Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

The “Vogelheim incident” caused the biggest stir in the Duchy of Bosporus.

Bosporus was the Empire’s earliest mining colony, characterized by brutal industrial labor juxtaposed with the academies training the next generation of Engineers and Overseers for the mines and factories. This volatile melting pot led Bosporus to become a hotbed of political activism. Labor unions, academic protesting and industrial sabotage boiled over in the background of the greatest expansion of Imperial dominion over the Oceans since the Age of Strife.

Dozens of stations arose from the materials gathered in Bosporus. Soon the Empire expanded southward, hungry for easier, cheaper materials now that Bosporus’ topsoil was rent asunder. The Empire established the colonies that would become the Union, offloading the indigens of Bosporus to these territories. The Empire hoped to “Imbrianize” Bosporus and end its colony status through deportations and assimilationist violence. Bosporus did not go quiet while Shimii, Volgians and other “ethnics” were deported south or forced to change their names and languages. Much to the Empire’s continued chagrin, Bosporus resisted Imbrianization as much as it could. The growing middle class of Bosporus continued to agitate in the Academies.

This was the situation, in brief, when Vogelheim set off a shockwave through the Empire.

Vogelheim terrified and infuriated the Bosporans. They did not care who it was that lived in that station. To them, it represented an escalation of fascistic violence that defied the simple condemnations that Erich Fueller and the aristocrats under him had leveled on the Volkisch. If Vogelheim could be destroyed, any station would be. The political left argued that the Volkisch was the Empire. There was nothing distinguishing these rival factions when it came to the people. The Volkisch, the Vekans, the Solcean zealots, all of them could attack innocent people at will.

Station by station an uprising spread. Political academics, black bloc anarchists, labor unionists, and even liberal democrats began to wrest political power from cowed ducal authorities. Protests, marches, riots, sabotage, the uprising encompassed every form of imaginable unrest. On a national level it was disorganized, but enough individual flashpoints burned all at once to cause a national effect. Police forces and the Bosporan Defense Forced had to overstretch themselves.

Tensions in the rest of the Empire marked a turning point in the Bosporan uprising. Rhinean aristocrats that fled to Sverland started to call for a Noble Alliance to form against the likes of the Volkisch and their industrial bourgeois allies, seeing them as the main rivals for power and the left as nascent and fragile. This had the effect that Bosporan nobles suddenly fled south to join this united front rather than fight in Bosporus where they were weak. It beheaded the ducal state.

Erich von Fueller’s march was stopped by the destruction of Vogelheim in his home state in the Palatinate. The pause of the Grand Western Fleet isolated the Bosporan Defense Forces from reinforcement. They began to face increasing mutiny on their ships and stations, as more and more forces defected to either the Volkisch, the Noble Alliance or the anarchist left in Bosporus.

Police became trapped in their stations with their uprisings, with no hope of reinforcement or heavy support. Uniforms started to come off. Slowly, but surely, there was nothing for them to fight for and nobody keep up the fight. No aristocrats to pay them, no officers to order them around, and increasingly militant crowds they could not hope to contain. The Uprising won the day.

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

The Duchy of Bosporus collapsed. That was the one fact they agreed on.

Living in that moment, the people of Bosporus had to decide what would replace it.

Individual stations created their own governments and institutions. Bosporus’ capital of Antioch declared itself a “Commune” hosting an alliance of anarchist street fighters and leftist academics. Various stations by popular vote became Republics, Workgroups, Socialist Unions. All of these microstates understood, however, the interconnected nature of life under the Ocean. They needed to trade goods and access specialized equipment and skills from other stations.

Ultimately, Antioch was chosen as the gathering place for representatives from the micro-states and the umbrella platform for Bosporan political activity became the “Bosporan Commune.” The Commune was declared to be an “Association” of independent peoples who recognized the need for broader cooperation. They sent multiple representatives to a “Popular Assembly” to draft guidelines and strike deals between each station. There were plenty of disagreements, particularly surrounding military matters, but a fear of the broader civil war tied the stations together.

Because of the civil war, having economic and social cooperation was not enough. The people of the Commune stations needed to pool their military power to defend their autonomy. Soon, individual ships and station forces organized and began to “freely associate” as a fleet while retaining their “political autonomy” as was the anarchist style at the time. These were collectively called the Popular Mobilization Forces. Their naval power fluctuated between 200 and 600 ships at any time, depending on who could be agreed to muster where, and for what cause.

Soon after their organization, these forces began their first campaign of the war.

There was a place southwest of Bosporus that connected Rhinea, Sverland and Skarsgaard. This junction was known as the Khaybar Mountain. What was now the “mountain” was once a massive island on the surface that fragmented and partially sunk, creating a landscape of high, rocky “walls” with a “pass” between. “Overflying” its jagged natural features could only be done in the photic zone at 200 meters depth. At this depth, Khaybar’s peaks teemed with Leviathans feasting on the rich environment of the island remnants. There was light, wildlife; a whole ecosystem. Deeper down, the Leviathan’s red blood and carcasses thickened the abyssal waters.

Navigating Khaybar allowed ships to bypass the borders of the other states. The ducal states and their merchant marines ignored Khaybar, however. The Imperial Navy considered it a “natural sanctuary.” Officially, nobody lived there, and ships should not attempt to go through it.

The people of Bosporus knew the official Imperial record to be a lie.

Khayber was a historical hotbed of attacks on ships. Someone was out there.

Those that survived such attacks spread rumors of a “Pirate Queen” and her enclave who ruled this area. There were those who believed this was a cover story for losing cargo or covering up mutinies or otherwise negligent behavior from shady merchants, corrupt Navy officers and mercenaries inventing tall tales to sell escort services. Others had confirmed the rumors firsthand, claiming to have made deals with the pirates in exchange for exotic goods or free passage.

In the civil war, Khaybar Mountain had a new importance for the anarchists.

PMF Scout ships delved into Khaybar for a deep passage to the south, hoping to make it to Campos or even the Union while bypassing the borders of the enemy states around them. Like many before them, these ships were lost in Khaybar without further contact. The PMF forces were busy defending the borders, so individual scout ships were all they could muster for the expedition.

This situation extended for weeks without resolution, unnerving the Commune forces.

Ultimately, a flotilla of “freely associating” anarchist ships organized independently to probe the Khaybar region for themselves. Unlike the PMF’s individual scout ships, they agreed to travel in a large group and to fight with organization. However, their intentions were outwardly peaceable and they wanted this to be known. That was the difference in their approach to the more strictly militarized PMF forces who expected and prepared for a fight, and broadcast that intention.

The so-called Free Ships hardened themselves for the fight but went to great lengths to avoid it. They bombarded the area with diplomatic signals. They sent out drones by the dozens. “We are the Bosporan Commune, and we wish to help you and work with you.” All over the Khaybar region any ship operating standard equipment would have heard their acoustic messages.

The Free Ships dared not go too far at first to avoid provocation. They were met only with eerie silence. Some of their drones were lost, mainly to the rough oceans and the creatures of the deep. However, the overwhelming majority of their drone fleet was untouched, broadcasting.

Several days passed without violence. Emboldened, communication attempts continued.

“My, what an interesting racket you’ve all made! Hold your positions. We will talk soon.”

Eventually, there was a response back, and this was all that was said at first. Instructions were given to the Free Ships for a proper communication. With trepidation, a laser signal was finally exchanged between anarchists and an old relay. Damaged as the relay was, they could not see much of a picture, but they did confirm a connection, and that there was a data transmission.

On that dark, crackly video feed they could barely make out a hooded figure in the static.

“My name is Majida al-Khaybari. I represent the people of Jabal Khaybar. We will allow one ship to approach whether with diplomats or soldiers. We don’t care who comes or what you bring with you as long as you follow our instructions. I am willing to talk with any of you.”

The Free Ships acknowledged Majida. This was the first positive step anyone had made.

Through a vote, one lead ship was elected from the Flotilla.

Elections decided the leadership of this one ship, and volunteers filled its ranks.

And so, the Eminent set off for the Khaybar pass.

It was a journey that tested the mettle and commitment of everyone involved.

Khaybar’s deep waters were darker than anything the Bosporans had ever seen. Every so often there was a dim glow from a creature or a colony of creatures with bioluminescence. As they delved deeper there were more bioluminescent corals and gas stalks and creatures, as if deliberately placed. Like gardens grown on rocky hillsides, at the bottoms of ravines and on sunken ships.

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

Carcasses of Leviathans speared into the ground as if totems shouting warning. Hulks of ships were anchored everywhere, many picked clean of weapons or armor. Every so often, the Bosporans thought they saw parties of workers in Diver suits picking metal from the wrecks. This was confirmed when they saw fresh wrecks and the timid people working on top of them.

Some of those ships had been Bosporan, reported missing weeks ago.

For the members of the free ships, these had been comrades.

On every one of the ships, there was a mark.

A half-moon with three slashes through it as if clawed by an animal.

“We shouldn’t be here. These people can’t be trusted. They’ve attacked us before.”

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

It was hard to keep discipline. The Khaybarians were not being especially welcoming.

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

“We can’t just turn around now without even trying to speak to anyone! We have to try to make peace with the Khaybarians! Our Commune will be at war forever, with the entire rest of the world, if we cannot reach out to others outside our stations and find common ground!”

His name was Silas Batyrov. Before the uprising, he had been a history graduate.

Part of Bosporus’ “Imbrianized,” educated middle class from one of its famous schools.

“Majida al-Khaybari is a traditional Shimii name. I couldn’t see ears or anything in her picture.”

He had been murmuring such things to himself, thinking about the history of Bosporus.

An incredible amount of violence had been done to the Shimii. They were deported from their stations, forced to change their names, forced into slavery. Their culture had been destroyed. More than anyone in Bosporus, they suffered from being intolerable to the ruling Imbrian culture.

Khaybar earned its fearsome reputation in the past twenty or thirty years.

Had these people been Shimii, attacking ships just to survive this entire time?

If that was the case, Batyrov felt a duty to help them join the rest of the Commune.

Near-unanimously, the crew of the Eminent named Batyrov the leader of the negotiating party for these reasons. Two other men, Shapur and Albescu, were to go with him. They were also students, who had participated in the same uprising as Batyrov, though the latter did not personally know them. However, they could at least get along together because of their similar origins.

Soon the anarchists neared the rocky pass through the middle of Khaybar.

Batyrov felt absolutely tiny when faced with the massive landform. An enormous cleave in the earth with stone rising higher than the eye could see on either side of it. They were 1500 meters deep and Khaybar’s mountainous peaks rose over a thousand meters on either side of them. Between the two halves was the pass, a five- or six-hundred-meter gap with flat, rocky faces on either side. Nowhere in Khaybar was the water murkier than it was around the pass, rusty-red with biomass from dead Leviathans. Whether they had fallen from above or been killed by the people of Khaybar, Batyrov did not know. He assumed both could be true, explaining the volume of red.

There was a messy acoustic message from Khaybar that led to another messy laser call.

As-salamu alaykum. It’s me again.” Batyrov could tell it was Majida, though she failed to introduce herself. She sounded almost chipper. Maybe it was the connection noise. “I am waiting for you in the caves. We have a multi-service dock at depth 1800. Your ship should just about be able to handle it. Inshallah we will meet soon and you will not explode due to the pressure.”

The Eminent was a frigate, an old Imperial Marder class that had defected in the uprisings. They had seen other relatively Frigate-size ships floating around the mountain in varying degrees of readiness, and had the seen the wrecks of many other Frigate-size ships, so more than likely, it was true that the Khaybarians had Frigate docks. That they were set into the rock was not terribly surprising as there were stations and arcologies grafted onto landforms all over the Empire.

Those docks and ships did lead Batyrov to reconsider what the Pirates were capable of.

Descending down to the seafloor at the base of the pass, the Bosporans found a hatch opening directly beneath them. There was no movement of water, as the hatch was already flooded. A massive tunnel extended below the surface aperture. They followed the rocky passage under the mountain and up into an absurdly massive moonpool. A small flotilla was housed and serviced in the rocky depths of this flooded passage. Batyrov was unsure of how they would get out, however, because ships did not have upper hatches. Moonpools had fallen quite out of use by the Empire.

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

A pair of labor divers dropped down from above and attached a chute to their frigate.

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

The Bosporans were almost afraid of opening their ship up to the chutes to disembark Batyrov and his men. Batyrov trusted the Khaybarians, and when he had the airlock to the chute opened, he found a completely pressurized, straightforward walk out to a familiar style of metal bulkhead door. On their side, the Khaybarians opened the door and met him without incident.

Finally, Batyrov got to meet with his counterparts after all this time.

There was a figure in a black hood at the center of a small party of unarmed folk. Everyone but that central figure instead wore dusty grey or beige hoods and synthetic coats and pants. They wore featureless, dusty white masks with subtle eyeholes. All of their hoods had spaces for their cat-like ears. Either they all made that style choice together or they were all Shimii as Batyrov had assumed.

That central hooded figure stepped forward to greet the party from Bosporus.

“I did not prepare a big welcoming speech. Do you have one?”

“I’m afraid not. Let’s just introduce ourselves.” Batyrov said, smiling at her.

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

Batyrov got to see the leader of the Khaybarian Pirates. She pulled down her hood.

“Majida al-Khaybari. Warlord of the ummah of Jabal Khaybar.”

“I am Silas Batyrov. I represent the interests of the people of Bosporus.”

“Hah! Well, I suppose I am not one of them by your definition.”

They briefly shook hands. She had a very strong grip.

She was a Shimii, without a doubt. Her ears and tail proved this immediately.

For a brutal “Pirate Queen” she had an outward appearance gentler and more collected than Batyrov expected. Her hair was a captivating color, like a dusty silver, that fell in messy waves cut just over the shoulder. She had an interesting pale skin complexion, like an off-brown grey, that was uncommon to her ethnicity. Her eyes were a very dark color. Her face seemed untroubled by the elements, with a gentle nose and soft lips and cheekbones. She was smiling softly at the anarchists.

Her figure was quite lithe and lean, not necessarily skinny, but neither too tall nor too broad. Her form of dress was humble. Beneath her synthetic hood she wore a weathered green coat and pants with military-style boots. Her garments looked simply made and very little decorated. Her only piece of jewelry or filigree was a necklace she wore, which had the Khaybarians symbol. That half-moon cut through by three claw marks. It had been cast in armor steel, rough and unpolished.

Some of her body’s physical traits hinted at a complicated ancestry.

One of her ears was like any other Shimii’s, cat-like, erect at the top of her head and covered in fur the color of her human head hair. However, her other ear was strange. It was twisted the wrong way — if it had an earhole somewhere, then it was pointing back, and there was no fur or earhole fluff that Batyrov could see on it. The cartilage on that “ear” was blue-ish gray and smooth.

Some Shimii had “wonky” ears, but Majida looked like she had a fin in place of one.

Her tail was also a bit odd. It split at the end into two fluffy tips.

“Wondering about this?” She raised a hand and flicked her finger at her one strange ear.

Batyrov nodded. “I have been trying to place it.”

Majida grinned. It was a mocking grin, that belied maybe a little bit of her malice.

“Let us just say I’ve got a complicated history. I’m special, you know?” Majida said.

Batyrov hardly knew how to reply to such an enigmatic and strange declaration.

“Are you a Pelagis?” He asked, perhaps insensitively.

“I’m a Shimii. Can you introduce me to the rest of your ‘Bosporan’ friends?”

Her voice turned a bit brusque as she asserted her ethnicity.

Batyrov was sure she must have been a Pelagis, made upon a base of Shimii genetics.

He would not push her on that subject. It was unimportant for any of their purposes.

“My comrades here are Basan Shapur and Antoine Albescu.”

Shapur and Albescu stood behind Batyrov, staring down the Shimii standing with Majida.

Batyrov knew that nobody was armed, but Majida had them outnumbered a dozen to three.

Majida herself seemed to notice a bit of tension, and smiled affably.

“I’ll take the lead from here. All of you go find something productive to do.”

The plain masks in the dusty coats stared at one another briefly and quietly.

Following Majida’s orders, they dispersed as individuals, going different directions.

Once they were gone, the Warlord ushered her guests past the bulkhead door.

No security checks, no pat-downs or metal detectors.

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

“There are a lot of passages, so stay close to me. We will pay a visit to mawla Asma Al-Shahouh. She is a community leader and a precious elder to us. Nobody here will ever cooperate with you unless you first pay your respects to mawla Al-Shahouh. After you have introduced yourselves, we can discuss business with her as a witness, in the traditional way.”

Majida talked very confidently. It felt almost as if she had done this before, or perhaps had planned to do so, and thought about what she would do in such a situation. Batyrov wondered if there were other peoples who had agreements with the Khaybarians and the Bosporans simply did not know for lack of peaceful communication, or attempts at communication. Nevertheless, he did not ask Majida for any exceptions or anything untoward. Feeling lucky that he had come this far and then found an intelligent and forthright woman to speak to, he simply acquiesced to her agenda.

Shapur and Albescu looked reticent, but they ultimately followed after Batyrov.

He did not know much about them, but it was fine as long as they all cooperated.

Beyond the bulkhead that sealed behind them, the cavern passage was partially steel and partially hewn into the rock. Batyrov saw pipes and devices on the walls that he assumed were used to equalize the pressure and provide oxygen and air circulation. There were lights on the walls and ceiling that provided dim fields of illumination, but the lighting at the bulkhead was practically a spotlight compared to the lights in the rest of the passage. It made the place even more cavernous.

At the end of the passage, the four of them got on an elevator. All of the buttons on the physical controls had very faded characters, but numbers had been scratched into the metal above each so that they could be read and used. Majida did not look as she struck two of the buttons.

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

“Majida is fine. By etiquette, you should not be so familiar with a woman, but I’m special.”

“And the person you are taking us to meet. Her name is Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh?”

Mawla is her title. It’s a word in our language, Al Fus-ha. Her name is Asma Al-Shahouh.”

“Your language, it is like High Imbrian, correct? It’s known, but not much is spoken.”

“You possess more of High Imbrian than we have Al Fus-ha. But you are mostly correct.”

Batyrov nodded. High Imbrian was a set of words, place names and titles that the Empire had recorded from the surface world, after the lost times. Military terms like blitzkrieg and the formal name of the Empire, the Reich. And the way the Volkisch called themselves was a word of High Imbrian.It was possible to carry out speech in High Imbrian, if you knew the grammar and the words, but it was very rare. If there was even less left of Al Fus-ha, it was a dead tongue.

Talking with Majida fascinated him as a scholar, but hers seemed a sad tale to tell.

He felt so ashamed that the Imbrians had done so much damage to the Shimii.

Majida laughed to herself as if she knew what he was thinking.

“You can’t take all the credit for our condition, you know. Let me tell you a story I was told: a thousand years ago, there was a holy man, the Mahdi, who led the Shimii to the Ocean. He was sent to us with ominous knowledge from Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.” Majida followed with a quick recitation Batyrov didn’t understand. “Why was he sent? Because the people of the surface hated us, and when they conspired to escape the Calamity, they wanted us all to die on the surface. Can you imagine such a thing? That the entire world wanted us to be annihilated?”

Though she had an amused expression, Majida was talking about dire things indeed.

“I’m sorry, I was not aware.” Batyrov said. His voice trembled.

He was not aware of much of the Shimii’s culture. Only of its ultimate destruction.

A part of him wondered how far outside of Khaybar such stories had ever spread.

He could almost believe this mountain was the original site of that mythical descent.

It was so ancient-feeling, and so hidden away. Just like these people were.

“Just think about it; the calamity of the surface destroyed all our holy sites and homes.” Majida said, “and beneath the Ocean we faced more hardship and hate, and we faced the time of great Ignorance with everyone else beneath the Ocean.” Did she mean the Age of Strife? She continued. “But compared to the ancient people leaving us to die on the surface, the Imbrians’ hatred of us is small and pathetic. Just like you folk.”

Majida elbowed Batyrov gently in the flank, laughing as she made that declaration.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they wanted to sink through the earth and disappear.

It was a long elevator ride. Maybe the tunnels were big, or the elevator was old and slow.

Thankfully, there wasn’t much silence. Their Shimii hostess was always talking.

“Tell me more about you!” Majida said. “You’re a nerd, Batyrov. How about these two?”

She turned and pointed at Albescu. He grunted a bit as if he didn’t really know what to say.

“I’m also a nerd, technically.” He finally said. “I’m more of a soldier now, I guess.”

“You all need to work on your people skills to do this diplomacy thing.” Majida laughed.

“We were kind of drafted into it.” Shapur said. He tried to smile and shrug, playing it off.

“I guess someone’s always calling the shots for everyone no matter where you go.”

“Well, we’re anarchists, so no, actually.” Albescu said. “But it was like peer pressure.”

Majida’s cat-like ear noticeably perked up. Her fin-like ear twitched briefly.

“Anarchists, right! I’d heard that something big had gone down in Bosporus.”

“You get news from the outside?” Batyrov asked. She had blurted out something new.

Majida was unbothered. She did not seem to see it as changing her position whatsoever.

“I’ve got my ways, but I’d still love to hear from your perspective what happened.”

“Of course. I keep practicing how to tell this story in the future. So: a few weeks ago, a group of militants sank a station in the Palatinate. Do you know where that is?” Batyrov asked.

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

She did not sound angry at him, but Batyrov still felt he was making verbal missteps.

In his estimation, Majida seemed like a very bright woman.

He had not known what to expect. Maybe someone more desperate, more brutish.

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

He had to keep revising his impression of her with every word she said.

“After that station was destroyed, a bunch of us just said ‘enough was enough’. We wanted to do something about it. At first, we just wanted to gather a group of students and walk out, and protest and give some visibility to how bad all this– all this stuff was, you know?” Batyrov said.

“You can say ‘shit’. I’m not your mother or sister.” Majida said.

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

“Right.” Batyrov replied, turning a little red. “So, anyway, what ended up happening was all of the students walked out. A bunch of professors joined us. Then the police came out. And it got heated, really quickly. We were just students, but when people saw us getting gassed and hit, more people started joining. Regular people. Even some Navy guys came in, they threw out their uniforms. Eventually we had enough of being hit. We’ve got huge numbers of people, pissed as hell. So, then we start fighting.”

Majida whistled. “I can’t imagine you fighting, Batyrov.”

“I was arrested, like, Day 1.” Batyrov laughed. “So, this is all kinda second-hand.”

He started fidgeting with his hair. Majida looked at him with a little smile.

“So then, who is calling the shots now? The Duke fled the state, didn’t he?” She asked.

“Well, nobody is ‘calling the shots’ really.” Batyrov said.

Majida smiled again. “Someone is always calling the shots.”

“I know this might sound corny, but we collectively decided to organize on the principle of free association. We form groups, because we all want to, and those groups decide together what they want to do, what problems they want to tackle, who they can talk to for resources so they can get together and do the work.”

“I see. You did all this complicated stuff just to come talk to me? I’m flattered.”

Her expression seemed to shift from sympathy to mockery very quickly.

“Well, let me ask you this, are you the boss around here?” Batyrov said.

“Of some things. Like dealing with you, for example.” Majida replied.

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

He was trying to needle her in the same way she was making fun of their anarchism.

It did not work too well.

“Wow! You’re so respectful, already using her title. She’s the boss of some things.”

Finally, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened in front of them.

“Ah. Follow me! And don’t stare too much. You’ll scare the kittens.”

They exited out onto an absolutely massive space that was full of people.

Rock walls and metal blended together in fascinating, almost organic ways.

There were devices regulating air and pressure, and light fixtures on the rock walls or suspended on steel wires, but the habitat was still cavernous. Batyrov remembered that feeling of smallness in the Khaybar Pass, with the rock walls rising on either flank. The interior of Khaybar Mountain was the same way. Up above there was only darkness as the ceiling was some imperceivably infinite height overhead. There were maybe about a hundred meters of width of dimly lit clearance between the walls, and this road was taken up by people. Catwalks and ladders and elevators in places connected the various rooms set inside and into the walls around them.

Batyrov compared it to a hive, and all the Shimii ran around like cat-eared bees within it.

The Khaybarians appeared to have colonized the rock at least a dozen stories high with all manner of workshops, homes big and small, and what seemed like meeting places on the different floor levels. They walked past a recessed stone hollow in the wall where synthetic mats had been laid down and people sat, listening to what sounded like stories or prayers that were being sang.

“Weigh with justice, and do not give short measure.” Majida said aloud to herself.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Definitely thousands; Batyrov started counting and recounting, resetting his expectations as he walked. There were so many people, so many different people. Women and children, older men and strong-looking boys, with different colors of eyes and patterns on their hair, with darker and lighter skin. Batyrov had hardly seen a place that was so colorful. Everyone dressed humbly in coats, pants, long skirts. All kinds of ears shaking and tails wagging. Most people wore earth tones with simple but lovely patterns.

As they walked, a group of children who had been playing started sneaking behind them.

They watched with trepidation, from behind and around objects, their little tails wagging.

Majida glanced at them briefly over her shoulder, and the kittens hid playfully from her.

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

“We’ll be at the mawla’s home shortly. Until then, be careful not to offend anyone.”

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

There were a few of Majida’s white-coated, masked retinue walking about. Some patrolled idly around the various levels and structures, waving at Majida when she passed. Others were engaged in some kind of community work. They were distributing containers to people. Some were big barrels. Clean water perhaps? Others gave out what seemed from afar like foodstuffs.

“We ration everything. We distribute goods based on need.” Majida explained.

“So, you have industry? What tools do you have? What can you make?” Batyrov said.

“Look over there.”

Majida pointed to a spot farther ahead where there was a section of wall cleared quite deep to make room for a massive workshop. As their party got closer, Batyrov saw that there were a dozen Shimii engaged in work on nothing less than an actual Heavy Diver suit. It was a custom build, nothing like a Volker or any other model he had seen. The craftsmanship was incredible.

Every surface was smoothed out, angled properly. It was painted red, and the technology of this suit was striking compared to the conditions around it. Batyrov was looking at it from the back, so he could see swept shoulders and rear armor that flared out, almost winged. There were six hydro-jets, three a piece in two pod packs. From the positions, they appeared to be able to turn horizontally. It was a curious setup that struck him as a little dangerous, but innovative.

On a rack near the Diver’s makeshift gantry, there were several weapons. Batyrov thought he recognized them. Staring at them long enough, he could finally tell they were gas guns and ship cannons, stripped from wrecks and refurbished. The Khaybarians used ship guns and materials to build their own weapons and systems. That Diver was probably made with salvaged ship metal too. He realized a lot of this cavern may have been upgraded with ship parts and systems.

Those Shimii were welding ship metal and salvaged tech, with tools taken from ships.

“You can build Divers.” Batyrov said. He was taken aback by this revelation. Shapur and Albescu both stared, silently, in awe at the work they were seeing. Batyrov realized if they could work with the Khaybarians, they could have a homegrown weapons industry. All they needed to do was supply the Khaybarians with real materials and tools, and they could build Bosporan weapons! And maybe they could even build ships. They had docks, they had space to work in.

He was imagining an entire Shimii manufacturing sector. Turning out for the commune, overnight. It would be game-changing for the anarchists. Bosporus did not have a Rhineanmetalle Group or a Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries. They had mining and processing but not as much manufacturing muscle. Using Majida’s people, the Commune might be able to build anything.

Majida gave him a strange look.

Her gaze was frighteningly deep, piercing. It was like she was reading his mind.

“We make anything we need with anything we can get. Let’s keep walking.”

She turned from the workshop and led the men onward. Batyrov looked back one last time.

He saw multiple little tails sticking out from beside the Diver’s foot. He smiled.

This was a strangely beautiful place. He felt like he wanted to help these people. They seemed like good people, skilled people. People who had been forced into this life by misfortune and violence. None of them needed to live in such backwards conditions. As bewildered as he was when they first made contact, he felt positive about Khaybar. This was not a pirate’s den.

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

After walking for what felt like half an hour, they reached the other end of the habitat.

There was rock wall and what looked like a cargo elevator. It was broader and larger than the rest. There were some crates loaded on it but nobody seemed to be looking after them, so Batyrov did not linger on that detail. Across from the elevator there was a room set into the rock with a metal door. It looked like a recycled bulkhead door, but there were no locking mechanisms and the metal backing was thinned out. Majida led them to this door and casually pushed it open.

Her face lit up as she entered the domicile, and she put a hand over her chest.

She moved to keep the three Bosporan men behind her as she stood on the floor mat.

Salam, Khala Asma.” Majida greeted. “Oh! I should have known Raaya would be here.”

The Mawla’s abode was cozy. There was a bed, clearly stripped from a ship cabin, there was a pot and a kettle on an electric cooktop hooked up to an agarthic battery. That battery was probably taken from a diver or a shuttle and the cooktop looked like the ones on imperial messes. There was a climate control unit, naked on the wall, the heating element glowing behind a grate. There was a locker up against one wall, reminiscent of those on Imperial ships, used as a cupboard and pantry. A chest and a small table near the bed played host to an LCD writing tablet and pen.

By Bosporan standards it was a tiny, humble home, but it felt comfortable enough.

Inside the room there were two people. On the bed, resting up against a gel pillow, and covered in a warm blanket, was an older Shimii woman with striking green eyes and sandy-brown skin, her hair partly graying. She gave their party a warm, radiant smile. Her dress was just a bit more colorful, a green robe with yellow patterns that looked like squares on a diagonal grid.

Next to the pot, in which some kind of stew was boiling, stood a younger woman, maybe Majida’s age. She looked enough like the mawla that Batyrov assumed they must have been mother and daughter. She was a pretty girl, a bit skinny, with her hair tied in a functional ponytail and wearing a cheerful expression. Like Mawla Al-Shahouh she had sandy-brown skin and hair, and those same green eyes. Her own robes were pretty simple, but she had a blue sash that she wore tightly.

When she saw Majida, Raaya approached her with an open, happy demeanor.

In a strange but caring gesture, the two touched noses briefly, both smiling warmly.

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

“Majida, who are these men with you? There are so many.” Raaya asked.

“They’re here on business. Don’t worry. They are proper boys.” Majida said.

“You should not have come unescorted.” Raaya said. She put her hands on her hips.

“Bah, I’m more of a man than any of them anyway. I’m special. Forget all that.”

Majida was so casually conceited, the Bosporans felt a bit embarrassed by her.

“It’s still improper. And now you’re insulting them! What a terrible host!”

“Don’t give Majida too much grief, Raaya. Let everyone in, and serve the food.”

From behind them, the mawla, Asma, spoke in a kind but firm tone of voice.

Raaya nodded her head obediently, and returned to the pot with one last look at Majida.

Ahlan wa sahlan, Majida, guests.” Asma said.

Majida ushered the Bosporans into the abode at that point. Batyrov moved to bow.

“Don’t do that.”

He felt Majida’s hand briefly push his chin back up.

“Don’t bow to anyone here. We don’t do that. The Mawla welcomed you, so be honored.”

“We appreciate your hospitality. I wish I was able to properly pay respects in your custom.”

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

He really felt privileged. It was like entering an entirely different world. It was surreal.

“The rest of us don’t use as much Al Fus-ha as her.” Majida said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, it is only that way despite my best efforts to teach you.” Asma said.

She laughed, while Majida’s head sank a little. Her fin-like ear twitched with annoyance.

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

Everyone then sat down on mats on the floor with their legs crossed.

Once the soup was ready, Raaya went around to everyone with their share.

Everyone was given one piece of flatbread from the Mawla’s cupboard, and a small cup of a steaming hot, thick soup of greens and lentils. Raaya spooned in the soup first, and then scooped up a round, soft item from the pot onto each cup, making sure everyone had a bite of this. It could have been a soy or yeast cake, or maybe it was really meat. The delegation did not know, but they watched Majida break up the little protein cake into the soup, and dip her bread, and she began to eat it like this. The delegates imitated her.

Despite its humble appearance, the meal was quite salty and savory, though the thick, almost viscous consistency of the soup took some getting used to. It was hearty and earthy. Batyrov quite liked it.

Along with the soup, Raaya served them a very watery tea from the kettle next to the pot.

After serving the tea, she brought a vessel down from the cupboard, and finally sat herself.

“Forgive us the small portions. Our meals are pretty lean. Have some milk.”

Majida said this as she poured just a bit of what seemed like milk from Raaya’s vessel into her tea. It was clearly not 100% dairy milk, as the Imperial-fed delegation were used to, and they learned this when they tried it. Rather, this was more like what they knew as “Union milk:” fortified with a small amount of dairy, with added sugar for taste, but mainly soy or nut milk.

All of this suggested to Batyrov that there was basic agriculture and food manufacture in Khaybar.

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

Asma seemed to offer a little prayer before she began to eat herself.

“Ah crap.” Majida said. “I just dug right in. Sorry.”

The Bosporans stopped eating suddenly, staring at Majida, wondering if they offended too.

“There is a prayer for such an occasion. Do you recall it?” Asma said to Majida.

“I–”

“I shall offer a prayer for your soul then.” Asma said mischievously.

Majida frowned. “Quit teasing me. I’ll make up for it in evening prayer.”

“Of course, it is known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, that you are trying your best.”

“Of course.” Majida replied.

“However, it is laudable to be dissatisfied with one’s efforts, and to continuously improve.”

Raaya giggled. Majida seemed fully put down by the lecture.

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

Asma turned to the Bosporans with a smile. “All of you can eat. Don’t worry about us.”

And so, the Bosporans ate.

Asma only had one verbal exchange with them during the meal.

“You came from Bosporus, is that right?” She asked.

“That’s right. I come from Antioch originally.” Batyrov said.

“We call that place Medina, Khala Asma.” Majida interjected.

“Ah, I see. Tell me then, how is the masjid there? Is it well tended to?”

Batyrov blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Hmm. Well, don’t worry about it then.”

Asma covered her mouth, coughing a little before returning to her food.

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

After the meal, Raaya picked up all the plastic vessels they had eaten off of.

“I’m taking these out to wash. Good luck with everything, Majida. I will return with Mother’s medicine soon. Inshallah you will be out of here by then. Mother’s health cannot wait.”

 Majida waved at Raaya with a bored expression as the young woman departed.

“She’s a beauty, but she has such a nagging attitude.” Majida shrugged.

“Whom did she get that from, I wonder?” Asma said, looking satisfied with herself.

While eating, their seating positions were arranged around Asma’s bed.

However, now Majida turned her back to Asma and faced all of them directly.

“Aside from upholding a custom of basic hospitality, I hope to impress upon you how it is that my people live.” Majida said. “All of us live precisely like this. We must share everything and divide it into small amounts so everybody can eat pure and healthy food. I hope you will understand then, as we negotiate, that my people live in precarity and we have need of many things here.”

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

“Trust is important in business. So, for now, I trust all of you.” Majida said.

All of the Bosporans remained seated and faced Majida. Asma remained in her bed.

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

“I will witness, but not interrupt.” Asma replied. “You will be responsible, Majida.”

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

“Up until a few days ago, I was the one sinking your ships. Me and my crew.”

She cracked a little grin at them. Albescu and Shapur narrowed their eyes at her.

“Does it bother you? Look around yourselves. My people are vulnerable. Now you know about Khaybar’s fearsome reputation. You experienced it first-hand. All of you call me a ‘Pirate’ but I did not style myself this. I protect my people from those who come to steal from us. And I steal from those who stole our homes, broke up our communities and erased our names and words.”

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

They had lost comrades to her piracy. However, her distrust made perfect sense to him.

“With all due respect, we did not antagonize you. It was the Empire that did you wrong. All this time, people like us have been fighting the Empire too. We never persecuted the Shimii.”

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

“A few months ago, when an Imperial Marder-class navigated these waters, I knew that it was Imperial and I attacked it.” Majida said. “It made no attempt to communicate its intentions, its weapons were primed at all times. A week ago, an Imperial Marder-class Frigate appears again. And then another. Am I supposed to think ‘oh, this Imperial Marder-class Frigate is full of ethical, freedom-loving anarchists who mean no harm’? Unfortunately, my vision is not so perfect as that.”

“Do you attack every ship that tries to go through the pass?” Batyrov asked.

“Look around you. I’ve seen you eyeing our gear. You know the answer to that!”

Batyrov did understand. Having been called out like that, he put together the final piece.

The Khaybarians attacked every warship that tried to go through the pass.

Using ship computers, they possessed algorithmic detection of specific types.

“You sink warships. That’s how you choose who to kill and who to extort?” Batyrov asked.

“It’s a solid starting point. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. Say that I accept and understand your motivations. Can we have a truce?”

“Let me answer your question with a question.” Majida said. “Are you the boss, Batyrov?”

Batyrov blinked. “I told you there is no boss, Majida.”

Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.

“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”

“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”

“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”

 Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.

Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.

Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”

Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.

“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”

“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”

“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”

“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”

Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.

“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”

Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.

“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”

Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.

“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”

Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.

“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.

“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”

“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.

“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”

“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”

Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.

“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.

Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.

“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”

Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.

“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.

Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”

“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.

“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”

“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.

“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”

Shapur agreed with him as well.

Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”

Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.

“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”

“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”

“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”

Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.

Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.

Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.

“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.

“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”

“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”

“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of hatred toward the ummah swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”

Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.

“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”

Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.

“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”

Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.

“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”

In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.

“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”

For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.

She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.

“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”

Click.

Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.

None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.

But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!

“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”

She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”

Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.

“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”

Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.

Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.

“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”

There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.

  “Yisim albadan.”

Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.

“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”

“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.

“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”

He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.

“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”

Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?

From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.

Majida narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”

“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”

A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.

To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”

An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.

“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”

When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.

On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.

He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.

Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.

“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.

“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”

Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.

Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.

The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out.  To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.

Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.

“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.

That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.

In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.

Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”

He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.

He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.

Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.

Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.

Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.

“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”

“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”

She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.

“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”

Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”

At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.

Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.

“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”

He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.

She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.

From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.

Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.

“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.

These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.

“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”

She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.

Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.

Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.

The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.

Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.

That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.

Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.

He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.

“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.

Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.

“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”

Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”

“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”

He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.

Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.

When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.

“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”

Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.

Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.

On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.

There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.

“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.

“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”

“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”

“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”

“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”

Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.

He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.

But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.

Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.

Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.

This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.

When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.

One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”

While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?

Could she project a laser?

Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?

As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.

Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”

Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.

“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.

Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.

Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.

He stepped up to face the side screen.

“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”

Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.

“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”

Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.

Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.

A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.

None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.

“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”

Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.

While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”

Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.

“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”

He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.

Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.

“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”

That confusion did not last long.

Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.

The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.

Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.

“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”

Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.

“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.

Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.

And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.

In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.

Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.

“What is happening?”

All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.

Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.

On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.

Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.

“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.

He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.

Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.

Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–

A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.

They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.

She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.

Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.

When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.

At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.

Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.

“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”

From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.

While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.

Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.

Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.

Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.

Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.

As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.

Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.

Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.

Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.

While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.

At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.

“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”

The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.

That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.

With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.

And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.

At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.

Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.

The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.

Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.

All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.

He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.

If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.

Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.

He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?

Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?

Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.

Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?

He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.

The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.

To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.


“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.

There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.

Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.

She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.

Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.

There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.

Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.

It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.

She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.

A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.

With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.

What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”

Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.

“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.

When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.

“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”

Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!

She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”

With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.

Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.

The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.

“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”

Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.

There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.

At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.

Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.

Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.

Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.

“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”

Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.

Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.

There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.

Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.

Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.

At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.

“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”

“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.

She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.

“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”

Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.

Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.

Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.

None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.

Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.

“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”

“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”

His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”

Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.

Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.


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Arc 1 Intermissions [I.5]

Content warning: This story contains themes of suicide and mental illness.

The Martyr

Polity: Duchy of Buren

Naval strength: 500 ships (National Front of Buren), plus Irregulars

There would have been war in Buren even if the Emperor had survived to see it.

Throughout the dark, deep, rocky state of Buren, which straddled the corrupted continent once known as “Nobilis” on three sides, a cry had sounded for generations. It sounded in the mines where deadly Agarthicite could claim the lives of hundreds of workers in an instant. It sounded quietly in the bunks of rank-and-file sailors who dreamt of the legends their grandparents told them about the free nation that they once were. It sounded in the factories that made weapons and goods for the consumption of the rich in Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the rest of the Imperial heartland. It was the cry of the disposessed and the cry of quietly suffering.

“Buren shall be free again!” 

A similar cry sounded from the halls of the ducal palace.

“The Nationalists have come to set Buren free!”

Though it was a word that inspired terror in the left across the Ocean, they adopted it.

“Nationalist” made sense to the Bureni folk. Their goal was to become a nation again.

Their freedom fighters named themselves the “National Front of Buren.”

“Buren shall be free again!”

Automatic bursts from Volker rifles muffled but could not silence their cries.

Inside the flat, square station of Lithopolis, the LCD paneled false sky intercut with gray static bands as power fluctuated suddenly. A powerful explosion rocked the station as the waters around it were heavily disturbed. A Koenig-class Dreadnought of the Bureni Defense Forces, struck by multiple torpedoes, sank and smashed into the seafloor around the base of the pillar, setting off a second series of shocks. For a moment, the ground forces that had penetrated the station stumbled, holding on to whatever they could grab for support.

“Have we captured an entry point?”

Radio coverage was spotty as the Diver transitioned from the water to the port interior.

“Yes, commander! You can come up!”

A pair of nationalist Divers arrived through the captured lower port and quickly made their way up into the city through cargo elevators. Blood and corpses and the detritus of ruined divers and weapon emplacements met them as they went. There had been a hellish battle for those elevators, but they were now being held by the nationalists. Both Divers stepped onto the platform.

“Are you ready, Sophia? I have your back, so let’s put a beautiful wax seal on this coup.”

“Irene. If I died today, could you continue the fight without me?”

Neither pilot could see the other’s face, they were moving too quicky and had not established a laser call between their cockpits. But those dire words and their reaction were clear enough from the emotion in both tones of voice. One was exhausted, resigned; and the other was emotional, highly emotional, but trying her best not to let it overcome her as she spoke.

“There is no way in hell you would die here, Sophia. Not when we made it this far.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Sophia was sorry for the task she had made herself carry out.

“Nothing.”

She could not explain to her companion the storm of emotions rolling in her mind.

All she could hope for was that Irene would not be there at the end.

Sophia put on the mask that befit the esteemed commander of the Nationalist Fleet.

Her personal conflicts had to remain hidden. She was walking into a battlefield.

As the elevator rose to its destination the sounds of gunfire intensified. Once the Divers were lifted up into the station proper, they first thing they saw was smoke. There were pits all over the false turf that made the palace look like a rural countryside. Buildings had taken shell blows and half-collapsed into rubble, or been hollowed out by fires. Sophia hoped the palace staff had been able to evacuate. Everywhere she turned, the results of the fight were terribly brutal.

Sophia switched her communications to a radio frequency and called the infantry liaison.

“Command has arrived at the front. I need a situation report.”

“Everything is in place for the final push, Commander! We’re awaiting your orders!”

Inside the cockpit of a Reschold-Kolt license-produced Panzer unit now appearing on the front lines, was the commander of the main nationalist force, Sophia Tzanavaras. All of her comrades had chosen her to lead the attack on Lithopolis, and despite her misgivings, she accepted the responsibility. She arrived at a mustering point on the outer edge of the capitol center, held by a mix of militiamen, riot-armored troops and a few pilots who constituted the first boarding party.

“Were the civilians able to evacuate?” Sophia asked.

“We didn’t see any civvies ma’am, but the port was in disarray. I think a lot of people fled really suddenly. Even the security forces were in chaos. It’s just us and the palace guards now.”

Lithopolis consisted of an outer ring of tenement habitation for service workers and servants surrounding the vast ducal estate. After invading the dock and taking the cargo elevators, the Nationalist troops mustered with the large tenement buildings between themselves and the firing lines from the ducal grounds. Shells and periodic rifle fire flew in between and over the buildings as if to remind the nationalists that there were enemies watching them approach.

 Predominantly flat, green terrain surrounded the palace, dotted with buildings. The ducal estate encompassed private farmland, a small pond, a horse track, a gymnasium, and the palace itself in the middle ring. Its buildings were all white, pillared, artistic architecture for the pleasure of the nobles. Through Sophia’s eyes, what she saw was not the beautiful ducal parcels but a complex battlefield with multiple terrain features that was nonetheless quite open to assault.

Outside Lithopolis, the waters sang with the eerie sound of ordnance. The Nationalist fleet had the remnants of the Bureni Defense Forces in the midst of a rout. Sophia had started her rebellion with her own kampfgruppe of defected naval forces and some militias on converted civilian ships or stolen navy ships. Now through the defection of her countrymen and vast mutinies against the officer class, her naval troops outnumbered those of the Duke. Her wish was to provoke further defections, and enhance her own numbers. That was all that prevented her from ordering the outright slaughter of the Defense Forces. Losing the BDF’s leading dreadnought was a pity.

“I’m going through our options. Is this everybody?” Sophia asked.

On the auxiliary video screen of her Panzer, Sophia spoke with a young man, who looked barely old enough to drink, sitting in front of an unfolded communicator box that was sending an encrypted laser video to her mecha. She could also see him in the camera feeds. He was dressed in riot armor. On the floor near him there was a ballistic shield, stained dark brown with blood, as well as an unloaded jet lance. There were six other riot-armored men and women in the mustering point geared up with shields, rifles, jet lances, vibro-swords, and about a half-dozen shoulder-fired, portable missile tubes. Everyone had blood on them, either on their weapons or their armor.

“The boarding party got hit hard ma’am. The enemy’s Divers and ours took each other out almost immediately inside the dock. Then their riot troops came out and set up machine guns and grenade launchers. They tried to block us out of the cargo elevator. We had them outnumbered but they were really entrenched. When the naval battle swung in our favor, they retreated into the sanctum. We weren’t in any good shape to stop them, so we just held onto the elevators. I’m sorry.”

“You all fought valiantly. Stand tall. Buren will commemorate all of your names.”

Around the boy there were also a few dozen militiamen equipped with nothing but worker coverall coats worn over bodysuits for armor. They had surplus rifles loaded with frangible spike ammo to prevent them from damaging sensitive gear inside the station corridors and in the city.

Station fighting was brutal. Layouts were tight and favored the defender as long as they had gear and supplies. Against an enemy force with armor, shields and lethal weapons holding a natural chokepoint in any ordinary station layout, the invading force was bound to suffer losses. Despite the cost in blood, they had been able to come this far. Any armor would break with enough bullets. Even if it took a few squadrons, Sophia and her forces had managed to break through.

Ordinary people could fight the insurmountable juggernaut of the Empire. Any defense could be broken, any stolen land taken back. The history of the Union had taught her as much. In prison, she had found hope in the histories of the Union’s rebellion. It was this hope that led her to join Buren’s own rebellion. For atonement, she sacrificed all of herself that she could and led numerous battles to get here. Despite the odds, they had made it to the heart of Buren’s darkness.

For the bloodletting to end definitively she had to kill the people hiding at the center of this ring.

To atone for having supported the aristocrats, she told herself she had to be the one to slaughter them.

“We could press the assault with what we have, or wait to muster more troops.”

Sophia saw a new feed appear on one of her monitors and address her. This was the interior of the other Diver cockpit. A young woman gave her a gentle smile — an unlikely companion for an unlikely commander. Everything that surrounded them had been a game of pure chance.

“If we give them a chance to regroup, they’ll cost more lives to dislodge.” Sophia replied. “We need to keep the pressure on them, but we might not need the infantry to commit themselves to an assault. I can punch a hole through to the palace myself, if I could get a distraction.”

“You have an army, Sophia. I’m prepared to fight too. I won’t let you martyr yourself.”

On the screen was the face of her adjutant, Irene Dimitros, piloting a Jagd model Diver.

Irene was the only other member of Sophia’s own fireteam.

“It’s not like that.” Sophia said. She stammered, just a bit. “It’s just my responsibility.”

“You don’t have to bear that responsibility alone! Sophia, I’m always at your side!”

Irene looked concerned. Sophia shook her head.

“Irene, I think it would just be better, for less of us to be at the palace in the final hour.”

Her companion’s eyes drew wide. She understood what Sophia meant, and deferred to her.

Sophia turned away from Irene and gave her orders to the infantry over encrypted radio.

“We’ll need coordination to pull this off. On my signal, we will deploy chaff and colored gas to cover the left flank and open fire on the guard compound. I want you to fire on the move but not launch an assault. Stay mobile, commit to nothing, and leave your options open. I need the armored troops to take responsibility for our unarmored comrades. Lieutenant Dimitros and I will launch our own attack after yours. Once we have disabled their fire support, I’ll throw a flare. When you see that flare, then, and only then, will you commit all forces to assault. Understood?”

She waited for acknowledgment, and all the squadron members saluted her Diver.

“Break open a quick ration and catch your breath. We move out in 10 minutes!”

There was a flurry of activity around Sophia’s Diver. Men and women dug into their rations, checked their equipment, stood up from the walls they had been sitting against. Some took off their helmets to rearrange their hair. Riflemen took turns laying down suppressing fire on the sanctum from around the tenement walls, to keep the enemy entertained while everyone prepared.

Sophia took a bite of a seaweed stick and drank down an energy gel as quickly as she could.

“We can do this, Sophia.” Irene said. “In fact, this will be the easy part.”

Irene was right. There would be more battles after this for the National Front of Buren.

For them— but maybe not for her. She was no longer sure.

When the ten minutes were up, her forces started moving again with coordination. From the tenements, the nationalist squadrons advanced northeast around the left flank of the palace defenders, moving through the sparse urban environment on Lithopolis’ outer ring. They employed whatever cover they could find to mask their movements, from abandoned buildings to generator control boxes, wireless towers and discarded monorail cars, to concrete guardrails and vacant guard outposts. In order to sustain the nationalist’s deception, Sophia and Irene moved their Divers into position near the edge of the tenements, where their squadrons had once been. They fired their assault rifles around the blind corners created by the buildings, causing small blasts to go off on the broad green separating them from the palace. Their enemy easily took notice of this activity.

In response, gunfire from heavy machine guns and light explosives fired by stationary tube launchers soared in between the tenement buildings and churned up the fake turf in a series of volleys. Irene and Sophia hid quickly and avoided the retaliation. Judging by the direction of fire, Sophia began to plot how she would move when the time came, and passed the data to Irene. Her enemy’s attention remained squarely on the center, and that was what Sophia wanted for now.

Soon her squadrons had moved beyond her ability to follow with her own sight, but she could track their progress and view their surroundings via a direct link to a camera drone employed by the teams. Inside the station, she had access to reliable, fast wireless data transfer. It was the kind of boon that was easy to forget for soldiers trained to fight in the ocean, disconnected from most communications. Through the eyes of her drone, she watched as her team got into position.

Colored smoke crept across the open field on the eastern half of the palace ground.

Smoke and pops of gray anti-sensor chaff, like glittering trails falling from the sky.

Shoulder-fired missiles soared out of the clouds and crashed into the guard compound.

Fire engulfed several buildings, all of which had been abandoned. No guards were hit.

But the message being sent was clear. An assault was coming from the left flank.

Withering gunfire erupted from defensive positions in the guard compound and the palace farther behind it. Grenades and missiles hurtled back across the field and smashed into the shops, streets and the monorail station from which the nationalist missiles had come from. Massed rifle and machine gun fire from both infantry weapons and a few Volker class Divers raked the cloud of colored smoke. Because of the chaff, their instruments could not penetrate the smokescreen.

The defenders of the palace assumed the nationalists were assaulting the guard compound.

Meanwhile, the nationalists did not tarry in the monorail station or any of the shops.

They were constantly on the move, and more colored gas and chaff covered them.

It covered where they had been, and where they were going, blanketing the entire east.

Their enemy could not tell a direction for the assault except, broadly, “the left flank.”

All of the gunfire that had once massed against the southern, central approach, turned away to the east.

Her enemy had fully redeployed their defenses to what they assumed was the new axis of attack.

“Irene, now’s our chance! Stick close to me!”

Sophia and Irene charged from the tenement buildings out into the field.

The Panzer was heavy, but its chassis developed a lot of power, and its gait allowed Sophia to advance faster than a human could run across the estate grounds. Meanwhile the Jagd was lighter and had a more complex chassis that flowed somewhat easily through the air. Both pilots opened their turbines, sucking in air that kept them in balance as they ran. In the short term this would damage the turbines, which were designed to accelerate cold water rather than warm air, but it supported their charge overland.

Lithopolis was not a fortress. It was not designed as a defensible position. Even the guard compound was just a collection of barracks buildings and training grounds meant to house the guards rather than defend the palace. Though built on a hill, the palace was surrounded by pretty gardens and tended green fields, by tracks and hunting ground and a pond, not by trenches and gun turrets. Even the placement of building cover was purely incidental. There were no defensive walls, no fences, no barbed wire, nothing to stop them.

Weapon emplacements had been set up on the broad, semi-circular portico façade of the palace, and hidden in the second story windows. Divers stood atop the hill, shooting from their vantage down to the green below. Every element of the defense was exposed, and it was only their commanding position that allowed them to disrupt attacks effectively. There was nothing between Sophia’s charge and the enemy in front of her except the distance it took to get near them.

And now they were not even looking her way. All their weapons were turned east.

Once the enemy recognized their approach, it was too late to split their fire.

Sophia charged up the hill as an enemy Volker half-turned and fired its assault rifle.

Chunks of her armor went flying but the Panzer was built sturdy enough for rifle fire and could not be stopped so easily.

Sophia swung her vibro-sword and cleaved an enormous dent into the rotund chassis.

Briefly exposed to the vibrating edge of the blade, the pilot inside collapsed in agony.

From behind Sophia, a pair of jet anchors soared overhead and smashed through two individual windows in the second story of the palace. Each of the ornate bowed windows disgorged a team of men and their tripod missile launcher, crushed or in pieces from the force of the blow and the jets, blade and cables on the anchors — whichever part made contact was enough to kill.

Irene retracted the anchors and climbed up the stone steps to the portico.

Walking forward through small arms fire, she retaliated with devastating bursts of 20 mm explosive bullets from the shoulder guns on her Jagd. Each snapping blast sent casing fragments and chunks of colonnades into the ranks of the infantry. There were scores of the dead, hunkered down where they could be buried in rubble or blown apart as their own weapons detonated. Sensing the plight of the infantry, a second Volker turned from the guard compound and ran to the portico, only to meet an immediate end as Sophia easily put dozens of assault rifle rounds upon it before it could even heft its gun. It fell backward, oozing lubricants, fuel, battery acid and the blood of the pilot through innumerable penetrations in its armor.

Sophia reloaded. There was not much of the defense now left.

She charged around the eastern wall of the palace, coming to face the colored smoke far in the distance. From the shoulder of her mecha, she launched a flare that sailed up into the sky, and burst in a pattern of red and green colors that signaled the infantry to assault. She remained still only long enough to confirm the movement of people past the dying chaff clouds, before turning her assault rifle on the palace itself.

She lifted the rifle one-handed and took aim with it.

Facing the upper stories, she pressed the trigger down and turned her gun systematically from one window to another, putting three rounds into each. Explosions rocked the entire top floor of the palace, one room at a time in turn, until Sophia’s magazine emptied. Glass, concrete and brick expulsed from the building bounced off the pitted armor of her Panzer suit in a rain of debris. Anyone in those rooms would be reduced to pieces.

Once her computer could detect no further hostile activity, she had the Panzer bow down.

Sophia exited the suit, jumping down from the cockpit, between her sword and her gun.

She took off her helmet, freeing her voluminous, sweat-soaked blond hair. Her skin was clammy, and her golden eyes teared up when exposed to unfiltered light and air. She had been fighting for so long. It almost felt like she was taking her first breath of fresh air in weeks. She had nothing but her pilot suit covering her, and even so Lithopolis felt oppressively hot and damp.

Sophia recovered her senses quickly. Her fingers quivered with the knowledge of what she would do. Catching her breath, she produced her sidearm and ran heedlessly into the palace.

She found herself stepping over all manner of broken human remains, spreading pools of blood and molten fat from bodies caught in explosives or set ablaze when their weapon emplacements detonated on them. Irene had completely ruined the place before she moved on from the portico. No glass stood unshattered, every door was off its hinges, every tile cracked by shrapnel if not direct explosive trauma. Sophia rushed through the front hall, a grotesque corridor of dead and dying soldiers. She kicked open the double doors into the inner sanctum of the palace. Imposing as they were, they were not designed to lock securely.

Inside the high-walled, gold and pearlescent white inner sanctum was a shrine to Solceanos, the great sun-deity depicted as a man with a burning halo and surrounded in rays of smoke and fire. At the base of this being, as if he were looking down on them in their hour of desperation, were two figures huddled together. Sophia recognized both, dressed in embroidered silk cloth, bedecked with jewelry, their beauty well contrived even in this hour of wrath, even surrounded by blood and bullets. That was the way of the aristocracy.

Her features twisted with anger at the sight of the Duke and his daughter.

“Duke Pascheladis!” Sophia said. “Stand up! Own up to your sins and face me!”

It was not the Duke who stood first. His daughter Nereida approached Sophia.

“Please, have some humanity! You cannot do this! Look at father, look at what has–”

Nereida didn’t recognize her. Sophia retrained her aim and fired a single round.

As soon as she stood, Nereida fell aside with a hole the width of a finger through her brow.

There was no emotion in Sophia’s eyes. Nereida meant nothing to her anymore.

“Stand up, Pascheladis!” Sophia shouted, spitting fury at the villain before her.

There was no way that this man would stand up to her. She soon recognized this.

On the floor, the Duke was at his most wretched.

Shaking, teeth chattering in the grip of madness. He could not say a word to her. He would not even make eye contact. It was as if he was trying to crawl endlessly against an invisible wall. He scratched at the base of the statue until his fingers had gone purple and red. He wept, and shouted. It was as if the terror of the palace coming under attack had fully robbed him of his wits. Had he ever shown such frailty before this?

Nereida had been tending to him because he had completely broken down.

Sophia’s eye twitched. Her heart beat faster and faster. Her head felt red-hot with anger.

At the sight of the panicking, crying, incoherent Duke, whom she had once respected.

Whom she had once followed as honorably as she could.

“Look at you.”

She turned her pistol on him. He continued to clutch the statue for no reason at all.

Was he begging Solceanos for forgiveness?

It was not he who needed such forgiveness. Forgiveness was for those who would live.

“Look at you squirming there. Do you know even know why you will die? You made me think that it was righteous to beat down hungry, desperate men. To gas crowds with women and children. To send to the deepest holes of the earth people whom you gave no choice but to steal and kill to live. How could I ever believe this? I’m the one here who must have been insane. I must have been insane to follow your orders.”

She walked up to him, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face into the statue.

There was no catharsis in it. She could torture him all day and feel nothing from it.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that you can afford to lose your wits like this and I can’t.”

Surgically, without emotion, she put a single round through the back of his skull.

Duke Pascheladis’ head crashed against the statue plaque, smearing it with blood.

Sophia stared at the revolting sight of the corpse, unable to tear herself away.

In her mind, this moment had gone very differently.

Filled with passionate eloquence Sophia would have confronted the Duke about her transformation. She would explain the clarity she gained from disobeying her orders, from imprisonment, from suffering torture and being made an example of. She would describe to him the power she had found in her comrades, in their rebellion and the leftist militancy that turned so many to her side. He would have argued back that she was betraying her duty, betraying the honor of her position as a soldier, as an inquisitor, as a ducal guard. He would say that if she believed so strongly in the rantings of Mordecai, then she had to die as well!

Sophia would say to him, that she was prepared to meet him in hell right away.

None of this happened in reality. None of it could ever happen.

How long had the Duke been driven into madness? Was this entire battle so pointless?

Sophia was robbed of her revenge and she was robbed of a chance to convince herself of her own atonement.

Pascheladis had to die. But to Sophia, he had to die struggling, cursing her and clinging to his life.

She wanted to be able to condemn him. To watch his eyes water as he begged her for mercy.

Sophia looked down at the weapon with which she had ended the Pascheladis dukedom.

Even if she had not told him as such, she was prepared to meet him in hell.

“I’ve hurt too many people. Innocent people without hope. I’m no better than those two.”

She lifted the pistol to her own head.

She felt her hands shake, her blood run cold. She started to apply pressure to the trigger.

In the middle of that empty sanctum, she would die.

“I’m as guilty as these bastards. I hope– I hope she’ll forgive me–”

“No! Sophia, please, oh my god, please stop!”

Tears streaming down her eyes, Sophia turned around, the barrel of the pistol warm against her skin. She saw a woman her age in a matching pilot suit come running into the sanctum. Without her helmet, she was easy to identify. Irene had such a dignified face, the face of a truly noble soul, expressive, strikingly beautiful, with bright orange eyes and smooth, orderly brown hair, cut to the neck and curling inward.

Seeing Irene weep at the sight of Sophia’s decision was touching to her.

They were unlikely partners, unlikely allies. So much had to happen for them to meet.

She wished so strongly that Irene had not been there. That she would have just found a corpse.

“This is why you wanted to be alone? Sophia, you don’t have to do this!” Irene pleaded.

“I can’t bear to keep lying to myself. My hands are full of innocent blood.” Sophia said.

Irene’s face twisted with fear and pain. “You were a kid! You didn’t know anything!”

“I was old enough! I believed in what I was doing. I caused so much suffering.”

Sophia smiled bitterly. To think they were having an argument like this one last time.

“You reformed! You went to prison for standing against the government! You changed!”

“Changing does not absolve me of what I did. It only made me realize how horrible it was.”

“Quit running away then!” Irene shouted. “Live so you can take responsibility for yourself!”

Irene stomped her foot. Her cries grew more desperate through a flood of helpless tears.

“We chose you, Sophia! Out of everyone, we still chose to follow you! We believe in you!”

“I had military skills, respectability within the officer corps, and access. I was a good tool to radicalize the ducal navy in this time of crisis.” Sophia said. “Irene I can’t in good conscience volunteer to lead the people of Buren. I was a collaborator in their suffering and I will never be able to live that down.”

Her companion was starting to falter, to fall to helplessness. Irene hugged herself, shaking.

Through quivering lips, she began to mutter words that hit Sophia as hard as any bullet.

“Sophia, if I you told that– if I told you that all this time, I had feelings for–”

Sophia felt her heart sink and shouted back. “Please don’t say it! Irene, please! Not here!”

Those would have been the most painful last words she could have possibly heard.

“Please put that gun down! If you want to atone, then do so in life! Atone by my side!”

Irene stepped forward suddenly, holding out her hand, her eyes fixed on Sophia’s own.

Sophia was startled, but she was restrained enough not to pull the trigger out of fear. She thought for a second to threaten to shoot, but she was her own hostage. Her voice caught in her throat, and she could not move as Irene slowly approached her. Their eyes were fixed on one another.

“Give me the gun. Please, Sophia. I will help you; I will do anything for you.”

Irene got so close Sophia could smell the plastic scent of her suit, and the sweat in her hair.

Her hands reached up to Sophia’s own and touched her.

At first Sophia resisted. She did not allow the barrel to be brought down from her head.

Their gazes were locked together with such intensity. Sophia could not shut her eyes.

Irene persisted, tugging gently on Sophia’s hand.

Slowly, the barrel of the gun lifted off from Sophia’s skin.

Her companion turned the gun toward the ground and finally took it from her hand.

Sophia felt all the blood drain from her face. An overwhelming sense of shame overcame her. Like ice water dumped over her head. She wanted to fall to the floor, but Irene wrapped her arms around her.

Shorter by several centimeters, her face came rest against Sophia’s chest.

Sophia could not return her embrace. She felt so unworthy, and laid so low. Everything was supposed to end in this sanctum. There was not supposed to be another day for her; for the Sophia Tzanavaras who had gone from guarding this palace, to being the revolutionary seizing it.

“I never understood how much you were suffering.” Irene said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Irene, I– I don’t deserve this.” Sophia said weakly. She could not protest it much more.

Held in the arms of her faithful companion, and bearing the hopes of so many people, who saw her as a hero who was saving Buren from the evil aristocrats, Sophia could not conceive of how she would move forward from this moment. She felt as if her legs could never move again.

Despite everything, Irene was there supporting her. Sophia could not explain it.

Somehow, her legs would move again. There would be another day in her life.

Shaken by the knowledge that it could have all ended in that sanctum.

And bearing the uncertainty of a life she did not plan to lead.

In that sense, Sophia was just like Buren itself.

Having her past life torn to pieces in front of her eyes. Rediscovering herself as her ideas of justice were completely transformed. Throwing herself into battle after battle to defer the problem of mending her many wounds in a time of peace. Treading blindly to an uncertain future that was full of enemies and difficult questions about herself. What her role would be, how people viewed her, how she could protect their revolution. As much as she hated and feared the thought of living with the pain she caused and the pain she felt, Sophia Tzanavaras was Buren in flesh, and like Buren, her history would not end so simply.


“She could not do it after all. Well, I’m glad. It would’ve been a huge downer.”

Sophia and Irene wept into each other’s chests while a certain busybody peered from afar. Sitting above the Solceanos monument, her hands behind her head, giving her sore body a breather after a long day. She was glad that she did not get out of bed this morning to witness a suicide. That would have wrecked her day.

From a pouch in the ballistic vest worn over her double-layered tactical bodysuit, the spy produced a portable radio and tuned it to a special nationalist frequency. She put the receiver up to her red lips and spoke gently, so that her physical voice would not be overhead in the sanctum below.

“Commander Tzanavaras, it’s me. I apologize for going dark. I infiltrated the palace.”

She played with a lock of graying brown hair as Sophia, far below and unaware of her current position, took notice of the radio call. As soon as she spoke, she sent that tender moment between Commander and Adjutant into a sudden anxiety. Sophia scrambled to take the call by tapping her earpiece, and looked to Irene for support, who simply nodded to her in sympathy and stood by her side to support her. How touching.

“This is Tzanavaras.” Sophia said. She had done a magnificent job at code switching out from a vulnerable, broken-hearted girl’s weeping voice to the imperious, commanding voice they all knew and followed. “Daksha Kansal. Your support has been invaluable. Were you successful? Is everything clear on your end?”

The spy rolled her eyes a little. She should have never trusted this kid enough to have her name.

Even if it was a cheap and easy way to get her trust.

“It’s all clear. I prevented them from destroying any data or locking down the systems, so feel free to send your engineers to the control center. The security forces routed easily due to rumors that the Duke had gone mad and hid in the sanctum to die. Only the zealots stood and fought. Judging by the ruckus I heard, I think you can safely call this your win. On a related note: don’t call me Daksha Kansal anymore, alright Sophia?”

Below, Sophia started pacing out of the sanctum, with Irene in tow. Her movements seemed mechanical, as if a bit lost on how she should be putting one foot in front of the other. She was clearly still shaken. “What should I call you? You are a proletarian hero and founder of the Union. We honor your name quite highly.”

“That’s precisely why you should all forget about that name in the future. We don’t want Buren to live in the shadow of the Union’s deeds — you won’t inspire confidence just by relying on my name. Call me Ganges instead. But anyway, we’ll talk in person soon, Tzanavaras. I’ve got good news from down South.”

“Very well, Ganges. I look forward to our meeting, then.”

Atop the Solceanos monument, Ganges shut the radio antennae and laid back, sighing.

For a moment, she waited for Sophia and Irene to leave the sanctum.

Then she lifted her hand up to the roof.

There was a red glow in her eyes that she could feel as a gentle heat, as she pulled open a trapdoor on the roof from afar. Ganges stood up on the statue, and withdrew her hookshot. She would make her escape soon.

Her body ached in various places. Twenty years had passed since the Union fought off the Empire.

To think rather than lounging in house arrest like Ahwalia, she was still running around like this.

The things I do for my treasured students. She thought. I hope those two appreciate it.

It wasn’t like she hated her position entirely, however.

In fact, she felt privileged, whenever she closed her eyes and felt the wave spreading across the Oceans.

“Being called Ganges again sure makes me feel something.”

Once again, she was part of that revolutionary wave that would change everything.


Hours after the assault on Lithopolis, Bureni stations across the Duchy received word from the nationalists which then spread to the common people. Crowds formed in the parks and squares of several stations, with some crowds celebrating the fall of the ducal government and confronting dissenters against the nationalist cause. Station authorities were threatened to swear their loyalty to the Nationalists and to avoid retaliatory actions. Police forces initially organized to suppress pro-nationalist sentiments, but the total rout of the BDF and the approach of the new People’s Defense Corps fleets forced the surrender of station security forces.

Across the duchy, industrial workers overthrew their bosses, backed by nationalists, and took over the mining and refining of agarthicite and other products. Private transport companies in the state were blockaded by the nationalists and their ships confiscated and nationalized. There would be no more exporting of Bureni wealth to the rest of the Empire. Within days, the state had closed its borders, and one by one, its stations came under the control of the National Front, either peacefully or surrounded by nationalist ships.

Once the National Front could credibly claim to control all organs of state, there was a broadcast across all station monitors from Lithopolis. Inside a Sanctum that once housed an altar to Solceanos, now there was a simple podium where one woman addressed the nation. She dressed in an ornate dark-purple ceremonial military uniform that harkened back to the uniforms of the previous Kingdom of Buren, before annexation by the Empire. There was no mistaking her for a simple functionary or spokeswoman. She was tall, with strong shoulders and long, lean limbs, and a bountiful head of golden hair atop which rested a military beret. Her eyes were as golden as her hair; her pearl-olive skin was done up professionally, as were her lightly red lips.

“My beloved people of Buren! Our country is free!”

This was the beginning of her declaration. Everyone watching felt their heart soar at those words.

“For too long, we Burenis suffered under the tyranny of the ducal state, which turned countryman against countryman, destroyed our identity and history, and made us slaves to the Imbrian Empire! Duke Pascheladis and the ducal court have been broken by the hand of the National Front of Buren. We fought for so long to get to this day, and the fighting is not yet over. But today, my people, the wave of revolution which began in the Union twenty years ago has reached us here in Buren. Konstantin von Fueller, tyrant of the Imbrian ocean, is dead, and his Empire has no power over us anymore. We Burenis are now free to forge our own destinies.”

On every screen in Buren, that woman’s passionate words inspired crowds to roar and cheer.

With the weight of history bearing down on her shoulders, she declared her challenge against fate.

“My name is Sophia Tzanavaras! With your mandate, I have taken up the mantle of Supreme Marshal of the National Front of Buren, to tirelessly protect our revolution! To protect the rights and dignity of all workers, the peace and security of the common folk, and the autonomy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren!”

At this point, the camera zoomed out just enough for the people watching to see two Union Streloks appear, unarmed, and kneel at Sophia’s sides. For Imperial citizens, the Strelok’s silhouette was often propaganda for an evil enemy. To see them kneeling around Sophia displayed some degree of martial prowess to the viewers.

“In the coming months, there will be many challenges to our cause, but together, we will overcome anything! We will build upon our history of brave warriors, and the teachings of modern revolution, and triumph!”

When Sophia’s face finally disappeared from the screens, the people watching were already thinking of themselves as the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren, whether they were optimistic of its future or not.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.4]

The Holy Body

Polity: Holy Kingdom of Solsea

Naval Strength:  Papal Guard (400 ships), plus Solceanist irregulars.

“Skarsgaard retainers! Cease your heretical resistance at once! Her Holiness is guided by God and goes where He wills! You are all her subjects, and must turn from the abdicator to her!”

Volleys of coilgun shells crossed paths in the waters over Amaryllis station, seat of power of the Skarsgaard duchy. Though Amaryllis was a small pillar-type station housing only one major domicile, it was fiercely defended. Barrages of light and fast rocket-propelled missiles launched from recessed racks on the station surface, forcing the attackers to keep up a massive flak barrage to defend themselves from the projectiles and slowing down their progress. A fleet of several dozen frigates held their ground around the station’s waters, forming a defensive formation that maximized their ability to fire on the invaders.

Such a scene could have come out of any station invasion scenario in any military textbook.

However, it was the identity of the attackers that shook the confidence of the defenders.

Rather than a flotilla of bandits or anarchists, the invaders composed a massive fleet with dozens of ships, all of which were painted stark white, red and gold and decorated with the cross and sun of the Church of Solceanos. They did not fire the first shot, not with ordnance. The Papal Guard and the Church Paladins demanded entry and occupation of the station. Such a demand itself constituted violence as the station belonged entirely to the Duke of Skarsgaard’s House.

However, the young Duke Carthus von Skarsgaard had all but abdicated his duties.

He had left with his close friend Prince Erich von Fueller, and there he remained.

Amaryllis was abandoned. The Skarsgaard family retainers would not be relieved.

Skarsgaard’s own history precipitated the conflict.

While Skarsgaard had always contained the holy see of the Solceanos church, there had always been tension between the Ducal estate and the Holy See over the state’s coffers, military power and social policy. It did not matter to the Dukes and Duchesses of Skarsgaard that the Church was sacred and sanctioned by the Empire, and beloved by the people — affairs of power trumped any affairs of the afterlife. A separation of powers and thus of influence kept a delicate peace. The influence of the Emperor prevented either force from fully taking control of the state. Now, however, there was an additional problem for Skarsgaard’s secular military forces.

Emperor Konstantin von Fueller was dead. With his death, the balance was sundered.

To complicate matters, the current head of the Holy See was Millenia von Skarsgaard II. The disinherited youngest daughter of the ducal family, who had risen through the ranks of the church, acknowledged as a holy woman touched by God. This woman, who had been denied the secular control of the state, had achieved comparable power through control of its religion.

This produced a standoff, in which the detachment sent to take the Station for the Holy See met with the Skarsgaard defenders. While the defenders stood their ground and upheld their secular duty to defend the Skarsgaard family holdings, they had no leadership and were outgunned. All they could do was harass the Papal Fleet with missiles, forcing them to slowly move forward under a massive curtain of flak, largely unable or unwilling to deliver much firepower in return.

“Skarsgaard retainers! You stand against God and all that his holy! You will drown in the flooded hell and be barred from the warmth of heaven! We do not wish to condemn any more souls to the horrors of the Deep! Surrender yourselves and your weapons, and repent for your evil!”

In the center of the Papal Guard fleet was the state-of-the-art Irmingard-class Dreadnought Anointed One, a massive and beautiful ship with its stark white armor decorated with swirling gold patterns. The Anointed One used its superior electronic warfare package to push acoustic messages on the lesser and older Frigates of the Skargaard retainers. All of the messages were sent by the military leader of the church, Paladin-General Rosemont, a radiant older woman clad in shining armor. Had the retainers been able to see her furious face as she conveyed the messages their morale may not have survived it. Anything she said seemed powered by the utmost righteousness.

Behind her, raised on a throne in the middle of the bridge, was Pontiff Millennia herself.

Long, flowing robes of a vinyl-like material trailed down her lean body, bedecked with gold. She wore a tabard with two horizontal red stripes along the edges and the sun and cross of the church. A habit partially covered her rusty-red hair, but messy bangs could be seen to come out of the front, and the sheer length of it could be seen to come out the back. She had a bored expression on her lightly painted lips, propped her olive-colored cheeks up with her hands.

Her wine-red eyes developed a glowing ring around them. A small cross-shaped ornament hovered in mid-air near her, spinning as the Pontiff turned it over and over in her mind, distracting her from the tension around herself. This sort of thing happened around the woman known as “The Holy Body.” Her miracles were well known, and over time they came to be seen as a qualification to lead the church. Objects would move by themselves; common people would become inspired to sing holy words in her presence; messages from God would appear spontaneously on the walls.

“Sister Rosemont, I would like to address the leader of the enemy fleet if possible.”

Around the bridge, all of the officers wore white and red uniforms. They were all faithful of the church, but also military personnel with full Navy training. Being able to work on this vessel was a privilege for them, and they cared about the Pontiff. They hung on her every word. When she spoke, they paid attention. They pored over her every word very carefully and silently.

Rosemont turned and kneeled in front of the Pontiff.

“We shall do always as you command, Pontiff. I am deeply sorry.”

Millennia narrowed her eyes. “There is nothing to be sorry for. I am not so unmovable that I demand my retainers do the impossible for me. These heretics will learn their place, not because your faith was not strong enough to show them, but because their ignorance was too dreadful. Besides, we could do battle with these heretics, but I do not wish to cause any harm to the station.”

“Thank you, most Holy one. Your mercy and understanding bring me joy.”

A laser request was sent from the Anointed One to the defending fleet.

The Skarsgaard retainer’s fleet selected a missile Frigate, the Unwavering, to answer.

This was predictable. Missile Frigates had more experienced crews than Gun Frigates did. When asked for a representative, an unled flotilla would always select the most experienced crew to do so. Millenia had counted on being able to talk to the Captain of that one particular frigate. An unremarkable uniformed man appeared soon on her personal screen, trying to look confident.

“This is Captain Emmett–”

She could instantly feel it. A weak, unguarded mind with no potential whatsoever.

He was not only unguarded, but afraid, and that also compounded things. Those without potential had few mental barriers, and confidence and force of will could still decide the contest, but fear always undid them. Even the slightest lick of psionic power would have made her switch strategies. Such a weak-willed nonbeliever, and already in a vulnerable state, had no defenses.

“It is unnecessary for me to introduce myself.”

Millenia had him where she wanted him the instant their eyes made contact.

Red rings appeared around her eyes which his eyes took on as well.

Those around him who lacked psychic ability could not tell he was being controlled.

“Put me on the main screen and use the upper room camera to show me the whole bridge.”

Emerich obeyed instantly. Millenia felt a sting as her neurons burned with effort.

On her screen, the video expanded so she could see all the confused faces on the bridge.

All of them looked at her with the red glow around their eyes.

Nonchalantly, she declared her orders.

“Fire all of your missiles at any surrounding ships. Use instant tracking and do not monitor their progress. Simply fire at will. Then turn your ship around and flee at maximum speed.”

Complicated, suicidal orders would have been much more difficult to execute.

This was not simply pushing on their arms to make them hit buttons.

Millenia was overriding the crew’s will. She was controlling their minds directly.

All of them broke eye contact, and began to do as Millenia ordered.

On her main screen, Rosemont and the crew watched as the algorithmic predictor picked up a dozen heavy missiles flying out of the center of the Skarsgaard retainers’ defensive formation. Explosions went off around the fleet, and ships began to list and sink, such that the remaining undamaged ships could do nothing but flee and there was total chaos among the defenders.

To those watching in the bridge of the Anointed One, it was nothing short of a miracle.

They crossed themselves, gave prayer, and a few prostrated themselves before Millenia.

“Praise be, Pontiff,”

Rosemont turned to meet her Pontiff again and venerate her, but gasped when she did so.

Blood flowed copiously out of Millenia’s nose and down her lips.

From the sides of her eyes, tears of blood began to trickle down her cheeks.

She felt a burning inside her skull as if her brain had been cleaved in half.

Her hands grabbed hold of the armrests of her seat, squeezing as she endured the pain.

Backlash. A monumental amount of psychic backlash.

Even with all that she practiced; she was still not completely ready.

It did not matter. She was still alive. As long as she lived, God would be with her.

To her subjects, however, the sight of her bleeding body was quite shocking.

“Pontiff, is this the stigmata?” Rosemont asked. That large armored woman kneeled beside Millenia and tenderly held her hand and kissed it. “Can we do anything to ease your suffering?”

Millenia grit her teeth. She could not speak, not immediately.

For minutes, she rode out the pain of the backlash.

Finally, she gasped for breath, released from the fog and agony that had taken her mind.

“Pontiff?”

“I am fine, Rosemont.”

Millenia smiled, her mouth, tongue and lips soaked in her own blood.

“This is the price that must be paid to God to beseech his divine presence into the Deep to which we are condemned.” she said. On some level, she believed this, even if only as the explanation she had concocted for abilities she understood to be beyond the purview of Man. God had never spoken to her directly.

She imagined God did not Speak. He made his presence known in other ways.

Weakly, she stood from her throne. She wiped the blood from her mouth with her hand.

Everyone on the bridge watched her raise that bloody hand.

Today was not the first time she had killed, or even killed many.

Only she knew that it was herself who killed them. To her faithful, it was God’s doing.

“Miracles are not solely the purview of the Holy Body. Your own faith can make miracles if you can make the commensurate sacrifice. Faith is key; the ignorant will never reach God.”

There was a reverent silence as the crew took in the Pontiff’s words.

“Now, unleash the Divers and take the station. Without the fleet’s flak, they can’t stop us from boarding them. Continue to interdict any missiles. Once the station is secure, I will board it.”

She sat back down on the chair, and requested an attendant come clean her face.

A long time ago, Millenia had learned that it was possible to manifest her powers against anything she could see. To make “miracles” happen she moved things by spying on them with drones or video cameras. For sentient beings, they could come under its effects if they could see her live. They could not be affected by video recordings, images, or any such thing, but if she could see and speak to them with a connection lag time of a few seconds or less, such as with a laser connection. Furthermore, she understood that there were powerful people other than herself.

There was a limit to what she could do. Pushing and pulling did not hurt her too much.

At least, not when using those powers on small objects or on weak people.

More complicated psychic tasks took far more of a toll on her health.

This made it vitally important to use her powers strategically, on the weakest targets.

Through politics and trickery, she had exposed and crushed most of the people with strong potential in the Church. There were only a few, who were loyal to her, or too important to get rid of, that remained. One such person arrived at the Bridge at the command of the Pontiff herself.

Dressed in a red and white habit, matching the Pontiff, if not as ornate. This sister was a young woman, olive-skinned with very light red hair, almost pink, and slightly pointed ears. She had a tidy, shoulder-length bob and a regal beauty to her facial features. Everything about her appeared collected, calm. Inexpressive. Almost doll-like, save for the small smile she gave the Pontiff as she arrived. With a portable basin of warm water and a cloth, she began to clean the face of the Holy Body, tinging the water a rusty red color as more blood came off the dipped cloth.

Once we’ve taken Amaryllis, I’ll use the network override hub to declare myself Holy Empress of the Empire of Solcea on every government screen that can broadcast a picture. Carthus will be excommunicated. Anyway, what do you think of the name? Good branding?

Outwardly, Millenia was just resting, recovering from her miracle.

Sounds impressive. It will certainly draw the attention of our opponents.

Her attendant, Sister Salvatrice Vittoria, appeared only to be cleaning the Holy Body.

And yet, the two them carried out a conversation. They spoke directly to the other’s mind.

Like with any psychic ability, if this was done to the unaware it would be more difficult.

Millenia had Salvatrice’s consent, so it was effortless to use her powers to speak to her.

I would like you to try dreaming again, Millenia said.

My dreams have been of little use to us, and I don’t enjoy them, Salvatrice replied.

I am curious. We need more information, and you have uncovered some useful things.

Only as a fluke. I’d rather put my efforts into something more concrete.

Millenia acknowledged her psychically. As if sending a “nod of the head” via their link.

How have your dreams ended lately? Did you die again?

Salvatrice sent a distressed, somewhat silly expression over the link.

Forget about that for now. I have important news. I found Faiyad Ayari.

Millenia sent her an annoyed Millenia face into her thoughts, with big, round, angry eyes.

Do you realize how scary that guy’s aura is? I almost felt like he would notice I was looking for him in the aether and that he would just link to me from that far away and attack me.

Where is he?

I traced it to Sverland. Millenia, we should be careful the hornet’s nests we stir.

What should I be afraid of?

Things we are not meant to see, know, or dig up. People we should not mess with.

More concretely, please.

Faiyad Ayari.

I’m not afraid of him. The Church kept him locked up for decades.

Millenia, he escaped! He escaped from your Church!

He is just an opportunist. I will expand the search for Maryam and we will leave our options open when it comes to dealing with Faiyad. Unfortunately, we may have to struggle for physical control of Sverland with the Volkisch and the Noble Alliance. And if we cross that line, our Southern and Eastern fronts may be opened to Veka. We may have to be underhanded instead. We can use the flock to apply pressure beyond our borders.

Salvatrice crossed her arms and nodded sagely, in Millenia’s mind.

We should let Sverland be fought over by the Rhineans. They’ll weaken themselves.

We’ll let the military dictate battle strategy. Rosemont is a bootlicker, but she’s smart. But like I said, I’m leaving my options open for dealing with all of this. From where I’m sitting, I have no shortage of assets to use.

Soon it came to pass that Salvatrice had completely cleaned Millenia’s face.

They had very little reason at that point to stand beside one another any longer.

Salvatrice was a civilian, and Millenia did not want her to draw too much attention.

“Thank you for your service, Sister.”

“It is my honor and pleasure to serve you.”

“I will see you again tonight. You must attend to my meal, bath and bedchamber.”

“Of course. It is the honor and privilege of my life to render such service.”

Salvatrice dried Millenia’s face with a new towel, took the basin and left.

Millenia would be able to speak more with Salvatrice.

When they ate, when they bathed, in bed. There would be opportunities.

There was no sense feeling like they needed to have the whole conversation right then.

Nevertheless, Millenia felt frustrated.

Eager to make her wishes come true. Salvatrice lacked ambition. She didn’t understand.

Millenia was beginning to develop a concept of how the world really worked and if she was correct in her assumptions then the Imbrian Empire was small potatoes compared to what was hidden from her in the aether. However, the Empire and its resources were necessary to fulfill her ambitions. Skarsgaard had a developed industrial sector able to exploit its mineral resources, and create any necessary weapons for a war. Their agriculture could sustain hardship in the near term. By ruling Skarsgaard with a regime of religious authoritarianism she could keep the social and political sphere stable and expand from there.

Scrambling the right brains would help with that ambition as well.

No one would dare defect or flee, if they knew the agony that she could subject them to.

Millenia needed more and greater scientific development. And the right sort of development.

Imbrians seemed to develop psionic power the least. Could the power be genetic in nature?

However, the ethnic makeup of most Imbrians was complicated.

Salvatrice was a Kattaran elf. Millenia suspected she was not purely Imbrian herself.

Without proper facilities, personnel, equipment and resources, she could never unravel this mystery. She needed more than just Salvatrice’s dreams. She needed more brains, more minds to throw at these questions in order to decipher the mystery. They had to be the correct minds, as well.

If she was successful, she might be able to ascend beyond this fallen place, beyond this accursed ocean beneath a dying sky.

Millenia dreamed of an Empire that spanned more than just the territory of Aer.

And if she was correct about the world; and if Salvatrice’s dreams proved true–

“Pontiff, the defenders of the inner sanctum have surrendered.”

Rosemont reported the good news. On the bridge’s main screen, they connected to cameras showing the interior of Amaryllis being surrendered to several Volker and Jagd class Divers that had been sent from the Papal Guard fleet. Millenia’s Paladins had routed the opposition. Amaryllis was hers. With it, Skarsgaard’s secular government was no more. All of the state bowed to her.

Millenia grinned from ear to ear. She wanted to burst out laughing, but controlled herself.

This was just a small step on a journey that promised to take her past heaven itself.


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The Day [4.10]

National Anthem For The Imbrian Empire of Nocht,

“The Sun’s Blessing.”

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

Imbria!
Imbria!

Sun’s blessings do abound,
The greatest land beneath the waves,
Thy enemies be drowned

Our Might! Beneath the banners,
Our glory to uphold,
Through sun-blessed reach, penumbral depths,
Our fleets His’s Peace protect

Imbria!
Imbria!

Sun’s blessings do abound,
The submarines of our great fleet,
Triumph o’er battlegrounds

Sunlight! Beneath the banners,
God’s grace knows no bounds,
From Skarsgaard to Palatine,
The Sovereign’s honor crowned

Imbria!
Imbria!

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


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

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

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

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

“Forward movement is better than stagnation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had Sawyer given new orders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She then turned to the Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? How so?” asked the Captain.

Rue grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two objects flashed from the vessel.

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

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

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

“Status report!” Rue shouted.

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

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

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

“Has the Sturmbannführer been recovered?” Rue replied.

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

“Yes! She’s aboard!” 

Rue sighed with relief.

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

Below her the Captain put on a grim expression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any moment now–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wanted to see Sawyer.

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

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

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

“What is it, Captain?”

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

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

Suddenly, the Captain saluted her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Captain’s sleepy expression suddenly lit up.

“Confirm it’s her, and bring her in!”

No rescue mission was launched, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course!”

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

“Raul von Drachen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

An ominous wave was sweeping through the oceans. 

He could feel it.


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

No, no, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she wanted so dearly to break down.

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

“Captain, launch a search party. Now.”

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

“Of course. Right away.” Dreschner said.

She can’t be dead.

Gertrude could not conceive of it.

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

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

Gertrude’s breathing quickened.

It was not possible that everything would end so pointlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody would just shoot at a station.

Nobody would just destroy a station deliberately.

Not even that animal Sawyer could have been so bloodthirsty.

Sawyer.

Heidelinde Sawyer.

The Volkisch flotilla themselves had not accepted her communications.

However, they had talked with the patrol fleet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Broadcasting now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No survivors so far.” Ingrid said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright. Be careful.” Dreschner said.

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

Gertrude grit her teeth behind closed lips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude’s heart exploded with sudden relief.

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

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

She found no trace of Elena.

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

“Lady Lichtenberg! Inquisitor Lichtenberg!”

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

Then they gained the courage to speak.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhinea became a “National-Socialist Republic.”

Skarsgaard styled itself “The Holy Empire of Solsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about Leda?” Marina suggested.

“Go fuck yourself.” Elena shouted back.

That had been the result of the last such conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s an interesting ship.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for the help.” Marina said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything was going to be just fine.

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

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

“Of course, I’ve been to them, but–”

“Never to the lower level?”

“Well, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena shot her a furious glare.

“Go to hell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No time for a coffee?”

He smiled affably. Marina narrowed her eyes at him.

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

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

This was much too obvious.

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

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

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

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

“Change of plans?”

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

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

Elena looked taken aback by the sudden violence.

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

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

Elena flinched.

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

“Benny, talk!”

Marina shoved him back against the wall.

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

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

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

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

Marina breathed out.

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

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

“These guys are more than professionals, okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, so these are Union spies?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benny raised in his hands in his own defense.

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

Elena stomped her foot on the ground at that point.

Both Benny and Marina looked over to her with surprise.

“Mari– Mary–” Elena began.

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

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

Benny pointed at Elena with a grin.

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

Marina ignored the interruption.

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

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

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

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

“Stop fighting!” Elena shouted.

At that moment, the office door opened again.

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.9]

Entry Teams Anton and Berta forced their way to the main surface of Vogelheim through the cargo lift from the farm and orchard, which had a direct connection to the hydroponics gardens in Engineering. Ten Volker-class Divers took the lifts up in groups of two until they were all assembled on the hilly terrain. They did not marvel at the scenery for very long.

With a ponderous gait, the nearly 7 meter tall machines began to stomp their way toward the villa and town. While remaining a cohesive unit through wireless communications, which worked through Vogelheim’s air far better than in the water, they separated about 100 to 200 meters from one another and began to traverse the fake countryside, moving into the forests, across the fields. On their arms, they hefted sturmgewehr assault rifles. These 37 mm guns fired explosive shells with enough firepower to demolish a two-story home in a single three-round burst.

Moving through air was far different than water. They could make significant speeds in the water, but on land they moved at a few kilometers per hour. Though their turbines could suck in air for a little boost, it could, at most, stabilize their weight and balance during a 10-20 km/h sprint rather than the 80 or 90 or even 100 km/h that they could develop at full power when submerged.

Between their speed, and the size of the machines, Victoria could easily see them coming. However, she knew that her chances were not optimistic.

She was heavily outnumbered. She could count on no support. She was not significantly better armed, but the Jagd was faster and lighter, even on land. All of these facts quickly assembled in her head and gave her a practical course of action.

Her objective was not to save the station. She hoped Marina and Elena were clear away from the battlefield by now. There was no way she would get all of them. But she would make a ruckus.

She had enough drugs in her system to dampen the pain and heighten the adrenaline.

Hiding in the forest, under her active camouflage tarp, she found herself in the middle of the Volkisch’ formation, when taking into the account the full width of the attack. Three Volkers were combing the forest near her, four were farther afield toward the false coast, and the rest were traversing the hills and fields downstream from the forest. In her mind, there were six Volkers that posed the most immediate threat to the Villa, and she would have to let the other four lie.

“Get closer.” She whispered to herself.

Her Dive computer, enjoying the luxury of scanning through air instead of water, gave her nearly flawless prediction of their movements and positions. On one screen she had the leaked maps of Vogelheim, which she marked with the real-time enemy locations. Second generation Divers could have electronic warfare packages, alerting them to her presence due to her scanning in the environment. Volkers’ computers were not so sophisticated. They relied on a ship to do any electronic warfare and scanning for them. And there was no ship looking at her position.

In addition, the Volkisch, novices at fighting on land, were enamored with their radios. There was such a novelty to being able to speak wirelessly, with such great clarity. Nobody would shut up, and nobody was taught proper discipline. They did not understand the range at which anyone could pick their unencrypted voices up.

“This is Anton-2, moving into the forest.”

“Beautiful place. Weird damage in the sky. Should we be worried about that?”

“Our orders are to capture the Villa. No one’s going to play engineer until we do that.”

“Identify yourselves when you speak? Commander, where are you at?”

“Fine. This is Anton-Actual, I’m in the middle of the forest.”

“Okay, so I’m still by your side. Fighting on land is so weird! Keep me safe, Commander.”

“Oh shut up, quit being a wuss.”

“I’m the only girl here! Isn’t it your social role as big tough men to protect me?”

“If you’re out on the front lines, you’re just a man to me.”

“Hey Commander, do you believe the the same thing about ol’ Fuhrer Sawyer?”

“No woman here is more a man than that Sawyer. No man here, either.”

Victoria cracked a vicious little grin in the shadow of her cockpit, listening to everything.

She touched one specific unit marker on the screen. The one closest to her.

“I’ve got you, ‘Commander’.” She said to herself, feeling a sudden rush of satisfaction.

When she began her attack, she began from a position of near-perfect stealth.

Twenty-five meters away, a Volker stomped through the gaps in the woods, knocking down any younger, thinner trees and ripping up any bushes in its way. Assault rifle at its chest, pointing at nothing. It moved directly into her field of vision. Victoria pulled back her sticks and striggers.

Throwing off the camouflage tarp, the Jagd stood and fired off her jet anchors.

From her shoulders, two unfolding hooks on steel cable flew toward the Volker.

Before it could react, she hooked it between the arms, but the location scarcely mattered.

“Contact!” screamed the Commander, “I’ve been hit by something–!”

Motors inside the Jagd’s shoulder pulled on the enemy Volker. Rather than budge the enemy, what they did was help Victoria dash toward it.

She sprang forward out of her cover and drove her jet lance into the back of the Volker.

Her charge was so vicious she briefly lifted the enemy Volker onto her arm.

A miniaturized cannon coil along with a solid fuel booster propelled the jet lance. Once engaged, the lance sprang instantly from inside the housing like a bullet. Extending a meter and a half from the wrist, the lance stabbed clean through enemy armor.

Hot metal was punched into the cockpit with such force the front hatch blew open.

Her lance perforated the backpack and cockpit so quickly it blew smoke out the other end.

Victoria didn’t even hear a death rattle through the radio.

Reversing the coil mechanism, the spike was retracted back into its neutral firing position. Upon returning, the lance point was caked in gore.

The Volker dropped onto the ground, unmoving, bearing wounds the size of a human torso. All of this happened in scarcely seconds.

“Commander! Commander!”

“Contact! Contact in the forest!”

The Volkisch descended into hysterical shouting over the radio.

Without their commander they were in disarray.

From the woods, two more Volkers lumbered into view, hefting their assault rifles.

Sucking in air through her turbines, Victoria took the Jagd into a sudden sprint.

Heavy footfalls scored the soft earth. She would have fallen, were it not for the air blasting out of the back of the machine. It had a small effect on the top speed achievable by the mecha on land but pulling in air through it and blowing it out the back kept the machine’s weight stabilized, preventing it from tipping over in any direction as it ran out into the open.

As soon as she dashed out, the enemy had seen her. She adjusted her center of balance and hit a quick turn, trying to sweep around their flank.

“Open fire! Open fire!”

Sturmgewehr barrels flashed relentlessly. Bursts of 37mm rounds flew past Victoria, tearing up trees and turf, setting bushes alight.

Her attackers did not count on the far lesser resistance of air against their bullets.

They overcompensated, used to shooting in water, and shot everything but her. She quickly whipped back around and dashed toward the Volkers.

Between the chassis and arms, wedged into the shoulders, her two machine guns swung on their limited horizontal and vertical traverse. All of the Jagd’s weapons were intended for close quarters to essentially hit whatever the Jagd was facing. Inflexible, but always ready to kill. So as she charged into melee, her own cannons burned, firing off a dozen explosive rounds.

Unlike the Volkisch, Victoria had trained herself to fight both on land and in the water. Aiming almost instinctually, her own burst of gunfire peppered the Volker dead-on.

One 20 mm round was in itself far less powerful than most Naval ordnance.

Gas guns used this round to try to destroy enemy torpedoes and other soft targets.

Victoria put dozens of them into the Volker in the span of a few seconds.

Successions of tiny blasts pitted the cockpit armor then blew the hatch clean open; scored the shoulder and arm plates with round after round until finally one punched through the weakened armor and blew the arm right off; perforated the lean armor on the head and blew up the enemy’s all-around sensors, leaving them blind if they were still alive inside.

Her enemy crumpled, slumping forward with no signs of life from the pilot.

In the next moment, her sprint took her right past the corpse and upon the remaining enemy.

“Oh god! Oh god no!”

She heard the woman on the radio pleading and screaming.

Dead ahead, the remaining Volker tossed its assault rifle and quickly drew a melee weapon. A vibro-machete carried on the backpack as a last resort. Her Volkisch opponent brought up the machete in both hands and swung.

That machete had a depleted agarthicite flat and a motor that vibrated it to aid the monomolecular edge. Even this modest weapon was a feat of engineering and posed a threat if used properly. But it did not matter.

Victoria confidently threw forward her lance.

Before the weapons clashed, she engaged the jet-lance.

Her point launched forward, snapping the machete like a twig. Such was the force of the thrust that the Volker’s arm completely shattered.

The Diver fell helplessly backward, and Victoria pounced. Rearing up her own vibro-blade arm, she thrust between the Volker’s shoulder plate.

She pierced the cockpit and twisted her sword toward the pilot.

This time she did hear cries of anguish over the radio. A vibrating blade dealt greater structural damage when it clashed with a machine.

That was its only effect on metal.

For a flesh and blood human to be anywhere near an engaged vibroblade was a source of unbearable agony. Besides the heat, the thrumming would go right into the gut. It was horrifying. And soon, Victoria heard no further screaming from that cockpit. Whether the pilot had died of a heart attack, shock or choking, Victoria did not know and had no desire to confirm.

She pulled her sword out of the Diver and retracted her lance to its neutral position. Three enemies down, and several more to go. She had to make up–

“Entry teams! What is all this gibbering? Report on your situation!”

A new voice over the radio.

Sawyer.

Victoria was briefly shocked.

As much as she had characterized the events as a battle between her and Sawyer, she had thought it would transpire through proxies, rather than having to face Sawyer herself appear–

“Advanced scanning coming from the woods! What the hell is going on?”

In that moment, Victoria detected Sawyer as well. She was in a second-generation model Diver and just clearing the orchard hills. Her Diver counter-scanned Victoria, who was still actively monitoring everything.

That red blip that represented her was charging into the forest, and fast.

“Sawyer? Ma’am, an attack! An enemy in the forest got the Commander!”

A hapless soldier started relaying the situation.

“Sawyer let’s get this fucker! Let’s surround the woods!”

“Fucking, no! We need to seal the station breaches, or everything’s fucked!”

“Ma’am, we’re not equipped for repair duty–”

“Then I’ll fucking do it! Advance on the Villa!”

Victoria turned around to face where Sawyer was coming from.

As soon as the blip got close enough, she sent out a laser request.

“Wait– One unit? And you wanna talk? You’ve got some fucking guts–”

Sawyer mindlessly accepted the laser request while berating her. In the next moment, their mecha both emerged onto a clearing in the forest.

They were instantly connected by the lasers on their sensor arrays. On video in each other’s screen, they were finally able to meet, “face to face.”

Sawyer was still the same as always.

An unembellished girl with striking cheekbones, an aquiline nose, pearl skin. Her voluminous brown hair gave her the appearance of a rustic sort of royalty, as wild and earthy as the barbarians from Veka that her Volkisch so decried. Her icy blue eyes were drawn wide, and that wonderful jaw was quivering with confusion and an obvious fury. She looked good in uniform. Victoria wished she would have never had to acknowledge that.

“You,” Sawyer paused, mouthing expletives, “You are fucking kidding me.”

Victoria felt a strong sense of anxiety and anticipation.

It might have been the drugs.

“It’s been a long time. I didn’t come here to see you, but I guess it is fate.”

“I don’t believe this shit. Victoria?” She laughed. “Victoria van Veka?”

“I’m surprised Volkisch intelligence keeps track of the romantic dalliances of us savages. But yes, I am indeed Victoria van Veka these days.”

“It’s that exact, bitchy tone of yours on that exact bitchy face. Oh my god.”

Sawyer raised her hands to her face, letting out brief bursts of laughter.

“I can’t believe it. You utter bitch. You absolute, complete fucking bitch. I should’ve put my entire fist up your fucking–”

Keep talking, you stupid brute.

Victoria quickly reoriented her priorities. She could not hope to stop the enemy anymore. Sawyer was piloting a new Diver, a Panzer unit. She did not know how Sawyer rated as a pilot, but that unit by itself spelled danger.

Heavily armored, and heavily armed. Sawyer had a tube launcher of some kind on her backpack, she likely had a sword, and she also very visibly had an assault rifle. Her second generation backpack and turbines could develop much better speed than a Volker. And that armor could probably withstand a lot more punishment than a Volker. Victoria was given pause.

Victoria’s mind was rushing, kept clear only by the chemicals. Her breathing quickened. In the water, she would have had a small advantage still, but on land? It was a desperate situation.

“I never liked bullying you, Victoria, you were too pathetic. I’ve no idea what Veka’s witch has done to you, but I’m willing to forgive you if you will turn yourself in and be useful to me–”

While Sawyer taunted her, Victoria made tiny, subtle adjustments to her machine guns.

Consumed as she was with attacking Victoria verbally, Sawyer did not notice the gentle movement of Victoria’s shoulders, as her hands, just off of Sawyer’s view, turned her control sticks with tense precision. One wrong move and Sawyer would have noticed her sleight of hand.

“It’s your turn to get bullied, Sawyer.”

Victoria was finally ready. She opened fire.

20 mm barrels flashed relentlessly, spitting bullets at Sawyer’s Panzer.

“We’ll see about that, bitch!”

Sawyer shouted, and the Panzer surged forward through the gunfire.

Across its surface, dozens of tiny blasts left dents and dings on the cockpit armor, but there was too much metal and it was too dense to be blown off. Maybe in water she could have inflicted more damage, due to the pressures involved, but in the air, the Panzer was practically unharmed. Victoria hardly paid this any mind. Her intention had not been real damage.

Instead, as Sawyer charged, Victoria engaged her thrusters, both solid fuel and her air jets. Using all of her thrust, Victoria threw the Jagd sideways.

She launched past Sawyer’s flank.

Before the Panzer recovered, Victoria turned and threw her momentum into a sword swing. Her vibroblade smashed into the side of the Panzer.

Metal debris went flying off of Sawyer’s Panzer.

Victoria had expected to cut through to the cockpit. Her blade made a ghastly wedge-shaped wound in the side of the machine’s chest.

There was still no breach.

“You can’t do shit to me, Vicky! You never could and you still can’t!”

Sawyer half-turned her bulky mecha to train her rifle on Victoria.

Victoria pulled back with all rearward thrust, withdrawing her arm.

She switched weapon control to her jet anchors and fired both.

When Sawyer opened fire the spreading hooks on one of the anchors took three blasts. It exploded in mid-air, scattering shrapnel and billowing smoke from the explosive rounds. Victoria cut loose and ejected both of the cables. Her second anchor then smashed into Sawyer’s shoulder.

Trailing behind it, the cable whipped across the Panzer’s head.

Between the jet anchor slamming it and the cable snaking over the cameras, Sawyer was momentarily distracted by the seemingly random carnage.

“What the fuck are you doing? Are you that desperate you fucking gnat?”

This was sufficient distraction for the Jagd to retreat out into the woods.

Sawyer launched manic bursts of gunfire into the forest.

Trees blasted apart, bushes went up in smoke, turf churned up everywhere. 37 mm explosive rounds were no joke, especially not in a half-dozen bursts of three. Victoria swerved from cover to cover, trying to put some distance between herself and the gunfire trailing her. She knew, at any moment–

Click.

Sawyer’s rifle ejected a spent magazine.

“God damn it! Come back here!”

The Panzer went charging into the woods after Victoria. She saw it on the rear camera, sprinting heavily while fumbling for a new magazine from those kept on stored on the waist. Victoria would not turn around and fight.

She moved the theater toward the center of the forest.

“Please be deep enough.” She mumbled to herself.

There was a large pond that she saw on the leaked maps, and it was dead ahead. It was a gamble, but if the pond were connected the way she thought, it would work. Victoria took a leap of faith.

She didn’t know whether it was her heightened senses or the drugs anymore. But she had to take a chance.

The Jagd dropped into the water and immediately took off, swimming freely within a space larger than it seemed. That pond was connected to water circulation and acted as a reservoir.

All the fresh water that was used to keep the forest ecosystem alive and irrigate the farms was filtered and collected here, and from here channeled to other places. As such, while on the surface it was a pond about the size of the farmhouse, below the water, the walls curved like a bowl and it was dozens of meters deep and wide. Had Elena ever tried to swim in it?

She would have seen the artificiality of Vogelheim firsthand.

But she was too delicate for that. She never jumped in the water to see the metal below.

Victoria adjusted immediately to underwater movement.

From an ungraceful sprint on land, it was now soaring with the grace of Veka herself. Her laser connection to Sawyer was immediately interrupted. On her monitors, the cameras adjusted to the water with filtered video.

Suddenly the Panzer dropped right in behind her and began accelerating.

In one hand Sawyer had her reloaded assault rifle; in the other, her sword.

As it gave chase in the water, the Panzer opened fire. Three rounds, then six, then nine, sailed from the gun barrel with dim flashes. Supercavitation bubbles and lines traced the water between Victoria and Sawyer.

Turning instantly, the Jagd swept away from the bullets.

They crashed into the metal walls, harmlessly exploding into vapor bubbles.

Victoria looped upside-down, soaring over Sawyer’s head.

She circled behind the Panzer and engaged the jet on her vibroblade arm.

Twirling like a dancer, using the momentum and the blade jet to overcome the resistance of the water, Victoria slashed the Panzer’s shoulder and kept moving, smashing and splitting in half the shoulder guard. When Sawyer turned and swung her sword, Victoria was no longer there to hit.

Using the Jagd’s superior mobility she swam circles around the Panzer.

“AGH!”

Sawyer shouted with frustration that came across the scratchy video.

Victoria was no longer paying it attention. She swerved around the Panzer, avoiding bullet and blade, always a half-step ahead of Sawyer’s attacks.

When she found an opportunity, she closed in, turned and sliced.

A perfect gash across the right side of the chest to match the left.

A wide dent into the armored legs that exposed a battered joint.

Leaping skyward, over and around the Panzer, under it, across its flanks.

“No! No!”

Sawyer began to swing furiously and helplessly.

Victoria saw an opening.

She went around the back and sliced vertically across Sawyer’s backpack.

That tube launcher she was caring was split in half.

Her sword caught in the armor.

Using that grip for leverage, she pulled the Panzer toward her. Embracing her from behind, Victoria brought her jet-lance up against the Panzer.

A shockwave blew through the water as the lance engaged.

Victoria drove the spike up through the Panzer’s flank and out the shoulder.

It was a testament to the Panzer’s armor that its entire flank didn’t explode.

“You’re breached! Eject before you drown!” Victoria shouted.

Had they been fighting in the ocean Sawyer would have died in moments. She was fortunate the water in this reservoir was maintained at the pressure it was. Her cockpit must have been slowly filling up instead.

“Sawyer! Stop this! Eject! I’m taking you into custody!”

“You stupid bitch. You– You fucked everything. Now it’s all ruined!”

Suddenly, the Panzer engaged its jets, blowing torrents of water at the Jagd.

Separating from the Jagd, the Panzer swung around just as suddenly.

Victoria could not back off in time, she was caught well off guard.

Sawyer’s vibroblade sliced into across the surface of the Jagd’s right arm. Pieces of the jet lance’s housing floated away, and solid fuel leaked out of the booster. Following up her attack, Sawyer fired off a burst of gunfire.

While the Jagd easily avoided the shots, Victoria was shaken. Her concentration and speed lagged as she felt suddenly pressured. How had the cockpit not been breached? How was this monster that survivable?

She was running out of options with which to fight back effectively.

Despite the pitted armor, various slashes, and the hole in its shoulder and back, the Panzer was still running, and Sawyer was livelier than ever.

She was shouting, furious, near incoherent.

“Victoria! That launcher was full of sealant! I was going to save this station! At every turn you have done nothing but make things worse! I’m going to make sure you never see light again, you bitch! I’m going to rip your arms off, put your eyes out, burn the skin off your tongue! I’m going to give your ears the last scritch they’ll ever get when I flay them both off your head!”

Before Victoria could respond to that tantrum, the water began to stir.

Her computers started sounding alarm.

Shockwaves were being felt across the station.

Both the Panzer and Jagd were put off balance as everything started shaking. Water was starting to rush into the reservoir.

Flooding.

Victoria realized the station must have been flooding profusely now.


A long, near-lightless corridor of steel and concrete connected the Villa to the mechanized underworld of Vogelheim, all Maintenance paths and tunnels connecting workspaces and devices together that kept this underwater haven alive when it should not be.

To Marina, this path was a maw to hell. Her every step was pained and hollow. Elena felt light as a feather in her arms compared to the burden that bowed her shoulders and scored a deep, black mark in her brain.

There were periodic quakes that shook the steps down so harshly Marina bumped into the wall and had to watch that she did not drop Elena or strike the Princess’ head on the surrounding metal. While unnerving for their power and proximity, what worried Marina the most was how soundless the place was. She was afraid that at any moment she would find the path below blocked by water and find herself condemned to die uselessly after having accomplished nothing.

Marina was in a daze.

She could not accurately tell the time anymore. Everything that had been palpable to her senses felt years removed. It was as if, between Bethany’s kiss and the last ten steps she took in the evacuation tunnel, hundreds of years had passed. She had wasted away, spending an eternity regretting events that transpired in seconds. How long had she been walking?

And yet, that journey came to an abrupt end.

Before she could ponder it further, the mechanical action of taking one step and then the next, holding the Princess up over her own shoulder, staring dead ahead into dark nothingness; all of it had carried her to a room that was dim but starkly better lit than the evacuation tunnel. At her side, there was a craft, aligned with a deployment chute. Yellow light from inside the craft shone too brilliantly in Marina’s face and made her squint her eyes, like a door to heaven not meant for a demon like her. Around the door, almost cherubic, were the group of Vogelheim’s maids.

Not just them, but inside the craft, Marina could see farm-hands, an engineer or two, a bartender, a kiosk vendor. People from all of Vogelheim’s little attractions. Many of them had managed to flee here, and the maids appeared to be organizing an evacuation. Marina almost wanted to tell them to please get on with it. Tarrying any further was borderline suicidal.

She was not going with them. She looked at them with a brief, vacant stare.

Then, she continued her journey, step by step.

“Hey, wait! Where are you going? Who is that–?”

Suddenly, a maid appeared in front of her.

“Oh my god! That’s the Princess! She’s got the Princess!”

That maid who stood barring her path, sounded the alarm for the others.

Several came out from the craft. Most of the girls were too meek, and remained at the door, but two of the bigger girls did run down to meet their friend, blocking Marina’s way. Behind them all, was the path from the evacuation chute into one of the Maintenance tunnels. That was the way to Marina’s Diver, the SEAL model she had snuck into Vogelheim with.

She had to get past them.

“What are you doing with her? Where’s Lady Skoll?”

None of the maids knew her. Marina had been sneaking around everywhere. Her face was void of emotion. Her eyes, distant, inexpressive.

“I have to take her. We’re evacuating.” Marina said, weakly.

It was barely audible.

“What did you do to Lady Skoll? Why do you have the princess?”

The maid approached. Marina was starting to panic.

“I– I– really I– I have to–”

“I’m not letting you pass! The Princess is going with us! You can’t take her!”

This was torture.

This was the judgment of the hell she had made for herself.

Voices reverberating in her head, demanding to know why she killed Bethany. Not just because the maids may have suspected such a thing. But because in Marina’s mind her actions were starting to morph into that.

She had killed Bethany and stolen the Princess. That these maids believed some version of that story too — it was pure agony think about.

“I– I’m so sorry I–”

“What the hell? Lady Skoll should’ve been back– Give her back right now–”

That one brave maid, who had jumped in first, stepped too close, too fast.

Marina focused too much, too anxiously, on the sight of her hand closing in.

She had wanted to touch the Princess, perhaps, or maybe shove Marina gently. For Marina, that was a killing blow and invitation to receive one.

In a snap response, the G.I.A agent slapped the maid’s arm away.

Off-balance, the young girl could do nothing to avoid the kick that struck her. Marina connected right between her belly and breasts like a club.

Screaming, brought down to her knees, the Maid slobbered on the floor, gasping for air.

That moment sent all manner of emotions to Marina’s brain. She was reeling from it.

A strange feeling of catharsis accompanied the attack. That kept her in the rush of events.

At the door of the craft, the bystander maids covered their mouths in horror. Doubtless, Bethany shielded them from any sort of this violence before. Seeing their comrade go down, the other two bigger girls rushed without thinking.

With her free arm, Marina drew a combat knife from her hip, flashing it at the girls.

Both of the maids stopped dead in their tracks, instantly powerless at the sight. Teeth grit, eyes tearing up, the most they could do was stand in defense of their friend. They were maybe half Marina’s age. None of them had probably ever even thrown a punch.

“Take your friend and go. Now.” Marina said. She could still barely speak above a whisper.

She turned the knife over in her fingers, to hold it in a reverse grip, and raised it.

Her lightless eyes, behind the glint of the blade, glared out at the two terrified girls.

For a moment, Marina felt powerful. With that knife, she felt she could cut fate itself.

Shaking with fear and frustration, they helped the other maid off the floor and back to the craft, comforting her the whole way about how brave she was, and swearing that they would find a way to do something to get the Princess back. Marina could hardly hear them after they left her orbit. All she could see, and acknowledge, was that the way forward had opened for her.

She stepped out of the light coming from the craft, moving again into the shadows.

Down another long, empty stairwell, alone with her thoughts.

“God damn it. God damn it.”

Marina grit her teeth. Weeping profusely, sobbing, enraged at herself.

No one could be proud of beating down a helpless girl. But Marina told herself it was necessary. Everything she was doing was necessary.

That was who Marina McKennedy was. A figure of scorn who lurked in shadows, sacrificing to do what needed to be done.

That was who she told herself, over and over, that she was. As the accusatory voices pummeled her in her mind in the absence of other sounds.

“I needed to do it. I needed to do it. There was no other way. I couldn’t have changed it.”

Marina paused for a moment. She raised her sleeve to her face and wept into it.

“Bethany needed to stay also. She needed to do it. There was no other way.”

Her legs trembled. It was not a quake. It was just the weight of her burden.

“Bethany was just like me. She did what needed to be done. Yeah; that’s it, huh?”

She didn’t want to think that it was all pointless and out of their control.

So, step by step Marina went into the dark, smiling through her broken heart.


Behind the Villa, the flower field had split in half.

A lift had brought up a gantry holding a bulky Diver, its shoulders burdened with two powerful 88 mm cannons and their internal magazine. Its legs had been thickened, and a pair of balancing anchors added to the back. There were a pair of missiles attached to the backpack for additional firepower. In all other respects, it was an old Volker model, awaiting a pilot.

A newer Volker with cannons was called a Volkannon, and so was this one.

Bethany Skoll climbed onto the legs of the machine and into the cockpit.

She closed the cockpit hatch, sealing herself in the machine.

There were no fancy computers on this model. But she had one amenity installed for the possibility of terrestrial warfare at the Villa.

Plugging in a minicomputer into the side of the cockpit, she connected the Volker to the Villa’s security system. From the flower field, a quadrotor drone lifted off and climbed high in the sky, pointing a camera down at the world below it. Between the Villa’s security system and the drone camera, Bethany could triangulate on the main screen the positions of the enemies.

From the northern road to the coastal town, there were four units moving in fast. From the fields further south, there were three units. All of them were Volkers. And in the forest, three enemies were reduced to a smoking heap. She could see smoke and fires and explosions rising around them.

That must have been Marina’s “asset.”

She had not been lying about having something up her sleeve.

Some part of Bethany was shaken then. She had thought Marina had been lying in order to get her to leave with her. Out of pure sentimentalism, so she would not have to sacrifice anyone to escape. And yet, while Marina’s friend was not a fiction, she had not been an effective deterrent.

Most of the enemy force was clear past her, and closing in.

Bethany took a deep breath.

There was no turning back anymore, no running.

She told herself, she had stopped being Bethany Skoll at that point. For Elena, for Marina, for Leda, she had become a weapon. Interred in a tomb of steel, the rangefinders and cameras became her eyes. And the guns were the only hands she had, and shooting was the only touch she had left.

That was how soldiers lived their lives, right?

That was how Knights lived their lives.

Bethany released the Volkannon from the gantry. She took a few heavy steps away from the flower field, aiming downhill. In the distance, her computers made out the silhouettes of the southern group of Volkers.

Gripping the control sticks, she allowed the computer to adjust her cannon’s direction.

Once she had a target lock, Bethany pressed her triggers.

The Volkannon shook as two 88 mm shells soared toward her targets.

In an instant, a cloud of smoke billowed up in front of one of the Volkers.

One of her monitors showed a diagram with shell impacts on the shoulder and chest. Her shells were was powerful as light torpedoes, quite able to tear into a Volker. That enemy unit was entirely disabled by the blasts.

This was war; a desensitizing display of violence, viewed through cameras.

From beside the downed unit, the other two Volkers pushed themselves forward in a sprint. They had noticed what had befallen their ally.

After shooting, the Volkannon loaded the second pair of rounds into the cannon. It took four or five seconds to load both cannons, an eternity for Bethany. Sweat broke out on her brow as she waited for the computers.

She tracked the Volkers rushing down the fields, coming closer and closer.

Assault rifle fire flew toward her, shells crashing all around her.

Flowers blew up into the sky and into the wind, a rain of red petals.

Even if she had wanted to run, Bethany did not have the speed to avoid the gunfire. Resilient under fire, by Leda’s grace not a shell grazed her then.

Bethany finally opened fire anew.

This time she saw the cannon shells touch her target, briefly. Before the explosions consumed the unit in fire and smoke, and made it vanish.

Another long reloading period followed.

Bethany grit her teeth, watching her cameras.

Sprinting toward her, the last Volker had made it to the Villa grounds. Growing larger and larger in her vision, reaching 200 meters, 150 meters, 100 meters. At that distance, the Volker suddenly stopped to aim at her.

The Volkannon reloaded just as the Volker fired its first aimed burst.

88 mm cannons flashed; two shells went flying over the assault rifle rounds.

Bethany shook violently in her cockpit as shells crashed into the Volkannon.

Around 50 to 80 meters away the enemy Volker was reduced to slag.

Groaning, shaken up, Bethany brought up a screen with the damage. She saw a diagram of the Volkannon, two massive craters punched into the forward armor. Not breached. Yet. And that was what mattered in the end.

Four enemies to go.

With heavy footfalls, she turned the Volkannon away from the field, northward. The enemy hurried out of the forests and hills from the direction of the coast. All four Volkers charged toward her at a full sprint.

Assault rifles in one hand, vibro-machetes in the other.

Wild bursts of gunfire hurtled across the fields from the Volkers.

Turf kicked up around Bethany, flowers burned, holes punched into the hedges. A shell hit a wall of the villa and completely collapsed the side storage room. Another shell struck the fountain and sent water spraying.

“Record to the chronicle box, please.”

One of Bethany’s screens turned into a microphone symbol, to signal recording.

It had dawned on her that she never got to say goodbye to Elena.

There was no way to guarantee she would get the message.

But she wanted to leave it. Even if a Volkisch ruffian got it. Everything she had was on the verge of disappearing. She needed to leave a legacy.

“My name is Bethany Skoll. I don’t know who will see this, or in what context. I am the head maid of Elena von Fueller’s household. I always loved her like my own daughter. And that was because, thirty years ago, when I was just coming into adulthood, I fell madly in love with her mother Leda Lettiere. I loved her like no other. I loved her like it was an obsession.”

She pressed her triggers, launching a pair of shells at one of the Volkers.

One shell flew past the target and sent streams of soil flying toward the sky.

The second crashed into the mecha’s leg and sent it tumbling into the dirt.

All three remaining Volkers started to swerve wildly to avoid her shooting.

Their own bullets hit everything but the Volkannon as they charged.

Bethany’s own computer-assisted aim was troubled by the movements.

She switched off the computer assist.

“Leda– I can’t begin to describe her. She was a student, but she mastered anything she wanted. Poetry, mathematics, singing, dancing, politics. I wanted nothing more than to marry her and make love to her every night for the rest of my life. But Leda’s beauty and magnificence brought the eye of Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. He took her for himself.”

Bethany felt an ancient anger come bubbling back up to the surface.

She took aim, fired.

Her shells sent turf flying but did not slow down her opponents.

“I– I could not suffer my fantasies to be ruined. Not even by the Emperor himself. Leda and I continued our affair in secret. I was an esteemed guest of her household. I had many opportunities to love her, to drink of her nectar. It was stressful, but I did everything in my power to be with her. I used every trick and cheat. I manipulated people, I lied to people– I even killed people. For Leda, for our love to survive. The Emperor only cared about Leda when he was– when he was using her. Elena von Fueller, the last thing I want is for her to feel ashamed of this. Her mother loved her dearly, despite everything. I loved her too. In my mind– Elena was my child with Leda. The Emperor was a cloud that sometimes darkened our sky, but we lived for each other, with each other, when we could get away with it.”

Tears welled up in Bethany’s eyes. She found it hard to aim, amid the storm of bullets, and the storm of emotions that was rising in intensity within her mind. She felt a strange sense of clarity and freedom. In that moment she felt like a fool for never telling her story to anyone. It felt like such a relief, to cast out into the air those emotions that she had buried so deeply within.

Her fingers absentmindedly pressed her triggers.

Again the Volkannon rattled, launching two more shells.

These were manually aimed.

She remembered briefly when she went “hunting” with Leda one time.

Leda had taught her to shoot through the air. To lead her shots correctly.

She put both rounds on a target.

One of the Volkers disappeared into a cloud of fire.

Her computer put up a warning. Internal magazine critical.

“Leda could no longer stand it. I fooled myself into thinking she wasn’t suffering, but who wouldn’t be in her situation? She was a plaything for the Emperor. Then a G.I.A. agent got close to her. The Republic wanted to assassinate Konstantin von Fueller. Leda wanted to usurp him. Not to work with the Republic, but to take over the Empire herself. We– all of us banded together for this. We used each other. Leda, Marina and I, we felt so powerful. In our love and our dalliances, our secrets, the nights I spent with Marina– the nights Marina spent with Leda, with so many others. We traded in lies, sex, torture, death– and still. We failed. We were never so powerful as we thought ourselves to be. We felt invincible and we failed.”

Bethany sat back in the Volkannon’s chair, letting go of the triggers.

She raised her hands to her face, covering up profuse weeping.

“Elena was scarcely five years old. I was the only one who was uncompromised. Marina and Leda both fell in our battle against the Empire. I promised to take care of Elena. All of us had, but I was the only one who really survived what happened. I had to watch it all come down, holding my breath, unable to say I took part. I spent twenty years trying to hide this shame. Erich von Fueller, Elena’s teenaged brother, took me in as part of his household. As part of Elena’s new household. To protect her.”

There was no reason to look at the monitors.

Bethany was fully consumed by the past.

She pounded her fist against the side of the cockpit, over and over.

“I was the only survivor.” She mumbled. “I was the only one. Only me.”

It was so unjust. Why did Leda have to continue to suffer until her death?

How was Bethany so stupid? How could she fool herself so much?

All of those years, none of them were so blissful as she liked to imagine.

Those were years that Leda cultivated a deep suffering.

A suffering so great she sank all of it into Bethany’s bosom, between Bethany’s legs. Such suffering that it made that woman want to kill.

“I was the only one. I survived. Leda was being punished the whole time.”

There was another loud rumbling of her machine.

Bethany peered up at her monitors.

The Volkers made it up to the Villa and began to aim their shots. Several shells struck around her feet, across the shoulders and head of the mecha.

One shell struck the side of the Volkannon’s cockpit.

There was a red hole circle, the size of a fist, that formed inside the cockpit.

From this circle, splashed a jet of hot metal the width of a finger.

An enemy round had penetrated the armor.

Bethany screamed. Her flank was slashed open. Her stomach was stabbed.

Hot, searing, agonizing pain slashed across her body. Blood flowed copiously from her. She grew numb. She was in such a shock from the initial pain. It was as if her body could not possibly feel all of the pain.

She clutched her wound but could not feel it anymore.

Laughter escaped from her lips like the involuntary action of a cough.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Leda.”

She had never had enough rounds prepared for the cannons to deal with so many enemies. Not without being able to reload from the gantry.

Bethany felt she had done an impressive job getting as far as she had.

“Imagine. Continuing to live. After everything that has happened.”

Marina would tell her all about those times. Elena had Marina. Marina had survived too. Somehow, despite everything. Marina was still alive.

“I’m sorry. I could never be your hero Leda. I could never save you.”

With the last burst of adrenaline in her stricken body, she engaged the backpack missiles. Bethany aimed straight up at the sky.

Outside, the Volkers were moving cautiously toward her.

Since the Volkannon had ceased firing, or moving, perhaps they thought she was dead. It was a good assumption. But she was not dead enough.

Some part of her, somehow, survived so much worse than this pain.

“I hope whoever is listening to this takes pity. Please treat this as you would the chronicle of a ship. Tell the world about the brave maid who took an Emperor’s wife and schemed against his Empire for her love. Farewell.”

Bethany pressed the triggers.

From the back of the Volkannon, the two missiles soared toward the sky.

Enemy mecha, startled by the launch, resumed firing on the Volkannon.

Bethany saw spectacular flashes. All kinds of colors, beautiful colors.

Everything was flashing in all the of the colors of the rainbow.

And yet it was gentle, and soft.

An aura, a pale curtain. A purple glow on the other side.

A silken dress, indigo hair–

“Leda. You look so beautiful. It’s just like when we met.”

Overhead, the missiles perforated the sky.

There was a final, glitchy burst of video static.

Two holes in the firmament slowly started to form massive voids.

More and more of the sky would fall, and a deluge would fall with it.


Vogelheim was dead.

Between the 150 mm blast outside and various cascading damages to the interior of the structure, there was no way to save the station anymore. Water began to pour in unchecked. Pressure was being lost. Every hole that opened to the Imbrium expanded exponentially as more and more water forced its way into the structure. With its central structure compromised, the “ceiling” or “cap” of the Vogelheim pillar would soon collapse upon the biome it contained and raze everything beneath its rubble.

A sudden deluge swept away mechas and any stragglers that had remained on the surface. The Imbrium laid its claim on the storybook landscape with terrifying speed. Everything was cast in the dismal blue of the ocean.

Amid this calamity, Victoria van Veka soared through the flooded forest.

At her heels, a roaring, rampaging Heidelinde Sawyer gave chase.

Already submerged before the disastrous floods, they survived everything.

Victoria knew they had to get away before the central pylons shattered. They would be crushed under the collapsing weight of the upper station otherwise. She did not know what was going through Sawyer’s head — other than violence. So she accelerated and began to flee from her enemy.

Rising up the water, which had now flooded almost all of the biome.

Bursts of 37 mm gunfire flashed incessantly from behind her.

Vapor bubbles nipped at her heels and flanks.

Victoria swerved, ducked and spun away.

All around her the landscape was eerie. Visibility had diminished entirely. Remnants of the land, like the forest, the hills, the orchard trees, they were flooded so quickly and terribly, much of it was ripped up or crushed down into the dirt, and yet much of it still remained, tinged blue but standing, rendered alien by sudden transposition. Those beautiful landscapes were cast in the dark, murky water of the Imbrium as if put inside of a toy globe.

Since she did not know how compromised the lower structures were, her best chance to escape was through whatever hole had opened to the ocean in the central structure. Elena’s artificial horizon had shattered. If Victoria could find the source of the flood within this terrifying landscape, then she could escape through there without being blocked by debris.

“GET BACK HERE!”

There was an eerie flash that was picked up by Victoria’s cameras.

Suddenly the Panzer started to accelerate.

Heat readings off its surface tripled in intensity.

Was it a hidden booster? An energy recovery system perhaps?

Psionics?

“I’d know if it was that.” Victoria told herself.

Regardless of what it was, Sawyer’s acceleration began to exceed her own.

She was cutting the distance between her and Victoria’s Jagd unit.

“No more running then.”

Victoria turned the Jagd around in a shallow arc to meet Sawyer.

Sawyer in turn lifted her vibroblade, engaging the booster on it.

“You’re fucking dead!”

They were only transmitting audio at that point. Water and their violent movements made the laser video connection difficult to maintain.

So Sawyer did not see Victoria’s eyes go red at that point.

She focused on the Jagd’s arm and pushed on it.

A sharp pain ran through her head. But she maintained her concentration.

Her blade swung to meet’s Sawyer’s attack.

And with a brutal parry, she smashed Sawyer’s arm aside.

“What the fuck?”

Training her guns on the Panzer’s center mass, Victoria unleashed a relentless fusillade. Dozens of vapor bubbles blossomed across the Panzer as exploding bullets crashed into it, peeling away parts of that tough armor.

Without hesitation, the Panzer charged through the bubbles.

“Why are you here?” Sawyer shouted. “Why did you come back now?”

“To save Elena!” Victoria shouted. “From you!”

The Panzer swung its vibro-sword and the Jagd’s vibro-blade met it. Both blades were designed to help overcome the resistance of water to breach armor. And the boosters helped deliver that final bit of punch.

The two pilots clashed blades, sizing each other up, waiting for an opportunity. The Panzer was built much more solidly. Even applying an equal amount of force, in a protracted fight, the Panzer would survive.

The Jagd’s arm would just fall off if it kept being slammed so brutally.

Nevertheless, Victoria met Sawyer’s blade, and she met her with words too.

She put on a grin, a battered, weary little grin. Her head was burning.

Maybe the drugs were fading. If she could just hold on a little longer!

“I saw it in a dream! I saw you killing her! I won’t let it happen!”

This wasn’t a lie and yet it was the exact kind of thing Sawyer hated to hear.

“In a dream? Are you fucking crazy? You came here to say that to me?”

“I came to save Elena, because despite everything, out of all of us, she’s the one who has only ever been a victim, Sawyer. All of us can fight and kill each other, but Elena shouldn’t! Elena has suffered enough in her life.”

“Shut up! Stop holding her up on a pedestal! I fucking hate that!”

I know, Sawyer. That’s why I’m saying it.

Victoria felt like weeping over the whole situation, just a bit. It was surreal, to be encased in this metal machine, in her cute little dress. Fighting her old friend who was marching down a horrible path. Atop the ruins of another friend’s devastated home. As rubble began to come down all around them. As Elena’s beautiful little forest was submerged in the blue below them.

“I already saved her, Sawyer. You’ll never have her now.”

“I DON’T CARE! I DIDN’T COME HERE FOR HER!”

Her swings started to grow sluggish. Her burst of power must have been an energy reserve system, and it was running out after her berserk rage.

“We were all destined to come here Sawyer. To sever the red string.”

She had started just saying things to rile her up.

But with tears in her eyes, Victoria had made herself believe them too.

All of those memories they had. That strange childhood that was neither idyllic, nor agonizing, because they shared it. It was so distant. No matter what happened, no matter who won out, they could never recover that.

Sawyer would always be her enemy.

Gertrude would always be an obstacle.

Elena would always be the unattainable prize.

She was the Empire they were all fighting for.

The Empire they would all destroy.

“Shut up. Shut up! I’m sick of it. You’ve no right to judge me. No right!”

Sawyer’s aura was palpable through the water.

Furious, wracked with agony, tinged with sorrow. Victoria saw it.

She responded to it.

“I’ve every right to judge you! You and your Volkisch want to expel me from my home!”

“What was I supposed to do, Victoria?” Sawyer shouted. “To be a fucking saint like you?”

She began interjecting words between ever more wild and furious swings of her blade.

“Was I supposed to follow Elena’s tail all my life?” Swing. “Submit myself to be ruled by the nobles that gave as little a shit about me as you three did? Run off to sell my pretty little ass to the Duchess like you did?” Thrust. “I was never special like all of you! All of you got the power and skills! I was always beat down and all I could do was fight!” Her blade smashed over and over. “I seized an opportunity! You can’t judge me for that, you bitch!”

Victoria endured the onslaught, blocking, dodging with her thrusters, clashing blades. Her Jagd’s arm was starting to overstress.

Alerts appeared on her status monitor.

Chunks of the station ceiling started to come down all around them.

It was nearly over. This was it; she had to make her move now or never.

“You were as powerful as everyone at school! You were standing so high above the world you knew nothing of it, just like us! But you always had power Sawyer! More power than most. You chose the Volkisch!”

“You don’t understand shit! I don’t want to hear your fucking voice again!”

Sawyer threw her wildest, most violent swing yet.

Her hatred, her anger, screamed out into the surrounding water.

Victoria could see all of it.

Red and yellow and black contaminating the water.

Rather than evade, Victoria thrust directly into the water in front of her.

She saw something in that aura. She became lost within its space.

A little girl receiving a beating from her mother and a scolding from her father. A young girl derided by both parents for being unable to speak properly. A bigger girl who could hardly see or understand what was up on the video board at school. A teenager who threw a punch unprompted and liked the sight of a body on the floor. A group of girls, who formed out of necessity, like wilting plants growing in the same patch. A young woman, standing in a line of soldiers, telling herself it was all she could do now.

An adult woman, berated by a uniformed man, and slapped across the face.

Two uniformed women, side by side, carrying sandbags as punishment.

A woman listening to someone tell her that in spite all that, she was strong.

Victoria saw shadows and heard distant voices and felt even when she could not see. Amid the color, amid two machines frozen in their violence, all those thoughts coalesced. Sawyer’s thoughts and Victoria’s thoughts.

At which point was I able to choose anything?

Everything was always set against me.

I wish I could have helped you escape.

I could have saved you.

Victoria reentered the world. Full of emotion but bereft of understanding.

She threw the Jagd’s arm in the way of Sawyer’s attack.

Sawyer’s blade stabbed into the remains of the jet lance coils.

She had swung with such force that she nearly pierced the Jagd’s head.

Her blade stopped just short of Victoria’s cameras, lodged into the arm.

Solid fuel and parts leaked out into the water.

Victoria reacted near instantly.

Pulling back her sticks and ramming her pedals. Thrusting up and back, the Jagd extended the Panzer’s arm and threw the mech off-balance.

As she did so, Victoria swung her remaining blade at the Panzer’s arm joint.

Her blade chipped, but it bit right through the metal.

Sawyer’s arm split at the elbow with a crunch, hanging off the Jagd’s.

Victoria then ejected the Jagd’s jet lance, losing an arm herself. Both Victoria’s lance and Sawyer’s sword drifted, joining the rest of the debris.

The Jagd turned its torso machine guns on the Panzer and opened fire.

One tiny burst crashed into the Panzer’s heavily-armored chest.

Gashes and pits formed on the armor. The machine rose out of the vapor.

Then the guns clicked completely empty.

There was no barb from the Panzer’s pilot. The machine advanced silently, solemnly. Sawyer lifted her sturmgewehr rifle with her remaining arm.

When she tried to fire her magazine was ejected by the feed system.

It was empty.

The Panzer stood, unmoving, threatening with its empty rifle.

Sawyer must have been out of ordnance.

Victoria lifted her sword arm and pointed it at the unarmed Sawyer.

She looked at the screen. Since they were unmoving for long enough, their laser connection stabilized. Victoria could see Sawyer’s haunted face on the video, wide-eyed, shaking and weeping with fury, frustration, confusion. Victoria felt those feelings spreading into the ocean around Sawyer’s mech also. Her auras were never more visible nor easier to read than right there.

“I– I– I’m– I can– still–”

Sawyer was reduced to a furious stammer as she searched for any remaining weapons. That was a sight she had not seen in close to ten years.

A flustered, helpless Sawyer, out of steam once her rage reached its peak.

Victoria smiled. A bitter, pained smile that punctuated their shared agony.

“Goodbye, Sawyer. I’m sorry. I couldn’t save you — I didn’t even try.”

She turned the Jagd around and immediately fled.

Her objective was complete.

She distracted Sawyer. Elena got away (she hoped).

And now she had to flee herself.

“No more tears.”

Victoria grit her teeth. As the Jagd emerged from the teetering rubble of Vogelheim, her heart wrenched. She had decided what she would do a long time ago. Victoria had chosen her banner. And she had found someone dearly special to her. Someone she wanted to fight for, to elevate, to love.

Someone who represented the future she realistically hopes to bring about.

In that sense–

Sawyer was just an enemy.

Gertrude was just an obstacle.

And Elena remained an orbiter, a helpless ephemera caught in the midst.

She had made her decisions and held herself responsible for them.

So why did it hurt so much?

Why, as she escaped, did the young empath weep for Sawyer?


Marina’s screens came to life and began to run diagnostics.

Soldier of Enterprise And Liberty S.E.A.L [SpecOps]

Below the S.E.A.L’s full model name, Marina had edited the boot menu to scrub out the Republic motto. She couldn’t bear to even think to uphold those ideals anymore. Dimly, she even wondered where the Republic ever stood for them in the first place. What even was all this liberty bullshit?

Marina’s S.E.A.L. was a special model, but it fit the Republic’s ethos of highly efficient, cost-conscious, utilitarian design. An oblong cockpit surrounded by thick, shaped plates of sloped chest armor, to which two tapered off, square shoulders attached a pair of sturdy arms. A round, helmet-like head with a visor served as the primary sensor array. The waist was slightly thicker than that of a Volker or Strelok, because the S.E.A.L.’s backpack was attached lower, closer to the legs. This allowed for more direct intake of water straight through the center of mass to the jets in the lower back.

She had an M480 37 mm assault rifle attached by magnet to the backpack, some grenades, and a boosted vibro-handaxe that was a result of Republic efforts to steal Imperial vibro-weapon technology, coupled with an inability of Republic industry to properly replicate the miniature form factor of Imperial blades. All of these weapons were capable but cheaper alternatives to Imperial designs, the pride of the Republic. Interesting as they all were, Marina had no intention to use any of them at that moment.

Instead, she was more interested in the long-range travel unit on the back.

Two hydro-jets with their own energy, designed to produce less sound. They had taken her from Pluto station to here and had enough energy to take her back. When she returned, the Pluto cell of the G.I.A. would disband, its resources spent. Then she would escape to Serrano, Sverland.

A mere skip and a jump to the Union.

That was the plan. She had to keep the plan in mind.

Everything was shaking.

Sometimes subtly, but increasingly, with great violence.

She had laid Elena atop the storage space behind her chair.

Once the SEAL was ready to go, Marina dove into the water.

Vogelheim was an old station, with a major weakness in the size of its desalination and water treatment ducts and systems. Modern, efficient designs needed less water volume and thus did not have giant openings for Marina to go swimming in. Dipping down into this system, Marina guided her SEAL out of Vogelheim through chaotic, rushing water in the underground. She moved fast enough to avoid the collapse.

Outside the station, with the structure between herself and her enemies, Marina had a moment of peace. The SEAL could simply hover in the water for a time, watching the place where she rekindled her love and rediscovered her sorrows crumbling before her, slowly, inevitably.

Vogelheim’s biome was collapsing under the force of the invading ocean along with the weight of the station’s crown, housing all the mechanisms for the light and weather and sky that had so enchanted Elena. That sky under which Leda had given birth and tried to raise her. That sky that her brother Erich turned into a prison for her. It was shattered, coming down.

From outside the station, in the blue vastness of the Imbrium, attached to the rocky seafloor and surrounded by the rising and falling stone of the ocean’s geography, the Vogelheim pillar slowly toppled onto itself. The eastern wall collapsed near totally, so the station’s cap fell lopsided over the biome. Perhaps there was some eerie, flooded place that still survived.

Marina knew then that most of the interior was utterly destroyed.

She prepared to turn and leave the scene when she heard a noise from behind her.

“Where– What is–? Who are you?”

Confused mumbling, the soft and helpless voice of a young girl.

Marina felt her panic grip her heart. This could not be happening.

Not right then.

“Elena please don’t look. Please just go back to sleep.” Her voice was weak, pleading.

Elena paid her no heed. She sat herself up, peering around the side of the cockpit chair. She pulled herself forward. Her eyes were fixed upon the exterior camera screens.

Fixed on the image of the ruined, collapsed Vogelheim that was on every video feed.

“That can’t be it.”Elena’s voice started to crack. “Is that Vogelheim? That can’t be.”

Her eyes filled with tears. Her lips quivered; her hands shook.

“Vogelheim can’t be like that. It just can’t be. How will we go back inside?”

Elena covered her own mouth. “Bethany? Where is Bethany?”

She had not blinked or drawn away from the light in so long.

Her eyes wept and reddened.

Marina felt so powerless, so helpless.

Helpless as she had never felt before in her life.

Staring at Elena’s face, the blood fading from her cheeks.

At her drawn, horrified eyes.

“I’m so sorry.” Marina said. There was nothing she could say or could do.

It dawned upon the Princess then, what had happened.

Her whole body shook.

She screamed.

Elena screamed until her throat was raw, until her lungs were empty.

Until her voice gave out into heaving sobs.

Elena screamed with an agony unimaginable.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.8]

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

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

A meltdown had been long since coming.

Even when she was with Bethany–

Maybe even because of that.

She had let her guard down.

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

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

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

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

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

And she regretted immediately that she had done so.

She had hurt that girl; but also Elena.

Elena. She had hurt Elena.

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

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

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

Bearing witness to the horrors of war–

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

Her face reminded her of Leda.

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

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

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

Leda. Leda Lettiere.

She had so much power, will, charisma.

Maybe even– magic.

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

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

How could she say no?

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

Elena was feeling this now too.

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

“Protect her for me.”

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

Her eyes stung; she found herself weeping.  

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

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

She then tripped and fell.

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

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

I can’t protect anyone. God damn it.

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

Marina forced herself to stand again.

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

Once Elena was safe.

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

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

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

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Marina snapped out of her contemplation.

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

It was Marina’s bullet.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Victoria would avoid it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“You’ll distract them? How?”

Marina crossed her arms, staring Victoria down in confusion.

Elena balked at Victoria’s words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not a Jagd.” Marina said.

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

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

Marina blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.

That’s a Jagd.”

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

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

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

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

Volkers had been born out of labor machinery.

The Jagd was exclusively made to kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had not counted on a lot of what transpired.

All of her plans were useless at this point.

All she could do was think on her feet.

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

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

Unfortunately, people were more complicated than that.

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

This was starting to get frustrating.

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

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

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

Victoria looked down at a rock on the ground.

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

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

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

Elena watched, speechless.

Victoria dropped it shortly thereafter.

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

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

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

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

What an absolutely frustrating woman.

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

Elena looked between the two of them in disbelief.

She had been quiet up until then.

She suddenly let out her pent-up feelings again.

She started to cry with renewed fury.

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

Elena grabbed hold of Victoria’s hands.

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

She looked at Victoria directly in the eyes, pleading.

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly and terribly, without much hope of reconciliation.

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

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

Victoria was comforting her and distracting her.

She could see what was coming.

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

From behind her, Marina scooped her up.

She quickly holstered the stun gun in her hands.

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

“No objections?” Marina asked.

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

“Alright. Well. Godspeed.”

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

Victoria stood there and watched her go.

She allowed herself one last childish outburst of her own.

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

Marina said nothing in response.

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

Victoria sighed.

Why did she even say that?

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

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

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

Victoria raised a hand to her wound.

What was she even feeling so sentimental for?

 Her head felt airy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To some, it symbolized the duplicitous nature of Veka.

Shooting first from ambush.

Victoria viewed it as a positive.

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

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

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

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


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

“Rue; have the Panzer prepared for me.”

She said this into an ear-piece.

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

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

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

“That’s not what concerns me.”

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

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

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

She knew they still had time.

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

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

Sawyer’s head overflowed with macabre thoughts.

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

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

Aggravation? Hit something, hit someone. Break something.

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

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

Physicality was easy to understand.

Emotion tortured her.

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

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

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

Sawyer soon found her weapons were loaded.

Her chute was also set up for her.

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

She was vulnerable again.

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

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

She remembered the third: Victoria.

That antisocial Shimii with a twisted personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawyer punched herself in the forehead.

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

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

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

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

And only the Sawyer that was here right now.

She had severed that past a long time ago.

“Sturmbannführer, you read?”

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

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

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

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

“What? At combat speed?”

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

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

She was shouting.

Sawyer reached out and punched the wall of the cockpit.

Gertrude.

She commanded an Irmingard class.

Could she be coming here for Elena?

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

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

Rue sighed into the microphone.

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

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

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

Sawyer was going to be seen as a mass murderer.

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

Politically, it wouldn’t hurt her.

The Volkisch were ready to do anything for power.

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

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

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

“Slow them down, but–”

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

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

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

Sawyer sighed. She took the controls.

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

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

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

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

RMD-006 PANZER [SIEG] was prominently displayed.

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

“Heidelinde Sawyer, Panzer Sieg. Deploying!”

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

Sawyer was ready to lose herself in the violence outside.


Gunshots and explosions sounded in the distance.

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

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

And then everything to went hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, it was an invasion.

So someone had to delay and distract the invaders.

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

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

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

She had wanted to be like a mother to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She set them down.

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

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

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

Leda Lettiere.

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

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

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

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

She did not fancy her chances using this weapon either.

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

Bethany was all too aware of the current situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Betty!”

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

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

She immediately noticed Elena unconscious in Marina’s arms.

“What happened to her?”

Bethany grabbed hold of Marina’s shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

Then she threw her arms around Bethany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Why do you part it this way?”

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

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

“Cybernetic?” She asked.

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

Nodding, Bethany stepped forward.

“Can I kiss you, Marina?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she knew it was not possible.

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

From the foyer, the evacuation bulkhead was just ahead.

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

That would be their escape from all of this.

Their.

Marina started explaining her plan as she crossed the bulkhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds of fighting played out intermittently in the distance.

Closer, and closer, or so Bethany thought.

Marina turned around to start going down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina disappeared near instantly from her sight.

That was it. She had made her decision.

Bethany turned her back on the door.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”

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

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

“Bethany! Open the door!”

Marina started slamming her fist on the metal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, no! No! You can’t do this!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany turned her back on the door and walked away.

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

Down Bethany’s eyes ran bittersweet tears.

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

Bethany accepted the finality of what she was doing.

For Marina, and for Elena.

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

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


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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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