Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.10]

“Khadija al-Shajara, Strelok ‘I~bis’, deploying!”

Setting her jaw and shoulders stiff so as to not betray a bit of a shake as she dropped.

She was an old hat at this– she was not about to let the situation scare her.

There was an altogether different feeling than the last time she deployed, however.

Back then, she had been so prepared to die, to do anything to throw her life at her enemy like a fireball that would engulf everything, including herself. Now, as her camera feed transitioned from the metal of the deployment chute to the misty water of the Nectaris, her enemy hidden somewhere in the thickness of the marine fog and the darkness of the deep sea, she could not help a bit of anxiety.

It was so much more difficult to live than to die.

Her whole body still ached from days and days of training, but it would ache regardless.

She was old. Something always ached.

Her fingers around the sticks ached, her ankles ached as she pushed them down on the pedals, her back was hurting, the back of her neck hurt, her shoulders throbbed, the muscles on her chest and belly. The muscles connecting her ears to her head hurt, her tail hurt where it attached to her lower back. And yet those fingers effortlessly guided her way, those feet exerted graceful control of her thrust, and she sat on the chair not hunched and half-broken but upright and proud. She was ready to fight.

As soon as Squadron 114’s formation began to move she could already feel the improvements that had been made to this Strelok over the basic model. Khadija had rejected the machine at first, because part of her advantage was the intimate knowledge she had over every movement an ordinary Strelok could make, and this allowed her to be precise — but that wily Shalikova knew how to get to her.

“If you don’t take my machine I’ll give it to Aiden Ahwalia.” She said.

Incredible. What an evil-minded little girl– Khadija had no choice but to accept it.

Thankfully it was not so different from a Strelok that it hindered Khadija’s piloting style.

The weight distribution was similar, control response exactly the same, it was like piloting a Strelok but getting more from it. Khadija could tell immediately she could push it harder, she could get more thrust and get it quicker, she could make slightly tighter corrections due to the improved hydrodynamics. She tested here and there as the formation charged out into the ocean, quickly getting a feel for it.

Then–

“That little fucking worm!”

Shalikova went after Aiden Ahwalia after he brazenly took off from the formation.

Leaving her to lead it temporarily. Khadija hardly wanted that responsibility–

And she would not have it for long.

Seconds after Shalikova split off from the group, the 114th Diver Squadron caught their first glimpses of the incoming enemy. Four enemy figures appeared shrouded in the marine fog. Probing fire flew from both sides, rifle rounds briefly lighting the pitch black ocean, vapor bubbles blossoming randomly where each side last saw the enemy. Both groups broke through each other, momentarily seeing each other in plain sight as they sped past each other. Different machines then split off to probe different angles of attack, some sweeping up, some dropping down. Khadija tried to make out the models–

In that instant, Khadija caught sight of that mecha once again.

And this time, it was painted red, as if begging for her acknowledgment.

That new Diver model that had fought in defense of the Iron Lady.

Her computer had wanted to label it a Jagd before, but they had come to name this model after its pilot, Red Baron, when they updated the data on their predictors. Its triangular body plan resembled the Jagd, but it was sturdier, with swept pauldron shoulders, a helmeted humanoid head, thicker arms and legs. Unlike the hyper-aggressive Jagd built only for raw speed and close combat, the Red Baron could have replaced the Volker as a sturdy main-line grunt unit, in the same way as the Cheka was likely to replace the Strelok. It was archetype of a new generation; a new body to vanguard the imperial cause.

Clad in striking red, it looked ever more like Khadija’s recollection of her old arch-enemy.

“Valya, stick to Rybolovskaya and command her fire! I’m going after the break-aways!”

“Ma’am–? Are you passing me lead?”

“Yes! Go!”

Those were the last words of leadership that Khadija issued over the squadron’s communications before she rushed full ahead after the Red Baron. Following that red shadow up into the thickening marine fog, firing her assault rifle at the figure who immediately took her up on the offer to dance. Valya would have to contend with the rest. Khadija always knew this time would come, sooner or later.

Shalikova was nearly killed by her, Murati too. It could only be her who put an end to this history.

I’m the only one who can stop her. She’ll run circles around the rest of them.

The Red Baron thrust higher up the water table and Khadija gave chase.

Both of them breaking off from their formations, leaving their squadrons behind.

Khadija kept her main camera trained on the Red Baron, her eyes fixed on even the slightest movement by the machine. She fired one-handed from the chest in semi-automatic mode, one shot per one trigger pull, the Red Baron skillfully sweeping from side to side to avoid the explosions of the 37 mm rounds. In turn the Red Baron fired her own rifle behind herself and forced Khadija to dodge in the same way.

In the net neither gained nor was able to escape from the other, and the two Divers appeared like opposing poles spiraling within a cylinder of their own making, vapor bubbles from stray explosions foaming in their wake. Dancing as they had danced before, each a mirror of the other.

It was not that either of them was an excellent or inept marksman.

Rather they were so equal to each other’s skill and their equipment too near performance.

Khadija knew that this dance could not last, and her counterpart must have known also.

This was a distraction, buying time, making space, probing, trying to find an advantage.

Two masked killers in the final ballroom, watching each other dance with hidden knives.

It’ll be decided in melee. We both came up in a time where melee decided these fights.

She was ready to take up the sword at any second–

Drifting perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters above the battle below–

When suddenly a cloud of bubbles blew into her and blinded her.

The Red Baron had run an emergency routine and blown oxygen through her jets.

Doing so stalled her, but she fluidly executed a complete turn out of the stall–

Attacking through the cover of the cloud to forestall retaliation.

Khadija recognized it as a ploy and pulled everything back with her front leg verniers.

Throwing herself down and to one side as a wave of renewed gunfire swept past her.

She began trading fire back as the Red Baron tried to circle her with the trigger pressed down.

Lines of supercavitating shells cut through the water between them at near intersecting angles–

Still moving as opposing poles–

but the circle they formed began to tighten–

in a brief instant within the dance of evasion and counterfire–

Khadija realized first that she was within range of a charge.

Holding her rifle in front of her chest like a shield, Khadija threw herself at the Red Baron with abandon.

Through a series of explosions the size of human bodies, spreading wildly around her–

Bits of metal sheared off her shoulder, arm and leg plates–

She burst through the fire and smoke with a defiant battle cry.

Everything happened too fast for any aiming and shooting, so it became a show of dumb blunt force at arm’s reach. Boosting herself into the Red Baron’s attacks, Khadija turned a close range shootout into a melee. Swinging the broad side of her assault rifle like a battering ram, she smashed the Red Baron’s rifle, forcing the digits to release lest they be ripped from the hand and tossing the weapon aside.

Disarmed of her rifle, the Red Baron drew and dodged back in one stroke.

Khadija dodged back in turn, avoiding the wild counterslash of the hastily drawn vibroblade.

Now I have you.

Instead of drawing her sword in return she grabbed and threw a grenade.

Between the two of them an enormous shockwave spread from a growing bubble of hot gases.

The Red Baron, awaiting a melee, beat a full retreat from the ensuing explosion.

Parts of her own armor tore off from the push and pull of the blast and her own escape.

Khadija, dashing down apart from her, created a gap of two dozen meters between them.

Now it was a proper shootout again and she had the advantage.

She still had a working assault rifle in hand and her target was in a vulnerable position.

Thrown off by the shockwave, dashing back in a panic, The Red Baron was lit up in her sights–

Tasting blood Khadija pulled the trigger–

Click.

Her empty magazine immediately detached from the AK-96 having been fired empty.

It’s always something.

She immediately, desperately reached for a new magazine but–

About forty meters away, on the edge of visibility, the Red Baron suddenly stopped moving.

Sword drawn but pointed aside, her mecha posed like a regal knight suspended in the water.

An invitation to a formal duel, perhaps. Or a call to parley.

Both had been bloodied to an even degree, each attack had been perfectly answered.

Out of a sense of pride, Khadija acquiesced and tuned her communicator to the liaison channel used during the old war. There she heard the voice of the Red Baron, cutting in: “we’ll both die for–”

“Come again you miserable lout? I want to hear your last words clearly.” Khadija taunted.

“I am saying, if we keep fighting, I’m confident that we’ll both die for nothing.”

“You’ll be the only one dying if you have such little confidence in yourself.”

“We need to stop fighting. I’m not the only monster on my side. We’ll all kill each other without reason.”

“I have plenty of reason to reduce you to ground lamb in your cockpit.”

Khadija thought she heard a sigh, maybe even a sob, crackling over the low quality audio.

“You are the Lion of Cascabel. Why must we keep fighting? Both of our lives ended twenty years ago.”

Even with how distorted the channel was, Khadija still thought she felt the emotion in that voice.

She was no longer so shocked to hear it, she understood that the Red Baron was a human being, that they were both flesh and blood and not just machines when they fought each other in the past. Now she found herself facing another revelation. There were humans who though flesh and blood made themselves machines, cold and ruthless, remorseless, murder incarnate. Even if she could believe the Red Baron was human, Khadija conceived of her as inhuman in this way, in order to keep hating her.

This woman was challenging that notion. All of that emotion in her voice, almost uncontrollable.

“If only I had never met that damned woman, we could have left everything in the past.”

This girl who sounded like she would cry over the acoustic communicator–

Could she possibly be the same Red Baron? But if she called her The Lion, then she knew.

And with the way she fought, it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

But now Khadija was thinking to herself: how did I imagine this confrontation would transpire?

Khadija responded almost out of impulse. “If you are afraid to die, then surrender to me!”

Surrender? That those words came out of her mouth at all only signified how pathetic the Red Baron sounded to her, tone a prostration, a bowed head, and slack shoulders before Khadija. When she thought of her she no longer thought of an iron pillar full of blades dressed in a grey uniform. There were the features of a girl forming in Khadija’s mind, despite the fact that they were nearly the same age.

“Lion, since we last fought, our time has been frozen in Cascabel. You and I are the same.” She said, her voice almost cracking again. “Our paths are set into stone. We can neither change the past nor can we alter the future. There is no possible way that us meeting again, can end in anything but our mutual deaths. I know we will find some way to kill one another. We fought in a ruthless age, out of desperation. Now we are meeting with the weight of our pasts on our shoulders. We will both die here the same.”

Khadija clutched her fingers tight against the control sticks. She felt pain, frustration, anger.

How dare this woman come to her with this childish sophistry?

When all Khadija wanted was a snickering evil monster to kill! To put behind them that rotten past!

“I gave you an alternative! Surrender! If you have remorse then put down your weapons!”

There was that word again. Surrender.

There was a brief pause– then the Red Baron’s voice became void of emotion. That voice and the words that it spoke finally sounded like an old and embittered soul, rather than a scared, weepy little girl. She felt she could see a face like her own now, eyes staring into the distance, ears ringing with death.

“It’s impossible for me to make amends to you. I can’t surrender– what would I even do?”

Khadija smiled bitterly to herself. “So be it, Red Baron. We can only kill each other then.”

For a moment Khadija stewed in how much she hated that in her mind’s eye, the Red Baron’s face was coming to resemble her own. In total silence, she tried hard to put the image out of her mind.

Then they raised their weapons, engaged their hydrojets, and resumed the dance of death.


I’ve let too many fucking people die. Too many. I can’t– I can’t fucking lose her too.

“Marina McKennedy, Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: deploying!”

Leda, if you’re watching over me, give us a miracle.

Marina McKennedy considered herself an absolutely middling Diver pilot.

Nevertheless, she was useless inside of the ship during a naval battle, and the communists needed absolutely every gun they could put out into the water right now even if they didn’t realize it. God only knew why they weren’t throwing everyone they could possibly get in a suit out with them, they had like eighteen of the fucking things aboard didn’t they? Some misplaced sense of ethics? Marina did not fucking know. All she could do was throw her own body too with everyone else willing. There was no use trying to change how they operated at the last second. She just had to nut up and fight.

Taking a deep breath, remembering all the times she scraped by on the skin of her teeth.

She had been shot, blown up, stabbed, tied up and whipped, had a knife put to her cock–

Going out in a Diver was good clean fun compared to all of her previous escapades.

Somehow, she was starting to psyche herself up a bit. These commies had beaten the Iron Lady before, against all odds. Maybe if anyone could Norn a black eye it was these brainwashed fools.

“McKennedy.”

Once she got out into the water, she received a transmission from the ship.

It was the Chief of the Brigand’s mechanics, Galina Lebedova, on the main video feed.

A fairly big lady with a pretty face; soft-cheeked, long hair in a braid– god those shoulders, those arms though, the sleeveless overalls really flattered her. Not an unwelcome sight whatsoever.

“We haven’t touched your weapons, but we don’t have any Republic supplies aboard, so we had to ferrostitch some extra magazines for your rifle based on the spare you brought aboard. Don’t expect them to be flawless, but they’ll fit, and they have thirty rounds of Union 37 mm loaded in.”

“Copy. I can’t say anything but thanks to that — I’d be fucked with just one mag out here. Say, Chief, when I get back can we get a coffee together? No one’s properly shown me around this boat yet.”

Lebedova smiled a little but shut off the video in response.

“Worth a try.” Marina said to herself.

Beneath the ship, she formed up around the Brigand’s other Divers, awaiting orders.

Once they sallied forth she quickly got the hang of piloting her S.E.A.L. again.

Movement was probably her strong suit. She had used this S.E.A.L. on a few infiltrations.

All of them leading up to Vogelheim.

It’s not going to be a cock-up like that again. I won’t let it turn out that way.

All of this was for Elena. Even if she’d fucked up communicating that to her thus far.

“I can’t die regretting how I left things off with her.”

Last time they looked each other in the eyes, Elena had completely broken down. Marina herself had been in bad shape. She could barely remember what happened afterward, but it was an awful, hurtful confrontation. Since then they avoided one another. She thought eventually Elena would come around but maybe that was gutless of her. She had to come back and actually show she cared.

“There’s too much you’d leave undone if you died, Marina McKennedy.”

She smiled bitterly to herself, her reflection in one of the dark screens.

She looked so tired.

As much as she sometimes wanted to join Leda and Bethany and be in peace–

Marina had to see this through. Everything was for Elena. Everything left of her.

This must have been what it was like, being a parent.

Having a commitment you couldn’t just walk away from when it was inconvenient.

She had not been thinking too much about the formation until the Ahwalia kid ran off–

Then everything went into a tailspin. The squad leader ran off, the Shimii started yelling–

“I thought you commies were supposed to be disciplined?!”

Marina hardly had time to ask who was in charge when the enemy finally appeared.

In an uncanny turn the enemy formation was much like theirs. Two close combat mecha, one strange silvery-white unit, formed up around a Volkannon with a sniper rifle that was lagging behind them. The instant that the two sides saw the very faintest outline of each other, targeting computers lit up with warnings and assault rifle fire saturated the battlefield, creating a brief chaos. The Shimii communist ran off to chase a gaudy red unit on the other side– but the Union formation remained tighter than the enemy, who split off in every direction as if probing the flanks or trying to encircle them–

Marina tried to cling tight to the Katarran with the Strelkannon to guard against that–

Until she realized that one enemy unit had just charged right past them.

Heading straight for the Brigand.

“Shit! They’re not flanking, one’s going for the ship!”

It was that silver-white unit!

Marina hardly had time to communicate any further before she reacted.

Leaving Valya behind with the Strelkannon, Marina took off after the unidentified unit.

Their plan wouldn’t matter if the enemy took out the Brigand and stranded them–

–and killed Elena along with them.

“I’m going after it!”

“Huh?”

Ignoring the cry from Valya Lebedova, Marina launched herself in full pursuit.

Her head was pounding. You’re no good at this. That’s a new model. You’ll die.

You’ll die.

There was too much left to do to die now.

But if Elena was hurt it would all be meaningless, all of it.

Leda.

Bethany.

They all poured their love into Elena. Everything they did was not just for each other.

Marina still had that unfulfilled promise to free Elena from Konstantin von Fueller.

So Marina leaned into her sticks and slammed her pedals down with all her might.

And the S.E.A.L. took off with all the thrust of its jets and boosters to gain on the enemy.

A wild barrage of fully automatic fire blazed from its M480 assault rifle, launching 37 mm bullets that cut the gap between the silver-white enemy and Marina in an instant, bursting into vapor bubbles in a chaotic pattern around the enemy diver and forcing it to acknowledge pursuit. It fired its own rifle from around its flank, backwards, but Marina easily avoided the counterfire and pressed her attack.

Her reticle danced around the aiming screen, the yellow targeting box around the enemy unit beginning to turn red, a proximity alert blaring as Marina neared and neared. She reloaded her gun and reopened fire, doing everything she could to put that reticle on that silver-white figure looming larger ahead but holding down the trigger for automatic fire, knowing she didn’t have the aim to snipe it down.

It could no longer run away, in seconds they would be practically chest to back–

Folding its rifle in one shocking instant, the enemy turned around on a dime–

Marina halted with all possible counterthrust just in time to avoid the edge of a vibroblade.

Slashing directly in front of the main camera in a swift arc out of the turn.

“It’s fast!”

She gasped for breath and held it.

In the next instant the enemy rushed her, lifting a shield held in its other arm in front of itself.

An enormous ballistic shield the right size to cover the Diver, with a thick block in the center for–

–the short stub barrel of an 81 mm launcher.

There was a thumping noise and a discharge of gas as a rocket-propelled grenade flew from it.

Marina thrust back narrowly avoiding the explosion.

Barely centimeters from annihilation as the ordnance went off.

Struggling with her controls as the explosion sent shockwaves bashing against her cockpit, while the vaporized water bubble expanded and contracted warping the water directly in front of the SEAL. Everything rattled, her cameras were blocked by the vapor and water, and hot gases got pulled into her intakes which briefly stunted her hydrojet thrust. She lost sight of the enemy machine.

Marina thought it must have been a distraction in order to get her to give up the chase–

When from over the rapidly dispersing gas bubble the machine reappeared.

Vibrosword in hand, it dropped down with a two-handed slash, its shield affixed to its arm.

Drawing her vibroaxe in an instant she caught the blade at the last second with its thick, sturdy head.

That brief second of struggle as the sword dug into her axe–

Gave her the closest look she had at this new model.

Sleek, rounded and beveled white and silver armor, rounded shoulders, lots of smooth interlocking plates, it was as if the model had been cast in this form and not assembled out of a collection of individual segments. Marina knew no Imperial, Union or Republic model with such a high quality and sleek design. Those jets on the shoulders, she had never seen their like. And its performance was incredible.

That pilot, too, was no joke.

Shooting an 81 mm shell that close, to make space for a melee attack, it was nuts. It took balls.

In that moment, clashing blades with this grand and mighty paladin, Marina had one bitter thought.

Grinning in her cockpit, face lit up by the bright freedom-blue of the SEAL’s user interface.

Shit, I’m going to die here, aren’t I?

A steel knight with a red glare like death– had it come to finally punish her sins?


Ulyana Korabiskaya stood up from her chair for emphasis as the battle began to escalate.

“Report! What’s happening with the Divers?” She shouted.

“Pure chaos.” Zachikova replied.

Up on a side panel of the main video feed the projected positions and trajectories of the Divers appeared, having been found and tracked through periodic weak sonar pulses launched by the drone swimming along the edge of the cliffs. Ulyana watched them with some consternation as it appeared that they had broken up from their units and launched individual attacks instead.

“What the hell is going on?” Aaliyah asked. “Why are they so dispersed?”

She stood up at once, standing beside Ulyana in support.

Zachikova turned to face them with glassy, half-gone eyes. Her concentration was split.

“Ahwalia did something stupid.” She said, in a belabored drawl, her mind split between her body and the drone. “Shalikova had to correct. Then the enemy broke through our formation. We are chasing breakaway individuals to prevent them reaching the Brigand. Battle has been successfully kept to over a hundred meters away from the Brigand itself. We have not visually acquired any of the Divers.”

“At least they blocked them. Fine. We have to focus on what we can do.”

Ulyana sat back down and with a flourish pointed at the main screen.

“Focus all our efforts on attacking the Antenora! Gunnery section, fire main guns!”

“Acknowledged!”

Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa responded in maybe the briefest sentence she had ever spoken.

The Antenora was closing in between 1.5 and 1 kilometers away, but it was not moving directly toward them. Like the Brigand itself it was trying to snake around the flank, hoping to maximize not just the proximity of its weapons to its target, but the ability to hit a broader part of the ship for more damage.

In ship combat, the ultimate objective was to inflict enough damage on the enemy that would breach several sections of the ship, hoping to overwhelm the flood mitigation systems to compromise the ship. If possible, attacking from behind could also cripple a ship by destroying its hydrojets. Attacking from below could potentially destroy the ship’s highly complicated water system, which would at the minimum slow or stop it as ships relied on pulling the water into themselves and ejecting it out to thrust.

At its worst, it would eject the ballast and make the ship uncontrollable.

In effect, the ships were circling in orbit of the Diver battle, each hoping to take the other’s tail or flank.

Whether the Antenora or Brigand would have the opportunity depending on their helmsmen.

“Kamarik, keep us steady but slippery!”

“Don’t worry ma’am, I’m more finely tuned than ever to how this lady dances.”

Kamarik was experienced, and he kept them unpredictable, applying variable thrust to create opportunities and deceive their enemies as to their movements. The Antenora was not acting so surreptitious. It maintained a roughly even thrust, as if it had an advantage and did not need to resort to any trickery to win. Perhaps Norn the Praetorian was correct to be so unbothered by them.

But it was Ulyana’s job to find a way to rattle Norn– from her bridge and to her grave.

As the sharks circled, their weapons trained on one another.

“Main gun ready! High-Explosive Cluster round firing for effect!” Fernanda declared.

Atop the Brigand, the dual-barrel 150 mm gun turret rose from out of hiding and acquired the Antenora as a target. From Fernanda’s station, the firing solution and type of ammunition was selected.

In this case, Fernanda was firing a ranging shot with wide, spread explosive effect.

It would be optimistic to kill with this shot, but it would acquire valuable data.

Within an instant, the firing prediction appeared on the main screen.

This was the bridge crew’s window into the war they were fighting.

They were not out in the water, and even there they would have hardly been able to see anything in front of their faces. What they did see, the video put together by the ship’s supercomputer, was a best-guess prediction created by using several sources of sensory data, ingested, and interpreted by several complicated programs in a span of seconds. That blue, visible ocean, the figure of the Antenora in the distance, accompanied by an overview map that showed the terrain and all actors in semi-realtime, it was all the creation of a computer. It could be wrong, but it was more than their eyes could ever see.

War waged through screens, unfolding before them like a movie in a theater.

A movie of the circling Antenora and the cold, black ocean around them.

The projectiles had already launched by the time the screen updated.

And the hits were registered in an instant. Supercavitating cannon rounds were incredibly fast.

On the screen two explosions were drawn around the figure of the Antenora.

Broad circular bubbles with information about the predicted and recorded impact.

“No effect! Targeting data reacquired, gun draining and priming!”

Fernanda was never as professional as when she was shooting, it seemed.

“Recalibrate and get back on it.” Ulyana said. “Torpedo section, I want one fire, record effect!”

Alexandra Geninov in the torpedo section lit up with excitement.

“Yes ma’am! Firing Torpedo!”

Within moments of receiving the order, Alex triggered the launch of a 120 mm explosive torpedo from the Brigand’s forward tube. Using the control stick on her station, Alex directly guided the ordnance via a fiber-optic wire, allowing her to potentially snake it around the enemy’s close-range gas gun defenses. She had a camera on the torpedo and that feed appeared on her screen, but it was subject to a slight delay. A skilled torpedo officer had to make whatever use they could of that visual data and its delay.

Torpedoes could reach a speed of over a hundred knots, much faster than a Diver’s max speed.

Less than a coilgun round’s incredible speed, but much more precise.

Alex could currently put a round on the Antenora in somewhere under thirty seconds.

That was enough time for maneuvers. And it was enough for Ulyana to be able to watch the little blip of the torpedo on the sonar picture moving farther and farther away. It was almost maddening every time she glanced at it, and heard the rattling of Alex’s stick as she made a series of snap corrections, trying to send the torpedo on her desired path toward the enemy vessel and avoid the defensive fire.

Within 50-70 meters, Alex would be able to see the Antenora visually on the cameras.

And then she would have around one and a half seconds to react before it smashed into it.

One and a half seconds without accounting for the delay.

“Huh? What the fuck? Ma’am, something’s up!”

Alex turned from her station in a snap as the main screen despawned the screen with the torpedo video feed. That side panel became dynamically populated with a different video feed. Losing its place of semi-prominence because its camera exploded. No impact registered; as the torpedo specialist protested.

“What’s wrong now, Geninov?” Ulyana asked.

In that precise moment, the main screen flashed an alert–

And an instant later, the Brigand shook enough to rattle the crew in their chairs, struck by the Antenora’s 150 mm guns. It was a testament to the construction of the ship and the brilliance of Union engineering. Despite the violent shockwaves which rippled across the surface armor, enough to be felt on the bridge and to have caused any freestanding personnel to lose balance, the lights barely flickered, and the main screen picture remained up to the second accurate and streaming new data in flawlessly.

“Status report!” Ulyana shouted.

“No direct hit!” Semyonova reported. “Very minor surface damage off the port side!”

“God damn it! We just got done fixing the port side!” Ulyana lamented.

Aaliyah interrupted. “Captain, Geninov had something to report.”

“Right,” Ulyana said, turning to face Alex again. “Report Geninov, what’s going on?”

In any other situation, and with any other look on Geninov’s face, Ulyana might have just dismissed whatever Alex had to say as to probable nonsense. However, rather than looking scared or smug, Alex had a befuddled look on her face, as if she had seen something completely incongruous, which was an expression Ulyana was not used to seeing. And indeed, Alex had seen something odd.

“Ma’am, the instruments on the torpedo send a final snapshot just prior to impact. This has final camera data but also has data from the other sensors. According to this, we did impact the Antenora, because we exploded inside the minimum range of the gas guns, which would’ve had effect. This is recording we blew up like two meters above the armor, but it had zero effect on it, we can tell, it shot us right after.”

“Put the image on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

Alex nodded nervously, and she swiped her finger at her touchscreen to move the image over. For a moment, it shared prominence with the video feed on the main screen. Everyone who saw it looked speechless for a moment. Most of it was taken up by the silver-grey armor of the Antenora as one might aspect from an impact camera on a torpedo. But there was a purple flash captured also. Like a sheen of agarthic energy warping over some of the armor close to the center of the image.

“What the hell is that?” Aaliyah shouted. “Is it some kind of close-in defense?”

Ulyana’s heart sank. She remembered Theresa Faraday’s demonstration before the battle.

About a potential next-generation armor system that the Brigand could possibly have.

And she now began to fear the Antenora possessed a functioning example.

What can I possibly do about this?

“Semyonova, where the hell is Theresa Faraday? Order her to the bridge now!”

Semyonova ran a search, using the computer to locate Theresa through the cameras–

She turned around suddenly. “Ma’am, she’s in the hangar! She’s– something’s deploying?”


What am I doing? What am I doing?

Sieglinde von Castille labored for breath, feeling a passenger in her own body.

Watching as if from over her own shoulder as her body pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go and rammed her pedals, throwing the Grenadier into a full speed attack upon the Lion of Cascabel. Sword in hand, rifle damaged and discarded, the Grenadier cut the distance to the Lion near instantly and swung a ferocious horizontal slash that forced the Lion to launch deeper down to avoid it.

Despite her keen reactions, the Lion was unable to counter, as Sieglinde flowed out of the horizontal feint with a sudden downward slash with both arms, engaging the booster on the blade itself as well as the shoulder boosters for added thrust. The Lion lunged suddenly to the side, the Baron’s vibrosword slicing the control fin on her Strelok’s shoulder clean off as she scarcely evaded the attack.

Why am I fighting? Why am I here? Why can’t we stop?

Her own internal voice grew more desperate and distant.

And yet her downward slash flowed smoothly into a dive, giving chase to the Lion.

Their machines were face to face, the Lion jetting down, unable to turn her back without giving up advantage, while the Red Baron lifted her blade as she bore down on the Lion. Like figures in a biblical painting, a wrathful god with a thundering blade captured amid descent, and a defiant human gazing at the firmament with stolen fire in her hands, a terrible collision imminent. All around them, the dark blue of the depths, such that they were alone in battle, and nothing could be seen but their aggression.

Fully automatic rifle fire went hurtling past the Grenadier, tearing off one of the arm joint plates and chunks of skirt armor but not enough bullets struck where needed, there was no time to aim. Undaunted the Red Baron fell upon the Lion and brought her sword barely centimeters from the cockpit slicing across the plates keeping her opponent out of water and laying upon them a deep, smoking scar.

I’m going to kill her!

Like fencers stepping forward and back, the two mecha became ensnared in a melee.

Sieglinde swung again from her last successful attack, pressing her advantage.

The Lion had to pick a direction. Sieglinde read her as diving deeper, it was easiest–

Instead she thrust upward, and as she did she fired her assault rifle down at an angle.

She’s going to kill me!

Sieglinde turned out of her attack and jerked her sword up in a desperate slash.

As the Lion opened fire the Grenadier’s vibrosword sliced across the barrel of the rifle.

An explosive round went off just outside the chamber and against the blade.

Chipping the edge of the Baron’s sword and bursting the Lion’s rifle in a miraculous turn.

Please stop, please turn around, please.

No matter how much she begged herself, Sieglinde was fighting as if automatically, as if without control of herself, a passenger in her body’s war. For a brief instant she thought she might have been under mind control, but she wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t. This was not something to blame on magic or monsters or on anything but the damnable, monstrous machinations of her own fate. She was fighting despite the pounding of her heart, the tears in her eyes and the cries of her humanity because there was no other place for her to go, no other future for her to seek. Her time had frozen; this was all she had.

Her eyes could only seek enemies to fight.

Her arms could only wield weapons of war.

Her legs could only take her from one battlefield to another.

Her chest could only draw breath to keep her living from one kill to the next.

She had no power to stop the atrocities her body carried out.

No matter how much her heart hurt. This was the legend she bore: the Red Baron.

The Red Baron would continue fighting her war until it took her from the face of Aer.

As soon as she saw the opportunity to attack, she took it with a devastating finality.

The Lion was off-balance, stunned by that one-in-a-million occurrence that disarmed her.

Converting that miracle to further tragedy–

The Red Baron threw everything she had into the charge, her final charge.

Sweeping under and behind the Strelok and using all the momentum of that graceful arc.

Her signature slash went weaving across the back of her foe at an unexpected angle.

Where it was caught instantly between two sets of grinding jaws–?

What?

Sieglinde could not comprehend what had happened. Sweat streaked down her blank face.

Her sword arm drew back instantly, her entire self disbelieving–

As she saw in all of her cameras a Strelok holding two chainsaw-bladed “diamond swords” behind its back in a cross that had briefly caught her blade in the middle of its arc and nearly snapped off the already damaged tip from it. Such a sword catch as she had never seen executed, never thought even possible in all of her years of fighting, in all of her training and with all of her experience of war.

She drew back instinctively from her failed attack, creating distance with her boosters.

The Strelok turned and faced her, wielding in each hand a revving, furious diamond sword.

“You’re so predictable. I knew I could bait you into doing that move.”

Over the communicator the Lion spoke again. Her voice was just a bit shaken, but–

“War flattered your image, Baron! That flip of yours would catch any pilot off-guard the first time they see it. And fooling them once is all it takes for you to kill them and preserve your secret. However, if a pilot lived twenty years ago and survived that attack when your technique was in its infancy– well!”

She laughed. The Lion was laughing. Her voice sent shivers down Sieglinde’s back.

“You say you haven’t changed, Red Baron? But I’m still learning!”

The Lion’s Strelok charged with roaring blades and the Red Baron froze in response.

Sieglinde’s eyes darted between cameras. She had no time to close the comm channel.

She was looking for her opponent’s sword arm– but there were two!

The Strelok swung both swords horizontally from opposite sides like a closing vice–

Sieglinde threw the Grenadier down below the Strelok to try to avoid and counterattack–

Dodging out of the counterstroke, the Lion’s Strelok dove past her flank, circled quickly around her back and thrust up again. Trying to follow the dizzying attack, Sieglinde turned and slashed behind her, then she boosted down and back for space and sliced above herself, but the Lion was still moving, constantly.

Circling her diagonally in a way that made full use of the fact that they were suspended in water, a three-dimensional space in which they could move in all possible angles around each other. Sieglinde was speechless, eyes rushing from camera to camera hoping to predict the opponent’s next move–

–then the Lion inverted the arc she was taking at its peak, diving suddenly, and she appeared where Sieglinde had not been looking. Launching both blades in a powerful swing with all of the momentum they had built and clubbing the Grenadier in the flank. It was more of a smashing attack than a slash, delivered with such brutality there was no time for the blades to cut into the armor, and it sent the Grenadier tumbling down in the water. Pieces of armor chipped and sunk in, and a part of the skirt went flying. Sieglinde rattled in her cockpit, gritting her teeth involuntarily, her stomach turning.

This Strelok is faster! How is that possible? Or did I get slower?

It was not just the slightly upgraded Diver model– nor Sieglinde’s own weakness–

The Lion herself was faster, stronger, swifter than in Cascabel.

She had gotten stronger! But how was that possible? How had she changed so much?

As if their minds were attuned to this realization, the Lion answered.

“I am fighting for something, Red Baron! If your time froze at Cascabel, then what are you still fighting for? Can you even say? Why did you come here? Are you fighting for an Empire that has broken into pieces? Are you trying to recover colonies that you’ve completely lost? Say something!”

Too much was happening too fast.

“I– I–”

Sieglinde’s voice caught in her shuddering throat before the Lion’s next blow.

Bubbles blew overhead from the diamond swords as they displaced and evaporated water.

Engaging her boosters Sieglinde quickly corrected herself out of her ungainly dive.

The Strelok had briefly stopped moving to attack! This was her chance to counter!

The Grenadier pressed back, both hands on her sword, hoping to slice off the Strelok’s arm–

One of the Lion’s blades caught her attack on the flat piece of armor guarding the chainsaw motor.

And the second slashed across her cockpit, leaving the same scar she had left on the Strelok.

Sieglinde was reacting so fast, she was still reacting as if the opponent had one sword.

Her reflexes that had been perfected in the Colonial War– became nothing but a hindrance!

“You’re just refusing culpability! You’re a coward! Red Baron! A miserable coward!”

Again Sieglinde retreated, her diminishing solid fuel boosters worked to their limits.

Creating space, opportunity, buying time, desperately, as her eyes sought any weakness.

The Lion’s coordination was astounding. Most pilots were much clumsier with one sword let alone two, but the Lion maneuvered her blades ambidextrously, covering any weakness, any gap, able to attack and defend swiftly. She was taking full advantage of the greater strength and stability offered by mechanical arms. Not only that, but despite the fact that they were only boosting around each other in short range, her movements were nonetheless fluid and three dimensional without hesitation.

Sieglinde needed her to make a mistake, but–

There was no opening! She could find no means to attack her!

Sieglinde’s will was flagging, and the Lion was completely focused.

All she could do was live second to second, reacting without initiative, without a plan.

Sieglinde found herself forced to draw back her sword up in front of the Grenadier as a makeshift shield, desperately blocking blow after brutal blow from the Lion’s Strelok, smashing from every direction against the flat of her vibrosword. Bubbles blew and water displaced in the violent wake of the Lion’s relentless assault, creating a cloud of exhaust and vapor within which the onslaught took place.

“You had a choice! You always had a choice! What brought you to this ocean to fight me except your own damned choices? And you want to blame fate for this? That’s far too convenient!”

Her swords slammed against the Grenadier’s sword driving Sieglinde back with each blow.

There was no opening to retaliate, no place where she could breathe.

Sieglinde watched the blows rain down metal on metal, helpless before the sparks.

 “I’m not like you! How dare you say that? My time was never frozen! I still have something to fight for! Despite everyone begging me to retire! Teach here, train there, let the new kids have a shot, you’re a symbol, you’re the Lion of Cascabel they all said! I’m 42, unmarried, I have no partner, no kids, no legacy! But my time is still moving! I’m still alive and my story is still being written! I won’t give up!”

While between strikes her words sliced open Sieglinde and laid her soul horribly bare.

She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me!

The Red Baron had lost all control. Staring death with empty eyes and trembling lips. Tasting her own sweat and tears that ran in rivulets. Her monitors screamed about the degrading condition of her blade, of the mech’s wrists, the draining vernier fuel, and she felt the whole cockpit shake with each strike.

No! I can’t die here! I can’t! I can’t!

Out of a raging biological instinct to survive Sieglinde burned the very last of her solid fuel thrust in one desperate burst of bubbles and heat, throwing herself straight forward into the middle of the frenzied attacks, slamming into the Strelok with her whole body. Chainsaw blades tore great gashes into her shoulders, tearing out jet anchors but digging no deeper where water could enter.

Her mood swung as chaotically as the blades against her: I caught you! I can still fight!

Flushing more of her oxygen into the water system, Sieglinde kicked off enemy machine and laid a cloud of bubbles. In the momentary space she created with this maneuver, Sieglinde drew her vibrodagger.

On one hand her weapon of last resort; on the other her full-length vibrosword.

Roaring with the desperation of a cornered beast, she threw herself back into the attack.

Just like she had seen the Lion, she swung both weapons to meet her opponent’s own–

–and misjudging the length of the dagger, found a diamond sabre sawing through her arm at the elbow.

On her monitor, all of her boosters signaled empty, her only thrust coming from the hydrojets. Her sword arm sank toward the bottom of the sea, a hull integrity warning flashing. In the middle of that oppressive cockpit, the synthetic fiber of her regal uniform clung to a sweating chest, hands shaking on the controls.

She watched helplessly as the Strelok’s arms reared for a strike against her midsection.

To slice her cockpit apart, expose her to the sea and kill her.

She watched as the twin cruel-sawed blades–

–drew back and swung forward the famous claws of the Lion of Cascabel,

and pointed at the Grenadier’s chest and flank, just short of plunging into its iron flesh.

Diamond-toothed jaws revved and seethed just centimeters from her but no violence followed.

“I won’t satisfy your idea of fate. I won’t let you die and escape justice.” The Lion said.

Sieglinde sat speechless. Her arms lifted off her controls and hung limply at her side. The Red Baron, legend of the Imperial Colonial War, had been utterly defeated. Her heart pounded, her breathing labored. She struggled for something dignified to say, after how far her honor had plunged, how much the Lion of Cascabel had torn the clothes off her manicured self-image and broken her down.

She had been left with nothing. The Red Baron was practically dead even if Sieglinde lived.

Just as she began to speak, to try to absolve herself, her eyes became drawn to something.

She became mesmerized, by a streak of unnatural colors that flashed in the distance.

The Lion’s Strelok also turned to face it. She was seeing it too, the explosion of colors.

And the glowing outline of the Jagdkaiser and the Cheka locked in combat within them.

Furious reds, evil-feeling black, and the texture of an open wound in the middle of the sea.


Karuniya Maharapratham sat in the medbay, a chair pulled up next to the bed of Murati Nakara.

She held on to her partner’s arm, gently, as the ship rocked from an explosion.

On the wall, the bearing monitor and a communication screen showed data and footage of the blast.

“All that rumbling.” Murati lamented weakly. “I wish there was something we could do.”

They were in the middle of a battle, even in their isolated little pod they could feel it.

Murati turned to Karuniya with a small smile, a helpless little expression.

“If there was– I would support you, no matter what, but–” Karuniya said.

“Thank you. Don’t worry. I won’t do anything dangerous, for your sake.”

“For my sake, huh.”

Karuniya sighed. She recalled a conversation that happened not long before the battle began.

Out in the hall, between a certain Euphemia Rontgen and herself. After their conversation had petered out, and Rontgen left the room, Karuniya had gone as well since Murati had wanted to rest for a moment. At that point, she found Rontgen still in the hall, as if waiting specifically to be able to talk to her alone.

“From scientist to scientist,” she asked, “would you ever fight for Murati Nakara’s sake?”

At the time Karuniya had brushed it off. “That’s far too vague.”

“Interesting that it wasn’t an immediate yes.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s an immediate yes — if it’s really necessary. If she truly needs it. I worry about her, but I’m not going to do something stupid and get in her way. I trust her. Murati’s always been the fighter. She doesn’t need me or anyone to protect her. It’d have to be an extreme situation.”

“I see. I’m glad Murati Nakara can have such a mature relationship.”

“Tch. Weirdo. Is that all you wanted to say?”

She was starting to get irritated. Ever since she saw her in the hall.

Euphemia Rontgent was pleasant enough, but she was being deliberately cryptic.

And Karuniya was hardly in the mood to be stopped in the hall for cryptic question.

“My answer is far more cowardly. For Theresa– I wouldn’t fight. I reckon myself a pacifist of sorts.”

Karuniya glanced at her. She almost wanted to say something nasty.

Something about how they must not have been so close if that was her response.

“However, know this– because of who Murati Nakara is and the path she’s chosen to take, it’s a question that’s much more important to you than it would ever be to me.” Rontgen said by way of parting.

Some time later Karuniya returned to medbay, sat beside her fiance and tried to pore it over.

How did she really feel about fighting? Murati had very strong opinions herself, but–

–aside from silly disagreements how did Karuniya really feel? Did she had a serious opinion?

Her mind went in a loop, unproductive, without a point.

But quite suddenly, the question returned in human form.

In the middle of the battle, Theresa Faraday suddenly visited the medbay.

Dressed in a mechanic’s garb with a white coat over it, some kind of tool in her hand.

Her red hair tossed as she reared back and asked, with a grin and a surprising amount of levity:

“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.9]

While Norn began speaking to the enemy commander, Adelheid sat next to her with an active terminal and oversaw their preparations for battle. She had cameras on the hangar and logging on the mainframe for all the work done at the bridge stations. There was not much that she needed to do, because the crew was so efficient and disciplined. She thought she might at least have to yell at Selene or Samoylovych, but the two of them, Petra Chornyi and the Red Baron were ready to deploy the second Norn commanded it. Turrets were ready, torpedoes had been loaded. The Antenora was primed for battle.

Norn’s Magellan was also assembled, serviced by a crane rather than a proper gantry.

“Are you really going out there?” Adelheid had asked, prior to the hostilities.

She was already concerned the instant the sonar pulse came back with an imaged ship.

So before battle was even joined, the anxiety was clear on her face.

“I have no intention to deploy. Yangtze and Potomac can go fuck themselves.” Norn said.

Adelheid’s eyes drew open in surprise. She had nursed a fear of Norn fighting personally.

“But I thought you were going to get Elena for Gertrude too. It’s not just them.”

Norn nodded solemnly. “That is Gertrude’s business. I plan to send her out to complete it.”

“You’re right.” Adelheid said, feeling relief. “You shouldn’t be responsible for any of this.”

“You really do understand me better than anyone, Adelheid.”

Norn gave her a gentle, confident smile and stroked a few locks of Adelheid’s hair.

Seated side by side on the bridge of this ship with had committed so much violence.

That firm hand caressing her lifted Adelheid’s spirits just a bit. Her heart felt warm.

“If this ship really did that much damage to the Iron Lady, it must be dangerous.” She said.

“I know.” Norn said simply. “But Gertrude will have no better chance than this.”

“Right.” Adelheid replied. “We’re probably better armed than the Iron Lady overall.”

“There’s my adjutant sounding like all of those battle analysis courses she aced.”

Norn returned her attention to the main screen, still stroking Adelheid’s hair with affection.

“I can’t fight everyone’s battles for them. I refuse to be used like that anymore.” She said.

Miming Norn’s words, Adelheid replied, “Now there’s the rebellious Praetorian I love.”

Adelheid had been with Norn for over six years now. Their relationship was only slightly younger than their acquaintance. She had been on the receiving end of Norn’s speech about opportunity; but Adelheid refused to use her. Back then, she felt strongly that she wanted to prove her own power.

And she had succeeded in her goals, despite everything that followed.

With a lot of Norn’s help that had ultimately been freely given.

She had gone on many voyages with the Antenora since then. It never got easier. Adelheid was not someone who was used to fighting. Even if Norn ended up essentially bullying and toying with the opponents they were usually given, she was still nervous. She kept it under control. She was not so stupid as to act out and become a liability if it would put Norn in danger. So when it came time to fight, Adelheid set everything aside and played the dignified adjutant as best as she could.

Adelheid stole a glance at Norn while she was speaking.

She seemed to have everything under control. She always did. She was strong.

That strength which had held Adelheid firm, had freed her, had given her new life.

But Adelheid knew that too many people relied on Norn, viewed her only as a weapon for their ends. She could never fool herself into feeling that Norn was invincible. Because she understood Norn more than anyone. Norn would falter someday. She couldn’t hold the world on her shoulders all alone.

So she worried. Whenever they fought, she pined anxiously for everyone’s safety.

And she did her best to be ready to support Norn on the day her strength was questioned.

Once the Pandora’s Box opened negotiations, Norn instantly demonstrated her superiority.

She looked like a goddess to Adelheid. A shining being not from this world.

Ulyana Korabiskaya was a looker herself — maybe Adelheid had a thing for blondes — but nobody could match how incredibly hot Norn was when she took control. They had watched footage of the discussions between Gertrude and Korabiskaya so Norn knew to expect a few attempts at second-rate fast talking from the mercenary commander. Adelheid knew Norn would try to influence the enemy captain psionically and end the conflict easily, so she “flipped” on her psionic vision.

Focusing on the aura of Korabiskaya and Norn, she saw the brief contest that ensued.

However, the outcome was not what she predicted.

Korabiskaya resisted; she had some potential.

Not enough to fight back. Norn had simply stopped, rather than being actively countered.

When it came to psionic mind games, Adelheid knew the basics.

If Norn couldn’t control someone immediately, it was unlikely to be worth bothering with.

So the discussion continued.

“Euphrates,”

Adelheid felt a chill when she heard that name.

Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

And foremost among the people Norn wanted to revenge herself against.

While she didn’t lose her cool, Adelheid could tell that Norn was immediately altered.

As soon as she saw Euphrates, a violent red band began to widen across her aura.

“Agh!”

Then in the middle of the conversation that she appeared to be dominating–

Norn raised her hands to her face, flinching as if in pain.

Shaking briefly, drawing back against the seat.

And coming to rest, as if sleeping.

Video connection to the Brigand cut off.

Immediately, Adelheid concentrated on the aura around Norn, switching on her “sight.”

White–?

All of her aura had become a pale, soft white. Black was death– what the hell was white?!

How had this happened?

She whipped around to the adjacent station and shouted at the drone. “Communications, send orders to the hangar to deploy Selene, Samoylovych, Chorniy, and von Castille at once!”

Negotiations were over. Whether or not the Pandora’s Box was even truly aware of what had happened, a situation like this could only be dealt with by defending themselves militarily. When there was tension, they could not afford to leave an opening just to appear magnanimous. Adelheid knew enough about war to assume the Pandora’s Box would try to exploit this event.

But what had happened? How could she help Norn?

Euphrates was an Immortal, psionically powerful. Adelheid turned to face Norn again and took her into her arms, shaking her, trying to wake her. Her body was still warm, she was breathing, and there was no bleeding or other signs that she was psychically exerting herself. Adelheid knew that mental psionic attacks were extremely difficult, and the most easily resisted by gifted psions. She suspected Euphrates must have attacked Norn but how? What exactly did she do to Norn?

She could not panic. Despite everything– Norn was depending on her!

“Hunter III! Come here! Something happened to Norn!”

Though she understood psionics differently, Hunter III was more powerful than Adelheid.

She could see and understand things Adelheid did not. Maybe she would understand!

“Whatcha yellin’ about? Huh? What happened to the boss?”

Hunter III shambled to Norn’s seat with a drowsy expression, her skinny arms hanging at her sides. She pulled her hood off her white hair and set her bright eyes on Norn. One slender ghost white finger rose to poke the praetorian in the cheek. Upon touching her Hunter III immediately seemed to realize something was wrong, like a dog sniffing an intruder, and her eyes went red, she was using psionics herself.

“Huh? Her brainself is gone. Who did that?” Hunter III said.

“Brainself? What the hell are you saying?”

Adelheid yelled; and Hunter III was so taken by Norn’s condition she didn’t yell back.

Hunter III looked around the room with her glowing eyes. “Her brainself’s off swimmin’ somewhere–”

From beneath her hooded robe, a stubby tail became suddenly erect.

“Adelheid, she’s lookin’ for you! You gotta do somethin’ to reach back out!”

Hunter III turned innocent eyes and a calm expression on Adelheid–

–as if she was supposed to understand what she meant!!

Adelheid was about to start shouting back at the little fish-tailed runt–

But she did start feeling something–

–as if there was something carried on all the tiny sounds of the ship, the clicking on keyboards, the hum of the air system, the very subtle vibrations of the floor panels, the rustling of synthetic cloth. She could hear something else, distant, whispered, in the coalescing of all the noise around her. As if spoken between syllables of every voice, an enunciation in each button press, a sigh in the ventilation.

Had she been anyone else, with less experience in these matters, she would have said it was the stress and muted panic of the moment that was cause these hallucinations around her.

Norn had taught her about the powers of the mind.

About the meaning behind the colors that she could sometimes see people give off.

She looked at Hunter III briefly and saw the shades of her, blue and green and thin black.

She looked down at her own hands and saw the multitude of muddled colors of her own.

She looked at Norn’s pale white aura that had begun expanding, thinning, wafting.

Reaching.

Focusing on the color she reached her own hand down to Norn.

Approaching the white fog which had come to enshroud her lover and carried her sensation.

Her fingers crossed some kind of threshold and color diffused across the white cloud.

Adelheid felt like she had punctured a membrane. There was a brief, tactile resistance.

One final push and her hand finally touched Norn’s skin, felt the warmth of her.

And transferred the warmth of her own touch to that skin.

Adelheid saw a flash of something in her mind.

Images, sounds, feelings, years of information compressed to a flash.

There was no possible way that she could understand it. All of it was gone in an instant.

Not even the barest scraps of a dream remained of it.

In that instant of fleeting hallucination, when Adelheid’s eyes blinked–

Norn’s eyes opened. Their gazes met. For a moment, neither of them said a word.

Her eyes had red rings around them, but they followed movement, they were aware.

Her lips spread very slightly to speak–

Adelheid interrupted immediately. She threw herself atop Norn, silently weeping.

Norn’s arms wrapped firmly around Adelheid, embracing her tightly.

“I knew I could count on you.” Norn said, stroking her hair.

Adelheid separated herself, grabbed hold of Norn’s shirt, fixed her a serious look.

Norn’s eyes had red rings around them. So there was still in danger.

“What’s going on?” Adelheid asked. “Your eyes– you’re still doing psionics.”

Norn looked surprised to hear this. She looked around the room in confusion.

“Her brainself is still kinda gone. I can kinda feel the veins though.” Hunter III said.

She started wandering around the room like a dog following a trail. Incomprehensible.

Adelheid could not see whatever it was they were both following or searching for.

She felt frustrated at her own lack of power– but at least Norn was here.

“Norn, what’s happening? How can we help?” Adelheid asked, still tight on Norn’s chest.

“Euphrates dragged me into the aether current. I’m not sure exactly what she did so I can’t explain it. I think I’m puppeteering my own body right now.” Norn said. “I can sense through the currents by using Adelheid as an anchor, but it’s hazy. I need to find a permanent solution, but for right now, we need to capture the Pandora’s Box. I’m putting Gertrude in command of the Diver attack. First–”

Suddenly she grabbed hold of Adelheid by the collar and tie–

–pulling her into a deep, forceful kiss.

That instant of dominance, the taste of her tongue– it almost knocked Adelheid senseless.

When their lips parted, Norn had a grin on her face and some of Adelheid’s lipstick as well.

“All you need to do is stay by my side and believe in me.” Norn said. “Do you understand?”

“Y-Yes. Master.” Adelheid said. “I’m yours to command.”

Norn grin turned into a gentle, praising smile just for her. “Good girl. Let’s get them.”


“Master, I don’t understand.”

Time was of the essence. A combat alert had been put into place.

Samoylovych and the Red Baron were already deploying, as well as Petra Chornyi. Selene just had to know whether or not the Jagdkaiser should have a cartridge loaded, other than that she was good to go. Enemy activity was starting to pick up, with the sonar operators picking up the tell-tale sounds of the Pandora’s Box preparing its chutes to deploy Divers. The Antenora was rushing into battle.

From the hangar, Gertrude Lichtenberg called the bridge to speak to Norn.

She knew that they did not have a lot of time, but she needed to know why she was being ordered to deploy in the Magellan. Without her acquiescence, the machine had been assigned to her, and its weapons, a 30 mm autocannon ballistic shield and a vibrosword, had been prepared and linked to it. Norn’s crew had beckoned her into the machine– and it nearly caused her panic.

“I thought this machine was for your own use.” Gertrude asked.

On a terminal in the hangar, Norn and Adelheid appeared on video seated side-side.

“Potomac didn’t chain it to my leg.” Norn said. “I’m assigning it to you. It’s an effective piece of equipment and you are more than capable to operate it. Or have you forgotten how to fight for yourself after all these years leading phalanxes of ambulant body armor into battle?”

Gertrude chafed at the criticism. She knew she couldn’t get offended at Norn, however.

Trying her best to moderate her tone, she began to reply, “I sought out your assistance–”

Norn then interrupted immediately. “I’m giving you an opportunity, the best opportunity you will ever have, to rescue princess Elena from those mercenaries. If you truly believe in this endeavor and you want to see it through, then you will take responsibility for it. I never once said that I would go out and personally fight these mercenaries in your stead, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“Master,”

Gertrude was practically gritting her teeth. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt it right in her veins, the rush of blood to her extremities had become a palpable drumbeat beneath her skin. Her whole body was tense, she felt like she could hardly move or speak. She had assumed that Norn would use her powers to rescue Elena easily from the Pandora’s Box. She had been so sure that she could seize victory if Norn was leading the charge to finally crush that damnable ship once and for all.

Now her long fantasized victory was thrown into complete chaos.

“Gertrude,”

Norn interrupted again. A cruel grin spread across her soft face.

“Perhaps I am being too harsh. Here is my offer then, Gertrude. Only for you, a precious student, a part of my legacy. I will save Elena von Fueller on the condition that she be turned over to the Fueller family’s stewardship immediately. I will control all of her affairs personally from the moment she returns to this ship. Now if you rescue her, of course, you’ll become her steward.”

She clapped her hands together with satisfaction, evil red glinting eyes scanning Gertrude.

Gertrude felt her heart sink.

All of this time, she had also fantasized about being the sole steward of Elena von Fueller.

Never once did she think Norn would push the idea of returning her to the Fueller family.

Norn knew about Gertrude’s deep-seated passion for Elena.

Gertrude could not lie to her. And Norn had demanded to know when they met. More than anyone, Norn von Fueller understood the lustful covetousness that really drove Gertrude Lichtenberg to action. She knew how much Elena meant to Gertrude and she had already, several times, pulled strings so that Gertrude could inch closer to the storybook ending she desired for her and Elena. For Norn to then make this impossible, cruel “deal” was to say in many, humiliating words that Gertrude had no choice but to deploy and fight instead of Norn. It was to make her command utterly absolute.

In this single moment, Gertrude’s dreams could crumble right in front of her. All of her work, suffering, sacrifice, all the begging and cheating and the corpses she climbed– for nothing.

“I am not merely doing this to be cruel to you.” Norn said.

Her fists closed at her side, Gertrude felt like a child being scolded.

“You say that master, but this may be the cruelest thing you’ve ever done to me.”

“I’m giving you a choice, as I’ve always given you.” Norn replied, more coldly.

Gertrude openly gritted her teeth. “You know this isn’t a choice! You’re manipulating me!”

“Really? A coattail rider like you, and you believe I’m the one being manipulative?”

“Master,” Gertrude clapped her hands together. “I’ve always respected you, so please–”

She was getting ready to beg. Getting ready to drop to her knees right on the video feed.

“Stop being such a coward, Gertrude! You need to man up, this instant!”

It was not Norn who spoke then.

Adelheid interjected suddenly, in a way that completely chilled Gertrude.

Her eyes looked as imperious as those of Norn herself. A disdainful glare, and sharp words.

“Don’t you realize how cruel you are being, begging Norn to fight this battle for you?” Adelheid shouted. “Don’t you see the company that puts you in, don’t you see how sound like all of the other evil cowards who only see her as a weapon? Don’t you see that Norn wants to give you the power to take Elena away with you? Gertrude, if you can’t even defeat these mercenaries, can you possibly defend Elena from the Volkisch movement, the Royal Alliance, Veka or Millennia Skarsgaard? How can you survive all the schemes that Norn has shielded you from and continue to be so spineless? Do you want to hide behind other people forever, or do you want to be able to take control of your own damn life?”

Adelheid practically shouted herself hoarse. There were furious tears in her eyes.

Gertrude stood speechless. She almost wanted to cry herself– she was so stunned.

All of the begging and sniveling that she had done to wear her grandiose uniform.

Not just Norn, but Dreschner, Ingrid, Sieglinde, even Elena herself–

So many people had rescued her across her life, so she stood half a chance of reaching this moment, of reaching the cusp of having the love of her life in her grasp, where nobody could take her again, where they could finally stand together until death. That storybook ending she wanted ever since she was enchanted by those beautiful indigo eyes as a small child. Gertrude was not so deluded as to think she had ever boasted prodigious personal strength, she knew, acknowledged, that she had begged and scraped and needed intervention and serendipity to survive to where she was and yet–

She had never felt so seen, so seen and found pathetic, found to be truly what she was.

Another soul had never struck a blow so chillingly powerful to the edifice of her person.

And for it to not even be Norn, but Adelheid, that bratty girl perpetually fixed in her orbit.

For those words to cut as deep and hard as they did. Gertrude was left reeling, shaking.

She could have taken the scolding if it came from Norn– but Norn hardly made a gesture.

It had been Adelheid, of all people, who had cut her down to the bone instead.

Had she been told of this event without experiencing it herself, Gertrude would have laughed.

Now in the moment all she wanted to do was cry, but she fought back the tears.

“Thank you Adelheid.” Norn said. “But that’s quite enough. Gertrude, your decision.”

Even if her heart was full of trepidation, it was impossible to object. Gertrude was trapped.

All of her rebelliousness was destroyed. Adelheid was completely correct about her.

Gertrude had run too much, hid too much, begged, and bartered too much by now.

There was always going to be a battle she would have had to stand and fight through alone.

She thought when it came she would be prepared for it.

Instead she was a shuddering mess. In tears, her skin shaking over cold-feeling flesh.

Pathetic. She was pathetic, powerless, useless, a coward, a craven half-wit schemer–

“Gertrude, I need you to do this.” Norn pressed her. “But more than that: you need it too.”

Gertrude raised a shaking salute. Norn and Adelheid were right.

She needed to do this. There was nobody to champion her. Gertrude had to fight herself.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg, deploying in the SF-07 Magellan.” She said.

Steeling herself to put on the most dignified response that she could muster.

“Good. Show them your strength, High Inquisitor.” Norn said.

Gertrude bowed her head and severed the connection. When she turned her back on the terminal, her cape fluttering behind her, feeling the weight of the black and gold uniform and the tall hat on her head, Gertrude felt like nothing so much as an imposter. She had been exposed and could no longer run away. All she could was convince the world that she had any power at all in her own self.


Maryam Karahailos stepped off the elevator to the Brigand’s upper deck with her hands behind her back, her head bowed, and the chromatophores in her skin and hair dull and dark. She felt her brain fog over with worry, her skin feeling tight with tension. The Brigand was embroiled in a dangerous situation, and her beloved Sonya had taken charge of her unit and deployed for battle. Watching them go, even a girl as supernaturally gifted as her felt completely helpless and useless in this situation.

When it came to fighting a battle like this, the Apostle of Air was completely useless!

She did not want to trouble Sonya, so she did not insist on staying in the hangar.

Soon as Sonya got ready to leave, they briefly held hands, and Maryam made for the bridge.

“As long as you’re safe, I’ll have peace of mind.” Sonya said.

“You’ll definitely come back, right?”

“Of course. I still have a lot to learn from you.”

Their final exchange, out of earshot, before Sonya told her to depart and ran to the mecha.

Maryam sighed deeply.

She had spent so much time with Sonya lately, it had been such a blessing!

Now she was gone, and Maryam might never– no she couldn’t even contemplate that!

It broke her heart to even consider it!

Moping to herself, she ambled without enthusiasm down the hall.

She stumbled upon a commotion.

Out in the middle of the hall, someone had been set down on the floor. There was a woman looming over her on the ground — that doctor with the colorful hair, Kappel. Alongside her were the two women Sonya had introduced to Maryam last night: Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg. As soon as Maryam approached, Valeriya seemed to notice, and immediately lifted her mask over her nose.

She tugged gently on Illya’s sleeve and pointed behind them at Maryam.

“Run along to the bridge, we don’t want too many people getting in the way here.”

Illya was firm but not brusque. Maryam had not intended to stay in the hall but–

She noticed the blue hair and blood-soaked white coat of the woman in Kappel’s care.

Euphrates– no, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen, she was calling herself.

On the floor, unresponsive save for recurring bloody coughing, streams of blood down her nose, convulsions infrequent enough that they startled Maryam as she stared. Her eyes were blank, like the cold gaze of a corpse. Kappel had brought her out to the hall, took her pulse, checked her breathing, injected her with a drug, but she seemed helpless to provide first aid in this situation.

“She’s breathing, heart’s normal, the portable scanner shows nothing ruptured.”

Maryam stared in confusion. People spoke but the voices made no sense to her.

All of the blood, and the way her body would sometimes jump without stimuli, it was surreal, the smell of bloody iron and gauze, but not just that, not just the physical things– all around Euphrates a black cloud thicker and denser and darker than any Maryam had ever seen shrouded her until her physical body seemed almost an outline beneath its fog. Death, death, death, death was everywhere, the smell of rot, the texture of flayed flesh, the taste of blood, it clung slick like slime to the body and yet–

–she wasn’t dead. Was she? She couldn’t have been.

Maryam could vaguely see the sinewy outer edges of her aura.

Not dissipating from distance to the body, but reaching out, flowing.

The Aether Current– all of that darkness was spilling out into the aether current.

Maryam realized that Euphrates’ condition must have had to do with psionics, but–

“Hey, aren’t you going to the bridge? We don’t want people loitering around.”

Illya, clearly nervous at the unnatural sight playing out behind her.

“I– I’m sorry. I’ll keep going. It’s– it’s a lot of blood. Sorry.”

“I get it. The Captain and the Commissar are awaiting you.” Illya said gently.

Maryam did not know how to feel and what she should do.

Euphrates had been a teacher of sorts to her, a mentor. Self-described and self-imposed.

She felt a sense of great trepidation when she found “Euphemia” embroiling herself in the Brigand’s affairs. They acknowledged their familiarity in front of the Captain and the crew but did not reveal the truth about their association. Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation, a conspiratorial group that Maryam had joined and briefly worked within — all Apostles held a high and respected rank in the group, even if they did not want to, so Maryam found refuge with them.

While Euphrates taught her many things about herself and about psionics–

Maryam could not help but hate the selfish way that she behaved. To believe that you were helping the world solely by advancing knowledge and technology, but that the ethical response to conflict was to retreat from the world and hide your knowledge and technology from them; it was anathema to everything Maryam wanted to accomplish in the world. She could not abide any of it.

So if Euphrates was dying, what should Maryam do? How should she have reacted?

Mourned? Seethed? Intervened?

Maybe the world would have been better without Euphrates in it.

With a deep breath followed by a heavy sigh, Maryam started walking past the scene.

And stopped right beside Doctor Kappel, fists shaking at her sides.

“I– I can help!” Maryam shouted suddenly, unable to abandon her gentle nature.

Doctor Kappel looked up at her, blinking with confusion. She fiddled absentmindedly with some of her blue hair and got some blood on it. Behind her, Illya looked annoyed and Valeriya turned the other way to avoid the scene. The doctor looked pale as a ghost, practically in tears, her hands were shaking on the portable medical computer in her fingers. “Maryam Karahailos? How can you possibly–?”

“Please don’t ask me about what I’m about to do! I’ll explain everything later!”

Maryam dropped to her knees next to Euphrates’ body and held out her hands.

Her eyes felt hot, and she pushed her senses out to the air around her.

Just as she had shown Shalikova before a globe of air gathered quickly in her hands–

–and then dispersed.

Illya’s, Kappel’s and Valeriya’s hair blew suddenly as if there was a strong breeze.

All of them watched, dumbfounded, as the air became a visible glow around Euphrates.

Molecular Control.

Air seeped its way through Euphrates’ skin, into the tissues, sinews, into the blood.

Her gentle touch glided over wounds, through spilled blood and ruptured vessels.

While Maryam’s intellect and will traveled through the muscles, to the marrow, to the brain.

She caught the briefest glimpse, the most fleeting intimation of Euphrates’ intentions.

Norn von Fueller– Somewhere Euphrates was dueling the mighty Apostle of Ice–

Her body was here, however, in great, roaring agony–

As she tried to sew back tissues that bled indefinitely, as she tried to mend bones that broke forever and muscles that tore repeatedly, Maryam realized suddenly why Euphrates’ body was not dying. Life blossomed inside of her abnormal body every time a cell met death, like a big bang of genetic rebirth recreating the universe of Euphrates with every stroke against her skin and every twist against her bones. She was like a cancer infinitely fed of herself, and Maryam could hardly comprehend where the energy came from to sustain her. She realized in an instant how vastly old and hurt this body was.

Glimpsing for less than a second the thousand-year history of Euphrates–

From Maryam’s gentle lips ripped a wail of agony.

She fell back from Euphrates’ body, from Kappel and Illya who tried to reach out to her, shuddering and shaking on the floor with the horror of understanding. Her head felt split open with pain, and she held herself as if trying to squeeze numb all of the burning in her sinews. Even for an Apostle, where she had delved, what she had touched, memories of cells with infinitely long telomeres–

Psionic feedback ripped through Maryam’s entire body. She was not powerful enough!

“Maryam! Oh my god–!”

Illya rushed to the side of the girl clearly in pain, tearing open a plastic-bagged first aid kit–

Suddenly everything began to shake.

That first aid kit hit the floor and the security officers nearly fell with it.

Dr. Kappel grit her teeth and clung on to a handhold in the wall near the Bridge door.

Lights flashed in and out in the hallways for a few seconds before stabilizing.

“It’s started!” Valeriya said.

“Shit. This one’s going to be really serious huh?” Illya replied.

She helped Maryam to settle on her side and injected her with a punch tube from the first aid kit. Psionic feedback was already subsiding, and the painkillers flooding Maryam’s body had little to do with it, but she felt her head clearing and peace returning. Those instant, eldritch images that had terrorized her neurons for a split second were gone save for the leftover anxious tension under her skin. The world, which was still spinning around her, overcome with disorienting color as she lost control, came into sharper focus, slowly, like a picture on a faulty screen coaxed into mechanical clarity.

“Maryam, please say something. Shalikova’s already upset enough with me as it is.”

Illya laid a comforting hand on Maryam’s shoulder, as if nudging her back to life.

Joined by Valeriya, who knelt beside Illya and offered her own silent support.

Maryam promised not to make trouble– she tried her best to sit up and acknowledge them.

She thought of saying something but– It was not Maryam who raised her voice to speak.

From the lips of the presumed corpse came the smallest, weakest of pleas–

“Tigris– please–”

“She’s speaking?! Security, call Syracuse, we may be able to move her to operations now!”

Doctor Kappel looked as shocked as she was elated to see a sign of consciousness.

Euphemia Rontgen– no, Euphrates, slowly sat up, trying to speak.

Through a trickle of blood and vomit escaping from her throat.

With eyes glowing bright red, tears steaming into wisps of vapor as they were shed.

She reached out to the sleeve on Kappel’s coat and tugged weakly on it.

“Theresa– Tigris– please bring her–”

“Tigris? God help me, what is happening on this ship?” Kappel whimpered.

In that instant, there was another sudden quake all along the ship again as if in answer.


“Don’t try to be a hero. Stay in the back and offer fire support. You got that?”

Shalikova was unused to being the tough CO in a group. She was almost always the quiet workhorse who did everything she was ordered to do without objections. So it felt strange to be in the position of having to tell a contrite Aiden Ahwalia that he was on the team, for now, and that he was going out into battle. And then to have to try her best to smash down the glint he got in his eyes after.

“Of course. Of course.” He said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“You really shouldn’t be happy we’re in this position.” Shalikova sighed.

Behind her, the deployment chutes for Khadija and Valya were being drained. Both of them had gone out first. A wise decision– Khadija would have certainly had something to say about Aiden’s inclusion. She was hopefully professional enough not to complain once Aiden was actually outside with them. It was a dreadful situation to be in. Two of their most accomplished pilots in their last sortie were out of the fight, and the enemy was likely to be armed to the teeth. These weren’t just going to be patrolmen haphazardly thrown into battle. The Antenora was the Fueller flagship, part of the former ruling dynasty.

Shalikova imagined royal knights who trained constantly to protect the imperial family.

Complete opposite of the ragtag group she was working with.

But all she could do was believe; believe in her comrades and do her best.

Murati would have said something like that.

She would have also had a more complicated plan, perhaps.

“Our goal will be to distract the enemy while the Strelkannon gets into position. Between the Strelkannon’s anti-ship package and the Brigand’s weapons we should be able to overwhelm the Cruiser. If we can’t sink it, we’ll hopefully do enough damage to force a rout. You need to be ready to retreat at any point we find an opportunity to run. You got that? Don’t be a hero, Aiden.”

“Don’t worry about me! I won’t do anything foolish.” Aiden said.

His tone was much more compliant.

Not only because he was finally getting what he wanted and being allowed to pilot, but likely also because of the beating he took and the subsequent dressing down from the Security Chief. He had a bruised neck and a bandage on his forehead where Valeriya had stricken him. Nothing broken, nothing he couldn’t sleep off. Otherwise Shalikova would not have had any reserve pilots to draw upon now, except maybe asking if Valeriya and Illya could be lent to her from security.

She knew those two could pilot well.

“You’ll be with her.” Shalikova said. “But you follow my orders, understand?”

Beside the spare Strelok which had been assigned to Aiden, Marina’s S.E.A.L was set up on a gantry. It was a little rounder than a Strelok here and there, attesting to the Republic’s higher capability in precise machining, with rounded off edges and a beveled, semi-oblong body. They attached the backpack lower, and the entire mass was just a bit squatter in profile. This was the legacy of the combat data which had been given by the Union to the republic. They made a slightly prettier and stockier Strelok.

It would do as well enough as any of their machines in the right hands.

Shalikova would just have to trust Marina McKennedy’s skill too.

When Marina appeared, Shalikova took Aiden to her side for a quick introduction.

“McKennedy, this is Aiden Ahwalia, he’ll be providing fire support for you.” She said.

Aiden waved half-heartedly.

Marina nodded her head. “Okay, I’ll paint targets if I need him to coordinate.”

“Good call. Aiden, shoot what she’s shooting at, and we’ll get through this.”

Shalikova patted Aiden in the back, trying to be a bit chummy.

Murati did that sort of thing much better– she couldn’t help but compare herself.

She then hurried back to the Cheka, set up next to the Strelkannon, ready to deploy.

On either shoulder, the Strelkannon was set up with a six-slot rack for 88 mm light torpedoes.

Rybolovskaya would in addition be deploying with a 50 mm high velocity cannon.

This was essentially a Diver “sniper rifle,” firing supercavitating two-stage projectiles.

But because the Diver and its pilot could hardly “see” to the full range of this weapon, it would be up to Shalikova or the rest of the team to paint digital targets for the Strelkannon to fire upon. They had all been equipped with laser effectors on their Diver’s gauntlets for this purpose. They could also use these to help guide the torpedoes she would be firing. Their entire gambit was based around supporting this one platform. Murati might’ve balked at having such a stark failure point.

Murati was not here, however.

Shalikova was doing her best with the weapons and tactics she knew. This kind of thing was bread and butter for pilots, but the Academy must’ve taught it to her because it was effective.

Right? She wished the little nagging voice in her head was more supportive.

She raised a thumbs up to Rybolovskaya, who nodded and descended into her cockpit.

Shalikova then started to climb into her own.

Murati’s Cheka was quite an imposing monument in the hangar, at least for Shalikova’s eyes. Climbing onto its dark painted body, subsuming herself in that sleek, modern hull, it put into stark relief that she was being asked to take on far more responsibility than she ever had. For years she had been piloting Streloks as a cadet and then as arguably a professional. This design bore resemblances to the mecha she had been piloting all of this time, but it represented the turning of an era also. This machine, if the Union survived long enough, would probably supplant all of the machines Shalikova piloted.

Just as she, and Murati, and all of them, were being asked to follow in the footsteps of the previous generation of the Union’s warriors and ultimately supersede them. Khadija was among the Brigand’s pilots, sure, but other than her, Shalikova felt, for maybe the first time, the absence of veterans, of the old revolutionaries, and the placing of weight on her slender shoulders alone. When Murati could not lead them, she had been chosen instead. A mere girl barely into her twenties.

ISU-100 Cheka. For the workers’ revolution!

Shalikova closed the cockpit and watched the Diver’s computer boot up.

A thousand generations reside in you.

That was the final part of the boot-up message before her cameras came online.

“You don’t have to keep reminding me.” She mumbled.

She took in a deep breath and let it out. She grabbed hold of her control sticks.

In the absence of that tenacious generation which brought liberty to the Nectaris Ocean, it would simply have to be her and her peers who continued the fight for freedom. There was no one else here that could protect the Brigand, and she would be damned if she let everything fall on poor Khadija, who had suffered so much, and Murati, who was always throwing herself in death’s way for them.

For Zasha’s sake too. She– she didn’t die for nothing.

“Big sis– the road we chose just keeps getting more treacherous, huh?”

Shalikova put a hand to her heart, and for the first time in a long time–

–remembered Zasha’s face, her words, her encouragement, without crying.

For her sake. Shalikova had to be soldier Zasha dreamed of being but could never become.

To protect the work of all of those generations who resided in her–

–and now, she who resided in Shalikova too.

Below her, the engineers released the Cheka from its gantry and unlocked the power plant.

She hefted up her rifle and stowed a folding sword and a grenade on her magnetic strip.

The voice that left her lips was stronger and firmer than she could’ve imagined.

ISU-100 Cheka, Sonya Shalikova! Deploying!”

When she dropped into the water, her hands were at the controls, her eyes on the cameras.

Her initial fear and trepidation left her as the ocean surrounded her hull.

“How is it looking out here?”

Beneath the ship, Khadija and Valya had been standing guard, moving just enough to keep up with the Brigand as it began to turn in on the Antenora’s flank from over a kilometer away. The Strelkannon dropped down with her, and Aiden’s Strelok along with Marina’s SEAL dropped shortly after. Shalikova synced the final up to date algorithmic prediction of the surroundings that she would get to her dive computer and cameras, getting a sense of the terrain beneath and the waters around them.

She noted the position of Zachikova’s drone near the ocean floor below, trailed closely by the Leviathan she had discovered. They would be connecting to the drone for laser communication and alternate sonar positioning, since the drone had a complete sonar kit and their Divers did not possess one.

“They’re starting to make a move.” Khadija said over the acoustic comms.

Shalikova adjusted herself to face the Antenora’s direction.

Advanced soundwave detection from the drone’s instruments passed to her computer, alerting her that there was indeed movement from underneath the Antenora, and the general direction of the movement. A tight formation was headed their way. All around her the ocean was murky, brown dust floating in near black waters, but she could trust the instruments to see where her eyes could never.

“Form up around the Strelkannon. I’ll take the lead– Marina and Aiden hold the rear!”

“Aye aye!” came the voices on the communicator.

Like a cluster of missiles hurtling out from beneath the ship, the Brigand’s divers charged out into the open water to intersect their counterparts. Positional data from the drone sent and received with a slight delay every few seconds, and at the speed they were moving they would find and confront the enemy group in forty or so seconds. Shalikova took the lead, Khadija and Valya beside her.

The Cheka was a dream to pilot, completely smooth, responsive, fast.

She must have had at least eight knots advantage on the Strelok.

I can do this–

“One of them is breaking off! I’m intercepting!”

Seconds later, Aiden suddenly swerved away from the formation.

“Aiden, what? Stop right now!”

Shalikova chastised him, then received the update from the drone.

One of the enemy mecha had torn away from their formation too.

It was clearly a trick! They didn’t know what kind of enemy it was!

“Don’t chase after it! Aiden! God damn it!”

“That little fucking worm! He’s going to get slaughtered!” Khadija cursed.

“Khadija, quiet and take the lead! I’ll go after him!”

Shalikova tore from the lead of the formation and charged to the flank as well.

There was no objection. She was the squad leader and they had their orders.

She was furious but she couldn’t let Aiden be killed no matter how foolish he was acting!

Once they got back she would punch him in his stupid nose, but for now she had to save him.

Aiden had quickly vanished into the marine fog, but Shalikova could catch up. The Cheka was faster than his Strelok. She could still create an opportunity if she could take out the enemy’s flanker with Aiden and then turn this stunt into their own flanking attack. In mere seconds the battle would be joined by the main group, so as she hurtled into the open ocean at their left flank, Shalikova kept the time in her head and prepared her weapons, knowing that she would soon catch a glimpse of the enemy–

“AHH–!”

A guttural, horrified scream from Aiden sounded through the communicator.

Outlines came into view through the biomass and the dark waters lit only by floodlights.

It happened in an instant–

Horns, a great dark body like a demon, claws, and shimmering, evil red eyes.

Aiden’s assault rifle floated down toward the seafloor with the Strelok’s hand attached.

Firing into nothingness as the hand was severed before he could attack.

He swung his sword at the demon but its glowing claw seized his entire arm.

When he screamed Shalikova could hear the wailing alert sounds from inside his cockpit.

His arm tore off along with the water intakes adjacent to the joint, causing his hydrojets to seize up, and the demon let the mass of his machine float uselessly away as if it was done playing with the carcass. Its horns glowed with a rainbow gradient that trailed across the body like faint outlines of the veins beneath skin. Shalikova saw dark armor and a snout-like head, felt the palpable heft of its body–

No, not its body. Not anything physical. Those waves were coming from the pilot.

Around her was a mass of red and black color with a spreading band of purple.

Furious killing intent and a sense of warrior’s pride.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide and her breathing caught. She raised her assault rifle.

She could hear a laugh– a girl’s uproarious laughter at her own superiority.

Her eyes, even through the water and the machines, she thought she could see–

–a girl like her? Long-haired, golden-eyed, in a pilot’s bodysuit, too young–

Oh? What’s this? Another helpless rat took a wrong turn in the maze?

Shalikova blinked, and the machine turned and charged as if propelled by billowing cloak of water.

In the next instant, the clawed metal horror descended on her quicker than its bulk suggested.

She reacted with alacrity, drawing back, avoiding the first attack of the enormous, vibrating, superheated claws. Opening the vortex of destruction which inexorably drew the currents of these generational peers. Out of every possible enemy released from the bowels of the Fueller flagship’s collection of monsters, Shalikova had now come face to face with a terror that shook the deeps with its alien power.

The Antenora’s Jagdkaiser Type I fixed its eyes and those of Selene Anahid on Shalikova’s own.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.8]

This chapter contains a scene with uniquely graphic violence. Discretion is advised.

“What do you know about Norn von Fueller?”

Before they boarded the Antenora, Gertrude Lichtenberg had convened a private meeting with Sieglinde von Castille. It was not atypical to discuss conditions and protocol differences between ships when transferring personnel, to avoid committing any faux pas, and with someone as high profile as Norn von Fueller, it was an even greater necessity. The way Gertrude looked into Sieglinde’s eyes when she asked her about the Praetorian, however, spoke to a different and greater urgency than normal.

Sieglinde had not been too surprised to learn of their relationship.

There was a lot of gossip about the Praetorian after all.

But what was the truth? From someone who knew her more than passingly?

Seated around a meeting room table, the two of them conversed eye to eye.

With a locked door behind them, and all cameras and recording tools shut off.

“We worked together once.” Sieglinde said in response to the Inquisitor’s initial question.

“Are you at a liberty to describe in what capacity?”

Sieglinde found no need to hide anything from Gertrude. None of this was any secret.

“Lord von Fueller was dispatched by the Imperial Peership Office on behalf of the Emperor himself, upon the deaths of my parents, when I went on to inherit their assets.” Sieglinde said. “Because I am an only child, and involved in the military, and the Castille family possessed significant wealth, the Peership Office worried that there would be a feeding frenzy of lower nobles competing for Castille properties and holdings if I were to be killed in action as things stood.”

“I was not aware that Norn– I’m sorry, I meant Lord von Fueller–”

“You don’t have to correct yourself. I’m well aware of your familiarity with her.”

Gertrude seemed briefly at a loss at Sieglinde’s response.

“I had to learn the etiquette of the Imbrian nobility, but it’s all just for show. Please continue without interruption. I don’t want you to coddle my sensibilities. I am just a soldier on this ship.”

“Right. Then sure, I’ll call her Norn. At any rate, I was unaware she worked for the IPO.”

“Lord von Fueller was an enforcer, a bannerwoman; she managed whatever affairs the Fueller family needed her to manage. I’m sure that the many nobles she killed and dispossessed played some part in her wise and knowledgeable management of my case. Through her I was able to sell off extraneous possessions in an organized fashion and donate the money to charity, as well as develop a plan for my wealth to be donated or auctioned for charity in the event of my death.”

Gertrude looked downcast. “I suppose at this juncture, those plans are null and void.”

“Indeed. I had property in Rhinea, the Palatinate and Skaarsgaard. I assume it is all out of my hands, and that the Castille’s famous castles will go on to house soldiers for warring factions instead of needy women and children.” Sieglinde said. “Such things are out of my hands. I prefer to focus on what is directly ahead of us. So tell me, Inquisitor: what do I need to know about Lord von Fueller to work under her command? After that incident with Järveläinen, I don’t want any further conflict with her ranks.”

Gertrude told her a few brief and important lessons she learned about the Lord von Fueller.

Sieglinde would go on to confirm the Inquisitor’s account aboard the Antenora herself.

“The most crucial thing to understand about Norn is that there is nothing she hates more than liars. That doesn’t prevent her from lying, withholding information or speaking half-truths if she needs to, but she doesn’t really make a habit of lying. She’s blunt and straightforward in personality. She hates liars and she has a natural ability to detect lies. She doesn’t care about dishonesty, if you flatter her she will enjoy it, if you libel her she won’t care. But lying to conceal something will get you killed.”

“So if I have any ulterior motives then I would best tell them to her face.”

Sieglinde had said that with a note of sarcasm but Gertrude took it dead seriously.

“She would honestly appreciate it. She would not even consider you a threat.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Gertrude sighed. “You’re going to think I’m crazy; but please don’t judge me for what I’m about to tell you. You have to know, and you can be as skeptical as you want to, but I speak from my own experience. Norn helped me in an affair that demonstrated how powerful she is. What I’m about to say, I don’t say frivolously, and I don’t say it to aggrandize her. It’s the absolute truth.”

“After a delivery like that, I’m afraid I couldn’t judge you if I wanted to.”

What could she possibly be leading into with that dire expression?

“Norn has some kind of ability to control people. A supernatural ability.” Gertrude finally said. “It’s not just that she is intimidating or that she commands imperial authority. Everyone who succumbs to this ability becomes unnervingly loyal to Norn. They act mostly like normal people, but they will drop anything to follow Norn’s commands. A lot of the Antenora’s crew will be like this. Those who aren’t are people she can’t or doesn’t want to control this way. Maybe people she trusts; maybe people who are more useful outside her total control. I don’t know. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sieglinde’s eyes drew wider as Gertrude spoke, with dire certitude, about literal magic.

“When she becomes angered enough to commit violence, Norn–“ Gertrude saw the look on Sieglinde’s eyes and paused for a moment, self-conscious of how this was all sounding, but she closed her eyes and continued. “Norn can move faster than can be seen by the naked eye. She can also manipulate objects from afar. There’s more but I will leave it that. Norn has some kind of power, I’ve seen it.”

“Next you will tell me that she is a Katarran too.” Sieglinde said.

“Like I said, you’re welcome to believe whatever you want. Just be on your best behavior.”

Her voice took a dark turn and her eyes bore a slight but growing malice.

“I apologize.” Sieglinde said, calmly and with poise. “I will– I will keep what you said in mind.”

Having been with Gertrude for several days, Sieglinde had characterized her as a woman of dark and fitful passions, whose moods seemed as errant as the tides. Sometimes she had to be managed carefully in order to work well with her. Sieglinde had her own storms, but she felt she could work with Gertrude by practicing a conciliatory attitude. Despite this, the turn in the conversation was difficult to navigate.

Although she had seen Gertrude be both a cursing fiend and a contrite maiden, Sieglinde had never seen her so superstitious. She knew Gertrude respected Norn von Fueller, but now she felt like Gertrude revered her. Like some kind of deity with whispered attestations to her great feats.

Or perhaps like the leader of a cult.

“Tell me more about the Antenora’s crew, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said. “Those people she brought aboard. I’m curious about their relationship. They seemed like a motley group to follow someone as elite as Norn von Fueller, who could have had her pick of the Empire’s best soldiers to follow her. If we are pinning our hopes on them as our trump card to rescue lady von Fueller, I need to know.”

Gertrude smiled a little bit for the first time in the conversation.

“Those are the Empire’s best soldiers.” She said.

Sieglinde supposed enough people had died by now to pass on such a title to this crew.

But she had personally seen far greater heroes than these come and go.

“Say that I believe that. How were they assembled? How does one earn the Lord’s grace?”

“I believe Norn values people who demonstrate an ambition to attain power or to commit violence.” Gertrude said. It was a curious response that made Sieglinde raise an eyebrow, but the Inquisitor said it without hesitation. “It would not be a stretch to say she collects people who interest her. I am only guessing her criteria, but she took me under her wing, so I can’t fault her taste in companions.”

“Fair enough. I can’t say I would criticize her for wanting an Inquisitor on her side.”

Around the Empire, the ascension of Gertrude Lichtenberg some three or four years ago to the office of High Inquisitor had set off a firestorm of gossip in the private chambers of the nobles.

On the heels of a conflict between Norn von Fueller and the High Inquisitor Ludwig von Brauchitsch, Gertrude’s star began rising. Even as a noble with high standing in the army, Sieglinde had never learned the full details of what transpired. She simply put together the pieces. Brauchitsch and Norn butted heads publicly over a snap investigation into the Heitzing Officer Cadet School, and in the ensuing year, Brauchitsch would go on to lose a steady trickle of subordinates to undisclosed events, and with them went his standing in the court, culminating in the Emperor personally insulting him.

Along with the steady fall of Brauchitsch came the steady rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg, who would go on to briefly serve as a branch Commissioner of the Ministry of Justice in Heitzing before soaring in rank to the High Inquisitorship that Brauchitsch would go on to lose. Heitzing being the seat of power of the ruling Fueller Family and their esteemed Praetorian, it was easy for everyone to connect these events. However, the nobles had respect, and a certain exotic sexual fascination, with the swarthy and gallant Lichtenberg, perfect in etiquette, swift in justice, a child of the Imperial Guard whose parents died tragically defending the royal family. So the gossip around her was always glowing.

It was this history which accounted for Sieglinde’s earlier comment to Gertrude.

She understood quite well the nature of Gertrude’s relationship to the Fueller family.

In fact, Gertrude’s seeming obsession with Elena von Fueller filled a missing piece of the story.

Sieglinde felt she now understood in full, the dark passionate theater of Gertrude Lichtenberg.

“Is there anything else you would like to know? I don’t want you to be surprised.”

Gertrude interrupted Sieglinde’s train of thought.

For a moment, the Baron wished she could simply have tea with Gertrude.

Maybe give her advice from experience about duty and passion–

But Sieglinde was around Gertrude’s age when her own future became immovable.

“Where would we slot into the rank structure of the Antenora?” Sieglinde asked.

“Norn is something of an iconoclast. As such the organization of her ship is unorthodox. There are a lot of highly skilled people on the Antenora at any given time who would have some degree of friction with each other and the world at large if Norn didn’t manage them. Norn is the center, and her officers orbit her exclusively. I believe the two of us would simply be another of the powers that would be hers to command. Don’t expect a tidy chain of command in there. Just do what you are told.”

“Understood. That’s all I needed to know.”

Gertrude nodded her head. “Then as soon as the Grenadier is loaded in, we’ll depart.”

Sieglinde nodded back. “Am I dismissed?”

“I have one more thing I wish to say to you, in private, for our confidence only.”

“Speak your mind, Inquisitor.”

Gertrude gave her a suddenly grave look.

“After our affair here is resolved, I think you should go with Norn.” She said.

Those words caused the Baron’s heart to shudder with surprise and even a hint of fear.

Sieglinde crooked an eyebrow. “For what reason would I do such a thing?”

“Do you have any other place to go?” Gertrude said softly.

“Have I displeased you?”

“Of course not. This isn’t personal, you should know that!”

“Then please explain your reasoning, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said.

“You and Norn may be more alike than you think.” Gertrude said. Her words were going from honey to vinegar quite quickly. “Baron, I don’t have a grand ambition. I am confident that Norn will find Elena and bring her back to me. Once she does, I just want to keep her safe and bide our time. You, meanwhile, are an incredible warrior searching for a cause. I saw the justice in your eyes when you confessed to killing those Volkisch turncoats. If you want to purge the Empire of this rot, Norn will crusade with you. Norn’s list of targets for her vengeance should neatly coincide with your own.”

“You really think that is all I need? Targets for vengeance?”

“You’re raising your voice to me. Are you offended?”

“You’re the one becoming upset. I just want you to mind your own affairs, Inquisitor.”

Sieglinde fixed a sharp look on the Inquisitor, and her words took a sharper tone as well.

Gertrude’s own eyes narrowed, her expression darkened. She scoffed, her passion fully aroused.

“Fine. Then– just shut up and don’t question Norn! Follow your orders so we can get Elena back.”

Her storming out of the room neatly tied up their final hours together on the Iron Lady.

Sieglinde did as she was instructed. She remained quiet.

When they transferred over to the Antenora, and in the days after, she kept to herself.

The Antenora was any other military ship. Sieglinde had been in practically dozens of Cruisers. Her last ill-fated ship had been a Ritter-class with a very similar interior plan. Food was much less fancy than on the Iron Lady, the living spaces were adequate, and there were a few recreational facilities like a gym, a media lounge with films, and a social area with game tables. Everything was just a bit more cramped than in the wildly spacious dreadnought, but livable. It was as much a home as any other metal hull.

Sieglinde kept to herself.

She went to the hangar when she was called to standby.

She ate her meals quickly and quietly and spent much of her time in her own room.

While making the rounds, she confirmed many of the things Gertrude told her.

At first, it was difficult to believe. But the crew was indeed acting just a bit odd. Sieglinde had been impressed by their professionalism, but it was an inhumanly unrelenting professionalism. The Antenora, Sieglinde realized, was like the hive of Norn the queen bee. Most of the crew would be unfailingly in the same places at the same times, day by day, to the point that they felt more like part of the equipment than people. There were perfect cycles of activity. Inhumanly perfect cycles.

Then, Norn had a bout with the mystery woman who worked in the hangar, Potomac.

Suddenly she bared the icy fangs of a power Sieglinde could hardly believe existed.

As instructed, she said nothing. She made no remark and did her best to show no reaction.

At the same time, it was impossible for her not to consider what it meant.

Were there more people with powers like this?

Did Norn have anyone outside this ship under her control to suit her purposes?

Their frequent rendezvous with mysterious engineering vessels caused her great concern.

What kind of conspiracy was Gertrude asking her to overlook?

“Samoylovych.”

One afternoon, Sieglinde was on standby alongside Yurii Samoylovych, a long-haired and well-manicured lady Loup in a pristine uniform who was the most frequent standby pilot for the Antenora. Usually the Antenora put either her or Sieglinde on standby, never both, but as they were nearing Goryk Gorge and expecting some kind of presence there, Norn put both of them on standby for the entire day. Sieglinde decided it was a good opportunity to pick the brain of someone else on the ship, since they were both standing around near their mecha on the hangar floor with no other officers around.

“Samoylovych, what is your opinion of the Lord von Fueller?”

“Nice to meet you too.” Samoylovych replied with a cocky voice.

These were the first words exchanged privately between the two of them.

Sieglinde knew that this was a provocation however and did not further play along.

“I’ve only a passing affair here. I just want to know what you think, in good faith.”

“Need I have an opinion?”

“I can’t imagine someone to whom this vessel seems normal in any way.”

“She is right in front of you.”

Samoylovych raised a hand to her chest as if to acknowledge herself.

She then settled back against the leg of her Jagd and winked at Sieglinde.

“Baron von Castille, we don’t all have the privilege of skepticism. For many of us, life itself is inexplicable and our answers are incomplete. The Loup of the Kashak host– hell, all Loup for that matter– are a deeply religious people. People who believe in a creator God who made this world the way it is. The Shimii, too, are deeply religious and superstitious. Even among the secular, there is a lot of superstition and magical thinking. There are stories about explorers who ventured into the hollows of the planet and returned with great treasures. The legends of Nocht the First, founder of this nation, are entwined in fantasy. And these are things recorded on computers just hundreds of years ago.”

“I understand your point.” Sieglinde said. “You needn’t elaborate any further.”

Samoylovych had referred to it as a privilege, and in some sense it was.

Sieglinde could be this skeptical because she had the comparatively secular life of a noble.

As one of the powerful, she could look down in disbelief at the fantasies of the masses.

And she did look down on it, reflexively, without self-awareness.

To think that a world confined to metal stations in the sea could host such blind mysticism!

Now, however, she was staring that mysticism in the face.

Something about it unnerved Sieglinde, clawed at her, tore gashes inside her brain.

These were not just orthodoxies of control, crafted to perpetuate authority.

Norn was not a metaphor, or a deified ruler like Nocht the First.

She was real; and she was really tearing reality apart right in front of Sieglinde’s eyes.

Her brain could not stop reading it as a conspiracy. As a great lie told boldly in front of her.

Every time she allowed herself to feel vulnerable about these events, a million feelings burst forth. All the violence Sieglinde had committed– was it for nothing? Was it for a hidden agenda? How did she know she was not under some thrall right now? What was the extent of Norn’s power? Were there people even more powerful than her? Why was the Imbrium now in complete chaos then?

What else was real? What was truly false?

Could she have any say in the matter?

“As long as I can look forward to a filling meal and a beautiful woman in my bed, I don’t need to ask any questions that might put my job prospects in jeopardy.” Samoylovych added, perhaps noticing how sullen Sieglinde had become after her last speech. “Speaking of– if you’re having trouble acclimating to the ship, I wouldn’t mind helping you relieve some stress. I do love women bigger than me. Makes the conquest all the more fulfilling.” She turned a lascivious grin on Sieglinde–

–and Sieglinde turned the other cheek to it, bodily rejecting the offer.

That idiotic, crass, offensive request brought Sieglinde back to her infuriating reality.

Samoylovych shrugged. “You can find my room easily whenever you feel antsy.”

The nerve of that woman! For someone who was always being waited on hand and foot, Samoylovych was acting rather forward and the offer embittered Sieglinde. She was nowhere near so desperate for a partner. The Baron had given very little consideration to ‘her type’ and it had been years since she last had sex, but Samoylovych certainly was not compatible. For one who had disowned the noble’s etiquette, she still felt quite a sore spot at being asked for something so personal so easily. No woman who devoured life so easily could understand her– several times Sieglinde had thought the only way she would marry was to someone she knew to be in as much pain as her, or worse.

An insane thought, perhaps, but it was her only response to the pressure to marry.

“I would never. I would never! How dare you? Who raised you to be like this? Learn some self control before someone is forced to teach you! Turn your libido on that simpering friend of yours!”

Sieglinde responded with a venomous screed, her fist closed hard.

Samoylovych laughed gently and jovially, slapping her own knees.

“Petra? Absolutely not! She’s like an annoying little sibling! No! You are awful, Baron!”

At that precise moment, red lights began to flash in the hangar, interrupting the scene.

Sieglinde could hardly believe the timing.

“An attack?”

Adelheid van Mueller’s voice sounded over the intercom as if in response.

“All forces to combat alert! We’re intercepting the Pandora’s Box over Goryk!”

Sieglinde felt a sense of dread suddenly wash over her as the bearing monitors updated.

Pandora’s box. Gertrude’s mercenaries — and Elena von Fueller.

Given everything was on her mind, could she go out there again and fight?

She looked up at the Grenadier which had been entrusted to her.

For Lichtenberg’s evil passions– or Norn’s unknowable violence–

With the doubts lingering on her mind?

“Well, looks like I won’t get a chance to win you over. Take care, Baron!”

Samoylovych winked at her as the mechanics powered on her Jagd and the hatch opened.

“Baron von Castille milord, we’re powering on the Grenadier.”

At Sieglinde’s side, Norn’s brainwashed mechanics began to work on her Diver too.

A voice sounded, reverberating through the wickedest parts of Sieglinde’s own heart.

You’ve done as much killing for much less of a reason, Red Baron. You can’t atone for it now. Your future is decided, and the blood won’t wash from your hands even if you turn back now. You can’t escape this.

You can’t escape your own actions, much less those of Norn von Fueller.

Lips trembling, gulping through a dry throat, sweating, her skin brimming with anxiety–

Sieglinde von Castille slowly, silently, climbed inside the Diver and prepared for battle.

This was just another part of a destiny that seemed ever more inevitable, immovable.


Volleys of 20 mm gunfire from the Brigand repelled two dozen incoming missiles.

While the Brigand defended itself it also righted its course, pointing its armored prow toward the incoming Antenora. It was detected about three kilometers away from Goryk’s Gorge by its use of an active sonar pulse, likely in an attempt to image the surroundings of the gorge. Once the Brigand’s crew detected the sonar waves, the computer registered a high probability that they had been successfully imaged and identified, and the incoming missiles confirmed as much.

The Brigand responded with its own sonar pulse, which gave away its position.

But it also revealed the Antenora completely, leaving no doubt as to the ship’s class.

Ritter-class were the most modern Imperial Cruisers according to Union intelligence. They were sometimes referred to as the “sword-class” Cruisers because of their shape. Their pointed prows and long, angular hull, along with the scabbard-like fins and flared rear “winged” armor protecting the jets, made the ship silhouette resemble a sword. Its armament was top of the line, boasting a twin-barrel 150 mm turret, along with a suite of light coilguns and gas guns, and multiple launchers that could fire torpedoes and missiles. It had a complement of four Divers, with a fifth and sixth in storage. This was the Irmingard equivalent of Cruisers, a serious, state-of-the-art main combatant in any fleet.

“We’ve also got a Cruiser. If they want to slug it out, we can punch back just as hard.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya felt bolstered by the Brigand’s initial performance.

However, they had only surmounted a volley of unguided missiles.

There would be more in store, including the enemy’s Divers.

“Kamarik, set a course that takes us around the Antenora’s flank if necessary, but for now, just inch forward to communication range.” Ulyana ordered the helmsman. She then turned to her communications officer. “Semyonova, send an acoustic message to the Antenora. I want to talk to their commander. I would very much like to confirm whether it’s related to Lichtenberg at all.”

“Yes ma’am! I’ve also got Shalikova on for you! She’s preparing the Divers to sortie!”

Semyonova passed a video window from her station to the Captain’s terminal.

On it, Shalikova’s unmistakable indigo eyes were fiery and focused, her pale hair tied up.

She was dressed in her pilot suit and contacting the bridge from the hangar.

“Good readiness, Acting First Officer!” Ulyana said. “What’s the situation?”

“Khadija and Valya are deploying first ahead of us, so we have rapid response if needed. We’re affixing the anti-ship pack on the Strelkannon and I’ll deploy in the Cheka with it once it is ready. Sameera and Murati– well, you know. Aiden Ahwalia is apparently on his way here too.”

Ulyana nodded. Shalikova spoke with confidence, taking matters into her own hands. She didn’t even look tired. “I’m leaving all Diver-related decisions to you, Shalikova, make it work.”

“Then, ma’am, I have to add this. We have Marina McKennedy’s S.E.A.L ready as well.”

Beside Ulyana’s seat on the bridge, Marina stood with her back to the wall, one hand covering her eyes, breathing heavily. She was in no condition to fight. Upon hearing the name of the incoming ship, the Antenora, she began to babble a name, “Norn the Praetorian” and broke her composure entirely. It was the worst breakdown Ulyana had ever seen out of anyone in her command in a long time.

“Shalikova, I don’t think–”

“No. I heard everything captain. I’ll go. I can’t be here when you negotiate with her.”

Marina slowly stood herself up to full height and forced herself to salute Ulyana.

Ulyana wanted to say something. To stop her– to try to sympathize in any way.

There was clear pain behind the inexpressive face Marina turned to her.

Norn von Fueller had never personally participated in the Empire’s campaign against the Union twenty years ago. The Union had intelligence that she was an enforcer of the Fueller family, a sort of bodyguard and right-hand woman for the Emperor, but that was it. Intelligence about her skills and capabilities was vague. For Marina to react so adversely, they must have shared a dark past. In Ulyana’s mind, she had already formed a link between Marina and Lichtenberg, so if Marina had such a reaction to the Antenora, then Norn must be linked to the Inquisitor as well. This was all part of Lichtenberg’s chase.

This was all very bad news– but they could only play the hand they had been dealt.

Ulyana felt if she prevented Marina from going out to fight it would only insult her.

She had made a decision. Whether it was impulsive or not, Ulyana had to trust her.

“Marina, please take care of yourself out there and come back alive.” She said.

“Quit worrying about me. I’ve survived much worse than this.” Marina replied.

“I’m just glad to hear you have an intention to survive.” Ulyana said.

Marina smirked, just a little bit. “Like I said, you have nothing worry about. I’ll see you.”

She turned and left the room. Her running footsteps could be heard when the door shut.

Ulyana turned back to Shalikova, who had been hanging on the video call.

She could only pray that Marina would be okay.

Though she was a loud and offensive person, Ulyana had to protect everyone under her command.

Ulyana had already seen too many of her crews die in her lifetime.

Sometimes, however, all she could do was have confidence in them.

So she purged her doubts and put on a confident smile for her officers.

“Sorry about that, Shalikova. Marina is on her way.”

Shalikova nodded. “Ma’am, I’ll be sending Maryam Karahailos to the bridge when I deploy. I– I wanted her to be safe in the command pod, rather than down here where something could happen. If you will allow that I would be grateful. She absolutely won’t get in the way, I promise.”

“I’ll keep your girlfriend safe, don’t worry.” Ulyana responded with great delight.

The young pilot’s eyes shot wide open, and she raised her hands and flailed defensively.

“What?! No, it’s not like that–! You’re misunderstanding–!”

Ulyana cut off Shalikova, ending the call with a smirking expression.

Aaliyah stared her quizzically from the adjacent chair, having seen and heard it all.

“I’m happy she’s found someone worth coming back alive for.” Ulyana explained.

“We should all be so lucky as her.” Aaliyah said, shrugging, her cat-like ears twitching.

“Indeed. Commissar, let us once again walk into hell for this precious crew, hand in hand.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Aaliyah closed her eyes and nodded her head solemnly.

Ulyana knew that her Commissar understood at least some of the subtext of her words.

Despite the situation, her mood had livened just a little after Shalikova’s request.

When she saw how Maryam took to her, Ulyana’s romantic side started to hope.

To see that dour and standoffish girl living life after everything she had been through–

–It made Ulyana’s focus tighten. She had to surmount this. To give everyone a future.

“Captain,”

Euphemia Rontgen waited for the Captain and Commissar to turn their attention back to the main screen before interrupting. At that moment she approached the captain’s chair and stood beside it opposite the Commissar, to Ulyana’s right. There was an additional seat there that could be pulled from the wall, and Euphemia sat down there, and wiped her hands over her lap as if clearing settled dust.

“I have dealt with the Fuellers before. I might be able to get us out of this.”

“If the person on the other end allows us to get out of it.” Ulyana said.

“Do you agree to my presence? My fate is tied to this ship now. I want to help you.”

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Ulyana said. No reason to leave cards on the table now.

She looked over to Aaliyah for her opinion. Her Commissar seemed untroubled.

“You’re right, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe Solarflare LLC can pay for clemency.” Aaliyah said.

“Norn von Fueller, if it is her, won’t be swayed by money.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana blinked. “Then what would you even say to her?”

As far as she knew all Solarflare LLC really had going for it was money and supplies.

“We have history. I think I can appeal to her better nature.”

“What? The better nature of a Fueller? Well. I won’t hope for a miracle.” Ulyana said.

She would allow Euphemia to join but she had no illusions as to their situation.

In Ulyana’s mind all she could do was confirm the vehemence of their enemy.

Negotiating would be extremely difficult.

Moments later, Semyonova spun her chair around to face them again.

“Captain! The Antenora responded. They’re connecting to laser via the Goryk relay.”

“So they know about that, huh? We’ll connect too. Have Zachikova guard the network.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Put their commander on my screen when we have a connection.”

Ulyana waited, taking in a deep breath of stale smelling air, feeling acutely every little itch on her body, every hair out of place on her blond head. Talking to Lichtenberg had been touch and go, but this time she might be negotiating with the Imperial royal family, not just an overdressed thug. Those moments while her screen had nothing but connection diagnostics scrolling on them filled her with dread.

She feared as if there was something, anything more that she could do that she wasn’t, as if the seconds she spent staring at the screen could be dooming them all, the same way that the moments spent stuck in the substation had been enough for the enemy to catch up. The silence, punctuated by her officers working at their stations, was the tensest she had felt in years. She felt helpless, useless–

Deep breaths. She collected herself. Everyone was depending on Ulyana Korabiskaya.

After this was over, she could have a hearty cry in her own room.

She purged herself of emotions and waited until there was a picture on her screen.

“Greetings. Ulyana Korabiskaya, I presume?”

The woman on the other end had a fairly deep voice, but with smooth enunciation.

Her appearance was a bit more casual than Ulyana expected. A fair-skinned woman, with blond hair in a simple ponytail with short bangs and sidelocks that hid her hears. She wore what looked like a simple red camisole and pants, along with an open coat, half blue, and half green with gold trim, bearing, on the left, a series of gold embossed lines that seemed to mimic the circuitry on a semiconductor.

Her eyes were starkly red. Ulyana felt fixed into place by them, as if she was nervous to make any kind of movement that they could see. Though slight of figure, the presence of the blond woman on the other end of the call came through immediately and starkly, commanding all of her attention.

Ulyana felt as if there was an imperceptible weight around herself.

As if she had crossed into a room with a thick, palpable fog that resisted every movement.

Awash in some invisible scrutiny. She felt more conspicuous, more watched, more known.

For a moment, she thought she could understand the terror that Marina felt.

Norn von Fueller.

Her very gaze had a pressure that was indescribable.

“I am indeed Captain Korabiskaya. Your reputation precedes you mi–, milord.” Ulyana said.

That was one thing she did know– proper titles. She was almost caught right off the bat.

“Captain Korabiskaya, I am not one to dwell on pleasantries. Let me be clear and blunt, and get to the point quickly, out of respect for you and what you’ve already been through.” Norn said, raising a dismissive hand. “I feel that I have amply demonstrated that if I wanted to, I could take apart that overgrown can of sardines that you and your mercenaries are huddled in and extract just the one person I’m interested in while the rest of you die. I want you to surrender immediately.”

Ulyana felt something in the back of her head.

There was a sharp and sudden pain as if a nail was digging into her skull.

She couldn’t help it and flinched, unable to conceal it.

Just as quickly as it came, however, the pain was gone. Flinching was all she did.

“You’ll forgive me, Norn von Fueller, if I don’t find unguided missiles that impressive.”

Despite the pressure she felt, Ulyana managed to find a little humor to try to throw her off.

On the other end, Norn smiled. Not just a smirk or a little grin but a rosy, wondrous smile.

As if she had bore witness to something breathtakingly beautiful.

Ulyana could not place her sudden cheer.

“Interesting! Interesting!”

She crossed her arms and sat back. Now she was grinning to herself.

“I can see why you gave Inquisitor Lichtenberg so much trouble. Yes, you are not just a baker’s dozen of mercenaries, or else you would not have been able to fend her off like you did. Very well. Let us not mince words, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are holding the Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller on your ship. Whether you were contracted to take her by a third party, or she herself escaped to you for some reason– the story doesn’t matter to me. Work for me instead. Hand her over.”

There was nothing Ulyana could possibly say to something that sudden and that insane.

She had never been prepared to come to an arrangement with Norn von Fueller.

Because she believed that the target of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s hunt was Marina McKennedy, Ulyana knew that giving her up was impossible. Not only because of the relationship between the Republic and the Union, and not only because of the honor that a Captain owed the members of her precious crew. Where it pertained to an intelligence asset like Marina, it was impossible to believe that the Empire could act in good faith. She could never trust Norn’s word. That being said, the appearance of handing over Marina could have been used to gain an advantage, to lay a trap, to buy time or to sneak away.

Such plans were predicated on them having what the enemy wanted in the first place.

Ulyana felt an icy chill stab deep through her chest.

None of her plans could possibly work if the enemy believed that what they had on hand–

was the Imperial Princess of the entire fucking Imbrian Empire!

Something like that was inconceivably urgent! There was no possible negotiation around it!

A nervous smile crept up on Ulyana’s lips. She could not conceal it. She tried to play it off.

“Milord, I believe I do not fully appreciate your humor.”

“You made verbal sport of my young, awkward subordinate, Captain, but I’m not like her.”

“I guarantee you I am not playing games. I am more serious than ever. You are mistaken.”

“My patience is running very thin, Korabiskaya. I will gladly pay triple, or even four times, whatever amount of funds you were promised, in any media that you desire. Gold, supplies, marks, bonds, fur rugs from real wild-grown bears from Thuringia’s eighth station. I have, Captain, a near infinite power to fulfill your wildest dreams, or kill you in the most brutal, painful, and evil ways that you could possibly imagine. I want your life, Captain, its up to you whether I own and cherish it, or crush it in my hand.”

Norn held out her palm and pointed a slender finger into the middle of it.

No matter how many gestures she made, however, Ulyana was unprepared for the situation.

“Of course, milord.” Ulyana said. “I’ll hand her over, if you–”

“Don’t lie to me, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Norn raised her voice. “You can’t conspire against me.”

Ulyana found herself thrown off-balance.

Yes, she had indeed been conspiring.

She had to conspire– because it was impossible to surrender what she didn’t have!

“Norn von Fueller, we are innocent of the deeds that you unjustly ascribe to us. You have absolutely caught the wrong ship. It is ludicrous to think that a group such as ours could have possibly taken your Imperial Princess! It is my understanding that she was supposed to have perished in a collapse over two weeks ago! Isn’t that right? Have you any shred of evidence that we could have her?”

This was news that Aaliyah had learned from her time in Serrano station.

Marina had confirmed it too in one of their meetings about recent events.

Ulyana was taking an entirely different tack than she intended with Norn.

She was trying to tell the honest truth and swear the innocence of their crew.

And Norn was quite obviously unconvinced by it.

“You told Gertrude Lichtenberg you had her.”

“Gertrude Lichtenberg was speaking euphemisms. We have a VIP — she is no princess!”

Norn scoffed.

“I know you have her, Captain, because I know that you spoke with her.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Her voice is reverberating among your surface thoughts as we speak.”

“Excuse me?”

Ulyana was completely losing her cool. This was insane– farcically insane!

“Captain, allow me, please.”

From off to Ulyana’s right, Euphemia Rontgen suddenly peeked into the video call.

Norn began to stare intently as soon as she saw that hint of blue hair and teal eyes.

“Euphrates?” She asked suddenly.

“Euphrates?” Ulyana asked back.

“Quiet, Korabiskaya. Turn your monitor to face her, this instant.” Norn grunted.

Her voice took on a new urgency. She was rattled for the first time.

“Listen to her for now Captain.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana stared between Norn and Euphemia Rontgen with increasing confusion.

There was nothing she could do but play along.

She shifted her monitor– such that Euphemia could be seen but she was still in the picture.

That way she could continue to watch Norn.

At her side, she glanced to see Aaliyah’s reaction, but the Commissar shrugged helplessly.

This was moving out of their control quickly. Ulyana hoped Euphemia could do something.

“It is you.”

Norn put on a much different smile for Euphemia than she had for Ulyana before.

Cold, cruel, amused, arrogant.

For her part, Euphemia’s own softly smiling expression did not change upon meeting Norn. She had overcome even that briefest moment of concern Ulyana had seen in her eyes when she first heard the word Antenora. Having spoken to Norn now it was impossible to believe that Euphemia– Euphrates–? could possibly appeal to her “better nature.” Norn’s expression made this especially clear.

“It’s been a long time, Norn.”

“Incredible. It really is you. All of my troubles have ended up in the same ugly hauler.”

“Why are you after Elena von Fueller? Duty to your family?”

“Duty to my people, writ large.”

“So you don’t believe she died.”

“That’s neither here nor there, Euphrates.”

“Then I can’t confirm or deny the location of your princess, Norn. You’re right, it’s irrelevant.” Euphemia said calmly. “You see, these people are working for me now. Our existing agreements extend to them. I would offer to turn myself over to you in good faith, but I want to get my money’s worth out of them. So I would appreciate it if you ceased hostilities– if they do have the Imperial Princess aboard, which I highly doubt, I will do what I can to see her to safety when her business is concluded.” 

Norn turned a sharp-toothed grin on her.

“We can all get what we want here, Norn.”

“Euphrates–”

There went that name again! Ulyana felt frustrated. Rontgen was hiding far too much!

“Euphrates, Euphrates, Euphrates.” Norn shrugged mockingly, flashing a grin. “Seeing you among those hapless mercenaries confirms my suspicions. From the instant I saw you on this screen. Did you know that I met with not one, but two Sunlight Foundation vessels on the way here? Did you call for assistance when you became stranded? Why was I told to go to Goryk’s Abyss with no mention of rescuing you? Why didn’t an Alonso De Ojeda class come fetch you? I wonder, I wonder.”

Ulyana briefly glanced at the doctor to see if Norn had gotten under her skin.

She was not successful at first– but that changed very quickly as Norn spoke.

“Euphrates” looked surprised. As if there was a dawning realization on her face.

As Norn said more and more proper nouns known only between them.

“If you were sent to rescue me, then it is no longer necessary.” Euphrates said.

Her jaw was set. She was clenching her teeth.

“Rescue you? You’ve been abandoned, Euphrates. Face it. I’ve got you now.”

Norn smiled viciously.

“Norn, I’m pleading to the decency that I know you have, don’t do this–”

“This is the part where you beg for your life, Euphrates. See if it will move me.”

Ulyana sat in her chair staring at Norn and “Euphrates” in utter disbelief.

It was almost dreamlike what a sudden, inexplicable turn the negotiation had taken.

She felt like she was hearing a conversation in Shimii Fusha or in High Elvish.

To Ulyana these were all euphemisms, but Norn and Euphrates understood each other.

Euphrates let out a deeply held breath, her hands balling up into fists on her lap.

“Norn, if you’re set on revenge then go after me alone. Don’t involve these people.”

“I have all the power Euphrates, and I’m setting all the rules. I don’t hear you begging?”

Norn sat back in her chair, craning her head on one fist. Perfectly composed.

Euphrates fixed her with a smoldering stare.

A gaze full of desperation.

There was more emotion in those eyes than Ulyana saw her express since they met.

For a moment no words were exchanged. They were just two people staring at one another.

The Bridge fell so silent that the void in the sound itself felt palpable.

Ulyana was still trying to process what they were talking about previously–

Then Norn flinched on the screen, brought a hand up to her forehead clearly in pain.

Euphrates did the same–

–And the video cut out to a black screen. Sound off. Norn was gone.

Suddenly and without warning.

“What? Semyonova–!”

The Captain had scarcely called the name of her communications officer, when the bright blond girl whipped back around on her swiveling chair looking like she’d seen a ghost, pale as a sheet, her hands trembling. “I don’t know what happened, Captain! Everything was fine until now! I’m not seeing any disconnection requests logged on our end, but the channel just closed!”

Ulyana immediately suspected “Euphrates” had something to do with it.

Maybe a remote disconnection– with the implants–? She turned to accuse the woman of foul play, but when she did, she found “Euphrates” slumping forward, clutching her face. Blood trickled down her fingers. Her entire body was shaking. Ulyana laid a hand on her and there was no acknowledgment.

With one exchange of gazes she had fallen, unresponsive, and hemorrhaging.

“Call Kappel now! Right now!” Ulyana cried out.

Aaliyah shot up from her seat and rushed to Euphemia’s side as well.

Captain and Commissar grabbed hold of the doctor, peeled her hands from her face–

Immediately, blood, so much blood, from her nostrils, her mouth. Ulyana was speechless.

Euphemia shook as if freezing, her breathing was ragged, her eyes crawling into their sockets.

“Call Kappel for god’s sakes!” Ulyana shouted. “And tell Shalikova to deploy! Right now!”

Negotiations were over– and Ulyana could not possibly understand how and why.


Norn had both Euphrates and Ulyana Korabiskaya practically groveling in front of her.

She had been so excited — Euphrates! Euphrates had suddenly appeared before her!

Gertrude’s plight almost entirely vanished from her mind. This was the real prize!

Ever since Potomac had told her about Goryk’s Gorge, Norn had thought about this outcome as a distant possibility. Euphrates was always going after nests of abyssal denizens, and Potomac was no fighter. If she was sent anywhere near the Abyss of Goryk it would have been to report on the activities of someone like Euphrates to the Sovereign. Yangtze knew that Potomac was with Norn– so any mission she sent Potomac on would include Norn by default. Now Norn had a picture of the situation.

Either Yangtze was foolish enough to think Norn would just pass up an opportunity to get rid of Euphrates, or she was foolish enough to try to take advantage of Norn’s killer instinct to purge her. Norn had heard there was friction within the Immortals. Potomac being trusted as Yangtze’s right-hand woman was enough by itself to prove a rift between Euphrates and Yangtze. She never would have thought that this might lead to Euphrates falling so squarely, so helplessly into her grasp.

Norn had no intention of rescuing Euphrates. And she would not let her escape.

She would extract her from the Pandora’s Box and pop her head like a balloon.

A fitting first step in her vengeance. Unlike Potomac, Euphrates was unaffiliated with Eric.

She was alone, apart from all her defenses, out of communication with Yangtze.

In one moment, Norn was practically savoring her triumph–!

In the next, she found herself in some dark place full of swirling aether.

Without warning, without explanation, the Brigand and the Antenora vanished.

“Euphrates?”

It happened faster than a blink of her eyes. Before the instant where her vision went dark as the eyes shut, and the instant where they reopened again, she had already seen the darkness creep at the corners of the visible world like a snapshot of paint streaming down a wall. She felt a pinprick of psionic shock that her prodigious psychic defense battered down– but before she could confidently say she had repelled it, she found herself dragged into the aetheric current and brought out of the material world.

She was more annoyed and confused than she was alarmed at first.

How did this happen? An Apostle was nearly immune to mental attacks.

Even Mehmed had failed to alter her behavior or corrupt her senses, so how did this–?

“It’s not an attack. I’m inviting you here to settle our differences.”

Before her appeared Euphrates. That blue hair, those blue eyes, her butch mode of dress. It was unmistakable. Norn wanted to think at first she had blinked into existence, but she came to realize that Euphrates had always been there. Euphrates, and the glass-like floor upon which they were both standing, amid the dim void surrounded by the current of dull colored aether like the eye of a storm. They had both been in this place, and in the material world. This was their minds meeting, nothing more.

Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Good job Euphrates. I have hardly explored the currents, hardly ever seen this place. You’ve had many years of a head start on me in Clairvoyance. I commend you for exploiting this weakness and being a temporary inconvenience. There is nothing to discuss. I am going to return to the material world and kill you. You’ve only yourself to curse for this fate.”

Euphrates turned a look of gentle contrition on her that Norn despised immediately.

“All I want is to talk Norn. I don’t want to inflict any more violence on you.”

“When we last met, Euphrates, I still had hope in something. Twenty years ago. You have found me now at my most corrupted. I can think of nothing else than how much you’re responsible for this.”

“I know. I secretly hoped the Fueller Reformation would succeed and you would forget your vengeance.”

“Excuse me? I can’t believe you would even dare to say something so facile to me.”

“I know that simple contrition won’t suffice, Norn. That’s why I am here now.”

Her face was calm. Her expression toward Norn looked– resigned.

Her hand was trembling as she ran it through her hair.

Standing there in her white coat, her shirt and tie and dress pants.

“Norn, you’re right to hate me. I was the one who found you. So I’m the one responsible for everything you have suffered until now. I have regretted everything that happened between us for years. I know there is no way to expiate except to accept whatever punishment you desire, but I can’t let you endanger those people, not on my behalf, and not on Elena von Fueller’s. What you are now is not the result of their actions. I have brought you here to punish me, Norn. You can scar my soul in any way you need.”

“You’re lying.” Norn said.

Norn hated liars. Nothing infuriated her more.

Lying was an exercise of power. It belittled the recipient and aggrandized the speaker.

Everyone who knew about her powers assumed Norn could only read people psionically.

Nobody had ever realized that, perhaps, Norn knew a liar when she saw one, because of how much she had been lied to, abused, exploited. How much of her life was shaped by the lies told to her and how much proximity she had to liars. And in turn, how much those liars had belittled, underestimated, and humiliated her through the act of their lying. Liars were easy for her to spot. If she knew someone well enough she could always tell if they were lying. She could tell someone was lying through social cues, physical cues, information disparity– Norn wasn’t just reading Euphrates’ aura.

She knew that Euphrates was lying because of all these cues. Because–

“You did this to Mehmed.”

Over forty years ago, during Mehmed’s Jihad, Norn and the Immortals of the Sunlight Foundation had confronted him at the height of his power, when he was perhaps the most psionically gifted individual to have ever lived on Aer. Despite his power, skill, and unmatched understanding of psionics, in the end, Norn and Euphrates withstood him. It was Euphrates who stood by Norn in the final reckoning.

Norn felt her chest squeeze with the sudden, furious realization.

She had become Mehmed.

Euphrates had done something to her. Some kind of psionic trap in the aether current.

She could suppress people by casting them into the aether somehow–

This was how she weakened Mehmed enough for Norn to kill him.

Euphrates shut her eyes and bowed her head, her shame accepted and laid bare.

“You figured it out. I brought you into this space to keep you from hurting the Brigand. But I was not lying about my intentions. As I accepted a punishment from Mehmed, I accept a punishment from you.” Euphrates said. Her tone of voice was unnerving, infuriating. That sadness with which she spoke, that pity. “I cursed you with my knowledge and led you to be used by Yangtze, because I was too naïve. I didn’t see the Eighth for what she had become. The same thing happened to Mehmed, so I took–”

“Shut up! Shut up! You still don’t understand anything!”

Norn’s voice reverberated across the void.

The Praetorian trembled with fury, radiating her sheer seething anger.

Euphrates’ aura shrank as Norn’s furious cloud of black beset her like a tempest.

“You brought Mehmed here and he was killed Euphrates! He was killed, butchered, his body was used by Yangtze the Eighth for all manner of horrendous things, his blood begot a child who must now live with being born of a dead tyrant! You think letting him punish your soul in the aether makes up for that sin? Do you really, truly, believe that your affair with Mehmed was settled like this?”

All of that fake pity and self-aggrandizing grief faded from Euphrates’ eyes.

Panic, the panic that came with being bludgeoned by an unwanted truth.

That was what Norn wanted to see from her. To rattle her, to win the war of wills over her.

Mehmed could still move in the material world when Euphrates suppressed him. He had been slowed down, he had been clearly struggling under psionic attack. But as an Apostle, as the greatest of the Apostles, even at his weakest he was deadly strong. Norn had seen it face to face as she fought him to a standstill, as she brought him low. She could also escape from this trap.

When she escaped, she would give Euphrates the justice she had earned.

Euphrates was just using psionics. Her body could not withstand an infinite amount of the psionic feedback it would take to hold Norn down. As they spoke, Euphrates’ material form must have been suffering unimaginable pain to sustain the two of them in the Aether against their will. This was an incredible feat of mental power, but it had to have its limit. And when Norn escaped, she would command the Antenora’s attack, and Euphrates would cease to exist in any world.

In any psionic engagement, certitude was power, and doubt and fear created weakness.

“Norn– I– There’s nothing you want from me except my death, is there?”

Norn didn’t answer that pathetic whimper. Her silence spoke loud enough as a response.

Everything Euphrates had done to her could only be paid with her death.

“Death is the only thing I can’t give you, Norn.” Euphrates said, voice near bereft of breath.

That should have been a statement which was filled with defiance. Yet Euphrates looked at her with panicked eyes, the tears starting to stream down her cheeks. Her body was shaking, her gaze barely holding Norn’s own. So little composure, but the space had not yet broken down.

Norn could not place that reaction.

“How shameless can you be? Are you trying to stoke my sympathy?”

Euphrates hugged herself and fell to her knees in front of Norn.

“I can’t expiate with my death, Norn. I can’t be cleansed by death. I’ve replayed this encounter in my mind so many times, but death is the one thing I feared you most desire, but I can’t give you that, Norn. You can’t kill me. It’s been tearing me apart for years. I want so badly to release you from all of the pain that I have caused you, to allow you to lead the life you should have had. My interference ruined you and brought so much violence to this ocean; but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t satisfy you.”

“What the hell do you mean–? No– you can’t be serious–”

Norn stomped forward, grabbed Euphrates by her coat and lifted her up.

Euphrates made no attempt to resist, to struggle or fight back. Her feet weren’t kicking.

Her hands weren’t striking. Her eyes were barely meeting Norn’s own.

Norn had her completely under her power and yet the space was not breaking.

Why wasn’t she free of Euphrates’ power? She had broken her completely, and yet–

“No.”

A bitter, skeptical laugh escaped from Norn’s lips.

Her mind was running over an extremely horrible and pathetic possibility.

She knew that Euphrates was ageless, but–

“No, no, no. You’re not seriously– you’re literally saying–”

Norn’s eyes went wild. Her thinking became fogged.

In a violent impulse she seized Euphrates’ head and twisted it with all her fury.

Brutal strength issued a horrific cracking sound–

Neck snapped, the whole vertebra, sinews, and muscle tore–

Euphrates fell limp and hit the false ground of the void–

–head hanging like a bag of meat where Norn’s hands tore it.

She watched the corpse speechless.

Everything blurred from the mind fog of unreality.

Euphrates was alive.

Alive.

Glassy dead eyes staring far-gone but;

Red rings;

Psionic sight self-puppeteering;

Shaking arms rigid like a doll’s reaching;

Head snapped back into place like pushrod into hole;

Coughing breath reconnected to the windpipe like completed circuitry;

Blood spilling where neck muscle and bone tore and scarred refilling new skin;

ALIVE.

Watching as the hands worked dead. Unable to accept–

Norn;

laughing;

shaking;

seething;

crying;

To the colors of creation she had spilled red, brown, black and bile.

And yet–

Euphrates was alive.

There was no believing what she had seen. And yet the truth came to her lips quite simple.

“You can’t die.” Norn said, her voice trembling.

She reached out a hand toward Euphrates’ shaking blood-soaked body and sent a psionic pulse through her that popped her organs in her chest like bubble wrap. One after the other psychic hands pinching her heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach into boiling blood. Her corpse rattled, gore and spit spilling from her mouth, flailing like firecrackers from the force of her insides liquifying. Norn thrust her hand forward again and again and again like she was feeling the recoil of a firearm and Euphrates’ battered body with its helpless expression of death accepted each and every cruel blow like she was nothing.

“You’re not resisting! Resist it goddamn you!”

Norn shouted herself hoarse as the blood pooled in the eye of the storm.

Euphrates came to fall on her side, her arms still capable of enough motion to hold herself.

Fetal, ruined remains curled up.

In moments, her chest was rising and falling.

Blood gurgled in her throat when breathing resumed.

There was a guttural noise escaping her windpipe along with a gulp of gorey vomit.

There were holes cut into her shirt where rib bone had shredded out at acute angles.

Norn watched them recede as if her violence was playing out in reverse.

“You won’t release me.” Norn realized. “Because holding me won’t kill you.”

The Founder of the Sunlight Foundation who relinquished her dream to Yangtze the First.

She was not only ageless.

Norn had underestimated her, gravely, vastly, underestimated her.

Euphrates could be uniquely certain of her fate. She could not die.

Certitude was power in the mind. Just as her soul would not die, her body could not.

“Mehmed could still act in the material world when you were doing this.”

Norn still had to be able to influence the material world. Mehmed had done it.

She waited for Euphrates’ body to heal enough for her to speak. She picked her up again.

“Say something.” Norn demanded.

Holding Euphrates by the throat which she had not seconds ago completely shredded.

“Our hearts want to connect, Norn. That’s why I can bring you here.”

Her voice was rough. Her blood-stained lips curled into a little smile.

“Ganges’ childish philosophy.”

Norn put a hand to Euphrates’ forehead, ignoring her weak, pleading gaze.

Frost began to creep across Euphrates’ skin, bruising her, turning her purple and ghost white. Every bit of sweat and blood on her was turned into a needle that drove into her skin and released more fluids for Norn to freeze. She was in her sinews, sending cold-burning agony into her core.

Her eyes crawled back up her head, choked sounds of pain animal and automatic–

She was not resisting.

Euphrates had truly given herself up for punishment. For anything Norn could do to her. She stood holding Euphrates’ once-dignified form now frozen stiff in her hands. The closest thing Euphrates had to a soul was in her grasp. She felt nothing hurting it. She could not possibly have been satisfied.

This was not any kind of vengeance. It was not any kind of closure.

There was great certitude in what Euphrates did. A complete, unimpeachable finality.

There had to be a way– there had to be a way to break free of it.

Norn pored over everything she knew about psionics, the mind, the aether.

“Our hearts want to connect, you said?”       

Norn formed a conjecture in her mind. As soon as she did she tried to be certain of it.

She scanned around the void trying to thread the colors with her eyes, to follow the currents.

This was not a space in which only Euphrates had control.

Where she had brought her was a communal space, viewed in a way to unique to psychics.

Without vision, it still existed, in the back of everyone’s mind, in the core of everyone’s heart.

All of the colors around her represented the sum total of humanity.

Emotional footsteps which had left pain and elation imprinted onto the fabric of reality.

This was a unique place with unique possibility.

In this place, it was not only Norn and Euphrates who existed.

Their currents were the ones closest, most connected, but they were not alone.

“Ganges would have you told you. No matter where you go, you can never be alone.”

Norn focused her psionic vision to the fullest extent.

Inviting that hated swarm of aether that threatened to overwhelm her senses.

Inspecting with keen detail the feelings that swirled around her.

She felt the chains of her myriad connections that Euphrates represented–

Anger;

Pain;

Betrayal;

Entwining her and Euphrates in thorns which had driven Norn for years and now bound her.

Mehmed had been trapped by these thorns too. He could still move despite this.

To the very end, Mehmed had resisted. Resistance was his strength. His certitude.

It led to his death.

Norn was not Mehmed. She had neither his prodigious ability nor his all-abiding ambition.

But just as Euphrates had something Norn lacked, Norn had an advantage Mehmed failed to accrue.

Taking a deep breath, focusing all of her might and power–

Driving away the fear that crept in her heart as she felt the upswell of humanity–

She let go.

She let go of the grudge that tied her to Euphrates.

She let go of her guardedness, of her reticence, of her insecurity, of her need to have control.

She looked upon those scars in her heart as past things, as flesh wounds closed.

She let go of position.

From standing upright and separate amid the stream of humanity.

Norn fell through the makeshift ground that held her and Euphrates level.

Falling into the current of all the sinews which bound her heart with others.

As certain as she could ever be that there was one heart that would accept her desire to heal.

Her desire to be free. A unique possibility in this realm.

Falling–

And letting herself be filled with thoughts of a red-headed young woman’s childish grinning.

Of the look of understanding that those green eyes gave even to the darkest of Norn’s colors.

Adelheid van Mueller.

The woman to whom Norn had sworn her life.

Her gaze, her touch, her smell, the deepest depths of her being enveloped the falling Norn.

For the first time since she was introduced to the cruel Imbrium, she felt something close to bliss.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.7]

“Okay, so you want to hold them like this–”

Inside one of the Diver simulation pods, Maryam Karaihalos buckled herself into the seat, while behind her, Sonya Shalikova showed her the controls. It was a fairly tight fit for Shalikova. The Diver pod was realistic in its dimensions, so there was hardly space for her behind the seat. Usually the only thing back there was a slim box containing emergency rations, an air tank, and a mostly useless survival suit. Had Maryam needed any more legroom up front, Shalikova could not have fit behind her.

Thankfully, Maryam was not especially tall.

Shalikova reached over Maryam’s shoulder and pointed out the sticks.

“Each of these controls one of the arms. You can rotate it on the socket, and you can also lock the rotation and you can tilt the stick too, and this will affect the movement of the arms. It’s really unnatural at first but you get a sense for it. As you pilot more you will start to understand the degree of motion the arms have. These triggers are for the weapons, and the grip buttons on the stick can control the fingers in groups. It’s weird at first, but you hardly ever need to flex the digits if you have your weapons. Your issued weapons will be connected to the Diver triggers by the mechanics during dive prep. Oh right, and you can push the stick assembly forward or backward like levers, that controls the leaning of the chassis; down there you have your pedals and they–”

“I see. I see! I see.”

Maryam’s eyes lit up with such excitement as Shalikova explained every detail.

Together they adjusted the cameras and diagnostic screens to Maryam’s liking.

They tested the pressure on the pedals too. At first Shalikova, once again deceived by Maryam’s outward appearance, wanted to make the pedals more sensitive, as if her companion’s feet were too dainty to have an effect. However, Maryam was actually very strong, and the pedals needed more resistance to prevent her from flooring them constantly without meaning to do so. Similarly, Shalikova had to adjust the sticks on the pod to make them less sensitive to motions.

“Remind me to readjust all of this stuff for non-cuttlefish use later…”

“You’re so considerate Sonya!”

With the controls sorted, and Maryam having been shown where everything is, Shalikova started the simulation. After the start-up screen, they found themselves in the deployment chute of a nonexistent vessel. Shalikova helped Maryam skip the deployment, and the chute deposited them into simulated water without having to open the hatches or wait for pressure to equalize.

“Ohh, it feels floaty when we sink down.” Maryam said, backing up into her chair.

In turn her chair backed up into Shalikova. “Careful, I’m back here.”

“Ah, sorry Sonya! What should I do now, can I start moving it?” She asked.

Shalikova nodded in the affirmative, leaning forward so she was almost cheek to cheek with Maryam. Maryam engaged the pedals, and pushed the sticks forward, causing the Strelok they were meant to be piloting to charge chest-first, arms at its sides, taking in water through its intakes and accelerating it out of the hydrojets in the back and the legs. The very concept of the Diver’s mechanical movements seemed to inspire fascination in Maryam, who was laughing throughout the demonstration.

“Sonya! This is so fun! No wonder you signed up to be a pilot!”

“I didn’t sign up because it was fun! It’s different if someone’s shooting at you!”

Maryam began to explore the extremes of the Diver’s movement.

In the middle of a dash, she suddenly let up on the pedals and jerked the controls back.

Unmoored in the back of the cockpit, Shalikova lurched forward.

“Maryam!”

“Ha ha ha!”

Maryam rammed the pedals and discharged all the fuel-engaged verniers.

In an instant the simulated Strelok shot straight up like a missile.

Shalikova was thrown back and up from the sudden changes in direction.

She came to land back behind the chair, her vision briefly spinning.

“It’s just a game right? Can I get more fuel for the thrusters?” Maryam asked.

“We can reset it– if you promise not to burn it all up at once again!” Shalikova said.

“Ahh, nevermind! Let’s shoot the gun a bit!”

On the screens, the simulated gloomy ocean lit up as several rounds of simulated 37 mm ammunition detonated in the distance. Maryam rammed the trigger and looked around as if she was expecting something more dramatic to happen than her ammo counter going down, and small explosions to begin blooming nearly at the edge of visibility. The 37 mm AK rifle had some recoil when not held in place with both of the unit’s hands, but nothing the pilot would actually feel.

“Hmm. That was kinda boring.”

“We could swap it out for the 76 mm braced cannon or the shoulder gun.”

“Naaaah. I think I’ll just pirouette a little bit more. Thanks for teaching me, Sonya!”

Shalikova nearly hit her head on the side of the seat as Maryam returned to her joyriding.

As an experienced pilot she couldn’t help but notice how unrefined Maryam was with the sticks in her hands. Her movements were jerky, she would lift her feet off the pedal entirely, and when she wanted to move the arms she would move the stick very stiffly as if inputting each movement separately, rather than turning the stick fluidly to achieve complete motions. It had been so long ago since Shalikova had been learning the basics– she couldn’t have remembered if her first outing in a simulator was any better. It brought to mind how far her own skills had come from where she was even at Thassal.

She breathed out a bit of a sigh.

Though the world was in shambles, there could be enemies everywhere, and the Brigand was still in the initial stages of its mission, Shalikova felt a certain sense of peace. Maryam was happy, smiling, having fun– they could still allow themselves humanity even in this situation. It felt like a release valve for the tense guardedness and helpless anxiety that colored recent days.

In a sense, Maryam had already proved herself every bit the VIP–

Hmm.

“Maryam, I have a question. I won’t judge you, okay?”

“Sure, Sonya! Anything!”

Maryam let go of the sticks and turned her head to gaze sidelong at Shalikova.

“You used psionics to trick our agents into letting you aboard the Brigand, didn’t you?”

Her hair and skin color flashed white as the shock ran through her body.

Her hands slackened on the controls and her lip trembled.

“Don’t worry.”

Shalikova reached a hand down to put it on the controls, over Maryam’s own.

She was not angry whatsoever, and she wanted to comfort Maryam.

“When you started saying you were a soothsayer and all that other stuff to me, I kind of suspected it would be something like this. I mean, I couldn’t have known it was like magic from a fantasy story but I assumed you’d turn out to be a swindler– no offense. I don’t blame you– you wanted to go to the Union to get away from mercenary work right? I’m sure tons of people have lied to be smuggled out. I’ll back you up if it becomes an issue. I just wanted to know the truth for myself.” She said.

“Sonya– thank you. I– I understand that what I did was selfish, I really do.” Maryam said. “I did not think I would end up in a military vessel that had an important mission when I fooled your agent. I thought I would be smuggled out to the Union on an ordinary ship and escape the Empire and live peacefully. But now– I want to help you! I have a lot of information and skills. I feel like this must be the will of God. I have a chance to do good deeds and make up for my selfishness.”

“The will of God? I guess you really must have been a nun once.” Shalikova smiled.

“I’m very pious, I’ll have you know. I still pray and read the book every 7th cycle.”

Maryam smiled gently. Shalikova looked into her eyes and felt contented.

“Alright. You can play for a few minutes more, then we should go back to the room.”

“I am feeling tired! I’m all cuttled out.” Maryam yawned, her head fins drooping.

Shalikova nodded. She felt that a burden had been lifted from her.

There were still so many questions to ask, mysteries to delve further into–

–but looking at Maryam, she felt satisfied for now.

When the pair left the simulation pods, they found that they were no longer alone in the hangar.

There was someone approaching the pods, who drew back as if himself surprised to see anyone there.

Shalikova recognized him– it was Aiden Ahwalia, suited up, hair tied in a bun.

“Sonya Shalikova. I’m surprised to see you here. You hardly need the simulator, do you?” He said.

When he spoke, she felt a temptation to try to view his aura, because she couldn’t read his tone. That tiny flicker of thought, that desire, was all it took to switch the auras on as if a lens had flipped over her eyes. Coiled around him like rope or chains of gas, feeling tough and stiff, the aura was mainly green and purple with notes of red and yellow. Pride and irritation, anger, disgust. That sounded about right for him. Shalikova had only ever known him as a loud, inveterate asshole.

“Or perhaps you do. Maybe the secret to your success has been harsh and intensive training every night– no, wait, I would’ve seen you. Because it’s me who usually comes out here at night to train. Despite how much you all disdain and suppress me, I continue to work so hard. I hope you’re seeing this, acting squad leader! In fact, I invite you to watch me.” He said.

She did not have the same virulently political disgust that Khadija showed him.

His conduct during their previous sortie was enough for her to be disgusted with him.

At her side, Maryam was still all smiles, not a care in the world.

“Good evening! Um, I don’t know what you meant by all that, but we were just playing around.” She said happily.

Shalikova raised her hands feebly as if that would have stopped her.

Aiden raised an eyebrow and looked irritated to have received any acknowledgment.

“Playing around? Wish the rest of us had time for date night, Acting Squad Leader.”

His disdainful gaze sized up Shalikova as if he could glean anything from staring at her.

There was something about his tone of voice which grated on her nerves.

Even when she couldn’t see his arrogance in the colors, it was plain in his mocking tone.

“You have no responsibilities Aiden, so I think it isn’t time that’s stopping you from having as much of a social calendar as me.” Shalikova said. “Come on Maryam, let’s leave now. I’m not in the mood for any more tonight–”

“Wait.”

Aiden looked over at the pods behind them, cracking a smile.

“Since we’re all here, how about you and I have a spar in the simulators, Shalikova?”

“You’re not going to provoke me. Wait for Khadija if you want a response.”

“Provoke you? Are you so afraid of facing me that you make up excuses like that–”

Maryam looked between the two of them silently, her skin and hair colors starting to blur.

Shalikova sighed. She didn’t want to put Maryam in this awkward situation.

“I’m not afraid of you Aiden, I’m more emotionally mature than you. Good night.”

Shalikova interrupted him, calmly and coolly as she could. Ayden fumed at her.

Ignoring him was both the most offensive and most healthy thing that she could do to him as a leader.

Khadija always attacked him and insulted him, and it only fed his ego to receive that kind of attention. It only made him more eager to fight back, surer of himself as the righteous martyr. Shalikova had no desire to get caught up in the whirlwind of his personal narrative, especially now that she was acting squad leader. He was just a petulant kid who needed to cool off, but Shalikova was not herself so adult as to become the one responsible for it. She just wanted him to go away.

Aiden was not going away, however. He had clearly set his sights on her now.

“So even with two pilots down, you still dismiss me, you won’t let me prove my skills–”

“You’ve already lost to me just for thinking a duel would prove anything. Good night.”

Shalikova turned her back on him and began to walk away, dead set on escaping–

“Don’t walk away from me! How dare you! How dare you treat me like–”

Aiden stepped in as Shalikova tried to walk past him–

For a brief instant, she realized, before he moved, that he would try to grab her shoulder.

Acting almost as if between time, in the interstitial between seconds–

Shalikova batted away his hand with such alacrity he staggered back in confusion.

She confused even herself with the speed of her reaction. Maryam had noticed it too.

Aiden stared at her in a brief confusion, tears welling up in his eyes, his face turning red.

“Acting Squad Leader– If you gave me a chance– I’d show you–”

Shalikova was not only irritated, she was alarmed by her own reaction.

“Aiden, I’m leaving! Just go do whatever you’re up to. Maryam, not a word. Let’s go.”

Feeling suddenly stressed, Shalikova quickly turned her back again and tried to leave–

“You–” Aiden grit his teeth, closing into a fist the hand which Shalikova had struck. “All of you are the same! All of you resort to violence because you can’t mount a legitimate challenge! You can’t confront me when I bear the truth except by trying to suppress me! Jayasankarists, this whole ship, you rigged everything, you conspired in the shadows, I’m being unfairly sanctioned–”

Shalikova could hardly respond to his sudden, loud outburst of politics.

Then she heard a loud bang in the hangar, the stomping of a thick boot on metal.

Echoing across the vast space, the sound finally got Ahwalia to stop mid-cry.

At first she imagined it was Chief Akulantova having finally found them but–

Instead two women approached. Both were wearing the tight security suits that Klara and Lian wore.

And both of them were openly armed.

Across their chests, they had AK-72 personnel size assault rifles hung on shoulder slings.

Nobody on the security team was so heavily armed, but these two wore their firearms casually.

“What’s all the racket? You’re lucky Chief Shark’s not the one who found you.” One of the women began to speak with clear irritation in her voice. “Akulantova would actually do something to make you all behave. All I want is for all of you to shut the fuck up– Oh, wait, wait, isn’t that Sonya Shalikova? Sonya Shalikova! I never thought we’d run into each other!”

Her tone of voice was altered completely when she realized it was Shalikova.

Shalikova recognized the two women who approached from the adjoining hall.

One silver-haired woman with neon pink cybernetic eyes, tall and lean with a foxy grin.

With her, a blond woman with her hair in a ponytail, shorter, skinnier, inexpressive, quiet.

They were both good looking and fit, older than Shalikova but still young. Maybe Murati’s age.

“Do you remember us, Sonya?” said the silver-haired woman.

When the woman got close enough she reached out a hand to Shalikova.

Shalikova took her hand in both of hers almost automatically. It was– a childish gesture.

Like they used to–

Her hand dropped on top of Shalikova’s head and stroked her hair.

“You’ve grown a lot. You’re just like Zasha– you should be proud. She’d be proud too.”

Zasha–

“Stop it.” Shalikova mumbled.

“Ah, I’m sorry. I’m not treating you like a kid; it’s just my honest reaction.”

Maryam looked delighted to meet them. “Sonya, are these friends of yours?”

They weren’t–

“Friends of my sister.” Shalikova said. “Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterberg.”

It made sense that they would be aboard the Brigand. Those two were Union navy elites.

Out of their cadre Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were undoubtedly the stars, good at everything.

A Brigand packed with the Union’s elite soldiers had to include them.

“Valeriya, go on, say something. It’s little Sonya! Give her some encouragement.” Illya said.

Behind Illya, her shy blond companion Valeriya raised a hand in a half-hearted wave.

She then lifted a tactical mask that had been left hanging from her neck back over her mouth and nose.

“You know how she is.” Illya said, shrugging at her companion’s symbolic self-silencing.

“I know.” Shalikova said. “What I didn’t know was that you two were marines here.”

“When Nagavanshi came to get us we didn’t have much of a choice.” Illya said with a wry smile. “Our actual job is surveillance, so we stay in the security room with Syrah. We were covering for Klara and Lian today, and checking up on the cameras while we’re at it. We’d only ever seen you on camera, Sonya! I guess we keep to ourselves most of the time.”

That struck Shalikova as more than a little strange for a way of life on a ship.

Shalikova did not want to make Illya’s business into her own, however. It was– too sudden.

Her heart felt so torn.

Illya and Valeriya looked the same as in Shalikova’s foggy memories of their past. She had not thought about them in so long, and now that they had appeared, there was a lot surfacing with them in Shalikova’s memories. They were not at fault– but they were associated with something very painful. Something she did not wish to think about at all. And Illya did not realize this, and of course Valeriya would realize even less. Illya was just being her usual self. Coy and a little too full of herself, but ultimately harmless, and quick to heap praise. Valeriya hiding behind her, inquisitive eyes scanning the surroundings, gently unsmiling beneath her mask of isolation, two inseparable companions missing their third from back in the day.

Shalikova was already tired and already reeling from feelings she wanted to set aside.

Why did it have to be them? She had no more room on this night for painful recollections.

“Secret midnight date with the VIP huh? So proud of our little ladykiller here–”

“Hey–!”

Before Shalikova could respond to the joke and try once again to leave, Illya turned to face Aiden.

He had been standing stock still and Shalikova had not looked his way since Illya and Valeriya arrived.

“–And who is this with you? Oh! It’s the Ahwalia boy? Did he get jealous of you two?”

Illya was joking still, but Aiden looked worse than Shalikova had ever seen him.

His expression came as something of a shock to Shalikova. His aura was quickly filling with red, yellow and a notable band of black. His hands were closed into fists, and he was staring at Illya with an expression that was as hate-filled as those black and red bands of gas coiling around him. They were tightening around his neck, around his wrists and ankles like binding tendrils.

Something was reaching out to bind him– it felt like the past– overwhelming regrets the texture of broken glass–

A flash of violence woke Shalikova from her rumination.

Without warning, Aiden launched forward and tried to punch Illya.

She stepped back in surprise and this was enough to spare her from the attack.

His fist swept in front of her chest, but he was taken by a sudden fury and charged anew–

In the next instant, the buttstock of an AK-72 struck him in the temple.

He staggered and fell on his back, blood drawing from his forehead–

Valeriya rushed him, dropping on top of his legs to pin him, and striking him again.

Two lightning fast, vicious attacks completely subdued him, the buttstock striking his stomach and then his upper chest in quick succession. She then pinned him by forcing the length of the weapon against his neck. Shalikova was stunned. Around Valeriya an entirely black and red cloud seethed. Her once inexpressive eyes were drawn wide, dilated with unrestrained fury. It was impossible to read her expression due to the black mask over her mouth, but her eyes told enough.

“Target suppressed. Awaiting confirmation to eliminate.” She said in an atonal voice.

Even Maryam was shocked at the violence. For that demure-looking girl to be so brutal–

“Oh jeez.” Illya had been as unable to respond as anyone else. “Lerya, stand down!”

Shalikova remembered, those distant old days with her sister–

Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were best friends, but–

Valeriya was always with Illya. She always regarded Illya as her “favorite person.”

I would do anything for her. Even kill.

Her behavior was not so bad when Zasha was alive but–

“Standing down.”

Obediently, Valeriya withdrew her rifle and stood up as if nothing had happened. In that instant, all of that evil black aura dissipated from her. Her intent changed entirely. Illya took her hand, looked her in the eye and began to gently reprimand her. She understood Valeriya’s needs. With the aura receding, Shalikova’s hazy, mystical thoughts gave away to practical feelings.

Despite the sheer aggression of the attack, Shalikova could not blame Valeriya for it.

That being said, she also felt a surging of emotion and a sudden sense of urgency. Had Murati been here she would have made it her duty to be responsible to Aiden, and so, despite her misgivings, when he was dropped, Shalikova rushed to the side of him and knelt down, trying to assess whatever injury was done to him. Maryam joined her, shocked so much her skin went pale.

Shalikova reached out to him, try to get him sat up– but Aiden struck her hand away.

“What is wrong with you?” Shalikova said. “You idiot! They’ll throw you in the brig!”

Coughing as he sat up, Aiden pointed an accusatory finger at Illya, eyes filled with tears.

“That woman was there! On the day my family was attacked! I saw her kill my mother!”

Shalikova was rendered speechless. Maryam gasped and covered her mouth in fear.

“Those eyes! Those cold metal eyes! They were looking down on me then too!”

Aiden Ahwalia, son of Elias Ahwalia– five fateful years ago, his family had been put under house arrest.

Then Justice Minister Bhavani Jayasankar announced a sweeping purge of corrupt and abusive officials in the communist party, aligned with Elias Ahwalia, who had been lying to the public about spending on social projects, the rationing of goods, and other areas of the economy in service to themselves. Shalikova had been in her third year at the Academy, just entering the military program at 18 years. Solstice’s news channels broadcast all of the evidence of the corruption, including lurid details of secret funds and diverted stores of goods and materials. Scores of projects were cancelled that had aimed supposedly to digitize and automate various functions of the economy, build new machines and advanced systems to limit human working hours. Scores more secret projects were revealed that had sucked up the people’s resources. All of it was stopped, all resources reallocated.

There was a furor in the Union. Popular mobilizations supported Jayasankar’s purge. Troops from outside the Justice Ministry’s ranks almost unanimously backed Jayasankar, including all of the Navy High Command, insuring that civil conflict would not ensue on Ahwalia’s behalf against Jayasankar’s internal troops. Ultimately, Bhavani Jayasankar went on to assume control of the country as a whole when Ahwalia was ejected from office in an emergency all-union retention vote.

It was impossible not to know this about their history– not to know this about Ahwalia.

She turned to face Illya with a dreadful understanding of Aiden’s words.

Her eyes felt painfully warm as she tried to read Illya. Her aura was resisting scrutiny.

By outward appearance, it was impossible to tell Illya’s response to that accusation. Her expression never changed. She had been frowning because of Valeriya’s actions and continued to do so out of worry for her partner. Clearly her good mood had been dampened by the events, but she didn’t look guilty or boastful or like she had any emotion toward somebody accusing her of murdering their mother. Beyond the bare fact of murdering a civilian, to murder someone’s mother in front of them

Shalikova did not want to believe Aiden but in the back of her mind, she simply knew.

She knew that Illya and Valeriya were soldiers worthy of the special forces.

The kind that would be invaluable assets, taking decisive actions in a time of turmoil.

Illya would carry out any mission. Valeriya would follow her anywhere.

Zasha too–

“Illya–”

For them to be marines on the Brigand, which was full of other elite soldiers–

The Brigand ferrying Aiden Ahwalia, who had suffered from the coup attempt–

Shalikova felt a terrible history assembling itself in her mind.

Illya sighed openly while Aiden continued to blubber accusations.

“Sonya, you don’t understand–”

“What the hell is going on here?”

Joining the ensuing drama, the broad-chested, wide-shouldered, towering figure of Chief Akulantova appeared from the adjoining hall, looking incredulously between the sedate Valeriya, the exasperated Illya, and Shalikova, Ayden and Maryam on the floor. As she stomped forward, Shalikova could only imagine how ludicrous the scene must have looked to the Chief, walking in on her two subordinates, the ship’s most controversial ward on the ground, and Shalikova, who should have been more responsible than this, in the middle of it with the ship’s weird new V.I.P.! It was mortifying– Shalikova remained dead silent.

“Why is Ahwalia on the floor? Rostova, Peterburg?” Akulantova grunted.

“Valeriya broke up a fight.” Illya said. “She was way too rough. You know how it is.”

“It was my fault.” Valeriya said sheepishly.

“Oh my god.” Akulantova raised her hands to her face.

“Chief–!” Aiden tried to raise his voice, prompting a coughing fit.

“Shut up, Ahwalia.” Akulantova said immediately. “Nobody say anything now. Especially not the two of you.” She pointed her burly arm at Illya and Valeriya. “You two have caused me maybe the biggest headache of my career right now. We’re going to have to get statements, file reports, involve the Captain– fuck, I’m going to have to call Syrah here too, I can’t believe this!”

Shalikova watched security deliberate with a wide-eyed, empty-headed expression.

It was going to be a much longer night than she bargained for…


“Why are you looking at me like that? Never seen me eating before?”

“I mean. I haven’t ever seen you eating before, that’s true–”

“Warm food and potable water are preconditions for warfare.”

“–That’s not remotely relevant to why I’m staring.”

“Stop staring then. For whatever reason it is. Get some food and sit down.”

Norn von Fueller pointed to a chair opposite her own in the cafeteria’s rows of long tables.

Selene Anahid ambled away from the lady (technically, lord) in charge of the ship and toward the self service area. The Antenora had a strangely ordinary cafeteria, with a closed kitchen that cooked two menus a day using typical appliances, and then stocked the meals in a dispenser machine at the far end of the row tables. The food dispensers stocked the morning or evening meal and kept it warm for hours. A touchscreen controlled the machine– a finicky resistive screen that Selene struggled with.

It was nothing like the sleek, responsive devices she was used to.

In addition to the dispensers containing hot meals, there was also a table set off to the side with a case of cold sausages, a tray of hard biscuits, and two automatic drink machines, one of them a kettle for hot pork broth, the other filled with lime water.

“Um. Hey. I guess I’ll have– Uh– let’s see, what are they actually cooking?”

Selene scanned the selections on the dim screen, feeling a bit discouraged.

For the centerpiece staple, there was a cornmeal and oat porridge with bits of meat in it, probably some kind of lard or pork scraps, which tended to be the Empire’s ground meat of choice. There was a dish of Wurstsalat, cut sausages with pickled gherkin, radish and onion bound in an oily dressing thickened with coarse mustard. Black bread and a simple fish soup were also on offer, along with small reusable bottles filled with a mix of coffee and sweetened condensed milk, a limited item on the Antenora.

Eyeing the available meals, Selene felt rather silly. She wanted to ask for a burger.

Back in Frederich’s Abyss, machines prepared all the meals at will.

They would cook practically anything. Selene wasn’t aware how.

She asked, and food appeared. Whatever kind of food she felt like eating!

Euphrates and her common companion, Tigris, loved to eat things like burgers and pizza.

Selene was used to getting her food from a machine at any hour, but she was not used to having her choices limited by whatever had been cooked by a real live human using a limited set of ingredients and then put into the machine at certain times during the day; and she had a somewhat spoiled palate on top of everything else. It proved difficult for her to fill her tray with the day’s meal, even when she could operate the dispensers. There was always a table with plain sausage and biscuits, so for the moment, Selene grabbed bread and sausage, a bottle of sweet coffee, and made the best of it.

When she returned to Norn’s table, the Praetorian gave her a critical glare.

“You can’t be serious. Go back there and grab some of the salad at least.”

Selene stared at her with narrowed eyes. “Huh? But I don’t like pickles.” She said.

“What?” Norn looked scandalized. “All this time you haven’t been eating the pickles?”

“Uh, I haven’t, yeah. I said I don’t like them.” Selene averted her gaze.

Norn dropped her spork and laid a hand over her face in exasperation.

“I can’t believe you. Do you want to die? When was the last time you ate a vegetable?”

“There was sausage and peppers for dinner three days ago!”

“Those peppers are pickled too!” Norn shouted.

“Oh.”

Selene did not have a come-back for that.

Norn stared daggers right into Selene’s eyes.

“Do you think we live in a palace? Put some salad on your tray this instant.”

She pointed authoritatively in the direction of the trays again.

And so once more, Selene begrudgingly took her tray to the dispensers.

When she returned, she had added a bowl of the salad– and a little bit of porridge in a cup.

She figured she could cut the salad with some of the porky porridge if it was too pickle-y.

Selene sat down and stared at her plate and at Norn, awaiting inspection.

Finally her commander looked pleased with her.

“Good girl. Pilots need a balanced diet! Especially ones like you.”

Norn’s plate had some of everything in it, porridge, salad, bread, sausage, fish soup.

Big appetite for a big personality, Selene supposed.

Thankfully Norn did not watch her eat. After commanding her to get the salad, she focused on her own plate. Selene noticed that Norn ate fairly slowly and really seemed to savor her food. Did she really like this cafeteria slop? She had heard that Norn had a hard life, so she imagined that maybe Norn savored her food so thoroughly out of fear that she may never get to eat again.

That was pure speculation, but Selene thought she hit on something deep there.

Selene picked up a bit of sausage and pickles with her spork and lifted it to her mouth. At first she recoiled a bit at the vinegary dressing, but she was surprised by the taste. Crumbly, meaty sausage with the mellow tang of the gherkins and the sweetness of the pickled radish and onion. Taken apart, perhaps they would be gross, but everything worked together somehow. She did not spit it back out — furthermore, she picked up a second sporkful and chewed it a little bit longer.

“You’re pinning down your antennae.” Norn said off-handedly.

“Huh?” Selene raised her eyes from her plate. Norn’s eyes went back down to her food.

“I just noticed you had them out when we talked in your room, but they’re pinned now.”

It was true. Selene usually tied them to her hair so they bent down as if part of it.

“It’s annoying to have them pinned down all the time, but I don’t like them sticking out.”

“How come? I think they’re kind of cute.” Norn said, pointing her spork at them.

“Why don’t you swing your tail around all the time?” Selene snapped.

Norn narrowed her eyes. “Nice joke.” She said dryly.

“Sorry.” Selene said. She knew immediately she had spoken carelessly and impulsively.

“I’ll be sure not give you any more fodder for your incredible sense of humor.”

Norn stabbed her spork into a sausage with great violence and chewed it brutally.

“Finish your salad, get out of my sight and watch your mouth in the future.”

In the next instant, a video window appeared on the surface on the table.

One of the bridge drones appeared on the screen.

Selene could tell because the officer drones had more elaborate uniforms and hairstyles.

“Milord, we have detected an approaching vessel. Sunlight Foundation Alonso De Ojeda class Frigate. We believe we’ve detected signs of deployment chute activity under the vessel. In case of Magellan-class Divers, how should we respond?”

Norn’s eyes drew wide. She stamped her hands on the table as she half stood.

“What? Tell Samoylovych to deploy immediately. Link me to the ship commander–”

Another window then appeared beside that of the bridge drone, also on the table.

This one had Potomac on it. She appeared to be down in the hangar, near a bearing monitor.

“Norn, this ship is picking me up. You can accept the Magellan that will come out of it.”

Norn blinked with surprise. “Oh this is rich. Who authorized them to meet us?”

“I’m leaving, Norn. I’m done putting up with you. I’ve arranged for a tech to replace me.”

Potomac’s window closed. Norn pounded her fist on the table again.

“Whatever then! I hate that bitch’s guts. She can fuck off! I’ll kick her out myself!”

“Milord–” the bridge drone began to ask for clarification, but Norn interrupted.

“Detain Potomac. Tell Samoylovych to deploy and escort that Magellan in.” She said.

Norn stood from the table and shot a sharp glance at Selene, who had a sporkful of salad in her mouth from when she was ordered to eat. Selene averted her gaze from the Praetorian, who in turn sighed and bid her to follow. At first Selene did not know what to make of the gesture.

“Bring your salad plate and eat on the way. Come on. I need you as backup just in case.”

Need you.

Something stirred in Selene’s heart, and she bolted up off the table, salad in hand.

Maybe if she was obedient enough Norn would forgive the slight–

Maybe she already had forgiven her.

“Good. Follow me.”

Norn turned and walked at a fast, confident pace out of the cafeteria.

As she was commanded to do, Selene followed behind her.

She was dressed in her pilot suit, but she had no weapons if a confrontation broke out.

No weapon except her mind– but her mind was unusually powerful, after all.

Potomac was an Immortal, but Norn was an Apostle, and Selene– she was special.

“Don’t worry too much. I expect this will be easily handled.” Norn said.

She must have seen Selene’s expression, deep in thought.

To try to guard against further assumptions she started eating her salad again.

By the time they reached the hangar, Selene had an empty bowl in her hands.

As soon as she could, she handed it off to a drone.

There was a commotion in the middle of the hangar.

One of the deployment chutes was held open with a white Diver half-trapped inside, while Samoylovych’s Jagd started climbing out of the adjacent one to help corral it. Four marines with shoulder-mounted anti-armor missiles were aiming at the captive Diver in the deployment chute. While most ordnance used in the water was purely explosive, since penetrators were not as effective in water as in air, those AP missiles had very small explosive effects and instead perforated armor with a tungsten cored round. This made them safe to use in this situation — they could fire on the Diver without endangering the hangar itself.

In a corner of the room, Potomac stood with her hands up, eyeing with disdain the group of infantry surrounding her with assault rifles trained. Along with this group, Petra, Adelheid and Hunter III were helping to keep Potomac trapped. Selene was surprised by the efficient response. Norn had only ordered her detained and not mentioned any specifics as to how.

She supposed Samoylovych and Petra were just doing whatever and going with the flow.

Adelheid and Hunter III though looked like they had taken good command of the situation.

“Norn!” Potomac called out. “You know I don’t like fighting! Please call off the goons!”

“Let her go. If she wants to leave I’m certainly not going to keep her.” Norn said.

Having arrived at the hangar, Norn eased the tension immediately. All of the soldiers backed off and disarmed or engaged the safeties of their weapons. The white Diver in the deployment chute was finally allowed to rise into the hangar, while Samoylovych took her Jagd to the nearest gantry to be locked in and powered down. Hunter III and Adelheid left Potomac’s side and went to join Norn and Selene. Adelheid let out a long-held breath in relief, while Hunter III looked quite eager.

“Boss, is it time to eat her yet?” Hunter III moaned.

“No.”

Norn patted Hunter III’s head like that of a dog.

Hunter III pulled her hood up over her head and sat barefoot on the cold floor, sulking.

“I saw her eyes light up.” Adelheid said. “Really briefly though.”

“Could you tell what she was doing?”

Adelheid shrugged as if that wasn’t her problem.

“I’ll set her straight. Selene, you go check on the pilot of that Magellan.” Norn said.

Selene nodded her head.

While Norn and Potomac commenced a loud, circular argument, Selene walked away.

In the middle of the hangar, the incoming Magellan-class Diver had been left stranded atop the deployment chutes without a gantry to hold on to. Selene had seen Magellans before — she had trained to pilot Divers using one. Going from that to piloting something like a Volker would have been a nightmare, but the Jagdkaiser was a decent upgrade from any other available mecha.

Still, Selene had a fondness for that white and blue Diver in front of her.

The Magellan’s body plan was like a Volker if it was done right.

Rather than simply round like a Volker or rough and angular like a Union Strelok-class, the design of the Magellan class’ body was all sleek beveled edges and complex surfaces that gave it a truly futuristic look. The upper body had round pauldrons and a rounded “neck guard”, with arms that could slot into the flanks of the body for improved hydrodynamics. Rather than trying to mimic a helmeted human head like a Volker or Strelok, the design had 360 degree armored “mono-eye” orb head that rotated on its own axis, allowing for a “main camera” with incredible vision supported by a few auxiliaries on the body.

Meanwhile the legs were thick, triple-jointed with an integrated water system with flexible channels, allowing for natural adjustment of the angle of the leg jets based on movement of the whole leg, allowing more precise lower thrust and quicker changes in direction. On the midsection, the pilot’s pod slotted between the chest plate and skirt, a loop of convex armor covering the gap. On the back, there was a standard magnetic strip and the hands could accept a variety of weapons.

While there were four traditional hydrojets, two on the legs and two on the back, there were also wake-jets on each shoulder. Like the Jagdkaiser’s jets, these were self-contained propulsion pods that accelerated water through themselves like a hydrojet but were lighter and more efficient, using a bladeless turbine– something about salt ions and heat and agarro-conductivity, Selene didn’t know all the details. Euphrates certainly made it sound impressive and it supplied all the Jagdkaiser’s thrust.

It was the pinnacle of Sunlight Foundation engineering, taking the crude concept of the Divers other nations produced, which grew out of labor suits and overblown dive bells and bathyspheres, and removing all limits to production, using only the most advanced materials and the most fit-for-purpose design methods. Or at least, that’s something Tigris once said to Selene.

When Selene stopped at the side of the Magellan’s kneeling leg, the convex armor ring in the middle expanded sideways, opening to reveal the entrance to the pilot’s pod. From inside the machine a young woman in a blue and white jumpsuit climbed out. The woman had her back turned; Selene’s eyes were immediately drawn to the definition of her shoulders beneath the tight jumpsuit, and a bushy tail with dark-brown fur swaying anxiously as she dropped down from the midsection of the machine.

“I was expecting a bit of a warmer welcome. That Jagd scared the daylight out of me!”

She turned around and nearly ran into Selene, who had wandered closer to the pilot pod.

“Watch where you’re going!”

Selene put her hands to her hips, while the pilot withdrew a step.

“Ah! Sorry! I’m a little clumsy getting off these– I still feel like I’m in the water for a bit.”

“Get yourself together already! What are you doing here?”

Selene looked her up and down.

She was a young girl, maybe even Selene’s age, slightly shorter but comensurately better built, with lean, muscled arms and shoulders and slightly wider pelvis. She had a soft rounded face that was framed with wavy brown hair, and thin-framed white glasses perched on her small nose. Atop her head she had two dark-brown, furry cat ears with visible white fluff. Her expression was strangely shy, almost withering under the disdainful look Selene gave her as she looked her over top to bottom.

Quite demure and gentle for that tough-looking body that she had.

Her suit covered most of her, but Selene noticed her fingers were subtly segmented.

Very thin grey gaps were visible, minute separations in the artificial skin.

Her eyes, too, were clearly cybernetic, with concentric cool green rings over baby blue.

“My name is Dunja Kalajdžić!” She said.

After a moment, she stiffened up and her eyes drew wide, staring dumbly at Selene.

“Ahh! No, no, no, forget that! I meant to say Neretva! My name is Neretva!”

A dramatic twitch worked itself out through her tail as she corrected herself.

Selene narrowed her eyes at her. “Okay, Neretva. What are you doing here?”

“I’m– I’m just a mechanic, here to replace Madame Potomac on the Jagdkaiser project! We’ll be partners– I mean we’ll be working together now, pilot! Rest assured that I have read all the appropriate technical manuals and memorized all of the equipment needs! I know I can’t measure up to an Immortal, but I did train under Lady Hudson!” Neretva cried out.

Selene ignored most of the blathering and focused only on what mattered to her.

“So Potomac is taking this thing back out?” She said, pointing to the Magellan.

“That’s the idea. Ojeda frigates can’t handle shuttles.” Neretva said. She looked around the hangar in confusion. “Ah– forgive me, I don’t know the whole situation, but I was told there would be a Jagdkaiser Type II to service here. I see a Type I over there that looks like it took a few lumps– and there’s some Foundation compression crates all the way over there–”

“You’re in luck!” Selene said, her voice taking on a cruel tone as she found another way to make sport of the shy mechanic. “You’ll be getting so dreadfully hands on with the Jagdkaiser Type II, in that you’ll be assembling it from scratch, because we don’t have any gantries to put it in. You’ll also be disassembling my Jagdkaiser Type I as well! Have fun!”

Neretva stared at her with nervous eyes. She then fixated on Selene’s antennae within her hair.

“Oh, are these the interfaces– you clipped them down–”

She reached out a hand absentmindedly to Selene’s head. Trying to touch her–?

“What do you think you’re reaching for? Creep!”

Selene batted her hand away and Neretva blanched in response.

“I’m sorry! I wasn’t thinking! I’m really sorry, your antennae are part of the equipment–”

“Go to hell! Norn, I’ve got your stupid pilot here, she’s fine! I’m leaving!”

Hands balled up into fists at her sides, Selene tossed her hair and turned her cheek, leaving Neretva by the side of the Magellan with an aggressively brisk walking pace. She was met halfway by Norn, escorting Potomac to the Magellan class. With one look, Norn got Selene to stop and join them briefly. Potomac had her arms crossed and was looking away from everyone around. It appeared that those two had come to a final understanding and were no longer on cordial speaking terms.

They barely wanted to look at each other, it seemed.

“Selene, got anything to say to this gasbag before we get rid of her?” Norn asked.

“Hmph!” Potomac made a noise to protest but did not follow through with words.

Selene stared at Potomac only briefly before deciding. “I have nothing to say to her.”

“Selene, I hope you won’t become embroiled in this woman’s warpath, for your sake.”

With only those words, Potomac advanced past her and Norn, past Neretva.

She climbed into the Magellan-class Diver and plunged into the deployment chute.

Soon, she was gone. Neretva took her place and quietly resumed work on the Jagdkaiser.

Of course, the Antenora hardly felt bereft of Potomac’s presence in the ensuing voyage.

There was no friendship to be had with her; and Norn just had one less person to fight with.

Briefly, an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation had graced this vessel. But like the rest of those ancient conspirators, she left no mark, and took with her all that she had learned and done. Euphrates once extolled to Selene the virtue in not interfering with the world, but Selene knew it for what it was. It was the selfishness of a woman who toyed with the world only for her own use.

“It’s the luxury of all those freaks to live like that. I won’t follow them.” Selene mumbled.

With a sense of surreal non-absence the Antenora’s course for Goryk’s Abyss continued.


“Zdravstvuyte! May I come in?”

“High Volgian is fully unnecessary. Come on in.”

“Well, I don’t get to use it very often at all. Warm greetings, First Officer, Science Officer.”

When the door the medical bay opened, a cheerful, blue-haired woman with very intricate eyes appeared to greet Murati and Karuniya in the ancient Volgian tongue. The Union had a very strong Volgian character, but High Volgian was hardly used, and certainly did not carry the cultural importance that High Imbrian did for Imperial subjects. Nevertheless, the perfect pronunciation made an interesting first impression. Murati found herself thinking that high language must have been the kind of pursuit that occupied the spare time of an intellectual woman like Dr. Euphemia Rontgen of Solarflare LLC.

Now Murati’s next question was: what did this passenger want with me?

It was very early in the morning. The Medbay was quiet, the lights dim, Doctor Kappel had not even been in yet for the morning checkup. She had stayed up late checking up on and treating Aiden Ahwalia, who had been the victim of an altercation and now occupied the third bed in the room, bruised but ultimately still whole, resting peacefully after being given a strong painkiller. Sameera had been awake overnight due to the commotion and so lapsed into a deep sleep at this hour.

Murati had been asleep for most of it, due to her own strong dose of painkillers.

She had learned of everything that happened when Karuniya had appeared with a sweet cornmeal porridge and a cup of broth to feed her that morning. Karuniya had learned of the events from Braya Zachikova, who had found out in her capacity as Electronic Warfare Officer by readingthe incident logging without permission. Those two were working together on some project.

“For some reason Aiden confronted one of the surveillance room girls.” Karuniya said. “It got ugly. They’re intelligence officers who aren’t good at handling security situations safely, not like Klara and Lian are, or even Chief Akulantova herself. I don’t know why they were patrolling, maybe Klara and Lian were overworked. But anyway, it got out of hand and one of them absolutely thrashed Aiden. Honestly, that kid had it coming, if you ask me. He gets on everyone’s nerves and acts so arrogantly.”

Murati sighed deeply. “I was afraid it’d come to that. I’m just glad it wasn’t Khadija.”

“Ah, I suppose that’s true. You’d have been the one filing all the incident reports then.”

“Worse. If it happened last night, it would be Shalikova dealing with the paperwork.”

It was at that point that Doctor Euphemia came to visit without prior warning.

Murati was decently informed about the nature of her presence on the Brigand.

She was a private science theorist working for an Imperial company who had become stranded after a failed excursion to the Goryk Abyss deeper into the gorge. It was the duty of all sailing ships to conduct rescue if they found civilians in danger. This was a maritime honor that no decent ship would ignore, so they rescued the Solarflare crew. But of course, there was much more to it than that. Euphemia and Theresa were apparently frequent employers of mercenaries, and the Brigand was doing business in that capacity in the hopes of acquiring some extra supplies. It could be a good scheme — if it ultimately paid off.

Certainly, Euphemia did not fit Murati’s picture of an avid underworld player.

“The Captain gave the green light for me to visit, on the condition I agreed not to pry into the particulars of the Brigand’s origin. She happened to drop the surname ‘Nakara’ in conversation, you see, and I wanted to see the child of Kauthik and Lakshmi Nakara. This is quite a chance meeting. Perhaps there is indeed wisdom to what a certain Daksha Kansal believed about people.”

Murati and Karuniya looked at each other in disbelief as Euphemia spoke.

Neither interrupted her, despite how long-winded she was getting.

“I was also informed the Science Officer would be taking care of Nakara, so I will defer to the two of you if I should be allowed to stay or leave.” Euphemia finally said, bowing her head in deference to the pair.

“Of course you can stay.” Murati said. “But– you sure know a lot of meaningful names.”

She was hesitant.

Her heart lit up when she heard the names of her parents spoken, and that of the first Premier of the Union, Daksha Kansal. Of Kansal much had been said and much had been written but Murati had so precious little about her parents. In the early Union, the sermons of communism which united the rebels were mainly oral in nature, and her parents had little time to write. They deferred to the teachings of Mordecai, and on writings Kansal had published before her exile explicitly for the dissemination to prisoners and slaves. She knew that her parents were also prolific activists and writers. She was old enough to understand they led dangerous lives in the Empire that ultimately led to their exile and enslavement in the Nectaris Ocean 23 years ago.

But those writings they did in the Empire, and those actions which they took, stayed in the Empire if they had been recorded at all.

In the Union’s archives, other people’s words extolled the virtues of the Nakaras among many other names in the early revolution. Their own words and own voice were hardly represented in those archives. Murati did not believe there was anything about this that was deliberate or malicious. Her parents had died to Imperial forces in battle near the end of the Union’s revolt. They had been busy with commanding and organizing people. They had the responsibility of commanding the Union’s first dreadnought. They didn’t have time to write theory or to pen memoirs before they were taken.

It was a tragedy of history, not some kind of conspiracy.

Deshnov had believed it was a conspiracy– but Murati knew better than that.

He was, after all, for all his virtues, an Ahwaliaist, and Murati was a Jayasankarist.

They had their separate biases and that was fine–

Despite the rationale, despite the logic, however, Murati still lived with a lingering doubt.

Who were her parents, truly? Were they simply and vaguely, nothing but ‘heroes’?

So when Euphemia spoke those names, she had begun to hang on every word.

Like that curious little girl searching desperately in the archives in Solstice again and again for any sign of her own history. Suddenly, a piece of that history hitherto unseen had walked in. Murati did not know where to place it.

And she didn’t even know whether she could trust it.

After all, who was Euphemia Rontgen?

“How did you come to know her parents?” Karuniya asked.

God bless her– she had overcome Murati’s hesitations for her.

Euphemia smiled, calmly and pleasantly, as if they were sitting down together for a warm cup of coffee on a peaceful day. “So to preface, I didn’t know them personally, but I am familiar with their work and I was well aware of their exploits through Daksha Kansal. Only a few people know the name Nakara in the Empire, people who had been involved in the old academic and labor movements. But for some the name ‘Nakara’ gave hope for change to an entire generation of reformers in the Empire. Many of whom only came to find their reform in founding the Union and have yet to export it back to their old home.”

The idea that her surname was famous to anyone in the Empire made Murati nervous.

“I suppose I should conceal my surname to avoid any odd questions then.” Murati said.

“Like I said, only a few people would know nowadays. Almost everyone who was involved with them back in the day would end up exiled or worse.” Euphemia replied. She looked amused at how Murati recoiled, but the Lieutenant was being practical. Euphemia should not have come to know they were all from the Union just from hearing a surname, that would have been brutally awful opsec. “Do you have any questions about them? Or about Daksha Kansal?” She said.

“Should I have any?” Murati said. “I know they were organizers in the Empire. They were deported to the Nectaris colonies for inciting riots. That’s not mundane, but it’s also not a great secret. How much more is there to know?”

That was a fact that always plagued Murati’s attempts to uncover her family’s past.

What questions do you ask to get beyond the most superficial facts?

Euphemia sat back in one of the free chairs and smiled knowingly.

“Well, firstly, young lady, they would have blanched at having their project reduced to ‘inciting riots.’ They organized mass activities with students and workers, and ultimately strung together networks of solidarity that almost lead to the Empire’s first General Strike. It was the threat of a massive stoppage of work, premised on punishing the failed promises of the Fueller Reformation, that got your parents exiled. It was not just riots. Once upon a time they resisted the idea of rioting in fact.”

Euphemia spoke with the cadence of a lecturing professor, long-winded and self assured, her cybernetic eyes scrutinizing Murati’s face for reactions, a little smile creeping as she spoke and as Murati stared speechless at her. This description did make it seem like her parent’s activity was far wider and grander than simply burning a few government offices in North Bosporus. Murati briefly looked to Karuniya to gauge her reaction and found her wife-to-be similarly stumped by the doctor.

“By trade, your parents were oceanologists.” Euphemia said, continuing unprompted. This got Karuniya to widen her eyes further. “This afforded them the pleasure to travel all over the Imbrium Ocean, which is something not many get to do. In our time, most people are bound to their station and maybe a few neighboring ones. Your parents made many connections, and studied a lot of theory that they then spread. They formed a network, a fabric between many far flung organizations and interests: because they believed that Oceanology had to be sociopolitical. To save our Ocean, to protect our resources, to sustain our lives and livelihoods, we had to completely change not just environmental policy, but our modes of production and social organization. Like Daksha Kansal, they believed that humans who had become individualized, needed to communalize to survive.”

“My parents became Mordecists because they wanted to protect the Ocean?” Murati said.

Her voice sounded more skeptical than she wanted but– she had never known this.

In her mind her parents were materialists– not idealists like her beloved Karuniya.

Oceanology was important– but it was an animal and chemical science, not a politics.

“What an interesting response!” Euphemia said. “Does it strike you as a contradiction?”

“Topics like this are my constant battle with this narrow-minded woman.”

Karuniya cracked a grin and rubbed her elbow cheerfully against Murati’s shoulder.

“Listen to her! Oceanologists can be very politically conscious!” Euphemia said, putting on a similar face.

Two of them, Murati thought. Now there were two of them ganging up against her!

“Oceanologists are constantly swearing as if ocean salinity numbers are some form of divination of where we are as a society and that all production and consumption should veer dramatically to protect corals and leviathans.” Murati said. “But if the two of you accept that Mordecist organization of production and society are correct and superior then we finally agree on something, and I can’t fault whatever alarmist nonsense has led you to that conclusion.”

Murati didn’t actually believe what she herself was saying to such a harsh degree.

She just felt defensive, and it made her want to contradict the two of them.

And what she felt was a gross mischaracterization of her positions on Oceanology.

“She’s just going to stubbornly quote the Union’s environmental policy at you next.”

“Ahh, she’s so unlike the stories of her parents! She’s so much more like Daksha Kansal!”

Euphemia and Karuniya seemed to reach a silent understanding to make sport of Murati.

So Murati’s response to them had completely backfired. She was in the nest of two snakes.

“Are you having fun?” Murati snapped. “Let’s get back to the point. I was a little kid when they passed away. In the Empire I only remember them leaving through a door and coming back in through another. I didn’t even get to go to school because we kept going from place to place and they were always out. So thank you, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen. I now know that I was entirely wrong in my conception of them, and that they were not the militarists I thought they might be.”

“Oh Murati, don’t be sore.” Karuniya said. “I think your parents sound wonderful!”

“Of course you would.”

Murati felt strange. It was, in a sense, as strange as she had felt about almost dying in battle.

She felt nothing. So her parents were pacifist idealists who wanted to “save the Ocean.”

Murati herself didn’t really put stock in such things.

She was a materialist, some would call her a militarist in bad faith, even. She believed firstly in promoting the power that humans had collectively, through the sharing of their resources, through the improvement of their systems and tools, through the things they could build — and the forces they could muster, and the enemies they needed to destroy.

Things like the condition of the waters or the affairs of animals were purely secondary concerns to her.

She saw them as something apart and distracting from human events.          

So what? That was frustratingly mundane. To find out her parents were just big dreamers.

“Were you expecting me to reveal a big secret? Like maybe you’re the heir to the Empire? A secret princess who was spirited away at birth and could return to claim the vacant throne? But who has instead been enlightened by mordecist communism to bring revolution? Perhaps you’ll develop secret magical powers too? Quite romantic!”

Euphemia smiled broadly and indulged in a little chuckle.

She really had a way with people; it was like she could read Murati’s thoughts.

And then say the most annoying thing possible.

“This is nice, you know. To bequeath a legacy to someone, however mundane.”

She gave Murati a fond look that the latter was not willing to receive.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Murati said. “So my parents were boring–”

“–Murati!” Karuniya interrupted as if scolding an unreasonable child.

Murati did not pause. “–So what about Kansal? What was their relationship like?”

“Daksha Kansal was their enabler. She knew them far better than I.” Euphemia said. She continued to speak with gentle eyes gazing as if past Murati, delivering a lecture but not necessarily engaging the audience. “If your parents were the heart of the operation then Kansal was the fist, maybe the knife or the gun. She grew to love styling herself an adventurer and a rebel, an international woman of mystery juggling many conspiracies, but in reality, by trade she was a neurobiologist radicalized by the Empire’s racist politics.” She paused for a moment as if falling deep into remembrance. Perhaps she could see Kansal in her mind’s eye. Murati could as well. Her brown and white hair tied up in a bun, her pristine uniform.

“Even Kansal was not just a plain militarist. She had an interesting belief which she infected your parents with.” Euphemia continued. “Remember when I talked about individualism versus communalism? Kansal did not just believe this in a political sense. She thought that there was a way of thinking, not just in the sense of political theory, but biological theory– literally a mode of thinking which had been lost to individualism and which had to be reclaimed via communalism. A brain chemistry that humans were developing in the tight, desperate quarters of underwater life and that could unite our society.”

How was she supposed to respond to complete pseudoscience like that?

Was this really still the same Daksha Kansal she was talking about?

“You’re telling me she believed a bunch of quackery too?” Murati said.

“But what is quack-ish about it? Isn’t it a beautiful thing to believe?” Euphemia said. “Isn’t it lovely to think that humans are destined to reach a communal enlightenment that will elevate not just their material conditions, but the very way we think and communicate? Whether or not it be empirically proven, it reflects optimism and a great love of people.”

“Murati’s rarely this entrenched in materialism versus idealism as she is today.” Karuniya said with a hearty, mocking sigh and a quick, dismissive wave of her hand. “Please forgive her, good Doctor. She’ll be less grumpy when fed.”

“What do you want me to say?” Murati protested. “Do you believe that nonsense for a second?”

“Well, not necessarily.” Karuniya said, with a little shrug and a mischevious little smile. Which she now turned on Euphemia instead. “That is a pretty out-there thing to claim about the first Premier, doctor. Other people on this ship might pick a fight with you for acting like Daksha Kansal, the great liberator and founder, was actually a weird religious freak.”

Euphemia winked at them. “But why does a band of mercenaries care so much about it?”

Karuniya covered her mouth in shock.

“Hah, don’t worry. I’m not blind, but of course I’ll keep my suspicions to myself.”

“As long as you’re professional about it.” Karuniya sighed.

Murati forgave her wife’s carelessness quite easily.

It was clear that Euphemia had them figured out from the start. If she walked through the hangar even once she must have realized it, and she and Theresa were supposedly helping with the repairs, so the fact that the Brigand was full of Union personnel couldn’t be kept strictly secret. Clearly the matter of what Euphemia knew about them was being handled by Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara in some way and Murati had to trust them. That was not at the forefront of her mind.

Daksha Kansal still was.

This idea of hers– did she really believe something so near mystical in nature?

Mordecai argued for communism from a material standpoint: economics and structural organization.

This idea that human brains were undergoing a change was purely idealist.

Did Dakshal Kansal really hold that conviction so deeply it led her to fight for liberation?

When did she, Murati’s parents, lose these ideas and take up the practical fight in the Union?

Did they ever?

“What about you, doctor? Do you believe Kansal’s ideas? Or my parent’s ideas?”

Euphemia smiled at her. “I don’t necessarily believe it. But it roused their spirits. The road that began with those ideals ended in the liberation of a nation of slaves and the downtrodden, which even today is an inspiration and refuge for dissidents; so can you truly criticize them for being idealistic? Their convictions helped them repel the world’s mightiest nation.”

Murati kept quiet.

She knew all of the story after her parents and Kansal, along with a few others like Bhavani Jayasankar and Elias Ahwalia, ended up in the Nectaris colonies together and began to organize the exiles and the enslaved. She assumed this was part that Euphemia would know less about. Murati now knew a bit more about the origins of some of these people– that their ideas were not as straightforward as they had been presented to her. They had taken their own journeys to arrive at the conclusions reached in the Union. Perhaps– perhaps that was beautiful in some way. Murati struggled to see it as Euphemia did, however.

“What was your relationship to Daksha Kansal?” Murati said. “You said she knew my parents and helped them when I was a kid. You don’t look so old as to have been a peer to her so long ago, that woman is probably pushing her sixties.”

“I’m older than I look, and I’m not afraid to admit it.” Euphemia said calmly. “Daksha Kansal and I used to be colleagues, though not in revolution. The Captain gave me assurances that my past would not pried into, so I will leave it at that. And then I won’t ask you how you went all the way to the colonies two decades ago and are all the way out here again.”

“Fair enough. Thank you for telling me so much about my parents.” Murati said.

“It’s truly my pleasure.” Euphemia said. “Daksha Kansal once believed that all of us were linked together, drawn together, by a force that was the sum total of all of our wills acting in concert. She compared it to a current. Whether you believe in that, or god’s will, or destiny, or dumb luck– I think our meeting was serendipitous, and I’m happy we got to speak, Murati Nakara. You are not a princess, but in my opinion, you are someone whose life was begot and protected by many bright people, and that is more special than any sort of heredity. Your parents were normal people — but they were passionate folk with hopes and dreams.”

She reached out a hand to Murati, and Murati reached toward her and shook with her.

Karuniya reached out as well, and Euphemia shook with her afterwards.

“I am scarcely worthy to say such a thing, but if you’ll indulge me, I think your parents would be very proud of you.” Euphemia said. “And not out of pure sentimentalism. I think they would have cheered the person you became.”

She waited a moment, as if to see if Murati would react harshly and stop her.

Again, Murati simply didn’t know how to respond.

It was something she had no feelings towards now.

As a teenager she had cried her eyes red many times over her parents.

There was no pain left there. There was little elation. “Normal” was a good way to put it.

Euphemia fixed a soft, admiring gaze on her. “Older people burden the youth with the idea that our experience was easily arrived at. We appear before them, fully formed, and even without us knowing it, we pressure them into growing up without teaching them the method behind our struggles. I think your parents would be proud that you have grown to be able to argue against their ideas. They would never want you to imitate them; they would want you to build your own convictions.”

“Thank you.” Murati said. It was all she could say. What else did one say to such a thing?

“When we make it to the Imbrium, I will return what effects I have of the esteemed Premier and the two revolutionaries that she fostered, to you, Murati. You are the correct keeper to preserve what is left of their pasts.” Euphemia said.

Murati blinked. “I– I don’t know what to say. I didn’t imagine there was anything left.”

“The Empire has tried to overwrite them in history, but the truth is not so easily buried.”

“Did her parents entrust you with something?” Karuniya asked. “What is it? Writings?”

“I was not entrusted with anything. However, as the one who they left behind, I felt it was my duty to preserve their work in the Imbrium. I saved writings, memories, curios.” Euphemia said. “You won’t find big secrets there though.”

“Right.” Murati said. “But we’ll be able to confirm what you’ve said, in their own words.”

Reading about her parents, in their own words, their own voices.

Murati felt a renewed surge of emotion that she had not expected. Her feelings were twisted every which way.

Euphemia nodded her head. “As a scientist, I don’t speak without having access to evidence, you know?”

“I really don’t know what to say. Or what to feel, right now. Thank you, Doctor.”

Murati sighed deeply. It was only the first thing in the morning, but she felt quite tired.

There was a lot of disorganized thoughts swirling in her head about all kinds of things.

But there was no point in asking Rontgen more — not if they would get the primary sources.

“They would be proud of you, Murati. Don’t let their ambitions interfere with your own.”

Euphemia stood from the chair she had taken beside Murati’s bed. Easily and mysteriously as she appeared, the doctor left with barely a wave of the hand. Karuniya looked at Murati and rubbed her shoulder in solidarity, but Murati could only watch the wake of her lab coat and wonder. How much more had this woman seen? In that old life cloaked in youth– how much did she know?


By the late afternoon, work on the Brigand had been completed ahead of schedule. Layer by layer the breach on the port-side near the prow, caused by the Iron Lady’s powerful 200 mm twin cannons, had been repaired. There were still electrical systems that were offline and needed to be physically reconnected. Tests would be needed to insure the C6 block and other access ways connected to it could be used again safely under the correct pressure, by people unprotected by suits and without air tanks. But the hole was plugged in and the armor in that sector could withstand gunfire and the stresses of ocean travel once more.

And travel it did. Soon as the repairs were completed and hull’s exterior integrity verified, the Brigand undocked from the small substation on the edge of the abyss and gently traveled into the open water around it, performing a few circles over the station to test worthiness. While Kamarik coddled the ship back into its course, the crew got ready to leave Goryk in the past and begin the next leg of their journey into the Imbrium Ocean. Ulyana Korabiskaya felt relieved to be moving again.

“It’s not the prettiest reconstruction, but I’m pleased with the work we could do under these circumstances. Out in the middle of the ocean with only our tools and some elbow grease! It’s exhilirating to be able work up a sweat again!”

Theresa Faraday smiled with satisfaction. She arrived in the main hall dressed in a form-fitting mechanic’s scuba suit, which would be worn inside Labor armors or pressurized dive suits by sailors, in the same way pilots wore tight suits. Under one arm she had her helmet, and there was a small air tank on her back. Her red hair had been collected into a functional bun. She had gone out to work with the sailors. Ulyana initially thought it would make unnecessary trouble with the Chief Mechanic, Galina Lebedova, since they had read Theresa as someone prideful who would want to micromanage repairs, but Theresa showed humility–

“I’m not here to lead anyone’s projects. I just want to work like everyone else!”

And like everyone else, she worked. She installed and welded composite panels and steel supports, she replaced ducting and nitrogen tanks. Along with every other sailor, she heaved plates into place until the armor over the breach was as thick and perfectly joined as the untouched hull. She worked fast, efficiently, with more strength than her slim frame seemed capable of.

More than anything, this willingness to work elevated Ulyana’s opinion of her.

Euphemia Rontgen also seemed like a pretty harmless person. Acting the jovial professor, she had dropped in on Murati and had a conversation that Karuniya Maharapratham described as quite entertaining. Later, the good doctor joined the Commissar on the bridge and shared news about the Imbrium. She seemed willing to cooperate beyond anything Ulyana expected of her.

Their bodyguard Laskaris just sat around and read magazines on her portable terminal.

Ulyana started dropping her guard around the Solarflare group. They were agreeable.

She would have to take charge of finding them real lodging soon.

Maybe Fernanda and Alex could be moved to one room so the doctors could have beds–

However, as she began to contemplate such things, the doctor conveyed a personal message.

Theresa Faraday wanted to talk to her alone in one of the meeting rooms.

“I want to show you something I discovered.”

When Ulyana arrived at the meeting room, the doctor stood in her scuba suit holding a small segment of armor plate, taken from the materials which were brought out of storage. The Brigand was a unique vessel, and as such it had a large stock of its own spare parts. While they had a capacity to manufacture new parts themselves, in a pinch they had to rely on the materials already stored. Theresa brought her attention to the object, but it was just one of the surface armor plates, colored rusty beige.

When the Captain began to show obvious confusion, Theresa flipped the plate horizontally.

Now Ulyana could see the sections that composed it. Still nothing worth talking about.

“I wouldn’t know what it’s made of.” Ulyana said. “It’s not a technical detail we have any access to. Armor composition is kept secret by the factories isn’t it? So if you work with these materials doctor, you’d know more than me.”

“I guess I do then. So let me say first: this is not a normal piece of plate.” Theresa said.

She ran her finger along the flat sides of the plate. Where it would normally be welded.

“This is in fact an extremely rare form of composite plate. It has layers of alloyed metal, military grade, and a layer of complex nanoceramics. I would expect this from a high-end military vessel and won’t ask how you acquired this material. There are also layers of depleted agarthicite plate, very fancy. Even more unexpected however is that at a molecular level, low grade agarthicite has been ferrostitched into the plate. This piece of armor, Captain, is agarro-conductive. Watch this.”

Theresa set the plate on the meeting room table and withdrew a tool from a bag she had brought with her: it was like a forked prod hooked up to power block. Ulyana assumed this was Solarflare LLC property that was loaded up with the rest of her and Euphemia’s effects. Ulyana had never seen anything like it, but she wasn’t a materials scientist. There was a handle on the side of the tool that engaged the electric current, perhaps by physically sliding something between the battery and the prod–

–in Theresa’s hands, it looked like she was holding a very weird firearm.

One that glowed dimly purple, a color Ulyana had come to associate with nothing good.

“Doctor, what is that? What are you doing? Explain yourself this instant.”

Ulyana raised her hands defensively in reaction to the tool. Theresa blinked at her.

“Huh? No! It’s perfectly safe! This is just an agarro-electric catalyst, for ore reactivity–”

“It’s a reactor tool?! Does it have agarthicite in it?!” Ulyana started shouting.

“It’s totally safe to use outside a reactor testing scenario! Just stop freaking out and look!”

Before Ulyana could stop her, Theresa pointed the thrumming tool at the armor plate.

For a moment, Ulyana felt her entire body tighten, her stomach squirm, awaiting a bright purple sphere to separate every atom in her body and turn the Brigand into two perfectly sliced halves of a ship. Eyes drawn wide she watched the prong touch the armor plate– and saw a tiny purple spark fly out that singed a tiny hex-shaped burn into the table, about the width of a finger.

Theresa then shut down the tool and tossed it casually behind her as if was made of trash.

“It tried to annihilate it! So I was correct!” She said cheerfully, throwing hands up.

Ulyana took several steps into Theresa’s personal space and grabbed her by the shoulders.

She started shaking Theresa’s body vigorously in a fit of nervous passion.

“Next time you will explain what you are doing clearly, you psychopath!” She shouted.

The Captain could have almost cried. She really thought this woman had killed them all.

“Ahh! Fine! Fine! Let me go! It was my fault, I’m sorry!” Theresa protested.

Once Ulyana had sufficiently vented her anger at the Doctor, the conversation resumed.

“This type of prod is used to test agarthicite before it is used in reactor cores. You can tell whether the rocks have a useful life ahead of them by the reaction. As you saw that piece of plate reacted very minimally to the prod: it’s low reactivity agarthicite.” Theresa said. “To put it simply, this is just one plate the size of my head with very little agarthicite content, and the agarthicite being used in it is really cheap and bad. You’d have to drop a station on it to get it to implode, it’s useless in reactors, so most of the time, only miners are relieved when they smack it out of its little osmium nest in the continent wall. That being said, because it doesn’t implode if you just look at it funny or tune a magnetic field wrong, it is used for batteries and electronics. Its use in this plate is really novel though — it forms a channel with the other plates around it, across the entire outer hull.”

Ulyana followed along as best as she could. So far everything she said made logical sense even without the context of the Doctor’s knowledge. Certainly Ulyana knew that agarthic material was used in electronics and Diver batteries, and she knew the term “depleted agarthicite” was used for a somewhat common type of alloy made up of crushed non-reactive cores within a composite alloy plate. It was not just the extremely dangerous energy source that thrummed demonically in their reactors.

That being said, she also knew the material in batteries and electronics didn’t glow.

It didn’t annihilate anything, not even a finger’s width. Otherwise it wouldn’t be used!

That purple glow as a tell-tale sign that something was about to get burned in a hex pattern.

Or entirely obliterated, turned to dust in a perfect circular hole.

“So you’re saying that low quality scrap agarthicite is part of the composite for our armor.”

Theresa sighed. “You should be much more surprised than you are!”

“Like I said, a ship’s crew isn’t told what the hull is made out of, we don’t need to know.”

At no other time in her life had Ulyana cared what the hull of a ship was made out of.

Fundamentally she did not understand why this was anything more than minutia.

“Fair enough. But as a soldier, you should know this: I think there’s probably a device on the ship that can make the entire armor reactive. If that was the case, you could use it to help deflect munitions from the hull. Think about it, if the entire hull repels an incoming shell, for example, and annihilates it and all the chemical that is trying to explode against it. Just think!”

That sounded far too convenient to possibly be true. Ulyana was instantly skeptical.

“How would you know about such a system if you’ve never seen this before?”

“I have professional experience with such things!”

Ulyana fixed a sharp gaze at Theresa. Was this capitalist trying to sell her something?

Theresa crossed her arms and put on a smug little grin.

She made a gesture as if to toss her own hair, but she had it in a bun, so she tossed nothing.

“My better half theorized such a system ages ago!” She declared, with a proud little smile. Ulyana crooked an eyebrow. Did she mean Euphemia Rontgen? She was speaking so casually and looked so happy to have said such a thing, that Ulyana wondered about their relationship. Theresa did not seem to notice Ulyana staring and continued. “It has no civilian applications! Because it would only be useful for ablating direct attacks by munitions. If a leviathan smashed into your ship it would just suffer a lot of hex-shaped burns and continue smashing the ship. Furthermore a purely defensive system is not interesting to military minds, who don’t so much care about the survival of crews as the potential offensive power that can be extracted from each ship.”

Theresa ran a finger up against the bridge of her nose as if adjusting nonexistent glasses.

“And even worse,” she resumed speaking with almost no pause between, “making so much composite plate with agarthicite in it, even the cheapest lowest quality agarthicite, is incredibly expensive and would require extensive connections to suppliers of raw Agarthic materials, who in the Empire are all highly regulated. So it’s not something Solarflare is in a position to do, but it is interesting. Seeing this plate, I immediately became curious who built this ship; but I won’t pry into it.”

Theresa was not the only one now curious about the Brigand’s origins.

They had already identified dummied systems before. Zachikova had been trying to test and write software to use them, but they were focusing on only a handful of discoveries that seemed like they had practical applications. Could this defense system be part of that too? Were there more hidden modules? Ulyana sighed inside. None of this was disclosed to her. How many more experiments were covered up within the bowels of this ship? Did Nagavanshi know about all of this nonsense?

She was mildly frustrated. They would need help figuring it out. Zachikova could not do so alone. So would she have to ask Theresa and Euphemia? Their relationship was cordial and they had business arrangements, but there were many secrets between them, and Ulyana felt hesitant to be the first one to reveal any of what went unspoken in their negotations.

She hoped their party would acquiesce first.

In the middle of all these personal deliberations, Ulyana found herself interrupted.

She expected to be able to press Theresa a little further but the ocean currents brought something their way.

“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon!”

Red lights began to flash in every room. It was just like when the Iron Lady attacked.

In place of the klaxons that felt like they should be blaring, was Semyonova’s voice.

“Unguided missiles detected off the starboard side! All personnel to alert semyon!”

Ulyana ran to the bridge without thinking any further, leaving Theresa Faraday behind without a word.

How could it possibly be, the instant they entered open water again? An attack already?

On the monitors in the halls, the profile of a ship appeared: an Imperial Ritter-class Cruiser.

“Shit.”

It was the only response the Captain had to the sight as she hurried down the hall.

When Ulyana rushed through the door to the bridge, she found both Marina McKennedy and Euphemia Rontgen standing near the door, staring at the Ritter-class on the main screen. It had apparently been identified; it was broadcasting an IFF. Several secondary screens showed trajectories of missiles and camera feeds of the flak response from the Brigand. Semyonova was in the middle of broadcasting the alert, while Fatima was concentrating on the sonar. Fernanda and Alex in the gunnery section were looking at each other in disbelief, the two most prone to panic in the bridge, while beside them, Kamarik kept the ship steady.

Everything was in chaos, but everyone was doing their individual jobs.

Nevertheless, the captain’s job was to immediately turn that panic to purpose.

Ulyana quickly took her place in the captain’s seat, alongside Commissar Aaliyah Bashara.

Her Shimii companion fixed her a gentle look and seemed glad to see her.

Trying to seem confident, Ulyana winked at her.

There was a battle to fight, so once again the Captain had to look gallant.

“Gas gunners! Look lively! I want a truly brilliant flak barrage!” Ulyana shouted.

Aside from the description of the enemy ship, projections on the screen showed the gas guns taking out incoming missiles.

At the fore of the Bridge, the gas gun operators were the most frantically active people in sight.

Hundreds of rounds of 20 mm ammunition peppered the surroundings from remote controlled flak turrets.

Small explosions began to blossom harmlessly dozens of meters from the Brigand’s starboard.

The shockwaves caused the ship interior to stir ever so lightly. Ulyana could feel it in her chest.

“We’re keeping the initial volley at bay. At least it’s only one enemy.” Aaliyah said, exposing a momentary hint of relief.

“For them to come out swinging like this, they must have something to do with Lichtenberg.” Ulyana said.

“Vessel identifying itself as Antenora.” Zachikova said above the din of activity on the bridge.

Her words were a little slow and slurred. Her mind was still out in the water, still mostly in the drone.

“Stay in the drone, Zachikova, we’ll need it out.” Ulyana said. “Fernanda–“

She was trying to move quickly between orders, switching instantly into her Captaining style–

–until she was interrupted by a panicked voice that rose even higher above the rest.

“No way! No fucking way! It can’t fucking be! Not now!”

Ulyana turned her gaze back to Marina McKennedy.

She stood, lips trembling, staring with wide bloodshot eyes at the screen.

“No, no, no, please no–“

“McKennedy? What’s–“

Ulyana almost reached a hand out– then recalled Marina’s trauma and retracted it.

The G.I.A. agent’s eyes were fixed on the screen, tears building, her whole body shaking.

“Norn.” Marina said, her voice filled with despair. “Norn the Praetorian.”

Euphemia Rontgen stared at her in disbelief and then snapped her head toward the screen too.

It was the first time Ulyana had seen the doctor look shaken.

And it was the worst she had ever seen Marina break down.

Soon Ulyana would come to understand the meaning of those reactions and the depth of her bad luck.

Just as the Brigand made itself ready to leave–

–the Fueller family flagship Antenora had finally arrived at Goryk’s Gorge.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.3]

[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]

There was an air of tension and wicked possibility as the gathering convened.

The Brigand’s main meeting room was once again playing host to Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy on one end of the planning table and captain Ulyana Korabiskaya, and her commissar and adjutant Aaliyah Bashara on the other end. Maryam was her usual bubbly self while Marina had the same friendless look she always wore, despite having just walked out of the medbay without authorization.

Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.

“You will get lectured by Doctor Kappel. But I’m glad you could make it, it’s a welcome surprise. You’re the woman of the hour after all, Ms. McKennedy.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms.

“Despite myself, I always seem to end up in the spotlight.” Marina grumbled.

She was taking a sarcastic tone of voice, but the matter at hand was one of life and death.

Two or three days ago, depending on one’s metric for a “day” underwater, the Brigand had encountered the enormous Inquisitorial dreadnought dubbed “the Iron Lady” alongside a fleet that was likely drawn from local policing patrols at the last minute. As a clandestine ship, it was impossible to turn the Brigand in to the Iron Lady for inspection. While on the outside the Brigand looked like a civilian vessel, as long as its weapons were retracted and soundproof sealed, this secrecy depended on the hangar and the massive amounts of military equipment within it not being exposed to the wrong eyes.

As part of their plot to escape, Ulyana personally spoke with the commander of the Iron Lady, Gertrude Lichtenberg. She had been hoping to stall and distract Lichtenberg, whom Murati surmised was going to have a hard time controlling her slapdash fleet when her personal attention was drawn away from it.

She had been correct. Gertrude was barely able to keep her fleet in line, and the tighter cohesion of the Brigand’s two-man squads picked them apart. The confrontation allowed Ulyana to gather information. How did Gertrude find them? What was it that Gertrude wanted from them? They were both obviously cagey with each other in that situation, and Ulyana perhaps had a little too much fun with the younger woman, but she gleaned some valuable insight nevertheless. Gertrude wanted a VIP aboard the Brigand. This VIP was important enough Gertrude could not risk directly attacking the Brigand with her cannons.

And there were perhaps personal stakes for Gertrude Lichtenberg, who seemed too invested in the capture of this VIP, for an Imperial Inquisitor in the far reaches of the Empire. This may have accounted for the coincidence of the Iron Lady mooring next to them at Serrano. At the time there was nothing they could do about it and Ulyana did not see it as necessarily a risk. Ships of all kinds moored next to each other. On the docks, crews were too busy with their own ship to start inspecting those of others.

However, now she felt that Gertrude may have been tracking her VIP.

Perhaps Gertrude suspected something and confirmed it with new information at Serrano.

Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.

As a G.I.A. agent on the run, this made the most sense. She owned up to her cell being compromised, and to needing a snap escort to the Union to avoid capture. Perhaps she had lied to Murati about the proximity of her tail and the degree to which she was compromised, hoping for a quick out. All of these suspicions made sense in Ulyana’s head, but there was only one person who could confirm them. Whether she told the truth to them or whether she lied, Ulyana had to see Marina’s reaction to be absolutely sure. She decided that whenever she next met Marina, she’d press her for information.

While she had not expected to do this today, it would have had to happen at some point.

Maryam being in attendance wouldn’t really change anything. This had to be done.

At Ulyana’s side, the Commissar Aaliyah Bashara sat with her arms crossed and a serious expression on her face, her tail on end and unmoving. Ulyana had told her all of her suspicions and what she hoped to do with this meeting. Aaliyah would assist in the interrogation. Shimii had sharp eyes and this particular Shimii had a decent sense of people — except perhaps when she got drunk enough.

“You were knocked out for a while, Marina. What exactly happened to you?”

Ulyana started with a personal question to ease into things. She was curious however.

“We’re doing this now?”

“We’re doing this now.” Aaliyah replied, sternly. She was backing up Ulyana.

“Fine. I was in the hall with Elen when the ship was hit by the dreadnought guns. I’m pretty sure I lost my balance and next thing I knew, I woke up in the medbay.” Marina said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember it very well. Elen was completely freaking out. It was a nightmare of a day.”

“Officers Van Der Smidse and Zhu reported a physical altercation between you two.”

Marina scoffed. “Don’t you employ corporal punishment sometime, Captain?”

“It’s not my first choice to discipline a mentally unstable subordinate.” Ulyana shot back.

Her heart felt a brief swelling of anger toward Marina she had to get under control.

“I was grabbing Elen; I wasn’t in the best place mentally myself. But I didn’t strike her.”

Marina continued to respond coolly. She always acted like she was being interrogated.

Was this how all G.I.A. agents were trained to behave?

Given her conduct, Ulyana didn’t really care to conceal that this was an actual interrogation.

“What does Gertrude Lichtenberg, commander of the Iron Lady, want with you?”

The G.I.A. agent shot a bitter look at Ulyana. She crossed her arms and lowered her head.

She sighed deeply. “Look, I know what it looks like, but I swear I wasn’t being tailed.”

Aaliyah spoke up to support Ulyana again. A note of disdain crept into otherwise polite speech.

“Directly after we rescued you, the Iron Lady took an interest in us. Whether or not you were aware of the possibility hardly matters. You yourself admitted your cell was defeated by the Empire. How can you have been completely sure you would not be tracked or traced in a major city?” She said.

“You presume far too much, Commissar. We are experienced professionals. We can be chased, but what matters is that we know how to escape from the pursuers. And all of us escaped. When the Empire threw down our doors they found nothing of us left behind there. My colleagues have all probably escaped to the Union or the Republic-occupied zone in Katarre. I was the only one unlucky to end up saved by the Union’s special toy. None of us were being followed.” Marina sharply replied.

“Without evidence of this, it will remain an open question.” Aaliyah said.

“I agree. It is useless to argue; but you need to tell us everything, Marina.” Ulyana said.

“It’s not like I’m deliberately holding back any information!” Marina said.

“Are you truly not? Again, we can’t be certain.” Ulyana said. “Until we ask you some pointed questions.”

Marina grunted, casting her eyes to the table. “Fine, of course, just say what you want to.”

Ulyana nodded. She sat back and relaxed and began to ask her questions.

“Right now, the fact is that Gertrude Lichtenberg is coming after us and if she survived our attack on the Iron Lady, she and who knows who else will know what they’re up against now. Just pretend that you did get compromised if it helps your pride. What does she want with you? What information do you know? You know who she is right? Why is this apparently personal to her? How long will she pursue?”

“Do you even think she survived? Didn’t you blast her ship to pieces?” Marina interjected.

“Irmingard-class dreadnoughts are extremely durable vessels.” Aaliyah said. “Our realistic goal was never to sink it outright, but to cause enough damage to sever important systems and cripple the ship enough to allow us to escape. Killing that Inquisitor would be better luck than we’ve had.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Marina. “Back to the subject at hand–”

Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.

“Look, I know a lot about the Fueller family. They must be trying to silence me.” She said.

“So that was the G.I.A’s operation in the Empire? Spying on the imperial royal family?”

“That was a large part of it, yes.”

“That sounds like it carried a lot of risk.” Ulyana said, pressing her for more.

That response seems to have finally crossed the threshold of the G.I.A. agent’s patience.

“No operation is perfect! You’re right, it was risky and I don’t know if I was compromised, I fundamentally can’t know that information! I did my best, but I may have fucked up somewhere. You have no idea what I’ve been through, so maybe you could just accept my apologies and regrets, and we can move on to planning for the situation at hand. Is that ok with you, Captain?” Marina shouted.

And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.

Who did this woman think she was–?

Ulyana narrowed her eyes into a glare and crossed her arms sullenly. “No it’s not ok with me, G.I.A. I don’t know what you’ve been through because you won’t tell us a god damned thing about it! We were polite enough not to grill you the instant you got on this ship; we thought you would come clean with us. What use is it having you as an equal partner if you’ll just drop a bomb like this on us and then refuse to elaborate? Don’t you think we deserve to know if the Fueller family is hunting you?”

“I can explain everything, but it’s not pertinent!” Marina shouted. “The late Emperor’s bedtime secrets aren’t going to save us, goddamn it! If you can get me out of this alive, I promise you’ll get the full fucking story, okay? You’ll fucking wish you hadn’t heard some of the details.”

Maryam hid her face behind her tentacles in the midst of all the shouting.

Ulyana was about to continue the shouting match when a gentle hand laid on her flank.

Imperceptibly, out of the sight of their guests. It was her Commissar’s touch.

The captain knew then that she was going out of line and tried to reign herself back.

Aaliyah rubbed her hands on her forehead, her cat ears drooping. “I hate to say it, but McKennedy is right that the situation fundamentally doesn’t change if she gives up her salacious secrets to us. We don’t really have a way to use that information, so it would only affect our peace of mind. At least now we have some idea of why Gertrude Lichtenberg is after us. We should plan our escape and repairs.”

“When you put it that way, fine.” Ulyana said. “Any ideas on the current predicament, G.I.A?”

“Fleet combat isn’t my strong suit, so no, I don’t really have any brilliant ideas for escaping this situation. You guys did pretty well for yourselves already though, so, I dunno. Why not just attack that flagship and sink it? You’ve got to have the resources on hand to do it.” Marina said.

“The Brigand’s armaments are just not strong enough for us to trade shots dead-on with an Irmingard class dreadnought. We’ll be on the losing end of whatever happens. You’ve seen this already.” Ulyana paused, frustrated at her own helplessness. “We planned a huge production and we ended up with several people in the medbay, a lot of damage, and only a temporary reprieve.”

Marina turned her cheek. Ulyana felt her own cheek twitch. What a bratty reaction!

“How was this mission greenlit if you were going to run into this problem?” She said.

“It’s also your fault that we’re having to fight a flagship, you know.” Aaliyah grumbled.

“It was never part of the mission profile.” Ulyana added. “We’re supposed to be guerillas.”

“Then fight like guerillas do!” Marina said. “Find a hiding spot to attack from and wear it down!”

“That’s easier said than done!” Ulyana said. “Where are we going to hide, McKennedy?”

“I can’t just improvise a whole hideout for you! I’m an intelligence agent, not a magician!”

“If your intelligence is so useless then maybe we should just turn you over to–”

Both of them started shouting again. Aaliyah seemed helpless to calm them down this time.

“Please stop fighting! I have an idea!” Maryam shouted over all of them.

Ulyana and Marina both turned to face her at the same time.

Her tentacles were raised as if they were her shaking arms surrendering to a gun barrel.

Across her body her chromatophores were flashing to white and back to their original color.

Silence fell over the gathering. Ulyana felt momentarily very stupid.

She was stressed out, everything felt like it was going to shit, and she was helpless.

Beating up Marina would not change that. She needed to get a grip on herself.

Maryam spoke up again with a whimpering little voice. “Let’s all calm down, please.”

Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.

“I apologize.” Ulyana said. At first she didn’t care whether Marina accepted or not–

“Fuck, I was out of line too.” Marina admitted fault, much to Ulyana’s surprise. She looked conflicted, arms crossed and eyes practically staring down at her feet. Like a student in a classroom who had been shouted down — Ulyana didn’t exactly feel good about that. “I’m sorry, Captain, Commissar. In this situation I wouldn’t blame you if you did turn me in. But it probably wouldn’t help you much.”

“Under no circumstances am I going to do that.” Ulyana said. “I just lost my temper.”

“Let’s just put it behind us now. So, partners, I vote we listen to the Katarran’s idea.”

Marina pointed at Maryam with a thumb, forcing a smile as if to dispel the tension.

Maryam puffed her cheeks up. “I’ve got a name! I’m not just the katarran, you know!”

“Glad to see we’re all getting along.” Aaliyah sighed deeply, her cat-like tail stabbing at the air.

Ulyana felt ashamed of herself. Her conduct had been ridiculous. She let the stress speak.

At the moment, however, there was truly nothing to do but move on with it.

“Maryam, we’re certainly open to hearing your ideas. First though, I would like to know some background on you too. Our goal is to foment unrest in the Empire. Our agents marked you as a VIP we had to rescue. I assume you must have information that can help our mission.” Ulyana said.

Maryam looked quite nervous, but Ulyana chalked it up to her personality.

She seemed like someone who was very soft and scared. A total noncombatant.

“Background, huh. Umm. I was made in Katarre as a navigational aide for Athena Kyriaki. Around the time I became an instar, Athena attempted to raid Imperial territory in Skarsgaard, and it went– bad.” She shuddered a bit, and every other word came out with a stammer. “Our fleet was wrecked, I got captured, and any Katarrans that the Imbrians thought were female larva got sent the Solcean church in Skarsgaard, while everyone else got scattered. So I was part of the church for years, but eventually, I escaped. While on the run, I ended up working for a really shady group. I had to get really crafty to survive. I picked up a lot of information and skills. Some of it might be totally useless, like the going-abouts of imperial bureaucrats but, I learned a lot about places and installations! I wanted to go to the Union because I heard Katarrans can be free there, so I traveled to Buren, the Palatinate, down to Rhinea, and finally Sverland. I talked with the smugglers in Serrano, and they set me up with a Union agent. And that’s how I got to meet all of you. After talking with the agent, he said I’d be a very important VIP.”

Ulyana scrutinized the details of the story while it was told. She chalked up the nervousness to the kind of person Maryam was. She seemed like a very sweet girl who had been through a lot, and Ulyana felt a certain predilection to believing in her. When Ulyana herself was young she was forced to be “crafty” to survive enslavement in the colonies, so she understood Maryam’s telling of the story. There were details to surviving in harsh situations that were best left abbreviated and did not need retelling.

Ulyana wouldn’t push her to qualify every tiny blank that she had left.

Her route to Sverland had been incredibly long though. If the Union was her goal, she could have gone south through Veka and crossed through Nama Flow. Nama Flow was a landmass wall that divided the Union from Veka north-east to east. It was created by landmass collapses and rearrangements that seemed to have happened in the late Surface Era, whether directly by human action or as a result of the Surface’s catastrophes. The Union controlled both sides of Nama Flow.

It wasn’t easy making it to the Union from anywhere, so why choose the longest route?

“That’s a crazy route you took to get here.” Ulyana said. “How did that happen?

“I didn’t have a lot of choices. I was supposed to be on a mission for my bosses.”

Maryam smiled nervously and raised a hand behind her head, patting down her own hair.

“Can you tell us more about this ‘shady’ group of yours?” Ulyana said.

“They’re called–” She stammered again for a moment. “They’re called the Foundation.”

“Doesn’t really sound like a revolutionary organization.” Aaliyah said.

“They kept things pretty discrete.” Maryam said. She started getting the confidence to speak a bit candidly for a moment. “They’re not really ideological; they were out for themselves mainly and that’s what I didn’t like there. You can think of them kind of like a mafia I guess.”

“Organized crime, huh? I have to say, that’s not really what we wanted to hear.” Ulyana said, slightly disappointed with the story. However, it did make sense. Ulyana had learned that most immigrant Katarrans were ultimately forced to turn to crime in order to survive the rampant discrimination in the Empire. It must have been quite convenient for wealthy, corrupt Imperials to have a ready source of desperate clandestine labor at their bidding. Poor Maryam wouldn’t have had the choice to become some fabled socialist revolutionary in the realities of the Imbrian Empire.

Maryam’s colors shook briefly again. But she seemed to gather her courage after that.

“I wasn’t a big freedom fighter or anything, but I was made with a really good brain and memory, so I know tons of information that can help!” She put on a proud little smile. “In fact, I know a place we can go. It shouldn’t be too far, judging by the map I saw on the morning update!”

At Maryam’s prompting, Aaliyah turned on the display on the table and loaded that same map from Semyonova’s Morning Update to the crew. It was a zoomed in topographical cutout of Northern Sverland, generated by the navigational computer from its preloaded atlas. Stopping short of the Khaybar range that separated most of Sverland from Bosporus to the North, and the open border to Rhinea and the Yucatan gulf in the northwest and center-west of the region respectively.

The Brigand’s current position on the map was updated by the navigation computer.

“Here!”

Maryam pointed to the north, closer to Khaybar, running her finger along a specific area.

“See this dip here? That place is actually a big, long hole the locals called Goryk’s Gorge. There used to be a small outpost there, but I heard it’s been declining. I think it’s because travel through Khaybar dried up the past few years. It should have enough space though! We can dock the ship there for your repairs! There might not be many functioning amenities, but it’s a place that we can hide in that not a lot of people know. To be found there, the imperials would have to be searching the whole grid.”

Ulyana followed Maryam’s finger across the map. This Goryk’s Gorge wasn’t too far off.

However, the fact that Maryam was trying to correct their map bothered her.

Any standing station should have been listed already. So why was that location empty?

Who was it that set up this so-called ‘outpost’? What was it really for?

Aaliyah seemed to be on a similar wavelength to Ulyana and voiced her own doubts.

“Would this ‘outpost’ happen to have been set up by Katarran mercenaries?” She said.

Maryam rubbed her head nervously. “Historically. But they’ve probably moved on!”

There was another brief but awkward silence as Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Maryam.

“I’ll take my chances with Katarran mercs over Lichtenberg any day.” Marina interjected.

“And it’s relatively closer than Rhinea. I suppose it’s worth taking a look.” Ulyana said.

She was not too impressed with Maryam’s information quite yet.

And she felt she should have learned to temper her hopes about these things much sooner.

Regardless, at least they had a direction to go in. She didn’t think Maryam was lying. However, more and more, it felt like this entire excursion to Serrano had been a big mistake. What were the Union’s foreign agents doing and thinking? What did they actually see in Maryam? She was a sweet girl who had been through a lot, but she did not seem like a VIP asset worthy of this painful detour.

Ulyana tried to clear her head and push it out of her mind. Like Aaliyah had said before, it was pointless to hang onto topics like this. They could not simply dream up alternatives to reality.

“Alright, we’ve decided, we’ll set a course for Goryk’s Gorge. Marina and Maryam, you’ll be given formal security clearances as advisors. You’re welcome on the bridge any day.” She said.

Marina quietly nodded her head and Maryam beamed with delight, raising her arms.

And so the Brigand would change direction and head north to its next destination. Goryk’s Gorge, and the mysterious station supposedly at its edge. Ulyana could only pray that she was making the right choices in this awful situation. They adjourned the meeting, the future still unsure.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder as she prepared to leave the room.

Aaliyah behind her again, smiling. “Let’s talk later, just us, Captain.”

Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”

It was a labored smile but reminding herself Aaliyah was there did wonders for her morale.


It’s her!

You’re here Braya!

Her human body was seated next to Karuniya Maharapratham in the science officer’s lab, but the signals that Braya Zachikova’s brain felt as tactile sensations and visual input were now being drawn from a drone strung on a kilometer of fiber-optic wire in the open waters. She was cold, and she felt the effort of the hydrojets behind her and the sense of her body’s increased weight and stiffness. Her drone body collected data on its status, and this feedback was given directly to Zachikova’s brain.

It was a second body, a main body while the flesh and blood stayed behind.

This curved, finned metal body two and a half meters long and two meters tall deployed from the utility tube into the murky ocean, searching, following all biological noises as Fatima picked them up and discarded them as irrelevant from the Bridge’s computer. With access to this data and everything else that the ship supercomputer was processing, Zachikova was finally able to track her beautiful dancer through the gloom of the deep ocean, following featureless rock and swimming past ghostly white plants and corals and crawling rockfish and crabs, geysers of methane that drew up slight purple sparks when their bubbling hot discharge came into contact with the agarthic salts in the water.

Marine snow fell over her in great waves — this was the thick biomass suspended in the water around them, eternally raining from the rich, living environment above. Peering through the fog of decaying matter and the minuscule beings that thrived in it, Zachikova felt her human heart shudder with surprise and warm with delight. Those beautiful fins, that graceful body, the color that shone brightly under the lights cast out by the drone, even amid the dark blue-green filter of the ocean.

She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.

A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.

There was such relief in her heart. Her dancer hadn’t disappeared, hadn’t come to harm, and she could do her part now to protect her for good. She steadied the cameras and extended the arms so that Karuniya could capture footage of the animal playing harmlessly with the drone, its slender body bereft of any implements of destruction like biocannons, tail spikes or vibrating power-jaws. She lead a life free of worry or burden, unseen in the deeps. Zachikova felt blessed to see her.

“This is Science Officer Karuniya Maharapratham, we spotted this creature on–”

Karuniya had begun to record her audio to play over the evidence footage.

The Dancer would go on the Brigand’s record as a subject of study.

Zachikova could hear the voice, distant and muffled, through the antennae on her human body rather than the drone’s sensors. This mix of the two sometimes shook her out of controlling computerized devices, but in this case, she was so transfixed on the ravishing figure circling around the drone, that there was no way her sight would shift back to her human body. Zachikova wanted to touch her.

She laid the arms of the drone “palm”-up hoping for a touch as the dancer arced gracefully around her. When the sensation of those soft, silky fins played over her arms, her soul fluttered.

Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.

Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.

Bright placid blues trailed from her fins and tail and around her body that spread like a splash of paint wherever she swam, surrounding Zachikova and the cameras which could only see that majestic blue, the color that should have been the sky, she thought. Her eyes were filled the light, and she felt like she could feel colors around her own body, green and purple and blue; and around Karuniya, green and blue with a band of black around the edges; and the Brigand itself was dyed in massive colors of all kinds. Every living thing, painting a glowing tapestry in the water, Zachikova felt like she could see it all.

As the Dancer wove a circle of colors in front of her, Zachikova saw beyond the water.

“We’re going to get out of here.”

Through the clearing mist of the colors and the murk of the marine snow Zachikova saw–

Metal walls, darkness, bars, the blue glint of LEDs and a single tiny window.

Through that window, an impossible, clouded sky with purple flashes of lightning.

Within the gloom, despair-maddened eyes drawing wide illuminated with each flash.

Laughter erupted from a slim girl with copious long red hair–

–scratching at the side of her head, where a horn-like protrusion parted her skin.

“I can talk– talk to them–” She laughed and struggled to speak. “I talk to the monsters.”

Her free hand scratched on the steel floor a series of lines from bloody disfigured fingers.

“I’ll save them– You’ll be one, and I’ll be two– Then we’ll kill them all–”

Zachikova could barely make out the scene through the intrusion of the colors.

At the side of the girl that was talking, sat another girl, with bright lilac eyes, staring–

As if at her.

Inquisitive, aren’t you?

That red-lined gaze pushed Zachikova’s soul as if across the very horizon.

She felt a power squeeze her and hurl her, throw her away–

“–And that’s why I will be inducting this Leviathan as USL-0099 in our database. Positive interactions with Leviathans are few and far between and for the future we are fighting towards, we should foster an environment of understanding and progress in not only political but scientific development. Scientists work in the military to be able to explore the mysteries of the sea. It would be remiss of me, in my capacity as an advisor, to turn a blind eye to this creature and allow its needless destruction. As a subject of study, this Leviathan cannot be fired upon without my express permission.”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–

Zachikova shook her head. Her human head. A breath crossed through her human throat. From the lab’s drone control terminal, she manually switched the cameras around, moving them like machines and not her own body. The Dancer was still there, but distant, coy, starting to wander away from the drone. Zachikova had the panicked thought that she had done something wrong.

“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“

Her head was foggy, and she felt images slipping away from her like a dream fading from the wakeful mind. She had seen a girl, for some reason, and she knew she had seen some kind of strange color phenomenon in the water. It could’ve been signals issues, some kind of cybernetic synesthesia, she already experienced all sorts of odd things when she interfaced with machines.

Those situations never felt quite like this. Zachikova’s heart was shaken.

She was losing her cool. Emotion had never overcome her like this.

Zachikova thought she might cry, and she hardly knew what she was crying about!

Swept up in that current of colors swirling around the Dancer–

It was the most beautiful thing she had seen underwater, but her mind was–

–Mourning the image of it.

Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–

“Zachikova, are you okay? Did you disconnect from the drone?”

In front of her, Karuniya Maharapratham seemed to fully reappear as if stepping in through a cloud of mist. Her soft brown skin, long dark hair, white coat. Her gentle eyes. And the stark metallic lab walls and equipment returning to the background. Zachikova felt more grounded in reality, and reality set in for her anew. She shook her head and turned back to the drone console with haste.

“I’m okay. I lost connection. I’m going to link back.”

“It looks like USL-0099 swam away.” Karuniya said, looking at the monitor.

“I want to follow it.” Zachikova said suddenly. Almost interrupting Karuniya.

“It seems to be roaming around, we’ll probably see it again.” Karuniya said.

“I’m–” Zachikova paused briefly. She hated how desperate she sounded, but she could not deny the fear that had taken hold like ice in her chest. “I’m afraid I might have scared it off. I’d like to make contact again. I won’t be out for long, and I won’t need to take up your time further.”

Karuniya scratched her hair in consternation. “No offense, but I don’t understand–”

At that moment, the sound of running footsteps nearing the door caught their attention.

Through the threshold crossed an agitated Sonya Shalikova, panting heavily.

“Maharapratham!” She shouted. “She’s awake! Murati is awake!”

Whatever Karuniya was going to say to Zachikova would hang in the air for good.

Speechless, on the verge of tears, Karuniya ran past Shalikova, who then ran after.

Zachikova remained, seated on the drone station, alone. Her antennae shifted slightly.

She suddenly and immediately reconnected the drone and began to dissociate her body.

“I have to find her again.”

I have to ask her— this thought reverberated in Zachikova’s mind as it left her human body.

What would she even ask? And how would she ask a question to an animal?

Those small insanities sank to the back of Zachikova’s mind.


“How many fingers are we holding up?”

Officers Zhu and Van Der Smidse both held up two fingers to form peace signs.

They waved these fingers in front of an awkwardly smiling patient in a medbay bed.

“Is this a trick question? Two fingers in two hands, so four fingers.”

Murati Nakara answered with as much enthusiasm as she could muster energy for.

“I guess she’s ok.” Zhu and Van Der Smidse agreed.

For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.

She felt that she had not been in a deep sleep but had been sleeping and waking, finding herself first in her diver, then dragged out, in the medbay, in the ocean itself, in places unfathomable that seemed to skirt just beyond the edge of understanding. Long sandy stretches of surface land, war-torn; a great and awful tree of flesh in the middle of a romantic, gothic town; a sprawling city where people could do anything with their minds but were beset by monsters; nonsense dreams.

She had a headache, and she did not feel rested.

She was famished and had a hard time keeping her eyes wide open in the medbay.

Craning her head, she took note that she was not the only one interned in the medbay.

Sat up on her bed, Sameera seemed to have been recovering well, the mixed Shimii/Loup gently wagging her tail under the sheets, laid on three pillows and smiling placidly. Always chipper, that one. She looked like she had been awake for longer. Rather than a hospital gown, she was dressed in a long casual shirt and from one dangling leg what seemed like soft, baggy pants. However, when she tried to move, she seemed uncoordinated, as if drunk or sleepy, and ended up laying back down.

“Two days or so, if you were wondering.” Sameera said.

“Huh?”

Murati stared at her. Sameera laughed, voice deep and gentle.

“That’s how long you slept, but I think you were coming in and out. I heard you cry once.”

“You heard her cry?” Zhu Lian. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Sameera looked untroubled. “It felt like she just needed to work something out.”

“What if she was working out a heart attack?” Van Der Smidse said.

“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu glared at her for a moment, until a pair of visitors ran in.

At the door, a pale, indigo-eyed girl escorted a familiar face, one Murati longed to see.

“Karuniya!”

Murati’s exclamation was a little weak, owing to her condition.

Despite this, it reached right to Karuniya’s heart. At the door, she gasped and stood, the rest of the assembled group parting so that she could approach the bed. She held her hands over her mouth, eyes half-shut with copious tears, shoulders shaking. When she finally rushed to the bed she was mindful of Murati’s wounds. Rather than hug Murati, she laid gentle hands on her.

Karuniya leaned in her head, and they touched their faces together. It was the most affectionate form of physical contact Murati could withstand. Feeling the warmth of Karuniya’s cheek and her soft hair falling over her, the scent of the disinfectant clinging to her lab coat mixed with the woody smell of mushroom cultures. Murati almost wished she could return a full embrace.

However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.

Under her hospital gown, Murati had deep bruises in her chest and flank. Though she was on pain medication which helped her breathe normally, she could feel her range of movement limited by the sense of dull stinging that triggered when she tried to shift her weight. She supposed that she had broken ribs. Her arm was also broken and in a cast, slung over her shoulder. She had a bit of foam padding around her neck that suggested it was probably bruised or injured as well.

“Mu– Mu– Mu– rati–!” Karuniya cried out, sobbing, whimpering next to Murati.

“It’s okay Karu. I’m here for you.” Murati said, smiling with genuine elation.

“Don’t try to be fucking cool when you nearly got killed! You reckless idiot!”

Karuniya lifted her hands off Murati’s shoulder and then laid them back down.

Perhaps in lieu of the soft little punches she sometimes threw to tease or scold Murati.

She laid her head over Murati’s shoulder, gently, making sure not to lean too hard.

“I was so worried, Murati. I was so worried. I thought you– I thought you had–”

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”

“Promise me this is the worst it’s going to be. Promise me it won’t be worse than this.”

“I promise. I really do.”

Murati understood. For it to have been “worse than this” she would’ve had to come back in pieces rather than whole. Or not have come back at all. They already understood how dangerous the mission was and that either of them could die– but even the most educated soldiers had feelings when they actually confronted death. Murati reassured her as best she could. There was no need to realistically contemplate their mortality right then. After all, Murati really wanted to keep that promise.

She would do her utmost not to break such a promise.

And if that promise had any power, then maybe there was a God after all.

Murati would pin her hopes on that.

It was eerie, having come near death. It did not feel like anything.

That absence of some grand experience was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all.

She had simply been beaten senseless, halfway to death in the middle of the ocean.

Halfway, but not fully. So here she was, alive in the arms of her precious wife.

Murati looked past Karuniya. Zhu and Van Der Smidse stood off to the side with faintly flushed cheeks, perhaps a little embarrassed at the display of affection — though with their fingers intertwined between them. Shalikova stood with the tiniest, barest hint of a smile on her lips, arms crossed as if waiting for something, or perhaps satisfied with the result of her handiwork.

“Thank you Shalikova.” Murati said. “You came to visit and then ran to get Karu, right?”

Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.

She turned her cheek, her brow creasing ever so slightly with indignation.

“Of course I went to get your wife, anyone would’ve done it. It’s really nothing.” Was that the tiniest bit of flushed cheeks on Shalikova too? Maybe Murati was just seeing things this time.

Now that other people had joined the conversation, Karuniya stepped back from Murati.

Van Der Smidse graciously brought her a seat so she could stay at her “husband’s” side.

“Thank you.” Karuniya sat down. She checked the board on Murati’s bed. “Broken ribs, broken arm– well, you’re not going to die, and you might be able to walk with crutches. Sheesh, at least you’re not going to get back in that death machine for a while. For good or ill.” She sighed and turned with an irritated expression at Zhu and Van Der Smidse. “What are you two doing? Go fetch me some broth, bread, and pickles. Murati must be dying of hunger, c’mon. I’ll feed her.”

Now it was Murati’s turn to feel her face red with embarrassment. “I really don’t need–”

“Shut up.”

Karuniya glared at her. Murati laid back and accepted this as the current state of affairs.

“Sure, we’ll leave her in your capable hands then.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu seemed to sense the dark energy around Karuniya and complied.

After they left to get the food, Shalikova started to bid farewell– but Murati halted her.

“Shalikova, I need to talk to you for a second.”

Shalikova paused and returned to the side of the bed. “What is it?”

“Did we lose anyone?”

Thankfully, Murati did not have to feel the dread of asking that question for long.

“No. We’re all alive.” Shalikova said. Her confidence and quick response were a big relief.

While the time she had spent awake could be counted in minutes only, Murati was already back to thinking about the situation at hand. If she was alive and surrounded by familiar Union faces then they had escaped from the Iron Lady. She was in poor condition, however, so they had something quite important they had to settle so they could operate effectively in the near future.

“I have to talk to Khadija about it too, but– Shalikova, I’m making you squad leader.”

“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.

“Oh, good idea.” Karuniya added. “Shali-Shali has fought like an ace every single time.”

“Huh?! Shali-Shali?”

Shalikova stared between Karuniya and Murati with expressions of shock and disgust.

“That’s– But– No way! I’m an Ensign and I’ve only had two real sorties!”

“I’ve only had two real sorties too.” Murati said. “Shalikova, not only do you have excellent piloting skills, but you’ve shown decisiveness and a really fantastic situational awareness. Had you not intervened when you did, I would have almost certainly been killed out there. And you held your own against that mystery pilot and their mystery diver after that. This is not just empty flattery from me.”

Sameera, lying back with her eyes closed, spoke up suddenly from her bed.

“I agree! I think the Ensign would make a very cute squad leader.” She declared.

“Shut up and go back to sleep! Nobody asked you!” Shalikova shouted. She then turned her agitation on Murati. “Pick Khadija! You said you had to talk– why decide now?” She asked. “She’s so much more experienced and skilled than I am! Why would you pick me over her?”

“You look like you don’t even want to hear the reasons she has!” Karuniya said.

Shalikova snapped toward her but seemed unable to raise her voice at Karuniya.

Murati was thankful that she could sense the evil within Karuniya and treat her gently.

“I think Khadija is our strongest pilot, and that’s exactly why she shouldn’t be the leader.” Murati said. “She has exceptional combat skills, but– let’s say skewed judgment. At any rate, a leader doesn’t need to be the strongest. After all, you’re a better pilot than me in raw skill, Shalikova.”

Of all the comments, this one really had poor Shalikova withering under the spotlight. She crossed her arms, tapped her feet, and turned her back, grumbling a little where no one could see.

“I’ll– I’ll think about it. You won’t force me to do this. I really have to consider it!”

Murati nodded her head silently, smiling at her. “Thank you. I really believe in you–”

Shalikova immediately started to walk out of the room unprompted, but she met someone at the door that she nearly bumped into. Pink skin, red and brown hair, a below-average stature.

“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.

“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”

The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.

Long, thin strand-shaped fins bristling among her hair, an unfriendly look on her face, the woman walked to the side of Sameera’s bed, holding a bowl of what looked like a quick porridge made by crumbling bread and pickles in broth. She sat down, grunted, and then started to feed Sameera, who easily accepted the attention as the woman forced a spoonful through her lips. It was her squadmate, Dominika Rybolovskaya. Her presence, the indignation in her every movement, silenced the room.

Murati wondered how long this bleak scene had repeated across the days.

Compared to the evil energy exuding from that woman, Karuniya was a glowing angel.

At least it brought a bit of color to the drab medbay.

“Karu, can I ask for your help later?”

Murati gave a slightly pleading look to her wife, who smiled back.

“Oh jeez, of course.” Karuniya sighed. “Back to work already? You’re hopeless.”

“Thank you for understanding.”

It was such a contrast to Dominika and Sameera that even those two were staring at it.


Another “night” fell on the UNX-001 Brigand, denoted only by the moving of the clock and the moving of people, and by the artificial dimming of lights. During the day, each light fixture had a small ultraviolet system to help the humans within feel at home, as if working under the rays of the sun. At night, those UV systems would be turned off, the ordinary light would dim, snuffing out the underwater “sun”.

With that snuffing out of the sun, there was a commensurate snuffing out of activity.

There were always some workers at night — it was a warship, after all.

But not for the next few days.

“No night shifts for two days and reduced daytime work hours, for all sailors!”

Galina Lebedova, Chief of the Brigand’s sailors, passed down the decree from Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to all the sailors working in the hangar. Everyone had been working hard for days, and it was clear the laborers really needed a break. Heavy duty work would resume once the Brigand made it to Goryk’s Gorge and could settle down for the final and definitive stretch of repairs.

“Prioritize maintenance, and don’t crowd the canteen and social spaces! And thank the officers!”

As such the hangar space was almost entirely empty that night.

The only sounds were the footwork and grunts of a certain Shimii, Khadija al-Shajara. It was so quiet that when she stopped moving, one could almost hear the drops of sweat striking the hangar floor, and her heart jumping as she stepped forward and back, attacking a shadow opponent. Dressed only in a pair of workout pants and a sleeveless crop top, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Her cat-like ears bristled with each burst of physical effort, tail stabbing at the air behind her betraying a sense of anxiety.

She had in each hand a thick, solid, and heavy carbon-fiber truncheon borrowed from the armory. Standing in a corner of the hangar, with the Diver gantries blocking her from the sight of the elevators and lower hall connections, she practiced striking with the truncheons. Solid one-handed blows in quick succession; coordinated attacks with both weapons at once; overhead, from the side, from left and right at once.  She was not treating them as the two clubs she had, but as a pair of swords.

Swords like the saw-bladed, motorized weapons that her Diver could employ.

Her strikes grew more belabored, her breathing tighter, and she could hear herself, louder.

“Fuck!”

Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.

“It doesn’t matter. My body isn’t what’s on the line out there. It’s all in a fucking Diver.”

She hated how exhausted she felt. She hated the feeling that she was growing old.

Growing old; when there were other kinds of growing she still needed to do.

Her shaking fingers on the truncheons, the cold sweat of her iron grip; the explosive pain from her joints when she paused for even the briefest second, the soreness in her lithe leg muscles with each step. How she felt her shoulder nearly pop on the double overhead strikes. How hard her breathing came to her, almost as soon as she started. Khadija hated it, hated her age, hated her ailing body. She was as fit as she possibly could be, her lean, wiry muscles practiced daily, and still her strikes grew weaker.

“Fuck.”

There was a loud clatter on the hangar floor as she dropped the truncheons.

Slipping out of exhausted hands that couldn’t stop shaking.

Regardless of how sharply focused her mind had been, she could not make her body go further. Forty-two years; how was it possible that she was still alive after all of this? How had she not died back then with the Red Baron? Either in 959 or 979, whichever of the two. She doubled over, breathing ragged, hands on her knees, sweat trickling over her slim nose, her still-soft cheeks.

“Hah, man, this sucks. When did this become so much trouble for me?”

She started to think but– when was even the last time she had to train this hard?

There were always things to do. Patrols, mock battles, simulations, equipment testing, she had even done plenty of Leviathan culling alongside the Hunters. War, however, she had only practiced in a single solitary stretch, the year of absolute hell she experienced from 959 to 960. Twenty years ago, twenty whole years ago. She was treated like a senior NCO back then because she was twenty-two in an army that had a massive swell of teenage privates. What was she supposed to be now?

“Back then–” Khadija paused, still catching her breath. “I didn’t want the kids to fight.”

She still did not. And perhaps, that was the reason that, at forty-two, she was still here.

Forty-two years. No matter how much she exercised, how much makeup she wore, in this situation there was no escaping it, no embellishing. As lithe and athletic as she kept her body, as young and vibrant as she kept her face, deep down beneath skin and muscle, she was forty-two years old.

She was hurting. Even her fluffy tail felt like an old, beaten thing.

Forty-two years.

Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.

“Someone like me would’ve already been dead if this was a film. For the kid’s stories to advance.”

Maybe she should have been killed. If she could have just taken out the Red Baron back then–

There was a distant series of dull metal steps on the hangar floor.

When Khadija turned her head she saw someone approaching across the barely lit space.

Someone on crutches.

“So this is where you went. You look like you’ve been working really hard.”

Murati Nakara, step by labored step, leaning heavily on her crutches. Smiling.

She had on her uniform, and she looked like every step was pure agony.

“Ya Allah!” Khadija exclaimed, so surprised she was. “What are you doing, you fool?”

She rushed up to a stand and hastened to Murati’s side, trying to save her some walking.

Face to face, Khadija’s sweaty, bereaved expression, barely accented with a light touch of runny makeup, could not have measured to the deathly grimace on Murati’s face, sweating, panting for breath. Khadija looked around, wondering how the hell she made it out of the medbay without anyone stopping her. She helped Murati lean against her, and regardless of what the Lieutenant intended, Khadija had in mind to drag her right back. She started to gently urge her to turn so she could guide her away.

“It’s okay Khadija, Karuniya is in the hall with a wheelchair.” Murati said.

“What? Why didn’t she cart you out here? What is wrong with you two?”

“Because I want to talk to you alone, and she respects me enough for that.”

Murati continued to labor a smile, while Khadija stared at her quizzically.

“Didn’t you just wake up today? What could possibly–?”

“Khadija, I’ll get right to the point, because I’m really exhausted and hurting and honestly, this has been distressing me a lot.” Murati’s eyes looked almost tearful, as she worked her way up to asking and finally interrupted. When Khadija met her eyes she could barely look at the expression. And when she heard the words that her squad leader finally said, her body shook with shock and shame.

“Khadija, were you trying to die out there? Did you intend to martyr yourself?”

It was like her heart was perforated with a cold needle, a sharp pinprick.

When she had fought the Red Baron– She did intend to launch a suicide attack.

How could Murati have known? Did she suspect it when she snatched the bomb away?

In hindsight, it brought her a lot of pain and shame to think about that now.

She had tried to put that experience away.

To train and fight another day and move on.

Now it crashed into her exhausted mind and nearly brought her to the floor.

Especially because of Murati’s reaction. It was so shocking to see her so hurt by it.

Murati continued to look at her, openly weeping. She raised her working arm to wipe tears.

She took Khadija’s shocked silence as a confirmation. And it seemed to distress her further.

“Khadija, please promise me that you won’t consider such a thing again. I admit, I have not been in command of teams in real combat, probably nowhere near as much as you might have had. But I truly made it my duty to insure that everyone came back alive. My plan was never for a suicide mission. It hurts– I can do everything in my power to save my comrades, but if they decide–”

Murati paused as if she could not get herself to say it out loud. She sobbed openly.

Khadija had never seen her like this. She had never imagined her looking so broken up.

“Khadija, I don’t want the story of the ‘Lion of Cascabel’ to end like that. Please.”

“Murati, I–” Khadija hardly knew what to say to that at first.

She could have been offended to be called ‘the Lion of Cascabel’, a name which brought bad memories. She could have tried to explain her reasoning at that time, not that there was any. It had been pure gut, desperation, and a lot of self-loathing that led her to that. She realized what she felt, was that she was touched Murati had such a strong reaction to the idea of her dying like that– to her making a martyr of herself. At that time, Khadija had felt, if she went through with it, no one would mourn it.

Wasn’t she just a soldier? An unmarried childless old woman sharpened to kill?

Wouldn’t the success of the mission give meaning to her death?

For a long time she really thought of herself as someone disposable.

She never realized how that flew in the face of the comrades risking their life alonside her.

How it minimized their collective hope of protecting one another and returning alive.

Khadija wondered– could she really say she wanted to live at all costs? She looked back briefly at the truncheons she had dropped in the hangar. What she had felt back in the water, that desperation and frustration– she was here, fighting to never feel it again. She was challenging herself again, and if she had no intention of living, then she would not have been aching and sweating this much.

She finally knew what to say. “Murati, you’re unbelievable sometimes. I guess I have to become even stronger in the future so you kids will finally stop worrying about me so much.” Khadija made an irritated noise. “Honestly; knock it off, Murati. Go back to the medbay. I have more training to do.”

Murati smiled at her, wiping her tears. Relief seemed to wash over her like a wave.

“Thank you. Whether or not you realize it, Khadija, you’re a real hero.” She said.

Khadija looked away from Murati in a brief fit of shame.

Honestly, what was it with this girl and the earnest compliments?

But she couldn’t hate her for it. She really wanted to believe that she was.

Not just an old failed woman but the hero of a story still to be told.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.2]

For Blake McClinton the summer palace at Schwerin Island had become a green purgatory. Those vast beautiful fields which surrounded the castle endlessly on each side made him feel insane as he relentlessly climbed sets of staircases, looking out onto the unchanging world below, rushing from the bottom of the palace to the garden several stories above. Staircase after staircase after staircase fashioned from stone, boasting artsy diagonal hex-shaped windows ever at his side.

Intermittent snapping gunfire punctuated his steps.

“Leda– oh my god Leda–”

He gasped for breath. Tenth story. Almost there.

That morning he’d had an ominous feeling in his chest. He had wanted to meet with Leda.

With his status as a G.I.A. agent they had to be discrete, but–

Ever since they got word that woman was coming, Blake couldn’t sit back and watch.

Leda had said she would meet him in their special place. She must have meant the garden.

But with this invasion happening would they really meet there?

Blake had no choice but to follow her directions. Even if they were given before the chaos.

On the twelfth story, when he looked out at the green, he could see a shadow in the falsely blue sky. An impression of what was looming outside Schwerin past the illusion they had created for themselves. Judging by the presence, in the gardens below, of those damnable powered armors that the Empire had begun building to fight the communists, this was a Dreadnought that was sent to suppress them.

That shadow signaled the end of their ambitions– but they could still escape!

And so Blake charged up the stairs again, silenced pistol in hand.

He began checking the corners, aiming up the staircase.

“Leda! I’m here! I’ll get you out of here!”

He shouted, almost hysterical in his desire to hear anything from the garden.

Charging through the door out to the enormous ceiling-garden in one of the Schwerin palace towers. Beautiful rows and beds of tall flowering plants, grapevines, berry bushes. Blake called out Leda’s name and ran through the rows. He reached the center of the garden structures, begging whatever cosmic force toyed with their fates to please let him find Leda standing there.

“My, my.”

Blake should have known his fate could be nothing but cursed.

In Leda’s place, there was a woman in the field grey Imperial officer’s uniform, boots and peaked cap, blond, fair-faced, hair tied into a ponytail. She carried no visible weapons and had her arms crossed over her chest. She did not appear so formidable that she could simply stand there alone, but that mischievous glare and wicked grin could have belonged to no other than the famed Fueller enforcer Norn Tauscherer. Standing atop the garden tower and below Schwerin’s darkened skies.

“Where is she?” Blake shouted. He took aim directly at Norn’s head.

Norn put on an expression that felt surreal to Blake. Was she– was she laughing?

Nonetheless, she raised her hands in surrender with this amused expression on her lips.

“Blake McClinton is it? G.I.A special agent? No– there are more relevant names.”

Suddenly, Blake felt something press against the back of his head.

He ran his fingers through his long black hair as if he could’ve felt what was touching him.

“Samuel Anahid.”

Blake’s eyes drew wide as Norn’s smile grew wider. How could she–

“No– oh dear. I quite apologize. I found a more fitting name: Marina McKennedy?”

“Shut up! I’ll perforate that fucking stupid grin of yours!”

Terror stirred in Blake’s heart.

How could she know, how could she possibly fucking know?

Only Leda and Bethany called her Marina– only they knew what he felt deep down.

Only they encouraged his questioning.

Something so intimate, so strange; how was it possible for Norn to know?

Unless–

No, even in captivity Leda would have no reason to speak of that!

And Bethany would never betray them!

“You’re wondering how I know? It’s because your mind is such an open book.”

Norn’s expression was filled with such evil delight it shook Blake’s gun arm.

This woman was a monster– this was the only explanation.

There was no time to ponder it any further than that.

Fueller’s monster had come for them. As Blake had feared in his worst nightmares.

Blake was hardly listening to her ramble– he had to move with haste. Leda was in danger.

“Where is she? Where is Leda Lettiere? Where are you keeping her?”

Blake stepped forward with his pistol trained on Norn’s forehead.

“Miss McKennedy, it is truly not my desire to cause any harm to Leda Lettiere.” Norn said. For a second, Blake’s heart rushed with a misplaced sense of relief. It didn’t last long, just until Norn finally spoke up again. “I am one of her many admirers. Oh, such pain and heartache that she brings to that stupid man. When Konstantin sent me here, I was expecting to turn up evidence of her sleeping around, and then to thoroughly ignore it so long as she was discrete. Unfortunately, you were here, G.I.A.”

“What do you mean? What the fuck do you mean Norn?” Blake asked desperately.

Norn sighed. “If only you hadn’t been here. I could have even ignored Leda’s plot to kill Konstantin, but if it’s supported by the G.I.A., that won’t do. I can’t let the Republic become emboldened.”

“You’re talking really confidently for a woman with a gun to her head.” Blake said.

She tried to regain her confidence. Norn was not some superhuman.

Blake had all the situational advantages. Strategically they had been completely outdone but in this particular moment all she needed was to shoot Norn and escape with Leda. She just needed to know where Leda was. She had a few assets still in play, she could still potentially slip by those Diver armors. She had tricks up her sleeve. If Norn was up to talking she could let her talk.

“What did you do with Leda? You’ve captured her, haven’t you?” Blake said.

“Do you really think Leda would honor your little rendezvous here in this situation?”

Norn tilted her head, gesturing toward one of the higher rear towers of Schwerin Palace.

Of course. Blake had been so stupid. Leda was going to get Elena from the tower.

How could he have believed Leda would choose him over her own daughter?

“Unfortunately, I have to put an end to these fantasies.” Norn said.

Blake bared her teeth at her in fury. “Says the bitch on the other end of my gun! Shut up!”

Norn took a casual step forward in defiance of the agent’s orders, hands still raised.

There was no hesitation on Blake’s part. He was a trained killer.

He pulled the trigger, twice in quick succession, a bullet each in Norn’s neck and chest.

Shooting a gun gave a brief sensation of recoil and an instantaneous sense of violence. The imagination of the layperson could have never accounted for the speed of a bullet. It was as if they were summoned into the world instantly in collision with their targets within the blink of an eye. So Blake’s response to the attack was trained, purposeful; at such close range, he knew when he hit something.

That made the shock he felt as Norn continued to step toward him even greater.

Blake stepped back, retrained his aim, and fired, both hands, center mass, no fancy shit–

Norn closed in from across the garden, closing meter by casual meter, step by step.

“What the fuck?”

His head felt blurry with anxiety. Had he been drugged? Why was he missing?

There was no way. No one had any opportunity to tamper with his gun or with him.

He fired, twice, three times, fired at Norn until the gun clicked empty.

Nothing, not a single bullet had even grazed her. It was if they went through her.

“What’s wrong? Want me to stand still so you can hit me?”

Norn stopped, scant meters distance from Blake, shrugging her shoulders.

Blake drew a knife from his belt and rushed toward Norn with all his might.

Desperate, foolish, ignorant–

Nothing to lose–

She was unarmed, he would take her down and rip out her fucking guts on the floor!

There was no way she could avoid that!

“Pitiable.”

Norn swung her arm and batted aside Blake’s knife.

It was such a precise, dismissive gesture that Blake could hardly believe it as he staggered back from it. His knife arm had been stricken with such force he thought his wrist might have snapped. In the midst of that sharp and sudden pain he never realized how quickly Norn had stepped inside of his guard. Her fist flew like a bullet. In an instant, it was summoned to his stomach and battered him.

Blake fell back on the floor, grabbing hold of his belly, coughing, struggling to breath.

Norn’s punch was like a battering ram. He felt like stomach was moved out of place.

No way! No way! No way!

How was she so strong? How the fuck was this Imbrian bitch this strong?

Blake’s mind raced. Could she be a fucking Katarran–?

“How insulting.”

With a look of disgust on her face Norn kicked Blake on the floor.

Coming in from the side, he felt the hard boots strike his ribs and cried out.

Blake turned on his other side, tried to crawl away–

When that same boot came stomping down on his hand.

He gritted his teeth. She was not trying to break it. Just holding him in place.

He could not help but notice how quickly she had moved from one side of him to the other.

“I don’t do this without pity or sympathy for your cause. Konstantin should not be the winner here.” Norn said. Blake’s heart was racing, and he was in such pain, that all he could do was spit on the floor, not even on her shoe. He could not speak. He could do nothing but act defiant where no defiance was possible. Norn continued. “I’ll avenge the two of you one day. If what you want is the death of Konstantin von Fueller, then have patience. That day will come; just not by your hand, G.I.A.”

Behind them one of the towers suddenly exploded, casting debris and fire into the air.

Norn looked at it briefly, cursed in indignation, and turned suddenly back to Blake.

Her foot came down on his face and shut the light from his eyes–

–Transporting her back to the UNX-001 Brigand, almost twenty years later in 979 A.D.

Marina woke in a bed and quickly closed her eyes again.

She resisted the urge to wake with a start.

It was not only that she wanted to excise what she had just seen in her mind with all of her concentration. That was only one consideration. But it was also part of her professional paranoia. In some situations it was more advantageous to pretend to be asleep or dead, this too was part of her training. Whenever she woke, she closed her eyes and took stock. As she pushed away the fragmented memories being cast as nightmares in her messy subconscious, she also remembered where she had been last.

She remembered arguing with Elena.

Her heart hurt, scarcely remembering that Elena had been furious with her.

Something happened after that. Maybe an attack on the ship knocked Marina out.

Everything was a little fuzzy. To her consternation, her dream was more vivid than that moment.

They had been in a dangerous situation, but she was not dead, so they must have escaped.

Or been captured.

She quickly opened her eye–

And closed it.

Union ship layout with automated doors with no locks; every Imperial quarter had a digital lock so it could be shut out by officers in case of mutiny. Bare metal walls, bedframes made of interchangeable bare plates of carbon fiber that fitted together and could be used to make chairs or tables or other furniture, as opposed to Imperial single-cast bespoke furniture molds. And the other beds were occupied by women with sandy or dark skin. She was probably still on the Brigand.

That didn’t mean they were not captured, but it did mean she could probably be awake.

Marina sat up in bed.

She had a headache, but her body was as whole as it could be. Both arms, both legs.

Her cybernetic eye was doing fine.

In a corner of the room, a young, slim blond girl wearing her hair in two long braids spun around on her office chair. She had a stun gun clipped to her hip and wore the thick bodysuit of a Union security officer, with bits of ceramic bulletproof plate over her ample chest and slender limbs. When she noticed Marina, she stopped spinning around, gasped, and walked over to the bed.

“Afternoon!” She said. Her voice was very cheerful. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

She made a peace sign. Marina sighed audibly.

“I’m fine. You’re Klara Van Der Smidse, right?” Marina said.

“Yes! You know, I didn’t think you’d recognize me!”

“I memorized the roster as much as I could. You’re Gallic, is that right?”

“I mean, ethnically. My family is Gallic, I guess. It’s not a huge deal in the Union.”

Gallics were one of the ethnicities persecuted by the Empire and deported to the Union. Particularly Eastern Gallics, with their “Van Der” names. Despite being fair-skinned blonds even.

They had an independent kingdom in Skarsgaard once– so they resisted integration. And as the borders of Imbrian identity strained to cover the entire ocean, the Empire could not tolerate an ounce of resistance.

Marina shook her head. That was not pertinent, but with the Union, she just could not help but think about the roots. After all, everyone from the Union now was probably once a slave or the child of a slave, or a “criminal” or otherwise “undesirable” element. This Klara Van Der Smidse looked sweet and cheerful at face value, but she probably had a lot of pain she had to deal with.

Understanding this was important to making allies.

Or manipulating enemies.

That was the north star of the Republic’s General Intelligence Agency.

Empathy was useful: but only insofar as it could be used and never a drop more.

“What does my ethnicity matter though?”

“I just wanted you to see that my mental faculties are in order.” Marina said.

“Ah, yeah, it looks like you’re okay. The doctor told me to test everyone who wakes up.”

“Did she tell you to give them any drugs if they’re groggy?”

“Oh, yep, I’ve got a stimulant–”

“Administer it anyway. I can use all the help I can get staying awake.”

“Uhh.” Van Der Smidse blinked at her. “I mean– I guess I will.”

She went to the table she had been spinning near, withdrew a punch injector and returned.

“This goes into–”

Marina practically snatched it out of her hand and punched it into her arm.

Nonchalantly she discarded the case.

“Uh, wow!” Van Der Smidse put her hands behind her head. “Are all GIA this prompt?”

“We’re in a critical situation. It’s all of you who are acting too lax. I take it we escaped?” Marina said.

“From the Iron Lady? Yes, that was a few days ago. All thanks to our pilots.”

“Good. Then I need to speak with your Captain. I want to know what the plan is now.”

Van Der Smidse sighed. “The plan is you need to slow down and wait for the doctor to clear you.”

Marina abruptly stood up out of bed. She still had all her clothes on, and her bodysuit.

Good — nobody had touched her. Or at least, she felt confident not thinking about it.

She started to walk away and practically dared Van Der Smidse to stop her.

That girl never did, however. She shouted after her a bit, but then stayed behind sighing.

Marina had to keep moving. Her past was trying to catch up. She couldn’t just stay still.

It was not only a critical situation for the ship, but for herself too.

That dream shook her a bit.

But she had to be done mourning the past. What mattered now was getting Elena through this.

Norn Tauscherer and Leda Lettiere, were far, far away, as far out of reach as Schwerin Island.

If she ever saw any of them again, it would only be in death.


Lately the Brigand’s laboratory and its adjoining hall were blessed with the sound of a beautiful voice, humming, and sometimes singing, no discernible lyrics or songs, just little notes strung innocently together with great sweetness. In the storm of activity and the danger of the outside world, it was a touch of humanity that reminded those around of what they stood to lose if they faltered.

That voice belonged to Chief Specialist Karuniya Maharapratham.

She didn’t really know any songs by heart, and she wasn’t good with lyrics, but she had been told she had a cute singing voice, so sometimes her lips released vaguely musical noises while she was working. In the laboratory, the day to day work lately had involved the algae and fungus gardens, and it was repetitive. So Karuniya sang while she began to prepare and move along batches of mushrooms.

Union mushrooms began their lives as preserved cultures in vials which could be taken aboard ships in large containers. All agrisphere mushroom cultivars had been chosen specifically for their fecundity, and each of these vials by itself could grow enough fruiting bodies to cover large sections of the garden wall. Karuniya had a climate-controlled chest which stored the vials, and that chest, properly cared for, represented enough food to give everyone on the ship at least a meal a day for eight months in the direst circumstances. And in certain circumstances she could renew the mushrooms a bit too, or even introduce cultivars from stations or from cave systems if they went near the continent.

After retrieving a vial, Karuniya seeded the mushrooms in a nutrient-rich substrate made of a cardboard-like recycled vegetable matter that was enriched with phosphate fertilizer mined near the lower continent wall in Lyser and Solstice. These media were kept in an atmospherically regulated unit. When she seeded one medium, she took the previous medium from the enclosure. Once there were signs of initial growth, the fertile medium was added to the garden wall on the side of the laboratory. From there, the fungi would spread across the environment of the wall. One box could grow a lot of food.

Then she set to work on the algae.

This was much less work because the algae wall was a fully enclosed aquaponic device. There were less blocks of glorified cardboard to shuffle around. Karuniya had the algae starters in vials too, but she rarely needed to start algae because algae were constantly growing in the tank and if she didn’t liquidate the whole thing she could get more out of it. Instead what she needed to pay attention to was canisters of nutrients and the atmosphere regulator. All in all, the algae wall could provide a vitamin rich accompaniment to one meal a day for even longer than the mushroom wall.

Though, in such a situation, misery would set in long before starvation did.

Still, Karuniya felt happy with the fact that she was helping sustain life.

There were also some frozen cultivars in the cargo; and of course, canned and freeze dried mushrooms and other foods ready to heat and eat for the kitchen. But having some kind of fresh food was good for morale, so Karuniya, since the beginning of the trip, had decided to make tending the gardens a priority. This was more important work for the mission than ocean salinity reviews or writing histories of biomass concentrations. Karuniya had a lot of respect for the basic gardening work.

After all, was it not the work of humans now to be responsible for life, after all the death they had caused? That was a key part of the philosophy of her work in oceanography. Aer had essentially been destroyed. If aliens from outer space looked at the planet she imagined they would see an inhospitable rock, its atmosphere steeped in runaway agarthic reactions, devoid of any life.

To survive now, the planet needed stewardship. It could not fix itself.

Aer was a garden, it was artificial, it was tended to. Much of its biomass was unnatural in origin now. Or at least, whether or not Leviathans were natural, they wouldn’t exist without human tampering and agarthicite. If humans could tamper with the world to such a disastrous point, should they not run with it and design more of the world such that life could be sustained indefinitely?

In the same way that Karuniya grew garden walls to feed the ship–

Maybe someday, the people of Aer could come together and grow themselves a better world; clean the waters, create communities sustainable not just for humans and not just for the next few hundred years, but that promoted the growth of helpful species, that rebuilt the natural life cycles of the world from the tormented half-alive state in which they were. Understand the place of Leviathans instead of destroying them as threats or hiding from them indefinitely. Cease to waste resources in endless wars and instead share everything humans had left in communities of mutual benefit.

A bitter laugh escaped from those lips which had been singing.

“What a stupid thing for a soldier who married a soldier to be thinking about.”

When the thought of Murati entered her mind again, she almost wanted to cry.

In fact, it was not simply that gardening was good and necessary work.

It was strenuous and time consuming and kept her mind off her fiancé in the medbay.

“This is how it’s going to be, huh? For God knows how long? If we even survive?”

Maybe she should have persuaded Murati not to follow her ambitions.

“No, hell no. Don’t lose sight of what you love about her.”

Those weren’t just ambitions. Murati could have never been an artist or a teacher.

Murati’s justice would have always led her to soldiery. Her character was defined by it.

Because Murati believed strongly that social problems could perish as if by military force.

As strongly as Karuniya believed that social solutions could be grown like algae in a tank.

And yet, that was what attracted her to Murati in the first place. That strong sense of justice.

Those strong shoulders too–

That time before they started dating that she saw Murati fucking her roommate so hard–

“Ah man, I don’t want to think about weird shit like that! What the fuck am I doing?”

Karuniya clapped her hands against her head.

“Excuse me.”

A voice from behind startled her so badly she nearly jumped at the algae tank.

Karuniya suddenly turned around as if nothing had happened, and nothing had been said.

“Y-Yes?”

Behind her, Braya Zachikova tilted her head in confusion, staring at her with an utterly expressionless face. Zachikova’s large grey antennae had their LEDs blinking profusely, but no bit of her from that tawny spiraling ponytail to those mechanical eyes of hers nor any part of that slender frame, showed much discernible consternation. Karuniya surmised that Braya had not heard her thinking out loud and so she tried not to be embarrassed about her sudden appearance.

“What do you need Ensign?” Karuniya said. “Are you going to play with the Super again?”

That was Karuniya’s shorthand for the supercomputer box at the far end of the lab.

“I don’t play with it. Anyway, that’s not what I am doing. I have a request.”

Zachikova did not usually request anything. She was a bridge officer and had been broadly authorized to perform any kind of computer related work with the least red tape possible. So she did not need to make requests of Karuniya and she usually did not. She would come and go and do what she needed as she pleased. Karuniya basically served at her pleasure on such matters.

“Sure, I mean, I dunno how much help I could be.” Karuniya said.

“You like Leviathans, don’t you?” Zachikova said.

“Huh?” Karuniya made a face at her. “Who the heck would like those ugly things?”

She did like them– but that would have been a weird thing to admit to.

Zachikova was unfazed by the response.

“I’m not talking like they’re cute or cuddly, I mean they fascinate you, right?” She pressed.

“They’re one of my fields of study.” Karuniya said. What the hell was this conversation?

“You wouldn’t want us to unnecessarily waste resources hunting a Leviathan, correct?”

“Um, well, I mean, if it’s not threatening us, I guess. What is your point, Zachikova?”

Zachikova’s ears seemed to adjust their angle very slightly on her head.

As if beckoned by an invisible hand, the wall-mounted monitor near the garden beds began to display a video feed. It looked like it was taken by cameras on one of the Brigand’s spy drones. Internal and external camera footage was retained for 96 hours and was briefly reviewed by Karuniya, Zachikova, a security team member, and the Captain or Commissar. Anything important was backed up to tape and the rest was deleted. They had a ton of storage on the ship. Civilians were still dealing in sub gigabyte files, but the Brigand housed several petabytes of storage for high quality predictive imagery, algorithmic real-time video editing, and a ton of other fancy stuff. That being said, it would be reckless not to have storage management processes, so they held those meetings.

Knowing all of this, Karuniya realized immediately what Zachikova was asking.

There was a creature in all of the videos. Beautiful, certainly. Docile, perhaps.

Judging by the contrails of its exhaust — hell, by the very presence of an exhaust–

This was recent footage about a Leviathan coming very close to the Brigand.

“You want me to declare it a subject of study. So we won’t cull it.” She said.

Zachikova nodded. She spoke with a dispassionate tone, but–

“Out at sea, the ship science officer is an authority on matters regarding Leviathans. You can declare Leviathan alerts, issue a request for culling; ultimately, if I’m deemed negligent for not reporting the footage, you’ll be the key witness in that process. I want you to scrub this footage, make a request for study with the drone, and I’ll operate the drone and we can come into contact with the Leviathan again. Then you can name it, categorize it and declare it a subject of study.”

–Karuniya could tell that she really did care about not hurting this animal.

There was something almost touching about that.

She had always thought of Zachikova as a standoffish girl who only cared about her work.

All of these other soldiers would have shot down a Leviathan without hesitation.

“Well, if the Leviathan was out there now, wouldn’t Fatima pick it up?” Karuniya said.

“She’s not out there now.” Zachikova said. She said this with a strange note of confidence, as if she could actually tell something this uncertain. “Fatima would ignore biologic noise at this point. I think we’re all too nervous about being attacked by a ship again to really care too much.”

Wait a minute– “Did you mean to say ‘she’ to refer to the Leviathan?”

Zachikova briefly averted her gaze. “Yes. I believe it is a young female.”

That was such a weird thing to say. But Karuniya would not tease her for it any further.

“It does look really interesting. I will file a request for study right now. So sit tight. We’ll go look for her. It’s not like I have anything better to do. I welcome being able to do my real job.”

Karuniya gave her a mischievous smile and made a little peace sign to lighten the mood.

While she was playing it cool, she really appreciated having a project in that moment.

Zachikova bowed her head a little. “T-t-thanks.” For the first time– a bit of emotion.

“You can be really cute when you want to, you know?” Karuniya winked.

She turned and walked to her work terminal to begin the project in earnest.

Zachikova followed behind with an almost pitiable expression, like a lost puppy.

Karuniya thought then: even the most hardcore soldier types could be wonderful people.


Rousing gently from sleep, Elena, for a brief moment, saw the familiar four walls of her room at Vogelheim, sunlight peering through her window, the chirping of birds and the feeling of warm air. She was afraid to shut her eyes, to the point of tears, but inevitably, she did. In a blink, the familiar scene dispersed like color peeling off the walls, like a painting burning in her face.

Elena was on the UNX-001 Brigand.

For a brief moment she recalled where she had been last.

Looming tyrannical over Marina’s mind with the strange power Victoria had admitted she had.

She had wanted to hurt Marina, to force her submission, to destroy her soul.

And the thought of it scared and disgusted her now.

What had come over her?

“Feeling better? How many fingers am I holding up?”

A voice shook her out of her contemplation.

Seated on a chair near her bed was a young woman in a thick black bodysuit, interlocking plates of bulletproof armor covering her slender chest and limbs. She had a baton and a stun gun clipped to a utility belt, and there was a first aid kit spread open on an adjacent chair. Elena focused on the fingers, two slender, black gloved digits making a peace sign. Elena let out a tired sight.

“Two fingers. I’m alright. You don’t have to worry.” Elena said.

“You’ve been out for days, but you at least you were stable enough to stay in your room.”

Though Elena felt a bit self-conscious to think of it, the girl across from her–

She was– exotic?

Her long, silky black hair framed her face with perfectly blunt bangs, and the rest gathered in a handsome ponytail. Her facial features were a little different than Elena was used to. Her eyes had a slight fold, and the tone of her skin was fair but with what felt like a golden sheen. Elena did not know what race or ethnicity she belonged to. She knew the Union had a lot of peoples who were once minority populations in the Empire, like North Bosporans and Shimii. But she could not at all place the woman in front of her. And something about that made her hate herself a little, made her feel inadequate.

Luxembourg School For Girls had been Elena’s taste of a “cosmopolitan” world and even in a place seen as a liberal haven, she had one Shimii friend and nothing but Imbrian companions otherwise. She hardly saw even the “fair-skinned blonde” foreigners of the Empire like Volgians and Gallics. She was sheltered; and this ship of communists seemed to keep reminding her of sheltered-ness.

“Your name is Elen, right? I’m with security. My name is Zhu Lian. Zhu is my surname.”

“Nice to meet you. I am– I’m Elen, yeah. I’m an analyst.”

Despite Marina’s paranoia, Elena was well aware of her script and character.

Zhu Lian smiled at her and seemed to have no suspicion or malice toward her.

“Can you stand up? We had you on an IV for a bit, but you must be feeling pretty weak.”

“I think I can stand, thank you.”

Elena shifted her legs off the bed and lifted herself up to a stand. It was not difficult.

She noticed immediately that she was wearing nothing but her bodysuit.

“Could I get a moment to change?” Elena asked.

“Of course. I’ll step out. Before that, though: I’m joining my companion Klara Van Der Smidse to eat soon. Why don’t you come with us to the canteen? That way we can make sure you’re ok.”

Elena hesitated at first, unable to get a firm grasp on her own feelings. She realized that she couldn’t keep avoiding the communists and hiding in her room. This was a good step forward. These girls were security officers for the communists but they might not be enemies. They might just be two girls.

“I could really use a good meal. Thanks for the offer, Miss Zhu.”

For a moment before she left, the security officer looked mildly taken aback. “Miss Zhu?”

Once Zhu Lian was out of the room, Elena found her suit had been laundered for her, so she switched to a fresh bodysuit and donned the button-down, pants and jacket. She checked to make sure she still looked inconspicuous. The dye job on her hair was still solid, and in a ship full of young, physically active and attractive people she probably did not look like a remarkable beauty.

Outside, Elena found alongside Zhu Lian a familiar blond girl with a flighty demeanor and a matching suit of armor. Klara Van Der Smidse waved vigorously at Elena before turning to Zhu.

“Oh Lian! Are you finally sick of me? Dumping me for a nerdy girl?” She wailed.

“Hey, don’t be rude to her. You don’t know if she’s nerdy.” Lian replied coolly.

“She’s a stark contrast to my vibrant physicality. You’re really trading down!”

Lian laughed. “Don’t worry, you’re my obligation for good. If I ever let you go, someone else would have to bear your evil little head. I couldn’t live with myself unleashing that on society.”

“How mean! If you’re going to play along, don’t put me down so strongly!”

Klara puffed up her cheeks in childish anger, while Lian gave her a smug look.

Elena was reminded of the banter between Victoria and Sawyer.

Sawyer would always shout and start some kind of argument.

Victoria would coolly and dispassionately dress her down.

Gertrude would intervene if Sawyer looked like she was going to hit Victoria.

And Elena watched quietly from the sidelines, just as she watched Klara and Lian now.

Somehow they continued to hang out, the four girls always together despite this chaos.

Seeing the security officers rile each other up gave her bittersweet memories.

“Lian, can’t you see she’s not feeling the vibe? You shouldn’t keep dragging things on.”

Klara pointed at Elena with a snickering grin on her face.

“It’s your fault that nobody on Aer can stand your vibe. C’mon, let’s go eat.”

Lian started walking without waiting on Klara or anyone’s response.

So Elena followed after, trying to match her stride, quick and elegant, almost gliding.

She had such a confident posture and step– Klara did too, Elena noticed it when she looked.

They must have been well-trained. Was everyone on the Brigand some kind of Union elite?

Or maybe Elena was just too stupid to tell if they were really professional or not.

In sharp contrast to the escalated level of activity in the halls and adjoining areas, there was nobody sitting down to eat at the canteen. Long row tables full of lines of empty chairs. People mainly seemed to rush to the canteen, fill a thermos with soup from the dispensers on the wall, grab some crackery-looking bread from containers near the soup dispensers, and then rush back out.

Elena supposed those were workers with something important to do. They were dressed in jumpsuits like the repairmen at Vogelheim sometimes did. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse led Elena to the back of the canteen, where there was a kitchen counter with hot food trays encircling the cooks.

The main cook was a dark-haired lady in the middle of chopping mushrooms. She reminded Elena of Bethany Skoll, her head maid back at Vogelheim. The focus and precision with which she worked on the food, like she was in her own world from which she could not be moved until her task was done. That same level of intensity surrounded Bethany in everything she did for Elena. She felt a little melancholy; the cook and Bethany even looked a bit like they were the same age, they had a motherly aesthetic.

While the cook was engaged in her work, an unfriendly looking blond served their food.

“No substitutions shall be abided, you knaves. Secure thy blessings and be grateful.”

“We know, we know.” Klara said.

She filled plastic trays with a scoop of white rice, a large spoonful of wilted greens in a runny brown sauce, one slice of a strange cutlet that looked like no discernible cut of meat to Elena’s eyes, and a baked brown pie that seemed like the only edible thing in Elena’s plate. While Klara and Lian took their plates quickly, Elena hung back and waved for the blond serving girl.

“Excuse me.” She asked, as politely as she could.

“Hmm? Yes, yes, you desire to savage additional portions, do you not?”

“Um.” Elena’s hands trembled slightly, holding her tray. “Can I have a bit of olive oil?”

Across the counter the blond serving girl’s eyes narrowed at her. Then she laughed.

“I’ve beauty akin to royalty, so I understand your confusion, but I’ve not a royal’s ransom to my name that I could give you olive oil. You’re the Republican, are you not? Mayhaps you can vote yourself some olive oil, for you will find none here. Now scram before I become enraged.”

Elena stood speechless as the blond tossed her hair with agitation and went about her way.

Completely ignoring what Elena thought was a simple, easy request for a bit of olive oil.

Back home she always had fresh baked meat pies with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Did the communists not have olive oil? They had oil for cooking, didn’t they?

“Elen! Stop bothering Fernanda and join us already!” cried Klara, from a row seat nearby.

Still dumbfounded, Elena took her tray over to the security girls and sat down with them.

She looked down with a wan expression at her food, while Lian and Klara dug in.

“Excuse me.” Elena said. “Do you not have olive oil available as a condiment?”

“As a condiment? That’s pretty wild.” Klara asked.

“It is? I always had it back home.” Elena felt suddenly ashamed.

“You Republicans sure are care-free huh?” Lian said, sighing. “Elen, we absolutely don’t have olive oil for you to just dunk your food in. Union oil is mainly corn oil or soybean oil and its just used for cooking in. It’s pretty flavorless on its own. The margarine or shortening is a little bit better because it has extra salt and flavorings added in, but still, you weren’t going to get any.”

“In the Union it’s pretty rude to ask for more stuff on your meals.” Klara clarified. “If you need a special diet you go on a special meal plan, but the cooks work their butts off to make food for like hundreds or even thousands of people who register at their canteen, not to mention walk-ins too. They can’t do that if everyone asks for extra oil all the time, does that make sense?”

“I see. I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was like that.” Elena said, staring down at her plate.

“I’m sure nobody would hold the culture shock against you. Union life is a little bit strict.”

“Well, you know, at least the food is free.” Klara said. “Lian and I walked around a bit in Serrano city, and it was crazy how such a big place that was crammed full of people also just had guys out on the street starving to death and begging for scraps. You don’t see that in the Union.”

“It was pretty disturbing. I’m hoping the entire Empire isn’t like that.” Lian said.

Elena didn’t have the heart to speak up about that.

She knew that the Empire — her Empire — was a difficult and violent place to live.

Though perhaps often naïve she wasn’t completely ignorant to the Empire’s history.

While she was sheltered in Vogelheim she read books and sought out information on the network and tried to learn the things they just would not teach her in Luxembourg, or that she would never get to personally see. She knew that housing cost money and certain people couldn’t pay. She knew that food prices went up and down with supply, demand, price controls or subsidies, tampering by bad market actors — and in turn she knew, at times, people couldn’t afford food, and it led to riots or even wars. And she knew that the Empire persecuted and ejected people for their ethnicity, and that this led to them losing housing, food and even their lives. Elena was sheltered, not stupid.

However, there was a gap in her knowledge about what anyone could do about it.

The Empire felt like a force of nature.

A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.

When her father took power from the Nocht dynasty, he had declared a grand project known as the “Fueller Reformation” that was supposed to end the unrest, the ethnic cleansing, the instabilities in food and housing, corruption among the nobles– a grand and sweeping rejuvenation of the Empire. Clearly, however, he must have failed. Had the Fueller Reformation truly succeeded the Empire would not be split into warring sides. Vogelheim would not have been destroyed.

Bethany would not have had to die, and Elena could have had olive oil on her pies still.

But those were things that could not concern Elen. Elen had an entire other life.

So in front of Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse, Elen began to eat her food.

Despite the lackluster appearance, the flavors of the food were acceptable.

Everything was well seasoned. There was plenty of unctuous mouthfeel and umami flavor.

Nothing could beat the feasts Bethany made with the highest quality ingredients.

But Elena could understand that the Union had acceptable substitutes for such things.

Perhaps the life of the communists was not so bleak and joyless as she thought.

“I have a question. Maybe it’s a stupid one.” Elena said.

“Those are my favorite kind of question!” Klara said. “Throw it out there, Elen!”

Elena gathered her breath, laying her spork down on the pool of sauce left in her plate.

“Do you all really believe in the communist government?” Elena said.

Lian and Klara turned to face each other and turned back to Elena with puzzled expressions.

“Uhhh; are you lookin’ to start a fight, Republican?” Klara said, cocking an eyebrow.

It sounded like she was teasing her– at least Elena certainly hoped it was just teasing.

“Klara don’t scare her. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t really care about what the government calls itself or how they justify it when they do things.” Lian said. “What I care about is that the government does good things for us. And in the Union, the way we organize things has been good for us. Everyone gets a little slice of something. Enough of a life to be pretty happy.”

“I was a little kid when my family was deported to the Union.” Klara said. “I was like two or three years old so I can’t remember the Empire exactly or what happened to us. As a little kid we had some rough times when the Union was formed, but every time there was a shortage, the government was completely up front about it. They told us in school, you know? So I couldn’t blame them when that stuff happened. It felt like it was everyone’s shared problem, or something.”

“My family has a crazy history.” Lian said. “We were from this station in the Cogitum Ocean, like, far, far east, called Zhongshan, and our country had an enemy, Hanwa, who captured us and pressed us into service aboard their ships. Those ships went to war against the Empire and were defeated by the Vekans. The Vekans then deported us to the colonies as POWs. When the Union was formed, it didn’t matter that we were foreigners who had been shuffled around so many countries. We became people of the Union. We all had the same lot, and we shared the same space and resources. That’s always what I’ve called communism, even if I don’t know all the theory.”

Elena listened intently to their stories. Communism had always been the evil ideology of the Empire’s enemies. Communism tricked people into suffering and famine, killed billions, turned neighbor on neighbor, faithful servant against generous master. It was a tempting succubus that threatened to drain the soul of a nation. When Marina told her they would be fleeing to the Union, it felt like she was making a deal with the devil. This was all quite unlike what she had been taught.

In the Empire, communism was taught like it was a force of nature.

A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.

The Union had rebelled against the Empire, but Elena knew how rotten the Empire was.

Could she blame them? Did she need to fear them like Marina said?

While the communists did not hide the fact that they faced difficulties and hardships in their nation, they did not speak as if they were subjects of a dictatorship who had everything stolen from them and were brainwashed into believing and participating in an evil plot. Everyone on the Brigand were just people. They were soldiers, but– also just people who just had lives and homes.

Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse– in the Empire, would they be hated? Persecuted?

And so, then, was it the Union that was truly just? Was the Union the truly virtuous state?

“I’m sorry for the heavy question. Things are different in the– in the Republic, is all.”

Elena deflected from this subject. She had quite enough on her mind already.

Without having to ponder the weighty questions of national politics.

“You two seem really close.” Elena said. “How did you meet?”

She put on a bubbly smile in the hopes they would play along with the lighter topic.

Thankfully Klara seemed to require little input to get going and ran with it immediately.

“Hah! Lian and I go way back. We used to be rivals in the infantry!”

Klara shot a little look at Lian, who returned it with equal intensity– and fondness.

“Back in camp, whenever I did 100 pushups, this dork would go and do 101.” Lian said.

“And when I set fast times in the obstacle course, you would go and top them!” Klara said.

“Yeah but I wasn’t loud about it like you. You’d go around bragging, it was obnoxious.”

“Of course! What’s the point in beating you at everything and keeping quiet about it?”

Lian looked at Elena, pointing a thumb at Klara. “I hated this bitch for the longest time.”

“I wanted to fucking kill her.” Klara said casually, gently shoving Lian in the shoulder.

“Um.” Elena started to go pale. Had she set them off in an even worse way?

Both were still smiling though. And they each threw an arm over each other’s shoulder.

“One time though, we ended up paired up in a mock battle!” Lian said excitedly.

“We smoked everyone. It was crazy how tuned up our frequencies were!” Klara added.

“After that, we ended up in the showers.” Lian said. She gave Klara a mischievous look.

Klara laughed it off, cheeks red, winking. “Couldn’t keep my eyes off her ever since.”

“Or your hands.” Lian said. The two of them rubbed their heads together affectionately.            

Were people in the Union always so openly romantic? Elena felt herself shrink a little, feeling awkward around the two of them, but at the very least, they had gotten away from politics. There was another little bittersweet memory here. Elena was reminded of her childhood crushes, Gertrude and Sawyer. Of her friend Victoria who perhaps also loved her, too. Of the fighting and frolicking of their youth.

All of those people felt so far away. Perhaps she would only ever see them again in death.


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