The Day [4.7]

“Victoria, what are you talking about?”

Elena hardly knew what to say, think or do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena felt a breeze blow by the two of them.

This was not a dream. It was really happening.

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

What was Victoria doing?

Elena could almost see it.

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

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

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

“Your suggestion? What are you talking about?”

Elena remembered something then. Her dream.

She had dreamt of Victoria’s parting.

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

Had that part happened?

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

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

What was Victoria doing?!

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

She wanted to believe that Victoria was merely confused.

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

She extended her hand.

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

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

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

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

Victoria, however, just seemed annoyed with her.

Her tail dipped low and started flicking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all understood how impossible that was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria swept her hand.

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

As if a massive force had struck–

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

Elena screeched and drew back from the hole.

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

Victoria’s eyes had those red rings again.

Red glowing rings around her eyes.

Was Victoria doing this?

What was– Victoria– WHAT WAS VICTORIA DOING?

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

Victoria mumbled that almost as if to herself.

Her eyes then returned to their normal blue.

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

Elena was not ready to hear that impassioned declaration.

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

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

“Sawyer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She will not make it in time.”

Victoria’s eyes turned red again.

Something grabbed hold of Elena.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena managed to say this between panicked little sobs.

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

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

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

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

“Come with me, now.”

“That’s no way to talk to a lady.”

From Victoria’s side came a rushing figure.

Fast enough it took Elena by surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena was so speechless.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew it was the home of Elena von Fueller.

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

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

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

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

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

So he stared down their commander on his screen.

He had no choice but to appear strong.

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

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

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

Was she just giving him a chance to respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle had finally been joined for Vogelheim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once more, the Cruiser at the head opened fire.

This time, the shells flew past their intended targets.

Not too far past.

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

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

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

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

It was not long before the Gun-Frigates noticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would Volkers even fit inside them?

Obviously, those were the missiles. Missile Frigates carried slim, fast torpedoes powered by rockets that launched overhead and then arced down. They were not guided by wire, but they were fast and disruptive and provoked an answer whenever they were fired.

So Patrosku answered.

“We need a curtain of fire to intercept those missiles! Now!”

“Sir, those are Divers, the computer is saying–”

“I know what it’s saying! Curtain fire, now!”

The Cutters responded to the predicted incoming missiles — until a squadron of five Volkers swam into their formation.

Just as a Cutter was lighter and faster than any other ship, a Diver was lighter and faster than a Cutter. Dashing through the water with a grace seemingly mismatched with their rounded chassis, the Volkers suddenly skirted the rapid-fire gas guns on the Cutters and brought to bear their 37mm Sturmgewehr assault rifles at shockingly close range.

Disciplined, three-round bursts from the assault rifles punched holes the size of a fist into the armor of several of the Cutters. Alarms sounded, and exposed compartments were locked quickly, with the Cutters’ automated self-repair deploying emergency sealants to close the gaps and bind the armor together enough to resist pressure again. But Cutters were so small that these disruptions ended up disabling several systems and rendering the limping ships unable to fight.

Suddenly, the battle was hopeless again as the patrol fleet fell into complete disarray.

To think, the Volkisch contrived such a way to deploy Divers!

Patrosku watched in terror as amid the barrage from the Flotilla, several Volkers charged right past the patrol fleet and headed straight for Vogelheim. His computer calculated at least fifteen Divers deployed, maybe twenty. There was no hope of stopping them anymore.


Sturmbannführer Hiedelinde Sawyer stood on a raised platform in the middle of the bridge of the battlecruiser Greater Imbria, arms crossed, her chair empty right behind her. They had lost the Venable and who knew how many souls aboard, but the Volkisch were not deterred so easily by loss.

Once the battle was won they could mount a rescue operation.

Sawyer was confident in her plan. And she knew the leadership was behind her. Lehner had personally given his approval for her mission.

Greater Imbria and its crew, as well as the two missile frigates Gladius and Spartan, had professional staff who had been turned to the side of the national proletariat by agents of the Volkisch. They had essentially defected from the Imperial Navy to join the Volkisch. But the gun Frigates were staffed by militia and the vessels were fresh out of Rhineland Shipyards.

Sawyer knew who she could and could not rely upon.

“Order the Divers to attack! I want a squadron to defend us, another to secure the station exterior and two squadrons to enter the station. All groups be careful when firing your weapons!”

As she said this, one of the gun frigates discharged a volley of 75 mm coilgun rounds that flew straight through the enemy Cutters and past.

It was impossible to tell whether damage had been done to the station, but Sawyer grit her teeth. Telling them to stop firing was not an option, but the undisciplined gunners might do more harm than good.

She had to get a hold of the situation.

“Tell the Frigates to mind their guns! We can’t damage the station!”

“We should moderate our own fire as well.”

Her yelling attracted the attention of the First Officer, returning from doing rounds around the ship to inspect the combat stations. She put on a little grin as she arrived. Sawyer glanced over to her when the door opened and then turned back around to continue following the battle on the monitors. She hopped up onto the island in the middle of the bridge and patted Sawyer on the shoulder. “We’ve taken minor damage, mostly to the armor.”

“I knew I could count on you to move fast, but even I’m impressed.”

Sawyer had sent her to check the hangar and weapons when the battle started.

For her to have returned in a few minutes was extraordinary considering the ship’s size.

“I didn’t have to go too far. I have these, remember?”

Sawyer barely looked at her while she spoke, but that remark prompted her to glance at her first officer. Holding the rank of Untersturmführer in the Volkisch, her name was Rue Skalbeck. She was a fit young woman, blond hair decorated with red highlights, wearing a pristine, all-black uniform much like Sawyer’s. She was neither as tall, nor as strong as Sawyer but the closest physical match to her on the ship. Her most distinctive feature, however, were the cybernetics on her body, a pair of black antennae the width and length of a finger along the sides of her head.

Those implants helped correct deformities in her brain, and allowed her to interface easily with machines, as well as perform some often-forgotten tasks of electronic warfare that were usually delegated to algorithms and subroutines of the computers automatically. There were some strains of Volkisch ideology that balked at people such as Rue being allowed to serve, or even to live; but for Sawyer, military power and potential was everything, and Rue was strong enough. It was the fact that she would kill for the National Proletariat that made her a peer member of it.

Her relationship with Rue exemplified the essence of the Volkisch modus.

It was the barest simplicity in the world. There were those who deserved, or indeed, who had to be killed, and those who would kill them, for the volk to survive. Other fringe theories aside, it was this strand of thought that unified the Volkisch. At the present, they agreed on who had to be killed to protect the future of the National Proletariat, and its core in Rhinea.

Sawyer would end Erich von Fueller’s reign here.

And perhaps commence her own.

One step at a time; dialing back from that bloodthirsty series of thoughts, Sawyer merely smiled. “Sometimes I forget that you have those bits.” She said, looking Rue in the eyes.

“That’s kind of you. I knew you were sweet for me.”

Rue put on an antagonistically cheerful expression, full of mockery.

Sawyer stopped looking at her at that point.

Before joining the Volkisch Movement, Rue outranked her in the Imperial Navy.

Within the Volkisch she was the equivalent of a Leutnant due to her “physical deformity.”

Not that you could tell that cheerful, pretty girl was “deformed” without a lot of ideology.

“Did you beam the instructions over to the entry team?” She asked.

“Taken care of a long time ago. The Entry Team is already past the enemy fleet.”

“Good. Do you think those blueprints were authentic?”

“You’ve asked me this three times.”

“Answer a fourth time then, Untersturmführer.”

Rue rolled her eyes. She could do this precisely because of Sawyer’s constant tough girl act. She really wasn’t even looking at Rue and couldn’t have seen her expressions behind her.

“Yes, I fully believe in their integrity. I know you’d punch me in the face if I did things half-assed, so of course I wouldn’t show you any bullshit. As soon as I scraped the contents of the leaks off the network, I compared similar station diagrams which are public. Vogelheim is just another NewType-Castle Mod. IV station. Since the similarities are so exact, the differences must be the real deal, or else, structurally, the diagram wouldn’t make any sense in comparison.”

“I’m counting on you.” Sawyer said.

“Yes, I’m the degenerate, subhuman brain to your ubermenschen brawn.”

“Oh, shut up. You chose to be here.”

“I do it all for you, my love.”

Rue blew a kiss behind her back, but Sawyer didn’t see it.

In the stations around them, the men and women looked briefly concerned.

But it was far, far above their station to say anything.

Sawyer sighed openly but gave no response to the love-comedy Rue was putting on.

Rue took notice and sighed herself. She then changed the subject.

“At any rate, you’re overlooking the piece of information that can’t be corroborated.”

“The presence of Erich von Fueller, you mean?” Sawyer said. Rue smiled.

“According to the leaks, Vogelheim has been the home slash prison of Elena von Fueller for the past several years. She could be anywhere, so it doesn’t really matter, but Erich von Fueller’s visit coinciding with her birthday is time sensitive. For all we know, he came and went already, or he never came at all. That’s information that we are basically just gambling on.”

Sawyer hadn’t really thought of that name in a long time.

Elena von Fueller.

She remembered that bitchy elf girl from Luxembourg who drew together a band of other weirdos who fit in nowhere else. Self-absorbed, and stubborn, and sickeningly kind, never wanting to see the faults in others. And yet, she was not popular at the school. Nobody else wanted to deal with her and her baggage; everyone else was terrified of her. So she had no one in the world, but Sawyer; and her other two “friends,” Victoria and Gertrude.

Gertrude: that bitch never saw eye to eye with her.

Another nasty name to remember.

Sawyer almost felt a grim satisfaction at being able to potentially snatch something from Gertrude.

Elena was useless in and of herself but could be an asset with the nobles.

Rue shrugged, continuing to speak. “So really, this could all just be tragically pointless.”

“It’s not pointless.”

Sawyer replied brusquely. Rue took note of her tone and checked herself.

“Someone had to make the first move. We’re making an example. We can attack deep into the Palatinate’s territory. Those useless aristocrats will have to take us seriously after today and come to terms with our uprising. We will make them see that nobody can protect them anymore.”

Rue grinned at her.

“Will you break the taboo then? Take down the whole station as a show of force?”

“Of course not.”

Sawyer snapped back. Something like that was unthinkable.

Living space in the Imbrium was precious. Destroying a station was an unholy act.

For Rue to even consider it showed her utter morbidity of character.

But also why Sawyer treasured her as a companion.

Rue, ultimately, was her kind of crazy.

“We’re going to claim this station, minimize damage–”

“Then we should restrain our violence. Sawyer, the main gun–”

At that point both of them were interrupted. Both by a shouting voice and a screen.

“Heavy coilgun ready to fire again, Sturmbannführer!” shouted a gunnery officer.

“What are you waiting for then? Fire at will! Destroy those patrol cutters!”

“Sawyer, wait–”

Before Rue could explain herself further, the main operations screen displayed a prow-facing camera that briefly showed high-definition footage of the main gun firing. Two projectiles launched carving neat, symmetrical lines into the water around them. Quickly the screen switched from the camera view to a broader view which was not possible underwater with cameras: it was an algorithmic reconstruction of the battlefield, rendered to enable them to “see” the battle.

Water was displayed as a pale blue filter over a world of floating objects, and these objects were outlined within so that they were crisp and easy to perceive out to several hundred meters — if only real water was anything like that! In areas where an explosion had gone off the water was darkened or reddened, using sensor data to show the intensity of the explosion or how recently the water was disturbed in the wake of a fading blast. It was like watching the world through the eyes of a God with mastery over the ocean. Like seeing through air instead of water. Hundreds of lines split the water, representing the trajectories of the shells being exchanged. Divers rushing to destroy enemy ships at close range and enemy ships fighting them were all marked for the viewer.

They could see the terrifying fusillade raging between their fleets in all of its glory. On camera, only the closest explosions registered. You could die before you ever saw what killed you. You might see the projectile a split second before it smashes into the deck. Sawyer and Rue were both used to staring at these screens, and so was anyone who was a veteran of aquatic combat.

“Sawyer, the main gun alignment is off!” Rue finally said.

“What? How did it–?”

On the algorithmic display, the digital “camera” that was once placed so as to mimic a real camera watching the ocean from the prow of the ship, pulled out into an “overhead” view that was impossible with any cameras they had deployed. This view showed the topography, predicted trajectories of enemy and allied ships, divers, and of course, all of the ordnance travelling between.

Both the rounds fired from the main gun appeared quickly on this view.

An alert then sounded. Something had misaligned. A shot had “missed.”

One round carved into the side of an enemy Cutter and split the ship in half.

A red bubble was placed around the second round to alert Sawyer of the problem.

That second 150mm round was predicted to fly past the enemy to strike Vogelheim.

According to the computer it would climb and detonate on the station pillar’s outer layer.

A breach was predicted: sizable enough that it would need a containment response.

There would be no response. Wireless communication was short distance underwater. They could not contact their entry teams to tell them. And the entry teams would be fighting the guards and engineers at Vogelheim, preventing them from responding. It would be a disaster.

At the speeds that they were dealing with, by the time Sawyer and Rue fully viewed the alert on the screen, if the prediction was correct, the munition had already hit Vogelheim. Every second precipitated calamity.

And this time, it was not something that they could see or confirm unless they charged ahead. Until they had an entry team tapped into Vogelheim, they could not contact them in any way. All of this had happened without them seeing with no time to respond.

Silence fell upon the bridge for a moment.

Everyone felt the vibrations of an intercepted torpedo, transferring through the floor. It was that silent, silent enough that all the things their loud lives hid from them were suddenly laid bare. There were explosions going off all around them. When they were engaged in work it was easy to forget the sheer hostility that was outside the ship. And yet, now, they were all transfixed. Nobody said a word, and everyone raised their heads from their personal screens to stare at the alerts.

In that moment they had destroyed a station. It was starting to dawn on them.

“Rue, connect us to the Socrates!” Sawyer said suddenly. Socrates was their engineering ship, which had been working on battlefield communications. “If they’ve got the groundline ready, you can tap into the station network and contact the entry team! Get creative, use whatever you can! We have to tell them to check for a breach. Emergency sealant can slow it down!”

Sawyer was gripped in a passion, her eyes fiery, her words loud — but trembling.

Rue could not muster such passion. Almost bleary-eyed, she saluted.

It was an eerie, surreal feeling. To have destroyed a little world without even seeing it.

That was the nature of war under the ocean.


What did it mean when Victoria’s eyes turned red?

Elena could not figure it out.

“I’m not in the business of shooting at girls. I’d like to think of myself as a friend to all girls. So, since you care so much about Elena, just turn around and go. She’ll be safe.”

Marina continued to taunt her.

Elena wished she knew what to do to set things right.

For a moment, there was tense silence between them. Marina had her gun out but wasn’t shooting. Victoria had fully stood up from the ground but was not moving. They were sizing each other up. Marina had obviously discarded any possibility that Victoria could be a threat to anyone but the weak and panicking princess on the ground behind her. She had no weapons to threaten Marina with, while Marina had a pistol.

Victoria was clearly clever; but was she outmatched?

Then Victoria lifted her hand to Marina, who was puzzled by the reaction.

“Stop right now. I’ll shoot your fucking knee. No ballroom dancing for you anymore. I said stop it–!”

Victoria made a pulling motion with her hands, her eyes glowing bright red.

“What the–? I’m not joking you little twerp, I’ll shoot–”

Before Marina could get out another threat, the floor suddenly slipped out from under her.

Something had struck at her feet and shifted the dirt she was standing on.

Marina fell over backwards, almost on top of Elena, who scampered away in shock.

Her gun remained in her hands.

As she hit the ground she raised the weapon.

Then her finger stopped right inside the trigger guard, unable to press down.

Her hand tensed and shook. From a seated position, she had the gun trained on Victoria.

Her hand wouldn’t fire. And it was not her own trepidation.

It was if something was holding her trigger finger.

Victoria twisted her hand in mid-air.

Marina’s whole body tensed up. Her jaw clenched. She choked out words.

“Stop– Stop touching me– Stop–”

In that instant, Elena was suddenly bombarded with sensation.

She understood what Marina was feeling.

She could almost hear what Marina was thinking.

Sparks were flying just under Marina’s skin. She hated being touched; she was afraid of it. So many people had touched her in terribly wrong, terribly painful ways. That traumatic sense of danger she felt whenever someone touched her started to flare up, but nothing was touching her. Elena was not, and Victoria was nowhere near. But something was grabbing her hair, twisting her wrists, squeezing her fingers, stepping on her feet, and forcing her mouth to grit closed.

Elena could almost see it, like millions of little fingers all pressing on her at once.

All of Marina’s senses were firing, screaming.

And so, in turn, did all of Elena’s.

Elena nearly vomited. Her eyes were burning.

She was overwhelmed with empathy for Marina’s overwhelming disgust.

Her eyes started to weep. It wasn’t even her own tears.

They were Marina’s. Tears for Marina’s own unweeping eyes.

And when Elena looked at those eyes, physically, rather than mentally–

Red rings appeared around Marina’s eyes, matching those around Victoria’s.

She was shaking from the peak of her head to the tips of her fingers.

Then, suddenly, Marina’s hand started to move, irrespective of her own wishes.

Her arms and legs were used to stand her body up, despite all of her resistance.

Slowly, trembling, she removed the magazine from her pistol and discarded it.

There was one round in the chamber still.

Victoria dispassionately watched with those frightening eyes as Marina lifted the pistol up to her head, putting the barrel over one of her eyes. Her struggling jaw and tongue made whimpering, terrified noises, but she could not speak, move or resist. She was completely helpless.

Elena had to finally stand.

She could not endure anymore what was happening.

“Victoria! Stop! Please, oh my god, stop!”

Elena rushed from the floor and embraced Victoria, throwing her arms around her.

She could think of nothing else to do. Nothing that would fix what was happening.

She wept openly in Victoria’s shoulders, while the Shimii continued to glare past her.

“Stop it! Please stop! I can’t– I can’t bear to see this! Please! Please! This isn’t you!”

“You’re wrong. This is me. I have the fullness of my faculties.”

Victoria swept her hand. Elena screamed and shut her eyes.

Rather than a bang, she heard a dull thump.

Marina was lifted bodily and thrown back against a tree, where she came to feebly slump.

Victoria’s eyes turned a clear blue color again. Her voice was as cold as ever.

She shoved Elena’s arms from around her, and then grabbed her by the wrist.

“Are you finally going to do what I say?” Victoria asked.

Elena, eyes swollen with tears, her body trembling, gave a despondent nod of the head.  

“I’ll go with you. Please, just don’t hurt anyone here.”

“Fine. For you, I’ll promise I won’t.”

Elena tried to smile, but a sudden report shut out all of her senses.

She heard a discharge so loud that the noise ripped through her stomach.

Victoria’s head bobbed suddenly.

Something splashed on Elena’s chest, on her cheek.

Blood.

A streak of blood.

There was a clatter on the ground behind them.

Marina dropped her empty gun, fell to her side, and started to retch and vomit.

Victoria toppled over.

“No. Please. No. No. No! No–”

Elena sank to her knees next to Victoria’s body and tried to pick her up, to shake her. There was so much blood running down her forehead that it was impossible to see a wound, but Elena was sure she was dead.

Her fingertips could not feel anything anymore, but she was sure all the warmth was draining from Victoria as she held her.

Marina had killed her; she had killed Victoria.

Little Victoria from school who loved books and was quiet and a little cold, and nobody could get along with– except perhaps the forgotten, useless princess, the brusque school bully, and the stuck-up aspiring knight whom fate had brought together and then so suddenly torn apart.

People who had overnight disappeared from her life.

And here, maybe she had a second chance and then– and then everything happened. It was so sudden that Elena’s life had gone from the stasis of her prison in Vogelheim, to recalling the day to day shocks of her school days with her rocky little group and having to reconcile it.

Why was all of this happening? Why now?

What had gone wrong? What could she have done to avert all of this?

You’re really hard to love— had Sawyer been right?

Was all of this Elena’s fault? Her mind was racing through the horrible possibility.

Behind them, Marina was starting to stand on shaking legs.

She appeared almost as shocked at her own actions as Elena was with them.

“God damn it.” She mumbled. She grabbed hold of her own stomach.

Marina stumbled.

She dropped back to her knees, holding herself up by her hands, gagging.

Elena felt the ground shake.

She nearly fell back herself, and she was just sitting.

The quake transferred through her body, from deep in her gut to the tips of her fingers–

Victoria stirred.

Elena looked down at her, eyes drawn wide.

Fresh tears immediately followed.

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Through the blood that had spilled over them, Victoria opened her eyes.

Staring past Elena, up into the sky overhead.

“It’s failing.” She said, breathlessly.

Again the ground rumbled.

Victoria’s cat-like ears twitched. She raised her hand toward the heavens.

Elena looked up at the sky, following Victoria’s fingers.

Bands of color began to break across the blue sky and its fake clouds.

Something formed that split the firmament. A streak, a crack of visual noise.

There was a brief flash as the sky fully lost its contours.

What was once the sun was revealed to be a complex array of mechanical lights.

All around them, the illusion of a horizon and a sky was fully torn down.

Those massive panels that once created a sky now showed what was really outside.

When the heavens came down, there was only the dim, endless blue of the Imbrium.

Elena could not identify it, but what she was seeing was an algorithmic predictive image of the ocean. That was why she saw in all its vivid horror and glory the massive Cruiser Greater Imbria approaching Vogelheim, surrounded by the shattered and shattering remains of several other vessels which had failed to protect the station and flanked by many other ships and divers.

Her mind was reeling from the sight of her little storybook world coming suddenly down.

Victoria’s voice strained. “You can’t run from this anymore, Elena.”


Unjust Depths

Series 1: The Death March To Buren

Episode 4.7: The Day [[Her Sky Shattered]]

Even if it brings the world to the brink of ruin, you must demand justice.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.6]

This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.

Every soldier dreamed about their beloved on long, lonely voyages.

Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.

She expected nothing, knowing the impossible social positions they occupied.

And yet, despite everything, on this one insane, false nightfall in this forgotten island–

Was it actually a dream? Would she wake up in the Iron Lady, alone again?

Gertrude scolded herself internally.

No fantasy could ever measure up to the feeling of lying in bed, holding Elena in her arms, squeezing the princess’ back against her chest. Skin to skin, with nothing between them. Sweating profusely despite the best efforts of the climate control system. Shivering when touched, still tender and sensitive. Gertrude could have never imagined the Princess would have sought her out not just for emotional support but physical pleasure.

She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!

It was a sight, that indigo head of hair enthusiastically exploring between Gertrude’s legs, clumsily returning the affection that Gertrude had given without expecting anything back. The memory would last her a few more years at sea, though hopefully it would not be so long. It could have never been a dream; Gertrude would not have let herself dream it.

“Gertrude.”

Agitated, a little weakened, facing away from Gertrude, the Princess’ voice rose up.

“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not staying the night.”

Gertrude held her even tighter.

Elena felt almost diaphanous in her hands. Like she was made of silk.

She had her strengths. She didn’t see herself as weak.

But she was frail, delicate, precious.

In the times that they lived in now she was more vulnerable than ever before.

“I have to go. But I will stay until the very last second I can.”

“Just– just hold me for a bit. If you do that, I’ll last a few more years too, like you said.”

Elena giggled a little. Gertrude was surprised to hear it.

She turned around in Gertrude’s arms, locking eyes with her.

“I’m glad you were my first time.”

She craned her head and kissed Gertrude softly on the lips.

Gertrude laid a hand on Elena’s hair and pulled her head into her chest.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. You were my first too, Princess.”


“Those two remind you of yourself and Leda. That’s why you let her into Vogelheim.”

“Shut up. Don’t bring that up. The Prince made his decision, and so I made mine.”

“So then, it’s true. After all, if you wanted to, you could have stopped her–”

Bethany struck Marina’s bare back with her palm. Marina nearly jumped.

“You don’t get to be cheeky, you whimpering little spoon. Be glad I’m this kind to you.”

Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.

“Fine, fine. Be tender with me! I can’t ask this of just anyone I seduce, you know?”

“God, I feel so special right now.”

Save for a few indiscretions over the years, Bethany’s sex life was nonexistent.

So, she could not help but actually feel a bit special about Marina.

Not that she would tell the fucking spy those honest feelings.

Moreso than just sex, as good as the sex had been, Marina wanted to be held and comforted, and in a way, that comforted Bethany as well. It had been even longer since she had a lover who stayed the night, who stayed in her bed, with whom she could share a bit of warmth. A lover whose hair she could smell, whose sweat she could taste as she nuzzled her neck. In the same way that Marina could not ask this “of just anyone,” Bethany was also restricted in whom she could have this kind of affection with. This was the sort of simulacra of love that required a shared history to maintain the illusion. Anyone else whom Bethany could love like this was already dead.

Marina and Bethany had a connection: revolving around a third woman they had loved.

A colossus of a woman who was going to shake the entire world, and certainly shook theirs.

A dead woman that both of them failed in their own ways, and then abandoned.

These two women lay in a big, ornate bed together like royalty, one holding the other.

Bethany rubbed Marina’s back briefly. As she suspected, Marina had artificially hidden her scars. It felt like there were even new ones.

Her only visible scar was the one Leda put on her chest; so Bethany would recall it.

Were you tortured? What have you been doing? Why are you Marina now?

Why didn’t you return to the Republic when the plot failed?

Those were the questions she wanted to ask. But that just wasn’t their relationship.

“Might I hope for a massage tonight? Dare I dream of such luxury?”

“Maybe. You’re so pathetic that I’m considering it.”

“Do you have a smoke around?”

“No. Your lungs will thank you for it.”

“I could really go for one.”

Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.

All of this was far too nostalgic and idyllic for Bethany.

She knew that the world was a bleak place where people used and abused each other.

“Marina, why are you here? You didn’t come to Vogelheim just for me.” She said.

She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.

“I told you, completely honestly, I wanted to reconnect. It’s our last chance for that.”

Marina was not lying. Bethany knew that. But she was not telling the whole truth.

“You want to take Elena away. Tell me why.” Bethany said.

There was no other possible reason.

Had it been anyone else, she might have said ‘You want to kill Elena.’

But she knew that, even for the G.I.A., this particular spy would not do such a thing.

“She just looks so much like her mother. I can’t help myself.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“Yeah, I was grossed out by myself the moment I said it. I apologize.”

“Apologize by telling me the truth.”

Bethany started to rub Marina’s back, working her way up to her stiff shoulders.

Marina was quiet for a few moments, taking in the touch.

She still quivered, every so often, when there was a new movement she was not used to.

It was obvious that she had been hurt. She had been hurt really badly.

“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”

“The Union? Are you insane?”

Bethany was quite scandalized. Even someone like her, who had been part of subversive plots in the Empire, and who held quite a few grudges against her government, still nursed the Empire’s prejudice against the vicious communists to the South. What was the G.I.A. doing?

“We’re allies. The Union and the Republic; right now, the communists are our only remaining military power in the Western oceans. We can depend on them. They’re more reliable than you think.”

“Marina, I could understand taking her to the Republic, but–”

“How? The Empire is occupying the Ayre Reach. If we take Elena to the Union she can be safe until the Republic’s counteroffensive opens a route to get her to Alayze. That’s my plan. Listen, Bethany, I got some new contacts. I have some assets I can rely on to smuggle me and Elena into the Union. This is incumbent on us moving quickly. I can have her in the Union in a week.”

Bethany sighed into Marina’s back. She squeezed her shoulders a bit harder than before.

“Hey, careful.”

“I’ve done unthinkable things for Elena’s safety. And yet, this is giving me pause.”

“Bethany, this location won’t be safe anymore. Erich leaked it for a reason. It’s his way of telling you that he will not protect Elena anymore. They are not blood related, and she has no place in his Empire. I don’t know what kind of resources you have or what sort of deal you had with him, but it’s done now. He invited a bunch of nobles to meet him here, then he stood you all up. That’s his signal. Those people are on the chopping block and so is this entire island now.”

Bethany turned Marina around to face her.

For a moment, Marina struggled. She turned a pair of blank, panicked eyes on Bethany.

“Solceanos defend, I thought you wanted to garrote me or something!”

“Garrote you?”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m running an anxiety high here.”

Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.

She was tired, weary. Spent, even. Why was she doing all of this?

“It’s incredibly lame for a spy to keep telling me how fucked up she is.”

“It’s all part of my play, darling.”

“Marina tell me what you know. Do you have information on a plot against Elena?”

Bethany looked Marina dead in eyes. Not with anger, but with hope.

Hope for some kind of cooperation. To break the barrier that made them lie to each other.

Marina looked back at her. Again, her eyes were completely weary.

“I don’t have anything on an actual plot, but I can surmise one will happen. Vogelheim’s location has made it outside the ring of nobles invited to this meeting. I know because the info was sold to me. Ever since the Web network expanded to encompass the Empire instead of individual station LANs, it’s become huge in the underworld. Elena’s location is spreading, Bethany.”

“I’m not so savvy about this interweb stuff. But I get the point. Vogelheim is not secret anymore. So you’re afraid that Elena can’t stay here because someone could possibly target her.”

Marina sighed, as if it were worse than Bethany described.

“Erich told the nobles that he invited to Vogelheim that he would be meeting them here. You know this. If one of those nobles leaked that information then they leaked his presence too.”

At that point, the real danger of the situation finally hit Bethany.

She had been so stupid! She had been so stupid about everything!

It was not just that Elena was here. It was not in fact about Elena at all.

Outside entities had information that led them to believe that Erich was in a vulnerable location. He was not among his invincible, all-conquering fleet, he was hiding in a backwater station. He had gone to Vogelheim, a place that was now known to be important, to those who sought such information, to celebrate his sister’s birthday with a coterie of close aristocrats.

To know about Vogelheim was one thing. To know Erich would be there was much more.

For all of his rivals, it would seem a perfect chance to squash him and any alliances he was hoping to build within the aristocracy. Elena and Vogelheim would just be collateral damage.

“Solceanos protect us.”

“No, I will protect her. You have to let me take her, Bethany.”

Bethany was stunned speechless.

All those years ago, she had promised Leda that she would protect Elena.

She had stood by Elena’s side through her teenage and adult life.

Under the guise of teaching her, seeing to her, being the servant every noblewoman needed to have at hand to succeed in high society. Bethany also protected her. Marina was right when she said Bethany could have refused Gertrude entrance to Vogelheim. She had that right; that power. It was not only Erich who had granted it. Bethany had prepared defenses and contingencies.

She had never prepared for Erich himself to betray Elena. It was impossible to prepare for such a thing. It was like preparing against the wrath of God. Like trying to stop heaven from falling.

“I can protect her, Bethany.”

Marina looked into her eyes again. There was suddenly conviction, behind them.

Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.

“Tomorrow. Please. Let her have this for tonight. Let– let me have this.”

Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.

She returned Bethany’s embrace. Slowly; probing, as if fleetingly afraid of the touch.


The Iron Lady was the seventh ship of the Irmingard class of dreadnoughts designed in the 970s, and she was the latest to launch.

Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.

Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.

At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.

Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.

Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.

Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.

She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.

And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.

For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.

Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.

Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.

Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.

So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.

Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.

“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.

Gertrude winked at him.

“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”

“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”

“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”

“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”

“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”

“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”

Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”

“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”

Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.

After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”

He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.

How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.

Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.

Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.

Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.

“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.

“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”

“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”

Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.

Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.

She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.

Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.

“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”

“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”

Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.

“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.

Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.

“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”

“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”

“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”

“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”

Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.

She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.

“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”

“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”

That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.

“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”

“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.

“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.

She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”

Gertrude smiled.

“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”

The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.

“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.

“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”

Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dreschner shook his head.

“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”

Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.

“Perhaps.”

He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.

“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”

“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.

She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.

Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.

Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.

“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”

That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.

“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”

“I’m always decent.”

Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.

As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.

She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.

‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.

“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.

“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.

Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.

She did perfume herself before she left–

Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.

Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.

“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”

Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”

“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”

She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.

“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”

Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.

She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.

“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”

Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.

She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.

“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”

“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.

She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.

Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.

“As a matter of fact–”

Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.

“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”

“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”

Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.

“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.

She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.

Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.

She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.

“Awoo! This is amazing!”

She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.

“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”

Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.

“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”

“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”

Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.

In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.

Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.

“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”

For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.

Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.

“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”

Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.

“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”

“Oh my god, Ingrid–”

“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”

For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.

“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.

“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”

Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”

Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.

That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.

“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.

Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.

Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.

“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.

“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.

“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”

For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.

When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.

“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”

“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”

Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.

“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”

Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.

Ingrid was too headstrong for it.

She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.

Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”

“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”

“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”

Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.

“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?

“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”

“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”

“Not this one!”

Gertrude was once again laughing.

Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.

“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”

“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.

“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”

“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”

“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”

“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”

“Ok, let’s trade then.”

“Shut up!”

Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.


In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.

There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.

Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.

She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.

Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.

Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.

She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.

Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.

Words were exchanged.

Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.

Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.

“Victoria–”

Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.

She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.

She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.

There were no answers to be found in dreams.

There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.

“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.

Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.

She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.

“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”

There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.

Sawyer.

Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.

Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.

Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.

“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”

Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.

But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–

–In a nightmare,

“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”

She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.

“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”

In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.

“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”

Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.

She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.

Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.

A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.

“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”

She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.

Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.

She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!

And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.

In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.

Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.

Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.

She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.

She was lonely.

For how much longer would things go on like this?

Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?

Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.

And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.

Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?

Had she really done all those things?

Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?

Did her mother have to suffer like this too?

Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.

But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.

She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.

Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.

Fresh air would do her good.

Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.

It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.

She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.

A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.

All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.

It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.

Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.

Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.

There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.

Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.

For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.

Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.

She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.

While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.

Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.

Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.

It induced mourning.

“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”

She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.

That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.

Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.

She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.

And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.

“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”

Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.

“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.

In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.

She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.

Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.

Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.

“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”

“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”

Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.

A familiar voice.

When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.

“Victoria?”

The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.

The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.

Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.

Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.

“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.

Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.

She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.

“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”

“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”

Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.

“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”

Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”

For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?

Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–

“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.

“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”

Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.

“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”


Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.

Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.

Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.

Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.

This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.

Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.

When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.

“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”

At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.

“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”

After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.


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2.4: Samaritan

The Vainasse Principle: First penned by elven researcher Antonio Vainasse, it is the idea that magic which reproduces a physical phenomenon does not ipso facto behave like that phenomenon. Magic can make fireballs that don’t “burn” the way that a real physical fire would “burn” an object. Magic does not necessarily obey the laws of physics which apply to “physical” phenomena, even when such phenomena are reproduced by magic. As such magic can be rated by its proximity or distance to physical realism, in gradual steps; but unreal magic is not necessarily weaker or less complicated than realistic magic. A completely accurate representation of a physical object or phenomena generated entirely by magic is said to be “Vainasse Perfect.”

In the modern era, many pieces of magic once thought to be Vainasse Perfect have been found by science to be missing something in physical law, and been discredited. No magic is currently believed to be Vainasse Perfect under serious scientific scrutiny.


Lyudmilla and the Samaritan bumped fists to seal their compact.

“I’m no ‘concerned citizen,’ but if it’s these guys, I’ll kick their asses pro bono.”

“Whatever your intention, a donation is a donation. I appreciate it.”

Lyudmilla did not quite know what she was getting herself into at the time.

She had stalked evil men in the night before and made sure they never got home.

She had seen, and done, so much more than she sometimes even comprehended.

Whenever she remembered it, it was all so selective, so out of control.

It was like her whole life had happened to her rather than under her direction.

A different place, different world; maybe even a different her. All she had were flashes.

There was no use thinking about it at such a level. She shook her head; it was actually simpler. If she didn’t want to walk away with a black eye, then she had to give one. That was easier than contracts and targets; that was easier than wars and soldiers. When you walked into a dark alley, sometimes you punched your way out, and that was it.

It was the fascists who had come out in this alley, and they would leave without teeth.

“Lets get moving.” The Samaritan said. “They have a bunch of guys all around here.”

“Are they communicating?” Lyudmilla asked. “Will they know about these losers?”

She pointed at the men dropped face-down around the fountain and hedge.

The Samaritan shook her head. “I don’t think they’re talking. We can’t be sure, but these guys aren’t very organized, or at least, they haven’t been in the past.”

“How are they not organized? They’ve got uniforms, patches; a flag!”

“In my experience, all they’re capable of is ganging up and terrorizing helpless people.”

She turned from Lyudmilla and started walking out of the fountain square.

Lyudmilla felt that maybe the Samaritan wasn’t getting the changes in the fascist modus operandi that seemed to be evident here, but she did not push it any further.

Ahead of them, the expanse of the park seemed to loom large and oppressive.

Though she had come here in the past, Lyudmilla had never had cause to examine Eisenbern park with any degree of detail. Hedges a little under two meters tall walled off the breadth of the park space, encircling the area save for a few entrances and exits, beyond which magic walls likely laid now. A winding white-tiled path flanked by flower beds, bright green grassy fields and great lumbering trees, connected statues, gazebos, benches, fountains and concrete podiums into one continuous space.

And yet, as far as Lyudmilla could see from her vantage, she also felt like she couldn’t possibly know what lay ahead. She could not see a soul walking in the park, despite her awareness that there were Iron Flag thugs patrolling it. When she tried to focus on the space ahead of her, there was something elusive about it in her vision, as if she was staring into a mirror that had gotten just fogged enough after a quick hot shower to distort the picture ever so slightly. Something was wrong; something was hidden.

“I don’t know what kind of spell they put in place.” Samaritan said. “But we should–“

“It was a labyrinth.” Lyudmilla said, cutting her off.

“Oh! You’ve done some homework!”

The Samaritan did not seem disturbed or put off by Lyudmilla’s interruption.

Behind her mask, Lyudmilla could tell she was smiling again.

She raised a finger and spoke in a matter-of-fact sort of voice.

“Large and complicated spells usually have focal points, like wi-fi extenders in a big house, that project the spell through the space. A maze spell like this usually has specific dimensions, like walls and rooms. In this case, a maze was superimposed on the park, so the walls are invisible. I’ve been running into a lot of walls, which is why I can’t progress. If we move carelessly, we’ll touch a ‘wall’ and end up back at this fountain. So we need to find the path that will take around the maze’s focal points.”

Lyudmilla simply nodded her head. She had no experience or learning in this arena.

“Well, you seem to know what you’re doing, so you lead.” She said, shrugging.

Behind her mask, the Samaritan was smiling cheek to cheek once again.

“I’ve done this before, you could say. Though not at quite this scale.”

“Yeah I’m sure you’ve had tons of adventures.” Lyudmilla shrugged.

“Plug these numbers into a browser page on your Homunculus while we walk.”

She handed Lyudmilla a piece of paper with what looked like an IP address.

Then she started forward, toward the white-tiled path.

Suddenly, the Samaritan vanished from Lyudmilla’s sight for a few seconds.

“God, it’s so granular. Everything is a wall except really narrow paths. Whoever put this here is, beyond being fascist, a fucking a-hole. We can’t just brute force our way here.”

She reappeared behind Lyudmilla, back at the fountain. One wrong step was all it took.

Nodding, Lyudmilla input the numbers into the homunculus’ built-in web browser.

A bare-bones page came up, basically a bulletin board style list of messages gathered up in a white text on black background four-celled table layout. Each line had the title of the thread in question, a username, and two timestamps for when it was created and responded to. There were only a few threads, each of them asking for some kind of help. Most of the requests were simple and harmless, but there was one thread at the top of the forum that caught Lyudmilla’s eye: “Girl chased to Eisenbern Park!”

A picture was attached, blurry, but clearly depicting a girl and several pursuers.

“Someone reported this?” Lyudmilla asked. “And you answered?”

“Yep, that’s how the Samaritan Network works!” said the Samaritan. “One of our posters saw a girl being attacked and made a thread. I responded to the call.”

“How many people know about you? There’s not a lot of posts on this board.”

Lyudmilla felt a bit silly asking the question; she herself had not known about them.

Again the Samaritan seemed to smile behind her mask. “We’re kinda indie.”

“And how many people are helping?”

“It’s never enough.”

There was a hint of helpless embarrassment in the Samaritan’s voice.

“Well, we better get moving. The victim’s probably running out of places to escape to.”

Lyudmilla turned around toward the park, and feeling bullheaded, she charged toward the white tiled road only to immediately find herself back at the fountain with the Samaritan again. There was no transition, no feeling in her body, and she retained all the momentum she had picked up running. It was as if a door had opened that just took her back to where she had been standing — seamless transportation.

“It’s no good to just keep running at it.” the Samaritan said.

“Ugh, I don’t care! I’ll just charge at it again and again until–“

“Wait a moment. I have an idea. Hopefully a big enough bang can still alert the patrols.”

“A big enough bang? Why would you hope for that?”

From her hoodie pocket, the Samaritan produced a gun.

Lyudmilla immediately saw it as the sort of gun that she knew. Sleek and black, concealable, deadly when pulled in one fluid motion right to the target’s skull and unloaded there– but it was not. It was rounded, bulky and orange and the barrel was covered in a nuclear yellow safety tape. It was a break-action flare handgun.

“What are you planning to do with that?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Draw attention to myself.”

With an impression of a smile under her mask, the Samaritan lifted her arm to aim the flare gun overhead and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp bang and a smoking canister soared skyward and exploded flashing and burning flare that slowly arced down from the black, cloudless sky overhead. Lyudmilla’s body was suddenly cast in bright red light, and her shadow became a thin strip of black directly behind her.

All of the park seemed to have been illuminated by the flare.

“To yourself? I’m here too!” Lyudmilla shouted.

Long shadows cast by the trees and the hedges seemed to stretch forever.

“Look, I know you’ve done this before, Hoodie, but is this a good idea–?”

The Samaritan did not hesitate; after shooting the flare she stowed the gun back in her coat, and put her hands down onto the soft earth near one of the hedges. She squeezed into the dirt, chanting something while her homunculus projected noise and light to fill in the gaps in her spell. Around her arms the ground glowed a dim green.

Stirred to life by her magic, the soil began to crawl up over her hands.

“Armor of Soil, may I never be disarmed!” She shouted.

When she pulled her arms back up, they were covered in compacted earth. Like a pair of big brown boxing gloves, but with a moist and uneven surface, the soil covered her fists. Now upright, she threw a couple of exploratory punches as if to test the weight.

The Samaritan then turned to face the path out to the interior of the park.

“Wait for it–“

In the next instant, the upper body and part of the leg of a young man appeared before the Samaritan and Lyudmilla, as if walking through a gelatineous membrane in the air, initially missing the rest of the body. Space rippled around him as if there was a flat plane of water right in front of the girls. He was moving through the labyrinth “wall.”

Before more of his body could come through, his face met the Samaritan’s fist.

A visor on his helmet crunched against his eyesockets and brows, and his nose spurted a great gout of blood. A tooth flew out. The Samaritan’s fist was barely dented. Her punch had flown out like a missile and struck like a wrecking ball. The fascist was on the floor with no further protest, his body half in and half out of the illusory plane that had been cast in front of them. The Samaritan stepped on him.

“Here’s our guide. Just walk over him to get past the first displacement. Hurry!”

“Ugh. Now who’s being bullheaded? Just shut up, I’m coming–“

“Someone’s in trouble and needs our help Lyudmilla! Come on, be a hero!”

With a clear cheer to her voice, the Samaritan called out while vanishing through the portal. Lyudmilla blinked, momentarily speechless. She withdrew her grimoire from inside her jacket and held it open with one hand. Sighing, she wondered for an instant what Minerva would do– but it was an easy conclusion. She followed the Samaritan.

“It’s not like I don’t want to be the big hero. Ugh. Here goes nothing.”

Lyudmilla stepped over the wheezing, blacked-out body of the fascist.

She saw her arm, held just slightly ahead of her body, sink into the air in front of her first. In one fluid motion the rest of her body followed, and there was barely any transition. It was just like walking through Minerva’s doorway and feeling the thrum of magic over her skin from the cleaning enchantment. There was no technicolor dreamscape as she traversed the portal; she was just in and out, appearing in another part of the park in less time than it took the brain to realize she had moved at all.

Now the fountain and the hedges were gone. She was standing in what seemed like the foot of a large stepped pyramid, with each tier consisting of flowerbeds flanked by paths and connected by steps up and down. At the top of the romantic pyramid was what remained of the peak of the hill that the park designers had built around, a mound of grass and earth that played host to a single, massive tree that shaded the entire upper half of the structure. It would have been the perfect place to take a particularly sappy girl to for a kiss among the roses and a tumble in the grass.

Now however it was occupied by a group of five or six boys in grey uniforms. They stood in bewilderment, looking every which way for intruders. There were implements in their hands that were meant to be weapons. Baseball bats, hockey sticks, golf putters; nothing as standard as the uniforms they were. To Lyudmilla, who still remembered the lectures of her old commanding officers, she realized a few things about the Iron Flag movement from seeing these guys, and what they had available.

Uniforms without weapons; maybe that also said something about their brains.

“Strong energy readings, overwhelming the vital readings, suggest that the tree detected ahead is part of the labyrinth’s displacement.” said Lyudmilla’s homunculus.

She had not expected it to speak as loud as it did.

Almost once, every one of the men turned around to look their way.

The Samaritan raised her fists in defense.

“After we kick these guy’s asses could you please mute that?”

Lyudmilla sighed and assumed a casting stance, holding out her grimoire while her other hand hovered over the pages, fingers ready to make spellcasting gestures.

“Hey, it’s useful, okay?” She grumbled. Nothing seemed to go her way tonight.

No one was waiting for their banter to resolve.

Without word the gang of boys rushed at them from the steps, heaving up their clubs, the bottom halves of their faces concealed by heavy chin-guards. Their eyes had a violent intensity, and Lyudmilla could see the anger and thrill reflect in their auras.

And yet their intent to kill, their willingness to withstand pain, all of that felt lacking.

As scared as she might have been of them, they were terrified of her.

Terrified of what they were being asked to do. She saw it in their wavering auras.

And so, all they could do was to make themselves monsters and charge furiously.

Running her fingers over the pages of her grimoire, Lyudmilla spread and closed them as if kneading something in mid-air. Sparks jumped off the paper where she scraped.

She had been in fights before. She had been in far scarier fights before. Lyudmilla had met people who wanted to kill her. She knew what that felt; she knew the aura of the kind of person who would end her life without her even being able to scream. There was a difference between people who could hurt her and people who would kill her.

In the back of her mind, she recalled that armored legionnaire, Ajax.

Was that the fear that stood behind these boys and pushed them to attack her?

Her hairs stood on end, and she felt a surge through her body; both adrenaline, and the electricity she was channeling through her arms, fingertips, and her grimoire. At first the sparks danced in flickering patterns that connected her fingertips to the paper like a trail of spittle after a deep kiss. Then the sparks trailed up her arm in the dozens.

Guys with sticks who weren’t even trying to do magic didn’t scare her.

And as the magic intensified, it was their fear of her that saturated the air.

“You take the left, hoodie, and I’ll–“

Before Lyudmilla finished the sentence the Samaritan had already ran in ahead.

Meeting the boys halfway down the steps, she threw the first punch and collided with one of their ribcages. Compacted mud and soil blew off her gauntlets in big chunks, and cracks formed in the remaining armor; the boy she had punched spread his mouth wide open as if to puke and slipped backwards onto his ass, clutching his chest and heaving with pain. Three boys descended on the Samaritan with their clubs.

A series of wild blows struck her armor as she held her hands before her in defense.

Two of the boys ran past her.

“Twintails, If you’ve got something up your sleeve–“

The Samaritan shouted, but Lyudmilla didn’t need to be told to use her magic.

She had been waiting for just this opportunity.

There were plenty of ways her imagination could have molded the lightning, but the sequence of men lined up before her was perfect for what she wanted to do.

“As Pherkan before me, I claim the furious sky in the name of man! Chain Lightning!”

She surprised herself with how effectively her invocation synthesized her lessons.

A spell that had once been cumbersome and exhausting to cast for her became far less effort, now that she had a better idea of how her spellcasting truly worked.

Calling on the great Rus arch-mage Pherkhan, and “associating” Lightning with Metal through the human race, who are most strongly associated to the metal they shape, and the metal she used, and wore.

Lyudmilla loosed a bolt of lightning that was like a coil of serpents dancing in mid-air.

From her outstretched, open palm it burst, as she lifted her hand from the pages of the grimoire. Her first bolt struck the closest of the men on the metal bat he carried. In an imperceptible the instant the screaming, writhing bolt burrowed through his stomach and then split. Her fell instantly to the ground, shaking, heaving with pain and shock, but bloodless. He had been penetrated without laceration, without trauma.

Chain Lightning moved through his body without impediment and split into a new bolt that then immediately bounced to the next man over. This bolt found the metal in the target’s armored knee-pads. It dug through his legs and caused them to crumple beneath him. He fell dramatically, face-first into the pavement as if dropped from the sky onto the ground. Chain Lightning raced up from his kneecaps through his chest, split anew and hurtled toward the next man in its sequence. It transpired in seconds.

Now it had jumped through both the men who had run past the Samaritan and leaped into the men she was attacking. Connected by the chain, the three of them were shocked one after the other within an eye’s blink from the last. As the bolt moved it lost strength, and while the first few men had experienced a jolt that shook their stomachs loose, the last two men to be stricken felt a far lesser impact. One staggered back, wrestling with his baseball bat as if his hands were attached to it, due to a residual magnetic cling imparted as the spell died. The second of the men cringed, shook his head, and wiped snot and blood that had spilled down his face, still standing.

“I missed some, Hoodie! You better get the trash off the grass!” Lyudmilla shouted.

“Already on it!”

The Samaritan darted forward.

Her hands spread open, dividing into individual digits where once they appeared sealed into the earthen armor. The mud and stone of her gauntlets moved with the same ease as flesh, and in that instant seemed as weightless her hands. Before they could put up their guard, the Samaritan seized the two remaining men, taking them by the shoulder and gripping. Both men screamed as her fingers dug into their skin.

With unnatural strength and ease, she spread her arms apart and lifted the men, and then bashed them together like a pair of cymbals, their faces slamming into one another. Blood drew from their noses with a visceral crunch; the two men lost the light in their eyes and hung limp at the end of the Samaritan’s hands. When she spread the rough earthen digits of her hands once again the men dropped like sacks on the floor.

She wiped her hands on each other and glanced back at Lyudmilla.

Lyudmilla thought if she could see behind the mask, she would see a smug grin.

“Heavy magic missile!”

From farther up the step pyramid, under the shadow of the great tree, a pulsating glob of glowing force came hurtling down and struck the Samaritan in the chest. Struggling to hold its shape in flight, the missile grew unstable, and as soon as it came into contact with the Samaritan’s aura it spread and burst into a circle of diffuse energies.

The Samaritan was thrown off the steps. She rolled over once and landed face-down.

Lyudmilla found the attacker immediately after his invocation.

He was staring down at them from above, hunched over, with a fancy amethyst-tipped rod clutched in two shaking hands. He had a pretty-boy face, blond hair, blue-eyes, fair and untouched skin; a really manicured kid. As if afraid of what it might do, he held the magic rod out in front of him. Casting in such a way lent little coherence to his spell. A simple “magic missile” became an unstable blob of undisciplined power in his hands.

Unlike the other men he had no helmet and no impromptu armor, no knee-pads, no vests. Only his uniform and an armband with an Iron Flag design: an eagle grasping a pair of spear-tipped flag banners.

Watching the Samaritan fall and then watching as she did not move or stand up, seemed to embolden him. “I’ll get you too, pigtails! Stay back! Don’t fucking move!”

He shouted at them, and shook his rod as if that alone would cast a spell.

Lyudmilla glanced at the Samaritan, who, from the floor, made a gesture at her.

She understood; the Samaritan was just pretending to have been hurt.

“Does daddy know you’re out here putting his retirement fund on the line?”

“Fuck you! You’re going to die tonight if you piss me off!”

He thrust the rod toward Lyudmilla, but no magic came out of it.

He was not casting anything, just trying to sound intimidating.

“I’m a Lieutenant! I’ve got thirty guys here! You’ll leave here swollen like a zit!”

A lieutenant of what? This band of neanderthals?

“Go on and try me, pussy!” Lyudmilla shouted.

He lifted the rod into the air and with his whole body shaking began to cast again.

Lyudmilla tried to think about how she would counter his spell; it was unlikely to hurt her too bad if it struck, but she wanted to bounce it back just like Minerva could. She had seen Minerva counter that ghost during one of their lessons, and tried to think back on what she was doing. Her memory of people, their bodies and movements, was flawless. She felt confident that she could mimic what Minerva had done that day.

She did not need to.

Just as the bolt of magic flew from the self-styled fascist “Lieutenant,” the Samaritan suddenly leaped up onto her feet, reared back on the spot and then leaped once again.

As she rose, the Samaritan shouted a spell command:

“Reverse Polarity! The soil in me rejects the soil beneath!”

Around her the ground visibly cracked, and dust flew up and away in a small wave.

She then hurtled toward the Lieutenant as if she had made herself into a missile.

His amorphous heavy magic missile crashed into her and dispersed, taking with it chunks of earth the size of baseballs off of the armor on her fists. Debris dropped from the sky in the Samaritan’s wake as she cleared the steps in one superhuman jump.

In the next instant she landed in front of the Lieutenant.

He drew back in terror, and fell out of sight Lyudmilla’s sight from the lower ground.

His rod dropped off the edge of the steps and clanked all the way down.

“I didn’t mean anything, I swear! He made me come here, I didn’t want to–“

Lyudmilla made for the top of the steps, over the bodies of the knocked-out men.

From the top, she could hear the Samaritan’s fist crack against the fascist’s head.

“That one’s payback for the magic missile. It actually kind of hurt. So who put you up to this then? Tell me and I’ll just knock you out instead of throwing you down the steps.”

When Lyudmilla got to the top of the steps, she found that Samaritan holding the fascist effortlessly against the trunk of the huge tree, with one hand around his neck.

Lyudmilla was very briefly distracted by the aura of the tree, but her eyes then focused back on the auras of the Samaritan and the fascist, one brown and red the other blue and grey, intermingling as they struggled. However, the fascist was clearly being outmatched. He could not physically escape, and the Samaritan’s aura was thicker.

Both of her hands were encased in a skin of jagged earth. She had his neck against the tree with fingers like a stone vice. Her remaining hand she held against his face, sharp knuckles hovering near his nose. All she had to do was rear back to strike; Lyudmilla had seen that even a jab from the Samaritan’s earthen fists held massive power.

“It was Ajax! That armored lunatic came into the frat, rounded us up; he said he had a job and when I tried to back out, I could literally see his eyes glint red from his helmet! I swear I had to go along or he would’ve cut my guts open! I didn’t have a choice!”

“Cut the crap.” The Samaritan said. “You always had a choice you piece of shit.”

Lyudmilla heard the name ‘Ajax’ and felt a chill as her mind was transported to that night, not too long ago . That empty armor they found in the forest after Moloch fell, could not have been the last of him; he definitely escaped and it did not even slow him down. He just needed new flunkies, and the group of racist sycophants who loved to fight suited him well. But Lyudmilla knew he was leagues beyond them. He had some kind of ambition; after all, he was capable of using the evil, dead art of Summoning.

And now he was back stalking some other helpless girl. But for what?

“What kind of job was it? What did you stand to gain from this?” The Samaritan asked.

She squeezed on the Lieutenant’s neck briefly. He lifted his hands to seize her arm, but he was without strength, helpless in her presence. Perhaps he, too, was at this point associated with defeat, weakness, helplessness, and could not resist inside her aura. His power had shrunk to the point his aura was just a dim outline around his frame.

Meranwhile the Samaritan’s aura was ever more imperious than Lyudmilla had seen it.

Burning a bright yellow, green and red, colors of earth and fire.

Lyudmilla thought she looked like Justice. She did not quite understand why.

It was a feeling she got when she stared at the aura. Like a smell or a taste.

“Let me go! I’m not part of this anymore, I swear it!”

“Tell me something useful or I’ll let you go rolling down the stairs.”

The Samaritan spoke with confidence as she delivered her threat.

Clearly she had had people in her power before.

Lyudmilla was briefly reminded of some people she knew, from before.

The Lieutenant cried, spat and struggled, but he could not break free and so he slumped back, whimpering. He eventually managed to shout his words out.

“There was this fancy rich girl! She came into the city tonight with a collection of gems; stuff to donate to the Academy. He wanted the girl’s jewels! We were gonna split it!”

Words said amid duress could not be so easily trusted, however.

“That’s bullshit.” Lyudmilla said. “This Ajax guy is not some two-bit thief.”

The Samaritan turned her head to glance at her. “Are you familiar with him?”

“He did the summoning! The one that was reported a while ago. That was Ajax.”

The Samaritan blinked. From the way her eyes drew wide, she was clearly surprised.

Lyudmilla had not bothered to check what had been reported about the Summoning.

People knew that Minerva was involved in stopping the Summoning.

But they apparently did not know who else was involved or who had done it.

“Ajax is hardcore. We gotta assume he has some kinda other plan.” Lyudmilla said. “Tell me, when was the last time these fascist frat boys cursed an entire park with magic?”

The Samaritan must have realized what she was up against at that point.

She turned back to the fascist Lieutenant, who cowered from her gaze.

“You’ve got a hell of a point, Twintails.” The Samaritan said.

Prompted by the current distraction, the Lieutenant started to bargain again.

“Yes! Look, he lied to us! He’s who you want, I’m– I’m a nobody! Just let me go–!”

Almost with a shrugging motion the Samaritan pulled him forward and then–

“Not against the tree!”

At Lyudmilla’s urging, the Samaritan lifted the fascist up and away from the trunk.

Rather than against the tree, she slammed him into the dirt.

His head bobbed, slobber flying from his lips as his eyes rolled up and his limbs went soft. The Samaritan released her grip on him, and he lay limp, drooling at her feet.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She had felt a momentary terror for the poor tree.

The Samaritan wiped her enlarged, earth-covered hands against each other.

“Fun thing about brawling with magic is you can go pretty crazy and still not kill anyone if you know what you’re doing. It’s cathartic sometimes, to be perfectly honest.”

Judging by the way her mask shifted, she must have cracked a grin under it.

With one large, jagged finger the Samaritan pointed past the tree.

“When I jumped up here I saw one other guy cowering behind the tree. He ran that way; so we know where the next corridor is. Lets follow him and see where it leads.”

Lyudmillla, however, was barely listening to her anymore. She was focused elsewhere.

“I have a better idea actually. I feel like this tree could be helpful.”

Where the Samaritan was apparently seeing nothing, Lyudmilla’s eyes saw differently.

She felt something from the great tree, and felt compelled to take a closer look.

Lyudmilla stepped up to the tree and put a hand on it. She could feel her skin brimming with the magic that had been imparted on the tree. There was something dizzying about it; trying to read its aura made her senses confused. She had a sudden onset of synesthesia. Tasting its vegetal scent right on her tongue, seeing the bark through her very fingers, hearing the coarse roughness of the trunk as her eyes gazed upon it. Patterns etched upon its being, veins both subtly superimposed and yet running deep.

For anyone else it might have shaken their minds to feel something like that.

This one edgy alt-girl had led a life so steeped in magic her heart-rate barely rose.

“This tree was made part of the spell. So if we can do something from here–“

She tried to remember. Minerva had cast spells that dispelled magic before too.

In her mind, Minerva was moving a certain way, talking a certain way, muttering under her breath where no one could hear; thinking a certain way, feeling; the way that light played off her brown skin, the way her messy dark hair swayed with the motion of her body. Lyudmilla tried to figure out how she could use that to do what Minerva did.

Perhaps, however, it was not necessary to do something so complicated as dispelling.

Lyudmilla felt, touching the tree, that it was trying to resist what the fascists had done.

Amid all the sensation, amid the great confusion that had been cast upon it, and that represented the labyrinth it had been forced to anchor, Lyudmilla felt resistance.

This labyrinth was a system, with walls and corridors, that were just as forced on this tree as they had been on the intended victim, and on the two girls fighting their way through it. Like them, the tree had an urgency to return to the world as it was. When magic was done upon you, naturally your being resisted. Lyudmilla could that tell even from its dim, timid aura; the kind of aura that things had for having lived long among magic, not an aura that was thinking or feeling, but an aura that was situated. Roots held this ground, and knew where this ground stood, and knew what winds traveled between its branches. None of this world made sense to it anymore, and it fought it.

“Lyudmilla, are you–?”

The Samaritan tried to reach out, but Lyudmilla’s mind was racing with a wild idea.

“Maybe– I know! I can give it a way to cast magic!”

This idea had formed in one chaotic instant, and in the next, it was underway.

Lyudmilla took in a deep breath, and she made her fingers feel the weight and heft and texture of a very specific object, and she thought of its origin, and of its powers and she called out its name: the Seven Castigating Stakes, one of which was– “Sudes!”

Magic poured out of Lyudmilla like a hemorrhaging wound, and she felt as if a hole had been bored in her brain. She almost passed out; her vision blurred, her head empty. Sudes was an immensely draining spell. It created an object vastly more powerful than Lyudmilla herself and required so much energy to create even a bare shell of its glory.

She recovered her balance briefly, fighting against the exhaustion and concentrating on her hands, on the shaft of the stakes. Vividly, she pictured the stakes broken in half.

In her hand, out of a rushing whirlwind of magic appeared half of a stake.

Marshaling her strength, while the magic still flowed in a great tumult around her, Lyudmilla stepped forward, lifted the stake over her shoulder and thrust brutally.

She jammed the broken half of the stake into the tree creating a shallow wound.

Facing out from the tree then, was the side of the stake that “bolstered magic.”

“Lyudmilla, what are you doing?” The Samaritan asked.

She rushed forward, as Lyudmilla nearly tipped over backwards from the effort.

As she stumbled, the crafty northern girl became bathed in an eerie green light.

Given the conduit to do so, the tree heeded her plight. It cast a spell.

Using the empowering half of the stake as a casting tool, the tree surged with magic.

Over its surface, glowing green veins ran across the trunk of the tree. Wherever they shone the brightest, a second pattern could be seen to appear as if trying to obscure the first. While the green veins were curved and curling and shot wildly everywhere, the grey lines were strict and methodical, like a map. A map of walls and corridors trying to stifle the life in the tree. But soon the green overtook it, and erased utterly the metal labyrinth that had been etched over its surface. Curling, coiling green missiles flew out like ethereal shoots from the roots and branches of the tree and flew off.

Where the green missiles struck the walls of Minos, there were great reverberations in mid-air until the walls collapsed. Suddenly more and more of the park revealed itself to the girls under the tree, and the tree revealed itself to sparse groups of hapless boys who had been hidden from view until then. Great green spouts of magic continued to fly from the tree even after the walls went down, splashing onto the grass and onto the cobblestone paths and exploding in bursts of earthen color and smell and texture.

Bearing witness to this spectacle, and knowing the part they took in chaining down that great tree, many of the boys and men could be seen to run away in great fear.

The Samaritan grabbed hold of Lyudmilla and kept her steady, watching the magic play out until the stake was spent. A green shoot from the tree coiled around the jagged wooden conjuration and claimed it as its own until it finally disappeared.

“What did you do, Lyudmilla? That was incredible.” The Samaritan said.

Her mind was airy, her strength coming and going like the drawing of breath.

Lyudmilla shook her head and tried to regain her senses. She had a terrible headache.

“I wanted to help the tree. That’s Samaritan stuff isn’t it?” Lyudmilla mumbled out.

Her companion giggled; quite gently for her appearance. “I mean– yeah, I guess it is.”

The Samaritan raised her head, looking out over the park for a moment.

She stood bolt upright and pointed out over one of the fountains across from them.

“Wait! Lyudmilla, I can see them! There they are!” She shouted.


“A truly miserable display. You are worth less than nothing. I’ll see to it that you all suffer for this embarrassment. Clearly, I must take everything upon myself.”

Centurion “Ajax Of The Iron Fang” stepped onto the beautiful deep blue tiles of a fountain plaza that was littered with a dozen of his men, strewn about, crawling and scraping and struggling. Flecks of ice delineated shallow but painful wounds that had brought several down; others were drenched in icy water and shaking miserably on the ground, where they had been struck by unseen geysers or waterfalls from thin air.

Across the plaza from Ajax was his target. She was defiant; not a single strand of sky-blue hair on her head had been touched. On the back of her head, the elegant braided bun that she wore was neat as ever. Her blazer and dress skirt had nary a tear, not even a dribble of blood. These men who fancied themselves so alpha had done nothing.

Holding out an elegant blue staff topped with a coral, she prepared to strike Ajax.

There was no mistaking it, the emerald-blue eyes, the hair, her slightly sharp ears.

This was the girl he had been after. But did she have the goods with her?

He did not know the dimensions of the stones. They could very well had been in the suitcase behind her. She had been guarding it well against all of his men. It had to be.

Ajax spoke, his voice modulated by the spell on the helmet.

“I’m quite a fan of ancient Arak, you know. I studied archeology here, even. And I already took one of your trinkets; so why not let me have the whole set?”

He taunted her. She grit her teeth and tightened her grip on her staff.

“Return the stone this instant! It does not belong to you!” She shouted.

Under the helmet, Ajax smiled. He shrugged glibly at her.

“It did not belong to you either. Moloch’s lineage traces back to the earliest of the peoples of the lower Nobilis deserts, like the Alwi. For it to sit in the collection of a far nothern aristocrat, who then claims it hers; what a joke! It’s just as much ours to take.”

Nearly in tears with anger, the girl snapped back. “That was my father’s! Return it!”

At his provocation, the young woman made a squeezing motion with her hands over the coral head of the staff, and waves of water aura danced off her hands, rippling in the air. She performed an incantation in a language that Ajax could not quite decipher, but he understood the intent well enough from the tears in her eyes and her agitated voice. Water swirled from the bottom of the staff to the top like a curled snake.

“Aqua! Excoria!”

Shouting the final incantation, the young woman thrust her staff forward and released a torrent of water. Like a high-pressure hose used to disperse riots, the stream was tight and extremely fast, cutting through the air like a knife. Had it been entirely up to the physical characteristics of the evoked energy Ajax might have been sawed in half.

Even a child, properly trained, could make magic with impressive physical qualities.

Magic was a battle of wills.

Powerful magic with a weak, wavering will behind it could never break a will of iron.

Ajax swiped his arm in front of himself with full confidence in its defense.

In the next instant the water deflected from him and soared skyward.

Droplets began to rain down over them in the next few minutes, like a spring drizzle.

Ajax cackled at her.

“I can’t return that which I don’t have. Your stone is spent and gone. In fact, that is why I have come for you personally. I need the rest of your father’s collection for my ambitions. For you, these are merely sentimental trinkets, mementos from a deceased man. But their power will open the way to the future for me. I will have them, Princess.”

Ajax outstretched his arm, and his spear was conjured in it.

He pointed the spear toward the girl, challenging her.

“I stole the Orb of Wildfire right from under the Administration’s nose, and I used it to construct an effigy to summon the tyrant Moloch. I have powers you can’t imagine.”

Stunned by the failure of her magic, the girl’s eyes drew wide and she was shaken.

“I will not fall as they did. Will you still resist? Your magic is well learned, but still weak.”

The girl’s posture softened as her will faltered.

She gasped, and drew back a step.

Ajax glanced over his shoulder; he saw a flash and immediately leaped.

At his feet a bolt of lightning and a torrent of glowing pebbles crashed into the tiles.

Below him the bolts dispersed and the pebbles vanished without damage to the ground. A result of magic without a perfect physical representation, or perhaps, the contrivance of the caster. Had he been struck, however, his body would have been much worse off than the tiles. There was intent to harm behind those projectiles.

Magic with poor learning, but an unmistakably powerful will behind it.

Ajax landed atop the rim of a fountain at the edge of the plaza.

He lifted his spear in defense, watching closely as two more figures appeared.

A familiar, hood-wearing interloper; and a familiar, twin-tailed punk.

“Leave her alone, you freak! Can’t go a day without harassing a helpless girl?”

Lyudmilla Kholodova interposed herself between the princess, brandishing a grimoire.

And moving to directly challenge him was the Samaritan he had heard so much about.

“You must be Ajax.” The Samaritan said. “I’d heard that the fascists had fallen behind a new face after Septimus went to jail. I never suspected that face to be wearing some ridiculous dragon helmet. I’ll be happy to give you the same beating Septimus got.”

Ajax grunted.

He whirled his spear in his hands before bringing the tip to rest toward them.

The Samaritan paused, alarmed by the sudden movement.

Kholodova stuck closer to the elf she had taken in her charge.

As if it would be any use.

“All of the insects are gathering. But I’m not afraid of any of you. First, your teacher isn’t here to protect you this time. And second, unlike before, I am here in whole.”

Nothing could have been more convenient. He could settle every score at once.

He ran a hand over his helmet, revealing a part of a face.

Blue eyes, blond hair; then the metal melted back into its proper shape.

“Septimus was nothing. I will change magic forever. You will not stand in my way.”

This time, Ajax of the Iron Fang would show them their resounding inferiority.


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