldn’t underestimate them.

Homa tried to give them a wider berth, using her superior acceleration to speed far around them and hoping to find an opening to continue her climb, but gunfire shadowed every meter that she gained on them. She could accelerate faster than them and had a higher top speed, but they were light and quick themselves, with good aim. The speed difference was not enough for her to simply ignore them.

She grit her teeth, feeling vibrations in her cockpit as the exploding bullets inched closer.

Her hands were both shaken and shaking on her control sticks.

She tried to twist suddenly from horizontal movement to vertical, shooting up–

Quickly aborting and diving away from further gunfire.

“Ugh!”

Those three figures existing in her cameras only as red boxes swerving in the water.

They filled her eyes entirely with the flashing yellow-red blasts of their shells.

Long lines of bubbles cut into the water before the inevitable explosions.

There were so many bullets, and they were beginning to coordinate their shooting.

All of the black lightless water turned to white vapor around her. Shockwaves intensified.

Explosions trailed closer and closer– a direct impact rocked her cockpit–

Her chest tightened. She was giving it everything– and she still couldn’t break free–

And the sky remained barred from her.

Chaos still unfolding; time still ticking–

She had to stop it! She had to!

“I’ve had it. I’ve had it! You asked for this!”

Homa quickly lifted her hands from her control stick and tapped a touchscreen.

On her magnetic strip, the “GA2 30mm Machine Gun” released.

She reached the Delta’s arm behind its back, taking the weapon into one hand. Its stock extended and locked into a slot on the Delta’s arm for stability in one-handed firing. A box-like weapon lock burst from around the barrel into the water around the Delta. An ammunition counter and heat indicator appeared on the weapon status monitor just below her line of sight as the weapon armed.

“I’m not fucking afraid of you!”

One fluid motion; Homa cut the acceleration suddenly and spun the Delta around.

Her gun sight traveled over one of the red boxes as she smashed her triggers down.

In seconds, the XM2 flashed and sent a barrage of dozens of shells slicing across the water.

Two of the Sturmvolker boosted in opposite directions away from the shells, but the unit in the center of the formation caught six high-velocity shells in its midsection, the barrage falling almost squarely on its position. From the distance she was firing Homa could not tell what kind of damage she had done, but the behavior of the unit told her everything she needed. Immediately ceasing movement, it drifted slowly downward and Homa’s flashing red enemy overlay contracted and separated from it to follow the remaining two units, ignoring the stricken one. Homa turned her attention away from it as well.

Her remaining enemies arced away from her in opposite directions, one soaring upward and one spiraling downward as if twin jaws trying to put her in a vice. All the while their guns flashed in the distance and continued to put dozens of tiny blasts near her. Homa tracked them only on her computer with just the faintest visual impression of their actual, physical forms on her various displays.

After firing, Homa charged at full speed while remaining between the two units, swerving from side to side and up and down while carrying as much speed as she could through her corrections.

Unlike them, however, she had the advantage of vastly greater firepower.

Her machine gun had a higher rate of fire, more ammunition and bigger shells.

In the middle of a quick climb to avoid the gunfire from below, Homa flipped the Delta, which had been facing down, such that it was now facing the opponent above while still moving at full speed away from it. On her back, gliding across the water at over 60 knots, Homa aimed for the center of the red overlay box drawn on her monitor, distantly overhead, and squeezed down the trigger for her machine gun.

A few seconds of pressure and her weapon erupted into bursts of dozens of shells.

She could see the lines cut into the water linking her to the target, the rhythmic booming of the detonating shells, the brief and far-off flashes of the ordnance and the water vapor expanding bubbles the size of her whole body. Her face flashed from the gun camera with every burst of gunfire, holding down the triggers and depressing when she felt it was enough. From that section of seemingly empty water that she had turned into a cloud, not a single shell answered her attack.

“One left. One left.”

Keeping the Delta facing skyward, Homa took the machine into a dive.

She twisted in a spiral motion and her enemy climbed in an attempt to go level with her.

Jerking out of the dive, Homa once again cut all speed and stopped with the enemy in sight.

“Get out of my way! You bastards are just making everything worse!”

Homa depressed her triggers–

This time, however, the Volker was within the 60 meters or so where Homa could see it.

It did not change that she ruthlessly opened fire–

But the results were immediately evident.

Firing until the machine gun’s 200 round pack magazine clicked empty and detached.

Watching the Sturmvolker distort under her brutal gunfire.

In that moment, Homa felt like her once-pristine soul had dirtied, the glass edifice of her inner beauty had a crack put it in. Blow after blow from her 30 mm shells, each of which was half the size of her arm and detonated into a blast bigger than herself. Pieces of metal went flying, holes punctured into the cockpit, the limbs of the machine were thrown in every direction, its head smashed to pieces, fading vapor clouds revealing the mangled thing drifting into the dark. A red mix streamed from inside the chest, perhaps lubricants, perhaps blood and gore or both. That violence had been so easy and instant to unleash.

Homa stood with her eyes wide open as the red targeting box vanished.

Breathing deeply, sweat trailing down her nose and lips.

She had killed them. She had killed them all. Fired on them and killed them–

Like they weren’t even human– they were just things in metal bodies– herself too–?

Suddenly another red box flashed at the edges of her vision.

Hitting all of her boosters in a panic, Homa threw herself out of the way–

As a sword sliced past her swung from a sleek, sharp, triangular chassis with a sharp face.

She barely had a moment to think before more bullets came flying in her direction.

Everything shook around Homa as several rounds exploded just off her cockpit.

Gritting her teeth, she slammed the pedals and thrust upward at an angle.

For a split second, she caught the assailant on her cameras, claws, sword, shoulder gun–

Second generation close combat model, Jagd, painted Volkisch black.

That one she had heard about in school– there had been a demonstration–

A roughly triangular, long-armed and short-legged, light and fast killing machine–

School was too distant to think about. It was life or death now.

Within the next breath, the agile Diver had shot up toward sky with her, and with the initiative and better control than the scared Shimii girl the pilot of that vicious machine got within distance again, swiping its vibroblade arm just below her legs. All the while the autocannon on its shoulder dispensed dozens of rounds of a smaller caliber, much like the bullpups that the Volkers had been carrying.

Homa’s armor could withstand the blows but she had already taken several shots and each one of them rattled her brains in her skull and caused her stomach to churn. Her skin brimmed with fear.

Then, with one mighty boost from all of its thrusters, the Jagd suddenly overtook Homa.

Like a predator lunging, pouncing, one shoulder reared overhead, blade coming down.

It was nothing like those bullets– one good swing on the cockpit and she would be dead.

Before she even realized it, Homa had already responded out of sheer instinct.

She withdrew her own melee weapon and instantly swung from behind herself.

The Delta’s vibroaxe engaged with just centimeters between the cutting edge and metal.

Chopping through the enemy’s arm and shoulder, across the cockpit, tearing the pod open.

Froth and gore and metal spilled over all of Homa’s cameras disgorged from the machine.

Resistance from the water arrested the Jagd’s swing, its edge bounced from her shoulder.

Leaving a scratch as the wreck slid back from her, sword buzzing with residual vibration.

Homa hung in the water for a second, watching the Jagd fall away from her sight.

As quickly as it had appeared, lunging out of nowhere’s shadow with naked aggression.

Gone, in a blink. It was a nightmare. It couldn’t be anything but a nightmare.

Everything that she had done, all of the evidence of her violence– it was gone.

They might as well have been phantoms. Attacking from outside her visibility, from outside the thickness of the water that prevented her from seeing farther than out than the length of Kitty’s yacht. Then falling back into it and vanishing. Aside from dissipating bubbles and water vapor, aside from the pits and dents on her armor, there was no evidence that she had enemies– that she killed humans.

“No. Please. No more.”

She was already hearing the familiar alert noise as a red flashing box appeared.

More enemies. Even more enemies–

One enemy.

In the distance, a ship was slowly approaching, sixty meters long.

A conical body with an angled prow and a straight, rectangular conning tower.

Only a few guns across the hull, all of them smaller even than the station defense cannons.

It must have been a Cutter from the patrol fleet, but it was headed right for her.

Had she been out on a gig for Bertrand it would have been a welcome sight, a sign that she was safe and watched over, but she was fighting and killing with the rest of the maniacs involved in this chaos and so she was its enemy, and it was her enemy. Another enemy barring the way up above. Homa almost wanted to stand in place, to be shot and die and disappear with the rest of them, to cease struggling–

On the touchscreen, her shaking fingers selected the “M78 LAW” missile on the backpack.

As soon as it spotted her the Cutter’s double-barreled gas gun opened fire.

Homa launched upward with a lick of solid fuel boost to avoid the attack and launched her missile.

The defensive guns were targeting her, so they failed to shoot down the exceedingly fast projectile.

Arcing out of her backpack and boosting toward the ship, crashing onto the top deck.

Erupting into an explosion unlike any Homa had seen. A vapor bubble the size of the Delta itself tore open the top of the Cutter while the shockwave caused it to bob in the water like a dying fish, rocked by the sheer force. Equipment, tearing armor pieces and unmentionable objects disgorged from the orifice.

The Imbrium’s hungry waters quickly forced their way through the Cutter. Homa watched as its once confident advance toward her came to a halt and its prow tipped toward the seafloor. Runaway pressure damage tore into the interior, nearly split the ship top to bottom as the bulkheads burst from inside out from the pressure. It careened out of sight, crashing into sandy crater below too far away for Homa to hear. On her main screen, the targeting box on the ship remained pinned on it for far too long.

And,

faster than Homa could fear of it

it flashed purple for a moment rather than red.

It was as if the ocean below Homa parted to show her a vision as clear as on land.

Without the veil of darkness she had an impossible, terrifying visibility.

A hideously beautiful, perfect sphere of glowing purple energy lit up the world.

Like the core of some otherworldly weather pattern.

Several alarm sounds, flashing alerts, boxes and overlays warned of the danger.

Homa was entranced, staring down at the approaching purple glow.

Spreading, rising, consuming–

It never got far enough to devour her. Somehow, it ran out of energy with which to hate.

Below her, a circular crater with its walls covered in a hexagonal shaped grid.

Revealed to her for a moment before the water drowned the sight again.

No sign of the ship, not anymore. A runaway agarthicite reaction had annihilated it.

Everything became silent. Homa clutched her necklace. She couldn’t get herself to cry.

“How many people staff a patrol Cutter? It’s like– It’s like sixty or seventy isn’t it?”

In her mind, Homa had killed a hundred– no, hundreds of people. Thousands of them.

Her shoulders and chest shook up. She thought she would vomit right on the controls.

We’re Sorry.

“No.” Homa’s lips trembled. “It’s not you. I– I have to get up there. I have to get up there.”

We Believe In You.

That almost made her weep. Almost. “Thank you. At least I– damn it. Damn it.”

Homa interrupted herself. She had to see this through to end. She had no other choice.

Without any further enemies to stop her, she launched skyward again with renewed haste.

Those words which she had cut off– she had almost said, “At least I know I can fight.”


“Ma’am, the John Brown is out of position! They are moving northeast!”

“God damn it. They’re fleeing– of course we couldn’t count on the fucking convicts.”

The crew held on their stations as a shockwave rolled over the hull of the Republic Cruiser Eisenhower, munitions from the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah detonating haphazardly in the waters around it. A fierce battle had begun over 100 meters above the crown of the Kreuzung Core station, its massive span and the gargantuan crater into which it was set, all forming the backdrop to the fleet’s dizzying exchange of shells and missiles. The Imbrian vessels strafed in a wide circle that prevented the Republicans from scoring direct hits with their static guns, but Republicans had six times as many cannons and rocked the waters around Kreuzung with enormous rolling barrages that shook their enemies’ bridges.

So far, however, they had not managed to slow them down.

Eisenhower was the lead ship of the expedition, and its Captain was decided by democratic vote to be second in command to Kitty McRoosevelt overall, and the overarching decision-maker when it came to fleet combat. But Captain Dianne Smith had little experience guiding entire fleets. As Captain of a Cruiser she was versed in leading her ship’s barrage. She had always taken her orders from others, and now, amid a chaotic situation, she found her focus was narrowed to her ship’s barrage alone, and that she had neglected to give anything but broad orders and communications to the rest.

She had expected the John Brown, largely staffed by the 808th Penal Battalion, to flee.

However, this brought attention to the overall positions of her fleet’s constituent ships.

In chasing the tails of the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah, they were beginning to move out of the range of their mutually supporting flak fire. They would become vulnerable to torpedoes and missiles if they did not regroup, even if some of the smaller ships might have a look at the enemies with their guns. Though it pained her to take the pressure off the Imbrians, she saw no other choice to survive.

“We need to recover our formation! Tell the Frigates to tighten up on us. Send the Divers out to harass the Greater Imbria. That should keep them off our backs until we can regroup!”

Eisenhower and its remaining three attendant Frigates began to reorient, making up for the loss of the escaping John Brown, while their half-dozen S.E.A.L. mecha made up a squadron and sortied, leaving the defensive aquaspace of their motherships. On the Eisenhower’s main screen, a map of the crater with the relative positions of their own Divers was displayed in place of the chaotic predictive imaging. Soon, information on the enemy Diver’s positions was collected and appeared on the screen too.

“The Greater Imbria deployed two Divers, and the Mrudah deployed two additional.”

The Eisenhower’s communications and sonar officers rattled off map updates verbally.

“We have the numbers on them.” Dianne said. “We just have to clinch it.”

Dianne bit the side of her gloved index finger, staring at the main screen.

As if her sheer concentration could change anything. Her heart stirred with anticipation.

Kitty, none of us had any choice, ever since we became trapped here.

All of them had unloaded their responsibilities and culpability on that woman.

And she had gladly taken it all. Even if it was resoundingly unfair. She suffered for them.

They were a fleet of cowards. Dianne could never have deluded herself otherwise.

But they were dangerous cowards. Cowards whom the Imbrians could not treat lightly.

“We’re almost there.” Dianne muttered. “If we get through this–”

“Ma’am! One Diver has broken off from the enemy formation and is headed for us.”

“Intercept it!”

Here’s our chance! Pile on them!

With the advantage of numbers and a haphazard Imbrian formation, they could–

“Ma’am– something’s wrong!”

On the main screen, their Diver squadron had intercepted and surrounded the Imbrian diver.

Its supporting units were hanging back, closer to the Greater Imbria–

In moments, the S.E.A.L.’s positions stopped and became fixed in place.

And the enemy unit continued to move.

“How is it possible? Tell them to destroy that thing!” Dianne cried out.

She turned to her communications officer and the woman turning pale in her seat.

Shaking hands clutched her headphones– staring at her monitor incredulously–

“Pass it through to me!”

Dianne gave the order and donned her own headset, tuning into the Diver’s feeds–

“Agh!! No! I can’t–! I can’t–!”

“We’re going to die–! We’re going to die–!”

“Please spare me! Please– I have a family!”

The Captain was speechless as she heard the cries of her Diver pilots, all of whom fell into a sudden panic, screaming and begging for their lives and crying helplessly without firing a shot at the enemy. They would not respond to being hailed. On the main screen the representations of their Divers, marked by their IFF signal, began to waver and disappear one by one, the audio feeds cutting one after another with horrific atonal feedback noises. In place of each one, the lone Imbrian unit that had moved out of formation moved closer and closer as if sweeping methodically through the S.E.A.Ls killing each unit.

That green and black Diver with heavy armor and winged shoulders–

Its implacable aura of death broke their souls as it marched toward the Eisenhower.


“Finally! Finally!”

Cresting over the top of the Kreuzung Core, the S.E.A.L Delta piloted by Homa Baumann paused to gain its bearing. There was no mistaking the presence of the combatants nearby. Far below, she could feel the heavy ordnance as vibrations, but above Kreuzung, she was struck by a greater force of the shockwaves, carried on disturbed water seeking a surface to crash upon. She quickly found that she had to keep mobile, or risk being shoved into the station’s ceiling. She could see far off flickers in the darkness, the explosions muted by the distance, the ships battling still out of her limited sight.

But the booming and roaring of the detonations felt clear and close.

Homa looked over the ceiling of the Kreuzung Core, a sight she never thought she’d see.

Inside that tower, Homa was confined to the lower levels and for all she knew, the higher ones must have been a gilded and pristine heaven. Looking at it from overhead, it was not so impressive. There were none of those terrifying domes exposing the inhabitants to the Imbrium. Instead the ceiling was an uneven but closed surface. Near Homa’s vantage there were hatches for vertical berths, as a well as a missile launcher that was facing the enemy’s way, but out of power. There were all manner of sensor towers, some with rotund sonar arrays, some with high-powered lasers. In another world Homa had thought of learning how to fix these to continue her education. Becoming a station engineer, helping to keep people safe.

She was maybe twenty meters above it, but she was above Kreuzung, for the first time.

Such dreams felt lofty and distant now.

She only here to prevent further destruction– not to feel sorry for herself.

“Eisenhower– I have to find the Eisenhower. It would be the biggest one, right?”

In the Delta’s imaging computer, there was a profile for an Eisenhower.

Homa made note of the appearance of the vessel. As soon as the Delta had it on camera, Homa would have a green box pointing out the way to go. With a judicious press of her pedals, Homa advanced into the fog of war, following the dim flashes of the detonating shells. Careful not too move too fast so as to not run right into enemies without time to react to them, but also to retain enough speed to respond.

Within moments, several red boxes appeared, overlaid on distant but approaching targets.

There were several models in the fight which she already knew of, Sturmvolkers and Jagds.

There seemed to be some skirmishing in the distance. Homa hoped not to get involved.

She quickly reloaded her machine gun and kept the weapon on hand.

Water rushed past her, and the yellow munition flashes became closer and larger.

Up ahead, in the parting shadow and marine fog, she saw an enormous green hull.

Like a wall of metal taking up much of her vision. Homa stopped– a green box appeared over the ship. It was a Republic frigate. A boxy hull with retractable fins, a square conning tower, thick cylindrical jets tucked between sixteen-section rectangular rear flaps in the stern section. Even as it moved past Homa, all of its guns were blazing, its dozen defensive gun emplacements firing at unseen threats, its prow-mounted cannons periodically unleashing fast barrages of shells.

Homa found it hard to stay near it– it was displacing so much water as it moved.

And there was so much ordnance flying off it that she was scared of being shot.

“Not the Eisenhower. But I better signal, just in case.”

Reaching for a few buttons off to the side of the left stick housing, Homa turned on her emergency signal. She flipped through the preprogrammed channels on her communicator, hoping she could interject in whatever chatter the Republicans had, but everything was encrypted and her Diver wasn’t decrypting it automatically, so she heard nothing but garbled noise. Homa had never worked with the kind of military communications gear that was in this Diver. She was not sure how to communicate with them.

“Hello! Hello! Please come in! Kitty sent me here! I have a recording for you!”

No response when Homa tried to call them– she really wasn’t able to get through.

Was it because they were in the middle of battle?

Or was she doing something wrong? Which dial or knob should she turn?

“Ugh! I’m such an idiot!“

Homa had to hope they would see the Republic distress signal and contact her instead.

“Maybe the Eisenhower specifically– maybe I can get their attention.”

Hoping that the Frigate in front would not shoot her, Homa climbed several dozen meters up, cresting the top of the ship’s boxy hull and dashing over the top deck. To her relief, none of the gas gun emplacements turned to shoot her. As she crossed over it, however, there was an enormous explosion off the port side of its prow section, and this time, Homa nearly lost control of the Delta.

An immense wave of water poured over the top deck of the Frigate as a munition struck.

Homa rocked in her seat, slamming her shoulder into the side.

She nearly tumbled from the force, expending solid fuel to correct with gritted teeth.

Her toes curled, her fingers gripped the horizontal sticks with all the force she could muster, fearing that they would get pried off their mounts on the sides of the pilot’s seat. Such was the force of the tremor.

Rushing up and away from the ship, she looked at the underside cameras.

Catching a glimpse of the Frigate beginning to sink beneath her.

It would not crash into the Kreuzung tower, thankfully, but this was so dangerous!

If it annihilated like the Cutter that Homa sank–

“Where the hell is the Eisenhower?”

Homa found herself among several enormous, vague shadows each of which floated at the edge of her vision. She saw the gargantuan hulls, each over a dozen times larger than her mecha. All of the hulls had a dozen or more points all along their surface that shone brief in quick bursts, flashing muzzles, sailing comets with tails of vapor, painting distant suns in the darkness. Within these unceasing, incandescent barrages of cannon shells, Homa felt smaller than a single LED in the endless shadows of the Imbrium.

In the dim cockpit her face lit up again and again, every second, with flashes of gunfire.

Rumbling and roaring and crashing noises pounded into her ears through the hydrophones.

She felt as if every single piece of ordnance shaking her cockpit was touching her gut.

For a moment she stood transfixed at the scene of titanic, brutal war before her eyes.

Giants armored in billion times her weight of metal, causing detonations that could vaporize her a hundred times a minute, inexorably moving through the water in such a way that the waves which rolled off them slammed and shook Homa’s armor. Pure engines of destruction. The Delta was big and strong, and she could fight while clad in it, but this was another level of magnitude altogether. There were only three or four ships fighting in this group, and just that was already dwarfing her with its scale.

She recalled Majida al-Khaybari’s words when she told Homa she could not stop this.

At that moment, Homa sucked in a nervous breath.

And as she exhaled, green targeting boxes marked all of the ships as friendly.

One flashed, dead ahead.

Homa immediately slammed the pedals and the Delta thrust headlong toward it.

“The Eisenhower! I found it!”

Amid the three other shadows, there was one vessel half a length longer than the rest.

The flagship, Eisenhower, with the most flashing red guns and searing white projectiles.

Filled with renewed hope, Homa rushed closer, heedless of the gunfire blazing before her.

Climbing over the vast, broad deck of the ship, avoiding the gas gun emplacements.

“How do I broadcast Kitty’s message to them? Come on, one of these systems has to–?”

Homa reached out to the communicator when her face lit up red.

Warning overlay box–

Split into eight–

“No! Oh no!”

Jerking back the control sticks–

Half-second breath held slamming the boost–

Fire, buffeting blasts one after the other–

Barely escaping, hurled from the deck by the sheer scale of the attack.

Within an instant, eight missiles crashed in brutal succession over the Eisenhower’s deck.

Punching a vertical line of craters along the top of the hull that compounded into a runaway fissure from prow to conning tower. Through explosive decompression and flooding the hull was almost split vertically in half. Disgorging massive plumes of gas bubbles, thousands of unmentionable shreds of metal and ripped apart bits of electronic gear, whole rooms and sections peeled like the guts of a deboned beast. Red foaming masses of human interstice within the ship’s effluvia, death, hundreds of deaths rendered impossible to prize apart from one another in the killing mass. Abstracted and turned brutally symbolic.

Absorbed as if into the Imbrium itself. The Eisenhower was gone, destroyed, in a blink.

“No. No way. No, no no no– NO– NO WAY– NO WAY–!”

That helpless Shimii in the stranded Diver slammed her controls, her fists turning red.

“Please no, please. They can’t all be dead– they can’t all be dead–”

She was not being rational. She had not been acting rationally for a very long time.

This was not something that she knew. It was not something someone could know.

When an idea became too big in her head, of course, it sounded the most necessary.

Not rational– necessary. It was necessary, for Homa to “stop this.” It was necessary.

Necessary to stop hiding, to stop running, to stop being manipulated, to take control.

And to confront it, to confront the looming thing and climb on it from the ankles up.

Homa had been used too much. She had felt too much dread, seen too much pain.

In such a state, it was necessary to fight. It was necessary to take control of her life.

Nobody else was trying to stop the tragedy, to stop the killing, to stem the blood.

Why? Why was it only she? And why– why did it end like this? Why did she fail?

“The Volkisch. They killed them all. They let all this happen so they could kill them all.”

Homa’s exhausted, panicking, self-hating, and fundamentally innocent mind, too distracted with punishing herself for her naivety, had never considered the idea that the Volkisch, through the sheer brutal violence of which they were capable of, would ultimately put an end to the battle themselves.

That they could take all the lives that were left to be taken, kill everyone that she had wished to save, and conclude tragedy with tragedy. She had been so focused on turning back the Republic assault, on “stopping Kitty,” on finding a peaceful means through which to reverse all of the violence– that she had simplified the presence of the Volkisch in her mind. But now they loomed larger than ever. Homa had failed to stop the fighting; they had succeeded in crushing all of their opposition through force of arms.

“I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid and helpless and useless and worthless.”

Punching her controls between every word. She was already in pain. She barely felt the strikes.

Floating among the debris of the Republic fleet in an Ocean that was suddenly silent and still.

Perhaps she could have saved them if she had been here sooner, been more skilled.

If she had gone to the authorities about Kitty when Imani would not do so.

Maybe if she could have done something about Radu and had secured Majida’s help.

And if she had been stronger. Someone stronger. Someone not Homa Baumann.

“What am I supposed to do?” Homa whimpered. Her strength had begun fading.

Without the adrenaline, she was just–

DANGER!

A burst of arms fire detonated around the Delta’s flank, rocking Homa in her cockpit.

It was a high enough caliber to cause damage and tore a piece off the flank armor.

“Please stop! Please! I surrender!”

Shameful words that she immediately hated saying escaped her lips before she could think.

Her hand shot reflexively to the communicator, slamming the broadcast button.

Jaw clenched, eyes finally finding tears again.

“Please. My name is Homa Baumann. I’m from Kreuzung. Please don’t kill me.”

She would go back. She would go back to Kreuzung clapped in chains.

Anything not to die. Anything to be lost in a million pieces in this cold cruel ocean–

“Remain where you are. If you lift your weapon, your life is forfeit.”

There was a voice responding, a woman’s voice. A slight accent– a familiar type.

In a moment, the Delta flashed a red overly off to the left side, and Homa turned to face it.

Her machine gun was still firmly grasped in her hand, but it was pointed below her.

Rapidly approaching, a Diver, green and black, fearsome, large and rugged.

Sporting the same symbols as Imani’s armbands, a black sun, a sword and a moon.

It had a broad chest which sloped from the center, like a rough, angular cone. Two thick shoulders bore a pair of missile racks which it discarded on its approach, as both were empty and dragging. Multiple hydrojets provided a lot of thrust for the bulky frame, with thick, armored arms and legs and a square backpack. Its head had a number of sensors arrayed around it that resembled a crown. Behind its back, the array of jets and control flaps looked almost like an abstract pair of wings.

Homa had never seen this model before. It was no wonder the Republicans had lost.

That machine approached and stopped within fifty meters of Homa. Terrifyingly visible.

“You say you are a civilian? What are you doing out here?” Asked the woman pilot.

“I– I panicked and stole this unit! I wanted to escape the station!” Homa replied.

“You are a terrible liar. But very well. It’s useless to interrogate you here. I’ll take you back.”

“Who are you?” Homa asked. “Are you with the Volkisch Movement?”

Head pounding, voice feeble, breath ragged. The wind had been knocked out of her.

It was all finished–

“Correct. I’m a Volkisch Standartenführer. My name is Vesna Nasser. So, drop your weapons–”

Homa’s eyes shot wide open.

Her head cleared like an explosion had sucked all the brain fog into its flames.

Fingers trembling, hands shaking, feet tapping on her pedals.

Brimming from the back of her neck, down her spine, into her hips.

Vesna Nasser.

Vesna Nasser!

Homa’s brain filled with weeping faces and grief-filled words–

Leija–

Imani–

Kitty–

So much suffering– so many people she had come to care about–

so many more innocents unspoken for that had been hurt–

“VESNA NASSER!”

The Delta lifted its arm while simultaneously boosting backward with all available thrust.

Homa crushing down the triggers as if she could squeeze more bullets from the gun.

With a roar the machine gun sent a chaotic burst of shells hurtling into Vesna Nasser.

Her machine lunged forward and arced up, an immediate response.

Absorbing a few shells but rising out of the way of the attack. She was fast!

“You’re not getting away! This is all your fault! I’m going to– I’m going to–!”

Homa pulled up the machine gun in the midst of firing, sending line after line of burning red trails chasing after Nasser’s wake, her machine rising, circling overhead, fast for its bulk. In her fury Homa turned with the machine but could never put rounds anywhere closer than around the feet, watching with frustration as the Vesna Nasser weaved overhead always a step in front of a long tail of vapor bubbles and yellow splashes of fire. In the midst of her attack, however, she realized an idea–

Suddenly, she boosted aside while firing the gun, leading the shots ahead of Nasser–

“DIE!“

One final onslaught from the machine gun before it clicked empty.

A storm of a dozen machine gun shells hurtling into the center of the enemy.

Nasser shot straight down into them, straight down at her.

Several shells crashed into her Diver’s shoulders and chest. Pits, cracks, dents–

Out of each explosion, the diving, rapidly accelerating machine came out undaunted.

Homa’s panicked reflex was to fire her remaining missile, but was it too close–?

Would she survive the explosion–?

Killing people is no joke–

Homa had killed– She could die for this–

I want to live

Her own pathetic voice in her own mind.

Homa’s hand froze on the missile trigger and retracted, wasting precious time.

“Damn it. Damn it!”

Vesna Nasser bore down on her, suddenly swinging an unfolded and active vibro-halberd.

The Delta’s hand came out from behind its back with an engaged vibro-axe.

Edge met edge, clashing in the water and spreading vapor and short-lived sparks.

Nasser swung her weapon with furious alacrity. Homa gave everything she had to match.

Two Divers in the middle of a cloud of water vapor and drifting metallic debris, blow after blow.

Their cutting edges smashed and blocked and parried in a vicious brawl–

Homa felt feedback from the arm transfer into the side of her cockpit. Harder each time.

She was being pushed back!

For a brief second, she lifted a hand off a control stick and grabbed hold of her necklace.

“I’ll give it everything. I’ll make you pay!”

As soon as her hand grabbed hold of her sticks again, she pushed both forward.

Hit both pedals, engaged all thrusters.

The Delta surged into a wild swing and caught the Halberd under its edge, pinning the weapon.

Slamming suddenly against Nasser’s Diver, the two of them grappling, grinding metal on metal.

Weapons up against their chests, sparks flying between them as the oscillators gnawed.

A contest of pure durability as their weapons and mechs wore each other to pieces–

You’re too weak, little-tail.

That voice did not belong to the “little guy in Homa’s necklace” that she fantasized about.

Too cruel, too cold–

It was Nasser’s voice– but she was hearing it in her head.

Homa was certain it was not the communicator. Nasser was speaking to her, to her mind.

Then,

the Delta suddenly pushed back, just enough to give Nasser room to swing.

Weapon rearing up, while Homa’s axe was to her chest, not even in a guard stance.

Homa had not moved it– and Nasser’s mech had not shoved more strongly than before–

How did she get knocked off-balance–?!

You never understood the difference between us.

Time seemed to suddenly stop for Homa.

She felt as if she was suspended, not in metal, but out in the ocean.

Standing across from the tall blond Shimii woman sneering at her in her pilot’s suit.

Homa had the vibroaxe in hand, in her own hands, holding it, feeling its heft somehow.

Nasser, too, had her Diver’s weapon in her real, physical hands, wielding it with ease.

But Homa couldn’t move properly. She was trapped in the instant of their collission.

Between them, hateful red color like a cloud consumed the entire ocean.

“I can feel the anger you have for me. I can see it. You want revenge.”

Nasser’s lips moved and Homa could hear her voice as if standing across from her.

Homa was furious, full of violence, full of dark desire, but–

She couldn’t find the strength to attack again.

In that instant, in this strange space in which she and Nasser were personified–

Nasser was a colossus. She had an overwhelming presence.

Homa’s sputtering wrath was like a candle-fire to Nasser’s volcanic aggression.

She felt like she was choking under the withering hatred of that woman’s gaze.

“You have spirit, but you lack a key element to challenge a King’s power, Homa Baumann. It is not enough to have virtuous words, a cause to fight for or even fighting spirit. A King must have domain over life and death. The power to kill. Not just fight; kill. I will show you the gulf between us, little tail.”

Around Vesna Nasser that nakedly aggressive red color turned immediately, starkly black.

Like the snuffing out of a light, an instantaneous smothering darkness.

Radiating from around Nasser and consuming all of Homa’s surroundings.

Her pitiful little red color was invisible in the pitch black sea.

Homa’s heart sank, her hands trembled, her legs shook. Her head felt empty and airy.

It felt like when Radu reached out his hand to her.

All of her rebellion, all of her emotion, all of her hope and vigor drained from her.

DANGER DANGER DANGER!

That pitiable little voice blared its premonitions on deaf ears.

Despite the urgency of the threat, Homa could hardly make herself move to respond.

Something was squeezing the strength of action from her, and she could only watch.

Vesna Nasser raised her halberd overhead, its edge lacquered in the same deathly black color..

In that instant she was both the woman and the machine, just as Homa was both.

Swinging from shoulder down with all of her strength and killing intention.

And,

as if through the clad metal protecting her

the black killing wave swept through

Homa Baumann

spraying out the weak red from her

causing immediate unfeeling

King’s Scorn.”

Homa’s held-up vibroaxe clashed with Nasser’s halberd to no effect.

Though the Delta’s weapon and the Muawiya’s collided out in the Imbrium Ocean–

An invisible violence directed the blow through the armor and right into Homa.

One brutal slash of furious black color running in a steep diagonal across her.

For an instant, she felt hot and crushing pain as if being hurled against a wall.

Then came the numbness–

Chills, the distortion of her vision, dissociation of her thoughts from her body.

Breaths escaped that couldn’t be caught. Smothering dark covered the edges of her vision.

Losing power over her limbs, releasing the Delta’s controls, spiraling into a descent.

Drifting, down like the debris of the sinking ships, down below the bottom of everything.

I’m going to sink and disappear. Just like the people I– I killed–

With her final strength, she lifted a hand, and it tore from her body, unable to reach anyone.

Vesnar Nasser was growing farther and farther out of that severed grasp.

The gulf between them had become as far as heaven and earth.


UNJUST DEPTHS

ANTHOLOGY II: WELTGEIST

You can unearth history while struggling alone.

But you will never change history on your own.


With the sinking of the Eisenhower, the Republican fleet’s dim and distant hopes of occupying the Kreuzung stations came to an end. The Greater Imbria and Mrudah along with the arriving Aleksandr quickly eliminated the remaining Republican forces. The Republic’s troopship surrendered, thousands of marines packed inside like sardines now becoming prisoner. The Volkisch’s assault troops sent another wave of suicide drones into B.S.W. and found no further resistance within. Republican ringleader Kitty McRoosevelt had taken her own life after being horrifically, fatally maimed by a Volkisch attack.

Inside the Core Pylon, the Alayzean special operations group was surrounded.

Once the fate of their comrades was made known to them, it shook their will to fight. A negotiator successfully argued for the release of the core technicians, but the exchange was a ruse to get the shooters to lower their guard. Volkisch troops attacked from all directions with vibroblades and riot shields, pressing the shooters in with their phalanx and practically hacking them to pieces. Standing atop blood and haphazard corpses, the traumatized technicians were made to resume their work. Within minutes of subduing the Cogitans, Kreuzung’s separated Core was again rejoined.

Power returned to Kreuzung and its outlying towers, making its way module to module, block by block. After about fifteen minutes the overwhelming majority of the station was back to normal functioning.

Civil authorities began to sound an “all clear” but extended the curfew as a precaution.

Throughout the station, the Volkisch took over for the battered K.P.S.D in leading the confused masses back to the status quo. With honeyed declarations they allayed civilian fears, playing up their own role in averting tragedy and defending the National Proletariat from a horrific threat. Investigations would be called, said the Volkisch press office, into the grotesque negligence and incompetence of the station authorities. They praised the great heroes of the nation who stood stalwart in the darkest hour.

Within hours, the Republic vessels over Kreuzung had been replaced by over 100 arriving ships bearing the “black sun” and “sword with moon” symbols of the 7th Fleet of the political troops of the Volkisch, the Stabswache. A particularly ethnic Fleet, it was uniquely made up largely of Shimii, exclusively Rashidun Shimii of Brennic and Diriyan descent, as well as a small regiment of Khedivate Loup who subscribed to Rashidist religious ritual despite their race. Collectively, these forces were referred to as the Zabaniyah— beasts that meted out the punishments of hell to those damned to the eternal fire.

Over the course of their disembarking, it was evident that they had been carried on a wind that would alter Kreuzung’s destiny. Thousands of Shimii in black uniforms and fascist armbands with assault rifles and anxious looks replaced the K.P.S.D. policemen on the streets. Block by block, module by module, they advanced, and the remaining Kreuzung police or guards stood aside, helpless to stop the march. In the Administration Block near the top of the Kreuzung tower, the old Governor remained silent. Those ranks of cat-like ears and tails in their black uniforms were slowly and steadily coming to greet him.

It was not for nothing that these once-repressed people were now part of the Volkisch.

There was talk of Tower Eight Shimii being allowed to live within the Core for the first time.

Talk of ending segregation in Kreuzung and of greater Shimii participation in the government.

And with these incentives, talk of getting the young and vibrant Shimii of Eisental to join the Volkisch Movement and become heroes of not just their own Volk, but of the National Proletariat as a whole.

Bolstering the Volkisch ranks at a time when they needed the assistance most.

Amid the commotion and the beginnings of change, the Ritter-class Cruiser Aleksandr docked into Kreuzung’s main seaport. While at the head of the Volkisch reinforcements, it had to wait a few hours before the troops disembarked and secured positions, before it could touch down on its new domain.

In front of the bulkhead to the Aleksandr’s offboarding chute, a tall woman in black uniform waited, her long, bushy tail swaying casually behind her. Long, honey-blond hair and tall ears trimmed of fluff, lightly tanned skin. Sharp and arresting facial features, exotic and photogenic. Athletic in build and somewhat boyish in her stance and expression, but for this occasion, made up in lipstick and pigments, wearing a pencil skirt and female dress coat with her military decorations. Arms crossed beneath her bust.

She had just gotten off a brutal battle where she killed hundreds of people.

But she cleaned up exceptionally well into the clothes and refinement befitting an adjutant.

Her eyes lifted from her feet when the bulkhead in front of her finally opened.

Unveiling the woman to whom, despite everything, she owed her own allegiance.

Flanked by a pair of armored Shimii, a shorter, distinctly Imbrian woman stepped into Kreuzung, slender with a soft face. Her hair was mostly dyed light blue but had a wide band of light pink, including some of her bangs and the hair covering her right ear and down the back. Her schirmmütze cap was decorated with silver cat ears, and she had one earring which boasted a flag-shaped decoration with the same bands of pink and light blue that dyed her hair. Her black uniform and cape was even more lavish than that of her surbodinates, heavily trimmed in gold. Upon meeting her counterpart, she eyed her figure closely; and the Shimii, so observed, seemed to allow the open lechery with a certain subdued glee.

“You’re looking fine as ever.” Said Oberführer Violet Lehner, grinning vigorously.

Across from her, the Shimii woman adjusted her glasses with a similarly gleeful expression.

“Have I ever looked less than perfect at your side, milady?” replied Standartenführer Vesna Nasser.


In the Old Iron block the water had begun to recede as the pumps regained power with the rejoining of the station’s Core. The level of flooding went down from waist deep back to ankle deep. Without repairs it would remain at this level, but for now, the threat of flooding the entire block was staved off. Aside from a few unlucky souls and a few corpses, there was no one on the streets.

No one except a little drone, the size and shape of a silver, hairless metal cat.

Walking with elegant strokes of its legs, despite the difficulty presented by the water.

Ankle-deep water was still half the cat-drone’s body, so it was a bit encumbered.

Nevertheless, it made its way up the street, and turned into the knocked-down door of a bar once renowned by the name “Majestic-12.” Its final days had come and gone, and its revival as a hub of conspiracy was quite short-lived. Now corpses were all that was left, corpses hours fresh but rendered quickly chill and gray by the cold saltwater washing in. Dead katarrans and–

–one unconscious girl, the contents of her heart kept closely guarded and unknowable.

It was the first thing she mastered when she studied psionics. She did it even in her sleep.

Navigating around the remains, the cat drone approached the sleeping Imani Hadžić.

Stopped, seated on its rear legs. Its tail extended around its body.

Attaching to her neck and delivering a drug to reverse her anesthetized state.

Within minutes, Imani’s eyes opened, and she stared, incredulously, at her surroundings.

“Master Hudson?” She looked down at the robotic cat.

From the cat’s neck a speaker responded in a tinny voice. “As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Her situation slowly dawned on her. Imani rose to her feet.

Immediately, she felt her shirt and belt lighter than before. Her gun was missing.

“Homa.”

Imani’s fingers reached up to her lips. She started to make for the door–

“Time has passed. I’m sorry to say.” Hudson said. “All of the fighting is done.”

Nearly to the door, Imani paused. She reached out her trembling hand behind herself.

Showing Hudson the remnants of a powerful emotion. Dancing colors on her fingers.

An emotion that another woman had given her, and which had remained on her kissed lips.

Shaking its head, the drone’s unmoving steel face confirmed the worst.

“That aura– I’m afraid you won’t find it here anymore. Did she mean a lot to you?”

Imani did not turn back. Did not show her expression to the drone. Revealed nothing to it.

She ran out, as fast as her legs could carry her, and as far away, as if from misery itself.


Leija Kladuša ran as far as her legs could carry her back to Homa Baumann’s room.

I never found her! Majida never came back! What happened?

Once the Core had been linked, reversing the Core Separation, a group of Volkisch Shimii presumably under Imani Hadžić’s command had informed the civilian Shimii in the Kreuzung Core to return to Tower Eight and that they would receive emergency supplies soon, and more news in the coming days. These soldiers took over the manning of the checkpoints. Leija had been informed that her presence would be called to discuss the incident with the Shimii’s commander, again presumably Hadžić, but–

she did not care! All of her business with Kreuzung could collapse and she wouldn’t care!

Her heart heavy with regret, all she cared about in that moment was Homa.

Even after everything I’ve done to her. How could I have been so stupid? How?

Homa who had taken care of her drunk, worthless self even when she was just a child.

Homa who had helped her with her despicable affairs as an obedient young adult.

And now–

Homa who had given her worthless self a bed again, without cruelty or unkindness–

I failed her again and again and again! But she never turned me down! She followed my every word!

That poor girl, she terrorized her, she hit her, she got drunk at her, she swore at her–

Homa had never abandoned her. No matter how much she deserved it. Until– until now–

Elbowing past the people crowding back into the hall, rushing down to the door.

“Homa! Please! Are you back? Please tell me you got back safely! Please!”

Some part of her was prepared to find an empty room. To simply– to simply not know.

Instead, inside the room–

“Leija– I couldn’t protect her. I am sorry.”

Seated on the bed was a man in armor. His cloak burned and shredded. His chestplate burst inward and bloody. His legs shaking in heavy graves sliced and dented. His gauntlets cracked. His cat-like mask was broken, exposing one grey ear, singed gray hair, and a quarter of a face partially scarred by a patch of hexagon-gridded burned flesh, red-purple squeezing a mournful green eye.

Leija brought her hands up to her mouth.

“What do you mean? What do you mean sorry?”

She rushed to the bed and slammed her fists into the man’s armor.

“What do you mean you’re sorry? What do you mean? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”

Radu the Marzban had no response.

He embraced Leija as she struck him repeatedly.

She beat him until her hands were bloody, until she had no voice, until her strength faded.

“Homa–! Homa–! Please– No–”

All she could do was cry and all he could do was bear it.


“Right this way! Right this way! She’s waiting for us! Make way, make way!”

In a sing-song voice, Katarran mercenary Xenia Laskaris escorted a young Shimii woman carrying several cases through partially flooded rooms below the baseplate of Kreuzung Core. While all eyes were focusing on the Core Pylon, the Administrative District in A-block near Tower One and the Shimii in Tower Eight, the baseplate was completely unguarded. In fact, Xenia had learned a juicy tip from a broker– the cameras to the baseplate sectors had all been shut off. Zero security down there, all day long.

“Making good money and getting out of this dump? I couldn’t ask for a better windfall.”

“Glad you’re feeling chipper, but she better be whole and hale, or you’re leaving in a box.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Calm down! She’s alive! That one’s the toughest Katarran I’ve ever seen!”

“She’s not a Katarran, she’s a Shimii. So you better have the right person, you glib crab.”

“Then she’s the toughest Shimii I’ve ever seen. Please just relax– I’m a professional.”

Xenia opened a door and bowed with a little smile, allowing Raaya Al-Shahouh through.

Raaya gasped as soon as the light from the corridor entered the dark room.

Huddled in front of an elevator into the old Kreuzung mines, was Majida al-Khaybari.

Collapsed on the floor, panting. Her chestplate’s ceramic layers were smashed, the armor still held together only because of the nanofiber chain-links that ran through it. Her face and hair were red and brown with caked blood, her arms limp at her side, her breathing heavy. Her tail had been cut in half, as had been her cartilaginous, fin-like ear. Only her Katarran armor was still intact.

When Raaya gasped, Majida looked up from her seeming stupor and smiled weakly.

“Don’t worry. It’ll all grow back.” She said, coughing, hacking up a bit of red phleghm.

“Majida! Majida!”

Raaya ran to the other side of the room, dove to the floor and grabbed hold of Majida.

Weeping profusely into the injured woman’s shoulder, holding her, screaming with agony.

Majida weakly ran a hand, heavy in its Katarran greaves, over Raaya’s hair.

“Ahh, so much love! Do not worry! Your nightmare is over! I’ll get you two back home!”

Xenia Laskaris gave the miserable couple a thumbs-up from the door.

“You might have to carry me.” Majida said, her voice rough and weak.

“Don’t worry boss! From the look of you, I expected that!” Xenia said cheerfully.

“Raaya, I’m really sorry.” Majida said. “I– I couldn’t even save the kid–”

“Idiot! You big idiot! You could’ve– You–” Raaya cried, continuing to embrace Majida.

Majida embraced her back as strongly as she could in her weak state, crying together.

They had gotten through this, but to Majida, it felt like the prelude to weather far worse.


Everything felt cold; numbingly, miserably cold.

Up above the white sky was completely covered in the branches of the great silver trees. They whispered among themselves with great worry, praying for the girl’s health. Trails of colors flew like paper streamers between the trunks, curling around branches and delving phantom-like into the great bodies. When the colors touched one tree to the next she could almost hear a sound echo distant and hushed.

“We just keep running into each other, huh.”

Someone knelt beside the body of the girl, on the pale muddy earth. A girlish face with red hair, eyes yellow on black. loomed over her and stared sideways down at her. A single black horn curled from the side of her head, and two smaller ones rose from her forehead, splitting her long bangs. She was pale, bloodlessly pale, and wore an ornate robe, closely fitted to her lean frame, with sleeves and a hem that both looked like streamers of greyed skin peeled from some creature. Over her shoulders and around her neck was a loosely tied string of crumbly, fleshy silverskinned fruits, like dry grey figs.

On that pale, beautiful face, thin lips spread into a monstrous grin full of sharp teeth.

She, the girl, the body who was being observed, could not move. She was as if suspended atop a pool.

Cold; paralyzingly cold. So cold there was nothing– not even a name in her.

“You are loved by them. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that is special– they love all of you Hominins. They can’t help it. It’s ancient history.” For a moment, the woman’s grin became a little smaller. Her eyes scanned curiously across the body. “But you can hear them. And that is indeed special. So you may yet earn yourself praise that the rest of your species hardly deserves.” Mockingly, she clapped her hands together slowly. “Congratulations. You have become a witness to the Great Silver Trees.”

Still clapping her hands, she sat, cross-legged, beside her.

Her gaze filled with the woman, whose enormous twice-split tail curled behind her.

“I am the God of this world, little Hominin. I am the Omenseer lord, Arbitrator II.”

Arbitrator II stared at her. She ceased to clap. When her hand outstretched, colors from the trees snaked around her. It was as if she was opening herself up to be bathed in them, as if the colors were delighted to come to her body and dance around it. Arbitrator II seemed to enjoy it. Some of the colors wafted up from her like vapors from hot water and washed over the girl, the body, wrapping her in fog.

“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes. Ali, I believe. Ali Ibn al-Wahran. An auspicious name. I know for a fact that meetings like this do not happen by coincidence. While I despise your kind, Hominins have ecological reasons to exist in my new world– albeit, maybe not in such numbers or such forms as you do now. There are many who would slander me, but I am merciful. I do not wish to strictly repeat ancient history. After all, for whatever reason, I could not win back then.”

For a moment, Arbitrator II stared at the body as if carefully examining her.

Then she stood, and walked to the body’s side, bending over her from a standing position.

“Out of my boundless mercy, I will grant you a boon. May it stir the course of things.“

Her pale hand grabbed hold of the body’s head and covered her face, transferring the colors.

She squeezed. Muffled screams as if from a sewn mouth. It hurt– oh God it hurt!

It was if Arbitrator II was trying to squeeze the brain out of the skull–

–yet it was also as if the pressure was not being applied by the physical force of her hand.

An unmoving body writhed beneath the touch of that hand, its soul screaming for release.

Then, instantly, the pain ceased as the hand retracted, and the colors retracted with her.

Over and behind Arbitrator II the colors spread, growing more intense, all-encompassing.

“I completed what you possessed. You can have your people’s Omensight— if you desire.”

That hand which had seized upon her face moved down to one of her cold, immobile limbs.

“Now, you won’t be needing this anymore. So in exchange, I will dispose of it.”

Without a sound Arbitrator II split her arm off above the elbow as if it was already severed.

Her vision swam as she saw the creature holding her jaggedly cut, bleeding limb.

And taking– hungry bites from the sheared flesh– sucking blood and marrow from bone–

Licking her bloody lips with an expression of euphoria.

“You’re delicious. I want more. I understand the omens here now. Seek me out Hominin– I’ll taste your blood and talk about the past. I feel like reminiscing. Hmm– but such a meeting requires a sacrifice worthy of the ceremony of it all. After all, Ali Ibn al-Wahran took a lot from me, and I do still hold a grudge. Tell you what– it’s not like you’ll be needing this either, young Great Tree Ascetic. I will take the price entirely in flesh and call the grudge settled. Descend into the Agartha and I will welcome you.”

Arbitrator II’s hand traced down the body to the leg opposite the taken arm.

Just as easily, she tore the leg off. Holding it like a fresh-caught fish by a gory tail.

Taking a loving red bite from the blue-tan dead flesh of the leg’s severed knee, savoring it.

The body screamed with all of her might, but her mouth made only muffled, weak noise.

She thrashed and thrashed but the brutalized body amid the trees only barely shuddered.

She could not move. She could not flee, could not fight, as she watched her flesh eaten.

“Tell everyone far and wide of my mercy– and do not squander what I have given you.”

Arbitrator II’s mouth then opened farther than should have been humanly possible.

Stuffing the remains of the plucked limbs down her throat like a snake swallowing an egg.

Savoring the taste of human flesh with unrestrained glee even as the trees watched her.

The colors became fog and overwhelmed all the body’s already fragile senses, in her panic.

Her sense of self had never been so shaken as now– she was made unwhole in spirit.

Was her body– already unwhole–? Had her limbs– already been severed–?

“Now: away with you.” Arbitrator II put her hand over the body’s eyes and made the world dark.


“Oh my god– she’s critical– so much blood–”

Distorted visions, like viewing a cracked screen with broken audio.

“Get me– she needs– stat!”

Metal walls, facsimiles of faces, hands, hands coming down on her.

“We’re cutting–”

Hands, thousands of hands touching every part of her, squeezing hands, sawing hands.

All of the hands of all the people she killed dragging her down.

Horrible faces climbing over her body and gnawing at her.

Teeth tearing muscle and bone. An imperceptible instant of the worst imaginable pain.

“It’s the only way–”

She bolted upright, gasping for breath.

Sweaty, breathing heavy, but her body did not hurt. She was not restrained, not sinking.

Her chest pounded. Her eyes darted around.

Nobody was attacking her.

Snapping in a blink from darkness to light was disorienting. She found herself in a plain-walled room. She had been laid on a bed, with soft gel pillows and a warm mattress, blankets. There was a line of other beds, all of which were empty. There was a table next to her bed, on wheels, covered by a blanket. There was a faint chemical smell, but the atmosphere did not feel hostile or uncomfortable.

Once comprehension finally came to her she realized she wasn’t alone.

There was a blond woman on nearby chair. Hair tied into a ponytail. Lipstick and makeup, a soft expression, handsome, beautiful. Button-down shirt, teal jacket starting to fall off her strong shoulders, a black pencil skirt and black tights. She had her hands on her lap, watching with eyes partially averted, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting with a lock of hair. She felt familiar somehow– and safe.

On the other side of the bed was a long-limbed, lithe woman, long hair wrapped in a messy bun behind her head. Dyed a few different shades of blue, with tidy bangs up front. She was dressed in a white coat over the same type of shirt and skirt as the blond woman. She had painted pink lips and a gentle expression and looked over with sympathy in her eyes. She had a badge on her coat, with a multi-pronged blue star with an internal red cross– she must have been a doctor, and this place a hospital.

“How are you feeling dear? Any pain?” asked the doctor.

“I– Where–?”

She paused.

She could not feel her hand. Not like before.

When she tried to clutch the blankets. Her fingers weren’t moving like she was used to.

A shiver of cold fear ran down her spine.

She slowly lifted her right arm.

All the while moving the hand that she no longer possessed.

In its place, there was a mechanical ring, like a coupler made of metal, attached to the remains of her elbow. Under a band of aggravated red skin fused to the carbon-fiber connective layer in the machine, ran cables, inside her, visible along with her sinews. When she tried to move her hand, the physical feeling of moving her hand ran through the arm phantom-like, and instead, the ring coupler moved, and tiny electromechanical elements inside of it whirred and poked out of holes in the contraption–

“I’m sorry. We couldn’t save the limbs. We have prosthetics ready. I promise that your quality of life–”

Homa Baumann suddenly broke down, first into sobs, and then into full-throated screams.

She was alive.

And in that horrible instant she was convinced that she should have died, and unsure how to keep living.

All she could do was hold her head with her severed hand and scream until it drowned out the mourning.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.7]

At the far end of the dockyard at Bertrand Shore Works bellowed the main driving gears of the ship conveyor and cargo elevator, pulling a 50 meter long Cutter liveried in Republic green up into the bowels of the station. The station interstice was essentially a highway for cargo and ships that connected the docks to the scrapyards and shipyards and a few other modules across the vast acreage of the Station. Aside from a few junction points, it was essentially on rails and strict about where one could go.

From Bertrand’s, the Cutter entered the interstice. A high ceiling and tight walls that allowed only enough space for ships and the equipment hauling them to pass, about 100 meters wide. The conveyor forked, and the Cutter hung a right at the junction to be taken behind B.S.W’s module, where the conveyor was eerily stopped. The Cutter remained trapped in the interstice where it had paused.

From the Cutter’s side, the main bulkhead opened, and a quadrotor drone hauled a boxy piece of equipment up thirty meters from the conveyor belt, against one of the high walls. The drone moved the gear to the wall surface, where magnetic couplers attached it to the metal. Connected by a thick power cable leading back into the Cutter, the box-like device analyzed the surface it was set against and then cut a square the size of an adult into the thick steel wall, exposing a maintenance corridor. Once its work was complete the drone picked the cutting gear off the wall and returned it to the Cutter.

Along with the drone, a team exited the Cutter as well, a group of armed men and women in bodysuits protected by flexible Kevlar plates on the chest and limbs. After the cutting gear had been returned and they were ready to climb up into the wall, they handed the drone a line which it attached to a thick pipe within the exposed maintenance corridor, allowing them to use motorized rappelling equipment to pull their bodies up quickly and effortlessly to the newly exposed gap.

“Kitty, we’re going in. Hold the fort for us. Fleet’s only about an hour out.”

Clearance into the Core Pylon was normally extremely strict. Only people born in a station or who had lived a very significant amount of time in one could become Core engineers for that station. Kitty McRoosevelt could have never acquired clearance to sneak into the Pylon. However, every complex module in a station needed maintenance corridors and out-of-module infrastructure access.

The habitats, the dockyards, these were not seamlessly fitting cubes in a stack. Veins and arteries ran through and between them. Every station had a vast inner world of pipes and fiber-optic junctions and electrical connections that human hands had to be able to reach somehow.

And the Core Pylon was no exception. There had to be paths to it outside plain sight.

Kitty and her Katarrans were setting up turrets and using her yacht to block the path into the dockyard, preparing for a possible siege. While they did so, the entry team stalked their way through the maintenance corridors searching for a way into the Core Pylon. They were once a Cogitan special operations squadron from the failed Ayre Reach invasion fleet, now vying to become the successful Kreuzung occupation fleet. Once inside the Core Pylon, they would have no good way to escape, and several very direct routes through which the Imbrians could assault their positions.

But in the world of black ops, their lives were already forfeit, nonetheless. Taking out as many of the day’s enemy as they could, to the last bullet in the last mag, for the cause of freedom and democracy and enterprise– that was what they had been taught, and learned, to aspire toward.

Soon, the entry team had snaked their way to another wall and stood aside so the drone could fetch and move the cutting gear into the tight corridor they had scouted out. Orange sparks flew in the dark halls of the station interstice. They repeated this a few more times until finally, they knocked down the right bit of metal and entered a stark, white-walled corridor lined with thick, protruding sheets of a silvery metal. Osmium shielding. And from several gaps in the wall, a purple glow could be seen to shine into the white hall. They were on the exterior of the Core Ring. Inside the Core Pylon structure itself.

Some of the entry team members showed a quiet reverence for the place.

Regardless of this, they all knew what they had come here to do and could not turn back.

Raising their assault rifles and moving so as to cover all approaches.

They stacked on one of the gaps in the wall, around the purple glow shining in.

Peering around, they hit the jackpot.

Osmium and steel scaffold suspended a control platform over an enormous pool of water below, into which the energy array could be “dumped” if needed. The platform, containing instruments and computing equipment for monitoring and controlling the core, was lightly populated with only a few technicians and less guards. None of the guards had firearms, only shock prods and body armor. They could not risk causing damage to the Pylon. They were only there to oversee the technicians.

In the middle of the platform was an absolutely massive structure, its complexity such that the entry team hardly understood what they were seeing. It appeared to the naked eyes to be a polyhedron with hexagonal faces, with a seemingly flat exterior wherever perceived, and a constantly moving interior structure generating the pervasive purple glow that dominated the entire core ring. From each cardinal direction of the core ring an enormous multi-section steel shaft connected to this complex middle structure, housing the pipes and cables supplying water, collecting steam, routing electricity. Upon the “polyhedron” itself could be seen hundreds of snaking cables and pipes and other arteries such that it appeared like a terrifying mechanical heart, pumping purple glow and eldritch energy.

Seeing it up close was like madness. It was surreal and gripping and terrifying–

“Are we really doing this?” a cracked, whispering voice sounded among the Cogitans.

Without word, the lead members of the entry team breached before anyone answered.

Single shots from their assault rifles sailed across the scaffold and struck the guards in the upper chest and neck where the chestplate terminated. Tense but skillful, knowing they could not be retaliated against. Surgical. The Cogitan entry team dispatched all of the guards in a lightning attack within seconds, and the technicians in the room shrank back into the core ring computing equipment, stunned, incredulous that there could possibly be a violent, armed attack on the core.

“You want to live? Separate the fucking core! Now! No fucking questions! Just do it!”

Despite the gravity of the attacker’s demands, the technicians had no choice.

They were afraid if they didn’t comply it might cost them more than their lives.

Firing guns inside the core ring– the Cogitans could have very well destroyed the station.

This was such an extraordinary and hellish situation. An instant trauma for the technicians.

They could not have possibly responded with anything but compliance.

And comply they did.

From above the polyhedron descended an enormous pair of mechanical structures, like two planes attached to multi-jointed mechanical arms, silver-plated in Osmium, between which electricity could be seen to briefly arc. The top of the polyhedron split to allow the arms into the water in which the energy array was suspended. There was a bright flash, within the space of which every heart in the room ceased beating for an instant as if to presage their demise. Within that instant revolved all of their lives.

Nobody was killed. Not yet.

From the core, the energy array ascended.

Suspended between the devices. Plucked as if by a titanic hand.

Now unmoving, its true form seemed to continue to elude the sight for several seconds.

As if between those mechanical arms there was shapelessness itself held aloft.

Blurring and warping the light, a smooth array of agarthicite tubes and osmium shielding.

In mere minutes, the terrifying deed had been accomplished.

With its energy array secured outside the core ring and unable to impart power–

Kreuzung’s Core had been separated. They could see it; they were in its presence.

Everyone involved stood around the hanging device, staring. Their God on the gallows.

Wondering as if there was anything more to be done now. Or if time would stand still.

Instruments blared at them. Core Separation warnings would be displaying and sounding and raising alarm throughout the station, but inside the Core Pylon, there was only the gentle glow of the energy array suspended outside of its core ring. They still had energy from the Core Ring and backup systems, and they were insulated from any of the panic that could result from the actions which had been taken.

In the eye of the storm, there was calm, but also–

–the foreboding sense of coming destruction began to finally creep in.

“Kitty, it’s done. Hold fast in the dockyard. We’ll keep the Imps out of the Pylon.”

The Cogitan assault team began to prepare their defenses.

It was around 1900 hours for the people of Kreuzung station.

In the year A.D. 979 on the 203rd cycle.

A tragedy that would be recorded in history as the first offensive use of a Core Separation.

On that day, after hundreds of years, the inviolable sacredness of Agarthicite wavered.

More than any of the perpetrators at the time could possibly understand.


For just long enough to sow great unease, Laurentius lost power.

Casting the surveillance room into pitch black.

“Hmm. Well. This is mighty inconvenient. I hope it comes back soon.”

Amid the panicked whispering, the smooth, slightly accented voice of a young man.

As if responding to him, the lights came back on moments later.

Throughout the room the black-uniformed Volkisch intelligence agents slumped on their computers and desks. They were surrounded by enormous monitors subdivided into feeds that gave them dozens of eyes within the station, whether by floating drones or fixed camera pods on the walls or at street level. For a moment the cameras had no picture; several of them came back online in slow succession. There was strange movement on a few in particular, that were meant to be pointed at the bulkheads inside of the baseplate maintenance tunnels. Blurring and sliding and bubbling of something–

“Turn those off. They’re clearly glitching. We don’t need to look at the baseplate now.”

“Sir?”

“It’ll conserve energy, my dear. Turn them off.”

“Um– right away, Lord Drachen.”

“I am no longer a lord, madame. Veka is far behind me at this point.”

With Imani Hadžić missing, command at Laurentius had temporarily shifted to one of her subordinates, in this case, Sturmbannführer Raul von Drachen. A tall, slender man, with slick blond hair, a hooked nose, and heavily defined cheekbones, he looked like the actor who would leer at the protagonist and his sweetheart in a corner of the movie poster, cast as the looming villain. His sophisticated, fox-like menace was only enhanced by the black Volkisch uniform and the armbands on his sleeves, the black sun of the Volkisch’s Esoteric Order, and the black sword and moon of the 7th Stabswache Fleet, the Zabaniyah.

Despite his appearance, his voice was soft, and he was never without an easy expression on his face.

“We will have to start rerouting power to be able to respond.” Von Drachen said. “Contact the control room. We must at all costs keep the life support and our computers operable but anything else has to be temporarily shut down. Have all docked ships and Divers deploy and terminate power to those modules once they are in the water. Cannons and missiles will have to go offline with them. Organize assault squadrons to move into the tower, and once all soldiers are deployed into the Core Station, terminate social area and habitat power in order to conserve. Then we will have to quickly gather intelligence and respond in force. Find out where the Pylon was breached. Deploy a team to the Standartenführer’s last known location. Are you writing all of this down dear? Am I going too fast for you?”

At his side, a skittish intelligence officer fidgeting with her hair drew her eyes wide.

With a jump, she began to record the items that needed to be done.

“Oh it’s truly okay. I will simply repeat myself with less vigor.”

Within minutes the initial preparations for the Volkisch’s response were complete.

Power was rerouted, station defenses went offline. Dozens of Volkisch Sturmvolker Divers and the docked Cutters of the patrol fleet deployed from their berths so that the docking infrastructure could be temporarily shut down. A thousand rifle-armed troops crossed the Bridge into the Kreuzung Core and split into several heavily armed squadrons to respond. Surveillance officers began practically crawling through every centimeter of the station with cameras and drones as their eyes– except below the baseplates, where any auxiliary equipment controlled by Laurentius was shut down to conserve power.

“I do hope the Standartenführer is doing well. She is a sweet and delicate girl.”

“Sir? I– I suppose so sir.”

The intelligence officer looked up at him in barely disguised terror behind her spectacles.

As if only an insane person could see Imani Hadžić as a “sweet and delicate girl.”

“How are things inside Kreuzung?”

“Err– less than optimal, sir.”

Around them the monitors switched to only street level feeds throughout Kreuzung core.

On every LCD surface, red warnings were blaring at the citizens that a Core Separation was underway. Normally this message should have automatically cleared in 15 minutes to instead display a curfew notice or other more useful guidelines. But nobody had set what the replacement message would be. Von Drachen quickly had Laurentius’ control room create a replacement emergency announcement and push it to every screen on the station, but due to the varying states of connectivity in the multitude of different modules in Kreuzung, only some areas received the notification to shelter-in-place at first.

Responses to the Core Separation warnings varied greatly.

For the most part, people in habitats were congregating in their hallways, seeing if their neighbors had any more information than they did, or they stayed in their rooms looking for news online, anxious but not storming the elevators. People in transit were the most upset, as the trams and elevators were behaving erratically and for a brief moment had completely lost power and trapped them. However, even here, there were only some minor altercations and hard words between the commuters and staff.

Workers in industrial areas hunkered down, while the strikers in Tower Nine seemed to be pooled at their barricades as if awaiting an opportunistic attack by the Volkisch. Where there was most chaos was in the commercial areas. Shoppers rushed to the elevators and tram stations trying desperately to get back to their homes or to areas that felt safer than the long strips of storefronts with their blaring LCD windows. There were many accidents and injuries in the crowds as people shoved and struggled to get through tight corridors, to get ahead of their peers into the elevators, or for space in trams. Public workers and roving patrolmen were utterly overwhelmed and gave up on imposing any order in these situations.

Compared to the amount of people trying to get to safety or hunker down, there were relatively few instances of vandalism, assaults, or looting among the population. There were some broken storefronts, particularly in retaliation against major brands who had instituted dynamic pricing. There was very little theft or opportunism. The mass violent hysteria that the Volkisch authorities had feared could ensue as they got the first Core Separation warnings did not manifest. People were not wantonly killing and robbing one another on the streets. For a station with millions of people, the incidence of rioting and anarchy was minor on the whole. Despite this, property defense continued to be a Volkisch priority.

Infrastructure in Kreuzung responded poorly to the loss of power. The last revision to the backup power schema had been undertaken over forty years ago in the aftermath of the Fueller Reformation, and since then the systems on the station had only increased in complexity as civilians and businesses acquired more civilian scale personal computing and mechanical automation than ever existed before.

When the first blackout hit, and subsequently when backup power came on, hospitals and care facilities had to scramble to manually turn off convenient but not life-saving systems, much like Laurentius had to, in order to prevent their backup power from diminishing too quickly. Certain forms of care and certain comforts were denied to patients in order to prioritize ventilators, life support, dyalisis and so on.

Meanwhile the power grid itself began to struggle to deliver available backup power because the computer systems handling the backup power schema were themselves older, some entirely untouched, and a few had short circuited entirely from the initial shock of the Core Separation. Water systems, particularly complex ones like flood mitigation and desalination, saw their mainframes partially shut down. This led to water becoming intermittently available in residences, and sometimes the water was foul or salty, or worse. Lights all over the station flashed intermittently and erratically.

“Hmm. On the whole this is not unworkable. It could have been much worse.”

Von Drachen crossed his arms and looked almost pleased with the situation.

While across the room the intelligence officers stared at him with great worry.

They were on a clock. With how much the power draw in the station was fluctuating, it was impossible to tell when they would run out of backup power and die. They had to act quickly.

The Volkisch response to the incident was in its opening stage, but the main objective was always clear. They had to return the Core Pylon to operation, and then prevent any potential further attacks on infrastructure. Von Drachen knew a few details of the situation that none of the other officers did, but he kept it close to the chest for now. Troops would be sent down into the core, as well as into peripheral dockyards to prevent potential intrusions– just a hunch of his, supposedly.

“Any response from the Governor’s office toward the incident?” He asked.

“Not yet sir. Neither the Central K.P.S.D contingent nor any statements from his office.”

“He was caught flatfooted. It could be– fortunate, for us.” Von Drachen smiled knowingly.

“Sir, there’s a laser communication coming in. It’s the Greater Imbria, through a relay.”

“Ah, lovely! Then our cavalry is on its way. Put them through, mind the bandwidth.”

On one of the screens, appeared the face of a young woman, brown haired, in a black and silver uniform. Strong-shouldered, tall, fair-skinned with a sort of earthy, rustic beauty. This woman shared Von Drachen’s rank, but unlike him, she had been an early and true believer in the Volkisch order: Heidelinde Sawyer.

“Von Drachen, we’re escorting the Mrudah to Kreuzung to hand off its flag. We’ll be there soon. The Aleksandr and the Atyrau will arrive after with the fleet. Where is Standartenführer Hadžić?”

“She is on mission. We’d be glad to have your assistance. Events are transpiring.”

Sawyer and Von Drachen were both quite aware of the events transpiring, to some degree.

As soon as the Zabaniyah arrived, the fireworks would commence in earnest.


After the blackout hit Tower Eight, the rooms emptied out into the hallways.

Lit up by the red warnings on the walls, the neighbors in a certain bobtailed Shimii’s hall exchanged worried looks and shared any information they had. One older man who worked in maintaining the tower explained that there was no maintenance today and wondered if there was a failure. A young woman tried to make sense of the warning on the wall, wondering what a “Core Separation” even meant. This was not common language among the Shimii, many of them could not place it at all. After about twenty minutes of suspense, the red letters turned to a bright blue with an animation of a doorway shutting behind a pair of silhouettes and commanded instead for all citizens to shelter in place.

This only brought up more questions from those assembled.

“They’ll tell us to shelter in place, but not what’s going on in detail?”

“Has anyone heard from the upper tiers? Are the elevators working? Is everyone okay?”

Amid the confusion, Majida al-Khaybari walked out and excused herself as she slipped past the crowd and knocked on the door of the room adjacent to her own on the left. She understood all too well what was happening, and why, and who was the perpetrator. She had resolved herself to doing something about it, but before that, she wanted to check up on her skittish little neighbor girl and her sad little tail. Ever since their last encounter, Majida had been worried that Homa had been shaken by her words.

“Hey, Homa, open up. Are you okay in there? Power’s been sketchy.”

No response.

Majida sighed to herself and put her hand on the wall next to the door.

On the other side of that wall, there was a touch surface that was a door control by default.

Thinking about it for a second, she came up with a sound theory of how to open the door.

Her own room had a panel on that wall– these rooms must have all been identical.

Majida thought of the type of panel and focused on generating force against it.

And with the ability she had been practicing–

Spatial Control.

Seconds later, the door to Homa’s room opened.

Peering inside, Majida did not find Homa as she expected. Instead, seated at the edge of the bed, was Leija Kladuša, known as ‘Madame Arabie’. Majida’s brain instantly conjured up something that was not very godly nor polite at seeing the striking brunette beauty holding her forehead on Homa’s bed, her face a bit pale, her eyes half-shut with clear exhaustion. She did have all her clothes–

“Kladuša,” Majida said, stepping through the door and closing it. “What happened?”

Leija snapped her head to the door and fixed a contemptuous glare on Majida.

“How did you get in?” She said. Not taking the time to correct the name Majida used.

“I have my ways. Listen, I don’t want to start anything. I was just looking for Homa.”

“Homa?”

Eyes drawn wide and startled, Leija suddenly stood from the bed.

She looked around the room. Her eyes settled on the cooking pot in the back.

It was the only thing in the room which wasn’t stock furniture included in every unit.

The way her eyes lingered on it, she may have realized whose room she was in.

“Where is she?” Leija asked suddenly. Her eyes were puffy– her makeup had run.

Had she been in here crying this whole time?

“I don’t know. I thought she would be here, but I found you instead.” Majida said coolly.

“What do you want with her? She– She was taking care of me. I was ill.” Leija said.

Majida could tell that wasn’t quite the whole story. But she did not press Leija further.

“Kladuša, have you been asleep this whole time? The station’s in crisis right now.”

“What are you talking about?”

In the room itself, the curfew notice was just displayed on a wall in a relatively small size.

To demonstrate the gravity of the situation, Majida opened the door back up.

Out in the hallway, the crowd, the intermittent lights, the larger curfew notices on the walls.

Leija stared in mute disbelief. She blinked her eyes hard.

“What happened to cause this? What was the prior warning?” She asked.

Majida felt insane just stating the proper facts. There was no way to sugarcoat it.

“Core Separation.”

“I’m asking seriously!” Leija said. “Majida, I’m starting to get pissed with you.”

“Get pissed all you want. It’s a Core Separation, Leija. There was even a blackout.”

“That’s impossible.”

Leija immediately sat back down on the bed, staring down at the floor.

She ran her fingers through her hair, coming to settle over her ears, bending them slightly.

“That’s impossible. How could it be? This– this can’t happen.”

“You can ask anyone in the hall. We all saw the warning.”

“This can’t be happening! There must be a false alarm, it must be a mistake!” Leija shouted.

When her agitated cries met Majida’s unchanging expression, however, her resolve started to waver. She looked down at the floor again, lips trembling, her feet shifting on the metal, hands clutched together.

“Far be it from me to tell you how to run things, but it strikes me that the Shimii here don’t so much have leadership as a bunch of community figures, so as one of them, maybe you should say something about this? Make a statement from the station control room to calm people’s spirits. Whether or not it’s real, the residents of Tower Eight are all in the dark, and you’re the boss, right?”

Majida offered that suggestion with a mind to leave the room immediately, but–

–Leija’s distraught expression caught her attention. She started to nurse new anxieties.

“Kladuša– I would be willing to help you, if it will keep our ummah safe. I can escort you.” Majida said.

No response. Leija was still staring at the floor with a hand over her forehead.

“Kladuša!”

No response.

“Something is going on. Tell me what it is. You can’t just sit there doing nothing!”

Even if she was just shellshocked from the Core Separation, she was the big tough mafia boss in charge of this place, wasn’t she? Majida had never thought of her as being this fragile and easy to shake. Most people probably didn’t understand exactly what a Core Separation meant, but for people who were in charge of communities and made decisions for stations, it was standard to know. So Leija must have understood the gravity of the situation. Majida approached and touched her shoulder.

“Wake up already! Every second we waste could be the one where a panic starts!”

“Majida, I don’t have access to the station control room!” Leija said suddenly.

“What? How? You’re the boss around here, aren’t you?” Majida asked.

“Tower Eight is administered remotely.” Leija said. “The Imbrians don’t trust us with it.”

Majida was briefly speechless.

A Core Separation was an unthinkable event. But something more mundane, like a broken power converter or distributor, would require flipping around which modules were receiving electricity, to prevent life-saving systems from having to fight with skybox simulation or empty docks or non-emergency network traffic. This was something that even the Shimii in Khaybar Mountain could do with their hacked together homebrew systems, it was standard to support living in tightly controlled environments. Majida had assumed that the Shimii in Tower Eight had control of the tower’s physical administration through a control room– but if it was all being done remotely–

“Kladuša, don’t tell me– it’s just an automatic system, isn’t it?” Majida asked.

Leija’s hands covered her eyes and she grit her teeth. Her frustration confirmed the truth.

Of course– they couldn’t even spare a single fucking Imbrian technician to actively monitor it.

Then– that meant–

In the event of a Core Separation, their backup power was not being actively optimized.

“Allah protect us all– Everyone’s going to fucking choke or flood to death in here!”

Majida bolted out of the room, leaving the despondent, helpless Leija behind her.

Out in the hall, she saw her own door open and Raaya peeking out of it.

“Majida?”

Raaya sidestepped just in time to avoid Majida charging through the door.

She knelt in front of the bed and withdrew a steel case from under it.

Inside were four pieces of Katarran power armor. Legs, and gauntlets. No battery pack, no chestplate.

Majida had the physical strength to wear them without power. She started to clap them on.

Realizing what she was doing, Raaya withdrew an additional case from the closet.

She presented Majida with a double-sided composite personal armor, and silently helped her to put on the pieces, snapping them closed over Majida’s chest and back. It was a tight fit over Majida’s breasts, as the suit was not intended for her, but she could withstand the discomfort. She did not possess a chestplate of Katarran armor, but the arms and legs pieces would help in a fight, and security armor like the type she fitted over her chest was enough to prevent a lethal wound from small arms fire.

Finally, she donned her white-gray cloak over it– a special keepsake from Raaya’s father.

“Majida.”

After helping her suit up, Raaya stood off to Majida’s side with a gentle smile.

“I have to get everyone out of here. It’s not safe.” Majida said. “That means you too.”

“I know. I wasn’t going to complain. I married a hero, and I know I did.” Raaya said.

Majida felt relieved by those words, despite the awful situation.

Her heart resounded with a million thanks to the most exalted, who brought her this woman.

“I will follow along with the folks and mind my own safety.” Raaya said.

From the case that she handed Majida her body armor, she withdrew a pistol.

Concealing it in a jacket she then wore over one of her sundresses.

“Okay.”

Majida bent down just a little to Raaya’s eye level and kissed her.

She put her forehead to the shorter woman’s, and then they touched noses affectionately.

“If you encounter any danger, call out to me with your mind. Okay?”

“Of course. But don’t be worrying about me all the time. Do what you have to do.”

“With Allah’s guidance and vigilance.” Majida gently squeezed Raaya’s shoulders.

Her heart was filled with so much for love for this woman, she nearly wept.

To think, she had put her in this danger.

But none of the Shimii in this tower would be able to escape it without Majida’s intervention.

Those Imbrian checkpoints had to be forced open.

From the same place Raaya had drawn her pistol, Majida withdrew a Union diamond blade.

“Let’s hope those Katarrans had a decent supplier.”

They had made good couriers, running to Khaybar and back. But now she needed their gear to work.

She briefly revved the chainsaw motor and found it good.

Using a magnetic strip attached to her armor, Majida stowed the weapon under her cloak, along with a pistol similar to Raaya’s. Armored, armed, and with her inner fire burning in her chest, Majida set out, giving Raaya one final authoritative glance as if to confirm her intentions.

Raaya smiled back and just as silently bid her farewell for now.

As soon as Majida stepped out of the door to her room she found Leija right in front of her.

Leija paused for a moment, staring at Majida with eyes drawn shock-wide.

Then, she clapped her hands together, shut her eyes and pleaded.

“Majida, please– please bring Homa back safe. She’s innocent of all our quarrels. Please.”

Majida could have berated Leija in so many different ways in that moment.

She didn’t even care that much about the drug smuggling or the extortionism. It was petty to her.

As for her racism– she would have her judgment for hating Mahdists in the afterlife.

No– what Majida hated about Leija was that she took everything she built for herself.

She even failed to share it with her kin Homa, and now she was all distraught and worried.

Majida had dealt with all kinds of scum. She had to, because she and her people were barred from leading ordinary lives in the Imbrium. There were gangs, mercs, extortionists, pushers, in every corner of the Empire, playing dirty to survive. Compared to Leija, some of them at least took care of their own, just like Majida tried to do. Those were the kind of low-lives that she could respect. Leija was greedy and self-centered. Her silver tongue and deadly charisma enriched only herself. But– perhaps this day could constitute a new leaf for Leija, and maybe a better life for Homa. It wasn’t for Majida to judge. Majida reserved her true hatred for killers. She couldn’t chase after every money-grubbing crook on Aer.

For all her faults, Leija had yet to commit slaughter or engage in massacre with her influence. She was not starving the people of Tower Eight and at least in terms of economics she was not discriminating against Mahdists. When put up in a line beside other warmongers, extremists and nationalists, she was a harmless bitch to someone like Majida. Despicable, a low-life, but harmless– unworthy of her flames.

And– it was difficult for Majida to hate those distraught eyes.

Eyes like those of a mother.

She reminded Majida too much of another older woman with sad, tired eyes.

So, for all the things Majida could have said and done, her only response was–

“I’ll do what I can.”

Leija nodded her head. Perhaps she understood her pathetic position as well as Majida did.

“Thank you.” She was nearly in tears again.

Majida averted her eyes.

There was so much pain and evil in the world and she could never fight all of it.

But she knew that– which is why she fought for the Shimii.

For her Shimii, for Jabal Khaybar, her kin.

But now–

She couldn’t leave Tower Eight’s Shimii behind. Not if there was something she could do for them.

And she couldn’t leave Homa either.

Homa was just like their people as a whole. Troubled, hurt, lost, and innocent.

She had suffered so much and didn’t deserve to suffer further.

“I have to do something.”

Majida made her way through the hall, past all of the Shimii that had come out of adjacent rooms. Technically it had to be one room to one person, but there were couples and mothers with children on this hall, older men and women, young workers sharing rooms in their two’s and three’s, and so a sizeable crowd was forming end to end in the hall. Despite the intention of the station’s design, this particular hall was affordable, so all of the people without good jobs or with families that had nowhere else to go were crowded into these lower tiers, packed like sardines to enrich the Imbrian landlords.

When she rounded the corner, Majida had to excuse herself dozens of times.

As she struggled past the people to the elevator.

“Hey, no cutting!” cried some of the folks as she elbowed past.

There were all kinds of eyes on her as she finally shoved her way to the elevator.

A group of younger men stood in front of it, occupied between the control panel and keeping others from usurping their place in front of the crowd. They stared jealously at Majida when she approached, trying to look tough but clearly quivering in their shoes. Her cloak was not long enough to cover her entire body and they could see the segmented plate on her lower legs, and on her arms when she moved them. Katarran body armor had a reputation– anyone with any kind of street smarts knew about it.

Universally it was the mark of a real badass. Though that was not Majida’s true intention.

Around the backs, shoulders and heads of the men congregated tell-tale colors of aether.

Dark greens and reds, verging on black at the edges. Anger, anxiety, fear of death.

Majida could read them plain as day. Their emotions practically leaked from them.

“I don’t care what you’re up to. Is the elevator working or no?” She said.

She did not need to employ her powers to get this lot to obey. Her authoritative voice was enough.

“Panel’s out.” One of the boys said. His friends looked at him brusquely for answering.

When Majida approached, they crowded around her but did not impede her way.

She stood in front of the blank touchscreen controls beside the elevator door.

Placing a hand on the unresponsive touchscreen she tried to feel the energy inside it.

Majida was much less a fool or a brute than her enemies and detractors gave her credit for; but she wasn’t too handy with electronic repairs. However, her powers and a bit of logical deduction could substitute in some cases for real engineering skill. She couldn’t control electric charges the way that she could spontaneously create fire out of nothing (at least not yet). But she was able to feel the heat and energy like a heartbeat within machines, tracing the current in her mind back through the wires that carried them to their power sources. She realized in a moment that it was not the elevator’s power which was out, but this specific panel had broken, and it was the only obvious way to interact with the elevator. She lifted her hand from the touchscreen and placed it on the elevator door itself.

“What are you doing, sis?” Asked one of the young Shimii men near her.

“Shut up.”

Her voice was infused with just a bit of otherworldly menace. Not intended; her emotions had flared.

Whenever she used one kind of psionic power, she always risked her aura spilling out.

Raw emotional energy that altered her tone, altered her presence.

She could feel his own aura quiver at her response, and he was instantly cowed to silence.

Tracing the power from the door itself, she walked a few paces to an adjacent wall.

With a flick of her wrist, a tile of OLED material fell out of the wall as she pulled on it.

Revealing behind it a manual control for the elevator. Levers and buttons.

“Someone will have to operate this!” Majida said. She pulled a lever and the door opened.

She looked at the young men in front of her and singled one out.

“You. Operate the elevator. We’re letting the women and children up first.”

“Up? Up– where?”

Did he not think things through any further than ‘I want to be on the elevator first’?

Majida turned to face the crowded hall behind her and called out instructions.

“We’ve got a working elevator! Everyone stay organized and wait for your turn. I promise I’ll make sure everyone can get up and out of here. It’s not safe here and we need to get everyone into the Kreuzung Core station. Forget the curfew notice on the walls! The Imbrians don’t care what happens to you! We need to get out of here! So line up, let the women and children first!”

Everyone stared at her. There were incredulous looks everywhere.

No one moved. An entire crowd of resentful staring people that she had just elbowed past.

She was so used to Khaybar, where everyone listened to her when she spoke.

Awkward silence and frightened gazes. Of course, nobody knew her or trusted her. Maybe they knew of Majida al-Khaybari, distantly. But not this silver-haired woman with the strange ear that was yelling in the hall while everyone was scared and worried and being told to stay indoors. None of them knew the potential danger they were in. It was all flashing lights and hushed voices in the halls.

Perhaps she could influence them, but Majida hadn’t really mastered how to do so with any amount of tact. She knew how to instill fear or draw out anger via her psionic powers; but she did not want to act like she was press ganging a bunch of kittens and moms! She would have to try to appeal to them on rationality alone. She would have to tell them what was happening so they understood.

She would have to pray to the Almighty and All-merciful that they wouldn’t panic.

“I need everyone’s attention! There’s something you need to–”

“Listen to her and get moving! What are you waiting for? I have somewhere to be!”

From the very back of the crowd a voice carried through the halls.

In an instant, the crowd parted to allow through Leija Kladuša– Madame Arabie.

Her makeup was done again, and her hair was brushed and orderly.

Following closely behind her was Raaya– Majida could not thank her enough.

“Form a line! Women and children first!” Arabie said. “Forget the curfew!”

Raaya stood beside the elevator with a hand on the operating lever.

She winked at Majida. Majida smiled with all of her heart. That woman was God-sent!

Acquiescing to Madame Arabie’s repeat of Majida’s demands, the crowd in the hall began organizing themselves, letting women with children walk forward. As they held their kittens close they waved gently at Majida, several expressions of gratitude, and a mild mixture of confusion. Many were veiled with hijab except for the front of their faces. Majida always felt a bit inadequate in the face of very pious mothers who observed all the traditions, when she was such a hellion who barely knew Fusha and was so far behind on studying the teachings and prayers– so she averted her gaze awkwardly.

“You look so handsome when you’ve got that flustered teenager look on your face.” Raaya said, teasing Majida. “I’ll handle the elevator. You’re the first one up, aren’t you? Get on board.”

“I’m taking a different route. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Raaya.”

Majida bid farewell once more and glanced at another panel, lower on the wall.

It had a passage, which she had to crawl on all fours to get through. A maintenance tunnel.

She pulled on it, standing in front of it so no one could see it just fall off by itself.

Then she crawled inside. Through a dark vent, as tight as the shower in her room.

For light, she produced a tiny, flickering flame that danced between her fingers.

This much exertion of her power was nothing to her. The fire didn’t even need oxygen.

It burned only off her fiery, passionate aura.

On the other side, when she could finally stand, she found herself surrounded by switches, junction boxes, pipes, and meters, packed over every wall with only a 2 by 1 meter space for a human being to occupy and work in. She waved her hand slowly in front of herself so that the flame could illuminate each wall in turn. In front of her, she found what she really desired. A tight stairwell, made up of individual rungs that attached to the wall, cables routed around and through each. It was the way up.

Raising her hand and the little fire dancing between her fingers so she could see overhead.

Impossible to tell how far up it went. Her destination was several hundred meters up.

“I might be able to do it. It’ll take me forever to climb. I just need it to go all the way up.”

If there were no obstructions, then perhaps–

“With Spatial Control, could I haul myself up there?”

She had never moved anything as heavy as herself, much less moved it that far away.

There was no time to hesitate further. There would be worse difficulties ahead.

Majida put a hand over her chest and shut her eyes, concentrating deeply. Even just thinking about using Spatial Control sent a discomfort like the cold touch of a razor over her brain. It was difficult, taxing.

Shimii knew psionics as Sihr, a forbidden art attributed to illusionists leading their kin astray. But the esoterics of the Mahdist faith were interested in its characteristics and thereby more tolerant of it as an observable phenomenon of the world. Majida herself knew factually that Sihr was characterized extremely differently by the Old Engineers, by people like her mentor Norn. Because it had helped her protect her people, because it was part of her legacy– because of who her “father” was. Despite the prohibitions and taboos, despite her own pretense at Piety, Majida relied on Sihr and would need it. She knew that Sihr, as psionics, was a power of the mind that affected the world through Aether like food cooked in oil.

Aether reacted to emotion, and to the state of mind of the observer and the observed world. Aether passed on this reaction into the physical world, making the effects observable, real. Material consequence happened in Aether’s wake.  Majida concentrated herself on the task ahead, on the feat she intended to perform. Trying to pull herself from the material and make herself weightless, movable, seeking oxygen as flame did to ignite the way forward. In such a state of mind, prayer came to her. Not just because she associated concentration and power of the mind with the ascetic preaching of the Mahdists themselves–

–but because she wanted to associate the hated Sihr with God’s mercy for her personally.

“Allah is all that I require, excellent is his protection.” She murmured. “Greatest blessings unto your Prophet who is most worthy. Now that my affairs are difficult, Open the ways I could not see. Open the ways out of my difficulties that I could never imagine, most merciful of the merciful.”

Of all the many sayings, quotations, prayers, declarations, of the Shimii scripture, this one always stuck with Majida the most. Even her wayward mind could not escape rapturous attention at these words when the Mawla or Raaya recited them in the past. “Open the ways I could never imagine.” Allah was the opener of ways, the source of truths, and Majida wanted to believe that she was not born an evil witch, progeny of a tyrant with cursed powers, that had to be scorned, locked up in shadows–

–but someone who could enter a new form of supplication,

and see a new form of God’s majesty, a new opening of His ways.

Spatial Control!

Majida al-Khaybari was the Apostle of Fire.

And the Apostle of Fire could control not only things burning and violent, but the distances between persons and objects, like combustion sucking in oxygen or a detonation pushing out the world with its shockwave. Igniting the path between herself and her destination with the invisible flame of her desire, claiming the air like wildfire, Majida vanished out of the bottom of the steps in the maintenance tunnel to reappear at the landing at the very top of those steps, in a single and sudden instant.

“Alhamdulillah–”

She bent forward at the top of the steps, involuntarily dry heaving onto the metal floor.

Choking out blessed words while clutching her head, which felt like it had split open.

Her skull wracked with spasms of pain so powerful they felt like clubs striking her.

Teeth grit, fists clutched, forcing herself to a shaking stand. Eyes tearing up, nose bloody.

Step by tenuous step, each centimeter struggled for against the agony of her body.

Murmuring to herself whenever her lungs filled–

Give me guile against him who schemes against me,

 power over him who oppresses me,

 refutation of him who reviles me,

 And safety from him who threatens me.

Reciting prayer as she inched her way to the door she could see ahead.

Out of the dark maintenance tunnel, and, practically throwing herself through the threshold.

She appeared under the glass and steel roof of the top of Tower Eight.

Beneath the overwhelming darkness of the Imbrium ocean. Framed beneath the girders and the infinite sky of crushing saltwater. In her hands and in her heart, a pyre’s light burned brightly. Whether or not people hated her, she knew– God loved her. She believed it with all of her heart, that she was put on Aer with this ability to fight for her people. And she was growing ever stronger even now.

Her pain fading, she took stock in her surroundings. She had come out near one of the elevator banks. There was a gathering of people, maybe a few dozen, who had made it up the tower to the gates. Nobody she recognized from the hall below. The elevator Raaya took command of must’ve still been making its way up or down. Majida did not know from which elevator bank it’d come.

In front of the assembled Shimii, barring the way to the tram tracks into Kreuzung Core, stood the guards, five of them. Shut behind their gate and in their booth and waving their guns in front of themselves whenever anyone tried to come close to the chain link fence. Their eyes were wild with panic and anger, they were sweaty and clearly losing their wits. As Majida entered the crowd as surreptitiously as she could, an older woman walked forward to the gate, her tail curled in fear, her hands raised.

“I just want to talk sir.” She said, voice trembling. “We don’t understand–”

In front of her the guard raised his assault rifle to his shoulder.

“Stand back! What part of shelter in place don’t you understand, you fucking animals?”

“Sir– please, I apologize, but you have to understand how confusing this all is–”

“The only thing to understand is all of you fucking go back to your homes or I’ll shoot!”

“We just want some clarification! What is happening? Is it true that the reactor core–?”

Overwhelmingly loud, the rifle’s report rang through the crowd.

Everyone stepped back, gasped, cried, leaving the woman who had stepped forward.

Beside her, the round had struck the floor and dented the fake clay tile set over the metal.

Spared bodily harm, but with all of the guards sighting her, the woman dared not move.

Majida’s fist opened and closed at her side. Her toes curled in her metal boots.

Nobody in this crowd posed a threat to these men.

These were old folks, women with kids, young men. There were no soldiers here.

Except her.

She realized, however–

–that there was a woman at her side, with a baby. Could Majida splatter these men here?

No– not in front of innocent eyes.

“It’s your lucky day, Imbrian scum.”

Spatial Control.

It transpired in the blink of an eye.

Give me power over him who oppresses me.

Spatial Control was a form of psionics, and Majida had discovered it could be resisted by a strong will.

However, there was no hope for the weak minds of these panic-stricken, ignorant Imbrians.

In an instant, the men inside the booth had their bodies moved into each other.

Inside the booth, the man who could not move where Spatial Control forced him to, instead crashed suddenly into the glass and fell back onto his chair, his gun thrown wildly from his grasp and rattling against the walls before coming to land upon him. Outside the booth, the three men with guns and their officer collided with each other, pushed back as if hurled bodily off their feet, while their guns were pulled the opposite direction, coming to lay discarded on the ground. Two men struck each other perfectly in the foreheads and fell concussed, the man who had been threatening the most tripped over his feet and knocked the officer in charge down with him. In the tangle, Majida charged the fence.

Running out of the crowd and in front of them, she seized the gate, and with all her strength, tore it from its automatic hinges on the opposing wall of the tram bridge, knocking it down over the guards. The crowd stood speechless as the way forward was completely torn open for them in a surreal instant.

“Don’t question God’s blessings! We need to flee here! Come on!”

Majida called to the crowd. Tentatively, the older people and the children walked forward.

Meanwhile, a group of young men and women rushed out and reached for the guard’s guns and pulled them out from under the fallen gate, coming into possession of them. “Good instincts!” Majida praised, and she helped them and the crowd to fully subdue the guards, pulling them from under the gate, stripping them of their IDs and keys and weapons, and cuffing them all together, crammed inside the booth with the door locked where they would not disturb anyone further. More people began to arrive via the elevators, and with Majida’s direction, lined up respectfully on the platform.

“Ma’am, how will we get into Kreuzung?” asked some of the younger people.

Majida put her hand on the security booth, and on the tram platform, concentrating.

She discovered a current running between them, running out onto the track.

Over to a hidden spot off to the side of the bulkhead leading into the bridge.

There was always some kind of hidden emergency panel that had a higher level access.

These trams were “overseen” by people, but they were “operated” mechanically. If the computer told the tram to disobey the tram car personnel then the computer would always win, because the computer was assumed to be under the command of the boss. And she just happened to have an officer’s ID card that could send override commands in times like these. None of that was a problem now.

“I’ll take care of it! All of you just relax and line up. Women, children, and old folks first.”

From within the crowd around Majida, the woman who had been standing in front of the guards stepped forward suddenly. She was shaken, and there were tears in her eyes, streaming down the light wrinkles on her face. She offered her hands for Majida to hold, and Majida accepted and held them softly.

“Child– what is your name? I will pray for you every day.” The older woman said.   

After some thought, Majida smiled gently. “Madiha. Madiha al-Nakar.” She said.


“Damn it! Damn it!”

Homa Baumann smashed her fist into the unresponsive elevator’s touchscreen panel.

Water had risen to her knees in the dim slowly flooding Old Iron module now lit only by the red flashing warnings for the Core Separation. She accomplished nothing but hurting her hand. The closed doors in front of her were still shut. Without the panel it was impossible to tell whether there was any movement in the elevator because the panel was the only way to see the elevator’s position.

She put her head up to the double doors, banging her fist again and again.

Think, think.

This time it was her own mind speaking– not the other voice.

“Don’t think about stupid shit now. Come on. Focus.”

There had to be a different way to reach the higher levels. Homa had crawled all over B.S.W.’s module and there were maintenance tunnels, physical ladders between different levels. There had to ways to access the station’s guts so if a junction box or switchboard or a control computer or some other artery of the station’s exceedingly complex organs failed, a person could physically reach in and fix it. She had to look around for a way into the station interstice– the space between modules and even between blocks, inaccessible to the public but absolutely necessary to keep the station running smoothly.

But Old Iron was flooded and dark, and Homa did not have proper tools on her.

From the pocket of her jumpsuit she withdrew the vibrodagger she took off Imani.

On one side of the blade she flicked a little safety lever, and on the other, a switch.

Homa saw a tiny, dim indigo glow, heard the humming of the blade, and felt the vibrations from the oscillator spreading through the flesh of her palm and stirring the bones and sinews in her hands. Like her Volker’s vibromachete, this weapon, once engaged, possessed cutting power beyond what should have been possible for its size. It could not cut through this wall whatsoever, it was just too small and Homa was just too weak for such a monumental task. But perhaps she could cut into a vent, or pry open a panel.

If she could find a place to gain access– without electrocuting herself.

“There’s no other way. I have to get out of here.”

She had to stop Kitty McRoosevelt. She didn’t know how, but she needed to.

For the events of this day, Homa could only forgive herself if she did everything she could to stop it.

Whether to stop Kitty, to subdue her, to– to kill her– she had to do something.

(Kill Kitty? Can I possibly– would I actually– but man, taking a person’s life is no joke–)

Her own doubts reverberated across the space of her mind, but she had to silence them.

Because she felt complicit in this tragedy. She couldn’t just let it happen!

“I don’t have to kill her. I just– I’ll just make her stop! She has to be able to stop this.”

Homa started to look around the elevator. Feeling with her free hands the lines between the panels, following them lower on the wall, under the water, to see if she touched anything different. From her experience at B.S.W., panels that could come off had a slightly wider seam around the edges where they caught the wall, whereas the seams on solid panels were uniform throughout.

She knelt down in the water and begrudgingly put her head to it.

Holding her breath so water wouldn’t get into her nose, crawling along the floor.

It was just barely possible to make out the geometry of the wall with the red warning lights.

Come on, come on

That Way.

Homa raised her head.

She thought she heard a voice–

and saw a glint

a curling stream of color like the vapor off a pipe

shimmering in the dark like a sparkling dust

leading her

to the wall

“What– it’s–”

Homa pressed her hands along the wall where she had seen the colors.

She felt the seam, her fingers able to fit between the panels.

Scrambling to her knees, she put her vibroknife between the seam and pushed. It did not take much for the panel to separate, bubbles rising out as the water flooding slowly into Old Iron pushed its way down the maintenance tunnel entrance with more vigor than before. It did almost nothing to the level of the water, of course, but the vent became flooded. Homa looked down at the gap in front of her feet.

To make it to the other side, she would have to crawl on her belly through the flooded tunnel.

How far in would she have to go to breathe again? Could she tell? Could she even see?

In the adrenaline of the moment she forgot about the voice and colors–

“Damn it, there’s no time!”

First making sure any sensitive gear in her jumpsuit was in one of her handy waterproof sealable pockets, Homa hold her breath, crawled on all fours and started to drag herself through the tunnel. Elbow to elbow, pushing herself as much as she could with her knees, mouth shut, head starting to pound.

Her chest quickly began to hurt. Had her breasts been any larger she wouldn’t have fit.

Only the glowing oscillator of the vibrodagger in her hand provided dim illumination.

Ahead of her she only saw pitch dark, around her only four metal walls.

She was packed in, a bobtailed sardine in saltwater.

Crawling forward with growing desperation, every second closer from having a held breath to drowning, to dying. Her eyes clouded from the harsh seawater that had flooded in and in which she was suspended. How long could she hold her breath? How long had she been holding it? She felt her panic building across her entire cold, soaked body, shivering with every second of struggle.

Elbows forward, pull, elbows forward–

Nothing ahead but implacable darkness–

Feeling acutely the barriers in which her body was trapped–

Unable to stretch her arms out any farther wide, unable to spread her legs–

Impossible to stand–

Her vision swam, she could hardly hold her mouth closed through the pain in her head.

Everything was turning even darker than it had been, even her vibrodagger darkening.

Was she going to die here?

Lost forever in this horrible place where no one would find her?

She struggled with the last of her strength, all of her breath long since spent, desperate–

And suddenly found herself in open, rushing water–

Scrambling blindly, kicking her legs and clawing the water, every sinew in her body feeling like it would burst, her chest feeling like it would cave inward. Heedless of the surroundings, swept in an animalistic mania of pure survival instincts, flailing any kind of movement that would propel her further up. Breaching a surface, sucking in air desperately as soon as there was any breath to claim. Water was slowly rising, and she had to fight to stay up. Painful breaths wracked lungs feeling as if calcified by disuse, feeding into a brain and skin that was at once cold and burning. Had she any spare strength she would have screamed.

“What the fuck? Hey– who is down there? What the fuck are you doing?”

A flashlight shone over Homa’s eyes, briefly blinding her as she struggled for breath.

She was in a much larger space than before, with water much deeper, walls wider and taller.

On a platform outstretched from the wall, a dozen meters up and away from her, there was a man in a wetsuit and protective goggles, lit up by an OLED panel. Beside him there was a toolkit, Homa had seen the kind before, it had wire-testing prods and micro-soldering irons, it was equipment for fixing electronics. He was situated in front of an open section of the wall, in front of shadowy impressions of thick cabling and exposed electrical and computer equipment. He sounded irate.

“It’s flooding here! You’re not supposed to be here. You need to get the fuck out, Shimii.”

Homa shut her eyes hard, still gasping for breath.

Why was every Imbrian so belligerent? She couldn’t believe her rotten luck.

“Hey, are you listening? I’m not kidding, it’s dangerous, and we’re on alert, and there’s sensitive shit here! What the hell is your problem? I’ll call the K.P.S.D and tell them you’re rooting around here, you’ll never leave Tower Eight again!” That man shouted at a higher intensity with every word he said. “Are you fucking deaf? Get out of here or I’ll get you out! Can you understand Imbrian? Shimii?”

Homa tried making any kind of gesture with her head, shaking it, nodding, anything.

She started to paddle away, trying to make it to a platform or a foothold.

In one of her pockets Imani’s gun felt suddenly heavier than ever, more pronounced.

But Homa didn’t want anything to escalate to violence! She just wanted to get out of here!

“Alright, I’ve fucking had it. I’m not taking any chances you bitch.”

On the platform the man withdrew and pointed something at her.

It was bright orange with a yellow barrel, maybe a stun gun or a tranquilizer?

She hoped it wasn’t a lethal weapon. She backed up against the wall, trying to speak.

All that came out was a choked mumbling, “Please– I’m lost– I’m sorry–”

“Now you understand Imbrian huh?” mocked the man, his voice sounding desperate.

He took aim at her– he was really going to shoot– Homa froze in a moment of panic–

All that issued from the man was a wet squelching noise.

Stock still on his platform, his fingers shook and went limp and dropped his gun.

His torch rolled into the water, sent flying by a spasm of his legs as he went down to his knees. As the light spun around the room Homa briefly saw a shadow of something cast upon the wall, something long and substantial that she could not otherwise see. As the man began to audibly gag and gurgle and bleed Homa had the wherewithal to rush to the torch fallen into the rising pool and take it and point it at the platform. Where she saw again the shadow, the shadow of something great and horrific.

Not only the great long gelatinous thing trailing all kinds of spikes,

but its massive body that

stretched through the water blue and orange and red like a calcic jelly spinal cord

vague dim siphonophoric thing with jets and bulbs and prongs spiraling

through the water like a sigil of muscles and meat

leviathan–

Tristitia hates the noisy hominin. Tristitia wants the noisy hominin to quiet.

In the next instant the spines which had punctured the man’s back pierced through him.

Homa was spared the gorey detail by the darkness of the room.

But she heard his blood, and maybe more, spill into the water below him.

She was frozen in place, clutching the torch and slowly and impotently paddling back.

Leviathan– how did a Leviathan get into the station interstice?!

Had it navigated the flooded Old Iron somehow?

Was the Core Separation causing so many problems that the station was breached?

Her heart pounded, her lungs couldn’t breath fast enough.

She did not feel cold because her flesh felt dissociated from her mind and presence.

It had come from the direction opposite Homa. It was massive, amorphous.

Homa had learned about siphonophores in school, and it was the closest thing she could compare it to without an imaging computer to tell her the class associated with this monster. One enormous string-like cord the thickness of a human torso but with seemingly all the strength and muscle of some beastly tail or backbone, capable of lifting a man off his feet. Hundreds of bulbous objects connected to this central nerve, dimly bioluminescent, some appeared like biojets, many others like dagger-like vibrating spines, others like pulsating organs, and near the section that had skewered the man there were some that looked like wings, and Homa got a sense there was even more underwater. She imagined the beast was many many times the size she could see, coiled casually throughout the depths of this place.

Killing that man had been like a giant flicking its finger nonchalantly at a fly.

There was no thought of even trying to shoot it.

This would have been a terrifying opponent for a Diver or a ship.

For Homa, it was a thing out of nightmares that she had no hope of harming.

She backed slowly away from it, looking around the room for a potential exit.

Behind her, she saw rungs, rungs of a ladder that could take her up.

If she could climb out of the water, could this thing even follow under its own power?

Its body did not look like it could go very far out of the water.

Ragged breathing, her veins vibrating beneath her skin, Homa slowly, slowly backed up.

Cat-Hominin, Tristitia sees you. Cat-Hominin, are you a heretic?

Homa thought she heard something in her mind, clearly she was losing her grip–

Then she felt a shiver down her spine that told her instantly to stop moving.

Around her legs she felt the water stir like something enormous had rushed past her.

Curling around behind her back, around her side, and finally emerging in front of her.

Hundreds of sheets of veiny dimly glowing red and blue velvety flesh suspended close.

Like a flower of fleshy angel’s wings, fluttering into themselves before her eyes.

Crowned by a floating circle of blood or gore that somehow hovered in place.

And attached to that same strand-like body that stretched infinitely into the water below.

Homa wanted to see the thing before her as a face or a head, but it was faceless, headless.

She only saw herself reflected in the multitude of opaque surfaces.

Hanging, dripping, the flesh undulating as if it was performing some kind of action.

Homa’s mind wanted to process it as “sniffing” her, as a show of “curiosity” or even, perhaps, speech.

But she knew it was insane to think so.

Cat-Hominin, what is a heretic?–

Her mind and most of her body paralyzed with fear–

Homa’s hands crawled over her chest and grabbed hold of her necklace.

It felt like it had retained some of its warmth, a tiny star clutched against her breast.

Oh! Cat-Hominin is loved.

In the middle of the mass of wing-like folds, there was something directly beneath the halo.

Briefly, the wings spread enough for Homa to see it, or to think she had seen it.

Something that couldn’t be– Like a central, fleshy pearl containing–

An inquisitive face as if belonging to a girl, dark-haired, green eyed, floating inside–

Cat-Hominin is loved. Tristitia will respect this– but only this once.

Next time, you’ll despair, Cat-Hominin.

Its horrific sliding and flapping noises– Homa’s head was trying to turn it into words.

That had to be it– there was no other sane explanation–

Suddenly, the siphonophore leviathan reversed the curling of its cord from around Homa.

That winged meat thing it had shown her shut like a flower turning back into a bud.

Slithering back into the water from the direction it had come.

Homa did not miss the opportunity. She turned tail and rushed for the rungs of the ladder.

Climbing like her life depended on it, taking each rung like her hands had clawed at the water when she was drowning, moving so fast that she barely took in breaths between hand-holds. Weeping, her lips quivering, her whole body shaking, until she felt like she had climbed a hundred meters and stopped, putting her head up against the next rung on the ladder and sobbing and screaming.

For a moment, everything felt hopeless.

All of the weight of the physical pain and terror she had felt that day.

Kitty’s wounds on her– hunger and exhaustion– leaving Imani behind–

How? How could she climb even one more step on this ladder?

And how many more steps would she have to climb after that?

You Are Courageous.

She heard the little gentle voice in her head again.

That voice which she began to associate with the warmth in her chest.

With the necklace that had become her good luck charm.

“Thank you.”

Homa whimpered. She was going insane. She really was going insane.

But–

Everything she was doing was insane.

Everything that was happening was insane.

Nothing could be the same again after this, no matter what happened.

Not Homa herself, not Kreuzung, and maybe, not even the Shimii of Tower Eight.

“I have to stop Kitty.” Homa told herself. “I can’t let more people die senselessly.”

That Leviathan was not just going to kill irate Imbrian guards accosting her.

And that Leviathan was not going to be the end of the horrors unleashed this day.

Homa had to fight, she had to stop this whole nightmare from growing worse.

That determination was the only thing keeping her holding on to that ladder.

Keeping her from the infinite abyss of water below. As insane as that thought was.

She reached a shaking hand up to the next handhold. She still could not see the top.

But she climbed with all of her might regardless. She could not let herself stop.

Step by step, as long as it took, giving everything she had left.


Two trams to Tower Eight had been reported “hijacked” and “commandeered” by the tower’s Shimii in a brazen show of civil disobedience of the Kreuzung curfew. Responsibility for capturing the ringleaders and breaking up the hijackings fell onto a small squadron of K.P.S.D, the Kreuzung Public Security Department. Six men with assault rifles waited with bated breath on the platform. They had no way to stop the trams, physically, so they were waiting to threaten whoever stepped out.

The Volkisch troops had an acrimonious relationship to the K.P.S.D, who were still largely under the command of the liberal government of Kreuzung. The Volkisch would not assist them closely.

They had more important places to protect, such as the manses and wealthier districts.

The bulkhead began to rise into the Kreuzung Core’s end of the Shimii tower’s tram bridge. As the headlights of the tram shone into the gloomy tunnel, the men stationed there nearly jumped. They raised their assault rifles and began scanning the windows of the incoming trams desperately. They stood, for a few minutes, looking through the irons of their rifles, until the doors opened.

They remained standing for only a few seconds after that.

Spatial Control.

Majida appeared between the men and swung her diamond blade like a studded club.

Had she engaged the motor there would have been blood and skin flying and gore spilling.

But there were too many decent people watching– and it was not necessary.

With Majida’s God-given strength, she beat each man to the ground in a flurry of attacks.

Swinging at knees, shoulders, flanks and arms under the intermittent lights of the platform.

There was no retaliation. Every blow broke a bone on the unarmored, flatfooted men.

In moments, they were crawling on the floor, and Majida had secured their weapons.

From the tram, the group of young men and women who had been following behind her tied up the guards inside the booth and locked them there, as they had done before. They were all armed with rifles taken from the guards, but Majida ordered them to drop the things in the booth and lock them in with the handcuffed and gagged guards before entering Kreuzung. Instead, she ordered them to grab the men’s stun batons, and a riot shield that was locked up in the booth in an emergency gear kit.

“None of you know how to shoot, and if someone sees you with the guns it’ll be mayhem.”

Majida’s judgment was quickly supported by the older women following behind.

“I’ll need some of you to stay here and let everyone know what’s going on!”

Each tram could pack only pack in so many people out of a population of thousands– their impromptu evacuation would take a lot of trips. Majida could not guarantee everyone would be able to leave, but she wanted as many as possible to be able to escape. They would need to go somewhere– not the Pavilion shopping center, though they might have to. There was an enormous park that could be accessed from it. Majida ran from the tram station to try to reconnoiter that park.

When she entered the Pavilion she thought she would see more Imbrians and guards around. The top floor of the Pavilion had been vacated quickly. While it was level to the highest point of Tower Eight, it was below the midsection of Kreuzung Core and there were habitats right above it. She could still see small crowds of people in the tiers below, perhaps trying to get to the lower habitats. There were a few broken storefront windows and some people rummaging, and there were lost and bewildered people in their ones and twos throughout, and a few distracted guards here and there, but in terms of the chaos Majida had thought she might see, it was downright peaceful at the top of the Pavilion.

“Hey! Shimii, the fuck are you doing here? There’s a shelter in place–”

Spatial Control.

Majida cleared the hole in the middle of the pavilion through which the spiraling staircase descended connecting the floors. She battered a K.P.S.D guard on the other side through a storefront window with her reappearance. An Imbrian woman who saw it took off running the opposite direction. Majida looked around. It’d be so convenient if she could set these bastards on fire– having to restrain herself meant abusing abilities she was far less practiced in. Her troubled breathing betrayed weariness.

“Damn it, if this tires me out–”

While catching her breath, she let herself trail off.

There were far too many things she needed to do that required even more power.

From the Pavilion’s top tier, Majida made her way through the northeastern exit, a glass and gold filigreed archway. There was a long and wide hall beyond it with a few more closed businesses that led to a broad and high fountain plaza breaking up the mall’s hallways. This was the place Majida remembered from wandering around Kreuzung the past week. A couple thousand folks could loiter in the park and its adjacent halls comfortably. There were no Imbrians around, not even the guards or any public workers. It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but there were a few places for the older folk to sit, and at least it was safer than staying in the tower. Majida doubled back toward the tram station–

“Madiha! Madiha al-Nakar, is that you? Madiha, please–”

Majida looked over her shoulder, recognizing that deep, girlish voice even in whimpers.

She turned around to find Homa Baumann running from the other end of the park.

Her work jumpsuit was completely drenched and dribbling a little trail of water. It was like she had fallen into the ocean, she had salt in her hair, her skin was clammy, her body was shaking. Majida stood speechless as the girl stopped in front of her and doubled over, a vibrodagger in one hand and an electric torch in the other, gasping for breath, feet trembling as if hardly able to bear her weight. She couldn’t imagine where this girl had been or what her body had been put through.

“Madiha– Madiha, please–”

“Calm down. I’m here. What happened to you?”

Majida briefly knelt down, until Homa forced herself back to a stand again.

She wiped her sleeve over her face, leaving behind a bit of salt on forehead and eyelids.

Her eyes were blaring red.

She was crying; and she was must have been crying a storm before.

Or she had been swimming with her eyes open and without protection.

“Were you in the station interstice?” Majida asked, putting the pieces together.

“Madiha–”

Homa stopped and caught enough of a breath to speak a full sentence.

“Madiha, I have to stop it. The Core Separation. I know who did it!” Homa whimpered.

“Kid that’s a really hard sell right now, you realize.” Majida said.

The girl grit her teeth and closed her fists and stomped the ground.

“G.I.A. agent! Kitty McRoosevelt! B.S.W. dock! She did it– Katarrans– she did it–”

Homa devolved into shouting names, but what blew Majida away was that she was correct.

In that moment Homa Baumann truly did know exactly who was responsible for their crisis.

She knew where they were and what they had done– and she was trying to stop them?

How had she gotten mixed up in this? But she knew the truth, there was no denying it.

Knowing the truth wasn’t enough, however. This crisis had a scale far beyond Homa.

It was insane to think that she could do anything to change the course of these events.

Majida grabbed hold of her shoulders. “Homa, I believe you, but you can’t stop this.”

“I have to!” Homa shouted at the top of the lungs. “I have to stop it! I have to go–”

“You’re going to get yourself killed! You need to stay put here! I’m bringing Kladuša!”

“Kladuša? You mean– Leija–”

For a moment, Homa’s eyes drew wide, and her expression grew paler and more distant.

“Is– Is Leija okay?” Homa asked.

“Yes. She’s taking charge of evacuating tower eight. It’s not safe there.” Majida said.

“It is safer than here, Khaybari. You cannot bring them here.”

Majida and Homa turned in the direction of the third voice.

Deep, breathy, spoken through the audio outputs of a fully sealed power armor helmet. Standing suddenly in the middle of the park was an enormous figure in a cloak and black power armor, an entire suit. His armor shimmered wherever a LED from the roof shone on the plates, in a dazzling pattern.

His helmet was shaped to include covers for his ears, as well as the vaguest representation of a real cat’s snout, housing his rebreather and audio output, a face like no Shimii on Aer actually had, for they were all fundamentally human in nature. His tail moved freely behind him, with flexible plates over the top, but below the armor, she caught a glimpse of tattered and scarred flesh with patches of grayed fur. He was taller than the two of them, well over two meters, and with his powered armor, he was much broader.

There he stood, implacable, making no movements, like a statue peering at them.

A living legend to the Shimii, a man who had risen out of the short-lived “Age of Heroes.”

“Ra–”

Homa’s voice was barely audible. She choked, sobbed. Her arms shook.

She peeled herself from Majida and turned and took bewildered steps forward and back.

“Radu– Why– You’re–”

Majida grit her teeth and said his name and title like a curse.

“Radu the Marzban.”

“Majida al-Khaybari. Stay away from the girl.”

His voice sent a shiver through her, not because of any power it then contained, but–

He had said her real name aloud so nonchalantly.

And it caused Homa to look over her shoulder, flashing a look of fear.

“Majida– Majida al-Khaybari–? Radu– you said–?”

Homa nearly fell from the anxiety of that moment. Majida’s felt a bitter swell in her heart.

It was like she didn’t know whether to step back and away from Majida or from Radu.

Like she was caught between two monsters and her brain could barely process it.

Majida hated it. She hated that the girl who wanted to rely on her was now terrified of her.

Homa Baumann had been lied to so much. And now Majida had lied to her too.

“Kid, I’m really sorry! But I’m not here to hurt you, or the tower’s Shimii!” Majida said.

“Your reckless actions and incitements have already brought them harm.” Radu interjected.

Majida closed her fists. She wouldn’t take that lying down– not from this bastard!

“That’s quite rich to hear from some gallivanting bandit who hasn’t done shit for them!”

“You broke the agreement which guaranteed their safety. You crossed a line.” Radu said.

“An agreement for them to be trapped in a ghetto without even the control room keys?”

Radu stood unfazed by her shouting. “An agreement to prevent further bloodshed.”

“You fucking traitor!” Majida shouted. “Do you really think you’ve prevented anything? If you approve of this ghetto then all you’ve done is agree to killing these people slowly rather than quickly! At least in a fight they would have agency over themselves! You’ve got them confined to a prison!”

“They are not ready to fight, so defying the Imbrians is nothing but choosing their death.”

Radu stood implacable, unmoving.

Majida clenched her fist so tightly it began to heat up, to flicker with stray fires–

Homa walked a few steps in Radu’s direction and interrupted the shouting match.

“Nobody has to die!” Homa shouted. “Radu, you’re here to stop this. That’s why you came here right? You knew there was going to be a crisis coming. So you met with Leija and that’s why she chose me to work for Imani. You know about Kitty, don’t you? You’re going to stop her. You’re going to stop her and stop all of this, and then nobody will get hurt. Please tell me I’m not wrong about this, Radu.”

Judging by her broken tone of voice, Homa’s rambling was willful self-delusion.

Homa have already suspected what Majida knew the moment she saw that armored freak.

“Homa, you need to rejoin our people and return to Tower Eight now.” Radu said.

That bastard Radu wouldn’t do anything! He was just here to corral the Shimii back to the ghetto!

“Radu,”

Homa’s shock-wide eyes streamed more and more tears down her cheeks.

Her lips trembled. She had a wild expression on her face.

“Radu, you’re a hero right? You– You have to be here to save everyone– Please–”

Radu the Marzban stepped forward, his heavy armored boots thudding loudly on the floor.

“Our people will be safer by standing aside and letting the Imbrians solve their own problems.”

Homa’s shoulders slouched, her arms slowly losing their strength. She looked faint.

Majida could see her aura spiraling. She was experiencing heartbreak, disillusionment.

“She believed in you; all of them did. And people call me an illusionist, you vile fraud.”

“Majida– Please don’t insult him.” Homa said. Her trembling words pleading her.

She called her by name, but she did not say it like a slur. Majida was taken aback. “Kid–”

“Please. Majida– just let me talk to him. So, then, Radu– do you care about me at all?”

Homa turned from Majida back to Radu. It was impossible to tell the man’s response.

In that occluding shell of metal, there was only his voice. No gestures, no expressions.

“I swore I would protect you. You and Leija Kladuša. I want you to be safe.” He said.

“Radu, if you want to protect me and you want me to be safe then please listen,”

Majida could see a strip of black color forming along the edge of Homa’s aura.

“Radu, I’m an Imbrian too.” Homa said. “I’m not just a Shimii. I’m also Imbrian.”

Those words came out with such an audible pain. Like spitting out a rotting, hanging tooth.

That pathetic little voice made Majida want to tear up with sympathy. That poor girl was in tatters.

Homa gathered her breath again. She spoke, with a few pauses, a few more breaths.

But more eloquently than Majida had ever heard her. She had been thinking this over.

“This isn’t a problem for the Shimii alone. People all over this station could die. People are dying as we speak. Whether from violence or neglect or accidents, people are dying, Radu. And I could’ve done something to stop it. But I made all the wrong choices. Everything is really, really hard for me Radu. Ever since you left me here, I’ve never been just a Shimii, and I’ve never been just an Imbrian. I’m enough of both to be hated by both, and not enough of either to be loved by either. Our worlds are so separated that I don’t even know how it was possible that I was born like this. But I’ve seen innocent people in both those worlds who don’t deserve this. People who don’t deserve to have their lives toyed with by Kitty or by Imani or anyone. I was so stupid. I wanted to play the big hero and to stop the bad guys, I tried to make everything so simple in my head so I could feel okay sitting around or running away. I never understood how complicated it was– I never even knew what it really looked like when someone died. But Radu, you’re back– you’re the real hero of this story, aren’t you? Radu the Marzban.”

Homa reached out her hand. Tears still streaming down her eyes, teeth chattering.

“Please–” She begged. “Radu, you can stop Kitty and save the Station right now. Right?”

In that moment, a sudden vibration transferred through the floor and into their bodies.

Far in the distance, there was the muted sound of a blast. And then a second, a third.

Rumble after rumble, causing the lights to blink even more than they already were.

Not an earthquake, not enough to shake everyone to the floor.

But Majida felt it in her gut. They must have all felt it.

She could imagine the ships outside, jockeying for position, cannons roaring.

The Republic of Alayze versus the Volkisch Movement, now in earnest.

“Kitty’s cavalry is finally throwing its weight around.” She murmured to herself.

Homa’s hand hung in the air unanswered. Even through the rumbling, she held out hope.

Then, Radu the Marzban extended his own hand return.

Raising his palm to her as if to squeeze her head from afar. “King’s Gaze.”

From around him, his aura began to extend like a mantle, smothering Homa’s own.

Dark green tendrils leaped out from him and coiled around Homa like snakes.

“Homa, you will return to Tower Eight. You will help the Shimii to return to safety.”

Homa’s tiny tail ceased fluttering, her ears drooped, her posture started to slouch.

She struggled as if trying to speak but unable to– she was unable to resist him.

His dark green aura tinted her own, flooding her with unbearable hopelessness–

In the next instant, Majida simply reacted, her sense of justice and outrage grown too hot.

“HOMA, RUN! RUN NOW!”

Vanishing from her spot, she appeared in front of Radu as if in mid-sprint.

With her fist already wound up for a strike.

Align one vector with my arm, use spatial control to cut the distance, and PUSH!

Putting all her strength both physical and psionic into one punch–

–connecting right into Radu’s armored sternum with the force of a cannon shell.

His aura scattered in every direction like a bursting balloon as Majida struck him.

Radu staggered back, his feet lifted and gliding over the metal floor for several seconds, before planting his greaves and going to down to one knee. That he didn’t tumble rear over head was a testament to his might, managing to grind himself to a stop. Nevertheless, a deep rift the size of Majida’s fist appeared on his mighty chestplate, exposing torn up artificial muscle and power cables and the innermost layer of armor lattice, streaked a moist red. His psionic hold over the girl was instantly broken. Majida stood between him and her, her own aura beginning to expand to potentially counter his influence.

She grinned with false confidence, looking over the outcome of the attack with fangs bared.

Ah– I really hoped I would do more than that. Killing him would’ve been nice.

Several of Majida’s fingers screamed with pain, feeling like hot jelly inside her gauntlet.

Katarran power armor was fearsome stuff. Majida’s body was shaking from the effort.

Raaya, I’m so sorry– you really married such a hot-headed and foolish woman.

Look what I’ve gotten us into, playing the hero for some kitten. Allah give me strength.

She glanced behind herself and saw Homa take off running as fast as her legs could sustain.

That kid had really put her in a spot. Majida could only hope she was running back to Leija.

But she couldn’t be responsible for her anymore. She had done all she could for her now.

As Radu moved to stand, he reached behind his back and withdrew a folded vibro-weapon.

Grinning, Majida outstretched her arms, a growing pyrokinetic fire in each of her palms.

“No onlookers. I can put an end to your legend as viciously as I desire.” She said.

“You are nothing but a pathetic imitation, with none of His grace and majesty.” Radu spat.

Radu engaged his vibro-halberd, and Majida felt a vicious excitement overcome her.

”Your meaningless defiance dooms all of our kin. I will impress upon you the order of things, Mahdist.”

Majida grinned. ”Rashidist scum always bending the knee to some reprobate. I’ll burn your order down.”


Danger! Danger!

“I know! I’m running!”

Homa clutched the necklace in hand and ran as fast as her abused legs could muster.

She was crying from such a depth in her heart, she had no idea how many more tears could be left, it felt like she would cry blood next. Sorrow in her chest like tight thorny coils constricting her heart and lungs. Her entire body was a knot of pain, but nothing hurt more in that moment than her heart or spirit or whatever it could be called. She couldn’t believe it– it was just too painful. She was heartbroken.

Why, Radu– why would the Marzban–

He was supposed to be a hero!

He was supposed to stand up for the Shimii!

Radu the Marzban, stalking the deep oceans and dark shadows of the Imbrium, punishing the Imbrians, raiding those who hurt or exploited the Shimii, giving his treasures to the needy folk and protecting their homes. Where had that man gone? Had he ever even existed? Hadn’t he saved Homa’s life? Hadn’t he protected Leija when she was in danger too? Had it all been just lies all along?

“He’s just following the Volkisch’s twisted plan! They’re not going to do anything!”

What did Homa care if he thought about her safety personally? If he cared about her?

“He’s a monster! All of his rhetoric! Majida was right! He’s nothing but a fraud!”

She could understand Imani– Imani was supposed to be the villain, wasn’t she?

And maybe– maybe Imani was just an idiot swept up in things like Homa was!

But what happened to the hero? Why wouldn’t Radu move a muscle to stop the crisis?

If he wasn’t going to stop the tragedy befalling the station, Homa could only hate him!

In that moment, her entire heart hated him! She hated him and she couldn’t stand him!

All of his stupid legends, his mythical deeds, the great bandit, the bringer of retribution!

Instead he wanted the Shimii to return to their ghetto as the station collapsed around them!

“Bastard! Useless, worthless evil bastard! You’re no hero! You betrayed us all!”

There were no heroes! The Shimii had no Knights, no soldiers! It was all stupid fantasies!

Even the armor-clad legend from the Shimii’s heroic era stood back and let all this happen!

I’m such an idiot! I kept thinking there was anything to the fact that he saved me!

Homa grit her teeth. She barely knew where she was running– it was all automatic.

What could she do now? What could she even do? Everything, everyone, had betrayed her!

You Are Courageous.

In her mind, that gentle voice to which she had no answer.

Homa paused, standing in front of the elevator down from the Pavilion.

She saw a group of Shimii trickling in from the tram station.

Where she was, she could still get to B.S.W. She could still confront Kitty herself.

Follow Your Heart.

Homa.

That little voice had so much trouble pronouncing her name.

It was the most tinny and unnatural thing it had said. Like it was making a huge effort.

Homa smiled to herself.

Whatever it was– it really did believe in her, didn’t it?

“I’m going crazy, little guy– but you’re really the only one who followed me here, huh?”

She was just talking to herself. There was no ‘little guy’. Her necklace couldn’t speak.

But the idea that she wasn’t alone after all gave her comfort and even courage.

Without even wondering whether the elevator was operational, she set her destination.

Down to the habitat below, across a hall, to a service elevator, down to the grimy depths.

Somehow, everything was still operating. Her luck had held out.

Homa made her way as fast as she could down to Bertrand Shore Works’ ramp.

She covered her mouth immediately at the sight she uncovered there.

A war zone, dominated by the scent of smoke and metal. That metal both the spent shells on the ground and from the iron in the copiously running blood. At the bottom of the ramp, the main bulkhead into B.S.W.’s dockyard had been blown open. There was a collection of human bodies in dark uniforms, collapsed at the door, collapsed at the walls around it, with a leg out of the door, with a leg or an arm peeking into the door and only hints of a red mess beyond it. Blood and bits pooled at the bottom of the ramp, a sea of unmentionable fractions belonging to once-whole bodies. On the wall across from the shattered bulkhead, were hundreds of marks the size of Homa’s fist left on the thick metal.

Dead bodies– so many dead men. Homa raised her hand to cover both mouth and nose rather than the mouth alone. Slowly, as if she feared rousing the ruined bodies, she moved forward step by step. Along with the bodies there was all sorts of equipment thrown about. Discarded assault rifles and grenade launchers, riot shields splintered to pieces. There were bits of drones scattered around, stray rotors and camera bodies and eerie cylinders on shattered legs and wings with flashing LEDs that made Homa fear them being undetonated mines or bombs. She could barely stand to look at any of it.

She neared the bulkhead, step by tenuous step, keeping her head level, to avoid them

Near the door–

she felt a touch.

Homa screamed and leaped back and nearly the dropped the knife in her free hand.

Off to the side of the bulkhead was a man, staring up at her, eyes foggy.

“Turrets.” He mumbled. “Turrets. Out there.”

His shoulder shook, but he could not move his arms anymore.

Unlike many of the bodies around him, he was not missing limbs or turned to paste.

However, he had dark-red, viciously bleeding wounds on his chest.

Homa knelt down in a sudden impulse of human sympathy–

Before seeing the red and white armband emblazoned with a black symbol on the man’s uniform.

She nearly fell to the floor behind herself, standing up to full height clumsily.

That symbol greatly troubled any sympathy she was feeling. She could not help him.

Peeling herself from the sight, she stacked next to the open door.

From her pocket, she withdrew the guard’s flashlight she had picked up and threw it.

It didn’t make it to the other side of the door before a shell sailed across the door.

Breaking up into pieces on the opposing wall and splitting the flashlight in two.

Homa covered her face, but her reaction would’ve been useless, had there been a blast of shrapnel she would have already been pierced before she could even bring up her hands. Regardless she could not fight her instinct, so she huddled quietly beside the door as if time would heal her invisible wounds.

When she finally worked up the guts to move again, she cried out.

“Kitty! Kitty, it’s Homa! Please stop the shooting! All the men here are dead!”

She yelled in the direction of the bulkhead, unable to look through it.

“Kitty please! I just want to talk to you! I came all this way! Please!”

Homa thought she heard laughter, faintly, from the direction of B.S.W.

“Run through quickly.”

Kitty had raised her voice, but it was still barely audible.

Regardless, Homa took the chance she got. If Kitty was lying then this was it.

On the literal threshold toward the potential end of her life.

Eyes shut, teeth grit, head down, Homa ran headlong out of the bulkhead.

Her legs screamed from the effort, her arms, her stomach, everything hurt immensely.

Every effort was pure agony, sweat like cold razors down her back, burning nerves.

But that pain meant she was still alive, still running forward.

She opened her eyes, and quickly shut them again.

All around Kitty’s yacht were katarrans in a similar state to the men in the ramp.

Around their bodies were the remains of what seemed like dozens of drones.

Atop the yacht, Kitty’s cannon turret continued to watch the bulkhead silently.

Through snatches of vision, Homa made it past the charnel house and around the Yacht.

Doubling over on the open space where she had been working on the Yacht’s paint job.

Gasping for breath, sweat dripping down her face and stinging her eyes.

Through the haze of exhaustion she finally saw her.

Kitty McRoosevelt, sitting with her back to the yacht. Her blond hair disheveled, her coat over her lap and legs, soaked in blood. She had a ruggedized suitcase-computer, perhaps for the turret controls. Across her cheek was a deep gash that streaked the lower left side of her face with blood. Her shirt looked like she had spit up on herself. There were signs of chaos around her. More unfortunate Katarrans. More drone remains. Dozens of blackened spots on the floor, even small holes. Explosive munitions? Homa did not know enough about weapons to put together what could have happened in more detail.

She still had her life, but she was standing among the dead.

There was no processing this for her battered brain. Her head was blank of anything.

Anything, except–

“Kitty. Please stop all of this. Please order your men to fix the core and leave.”

From the floor, Kitty scanned her face for a moment. She smiled.

“It crossed my mind. Once or twice. But they won’t listen to me– not anymore.”

Homa closed her fists and shouted.

“Don’t make excuses! You’re the boss of these people aren’t you? Make them stop!”

It was childish. It was always a childish, simplistic fantasy.

To think there was any “stopping” what had been unleashed here.

“Those soldiers in the Core Pylon are resolved to leave only in caskets.”

As if to demonstrate the depth of the crisis–

Kitty briefly moved aside the suitcase computer,

and the coat she had on her lap,

just enough to show Homa,

how her legs, or what remained of them,

were no longer part,

of what was recognizable as Kitty McRoosevelt.

“There’s so much blood.” Homa gasped. Her mind reeled. She only retained a glimpse.

And even then. That blurry red and brown and black photograph in her memory.

Was the most horrible thing she had ever seen up close and in detail.

“I’m going to die, Homa.” Kitty said. She hid her wounds again.

Faced with the severity of Kitty’s situation, Homa could not barrage her with all of the admonishments and hatred that she had planned to unleash. There was no point to it anymore. For Homa, the most hateful little thing she was capable of in that moment was that she suppressed the idea of offering to get Kitty medical attention. She knew in her condition, with how much blood she had lost, and God knew how deep her injuries truly went, it was pointless to offer or to withhold such an offer.

It made no difference either way– just the same as attacking her rhetorically.

Instead, Homa felt nothing but pure, crushingly silencing misery.

She couldn’t even ask ‘why’? She couldn’t even ask ‘what for’?

Why did I get jerked around like this? Why did she have to hurt everyone so much?

For what cause; for what creed. It didn’t matter. And she became afraid to say it.

As if those questions had a devastatingly pointless answer that would kill her to hear.

Kitty averted her gaze. When she looked off into the distance, even with all her wounds.

She looked beautiful. Tragically beautiful and peaceful.

Like someone– who shouldn’t have done this. Who should have been better than this.

“Homa, I wish that I could say that I’m dying without regrets, because maybe it would assuage your tender little heart. I thought that I was hard enough, that I had fully prepared myself for it– but death has broken me.” She lifted a weak arm, holding herself. Weeping. “I’m so scared. At first, it hurt so bad. I thought I would die of shock. But now it’s numb. All of my guts are cold below this suitcase. Don’t let anyone tell you they can stare death in the face and laugh, Homa. They just don’t know– your own death will be so much different than when you see others die, even others that you deeply love. It’s so terrifying– I wish I could turn back the clock on all of it, Homa. I really, truly, wish I could.”

Homa averted her own gaze from Kitty.

“Don’t talk so much. It’ll only make it worse.” Homa said.

Maybe she meant Kitty’s injuries. Maybe she meant her own instead.

At that moment, her thoughts were so mixed up that she didn’t even know.

“I was fucked up from the start.” Kitty said. “You were a poor little thing, Homa, you had no choices, but I had everything the world could give. My family had humble wealth, we were a military family with connections, we were on the cusp of being a political family. I wanted adventure, thrills, to hold people’s lives in my hand like pieces in a game. I thought I was on top of the world and invincible. With all of the might of the greatest country in the world behind me. But I was fucked up from the start, Homa. I was never good. I was never going to be good. Because I chose to do all of this, and nothing else.”

“Shut up.” Homa said. Speaking through renewed sobs. “You’re not dead yet are you?”

“I am dead, Homa. Maybe you have the power to talk to corpses. Because I’m truly dead.”

Kitty’s arm struggled to move, but she produced something from the pocket of her coat.

A little black plastic gadget with a laser emitter. It scanned Homa’s face.

She put it on the ground and then slid it toward Homa. It stopped short of her boots.

“I’ve been dead since the beginning. I have a dead woman’s name. But you’re alive, Homa.”

In that moment, the station rumbled again. It was stronger at B.S.W. than at the Pavilion.

B.S.W. was closer to the ocean. All of the shockwaves from the munitions were closer too.

“Homa. The Volkisch are going to attack this place again and again. I expect there will be more suicide drones deployed. My turret is on its last drum of ammunition, and I’m a dead woman. You still have a chance at life. You can either run into the station interstice, or back the way you came, but in either direction, you will still be stuck inside here, without any power or hope, beset by enemies.”

She looked over her shoulder at the berths and smiled.

“Homa. You need to go out there. It’ll be risky– but I can help you escape into the water.”

Those words broke Homa out of her stupor.

Escape.

Into the water.

Leave Kreuzung and sail out into the open ocean. Wasn’t that what she wanted?

It felt so long ago, that wish of hers, it felt like a fantasy from another era.

“Can you do something for me, Homa?” Kitty asked.

Homa bent down to pick up the little gadget Kitty had slid toward her.

“What is it?” Homa asked.

Kitty smiled at her again. She looked strangely serene.

From the pocket of her coat, she withdrew a ring. A simple silver band.

She put it on her finger.

With that finger, she pointed weakly. Her gentle smile turned into a sharp grin.

“My gun ended up over there. Those drones are scary stuff. Can you bring it to me?”

Homa looked and found the gun on the ground.

She knew what it meant, but she was completely numb. She couldn’t object to it.

Almost mindlessly, she walked over to the gun, picked it up, and walked to Kitty.

Silent, with distant eyes, she handed Kitty the pistol and Kitty took it.

Her hands were shaking harder than ever.

“Homa.” Kitty’s voice was starting to slur. “Is there a Shimii prayer you can say for me?”

Those words turned to leaden weights in the pit of Homa’s stomach.

She had never learned much Fusha or practiced many prayers.

Whether or not Kitty deserved them, Homa could not fulfill this wish.

“I understand. It’s okay.” Kitty said. “Homa, do you think I’ll see her again?”

She showed Homa the ring on her finger again. Homa understood the implication.

Homa Baumann was certain that if there was a blazing fire for evildoers in the afterlife, then Kitty McRoosevelt would be burning in it. No matter what Homa herself wanted in that moment because of her soft heart and how unjust she felt this entire situation was to everyone. Kitty was absolutely hellbound. Perhaps Kitty’s wife would comfort her in the fire of their own making. Perhaps there was nothing hereafter but darkness that was so impenetrable that their souls would never find each other.

Follow Your Heart.

Once again, that gentle little voice had spoken. Homa said what she wanted to say.

“You will.” Homa said. There was little emotion behind it. She couldn’t muster any.

Kitty smiled rapturously. It was this smile, this euphoria, that told Homa the ultimate truth.

She really was going to die. She was dying right now. Maybe– she really was dead already.

In front of Homa’s eyes, was the joyous dead woman, Kitty McRoosevelt.

“Homa, turn around, and put the key I have given you into a hole in the back of my yacht. That will open up the cargo chamber and stand up a vehicle for you. I know for a fact that you can make use of it. Take it and go now. Don’t turn around even once. I don’t want you to remember me like this. From now on, your destiny is out in that ocean. If you want to stop this– then rise up above Kreuzung. Find the Cruiser Eisenhower. There is a recording loaded on the machine. Play it for them, please.”

Homa stood, paralyzed, in front of Kitty.

Then she heard the autocannon above them fire a shot.

“Homa! Turn around and go! Don’t die here! Don’t turn back!“ Kitty shouted.

In a panic, Homa did turn from Kitty and run to the back of the yacht.

She found the obvious hole in the yacht’s flat stern section and inserted the key.

One last time, the key scanned her face from inside the hole with its laser.

Then, the back of Kitty’s yacht began to open, as if unpacking a metal giftbox. Side walls separated at acute angles from the stern plates which lifted overhead, while the floor extended a pair of scaffolds that rolled something out onto the floor of the dockyard and then stood it up, nearly seven meters tall. To think that this was all the “junk” they had casually detected was in Kitty’s yacht and kept under confidentiality. It was a gantry– a gantry for a full-fledged military combat Diver.

Homa found herself in its shadow, looking up in a trance.

Her Volker had been practically nothing but a cockpit with arms, legs, a head and the thrusters.

This was a fully armored military machine with military-grade weaponry and systems. A broad chassis with an angled chestplate tapered into a waist connecting two hip thrusters and the legs to intakes with armored caps. It had sleeker arms than those of the Volker but better armored, with elegant plates patching several gaps. It had a more aggressive and angular profile while maintaining the look of a squat, stanced human with heavy shoulders and a helmeted, visored head atop the chest.

Unlike the Volker, which had a rounded backpack, the backpack equipped on this unit was rectangular and more substantial. Intakes were located on the backpack itself, as well as on the shoulders, and the jets that extended from behind the shoulders and pack almost looked like wings. Two long, rectangular pieces of equipment were attached to each side of the backpack, and there were weapons on a magnetic strip just below the backpack too. A long arm and a folding vibroaxe perhaps. Homa had never seen anything like it. Everything looked so sturdy and tightly packaged, but it looked so much more powerful.

Painted a stark white with red accents. Towering over the bobtailed Shimii.

When she took a step toward it, she saw the laser on the yacht sweep over her face again.

As if in response, the unit bent down to its knees, and the gantry released several cables.

On the Diver, the chestplate split in half to reveal the cockpit, as if beckoning her inside.

Homa stared at the titan of metal in front of her.

Looking down at her own feet and weeping. Wiping her tears for more to take their place.

Leija–

Leija and all of the Shimii of Tower Eight. She really was going to leave them behind.

“I’m sorry, Leija. I’m really sorry. I’ll– I’ll promise– I’ll see you again. I promise.”

All of this time, everything that happened. And they wouldn’t get to talk at all.

It was so stupid, but she really wanted to see her again. She wanted to thank her.

Despite everything that happened. Homa wished she could see Leija again.

But if Homa ran back or stayed here she would be killed by the Volkisch.

Kitty was right. Homa had no place to go but forward. Nowhere to turn back to anymore.

She climbed up into the open cockpit and took her seat between the controls.

Just as the cockpit closed around her, she thought she heard a gunshot ring out.

Homa would not entertain her imagination of what had happened.

Within seconds of the cockpit doors sealing, her face lit up with the boot-up screens.

Symbols of the Republic of Alayze flashed by. Homa’s eyes darted between them.

Red, white and blue flags; a sigil of an eagle grasping arrows, surrounded by a wreath.

An owl behind a shield; E Pluribus Unum. Finally, the OS booted with unit designations.

A logo for the manufacturer, RAYHEED. A stylized blue and white star.

2nd Generation Model RYHD-08 S.E.A.L “Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: Delta.”

Heavy Assault Platform was the unit role. She was just mindlessly reading things.

“Freedom and peace, even if it costs our souls.”

Homa read the motto and it sent a chill down her spine. She gripped the control sticks.

Tested the pedals, disengaged the acceleration locks, checked the battery and fuel levels.

With a slight tilt, she moved the machine– made it stand upright.

That sense of shifting metal around her, movement, mechanical, kinetic.

She faced the open berth in front of her and the darkness beyond it.

Kitty must have set the berths to two-way automatic entry. Homa could escape into the ocean.

Her eyes scanned her various cameras, the screen with the weapons display.

She took in a deep breath. This wasn’t a dream, or a fantasy. Her body was screaming at her too much for that to be the case. Her brain reeled with all that she had seen, in the span of hours she felt like everything in her life had been broken to pieces she could not put back together. Now there was death at every turn. She wanted to scream, to cry even more, but she couldn’t wait any longer.

It was a nightmare–

But she was no longer entirely powerless within the grasp of the schemers around her.

Feeling a rising sense of urgency, of catharsis, pain and adrenaline mixed–

“Homa Baumann, S.E.A.L. Delta! Launching!”

Homa cried out as heroically as she could and the Delta threw itself forward into the berth.

As soon as it closed behind her, and as soon as the exterior door began to flood.

She slammed on her pedals and pushed her control sticks forward with all her strength.

Surging out of Kreuzung and into the chaotic Imbrium ocean outside the walls.


Over Kreuzung’s aquaspace, ten ships of the Republic Navy had descended into the crater. Long, boxy profiles with heavily armored prows, thick conning towers and fins, unmistakably utilitarian and mass produced. Their main distinguishing feature were their unmoving rows of cannons which were built into the prow and not on turrets, with limited facing. It was only this weakness which allowed Kreuzung’s defenders to cling on as long as they had during the raid and resist the attackers.

Volkisch patrol cutters and a single Frigate, “flagship” of Kreuzung’s local defense fleet, rounded the towers and the core station, keeping mobile and coordinating dozens of Divers to slow the Republic’s advance. The Republic deployed their own mecha defensively as they attempted and partially succeeded in descending several vessels in between the eastern towers, Three, Four and Five.

A couple of Republic Frigates managed to break through to the seafloor along with a Troopship while the rest of the force remained mobile and covered the aquaspace higher in the water table. But their entry into the tower was on the opposite side of the complex, at B.S.W. near Tower Eight. And every meter was proving hard fought as the raiders attempted to wind around the southern towers.

Then, just when it seemed like the Republic might have the upper hand, more enemies appeared on the sonar. Unbeknownst to the Republic, they had been compromised, and there would be more enemies than the Patrol fleet coming from all directions. Headed their way first was a Ritter class Cruiser, able to fight ton to ton with any ship in the Republic fleet, the Greater Imbria. Alongside it was a strange vessel, shaped almost like a black manta ray, long with a roughly diamond shaped chassis that tapered into wings housing numerous thrusters, its round deck bearing numerous gun emplacements.

Experimental stealth vessel Mrudah, pride of the Zabaniyah fleet.

Because of its profile and relative quiet compared to the expectedly noisy Greater Imbria, the Republic found it hard to tell the position or even the existence of the Mrudah until it was upon them. The Republic’s Cruiser and remaining Frigates prepared to meet the Greater Imbria specifically, and cannons once again traded blows directly over Kreuzung’s waters, sending great shockwaves below. The arriving Volkisch forces began to accelerate, hoping to take advantage of their turrets against the stationary guns of the Republic ships, while the Republicans relied on their massed raw firepower.

“For fuck’s sakes! Shoot faster! Didn’t we have the cannons retuned?”

Heidelinde Sawyer heaped abuse on her gunners as the Greater Imbria shook around her.

There were no direct hits, but the amount of ordnance hurtling the Cruiser’s way was unnerving. The Volkisch were on edge, and Sawyer nearly jumped when Rue Skalbeck called her name.

“Sturmbannführer! We’ve got a communication from the Mrudah!” shouted the adjutant.

“Put it on for me! The rest of you, I don’t want to see a wasted second in our barrage!”

Regardless of her misgivings, Sawyer then received and accepted a set of battle orders.

The Greater Imbria would continue to engage and draw attention. Meanwhile, from the depths of the Mrudah, the main force of the Volkisch Shimii Zabaniyah got underway, dropping in a dozen Divers from numerous deployment chutes. At long last arriving to fulfill their intentions for Kreuzung.

“Model RM/SF-15X Muawiya. Vesna Nasser, launching.”


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.6]

This chapter contains a torture sequence with a brief moment of heightened violence.


In the context of a station, the overarching structure providing power was referred to as a Core Pylon. To further understand the Pylon, its layout could be broken down into a massive superstructure housing two critical pieces of machinery: the reactor core ring and the agarthic energy array. Agarthicite “fuel rods” were contained in the energy array with complex Osmium shields. This array was submerged within the reactor core as part of normal operation and cooling. Energy was generated in several synergistic ways.

Agarthicite as a material boasted surreal properties that were observed but understood only in a very shallow fashion in the After Descent era. Most visibly, it was known that any solid matter that agitated Agarthicite too much would be annihilated entirely by a fatal discharge from the crystal. This property was not witnessed in particulate agarthicite known as “agarthic salt” but only in cubiform agarthicite “ore.”

No form of Agarthicite “annihilated” water or gas, but it was known that in annihilation of human bodies, the water would be vaporized by the heat of the reaction. Therefore, controlled annihilation of carbons submerged in water could generate heat. While any type of solid matter could be annihilated, Carbon was common, easier to process, and its reaction was well understood. Any material could suffice, however.

Osmium was the great exception. It was the only known case of a material being antagonistic to Agarthicite, both resisting annihilation and even reducing the scope of the reaction and thus allowing some control over annihilations by subjecting the reacting agarthicite to the presence of Osmium.

Osmium tools and devices could be used to mine, shape and manipulate Agarthicite– very carefully.

An eerie and less understood property was that Agarthicite would rotate in bizarre patterns when subject to controlled electrical and magnetic charges and would generate more kinetic energy than was spent agitating them. It was this property that resulted in collapsed ship reactors physically twisting the matter of the ship before annihilating it. Thus, when the energy array was physically hooked into the core ring, the array was also connected to motors that generated additional power by allowing the array to spin in the water. This generated enough power for the operations of the Core Pylon to self-sustain.

Agarthicite could become “spent.” Spent agarthicite would lose its otherworldly purple sheen and become dull and ductile, able to be spun into alloys. In this decayed state, Agarthicite was extremely useful as a metal. Together with Osmium, it was found in all kinds of technology in the After Descent era. For example, decaying Agarthicite alloys led to the electric oscillators used in monomolecular vibroblades.

Both the eldritch rotation and the heat generation could create significant usable energy.

Reactor cores, known as “Core Rings,” were designed both to house and stabilize the energy array and to employ its eldritch properties in the generation of energy. Agarthicite reactors could power the generation of their own magnetic and electrical charges while also generating enough surplus energy to power the massive stations housing underwater inhabitants. Station reactors built in 979 A.D. would be expected to run for multiple decades before needing a replacement Energy Array. Some reactors had been running since the Age of Strife and nobody had touched their Arrays since then. It was unknown by what process their ancient agarthicite was refined to such a degree as to permanently sustain reactions.

Ultimately, very little was understood, truly understood, about Agarthicite. It was only observed.

There were people who believed Agarthicite held powers beyond the mortal ability to “observe” and “deduce.” Agarthicite study was referred to as “pseudophysics.” It had both the academic social credibility of a science and the raving mad reverence of a religion. Most “normal” people beheld Agarthicite this way, no matter how much philosophers and theoretical scientists tried to dispel its myth through logic.

To the people of the After Descent Civilization, Agarthicite reactors and the Stations they lived in had an unspoken near-sacred status. Agarthicite was the true, material God of Imbria and Cogita both, a God capable of both sustaining and destroying life. It was unthinkable to tinker with these systems, innovation in the field of Core Pylons and their constituent parts was glacial wherever it was not outright outlawed. It was known that Agarthicite powered the collapsed Surface Civilization also– but the history of the Reactors for the After Descent civilization began after the Age of Strife with the first reactors created wholly underwater, their designs drawn from studying the Origin Core Pylons of the first stations.

However, it was for this reason that a fleet of Cogitan men and women could convince themselves to attack the Core Pylon of an Imbrian station. Agarthicite was their God, but this was not their land. Imbrians were lesser people, barbarous, evil, enemies of all that was right. Cogitan racism allowed them to see the Imbrians, their stations, and their Core Pylon, as violable, or even worthy of violation.

Their God wasn’t our God. Just as they were the lesser. Anything could be done to them.


Homa left some lonac in the pot in case Leija wanted to eat before she left.

It was simple food, but then again, pulao rice was her favorite meal. She might like it.

After cursing Radu and Imani, Leija said nothing more and finally fell asleep. Since then, she had been resting peacefully on Homa’s bed. Homa had eaten, showered, and laid down on the floor to play with her phone. Leija’s words joined the massive amount of things troubling her during these dark days in which she lived. She had no reason to disbelieve what Leija said: Radu had come to visit her. Since then, she had felt apologetic toward Homa but kept it close to the chest. Did Radu visiting come before or after Imani approached Leija, trying to get connected to a Shimii helper at a dockyard for her schemes?

She mentioned both of them. Why? Why would they be connected in her drunk head?

Could it be that Radu the Marzban was helping Imani? One of the Volkisch Movement?

Imani was a Shimii– but it still made no sense to her that Radu would help her.

Homa was not an authority of what the Marzban’s agenda was.

But he was a wanderer, who lived by his own justice and hid his face from the public.

Could a bandit like that really have ties to a person like Imani Hadžić?

This was something she couldn’t reason out by herself in her room. That was the most frustrating thing– talking to herself about Radu was like ruminating on the agendas of angels or djinn. There was no way to find him, there was no way to even prove his existence anywhere outside the vessel of her own memories. She couldn’t influence him. But she still worried! She couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Because if Radu was helping Imani, the world was a little bit bleaker than she thought.

Heroes and villains would make even less sense than ever before.

She had been sure that Radu was supposed to be a hero. And Imani Hadžić was a villain.

Now, even in the fantasy that supported her life, such things began to lose their meaning.

And it bothered her– because she viewed herself as someone connected to Radu.

Even if they had not seen each other in years.

She couldn’t help it. She was not connected to very many other people.

It was just him and Leija.

If you had no one, no blood– then kin were the people who occupied one’s memories.

Shimii valued kin above all else– and maybe Homa valued Leija and him as kin.

Despite everything they had done–

Homa grit her teeth. Her emotions were so twisted up. It hurt, deep in her chest and brain.

“Maybe when Leija feels better I’ll ask her about it.” Homa said.

Her hands reflexively stroked the necklace, fingers rubbing on the rough bit of silica.

Staring up at the steel ceiling in the dark. Leija’s light snoring the only sound.

Homa stroked the necklace, slowly drifting off, the fog of sleep slowly seeping in.

Peaceful Place.

She shut her eyes and saw the colored lights bouncing behind her eyelids.

Her mind went dark, her body falling gently.

To a world of great open skies, conquered by the crowns of massive trees.

Iridescent foliage casting many-colored shadows the world beneath.

Great silver-white trunks stretched down from heaven to thick, jagged roots prism-purple.

Over soft blue dirt, she sat, her back nestled against the monumental body.

A breeze swept by billowing red algae and weepy fungi and stirred the muddy puddles.

As far as she could see to the horizon and beyond, from the ground to the heaven, it was all the trunks of trees, their crowns making up the sky, their branches making up the clouds and below them the canopy of the forest, low alginic shrubbery under and around their roots, liquid dribbling down their trunks forming channels like erosion on mountainsides, and she was alone, and her mind was mile a minute and slug-like slow– and she felt greatly at peace. Amid whispering families of trees all connected among whom the colors traveled expressing pale blue and white.

Then, amid the trees–

A pale traveler, red-haired with a black horn, white robe and tail dragging on the mud.

Looking over her shoulder, her yellow amid black eyes dilating with hatred as she saw.

Between the sonorously singing trees the colors around her became painted a deep black.

WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE?

Colors became tendrils that rushed toward Homa with murderous slashing violence–

“Agh!”

Homa opened her eyes. A tiny sliver of yellow light from the hall shone in her face.

She was on the floor. A metal floor in a metal place.

Holding herself, curling up in her bed. For a moment she was in the grip of something.

A vast forest; whispering trees; the surface? She had dreamed of the surface?

As the scriptures read. A surface with a vast sky and dry ground and breathable air.

There was a monster too. It was a nightmare. Fear shook its way through her body.

It took a few minutes for her wits to fully return to her. For her to realize and admit that it was only a dream and could not hurt her. But she felt something primal before that– a need to make herself small and hidden as if some enormous presence was watching her closely. Was this how ‘mice’ once felt about ‘cats’? She knew both animals and had heard this metaphor used in educational contexts.

But such depredation no longer had many places where it could happen.

Except perhaps in dreams. Dreams, like ancestral visions of what humanity had lost.

“Ugh. What kind of stupid shit is that, Homa Baumann?”

Homa chided herself for her weakness and childishness.

Anxiety must have been getting the better of her. Her mind must have been in shambles.

No wonder she had no control over her life when dreams affected her so strongly.

Gritting her teeth, she finally made herself get up and face reality again.

It was early in the morning.

Homa reached for the wall, turned on a dim light in order to see.

Leija was still asleep. Homa was almost worried, but she was breathing regularly.

Her face was eerily peaceful. Her makeup had run just a bit, lipstick lightly streaked, eyeshadow lightly smeared. Slight lines of aging showed around her eyes and at the edges of her mouth as she rested, more visible than ever, but Leija looked so content, Homa thought she looked more beautiful than ever. When she saw her at peace like this, Homa could overcome that staggering tension she otherwise felt in her presence. There were no glaring eyes and scowling lips, no striking claws. Her prone body, escaped from the world of violence from where she came and imbued with the gentleness of sleep– Homa felt a sudden heart-shudder of sympathy for her.

“I hope you’ll be okay in here.” Homa said.

It didn’t feel right.

Some part of Homa wanted to take care of Leija, but she had no choice.

She would have to go to work and leave Leija behind.

Homa sighed to herself.

Majida had said, there was no place where Shimii could have a storybook life.

Thinking about it, Homa finally put together what she wanted to say–

“I can’t forgive you for everything. I am not the only person you hurt. You hurt people every day in so many ways I can’t even describe. But I still– I do still love you, Leija. Because I know it’s this place, and the way that being here warps people– if we’d lived anywhere else, if we’d lived peacefully, maybe you could have been good to me. You wouldn’t have neglected me– and I wouldn’t have to resent you.”

In her sleep, Leija’s eyes shut a little harder, the fingers on her hands closed and opened.

This wasn’t any kind of closure, nor was it the culmination of anything significant.

It wasn’t a big moment– just Homa coping to herself, functionally alone, in her room.

That’s all it could be and that was all she could do. But she still felt like she had to say it.

Maybe it could serve as a rehearsal for when Leija woke up and they had to confront this.

Homa dressed herself, ate a bit of lonac in a cup and left for work.

Her head felt a bit heavy and foggy. As if she was fighting back tears the whole time.

She expected her day to go by as mindlessly as ever. She hoped for it to be so. She hoped for a day she could run on autopilot. Home, to the checkpoint, to the tram, to the pavilion, to B.S.W. and back home again. Once she got back home in the afternoon, she would have to deal with what happened with Leija, but the rest of the day should have been exactly the same as always.

Leaving home–

Checkpoint–

Tram–

Pavillion–

Two elevators down to her little lost corner of the world, Bertrand Shore Works.

“Homa,”

On the corridor leading to the semi-circular bulkhead into B.S.W, a blond woman awaited her. Wearing a grandiose coat over a ruffled red shirt and a long, tight black pencil skirt and ribbed tights. She smiled and waved in front of the closed bulkhead into B.S.W. Kitty McRoosevelt could not let herself in– Homa had been leaving the bulkhead unlocked for her after she came in, since Kitty was supposed to come later in the day, after Homa already clocked in. This was part of the instructions Bertrand gave clients, so they wouldn’t waste their time while the employees set up. Only employees could work the doors.

“As-Salamu Alaykum!” Kitty said cheerfully.

“You don’t have to do it in Fusha.” Homa said. She sighed internally.

This woman–! Homa had been saying that about a lot of people lately…

“Usually the bulkhead door is unlocked when I come in.” Kitty said.

“Yeah, that’s me who does that. Only employees can open stuff here, so you have to wait.”

Homa walked past Kitty and held her keycards to the door’s reader. After the keycard swipe, she stepped in front of the card reader’s touchscreen for camera authentication. There was a metallic rolling sound shortly thereafter– the Bulkhead door unlocked and could open now.

“Ahh, I see.” Kitty replied. “It has a camera, too? That’s a lot of security.”

“It’s like I told you, only an employee can open it. So don’t come here early.” Homa said.

She walked through the bulkhead door, automatically opened, and thought nothing of this.

Kitty stood off to the side and watched while Homa put on her gloves, mask, goggles and put protective sleeves over her tail and ears and returned to work on her yacht. She had stripped, repainted, and detailed the exterior, so now she had to recoat it with poison and waterproof gel. She big Kitty stand farther back than she had been the past few days and got to work as usual.

Though she was here way too early with nothing to do, Kitty had no complaints.

In fact, the blond hardly spoke to Homa at all that day.

She would have said ‘suit yourself’ to that, but Imani was counting on her.

So she tried to poke Kitty and see if there would be anything to report to Imani today.

“So, any big plans for the yacht?” Homa asked Kitty.

“Nothing special.”

It was as if she was turning the tables on Homa now. She had become the terse one.

“How has your stay in Kreuzung been so far?”

“Amenable.”

“Been to any neat places?”

“Perhaps.”

Perhaps?!

Homa felt so stupid shouting small talk over the sound of her spray gun.

Especially when she got back next to nothing.

What was going on?

“To hell with her then.” Homa sighed. There was always tomorrow.

If Kitty was grumpy today it didn’t matter at all.

Homa hardly knew what use Imani was getting out of her information anyway.

As the afternoon went on, she focused on her work and did not bother with Kitty.

And Kitty seemed quite content to just stand around in silence this time.

It irritated Homa just a bit– what a stupid turn from how chummy she was earlier!

By the end of the day, she had wandered off out of the dockyard altogether.

Homa clocked out and put it out of her mind. She had to worry about Leija and about whether there to try her luck at the shops again today. She might try to buy something for Leija in the Imbrian shops– if the dynamic pricing wasn’t too bad, a gift might help the Madame’s mood. Perhaps a cake or a sweet?

She put away her tools and walked out of B.S.W, through the bulkhead door and then up the old cargo ramp to the elevator. She tuned out her surroundings, just like she wanted to do. Her auto-pilot took her step by step, steps farther from B.S.W. and steps closer to home, mindlessly. Looking down at the grimy green steel floor of the ramp as she climbed the makeshift steps down the side of it up to the elevator shaft, she wondered how she would approach Leija after all of this.

What would she even say?

All kinds of things floated in her head, but it was such an awkward situation.

“I found you drunk wandering the halls–”

No, not, found you. Leija might twist that to mean Homa specifically grabbed her–

But if she laid the blame on Leija herself too thick that’d piss her off too.

There was no winning–!

Suddenly, Homa hit something soft and firm.

In front of her was supposed to be the elevator, but her mind had wandered off.

When she looked up, there was something in front of the elevator door.

It was like–

A case– a huge white case, with a synthetic felt covering and a steel frame.

For a tool or maybe even a musical instrument? Homa had seen things like this, but–

Someone had left it in front of the elevator door–? Why? It was taller than Homa herself.

She made to move it, more of a reflex than anything, feeling the weight of it as she tried.

Then–

Dull tap-tapping on the floor– heels?

Danger! Cried an unheeded voice in her mind–

Homa looked aside in time to see a black-gloved hand strike her with something.

She felt a brief burning sensation, her muscles seizing up, horrible nausea.

And the hands seizing her– something pricking her– burning in her veins–

Homa struggled on sheer instinct, but her strength faded extraordinarily quickly.

She tripped over her own feet and would have fallen had it not been for the black gloves.

Gripping her by her jumpsuit, unzipping the case blocking the elevator–

Her vision went dark as she caught a flash of waving blond hair in a thickening fog.

Inside the closed case, limbs going limp, Homa’s world and mind went pitch black.


“–Oh look, she’s coming to. I guess we won’t get to see my tenth straight winning hand in a row. Get the synthestitcher ready. I’ll make her smile for the camera. Then we can really get to work.”

Footsteps on water. A voice. A familiar voice.

She quivered, from the back of her neck down to her tail.

Her stomach felt hot, her nose was running. For a moment, the world was spinning.

Slowly spreading eyelids unveiled a world of intermittent, dim red light.

She felt water. Her feet splashed as she tried to move her limbs.

Homa could move her feet just a little, but not her torso, or her arms.

Mental fog cleared up just enough to begin to understand her predicament.

B.S.W, her workplace, was where her body expected to have been.

Instead, she awakened in the middle of an empty place, three times as wide and long as a room, with a bar at one end and shuttered windowpanes on the other. Judging by the bar shelves it may have once been stocked up, but there only scattered old bottles and broken shards left. There was an entrance door and a door out to the back, the former broken open and the latter barricaded with junk drawn from the rest of the venue. There were plastic restaurant chairs whole or in pieces scattered around the room.

Because the lights were malfunctioning, there was only intermittent flashes of white light, coming on with different periods of seconds in between each flash in a way that was maddening. The only consistent light came from the red emergency alarm light, and because this light was revolving, from the high center of the wall, it cast eerie shadows over the other occupants. Taken together it was like a vision from out of nightmare, nearly panic inducing, Homa wanted to keep her eyes shut and go back to sleep.

And indeed, keeping them open was difficult, they teared up.

Struggling to breathe as more of her senses returned to her; enough to realize her arms were bound behind her back, her feet were bound. Involuntarily she started to struggle, forcing her feet apart, forcing her arms, shifting her weight forward and back on the seat. Moaning with frustration when she realized how tight her bonds were, and that they were chafing skin– skin that was out and exposed, because Homa was stripped completely naked. Her entire body shivered with sudden fear. She was bound to a chair with her arms stretched and behind her back, her legs tied apart and to the chair and naked.

“H-h-elp.” She whimpered, as her voice started to return to her. “He-He-HELP!”

“Nobody will hear you. Be quiet.”

Homa heard a voice, and she heard something, like a mechanical switch being flipped.

In front of her, a figure coming into focus threw something on the ground.

She stepped on it, her heels easily crunching it under the water.

Then she closed toward Homa, heels splashing then tapping in succession on the floor.

“Are you awake now? Can you see my hand?”

Waving her black-gloved fingers in front of Homa was Kitty McRoosevelt. She bent in.

Narrowed eyes, messy blond hair, mere centimeters from Homa’s own face. She smiled softly.

“Help me–” Homa whimpered, “Kitty– Help–”

“I brought you here, Homa.”

As if to punctuate this, she ran one of her fingers down the inside of Homa’s thigh.

Homa clenched her teeth, wracked with another full-body shudder. It was so cold here!

And Kitty’s finger was pressing hard on her skin. Near somewhere sensitive–

Homa cried out. “Please let me go! Please don’t kill me!”

“Relax. I’m not going to kill you. And you’ll be freed once everything is over.”

“Everything?”

“It doesn’t concern you. Just be quiet, put your eyes forward, and smile for me.”

Homa realized Kitty wasn’t alone.

When her vision came back in full, the blurry figures farther in the distance came into focus, shifting something on wheels towards her. It reminded Homa of the cameras in the photo booth at Ballad’s Paradise, except that they were on top of a large, enclosed metal box that was itself on a wheeled stand. It was operated by a woman in a black bodysuit with intermittent black or blue plates across the surface, like armor and she looked–

slim and slightly muscular with bright fruity orange skin,

her eyes were green and w-shaped– her hair was long and red and purple, and–

and some of her hair, was positioning the camera, while her arms and legs pushed the cart,

“She needs to look straight at the camera until the datasheet compiles.”

When the Katarran noticed Homa staring at her, she winked with a mischievous smile.

“But she’s preoccupied with other things.”

“I’ll set her straight. How long does she have to stare?”

“We’ve never done this on a Shimii. It might take longer. Maybe twenty seconds?”

At the knocked-down front door, there was a burly blue man without hair, an eel-like tail coming out of his armor. There was a third person, a similar man, who was standing by near the windowpanes. All of them were armed and lightly armored, they had guns, Homa did not know the exact models but the form factor suggested assault rifles, which she knew from studying Diver models and gear.

She felt a light smack on her cheek and shut her eyes reflexively from the touch.

“Homa, stare at the camera for me for thirty seconds with a neutral expression.”

Kitty wanted her to stare at the camera– she would not! She’d avoid it at any cost!

In response Homa shut her eyes and stared straight at the ground, gritting her teeth.

“Don’t be stupid.” Kitty said. “Do this for me and you will get to go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and go about your business like none of this happened. Just open your eyes and look natural for the camera.”

”N-n-no. Let me go. Stop this and let me go.” Homa whimpered.

”I’m doing this to keep you safe, you brat. I could drag you with me back to B.S.W, force your face into every authentication camera like you’re a piece of equipment. There are ways to make that work– cruel ways. I’m being humane here, Homa. Look at the camera, now. Or I will have to make you do it.”

She needed Homa’s face to open all of Bertrand’s doors. To get into B.S.W. illegally.

There were cameras with facial recognition. Only Bertrand and his employees, who were registered with the station, could open them. They needed their work permits and to be physically present for security purposes. For the front bulkhead, but also for the cargo elevator access and for the berth authentications– it had to be a B.S.W employee holding the authentication keys and the only way for the computer to know was using imaging cameras. That was what all this was about,

and in the morning, too, when Kitty asked–!

Homa had been so stupid! Imani warned her to be careful! Kitty really was dangerous!

“Where are my clothes? Let me have my clothes and let me go!” Homa begged.

“I’ve found people are more compliant when they can’t hide. Open your eyes, Homa.”

“Fuck you! You’re not using me! You pervert!”

Homa’s insults came out choked, quivering with the rest of her body.

She heard Kitty sigh audibly. Behind her, the Katarran cuttlefish woman laughed.

“Feisty!” She said in jest.

“You know, I had a hunch you’d be difficult. This sucks. You, hold the chair.” Kitty said.

Footsteps splashed over and someone grabbed hold of the back of the chair–

In the next instant, Homa felt her stomach almost push into her spine as something struck.

She was hit in the gut, by something fast, both blunt and sharp, with brutal strength.

Vomit rose to her throat. She choked, she wanted to double over but could not.

Her gagging and gasping for breath turned to pained screams.

There was an immense pain focused upon a point in her upper abdomen.

Kitty had kicked her! She had kicked her with those heels!

Homa was in so much pain, she thought she would die.

Her eyes forced open from the shock, spinning with panic, was that blood–?

No it was just– the water and the red light–

“Next time I’m stomping on your dick.” Kitty shouted. “Stare at the fucking camera.”

Homa gasped for breath, openly sobbing. She couldn’t believe this was happening.

Her surroundings were nightmarish, and she felt the most brutal pain in her life.

Not even the worst of Leija’s beatings had been this terrifying.

Kitty was really going to any lengths. She would mutilate her. She would kill her.

Any thought of resistance had left her body instantly. She was hurt, her mind swimming, she felt so pathetic, so weak, and helpless and useless. Acid-tasting spit dribbling from her open mouth, her stomach a tight knot of unbearable pain. Shivering from the cold that transferred from the water her feet were in and the moist air collecting on her sweating bare skin. Burning tears pouring from her eyes, fluids from her nose, tasting hot bitterness rising at the back of her throat. She couldn’t fight back!

“Please–” Homa whimpered. “Please don’t kill me.”

Click.

Homa felt something cold sliding down from her lower abdomen and stopping at her groin.

Kitty with the long, suppressed barrel of a black pistol pointed at Homa’s–

“Jeez. This is brutal. And I thought it’d be cuttle-quick.” Remarked the cuttlefish woman.

“Shut up. I didn’t pay for your opinions.” Kitty said. “Homa, I’m going to wipe your face with my other hand. Stare at the camera with a neutral expression for thirty seconds and this bullshit is over. I’m on a fucking clock. I’m doing it this way for you. I don’t have to do this. You or your corpse can suffice with a little preparation– I’m trying to be kind to you. I’m trying to put you out of harms way. Stop being so fucking difficult and look at the camera. Thirty seconds. And you never have to see me again.”

As she promised, Kitty’s fingers rolled over Homa’s eyes and nose with a stiff nylon wipe.

Homa’s mind was a blank. There was no way she could resist anymore.

One kick. One kick was all it took.

Her mind was filled with admonishments. You’re so weak, so pathetic, so useless.

Nowhere near close to a hero. Just a sad little sack of tears and blood so easily broken.

Homa looked straight at the camera, keeping as composed as she could.

A thin strip of light glowed across her features. It was a laser scanner, mapping her face.

After twenty-five seconds it stopped. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Said the cuttlefish.

After the camera captured her appearance, the attached box whirred to life. Instruments inside it slid and grinded for a minute, Homa staring at it as if in a trance. Then, from the box, the Katarran extracted what looked like a partial mask, with crosshatched colors blended into its plastic exterior. It was not her entire face, it was parts of the bridge of her nose, her lips, cheekbone, ears.

“Are you sure this is correct?” Kitty asked the cuttlefish woman, staring at the mask.

“Of course. The purpose of this mask is to trick the facial recognition. So the computer scans her face and prints out what it saw. Computers like this don’t recognize your entire face, they are not humans, they don’t see like we do. They see specific unique features that distinguish faces from each other. This mask is a perfect representation of what an authentication camera computer sees when it sees this Shimii.”

With a confident smile, the cuttlefish woman lifted the mask over her own face.

“Want a demo?” She asked.

“No.”

Homa felt the barrel of Kitty’s pistol lift from her groin.

“I’m satisfied.” She said.

”So, mind telling this humble technician what happens now?”

“You stay here. I’m going out with the rest of the team to prepare. We need to be in place for my first package. We have to dock them immediately when they arrive, and we preferably want to move after B.S.W’s work hours. Thanks to sleeping beauty here, our window is tight. Speaking of which,”

Kitty turned to the dazed Homa and looked into her eyes again.

She lifted something to Homa’s sight. It was her black slate portable.

“Unlock this for me, would you?”

Mindlessly, Homa put her thumb on the on/off button when Kitty brought the portable near.

Kitty then scrolled through, making no expression as she rifled through Homa’s messages.

Her coldly inexpressive face lit by the white screen.

After a few minutes, she held the portable away from her, and put a bullet through it.

Homa had been bracing for a booming shot, but it was a sharp thwick instead.

Nevertheless, the discharge of energy was close enough to her naked body to rattle her.

“Here you go, my little snitch.” Kitty dismissively threw the phone at Homa’s lap.

“Does that alter our plan any?” asked the cuttlefish woman, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Nope. Imani Hadžić has no idea where we are or what we’re doing.” Kitty said.

She then engaged the safety with a quick click of a finger and stowed the gun in her coat.

“You three keep an eye on her. Don’t do anything. You should only be under contract for like thirteen hours more, so just kick back and relax. If shit breaks bad, just retreat, and leave her here. Someone will find her eventually. We’re hitting up Bertrand’s tonight to avoid unnecessary issues with the staff. It’ll be tight, but we’ll make it before the packages. I’ll call you when the deed is done and you’re free to go.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Goodbye forever, Homa Baumann. I’m sorry we had to leave on such bad terms.”

Kitty waved her fingers at Homa and promptly left the bar through the front door.

Leaving Homa naked, cold, and alone with the two burly guards and the cuttlefish woman.

As soon as Kitty left, the cuttlefish woman wandered over to the bar and looked behind it.

“It’s dry here. It’s lifted above the flood level. I’m gonna move her chair over here.”

“Whatever you say.”

None of the burly men seemed particularly interested in the cuttlefish woman’s doings.

She grabbed Homa’s chair, seemingly without minding her weight, and moved the hurting and miserably cold Shimii from the flooded floor over behind the bar before setting her down. Homa’s feet touched dry ground, and she felt just a bit of relief. It felt far better when the woman cut open a bag and withdrew Homa’s jumpsuit and tanktop from it, laying the suit over Homa’s body like a blanket, and the rest of the clothes on her lap. She smiled at Homa, seemingly satisfied with the state of things.

Homa felt a brief distress, looking down at her belongings.

Her ID was still there, but her work permit keycard was gone. Kitty must have taken it.

Without it, Homa would not be able to get through the checkpoints!

That Katarran woman did not notice the shift in Homa’s expression back to a brief panic.

“There, it’s better now, isn’t it? Don’t worry– I only do what the client pays for. Wasting time hurting or killing you is just wasting my energy, and for a Katarran, time and stamina are money.”

She returned to the bar floor and pulled up one of the knocked-over chairs and sat on it.

It really did not matter that Kitty had not shot her dick off– Homa was effectively dead.

Without her papers– her mind started spiraling at the thought. All her work was undone.

Kitty had robbed her of everything she had worked so horribly hard for.

“Now we wait. Oh, you know what? Kitty left a few of these behind. These are useful.”

On the bar, the cuttlefish-woman picked up a small black plastic bag. Tearing it open, she withdrew a little black cylinder with three needles and a trigger on the back– a punch-injector.

“Here. This will make it more peaceful for you. I’m truly sorry for all the trouble.”

Reaching over the bar, the cuttlefish woman put the cylinder to Homa’s throat.

Immediately Homa recalled the sensation of the jab as if it was burned into her memory.

Homa struggled reflexively but had nowhere to move. Her tearful eyes soon shut again.

Once more, she fell unconscious, just like when Kitty had attacked her before.


Homa’s mind went black. Falling and falling incorporeally through a void of– colors.

Be At Peace. Sleep Well. Peaceful Place.

Homa’s world of pitch black became replaced with one of stark white.

Her body felt like it was suspended in mid-air, but she was not falling, she was not flying.

She realized she was lying down and staring at a sky of silver-white and gray tree crowns. Laying down in a puddle of lukewarm water, floating just above its surface. She was surrounded by enormous tree trunks. Far in the sky, the branches at the tops of the trees made up the sky, like clouds made of rocky bark. Between the trees, the colors swirled and traveled like floating rivers.

Peaceful Place. Safe Place. We’re Sorry.

That voice reverberated across the clearing in the forest, across Homa’s puddle.

It was so kind–

Homa wanted to cry. It was the kindest, gentlest voice that had ever spoken to her.

It was their voice– all of them were speaking. To each other. To her. To everything.

We’re Sorry.

“Don’t be sorry. Thank you. I can feel how much you care.”

In the next instant, Homa lost all buoyancy.

Her body sank right into the water. It was suddenly so deep, so crushingly heavy.

She sank farther and farther until the trees were impossible to view.

No matter how much she struggled, the pull of the water was inescapable.

Until the light completely vanished in front of her eyes.

Thrown from paradise down into the black depths of the Imbrium Ocean.

Awakening came like a hammer blow to her face.

Her eyes tearful, assaulted by the repugnant colors of the bar. Her sweat-soaked body, cold under the makeshift sheet of her jumpsuit, shivered as soon as sensation returned to it. Her empty lungs demanded choppy, sucking breaths that hurt her chest. She bent forward, caught between heaving from her dry, itching throat and sucking for air for her pounding chest, shaking all over.

Danger!

For the first time, Homa noticed Kitty hadn’t taken her necklace–

“Huh? You two, the door–!”

Light flashed from outside the door, briefly illuminating the room.

Thick smoke poured into the bar. The cuttlefish Katarran yelled for her companions.

Homa could see the silhouette of one of the men running to the side of the door. Putting his back to it, assault rifle in hand. He dropped a small device that he had perhaps intended to use to spy through the door, but it was useless, the smoke was thickest there. Grunting with frustration he reached the barrel of his rifle through the door and began to open fire indiscriminately–

At which point, something slipped into the room right under the gunfire.

There was a bright glint, an arcing flash like swinging a glowstick in a dark room.

In an instant the Katarran’s arm severed at the joint.

His assault rifle fell into the water. Homa heard the blood dribbling onto the floodwaters.

The assailant kicked the weapon away and in one fluid motion leaped the second burly Katarran, moving extremely quickly despite the flooded room. Homa did not even hear a splash, it was as if the figure glided over the surface, leaped in one bound. Heedless of the status of his companion, the second Katarran gunman opened fire toward the entrance of the bar. His wounded companion was cut down by the haphazard hail of bullets, a flashing muzzle in the dark, the sound of shell casings hitting water–

Immediately after, Homa saw that same glint as before, the flash of electricity–

Vibroblade– it was a vibroblade!

Having somehow avoided the gunfire, the assailant thrust the blade through the man.

Engaged to cut, it entered the Katarran’s chest, the light dimming inside him.

Flashing again, when the assailant cut free of his ribcage, spilling his flank onto the floor.

“I surrender! I surrender! I’m just a technician!”

That cuttlefish woman raised her arms and moved away from the Katarran’s gear in the corner of the room. At this point the smoke had begun to settle. Even the damaged air circulators in this disused bar could still sense smoke intermittently and began to suck it out. Once enough of the smoke had gone Homa saw more of the gory scene on the opposite side of the bar. At the door one of the Katarrans was riddled with bullets and his arm was a bloody stump. His blood streaked the water, flowing out of the bar due to the circulators struggling to dry up the floor. Farther along the windowed front wall, the second Katarran– Homa couldn’t even look. It was– it was all coming out of him. Everything inside him.

She didn’t want to think about it or see it.

Brandishing the edge of a vibroblade along the neck of the cuttlefish woman, it was–

Orderly dark blue hair, rounded, neatly manicured cat ears, a long, thick tail–

Glasses– a beautiful, coldly inexpressive, blood-spattered face–

Wearing a black uniform, cape hanging off her shoulders with clips, arms out of the sleeves.

“Imani! Imani, you came to rescue me!”

Homa screamed at the top of her lungs. Tears burst out of her eyes.

Imani Hadžić glanced her way. Her eyes briefly lingered. “I’m sorry it took me this long.”

She glanced down at the woman begging for her mercy.

“Homa, was it Kitty McRoosevelt who abducted you? These Katarrans work for her?”

At her feet, the Katarran woman clapped her hands together as if in prayer.

“Yes! It was her, and everyone here was working for her!” She cried out.

“Homa?” Imani asked again for confirmation.

“Y-Yes. It’s like she said.” Homa said. Imani had such a focused expression it was mildly frightening.

Once Homa’s mind began connecting the dots, her body started shaking again.

She had been focusing on the familiar face, reaching out for comfort.

But this wasn’t just the troubled girl she had a sweet date with, the girl she had her first kiss with. Imani Hadžić, in that uniform, was a deadly agent of the Volkisch Movement. On the sleeves of her jacket were the black sun armband and the sword and moon armband that Homa could not place, but she was still part of the Volkisch even without their common symbols. And what the Volkisch Movement did, as far as Homa knew and understood, was killing people. Imani Hadžić had come here to kill people.

Imani had killed two armed men like it was nothing. Using a personnel-size vibroblade.

None of them could even touch a hair on her head.

And now she had her sword to the throat of a third victim.

“Did Kitty tell you what she intended to do?” Imani asked the cuttlefish woman.

“We spoke in confidential language. We are just helping her deliver packages to B.S.W.”

“I see.”

Imani lifted the blade from the woman’s neck.

Her arm pulled back– Homa could already see the swing coming and held her breath–

Then their eyes met, across the room. Imani glanced at her with a troubled expression.

She swung the blade over the head of the cuttlefish woman.

Slicing the very tips of the diaphanous fins flapping up from the woman’s head.

“Think carefully about your choice of employer next time.”

Imani lifted her foot and kicked the woman in the face and into the nearby wall.

Where she came to rest, nose broken, eyes bruised and shut, lying limply in the water.

But with her chest rising and falling. She was breathing. She wasn’t dead.

Homa let out the air she had been sucking in. Accompanied by a tiny, helpless sob.

Imani sheathed her vibroblade and glanced about the room.

“Ya Allah…” She sighed. “What a mess. Let’s get you out of those bonds.”

Nonchalantly she walked behind the bar. Once she got to see Homa up close, her eyes drew a bit wide. Homa had her shoulders up, her head down, the jumpsuit falling off her and exposing her breasts. Her face was deeply flushed and felt hot. Not just from all the crying, screaming, and near-vomiting which she had suffered. She was acutely aware that she was bound and completely naked in front of Imani.

Imani pulled the jumpsuit off her and withdrew from her uniform a small vibroknife.

She crawled around close to the bar cut Homa’s hands free, and then her feet.

Homa thought she would die of embarrassment from having Imani all over her like this.

Far more material and readily present was all the pain that she felt.

Her wrists had red marks, as did her ankles. Her belly had an awful bruise. Her whole body ached from struggling against the bonds, from being stricken by Kitty, from the punctures by the drug injectors, and from the stressful position in which she had been bound to the chair. She felt like she had not eaten in a day and her limbs were like jelly when Imani helped her stand off the chair. Unfortunately, she was not so light-headed that anything felt dream-like. Homa was cursed by a sharpness of her faculties.

“Thank you, thank you, Imani,”

Homa embraced Imani tightly, and Imani gently embraced her back.

“How did you find me?” Homa asked.

Imani briefly knelt down, causing Homa’s heart to jump anew from embarrassment.

From the floor, she grabbed Homa’s portable. It had a bullet-hole right through it.

“This was designed to track you if you failed to answer my messages within a certain time.”

She handed the broken portable to Homa, along with, surprisingly, a fresh one.

“That one’s storage is still good. Copy everything over to this one when you can.”

“Imani–”

“Don’t mention it, okay? I want to stay in touch. Money is no object for my little Ho~ma~.”

Imani walked out from behind the bar with a smile.  

Homa put her clothes back on as quickly as she could and put both portables away.

She got the hang of walking again and rushed over to the Katarran woman on the wall.

Rifling through her suit, she found a communicator.

“Here, Imani! You can use this to track Kitty!”

Homa threw the communicator at Imani, who caught it.

Her own hands lingered a bit longer on the Katarran woman’s gear–

Because– a dark series of thoughts filled her mind as she noticed how calm Imani was.

“Imani, is Kitty really going to destroy the station? You don’t seem to be in a rush.”

All of this time, Imani had been content to sit passively and let Homa report on Kitty’s goings-on. At no point had Imani stopped Kitty despite knowing where she was and suspecting her of plotting some wrongdoing. She put Homa in danger, in fact, which Homa was easily willing to forgive because Imani’s face in the chaotic light of the bar looked too beautiful to hold accountable. She had been tracking Homa, so she was prepared, to some degree, for Homa to be abducted or endangered.

It looked to Homa like Imani knew everything that was going to happen.

And that she was letting it happen. She wasn’t even going to try the communicator.

This was the final tell– how calm Imani was standing in the center of the flooded bar.

Even now that Kitty’s plan was in motion. Imani did not see it as urgent.

“I’m grateful you came to my rescue. I was so scared. They even hurt me, Imani. But you have to tell me the truth now. You are not going to stop Kitty, are you? It’s like– you just wanted to use me to find out when Kitty’s plot got underway. But you aren’t going to stop it at all? I deserve to know.”

Imani averted her gaze.

“I– I wasn’t just using you. I had fun– I’d like to have a different relationship to you.”

“Imani, we can’t have a different relationship right now.” Homa said. “Right now– please tell me the truth. You owe it to me. Is Kitty going to destroy the station? If she is, then you must be completely insane. But she is not going to right? She’s doing something else. And you’re going to sit back and watch.”

Imani smiled gently. She laughed, just a little. It was a bitter laugh.

“Will Kitty McRoosevelt destroy the station? You know, I’m actually not certain, little Ho~ma~. It depends on how she feels. Hers will be the final judgment. Will her hatred toward us allow her to kill us so easily and readily? Will we deserve the fury of her broken heart? At first, I was certain she would not. But recently, Homa, I’ve been feeling like, I wish I could allow myself to destroy everything and remake it to serve my own little heart. Perhaps Kitty will indeed kill us all, profiting nobody in the process.”

She could not meet Homa’s gaze as she spoke. She arranged some hair behind her ear.

Homa silently watched her fidget. She drew nearer as if demanding a real answer that way.

“Kitty McRoosevelt is going to engineer a Core Separation to put the station complex out of live power and into on emergency backup power. Kreuzung is not well prepared for this kind of scenario. Kitty’s aim is to bring down the automated missile and gun defenses of the station complex. This will allow her to infiltrate combat troops and commence a coup. Kitty is a foreign agent, from the Cogitum.”

Speaking those words, Imani finally met Homa’s face with an eerie smile.

“Kitty doesn’t know that the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache is secretly underway to intervene. Her forces will be utterly destroyed, and the station will come under the command of my superior. Her name is Vesna Nasser. Daughter of the late Shimii revolutionary Osir Nasser. I am a member of the Volkisch because of her, Homa. I pledged myself to her cause, to fight to create a new future for the Shimii.”

Tears drew from Imani’s eyes. Smiling and weeping as she laid herself bare.

“Knowing all this, Homa– do you hate me? I don’t care if you find it unacceptable, but–”

Homa took a step in and without thinking or warning, pulled Imani into a kiss.

She threw her reluctance aside, brought her passion forward, seizing upon Imani.

Imani complied readily. Their tear-stained eyes met until hers closed.

Letting herself be taken in by Homa’s ardor, her capturing lips and the snare of her tongue.

One hand brushing Imani’s soft hair aside between kisses, stroking her cheek.

And the second, rising suddenly–

Sticking a punch injector of Kitty’s knockout drug into Imani’s neck.

She expected Imani to fight back then, to be roaring mad, to draw her blade–

Instead, both of them were weeping gently, eyes fixed again as Imani’s senses clouded.

Imani made no move to resist. As if, perhaps, she knew, and allowed it to happen.

Staring deep into her eyes, after tasting her lips– Homa could not help but cry.

“I don’t hate you.” Homa said. “I hate the things that happened to you.”

“Was that kiss real?” Imani asked. Her words slurring. Her face starting to numb.

“Yes. It was real. It wasn’t like the theater.” Homa said. “Imani I– I–”

She couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to Imani. Even though she did– painfully, she really did.

In that moment, Homa wanted to love Imani more than anything.

She wished they could keep texting and go on dates to stupid kitschy places.

But as long as Imani wore the evil skin of that uniform, Homa could not be with her.

That damned uniform, in that moment, Homa hated nothing more than the people behind it.

“Imani– I am going to make that Vesna Nasser regret putting all this in your head!”

Smiling, Imani drifted off to sleep in Homa’s arms.

Homa set her down in the corner with the remainder of the Katarran’s gear.

She quickly applied the last punch injector to the cuttlefish woman’s neck, making sure to prolong her unconsciousness so she wouldn’t wake up first and take revenge on Imani while she slept. Then, rummaging through Imani’s own gear, she took the small vibroknife– and a small pistol. Homa did not know the caliber or model, but it was suppressed, just like Kitty’s. It might come in handy. She had never fired a gun in anger, but she knew the principles behind it. Leija had shown her how to do it once.

Leija–

Swallowing hard, Homa realized what she was embroiled in and stifled a sob.

Crying hard over the sleeping body of Imani Hadžić. She took Kitty’s communicator back.

Looking at the objects in her hands. Weapons and tactical gear– it was war.

War had really come to Kreuzung Station once again. Everything was happening too fast.

All of Homa’s senses told her it was time to knuckle down and run away from this.

She was no hero, Imani would never be her princess to save, none of this was within her power.

Homa thought she was a useless girl who was unlucky enough to be dragged into a mess.

Everything attached to her spine hurt in some way.

She had never been in a real fight. Everyone in this bar could kick her ass.

And she was completely in over her head.

Just a helpless girl crying over the wreckage of everything she ever loved.

“But I can’t just sit here. I have to do something! I can’t just watch! I’d hate myself for it!”

Reflexively, Homa grabbed hold her necklace and squeezed the little rock tight.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she felt a warm, encouraging thought.

We Believe In You.

You Are Courageous.

Taken by a sudden impetus, Homa grit her teeth, put away the gear in her jumpsuit and took off running, splashing through the floor of the flooded bar, out into an unfamiliar and even more flooded street. She saw an elevator shaft in the distance and ran for it, knowing she would at least find the current block and tier on that elevator. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her through the part-flooded streets.

“I have to stop her. I have to stop her–”

Suddenly, for a second or two, everything went dark.

Darker than it had ever been. Pitch black. Every light, every monitor, everything.

Then the lights came back on. Homa stopped in her tracks.

Revolving red alarm lights flashed from every wall and the ceiling.

On every touch-capable surface, the screens began to display the same thing.

Large red letters and a symbolic image of a pillar being lifted from within a ring.

In every direction, from every surface, as total as the darkness before.

Homa stood, her shadow spinning around her with the red lights and flashing warnings.

Transfixed with eyes drawn wide and lips quivering, in water above her ankles.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING. CORE SEPARATION.


“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia?”

Deep beneath the baseplate of Kreuzung’s Core Station tower were the nearly-abandoned maintenance tunnels for some of the lower-class blocks. Several had flooded, but there were just enough operable passages for the interests of its current occupants, and the flooding in the rest was pretty convenient on the whole. In a long square room, heavily ventilated but with rather poor air circulation due to mechanical failures, the smell of iron from coagulating blood and decaying flesh lingered. Maimed corpses had been lined up against the walls. Someone had put their hands together as if in macabre prayer.

Between the dead worshipers stood two figures.

One entirely pale androgynous body, short-haired, lean, in a white robe.

Another a pale, dark-haired woman in a long black dress, long-limbed, yellow-eyed.

Her face was stark white, with beautiful but vacant features like an exquisite doll.

Over her head, orbited a halo like a circle of blood, semi-solid and spinning.

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia? Tristitia fulfilled her previous purpose.”

Her hands were stained with the blood of the room’s most recent occupant.

“I keep telling you, these are only orders or tasks. A purpose shouldn’t be something as minor as killing people and collecting their bodies! Your purpose should be grand, Enforcer VIII!”

The White-Robed Figure laid their hands on the shoulders of their companion.

“What should be Tristitia’s purpose?”

“Of course, your purpose should be to worship! To become closer to God!”

“Tristitia does not understand. How would Tristitia carry out ‘worship’?”

“Oh but that is a fraught subject! Even with our vast potential, such questions elude us!”

“Tristitia does not understand. Please try to explain Tristitia’s new purpose.”

“It is fine! A fine question! I have not come unprepared! I have been thinking about this, in fact. What should be the form of worship? Why, worship should be closeness to God. But what is God? To know God we must appreciate the form of God. But then what is the form of God? God is the greatest beauty, the greatest strength, the greatest perception– but then, what is the form of greatness? Greatness is indefatigable, unstoppable, uncontrollable, uncollapsible! Therefore–”

“Tristitia does not understand.”

Tristitia’s words were no longer being heeded. Her companion was now lost in rhetoric.

“Of course, a God can only be worshiped by sentient, living beings, and as such, a God must be perceptible to them. There is only one power that can be called greatest and unstoppable, while being perceptible to sentient beings– the power of our Lord and Savior Arbitrator II, Titan of Aether! It is the Aether that is the attainable form of God to which the living must aspire!”

They threw their hands up and smiled with vibrating, sharp teeth at the steel roof.

“Endless stillness adrift! Thought flowing downstream! Without space, time, or form, only the purity of the mind released from the impetus of flesh! This is the true form of God– so why worship through hard work and dedication? When God is peace itself? No, no, no– one can only approximate the form of God through Sloth! Sloth so unmoving and grand it reverses creation! That is true worship! That is true Sloth! Our God is only reachable through the ultimate stillness! Be it death or enlightenment!”

After their screaming tirade, the creature turned to their companion with expectant eyes.

“Well? Well?” They demanded.

“Do you have an actionable purpose for Tristitia?” She replied in a dry tone of voice.

“Actionable?”

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia, that Tristitia can actually understand.”

One deadpan voice, belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VIII, “The Despair”– or Tristitia.

And one hysterical, impassioned voice belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VI, “The Sloth.”

These were the only sounds reverberating from these old maintenance tunnels.

Until–

A series of alarms began to ring out from the upper floors.

When they finally made it to the maintenance tunnels, the warnings lit up the cracked screens on the walls behind the corners, creating and eerie scene dominated by the color red rather than the dim yellow-white of tunnel’s LEDs. The appearance of these warnings seemed to cheer up Enforcer VI once again, to the degree that they started cackling almost in tandem with them.

“A signal from God! Oh purposeless doll, it appears it is time for a task after all!”

Enforcer VI turned nonchalantly toward Enforcer VIII, and from the interior of their robe, procured a round lump of meat wrapped in a silvery skin. Enforcer VIII stood blankly staring while Enforce VI shoved two fingers into her mouth, forced it open, and tipped the morsel inside before shutting Enforcer VIII’s jaw forcefully, as if demonstrating to her how she should chew the blob.

“Create a combat form and depart! The Imbrians have begun the festivities!”

Enforcer VIII began to chew the fleshy fruit herself. Her eyes glowed with red circles.

Omenseeing.”

Around the room, the corpses began to stir, to soften, to melt down and slide away.

Coalescing around the blank-faced, angelic doll as a powerful shell of bone, blood, muscle.

“Your purpose is to stalk through this chaos and kill the heretics! Let the festival begin!”            

A choked voice sounded from within the roiling flesh.

“Tristitia will fulfill this purpose.”


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