Sinners Under The Firmament [9.1]

For Ulyana Korabiskaya, her lowest point in life came when she awoke without warning within a chaotic, white-walled medbay in an adjacent substation to Mount Raja. Disoriented, with her hair cut off on one side rendering half her head more susceptible to the stale, chill air. She reached a hand to her head and ran her shaking fingers along heavy stitches. They hurt to touch, sending a jolt of pain into her skull.

Tears came to her eyes unbidden, teeth chattering.

Despite the pain she still felt trapped in a nightmare. Her vision had swam in and out of dreamscapes where her body floated amid suffociating steel rooms, water up to her chest. Ripped pipes vented gas and smoke, fires danced atop shreds of steel sewn with fiber-optic cables torn from the wall. There were people screaming, drowning, burning, dying. She tried to reach out to them, but she would vanish in one dreamscape, passed out, maybe killed– only to arrive at another with the same hopeless scene.

When her eyes adjusted to the light in that bright white room–

There were dozens, maybe a hundred people in the medbay with her. Alive, dead, dying.

Everything suffused by the din of the suffering, the hopeless whimper of human injury.

In adjacent beds were people with all manner of wounds, many maimed, some beyond recognition.

Burn victims patched from head to toe in bloody gauze. Moaning bodies with painful but not life threatening injuries who were last in line for medicine while nurses cried for more anesthetic and painkillers. A soldier assuring the medical staff that a shuttle from Mount Raja would restock them soon. Amputees, at least some of whom were, perhaps by virtue of their time of admittance, already having the remains of the limb prepared for a cybernetic implant to prevent them from being disabled permanently.

This involved bio- and ferro- stitching on the wound in cold blood. These were the loudest cries.

Ulyana did not understand at first. Everything had a very hazy, distant, surreal logic to it.

Had she not been in her bridge? Was she not– was she not the Captain of the Pravda

Through the door to the medbay, a figure dressed in black and red strode through.

She navigated the packed beds, the struggling nurses and doctors.

Her eyes did not once waver, she hardly took any of the scene around her.

Perfectly composed, she arrived at Ulyana’s bed and took off her hat.

“Yana. Are you awake? I’m so sorry. But you’re alive, for that we must be thankful.”

Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.

Ulyana’s eyes shut, filled with tears. She gritted her teeth, grabbed hold of her blankets.

“No, please, Parvati, please tell me it’s not– please tell me–” Ulyana begged.

“It’s not your fault.”

Nagavanshi reached out and took her hand for comfort.

Ulyana Korabiskaya broke down into sobbing, crying, and finally screaming.


As soon as she maneuvered her Strelok out of the deployment chute and onto the hangar proper, Khadija al-Shajara slammed the button to open the cockpit and practically leaped out of the machine before the doors even fully opened. She fell between a group of engineers. Cranes attached to the roof of the hangar were moved along rails, lowered to the chutes to help the more damaged machines up into the hangar to be secured on their gantries. Red, gaudy red– Khadija was looking for the Grenadier.

“I’ll leave it to you all to get my machine sorted. Where’s the Imperial?”

She saw the briefest hint of a red helmet and shoulders, steel lifting hooks around the hull.

Khadija ran through the mechanics and stopped at the edge of the chute.

Waiting for the machine to be lifted, and the upper hatch of the chute to close.

And then for the machine to be set down and its hatch to open.

The instant that the bottom half of the hatch lowered enough to be used as a handhold, Khadija practically leaped up into the cockpit, charged the seat and grabbed hold with both hands on Sieglinde von Castille’s collar. While the whole hangar seemed to watch, Khadija, eyes afire, fangs bared, teeth gritted, stared into the Baron’s eyes, and held her as if sustaining that gaze would kill her.

“So this is who you are.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde von Castille gazed back, eyes mournful, shoulders slouched, hands shaking.

She was almost a head taller than Khadija but looked so much smaller then.

“Red Baron.” Khadija cursed.

“Lion of Cascabel.” Sieglinde’s voice was almost a whimper.

They stared at each other for what seemed like breathless minutes, the hangar at a standstill.

Khadija clicked her tongue and shoved Sieglinde back into her cockpit.

She leaped down onto the floor of the hangar and walked away, hands balled into fists.

Chief of Security Evgenya Akulantova parted the crowd of mechanics and approached the machine, drawing her grenade launcher in one hand, though it was a two-handed weapon for most. With a rubber padded missile loaded into it, she aimed inside the cockpit and tipped her head to the side to motion for Sieglinde to come out of it. There was a gentle smile on the Chief’s soft grey face, bearing sharp teeth in an almost disarmingly amiable fashion. A gentle, maidenly giant with a brutal weapon.

“You are Sieglinde von Castille, is that correct? Until the Captain gets to talk to you in-depth, we are treating you as a prisoner rather than a defector. Peer titles don’t mean anything in here, but I hope you find the brig hospitable, nevertheless. I strongly suggest to step out of the cockpit with your hands up, and let my subordinates inspect you.” she nodded now towards Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian, who had arrived with similar grenade launchers on slings around their shoulders.

Silent, Sieglinde did as she was told and made no move to resist being pat down.

She was escorted to the brig, and the hangar resumed gawking and returned to its normal operation.

Out of the other tubes, the HELIOS of Murati Nakara and Karuniya Maharapratham was collected next, along with the remains of the SEAL of Marina McKennedy. Sameera’s Cossack was in almost perfect condition and hardly needed assistance lifting itself out of the water. Once all the Divers were collected, they were lined up abreast on gantries at each opposing wall so that they could be inspected. Chief Lebedova took one look at them and lifted her hand over her eyes, shaking her head vigorously.

“Some of these are in deplorable condition. We just got done reassembling that Cheka too.”

As had become usual, the Cheka’s electronics had nearly burnt out and several of the power cells distributed across the chassis as well as a few internal systems would need to be replaced. On one end of the hangar Sonya Shalikova and Murati Nakara (who was blamed as well despite being uninvolved this time) were both being lectured by Gunther Cohen about their repeated misuse of the machine.

Sameera’s, Khadija’s and Valya’s Streloks were all in decent condition.

The Strelkannon was already a maintenance-intensive machine so every sortie meant that a dozen people had to take care of it. That would not change here, and the Chief was already in her mind plotting out the service schedule for it. It had taken a few bumps, and specifically the torpedo launcher was damaged, and it would be a delicate operation to remove the remaining munitions and fix the pod.

Aiden Ahwalia’s Strelok was recovered from the seafloor. He himself was unharmed, but the machine was in pieces, only the cockpit was untouched. It was as if a monster had torn it apart with its bare hands. They could salvage some of the electrical parts and hydrojet components, but the chassis was basically nothing but food for the Ferricycler so they could ferrostitch simple metal parts from it.

They had no spare parts for the S.E.A.L. so that one was a complete write-off.

Sieglinde’s Grenadier was in the same category. They would probably disassemble it.

The HELIOS was in decent condition thanks to its sturdiness, but it was missing an arm which would have to be replaced by kitbashing a Strelok arm, since they, also, had no spare parts for that machine either. It had come out of the container that the Solarflare ladies had asked them to label as “spare parts.” Thankfully the most complicated part of the system, the drones that it launched, were in perfect condition. Those, Lebedova thought, would be impossible to replace if anything happened.

“We have to clone the software on this thing and get a look at the guts.” She noted.

As for the Brigand itself, there was damage practically everywhere.

No breaches, but plenty of electrical systems to replace, armor plates to sub out.

The Ferrostitcher and the Ferricycler would be running day and night.

“I’ll let the reactor engineer know just to be on the safe side.”

This time around there was no round of applause for the pilots.

Not for a lack of strong feelings, as everyone was grateful for their efforts. But because they were recovered in the middle of a continuing alert, where the sailors were still working all around the ship looking for leaks and electrical damage, or in the hangar assessing damage and beginning to put together tools and parts to begin repairs. Even with the pilots recovered, that alert was not rescinded. The Antenora was still being closely monitored as it began its retreat and the record-breaking levels of Katov mass in the water were a concern. Everyone was busy, and there was no time for heartfelt pleasantries.

It was at that point that the bridge informed the hangar of a new development.

They were so busy, and so incredulous, that at first, the danger barely registered.

But they understood implicitly — the danger was not yet over.


Sonya Shalikova stood outside the medbay doors for a moment.

Collecting the military greatcoat she was wearing over her pilot’s suit for warmth.

Clutching it to her chest, heart beating as if she had run a marathon.

The Cheka’s environment control system had broken down during the battle with Selene, so as a precaution, she was being sent to rest in the medbay for observation. However, she had a certain powerful desire pursue as well, having learned that Maryam Karahailos was also being kept in the medbay for observation. Something she had steeled herself about doing when she was out at sea.

“Ugh, is this stupid? I haven’t known her for that long.”

And yet, didn’t people go out on dates as perfect strangers? Didn’t they even have sex?

She probably knew a lot more about Maryam than most people did on their first date.

So then if she wanted to– then it made sense– it wasn’t anything weird–

“You only live once.”

It was a silly refrain but it encapsulated her current motives.

Fighting Selene pushed her to stand on the border to the afterlife and to interrogate herself. She could no longer punish herself and berate herself and live sternly in repentance for her sister’s passing. There was a vast ocean that was full of mysteries, and many people who depended on her. Shalikova had to move on from her past. She had to forgive herself as her sister would have forgiven her, and start to truly live.

And part of living was being honest with herself about what she treasured, what she desired.

This wasn’t some erratic feeling for a stranger. It was Maryam! It was different!

She could do it for Maryam!

Shalikova gathered her breath and strode through the medbay door.

Murati’s and Sameera’s beds were empty– they were both still in the hangar. She had gone ahead.

Farther down the aisle, however, a certain purple cuttlefish girl sat up in bed, humming.

Bobbing her head from side, shuffling her legs under the bedsheets, amusing herself.

She was– she was really cute– wasn’t she? Shalikova felt a fluttering in her chest.

It was as if over the past few days she had put on lenses that made her see Maryam differently.

“Oh! Sonya! Is it really you? I’m not having a medicine hallucination am I?”

Maryam put on a truly sunny smile upon seeing Shalikova enter the room.

Shalikova knew if she responded and started talking to her, that she would lose her guts.

So she strode quickly past all of the beds and up beside Maryam’s without saying a word.

Tracked unerringly by those w-shaped irises from the door all the way into her space.

“Sonya? Did I do something to make you mad–?”

At Maryam’s bedside, Shalikova bent at the waist and grabbed the sister’s shoulders.

Pulling Maryam into a clumsy kiss on the lips. Holding for a second and parting.

Looking deep into those magnificent Katarran eyes.

For Shalikova, savoring the experience of her very first kiss–

It barely felt like anything. In fact it was almost embarrassing how normal she felt about it.

Had she expected firecrackers to go off? Tongue? Her pale skin turned red as beets.

Maryam was also turning red, putting her hands up to her cheeks, swooning and giggling.

Those fins atop her head started to wiggle with delight.

“Sonya–!”

“I– I think I love you, Maryam.” Shalikova said and instantly wanted to kick herself for it.

While the two had their moment, the bearing monitors in the medbay blared a silent alarm.

Unbeknownst to the young lovers, the Brigand was dealing with a crisis yet again.


“Start moving away from it as fast as you can! Now! Right now!”

Ulyana Korabiskaya briefly stood up from her seat to punctuate the urgency of this order.

Helmsman Kamarik did not need to be told twice. The Brigand turned its prow away from Goryk’s Gorge and began to accelerate as much as it could with the damage it had previously sustained. On the main screen, amid a mass of red matter, the predictive imaging attempted to block out a “shape” for the “dreadnought” it had spotted and assigned mechanical explanations to the biological details it was seeing. Everyone on the bridge focused on their stations rather than look at the main screen.

From the electronic warfare station, Alex Geninov waved frantically at the Captain.

“Uh, ma’am, I started to clone the storage on that HELIOS thing like the hangar was asking for, and the HELIOS Information System seems to have data on that Leviathan. As soon as I started a connection to that Diver it started trying to image the Leviathan through the network. Take a look.”

“Feed it to the main screen. Let’s see what Solarflare LLC has dug up.”

Alex did just that, and after a moment to think, the predictive imager discarded the idea that the Leviathan rising out of Goryk was a known dreadnought model. Instead a fully biological classification appeared, and the picture became crystal clear as to the features of the gargantuan monster roaring to life right in front of their eyes. In the HELIOS Information System, this beast was described as a “Fortress-class” Leviathan with a unique name. It was known as “Dagon.” And there was more–

“Syzygy flagship Dagon– what the hell does that even mean? Flagship?” Ulyana said.

“Flagship implies its leading something.” Aaliyah said. “I can’t imagine this is correct.”

“I think the pictures are correct, I dunno about the description text.” Alex hesitantly added.

On the main screen the clarified image showed a creature with a long body that seemed covered in some kind of fur or fibers, black and brown. Upon its back were two sets of appendages that resembled more than anything the wings of a bird, folding on clawed joints. One pair of wings had a truly enormous span and a second, smaller pair guarded what appeared to be attached bio-hydrojets. A smaller set of these hydrojets rested on the creature’s tapering rear, where a massive dolphin-like tail stretched.

Toward the front of the creature was a small serpent-like head adorned with forward and side-facing horns, and a mouth that unhinged horribly to let out great, shrill bellows that Fatima al-Suhar described as sounding like the shrieking of a woman. She was clearly unnerved by them. As more data was fed in and more of the picture was clarified, bio-weapons could be seen, two large bio-cannons on the back and numerous remora-like “Sprayfish” class Leviathans burying into the monster’s skin like gas guns.

“It’s imitating a dreadnought?” Ulyana said. “Damn it, what on Aer is going on here?”

“Oh! Looks like my intuition was right. All of you really are still in horrible danger!”

There was an incongruously delighted voice coming from the door to the bridge.

Braya Zachikova arrived, quiet, with a sullen expression.

And she arrived with a guest.


In the middle of the near-lightless utility room, framed by the dim rays of the LEDs out in the hall, Braya Zachikova had found a woman where she had expected the corpse of a fish. Around her was a puddle of oily colorless flesh like raw leather or wet innards, sliding off her back and limbs like she was dropping a coat from her slender shoulders. That movement, the easy wet peeling of meat from off a human body, when Zachikova looked at it she felt her vision distorted, as if her brain was a predictive imager trying to make sense of something, framerate lagging, pixels out of place. An alien imitation of motion.

At first the smell of her was disgustingly fishy and salty, clinging to Zachikova’s nostrils like the flecks of oil in the puddle below, as if it would be impossible to clean the aroma out of herself. Then however it became sweet, almost floral, as the flesh further contracted and more of the creature’s new, human body appeared in its place. It stirred something inside Zachikova, something under her gut.

There was a quivering feeling, a sense of pressure or contraction in her.

Something new, never before felt.

Speechless, she took a step back, and the lights behind her shed on the woman instead.

The creature’s eyes shut for a brief moment and slowly reopened, as she adjusted to the light.

Seeing her, truly seeing her, Zachikova felt her heart stir as it had done for the dancer.

She was pale as porcelain, skin stark white except for the two thin, smooth, small, upright horns that grew from her forehead, parting her long, swept, red-streaked white bangs. Her eyes were no longer lilac but gold irises on black sclera, reflecting nothing, but striking Zachikova as containing a truly unfathomable intellect. Her hair, red and white, fell in waves of silk behind her back and over her shoulders.

Her pallid figure was slim, long limbed, slender, lithe, every adjective that could come to Zachikova’s mind as her eyes followed the smooth, gentle curve of her round shoulders, crested the hill of her breasts, followed her flat belly and the slight, firm roundness of her hips. From her hips, calves, and forearms, thin white and red fins grew sleek, diaphanous and moist. They resembled the koi fish-like profile that had so enamored Zachikova. Her slender, long fingers looked temptingly soft as the features of her face. Curled behind her was a white tail that could reach to the floor, parting at the end like a dolphin’s or whale’s.

For Zachikova, who had rarely felt physical attraction, looking at this woman sent jolts of titillating electricity into her core, over the tips of her own fingers and to the ends of her own breasts.

“Braya.”

She spoke her name, cooing it softly.

It felt as if there were flesh in her metal ears for that voice to caress.

“Braya. Do you like this form? I wanted to enter the next phase of our courtship.”

Zachikova couldn’t respond to that. She couldn’t master herself enough to speak.

When she had found something aesthetically pleasing in the past, it had often been a design, a machine, or a clever bit of software. She had felt a sense of titillation toward such things in the past on rare occasions, but she knew it was incongruous and ignored it. People had hardly ever interested her, and when she felt that she became taken with her Dancer she knew intellectually that physical affection from it, true skin to skin affection, was something impossible. But it was no more impossible to her than having sex with Semyonova, Geninov, Murati or any human person she had ever felt even the vaguest physical attraction towards. Physical and social permissibility were no different to a heart as closed shut as hers.

In short: to her she it was equally impossible to fuck machines, fish, or people.

So it never mattered. It shouldn’t have mattered. She had been happy to love her Dancer from afar.

To acknowledge her as a superlative design, and feel happy as a witness.

Knowing there was a gap in their species did not blunt her appreciation.

Now however it was as if hormones that had been repressed for decades flowed heedless.

Now– it was permissible. It was permissible to think– in physical terms–

Her imagination could scarcely handle the feelings flooding in.

She thought initially that it had to be the smell– it was enchanting her somehow.

Pheromones. Like an animal– it’s got pheromones– the sweat, the sebum, it attracts me–

“Braya~”

Zachikova stood frozen still as the body in the puddle stood clumsily on her sleek, human legs.

On her soft, delicate-looking feet, balancing herself by that long, graceful tail.

There was a brief red flash in her eyes, clearly visible amid the inky black of them.

Beneath their feet the puddle of flesh stirred one final time.

Gore and guts that had peeled from the woman began to coil around her arm as if alive again and beckoned by her. Glistening grey and brown flesh thinned, dried, and blood dribbled out from it as if wrung out, all while the mass snaked as if on the creature’s fingertips. When it finally settled, she took the mass and casually spread it, having formed a white robe parted down the middle, which she draped over her shoulders, wearing it in a way that her breasts and everything else was still exposed.

At her feet the puddle had turned dark red from all the blood and fluid drained from the robe.

Zachikova watched her, unblinking, as she approached to within a few steps of her.

“Braya. Braya, Braya, Braya– I love saying your name like this. Hearing it in my throat.”

She smiled, her cheeks spreading ever so softly on that smooth, immaculate face.

One hand laid upon Zachikova’s shoulder, and the second gripped her firmly on the hip.

Her touch was like pure ecstasy, being in her presence, held by her, a sweet warm feeling–

It wasn’t pheromones. Zachikova wanted this. Her heart pounded and not out of fear.

Everything that she thought it would feel like, to touch, to be held, to be enveloped in the flesh of another close enough to feel her heartbeat through the touch. This really was her– it really was the Leviathan who had enamored her with its graceful dance. Had she been human all along or had by some miracle a human form been given to her Leviathan, to meet Zachikova like this? Regardless, the press of physical intimacy destroyed all other thoughts in the officer’s mind. She was starving for touch.

Rather than her fantasies of swimming in the ocean together– Dancer had come to her.

That hand laid upon her shoulder glided across, to the back of her neck.

Skin to skin, for the first time. Like a wave that touch reverberated across Zachikova’s body.

As if touching not just the skin of her neck but touching every skin, even the deepest.

“Braya~”

Taller than Zachikova, the woman guided her head to tip slightly up for her access.

While her lips drew near and pressed, touching, at first, glancing.

Zachikova felt the hand behind her press on her flesh and the hand on her hip nearly lift her.

Despite the differences in size and strength Zachikova did not wait.

Reciprocating, she pushed back onto the creature with her own needy kiss.

With ardor they locked lips again and again, lingering breaches inviting brief mutual taste.

Parting less than a millimeter for less than a second before they joined again.

At first their opens eyes were fixed together as tightly as their lips, but as if one the two shut out the light, feeling only each other in the darkness. There was a trust built between their flesh, suspended in an all-encompassing embrace. Zachikova felt her mouth parted by the creature’s tongue and gave no resistance. She felt the weight of her bear slowly down. Compliant, wanting, needy, she let the creature sit her down and let her lay atop her, tongue crawling deep as throat, slender roaming fingers. Undoing Zachikova’s pants and sliding teasingly down her lower belly, across her quivering inner thigh–

Pause–

Zachikova opened her eyes with a start. The woman had turned her head to the wall, eyes glowing red.

Her distracted long tongue retreated leaving Zachikova gasping, shuddering between breaths–

Sloshing thick fluid spilled from her once invaded lips tasting salty-sweet–

Those fingers on her thighs slackening in their grip, ending the fantasy–

What had been pure physical instinct before gave way to the squeamishness of intellect. Realizing there was a woman on top of her of unknown provenance whose fingers were just about to go inside her, whose tongue she had tasted to her throat, Zachikova crawled out from under her in a sudden panic. Everything felt suddenly irrational, though not wholly unwanted– she could no longer lose herself to the longing flesh having been given time to think, and made herself deny the pleasure then.

She retreated back to the unemotional logic that governed her mind.

And away from the intoxicating taste of another body–

“Who are you? I’ll sound the alarm!” Zachikova said.

Pulling her pants up, she put her back to a wall and her hand over a red emergency button.

The creature’s fluids still trailed from Zachikova’s own lips. She had to brush it off.

Her flight triggered no chase. Her counterpart was serene in tone.

An unconcerned, gentle smile adorned the face of the creature as she stood back up.

“Of course you know who I am, Braya.”

“Quit being coy!”

Something distracted her again– the creature kept looking to the wall.

“Oh Braya. Well. I’m afraid that this vessel is not out of danger. We should sort that out first.”

“Do I need to either repeat what I said, or push this button?”

At this, the creature pouted. That expression– Zachikova’s loins stirred again.

She was so beautiful– so beautiful, with an alien eroticism to her every movement.

No, calm down– quit acting so stupid, Braya Zachikova!

“Oh dear, my little Braya– ah, well. I should have known you’d be a little closed minded at first. That’s fine then. We can start over from the beginning. You’re worth it to me.” The creature took the makeshift robe which she had put over her shoulders, and slipped her arms in the sleeves, fastening it around her hips, such that it split tantalizingly just above the knees. Zachikova tried not to stare at her.

“Give me a name or I’ll have security sort you out.” Zachikova threatened.

“You can call me Arbitrator One.” She said. “We write the number in the ancient tally.”

So it was actually written as Arbitrator I, but it was not pronounced that way.

“What kind of a name is that? It’s more like a made-up title isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

“No, it’s my name. But if you want, you and you alone can call me Arabella.”

“You’re Arbitrator I then.” Zachikova said. Trying to make herself be cold to her. To reject her.

It almost hurt. She– she wanted to treat this creature lovingly. It was irrational! She had to resist it.

Braya Zachikova was a machine. She couldn’t let herself act so foolish around this thing.

“Braya, I’m a bit disappointed.” Arbitrator I put her hands behind her back and leaned forward, her eyes narrowed, giving Zachikova a petty, hurt look. “I thought you of all people would understand me.”

“Are you the Dancer?” Zachikova said. Then she realized suddenly– would she even know that name? And before Arbitrator I could respond, clarified. “The Leviathan that– that died in the Gorge–”

“That was a part of me. I am as much exclusively it as you are only the last skin you shed.”

Her eyes lit up again and she started to look around the room again with a sudden urgency.

“It’s really surfaced.” She said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Braya, you’re all in danger. Please believe me.”

She kept repeating that. Was it true?

Then again–

At this point it hardly mattered. Zachikova felt a stab of anxiety. She had to report this– all of this.

The Captain would have to sort it out. Whether Arbitrator I was lying or not.

Zachikova lifted her hand from the emergency alarm, feeling dazed by everything that happened.

“Braya, you need to navigate this vessel away from here.” Arbitrator I insisted.

“Away to where?” Zachikova said, sighing as she humored her.

“Hmm. Preferably we’d go that way.” Arbitrator I pointed her hand straight up.


At this point, in this particular day, the bridge officers on the Brigand had seen enough people come in and make mysterious pronouncements that the moment Zachikova came through the door with her mystery guest, everyone had already made time in their busy schedules to stare at her. However, the last few people that had come in, like “Euphemia Rontgen” and “Elena” were ordinary-looking folks.

Even for a Katarran (they assumed) this new entrant was particular.

Bare-foot, wearing a tight white robe, overlong red and white hair– and those horns!

Those eyes— then again, Maryam Karahailos had strange eyes too.

However, the most salient thing for the officers was where this woman had come from.

Everyone had formally been told of the Solarflare LLC employees, and of Maryam and Marina.

“Zachikova, who is this woman? Where did she come from? Why is she on the bridge?”

Ulyana Korabiskaya was firm but not necessarily adamant.

A lot had happened that day. For the moment she was in a fey mood in which she believed she was ready for anything. Come what may! She was rolling with the punches. Her scientist guests lying about their names and what was in their crates? Fine. Marina had fooled them all into escorting the Imperial Princess this whole time? Sure. She had always expected Marina to be lying, though not with such grandiosity. An enormous Leviathan was bursting out of the Goryk Abyss? Why not, at this point. Bring it on.

She did not want to admit it, but this was a nascent panic beginning to snake through her brain.

“She came from– Um–” Zachikova paused. She raised a hand to her lips. Her face was a bit more expressive than usual, in that her brow was ever so slightly furrowed. She then proceeded to speak, after gathering her thoughts, unsmiling and with a neutral gaze. “She came from outside the ship.”

“From outside the ship? From the open ocean? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

Zachikova made no expression. Ulyana narrowed her eyes. The mystery woman smiled.

“Did the Antenora fire a boarding torpedo at us?” Ulyana said.

“We’d know if that had happened.” Aaliyah interjected, listening to the whole exchange.

“Was she a stowaway with Solarflare LLC’s cargo?” Ulyana asked Zachikova.

“No.” Zachikova said. Ulyana crossed her arms with exasperation.

“Then did she crawl through the vents? What the hell is going on?”

Aaliyah groaned and put her head against the computer terminal arm on her seat.

Ulyana’s brain had briefly pored over the realistic possibilities. None of it made sense.

Zachikova seemed unable to say anything but, “She really came from outside the ship.”

So Ulyana then turned to the mystery woman herself. “Okay, you, identify yourself now.”

“I am Arbitrator One, written with ‘I’. I come from the people known as the Omenseers.”

That woman crossed one arm over her chest and performed a short bow, smiling.

“I’ve been contending with liars all day, so forgive me, but– No, you’re not!” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I shrugged with her palms up. “Then you may call me Arabella then, I suppose.”

“Don’t call her that.” Zachikova said suddenly. “That’s– That’s clearly the fake one.”

“Aww. Little Braya is jealous– you’re right, that name is only for Braya.” Arbitrator I said.

Zachikova turned sharply to her. “Knock that shit off, they’ll misunderstand!”

Ulyana stared at Zachikova then at Arbitrator I in turn. One flustered, the other grinning.

In her mind she ran through the things she knew about Zachikova.

And the things she knew about the present situation.

Something was connecting, but she didn’t want it to connect.

Because it was too absurd. It was a desperate bit of pattern recognition and nothing more.

Last time she saw Zachikova she had run out after her pet Leviathan had sacrificed itself to save them. Ulyana had heard reports from the sailors of Zachikova running across the hangar to the utility chute near the rearmost part of the ship’s habitable pods. That was where she had recalled her drone to after the previous events. Ulyana, at the time, figured that Zachikova was in a vulnerable state and that she wanted to collect a final memento of the creature from the drone. Now she was on the bridge with–

Now–

Zachikova was here on the bridge– with a mysterious woman who–

–who looked a little bit like if someone was trying to cosplay that Leviathan,

and was saying weird things and had come out of nowhere

Oh no no no no no Absolutely no Absolutely no That is completely insane

“I’m–” Ulyana had an involuntary twitch. “I’m going to ask again and I want a rational answer.”

“Esteemed Captain,” Arbitrator I performed another little bow and raised her voice as if speaking to an audience. “This vessel is in grave danger, from which you may not be able to escape without my particular expertise. I implore you to defer the matter of my identity at least temporarily until such a time as Braya– and of course other hominins aboard– are safe from Dagon’s emergence out of Agartha.”

Ulyana only heard one word of that. “Did you say ‘Dagon’? Did I hear you correctly?”

“Indeed, that is the name of the creature.” Arbitrator I said.

“Then you’re with Solarflare LLC! Quit making up ridiculous–”

“Uhh, Captain! That big guy is doing something!” Alex Geninov shouted.

On the main screen, a Radiation warning suddenly appeared.

They had been scanned by LADAR, the sensors detected the lasers. This was shortly followed by the sensors detecting that a sonar pulse had bounced off the hull. And then another– Fatima al-Suhar withdrew from her ears her headphones, rubbing the sides of her head in pain. She must have heard the pulse, but she was too dazed– Ulyana realized that all the roaring may have been bio-sonar pulses.

That LADAR warning could not have come from the Antenora either.

Both ships had gone their own ways and the Antenora knew the Brigand’s position already.

“Fatima, are you alright?” Ulyana asked.

“That noise felt a knife cutting across my skull.” Fatima replied, nearly weeping.

Ulyana was speechless. She felt pure anxiety vibrating between her skin and flesh.

“Have you heard any technological noises since the Antenora fled?” She asked.

“It couldn’t have been technological.” Fatima said. “It had to be biological, Captain.”

There was no denying the terrible hypothesis in the back of her mind.

“Take a rest. You’ve done more than enough today.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you Captain. I’m very sorry. I should be stronger–”

“Don’t worry. Please just take care of yourself.”

Fatima nodded her head and leaned back on the padding of her chair, gently sobbing.

Ulyana trusted her. There really were no mechanical ships being caught on their sonar.

So that LADAR had to have come from the Leviathan. It really was an imitation battleship.

Leviathans were much faster than ships. This creature had seen them. Would it give chase?

And if it gave chase could they escape it? Could they fight it off in their current state?

On the main screen, the creature looked to still be extricating its bulk from the Gorge.

They still had some time to react, but how much? How vehemently would it attack?

Ulyana called on Semyonova, on the station adjacent to the despondent Fatima.

“Have Maharapratham called to the bridge right away. She needs to see this.” She said.

Semyonova nodded and began to work on her task when she was interrupted.

A pale white hand gently patted her shoulder as if to say that wouldn’t be necessary.

“Have you perhaps a clearer picture of the danger you are in?”

Arbitrator I chimed in again, reminding Ulyana and the officers of her presence once more.

“Captain, I can tell from your aura, you have acknowledged an idea of what I am. It disgusts you, but it’s the only explanation that makes sense, isn’t it? For now, we can leave it at that– I am indeed the Leviathan that was outside. I am friendly– I want nothing more than to save this vessel. Right now, understanding the situation won’t save you. You will have to trust me and verify later.”

Those eyes of hers, yellow on black like a beast. Even Katarrans didn’t have eyes like that.

Meeting those eyes and the depth of their alien intellect, Ulyana felt her heart quaver.

Then as Ulyana’s own ordinary eyes locked deep with Arbitrator I’s exotic eyes–

The latter’s, in a blink, became ordinary green irises on white sclera just like her own.

She had changed them– right? She had transformed them. They weren’t like that before.

Was she seeing things now? Ulyana relented. She wasn’t equipped to tackle this now.

“Aaliyah, are you okay with adding this to the pile of interrogations we need to do?”

“At this point, I don’t think we have a choice.” Aaliyah replied.

On the main screen, there was a sudden gust of red biomass from the gorge.

As with a flap of its “wings” the massive Dagon finally emerged fully into open water.

They were uncomfortably close to the Gorge and therefore to the creature.

The Captain tried not to show it but her breathing was accelerating heavily.

She felt a pressure so powerful that it was crushing her against her seat.

Watching that lumbering creature begin to move, and begin to turn–

Was she going to lose this ship and the lives of everyone in it, like the Pravda?

Ulyana’s voice caught in her throat. Her chest heaved, her skin felt tense over her flesh.

Her head filled with hazy thoughts of flooding, electrical fires, gorey images of the injured swimming in and out of her vision. Reaching for them, unable to take their hands and save them. Surrounded by the bodies. Would it happen again? Was she destined to lose everything again? Her own life was meaningless to her in that instant. She thought of her crew– what would happen to them? The events of the past few weeks sped through her mind like a blur, could she have done anything, anything at all to forestall this?

Could she do anything now? She was practically choking.

“It’s unmistakable now! It’s bearing right toward us!” Semyonova shouted.

Ulyana felt a stone sinking down her throat and landing heavy in her stomach.

Despite their vaunted position there was nothing a Captain could do but give orders.

They weren’t the heroes– they sent people to their deaths. She was nothing without this crew. This magnificent crew had already done so much, proved themselves so extraordinary while against horrific odds and in less-than-ideal circumstances. Despite their eccentricities, despite their differences, they had survived to this point even as things always seemed to crumble around them.

Ulyana esteemed them dearly. She would give anything to protect them.

Now however she felt like any order she could give would be suicidal.

Where could they run? How could they fight? She had no directions to give.

Every choice available felt like it would lead to their deaths.

I couldn’t redeem myself Nagavanshi. I’m still useless. I’m still powerless.

Staring at that monster on the main screen, she felt like there was nothing she could do–

“Captain.”

She felt a hand caress her shoulder and pat on her back, coming from beside her.

Ulyana glanced at her Commissar, Aaliyah, her ears erect and tail swaying gently.

Her orange eyes fixed Ulyana’s own in a way that sent a tremor into her chest.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I haven’t seen you pull off miracle after miracle just to give up now.”

“Aaliyah–”

“We can talk later. Right now, they need the Captain to be decisive. Take a leap, however insane; I’ll follow you, no matter what it is. I trust you. You’ve more than won that trust. We can interrogate all that happened, and all that we did right or wrong, after the fact. You’re not alone; I won’t let you be.”

Ulyana looked into Aaliyah’s unwavering eyes feeling foolish for her lapse in strength.

For everyone’s sake couldn’t let this become like the Pravda. So she had no other choice.

She let go of her trepidation. When it came down to it, she only had one asset remaining.

“‘Arbitrator I’, you clearly are tied into this, so tell me how we can escape.” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I stared at the main screen with those newly green eyes, smiling contentedly.

As if knowing that her time had come. She gestured her white hands to the main screen.

“Dagon is still immature. I believe its juvenile body will not allow it to rise without being damaged by the changes in water pressure. It needs the deep water to support itself.” She said matter-of-factly, with mysterious confidence. “Therefore, we can escape by going up, Captain.” With that same odd cheerfulness to her pallid expression, she pointed her index up at the ceiling.

Zachikova blinked incredulously at this.

“She mentioned this to me before, but I thought it was nonsense.” Zachikova said.

It was true that the body plans of deep sea fish meant that their flesh and organs could collapse in lower pressure water if they ascended to the photic zone, something that the Brigand as a pressurized steel vessel did not have to contend with. That would potentially prevent Dagon from pursuing if the Brigand performed a “rapid blowout” ascent. However, even if it was true that Dagon was not equipped to rise up the water table, there was nothing waiting for them in the sunlit ocean but more death.

Arbitrator I smiled as if she knew what Ulyana was worried about.

“I can keep the vessel safe from wild Leviathans. I can do nothing against Dagon.” She said.

There was no time. Ulyana had to be decisive. She had to trust this ‘Arbitrator I’ figure.

They only had one choice. They could not possibly stay and fight Dagon in their condition.

And so it was– like in the legends, like in fables told to scare and fascinate children.

To survive, they would have to make myth reality and ascend to the surface waters.

“Helmsman, blow all the ballast water! Angle fins for rapid ascent!” Ulyana declared.

Everyone on the bridge, even the gas gunners two tiers below the Captain, turned their heads over to stare at her as if they couldn’t understand. In response, Ulyana stood from her seat aiming a hand at the main screen with a flourish. “Quit tarrying! Prepare to ascend the photic zone!” For most people, heading surfaceward was an insane endeavor– but on the main screen, there was an even more insane sight, the hulking Dagon looming nearer and nearer, and appearing large and larger than their ship.

Helmsman Kamarik looked back at Ulyana from his station, first surprised then unnerved.

“Captain I– I gotta confess, I’ve never even simulated a rapid ascent.” He said.

“I’ve read about the process.” Ulyana said. She struggled not to stutter or get tongue-tied.

“Well. Okay. You’re the boss. I guess I’ll get the ballast going then.” Kamarik said.

He spoke almost as if in the form of a question but began the process.

As part of their mobility options, ships, whether Imperial or Union, had a suite of control surfaces on the exterior, particularly the main fins and the mast/conning tower fins, and internally, they had ballast tanks to control mass and density at different parts of the ship. Ballast tanks were filled with water that could be pumped into and out of the water system. The amount of water ballast could be reduced by filling them with air from vents to make the ship float more, or increased for negative buoyancy.

Truly expert helmsmen used all of these elements to their advantage for combat maneuvering.

Ascent was normal for ships — naval combat was three dimensional.

Those same mechanisms that could be used to move up and down in a controlled fashion within the aphotic waters could be used for an extreme ascent into the photic zone, the forbidden realm of sunlit ocean beyond the upper scattering layer. Nothing physically prevented them from doing so. There was less pressure in the photic zone, so it was even mechanically safer to operate there. However, the presence of corrupted weather and Leviathans made it a fool’s errand. Only a scant few rapid ascents had ever been performed by Union ships, and it was something that was useless to teach to new crews.

“Helmsman, the only tricky part will be stopping our ascent short of the surface.”

Once the ballast was blown and the ship started climbing rapidly, the water system would be strained.

In order to stop themselves quickly to prevent breaching the surface and exposing the ship to the full extent of the Corruption, they would have to dump water back into the ballast tanks and level out.

Cutters and most civilian vessels did not have internal water systems strong enough to refill the tanks in the middle of an ascension, so they never blew their tanks. Anything Frigate size or larger could do it provided there was water in the system ready to route into the tanks. Ulyana knew, theoretically, that even if water collection was compromised during the ascent, there was always enough water in one place: the reactor cooling. It could be routed into ballast temporarily, leaving the reactor to run hot for a time.

“At 150 depth, we should be able to level out if we pump heavy water into the tanks.” Ulyana said.

Helmsman Kamarik whistled admiringly. “Ma’am, this is fuckin’ crazy. But here it goes.”

“Semyonova, relay to the hangar!” Aaliyah said. “Tell everyone to secure tools, now.”

“Um, yes!”

Semyonova quickly broadcast to the ship– but she had maybe twenty or thirty seconds.

Not nearly enough time to warn everyone–

“Alright, here goes nothing!” Kamarik said. “Blowing the ballast and angling up!”

At first there was a periodic vibration, that traveled from the ship into the bodies within.

As the ballast water blasted out of its hatches and the ship tilted it became a quake.

Rumbling that presaged the beginning of a mythical flight.

Parvati Nagavanshi had been right. Ulyana could either become the greatest Captain the Union had ever seen, or a washed up nobody, reaper of ships, a death-omen if she even survived the madness she had been thrust into. She thought she had come to terms with the last crazy task she had to confront and then there would suddenly be a new, even more startling development to test her resolve.

This time, it wouldn’t be like the Pravda. They couldn’t be any more different.

She watched the main screen as the monster called Dagon left their sight.

Grabbing hold of her chair as the ship angled almost 40 degrees toward the firmament.

Shooting up faster and faster, rattling and shaking, the main computer blaring statuses.

Turbines and pumps and air vents in the water system struggled and cried out for aid.

Already damaged electrical systems reported sporadic failures with lights, circulators, network boards.

Every officer grabbed hold as best they could as the ship climbed.

Arbitrator I seized Zachikova into an embrace and held on to the post of Semyonova’s chair with her tail. Geninov, Fatima, and the rest grabbed on to their chairs which were bolted to the ground. Helmsman Kamarik struggled between holding on for life and limb and continuing to operate his station. As the Brigand tilted to an ever more violent angle and picked up speed, anything freestanding on the officer’s stations like half-empty cups of coffee or broth or cans of protein stew went flying to the back of the bridge, spilling and rattling. Every human body threatened to fly to the back as well.

It was a spectacular insanity. Nobody was prepared for this. Nobody could prepare for it.

Ulyana went from being almost sick with nerves to grinning at the sheer chaos of it.

She felt as if the judgment of God was being cast upon her. Her sins weighed like the ballast.

And despite everything, she had blown them out to begin her climb to paradise.

Having surmounted so much danger, staring the sky in the face, it led Ulyana to finally realize: the Pravda had not been her own fault. She had made no decisions as the Captain of the Pravda, she had no agency in the midst of the disaster. She was a victim. She was in command of a test voyage and the ship’s guts failed that test. It was not like the decision to fight back against the Iron Lady, to charge into Norn’s claws, to trust Elena Lettiere, or now, the decision to follow Arbitrator I, a being who had appeared and spoken mere sentences before suggesting that they ascend the heavens to escape their fate.

Those were pivotal moments where she had affected the lives of her crew.

As Captain of the Brigand, Ulyana had made several choices, pored over, and reasoned to the best of her ability, with all the information at her disposal at the time she made those choices. She gave orders, oversaw plans and organization. People, and the ship, moved as she commanded. On the Brigand, she had been responsible for the lives of many. It was not so when the Pravda met its demise.

That had been a tragedy, a wound in history which she was truly helpless to forestall.

And by contrast, on the Brigand, Ulyana was not helpless or hopeless. She had agency.

She was exercising the power and judgment she had to the best of her ability.

As the ship became free of its water weight and rose, Ulyana shed her own burdens.

No regrets. At every turn, I’ve done the best I could. Thank you, Aaliyah.

With one hand holding onto her chair, Ulyana stretched out the other.

Around Aaliyah Bashara’s shoulder, as the commissar struggled to hold on as well.

“Are you ready to follow me into hell, Commissar?” She cried out, over the rumbling and rattling.

“Always, Captain!” Aaliyah shouted as well.

On the cameras, the red waters were quickly left behind.

Katov biomass readings plummeted, and the water turned from red to black to blue.

Dagon had vanished, and the sight in front of them was a thick cloud of organisms.

“Crossing the upper scattering layer!” Kamarik shouted. “Hold on, baby, hold on!”

Sensing the advance of the ship the teeming mass of pelagic fish and the ordinary predators that thrived on them spread open suddenly as if forming among them a door. A biological gate to the heaven that was barred to humanity, and there were less than seconds of recognition of this grand feat and what it signified as the Brigand hurtled through the 100 meter strata of marine life at immense speed.

“400 depth– and climbing!” Geninov cried out in mixed awe and terror.

On their cameras the surroundings were beautiful and alien.

Blue water all around them. They could see— the water was streaked with light.

Directly above was God, white disk adorned with grand rays. 400 meters, 300 meters–

Beams of light shooting eerily into the water. It was the corrupted surface directly above.

Mere hundreds of meters away. Closing in. Humanity’s forbidden, fallen holy land.

Sinners who had been cast from heaven now leaped toward the firmament.

“Pump the reactor cooling water into the tanks! Level us out now! Right now!”

Against the force of the water the Brigand’s fins returned to their horizontal, level plane.

Through a herculean effort of every available mechanism the reactor cooling pods drained heavy water into the ballast tanks at maximum pump. Red alerts screeched as various components strained under the pressure, turbines grinding, pumps screaming. There was compounding damage everywhere–

“She’ll make it! She’ll make it!” Kamarik yelled.

Ulyana held on to hope as the ship struggled, shaking itself apart.

At her side, Aaliyah threw her own arm around the Captain, clinging tight to her.

With her at my side– we won’t fail.

Judged–

–and found worthy.

Directly below the sun disk, body of God, the Brigand leveled out, avoiding the surface.

A mere 50 meters below the edge of their world.

On the bridge, the officers nearly stumbled out of their chairs, having been leaning to keep themselves level while the ship had been tilted and now finding themselves in obscene angles with the ship righted. All the cans and cups rattled one more time. One final quake spread through the ship that rumbled right into Ulyana’s chest as they stabilized. On the main screen there was bright, blue ocean all around them.

Final labored breaths shook the terror out of their chests. They were– they were safe?

“Damage report.” Ulyana said, exhibiting a slight trepidation.

“We might have some leaky pipes and a few pumps to replace.” Kamarik said.

“We have electrical damage basically everywhere. Core’s heating up.” Geninov added.

“The hangar’s a mess. Tools everywhere.” Semyonova moaned. “A few injuries. No deaths.”

Subhaan Allah.” Fatima said, holding a hand against her breast and breathing deep.

Ulyana laid a hand over her face. What a mess. “At least we’re alive. Kamarik, get us down to 200 or 300 depth again. Take it slow and start phasing out the heavy water from the system and refilling with sea water. Prioritize refilling the core, even if we have to move at one knot or stay still. Semyonova, tell everyone not to use the faucets or anything right now, it’s going to be full of agarthic salt if they do. God, what a mess. Everyone run checks on your own systems. Are all the sensors still up? We need to plan repairs too. Get Lebedova on it if she isn’t. If she needs additional manpower the pilots can help.”

It was a lot easier to resume the act of being Captain than to take in what had happened.

At his station, however, Kamarik was smiling placidly, leaning back on his chair.

“Something wrong?” Ulyana asked, near breathless from everything that had transpired.

Kamarik shook his head. “No, just taking this whole shit in. We’re naval legends now, Captain.”

He ran his hand over his station screen like he was comforting it. “This dame really did it.”

“We’re gonna be dead legends soon!” Geninov shouted from Zachikova’s station.

Dozens of red flashes appeared on the main screen, target boxes around incoming objects.

Leviathans. Sprayfish class, Barding class, Greathorn class– leviathans of all sizes.

Great maws, long bodies, numerous jets, bio-cannons. All kinds of body plans.

They had detected the Brigand and were approaching, cautiously, curiously, in numbers.

“We traded a big one for every fucking little one in a ten kilometer radius!” Geninov cried.

Ulyana shut her eyes and drew in a breath. She tried not to panic. It was another moment.

One of many that would characterize their journey from here. All she could do was face it.

“You said you would handle this? Show me you aren’t a fraud then– or die with us.”

She turned a glare on Arbitrator I, who seemed perfectly calm with the situation.

Letting go of Zachikova, whom she had been tenderly embracing during the ascent.

She walked forward, between all the stations on the middle tier, just below the Captain.

“Of course. Please observe. I am who I say I am. And with this, I seal an oath to this vessel.”

On the main screen the pack of Leviathans approached, circling, spiraling, hurtling forth–

Arbitrator I raised her hand to the main screen, eyes glowing with red rings.

“Raise not your arms against the master of Lemuria and chosen of Shalash. Omensight.”

Ulyana felt something stir. Something that made the tiniest hairs on her skin stand on end.

In front of her Arbitrator I glowed for a split second with a myriad of colors.

It could’ve been the lights, or it could’ve been Ulyana’s own exhaustion.

These brief explanations could encompass none of what happening, however.

At her command (at her command?), the Leviathans drawing visibly nearer to the Brigand were given sudden pause, those with fish-like bodies hovering briefly in place before turning away, those with serpentine bodies directing their snaking masses in directions away from the Brigand and coiling at a distance. Those with whale-like bodies that could not easily turn their bulk dove deep to swim beneath the Brigand, unable to swim over due to the proximity to the surface. That teeming mass of life which they had attracted crossed past them and dispersed. Ahead of them the ocean became clear again.

Clear of the Leviathans, but in their place, the sunlit world was still filled with life.

With the danger passed, the main screen filled with the beauty of paradise.

White rays of sunlight penetrated the water’s surface and illuminated schools of small fish swimming in their thousands. Jellyfish with surfaces cycling through the colors of natural rainbows rose and fell in their natural diligence. Larger fish preyed on the small as if nothing had disturbed their hidden world. Those Leviathans went from being threats to rejoining nature, navigating with their own majesty amid the ordinary creatures. In contact with the light, and separated from the benthic world of humanity, nature flourished in the photic zone. Ulyana watched this serene landscape, with quiet reverence, as if still counting the seconds of life that she had left in the face of a danger now, finally, abated.

A collective sigh reverberated across the bridge. They were finally safe.

They had survived.

Exhausted officers put their heads on their station desks, deflating after the danger washed over them. Geninov was loudly sobbing. Fatima and Semyonova openly crying. Kamarik repeatedly tapped his fist on the wall near him. Fernanda stood up from her station and bowed her head over it, shifting her feet as if to keep from kicking. Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah’s ears and tail drooped so low they might have fallen off.

In place of the adrenaline and the blood boiling stalwartly in her veins, Ulyana felt a sharp stab of pain in the middle of her forehead. She hardly felt a migraine like this since she stopped drinking herself drunk. Life had stopped moving second by labored second, but she still felt the inertia brimming inside her. All of it was over, finally over. No enemies on their sensors. Just them, alone, and the open sea.

Her crew could rest. A Captain’s work was never done, however.

“Hey,”

Leaning back for comfort, calmly breathing, Ulyana fixed her attention back on Arbitrator I.

“What was all that shit you just said? Explain what the hell just happened. Right now.”

She jabbed an accusing finger at the pale woman below.

Arbitrator I beamed, bobbing her head from side to side with her hands behind her back.

“It was just the incantation to my magic spell!” She declared cheerfully.

Beside the Captain’s chair, Zachikova raised both of her hands to her face, groaning.

Ulyana felt a familiar gentle pat on the shoulder.

“We’ll save it for the interrogation, Captain.”

At her side, Aaliyah Bashare smiled, relieved and cheerful, while comforting Ulyana.

Her face might as well have glowed for how beautiful it looked at that moment.

“To hell and back again, Captain. Or I couldn’t call myself your Commissar.” She said.

Ulyana returned the smile gratefully. “You have no idea how much that means to me, Aaliyah.”

While the ship slowly got underway again, the two of them fixed gentle eyes on one another.

So it went.

For the first time in what felt like forever, the Brigand was free from external, violent threats.

It would take time for Ulyana to feel safe about everything she had learned today, however.

Their horizon was filled with fog and smoke. But they could do nothing but go forth through it.

For the next leg of their journey, the Brigand’s path would be lit by the sun itself.

An even grander journey awaited them. At least Ulyana would not have to command it alone.


Within the roiling red cloud that had burst from Goryk’s Abyss lumbered a great tyrant of the seas.

Rising out of a wound in the earth, roaring its entrance into the world of “human civilization.”

Avoiding its strength, the humans which had borne witness to its rise fled in every direction.

Its name was Dagon. With six eyes on its head and several across its body, the monster watched the machine it had sought to pursue shoot skyward at a bewildering pace. In itself, the beast scarcely understood what it was seeing or what had happened– but deep within the pressurized cavities of the monster there were symbiotic intelligences that understood what had transpired. They guided the creature to resume its flight within the shadowed wilderness of what was known as “Sverland.”

These intelligences did not answer to the beast, however, nor did the beast truly answer to them.

Both Dagon and its navigators bowed before the authority of the being Dagon was born to protect.

“We were tracking a ship, weren’t we? How come nobody’s updated me on it?”

Her voice reverberated across the interior of Dagon’s cerebral pod, stirring semi-transparent teal-blue organelles on the surrounding walls, like sinewy boils in which humanoid bodies could be seen to float, suspended in a film of dimly glowing gel, and affixed by their slender, pale necks to great bundles of nerves and arteries. Moisture glistened on the leather-pink surfaces which hardened black at the edges of the organelles. They shuddered with understanding of her requests and spoke silently to her.

Numbers and coordinates and data filtered into her mind from the minds surrounding her.

“Huh? You all let it get away? Why? There was no reason to engage it? Putting those vile excuses for homo sapiens in their place is good enough for me. It would have taken us no effort to crush them utterly, no? What do you mean? What do you mean it would have been dangerous?”

She developed an angry twitch as she conversed verbally with beings speaking mentally.

“Autarch, the vessel rose to the surface. It was a powerful vessel. We did not engage in pursuit.”

“I know. Navigation told me. But thank you for appearing, Enforcer II, to take the blame.”

In the middle of the womb-like cavity rose a black, crab-legged armored throne upon which sat the exalted Autarch of the Omenseers, known as Arbitrator II. Her current body was still immature, a slender pale figure with red hair longer than herself and a single curled horn on the side of her head. Dressed in a white robe bedecked with biologically luminescent cuticles, a tail twice her size curling around her throne.

At her feet, a pale woman with wavy brown hair kneeled. She had arrived from a sphincter leading down into the lower womb, within which prepared combat bodies were maintained. Her white and black dress had a trim of brown fibers and colored algae and flattered her mature figure. If at present the Autarch appeared like an older teen or younger adult, the creature before her was a middle aged woman.

“Autarch,” Enforcer II began, “Forgive me for the miscalculation, but I’m afraid Dagon is not yet mature enough to rise any further. It was grown in the Agartha, and its body is still soft. It must adapt to the waters of the homo sapiens and must then adapt to the waters farther above. It will take time.”

Arbitrator II rolled her eyes. “Okay but why didn’t we fire at the ship? How mature are the weapons?”

“I’m afraid the bio-cannons have only reached 40% maturity. Missiles are at 50%. Forgive me, milord.”

The Autarch’s voice became slower, deeper, evident of her displeasure. “Hold out your arm. Right now.”

Enforcer II quietly and dutifully outstretched her arm. Arbitrator II did not even move in her seat.

In a split second arm fell from elbow with a violent, bloody discharge as if sliced off.

Blood sprayed in a streak over Enforcer II’s beautiful features. She grimaced, enduring the pain.

On the ground, the severed arm rolled down the pod before the floor itself opened to consume it.

Absorbing the flesh into the surroundings such that it could not be recovered.

“While you reflect upon your gross miscalculations you can restore your arm bit by bit. Dismissed.”

Enforcer II mustered a pained smile and bowed to Arbitrator II, arm still bleeding.

Arbitrator II laid back, sighing. “Oh well. No matter. For now, I’ll just savor the journey.”

Gazing around the kingdom in miniature from which she would survey the “human” world.

Grinning with self-satisfaction. Soon, she knew. Soon, the time of the Syzygy would be upon them.

Dagon glided over the ocean surface, beginning its path through the fringes of human existence.

A great shadow of once-dormant secrets now probing out from within the depths of Aer.

Arbitrator II drummed fingers on her cheek. Idly recalling visions of her previous selves.

She had airy glimpses, passing feelings, of a great history to which she was a crucial part.

“Why hurry, after all? Let’s toy with them a bit. The Titan of Aether has an unchangeable destiny.”


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Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.13]

“Huh, what’s going on over there?”

There was a strange commotion across the hall. At first it had only been a few students who had stood around to ogle the girl at the end of the hall, until more and more people realized what had happened back there. That she had chained herself intricately to the handles of the sliding door. This could not by itself prevent the door from being closed or open. It was an automatic door that could be remotely operated and even pressurized under emergencies, so the mechanisms boasted a lot of strength.

But if anyone tried to force the door to open in this situation–

–the criss-crossed chains around her chest and belly were arranged so they would tear the girl apart.

So it was unconscionable that anyone would do so.

Anyone who did would be recorded as a child murderer instantly.

“What a morbid idea! But it’s clever, I suppose. I wonder how she got the chain?”

Karuniya Maharapratham, a preparatory student in the science program, joined the throng of onlookers. Something like this had never happened that she knew about. Certainly there were students who misbehaved but they did so in much more ordinary ways. They talked back or cheated on tests or skipped class. They pulled harmless pranks on the teachers sometimes. This was new. She was curious so she managed to squeeze and slide closer. She was not very tall, but she got a glimpse of the perpetrator.

Chained to the door was a girl with brown skin and long, messy dark hair down to the shoulders, in a slight bob with bangs almost over her face. Her auburn eyes stared out to the crowd with strange intensity. She had on the long-sleeved blue and green uniform of the “young pioneers” of the military program. As far as Karuniya understood it was worn for ceremonial purposes — an interesting choice.

What she could not help but focus on, however, were the eyes of the delinquent girl. She was staring intensely at the crowd with unwavering auburn eyes. Arms crossed, standing straight despite all the cold gazes coming her way. She had so much confidence and determination for a teenager!

Or maybe she was scared stiff and witless. Karuniya couldn’t really say one way or another.

She wanted to think though that this gallant delinquent was being brave rather than foolish.

“Murati Nakara!”

Behind Karuniya the sea of gossipy students parted to allow a pair of teachers through.

They approached Murati Nakara and stood between her and the ring of onlookers.

“What is the meaning of this Murati? You’re blocking the way to the simulators!”

“Yes, I know exactly what I’m blocking, thank you.” Murati said coldly.

Both teachers looked at each other in disbelief. As if they had not expected that response.

“And the ‘meaning of this’,” Murati continued, “is a protest. It’s a form of protest.”

“Murati, this is highly irregular! If you have issue with something you need to–”

“Lodge a formal complaint? I’ve lodged three separate ones. All were thrown out.”

“Still–” the teachers looked quite nervous. “Murati, you simply can’t–”

Murati put on a little grin. “It’s impossible to remove me without killing or hurting me, so I will list my formal demands.” She began to rattle a series of grievances with remarkable strength behind her voice.

“This Preparatory purports to train young adult students for acceptance into college programs, but its military track is an absolute joke! We do all kinds of stupid paperwork and study but have no means to gain practical skills except by running simulations, to which we have limited access! Yet the assessment test for the non-commissioned officer program in the Academy requires us to pass a practical examination! So who is it that gets into the NCO track, and therefore gets shortlisted to make Junior Petty Officer upon graduation? Do they have to know a guy who knows a guy to get significant time in a cockpit before college? The Simulations room is barely used, so why is access so limited?”

Everyone stood speechless. Murati continued, barely allowing a pause between.

“You want to know the ‘meaning of this’? I demand 24 hour simulator room access for all students! There is no reason to limit entry! And there is no reason to limit entry specifically to a paltry 3 hours a week of simulator time on average! Less paper testing, and more practical study! That’s my demand! We need to be prepared not just for the military practicums but to fight against the Empire in case of emergency! I demand improved readiness, equitable access to resources, and better training! And I will block the simulator room off until I can negotiate with a qualified administrator! End of story!”

For the first time, Murati closed her eyes and laid back against the door.

Surprisingly, none of the teachers tried what Karuniya would have done in that situation. Nobody smacked her upside the head or kicked her or otherwise got physical. Surely Murati had to have the key to her own chains on her person. Or they could have subdued her long enough to take a diamond sabre to the chains. Karuniya thought up all kinds of practical ways to remove the delinquent.

Instead, they ordered everyone to get back to work and ignore Murati.

And perhaps Murati knew it would turn out like that. Maybe she really did have it all planned.

For the next three days, Karuniya saw her in that same hall of the Preparatory every so often. She always stopped to look, though Murati rarely acknowledged anyone who passed by the hall. Sometimes she would see her nibbling on a protein bar. She had hidden pouches of water in her uniform too that she took small, practical sips from. Several students were randomly cruel to her. Most of them jeered but a few went so far out of their way as to throw pens or other things at her every so often.

Despite this, Murati never even replied to those provocations. She just stood there, alone.

That tall slender girl in her gallant dress uniform simply brooded her in corner.

It was the most interesting thing that happened in school in all her years, and Karuniya wished she could have seen every second of the girl’s resistance, if only for personal amusement. In her mind, in that week, this Murati Nakara she had never met possessed something raw and powerful that Karuniya herself could never possibly have. But of course, Karuniya had classes and was busy. She couldn’t stand there staring.

All she had was the passing thought: “could I ever be this dedicated to something?”

Eventually, people met with the girl, there was a lot of talking, and she was removed.

Karuniya did not know, at the time, what happened to her. They lived in different worlds.

Next semester, however, Karuniya noticed some changes in simulator access and use.

There was 24/7 access, and she herself was not just allowed but required to participate.

Casually and without really considering why or how, Karuniya learned to pilot a Diver.


For the central government in Solstice, it was important that everyone in the Union see Mount Raja at least once. It became a symbol of the Union. There was a glitzy tour infrastructure in place to facilitate these trips. The centrality of the Union’s Military Academy in the education of various personnel was one way to get people to Mount Raja. But even the newest cafeteria worker at the most far flung station of the Union could easily check off Mount Raja from their bucket list given nothing but time.

And it was a sight indeed.

Mount Raja was an underwater mount with a peak at 900 depth but that was mainly accessed at 1600 depth on the benthic surface, with facilities spanning the range from the peak to almost 2100 depth underground where the main structure of the Core Pylon was located. Mountain stations such as these were a marvel of engineering that once allowed the Imbrian Empire to create a few cities that were almost as vast as those of the Surface Era colonizers first reshaping the ocean floor for habitation.

Using an enormous borer ship, the Imbrian engineers settling the Nectaris stabbed through Mount Raja and ultimately mounted their Core Pylon at its underground base, with the bored “stab” running through to it creating the first shaft out from which modules could be expanded. Made up of a series of enormous cube-shaped modules radiating out from the central shaft and capped with a sensor tower disguised as the mountain’s peak, the Raja Arcology, as it was technically named, was one of the few places not designed as a prison or barely-habitable factory for hated slaves and servants, but as the center of extraction and management for the Imperial bureaucracy and aristocracy of the colonies.

Boasting over a kilometer of vertical pressurized space, with each of its modules stretching several hundreds of meters around the central shaft, Raja was designed to support a million Imperial bureaucrats and nobles and now supported several million Union personnel. A secondary substation in an adjoining lesser peak a kilometer from Raja’s base was dug into and reachable by tram, adding even more capacity over the past decade. Raja Arcology was the heart of the Union government and the Naval Headquarters.

Elevators and staircases close to the shaft linked the modules vertically. Each module had a similar size when accounting for its space within the rock, but the internal layouts could vary. Some modules were quite novel for station-goers, with high ceilings and only one internal story, such as the module containing the main government building and the Premier’s office, which just had a giant open park surrounding it. Other modules were essentially massive buildings which just read as halls and rooms when one walked out of the elevator. A few popular spaces made use of open stories to have vertical malls with various shops and recreational facilities built encircling some monument or piece of art.

It was this latter type of space that Karuniya Maharapratham found herself in one cool evening in year 971 A.D. Overlooking a post-modern sculpture shimmering with neon lights that caressed her honey-brown skin. Leaning against the railing with a sly smile, trying to show off the fullness of her breasts in her most fashionable polycarbon dress, off shoulder, with flank and hip gaps and a belly window.

She was 20 years old, in the middle of her undergraduate education and on a date with a cool, handsome upperclassman whom, it was rumored, boasted out of this world dick game.  Karuniya was living.

She glanced aside, hoping to see her date checking her out through the gaps in her dress.

Instead, Murati Nakara seemed to be contemplating the twisted steel sculpture.

“The spirals and lights remind me of DNA. It’s a very biological piece of art.” She said.

Karuniya smiled. Sidling up closer, side by side looking down from the railing.

Her eyes moved from Murati’s soft lips to her sleek back to her plush, firm ass.

She looked amazing in the Academy’s blue dress uniform. Interesting choice for date wear.

I wonder if she would let me peg her. Karuniya thought, mischievously.

She kind of read her as the taciturn quiet service top but she could have been versatile!

If Murati took the lead though– Karuniya certainly wouldn’t mind getting taken down–

“You’ve been really quiet. I hope I’m not being boring.”

Murati glanced at her with a small smile, they made eye contact.

“Oh no! Everything is fantastic. Should we–”

Karuniya began to reply but–

“You look gorgeous.”

Murati said that in such a sudden, disarmingly casual way that Karuniya almost jumped.

That short messy hair; that sleek handsome jawline, in the multicolor glow of the sculpture.

Karuniya had fallen hard for her since they first had classes together over a year ago.

That odd smoldering loner girl from preparatory had really grown into a prince!

This was her chance– she had to turn all of her distant pining into some real intimacy!

“It’s almost time for our reservation.” Murati said. “Thanks for inviting me Karuniya.”

“Thank you for coming, Murati. It’s going to be amazing.”

Le Traiteur was a co-op restaurant with very limited seating, even despite the backing of the Cultural Ministry as a way to “elevate Union food culture to world standards.” As soon as Karuniya got wind of it she immediately made a reservation. At first she had thought of going alone, simply to treat herself nice after Exams period. But then Murati surprisingly turned out to be receptive to the invitation.

All they had done so far was meet up at the elevators and pass the time.

Karuniya had been nervous, in the days leading up, in the minutes since they met–

Now she was confident though. She looked her best; and Murati was happy with her.

Plus Murati gave off a vibe that was a bit naïve and hall monitor-esque– she always had.

Karuniya thought she could definitely turn this physical if she just played to her charms.

God I am so– I am so embarrassingly pent up. But it’ll be worth it!

Inside the restaurant the walls were tiled a light beige and there were several separated red booths enclosing the tables. Through a narrow central aisle, Murati and Karuniya were led to the farthest booth near the back, and the door was opened with a keycard from one of the staff. Inside, the ambiance was a little more romantic. Metal walls projected the appearance of sultry red silk curtains, and a fake candle-light flickered in the center of a table with two opposing but close seats.

Murati on one side, Karuniya directly across.

Looking into each other’s eyes with faces lit dimly by the wild false fire on the candle.

Karuniya leaned forward a little with a smile.

“So, Murati, I’ve seen you in some of my required military and humanities courses. What is your concentration? I assume you’re not in the Science Corps like me.” Karuniya said, breaking the ice.

“My concentration is in Historical Development of Naval Strategy but I’m not pursuing an academic career.” Murati said. She looked like she had been distracted by the ostentatiousness of the room and caught lightly off-guard when Karuniya actually demanded her attention. “Right now I’m angling for ship Captain. After a few successful campaigns I might parlay that into a role as Commander for a fleet section. But for now I’m just focusing on Captain as solid start. So I have to graduate as a Junior Petty Officer.”

Karuniya blinked. You’re 21 years old? And your goal is already in fleet command?!

“That sounds quite gallant. I’ll definitely be rooting for you.” Karuniya said.

In an environmental impact study that Karuniya had extensively researched for a paper, there was a small factoid that felt relevant here. With Premier Ahwalia having slowed shipbuilding during his first term, the Union was barely on track to complete 27 military ships in 972, even with all of the cheats that modern Union shipbuilding used, like the industrial size Ferrostitchers at Sevastopol and Kashgar stations. In the best case scenario there would be 27 military Captainships open next year when the 27 ships formally launched, since they would need to be inspected, trialed and commissioned.

The Union had something on the order of 50 million people and growing and there were over 900,000 personnel in the Navy and growing. There were hundreds of people more senior than Murati who would be tapped to become Captains ahead of her. And she could forget about becoming a Commander too. There would far less of those promotions available in her career lifetime and far more applicants.

Mathematically, nearly everything was against Murati’s ambition there.

And yet– this only made Karuniya feel fonder for Murati, who spoke so confidently.

She’s a dreamer for sure. I kinda like that. There’s more to her than meets the eye.

For someone who just did all that analysis in her head, there was a certain attraction toward a woman who could just bluntly state that extraordinary things would happen by force of will. And Murati was no fool– she probably knew the odds were against her. It was impossible to be in the career track that she was and not knowing this. And yet, she not only dreamed, but declared it without fear.

“What about you Karuniya? From afar you always struck me as a really driven person.”

“I did? Well, I have pretty humble ambitions actually, I’m just pursuing a PHD.”

“That’s pretty ambitious!” Murati said. “Not many of those are made each year.”

I could say the same for your crazy dreams! Karuniya shouted internally.

“My goal is to become an Oceanographer. I’d like to study the health of our seas.”

“I see–!”

At that point, the aperitif arrived, and Murati offered no words of praise or support like the ones Karuniya had given her. Her attention shifted immediately and fully to the food, and Karuniya could not tell if it was just something she didn’t care about or if she was just that easily distracted. There was a part of her, a bit of pride, that felt slightly wounded. Just an ‘I see’ to her own ambitions, huh? She turned her cheek.

That being said, the food was lovely.

Their starter was a faux shrimp cocktail, the shrimp biostitched from red algae and proteins. Karuniya had never eaten real shrimp, but the taste of these was savory, briny and delectable, especially with the sharp, vinegary tomato sauce in the cocktail. Quickly after it was followed by a faux tartare made with specially seasoned plant proteins and chopped pickled vegetables, served with crusty bread and the kicker– real, fresh egg cracked raw over the raw patty and mixed in. No wonder it was a hassle to get a seat.

“It’s so delicious, but it’s gone in a few bites.” Murati said.

“Yes, but the craft is incredible, isn’t it? It’s worth it while it lasts.”

“Oh, it’s magnificent, I just think their logistics have to be really tight to serve so little.”

Logistics huh? What’s going on in that head of yours, Murati Nakara…

Karuniya found her extremely charming.

“Everyone’s been talking about this place, so hopefully the Cultural Ministry will see how much people love it and invest more in restaurants in the future. It took me months to get seats. And when I said I was bringing another person they nearly cancelled. It’s kind of a miracle we’re eating together.”

She made an expression as if to demand Murati’s gratefulness.

To her credit, Murati responded quickly– though with her own little surprise.

“Karuniya, you’re absolutely amazing. I’m completely thankful. I could’ve never gotten this.”

This time, however, Karuniya would not be so easily disarmed.

Play hard to get for a bit.

“Of course I’m amazing. I’m glad you noticed.”

Murati stared at her, nodded quietly, and finished her tartare. No reaction or comment.

Karuniya smiled to herself politely. It’d be fun to tease her more.

For the last course they had a slightly larger plate than the rest. Pickled artichokes arrayed thoughtfully around a biostitched soy cutlet that was white and flaky with shreddable “meat” like the flesh of a lean fish just barely roasted, swimming in a sauce of kelp bubble “caviar” and garlic oil. While the vegetables and the meat alone did not look that novel, the addition of the kelp orbs and infused oil added a new and savory taste profile and a super-modern aesthetic. Karuniya had never seen anything like it.

With their meal, they were each served a tumbler glass of a strong corn wine.

And the bottle was there– so Karuniya felt like making the most of it.

So she immediately downed a whole glass, to Murati’s astonishment.

When their conversation resumed, Karuniya’s speech was loosening a little bit.

“What do you think of Oceanography, Murati?”

“Hmm? I don’t really think anything about it, I suppose.”

“As a future captain you don’t have an opinion on it?”

“Environmental policy is environmental policy. I don’t think I’d ever be a part of it.”

Maybe it was the alcohol, but she wanted to poke fun at Murati a bit more.

“Murati, you said I struck you as driven before. So, I take it you’ve been looking at me?”

Karuniya grinned at her over steepled fingers.

Murati blinked for a moment. “Um, I mean– we did that group project once.”

She is cute. I really want to tease her more.

“You’ve been looking, so what do you think? Ladies love it when you flatter their ego.”

There was no hesitation. “I think you’re really amazing, I already said it–

“Amazing, huh–?”

“I was actually surprised you invited me.”

“Murati,” Karuniya said, delighting in spelling out every syllable, “I’m going to need you to say more than four or five words at a time you know. A lady loves to hear herself talked about in exacting detail.”

Murati laughed a little. “I’m a lady too you know.”

“It’s the principle– it’s the principle of the thing, you understand.”

“Sure. Alright, Karuniya.” Murati, smiling, lifted a finger to her lips and seemed to think for a moment. “You always struck me from a distance as someone really organized, ambitious, a go-getter, someone who always gets what she wants. You always left class with a bunch of other girls, and I’ve seen you in the halls with big chatty groups. You’re always really fashionable too, even in school. So, I always thought you were a really popular girl, a queen bee.” Murati said. “I didn’t think I merited your attention.”

Karuniya giggled. She reached her hand across the table and briefly poked Murati’s.

She is cute, but she’s such a dork. How does she not see herself in the mirror?

“I’m flattered, I’m flattered. Then let’s have a toast! To Karuniya Maharapratham!”

She clinked her glass of corn wine to Murati’s own and took another long drink.

Murati raised her glass as well and took a drink too.

“Thank you so much Karuniya. It was an amazing meal.”

“Indeed, indeed. We have to finish this though– it’s good stuff.”

Karuniya swirled her remaining corn wine in her glass.

“Of course. But then you have to let me walk you home. You’ve drank a lot more than me.”

Murati had something of a look to her. Maybe it was Karuniya imagining things but–

She looked determined again.

That face– that expression that would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

Karuniya didn’t think she had drunk that much, but it wasn’t actually a tough decision.

Wherever Murati wanted to take her, she would go, until there was a definitive parting.

All of the sordid, sexual plots in her mind had washed away with the alcohol.

She was having fun just being with Murati. They were breaking the ice. It was lovely.

Karuniya wouldn’t push it any further than that but– she wanted to savor it a bit more.

So they drank, and they made more small talk about school.

Once their plates were cleaned out, the two of them were quickly but politely ushered out of the venue by the staff. There were people waiting, after all, and not very many booths to eat in. Plus the restaurant only opened for a few hours on a few nights– very exclusive. Having gone through the experience Karuniya almost felt it was dream-like in memory. Colored lights, lovely smells, sumptuous tastes.

And she had been through such a special event with none other than Murati Nakara.

Ever since she had that class with her– no, even before that.

That one time when she was the preparatory school’s terrifying delinquent.

Karuniya had always wondered what she was really like– whether she was nice–

–whether she would kiss her if she asked.

Childish fancies rekindled because of how small a place Solstice truly was.

As they walked to the elevator close to the main shaft, Karuniya raised her voice.

“That was lovely, don’t you think?” She said.

“It had a great atmosphere.” Murati said. “I hope they are able to expand.”

Karuniya glanced at the neon lights on the sculpture, meters away off of the railings.

Her heart fluttered a tiny bit–

“It might sound silly, but I had actually been meaning to ask you out for a while.”

“I’m happy to hear that– honestly, I’m surprised, I thought I was kind of plain.”

“I’ve had my eye on you for a while. I hope this won’t be our last date, Murati.”

Murati looked quite taken aback by that. Karuniya giggled and grabbed her arm.

“It’s that casual confidence of yours. You’re always so blunt– it’s pretty attractive.”

“I’m flattered. I– I really don’t know what to say. I would love a second date.”

“Did you know there’s rumors about you among the girls at the Academy, Murati Nakara?”

Was it the alcohol? Was it bringing out the sadist in her? Why did she say that?

“Now you’re just teasing me.” Murati said, looking a bit worried.

Karuniya brought her index finger close to Murati’s lips. “Maybe I’ll tell you– after I confirm.”

“Well, if you say so.” Murati smiled awkwardly. “So, where are we headed?”

“I have a single on the 6th level.” Karuniya said. “I live alone.”

Murati nodded. “Now I’m really glad I’m not letting you stumble down there by yourself.”

“I am not stumbling, Murati Nakara.” Karuniya said, her feet just a tiny bit slippery.

Close to the shaft, they took one of many glass elevator tubes from the 8th Tier down to the 6th and stepped off. Rather than an open space, they were immediately met with a long hall. There were vending machines with broth, bread, and dried vegetable packets available, and a small cafeteria that served out of a window, now shuttered for the evening. From there it was all internal halls, long series of doors into rooms. There was soft synthetic carpet beneath their feet, plastic plants on the corners.

This was home, for Karuniya, who wanted to get a grown-up space quickly and leave the dorms.

“I haven’t drunk that much, you know.” Karuniya said. “I have all my faculties.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’m still seeing you to your place. What’s the number?” Murati said.

“Thirteen.”

Murati dutifully accompanied her down the hall, to the left and to her metal door.

Karuniya put her ID on the door, the surface of which scanned and opened.

She didn’t really think about it, but she walked in–

–and Murati walked in right behind her. She stepped past Karuniya as the door shut.

“So, tell me more about these rumors.” Murati said, an arm outstretched to the wall.

Keeping Karuniya from advancing past her. Smiling with a devilish little glint in her eyes.

Oh, you do have some hidden depths, Murati Nakara?

It was clear from their expressions what they both wanted.

Without words, they drew closer together, and Karuniya personally confirmed the rumors.


Idiot! Meathead! Stubborn fucking–

Karuniya’s subconscious had started off yelling at Murati Nakara.

On the heels of a deeply uncomfortable, hurtful scene about their new ship assignment–

She started to feel as she stomped over to the botanical garden in Thassal Station, that she was yelling almost as much at herself as she was at Murati. For her presumptuous foolishness, for her selfishness. Yes, Murati had yelled at her and acted unreasonable and aggressive. Nobody liked to get yelled at, not especially by their partner. Nobody responded happily to that– but on some level, the monologue in her brain that had begun excoriating Murati also sounded more and more like it was about her.

Stupid, selfish, presumptuous fool. You ruined everything. You.

“I was just afraid she would abandon me. I thought–”

She thought that she could solve all of their problems in one fell swoop.

Alone.

Murati wanted a ship to command, Karuniya wanted to pursue her science career.

They could both have gotten what they wanted and stayed together if–

No. I would have gotten what I wanted. I never even thought about Murati.

Karuniya raised her hands to her eyes, stifling tears in the middle of a hall. She was the one in the wrong, she told herself. Afraid that her time with Murati would end too soon, that their relationship would shatter. Their bond that had so far taken them together all the way from Solstice to Thassal.

Soon it would separate them. It had to. Murati was a real soldier, and she was just a scientist.

She had been so afraid of that. She had not even considered how Murati would feel.

Now– had she made the biggest possible mistake? Had she been the one to tear them apart?

“I’ll apologize. I’ll dress up and go to her place and apologize. That’s all I can do.”

Despite everything, Karuniya really and truly loved Murati.

It was that love which caused her to act rashly. Love– and a distant feeling of inferiority.

“I can’t get in her way again like this. I’ll talk to her and if she wants, we’ll make things right and call the expedition off. I can’t– I shouldn’t have tried to do this. I was being selfish– I really hope she’ll take me back. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to end things like this. God damn it, I’m an idiot.”

So Karuniya dressed up, visited Murati that night. They made up; their story continued.

However, Karuniya came to understand– she and Murati existed in different worlds. This colored her approach to Murati. She couldn’t presume what was right for her or she would hurt her again like she did at Thassal. And she couldn’t afford to fuck up with Murati like that again. She wouldn’t be able to bear it.

Even after ending up on a warship together nevertheless– it was in the back of her mind.

Would she hurt Murati again? Would their divided worlds continue to tear them apart?

How could she truly, deeply support her– what did that look like, between a soldier and a scientist?


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

What kind of question was that? Who did this woman think she was?

Theresa Faraday stood in front of Murati and Karuniya in the infirmary, waving her arms, grinning, dressed in a mechanic’s coveralls with a white coat over them, her red ponytail dancing behind her as she gesticulated wildly– what did she think was happening here? Did she not understand the current situation? Ever since she spoke with Rontgen earlier Karuniya knew something was off with them.

They were plotting something. Maybe it was benign, but they were still plotting.

“I’ll need you to expand that question before I answer, Faraday.” Karuniya said.

“I agree.” Murati said. “What business do you have with these love quizzes, Faraday?”

Karuniya felt a bit relieved that Murati was not offended by her response and supported her so quickly.

But of course, they were both more mature than that. Karuniya should have known.

Without losing one iota of energy, Theresa Faraday resumed speechifying.

“At this very moment, this ship is facing a crisis the scope of which neither of you could possibly understand.” Theresa said. “That Antenora sails the seas with the backing of many powerful and shadowy forces. It contains elite soldiers with highly advanced technology that you can’t hope to match. In order to even the odds, you’ll need every single advantage you can get! I’m here to provide another!”

Murati and Karuniya glanced at each other and back at Theresa Faraday.

“What do you mean by advantage?” Karuniya asked.

“You two going out there and fighting the good fight! And this young lady too I guess.” Theresa suddenly pointed to a baffled Sameera in the adjacent bed, who watched the argument quietly. “Right now, your squadron is down its best pilots isn’t it? You can’t hope to win in this condition! You need to sortie!”

Murati narrowed her eyes.

“This advantage you offer us– does it concern Solarflare LLC’s ‘intellectual property’?”

Theresa grinned broadly at Murati’s question. “Indeed, indeed. You are perceptive! But– let’s just say that there are some open source components in there which you’ll be interested in, Murati Nakara. It’s based on something of value to you. After she met you, Euphrates started planning to part with it–”

“Euphrates?”

“Yeah, yeah. Our names are Euphrates and Tigris. Let’s move on from that though.”

“So you were lying–?”

“Of course were lying! Your Captain must have suspected as much throughout.”

“Forgive me for wanting to think the two of you had more character.”

Theresa– Tigris, crossed her arms and pouted.

“Euphrates’ character is the entire reason for this whole mess so don’t give me that shit. She has such a deep and boundless character that this is as much as I could possibly do for you without upsetting her. Listen, in due time, we will turn ourselves in and confess to the truth of everything. But right now, for her sake, and for your own sakes, I need you two to listen to me and get ready to go out there. Okay?”

“You’re talking awful fast for someone who might be sending us to our deaths.”

Murati glanced over at Sameera. With a knowing look, Sameera stood up from her bed.

Dressed in a medical smock, she approached Tigris cracking her knuckles.

“Please listen to her, Ms. Tigris.” She said her firm but gentle. “I’m only in bed to assuage the doc’s feelings here. I can still get a bit rowdy. You’re not calling the shots here. It’s time to quit acting like you’re the boss and start listening to the superior officer here. Are we understanding each other now?”

Sameera cracked a little grin.

Standing over a head taller than Tigris, she did cause the smaller woman to cow a bit.

“Okay, okay, whatever! You win!” Tigris said. “Look, I’m not the bad guy here!”

“You’re not.” Murati said. “Good response. Stand down, Sameera.”

“Heh, you know, I really thought you wanted me to smack her, squad leader.”

“Bah! We’re wasting time!” Tigris sighed. “What do you want from me?”

Murati sighed openly.

“Tell us what your plan actually is for starters.” Karuniya interjected.

“To put it really simple: I have a Diver you two can get into! I have a super cool state of the art Diver that you can use to fight! And like I dunno the cat can get into hers too and be a big hero as well, I don’t care! But I’m not giving my Helios to anyone else but you two. It needs reciprocity between its pilots, otherwise it won’t work properly. And since you,” Tigris pointed at Murati, “are injured, it’ll have to be her,” she pointed at Karuniya, “who does the most piloting! Does that need any further clarifying?”

“Do you want me to crawl behind her seat?” Murati said. “What are you talking about?”

“My machine boasts a two-seater cockpit! It was designed for me and Euphrates as partners!”

Karuniya scoffed. “Designed for her? I thought this ‘Euphrates’ was a pacifist.”

“That’s precisely the point of it.” Tigris said. “You’ll see when I show it to you.”

“Hold on.” Karuniya said, raising a hand. “This is going too fast. I’m not sure about this.”

Her voice trembled just a little. That idea– piloting a Diver with Murati. It felt–

“I’m not a great pilot, you know. I’m pretty crummy with Divers.” Karuniya said.

“You’re better than you think.” Murati said suddenly.

Karuniya turned to face her. Something crawled in her stomach. “Murati, I–”

“I’m not saying you have to do what Tigris says.” Murati said. “I’m just saying.”

She smiled, in a gentle and disarming way that Karuniya could not really place.

“Murati–”

“You both should really just do what I am saying to do.” Tigris interrupted.

For a moment they looked at her, and she seemed to stare at them quite intently.

Really consider doing what I’m telling you to. You really want to, I swear.”

Karuniya thought she saw a weird glint in her eyes– but maybe it was just her imagination.

There was a brief silence, and then Tigris turned around with her head in her hands.

“Can you please deliberate faster. Asking as a buddy, as a pal.” Tigris moaned.

“She’s a real bundle of energy, huh?” Sameera said, still standing guard beside her.

“Ignore her for a bit. Murati, how do you feel about this?” Karuniya asked.

Seated in bed on pillows as comfortable and fluffy as Karuniya could make them, still smiling at the group, Murati closed her eyes briefly as if to think. All this time that she had been in the hospital, Karuniya never thought she had seemed reduced in any way, she was no smaller or weaker or more vulnerable. But there was something about that smile that seemed like an inkling of who Murati was that had been missing for a moment and had suddenly sprung back. Karuniya had seen that expression before.

That smile– and the smoldering, determined gaze when her eyes next opened.

“I believe entirely in my pilots. I believe that they can accomplish this mission. I have the utmost confidence in them, Miss Tigris.” Murati said. “I don’t think that you need to worry about them. I think they could find a way to succeed. There might be casualties, but they can pull it off.”

Tigris snapped back around with her hands in the air in frustration.

“Are you serious? Don’t be facile! If it’s a war, you use everything you have to win!”

“I was getting to that.” Murati said. “I wouldn’t make this decision without reason.”

She turned her attention to her side, to Karuniya instead of Tigris.

Reaching out a hand to Karuniya’s own and laying her palm over it.

“I want to protect my comrades. That’s how I’ve always operated. But I’m not responsible exclusively for the lives of others. One hard lesson I’ve had to learn is that I’m also responsible for my own life. And furthermore, you are asking Karuniya to be responsible for her own life, my life, and the lives of others. Tigris, maybe in your mind, we’re just units in the calculus of a battle, that you can slot into your gear to make it move. But Karuniya and I need to make this decision. I am not going to do it on my own.”

“Alright! Let’s give them some space then.” Sameera said suddenly, reading the room.

Tigris stood speechless for a moment as Sameera ushered her out into the hall.

Leaving Murati and Karuniya alone for a moment to make their decision.

“How do you really feel about what Tigris said? About us fighting together?” Murati asked.

For a moment Karuniya contemplated her answer. She didn’t want to be impulsive.

Did Murati really need her? Was this the best way? It wasn’t just about Karuniya’s feelings.

When Murati went out to fight that Leviathan weeks and weeks ago, recklessly, forcing her need for heroism onto everyone until they let her go. Karuniya had been terrified. How could she not be? And then, Murati decided to take the whole fight against the Iron Lady into her own hands and got herself put in this infirmary in this condition. Karuniya felt mortified about it. She really thought, for the first time, that Murati might have died. She had to grapple with that feeling– with possibly being left behind, alone.

No matter how much she wanted to protect Murati, how much she didn’t want to let go–

She still felt conflicted now. What if– what if she just got in Murati’s way again?

She couldn’t just pretend that it was the best choice because she wanted to do it.

It felt selfish of her. It felt like there had to be a better choice. One that didn’t involve her.

“Murati, I’m no pilot and you know that. No matter what gadget Tigris gives me.”

“I understand if you want out of this situation, but don’t put yourself down.”

“I’m trying to be realistic! Murati, I’m just not as strong as you. I’ve never been!” She said. It was difficult to put into words. It sounded so childish coming out of her lips. “You’re extremely brave, you’re a good fighter, but more than anything you are impossibly stubborn. You throw yourself at life like a bullet. I’m not capable of acting as crazy self-assured as you can be. I can’t just follow you out there.”

I can’t really say it to her, but I’ve always felt like I can’t stand on the same plane as her.

When the two of them first started going out, their relationship was a bit noncommittal.

Karuniya almost wanted to think of her as a best friend she had sex with more than a girlfriend– because their relationship was characterized by a parting that was sure to come. Their positions were so separate. She wanted to study the waters of the Union and push for reforms in Union water policy, while Murati wanted to lead a war. She never said it, but that was tacitly what she wanted to do. To end the war with the Empire by her own hand. To become a grand commanding savior of the Union Navy.

Someday Murati will leave me– these words stained her love and admiration.

It was different now. They were together. They had made commitments to each other.

And yet, the conflict was still present. Murati could still leave her forever.

They did not stand on the same plane. Karuniya was not entirely Murati’s equal.

Because she could not follow Murati as a “soldier” into battle. She was no good in a fight.

It was selfish to think she could do so, when she hadn’t a fraction of Murati’s strength.

“I know how your head works. I know you don’t really mean all the stuff you said to Tigris. You will absolutely just go out there because you want to fight alongside your squadron. That’s who you are. You’re a soldier; arguing about that with you is pointless. I’ll let you go; the captain will have to let you go. Since you’re going to disobey the doctor anyway– you should just take Sameera with you. Forget what Tigris said, she’ll buckle and hand over the keys to Sameera, she has no choice.”

Karuniya got it out of her chest and sighed deeply, feeling more than a little pathetic.

What she wanted the most in that moment was to support Murati. Despite that, Karuniya loved, respected, admired Murati enough to know that if Murati needed a partner in a fight, that could not possibly be Karuniya, right? She was a spreadsheet nerd while Murati was a big strong hero.

They would always have this separation. Murati was the fighter, Karuniya could never–

“Karuniya, you’re incredibly strong too! You have no idea how much!”

Murati grabbed hold of Karuniya’s hands and lifted them, taking them fully into her own.

With tears in her eyes, she stared straight into Karuniya’s own.

Seeing Murati’s emotional expression made Karuniya want to tear up as well.

“I always felt like I didn’t deserve you. I was just some stupid meathead always being stubborn and causing problems everywhere I went. When we started dating– it was really unfair to you, but I always thought ‘Karuniya deserves so much better than this’. I thought I was selfish for wanting you for myself. Because you were this amazing and smart and dedicated woman with a real goal you were pursuing. And I was just a fool who wanted to fight. I told myself I had an enemy only I could destroy– but I’ve seen the face of it now. I can’t fight it alone. I really do need your kind of strength too, Karuniya.”

Her hands gripped Karuniya so tightly, like she was afraid to let go.

“You’ve always told me how amazing I am. And I have tried very strongly to internalize it. I wish there was something that I could say to you that could convey how much I love you and what an amazing person I think you are in return. You are so much stronger than you think. You have an enormous enemy to confront as well, and you have shown me the incredible conviction you possess to fight it. You have sharpened your own weapons against it: your theories, your intellect, your sensibility, your empathy, and your optimism, your unwavering hope in a better world. You’re incredibly strong, Karuniya.”

Murati briefly dried her eyes. “Karuniya, you told me some time back that you admired the woman who didn’t give up on her dreams no matter how crazy they were. And that seeing me inspired you to get a bit crazy too. If so, then forgive me, but I’ll say what I feel completely selfishly and without filter. I do want to go out to fight. I want to protect everyone. I feel ashamed to be stuck in here helplessly– and I want you to come with me. I have a hunch I’m not the only one who lied to Tigris about my true feelings.”

Karuniya shut her eyes, cutting off the tears for an instant. She laughed a little at herself.

God damn it. I hate that you saw through me. I’m absolutely going to tease you for it.

“Murati Nakara, you really are selfish, and a stupid meathead too.” Karuniya said.

“Huh?” Murati was briefly taken aback, until–

Karuniya reached around behind Murati’s head and pulled her close.

First touching foreheads together affectionately–

Then taking her into a kiss. A gentle kiss, held like an embrace for a few warm seconds.


“Um. Well. How to summarize the situation?” Chief Akulantova shut her eyes and crossed her arms.

She was on a video feed from the hangar to one of the secondary partitions of the main screen of the bridge. The Captain awaited her explanation while the entire Bridge crew watched with varying degrees of interest and confusion. Finally she spoke. “Fifteen minutes ago a loud red-head showed up here kind of doing and saying whatever she wants. Theresa Faraday was it? Murati Nakara, Sameera al-Shahouh and Karuniya Maharapratham came in with her. They got all the sailors hooked on some heroic scheme, and they’ve all hastily pried apart one of Solarflare’s containers. There was a Diver inside it.” Akulantova looked over her shoulder. “Chief Lebedova is kind of torn on what to do, and I personally don’t relish having to beat the paste out of a bunch of sailors who are just really worried about the situation. I think we should just let everyone go about their business and punish their unruliness individually later.”

Akulantova smiled cheerfully at her own suggestion. She looked truly unbothered.

On the Captain’s chair, Korabiskaya was holding her head in her hands with frustration.

Then the whole bridge rattled– a munition from the Antenora had gone off nearby.

There was no way they could discuss this with the length it required.

“You and Lebedova will take full responsibility for the hangar! I can’t divert my attention!”

The Captain dismissed Akulantova and returned to commanding the bridge.

Alexandra Geninov looked down at her own station with increasing concern.

It was truly unfair. That Antenora–

How could an early game boss like this have such intense final boss energy?

A boss battle–

She was wracking her brain to come up with an answer. How could she use what she had to defeat her enemy with pure gumption and systems mastery? You could pull off incredible upsets in video game battles by knowing the systems really well. That had to be true for real battles too. Alex took stock of her own loadout. She had her skills as a gamer– and she had torpedoes of a few different payloads.

Torpedoes had not worked previously.

Probably torpedoes could be counted on to keep working the same if nothing else changed.

Her skills as a gamer were her wildcard. Difficult to harness, but powerful when deployed.

(“Okay but what the fuck does that even mean?” she screamed internally at herself.)

Now she started holding her own head in her hands much like Ulyana had been.

“Firing 150 mm guns and starboard 76 mm guns!”

Alex peered beside her at Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa’s gunnery station.

Then she peered at the main screen.

Three 76 mm guns and the double 150 mm guns on the turret fired on the Antenora.

By the time the tracking items appeared on the predictive imaging the shots had already landed.

“I’m starting to be able to pick up the sound of that shield of theirs when ordnance crashes into it– it’s distinctive. It does remind me of a distant and subtle agarthic annihilation.” said Fatima al-Suhar, the sonar operator, with a downcast look. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we had an effect on target.”

“Curses!” Fernanda cried out.

“Biomass levels from the Gorge are beginning to surge. We’re breaking 80 Katov.”

Braya Zachikova spoke up in a droning, robotic voice from her own station.

“Calculating the peak– potentially close to 250 to 300 Katov within twenty minutes.”

“When it rains it pours!” Captain Korabiskaya said in frustration. “Brace for communications issues and keep shooting! I want torpedoes and gunnery to keep pressure up on the Antenora! If you can’t put a round on the target then detonate just off of the hull! The shockwaves will at least rattle them!”

Rising biomass introduced a sense of desperation. Soon their sensors would be clouded.

Ship predictive imagers and rangefinders used a combination of various sensors to correct each other and ultimately generate the best possible predictive data out of various data sources. The primary arrays for generating imagery and collecting targeting data were acoustic/SONAR and LADAR. LADAR briefly flashed extremely powerful but short-lived lasers to gather its data. These laser effectors were installed on the deck and underside of the Brigand for the fullest possible coverage of the surrounding geography.

For a LADAR scan, the key elements were power capacity and optic quality. By 979 A.D. the power output of the laser effectors and the quality of the optic lenses allowed effective range in perfect conditions up to a kilometer. For the laser arrays to image farther out in water with less scattering, they needed to consume more power and put more strain on the equipment. More power and a longer imaging period were necessary to get a higher resolution image and thus a better prediction. So it was a tradeoff between these elements to decide how good of a picture you needed to get and how often it needed to update. In open combat, using the LADAR as the primary imager could put a lot of strain on it.

One helpful innovation was the use of computer algorithms to synthesize different kinds of sensor data. First a powerful LADAR scan would create a “master image” which would be altered moment to moment using fluid data, acoustic data and complex mathematics to deliver “best guess” predictions. This allowed the LADAR to be run less in ship to ship combat where the variables of where the enemy could move were more limited. This was the venerable standard on ships– and led to a few superstitions among officers as to whether the prediction was any good, since machine learning introduced potential errors.

That was the magic of predictive imagery and how it allowed humans to kill each other underwater.

This of course assumed perfect water conditions: water turbidity levels of less than 25 Katov scale.

At 100-150 Katov of red biomass concentration in the water, continuing to image with the LADAR array would require outputting more laser power, straining even the exotic matter lenses and agarro-lattice effectors of the Union’s current imaging LADARs to their uppermost limits. They would definitely need to service the sensor array after the battle was over to prevent a breakdown later down the line.

At 300 Katov there was not an imaging system on the planet that could continue to present a clear image without burning all of the sensor equipment out. This would ultimately affect the ability of the main gunner to target enemy ships. Without LADAR to correct against the raw acoustic data, in a battlefield this noisy with munitions from the Divers and the circling ships, they could find their guns near-completely blinded. Soon they could be in a situation where it was impossible to put a 150 mm round anywhere near the Antenora. Torpedoes could work by using camera navigation, but not well.

On the bridge the tension was palpable. They could barely follow the Diver battle because everyone had scattered and Zachikova did not want to risk exposing the drone too far off the seafloor. Meanwhile the Antenora was putting a ton of pressure on them. Now the rising biomass put them on a clock too. If they could not do something about the Antenora before the area became saturated, then the initiative would fall to the enemy. With their shields and higher speed, they could close in with impunity within the biomass cloud, absorbing any retaliatory blindfire, trapping the Brigand and collecting their prize.

They weren’t faster than the Antenora, they could not withstand anywhere near as much fire, and they did not know what the situation could be like if they were crippled and boarded. Right now the only reason the Antenora couldn’t just run right up to them after shrugging off all their fire was that the Divers were in between them, and that the Antenora needed to be careful to collect their VIP. Even with that handicap they were still schooling the Brigand– it was at this point no contest between the two ships.

Alex had even overheard the captain of the Antenora was a stone cold badass from how Korabiskaya and the Rontgen lady reacted to just talking to her. That Rontgen started hemorrhaging even!

All they did was call this lady for a few minutes!

Alex bit her finger, thinking.

If someone didn’t come up with a plan soon, they were fucked.

But they didn’t even know the properties of that defense system.

So how could they do anything about it?

Alex took in a deep breath.

She tried to center herself, to dig deep into the palace of her mind.

Big screens, the latest graphics, the roar of the crowd watching her compete–

Video games.

They were not just a stupid pass-time. Video games required tactics and discipline. Alex would not be half the soldier she was without video games. Nobody believed her, but she truly thought they had taught her many things. Hand-eye coordination, quick thinking, the ability to read systems and see patterns. Fuck, her reading level would probably be shitty without all the RPGs she had played and all the time she spent arguing about the best characters on the BBSes. Video games had molded her into who she was.

Most of all, they gave her something she wasn’t useless at.

Everyone needed one of those.

Think, Alex. This is a game. What are the systems? What can you do?

And more importantly– what haven’t you done yet? What’s the unexpected trump card?

She and Fernanda held the ship’s direct combat power in their hands.

If anyone was going to break that defense it had to be them.

They had all this ordnance, and they had fired it at the enemy to no avail–

Video games, video games, there had to be something–

Wait.

Fernanda.

Of course!

Fernanda was the key! She had been the key all along!

“Combo attacks! That’s it! We haven’t tried combo attacks!”

“Huh?”

Fernanda stared as Alex shouted and threw her hands up. Then quickly retracted them.

“Combo attacks are a staple in video games.” Alex replied, lowering her voice to Fernanda.

Despite her clear skepticism, Fernanda played along and spoke only between themselves.

“Have you even the merest inkling of the situation we’re embroiled in?” She whispered.

Her drawn-wide eyes looked at Alex with a fathomless disgust.

Fernanda had no respect for her as a gamer. She had no respect for gamers whatsoever.

However, maybe, she had a little respect for Alex as a person.

Otherwise, she would have just told the captain that Alex was being gamer-y next to her.

And maybe in this situation Alex wouldn’t be scolded. But in others–

Nevertheless. Alex felt she was on the right path.

She finally had enough relationship points with Fernanda to whisper to her.

And this allowed her to open the route where she and Fernanda could execute–

–a sick combo attack.

She realized then that she should not tell this to Fernanda in that particular way.

Or else Fernanda’s small amount of favor toward her might be completely incinerated.

“Fern,”

For a moment Alex waited for Fernanda to object to the nickname. She did not. Weird.

Alex continued, “Fern, we need to try hitting the same spot together at the same time.”

Fernanda stared at her for a moment. “Coordinating a torpedo and shells simultaneously?”

“Uh huh. Cool idea right?”

“You have no idea how impossible it is to time that, do you? My shells are a hundred times faster than your torpedoes. There is no possible way that we could land the shots at the same time.”

Alex noticed she was not saying this in a cutesy complicated way. She didn’t bring it up.

“Going on like this won’t work either.” Alex said. “We have to mix it up!”

Fernanda resisted. “We may yet be able to pierce their armor with enough ordnance.”

“I don’t think individual shells are going to work. They haven’t worked yet. But if we cause a really, really huge explosion right on top of the shield, in the same place, maybe we can overload it or something. We don’t know how it works– but we know that what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, Fern! I have an um– a real strong gut feeling about my plan, you know! Can it hurt to try something different?”

“It’ll hurt in the sense of lost ordnance and time.” Fernanda said.

“I’m not joking around, I’m being serious. I believe in this– would you please trust me?”

Alex’s tone of voice went from confident to almost pleading.

Reflexively, she reached out a hand to Fernanda under their stations.

Fernanda stared at the hand below, and then at her.

They had started off on a wrong foot, but across countless night shifts–

Alex got to know her a little bit– and there was one thing she really did like about Fernanda.

“Fine. I will trust you just this once. Don’t get used to it, gamer.”

When it counts, she is really good-natured.

Under their stations, Fern’s hand gave hers a brief but firm grip.

Alex nodded her head in acknowledgment. She felt a bit hyped up– and anxious.

I– I can’t disappoint her now, right? It’d be such a bottom move.

“I hope you two had a productive conference!” the captain called out. “Keep firing!”

Alex and Fernanda looked back over their shoulders nodded and turned back to their stations. In order to satisfy the captain they each fired one more barrage as ineffective as the last few had been. The Antenora was not quick to retaliate, giving them a bit of breathing room. While their weapons cooled down they reconvened in whispers, huddling close to each other in order to enact their new strategy.

“So gamer, enlighten me as to the rest of your conspiracy?” Fernanda said.

Alex smiled, cool and collected.

“First, I’m going to DM Zachikova and ask her to crunch the numbers.”

Fernanda sighed, but she did not protest.

From her station, Alex wrote a quick text to Zachikova’s station and sent it out.

“Yo! Can you run the numbers to get a torpedo and a shell to land at the same time?”

A text message quickly returned: “Don’t @ me ever again. I will headbutt you.”

Fernanda stared over Alex’s shoulder with narrowed eyes.

“You’ve become maestro to an orchestra of irritation whose song has spread quite far.”

Alex did not comment on Fernanda resuming her flowery speech.

“Allow me to scribe the message before your plot is utterly buried in this gorge.”

“No, no, I got it.” Alex replied. “Your guns will cool off soon, fire another barrage.”

“If you say so, gamer.”

That hint of vinegar returned to the tone with which she said ‘gamer’.

Alex returned to her screen and typed a new message.

“I’ll let you into the bridge to play with the drone all you want if I’m night shift.”

Moments later a message arrived with an attachment. The accompanying message read:

“Deal. I can’t program something on short notice but try running her station clock like this.”

That attachment contained instructions for setting up their clocks to help them time the attack and how to carry it out, along with a tiny doodle of Zachikova in a graduation hat pointing at the explanations. Because Alex’s torpedoes were the slowest of the two, Alex would fire a torpedo at consistent maximum speed and Fernanda would use her station’s clock program to run a countdown and aim at an agreed upon location. She would then shoot at the appropriate time– and the shell should strike on time with the torpedo hitting the target. This execution was sort of what Alex was thinking too.

She ran the instructions by Fernanda quickly, who sighed.

“While I am a gifted witch of many arts, I am also only human, possessing only human reflexes.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem if it takes you a tiny bit to react to the clock and shoot right?”

“On the contrary, gamer, with these timings, any hesitation on my part would bring about our failure.” Fernanda sighed. “Nevertheless, since we are reduced to merely shooting torpedoes and shells into a mountain at this point there’s no reason not to try this imaginative scheme of yours.”

“Right. Right. Thanks.”

Alex felt a shiver inside her. They really were going to do it– so it could fail.

In fact it was much more likely to fail than succeed. That drove a spike of anxiety into her gut.

This wasn’t entirely about winning or losing, about a gamer’s pride, or whatever, but–

–rather,

Fuck, can I please get one thing right? One thing right in my entire life?

Her head started to get scrambled. She was near to having a meltdown, so much anxiety–

She drew in a breath, tried to fight off all the thoughts–

But everything came crashing down on her shoulders for a second.

Who was she kidding? In this situation all she could do was panic.

She was a loser– a useless loser. Always a loser.

No matter how many competitions she won and how much she touted herself.

She couldn’t ever win where it mattered.

All her trophies didn’t make up for all the things Alex had failed at.

Academy, society, family–

All the people she had let down– all the things she had run away from–

Video games became an escape in more than one way.

It was the only place she ever won anything. The only thing she felt good at.

All the pressure– how much she was pushed and how little she was accepted–

She still heard the shouting in her head. Her father, her teachers, her superior officers–

Everyone knew she was a loser! A born loser! Everyone could see it!

Despite everything she knew, the competence she had shown with torpedoes, the fact that she was on this mission– none of that made up for all the scorn of her family, her failure to achieve, and how no matter what she did, how seriously she did it, everyone always thought of her as just a weird clown. But this time– it wasn’t even about herself! If they didn’t win they’d be dead.

And that’d be the end– no more deferring her life and responsibilities, she’d have none.

I don’t get how a lot of shit works, but I don’t want to die–

–and I don’t want any of these people to die because I fucked up!

I can’t fuck up that colossally can I? Everything else would be tiny compared to that.

Thinking about the type of situation she was caught up in, she thought she’d cry.

She probably looked like a nervous wreck and a coward all the time. Nobody liked her.

It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter! Snap out of it. We can’t give up.

But she really was doing her best. She was just doing everything she could to keep calm.

Alex Geninov couldn’t help but run her mouth. She needed the story that she told of herself.

I’m the big damn hero of a weird game. A weird, sad game with a lot of ups and downs.

Telling herself this, and trying to put out of her mind all the creeping evil thoughts–

I won’t fail this one. I won’t say I sat here and did nothing. I won’t run away either.

“Torpedo out!” She declared, grasping her joystick with firm determination.

“You can do it, Geninov! Strike true!”

The Captain’s voice was so supportive. She didn’t know how much Alex needed it.

“I won’t let you down ma’am!” She replied.

At her side, Fernanda ran the clock. The plan was on.

“Port sidepod.” Alex said. Fernanda nodded, not taking her eyes off her station.

At maximum speed the torpedo would hit the Antenora in less than a minute.

Please, please, please.

On the main screen a blurry, lagging prediction of her torpedo appeared.

The Antenora circling hundreds of meters away. That little blip neared and neared.

Her torpedo felt so insignificant, like Alex herself–

Like someone who could do nothing in the face of that evil juggernaut–

No, no! Come on–!

Focused on the screen, guiding the projectile–

Through the stream of fire from the Antenora’s support guns–

Because Alex was pretty tall and the stations so close together, she brushed her leg against Fernanda’s again in the anxiety of the moment. Normally this ticked off Fernanda, who in a calm and ordinary situation wanted the least to do with Alex that she could. But at that moment, Alex felt something back– two pats on her leg. Not to tell her to retract it, but– in support of her–?

Impulsively, Alex took Fernanda’s hand into her own.

Squeezing those slender, soft, warm fingers.

Her grip was not rejected. Maybe there was a shared comfort.

On her station, the broad side of the Antenora loomed massively in front of the camera.

Her eyes felt hot. She thought she saw for a brief moment a flash of color–

Fernanda’s hand conveyed her pulse and Alex felt receptive to it.

For a second, Alex thought she understood her– they felt alike, reciprocal emotions.

We won’t fail.

There was a moment of synchronicity. A brief flash of shared joy and misery.

Holding hands, fighting together despite everything–

Now!

“Firing main gun!” Fernanda declared.

By the time Alex turned to the main screen the shot would have already hit.

On her station camera, with a short lag time, the torpedo sent back its last message.

A skin-crawling instant while they awaited the result–

“I think it’s a hit!”

Fatima al-Suhar half-stood from her station, gripping the earphones against her ear fluff.

“I think– I think I heard a blast and then water rushing!” She cried out.

On the main screen the prediction updated — effect on target. Breach on the port side.

For a moment the bridge was completely silent.

Then all at once the officers cried out with the realization of what had happened.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Ulyana Korabiskaya shouted out.

At her side, Aaliyah Bashara patted her back as if urging calm.

Fatima and Semyonova held hands and began to jump up and down near their stations.

And over on the gunnery stations–

Alex and Fernanda, holding hands, stared at the screen speechless.

“Damage assessment!” Korabiskaya called out.

“Confirmed unmitigated breach on the Antenora’s upper port sidepod.” Zachikova said.

Tears began to flow from Alex’s eyes.

It worked. It really actually worked.

“That was a brilliant shot you two! I have no idea how you did it but keep it up!”

Captain Korabiskaya hailed the gunnery section with an enormous grin.

“Keep your eyes peeled and keep up the pressure! They’ll be desperate now!”

On her screen, the last picture frozen on the moment of impact showed the shell from Fernanda’s gun entering the picture like a blur from out of nowhere. Beneath the ordnance, the purple field briefly split. Only a tiny hexagonal fracture could be seen but in Alex’s mind, she thought she imagined the whole latticework collapsing inward, allowing for the hull to be breached on that side.

Her whole body began to shake. A stupid idea from her loser brain had actually worked.

“Good job.”

She felt a hand pat her on the back.

Small and warm like the one she was still holding.

“Don’t get a big head. There’s work still in need of doing, hero.”

Fernanda’s fingers slipped out of her own.

Alex felt her heart shiver.

“Right. Thanks.”

She thought she would hear a ‘don’t get too far ahead of yourself’ or something.

But Fernanda had the tiniest smile on her face as she returned her attention to her station.

And for a moment, Alex couldn’t help but look at her as if with new eyes.


Shit, which direction is it coming from next?

Dominika Rybolovskaya was caught in a vice.

Between avoiding the shots from the Volkannon sniping at her and keeping up with the Jagd that was giving Valya Lebedova the run-around, she was going around in circles with no way to retaliate. There had already been too many close calls with both of her assailants, and she could hardly coordinate with her remaining ally to do anything about it. Valya was as overwhelmed as her, and they had no idea what was happening with Shalikova, McKennedy or al-Shahara. Dominika was a sitting duck.

Waiting to react to the next attack, alone in the water until something came out of the fog.

Sweat trickled down her face in long thin streams. Her breath caught in her chest.

In the dim light the chromatophores on her chest glowed bioluminescent green.

Caught in a fog of anxiety, her thinking sluggish, her arms raw from effort, mind blank–

Her eyes scanned around, in the silence and stillness of this dead patch of ocean–

Movement in the rear camera–!

I’m dead! I’m dead! I wasn’t sharp enough–!

“Ma’am, this guy bothering you?”

From out of nowhere–

An enormous saw-sword cleaved into the Jagd that had come rushing from behind her.

Chunks of metal tore from its shoulder, arm, and hip before it retreated once again into the fog.

And its place, at her back, was the Cossack of Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.

Briefly speechless, Dominika wandered if she was dead and dreaming.

Katarrans shared common myths about soldiers or mercenaries whom, having died, began dreaming in the instant of their death about whole lives of battle and glory. Success, victory, and joy flashed in the last moments of their biological life. Brains slowly shutting down in reality but wanting to believe that they were alive and victorious. Cold tears drew from Dominika’s eyes in that moment–

–as Sameera’s smiling face appeared on one of her secondary screens.

“Miss, can you indulge me being a romantic bonehead just this once?” Sameera said.

“Fuck you. You’re such an asshole. I could just about kick your fucking ass.”

Dominika started sobbing. Gritting her teeth, she raised her hand to her eyes.

She was so thankful– her heart was soaring with joy. She could kiss that idiot dog.

“Music to my ears. Tell me what you need, Nika, and I’ll do it with flair.”

Sameera smiled. Despite herself, Dominika found herself smiling back too.


Where the fuck did that thing come from? What the fuck is it?

Gertrude Lichtenberg stared speechlessly at the enemy that suddenly barred her way.

There was always something. Always something in her way to Elena.

She climbed over so many corpses for that radiant girl always a step farther away.

Her unblinking, stunned eyes pored over the newest stone in her path.

Suspended in the water ahead of her was a Diver with a dark gold paint job. From the body plan it suspiciously resembled a Magellan like her own Diver. She could see it in the beveled edges of the shoulders and chest, the rounded, cylinder-like construction of the forearms and forelegs, rather than the predominantly angled, square shapes of the Streloks or the S.E.A.L. from before. The head was different, however. Instead of the cyclopic hood of the Magellan it had a visored, helmeted humanoid head.

Everything was just a bit thicker-looking than the Magellan however– more rugged.

To start, it was just a bit taller than her Magellan, closer to 7.5 meters.

Over the cockpit, the armor was more solid, with a thicker upper chest that thinned toward the angled skirt. Each hand was like a thick gauntlet that extended back over the arm, the wrists mounting what were clearly revolving projectile launch tubes of some kind. On the shoulders there were thick, square guards that vaguely resembled the drone mounting points of Selene’s Jagdkaiser. Instead of accepting the drones atop the shoulder however they seemed to be able to go inside it. There were two flat delineations upon each shoulder, probably the bays for the drones or projectiles– these were probably disc-shaped rather than the long cylinders launched by the Jagdkaiser, judging by the space involved.

Propulsion seemed pretty standard. There was a backpack with intakes on the shoulder, hull and hip, jets in the legs with intakes on the knee, verniers for additional solid fuel thrust. There appeared to be six jets in the backpack, like a Second Generation Diver. On each of the intakes there was a thick cap. A red biomass filter? For weapons, it wasn’t carrying a rifle and Gertrude couldn’t spot a sword on it either, so perhaps it had internal weapons like a Jagd. What was this thing? Where did it come from?

How had these mercenaries gotten a hold of it since they last met?

On the chest there was a logo, a sunburst– and the word HELIOS inscribed.

“These mercenaries are clearly backed by someone powerful. To steal Elena from me.”

Everything was starting to make sense. After their last battle, the mercenaries must have received some kind of resupply from their masters that included this thing. For a moment she feared Elena might have been taken from these cowards and that this battle was all a ruse to ferret her away– but she could not think that way. Maybe the appearance of this unit meant Elena was still there and a prize worthy of protecting with everything they had in their arsenal. It was impossible to know the truth.

All she could do was believe.

Believe that all her sacrifices had been worth it.

Every humiliation, every instance of bloodletting, everything– for Elena.

“Get out of my way, you piece of shit. I’ll kill anyone I have to! I’ll get her back!”

On one hand she unfolded the Magellan’s advanced XM-979 rifle.

On the other, she flashed the futuristic silver vibrosword that had come with the machine.

This Magellan was the strongest machine she had ever piloted. She could absolutely take it to victory. Norn had conferred her this armor so she could become Elena’s knight. She would not fail. She could not fail. There was nothing left for her if she lost Elena here. Gertrude’s heart pounded, her whole body shivered. Her lips drew apart slowly in a bloodthirsty grin. She was ready to do anything.

Her mind was a breathless turmoil of all she had suffered and all the suffering she’d inflict.

For Elena’s sake–

Compared to all the monsters at Gertrude’s back, these mercenaries were nothing.

And compared to the monster baying for blood inside her, it was they who needed to fear.

“I’ll rescue you, Elena. I’ve always been your prince charming. I promise. I promise.”

Her unblinking eyes focused on the tiniest instant of movement from the enemy.

She had to be aggressive, the instant it put a toe out of place–

Bubbles blew from the shoulders and Gertrude charged with all her might.

Four disc-shaped drones flew out of the shoulders in opposite directions.

Gertrude expected gunfire, but if she was fast enough–

The “Helios” suddenly reversed, thrusting backward but still facing her.

From its shoulders, its jet anchors flew out at her. It had attacked with them before.

Gertrude ducked under the anchors.

She could have cut the cables, but if she pressed on she’d be inside the enemy’s guard.

With a quick kick of vernier thrust, she threw herself forward, continuing her pursuit.

In response, the “Helios” raised its arm.

A stream of bubbles blew from the seam between the gauntlet and forearm.

There was a flash–

Like a jet anchor– suddenly that closed fist went flying at her on a cable.

Speechless, unable to halt or dodge, she met the vernier-powered punch chest-first.

Her entire cockpit rattled as the punch struck her, stopping her charge in its tracks.

Gertrude tumbled, her Diver’s hull pushed back while its jets were still going.

Briefly out of control, she corrected with a quick spin and went into a controlled dive.

Overhead, she avoided the jet anchors recalled by their cables to Helios’ shoulder pods.

“What the fuck is that thing? What the fuck is it doing?”

She checked her monitors. She was shaken up, but the hull was relatively stable.

In front, the Helios ceased reversing, but rather than take advantage and attack, it resumed its wary stance right in front of her. Arms out at its sides, jets engaging only to correct its depth and remain in orbit between Gertrude and its mothership. Did it not intend to fight for real? Was it just buying time? Why did it keep shooting anchors at her? Were they trying to capture her alive?

“Is it stalling? But what the fuck is it stalling for? Do they have backup coming?”

In battle the Antenora and the Pandora’s Box were both letting off sonar pulses.

Norn would detect anything coming from a dozen kilometers away.

There was no sign that the Antenora was backing off. So a ship couldn’t be coming.

Or at least, it couldn’t be coming in a time frame that would benefit the Helios at all.

“Maybe the pilot is hopeless, and they’re making up for it with the tech.”

Circling under the enemy Diver, Gertrude raised her rifle and put the Helios in her sights.

She spontaneously opened fire, ready to gauge the reaction of the pilot as a dozen rounds tore through the water between them. With a clumsy boost, the Helios tried to dodge aside– but quickly found itself back in Gertrude’s line of fire as she corrected for those spastic, predictable movements and began to lead her shots into the Helios’ path while sweeping around its flank, now climbing.

Vapor bubbles and gas bloomed around the Helios, several shots making their mark.

Tongues of gas blew from the dented and pitted armor of the Helios.

Through the smoke, it lifted an arm, and from one of its gauntlets launched a projectile.

Gertrude climbed and backed up at full speed, out of pure reflex, but the projectile had not been aimed at her. Instead it exploded into a cloud between her Magellan and the Helios.

Dark particulate matter danced in the water, slowly dispersing through the marine fog.

“A smokescreen?”

Soon the chemicals began reacting with the water, almost like they were boiling it.

Frothing bubbles began to expand haphazardly to obscure the Helios.

Dozens of pops of color– a chemical flare? A corrosive cloud? What was it?

Gertrude’s computer was not equipped to analyze chemicals in the water.

As the effect of the munition continued to spread through the water she continued backing off from it. Her fingers tightened on the controls, teeth grit, furious. This thing was clearly just buying time, but what was it buying time for? Was the Antenora losing the battle? That could not be the case. She could not possibly have come this far for nothing. She couldn’t stand to walk out of this empty handed.

Her mind started to spiral, caught in a sudden heartbreaking madness.

Gertrude would save Elena or die. There was nothing else for her.

All of this time, ever since they had met in Schwerin, ever since they went to school together–

Elena was her light. She was the only thing making Gertrude’s existence meaningful.

That dirty little guardsman’s girl in her muddy overalls, she was nothing, lower than a beast.

Born to no one, known for nothing, denied any pleasure of living. A peon; a faceless slave.

Without the princess’ hand, if that touch had never been extended, Gertrude would be nothing.

Her life would have been meaningless.

Dead, less than dead, invisible, nonexistent, as particulate as the marine fog.

It was her love of Elena that made her anything. That made her human; worthy of living.

I can’t lose her! I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!

Without Elena von Fueller what would be the meaning of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s entire life?

Heedless of the nature of the cloud ahead, Gertrude threw all her weight into her sticks.

She would break through this final barrier– she would kill everyone between herself and Elena!


“She’s just gonna charge right through it huh?”

“Called our bluff– don’t worry and just keep it steady. We’ve got options.”

“How is it going on your end?”

“We’ll need to buy a bit more time. Sorry.”

Karuniya Maharapratham sighed.

Soaked in sweat, breathing labored, her fingers hurting as she gripped the controls.

Surrounded by metal, suspended in the deep, dark ocean.

Operating a machine, seeing only through cameras– it was unfamiliar.

Knowing that she stood between Murati and death was all that steeled her wavering mind.

Occupying the front half of the Helios cockpit, Karuniya was taking care of most of the piloting. The two-seater cockpit had Murati directly behind her, with her own set of controls that mirrored Karuniya’s, along with her own screens, though she had less of them than Karuniya did. She could look over Karuniya’s shoulder too, but she was not doing so. She was mostly busy with her part of the plan and could only advise– and maybe, she respected Karuniya enough to trust her with the present situation.

This only made Karuniya even more embarrassed at how outmatched she felt.

“I would feel so much better if I had even an ordinary rifle.”

She cycled on the touchscreen through the equipment on the Helios.

Back at the hangar it had been a whole episode trying to get this thing launched.

“What do you mean it has no weapons? Why the hell would we launch it then?”

Chief Mechanic Lebedova and Theresa– Tigris began arguing immediately.

“It’s designed for Deep Abyss exploration, so it doesn’t have built-in weapons, and it doesn’t use Union hands so it can’t wield your weapons without a conversion. However it has a lot of advanced systems and gear and it’s built extremely sturdy. Murati Nakara already has a plan for it, so just trust her!”

Behind the firebrand Tigris, Murati, with a chest brace to keep her ribs steady and walking herself on a crutch, smiled and waved passively while the scientist and mechanic screamed at each other for several minutes. Until finally the machine was allowed to launch on the condition that Tigris allow herself to be arrested and removed to the brig along with the strangely afflicted “Euphrates” for later interrogation. With that negotiated, Karuniya had taken this machine out into the water and traded a few blows in order to secure Marina McKennedy’s escape– as well as time for Murati to execute her strategy.

“You’re doing well Karu.” Murati cooed.

“I don’t believe you– here she comes!”

“Don’t panic! You’ve got room to react!”

Charging through the smokescreen, the enemy, dubbed a ‘Magellan’ by the targeting computer, covered its approach with gunfire while advancing with all of its thrust toward the Helios. Karuniya pulled back hard on the controls, launching the Helios up and back, but not fast enough. Gunfire rattled the cockpit as several shells impacted with the armor, detonating and tearing off pieces, and the Magellan corrected its path and resumed pursuit very swiftly. Karuniya had not moved fluidly and lost her momentum.

She was at a disadvantage, slowed down while the Magellan sped up.

Seeing it hurtling toward her again and again made the situation terrifyingly clear.

Karuniya was in the middle of combat. This was an enemy trying to kill her.

In this place, in this moment, she couldn’t sidestep a fight by saying “I am just a scientist.”

Murati’s here with me. This time– I have to protect her.

Thinking quickly, she selected one of the Helios’ built-in equipments–

As the Magellan appeared in all of her forward cameras, swinging its sword–

“Launching canister!”

From the gauntlet erupted a utility canister, like a barrel-shaped grenade.

The Magellan cut through the canister, scratching the surface of the retreating Helios–

–unleashing a gelatinous, quick-hardening mass of breach patching gel that stuck to its sword.

“Now’s your chance, Karu!” Murati shouted.

“I don’t know whether I love or hate your backseat driving!”

Karuniya pulled the Helios back, while striking the activation triggers for the jet anchors.

While the Magellan struggled with the bundle of concretized gunk that had affixed to its sword and hand, the Helios’ jet anchors launched like a pair of tentacles. The Magellan threw itself into an ungainly dodge to avoid the jet-powered tungsten hooks, punching the breach sealant mass repeatedly with its free hand while the jet anchors retracted and launched again and again, repeatedly whipping the water at its flank, around its shoulder, nearly smashing off a piece of the flank armor. Cracks formed and pieces began to fall from the sealant mass, soon freeing the Magellan’s sword arm from most of the gel.

In a clear fury, it swung its sword to eject any remaining matter into the water around it.

Charging forward, it swiped at the Helios, Karuniya boosting down and then to the left to avoid the close range blow. Pressing its advantage, the machine swung furiously, forcing Karuniya on the defensive. Raising the gauntlets, she managed to deflect a strike by blocking with her arms, the sword leaving a wound in the thick wrist armor but failing to cut through or destroy the launchers– the Magellan must have read this desperate guard as an attempt to parry or grab its sword, because it briefly backed off.

“Any more ideas?” Karuniya said, swallowing a lump she had held in her throat throughout the melee.

“I’ve almost got it!” Murati replied, “Just a little bit more! You can do it! You’re holding it off!”

“I’m really starting to doubt our chances here Murati!”

While they were shouting, Magellan leaped suddenly skyward with all of its thrust.

Karuniya was momentarily stunned– as if this was somehow different than how it had moved before.

Of course these machines could move in any direction in water she knew that– but she had been trying to stay on a roughly even plane to react to the Magellan more easily as it attacked. All of a sudden it was above her and she felt like she was moving with a second’s delay trying to figure out where the Magellan was going to come from, its angle of attack and the distance it needed to cross–

At the peak of its ascent it suddenly dove at her with all its weight on its sword.

Karuniya moved to intercept while desperately flipping through the available equipment–

And the briefest glimmer of a grin appeared on her face.

“This–!”

A bit of Murati had rubbed off on her somewhere. She felt a wicked thrill as she reacted.

Karuniya was unused to thinking in terms of combat, but she knew that their objective was not necessarily to return with all of this machine intact. There were parts of it that were expendable if it would preserve their lives. Furthermore, she knew that their objective was also not to sink the enemy machine necessarily, not by themselves. She needed to buy time for Murati’s plan. So she finally had a good idea.

Murati– I understand you a little better now.

Narrowing her eyes as she watched her plot unfolding–

That finality as she depressed the triggers and sticks. She was captive to that moment.

In that microsecond span of time that lasted an eternity, suspended between life and death.

She thought of Murati– and how dearly, how much, with all of her might, she wanted to bring Murati back safely to the hangar from this horrific event. How much she didn’t want to be out here, how much she didn’t want to fight. But also– how much, with Murati in danger, she would fight, and scrape and claw helplessly at the metal of the enemy machine if it would release Murati from any suffering.

That must have been how Murati felt every time she went out to fight.

All of the people who stayed behind and depended on her. Like Karuniya herself.

Now, literally behind her, it was Murati who was depending on her to save everybody.

So with this fire in her heart, she released a canister from inside the gauntlet’s launcher.

Grasped it into the machine’s jet-anchored fist between palm and fingers.

And threw a steel punch across a dozen meters to meet the Magellan’s charge. Leaning into her sticks as if it would cause her physical pushing to actually push the fist faster on its vernier thrusters.

Gritting her teeth and ready to scream in the next instant. As if piloting with all her body.

Set on its violent course, the Magellan drove its sword down to slice through the digits in the fist.

But right before the crash–

That fist clenched and squeezed the canister it was holding.

Exploding into a cloud of anti-flooding agent that froze into a bubble-shaped ice block.

With the Magellan’s sword, both arms and chest frozen into it in the act of cutting through.

Got you!

Karuniya let go of the cable. Sacrificing the Helios’ hand to watch the enemy slowly sink.

But behind the Magellan, its hydro-jet thrusters worked furiously.

Instantly the ice began to crack, the Magellan struggling with all its mechanical strength.

Thrashing like a rabid monster, its cyclopic eye livid red. But it was too late–

Inside the Helios, the monitors began to brighten.

“Karuniya, you’re amazing! It’s– It’s doing something now!” Murati cried out.

Across the walls of the cockpit, began to glow lines of circuitry with a rainbow gradient.

There was a glow, coming from below and behind her–

Karuniya realized quickly, it was she herself, and Murati. Glowing with strange colors.

On her main screen, a large square symbol that she realized was a stylized setting sun appeared.

Along with text briefly appearing over the user interface.

ARRAYS ESTABLISHED. NETWORK ONLINE.

HELIOS INFORMATION SYSTEM: May the light of our bonds create our own sun.

Outside the four drones expanded a network of bouncing laser and acoustic signals through their unique arrays that covered the entire battlespace and this picture appeared on the visual monitors.

For the first time, the imaging prediction was seeing every unit, their exact positions on the battlefield, and establishing links between each friendly machine to allow coordination. The clearest picture Karuniya had ever seen of an underwater battlefield. Their maps were updated, and even the camera feed was more legible. Those squat, fat drones loaded into this machine held something truly special.

The Helios’ equipment panel showed that a pair of antennae had risen on the head.

Then one of the ancillary screens showed something playing– a video.

Murati gasped behind Karuniya. They were both seeing the same on their own monitors.

Two people appeared on the video which appeared to be taken with a portable camera within some kind of workspace. Holding the camera, facing it toward himself, was a dark-skinned man with short, dark hair. Behind him, smiling, was a woman, her skin a bit lighter brown, and her hair dark but brownish as well. They were dressed in slightly greasy work coveralls, and there were parts lying around them.

In the woman’s hands was a large, thick, disc-shaped black drone.

Smaller than the Helios’ but undoubtedly a similar design.

“We don’t know where these little ones might end up on their long road,” the man began, “but I thought it’d be significant to document where they started, for posterity.” At that point the video became slightly distorted. Next, the two were together, both their faces close to the camera now. “This is Helios,” the man continued, “Tentative name. Inspired by a friend. It’ll hopefully get us all talking together. Even where there are no cables and no networks that serve the rich men, Helios will let us shine our own light.”

It was the woman who started speaking next. “It’d be naïve to think this will solve anything by itself. Just us two, all we can do is scratch the surface of the injustices and oppression in our world. But if this project can connect even one person to someone they can help, if it can get even two people to meet and protect each other from being exploited, they will have done everything we could have hoped for.”

At that point the woman paused, collecting a tear with her fingers. “I really do think if all of us who have borne the pain of hunger and the weariness of work could truly understand each other, if we could communicate and organize at a large scale. We are all so divided by individual stations, individual nations, thousands of kilometers of water separate us. With this, maybe we can take a tiny step toward bridging those gaps outside the control of the Empire. Maybe we’ll see nothing come from it– but I hope at least that in the future, even a fragment of what we left behind can help our children build a better world.”

They tilted the camera then, perhaps meaning to, perhaps by accident.

Showing that the woman on the video was pregnant.

“A thousand generations live on in us — and a thousand more will follow us.” The man said proudly.

At that point, the video cut off. Those two smiling, optimistic folk disappeared forever.

Karuniya did not have to turn around to realize how much Murati was crying.

She thought in her mind’s eye that she saw Murati, tears streaming down her face.

In fact, she thought, for a moment, that they were face to face.

Suspended in a void surrounded by colors.

She could reach out, touch her, and wipe the tears herself.

They would be really happy with you, Murati.

I’m really happy with you too, you know.

Despite everything that’s happened, I am grateful to share this ocean with you.

Murati smiled at her, cloaked in a euphoric white light.

Karuniya blinked. In that span of time she was back at the controls–

And a flashing red box drawn over her camera feed alerted her.

The Magellan excavated its arms from the frozen water, having lost its rifle and sword.

Despite its condition, it continued to fight.

Reaching around its back, it produced a grenade.

“Murati, brace yourself!”

That grenade left its throwing arm and there was a flash as its rocket engaged.

Karuniya once again readied to dodge–

Mere meters from the Magellan, a burst of gunfire set the grenade suddenly alight.

Taking the machine’s hand clean off and knocking it back from the shockwave.

Into a Strelok with an assault rifle raised to the Magellan’s backpack at point blank range.

“Sorry! I made it right in the nick of time!”

Over a video feed, Karuniya and Murati heard the voice and saw the crystal clear smile of Valya Lebedova, their glasses slightly askew, face glistening with sweat, salmon-pink hair thrown about. They looked almost embarrassed on the screen. “Got it under control I think. I’ve been kicked around a lot today and felt like a huge useless fool– so big thanks Lieutenant for giving me a little moment to look cool.”

Murati leaned down toward Karuniya, patting her shoulder gently. “Thanks for coming Valya.” She said.

There was a brief moment of tension but–

Wounded, out of weapons, caught off-guard, the Magellan slowly raised its damaged arms in surrender.


Dominika and Sameera floated back to back, keeping their eyes peeled for the enemy.

“That Jagd is too slippery, even with damage.” Sameera said.

“I can’t find that sniper either. We’re going to have to make a move.” Dominika said.

“Okay. I’ll rush out and make a big fuss. You try to pick out one or the other.”

“Such a boneheaded move– but it’s really all we got, huh? Fine, I’ll–”

“Wait–”

At that moment, something connected to Dominika’s machine via laser.

In an instant, her map of the surroundings and the ancillary monitors with her sensor reads update with all kinds of blips, terrain data. Her cameras looked like an entire dreadnought lined with station-size floodlights had suddenly navigated overhead and lit up the entire ocean. This was a filter, based on predictive imaging, but whose? She hadn’t gotten an update from the Brigand in a while– and all those blips! They were definitely the mapped positions of every unit. Was this really correct?

Enemies were profiled– she could quickly spot the Jagd and the Volkannon.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Sameera asked.

Dominika was, but for a moment she could hardly comprehend it.

In terms of information, it was like taking off a blindfold from over her eyes, and where she was previously stumbling, she was now able to see every step she was taking. For a brief moment the light was almost blinding, and there was so much to see. She immediately found the position of the sniper, trailing below and awaiting a laser mark from the Jagd, which itself she could now follow, a blip on the sensor map.

She had full targeting data, as if there was a laser mark being shone on every enemy.

It was almost like sniping in station combat. Seeing through open air across a vast distance.

But where had this windfall of intelligence come from?

If questioned it any longer, she would lose the opportunity to take the enemy unawares.

There could be no more hesitation.

“We’ll have to trust it! Let’s disperse and take them out before they heed the radiation warnings!”

“Acknowledged!”

Sameera rushed out into the water, not haphazardly, but with a purpose. She too was seeing her enemy.

Dominika hefted her sniper rifle and aimed precisely at the Volkannon.

Its outline appeared distantly in her sights, the camera feed enhanced by the predictive imaging. Its coordinates displayed in her scope perfectly matching the data that was being fed into her sensors. There was no mistaking it. She had the enemy in her scope, she had every advantage. She held her breath.

First at one shoulder and then between breaths at the opposing shoulder.

With two quick presses of the trigger she sent two 50 mm shells into the enemy Diver.

Two hits, in a second, dead on the mark–

Both its shoulders blew apart, sending its cannons floating away in pieces, tearing its arms.

Its rotund hull went rolling down to the seafloor.

Had it even seen what took it down? It was in the same position she had been.

In less than a moment, she had completely turned around a situation that had felt hopeless.

Behind her, Sameera met the Jagd with an alacrity that seemed divinely inspired.

Having traced its exact path, the close-combat Cossack intercepted the Jagd at top speed.

With one swing of her sword she took out its remaining arm entirely.

Battered by the attack, the Jagd twisted in the water, briefly out of control.

Then with an almost dismissive butt of her flat, Sameera sent the hull careening toward the seafloor.

Both enemies were completely disabled. In one sudden swerve, they gained the upper hand.

“Capture or finish off?” Sameera asked. “They could have valuable information.”

“I went easy on it at first– but maybe we shouldn’t take chances.” Dominika replied.

They had no idea how long this information windfall would last. They had to act quickly.

Ruthless, Dominika swung her Strelkannon around, quickly aiming her sniper rifle at the Jagd–

“Stop! Stop fighting! Everyone must stop right now! I’m begging you!”

As crisp as if it came from right beside her, a voice sounded from the communicator.

The pleading voice of a violet-haired girl who then appeared on Dominika’s monitor.

“This is Princess Elena von Fueller! Please stop fighting! Please!” 

Rather than merely from heeding the message–

Sameera and Dominika stopped fighting because they couldn’t believe what they were hearing.


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Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.12]

This chapter contains explicit sexual content.


“Ensign Anahid, how do you feel about the Republic of Alayze? You can be candid.”

It’s a dump.

A failed state.

We should be ashamed. We should beg for forgiveness.

“I think as the sole remaining democracy of the sea, it’s worth fighting for.”

Ensign Samuel “Sam” Anahid stood in the middle of a dim blue windowless room with a high ceiling. In this room there were only three things. The desk of the Director of the General Intelligence Agency, the director himself, behind the desk, and a miasma of palpable deceit that was everywhere in the Republic of Alayze. No adornments, no windows; this cell-like room was the heart and the soul of the G.I.A.

Wearing a neutral expression, Sam told a lie. Not a muscle in his face twitched out of place.

“Good answer, candid and honest. You are quite correct Ensign. Ours is not a perfect country; everyone can see this easily. But our role, nonetheless, is to protect it with all of our might. Because its people can still make it great. If we surmount the firestorm of this era, because we are a democracy, we can achieve anything. Those despots in the Imbrian Ocean can only lord over an unchanging and stagnating relic.”

It was customary for G.I.A. officials with important missions to take on new identities.

To become Director, the man before Samuel had to abandon his old name. That plaque on his desk, which read Albert Ford-Reagan, was just another falsity that was borne out of this room and its mission. For a man who sat behind a desk all day and gave orders, he was solidly built, broad-backed, square-jawed. He had an open case of cigars on his desk from which many pieces were missing. His eyes were crystalline and upon them information could be seen flitting– cybernetics. His hair was voluminous for his age, slicked back. There had been an older Director when Sam first joined. But he looked like this too.

Maybe if Sam did outstandingly, he might someday be reborn as a broad-backed blond bear.

Rather than a narrow-chested, slender-limbed twink, hiding half his face behind his long hair.

But the thought of becoming like that man– disgusted him.

He had some unreachable ideas of what he wanted–

No use contemplating it. Not here anyway.

“Indeed, Director.”

Sam was sparse with his words. What could he say?

He didn’t even know why he was summoned.

And no matter what he said, he would find out sooner or later.

“From now on, you will go by Blake McClinton.” Director Albert said suddenly.

Sooner–

“Sir?”

“We’re assigning you a valuable mission in the Imbrian Ocean. Your right to forfeit this mission was the question that I asked you earlier.” Director Albert said. “You will receive field training and full details in the coming weeks. You are now a full-fledged field agent, Ensign. Congratulations.”

It was that sudden.

And that was, truly, all the Director said, or needed to say.

Every blank he left was filled in by the culture of the G.I.A. Sam did not even have to acquiesce or accept the mission. He had accepted such a mission already, every time he lied in order to protect his career prospects. He had done the work to remain in the office, to continue to don his badge, and he had done enough that there was no running away from it anymore. He was the best analyst, so there was only one way for him to go. The G.I.A. had more desk officers coming, and the Republic’s war was endless.

All of this because I was too much of a pussy to fight on the front lines from the start.

He made Ensign off the back of being able to read better into data than his colleagues.

All because he didn’t want to die in a Cutter’s bridge fighting the Hanwans or Imbrians.

Now he was getting field duty– in Imbria, no less.

Sam quietly left the office after the conversation with the Director.

There was nothing more to be said.

He left for home while he had the chance.

Madison Station was the home of the G.I.A Central Directorate. It was a squat cylindrical station with only two stories, the top tier having discrete buildings inside while the bottom provided transport infrastructure to outlying habitation spires. Overhead, the thick titanium roof was like an eternal gray sky. There was a fake, grassy park stretching out from the white slab of the Central Directorate building, surrounded by high fences patrolled by quad-rotor drones. Each stretch of the park had a sun-lamp to keep the grass alive that was uncomfortable to stand under. And in fact, even agents would be chased off by the drones if they loitered in the lawn anyway– to say nothing of the few bubbles which contained trees. Everything was look-don’t-touch, the tiniest splash of aesthetics below the grey horizon.

Outside the fences, there were long roads for personal electric cars and for the electric ferry. There were few such cars parked near the street. Cars were like toys; you could drive your car if you lived in the habitat in Madison itself, and you drove it from your work which was a few blocks away and back to your home. It was a novelty. If you lived in an outlying hab like Sam, you could not possibly take your car there and back. Some people did keep a car in the car park in Madison, so they would tube to their hab and back, but drive to work using their car– it was nonsense. He had the money, but why would he bother?

Besides the cars, the streets around the Directorate were sparse with people.

Across the road, however, the crowd was much thicker.

The Central Directorate was an isolated bubble.

Everywhere else stood the teeming mass of the Republic’s people. Madison was nowhere near the most crowded, but Sam still had to push in a little after crossing the road. Office buildings, restaurants, store-fronts, no matter where he walked, the street was teeming. Dim lights. Everything was dim, as if the city feared any bright colors. Amid a crowd of people in similar office-wear to his own, all dimly looking around as if dazed. Sam had been places where walking down the street felt like a queue system.

Madison was not that bad– yet. It would get there someday.

There were less and less stations going up these days. Building them had become very convoluted.

Politically and financially–

No sense in thinking about it too much.

He made his way to an elevator and rode it down into the lower tier.

Here, the steel guts of the station were on full display. There was nothing but metal, tubes and vents and pipes, sealed off rooms with mechanisms. No attempt to embellish anything. Wide and broad hallways full of people led between tube stations out to the outlying spire hab blocks that surrounded the main structure of Madison. There were some shops here and there for the people coming and going, cramped little restaurants that were literally holes in the wall, kiosks with patriotic trinkets for folks visiting the Capital. With his hands in his pockets, Sam made his way to the tube out to Hab block “Clancy.”

Entering a tight train car, standing in the center holding himself up with a bar.

Once the train got going, fake windows would project an idyllic view of the outside.

Madison had been built at 300 meters depth on the Great Alayze Reach.

That was the base. These tubes were actually at 250 meters depth.

The Great Reaches were sacred places rendered safe by some poorly understood force, maybe some weather pattern, magnetic field, some forgotten surface device, God knew why– but there was none of the aggressive megafauna, wild currents, storms, red tides, and residual corruption that plagued the rest of the photic layers of the ocean. So when Sam peeked out of those false windows there was a bit of light outside, the marine fog was not as thick. Everyone felt safe. Nobody was terrified of the water.

You could see schools of fish, life, a place teeming with biological hope.

To leave Madison for the neighboring Pennsylvania Station you had to cross the Upper Scattering Layer and dive down into the aphotic depths, as most of the Republic lay between 900 to 1500 depth in the Cogitum Ocean. The USL was called that because most of human civilization was beneath it, but Madison was one of the few places above the USL where the moniker made no sense to the ruling class of people who got to live in this privileged bubble. Sometimes Sam nursed a catastrophic idea– if the Surface got worse, and the Great Reaches became as dangerous as the rest of the photic ocean around them.

Madison and the entire Republic government would be completely annihilated.

Maybe that was what it would take. The Imbrians, Hanwans, Katarrans, they could not end the Republic.

But maybe someday God would strike the Republic down just as He struck the surface down.

When the tube stopped inside of Clancy hab, the view became a lot less pretty.

Out on the platform, a police officer had pulled aside a civilian. There was a brief argument before the officer laid an unprompted beating that Sam could not bear to watch it and hurried away.

Leaving behind the depressing tube platform he found himself at the base of the hab, a cylindrical promenade around the elevators, where there was a shabby cafeteria and a few sparse storefronts. Nothing staffed by people, everything was pay-to-operate and self-serve. Sam hated these– he would not eat here unless the situation in his apartment was truly dire. But he was well paid, he could afford to keep his own food at home. Most of the people in this hab were immigrants in the service industry.

Yellow lights gave the halls leading to his apartment a gloomy ambiance.

Everything was so dim– why? Why couldn’t they have some brightness for once?

When Sam arrived at his own hall there was an enormous mess in front of him.

There was an eviction happening in his hall, so a person’s belongings were getting dumped out of an apartment like trash by several police officers. Sam had to navigate a maze of trash bags and furniture to get through, and the police officers gave him a disdainful look for it and barked at him to hurry up. There was a bloodied young man up against a wall, his nose punched deep purple — Sam didn’t know anyone here so he didn’t know who it was. He assumed that was the former inhabitant after the police got him.

Evicted from here, he’d be taken directly to a prison station.

He would either rot in jail or be sentenced to a Debtors’ Corps for work or war.

When Sam finally got to his own door, the hallway lights were blinking on and off.

He sighed. They couldn’t even have steady power– how would they manage color?

Then, he got his colors–

Inside, the first thing he saw was a big red flashing warning on his wall.

Rent due: $2000 Republic New Dollar or RND.

That warning would flash like a mental assault at him from every wall until it was paid.

Exasperated, Sam easily dispersed the warning by flashing his bank card at the wall.

Turning the dire red light back to the dim, depressing yellow.

$2000 RND was like a fifth of his monthly salary. It was barely anything to him.

For the laborers it could be close to three quarters of it.

Sam imagined that for that evictee, this warning flashed at him for a whole month.

He saw it every day awaiting the knock from the police, helpless.

Some holy land, the Great Alayze Reach. Some country, the great Republic of Alayze.

Sam slammed the door behind himself and laid back against it, breathing heavy.

He almost thought he would have a panic attack.

Rotten fucking day– rotten fucking place–

“What do I think of this place? I fucking hate it. I can’t imagine Imbria is any worse.”

Sam took in a deep breath.

Using the wall to help himself stand back up straight.

Thumbing the wall touchpad to bring up the lights, brightening up his 7 by 5 meter space.

They never got too bright, but it was a less dim yellow than the halls now.

The apartment was divided into three sections, the living space, kitchen, and bathroom.

There was an island that separated the living space and kitchen, while the bathroom was tucked away behind another door. From the hallway door, Sam was in his living space, with a combination sofa and bed, that folded out, a table, a combination video-screen and terminal mounted on the wall that had its own processor, making it just a bit faster and nicer than using the room computer. In his kitchen, there was an electric cooktop with a small convection box, and an icebox and pantry.

Sam used to pay to get his food automatically restocked, but he stopped. It was people from Clancy that delivered it, and he hated the idea of his neighbors running to Madison and back for him.

So he just made it part of his routine to shop in Madison and bring stuff back sometimes.

It also gave him an excuse to stick around Madison– sometimes he needed that.

Soon as the lights went on, Sam pulled off his tie, dropped his suit jacket on the floor. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it too but kept his pants on. He had a little ritual– he was deeply ashamed of it, but it gave him a specific thrill that made him feel more at home with himself. He would grab a smoke, lay on the sofa in just his pants, shirtless, no shoes– but he would put on a woman’s brassiere.

A black, padded bra that fit tight on him, sleek, with a floral pattern. He had picked it out, bought it “for a girlfriend” that he obviously did not fucking have. Then he wore it at home– it felt sexy.

Between drags of his cigarette he would look down at his chest. It titillated him a bit.

“I’m nothing but a fucking pervert. But so is everyone fucking else in this country.”

This wasn’t something that was wholly unknown to the Republic–

Tranvestism– no, it was transgenderism— whatever. Wanting to be a woman.

Sam could have talked to a doctor, gone through psych evals, gotten real-looking tits.

He could afford it– but–

But–

It’d have ruined his career.

That sort of thing was tolerated, but not truly permitted.

He was in his early 20s and already Ensign. He was good at lying and fucking people over and arranging schemes for the most evil and savage freaks on this planet so they could keep killing in the name of democracy and freedom. That was his job, and he was good at it, and if he showed up to those people in a pencil skirt and tights and makeup with a pair of C-cups they would politely make her a lowly accountant who could just barely afford her room and diet until she just quit.

Sam considered himself far too entrenched in his work, and too useless at anything else.

He looked feminine enough in his own estimation to feel like a woman at home.

That would have to be enough. He was barely alive now; if he was fired it’d really kill him.

Smoking cigarettes at home in women’s underwear, hair long and loose, lounging.

He’d tried makeup, sometimes. It was fine. Everything was just fucking fine–

“I wish I’d been brave enough to just fucking die in the wars.”

Sinking in an awful little ship somewhere that was peaceful before the Republic got there.

Torn apart by a torpedo from a Katarran or a Hanwan or an Imbrian even.

“Maybe I’ll have a chance soon.” He thought morbidly, his mood crashing.

He was headed to the Imbrium to do God knows what. He would almost certainly die.

And even if Blake McClinton did not die then, Samuel Anahid was already dead.


The Republic of Alayze had a single connection to the Imbrium Ocean that was indisputably under their control and contiguous to their territory. Navigating the Cogitum into the northern Nubium sea that lay within the continent of North Occultis, to a small gap in the continental wall into the Imbrium, called Ratha Flow. Ratha Flow served as the most recent Naval Headquarters of the Republican Navy, having moved there from the inner Cogitum hundreds of years ago when the Republic and Empire declared war.

The Republic had a much larger share of the world’s wealth than any other power.

It spent an outsize amount of these resources on its military, crusading for “global democracy.”

The Hanwans and the Katarrans were the nearest enemies, but the chief evil of the world, according to the Republic’s politicians and media, was the Imbrian Empire, hegemon of the western hemisphere of Aer.

At all times, the Nubium Sea was required to host at least 800 to 1000 vessels, for defense.

Then, when the Republic war machine really got going, it would send an additional 800 to 1000 vessels to Ratha Flow, which had to possess the capacity to temporarily host them. This reinforcement was always in preparation for a concerted attack on the Imbrium Ocean. Across from Ratha Flow was the conflict zone known as the Great Ayre Reach. Beyond the Ayre Reach they could attack the Empire’s throne state of Palatine, or the economically powerful financial-industrial state of Rhinea. If the Republic could successfully occupy either state, it’d be a death-blow to the Empire in their great war.           

There had been numerous battles for Ayre Reach in the history of the Great War.

Because of the war, the Nubium Sea bases and Ratha Flow itself, were overcrowded, dismal and miserable. Everywhere, so-called elite soldiers lived shipment to shipment from the Cogitum.

There was no production of anything in the Nubium, it was all bases and stockpiles, nothing but huge dock-stations and barracks-stations and depot-stations. Nothing was made there, everything had to be shipped, so there would be space to hold the massive fleets in place ready at a moment’s notice, as well as the absurd mass of human life required to fight for, direct and maintain the war machine.

Stockpiles were jealously guarded, to be cracked into only if there was a delay in the tight logistic chain from the Cogitum’s rich core stations to the “trenches” of the Nubium Sea and Ratha Flow.

The Republic of Alayze almost felt like it was designed to be this rich, this powerful, so it could afford the insane, bleak task of having 2000 ships in an 800 by 200 kilometer stretch of habitable water, surrounded on all sides by either the hopeless ice wall of the pole or the corrupted mass of the continent and its evil weather and monstrous fauna. The Nubium, and Ratha Flow, were the vilest fucking places on Aer, Blake McClinton thought, as he stared at the scope of the human suffering contained in each base.

Everywhere, the soldiers tried to put on a brave face. It had been drilled into them that they were the front line in a global war between democracy and despotism. They had to suffer endless days with poor food and little entertainment, working hard to keep their equipment ready and their skills sharp, their boredom broken up by drills and military panic, so that they could “defend their way of life” by invading the Imbrian Empire and being repulsed, time and time again, with only the Ratha Wall staving off defeat.

“This is a pure atrocity. Only we could’ve done this shit this bad.”

It was no wonder the Empire continued to defeat them. Who would have the energy to fight for this?

Nevertheless, the Great War for Global Democracy continued apace.

There were always soldiers, whether the brave and bold, the poor and hungry, or prisoners without choice. Despite his relative privilege– Blake characterized himself as a prisoner without choice.

“Imbria, here I come.” He joked dismally to himself.

When Blake McClinton arrived at Ratha Flow, preparations were underway for a massive attack, perhaps the largest in the history of the Great War. He would not be part of it. Instead, he would be sallying out with a small raiding force that would provide cover for him to infiltrate the Empire in a tiny vessel.

At the moment, the Empire was facing some unrest within its southern colonies.

There were rumors of rioting and a potential slave revolt that could brew in the coming months if something was not done. The Republic did not have much hope of these actions leading to a larger revolt within the Empire and felt they would be put down very quickly; but they could use the distraction, if they could attack while the Empire was gathering or in the process of a punitive expedition.

To support a potential upcoming attack on the Great Ayre Reach, Naval HQ had requested for the G.I.A. to reinforce its intelligence gathering position in the Empire with extra field assets. Priority was placed on gaining access to the Imperial dynasty– if unrest could be spread into the Emperor’s court, the Republic believed that the “despotic top-down leadership structure” of the Empire could be brought to a crisis point. Combined with the southern unrest and a massive attack from Ratha Flow, the scales would tip.

And so, Blake’s duty was to become an “extra field asset” in the Palatine state for this purpose.

Aboard the infiltration cutter Mata Hari, Blake waited in a small, cramped break room alongside two other agents destined for the Imbrium Ocean. Cutters due to their size had few amenities. On most ships, the roof was at least two meters up, but here, even someone Blake’s size would feel like they were a fish being canned. His compatriots, both taller than him, seemed to relish getting to sit down somewhere.

One was a dark-skinned man, hair packed into tight braids which were themselves tied into a ponytail. He looked young, just a bit older than Blake perhaps. He was tall, physically fit, and looked friendly.

They were both accompanied by an older gentleman, who exuded a bit of adventuristic charisma, the sort of man who smelled heavily like whiskey and cigarette smoke, slicked silver hair, a mustache and shaved beard but with such a deep shadow that one could imagine how thick it must have been. A man who looked like he belonged on the cover of a thriller movie poster holding a woman a fraction of his age.

He introduced himself first, before anyone asked: “Piedmont’s the name, Dusan Piedmont. Is this your first time venturing out into the Imbrium? Don’t worry one bit– I’ve got everything down to a science.”

Blake immediately disliked him.

“I’m Burke, Burke Zepp.”

The dark-skinned man beside Blake reached across a tiny fold-out table between the two cramped little couches in the Cutter’s break room. Piedmont looked delighted to be shaking his hand.

Blake noticed Piedmont seemed to be making much more effort with the shake than Burke.

“Firm grip, Petty Officer Burke! That’s good. You can tell a lot about a man by–”

Blake started to tune him out. He was careful not to roll his eyes too obviously.

“Blake McClinton.”

He introduced himself in the least dismissive voice he could muster.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. McClinton.” Piedmont said, briefly looking Blake over. “May I inquire as to your specialty? I like to know the skills of those I am working with– Mr. Zepp’s faculties are quite evident, but I’m very interested in what you bring to the table. It’s always the unassuming agents who end up being the most critical for the mission in the end, in my vast and credible experience.”

Burke did not respond to Piedmont’s clear typecasting of him.

Blake sighed internally.

He was going to have to get along with this fucking cartoon for months, maybe years.

“Disguise.” Blake said. “I’m good at disguises, makeup, forging identities.”

“Disguises? Fantastic! And if I may be so bold as to say– both genders, correct?”

Blake had not wanted to bring it up. Now he understood why Piedmont was staring at him.

“Yes.” He said bluntly, and no more. Piedmont must have thought he was a fucking queer.

Though it was something he did recreationally, the makeup skills and cross-dressing had ended up being part of what his G.I.A. handler noted about him as a potential asset in his ascension to field agent.

New agents were put through simulations of fieldwork to prove they had what it takes to be sent to the Imbrium or Hanwa as infiltrators. Blake characterized himself as a good liar and during the simulations deceit was, in his estimation, his key weapon to the fieldwork problems given to him to solve.

He was not going to fight his way into or out of anywhere and he frankly thought such a meatheaded approach would have made any intelligence he acquired along the way functionally useless. In his mind, field agents should get close to objectives and secure them wholly unnoticed to maximize their value. A lot of his solutions ended up incorporating constructed identities, creative use of fashions, and even impersonating people to get in and out while being able to interact with the operational space.

He played to his strengths a little too well.

To the point that the kit of gear prepared for his Imbrium journey now had a set of professionally-crafted breastforms, a full makeup kit and a fitted cocktail dress so he could cross-dress like a pro. He was not necessarily ashamed of his assessment, since as long as he was thought of as male it was only a skillset he used in his job and not something about him that was viewed as strange. But of course, a fossil like Piedmont who groomed his fucking mustache must have seen him as a limp-wristed freak.

Thankfully he had precious little time to say anything to Piedmont right then and there.

Alarm lights flashed red in every compartment.

“Imbrian vessels dead ahead! There’s– there’s a lot!”

On a nearby monitor the bridge crew piped in footage from the predictors of the larger vessels in the fleet. The Republican flotilla numbered six ships, a cruiser, a destroyer and three frigates escorting the disguised cutter. Opposite them, the Imbrian fleet– had several dozen ships. Led by a Koenig class dreadnought, there must have been at least thirty. An entire combat group approached.

“I’m fucking dead.” Blake whispered under his breath.

Staring at the monitor, that projection of barely-lit black water replete with clouds of brown biological dust, the distant outlines of the mass of enemy vessels, it was like swimming at full speed into a wall. Every nightmare Blake had ever had about fleet combat, what he had always ran away from, what he lied and struggled not to experience, it was all right here in front of him. He had run away too strongly and too well– he had circled right around back to the feared Imbrium and its deadly machines.

Maybe it was for the best to die alone with nothing but fantasies of a better life–

As soon as the Imperial ships began firing, Blake’s ship dove right to the ocean floor and cut away from the battle, moving within the chaos. On the monitor, a text overlaid on the video bid the crew to be silent as the cutter slinked away. Blake briefly watched the fleet being blasted to pieces on the cameras while his own ship stole from the battlefield beneath the notice of his absolutely massive enemy.

Somehow, within minutes, he had put that nightmarish sight of the enemy fleet behind him.

It would not be the first time that people would die to propel his journey forward.


Piedmont, that fucking idiot!

Blake seethed internally.

He scanned his eyes across the colorful ballroom from the second story. Overhead, the grand gilded arch of the ceiling played host to chandeliers with LEDs providing a sensuous, simulated ambiance below. Used to the dim but consistent yellow from ordinary station lights, Blake had trouble spotting his man in the crowd below. Besuited men, women in colorful dresses, dancing in the glamorous ballroom floor. On a small stage a brunette in a revealing red dress sang a song of love and longing that stirred his heart.

An ostentatious festival of barely-hidden sexuality– Blake even smelled it in the air.

That hedonism which characterized the Empire to him in the past few months.

On some level he had come to respect it. Despite all the money it had, the Republic was a bleak place utterly without aesthetics or sensuality. For the imperial ruling class, money was about the aesthetics. Rich finery, beautiful homes, retinues of servants and frequent, feverish trysts. To have power was to exert it for pleasure. Blake would have felt a bit more alive if he performed all his misdeeds for a beautiful and lively woman like the Lady of the House, Leda Lettiere. He had heard many rumors about her. It was the gravest misfortune of his birth that he instead worked for the tasteless, anhedonic stock-hoarders of the Republic.

Today the theater in which his continuous misfortune played out was Schwerin Island.

A beautiful station in the Palatinate, it once served as the “summer palace” of the Emperor, now given over to his newest, youngest wife as a semi-permanent abode. The Lady of this House was the mysterious and much sought after Leda Lettiere. She was not the target tonight– the G.I.A.’s mission was not so ambitious yet. But this was a place where they could gamble on finding a steppingstone to Leda, and from there, to begin building a network adjacent to the ruling Fueller family in some capacity. Because of the gamble and the rewards it could bring, the G.I.A. had to be absolutely, ironclad cautious tonight.

“It’s already cocked up. We’ve already fucked it up completely.”

Blake muttered to himself, scanning the vast room in a panic.

That moron, Piedmont, was nowhere to be seen. They had gone out of contact!

Blake was supposed to stand in the upper story with a fan over his richly dolled-up face.

Wearing his red cocktail dress, made up to be ‘Christina Becker’, aspiring theater actress.

With his dark hair done up in a fancy bun. He surprised himself how well he pulled it off.

Christina was supposed to stick to the second story to signal Piedmont, who was “Lord Beck.”

There were a few dangerous individuals here tonight, to be avoided at all costs.

Blake nearly choked on his wine when he spotted the worst one of all.

There would be a single person in attendance wearing a gray uniform–

–with a blue and green shoulder cape and a stylized semiconductor symbol upon it.

Norn Tauscherer, the most feared of the ruling Fueller family’s bannermen.

Nowhere that the G.I.A. went in the Imbrium did they fail to uncover myth and legend surrounding this vastly evil woman. Invincible, unkillable, seemingly all-knowing, plots broke upon her like tides on rock. She alone was responsible for more G.I.A. casualties in the Imbrium than the entire Imperial Navy, and it was her doing that an entirely new cell had to be created to gather intelligence. An entire cell fell to her a few years ago. The silver lining was that, reportedly, Norn had done such a thorough job of uprooting them that she believed she had wiped out the G.I.A. in the Imbrium entirely, and of course, she could have had no awareness of when or where they would rebuild their networks. This allowed Blake to do his job without having her immediately on his back — for now. And it absolutely had to stay that way.

From up above Blake spied her in the crowd, the cape an easy beacon of her position among the peacocks and doves playing out their grand mating rituals below. She was a good-looking, fair-skinned blond of unexciting stature with a sabre gleaming on her hip. Both handsome and beautiful as if each angle of her face could show a new and different side to her– each side still grinning maliciously.

Even going near this woman was game over for them.

“We have to abort if Norn even looks at you. We can’t take any risks.” Blake had said.

“Of course, of course. I’ve also heard of how scary she is, I’m not deaf to it.”

“You’re not deaf, but you’re too proud. Don’t chase anything if the cost is her attention.”

Piedmont hadn’t responded to that in their briefing. Of course he hadn’t.

He was off being a big trumped-up hero somewhere– until Norn caught up to him.

Then he would be an extremely dead hero.

Blake tracked Norn from the second story while trying to spot Piedmont in the crowd.

They had all these novel physical signals they practiced so as not to have to carry hidden equipment. And all those signals depended on Piedmont being the hall and looking up! Helpless, Blake scanned the entrances he could see, the middle of the ballroom, the positions of servants, back to Norn–

He felt something like a wind rushing past him.

His exposed back shuddered.

Norn had tipped her chin up, brought up her eyes, scanned across the second story–

–seen him?

Blake thought for a brief instant they had made eye contact– and it terrified him.

Those vast red eyes and the promise of their infinite violence–

He looked away and began to fan himself with his carbon-fiber fold-out fan.

It had a red back and a green front. If Piedmont saw him he would know to abort.

Thankfully Norn continued to walk among the crowd. But her behavior–

She’s looking for something. God damn it. She’s not mingling at all.

Her trajectory was like a shark sniffing blood from kilometers away.

Why does everything go wrong for me? Literally everything!

There was no training on Aer that could prepare an agent for the plan going awry.

At that point, it was down to experience, instinct, luck, x-factor, whether an agent survived.

Blake tried to calm himself down. He tried think about his options rationally.

All he could do was to weigh the pros and cons and optimize for the best outcome.

For the moment Blake could at least keep track of Norn. However, she was clearly heading through the crowd and might leave into one of the adjoining halls. When she did so, Blake would lose track of her. And unless Piedmont magically showed up from the opposite end of the ballroom like a fucking cartoon character, Blake would have no agent to support and no enemy to track. He could stand around uselessly until he was certain Piedmont was not coming back for good, or he could leave his position.

If he left his position, he could either escape, try to gather information on his own, perhaps approaching one of the lesser noblemen or women– or try to find Piedmont and extract together.

“If I go looking for him I might expose myself. It’s a huge risk.”

Blake’s fingers tightened on the fan. He knew in this situation that he should run away.

They had a lot riding on this. It was not so easy to leave empty handed.

Despite the legendary graciousness of the hostess, Schwerin Island only rarely opened to the aristocratic masses rather than a few intimate, select invitees. While the crowd below was quite rich it was not entirely exclusive. Leda Lettiere was giving the bourgeoise and aristocracy a rare chance to network within her home, to potentially meet her, thus displaying her social power. The G.I.A. had worked hard to create the conditions for Piedmont and Blake to attend this ball while remaining anonymous and being able to leave behind their identities if needed, and it was the design of the party itself that allowed for this. They could not have been invited to such a thing, at least not yet. It was a juicy opportunity.

However, if they all got caught it would be for nothing.

Their cell was still relatively new. Living to fight another day was warranted.

Blake could run away, rendezvous with Burke, return to the cell and hatch new plans.

Empty-handed, maybe having lost Piedmont, but with hope for a future.

There were other nobles, other social events, entire other avenues of networking to pursue.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck me.”

Muttering under his breath Blake gathered all his strength into putting up a smiling façade.

And ventured into the adjoining halls, walking delicately on his heels, fan aloft.

Piedmont, if I can get you out of here I’m going to kill you myself.

He was just going to do some reconnaissance. Ready to leave at any moment.

That’s what he told himself.

Blake took the stairs down on the opposite side of the building from where he had seen Norn going. Downstairs and in the outlying hallways there were very few people. Most of the crowd stuck to the ballroom hoping to get a chance to see Leda Lettiere come down to meet them. Those few who were out in the halls were typically younger, perhaps children of the social climbers in the ballroom area or perhaps romantically eager lords and ladies hoping for more pleasure than business on this evening.

Everything was absolutely ostentatious, the walls in the hall looked like they had been made of pearl, the corners etched like false colonnades. On the southern-facing halls there were gaps in the wall with long horizontally stretched oval windows out into the vast green fields outside. Blake could not just run through the halls at full speed without drawing attention, so he walked, smiling, and acknowledging the few people that he passed by, stealing glances into the ballroom through the doors as he passed them.

He saw servants refreshing the caviar, crostini, and drinks for the ball.

No sign of Norn Tauscherer. He had completely lost her from this vantage.

He would have to be extremely careful.

When he circled around the eastern halls adjacent to the ballroom there were far more people.

That eastern hall connected with the central wing of the palace, through which there were still people arriving, some latecomers, and some caterers getting ready to serve a banquet in the palace interior. Blake had initially that hoped Piedmont would have found someone to sit at the banquet with, and then he himself could have held back and avoided the whole situation, since his own position was more precarious when it came to finding himself a “date” for the evening. No such luck now.

Now he had to leave, to escape. But if he saw Piedmont somewhere–

From afar, at the other end of the hall.

A tall, silver-haired gentleman in a suit, walking away with urgency.

Toward the northern wing, perhaps out to the interior garden in the center of the palace.

Blake could not call or signal to him. Nobody was supposed to go back there.

He looked around, briefly, trying to see if anyone could have been following Piedmont.

No one that looked obvious– certainly not Norn.

God damn it Piedmont!

Masking his anger, Blake gracefully followed the trail of Piedmont from afar, walking across the eastern hallway, waiting until no one was looking and then sneaking out of the ballroom wing entirely, taking the main hall in the north out of the palace entirely to a hallway encircling an open air garden. Under a stone ceiling lifted by more fake colonnades, half without a wall. Simulated moonlight shone down upon a tree grown on a mound of rich soil in the center, surrounded by grass and flower bushes. There was a small path which led through the garden from one end to the other, but Blake would not take it.

He walked around the corner from the garden, got his first glimpse of the moonlight–

And immediately saw Piedmont face to face with Norn Tauscherer.

In that instant Blake, praying to have not been seen, hid with his back to the corner.

Out of sight. No one else around.

“Madame, I’m afraid your treatment of me tonight has been quite irregular.”

Piedmont, you useless fossil.

Then, for the first time, Blake heard the deep, viper-like voice of the fabled Norn Tauscherer.

“Good men with nothing to hide don’t approach me so brazenly, lord Beck. It is only the scoundrels of the world who will flirt with Norn Tauscherer after everything said about her. I was immediately suspicious of you, but your rat-like behavior since your initial error can only possibly point to conspiracy. This garden is off-limits to guests, lord Beck. You will now follow me to the police station for a chat instead.”

That fool must not have realized it was Norn! But he was debriefed?! How the fuck–?

How did all of this happen? After all their preparations, how? Was he just not listening?

“Oh dear. It’s funny, lord Beck. Even now, you truly don’t know who I am, do you?”

Blake had no weapons, and even if he did, escape after shooting Norn would be impossible.

He peered around the corner again–

–and saw Piedmont turning a firearm on Norn. Blake was speechless.

His heart sank. Where had Piedmont gotten a gun? They had agreed not to bring any gear!

All of this time, that old bastard was doing everything his own way!

He had thrown all of their preparations into the trash!

“I’m afraid it is you, my dear, who does not–”

Blake hid back behind the corner. Piedmont did not get to speak a final sentence.

Cut off, abruptly, and then a gurgling sound–

Though Blake did not know how, there was no gunshot, and everything became silent.

Frightened out of his wits, Blake started walking back toward the ballroom area again.

He had to escape, he could not possibly remain in Schwerin now.

Norn Tauscherer could have glimpsed him and taken off down the hall.

Every moment he heard nothing his imagination grew more vivid in its terror.

Halfway down the hall, he saw another figure come turning into the palace interior. Trying to mask his fear and discomfort, Blake kept walking. He recognized the woman as they closed. It was the singer, from the ball. Red dress, brown hair– a pair of spectacles perched on her nose. Blake tried to act like he belonged there. Walking casually, without acknowledging anyone, despite his quick-beating heart.

Blake barely walked past her–

–when he felt something jab him in the side, sharp and hot.

His legs turned to jelly, his vision swam, and he fell into a sudden darkness–


Something hot and fast struck his face but only half-awoke him to his surroundings.

His vision was blurry, he was nodding off. Colors, snatches of a face, a glint of metal.

Everything smelled strangely sweet. And there was gentle music playing.

A shot of pain right through the core of his body jolted him awake.

That glinting– a knife. He had been cut across the chest with a knife.

Pain burned across the center of his chest, but he was still only barely aware.

Running on animal instinct–

Blake struggled, tried to get up–

He could not move.

His field of vision was filled with the sight of a person– pearlescent skin, long hair–

a woman in a pale blue dress– a radiant woman framed in an arch of blue moonlight–

–smiling as the knife laid shallow upon his skin and easily drew his blood,

“Is this what brings our mystery woman back to the world? Does she respond only to pain?”

She had his arms bound.

He was bound to something, soft below, hard behind.

Bound to–

He was on a bed. Her bed; arms bound behind him to the rear post.

That sliver of glinting light that had already tasted his blood retreated from his chest.

Blake felt a brief, cold touch between his legs.

He was nude.

He was nude and bound and at the mercy of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

His captor was staggeringly, blindingly beautiful. Had she not had the backdrop of arched balcony doors letting in a beam of white-blue light, Blake felt she would have shone on her own, hair blowing light in the gentle midnight breeze. Her skin, an unblemished pearl-pink, her indigo hair lustrous and long. Long-limbed, lithe in figure, almost diaphanous in her silken dress. Red lips ever so expressive with the slightest movement of her cheek. Her ears were a bit sharp. She was an elf– a most uncommon ethnicity in Imbria.

“I can be cruel or kind at your behest.” She said. “Crueler or kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

Her voice was as a melodious as the orchestra music playing in the room.

“Please don’t. Please.”

Finally voice managed to escape Blake’s dry, burning throat.

She smiled at him. But the knife hovered close to his dick, nonetheless.

“You had no identification on your person. And not even in your coat and purse. I had a feeling about you, seeing you from afar, but you went into the inner garden. Did you think I would not notice it? Were you so desperate for an audience? Now Norn Tauscherer made a scene– I’m quite concerned.”

She turned the knife on its side and stroked Blake’s genitals with the cool, blunt metal.

Blake shuddered and squirmed. He was beyond caring if he looked pathetic.

His mind and body torn between pain and pleasure driven into erratic physical reactions.

“Who are you? You looked fantastic in a dress– are you a woman or a good actor?”

She winked at him. She was just toying with him now. He was truly helpless.

Blake was not going to fight it. He wanted to give up– he wanted to surrender to her.

He tried to rationalize his cowardice, but he was in truth completely broken down.

Emotions like he had never felt swelled in his chest.

Nevertheless in his mind he thought– Piedmont is gone.

Burke, by design, would have no idea if anything went right or wrong until they returned. He was just on a clock and if they did not come back to station then he had to live on and do what he could for the G.I.A. until more agents arrived. Blake could not possibly rat him out– they had agreed to disband their current hideout and switch after this mission and only Burke knew where he would go if Blake and Piedmont never returned. So it was not as if Blake had much to give up to his captors anyway.

However–

That wasn’t even the salient point. Blake had suffered so much– and for what?

The Republic, the G.I.A, it was all a bunch of crap. None of it was worth dying for.

Even if giving himself up to this woman so immediately and without resistance would end up constituting the beginning of the end for the Republic somehow, Blake would not mourn it. He went so far as to think– maybe the Imbrian Empire deserved to crush the Republic of Alayze! Fuck their so-called democracy, individual liberty, fuck all of it, none of it was real, it was slogans, hot air! There was no act of bravery or cowardice that mattered to the soulless inhuman ghouls running Alayze! Blake was nothing to them despite all of his service and anyone beneath Blake was less than nothing to them!

None of them were worth defending!

Blake had told himself time and again that he had no choice. The G.I.A. had been his only means of escape from a life of either poverty and struggle or suffering and exploitation on the front lines. Now he had a choice, the clearest choice that ever faced him. Painful death; or even a second more of life.

He could get his dick chopped off or he could surrender to the sliver of moonlight filling his eyes.

There was no question, between his bleak colorless masters and this richly glowing fairy.

“I’m Blake McClinton! General Intelligence Agency. I will cooperate. Please just– don’t hurt me anymore. Please. I’ll tell you everything I know without lies. I’ll give it all up I swear but– I– I can’t tell you what I don’t know. Our structure is semi-decentralized, so no matter what you cut, there’s shit I can’t–”

“That’s fine enough, Blake. I’d prefer you resist dashingly than start crying.”

Smiling, she set the knife aside, and with a slender finger, tipped his chin up.

She looked him directly in the eyes, just centimeters away. “G.I.A you said? Interesting.”

That touch sent a thrill right down his core. And her scent– it was incredible–

Blake started to weep, overcome with emotion. Leda Lettiere simply continued smiling.

“Would you consider leaving the Republic to work for me when I rule the world, Blake?”

Her eyes–

Blake stared directly into those crystalline eyes that seemed themselves to glow. Her voice, the gentle movement of her lips as she whispered to him. There was power, so much power that suffused her, power and beauty and ambition. Just being touched by her sent an ardor through Blake like he had never felt in the Cogitum Ocean. She was unreal, sorcerous, pleasure made flesh, setting his synapses alight.

“I would do anything for you.” Blake whimpered. “Anything. Just– please–”

“I won’t hurt you. I have a good feeling about you. You weren’t sent here to kill me.”

“I wasn’t! That was never my intention! I would never do anything to hurt you.”

“We can be more than allies. It might be impulsive– but I feel a resonance from you.”

He felt her fingers, silk-soft touch teasing where the blade once was.

Gentle and firm between his legs with a playful smile. Caressing him first– then stroking.

His back shuddered, his toes curled. He thought his head might go hazy.

Was he really awake? There was so much color, such a rush of sensations.

He could barely breathe as if emotion like he had never felt before stood to choke him.

“Blake, I meant it when I said I could be crueler and kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

One gentle stroke of her hands across the length of his shaft–

Blake gritted his teeth, sucking in air.

He thought he might cum just from the briefest brush of her skin on his own.

She leaned in over his shoulder, whispering into his ear.

“Let’s use each other.” She said. “I’m a powerful woman. I can give a lot to the G.I.A.– but so much more to you. You want to make war on the Empire? I could be your greatest weapon, Blake McClinton, and you mine in turn. All I ask is that you put me ahead of your paymasters and have a little fun. I’m a jealous woman. When I get a hold of a treasure,” her fingers squeezed to punctuate, “I cannot just let go.”

“I’m– I’m a treasure to you?” Blake said. It was the most beautiful thing anyone ever told him.

Leda laughed, gentle and songbird-like. Even just hearing her laugh drove Blake crazy.

“It’s just a feeling I have. Something subtle and soft that I feel from your aura.”

“My aura–? I don’t–“

She laid a finger over his lips– while her other hand squeezed his cock.

Blake was stunned to silence, not as much by her bidding but by the overwhelming heat in him.

“Quiet now. Over time, we can substantiate it. We can call it anything we like. But for right now–”

She reached for the knife and dexterously maneuvered it behind the bedpost.

Setting Blake free– but he was so shocked, his hands remained as if bound behind him.

Even as her own free arm coiled around him and took him into her sensuous embrace.

Eye to eye, lips grazing, her weight bearing on —

“For right now just take in the mood. Your miraculous survival and my glorious mercy.”


“Let’s go. We don’t want to linger here.”

“Bethany–”

“Marina, don’t disobey the head maid.”

Bethany winked at her. ‘Marina’ was a female name Leda helped Blake come up with.

It was useful to have an alter ego– for disguise purposes–

They departed from the central palace building at Schwerin, making their way out north, to the “back.”

The two of them were made up to look like Leda’s maids, in long frumpy dresses and aprons. Bethany did this often, and was, essentially, already Leda’s head maid. Marina, however, was always disguised one way or another. She felt somewhat uncomfortable to have a disguise chosen for her this time. Especially last minute. After everything they had worked on for the past year, she felt a creeping dread that day.

And not just for Leda alone– not anymore.

“Don’t worry. Leda is not afraid of Norn. She’ll handle her and we’ll wait until it blows over.” Bethany said.

Contrary to their intention, those words shook Marina even more.

“She should be afraid Bethany. Norn is a demon.” Marina replied, clutching her hands together.

Schwerin Island had been their fortress for months. From here the three of them, Leda the mastermind, Marina her attack dog and Bethany in support, lied and fucked and killed and ran through every documented sin in their ambitious climb to the throne room in the Imperial Palace at Heitzing, and the death of Konstantin von Fueller. But not only that– had Leda wanted him dead, Marina felt she could have done it. Killed him out of passion and vengeance and suffered the consequences for it.

Leda wanted to replace him. She wanted to take on Konstantin’s power.

That took more than just killing him. She could not just stab him in his bed at Heitzing.

They needed contacts, supporters, resources. To isolate the Emperor at his court.

Little by little, blackmailing, corrupting, bribing and liquidating, using every dirty trick.

They were almost poised to make a move on Heitzing.

And it was that which, on that fateful day, brought Norn Tauscherer to Schwerin Island.

Despite all the care Marina had taken– she couldn’t help but feel responsible.

Somewhere along the line, she fucked up. Despite her paranoid attention to detail.

Marina had made some mistake that led Norn to suspect something.

Clutching her heart, gritting her teeth, feeling unworthy to stand beside her partners.

Hating herself, powerfully hating herself, for even potentially hurting Leda and Bethany.

“Listen, Marina, if Leda is confident, we should be too. Don’t worry yourself sick.”

“If you say so.”

Trying to avoid the imperial inspection, Bethany and Marina stepped out of the palace into the garden in the far north of the grounds. There was a gentle breeze carrying the smell of flowers all around them.

Outside the pearlescent archway of the rear door a tiled path flanked on all sides by bushes led to a small hill upon which sat a naturally growing tree. Encircling the hill were vast fields of all manner of flowers, like a biological rainbow carefully tended. Overhead the artificial lights were configured to resemble the sun, and a sophisticated projection system created a blue sky. Marina had never seen anything like it in the Republic. She still marveled at it even if she could now see such things frequently. It baffled her that the Republic, with all its wealth, never tried to create something this beautiful, this organic and real.

Perhaps it was a waste– but if you were rich, why not live it up?

After years of dim, stultifying existence in the Republic, Marina refused to surrender this bliss.

At the top of the hill, Marina expected to see Elena, Leda’s daughter. Five years old or so, an incredibly beautiful and energetic kid that took after her mother. She was sent back here to play with a friend, a child of the Schwerin guards’ captain. Gertrude, Marina thought it was, Gertrude something or other. Elena was a precious little elf in a long-sleeved dress, hair a lighter a hue of purple than her Leda’s, while Gertrude was a swarthy dark-haired little tomboy in a long shirt and pants with suspenders.

However, when Marina and Bethany got outside, they saw that the children were not alone.

There were two figures sitting down with them, playing, and laughing with them.

One was a tall man, brown-haired with dog-like ears on his head and a bushy tail. Dressed all in black, with an impressive cape upon which he was casually seated while next to the children atop the hill. Beside him was a blond woman dressed in Imperial navy grey, a blue and green armband on her right arm, gloved hand stroking Gertrude’s hair and laughing with the little tomboy. Elena, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to whistle and started spitting on the dirt in her efforts– this caused all the laughter.

Marina tried not to panic.

“Keep trying!” Norn Tauscherer said, laughing and encouraging Elena who continued to spit on the dirt. “You’ll get it eventually! Remember Elena, you can only fail if you give up and do nothing!”

“Can she run out of spit? I’m worried she’ll run out of spit.” Gertrude joked.

“I will not!” Elena said determinedly. “I will whistle, and I will not run out of spit.”

“That’s it! That’s the indomitable Fueller spirit!” Norn guffawed.

“I believe in her. She’s got her mother’s force of will.” Said the man sitting with them.

“She’s got her mother’s everything!” Norn said. “That’s why she’s such a delightful kid!”

Marina eyed Bethany, who laid a hand on Marina’s own and squeezed to comfort her.

She raised a finger to her lips to signal for Marina to be silent.

Then she led her toward the hill, approaching the merry little group that had formed there.

Marina could not allow herself to panic– the sight of Norn sent a chill down her spine, but a maid would not have thrown at the fit at the sight of a Fueller bannerman. After all, Norn was supposed to also be one of Leda’s bannermen, she was part of the Fueller family. Elena was the Emperor’s daughter.

Above all the bannermen, Norn was extraordinarily privileged, too.

She was the favorite enforcer of Konstantin von Fueller, someone rumored to be loved by him as much as he loved his wives. She had defeated many obstacles in his path over the years. Nobody could criticize her, and by all accounts, while brutal with her enemies, she behaved honorably and did not harm anyone with which she had no personal quarrels. She was certainly welcome to play with Elena and Gertrude and there was no fear that she would have caused them any harm or endangered them.

Looking at that woman, laughing and smiling with the kids– who would have panicked?

If Marina broke down at the sight of Norn, it was a clear sign that something was off.

And Norn was an expert at noticing the tiniest things wrong with her surroundings.

Marina had spent considerable effort and resources to escape Norn’s notice.

Now, she was walking right up to that demon who had killed so many people like her.

“Excuse us, lords! We were sent to care for the children. I hope they are not troubling you.”

Bethany called out with a smile and bowed her head to Norn from the foot of the little hill.

Beside her, Marina bowed as well.

“I am Bethany Skoll, and this is Marina Holzmann. We are maids in our Lady’s service.”

“Greetings, greetings. Of course the children are not troubling us. Pardon our intrusion.”

Norn stood up from the floor, wiping dirt from her pants.

Beside her the man in Inquisitorial garb stood up as well.

“How may I assist you today? Are you the guests our Lady is waiting for?” Bethany said.

“Indeed. We were simply inspecting the garden. It’s magnificent.”

Norn turned a smile on them completely unlike how she looked with the children.

Marina realized she had been genuinely happy with the kids, but with them–

That dark, malicious grin, with her billowing blond bangs lightly shadowing her eyes.

“I am Norn Tauscherer, a humble bannerman of the Fueller family.”

Norn put a fist to her own chest then waved over her companion.

“This is Vekan Inquisitor Pavel Andrevi Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

At her side the Inquisitor gave a shallow bow back, running a hand through his brown hair.

“Pleased to make the acquaintance of such lovely ladies. Call me Andrevi.”

“Do not call him Andrevi. Call him Inquisitor or Lord Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

Norn elbowed him gently and the Inquisitor laughed. His dog-like ears folded slightly.

“Norn let’s not take up their time. We saw what we wanted back here anyway.” He said.

Marina felt a flash of fear at that comment. What had Norn and the Inquisitor seen?

At that point, as if in the very instant that Marina’s fear actualized in her own mind–

Norn turned her eyes on her, walking down from the hill with the Inquisitor.

Giving that devilish smile to Marina who tried strongly to hide her own expression.

She was good at lying. She was the best liar in all of Madison Station.

All of them had believed that she was a democratic, patriot man who would die for them.

When she purged her face of all emotion, when she got into the character of the maid.

Marina was assured of her own success. She felt relief– she felt like she mastered herself.

She was sure she was able to lie to Norn Tauscherer right to her face–

–until Norn stopped at her side, briefly, and looked her over.

And for a second, Marina’s calm face struggled titanically to hide the storm in her chest.

Those bright red eyes–

and the unfathomable depth of the violence they had seen and committed–

“Marina Holzmann? It’s nice to see Lady Lettiere has help of such fine breeding.”

The Inquisitor laughed. “She sure knows how to pick ‘em.”

With that brief tease, Norn continued, and the Inquisitor followed.

Until both of them were out of sight.

“Calm down, Marina.” Bethany said. “They don’t know anything. Let’s just stay here.”

“Bethany, what if they want to hurt Leda?” Marina whispered.

They were trying to keep the kids from overhearing.

Bethany fixed Marina with a serious look.

“Can you stop them? Could you heroically fend off Norn and Samoylovych and whatever small army awaits behind them and save Leda then?” Bethany said. “Norn is a threat that can’t be physically defeated. I believe you are well aware of this. However, she is not a ravening beast. She is here to carry out an inspection, and I am almost positive she will not work one more second than she has to or do anything other than follow the letter of what she was told to do. She is just a servant– just like us.”

“Just a servant?” Marina asked. Nearly reeling– how could Bethany be so sure?

“Marina, the Imbrian Empire is the thing Leda fears– not just someone like Norn.”

“Bethany–”

“I know you love her, Marina. But if you love me too– just calm down and trust me.”

“Fine.”

Leaving behind the garden path the two of them reached the top of the little hill.

“It’s okay if you can’t whistle. I’ll do all the whistling for you.”

“You will? You really will?”

“Sure! I’ll whistle whenever you want!”

Gertrude began whistling while Elena clapped her hands joyfully.

Marina and Bethany sat under the tree’s shadow, looking at the massive palace sprawling before them, surrounded by fields of flowers. Wind gently blowing their hair. Aside from the breeze the only sound was the children playing. Gertrude and Elena hardly paid the maids any attention, and ran into the flower field, laughing and jumping around, calling each other’s names and saying silly things. They were so carefree. In their minds, there was nothing sinister or wrong happening around them. Those happy days of theirs would stretch on forever under the false blue sky and in the carefully tended flower garden.

Marina wished she had the same confidence that they did. Everything felt so fragile.

No matter how well they lied to Norn today everything felt like it was teetering.

They were always close to the edge. Everything they loved and had could be taken.

“Bethany, I do love you.” Marina said.

“As much as you love Leda?” Bethany said. She had on a mischievous grin.

“Don’t do that, it’s really not funny.”

“What if I said I loved you more than Leda?”

“I wouldn’t believe you.”

Bethany shrugged. “Hardly matters anyway. You’re still a good lay even if you hated me.”

Marina sighed. But she felt a little less burdened after a bit of teasing. Leda Lettiere’s head maid was really something else– she had to be as much a woman as her Lady to keep up with her, after all. She had grown to really admire her, to desire her, to love her. She and Leda meant the world to Marina.

That little storm of laughter they were looking after finally wound its way back up the hill.

Gertrude sat down under the tree near Marina, catching her breath with a big smile.

Close behind her, Elena walked up, face flushed, hiding something behind her arms.

“What do you have there?” Bethany asked the little princess in a playful tone.

Smiling, Elena unveiled a crown of flowers, and set them playfully on Gertrude’s head.

“It’s for Gertrude! She’s my prince now, just like how I am a princess!” She declared.

Gertrude squirmed a little bit, clearly embarrassed by the younger girl’s effusive affection.

It was such a beautiful sight. Marina could not help but liven up.

“You hear that, kid?” Marina said, finally speaking up, giving Gertrude a mischevious little look. “You’re her prince! You need to take care of her, okay? You gotta make her smile from now on, you hear?”

In response, Gertrude rubbed her hands together, but smiled gently.

“I will.” She said.

She looked down at the grass, cheeks turning a little red.

“I will. I love her a lot.” She whispered.

As if only for Marina to hear and not for Elena or for Bethany.

Marina laid a hand on Gertrude’s head, stroking her short hair.

“I know you’ll make her happy, kid.” She said. In her heart, truly wanting to believe it.


It felt like the ocean had never been darker.

Why? Why do I always come up short? Why do I always fuck everything up?

In front of her, the enemy Diver stood as an insurmountable obstacle.

This knight-armor clad pilot had completely dismantled Marina McKennedy.

Looming powerfully in the sea before her, shield in one arm, assault rifle in the other.

In the cockpit every red flashing warning that could do so pulsed and throbbed in her face.

Fuck. Fuck. Some fucking hero I am! I can’t do anything but fail her, over and over!

The S.E.A.L.’s chest was pitted with dozens of shallow detonations, one of the shoulders was nearly destroyed, the jet anchor’s inner workings spilled out like entrails. Some of the hip armor was gone, exposing a leg joint, and one of the leg verniers on the opposite side had blown. One of the arms had a broken extension rod so she could barely flex it anymore. She had maybe 70% of her normal thrust if she blasted with her remaining verniers every time she tried to move from now on. Meanwhile that colossus in front of her was unblemished, its pilot clearly far more experienced than Marina, practically dancing around her while taking initiative to attack wherever they pleased with a superior machine.

Only one thing had saved her– the pilot wanted to get away.

They were desperate to attack the Brigand. Marina was just a waste of time for them.

And all Marina could do was stand in their way, take a lump, and stand in the way again.

She was buying time but for what? Nobody else was backing her up.

On the communications all she heard was a bunch of inaudible trash. She was alone.

Alone with her ghosts, the burden of her failures, and the reaper that had come for her.

Her vibro-axe was nearly broken in half from blocking the enemy’s sword.

She had reloaded her rifle in the last exchange, but her aim was garbage.

What the fuck am I going to do?

Die, she thought. I am going to die here. I was never made to be a soldier.

All of the things she endured that did not kill her.

For all of the people that she had loved who were no longer with her.

And now, she was going to be killed here at her lowest point.

No, forget about me, damn it.

Marina cracked a grin, her own grim reflection on one of the darker screens.

All of this sorrow and frustration she felt was the result of one thing.

Unlike when she called herself Sam, she now had something worth fighting for.

More than the vapid ideas of Republic “democracy” or the paycheck to make rent with.

She could not surrender to this enemy. She could not brush off this defeat.

She had too much to lose.

“What’s there to feel sorry for? I never had any expectation of living a life worth feeling sorry for. Right now, nobody would mourn me– but we’ve all given up so much for that little girl with the purple hair. Even if she doesn’t mourn me or doesn’t care. She’s a victim of all this too, but she’s helpless to do anything about it. That’s just– that’s always stuck in my fucking craw. Elena deserves better!”

Smiling to herself, pumping herself up (lying to herself).

Her grip tightened on the sticks. She was still standing between that pilot and the Brigand.

That pilot would charge again, as they had been doing.

They knew that they were wearing Marina down while minimizing their own damage.

All of this could be Marina’s advantage. After all– she was a great liar, wasn’t she?

And as bad as she was at tactics, she still knew deception was important on the battlefield.

She quickly switched weapons between the S.E.A.L.’s hands.

Axe to the good arm —

Rifle to the damaged arm–

If I’m right, this might get her to draw her sword–

Marina could not lift her rifle arm, so she used the rifle camera to align herself with the enemy, an obvious movement to shoot. Before she could pull the trigger, that mecha came hurtling toward her.

Rather than shoot, however, Marina charged as well, brandishing her vibroaxe to retaliate.

Trying to throw her one good shoulder forward.

They were not far apart, and they cut the distance to each other within seconds. Rather than its powerful grenades or rifles, the enemy lifted its vibrosword to finish her, conserving its precious ammunition — it did everything to spare its resources for the Brigand while being rid of a pest barring its way.

I got you, you son of a bitch.

That blade rose and fell with a flash and Marina’s vibroaxe clashed with it.

Already damaged, Marina’s vibroaxe practically snapped like a twig.

Holding its shield in front of itself, the enemy suit launched a vicious overhead slash that sundered her axe from head to handle and crashed into her functioning shoulder. Slicing through layers of metal armor, power routing cables and gear, the water system for the backpack– and entombing itself in the steel.

Her enemy’s sword did not go through one end of her mecha and out the other.

Chopping vertically through her axe into the thick tangle of systems within her armor, it became stuck.

She could pull it out but, but–

For a split second, Marina had the enemy suit where she wanted it!

Without moving her arm, Marina held down the trigger for her rifle.

At point blank range 37 mm explosive shells crashed one another after into the shield.

Her cockpit shook from the repeated close blasts.

Under a dozen pressure bubbles and shockwaves the shield pitted, buckled, and shattered.

With a panic, the enemy thrust back with everything it had, absorbing stray shots to its chest once its shield split into pieces, pulling out its sword and clumsily retreating several meters away.

Debris and gases and water vapor obscured the two enemies from each other momentarily.

Marina hovered on one side of the cloud, completely helpless.

Several systems went completely offline. She could not move either arm.

Her backpack thrust was nearly dead. She could only thrust with the legs.

Electrical power was uneven. If she made any more effort her life support might blink out.

She had broken the shield and pushed her enemy back one last time.

One last time– there would be no further resistance. She had nothing.

Without the rush of adrenaline, without another option, without the ability to claw for life.

Everything seemed to come crashing down.

Her hands left the useless controls of her now disabled machine.

Madison, Ratha Flow, Schwerin, Heitzing, Vogelheim–

Her life flashed before her eyes. She had seen so much, felt so much–

Pain,

Love,

Elation,

Despair,

Had her journey been for nothing? Had she finally failed all those people she loved and lost?

She raised her hands to her face and felt compelled to cry out. “Elena,” Marina said, hoping and praying that it might reach the Brigand somehow. “Please survive this and find your own strength. That’s what your mother would have wanted– and–” she sighed, tearing up. “Bethany, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t do anything. I love you so much Bethany. After everything you gave up– if we meet again this soon, will you spit on me in heaven? Have I really lived a life that was worthy of you and Leda?”

When the gases dispersed enough, Marina could see the enemy mecha across the cloud.

Their rifle unfolded from its stowed position.

Lifting the barrel, the machine took aim at her.

Slight pits from shell impacts and detonations on the breastplate– not enough to stop it.

Had they only wanted the Brigand they could now sweep past her useless machine.

Now, however, they were furious.

To deliver the coup de grace. To finally end Marina’s long, arduous journey.

But she felt no peace. She had lost everyone and left everything unfinished.

In that moment, she prayed, she begged, pleaded dearly for even one more day of life–

“Agent McKennedy! Don’t give up!”

Her once useless communicator suddenly sounded with a crisp, clear voice.

Rather than shoot, the enemy dashed to the side to avoid the grasp of a pair of jet anchors.

They retracted to the chest of a Diver that shone like a sun underwater.

As if in its presence it was suddenly easier to see through water.

Interposing itself between Marina and the enemy, a golden knight against her silver reaper.

“I’ve only known you for a short time– but you’re still a comrade to me. I don’t want to see anyone who fights bravely for the Brigand lose her life. Please retreat, Agent McKennedy! Let us handle this!”

Marina could not help but smile at the foolish voice of Murati Nakara on the communicator.

You don’t know anything about me– but thanks, you big-hearted commie fool!           

She tried to wipe her tears, but she found herself weeping even more.

Weeping for the life she had again–

Back in Schwerin, she thought she had been blessed with life by a being of moonlight.

And just when she really thought everything was going to end–

Now, that life was protected by a colossus made of the sun.

Broad-shouldered, with strong limbs, clad in bright, perfectly sculpted armor.

Appearing out of nowhere to confront that mysterious enemy.

Those commies, even in their darkest hour, they always came up with something.

Her prayers had been answered.

Even despite everything, Marina McKennedy was still fighting for the light she had found.

“This one’s no joke!” Marina called out, heart soaring. “Give ‘em hell, commies!”

“Acknowledged!”

Her heart lifted–

As she bore witness to nothing short of a miracle.

Like Leda had once said– a glorious mercy.

“Murati Nakara–”

“–Karuniya Maharapratham!”

Two pilots called out over the communicator from the machine.

Both voices finished as one with a roaring determination–

“Arrived at the combat area! SF-014X Helios, ready!”


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.6]

“Ship detected on passive sonar. Profile is Kühne class light transport.”

“That should be them.”

Norn rested her head on her fist while watching the main screen.

Algorithmic prediction drew an ETA for seeing the ship visually of about twenty minutes. It was moving at combat speed, which for a transport ship meant escape speed. This was not what they had planned when they initially coordinated the pickup, but a lot of things had happened since then to all of them.

Oddly enough they had detected no other vessels pursuing, but they still had to be cautious.

Selene had some kind of attack and was resting in the med-bay, and Norn refused to let Adelheid start the Jagdkaiser, so their choices for defending themselves in case of an attack would be limited. Hunter III did not have enough biomass available to take on an ocean-going form of any use. Worse came to worse, Norn would have to go out there herself in the Jagdkaiser, something she was not necessarily against, but–

It shouldn’t have mattered! She gave clear instructions through her agents.

This was not the plan.

“I don’t get it. What are they doing? Keep your eyes and ears peeled.”

Unless the defectors turned on them, there shouldn’t be a problem.

But why were they going so fast? This contravened everything they had planned.

“This is the problem with bringing outside help, when you’re used to excellence.”

Norn heard the bridge door open and glanced out of the sides of her eyes at it.

Through the door, a red-head in a pristine grey uniform walked in. Her hair was loose but neatly brushed so it had a tidy look; beneath her coat, skirt, and white-button down shirt she was clearly wearing a very covering black bodysuit from the tall black boots on her feet, all the way up to the neck. Her cheeks were rosey with makeup, and she flashed a bright lacquered-red smile.

“Awaiting our guests?” Adelheid asked, her tone quite cheerful.

Norn smiled back. “Less awaiting them, more trying to puzzle out their erratic behavior.”

“No plan survives your subordinates huh? Anyway: I went to check on Selene. She’s awake, but I told her to rest up more.” Adelheid said. Her smile faded a bit. “Livia says she had a mental breakdown. She’s on anti-psychotic medication. I’m worried that Livia is just prescribing stuff to get it out of the vault.”

“You can trust her. She has good bedside manner. If she sneaks a few pills, it’s nothing major.”

“Regardless, since we have a situation, and with Selene down; what will we do if it turns into another fight? Potomac is an awful pilot. Hunter III doesn’t have a lot of monster left in her. And I’m an ace but you won’t let me pilot at all.” Adelheid shrugged. “How do we know that transport isn’t a trap and won’t try to attack us?”

“We’ll let the 150 mm guns do the talking.” Norn said. “Relax. Trust me on this one.”

“You’re so stubborn. Fine then. If the ship goes down, you better wed me before we die.”

“I promise on the honor of the Fueller family, I’ll have vows ready in that case.”

Norn put on a mischievous grin. Adelheid scoffed and turned her cheek.

“Hmph! You’re not being serious at all. Swearing on the Fueller family, you bastard.”

“Y’two ought to get married now cuz all ya do is be noisy to each other.”

From the back of the bridge sounded the sleepy voice of Hunter III of the Third Sphere.

A pale spindly girl in a black robe, her eyes closed with a smug little expression.

“You’re not required to be here. We’re in the aphotic zone now.” Norn said.

Leaning back against the wall, Hunter III crossed the overlarge sleeves of her robe.

“Well, I wanna be here, so.” She said lazily, through a long, deep yawn.

“Suit yourself.”

Norn signaled for Adelheid to sit next to her, which the adjutant did.

“We’ll be ‘engaging’ in a few minutes.” Norn said.

Imperial ship guns were usually non-retractable, unlike Union ship guns. They had nothing to hide and no need to conserve space in their station docks, which were massive and could be expanded more if needed. Those 150 mm guns Norn described were therefore always bristling like fangs atop the elegant hull of the Antenora, and it took little work to get them ready to fire at a moment’s notice. As the transport ship approached, the guns were sealed, drained, loaded, and made ready to fire in the immediate instant that Norn gave the order.

Soon that blip on the main screen began to get closer and closer.

“Send them an acoustic message to request a laser connection.” Norn asked.

One of her drones dutifully obliged.

On the main screen, the prediction, which was essentially points on a topographical chart, updated to a full visual prediction on the main screen, superimposing the predicted elements over the sharply photorealistic three-dimensional picture of the ocean around them. Now they were able to “see” impossibly far as a ship approached, five hundred meters away in a surprisingly clear ocean, instead of within a cloud of murky biomass.

“Ma’am, they responded that their laser communicator was damaged in an incident.”

“What?” Norn crossed her arms and stomped her feet, utterly perplexed. They had agreed on everything that needed to be done! “That’s the oldest fucking excuse– do they think I’m stupid? It’s like they want it to look like it’s an obvious trap! Tell those idiots to connect to laser right now or we’ll blast them out of the ocean! This instant!”

“Maybe it did break?” Adelheid shrugged.

Before Norn could scold Adelheid, the communications drone responded.

“Ma’am, they say that fighting broke out among themselves and very few survived. There was damage to internal systems. They have the ship on auto-pilot at the moment and are requesting clemency and a chance to transfer.”

Norn stared at the communications drone and back at the main screen.

“What a mess!” She cried out. “Fine, tell them to dock with us. But watch them closely.”

On the approach, Norn waited on the bridge until the Kühne class was well past the range where they could have pulled some kind of trick, like deploying Divers from the cargo hold or unloading a torpedo out of a utility tube, or even setting themselves up to ram. Hundreds of grueling meters passed as the ship simply lumbered close, efficient as autopilot could be. Ranged by every weapon on the Antenora and surveilled by every sensor, the Kühne class dutifully submitted to the Cruiser’s jet anchors allowed itself to come attached to a sidepod docking chute.

“Here.”

From a chest on the side of the Captain’s chair, Norn withdrew a six-shot revolver.

Without hesitation she handed it to Adelheid, who took it into hand easily but with a passing glance at Norn. Had any of the crew been the chatty or gossipy kind, this would have been an important gesture.

On most ships, doctrine was that only the security team carried weapons openly. The ship’s captain had a six-shot revolver in their bridge for emergencies, but it was frowned upon for them to openly carry a weapon unless they were members of the Inquisition or another special body. There were all kinds of rules of propriety and noblesse for ship commanders– for the captain to hand her revolver to another was seen as an act of deep and abiding trust.

Norn did not care about such things. She was an Apostle; she was her own gun already.

However, she did know Adelheid would appreciate the gesture in a tense moment.

Adelheid pulled out the cylinder to check the loaded rounds and then flipped it back.

She had a little contented smile on her face. Just what Norn wanted to see.

“Hunter III, you too– both of you follow me. We’re the greeting party.”

Norn stood up and started walking, expecting to be followed without hesitation.

She was correct. Adelheid and Hunter III trailed only a scant few steps behind her.

Behind the hangar was a small module that acted as the docking bay, and it was here that the mechanisms for the docking chute were kept. Pressure was equalized on the chute to match both ships, so that when the doors opened on the opposing vessel there would not be an immediate blowup and flooding. Norn watched on a small monitor in the arrival area linked to a grainy camera in the chute, allowing them to look past the thick bulkhead door. She saw a pair of figures step into the deployment chute and approach their own door. They looked unarmed and harmless.

“I’m opening the bulkhead.” Norn said, gesturing over her shoulder.

Hunter III and Adelheid backed off a step, Adelheid with her hands on her sidearm, Hunter III with her arms hanging at her side and beginning to form hot black digits like razor fingers hidden in her sleeves, trailing thin vapors. Both of them could act much less explosively than Norn, so she would prefer they handle any problems with the arrivals. With her backup ready, Norn activated the clunky bulkhead mechanisms and watched the door cacophonously unlock.

“Bonjour~!”

“Uhh, hello!”

Once the bulkhead had fully opened, Norn found herself greeted by a pair of Loup women.

At the head of the pair and wearing a smile too broad for Norn’s level of tolerance was a tall, handsome Loup woman in a white and purple suit. She was well pampered, olive skin lightly touched up, her lustrous black hair falling to the shoulder in gentle waves around and behind stiff ears, wolf-like and sharp but with the fur perfectly manicured. Bright green eyes, deep and narrow, glanced casually from Norn to Adelheid before settling back. Her coat and pants looked expensive and refined, with gold cufflinks and a ceremonial braid across the chest to denote rank — but her attire was marred in places by brown stains. Her long, slender, tapered tail wagged incessantly.

As she stepped forward, this woman spread her arms open as if in invitation.

“You can stay right there for now.” Norn said, declining whatever the Loup offered.

“Of course, of course. I would not dare impose on the great Praetorian.” She said.

“You certainly know how to sweet talk, at least.” Norn responded.

Beside her, with a big smile and a certain nervous energy to her movements, was a young woman several centimeters shorter, her short, blunt blond hair quite tidy. Folded dog ears and a skinny but flexible and fluffy tail defined this girl’s Loup features. Lightly bronzed skin, with wide open, friendly brown eyes, she seemed the stark opposite of her compatriot. While the taller woman carried herself in a way that seemed rather playfully lascivious, the shorter girl looked almost innocent, calm, and glowing with a youthful vivaciousness. Her clothes were far more standard, being the grey coat and uniform pants of an ordinary soldier of the Empire, but pressed perfectly neat.

“Allow me to introduce myself, Lord von Fueller.” Said the taller woman. Her red painted lips curled into a confident grin, her wolf-like tail batting rapidly as she bowed with an arm over her breast, cutting a dashing figure with sabre on hip. “Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays, Gallic-educated Polkovnyk in the South Kashak Host. I am here hoping to serve as a Fueller retainer– oh, and this is Petra Chornyi Sunnysea. She’s just happy to be around.”

“Hello!” Petra said. She began to speak very rapidly. “I joined the master so she would not have to flee alone! When the master was accused of various romantic improprieties I thought to myself, ‘this cannot be right, master is very moral, otherwise she would not have such an esteemed rank as Polkovnyk’ and I decided that–”

Be quiet now, Petra.” Yurii said, putting a heavy hand down on Petra’s head.

“Yes master! Of course!” Petra said happily.

Crossing her arms and staring critically, Norn noticed blood on the sabre also.

Polkovnyk is indeed a high rank within the Loup hosts. I see why you would be dressed so lavishly and boast of a classic education. But I am curious how such a refined woman allowed so much staining on her coat.”

Norn pointed at the brown on Yurii’s coat. Petra followed her finger to it and gasped.

“Master, I can clean that for you–”

“No, Petra it’s stained.” Yurii sighed. “Milord, we had unfortunate incident on the way.”

“Unfortunate how? Explain.” Norn demanded.

Yurii reached her hand up to her forehead, with a wan expression, as if she was suddenly struck by a migraine. Not exactly the gravity Norn expected from someone who had apparently survived the deaths of potentially dozens of other people on that transport. When Yurii finally spoke up after various gesticulations, her “woe is me” tone of voice quite grated on the ears. It was hard to tell whether she was taking it that seriously.

“Oh milord, it was truly a trial for me! The Vekans fabricated a scandal to try to remove me from my position, so I was forced to hire a mercenary crew to ferry me and a few companions likewise persecuted away from the Vekan state. Unbeknownst to me, those same companions had been plotting all along to make for the Royal Alliance instead. Of course, I already had agreements with Fueller family agents, and I was not about to ignore such a prized position. Unfortunately, we could not reconcile our differences save through a bloody coup of the ship.”

Upon hearing her master’s sufferings retold, Petra’s eyes teared up and she covered them.

“Poor Master! Everyone cornered her! I felt so bad, she had to send them all to God–”

“That’s quite enough Petra, thank you, wipe your tears.” Yurii grumbled.

Norn scoffed. “You roped a crew in with bribes who turned on you at the first opportunity because they were carrying a wanted criminal who was taking them on a practical suicide mission. Then when the winds turned foul you killed everybody. You should’ve just come alone. I don’t understand why you needed an entire transport for this.”

“Praetorian, I beg you to understand! For our entire history from the surface to the sea, it has been a grave dishonor for any Kashak to leave behind her sword, shield, armor and horse. It simply would not do!”

Yurii puffed out her chest with indignant pride. Norn supposed she meant her Diver.

That was a pretty unbelievable excuse from this dandy. She just wanted to be waited on.

Norn shook her head. “So I guess if I look in there now I’ll just find a charnel house?”

“So confrontational! I am the victim here you know, not all those of turncoats and thugs.”

Yurii shrugged her shoulders. Throughout, she really seemed more annoyed than anything.

Norn could see an aura around her that was untroubled, with the slightest hint of violence. Red and blue with a gradation to purple. No green, no yellow, she had no fear to her, no turbulence, no regrets. A thin black stripe suggested she was thinking of death, however. Red was usually outward violence; black was more of an inward feeling toward one’s own mortality and pain. That pattern allowed Norn to guess at her inner nature.

Yurii’s aura was colored by feelings of violence and an acceptance of violence to herself.

That kind of thinking suggested– a completely deranged individual.

Norn grinned almost as broadly as Yurii had been grinning at her.

This could be fun. It might even ultimately be useful.

“At any rate,” Norn said, “you promised us intelligence on the Vekans when we agreed to come all the way out here to rescue you. If you’re showing your face in front of me, then I assume you are able to uphold your end of the bargain. Otherwise, we will not be speaking for much longer and I’ll sink that ship with your corpse in it.”

Yurii was unfazed by the threat.

“Of course milord! In fact, this was part of the ruckus. So I couldn’t keep it on my person.”

Petra’s face lit up. “Ah yes, I kept this very safe for Master–”

Without warning and without even allowing the young girl to say anything more, Yurii then indiscreetly reached across to Petra’s chest and pulled something out of her coat, leaving her yelping and bewildered. Her long fingers produced a thin, black object with a connection port visible between halves of the plastic chassis.

“Everything I exfiltrated is in this memory stick. I can decrypt it for you.” Yurii said.

“Decrypt it huh? You’ve really covered your bases, Ms. Samoylovych.”

Norn smiled ever more broadly, feeling a rush of excitement toward this unruly cur.

Behind her Adelheid seemed to roll her eyes. Perhaps sensing Norn’s brimming sadism.

Then it was Norn’s turn to spread her arms out dramatically and speak effusively.

“Welcome aboard the Antenora! We’ll take care of the formalities soon. Just know that you serve the Fueller family now, with me at its head. Should you fail me or step out of line, I won’t hesitate to twist your head off like a doll I don’t want to play with anymore. Here we don’t care about your name or pedigree or criminal record. We only follow the law of Norn von Fueller: you do as I say, or I’ll make you hurt a hundred bodies’ worth of pain before you die.”

Yurii stared silently. Petra tipped her head to one side in a cutesy, spacey-eyed gesture.

Adelheid blinked hard and crossed her arms. Hunter III seemed to mimic Petra.

At Norn’s brazen declaration, the black stripe in Yurii’s aura expanded and flared just a little bit, having brought her feelings of death and pain further into focus in her emotional space. Her body language remained untroubled. In fact judging by the cheerful, amused smile that appeared on Yurii’s face, she may have been titillated rather than terrified by the notion that Norn could kill her easily. Norn was quite interested in that reaction.

This is someone I could get along with. She thought.

Yurii bowed with her hand across her chest in a way that again, almost made her seem handsome and mannered.

“Well met! Such terms are not uncommon to a Loup from the great eastern Hosts.”

At her side, Petra, who still looked vaguely emotional about everything, also quickly bowed in a similar fashion, her smile a bit vacant. Her aura was far simpler. It had turned almost completely green after Yurii had told her melodramatic account of why she killed her crew, and with a bit of blue when Yurii grabbed her suddenly.

Petra wore her emotions quite obviously.

Poor thing.

“At any rate, we’ll get your equipment out of the Kühne so we can continue on our journey. I believe it would be for the best if we sank that awful transport so you could forget this miserable chapter of your life, wouldn’t you agree, Samoylovych?” Norn said, stepping aside as if to allow Yurii and Petra to pass the bulkhead.

Yurii looked thrilled at the prospect.

“Oh, absolutely. I should’ve known the Praetorian would understand the situation so well.”

Adelheid sighed openly. “I’ll go get the crew started on that then. Welcome or whatever.”

She turned around and stormed off with heavy footsteps toward the hangar.

Norn wondered idly what that attention-grabbing display was about–

–probably just starting to rile her up again for next time. It was starting to work, too.

Yurii watched her go out of sight with keen interest.

“Ah, unfortunate, I didn’t get to be introduced to that bright and beautiful young lady.”

Norn’s eyes locked to hers immediately with a force that seemed to make Yurii step back.

“Adelheid van Mueller. She is my esteemed, long-time, personal adjutant.”

Yurii silently nodded her understanding. Good dog. Her hungry eyes drifted over to Hunter III.

“And this cutey? I can’t help but wonder about her unique attire. Is she the chaplain? I could use a private religious consultation you know.” Yurii brought her thumb up to her lips, curled in a fanged grin.

Hunter III stared directly at her with narrowed eyes and then openly licked her lips.

“Boss, I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna be eating this girl soon ain’t I?” She declared.

Norn grinned and shrugged as if it didn’t concern her.

Yurii stared at Hunter III with a perhaps even more lascivious expression.

“Don’t worry over her, Ms. Samoylovych. I’ll explain later.” Norn said.

Despite all the of the mysteries and insinuations, Yurii remained steadfastly upbeat.

In fact her aura seemed to become ever brighter, while her smile was ever wider.

“I had heard rumors that the Antenora was a special vessel. Even the past few minutes have me intrigued. I will serve with distinction under your command, Praetorian. I am positive the Fueller family is the winning team to be on now. Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays only plays for the winning team — for a cut of the winnings.”

Yurii casually walked past the bulkhead and cast an apathetic glance behind herself.

“Petra you can stay with the Kühne and get sunk if you want.” Yurii said dismissively.

Upon being addressed, Petra snapped her slightly hanging jaw shut and stood in attention.

“Ah! Not at all Master! I was just spacing out. Of course I’m coming with you!”

Petra followed innocently and smilingly behind, as Norn led Yurii deeper into her new life.

Welcome to the Antenora! Norn thought to herself, laughing inside. Fresh meat!


In the middle of a private garden rotunda at Heitzing Officer Cadet School, a young woman prostrated herself, putting her head to the cold white tiles largely unlit by the false sun outside. Through the gaps in the enclosing pillars of the rotunda, thick rose bushes prevented visibility from outside the building. She was caged in, surrounded, the fence-door into the interior of the rotunda having closed ominously behind her. She was trapped.

For the sake of her beloved friend, Gertrude Lichtenberg prostrated herself.

Standing in front of her, looking down from above, was a slim blond woman wearing the ornate coat of the Fueller family over a casual button-down shirt, giving Gertrude an imperious gaze and wearing a wide grin. At her side was a disinterested redhead in grey uniform. Both were beautiful, powerful women of high society, while the girl begging them was a swarthy, lanky tomboy in a blue cadet’s uniform, weeping childishly.

“Norn the Praetorian, I put my head to the floor for you. Please grant me an audience.”

Her voice was cracking. Her heart slammed against the confines of her chest.

All of her skin brimmed with unease. This was Norn the Praetorian.

Word had it that she had killed people for lesser slights than being begged like this.

“Please. I am unworthy, but I beg most humbly. Please.”

Norn sighed openly.

“How did you find out I was here? I’ve never seen a kid so annoyingly resourceful.”

Gertrude hardly expected to hear her speak.

She almost thought she would simply die right there.

“I–,” Gertrude could not possibly say how. It was purely insane. “I overhead an officer give gossip, ma’am–”

Norn laughed. “Keep lying to me and see where it leads, you arrogant girl.”

Nevertheless, she silently gestured with her hand for Gertrude to stand up.

Was she being given an audience?

She stood from the floor, and saluted Norn with her eyes red and puffy with tears.

“You cut a dashing figure when you’re not on your knees.” Norn joked.

“She’s boring.” At her side, the redhead interjected. “She should grow out a ponytail.”

Norn’s hand seemed to mindlessly toy with a lock of hair from her own ponytail.

Gertrude stood speechlessly for a moment. “I– I’ll take your advice, milady.”

“Don’t mind her.” Norn said. “Talk to me, cadet. Who are you supposed to be?”

“Yes milord. I’m Gertrude Lichtenberg. I recently achieved the rank of Junior Petty Officer.”

“Petty Officer Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Norn repeated. “You have achieved your initial rank, so you are on your way out of this Cadet School. Why are you here begging? What opportunity do you seek?”

Gertrude swallowed hard before speaking.

It was tough to speak of. It was still hard to believe.

“Milord, I believe that I am being singled out for sanction by Inquisitor Brauchitsch.”

Norn eyes widened with surprise. She crossed her arms and watched Gertrude intently.

“Brauchitsch? How is he ‘sanctioning’ you? I don’t understand.”

“I– I don’t know why he would target me ma’am, since his arrival, several officers in his orbit have insulted, provoked and even endangered me. Lord, I– I have a very important friend, a Northern Loup, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong. She was detained recently for false charges of assault– she was goaded ma’am, she was threatened and goaded into a fight with one of Brauchitsch’s supporters, to protect me. My contribution for her alibi was then stricken down!”

“I truly haven’t heard about any of this. Am I being kept in the dark? If there was an assault on an officer on campus during my stay and I wasn’t informed, I’ll definitely take it as Doenitz keeping me in the dark. I have to wonder what he and Brauchitsch are up to.” Norn said. She looked almost like she was speaking to herself or maybe to the girl at her side, staring at Gertrude’s shoes for a moment rather than her eyes, deep in thought.

“Maybe he thought it wasn’t important enough to bother the mighty Praetorian.”

Once more the red-head added a snippy-sounding comment and shrugged her shoulders.

Gertrude felt nervous again. She was being heard, but it was such an insane situation.

She felt insane saying this, but there had been so many situations recently–

Gertrude was being targeted and there was no way to escape Inquisitorial Sanction. She had some idea as to why– maybe it related to Elena– but she was helpless. Ingrid could be tortured to death for an indiscretion born of this injustice, and nobody could say anything. Gertrude herself could suffer more indignities or even be killed or have her career destroyed. She was not a noble, just a daughter of a family with good connections. She had nothing that she could do to defend herself, no way to escape the seemingly randomly cruelty that befell her.

Except–

“Milord, I need your aid and sponsorship. I need you to intervene on our behalf. Me and my friends have been the target of grave injustices, cruel, random, and violent and I believe it will only get worse. Since he stationed himself in the cadet school Inquisitor Brauchitsch has led some kind of campaign against me specifically. I do not understand why. But if I became the servant of someone more powerful than he, I could retaliate.”

Norn allowed Gertrude to complete her emotional spiel before responding.

“Honestly. You’ve got some nerve, you know that?”

She walked over to Gertrude and gave her a light smack on the cheek, firm but not too painful.

When they were close and she was standing, Norn could not look down at Gertrude.

She had to look her straight in the eyes and she did, fixing Gertrude with a powerful gaze.

Her lips curled into a demonic grin. Gertrude felt her breath catch in her own throat.

This was a deal with the devil, and she knew it.

“Retaliation, eh? I like that word. So I can’t say I’m uninterested, however, I have no time for unambitious beggars. I’m not just going to rescue you. If you have concrete demands of me, then make them. What do you yearn for? What is your heart’s desire? Do not lie to me. If you dare lie to me, I will strike you with a hundred times the strength of that last slap I dealt you. So be honest: what would you do with my power, Gertrude Lichtenberg?”

Norn felt enormous, her presence took up all of Gertrude’s vision, all of the rotunda.

Choking, monstrous power the likes of which she hardly understood.

But she couldn’t– she couldn’t just tell her– Gertrude couldn’t simply–

“Gertrude Lichtenberg. Why did a woman of no name or note come to this place?”

“I–” Gertrude hesitated. Her voice quivered when she spoke. “I want the power to rectify the injustices happening in the Empire. This is why I left Luxembourg to join the military. I wouldn’t have the power to fight for what I believe in as just a girl– I needed to be a soldier. I’ll be a soldier that checks evil men like Brauchitsch.”

She delivered her speech with as much eloquence as she could muster.

Norn’s eyes narrowed with rage and in the next second Gertrude’s vision swam.

Her fist came lightning fast, as if time had stopped before the blow was delivered.

Gertrude stepped back and doubled over as Norn pounded her stomach with such force that she felt her feet had lifted off the floor for a moment. Staggering, choking, feeling the bile rising to her throat and the spreading of brutal pain across her core that seemed to shake all the muscle under her skin. Legs buckling, she fell to her knees for support, dry hacking and heaving into the white tiles. Mind foggy, reeling, uncomprehending.

One punch, just one punch from this woman and Gertrude nearly blacked out.

“How dare you? How fucking dare you? I warned you not to lie to me. You cannot lie to me. You will not lie to me, Lichtenberg!” Norn shouted. She was suddenly impassioned. “You have nowhere near the power to be able to lie to me. All you have is the disrespect and audacity. If you lie to me again, my next strike will hurt a thousand times more than this. Choose your words cautiously, Gertrude Lichtenberg. Lie again if you dare.”

On the floor, shaking, all of her willpower crumbling, Gertrude mumbled in pain.

What would she do with the overwhelming, brutal power of Norn von Fueller?

Having experienced that power, Gertrude could not possibly lie again.

She gathered all of her breath that she could and spoke up as loud as she was capable.

“Elena von Fueller.” She gritted her teeth and wept with shame. She wished she could dig her fingers through the tiles. “My goal is Elena von Fueller. We were classmates. I want– I need to see her again. Once she graduated from Luxembourg I would lose her forever. I want– I need a high rank to have her.” Tears overcame her.

She felt Norn’s hand on her hair and flinched, expecting another blow–

Instead Norn gently guided her eyes up to meet hers.

Norn was smiling. A warm, merciful, kind smile unlike any she had worn before.

“Finally. That is indeed the truth. A simple and carnal truth, my favorite kind. And it is this truth, then, which will lead to the destruction of Ludwig von Brauchitsch and the rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg. Isn’t it dramatic? Isn’t it worthy of an opera? I relish the chance to realize it. Such a simple, beautiful dream. A dream to destroy a world for.”

More than the pain, more than the shame, Gertrude felt an overwhelming terror.

An eye-opening fear of the monsters lurking in the darkest corners of Aer.

Gertrude had sold her soul to a demon and she knew it.

At that point in her life, there was no turning back from what she would become.

But that foggy scene of cold sweat, floral scents and overwhelming fear was interrupted by a loud noise which took the young officer cadet Gertrude Lichtenberg from Heitzig all the way back to where she truly was. In the cold and desolate wastes of Sverland. Her bed on the Inquisitorial flagship Iron Lady, the living proof of the promise of power which Norn von Fueller had granted to her. Saving her life; damning her life.

Gertrude bolted upright in bed, sweating bullets, awakened into a spiraling state.

In a panic she pulled up the soaked tanktop she was wearing and found her stomach intact.

With that moment of panic passing, Gertrude felt suddenly overwhelmed and ashamed.

Panting in bed, a message on the wall beckoning her to respond in real time, a real time she was not yet ready to face. Hours had passed, so many hours, she had practically slept a whole day. All of the events prior to her passing out in bed crawled over her, icy as the sweat down her back. She staggered at the enormity of things.

Elena– Sieglinde– Norn– Ingrid–

Gertrude stretched her hand over to the wall and accepted the message as audio only.

“I’m here–”

As she said this Gertrude cast eyes at a bundle on the bed beside her.

For an instant, she feared that in some fit of stupid, drunk emotion, she, and Ingrid–

“Ma’am! It’s Schicksal! We’ve contacted the Antenora, she’ll be docking soon.”

Ignoring Schicksal with a renewed panic, Gertrude swung the blankets off herself–

And she found no trace of that emotional Loup in her bed. Of course; of course.

It was just stray pillows and the way she had bundled herself in her blankets. Ingrid was gone. And in the maelstrom of emotions she was feeling, Gertrude did not know whether she wished they had really slept together. Unbidden her brain dowsed her in all kinds of shameful fantasies. What if she had fucked Ingrid’s brains out? What if she let herself get pulled into a reckless passion, damn the circumstances? Would that have satisfied her? Would it have been cathartic? She sighed, running her hands over her face. It was almost enough to make her cry.

Schicksal spoke up again. “Ma’am? I’m sorry, is this not a good time?”

“It’s fine.” Gertrude said bluntly, trying to collect herself. “What’s their ETA?”

“About twenty minutes at the Antenora’s current heading.”

“Tell–” She hesitated to say her name then managed to say a few choppy sentences in an almost normal tone of voice. “Ingrid and Baron von Castille. We’ll greet the guests together. Set up a private table. Staging room four. Set up food and drinks. Do I really need to say more?” Gertrude practically shouted at Schicksal.

“N-Not at all ma’am!” Schicksal’s voice turned quickly nervous. “Of course! Right away!”

At once the audio message window disappeared from the wall.

Gertrude brought her hands up to her face and groaned loudly into them.

Of the twenty minutes she had, she must have spent at least five screaming.

Then she rushed to the bathroom, throwing off her tanktop and shorts along the way.

Opening the false wall panel into a 2 meter by 2 meter shower box, she stepped inside, set the temperature low and shocked herself with a blast of icy water. Her skin shivered violently from the back of her neck down her spinal cord. She gritted her teeth, put her head to the wall, and stared at the bare metal under the water for a solid minute while she shook out all the tension in her body. Her fear and trepidation, the pounding headache from having slept too long, the brimming panic beneath her skin, all of it was sent to oblivion by the sheer overwhelming force of the cold water. One thing she learned from Norn. Cold water was mighty. It could wash away anything.

Water had shaped the contours of the surface world, and now, the confines of all humans.

But it was still merciful if one understood the nature of its mercy. Just like Norn herself.

Despite everything, by the time an orderly came to collect her she was already well dressed in her ornate coat, cape, and tall hat, boots smart, hair in a tidy ponytail, projecting the dashing figure and confident, collected smile she wanted. No trace of ever having wept on the swarthy olive skin of her face. At the door, the orderly saluted her– farther down the hall, a tall blonde woman with a dispassionate expression and a shorter, grinning brunette with sharp dog-like ears and a wagging tail awaited Gertrude. She smiled and nodded, greeting both of them cordially.

Some part of her still feared a reaction from Ingrid–

“Good to see you up, you slept like a rock! I’m so happy for ya!” the Loup said jovially.

Ingrid was her best friend– of course she would not hold some kind of grudge.

“All thanks to you for the pick-me-up.” Gertrude replied.

“Hah! God don’t even mention it. Let’s just go meet this master of yours.”

Ingrid grinned brightly at her. She really was a lovely girl, a ray of sunshine.

Gertrude felt her wavering heart finally sit still for a moment.

They were fine; there was no hatred to fear between them.

Sieglinde responded to the greeting and two friends with a quiet, “Inquisitor.”

And a short nodding of her head to punctuate the greeting.

“Nice to see you too.” Gertrude said.

With that, the party was collected and took themselves down to the docking bay.


“Inquisitor Lichtenberg! I never imagined I would see my protégé in this barren sea!”

At the head of the party arriving through the Iron Lady’s docking chute, that unmistakable voice and grinning face could be none other than Norn von Fueller, fair faced, blond-haired, with a fit but unassuming physique. She had at her side her trusted adjutant Adelheid van Mueller as well as a dark-haired Loup in military garb. Upon their arrival, Norn took Gertrude’s hands into her own, looking her up and down in uniform with excitement.

“Amazing! You really do command the authority of office with that look.” Norn said.

“She even did her hair up in a ponytail. Has she grown taller?” Adelheid added.

They were doting on her like she was a kid. Gertrude sighed openly.

“It hasn’t been that long since we last met! And I was fully grown back then!” She said.

“It is the responsibility of the master to tease her foolish apprentice.” Norn said. “So, are you going to introduce me to your cohort? You’ve already met Adelheid van Mueller, who as always acts as my adjutant, while this lady is Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays, once a Polkhovnyk in the Southern Kashak Host.”

Yurii bowed upon being introduced. “Pleasure to meet the esteemed Inquisitor.”

Her words were thickly lacquered with a tone perhaps sarcastic or disdainful.

Gertrude could tell right away this lady was a problem. She was Norn’s kind of crony.

Highly skilled, greatly troubled, probably horrifically violent in some way.

Norn did not allow just anyone to speak or act freely in her presence.

All of her crew received some kind of training so as to never speak a word out of turn or divulge any secrets. Once upon a time, Gertrude had thought it had to do with bribes or benefits. She found that Norn spent lavishly on the salaries she offered and even took care of the families of her people forever. But there was something else– even Gertrude had, at times, felt utterly overpowered by something in Norn’s speech and atmosphere that smothered any notion of dissent. There was no way to explain it but people simply obeyed Norn.

If only I could have that kind of power–

Gertrude proceeded with the pleasantries.

“Proud to make your acquaintance as well. I admit quite a fondness for the Loup people.”

Ingrid made a face and sighed.

“Let me introduce my people then. I don’t have a formal adjutant, because I don’t want to take this woman out of the pilot’s seat.” Gertrude gestured toward Ingrid, who still looked a bit taken aback by her former and current comments. “This is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong. You may have briefly met?” Gertrude looked to Ingrid and finally saw her face and had to keep herself from making any comment or gesture. Ingrid sighed again.

“Nuh uh, first time seeing her.” She said. “She signed off on my release when I was getting thrown in a hole in Heitzing but I never met her. I gotta say, she looks like she could tear me in half, like the stories.”

Gertrude blanched but Norn took the comment in good humor.

“I wouldn’t do that to Gertrude’s most beloved friend.” Norn said.

Ingrid tried to keep a straight face, but she was clearly avoiding looking at anyone now.

Norn’s gaze turned to the tall, brooding blond woman on Gertrude’s other flank.

“And this is Sieglinde von Castille. I would recognize her anywhere.” Norn said.

“Good day, Lord von Fueller.” Sieglinde replied. She offered a short, perfunctory salute.

“We settled a matter on the Castille estate when her parents passed. We needed an agreement in place since she was a soldier and only heir.” Norn said, looking at Gertrude and explaining the familiarity. Norn was the Emperor’s right-hand woman on any serious matters concerning the aristocracy. “I don’t know how you ended up with the Red Baron in your retinue, but you should consider yourself quite lucky. She is a very wise and level-headed lady.”

Sieglinde joined Ingrid in casting eyes away from the party.

Gertrude felt suddenly that the mood was turning absolutely rancid.

“Let’s depart, we shouldn’t stand around talking in the docking bay. I’ve prepared a table.”

With that declaration, Gertrude led a change of scenery. From the docking bay, the party traveled to a small planning room, all white walls with little adornment. They were seated around a square table for six, its farthest ends folded so it comfortably and intimately seated only as many people as needed. There were slots for computer terminals to affix, but these had been removed as the room had a much less technical significance on that day.

In their place, there were plates of food for the guests.

Gertrude had expected some light snacks, but the kitchen went all out within the confines of all the ingredients a military vessel would have on hand. There was a panzanella salad, made with black bread and salted canned tomatoes. Even sized chunks of dry bread grew moist with a quick dressing made from the tomatoes’ own juices along with oil, mustard, and sugar. There were two types of sausages on the ship, a softer pork, fat, and buckwheat sausage and a harder, dryer, smoked beef sausage, and both were used to great textural contrast in a main dish of sausage and peppers in a beer sauce. This was accompanied by boiled potatoes, smoked cheese, and sauerkraut.

No beer was served for drinking; they had glasses of a sweet, non-alcoholic malt drink.

“Quite a spread! I had no idea that we would be dining so lavishly.” Norn said.

Gertrude stared at the table and shrugged happily. “To be honest, I didn’t either.”

Everyone began to serve themselves from the plates– though with some resistance from Adelheid van Mueller who at first wished to be served by an orderly or by Norn. Norn of course refused instantly to serve her anything and demanded in return that she serve herself. After raising her voice to her adjutant, the argument was Norn’s victory and Adelheid demurely served herself. Yurii and Ingrid seemed to want to monopolize all of the meat toward their own plates. Gertrude was not too hungry, and Norn seemed equally disinterested in her food. Sieglinde topped her plate mainly with side dishes, seeming particularly fond of the plain boiled potatoes with cheese.

“Ms. Järveläinen, you’re a Northern Loup correct?”

Across from Ingrid, Yurii hailed her in the middle of the meal, a glint in her bright eyes.

Ingrid put down a piece of beef sausage she was about to chew on.

“Uh huh, you can tell from the name can’t you? And you said you’re a Samoylovych, right? Samoylovych Darkestdays. So that means you’re a Southern Host Loup from Veka or thereabouts, that right?”

“Indeed. I’m curious– I never caught your rank, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

Ingrid narrowed her eyes. “I’m just a Sotnyk, nothing that should catch your attention.”

“Just a Sotnyk? But aren’t you a daughter of the famed Arvokas Järveläinen?”

“Grand-daughter. He wasn’t that fertile to be having kids in his nineties.”

Ingrid fixed a serious look at Yurii, and Yurii’s face darkened just a bit.

Gertrude’s gaze was finally drawn to the two. Norn, also, started watching with interest. 

“Are you trying to declare a blood feud at this table, Yurii Samoylovych?” Ingrid asked.

“I’m just curious. Did you have many friends among your kin growing up? Over sixty years ago you Northern Host sided with the Fueller Reformation. Arvokas Järveläinen was king among the kinslayers of that dark time– did your family motto not become ‘hunters of wolves’ after they slaughtered mine? So tell me, did you make many Loup friends? I would’ve been so afraid of sitting next to a ruthless kin-killer in the making who doesn’t even remember–”

Ingrid reached across the table and grabbed hold of Yurii’s collar.

This act of violence was not enough to wipe the smirk off Yuri’s face.

“Ingrid, stop.” Gertrude said. She turned to Norn. “Samoylovych is clearly provoking her!”

In that instant Gertrude felt helpless. Yurii was one of Norn’s people.

Could Gertrude even say anything?

Norn grinned to herself. “Samoylovych is telling the historical truth. It’s unfortunate they had to meet in such circumstances, but is it really up to us to intervene in this simmering ethnic pain of theirs?”

Despite Gertrude’s best efforts and racing heart the situation was not so easily defused.

Ingrid had a look of pure hatred for Yurii and the fingers on that collar shifted to the neck.

“No offense to your boss Gertrude, but if this fucking bitch doesn’t shut up right now–”

“Aww, first name basis? Does she have your leash too? Cute; so loyal for a Järveläinen.”

Yurii grabbed hold of Ingrid’s hand by the wrist and slowly pulled her fingers off her neck.

Ingrid gritted her teeth and fought back, grabbing hold of Yurii’s hand.

She could not overcome. Ingrid’s prodigious strength was not enough.

“Samoylovych is not normal.” Norn said. “So this is a mercy for you. Yurii: down, boy.”

Yurii laid Ingrid’s hands down on the table and retracted her own, smiling all the while.

Gertrude fixed Ingrid with a look that said this situation had to be over, now.

For her part, Ingrid was furious but obedient, retracting her hands.

Rubbing her wrist surreptitiously where Yurii had grabbed her.

“This bitch Katarran or what?” She was mumbling. Thankfully everyone ignored it.

Norn finally cleared her throat loudly to get everyone’s attention and quiet the room.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg, while I have I enjoyed the food,” this she said with her plate nearly untouched, “and your hospitality, I did not come here for pleasantries, and you know it. Given that our subordinates have been making trouble, we should speed this along. You are clearly in a difficult situation. How did an Irmingard class, with its vast weaponry and defenses, suffer such a brutal and crippling attack? What is your mission in Sverland; why do you need reinforcements? It goes without saying that I’ll be upset if you hide anything from me.”

Gertrude knew she would have to explain to Norn what had happened in truth and in full.

However, the atmosphere of tension in the room was exactly what she wanted to avoid.

Mortified, Gertrude began with the most obviously difficult part of the scenario.

“I’ve been chasing a group of mercenaries who have abducted Elena von Fueller.”

Norn’s eyes drew wide. Even Adelheid, bored of everything else, looked up from her food.

“I knew it had to be something like that, with you– yet I’m still in disbelief. Elena perished, Gertrude, she is dead. Nobody evacuated from Vogelheim, it was a massacre. And you say you are chasing her?” Norn said.

Hearing those words drove a hook right through Gertrude’s chest drawing out fresh hurt.

“I know this sounds crazy, but I saw her. I saw her being loaded into a ship.” She said.

Her voice felt distant, like she wasn’t the speaker. Her head was filling with anxious fog.

“Master Norn, I’ve known Elena since we were small children. We have so much history. My father was part of the Imperial Guard in the summer palace at Schwerin Isle, he gave his life to protect that family! I played with Elena when she was a little girl for years, and I went to Luxembourg School For Girls with her for years, seeing her every day, even sleeping in the same bunk. Ma’am, I would know Elena anywhere, no matter what happened.”

Norn smiled warmly. She reached her hand out to the clearly suffering Gertrude.

Closing her fingers around Gertrude’s own in a show of solidarity.

The Inquisitor was speechless, gazing at Norn with a strange fluttering comfort.

Even Ingrid and Yurii were staring, now on the same side in their bewilderment.

“You’ve learned how to speak to me. You are telling the unvarnished truth.” Norn said.

Gertrude nodded her head. She felt her heart finally holding firm with determination.

“I saw her be taken. And I need your assistance to hunt down the forces responsible.”

Norn lifted her hand from Gertrude’s and sat back in her chair.

Her lips had curled back to that broad, malicious grin she always seemed to wear.

“Of course, as the head of the Fueller Family, I can’t overlook this. It behooves me to at least pay these mercenaries a visit and confirm the truth. How Elena got out to the Nectaris Ocean and how she survived Vogelheim– if she survived, of course. Those are questions that need answering. But Gertrude, you need to learn more about the exercise of power. I am disappointed in you. You failed despite everything at your disposal and command.”

“With all due respect ma’am, I had to be cautious to protect Elena. These mercenaries are extremely dangerous. They have military-grade Union equipment and top class pilot training.” Gertrude quickly responded. She felt defensive at Norn calling her out. “We had them outnumbered and outgunned with the help of Sverland’s patrolmen, but they still folded an entire patrol fleet with just their Divers. I am asking for help for a reason, Master.”

“Then I’ll help you crush them, but you have to agree that I am in command of this operation, and we will do things my way. Furthermore, we will leave now, on the Antenora. Your mercs have a head start on us.”

Norn gazed directly into her eyes.

Gertrude blinked.

She had considered the time, but the repairs on the Iron Lady were going well.

Going on the Antenora had not exactly been part of her plans.

Then again she never considered the Antenora would have been the one to answer her calls.

“Of course, Master.” She said. “I have no objections nor would my crew.”

Ingrid crossed her arms and withdrew her gaze. Sieglinde had no expression on her face.

“Marvelous. Then we should prepare and go on the hunt as soon as possible. I’ll take you aboard the Antenora, and I have room for exactly one additional Diver and pilot. Choose your best.” Norn said.

Those words felt like a hammer to Gertrude’s chest.

Norn had her own squadron. The Antenora was a Cruiser, it was not so roomy.

So Gertrude could only take one of her pilots with her. Choose your best.

Gertrude was briefly speechless. She glanced at Sieglinde and cast a long look at Ingrid.

Her heart turned so heavy. Her voice ripped out of her throat like shattered glass.

There was only one choice. And she hated that it was so.

“I’ll take Baron von Castille.” Gertrude said, voice shaking after a period of trepidation.

At her left side, Ingrid’s gaze immediately dropped to the floor. Her shoulders slouched.

If she only had one choice– Sieglinde was clearly the better pilot. She was legendary.

It hurt like hell to leave Ingrid behind. And certainly, it must have hurt Ingrid too.

“Ingrid, you’ll hold the fort here, okay? As soon as the repairs complete, I need you to rush in after us. I’m trusting you to keep everyone safe and in line, and then bring the Iron Lady in to cut off the mercs.”

Gertrude tried to soften it, like she really had something important for Ingrid to do. Like her staying behind was not a sign of Gertrude’s hasty abandoning of her best friend whenever it was convenient but was something calculated and grand and necessary that only Ingrid could do. Like it was a special little mission worthy of the trust and intimacy that they shared. Her voice could communicate none of this grandeur. And Ingrid’s wavering posture told the truth of it all.

Ingrid finally faced Gertrude after being spoken to. She raised her head up feigning pride.

She had a smile on her face. A wan, forced little smile more painful than her silence.

It almost broke Gertrude’s heart to see it.

“Yes ma’am. I’ll make sure these louts work themselves to the bone so we can catch up.”

Ingrid gave her a little salute with a very slightly shaking hand.

Sieglinde for the first time seemed to have a conflicted expression on her face.

Gertrude almost didn’t know what to say.

They were exchanging what must have been the most pained expressions of their lives.

All the while hiding behind false smiles.

Ingrid would not let herself be a nuisance here. She accepted everything immediately.

For Gertrude’s sake, she was always accepting such awful things.

I’m a god damned bastard. Gertrude thought. I’m the lowest of the fucking low.

But for she had to save Elena– everything she was doing was for Elena–

“Very well! I look forward to watching the esteemed Red Baron at work.” Norn said.

She nodded her head to Sieglinde, who had no reaction to the gesture.

There was little else to discuss.

And so, with little fanfare, Gertrude left Ingrid behind to depart for darker seas.

It’s for Elena’s sake. I’m doing this for Elena. Once I get Elena back I’ll–

I’ll make it up to Ingrid– right?

Even Gertrude was having trouble believing this anymore.

In reality– she really was doing far too much for herself

Far too little for others–

Nothing for Ingrid–

And if Norn ever asked the right question, Gertrude would not be able to lie about it.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In the Stream [6.8]

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.”

“Yes ma’am.”

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.

“Yes ma’am!”

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–”

“Bomb detonation!”

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.

And Ulyana–

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!”

“Murati!”

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.

Right?

“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–

“Sonya!”

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?”

“Hmph.”

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.

Staring.

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.”

“Small triumphs.”

“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.”

“Ingrid,”

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.

“I’m sorry.”

“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!”

Ingrid scoffed.

“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!”

“Ingrid…”

“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.

“Ingrid,”

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.”


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.7]

Sword in one hand, rifle in the other, matching her fated opponent.

For a moment they simply stared each other down.

Even the shooting of the Irmingard’s main guns did not stir the two veterans.

There was chatter on an open frequency. A coy, bloodthirsty voice.

“I know it’s you, Red Baron! The two of us have a bloody ball to attend!”

Ever since Khadija spotted that overgrown Jagd pulling that sommersault trick with its sword, she just knew. She did not even need the machine to be painted red to tell. Nobody in the entire world had the gall to try those pretentious underwater ballet moves except for that bitch. Rationality flew out the window for Khadija.

On simple instinct, on reading the current, she knew.

Not once did she question her own sanity or her urges and instincts.

When she had got tired of talking, she threw herself at that machine with a vengeance.

Soon as Shalikova left her side, Khadija charged the Red Baron, sword drawn.

Reacting to her attack, the Red Baron suddenly climbed.

“Predictable! How much younger are you than me?”

Khadija rose immediately to meet her, shooting diagonally up and intersecting her leap.

Swords clashing, the two veterans became locked in struggle

Vibrating blade met furious saw, kicking up short-lived sparks and bubbles of vapor as they ground together. Sword arms locked chest to chest for seconds, struggling to push each other back, before the two broke off. Khadija opened fire from her AK-96 as she descended, and the Red Baron responded with her Sturmgewehr assault rifle as she rose.

Khadija swung a left; the Red Baron threw herself right.

A burst of bullets flew past Khadija’s shoulder, grazing her anchor pod.

Several bullets detonated just off of the Baron’s hip, almost striking the water intake.

Through open water they circled like spiraling, orbiting stars, dozens of meters apart but perfectly equidistant, mirroring moments second to second. Between them grew a raging fusillade, bursts of gunfire that buzzed by within millimeters of each machine and detonated above, behind, around them in every direction, until it was impossible to tell through the fog of their war where each machine stood amid the vapor and explosions. Hundreds of rounds, the drumbeat of the dance. Spent magazines sank out of view, an unseemly clock putting a limit on their night of fire.

Two sharp clicking noises, two mag ejections, and the music stopped.

Though she almost wanted to throw out her rifle Khadija had the presence to stow it.

Up and above, the Red Baron did simply discard hers. It made Khadija incensed to see.

“Not just an Imperial but a show-off bitch besides. I’m going to make you pay.”

She took her sword in both hands and briefly scanned the diagnostics screen.

Some of the saw teeth had been ground off, but the chain was alloyed with depleted agarthicite and strong enough to cut. Her arm verniers still had enough fuel and the motor on the diamond sword was running strong.

Khadija took a deep, resentful breath.

Back when they last fought, swords, whether the Imperial vibroblade or the Union diamond sword, were a luxury afforded only to them. Something so standard now, in 959 only six diamond swords existed, and only the Red Baron had a vibroblade. Real weapons were given to the people who’d survived tearing each other apart with handheld bombs, industrial drills, undersea welding equipment, rock cutter heads attached to ship propellers, rocket-poles with makeshift grenades at the end, and all sorts of other unreliable, improvised weapons hastily given to the early Divers.

Launching out of sandbanks and gorges and caves to do any sort of damage to an imperial ship in Labor suits with bolted-on armor made out of bulkheads. While early Volkers made out of bathysphere materials tried desperately to guard the ships and patrol the sites of guerilla activity, wielding gas guns extracted from their mounts or scaled-up jet harpoons and even handheld shields and piston spears. Death was nearly instant for whoever got hit first.

Every attack was deadly.

Every exchange was to the death. Weapons met, and only one fighter survived.

That was the war she and the Baron had once fought. That was the war they survived.

The Union’s desperate ingenuity met the Imperial struggle to industrialize a response.

It was the war that crashed these two and their machines together again and again.

“I got you once back then. But it isn’t enough.” Khadija said. “You need to hurt more.”

Taunting let off steam when Khadija thought she might explode inside.

Suddenly, her heart quickened, when she finally heard a response back to her taunts.

“What will be enough?”

That deep and powerful voice which sounded so desperate and hurt.

At first Khadija could not even believe it.

Because this was the first palpable, human interaction she had with her mortal enemy.

Before, the Red Baron had been nothing but a machine that barred her way, a machine that had killed her comrades. An obstacle that had impeded her own revolutionary legend again and again. A fated foe that she thought had disappeared alongside Imperial control of Ferris. Now that same demon was speaking to her in that pathetic voice?

Her mind struggled to come up with a response, as if she had been spoken to in an incomprehensible language; but it was just Imbrian. It was all the same for all of them. Her heart quivered, her soaring spirit felt almost deflated.

Khadija’s voice sounded audibly weary even to herself.

“Feeling remorseful? Then just drop dead!”

She engaged all thrust that she could muster to throw herself forward.

The Red Baron reacted to the initial forward thrust by lifting her sword in defense.

She was waiting, trying to react to Khadija.

There were no allies, no supporting fire, no ranged weapons available to the Baron. Nothing but knives. Just like old times, when they carried ordnance they could count with their fingers and were reduced to banging each other with whatever crude melee weapons they had. The less options a pilot had available, the less sophisticated their tactics became. Khadija had experience with this. But it was not the revolution, and their equipment for this bout was very different. Pound for pound, purely in the quality of equipment, a diamond sword was not going to survive smashing against a vibroblade for as long as its counterpart. A duel would not favor Khadija in these waters.

To think she’d let things get this desperate. She had been so foolish to fight like this.

Her intention was not to duel, however. For the first time in a long time she keenly felt all her 42 years.

She felt like a long-suffering veteran; she knew her duty, she knew her mission.

She knew her options.

Murati still had her bomb. If she could tie up this woman long enough, she triumphed.

When the two threw themselves at each other once more, their motives differed.

As soon as their swords met anew, Khadija armed the bomb on her back with a short timer.

“I’ll take this grudge to hell. Until I see you eat the fruit of Zaqqum personally.”


Soyuz is down! Repeat, Soyuz is down!”

“God damn it.”

As far as the eye could see there were groups of ships exchanging gunfire, a wicked line of grey and black ships on one side and hundreds of different color liveries standing their ground on the other. Water bubbles and vapor clouds, hundreds more than even the amount of ships, multiplying in the no-man’s-land between the opposing fleets. Partially in the frame of these massive forces was a massive station from which torpedoes and flak periodically flew out.

All of this saturating ordnance, the distant star-like flashes of explosives, the spreading cloud of bubbles and debris, roaring shockwaves that boomed in the thousands every minute. This violence transpired over a dismal, rocky sandbank over which Cascabel station had stood sentinel. Over this gorge the two sides were deadlocked.

It was the “winter” of A.D. 959, and the now-called “Union” fought desperately for its existence.

In the eyes of the little girl watching on the Bridge of that ship–

This was the apocalypse. It was the end of all things. It could be nothing else.

She was nine years old, and had some understanding of the world, but she had never seen the water stir so violently. She had never explosions and felt the rattling of the metal around her, the metal protecting her from the ravages of the endless Ocean outside. She did not understand that death was a part of what she was seeing; but this was also the first time she witnessed death. All of the destruction she saw hinted at death to her, in a way she did not grasp.

And yet, she never cried. Not once. It was as if she was mesmerized.

“Captain, should this child really be here?”

“After what happened just now, Goswani, it doesn’t matter where she is.”

Murati Nakara could not hear them at that point. She was not acknowledging other people.

She was transfixed on the massive screen in front of her.

Her parents had been killed on that screen and she did not even really know it.

Behind her, Captain Yervik Deshnov of the Union’s remaining dreadnought, the Ferrisean, grit his teeth, and pulled down his peaked cap. He pounded his fist on his seat in frustration. An Imperial Diver had gotten to the Soyuz and detonated an explosive on it. It was the same kind of trick they’d been pulling on the Empire for months, but the Empire had hardly used their own nascent Divers against the Union. There was an air of frustration, shock, grief, and sudden hopelessness aboard. They had pushed the Empire all the way to Cascabel. Would they collapse here?

“We can’t fall apart from just one attack, Captain! I’ll avenge them!”

A determined voice came through on the comms. A face appeared on the screen.

A Shimii, blond-haired, with piercing green eyes, and a fiery expression.

“UND-001-A Khadija al-Shajara, deploying!”

Like a shooting star, the armed labor suit flew out from under their vessel.

On the main screen, the computers all honed on this unit for a brief moment.

From the teetering wreckage of the Soyuz, an opposing force sailed out to meet her.

A rotund suit, all in red, wielding what looked like a sword alongside its rifle.

The much-more human shaped and green Union suit sped to a collision with this red suit.

Twin comets met in the waters with Cascabel looming behind, a sorrowful steel giant.

Clashing in instants, moving faster than anyone had ever seen, shooting, parrying.

Dashing at one another, breaking apart, their vicious duel spiraling amid the rest of the chaos.

“Why are we all doing nothing! Helmsman, advance! Target all fire on the enemy center!”

Deshnov shouted himself hoarse, and the Ferrisean was shaken out of its stillness.

Meanwhile Murati watched the Divers attentively.

Even when the main screen shifted the duel to a picture in picture and expanded its focus again back to the broader fleet action, she was taken in by the little picture in the corner, staring at it intently. Her mind was fully blank save for the unreal fighting in that tiny square. They were so evenly matched, despite the clear viciousness of their violence, that it seemed more like a sport or a sparring match than an actual battle. This was also death in a way Murati didn’t see.

And then, the red suit gained the upper hand, or so it seemed–

Trying to flip over its opponent to attack it from behind, upside down–

Suddenly the opponent, the green suit, threw its arm in the way.

It could not be sliced through. She caught the sword in her gauntlet and wrist-blade.

Her rifle flashed at her enemy, punishing the red suit with many serious blows.

Battered, the red suit retreated with all its might.

And missing a functioning arm, the green suit withdrew as well.

In an instant, they had drawn blood and their battle was closed.

“Captain, an enemy Cruiser is moving out of position!”

Deshnov drew his eyes wide in the Captain’s chair.

“What is it doing?”

“It may be trying to recover the red suit!”

“Focus all fire on the gap it left! It’s open season on their escorts!”

Even as the picture in picture camera was left desolate, with both combatants retreating.

That seemingly interminable duel remained buried in Murati’s little brain.

She continued to stare at that corner, until the last gun sounded.


“I see you’re hellbent on giving me a heart attack lately.”

Yervik Deshnov found the girl standing at the entrance to the port of Ferris’ Sevastopol Station, watched over by a port attendant. Her dark skin and messy dark hair were unmistakable, as were her fiery auburn eyes. What was unusual was the military cadet jacket and pants. Deshnov was not exactly chasing after the girl every single day, but he had no idea where she would have gotten that uniform under his nose. Unlike the usual trouble she got into, this was serious.

Was she trying to run away to Solstice? He’d play dumb for now and just ask her.

Arguing with Murati over assumptions would always bite him in the ass. She was too smart.

In response to his consternation, Murati crossed her arms and put on the most serious face she could muster. A girl of barely fourteen, she was tall and slight and tomboyish. Despite her best attempts her expression still read to Deshnov as distinctly bratty. A bratty teen rebelling at random. And he always knew; he was always informed first whenever she tried to do anything strange. He always came and made sure she was unharmed.

It was the least he could do for the parents she lost.

“I came all the way out here, on short notice, so what is all this about?”

“You only ever visit to stop me doing what I want with my life.” She cried out.

“That’s cruel. I gladly said yes to all those medications you wanted to get on.”

“Hmph! Like you had a choice in that! The Union constitution–”

Deshnov sighed. She always had an answer for everything.

“Doesn’t apply, Murati! All your affairs are under my strict guardianship per your parent’s last will. You legitimately do not have all those rights you’re rattling off all the time until you leave my guardianship, because you’re not an ordinary war orphan. Listen. I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. But I’m here now. I just want to talk.”

Murati grit her teeth. “I didn’t think you’d get here so quickly.”

“Okay, so this is not a funny stunt, and you did intend to run away to Solstice? For what?”

“I’m joining the military academy, uncle Deshnov! I’m joining and you can’t stop me!”

“Of course. I knew it’d come to this someday. You are his kid after all.”

He ran a hand over his wizened face, sighing deeply.

“Murati, all I want is for you to lead a healthy, happy, peaceful life, you know that?”

It was tough for Murati to say anything to that. She simply averted her gaze.

“I’d really like nothing better than for you to go to school for something good and kind.”

“I’d like nothing better than for you to stop pretending to parent me.”

“Ouch.”

Deshnov smiled and tried to play it off like that didn’t hurt as monumentally as it did.

He felt it rush through his skin like electricity. But he’d been preparing for this moment.

“I’m sorry for the trouble and the time spent, and I hope you’ll forgive us the awkward scene on here.” He said to the woman in the port attendant uniform, shifting uncomfortably to one side and watching their drama unfolding. “Per the terms of guardianship, please revoke this young lady’s boarding pass and–”

“My parents fought and died for this country!” Murati said. “I have a right to–”

“Do the same? Do you hear yourself? Do you just want to die then?” Deshnov snapped.

“No! Of course not! Ugh! You never understand!” Murati shouted back.

“Then what is it? I would let you go if you could tell me a single constructive thing you plan to do with your military academy degree and with some kind of position in the Navy. What do you think people do in the Navy, huh young lady? Have you given it any thought at all? Do you have anything in your head except empty platitudes of civil duty? Or worse, maybe even petty revenge? Do you want to kill people, or do you want to die?”

Murati balled up her fists and looked positively livid.

“How cynical! For a Rear Admiral to be saying this! If your soldiers could hear you!”

Deshnov grunted.

“I am cynical because I’m experienced! Because I’ve seen what happens to people like you: young and ambitious but with your heads full of duty and martyrdom! Because hundreds of thousands of people died to create a safe place where someone like you doesn’t have to board a metal coffin to survive! You think your parents want this for you?”

In his eyes, this was nothing short of a tragedy. To see Murati in this awful uniform.

What did she want with this?

“You don’t know anything.” Murati said, her eyes downcast.

“Then tell me.”

“You think I’m just a stupid little girl who can’t do anything–”

“Murati that’s the last thing I think–”

“I’m going to end this war! I’m going to make all the Ocean safe for us.”

Deshnov blinked. He stood there, speechless, for a moment.

When he looked at that brooding girl, he really thought all she wanted was to kill.

To kill the Imperials who took her parents. He’d seen it, again and again.

“You’re going to end what war?” Deshnov said. “Our war with the Empire? You?”

Murati raised her eyes from the ground.

At that moment, Deshnov was taken aback by what he saw and felt from her.

That tear-stained grimace that should have seemed small and bratty and petty and pitiful– but instead her gaze was cutting, powerful, as if there was truly something behind it. Something deep and massive; her gaze was filled with presence beyond its years. A determination far surpassing his own. A real, inspired sense of righteousness.

Those auburn eyes had a red glimmer, like a raging fire burning deep inside her.

“Uncle Deshnov, let me go. I will– I’ll become the best soldier you’ll ever see. I’ll become the strongest. Nobody will get hurt anymore. Nobody will die anymore. Not me; not anyone. Someday, the Empire might come back. I’ll drive them out of Ferris just like you did. And I’ll chase them all the way to the Palatinate. I’ll fight their soldiers and their knights and inquisitors, I’ll fight the Emperor! I’ll free us all and then nobody will need to fight a war again.”

Yervik Deshnov felt a deep shame at those words. He could hardly keep from crying.

Those words coming out of this teenage girl– that should have been him, God damn it.

That’s what he and all the losers who called themselves the admiralty of this nation should have done! That was what they were promising to these kids. That it was ended, that they could live their lives now. How could he reiterate what he told Murati before, with a straight face? She knew none of this was over. That none of it had been finished. She was too smart. She had lost too much. So she knew better than anybody that the utopian paradise of the Union was still paper thin as long as the waters outside Ferris still teemed with the sharks of the Imbrian Empire.

Deshnov’s worst nightmare had been that these kids would have to finish his war.

That Murati would have to finish his war.

He wanted to yell at her to go back home and study math and the arts and trades.

But his voice would not rise for such sophistry. It couldn’t. Not anymore.

Especially because he was always running around and never even saw her grow.

“Don’t call me Uncle anymore.” He said. “I’ll–”

At that moment, the port attendant received a call on her earpiece. Her eyes drew wide.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Deshnov, but I’ve orders to let her through.” She said.

“Excuse me?” He felt suddenly defensive. He still had the right of guardianship–

“Murati’s guardianship has been revoked. She’s been declared an independent orphan– a legal adult.”

“What?”

Even Murati looked taken aback by this. It must not have been something she did.

“Someone will be coming to speak with you. I have to take her– the ship is leaving.”

Deshnov watched, in helpless confusion, as the port attendant turned Murati around and gave her what she wanted and had arranged for. Passage aboard the ship bound for Solstice, where she would enroll in the military Academy and live much of the next decade of her life, learning the sciences and arts of battle and preparing for war. She looked back at him one last time, but he knew not what kind of look Murati gave him and never would.

Instead, he had turned around to face the other end of the port corridor, where two figures arrived.

Dressed in the dark olive shirt and dark brown pants of the Navy, and the black coat and peaked, serpent-adorned cap of the Ashura, the internal security troops answering exclusively to the outbound Premier herself.

Deshnov grit his teeth.

Who else could it have been to greet him on this evil day? No one else but Commissar-Commandant Bhavani Jayasankar; and her lackey Parvati Nagavanshi, returned from her ship duties just in time to join up.

Those two always somehow found their way to each other.

“I’d be truly blessed to know what the hell internal security wants with one girl.” He said.

Jayasankar put on a conniving smile and crossed her arms.

“Well, children are our future. What’s that saying, Nagavanshi?”

“A thousand generations live in them.” Nagavanshi replied with a deadpan tone of voice.

“Don’t fuck with me. Who gave you the authority to overturn my guardianship?” He said.

Nagavanshi withdrew some papers from her coat and began to explain. “Citing Murati Nakara’s room records, you’ve visited her about 60 times in the past five years? While it is a double digit number, it’s not a lot, considering the average parent in the Union visited their children at their school boards an average of about 190 days every single year. So it seems to me, and forgive me if I’m wrong, that she was not a high priority in your life.”

“How dare you? It was the Navy itself that kept me from her! You don’t think–”

He went on a tirade that the two of them clearly weren’t interested in.

Shouting was all Deshnov could do to keep from striking Nagavanshi.

That would’ve been really bad.

“At any rate!”

Jayasankar shouted over Deshnov and produced a series of official documents from her own coat.

Guardianship transfer, from Yervik Deshnov to Daksha Kansal. Signed by Daksha Kansal.

Then in the next document, simply dissolved by Kansal, making Murati a “legal adult” citizen.

That meant Murati had agency in administrative decisions regarding her person, though she was still a child. She could sign for her own medications, join the academy without anyone’s consent– but still couldn’t drink or drive.

Deshnov could hardly believe it. “The Premier? Daksha? Why would she–?”

“You weren’t the only one who owed the Nakara family something.” Jayasankar cut in.

“Now everything’s squared away. We’re all released from this past.” Nagavanshi added.

Those words sparked a sudden paranoia in Deshnov’s brain. A weary, angry fear.

But there was nothing he could say. He had no power in the face of these two.

“Nobody owes anyone, anything, anymore, Deshnov. We can all look toward the future.”

Jayasankar smiled that devilish smile of her and Deshnov felt a helpless anger.

All of them were playing politics still, even around Murati and her dead parent’s names. Was this truly what they all died fighting for? So Jayasankar and Nagavanshi could manipulate their daughter’s life? He looked over his shoulder at the departing vessel. Murati was nowhere to be seen, of course. He had missed his chance. He should have just said he was proud of her answer to him. Instead, he may have just left her with the idea he was abandoning her.

Could he even rectify that? Could he explain or take back what he said?

He turned back to the women in front of him with the evilest look he could give them.

“Neither of you have any respect for the dead. Neither of you should be saying that family’s name in any context, you vultures don’t deserve it. We don’t owe them anymore? Maybe you people don’t. But they are a part of the soul of this country. Whatever it is you think you are scheming, or whatever advantage you’re trying to get, I will not be quiet while you do so.” Deshnov said in a low voice. “Were it not for our positions, Bhavani, I’d sock the both of you.”

Jayasankar shrugged her shoulders with one winking eye, smiling.

“Oh? Such big words! But you can’t attack me, right Yervik? You can’t lift a finger to me no matter what. Well, if you went on a rampage right now, you’d certainly get Nagavanshi at least; I’d be more of a fight, however.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Hey. Don’t push it. I’m perfectly able to defend myself.”

They were joking among themselves. Those two went back a few years.

Even with the long gap in their ages they still understood each other a little too well.

Neither of them was taking him seriously still. Not that he was worth taking seriously.

He was being quite childish himself. But he couldn’t help but be bitter toward them.

“You respect the invisible shield that is political power.” Jayasankar grinned to herself.

“I know that you certainly came out of their tragedy a little better than everyone else.”

Deshnov did not want to respond too much to the provocations of this particular group.

Among the revolutionaries, there had been a few different cliques.

He had always wanted to believe in Commander Ahwalia and his promise of a better future.

This earned him the scorn of rigid materialists like Jayasankar and Nagavanshi.

Upon hearing his remarks, Jayasankar’s face turned cold. She turned a chilling glare on him.

“We entombed ourselves in steel and poured our blood into making this country, the same as you. Yet you hate us for not deceiving kids like her with sappy dreams. Daksha sent me here because you and I go back to five years ago, and she wanted you to understand that you have to let the Nakara family go. They do not influence the Union anymore, and in the coming stages, whatever they wished to do no longer matters. Yervik, you can stay stuck in the past, or you can keep fighting for our future. As a respected military man, there will come a time soon where you’ll influence the future of kids like her. I hope you recognize what it is appropriate to do when that time comes.”

Nagavanshi added. “Kansal will depart soon. There will be a wave of change. Don’t cross us, Yervik.”

Jayasankar and Nagavanshi turned their heels and departed, leaving Yervik behind, helpless.

They could say such things to him precisely because they knew he would do nothing. He could not.

He almost wanted to spit with anger. Those two were always plotting something.

As much as he detested them, however, they were as much the heart and soul of the Union as the Nakaras.

That much he could not deny, deep in his bitter heart, even if he hated their politics.

But Jayasankar was right in one sense. He couldn’t give up now. He couldn’t just run away.

While he could not stand to look at these snakes and the future in their minds, he could pin his hopes on the future he saw in Murati’s eyes instead. Whether they were led by an idealist like Ahwalia or a militarist like Jayasankar, their children owned the future. Not any of the old soldiers. It didn’t matter to these kids how much they schemed.

All of this shame, all of this bitterness; he would endure it for the future Murati might build.


When the Irmingard’s main guns fired, Murati’s time started moving once again.

She lowered her mecha’s shooting arm, the magazine depleted.

Her breathing quickened. She felt like she was waking from a nightmare.

“I was useless. I was completely useless.” She gasped. She checked her monitors.

Shalikova was safe, the flak had quieted to avoid friendly fire.

Khadija was staring down the enemy unit that had made a fool of Murati.

For the moment, the battle had stood completely still.

As if the monumental shocks of those 203 mm guns had stunned them all to reverence.

And yet, it was those guns that awakened Murati from a shameful, desperate stupor.

In her cockpit, Murati struggled with the controls for the Cheka. She was trying not to fall too deep into her own despair. She still had a mission to do, and she told herself that she situation remained fundamentally unchanged– that had to be a bluffing shot, and Murati still had two bombs available to take down the flagship.

But the appearance of that unknown suit complicated things.

“Arm joint failing, some electric fluctuations, messiah defend.”

That cut through the shoulder must have damaged some of the ancillary electronics. While there was still thrust, power to secondary systems was inconsistent. Murati kept a panicked eye on the pressure and atmosphere readings. She was alive, so she was not breached, but if there was damage to atmosphere control, or a microscopic leak from the tanks, it could make her sick. Everything was under control at the moment, but she was nearly helpless.

“Murati! Please respond!”

Due to the energy circulation issues her radio was cutting in and out intermittently.

At that moment, however, she could still hear the desperate voice of Sonya Shalikova.

Sighing with a deep shame in herself, trying to suppress the urge to pity herself, she replied.

“Combat ineffective. Repeat, combat ineffective.”

“Murati? Did you say, ‘combat ineffective’? Who cares! Are you hurt?”

Shalikova’s voice came in and out every other syllable it seemed.

Nonetheless, the emotional, worried tone of her voice came through for Murati.

“Unhurt. Repeat, I’m unhurt. Just shaken up. Repeat, shaken up.”

In order to be understood with the state of her electronics and power, Murati had to be fairly monosyllabic. She could not say what she was really feeling, nor even the version of it she really wanted Shalikova to hear. “I was useless, but you were splendid,” or “I’m sorry for failing you, but you did great out there.” Maybe “I’m proud of you,” might have gone through. But it wasn’t the time to praise Shalikova and hear her characteristic groaning back. They were still in danger. They still had a mission to do. And they needed to know the status of the Brigand as well.

“Wait. Bombs, how many do we–”

Murati checked the inventory on the Cheka quickly. She found that the serial port that should have been connected to her bomb had been reporting nothing connected to it. Her magnetic strip was showing a significant loss of weight as well. Had that mecha managed to unseat her equipment while they were maneuvering? It must have been when she slashed across her shoulder– Murati grit her teeth. She must have kicked them off or something.

To think she had been so careless, with an opponent like that!

Shalikova’s voice cut in. Murati was barely able to make out one word.

“Khadija–”

She slammed her fist on the switchbox for the communicator.

“What can I even do? I’m just a passenger at this point.”

On a corner of her central screen, a little flashing waveform appeared.

Incoming laser connection.

“The Brigand!”

Murati put it through immediately.

She found herself face to face with the narrowed, unfriendly glare of Alex Geninov.

For only an instant. Nearly immediately, Alex passed her off to Semyonova.

In this situation, that familiar round-faced, bubbly blond was such a relief to see.

Even with a laser connection, the video was lagging. The Cheka was in bad shape.

“Khadija engaging enemy! Lost bomb undetonated! Repeat–”

She had to communicate sparsely, as if the connection would be cutting in and out.

On the screen she saw Semyonova turn to relay to the Captain–

Then the video connection cut out.

Murati had feared that the flak had restarted and knocked out the drone the Brigand had sent to connect them, but she noticed her communicator had powered of suddenly. She switched the diagnostic touchscreen to a troubleshooting mode and tried to restart the communicator through it. She tried routing power from a different cell– instead the camera feeds began to darken, not liking having their already fragile power tampered with.

Frustrated, Murati nearly hit the diagnostic screen again.

Briefly she saw her frustrated, sweating face reflected on one of her dead screens.

“So much for you, fearless leader.” She mumbled.

She dipped her head, her bangs falling over her eyes.

There was a flash as her cameras returned to life.

When Murati looked up to appraise the situation, she was transfixed by what she saw.

In the middle of the ocean between all of the warring ships, framed by clouds of vapor and steel debris, two machines soared like a pair of comets, their dance punctuated by the trials of explosive rounds and the bubbles that blossomed from their detonations. Weaving chaotic patterns of vapor and lead, the combatants captivated all of Murati’s senses as she watched them, following the dim flashes of rifle shells, the zigzagging lines of bubbles and disturbed water left in the wakes of their jets, the thin clouds of exhaust from the solid fuel boosters mixing with the water vapor.

There was a shuddering in her chest, her heart carried on a current of twenty years.

Murati recognized the sight as one she saw in 959 A.D.

On a ship she had snuck into, amid the gravest emergency the nascent Union had yet seen.

Where she watched ships explode, and Divers sink, and a station die.

In front of her, the flashing stopped, the combatants bereft of ammunition.

Murati felt a warmth behind her eyes and saw colors emerging in the water.

That enemy Diver, colored yellow and green, full of fear, regret, disgust–

That plain grey Strelok, red and black with rage, bloodlust, a resignation to death–

Her eyes drew wide with the sudden realization.

“No! Khadija– the bomb–”

Instinctually she understood what would transpire if she did not act–

–her thoughts raced, thinking of something, anything she could do, to prevent the tragedy–

“Murati!”

Shalikova’s Strelok appeared right in front of her, taking up her cameras.

At her side was a second, bare Strelok with no damage to it. Valya Lebedova’s unit.

“Murati, she sent me here to take you back, give your bomb to Lebedova–”

Hit with a spark of inspiration, Murati made a sudden move for Lebedova’s unit.

Shifting her hands to the verboten controls flashing on her joysticks.

All of the diagnostic and power warnings briefly made way for the user interface of the Energy Recovery System. Power poured from the extra reserved cells on the Cheka and for a moment, thrust improved dramatically, all systems reconnected, and the battered suit moved like it should. Shalikova and Lebedova were both taken aback.

Throwing herself forward to them, Murati grabbed hold of Lebedova’s grenade.

Seizing it from her magnetic strip, before rushing away into the open water.

“Murati! What are you doing? You’ve got damage!”

Shalikova’s shouting was picked up loud and clear now that comms had returned.

Murati ignored the radio chatter and slammed the pedals down as far as they would.

As soon as she got up to speed, warnings began appearing in their dozens once again.

Oxygen system, atmosphere controls, everything stressed under the speed building up so suddenly after taking so much damage to the innards. Her damaged arm refused to budge under this degree of acceleration, so Murati had to use the other arm for her sudden plot. She attached Lebedova’s grenade to her own magnetic strip, unlocked the strip, and forcibly pulled the entire length free from the Cheka’s back using the non-magnetic handles on the ends.

She was then able to hold it like a magnetic pole on her hand with the grenade on one end.

Heedless of the energy percentages ticking down and down–

And the number of things that were broken or breaking in the suit–

In her mind, Murati had only one destination: home.

Her plan had gone awry, but as a leader, she would bring everyone back home, even if it killed her.

“Khadija! Stop! Step back!”

Dead ahead, the enemy suit and Khadija’s charged each other and became locked in a brief clash with their respective melee weapons. Chainsaw teeth and vibroblade ground each other down. They traded several vicious blows and parries before each one in turn noticed Murati hurtling toward them. Her presence ended the deadlocked duel.

That enemy suit responded first and darted back carefully from Khadija.

Khadija pulled back only slightly as her ally approached at high speeds.

Murati swerved toward the enemy suit and it responded by thrusting up and away from her.

Then Murati arced toward Khadija instead, circling around behind her.

“Murati! What are you–?”

Soaring past Khadija’s back, Murati snatched the bomb she had given her using the magnetic pole.

At the speed she was going, the serial cable simply snapped off.

“Everyone retreat! Right now! Back to the Brigand!”

Accelerating once more, Murati barked her orders into the communicator.

Using the remaining shoulder camera she checked the status of the bomb.

She noticed it had been armed. She felt a chill run down her spine, briefly, unable to dwell on the confirmation of her horrifying suspicions. Was Khadija really willing to die to take out this one enemy unit? They would have to discuss this later. Murati held out the contraption in her hands and thrust toward the Irmingard class once again.

With an armed bomb on the strip she could not tarry for very long.

Within seconds, she was close enough to put the plan into action.

Assault rifles, gas guns and coilguns all used a combination of special ammunition and shooting mechanisms that allowed them to shoot underwater and launch supercavitating shells. Their ammunition moved through an air bubble, defeating the resistance of the water and altering their kinetic profile. Melee combat relied on the mechanical power of a Diver’s arms, as well as boosters on the weapon and the arm itself to improve thrust. Even so, raw kinetic impacts were not effective. Union swords used saw blades to inflict damage; the Empire used sophisticated vibrating blades made of exotic materials. Any simple cutting edge would have been much less effective underwater.

Similarly to swinging a plain sword, objects thrown by a Diver could not be expected to be effective.

They would not travel very far without assistance.

Grenades had their own built-in rocket to compensate for water resistance instead.

To propel the Grenade’s 50 mm warhead, it needed thrust akin to a Diver’s vernier booster.

That was enough thrust to propel the grenade quite far, quite fast.

And more than enough to take the strip and the bomb attached along for the ride.

“Here goes something!”

Holding out the strip in front of her, Murati armed the grenade at the back of it.

When she let go an instant later, the grenade’s thruster kicked in and launched the pole.

This sent the armed bomb hurtling toward the side of the Irmingard.

Moving faster than the flak curtain could be restarted to stop it.

As soon as she released the improvised rocket, she threw the Cheka into a steep turn. Without being able to detonate it in a controlled fashion from a safe distance, Murati was in immediate danger. She arced away from the Irmingard as quickly as she could and swung toward the Brigand. To escape the blast she needed every possible meter–

Her eyes glanced up at the ERS screen in time to watch the power drain entirely.

Then her cockpit suddenly went pitch black. Murati’s breath caught in her chest.

There was a sudden silence as the whirring of the pumps and turbines pushing water through her machine stopped abruptly. Her body jerked forward slightly and suddenly as water resistance killed her momentum, causing her cockpit to shake briefly. Red, intermittent flashing red within the darkness, indicating auxiliary power. Enough to maintain life support. She was stranded. Stranded in the open water with the bomb about to go off behind her.

Murati freed herself from her seat, crawled to the side of the cockpit and slid open a moveable slit.

There was a periscopic glass viewing pane, through which she could see nothing but water.

Then she saw something flash. That was the bomb– the bomb had gone off.

Her cockpit rumbled as all the water displaced by the blast slammed into her.

What was happening? She could be sinking to the sea floor! Or about to rip apart!

She grit her teeth and grabbed hold of the catches on the wall, repeatedly striking metal as everything around her shook violently. Rolling around on the inside of her own metal coffin, packed in like a canned vegetable.

Her senses almost went as her head struck the metal wall.

Blood dribbled down her face. Her grip started to slack, her wrists overextended.

And yet the cockpit continued to rattle and roll in the maelstrom.

Was she going to die? Was she really going to die like this?

Two distinct impacts tossed her further, one on each side of the cockpit– then she stopped.

She was stable. Rushing her eye to the viewing pane she caught sight of metal.

There was a red flash from it. Was that– a Diver? A Diver igniting a vernier?

Her cockpit shook again–

She felt the Cheka move. Water started rushing around her.

Consistent, purposeful movement.

Someone had rescued her.

With the cockpit stable, she came to settle against the wall. Bloody, battered, isolated.

Falling limp within her “metal coffin,” Murati started to weep into her own arm.

It must have been Shalikova or Lebedova.

Someone rescued her! She would live! She survived– they defeated that Irmingard class.

Unable to see them, unable to thank them, unable to determine who was alive–

What a way to end the battle! All that fire and thunder, and in the end it was all dark, all silent.

But she was alive. And the Brigand was alive. So despite everything, their mission was still alive.

She struck her fist against the metal wall, again and again. Grinding her teeth, weeping her eyes out.

“Messiah defend! Some fucking hero I turned out to be!” Murati shouted, screaming at herself in the dark.


Schicksal’s panicked voice heralded the coming insanity.

“Explosion off the port side! Significant sidepod damage– we’re destabilizing–!”

“God damn it!”

Gertrude would have pounded her fist on her seat but holding on to it was all she could do to keep herself from flying off her chair as the Iron Lady began to list to starboard dramatically, now heavier due to loss of both solid and liquid weight. Inside the Bridge it was pure chaos. Flashing red warning lights, dozens of people shouting at each other all at once, the helm crew struggling to adjust the ship’s weight and right it. As the ship slanted, a few unprepared officers fell back out of their seats and slammed into the nearest station behind them. It was nearly impossible to control the crew in this chaos, but Dreschner shouted himself hoarse at Gertrude’s side, keeping the bridge functional.

“Side hydrojet intakes completely severed! Weight distribution dramatically uneven!”

On the main screen a diagnostic updated, with the breaching and flooding that had been dealt to the sidepod area. Were it not for the Iron Lady’s enormously thick armor even the hangar would be flooding. That was not an ordinary depth charge, it had the kind of destructive power reserved for blast mining charges.

How had Sieglinde let such a thing through to them? Had she even survived?

To think despite every advantage they would lose to these thugs!

“Captain, Inquisitor! The Ludlow is not moving from our starboard!”

Schicksal turned a horrified look to meet Gertrude’s wild eyes and Dreschner’s pallid face.

They were listing toward their remaining Frigate, which was itself struggling to stay afloat.

“Collision imminent!”

Everyone in the Bridge grabbed hold of the closest thing they could.

Only the helm continued working until the last second that they could, struggling to stabilize the ship, but not in time to prevent what the prediction on the main screen showed them. Seconds later, the Iron Lady crashed into the Ludlow, crushing its side fin and caving in the port side of the pressure hull, sending the smaller vessel careening toward the ocean floor. This did relatively light damage to the Iron Lady itself, but it was clear the Ludlow would not survive. By then, the small amount of flooding on the Iron Lady weighed down its stricken side enough to stabilize the ship.

All the while, Gertrude watched the main screen with rage-filled eyes.

That insignificant little hauler and its measly little divers began to flee.

She raised her hand to the screen, nearly giving in to desperate, grief-stricken delusion.

Right in front of her, so close, close enough for her hand to reach. That damnable ship.

“Pandora’s Box. You won’t get away. Not as long as I can chase. Elena–”

Hyperventilating, eyes burning in the prelude to tears.            

Her mind blanking out with fury as she seared the sight of that little ship into her brain.

They had not escaped. They had not gotten away. They couldn’t run.

As long as she was chasing, they would never escape.

“Call for reinforcements! Send it through the encrypted network! As soon as possible!”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked like they could hardly believe her words.

Nevertheless, they set about their tasks as soon as they could. Whoever came could be made useful.

Though the Bridge soon quieted, the tense, erratic energy of the moment never left.

“Send out a drone to chase after Pandora’s Box as soon as the electronics are stable.”

Because Gertrude’s eyes never left the screen; because she never forgot the shadow of her prey.

She was High Inquisitor Lichtenberg, and as long as she was chasing, no one could escape!


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