Moments after Murati alerted the Brigand to the status of the Diver team, the connection from her to the drone went dark without warning. Semyonova handed control back to Geninov in a mild panic, who attempted to troubleshoot the connection from their end. It became clear very quickly that Murati herself was having trouble with her equipment, and her stilted cadence when they could get hold of her seemed to support that theory.
Captain Korabiskaya ran her hands down her face with frustration.
“We have got to work on more reliable communication! This shouldn’t be happening.”
“In hindsight, we should have deployed a drone with them from the beginning.” Aaliyah said. “But it seems like Murati’s machine has taken a beating, and that’s not something we could account for no matter how much we prepared. Take it from someone whose job it is to give you a hard time: you’ve done all you could.”
“Is that your job? I guess that’s how you view ‘supporting’ me.”
Ulyana allowed herself a small smile, once again grateful for the stoic Shimii at her side.
However, the situation was still fairly grim.
With only one remaining bomb, they had no margin of error for victory.
Turning around at this point was an option, but not one that was part of the plan.
“Aaliyah, do you think we could commit to a ship battle at this point? I’m uncertain.”
Her Commissar shook her head. “In the current situation we’re accepting that the enemy won’t shoot at us too seriously. If we press our advantage, in such a visible way as turning around and shooting them with our ship’s guns, we’ll alter the situation to the point it might tempt them to reconsider shooting us in desperation.”
Ulyana sank back in her chair wearily. “It would be a real all-or-nothing play on our part.”
Aaliyah joined her, reclining in her own chair. “We can’t even guarantee we’d sink them.”
“You’re right, but it’s frustrating! If this is how we’re going to be fighting from now on, I need a better way to communicate with the Divers moment to moment than this.” Ulyana said.
Command and control between ships was a largely solved problem. While the equipment could be rough and there were factors that could cause interference, it was quite possible to keep in constant contact with ships in a tenable fighting position. Ships had powerful laser transmitters and fast and reliable acoustic messaging, handled by full-size computers and large crews. Fleets could span several kilometers and still communicate with each other by bouncing signals through each other’s networks as long as every ship had a friendly ship within data range.
However, Divers were much smaller and unable to support full-power electronics.
And thanks to Murati’s tactics, they were expected to fight outside their ship’s laser range too, and since they were far more active combatants with less surface area for equipment than a ship, they could not be rigged up with powerful lasers to accept and bounce stable connections the way any ship could have.
They would have to find a solution for this! It was not acceptable!
Ulyana could not bear being responsible for people she had no means to talk to!
For all that they could do to affect this battlefield, they were essentially mute and blind.
How could she counsel and lead her frontline troops in this situation?
“Fatima, can you get a sense of what’s happening out there?” She asked.
At the sonar station, the dark-haired Shimii turned around to shake her head at the Captain.
“I’m sorry Captain, but we are not able to see it granularly. I really wish there were more that I could do– we can predict and image their positions and movements, and to some degree, the amount of gunfire around them and where the explosions are happening. But if a Diver just got cut down by a sword, we can’t tell. If it’s been shot, we can’t tell the degree of damage. And with so much happening, the prediction accuracy is not too great right now.”
Fatima’s ears drooped. She looked like she wanted to blurt out another apology.
But her voice was clearly starting to strain after everything that had happened.
“Thank you. You’ve been amazing Fatima. Return to your tasks.”
In any other situation, that sensitive Shimii would have said “I’m sorry,” again.
Her energy was spent. They were all spent in their own ways.
You could learn everything there was about war in theory, or even simulations.
No one could prepare you to be ripped out of your bed and forced into battle.
No one could ask you to fight with complete stoicism when you were really in danger.
Whatever happened, Ulyana felt proud that they were still holding together.
Then a deadpan voice sounded from the Electronic Warfare station.
“Ma’am, we’ve hit a snag.”
Ulyana’s heart jumped. Not more bad news! “Explain and hope nothing interrupts you.”
Zachikova turned her chair fully around.
There was something strained about the look in her eyes. Though lifelike, they were still mechanical, and one could not imagine that red veins would creep to show her tiredness. But her expression still managed to convey how tired she was. She had been working on software to support the additional hydrojets on the Brigand’s aft.
“I’ve created a rudimentary application that reopens the routing valves to the secondary thrusters and routes power to the motors for that turbine network. I’ve been coordinating with Kamarik to run tests to make sure we can route power to the motors without anything breaking. Unfortunately, we’ve found a problem I did not foresee.”
Kamarik raised his hand and spoke up then.
“Captain, whenever we activate those jets, our girl gets some real bad cramps. She can process that much water, but we start to see more vibration in the valves and turbines of the intake system. Since there’s no additional intakes, it just draws more water through the existing ones faster than normal to keep up. Stresses out the whole system.”
There was no good way to take that news.
Ulyana took it by bending forward and running her fingers through her blond hair, undoing the tidy ponytail she had made it up into, and staring at the ground for several seconds. When she sat back up, she tossed her hair and took in a breath. Her face was sweaty, her skin was clammy, her eyes were strained. She struggled to look angry or annoyed rather than desperate or hopeless. Anger could at least be motivating for others to see.
“Messiah defend; is the end of our tunnel always an incoming train? Keep working on it.”
“Ma’am, we can keep working on it, but the physical facts won’t change.” Kamarik said.
“Keep working on it! Stress test, run simulations, give me the cost-benefit! Push the limits! How much can the intakes withstand? Can we run those boosters for a minute? An hour? If we need to have the sailors get in pressure suits and make repairs, we can do that once we’ve escaped!” Ulyana said firmly, raising her voice to Kamarik.
Rather than sounding drained, Kamarik seemed a little more energized again.
Zachikova too; maybe it was the adrenaline of being yelled at.
Something like that would not last for long, and Ulyana did not particularly enjoy it.
Aaliyah nodded her head to her, as if acknowledging silently that she understood.
“Can we connect to anyone else?” Ulyana said. “Where is the drone, Geninov?”
At the torpedo station the resident gamer’s face sank.
“I’ve been poking connections all this time, but I’m like a hundred meters away from anyone, okay! I gotta keep this unarmored little shit out of visual flak range! There’s not much I can do.” Geninov replied.
“Then charge! Full ahead! Hurl it right into the flagship if you have to!” Ulyana replied.
“God damn it! If you say so! Don’t blame me–”
Fatima shouted at the top of her lungs, an instant before the drone camera saw the blast.
Everyone’s heads snapped briefly toward her before turning to the screen.
A bright flash and an enormous vapor bubble blooming off of the Irmingard’s side.
Water displaced by the enormous shockwave sent the lightweight drone tumbling back.
“What’s the enemy’s status?” Ulyana called out.
“Struck on the port sidepod!” Fatima called back. “It’s listing! I think it’s listing!”
On the main screen the prediction lagged. When the picture updated, that behemoth of a flagship looked doughy, misshapen. Smaller objects had entirely disappeared. Then the flagship tipped on its side. Everyone watched speechlessly for a moment as if expecting the prediction to roll back, to be a mistake.
After moments of tumbling aimlessly in the water, Geninov finally wrestled the drone back toward the flagship. The shockwaves had died down, and the vapor bubble had disappeared. On the camera they could see the shadow of that ship turning on its side, disgorging metal from its stricken flank. It was falling farther and farther behind the Brigand, clearly unable to accelerate, and soon disappeared almost entirely from the cameras.
That muted pause in the Bridge suddenly became an explosion of celebrations.
Geninov lifted her arms off the drone controls and threw them around a surprised Fernanda.
Kamarik put his head down against his station and consoled his best dame with a smile.
Semyonova grabbed hold of the exhausted Fatima’s hands and jumped up down.
Ulyana and Aaliyah sank against each other in their chairs.
“Can we get some focus here.” Zachikova grumbled. “Look!”
She pointed her hand in the direction of the main screen.
On the drone camera, they briefly saw a group of objects moving toward the Brigand.
They were recognizable as Streloks in varying stages of disrepair.
Ulyana bolted up to her feet. She counted six! Every machine, at least, had come back!
One was being carried aloft, however. They might need emergency aid.
“Slow down to collect the Divers! That flagship isn’t going anywhere for a while.” Ulyana said. “Send Syracuse and Kappel to the hangar with stretchers in case anybody needs help. Have sailors in pressure suits with jet anchors ready in case we need to pull machines up! Get the senior mechanics and workgroup managers to schedule repairs! And be proud of yourselves, my precious crew! We weathered the storm; we sank an Irmingard-class!”
Buoyed by their moment of triumph, the crew gave one last great effort.
Fatima set her earpods back into her ear fluff and continued monitoring the sonar.
Semyonova broadcast the situation across the ship, contacting everyone who was needed.
Kamarik altered the ship’s thrust and kept it steady.
Geninov nearly collapsed over Fernanda, who patted her back with an awkward expression.
Aaliyah crossed her arms and heaved a little sigh of relief, her ears wiggling contentedly.
Ulyana wanted nothing more than to tear up. With joy, with passion, with fear, with stress.
However, she was the confident Captain Korabiskaya whom everyone had to rely on.
There would be many more opportunities to cry in the battles that were to come.
She reserved those tears as best she could. Crying in the first bout of the war wouldn’t do.
When Semyonova’s beautiful round face appeared in the hangar, and the news was given to the sailors who had been preparing for every possible eventuality, Chief Mechanic Lebedova let everyone have a few minutes of being rowdy to celebrate. There was a lot of stomping, a lot of noise, a lot of banter that echoed through those metal halls as the relieved sailors let out all their manic energy. But the sailors themselves cut short their own merriment. When they heard their Divers were returning, they seamlessly returned to their work immediately.
Like everyone in the crew, they treasured the pilots who had truly won them this victory.
So there was a nervous flurry of activity in the hangar as they accepted the returning heroes.
First came the Cossack and Strelkannon, able to rise out of the deployment chutes on their own power. The Cossack was visibly banged up, with some hull and leg damage, while the Strelkannon had been riddled with bullets on its extremities but was only superficially damaged. When the two of them rose to the hangar floor, they were ordered to stop, and were moved by machine to their gantries. Moving out of water could exacerbate damage to the limbs and thrusters. They were firmly affixed to their gantries, and work began on them almost immediately.
Next came Khadija’s Strelok. While fully out of ammunition, it had received little damage.
Finally, Lebedova and Shalikova’s Streloks helped a group of six sailors to pull the Cheka into a deployment chute and up into the hangar. It had lost power and was not going to rise without help. The sailors went out in pressurized, powered suits each about ¼ the size of a full Diver. These suits allowed them to move outside the ship to carry out repairs. Repairs which would soon be needed, as the Brigand itself had taken serious damage.
Recovering the Cheka was a fairly safe opportunity for the sailors to practice in their suits.
Everyone was astonished when they brought the Cheka up out of the water.
Some of the exposed power cells began smoking immediately upon being taken out of the water and had to be put out first with fire extinguishers and then with freezing agents. There was extensive shoulder damage to the point one of the arms hung by the thread of a pull-rod. Several impacts from debris had dented the armor on the hull and legs, and smashed part of the head. Dozens of pitted armor wounds. It would need extensive repair.
More importantly, a group of engineers, including Gunther Cohen, gathered to break open the cockpit and try to free Murati Nakara from inside it. Due to the need for the cockpit to retain atmosphere in the event of an emergency at all costs, opening the cockpit on auxiliary power without the pilot’s help was not a feature that received much consideration. So some damage to the hatch seams would have to be inflicted in order to separate them. While they worked on the Cheka, Shalikova and Lebedova were recovered, both with limited damage.
Having been recovered first, the Cossack and Strelkannon opened soonest.
Smiling pleasantly, Sameera climbed out of her suit and stepped down to the hangar floor.
Moving quickly and with purpose, Dominika left hers and traversed the hangar toward her.
Sameera seemed to realize what was coming and for a brief instant looked nervous.
Then, with a mighty sound, Dominika slapped Sameera across the face.
“You selfish idiot! You could’ve been killed! Never play the hero in front of me again!”
Her eyes were red as if she had been crying. Sameera rubbed her cheek, smiling vacantly.
“You’re right. I treated you all wrong, miss. It is a gentleman’s duty to apologize–”
Her words started to slur, and Dominika was puzzled by the response.
Sameera’s eyes were quite red themselves, but for an entirely different reason.
From the corner of one bright eye fell a droplet of blood. A tiny string of red dribbled down her nose and over her lip soon after. Her bushy, club-like tail dipped, and her ears folded slightly. Sameera started to wobble on her feet, and all the while retaining her gallant smile, she collapsed suddenly into Dominika’s arms. Surprised and horrified, Dominika almost fell with her, but managed to keep hold of the sick woman and take her into her arms on the floor.
Dominika slowly realized it wasn’t a joke or a weird form of flirting.
“Medic! Oh my god! She needs a medic!”
She shouted at the top of her lungs and the crowd dispersed with horror in their eyes.
From behind the sailors, the blue-haired doctor Kappel emerged with none of her usual cheerfulness. She was accompanied by a woman in the grey coat of the security troops, brown-haired and with orange-brown skin, the medic “Syrah” or Syracuse. The brown and yellow fins coming out from under her shoulder-length hair bristled gently as she set Sameera down while Kappel prepared the stretcher. Gently, Syracuse set Sameera on it and lifted her up, with the help of one of the sailors. Dr. Kappel would remain behind to see to any other injured pilots.
“She’s breathing.” Dr. Kappel said. “There could be hemorrhaging. Take her up and stabilize her.”
“Yes ma’am. Her atmosphere control must have been damaged in the battle.” Syrah said.
Dr. Kappel brushed Dominika’s shoulder reassuringly. “She’ll be fine. She can recover.”
“I’m coming with you!” Dominika said suddenly.
She looked almost embarrassed to be saying so and would not explain herself further.
But with the devastated look on her face, it was impossible to say no to her.
Syrah and Dominika left the hangar soon after.
By that point, Khadija, Shalikova and Lebedova had exited their cockpits.
None of them looked too worse for wear. Sweaty and tired, but with their full faculties.
Shalikova, however, left the side of her suit quickly and rushed over to the Cheka.
“We didn’t hear a peep from Murati since we regrouped with her!” Shalikova shouted. She looked from the machine to the mechanics trying to open it, and her eyes narrowed, her fists closed at her sides with visible frustration. “Have you heard anything? Did she bang on the doors at least? Do you think Murati’s awake?”
One of the mechanics turned to her and shook his head– just as the hatch slammed open.
Gunther Cohen rushed in through the hatch, peering inside the cockpit.
“Messiah defend!” He shouted, briefly terrifying the group. “She’s alive but–! Medic!”
Shalikova cried out, uncharacteristically. Khadija and Lebedova urged her to back away.
An unconscious Murati was pulled free from the cockpit and set on a stretcher. She had a pulse, and she was breathing, but likely suffered a concussion. She had hit the side of the head bad enough to bleed. Her wrist was definitely broken, and the same arm was quite possibly broken as well. One of her ribs was bruised. She was in no condition to pilot again for the time being. Out of everyone she would probably need the most long-term attention in the days to come. Doctor Kappel briefly checked the other Divers and cleared them before taking Murati.
Once they had taken the injured away to the medical bay and the drama was given some time to settle, the sailors gathered around the remaining pilots and gave a round of applause and several cheers. Though more sober in their response than they would have been had all of the pilots been present and uninjured, they still showered Lebedova, Khadija and Shalikova with praise and affection. Shalikova clearly withered in the middle of this applause. Lebedova put their arms behind their back, face flushed red. Khadija waved warmly back and even blew a few kisses.
“Alright, knock it off now, give the heroes some room!”
Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova pushed her way through the crowd and sent everyone back to their work. Many of the sailors had already shouted themselves hoarse and jumped and clapped all they could muster, but even the rowdiest ones listened to the Chief and left posthaste at her command. When the crowd finally dispersed, she approached the pilot Lebedova with a big smile on her face and gave her nibling a firm smack on the shoulder to show her appreciation. Her eyes looked bright with praise and pride for her relative.
“Look at you! Such a big shot now! How did the real thing feel?” She teased.
Valya Lebedova averted their gaze. “Well, the graphics had a truly frightening fidelity.”
Shalikova stood in place, as if not knowing how to react, before wandering off.
Once the adrenaline had worn off, and everyone had caught up to the moment as gracefully or awkwardly as they would, the tireless work demanded by the Brigand’s mission continued. All of this excitement that had lasted barely hours once it commenced, had transpired at night. On the Captain’s orders, non-essential personnel could retire. A few sailors continued to run maintenance tasks, several mechanics remained with each Diver, and the workgroup management convened and began to draft their plans for the assessment and repair of all the day’s damage. Little by little, the manic activity and thick crowds that had characterized the hangar began to shrink and disperse.
For a moment, Khadija al-Shajara remained behind, seated at a workbench.
Watching the sailors peeling off from their workgroups and disappearing into the adjoining halls. The air in the hangar was far less stale and sterile than anywhere else and more organic, tinged with the odor of work: lubricants, oils, sweat. Khadija spoke to no one, merely lounged, breathing in gently, decompressing by herself.
Until she spotted Aiden Ahwalia, staring at the Cheka with a grave look on his face.
She snorted. “Caught your eye? That’s war you’re looking at, you pampered little worm.”
Without acknowledging her, Aiden grunted and left in a hurry with his fists balled up.
Sonya Shalikova did not feel like much of a hero.
As she climbed the stairs to the upper deck, she could not help but berate herself and feel a bit sickened by the round of applause and the ring of praise that had formed around her. It upset her that people so easily elevated her, because she did not feel like she had done anything worth that commemoration. It was the same in the Academy too. Everyone was so quick to praise her. Everyone kept treating her like she did something so amazing and miraculous. She always wondered if it had been because of her sister– certainly, that couldn’t be the case now.
“I was useless. Murati and Khadija both had to save me.”
That was the acid that was slashing around the inside of her brain.
She was no match for the pilot of that Diver that suddenly showed up. For a single pilot to show up and disrupt their operation so much was shameful enough. Even with Khadija’s techniques in mind, even with a dirty trick, she still could not do anything. Then Khadija left the bombing to her and Lebedova, but Murati took it upon herself to do everything. Was it because she did not trust Shalikova or Lebedova? Shalikova did not want to think about that. Now that was a poison in her mind she could recognize as such. It would not lead anywhere good.
In her mind, if she trusted everyone, and everyone trusted her in turn–
Then the only explanation was that she had simply failed personally.
And yet everyone cheered her, again and again.
They all praised and cheered, even when Zasha– when her sister didn’t come back–
Shalikova had walked automatically all the way to her room.
A cheerful voice there brought her back to her senses before she could burst out crying.
“Ah! That dreadful aura around you has faded a bit! Are you happy to see me?”
She was greeted by the smiling pink face of Maryam Karahailos, her flushed cheeks framed by her long purple bangs, and the tentacles blending in with the rest of her long hair slowly shifting and rising so the paddles could join her hands in waving Shalikova inside. The two fin-like shapes on her head wiggled from side to side vigorously, fanning the sterile air of the room around her head. She was clearly excited, and practically radiated a kind of warm, innocent joy Shalikova hardly ever saw.
Shalikova’s chest fluttered a little bit; she was unused to “coming back to” someone waiting for her after a battle. Though she also wouldn’t describe Maryam as someone who fully satisfied that narrative. Having a waiting bride to complete the heroic narrative would have been a truly intolerable imposition on Shalikova and she regretted even thinking about the whole thing.
“I’m going to bed.” She said, in as unromantic a way as she could muster.
“Good night!” Maryam said.
Shalikova perked up an eyebrow.
She had gotten it in her head they would have some big, stupid, circular argument where she would be trying to shake Maryam off herself for the next hour. Maryam continued to stare at her as she walked into the room. Shalikova withdrew a towel from one of the wall recesses and dried her sweat-soaked hair, face, the top of her chest. When her eyes peered over her shoulder, the cuttlefish katarran was still seated on her bed across the room.
It was too awkward. This kind of situation– Shalikova couldn’t just say nothing.
“Were you OK during all this?”
“Yes! A kind sailor gave me a delicious sandwich.”
Maryam’s face lit up, and her voice was so chipper. What was her deal anyway?
“So you did leave the room and run around while we had an emergency going on?”
Maryam closed her eyes and looked smug.
“I did not go down to the hangar to bother you. I stayed in the upper deck.”
“I was also very helpful to the captain and the security girls!”
Shalikova dreaded trying to imagine what must have happened.
“You can tell me tomorrow. Good night.”
“Of course– Oh! By the way. Thank you for saving us. I am very grateful to be alive.”
Across the room, Maryam stood up, and did a little bow and a curtsy, lifting her skirt.
Shalikova stared at her, at first almost uncomprehending of what had been said.
A trickle of tears did finally escape her eyes at that point. Something in her had broken.
“Ah! Oh no!” Maryam reacted abruptly.
She saw Shalikova begin to cry before Shalikova herself noticed it. Either that or she “read it in her aura” — whatever that meant. Regardless, it took Shalikova feeling her eyes sting to realize that she was weeping. When they came, the tears would not stop. Shalikova turned her back on Maryam in an instant and sank into bed.
Her arms wrapped tight around Comrade Fuzzy.
Soon her tears were accompanied by loud sobs.
“Sonya! I’m really sorry. I really am grateful.”
“Whatever!” Sonya shouted back. “I’m grateful you’re alive too! Go to bed, Maryam!”
She lifted her blankets over her head and settled as close to the wall as she could.
Gritting her teeth, weeping harshly, as all the feelings she had bottled up rushed over her.
“How do we even proceed with this mission? This feels more impossible by the second.”
“Certainly, it is a difficult task, but no task is impossible, Captain.”
Deep into the night, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara remained awake.
The Bridge had been sent to bed, even the night shifters that had been assigned for the day. The Captain and Commissar took over for them. Everything that had transpired felt well behind them. Their injured were stable in the med bay, the ship itself was humming along. However, the appearance of that Irmingard class and the demands of Gertrude Lichtenberg urged them to think about the future, even after the worst passed.
By themselves in the Bridge, an enormous digital map of the world on the main screen.
They focused on their hemisphere, and the Imbrium and Nectaris Oceans.
With the Iron Lady marooned in the middle of nowhere, damaged to a degree unknown; and all their Divers recovered; the Brigand sped away at full speed, sans the dummied boosters still to be tested, headed north-northwest from Serrano. To the far north was the Khaybar Pass, a zone marked on their map as a no-go; to the far east would be the borders of Veka. That meant the only direction to go was the west. There were a few Stations along the way that they could potentially go to, though they would not be safe anywhere big and obvious nearby.
In the direction they were headed, they would hit the borders of the Imbrium Ocean.
To break into the seat of the Union’s nemesis, to the waters that had birthed the Empire and the oppression of half the livable world, they would need to travel through Rhinea. Judging by the intelligence they had on the Volkisch Movement, they would not be too safe in Rhinea’s large, public stations, due to the fascists’ current occupation with their own internal security. Surveillance and policing would not be as lax there as in Serrano.
Farther west was the Yucatan Gulf, a vast ring of deep ocean territory framed north, west and south by the wall of the continent of Central Occultis. Such vast continental access made the Yucatan’s western extremes dangerous, teeming with Leviathans, red biomass, and corrupted weather patterns. However, it also made the Yucatan extremely rich in minerals from the continent wall, as well as a source of cave soils from collapsed areas of the continent, used in certain kinds of agriculture. Its industrial population could possibly be sympathetic to Union ideology.
Unfortunately the Royal Alliance made the many Stations and Substations of the Yucatan their seat of power, straining the rest of Sverland’s access to the raw materials there and forcing them to fend for themselves. Because the Alliance was still in the process of consolidating power, the Yucatan could be dangerous as well. Public stations and large industrial works would be under greater scrutiny until the aristocrats fully settled in.
“Right now the Volkisch are far too alert. Even if we lay low, Rhinea is a lot denser with habitations than Sverland. There’s not a lot of open Ocean to sneak through and we may not be able to lay low in any major Station without having collaborators.” Ulyana said. “We could head to the Yucatan and take our chances there, but once we get in, if the border is too hot, we won’t be able to get back out. With the continent wall right there, there’s really nowhere we could go, but circling back around. It feels like none of our options are good options.”
“I think plotting where to go is premature at this point.” Aaliyah replied.
Ulyana nodded. “There’s still a lot we don’t know. But we have to keep moving no matter what. I doubt we killed everyone aboard that ship or that we put it down for good. I have a gut feeling we’ll get chased again if we stick around here too long. Back in the Revolution, they taught us that standing and fighting the Empire was suicide. But by leading them around by the nose, you could lay traps, or force them to tip their hand.”
“I know our situation, Captain. But what need to do to make informed decisions is to gather more information. We can start with Marina and Maryam, but don’t forget our mission isn’t to take down the Empire by ourselves. A civil war is brewing; all kinds of factions and cliques will form that we can exploit to our advantage.”
“Factions? Well, right now, we’ve got the Royal Alliance and the Volkisch in front of us.” Ulyana said with a sigh. “Neither of which really agree with my particular tastes in political action, you know?”
“That’s fine, because I was not referring to either of them, at least not writ large. All of these groups are themselves formed of smaller groups.” Aaliyah said. She put on a smug little face as she delivered the rest of her explanation to an increasingly frustrated and dumbfounded Ulyana. “Captain, you told Murati she needed to get better at internal politics, but you need better national politics. Political groups are never uniform. There are cliques and interests in every major political group that go through periods of friction and stability. Even in the Union this is true and there have been frictions which we had to solve. The Empire is much larger, and its political class is much more vicious and far less united than ours in even the barest basics of how their world should work.”
Ulyana blinked. “So you’re saying there’s a subfaction of the Volkisch we can get along with? That sounds franky quite absurd to me, but you Commissars certainly see things differently than us normal folks.”
Aaliyah’s tail stood on end. “Again, I’m not being that specific about this, Captain.”
“Fine. But then, I should keep an open mind about potentially giving weapons and training to people who might believe in monarchies, but don’t want this one, or who may or may not believe in democracy of some description but are at least open to shooting at the Volkisch for now. We are not just looking for revolutionaries exactly like the ones we had at home 20 years ago. Is this what you’re telling me our mission is now?”
“All the bad faith and sarcasm aside, yes.” Aaliyah said.
“I thought you would be the one most opposed to reaching across the aisle.” Ulyana said.
Her tone started to take on a bit of a teasing note. Aaliyah crossed her arms.
“Offering military aid to a group doesn’t mean we’ll approve of its aims forever.”
“Now that’s some Commissar-like thought. Backhanded as all hell.”
“Our entire mission is backhanded. To survive it, we have to use any means available.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at each other, lit only by the dim glow of the digital globe.
Both of them sighed deeply.
There was a grim tension between them neither wanted to have provoked.
“I’m sorry. I’m really tired. I’m not being productive.” Ulyana said.
“Thank you. I understand your concerns completely. I’m just trying to be constructive.”
Aaliyah gave ground, seemingly as much as she would let herself do.
By mutual agreement, the two of them dropped the subject.
They would just ride out the night shift to the best of their abilities, making few remarks while tending the stations. Letting the quiet of the moment wash over them. A hard-fought silence, after a battle that already felt distant.
“There was a veteran pilot among them who was very skilled. She acted as a distraction and held me from my defense of the ship long enough for her subordinates to execute an attack. I was too careless.”
That was all that Sieglinde von Castille had to say for herself before averting her gaze with a petulant scowl. Lavishing platitudes upon Gertrude Lichtenberg would not change anything that happened and she disliked having to prostrate herself. Whenever a pilot went out to fight, she accepted her death or defeat as an eventual outcome. She had been outmaneuvered and was lucky to have survived. That was all that needed to be said.
“That’s all?” Gertrude asked. Digging her finger into the wound.
“That’s all.” Sieglinde replied.
Equivocating would not have changed anything. It was a waste of time.
“I have to say, I’m a little disappointed in such a childish response from a storied Hero.”
“I did not promise anything except my cooperation. It is you who had false hopes in me.”
“Your lack of introspection is surely a blessing at a time like this. Well, fine then.”
Gertrude’s scorn was palpable not only in her brutal words but her wild, fierce eyes.
But Sieglinde was not moved.
She was no child: she was a very grown woman now. She was thirty eight years old. Significantly older than Gertrude herself. Nothing she could say or do would change what she had done, or what she could do next. Her life, her role, the things she was capable of or that were possible for her to do, had all ossified over decades. Her past, whether hours or ages ago, was something she could only suffer and endure having lived. It couldn’t change.
That one woman pilot shared the same pain as her.
That pilot who taunted her in the open, who knew her as the Red Baron. Truth be told, Sieglinde could not tell her apart from anyone else. So it was perhaps impossible for her to give this woman the satisfaction she craved. However, she knew implicitly that this woman’s time had also stopped, just like Sieglinde’s, frozen by their war. They were both hurt the same way, tied together by the calcified chains like two corpses to one skeleton.
It hurt her heart to think about, but–
There was nothing she could do to expiate for what she did to that woman.
“Ultimately it was my fault as the guarantor of this ship that you failed.” Gertrude finally said after a long and frustrated silence. “We did not commit our resources properly. Our escorts were unreliable. We were defeated by an enemy with more cohesion and better command, because we were far too complacent.”
Sieglinde averted her gaze once more. She was surprised to see Gertrude being lenient.
“Quite level-headed of you. I accept and commend your grace, Lady Inquisitor.”
Such moments seemed to come and go for Gertrude. Black hearted one second, gentle the next.
The two of them stood together in the middle of the Iron Lady’s vast, well-equipped hangar.
Sieglinde’s recovered Grenadier, a new class of Diver, had been set into its gantry, alongside the two heavily damaged Jagd units belonging to Ingrid and Clostermann, and the spare Volker. The Jagd were overseen by a few mechanics and two robotic repair units with powerful, precise manipulators assessing the unit and peeling off any unsalvageable parts. They were not the only crew working in the hangar that night. Operating from computerized stations, a pair of engineers commandeered drones to assess the damage outside and make plans for a repair crew which was, simultaneously, equipping themselves in the hangar, a dozen men in pressure suits with one heavy labor suit about half the size of a Diver ready to join them outside. They had been ordered to waste no time.
While Gertrude was being a rough taskmaster, the men were highly motivated, nonetheless.
At the moment they were helplessly stranded in the middle of the Ocean, after all.
Every inhabitant of the Iron Lady wanted to get the ship moving again.
If there was one thing about Gertrude Lichtenberg that impressed Sieglinde, it was the respect her crew had for her. They would take a scolding from her and rather than become depressed they would work harder. They would follow her orders slavishly. In this current, frankly insane quest of hers, they still followed, knowing only they were chasing a “VIP” and not the dire truth behind the matter. Had they known the truth it was likely they would not question the veracity of Gertrude’s information. Despite everything, they rendered no complaints.
Sieglinde had witnessed this before. It was not just discipline that inspired such feelings. It was the kind of esteem soldiers could only have for a commanding officer who they saw as an aspirational figure. She did not see Gertrude as highly skilled or overtly generous. It was not a notable bloodline, nor great wealth that drew people to her. Rather, she was someone who rose from among them and therefore understood their plight. They fought together, bled together, drank and ate together; she was not an officer to her men, but one of the men.
Every such person that Sieglinde had known had been crushed into a red mist.
Theirs was not a society that treasured and protected its salt-of-the-earth folk heroes.
The Imbrium Empire’s so-called meritocracy fed on a steady diet of the patriotic and dutiful.
For every hero that suffered and died, there was a coward who thrived and prospered.
There was nothing she could do about this, but acknowledge it, and seethe.
“What will you do now?” Sieglinde finally asked Gertrude.
“We’ll go after them. We’ll repair the ship and continue the chase.”
Her reply was almost immediate. Either the product of determination, or a profound haste to affirm her self-delusion. Her eyes were dark, her expression sullen. She was clearly shaken, but grimly determined.
“Am I to continue piloting the Grenadier?” Sieglinde asked.
Gertrude turned a weary, vindictive look to her.
“Do what you want. I won’t beg you again.” She said bitterly.
Her haste to say these words seemed to surprise even herself. Her face blanched, ashamed.
Sieglinde wanted to turn her back on Gertrude, but she did not walk away just yet.
“I didn’t ask you to beg the first time. You have such a wicked view of the world.” She said.
She could not in good conscience judge the Inquisitor for the grief that she felt. Her own heart was still soft with a wish to see in a woman like Gertrude the gallantry and righteousness that her men saw. So before the Inquisitor left her side, the broken Red Baron offered the bitterest confirmation of her own twisted feelings.
“Until you are able to speak with her. Until we hear her decision. I’ll follow you.”
Upon Gertrude’s very soul and the contents therein, Sieglinde would make this oath.
She wanted to believe. She wanted to be shown something different than she had seen.
Gertrude looked momentarily as if she did not know how to respond to that.
“I’ll hold you to it.”
Her brooding side took hold of her once more, and those words were her only reply.
Then she turned and left the hangar.
Sieglinde took this to signal her assent and retreated in the opposite direction.
Wondering how it was that the Empire’s tragedies kept sucking at the marrow in her broken old bones.
Again, and again, seemingly without end.
Several hours since the Iron Lady’s hectic battle with the mercenaries, Gertrude retreated to her room. She had left the sailors with good direction and trusted them fully to carry out all the repairs. There was nothing more she could do but stand around and look spent and miserable, so she decided to make herself scarce. Now that the adrenaline wore off and she had some distance from her emotions, she was starting to come down hard. Her exhaustion was such that she simply could neither disrobe nor make herself sleep. She merely threw herself into bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling. All that she could peel off her uniform before lying down was her cape, hat and coat.
Gertrude was not alone for very long; certainly not as long as she had hoped to be.
A deep and rough but excited voice at the door. “’Trude! Open up! Let’s get fucked up!”
From past experience, there was no use telling Ingrid to go to bed.
At least, not for Gertrude who wanted to remain on good terms with her and treasured her company. One of the worst things one could do to Ingrid was rebuff her when she was being generous. So out of all the things that could have compelled Gertrude to stand up from her bed, it was going to open the door for Ingrid.
At the doorway, she found the dark-skinned, messy-haired loup grinning at her, with a wagging tail and cheerfully alert ears. Ingrid was in an admirable state of dress, wearing a decently covering tanktop and sweatpants. Gertrude had expected her to be wearing almost nothing. She smiled from ear to ear, her face brightening the moment their eyes met. She had in one hand a canteen plate with canned ham spread, ship biscuit and a jar of oil-packed peppers. Slung from the other hand was a small box of canned beers from out of the ship reserve.
“How did you get a whole box?” Gertrude asked.
“My charisma, my charm, and the threat of my left hook.”
Gertrude sighed, rubbing her forehead with one hand.
“I’m kidding!” Ingrid said with a big smile. “It’s ol’ man Dreschner’s treat.”
“That’s almost less believable than if you just stole it.”
“Believe whatever the fuck you want then! I’m comin’ in!”
Gertrude made for way Ingrid, feeling her lips curling into a smile despite herself.
They sat down, side to side on the bed. Gertrude’s room was a bit more ostentatious than those of the other crew. She had a double bed to herself, and it was fluffy and springy, rather than a stiff gel bed. Her room had a full desk, and several chairs or tables that could be pulled out of the ground or out of the walls. Burgundy and gold were predominant colors on plastic banners on the walls, and the filigree in her furniture, as well as the coloration of the walls themselves, though this effect was largely computer generated in nature.
Next to the bed they pulled up a chair to set the tray of food on.
From the box, they each took out a can of beer.
Ingrid popped the cap off hers and took a deep, long drink from it.
Gertrude looked at hers with reticence before taking a good drink from it. The familiar savory bitterness and light boozey bite of Imperial Navy reserve beers. A taste she could describe as “standard issue.” It had nothing on Vogelheim’s rose wine, but it could get you buzzed or drunk and that was enough.
Neither she nor Ingrid loved it; but Ingrid could relish in the drinking of it.
By the time Gertrude was halfway through a can, Ingrid was cracking open her second.
“You’re so fuckin’ slow. I’m going to end up drunk as fuck because of you.” Ingrid said.
“So did you come here for a drinking contest?”
“I just don’t know what to say to you sometimes. You’re a mess right now.”
Ingrid leaned to Gertrude’s side and dipped her head close, surprising the Inquisitor.
She was warm. A warm presence at Gertrude’s side. Someone touching her.
Gertrude realized then how little stimulation her body had had in the past weeks. How little she had been touched; how little she had been close to another human being. She had been running around like the gusts of a storm, never settling. And so, ever since Vogelheim she had been alone. Surrounded by people almost all of the time but fundamentally alone in a human sense. That lack of tenderness, and Ingrid’s reintroduction of that warm, kind sensation– It was almost enough to make Gertrude want to cry from the emotion.
She leaned in Ingrid’s direction as well, pushing just a little closer to her.
Her friend’s tail hit the bed with a rhythmic “wump, wump.”
For a moment Ingrid held on to her drink without even tasting it.
Swishing the contents in the can while Gertrude’s head rested on her shoulder.
Her whole body which had been so wound up and tense, finally found a place to rest.
“Congrats on relaxing for once.” Ingrid said.
“How could I relax before, with everything that was happening?” Gertrude said.
She wanted to turn and face Ingrid directly, but she did not want to move.
It was simply too comfortable at Ingrid’s side. It felt too nice.
“You’ve been going completely crazy.” Ingrid said. “It’s because everything’s a fucked up mess that you need some time to clear your head. I’ve been seeing you running around looking like your eyelids are stapled open. Losing your goddamn mind; I couldn’t even get a hold of you like this until the ship fuckin’ broke down.”
“I know. I saw your messages. I don’t want you to think I didn’t.”
“Yeah ‘Trude, I know! It tells me when you saw them and then didn’t reply. It tells me!”
Feeling too ashamed to reply, Gertrude took a long drink from her own can, enough to finally empty it. Wordlessly, she sat up, reached for another can, cracked it open, drank almost as much just as quickly. She wiped her lips with her sleeve and grit her teeth. It was so sudden the roof of her mouth felt like it was melting, her throat ragged. Her forehead screamed with a cold pain. But she started laughing and Ingrid instantly knew what she was doing, and it cracked her up. Her serious face melted into the biggest, warmest smile Gertrude had seen.
“You idiot!” Ingrid said. As if to decline the contest, she took a gentle sip of her own beer, not even enough to finish that second can already in her hands. “I’d say something like ‘you’ll never beat me’ but we only got four cans left. To make this a proper fight we gotta start with at least a twelve-pack.”
“I’m sorry.” Gertrude smiled, rubbing her own forehead, her vision swimming a touch.
She felt Ingrid’s hand creep around her back and grab hold of her shoulder.
Pulling her even closer, until they were almost cheek to cheek.
Another gesture that recalled bygone days.
“It’s not ‘sorry’ I want, you know?”
Ingrid sighed deeply. As if she realized that moment they were having had to end.
“The VIP you’re after; I know it’s gotta be your little princess, isn’t it?”
Gertrude’s eyes drew wide, and she gave Ingrid a sudden, wildly nervous glare.
Ingrid shook her head solemnly. “Good grief. You really think I’m an idiot, huh?”
“Ugh.” Gertrude exhaled a long-held breath. “I’m sorry Ingrid. I wasn’t even thinking–”
“About your best buddy of many many years? Yeah, you haven’t been. That’s okay; we’re soldiers, not a social club. But if it’s a choice between running yourself to pieces or letting me into your life here and there, just sometimes? I wish you’d just let yourself rely on me more often. I would’ve been there for you.”
Gertrude knew there was something else simmering under that sudden bitterness.
She did not want to touch it; or rather, she did not know what else she could say.
“S’ok. You were thinking about me when you told me to buzz off back to the ship.”
“Ingrid, please, come on. I was worried you’d get hurt. It was chaos out there!”
“You always worry and fuss over me at the worst moments. Basically any time I don’t want you to, and you never pay me any attention when I do want it. You fuckin’ suck, ‘Trude.” Ingrid looked at Gertrude with a serious expression quickly melting into a sly, impish grin. “You’re really high-strung right now, aren’t you? Lighten up! Drink already. Or I’ll have your beer. I didn’t come here to give you grief. I really wanna help you.”
Gertrude didn’t know how she could possibly lighten up after that.
Nevertheless, she did open a third beer and did start drinking.
“Does everyone suspect it?” She said, staring down at the dark hole in the can.
Ingrid opened her third beer too. “Whose everyone? I dunno. Some of those guys on this ship are real stupid. But everyone can tell you’re a total mess just by looking at you. Just by hearing your voice.”
Gertrude sighed, her face sinking into her hand. “I know I have to shape up.”
“Shapin’ up isn’t what I’d say you gotta do. Here, shut up instead and have a bite.”
Reaching out to the table in front of them, Ingrid picked up a ship’s biscuit and one of the cans of meat. They were full of a crumbly, soft, spreadable pink ham with flecks of white, soft fat. On the can, she used the lever to pop off the top, and then used the sharp, dismembered can top to spread the soft meat over the biscuit. From the jar of peppers, she drizzled a bit of the oil over the meat. Then she used the can top to mash up one of the soft, plump peppers over the meat, resulting in a red and pink spread that moistened the top of the biscuit.
This was a little treat from back in the day. They called it ‘cadet kibble’.
Ingrid presented Gertrude with the treat. The Inquisitor took it without objection.
Biting into it, she was surprised by how soft the biscuit was, and how well the dry, crumbly bread with its intense, salty taste matched the bland but fatty meat and the slightly spicy, slightly sweet pepper. That oil was also packed with peppery taste, while lending its own vegetal note to the bite of food. For a heap of tinned meat on dried bread, it was a rich bite that felt almost decadent. It brought a little bit of life back into Gertrude’s body.
She could not help but smile a little having this kind of chow again.
“God, you look like you’re going to cum. What have you been eating lately?” Ingrid said.
“Probably not enough.” Gertrude said, slightly embarrassed.
“Then let’s get you fattened up again. That big body of yours needs meat!”
Over some light objections from the Inquisitor, Ingrid scraped up more meat and peppers on the sharp can lid and scraped them over a biscuit, handing over the result. While Gertrude picked at it with a wan face, Ingrid then fixed herself her own ‘cadet kibble’ and took a hearty bite. She kicked her feet with satisfaction.
“This is still so good! I kinda scooped this stuff up on a lark, but man, it hits the spot.”
“It is surprisingly palatable.”
“Ah, fuck you. ‘Surprisingly palatable’ it’s good, damn it.”
Ingrid shoved the remaining half of her biscuit into her mouth in one go.
All the while she gave Gertrude a critical, narrow-eyed glare.
Once she swallowed the food, her eyes remained locked on to the Inquisitor’s.
She put on a sly expression.
“Remember when I first showed you how to make cadet kibble?” Ingrid said.
“It’s that funny to you?” Gertrude grumbled.
“It was hilarious! You were so helpless, messiah defend you!” Ingrid said. “Little cadet in your prissy little cadet uniform, now that you couldn’t get your catered tea parties from Luxembourg School for Sluts.” She burst into laughter at her own joke. Her face was starting to turn a little red from all the drinking. “Running around with a grouchy gut because you didn’t want to eat pea soup and knackbrot. You would’ve died without me.”
“And you were a junior K9 who would’ve gotten the lights beaten out of your eyes if I hadn’t covered up for you stealing a bunch of food.” Gertrude said. Her own tone was starting to get out of her control. She was more annoyed than she wanted to be. It must have been the beer making her vulnerable to Ingrid’s teasing. And yet, she couldn’t keep herself from taking another long drink from the can. Ingrid couldn’t stop drinking either.
“Uh huh? But I showed you how you’re supposed to eat around these parts. So I repaid my debt to you, hell, you practically owed me for it after the fact.” Ingrid made a show of exaggerated shrugging.
Gertrude felt herself reminiscing a little. She couldn’t, at that time, in that place, recall any specific memories too vividly but she saw the texture and color of her past. She saw those blue and grey halls, those well-trod marching fields, blurs of green and brown forest. She saw a dark artificial sky under which she stole away with a hellion of a loup, two girls who should’ve never amounted to anything in the rigid society of the Imbrian Empire, friends as rare and odd as the ones she had broken with at her old school. Both struggling within their own ranks not just to be anything, but to be the most they could be. Ambitious to climb over every obstacle put in front of them.
“We made quite a pair.” She finally said.
“We could’ve fucked anyone up. You and me? Nobody stood a chance.”
“If only ‘fucking people up’ was all it took to advance in the military.”
“Hey, it worked out for us fine after we got out of cadet school. We kicked ass then.”
“That’s because the world of adults simply has none of the rules that children are taught.”
“You feelin’ better? You’re saying all kinds of crap again so you must be.” Ingrid said.
“Now it’s your turn to remember.” Gertrude teased. “What was our little motto back then?”
Ingrid snorted. “Y’think I would forget? ‘We carve out our own justice’. How corny!”
Reminiscing about the old days, the cheerful pair rubbed shoulders and touched heads.
Going over the distant past as if old friends who had seen nothing of each other for years.
Soon they had drank all of the beers. Both became a little lethargic because of it.
There was a brief silence which fell over them, punctuated by the pulse of their hearts.
Melancholy, as the world racing at breakneck speed around them finally caught up.
“How do you know it’s your girl out there? With those mercs?” Ingrid asked suddenly.
Gertrude felt her heart sink. There was no preparing for that question. “I don’t know.”
Her answer was so abrupt even Ingrid had to process it. “You don’t know?” She said.
“I can’t explain it to you. I– I saw her being loaded up into their ship. It has to be her.”
“You can’t explain it?” Ingrid sighed. “Well I guess I believe you. Doesn’t matter anyway.”
“It matters a lot, actually. But I’m thankful for your casual disinterest nevertheless.”
Gertrude was feeling suddenly just a touch embittered.
Ingrid grunted her displeasure.
They averted their gaze from each other.
“You’ve always been bleeding yourself dry for that girl. You’re so fuckin’ devoted.”
“I care about her. We’ve been together forever. Is that so disagreeable?”
Once more they locked eyes in a confrontational way.
Ingrid snorted and sidled away, one width of a body between them. “Together, huh?”
Gertrude was no longer so warm as before. Except maybe in her chest and stomach from all of the booze. It was such a sudden, stark, strong sensation, of loss, of having something taken. To her woozy, slightly out of focus vision, starting to slip from the drink, it really felt like Ingrid had gotten so much farther than she was. That whole length of the bed; maybe even farther away. Like Ingrid was disappearing just like Elena was.
It hurt– it hurt more than she wanted to admit.
“Together? Not fuckin’ now! You run around like a lunatic, barely eating or sleeping, giving nonsense orders, your mood swinging all the god damned time. With all that’s happening in the world, your obsession over this girl has us chasing down one fuckin’ ship to the middle of nowhere. People are out there killing for lands and titles, and you? What do you want? You had loftier goals when you were a blue vest in Kuban station.” Ingrid was practically grumbling, almost as if to herself. Gertrude could barely hear her and yet heard just about enough.
Unable to be the formidable Inquisitor for a second longer, Gertrude broke out into tears.
Rendered vulnerable by the drink, the reminiscing, and the sudden loneliness she felt.
“You’re like a homesick dog.” Ingrid grumbled. “You’re not together for shit right now.”
Gertrude balled up her hands into fists. She felt a scream rising out of her windpipe.
“Fuck you! You don’t understand! All my life I’ve been fighting to be her equal. That’s all I wanted. I needed to be worthy of her so they wouldn’t take her from me. When I thought I’d lost her– and then the tiny glimmer of hope that she was still out there for me– you can’t even imagine how much it hurts Ingrid!”
Ingrid scowled at Gertrude’s words. Her eyes were starting to shutter from all the drink.
“You need to be worthy of her? Because she thinks you’re a swarthy mutt like me?”
Gertrude snapped her head toward the Loup, incensed. Her heart hot with booze and anger.
“Ingrid! How dare you– She would never–!”
“Does even she even know all you’ve been through? Does she even care?”
“Ingrid, you better fucking–”
“I bet she doesn’t give a shit about you. I bet she wanted to run away with those mercs–”
Carried purely on impulse, Gertrude lunged for Ingrid and in a snap, seized her by her tanktop and pulled her close, until they were eye to furious eye. Tears streamed down Gertrude’s face as she wrung Ingrid for a moment, teeth clenched, dragging her so close their foreheads nearly struck. Her anger fueled a herculean strength in her arms that was quickly fading. Wanting to fight but being unable to raise her hand. She was unable to hold Ingrid’s gaze fixed for very long, her head beginning to dip just a few seconds after grabbing her.
“She loves me! I know she loves me!” Gertrude said, mumbling into Ingrid’s face.
Ingrid grabbed hold of her arm in retaliation and for a moment the two exchanged glares.
Then in an instant Ingrid’s other arm hooked around Gertrude’s shoulder.
For a moment the Inquisitor thought she would be attacked but before she could respond–
Pushing her head forward, Ingrid took her lips into a kiss.
Time stopped as Gertrude tasted peppers and booze on Ingrid’s intruding tongue.
She felt her friend’s overwhelming warmth again, matched with a strength of equal intensity.
Ingrid shoved forward into Gertrude, climbing atop, her hands never letting go.
With every push, every conscious shifting of her weight, their lips parted only briefly.
In the heat of the moment Ingrid stole Gertrude’s tongue numerous times, every nearest instant she could, their lips drawing close, slipping off and gliding near once more, until she had her pinned to the bed and held. She was furiously hungry, in a trance of desire, exuding a bestial love of locking lips, brushing fangs, of musk and spittle, of sinewy muscle and a tail that batted against the bed like the beat of a drum. Too shocked and absorbed into the moment, unable to challenge the shorter but stronger Loup’s sudden grip, Gertrude hardly resisted.
Until as suddenly as her passions began, they lost their strength.
Ingrid fell practically into Gertrude’s arms. Sobbing so strongly she began to cough.
Caught in a storm of tears and anguish as strong as the lust that preceded it.
“I love you! I love you, Gertrude! I don’t care about her! I love you, Gertrude!”
Gertrude felt an impulse to hold Ingrid tightly.
Her own tears began to flow anew. Her whole body was shaking under Ingrid’s weight, speechless, stupefied. Ingrid screamed at her, baring her soul and it felt unreal, and she could hardly respond except to hug her more tightly.
“I swore I’d stick with you and it wasn’t a joke! I gave you my leash to hold because I love you! I love you so much!”
“I’m sorry!” Gertrude cried back at her. “I don’t– I don’t know what you want–!”
“I want you to fucking be okay! I want you to live! I don’t want you to shut yourself out further and pretend you’re in control! Please stop killing yourself alone! Take my leash and use me, rely on me, depend on me!”
“Ingrid– Ingrid I– I don’t–”
“We can do anything together! I meant it! I want to support the woman I love!”
“Gertrude, the woman I love– she can do anything. She’s so powerful. I’ve seen it. I love her for it.”
It hurt– to be thought of so highly, to be loved so strongly. It hurt.
Gertrude wanted to tell her that she was never strong, that she was never confident, that she had never lived with whatever power Ingrid saw in her hands, whatever strength she hung on to in her words. Gertrude had been scraping by, begging, pleading, struggling. Academically average, with few connections, with no peerage. She had begged to go to Luxembourg; she had begged to become an officer; she had begged for the status of Inquisitor.
She had her face put into the dirt more than she could remember.
You’ve never seen me beg–
But she couldn’t say that to Ingrid. She couldn’t make herself say such things.
All she could do was mumble Ingrid’s name and hold her in bed, caressing her ears.
“All I want is for the woman holding my leash to keep rising. To give me orders that inspire me, to give me a future worth a damn! I’ll never be anyone among the Loup, but you, Gertrude, you can be a Lord! You could be Emperor! All I want is to support you! You have me here! Take me! Let me help you! Stop staring glassy-eyed at after that bitch’s tail! I hate to see you like this! I fucking despise it! How much longer will I have to see that?”
Gertrude felt such a sense of helpless dread, to have Ingrid bare herself like this–
That boisterous, thick-skinned woman so confident in herself, always picking fights.
Reduced to crying and pleading in the arms of a woman who could barely look at her eyes.
She could not possibly answer Ingrid’s desires. Not at that moment. She was too weak.
She was going to say she was sorry, truly, deeply sorry, but fate never gave her the chance.
Fate rang in Gertrude’s room as a request for communication on an adjacent wall.
In the midst of her dishevelment, Gertrude hastily slammed the nearby wall to accept, but with sound only. Ingrid put a hand over her own mouth to quiet her sobbing. She knew propriety, even though she pretended she didn’t.
This was another way Gertrude knew that she really cared.
And it hurt to see it. But what could she say? She had to put on the Inquisitor’s mask.
“I’m listening, report quickly. I made it clear I was retiring to my quarters.”
“Ma’am, this is Schicksal. We’ve received a response to our request for reinforcements. I’m sorry to disturb you. I just thought you should know, because of the nature of the response.” Schicksal’s meek little voice sounded strained and upset. “I’m sorry ma’am, but the message came from the Antenora. Whether or not we accept it, ma’am, she’s probably coming. I hope you understand now why I wanted to inform you. Schicksal out.”
On the wall, the audio feed disappeared.
Gertrude and Ingrid slowly, shakingly rose, sitting with their bodies on end, staring at one another.
Their earlier quarrel was silenced by the shock and disbelief they shared.
Both of them knew all too well what it meant for that ship to appear.
The Antenora — the Cruiser flagship of the woman called “the Praetorian.”
“Norn.” Gertrude stifled a gasp. Her heart started racing again. “Master Norn is coming.”