Bandits Amid The Festival [11.3]

For the overall majority of the population of Kreuzung, the world outside of their rooms was mostly a long series of hallways and elevators. Long lines of identical doors, fake carpeting, beige walls. A pretense of warmth that hid cold metal. Hypocrisies large and small that had to be endured in order to live.

How did the people of Kreuzung live?

The ordinary people with no other recourse but to keep living?

Those who worked in the service industry, if they worked for a strong brand, would leave this world of halls once a day to go to a mall or food court, where they would find another enclosed space that would occupy most of their day. Those who served “local” shops in the lower districts would trade one hallway for another, or if they were lucky, trade a street without a sky, flanked by identical squat plastic buildings, for a hall flanked by plastic or metal doors. Since those older “street” modules often had defects that led to accidents or flooding, this was not a particularly good trade in terms of their well-being.

Some people did not leave their rooms at all to work– even when they wished they could.

All of this toil was presided over by the vastness of the Imbrium Ocean. Deeper and darker.     

Kreuzung was home to millions of people– who lived largely below the tower’s centerpoint.

“Upward mobility” was not as such literally. For someone close to the bottom of the tower and compressed into a block that had dozens of modules each with several hallways, all of it cramped into the tightest livable space– if they even completed their education or achieved some certifications in a field they were competent in, there was no guarantee of a job. And in addition, virtually no guarantee of actually ever moving out of the comparatively cheaper and smaller rooms in the lower part of the tower to the slightly better habitats in the core’s upper reaches. It was impossible to ever believe someone like that would ever work or live in A or B block at the top of the Kreuzung Core. Certainly, a few people did do so– but collectively, it felt like it took a miracle. Most people would never climb from those depths.

In Kreuzung, a large majority of people did not “have a job” in the sense of a stable position in a company. Instead, most people were “contractors.” Contractors technically worked for an agency that connected them to jobs in exchange for a fraction of the pay. These agencies arose from the distrust between the highly stratified classes in the Empire and were a common feature in most imperial stations– an Agency could guarantee that the people it hired were not lowborn scum of the earth, but humble and servile folk with good skills; if they were not they could be easily discarded and replaced.

That was an agency’s promise to the employers; employees were promised nothing but a wage.

All service work was contract work where Agencies vetted candidates that would not harm the upper and middle class sensibilities of those shopping and dining in the middle to upper tier of businesses.

Heavy industry had a culture of “tradesmanship” where workers traditionally formed guilds or unions and had access to better pay, benefits and a slightly better lifestyle than contractors, even as collective power began to be eroded. The tradeoff was in difficult certification requirements, as well as the possibility of losing life or worse, limb. Guild and union health benefits were good, but cybernetics were still expensive. Even with the best possible healthcare plan, this would ultimately saddle the worker with medical debt and a period of recovery that would wipe out some of those other good benefits like the paid time off and vacations. Regardless, this was seen as one of the only ways “up” (relatively) for a lower class worker.

The most on-demand jobs in Kreuzung beside customer-facing services were behind-the-scenes hardware jobs, particularly in monitoring, reporting on and responding to system events. A lot of Kreuzung systems administration had been privatized to the agencies, particularly the grunt work of keeping eyes on sensors and pressure valves and other such things. Contractors did these dull tasks from their homes, until something broke, at which point they would have to go out on the field and assume risk for much less money than a trade union worker did– which was ultimately the point of privatization.

Nevertheless, there were some parts of station administration and customer-facing services that did manage to remain trade-union owned, and there were also good jobs that were not agency-controlled. Dockworkers, for example, had a union, and non-union private dock workers at least didn’t have to go through an agency and could keep all their pay. And it was always possible, even if somewhat unlikely, for a very poor person to excel and become a journalist or a teacher or a nurse or some other “legit” career outside Contracting. These were the elites, comparatively, of lower class labor in Imbria.

One could also always join the Navy.

In Rhinea, in 979 A.D. during the Pandora’s Box’s stay in Kreuzung, joining the Navy meant becoming a National Socialist and participating in the Volkisch Movement’s conflicts– this was less attractive even than contracting. But for some people the food and shelter was enough incentive. Adding insult to injury, however, was that the Volkisch wouldn’t take all comers. No shirt, no shoes– no military service for you. In reality, the Volkisch remained a solidly volunteer army, more than a poor and desperate one.

Middle class labor entailed direct career work in the major corporations or public groups. These jobs were highly class stratified– someone with a parent that was a university teacher, would be able to go into higher education and would be much more likely to also become a teacher. For the children of contractors and service workers, it would be unlikely though not impossible to attain the needed licensing and higher education due to the difficult development environment for the child.

Working directly at a corporate office was the common hallmark of middle class work. Successful corporations and major brands had data, premises and equipment that they did not trust agency contractors to handle. Interviewing was deliberately difficult– people could be weeded out as soon as the recruiter saw their address. Technically, however, the jobs were open for anyone to interview for.

Some people dreamed of making it big by working seemingly outside “the system.” Trying out for roles in films, writing hot novels, creating innovative software, or even putting on personal shows to become influential in the burgeoning network culture– but these things already favored people with existing money and connections, so an “outsider hit” was unlikely as the hits were already being dictated by what could only be considered to be “the system” itself. Just enough “miracles” happened to keep people dreaming, but overall, the structure remained stable and firm. Class was ossified in the Imbrium.

All of this was Imbrian society as it was seen and accepted by the public at large.

There was a tier below Imbrian society, however, below even the most miserable parts.

In Kreuzung, it existed literally below the baseplate of the tower.

In the unkempt, spiraling viscera of the tower’s ancient history, dating back to its construction. Some of the uppermost of the maintenance tunnels still saw a good bit of official use, particularly by very unlucky contractors maintaining and repairing the interstice of the bottom rung of society just a hair above the baseplate itself. Deeper below, there were tunnels that had not been visited by an official contact of the station in decades or more. Most of them had become a sprawling nest of society’s most unfortunate.

Because the tunnels connected back to the ancient construction shafts, which had oxygen systems, they became homes for the dispossessed and unfortunate. Groups both openly criminal and secretly so, took advantage of these lost and invisible places as well to build and hide their own enterprises.

It was in this space below and between “the system” of Kreuzung and Imbria itself, that there existed the parallel society home to myths and legends: such as that of the fearsome “Katarran mercenaries.”


“Hmm? ‘Tarot Chocolate’? What are you giving me this for?”

“It’s dark stuff. It’s too sophisticated-like. It suits you better.”

“Hmm. This is a bit fancy. Where did you get it?”

“There was a boy selling them out of a box. Maybe he stole it– but who cares.”

“As long as the box is real, and these aren’t full of meth or razors.”

“None of that would kill you anyway. Quit being so prissy and take it.”

“I’m just confused as to why you’re giving me anything, even if it suited me.”

“We’re all comrades aren’t we? God damn– look, I got it for Chloe. But she hates dark chocolate. And I don’t eat this kind of shit at all. So there you go. Happy, detective? Just take it already.”

With finality Dimmitra threw the chocolate bar she had been showing off and left the room.

It landed in the hammock beside Kalika. She picked it up, turning it over in her long fingers.

Tarot Chocolate had the logo of Atelier Paradis, a premium brand in talks to join Volwitz Foods. Kalika always thought about those sorts of things, turning over goods in her hands. That fancy font on the Atelier logo, the royal purple mineral paper wrapper around the chocolate. This was a product worth thirty marks with competitors that sold for ten marks. But businesses had hierarchies just like the people around her. She was branded for being a Katarran, for not having any opportunity for some Imbrian desk job; no matter how she dressed or the airs she put on, she was always lesser-than and had to use her body in illegitimate ways to survive. In the same way that a Premium Brand like Atelier Paradis which made high-class and expensive products– was still lesser to a Major Corporation like Volwitz Foods.

She was holding in her hands a symbol of all the things that she fought against.

A story of inequality and alienation starting from the harvest to the final setting of prices.

At each link in the chain, the company that sold this item had stolen from somebody to do so.

Slowly, almost mindlessly, she unwrapped the paper around the dark chocolate squares.

Inside the packaging, she found another little piece of mineral paper.

It was a fortune that read: today you will meet the person who will change your life.

“So this is the sort of malarkey that turns 3 marks of chocolate into a 30 marks bar.”

Kalika sighed and took a bite of it. The complex taste that coated her tongue gave her some pause. Not just the dance of bitterness and sweetness, but the accompanying fruity notes and the glossy texture that seemed to hold its shape only until it met the warmth of her mouth, and then delicately melted. Perhaps this was actually eight or nine marks worth of chocolate in raw material. This was– the good stuff.

“It tastes premium, I must admit. I wouldn’t mind having another one.”

She was speaking only to herself at this point. Dimmitra had already left.

“Maybe I’ll keep my eye out for the little hawker with the box on my way out.”

Kalika slid her legs over the side of the plastic hammock she had been sleeping in. She had strung it up between two pipes on opposite walls in a 3 by 5 meter room. She and her comrades had claimed the space, in one of the many abandoned maintenance tunnels beneath the baseplate and dug around the old construction shaft above which Kreuzung’s baseplate and lower floors were ultimately built.

The Katarran’s room had once upon a time been a pressure monitoring room of some sort, from before the station was completely built. Valves and dials stared at her from every wall, completely motionless. Everything above the baseplate had sensors that were read by computers, so rooms like this were useless. Now it was nothing but pipes and an abused electrical panel in an otherwise empty room.

There were hundreds of places like this. But the locals did not particularly like the rooms farthest afield of the central construction shaft. There were rumors that people went missing in them– one of the tamer superstitions was that there was a syndicate of organ harvesters in the vicinity of the very room Kalika was standing in. It wasn’t too farfetched, but she had not yet seen any. More than likely, one too many opportunists robbed or killed someone here and imagination did the rest to create this myth.

Her own organs were perfectly safe. Even with one arm, she liked her chances in that fight.

“My arm–”

Kalika ran the fingers of her biological left arm over the bicep of her mechanical right arm.

Underneath the sleeve of her shirt, she felt the frayed metal and the torn syntheskin.

She tried to move the arm. Extending it felt alright. However, trying to bend the arm toward her, as if to flex her bicep, resulted in a shot of pain through the nerve bundles that remained of her original limb, which had been affixed to the prosthetic’s transmission couplers. She winced, and she could hear the metal scraping in a way that it should not. There was no way she could trust that arm to swing a vibrosword or even throw a punch. She had to get it fixed before anything went down.

“Hey,”

Through the crack in the door, Dimmitra peeked back into the room.

“You’re gonna go up, right?” She asked.      

“I have to. Nobody down here is going to be able to fix this.” Kalika said.

She gestured to her arm. Dimmitra nodded her head.

“The Premier shouldn’t need us today.” Dimmitra said. “You should be clear.”

“I’m just worried I won’t find anyone who will treat a Katarran.” Kalika said.

“If you don’t, you don’t. Nothin’ you can do. We can have you taken care of at Aachen.”

“We should teach Chloe how to run maintenance on prosthetics.” Kalika smiled.

“She’s fine.” Dimmitra said. Her voice took on a slightly more serious tone.

“I didn’t say otherwise.” Kalika replied. “Thank you for the chocolate.”

Dimmitra, Kalika and Chloe were all Katarrans. “Pelagis” was the race– Katarre was a nation.

But most Pelagis came from Katarre, and in the Imbrian imagination, all Pelagis were Katarrans.

Being Katarre-born Katarrans, real-deal Pelagids born in vats by the dozens and destined to die, they had deliberate genetic embellishments. All of them had been created using the DNA of armored gurnards, small fish with mortifyingly ugly appearances that thankfully did not transfer in almost any way. This was most evident in the pair of roughly rectangular and thin horn-like structures which grew from the back of their heads. In Kalika’s case, her horns framed her ponytail. These resembled a gurnard’s snout. Like a lot of Katarrans in her natural state her skin would have been grey, and her hair would have been white, but aside from their strength, durability and the few signs of embellishment, they were human.

Two legs, two arms; a head and neck; shoulders, breasts, hips. She was just a woman.

Kalika used cheap pigment treatments to alter her skin and hair and appear at least a little bit more presentable and less monochromatic. Imbrians disliked the cheaper cosmetics because it made the skin unnatural colors– it was tough to get that Imbrian pinkish-white fairness using the cheap skin pigments. That usually required a second skin to get just right. For Kalika, it sufficed to make her skin go from grey to a stark pink flush. It made Imbrians less nervous of her, and in her eyes, it made her look prettier.

Raylight Beauty’s budget products sufficed to keep up this appearance.

Her hair, meanwhile, she dyed a shiny grape-purple color and tied into a long ponytail.

For Katarrans, even mercenaries, such preening was not uncommon nor beneath them.

It was all part of coping with the warped relationship they had to their bodies.

Every Katarran mercenary in the Imbrium was more than likely someone who escaped from Katarre itself and service under a Warlord. It only made sense for anyone with that kind of repressive background to assert their individuality. Kalika had an ideal of her own body and her own sexuality which she expressed for her own comfort. She wore wine-colored lipstick and a similar type of eyeshadow, she wore toner on her face, she dressed in the nicest shirts she could afford and even owned a brand jacket from Lanzknecht, Epoch Clothiers’ edgy line of streetwear itself inspired by Katarrans. It was “steel-silver” colored and cut sharply, with see-through sleeves. She loved that jacket– it felt like skin.

Tights and a pencil skirt accentuated her long legs and figure. Heels made her feel more sophisticated (and feminine– for a woman who punched people’s heads open sometimes, this was more vital than it might have seemed). She even wore perfume sometimes. It was all part of the product she sold to the world– a Katarran’s body, born to kill and ready to die. (And look good doing it.) It showed to the discerning eye that she cared about herself, had a sophisticated personality, spent money on herself.

In this way, Katarrans survived, trying to retain the soul of human living despite all the abuse they suffered– and despite the extremist Solceanist belief that Katarrans did not actually have souls.

Dimmitra was a bit more spartan in her own style, but even she had one. Her grey trench-coat had beads sewn into it by Chloe. Her pain black shirt had the midriff quite literally ripped from the rest to expose her toned belly. Her black boots were stained and left as such. She had fingerless gloves. Her hair was dark, which meant she dyed it, but she cut it short and manageable. Like many mercenaries she communicated, ‘I am tough, and I can kill you– or whoever you pay me to kill’ but she also demonstrated self-care.

“Where is Chloe anyway?” Kalika asked.

“She’s visiting Platform Town.” Dimmitra said. “She wants to grab a souvenir.”

“She can be such a kid sometimes.” Kalika replied.

“So what? That’s good. You want her to be a nihilist?” Dimmitra said.

“Relax.” Kalika said. “I am just making observations. I am not criticizing her.”

“Hmph.”

Dimmitra walked to the other edge of the room, where her own hammock was strung.

“I’m staying here. Waiting for Chloe to come back.” She said.

“Figured. Don’t worry too much about her.”

“I’m not.”

She was clearly on edge, but Kalika did not push it any further.

She liked those two– they were cute together. They felt like they had a future ahead.

Kalika picked up a false leather bookbag from a corner of the room and slung it over her shoulder. There was a vibroblade inside, and she had a vibroknife hidden in an arm harness under the sleeve of her clip-down shirt. No guns– it was too easy to make a ruckus and get caught that way. Guns had to be a weapon of last resort when there were unfriendly eyes and ears everywhere.

Or a weapon for the final stages of an operation. Never at the beginning.

For now, nobody knew they were any different than any other Katarrans in Kreuzung.

From the metal door into the room, Kalika exited out into a long, circular tunnel, two meters tall. There were a few doors down from the hallway and an obviously riveted elbow piece on the corner. These tunnels were built out of a standardized series of ferristitched sewer tunnel sections that were used for water treatment, waste management and pressurization. Kalika nonchalantly walked the halls in her heels. There was a massive maze of these kinds of tunnels all around them.

From what Kalika understood, the process for building Kreuzung required a huge hole be drilled at the bottom of the crater and a substation to be buried under the baseplate. This building was known as the central construction shaft. It doubled as part of the foundation, as well as housing the construction equipment, elevators and supplies to begin the building process. The workers extended out supports in weak parts of the ground and built out infrastructure for themselves within these tunnels, since they could not live comfortably in the substation. Materials were partially mined out of the surrounding crater, but also brought in from the rest of the Imbrium along with the rations for the workers. It was a gigantic undertaking, and the suffering of those workers was still evident in the suffering way that people still lived below the baseplate. They were forgotten; much in the same way the old workers were.

Those workers were never counted among the heroes and glories of Kreuzung.

And the people of Platform Town wouldn’t either; unless something dramatically changed.

“Maybe Erika would say ‘we are the change’– but I don’t hold such presumptions.”

Kalika traveled through several similar-looking tunnels, ambling confidently in her high heels without missing a step. She knew where she was going even though the path was dim, lonely and so identical it could have easily confused someone into thinking they were going in circles. Another reason a lot of the locals avoided these less-traveled outer tunnels. Eventually, however, Kalika found an old and out of service bulkhead into a pressurization room, and there was a woman and her daughter sleeping inside.

Out the other door, and she was in a hall with a small crowd.

While there was a stereotype of homeless or impoverished people as being filthy or nasty, you would not see it from the platform town residents. They kept their clothes clean, nobody smelled, the hall was dusty and there were some wrappers and bags about because it was simply not possible to keep dozens of metal halls completely clean without vacuum drones or formal staff. Almost everyone she passed had a hoodie or a jacket and a good pair of pants. Sturdy, comfortable clothes that they could sleep in and keep warm that also held up to walking daily. Shoes were the sore spot for many of them, because the tunnels and the platforms were rough on cheap plastic sneakers. Because they washed with saltwater that was let in from partially dismantled desalinators, there was a bit of wear and graining on their mainly plastic clothes, but nobody was living in filth. Everyone did their best to keep the place livable.

There was a lot of hustling in the corridors. Mainly people selling or trading in miscellaneous goods they kept in boxes or blankets, always something easily portable and commonly in need like snacks or tray dinners, first aid supplies (and illegal drugs), shoes, sundries; provenance unknown and priced suspiciously. While hawking was much more profitable (relatively speaking) above the baseplate, there were people selling or bartering things around Platform Town nonetheless. Maybe because they had heat up above and were hiding; maybe because they were trying to flip NGO aid supplies or stolen goods.

Nobody tried to hawk anything to Kalika. They could tell immediately she was strange.

Platform Town and its residents had dignity. No amount of poverty would prevent them from having it. People tried their best to live whole and healthy lives. They tried to keep things as clean as possible. They maintained a quiet peace. What was palpable, however, was caution and distrust among the residents. Kalika definitely stuck out among them, and there were a lot of idle eyes thrown her way, but it wasn’t in here that she needed to blend in– it was up above. Nobody could blame them for staring at a Katarran who was vain enough to wear makeup and tights and heels down here among the desperate folk. Her relationship to the space was fundamentally different and she knew she must have looked like a voyeur. She didn’t have to live here, like them; she was just passing through here on a mission.

She would leave here– go on to the next thing. Until she lost her life to the violence.

Like a lot of other underworld travelers that hid in places like this from the public eye.

That she had supposedly loftier goals didn’t help her feel like any less of a parasite.

Kalika strolled by one of the entrances out into Platform Town itself, which was built by parking all the cargo elevators on the same level within the construction shaft in the center of the ancient substation infrastructure, creating a sort of “town square” for the entire underground town. Platform Town’s elevating mechanisms were then struck in place so it could not be plunged down the shaft. It resided about 100 meters below the baseplate, separating it from the tunnels that still saw some use farther above, but keeping it accessible to the underground dwellers. This was done out of necessity and safety. Keeping out of the way kept them relatively safer from the authorities.

Platform Town had been raided before. But it was a difficult and ugly sight for the people above, so it was mainly forgotten, its own world separated by 100 meters of empty vertical space and several more of winding old tunnels. For a station that was less than two kilometers tall and a few more wide, Kreuzung was vast inside of its own walls. One could give as many objective measurements of space and distance as one wanted– but the reality was, in terms of class, Kreuzung contained within it several entire worlds that may as well have been measured in hundreds of kilometers of distance apart from one another.

Kalika traversed one and now she had to leave to another.

At the end of the hall, there was a smaller personnel elevator. There were some things that did not get core power down here, and people improvised portable battery-pack devices to power them. But the elevator was always powered from the core above. However, it was also always guarded by someone. On that day it was an older man with a red face and a heavily white beard. He had on a brown jacket and a flat cap, and his hands were in his pockets. He had boots, unlike a lot of people here.

“I’m going up.” Kalika said. He was standing in the way of the elevator door.

“You are, are you?” He asked.

Kalika tried not to roll her eyes. It was always something like this.

“We already talked to the Watchman.” She said.

The guard’s bloodshot eyes locked with her black on yellow eyes.

They had done more than talk, too. Erika — the Premier — had sent a crate of supplies.

“Okay. Watchman isn’t here. Maybe nothing you gave the Watchman got to me?”

“How much do you want?”

“Maybe it ain’t bribes? What if I just don’t like you fish fuckers?”

What if I rip your fucking head off? What if I kill your entire family?

She recalled, in Erika’s cheery voice, before delivering what was a routine threat–

It’s not their fault; their attitudes are a result of abuse and exploitation; we must be kind.

Exercise the fortune you have that allows you to simply walk away, Erika would say.

Sighing internally, Kalika lifted her hand from her bag, and therefore from her sword–

“That would be pretty unfortunate, but my life would go on. And my journey, too.”

“Your journey– pfeh– fancy bitch aren’t you?”

Begrudgingly, he stepped aside just enough for her to walk past.

Kalika made no more eye contact, no aggressive gestures and kept a neutral expression.

Erika was right– there was no point in upsetting or fighting these people.

It wasn’t their fault they had been cast into the deepest darkness of the world to rot.

Into the elevator she went and up and out of the world below the world.

Platform Town’s elevators could take someone to the tunnels directly under the baseplate, and from there, the safest way up without anyone knowing you had been in the underground was to take an emergency ladder up above. It was common knowledge passed around the inhabitants of the underground which ladders had their panels ripped off already and were easily accessible, and these took the would-be trespasser into discrete places out of sight from crowded thoroughfares.

In this fashion, Kalika climbed a ladder in a dark room, opened a hatch, and stepped out of the dim alleyway next to an automatic desalination plant on the lowest tier, rejoining the above-ground world on a street in one of the lower modules of Kreuzung. The ceiling was low, and there were squat plastic buildings with scratched-up unpainted metal streets between them. The sunlamps were maybe half-working. But compared to how people lived in Platform Town, it was downright luxurious. There were shops, eateries, there were small crowds of people with merry expressions, and there was an unimpeded way up higher. Kalika pulled out a portable from her jacket, checked her route, and got moving.

She had to find someone to repair her arm– before she needed to use it seriously again.

Her first thought was to go to the medical NGOs that served the lower level folks.

Not because she was lacking in funds– but because they might actually agree to see her.

Traversing several of the tight halls that adjoined the street module where she had entered the station, she finally found herself two or three street modules away in front of a large, temporary plastic building which bore the logo of Khumeia Pharmaceuticals, one of Rhinea’s major medical manufacturing corporations. Despite the logo, there was a line of people, and signs calling out free healthcare services, including biostitching, which could take care of lacerations and broken bones by itself.

It felt promising, so Kalika stood in line. Maybe they could ferristitch her arm joint.

She was in line for almost an hour, about thirty minutes of which she spent staring straight at a desk with a nurse behind it, who would take people’s information and then point them to a room inside the building itself for procedure. Soon as Kalika walked up, the nurse raised her hands.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we can’t help you here, ma’am. Our grant specifies primary care services to Imbrians. We are beholden to the terms of our grant, so we can’t see any Katarrans.”

Rotten luck– not even charities in the lowest rungs would look at Katarrans!

“Incredible. So I stood in line for nothing? You couldn’t have just shooed me out?”

“I recommend looking for a private practice to assist you. Have a nice day.”

Grumbling, Kalika walked out, clutching the sling on her bookbag tightly.

There were very few private medical practices in the lower levels of the station. They were mostly run by samaritans who could shoulder the unique pressure of existing in places with higher levels of poverty, and therefore, desperation. Those few that existed were booked out months in advance because there was high demand for any kind of healthcare. That piece of advice from that wretched nurse would not help. Kalika took another elevator, though she was loathed to climb further as she knew that Imbrian racism only got worse the more affluent the population became. Her hopes began to dim.

From her next elevator, she exited onto a beautiful park full of white flowers.

She had looked up a cybernetic augmentation prosthetics service center that had a walk-in storefront near the park. They took walk-ins because they essentially took someone’s entire arm off them, repaired it, and then called them back a few hours later to reinstall it, it was all very process-driven. This process and the specialization of their service meant they could easily treat the dozen or two dozen people who would coincidentally all have broken cybernetic arms or legs the same day. Kalika was hopeful as she walked in through the sliding glass doors of the ritzy “Capua Limb Service Center.”

There was nobody inside, so she could walk right up to the gentleman behind the counter.

Hallo,” Kalika said, waving the hand of her prosthetic arm with a little difficulty. “I’m having a bit of trouble with this one. I think it’s the joint– it got bashed hard in an accident.”

“Can I have your name, sex and date of birth ma’am?”

She sighed.

“Name is Kalika Loukia. Date of birth is tough. Sex– Look, I’m a Katarran, you know–?”

The man at the counter seemed to make up his mind quite quickly hearing her name.

“Unfortunately ma’am, we only service prosthetics we installed. You’re not on the list.”

“What?” She held up her portable. “But I read that you’re a walk-in service center.”

“We are, but we can’t work on just anything, we don’t know your specific needs.”

“Is that how it is? Then how am I supposed to get this thing to looked at?”

“We might be able to see it with a referral from your doctor. We can look them up.”

“Thank you. Please give it a try. Her name is Hilana Tarik.”

“A Shimii?” Again the receptionist immediately gave her a skeptical look. He did not even attempt to search that name. “You might have better luck asking around Tower Eight then.”

Kalika closed the fist on her biological arm and shut her eyes with frustration.

“She was a Khedivate Loup actually– but I get the picture. I’ll see myself out.”

She stormed out of the building, clicking her heels as hard as they would take.

Her next idea was to look up prosthetic sales shops– places with actual manufacturing.

Since she could not get the thing she was wearing serviced, she would get a new one.

While her arm was special, she could live with an inferior model that just worked.

So she made her way to a small workshop tucked into a corner of a business block–

“Sorry, but we don’t service existing hardware in here ma’am. We can take your measures and build a new arm for you, but we’ll need to see a prescription from the doctor who installed that one, so we know what kind of work’s been done on your biological arm’s remains. Do you have a prescription?”

Surrounded by models of arms all in cases on the walls. Kalika was briefly speechless.

Not even in a place that just sold arms could she actually purchase a new arm?

“I don’t– I haven’t seen the doctor who installed this in years.”

“Then I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t help you with that. It’s the regulations.”

“So let me get this straight. You only replace someone’s broken prosthetic if you get an okay from the original doctor? What happens if they died or went missing? I’m in pain right now!”

“It’s unfortunate ma’am but the rules are the rules. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

This particular receptionist was much less patient with her than even the last.

Feeling a knot in her chest of anger and shame, she left the shop and wandered aimlessly.

At first, she had been merely annoyed.

Then she spent so much of the day so awful fruitlessly.

Now, she was actually afraid. Now she felt helpless. She felt the weight of her prosthetic, she felt acutely every defect that it possessed, she heard the scraping of the metal like it was being broadcast through a booming speaker, felt the roughness where the synthskin had broken like the texture of sandpaper, and the pain felt like it was worsening. There was nothing she could do to make herself better, to return to normal, and every step felt more troubled than the last she took. Her arm was heavier, clunkier, less mobile, it felt like it would pull her through the floor and into the water itself to drown.

Useless, with only one arm, she would fail to defend the people she loved again–

“Agh!”

She had not been paying attention. Walking mindlessly around a corner–

Kalika bumped directly into another person, and both fell to the floor.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I made you drop your bag! I’ll get it!”

A girl had bumped into her.

Fallen right off her heels and on her rear, her bag off her shoulders.

Thankfully nothing spilled and nothing broke.

She laid eyes on the person she had bumped into– and her gaze lingered for a moment.

Collecting her bag– was a Shimii, a young woman with long, dark hair, short, fluffy ears and a little fluffy stub of a tail that was comically short.  She had a brown jacket that was clearly a bit worn-in, over a very fine button-down shirt and a pair of pants and shiny shoes. Dark-eyed, with sleek features, handsome. But with a soft, pretty smile, clearly nervous. Kalika was a little bit speechless looking up at her.

Having recovered more quickly, the Shimii girl extended a hand to help her.

“I’m sorry for bumping into you! I wasn’t paying any attention. Let me help you up.”

Kalika took her hand– warm, firm. She was a bit lean, strong. An active kind of girl.

Good upper body. She worked those shoulders. Legs a little less so, but still solid.

With her assistance, Kalika stood up and dusted herself off. The girl handed over her bag.

“Thank you. It’s not a problem. No need to be nervous.” Kalika said, smiling.

“Ah– well, I’m glad then. I hope you have a nice day ma’am–”

“Wait.”

Kalika stretched out a hand.

“Kalika Loukia.”

“Um. Homa Baumann.”

They shook briefly. Kalika locked eyes with the younger woman.

“Homa, you live in Tower Eight, don’t you? Are there any Shimii medical device shops?”

“Medical devices? Um.”

“My prosthetic arm is broken. None of the Imbrians around will see me.”

“A prosthetic arm, huh–?”

Homa looked slightly bewildered. Kalika should have known it was a long shot–

Then, from their shared handshake, Homa pulled Kalika’s hand forward.

“I think I know a place. Follow me. Tower Eight’s not very far from here.”

“Oh! Well, thank you! Can Katarrans actually–?”

“I’m sure you can! I’ll raise a stink otherwise! Imbrian bastards are always allowed in!”

Homa pulled Kalika along by the hand at a quick clip– she was surprised by the girl’s initiative.

They strolled by the park from before, through a few elevators, down a crowded mall with a high pavilion and to a tram station. Homa badged her way through the tram station gate, and still holding Kalika’s hand, led her through. The guards did not express any interest or concern over Kalika. She and Homa rode the tram together, crossed another gate. They were both quiet. Homa stared out into space during the elevator rides and in the tram, her expression a little dark– she seemed to notice this eventually.

“Ah– sorry. I’m not ignoring you. I have something on my mind.” She mumbled.

“It’s okay. You don’t need to say anything.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded.

“I’ll take you to a place– you can get back. You’re not a Shimii, they won’t stop you.”

“Thank you. Will you be alright? I didn’t bump into you too hard, did I?”

“I just want to go home– and kinda forget everything today. I– I’ll be okay.”

“I get it. I also want to put today’s nightmares away before receiving tomorrow’s.”

They crossed another guard gate at the other end of the tram. No questions asked.

Down another elevator, and Homa again took Kalika’s hand firmly and led her around.

And– strangely enough, she always seemed to grab the artificial hand too.

Her tug on it was just a little bit painful due to the arm’s condition– but Kalika did not mind.

Such nonchalant attention made her feel just a little bit girlish, she had to admit.

They arrived at a colorful street full of plastic buildings from which Shimii sold goods, services, food. There were so many ears and tails about, hijabs worn, beautiful Fusha calligraphy, the sound of song-like prayer and the smell of spices — it brought back certain memories. Homa took her down the street, past a few grocers, turning a corner on a flat-topped mosque filled with folk and animated conversation, decorated with a series of banners advertising the day’s philosophical topics for open discussion.

“I thought there was–there!”

Homa animatedly called out and pointed farther up the street–

And in the next instant, her ears dropped, and her tiny tail sagged.

“Aww, man.”

They stopped in front of a two-story plastic building. It had exterior windows facing the street, but they were all shut and colorful curtains drawn over them. The front door was locked, the doormat in front dusty and forlorn. There was an old sign which read “Fahrooz Orthetics” with the logo of the Imbrian Khumeia Pharmaceuticals to show they were affiliated. But the building was clearly disused. The sign was fading, and the plastic had not been treated for sunlamp exposure for a good bit and was beginning to discolor. The only thing which had been kept was the bubble bush in front of it– because that was community managed and not actually the property of the building owner in any way.

Homa grunted. She let go of Kalika’s hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so useless, dear god.”

She raised a hand to cover her face in shame. She was taking it so much harder.

“It’s completely fine. Thank you. It was lovely of you to try.” Kalika said.

Homa made another frustrated little sound. “Will you be okay?” She said.

“Yes. I will be fine. Run along home, Homa Baumann. Have some rest.”

“Thank you– again, I’m really sorry for the trouble.”

“Don’t be. And furthermore,”

Kalika put a hand on Homa’s shoulder and smiled directly at her.

“It’s her loss if she turned down such a handsome and courteous young lady as you.”

Homa’s ears stood back up. Her face flushed red. She nodded and walked away.

Kalika could see her tail swishing as she left. Awkward girl; so cute when she was flustered.

Her intuition must have been right. Homa must have really come back from a bad date. Poor girl; it was worth it to follow her along, even if it didn’t turn up anything for her search.

At least Kalika felt more stable now. She had almost had a meltdown over her arm.

“Ah– the glow of youth. Or, you know– I’d say that if I was that much older than her.”

Kalika sighed. She felt just a bit foolish herself. She looked at the building again.

She lifted her arm. It was a bit sore– Homa could not have known but with the bad elbow the arm’s balance was all wrong and it was starting to hurt the remains of her flesh. She was having even more trouble bending it than before. There was an awkward feeling, as if her brain expected the arm to have already bent at a certain angle, but the mechanical arm was not all the way there.

I guess I’ll sit this one out. I’ll get transferred to the Rostock and wait for everyone

“Oh ho? Interested in this old clinic, are you? Is there perhaps an emergency?”

From behind Kalika, a Shimii woman approached.

Her features were mostly concealed by a green and white hoodie, but through the holes in the hood exposing her ears, Kalika could see that the color of her fur was honey-yellow, therefore the woman was a blond. Aside from the hoodie she had long pants, with a voluminously fluffy yellow tail swaying behind herself. Her stature was fairly small, her figure short, wide and round, but her mannerisms had such a confident and easy presence that her stature did not matter. She exerted a certain pressure.

Kalika could tell her aura was particularly dense despite her emotions appearing ordinary.

She was suspicious, but at the same time, if she could get her arm repaired–

“I’m looking for a cybernetic prosthetic repair. My arm was damaged in an accident.”

The hoodie wearing Shimii nodded her head in acknowledgment, her face barely visible.

“Unfortunately, that clinic closed down over a year ago. However, you’re in luck. I happen to have been the one who leased the place to its former occupants, and I taught them everything they knew about the practice too. I came here for nostalgia’s sake, but I can see you just this once. Just don’t tell anyone– it would inconvenience me and the folks here if people mistook this for the reopening of the clinic.”

It’s a bullshit-sounding story, but I don’t have a choice but to try my luck.

Erika and the Rotfront needed her. She couldn’t afford to be out of action if something happened. She couldn’t afford to be dead weight. None of them would ever say that to her– because they were all too nice. But Kalika would not forgive herself if she stood around helplessly while they died–

She had to get this fixed and return to her post. Had to; today. She was dead set on it.

“I can’t turn down such rare courtesy.” Kalika said.

She saw the golden eyes beneath the hood for a brief instant.

“Lovely. Follow me, then. You can call me ‘Hudson’. But I must stress– please don’t tell anyone.”

“I’m Kalika Loukia. On my pride as a Katarran, my lips are sealed.”

Hudson walked around the side of the building, between it and the next one there was about two meter gap. Behind the building was the wall of the module, and Kalika had assumed the buildings were flush together with it. However, there was also about a meter gap between the buildings and the back wall of the module. Probably for access to electrical paneling or something like that. Hudson led her to a rear door that opened with a keycard, and into the interior of the building itself.

“Watch your step. We’re going upstairs. Follow me closely.”

It was pitch black inside the building. There were blackout curtains on the windows, and the lights weren’t on inside. The only illumination was a tiny green LED on a wall panel indicating that the building still had electricity. Everything must have still been up to date and paid for, and the interior was not really dusty or unkempt. Human activity must have been utterly nil since it closed down, and yet, it was maintained.

Kalika could track Hudson fairly well through the interior of the structure. From the back door they hooked a right through a tight room, and then another left to the stairs. At the top of the stairs, Hudson led her down a short hall to a room in the front corner of the building’s second story.

Inside that room she finally switched on a light by placing her hand on the wall touchpad. A largely undecorated room became visible around them, white walls, an air circulator unit on the ceiling, a storage unit with multiple drawers. In the middle of the room there was a table with a stitcher.

It was this machine that caught Kalika’s eye. “Nanostitching machines” were ubiquitous in manufacturing and in mechanical repair, but also in medicine. Biostitchers, Ferristitchers, Synthistitchers, and others, were all conceptually this same type of machine. They were equipped with cartridges of material which was manipulated and used by extruder arms to build something nanometer by nanometer.

In a kitchen, a biostitcher could be loaded with mulched up vegetable matter, a flavoring cartridge and a vitamin solution to create edible, aesthetically pleasing “fresh” veggies; in a medical setting, that same machine with minor modifications to the extrusion arms could be loaded with body-compatible materials to sew up wounds or even fill in the gaps in broken bones or lacerated flesh. Ferristitchers melted down metal in tiny amounts to “stitch” together steel parts and plates bit by bit. For someone working on human cybernetics, the weapon of choice would likely be a combination of all of these machines.

“Okay! I’m going to need you to pull your sleeve back up or something.” Hudson said.

She pulled down her hood. Her face was unremarkable– pretty, but certainly with nothing to hide, one would think. Golden eyes, a round jaw and tall fluffy ears. Long, flowing blond hair styled in a way that it exposed her forehead and fell around her shoulders. She looked like she could have been any other Brennic or Volgian Shimii, though there were also blond Shimii of other heritage. Her skin was a sandy pink color. She truly looked like any other bystander could have. An ordinary Shimii woman.

Kalika obliged. She took off her jacket, unbuttoned her shirt most of the way and slipped her arm out of the sleeve and out of the shirt entirely. On most of it, the synthetic skin shredded and peeled. While it was affixed tight to the outer sleeve of the prosthetic, it could be dyed to look like the rest of Kalika’s skin, but when it was coming off, it turned completely white and unnatural. Where the arm had been struck, close to the elbow, there were jagged bits of material as the surface sleeve and a bit of the internal ligaments had been shorn. She was surprised it wasn’t more broken, as she had blocked a vibrobaton strike in a snap reaction without heeding the consequences. Hudson examined the extent of the damage.

When Kalika tried to bend the arm, working the joint, there was visible friction between the broken parts of the forearm and the parts that moved the joint, creating a creaking metal sound that seemed to be getting worse the more that Kalika moved the arm. Hudson raised a hand as if to tell her to stop.

“I recognize this model. You’re in luck. Full fix coming right up.”

She approached, and with Kalika’s consent, she used a tool to separate the prosthetic arm from the ring that had been installed farther up the arm. When Kalika had lost the arm, all she had was a little bit of flesh and muscle close to the shoulder. That flesh was melded into a ring cap that hosted the couplers, to which her prosthetic attached. Because she lost most of her arm, the prosthetic needed to have its own elbow joint. From what she understood, that was much more complicated than just a forearm would have been. Without the prosthetic, the coupler array hung loose and exposed that ring of metal and screws and a lot of bloodshot veins and visible nerves where it met Kalika’s flesh. When she tried to move her arm now, only the stray coupler-links wiggled uselessly like steel worms. Her nerves were sewn into the coupler and thus into them. Their only purpose was to translate between the flesh and metal.

“Technology is wonderful, isn’t it? But– it’s still a pity, to lose a limb. Especially for you!”

Kalika said nothing. She stood with her back to the wall and averted her gaze.

“Katarrans’ natural bodies are already stronger and more durable than an ordinary Imbrian body, so it’s extra tragic for them to lose a limb. You can get away with losing a leg, but they call Katarrans who lose their arms, ¾ of a Katarran, don’t they? It’s seen as such as a tragic shame among your kind!”

Hudson tittered while tenderly stroking Kalika’s prosthetic, and taking it to the table.

“So that is why,” she continued, hooking one finger into the orifice resulting from the damage near the elbow, “only something I made would suffice for a Katarran warrior who retains her pride.”

Kalika’s eyes narrowed. She hated being spoken about in the abstract like this.

Those words piqued her interest, however. “So you’re affiliated with that Loup doctor?”

“Oh! So Nile installed this for you? That makes sense– that woman is such a good samaritan.”

Years ago– Kalika had been riding with an entirely different crew altogether.

She risked her life for them, and her limb. Then she left them behind.

That was when she had the fortune to meet that doctor. Hilana Tarik– or “Nile.”

“Do you know where she is now? It’s so much harder than I thought to get this serviced.”

Hudson shook her head. “I’m afraid she and I don’t have much contact these days.”

Kalika was not going to pry into it any further then. She felt it was pointless to push it.

While Kalika watched, Hudson opened the glass hatch at the top of the ferristitcher. Most of the operating table was taken up by the machine. She set the arm down in the center of the table and closed the hatch. As soon as she powered it on, lasers scanned the prosthetic and on an attached LCD screen a highly detailed wireframe model appear. Extruder arms and manipulator arms from the floor and walls of the ferristitcher box arrayed themselves around the prosthetic in preparation for the operation.

Hudson took a look at the LCD screen attached to the stitcher machine. She used the touchscreen to zoom in on the minute details, swished her finger over it. She made corrections to the default plan that the machine had drafted after scanning the arm and she gave new instructions to the machine. Once she was satisfied with her work, she turned back to Kalika briefly, her golden eyes cheerfully wide.

“We’ll spot-melt some of the imperfections and then spot-fill them.” Hudson said. She sounded almost like she was talking to herself even though she was addressing Kalika. “Once the structure is repaired, I’ll pull out the old elbow tensioner and the broken ligament, ferristitch new ones, and then ferristitch them into the arm.” Her eyes fixed on Kalika’s shoulder, twitching one ear. “As far as repairs are concerned, I’d be happy to fix it for you if it breaks again. Get in touch with Sunspot Health Cooperative and someone will help you. Failing that, you can ask Theresa Faraday from Solarflare LLC, based in Kreuzung.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. How much will I owe you?” Kalika asked.

“Owe me? Nothing. Don’t mention payment– I find it gauche, you know? I’m an artist.”

Kalika crooked one eyebrow. “I’m sorry, but I don’t trust that you’re doing this for free.”

“Well, start trusting. I categorically refuse your money.”

Inside the ferristitcher, the arrayed arms began to work.

It looked almost like a swarm of rigid metal crab legs dancing all over her arm.

Barely visible sparks appeared, the contacts being made at such a minute level it was hard to imagine.

“Nothing in Imbria is given without an ulterior motive.” Kalika said.

Erika would have hated her for saying such a thing– but it was her natural reaction.

Charity — with a few exceptions — was a two-faced strategy, a conspiracy, however gentle.

In response to her skepticism, Hudson chuckled.

So far, for as long as Kalika had seen her face, she had a placid little smile.

Now she put on a grin as she gave her answer. Swinging her arms open in a grandiose fashion.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am not doing this for you because I care about you as a person. Anything I built, I maintain. There is a legacy, woven into the metal crafted under my watchful eyes. It is my DNA, my seed, my egg! You are gravid with my legacy, Kalika Loukia, and I would be remiss to be bias against you and allow the work which you have been blessed with to rot and become useless. That would invite others to say my craftsmanship was less than legendary– and I will never accept that. On my pride as well.”

Something about being gravid with anyone’s legacy made Kalika feel sick to her stomach.

Having to depend on people like this was so rotten. Everyone had some awful ideology.

At least this pervert was fixing her arm for free.

“Suit yourself then.” Kalika said. She averted her eyes, staring at the wall.

Hudson continued to grin to herself with satisfaction as the machines did her bidding.

“These tensioners are based on the same materials as the housing for vibroblade oscillators. One of my cleverer ideas. It’s lightweight but tough and can endure a lot of force being put into it. It supports depleted agarthicite nanowire muscles to achieve Katarran levels of biomechanical labor output. This is the only model of prosthetic that will suit a Katarran mercenary. You are quite lucky indeed.”

For a few minutes, Hudson ran her mouth about the prosthetic.

Until the ferristitcher stopped halfway through.

“Oh! Hand me a cartridge please. Use the one labeled Mixture III.”

Hudson pointed to a drawer just over Kalika’s shoulder.

She turned around, opened it with her good arm and pulled out the one cylinder left.

It was just a little annoying, not being able to use a second arm to pick the object up.

Having to pull out the drawer, stop, and then use the same arm– it was a little frustrating.

Missing an arm– was frustrating. That was how effective her prosthetic had been.

She was drawn back to the time shortly after losing her arm, trying to go without.

She hated it. It triggered feelings of anxious self-loathing she had not felt in a while.

Without a warning, she lobbed the cartridge across the room into Hudson’s awaiting hands.

Judging by the materials she was working with, Hudson really didn’t care about money.

“You said that has depleted agarthicite in it? You’d leave something that expensive here?”

“What’s the worst that can happen? Someone breaks in here, is not stopped by any locals or by Arabie’s enforcers, and makes away with nothing but a ferristitcher cartridge? It doesn’t matter to me. Plus I do think you overestimate how criminal the people around here are, nobody would bother.”

Hudson opened a hatch on the side of the table and pushed the cartridge into the underside of the table, where the spot-smelter was located that softened up the material so it could be piped to the arms. Once the machine was reloaded with material, it resumed ferristitching automatically, and within minutes, it had completely repaired the sunken-in part of her arm and the frayed metal near the elbow. Then, the manipulator arms separated the elbow mechanism and one ligament from the structure, setting them aside. Hudson opened the hatch into the main workspace, pushing the prosthetic arm out of the way of the manipulators and extruders. She then began to swipe and swish her finger on the ferristitcher’s computer using the touchpad, issuing updated instructions the machine began to follow.

Pecking and spinning and slicing across an axis– they were building something now.

“Do you ever feel dysmorphia for the body you used to have?” Hudson asked.

Kalika grumbled. “I don’t view myself as having lost my body.”

“But do you feel a phantom pain? Like now, with your arm nothing but couplers.”

“No.” It was a lie. Kalika felt terribly uncomfortable and eerie with a missing arm and the hanging couplers coming out of the remains of her arm. She could not help but ‘move her arm’, it was something unconscious and automatic, especially because of how restless Hudson made her.

Each time her brain and nerves sent that command, it just made the couplers shudder.

Whenever that happened it did unnerve her. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

“Did you know– once you become fully biomechanical, that feeling goes away. You are set to right; you reach an apotheosis.” Hudson said suddenly. Kalika narrowed her eyes at her.

Her aura shifted– her intentions– “Have you reached an Apotheosis, Kalika Loukia?”

Hudson absentmindedly raised her arm–

One of her hands suddenly launched from the wrist as if launched by a jet anchor.

It all happened so fast–!

Kalika dropped her good arm, releasing the knife hidden in her sleeve, catching it and swinging up.

One fluid motion– was it fast enough–?

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

Hudson’s hand, glowing yellow with a sickly aura,

met Kalika’s knife, burning red with furious conviction and deflected it,

sending the object to the floor in an instant.

“What the fuck are you playing at?” Kalika shouted as the hand fell to the floor.

She had the knife in hand, held out in defense.

“Sorry, sorry! I just couldn’t help but check you out. I’ll stop now!” Hudson cried out, folding her ears.

There was a whirring noise, and Hudson’s hand was pulled by the cable back into its wrist.

She raised her fingers to her eyes, removing two lenses that had been covering them up.

Rather than gold, their actual color was a metallic, ice grey, with dozens of tiny digits and symbols visibly playing about the surface of the clearly mechanical orbs. When she smiled bright and wide, Kalika noticed, for the first time, the presence of the tiny seams around her cheeks like surreptitious plate joins. Her wrist, having fired its hand, now had a visible seam between the hand and forearm. And as if to further demonstrate the illusions of her body, that big bushy tail split into several mechanical, sharp-tipped implements, which quickly rejoined back into the original form of a bushy cat’s tail.

Kalika had never seen anything like it. Was her whole body robotic?

No– her body seemed soft on the outside. It was not just mechanical– it was biomechanical.

Just like a prosthetic– a full-body prosthetic.

“You used Saint’s Skin. Do you have the other two gifts too?” Hudson asked innocently.

“Fuck you.” Kalika said. “I’m not just going to forget you tried to attack me.”

“Then, how about you attack me, and we’ll call it even? I’ll resist only as much as you.”

“Give me back my arm. I’m leaving.” Kalika shouted.

Hudson’s expression darkened. Her eyes narrowed.

“No! Not until it’s repaired!”

Her cry boomed across the room and not just because she had shouted it.

Kalika hesitated to agitate her further but kept her guard up.

That punch she threw had been clearly imbued with yellow aura.

Saint’s Skin was not able to force that aether directly into someone else, but the addition of aether passively empowered any ordinary blow, necessitating aether to deflect it. Employing Saint’s Skin could change the ambient auras for the worse, slowly poisoning Kalika with its intentions and causing her emotions to shift unless she controlled them; but if it was King’s Gaze, being struck by the punch would have instantly made her feel sick. She may have devolved into a vomiting fit from just touching it.

Such was its awful power. The ability to force one’s aura, one’s emotions, directly into someone else.

Those who had the King’s Gaze had every other Gift by necessity.

She had not been paying attention and Hudson had concealed her intentions well. Without having prepared with Oracle’s Voice, she could not tell whether Hudson had used Saint’s Skin or King’s Gaze. Fighting someone with the King’s Gaze was incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. So she had to hold off for now in case that was a possibility and assess the nature of the situation.

Hudson’s aura was powerful. She was practiced in not just psionics but aetherics too.

When Kalika mentioned taking her prosthetic and leaving, Hudson’s aura flared.

That provocation triggered a band of undisguised, hateful-feeling black aura.

Nothing else the Shimii attempted had been done with killing intention behind it.

Kalika relaxed and laid back against the wall again, sighing deeply. No use in pushing it.

As if realizing she was being seen in a different light, the Shimii’s aura softened.

“Offer still stands, by the way.” Hudson said. “Give me a good hit and let’s be friends.”

“I’ll never be your fucking friend, you freak. Just hurry up over there.” Kalika said.

“That’s too bad.” Hudson smiled. “Maybe I can befriend that cute girl you were with–”

Snap. Inside Kalika’s self a taut and fraying string holding her back burst utterly.

In the next instant, a red flash; a swing of the arm; an error noise; the ferristitcher paused;

From across the room, a wave of force blew past that stirred the ferristitcher instruments.

Its wake a shining bloody red trail that started in a furious swing of Kalika’s vibroknife–

–and connected with Hudson’s cheek, splitting the artificial skin over the side of her face.

Kalika’s eyes flashed as furiously red as the harmful aura which she had hurled at Hudson.

Her brain screamed with pain that she ignored. Shaking, teeth bared in unremitting fury.

Struck by the red aura, and visibly wounded, Hudson’s aura started to take on Kalika’s anger.

Kalika realized what she had done and drew back. Stupid. Stupid move. God damn it.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.” In a second, the polluting red completely disappeared.

Hudson took direct command over her aura, preventing Kalika’s anger influencing her.

She sighed heavily, with one hand over her injured cheek. She then smiled again.

Her aura normalized completely. Blue and green, the colors of humanity. No red or black.

“So you do have the King’s Gaze! It really was so serendipitous that we met!” She cheered.

Absentmindedly, she restarted the ferristitcher. It completed the parts it was building.

Without paying Kalika further heed, Hudson opened the ferristitcher’s hatch and set the arm back on the center of the workspace. A manipulator arm took the elbow piece, and another took the new ligaments and the machine set about quickly reassembling these parts into the arm to make it complete. Kalika was speechless. She thought she would have provoked a horrific response from that attack.

Hudson’s joking threat had gotten the absolute worst rise out of her.

It had been stupid– but she could not have stood by for that Homa girl to be victimized.

Not on a whim– not on anyone’s whim. Kalika would not tolerate an innocent to be hurt.

But Hudson cleansed her own aura of Kalika’s infused anger so quickly and easily.

She was back to her unbothered self. It really was all nothing but a joke to her?

King’s Gaze is extremely rare. Mahdist Shimii once saw it as a sign of a divine right to rulership, without knowing what it really was and what it meant. And yet, a few people with this ability are on this Station right now. Who knows– maybe even somebody you met on the street today could possess great power. Kreuzung has become a place of destiny; I can feel it brimming in the aether itself.”

From the ferristitcher, Hudson withdrew Kalika’s arm and took it in her hands. While the synthetic skin was all gone, the carbon-fiber sleeve was a sleek shiny black, and all of the damage had been fully repaired. It looked brand new. In fact, it looked even better than when Kalika first received it.

“It’s fixed. Let me install it.” Hudson said. “Can I come closer?”

“Yes. Fine. I don’t want to spend another second here.” Kalika grunted.

She was so vulnerable. In an untrustworthy person’s “care.” It pissed her off.

To be treated like this– just because of what happened to her body.

When she should have been allowed to rest, instead she had to keep fighting.

“You better not try anything.” Kalika said.

“Okey-dokey. I don’t want to hurt you. Please trust me for a moment.”

Hudson ambled over to the other side of her room.

She gently gathered the couplers and led them into the associated ports in the arm. She pushed until the prosthetic locked into the steel ring bolted on the remains of Kalika’s old arm. Then she turned the upper arm ring until it locked the prosthetic tightly into place. Kalika could feel the couplers attached to the correct synthetic nerve bundles. When Hudson pulled back a step, Kalika could move her arm.

Once the deed was done, she slipped her arm back into her shirt and clipped it back up, closing it over the lacy purple brassiere she had to partially expose throughout in order to let her arm out.

She donned her jacket anew and put away her knife back into its trick sleeve.

Hudson smiled at her, with her synthetic skin broken, partially exposing the soft carbon-fiber muscle that formed part of her face. Kalika fixed eyes on her. This individual was extremely dangerous, no doubt about it. However, she did not seem intent on killing or causing injury, for the moment.

“You keep acting like this is all a big joke. What is your agenda?” Kalika asked.

“I’m building the greatest machine in the world. My greatest work of art.” Hudson said.

Kalika grunted. And yet, there was no sense that Hudson was actually lying about this.

“Hey c’mon I was just messing with you! I helped, didn’t I?” Hudson cheerfully cried out.

“Whatever. Go to hell. I’m not thanking you for any of this.” Kalika grumbled.

She started on her way out but stopped into the door to Hudson’s operating room.

Without turning around to look at her again, Kalika warned:

“Touch a hair on Homa Baumman’s tail, and I’ll rip your entire fucking head off.”

“Sensitive to the plight of innocents?” Hudson asked jokingly. “I have no interest in her.”

“That better remain the case. Or you’ll make an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.”

“Whether enemy or friend– just remember, to take care of that arm for me, okay?”

Kalika hissed and continued on her way, leaving Hudson behind with finality.

Stepping back out into the street, thoroughly aggravated by what had transpired.

After spending the entire day, and being socially, verbally and physically manhandled, she finally had a working arm back. She could resume her duties with the Rotfront now, but everything was upside down. They knew other militants might be operating here; but enemy psychics too?

She would tell Erika that the Rotfront had some rival conspirators aboard the station.

Not that there was anything they could do about it quite yet. Their hands were tied for now.

They could not afford to cause a ruckus until their meeting with Kremina Qote concluded.

For all her big talk, Kalika herself was no great defender of the innocent anyway.

She had been helpless to do so even under the guidance of the “hero” Radu the Marzban

–and now, she felt just as helpless anyway with the naïve idealists of the Rotfront.

Staring at her arm in her sleeve, opening and closing her black, segmented hand.

There was always so much Ocean, deeper and darker and more mysterious, out there.

On any given day, she could meet with something too powerful to deal with herself.

Even with all the mysteries she had been inducted into, she could become a victim too.

“We have to get stronger. I have to– I can’t let the same thing happen again.”

Visions of beautiful memories forever burned in the pyre of violence and hatred.

Any moment, any wrong decision, and it could all happen again. She could lose everything.

She could not afford to be lackadaisical at all. Fighting until death was the Katarran way.

Thinking of it as a fruitless struggle that could meet an insurmountable wall and just end–

–was too cruel to consider.


Kalika made her way from Tower Eight back to the baseplate of Kreuzung core.

Homa had been right. The guards at Tower Eight did not care whether Imbrians, Katarrans or other races went in or out of Tower Eight as long as the Shimii’s movement was being monitored and controlled. She thought Katarrans had it bad– these conditions must have been so dehumanizing for the Shimii.

With that bleak thought in her brain, she located one of the hatches to the tunnels below the baseplate and took another elevator back down to Platform Town. It was about 22:00 in the evening by the time she got to the underground, so the surly guard at the door had been replaced by an indifferent-looking young woman with a hoodie. She gave Kalika a brief glance before proceeding to take her eyes off her again, briefly rubbing the butt of a vibrobaton clipped to her pants while leaning on a wall.

“Watchman told me to tell you that your ‘Premier’ is expecting you.” She said.

“What? She came down here?” Kalika asked.

“Yeah. Erika, right? She gave everyone stuff. She’s kinda alright.”

“Jeez. Thank you for telling me.”

“Just doin’ what the boss says ma’am.”

Kalika hurried into the ancillary tunnels and out into the exterior ones.

Hurriedly crossing the labyrinth to make it back to the room where she had left Dimmitra.

She saw yellow light coming from the door. Torchlight. So they were in there.

Kalika rushed into the room, and immediately heaved an exasperated sigh.

“Why are you down here? Do you have something against your own personal safety?”

In the middle of the room, between Dimittra, Chloe and her own bodyguard Olga–

A woman in a red greatcoat and hat, with long, smoke-blue hair down to her waist. Black horns protruding from the back of her head curled up, just a bit more rounded than Kalika’s rectangular horns. When she turned with a gently pink grin on her face and with a flourish of her slender arms, locking her mismatched eyes, blue and green, on Kalika’s own with such confidence. Beneath the coat, she had a skirt with a high waistband and a button-down shirt tucked into it, worn with tights and heels.

Soon as Kalika acknowledged eye contact, she tossed her hair.

And winked one perfectly shadowed eye. Incorrigible, stupid, reckless girl

Erika Kairos, Premier and Commander-in-Chief of the militant communist band Rotfront.

Whose name she recently declared was instead the Nationale Volksarmee.

“I’m staking it all on this, Kalika! I already said so! Hiding away ill befits a leader!”

“Getting killed ill befits a leader too!” Kalika grumbled.

“I’m stronger than that. Don’t worry about me. But now that you’re here, you can be on-hand for tomorrow, if you’re so worried.” Erika crossed her arms, smiling. “I’ve secured us an audience with some real hardcore communists, Kalika– I’ll be meeting with actual Union special operatives!”

Kalika blinked, briefly left speechless. If she heard that correctly– what was going on?


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.1]

“–Copy. No sign of target. Standing by, over.”

“Keep it mobile. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“Got it. On the move.”

He turned off his communicator. She saw it go completely dark on the network.

Despite his claim on the radio, the K.P.S.D. officer did not move a muscle.

He remained with his back to the corner, procuring from one of his pouches a cigarette and a lighter. His grip was unsteady on both of the items, shaking. His submachine gun hung on a sling in front of his chest. Tactical armor, probably just nanomail and kevlar. No helmet. As he brought the cigarette over to his lips he dropped it, the nerves getting to him. It landed in the heel-high water below.

“Fuck me. This whole situation– those goddamn Volkisch queers should be the ones here.”

He reached back around to his pouch.

“Fuckin’ whatever. It’s overtime pay. God damn it– I know I had another one–“

In that moment, she saw an opportunity and stepped out of the shadows.

Rushing in from a dark recess shrouded in the wall, she made it to him in a few silent paces.

While he rummaged through his pack, she withdrew a diamond knife and engaged it.

When he heard the whirr of the sawing blade it was too late.

She wrapped an arm around him and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him back over her and to the ground with the leverage. At the same time, before they crashed into the water, she brought the diamond saw to his face. They struggled with their backs to the water only briefly. Blood spraying, horrific gurgling cries; the saw crunching his teeth, chewing his nose, ejecting blood and bone, the jelly of his eyes.

His neck, his chest, all protected, but not his face. She sawed indiscriminately through it all.

Sure that he was dead, Braya Zachikova slid out from under the body.

Gasping for breath. From the effort; had he been any bigger, she would have had to shoot.

He was just large enough that she could still take him down without gambling her life on it.

She felt nothing from killing him. People she needed to kill weren’t human to her.

Nothing except a little satisfaction. A wry grin across her face. A little bit of hope.

Despite the struggle, she had preserved stealth. All of the officers were dispersed enough to be operating alone. They were far enough away from each other that she could take them out without alerting others as long as their communicators were not broadcasting. And they frequently took their communicators and body cameras offline to slack off. Smoking, staring at things on portables. They weren’t taking this seriously. It was just a night out with their tactical toys to follow a suspicious report.

“Two down. Six to go. I need to be quick. They’ll start getting suspicious soon.”

Her foremost worry was that nobody had sighted the “target” just yet.

She was relying on their communications to navigate. While the Kreuzung Station Network itself was a tough nut to crack that she had to be careful with, these smaller police devices formed their own local network during independent operation. This separation from the station supercomputer allowed the police to falsify information for their own convenience– and allowed Zachikova to easily eavesdrop on them and breach their security. Thanks to her cybernetic enhancements, her own brain could insert into their network as an extremely low latency middleman while avoiding passive tamper detection.

It could also prevent them from talking to anyone outside their little party.

Zachikova was for all intents and purposes the web authority handling their messages.

So if the K.P.S.D. tactical team had not found the target, then neither had Zachikova.

That’s fine. That’s fine. As long as they don’t find her. I still succeed.

There was a note of desperation to those thoughts.

She pulled the body into the shadowed passage from which she had sprung.

He would not be found here for a very long time, possibly even if anyone thought to look.

Zachikova and the K.P.S.D. were both searching in the spacious storm sewers of the wealthy A-Block of Kreuzung’s core station. They were designed to provide ample siphoning of water if one of the higher blocks sprang a bad enough leak, and if necessary, to pump active floodwater down into E block and below, sacrificing the integrity of the lower modules to give the wealthier citizens and Kreuzung government room to escape or survive a catastrophe. These tunnels made up the interstitial point between A, B, C and D blocks and E, F, G, and H blocks. As such, the tunnels and tanks were tall enough to stand in, tall enough to walk in, wide enough to fight in– and large enough to hide within.

Arabella–

There was no use pining– Zachikova cut herself off and started toward the next target.

I have to find her. I have to find her– before they do. Or– rescue her from them.

She was dressed in a dense one-piece bodysuit and gloves lined with tough nanomail, with shoes designed to lessen footfall noise and a respirator over her face. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a spiraling ponytail that trailed behind her as snuck around the tunnels. Over her chest and back, she had belts with some gear, her knife, grenades– and an AKS-78u shortened assault rifle.

But her biggest assets were her cybernetics. Her tall, grey metal antennae, attached at an angle where her ears would be, and the accompanying mechanical cortex inside her skull, gave her an unparalleled ability to interact with networked devices as if she herself was a powerful and flexible computer.

“Hey shitheads. Some of you keep coming in and out on positional. What’s going on?”

“It’s the walls, chief, this place is thick as hell titanium, and we’ve got shitty little wifi.”

“Quit slacking off. Let’s do this and go home. The Volkisch want any excuse to criticize us.”

She spoofed the positions of the two officers she killed briefly and intermittently.

Just to make it seem like they were alive but just slacking off.

Unfortunately she had not recorded enough of their audio to convincingly fake messages.

I better hurry. They’re getting suspicious– they’re sick of loitering around in here.

Zachikova tried to pick up the pace, rushing down the identical-looking corridors.

Keeping an eye on the positions of the officers.

She could see the positional map, the layout diagram, in her mind’s eyes–

Swapping between whatever active body cameras–

“Hey. Hey. There’s something– Hey! Don’t move! K.P.S.D, don’t–!”

Zachikova felt like her heart sank into a hole in her chest.

Immediately and almost mindlessly, on pure instinct, she swapped to that officer.

He flipped his body camera on and crouched through the opening into a side reserve tank.

“Hey! Stay the fuck where you are or I’ll shoot–”

In the next instant, something struck the officer. There was blood, a gurgling noise–

His body camera went flying. Three down, five to go–

Zachikova took off running again.

She had seen it, running the video in her head– something like a scorpion’s stinger.

Arabella! Arabella!

“What the fuck? Everyone converge on Wilco! Wilco down, everyone converge!”

“Shit, shit he’s gone–”

Every blip had honed into the downed officer’s last position instantly.

They were freaking out and running pell-mell toward–

ARABELLA!

Zachikova took a corner and ran to intercept the officers that she could.

She kept an eye on the moving blips, grabbed hold of a grenade from her belt.

As soon as she heard the splashes coming in from a perpendicular hallway ahead–

Zachikova threw the grenade and slipped into a hole in the wall for a recessed grate.

There was a flash, an explosion, air sucking in, smoke billowing, and screams–

Frags sprayed against the walls around her and landed in the water, steaming, smoking–

“Fire! Fire!” Through coughing and shrieking with his last breaths–

“It’s sticking! It’s sticking!” Splashing, metal thuds from thrashing kicks–

In the hall ahead two officers caught fire and thrashed for their lives, but the burning fragments would not come off. Incandescent bits of metal instantly set them ablaze and anything that could melt on them melted to their skin. Zachikova ran past them through the smoke as their uniforms melted into their skin, her respirator mask allowing her to see and breathe while the burning men choked and died.

Arabella!

She tried to call out to her as she ran, just as she herself had been called to–

But there was no response. Arabella had not given her the power of psionics.

Please hold on! Please!

Three men left, all of them met up and began to advance toward the same position.

“God damn it.”

She checked the magazine for her AKS-78u as she ran.

Safety off, loaded, engaging the bolt–

Her own position was one corner away from the four blips.

Zachikova stacked at the corner.

Peeked once– saw them approach the open grating, guns out–

Stacked again. Assault rifle in hand, finger on the trigger–

Light ‘em up

Illya’s voice, still in her head. From a long time ago now, but–

Zachikova was alone. Illya and Valeriya weren’t there to shoot. Only her. All on her.

One step around the corner, rifle up, man on the right, another directly adjacent–

Automatic. Press, depress, press, depress– shifting her aim a few centimeters from the right–

A hail of deadly precise gunfire swept across the group from the flank. Three bursts, one turn to the right between each. A patter of bloody exit wounds sucked out one man’s abdomen and sprayed it into the wall. Right next to him, another man’s hip pack burst into pieces, blood sprayed from a graze that sent him stumbling with a hole on the side of his hip, a chunk separated off his body armor.

Nine rounds, five direct impacts.

Shit–! My shooting still sucks–!

“Gunfire! Back up, back up!”

“D.A.P, D.A.P! Depleted Agarthicite!” Cried the man who had survived the shots.

Zachikova put her back to the wall again. Dozens of bullets sparked against the metal.

“HQ! Reinforcements! We got shooting down here–HQ? HQ?!”

“Can’t get through! Fuck! Keep shooting!”

They were shouting for nothing. She had isolated them completely. But she was alone.

Dozens of rounds sprayed across the tunnel–

Arabella– God damn it– Please say something–

Alone with her gun to her chest.

Two men remaining. Couldn’t use explosives– she might harm Arabella.

Her position was known. There was no way to outflank.

How– How did it come to this?

Arabella– please–

Zachikova sucked in a breath, slipped her finger into the trigger guard.

Held the handguard tight and inched nearer to the corner.

Ducking her body, throwing herself low over the water, squeezing the trigger–

“Arabella!”

How had it come this?


Several days earlier...

At first glance, Treasure Box Transports’ Pandora’s Box was a heavy cargo hauler vessel with an old fashioned and unflattering appearance. Its hull was a cross between a cylinder and a box, all brown. While it was moving at a decent clip, it looked bulky and difficult to maneuver from outside observation. Its conning tower was an old style triangular fin. Its control fins were the first thing that would have caught an expert’s eye, as the designs looked exceedingly hydrodynamic and adjusted quickly. It was as if top of the line engineering resources had gone into hydrotunneling the control surfaces and nothing else.

In reality, the whole thing had gone through a hydrotunnel, and extensively.

It was, in fact, designed to look bulky, ugly and old, while being lighter, newer and swifter.

No one would have guessed from outside observation that the Pandora’s Box had a suite of hidden cannons of three different calibers, as well as torpedoes and other arms aboard; and most importantly, that it carried soldiers and mecha pilots of the communist Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. The Pandora’s Box was actually the UNX-001 Brigand, and its mission to foment unrest in the Imbrian Empire to support the uprising of the Bureni nationalists was going, by all accounts, awful poorly.

They were not in Buren’s waters whatsoever. In fact, they were across the hemisphere from their supposed ultimate destination. The Brigand was a half hour away from docking into the core station of the Kreuzung Complex, a vast multi-tower city in the northern province of the central-western territory of Rhinea. A variety of odd and unlucky circumstances had forced the Brigand and its crew to venture into the Imbrium through these waters. This despite the fact that Rhinea had fallen under the control of the fascist Volkisch Movement. However, it was only here that they could safely refit and resupply, thanks to the connections of the mysterious scientist Euphrates– that situation in itself was a storied mess.

“Murati, I’m going to be heading out soon on port business– what do you need?”

“Apologies, ma’am. I have to something to report I’d like to be kept between us.”

“You look awful serious. Alright– I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“Ma’am– I think Sonya Shalikova is avoiding me because she has psionic powers.”

From the main hall of the top tier of the Brigand, Lieutenant Murati Nakara and Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya ducked out into a meeting room. They were a study in contrasts; Murati a brown skinned and dark-haired woman, young, with a lean profile and a sharp and unembellished expression; Ulyana a tall, fair-skinned, full-figured blond with a soft face, lightly touched up with makeup, that had already begun to show the first signs of the years that she had over the Lieutenant.

“Explain quickly, Murati.” Ulyana said.

“It was almost a week ago. Shalikova approached me, she wanted advice on something.” Murati said. “But then, I tried to look at her aura, to see what she was feeling. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t see any aura around her. And then, I saw her eyes glow red almost immediately, like a ring around the irises. That’s how you can tell if someone is performing psionics if you are psionic yourself.”

Ulyana sighed and raised the fingers of one hand to her forehead.

“Nothing could have prepared me to start having conversations like this.” She moaned.

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing.” Ulyana crossed her arms. “So you’re dead certain she has psionic powers?”

“I have no doubt.” Murati said. “But she’s been avoiding me ever since. She’s burned through almost all of her allotted personal sick days, tactically avoiding any meetings I set up. We had a huddle a few days ago to formally demote Ahwalia, and she wasn’t even there to back up my rationale, so it got heated.”

“I see. So that’s part of why things got the point where Khadija kicked him.”

Ulyana sighed again. She had been doing a lot of sighing over the past few days.

“I’ll be frank, ma’am, as a worker, I don’t really like reporting colleagues. I did my best for Shalikova’s circumstances.” Murati said. “But I feel like we need to do something about it.”

“Shalikova is not dangerous to our mission.” Ulyana said.

“I never said as such. I don’t think she is either.” Murati said.

“Then we’re in agreement about the most important thing.” Ulyana laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder and leaned into her a little, smiling. “Something you will come to learn about leadership, Murati, is that at times, you need to trust other adults that they will resolve their situations and pull through on their tasks when necessary. You need to give them space. It’s entirely possible Shalikova has been like this the whole time, and we just never knew– we didn’t have the capability to know her secret. Now we do.”

Murati blinked, silently, while Ulyana continued.

“Imagine how shocked she must have been? How long she had been carrying on like this was a burden only on her shoulders? But regardless of how much we speculate on her powers, Murati, Shalikova is a responsible woman, who has never faltered when we needed her. Meetings, and things like that, they can come and go, for days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. But Shalikova is still doing everything we require of her. I’m sure if she needed to fight, she would come out and fight to protect everyone. Sameera and Khadija and Valya don’t mind being standby pilots. Just give Shalikova room to figure things out.”

“I just wish there was something I could do for her.” Murati said. “I want to let her know that we can talk about it and that I am here to support her– and that I share her burden too.”

“You’re a lovely soul, Murati.” Ulyana said. “But being a leader entails a certain distance. Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and hundreds of people might look to you for support. It’ll be hard to have conversations with everyone, like we are having. Your lovely soul will hurt a lot. You’ll have to learn how to handle it eventually. But take it from me, for now– in Shalikova’s case, you need to give her space.”

Murati looked dissatisfied with the answer– but she deferred to Ulyana’s experience.

“Thank you. Sorry for holding you up, Captain. You should go get ready.”

“It’s perfectly fine. I’m glad you didn’t bottle this up for any longer.” Ulyana said.

Murati averted her eyes, as if to say ‘I don’t always bottle things up’ with her face.

But she did always bottle things up and basically everyone knew that about her.

She had been hoping for the Captain to dispense some wisdom about bringing Shalikova over to their side to talk. During the conversation, however, she felt a little childish about that kind of tactic. As much as it gnawed at Murati’s chest every time Shalikova shirked a meeting to avoid confronting the issue, Ulyana’s take on the situation still sounded the most reasonable. Murati would have to give Shalikova time to disclose, and in the interim, continue to trust in her pilot without pressuring her.

Anything else would require pulling rank– which Murati wasn’t quite ready to do.

She wanted to command– but not to be a snobbish officer who was always shouting.

Some part of her wanted to be respected enough for such problems to never arise.

In the same way that she respected her own superiors and always went to them first.

Shalikova avoiding Murati and keeping secrets, was a failure of Murati’s command.

Ordering Shalikova to disclose her psionic ability would not fix that fundamental issue.

That was how Murati came to see it– depressing as it was to live with that reality.

“No use beating myself up. Just keep things moving, Murati.” She mumbled to herself.

As the Brigand neared Kreuzung, the daily duties of the ship continued regardless. Murati had called for Euphrates and Tigris to meet her in the hangar, in front of the gantry holding the latest of the Brigand’s bizarre and impromptu technology acquisitions. A large and heavy Diver, broad-chested and thick-limbed with broad shoulders and all manner of technology hidden inside of its chassis.

Standing almost a meter taller than every other Diver, stood the next generation “HELIOS.”

Or at least, “next generation” was how its proud creators had billed it.

Murati made her way down to the hangar. With a ceiling over nine meters tall, it was the most open and spacious area of the ship. Gunmetal grey walls and a red floor, with eight hatches in the middle covering deployment chutes. It had been specifically designed for the purpose of housing, maintaining and deploying several Diver mecha, and its gantries were occupied now with a colorful array of different models– several of which were ruined remnants from their last battle, in the process of repair. Along with the Diver gantries, there was a surprisingly full-featured workshop area where mechanics could manufacture or repaired a variety of parts via an industrial Ferristitcher, along with traditional tools to smooth out any modeling errors or assemble complicated products from the ferristitched parts.

At the foot of the Helios’ gantry, Murati found a familiar pair of women waiting for her.

“Greetings, my dear apprentice.”

“Don’t give this bitch any reason to be smug, Murati! Tell her off immediately!”

One was calm, with a bright smile and a gentle demeanor. Her hair was a dark teal-blue color and cut to the shoulder, slightly curly and messy, framing her face. She wore the same uniform as Murati, button-down, tie, teal half-jacket, black pants. Her counterpart who was yelling and glaring had darker skin, red hair tied up in a long ponytail with a tall arch, and dressed in a grey jumpsuit, a mechanic’s coverall.

When touched, their skin had an otherworldly softness that hinted at augmentation. Both of them had bright eyes with numerous digital lines flitting across their surface. When they focused, one could see, for a split second, the mechanism focusing lenses. Cybernetic organs of that level of quality were expensive and rare in the Imbrium; but that was far from the only thing hidden beneath the surface of these two. While both of them looked almost younger than her, both were many, many times Murati’s age.

Euphrates and Tigris. Holding the title of “Immortal” in a clandestine scientific organization known as the Sunlight Foundation. It was these two in large part who were responsible for the Brigand’s current course. Kreuzung Station hosted one of their research campuses, and they offered to help refit the Brigand. They were also responsible for the Diver they were standing under, having designed and constructed the HELIOS. It was for that reason that Murati had called them together– to discuss the machine’s fate.

“She can call me whatever she wants as long as she’s being helpful.” Murati said.

Tigris crossed her arms. “That’s the thing, Murati! You have to put her in her place and have a healthy level of suspicion of her. Otherwise she’ll act all smug, and she’ll pretend like she’s being helpful. But in reality, she’ll tell you a bunch of useless stuff, and lead you on a wild goose chase, and you won’t be none the wiser. You’ll be tricked into earnestly believing all of her nonsense and waste all of your time.”

“I feel like I walked into something.” Murati replied.

“Firstly– I have never once done such a thing to her.” Euphrates said calmly. “Murati, you should know this woman has very little patience, and a lot of disdain for process. What she calls a ‘wild goose chase’ is my theoretical work and adherence to the scientific method, which is the foundation of any appropriate research. Furthermore, I am teasing you by calling you ‘my apprentice’, but this isn’t to ingratiate myself with you. It’s just to make fun of you in and of itself without ulterior motives.”

“I– Okay.” Murati took a deep breath. “Do you have any further bloviating to vent out?”

Euphrates narrowed her eyes. “How rude– I thought you were a nice girl, Murati.”

“Hah!” Tigris laughed. “You can be harsher Murati! You can be meaner! Get her ass!”

“I’m a girl with a schedule to keep. Unlike you two care-free souls.” Murati sighed.

A few minutes later, a fourth young woman joined them under the machine.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, hubby dearest!”

“Hubby dearest now, huh.”

Her teasing tone made Murati’s cheeks turn a little redder than before.

Karuniya Maharapratham approached with her hands behind her back, and an enormous, shining smile on her face targeted directly at Murati. Like Murati, she was a dark-skinned and dark-haired young Bosporan woman, but a good bit fairer in both complexion and hair color than her ‘hubby.’ Her hair was kept much longer as well and more orderly than Murati’s messy bangs and uneven sides.

Like almost everyone aboard, Karuniya wore the standard uniform of Treasure Box Transports, the fictitious corporation for which the Brigand’s troops pretended to work, which constituted the button-down and half-jacket. But unlike Murati, she wore a skirt and leggings with her uniform, rather than the pants. When she had a chance to express herself with fashion, Karuniya was always bold and bright, and even when she was just wearing a uniform, she carried herself as confidently as any fashionista.

A casual observer could have very well likened her and Murati to a traditional “butch and femme” type lesbian couple, though Murati did not style herself that masculine for a woman. It was an interesting subject owing to her gender transition– but Murati ultimately didn’t mind being the “hubby.“

“So, we’re all here.” Karuniya said. “What is this about, Murati? Why did you want to meet here?”

She sidled up to the Lieutenant and practically rubbed her cheek against her.

Murati pored over what to say, but there was no amount of rhetoric that could make the question more palatable. So she tried to be as direct as she could. “Karuniya– I know I asked you in the heat of the moment, back at Goryk’s Gorge, to pilot this unit with me. But now–” Murati paused briefly. “The HELIOS will always need two pilots. I don’t know if you’re comfortable with having to fight regularly. It’s not your job, and I understand that. So I wanted you to have the final say in whether we keep it.”

“Whoa!” Tigris interrupted. “You are going to keep it! I’m not taking it back!”

“Don’t be unreasonable, Tigris.” Euphrates said. “Murati is right to offer her this choice.”

Tigris crossed her arms and grumbled near inaudibly to herself while staring at Karuniya.

For her part, Karuniya continued to smile. Her bubbly behavior toned down just a touch.

She let go of Murati and looked up at the machine that towered over all of them.

“Jeez, Murati, all this time and you still didn’t understand my feelings at all?”

“Huh? I’m just– I’m trying to be cautious about your feelings! You’re a scientist!”

“I am also a soldier.” Karuniya said. “I agreed to help you pilot this thing and I will.”

“I don’t want you to feel coerced into this.” Murati said. “It’s not an emergency anymore.”

“Murati, I’m your wife.” Karuniya said. “I want to support you. Besides, now that you’re healed up, you’ll be doing all the fighting anyway, right? I’ll just be handling the computing stuff.”

“She’s correct!” Tigris said. “She doesn’t have to fight! She can just man the drones!”

“Now, I’m not that naïve either.” Karuniya said. “I’m not saying that I’m washing my hands of any violence Murati inflicts either. I’m in the machine; my hands will have blood too.”

Karuniya locked eyes with Murati.

In that moment, Murati felt a renewed admiration for her wife– and felt foolish, too.

She was very lucky to have such a strong and wise woman by her side.

Especially in moments like this, where she felt her earnestness caused her to blunder.

“Oh c’mon!” Tigris said. “Are you two keeping it or not? I’m scrapping it if you say no!”

“I apologize for her hysterics.” Euphrates said, shaking her head.

“Of course we’re keeping it. I’d rather Murati pilot the HELIOS than any other machine.”

Karuniya shut her eyes and flashed Murati a lovely little grin. She was so beautiful–

“We can triumph together or die together– really, what more could a military wife want?”

“I’m sorry, Karu. I shouldn’t have second guessed you.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Both of them gazed into each other’s eyes, smiling, laughing a little bit.

Tigris, meanwhile, inflicted Euphrates with perhaps the most antagonistic gaze yet.

“Anyway!” Tigris said. “Is that all? You just wanted to get enthusiastic consent?”

Both Murati and Karuniya stared at her, making the same disdainful expression.

Euphrates crossed her arms and averted her gaze. “I again, apologize, for her hysterics.”

“Shut up! I’d knock your head off if it wouldn’t just grow back!” Tigris shouted.

“Huh?” Karuniya stared between the two of them.

She was aware of most of their eccentricities, but not where it concerned Euphrates’ immortality.

That particular detail would definitely attract unwanted attention.

Shocked by the suddenness with which it came up, Murati quickly improvised a diversion–

“It’s just their PDA!” Murati said. “Please ignore them. I’ve told them to cool it down.”

Karuniya stared between the two of them. Her confusion seemed to only deepen.

“Murati– nevermind. Let’s just move on from this.” Euphrates sighed.

She and Tigris were now fixing the same disgusted glare at Murati.

God damn it. I can’t win today– I want to disembark and scream without an echo.

After a few minutes of silence, Murati finally collected her thoughts enough to continue.

“There were a few other things I wanted to discuss. For one, I want to rename it.”

Tigris shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“Okay? Just do it then, who cares. There’s no form you have to submit to me.”

Murati nodded.

“I want to call it the ‘Bhavani Jayasankar’.” She said suddenly.

“VETO! I’m vetoing that name! I am completely against it!”

Karuniya shot a hand straight up into the air like a student in a classroom.

“Overruled! Absolutely not!” She then cut Murati off again. “Not Mordecai either!”

Murati, who had been about to speak, fell awkwardly silent.

Euphrates laughed gently. “But it’s so typical of her to name it that? It’s quite charming.”

“I don’t care what you name it.” Tigris huffed. “Just agree on something already.”

“Fine.” Murati said. “If I can’t use the names of communist leaders– let’s name it ‘Agni’.”

Tigris’s head snapped up to look at her. “What? That name I don’t use? Why the hell?”

“I think that’s a lovely name.” Karuniya said.

“Why? Murati, I want to know– this isn’t some awful joke on me is it?” Tigris asked.

“Of course not.” Murati replied.

Ever since she met Euphrates and Tigris, Murati had been surprised by the two of them.

There was no particular way that one would expect members of a clandestine organization to behave. Both Euphrates and Tigris had lied to the crew of the Brigand before and in some sense, brought danger upon them. However, they were enthusiastic in making up the inconvenience.

They showed a strong sense of ethicality in the way that they treated the people around them, and humbly submitted themselves to work under others, despite possessing immense powers that they could have used to control or subvert the crew. With their cooperation, the Brigand had learned a lot of valuable information. And Tigris, in particular, was an incredible asset, as an extremely technically skilled and indefatigably hard working mechanic and engineer who was not afraid of dirty jobs.

Euphrates, too, was someone whom Murati had a certain admiration for.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, she had touched that woman’s heart, and the sorrow and pain she carried with her was so immense that it moved Murati to tears. She felt an intense drive to comfort and protect her. Even a percentage point of the suffering Euphrates had gone through would have ruined and embittered any ordinary person. She couldn’t explain it rationally, but she could feel it.

And Murati also got the sense that despite her prickliness, Tigris was truly devoted to her.

That devotion was something Murati could understand and admire quite easily.

In the end, Murati had grown fond of them. Even in the short amount of time she had known them.

“Agni is a High Bosporan name that means ‘fire’. I think it’s only right that the product of your passions be named after you and named like that.” Murati said, acknowledging Tigris as she spoke. “I admire your hard work and dedication, and how you’re so humble despite all the skills you possess.”

“Hey, c’mon.” Tigris shrank back. “I’m not doing anything to look good or get praised.”

“She only seeks praise from me.” Euphrates said.

“You fucking shut up. Nobody asked for your stupid input.” Tigris replied, wilting visibly.

Murati smiled. “See, the two of you– you really have made me feel like–”

A bit overwhelmed with emotion, Murati gesticulated vaguely with her hands.

Karuniya stared and nodded along. “Huh. You really left your impression on her.”

“You understand that?” Tigris said, pointing at Murati. “Because I sure as hell don’t!”

For a moment, Murati was truly unable to put her feelings into words.

Thankfully, everyone around her understood the sudden difficulties and gave her time.

Everyone agreed that henceforth, the HELIOS would be dubbed ‘Agni.’


Viewed from the outside in, Kreuzung Station was absolutely, monumentally massive.

To approach the station, any vessel had to first descend into the Kreuzung crater, which was an enormous maw in the earth, many kilometers across, over a thousand meters deep from the cliffs around it to the bottom with the tower baseplates. As the vessel approached, the imaging computer would struggle for a few seconds to capture it in its entirety. Staring down at this enormous machine — with its vast central tower surrounded by smaller, but no less grandiose twelve surrounding towers — conveyed the ultimate triumph of humanity over the circumstances which had driven them from the face of their planet and into the sea. It was a city in the seafloor, but for the people outside, it could’ve been a planet in space.

Kreuzung’s core station alone was a remarkable endeavor. There were perhaps a half-dozen other stations in the Imbrium as large as Kreuzung’s core. Spanning a few kilometers in width and over one kilometer in height, the cubiform station had the presence of a mountain. But unlike Solstice’s Mt. Raja, its deliberate construction meant there was no wasted space. In Mt. Raja, people could only live in modules attached to the central stab and whatever tunnels were bored in the rock, with a natural limitation beneath the rocky surface; Kreuzung was packed corner to corner with systems and modules. To construct it, the Imbrians hundreds of years ago worked slowly, building one corner of the central tower, and then another, and another, and then building up top– this meant that the modules closer to the baseplate were the more spartan lodgings for the ancient workers, while the modules up top, built upon this foundation, were the works of art in which the wealthy lived. Most of the population density lay closer to the baseplates.

All throughout the journey, there could be hundreds of other vessels of all sizes and shapes coming and going from Kreuzung, above the crater, down in the walls, between the towers. At the peak of traffic, there would be orderly lines of vessels lining up at the port entrances throughout the central tower, as well as the towers that could accept ships, of which there were about four with capable berths. Many ships had to access the station through exterior scaffold berths with attached deployment chutes, unable to pay for the privilige of disembarking from within the station’s ports at peak capacities.

Millions of human beings inhabited these towers, and every day, perhaps millions more could potentially visit and depart on routine business in the region. Visibly massive commerce flowed through here.

Upon descending between its towers, the visiting vessel would feel as if enclosed between walls of steel broken up by columns of ocean. It was here that the true magnitude of the endeavor became evident, as even the smallest towers dwarfed the largest dreadnoughts that were only hundreds of meters long and dozens of meters tall. For those working out in the water in pressure suits and divers, it would have felt like the towers framed the whole world, and there was only steel, rock, as far as the eye could see, dividing humanity from the unreachable heaven impossible to see overhead.

Tower baseplates dominated the seafloor with only a few regions of sand between, particularly near towers Seven and Eight which were closer to the old mines in the crater wall. Those walls of the crater visible between each tower gave the view a sense of connectedness as well, rock enmeshed with steel. There were were facilities in the crater wall and on top, mainly for industrial and military use. A dirty secret of the complex was that there were desperate people squatting some of the disused modules on the crater top and within the rim of the crater too– a touchy subject for immigration officers.

All manner of drama, tragedy and conspiracy transpired in this nexus of Eisental’s prosperity.

For the UNX-001 Brigand, calling itself The Pandora’s Box, there was safety in this sense of enormity and grandeur. Despite their secrets, they were only one vessel amid the many, all of which brought their own little conspiracies aboard this massive edifice. Even the brutal Volkisch movement had not yet taken full control of this enormous place, as they had in other, smaller cities across Rhinea.

Soon as the Brigand entered port, on every screen across the cruiser, appeared the round, cheerful face of Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova. Blond and incredibly pretty, with a soft, plump and ample figure, she was the idol of the Brigand, who delivered every important message with a lovely voice and a winning smile. Whether it was the daily announcements or periodic affirmations for the workers, when Semyonova appeared on the screen, everybody paid rapt attention to her voice and face.

“Attention all crew! Our vessel has just entered port at Kreuzung’s core station. We will have a roughly two hour ride on a conveyor belt in the station interstice, before the ship will be dropped off at Alcor Steelworks. It is vital that we go over how operations will proceed from here on out.”

Accompanying Semyonova’s face on the screen, was a map of a shuttle tram route from the H block of Kreuzung to its fifth auxiliary tower. That map was given to the sailors as a stone paper synthestitched handout for them to keep on hand. Workgroup managers for the sailors were handed additional instructions on paper by officers of the Brigand like Murati and Karuniya, while the briefing continued.

“For the next few weeks, we’ll be using Alcor’s facilities per a cooperation agreement between Treasure Box Transports, Solarflare LLC, and Alcor Steelworks Inc.” Semyonova said. “Alcor’s own workers will not be working on the ship, but they will be facilitating our use of their equipment and handling local permits and procedures. Only Solarflare and Treasure Box workers will be allowed to work on the ship. We will be allowed to travel to Solarflare’s campus in Tower Five as well as Alcor Steelworks’ workshops and campus in H-block, as part of shore leave. That means that Protocol Tokarev is in effect. Solarflare will handle our transportation, but you must adhere to Protocol Tokarev with more strictness than we did at Serrano station. As much as you may desire to do so, do not wander away from Solarflare’s minders, and let Solarflare and Alcor employees do any talking with the Kreuzung station’s authorities that may need doing. Treat Solarflare and Alcor representatives with courtesy and follow their kind instructions and directions, but do not disclose any information to them. All they need to know is your given name and your role. Workgroup managers can be consulted with any specific questions about this.”

There was a bit of chatter, but the sailors aboard the Brigand had been handpicked for their professionalism and trustworthiness and could be counted upon to uphold the secrecy doctrine, dubbed Protocol Tokarev. Tokarev was the “T” in the Union phonetic alphabet, and in this case stood for “Treasure box.” It meant that the sailors would be expected to uphold the crew’s cover story and guard their secrecy. Commissar-General of the Union’s Internal Security, Parvati Nagavanshi, had handpicked even the sailors for the Brigand’s mission, of which there were over a hundred. Once given appropriate instructions, even the rowdiest of the sailors would not dare betray their comrades and the mission.

“Operationally,” Semyonova continued, “this will be the most complicated mission that our crew has undergone yet, with technical, intelligence and social elements that will require precise and delicate coordination. All of these elements hinge on your judgment in the face of adversity and the unknown. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya believes that all of you are more than capable of achieving success– and I believe wholeheartedly in all of you as well. Trust in your officers and managers, diligently complete your daily tasks and goals, and you will find that together, we will be able to safely depart Kreuzung fully repaired and provisioned in no time! Continue your work– the Captain will address the ship later!”

And thus, the little conspiracy that the Brigand brought to Kreuzung officially began.

As soon as the screens returned to normal, released from the control of Semyonova’s station in the Brigand’s bridge, the blond immediately bent over her desk and breathed a deeply-held sigh of relief. She pulled her headphones off and left them hanging off the desk by their cord. She let her half-jacket fall a little bit off her plush round shoulders while she openly sulked, kicking her legs in a silly fashion.

“Aaah that was horrid. I overslept again and didn’t do my makeup right.” She whined.

At her side, a dark-haired Shimii woman reached out a comforting hand, patting her back.

“Everyone thinks you are lovely, Natalia.” Said Fatima al-Suhar, sonar and sensors officer.

“Yes, Miss Semyonova! Your voice is as bewitching as the sirens of the deep!”

One station down from Fatima, was the electronic warfare desk of Braya Zachikova, who had not been the one to speak. Zachikova stared narrow-eyed at the walls, her tawny, spiraling ponytail twitching as if in precise indignation of the actual speaker. That errant comment had been made by a woman sitting with her back to the side of Zachikova’s desk. Long red and white hair almost below the back, and a bloodlessly pale face with sky-blue eyes which had been emerald-green yesterday, and golden yellow the day before. A woman with an unfathomable, alien beauty; and a long tail ending in a fork.

Arbitrator I, the “guest navigator” and newly-added threat to the peace on the Brigand’s bridge.

Zachikova reached down and flicked her index finger, striking the woman’s nose.

“Stop shouting on the bridge. You’re not twelve, behave yourself like an adult.”

At the site where Zachikova’s finger had struck, a deep, purple and black bruise appeared.

“Ah– I am castigated with such potent agony–!” Arbitrator I cried.

“Stop faking it! Change your skin color back immediately! I didn’t hit you hard!” Zachikova shouted.

That use of the word ‘castigated’ piqued the curiosity of the last person to have said it.

Across the room, a blond, skinny young woman with purple streaks dyed into her hair–

“Is that pale recusant now pilfering my advanced vocabulary?” pondered Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa. She briefly stared over her shoulder at the scene behind her.

“I hope not. One person talking like a roleplaying middle schooler is enough.”

Unprompted, the woman at Fernanda’s side offered her own commentary. Tall, dark, her brown hair tied up in a bun, cutting a dashing figure with her lean shoulders and long limbs, that mostly went disused– it was Torpedo and Missile Officer Alexandra Geninov. As soon as the words left her lips, Fernanda’s attention immediately switched to her recurring nemesis with an oft-heard cry.

“Not a soul here wished the curse of your voice upon them, GAMER!”

In the middle of all this chaos–

“Order on the bridge! Use your inside voices! Do you need the same spiel as the sailors?”

The Brigand’s bridge was divided into three tiers like a stepladder, each connected by sets of a few metal steps. Most of the officers were in the middle tier, about a meter below the top tier with the door, where there were stations for Communications; Sonar, Imaging and Sensors; Electronic Warfare; and opposite them, Torpedo and Missiles; Gunnery; and the Helm. Above and behind them, the top tier extended roughly between the lower stations so the Captain was raised but also somewhat central to the other stations. Below all of them were the four gas gunnery stations providing defensive flak fire.

While the polite and humble gas gunners heard all the commotion above and behind them, they were usually separate from the goings-on of the rest of the bridge, and even had their own manager down there. As such, whenever Commissar Aaliyah Bashara shouted at the bridge officers, it was implicitly understood by them that she was shouting mainly at Alex, Fernanda, Zachikova, and the like.

Astaghfirullah,” Aaliyah moaned, lapsing into Shimii ‘Fusha’ speech. In this case, it was expression of a mild shame at the frequent disorder around her. Her dark cat-like ears twitched, and her tail stood on end. Normally she wore a Commissar’s military uniform with a dark coat and pants, gold filigree, a red armband and a peaked cap on her long, dark hair, to command respect befitting the ship’s chief political officer– but in Kreuzung due to Protocol Tokarev, she wore the same uniform as everyone else.

She occupied the second seat of the top-center, in whispering range of the Captain.

Missing at the time– she was in a communications booth making calls to the station.

However, almost as soon as Aaliyah began to think of her–

Through the door, the Captain stepped onto the steel floor of the top tier.

“Captain on bridge!” Aaliyah declared.

She saluted, as did everyone else on the bridge– even the unruliest of the officers.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled and took her seat at the head of the bridge. She was an impressive woman that easily caught the eyes, tall and mature with lustrous blond hair falling over her shoulders, lush red lips, bright green eyes and a tasteful amount of cosmetics. More than pretty, she was in good shape, with an excellent figure and physique. Her jacket was wrapped up and carried in one arm, revealing the sleeveless button-down of the Treasure Box uniform in full and baring her strong shoulders and lean arms. Her skirt and leggings accentuated her long legs and precise gait.

“Captain,” Aaliyah said.

“Commissar,”

Ulyana sat beside Aaliyah, and immediately upon doing so, slouched and breathed in deep.

“You look exhausted.” Aaliyah said. She had known the Captain intimately enough to tell.

“It’s been nerve-wracking.” Ulyana said. “Talking to all these Imbrians trying to hide how thick my Volgian accent is. Euphrates warned us that this place is extremely racist– it became the subject of a few awkward conversations I had to have with Solarflare and the station representatives. We’ll have to debrief everyone, especially the Shimii crew members. There’s legal segregation in place here, can you believe it?”

“Barbaric.” Aaliyah said. “But not unexpected. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”

“There was a cute Shimii girl working at the dock though.” Ulyana said. “Really short tail.”

“Bobtail usually means a Shimii is mixed.” Aaliyah said. “Maybe the Imbrians trust her more because of that. Or it suggests there’s a permit scheme– I’m sure we have options available.”

Aaliyah answered firmly and seriously, even though Ulyana had a teasing tone of voice.

Unable to get her cherished Commissar to respond to the provocation, Ulyana deflated.

“Right, it’s just, every request we need to make is one more chance to raise suspicion.”

Her voice began to convey more and more of her exhaustion.

Aaliyah surreptitiously stroked her hand, out of view of the rest of the crew.

“We can do this, Captain. I’m here to support you.” She whispered.

“Thank you. If I might trouble you for that support– I’d like to take a nap.” Ulyana said.

“I will keep the bridge in line as I always do.” Aaliyah said, with a proud little smile.

“And I don’t–? Nevermind– wake me up when we’re transferring the ship to a trailer.”

Ulyana leaned back into her chair. She procured her hat from beside her seat and dropped it over her head, using the peak to cover her eyes. On the main screen, there was nothing to see but endless walls of metal as the conveyor took them through the bowels of the station interstice.

A series of elevators and conveyors would slowly bring the “Pandora’s Box” to Alcor’s industrial module in the H-block several hundred meters up from where they entered. The Pandora’s Box was cruiser-sized, over 200 meters in length, almost 40 in height, and close to 50 meters wide. On the conveyor, however, it easily moved, if not from the conveyor belt’s power alone then with the help of jet anchors attached by awaiting Kreuzung workers to help the ship navigate the passages.

“The Kreuzung Station complex, huh.” Aaliyah said to herself, almost admiringly.

Such a vast place, so full of humanity– surely, they could slip under the radar here.

There could not be that much trouble in store for them, right?

And it was a chance for the officers and sailors to leave the ship and walk around.

Even if it was just between the Alcor and Solarflare campuses. Shore leave was shore leave.

For a time, the officers all went quiet, as there was nothing to do. All advanced systems had been shut off in order to keep the mechanisms and core cooled since they wouldn’t be cycling in as much cold water outside of the ocean until they reached their destination. Everything was running on battery and running lean until they could get water circulating again. The Brigand was quite useless outside the water.

Finally, brightening light from the main screen awakened everyone on the bridge.

One final cargo elevator lifted the ship into the light of an artificial sun. Blacktop roads and courts connected several enormous workshop buildings made of thick plastic walls, and a main office at the distant end of the road that looked like an art sculpture, with a swirling irregular façade and glass dome. Overhead, there was an artificial blue sky, enormous sunlamps hidden by tricks of the light.

And so the Pandora’s Box had made its understated entrance into Kreuzung’s H-block.

“How high up is that sky? It’s just lamps, right?” Alex asked, looking with wide eyes.

“It must be less than a hundred meters to fit into the block.” Zachikova said calmly.

“It just looks like it’s so high.” Alex said. “Like a kilometer or more. Like a real sky.”

“As if any firmament interred with us in this sea could ever be so far overhead.” Fernanda said. “Gamer, this castle in itself is at most a kilometer high. Is math another of your debilities?”

“Excuse me for trying to have a bit of fancy, oh princess dark and erotic.” Alex said.

“Gamer–!”

“Don’t start, you two.”

This time the reprimand did not come from the Commissar.

Instead it was the tired voice of Captain Korabiskaya herself, suppressing a yawn.

She sat up straight in her chair, pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through the waves of her hair. In the cameras, she watched with half-opened eyes as people and machines came out to unload the Brigand. From one of the tall workshops, an enormous trailer on super-thick threads trundled its way toward them along with four enormous cranes. Atop the trailer, there was a sturdy scaffold into which the ship would be balanced so that even the underside was accessible to workers during the refitting.

“So this is it, then. Alcor Steelworks.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova lifted her head off her desk suddenly. “Ma’am, we’ve got a call.”

In a moment, Ulyana took the call on a video screen affixed to a movable arm on her chair.

On video, was a woman dressed in a colorful yellow vinyl blazer with see-through sleeves that showed the shorter sleeves of the button-down beneath. She had skirt of the same material with similar see-through gaps along the sides. Her high powered executive fashion seemed at odds with the simple, rustic style of her long, brown-blond hair, tied up with a corny-looking neon-pattern cloth.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya I presume? My name is Amelia Winn, I’m an executive officer of Alcor’s Kreuzung branch. I hope that I am finding you well on this momentous day.”

“Thank you, Madam Winn. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya. I am doing fine. A bit of travel fatigue.”

Amelia smiled. “I am calling on behalf of Alcor Steelworks to thank you for choosing us for a million mark project like this! Solarflare LLC has been a partner for us in Kreuzung for many years, and we are always glad for their business. Because of the sensitivity requested by all parties, I just wanted you to know I will be personally on site to insure your intellectual property rights.”

“Thank you Madam Winn.” Ulyana said. “We’re happy to be aboard as well.”

“As for your fatigue, you may feel free to avail yourselves of our executive campus! We have gel beds, hot baths, refreshments of all sorts. Allow us to warmly welcome you to Kreuzung! You paid for it, after all!”

Welcome to Kreuzung indeed, Ulyana thought, smiling awkwardly at the bubbly Amelia.


“Maryam, can I ask you something?”

“Always, Sonya!”

“What would you do if a previously trustworthy person was making overtures that you can come to them with your problems, in a way that made you uncomfortable spilling your guts to them?”

“Hmm. Well I think if I trusted someone, then I just I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to them!”

Sonya Shalikova sighed loudly.

Of course, Maryam, because you’re such a saccharine, naive marshmallow!

She would have to discard that advice immediately.

Lodging on the Brigand was divided between Officers, who resided on the top deck, and everyone else, who resided below. Aside from some managers, like Chief Mechanic Lebedova, most people on the bottom deck lived in the dorms abutting the hangar. Each dorm room had 4 bunks, and each bunk had some storage space. That was it– very few amenities and no extra space. There were several dozen such rooms, and two bathrooms between them with an open shower plan and a few toilets. Comparatively, the officer’s quarters were a bit more luxurious. They lived two to a room, with beds big enough they could potentially hold two people together (which mattered for clandestine fraternization), and each room had amenities in the walls, such as clothes drying and pull-out chairs and desks for added comfort.

Supposedly, this separation was meant to reward Officers and furthermore to give Officers distance from Sailors so that they could enforce discipline without developing too many personal feelings about their subordinates. In reality, this was basically a post-hoc rationalization for continuing to build ships with the exact same internal structure that the Imbrian Empire used. Continuing the technology legacy of the Empire helped the Union to simplify construction by limiting ship plans to proven blueprints. Attempts to make ships with “equal” lodgings were rejected time and again as idealistic because of this.

In the end, what this meant was that Sailors led a more public life than Officers.

An Officer had a comfortable room to retreat to when they did not feel sociable.

Sailors got their dose of spaciousness from being outside their rooms. In their rooms they only had a gel bed bunk to look forward to. So the Sailors were more often out and about, they took any excuse to walk about the ship, they frequented the cafeteria, and they made thorough use of any public entertainment or social space on the ship. In stark contrast, a certain silver-haired, somewhat skinny young lady with indigo eyes had been making thorough use of the private spaces afforded to her as an officer.

Sonya Shalikova did not mind the four walls of her room at all.

Compared to the alternative, at least they were uncomplicated.

She laid down on her bed, stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

Her days confined to her room were made better, and bearable at all, by the presence of her partner, a pink-skinned, purple-haired young woman who had been taking up the other bunk of Shalikova’s room as much and as often as Shalikova took up her own. Dressed in a nun’s habit, the cuttlefish-derived Katarran, Maryam Karahailos, was unknowingly the center of Shalikova’s current worries.

Maryam was too kind, too soft– it wasn’t her fault. It was all Shalikova’s own fault.

She had been too careless. Those two passengers, Euphrates and Tigris, were psionic; and now Murati was suddenly psionic too. She had never imagined there would be more psychics aboard. She was not even flaunting the powers Maryam had given her. She had just used it once, because she saw Murati give off power– and that one time was enough for Murati to see it and understand it immediately.

“Ugh. Murati.” Shalikova mumbled.

It was already difficult enough to talk to Murati.

Not because she was unapproachable, but exactly the opposite.

Murati cared so much, in a way that Shalikova did not know how to deal with.

She always felt like Murati, the instant Shalikova appeared, would trouble herself over her.

It was often mortifying to deal with Murati’s overemphasized kindness.

And just when she had finally worked up the courage to try to ask Murati for help–

–the entire situation unfolded from there.

Now, it was mortifying to think of confronting Murati about it.

Murati’s circumstances did not matter to her so much. She was incurious about how Murati achieved her powers or who had given them to her. What was foremost in her mind was whether Murati had found out about Maryam, and then whether Murati might make Shalikova talk about Maryam’s involvement. It was the obvious question to ask upon confronting Shalikova– where did you get this ability? Murati had to know that someone else had to have given it to Shalikova. Nobody had come to confront Maryam, so on some level, the information was still under control and Maryam was ultimately safe.

And maybe nothing would happen– Murati didn’t seem like the capital punishment type.

But it was different now that Shalikova was involved with Maryam.

She worried about her and felt responsible. She couldn’t bear to risk her at all.

Shalikova loved Maryam. And that love warped how she could respond to this fiasco.

Especially because Maryam was so untroubled by the whole thing.

When Shalikova had brought it up to Maryam–

“Oh, yes, I did notice that the Lieutenant had awakened to psionics. Probably she received it from Euphrates. Euphrates was a member of my old organization. She is a good woman though. You don’t need to worry about her, I don’t think. She’ll teach that Murati lady how to do things properly.”

Maryam said that so innocently that it unnerved Shalikova.

She felt that she needed to protect Maryam from her naivety once again.

Hiding in her room was a childish way to do that.

It’s not like it blocked Murati in any way if she wanted to force her to confess. And it wasn’t a solution to the problem either. Time was just stopped– nothing was moving in any direction and nothing was being decided. But nevertheless, Shalikova still stayed in her room for days, only venturing out in the dead of night, avoiding Akulantova’s night patrols, to shower and grab some basic food items.

Every day, if there was an event scheduled by Murati, Shalikova would declare a sick day.

She would have demanded that Maryam shelter with her, but it wasn’t necessary.

Maryam mostly stuck to Shalikova’s side, and she was thankful for that.

Not only because she felt safer that way; but because she would have gone insane in her room alone for days without Maryam to talk to. During those days, Maryam had been her shining light.

Waking up to her girlfriend, across the room, gently breathing, her skin color shifting erratically as she dreamed– it was like nothing she had ever felt in her entire life. She began to love talking to Maryam about anything at all, just to hear her voice. Shalikova’s intention was not to breach any difficult subjects, and she mainly made small talk about food and passtimes– but Maryam always seemed to–

“Do you know about video games?”

“Hmm? Like the simulator you showed me?”

“Kind of like that. But just for fun. There’s stuff like that in the Union.”

“I see. We didn’t have things like that for fun.”

“How about for training? Simulators are pretty common for the Union navy.”

“Most Katarran warlords don’t really have simulator type things except for their really elite troops like their diver pilots or special operators. Infantry are cheap and the really good ones will survive and pick up skills over time. For most of us, we kinda, just fought each other with real weapons to train.”

“You fought with real weapons? What if you got hurt? That’d just cost the ship its troops.”

“Well, Katarrans are pretty tough. But if you die, you just weren’t good enough, I suppose.”

“I– I see. I should’ve guessed it’d be like that. Maryam, can I hug you?”

“Ah! I’d love that Sonya! Come here!”

Regardless of the content, just hearing Maryam’s voice set Shalikova’s heart aflight.

It was such a new feeling. It was so strange. And she didn’t wear these feelings on her face.

She allowed herself to feel it though. It was like her heart was softening and warming.

It was– it was strange. That was it– strange, but comforting.

In addition to talking among themselves, another common activity they shared during their self-imposed quarantine was practicing psionics. Shalikova felt determined to master the power Maryam had given her.

“So, this might sound corny, but psionics is all about your heart, Sonya.” Maryam said. “Your emotions play a huge role in it! Psionics starts in the mind, but it’s your emotions that have the greatest power to alter your perspective and affect how your psionics work. What you feel, will wash over your true intentions, and come out in the power, even if it’s not convenient for you. You remember the colors? Each color means something, and you have all of those colors in you. They will express themselves in your power. You could end up making a really awful mistake in a crucial moment because of your emotions. So, I think, what you should practice first is to act while controlling your emotions.”

She pitched an object across the room for Shalikova to catch.

It was a small but dense metal rosary on a plastic cord necklace.

Despite its size, it felt very solid and a little heavy in Shalikova’s hands.

“Alright, Sonya– try to lift that rosary slowly and gently with your mind. Relax and try not to let your emotions sway you while you control the rosary. If you feel scared or nervous, try to relax. If you feel frustrated, then don’t give in to your anger. And, the really difficult part is, if you feel pain, you can’t let it scare you or you’ll definitely fail. Breathe deeply, return to your center, and act very carefully.”

“Can you see what colors I have around me now?” Sonya asked.

Maryam shook her head. The tentacles that were enmeshed in her hair lifted in a little shrug.

“Nope! Your aura is not visible Sonya. So I can’t tell what kind of emotion will dominate.”

Right– Shalikova had this bizarre ability to hide her aura without even trying to.

“I guess I’ll have to feel it out without help. Okay– I’m going.”

Shalikova held the rosary in her palm and focused on it.

Even before this practice session, Shalikova had already been working on getting familiar with calling her psionics, in order to see auras, mainly Maryam’s aura. By the time the incident with Murati transpired, it was already fairly easy for Shalikova to take that first step and begin to summon the power to her eyes. But reading auras was somewhat passive, like a camera that automatically calculated the lighting for a picture. Moving something was a second-by-second decision-making process, it was active.

So she called the power, and the rosary stirred in her hands.

It did not lift, however.

Shalikova was immediately wracked with indecision.

She was being cautious not to use too much force, but not to apply too little, not to push or pull or squeeze the rosary too tight. Not to flick it or fling it, not to throw it to the ceiling. In that moment Shalikova imagined and then discarded every possibility, and so the little rosary shook in her hands but did not lift, did not go flying, did not do anything. As soon as she felt both a little bit of pain pricking the back of her head, and the frustration of inaction– Shalikova immediately stopped.

After shaking in the palm of her hand for only a few seconds, the rosary stopped moving.

“Even someone special like you can’t always win on the first try, Sonya!”

Maryam tried to console and encourage her, but it was undoubtedly frustrating.

“I take it then that you can control your emotions deliberately, Maryam?”

“Yep! You can see it, Sonya! Here– focus on my aura, and I’ll show you.”

Shalikova wordlessly invoked the power, putting on that filter over her eyes.

Focusing on the color around Maryam, that miasma of luminous aether called an aura.

For most humans, their common colors were green and blue.

Anxiety and peace, almost always mixed, for humans were never free of worry.

Red was also common to see, as most people always carried some frustration or passion.

Yellow, for injury, illness or sickness, was also common, at least a tiny band for daily aches and pains.

When Shalikova first looked at her, Maryam had strong, thick bands of blue and green, representing that basic state of human emotion. She had a very small band of yellow, which could mean anything from wounds to a stomachache; and she also had a band of purple in her little personal rainbow. Purple was associated with pride, but also represented a strong self-consciousness or self-absorbedness.

“Alright. Watch closely, Sonya.”

Maryam shut her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.

Shalikova felt a near unintelligible psionic whisper coming from her girlfriend.

In an instant, the band of purple in Maryam’s aura spread to engulf every color.

Until, in seconds, the cuttlefish nun’s entire aura was lustrously purple as her long hair.

Shalikova had never seen an aura change so suddenly and completely.

Wrapped in that gaseous purple color, Maryam opened her eyes and spread her arms.

Her lips spread into a self-satisfied little grin.

She stood from her bunk, walked up to Shalikova, and leaned forward into her.

Throughout, her aura remained steadily purple.

“It’s not a trick I can really teach you, but you might be able to discover it!”

In the next instant, she tipped forward and took Shalikova’s lips into a quick but full kiss.

When she drew back, smiling at the dumbfounded Shalikova, her aura started to distort.

Returning the rest of the colors as the purple receded.

Shalikova blinked, tasting Maryam on her tongue for just a moment.

She smiled back– she couldn’t help it. “You’ve become really wily huh?”

“I always have been! You just haven’t been on the receiving end of my cuttle-tricks.”

In that way, the two lovers spent their days together. Despite Shalikova’s strange moods, Maryam was never anything less than comforting, and she quietly acquiesced to the unreasonable attitude that her lover had taken up lately. They remained in their little room, passing the time together.

Unperturbed, apart from the public world of the ship.

Soon, though, they would have to disembark. Shalikova had to confront the issue.

An issue which she herself created, and which she herself supported with her fears.

“Maryam, I’ll protect you, no matter what.” Shalikova said.

“Hmm? Of course, Sonya! And I’ll protect you with all my strength too!”

She loved her so much.

So much she was afraid to lose her. Like she had already lost someone else before–

Shalikova was stuck in her own head for days, unable to make a decision.

It was a mood unlike any she ever had. She did not know how to deal with it.

Until, on the fateful day–

“Sonya, open up. You’re not keeping this door closed to me, missy.”

Shalikova and Maryam had been lying in bed dozing off the afternoon–

“Illya?”

That voice belonged to someone quite familiar.

Someone Shalikova had not considered at all when it came to her current affairs.

“You’ve been in there for days. You’ve got shore leave. Open up.”

“She’s coming out! Don’t worry!” Maryam called out cheerfully.

“Maryam–!” Shalikova grumbled.

“We want to see you, Sonya.”

A low and deadpan voice joined Illya’s– of course, Valeriya was there too.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

There was no avoiding this. Those two would put a breaching charge on the door if they had to.

Giving Maryam a quick dissatisfied glare that the nun did not have any response to, Shalikova got up from bed and walked the few steps to the door. Standing dead center in front of the door frame with her arms outstretched, Shalikova ran her hand across the touch sensitive wall of the room, which became a context-sensitive digital button. The door slid into the wall to open, right in front of Shalikova.

“You’re alive then. That’s good. I almost suspected the nun had killed you.” Illya said.

Do not joke about that.” Shalikova said, practically growling.

“Sorry~”

Illya raised her hands in self-defense, with an amused little smile.

At her side, Valeriya shook her head and sighed.

She curled a bit of Illya’s long hair between her fingers– only Shalikova seemed to notice.

From inside the room, Maryam waved innocently at the women gathered at the door.

“Anyway. Now that we’ve got proof of life, I’m dragging you out.” Illya said.

“I thought I had shore leave. I’ll go when I want to go.” Shalikova said.

“We have an all-Officer’s meeting about the shore leave. You can fuck back off after that.”

Both women at the door were quite familiar with Shalikova, and Illya certainly acted like it. In the absence of her only remaining family, Illya had practically become something of a big sister to Shalikova. Like Shalikova, Illya Rostova was a silver-haired Volgian, but she was taller, with more defined muscle in her lean limbs and strong core, and she carried herself with a confident brusqueness that Shalikova could never have hoped to match. Normally she wore the security team’s padded bodysuit armor and carried a rifle, but under Protocol Tokarev, she wore the Treasure Box uniform. Like Shalikova, she dispensed with the jacket and bared her shoulders. Unlike Shalikova, she had decent shoulders to bare.

At her side, stood an expression-less, long-haired blond woman with a soft face and a demure stance, arms around herself, averting her gaze. Valeriya Peterburg, another close friend of Shalikova’s departed older sister. Wearing a skirt and leggings instead of pants, with her hair grown long to almost her waist, she was the perfect match for Illya, whisper-silent where she was loud, reserved and distant where Illya was confrontational, seemingly more feminine where Illya was more tomboyish. For as long as Shalikova had known them, they had been together. She thought of them almost as soulmates.

“We were worried.” Valeriya said, again in a near-whisper.

“It’s really none of your business–” Shalikova started to say, but Illya leaned in close.

“It is absolutely our business. You didn’t call me auntie Illya for like 8 years as a kid, for it to not be my business now. I promised Zasha I’d look after you if anything happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because you never tell anyone shit. But we’re responsible for surveillance, and we were worried sick that we practically never saw you around anymore, and you’ve used all your sick days in a row.”

“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just want to be alone. I can take care of myself.” Shalikova said.

“I don’t care, Sonya. If you behave like this, I’m intervening. Always. So get used to it.”

Illya poked Shalikova in the cheek. Shalikova cringed away from her hand.

“Fine, fine. There’s no use trying to say no to you two.”

Shalikova crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“You’re acting like I’m bullying you.” Illya sighed. “Collect your girlfriend and lets go.”

Shalikova’s heart was full of anxiety that she tried her very hardest to restrain.

There was no use– ultimately, Illya was right. Illya was right that this was stupid of her.

It took Illya coming here and shouting at her for her readily admit it to herself.

She had been a fool– but she was still not going to talk to Murati unless forced to.

Now she was a stubborn fool instead. She still didn’t feel ready to spill her guts.

Ugh. Get your mess under control, Sonya Shalikova.

She berated herself, but it brought her no closer to controlling her emotions.

So she remained as stuck in her own head leaving her room as she was inside of it.

Shalikova and Maryam followed Illya and Valeriya down to the hangar, where all of the ship’s officers were assembling in the center, between the gantries that held the unpowered Divers upright. One of the deployment hatches, the farthest and rightmost, was propped open and there was a ladder going through it, guarded by Akulantova. The Brigand must have been set up in drydock at the station– Shalikova had heard something about that in Semyonova’s announcements but had not paid that much attention. The officers, the sailors’ managers, were arranged in short lines, waiting for the Captain.

Immediately, Shalikova spotted a head of shoulder-length, dark and messy hair.

Thankfully, Murati had her back turned and Shalikova slipped to the back of the group.

Illya and Valeriya stayed off to the side of the lined-up officers.

So in the back, it was Shalikova, Maryam– and a woman Shalikova suddenly bumped into–

“Oh? I’m glad you’re alive, devushka. I’d wondered where you’d been.”

Shalikova had been focusing on evading the notice of Lieutenant Murati.

She had not been paying attention to whom she was sidling up to in the group.

So she hit someone, and–

A sultry, mature voice with a teasing laughter that oozed confidence snapped her to reality.

She was taken in by her appearance. Voluminous, wavy sandy-blond hair with fluffy bangs, tied into a ponytail with a purple ribbon that matched the sophisticated wine-dark color of her eyeshadow and lipstick. Tapering cat-like ears, dark-yellow with white fluffy inner-ear fur; and a lustrous, velvety tail to match. Lean limbs and a busty figure; a refined beauty, vibrant olive skin with the slightest hint of crow’s feet around the eyes, and a vivacious, self-assured smile, keen green eyes. There was no doubting it–

–Shalikova had foolishly bumped into Khadija al-Shajara, ace of aces among their pilots.

There should have been no missing her. Khadija was one-of-a-kind. Shalikova admired her!

But she was so distracted.

Normally she was far more perceptive of her surroundings. She felt quite embarrassed about this.

Khadija was deserving of an apology, but thinking about the situation, Shalikova went mute.

Because Khadija was also a pilot and an officer, she must have known about Shalikova’s absences.

So then, what would she think about it? Did she had a low opinion of her now?

As Shalikova hesitated, Khadija turned her head a little just to wink and grin at her.

“Don’t be so stiff. You don’t need to excuse yourself to me. I’m glad you’re well.”

Khadija looked across from Shalikova at Maryam next to her and waved with her fingertips.

Maryam waved back with an innocent smile.

Of course– nothing bad happened at all. Shalikova felt even more foolish.

“Attention! Captain at the head of the meeting!”

Shalikova’s flushed face snapped from Khadija over to the front of the assembled officers.

Staring around the side of Alex Geninov, who was taller than Shalikova and blocking her view in front, she saw Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara. Thankfully there was no whiteboard or other accompanying presentation tool that Shalikova had to be able to pay attention to. It looked like the meeting was just for the Captain to debrief them before they were allowed to disembark.

There was a camera drone floating in front of the Captain too– Shalikova realized the meeting was being broadcast. Only Officers had been summoned, but sailors would be watching through monitors.

“Good afternoon, my precious and illustrious crew!” Captain Korabiskaya. “We’re once again very lucky to have received a chance to disembark the ship and walk solid ground within a station, thanks to the courtesy of our allies Euphemia and Theresa and our new technology partner Solarflare LLC. However, unfortunately for us, Kreuzung is a station that is far less welcoming to people like us than Serrano was, and so we must take special care to follow the laws here, distasteful and rightist as they are.”

“Kreuzung has a deep history of racism and segregation,” continued the Captain. Her tone of voice sounded audibly embittered compared to before. “Most of us have thick Volgian accents and will get odd looks from the Imbrians. We will need to mind our speech, and who we speak to. But anti-Volgian racism is the least of our concerns. Unfortunately, this place has a much deeper history with Shimii.”

“Because of the segregation regime in place on this station, we will need all Shimii crew to visibly wear permits on lanyards.” Captain Korabiskaya delivered the new with a grave tone of voice. “Cecilia Foss, our legal adviser from Solarflare LLC, is working on procuring papers for us. Until they are approved, I’m afraid that any Shimii crew will have to remain with the ship. Pelagis crew members are a notable grey area. Certainly there is no shortage of racism toward Katarrans in the reactionary Imbrian Empire– but we will only know on a case by case basis whether the authorities take issue with our Pelagis comrades because there is no codified segregation of Pelagis, but there are ‘anti-crime’ laws that racially profile Katarrans. Our legal guidance for now is to await IDs and treat our Pelagis crew and guests the same as Shimii.”

“With one exception,” Commissar Bashara added. “Maryam Karahailos has the natural ability to alter her appearance, so as long as she looks like an Imbrian woman, she won’t arouse suspicion.”

Shalikova eyed Maryam, feeling a stab of personal indignation at this injustice.

To think she would have to disguise her beautiful and unique appearance–

Maryam, however, looked completely unbothered by it.

“Don’t worry Sonya. I can fake being a blond, blue-eyed doll no problem!” Maryam said.

Maryam– you’re too nice. Shalikova patted her on the shoulder.

“As a token of solidarity, Alcor Steelworks’ executive Amelia Winn will be bringing fresh food to crew members on the ship every day.” The Captain continued. “It will be brought aboard by Zhu and Van Der Smidse of the security team. We’ve requested strictly vegetarian fare. We will also be setting up encrypted channels to Solarflare’s campus network so you can connect to the station safely and get access to digital content from the Imbrium. Just have some common sense with that– don’t let the Commissar catch you with any anti-communist films or you’ll be spending some time in reeducation.” The Captain said that in the tone of a joke, but beside her, the Commissar had her arms crossed and looked dead serious.

“Unlike in Serrano, we have some special guests this time around.” Commissar Bashara now took the reins. “We debated how to balance our security with their personal rights, but we ultimately decided to place them in the custody of officers who have shown interest. First, Sieglinde Castille will be in the custody of Khadija al-Shajara. She will only be allowed to leave the ship with Khadija– however, because Khadija is a Shimii, neither are allowed to leave the ship until our permits arrive. Sorry about that.”

Shalikova looked surreptitiously beside herself and found Khadija glaring daggers at a woman standing about a meter distance off to her side. A regal-looking woman with a soft face that was almost as meticulously rouged as Khadija’s, and richly wavy blond hair. She stood taller than almost anyone on the ship except Akulantova, and had an athletic, broad-backed physique that seemed rare in a pampered noblewoman. Shalikova had not been in the loop too much about this individual, but she knew they had picked her up from the Diver battle back at Goryk– once upon a time, she was Sieglinde von Castille.

“I’ll be watching. Just try something. I dare you.” Khadija muttered.

“I– I’m not–” Sieglinde murmured back, averting her gaze.

That was Khadija’s problem now, and Shalikova avoided catching either of their gazes.

Commissar Bashara continued. “Arabella, our guest navigator, will be in the custody of Braya Zachikova. She is only allowed to leave the ship alongside Zachikova. Finally, Maryam Karahailos is under the custody of Sonya Shalikova. She is a Katarran, but she possesses a natural affinity for disguise. If she maintains an Imbrian appearance, she can disembark with Shalikova without issues. And those are all of our special guests. Euphemia and Theresa will freely come and go. As for the rest– I don’t want people to be too suspicious, but because of the circumstances, if you see something unusual, please report it.”

There was a natural bit of staring going around at the people who were mentioned.

In front of her, perennial shower room pest Alex Geninov and a shorter blond woman with a purple dye-job stared over their shoulders back at Shalikova with smiles on their faces. Shalikova tried to stare around them and not engage. She had her eye out for Murati to wander over and start trying to get Shalikova to talk but– no such thing ever happened during the meeting or afterwards.

Captain Korabiskaya resumed speaking after the Commisar was done, delivering some final remarks.

“Aside from that, we will follow normal disembarking procedure. If you are working on the ship, obviously you cannot take off whenever you please, but we want you to have fun too. We will rotate workers, and if you are on free time, you will have free travel to the Alcor executive campus no questions asked; but visiting Solarflare LLC will require permission from your manager if you are a sailor. Officers are trusted to go to Solarflare and back of their own accord. Venturing anywhere else other than Alcor and Solarflare’s campuses, will require individual approval from either myself or the Commissar. We will go through these requests once a day, at night. So submit requests prior to that each day so we can get to them.”

“Put Protocol Tokarev ahead of all other concerns.” Commissar Bashara added. “All of our lives depend on it. We’re not here to play around, but take care of yourselves and balance work and life while you can. We’ve been through a lot and have earned some luxuries. Apply your best judgment, be on your most exemplary behavior and report any problems to a manager or Officer. Salute; Dismissed!”

Everyone saluted the Captain, and the group dispersed; their adventure in Kreuzung was underway.

And despite all of her anxiety– nobody questioned or hassled Shalikova at all. Her secret remained safe.


Because they had arrived late enough in the station’s day/night cycle, nobody actually went out of the ship on the first day the ship spent at Kreuzung, despite all the hubbub. Ulyana and Aaliyah had a lot of last minute business on the ship, so they were seen almost all day rushing between teams and meetings. With the resources of Alcor, and Tigris’ and Euphrates’ support from Solarflare LLC, the ambition of the crew now became to “finish” the Brigand. They had been in operation over two months now, and the sailors and mechanics had found all kinds of things they would change, and many officers had opinions about tuning up the ship as well. Now they had the facilities and resources to fulfill these wishes. Not just to repair all the damage properly and clean up the outside– but to add additional capabilities.

With Alcor’s tools and Solarflare’s specialized labor, there was a lot they could do even in just a week.

There were a lot of proposals, but none of them conflicted with each other. It felt like the sailors had organized their vision for the ship before putting them forward. However, there was a lot of material to look over and approve, and a few things felt unrealistic. Ultimately, they could not afford to tear the Brigand apart completely, but there was room to upgrade many systems, tighten up others, and to make use of some of the ship’s eccentricities, like the agarthic circuits running through the armor, the extra jets in the back, and the vertical launcher on the top deck. What poor Zachikova had not been able to accomplish with software, they could make a reality with an actual overhaul of the hardware.

By nightfall, Ulyana and Aaliyah were confined to a meeting room together, trying to read through as many of the proposals as they could before work started in earnest tomorrow, and to come up with a detailed work plan so that the sailors and engineers could hit the ground running. In the middle of this task, the large screen in the meeting room flashed on and Semyonova’s smiling face appeared.

“Ma’am, you have a call from Solarflare LLC. It’s Madam Euphemia.” Semyonova said.

In Kreuzung, they had to take care to use Euphrates’ professional identity in ordinary conversation.

However, they had ways of speaking confidentially as well.

“Put her through and encrypt the call. Have Zachikova watch the network like a hawk.” Ulyana said.

“Acknowledged, Captain! I’ll route the call!” Semyonova said.

At her side, Aaliyah laid back on her seat and stretched her arms. Her tail and ears also stretched.

They had both been working hard and sitting stiffly– this served as a bit of a break from paperwork.

Semyonova vanished from the screen, and the dark blue-haired Euphrates appeared in her stead.

Calling from behind a false wood desk with several physical books stacked on one side.

“Good evening, Captain, Commissar.” Euphrates said. “I just got back to my office.”

In ordinary communication, Aaliyah was now an “adjutant,“ but the call was reasonably secure.

“Evening.” Ulyana said. “I take it you haven’t had time to put your affairs in order yet?”

“Not at all. However, I did find an affair waiting for me that I wanted to pass along quickly.”

Ulyana blinked, interested in that choice of words. “Something that concerns us?”

“Yes. It involves Ganges– Daksha Kansal.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both, at once, snapped to tighter attention on the screen.

“Did you find her, that quickly?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates shook her head. “No, but an associate of hers wishes to meet me. Her codename is Tamsa, but you may recognize her by another name. Kremina Qote. She left an encrypted message using a Sunlight Foundation specific code-language, stating that wished to speak to me in person, among other things; but with your blessing, I can put the three of you in touch. You would have much more to say to her than I; I think that would be more productive, and it would advance one of my promises to you.“

“Kremina?“ Ulyana said. “She was Kansal’s Chief of Internal Security– but she retired with her.“

“I was not aware that Qote departed the Union. I thought she had just retired quietly.“ Aaliyah said.

“They are attached at the hip.“ Euphrates said. “She must be involved in whatever Ganges is currently doing. The Union believes that Ganges is adventuring out in the world to bring revolutionary justice, isn’t that right? I can absolutely believe she is doing just that– and Kremina must know more.“

Ulyana felt a nervous pang in her chest.

How much of Kansal’s government was involved with Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation?

The existence of the Sunlight Foundation was not so impossible to believe if they thought of it as an illegal syndicate. A mafia-style underworld existed everywhere in the Imbrium, and in places at a very large scale. However, that truth became far more painful to deal with when Ulyana started to wonder if perhaps the Union’s founding had something to do with a conspiracy by a clandestine organization–

“I can already sense your trepidation.” Euphrates said, unprompted. “Which is why I think you must talk to her, in order to start clearing the air. I personally think Ganges is a good person– but you’ll have to determine for yourself what you believe, because she did hide many things from you. But I also think the issue Kremina wants to meet with me about, suits your interests and skillset far better too.“

“That issue being what?“ Aaliyah asked as soon as Euphrates brought it up.

Euphrates grinned a little. “She wanted to talk to me about a resistance movement forming in Aachen. She called it The United Front. I have little to contribute to such an endeavor, even with Solarflare’s resources. So, what do you think, Captain– should I set up a meeting tomorrow?“

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged glances. They narrowed their eyes, felt their shoulders heavy.

The United Front.

A resistance movement, in Aachen? Here and now?

And Daksha Kansal was involved?

So much for their untroubled time at Kreuzung station.

This was not something they could run away from or ignore.

That wave of change which was sweeping across Kreuzung and Eisental– would sweep them up too.

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Close enough to kiss, even–

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muffled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time–

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

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

Especially not someone like Sawyer.


Depth Gauge: 3002 m
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude could not help but– admire her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can somebody explain?” Gertrude mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A shunting metal noise reverberated across the boarding chute.

Gertrude felt her guts tighten–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude’s heart was pounding.

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

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

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

“Ready, Victoria?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course.” Victoria replied.

“Lights on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Acknowledged.” Victoria replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Acknowledged.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Club once again gripped tightly in hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.”

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

“I trust your judgment.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Noted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a farfetched conclusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have your back.” Victoria whispered.

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

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

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

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

“She was being chased.” Victoria said.

“By what?”

“I don’t know.”

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

“Just a hunch. Nevermind me.”

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

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

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

So it was throwing errors and making noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sent a shiver down the Inquisitor’s spine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria made a slightly grumbling noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude sent a command to begin the Core wakeup sequence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

“Red?”

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

Victoria turned over her shoulder.

Her eyes flashed briefly red–

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

“Gertrude! Behind–!”

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

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

Stood a figure–

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

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

Lifting

a dragging arm fused iron and flesh

metal point drawn back like a jet spear

giving off furious red heat

as the spike launched to Gertrude’s face,

“Gertrude!”

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

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

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

Saint’s skin!

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

There was nothing at the end of the hall.

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

But– respond to what–?

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

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

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

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

Her breathing heavy, turning to face every which way.

“You saw it, right?” She cried out.

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

“It’s– It’s gone.”

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

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

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

Coming down from the terror of that moment–

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

“Agh! Gertrude!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good idea. Nothing will survive that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to know, Victoria.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only to be immediately disarmed–

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

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

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

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

Victoria’s voice was so full of determination.

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

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

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

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

For the first time– it felt possible.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I escort you out ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am– Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes ma’am! Rest up!”

As she said this, Schicksal stifled another yawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depth Gauge: 3108 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.3]

Depth Gauge: 2155 m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First she looked to Victoria–

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

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

Then she turned to face Nile–

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

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

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

Are we clear?” Gertrude asked again.

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

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

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

And so, Gertrude began–


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, she was still being uncooperative.

Nile meanwhile–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Depth Gauge: 2498 m

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

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

To laugh– to crack up into nearly sobbing laughter.

“What a farce! What a stupid farce!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her weakness and helplessness frustrated her to no end.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t even say it.

Don’t even think it.

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

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

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

No response from that inner voice of self loathing.

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

Could she have Elena back?

Could she keep Ingrid?

Could she have–

Gertrude heard the door luck to her room slide open.

In a panic, she sat up instantly in bed–

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude realized how bad her posture was.

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

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

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

God damn it, don’t respond to that–

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

Even if her loins did stir–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonsense, pure complete nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back at the bed with the aetherometer on it.

“God damn it.”

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

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

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

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


Depth Gauge: 2540 m

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingrid was an angel. Gertrude ill deserved her kindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingrid winked at her.

Gertrude looked up at her blearily.

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

Ingrid, however, had other ideas.

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

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

Her tail wagged vigorously.

Gertrude mimed her and found the combination surprisingly tasty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did feel much more alert too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude could survive Victoria’s disdain.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s kinda creepy, you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or else– everything was meaningless–


Depth Gauge: 2625

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

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

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

“Is everyone having trouble sleeping?” Gertrude asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monika, I wanted to apologize–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go to hell.” Ingrid said.

“Manners, puppy.” Monika replied.

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

“Manners, puppy.” Gertrude added.

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

Monika and Gertrude laughed.

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

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

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

“You have too much aggression.” Gertrude said.

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

“Manners, puppy–“

“Gertrude, don’t even.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course– Gertrude should have known this could happen.

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

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

She should have considered how it would look to Monika.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gertrude–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let her go.” Ingrid said firmly.

“But–“

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

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

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

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

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

Ingrid’s expression darkened.

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

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

“Ugh.”

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

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

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

“Not you too–“

Gertrude mumbled. Ingrid fixed a sharp glare on her.

“What was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Below the name, it also read FREE HEALTH CHECKUPS!

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

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

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

“Inquisitor? Ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–was brightly green.

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

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

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

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

She patted the chair again with her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um. Sure.”

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

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

“Raise your arms over your head.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Um. Yes, just–“

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

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

“I–“

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

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

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

“HEY.”

“It does contribute to your handsome profile.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think now?”

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

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

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

They had a very animated discussion as the assessment continued.

“How many people have you seen so far?”

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t do that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you pro-human experimentation?”

“An unfair and loaded question.”

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

Gertrude felt a little shiver wherever the doctor touched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has anyone turned you down?” Gertrude asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stand up.”

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

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

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

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

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

Her reaction was rapid and unreasoning.

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did not know for how long, but Nile held her exactly as long as she needed.


Gertrude donned her coat and cape once more. Nile unlocked the door to the clinic again.

Despite how hard and for how long she cried, the Inquisitor felt curiously refreshed.

“You can run your clinic.” She said, unprompted. “Judging by all the yawning I’m seeing around, we do have need for a ship’s doctor, and you feel like a real doctor. I’ll have you formally inducted as a member of the crew when I can. You’ll be on a Chief Petty Officer’s pay scale to start with.”

“I don’t need a wage.” Nile said. “I just need food, lodging, sundries and medical supplies.”

“You’re getting a wage. Don’t be difficult about it. It’ll be easier to justify to Victoria.”

“Do you need to justify anything to her?” Nile asked.

“Just let me handle things and don’t cause me any more stress.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Your health is my utmost concern. I will play along, then.”

Gertrude stared at her. Her skepticism had been fading, but was not completely gone.

“Is it really your utmost concern? You’re not thinking about escaping?”

Nile immediately smiled at her and wagged her tail. She looked her most girlish, almost innocent.

“Escaping? Not at all! Initially I was desperate to prove my value so I wouldn’t be imprisoned– but after today, I’m simply happy to be working on a ship again. Research environments, particularly the ones Sunlight Foundation Immortals have set up for ourselves, are lonely and sterile places. I forgot how good it feels to care for living people. How motivating other people can be for me. I’ve been working in an isolated and antisocial way for so long– it’s good to have gotten out. Do I like the circumstances perfectly well? Not at all– but the work is good. So I’ll stay, earn your trust, and clear my name to you.”

Nile winked on eye and saluted with one hand. “Commander– I look forward to taking care of you.”

Such a coquettish little response– Gertrude saluted back. Laughing a little inside.

Outside, smiling in a professional, chaste and measured way.

“Glad to have you aboard, doctor.”

When Gertrude turned to leave, Nile exclaimed to herself and hailed her again.

“Oh! Inquisitor– did you wear the aetherometer that I gave you?”

Gertrude paused, and half turned to meet Nile’s gaze again.

“That thing you gave me when you snuck into my room? I want to forget that whole episode.”

She had left it in her bedroom, completely forgotten.

“It’s important. Right now, I believe a lot of the crew are becoming fatigued due to the Blue Weather.”

“Blue Weather?”

Nile put her fists to her hips. “You really retained none of what I told you?”

Gertrude had a snippy response. “It was late! I was in lingerie almost collapsing! Look, if the crew is fatigued, I’ll let Dreschner and Schicksal know you have authority to issue nutritional supplements and raise concerns as ship’s doctor. Work with them to adjust the work schedule. You can debrief me about your color theory later. We’re about to embark on a mission and I need to be available.”

“Ya Allah!” Nile groaned, momentarily lapsing into Shimii-speak. “You need to work on that stubborn attitude of yours– Fine then. I’ll do what I can about the crew without bothering you for now.”

“Look, I’ll be available later. Thank you for everything Doctor. I have to go.”

“My pleasure.”

Folding her ears with a bit of a sigh and a bit of shrug, Nile let Gertrude leave the clinic.

It had been close to two hours since she left the Bridge and she felt a sense of urgency.

They must have been close to the “object” by now. Gertrude started running in the hall.

By the time she arrived at the bridge, Gertrude found Victoria standing by the center isle–

–and something enormous on the main screen that was captivating all eyes on the bridge.

“We were just about to call you, Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “Look there!”

Gertrude stood off to Victoria’s side, staring up at the main screen, taking in the picture.

“It’s an anarchist ship. Look at that rough marking on the hull.” Victoria said.

Just ahead of the Iron Lady’s spoon-shaped prow, there was an Imperial cutter, close to 80 meters in length, holding depth but unmoving. A pair of jet anchors led from it into the marine fog, and judging by the stiffness of the cables, they had dug into the cliff wall about 150 meters to the left. One of its fins was turned up and the other down for no particular reason. Its 76 mm single gun turret mounted on the deck was pointed backward from the prow as if aiming for its own conning tower. On the hull, where the flag of the ducal or station patrol fleet or the specific naval insignia might be found, the old livery was scratched out. In its place, there was a rough red A within a circle and framed by a drawing compass.

“Have we had any contact with them?” Gertrude asked.

“We tried. No response.” Schicksal said. “What’s eerie is that we can ping the ship and get an automated signature packet back from the acoustic router, so the ship has electric power but the crew isn’t communicating even in the simple ways. For a derelict, we would expect nothing back, and if there’s people to rescue, and operational systems, we would receive an SOS back. It’s– It’s kinda scary.”

Gertrude looked back at the screen. She had expected a derelict, but not like this.

An unresponsive but operating anarchist ship, stuck in place amid the blue biomass.

Not what she had come into the abyss for– but maybe something she should have been expecting.

“Are you planning to board it?” Victoria asked.

“I am. I want to see what happened to them. So we can avert it here.” Gertrude replied.

“Good. I will join the boarding team then. No objections.” Victoria said.

An alarming declaration, but there was nothing Gertrude could do to dissuade her from this course. Not with the determination on her face. All she could do, then, was to join the boarding party herself as well. Because the Cutter was tight, the boarding party would be small. It might just be the two of them, even.

Delving into the bowels of a ghost ship in the Abyss. What could possibly have happened?

Depth Gauge: 3002 meters
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins Of The End [S1.2]

“Gertrude,”

A soft voice that was difficult to read into. Void of emotion, but direct and determined.

She was blunt, and never wore her thoughts on her face. Gertrude knew this very well.

That chestnut-brown haired, cat-eared girl with the olive skin, much fairer than Gertrude’s own.

She was a head shorter, but she never spoke as if she had to speak up, or endure being spoken down to.

“Her life is going to be far more dangerous and complicated than you seem to realize. It’s not enough to have this little dream world with her here. She’ll be taken away from you. You need to start thinking about how you’re going to protect her. If you don’t– then I’ll take her away from you myself.”

There was no one else whom Victoria spoke to with such conviction and passion.

It was because she actually respected Gertrude enough to criticize her.

Nevertheless, Gertrude slapped her across the face.

She was a teenager. She couldn’t control herself. It didn’t matter that they had a rapport.

It didn’t matter that they could have had feelings for each other.

Gertrude swung her hand with so much more strength than the girl in front of her.

Victoria face snapped aside, red in the cheek. She lost her balance and fell, heaping insult on injury.

Her accusatory gaze met Gertrude’s again very quickly. Defiant, righteous, because she was.

She didn’t say anything else. She’d said what she wanted to, and Gertrude gave her response.

Gertrude had saved Victoria from such abuses from their “friend” Sawyer before.

Striking Victoria was a horrifically low moment. A snap instant that destroyed possibility. Perhaps, had she any power to conceptualize, she would have realized back then what an omen this was. How it presaged all the evil she was capable of, all the harm she would do, how she would hurt everyone she loved.

Back then, she was full of wicked feelings, but–

In her heart, through all the wickedness she felt in that moment, she was ashamed of what she had done. Immediately ashamed as soon as she swung her hand, as soon as fingers struck the soft, fair flesh of Victoria’s cheek. That was not how she wanted to conduct herself, but it was never how she had intended to behave toward that girl specifically. She had always wanted to view her as someone she could protect. So she was ashamed of failing to live to that. Ashamed if Elena found out about that unjust deed.

But shame was not enough to set her on the right path. She lost something– but not enough.

Victoria.

Victoria,

Victoria–! as much as Gertrude hated to admit it, back then, she was becoming someone–

Someone, in the gentle haze of her school memories, whom Gertrude thought she might– feel–

burgeoning– but like everything about those unlucky girls, it was nipped in the bud–

Watching her walk away, back then, a younger Gertrude felt an immense frustration with herself.

But her path did not change at Luxembourg School For Girls.

It led, painfully, inexorably, to where she stood a decade later.


Depth Gauge: 2112m

“Situation report! I saw the preliminaries but I need a status update now!”

Gertrude rushed into the Iron Lady‘s bridge, fully in uniform, sucking down a vitamin jelly pouch and discarding it into a waste chute as she stepped onto the center island next to Captain Dreschner. She made her declaration, but there was already a good amount of information just on the main screen. There was a positional map that showed the inner and outer radius of a sonar and imaging scan, with the Iron Lady at its center. Five kilometers away and approaching, there was a small ship, perhaps a custom civilian vessel. Fifteen kilometers away and approaching, was a much larger ship– an Imperial Ritter-class.

“Ma’am!”

Karen Schicksal stepped below the center island and saluted.

“At 0200 hours, our sensors issued a warning that we had been struck by a powerful active pulse from an enemy detection array. Per protocol, we responded with our detection and imaging efforts, and discovered two approaching vessels from the Vekan direction!” Her voice was trembling only slightly. Her posture was stiff and her shoulders deliberately locked as if keeping her head in place. Despite looking a little ridiculous, Karen was delivering her report quite well. “We have no prior profile data on the smaller vessel, but it is the size of a personal yacht, so we believe it must be a custom civilian model. Such models hit the private market every year. But the larger ship had its profile entered into the Navy Database. It’s the Vekan Ritter-class Cruiser Leader, Aranjagaan! Both vessels are moving toward us at top speed! Neither ship made any attempt to disguise its posture ma’am! I believe they may be in combat!”

She was sputtering out a little at the end, but Gertrude nonetheless smiled affirmingly.

“Thank you, Communications Officer! Captain, what is your read on the situation?” Gertrude asked.

At her side, Dreschner briefly shut his eyes to consider his words.

Gertrude had a hunch that the smaller vessel might be victim of some kind of persecution.

For a military Cruiser to be chasing a private yacht, it had to be a political crime.

Otherwise patrol cutters would have been the ones going after smugglers or enforcing border crossings.

“There is a possibility that the smaller vessel is a runaway Vekan aristocrat or industrialist.” Dreschner said. “Or an otherwise high society or connected individual. Otherwise, for a high profile vessel like the Aranjagaan to be chasing it doesn’t make sense to me. One thing we’ve witnessed since the death of the Emperor is the rise of many highly ideological factions– it could be that this is someone hoping to flee to Rhinea, Heitzing or even the Union. It may be worth contacting them and ascertaining the situation.”

“I agree, Captain.” Gertrude said. “But what rotten luck. All we wanted to do was go into this gorge.”

There was an element to this confrontation which hung foremost in Gertrude’s heart, sending a painful chill through her core. She would not tell it to anyone. But she knew well who was in command of the Aranjagaan now. Before the Empire fully collapsed, when such information was still being shared willingly into the databases at Naval HQ. Gertrude had already learned of Victoria selling herself to the Vekan monarch Carmilla, but she would thereafter discover her appointment as a “special agent” whose flag was borne by the Ritter-class Aranjagaan, fastest and newest of the Grand Eastern Fleet’s Cruisers.

God damn it, I don’t want to hurt her.

Out of that ill-fated little clique of lost souls at Luxembourg School For Girls–

Fighting Sawyer was not a problem, she had always despised Sawyer anyway and even at their friendliest moments their repressed antagonism was only barely affable in nature. They couldn’t have been said to be rivals, even that was too positive. When they laughed together, when they smiled at each other, it never moved them more than centimeters away from blows. Sawyer was someone Gertrude wanted to draw and quarter her, to strip and brand her with hot iron. She could have tortured her and laughed.

Such vitriol rose out of her heart when she heard that name, it almost caused her to feel ashamed.

But, the thought of fighting Victoria was awful– Victoria was someone that Gertrude had once–

I can’t even say it. I can’t even say it. I’m such a god-damned coward.

Their school days at Luxembourg had been a whirlwind of confusing emotions.

But all of them had been broken apart too quickly to resolve them.

They were too young to sort anything out before all their decisions were made for them.

Despite this– Gertrude did not want to have to fight Victoria (van Veka.)

However, she was torn, because this could also be a good opportunity. Veka was riding pretty high and mighty at the moment, and an escapee with sensitive information could help Gertrude’s position. She needed intelligence, desperately. She at least had to confirm with the smaller vessel what situation they were in. Even if it led to a confrontation with Victoria. She couldn’t escape the drama hurtling toward her, because she needed to enter the abyss. So she might as well see if she could turn it into some advantage.

There was nothing to decide. There was only one card to play if she wanted to stand her ground here.

It really was such devastatingly bad luck that they would come here of all places.

Gertrude stood from her seat and made her declaration to the crew.

“As soon as the smaller ship is in laser range we must hail it immediately and demand a connection. We need to take custody of it so we strengthen our position here when the Vekans arrive. Depending on what their story is, we will release them to the Vekans or grant asylum– so we must make preparations to resist the Vekans as well. Have Jarvelainen sortie in the Jagdkaiser, and Clostermann in the Jagd. We will negotiate with the Vekans but we must maintain standoff posture. I want weapons ready, just in case. In the event of battle we will want to quickly disable the Aranjagaan’s weapons and preferably capture it.”

In a shooting battle, the Iron Lady had all the advantages on the Aranjagaan.

That was not the tension Gertrude felt in that moment. She was confident she could win if it became a battle, but she did not want a battle to proceed to begin with. She did not want to start a shooting war with the Vekan side of this border, or worse, to kill Victoria van Veka in such an event. She dearly hoped that everything could be resolved smoothly, somehow– but she had to be ready for the worst.

“Tell Erke–“

For a moment, Gertrude felt the weight of what she was saying and it made her pause.

“Tell Erke to load the cartridge, but instruct Jarvelainen that she cannot fire without permission.”

“Cartridge, ma’am?” Schicksal asked. The crew had not all been briefed on what the Jagdkaiser could do.

To avoid unnecessary anxiety among them.

“Monika Erke-Tendercloud will know what it means.” Gertrude replied. “And so does the pilot.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Schicksal was a professional. She would not complain about classified information.

The crew at the hangar got underway with combat preparations, and the helm turned the Iron Lady to face the direction of the enemy. Detection staff paid close attention to the data sources being fed into the prediction model from the sensors, with hydrophone witnesses keeping an ear out for anomalous sounds in case the computers missed anything. Gunnery and missile staff ran health checks on their weapons.

Gertrude sat back on her chair and watched the blips on the map inch closer to Kesar’s Gorge.

She took her tall inquisitor’s hat off and laid at her side, revealing her dark hair, tied in bun.

“Crown feeling too heavy?” Dreschner asked.

“I don’t think of it as a crown. It’s been closer to horse blinders.” Gertrude said bitterly.

“Well, if you take full control of the Inquisition, you can decree a new hat design.” Dreschner replied.

That drew a bit of a laugh from Gertrude.

While the Inquisition had been her vehicle to try to remain at Elena’s side, it alienated her from almost every other possible friend and ally. The Inquisitor was a figure of dread. The uniform of the High Inquisitor was proof of Gertrude’s single-minded devotion to serving Elena– a devotion that now felt foolish and shameful. She couldn’t discard everything, but she could discard the stupid hat.

Fifteen minutes later, the smaller, faster-moving vessel had entered the Iron Lady’s communication range.

“We’ve sent an acoustic text message to the ship demanding they stop and open laser communication.”

Gertrude nodded her acknowledgment.

“Schicksal, if they respond, put them through to my personal terminal.” She said.

“Yes ma’am!”

No resistance from the runaway vessel. They stopped 1.5 kilometers away as instructed, and opened a line of laser communication, transmitting video to the Iron Lady for a teleconference. Gertrude pulled up the flat LCD which was attached to an arm on the side of her chair, bringing the screen forward so she could watch, and so it could broadcast her own face back to the yacht. In a few seconds, the video quality of both sides normalized enough for them to see and hear each other almost in real time.

“This is High Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. You will follow all of my directions or I will arrest you.”

“Greetings, High Inquisitor. I may be the happiest woman you’ve ever threatened to arrest, right now.”

On Gertrude’s screen appeared a woman, clearly seated in the tight bridge of a personal yacht, lit primarily by her main screen and various instruments. Some of the objects around her looked just a little too complicated to be in a commercial yacht– Gertrude thought she saw a sonar monitoring station over her shoulder. Nevertheless, this confirmed some of her conjectures about the smaller vessel.

Her appearance brought up several fresher questions however.

Immediately, Gertrude took notice of the woman’s tall, narrow dog ears, dark brown bordering on black with a lighter brown streak partially on one side. She had very bright golden eyes and earth-toned skin, from what Gertrude could see of her face. Much of it was taken up by a mask. Stylized as a dog’s snout, it also resembled a muzzle to Gertrude’s imagination. There were vents on the sides, and when the woman spoke, her voice was clearly being output by equipment on the mask. It gave the impression it was not a simple facial covering but actually a respiration mask, like the kind issued to powered armor troops. On her neck, there was also a collar, with a square-shaped device that had a series of LEDs glowing yellow.

Beside the mask, she appeared an ordinary Loup– ordinary in the sense that she was not abnormal, but not plain. Gertrude admitted a certain affinity for Loup, but she imagined under the mask the woman must have been very beautiful, as she appeared quite arresting even while wearing it. Her hair was back-length, smooth and well kept, shiny in the lighting of the woman’s bridge, parted down the middle with short, side-swept bangs. She wore a green turtleneck sweater and black pants with a white coat, with a lanyard full of ID cards around her neck that were illegible with the quality of the video call. Her figure, from what Gertrude could tell and what her imagination automatically filled in, was tall and buxom.

“I’ll take that as intent to cooperate then. So, whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to so late in my ship’s night cycle, and what is her business that has the Vekan Empire mounting a combat response?”

“I’m afraid names are a very distant formality for me. I suppose you can call me Nile.”

Gertrude narrowed her eyes at her. A one-word codename, and she had never heard the word before–

“You will suppose nothing. Give me a real name that I can search in a database.” Gertrude replied.

Could this woman be related to that group Norn was affiliated with? The Sunlight Foundation?

“Fine.” Nile’s eyes shut briefly and she sighed in her mask. “A name I never use is Hilana Tarik.”

That did not sound like a Loup surname–

“Before you say anything, I’m a Khedivate Loup. Or was– whatever. We’re rare these days, but we exist.”

“Don’t presume I’m so ignorant, Hilana Tarik.”

Gertrude was just about to ask why she had a Shimii name. Thankfully the woman interjected.

And so Gertrude could pretend she was not about to make an ass of herself.

“Ugh. I’d honestly rather you call me Prisoner B or anything else.” Nile said.

“Fine. I’ll call you Nile on one condition–“

It was a gamble, but at worst she would just look foolish. She needed to confirm her hunch.

Gertrude flicked a switch, and a shield of soundproof sheets rose around the island in the middle of the bridge. It encompassed Gertrude and Dreschner’s raised seats only, leaving out even Schicksal.

Dreschner gave her a brief look before turning his gaze back to the main screen.

Once she was sure the crew would not be listening to her speaking out loud, Gertrude continued.

“–Are you familiar with the ‘Sunlight Foundation’?” She asked.

“Oh. Interesting. Very well. In that case, you should call me Nile. I am a boss of that outfit, after all.”

Behind the mask, the woman’s expression was hard to read, but she sounded obviously elated.

Gertrude’s hunch was right. An eccentric-looking woman insisting on a one-word name.

Gallivanting around the ocean doing whatever she wanted, even if it flew in the face of the law.

Norn had always kept the Sunlight Foundation’s affairs distant from Gertrude.

Though she knew of them through Norn, she knew little else, little overall. Only that they were helping to supply equipment for Imperial clandestine operations under Prince Erich’s orders. She had interacted only briefly with Potomac, the SF’s representative aboard the Antenora, who kept largely to herself. Norn had attacked Potomac, so their relationship must have been fractious. Based on the technology in the Jagdkaiser, this was a dangerous group and did not seem like the sort of people Norn would get along with. Not that Gertrude could judge Norn for her affiliation whatsoever– the Inquisition had their fair share of grotesqueries at their beck and call, such as the Jäger corps, that Gertrude also kept hidden.

“I am an acquaintance of Norn von Fueller. Through her, I came into contact with your organization.”

“Cocytus? Oh dear. You must have a very negative impression of us, I assume.” Nile said.

“You’re correct. I don’t think highly of you whatsoever.” Gertrude said. “But it is not negative enough that I’d let the Vekans strip you and tear your in half on a rack when I could make use of you myself.”

“Ah, what an interesting imagination you have. I wouldn’t mind letting you use me, Lady Lichtenberg.”

Gertrude saw the woman’s golden eyes narrow and briefly lost composure at that lustful tone of voice.

“Keep it professional or you’re coming with me in chains.” Gertrude demanded. “I know you people are not normal. I won’t fall for your tricks, Nile. Without mincing words or playing games, explain yourself.”

“Of course, High Inquisitor.” Nile replied. “It is as you suspected– I am part of the Sunlight Foundation and I am in fact one of its managers, or ‘Immortals’ as a certain theatrical woman deemed to term us. I don’t have as much of a big head as her. I am part of this organization because they are at the bleeding edge of science. Without arbitrary regulations or religious proscriptions. I have no grander interests.”

She sounded like a psychopath who wanted to toy with human lives outside the bounds of ethics.

Or maybe that’s just what they all sounded like to her after learning about the Jagdkaiser.

“I see. What did you do for this organization, Nile? Tell me about your role.”

Nile shut her eyes again and crossed her arms. “I am by profession a medical doctor, specifically an epidemiologist, but lately I have been working in logistics. I founded a project within our organization to find ways to increase production of certain medical drugs and lower the cost to produce.”

Now she sounded proud. Gertrude did not really believe the magnanimity she was trying to imply.

“Then I assume this has to do with why a Vekan Cruiser is on your tail.” Gertrude said.

“Normally, our facilities are hidden inside abyssal gorges, just within the concealment of red biomass waves but not deep enough to create further difficulties. Unfortunately, the Vekan Empire has of late become very interested in abyssal exploration. Veka was my territory, so it’s been an issue.”

“The Vekans found your drug lab, toppled over your operation, and put you to flight.” Gertrude replied.

In that instant, the woman’s ears rose straighter than ever and she shot a glare at the Inquisitor.

“Leave it to an Inquisitor to make it sound so criminal.” Nile grunted, sounding aggravated. “My ‘drug lab’ as you put it, was working on gene therapy and anti-retroviral solutions. Imbrian companies charge hundreds of thousands of marks per treatment for these, while I have been working to make them available at cost of production. I am not some street dealer feeding people’s vices. You can hand me right back to the Vekans if you think the misgivings of Cocytus are enough to condemn my work.”

Gertrude was taken aback by that sudden passion. For a moment she felt like a child put in her place.

Her impression of the woman completely changed. That wasn’t the sound of a cynical profiteer.

She wanted to apologize, but it would have betrayed too much weakness in the middle of this discussion.

“I believe you. Your passion sounds genuine.” Gertrude said. Her voice trembled very slightly at first as she said her first words since Nile raised her voice so potently. “It explains your equipment as well.”

“My equipment? You mean this?” Nile ran a finger along her muzzle. “This is for the protection of others, not myself. I am a victim of orphan diseases as well, Inquisitor. That’s where my passion comes from.”

Gertrude blinked. She struggled to find an inoffensive way to ask what she wanted.

“Is it– Is it safe to have you aboard? Do you need to quarantine?” She asked.

She was sure that despite her best efforts she had made an ass of herself.

“No, I am fine. My personal protective equipment is more of a precaution.” Nile pointed out her collar. She sounded, thankfully, like Gertrude’s bumbling about her condition did not offend her. “These lights represent my viral load. I’m only infectious when they are Red. Yellow means I’m due for treatment, which I’ll administer as soon as I have time and a sense of safety. As long as they’re Green, I am a completely ordinary individual. I can join the crowds, be close to people, even have penetrative sex, without issue.”

Gertrude tried not to think anything at all about the last item– and failed to do so.

She was composed enough to say nothing about it, however, and air none of her lurid visions.

“Alright– Umm, well, thank you. For being up front about it.” Gertrude replied.

“It’s nothing. So– we had business we got sidetracked from.”

“Right. Nile– if you request asylum, I will grant it. But to the Vekans, I’ll present it as an arrest.”

“I must admit I don’t quite relish coming into the custody of anyone involved with Cocytus.” Nile replied. “But I have no choice at this juncture. You do feel different from Cocytus– and even kind of cute.”

Gertrude tried not to visibly wither under the attention. “I am not a copy of Norn. I make my own decisions. I’ll be up front. I’m only taking you in to acquire more information. I am on a journey into the abyss here to unearth Norn’s secrets. Since I am only using you, you had better prove useful.”

Nile laughed. “It’s as I said before, High Inquisitor. I don’t mind you using me. In any capacity.”

“Quiet with the innuendos.” Gertrude grumbled. “You better behave when we bring you in.”

“I’ll be as a puppy on her leash.” Nile replied, clearly smiling behind her muzzle, her ears wiggling.

Gertrude would have been lying to herself if she pretended it was only a naked power grab.

Her soft spot for Loup, an exploited and oppressed people, made Gertrude want to view Nile through a lens of sympathy, especially after what she said. She had to be cautious about having a narrative spun on her, but it was difficult to be stone-hearted toward her story. Perhaps Nile was different from Potomac. Maybe there was merit to the Sunlight Foundation. She would hope to find out through Nile’s conduct.

However, that was not something the High Inquisitor could admit to anyone.

To everyone else, she would only say what was the most obvious truth about the situation.

Gertrude had to use the law and position she was invested in, or it would become meaningless.

On some level, she had to resist the Vekans to prove the Inquisition still had independence.

Furthermore, anything the Vekans took was something Gertrude herself would never have access to.

This was an opportunity to potentially recruit a talent Gertrude would need to reach Norn’s level.

Or if she had any faint aspiration of surpassing her and winding her own path in this era of chaos.

It only made sense in the moment to take Nile from them– whatever the future consequences.

However, now, it was impossible not to confront Victoria. But perhaps that had always been impossible.

“Nile, dock into the port sidepod chute. We’ll help you extract any equipment from your vessel. I’m afraid we can’t bring the entire thing into the Iron Lady, so we’ll have to ditch it afterward.” Gertrude said.

“I won’t miss it, don’t worry. I look forward to meeting you in person, Lady Lichtenberg.”

Nile bowed with one hand over her chest, and ended the video call.

Before lowering the soundproofing and giving her directions–

Gertrude fell back against her chair with a deep sigh.

I’m in over my head, aren’t I?

At her side, Dreschner had pretended not to hear anything he wasn’t told, as usual.


“We have met with the guest. We are processing her with caution and inspecting the vessel.”

Gertrude received a call from her head of security, Vogt, a broad, burly, and big-shouldered blond boy with a nearly blank expression. He and his men and women were armored up and had plastic visors over their faces. Nile was on camera, in the background behind Vogt, and looked pretty calm and collected for a woman surrounded by burly men with shields and prods. Nobody was being aggressive– Gertrude’s forces were very well trained and disciplined. Anyone who had broken under pressure while Gertrude was in command was dismissed immediately. She had no use for loose cannons or cowards.

These were not only her standards, but those of a dreadnought crew.

An Irmingard’s bountiful amenities were reserved for elite and prodigies.

Lesser-thans served in Frigates.

“Thank you Vogt. I’m about to get into another lengthy discussion. Hold Nile for now. Treat her well.”

“She will be treated with the utmost courtesy, High Inquisitor.” Vogt said.

That of course meant– if she threatens you, High Inquisitor, she’s paste. Until then, she’s perfectly safe.

Gertrude was glad to have found someone like Vogt in the trenches of the Inquisitorial police.

“High Inquisitor, the Aranjagaan entered communication range.” Schicksal said. Her voice was firm, but her face was shimmering with sweat. Her hair was damp. That woman’s anxiety always came out somehow. Nevertheless, she carried on professionally. “We sent an acoustic text to desist at a 3 kilometer range. We have instructed them send comm buoys one kilometer out and that we will do the same.”

“Good idea. A meet in the middle buoy relay– it’ll keep both of us in standoff range.”

“Yes ma’am– I thought it would be amenable to all parties, ma’am– prevent an escalation–“

“You’re doing a great job Schicksal. Keep it up.”

A little bit of praise–

Schicksal’s eyes drew wide and she nodded her head vigorously. “Thank you ma’am!”

–and the desired result. Schicksal was a good soldier. She just needed to be built up a bit.

On the main screen, Gertrude kept her eyes peeled for any signs of compliance.

Moments later–

“Ma’am, the Aranjagaan has stopped at the 3 kilometer standoff range.”

Her sonar and imaging detection team updated her on the situation.

Gertrude breathed out, relieved. “Send out a drone buoy and try to connect to them.”

“Yes m’am!”

Her electronic warfare section was ready with the drone as well.

Everything that was process-driven was going smoothly.

But soon, the human element would be fully at play. For both the Vekans– and herself.

“We are receiving a video communication from the Aranjagaan.” Schicksal said.

“Put them through to me.” Gertrude replied.

It was the moment of truth.

And immediately–

Gertrude saw the face she wished she wouldn’t have on the other end of the call.

“It’s been a long time, Gertrude. Misfortune compels us to meet once again.”

“I am still hopeful that we can have a pleasant chat, Victoria.”

She smiled, but inside, she was twisted in a knot.

Bah– why did she have to look so good–

Gertrude did not know what to expect. She was surprised, in a complicated fashion, by how closely Victoria still resembled the girl in her fondest old memories. As a woman, she still looked young and petite, with almost as much of a babyface as Elena. Rather than the pigtails Gertrude remembered, she wore her light chestnut-brown hair in a ponytail. Her ears were rounded, fluffy and soft-looking. Her olive skinned and soft features were so exact to the memories, those appraising eyes and guarded expression.

Victoria hardly ever smiled. To see her neutral, unsmiling face was the most familiar sight of all.

Her style was quite different, however.

Gertrude was used to seeing Victoria in little dresses, blouses, bloomers. She had really taken to the imperial lifestyle of late, it seemed. She was dressed in what appeared to be a button-down shirt and tie, the collar peering out of a dark green waistcoat. She had on high dark colored socks along with very dark blue shorts that met the socks mid-thigh. On top of this attire she wore a cape that fanned out from her back, almost triangular, clipped on her shoulders, black outside and dark green in the interior.

Had it been the old days Gertrude would have jokingly referred to her by “young master.”

Unfortunately those days were as far removed now as Veka was from Konstantinople.

“Let’s skip the pleasantries.” Victoria said. Her voice and mannerisms were always blunt. She spoke her mind. It was one of the reasons Sawyer often wanted to tear her in half back then. “I am a special agent for the Vekan throne and I am pursuit of a wanted individual. Hand her over, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

She always was a little softer with Elena– with Gertrude, the fullness of her personality came out.

“I’m on the Sverland side of the gorge.” Gertrude replied. “I’ve not intruded on Vekan territory. So from the start, the Vekan Navy has no reason to advance any further, or pursue anyone beyond these bounds. Furthermore, I have already made an arrest for this individual to stand fair trail in Konstantinople, on the grounds that she is potentially being unfairly persecuted in her home nation. She is a Loup, and there are special provisions for her legal safety. This is a critical role that the Inquisition plays in our legal system. I am willing to listen to your case, Victoria, as to why this individual should be released to you.”

Gertrude had hoped that Victoria would divulge some information she could use against Nile, but–

Victoria was completely unmoved.

Her expression did not once change during Gertrude’s entire speech.

Until she was done speaking.

“Your rhetoric is entirely empty.” Victoria said. “There is no Sverland side of this gorge anymore. Sverland has ceased to exist as a state. The Inquisition, also, has ceased to exist as a force for law in this region. The law here is on my side now. I am going to contact my Union liaison and summon a Union Fleet Combat Group to protect the Union side of this gorge. Even your mighty ship can’t stand against that much firepower. And you won’t receive the slightest bit of sympathy from them. So I suggest you give up.”

Gertrude was taken aback. She knew Victoria was blunt but this sudden aggression?

She was bluffing. She had to be bluffing. Gertrude held her tongue to avoid a snap response.

A Union Fleet Combat Group was 30 to 40 ships; they could not possibly be loitering nearby.

“Victoria, let’s not escalate to threats. Especially to threats as equally empty as you say my rhetoric is.”

“I’m sending you some data. Think of it as good will from me to help speed this discussion along.”

Gertrude looked down and to the side at Schicksal’s station. Schicksal nodded her head vigorously.

“We’re definitely receiving something! It looks like a few minutes of real time imaging data.”

“Put it on the main screen.”

For a moment, Victoria cracked a tiny smile on Gertrude’s screen.

As the High Inquisitor looked up at the main screen and for a moment couldn’t control her expression.

Disbelief flashed clear on her face.

“Impossible.” Under her breath, but, barely audible.

Victoria crossed her arms.

On the main screen, an image of the farther off surroundings of Kesar’s Gorge, to dozens of kilometers.

Closer to the Narodnaya range, about twenty five kilometers south, was a clearly labeled Union FCG.

Thirty ships, led by the Yaksha, a Union Cruiser under Admiral Chinedu Kimani.

How are they this far out already? I knew the Serrano Region had fallen, but this rate of advance–

Victoria finally spoke up.

“To support our cooperation, Veka and the Union set up coordinate exchanges near our borders. I will offer the Union your Irmingard-class vessel in exchange for taking custody of the crew under force of arms and turning them over to Veka. I hold all the cards here Gertrude. You don’t have a choice.”

This bitch— this fucking expression-less self-absorbed snake-tongued BITCH

I’m going to get my hands around that pretty neck and choke you

Gertrude tried to put a chain around all the wickedness spewing from her evil heart.

Melting down is exactly what Victoria wanted. Victoria knew Gertrude as well as Gertrude knew her.

“Schicksal, keep everyone on alert. But this discussion has become sensitive now.”

“Yes ma’am! I understand!”

In a moment, Schicksal and the rest of the bridge disappeared behind soundproof shutters again.

Dreschner gave Gertrude a worried look that she did not return.

She was focused back on Victoria van Veka. Nothing else existed for them.

“You could have fabricated this data.” Gertrude said, trying to be calm. “I have no way to verify.”

“Try me then.”

Snap.

“You egocentric bitch–“

“I don’t care if you insult me.”

Victoria had done it again. She’d gotten a rise out of Gertrude.

Pathetic– so pathetic–

God damn it.

“Enough.” Gertrude grunted. “Is this person really so valuable to you as to confront the Inquisition?”

“Yes. There’s no Inquisition Gertrude, just you. Turn her over and I’ll allow you get on with your business.”

“Allow me? You have no authority and I will not be swayed by your threats. Take her from me then.”

Victoria shut her eyes and breathed a little sigh.

“I should have known that you would respond like this. Block-headed to the last.”

They weren’t getting anywhere. It was exactly the worst situation Gertrude envisioned.

And she still stupidly walked into it anyway.

“Victoria,”

Gertrude brought up a hand to her chest, and locked eyes with her counterpart seriously.

“I swear to you that I do not want to fight with you.”

Again, Victoria was infuriatingly blank in the face.

“Then don’t.” She said simply.

“God damn it! Give me even a centimeter here! We’re on the verge of shooting here!”

“Any blood is on your hands. I am acting fully within the moral rights and self determination of Veka.”

It didn’t help that Gertrude knew she was ultimately the one without a case.

She only wanted to retain Nile for her own selfish purposes.

Maybe Victoria did have a good and just reason to pursue her.

But at that moment, if Gertrude gave up, she was not just giving up Nile.

She was giving up the Inquisition’s ability to resist the tyrants of this era.

And Gertrude’s ability to resist them as well.

“The Inquisition doesn’t surrender its prisoners to ducal authority. It is the Inquisition’s role to see justice done across the Empire, and above regional bias, and I still believe in that, even if the Empire has been fragmented. I am on the side of justice, Victoria, and I will see justice done in the end.”

Pure sophistry, empty rhetoric–

Victoria narrowed her eyes.

“You’re lying to me, but you’re also lying to yourself. This is bordering on pathetic. You pursued a higher status for your own self-gain and the Inquisition was the opportunity available to you. That’s it.”

“Then I’m only following your lead, Victoria van Veka! You seduced a woman decades your senior and shamelessly claim moral authority drawn from her? And you have the gall to criticize me?”

She snapped without thinking. Again– she had lost her composure like a fool.

And this time she’d said something truly horrible–

A bitter little laugh escaped from Victoria’s lips. An uncharacteristic sound from the stoic girl.

“You and I are like oil and water still, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

Gertrude grit her teeth.

God damn it. She kept fucking up! She kept fucking everything up! With all of her friends!

“We don’t have to be, Victoria! We can let this go and avoid escalating it. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Victoria met Gertrude’s eyes with an unfamiliar expression on her face. A little grin.

And sharp, glowing red rings around her eyes– familiar ones–

“How is Elena?” She asked.

Gertrude grit her teeth. This woman had grown capable of much greater cruelty.

She now knew who Victoria reminded her of. That expression– Norn.

“Thanks to our mutual acquaintance, she is gone from me forever.” Gertrude said.

“No, that’s thanks to you Gertrude, isn’t it? It’s not just Sawyer who is responsible anymore.”

Her voice had an unsettling tone of voice. Her entire presence–

Power. She radiated power. Power that Gertrude did not have.

Was this real? Was Gertrude going insane and cracking under the pressure?

“Sawyer attacked Vogelheim, and you were nowhere. But I saved Elena– you should owe me for the second chance that you got. A chance that you squandered. You pushed her away again.”

It was like she could see through Gertrude now, like the Inquisitor’s facade was just paper burning away to reveal the secrets beneath. Victoria had always been perceptive and intelligent, but this was beyond the bounds of perception. For the first time since leaving Norn, Gertrude felt the awful presence of a power beyond her understanding, the chill of helplessness that came with being read and the guardedness that it engendered in her. There was nothing Gertrude could do about it.

But how did Victoria acquire this power?

It was frustrating– everyone else had come so far, and she was always a step behind–

“You don’t know anything, Victoria. Neither now nor back then. But you love to run your mouth.”

All she could do was talk! And anything she could say wasn’t worth a damn!

Victoria was again utterly unaffected by her words.

“I never ‘run my mouth.’ I always say what I want to say. Gertrude, there’s no more Inquisition. All of your remaining subordinates are hiding in Konstantinople, even the Inquisition’s precious Jagers have not made a move. It’s only you, out here, with nothing to back you. You must accede to my demands.”

She even knew about the Jagers— and she was more informed on current events.

Gertrude felt the shame and helplessness growing inside her. She had lost the verbal spar.

Or maybe she could have never won it to begin with. Not in this kind of scenario.

Victoria had all the cards. Gertrude was isolated.

It was the worst situation. Victoria did not know about the Jagdkaiser, but it did not matter. Firepower did not matter. Gertrude could kill Victoria, could run heedlessly at her and annihilate her in one blow, to no avail. It accomplished nothing. The Union would be tipped off to attack her immediately; she would not be able to stay in Kesar and uncover its secrets. She would have failed in every way. In this game, there was only one possible winner no matter the circumstance, and it was Victoria van Veka. She was the only winner because Gertrude could only possibly lose, no matter what action she decided to take.

That was the story of her life. No matter what, she was always losing everything she loved.

But still– her heart continued to fly with a tiny, smothered conviction she could not repress.

There was more to the game. There was them, the two of them.

And what Gertrude’s heart desired.

Something that perhaps superseded the game of ships and guns and politics being played.

If she could let herself drop the mask and speak from the heart–

“Victoria, I wasn’t lying when I said I don’t want to hurt you. To me, you are still someone whose life I cherish. I am sorry. I am really sorry and I am really ashamed about everything I’ve done to you.”

She was defeated. So she let herself be honest. It was the most sincere thing she had said yet.

Victoria’s self-satisfied smile disappeared from her face. She broke eye contact with Gertrude.

“Cut the theatrics.” Victoria replied. “Done to me? I don’t care–“

“I’m sorry that I slapped you back then. It wasn’t right. I threw away our friendship.”

“What? Slapped me?” Victoria blinked, bewildered. “That was years ago.”

“Like a whole other world. And I’ve carried that weight forever. It wasn’t just Elena I fucked up with.”

Gertrude tried to fight tears building in her eyes, but a few did slip out.

“God damn it. I don’t want to be put in this situation. I don’t want to keep fighting all of you.”

Victoria looked confused, for the first time in their confrontation.

“Gertrude–“

“Victoria, I want to work together with you. If you’ll cooperate, I can be on your side.”

Victoria looked like she had taken a blow to the chest. She had clearly not expected this.

And to a great extent, neither had Gertrude expected it.

“I can’t possibly trust you. You are Erich von Fueller’s pawn now, Gertrude.”

“I’m nobody’s pawn. Prince Erich didn’t lift a finger to save Elena. In fact– he’s responsible for it.”

Her anger when she spoke that sentence was palpable. And Victoria clearly felt it too.

Dreschner looked like it was taking all of his willpower to pretend not to be interested in this.

Gertrude continued to make impassioned declarations.

“I am nobody’s pawn, not Erich’s, not Norn’s. I am not going to be your pawn either, Victoria. But I can extend my hand to you as an ally. I need your criminal on my side, Victoria. She, and the abyss, hold answers that I seek. In Imbrian literature, Nocht, the first Emperor, descended into the abyss for power. Norn did as well– and I am here to uncover this secret. Then I will take command of Konstantinople and make it my fortress. I have no intention of it becoming another foothold for Erich von Fueller.”

On the screen, the Shimii closed her fists. Her posture tightened ever so slightly.

“So you want me to stand aside and let you go on your little quest, based on nothing but your word? It’s all well and good to say this when it’ll get you out of trouble!” Victoria said, raising her voice. “But if Erich comes knocking, what will you do then? Will you also promise him things with gilded words?”

“I will attain the power to become a bulwark against Erich von Fueller.”

Gertrude smiled at her, weeping but full of determination. She had finally stated her aim.

Airing words and thoughts that had been formless in her mind since Vogelheim.

At first spoken in wild anger after the loss of Elena– but now fully reasoned.

If the price of power was losing the support of the Fuellers– then she would choose power.

If she had to lose Victoria as well to remain on the side of the Fuellers– then she would betray them.

It was too unjust to live otherwise. To keep losing everything she loved and gaining nothing.

“Everything that I am doing is to try, however much in vain it is, to protect the people I love and the people who swore fealty to me, from this era of chaos and injustice. I know I am a hypocrite, because I helped bring all of these tragedies about and I helped support the people responsible. I was completely heedless to the consequences of my actions. But I want to make amends. Let me make amends, Victoria. Under my own power, but for your benefit as well as mine. I want to protect you.”

Gertrude reached out her hand to the screen. Tears glinting in the sides of her eyes.

Victoria reached a hand up to her face. Eyes shut, lips slightly drawn.

“Protect me?”

“I never gave up hope for us. I want you to be safe.”

“Liar. You awful, damned liar.”

Her ears twitched. Her frustration was clear and visible and it was tearing her up.

She did not speak for several seconds. Gertrude’s smoldering gaze continued to lock on to her.

Finally, she heaved a sigh as if she had been holding a breath since they first saw each other.

“Very well. The Vekan Empire will look the other way, just this once, on one condition.”

“Name it.” Gertrude quickly said.

Victoria lifted her hand from over her eyes and pinned a serious gaze back on Gertrude.

“I will join you on your expedition. The Vekan Empire is also trying to explore the abyss. I will join you on the Iron Lady as a temporary liaison and intelligence agent. I will ascertain your intentions, freely record any information you encounter explicitly for Vekan use, and if you harm me or Vekan interests, then as soon as you come back up, this journey is over for you. I will be watching the criminal Nile as well. If you prove unable or unwilling to manage the criminal’s affairs, Veka will also turn against you.”

Gertrude had to roll with the punches but she was briefly stunned herself at this concession(?).

Maybe as stunned as she had left Victoria when she first started speaking from the heart.

“Of course. You are welcome aboard. But won’t your allies feel uncertain about this?”

“My allies have unquestioning faith in me, as the Empress’ special agent. You are my ally too now; so I demand unquestioning faith from you. I will set my affairs in order and depart on a shuttle.”

“Well– I suppose I will be seeing you in the flesh shortly.”

“I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. But at least it’s amicable to both parties, without bloodshed.”

Gertrude thought she saw a small smile before the video connection severed.

Without the Shimii to yell at on the other end, the entire exchange felt utterly surreal.

As if Gertrude had exited a wind tunnel, and her body was still shaking, her senses confused.

Victoria might still have a soft spot in that hard heart for her old school friends.

Just like me.

Gertrude sighed. She really was in over her head. Everything was in turmoil.

“Hmm.”

Dreschner glanced at her briefly before returning his gaze to his own computer.

“With me, or against me, on this one?” Gertrude asked.

Dreschner let out a short laugh. “I am always with you, Inquisitor. Or should I say, Emperor?”

Her expression darkened immediately. “Oh, don’t even joke about it.”

“You’re right, I should treat it as seriously as you do. We shall see where your ambition takes us.”

Dreschner was far too enthused about this.

Gertrude fell back on her chair, wishing she could become a soft jelly and slide right off.


After a tense couple of hours, the Aranjagaan backed off from standoff range. The Cruiser retreated to a 5 kilometer line further into Veka, and informed the Union 8th Fleet FCG-F of a Vekan operation in the Kesar’s Gorge area, in order to avoid potential hostilities between allies. The Union acceded to this, and the Aranjagaan shared all information with the Iron Lady pertaining to the Union position in the area. Before leaving, the Aranjagaan released Victoria van Veka, and then awaited the return of their shuttle.

Collectively, the crew of the Iron Lady breathed a sigh of relief.

“You are such a shrewd negotiator, High Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “We got out without a bullet fired!”

Gertrude laughed, more than a little nervously.

Please, God, let me have a power other than groveling someday.

Nile’s vessel was fully unloaded, and the woman was admitted into the Iron Lady’s interior. Aside from a pitiable amount of food and water, Nile’s vessel was packed almost wall to wall and corner to corner, in every possible place she could find, with boxes and vials and bags of medicines. Gertrude’s security team was greatly confused. There were large amounts of staple antibiotics, painkillers, sterilizing and saline fluids, gauze and stitches, scalpels and scissors and picks and other cutting and twining tools, but also bio-stitcher cartridges of various sorts, hormone therapy drugs, insulin for diabetics, inhalers for asthmatics, eye drops, in addition to rarer and more exotic drugs. Rather than being named, some of the boxes had long formulas and strings of compounds to designate them and were full of vials.

Everyone had assumed there would be weapons somewhere but found not a single one.

“Why would I need weapons? I’m a medical doctor. Medicine is my weapon.” Nile said.

Nile was unbothered by the attention of the security team and cooperated fully throughout the inspection. After overseeing the unloading of her medical supplies and leaving behind instructions for their safe long term storage, Nile was gently ushered to a meeting room to await debriefing.

Shortly thereafter, a small, cylindrical shuttle arrived to convey Victoria van Veka to the Iron lady.

Victoria brought with her one wheeled trunk full of luggage, which was scanned on entry and found to be inoffensive, full of nothing but clothes and needed sundries. On her hip, she had a ceremonial vibrosaber which was given to Vekan armored cavalry. Since it was a symbol of office, and as a gesture of good will, she was allowed to keep it. Processing her into the ship was much faster and less tense than with Nile.

On the shuttle there was only one piece of larger equipment that had been brought from the Aranjagaan for Victoria’s use– a Jagd model Diver. This item was cleared by security and brought aboard into the hangar through the underside cargo hatch. Monika and the engineers would have to set up another wall gantry to hold it. Until then it was sat up against the wall like a sad, claw-armed child in timeout.

With such deference, the Iron lady welcomed Victoria van Veka to their quest for the Abyss of Kesar.

Despite the verbal scuffle with Gertrude, Victoria was unfailingly polite to the Iron Lady’s crew.

“Such a splendid security detail. I hope that choleric woman treats you properly.” Victoria said.

“The Inquisitor is a good commander. Please do not insult her, milady.” Vogt replied gently.

It did not escape anyone that the target of the phrase “that choleric woman” was immediately known.

Gertrude was not too fond of that when she reviewed the processing reports and footage.

Nevertheless, once Victoria’s shuttle departed, the Iron Lady’s expedition officially resumed.

Thus, Gertrude found herself in a meeting room sitting across a table from Nile and Victoria.

A black-eared dog and a light-eared cat– the tension was thick enough to coat a spoon.

Gertrude had to debrief them on the situation and the coming expedition, but–

Victoria was staring daggers sidelong at Nile, who was untroubled by the antagonism.

And Nile was smiling too noticeably behind her mask, and clearly up to something.

“Lichtenberg, your name is too long to say formally. Let me call you ‘Trude.” Nile said.

“Absolutely do not let her call you that.” Victoria said suddenly.

Gertrude briefly felt like hurling herself through the outer bulkhead.

What have I gotten myself into?!


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.8]

“It seems hopeless right now, but we are beginning to turn the tide.”

Raul von Drachen reassured his bedraggled-looking intelligence staff, all of whom looked at him with dire expressions before returning to their tasks. Around him, every monitor had some scene of pure chaos. Dozens of dead bodies in failed frontal assaults on B.S.W. dock; some kind of Shimii-related altercation out of Tower Eight that led to tram hijackings and confrontations with the K.P.S.D; all of the concerted ship to ship and diver to diver fighting around the towers themselves which was already inflicting some infrastructure damage; and the continuing presence of armed forces in Kreuzung’s Core Pylon.

It was all darkness and no dawn thus far for them.

He would have described every front of this situation as “fluid.” In the most polite terms.

“Inform the K.P.S.D. that they will suffer retribution from the 7th Fleet if they harm the Shimii from Tower Eight.” Von Drachen told his subordinates. “I am but the messenger and that is my only role, but we have about 10,000 Shimii troops bound for here, and Violet Lehner is very fond of the culture.”

“Sir, the K.P.S.D is voluntarily withdrawing from the southeastern Kreuzung blocks.”

One of the intelligence agents described an unfolding situation–

“It’s probably a coincidence sir, but after the Shimii began their exodus from Tower Eight, a heavily armed group engaged the K.P.S.D lines in the western interstice. They have military grade weapons. K.P.S.D tactical teams are being moved to prevent them from escaping through the southwest main bulkhead. They don’t seem to be trying to stop the Shimii anymore sir. So we may not need to warn them after all.”

How serendipitous! Everything was starting to look up for the Volkisch!

At least, in the long-term strategic lens.

Anything that befell the K.P.S.D. was ultimately good for the Volkisch forces.

They only needed to hang on enough to prevent a total collapse of order in the station.

And only long enough for the rest of the Volkisch’s reinforcements to arrive.

“Interesting. A heavily armed group openly engaging the K.P.S.D?” Von Drachen said.

“There is a Cruiser size ship fighting out of the conveyor belt. It’s very strange.”

Because it was the K.P.S.D’s operational area, the Volkisch did not have good visibility.

Von Drachen would have to review the K.P.S.D. footage after this was all over.

“Why does the K.P.S.D not simply let them go?”

“Sir, I think the K.P.S.D is trying to justify its continued existence at this point.”

“What is your name?”

Raul von Drachen smiled at the female officer, a middle aged woman with beige hair tied into a bun and a very conservative approach to her uniform. She looked up at him bashfully from her chair and took a moment before answering. “Sir? My name is Josephine Reim. I’m– nobody important, sir.” She said.

“You are keen and a hard worker. I will be sure to put in a good word for you.”

“Um. Thank you sir.”

He turned to face the screens again. There was little they could do at Laurentius anymore.

Von Drachen had accomplished his tasks to their bare minimum. That was good enough.

All he could do was observe, with a great unearned pride in his calm inaction.

Now it was all up to Vesna Nasser to sort out the rest, in the waters of the Imbrium.


First and most immediately, she realized she was going much faster than she ever had.

Piloting a machine without battery-saving modes and impositions on fuel usage and parts wastage allowed Homa Baumann the freedom to squeeze every last bit of performance out of the components. As soon as she escaped Kreuzung’s core station and emerged into the waters of the Imbrium Ocean she plunged into an incredibly fast dive, unaware that her peak acceleration and slightly downward angle would carry her so far down so fast. Pulling back on her control sticks, she arrested her momentum quickly, the density of the water helping her to stop completely just above baseplate.

She realized that this machine felt entirely different to pilot than her Volker.

“If I can’t get the hang of this I’ll just get myself killed. I should do an equipment check.”

Homa was never unaware of the danger she was in. Off in the distance, her acoustic sensors passively warned her of the dozens of explosions, some of the largest of which generated shockwaves that carried even as far down as where she stood, gently rolling over the hull of her mech but still perceptible. Her combat computer overlaid large yellow targeting boxes on her screen to show her the estimated direction of targets generating large amounts of noise. Nevertheless, Homa stood still in the water.

Going through her controls, extending her arms, twisting the joints, moving the legs.

Boosting, briefly up and briefly back down.

She made a few adjustments to the control sticks and pedals now that she was in the water.

When it came to movement, she was fairly versed in it. She was also handy with Diver melee weapons.

She hoped it wouldn’t come down to shooting the gun– but she felt ready to do it if needed.

In a few minutes, she mapped the limitations and natural habits of the machine that she could observe from its reaction to her controls. It was heavier than the stripped-down Volker she piloted for old Bertrand, and yet, its range of movements was greater, its arms were more flexible, it could execute pretty tight turns, it could accelerate much more quickly to a higher top speed. She needed to know all of these things if she was going to effectively pilot it up above, where there was an actual battle. Homa had no illusions about winning battles, but at least she could take advantage of the agility she had to avoid danger and make her way to the Eisenhower as Kitty had told her. She could stop all of this.

Sitting back in her chair, breathing in. Sweat-soaked, tear-stained, fatigued, hurting.

Homa had never felt the enclosure of a Diver as much as she did in that moment.

Because Kreuzung had become forbidden to her. She could not go back where she came.

Docking at B.S.W. again was out of the question. And now that she was out here in this machine, she had become more of an enemy to the Volkisch authorities than ever before. Homa could no longer envision going back to Kreuzung. Materially, of course; but even psychologically as well. She had left home and could not turn back, not now. So she only had one direction in which she could go.

And therefore, no safety net. Only the walls of the Delta to keep the water out.

She raised a hand from her left stick briefly and put it to her head, sighing.

“Your longest day isn’t over yet, Homa Baumann. Concentrate. It’s all to play for now.”

She tried to psyche herself up, but there was no humor to be had.

This was the grimmest situation she had ever been in. It was nothing short of nightmarish.

That girlish impulse to make light of things and try to act cool couldn’t make a dent in it.

She saw herself briefly in one of the dark monitors, eyes distant, hair disheveled.

In her mind there was a nasty flashback– to Kitty McRoosevelt’s gory wounds–

Homa cringed. “At least I don’t want to end up like that. Let’s just go!”

Her destination was over a kilometer above.

At the site of the naval battle between the Republic and the Volkisch.

Homa slammed her pedals, pulled her sticks back, and the Delta launched skyward.

Water rushed past her, her main camera faced the endless, dark Imbrium. There was no sign of a sky, she could only tell she was rising because she was close enough to the main tower to see the steel structures on its exterior, the laser router contact points and the gates and bridges and berth doors and other landmarks, descending rapidly past her. Marine fog and tiny animals swept down at her. Held breaths as if any second she would see a change, as if the waters would part to let her through.

On the edge of the screen a flashing red box appeared noting the direction of an attack.

A flurry of shells detonated around Homa, forcing her to cease climbing and turn sharply.

Homa traced the intensifying lines of gunfire to a trio of distant Divers quickly closing in.

Each shell exploded into a shockwave that transferred gently into her body, not enough to rock her Diver individually but since there were dozens of shells the continuous shaking unsettled her. Grazes and near-impacts on her armor chipped away at it, not enough to penetrate, but in aggregate she was taking damage. Homa could not tell the caliber but each vapor bubble resulting from the detonations grew to about the size of her head in an instant before collapsing. Her cameras filled with water vapor from the detonations, over and behind and beside her as she swung a semi-circular turn out of her climb.

When the Divers came closer, Homa saw they were the Volkisch Sturmvolker model.

Volkers were known for their rotund armor that made them almost cartoonish, but the Volkisch Sturmvolkers made away with the bathyspheric chassis. Instead, rectangular plates of light armor were packed tight around the square cockpit, and square shoulders and hip joints were added to attach the arms and legs, the silhouette resembling her stripped down Volker. A new, sleeker, more aggressive head was used instead of the traditional Volker head, with more cameras and some helmet armor, and the whole thing was painted black and armed. Homa had seen them around Kreuzung on patrols and saw them on the news as well. She learned about them from a news program, in fact.

Those were not full-length, high-caliber rifles they were holding, but compact bullpups.

Despite this, the hail of automatic fire they were capable of had Homa on edge.

They had come in guns blazing and were repositioning to give chase as she tried to escape.

The Delta was in surprisingly good condition despite all the gunfire, but she couldn’t underestimate them.

Homa tried to give them a wider berth, using her superior acceleration to speed far around them and hoping to find an opening to continue her climb, but gunfire shadowed every meter that she gained on them. She could accelerate faster than them and had a higher top speed, but they were light and quick themselves, with good aim. The speed difference was not enough for her to simply ignore them.

She grit her teeth, feeling vibrations in her cockpit as the exploding bullets inched closer.

Her hands were both shaken and shaking on her control sticks.

She tried to twist suddenly from horizontal movement to vertical, shooting up–

Quickly aborting and diving away from further gunfire.

“Ugh!”

Those three figures existing in her cameras only as red boxes swerving in the water.

They filled her eyes entirely with the flashing yellow-red blasts of their shells.

Long lines of bubbles cut into the water before the inevitable explosions.

There were so many bullets, and they were beginning to coordinate their shooting.

All of the black lightless water turned to white vapor around her. Shockwaves intensified.

Explosions trailed closer and closer– a direct impact rocked her cockpit–

Her chest tightened. She was giving it everything– and she still couldn’t break free–

And the sky remained barred from her.

Chaos still unfolding; time still ticking–

She had to stop it! She had to!

“I’ve had it. I’ve had it! You asked for this!”

Homa quickly lifted her hands from her control stick and tapped a touchscreen.

On her magnetic strip, the “GA2 30mm Machine Gun” released.

She reached the Delta’s arm behind its back, taking the weapon into one hand. Its stock extended and locked into a slot on the Delta’s arm for stability in one-handed firing. A box-like weapon lock burst from around the barrel into the water around the Delta. An ammunition counter and heat indicator appeared on the weapon status monitor just below her line of sight as the weapon armed.

“I’m not fucking afraid of you!”

One fluid motion; Homa cut the acceleration suddenly and spun the Delta around.

Her gun sight traveled over one of the red boxes as she smashed her triggers down.

In seconds, the XM2 flashed and sent a barrage of dozens of shells slicing across the water.

Two of the Sturmvolker boosted in opposite directions away from the shells, but the unit in the center of the formation caught six high-velocity shells in its midsection, the barrage falling almost squarely on its position. From the distance she was firing Homa could not tell what kind of damage she had done, but the behavior of the unit told her everything she needed. Immediately ceasing movement, it drifted slowly downward and Homa’s flashing red enemy overlay contracted and separated from it to follow the remaining two units, ignoring the stricken one. Homa turned her attention away from it as well.

Her remaining enemies arced away from her in opposite directions, one soaring upward and one spiraling downward as if twin jaws trying to put her in a vice. All the while their guns flashed in the distance and continued to put dozens of tiny blasts near her. Homa tracked them only on her computer with just the faintest visual impression of their actual, physical forms on her various displays.

After firing, Homa charged at full speed while remaining between the two units, swerving from side to side and up and down while carrying as much speed as she could through her corrections.

Unlike them, however, she had the advantage of vastly greater firepower.

Her machine gun had a higher rate of fire, more ammunition and bigger shells.

In the middle of a quick climb to avoid the gunfire from below, Homa flipped the Delta, which had been facing down, such that it was now facing the opponent above while still moving at full speed away from it. On her back, gliding across the water at over 60 knots, Homa aimed for the center of the red overlay box drawn on her monitor, distantly overhead, and squeezed down the trigger for her machine gun.

A few seconds of pressure and her weapon erupted into bursts of dozens of shells.

She could see the lines cut into the water linking her to the target, the rhythmic booming of the detonating shells, the brief and far-off flashes of the ordnance and the water vapor expanding bubbles the size of her whole body. Her face flashed from the gun camera with every burst of gunfire, holding down the triggers and depressing when she felt it was enough. From that section of seemingly empty water that she had turned into a cloud, not a single shell answered her attack.

“One left. One left.”

Keeping the Delta facing skyward, Homa took the machine into a dive.

She twisted in a spiral motion and her enemy climbed in an attempt to go level with her.

Jerking out of the dive, Homa once again cut all speed and stopped with the enemy in sight.

“Get out of my way! You bastards are just making everything worse!”

Homa depressed her triggers–

This time, however, the Volker was within the 60 meters or so where Homa could see it.

It did not change that she ruthlessly opened fire–

But the results were immediately evident.

Firing until the machine gun’s 200 round pack magazine clicked empty and detached.

Watching the Sturmvolker distort under her brutal gunfire.

In that moment, Homa felt like her once-pristine soul had dirtied, the glass edifice of her inner beauty had a crack put it in. Blow after blow from her 30 mm shells, each of which was half the size of her arm and detonated into a blast bigger than herself. Pieces of metal went flying, holes punctured into the cockpit, the limbs of the machine were thrown in every direction, its head smashed to pieces, fading vapor clouds revealing the mangled thing drifting into the dark. A red mix streamed from inside the chest, perhaps lubricants, perhaps blood and gore or both. That violence had been so easy and instant to unleash.

Homa stood with her eyes wide open as the red targeting box vanished.

Breathing deeply, sweat trailing down her nose and lips.

She had killed them. She had killed them all. Fired on them and killed them–

Like they weren’t even human– they were just things in metal bodies– herself too–?

Suddenly another red box flashed at the edges of her vision.

Hitting all of her boosters in a panic, Homa threw herself out of the way–

As a sword sliced past her swung from a sleek, sharp, triangular chassis with a sharp face.

She barely had a moment to think before more bullets came flying in her direction.

Everything shook around Homa as several rounds exploded just off her cockpit.

Gritting her teeth, she slammed the pedals and thrust upward at an angle.

For a split second, she caught the assailant on her cameras, claws, sword, shoulder gun–

Second generation close combat model, Jagd, painted Volkisch black.

That one she had heard about in school– there had been a demonstration–

A roughly triangular, long-armed and short-legged, light and fast killing machine–

School was too distant to think about. It was life or death now.

Within the next breath, the agile Diver had shot up toward sky with her, and with the initiative and better control than the scared Shimii girl the pilot of that vicious machine got within distance again, swiping its vibroblade arm just below her legs. All the while the autocannon on its shoulder dispensed dozens of rounds of a smaller caliber, much like the bullpups that the Volkers had been carrying.

Homa’s armor could withstand the blows but she had already taken several shots and each one of them rattled her brains in her skull and caused her stomach to churn. Her skin brimmed with fear.

Then, with one mighty boost from all of its thrusters, the Jagd suddenly overtook Homa.

Like a predator lunging, pouncing, one shoulder reared overhead, blade coming down.

It was nothing like those bullets– one good swing on the cockpit and she would be dead.

Before she even realized it, Homa had already responded out of sheer instinct.

She withdrew her own melee weapon and instantly swung from behind herself.

The Delta’s vibroaxe engaged with just centimeters between the cutting edge and metal.

Chopping through the enemy’s arm and shoulder, across the cockpit, tearing the pod open.

Froth and gore and metal spilled over all of Homa’s cameras disgorged from the machine.

Resistance from the water arrested the Jagd’s swing, its edge bounced from her shoulder.

Leaving a scratch as the wreck slid back from her, sword buzzing with residual vibration.

Homa hung in the water for a second, watching the Jagd fall away from her sight.

As quickly as it had appeared, lunging out of nowhere’s shadow with naked aggression.

Gone, in a blink. It was a nightmare. It couldn’t be anything but a nightmare.

Everything that she had done, all of the evidence of her violence– it was gone.

They might as well have been phantoms. Attacking from outside her visibility, from outside the thickness of the water that prevented her from seeing farther than out than the length of Kitty’s yacht. Then falling back into it and vanishing. Aside from dissipating bubbles and water vapor, aside from the pits and dents on her armor, there was no evidence that she had enemies– that she killed humans.

“No. Please. No more.”

She was already hearing the familiar alert noise as a red flashing box appeared.

More enemies. Even more enemies–

One enemy.

In the distance, a ship was slowly approaching, sixty meters long.

A conical body with an angled prow and a straight, rectangular conning tower.

Only a few guns across the hull, all of them smaller even than the station defense cannons.

It must have been a Cutter from the patrol fleet, but it was headed right for her.

Had she been out on a gig for Bertrand it would have been a welcome sight, a sign that she was safe and watched over, but she was fighting and killing with the rest of the maniacs involved in this chaos and so she was its enemy, and it was her enemy. Another enemy barring the way up above. Homa almost wanted to stand in place, to be shot and die and disappear with the rest of them, to cease struggling–

On the touchscreen, her shaking fingers selected the “M78 LAW” missile on the backpack.

As soon as it spotted her the Cutter’s double-barreled gas gun opened fire.

Homa launched upward with a lick of solid fuel boost to avoid the attack and launched her missile.

The defensive guns were targeting her, so they failed to shoot down the exceedingly fast projectile.

Arcing out of her backpack and boosting toward the ship, crashing onto the top deck.

Erupting into an explosion unlike any Homa had seen. A vapor bubble the size of the Delta itself tore open the top of the Cutter while the shockwave caused it to bob in the water like a dying fish, rocked by the sheer force. Equipment, tearing armor pieces and unmentionable objects disgorged from the orifice.

The Imbrium’s hungry waters quickly forced their way through the Cutter. Homa watched as its once confident advance toward her came to a halt and its prow tipped toward the seafloor. Runaway pressure damage tore into the interior, nearly split the ship top to bottom as the bulkheads burst from inside out from the pressure. It careened out of sight, crashing into sandy crater below too far away for Homa to hear. On her main screen, the targeting box on the ship remained pinned on it for far too long.

And,

faster than Homa could fear of it

it flashed purple for a moment rather than red.

It was as if the ocean below Homa parted to show her a vision as clear as on land.

Without the veil of darkness she had an impossible, terrifying visibility.

A hideously beautiful, perfect sphere of glowing purple energy lit up the world.

Like the core of some otherworldly weather pattern.

Several alarm sounds, flashing alerts, boxes and overlays warned of the danger.

Homa was entranced, staring down at the approaching purple glow.

Spreading, rising, consuming–

It never got far enough to devour her. Somehow, it ran out of energy with which to hate.

Below her, a circular crater with its walls covered in a hexagonal shaped grid.

Revealed to her for a moment before the water drowned the sight again.

No sign of the ship, not anymore. A runaway agarthicite reaction had annihilated it.

Everything became silent. Homa clutched her necklace. She couldn’t get herself to cry.

“How many people staff a patrol Cutter? It’s like– It’s like sixty or seventy isn’t it?”

In her mind, Homa had killed a hundred– no, hundreds of people. Thousands of them.

Her shoulders and chest shook up. She thought she would vomit right on the controls.

We’re Sorry.

“No.” Homa’s lips trembled. “It’s not you. I– I have to get up there. I have to get up there.”

We Believe In You.

That almost made her weep. Almost. “Thank you. At least I– damn it. Damn it.”

Homa interrupted herself. She had to see this through to end. She had no other choice.

Without any further enemies to stop her, she launched skyward again with renewed haste.

Those words which she had cut off– she had almost said, “At least I know I can fight.”


“Ma’am, the John Brown is out of position! They are moving northeast!”

“God damn it. They’re fleeing– of course we couldn’t count on the fucking convicts.”

The crew held on their stations as a shockwave rolled over the hull of the Republic Cruiser Eisenhower, munitions from the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah detonating haphazardly in the waters around it. A fierce battle had begun over 100 meters above the crown of the Kreuzung Core station, its massive span and the gargantuan crater into which it was set, all forming the backdrop to the fleet’s dizzying exchange of shells and missiles. The Imbrian vessels strafed in a wide circle that prevented the Republicans from scoring direct hits with their static guns, but Republicans had six times as many cannons and rocked the waters around Kreuzung with enormous rolling barrages that shook their enemies’ bridges.

So far, however, they had not managed to slow them down.

Eisenhower was the lead ship of the expedition, and its Captain was decided by democratic vote to be second in command to Kitty McRoosevelt overall, and the overarching decision-maker when it came to fleet combat. But Captain Dianne Smith had little experience guiding entire fleets. As Captain of a Cruiser she was versed in leading her ship’s barrage. She had always taken her orders from others, and now, amid a chaotic situation, she found her focus was narrowed to her ship’s barrage alone, and that she had neglected to give anything but broad orders and communications to the rest.

She had expected the John Brown, largely staffed by the 808th Penal Battalion, to flee.

However, this brought attention to the overall positions of her fleet’s constituent ships.

In chasing the tails of the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah, they were beginning to move out of the range of their mutually supporting flak fire. They would become vulnerable to torpedoes and missiles if they did not regroup, even if some of the smaller ships might have a look at the enemies with their guns. Though it pained her to take the pressure off the Imbrians, she saw no other choice to survive.

“We need to recover our formation! Tell the Frigates to tighten up on us. Send the Divers out to harass the Greater Imbria. That should keep them off our backs until we can regroup!”

Eisenhower and its remaining three attendant Frigates began to reorient, making up for the loss of the escaping John Brown, while their half-dozen S.E.A.L. mecha made up a squadron and sortied, leaving the defensive aquaspace of their motherships. On the Eisenhower’s main screen, a map of the crater with the relative positions of their own Divers was displayed in place of the chaotic predictive imaging. Soon, information on the enemy Diver’s positions was collected and appeared on the screen too.

“The Greater Imbria deployed two Divers, and the Mrudah deployed two additional.”

The Eisenhower’s communications and sonar officers rattled off map updates verbally.

“We have the numbers on them.” Dianne said. “We just have to clinch it.”

Dianne bit the side of her gloved index finger, staring at the main screen.

As if her sheer concentration could change anything. Her heart stirred with anticipation.

Kitty, none of us had any choice, ever since we became trapped here.

All of them had unloaded their responsibilities and culpability on that woman.

And she had gladly taken it all. Even if it was resoundingly unfair. She suffered for them.

They were a fleet of cowards. Dianne could never have deluded herself otherwise.

But they were dangerous cowards. Cowards whom the Imbrians could not treat lightly.

“We’re almost there.” Dianne muttered. “If we get through this–”

“Ma’am! One Diver has broken off from the enemy formation and is headed for us.”

“Intercept it!”

Here’s our chance! Pile on them!

With the advantage of numbers and a haphazard Imbrian formation, they could–

“Ma’am– something’s wrong!”

On the main screen, their Diver squadron had intercepted and surrounded the Imbrian diver.

Its supporting units were hanging back, closer to the Greater Imbria–

In moments, the S.E.A.L.’s positions stopped and became fixed in place.

And the enemy unit continued to move.

“How is it possible? Tell them to destroy that thing!” Dianne cried out.

She turned to her communications officer and the woman turning pale in her seat.

Shaking hands clutched her headphones– staring at her monitor incredulously–

“Pass it through to me!”

Dianne gave the order and donned her own headset, tuning into the Diver’s feeds–

“Agh!! No! I can’t–! I can’t–!”

“We’re going to die–! We’re going to die–!”

“Please spare me! Please– I have a family!”

The Captain was speechless as she heard the cries of her Diver pilots, all of whom fell into a sudden panic, screaming and begging for their lives and crying helplessly without firing a shot at the enemy. They would not respond to being hailed. On the main screen the representations of their Divers, marked by their IFF signal, began to waver and disappear one by one, the audio feeds cutting one after another with horrific atonal feedback noises. In place of each one, the lone Imbrian unit that had moved out of formation moved closer and closer as if sweeping methodically through the S.E.A.Ls killing each unit.

That green and black Diver with heavy armor and winged shoulders–

Its implacable aura of death broke their souls as it marched toward the Eisenhower.


“Finally! Finally!”

Cresting over the top of the Kreuzung Core, the S.E.A.L Delta piloted by Homa Baumann paused to gain its bearing. There was no mistaking the presence of the combatants nearby. Far below, she could feel the heavy ordnance as vibrations, but above Kreuzung, she was struck by a greater force of the shockwaves, carried on disturbed water seeking a surface to crash upon. She quickly found that she had to keep mobile, or risk being shoved into the station’s ceiling. She could see far off flickers in the darkness, the explosions muted by the distance, the ships battling still out of her limited sight.

But the booming and roaring of the detonations felt clear and close.

Homa looked over the ceiling of the Kreuzung Core, a sight she never thought she’d see.

Inside that tower, Homa was confined to the lower levels and for all she knew, the higher ones must have been a gilded and pristine heaven. Looking at it from overhead, it was not so impressive. There were none of those terrifying domes exposing the inhabitants to the Imbrium. Instead the ceiling was an uneven but closed surface. Near Homa’s vantage there were hatches for vertical berths, as a well as a missile launcher that was facing the enemy’s way, but out of power. There were all manner of sensor towers, some with rotund sonar arrays, some with high-powered lasers. In another world Homa had thought of learning how to fix these to continue her education. Becoming a station engineer, helping to keep people safe.

She was maybe twenty meters above it, but she was above Kreuzung, for the first time.

Such dreams felt lofty and distant now.

She only here to prevent further destruction– not to feel sorry for herself.

“Eisenhower– I have to find the Eisenhower. It would be the biggest one, right?”

In the Delta’s imaging computer, there was a profile for an Eisenhower.

Homa made note of the appearance of the vessel. As soon as the Delta had it on camera, Homa would have a green box pointing out the way to go. With a judicious press of her pedals, Homa advanced into the fog of war, following the dim flashes of the detonating shells. Careful not too move too fast so as to not run right into enemies without time to react to them, but also to retain enough speed to respond.

Within moments, several red boxes appeared, overlaid on distant but approaching targets.

There were several models in the fight which she already knew of, Sturmvolkers and Jagds.

There seemed to be some skirmishing in the distance. Homa hoped not to get involved.

She quickly reloaded her machine gun and kept the weapon on hand.

Water rushed past her, and the yellow munition flashes became closer and larger.

Up ahead, in the parting shadow and marine fog, she saw an enormous green hull.

Like a wall of metal taking up much of her vision. Homa stopped– a green box appeared over the ship. It was a Republic frigate. A boxy hull with retractable fins, a square conning tower, thick cylindrical jets tucked between sixteen-section rectangular rear flaps in the stern section. Even as it moved past Homa, all of its guns were blazing, its dozen defensive gun emplacements firing at unseen threats, its prow-mounted cannons periodically unleashing fast barrages of shells.

Homa found it hard to stay near it– it was displacing so much water as it moved.

And there was so much ordnance flying off it that she was scared of being shot.

“Not the Eisenhower. But I better signal, just in case.”

Reaching for a few buttons off to the side of the left stick housing, Homa turned on her emergency signal. She flipped through the preprogrammed channels on her communicator, hoping she could interject in whatever chatter the Republicans had, but everything was encrypted and her Diver wasn’t decrypting it automatically, so she heard nothing but garbled noise. Homa had never worked with the kind of military communications gear that was in this Diver. She was not sure how to communicate with them.

“Hello! Hello! Please come in! Kitty sent me here! I have a recording for you!”

No response when Homa tried to call them– she really wasn’t able to get through.

Was it because they were in the middle of battle?

Or was she doing something wrong? Which dial or knob should she turn?

“Ugh! I’m such an idiot!“

Homa had to hope they would see the Republic distress signal and contact her instead.

“Maybe the Eisenhower specifically– maybe I can get their attention.”

Hoping that the Frigate in front would not shoot her, Homa climbed several dozen meters up, cresting the top of the ship’s boxy hull and dashing over the top deck. To her relief, none of the gas gun emplacements turned to shoot her. As she crossed over it, however, there was an enormous explosion off the port side of its prow section, and this time, Homa nearly lost control of the Delta.

An immense wave of water poured over the top deck of the Frigate as a munition struck.

Homa rocked in her seat, slamming her shoulder into the side.

She nearly tumbled from the force, expending solid fuel to correct with gritted teeth.

Her toes curled, her fingers gripped the horizontal sticks with all the force she could muster, fearing that they would get pried off their mounts on the sides of the pilot’s seat. Such was the force of the tremor.

Rushing up and away from the ship, she looked at the underside cameras.

Catching a glimpse of the Frigate beginning to sink beneath her.

It would not crash into the Kreuzung tower, thankfully, but this was so dangerous!

If it annihilated like the Cutter that Homa sank–

“Where the hell is the Eisenhower?”

Homa found herself among several enormous, vague shadows each of which floated at the edge of her vision. She saw the gargantuan hulls, each over a dozen times larger than her mecha. All of the hulls had a dozen or more points all along their surface that shone brief in quick bursts, flashing muzzles, sailing comets with tails of vapor, painting distant suns in the darkness. Within these unceasing, incandescent barrages of cannon shells, Homa felt smaller than a single LED in the endless shadows of the Imbrium.

In the dim cockpit her face lit up again and again, every second, with flashes of gunfire.

Rumbling and roaring and crashing noises pounded into her ears through the hydrophones.

She felt as if every single piece of ordnance shaking her cockpit was touching her gut.

For a moment she stood transfixed at the scene of titanic, brutal war before her eyes.

Giants armored in billion times her weight of metal, causing detonations that could vaporize her a hundred times a minute, inexorably moving through the water in such a way that the waves which rolled off them slammed and shook Homa’s armor. Pure engines of destruction. The Delta was big and strong, and she could fight while clad in it, but this was another level of magnitude altogether. There were only three or four ships fighting in this group, and just that was already dwarfing her with its scale.

She recalled Majida al-Khaybari’s words when she told Homa she could not stop this.

At that moment, Homa sucked in a nervous breath.

And as she exhaled, green targeting boxes marked all of the ships as friendly.

One flashed, dead ahead.

Homa immediately slammed the pedals and the Delta thrust headlong toward it.

“The Eisenhower! I found it!”

Amid the three other shadows, there was one vessel half a length longer than the rest.

The flagship, Eisenhower, with the most flashing red guns and searing white projectiles.

Filled with renewed hope, Homa rushed closer, heedless of the gunfire blazing before her.

Climbing over the vast, broad deck of the ship, avoiding the gas gun emplacements.

“How do I broadcast Kitty’s message to them? Come on, one of these systems has to–?”

Homa reached out to the communicator when her face lit up red.

Warning overlay box–

Split into eight–

“No! Oh no!”

Jerking back the control sticks–

Half-second breath held slamming the boost–

Fire, buffeting blasts one after the other–

Barely escaping, hurled from the deck by the sheer scale of the attack.

Within an instant, eight missiles crashed in brutal succession over the Eisenhower’s deck.

Punching a vertical line of craters along the top of the hull that compounded into a runaway fissure from prow to conning tower. Through explosive decompression and flooding the hull was almost split vertically in half. Disgorging massive plumes of gas bubbles, thousands of unmentionable shreds of metal and ripped apart bits of electronic gear, whole rooms and sections peeled like the guts of a deboned beast. Red foaming masses of human interstice within the ship’s effluvia, death, hundreds of deaths rendered impossible to prize apart from one another in the killing mass. Abstracted and turned brutally symbolic.

Absorbed as if into the Imbrium itself. The Eisenhower was gone, destroyed, in a blink.

“No. No way. No, no no no– NO– NO WAY– NO WAY–!”

That helpless Shimii in the stranded Diver slammed her controls, her fists turning red.

“Please no, please. They can’t all be dead– they can’t all be dead–”

She was not being rational. She had not been acting rationally for a very long time.

This was not something that she knew. It was not something someone could know.

When an idea became too big in her head, of course, it sounded the most necessary.

Not rational– necessary. It was necessary, for Homa to “stop this.” It was necessary.

Necessary to stop hiding, to stop running, to stop being manipulated, to take control.

And to confront it, to confront the looming thing and climb on it from the ankles up.

Homa had been used too much. She had felt too much dread, seen too much pain.

In such a state, it was necessary to fight. It was necessary to take control of her life.

Nobody else was trying to stop the tragedy, to stop the killing, to stem the blood.

Why? Why was it only she? And why– why did it end like this? Why did she fail?

“The Volkisch. They killed them all. They let all this happen so they could kill them all.”

Homa’s exhausted, panicking, self-hating, and fundamentally innocent mind, too distracted with punishing herself for her naivety, had never considered the idea that the Volkisch, through the sheer brutal violence of which they were capable of, would ultimately put an end to the battle themselves.

That they could take all the lives that were left to be taken, kill everyone that she had wished to save, and conclude tragedy with tragedy. She had been so focused on turning back the Republic assault, on “stopping Kitty,” on finding a peaceful means through which to reverse all of the violence– that she had simplified the presence of the Volkisch in her mind. But now they loomed larger than ever. Homa had failed to stop the fighting; they had succeeded in crushing all of their opposition through force of arms.

“I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid and helpless and useless and worthless.”

Punching her controls between every word. She was already in pain. She barely felt the strikes.

Floating among the debris of the Republic fleet in an Ocean that was suddenly silent and still.

Perhaps she could have saved them if she had been here sooner, been more skilled.

If she had gone to the authorities about Kitty when Imani would not do so.

Maybe if she could have done something about Radu and had secured Majida’s help.

And if she had been stronger. Someone stronger. Someone not Homa Baumann.

“What am I supposed to do?” Homa whimpered. Her strength had begun fading.

Without the adrenaline, she was just–

DANGER!

A burst of arms fire detonated around the Delta’s flank, rocking Homa in her cockpit.

It was a high enough caliber to cause damage and tore a piece off the flank armor.

“Please stop! Please! I surrender!”

Shameful words that she immediately hated saying escaped her lips before she could think.

Her hand shot reflexively to the communicator, slamming the broadcast button.

Jaw clenched, eyes finally finding tears again.

“Please. My name is Homa Baumann. I’m from Kreuzung. Please don’t kill me.”

She would go back. She would go back to Kreuzung clapped in chains.

Anything not to die. Anything to be lost in a million pieces in this cold cruel ocean–

“Remain where you are. If you lift your weapon, your life is forfeit.”

There was a voice responding, a woman’s voice. A slight accent– a familiar type.

In a moment, the Delta flashed a red overly off to the left side, and Homa turned to face it.

Her machine gun was still firmly grasped in her hand, but it was pointed below her.

Rapidly approaching, a Diver, green and black, fearsome, large and rugged.

Sporting the same symbols as Imani’s armbands, a black sun, a sword and a moon.

It had a broad chest which sloped from the center, like a rough, angular cone. Two thick shoulders bore a pair of missile racks which it discarded on its approach, as both were empty and dragging. Multiple hydrojets provided a lot of thrust for the bulky frame, with thick, armored arms and legs and a square backpack. Its head had a number of sensors arrayed around it that resembled a crown. Behind its back, the array of jets and control flaps looked almost like an abstract pair of wings.

Homa had never seen this model before. It was no wonder the Republicans had lost.

That machine approached and stopped within fifty meters of Homa. Terrifyingly visible.

“You say you are a civilian? What are you doing out here?” Asked the woman pilot.

“I– I panicked and stole this unit! I wanted to escape the station!” Homa replied.

“You are a terrible liar. But very well. It’s useless to interrogate you here. I’ll take you back.”

“Who are you?” Homa asked. “Are you with the Volkisch Movement?”

Head pounding, voice feeble, breath ragged. The wind had been knocked out of her.

It was all finished–

“Correct. I’m a Volkisch Standartenführer. My name is Vesna Nasser. So, drop your weapons–”

Homa’s eyes shot wide open.

Her head cleared like an explosion had sucked all the brain fog into its flames.

Fingers trembling, hands shaking, feet tapping on her pedals.

Brimming from the back of her neck, down her spine, into her hips.

Vesna Nasser.

Vesna Nasser!

Homa’s brain filled with weeping faces and grief-filled words–

Leija–

Imani–

Kitty–

So much suffering– so many people she had come to care about–

so many more innocents unspoken for that had been hurt–

“VESNA NASSER!”

The Delta lifted its arm while simultaneously boosting backward with all available thrust.

Homa crushing down the triggers as if she could squeeze more bullets from the gun.

With a roar the machine gun sent a chaotic burst of shells hurtling into Vesna Nasser.

Her machine lunged forward and arced up, an immediate response.

Absorbing a few shells but rising out of the way of the attack. She was fast!

“You’re not getting away! This is all your fault! I’m going to– I’m going to–!”

Homa pulled up the machine gun in the midst of firing, sending line after line of burning red trails chasing after Nasser’s wake, her machine rising, circling overhead, fast for its bulk. In her fury Homa turned with the machine but could never put rounds anywhere closer than around the feet, watching with frustration as the Vesna Nasser weaved overhead always a step in front of a long tail of vapor bubbles and yellow splashes of fire. In the midst of her attack, however, she realized an idea–

Suddenly, she boosted aside while firing the gun, leading the shots ahead of Nasser–

“DIE!“

One final onslaught from the machine gun before it clicked empty.

A storm of a dozen machine gun shells hurtling into the center of the enemy.

Nasser shot straight down into them, straight down at her.

Several shells crashed into her Diver’s shoulders and chest. Pits, cracks, dents–

Out of each explosion, the diving, rapidly accelerating machine came out undaunted.

Homa’s panicked reflex was to fire her remaining missile, but was it too close–?

Would she survive the explosion–?

Killing people is no joke–

Homa had killed– She could die for this–

I want to live

Her own pathetic voice in her own mind.

Homa’s hand froze on the missile trigger and retracted, wasting precious time.

“Damn it. Damn it!”

Vesna Nasser bore down on her, suddenly swinging an unfolded and active vibro-halberd.

The Delta’s hand came out from behind its back with an engaged vibro-axe.

Edge met edge, clashing in the water and spreading vapor and short-lived sparks.

Nasser swung her weapon with furious alacrity. Homa gave everything she had to match.

Two Divers in the middle of a cloud of water vapor and drifting metallic debris, blow after blow.

Their cutting edges smashed and blocked and parried in a vicious brawl–

Homa felt feedback from the arm transfer into the side of her cockpit. Harder each time.

She was being pushed back!

For a brief second, she lifted a hand off a control stick and grabbed hold of her necklace.

“I’ll give it everything. I’ll make you pay!”

As soon as her hand grabbed hold of her sticks again, she pushed both forward.

Hit both pedals, engaged all thrusters.

The Delta surged into a wild swing and caught the Halberd under its edge, pinning the weapon.

Slamming suddenly against Nasser’s Diver, the two of them grappling, grinding metal on metal.

Weapons up against their chests, sparks flying between them as the oscillators gnawed.

A contest of pure durability as their weapons and mechs wore each other to pieces–

You’re too weak, little-tail.

That voice did not belong to the “little guy in Homa’s necklace” that she fantasized about.

Too cruel, too cold–

It was Nasser’s voice– but she was hearing it in her head.

Homa was certain it was not the communicator. Nasser was speaking to her, to her mind.

Then,

the Delta suddenly pushed back, just enough to give Nasser room to swing.

Weapon rearing up, while Homa’s axe was to her chest, not even in a guard stance.

Homa had not moved it– and Nasser’s mech had not shoved more strongly than before–

How did she get knocked off-balance–?!

You never understood the difference between us.

Time seemed to suddenly stop for Homa.

She felt as if she was suspended, not in metal, but out in the ocean.

Standing across from the tall blond Shimii woman sneering at her in her pilot’s suit.

Homa had the vibroaxe in hand, in her own hands, holding it, feeling its heft somehow.

Nasser, too, had her Diver’s weapon in her real, physical hands, wielding it with ease.

But Homa couldn’t move properly. She was trapped in the instant of their collission.

Between them, hateful red color like a cloud consumed the entire ocean.

“I can feel the anger you have for me. I can see it. You want revenge.”

Nasser’s lips moved and Homa could hear her voice as if standing across from her.

Homa was furious, full of violence, full of dark desire, but–

She couldn’t find the strength to attack again.

In that instant, in this strange space in which she and Nasser were personified–

Nasser was a colossus. She had an overwhelming presence.

Homa’s sputtering wrath was like a candle-fire to Nasser’s volcanic aggression.

She felt like she was choking under the withering hatred of that woman’s gaze.

“You have spirit, but you lack a key element to challenge a King’s power, Homa Baumann. It is not enough to have virtuous words, a cause to fight for or even fighting spirit. A King must have domain over life and death. The power to kill. Not just fight; kill. I will show you the gulf between us, little tail.”

Around Vesna Nasser that nakedly aggressive red color turned immediately, starkly black.

Like the snuffing out of a light, an instantaneous smothering darkness.

Radiating from around Nasser and consuming all of Homa’s surroundings.

Her pitiful little red color was invisible in the pitch black sea.

Homa’s heart sank, her hands trembled, her legs shook. Her head felt empty and airy.

It felt like when Radu reached out his hand to her.

All of her rebellion, all of her emotion, all of her hope and vigor drained from her.

DANGER DANGER DANGER!

That pitiable little voice blared its premonitions on deaf ears.

Despite the urgency of the threat, Homa could hardly make herself move to respond.

Something was squeezing the strength of action from her, and she could only watch.

Vesna Nasser raised her halberd overhead, its edge lacquered in the same deathly black color..

In that instant she was both the woman and the machine, just as Homa was both.

Swinging from shoulder down with all of her strength and killing intention.

And,

as if through the clad metal protecting her

the black killing wave swept through

Homa Baumann

spraying out the weak red from her

causing immediate unfeeling

King’s Scorn.”

Homa’s held-up vibroaxe clashed with Nasser’s halberd to no effect.

Though the Delta’s weapon and the Muawiya’s collided out in the Imbrium Ocean–

An invisible violence directed the blow through the armor and right into Homa.

One brutal slash of furious black color running in a steep diagonal across her.

For an instant, she felt hot and crushing pain as if being hurled against a wall.

Then came the numbness–

Chills, the distortion of her vision, dissociation of her thoughts from her body.

Breaths escaped that couldn’t be caught. Smothering dark covered the edges of her vision.

Losing power over her limbs, releasing the Delta’s controls, spiraling into a descent.

Drifting, down like the debris of the sinking ships, down below the bottom of everything.

I’m going to sink and disappear. Just like the people I– I killed–

With her final strength, she lifted a hand, and it tore from her body, unable to reach anyone.

Vesnar Nasser was growing farther and farther out of that severed grasp.

The gulf between them had become as far as heaven and earth.


UNJUST DEPTHS

ANTHOLOGY II: WELTGEIST

You can unearth history while struggling alone.

But you will never change history on your own.


With the sinking of the Eisenhower, the Republican fleet’s dim and distant hopes of occupying the Kreuzung stations came to an end. The Greater Imbria and Mrudah along with the arriving Aleksandr quickly eliminated the remaining Republican forces. The Republic’s troopship surrendered, thousands of marines packed inside like sardines now becoming prisoner. The Volkisch’s assault troops sent another wave of suicide drones into B.S.W. and found no further resistance within. Republican ringleader Kitty McRoosevelt had taken her own life after being horrifically, fatally maimed by a Volkisch attack.

Inside the Core Pylon, the Alayzean special operations group was surrounded.

Once the fate of their comrades was made known to them, it shook their will to fight. A negotiator successfully argued for the release of the core technicians, but the exchange was a ruse to get the shooters to lower their guard. Volkisch troops attacked from all directions with vibroblades and riot shields, pressing the shooters in with their phalanx and practically hacking them to pieces. Standing atop blood and haphazard corpses, the traumatized technicians were made to resume their work. Within minutes of subduing the Cogitans, Kreuzung’s separated Core was again rejoined.

Power returned to Kreuzung and its outlying towers, making its way module to module, block by block. After about fifteen minutes the overwhelming majority of the station was back to normal functioning.

Civil authorities began to sound an “all clear” but extended the curfew as a precaution.

Throughout the station, the Volkisch took over for the battered K.P.S.D in leading the confused masses back to the status quo. With honeyed declarations they allayed civilian fears, playing up their own role in averting tragedy and defending the National Proletariat from a horrific threat. Investigations would be called, said the Volkisch press office, into the grotesque negligence and incompetence of the station authorities. They praised the great heroes of the nation who stood stalwart in the darkest hour.

Within hours, the Republic vessels over Kreuzung had been replaced by over 100 arriving ships bearing the “black sun” and “sword with moon” symbols of the 7th Fleet of the political troops of the Volkisch, the Stabswache. A particularly ethnic Fleet, it was uniquely made up largely of Shimii, exclusively Rashidun Shimii of Brennic and Diriyan descent, as well as a small regiment of Khedivate Loup who subscribed to Rashidist religious ritual despite their race. Collectively, these forces were referred to as the Zabaniyah— beasts that meted out the punishments of hell to those damned to the eternal fire.

Over the course of their disembarking, it was evident that they had been carried on a wind that would alter Kreuzung’s destiny. Thousands of Shimii in black uniforms and fascist armbands with assault rifles and anxious looks replaced the K.P.S.D. policemen on the streets. Block by block, module by module, they advanced, and the remaining Kreuzung police or guards stood aside, helpless to stop the march. In the Administration Block near the top of the Kreuzung tower, the old Governor remained silent. Those ranks of cat-like ears and tails in their black uniforms were slowly and steadily coming to greet him.

It was not for nothing that these once-repressed people were now part of the Volkisch.

There was talk of Tower Eight Shimii being allowed to live within the Core for the first time.

Talk of ending segregation in Kreuzung and of greater Shimii participation in the government.

And with these incentives, talk of getting the young and vibrant Shimii of Eisental to join the Volkisch Movement and become heroes of not just their own Volk, but of the National Proletariat as a whole.

Bolstering the Volkisch ranks at a time when they needed the assistance most.

Amid the commotion and the beginnings of change, the Ritter-class Cruiser Aleksandr docked into Kreuzung’s main seaport. While at the head of the Volkisch reinforcements, it had to wait a few hours before the troops disembarked and secured positions, before it could touch down on its new domain.

In front of the bulkhead to the Aleksandr’s offboarding chute, a tall woman in black uniform waited, her long, bushy tail swaying casually behind her. Long, honey-blond hair and tall ears trimmed of fluff, lightly tanned skin. Sharp and arresting facial features, exotic and photogenic. Athletic in build and somewhat boyish in her stance and expression, but for this occasion, made up in lipstick and pigments, wearing a pencil skirt and female dress coat with her military decorations. Arms crossed beneath her bust.

She had just gotten off a brutal battle where she killed hundreds of people.

But she cleaned up exceptionally well into the clothes and refinement befitting an adjutant.

Her eyes lifted from her feet when the bulkhead in front of her finally opened.

Unveiling the woman to whom, despite everything, she owed her own allegiance.

Flanked by a pair of armored Shimii, a shorter, distinctly Imbrian woman stepped into Kreuzung, slender with a soft face. Her hair was mostly dyed light blue but had a wide band of light pink, including some of her bangs and the hair covering her right ear and down the back. Her schirmmütze cap was decorated with silver cat ears, and she had one earring which boasted a flag-shaped decoration with the same bands of pink and light blue that dyed her hair. Her black uniform and cape was even more lavish than that of her surbodinates, heavily trimmed in gold. Upon meeting her counterpart, she eyed her figure closely; and the Shimii, so observed, seemed to allow the open lechery with a certain subdued glee.

“You’re looking fine as ever.” Said Oberführer Violet Lehner, grinning vigorously.

Across from her, the Shimii woman adjusted her glasses with a similarly gleeful expression.

“Have I ever looked less than perfect at your side, milady?” replied Standartenführer Vesna Nasser.


In the Old Iron block the water had begun to recede as the pumps regained power with the rejoining of the station’s Core. The level of flooding went down from waist deep back to ankle deep. Without repairs it would remain at this level, but for now, the threat of flooding the entire block was staved off. Aside from a few unlucky souls and a few corpses, there was no one on the streets.

No one except a little drone, the size and shape of a silver, hairless metal cat.

Walking with elegant strokes of its legs, despite the difficulty presented by the water.

Ankle-deep water was still half the cat-drone’s body, so it was a bit encumbered.

Nevertheless, it made its way up the street, and turned into the knocked-down door of a bar once renowned by the name “Majestic-12.” Its final days had come and gone, and its revival as a hub of conspiracy was quite short-lived. Now corpses were all that was left, corpses hours fresh but rendered quickly chill and gray by the cold saltwater washing in. Dead katarrans and–

–one unconscious girl, the contents of her heart kept closely guarded and unknowable.

It was the first thing she mastered when she studied psionics. She did it even in her sleep.

Navigating around the remains, the cat drone approached the sleeping Imani Hadžić.

Stopped, seated on its rear legs. Its tail extended around its body.

Attaching to her neck and delivering a drug to reverse her anesthetized state.

Within minutes, Imani’s eyes opened, and she stared, incredulously, at her surroundings.

“Master Hudson?” She looked down at the robotic cat.

From the cat’s neck a speaker responded in a tinny voice. “As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Her situation slowly dawned on her. Imani rose to her feet.

Immediately, she felt her shirt and belt lighter than before. Her gun was missing.

“Homa.”

Imani’s fingers reached up to her lips. She started to make for the door–

“Time has passed. I’m sorry to say.” Hudson said. “All of the fighting is done.”

Nearly to the door, Imani paused. She reached out her trembling hand behind herself.

Showing Hudson the remnants of a powerful emotion. Dancing colors on her fingers.

An emotion that another woman had given her, and which had remained on her kissed lips.

Shaking its head, the drone’s unmoving steel face confirmed the worst.

“That aura– I’m afraid you won’t find it here anymore. Did she mean a lot to you?”

Imani did not turn back. Did not show her expression to the drone. Revealed nothing to it.

She ran out, as fast as her legs could carry her, and as far away, as if from misery itself.


Leija Kladuša ran as far as her legs could carry her back to Homa Baumann’s room.

I never found her! Majida never came back! What happened?

Once the Core had been linked, reversing the Core Separation, a group of Volkisch Shimii presumably under Imani Hadžić’s command had informed the civilian Shimii in the Kreuzung Core to return to Tower Eight and that they would receive emergency supplies soon, and more news in the coming days. These soldiers took over the manning of the checkpoints. Leija had been informed that her presence would be called to discuss the incident with the Shimii’s commander, again presumably Hadžić, but–

she did not care! All of her business with Kreuzung could collapse and she wouldn’t care!

Her heart heavy with regret, all she cared about in that moment was Homa.

Even after everything I’ve done to her. How could I have been so stupid? How?

Homa who had taken care of her drunk, worthless self even when she was just a child.

Homa who had helped her with her despicable affairs as an obedient young adult.

And now–

Homa who had given her worthless self a bed again, without cruelty or unkindness–

I failed her again and again and again! But she never turned me down! She followed my every word!

That poor girl, she terrorized her, she hit her, she got drunk at her, she swore at her–

Homa had never abandoned her. No matter how much she deserved it. Until– until now–

Elbowing past the people crowding back into the hall, rushing down to the door.

“Homa! Please! Are you back? Please tell me you got back safely! Please!”

Some part of her was prepared to find an empty room. To simply– to simply not know.

Instead, inside the room–

“Leija– I couldn’t protect her. I am sorry.”

Seated on the bed was a man in armor. His cloak burned and shredded. His chestplate burst inward and bloody. His legs shaking in heavy graves sliced and dented. His gauntlets cracked. His cat-like mask was broken, exposing one grey ear, singed gray hair, and a quarter of a face partially scarred by a patch of hexagon-gridded burned flesh, red-purple squeezing a mournful green eye.

Leija brought her hands up to her mouth.

“What do you mean? What do you mean sorry?”

She rushed to the bed and slammed her fists into the man’s armor.

“What do you mean you’re sorry? What do you mean? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”

Radu the Marzban had no response.

He embraced Leija as she struck him repeatedly.

She beat him until her hands were bloody, until she had no voice, until her strength faded.

“Homa–! Homa–! Please– No–”

All she could do was cry and all he could do was bear it.


“Right this way! Right this way! She’s waiting for us! Make way, make way!”

In a sing-song voice, Katarran mercenary Xenia Laskaris escorted a young Shimii woman carrying several cases through partially flooded rooms below the baseplate of Kreuzung Core. While all eyes were focusing on the Core Pylon, the Administrative District in A-block near Tower One and the Shimii in Tower Eight, the baseplate was completely unguarded. In fact, Xenia had learned a juicy tip from a broker– the cameras to the baseplate sectors had all been shut off. Zero security down there, all day long.

“Making good money and getting out of this dump? I couldn’t ask for a better windfall.”

“Glad you’re feeling chipper, but she better be whole and hale, or you’re leaving in a box.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Calm down! She’s alive! That one’s the toughest Katarran I’ve ever seen!”

“She’s not a Katarran, she’s a Shimii. So you better have the right person, you glib crab.”

“Then she’s the toughest Shimii I’ve ever seen. Please just relax– I’m a professional.”

Xenia opened a door and bowed with a little smile, allowing Raaya Al-Shahouh through.

Raaya gasped as soon as the light from the corridor entered the dark room.

Huddled in front of an elevator into the old Kreuzung mines, was Majida al-Khaybari.

Collapsed on the floor, panting. Her chestplate’s ceramic layers were smashed, the armor still held together only because of the nanofiber chain-links that ran through it. Her face and hair were red and brown with caked blood, her arms limp at her side, her breathing heavy. Her tail had been cut in half, as had been her cartilaginous, fin-like ear. Only her Katarran armor was still intact.

When Raaya gasped, Majida looked up from her seeming stupor and smiled weakly.

“Don’t worry. It’ll all grow back.” She said, coughing, hacking up a bit of red phleghm.

“Majida! Majida!”

Raaya ran to the other side of the room, dove to the floor and grabbed hold of Majida.

Weeping profusely into the injured woman’s shoulder, holding her, screaming with agony.

Majida weakly ran a hand, heavy in its Katarran greaves, over Raaya’s hair.

“Ahh, so much love! Do not worry! Your nightmare is over! I’ll get you two back home!”

Xenia Laskaris gave the miserable couple a thumbs-up from the door.

“You might have to carry me.” Majida said, her voice rough and weak.

“Don’t worry boss! From the look of you, I expected that!” Xenia said cheerfully.

“Raaya, I’m really sorry.” Majida said. “I– I couldn’t even save the kid–”

“Idiot! You big idiot! You could’ve– You–” Raaya cried, continuing to embrace Majida.

Majida embraced her back as strongly as she could in her weak state, crying together.

They had gotten through this, but to Majida, it felt like the prelude to weather far worse.


Everything felt cold; numbingly, miserably cold.

Up above the white sky was completely covered in the branches of the great silver trees. They whispered among themselves with great worry, praying for the girl’s health. Trails of colors flew like paper streamers between the trunks, curling around branches and delving phantom-like into the great bodies. When the colors touched one tree to the next she could almost hear a sound echo distant and hushed.

“We just keep running into each other, huh.”

Someone knelt beside the body of the girl, on the pale muddy earth. A girlish face with red hair, eyes yellow on black. loomed over her and stared sideways down at her. A single black horn curled from the side of her head, and two smaller ones rose from her forehead, splitting her long bangs. She was pale, bloodlessly pale, and wore an ornate robe, closely fitted to her lean frame, with sleeves and a hem that both looked like streamers of greyed skin peeled from some creature. Over her shoulders and around her neck was a loosely tied string of crumbly, fleshy silverskinned fruits, like dry grey figs.

On that pale, beautiful face, thin lips spread into a monstrous grin full of sharp teeth.

She, the girl, the body who was being observed, could not move. She was as if suspended atop a pool.

Cold; paralyzingly cold. So cold there was nothing– not even a name in her.

“You are loved by them. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that is special– they love all of you Hominins. They can’t help it. It’s ancient history.” For a moment, the woman’s grin became a little smaller. Her eyes scanned curiously across the body. “But you can hear them. And that is indeed special. So you may yet earn yourself praise that the rest of your species hardly deserves.” Mockingly, she clapped her hands together slowly. “Congratulations. You have become a witness to the Great Silver Trees.”

Still clapping her hands, she sat, cross-legged, beside her.

Her gaze filled with the woman, whose enormous twice-split tail curled behind her.

“I am the God of this world, little Hominin. I am the Omenseer lord, Arbitrator II.”

Arbitrator II stared at her. She ceased to clap. When her hand outstretched, colors from the trees snaked around her. It was as if she was opening herself up to be bathed in them, as if the colors were delighted to come to her body and dance around it. Arbitrator II seemed to enjoy it. Some of the colors wafted up from her like vapors from hot water and washed over the girl, the body, wrapping her in fog.

“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes. Ali, I believe. Ali Ibn al-Wahran. An auspicious name. I know for a fact that meetings like this do not happen by coincidence. While I despise your kind, Hominins have ecological reasons to exist in my new world– albeit, maybe not in such numbers or such forms as you do now. There are many who would slander me, but I am merciful. I do not wish to strictly repeat ancient history. After all, for whatever reason, I could not win back then.”

For a moment, Arbitrator II stared at the body as if carefully examining her.

Then she stood, and walked to the body’s side, bending over her from a standing position.

“Out of my boundless mercy, I will grant you a boon. May it stir the course of things.“

Her pale hand grabbed hold of the body’s head and covered her face, transferring the colors.

She squeezed. Muffled screams as if from a sewn mouth. It hurt– oh God it hurt!

It was if Arbitrator II was trying to squeeze the brain out of the skull–

–yet it was also as if the pressure was not being applied by the physical force of her hand.

An unmoving body writhed beneath the touch of that hand, its soul screaming for release.

Then, instantly, the pain ceased as the hand retracted, and the colors retracted with her.

Over and behind Arbitrator II the colors spread, growing more intense, all-encompassing.

“I completed what you possessed. You can have your people’s Omensight— if you desire.”

That hand which had seized upon her face moved down to one of her cold, immobile limbs.

“Now, you won’t be needing this anymore. So in exchange, I will dispose of it.”

Without a sound Arbitrator II split her arm off above the elbow as if it was already severed.

Her vision swam as she saw the creature holding her jaggedly cut, bleeding limb.

And taking– hungry bites from the sheared flesh– sucking blood and marrow from bone–

Licking her bloody lips with an expression of euphoria.

“You’re delicious. I want more. I understand the omens here now. Seek me out Hominin– I’ll taste your blood and talk about the past. I feel like reminiscing. Hmm– but such a meeting requires a sacrifice worthy of the ceremony of it all. After all, Ali Ibn al-Wahran took a lot from me, and I do still hold a grudge. Tell you what– it’s not like you’ll be needing this either, young Great Tree Ascetic. I will take the price entirely in flesh and call the grudge settled. Descend into the Agartha and I will welcome you.”

Arbitrator II’s hand traced down the body to the leg opposite the taken arm.

Just as easily, she tore the leg off. Holding it like a fresh-caught fish by a gory tail.

Taking a loving red bite from the blue-tan dead flesh of the leg’s severed knee, savoring it.

The body screamed with all of her might, but her mouth made only muffled, weak noise.

She thrashed and thrashed but the brutalized body amid the trees only barely shuddered.

She could not move. She could not flee, could not fight, as she watched her flesh eaten.

“Tell everyone far and wide of my mercy– and do not squander what I have given you.”

Arbitrator II’s mouth then opened farther than should have been humanly possible.

Stuffing the remains of the plucked limbs down her throat like a snake swallowing an egg.

Savoring the taste of human flesh with unrestrained glee even as the trees watched her.

The colors became fog and overwhelmed all the body’s already fragile senses, in her panic.

Her sense of self had never been so shaken as now– she was made unwhole in spirit.

Was her body– already unwhole–? Had her limbs– already been severed–?

“Now: away with you.” Arbitrator II put her hand over the body’s eyes and made the world dark.


“Oh my god– she’s critical– so much blood–”

Distorted visions, like viewing a cracked screen with broken audio.

“Get me– she needs– stat!”

Metal walls, facsimiles of faces, hands, hands coming down on her.

“We’re cutting–”

Hands, thousands of hands touching every part of her, squeezing hands, sawing hands.

All of the hands of all the people she killed dragging her down.

Horrible faces climbing over her body and gnawing at her.

Teeth tearing muscle and bone. An imperceptible instant of the worst imaginable pain.

“It’s the only way–”

She bolted upright, gasping for breath.

Sweaty, breathing heavy, but her body did not hurt. She was not restrained, not sinking.

Her chest pounded. Her eyes darted around.

Nobody was attacking her.

Snapping in a blink from darkness to light was disorienting. She found herself in a plain-walled room. She had been laid on a bed, with soft gel pillows and a warm mattress, blankets. There was a line of other beds, all of which were empty. There was a table next to her bed, on wheels, covered by a blanket. There was a faint chemical smell, but the atmosphere did not feel hostile or uncomfortable.

Once comprehension finally came to her she realized she wasn’t alone.

There was a blond woman on nearby chair. Hair tied into a ponytail. Lipstick and makeup, a soft expression, handsome, beautiful. Button-down shirt, teal jacket starting to fall off her strong shoulders, a black pencil skirt and black tights. She had her hands on her lap, watching with eyes partially averted, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting with a lock of hair. She felt familiar somehow– and safe.

On the other side of the bed was a long-limbed, lithe woman, long hair wrapped in a messy bun behind her head. Dyed a few different shades of blue, with tidy bangs up front. She was dressed in a white coat over the same type of shirt and skirt as the blond woman. She had painted pink lips and a gentle expression and looked over with sympathy in her eyes. She had a badge on her coat, with a multi-pronged blue star with an internal red cross– she must have been a doctor, and this place a hospital.

“How are you feeling dear? Any pain?” asked the doctor.

“I– Where–?”

She paused.

She could not feel her hand. Not like before.

When she tried to clutch the blankets. Her fingers weren’t moving like she was used to.

A shiver of cold fear ran down her spine.

She slowly lifted her right arm.

All the while moving the hand that she no longer possessed.

In its place, there was a mechanical ring, like a coupler made of metal, attached to the remains of her elbow. Under a band of aggravated red skin fused to the carbon-fiber connective layer in the machine, ran cables, inside her, visible along with her sinews. When she tried to move her hand, the physical feeling of moving her hand ran through the arm phantom-like, and instead, the ring coupler moved, and tiny electromechanical elements inside of it whirred and poked out of holes in the contraption–

“I’m sorry. We couldn’t save the limbs. We have prosthetics ready. I promise that your quality of life–”

Homa Baumann suddenly broke down, first into sobs, and then into full-throated screams.

She was alive.

And in that horrible instant she was convinced that she should have died, and unsure how to keep living.

All she could do was hold her head with her severed hand and scream until it drowned out the mourning.


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