The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.4]

After Descent, Year 958

In the middle of the Luxembourg School for Girls campus there was a grand square that represented one of the main social areas for the students. Gentle hills served as excellent picnic spots for the girls, and marble-tiled squares with fountains and gazebos offered a variety of backdrops for the cheerful blossoming of the Empire’s up and coming prizes, wives and mothers. At the center of the plaza there was an enormous tree, one of the largest trees in the entire Imbrium. Its wide green crown provided the best shade from the sun lamps.

One fateful day, as war loomed, and internal security worsened–

There was a crowd gathered around the tree–

Watching a dozen girls chain themselves to it, holding hands, standing their ground.

“No more wars! No more slavery! No more trading in blood!”

Hands linked together, old brown-tinged chains around their midsections, dirtying the white and yellow uniforms. Imbrian girls of surpassing tidiness, model students, blond-haired, blue-eyed, it was such an incongruous sight, and such incongruous words came out of their lips, that it felt like the whole school gathered to watch them out of sheer confusion and curiosity. Though they were not particularly famous girls, everyone at Luxembourg was the child of someone with at least some money and influence. If not born to someone like that, then sponsored by someone worthy of the school’s pedigree for a scholarship.

Until that day, those girls had fit into these molds perfectly.

Then they became new creatures entirely.

Around that tree, the girls had organized a protest– they were protesting at the school.

Such things had been easy to ignore in the changing times of the Fueller Reformation. For a time, the new, young Emperor tolerated a new, young culture of free discourse and critique. It was out of this leniency that Mordecai wrote his much-hated words about wealth and power, that the final rhetorical nails drove into the inviolability of increasingly sidelined aristocrats, and that the spectre of Imbrian fascism began to take its purest form.

In those times, even young girls were allowed the occasional foray into counterculture.

In A.D. 958 protest was no longer viewed as a plaything of fiery, modern girls, however.

With the colonies in revolt, Alayze preparing to invade, and conspiracies abounding–

School security ushered away and curfewed all the girls who gathered to watch the protest.

Formed a cordon around the tree and the hill that contained it and raised sound-dampeners.

And dispensed with the rod, opting instead for the full-powered vibrotruncheon.

Hiding on the sidelines of the protest, eyes filled with tears, watching the girls being violently and bodily removed from around the tree with her own eyes– was Gloria Innocence Luxembourg, a waifish, dark-haired, bespectacled young girl for whom everything under and around that tree was meant. Her own little white uniform dirtied with a bit of mud she turned up as she scampered through the park out of sight, wanting with all her heart to see– what she had failed to participate in. To see the consequences of her cowardice.

Yesterday’s bold promises of support for the members of her secret political reading group,

Whom, on that day, she watched the destruction of from afar,

understanding all too keenly it would have been different had she joined the protest–

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she mumbled, as if in time with the beatings.


After Descent, Year 979

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg raised her hand to look into the screen of her high-end computerized watch. Its beveled white and pink chassis was fully customized to her own needs, with a cute, rabbit-like design and little hearts and wings on the wristband. She flicked her finger across the screen, scrolling past several pre-installed, discrete programs and bringing up her favorite and most useful feature of the watch–

“Just got out of bed and made myself up for the day. Feeling wistful. Uncertain.”

Her watch had already logged her mood for 426 prior days at various times of the day.

On the watch display, an analysis appeared–

“Have you had breakfast yet? Hunger brings vulnerability.” It said.

Beaming brightly, Gloria felt a weight off her shoulders. “Of course! Breakfast!”

Of course, breakfast– she was just hungry. No need to trouble herself further.

Once she had breakfast she could simply go about her day without troublesome thoughts.

And it was a big day indeed. She would need all of her faculties in order.

Supposedly, she was on vacation to Aachen, renting out modest lodgings for a quiet retreat.

Aachen was not known as a vacation destination, but nobody could question the boss.

Though Gloria hardly ever boasted about her wealth openly, as it would have been quite a faux pas to her leftist contemporaries, she was a member of an ultra-elite club of recently minted millionaires, and one of the most valuable people in Rhinea, if not the Imbrium.

Raylight Beauty seized a massive untapped market by treating women in all strata of society as customers who to whom they could advertise a wide range of products. Such that anyone could and would want to purchase cosmetics, handbags, underwear, personal care products and even certain supplements, from them, with their logo. Raylight Beauty could hardly be called a megacorporation. Its wealth and influence was a shadow of monopolies like Volwitz and Rhineametalle who wielded political connections in addition to their finances.

However, they had successfully swept away nearly all of their old-fashioned competitors in the women’s goods industry by spending big on modern, chic, female-centric and empowering marketing. They expanded aggressively, capitalizing on initial success in cosmetics to become a juggernaut of women’s and girls’ culture in the Mare Imbrium.

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg became valued in the hundreds of millions of Reichsmarks.

A certain small ship from a certain unnamed country had about three million marks to spend, a tidy sum which allowed them to make up the servicing of a large, complex ship at several stations, pay out hush money, and create walking-around funds for its employees to go on little dates. This amount likely represented a significant percentage of their country’s Imperial Marks holdings, which they held in credichips for various uses. That little ship would soon run out of funds in their adventures; meanwhile Gloria was unlikely to ever run out of money. Her wealth could only grow– so long as her current exploits remained on the low.

Despite all of this, she held herself to a humble standard.

She hired the stingiest and most old-fashioned aristocratic accountant she could find, rather than hiring some noveau riche money management company that might then encourage her to live a millionaire rockstar life of excessive spending. Her spending was modest, with infrequent travel, only a handful of private properties or station investments, relatively few and affordable vices, and few parties outside of luxurious corporate events for her employees. Much of her spending was in lavish donations to worthy causes and agreeable politicians, personal gifts to struggling girls whose stories moved her, and her biggest side-project of the past few years– the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot paramilitary.

Her lodgings in Aachen were located off to the side of the third tier’s high-end commercial facilities, which themselves lay a tier below the government palace. Unlike the offices and small apartments in the external layers of the first and second tiers, the third tier’s spaces for rent were a bit more luxurious, with many triple-wide and quadruple-wide suites.

For her stay in Aachen, Gloria had rented a triple-wide that was about five minutes walk to the commercial district. It was a winged design, with a central room that served as a lobby and entertainment area with couches, tea tables, synthetic carpeting, and a big, dedicated screen; off to the right were a bedroom with a king-size bed and ample storage for clothes and effects, and a bathroom with a large combination shower and bath; off the left there was a large kitchen and dining area as well as a mini laundry room adjoining.

In terms of aesthetics, it was acceptably modern.

Because of the LCD screen-walls and the square LED strips overhead, it was possible to change the room by altering the dominant colors projected, and the couches and other furniture was designed to gently reflect and distort the light to achieve different moods. That morning, Gloria had everything as it was formerly set, a moody, icy blue– as she left the bedroom she quickly shifted the color to a soothing, muted green. The mechanism was well-designed. It varied the shades and strokes of the green to avoid looking too uniform and constructed, preventing the entire room from looking like a continuous colored sheet.

Dressed in a thin white nightgown, her unbrushed pink hair spilling messy down her back and over her shoulders, and looking, in her own estimation, a bit plain without her makeup, Gloria ambled over to the kitchen. Thankfully with her second skin applied, she looked roughly how she wanted to no matter how much or how little effort she put into herself: she appeared to be in her early 20s rather than her mid-30s. Raylight’s cosmetics could do wonders, but there was nothing as effective as a full-body treatment– which Raylight also offered.

She opened touched one of the far walls of the kitchen and a refrigerator door slid open, releasing a cool mist. She shivered a bit. When she rented the place she had requested the kitchen be stocked as she did not wish to shop for food herself. So she found several items inside the fridge already. There were not enough prepared meals for her liking, and she would have liked more greens among her meals. Nevertheless, she procured a milk bag, punctured it with a straw and began to drink from it without reservation, while pushing items around, thumbing through the full inventory to decide what to eat.

Finding a package of cucumber cream salad and another package of chicken breast with cured egg yolk sauce, Gloria had her meal plan for the first half of the day. She took out both packages, unwrapped the chicken from the plastic, and touched the wall beside the refrigerator. A panel slid open to reveal an auto-cooker, entirely set into the wall and controlled digitally. She let it judge how best to cook the packaged chicken meal and it chose to bake, quickly coming up to temperature. It would cook in ten minutes.

Watching the chicken in the auto-cooker, Gloria drank the last of her milk bag and peeled the plastic off the creamy cucumber salad, stirring it around with a fork to redistribute some of the dill and parsley and to spread the mayonnaise and sour cream more evenly. She knew how to cook. Every student at the Luxembourg School for Girls was taught basic living and household skills for their eventual futures. However, like many graduates of the school, she also preferred to have help with this task, and she could afford it.

She nibbled on the cucumber. In the middle of the kitchen, in her night gown, she had not even washed her face, crunching on watery cucumber with creamy dressing. Her mind wandering. It was easy to entertain the cliché– that she was far from home. Far from where she should be. And yet even in this alien city, alone, she could bring with her almost any luxury. Even the luxury of simply doing nothing, but standing in her kitchen, food already cared for, and other affairs soon to be. Gloria was blessed in that way.

Some small part of that felt shameful, but when she thought about all she read in her life–

In her mind, in the socialist world, there would be people who loved to cook and would therefore cook for others. Alongside people like her who disliked this activity and could spend their time more productively if someone else cooked. Everyone would benefit in the end. There were people who were forced to do what they were not meant to, who lacked the opportunity to be what they truly wanted. Such a thing could be abolished, so that the thinkers could think and the cooks could cook. It was such a thing that she was struggling and working for ever since she started her little book club at school. She was not just an idle rich woman. She was well read, and she thought she knew the painful truth of the world.

Yes– she wasn’t just some idle rich woman.

At that moment, there was a buzzing on her wrist.

“I know, I’m letting my mood spiral again–”

When she looked down, it was actually a voice call.

She took it on her watch.

It was one of her security personnel– Orlan Aries. She had been expecting him.

“Ma’am, I am coming up now. The Pandora’s Box is done with their security stuff.” He said.

Gloria, unsmiling on the call, played up her typical affect with her speech.

“Orley! I am sooo happy to hear from you! Did your new friends treat you right?”

“I’d love to complain, but I would not be here without them.”

“That is worth more than a pfenig! So– what’s your voice-call appropriate take on them?”

Orlan sighed a bit on the call.

“I don’t know, ma’am. Let me see. I wish their ship had a smoking area. I don’t really understand why they are all vegetarians. Some of them drink too much and they always drink hard liquor when they do, which is insane to me because they are otherwise really buttoned up about other things. Almost every time when a Shimii is doing something and it’s prayer time they will just stop on the spot and pray even if it is inconvenient. All of them give me more of the vibe of Katarran mercenaries than, you know, people of their persuasions. However, they have an uncanny ability to accomplish the impossible.”

Despite his reticence, he gave a fantastic assessment and performed his role well.

Gloria finally smiled. The ability to accomplish the impossible, huh?

Of course– after all, they had already done something impossible to many people.

They were communists, in this awful world that contradicted them at every turn.

“Did any of them suspect you of anything?” She asked.

Orlan paused for a moment, grumbling a bit.

“I’m sure they must have realized anything I heard and saw would ultimately reach you, but they don’t care. They are not really given into paranoia and it is not like I had access to any classified records. Mostly I stuck to myself and out of their way, just observing. I was fiending for a cigarette the whole time, so I was a bit low energy. I did make friends with one of them– Murati Nakara. A really fascinating lady– she has lots of presence.”

Gloria would have to demand specifics later. “Very well. I can meet you in the early afternoon– the Tier 3 office, Location Karl. All of us will be there to chat, and then we we will move on. I trust you will not be late, Orley, or I will be quite pouty when I see you again. You can meet your own friends and take care of your own business later.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t want you to get pouty ma’am. I’ll see you there.”

Gloria squeezed her wrist to end the call.

Her chicken was ready.

She took the half-eaten cucumber salad and the cured egg yolk chicken to the dining table and sat down to eat. Without Orlan’s voice there was a void of sound in the apartment that felt suddenly eerie. Gloria quickly summoned a bit of light jazz to help buoy her mood and thoughts as she ate. Thinking about what she would do next, what she would say.

She had to decide what she would do about her erstwhile allies.

More than the Eisern Front, it was Erika’s Nationale Volksarmee that worried her, a bit.

Gloria wanted full control of the United Front and everything that happened after.

In her mind, it should be hers because she had real infrastructure and money.

She had ships, she had soldiers, she had hideouts, she had accounts and paid informants, hush money, corporate spies, connections with Rhein-Sieg-Kries union leaders, Stockheim yards and Agri-Sphere activists. While Erika was doing petty banditry, she had been building something in Rhinea, something secret, but big, powerful, usable– Erika was a speck of dust to the Volkisch. But if the Volkisch knew how much power Gloria had, their hearts would have chilled to a stop. All she needed was a bit more to take the fight to them.

But Erika was the fighter, the real fighter. She had killed for the cause. More than once.

In her mind, Erika’s true place, her best place, was as a military leader for the Front.

Gloria wanted Erika to marshal the socialist forces, while she led them politically.

To do this, she had to gently convince Erika of where she was most useful.

And thus gently disabuse her of the little title of Premier she granted herself.

Both the communists and anarchists would be presenting opposing views on organization.

It would not be easy, but she might be able to convince everyone of a third way out of their current predicament– communist officers, leading experienced troops with on-the-ground support from the anarchist rabble, and the social democrats in a council crafting the policy that would win the heart of Eisental. An integrated command playing to their strengths. Each in their place, with their own specialty. In her mind it was the only way the United Front could ever work. In so doing, she might be able to convince Erika to accept the military position, to avoid any further infighting, and thereby temper her ambition.

Gloria would bring the matter up to her mentor, Kansal, who had experience in such things.

She would not carry herself exactly as Kansal wanted– but her experience was valuable.

Everything started to feel a bit more possible as she puzzled it out by herself on the table.

At that moment, her wrist began to buzz again.

There were not many people who could have bothered her then.

She suspected Orlan or Kremina and felt a bit irritated, lifting her watch–

To find the call was instead from Mia Weingarten.

Gloria picked up immediately after.

Grinning ear to ear.

“The pop princess herself! Mia I’m ecstatic you called!” Gloria assumed her perky persona.

“H-Hello, Ms. Luxembourg.” Mia said, her voice a bit hesitant and muted in response.

“No, no! Not Ms. Luxembourg– you can call me Gloria, darling, you know you can!”

“Thank you Ms.– Gloria. I– I’ve been– considering something– if it’s not too much–”

“My dear, don’t be so nervous– my door is always open to you. Always! I can tell you’re frazzled and in need. I’m here for you. How many times have we collabed? Your songs and your image have done so much for me and Raylight. We’re practically a little family by now.”

“Right. Gloria, this time– it could stir up a lot of trouble.” Mia’s voice went near whisper.

“Dear, nothing in the world is trouble to me. Why don’t you come over? We can talk.”

Gloria lifted her long, pale legs onto the table, leaning back on her chair, smiling like a fox.

Mia Weingarten hesitated on the call. Gloria could hear her delicious little voice tremble.

“Yes– I will, ma’am.” She finally said. “I mean– I’ll come by tonight. So we can– talk.”

“Fantastic! Marvelous! My schedule tonight is officially empty. I can’t wait to see you again. Don’t worry your pretty face over anything doll, Gloria Luxembourg will fix it all for you.”

“Yes. Thank you, ma’am. I’ll see you.” Mia Weingarten sheepishly hung up.

Gloria brimmed with anticipation.

Money was the devil; but a good deal was a good deal, and there was no better investment in the world than a pretty girl and whatever made her happy.


Euphrates’ path was an endless desert, each grain of sand the detritus of her experiences.

In her mind, in her dreams, she walked through the desert. It was vast, cold, and dark.

From shutting her eyes to reopening them, the desert was there to welcome her.

Memories, people, events, formed mounds in the sand that she crossed.

Dim recollections serving only as obstacles to her finding peace.

Ever blowing in a distant wind that never stopped, a current rushing perpetually.

Euphrates was a person, a woman, a lesbian, a former subject of the Federation of Northern States and then the hegemonic Aer Federation, and a Jew– but she was so ancient that these words had lost all meaning in themselves. Many of them were buried in time, and nobody whom she told could understand them. But even the ones that remained were eroded in her person. Sometimes she felt that nobody actually saw her as a human, but as a being. She walked, talked, had physical touch, but she could not be truly seen. Nobody existed who could see all of her– though one person tried her very best.

Euphrates hardly understood herself anymore. Were her recollections accurate?

People and locations, ancient scents and sounds, dust kicked off the dunes into her face.

Out of reach, only the barest scraps remaining. So close but still impossible to grasp.

Was this dementia? But her recall of fact and theory did not suffer for this.

Though it frightened her, some part of it also gave her comfort.

Maybe she could die. Maybe one day she would just become unable to think.

But– she had too much to keep living for. So she kept walking her desert, day after day.

It was not just her inner world that was so full and yet so empty either.

In the past, she had viewed the Aether as a predominantly empty place too.

Colorful, and filled with the vague presence of humanity, but without the substance of humanity. There was no sight, and they made no sound, there was nothing to touch. Endless drifting color suggestive of life but without the fullness of it. Perhaps everything was as illusory and devoid of complete truth as that empty world of colors.

Soometimes she even suspected humanity itself to be an empty shell of what it was.

However, something had shifted since Goryk’s Gorge– when she reconnected with people.

Slowly, she began to hear human speech occupying the Aether.

At first, it was the speech of people that she had come to know and perhaps cherish.

Tigris’ words, yes.

But also those of Murati Nakara, Ulyana Korabiskaya, Aaliyah Bashara.

People whose presence made time move for her again.

Perhaps it was because time was moving for her– she soon began to hear new voices.

Voices speaking all at once, from lips she could not see, people she did not know.

Uncaring but not kind– they all spoke at once and never cared for the impropriety.

But what they spoke of, in their voice, one and many, had themes of unity, connection.

Her desert, too, began to feature strange new voices and their singing.

And soon, it even featured more of the past, as if her memory was fertilized by the present.

Her memories, her inner self, became like a forest of enormous trees with silver crowns.

Euphrates walked upon moistened earth, through carbon puddles brimming with life.

Enormous roots framed her path and the trees looked down upon her with the great arms and all-encompassing crowns as if merged with the sky itself. “Looked down upon” but only due to their positions– there was no sense of contempt from the trees. They were filled with love and acceptance; she felt peaceful near them. They wanted her to know–

That they had always loved humanity, despite everything that happened.

That they still believed that humanity deserved to live, deserved to thrive and be free.

Hearing their song, she wanted to curl up at their roots.

It was not to be. Like so much dust, the vision, and its meanings, blew easily away.

Her eyes opened– she saw the olive-brown skin on Tigris’ bare shoulder and back.

Long red hair falling between them. Sound asleep, her breasts barely covered by the sheet.

She was in their shared bed, in their room on the UNX-001 Brigand, docked in Aachen.

Everything was dim, quiet. There was only a thin strip of light from under the door.

Because both of them were fairly thin and fairly short, they fit into one bed comfortably when they wanted. Euphrates’ eyes traced the lines of her companion’s figure in the shadows. They fit perfectly together. Tigris was taller, with her long, red hair and lithe limbs, more driven to physical activity. Euphrates was just a bit more compact and hermitic, a bit softer. Her own shorter blue hair, slightly wavy and swept evenly to the sides of her forehead. Both their faces were rather young-looking and much younger than they truly were. Tigris was perfectly frozen in her early twenties and Euphrates never changed much past twenty or so. Tigris was hundreds of years old now–

Euphrates was over a thousand years old, though the specifics escaped her.

The oldest year she remembered was D.C.E. 2035, when the Ayvartan Union defeated the Federation of Northern States in the War of the Great Continents.

During The Common Era– D.C.E. A long-gone calendar.

After D.C.E. came the Aer Federation reckoning of the years, A.I.

Aera Invicta, the indomitable epoch of a humanity fated to triumph over the stars.

Euphrates did not recall exactly when D.C.E. transitioned to A.I., however.

And now, the reckoning was A.D. — After Descent.

Now– the present was ever more taking prominence over the distant past.

There were no more stars for humanity. Only the merciful firmament of the ocean.

Nevertheless, they lived on.

Scarcely a day had passed since the Brigand had arrived at Aachen.

A sudden mood had taken Euphrates and her partner.

Euphrates had her arms around Tigris. One hooked under her chest, another over the hip.

Her fingers had been reaching between Tigris’ legs. They felt tempted to do so again, even.

The two of them worked up the mood and had sex– not too boisterously, but they did.

Enough to satisfy an urge for physical fulfillment that became rarer as the years passed.

Though perhaps they did not have that appearance to others, the two of them were a couple. Tigris was frequently critical of her, but Euphrates loved her like no one else in the world. Sometimes, Tigris was the sole proof Euphrates still had a body and emotions.

Long, long weeks and months and even years studying and theorizing and building and exploring in the darkest holes on Aer, inconclusive journeys in a frozen world that suffered nothing new to arise. Even in their stays in the labs they were cloistered. They were each other’s only source of stimulus, and yet, it was a rare occasion for them to share a bed, to touch, to hold each other, and even to muster the desire for sexual activity.

Perhaps, because their time was moving again, their bodies recalled their desires.

Euphrates pulled closer to Tigris again, who shifted slightly but remained asleep.

She kissed her gently on her nape. She felt her body heat, so close, so comforting.

Sometimes it didn’t feel real.

When Euphrates was a child, the world was locked in a hellish war.

Federation of Northern States troops, retreating from the invasion of their hated Ayvartan enemy, found her in a puddle of poisoned water in the aftermath of a scorched-earth chemical bombardment by heavy aircraft hoping deny the Ayvartans a minor village full of displaced people– including a few desperate jews in hiding. Perplexed at her ability to survive such a condition, they took her, and so began her confinement of innumerable years. Studied, used, a nameless subject from which information was extracted. Off her literal back, off her literal flesh, revolutionary biological research flourished around the world.

Her greatest fear was that she was still actually back in the laboratory, lost in delusions.

Sometimes she lacked any evidence to the contrary.

It was something she could tell nobody. Nobody would ever understand it.

Recently, she had found some evidence, however, that did much to put her mind at ease.

Norn’s mutilation that inflicted a terrifying agony upon her, like no pain she had ever felt.

Murati’s connection to her, which shared with her such warmth and determination.

Tigris’ heat and the cute little noises she made when they had sex that night.

Such things were not experiences she had as a little girl locked away forever in the dark.

She could only have these experiences because she was free, and her time was moving.

Her stultifying years in a glass cell could have never realized this vivid world.

“Mm. You’re doing stuff back there. Go back to sleep.”

Tigris mumbled, and slowly nestled her back closer to Euphrates’ chest.

Euphrates held her tight again. Whispered in her ear. “I love you.”

“What’s gotten into you?” Tigris muttered. “I love you too. Go to sleep already.”

Nestled together as they were, Euphrates found that sleep soon came into reach.

Next morning, the two of them slowly peeled away from each other and got dressed.

They had somewhere to be that day, and so they were both dressed similarly for once.

Euphrates was often the one wearing a vest, blazer, button-down and tie. Her basic state of being was formal, so she dressed formally, sometimes jokingly called a young master by the sailors; Tigris meanwhile was more used to work attire and made a face the entire time as Euphrates helped her button her old brown checkerboard sportcoat and properly set her tie. While Euphrates wore pants, Tigris opted for a knee-length skirt and bright red tights.

“We’re Ganges’ peers, do we really have to dress up like this?” Tigris asked.

“She’s in charge of an organization, so we should show her some respect.” Euphrates said.

“And what if she’s been a bastard this whole time? Will you still respect her in the end?”

“Let me be the one to show disrespect when the time comes. Can you promise me that?”

“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. You do the talking– but then why are you dragging me along?”

Euphrates smiled. “Because you are my inseparable partner-in-crime, obviously.”

Tigris averted her gaze and sighed and allowed her tie to be adjusted.

Euphrates felt a disquiet about her meeting with Daksha Kansal–

But it briefly dissipated when she stepped out of her room.

Instantly they were greeted by the main hall of the Brigand. Even when the ship was docked, there were still dozens of souls in the hall at any given time, smiling and waving to and from their business. Always courteous, driven by the animus afforded by their work and their overarching objective. Sailors undid panels to get at wires and junction boxes; logistics and managerial troops took up meeting rooms and discussed planning, supplies and efficiencies; Aiden Ahwalia cleaned the halls with a sour look on his face, recently demoted.

Euphrates sometimes stood for a moment and simply watched the people of the Brigand move about the hall, independently of her, each their own life so little and so vast.

She had been away from people just living their lives, for far too long.

“Hey, snap out of it, we’re going to be late. I’ve got stuff to do around here you know?”

Tigris put her hands on her lips and grumbled. Euphrates snapped out of her reverie.

“I’m sure Galina and Valya can survive a day without you.” She said.

“It’s not about that. Doesn’t seeing how hard these people work make you feel something?”

Euphrates smiled. “It does.” She said– and got started walking down the hall.

Tigris stared at her for a moment before following closely behind.

Everyone on the Brigand revitalized her outlook on life.

Or perhaps, they reminded her of an outlook she had, long ago when she treasured time.

On the Brigand, everyone believed in something unimaginable to most of the world.

That they could fight to liberate people from violence and deprivation.

Not just that they could throw away their lives against enormous, massive foes–

–but that they could possibly win.

Murati Nakara in particularly believed this with such fervor it made Euphrates feel shame.

How could anyone stand to be around that woman, who believed any less than her?

Slowly, her determination became too infectious. Who was the pupil, and who the teacher?

Now Euphrates could not help but to believe anew in possibility. In a hope for change.

So she had to do her own part to contribute. She could no longer simply observe.

There were people she had to take responsibility for– one ahead, specifically.

Down in the hangar, Euphrates and Tigris went through the boarding chute, checking out with Van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian, who were keeping track of everyone who was out and their destinations. They stepped through the boarding chute, and out the other end, entered the Stockheim port infrastructure. Behind them there were enormous projections on the walls, false windows revealing the dozens of ships docked in the berths around them.

Ships of various shapes and sizes, classes and purposes, all occupying this one interstitial piece of mechanical connective tissue. Their neighbors even included the Antenora, flagship of a certain Norn von Fueller. Euphrates looked at the vessel and resisted the idea that she could talk to Norn about what happened and convince her of anything.

Euphrates had hurt her– even more than hurt her, Euphrates exposed her to completely life-altering circumstances. She had saved her, perhaps, but she had also exposed her to ruin. Though there was inside her a voice that felt it was cowardly to turn her back on Norn, at the moment, Norn was stable enough not to pointlessly attack the Brigand. That was enough. Euphrates felt that the best thing she could do for her was to stay way from her.

And to avoid making the same mistake and having the same regrets now.

For example– with Murati Nakara.

“So where are we meeting Ganges?” Tigris asked.

Euphrates stopped in front of a nearby map board and pointed at their destination.

“A fundraising office for a Rhinean NGO, Kamma. She has some kind of ties to it.”

“Huh. I wonder if she completely gave up on the College of Neurosurgeons?”

“I think that Ganges had already given up on our projects for a very, very long time.”

Given what Euphrates knew about Ganges’ trajectory after leaving them; and that Kremina, who always lavished her with attention, was the only remnant of the Sunlight Foundation who remained at Ganges’ side; it was safe to assume she had divested herself of her old projects within the Foundation’s umbrella. Not that it mattered much– at this point, Solarflare LLC was not going to play any part in the Sunlight Foundation’s future, whatever that might be. If the only hard assets the Foundation retained were those that belonged to Yangtze and Potomac, then the organization was essentially a shell of itself. She had heard nothing from Nile or Hudson for many months now, so that, too, felt like a safe assumption. All that remained in the hands of Yangtze was the Indigo Research Institute.

That which Euphrates had built, and then carelessly handed to Yangtze, had turned to dust.

Part of her felt relief, though she did not know what Hudson and Nile were doing.

Nile, at least, was always disinterested in power, though she could also be overzealous when something other than power managed to capture her interest. Euphrates did not want to absolve her of suspicions without any evidence, much like she did not wish to suspect too much about Yangtze. But it was a rather safe bet that Nile was not carrying out some megalomaniacal ambition. Hudson, on the other hand, had always been a much less kind and caring individual, and could be downright callous in her pursuit of her own obsessions. It was easier to say Nile was harmless than to say the same for Hudson.

Regardless, if the Sunlight Foundation was utterly broken up, so be it.

At least its individual members had much less power to damage the world when separated.

“Euphrates, what will you even say to Ganges?” Tigris asked, as they made their way.

“I want to hear it from her what she has done and what she intends to do.” Euphrates said.

“We know enough, don’t we? She’s gallivanting around starting leftist movements.”

“I’m worried because of Kremina’s behavior– but also, the fact that she founded the Union and then left it, and has now founded a new group, it is concerning to me. Especially because I know what her immortality entails. I need to hear it from her– to see her intentions for myself. I need to judge her for myself. Only then can I be sure of what I will do.”

Tigris sighed. “Will you flip out if you detect some incongruity then?”

“I do not flip out. I will take responsibility for her, simple as that.” Euphrates said.

“Responsibility, huh?” Tigris said, letting out an even more exasperated sigh.

From Stockheim, the pair traveled up to the commercial district, past the second tier with its workplace buildings and the Volkisch Gau office, and up to the third tier. The center of the third tier resembled the first tier, with a grand atrium surrounded by circling paths that traversed several storefronts. Everything was higher end however; the restaurants had formal dress codes; the bars were not playing any sports or catering to the lunch crowd; even the corporate shops were populated only by the most expensive and exclusive subsidiaries of the megacorporations, such as Raylight’s Lucent Frau accessory shops and Rhineametalle’s Rare Earth electronics boutiques. Their destination was not any of the shops, however. Much like in the first tier, the surrounding areas beyond the walls of the shops were individual office and apartment units that were leased and rented privately.

Rather than climb the steps, Euphrates and Tigris took a long hallway to the leftmost wing of the station’s third tier. Here, space contracted, the ceiling was no longer almost a hundred meters above, and there were no grand and open landings and lobbies. Though the halls were well lit and projecting a bright paint job that made them look more inviting, they were still just steel halls and anything of note within them was behind a door. There were many doors, some labeled, some not. Euphrates wondered whether anyone minded that their lux triple-wide shared the same hall as a publicity agency for classic musicians, or other assorted private venues. She supposed not, if the walls were soundproof.

Every door was its own fortress. After a dozen turns, Euphrates found hers.

On the door, there was a logo, a half-white, half-black diamond made of knotted lines.

“I wonder where they got this from?” Tigris said.

“It’s a very ancient religious symbol, representing karma.” Euphrates said.

“How ancient are we talking?”

“Like everything down here, it’s so far removed now that its origin is meaningless.”

“Damn it, if you’re going to mention it’s so ancient, you should be ready with a number!”

Past the door, the same symbol was on every wall, as well as on boxes of pins and shirts and flags, likely for distribution to potential donors. This was a fundraising office for Kamma, an NGO that mainly distributed food and necessities to the needy– and also served as a front for some of the officers and advisors of the Reichbanner Schwarzrot.

Aside from the boxes of promotional goods stacked around the lobby, there were a few perfunctory chairs and a front desk attended by a young woman.

“Hello. Euphemia Rontgen. I have an appointment with Ms. Bhose.”

Ganges’ cover identity had put a meeting on the books with Euphrates’ cover identity.

“Thank you kindly, Ms. Rontgen. She is waiting for you. Left-hand door in the back.”

“Thank you.”

Euphrates and Tigris passed the desk and took the door they were instructed to take.

Inside was a small landing leading into the meeting room proper.

The larger portion of the room sat behind a sealable bulletproof and soundproof glass door. There was a long table and a presentation space adjacent, with enough empty floor space for a podium or a small stage to be erected. However, there was only a whiteboard on the wall instead. On the landing, just past the door, there was a minibar with a minifridge, disposable cups and a coffee machine, and a few unopened champagne bottles.

At the far end, Ganges, Daksha Kansal, stood alone, writing on the whiteboard.

“Come in and close the door behind you.” She said.

Tigris looked to Euphrates, silently requesting instruction.

Euphrates simply nodded and squeezed her hand briefly.

Together, they crossed into the meeting room proper and closed the glass behind them.

They joined Ganges at the head of room, looking at her scribbles on the white board.

“It’s nothing. I’m just messing around.” Ganges said.

She turned around from the board to meet them.

There were names on the board, some of which Euphrates recognized.

“Trying to remember the names of the United Front delegates?” Euphrates asked.

“I’m not that good with names.” Ganges said.

Euphrates was not sure if Ganges had aged or if she herself just never paid attention to how Ganges looked originally or whether her constitution ever changed across the years. In her mind, Ganges looked how she always had. Long, brown hair falling down her back, straight and a little bit stiff, but nicely glossy; dressed in a coat and turtleneck with comfortable pants and dress shoes, looking like a different flavor of ‘professor’ than Euphrates’ own buttoned-up appearance. Her face had some slight wrinkling, particularly around the eyes, but she still looked infinitely younger than she was, still radiating an earthy, strong beauty, a modern sort of handsomeness for a woman. She looked like a revolutionary.

Unlike Euphrates, whose time had frozen as an unformidable young adult, and who despite her years remained so, Ganges always looked like Euphrates wanted her to, perhaps. Like a mature woman who had drives and ambitions and solutions, who had shoulders that could bear weight. Ganges had been the first injection of hot, living blood into the Sunlight Foundation. She was the third member– after Euphrates and Yangtze formally began to toy with fate. Tigris was almost a hundred years later. Potomac, Nile and Hudson were relatively recent. The full roster of Immortals that Euphrates had become comfortable with– they had assembled– when was it–? Some time in 600 or perhaps 700 A.D.?

Maybe even 856 when the Nocht Dynasty truly began its spectacular collapse?

Obviously, the full membership had to have been in place before the 930s.

The Fueller Reformation– Mehmed’s Jihad– Norn– Project Deicide–

For those events, Nile, Hudson and Potomac were obviously very well established.

Amur was a full Immortal also. And they were trialing Tarim and Dniepr.

Euphrates could not properly remember the exact date– it ceased to matter to her.

“Greetings. I wish I could say I was looking forward to this but I have a pit in my stomach. Euphrates, I do not wish to be discourteous, but I do not want to have a debate with you. When Kremina suggested I tap Solarflare for help, I did not know that your position had become so complicated. Especially your relations with some troublesome company from my old country. I know you did not have a hand in their treatment of Kremina, and that it was mostly her own fault what happened, but I am still quite displeased by the affair. Union folks owe the two of us more respect than that.” Ganges said, hands in her coat pockets.

She then turned and waved to Tigris with a small smile. “Tigris, pleasure to see you again.”

Tigris waved half-heartedly; clearly annoyed Ganges addressed her so casually.

“I don’t feel the same way.” Euphrates said, smiling. “I want to be glad to see you again.”

“You want to be, but you’re not. You are just like me in that regard and you know it. I also wish I could be happy seeing my old friends, but then again, in my heart of hearts, as any woman does, I also wish for a pony, and for faeries to be real. Alas, none of those things are true or available in the real world. Living in reality, I solely want to placate you so that I might carry on my business unmolested. So, let’s do it. Grill me and then go away.”

“Fine. Do you know what Yangtze has been up to?” Euphrates asked suddenly.

Ganges breathed out, sounding slightly disgruntled.

“No, and I do not care. Yangtze is dead to me. I do not care about the Sunlight Foundation, Euphrates, which is why I left it over thirty years ago. It is you who cannot let it go. I tolerated your continued attempts to insert yourself into my affairs after I left out of fondness for you– I thank you for what little assistance you rendered to the Nakaras, by the way, and for trying to keep their memory alive even despite your principled inaction.”

“You’re welcome.” Euphrates said calmly.

“I can’t even believe you sometimes.” Ganges said.

“You’re not the only one.” Tigris grumbled.

“My vexatious presence aside. What have you been up to, Ganges?” Euphrates said.

“Trying to make the world a better place after untold years of twiddling my thumbs. Trying to make up for everything I did. Trying to find solutions. You would not understand.”

“I can hardly imagine letting Kremina go wild with conspiracies is helping. You said Union folks owe you more respect than my associates have shown.” Euphrates said. “That elides a foul level of conceit that I knew you possessed toward such things as physical contests, in the past. But I had hoped your affairs as a leader would be free of such arrogance.”

“No, Euphrates, I’ll never change on the inside, I’m too old, just like you.” Ganges said. “And setting Kremina aside, where do you get off on accusing me of being arrogant, or criticizing my approaches, when you have been taken by the most colossal arrogance on Aer yourself? Professor ‘I want to return the world to the surface’ over here? Compared to your arrogance in that project, my arrogance in founding movements and nations is minuscule.”

“You got me there. Nevertheless, if I don’t criticize you, nobody will. So here I am.”

Euphrates put on a collected front, but she was growing quite worried.

Ganges was always a bit rough around the edges.

She always liked to boast and wanted to challenge herself, and made rash decisions.

But she was not as self-centered before as she seemed now.

Ganges sighed openly, crossed her arms, and addressed Euphrates more seriously.

“My handiwork is beyond your criticism, Euphrates. There is an entire boat of people you have been rubbing shoulders with who would not be alive now without my Union. You want to know the truth? The Union was supposed to be the home of the freest people on Aer and the vessel for my redemption of humanity, for the prevention of our near extinction; but after four years of rulership, much like you, Euphrates, I stepped away from what I created and handed it to the stewardship of my pupils. I thought that was just and that it was necessary. But on my last day in the Union, my outlook changed. Like you have Yangtze, I’m afraid I have Bhavani Jayasankar. So just as you must be thinking of a solution to the problems you have created, I, too, am trying to find solutions. To atone for everything I have done in life, I have to make sure that the Imbrium achieves lasting freedom.”

“May I ask you to elaborate about this problem and its solution?” Euphrates asked.

Ganges grunted, annoyed at the continued interrogation. “You can ask, and I suppose I will humor you. I used to think a single, Imbria-wide left-wing entity could solve the inequality and violence of the Imbrian Empire and thereby preserve humanity, creating a long-lasting shelter and building our resilience. But after seeing the sort of personalities that abounded in the Union, and the difficulties it would have developing right, I decided that the Imbrium needs multiple sovereign leftist states acting in coalition. Something to check the power of people like Bhavani Jayansankar while still pursuing a broadly leftist agenda.”

“Bhavani Jayasankar was your student, Ganges.” Euphrates said. “She is a communist just like you. Now you are traveling the Imbrium to find someone who can ‘check her’?”

“You do not understand, Euphrates. Bhavani can say she is a communist all she wants. I have seen the depths of her actual heart and I know she is a demented securocrat. I never taught her to be this way, but the seed of her wanton militancy grew regardless. She is exactly the problem that humanity is facing, the avatar of our extinction. Free food, housing, education; she gives these things to people because she sees them as her barracked soldiers, not out of her sense of justice. I did not teach her well, that is evident: and just like you, Euphrates, who have decided to interfere with the affairs of your ‘students’ if you are sufficiently dissatisfied with them– I will do everything I can to prevent her wasteful forever-war on the world from occurring. That is part of my atonement to the world. Are you any different from me?”

Euphrates bristled. They were not the same. Because the scale was quite different.

However much Ganges personally disliked Jayasankar, the Union was a sovereign nation.

Daksha Kansal had founded a state that people relied upon for their lives.

While Yangtze, and the Sunlight Foundation, were a clique of scientific gatekeepers.

Lives and the stability of the world were not at stake purely in their decisions.

It was this separation that Euphrates hoped to maintain by preventing their interference in politics. But she failed, nonetheless. Yangtze was doing God-only-knew-what with all of the resources Euphrates abdicated to her– and here was Ganges, founding and abandoning her own political movements. Declaring them failures, setting them against each other like game pieces. They had taken their manipulation of scientific study and applied it to politics.

Worse, Ganges had convinced herself that she was saving humanity.

Just as Euphrates once had–

“Ganges, have you interfered with the Union’s politics since you left them?”

“Not as much as you might think. Whatever happens– it will be mostly Bhavani’s fault.”

“You must feel betrayed, then, that Buren is happily joining the Union.”

Now it was Ganges’ turn to bristle at Euphrates’ words, and what she had come to learn.

“Whatever you want to accuse me of, you yourself should see– the fact that Buren is developing according to erroneous principles, is because I let them choose. They are still their own sovereign nation, as you so put it, and their nationalism is strong enough that Bhavani cannot subvert them. So I am perfectly fine with what happened in Buren.”

There was no rhetoric that could hide the unseemly fact– Euphrates was having her worst fears confirmed before her very eyes. She wished that Ganges’ activism was something that was wholly altruistic, that she was seeding leftist movements across the Imbrium like a folk tale character, planting trees of liberation without agenda. And perhaps, she was doing so– the Union folks certainly still believed this to be the case. Her rhetoric that she was preventing human extinction elided to some selflessness. However, Euphrates feared that Ganges’ personal vitriol and arrogance would color the ultimate outcome. Systems had the results that they were designed for. If the Union became an ultramilitant and destabilizing power, it was because Ganges’ designs led to such destabilizing outcomes.

Much like Euphrates had to accept her failure for the Sunlight Foundation’s design.

Could Ganges herself see that? Or was she too close to the matter?

Ganges kept comparing the two of them, but Ganges looked too much like Yangtze.

Pursuing an obsession while claiming to be exclusively rational every step of the way.

Others might have fallen for her rhetoric, like Kremina– Euphrates could not.

She clenched her fists. The more she thought about it the angrier she became.

“The people of the Union still trust you. Respect you. Admire you, even.”

Ganges grunted. She spoke with a distant tone.

“They are entirely separable from Bhavani Jayasankar. I truly cherish how they feel about me. I still have contact with another of my students, Parvati Nagavanshi, from time to time, to coordinate certain useful things. She has been a fantastic help to me. But I also think she is a wasteful, violent lunatic and an egotist. If Bhavani ever falls she will fall with her. Do not overvalue their respect. It does not change that they developed incorrectly and that the course must be corrected in order for the Imbrium to last any further than this crisis.”

Euphrates held the cold gaze of her counterpart.

“Do you not feel that you might owe something more than that to Murati Nakara, Ganges?”

Bringing up that name brought up so much emotion in Euphrates.

Across from her, Ganges had no reaction to it. It was stark how neutral her expression was.

“No Euphrates, I saw to Murati Nakara a long time ago. I am sure that Bhavani and Parvati have indulged her fantasies of being a little soldier and she is doing fine. Do you want me to personally apologize to every dead revolutionary? This is ridiculous.”

Not even Murati–? Not even the girl whose parents she radicalized?

Euphrates had had enough of it. She could not tolerate this conversation anymore.

It hurt– it hurt, and it made her mad. All of this was her own fault, and it was mortifying.

Perhaps this is how Ganges felt toward Bhavani Jayasankar too. Hurt and angry.

Despite the irrationality behind it, the emotion, Euphrates could not help herself.

It had been so long since her heart beat so hot and so aggravated, so full of vinegar.

“Ganges. Do you still think you could win in a fight against me?”

Tigris glanced sideways at Euphrates in clear confusion.

“Euphrates, what is this about? Of course I can– but that’s besides the point.” Ganges said.

Without elucidating, Euphrates raised her hands up in a fighting stance.

“You’re joking.” Ganges said, incredulous, mouth slightly agape.

No word from Euphrates. Her eyes fixed Ganges’ own. Her hands did not move down.

Ganges grunted. She shut her eyes and looked at the ground. Frustrated.

“Is this what you came all this way for? To insult, accuse and then challenge me?”

“To teach you a lesson? You made me realize I owed you this.” Euphrates finally said.

“You are starting to really, truly, piss me off Euphrates.” Ganges said.

Tigris looked between the two of them, nervous, but not intervening.

Keeping her promise– whatever happened, she was letting Euphrates have it out.

“You’re pissed, you say? Then try to take it out on me. You’ve threatened to do it before.”

“I was joking. I never meant it like that. God damn it, I have never wanted to hurt you!”

Euphrates held her steel-like gaze on Ganges. “You won’t, don’t worry.”

“You’re really irritating. You’re so irritating. No matter what– you always find a way–”

“I realize I’ve been very selfish, all of my life. It’s high time I gave you something back.”

Ganges shifted her narrowed gaze. “Tigris, get her to stop, before I knock her down.”

Tigris said nothing. She crossed her arms and stepped aside as if to give them both space.

Her face was full of mournfulness and fear– Euphrates felt regret only for that much.

So many people had gotten stuck in the middle of her failures, for so long. For too long.

“Prove to me everything will go as you plan. Put your pride on the line.” Euphrates said.

“This is– I’m– Fine.” Ganges sighed. “You know what? Fine. Alright. You wanted this.”

Ganges slowly brought her fists up.

One dyed blue, one dyed red, both easily imbued with her flickering aura, still her natural stance after so long. With her red fist, her striking power was augmented by her wrathful aura, while her blue fist could weaken any blows with its languid, peaceful aura.

Tigris looked quite frustrated with the two of them but said nothing.

Standing beside two women in dowdy, collegiate attire with their fists up.

Sizing each other up.

Ganges, of course, moved first. Perhaps knowing Euphrates was not the type.

Perhaps wanting to decide the contest with the first move, as always.

Just like when she left the Sunlight Foundation, one day, without warning, without word.

Euphrates watched the red fist hurtling her way.

In that instant her own power swelled in response to Ganges’ attack.

Her mind lit afire with a wave of memories, cold and warm, sweet and harsh. Her biological family in a war-torn world, hated and persecuted but trying to cherish every day until a chemical bomb took all their days from them; then the confines of institutes and research sites and medical facilities, unbearable pain, and the naïve elation when the first of the doctors to ever speak to the ‘test subject’ told her that her life would save so many people; and then, under the rotting purple sky, striking the earth with hateful thunderbolts that erased whatever they struck, freed at last and smelling the air outside, with so few possessions but the clothes on her back and her ticket out of one world and into the next. Witnessing humanity’s final sin as one of the few who would live.

Then– Yangtze, the age of ignorance, trying to save the little knowledge that they could.

Azazel’s Empire, and the dark stability of its time. Ganges, the conspiracy, renewed hope.

Tigris– the love of her life. Her first reminder after many years– that she was still human.

Euphrates felt her heart swell and tear, bleed and weep, with emotions like she never felt.

Hearing, in her ears, in that instant, whispers of dozens of human voices together in song.

Something enormous watched her. It whispered to her the inscrutable echoes of humanity.

One small, weak, pure white hand met the furious red fist and turned it aside in an instant.

And a wave of pure white sublimity threw back Ganges and slammed her to the ground.

Her aura that should have blunted such strikes shredded like paper, scattering about her.

Euphrates practically leaped forward, suddenly overcome by her own insatiable grief.

Falling on top of Ganges, laying hands on her, holding her to the ground and weeping.

“What did you even learn from me, Ganges? Tell me! All those years! What was it for?”

Ganges tried to take Euphrates’ wrist but could not budge her, could not escape her.

“You’re condemning me without even seeing the results!” Ganges cried. “You are basing everything on your useless ethicality! I’ve accomplished more than you ever have! You do not understand anything! I am atoning for hundreds of years of inaction! I am desperate!”

“Do you really think you have atoned for anything, referring to oppressed people who admired you, followed you, trusted you– like they were undercooked experiments in a beaker?” Euphrates’ voice raised, higher than she had ever spoken, it had been so long since she shouted, that it broke– nevertheless she continued to shout. “Atonement, your atonement– is it all about you then, Ganges? Are all our fates only in your hands? I was so blind– not just about Yangtze, but about you. This wasn’t just about Mehmed or Norn– I created a machine that desensitized all of you to the human world. That’s what the Sunlight Foundation ultimately became. I can’t believe it’s only just now I realize how insane we all were– the surface was as full of horrors as the civilization here is full of its own dignity and beauty! What were we hoping to achieve? What are you, Ganges, hoping to achieve here? Will you abandon Gloria Luxembourg like you abandoned Bhavani Jayasankar if you deem her to develop wrong? Will she also become nothing to you but a failed experiment?!”

Euphrates shouted, putting her hands on Ganges’ shoulders and squeezing the fabric of her sweater, lifting her, banging her against the floor once with an anger she had not felt in hundreds of years, maybe thousands of years. How long ago had she given up on herself, given up banging the glass of her enclosure even after she was released from it? How long ago had she consigned herself to watching through the glass and doing nothing?

How long ago had she cut herself off from everything?

“I cannot afford to fail!” Ganges screamed back. “If she is not cut out for it then yes! I will find a more suitable candidate! I must do this, Euphrates, because nobody else is willing! You and I cannot save this world but someone must! We have to create the conditions for that! We have to do this ruthlessly! Otherwise humanity is as good as dead on our account!”

Euphrates could hardly stand to listen to her.

“Whatever happened to your ideas about human connection? About the aether? About the psychic connections between our brains? About the current that was becoming stronger between all of us, connecting us? What happened to us, Ganges? Why did we cause so much harm when we knew, demonstrably– we discovered something so beautiful.”

“Reality happened to us!” Ganges shouted. “Material reality! Not just our little fantasies!”

Hearing her shout back so loudly, Euphrates paused in her hopeless assault.

Ganges, laying on the floor, shut her eyes and breathed in ragged. Defeated– hurt.

“Euphrates, please stop knocking me about. You’re hurting me. I’m not young anymore. You do not understand. You cannot. Because you will be fine no matter what happens. You will live to see all of our mistakes. I pity you– I really do. But I have to use my time wisely.”

Euphrates drew her eyes wide. Her heart sank suddenly. “You gave up your immortality?”

“Yes. Do you see then? Do you understand I’m sacrificing everything for this? Do you understand why the personal feelings of Gloria Luxembourg or Bhavani Jayasankar do not matter? I gave up my immortality because I needed to understand that time is running out. I needed to humble myself and I needed to pay a price for my inaction.”

That was not enough. It was not enough as much as Euphrates wished she could accept it.

One of her few precious people who could have shared the eras with her–

Someday her friend would die– but she would die a person Euphrates could no longer love.

No matter how desperate she was, it did not atone for anything.

“Ganges, it doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t redeem it, that you’ve made yourself suffer personally for it, that you’ve inconvenienced yourself. That doesn’t set right what you are trying to do to these people and the lengths you say you are willing to go. Ganges, I’ve been with those people you claim did not develop correctly. The people that you discarded. They are sacrificing everything too even if you do not care about their ends. It is not about sacrifice– it’s about what we did with that sacrifice. I don’t have faith in you. Whatever you were scheming to do with Gloria, and with them– I won’t allow it to pass easily.”

Euphrates lifted her hands from Ganges. Eyes filled with tears– pathetic, helpless tears.

“I don’t need your faith. I get the message. You’ll crush me like a bug if I interfere too much. There is nothing I can do about that. You have me in your grasp now, the only true immortal. Fine. I’ll tell you this: I will stay out of Gloria’s way– she will succeed or fail on her own merits, and so will the United Front. Perhaps Kremina and I were not so different. Damn it all.”

Ganges looked so tired and so weary of it all. Drained from all the shouting.

Euphrates was in so much pain, such consuming pain. She had loved them all so much.

None of these events had transpired how she wanted. None of it had been fair.

Loved them too much, became too blinded by her love, and now lashed out because of it.

This awful scene she had caused was worthless. It would do nothing. It was irrational.

All of this was her fault. She had been so ignorant. She had been so self-deluded.

Willfully, convincing herself every step of the way. Everything is fine, everything is correct.

What we are doing, nobody can do, and it is necessary. Everything is necessary.

Because it is us– because it is these people whom we love and trust– therefore it is right?!

Because I like to work with them– because I want them to succeed– it was all fine then?!

It was all crashing continuously over her shoulders, heavy water beating her to the floor.

Her fantasy of ‘saving the world’ was completely at an end. She was just another human.

And the people she loved sharing every moment of that cruel fantasy would be gone too.

Because they had become just like her– pursuing their own delusions.

“Euphrates, please get off me and leave. You got your way. It’s done. I am done.”

Ganges was practically mumbling, unable to meet Euphrates’ eyes.

Finally, Tigris stepped forward and gently took Euphrates’s arms, urging her to move.

Euphrates raised her sleeve to wipe her own tears.

Allowing Tigris to help her to a stand, she turned her back and kept walking.

Out of the meeting room door, Ganges disappearing behind her–

Through the front door–

Out into the third tier commercial district–

“Euphrates, where are we going now?” Tigris asked.

Euphrates did not answer.

In her mind, she was just walking through more of the dust of something once dear.

Climbing those dunes over and over again, that desert of her infinite unreachable memories.

Every grain of sand was sharpened into deadly glass. Scraping, cutting, bleeding her.

Her heart hurt and she did not want to talk, and she did not want to stop walking.

Until, in some nondescript meaningless hallway where she had no right to be–

Euphrates simply broke down crying against a wall, letting all the ugliness out.

And Tigris, at her side, simply watched, and consoled her, held her– and cried with her.


“Bah! What we have here is the finest fighting force for liberation in this damned Imbrium Ocean! If the statists just can’t see that for themselves, then that’s their problem! I am not expecting much here, but maybe we can convince some of them to see reason, ha ha!”

An old rusty barrel belched fire and smoke toward the rocky ceiling, where it was promptly sucked up by old struggling oxycyclers that allowed the old shafts to remain semi-habitable. Aside from the smell of burning in the thin air, there was the rattling sound of the oxycyclers, and the rough floor and walls, and a biting cold. Unwelcoming sensations.

Oil and combustible pellets had been set ablaze in the barrel to confer some warmth, and there were many such barrels. Arrayed around them were bedrolls and tents and boxes of food and equipment. A multitude of figures huddled around them, hidden in black hoodies with thick work gloves to protect their hands from the chill. Most of them were masked up and wore shaded glasses or visors and those who were not, stuck out immediately.

Of the anarchist movement’s visible faces, the most obvious was Taras Moravskyi.

Loudly shouting and boasting without filter even under these dim circumstances.

He was the leader of the “Anti-Authoritarian Volunteer Brigade,” one of the arrows of the Eisern Front. Out of everyone assembled, Moravskyi certainly looked the most warlike. He was a tall and wide individual, with an enormous chest and shoulders and a strong back, thick arms, a square jaw warped by a scar. His laugh was sonorous and deep. He wore a heavy beard, cropped his hair, and wore a thick black trenchcoat that he modified with strips of red synthetic fabric, as if his own political armbands. Nobody in the Eisern Front wore any uniforms, but Moravskyi’s trenchcoat came the closest to representing them.

“Of course, we have some fine cadre assembled here, Comrade Moravskyi. But you see, I still don’t ascribe any particular importance to this event. It is likely to be dominated by the statists as any such event. Whether or not it succeeds, we know that the struggle will continue. So I believe there is little need to compromise or accept odious ideas, nor to proselytize overmuch. Of course, I will still support your endeavors as our delegate.”

Sitting on a bedroll on the floor next to the barrel, across from Moravskyi, was a woman with a soft smile and a gentle face who seemed out of place amid all the hooded heads. She too wore a long black coat, but she wore it over a long dress, its blue skirt section and white button-down top with a black and red ribbon giving her the silhouette of a modest school teacher, perhaps from Luxembourg itself. Her only visible sign of an anarchist’s typical unruliness was her long hair, which had been died a dark, glossy red but had clear black roots, and the uneven dye job left black bands scattered that elided the truth.

Her meticulous makeup and seemingly delicate beauty drew quite a few eyes at the camp.

Her name was Tamar Livnat, leader of the “Anti-Civilization” Aerean Preservation Militia.

And she viewed Moravskyi with a bit of contempt, as one might view a screaming child that was not one’s own. She could not wave away his accomplishments, having been fighting longer than the rest of them. His history was also in its own way somewhat pathetic– Tamar had accomplished in a few years what Moravskyi had in twenty, and she had contributed to Bosporus’ revolution while Moravskyi failed to do anything to respond to the Volkisch Movement in Rhinea. Never even mind his previous failure– in the Union.

Of course, she would not say such a thing to her dear “comrade.”

After all, it was convenient that he volunteer to speak to the United Front.

Let the loudest man labor audibly while the quietest man labored in secret.

“We should get ready to meet them soon.” Tamar said. “I sent my bodyguard ahead to scout the venue. Once I hear from her I’ll be glad to accompany you, comrade Moravskyi.”

“Livnat, the thing I hate most is breaking camp to go talk to the vatnyks.” Moravskyi said.

Despite his sighing, he would do it. Because behind the bluster, he needed the help.

At the moment, the two militias were stationed in the deep, disused passages of the Aachen Massif, the enormous mountain located behind and partially connected to the Aachen stations proper. Each group had about two dozen of their fighters huddled around burning barrels, forming a vanguard, with the vague suggestion to one another that they could summon more if more were necessary. They had been awaiting a third group, the Anti-Fascist militias, but this group had failed to check in with them at the eleventh hour.

She still hoped they would show up at the United Front.

There was nothing they could do– such was the nature of mother anarchy’s children.

The Eisern Front was always a loose assemblage of anti-state forces, in solidarity with each other’s actions but hardly communicating, fearing ever consolidating any of their forces or taking major joint actions. Coming together en masse increased the chance that they would draw unwanted attention. For what they were doing– leaving improvised explosives in government offices, hitting supply ships, assassinating specific people — it made little sense to have an army that moved as a visible collection. It was deleterious, even.

At first the Eisern Front was strongest in Bosporus, recruiting in the student revolts and protests, and in the edges of the Palatine, Buren and Rhinea. When the Bosporus revolution succeeded and took on the anarchist rhetoric that now characterized it, the Eisern Front, who participated in a disjointed fashion, gained a friendly rear area, with some ability to supply. The Buren “red fascists” as they called them, expelled the anarchists from their borders, but they still had connections in the Palatine, who did not undertake such active clearing actions. With the Palatine as a porous road, they could make a move into Rhinea– a worthy endeavor for the Eisern Front and for their Bosporan supporters.

The Palatine had the strength to completely crush the anarchists but were not exercising that ability. Something was happening there. Waking the giant prematurely was impermissible, but Rhinea was a much softer target. The Volkisch were not only more fractious and undisciplined than the imperials, but also far more odious than the staid and lethargic remnants of the Imbrian Empire. A victory over them would be a beautiful symbol of the righteousness of anarchism. Furthermore, infiltrating forces in Eisental allowed for the possibility of encircling Khaybar and finally evicting the Shimii from the pass.

With a free and anarchist Eisental, Bosporus’ revolution would have access to the world.

However, the Eisern Front by itself lacked the ability to carry out any of this.

It would have been different if they could have opened the Khaybar Pass themselves, but that was impossible, as the loathsome Saraya al-Khaybari group occupying the area was far too entrenched for the anarchist insurgency to displace. The United Front presented an opportunity to gain some common allies against common foes. But they could not tip their hand quickly. Their first order of business was to resource– if they could walk away with more weapons or funds from the ill-gotten gains of that bitch Gloria Luxembourg, then it was worth dealing with her bullshit. Secondly, they hoped to infiltrate some of these organizations and maybe turn their fighters and officers away from their statist causes.

Finally, they might hope to secure assistance against Khaybar, with the promise of vast reinforcements from the anarchist militias of Bosporus lying just beyond the pass. While the Union refused to cooperate in breaking the pass, it was possible that their agents would be more pragmatic if the end result was the destruction of the Volkisch Movement. Moravskyi was far too proud to make such a bold request, but it was an item Tamar kept in her pocket, turning with her fingers until such a time as it might be advantageous to play.

Secretly, there was also the possibility that they might seize the ships of the statists.

The Eisern Front lacked the grand warships and military arms of their erstwhile allies.

If the talks completely broke down, then the statists were easier targets than the Volkisch.

Moravskyi supported this option and Tamar pretended to find it distasteful.

“It’ll be hellishly tough, but it might be worth the gamble.” He said, of this plan.

Should such a thing transpire, Tamar would happily sit back and watch Moravskyi try.

And maybe she would join if the odds seemed right to her.

After all, she had more up her sleeve than she let on– but only if the timing was right. Her visit here was all about the timing and circumstances. If the timing remained inappropriate, then she was just Tamar Livnat of a small, humble militia and nobody would be any wiser. She supposed that Moravskyi must have been the same as her in that regard. If he was not, then he truly boasted for nothing, and she would hate him even more in the end.

“Moravskyi, I have a question for you, if you would not mind.” Tamar asked.

“Comrade, you must dispense with the formalities. Anarchists speak their mind openly. Social conventions are just the fascist in your brain holding you back. Say anything you want!”

“I shall endeavor to do so.” Tamar said, smiling. “There is a rumor about the slave revolts in the southern colonies, what became the Union’s revolution. With your history you might be able to clarify it. The rumor that there was a secret agreement between Daksha Kansal and the then-young Duchess of Veka in the east– that she would delay participation in the hostilities in exchange for limiting the Union’s territory at Nama Flow. It is history that Veka failed to open a second front, and the Union succeeded in defending its place.”

“Pfeh!” Moravskyi made a spit-like noise. “The Union– I do not know for certain but I wouldn’t put it past that goddamn bunch of red fascists to have done it! Me and my boys, we wanted to go all the way. Having little duels in the Serrano border and stopping like two gentlemen, when the Imperials had killed our guys, and we had killed theirs– it didn’t sit right with me. And letting the Vekan savages off too– yeah, that Kansal absolutely rejected trying to extend the revolution beyond the three colonies. That’s when I knew the Union wouldn’t ever be righteous. I tried to mutiny; you know? But– it wasn’t to be.”

Tamar smiled a little.

It wasn’t to be– what a funny way to say that he completely failed.

“Thank you, comrade. We will value your historical perspective in the coming days.”

“I wish you had not reminded me of it, to be honest.”

It was useful for Moravskyi to have the Union fresh in his mind going into the talks.

Getting his mood nice and sour would make things take longer and be more interesting.


On the edge of the plaza in the middle of Aachen’s second tier, there was a café and deli that served the office workers coming out for breaks and lunches from the surrounding complexes, and the Volkisch Gau; and for visitors looking to relax in the presence of the park’s lush flora. All seating at Fae Folk was outside the café, on tables and chairs under the crowns of several trees, with the small, plastic café building serving only as a kitchen and counter, with a display for the deli sandwiches showcasing the stacks of meats and pickles between fresh baked bread. A simple but popular place in a strategic location.

At a particularly slow and unconventional time, mid-morning, a pair of women arrived.

Ordering a plate of shredded beef, meat broth, blood sausage, without pickles or bread.

Their beautiful countenances, animated voices and showy attire drew in the workers, who slowly began to cede their initial argument on the specificity of the order, which was like no platter that they offered. It went beyond the customer simply being right– they felt a strange sense that they had to go the extra mile for these particular customers.

They felt they had no other choice.

However, they did provide excellent service in the end, with smiles on their faces.

Of the two women, the most assertive was a princely, tall, pale woman with an almost faery-like beauty. Her fair face had a grin on it that did not falter even at the first denials from the workers, and once she had convinced them to serve her specific order, she laughed gently, gesturing to her companion. Handsome and orderly, she wore her hair down to her neck, intermittently white, black and red, with swept bangs parted on the left. She was sleek and lean, with broad shoulders and a slender chest, dressed in a sportcoat and pants over a provocative, deeply plunging ruffled shirt exposing some of her chest.

At her side was a princess-like girl, smaller and daintier, adorned in lace and ribbons. While the taller woman had slightly more angular facial features, the shorter one had a soft and gentle, almost angelic beauty. Her dress was pure white with the hem at her ankles, interleaved diaphanous portions and cut-out loops along the sleeves and flanks exposing gaps of unblemished white skin. Her very long hair fell behind her back, dyed with similar red and black strands as that of her companion, decorated in a large ribbon that was almost like a pair of wings growing out of the back of her head. She carried herself in a whimsical fashion, giggling and smiling, deferential and girlishly receptive to the endless flattery and attempts to impress with which her companion showered her.

“Darling, they were so rude to us before, but look at them go now!” She giggled.

“Of course– but do not view them too harshly, my love. They simply required instruction on how to meet the needs of more high-end clientele. Proper conditioning made all the difference. Let us understand this is all part of the hominin experience.”

The taller woman invited the shorter one to take seat under the trees.

Taking up a four-seat table by themselves, rearranging the chairs so theirs were closer.

Watching with mild amusement as the workers dropped everything they were doing to ready their orders. Though everything was already prepared, the pair requested a large amount of each item, and particular arrangements. They wanted the broth in a kettle with cups to serve, and the sausages cut into bites, and the beef cuts arranged like flowers, and for no item to have touched brine or sat under a lamp. It took a few minutes, but three workers soon had everything laid out on the table to the pair’s liking and stood before them.

All bowing, and thanking them, and letting them know everything would be free.

“See how obedient they are now? Thank you dearly, little hominins. You may carry on.”

That tall and graceful visitor with the cruel grin was Syzygy Enforcer I: Avaritia.

“My prince, so graceful and merciful toward such rabble! Ahh! I am falling in love again!”

And the delicate, hyperfeminine beauty with a callous smile was Syzygy Enforcer III: Gula.

“Would you like a cup, my sweet little morsel?” Avaritia gestured to the kettle.

“My lips will accept anything of yours, my prince.” Gula said, winking coquettishly.

Avaritia took the kettle, stood from her seat, bowed near Gula, and began to fill her cup.

Gula giggled, clapping her hands together at her lover’s graceful mannerisms.

Once the cups were filled, Avaritia sat anew, and offered Gula a blood sausage.

Taking a piece with her fork and holding it up in the air.

“You’re too kind, my guardian, knight of my heart.” Gula said.

Her lips had barely spread when the sausage seemed to simply disappear from the fork.

In a split second, Gula was chewing delicately, as if the movement of the fork to her mouth had been edited out of video footage, such was the speed and abruptness of the transition. Avaritia watched in rapt attention, throwing amorous smiles and whispering sweet nothings as the smaller woman poked at every item of food on the table.

Many morsels consumed without even a touch.

Avaritia ate almost nothing– nearly all of the food was going to Gula.

While the two were captivated with one another, in their own island of public affection–

There was a sudden, rhythmic clapping of heels on floor tiles.

Suddenly, a shadow stretched over them and just as suddenly dipped below them.

Across from the pair, an uninvited guest, a woman, took up one of the remaining seats.

She leaned forward, eyes hidden behind black sunglasses, setting black-gloved hands on the table with a smile as if to show she was not holding anything. Dressed boldly in a dark blue suit jacket without a shirt beneath, perfectly fit to her strong shoulders, buttoned just low enough to expose cleavage and a black bra with an ornate trim. She had matching dress pants and high heels worn without socks or tights. Elegant waves of glossy, silky blond hair she wore to the shoulder, lusciously red lips, perfectly fair skin, and a knockout body– and she walked like she owned the entire station, and this table with it too.

Such daring attire did not look out of place in the same table as the pair.

However, the glances that they gave the visitor did not suggest familiarity.

“Don’t mind me.” She said, with a bit of a Volgian accent. “Keep the good times going.”

“Darling, were we expecting such a modern visitor?” Gula asked, bearing sharp teeth.

“No dear; but do not fret. Stranger– to whom do we owe the pleasure?” Avaritia asked.

In response to the inquiry, their visitor pulled down her sunglasses and winked at them.

Avaritia’s lips curled up into a grin. She recognized her. Of course–

“Korabiskaya.” She said, a hint of danger in her voice.

Across the table, Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled, fingers delicately pulling the glasses off her nose and into the pocket of her jacket in one elegant motion. Her heart was beating fast, but she relished being able to surprise these two demons. Her performance of confidence in this moment was ironclad, she was giving everything with the utmost focus.

Everything for a femme fatale’s red lips and cool gaze.

“Indeed. But what should I call you? Something shorter than ‘the fake Zozia’?”

Ulyana leaned back on her chair, putting one of her heels up on the table.

Gula stared at Ulyana’s long legs in the fitted dress pants.

Personally, Ulyana thought her legs looked spectacular, but Gula looked, finally, annoyed.

“Darling, perhaps we ought to show her–?”

Avaritia raised a hand as if to call a halt. Gula’s eyes lost some of their icy focus.

“Don’t worry about it, kitten. Enjoy the spread and leave the talking to me.”

“Yay,” Gula smiled placidly, turning her attention back to the food.

“Did you brainwash her too?” Ulyana asked.

“No, she’s just like that. Now get your feet off the table or I’ll cut them off. It’s rude.”

Ulyana acquiesced. From that woman, the false Zozia, “Avaritia,” it was not an idle threat.

In terms of their respective combat abilities, Ulyana was outclassed.

Outclassed by sheer magnitudes— completely, exponentially unable to defend herself.

Avaritia could have swatted her into a smear if it came to a physical brawl.

But not in these circumstances.

Not in public, not in the middle of tier two of Aachen, not in some café at the park.

Not with the Volkisch Gau and the Uhlan barracks a stone’s throw away.

Not against Ulyana, whose willpower she could not break as easily as she did to others.

Thanks to the reports from Euphrates and Arabella, Ulyana knew her advantages.

So far, they had cleared the first hurdle. Avaritia was not jumping the gun to attack her.

Therefore, the two of them, commanders on opposing sides, could finally talk honestly.

“You are not Zozia Chelik and Ksenia Apfel. I know that much. You are Omenseers.” Ulyana said the last in a tone slightly more hushed than the rest. “I’m at your table today to talk business, and this time, to talk business to you, to the Omenseers, not the personas you adopted. I want to talk honestly, about your motives and about my own.”

Gula reached across the table suddenly, drawing Ulyana’s eyes toward her hands.

She picked up a piece of blood sausage, took it to her mouth, and chewed happily.

Avaritia grinned. “Just to talk? Or did you also feel like sweating a little?”

God damn it– Ulyana was letting some of her nervousness get through.

“After what happened in Kreuzung, we’re all sweating a little, aren’t we?”

“I’m mostly untroubled.” Avaritia said.

“Mostly untroubled that three of my subordinates killed a dozen of yours?” Ulyana asked.

Avaritia’s eyes fixed Ulyana’s directly. She was still grinning, but the barb had struck.

“A free lesson in our positions: death is less of an obstacle for us than it is for you.”

“Perhaps. Nevertheless, I want to officially apologize for what happened.”

For the first time Avaritia looked surprised. She kept grinning, but her eyes opened wider.

“You want to apologize? Interesting. Do go on. Apologize to me.”

Ulyana smiled back. “Consider this my official apology. One of my subordinates violated my trust and ignored orders, leaving our protection to attack you. It is my understanding that she heavily injured you, and I am glad that you were not killed– it would have made reconciliation much harder.” She spied the face of her opponent as she described what happened and thought she saw faint irritation creeping across that handsome face of hers. She continued when Avaritia offered no response. “Three more of my subordinates joined her, again without orders, starting a skirmish with your troops, resulting in disproportionate loss of life. I deeply regret this incident and I am here to make amends for this. None of this was my intention and I have disciplined all of my subordinates involved.”

Avaritia made a low noise, like a single cut-down breath of a longer laugh.

“You are referring to my attacker as your subordinate.” She said. “You can’t be speaking to me today and fail to understand the significance that she and that body of hers have. She is someone fit to lord over you. Frankly, it’s even a bit insulting for you to address her so.”

“I describe the situation as I understand it. I apologize if I had caused offense– I am not fully conversant in your culture. That aside, I want to hear your thoughts in response.”

“I find it ridiculous that you would come to me to apologize.” Avaritia said. “But it’s also very interesting, and I like you hominins best when you are being interesting. For better or worse you have such a depth, such a capacity, to do things that are strange and whimsical.”

“Will you accept my official apology, Avaritia?” Ulyana said, finally using her name.

Avaritia bristled. “Of course not. What can you even do for me to compensate for it?”

“Let me reach into my coat, without a violent reaction– I have something for you.”

Ulyana lifted her her gloved hand and gestured just over her partially exposed breasts.

“Go ahead then.” Avaritia said, a curious look in her eyes.

From an inside pocket of her jacket, Ulyana withdrew a vial filled with a thick red fluid.

Blood. Human blood.

Her own blood, slick in the vial as she turned it. Treated to slow coagulation.

Inside the vial, within the blood, also floated a sliver of slightly more solid matter.

Avaritia’s face lit up. She laughed.

“You have no idea what you are offering, do you?” She said.

“My blood, skin scrapings, and a bit of my flesh, taken from a harmless place.” She said.

Ulyana set the vial on the table, tapping on the plastic cap. She slid it over to Avaritia.

Avaritia looked down at the vial. She picked it up, looked into it, shook it.

Anyone else in this situation might have considered the possible threat posed by an enemy bearing a gift. Whether poison or something more high-tech like a swallowable tracker, a human would have had doubts and suspected some kind of trick. Avaritia did not seem at all troubled by such possibilities. She simply and elegantly uncapped the vial and took Ulyana’s flesh into herself without questioning the contents or Ulyana’s character. Swallowing it swiftly like a shot of liquor and seeming to enjoy the taste. Ulyana thought, perhaps there was no meaningful way for a human to poison this creature.

In fact she had not even bothered. She was being quite honest in her approach.

There was nothing else that she had and was willing to give that Avaritia might accept.

But if Omenseers liked the taste of humans, perhaps Ulyana might turn out to be a delicacy.

Avaritia set the empty vial down on the table, rolled it back to Ulyana.

Grinning ear to ear.

“You have no idea how close you came to destruction with that gesture.” Avaritia said.

“I have some idea.” Ulyana said, trying to sound calm.

Beside a vague desire to find out whether she was tasty, Ulyana also knew, from Arabella’s distressed account of the events in Kreuzung, that there was a possibility Avaritia was actually a walking and talking DNA-based computer. In that case, Avaritia, who possibly consumed Zozia Chelik and Ksenia Apfel in order to impersonate them, could potentially gather information from human DNA that she consumed and store it in herself. That taste of Ulyana would tell her– whether Ulyana was worth killing or not.

All of these were conjectures, but Ulyana liked her chances, and was notably still alive.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya,” Avaritia said, an amused note in her tone of voice.

“Indeed. What say you?” Ulyana asked, meeting Avaritia’s eyes with an iron focus.

“Apology accepted.”

In the next instant–

the grinning demon reared and lifted her arm and thrust forward with abandon,

to offer a handshake.

“What say you?” Avaritia said, her hand awaiting.

Ulyana, initially startled by the sudden movement, soon returned the gesture.

Sighing deeply, her chest pounding, feeling the sweat beads dribble down her collarbones.

“I am glad we can put this behind us. I have something else I wish to discuss.” Ulyana said.

Still holding Avaritia’s hand in her own.

Unsurprisingly, the monster in human skin had a gentle and unpretentitious handshake.

She had nothing to prove to a lesser being like Ulyana, whom Omenseers lorded over.

“I want to ask you for a favor, and in turn, I will owe you a favor.” Ulyana said.

“Interesting. I am slowly warming to this possibility.” Avaritia said. “It is rare for hominin to pay me tribute as you have. I believe you are a rare hominin who is close to a true understanding of the world and its correct order. I will not go out of my way to protect you, but I’d hate for you to die unspectacularly. So, tell me how I can help you.”

Avaritia sounded flattered, full of herself. What had she gleaned from that blood?

Ulyana gently and with respect, unwound her fingers from Avaritia’s own.

Her touch was warm, like that of any human. Not that she was expecting much different.

“I understand that you do not truly care about the anarchist cause. You are infiltrating them for another matter. I won’t pry into your motives unless you wish to disclose them, nor will I protect the Eisern Front from your activities. But I want your cooperation– share confidential information from the anarchists with me. In exchange, I will assist you in achieving your aim, in accordance with the value of the service you provided for me.”

“I’m curious how you found us. We haven’t joined the anarchists just yet.” Avaritia said.

“Unsecured CCTV. We have a good hacker, and you stick out in public.” Ulyana said.

Whether or not Avaritia even understood the response, she did not further pursue the topic.

“Very well. You, again, truly have no idea what you are offering, Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

“No, I don’t. Nor do I expect you to explain. But present matters are worth future risk.”

Avaritia slowly worked up a laugh in front of Ulyana, lowering her eyes to the table.

“Incredible! What an incredible Hominin! Your soul is truly bright.”

“So they tell me.”

“I will accept your offer.” Avaritia said. “I will even courteously explain what I will demand from you. Right now, I am looking for certain individuals. I will not disclose the criteria– but in the future I might seek your assistance in finding them, and when I do, you will help me devour them. That is what you signed up for. In exchange, I will play the best anarchist I can, and I will become your asset within their organization. We have a deal.”

Ulyana did not feel particularly proud to have agreed to kidnap people to feed this beast.

But it was all incumbent on the assistance Avaritia provided, and when she cashed it in.

Perhaps by then, Karuniya Maharapratham might have made a crucial breakthrough.

Unsavory as it was, this was not the worst concession Avaritia could have demanded.

The Brigand had killed plenty of people too, with families, hopes and dreams of their own.

At any rate, all of that was a problem for the future Ulyana Korabiskaya, that poor bitch.

In the present, she would hope that there was a benefit to doing all of this.

Especially since the rear of her thigh quite stung where it was incised and then stitched.

“Tell me– what made you so sure I would not simply devour you here?” Avaritia said.

She still wanted to talk– fine, Ulyana could humor her and thus, maintain her good humor.

“With your power, you’ve had ample opportunity to pursue your grievances with me. You could have followed Arabella to the ship, and we could have killed each other in fruitless struggle. You did not; you sent your subordinates first and ultimately you let the matter go entirely.” Ulyana said. “So, I began to understand you care about resources and have a specific agenda. There are people worth killing for you, worth devouring. From what we have learned, and also the fact you were impersonating Zozia Chelik, I realized you were there to kill Zozia and infiltrate the anarchists. It was within your means. You have proven me correct. You are only targeting specific people and won’t go out of your way for others.”

“Interesting. So, armed with that deduction, you then risked coming to meet me?”

“Is it so odd to you? My life is always on the line here. I’m not on a pleasure cruise.”

Ulyana put on a smile a bit more elegantly cold than Avaritia’s grin.

“You’re quite crafty. It will be quite convenient when I get to use you.” Avaritia said.

“You’ll get as much as you give. Work hard, okay?” Ulyana replied.

She stood up unceremoniously, turned her back on Avaritia and Gula, and left the table.

Anything could have happened in that split second–

And nothing at all did. Avaritia and Gula remained seated, returning to their meal.

Ulyana walked away, with her deal struck and a burden off of her shoulders.

They could find each other again easily– they’d see each other at the United Front.

There was nothing more that needed to be said, and Avaritia did nothing more.

However, there was a takeaway from the encounter the Omenseer may not have foreseen.

“You’re not all-powerful. You don’t have the resources to stop us.”

Ulyana smiled to herself. Every enemy in front of her had some kind of weakness.

Leaving that particular corner of the wooded park, Ulyana walked to the diametrically opposite corner, to a second café that was also taking advantage of the same business model as Fae Folk was. There, under a tree, she spotted a Shimii woman, skin a rich olive-tan with bright orange eyes, her dark-furred ears fluffed up and upright. Dressed in a cute yellow cardigan over a warm brown dress, modest and timeless, her long, dark hair worn freely.

Along with a conspicuous looking pair of sunglasses perched on her soft nose.

“Mind if I join you?” Ulyana asked, looming over the girl’s table with a rakish smile.

Pushing down her sunglasses, her Commissar, Aaliyah Bashara, looked up at the Captain.

“How did it go? I’m glad to see you well.” She said, a small smile playing on her lips.

She would not say it outright, but she looked like she could finally breathe easy.

“Everything went as I hoped it would. We’re all set for now.” Ulyana said.

“I was against attempting this– but I am glad to have been wrong this time.” Aaliyah said.

“I appreciate your discretion as always.” Ulyana said. She pulled her glasses down her nose slightly, to expose her eyes. “Aaliyah, we went to some lengths to get these clothes and dress up, and we’ll have to change again soon– would you mind having a drink with me? I would like to indulge the fantasy of a charming executive and a vibrant girl.”

Her gloved finger slid playfully across the drink menu projected on the table.

Aaliyah glanced at the menu and back at Ulyana, meeting her eyes.

She smiled and let out a little sigh, perhaps more fond than frustrated.

“I will let your charms overcome me this one time, Yana.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana smiled, and took her seat, not across Aaliyah’s table, but close beside.

She reached and took Aaliyah’s hand, gently gliding a thumb over her fingers.

“How does a Radler sound?” Ulyana said, her free hand tapping on the menu.

Aaliyah smiled, her lightly flushed face again mixing exasperation and endearment.

“I’ll have whatever you are having. Just don’t take advantage, you cad.” She said softly.


“Social fascists and red nationalists, the lot of you! Going to send me to your gulags?”

“Worthless blowhard! You anarchists can’t even organize your wardrobes!”

“Ahh– everyone’s so energetic– can we perhaps take a breather to look at this chart–?”

At the bar and restaurant Oststadt, the private VIP back area resounded with the screams of its occupants. Thankfully, the front of the bar had also been completely bought out and buttoned up, the glass doors shut and a sign out in front, and it looked to the world as if the place had mostly just closed for the week. Discretely, the venue was actually rented in its entirety for a week of events hosted by a wealthy heiress. No activity spilled out onto the raised street adjacent establishment’s plot on the third tier commercial district.

The décor for the Oststadt was rather unique among Aachen’s restaurant culture. Completely white walls faked the black veins of real marble, while decorative white plastic columns with gold-painted rings on their bases and ends framed the bar, the doorways, and the divisions between booth seats in the restaurant area. Fake laurel wreathes, biostitched, perfumed daily, and set high up on the walls, added pops of green to the decoration. The Oststadt evoked an eastern aesthetic, which to the Imbrian mind was usually Veka, but in this case, was meant to be even farther east, recalling old Katarran decadence. It was likely this classic, romantic aesthetic that drew Gloria Innocence Luxembourg to host in it.

It served as an almost ridiculous backdrop to the farce that its fake marble walls contained.

Where the Oststadt was old and stately, its inhabitants were for better or worse quite new.

“Do you remember what even started this argument?” Ulyana asked, shoulders sagging.

“No.” Aaliyah replied, the fur standing up on her folded ears, her tail curled into a spiral.

There had been so many exchanges of barbs and the retorts had become so circular that it was nearly impossible to entangle what had set them off. Taras Moravskyi had entered into the meeting full of bluster, greeting no one, never introducing himself, and immediately demanding that the meeting begin even though some of his own colleagues had not even assembled yet. Erika Kairos had been watching him the whole time and seemed, perhaps, to know about him, enough that she shouted back with a mind to put him in his place and establish order over the proceedings. Moravskyi shouted back about the ‘fascist in her brain’ and the two of them were off. There had not been a moment’s peace since then. It was only by some miracle that Erika did not reach out and tear Moravskyi’s head off.

“You red-fascists were never serious about reconciliation! You were always here to try to get us to show up and impose your rules on us! But Taras Moravskyi is here to tell you we are indomitable! We will take you to task for your crimes against the people!”

“Taras Moravskyi is here to act like a babbling drunk! Much like he is at any other place! Barking about imaginary crimes to a people he has not served in years! We are here to talk about more than squatting and detonating fireworks in public parks!”

Ulyana could hardly believe that Erika would stoop to such–

No. She paused and realized that she could believe this scene completely and utterly.

She could believe it, because–

Murati.

It was just like the disciplinary records of Murati’s previous behavior.

Erika was just like Murati– she just had more responsibilities to keep her occupied.

Those two–

“Could Murati blow up like this in the middle of the ship someday?” Ulyana mumbled.

“Captain– We have more pressing concerns.” Aaliyah said, sighing deeply.

Besides Moravskyi and Erika, whose presences monopolized the “proceedings,” there were a few other people waiting and watching at the table. Avaritia and Gula eventually took their places, sitting at the far end of the table removed from the cacophony. Avaritia shot Ulyana a wink, which Ulyana did not terribly appreciate at the time. In the midst of the sound and fury, Gloria Innocence Luxembourg struggled to get through to her counterparts. As always she represented an overly-precious and sunny presence. Dressed in a long, angelic white dress with a figure-hugging bodice, transparent sleeves, and a slightly wide skirt, her long, pink hair flowing in glossy, subtle waves. She had a portable with some kind of plan on it that she wanted Erika and Moravskyi to stop fighting long enough to actually look at.

In addition, there were two other figures of the anarchists.

A young woman, rather pretty, dressed a bit conservatively, that Ulyana did not know; and standing against the wall directly behind her, an unarmed bodyguard with her arms crossed and her head bowed. From their positions she surmised the woman at the table was one of the Eisern representatives, but she had not even had a chance to introduce herself. She made no fuss about it and simply watched as it was all mildly amusing to her. Meanwhile the woman behind her shot contemptuous looks at the table every so often before turning her gaze back down to the floor. She was a broad-shouldered and broad-backed woman, tall and dexterous of figure. Her hair, long and black and straight, and the small features of her face, reminded Ulyana somewhat of far easterners like her security officer Zhu Lian.

For Ulyana, that was a rare sight– but there were plenty of Hanwans and Yunese in Veka and it stood to reason they could have made it to any part of the Empire from there.

While their passivity was curious to Ulyana, she could not blame them for keeping clear.

Meanwhile Daksha Kansal and Kremina were mysteriously absent despite their supposed involvement. Gloria had excused them to Erika prior to the meeting. It was this more than anything that made Ulyana a bit disappointed– she had wanted to see Daksha Kansal again after all these years and perhaps ask her a few questions that had been troubling her. For Ulyana, as a Union officer, it was difficult not to think of Kansal as a negligent parent in an admittedly petty way. Especially because of Kremina and her arrogance back in Kreuzung.

No use dwelling on it; seated closer to Ulyana were Erika’s guests for the deliberations.

“Hey, can we just tell them to shut up? This is getting ridiculous. I’m about to blow too!”

Ulyana was seated the closest to the leadership trio– unfortunately– and Aaliyah sat directly beside her. On Aaliyah’s right, Eithnen Ní Faoláin sat with her arms crossed and her head bowed, looking mighty annoyed at what was transpiring and making it known. Rather than her Republican uniform, she was dressed the same as Aaliyah and Ulyana in a Treasure Box Transports uniform. She had her red hair up in a bun, and the uniform looked good on her. On her right, sat her adjutant Tahira Agyie, a slight woman, dark-skinned with braided hair, the braids collected into a ponytail. She pushed up her glasses. Eithnen’s shirt was half unbuttoned and her tie hung undone. Tahira was meticulously dressed in comparison, and she sat almost stiffly straight beside the looser and more relaxed Eithnen.

“Captain, I’m afraid it would only give them another target.” Tahira advised Eithnen.

“I suppose so. Ugh. I barely even understand some of what they’re saying.” Eithnen said.

“Don’t worry about it.” Aaliyah said. “I’m sure they must be running out of steam.”

In the next instant, a sharp and sudden wail rose over the cacophony–

“BOTH OF YOU BE QUIET! LISTEN TO ME RIGHT NOW!”

So shrill was this cry that it might have rent armor and set agarthicite to bursting.

Erika and Moravskyi both stopped in their tracks, breathlessly staring at

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Teeth clenched, shaking hands on her portable, reddened eyes, troubled breathing.

“Excuse me, friends, comrades, even,” Gloria said, with Erika and Moravskyi finally under control, however briefly, and barely able to maintain her dainty affect “I did not organize this little shindig to inflame tensions between us. We are here because we have a common enemy, and greater responsibilities– so if the esteemed members here do not have a proposal to make, then allow me to put forward a framework that we can discuss.”

She held her portable computer with both hands, showing Erika and Moravskyi the screen.

At the precise moment that Gloria was showing off the screen, Ulyana could not see it. She would later learn that there was an excruciatingly detailed organizational chart with more twisting lines than a noodle dish. In this chart, Gloria herself sat at the very top, Erika directly below, and all military forces under Erika’s control with the anarchist irregulars subordinated under this umbrella as if they did not have an officer class which– technically they did not. In the specific moment of the unveiling, what Ulyana could actually see were the confused expressions on Moravskyi’s and Erika’s faces as they looked at the screen. After a moment they squinted their eyes as if it would make something else appear on it.

Gloria smiled brightly and proudly, like a child showing off a graded test to her parents.

Increasingly, Erika’s and Moravskyi’s expressions showed very similar consternation to that which they began the meeting with. Neither could contain their level of offense.

“You want me to order around this chaotic rabble?”

“You want me to take orders from this authoritarian harpy?”

Immediately, Erika and Moravskyi’s rage-filled gazes met one another again.

Before they could start another shouting match, however–

Tahira Agyie raised her hand from beside Eithnen, surprising even her Captain.

“Excuse me! Might I have a word before any– further debate?” She asked.

Gloria and Moravskyi turned to look at her with a mild confusion.

Erika seemed to silently urge her to speak.

Gloria acquiesced to the interruption.

None of them seemed prepared for anyone outside their bubble to have spoken up.

“Thank you.” Tahira said. She stood up from her seat. Her voice surprisingly calm. “From what I was able to draw from our– spirited debate– it appears we have a bit of an impasse on the topic of integrating our forces. I would like to propose an initial solution to this issue. In the Republic forces, there is an instrument known as a Joint Information Exchange Center or J.I.E.C. that acts as an official intermediary between the Republic Navy and useful militant groups, such as the Rhodos Republic in Katarre or the Restoration Society in the Yu states. When one group finds intelligence noteworthy to another group, they share it through the J.I.E.C. and are able to coordinate and support each other, while retaining their individual autonomy of action. Since there are obstacles to an integrated command, why don’t we instead begin with a Joint Information Exchange for the United Front? Captain Eithnen Ní Faoláin could perhaps assist– she served with distinction in J.I.E.C South.”

Eithnen looked startled to have been addressed at all in the middle of that description.

“Huh? Oh, I mean– yeah I was in charge of J.I.E.C. South for a bit– before I got demoted and sent to jail that is.” Eithnen did not look very happy to be remembering it, or to be speaking at all, but she stood up beside Tahira to address the room promptly now that she was drafted into the conversation. She managed a professional tone of voice. “I worked with a militia in Hanwa– the Patriot Society or something like that– and well, I definitely did not have even a little bit of control over how they carried themselves. But I did get intelligence from them on Hanwan actions, and I did contribute intelligence back. So it does stand to reason we could put together a similar thing for the forces here and make it work.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Tahira said, taking over again with a rare smile on her face. “I believe that a J.I.E.C of our own could be a coherent framework for our future cooperation while preserving our multiplicity of opinions and types of actions. In the coming meetings, we could further refine and discuss how we would organize and use this system– but for now, I believe it serves as a good guarantee that no group shall control the others, in part or in totality, and should allay the concerns of Mr. Moravskyi as to his group’s autonomy, as well as Premier Kairos’ concerns toward organizational discipline. While also allowing us to make concerted use of our resources toward a common goal. I yield the floor.”

Tahira saluted the three leaders, Luxembourg, Kairos and Moravskyi in turn.

She then sat back down, quietly and calmly, and Eithnen quickly sat down beside her.

Ulyana and Aaliyah were stunned– none of this was anything Erika rehearsed with them.

Erika in fact had kept what she would say and do in this opening meeting close to the chest. Before devolving into communist schoolgirl debate club arguments– which Ulyana assumed out of respect for her was not what she intended to do and she was just caught in a passion.

But Tahira had just stood up and potentially saved the entire meeting more wasted time.

Purely improsivational. Such was the prowess of Eithnen Ní Faoláin’s adjutant.

Mashallah,” Aaliyah whispered, sighing deeply. “I’m really glad we rescued them.”

Ulyana turned to face the three group leaders, who remained a bit stunned for a moment.

Perhaps ashamed of their previous antics compared to Tahira’s reasonable proposition.

To her credit, from among the three Erika recomposed herself and spoke first.

“Though she is one of my subordinates, independently of that I find it a most excellent proposition from adjutant Agiey.” Erika said. “The Nationale Volksarmee does not wish, and does not currently possess the capacity, to lead all of the forces of the Front as the esteemed Ms. Luxembourg proposes. We recognize Mr. Moravskyi’s concerns over his autonomy also. At this juncture I agree a framework for coordination makes more sense than an integrated command structure. I am in favor– what say my colleagues?”

“Ah– Yes, indeed, indeed.” Gloria said. “It sounds a most appealing idea. I worry that it might be too unambitious for what we could accomplish? Perhaps we can even expand it into an instrument to share policy ideas and even pool supplies? I think all of us can benefit from a deep but individual cooperation. We’ll discuss it– for now, I vote in favor.”

“I–” Moravskyi still looked a bit taken aback. “Yeah– I guess that sounds good for now.”

Meet with reason, even Moravskyi seemed cowed into silence.

With the rousing debate concluded, the United Front ratified its first agreement– they would establish an instrument for coordination and decide its character and contents another day. And so, everyone adjourned, and agreed to reconvene throughout the week to continue discussions on how best to cooperate, what their objectives might be, and on resourcing.

“Don’t you love it when things come together?” Erika said, tossing her hair on the way out.

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at her but said nothing, and glanced at one another with a sigh.

In that moment they perhaps shared a single simultaneous thought:

Murati, please do not develop this sort of temper!!

Eisental United Front Status

Nationale Volksarmee (Presiding)

Reichsbanner Schwarzrot (At The Table)

Eisern Front (At The Table)


That night, Gloria Innocence Luxembourg was consumed in a fury.

“I can’t believe it! I just choked in the middle of all that! God fucking damn it!”

She stomped her feet and threw her plushies and bit the pads of her thumbs.

Her first setback transpired before the meeting, when Daksha Kansal told her she would be limiting her presence to the United Front and would not attend the first several meetings. Her stated reason was that she did not want to monopolize the initial character of the United Front with her presence, and instead wanted to serve as an advisor to whatever form the United Front took after the initial discussions in order to preserve their spontainety and dynamism. Effectively, she would participate in the final events of the week as Gloria had planned them. Gloria almost wanted to tell her to her face that she knew this was bullshit– but she held her tongue and controlled her temper in front of her mentor.

Then, in the United Front’s first meeting, she ended up the meekest of all the leaders.

Erika and Moravskyi were always going to come to blows, there was no doubt about that. They were natural opposites. Erika herself must have planned to try to cow Moravskyi, or at least to come out of the first meeting with her independence and strength demonstrated and preserved. She had something to prove. Moravskyi was a blowhard by nature– he was always attending just to shout and bluster about his autonomy and moral rectitude. He was the established old soldier who now had to deal with the up-and-comers.

Knowing this, it was up to a third party to create any balance. Gloria had hoped to either mediate between them or to get them to calm down– giving them the way out of their predicaments. She knew it was a long shot, but they barely even read the charts.

Then that one Republican defector threw a massive spanner in the works.

While she was tongue-tied in the face of Erika and Moravskyi, Tahira Agyie proposed a thoroughly reasonable idea that everyone could get on board with. The fact that a guest from the Volksarmee camp was the one to finally deflate the tensions was galling– Gloria should have brought some of her own people, but she was so focused on her own self and her own image. But of course, nobody else in Schwarzrot had any ideas anyway.

She was the one with the ideas here!

Not only that, but the rest of the Eisern delegates were quiet the entire time.

They did not even attempt to reel in Moravskyi! They made no proposals of their own!

Almost as if they wanted him to derail everything! They were far too passive.

She could point fingers all day. One fact remained clear.

Gloria had blown her first shot at taking control of the United Front.

It was not the last shot she would have– but it was the best one.

Fuming alone in her apartment, she dropped on the couch, and wrung a cushion in her hands.

Beginning then to think about her next move.

In order to make up for this setback, Gloria had to find some way to expand this “instrument of coordination” to include the ability to influence her partners. Money was her first idea, and the easiest one that came to her. Money was something she had in spades, and that everyone else sorely needed. Erika was likely low on funds and Moravskyi likely had nothing to his name. Gloria would have enormous soft power within the United Front and its organizations if she could wave money around within the agreed framework.

In theory, she still held all of the most important cards.

The Reichsbanner Schwarzot had the money, it had ships, it had divers, everything.

On her whim she could have summoned a force strong enough to take Aachen.

Possibly.

Once these meetings were over and they had to fight the Volkisch, it was unconscionable that the likes of the Eisern Front could get anything done without Gloria’s money and manpower. The Nationale Volksarmee was a different story, but not that different. They had hardware and experience, but they had no influence or wealth, and would need to establish better supply. She could still exert some control over them too.

Gloria started to calm herself down.

Even in the worst case scenario, she was still the best positioned out of the three to become the leader of a leftist Eisental. Her vision of the world had the most appeal to normal people, and she had the most resources. Even if the United Front ended up with Erika at the fore, Gloria would never be far behind. She was already monumentally ahead of the game. Would the people of Eisental care who was the most eloquent and influential in the United Front? It would be nothing but an anecdote in the history books. Gloria could still win.

Then she would shape Eisental in her image– and maybe even the Imbrium.

President of a Social-Democratic Republic. Carefully managed markets, exemplary labor relations, strong wages and plentiful goods, freedom of the press and speech, full gender and sexual equality, a flourishing of the arts, a professional army of liberated and educated men and women. It would dispense with the bleak totalitarianism of both the Fueller Reformation and the Union Revolution but preserve enough of the Imbrian character to allow for a smooth, peaceful transition toward socialism. Her people would learn to love socialism, from the crudest laborer up to the managerial and business class. In her imagination, even the steel and glass of this world was brighter, even the water would shine, and all of it under her graceful and beautiful countenance, like an angel.

“There is no need to fear, Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.” She told herself.

Yes– she had an immutable advantage. Power born into power, instituted into her flesh.

Those girls protesting the war just didn’t understand how futile their struggle was.

Some hierarchies, some injustices, were burned into the flesh of the Imbrian permanently.

Identifying where things would change, and where they would stay the same–

Understanding that only power could topple power– noblesse oblige–

That was the difference between the mighty Gloria Innocence Luxembourg and

the poor girls who founded a book club she attended only to have it beaten out of them–

Gloria’s eyes drew wide. “No– Don’t– don’t think like that! Why that–? No– I’m not–”

In a sudden panic she scrolled through the functions of her watch for her mood manager–

When suddenly there was a ring on the digital doorbell.

Catching her off-guard, as she lay nearly in tears on her couch.

“Ah! One little second please! Still prepping my makeup!” She cried out.

Just barely falsifying her tone of voice to fit the character she wanted to play.

From the door, a voice message played.

“Ma’am, it’s me, Mia. Please take your time. Thank you for having me.”

Gloria had almost forgotten–

She bolted to a stand and ran into her bedroom. This she could not afford to mess up.

Looking herself over, the wall over her vanity cabinet becoming a mirror.

Her hair was a bit messy. She brushed it quickly. Her dress looked– acceptable.

For something she had been wearing for hours it was practically pristine.

She touched up her makeup. Applying a bit more eyeshadow to mask the puffiness.

It would not do for Mia to know that she was crying and screaming.

“Coming~!” She said, her voice returning with ease to its saccharine register. “I am so sorry! My day has been soooo busy, Mia, dear! Your presence is a breath of fresh air!”

Before Mia could send another message through the door, Gloria had bolted back to it.

When the door opened, there was no evidence she had been hyperventilating.

And on the other side, stood a truly ravishing girl, the real prize of the day.

Mia Weingarten was a shot of adrenaline to the constitution of a weary Gloria. Just looking at her sent electricity running throughout the heiress’ body. Wearing a large and lacy black hat with a black coat and sunglasses to try to disguise her appearance, but beneath, her delicate frame stood lightly draped in a tight little synthetic dress, exposing her shapely legs, her thin and elegant arms, the slim collarbones and small shoulders. Framing her narrow waist, curving over small, supple breasts. Her girlish face with its youthful features.

Bashful, perhaps ashamed. So beautiful, so tantalizing.

Gloria reached out and took Mia’s hat in a playful act, unveiling her sky-blue ponytail.

“Come in, come in! Make yourself at home, Mia dearest.”

For a moment, Mia stood on the edge of that threshold after being invited.

Perhaps realizing that if that door closed behind her, she had made a certain decision.

And indeed, once she worked up the courage to cross into Gloria’s apartment–

It took the merest instance for the door to close and lock behind her.

Her timid expression did not change. Nor did Gloria’s irrepressible excitement.

Gloria led Mia to the couch, urging her to get comfortable.

From the kitchen she returned with drinks, slim glasses held between thumb and forefinger.

Set them down on the table and sat next to her guest, who smiled a bit, accepted it politely.

Mia reached out, drank, put the glass back, in a quick, almost desperate motion.

While Gloria’s hand wandered to Mia’s lap, stroking the soft, silky skin of her plush thighs.

Crawling tentatively beneath the hem of her short skirt–

Mia’s eyes wandered away in shame–

Until Gloria’s hand reached out and gently guided her chin so that their eyes met again.

To where Mia could not escape the irrepressible hunger in that gaze.

“So, Mia, my sweet, what is on your mind? No request is too great for what we share.”


Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.3]

Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Norn von Fueller reached up under her blond hair, to her ear.

She pressed her hand against it.

“Something wrong?” asked Adelheid van Meuller.

“Do you hear a clock going off?” Norn asked, feeling just a bit ridiculous for doing so.

Adelheid smiled with apparent enthusiasm.

“Yes, indeed I do, Norn. It is the biological clock of a young and fertile noblewoman, whose body yearns to bear many children to continue her lineage.” She looked at Norn with a mock aggrieved expression. “Unfortunately, such a future is not for me– I have been abducted and corrupted and no longer serve my naturally-ordained function.”

“Shut up.” Norn said, in a low, dangerous voice.

“Hmph!” Adelheid playfully turned her cheek with a mischievous smile.

Norn lifted her hand from her ear and found the ticking to have stopped.

She tried to put it out of her mind.

Her eyes wandered over to Adelheid was they walked.

“Despite your tongue, you look lovely.” Norn said.

“I know.” Adelheid replied. “You look handsome. Of course, you must, I dressed you.”

“Your handiwork is acceptable.”

“Weak praise.” Adelheid said. She pouted.

“Earn more. Be a good girl for me.” Norn said, her register lowering as she said the last.

Norn could practically see the thrill go down Adelheid’s spine in reaction.

“I’ll show you.” Adelheid mustered the will to speak before averting her gaze, a bit huffy.

They both had social calls to make with the station’s high society, but as ever, Adelheid showcased the sheer excellence she was forced to cultivate as the upper crust of Imbrian nobility. Her outfit was simple in its silhouette, with a figure-hugging, sleeveless red dress and a matching red, long-sleeved half-jacket without buttons. However, the finer details added immensity– her dress had a line of clear vinyl running a tasteful arc down the synthetic fiber exposing her flank, a bit of her stomach and hip, some leg; her jacket had a diamond-shaped back window that exposed a similarly cut-out portion of her dress, thereby revealing her upper back; her accessories, like her heels, bracelets, and the lurid red collar she insisted on wearing, were all rather expensive pieces.

Her fair skin was tastefully flushed with makeup, a gentle red shadow applied precisely around her eyes, dark red lipstick with just enough gloss. Her red hair was partially tied up in a deliberately messy low bun that drew attention to her collar and nape, affixed with pleats. She wore on her hair a golden ornament in the shape of a whale’s tail.

She was ravishing, exquisite, a divine beauty, Norn’s flawless red ruby.

Of course, instead of saying all that, her praise amounted to saying she was, ‘lovely’.

Holding back made it mean more when Adelheid was broken down begging for it.

It was much harder for Norn to evaluate her own self– because she hated herself, but she also loved herself, or least, she required herself. She was her own greatest tool and greatest obstacle, a harrow personal complex. So she remarked that Adelheid had done an ‘acceptable’ job, but Adelheid had been enthusiastic, so Norn figured she must have looked well. Her own hair was styled simple as ever, into a ponytail with a slight arch from the back. But she wore it with a gear-shaped ornament with a ribbon in the Fueller colors, which Adelheid designed by her own hand and had printed out special for the occasion.

Her manner of dress was typical of herself, somewhat plain with a long-sleeved shirt with a slight plunge to the neck, and a pair of dress pants and shoes. However the quality of each of these articles, from the materials to the trim, was exquisite. She wore a half-cape based on the banner of the Fuellers, with embossing meant to evoke a silicon chip and computer board etchings, over the green and blue Fueller colors. Adelheid had done a bit of makeup for her, a tasteful bit of lip gloss, a touch of eyeliner, and brushed and treated her hair personally. It was hard for Norn to concede that her countenance was beautiful, but she was assured that she looked attractive and she was thus confident in herself.

“Remind me, who are you meeting with up there?” Norn asked.

“Herta Kleyn’s son’s bride-to-be, Mia Weingarten.” Adelheid said. “And another friend.”

“Ah, I have heard of her. A pop singer I think– you knew her in school I presume?”

“Luxembourg School for Girls; incubating life-long friendships.” Adelheid mocked.

“Are they getting married soon?” Norn asked, more interested in those particulars.

“Well, we’re living in pretty uncertain times aren’t we Norn? So, maybe?”

There was a sense of trepidation as the Antenora began its official business in Aachen. Much like Aachen itself, their status was in-between states and awaiting its total resolution.

Officially, Norn was the head of the House of Fueller, the ruling family of the former Imbrian Empire– what this meant after Konstantin’s death and the unofficial dissolution of the Empire was anyone’s guess. Aside from Norn’s own personal capacity for violence, there was little official consequence for attacking her or subjecting her to rendition outside of the Palatine, the only area in which the Fuellers still had total military control.

However, Norn was also not keen to return to the Palatine.

She wanted to give Frederich Urning time to tussle with Erich and learn the outcome from afar. And she needed to keep Selene away from Yangtze the Ninth.

So her next destination would most likely be Trelleborg instead.

Meanwhile, Aachen was now one of the last game pieces that the Volkisch Movement had spilled from the board when it upset the order of things in Rhinea. The local, elected liberal ruling class in Aachen must have known this could not last forever, and that the Volkisch would come to pick things up from the floor one day. They had to have any kind of plan to preserve their own lives. But throughout the station, Norn saw nothing but business as usual. Shops were selling guff to untroubled consumers, office workers went to their jobs, finances were diligently tracked, and everyone stared when they saw a black military uniform moving in the crowd as though it was still an anomaly. Did they all know something she did not, or were they all, truly, stupid enough to just sit and do nothing?

In Kreuzung, Violet Lehner made her views on liberals quite plain, and on public channels.

Norn had accepted an invitation to meet with the current governor of Aachen, Herta Kleyn.

Partially to see whether the Kleyn family had anything to offer.

But also out of personal curiosity to see whether they had any kind of future plans.

To think of throwing a wedding under these circumstances seemed rather ludicrous.

If time was ticking for anybody– it was for Herta Kleyn’s liberal government.

With this destination, and these shadows looming over, Adelheid and Norn journeyed up.

Dressed their best for their individual social calls.

At the utter peak of Aachen’s core station, despite the government’s progressive bonafides the top of the tower held the same thing as the top of every other tower in the Imbrium Ocean– the palatial estate belonging to the station’s governor. The elevator banks dropped the pair at the outermost part of a concentric ringed layout, like a strange and enormous orrery, in the center of which was a three-story villa, painted a near-white shade of periwinkle with an angular black roof. Offset square doors and windows, all made of obscured glass, dominated the façade; but the most prominent feature were a trio of large balconies, one just off-center at the peak of the façade, and two others opposite each other. There were two walls separating the outer parts of the rings with the interior, which contained the house and its gardens. These walls had checkpoints with guards.

Norn could not help but notice as she approached that the guards were all Katarrans.

Or at least, all of those that she could see at the checkpoint.

Though she hid this fact, she was of course a Katarran herself and could spot her kind.

In this case the spotting wasn’t difficult.

Tucked under their caps, the guards all had white, or blue or purple hair– common Katarran dye-jobs. Their skin colors were also starkly different from those of Imbrians, with grey-blue, cartoonishly pink and even a mottled red among them. All of them wore a standardized uniform with a jacket, vest, pants and a cap, but no gloves, so she saw that some of them had webbed fingers. Others had fin-like ears or vestigial gill openings.

None of them had guns– that she could see.

Norn and Adelheid approached the checkpoint and identified themselves.

“The Lady of the House is expecting you. Come in, please.” Said a burly guard.

That tacked-on ‘please’ seemed almost sarcastic.

These were still salt-of-the-earth Katarran mercenaries, just dressed up fancy.

No glory to a job like this; but Norn was sure that it must have paid quite well.

Otherwise they wouldn’t even have bothered to memorize any kind of script of any length.

“Hmph. They were leering the whole time.” Adelheid grumbled.

Norn laughed.

“We dressed to be looked at, didn’t we? I’ll kill anyone who touches, don’t worry.”

Through the checkpoint, between the walls of brick and spearpoints, there was more grass.

When they finally entered the inner ring with the house, they were flanked by bright red flowering begonias. Following a short, tiled path, they reached the door to the house, which opened before they could even reach for the handle. Awaiting them inside was a tall young man in a green vest and a white shirt, beckoning them with a very small smile, his heart clearly quite elsewhere but going through the checklist of pleasantries.

“Welcome, Lord von Fueller, Lady van Mueller. I’m Isaiah Kleyn. My mother wanted me to greet you– she is upstairs. As is Mia, Lady van Mueller. She is excited to see you.”

He greeted them warmly but somewhat distantly.

His eyes had a certain intensity to them, and he had a brooding look, with long hair and a soft jaw, the sort of boy who was a product of this liberated time period. Norn had been surrounded by military men her whole life who looked down on such appearances– and yet never realized that the powerful men of the world were not the grizzled bearded navy men but the pretty boys like Konstantin scheming behind their backs.

Norn’s lips curled into a grin. “Pleased to make the acquaintance of the lucky bridegroom!”

She shook Isaiah’s hand and watched him wilt under the attention, avoiding her gaze.

“Thank you, milord.” He said sheepishly.

“We would be so interested in attending!” Norn said. “It’s such an opportune time for a wedding– occasions of joy and unity are most impactful when held in dark times. The bond between lovers is a triumph of the human spirit against the crushing despair of the world!”

“The date is– yet to be determined.” Isaiah had to think on that for a second.

“Well! I understand.” Norn said, her tone so indulgent Adelheid started to roll her eyes.

“Norn let’s not keep him. I’m sure he has his own business.” Adelheid said.

She took Norn’s arm, the intimacy surprising Isaiah, and led her to the stairs.

Norn allowed Adelheid to pull her away and just considered it something to pay back later.

From a surprisingly small and cozy foyer, a set of spiraling steps took the pair all the way to the third story, where they would each depart for opposite sides of the villa. Despite the exterior, the interiors were fairly simple. There were several flower vases, and a few pieces of art, but the false wooden floors and periwinkle walls were mostly barren. Perhaps Herta Kleyn had not had the time to add her own flair to the presidential palace–

or perhaps she had no flair to add.

“Norn, don’t bother them too much.” Adelheid pleaded, before they parted ways.

“I can’t guarantee that.” Norn said, before brushing her fingers across Adelheid’s cheek.


On the eastern balcony, a trio of very different young women shared a white tea table.

Beyond the balcony’s balustrade, there was a projection of a beautiful, shockingly verdant garden below and around the structure, with enclosed rivulets and ornate pillared fences. This illusion was generated by a set of mirrors, speakers and a diffuser; piping in gentle music, the sounds of water flowing from hanging aquaponics down to earth-grown trees, and the smell of herbs, leaves and flowers and the moistened plots of soil.

Adelheid thought the last smell resembled, vaguely, like when Norn ejaculated on her face.

She tried to keep this thought out of her mind as she pretended to be impressed.

“It’s quite a beautifully set scene, Mia!” Adelheid said. “And the spread, my oh my.”

“Ah, thank you, thank you. I really wanted this to be special.” Mia Weingarten said.

Seated with her back to the balustrade, and therefore to the projection, Mia Weingarten almost looked like part of the cozy but extravagant fantasy surrounding them. Her slender body covered in a sweeping white dress as if the wind itself had wrapped around her, with an angled skirt, diaphanous material over the shoulders, bell sleeves and pure white leggings. Her hair, once naturally black, was bleached and dyed a pale blue for appeal, and tied in a ponytail that curled slightly on its ends. Her face had an incredibly youthful beauty to it. Adelheid, with her lurid mind, wanted to say that she had an extremely virginal appeal– but she kept this strictly to herself as well. Mia was not a lurid girl at all.

Her eyes kept lingering momentarily on the collar Adelheid wore.

But she, too, said nothing about it.

“It’s not often I get to dine so fancy and so free! Can I dig in, please?” abruptly asked the third woman on the table, Hannah Schach, clapping her hands together and smiling rapturously at the snacks arrayed before her. With Mia opposite them on the table, Adelheid and Hannah on the other end were seated closer than Adelheid would have liked.

Particularly due to Hannah’s new and unfortunate predilections.

“Oh! Yes, please, help yourselves.” Mia said, extending a hand to gesture at the food.

Between the girls there were a few wooden boards with snacks. One had a tiny cup filled with a spiced sweet syrup, and another with cucumber dressing, along with cheese, tiny pancakes, fruits, honeycomb and sausage. By far the most eyecatching board had thin slices of bright red, fatty beef, cooked rare and drizzled with an olive oil fragrant enough to be a dominating scent. Another board had small cups of expensive fresh vegetables, including luxurious pink radicchio, brightly green spinach, thin-sliced cucumber and accompanying purple turnip slices. Dressings were served separately to keep the greens crisp.

Finally, in the center of the table, there was a three-tiered array of dessert platters.

Macarons, fluffy cheesecake, tiny bundts on small saucers, caramel-topped puddings.

And of course, there was tea, richly sweet, fagrant dark tea with cinnamon and cardamom.

Hannah quickly struck a piece of meat and savored it, having a near orgasmic response.

“Oh! Ohh! Mmm! You can practically taste the money!” She said, wriggling in her seat.

“I’m glad you like it.” Mia said, looking slightly nervous.

Adelheid stared as if she could psychically beam some shame into Hannah Schach.

She raised her teacup to her lips to prevent herself saying anything.

And so the first formalities passed– and the rest of the tea party formalities began.

“I am so thankful that we were all able to meet again.” Mia said.

“I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation.” Adelheid said.

“Me too!” Hannah added, chewing on some cheese. “I didn’t think any of my old friends even knew about my new job or anything! I got on the next ship from Stralsund when I got it!”

“I guess it’s no secret for me– I’ve had public appearances with Norn.” Adelheid said.

A little careless to speak on a first-name basis with Lord von Fueller– but it didn’t matter.

Mia was too meek to question it anyway. “Yes! I learned you were serving aboard the Fueller flagship, and then I heard from Madam Kleyn that the Antenora had docked in Aachen.”

Adelheid was not so fond of how easily their arrival was known.

But there was nothing she could do about it– and it was not tea-appropriate to say.

“Hah, is that the kind of gossip a pop megastar has access to? Scary, scary!” Hannah said.

“No, just me specifically I think.” Mia said, laughing. “A perk of being part of the family.”

For a few minutes, all of them made small talk and caught up.

“This might sound conceited, but um, have either you heard any of my songs?”

Mia looked a little bashful around her old friends as she asked this question.

Hannah laughed as she smeared a macaron in the spiced syrup.

“Are you kidding? Of course– ‘Angel in the Deep Abyss’ was inescapable last year.”

“Right. That got used for Raylight commercials and stuff like that.” Mia said, smiling.

Adelheid hardly needed an introduction to Mia Weingarten’s life after school. It was all over the magazines that she kept up with. She was a cover girl, she was interior material, she was on the top 50 charts– and the subject of gossip. Mia’s kind of optimistic, romantic pop was a light in the darkness of the Imbrium for a lot of people, particularly other young girls with big feelings to process. She was hugely popular. The Weingartens were a minor moneyed family, but their connections were enough for Mia to get a push. Most people probably did not know that she loved to play instruments and used to write little love poems in high school– but Adelheid also did not know whether that mattered now either.

How much of the current Mia was herself or a fabrication, Adelheid did not know.

Politely, she simply went along with the assumption that this music belonged to Mia.

That the Mia in front of her was a personal construction, and not a studio efigy.

Hannah Schach seemed to love Mia’s music– but only the songs that played in ads.

Again, the polite curtain over the mouths of the girls prevented any comment on this.

After Mia, Adelheid spoke discreetly about her life as an adjutant aboard the Antenora.

She talked vaguely and at much shorter length about her life: about how dull the bridge was, about how the crew were impersonal and robotic, about how bad the rations were, about getting frequently bored and reading magazines. Then she realized how lazy she must have sounded– and added that she was indispensable to Norn and had to look after her health, kept her organized and even helped her dress for this occasion.

That seemed to finally impress her friends, much more than her lazy, bratty daily life.

“It’s hard to believe two of my besties both joined the Navy.” Mia said.

“Ehh, I’m just like a paper pusher, really.” Hannah said, dipping a meat slice in the syrup.

“Serving aboard the Antenora has had its ups and downs.” Adelheid said vaguely.

Mia smiled and reached out a hand, touching Adelheid’s own.

“Addy, dear, you have to explain yourself further. I’m so curious.”

“Well, the ups, are Norn von Fueller, and the downs, are Norn von Fueller.”

Everyone laughed. Adelheid felt satisfied with her participation in the small talk.

A noblewoman had to know exactly how much to say– and how much more to keep close.

Then, finally, it was the third woman’s turn to speak–

Hannah Schach had become a Volkisch officer– and remained a finance geek.

“Now, this is not financial advice,” Hannah said, putting down her teacup, clapping her hands together and rapidly blinking her egregious eyes– modified with novelty pupils shaped like hooked crosses in wreathes, to resemble the hideous back symbol of the new Volkisch Reichsmark, “but I will say, I have been investing a tidy percentage into the civilian software market the past few years and into very specifically financial technologies. There are a few companies, small right now, but worth watching, who are looking to take us into the future, and I assisted one in particular in securing funding– I cannot say which, lest I be accused of things. You know how it is. Nevertheless– I believe the very fact that we still print and use polymer bank notes is ludicrous, caveman-like, and physical bankchips are not much better. To me, and this is only my opinion, but the future of all money-handling is purely digital, hands-off transactions. But not just transactions– it is also in the digitalization of all potential assets as exchangeable value stores that can appreciate over time!”

She broke out into a laugh, and it was so loud that Mia must have felt pressured to join her.

Adelheid did not laugh with them, and instead sipped her tea for plausible deniability.

She had never liked Hannah Schach, but they could have been said to be friends in the sense that they could be seen to share company. That was the way of the things for Imbrian noblewomen with high expectations placed upon them. Influential and rich women stuck together, as much as their family rivalries allowed, for they had no one else. However, looking at Sturmbannführer Hannah Schach across the tea table, with her, Adelheid felt that she wanted to stick her to plastic explosive and detonate her from a safe distance.

Dressed in a black uniform with a rather brazen and eyecatching cut; a figure-hugging short skirt, high boots squishing her thighs to a remarkable degree, and her large breasts nearly bursting from her shirt and jacket. Her shoulder-length blond hair had a perfunctory brushing, but still looked a bit messy, punctuated by the thin, golden crown-like ornament she wore atop her head, with three gold bits that looked like fins or swept ears. There was a lot of gold decorating her, in chains and pins and rings and bracelets and a gold choker, all of it probably unauthorized for a military officer, not that any Volkisch thug would ever care. Her face was conventionally pretty, but her expressions were so often ridiculous and exaggerated that she lacked the dignified beauty required of a noblewoman.

Across from Mia, the two looked like a dainty angel and a cackling demon sharing a table.

These were the “friends” Adelheid had climbed the tower to meet up with.

“Um, I’ll keep it in mind, Hannah. Can I ask how you ended up in your– current position?”

Mia gestured toward Hannah, but Adelheid thought she was gesturing toward the uniform.

“Well, after Luxembourg I applied to a technical college and graduated top of my cohort in Financial Management– and was registered as a stockbroker by the Imperial Treasury and Finance Authority– and then I just happened to meet Luciana Waldeck.” Hannah said, pausing to nibble on some of the charcuterie, “Back then I was kinda sympathetic to the Libertarians, and even applied to their party, but I worshiped the ground Luciana Waldeck walked on! She made crazy returns investing her inheritance with super-risky moves on emerging companies and leveraged assets, it’s like she was psychic or something! She totally took me under her wing– and then I became really bullish on national socialism!”

Luciana Waldeck did make a lot of money essentially gambling her family’s inheritance.

Adelheid knew that Waldeck presently achieved more notoriety as the founder of the Black Sun Valkyries, an esoteric clique within the Volkisch Movement exclusive to women and girls. There they could be groomed into Waldeck’s insane divine femininity cult– and she apparently targeted other rich idiots too proud of their investment portfolios,

like a certain Hannah Schach.

“Madame Waldeck and I got to know each other a bit more and we became rather close. Then she joined the forces of the Reichskommissar. Now she is going to manage the western Eisental security zone, which comprises tons of Rhineametalle holdings, as well as Agarthicite mines, steel production, consumer goods factory-stations, and even more– and she has asked me to be Finance Commissioner of the Rhine-Sieg-Kries Gau and the planned Wehrkreis Westen zone. I’m quite excited! Sooooo many of the major corporations have presences in Rhine-Sieg-Kries! I’ll be rubbing shoulders with the bigs!”

As she spoke Hannah forked a piece of the beef and dunked it repeatedly in honey.

So this was the caliber of the typical national socialist– greedy, venal, and in power.

Luciana Waldeck also nearly twenty years her senior, but Adelheid was sure that she and Hannah must have been item– aside from the cult allegations, there had been plenty of gossip about Waldeck during her earlier years when she was a fashion icon and briefly an actress. And Hannah was someone more drawn to power than gendered expectation.

Adelheid might not have had much ground to call it shameless, but she felt it still was.

“That sounds so scary!” Mia said. “I would go nuts with worry managing a whole region!”

“Nah, it’s super easy. I’m already doing some napkin math about it in my spare time. With Madame Waldeck there, I’m sure we can get the profit machine moving breakneck.” Hannah said. “The actual problem is like, how uppity the factory workers are, but we can fix that.”

Well, at least Adelheid learned something that might interest Norn.

“Enough about me though– hey, Mia, when’s the wedding happening huh? Will you get it catered? You need to have me on the guest list and order some extras!” Hannah smiled. “If this is how you throw a tea party I wouldn’t miss your wedding for the world!”

“Right, of course I wanted to invite all of you.” Mia said. “That’s part of why I set this up.”

“I’ll do my best to attend– present circumstances are a bit difficult.” Adelheid said.

“I can go anywhere I want, I’m Madame Waldeck’s favorite, she’ll pay.” Hannah chortled.

“We’re– still planning. But I did want to reconnect in light of the proposal.” Mia said.

“Isaiah Kleyn right?” Hannah said. “Is he actually an Eloim? Candles and all that?”

Adelheid shot her a look for her insensitivity.

“I suppose so? The Kleyn family are not religious.” Mia said, surprised by the question.

“Hmm, I see, I see.” Hannah said. Her hooked-cross eyes staring mischievously.

Something snapped– Adelheid had enough of Hannah Schach.

“Are you going to enlighten us about race science next, Hannah?” She said. “Will it be as directionless and naïve as all the magical thinking you try to pass off as financial science?”

She couldn’t help but be snide– she had contained herself for far too long now.

Mia turned to her with almost equal shock as she had at Hannah’s insensitive question.

Hannah puffed up her face with indignation. “There’s the nasty-tongued Addy I remember! I was wondering when you were going to finally bite my head off! Well, if you’ve been around the finance world, it’s just a fact that Eloim have outsize influence and power. Bosporus especially is all their doing. But I’ve got nothing against them personally!”

“Miss ‘I’ve got nothing against them’ except for a prepared essay-length tirade. You’re a caricature. I can believe you’d let yourself get roped in with these criminals, you lowlife!”

“Noblewoman Addy still talking like she isn’t disinherited for being a walking scandal!”

“Please stop fighting!”

Mia shouted over the two of them.

Hannah and Adelheid looked at Mia, then at each other, grumbled, and sat reared back.

“Adelheid, I’m not offended at her. Please don’t fight.” Mia pleaded.

Adelheid could hardly believe anyone wouldn’t be offended by Hannah’s entire self now.

Despite this, she accepted her friend’s wishes and simply remained quiet.

“Hannah don’t egg her on anymore. We’re not kids– let’s just calm down.” Mia said.

“I didn’t do anything. But fine.” Hannah said, crossing her arms and turning her cheek.

After settling a truce, there was silence between the trio, the jovial atmosphere dying down.

They sipped their tea; Hannah continued to eat; Adelheid stared into the illusory distance.

All quiet– until Mia bowed her head and her sobbing overtook the light music.

Sobbing that grew in intensity, that brought about tears, that made her makeup run–

“Mia?” Adelheid said, not knowing what to say to follow this acknowledgment.

Mia burst into tears, into ugly, full-bodied sobbing, shaking, bowed over the table.

Holding herself with her arms, rattling the cake stand and the teacups.

“Oh.” Hannah said, finally acknowledging the hostess’ distress.

Head bowed against the table, her arms trying to hide herself, Mia wept with a fury.

Adelheid stood from her seat and approached, tentatively holding her hands over the girl.

“Mia? I’m sorry– I was out of line. Let’s relax and talk about it, okay?” She said.

In truth, she was anxious, a rare emotion for Adelheid– she didn’t know what to do at all.

On some level she felt this was a failure of empathy, and that it made her look bad.

Laying hands on Mia’s shoulders she felt intense shaking, and the pounding of her heart.

Even Selene never had a tantrum like this. Adelheid could only try to quietly comfort Mia.

Hannah remained seated and stared at the two and tried to make herself small and scarce.

“It’s not– It’s not you– I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” Mia said, barely raising her head.

“Maybe we ought to just reconvene some other time so Mia can rest.” Hannah said.

Adelheid threw her a glare that looked like it might knock her off her seat.

“Yes– yes, let’s– let’s meet again okay?” Mia stammered out, raising herself up a bit.

She sat back on her chair, Adelheid still holding her shoulders as if she might collapse.

A handkerchief in her slender fingers wet and stained with running makeup and nasal fluid. Had anyone in high society seen such an overt and unsightly display of emotion– It would have been terrible for Mia. For her to show it, meant something had broken.

Her façade had a crack.

Hannah left without further prompting, perhaps assuming Mia could get ahold of her.

Adelheid remained, rubbing her shoulders gently and patting her back as she cleaned up.

“Mia,” Adelheid leaned forward and whispered. “Let’s exchange numbers, okay?”

When they arrived at Aachen, Norn got them all Rhinean-style portables to keep in touch.

On the table, Adelheid laid hers, face-up and unlocked with her profile on the screen.

Mia looked down at it, nodded her head silently, still wracked with gentler sobs.

She added the number to her own portable, and then held Adelheid’s fingers for a moment.

Through that touch, she shared the gratefulness that she could not speak.

Finally, it was Adelheid’s turn to leave Mia’s side. She would have to wait for Norn a bit.

Descending the stairs to the foyer, her portable suddenly buzzed– a message from Mia–

“Adelheid, I had a suspicion, but I confirmed it– you’re actually really strong. You are a disgrace to a powerful family, everyone speaks ill of you behind your back, and you have to fight and be in danger– but you accepted all of that and you’re your own person now. I’m too much of a coward. I can’t make my own way; I can only do what I’m told. No matter how much I cry, I can’t escape this. My family decreed that I’m going to marry a man I don’t love, because otherwise, I will lose my comforts and status. I’m being used as a political prize. If only the emperor hadn’t died; my naivety could have simply lasted forever.”

Staring into her portable, Adelheid sighed deeply and wondered what she could even do.

For as strong as she might have been, Adelheid was also a very special case and very lucky. If Mia did anything as scandalous as Adelheid had done her life would have been destroyed, and she was unlikely to be ready for what that entailed. She was never as rebellious as Adelheid, never as devious, and there was no Norn waiting to safeguard her.

Mia was much more a noblewoman than Adelheid–

because Mia was someone whose life could be shattered so much more completely.


On the opposite end of the villa from Adelheid and her friends, Norn was ushered into a covered balcony with a table. There was no embellishment of the surrounding view. Over the balustrades Norn could only see the far off limits of the steel enclosure, the security walls below, and the top of the Aachen spire overhead. There was a small table with tea and snacks, on wheels so the guests could make use of it as they needed.

Four wooden chairs were arranged in a vague circle.

“Duke Norn von Fueller! Perhaps the most interesting guest I’ve ever had. Have a seat!”

At the head of the group was Herta Kleyn, the hostess.

Her cheery attitude and smiling face– Norn couldn’t help but grin herself.

Matriarch of the Kleyn family, once considered noveau-riche to the nobles outmaneuvered by her merchant ancestors– but in the new order of the world, she was old money.

For a woman in her late fifties, she was only slightly weathered with age, her brown hair interspersed gray, her eyes and lips wrinkling on the edges, her skin slightly spotting on her neck and hands. Dressed in a black coat over a long blue dress with a small cap atop her head. She looked the part of the grand stateswoman, modest and coordinated and without a hair out of place, timeless– sedate. Without a hint of either disorder– or dynamism.

“Our other guests should not be long.” Herta said.

Norn took her seat nearest to Madame Kleyn and helped herself to some tea.

She was so bored she needed whatever slight hit of caffeine she might get from it.

“Whom else shall I have the pleasure of meeting today?” Norn asked.

“Ah, none so illustrious as yourself milord– but they should prove colorful.” Herta said. “You shall see.” She waved her hand as if blowing away Norn’s curious questioning. “I’ve been anxious to ask you, milord, if I may– how fares Syrmia of late? We were such dear friends– if only the circumstances permitted I would have loved to have her here with me now.”

Syrmia von Fueller was Konstantin’s biological sister, and Erich and Elena’s aunt.

In terms of the day to day affairs of the Fueller family, Syrmia did all the actual work.

When Konstantin began to retreat from politics, she took over the running of things.

It was then, perhaps, when she began to envision Norn as a possible successor.

Had the Imbrium Empire not broken apart, surely Syrmia would have tried to crown her.

She and Norn had a history that was both tender and sordid.

Perhaps she had the same kind of history with Herta Kleyn–

Syrmia was certainly capable.

“Syrmia is doing well. She is quite busy, but she is looking after her health. She misses her brother dearly, and the situation of the Imbrium weighs upon her, but she’s a stout-hearted lady. Such things cannot keep her down for long. I can let her know you asked; maybe put you in touch? She would love to hear from you. You were very dear to her.”

Norn was not always wanton– she knew how to project the royal dignity when it mattered.

“That would be fantastic. Thank you, milord. She was dear to me indeed.” Herta said.

“How fares you, if I might myself ask?” Norn said. “Rhinea’s situation is quite complex.”

“It is milord. Despite this, I fare quite well.” Herta said. Norn studied her face closely, but Herta’s expression betrayed no change in emotion. She was clearly anticipating the question. “I believe incoming administrations matter little when one has demonstrated good stewardship of their position. I have spoken with Adam Lehner, and I will speak with Violet Lehner– Mr. Lehner did not seem too interested in trouble and I think Ms. Violet Lehner will only be even more amenable to peace. I am optimistic. Do not worry about me– I would not trouble someone of your stature over these petty regional affairs.”

Norn could have burst out laughing, she was practically screaming inside.

This had to be a front– Herta had to have something up her sleeve somewhere.

If this was what she actually thought, Norn was sipping tea with a corpse.

She would not push the point. It would have been rude.

She already asked and answered the polite question. Now she just had to wait and see what Herta told her less illustrious guests about the situation, and how they responded. While they waited, they talked carefully about the snacks, about Aachen, about the times. Norn, as the woman of higher station, could afford to say very little, and Herta, knowing exactly where she stood, did not push. Instead, she contributed most to the conversation. Aachen was bustling, progressive– a place that was making strides in providing opportunity to everyone that lived within it. Careful language. Aachen’s people were industrious, engaged, active participants in seizing the opportunity of a better life. As for the times, of course, they were awful on the surface; nevertheless, Rhinea marched inexorably to progress.

Progress, was opportunity– the chance for a better, more equitable life.

If you could reach out and seize it. Such was opportunity, that snake-like word.

“Conservative movements come and go but they don’t deliver. We have had conservative presidents before and Rhinea’s progress has marched on because it must. We know the bluster got them into power, but it cannot alone keep them there.” Herta said, when asked about the Volkisch. Norn wondered how much was encompassed in the ‘bluster’ Herta spoke of: the arrests and killings of liberal elites and intellectuals, the Blood Bund’s murders of Eloim and Juzni activists, the horrific border conflict Adam Lehner now waged? Herta moved on from elucidating on this subject quite quickly. “Violet Lehner strikes me as a keen woman who was handed a terrible situation by Thurin. Perhaps the violence that swept up Kreuzung the past week was a failure of individuals that her leadership can resolve.”

This woman was either living in a house of delusions or she was an irreverent liar.

Norn would have been angry, but this was so incredibly brazen she was just confused.

Rarely did she have occasion to talk to liberals.

Herta Kleyn sounded insane to her.

Konstantin’s court had always been repleted with a different strand of delusion, that of the nationalist with a hand on the hilt awaiting any crack in reality into which a sword might fit. But the delusion of the warmonger was aggressive and wanton and as such it had to actively enter into conflict with reality. Herta’s passivity, her certainty that everything was already aligning to her advantage without her lifting a finger or even striking at her most obvious political enemies– that was new and strange to a military woman like Norn.

Norn would not get to probe Herta’s ideological matchstick house any further, however.

Soon, their guests arrived at the entrance to the balcony.

Immediately, Norn began to feel she was seeing into the inside of Herta Kleyn’s sleeve.

She made a mental note that whenever it was polite, she might have to follow it up.

From behind the glass door entered one woman first, who had no intention to sit or walk more than a few steps onto the balcony. She was a tall woman with very fair skin, and long, silvery hair that stretched below the waist. Her tall, furry ears and bushy tail of the same hair color singled her out as a Shimii– but unlike any Shimii Norn had ever seen, she had two tails which waved in the air separately. Her face had a dignified expression with blue-colored lips and eyeshadow and was quite striking. Her body was draped in a long white dress, sleeveless, shoulders bared, with a halter-neck decorated with a golden choker.

She had a rather excellent figure and filled her dress quite exquisitely.

Norn cracked a grin.

However, that grin was the first, flimsy disguise at seeing something which unsettled her.

A sash worn by the woman, with blue, red and golden colors, clipped with,

an emblem,

a miniature figure-eight shield bearing an impression of a horned bull.

“Greetings, esteemed hostess and guest. Allow me to thank you and to usher in my charges for today. My name is Raiza Sarakaeva, Akolouthos in the Varangian Guard of the Mycenaean throne. As is customary, I cross the threshold first, and give introduction, and I then depart, to provide security by the door. I ask for your understanding and a brief silence.”

Into the drama of the age, entered the Mycenae Military Commission of Southern Katarre.

Norn was already somewhat suspicious and disquieted by their presence alone.

But once the woman made herself known, and as a servant then introduced her master,

upon hearing the name spoken by the Shimii, and as the master of Mycenae entered–

“All hail Her Exalted Majesty, Bearer of the Golden Legacy, Astra Palaiologos.”

Norn’s chest went cold. Doubting herself, head racing, had she heard that–

her name, undoubtably– her name? had she heard–?

her name. she heard her name spoken and

shadows extended before her eyes heart sinking synapses fired half-recognitions in par-frozen time breath arrested eyes dilated far past rage

angled toward disgust the shaking world turned before her

shock,

it was shock, she was in shock–

Norn’s whole being arrested as she experienced a hitherto unfelt terror.

Astra Palaiologos was her own name, her name, only her name, her burden to bear.

Her secret shame into which all her fury and horror and disgust was bound, only hers.

And in front of her another woman, another girl, now wore that name.

It took all her strength to prevent herself from standing and attacking like an animal.

It took even more discipline not to freeze time to buy herself a moment to think.

In the span of seconds she had to endure her heart shuddering, electricity under her skin.

And swallow it all to put on a calm face and maintain her façade.

They couldn’t be allowed to know.

“Welcome!” Herta clapped. “I told you, Duke von Fueller, our guests would be colorful!”

At this remark, the “Varangian” at the door shot them a look, before departing.

Then, out the door stepped the so-called Warlord of Mycenae: Astra Palaiologos.

Norn had feared the most that she would see herself walking through the door and not be able to explain any of it. That they had kept something of her, of her blood or hair, some awful preserved token by which they could own her likeness forever and there would simply be a second one of her. But the inheritors of the Royal Household had made their own ruler, not entirely in her image– though, when she looked closely enough there were uncanny things, like the way she stared, her expressions, the way she moved–

Astra Palaiologos of Mycenae was a quite slender girl, with a petite figure, and a soft but regal face that was incredibly beautiful, with remarkably sharp, red eyes that had a piercing gaze. Even a casual glance felt like she was seeing through all of them. It was that more than anything that reminded Norn of herself. The girl had quite copious, soft-textured and long white hair, fluffy and wavy, almost trailing to her feet. Within her hair there were black strands that glowed gently purple with bio-electric discharges. Thicker and girthier forms of these same strands formed a four-pronged crown behind her head, the protrusions almost horn-like, two black tips over the back of her head and two curling around the side– an expression of a non-human donor that Norn could not identify.

Certainly, Astra had to be a Panthalassian– a Katarran pelagid created with rare DNA.

Norn had the DNA of two recovered ancient beasts as part of her pelagis process.

Mycenae’s ultranationalists would not have tolerated any less when creating a new ruler.

In dress, Astra looked almost a farce, her short stature and thin body festooned with medals and clad in a garish, gold and black military uniform– or it would have been a farce, without the sheer presence which Astra effortlessly commanded in her every movement. Her long gloves and tall boots, her garrison cap, the various medals and the gold shoulder-chain, she wore them all with a quiet dignity and self-respect. There was something about her which commanded attention. She looked unerringly confident in herself.

“Thank you for the invitation, Madame Kleyn. I am pleased to make new acquaintances.”

Astra stepped forward, but there was another person moving in behind her.

“Per the terms of your invitation I am traveling alongside several of my warriors.” Astra said. “I invited my mentor, Labrys Agamemnon, to join us, but she felt she would look out of place, because she is very tall and large. Instead, I brought the Merarch Odyssia with me.”

Unlike her servant prior, Astra did not introduce Odyssia and simply took her seat.

Once the warlord had sat down, the Merarch entered from the hallway.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance. I love to talk. My name is Odyssia Metis.”

The Merarch was a tall woman, long-legged, wide-shouldered, dressed in a typical military uniform– hers much darker than it was gold compared to Astra’s uniform. There was a hint of pigments to her, a pale shadow over her eyes and a hint of gloss on her lips, her skin a natural pale gray that turned glittering blue around patches of scales behind her jaw, and on her neck and ears. She wore her long, white-blue hair tied with a dark blue ribbon.

Her permanent expression was a self-amused grin.

Norn immediately felt like she wanted to slap the taste of out that pretty mouth.

After her own introduction, Odyssia sat on the remaining chair, completing the party.

“It’s such an immense pleasure to host such illustrious people from such a distant shore.” Herta said. “Please drink and eat your fill, we can bring out more food and tea at any time. I’ve been so curious to hear about Katarre from its own people– it is so difficult to get news about the events in the warlord states, and yet, a unified territory of Katarre would be the largest and most populated country in the world. I feel that the peoples of the Imbrium should be paying much more attention to Katarre’s future.”

Astra’s strands blinked, perhaps bristling at the question.

Her expression did not change.

Her tone, also, was perfectly measured. Not emotionless, but somewhat dispassionate.

“Mycenae has maintained some contact with its Imbrian neighbor in Veka.” Astra said. “And we have traded with Imbrian states before. But we are also cautious of our need to maintain our independence and self-sufficiency, as well as control information for our own security. We don’t want to be seen like the Republic of Rodos trying to imitate the Cogitans, or Argos practically begging for support from the Hanwans. There are no Imbrian vassalages in the Western Katarre for this reason; therefore also limited contact.”

“Of course, I understand.” Herta said. “I am curious about this journey, that has taken you to this balcony for tea– how did it begin? And how do you feel about it, Your Majesty?”

Properly addressed as a person of lordly stature, Astra seemed to put on a very small smile.

“It all began with a routine transaction. We put out feelers that we were looking to buy materials for arms from Veka, who have large manufactories of gunpowder and massive ironworks. Mycenae is ever vigilant to improve its stocks– we Katarrans believe that a day called Polemos will come when all of Katarre will launch into battle to decide the final rulership of the land. We build our arsenals tirelessly for this task.”

“I’m curious about the conditions for this grand battle– is it near or far?” Herta asked.

Astra shook her head. “We will feel it in our blood and bones when the time comes.”

“Oh, I see.” Herta said, blinking rapidly with confusion.

Imbrians never understood about Katarrans how much mythopoetics played a role in their world and how they conducted themselves. Even in the expressions of Katarran culture in the mercenary diaspora, this always baffled the Imbrians. Superstitious habits, the creation of charms, respect for rituals and prayers, an obsession with achieving great deeds.

Imbrians had seen nothing of what Katarrans were capable of in this regard, Norn knew.

When Norn learned about psionics, a few things she knew about her people began to make more sense because of it. She felt that perhaps Katarrans implicitly understood this underlying current of the world, and this connection that they had or could have, and that their culture expressed this in superstition and cultic beliefs. The backwardness seen by Imbrians was perhaps an emotional advancement that Imbrians themselves lacked– Euphrates and company used to speculate Imbrians were less psionically capable than other cultures precisely because of their hegemonic and racist beliefs.

Not that this explained whether the altars and rituals and warcries had actual power.

Norn had never actually seen such things used in battle, only heard of them.

As ever, she was a being torn in half, Katarran and Imbrian only partially, tragically.

Astra continued her story with what Norn perceived as a hint of smugness.

“After making our business intentions known, we were surprised to receive contact from Rhineametalle representatives, looking to beat the Vekans to an arms deal. It was a very generous offer. They wanted to give us a tour of their facilities, and to schedule a joint military demonstration, in addition to signing off on our purchases in person with their CEO. My mentor and I both believed that this was an opportunity to act on the world stage as a nation and score real legitimacy as claimants to Katarre. So we set out with a Rhinean escort. Tragically, the Empire entered its time of troubles in the middle of our journey.”

“Right, it’s quite unfortunate.” Herta said. She sipped her tea and picked up a macaron before continuing. “Has Your Majesty given consideration to beseeching the nations to put aside their differences and allow you to pass back to Mycenae? Surely no one wants another enemy, and it might even bring about some diplomacy between us all.”

“We have, but for now, we would like to complete our transaction with the Rhineametalle consortium.” Astra said. She paused to finally sip her own tea. “With the Union conquest of the territories south of Rhinea we may actually be dealing only with them to return to Mycenae, so we are not particularly worried about our way back home.”

Norn was surprised to hear a Mycenaean talk about diplomacy with the Union.

But perhaps they had much more in common than either of them realized.

“Ah, yes. Excuse me, Your Majesty, I should introduce my other guest–” Herta began–

“No need,” Odyssia interrupted. “I can feel it in the room. Her power and presence practically flood over us. That is Norn Tauscherer, the champion of the Imbrians, isn’t it? The Praetorian who represents the peak of Imbrian potential? Slayer of the Royal Guards of old Nocht?”

Herta glanced at Norn with a sudden anxiety. “Merarch, I’m afraid that name is–”

“It’s fine, Herta. I don’t expect our guests to know my change of title.” Norn said.

She was more amused than anything. This Odyssia– she truly wanted to make her beg–

“No, it’s not fine.” Astra suddenly said. “Odyssia, you will address her with respect.”

Odyssia looked at Norn with a sudden pathetic little smile.

“It’s Duke Norn von Fueller now.“ Norn said calmly, grinning back.

“My apologies, Duke von Fueller.“ Odyssia said. She bowed her head to Norn.

“Apology accepted. I couldn’t possibly hang this trifle over our guests.” Norn said.

She turned to Astra, who gave a curt nod with her eyes closed in response.

Though she was putting up a strong front, Astra still unsettled Norn.

There was something about seeing her move and talk that felt too familiar. There was something of herself in this girl whose circumstances she did not know, but whose provenance she was all too familiar with. Astra had been made, just like Norn had been made, meticulously bred from a primordial soup of DNA and chemicals in a mechanical, sterile womb. For her to have legitimacy, she must have had DNA from one of the previous rulers or their concubines. Such material was preserved, somewhere– but how did Mycenae happen to chance upon it within the chaos of Katarre’s fallen age?

Or perhaps it was all in her mind– perhaps Mycenae was lying.

Who could confirm?

And yet–

Intuition told her that Astra was of her kin– and she didn’t know how to feel about it.

Was Astra at that very moment thinking the same? That Norn felt far too familiar?

If she was considering it, her expression betrayed nothing.

Hopefully Norn’s own expression and mannerisms were equally secure.

For both of them, perhaps the best outcome was for nothing to be confirmed or learned.

To meet here, go their separate ways, never thinking of what had transpired.

Just another crossing of currents whose waters treaded their distinct, unknownable paths.

No matter what other conflicting things Norn might have felt about the princeling girl.

Who seemed so much like her– too much like her–

“Odyssia, take over answering our hostesses. I’d like to enjoy the sweets.” Astra said.

Her horns briefly glowed a bit as she spied the wheeled cart and its delicacies. A plate of colorful macarons and cake bites, a tray with long croutons to dip in steak tartare and top with vibrant salmon roe, orange-flecked spicy pickles topped with hot chutney, and the decanters of tea. Odyssia helpfully reached out and rolled the table over to her master so Her Majesty could partake of the spoils, and Herta encouraged her to eat.

Astra gingerly picked out a macaron, looked at it, took a bite.

That stoic expression melted, momentarily, with surprise and delight.

Was this the first time she had tasted something so sweet and delicate?

Norn grinned and sat back, waiting for Herta to ask another asinine question of their guests.

“So, anything you want to know about being a real, top Katarran warrior?” Odyssia said.

She looked delighted to be the center of attention.

Had she been on stage Norn would have thrown something and aimed for the face.

Herta thought about her question for a moment, and then asked, smilingly,

“In your position, what do you tend to do for fun and levity? What do you go back to?”

Prompting her guest to smile even wider than ever, while shrugging,

“Well, sometimes you can just seduce one of the numeroi and have a bit of fun–”

As soon as Odyssia was done speaking, Astra shot her a severe look.

Odyssia stopped in her tracks.

From an ordinary perspective this was perhaps just military authority at play.

However, Norn’s eyes could see the black tendrils of aether snaking through the air.

Linking Astra to Odyssia and gripping the latter with a supernatural fear of death.

Norn’s senses had not been wrong– Astra had power.

Not only that, but the shadow behind her, when she called upon her power–

It was this element that was most fearsome. It did not remind Norn of herself, but rather, the otherworldly presence of someone like Arbitrator II. Someone who felt like a monster wrapped in human skin, who occupied a room with an unseen self while their flesh occupied the mere space of a single human being. That uncanny feeling of ancient, primeval strength was not merely Astra’s confidence in herself. It was the purest, rawest power.

What had Mycenae done? What had they unearthed?

Astra’s donor was no ordinary beast.

And clearly, she did not just command respect, but actual power, in Mycenae.

Summarily and invisibly beaten down, Odyssia fell immediately into compliance.

“–well, you know, wine, fine foods, the usual stuff, we’re people just like you are!”

Odyssia remarked, glancing askance, while Herta sipped her tea with embarrassment.

Once her gaze turned, Norn called upon her power and tried to read Odyssia’s aura–

hoping to see the effect Astra’s power had on her–

–and found nothing at all to be read.

She could feel that Odyssia had psionic power, but her aura was completely invisible.

Astra had affected it– so Odyssia was not immune to psionic power.

But her aura– was impossible to read–?

Norn recalled what Selene had once reported about Sonya Shalikova, one of the pilots of the Pandora’s Box. She clearly demonstrated psionic powers, and Selene could feel the power from the enemy pilot, but it was impossible to gauge its directionality, character, texture– because the aura was simply invisible to psionic sight. This made it much more difficult for Selene, who was used to employing her psionic sight as an advantage, to read Shalikova’s movements and fight her. Ultimately, Shalikova defeated Selene in this contest.

Now Norn found herself staring at the face of a woman whose martial power, she felt,

was palpably enormous,

and yet her aura was invisible, hiding her true feelings, intentions, and possibly abilities.

The Mycenaean Military Commission was much more frightening than she had imagined.

Did they know the kind of power they wielded? How far had their research taken them?

Or were their abilities still explicable only through the mythology of Katarran deeds?

Pythian black witchcraft, Mycenaean astrology, old Katarran Kingdom Mageía.

Was that all they knew– or were they on Euphrates’ theoretical level?

Before Herta could ask another stupid question Norn finally interceded with her own.

“Merarch Metis, can you regale us with a tale of your greatest battle?” Norn asked.

Moreso to prevent more boring talk about nothing than to extract information.

Odyssia lit up, practically beaming. “There we go! I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that. Your Majesty, may I tell them about the Great Hunt launched for the Shadow of Tyrins?”

Astra looked up from the sweets table, having just taken a cheesecake bite.

“That was before my time– yes, I’m also interested. Go ahead.” Astra said.

Odyssia cross one leg over the other and leaned forward, sitting rather strangely.

Cocking a grin, practically vibrating with excitement, Odyssia began, “This was something like twenty years ago. I was still a humble numeroi serving at the pleasure of my masters,” Herta began to sip her tea with embarrassment again, reacting to the clear innuendo, much to Odyssia’s continuing amusement, “a powerful Leviathan was sighted multiple times in the Tyrins region, a very deep region with most of our mining stations at the time. It attacked two ore bearing ships, and resisted an attempt to kill it by, according to eyewitnesses, flitting away, disappearing. Miners began to claim they ran into the beast in the mine shafts and the ore processing stations. It was as if it was drawn to the Agarthicite. It was described as a great horse-like beast with long paddled legs, with a mane of fleshy strands that burst with electricity, powerful enough to disrupt even our EM equipment.”

“To put a stop to it, the Commission deployed an entire Turma, a fleet section, with 25 ships and thousands of men. Such was the importance of this mission and slaying this beast. Our supply lines to Tyrin were crucial to our survival. I was part of the numeroi, the footsoldiers, of this Turma. This was a time when Heavy Divers had only just entered into military understanding. The Commission came to learn of Divers from the Union revolution, through news from Veka. We were beginning to make our own– by modifying the very labor hardware also used by miners. The Commission also began to test using modified hardsuits and sealed power armors instead. If you were thrown into one of those, all you had were heavy personnel-size weapons and some petroleum-fired jets.”

Odyssia put a fist to her chest. Herta looked horrified at the prospect.

“So there I was, with nothing but a machine gun, a diamond blade, and my hardsuit!”

“Oh my, how frightening!” Herta said. “Could you even see at such depths?”

“Barely anything! I only had one light on my hardsuit, and obviously no computers!”

“Goodness!”

Norn glanced at Herta with narrowed eyes, while the old woman clutched her heart.

“My officers didn’t like me at all, I was too freewheeling, and a libertine and I did not respond to their advances– well, I was rebellious.” Odyssia stopped herself from another sexual remark when Astra shot her another glare. She shrugged and continued her story. “After spotting the beast, the fleet concentrated fire, but it avoided everything! So they get this bright idea to launch numeroi out to fight it in hardsuits with personal weapons. Enough troop saturation and someone would hit it! Because the hardsuits were not designed for fighting, the weapons were actually welded to it on bands so we wouldn’t drop them, and improvised triggers were placed inside the hands of the suits for us.”

“Those weapons were worth more than your life at that time.” Astra added.

“They probably still are!” Odyssia said, earning her a narrow-eyed stare from Her Majesty. “Anyway, so we’re all getting thrown out of a chute that’s meant for mines or drones, since we didn’t have dedicated deployment chutes back then like we do now. Of course, it’s an absolute slaughter out there, I’m seeing and hearing suits popping everywhere which means a bunch of numeroi are joining the marine fog. In the distance, all I can really see beyond my floodlight is the snaking purple streaks of the Shadow of Tyrins. One bolt of lightning from its horns and it was over for anyone there. Nobody could stand against it!”

“How did you conquer such horrendous odds?” Herta asked, on the edge of her seat.

“Well– first, I turned my floodlight off. Then, I kicked the numeroi in front of me in the back of the head.” Odyssia said. Herta gasped and averted her gaze. Odyssia continued, proudly, seeing nothing wrong. “Their floodlight started wiggling all over the damn place and attracted the thing’s attention. It was the size of the kind of Divers we have now, it was huge, and it cleaved right through my compatriot with its tail and popped them like a bubble. But their sacrifice was not in vain– I threw all my fuel into blasting right into it, engaged my saw, and I started chopping like you’ve never seen! Like a woman possessed! I figured out that it was avoiding the muzzle flashes and blasts, so I did not use my gun. I dug so deep into that thing’s hide I probably made a little womb in it for myself. There was gore going everywhere, my visor was caked in it, and I didn’t stop chopping at it. When I was rescued, I was so freaked out I tried to chop at my superior officer and got tied up and beaten.”

“When all was said and done, we lost two ships, and 500 men.” Astra said. Her strands lit up a bit. “That much I knew from the official records. Anything else do with the Shadow of Tyrins is myth and legend. All commanders of the mission were sworn to secrecy and most of the numeroi saw nothing at all. At the time, it was thought to be an embarrassment. Not so much now. Truth be told I only vaguely knew of Odyssia’s involvement in the matter.”

“Heh, well, I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t slain the beast. My superiors were incredibly keen on killing me or worse, but even they had to admit it was too useful to have an insane killer on their side who could tackle the danger so they wouldn’t have to.” Odyssia said. “After that, I was raised from a Numeroi to a Domestikos, as a formality, but I still basically just did dirty work and killed tough opponents– I was basically the designated hero of my Tagma and that was it. But I got better rations and I was bothered a lot less.”

“And now, here you are,” Norn said, “have you earned some peace as a Merarch?”

Odyssia crossed her arms and leaned back. “Nope! I still basically do the same shit.”

Astra glanced at her and shook her head. “Manners.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Odyssia said, shrugging again. “But you haven’t heard the end of the story yet. Nobody will believe this next part, even if they believe the rest. But I must still tell it. When I was killing the beast, soaked in its blood, I received visions. Visions of it traveling a long, lonely current, fighting and killing, eating anything it defeated, growing stronger, bigger, stranger. Painstakingly acquiring the abilities it demonstrated. And as I killed it, I felt like I became it for a moment, wandering my own path, an endless journey of battle from which I grew and learned and defeated countless opponents. A journey taking ever farther from home. I saw my own future in the spilling gore of that beast!”

“Incredible.” Herta said, her excitement for this much more dulled than the previous events.

“To me, the beast was saying– as long as your two feet keep moving, you’ll keep fighting. But you’ll be invincible, as long as you don’t let anyone block your path or tie you down.” Odyssia shut her eyes and seemed to contemplate her own words for a moment,

looking much too satisfied.

Astra grunted. “You are tied down. You still have to answer to your orders.”

“That doesn’t count, Your Majesty!” Odyssia replied. “That’s every Katarran ever!”

She gave her master a big smile that seemed to mollify her.

“Well– I’m glad you’ve found peace of mind in the midst of your service.” Astra said.

“Thank you for the story, that was fascinating.” Herta said.

With how much the Mycenaean talked, there was no interest in Norn’s own stories.

So she simply got to sit and take in Odyssia’s boasting, Herta’s naivety, and Astra.

Astra Palaiologos. That was her name. It was also Norn’s name.

Some part of it did not sit right with Norn. It made her feel angry and helpless.

However, she could not afford any response. She had too many troubles as it was.

As much as she liked to sell herself as invincible, there was only so much she could do.

Navigating the Imbrium Empire’s collapse would already take everything she had.

To go to war with Mycenae for digging up the grave of what she was meant to be–

Or worse– for some foolish idea that this girl needed a rescue Norn never received–

It was not possible. She had to disabuse herself of the notion completely, and immediately.

Sipping tea, having cakes, watching from across the room. That was all she would do.

Hoping that this Astra Palaiologos would be less abused than the one that preceded her.


Since their arrival in Aachen, the Brigand immediately launched a multitude of missions with most of its top personnel and that of the Rostock involved, along with some help from the John Brown, particularly Burke Zepp and Marina McKennedy. They had experience with such things; the missions would focus on reconnaissance, information gathering, and expanding their contacts in the station. Kalika and Homa established a presence in the Shimii Wohnbezirk; Illya and Valeriya scouted out the Uhlan barracks and kept an eye on the station’s security forces; several pilots were sent to scout the habitations, the commercial districts, and the office spaces as plainclothes travelers; Murati had been deployed to a somewhat dubious expedition into the Gau offices, uniformed as a fascist.

Even the Captain and Commissar had left the ship on important business.

This left the bridge under Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa, who normally had nothing to do while docked and could be reasonably left in charge.

With limited authority— except in case of a truly dire emergency.

All of these preparations required haste, and the usual deliberations had to be skipped or abbreviated to set the pace. There was little time to be cautious, and a lot to be done. Their objectives had to be underway or accomplished before the United Front gathered– the true goal behind these various maneuvers was to hopefully achieve advantage for the National Volksarmee in the upcoming talks. Knowing the station, discovering the strength and reach of their allies and enemies, formulating a plan, all of this was crucial to not walking in blind and looking foolish in front of the Eisern Front and Reichbanner Schwarzrot.

They did not hope to come out of the talks as the undisputed major influence of the Front.

Certainly the Eisern anarchists would not allow this to happen, even if the demsocs did.

However, they could not enter the room with flagging ambitions either.

That would have been a waste of everyone’s time.

There would be fiery passions flying in the United Front, and they had to be able to stand as equal partners at least. To show their resources, capabilities, and determination, the Volksarmee had to work hard in the precious time they had before the meetings. So they would comb the station, compile data, set up watches, pick up informants. It would not be wasted work even after the United Front– someday, Aachen would be a battlefield.

Hopefully not soon; and hopefully, they would have reliable allies at their side then.

Because most of these activities involved the officers and special guests of the Volksarmee, the sailors and some of the remaining officers remained on the ships and continued their day-to-day routines. But there was one project, in the very heart of the UNX-001 Brigand, that did involve several officers and did not involve Aachen itself.

Despite this it was a project of grand importance.

“Welcome to the third ‘Project to Learn About Weird Stuff’ on the Brigand!”

“You can’t call it the third one– the others were ‘Meetings to Discuss Weird Stuff’.”

“Ah, whatever, I can do what I want because I’m the officer in charge of it!”

Karuniya Maharapratham and Braya Zachikova welcomed their guests to the laboratory.

Those guests being Arabella, or Arbitrator I; and Olga Athanasiou, or Hunter I.

Karuniya had interacted with them several times already; and now she had access to a bevy of reports with additional information about who they actually were.

Arabella had come aboard the ship under mysterious circumstances during the events at Goryk’s Gorge, over a month now before their arrival at Aachen. Back then, her hair was white and red and her skin complexion very pale– now she was wearing her hair in a blue color, and her horns, smooth and vascular and sprouting from under her messy bangs, also had blue tips. Her skin was a little bit ruddier than before, suggesting she had picked up or was forcing color to it. Her body was otherwise the same as before, lean and lightly muscled with gentle curves, dressed in the teal jacket and button-down shirt and skirt that made up the Treasure Box Transports uniform worn around the Brigand.

Olga, meanwhile, had undergone no transformations since they met her. She was pretending to be an armored gurnard Katarran woman, the same kind as several other members of the Volksarmee, with curved horns coming from the back of her head that framed a plain white-haired ponytail. Her skin was very pale, and her figure was a bit fuller than Arabella’s, while her stature was a bit shorter. She wore a simple black hoodie and pants and wore an expression halfway between uncaring and annoyed at all times.

What had changed about them was that Karuniya now knew what they really were.

It had been easy to tell everyone they were Katarrans, and Olga successfully pretended to be Katarran in society for years– which was interesting, owing to the social position of Katarrans, this was not necessarily an advantageous identity to adopt. Regardless, what they actually were was a sentient species of hominids theoretically parallel to humanity known as the “Omenseers.” What Karuniya knew so far about the Omenseers is they were allegedly an ancient culture not necessarily of hominid origin, but which at some point, was revived through experiments on spliced hominid DNA to create the ones they knew now, using something similar to the Pelagis Process that Katarrans used to reproduce.

A lot of the information she had access to about them was sketchy and confusing.

Euphrates and Tigris had conjectures about the provenance of the original “Omenseers,” believing them to be a near-prehistoric race of soft-bodied fish-like organisms that might have lived in caves– nothing but a physical conjecture based on rationalizations, irrelevant to the current Omenseers who were not soft-bodied fish-like organisms living in caves, who possessed psychic abilities, and who, when asked, had no idea how this could possibly involve them in any way. Karuniya completely discarded this information, not as necessarily untrue, but as presently useless. They were not going to crack the origin of humanity here.

Arabella apparently had genetic memories which she recently recovered and then lost again due to the traumatic experiences she underwent in Kreuzung. She was apparently created as a bioweapon by the Surface Era civilization and condemned by her former masters, whom she spoke about with semi-religious anxiety. Before acquiring these memories, she would say the Omenseers were a facsimile of an ancient culture– whether she meant a culture of the Surface Era or even before that, was anyone’s guess.

There had always been theories and conjectures that the Surface Era civilization was far more advanced than the After Descent civilization, but that most of their technology was lost above. These were largely crafted after the Fueller Reformation in the 930s, when thinkers like Mordecai were given space and opportunity to voice criticism on the development of the Imbrian Empire and its systemic disparities.

Mordecai argued that the upper classes of the Pre-Descent world likely had a purely extractive relationship to the new ocean polities. Wishing to hoard their wealth on the surface, they leveraged their social control toward the retention of an imperial core above the waves, thereby limiting the total development of the ocean habitations and locking them out of potentially transformative technologies, such as the blueprints for the Base Code. They were locked into the role of consumers, until the exporter nations of the surface were completely destroyed or collapsed, orphaning the Ocean. Other less political theories were that likely many Surface technologies were useless underwater, such as higher-bandwidth forms of radio-electric communications, and yes, certain theoretical weapons and optical technologies, and therefore they were excluded from the ocean; and that the surface civilization ended suddenly before ocean-adapted technology was fully ready.

Karuniya was deeply interested in working on these lines of reasoning– if Arabella was a surface relic, then her memories could concern much more than the Omenseers exclusively. It could mean blowing wide open several other mysteries about the world. Whether it was possible to extract this information was unknown, but she would try.

Olga, meanwhile, had a simplistic and soldier-like view that reminded Karuniya of a certain someone that she knew– Olga did not trouble herself with scientific inquiry. She added to the collective knowledge the detail that Leviathans were able to become Omenseers, if they achieved psionic powers like the kind that Murati had disclosed. She also elucidated on the Omenseer caste system, a seemingly arbitrary social control lever devised by their supreme leader, Arbitrator II, who was apparently Arabella’s biological sister. It seemed that in the Omenseer society, function preceded form– if the Arbitrator created a ‘Hunter’ then they were leaner and lighter and quicker, but also a bit sadistic. But Olga did not know whether Arbitrator II chose and then implanted these traits, or if she found creatures that possessed these traits in some form and then set their caste based on these discoveries.

Despite these disclosures and any implications they might have had, Olga was utterly untroubled about her origins, and did not dwell on existential questions about herself or about her species. Whether or not she was human did not matter to her; whether or not she was a created or natural being did not matter to her; her present state and the Volksarmee’s goals was everything to her and she abhorred distractions from them.

Her own genetic memories were a thoroughly tertiary concern to her.

However, she agreed to participate in this project in order to–

“–I just want to make Erika happy.” Olga mumbled.

Meanwhile, Arabella also agreed to cooperate because–

“–I just want Braya to be happy.” Arabella declared.

“You don’t need to make me happy! I’ll be– I’ll be fine either way.” Zachikova grumbled.

And so, after some brief interviews and going over old information, the Project proceeded.

At the head of the project was Karuniya Maharapratham.

She was required to describe herself as part of the initial history of the Project, which touched upon personnel– but what could be said about Karuniya Maharapratham, a woman that was beyond description? She was beautiful, exceedingly so, with vibrant honey-brown skin and long, silky dark hair and a soft and pretty face; she was exceptionally intelligent, the recipient of multiple aptitude certifications and holder of two degrees; she was unfailingly charismatic, with an eclectic sense of humor and a hyper-modern eye for fashion, and a sexual powerhouse able to rope in the most eligible bachelor on Solstice, Murati Nakara, into following her around the Imbrium like she was tethered on a–

“You’re taking years to fill out a form that has like four fields on it!” Zachikova shouted.

Assisting in the project was Braya Zachikova, a short woman of diminutive build with thin limbs, narrow hips, a flat chest and ghostly pale skin. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a silly and pretentious spiraling ponytail, and thick, angled antennae took the place of her ears. She had a negative attitude and dour bearing. Her face might have been attractive had she ever even attempted a smile, and if she got any sleep to get those black bags out from under her robot eyes, and if she went outside or stood under a–

“Why are you filling out my part of the report?! Let me look at what you’re writing–!”

“Leave me alone!” Karuniya cried, holding the portable away from Zachikova’s grasp.

“I don’t have all day to stand here and watch you two bicker.” Olga grumbled.

Once all the formalities were out of the way,

Zachikova and Karuniya formally welcomed their guests and got to business.

“At the Captain and the Volksarmee Premier’s request, we are going undertake a project to further study and understand Omenseer physiology. While I have a scientific interest in this, the ultimate goal of the project is a military one– if Omenseers are biological weapons, we would like to understand the ways their bodies work for the purpose of carrying out our mission.” Karuniya said, smiling brightly and holding a portable computer in her hands as she spoke. “For now, our immediate goals are exploratory, but our ultimate goal is to restore Arabella’s alleged DNA storage and to establish Omenseer-friendly logistics, create health supplementation for our Omenseers, and perhaps design Omenseer weaponry that takes into account your unique abilities for combat purposes. These are long-term ambitions– we’re nowhere near any of this, but I want to give us some goals to pursue.”

“Thank you so much!” Arabella said. “I’m sorry for being a burden! I am in your care!”

“You’re not a burden!” Zachikova protested. “Stop apologizing.”

“I’m hoping this doesn’t take up too much of my time.” Olga mumbled.

Karuniya continued explaining the purpose of the project–

“A secondary concern is we want to understand whether Omenseer and Human physiology are compatible and in what ways they might not be. We want to avoid making any dangerous assumptions. For example, are Omenseer tissues like ours? Or do they have novel behaviors? Can Omenseers derive nutrition from our food, and what is their body’s metabolic response to it? And perhaps even uncover mysteries such as: can Omenseers have sex with humans? I’m vaguely aware of this actually happening, but I wonder if it would–”

“You’ll wonder nothing. We are not bothering with that.” Zachikova grunted.

She stared daggers at a Karuniya that began to wear a conspiratorial grin on her face.

“I just think, since both of our subjects have very close human partners–”

“That’s enough of that train of thought, Professor Pervert!” Olga shouted.

“I’m on Mushroom Lady’s side on this issue!” Arabella also shouted.

Karuniya’s eyes darted toward Olga and then Arabella, her face draining of color.

“Professor Pervert?! Mushroom lady?!” She cried out in despair.

“Can we please move on already!?” Zachikova shouted, joining the chorus.

Once everyone’s emotions had settled, a glum Karuniya resumed productivity.

“To begin, we’re going to have to gather an initial pool of biological materials so I can get started identifying your genetic or enzymatic properties. I will henceforth be responsible for the health of our Omenseer personnel the same way as Dr. Kappel is responsible for the health of our human personnel. I have some medical training, and she instructed me on proper collection methodology and Union regulations. I have medical supplies available that I hope can be universally useful even if your physiology is significantly different to humans. We will take several samples, establish an initial biomedical profile, and run tests.”

Zachikova looked at the Chief Science Officer beside her with narrow-eyed skepticism.

“Describe to them what you’re actually going to do to them!” Zachikova demanded.

“I have lots of tests prepared.” Karuniya said. “Skin, hair, blood, bone marrow, fluids–”

“Bone marrow? Isn’t this going a bit overboard? What is it even for?” Zachikova asked.

“I’m going to compare everything to a template normal human, Murati.” Karuniya said.

Zachikova narrowed her eyes ever more. “Wait– Why did you choose Murati for this?”

“I mean, she’s a very excellent human don’t you think?” Karuniya said, smiling. “Plus I have access to her genetic material very easily. I don’t have to involve anyone else if I use hers.”

Zachikova blinked and then crossed her arms, staring daggers at Karuniya.

Arabella and Olga both looked unbothered by the prospect of bone marrow extractions.

Nor by Karuniya somehow collecting and keeping Murati’s fluids.

“I’m not doing it for funsies! I’m helping her with her health stuff!” Karuniya said.

“You’re a sick person. I can’t believe I ever trusted you.” Zachikova replied in a low voice.

“Why are you being so sensitive, this medical stuff is extremely routine and–”

“Why are you so INsensitive! Ask yourself that and repent, you mad scientist!”

Arabella raised her hand suddenly. “Braya is scared of the doctor, Miss Mushrooms–”

“It’s Maharapratham!” Karuniya shouted just as suddenly.

“–please be understanding of her needs if you can.” Arabella finished, unperturbed.

“I was afraid of going to the doctor because of you, Arabella!” Zachikova said.

Olga turned around and quietly started to walk away until Karuniya rushed to get her back.

Once the proceedings were returned to order for the upteenth time, Karinuya retrieved a pair of wheeled tables bearing a few boxes of medical equipment, such as long hollow needles in sterile packaging for retrieving bone marrow, and smaller needles with blood collection tubes. There were swabs and scraping pads for collecting skin samples, and small containers rated for different kinds of fluids as well as for the hair and marrow samples. This gave the Omenseers in attendance a preview of what the next step in the process would look like. Karuniya retrieved a medical mask, gloves and sterilizing gel.

“Okay! We’re going to start with Arabella, collect blood and skin, and go to Olga.”

Karuniya gestured for Arabella to sit down on a chair she wheeled to one of the tables.

Arabella nodded her head and took her seat. Karuniya pulled up the sleeve of her uniform and took her blood pressure, and then wrapped a band tight around Arabella’s arm to check for a good vein to draw blood from. All of these things she had been instructed on before, both at the Academy where she took a few courses on medical assistantship and nursing, and by Dr. Kappel preparing her for this new role. She had a bit of leeway as it seemed that Omenseers had the ability to recover from very ghastly wounds.

Still– she did not want to hurt Arabella and was exactingly careful.

“Have you ever had any shots Arabella? Or any kind of bloodwork?” Karuniya asked.

“Braya stuck a needle in me, in Kreuzung. It filled my veins with her love.” Arabella said.

“That was morphine.” Zachikova said, sighing.

Karuniya warned Arabella gently that the needle was going in and began the blood draw.

While drawing the blood into the tubes, she turned to Zachikova.

“You know, we have no idea whether she would be affected by our medicines.” She said.

Zachikova shrugged. “She was nearly cut in half! You would’ve done the same!”

“I did feel a little bit woozy now that I recall.” Arabella said. “But I was also very nervous.”

“You were also bleeding out! Being woozy is not evidence of anything.” Zachikova said.

“Interesting. We’ll test pharmacokinetics on you some time.” Karuniya said.

Four tubes slowly and gently filled with perfectly ordinary-looking red blood.

Arabella received a plain bandage in return.

Karuniya set the collected matter aside on a test tube stand labeled ‘Arabella’. She changed her gloves, cleaning her hands with antibacterial gel in between applying a new set of gloves, and withdrew the next set of tools. A package ncluding scrubbing pads and a solution to moisten and loosen skin for collection. Karuniya applied the fluid to the pad, pressed it on the skin and scraped on Arabella’s outstretched arm several times, in long, gentle up and down motions. Once she was done with one arm, she confined the scrubbing pad to prepared test tube, opened a second package, and she performed the procedure on the other arm, labeling and putting away the samples after she was done.

She changed her gloves again, beginning to hum a little tune as she did so.

There was something satisfying about working with people.

She understood how Dr. Kappel had so much enthusiasm despite the gravity of her work.

Though she was mostly qualified for what she was doing, she was not a medic by profession and hardly ever had cause to take care of anyone. While collecting samples hardly qualified as bedside manner, it made her feel fulfilled to do something so concrete for the crew. Given how hard everyone else had been working– Karuniya had felt a little bit useless before.

Even with her newfound role as Murati’s co-pilot– it was nice to have science to do.

More than just growing mushrooms– or killing people.

Piloting a Diver was not anything she imagined taking pride in.

Having a scientific project that would help them understand and care for (and make use of) the Omenseers in their crew, and advance humanity’s knowledge of another hominid, that was the kind of thing she had dreamed of doing. It was not oceanography, but she nursed a vain little hope that it would really, truly matter. And in mattering, it might perhaps make her matter a little more. Maybe her name would be remembered in the future.

“Alright, Zachikova, I’ll have you take Arabella aside, behind that divider,” Karuniya said, pointing to a prepared space curtained off with a mobile divider, “And help her collect the fluid and hair samples. You’ll just follow this booklet, and use these tubes, they’re already labeled. Everything you need is right there.” She pointed to the table where there was another sample collection kit already prepared. “While you’re doing that, I’ll take Olga’s blood and deal with her. Tell me when you’re done.” Karuniya signaled for Olga.

Zachikova picked up the box and took Arabella by the arm, who looked happy to be pulled.

Olga stepped forward with her hands in her pockets, sighing.

Karuniya repeated the skin swabbing and the blood draw with greater confidence.

Her patient was quiet and cooperative, and responded very little to small talk questions.

“How are things usually on the Rostock? I haven’t had a chance to board.”

“They’re unruly as hell, but they get things done.”

“Have you known Premier Kairos long?”

“Yes.”

“Are you a big communist die-hard like her?”

“It’s whatever– I only believe in Erika being in charge.”

“Um. Are you eating anything tasty after we’re done?”

“No.”

Once the blood and skin samples were collected, Olga once again tried to leave.

Karuniya once again urged her to stay– and also lifted her portable computer again.

She had to call someone.

“Please hold on. I’m not done with the blood just yet.”

Olga grumbled. “You only took four from Arabella. Why do you want even more of mine?”

“Yours is special,” Karuniya smiled, “please just wait a moment, you’ll see.”

Moments later, a disgruntled-looking woman entered the laboratory, carrying something.

“Hey, wait,” Olga shouted, “what is going on here?”

Without so much as a wave of the hand, Logia Minardo walked past Olga and stood beside Karuniya holding a plate covered with a cloche. A comely older woman with shoulder-length, dark hair, impeccable makeup, and a curvy and rugged body, Minardo, who was known for her affable and energetic personality, wore an uncharacteristically disgruntled look on her face. She stared at Olga with a particularly sharp glare that Olga definitely noticed.

Karuniya clapped her hands.

“Olga Athanasiou, meet our beautiful head chef, Logia Minardo!” Karuniya said.

“I know who she is.” Olga said. “What’s she doing here and why is she mad at me?”

“I’m not mad at you.” Minardo said. “I’m mad at the world– and disappointed.”

“What does that even mean?” Olga shouted, waving her hands helplessly.

Karuniya gestured toward the plate and the cloche covering it.

“You see Olga, I want to test to see if there may be an enzymatic difference between an Omenseer eating human meat and one who has not eaten any. I want to test this hypothesis by having you eat some human meat now and then give additional blood afterward. That way I can compare your blood when starved of human tissue; to Arabella’s blood who has recently eaten human tissue; and also to your blood after eating human tissue. It will give me more data to analyze! I know you have reservations, but I thought this might go down easier if it was prepared properly– so I received special dispensation from the captain to involve our resident expert chef, the widely beloved Logia Minardo, to cook the meat.”

At Karuniya’s side, Minardo stared at Olga with a combination of exhaustion and disgust.

Olga gritted her teeth and closed her fists. She glared death and violence at Karuniya.

“…Steak, with a peppercorn cream sauce.” Minardo said, voice devoid of emotion. “Reverse seared and butter-basted, in a cast iron pan that was immediately ferricycled afterward.”

Unveiling from beneath the fancy cloche, a finely cut steak in an unctuous-looking sauce.

So served and so dressed, it well disguised this was cut out from a dead Volkich soldier.

After learning more about Omenseers, the Captain and Commissar had begrudgingly decided to retain the corpses they had and preserve them just in case. Karuniya had some ideas for how she might use the remains to make Omenseer supplementation.

For now, however, all she had was a very simple preparation– human steak.

All smiles, she gestured toward the food almost like a presenter at a show.

“Doesn’t it look good? Alright, eat up, and after two hours I’ll take your blood again.”

“I have to sit around here for two more hours?” Olga whole body slumped.

“The Premier said you have to cooperate!” Karuniya replied, with a sing-song voice.

Zachikova soon reappeared with Arabella in tow and their fluid test kit completed.

She glared just as violently and disrespectfully as Olga was glaring at Karuniya.

Karuniya, meanwhile, simply shrugged her shoulders with an inassailable smile.

They could call her whatever they wanted, but she was soaring with excitement.

Thus, the inauspicious but important beginning of the Brigand’s Omenseer project.


Like most stations, Aachen Station had use of the space beneath the baseplate as well as the actual towers themselves. In addition to the maintenance area, there were a few areas off-set of the baseplate and reachable by elevators. The first was the Shimii Wohnbezirk, but besides that, there was also an additional habitat about a third of the size of the Wohnbezirk. When the primary stab was dug out to insert Aachen’s core pylon, a residential and storage area for the workers was constructed offset the pylon. Once the station was completed, this area was abandoned, until a few enterprising souls claimed pieces of it and made it a seedy but lively residential and commerce area. Here, the wretched underclass of Imbrian society mingled with the Katarran underworld, both unwanted.

“Chloe, will we actually be safe down here?”

“Oh yeah, don’t worry– we’re not looking for trouble, and I’m pretty tough y’know!”

Chloe Kuri flexed her unimpressive biceps while Elena Lettiere watched, unimpressed.

As the foremost intelligence agent and chief gossip among the crew of the Rostock, Chloe Kuri had become a known figure even among the crew of the Brigand. A member of Erika Kairos’ inner circle, Chloe loved to collect and trade secrets and personal information and was in her own words also a hobbyist thief and lockpick. Her small stature and sharply practiced lightness of feet assisted her in sneaking around the station– or so she said. She was a short and curvy Katarran with silver hair and girlish features, dressed in a hooded cape over a cut-off top and shorts. Always smiling, and quite excitable.

Elena had learned from the “gossiping aunties” of the Brigand that Chloe Kuri had helped a few people in Kreuzung during the last days of their stay. She helped purchase contraband and advertised her information services to various people, either in exchange for extra rations or equally juicy secrets to that which she could divulge. Elena sought Chloe Kuri, hoping that the petite Katarran might be able to find out any information about a certain friend of hers among the Katarran whisper networks– in exchange, Elena disclosed to Chloe her status as Princess von Fueller– which Chloe already knew about.

“It was a funny attempt though– I appreciate it! I’ll help you out pro-bono!”

Or rather– Chloe would help out– in exchange for being dubbed a knight.

Elena pretended she could knight Chloe in any way that mattered, and Chloe was satisfied.

Now, Chloe was upholding her end of the bargain.

But not in a way Elena had envisioned.

“When we arrived I immediately scouted out the Katarran spots like I usually do. I heard about an informant who showed up recently but already has become legendary for the amount of information she brought to Aachen from other parts of the Imbrium. She’s really made an impression on the Katarrans around here! She’s a bit eccentric and uses a lot of code names– calls herself All-Seeing Eye. It’s worth a shot asking her!”

When Elena voiced concerns about descending below the baseplate, Chloe smiled wide,

“Ask for forgiveness, not permission. That’s how Katarrans get things done!”

Elena suspected this was less a Katarran thing and more of a Chloe thing.

Nevertheless, she snuck out with Chloe with such ease that at first it felt like a setup.

In a corner of the Stockheim dock station, they found a cramped cargo lift used for small loads and found that it had been modified to withstand the weight of human beings. Nervous, but willing to go to some lengths for information about her friend, Elena followed Chloe’s instructions, and the two of them shared a cramped lift all the way down below the baseplate. They arrived at a landing with a half-closed shutter, and Chloe easily squeezed through. Even for a skinny girl like Elena, it was a tight fit– she couldn’t imagine any ordinary Katarrans fitting through that way. This was definitely another Chloe special.

“Chloe, are you sure this is the right way down? This seems dangerous.”

“This is Chloe’s way down– there’s probably other ones, but this is the one I know.”

They had only been here two days and she already had ramshackle shortcuts?

Nevertheless, following a few turns around maintenance tunnels, they exited out onto–

“Haaren,” the parallel world of Katarrans and crime beneath Aachen station.

According to Chloe, it was derisively named after a former hunting ground of the Nocht Dynasty– contrasting the exorbitant luxury and waste of a place built entirely for kingly sporting pursuits with a habitat of depressing limitations occupied exclusively by self-described lowlives. Underground Haaren was rather vertical– each small block containing a handful buildings that straddled a ramp down to the next level, with the highest level seeing the rock ceiling held up by pillar supports, and the rest seeing in their too-near sky only the plate that held up the tier above. In total there were maybe thirty buildings, but there were more dwellings and businesses in the form of street kiosks and tents pitched in alleyways and corners. There were snaking paths through the space that were improsived around whatever was erected in their way, navigable only because Elena could see ahead of herself where people were going, and thus, where she was allowed to go.

Grimy streets, slick with droplets of water that leaked in through the firmaments, and lit by dim neon signage, LCD screens enticing the street wanderers to drink, gamble and fuck, and small torches, running out of battery, rigged up to poles. There was an immense press of human bodies slipping into the alleys, standing before the kiosks, sitting miserably on the streets, and going into and out of the bars, shops, brothels and inns. There was a soup kitchen being run by a group called “Kamma,” along with a few bunkhouses that looked to be managed by religious people. Most of the people around the illicit businesses were Katarrans while most of the sad and bedraggled folk were Imbrians, Loup and Shimii, a strange inversion from the social positions that Elena imagined. Not that there weren’t poor Katarrans– almost everywhere, there was a Katarran being roughed up.

“Stay close to me and be careful.” Chloe said as they walked in from the elevator bank.

Avoiding a fight that had broken out between two Katarrans outside a bar.

Elena had been given a hooded cloak to wear, covering up her features. She had freshly dyed her hair black, and with her face covered, she hoped nobody would realize she was a pretty young girl and try to do anything– between her and Chloe, they were the smallest people around on the streets. She grew increasingly nervous as they walked.

Around them, the shops had all kinds of things available. Most sold snacks or handmade textiles, mainly fried or dried foods and squares of synthetic cloth. Some promoted military parts of dubious provenance for sale, including Imperial transponders and communications systems that purported the ability to fool patrols or supply ships, as well as “military-grade” weapons. Others had uncooked food in various conditions, mainly fish.

“Chloe?”

“Yeah?”

While they walked, Elena leaned over Chloe’s shoulder to whisper.

“Are there places like this everywhere?” She asked.

“There’s a lot of ‘em!” Chloe said. “Every station has some abandoned areas and some less-traveled ones. A lot are remnants of the shafts dug by workers who were setting down the Core Pylon and building out around it. When people can’t afford to live in the core station, they don’t just disappear, they have to go somewhere. There’s nothing but the station and the ocean, so they go wherever the law doesn’t follow. I think most stations would rather they just eat each other down here than take up even more prison cells.”

“I see.” Elena said, her voice trembling a bit. She was so shocked to see all of this.

She knew, intellectually, that places like this were bound to exist.

Because space in a core station was at a premium, and you had to pay for lodging.

Therefore, it had to follow– those who were not able to pay had to go somewhere.

In Kreuzung, she heard that homeless people were beaten on the street.

So clearly, they had to go somewhere that nobody was looking at.

Everything Chloe said made complete sense– but seeing it was another matter.

Elena felt so deeply foolish walking through the crowds of hard-done folks.

What if she had inherited the crown– could she have ever turned this around?

No– that was a foolish thought too. Because the crown would have blinded her.

These people would have just remained invisible to her.

Only a proletarian could see them and maybe even understand them.

Now that she could see them, see the dirty choked-up streets and the tents and the overflowing alleyways and the fact that these people had nothing here but a red light district and some charity, everything ruled over by the huge neon signs advertising booze and sex– the idea of an underworld was made manifest before her. It was not a lurid fantasy anymore. Even though these people had some measure of freedom to do what they pleased, they were visibly hurting, deeply hurting. Elena could not help but to feel a mixture of the seedy underworld fantasy but also a measure of regret and perhaps even pity.

“Don’t pity them too much.” Chloe said, perhaps realizing what Elena’s silence might have meant. “They wouldn’t want you to. More than your pity, what they would want is your help. But if you give them money, it will only tide them over for a moment. To truly help, just support the Premier and the mission. Remember we’re down here for a reason.”

“Right.” Elena said, trying to cast eyes away from any faces in the crowd.

“Besides, it might sound cruel, but these places can be really convenient for us.”

Elena did not think it was cruel– because she thought of Chloe as a member of this place.

Someone who moved beneath the eyes of the Imbrians living peacefully in the station.

Of course it was convenient for her. It was what she knew, it was part of her strength.

If she were a leviathan, this was the ocean she swam through.

Regardless, they were, indeed, down in Haaren for a specific goal.

“Thank you, Chloe, for everything.”

“Don’t mention it. No more talking for now, okay?”

Chloe led Elena down several tiers of the Haaren substructure.

In each, they saw more of the same, though the lower tiers had more habitations and less crowded streets, as if all the action was focused more on the higher tiers. Even below ground, the peak was the economic center, and the very bottom was the remnants and cast-offs. But the very bottom was where Chloe led Elena. There was much less construction on the last tier, and many more tents and makeshift dwellings for the poor.

In the back of the bottom tier, there was an enormous, out of commission pipe.

“This is capped, leads nowhere– but she’s living in there. All-Seeing-Eye.” Chloe said.

She looked excited, as if she had been waiting to meet the mysterious informant herself.

Elena could see a faint glimmer of light deep within the pipe.

There was about a meter and a half between the ground floor and the lip of the pipe, so Elena had a bit of an awkward climb up onto it. Chloe helped her up, and she then reached out a hand to help Chloe up onto the pipe as well. Once they were both standing within it, they walked deeper inside. Elena thought the pipe might have been moist, but it was perhaps the driest place in Haaren, completely dry, without even a hint of rust on the grey steel structure around them, and none of the leaks outside.

Lights had indeed been installed– there were a few LED strips linked with snaking cable.

“Chloe, should we call something out?” Elena whispered as they walked.

Chloe cupped her hands around her face as if to amplify her voice and began to shout.

“We come seeking information! Please reveal yourself, famous informant!”

This seemed terribly silly and nothing at all like what Elena imagined she would say–

“I’m quite revealed already. Move closer and we’ll deal.”

And yet, it provoked a cordial-sounding reply from further ahead.

After a few more paces they could see the cap at the end of the pipe, with a few more LED strips affixed to the area than normal. At the far end, a person who had been laying alone on the floor pulled a battery-heated blanket from over herself and stood before them. At her feet, there were a few silvery packages and emptied bottles of water. She was a short and thin woman, not as short as Chloe, but a bit shorter than Elena, whom others considered girlish in height and figure. She had small forehead horns– likely a Katarran.

It was difficult to see in the dim yellowish light from the LED strips, but Elena thought the woman’s hair was a very pale color, maybe with a bit of pink to it. Two braids met in the back of her head, from which two long tails of her hair also extended, and she had neat, blunt bangs up front, a rather elaborate hair style for someone living in a pipe. Her clothing was very tight, with a long, uniform red and black plastic dress-jacket, the buttons offset to the left of her slim chest. Flourishes of cloth on her sleeves made them look like fins.

Far too fancy altogether to fit in with the rest of Haaren.

Discarded in another corner was a cloak with a symbol on it Elena had never seen before.

A sun partially obscured by a heavy dithering, with a rainbow-colored ring around it.

“You are the information trader called All-Seeing Eye, is that right?” Chloe asked.

“Even if you just ask her, can we even know that this is the right person?” Elena asked.

All-Seeing-Eye looked at them with an inexpressive face– and sharp, golden eyes.

“That is correct. I have no way of proving my identity. You will simply have to accept the risk as you would do for any transaction. You will find few people more knowledgeable than I am in Haaren. For the right price, I can elucidate anything for you– or even tell you a fortune.”

“A lot of the Katarrans around here talk a great deal about you.” Chloe said.

“They have reason to. I have assisted a few; and I have read the doom of several more.”

“Right.” Chloe said. She turned to Elena, “apparently, she correctly predicted the gambling fortunes of a few mercs around here, and predicted the deaths of two others, who, well, yeah. Not around anymore.” Chloe smiled and crossed her arms. “That’s how she first came into prominence, but she also had information that led to a big hit on a supply ship too, and news about Veka and the Palatine too. Everyone says she’s legit.”

“Then why isn’t she being swarmed with people demanding her information?” Elena asked.

“Hmph.” All-Seeing Eye shut her eyes and crossed her arms. “Because I assert myself.”

“Well, it’s more because– you have to understand, Katarrans, and especially mercs, we can be really superstitious folks! You might not get it if I just tell you, but this lady is way too ominous. So a lot of people around here will talk up how great she is, but they aren’t going to risk getting a bad fortune from her, or being given information about how their hits and heists might crash and burn on them.” Chloe said, smiling a bit nervously.

Elena felt a sudden bit of chill. “So why did you recommend her to me?”

Chloe shrugged. “You’re an Imbrian! You don’t believe in anything right?”

“Well, first of all, I’ll have you know, I identify with my mother’s elven heritage–”

“–Okay?”

“–and secondly, I’m actually getting a bit freaked out here!” Elena shouted.

Suddenly, All-Seeing Eye reached out her hand and laid gentle fingers on Elena’s cheek.

Quieting her whining instantly, and just as instantly setting her heart to a rapid beat.

She eased Elena’s chin toward herself and looked her directly in the eyes.

For the first time, All-Seeing Eye smiled. Elena dared not move a muscle in her grasp.

Her face was pretty, girlish and delicate, but her gaze was rather intimidating.

“I will be leaving Aachen soon. For you, I will listen to one final request, for a small fee.”

She lifted her hand from Elena’s face, and Elena took a step back, still surprised.

For as lithe as this woman was, she commanded an immense presence.

“What’s the fee?” Chloe asked, taking charge since Elena was temporarily out of sorts.

“I want a bit of her hair. I’ll preserve it and use it for no deleterious purpose.”

“Elven hair, huh? You’re not going to do any kind of Mageía with it are you?”

All-Seeing Eye cracked a smug grin at Chloe, whose body language turned a bit defensive.

“Hmph. If you’re a Katarran you should know that no serious Mageía can be done for such a small sacrifice. Were I to ask for her blood or teeth perhaps. As it stands you are near to offending me– take the price or leave it, it is final, and I will soon be gone. All I intend to do with her hair is to offer it to my lord, the Demon King, as a small obeisance.”

“Demon king? Now that’s a really trustworthy codename! Are you a Pythian?” Chloe said.

“How limited your imagination. I grow tired of your skepticism.” All-Seeing Eye said.

“I’ll do it. Don’t worry about me, Chloe. I don’t care even if she does try to curse me.”

Elena mastered herself, embarassed at how easily she had been stunned by the woman.

She had not risked admonishment from the captain and snuck out to this unpleasant place to simply walk back empty-handed. Some part of her could feel it when she was touched by All-Seeing Eye, and when their gazes met. They had formed a deeper connection than was visible. This woman had power and meant what she said. This was a small price for her to ask, and Elena could stand to gain from dealing with her. And somehow, she also knew– that a touch as gentle as All-Seeing Eye’s could not have been meant in malice.

All-Seeing Eye was not capable of malice, she thought. She had no basis for this.

But it was her feeling— maybe it was some latent bit of psionics in her that still worked.

“Very well. What is your request?” All-Seeing Eye said.

Chloe looked at Elena with a soft, supportive gaze.

Elena took a deep breath. Her body tensed, and she felt a thrill of anticipation.

“Can you tell me what you know about Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg? Has she been seen recently, or made any kind of statements, or done anything that you know?” Elena said.

“Very well.”

Those words nearly made Elena’s heart stop with surprise.

And she thought she saw a small smile as All-Seeing Eye answered her affirmatively.

She walked over to her cloak, and from under it, withdrew a portable computer.

Returning to Elena’s side, and making sure to block Chloe’s field of vision–

All-Seeing Eye showed Elena a few tidbits of information that sent her spirits soaring.

Records of a Vekan ship, the Aranjagaan, making contact with the Iron Lady!

Judging by the date– it was just after they had departed Goryk’s Gorge.

By now, this was quite a few weeks in the past for all of them.

“As you can see from these records, she was peacefully seen off by the Vekans in the direction of Konstantinople where she would assuredly be safe from harm.” All-Seeing Eye said, her voice barely above a whisper close to Elena’s ear. “Does this satisfy your heart? Perhaps you want a fortune, to insure you might yet meet again?”

“No. It’s okay.” Elena said.

Her eyes filled with tears, but she smiled, and shook her head.

All-Seeing Eye shut her portable computer off, holding it by the handle with a hand.

Then, she swiped one of her fingers at Elena’s hair, a flourish that glinted in the dim light.

Demonstrating after that she had taken a few innocuous locks of her hair as the payment.

“Then that is our transaction. Honored to do business, in the name of the Demon King.”

All-Seeing Eye bowed to Elena, with one hand outstretched, and another over her heart.

Then, she returned to her heated blanket, shut it off, and began to collect her trash.

Chloe stood off to the side, staring at her with narrowed eyes.

“Hey, I’m so sorry– this chick’s a total quack! I should have never–” Chloe began–

Elena shook her head, weeping, but still smiling. “No, it’s fine, Chloe. It’s great.”

“It’s great?” Chloe asked, clearly confused.

“I’m completely satisfied. Thank you so much. Let’s get back before we get yelled at.”

Her heart felt like it had been drained of a horribly constraining pressure.

It was not a lot of information, but it was enough.

Gertrude had left Goryk Gorge, and at the Vekan border, she avoided a confrontation and was allowed to leave for Konstantinople. Most of Sverland was Union territory now, which meant that if the Vekans did not get her, and the Iron Lady continued to sail independently of Norn– then Gertrude must have made it to safety in Konstantinople.

They might still meet again someday.

No– they definitely would. Elena did not need a fortune to know that.

It felt silly to think about the future when the present was so tenuous.

But she wanted to believe.

“Someday, I’ll show her the new person I am now. And we can start over.” She whispered.

Her tears were tears of joy. Her friend, her old love, was still alive out there.

Elena was sure that they would share their apologies and get to talk again someday.


Soon, that Chloe Kuri and her mysterious elf left All-Seeing Eye’s makeshift home.

She did not see them out, did not need to. Their transaction was over.

And what a fine transaction it was. All-Seeing Eye was quite pleased with it.

Her stay in Haaren was over too. Her next destination was Trelleborg.

Another new horizon in her wanderings to support her master’s passionate ambition.

Transacting was her business, but not her true purpose.

She was the spearhead of the Demon King, scouting the western side of the civil war.

Nevertheless, her transactions in Haaren had been satisfactory. She had learned some useful information, demonstrated the might that was held in the hand of the Demon King, and the Katarrans were largely congenial to her presence. It had not been difficult to travel to Aachen, and the stay had been peaceful, so she deemed it a successful visit.

However, Aachen was heading for turbulence.

There was a dangerous current in the Aether, she could feel it.

She had to stay ahead of it, for now.

For the sake of her mission, this was not the place to hold her ground.

It was just another transitory stop on the journey that her Demon King decreed.

Maybe with more time, she would have checked the depths of the Aachen Massif–

–but she was ill equipped to dig too deep anyway.

“Let me see– was my hunch correct?”

All-Seeing Eye put the strands of hair she had collected into the palm of her hand.

Looking at them and channeling the power to unveil their true form.

Biokinesis.

In the dim light in the capped pipe, the black hairs turned a gentle indigo.

Elven heritage— and not just any elven heritage either.

“Elena von Fueller.” All-Seeing Eye said, smiling. “My lord will be pleased to hear of this.”

She gently, almost reverently, placed the hair into a small container.

This, she stowed into pockets in her coat, along with her portable computer and blanket.

Everything fit a little too well, as if the coat was shifting its size to fit everything snugly.

All of her trash she put into a bag that she would throw out along the way.

All-Seeing Eye felt strangely satisfied. It was amusing to have encountered that girl.

“We’ll meet again, Elena von Fueller. I don’t need a fortune to tell you that much. Perhaps someday I can retrieve you for her– she will never say, but it would surely please her.”

Elena and whoever was guaranteeing her safety. Their paths would cross again someday.

Whether in association or conflict, it was yet to be determined.

But not now– in the maze-like currents of the Aether, this was but a liminal space for them.


“Alright, alright, you damn social fascists all got me to sit down, so now what?”

“Well– of course, I have thoroughly planned out a multi-point agenda for us–!”

“Moravskyi, you blowhard, don’t think you’ll have the room to yourself just being loud!”

In the backroom of a little pub that was entirely bought out for the purpose–

Around a long square table with drinks and snacks and a half-dozen portable computers–

A sharp-gazed Katarran woman with smoke blue hair and a barrel-chested, bearded man leaned across the table practically growling in each other’s faces with anger. Beside them, a dainty woman in a white dress with perfectly styled pink hair waved her hands helplessly while an older, brown-haired woman sighed. Around them, a collection of assorted attendants and supporters watched the unruly proceedings with exasperation, embarassment, helplessness, apathy and even a vaguely concealed delight.

It was the opening day of the United Front deliberations.

The communist Nationale Volksarmee and their newly-acquired allies and assets,

The Reichbanner Schwarzrot and the vast finances of the Luxembourg heiress,

The disparate anarchist Eisern Front and the leaders of its enigmatic three arrows,

All had managed to gather in Aachen to reach an agreement about their shared enemy.

And perhaps to decide the future of the Eisental region, and maybe all of Rhinea–

But almost immediately–

Erika Kairos and Taras Moravskyi howled at one another an instant away from brawling.

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg tried to get them all to look at her slide presentation.

And off the side of this farce–

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara watched,

faces drained of color with exhaustion and disbelief and ears ringing from the shouts.

They turned to face one another with the same quietly screaming despair in their eyes.

What are we supposed to do now?!

While the Volkisch lurked in the far distance, scheming to pick up the pieces they had overturned, the United Front squabbled over the rules at the game table.

Eisental United Front Status

Nationale Volksarmee (Deadlocked)

Reichsbanner Schwarzrot (Presiding)

Eisern Front (Deadlocked)


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.10]

“Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong– Jagdkaiser, launching!”

Underneath the Iron Lady, the lower hatch of the deployment chute opened into the bright, purple-flecked waters. The imposing Jagdkaiser dropped out, engaged its jets, and leapt into the unknown and alien landscape around the ship. Ingrid tightened her hands on the controls and tried not to let what she saw through her cameras bother her too much.

Maintaining her composure in the face of this environment was not an easy task.

Red rolling hills of flesh, massive fields of sinewy yellow reeds, thick vein-like roots dotting the landscape, crawling up the walls and the cavern ceiling. It was a complex landscape too, with rises and falls, peeking bone-like protrusions that were hopefully rock, long slightly sloping bare fields of ridged flesh like the foremost part of the palate. In the distance, there appeared to be great rises, like white mountains. Ingrid dearly hoped they were not bone.

As a pilot, what was strangest to her was the brightness and clarity all around her.

At civilization depth it was impossible for her to see through her cameras very far in any given direction. Not only was the zone of human activity extremely dark, the water reduced the effectiveness of any light, including the floodlights on a Diver. Ingrid had become used to split second tells that an enemy was upon her. She had the onboard computer, but her senses were not completely useless either. A flash of their floodlights in the near distance, the glint of a weapon caught in her own floods, even the faint movement of the marine fog disturbed by a rushing object, all of these could be picked up on in the moment.

In this place, she could see– as far as her eyes could see.

Not only was the cavity illuminated, it was as if the water was not taking effect on the light. She could see uninterrupted for what must have been kilometers worth of this fleshy landscape– and that enormous pillar in the distance commanding the horizon.

It was unnerving to have that blanketing darkness lifted from before her eyes.

Even more so when what it unveiled was so impossible to make any sense of.

“Ingrid, am I coming in clear? I should be– this is Monika Erke-Tendercloud.”

A voice from Ingrid’s communicator. It was the cute little voice of their Chief Engineer.

Ingrid knew she had been through a lot recently, and was relieved to see that she was working again. Monika thrived when she was kept busy. However, she would not let the Chief Engineer know of her concerns nor of her relief. It was enough to see that she was fine.

“Loud and clear. Shouldn’t the bridge be enough supervision though?” Ingrid asked.

It was not that Monika was unwelcome to speak to her–

but she had hoped for less–

“Normally yes, but we are being cautious.”

–intrusions.

A second voice– that Nile character, the doctor who suddenly appeared.

“Huh? What are you doing in my ear too?” Ingrid asked in a brusque tone of voice.

“I’m monitoring your health alongside the Chief Engineer.” Nile said calmly. “While I am not the foremost expert on its specifications, I know that the Jagdkaiser’s neural interface can have adverse effects on the pilot. We configured the machine to feed vital signs and brainwaves back to the ship for real time analysis. In the event that the Homunculus causes unforeseen issues, I have direct access to shut it down in order to keep you safe.”

“Okay, and what happens when the connection goes to shit because I’m too far away?”

“I can’t explain how, but our lasers actually have better throughput in here than they do at civilization depth, despite the Katov level.” Monika said. “Hopefully it remains that way.”

“I don’t need two people to dedicate themselves to babying me.” Ingrid grumbled.

Especially not when one of those people– was a particular person.

“It’s a unique situation.” Nile said. “I understand it must annoy you to feel that you are being minded, but we are here to support you. It is not out of disrespect or a lack of confidence but to support a vital asset. Once we have concrete data on how your brain and body are coping with the Jagdkaiser and the use of the homunculus this won’t be as necessary.”

Ingrid gritted her teeth with frustration, trying not to shout back at her.

Nile always gave some spiel trying to sound reasonable, she always said I understand.

Their one session at the clinic was full of “I understand” and “I know it feels like–

She did not understand shit! It was impossible for a freak like her to understand.

Ingrid was particularly sensitive when it came to other Loup, though she would not have used that word to describe how she felt. Northern Loup, her people, were in her view extremely conservative and largely only respected force and authority; meanwhile, to Ingrid, Southern Loup were more immoderate and unrestrained, arrogant, flighty. As the daughter of a notorious family, she had fought against Loup her whole life in different ways. Sticking up for oneself was absolutely necessary– a boot trod upon her once would never lift.

Khedivate Loup like Nile were weird outcasts, unwelcome everywhere, subject to incredible historical violence, and if she had been a more mindful person perhaps Ingrid would have felt some solidarity with that. But that wasn’t her– she always felt as though she had to compete with other Loup and that if she faltered, she ceded the ground that she was unworthy, a craven daughter of wicked blood. She could not just match them; Ingrid had to exceed every Loup, to uphold her family’s honor. Nile had already barged in and encroached on Ingrid’s territory in certain ways she did not want to acknowledge as particularly irritating.

Monika was a runt and a nerd– she incited no such urges.

In fact, Ingrid felt sympathetic with how much Monika must have struggled and endured.

But Nile felt like– real competition. Tall, dark, brunette; strong, smart, beautiful.

Put on the bare earth too perfect, and walking through the world too confident.

Ingrid had to beat her– she could not tolerate being under her boot.

“If the Captain has you on my case then I will have to put up with it, but log my protest.” Ingrid said. She had to accept her lot– she was still a soldier. One thing that all Loup respected was the chain of command. Authority was divine, every place was ordained, and humility and honor were exalted. To a certain point. “But if you annoy me too much I’m switching off the comms and both of you can twiddle your thumbs looking at your data over there. I only take orders from the bridge, and I prefer to be allowed to do my thing.”

“I am not here to interfere. Please feel free to do your thing, whichever way you do it.”

“Huh? What was that? Are you copping a fucking attitude Nile you fucking bitch–?”

“Ingrid.” Both Gertrude and Dreschner’s voice came through the audio line at once.

Ingrid grit her teeth and bore with the scolding silently.

Descending closer to the “seafloor” of flesh. She had strange feelings about her machine, the Jagdkaiser that was supposedly so mighty at the Battle of Goryk’s Gorge– despite its ultimate defeat. It was not as imposing after being repaired. Though it retained its demonic silhouette, the damage it surmounted, and the lack of parts, led to its regression closer to the Jagd it was based on. There was no use for the shoulder-mounted drone stations without any of the drones it used, so Monika replaced these with standard intakes and plate. The fixed gun on the front of the shoulder had been ripped out and was filled in with more control equipment for standard weapons. While this reduced the weight, the Jagdkaiser was still slightly larger than a Jagd and slightly denser, more armored and heavyset than its origin. Its original stock vibroclaw was replaced with an ordinary hand, but the other hand was taken up by the machine’s built-in secret weapon and would not be modified.

Finally, the machine was painted blue and green– a camouflage that was useless now.

Ingrid was not issued a cartridge for use with the main gun. Not on this sortie.

However, the claw could still deploy its magnetic field– she could find a use for that.

Her mission was to gather up samples of seafloor flesh for testing, as well as to test out the physical properties of the flesh through direct interaction and examination. Was it slimy or firm? Did it constitute an actual floor? Would the “cavern” react like an organism to being touched, to being scraped and having a cut inflicted upon it? These were unavoidable questions that needed to be demonstrated, and the Jagdkaiser was the most powerful equipment they had available– and Ingrid their most experienced, skilled pilot.

Through her cameras, she saw the vastness of the red, fleshy world around her.

She had seen what the inside of a body looked like.

If this was a body it was an incredibly warped creature of nonsensical bulk.

A whimsical idea popped into her head. Perhaps this was just one of its organs.

Some muscular cavity passing water, except now so massive as to encompass human lives.

Closer to the fleshy seafloor, Ingrid was surprised to find fauna scuttling about. Long, segmented bodies of crab-like creatures with multiple limbs, some rounded in shape and others serpentine and odd, things she had never seen before. They were sparse but they existed, perhaps more could be found in the reeds. By the way they walked upon the flesh, it seemed like the seafloor had a few different properties. There was a layer that resembled mocus or gel, semi-firm, upon which the creatures standing on the seafloor left rips and indentations. But the flesh below that seemed solid enough that once the wandering creatures stripped away the “topsoil” they could walk easily upon it.

“Some of these arthropods are definitely long extinct in the Imbrium.” Nile said.

Monika sounded her agreement. Ingrid could picture her, arms crossed and nodding.

“I don’t know my biology as well as my mechanics but– yeah. I recognize these. I mean, anyone would know the anomalocaris– it’s become popular among young girls now.”

There was a brief pause as Nile seemed to consider the implications of this.

“That’s– I guess I am more out of touch with what young girls are into than I thought.”

“For the record I have no idea what she is talking about.” Ingrid butted in to say.

“You don’t know about the anomalocaris Ingrid?” Karin entered the comms suddenly.

“I can’t even fucking pronounce whatever you just said.” Ingrid replied.

“I suppose you just aren’t active citizens of the Network!” Monika said.

“I’m not an active nerd like you.” Ingrid said, idly picking on her.

“Let’s focus back up now, Schicksal, Erke-Tendercloud, company.” Dreschner said.

His stern voice immediately quieted the discussion of the anomalocaris’ notoriety.

Except for one stammering little whimper picked up on the audio. “Why me first?”

With the peanut gallery silenced, Ingrid touched down upon the flesh.

Using the underside camera she monitored her own descent and the response from the surroundings. Initially, the flesh yielded a bit when Jagdkaiser’s feet touched the seafloor, but they held firm enough to be trod upon. She was instructed to stand in place for a moment and to gather vibrational data. But there were no errant vibrations.

It did not appear that the flesh was moving.

“Ingrid, use the collection tool we prepared to gather some flesh.” Monika said.

“We will need you to visit a few different sites and collect flesh from them so we can study it. We need different samples to determine if this is all one kind of organism.” Nile said.

“I’ll do my job whether or not you explain, so spare me the details.” Ingrid grunted.

She wanted Nile out of her ears so badly. But there was nothing she could do about it.

Ingrid flicked through the equipment touchscreen and activated the “special equipment.”

Reaching the Jagdkaiser’s hand partially around its backpack, she picked up a tube-like object that had been released from the mech’s magnetic strip. It had been charged from the mech’s battery to the simple and specific task it was given. Once she had grabbed hold of the equipment, she rotated the mech’s hand to align the flat bottom of the tube with the seafloor flesh. Some mechanism within the tube began to flex with errant suction.

Then with with a flick of a button and a forward on the sticks, she staked the flesh.

Down deep through the red surface, and well over one and a half meters into the ground.

Inside the tube, flesh and whatever else would be collected in layers to be studied.

When the collection tube sank into the meat, thin red fluid rose like a mist into the surrounding waters. There was not enough of it to completely alter the surroundings, which were lit up pale blue by the light on the water and dark purple by the katov mass. All three colors never mingled, and had a strangely mesmerizing effect on the water around her.

Ingrid dragged her sight away from the swirling colors and looked at her main camera monitors, one each to a cardinal direction, for any reaction to the stabbing. No tremors of some gigantic beast, nor any roars or sudden thrashing. Nothing immediate.

On one of her supporting touchscreens, the special equipment’s status was shown.

Whatever was beneath the red surface flesh, the tube had filled with it.

Ingrid reached down and pulled the tube from the ground and attached it to the backpack.

She moved the Jagdkaiser over the hole so her underside camera could look down into it.

It was hard to see anything of note. It seemed to be flesh as far as down as she had cut.

Blood seeped gently from the surrounding tissues, drifting upward.

For such a wound, Ingrid would have expected it to be filled with a lot of blood.

“Fascinating. I think I see a new layer at the very end. Maybe subcutaneous fat?” Nile said.

“I wish I had been able to make the collection tubes longer for you.” Monika said.

“For how short notice this all was, you should be proud of your work.” Nile said.

Ingrid rolled her eyes in her cockpit.

“You’re such besties, wow. Why not have a friendly make-out session too?” She said.

“On to the next site, Ingrid.” Dreschner interrupted. “It is marked for you.”

On her main screen, a green, flashing square target paint appeared in the distance. This was also reflected on a static sonar picture taken of the area by the Iron Lady, which she kept pinned up on a subordinate screen to get a better idea of how big the cavern was. Enormous hardly described it. This felt less like a cavern and more like her company had found its way into an entire contained little world that was only vaguely linked to their own.

Somehow, descending the trench seemed to have flipped everything around; water was bright, bandwidth was high, walls were meat. And the extremely extinct anomalocaris was popular with young, network-savvy girls. Would this flesh stretch onward forever?

No use thinking about it. No use thinking about a lot of things.

Yet she could not help but to keep thinking.

With her next target in place, Ingrid re-engaged her jets and leaped off the fleshy ground.

In her rear camera, the Iron Lady still loomed large in the background.

Holding position about 200 meters above the seafloor, still in line with the cave shaft.

A shiver ran its course through her body. She gripped her controls tighter.

Of course, Ingrid was unnerved. It was an unnerving situation.

Soaring through the water in an ethereal, too-still landscape of fleshy hills and purple snow.

Ingrid was a woman who felt her fears were simple things.

She did not care much for the grander scope of things in Imbria’s drama. Things that made her cry or made her shudder were exclusively personal. Her pain was not the world’s pain, nor was the world’s pain hers. People died, every day, in their thousands, hundreds of thousands, in their millions, men, women and children, youth in their prime and elderly ill deserving it– she didn’t know, she didn’t care. It was impossible for her empathy to encompass things too much greater than her orbit. In her experience, in the world that she had been brought up in, such things made you insane, and got you killed.

Whether purged by your own people for bringing disorder, disgrace and dishonor–

Or winnowed by the world itself for being too soft in the face of its unrelenting cruelty.

She was a subject of the world.

She submitted her soul to the proper order– but her heart was for the personal.

At all times she envisioned her journey in the Inquisition would have been quite mundane.

However, her Commander apparently attracted inexplicable things to herself.

“To think all my fuckin’ simpering led to this shit.” She chided herself in bitter mutterings.

It was difficult, it was colossal in its scope, to not waver in the insanity of what she saw.

But what scared her the most was something deeply personal.

That, in seeing this, she herself was forever changed. She could not just ignore this.

Nobody would ever understand. She was marked with it for life. Alone with this madness.

“Who would believe any of this?” She muttered to herself, in restrained frustration.

It was no wonder to her now that the Abyss had so many secrets.

Even if she returned alive nobody would believe her.

Her life was now a lonely myth.

The Jagdkaiser rose up the water table, despite its size faster and easier to maneuver than any Diver Ingrid had ever laid hands on. Effortless to pilot, easy to embody. She took in the “landmarks” that had been noted around the cavern, which was variously also referred to as “the cavity” by the more scientific of their crew members. The Iron Lady had made the final point of its descent the “starting point” of their exploration and by their instruments, the nearest landmarks all sat to the west of this point, although the cavity stretched farther east of them as well. There was a vast landscape of fleshy rolling hills with “fields” of yellow, sinewy reeds growing irregularly throughout, that made up much of the surroundings. To the north in this “field” there was a man-made structure resembling a blue and black rectangular station with a baseplate slowly fusing into the flesh on the ground– this was the most likely candidate for the “primary edifice” that Commander Lichtenberg was looking for.

However, this was not any one of the destinations for Ingrid on this sortie.

Instead, she had three positions in the flesh-field and its direct surroundings that she would survey, one closer to the Iron Lady, one among a field of reeds, and one atop a far hill closer to the main landmark inside the cavity. Several kilometers out from the shaft entrance and the primary edifice, the mysterious, and gigantic, silicate-looking structure, attached at its “peak” and “base” to enormous, sinewy growths of flesh. Like giant arteries attempting to burrow into the structure or command it or hold it in suspension. To Ingrid’s mind, it looked like the flesh was propping up the thing– but she didn’t really know anything.

It was colossal– seemingly looming over everything in the cavity.

Ingrid could look up and see it from anywhere she had been.

At the Commander’s request, it had been dubbed the “silica tree.”

Through a scan, the Iron Lady had found that a massive trench divided the flesh-field from the silica tree. Ingrid’s last collection spot was at the edge of the trench, and part of her task was also to see how deep this trench ran, whether anything was in it, whether it might lead anywhere– generally to get a camera on it. Then the nerds watching it could figure out the rest of the details themselves without much of her own input.

Ingrid tried not to be too wowed by everything she saw.

Her heart was in a mode to smother its feelings.

She wanted to retreat from feelings.

Feelings of beauty and longing and awe at the spectacle of the world–

They had no place in her– she had to get hard, harder, like she used to be before–

Before a certain woman bedeviled her and made her feel too special.

And yet– she also did not want to hate anything she saw, anything she felt.

That, too, was too extreme, too emotional. That too was softness.

Whether forgiving Gertrude and letting her back in was softness or hardness–

Ingrid could not say, did not want to contemplate, and put out of her mind as vexing.

“How are you feeling right now, Järveläinen-Kindlysong?” Nile asked.

“Captain Dreschner, do I have to answer this.” Ingrid grumbled.

“Yes.” Dreschner said. And not a word more.

Ingrid sighed audibly. Frustrated. What did this woman care how she felt?

“I feel fucking fine— alright? I am just peachy, it’s just me and the meat out here.”

“I agree that your conduct feels normal. Any physical–” Nile said and was interrupted.

“Okay? Hey, you know what, enlighten me– what do you think is normal for me, doc?”

“Speaking purely as a doctor observing a patient, you are hesitant to share your emotions, have a strong temperament and strong reactions in social situations. I would still like us to–”

“I never agreed to be your fucking patient! So speak like that again and I’ll fucking–”

“Ingrid! Please stop!” Monika cried out. “She’s not as bad as you think she is!”

“Take her side, why don’t you!” Ingrid shouted back. “Has she been fucking you too?”

Louder and sterner than anyone else, Captain Dreschner interrupted everyone.

“All of you for the love of God stop bickering over nothing! This instant and henceforth!”

His fist striking the arm of his chair was audible even to Ingrid.

It was rare to see Dreschner shout with such vigor.

Even he himself as he continued to speak seemed frustrated that he was pushed to it.

“Ingrid, you are tightly knit with this crew and this ship, and you are a proud person. I know that. I understand that. All of us greatly respect you. You have a lot to be proud about.” Dreschner said. “But a good soldier appreciates the advantages she is given, even if this means setting aside pride and tolerating conflicting personalities. Doctor Nile is assisting in this endeavor to help you. She needs to check in and monitor you, for your benefit. You would be at a grave disadvantage and even danger without her assistance.”

“I understand, Captain.” Ingrid muttered.

“I apologize for my role in the disturbance.” Nile added. Ingrid hated her for apologizing.

Dreschner sighed himself, and his tone of voice softened again.

“We need every advantage we can get. Continue to pilot that machine. And continue to accept the assistance and follow the commands of the Doctor and Chief Engineer. We are resuming this mission, and I want all future chatter to be productive to the mission.”

Ingrid hated that he felt he had to explain all of that to her, as if she didn’t know.

Old man Dreschner was somebody she respected, somewhat, for all the shit he took.

And he was like Gertrude’s dad– so she wanted to like him in that sense too.

Unlike many other people she would hate for this treatment, she did not hate him for this.

But she was frustrated that nobody shared her petty, pointless anger toward Nile.

That nobody else saw the introduction of her into the crew as a disruption.

A doctor– who gives a shit? They never had a doctor. They never needed a doctor.

All they needed was first aid and grit. That carried them through a lot.

Now Gertrude needed a goddamn doctor, didn’t she? Needed one a fucking lot now huh?

Lifting a hand from the machine’s control sticks to cover her own eyes, rub her own face.

Ingrid also hated herself a lot too. Her head was a mess of emotions.

She felt ridiculous.

And she hated that she became Gertrude’s nightmare vision of her. That she was petty, that she was jealous, that she was childishly angry at Nile, Victoria and the weird brainwashed freak they found in the last stupid building they went digging in. She was as possessive of Gertrude as she and everyone around her chided Gertrude for being over Elena and whoever else. Around Gertrude she had tried to suppress those emotions and work them out, but she had to be honest. Even if being honest with herself meant being miserable.

To think all this bullshit was in her head here. In the fucking sea of meat.

She shut her eyes hard for a moment. Trying to center herself again.

Felt her own sweat beads pooling up around the contact points affixed to her temples.

Opened her eyes again. Looked around the cockpit.

Apparently the Jagdkaiser had some kind of brain technology that helped to pilot it.

She wasn’t the cyborg freak that had been grown in a vat to pilot the Jagdkaiser originally. So she did not have anywhere to connect the gross spinal-tap looking implement. It was ultimately removed from the machine by Monika. Instead they would use the contacts, referred to by both Monika and Nile as “non-invasive electrodes” hooked up to Ingrid’s temples, the base of her dog-like ears and the back of her head, to connect to the homunculus. That “homunculus” was suspended in a box chassis above her head, separated from her by a sort of affixed metallic halo that provided structural support.

Thinking about it, she wondered whether her sense of the machine’s power was actually a sense that the hardware was better, or something the homunculus was doing. Were her reflexes and inputs enhanced by the homunculus, allowing her to pilot faster and more efficiently or was the machine faster and more efficient at the level of its base hardware? It almost made her mad again to have to consider such bizarre things.

That her life had become this parade of mysticism.

“All of this shit is going to get me killed.” She mumbled to herself.

But she had a mission, and the Jagdkaiser was approaching its next target.

Overflying a field of the yellow reeds and descending into and through the tall stalks.

As they swept past her in the cameras, she thought they looked plant-like.

Like thicker algae, mixed with celery– more stem than leaf, weirdly vascular, fibrous.

Turning away from the exhaust of her hydrojets just as they swayed with the currents.

Ingrid touched down on the ground amid the reeds, almost as tall as the Jagdkaiser itself.

More small animals, some crustacean, some almost like bony, scaly fish, swam away.

She maneuvered the Jagdkaiser’s good hand behind its back again to read for another tube.

From the equipment status screen, she was drawn–

To a yellow flash.

Her eyes darted toward her monitors.

An automatic target paint, suddenly, right next to her.

In a snap reaction she boosted away from the paint, and the movement in the reeds.

Something large rose up from mere meters away–

Her own hand swiped her weapon selector to engage her assault rifle.

The Jagdkaiser’s hand seized the weapon and turned it toward the field.

She held her fire, eyes wide-drawn, heart pounding.

Sluggishly, with almost lethargic movements, a white creature rose over the reeds.

Its body was smooth and slick, thick and cylindrical, serpentine, alien. Utterly pale, so pale its purple sinews were visible beneath its thin oily skin. No eyes on the surface of what Ingrid assumed was its head, and the barest semblance of a mouth that opened, nearly causing Ingrid to fire, testing her patience, her nerves on a burning edge. But there were no teeth, and it was only sucking in water as if to taste it. She held her place, kept her peace, and the creature lived just a moment longer. Paddle-like arms were placed irregularly across its body, which ended in a cephalopod-like tail. Four biological hydrojets blew a current of water and kicked up fleshy dust that was like shed, dead skin, and bits of broken-off reeds.

Even its ascent with its hydrojets was lethargic, slow, strangely peaceful.

It rose from the reeds, freeing itself from them, and it circled the Jagdkaiser once and from well afar before leaving the area entirely, undulating as it moved its long, cylindrical body, paddles gyrating, bio-jets giving it a lazy current to propel it away. As if the creature was just curious to see what had disturbed its environment and did not care to defend itself nor consume its intruder. Its movements almost reminded Ingrid of some gross malformation of a whale, playful, harmless, almost intelligent-seeming despite its grotesque form.

“Ingrid, I commend you on avoiding any violence toward that creature.” Nile said.

Ingrid dropped back against her seat, putting her hands over her eyes, kicking her feet.

“Fuck.” She grunted. “I don’t need commending! Warn me about it next time!”

“Sorry!” Monika said. “We’ll run more frequent scans from now on.”

“We have to balance information gathering with disturbing the environment too much.” Nile said. Before Ingrid could get mad, she continued, clarifying. “Scanning too often might attract other creatures. Possibly less docile ones than that. We are in a tricky situation.”

“Ugh.” Ingrid said nothing more, to avoid further confrontation.

Instead, she returned her rifle to its place and staked the ground to collect the meat sample.

Once again the flesh-field bled silently and without complaint.

“What if it’s a colony organism?” Monika said. “Like, zillions of little meat guys.”

“In a certain philosophical lens, the planet is already a colony organism.” Nile said.

“Huh. Yeah. I guess you could say, we are the zillions of little meat guys.” Monika said.

“I’m not a biologist so I’m a bit out of my depth with all of this.” Nile said. “Thinking about this from a medical perspective, one of my worries here is whether this organism is healthy. Is it alive or dead? How would we know its status? Does it respond to stimuli and how does it responds; whether it is affected by any pathogens; and what kind of relationship its anatomy and metabolism might have to us or our technology. Think about this– what if we inadvertently lead to the death or contamination of this environment? Could this be a crucial part of the Imbrium’s homeostasis that we were simply not aware of until now?”

“Think less about the organism’s well-being and more about ours for now, please.”

Gertrude made a rare interjection into the conversation at this point. Ingrid set her jaw.

Nile grunted a bit but continued to talk. “Of course, I am thinking about our crew above all else, or otherwise I would not ever have suggested to send the Sotnyk out there to collect samples. Were I completely against us exploring this place I would have advocated for us turning around– medically that is also the safest possible option. I am not blind to the scientific wealth we could find here. However, our actions still have consequences beyond our naked self-interest. You would do well to think on that, Commander.”

Gertrude did not respond. Dreschner curiously did not tell Nile to quiet down either.

Instead, the gentle scolding was allowed. Ingrid could imagine Gertrude sulking about it.

She was always so pathetic whenever something did not go her way.

Ingrid cracked the smallest smile imagining it.

“Personally, I am hoping this thing is too big for us to affect so easily.” Monika added.

“We are very small compared to our presumption of this ‘body’. That could very well be true if this is all one organism.” Nile said. “However, physically small organisms can have enormous medical outcomes on larger bodies– there are viruses that would strangle a human to death in hours, and to this organism, we could be one such virus.”

“Well, even if we kill it, I assume profit margins in the megacorps won’t take a big hit.”

Monika made a cheeky remark, and Nile had a small laugh at it in the comms.

“Humanity has survived a lot, but I still advocate for a bit caution. Just a bit, that is all.”

Grunting with indignation, Ingrid retrieved the stake, its insides filled with meat.

She attached the stake to the back. One more stake; one more location to scout.

“We painted your final target. Let’s get you going; and get you back safe.” Dreschner said.

“Acknowledged.” Ingrid said mechanically.

She pushed down her pedals and pushed forward her sticks.

Once more, the Jagdkaiser rose up higher on the water table and took off.

As the fleshy landscape scrolled by, Ingrid cast a glance at her rear camera, the Iron Lady becoming smaller and smaller in the distance behind her– but still visible. She cast a glance at one of the side cameras, facing the north of the cavern, and the mysterious facility standing amid the flesh almost like a massive and wide version of one of her stakes. A monolith impaled on the flesh. Who built that? Why did they leave it there?

She couldn’t help but be curious about it.

It was like nothing else in the surroundings. Alien within an alien land.

Gertrude would definitely be going in there– searching for God-only-knows-what.

“What am I even doing here?” She mumbled to herself. She felt like such a fool.

Unable to even sort out whether she was really angry, whether they could even be friends.

Clearly Gertrude was at fault, had treated her terribly– but she wanted to forgive her.

That woman as difficult as she was, had saved her life, stuck with her when she had nobody.

Had Gertrude not thrown herself at Norn’s mercy, Ingrid would absolutely be dead.

Captured by Brauchitsch and made a brutal and pointless example of.

Nobody would have missed her. There was only one woman who would have.

It wasn’t just Elena von Fueller who received some of Gertrude’s grace and protection.

She had genuinely sacrificed a lot for Ingrid’s sake too. She cared about her.

Everything that had happened to Gertrude was something Ingrid was also tangled up in.

Since the cadet academy, she always encouraged her.

Had they never met, Gertrude would have maybe never fought Brauchitsch too.

It wasn’t just that Princess who shaped her– Ingrid had a hand in making Gertrude!

Ingrid had wanted to be closer to Gertrude since they met. She was attractive! She was a good lay– even in cadet school Ingrid thought it would have been fun and when it finally happened she had her fun. Gertrude also proved she could be actually reliable when the chips were down– and that she was willing to throw anything away to achieve her goals. To stomp her own pride and debase her own honor. Ingrid admired that too, she was not a moralist, she was not impressed by peaceniks, reformers playing at being clean.

Her own sense of self was so rigid– she admired Gertrude being able to do anything.

That darkness inside Gertrude was attractive– until her fire burnt too hot.

“We got together at the worst possible time.” Ingrid thought.

Cursing her own luck. Gertrude was being stupid and wanton– Ingrid let herself be used.

It felt good for a bit, but with hindsight, it would’ve never lasted.

Of course anything to do with that Princess would have resulted in some stupid mess.

Of course they reacted in awful, hurtful ways about it.

Just like always– whenever they fought it always felt like both of them fucked up.

Gertrude would try to take all the blame; Ingrid would cautiously admit her own side in it.

It had happened over and over and their relationship surmounted it each time.

This time though, it was so heart-wrenchingly personal, so massive.

How could she forgive her for breaking her heart? Why would she ever do so?

“I guess I won’t.” Ingrid muttered. Something agreed too fast, and too half-heartedly.

Doing nothing to solve the conflict, which was raging in that soft, girlish heart she hated.

Her eyes, starting to tear up, scanned quickly across her monitors.

Looming closer, the absolutely massive silica tree, and its crown and roots of flesh.

Ahead of her, the red flesh-field took a steep dive. She could see the trench around the tree.

Cresting the final hill before the cliff, Ingrid set the Jagdkaiser down before the drop.

She removed the final stake, drove it into the ground, and waited, turning her cameras.

To have called it a cliff, and a trench, was a severe, almost biblical understatement. Ingrid felt as if she stood at the end of the world before a yawning maw that went straight into hell itself. She had no inkling of how deep Aer was supposed to be, how far down the ground upon which they trod would go and what was inside the planet’s deepest reaches. Whatever she was taught in school she forgot, it was ultimately just unimportant to her.

So in her mind, she was staring at the world’s center.

Staring at such things which made her feel like a gnat on the skin of a physical God.

First, suspended in the middle of everything, was that silica tree.

Larger than stations, like a mountain and a sun at once, bound by the flesh.

Over the chasm, the orifice down into oblivion.

There was a limit to how far down she could see because the light of the tree did not cut through the darkness with the same intensity that it illuminated the water in the cavity. Despite this she could see far enough to note the geological divisions, the strata of layered flesh and minerals. All of it was probably flesh, but its properties clearly changed deeper down. The layer of reddish flesh was surprisingly shallower than she imagined, and it quickly became darker, sinewy, and crossed with what seemed like stones and sediment.

And cutting through the flesh at irregular angles,

like spurs of dim flickering violet bone–

enormous, root-like veins of Agarthicite.

Some large enough and sticking out far enough to bridge the trench and reconnect the thick, tentacular flesh protrusions rising up like a column to hold up the silica tree from out of the endless darkness. Despite their contact with the flesh in many places they did not annihilate all of it, as they would have done to a similarly impaled human. Instead, brief sparks of Agarthic energy sliced small wounds into the flesh at irregular intervals.

Ingrid’s intruments read a slow but steady current coming up from below.

As if there was a flow from the chasm up toward them.

“Incredible!” Monika said. “How far down could that go? We’ve got to be at most like ten kilometers below the water’s surface right? We’re barely scratching the total depth of the ocean. However, the organism’s flesh extends farther down– what if this is only a small part of its body? Could there more cavities connected by more ducts and trenches?”

“Putting my foot down. We are not going to find out how much bigger it is.” Nile said.

“Nobody said we were going any deeper, relax.” Gertrude said, sounding surly.

They did not understand. They were not standing in front of this colossus.

With only a few meters of armor plate between themselves and its enormity.

Now the tears did flow from Ingrid’s eyes, and her ears folded, her tail curled.

And she looked upon the surface of the silica tree, and it seemed, for a moment–

That she felt as it did. That she heard as it spoke. As it sang– she saw as it did–

In front of her eyes she saw a great forest of many such trees as tall as the very sky.

Singing to each other, all as one, one as all, and yet many, songs of interwoven colors.

Older than age, ancient, arising mineral acritarchs, watching over carbonate puddles.

Full of love for all things, they sang to the creatures that slowly arose all around them.

“Something on the scans– it’s large– it’s approaching!”

An era of cunning, depredation, and conflict for survival played out at the feet of the trees.

Newborn creatures entered and exited, fought and ate, and grew and changed,

Never judged by the ones watching them, never thought unworthy.

“What– what the hell is that?!”

Then, suddenly, it was heard, that one creature sang back to the trees.

One creature of many, who from the means of singing developed thought and purpose.

Astonished, excited at the prospect, the trees wanted to nurture that nascent song.

“It’s firing! It’s firing– a missile!”

But before they could make themselves better stewards of this life, the trees met their end.

Cut down by a fated cataclysm of demonic, violet light that threatened everything.

Ending one song in sacrifice, to bury that fiendish power where it would not be touched.

Ushering another song in its place; a shuddering, embryonic song, the song of humanity–

Ingrid’s eyes flashed and she heard the multiple voices of all humanity as if they were one–

“INGRID! EVASIVE ACTION NOW! RIGHT NOW!”

Gertrude’s voice– shaking her from the stupor–

Pure fight or flight cleared the fog in her vision and Ingrid reacted in an instant.

Jerking her hands back and slamming her pedals so suddenly and so hard that it hurt.

Solid fuel boosters and the leg hydrojets threw the Jagdkaiser into retreat, leaping back from the cliff and the spot she had staked. Her breathing ragged as if she had been choking; a full-body quivering; salty, stinging eyes through the film of which she watched the enormous, dark thing on the screen that made its intentions suddenly clear.

Her cameras filled with the light of an explosion, ordnance detonating in front of her.

Ingrid knew to expect the inward force of the vapor bubble when she began her escape.

Fresh fear spread like a cold tap in her spine when she saw the purple tendrils emerge.

Water immediately smothered any explosive detonation, resulting in a vapor bubble that inflicted damage via the enormous shearing forces of its collapse along with contact heat from the blast. But this ordnance caused a phenomenon that Ingrid had never seen before. Within the vapor bubble, she could see glowing, misshapen “blobs” of material continuously smothered by the water but generating what appeared like thin tendrils of purple lightning that shot out of the vapor bubble and crashed into ground and spread wildly astray.

Several such bolts went flying past her machine as she watched breathlessly.

Her heart caught in her chest–

One bolt sliced across the fleshy ground and

whipped toward

filling sight overwhelming violet light,

jaw hanging entranced, no space for breath,

her final thought

a prayer

for another day, another hour, another second to decide–

granted

As the bolt annihilated one of her cameras, downing a monitor in her cockpit.

Ingrid jerked back against her seat, looking around the cockpit in a panic.

She had not imploded. She was not dead.

Her shaking body was there in all its parts.

She had breath, and pulse.

The Jagdkaiser landed on the fleshy ground several hundred meters from the cliff.

Several dozen meters where she had once been standing were annihilated.

Hexagonal wounds in a perfectly round crater.

Her remaining forward cameras fixed on the assailant, looming massively over the trench.

Ingrid had come under attack from a ship. An impossible ship that appeared suddenly.

Black and blue metal covered a boxy hull with beveled edges, bedecked with weapons. Cannon turrets, interdiction autocannons, missile bays. Water foamed from the rear of the ship, vaporized by enormous thrusters that were not hydrojets. A near size match to the Iron Lady, slightly wider, more utilitarian in its design, the ship moved in a languid circle around the silica tree, approaching but never crossing the edge of the vast trench.

“Ingrid? Ingrid! Come in! The Jagdkaiser is still operational– are you okay? Ingrid please!”

Gertrude’s voice again.

Ingrid lifted her shaking hands from the controls, hugging herself.

Her heart was thrashing in her chest.

And she felt a throbbing, a pulse, as if from coming from above her.

But she refused to look up at the homunculus.

Fearing she might become lost in inexplicable nightmares again if she allowed it.

Her eyes remained fixed on the mysterious enemy.

It had stayed its assault– for now.

Her remaining cameras zoomed in on the vessel and recorded everything they could.

Completing its run around the eastern edge of the silica tree, it began to circle away.

Exposing its flank, upon which there was text emblazoned on it which was–

Horribly, impossibly, mind-bendingly legible. Ingrid could parse it as Low Imbrian.

A.F.S.F Extinction Fleet — Enterprise

Along with a coat of arms composed of sharp hexagons forming a larger hexagon.

Lumbering out of sight as if it had deemed her unworthy.

Inexorable as a force of nature, its passage disturbing the water around itself.

Having driven her away from the trench, the mystery ship simply continued its voyage.

That fear which they had of disturbing this place felt almost farcical now.

Ingrid sat back in her pilot seat, holding her chest, unsure of what to think or feel anymore.

Watching an enemy that could have vaporized her in an instant simply ignore her.

Back in Sverland, when she fought that pup mercenary; and in countless battles she had fought as part of Gertrude’s crew– Ingrid had always sated what she felt was a Loup’s sense of honor and lust for bloodshed. She was a soldier, because all Loup were soldiers. The proper way to live as a hound was to bite; biting was the only thing she could do. She had lost her share of fights, taken her share of lumps, but she always gave back as hard as she could, and pushed Gertrude closer to victory. Even when that pup Raisanen-Morningsun got the better of her, she did not feel like an insurmountable enemy. Had she not been ordered to; she would not have retreated. She would have fought to death; that was her worth.

Now she was faced with an enemy that she could not– would not, chase after.

She could not move. Ingrid was scared. That monstrous ship gave fuel to all of her fears.

Scared to be annihilated in this horrible place and never be seen again.

Scared that she might die in this awful time of her life with so much undone.

And terrified that she would die without reconciliation, without resolution–

“P-Permission to retreat. I– I don’t think we can retrieve the last s-s-sample.” She said.

Her voice trembling, her body shaking, her eyes filling with tears.

“Of course retreat! We’re coming– we’ll meet you halfway! Retreat now!”

Gertrude was still in command of the comms.

Ingrid wished she was not– because she felt oddly comforted hearing her voice.

Hearing her clear fear and worry which felt so frustratingly honest.

Without further exchange of words, Ingrid fled from the face of the enemy.

Child of a kinslayer, dog of the Imbrians, hopeless beggar of love, and now coward.

Her heart was soft, it was weak, she had changed. She had been changed.

She was alive.


The Iron Lady entered combat alert and advanced deeper into the cavity.

That mystery ship, the so-called Enterprise, was automatically denying all hails.

There was nothing they could do. Nothing Ingrid could do but calm herself and retreat.

Ingrid closed in on the ship at full speed, slowing to a stop only when under its hull.

Entering an awaiting deployment chute, she let go of the controls, breathed a sigh of great relief, and let the engineers do the rest. Steel cables secured her machine, the door to the ocean closed beneath her, and the water drained out. A crane arm lifted her machine from the deployment chute and set it down in a kneeling position in the middle of the hangar, surrounded by engineers taking stock of it and getting ready to help her out.

She sat in the dim cockpit for a moment, pulling off the contacts from her temples.

Once her machine was hooked to its gantry along the wall, Ingrid opened the cockpit. Her instrument panels shifted aside, and an expanding sliver of light shone in her eyes. She stood with her head and back bowed, ducking under the roof, trying to make her way out–

but someone intercepted her on the ramp formed by the cockpit plate.

Suddenly taking her into a strong grip and pushing her against a warm chest.

“Ingrid! Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”

Ingrid offered no resistance.

She craned her head to look at the taller Gertrude Lichtenberg.

“Fuck no I’m not, do I look okay? You moron?” She cried out, her guard broken.

Both she and Gertrude had tears in their eyes. Gertrude hugged her again, tighter.

“I’m so sorry, Ingrid. I’m so sorry. I can’t bear to lose you. I fucked up. I fucked up.”

On that ramp, regardless of who was around, it felt like an island only for them.

“You didn’t lose me, I’m right here, so calm the fuck down, you lunatic.”

But Ingrid herself was weeping and her heart felt a joy she characterized as stupid.

An idiot’s comfort from being in the arms of someone she wanted and loved.

That person just a chaotic mess that had dragged her life to the rocks where it was dashed.

Nevertheless, she could not deny that there was comfort– and even more, there was desire.

They had been through so much together. They were still here.

“Ugh. You’re so pathetic.” Ingrid said, returning the embrace. “I wish I could hate you.”

And of course, at that precise moment, Gertrude chose to be Gertrude–

“You can hate me. You can despise me. But I will still do everything in my power for you.”

Ingrid suddenly reared back an arm and struck with full force and without warning.

Gertrude quavered and bent, leaning on Ingrid with her teeth grit and her tears running.

Upon having visible effect, the fist which buried in her stomach gently spread its fingers.

“That’s for all the shit you pulled. I’ll call it even now. You’re welcome.” Ingrid said.

Her hand switched to nursing Gertrude lovingly where the bruise was sure to form.

“T-t-thank you.” Gertrude moaned. Smiling weakly, recovering breath. “F-f-riends again?”

“Would I have hit you so hard if we weren’t friends?” Ingrid grinned self-assuredly.


After retrieval, Ingrid was immediately sent to Nile’s clinic.

To give her time to rest and to be checked up on by the doctor, a debriefing and strategy meeting was scheduled for the next day. In the meantime, Victoria van Veka stepped up as the standby pilot– which mildly irked Ingrid. But she had to accept it. She headed for the clinic and found contained therein her next mildly irksome set of moments.

“May I request your cooperation in a quick checkup to make sure you are not injured?”

Nile, gently smiling, as if they had never verbally sparred.

The doctor bid her to undress, put on a gown, and to take a seat on an adjustable bed.

Ingrid thought of saying something combative, but her anger was smothered by her shame.

Despite herself, she followed the doctor’s instructions.

Nile gently ran her hands along her limbs, requested her to make motions, checked parts of her body for wounding, broken bones; checked her mental faculties with strange and annoying questions and requests; took her blood pressure, listened to her heart, listened to her breathing; and finally handed her a small bagged protein drink with a screw-off top straw and declared her fit. All throughout, her handling was incredibly gentle and patient.

“I recommend you stay in bed for a few hours just to relax and wind down.” Nile said.

Ingrid averted her gaze.

That tall, long-haired, ethereally beautiful doctor, always kind and understanding. Having dropped into her world from out of nowhere. She felt her reckless competitive urge rising. That part of her that wanted to dominate her own kind, to prove that she was not just worthy but better, that the outcast embodied the true spirit of tradition. Someone who could not be displaced; someone who could not be ignored or replaced by anyone.

But it was clear from their every interaction that Nile was uninterested in competing.

Unlike Samoylovych-Darkestdays or Raisanen-Morningsun, she lacked fighting spirit.

Nevertheless, Ingrid took her for competition. Competition for– a variety of things.

“You look tense. Is there anything I can do to alleviate your concerns?” Nile asked.

She sat on the bed across from Ingrid’s own bed with a smile. To look her in the eyes.

That softness she could so easily turn on anyone bothered Ingrid more than it should have.

“I don’t suppose you’ll let me punch you?” Ingrid said. A bad joke. She couldn’t help it.

Nile kept smiling. “Setting pride aside, I’d like for there to be less injuries going around.”

Ingrid grinned back at her. “Hah. So you do have some pride as a Loup after all?”

Nile sat further from the edge of the bed as if making herself more comfortable.

“The pride of a Loup, you say? Well– I recognize the value of our cultures in fostering community; and I recognize particularly the value of cultures that are challenged and tarnished by authority. Loup culture has been warped by war and servitude, but it is nevertheless ours. I do not begrudge anyone practicing or defending that culture. But I have been hurt by it. Which is to say– I understand why you act how you do towards me. I have pride enough I would defend myself, but I have no interest in proving myself.”

“Do you know how much I hate it whenever you say you understand me?” Ingrid said.

“I do; I am keenly aware of where that feeling comes from.” Nile said. “Look, Ingrid, I will not reciprocate any violent fantasies you may have toward me, but I respect where you are coming from. I will not vilify you for being wary of an outsider, I will not judge you for your pride, nor for wanting to prove your strength or stake out your territory.”

Her territory– Ingrid felt so stupid when it was spelled out so obviously.

What had she been doing? Blustering and antagonizing people all this time– for what?

Such a thing, her territory, was so infinitely small and pointless to the world.

It was still hers– it was still priceless to her. But had she really protected anything?

Or had she prevented her world from getting any bigger, for no one’s sake?

“Ugh. Fine. Look– I’m sorry. Okay? I’m acting ridiculous and I know it. I’m sorry.”

Uncharacteristically, Ingrid felt ashamed of her own conduct– but Nile didn’t judge her.

Nile reached out a hand to Ingrid, offering her a shake. She looked upon her kindly.

“Believe me, I know how it feels to be an outsider who found a place in the world. I know how it feels to want to do anything to protect that place and sequester yourself inside it. I am not a peerless automaton– I know envy, I know anger, I know distrust, I’ve felt it. I want to do what I can to show you I am not an antagonist. To me, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong, you are my patient, whom it is my duty to understand, respect, and to care for.”

Ingrid wanted to bite down and sever her tongue entirely; such was the shame she felt.

“God damn it. I hate how reasonable you sound. You better not make me regret this.”

She reached out, accepting the doctor’s slender fingers into her own slightly rugged ones.

Looked her in the eyes, and tried to see someone that she did not have to fight.

Tried to accept Nile as someone who was part of her world now too. Part of her territory.

When their fingers parted they remained seated on opposite beds. Nile’s tail began to wag.

“Nice work out there. I look forward to many more positive health outcomes.” She said.

Ingrid burst into a laugh; Nile having spoken so seriously. “You’re such a goddamn nerd.”

It was not much yet; it could become the beginnings of something.

Nevertheless, in place of the shame, Ingrid felt as if the tension insider her lessened.

She could smile again, and maybe she could even smile in Nile’s presence.

“So hey, tell me then, is Gertrude just a patient to you too?” Ingrid asked, in good humor.

“In this room, she is just a patient. But– she’s quite amusing, isn’t she?” Nile replied.


Time passed, and the Iron Lady cautiously resumed its exploration of the cavity.

“Why are you following me everywhere now?”

“Should I wait in your quarters then, master?

“N-no– no. You can keep doing what you are doing.”

“Then I shall keep a close eye on opportunities to I render assistance, master.”

“May I assume you are done pushing your sexuality onto me, then?”

“I shall leave such suggestions to the evening hours, master.”

Gertrude Lichtenberg turned to look over her shoulder.

That tone of voice, that little twist of her inflection every time she said master— and how she found a conceited, coy expression on Azazil’s face when she looked. That face reminded her of– Norn. Norn and Korabiskaya– when they teased her with their experience. She felt like bringing this up would look more pathetic than simply enduring it silently and with grace.

Looking at Azazil, with her unblemished, ethereally pale skin and her flawless makeup–

“Did you find your quarters acceptable? I take it you have all of your living essentials.”

“Any quarters are fine by me. I ask for very little and need even less.”

“How is your makeup so pristine if you didn’t request any supplies?”

“That is a mature woman’s sorcery– you wouldn’t know, nor can you be taught.”

Gertrude turned to look over her shoulder. Azazil winked and blew a mocking kiss.

“I feel like rather than a servant I have a harasser with me at all times.” Gertrude mumbled.

Her destination was a small meeting room, one of their few soundproofed rooms with full A/V, used for officer meetings. Inside the room waited Monika, Ingrid, Nile, Victoria and Karen Schicksal. All dressed for work. They sat around a square table with a digital whiteboard surface, flanked by a pair of long couch seats, with Karen at its head in control of a video screen on the far wall from the door. There were pouches of cream coffee and vitamin jelly strewn about the center of the table. Gertrude noticed that Ingrid was sandwiched between Victoria and Nile and despite this looked strangely calm about it.

Taking a deep breath, she walked inside and shut the door behind Azazil.

“Gertrude! Welcome! Sit down here!” Monika said, patting the empty space next to her.

Nile, Ingrid and Victoria all looked toward the doorway at the same time.

Victoria without expression, Nile smiling, Ingrid just slightly more disgruntled than before.

Such pointed staring made Gertrude feel as though she was in danger.

Without further dallying she took her seat next to Monika, who was cheerful as ever.

Directly across from Ingrid, who raised her fingers and waved.

While Victoria simply acknowledged Gertrude with a curt little nodding of the head.

Azazil sat down next to Gertrude, receiving a few stares from across the table too.

Well, Gertrude Lichtenberg, this is what you asked for, wasn’t it? This is what it takes.

She sat across and between all these quite familiar women, boxed in by them.

All women that she respected, cherished, loved, or was fascinated by– in some way.

Seemingly all getting along with each other though with complicated relationships to her.

Navigating some of this initial awkwardness was necessary for that to continue or improve.

As she sat there with everyone staring, she had to admit to herself she was a bit unnerved.

“Commander, glad to see you!” Karen said, breaking the awkward silence. “And thank you all for attending this meeting! I know we have had some frictions here and there, but I do appreciate everyone’s cooperation and everyone’s input is valuable is here. We are all uh– important stakeholders. I arranged this meeting to go over some of the data we have collected throughout our journey, and the forensics analysis we have concluded.”

“Before we begin,” Gertrude spoke up, “I wanted to ask how everyone is feeling so far.”

“Ah!” Karen said. “I’m– holding up!” She gave a thumbs up. Gertrude did not believe her.

“I’m excited and nervous in equal measure. But I’m here to care for everyone.” Nile said.

“I find this cavern rather disgusting, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Victoria said.

“You know how I’m doing, I’m just so fucking positive, aren’t I?” Ingrid said.

“I think I’m kind of, desensitized to horrible meat landscapes now.” Monika said.

Gertrude interrupted before Azazil could say how she felt and shook her head.

“As you say, master. A silent woman is a precious jewel to you, isn’t she?” Azazil said.

“Be quiet. As in don’t say anything else until asked.” Gertrude grumbled.

“Hey Gertrude, why are we trusting this chick? Why is she here?” Ingrid asked.

She crossed her arms and threw an accusatory glare across the table at Azazil.

“Ingrid, she’s here to help, just like with Nile and Victoria.” Gertrude said.

For a moment she felt like appealing to the present cases might help her argument–

“You didn’t just dig up Nile and Victoria from some hole, it’s not fucking the same.”

Shot down immediately– in a way Gertrude was not even expecting.

“I share the apprehension. Azazil should be under strict information control.” Victoria said.

Gertrude gave Victoria an annoyed look as if to say, ‘didn’t I get you on my side already?’

“I’m afraid I have to agree– though I of course still accept her as a patient.” Nile added.

Not Nile too– Gertrude fumed at everyone taking each other’s side against her.

She felt suddenly cornered, staring at the three women glowering across from her.

“She’s connected to the structures! We can figure them out with her assistance!” She said.

“I’m with Gertrude on this! We need to keep that weird lady!” Monika said suddenly.

She raised her arm and wiggled her ears and tail and smiled with a mischievous vigor.

Monika– the only ally Gertrude had in the room. She gave her a fond little look.

“Why the hell?” Ingrid asked. “You of all people should understand the danger here!”

“Well– I feel like she needs someone on her side.” Monika said, sidling closer to Gertrude.

“We’re all on the same goddamn side.” Ingrid said, sighing.

“I am on my master’s side. After everything else has slipped through her fingers like so much sand, I shall still be at her side to watch the dust with her. Such is my solemn duty.”

Azazil said, her tone grandiose, gesturing toward Gertrude with a small, conceited smile.

“Uh, was that supposed to be a dig at you?” Ingrid asked, grinning at Gertrude.

Gertrude wanted to sink against the table and never lift her head again.

“Please just accept my decision and move on.” Gertrude said, nearly gritting her teeth.

“We should table this for later.” Nile said. “We’re wasting time and not getting anywhere.”

Azazil once again spoke up without being prompted.

Master can be stubborn, but I believe with the faculties she possesses, she has deemed me worthy of assisting your mission. As one designed for such things, it is my pleasure to assist her. You may assess the master poorly right now– but my assistance can elevate her.”

“Uh. Huh.” Ingrid replied, staring at Azazil in confusion but also a slight amusement.

“I told you to be quiet. I told you not to speak until spoken to.” Gertrude mumbled.

“I am providing assistance which seemed sorely desired, master.” Azazil said.

“Don’t provide assistance. Do exactly as I tell you. Exactly. Okay?”

Azazil, smiling serenely, nodded her head at Gertrude, who supposed she was being quiet.

“Ah, well, I’m glad we have such a– lively– rapport–?” Karen said, clearly nervous.

“I suppose I can live with this situation and just keep an eye on her.” Victoria said.

“Ugh, alright, fine, whatever, I’ll drop it. Look at me getting along so well.” Ingrid fumed.

“Well, I guess we can call it settled?” Monika said. “Welcome aboard, Azazil!”

Gertrude wondered if they were all turning around only because Azazil was being so snide.

After the commotion over Azazil finally subsided, Karen introduced the first real issue.

“Forensics has completed its analysis over all the data logs and footage gathered from the anarchist-branded Cutter in the trench. We have evidence to support the Cutter being the shared property of a cadre of Bosporan outcasts. Apparently they advocated for a fringe ideology within the anarchist movement and were pressured to leave their former communities. I’ll play some footage for you that we isolated of their last day.”

Karen pointed her clicker-remote at the screen on the wall.

On the video, there was a view of the main hall of the cutter erupting into pandemonium. There was screaming from every direction, people running from something, trying to barricade themselves in the rooms in which Victoria and Gertrude found them– and suddenly dropping dead where they stood in a variety of places. What was missing from the video was any visible assailant– it looked like the people in the footage were running away from something, as if they were trying to avoid a concrete threat. They moved in certain directions, ducked away from invisible attacks, and died as if attacked invisibly as well.

“This is security footage. We also inspected the video diaries recovered, but we found these a bit too personal to show. The diary belonged to a minor who was wrapped up in this expedition and met her end– much like here, she was chased to her final resting place, but we can’t make out an assailant. We believe it might have been a mass psychogenic illness.”

Gertrude flexed and controlled the muscle of her psionics, activating her advanced sight.

Red rings appeared on Victoria and Nile’s eyes as well.

Ingrid had no powers; Monika seemed to struggle a bit with it; Azazil looked disinterested.

To those with the sight, the assailant in the videos became clear.

Ragged red cloak over a sinewy, black, wraith-like body that was only visible through the smallest gaps in the billowing cloth. Faces covered by bone-white masks with expressions cut into the seemingly hard material. Unlike the blue creatures Gertrude had seen first-hand, these red beings had cartoonishly furious expressions etched into their masks, and their claws were sharper and less overgrown, easily swung as weapons that pierced through the unprepared sailors. Nile and Victoria glanced at the creatures and then at each other.

Perhaps all of them had seen these creatures before, in that insane shared dream.

These red ones moved nothing like the lethargic blue creatures that seemed almost pitiable.

Malice seemed to guide them, and rather than sleep, their touch brought pain and death.

It was not something they could reasonably clue Ingrid and Schicksal about, not right now.

“Mass psychogenic illness. We’ll leave it at that.” Gertrude said sullenly, burying it.

Nobody else in the room objected. She had spoken seriously, leaving no room for dissent.

“Any progress in contacting that mystery ship.” Gertrude said, changing subject.

Karen shook her head. “We attempted to hail it but all kinds of messages we have tried have been denied automatically. In case of incompatible protocols we even tried generative free interface association– but even that did not yield any different sort of result. For now, we will have to assume the ‘Enterprise’ is both malicious and resisting communication.”

“What about our other interests in this area?” Gertrude asked.

“We are still testing the flesh that was recovered. That will take some time– we have to be very careful with it.” Karen said. “Doctor Nile will assist in these efforts. We did also analyze some of the food packaging, political symbols and the various sundries that were recovered from the technological site that we found at 3000 meters depth. None of it was particularly enlightening– this Aer Federation had industry and packaged goods like our own and, well, the site was a human habitation of some kind. More fruitful than that– we do also have testimony from Miss Azazil here, acquired during her capture, interrogation and processing, that purports to elucidate some of our findings relating to ‘Island-3’ and its ‘edifices’.”

Karen played a few different pieces of video of conversations with Azazil that had been captured. These were disparate remarks and answers from various interactions. They had been edited to include only relevant information and exclude any unimportant remarks or speech given by unimportant personnel. Only the context of Azazil’s responses was shown in the videos, with some context given by Karen if any clarity was desired.

Azazil was quiet and uninterested as the video of her speaking played out.

“Of course, I can elucidate for you. You see, this facility is part of the Island-3 complex. The Island Series were originally intended to begin a process of underwater habitation, commissioned by the Aer Federation, but Island-3 was purchased separately by private investors out from under the Federation. The Island-3 modules were very flexible and meant to spread out to create a larger underwater network of interlinked facilities, but during their descent, several modules were lost. Only two modules successfully linked up– the Crown Spire and the Primary Edifice, separated by thousands of meters of depth. For some time now I have been a piece of equipment registered to this particular station.”

“This edifice, the Island-3 Crown Spire was meant to be one of the nerve centers of the completed complex. It had offices, a laboratory, food storage, an Advanced Neurological Model and biomechanoid servants, and other such amenities. With the loss and disconnection of most of the Island-3 modules, it was rendered largely useless as such, unable to carry out its administrative and scientific functions. It was then abandoned until the current era’s biomechanoids began to take unwanted residence within it.”

(Karen noted that Azazil seemed to refer to Katarrans as exclusively ‘biomechanoids’.)

“What am I? I am a biomechanoid servant designed to take care of humans. I can act as a social or sexual partner to adults, or a nurse or minder to children, and as a protector when needed. My combat capabilities? I am able to defend myself adequately, but I am not capable of bringing about the death of a Genuine Human Being. I would consider myself capable of overpowering most of you. Shimii? Well, I suppose I do look like that, don’t I?”

(She then dodged the question of whether she was a Shimii with overwrought sophistry.)

“Yes, that hexagon symbol is the Aer Federation standard. It represents utter perfection.”

“The Aer Federation is the ruling polity of the planet known as Aer. The Aer Federation is based in the Center of the Known World, located in Turkiye, a country that is part of the Nobilis Confederacy. What do these names mean? Oh, these are surface names. Well, a long time ago, the Confederacy of the Nobilis continent was the rival of the Ayvartan Union in the Extremis continent and the Federation of Northern States in the Occultis continent. However, all three polities were greatly weakened by a series of pandemics known as the Three Great Ravages and were driven to the brink, losing much of their influence and autonomy. Due to its role in resolving these crises, Turkiye’s Aer Federation would grow into a supranational body with near-total control over all of Aer’s social development and global security, as well as regulating key technologies like STEM and biomechanoids.”

(Karen explained that Azazil’s answers attracted more random questions and idle chatter.)

“Even though you have not heard of the Aer Federation, I assure you it is the ruling polity of the world. You may not know or understand it, but you are part of it. My evidence for this is that Genuine Human Beings continue to exist, and the Aer Federation is the supreme and eternal authority of all Genuine Human Beings. As you continue the search for Perfection and make use of Agarthicite, you are still advancing the Aer Federation’s goals and ideologies. As a compromise, perhaps we can say you are successors of the Federation.”

(Karen explained that at this point, Azazil became less cooperative regarding information.)

Gertrude turned to face Azazil, who put on small but polite smile in response.

“You know a lot more than you let on. Why did you stop talking?” She asked.

Azazil continued to smile quietly, fluttering her eyelashes.

“You can talk again now.” Gertrude said, exasperated.

“I was asked questions which were not safe to answer.” Azazil replied. “Or rather, I felt that the answers would endanger the people asking, so in order to preserve the peace, I refused to answer them, and I still do. Even you, master, cannot prompt certain answers from me– because it is my duty to insure health and safety, and avoid undue harm to humans.”

Gertrude hit the table. “The hell kind of ‘servant’ are you, just constantly disobeying?!”

“Gertrude, calm down. Don’t let her jerk you around so easily.” Nile scolded her.

“To be frank, most of the information she gave us was pointless anyway. We cannot make use of almost anything she wanted to tell us.” Victoria said. “It does not matter to us what the Aer Federation was like or where it was located. Whatever she says, we know that this polity is extinguished and has no influence on us. Right now, what we want is to extract information and technology that is immediately useful to us, isn’t that our focus?”

“What she said, Gertrude, these history lessons are a waste of spit.” Ingrid added. “Make her tell you what kind of shit is in this cavern! Like the ship that nearly fucking killed me!”

“Should you desire to access the primary edifice, I will do what I can assist you.”

Azazil remained unbothered by all of the anger and skepticism that surrounded her.

“It’s not even worth being pissed off at her, it’s like her skull is full of air!” Ingrid said.

“Gertrude, I am, if anything, beginning to trust her even less.” Victoria said.

“Look, I know its weird, and I no longer have any idea what direction my trust is going either– nor does that actually matter!” Gertrude said, greatly irritated, “What I do know is that we need her, she’s our only connection to these places. Right now, if we don’t break into that Primary Edifice then we are leaving here empty-handed except for lumps of meat and bad memories. If the Aer Federation isn’t around then I should help myself to what’s left.”

“I do not wish to cause discord between my master and her crew.” Azazil said.

She stood up from her seat, with everyone watching, and bowed her head, still smiling.

“Allow me to work to earn your trust and provide excellent service.” She said.

Ingrid averted her gaze as if it was embarrassing. Victoria stared dead-on at Azazil.

Gertrude ordered her to return to her seat, and the ‘biomechanoid’ smilingly conferred.

“Well– in the words of the captain, we do need every advantage we can get.” Karen said. She then clicked the projector, switching the videos of Azazil’s confession out to images captured by the Jagdkaiser of the enigmatic black and blue ship that had attacked Ingrid. “We called off the combat alert because it appears this ‘Enterprise’ is just circling the silica tree for the moment. For now, this can be considered the primary threat to our exploration, but we do not believe it is an immediate threat– it is not actively seeking battle with us.”

“Azazil, is it possible for that ship to still be crewed?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes, it could have a biomechanoid crew still following a given directive.” Azazil replied.

“After nearly a thousand years, or maybe more?” Nile asked, bewildered.

“I am a product of the Aer Federation, and I am still here.” Azazil said calmly.

Nile looked disconcerted by the prospect– an immortal apprehensive about immortals?

“Are we sure it won’t make a sudden beeline and attack us?” Ingrid asked.

“We have observed its appearances around the silica tree for the past day.” Karen said. “When we arrived we did not detect it, so we believe it was acting much more slowly or was completely inert at first, and only became active when it detected us. We believe it has sped up its rounds since we first made contact with it, but it has not left the side of the tree at all since then– if it wanted to attack us, we believe it would have already done so.”

“From our preliminary analysis of current footage and data,” Monika joined in, speaking of the ship with evident enthusiasm, “We believe the ‘Enterprise’ is the size and complement of a Dreadnought and that it is made up of the same metal as the Primary Edifice– which makes sense if they are both Aer Federation constructions. Since it appears to be keeping a tight course around the Silica Tree, I propose we first test whether or not it will act to protect the Primary Edifice. If it does not, we can study the structural integrity of the Primary Edifice to learn more about the Enterprise and perhaps devise a strategy to knock it out.”

Karen pointed her clicker at the screen again and displayed footage of the ship’s attack.

Particular attention was called to the glowing orbs within the vapor bubble.

“Ingrid, what do you think about the nature of the Enterprise’s attack?” Karen asked.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? That thing shot some kind of Agarthicite weapon.” Ingrid said.

Her words caught mid-sentence, and she looked disturbed to even say it.

“To be more precise than that,” Monika said, “I believe this weapon leverages different states of matter than we are used to for Agarthicite. Our civilization uses Agarthicite near-exclusively in its solid form since melting undepleted agarthicite is so dangerous. But Agarthicite is matter, and like any matter, it has different states. It’s theoretically possible for there to be liquid, gaseous and plasma Agarthicite. However, because Agarthicite is so volatile, it can only be handled via ultrapotent magnetic fields, ultrasonic water cutting, or within ultracold chambered gasses– we need extreme environmental conditions to prevent it from annihilating matter. I believe that the Enterprise has Agarthic pseudoplasma weapons– the behavior in that footage reminded me of plasma globules.”

For a moment, everyone in the room (except Azazil) had a somber look on their face.

The crew of the Iron Lady had their own mysterious, powerful agarthicite weapon, and they had been awed by what they knew of its power and brutality in the hands of Norn and Selene– but this was levels above even the technology of the Sunlight Foundation. More verboten than the verboten. In the middle of this alien abyss, the Aer Federation, once hegemon of the world, left them a final messenger of its dominating power.

Regardless, however, Gertrude had come too far to allow a ghost ship to deter her.

“Agarthicite or no, there are still limits to what it can do. We figured out that the delivery mechanism is still just a missile. It even missed.” Gertrude said. Her words brought upon her the attention of the women in the room again. “We have to be careful about Agarthicite’s properties, but we’ve shot down missiles. We can shoot these down. For now we will leave the thing be– but we will eventually confront the Enterprise, and triumph.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be you if you didn’t propose something foolhardy.” Ingrid sighed.

She did look like she was smiling just a bit even as she said that.

“I fucking hate the feeling of running away, so fine. I’m down to pay it back.” She added.

“Preliminarily, I agree with this course, but only preliminarily.” Victoria said calmly.

“If you get annihilated I can’t do anything about that– but I’ll support you.” Nile said.

“It’ll be fine!” Monika said cheerfully. “I’ll find its weakness and you’ll all sink it!”

“I will, of course, continue to render excellent service.” Azazil added.

Gertrude smiled, feeling confident, and even a bit greedy about the prospects.

Based on the capability of the ‘Enterprise’, this could turn out lucrative beyond her dreams.

With such weapons on-hand, could she think of entering the power struggle herself–?

For now, she just had to focus on what was directly ahead for them, and to wait and see.

“Karen, keep watch on the Enterprise, but shift the focus of the drones and sensors toward collecting data on the Primary Edifice.” Gertrude said. “Have forensics analyze every bit of data we can scratch out of that box, I want sonar, LADAR, spectrography, heat maps, whatever you can get, I want spy tentacles on it, I want our camera drones crawling in it. We’ll devise a plan, assemble multiple teams, and assault the Primary Edifice as soon as we are ready. This will be a complete operation. We’ve seen the kind of obstacles that these structures can have, such as STEM and biomechanoids– we won’t take chances. I want an assault team, demolitions, security, the works. I will lead the vanguard personally.”

Her body felt electrified with a sudden thrill as she finally gave concrete orders to the ship.

Everyone around her had gone from their somber moods and began to pick up energy. They had direction again after the latest set of tumults, given an objective, an expected enemy, a puzzle to solve– the drive to move forwards again. Everyone looked at her with more determination in response to her convictions. In this room, Gertrude had a lot of powerful allies, and a lot of cherished companions. It brought her a measure of comfort. This was much more like the picture she painted in her heart of living amid their gazes.

She would hold on to that idea strongly and tried to have it carry her through the terror.

“Any questions or objections?” Gertrude asked– and her heart went cold for a moment.

Ingrid raised her hand– but she winked, with a mischievous wiggle of her ears.

“Question, Commander,” she said in a slight mocking voice, “Do we start right away?”

Gertrude smiled with relief, to a few gentle laughs around the room.


Far into the night, a tall, swarthy figure wandered the halls, clad in a fitted robe with a coat.

Gertrude could not sleep. She felt restless.

The other night, she had worked out some of her energy with Victoria and slept soundly. Now with an entire bed to herself to writhe in, she felt strangely too aware, and began to wander the halls, long since after anyone but a few late shifters would be working. The Iron Lady’s familiar, grandiose halls, devoid of their music, lights dimmed and emptied of sailors and soldiers hurrying about– they were not helping Gertrude’s condition.

She decided to wander down to the hangar. At least it was a broader, more open space.

To her surprise, stepping out of the elevator, she saw flashing and sparking in the distance.

With the lights dimmed, gloomy shadows pervaded the empty hangar. However, someone was working. Gertrude could hear the fizzing of a hand welder and see brief lights dancing on the far walls whenever the heat was engaged in erneast. She crossed the hangar floor from the elevator, approaching a familiar gantry, holding up the remains of the ‘Magellan’ class Diver. Since she had last seen it, the hull was connected and standing on its own, no longer a heap of parts. Most of it was covered by a tarp– almost ready for action.

She walked around the hull, drawing closer to the source of the sparks.

Right beside the gantry, a crane held in place a large joint piece, a roller.

Under it, doing some quite late night welding, was Monika Erke-Tendercloud.

She wore a face-shield, and she had fireproof gloves and coveralls and hard boots, over which she also wore her white coat. Over her golden-furred dog-like ears were a pair of fireproof covers with small holes to allow sound to still come through. Her blond hair was tied up to the back of her head, pinned up messy. She did not seem to notice Gertrude approaching. Her tail wagged fiercely, and her small, wiry body was utterly engaged in the act of welding. She bent under the metal piece, she stood beside it, she observed it.

Gertrude smiled, watching her work so hard. But after several minutes, she approached.

“Monika, you should get some rest.” She said.

“Oh!” Monika’s tail and ears stood on end.

She turned around and lifted the shield over her face and smiled brightly. Her pretty features were smudged with a bit of grease. Perhaps welding was not all she had been doing. Gertrude did notice a lot of other bits of equipment scattered about. Gertrude approached her, took a cloth from a nearby equipment table, and wiped Monika’s cheek. Monika allowed it for a few moments before pushing away the cleaning cloth.

With laugh, Gertrude discarded the cloth in a nearby recycling bin.

“You shouldn’t be up at 0200; and you definitely shouldn’t be working.” She said.

“Funny you should say that, because I see you’re also up at 0200 with me, ‘Trude.”

Monika put her hands on her hips and leaned in a little, grinning.

Gertrude leaned forward with a similar grin. “I’m here to make sure you don’t collapse.”

“I’m doing fine!” Monika said, before an involuntary yawn stopped her.

It was a long yawn too– plenty of time for Gertrude to stare at her while she exhaled.

“Are you having trouble sleeping because of the blue pools?” Gertrude asked.

Monika looked at the piece suspended on the crane, avoiding Gertrude’s eyes in the dark.

After what she experienced– it made sense that she would view sleep very differently.

“Monika, I promised to be there for you. You can talk to me.” Gertrude insisted gently.

In response, the smaller Loup first sighed. But she eventually began to speak in small, reserved voice. “I feel silly about it, but yes, I’m apprehensive toward sleep. I want to finish my work too– it’s not just that I am nervous, but when I think about the possibility I might not wake up tomorrow– I get so terrified. I feel like I might become lost if I just go to sleep, and that nobody will know what happened to me. I’ll just sink into those pools.”

“Would it help if you had someone to keep you company?” Gertrude asked suddenly.

Monika stared at her suddenly. Her ears twitched. “Um– what do you propose?”

Smiling, Gertrude approached Monika, bent slightly, and picked her up into her arms.

Lifting her up with a hand on her back and another under her knees– a princess carry.

Despite her exhaustion, Monika was light enough, and the darkness gave Gertrude courage.

Flush-faced, flustered, at first Monika struggled to muster a response to being lifted up.

“G-G-Gertrude! I’m– I’m really fine– you don’t need to go through any trouble–”

Gertrude looked at Monika in the eyes, enjoying the weight and warmth of her petite body.

“I’m also having trouble sleeping.” She said. “I’d love to have you tonight, Monika.”

She locked eyes with Monika, turning a gentle expression to her, feeling just a little silly.

However, she had to admit to herself, that it felt divine to be carrying a girl like this.

And it would be just as divine to have her in bed.

Monika took a deep breath in response.

She finally pulled off her face-shield and ear covers and let them drop to the ground.

“Okay, alright– I guess– I do– I kind of want someone to comfort me.” She admitted.

“Please trust me– we’ll wake up tomorrow, together. I promise you.” Gertrude said.

Gertrude felt Monika’s tail gently brushing against her as she wagged it incessantly.

“Are you really going to carry me like this?” Monika asked, looking bashful.

“I intend to. All the way to bed. Unless you want off.” Gertrude said confidently.

Her directness seemed to throw Monika off, and she averted her gaze again.

“No, this is– this is nice. But– where– where are we going?” Monika asked, fidgeting.

“I’m taking you to my quarters. We can share my bed tonight.” Gertrude said.

Monika’s eyes drew wide, but she said nothing, remaining quiet. Then she leaned closer against Gertrude and spread her arms and held her. There was a lovely, blushing smile on her face. Cheek to cheek with Gertrude– she was so soft. With the Chief Engineer in her arms, Gertrude strode back to her room feeling terribly fulfilled. She almost felt like laughing– how greedy of her to do, but it felt so good. It felt fantastic to have Monika in her arms.

Whatever happened tomorrow, it would be preceded by a good night!


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The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.2]

Violet Lehner was a radical even among national socialists, but even she had to accept that in her system, money held a primacy that even influence could not always overcome.

Dealing with finances was the most unpleasant aspect of her management of the Reichskommissariat and going through the balance sheets, revenues, costs, was her most despised activity. It was unfortunately necessary, as the Reichkommissariat’s finances would be the final proof of her success or failure. Not her labor policy, not her purging of the corrupt liberals or returning order and stability: only cold and hard revenue numbers.

Kreuzung had gone through a prolonged period of waste, abuse and fraud that left much of its earning potential unrealized. Money had been thrown into pits like the ever-ballooning salaries of the K.P.S.D’s officers, cushy bureaucratic jobs for politician’s sons, and endless renovations to parks, thoroughfares and sports fields. While still crown jewel of Eisental, the layer of dust would take much effort to clean off Kreuzung. The K.P.S.D was shuttered; a variety of liberal politicians and their beneficiaries were parted with their wealth and scheduled to undergo public trials and execution; and several budgetary elements that were not useful to Violet’s aims were liquidated. In a few days Violet had secured tens of millions of reichsmarks in Kreuzung property and funds. But it was not enough to staunch bleeding; Violet needed to show she could improve the health of the patient.

That, in fact, she had the only real cure for the illness.

For this she needed real, recurring revenues. Key to her policies toward Rhineametalle and other corporations was financial subsidy. Violet conceded that she would help offset the demands of the labor union scheme through direct subsidies. All of the Rhinean corporations had enjoyed many years of aggressively stagnating wages and rising prices until their kettles boiled over and risked blowing up. Despite this many of them had balked at Violet’s solutions to the labor unrest. Many believed she had given up too much to the workers. This truculence could not be overcome with just influence; it had to be overcome with money.

She needed to prove that she was a better steward of the nation’s capital than the liberals were, by securing the revenue to placate the corporations and labor both, at least temporarily, so she could build up her power without either interfering. This meant she had to be careful to introduce measures that balanced both fortunes– an utter annoyance.

“When we take the rest of Eisental’s stations, there will be more expropriations anyway.” Magdalena suggested, clearly bored with talking about balance sheets. “There are liberals living cushy degenerate lives in Aachen and Stralsund whose wealth is already earmarked for confiscation. If we need more money, we could always sell or lease the properties forward to the corporations or to wealthy investors rather than keeping it for ourselves.”

Spoken like a discredited heiress to a major family. She knew something about money.

Not enough but something.

Violet glanced at Magdalena as if surprised she could do more than bark like an angry dog.

“Expropriations are a marker of instability. We can’t keep resorting to banditry forever.”

Nasser, seated at Magdalena’s side, crossed her arms and reiterated the actual reality.

None of the liberals had an endless amount of reichsmarks stashed away anywhere.

There was a finite capacity to armed robbery. Station politics did not make every liberal as rich as in Kreuzung, so there were diminishing returns on expropriation; and even for the most detestable liberals nobody would miss, there was always a trade of legitimacy and stability for every victim, no matter how small. Magdalena found it too easy to ignore this due to her origins. Violet and the Reichkommissariat had to transition to a semblance of order, and the sooner, the better, to get money moving hands once again.

“Nasser is correct. Right now, everyone in Rhinea is watching us like hawks to see if we fail; and because of our rhetoric we need to deliver security and economic stability. We have seized enough money to begin funding the National Socialist Labor Union scheme, which will be essential. That has bought us enough time for more reforms– but we will still need the reforms. Things have to change here.” Violet said. “It is not possible to keep running Kreuzung like a mafia den, whether the boss is Werner or whether it is us. We need order and normality; we need to increase production; and for both we need more money.”

“I have an idea for a somewhat unpleasant new investor.” Nasser said, crossing her arms.

“Oh, this ought to be good, if even you consider it unpleasant.” Magdalena said, grinning.

“I’m listening.” Violet replied simply, while looking down at her portable full of data.

Nasser tossed a hand through her hair slightly and smiled as if amused at herself.

“We should ask the Esoteric Order for direct investment. In fact, if the Esoteric Order could move its entire operations from Munich to Kreuzung, leasing expropriated property from us in the process, while also investing in personnel and bringing their fleet– it would solve a lot of problems. I understand this is not a simple task– but do we have anything to lose?”

Violet blinked, staring at Nasser. This was something of a surprise to her.

It had not occurred to her to further involve the Esoteric Order.

She was, in fact, de facto one of the leaders of the Esoteric Order now.

Based on the fuhrerprinzip, as a regional Reichskommissar, it was the Chairwoman of the Esoteric Order who had to listen to her and not the other way. But it was difficult to throw that weight around– Violet had made herself Reichskommissar and everyone else was for now just following along because she had resolved the ongoing crises. Trying to strong-arm the Esoteric Order now could just as easily result in them balking at her insolence.

“Magdalena, you were once part of the Blood Bund, right?” Nasser asked.

“Come now, that was a long time ago. My views have modernized.” Magdalena said.

“I am not calling you a racist– you have a unique perspective on our movement’s nature.”

Magdalena grinned as if her ego had been suitably flattered. “Ah, yes– there is a lot of friction and competition between people like the Blood Bund and the Esoteric Order. The Blood Bund, Neotribals, Traditional Fatherhood Front, those groups have the most simple and accessible ideas. They easily recruit young men by putting forward a narrative with simple enemies and outcomes– the Esoteric Order’s message is much stranger. You have to read to be attracted to the Esoteric Order, not just sate your wicked gut feelings.”

“But the Blood Bund and Traditional Fatherhood Front are not here.” Nasser said. “We are.”

“I understand.” Violet said. “We could sell it as opening Eisental up as an Esoteric front.”

“Indeed. The Esoteric Order has a lot of money, materiel and human capital.” Nasser said.

“True! We are its most powerful branch! Their resources should go to us!” Magdalena said.

An influence play with the Esoteric Order– if it succeeded, Violet would suddenly find her forces injected with a lot of money, additional manpower, technical and bureaucratic talent, and perhaps even some tidy additions to her fleet. It all depended on the pitch and whether the Chairwoman would accept her position. They had rarely spoken, she could count the times in her hands– Violet shared the ideology and the Esoteric Order explicitly supported her, but she didn’t need to show up for meetings to make use of their support. She had her own forces and acted on her own initiative while wearing the symbols, like a mascot.

The Esoteric Order was a tool that gave her legitimacy among a subset of fascists.

Access to militia, friendly logistical corridors, help with greasing palms and recruitment.

Because of who she was and who her sympathizers were, the Esoteric Order was the only faction that would support her. They in essence had done the preamble to the work she intended to finish– gathering fascist sympathizers outside the traditional demographics, in enough mass that the Blood Bund and other exclusive groups were forced to tolerate it.

Now, however, Violet had made a great leap– a branch of the Order ruling an entire region.

Could she dare to dream, even, of taking over the Esoteric Order completely at this stage?

“The Chairwoman was interested in helping organize the Zabaniyah. We might see eye to eye with each other more than we know.” Nasser said. “I would not make this suggestion if I did not think it would work– as much as I hate to share the glory with that bunch.”

Violet nodded her approval. “I’ll speak with the Chairwoman. We’ll see what happens.”

Magdalena raised hands behind her head and yawned, a bored expression on her black lips.

“In my opinion we should also see how much we get from the next round of expropriations. Where even are Hatta and Waldeck at right now? Where is Hadžić? Are any of them ready?”

“All of them are underway.” Nasser said. “We can’t expect results overnight.”

“I’m not.” Magdalena pouted. “I feel as though you think I’m an idiot.”

“Not at all. You are valuable for your abilities and in your capacity.” Nasser said calmly.

“She thinks I’m an idiot.” Magdalena turned a childish expression on Violet.

“Then show us all your learning and refinement and go organize the ORPOs.” Violet said, practically hissing disdain at Magdalena’s constant whining and pointing sharply at the door. “Bored of sitting around? We are preparing a sweep of the underground and you have experience with such things. Do note that you do not have carte blanche to slaughter all the homeless camps down there– just make sure the ORPOs don’t turn and run if their own shadows in the dark look too intimidating. I want an assessment on my desk tomorrow.”

Magdalena turned a sour look on Violet and then on Nasser as if expecting any sympathy.

Nasser shrugged at her with a particularly smug and cat-like expression.

Sighing, Magdalena stood up from her chair and left Violet’s office, looking rather gloomy.

“Vesna, are you threatened by her?” Violet asked. In front of her desk, Nasser grinned.

“Not at all. In fact, I do think she has become less racist. I should be asking you though.”

Violet smiled a little at that. “Don’t worry, my virtue will remain only yours to sully.”

With a preliminary plan for the next few days, Violet laid down her portable on the desk.

“I’ll be meeting with Volwitz, Rhineametalle and with the Esoteric Order.” She said.

She slumped back on her chair and sighed. Nothing was ever easy.

Nothing going forward would get any easier than it was even now. It would only get worse.

Through tired eyes, growing hazy, Violet looked on at the world around her.

That haze, tinged red like all the blood spilled and all the blood left to be spilled–

“Feeling the weight?” Nasser asked.

“I can handle it.” Violet replied, snapping out of her distraction. She sat up straight.

“I know you can. You’ve been through worse. But you are incredibly resilient.”

Violet felt her heavy heart eased ever so slightly by Nasser’s words.

Ever since she was a teenager, Vesna Nasser had been a supportive presence in Violet’s life. Nasser herself had been young when they met, albeit certainly older than Violet. Nasser was the one kindness that her father had ever afforded to Violet– a protector and keeper who could turn away her enemies, who managed her household, who found her opportunity in the world. Someone to strangle her to death should it become necessary– however, over time, the likelihood of being killed by Nasser grew fainter. Not because her father’s prerogatives ever changed but because Nasser herself would just not do it even if ordered.

Castaways in the world, their families destroyed, their futures compromised.

Until a fateful day, where a young Violet, a powerless captive without a name, said,

“Nasser, I want to be like you.”

Such was the pull of Destiny on the tiny, windswept candle flicker of a soul she had left.

I want to be strong like you.

I want to remake myself like you did.

I want to be feared like you are.

I want to be able to kill all of those who have wronged me.

Like you did.

She fell in love with Nasser; and her affection was returned.

From that painful past would spring the beautiful maelstrom of their future.

“Nasser, have I become like you?” Violet asked suddenly.

Nasser held her hand and answered with seemingly little time to ponder.

“I have nothing left to teach you, and now, I am always learning from you.” She said.

Violet felt gratified by the answer and relished holding the hand of her beloved.

She was not a scared child anymore.

Now, she was strong, feared, and had a power that would polish Imbria to a bloody sheen.


Several days after the Brigand’s departure from Kreuzung, the significance of which none of the Zabaniyah knew at the time; the Ritter-class Greater Imbria, the manta ray-like cruiser Mrudah, and a few supporting ships from the militia set off from Kreuzung. While the Mrudah was mysterious and eye-catching in design, and the Greater Imbria an already storied ship of a fine class, the militia vessels were boxy converted civilian designs.

One was a former container ship now carrying several dozen divers entombed within pods on its back, awaiting deployment; another an old refueler ship that served as a home base and supply vessel for the militia pilots; the third a mid-size passenger craft equipped with dozens of gas gun pods acting as a makeshift destroyer to intercept munitions on the fleet.

Underway to the destination in Aachen, the commander of the fleet, Standartenführer Imani Hadžić, ordered a review of the militias. Joining her in this task would be Sturmbannführer Heidelinde Sawyer, the star of the militia, and her adjutant, Rue Skalbeck. Sawyer underwent this inspection aware that she had received reinforcements who were on the young side; she had been told as much. The militia had been reluctant to spend its best men to assist Violet Lehner, who was not aligned with the factions that financially supported the militia.

However, what she saw when she stepped into the hall of the refueler ship shocked her.

Arrayed in neat rows before her, dressed immaculately in their uniforms, as if for parade.

Were a hundred or so teenage boys whose ages Sawyer could not have begun to guess.

All were shorter than her and only a few were formidable in their stature.

They knew how to stand all along the corridor of a ship in a disciplined formation.

Did they know how to fight, however? Sawyer’s heart was skipping beats.

Was she meant to preside over the slaughter of all these lambs?

When she asked for warriors to take up the crusade alongside her?

“Hmph. How interesting.” A cruel laugh.

Imani Hadžić walked out in front of the boys with an expression devoid of sympathy.

Standing beside her, Sawyer thought her eyes looked– hollow.

Mentally, Sawyer compared her to the only other Shimii she knew, Victoria–

And there was no comparison.

Victoria was a horrible little gnat, but there was no question that she had a warm heart in her chest. They had fought all the time, she had wanted to turn her into paste more than once, but that was feeling, they shared some kind of emotion. Hell– Sawyer might have even considered her almost like a friend, once upon a very long time. Maybe even more than friends– No— nothing like that of course– Sawyer was not like that at all–

Imani’s face however was so frighteningly devoid of even a bit of warmth.

When she grinned at the boys it was the cruelest expression Sawyer had ever seen.

Was she enjoying having all these kids in front of her? What would she do?

The two women in their uniforms stood quite formidable in front of these teenagers.

But in Sawyer’s mind this was nothing to savor. How would these kids be of any use?

“Heil. I am Standartenführer Imani Hadžić, your commanding officer. Congratulations: you must all be excited for a chance to contribute to the nation’s victory. If you are not, that is a pity– you will be thrown into the fire whether you object or whether you yearn for it. I suggest that you get used to two things in the sea: privation and death. Let me see all of you– ha ha, so small, but you can all pull on a stick right? You can press buttons?”

Imani made a gesture with her fingers as if highlight how diminutive she found the boys.

Though she herself was not so tall, in her position she may as well have towered over them.

She paced in front of the boys, tracing the length of their formation, hands behind her back.

Sawyer stood stone-faced, trying not to let her discomfort and disgust show.

Rue Skalbeck was silent a step behind and beside Sawyer, holding a portable computer.

What was the point of this? She hated these idiotic displays of rank.

Sawyer scanned across the faces of those assembled. Most had no expressions at all.

As Imani began to pace back from the other side of the assembled boys, however–

Sawyer caught one of the boys in the front putting on a face, averting his gaze.

Just as she did, Imani must have also. Her pacing sped until she stopped in front of him.

“Do you have anything to offer the class?” Imani said mockingly. “Or are you bored?”

For a moment the boy made eye contact with her. He broke eye contact quickly.

He scoffed at her, audibly, directly.

Maybe he fancied his chances. He was a bigger boy, heavier set than others.

Leaner, a bit taller, buzzed blond hair. He stood out just slightly from the others.

Like all the rest, however– he bled vividly red.

Without warning, Imani drew her truncheon and beat the boy beside the head.

One swift strike turned his legs to jelly and overturned the rest of him.

Hard enough that the crack of the impact reverberated across the hall.

Flecks of blood marred an adjacent boy who visibly struggled not to lose his composure.

In the second row, the boys backed up enough to allow the struck-down kid room to fall.

He came to settle on the floor, disoriented, making a motion as if lying down to bed.

Twitching as his eyes closed. Sawyer watched the scene play out with muted horror.

“Does anyone else have any objections? Anyone else want to be so brave? Are you against being commanded by a woman? Or by a Shimii perhaps? Are you against serving a faction of the Esoteric Order?” Imani looked around. Nobody replied. After the attack the boys restored their formation with a gap for their fallen comrade. Everything was silent for a moment save for breathing and the mechanical buzzing as Imani activated the vibration mechanism inside the truncheon, increasing its potential for internal injury. “You will find that the only thing that matters here is power. Whether or not you have a weapon, I can assuredly kill everyone in this room. None of you are old enough to gauge my power but rest assured, I am the deadliest soldier you have ever seen. That power of violence hangs over all of you. Let that be what drives you forward. Prove to me that you are good for anything, and perhaps your neanderthal parents will see you return a decorated soldier.”

Imani pointed her truncheon at one of the boys, whose eyes drew wide at the attention.

He said nothing and broke out into a nervous salute upon being acknowledged.

“You, boy– take your comrade to the infirmary. Whether or not he survives, you will be promoted from Kadet to Schütze from now on and have a semblance of command over this miserable lot. However, if he survives, you will be promoted one more time to Sturmmann, and he will be your adjutant. Do you have any objections?” Imani grinned again.

“N-N-no ma’am. I will do as you command unquestioningly and see to his recovery. Sieg Heil!” The boy saluted, and then dropped to the ground and lifted his fallen ally up as quickly as he could. It was clearly difficult for him to manage the wounded boy alone. Around him, the other boys very briefly stared at him but then returned their eyes forward.

Imani smiled as she watched him struggle. She turned to the rest.

“There are forty Sturmvolkers and a hundred of you.” Imani said. “Or I should say, there are thirty-nine available now. Be good little boys for me, and you will earn those combat spots and show the Blood Bund and Traditional Fatherhood Front that you are the big strong alpha men you were taught you would be. Show this Shimii woman that you can stand on your own. While the rest of you can support the brave warriors among you; not so glorious, but beta men are also necessary. As for me– remember well that this is a matriarchy. I do not need any of you but you need my good graces to survive. Learn to live under my heel.”

Laughing raucously, Imani turned her back on the boys and waved dismissively.

Sawyer could hardly stand the theatrics any longer and followed after Imani.

Stopping her near the bulkhead into the chute connecting the ships.

“Hadžić– Standartenführer, what are you doing? They are teenagers!”

Imani looked at her over her shoulder with narrowed, inexpressive eyes.

“Do you want a beating as well, Heidelinde?” She said in a tired monotone.

Sawyer tried to control herself. She thought of laying hands on Imani–

–but even she in her most wildest rage could see there was something in Imani.

An immense pressure that crushed whatever will to fight she could muster.

And left her paralyzed with– fear. It was fear. Unfathomable, sudden, intense fear.

That Shimii became as if a black– no– green–? a radiating icon of despair–

“Ma’am– with all due respect– this is not– we cannot–”

She could hardly finish a fraction of a sentence before Imani interrupted her.

“You are a member of the militia too– you know how things work, don’t you? Or maybe you are not cut out for politics. Of course, we were never going to get Rhinea’s finest. The Militia is being opportunistic– the reason we got these boys is as punishment to them, and leverage against their families. We are all being used. If you care about them then it is up to you to whip them into shape. You have a few days. Don’t let them disrespect you. All that they have known, all their lives, is that the one who beats them owns them. Do what you must.”

Without a word more and without letting a word in edgewise, Imani crossed the bulkhead.

Leaving Sawyer behind on the militia ship, her heart sinking with apprehension.

Whoever beats them, owns them.

Traditional Fatherhood Front– Blood Bund– Sawyer knew what it was like.

Not that her parents were ever part of those factions– but they acted like it.

She closed her fist, gripping so tight that she thought she might burst her own hand.

That crack from Imani’s baton as sharp in her mind now as the sounds of the beatings she herself had received, as a child, in school, in the military, all throughout her life. That first option taken to control her until it was taken near exclusively. She thought that the idea that she was now in the position of beating children as she was beaten was absurd and cruel and disgusting, and even worse that the children would be her main troops in this campaign.

However, she also knew, in the deepest, most helpless parts of her soul, that this was the tradition that she was fighting for. This is what she stood up for, this was the source of her power. It was a dark but inexorable part of the glory and triumph that the Volkisch Movement promised. Without this she had nothing. She would be nobody again.

Nothing but a speck in the shadow of all-mighty beasts like Imani Hadžić.

At her back, Rue Skalbeck drew close. She stood behind Sawyer and very close to her.

She could not show sympathy in front of the boys. But Sawyer appreciated her presence.

“It will be what it will be.” Sawyer said, feeling trapped. Cursing everything internally.

Was this truly the power she had struggled so hard to achieve?


One day after the Brigand’s arrival at Aachen–

In a dark cargo loading dock in Stockheim, a certain lieutenant shut her eyes with agitation.

Her fists clenched tight. Feeling a shudder across her skin. “Chief Petty Officer–”

At her side, a sprightly Loup woman lifted a finger and wagged from side to side.

“No, master! Rottenführer. Remember?” Her tail wagged twice as fast as her finger.

“Rottenführer.” The Lieutenant– or in this parlance, the Obersturmführer— felt her mouth turning sour saying that wicked word. She sighed. “I don’t think this uniform fits me.”

“Ah, but master, it is very close to your size! And it’s been meticulously prepared!”

She ran her hand over the collar, and pulled her tie, which felt like they might strangle her.

And the armbands, cutting her limb in half with their vile symbols.

“No– I mean– ideologically, it does not fit.” Her tone grew even more uncomfortable.

“Of course. I, too, am not a fascist. But I know you will agree to its operational usefulness.”

Unfortunately, yes– she had to agree that it would be exceedingly useful to the operation.

That is, if they could pull off the plan without being caught and throwing the whole thing.

Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather paused and adjusted Murati Nakara’s tie with a smile.

“That severe expression will do you good. Few Obersturmführer have reasons to smile.”

“Aatto– This had better be worth it, or I– I will put you on leave for a week.”

“On leave–? No–! Master, it will absolutely be worth it.”

Owing to the fact that Valeriya and Illya had a much more dangerous area to infiltrate, the mission to reconnoiter the Volkisch Gau office in Aachen was given to Murati and her too-loyal adjutant. Their stated objective was simply to ascertain the level of readiness and defenses of the Gau and whether they were making any overt combat preparations. Aatto had more ambitious plans, but Murati was dubious about the prospects. Initially she was worried they might be disqualified for such a mission immediately by their race.

North Bosporans were rare and dispersed within the Empire after the ethnic mass deportations that followed the failed General Strike. However, the Volkisch in Eisental were apparently an eclectic bunch with Shimii leadership. Aatto herself assured the Volksarmee that among the broader Volkisch movement, outside of factions like the Blood Bund, it was not impossible for there to be Loup, Volgian, Bosporan and even Eloim membership. Aatto and Murati would not stick out just because of race if they wore the uniform.

“I worked for the Rhinean Navy and transitioned seamlessly to the Volkisch, master.”

“Great. Good for you. Now– stop calling me ‘master’ already.”

Race was only the most basic and surface level worry Murati had about the mission.

In her mind, they had agreed to walk into a fortress of the enemy.

No– not merely a fortress. A charnel house; a torture chamber. In Murati’s mind the Gau office must have been like hell itself, a vile shelter where all the most unspeakable crimes against humanity and dignity were being carried out. Bestial people without logic or compunction would be there and they would see through Murati’s ruse immediately.

She was a person with correct and righteous thoughts and bearing.

They would see that she was not a participant in their bacchanalia.

“Master, this is an unprecedented opportunity for us.” Aatto assured her. “While this Gau remains new and understaffed, it is vulnerable. We could snag the details of their plans for the station government and even the local logistics picture without incurring too much risk!”

“Too much risk relative to what? Risk of burning if I spark a lighter while doused in oil?”

“I understand your caution– you are of course, a highly observant and deliberate person.”

“Ugh. Quit flattering me. Don’t act so disgusting when we’re in public.”

To avoid being seen walking out of the ships dressed in Volkisch Uniforms, the Brigand discretely requested the assistance of sympathetic (and entrepreneurial) Stockheim sailors to smuggle them out. To all the world, they walked out of the Brigand in their ordinary uniforms, went down a corridor into Stockheim, and that was that. Instead, however, they were led to a cargo elevator, a popular entryway for smuggling. They changed clothes into the captured uniforms by the dim light of an LED panel and pretended to be coming in for an inspection, after which, they simply left Stockheim as anyone else would.

And then entered Aachen as a pair of Volkisch officers, with forged IDs to boot.

“Aren’t they authentic? Being an intelligence officer has many perks, master.”

Aatto had been indispensible. This mission would not have happened without her.

When she suggested the idea, the captain initially balked and the commissar accused Aatto of wanting to set a trap– however, Aatto had made so many preparations up front that the idea felt genuine. She had written up detailed materials on Volkisch conduct within the Gau offices, typical shift compositions, and even printed several items and modified others using a stitcher machine; sans certain specific security implementations on the items which not even Aatto could replicate. She had done everything to make the mission viable.

“The Aachen Gau office has been a token administration with a skeleton crew for months. Violet Lehner will likely accelerate its expansion now. We have a narrow window to exploit.”

Framed in that way, and with all the preparations she made, and the more that she was capable of, the Captain and Premier overruled the Commissar’s concerns and allowed the mission to go forward. While they were busy preparing for the United Front talks, several members of the crew were running away missions, and Murati would be no different.

“Aatto– did you spend so much effort to authentically modify this uniform because–”

“Master, my motivation is to impress my new officers and prove my worthiness.”

Not because she wanted to see how Murati looked in the black uniform?

Murati glared at her but ultimately sighed and accepted things.

None of the uniforms they had captured were higher ranking than Rotteführer.

Aatto had somehow freestitched correct markings on a captured uniform to identify as an Obersturmführer, roughly translated to Murati’s senior Lieutenant role. Both Kalika Loukia and Khadija al-Shajara, who were resident experts in clothing design, thought Aatto’s embellishment looked extremely authentic to the intelligence photography they had previously collected of various Volkisch uniforms. The garments passed a visual predictor scan from Zachikova– even the colors were matching hues to a typical uniform.

Aatto must have committed all of these small details to memory. She was incredibly sharp.

Her labors meant they had the intelligence, equipment and means to carry out their mission.

When Murati looked at her, she did feel that Aatto was being sincere in her behavior.

Against her better judgment, she would trust her new adjutant and pursue this task.

“Aatto, you did not use any tricks to convince the captain, did you?” Murati asked.

“Hmm? Master, the Captain is immune to volshebtsvo.” Aatto said, smiling gently.

Murati sighed deeply. She ran her hands over her face with exasperation.

“We will scout the place and leave at the first sign of trouble.” She said, resigning herself.

“Of course. I will follow your orders to the letter. You will see my professionalism at work.”

Thus– the course of fate brought them into the City of Currents dressed all in black.

And wearing some unsavory armbands and uniform decorations.

Murati took her first steps into Aachen in the guise of the Obersturmführer. She had come up with the name Ami Ravana for her assumed identity, while Aatto took on the identity of Ilma Suomi-Fertilefield. Their cards were real as far as they had the correct template for a Volkisch ID and included pictures and false personal data. They had chips in them too, taken from the cards of the soldiers Murati killed, but the data in those chips would be recorded as the men who once held them, so it would be easy for anyone to look at the records after the fact and realize the infiltration. As soon as they saw a door that required swiping their IDs they would need to consider the risks before doing so and escape shortly thereafter.

“Aatto– I mean, Ilma. Is it just me or are people staring?” Murati whispered.

“No, they are staring. You’ll get used to it.” Aatto confirmed.

Under the massive atrium at the base of the Aachen central cylinder, a crowd of people shot passing glances at Murati and Aatto as they entered the station from Stockheim. When Murati met anyone’s eyes in passing they would immediately tear their gaze from her. That uniform, the black jacket, the armbands, the jackboots– it was a symbol that inspired terror in everyone around them. Murati felt something that she was very unfamiliar with.

In the Union her uniform was something that was common and ignored, most of the time, but there were a few people for whom the uniform was something to admire and respect. Particularly among very young people and very old people, Murati would occasionally get a smile or a wave or even a cheer as she went about her days in Thassal.

There was no such cheer in Aachen.

All of the staring, at her uniform and the peaked cap, was critical, nervous, and fearful. They walked through the crowds like a knife plunged in skin, a deepening wound. Nobody would even dare come close, minding at least half an arm’s distance from the pair. Everyone was aware of them. Murati had never felt more seen by the people around her than donning this uniform. She had to steady her breathing and make herself remain calm. Some part of her, inexperienced with such clear animosity all around her, wanted to panic and flee.

When such feelings struck her– she adjusted her cap, marked with an iron eagle in front.

For something to do with unsteady fingers. It dispelled some of the stress.

Aachen was a very beautiful station. The Atrium area reminded Murati of the Bubble in Thassal but many, many times larger and more spacious and much more lavishly designed. Its beautiful centerpiece and the sweeping paths around it to the various platforms containing shops and businesses; Murati had to admit it was stunning, almost otherworldly in its intricacy, like a planetarium filled with commercial spaces– but it was also undoubtedly a waste of space. There had to be an allowance for some beauty, for some creativity, in designing homes and workplaces, but this was too much. Building Aachen this way precluded the possibility to allow in so many thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands. A more enclosed and simpler tiered space could retain some of the beauty and color but allow for more people to live and work and have a place in the station.

Murati had seen a few different locations in the Imbrian Empire now.

Each time she felt, in the sight of the grandiose architecture,

–that the Empire’s rulers loved metal more than they could ever love people.

That the aesthetics of the metal was much more a concern than its use by human beings.

Turning her head down from the high-rising atrium, Murati led Aatto to the elevators.

Their destination was in the second tier of the cylinder, above this particular atrium. The Core Station of Aachen had a massive vertical commercial district as its base, and above it, there was a shorter, smaller tier that contained facilities, a park and the access points for maintenance work. Above that central tier there was a second, smaller commercial district that played host to its own centerpiece atrium, and at the highest tier, was an exclusive high-class residential area that also housed several government facilities. Much like Kreuzung, this highest tier also had its own small seaport for luxury vessels like yachts.

Below the Aachen cylinder there was also an underground area, but that was not Murati’s concern for now. She touched the button on the elevator’s control panel corresponding to the central tier and joined the dozens of other elevators moving up and down the chutes from one level to the next. Inside the elevator, Aatto set her back against the wall and wagged her tail gently. The two of them let themselves breathe now. There was no surveillance inside the public elevators so they had a moment to relax.

“What’s on your mind?” Murati said to her. Mainly to try to get out of her own mind.

She expected Aatto would respond with something frivolous and headache-inducing–

And found herself a bit surprised at how candid her adjutant became.

“I was thinking about this uniform.” Aatto said, pulling on her collar patch. “When I started working, I was inducted into the Rhinean Navy. They trained me well and I’d never have to go home again so it felt like a good deal. I had a talent for intelligence work. Then the Volkisch took over. So, I worked for them, in the same office, doing the same things as before. Tagging CCTV footage, reviewing computer logs, chasing down sources, assisting arrests. It never meant much to me. Back then I told myself it was all the same thing.”

“At some point you decided to rebel against the Volkisch, didn’t you?” Murati asked.

“On a whim– I think more than anything I just wanted to see things change. I was not a good person like you, master.” Aatto said. “For so long everything has been the same for me. Whatever abuses I suffered or even any I inflicted had already been circularly carried out untold millions of times already. I wanted to overturn things. To cause chaos. I thought the liberals would have such fury for the Volkisch that they would shake the earth. In the end nothing happened, and I gave up the hope– and you captured me after that.”

Murati laughed a bit, both at Aatto’s almost whimsical selfishness, but also at the very idea.

Liberals never fought for anything– but when they did it was some form of status quo.

“You picked the wrong group for chaos. Did they ask you for some chaos donations to their chaos campaign? How has chaos polled recently? Did it perform well at the election debate?”

She had some sympathy for Aatto, but to her, it read as a foolishly uninformed fantasy.

Aatto shared a little laugh with Murati as the elevator ride wound on.

“Yes– I see my errors from the reading I am doing now. Truth be told I hardly understood the nuances separating liberals and communists. All I saw were symbols and slogans. I am glad to have met you master. I wear this uniform again as part of a rebellion that matters.”

Aatto smiled at Murati and Murati felt that it was the return of her pointless flattery again.

Murati was not upset with Aatto, but rather, she suddenly felt uncomfortable about her role.

Here was a somewhat unformed being who wanted so badly to be shaped by someone. She had been abandoned by the world. Had it not been Murati, would Aatto have made herself the perfect servant of a far more horrible ‘king’? Was there something inherently wrong about someone being so malleable; was it an overreach of Murati’s to take this ‘pure’ vessel and allow it to be influenced so thoroughly by her own thoughts? Should she not attempt to make Aatto an individual again, rather than trying to shape her like this?

Individual– that was a loaded word in leftist politics, but teaching Aatto and trying to right her course, made Murati challenge her own thinking more. It was easy to speak to her own convictions with the implicit knowledge that someone would push back. Being accepted uncritically made her feel as though she was transgressing in some way.

As if she was violating Aatto with her certitude.

It made Murati wonder if she was truly fit for her own military and political ambitions.

At times she wondered whether what she was doing really constituted good communist thought and praxis. She once attacked the world with unyielding conviction that she was the most correct. Now that she was responsible for those ideas and their expression in someone else, it made her second-guess herself. Was she teaching Aatto ‘right’?

Should she be the teacher?

In her mind, Aatto was like a pupal insect being dipped in Murati’s red ink.

Could Murati bear the sight of the crimson butterfly that might emerge from that cocoon?

What if she went astray? Would that condemn Murati and her beliefs?

What if Aatto’s wings, heavy with the ink forced on her, suddenly dropped her to oblivion?

It was different from the mecha pilots– they had come to Murati with formed convictions.

Giving orders to soldiers was different from teaching someone how to view the world.

Far, afar above the rank of Lieutenant on a ship, there was the rank of a Leader, writ large.

Had Murati ever been on some level the same as Aatto now was? She wondered that too.

Murati had devoured the writings of her own leaders studiously– their words formed her.

How did Daksha Kansal or Bhavani Jayasankar bear raising whole nations in this manner?

Could Murati take the place of those righteous predecessors who were responsible for her?

“Master– I mean, Obersturmführer. We have arrived. The Gau won’t be too far from here.”

Aatto’s voice and the opening of the elevator doors shook Murati out of her brooding.

There was no time to resolve that now– it could not be resolved so instantly.

She had to trust in herself, and in Aatto as well. Aatto did have some conviction.

After all, she had chosen to follow Murati.

There was only so much worrying she could let herself do on someone’s behalf.

Regardless of the philosophy and the hypotheticals–

At that moment Murati could only put one foot before the other and carry out her mission.

Her hands reached up to her peaked cap and adjusted it once again.

“Aatto, I just wanted to say that I am sorry.”

“Hmm? For what, master?”

“I thought of you as a thing– an object, in the abstract. It wasn’t right of me.”

“Um. I am not sure I–”

“Don’t worry. Let’s get going. Just– you’re doing good so far. Keep it up.”

Murati stepped out of the elevator, trying to keep up the black-iron bearing of a fascist.

Aatto followed behind her, with initially hesitant steps.

But she caught up quickly, and then, she kept the pace silently and seriously.

From the elevator banks, they exited out onto the main thoroughfare through the park. It was the biggest shock of bright green color Murati ever had in her life; she did not know where in the Union she might see something like this outside of a paint mill. There were several trees planted in dirt and media plots that were being chemically maintained. They were tall, bushy, and bright. Signs on the tree plots warned the passersby to stay off the dirt or be fined. There were so many trees and the design of the tier, with a lower ceiling, more sunlight LED clusters and stronger climate controls and air circulation, meant that they did not need to be sealed in individual bubbles and could stand out amid the paths.

There were benches where people could sit, some of which were located under the branches of the bigger and older trees. Surprisingly few people took advantage of this. Perhaps to them, the trees were such a normal sight now that the modest crowd merely glanced at them as they walked the paths. Murati had to pretend not to be stunned. With the park as a starting point the structures of the tier fanned out from it. Murati saw container parks and garages in the distance, fenced off. There were office buildings and their workers seemed to make up most of the foot traffic, on their way to and from lunch in the lower district.

At the far end of the park, Murati spotted the fascist flag marking their destination.

Stepping out of the shade of the trees, into the shadow of the Aachen Gau office.

Save for the flag, the building was nothing so terrifying, just a metal and plastic rectangle, two stories high and blending into the walls of Aachen’s middle tier. It was an office building, like any other office building save perhaps for the deeds it sheltered inside of it. Six steps from the ground level took the entrant to the lobby door; there was also a plastic ramp. Long, inscrutable glass windows and the darkened glass doors allowed those in the Gau to see out to the world but no one outside to look back at them.

It was the silence and lack of activity that made the Gau office look particularly eerie. Unlike the nearby offices, nobody had come in or out of the building since Murati and Aatto began to approach it, and nobody was sitting on the steps or meandering outside it. Whether this spoke to its lack of occupants or the discipline of those inside Murati did not know and Aatto could only guess. Perhaps that vile flag served to ward ordinary people away from the place as well. Murati felt her heart pounding. Would it be too conspicuous for them to try to visit the office now? What if it was almost abandoned, or even closed off entirely?

“Aatto, should we just step in? Do they even take visitors?” Murati asked.

Aatto nodded her head. “It’s a government office, master– they are supposed to handle permits and IDs and such. In Aachen, there’s still the liberal government providing services for now– but still, even in a complicated situation the Gau must maintain the pretense that it is the legitimate government of the station. We should be able to just walk inside.”

“Alright. I’ll lead the way– but you better be right, you know that?” Murati whispered.

“Something wrong? Can I assist you, officers?”

From behind both of them, a woman’s voice rose up suddenly.

Murati froze up for an instant. At her side, Aatto glanced at Murati for a brief moment.

Expected to play the part of leader, Murati made herself turned around quick but calm.

Coming face to face with a seemingly formidable character all of a sudden.

“Obersturmführer, and Rotteführer– I’m Rahima Jašarević. Pleased to meet you, herr–?”

“Ami Ravana. This is my assistant Suomi-Fertilefield. It is our pleasure, milord.”

Despite the suddenness of the intrusion and Murati’s initial reaction to it, she found that her voice was not failing her when it came time to address the woman, and that her hands were not trembling when they shook Rahima’s. Maintaining outward composure despite the drumming in her chest, hoping the deep pulses did not transfer through the black gloves on her hands. On the steps to the Gau Murati held the gaze and hand of an important guest.

There was no turning back now.

Rahima Jašarević– a tall woman, her uniform was tailored to an exacting standard, fitting her frame perfectly and Murati guessed it was even natural fibers. All in black, the double-breasted coat buttoned over a white collared shirt with black pants and high boots. Pinned to her ample chest was a gold medal with a black hooked cross and a red and white tassel. A gold chain over her chest connected to a patched-in silver shield badge with a sword and moon sigil, situated on the side of the forearm close to the shoulder. She wore two armbands, one with the hooked cross and the second with the black sonnenrad.

Her manner was initially imperious, but when she met Murati’s eyes she smiled a bit.

Despite the fascist implements Murati had to admit that she was a comely woman, her light-brown skin unblemished, a hint of shadow and eyeliner on an otherwise unmanicured expression, with a long, sleek nose. She was tall and broad-shouldered, and her hair fell over her shoulders, swept away from her eyes on one side and with orderly bangs on the other. Some of it was collected into a braid on the side with the swept-up bangs. Her ears were tall and straight and trimmed with a fluffy tuft of fur on the tips, and her tail was bushy.

Murati had the immediate impression that she was shaking the hands of someone powerful.

However, the armbands, the medals, the arm shield, these said nothing about her rank.

There were no pips on her collar, nor lines on her lapel or shoulderboards to indicate rank.

That impression of power came from her demeanor and presence as Murati observed it.

She thought of trying to ask Aatto telepathically what rank this woman supposedly had.

However, Rahima was staring straight into her eyes. What if she saw the red rings?

Because she had been caught off-guard, she had not yet chanced to study Rahima’s aura.

“Forgive me, I had gone on a walk to clear my head.” Rahima said. “Did I happen to miss an appointment?” She let go of Murati’s hand and then quickly shook hands with Aatto instead.

“Not at all, mein herr. We just happened to arrive now.” Murati said.

“Indeed, herr Gauleiter, you are right on time.” Aatto said.

She gave Murati the briefest glance as she spoke.

Now Murati knew the rank.

In front of them stood the highest political leader of the Volkisch locally within Aachen. Their Gauleiter, an old High Imbrian rank revived by the reactionary intelligentsia that literally meant land leader. Each Gau was ruled over by a Gauleiter as their fiefdom.

Not only that– but she was also a Shimii Gauleiter. They put a Shimii in charge here.

Something unprecendented as far as Murati knew. The Zabaniyah’s agenda at work.

Aatto recognized her rank. Aatto had informed them of the Zabaniyah. Did she know her?

Murati felt a fresh shock work its way through her system, suppressing it with all her will.

Rahima Jašarević was a seriously and extremely dangerous person to have met.

However, they had shaken hands and breached the matter of their acquaintance.

Regardless of how Murati felt the game was on. Their uniforms had passed muster.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ravana, Suomi-Fertilefield. Unless something has come up while I was away, my schedule should be clear. While I intended to work at my leisure, I am at your disposal. We could talk inside or out. Whichever you prefer.” Rahima said.

From what Murati could make out, Rahima did not seem to be armed.

Murati and Aatto were not armed either. They were not masquerading as combat troops.

Right now, they had an opportunity.

Rahima could lead them inside and give them an ironclad excuse into the depths of the building. Depending on the layout of the Gau office and where Rahima took them, they might be able to get access to useful records. Murati had already come up with a decent cover story. However, this was also their last chance to run away without obstacle. Once they followed Rahima inside, escaping her grasp would become a messy affair.

So far, she had neither balked at their races, nor at the state of their disguises.

Nothing ventured; nothing gained.

“We have walked a ways already– given the choice, I’d prefer inside, herr Gauleiter.”

Aatto nodded along to Murati’s suggestion. Rahima nodded at them.

“This way, please. Follow me.” Rahima said.

She walked past Murati and Aatto and through the double doors, tail swaying gently.

Past the doors, there was a small lobby, sparsely decorated, with an impression of brown wallpaper, a false wooden counter, and a green carpet on the floor. Chairs on one side, for those waiting. It was a lobby that seemed to presume few people would ever visit the building. There were vacant spots on the walls that were clearly empty holographic picture frames projected onto them. There was a fake plastic plant with white flowers.

Behind the counter there was a bored-looking teenage girl.

When she caught sight of the Gauleiter she put down a small portable slate and sat upright.

“Milord! Welcome back! I hope you had a really awesome walk!” She said.

By her voice and stature Murati thought the receptionist had to be underage.

“It was lovely, Wiebke.” Rahima said. “No one came in while I was out, I presume?”

Behind the glass shield on the counter, Wiebke shook her head vigorously.

“Nope! Uh! If I saw someone I would obvies let you know!” She said.

Her little black beret with its black sonnenrad badge nearly fell off her head.

“Very well. Keep up the good work.” Rahima said. Another little smile on her lips.

Rahima stepped up to the door out of the lobby and pressed her hand on the wall.

Easily as that, the door opened, leading into a dark brown hallway.

“When you leave, remind Wiebke to lock it behind you.” Rahima said gently.

Murati could hardly believe how casually the Gauleiter had allowed them inside.

Without so much as a glance askance Murati followed behind Rahima, Aatto alongside.

Behind them the door shut again.

From the lobby, a hallway with a few closed doors opened up into a broader room. There were a dozen cubicles in the room under yellow-and-white sunlamp LEDs, with the fake brown wallpaper a continuing aesthetic theme. The cubicles were divided by cheap white plastic dividers enclosing each space. There were plastic stick-notes put up everywhere on those plastic dividers. All manner of hand-written chicken scratch had been laid thickly upon each and Murati could not understand them. In the Union there was almost never cause to read someone’s handwriting in a work setting. Beyond the cubicles there were two other hallways, and a small nook with a coffee machine and a snack table.

“Where were you stationed before, Obersturmfuhrer?” Rahima asked.

An easy question to foresee that Murati and Aatto already worked out answers to.

“My tasks have required me to remain on the move, milord.” Murati said.

“I see. In your travels, have you seen a smaller Gau office?” Rahima asked.

By her tone Murati figured she was making small talk. She did not sound too serious.

“I’m afraid I’ve hardly seen Gau offices of any size, milord.” Murati said.

“Understood. This one is barely established– that’s my job now.” Rahima said. “I am wondering– were you sent here to assist us in expanding operations? Most of my subordinates are recruits. I assume I would have heard of you being assigned here.”

Her tone was still not confrontational, but the choice of words caused a spike in anxiety.

“I’m afraid I am still only passing, milord, and will not be remaining here.” Murati said.

“We are part of an oceanographic survey, milord.” Aatto added. “For the logistics corps.”

Rahima held a long pause. Murati dared not look at her face while their words settled.

Then there was a sound of sliding plastic from one of the cubicles that interrupted them.

From around a corner that they were about to turn, a young woman stepped out in front.

“Forgive me, lord Gauleiter! I– can I– may I request your assistance in a certain matter?”

She was another Shimii, a skinny girl with short, curly blond-hair and very fluffy golden ears between which she wore a garrison cap. Of course, emblazoned with a hideous sonnenrad like the rest. Compared to Rahima, she was a diminutive girl, and her demure posture in front of the Gauleiter served to accentuate the differences even more strongly. She could well have been another teenager, but Murati read her as someone of age, perhaps only barely. It led her to wonder why so many young people were wrapped up in this.

“Let me take a look.” Rahima said, beckoning the girl.

From the girl’s dainty hands, she took a portable computer.

On the screen there was a form with several fields and a lot of numbers.

Something to do with finance or inventory– Murati did not want to appear too interested.

“I’m– I’m not able to get it through the computer’s error correction–” the girl began.

“It’s not passing error correction because it’s wrong.” Rahima said. “Did you double check that you applied the correct formulas? Or you might have plugged in the wrong set from the databases into the final form. I don’t have time for this right now; but I can look later.”

Rahima handed back the portable to the girl. She spoke calmly; she did not appear upset.

Nevertheless, the girl bowed her head and apologized–

“Shimii do not bow their heads. Don’t bow to me or anyone.” Rahima said sternly.

She reached out and with her fingers gently lifted the girl’s chin, so their eyes met again.

“Yes– I’m so sorry lord Gauleiter– I just feel so– after I got this nice job–”

Rahima looked upon the stuttering girl with great pity, as the girl looked back in terror.

“It’s fine. We can work on the numbers later. We have all the time in the world.”

“Yes. I’m so sorry. Thank you for your great kindness.”

Despite Rahima’s attempts, when the girl scurried back to her cubicle, she was still shaking.

Murati watched the whole scene silently.

Turning over Rahima’s words in her head– and everything she knew about the situation.

How did they have ‘all the time in the world’ to get the Gau’s paperwork straight?

Why did Rahima so casually endure these young and incompetent subordinates?

Wasn’t the operation of a Gau more important than this? Wasn’t it more urgent and dire?

Hadn’t she just earlier said that her task was to see to the expansion of this Gau?

She was unsure of whether this was owed to Rahima’s character– or that of the Gau itself.

“Forgive her. She’s a– provincial girl. But she is a fast learner.” Rahima told Murati.

Murati nodded silently. The Gauleiter led them past the cubicles down another short hall.

Briefly, Murati glanced back at Aatto.

Her adjutant looked stoic and professional, following behind without expression.

When she met Murati’s eyes, she put on a very small and very quick smile.

Murati furtively returned her eyes to the Gauleiter’s back.

“This is my office. We can discuss matters here without anybody listening.” Rahima said.

Laying her hand on a panel near the door, Rahima opened it and welcomed them in.

Her office was only a bit more furnished and decorated than other rooms they had seen, false green wallpaper and projected tapestries with fascist symbols on the walls.

Amid the falsity, Murati’s eyes were drawn to a shelf of physical books. Recent treatises on demand-side economics; fundamentals of the liberal enlightenment written in the 800s After Descent, during the crisis of the Late Nocht dynasty and the economic decline of the Dukes; pop science about the late Surface era crisis and the source of the corruption, likely all junk; more than anything there was a variety of Shimii clerical work both Rashidun and Mahdist. Nestled among all these works, and sticking out slightly, was Adam Lehner’s own book, “The Art of Struggle in the Enlightened Age.” When Murati arrived in Kreuzung, among the many little things she read once she had access to Imperial networks and time with which to read, were various pieces of Volkisch ideology. This risible volume by the so-called Fuhrer was the largest and most influential collection of fascist bilge.

“Admiring my bookshelves? Are you a reader yourself Obersturmfuhrer?” Rahima asked.

“Yes. I’m curious whether anyone would object to your ‘collection.’” Murati asked.

“Because of the liberal books in it? Well, it’s important to understand everything I can.”

“Really? Would you put Mordecai on that shelf too?” Murati asked suddenly.

Shuddering under her skin. Aatto averted her gaze. Had she had gone too far now?

But a fellow fascist would question this, surely? All the liberalism on display?

Rahima simply smiled as if amused.

“I’m afraid I have not had the opportunity to read Mordecai, but that is not to say I am not interested. Obersturmfuhrer Ravana, being open-minded will give you insight into anyone whom you must defeat, or anyone whom you must befriend. You can still keep your goal, and your prey, in sight, while learning from them. Remember this well.”

She reached out and poked Murati in the chest, before taking her place behind her desk.

It was a fake wooden desk, upon which there was a tidy plastic divider with a few folders of stonepaper sheets– so much pulpwork for a computerized operation. In the middle of her desk, she kept a fold-out portable computer with its own screen, likely because the fake wood desk was not equipped with a touchscreen capable of serving as a thin client display.

“Now then, how can I assist you two? What is this survey about?” Rahima asked.

“We apologize that we could not communicate preemptively.” Aatto said, speaking up.

“I am afraid this is common enough not to be worth apologizing for. I’ve received little communication from Kreuzung on all manner of things so I can just add your situation the pile. They are busier with show trials than giving direction to their upstart Gau.” Rahima said.

“Then the situation has little changed since we last got on a boat. Pity that.” Murati said.

Since Rahima was being aggrieved she would pretend to be similarly aggrieved.

Both of them could be put-upon civil servants of the fascist bureaucracy together.

“Before I joined the movement I was an oceanographer.” Murati said, speaking with ease her rehearsed excuses. “Since then, I have been working with the logistics corps. We are very few in number– me and my adjutant have been running around in a great haste. We specialize in testing the agarthic salt levels and pseudo-ion reactivity in the water. Both are very important to the wear and tear on jets and piping in ships. Skilled water management, and the right data, can extend the lifespan of a supply ship by as much as twenty percent and dramatically improve maintenance efficiency. And we need every pfennig we can get.”

Murati did not have to wait long for the reaction to her pitch.

Rahima was clearly a good listener, and thus a quick responder to speech.

“Too true. Is my input required for this? If you need any access, I’ll see what I can do.”

“We were hoping to take a quick look at your environmental records before we started in the hopes that the data is current. With oceanography nobody takes it seriously enough, but I am hoping Aachen at least ran a survey every five years. As you may know, pseudophysical data is released by request for commercial bodies but not public.” Murati said.

It helped that Murati was married to an oceanographer and heard similar spiels from her.

“I’m unfamiliar with such things, but my staff can help you fetch any data.” Rahima said.

“Many thanks.” Murati said. “We also of course visit here today as a measure of respect.”

“I appreciate it, but I don’t mind having my toes stepped on. I’ve been in your situation.”

“For us, we need to make sure to request permission rather than forgiveness.” Murati said.

“Ah yes– the fuhrerprinzip. Well, you have my permission, Ravana.” Rahima said.

So far, so good. But the office was in such disarray that the bounty might be minimal.

Even if they got access to some unsecured computers, or ran off with a box of files, would anything be worth the trouble? How much data was being kept in this office versus some server in Kreuzung? Would they even have anything useful for a war, like intelligence sources or planned logistics routes or force dispositions? Nevertheless, the gambit had not been for nothing– Murati felt she had some much more valuable questions and answers about the Volkisch in Aachen now. She answered the basic question of their current posture.

“It’s interesting that the Reichkomissar would allocate resources for this.” Rahima said.

“The Reichskommissar is very data driven.” Murati said, a quick and vague excuse.

Her blood started to run hot again. As it did whenever Rahima seemed to contradict her.

“True! You know, I actually had the exact same impression when I first spoke to her.” Rahima said. “She already had thoughts about the local economy in Aachen and the situation with organized labor in Stockheim. Threw around a lot of numbers as she spoke. I was quite impressed– I suppose that this survey is just another part of her meticulousness.”

Once again, the tension in her chest lifted one it was clear Rahima was not too skeptical.

Rahima opened up her computer and began to type into the integrated keyboard.

After booting it up, she typed a bit more, then sat back, shut her eyes and sighed.

Aatto and Murati respectfully observed her silence for a few minutes.

Murati hoped dearly to be dismissed and allowed near some data to steal, but–

–instead, Rahima lifted her gaze again and fixed Murati a strong look.

“Ami Ravana– would you have time for a bit of small talk?” She said.

“Of course, milord.”

She just had to internalize what it meant to be a fascist and she could easily keep up a chat.

From her own readings, and from Aatto, Murati had learned a lot about the Volkisch.

By now she knew enough about them that she could distill it through her own personality.

As she made a good communist student, she could pretend to be a good fascist student.

“Why did you choose to join the Volkisch Movement, Ravana? You, a North Bosporan?”

In an instant, it was as if Rahima had stricken with a hammer the glass of Murati’s façade.

Her mind raced to procure any semblance of a respponse.

That was the question, the ultimate question anyone would have asked– and to be asked by of all people a Shimii, who joined the Volkisch Movement herself despite everything that had happened to her people. It was a question Murati had little answer for, a question that puzzled her. What could possibly be fascism’s attraction to the minorities that had spent hundreds of years under the heels of the Imbrian Empire? How was it that they saw fascism, led by Imbrians, in solidarity with brain-dead racists like the Blood Bund, and thought that not only would they be welcome, but that they would be helped? To Murati it was self-evident that it was an incoherent set of excuses for convenient mass violence.

How was the party-state different from the Imbrian Empire? How was the fuhrerprinzip any different from the divine right of a king? Could they not see the empty promise of a One Volk? Furthermore, how was it that Shimii were now part of the so-called Volk?

How could Rahima become a Gauleiter?

In that room in that instant Murati was not going to decipher any of these questions.

Reaching deep inside of her heart, she thought, genuinely, about her own position.

Why would she ever become a fascist? What would it take to drive her to that?

“National Socialism presented the only way I could overcome my powerlessness.”

She was vague in her words– but there was a painful history behind them.

In the Union it was easy not to think of herself as a racial subject, vulnerable to depredation.

However, over twenty years ago, in the living memory of many people and even herself as a small child, the Imbrian Empire decided the vast majority of North Bosporans had to be lifted from their namesake place in the north of Bosporus to the far southern colonies. They were already a small people, in the grand scheme of Aer’s races, not very fecund, and heavily concentrated. In an instant they were made slaves almost to the very last man, woman and child. Only those who were connected and wealthy and exceedingly loyal, the collaborators, the snitches, the compradors, only they were spared and remained in Imbria.

North Bosporans, as a mass culture, now existed largely only in the Union.

Aatto had told her that the Volkisch would allow a North Bosporan into their ranks.

Much as they had allowed her, a Loup, to continue working for them.

And as they recruited Rahima to a supposedly high position of power in their organization.

Murati found her dishearteningly evil and honest answer in the midst of those facts.

It seemed that the Volkisch Movement answered exclusively to nakedly wielded power.

So, to avoid being erased from the world; for the power to resist her own destruction.

That was the sole, filthy reason she would have ever worn this horrible uniform.

A reason that must have presupposed communism not to exist– that was the only way.

She could not air that thought. In this situation, she was wearing the black uniform already.

“Good answer.” Rahima said. “I can sympathize with it. And so does the Reichskommissar. She asked me that same question, you see. So, I was curious what others like me would answer.”

I am nothing like you. Murati said in her mind what her lips could never allow to escape.

However, she was surprised that the Reichkomissar, Violet Lehner, had brought it up first.

That woman was exceedingly politically dangerous. She was nothing like Adam Lehner.

“Very well then, Ami Ravana and Ilma Suomi-Fertilefield. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

Murati and Aatto moved to exchange farewells with the Gauleiter, their tensions easing–

Until suddenly, behind them, the door to Rahima’s office opened as if of its own volition.

That sound of sliding metal sent shivers across Murati’s back and electricity into her limbs.

Someone casually unlocked a door which few people should have had access to.

Herr Gauleiter, I apologize for making you wait before and then dropping in suddenly.”

A smooth and slightly accented voice; that of a confident woman, almost playful in tone.

Murati and Aatto both turned their heads, trying to hide the tension they suddenly felt.

For Murati, because any intrusion was a complication in a plan that was going well, but–

There was a brief flash of panic in Aatto’s eyes that caused Murati’s heart to sink.

She did not understand the meaning of it, but the contrast to her previous calm was enough.

“No apology necessary. I was the one who threw your plans into disarray after all.”

Rahima stood to meet with the woman who had arrived and introduce her.

Aatto had managed to hide her expression, and Murati held herself steady; the woman who interrupted them had an eerie air to her presence. Like them, she was dressed all in black, with a military coat worn over a white shirt, along with a skirt and leggings. Her peaked cap had a badge bearing a silver skull and crossed bones, rather than the more common hooked crosses, sonnenrads or iron eagles they had seen other fascists wearing. Her armbands had a black sonnenrad and hooked cross, however, same as others. Her shoulderboards were present, but entirely blank, and the patches on her collar were also present, but also blank. On her sleeves, there were patches depicting an eagle with a hooked cross.

Her cap and the lighting of the room partially shadowed her blue eyes which then moved between Rahima to linger on Murati and Aatto. As a woman Murati found no fault in her qualities. Like many of the other fascists she tended her appearance well. Glossy red heart-shaped lips with a slight pout, on a very fair face with a short nose and a soft contour to her cheeks. Her wavy, beige-blond hair was tidy and voluminous and worn long. She was just shy of Rahima and Murati’s height and had a curvy figure flattered by the sleek cut of the uniform. There was a fruity but also oddly chemical scent around her, perhaps a perfume.

As Murati scrutinized the woman, she suddenly heard Aatto’s voice in her head.

Master, this woman is a member of the Volkisch special forces! That skull indicates the “special detachments.” We must be very careful what we say to her! She may not be easy to fool.

It was not so much hearing a voice speaking in real time, as it was that Murati understood the information Aatto communicated in a few seconds and associated that information as being delivered by her voice. In a blink of her eyes, faster than she could fear anew, she came to fully understand the danger that they were in. But she could not break eye contact with the newcomer lest she appear suspicious; Murati held firm and hid her anxiety as best she could.

Absentmindedly, she fixed her cap, and then just as absentmindedly, she saluted.

Aatto saw Murati salute and joined her a second later. Had she done right?

There was an excruciating instant of silence while the woman looked them up and down.

“At ease, Obersturmführer, Rottenführer.” The woman finally said, with a haughty drawl.

“The Obersturmführer is a very proper officer.” Rahima said, backing Murati up.

The woman grinned.

“Not hard for me to believe. I have found it is often the case that the unconventional folk are the ones most disciplined and adherent to the rules. They are the ones with something to prove to the rest. But Obersturmführer, you have nothing to prove to me right now.”

She reached out to Murati’s saluting hand and with a gentle grip–

And pulled it down into her own two hands, patting it condescendingly.

With a sudden air of menace and a hint of cruel delight as she continued speaking.

“Or do you? After all– I don’t recall a meeting with an Obersturmführer in the itinerary.”

To hold Murati’s hand, she stepped closer into her space until they were face to face.

Those bright red lips and that grim, enshadowed glare locked directly onto Murati’s eyes.

That hand which was holding her might as well have been a gun aimed at her stomach.

Those eyes like knives driving through her, cutting the skin of her and exposing blood.

Murati felt her teeth wanting to clench and the cold, stale air in her unblinking eyes.

As if her life depended on it, she held the gaze of the skull-bearing fascist without flinching.

Trying to convince herself that she had not been seen through so easily–

“I was as surprised as you about their visit, Bernie, but– only surprised, nothing more.”

Rahima stepped in and held the woman’s shoulders, as if guiding a misbehaving child.

“You and I have better things to do than an impromptu inspection right now.” She said, massaging the woman’s shoulders. For a moment the woman looked puzzled about the touch but silently allowed it to continue. “Obersturmführer, this is Hauptsturmführer Bernadette Sattler. She is my new bodyguard and head of security for the Gau. As you can see she takes her job very seriously, so I urge you not to cross her.” Rahima winked. “At any rate, she and I have important business which must necessarily interrupt your own. I welcome you to make use of the Gau office as you need for your tasks, I have already sent a message to my staff about your visit and what you are clear to access from them.”

“As you command, Gauleiter.” Sattler said, still fixing a curious gaze on Murati.

“Thank you kindly, herr Gauleiter.” Murati said.

Without betraying a hint of the overwhelming gratitude and relief that she felt right then.

After some perfunctory goodbyes, and an exhortation to lock up after herself, it was over.

Rahima led Sattler out of the office and continued with her business unseen.

Like a storm that evil woman had come, and she had gone without sinking them.

For a few minutes they waited around just to make sure she would not come back.

Soon, to their own nervous and elated bewilderment, they felt it was all but confirmed.

Murati and Aatto had been left in the silence of Rahima’s office without any supervision.

Immediately both of them turned to Rahima’s portable computer.

“Master, I memorized the typing she did! I think I know what the password is!”

“Aatto, you are some kind of genius. Get that computer unlocked.”

From the interior pocket of her coat, Murati produced a small green board.

On one end there was an antennae, on the other a serial port, and between, were set the nanometer die chips that made up the board. It had some internal storage, as well as hardware encryption. This gadget had been modified by Braya Zachikova, the Brigand’s resident computer and electronic warfare wizard. Murati looked for a serial port and stuck the board to the computer.

Aatto sat on the desk, cracked her fingers, and tentatively set them on the keys.

Murati stood between Aatto and the sight from the door, keeping her eyes fixed on it.

Her heart was racing, but she was grinning like a fiend.

She had a mad and bloodthirsty satisfaction. Those fools, those complete morons.

Within moments, Aatto’s face was lit up by Rahima’s monitor, now past the login prompt.

“Ah, master, the cute little antennaes girl is on the screen now.” Aatto said.

A surly voice responded. “Huh? I don’t want to talk to you. Where is your ‘master’?”

Murati beckoned for Aatto to stand and take her position relative to the door.

She sat behind the desk and looked into Rahima’s computer.

On the screen, a tiny Zachikova could be seen pacing up and down the desktop.

“There you are. So Aatto did not betray you. Confirm the encrypted connection.” She said.

“Done.” Murati said, flicking her finger at a notification on Rahima’s screen.

“The transfer will take a bit to bounce through back to us. Are you sure you’re safe?”

“We are safe, don’t worry. Just focus on covering your own tracks.” Murati replied.

“Alright. You’re dead to us if that pervert does give you up to the Volkisch, be-tee-dubs.”

Murati felt a twinge of annoyance. “Stop berating my adjutant and do your job, Ensign.”

“Suit yourself.” Said the Mini-Zachikova, her last words before the transfer began.

On the screen, a progress bar showed a Mini-Zachikova and a crab digging in the sand.

“Master– you stood up for me.” Aatto said. When Murati glanced up from the computer screen, Aatto leaned towards her, smiling, ears wiggling, tail fiercely wagging and fanning air.

“Turn back around and be quiet.” Murati grumbled, wanting to entertain none of that.

Aatto did as instructed promptly and without complaint. Her tail thumped against the desk.

Judging by the progress, it would be several minutes before they transferred everything.

Hopefully Rahima was the kind of person to keep her encryption keys in a saved text file.

Sitting in the Gauleiter’s chair with time to spare, Murati began to rummage through her effects, being careful as possible to return anything to its place and cause minimal disturbance. From the plastic divider she picked out a folder and rifled through the papers inside. They were office planning documents. A list of open positions needing to be filled, a current office roster with hand-scribbled pronounciations of each worker’s names, photos and floorplans of suitable locations for a potential new and bigger Gau office than this one, costs for various supplies and what vendors might fulfill the orders.

There was an impromptu office survey where Rahima apparently asked everyone for their favorite snacks and put down the results for each person. She had underlined halwa and the name of the person who had suggested it, a certain Yasmin Bahram, rank Anwärter. Putting down that folder and picking up a second one, Murati found herself thumbing through what appeared to be a sketchbook. Incredulous, she flipped through the pages. Some were full of doodles, but there were a few busts drawn from life, full of detail including their clothes. There were cheerful Shimii girls wearing intricately shaded hijab; an Imbrian woman with heavy brows in a uniform, her hair in a bun partially visible behind a cap; a man with a strong jaw in a military officer uniform, with no Volkisch symbols in sight. And–

Violet Lehner. Partially looking over her shoulder as if incidentally glancing at the viewer.

Murati recognized her face from recent public broadcasts from Kreuzung.

Her hair was slightly swept as if she was in motion, but her face had a pensive expression.

Like a disdainful high-society girl, a princess, staring back at the paupers.

“Waste of stone-paper.” She murmured to herself, closing the book on the young woman.

Murati put the folder back where she had found it. She checked the transfer on the screen.

Not even close to the halfway point. She sighed, tension mounting in her.

Next, Murati checked the drawers on the desk.

She found basic supplies– paper, graphite, reusable tissues, a cleaning spray bottle. Another drawer had a box of jerky sticks, a bag of hard ginger candies, and three pouches of caffeinated vitamin drink, the Gauleiter’s own snack hoard. The next one she opened was a small drawer near the top, at the right-hand side. There she found an object she did not understand at first because it was deliberately overturned. When she picked it up, she found that it was a digital picture frame laid face-down. Deeper into the drawer behind it– was a compact synthestitched pistol, entirely non-metallic and concealable.

No point in touching it, and Murati did not dare move a piece so deliberately hidden.

On the picture frame, there was a beautiful elven woman with very pale blue hair.

Murati set the picture frame face down in the drawer and closed it. She checked the screen.

Almost halfway through–

and then a knocking on the door that caused her back to stiffen and her hands to freeze.

Her mind fogged– the world felt like it was moving in slow motion.

Each round of knocking felt loud enough that it pounded the insides of her chest.

The longer they went without answering, that knocking remained steadfast–

“Lord Gauleiter? May I come in? I think I got the papers corrected now!”

Aatto turned back around to Murati.

Silently as she could, Murati stood and slid the chair she left closer to the desk. She stood beside Aatto, both of them covering up the portable computer and the device stuck to it with their bodies. Murati thought she recognized the feminine voice that was speaking into the room, even muffled as it was through the door. She gestured for Aatto to get the door and Aatto looked back at her as if for further confirmation before she carried out the task.

When the door opened, a young Shimii woman in a pristine uniform walked through.

In her shaking hands was a portable computer she proudly wanted to show.

It was the girl from before, who had interrupted them in the cubicles.

Finding Aatto and Murati in the room and not Rahima, she stopped in her tracks.

“Oh! I’m– I’m very s-s-orry. I thought the G-g-gauleiter was in her office.” She said with a stammer. “My name is Yasmin Bahram. I work in data entry. Do you know– where she–?”

“She left on an errand. We’re looking after the office momentarily.” Aatto interrupted.

“An errand? I– I had no idea she would be leaving– did I read the itinerary wrong–?”

This typist was so skittish, Murati felt like she was on the verge of screaming at any second.

Her heart was still pumping fast. She might have been as nervous as the girl was.

“It was sudden. Bernadette Sattler had some business with her.” Aatto continued.

“Oh! Ms. Sattler– yes, I completely understand now–!” Yasmin replied, still stammering.

Her eyes broke contact with Aatto. Murati felt relieved. Just a credulous and silly girl.

“I’m afraid we don’t know when she will be back.” Aatto said.

“Ah, I see– I’m sorry– thank you. I’m– I’m really sorry to have bothered you both.”

Yasmin hugged the portable to her chest and bowed her head to the two of them.

With a grunt, Murati stepped forward of the desk, beckoning Aatto to take her place–

And tipped the girl’s head up again, much to her surprise. Her tail shot upright.

“What did the Gauleiter tell you? Shimii do not bow their heads to anyone.” Murati said.

For a moment, she questioned what had overcome her. She was playing the part, but–

It was also annoying for this girl to put on such undue deference toward fascists.

For her to be such a pathetic enemy after holding their lives in her hands for an instant.

“I’m sorry, Obersturmfuhrer!” She said. “It’s just– this job is so important– I don’t want to screw up. I send remittances to my family. Someday, I think, if it’s Councilwoman Rahima– I mean, Gauleiter Rahima– we’ll all be able to live up here instead of just me. I really appreciate the opportunity. Ah– oh no, I’m saying these unnecessary things– forgive me–”

“Stop apologizing.” Murati said. “This– this behavior ill befits a member–”

She hardly knew how to finish the sentence. It was too ridiculous to say any more.

What was she even trying to say to this girl? Be more like a fascist? It was pure nonsense.

However, Yasmin seemed to catch on to Murati’s meaning, even in its half-finished state.

After a moment’s reflection, she straightened, looked up, took her portable under her arm.

And raised her hand with the fingers joined and outstretched, in the fascists’ salute.

“Yes ma’am! I will conduct myself with the dignity of this office! Sieg heil!”

Murati raised her hand to cover her eyes. A murmured, anguished little breath left her lips.

Yasmin put her arm down, confused. “Did I do something wrong again?”

Behind Murati, Aatto spoke up. “You raised the wrong arm. But it’s the spirit that counts.”

Nowhere near what bothered Murati about the whole situation– but it was a nice save.

With a cheerful demeanor, Aatto encouraged the girl and warded her off from the office. Murati watched her and wondered how many times Aatto must have acted as the office big-sister to some no-name fascist idiot– she looked too natural and spoke with too much ease to have just been acting. Aatto had worked in offices like this before, no-name no-place offices where there were no gallows and no torture chambers. She was an intelligence officer– but this did not mean what was in Murati’s brain, the red mist of bloody murders, the black breaths of excoriated bodies. Just bedraggled office workers and stacks of bureaucratic minutia that any organization needed to account for to function.

Some part of her was angry about it.

This was not a fortress– Murati had not stormed a castle full of braying demons.

It should not have been this mundane.

Her pragmatic voice told her that it was useful information to know.

But her ideological side was embittered by what she saw.

When Aatto shut the door anew, careful not to cross it herself, she returned to Murati.

“Master, check the progress. I’ll keep watch. You’ve done splendidly so far.”

Murati did not reply. She turned to the desk and walked back around it.

Sitting on the chair, she found the Mini-Zachikova and the crab had both found something.

“Transfer complete. I reset the device logs. Get out of there now.” Zachikova said.

Murati pulled the exfiltration device from the computer and back into her inner coat pocket.

“We are leaving.” Murati said.

Aatto nodded her head back at Murati. They closed Rahima’s laptop.

Her desk looked undisturbed to casual inspection. It would have to be enough.

It was impossible to know what to expect, as easy as it had been to enter.

They had been lucky to chance upon Rahima, but would it be the same on the way out? They exited out of the office onto the cubicle room, where there was lively chatter. Yasmin waved at them from the snack table. They waved back. Crossing the cubicles, there were no more interruptions. Down the hall, out the door and back into the lobby.

Aatto walked up to Wiebke’s front desk and explained the situation.

Obediently, Wiebke locked the door behind them, and bid them a good day.

Indeed– it was as easy to leave without Rahima as it was to enter with her good grace.

At first, upon crossing the double doors, and finding herself under the green again–

Murati felt a creeping paranoia.

There had to be something– someone trailing them, something on to them or after them.

She stopped under the shadow of a tall green tree with a broad crown.

Looking over her shoulder, there was no one.

Not the demonic grin of Bernadette Sattler with a gun to Murati’s lower back.

Neither a disappointed Rahima, ashamed of having been fooled.

There were not even the workers coming and going from before. It was past lunch now.

Stopped in the middle of the street, Murati breathed in and adjusted her peaked cap.

“Mission accomplished, Master.” Aatto whispered close to her.

Murati looked down at her boots. She crossed her arms, catching sight of her armbands.

“Right. We won’t know whether we got anything of value until we return.” She said.

She started walking before Aatto could say anything else. Her adjutant dutifully followed.

They made it to the elevators without being intercepted. Murati let herself believe now.

Home free– they had infiltrated the Volkisch Gau office. In and out cleanly.

For all the good it had done– hopefully Zachikova would find something useful.

It felt like she shaved a few years off her life from anxiety for little gain.

At least they knew how weak the Aachen Gau was now.

“Master, I have a question for you.” Aatto said, as the elevator rode down.

“Aatto, after all of this, you’ve earned one question.” Murati said, half-jokingly.

Aatto had been fantastic. There would have been no mission without her.

There was a concern that Aatto would orchestrate all this to feed Murati to the Volkisch.

But she had remained sincere throughout– she was really and truly loyal to her ‘king’.

On some level Murati had already known this. Now, however, she believed it.

“Master, does desperation and destitution disqualify a person from commiting injustice?”

Aatto fixed Murati with a serious gaze as she delivered that question.

There was hardly time for the air to settle between them–

“Of course it doesn’t.” Murati answered. Immediately and without any doubt.

Her voice was far more certain than her heart, but ultimately, that was what she believed.

She was human– of course she had conflicting feelings about things from time to time. Despite everyone’s belief that she was some kind of communist automaton, Murati had a heart and feelings, and she could be moved. She was so angry at everything she saw that she almost wanted to weep but she would not. It was injustice in itself. All the sensational torture that Gau did not commit, it instead committed a mundane torture.

And someday, it would even go on to do both.

Murati knew; as much as she pitied lowly workers, her resolve was clear and necessary.

“I’ve always known, academically, that I might have to confront ‘ordinary’ people in this mission. Teachers, typists, couriers, what have you– there are all kinds of non-combatants participating in agendas of horrid violence without lifting a weapon. I’ve known this and now I’ve seen it. Yes, I am sorry for Yasmin Bahram if that is something you’re after hearing, and I wish she and her family could live peacefully– but they have chosen to assist the monsters oppressing Eisental for their own benefit. There are many more destitute, desperate people who will be deprived of lasting, meaningful freedom for the remittances she needs. All she does is mess up typing reports from databases. But she’s still a direct participant within fascism. She’s still my enemy– is that what you were getting at, Aatto?”

Though she spoke confrontationally, Aatto only smiled upon receiving that response.

“The resolve of a King I can admire. Had you faltered– I would have abandoned you.”

“Go on then, abandon me. You’re already in uniform and everything.” Murati shot back.

Aatto’s ears and tail instantly stood on end. “Ah– it was a joke master– merely a joke–”

She almost looked like she had tears in her eyes. Murati sighed and patted her shoulder.

For someone who had showed such a strong side of herself sometimes, she was very fragile.

“I was also joking. You did good, Aatto. I don’t want to lose you. Let’s go home now.”

She held Aatto’s shoulder in a friendly gesture, and pulled her closer, smiling.

Aatto beamed brightly at her. “Yes, master! Back home!” She cheered.


Violet’s meeting with the Volwitz representatives had gone about as well as it could.

Passions flared and tensions rose, but in the end, the food conglomerate had few choices.

Volwitz was under a lot of pressure.

The Heidemmann family once had the major share of Volwitz, a megacorporation that grew to absorb a majority of food production, processing and distribution in Rhinea, as landed nobles declined against the rising noveau riche. Ossof Heidemann went into politics, and eventually became the patriarch of the family and thus, de facto in control of Volwitz, with clashing interests. A liberal who argued for individual personal freedom and economic stimulus to fund education and opportunity for all– except for the Shimii, Loup and Južni communities who constituted most of his farm labor. Liberals, ever the hypocrites.

Then, Heidemmann lost the election and suffered the petty retribution of Adam Lehner for daring to oppose him. Agents of the Volkisch Militia under Lehner’s orders made Ossof disappear and launched reprisals on many other members of the Heidemann family. Their time was over– the members that survived went into hiding and their properties and funds were expropriated. Officially, the family was tried and sentenced for corruption.

However, Volwitz was still the king of food in Rhinea even after this chaos.

Everything that the Heidemanns owned of the megacorporation reverted back to the main legal-economic body of the company and the shares were quickly snapped up by other wealthy claimants who had been waiting for an opportunity. The Rhinea National-Socialist Republic could keep boasting it had completed a ‘Revolution of National Awakening’ but the fact of the matter was that the system of capitalism remained intact. There would be no nationalization of Volwitz, as much as Adam Lehner despised the company.

Much like the other megacorporations like Rhineametalle, if there was sufficient disruption of Volwitz’s operations, there would in turn be significant disruption of critical supplies to Adam Lehner’s hasty war with the Royal Alliance. Volwitz owned the farms that grew the food, the plants that packaged it, and the supply vessels that distributed it to stations. Adam Lehner could make all the threats he wanted, he could accuse the megacorporations of sabotaging him, he could rage on television and deliver any number of big speeches– there was no plan in place for the expropriation of Volwitz for the foreseeable future.

Not with the Volkisch tied up in a stalemate of a war.

Violet herself was in the exact bind with them as her idiot father.

Her revolution necessitated that the Shimii now working for Volwitz saw their lot in life improve enough to earn their loyalty and incorporation into Nasser’s Zabaniyah forces and the bureacracy of the Reichkomissariat. For Nasser to ‘free the ummah’ it was necessary that Violet bring Volwitz to heel, but Volwitz was ready to pull out the card of shortages and disruptions and price fluctuations. She ultimately forced them to accept the National Socialist Labor Union scheme on primarily Shimii work farms, in exchange for not extending it to primarily Južni sites. Violet was not interested in the plight of the Južni minority; and the Shimii represented the majority of farm laborers anyway, so it was still a win.

In addition, she committed to subsidizing more food preservation and long-term storage in Eisental order to combat “shortages and fluctuations.” These reserves would have to be produced, processed and then sold by Volwitz, and then the storage itself would be managed directly by the Reichkommissariat and the National Socialist Labor Union. For Volwitz it was a very lucrative contract in a time of great uncertainty for them.

They had no sensible reason to turn it down; and with reichmarks in their eyes, they agreed.

Short term, those new facilities would be good, national socialist union jobs for Shimii.

Long-term, this would completely blunt the nature of Volwitz’s threats and leverage.

She was not a fan of food processing– but she would tolerate it for her ultimate goal.

Once she had enough food stockpiled and was ready to begin her crusade, Violet could start by eliminating Volwitz and seizing their considerable assets in the Reichkommissariat, riding out the death throes of the corporation through the use of the very reserve that they would help her construct. Then the farms would be completely national socialist, owned by the Shimii as part of Violet’s volksgemeinschaft. After Volwitz– the other megacorporations, as well as her father’s decrepit little fiefdom in the core Rhinean territory. Once her close enemies were returned to the marine fog, her farther enemies would be next.

Until her Party-State spanned the Imbrium and became the new order of the world.

Endsieg.

For now, such things were only lofty dreams, however.

She looked down at her desk and swiped on her portable to put away the Volwitz meeting notes and minutes. She brought up the notes she had prepared for her meeting with Rhineametalle. Not quite knowing what to expect; this meeting was arranged very suddenly after she had already talked to various other representatives of the firm’s interests. If it would be about the National Socialist Labor Unions, she was ready for that. She and her office had been crunching numbers all week. She could talk about whether any taxes or duties would be introduced, or about new procurement contracts.

Then, at the appointed hour, Maxine Kramer walked in through the door.

Spokeswoman for Rhineametalle– she and Violet had a strong working relationship.

They were meeting at Werner’s office, where Violet hosted any important guests.

Though she preferred quieter side offices for real work, she had to keep up appearances.

“Heil, Reichskommissar. May I clear some space on your desk?”

Violet blinked. She gestured to the desk, wondering what this was about.

Maxine had a portable computer with her which she brought to the desk and propped up.

With the monitor facing Violet, she switched it on.

“It is my honor and pleasure to introduce, our CEO, Edmund Schmitz.”

On the monitor, appeared the face of a man with a thick plastic breathing mask.

He sat on a very plush-looking red chair, surrounded by a variety of partially out-of-view medical instruments, like a heart monitor and pumping machines. Though he was evidently dressed in a fine suit, which was mostly offscreen, Violet could see that there were tubes going into his chest a bit conspicuously. What she could see of his face outside the mask had spotted, sallow skin and heavily sagging brows, almost entirely hairless.

When he spoke, there was barely sound at first, then a machine replicated what he said.

“Violet Lehner. Pleasure to meet you at last, a real pleasure. You are so much more colorful and beautiful up close. I am one of your biggest fans, you know? I wanted to congratulate you in person, for your fantastic work in resolving the Kreuzung crisis, and for your great plans to steer the ship right from now on. National Socialism is the missing link that Rhinean businesses have been needing for so long. Doubtless our offices will have disagreements in the coming months but know that we are aligned in the end. I have told your father as much– I will resist any attempt to stifle your disruptive innovation in Eisental!”

At first Violet was disarmed by all of this. The CEO of Rhineametalle, indeed.

Maxine had brought out a dying old man to deliver contentless platitudes.

She supposed this was how such an urgent meeting was thrown on her calendar suddenly.

Though Maxine was partially owned by Violet she was wholly owned by the CEO.

“For such an esteemed businessman to share this support with me, it truly makes me want to redouble my efforts. Thank you kindly, Mr. Schmitz.” Violet said, managing to smile a little.

Once more, the mechanical-sounding voice synthesizer delivered the man’s lines audibly.

“Ah, you truly have the vibrancy of youth, Ms. Lehner. Exactly what the Eisental economy has been needing, new blood, new ideas! Such an exciting time! I know it may sound hypocritical as an old man hanging on for dear life, but we needed to be giving more to the youth– someday, God forbid, but I will die, and I need to know our work won’t be squandered. I can sleep more soundly knowing we have a new generation of young people with a real entrepeneurial spirit. It is a shame about old Werner, but I know Kreuzung is in good hands. And National Socialism is what is going to supercharge our youth. I tell you, I’ve been hearing your speeches, and it’s so electric my dear. It reminds me of when the Emperor retreated from politics. That energy is good for business. It gets people spending, it gets the shares trading. Optimism, vibrancy, stability, momentum– that’s how we make money.”

Violet always felt a little strange talking to the heads of the major corporations because for the most part they only spoke in vague platitudes, whereas Violet wanted to talk to anyone about hard numbers and real concrete policy agendas. She had gone to school for the hard numbers behind all of these vague statements and what she discovered was that the vague statements were often where all the thinking stopped. Violet had certainly made some contribution to Rhineametalle’s stock prices, but it was pointless to mention something so incidental. It was hard, complex policy that would change Eisental’s fortunes.

Regardless, she had to put up with this semi-mummified geriatric for now.

“I am flattered, Mr. Schmitz. I hope we can continue to cooperate in this endeavor.”

“We certainly will. Well, Ms. Lehner, thank you for your time. I have the utmost confidence in you. Feel free to ask Maxine for anything, but I must be going now. I’m sure you know, running an organization is a 24/7 job– when I’m not talking about the business, or organizing the business, or reading about the business, then I have to be thinking about the business. That’s where I’m headed off to next. You take care now, alright Ms. Lehner?”

Smiling, Maxine switched off the portable computer, closed it, and took it in her arms.

“I apologize, Reichskommissar. I understand you might have found that a bit annoying.”

“It’s fine. All in a day’s work. Better than my talks with Volwitz.” Violet said.

Maxine bowed her head and took her leave, waving goodbye to Violet as she went.

Once the door closed, Violet sighed, shook her head, and swiped away her notes again.

“Ridiculous. The day I exterminate all those gerontocrats can’t come soon enough.”

Her last important meeting of the day was also the one most dire and necessary.

Using a monitor suspended on an arm on the desk, Violet connected to Munich station in north central Rhinea, the home of the Esoteric Order and one of the founding sites of fascism. On the screen, appeared an older woman in a lavish black dress with intricate synthetic lacework, wearing a headress that almost seemed like a mourning veil. Long, wavy brown hair fell down her back a great length, and she had a large brooch on her chest resembling Violet’s black sun disc symbols. She wore a lot of dark red makeup on her eyes, lips, cheeks, partially covering the signs of her aging and giving her an almost gothic appearance. Lieselotte van Westarp; the surviving founder of the Esoteric Order.

“Greetings, Violet. I am so pleased to see you. You truly are as beautiful as a doll.”

“I am flattered, madam van Westarp.” Violet said, setting aside the banality of those words.

As her name suggested, Lieselotte van Westarp was a demoted member of an influential aristocratic family, however, she was also the only influential Westarp left. Her family suffered many tragedies which ultimately left her in command of its fortune, which she used for the benefit of the Order. Whether she engineered these events herself, Violet suspected but would never be able to prove. Behind that sweet motherly charm was a schemer.

“I have been keeping abreast of developments in Eisental. The Esoteric Order counts many brave souls among its ranks, many warriors, many who have sacrificed for the development of the True Order, but none have fought so valiantly nor reached such great heights as you. During the Revolution of National Awakening, we were sidelined. Though we fell into line and recognized the Fuhrer for the greater good, I must admit, seeing the esoteric symbols flying in Kreuzung has lifted my spirits immeasurably. And for it to have been the secret daughter of the Fuhrer that secured this future– of course, it can only be the hand of Destiny at work here. Hearing your speeches in Kreuzung has given me chills.”

“Thank you. Your assistance was invaluable, madam van Westarp.” Violet said.

“Your intentions seemed so mundane at the time. But I never should have doubted you.”

For madam van Westarp to think that establishing a fascist Shimii militia was a ‘mundane’ intention within the Volkisch said something about the odd depths to which her thinking ran. The Esoteric Order was populist, collectivist, occult, millennerian; a pastiche of betrayed ideas that found succor in the form of an all-powerful nation to bring about quasi-religious transformation. These ideas failed to secure a place in the world after the election. Adam Lehner represented a pastiche of various groups but with very little of the Order.

Now Violet was the closest they had come to their great dream– the True Order that would unite all peoples under one state, one ideology, one identity and one community. A purifying transformation that would bring peace and prosperity between humanity, the natural world, and civilization, creating a New Fascist Man out of myriad individuals. An ubermensch not as one person but as a corporation of all humans under perfect guidance. A collective of one, a constellation of the singular, the many turned few, so much they could all share one name.

Gobbledegook, as far as Violet was concerned. But some of the rhetoric was useful.

At least it let her pursue a non-insane economic agenda and gather up untapped forces.

For now though she had to play at being something of a believer at least.

“Ma’am. I would like to discuss with you the deepening of that assistance.” Violet said.

Van Westarp smiled, as she had when Violet proposed forming the Zabaniyah years ago.

As then– they talked. About money, about people, about the future, about Destiny.


“Milord Gauleiter, I don’t know how you can tolerate the present state of the Gau office.”

“It confers a certain advantage– you’ll soon see Bernie. I am not unprepared.”

Despite Bernadette’s initial confusion, Rahima pressed on with confidence, assuring her that once they arrived at their destination she would understand what the new Gauleiter had in the cards for Aachen. Rahima hurried Bernadette through the central tier, down to the commercial area and below the atrium, through the outer rings– to Rahima’s own apartment, a lux double-wide that was quite tidy and looked moderately lived-in. She opened the door, and with a gentlemanly wave, ushered Bernadette through the door inside.

Bernadette stood at the door, looked at Rahima, and smirked, crossing her arms.

“Ahh. Well, well, Gauleiter, I do not object. Whether man or woman, power is attractive.”

Rahima laughed. “Let’s talk inside. I’m not completely against that but– it is not my aim.”

Back when she was part of the Rhinea Feminist Party, Rahima had saved up money for years to acquire a double-wide apartment about a twenty minute walk from the office. It was not only convenient, it was a symbol of her success. After Conny disbanded the party, Rahima soon became a Progressive Party councilwoman and was furnished with accommodations in the higher tiers, closer to the Aachen Legislative Council building. She retained her old double-wide however, since it was such a hassle to acquire any property in the core station. It came in handy to own a second home after her abortive bid for the governorship.

When she left the Progressive Party altogether, she wound up living down here again.

“Make yourself at home. I’ll be right back. Trust me– you’ll know when you see it.”

True to its name, a double-wide apartment was essentially two ordinary one-room spaces connected into one, rather than separated and sold or rented individually. From the front door, the apartment had a small space with a pair of couches, a set of shelves, a tea table with adjustable legs, and a kitchenette in the back containing a combination oven and a refrigerator. Through the door, was Rahima’s bedroom and bathroom.

She bid Bernadette to wait on one of the living room couches.

Bernadette did not really make herself at home. She sat on the couch and waited.

Before long, Rahima came back out of the room carrying a thick green case by its handle.

She set it on the tea table in front of Bernadette, who was surprised to see it. Two latches kept it shut tight, and the design had thick corners and spaced pieces of rubber padding that could soften impacts. It was waterproof, EM-proof, dustproof, had an integrated agarthic battery– when Rahima opened it up, Bernadette seemed to realize immediately what it was. An isolated computer with a ruggedized design. Unlike a thin client, this system was its own full computer that was not managed by the station supercomputer.

It was a backup device designed for emergency use.

After a few strokes of the keys, Rahima booted into a green-text, basic filesystem view.

“Don’t be fooled, it just boots into this. You can bring up quite a few handy programs.”

“Milord, where did you get this?” Bernadette asked, excitedly taking the keys.

Navigating the system, Bernadette would quickly uncover all the data already loaded in.

“Official records from the Aachen Legislative Council?” She said, clearly bewildered.

Rahima grinned a bit smugly. She had been waiting to unveil this for a good while now.

“During my tenure as Councilwoman I co-sponsored a measure to harden the station in case of disaster, one part of which was purchasing a ruggedized, isolated backup mainframe. State of the art and custom-made by Rhineametalle. This isn’t a thin client– it’s the size of a suitcase because it has full, self-contained hardware. Weaker than a station supercomputer, obviously, but good enough to help get a supercomputer back online after an issue. When I was deposed as governor, initially I just snuck in and stole it as petty revenge. I saw a chance and took it, and nobody stopped me. Nobody has even noticed that it is gone, so far.”

Rahima sat next to Bernadette on the couch and took control of the device.

She demonstrated that her credentials when she was Councilwoman were still logged.

Having never been wiped, the device was fully accessible to Rahima.

And it contained a trove of information about the station.

“It was last updated a year ago, just before my governorship, but it’s good enough.”

Bernadette turned to Rahima with a suddenly admiring look.

For a brief moment her face looked flushed. She composed herself quite quickly.

“I must apologize, milord. I assessed your strengths quite short of their true mark.”

“That’s fine. I like being underestimated. People being wrong is an advantage I can use.”

Rahima turned to the computer. With a few keystrokes, appeared a schematic of the station.

On that kitchen table, in front of the soft couches, the instrument of Rahima’s vengeance.

“Obviously, we weren’t going to get anything important done in that undercooked Gau office. Not only are the people there inexperienced, as much heart as they have– but the more people that are introduced into a plot the more points of failure. No; only you and I are needed for this work.” She patted her hand on the computer and on Bernadette’s shoulder. “We have access to heaps of data right here, and any new intelligence will also go here, into this device, and it will not be put down anywhere else. Are we clear? Maps, orders, lists, everything, it only goes into here. We will punch in to work at the Gau office each day, and perhaps visit another location to keep up the appearance of work and play– then we will spend the rest of the day here. Because of my race and rhetoric and my political positions I have been something of a tabloid darling. There is gossip about my nymphomania, and I assume this will continue– so most people will make wrong assumptions about us.”

She smiled, as if a bit proud of that sordid reputation. Bernadette grinned back at her.

Her initial skepticism was completely erased. She looked quite eager and pleased.

“Milord, in this endeavor, consider me your instrument. I will follow.” Bernadette said.

“Splendid. Then, as you once said to me over audio call– let us get to work, mein dame.”

Her long knife was still concealed, but the hand upon its sheath was set into dire motion.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.8]

“Descending through Upper Scattering Layer. Depth 550 meters. Depth 575 meters–”

“Reducing velocity. Thrust development capped at sixty percent due to battle damage.”

“No sign of upper level scanning from below, neither acoustic nor radiation-based.”

“No sign of Republic mines or drones, nor any leftover Grand Western Fleet ordnance.”

“Depth 600. We will soon descend into Southern Ayre, on the border with Rhinea.”

As the drones reported on the situation, the main screen showed a diagram of the water table with the four main depths that mattered to humans. Between the surface of the water and the corruption that lay beyond, and the 500-550 meter depth mark, was the Photic Zone, where the sun’s light could still penetrate the water– that is, if the rays could actually penetrate the befouled atmosphere first. From around 550 to 700 was the Upper Scattering Layer, where the most significant quantities of fish and marine life congregated. There was so much activity in this region and it was so consistent that sonar and LADAR imaging would capture it as a sort of continuous wall that received a name. Then, there was the Aphotic zone, from the end of the Scattering Layer to a depth of about 3000 meters.

This was the new home of the human species.

In certain places, called the Great Reaches, humans could live at lower depths– but the average human lived around 1000 meters below the sea, and a significant amount lived much deeper. War and intrigue; love and hope; these things moved from their birthplaces in the surface of the planet Aer, to this particular depth of its oceans. Below 3000 meters was the Hadal zone, or in the parlance of the ocean’s humans, the Abyssal zones. Utterly lightless, these depths were usually encountered only within deep wounds gouged in Aer’s crust, called Gorges or Abysses, named after the first foolhardy soul to have found them and likely died in them. To civilization writ large there was nothing there worth going so deep. But to various individuals and even some organizations, these depths held such value that it was worth the risk of never being heard from again, and dying a horrific death.

To those who truly knew, deeper than the trenches, there was a fifth depth–

Agartha.

But– that was not the concern of Norn von Fueller on this day.

As the Antenora breached the cloud of fish and squid and krill and other creatures, it descended into the world of humanity, where human problems awaited.

Soon, at about 800 meters depth, the ship ceased its descent. It was just over the bottom of a vast, sandy slope that led north into the heart of the Great Ayre Reach. Their destination was to the south, even deeper down the slope to the rocky, dark terrain of Eisental– but for now, they remained, sailing above the sand. Eerie waves sifted tiny particulate clouds from dunes below, the earth colored blue by the water’s consumption of the light.

Suspended in the murk above the dunes, the sleek, sword-shaped Cruiser glided through.

“Connect to the Myrkr relay and loiter. Keep an eye out for any patrols.” Norn said.

“Yes, milord.”

“Why are we loitering? Can I download some magazines?” Adelheid asked.

“Not now. Wait until we’re about to leave again. I have some calls to make.” Norn said.

Adelheid pouted, but Norn left her behind on the bridge without another word.

She made her way to a meeting room with a video monitor and some privacy.

Every room had a bearing monitor on the wall, a small LCD that displayed information, the same in every room, about the current situation. In battle it might have profiles of enemy ships, their positions and any damage incurred by the vessel. At rest, it would have current headings and any relevant ETAs for the ship’s current journey.

At that moment, the bearing monitor in Norn’s meeting room showed her when they would be in range of the Myrkr relay. This was one of the few data relays laid in the Great Ayre Reach and its surroundings. Officially managed by Aachen, it could also be used to transmit to the “illegal settlement” Trelleborg in the southern Ayre trench.

Even in the current state of war, Rhinea and the Palatine had not cut these cables yet. An Empire-wide cable data network that was accessible wirelessly via the relays, was, in 979, still a relatively young piece of infrastructure in the grand scheme of things. It was one of Konstantin’s few innovations that actually bore fruit and changed the lives of his citizens for the better. Its usefulness for business and military matters alike meant that it had to continue to exist, even if in a stagnant state, as the Empire itself began to die.

So Norn could show up to her digital rendezvous with a certain Frederich Urning.

Once the Antenora was in range of the Myrkr relay, the communications drone in the bridge put out an encrypted call to the Naval HQ for the Grand Western Fleet. Using the high command’s cypher code it would indicate to the operator that this was a very high ranking officer seeking to communicate with another very high ranking officer. They would discreetly connect Norn through to the correct commander and record none of it. Within moments, that meeting room on the Antenora connected to the Naval HQ in Klagenfurt.

Across the wires, through the digital encryption, she first heard one word. “Norn.”

By way of greeting this was the only thing Admiral Frederich Urning said at first.

He appeared on the screen with a blurred backdrop, only his face and body were visible.

For someone close to Konstantin’s age (and not grown out of a vat) Frederich looked half his years. There was an onset of wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, advanced, but not widespread; his hair still had streaks of its original black color, brushed long down his back, alternating with grey; his skin was still uniformly fair. High cheekbones and deep-set eyes gave him an intense countenance. His only facial hair was a bit of grey cultivated on his chin.

While Konstantin withered, Frederich remained mountainous. Strong shoulders, broad-backed, with a wide chest and midsection and lean, muscled limbs. All now covered under silk finery, ever the nobleman-general. But through his eyes Norn could still see the killer in him. She could sense his vindictive feelings. She knew the only reason why he would have asked to speak with her alone. But she was not going to let him have his answers so easily.

“Frederich, how lovely to see you. How are you getting on? Need another loan?”

Frederich remained stoic to the provocations. “I am on the crossroads of a major decision and I wanted to seek your counsel. There are questions I have which only you can speak to.”

“You look surprisingly more sober than last I saw you.” Norn said, continuing to needle.

“Norn, you know me. Anger is the medicine that does me the most good.” He replied.

“Indeed, they call it the Vekan temperament, no?”

He had no response to that. He never confirmed nor denied that part of his heritage.

Nevertheless Norn continued to tease him about it in perpetuity for that very reason.

“Let’s get the point. Norn, were you involved in the death of Konstantin?” Frederich asked.

His voice was calm, his words direct; but she could detect a hint of that anger of his.

“Yes.” Norn said. She had no reason to lie; no fear of him nor of any consequences.

“Qualify that.” Frederich said. “Erich was part of it too, wasn’t he?”

There was no reason for Norn to lie, but neither would she give everything up to a fool.

Frederich knew her– and because he knew, he knew what to ask her that she would respect.

Had he forgotten, she would have just let him stay half-informed. But he still knew her.

“Indeed. Throw in Leda too– you never could fill the woman-shaped hole in his heart.”

That did bother him. She could tell by the vaguest twitch in his left temple.

In his aura, and in his overall expression, the anger was cleverly hidden.

Both of them knew each other too well. They were both Konstantin’s close companions.

“I do not care about your reasons. But you know what I must do now.”

“Honestly, I have no idea what you will do, except that it will be tedious, like you are.”

Frederich, who had wanted to bend the knee to Konstantin as a lover more than anything.

Right-hand man pledging as a right-hand, never turned away–

Konstantin did love him, but not as he wanted to be loved.

Even when it became sexual between them.

“I received information implicating you and the Prince in the death of the Emperor. But as a comrade-in-arms, and because you are Konstantin’s dearest sister, I wanted to confirm for myself what Code Weiss found.” Frederich said. For the first time in the conversation his expression subtly darkened, his brows furrowing slightly. His tone rose, just a hint. “Norn, I knew when I called that I would see your mocking grin. I knew you would be without sympathy. You only understand violence. It is all you propagate. You ask what I will do?”

Frederich lifted his hand so it appeared on the screen. He showed Norn his bare palm.

Then in his other hand; he held a dagger to the first. Cutting across the palm to draw blood.

“A blood feud on you Norn. I will hunt you like the animal you are. I will bleed you dry.”

“I’m so scared.” Norn mocked. “Go on. I’m practically quivering to hear the rest of this.”

“With blood, there is certitude.” Frederich replied. “I know what I will do; I know what I will do to you when I get my hands on you. But I don’t have even the faintest idea about whether you will speed here to try to defend Erich. Or whether you will inform him of my intention to murder you. Will you warn him what intentions I might have for him, as I require his power to satisfy the requirements of my hunt? How do you truly feel about the boy, sister?”

“Ah– I’m not in the mood to snitch. You all have your fun over there.” Norn said calmly.

“I see. Give me one final piece of tactical advice then, oathsworn sister– do I send Code Weiss after Erich, or after you? It won’t alter the final result of my intentions.” Frederich asked.

Norn shrugged. “If you send Code Weiss here I’ll send her back to you in gift wrapped pieces. Send her after Erich– well, I do not care what happens. At any rate, you have no idea who you are fucking with, Frederich.” She was starting to become just a bit annoyed at this man’s confidence in insulting her and hurling threats. “There are nowhere near enough fools in the Palatine for you to gather up and throw at me, that will stop me tearing your head off. I am not a Jager; there is no one of them, not even the whole Korps, that walks in step with me.”

“I very much know who I am ‘fucking with’, Norn.” Frederich said. “I will not underestimate you. I will make every preparation, and if you see me again, you will know it is the last time you draw breath. Should I fail, I will make sure I first drive the wedge between you and Erich. Then, should you see him again, it will be his blade that cleaves you. I will win, regardless.”

“Fascinating.” Norn laughed. “Do what you will then. But remember, if you’re coming to meet me, don’t come alone. And don’t just bring Weiss. You’ll need the entire Western Fleet.”

Frederich shut his eyes to Norn’s boasting. The connection to him cut out shortly thereafter.

Her heart remained unmoved by this display. Except, perhaps to feel a bit of pity for him.

Ultimately this would be Erich’s problem– to use any of the Palatine’s resources against her, Frederich would have to convince Erich to go after Norn, or get Erich out of the way and take over using Code Weiss. Then, even assuming the best possible scenario where the revenge killings and chaos in the political class and military remains perfectly contained, Frederich would have to cross into Eisental and fight the Volkisch Movement to even get near Norn. She could easily go to ground in Rhinea. If Erich, who was talented, and greatly respected, and young, with inherited authority, had not yet launched an invasion of Rhinea–

–then Frederich’s chances could not be any poorer.

In the grand scheme of things this was low on the list of things that concerned Norn.

Nevertheless, it was strangely gratifying to see that man again, and she wished him luck.

Maybe, if he succeeded– there would be some sort of justice in it.

For a man to kill for romantic love, in the stories of the Imbrium, was more righteous–

than for a woman to kill for justice or family– or for a son to kill for ambition.

“I’ll be expecting you then, Frederich. I hope you still fight like old times.” Norn sighed.


The Antenora continued to loiter around Myrkr relay for several days.

Anchored to the relay structure and hovering over the calm, sandy slopes of southern Ayre, it presented a more stable platform for the completion of certain crucial repairs. Anything that they could do themselves now was worth doing. Norn did not fully trust the Stockheim Shipbuilder’s Guild. Much of it was composed of trade unionists and leftists, who did not trust her either; however her specific hosts were the rightists among the Guild, made up of imperial loyalists and pseudofascists with private holdings in Stockheim infrastructure, who only joined the Guild as necessary obeisance to carry out their own business unmolested.

While they played nice with the rest of the Guild as a kind of honor among thieves, they had a more venal impetus toward their work and customers than the unionists. They would be looking to use her for their own profit; she would be doing the same just as much.

Leftists could sometimes be comradely, but among rightists, it was always a den of snakes.

To prevent them from wringing every last pfennig out of her, she opted to have her own crew fix as much as they could in the relative calm of Southern Ayre. Due to the fact that Ayre was a constant battlefield for the Imperials and Republicans, subject to unpredictable skirmishing even between the apocalyptic all-out battles that took place in it; Ayre, for all its beauty, was largely off limits to most traffic. It was infrequently patrolled by flesh and blood humans. Instead drones and mine fields held sentinel over much of the Great Ayre Reach and its surroundings. Murmurs of such things kept people out– there was too much risk.

Excepting the trench, where there was always a buzz of illicit activity around Trelleborg.

This meant the Antenora was likely to avoid both Volkisch and Palatine forces there.

If she ran into anybody, they were likely a Trelleborg traveler minding their own business.

Scavengers in the great fields of ruined ships, recently watered; smugglers bridging local black markets in Rhinea and the Palatine; gang bosses looking to profit off them all, jockeying for position within Trelleborg and the right to set the rules of trade. Between all of them, people who had no place to go, outlaws, mercs, victims of Imbria’s unjust laws, people who fell through gaps, human traffickers and the trafficked, information brokers and brave or foolhardy merchants for whom the den of iniquity was just one more spot on the map to hawk goods. Trelleborg was its own nation crammed into ships jammed between rock.

All this life, skirting the beautiful, calm and sunlit waters of the Reach itself, that bore witness to the unending historical hatred the Republic of Alayze held for the Imbrian Empire.

When she looked outside, Norn saw none of that romanticism in front of her eyes.

Only sand, and the blunt spire-like structure of the relay with its massive laser receptors.

She left the bridge in the hands of her adjutant and made her way to the lower deck.

In the hangar, Selene was still dressed in power armor, without a battery pack.

All manner of obscenities had been spoken in that hangar over the past day.

In the background of Selene screaming, cursing, insulting anyone close to her–

Norn spotted her most reliable standby pilot, Yurii Annecy Samoylovych-Darkestdays.

Arms crossed, not looking at Selene but clearly amused by her predicament.

Selene was incredibly strong, but Yurii was a soldier. She took and executed orders well.

Having picked her up as a defector from the Empire of Veka, Norn had initially questioned how useful she would come to be, but the more that was thrown their way, the more she appreciated that in spite of her hedonistic behavior, Yurii did every job she was told to do. A consummate professional hid behind that devilish playboy smile.

Smiling similarly, Norn approached her.

“Yurii, I’ve been meaning to talk to you, but as you can see, I’ve been rather busy.”

“I’m at your service always, milord. I have no qualms to being on standby.”

Yurii, still smiling, put a fist to her chest and bowed on her feet.

Shimii never bowed to another, it was against their religion to bow because only God was superior to a human; Southern Loup, however, often bowed to the waist while remaining standing. Unless it was required of them to get on the ground, such as in the presence of the Emperor, it was against their culture to put their heads to the floor. Of course, depending on the circumstances, anybody of any religion could be forced to beg.

Norn understood that Yurii was truly a loup’s Loup: raised within the culture.

“Do you envision yourself remaining in my service for long, Yurii?” Norn asked.

Yurii raised herself back up.

She continued to smile, that confident little grin, a predator’s grin.

There was a lot backing that confidence up.

Yurii was a strikingly beautiful girl, youthful, athletic, well-figured, with a wild character both to her soul and flesh. Dark olive skin and earthy green eyes, her black hair falling down her shoulders and back in wild waves, stiff dark fur on her tall wolf’s ears and her long, slender tail. She had an agile body, with lean, flexible muscles, more visible in the pilot’s bodysuit she wore than in the white and purple men’s suit that she had arrived wearing.

“For as long as you’ll have me, or until I go down with this ship.” Yurii said.

“I’m curious to know your reasoning for this. Do you think you will profit here?”

“A pragmatic soldier would prefer to work for someone who is strong and connected, than for someone weaker and less influential. There is more danger, perhaps, but more resources to tackle that danger. For me, personally, I have always wanted to serve a great lord and enjoy killing, women, riches– and I have a deep respect for the way you carry yourself.”

“I am glad to have made a positive impression.” Norn said, smiling with amusement.

There was nothing facetious about the way Yurii spoke.

She was not heaping idle praise.

“I admit I was a keen liar, but around you, everyone is stripped of such pretenses. It’s not just that you are powerful. You command respect because you will not tolerate disrespect.” Yurii continued. “I have always wanted to command respect and demand my own dignity.”

Norn nodded.

“You have potential, Yurii. You are strong, dutiful and sharp; and despite your pretensions, as a liar, a snark, and as a womanizer, you are also finally demonstrating some humility. That’s good. I knew you before; or well, I knew of you. I worked with your grandfather. He worried about you, but I believe you have turned out well enough as an adult.”

She had a small laugh at her own description of Yurii, and Yurii laughed with her.

Yurii turned out well, despite her vices. Vices were beside the point for Norn after all.

“I was aware of your involvement with my grandfather. I am thankful for your praise.”

“I accepted your defection on its own merits, of course. Not for your grandfather.”

“Of course. I would never want nor expect someone like you to be swayed by noble blood.”

“You do have a storied lineage, Yurii.”

Yurii’s grin very slightly softened. “We had an illustrious past.” She said.

Emphasis, past– but it did not need to remain that way.

Norn looked her in the eyes.

Though she spoke of completely esoteric subjects, she was serious in every word she said. “Your ancestor Samoylovych-Daybringer, was a great champion of the Nocht Loyalists who took refuge in Veka after the Fueller coup. He was a legendary warrior said to have had the knack known as Volshebstvo, granted to him by a fairy. Your grandfather, the High Inquisitor Samoylovych-Deepestshore– I can confirm he also exhibited these abilities. I want to know, Yurii, whether you were taught such things, and who taught them to you, if it is so.”

“My family never recovered its martial glory after the Fueller Reformation, milord. I have no such great powers. As you said; my grandfather worried about me. As he grew older, and deferred his retirement more and more, he distanced himself. He did not train me.”

“Truly? He was always such a family man. I thought you would have been his pride.”

Though Yurii had other family, she inherited many titles as her elders and siblings perished.

Her grandfather should have had no one else to carry on his legacy.

Norn thought Yurii sounded just a bit more bitter than before as she explained her situation.

“I was born under a bad star. Everyone could see it. The birth book assigned me the spiritual name Darkestdays– and I just grew up a bad kid. A violent kid; I loved fighting and making trouble since I was very young. Many would say, I am still a thoroughly wicked person. I think that my grandfather feared how far I might go to seek glory in bloodshed. To worsen matters, I inherited a male position as a woman, which is traditional but inauspicious.”

Norn nodded along as Yurii spoke. That certainly made sense, but made no difference.

“I am not your grandfather– I do not fear you becoming more violent nor more influential. I will grant and teach you Volshebstvo. Yurii, I believe you have the potential to be the second coming of Samoylovych-Daybringer. You are steady and ambitious. Hungry. Passionate. All good things when it comes to mastering the power your ancestors wielded half in ignorance. Once you awaken, I could confidently leave any matter in your hands. Right now, more than ever, I need someone I can trust to cut through men as Daybringer could.”

For once, Yurii’s façade of confident mockery seemed to melt into genuine surprise.

“Milord– As always I am at your service.” She said, as if not knowing how to respond.

“Good. I knew you would not deny me. I am curious to know one more thing.”

“Anything, milord.” Yurii said. She was clearly still trying to hide her emotions.

“Were I to be killed, what would you go on to do?” Norn asked.

Yurii crossed her arms. She averted her gaze for a moment, and then smiled back at Norn.

“Well, first, I would annihilate the bastard responsible. I’d try to make sure Adelheid and Selene and Hunter III are okay; any of your crew would be welcome to follow me. Then– perhaps I would return home and see if there is any opportunity left in Veka. I’m sure somebody must be plotting against that trumped-up horse breeder calling herself the Empress. I am sure I could maneuver myself into an influential position.” Yurii said.

Norn smiled. She was quite pleased with that response.

There was not a hint of a lie in what Yurii said. Good– Norn liked honest people.

“I will induct you soon. We will need privacy. You will be vulnerable for the duration.”

“I have heard tales of the grand visions that accompanied the fairy’s blessing.”

“I’m the fairy here, so your vision will be horrific. But you’ve come to expect that, right?”

Yurii blinked. “I see. Well, I am open-minded toward anything that grants me power.”

Norn turned her sight back toward the center of the hangar.

After a few more minutes of tantrums, Selene was once again quietly in concentration.

She finally managed to lift one foot, and set it down hard a few centimeters ahead.

Her power armor boot stamping on the metal with a loud thud.

“Atta girl!” Norn shouted. “Keep it up! You’ll have walked a meter in no time!”

“Fuck you! I hope your heart stops! I hate you so much!” Selene shouted back.

She could not turn her head completely to face Norn but still stuck out her tongue at her.

“Milord, I usually make a point to stay out of things.” Yurii said, also watching Selene. “But the abilities Selene possesses to link up with her machine, that’s also Volshebtsvo, isn’t it? So what she is doing now is a form of training to improve her power, isn’t she?”

“Right. You’ll have to do this too sometime.”

“I see.”

“Power stagnates without challenge. You know by now what kind of place this is.”

Norn reached out and patted Yurii on the shoulder.

Yurii’s ears bent slightly at the tips as she watched Selene struggle from then on.

Despite this, she never turned her eyes away, nor did she stop smiling.


When she came to, the skinny girl caught a sweet and sharp scent that wetted her nostrils.

Her vision was a little bit hazy. Her mouth tasted like blood.

It was good– there was almost a sense of euphoria. She was calm, her breathing steady.

There was a bit of weight over her body. She had to make an effort to lift her arm.

Blankets. Several layers of blankets stacked over her body.

Her nude, pale body, which would have been completely exposed without the blankets.

Sweat trickling down her neck and back, over her breasts. Her tail dangling off the other end of the bed. Between her legs, she felt hyper-aware of her dick, slightly moist, vaguely twitching. Flaccid. Her hips wanted to shake when she thought of it, and she stiffened a little. When she saw it she felt momentarily confused as to what had happened–

then it all seemed to hit her all at once.

biting down on a woman’s shoulder,

smelling her hair,

tasting her skin, her tongue, her heat,

the heft of her body, breast against breast,

feeling her from inside,

until she lost the sense of herself to the sense of her

For a moment she was stunned at the idea that she had sex with a Hominin.

Even more that she had enjoyed it.

That thinking about it made her want to get hard again.

Hunter III pulled the blankets back up over herself and looked to her right.

In the bedroom, the only source of light was a monitor brought up on the wall near a desk.

There sat Livia, fiddling with her injector in one hand, and scrolling through a document.

Her golden hair disheveled, wet, trailing down her back. Dressed in only her white coat.

Slightly falling off her fair shoulders.

Long legs bare, playfully balancing one heeled shoe on the tips of her toes.

Hunter III thought Livia must have heard her shuffling under the blankets.

But she did not turn around to acknowledge her. Was she working?

After– all of that–? How did she feel about it?

Perhaps the most complicated feelings that had ever crossed Hunter III’s brain came to her in that instant. She did not know to feel about anything. Was it special, what they had done? Was it unique? Why did she want it to be? Or was it just simple consumption–

like eating good meat?

Some part of her felt like she was in danger. Fight or flight.

It was the most proximate feeling to the mix of thrill and anxiety now swelling in her chest.

However, she was also happy– sated– contented–?

Like she had eaten something tasty. That sense of the fulfillment of her vices.

She felt like she could lay in Livia’s bed forever.

Her life, often a blur of hunger and urgency and mania– was suddenly slow and peaceful.

But there was too much on her mind for her to stay silent.

“Hey– Doctor– are you there?”

From the Desk, Livia turned around. Legs shut, but breasts completely exposed.

She really was wearing nothing but her white coat.

Her makeup was a bit smeared. She smiled like Hunter III had never seen her smile.

“Had a nice nap, little Hunter?” Livia asked. “Did you dream of being a fish?”

“No, no dreams.” Hunter III said.

“I’ll have to write that down. How do you feel?” Livia asked.

“I feel really weird.” Hunter III said.

For a moment Hunter III felt an intense and sudden sense of anxiety about Livia’s words.

“Were– were you just toyin’ with me? Like a test?” Hunter III asked dejectedly.

“Oh no, I greatly enjoyed myself. It was an experiment, but not a frivolous one.”

“Not like the kind when you stick me with stuff?”

“Absolutely not.” Livia said. “I hope I gave you as good a time as I received.”

“I felt real good.” Hunter III said. She smiled back, bearing her teeth.

Livia laughed. “I will write that down as well then.”

“Okay?”

“How would you feel about another round? I can make more time for you.”

Hunter III’s eyes drew open and she felt a tightening sensation between her legs.

“Eh– No– I think I oughta be watchin’ out for Leviathans.”

“So you can’t do that during sex? I’ll write that down.”

“Are you sure you didn’t do this just to write down stuff about me.” Hunter III mumbled.

“My priorities were pleasure first. Yours and mine.” Livia said gently.

“But you’re still writin’ stuff down.”

“I am always writing stuff down, little Hunter. But I did not sleep with you just for that.”

“Okay. I guess– that makes me feel some kinda way.”

“A better way?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad. I really don’t want you to feel like I used you. I think we both stood to gain.”

“I guess so, huh?”

Hunter III laid back in bed, sighing, swinging her tail.

They had done this, so, would things change? Were they like Norn and Adelheid now?

This was an aspect of humanity she only really understood in relation to examples.

She had observed Hominin, spied on them, watched their cultural products.

So she was not entirely alien to these concepts, but she still did not understand them well.

Her feelings were so much more complicated than she could explain.

“So– do ya want me to do anythin’ now?” She asked.

“Just be yourself. Continue to serve in your capacities.” Livia said.

“That’s it? You’re really not gonna ask me anythin’ more?”

“Yes. I do not want to interfere with your life, and Norn would be displeased if I asked for your exclusivity or loyalty.” Livia raised a finger to her lips, wearing a coquettish grin. “Of course, if you could devote time and visit my clinic more often, I would be ecstatic at the prospect. I am– intrigued with you. I would love to– understand you better.”

She hesitated a few times.

Hunter III could see in her aura that Livia’s feelings were complicated as well.

She did not push her to say anything. She didn’t even know what she’d want to hear.

That they loved each other, or whatever? Hunter III hardly understood what that meant.

She did know that she would look forward to fucking her again. She enjoyed it.

Livia tasted good. Her skin, her sweat, her blood– suddenly, Hunter III felt anxious again.

“Hey, uh– you don’t seem like you have a good sense of like, keepin’ alive. I feel like oughta say. Someday, if I get too outta hand– I could end up eatin’ more than y’bargained for. I could bite down, and keep bitin’, and not stop until I’ve bitten through everythin’. I would feel really bad if that happened– I don’t wanna eat any of Norn’s friends! I really don’t wanna. But if we keep doing this it could happen! I can’t say that it never won’t, do you get it?!”

She was so distressed. Her head was full of conflicting emotions.

Who cares if one hominin went missing?! What kind of omenseer would bother?

Who cares– she was so delicious, even! Maybe Livia was more delicious than anyone!

And yet, in that moment, this was also bound up in a grave and painful feeling.

In any context– not being able to see Livia again would really hurt her.

Livia had given her meat, and taken an interest in her, and said nice things–

(They had explored each other’s flesh as never before– more intimate than eating–)

–there was no replacing her, she was not just any hominin anymore.

It would hurt Hunter III if she ate her, and she was gone and would never come back.

(It would hurt Hunter III if Livia could discard her as easily as Hunter III could kill her.)

“I’m not completely helpless. Nor suicidal.” Livia said. “But I’ll keep it in mind and take appropriate precautions, for both of our sakes. I admit, being eaten by you would be such a fascinating biological experience in its own right– but I know it would distress you.”

“You’re so weird.” Hunter III said, averting her gaze. Feeling embarrassed.

“Do you want to know why I became a doctor, Hunter III?” Livia asked, grinning again.

“It’s because you’re kinda crazy.” Hunter III said meekly.

Livia laughed. She crossed one bare leg over the other.

“Because the human body fascinates me.” She hugged her arms around herself. “I want to feel the thrill of biology, to touch the source of being alive. Taking care of patients ended up being something of its own reward, sometimes– but I purely, selfishly wanted the chance to influence my own body and those of others in every possible, available way. To study every surgery, to learn every drug, to know every chemical, to observe every protein.”

Her slender fingers slid along the exterior of the injector she was fidgeting with.

Hunter III thought that this woman sounded insane.

However, she had to admit also, she was fascinated by her too.

Yurii might have wanted to eat her, but Livia wanted to be eaten. That was appealing.

“So you did all this because you like injectin’ yourself for fun huh?” Hunter III said.

“An efficient way to put it.” Livia said, spinning the injector in her fingers.

“Well. I like you so I’m glad you’re here, I guess.” Hunter III said. Averting her eyes again.

“I like you quite a bit as well, little Hunter.” Livia said. She smiled. Hunter III felt calm.

Casually and calmly, Livia then turned around to her computer, nonchalantly back to work.

Hunter III simply watched her silently from the bed.

Contentedly demanding nothing.


“I’m back in the same meeting room. Spin up the line to Trelleborg.”

“Yes, milord.”

From the bridge, the Antenora reconnected to the relay and contacted Trelleborg.

Trelleborg continued to be connected to the laser relay network because it technically used a relay set up by the defunct Imperial Petroleum Company. It was one of the earliest cable relays, running between Rhinea, Palatine and the Great Ayre Trench. With the entry of Bosporus, Veka and Sverland into the Empire, the supply of petroleum increased to such a degree it bloated the reserves, and therefore, the price of petroleum collapsed so deeply that even the poor could drink some with every meal– if they had peculiar tastes.

The Imperial Patroleum Company abandoned its now meager extraction operations in Ayre and the Palatine, and the earliest Trelleborg outlaws converted much of their infrastructure– including taking over data communications themselves for clandestine purposes.

After the Fueller Reformation, when the network was revamped and wireless capabilities were added, the Trelleborgeans added laser and acoustic capacities to their own relay. It could not be reached automatically by Imperial computers, but with knowledge of Trelleborg’s data address there was nothing to stop communication with them.

They were never blocked, and the cables were working as they always had. Much like other illicit operations in the Empire, they were unacknowledged and unthought of, and this was enough. Those who wanted to make use of Trelleborg still could. That was that.

So long as they were discrete, anyone with wealth and connections could play with fire.

This time, rather than connecting to the Naval HQ operators at Klagenfurt, the Antenora connected to an automated system ran on the Trelleborg mainframe whose only function was to receive the appropriate data address and connect the requester to it. There was no human element. If you knew the address, you could input it and reach someone. If you did not, and you guessed wrong, you were kicked out for some amount of real time. The Antenora knew exactly who it was trying to reach, so it was soon connected.

“So I’m allowed to watch this one? How gracious of you.”

“Quiet.”

Norn was accompanied in the private meeting room by Adelheid.

She was annoyed at being left out of other business, so Norn mollified her for once.

On the screen, a metal wall came into view first. Bare, nothing in it.

However, Norn could see the blurring edges near the bottom and center of the image. There was something being censored so that there was only the bare wall visible. There was no sound for a few moments– then, suddenly, the screen flashed, and there was an inversion of white and black. Adelheid nearly jumped, frightened by the sudden shift.

A pencil-scrawled smiley face appeared.

“How did you get your hands on this address? State your business!”

As a distorted voice came through the screen, the childishly-drawn smiley face flapped its scrawled lips in turn with the voice. Mentally, Norn overlayed the familiar voice she remembered of this character, over that which was being broadcast.

Before Norn could speak up, the voice resumed with greater intensity.

“Don’t even think about trying anything– I can easily take advantage of the direct connection to fuck with you in ways you can’t even imagine! I’ll lock you out of everything!”

“I don’t doubt it, Amur.” Norn said. “But I would find some way to go wring your neck for it.”

When the distorted voice next sounded, it took on a more emphatic tone.

“Huh?! Cocytus?! Cocytus is that you?”

“Indeed– but henceforth, call me Norn, or our business is concluded.”

“Oh! Indeed! Indeed– for one so great as you–! I– W-w-wait one moment please.”

Audio and video both briefly cut, but the connection remained stable on both ends.

“Hmph. Are all people from Trelleborg this far up their own crevices?”

Adelheid stared at the screen with an aggrieved expression, arms crossed.

“It was a cheap scare, you don’t have to be embarrassed.” Norn replied.

Narrowed eyes and a turned cheek. Adelheid refused to look at the screen again.

Her cheeks soon glowed with the light of the LCD as the picture resumed.

Now they were clearly looking at someone’s office.

There was a desk, a big chair with leather backing and barely any of that bare metal wall from before. Most importantly, there was now someone occupying the desk. Gloved hands briefly steepled in front of her face before laying on the desktop to unveil grinning lips. A fair and girlish and pretty face– belonging to the excommunicated Sunlight Foundation Immortal once known as Amur, and apparently still going by that codename.

Amur seemed to be doing well for herself, judging by her clothing. A gold-trimmed purple sportcoat buttoned over what appeared to be a ruffled silk shirt, hugging her thin frame close; gold cufflinks, dark wine-colored gloves; resting lightly atop her head was a purple kepi military cap with a golden badge in front depicting what seemed to be a waveform graph. Out from under her kepi, a wavy bob of silky, light blueish hair fell neatly to just over her small shoulders, with swept, sleek bangs over her forehead. Her eyes were clearly cybernetic, blue with subtle but visible rings of millions of photoreceptors.

Norn could also see the vague impression of her antennae, which were very thin, neon-blue and semi-circular, jutting out of where her ears would have been. Only the vaguest impression of their existence was perceptible beneath her hair, but Norn had known her when these antennae were larger and more obvious and far less aesthetically pleasing. Given the upgrade, Norn surmised Amur had access to a laboratory. Or was still friends with people on the bleeding edge of cybernetic research– but very few people other than herself would be doing such advanced research into new gear for Hartz syndrome victims.

“Greetings, Co– ahem, Norn! Norn the Praetorian! Of course, I knew this already. You quite liked that story of the fate-spinning Norn that Ganges told you– so when I heard that an Imperial operative by the name of Norn was making waves, I knew it had to be you. I’m glad that you were able to escape Yangtze’s clutches. And ecstatic that we can do business!”

An enormous sunshine-y smile appeared on her face, and she raised V-signs in both hands.

“I am also glad Yangtze did not keep me sedated and preserved in a jar forever.” Norn said.

“Of course, what an unreasonable and evil woman. Did you know that vile Yangtze IX tried to contact me to repair our relationship? Hah! I told her where to stick it! Never again!” Amur said. She put on an expression of exaggerated and fake pity and sympathy, pouting almost as childishly as Adelheid. When she spoke again, she talked so fast. Her nasally voice and conceited tone were just as annoying as Norn remembered them. “You know Norn, I would have absolutely resisted such actions being taken against you, but I did not know until Yangtze VIII was dead and the Alamos facility imploded. By that point I had been kicked out by Yangtze too, that bitch! She accused me of running away when we fought Mehmed, like I didn’t do my best?! Like it mattered against that monster?! At any rate Norn–”

“Amur, I don’t care.” Norn said. “You are on my shitlist just the same as the rest.”

Amur’s eyes drew wide and she froze with an index finger in the air, mid-sentence.

“Huh?! So you did mean it when you talked about my wringing my neck–?”

She looked suddenly frightened as if Norn was in the room and able to wring her neck.

“Amur, I am here because I want to put you, specifically, off my shitlist.” Norn said.

Amur just suddenly put her hands back down, crossed her arms, and looked smug again.

“You do?! I mean– of course you do. You always had a fantastic eye for a talent and such a good head on your shoulders, Norn! Yangtze and Euphrates and all those fuddy-duddies were just holding you back! Keeping you down! You were always destined for bigger and better–”

Adelheid narrowed her eyes. “How do you stand this woman always lying to you?”

“I make an exception because clearly something is wrong with her.” Norn replied.

Amur continued talking and gesticulating without acknowledging the interruption.

“–as always, dear Norn, you may consider the door to my humble shoppe open–”

Norn sighed. “Fantastic. Shut up now and listen to me.” Amur stopped in her tracks, and began staring nervously at the screen. Norn continued. “I am headed into Rhinea to refit my vessel. I need a few things from you. Primarily, I want to purchase your services as a crew member. I will need electronic support in Aachen. I am limited in what information I can gather, and I am walking into a pit full of vipers with very little intelligence. I cannot rely on the Fueller family or the military anymore, and I burnt my bridge to the Inquisition. It has to be you. You can work from Trelleborg if you can’t make it to Aachen. I’ll go pick you up later. Secondly– What’s with the gesticulation? Are you not able to deliver, Amur?”

“No, no, no!” Amur said. She had been waving her hands defensively. “Not at all, dearest Norn! I would be thrilled to work for you and of course I have the capability you need and more! A genius such as myself would be running digital laps around anyone in the City of Currents!” She put on a little smile again and gestured to herself with her hand. “It’s just, my services are generally paid through a flexible package deal, sliding scale, based on the task, and you know, my costs and fees and deductibles and hazard insurance and such–”

“I’ll pay you in Palladium reserve bars. Guaranteed pure by Fueller treasurers. Doesn’t that sound more appealing than bullshit Imperial marks? I bet your buddies in Trelleborg would love it. And, I’ll throw in something you’ll find even more valuable.” Norn said.

Amur’s eyes lit up at the word ‘Palladium’ and her mouth opened slightly for the rest.

Adelheid glanced at Norn with a skeptical expression on her face.

Norn pulled out a portable she had laid on the desk in the meeting room beforehand.

Switching it on, a wireframe model of a Diver and its various parts appeared.

For a moment Adelheid looked a bit scandalized, but quickly hid her expression.

“Yangtze has a fascinating new toy.” Norn said. “I will give you all the data I have on what she calls the Jagdkaiser type I, including field testing and maintenance data, machine logs, and any blueprint and stitcher data Yangtze offered to support operations. You can keep the data, but I want you to analyze everything, and create a machine on this basis. I know of your interest in prosthetics– you have just enough materials science pedigree for this, don’t you? I’m sure your renowned genius can fill in the rest of the blanks– what do you say?”

Amur’s eyes drew bigger and wider with each additional clause.

She blinked, seemingly realizing her mouth was hanging open.

Quite suddenly, she smiled and shut her eyes and put her hands behind her back.

Leaning forward, sticking out her skinny chest.

“Consider yourself the new employer of a renowned genius, indeed! Indeed! It can only be Amur, the trickster goddess of cyberspace!” She said. Pausing for a laugh that made her voice sound even more nasal for a moment. “I will make sail for Aachen posthaste– until I get there, I will work remotely in whatever capacity you need. Digital intelligence? Electronic warfare? Signals? I can do it all!” For a moment there was a bit of a glow underneath her hair– she had increased the power to her antennae as a demonstration. “Norn, I am so looking forward to our partnership. I haven’t been this excited to work in decades!”

“I knew you would come around.” Norn said. Grinning to herself.

Amur had an– excitable– personality, but she was potentially incredibly useful.

Especially her connection to Trelleborg. Having access to a Host was valuable.

Norn might need a place to run to in the future, if nothing went well.

“In fact, let our partnership bear fruit right away.” Amur said. A conspiratorial gaze and a mysterious grin appeared on her face. She closed in on the screen as if whispering. “Norn, I have connections in the Sunlight Foundation still. There’s been juicy drama recently– the rest of the Immortals are quarreling! Even Yangtze and Euphrates are not getting on–”

“I was aware of this.” Norn said, interrupting. “I appreciate you telling me all the same.”

“Oh! I must give you something to prove my worthiness though, on my own honor.” Amur said. “Did you know then, that Hudson has apparently relocated to Rhinea? Several cargo ships from Theseus Applied Cybernetics, her front company, left Bosporus and the Palatine for Rhinea with significant loads. At the same time as the Volkisch Movement in Eisental is debuting a Shimii brigade under the influence of the Nasser family– don’t you think it’s a big coincidence? Could Hudson be a Shimii nationalist, perhaps? A crypto-nasserite?”

“Now that is something I did not know. Something juicy, too– let’s keep an eye on it.”

“Aye, aye! Captain!” Amur made a mock salute. “Say, may I ask a– clarifying question?”

“Of course. No need to be so stuffy– aren’t we old war buddies?” Norn replied.

Amur looked briefly uncomfortable. She tapped two index fingers together.

“It is about that actually– am I off your ‘shitlist’ as you say, now?” Amur asked sheepishly.

Norn smiled. “Completely. I would not think of touching a hair on your head– that is to say, I will not seek vengeance for past slights. You know how things work of course– if you make poor decisions on this job, your neck will quickly become imperiled again. So rest easy, knowing you will render excellent service and not piss me off so monumentally. Right?”

Continuing to twiddle the same two index fingers, Amur averted her gaze, smiling.

“Of course. I would not dare think of it. I will be a real MVP on your team!”

“That’s the spirit. Start making preparations. I’ll give you bearing data periodically.”

Amur turned back to the screen. She smiled, again– but it was a different kind of smile.

Gentler and much less conceited.

“Norn, I wanted to say– business and profits aside– it is actually nice seeing ‘Cocytus’ again. I– I am truly sorry for what happened. I know– It’s been decades.” Her voice sounded pained. “This must seem like a joke to you, but I think, all of us held you in high esteem.”

Anyone else, Norn would have just cut off and told to fuck themselves. How dare they?!

Euphrates, Ganges, Yangtze, any of them, the pathetic ringleaders of that horrific circus.

However, seeing Amur break her pretense gave Norn just a bit more patience.

She would not give an answer to it. There was no answer to it. It was too painful to touch.

Because Norn recalled the joy she felt in the presence of the Immortal’s “esteem.”

And it was a void in her heart that nothing would ever fill.

Like family she wouldn’t have again. They destroyed it; she destroyed it. It was gone now.

“Let’s talk business later, Amur. I have preparations to make. Good luck; and be cautious.”

Amur nodded solemnly in acknowledgment. Norn shut off the monitor. Her hand lingered.

“I think she turned sincere at the end, Norn.” Adelheid said. A bit of unearned melancholy.

Normally Norn would have told Adelheid to mind her own god damned business–

“I know. But it doesn’t matter. Let’s check up on Selene again and get this boat moving.”

–but her heart had softened a bit, and the only defense against more was to keep moving.


The Antenora soon resumed its journey from Southern Ayre, skirting the Aachen Massif and the Ayre slope down to almost 2800 meters deep in the Northern Eisental plain and hooking west-bound to the other side of the mountains, heading for the station itself.

Along the way the floodlights and cameras caught glimpses of the eerie, alien and desolate landscape of the deep plains. Long stretches of barren, rocky ground or mounds of sand. Life gathered around the dunes, where marine snow collected on solid ground for detritivores to consume; around hydrothermal vents where tube worms fed on minerals surging out of the earth in great billowing gas jets; around red coral born of agglomerated katov mass, eerie tumors on the cracked skin of the planet; and it teemed on the corpses of large animals, like whales and collossal squids, edible to masses of worms, abyssal crabs, and small, bony, blind fish. All of that life, hiding until the death of something made them alive anew.

Through small gatherings of abyssal fish; crabs flitting across the sand; undersea clouds of drifting jellyfish passing through the empty water like their own storm, their very life the thunders; and the glowing circles of beautiful death represented by massive siphonophores, colony organisms lashing out at the little lives around them with neurotoxin-filled stingers. It was so difficult for humans to see such things, for the dark depths of the ocean battled their comparatively weak electric lights to the bitter end. Viewed only through the cameras, the world seemed to empty. But with all of a ship’s sensors, it was possible, at times, and across the spans of days and weeks of sailing, to connect many lives together and see the Ocean still not dead. Perhaps impossible on a station, where lives were stationary.

Out on a ship, however, the instruments awaiting death caught these glimpses of life.

“Siphonophore– 30 meters long– attaching the picture– ahh! A lovely little addition!”

Using pictures from the ship’s navigation cameras, Petra Chorniy-Sunnysea filled a digital scrapbook page with an image of the siphonophore they passed by and her thoughts on it. It was very long, and it was shiny, and it looked blue, when it was lit up by the Antenora’s spotlights. She thought its enormous size and colors were impressive. She had filled the pages with pictures, observations and little lessons she picked up. Her portable computer, with her diary and scrapbook, were Petra’s only valuable possession aside from her weapons and armor, which her lord, Yurii Samoylovych, had taught her to hold dear.

Petra eagerly catalogued the many animals the Antenora went past, as well as the sights.

In her heart, and in her pages, there was a journey through a world teeming with life.

Some people thought her behavior was childish and hypocritical for a murderous knight.

However, Petra had an enthusiasm for all things. She was alive and she loved living.

Her heart was simple and untroubled. She did her tasks with a clear head and good humor.

Petra did not think that her relationship toward death precluded her interest in life.

Whalefalls begot new life; assassinations and assaults created new political possibilities.

Some things died so others could live. Her master lived; her enemies would die.

There were many wicked people in the world; Petra thought Yurii was a very virtuous lady.

Yurii loved life; Petra loved life too. So aligned, master and servant remained in harmony.

Petra killed to live; for her master to live; and so they could enjoy the beautiful world.


“Alright, we’re commencing the briefing. Everybody sit down and shut up.”

Next to the Antenora’s bridge there was a specific meeting room used for debrief and for strategic planning with large gatherings. There was a monitor at the end of the room that could be divided into eight discrete cells with different videos, and desk-chairs in six rows of four. Normally there was a podium but Norn had moved it to the side. In attendance were Norn’s trusted officers, including Adelheid, a tired-looking Selene in a pilot’s bodysuit, a very bored-looking Hunter III, and the working regulars like Livia, Yurii, and Petra.

Neretva had also been summoned, along with three drone managers, one representing the security team, a second representing the sailors and a third representing the bridge. They would relay the information to the rest of the drones and create work schedules.

“I’ll begin by stating that while our objective for the foreseeable future will not be combat, there may well be outbreaks of violence so we need to be prepared.” Norn said. “Part of avoiding combat is knowing where we stand, who to distrust, and having plans laid down.”

She gestured toward one of the divisions on the main monitor.

Then, a logo with a scrawled smiling face wearing a kepi cap appeared on every cell.

“We will be receiving electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and signals support from Amur. She will deliver the rest of the briefing on Aachen. Take it away.” Norn said.

She stepped away from the center cells of the divided monitor so Amur could claim them.

Her real face briefly appeared, greeted everyone, and then a diagram of Aachen appeared.

Including its sub-structures, like the interiors of the Aachen Massif, Stockheim, and so on.

In the audience, Neretva was suddenly scandalized and stood up with a nervous expression.

“Milord, that woman is an excommunicated member of the Sunlight Foundation.” She said.

“So?” Norn asked. “That’s my problem, not yours. Sit back down.”

Neretva’s voice trembled. “But– what if she steals data? You don’t know what she’s–”

“You continue to involve yourself in matters above your station at your own peril.”

At Norn’s warning, Neretva froze up. Selene reached up and pulled her down by her shirt.

Successfully getting Neretva to sit, her hands on her lap and her eyes down at the floor.

Amur’s face appeared on one of the monitor’s next to the diagrams, smiling cheerfully.

“Milord, that Neretva is one of Hudson’s direct apprentices. She might be a liability.”

“No she won’t.” Selene spoke up suddenly. “She’s too much of a wimp to do anything.”

Norn found that assertion a bit more defensive than she would like– but she ignored it.

“I am the only one here who needs to be worried about personnel decisions. I will not hear a word more of this from any of you. Continue with the briefing, now.” Norn said sharply.

“Absolutely, milord! I was merely serving my advisory capacity! Your wisdom and charisma are, as always, deeply impressive and worthy of your grand legend.” Amur averted her gaze as soon as Norn threw her a sharp glance for her flattery. She then cleared her throat and finally commence with the actual meat of the briefing. “At any rate– welcome, ladies and gentleladies, to Aachen Station. Our present objective is to dock at Stockheim and begin the Antenora’s refit. We will also resupply the Antenora, and secure the continuing cooperation of Fueller family loyalists within Aachen to ensure a smooth journey onward.”

Amur extended a hand to her left, where one of the monitors displayed the Stockheim port.

“We will be staying with the Stockheim Shipbuilder’s Guild, under the auspices of a private ship repair and luxury ship design company, Quicksilver Cruising Limited. These guys have a pretty dodgy history within Aachen, but they pay off the Shipbuilder’s Guild for the badge, so they look legit to the untrained eye. Somehow they finagled an exclusive contract for luxury craft to the Matternich family, who are aligned with the Fueller family– so in essence, they are our allies once removed. They have been accused of supporting organized crime, but that’s common for port companies. Nevertheless, we should not rely on them for anything more than discretion and exterior retrofit work. Limit contact with Quicksilver Limited and its employees as much as possible. I’ll keep an eye on them too.”

With another wave of her hands, as if performing a magic trick, Amur dispersed the wireframe diagram of Stockheim and brought up one of the main tower. Its interior was made up of ringed walkways encircling different multi-story atrium spaces each of which hosted something different, like central hanging gardens and sculptures.

Superimposed on the main tower was a logo of a knight’s helmet with two wings growing out of it, one black and one silver and gold, all surrounded by flourishes of cloth.

“Security in Aachen is provided under contract by Rhineametalle’s exclusive subsidiary and military contractor, the Uhlankorp. Specifically,” an orgchart briefly appeared, but Amur quickly selected one particular part and zoomed in on it without heed for the rest, “by the Third Regiment of the Uhlankorp, which operates as a service called On-Site Security Outcomes or OSSO. None of the Uhlankorp has ever seen battle, but the OSSO are especially just trumped up Patrol with the least restrictive recruiting policies. That being said, it would be annoying to get in trouble with them, so just do your best to keep things above board. However– Norn, it does appear someone actually got to them before us.”

Once more, the screen shifted, now showing a picture of Aachen’s surroundings.

Several dozen kilometers south of Aachen, Amur pointed out a circular area.

Itself encompassing a few kilometers of empty wilderness.

“OSSO kept it on the DL, but a ship full of body armor and heavy weapons sent from Stralsund to Aachen went missing recently and they have no idea what happened.” Amur said. “Rhineametalle wanted to stock up OSSO as a precaution owing to recent events in the region. They saw what befell a certain group of thugs called the KPSD in Kreuzung when things got out of control over there. It would be embarrassing if a certified regiment of the Uhlankorp failed to protect their station from a terror attack, right? So who took the guns then? Well, I can come up with a quick list of likely suspects for you–”

Three more organizations’ names appeared over the diagram of the main tower.

“The Nationale Volksarmee, Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, and Eisern Front. Three leftist terror groups now rumored to be joining forces– with Aachen as the negotiating table.”

All three of the organization flags melded into a red, black and yellow flag, labeled,

Eisental United Front.

“We’ll be walking into a fairly volatile situation in Aachen! All we want to do is resupply and refit, but it looks like we’ve been assigned a hell of a place to do it!” Amur said, sounding quite amused. “Eisental’s political situation is tense enough as it is. The liberal government in Aachen is on the cusp of being replaced by a Volkisch Gau, and who knows what they’ll be scheming. Now the United Front will be sniffing around too, sizing each other and the Uhlankorp up while they work out this rumored alliance. And who knows whether their members will be able to maintain basic discipline? There could well be an unforeseen incident. And that shipment of missing Uhlankorp guns might just be the dynamite waiting to be lit up and thrown. On top of all that, there’s the Mycenae Military Commission in Stralsund, and then the Shimii post-jihad groups simmering in the background–!”

“Yes, it’s a very fertile ground for trouble.” Norn said, interrupting Amur’s excitable rant. “Which is why everyone needs to be on guard and on their best behavior. I want daily activity reports from anyone who left the port, and before you leave, you’ll be submitting a shore leave request. Unless I personally go with you, nobody leaves Stockheim without submitting a strict timetable. If you are even a second later than written, I will make you regret it.”

Norn cast eyes around the room but most prominently cast them at Selene.

“Huh?” Selene responded near immediately. “What are you looking at me for?”

“You will control your volatile moods in the station. Are we clear?” Norn said.

“Of course we are!” Selene said. “I’m not fucking insane I have tact, you know!”

“Glad to hear it. I’ll be expecting those forms soon if you want to go goof off.”

Selene turned her cheek with a pout. Adelheid patted her on the shoulder.

Norn then turned to Hunter III, who had been mostly staring at her own hands or at Livia.

“Hunter III. You will also be under strict scrutiny. I will have work for you, but it must be conducted exactingly.” She said. Hunter III pointed at herself as if she was confused about who was being yelled at. “There’s no other numbered little cannibal here is there? I will be using you for what you were allegedly made for– infiltration, asset retrieval, maybe even assassination. When I give you a target, you will meet it, without deviation. Are clear?”

Technicwise y’all aren’t the same thing as me, so it’s not cannibalism.” Hunter III said.

“Are we clear?” Norn asked again. This was her final but foremost concern.

Hunter III grumbled in response, crossing her arms and hiding her face with her hood.

“I know how to follow orders! I’m not dumb! Just tell me what the heck to do!” She said.

“If necessary I can always apply certain drugs to make her compliant.” Livia suddenly said.

Hunter III nearly jumped with surprised. Norn looked at Livia briefly then grinned.


Weeks removed from Goryk’s Gorge, the slightly less damaged Antenora finally docked in the Stockheim port in the row of berths that was administered by Quicksilver Limited.

The Antenora’s first day at port was taxing– a flurry of calls, payments, accommodations for the ship. Veiled threats leveled at Quicksilver orderlies to mind sensitive information when dealing with Fueller family property; reservations made with various people and venues; gathering the permits they needed through the liberal government or the grey market.

Owing to this chaos, everything that needed to be done in Aachen was briefly deferred.

In a rare turn, Adelheid was almost as busy as Norn, having been the one to take inventory and so now assisting in victualing and resupply by contacting various wholesalers and brokerages in Aachen. There were a few notable shortages plaguing Aachen, such as fresh spicy peppers and coffee beans, and so Adelheid ended up chasing as many tails throughout the day as Norn had to and put in a very remarkable effort. She was ordered to rest and relax the following morning and stayed in Norn’s own room after a night spent de-stressing.

On the second day, a drone informed Norn that an ‘enemy vessel’ had docked beside them.

“Clear the target paint, it’s nonsense. What vessel could it be?” Norn said.

“The computer has identified it as the Pandora’s Box at a 68% confidence.”

“What? Let me see.”

On the bridge, Norn watched the cameras pan over to the neighboring berth.

Her smile then stretched slowly from ear to ear–

–at the sight of that very slightly refined but still quite unseemly olive-colored hauler.

“I’ll be stepping outside for a moment. Tell Adelheid I’m greeting some old friends.”

“Yes, milord.”

Alone, Norn left the ship through the boarding chute connected to the station berth.

She found herself in a tube-like hallway of steel and glass, elevators connecting it to lower floors, conveyors connecting deeper into the actual port infrastructure of Stockheim. One continuous hall, sparse in decoration, connected every ship in this particular level. Norn’s berth and every vertical row beneath and above it was owned by Quicksilver but right next door there was a berth owned by a league of leftist trade unionists instead.

And in that berth, they had a clandestine guest, the same as she was.

When she exited out onto the hallway, she turned quickly to the bulkhead for her neighbor.

Both ships had pointed their cameras at each other, so they both likely flashed warnings.

Norn waited with amused expectation, hoping to see a certain conceited blond captain–

And found herself more surprised and amused when the bulkhead door finally opened.

Not Ulyana Korabiskaya, not Euphrates, not Elena– nobody she expected aboard.

Instead, a Katarran woman and an equally Katarran companion walked out onto the hall.

From their differing modes of dress, Norn could derive the hierarchy quite quickly. To her the woman with the long red coat and matching military cap, with the button down shirt, pencil skirt and tights– she gave off the energy of someone almost a Katarran warlord. Her dark blue hair falling down her back, heeled shoes, the sword at her hip, and the quiet confidence with which she carried herself, the beauty and grace evident in her every movement.

She was someone who was groomed for command.

Meanwhile the pale-haired girl in the hoodie and pants was just some punk she hired.

“Is that ship under new management?” Norn asked, grinning all the while.

Her appraising red eyes met the wayward, mismatched eyes of the Katarran leader.

“Norn the Praetorian is carrying out ship inspections far from home, it seems.”

The woman responded. They walked to within a few meters of each other.

Close to the bulkhead leading to the Pandora’s Box.

“You know me, of course– but may I have the pleasure of an introduction?” Norn asked.

“My name is Erika. I am an independent security contractor.” Erika said. “This is my ship.”

Erika– she felt like someone familiar. Norn almost had the connection made.

“You were sold a strange bill of goods, lady.” She said. “I’ve had trouble with that ship.”

“Have you any trouble with it today? Consider its business to be my own business.”

“I am merely curious. I hope those bastard cutthroats are still doing alright.” Norn said.

Erika smiled. “All of them are whole and hale, and rendering excellent service.”

“Now I know who you remind me of.” Norn said. “Ever since I saw you, I was thinking.”

“Indeed?” Erika said.

Norn gestured toward Erika’s coat with an even more self-satisfied expression.

“You’re the mercenary who fulfilled that suicidal contract put on Admiral Model’s head. Mismatched eyes, blue hair, horns, and running around Rhinea.” Norn said. Erika blinked her eyes and drew them a bit wider, for just an instant– recognizing that she had been correctly identified, not just as a Katarran or a mercenary, but for that specific deed. Norn saw her hand come to settle on her hip just over the pommel of her sword, but remain there.

“Have you come to settle the grudges of the defunct Rhinean navy, Lord Praetorian? Or have you only come to settle your own?” Erika said. To her credit, her determination held firm.

Norn could not see a shred of fear or hesitation in her aura. She was standing her ground.

And yet, she was also not making any overt aggression. She had a very cool head.

“Neither.” Norn said. “Model would have been an enemy now, so you did me a favor. And you gave Rhineametalle a black eye in the process too, from what I’ve heard. I’m surprised that you are able to continue operating in Rhinea after such brazen deeds. I respect it.”

“I am able to continue operating precisely because of my brazen deeds. Mercenaries who take no risks may not die, but they are unable to live. By risking my life for something I may lose my life, but my convictions earn me comrades and benefactors.” Erika said. “Killing Model made me more allies than enemies. I would hope to count you in neither group.”

Norn grinned at her after her little story. “Truly? You don’t desire to court my favor?”

Erika’s expression remained perfectly dispassionate and neutral.

“If you’ve a job, I will evaluate it like any other, and if accepted, I will carry it out.”

“Ah, so you’re not above working for me.”

“No, but I am above coming into your debt, and seeking to put you in mine.”

“How honest. I am fond of honest people.”

“I am simply keeping cautious of the fire which I recognize now burns in front of me.”

“Well, enough flattery.” Norn said. “I feel I’ve taken the measure of you, Erika Kairos.”

Erika reached out a hand to offer Norn a shake.

“No flattery. You are known to be a woman of great pragmatism, with an agenda of your own. I think neither of us need to stand in each other’s way. In this time of chaos we don’t need to fight hard to accrue new enemies. So we should not make them casually.”

Norn took her hand and gave it a firm shake.

“How is Elena von Fueller? What if I wanted her back?” Norn asked in a hushed tone.

For a moment she saw Erika’s aura shift. She wondered how this woman would respond.

“She is a civilian free to do as she wishes. And I will protect that freedom.” Erika said.

She meant every word she said. There was no lie from those lightly red-painted lips.

“I am glad to hear that. That foolish little girl is luckier than she appreciates.”

Norn let go of Erika’s hand and turned around with a dismissive air, showing her back.

Of course, Erika would do nothing with that opportunity, nor take offense.

There was not another word for her as Norn casually returned to her ship.

For the Pandora’s Box to be under Katarran management made no ordinary sense.

Erika Kairos must have had something to do with the leftists in Aachen.

And she had augmented her strength with the Union-backed troops in the Pandora’s Box.

Things in Aachen were about to get very interesting. Look at what the currents swept up!

“Pandora’s Box– I don’t know whether you are cursed or blessed anymore.” She laughed.


As soon as Norn disappeared from her sight, Erika’s solid purple aura turned a deep green.

Wafting up from her shoulders as if no longer anchored to her body. Broken, suddenly.

Her breathing grew more labored, and she felt discomfort in her tightened chest.

“You did really well, Erika.” Olga said. “I was surprised at how cool you kept during that.”

“I used Saint’s Skin to smooth over my emotions for a while. I was terrified.” Erika said.

Her voice was chattering. Repressed fears began to pour out of her mind.

Norn the Praetorian– even just her presence seemed to stir the world around her.

All of the legends of her brutal power swirled in Erika’s mind.

When she laid on the pressure, even subtly, it was so difficult to retain one’s peace of mind.

Had she been trying, or had ill intentions, who knows what could have happened?

Maybe Erika and Olga could have matched her if their meeting came to blows.

Maybe. None of them would have walked out of it unscathed.

Thankfully, she suspected Norn would not have picked such a pointless fight.

“I am glad I took the initiative on this.” Erika sighed. “I feared Ulyana saying something out of hand, or worse, actually exposing someone like Elena to Norn. Now that we have satisfied her curiosity, I think she will carry on with her own business. She is powerful enough that she could have had any opportunity she wants to attack us– I don’t believe she is interested.”

“I’ll have people patrol here to keep an eye out nevertheless.” Olga said. She sighed. “We just touched down and we already have to have security at the port. We’ll never have peace huh?”

“We’re not in the business of peace, I’m afraid.” Erika said. “It’ll only get harder for us.”

Both of them cast eyes at the conveyor that would take them deeper into Aachen proper.

They had finally arrived, where the currents of their own war had taken them.

Past and present converged on the City of Currents; and may well decide their future.

Inside that shell of metal and humanity, the United Front would begin its ordeal.

Eisental United Front Status

Nationale Volksarmee (Provisional)

Reichsbanner Schwarzrot (Provisional)

Eisern Front (Unknown)


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.7]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content and themes of suicidal ideation.

In the year 974 After Descent, the center of hegemony in the Imbrium Ocean still lay within the edifice of Heitzing. The cradle of the Imbrian Empire, raised from the vast trench that would come to be known as the Abyss of Nocht, named after its conqueror. In the southeastern border of the Palatine, Heitzing stood on a dusty circle of earth surrounded by jagged rock, like a thousand wounds sliced upon crust abruptly stitched closed.

These structures formed something of a shallow crater.

A subtle but visible demarcation around the heart of the Empire.

Legend had it that Heitzing was raised from the abyss and closed the dark trench from whence it came shut upon rising. Setting all of the legends aside, it remained an absolutely formidable fortress in a material sense. Automated cannons and missile launchers dotted its surroundings. Four underground sub-stations with attached seaports were constructed in the spire’s surroundings, housing a dedicated fleet of 125 ships, mainly composed of fast Frigates. Each barracks had several underground hangars, and together they contained almost 500 Divers and 10000 troops. Patrols went round the clock. There were enough stockpiled rations, munitions and fuel to withstand several months of siege.

Just a few kilometers east from Heitzing lay the border to the Bosporus Duchy. Just a few kilometers north was the Volgian abyssal plain that led to the formidable Northern Ice Wall. Just a few kilometers south was the Khaybar mountain. In antiquity, these directions each contained enemies. The old Bosporan Republics, the ancient Shimii caliphate, the Volgian Principality; Heitzing was a salient into all these territories. Despite this, it remained an imposing barrier that had never been conquered, single-handedly protecting the eastern flank. Heitzing was the sword cleaved into the Imbrium by the first Emperor.

Its region came to be known as the Black Crater, nearly 3000 meters deep.

So long as Heitzing remained, the Imbrium Empire was invincible, immortal.

Or so the ascendant Imbrians thought, once upon a time.

One kilometer tall, the spire was smooth and purely black but speckled with indentations where its ancient plates had been joined, giving off blue and red light mixed purple from millions of LEDs, humming with a purpose older than the Descent of humanity. Within the middle of the structure was a dedicated port, and at the top, the royal palace had been carved out of the hab block that once occupied the upper levels. At the base, and below, there was self-sufficient farming and manufacturing for the inhabitants. Industrial stitcher machines below ground built the first Nocht emperor his first imperial warships, commencing his ancient conquest of the Palatine, and beyond.

No more– the lower part of the complex was finally ordered sealed. Once upon a time, the Fueller family were the dynastic engineers tasked with the maintenance and furtherance of this machinery. Now, the last remnants of this family, that was near annihilated in its rebellion against the Nocht dynasty, would put an end to Heitzing.

By decree of Konstantin von Fueller, the one man who had defeated the structure and begun the end of an era. History regarded his ascendance as a passing of the fortress from one hand to another, as if to deny Heitzing the sting of defeat. Nevertheless, Konstantin had claimed the fortress, made it his home, took on the title of Imbrium Emperor, and now, his word was law absolute. And his word was that the mysterious depths of the fortress had to be forever shut. Architects and engineers were called forth by the crown, discreetly, to put together a permanent solution to the tower’s depths. To inflict a wound of finality onto the Black Crater that would render its ancient secrets permanently gone.

In response to this, Norn Tauscherer arrived at Heitzing one autumn morning.

Her hand held at her side, closed into a shaking fist. Her teeth grit together.

Her ship approached the center of the structure. A black panel slid open to accept her ship into a berth. Once closed behind her, there was no telling where the ship had gone, or whether any berth lay within that part of Heitzing’s space. Subsumed into the black steel it was as if the ship became part of Heitzing. She stepped off the ship, left the port, and rode a secret elevator for what felt like an eternity to the top of the tower.

All the while, fuming to herself.

Her face reflected back at her in the silver-plated interior.

Blond hair tied back into a ponytail with the slightest bit of an arch to it. Red eyes staring back at her themselves reflecting her own reflection, dark mirrors of a wrathful infinity; her fair skin colored over by a blue and green half-cape and a grey Imperial Navy uniform. Her slim build hid the immense power contained in every muscle fiber of her body, much more than that of the Imbrians she pretended to be part of. Few people called Norn beautiful, but she knew that she was. In everything she did there was beauty, and in the implements that she used there was beauty too. In her rage; in her calm; even in her despair.

Nevertheless, she was wearing makeup on that day. Something of a rare sight for her.

There was only one man in the world for whom Norn observed formality.

To have been casual with him would have only caused him to erode his own power further.

Her dress, her artifice of nobility, was to remind him of his position.

When the elevator opened, it did so on a lobby that was not Norn’s destination.

Quickly, she ordered the elevator to close and inserted a physical key into a physical slot.

Finally, the elevator went up an additional floor, and there, it opened into a suite.

Inside, everything was lacquered wood. Real wood, preserved with a shiny finish. Norn stepped out onto a lobby with a wooden floor, past an adjacent living room with silk-upholstered couches and a real clay and brick hearth seated on a steel plate and separated by a glass shield. Above, an intricate chandelier model of the sol system, within which Aer was one lonely little blue planet. Several lights forever lost to humanity shone with it.

On the walls, experimental artwork. Emperor Nocht had a taste in portraiture and traditional subjects; Emperor von Fueller had donated all the old work to museums and digital collections and instead decorated with modern art, abstracts and semi-abstracts, dada and expressionism and texture-art and programmatic mechanical artworks. Norn had no opinion of the chaos of shapes and colors that surrounded her as she traversed the space.

Except, that everything clashing, the wood and the glass and the post-modernism–

Probably reflected on the man who cocooned himself within.

“Emperor von Fueller, eternal be your reign. Norn Tauscherer brings counsel.”

Stepping into his bedroom, Norn dropped to one knee and looked at the ground.

Pulling a beret off her head and holding it to her chest.

“Oh Norn, no, you do not need to! Sister, dear sister! Please stand and look at me!”

He touched her shoulder, and so beckoned, Norn stood, and she did look him in the eyes.

Still unused to seeing nothing of the man that she had fought for, for so long already.

Norn still looked as she always had, while Konstantin looked like a corpse walking. She wanted to see the blond clean-shaven boy of her past but she saw instead a wizened figure, cheeks sinking, copious grey hair down his back, a sleek but dense beard. His shoulders, his limbs, had all grown skinny. His hands were the only place he had remained strong, because he made use of his fingers still. He was dressed in coveralls and an ornate coat without any shoes. He had been working. All around his bedroom, copious amounts of mechanical trinkets paraded about, flying, climbing poles, spinning on the ground. Mechanical knights on clockwork horses charging at nothing, origami birds made of thin steel sheets, functioning quadrotors assembled piece by piece. An entire clock in the middle of being put together piece by little piece, meticulously engineered, blueprints on the bed.

“Do you like it?” Konstantin asked. He gestured toward the clock with a smile on his face, ear to ear, so proud, so excited. “Nobody makes these anymore. Isn’t it a shame? I found the schematics and I wanted to make one. The Fueller library, we have all kinds of these things. Blueprints for old machines that have no purpose anymore. I wanted to make one so badly– it caught me one day, the itch. Like a haunting from the past. So I had all the pieces made very exactingly but I did not want it stitched together. Do you like it?”

“It’s stately.” Norn said. “But did you have to make it run? Isn’t the structure nice enough?”

“No, no, no.” Konstantin said. “Things– things are their function. Beauty– it’s function. A clock that doesn’t run– it’s a waste isn’t it? It can do nothing but be stared at. Robbed of itself. I wanted to make something that ran. That had a purpose for being.”

He had trouble speaking. His condition was clearly deteriorating since she last saw him.

Norn thought grimly, he might die before Erich ever gets his hands on him.

If Erich were so inclined of course–

“Konstantin, I am here because you are robbing Heitzing of its purpose, as you say.”

Konstantin’s eyes narrowed. “Heitzing is an abomination. I am fixing it, once and for all.”

Norn grunted. “Are you willing to tell me what is down there now?”

“No. Never you mind that. I have made my final judgment.” Konstantin said.

She could tell he wanted to turn around and go back to his toys.

He was half-stood up on the edge of the room and hall, half-staring away from Norn.

“Norn, we have to think about– we have to think about the future. Not just my children, but everyone’s children. Nobody should live with this thing held over their heads. All of these awful legends and superstitions, but also, the– the physical thing itself. I want to move the capital to Schwerin Isle, seal up Heitzing, blow it up for good. End it all. I trust Erich, but I will never trust Erich’s children, or his children’s children, I will not be here to see them, I can’t evaluate what they’ll do. Or heaven forbid those Republic pigs. No. I have to fix it.”

Norn breathed in and out trying to calm her nerves and frustration.

“Right now, Heitzing is one of the few things keeping you in power, so-called Emperor.”

“Power? Bah! If that is so, then I abdicate with it. I’ll go with it, and it will go with me.”

“Konstantin, there’s no climbing down this mountain except the way you climbed up.”

“Then let them depose me, but they will do it after this hellmaw is finally buried.”

Norn’s face was slowly overcome by a grim expression.

She found herself speaking more candidly than she wanted to. Her emotions swelling.

“Konstantin, if you gave me the order, I would exterminate the lords and ministers. I would kill every plotter and annihilate all of their families down to the last crying baby in a cradle. I would put an end to everything you could not. I would protect you. I can protect you.”

Konstantin’s distracted expression was suddenly overcome with horror.

He had a face as grim as that which Norn herself was making at him.

Rushing back to Norn’s side he grabbed hold of her shoulders.

Kissing her on both cheeks in a way she found repellent– because he was so different now.

“Norn! Norn, my dearest friend, my oathsworn sister– no, absolutely not! It has to end, Norn!” He started to weep. His tears fell on her like droplets of blood from open wounds. “No more killing for me, Norn. I don’t want it. I don’t want any of this. I didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. I am so sorry. All of the evil I made you commit! I didn’t understand the consequences back then. Please. Don’t go after Sedlitz or Veka or anyone else. Promise me that you will not. It has to end. This is why I have to fix it.”

He was hysterical. “Fixing” Heitzing– by destroying the ancient machines in its bowels?

Even the children of Nocht had lost so much knowledge of what Heitzing could do. Even the old Fuellers long before the era of Konstantin could only slowly lose their grasp on what it contained. Today the true capabilities of the tower remained a mystery, along with its true origins. It was insane to speak of destroying the tower, and the functions they did understand, as a transformative change that would make the Empire freer.

Were he to take this tack to its logical extreme he would not be able to live in this suite making little toys all day– he would cut off his own lifelines, the Imbrium Empire would collapse and all the sharks chipping away at his power bit by bit would finally smell blood and throw themselves in teeth-first. But he seemed to not make that connection. That if he did not take action now, there would soon not be an Imbrian Empire for him to hide behind while he lived in luxury and ignored the reality of the outside world he fretted about.

It was Norn who had to go out there every day and deal with the consequences.

Not him– he was insulated from everything. He judged everything from a fleeting safety.

But for a moment, in that outburst of emotion– he sounded like himself.

So Norn, disarmed, could say nothing to him. Could no longer dissuade him from it.

He wanted to declaw Heitzing, he would do it. He wanted to move the capital, so be it.

When he had conviction behind him he could do such things.

And he so often lacked any conviction that to see it caused Norn a dreadful feeling.

She would have to leave this room and set forward those machinations and watch.

Watch him rot away; watch the Empire fall apart; watch the vultures rise from under him.

All were worse than he was; and far, far worse than he had been, when she knew him.

“Norn, Syrmia is an old woman, and Erich is strong– but please take care of Elena.”

Had he really said that? Back then? 974 was not so long ago for her head to be so muddled.

“Take care of her. She’s just like her mother. Her mother– rest her soul–”

Konstantin’s weeping features distorted like the paintings on the living room walls.

For a brief instant he looked more deformed, hideous, broken and rotting than ever before.

His face etched itself into Norn’s bright red eyes as if laser-burnt into her–

Her eyes snapped open.

Cold sweat running down her, sticking to the wine-red blanket.

Steel, all around her.

Not the fine wood construction of the suite. She was in a wine-red metal room with dim yellow lights. Mirrored surfaces on every third panel reflected her half of her face, parts of her bed, and her sleeping partner, back to her. She was on a plush bed with soft silky sheets. Clothes had been thrown and came to lay all around the room in different locations.

Norn had been dreaming of old days. She was nowhere near Heitzing now.

It was actually 979 A.D. Five years later.

Konstantin was dead and the Imbrium Empire was near-totally dissolved.

She sat up on the bed in her private bedroom on her flagship, the Antenora.

Her back stung. Distinct, short lacerations– a woman’s nails.

Reaching behind herself, over her shoulders, she touched open wounds.

Throwing a sudden contemptuous glance at the beautiful, fair, utterly naked back of the red-haired woman sound asleep beside her. Her expression quickly dissolved into fondness. Norn had given far harder than she had gotten and Adelheid was practically fucked to sleep, and so there she lay, discarded where she had been used. Circular bite marks, red sucking marks, blood-flecked bruises, on her shoulders, neck, down her back. A ring of bright red visible on her left breast. Soaked with sweat down her back, and soaked between the legs.

Her face was serene. Her breathing steady. A smile on her red-smeared lips.

Norn could not help but smile and sigh fondly at the sight.

When she moved to get up, stretching out made the claw marks hurt even worse.

Looking around the room, still a bit hazy in the eyes.

Despite the damage that the Pandora’s Box had inflicted on the upper tier of the ship, Norn’s room managed to survive as it was sealed shut at the time. Once the upper tier damages were patched up enough, and all the spilled anti-flooding gel and freezing agents in the halls were chipped away, Norn had use of the room again. She re-inaugurated it by inviting Adelheid to sleep with her. Adelheid’s own room was still being prepared.

And Adelheid belonged to her– she could tell her where to sleep without pretext.

Tossing her hair, pulling off the band holding it in a ponytail, Norn ambled to her shower.

Turning the water on cold and standing under it, head down, hands on the wall.

Cold water running down her back and over the scratches Adelheid left on it.

It stung. She grinned. Everything was so complicated, but pain, at least, was simple.

She recalled her dream. Konstantin had really been haunting her lately. Was it her just desserts? He was already Emperor when she met him, but her exploits gave him confidence to be more than Emperor of parts of the Palatine and Rhinea. Without her intervention could he have reached the heights that he achieved? She cleared his way by defeating Mehmed, then became part of his retinue, his loyal bannerman who could defeat anyone in battle. Stronger than Samoylovych-Daybringer or Arvokas the Kinslayer or any Shimii Hero; a match for any Katarran Warlord, Bayatar, or the Hanwan Konoe Shidan; killer of an Immortal.

Norn had helped crown Konstantin the new hegemon of the Imbrium. When a certain traitor insinuated that the chaos in the Imbrium was her fault Norn had answered in the affirmative– but it went deeper than any singular scheme. Norn was just a brick in the Imbrium’s foundation, but she was a miraculous brick laid at a critical time.

Now Konstantin was dead. Erich had killed him, Norn had killed him, Leda had killed him; the Empire itself killed him. His magnificent power had ultimately taken everything he loved from him. It had withered his bones and stripped his hair of color. It bored a hole in his soul, and through that void he let slip even the modicum of empathy he had for his distant subjects. The evil shape of the Imbrian Empire was as much his direct doing as the result of his neglect. He could have chosen for the Fueller Reformation to do anything— and choosing nothing over the years and years of his rule, made him responsible for the conspiracies, the pogroms, the continuation of slavery, the nascent tumor of the Volkisch.

It all started when, instead of killing him instantly, Norn wanted to see hope in him instead.

That stupid woman who had hardly made any decisions in her life; she made the worst.

“Those same judgments I levy on him apply to me, don’t they? I’m the villain here.”

Teeth chattering as she spoke to herself under the torrent of biting cold.

Little punishment for the evil she had tacitly supported, by her inaction, by her support.

Norn was responsible for the pogroms, slavery, the Volkisch, and now, the dissolution.

She laughed at how horrid everything had turned out.

No matter what, she was a Katarran.

Those cursed; those condemned. Never to know peace. It was their fate, wasn’t it?

So what would she do now? There was no making amends for any of it. It was too much.

Was all she could do ride the storm of blood to the end and make good on her old promise?

Kill everyone who had used, lied to and betrayed her– and her dear brother Konstantin?

Not the shell he had become– but the man he once was and could have remained–

Behind her, the door slid open. Norn did not turn to look, she knew who it was.

“Oh! Goodness! It’s so cold– let me warm you up, dearest master.”

A fair and slender hand extended past Norn’s chest to the controls on the wall.

Another cupped one of Norn’s breasts, squeezing. Then the first went to her waist.

As the water became warmer, a sizeable pair of breasts pressed against her back.

Red hair fell over her shoulders. A kiss was laid on her cheek.

“I’m being a good girl today.” Adelheid whispered.

“Are you?” Norn asked, laughing. She was not surprised at this intrusion.

Adelheid pulled her in tighter from behind, embracing her even more closely.

Skin to skin at all points without even a film of water between.

“You really set me straight. I can barely walk. I will certainly not court your wrath now.”

Her voice took on a sultry tone as she spoke of what was done to her.

Norn felt the words in her ears and stiffened between the legs.

“Who gave you permission to come in here?” Norn said gently.

“I can be good.” Adelheid whispered.

Norn her felt her breathing rise sharply, suddenly.

“You can be? We’ll just have to see.”

Norn reached back and took Adelheid’s wrist.

Roughly.

Pulling it down from her waist.

“Do I have to do everything myself? Or can you be good?” She said.

“I can be good.” Her words submissive, distant, almost dream-like.

Adelheid’s hand, guided halfway, completed the journey herself.

Cupping Norn’s cock until her fingers dexterously wound around the erect shaft.

Stroking, warm water between silken skin and warming, rigid flesh.

Norn shuddered. Laughed. “Maybe you can be good. Show me. You can do it.”

Fingers sliding up and down Norn’s cock, thumb pausing over the head and pressing.

Turning the thumbprint over the surface of Norn’s tip, roughly, before sliding back down.

She grit her teeth. It was exquisite but she would not admit any praise so easily.

Without request or instruction, Adelheid found the rhythm that made Norn’s hips shudder.

No smart words left her lips, however. She was being good; she was really a good girl.

Quiet, compliant, and excellently-behaved– for how long only she knew.

In this moment, however, it was long enough. Norn groaned and buckled slightly.

Lost in the rushing shower water, small feed of Norn’s orgasm preceded a strong shudder.

“Good girl. You really earned it.” Norn said, breathing heavy.

Hips still shaking gently, her spent dick still twitching in Adelheid’s fingers.

“Can a good girl get a reward?” Adelheid asked.

Without word, Norn turned around, meeting Adelheid’s bright eyes.

Taking in her beauty, the soft, pleading expression on her eyes, the little pout on her lips.

Norn briefly arranged the bright red hair away from Adelheid’s features.

Her hands then took Adelheid’s hips and pushed her to the rear wall of the shower.

Lifting her, so she could lock her legs to Norn’s waist. Pinned against the false tile.

Just holding her like this was almost enough to get Norn hard again.

Savoring the weight of physical control. Adelheid was hers without any actual binding.

Intoxicated with lust, it was Norn’s turn to push close to Adelheid.

Roughly, suddenly.

Kissing her deep. Tongue pushing far into her mouth.

Tasting residual bitterness of liquor. Smeared wax and pigment from her makeup.

Breaking the kiss. Adelheid lifted her head as her neck was lavished with Norn’s attention.

Her chest tightening, breasts rising and falling with heavy breaths.

Her back arching.

Lower body shuddering and pushing against Norn.

Toes curling, eyes shut, teeth clenched.

“Norn– I love you–” Adelheid said through shuddering gasps.

Norn made a brief noise as if to quiet her, lifting her just enough more to suck in her breast.

Beneath the rising warm mist, Norn’s fingers traced her lover’s cunt, up and down.

Adelheid’s hands tightened against whatever of Norn she could hold in the throes.

Her rhythm was slower than Adelheid’s hands had been. She was working her up to it.

“I– I love you so much–” Adelheid whimpered.

Sharp intake of breath each time Norn ever so briefly brushed her clit.

“You make me feel like my time is moving.” Norn admitted between hungry kisses.

Whether Adelheid understood the significance as Norn’s fingers entered her–

It did not matter; it was all the admission of their love that was needed.

“You make me feel alive again.” Norn whispered as she took her in closer and harder.

Close enough to feel each orgasm as if through a shared body, and lose all individual fears.


“You’re a lucky one, little miss! Full recovery, and a clean bill of health.”

“This wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t stuck me with weird drugs!”

“Me? You can’t blame me for that. Doses were administered at your command.”

“Alright, yeah, it’s my fault, I’m the moron who fucked everything up! Fine! Whatever!”

“Miss, I think you ought to just celebrate. How about some codeine for the road?”

Across from the enthusiastic doctor, a young woman averted her gaze.

Her beautiful face passively making an indignant scowl. She ran her fingers through her long and fluffy purple hair, wishing that she never had to make any recovery in the first place. A pair of semi-translucent rabbit-like ears with dimly lit vascular lines that curved out from the top of her head twitched as a sign of her growing irritation. She felt like an idiot. It really had all been her fault– and she had to sit around doing nothing for days because of it.

Stewing in the fact that she had lost control of her emotions and nearly got herself killed.

In her desperate attempt to kill that enemy pilot, Sonya Shalikova–

(Whose visage seemed burned into her mind despite never having seen her–)

–she had overdosed on Psynadium and lost her wits completely.

Then that creepy pervert Lichtenberg had ordered her to attack while her guard was down.

In Selene’s mind, in that moment, she swore she had heard Norn give the order to fire.

It was only after the fact that she realized she had been used and made a fool of.

Goryk’s Gorge was still a horrid and fresh memory for Selene.

Now she was in no mood to be friendly or compliant with anyone.

“Keep your drugs to yourself. Can I go now? Can I be out and about again?”

On the chair next to the bed, the risible excuse for a “doctor” of the Antenora, Livia Van Der Meer, smiled brightly at her. She raised a clipboard and showed it as if it mattered to her.

“It’s got Norn’s signature and everything. Selene Anahid, free to go out and about.”

Selene sighed deeply, stood up off the medbay bed and left the room in a huff.

Dressed in a wide-neck, ribbed brown sweater that exposed her shoulders and a pair of tight blue pants, Selene wished she had anywhere to go to show herself off. She had dressed for where she wanted to be– anywhere more interesting than these sterile metal halls. At least they were headed for a station soon. Maybe she could have a little adventure in Aachen. In the meantime all she could wish for was for the ship to get attacked so she could deploy and take out days’ worth of her repressed anger on something alive by making it dead.

Though it was rather unlikely that they would be attacked in photic zone, 500 meters deep.

Hunter III would see to it that the Leviathans would not bother them.

So Selene had nothing to do. Or nothing she wanted to do. She was at loose ends.

Selene walked down to the hangar, the speed of her steps suddenly renewed. She hardly looked at her surroundings, now well-traveled. She hardly felt about them as she crossed them. The Antenora was a ship– and Selene had little opinion on them. Tight metal halls, stately compared to smaller vessels but nothing warm, nothing that felt like a home to her. It was familiar, but from what she knew and what culture she had picked up from external sources, it was not comfortable.

She had grown up in the sterile halls of deep abyss Sunlight Foundation laboratories, where all color was trapped in the laboratories of the immortals Euphrates and Tigris. So she was used to being surrounded by metal walls with a low ceiling and close boundaries. Not wanting to become a scientist like her caretakers, and longing for the outside world, she would eventually be given over to the Sovereign Yangtze who needed bodies for hardware testing, and then seconded to Norn, learning to pilot Divers and fight battles, and stepping into the military world that fascinated her as a child.

Her current gig as the Jadgkaiser’s test pilot helped satisfy her desire to know what else was out in the world. Charmed by stories of soldiers fighting for ambition and power, she had done everything she could to go out to sea. Now she had discovered what was out there– and her enthusiasm dimmed. It had been undeniably fun to use the Jagdkaiser to crush those who stood in Norn’s way. She had never cared about them, never thought twice about killing them and she still did not. To go out to sea, one accepted the possibility of being crushed by the immense pressure. To guarantee safety, one simply had to stay home.

They left home; they accepted the consequences.

But she had not realized how close that knife of judgment was to her own vulnerable throat.

Sonya Shalikova– was she a real soldier in a way Selene was not?

Or even, could not be?

She shook her head.

So much intrusive, annoying philosophy bouncing around in her skull.

It was boredom, she told herself. She had been so disengaged she was becoming insane.

Perhaps she should report to Norn, but she did not feel like being obedient.

Truthfully she felt a bit lonely but she would not let herself admit to that.

Instead, she wanted to goof off or pick on someone. To find another person to bother.

With Potomac gone, however, she struggled to think of who she could harass for fun.

Yurii Samoylovych was way too scary. She might actually get out of hand with Selene.

Petra Chorniiy was too dense and compliant. She wouldn’t even respond to mockery.

Hunter III was too stupid. There was no challenge; it got boring very quickly.

She could get the zombies to do push-ups or form a human pyramid but it was too easy.

From what she had seen, Adelheid liked being bullied, which was just kind of gross.

Norn was Norn. She gave back as good as she got and bothering her had consequences.

“Oh wait. There’s that new mechanic girl.” Selene’s lips warped into an impish grin.

Her steps regained their confident character as she stepped into the elevator.

Down in the hangar, much of the mess that Selene remembered before her medical recovery had been cleaned up. The remains of her old Jagdkaiser were gone. The machines once belonging to von Castille and Lichtenberg were also gone. There were three gantries set up in a tidy fashion. Yuri’s Jagd model Diver and Petra’s Volker beside it; and the second version of the Jagdkaiser. Selene looked up as she approached it, looking it over.

Her companion through whatever was next.

Her previous Jagdkaiser had been defined by its shoulders, heavy-set, bearing the mounts for the Options and the thick support attachment necessary for its wicked cannon-arm. Selene had to admit the second version had refined much of the first. Yangtze, with whatever small amount of data she had extracted from Selene’s struggles, had whittled down many unnecessary things– it was as if the new version of the demon had been hatched from cracking the old one like an egg. Slimmer shoulders and limbs and a cockpit with more aggressive angles to its armor. It’s horned head had been ever so slightly-slimmed down. Selene almost thought of gendering this thing female in her head now.

Slightly widened hips attached to a semi-circle magnetic strip in the rear that now hosted four smaller Options, rather than the big shoulder-mounted type. A smaller backpack with only two traditional jets was supported by four separate, all-inclusive wake-jet pods on the rear shoulder and hips. From what Selene understood, these thrusters took advantage of the fact that the water in the Imbrium Ocean was bizarrely agarthoconductive due to all the agarthic salt now found in it. Therefore they needed no moving parts to generate thrust, just some intricate engineering to accelerate agartho-ionized water through it.

Perhaps it would move even faster if the water was more contaminated.

A macabre fact.

However, the agarthic weapon embedded into the machine’s arm was nearly unchanged.

Save for one fact. It had been moved to shoot from the wrist, and a normal hand was added.

With the removal of the embedded claw in the other arm, Selene could choose a loadout. She could wield rifles and swords instead of the inadequate built-in weapons.

That might give her a better chance– she almost pondered a “rematch” with Shalikova.

In reality such a thing was highly unlikely to happen.

Selene tried not to think of it further.

Across the hangar from the Jagdkaiser, there was a woman standing in front of a stitcher.

Grinning to herself, Selene quietly made her way over.

When they first met, this individual had stupidly blurted out her real name instead of her code name– Dunja Kalajdžić rather than “Neretva.” She had not endeared herself back then but Selene was in a mood to reevaluate. She had to admit the mechanic was a little bit of a looker. She was just a bit shorter, enough that Selene would use it against her. With her coveralls pulled half-off, exposing the ribbed tanktop she wore beneath, Neretva had slim, lean shoulders and arms with a bit of definition. Her tits were alright, and she had a bit of belly. Her face was okay, slightly round, slightly pretty– wavy brown hair tied into a little nerdy tail, nerdy little glasses on a nerdy little nose. A bit of freckling, big eyes, thin lips. Her Shimii ears were rounded off and fluffy, and her tail was short and bushy.

Poring over a ferri-stitcher blueprint on a portable while preparing the machine to print.

“Oh ho, what do we have here? Do you have permission to print little kitty?”

Selene loomed over her target, bending slightly, putting her chest to Neretva’s back.

Her grinning face was partially reflected in the touchscreen of the ferristitcher.

Along with Neretva’s eyes, drawing wide, and the flushing of her cheeks.

“Oh! Miss Anahid! How– how nice to see you have recovered!”

Neretva turned around quickly, raising her hands up in defense.

Selene had not backed away even a centimeter from the meek mechanic.

“It was inevitable. I am built of stern stuff, you know. So what are you doing here?”

“I’m– It’s nothing untoward– I have permission from Lord von Fueller–”

Selene’s eyes narrowed and her grin widened. Neretva could not meet her eyes.

“Then why are you so nervous? Obviously it’s because you’re hiding something.”

“Look, see, these are blueprints for Jadgkaiser parts!” Neretva showed Selene her portable.

There were Stitcher print files for various bits and bobs like specific Jagdkaiser bolts and hydraulics and plates. Selene could not recognize them as coming specifically from the Jagdkaiser but they were labeled as such. Neretva was just loading the templates into the ferristitcher in order to have them available for when she needed to stich up some parts in the future, Selene supposed. Regardless, what she was actually doing did not matter.

“I’ll let you off the hook this one time.” Selene said. “But you have to grant me one wish.”

“One wish?” Neretva asked, quavering slightly.

“Uh huh. I’ll never trust you ever again unless you pass my ultimate test of loyalty.”

Neretva still could not make eye contact. Even the insides of her ears were turning red.

“Um– ma’am– miss– is this really–”

“I know a little magic spell to get your compliance– Dunja Kalajdžić.” Selene whispered.

Rivers were not supposed to use their real names on Sunlight Foundation business.

For their protection, and the security of the Foundation too.

Only the Immortals could be glib about their real names, but they hardly used them, and they were all so old, that even they hardly ever spoke them. For Rivers, regardless of how ridiculous their code names sounded, they were required to use them or risk expulsion and perhaps even the deletion of their memories by Yangtze for breaking their covenant.

Having fumbled and given out her real name, Neretva looked mortified.

“Please don’t use that name.” Neretva whispered back. “I’ll do whatever you say!”

“Good, very good. I like a compliant girl– but you know what I like even better?”

“I– I don’t know–”

“I like for my subordinates to look up at me like a goddess. From far, far below my station.”

It seemed to dawn upon Neretva at that point that she was being toyed with.

However, all this inspired not determination but a look of helplessness on her face.

That simply motivated Selene to continue bothering her even more. It was so funny!

She was such a pathetic wimp! Who even let this loser into the Sunlight Foundation!

“Don’t worry. It will be merciful. I won’t make you do anything too weird.”

“What do I need to do?” Neretva sighed.

“Well, of course, I don’t look monumental enough from this height. You have to get down.”

Selene pointed at the ground and shook one of her feet.

Her casual open-toed heels would come in handy for this particular situation.

Neretva raised her shaking hands, interposing them defensively in front of Selene.

Selene noticed the clear indentations in her fingers and wrist. Her hands were cybernetic.

“That’s supposed to be ‘not weird’?! You said it wouldn’t be weird?!” Neretva whimpered.

Selene turned her cheek and shrugged and pretended to start walking away.

“I guess I’ll call you ‘Dunja’ from now on. I’ll dox you and find out everything about you.”

“No– but– I don’t– please, I don’t have any secrets–”

“Kowtow and kiss my feet and it’ll all go out of my head like it never happened.”

Neretva’s head was set to spinning, Selene could tell. She grinned viciously.

She had her wrapped around her finger. She felt like an actual goddess in that moment.

It was both funny and a bit titillating. She made the perfect choice for whom to bother.

“It’s not all bad you know. If you become my worshiper I’ll bestow you with blessings.”

Selene closed in again on Neretva, reaching and caressing a few locks of her hair.

Neretva suddenly laid her portable on one of the resting arms of the ferristitcher.

She shut her eyes, bent one knee, and then the other, lowered her head–

Oh my god! She’s such a little wimp!! I wish I could take a picture!!! Ahahahahaha–!!!!

Spread her lips, closed them, and sucked one of Selene’s toes–

WHAT THE HELL–!!!!!!!!

Selene drew back so suddenly she nearly fell on her arse on the hangar floor.

Neretva quietly stood back up, face fiercely red, with a look of nervous resignation.

“Will you trust this useless worshipper and have mercy, miss Selene?” Neretva mumbled.

There was definitely shame in her voice but that expression–! It did not look ashamed–!

“W-why, you– you are absolute trash– you gas-sucking vent worm!” Selene grumbled.

“Oh, you’re not tying them up now. I didn’t know they could emote– that’s really neat.”

Something caught the mechanic’s attention and seemed to distract her from everything.

Neretva pointed a heavily shaking finger and nervously flicked one of Selene’s antennae.

Selene noticed her antennae were twisting up in frustration as she stood and yelled.

Upon contact with Neretva’s quivering digit the antennae started quaking uncontrollably.

Immediately Selene grabbed both of her ‘rabbit ears’ and pulled them down to stop them.

“Don’t touch me! What is your problem? Don’t you have common sense?!” She shouted.

“I’m– I’m just resigning myself.” Neretva said, clearly nervous. “As your worshipper.”

Despite shaking and sweating and being unable to hold eye contact– she was so brazen!

Selene wanted to admonish her further but she realized how childish she must have looked.

Having her own foul play turned against her and looking like a mess– that too was pathetic!

She calmed herself down and tried to play along with the outcome of their little game.

“Hmph! Well. Clearly you know your place under the sole of my foot. I will graciously accept you as my lackey from now on. But you must obey me to the letter! No– improvisations!”

“Y-yes, m-m-mistress.” Neretva stammered, smiling very slightly.

That ‘mistress’ entered Selene’s gut like a knife– and pulled down to her groin.

She averted her own gaze. “Get back to work. I’ll just inspect and make sure.”

Without a word, the quivering Neretva returned to what she had been doing.

Among the two of them it was tough to say whose face was redder.

Selene looked at Neretva’s back as she worked, loading the files into the stitcher. She had the stitcher arms move and make up a framework of a Diver part in order to test that the outside joins were being handled correctly. It was boring– Selene had no idea why the machine had to be calibrated and could not just perfectly replicate the print files. Neretva seemed to know what she was doing, and Selene’s eyes drifted.

Down her back, following the tanktop until it cut off at her lower midsection.

It was there that Selene noticed, just above Neretva’s tail and buttocks–

Oops, my finger slipped~

She ran her hands down a bit metal she saw peeking out from Neretva’s cover-all pants.

Neretva shuddered slightly and reached back her hand over the piece.

“Please don’t poke at that, miss Selene.” Neretva said, her voice quivering a little again.

“What is it? Are you a weird cyborg like Hudson is? You apprenticed under her right?”

“I’m not a ‘weird cyborg’ no– but master Hudson did help me by installing these for me.”

Neretva left her portable on a stitcher arm and once again turned to Selene.

She knelt down and for a moment Selene thought she might attack her toes again–

–instead Neretva pulled up her pants sleeve enough to show Selene a bit of her leg.

Attached to her flesh and maybe even to the bone was a thin exoskeletal metal part.

Selene had seen this category of enhancement before in the media and in stories.

Sometimes workers would receive augmentations such as these. To let them lift heavier loads or to be able to work as hard once they grew older and weaker. Compared to how advanced internal cybernetics had gotten, allowing people who could afford it to get muscle replacements and even internal hydraulic boosters, exoskeletal work prosthesis like Neretva’s were quite simple. Selene wondered why a cybernetics freak like Hudson would perform such simple work. Did Neretva not want to follow in her footsteps?

“I have a condition– I have to work harder to move my legs.” Neretva said in a low voice.

“Oh! Is that so? And the exo’s hydraulics help get your legs going?”

“Indeed. It’s really helped my quality of life a lot. I can’t thank master Hudson enough.”

Selene momentarily felt a bit rotten to have been picking on a girl with a condition.

She disabused herself of that notion pretty quickly– she didn’t want to dwell on it.

If it had been her she wouldn’t have wanted anyone’s weak pity like that.

“Miss Selene, you were raised by masters Euphrates and Tigris, is that correct?”

“Uh huh. ‘Raised’ is giving them too much credit though. Those two hags just made sure I hadn’t died and periodically gave me stuff to read and watch and whatever. Tigris was always busy with some stupid invention and any time Euphrates caught sight of me she would just give me an annoying lecture. Both of them annoyed me so much growing up.”

“That sounds about right.” Neretva smiled. “I was raised by master Hudson.”

“Ah, I see. So you’re like her daughter or something.”

“Do you count yourself Euphrates and Tigris’ daughter?”

“What? No? Of course not? Fuck no? Not in a million years?”

Neretva laughed a little bit. “I wish I was as energetic as you.” Her voice trembled again.

Selene gave her hair a haughty toss, feeling self-satisfied to have received praised.

“How come I didn’t see you around?” She asked.

“Because– I wasn’t around– I suppose?” Neretva was getting stuck on her words again.

“Uh huh. I guess I didn’t see Hudson around much either.” Selene said.

“And I never saw masters Euphrates and Tigris much.” Neretva said. “Especially recently.”

“You’ll have to specify what ‘recent’ means.” Selene said, grinning. “With Euphrates and Tigris, ‘recent’ is like 200 years ago. It’s a word that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.”

“I’m not Immortal.” Neretva said bashfully. “So I guess I mean, in the past year?”

“They’ve been busy. Plus they all hate each other now, so you’ll never see them again.”

“I really hope that isn’t the case.” Neretva said nervously. “I admired them all a lot.”

“What’s there to admire? They’re a bunch of insane hags all stuck in their own ways.”

Neretva looked upset for once. “Those ‘hags’ are doing more for humanity than anyone.”

“What’s with that tone? Am I getting under your skin? Want to go under the heel again?”

Selene leaned forward into the confrontation. Neretva just sighed and turned around.

Trembling again. Selene only briefly saw something in her. A tiny flash of red aura.

“Fine. Keep up the good work, Neretva. I’ll be watching.” Selene said sharply.

Turning on her heel and putting her back to the mechanic without a further word.

There was a sharp pain in the center of her forehead. Not from psionics or anything–

Just frustration and a bolt of self-loathing that were fogging her mind up.

Ugh, that wasn’t fun at all. What am I fucking doing? Why didn’t I just talk to her normally?

It was all so childish but– wasn’t it at least supposed to be funny? It was funny, right?

If she could not even convince herself of that then what the hell was she doing?

At that moment she felt so low she just wanted to hide in her room and never leave it.

Maybe she should have just taken the codeine from that insane pusher upstairs.

“I’ll come out when Norn needs me. To hell with all of this, I’m done. I’m done!”

It was being cooped up in here that was driving her insane. It was the noise and the people and how irritating everything was to her. It was lack of sleep. It was a knock to the head. It was bad food and being bored. It was her genes being too superior yet not at all.

As many excuses as she could come up with stacked together to make sense of things.

Selene felt lonely and lost and purposeless and like it was impossible not to feel that way.

And that was the last thing she would ever admit.

So she slunk off to her room and sulked for as long as she could get away with.

Eventually someone would need her again and she would have a reason to exist again.


“Hah hah! Helm-hominin, 50 disagrees to the farboard! 60 disagrees! Fire all big ones!”

In the Captain’s chair sat a short and somewhat skinny woman, girlish in features, quite pale, the only color on her a blue stripe in her hair. Dressed in a big black hood, a smooth, rubbery-looking tail swinging behind her. She pointed dramatically at the screen. It was known that she could barely read and thus barely understand the Imbrian scrawls all over the map in front of her but it did not matter. Because she could barely tell if anyone was listening either, and therefore they all had orders not to. However, she looked like she was amused.

“Captain Hunter III! The ancient navigator scourin’ the world for meat and shinies!”

“I’m curious, what is more important, my dear Hunter III: meat or shinies?”

“Huh? What kinda question is that? Meat of course! But imagine eatin’ a load of meat while also bein’ all covered in the best shinies. You’d be like a king or somethin’! King Hunter III! That’s what she said it’d be like anyways– it was never like that for poor ol’ Hunter III–!”

Hunter III started moping in an exaggerated fashion until she seemed to realize–

She turned sharply in her chair to find Norn standing next to her with a grin.

Dressed in a long-sleeved red and yellow shirt with a deeply plunging neckline, flattering her humble cleavage, and a pair of pants; along with the Fueller family coat, blue and green with an abstract etching of an old semiconductor die, trailing veins of color and gold. Her blond hair done up in a simple ponytail, her imperious, beautiful face contorted into a sneer.

“I think you’ve eaten too much. It’s made you far too chipper.” Norn said, amused.

“This’s how Hunter III is s’posed to be!” Hunter III shouted. “I was dyin’ t’death before!”

“You had a delicious cut of steer not that long ago.”

“So? Do you hominin ever just eat somethin’ tasty once and then stop forever?”

Grumbling complaints, Hunter III vacated the Captain’s chair.

She sat against the rear wall of the bridge with her arms crossed, hood pulled up, sulking.

“You’d be happier if you learned to enjoy the jerky and sausages you eat every day.”

As always following behind Norn was the adjutant, Adelheid van Mueller.

Black sheep of the number two aristocratic family in the Empire, the Muellers, staunchest supporters of the Fueller family. Once upon a time they were critical to providing food supplies for the Fueller war effort against the Nocht loyalists, and by that opportunity propelled themselves to the heights of the new Fueller-led aristocracy.

Adelheid had absolutely no trace of a farm girl in her appearance, however.

Even while dressed in military garb she gave off an air of a high society fashionista, beautiful and exactingly confident and a bit aloof, as if only that which interested her could be allowed to exist around her. Her very red hair falling over her shoulders, her fair skin and youthful features, the tiny amount of faint freckles near her nose, and her piercing eyes, lent her an intense but girlish beauty that was the platonic ideal of a noble lady. On her body, the tight, flattering gray uniform coat and skirt, along with the covering bodysuit that she wore, long sleeved and high-necked– all of it looked as if it had color, owing to her radiance.

One could not look too long, however– this princess was the property of a jealous dragon.

With a self-assured little smile on her red lips, she took her seat beside Norn on the bridge.

“Situation report.” Norn asked. “Where are we now, and how far are we to Aachen?”

On command the drones that worked on the bridge began their reports.

Norn went over what had transpired in her own mind too.

The Antenora had a rocky start to its nominal mission, assigned a few months ago by the crown Prince Erich von Fueller as the Empire underwent its collapse. They were meant to have been collecting test and R&D data for a next generation Diver known as the Jagdkaiser, the mass production of which would give instant superiority to the Fueller faction.

For this reason, Norn left the Palatine on her flagship, taking it first into the Photic zone. Selene proved quite adequate in slaughtering Leviathans and avoiding the Agarthic weather in the Jagdkaiser, so the testing returned to the aphotic zone, where Norn was met with a lot of unexpected business in Sverland. Avoiding a trap by a traitorous officer in the Serrano region; meeting up with a dear subordinate near Goryk’s Gorge and assisting her in attempting to recover Elena von Fueller, thought dead in the Vogelheim disaster.

Norn had refused to fight personally during this second skirmish, not wanting Gertrude to receive too much of a reward for her pathetic begging; but even despite this she had to admit that the Antenora had met something of its match in the mysterious Pandora’s Box, a mercenary ship that had taken in Elena von Fueller. Despite Gertrude Lichtenberg’s protestations, Norn let them escape to their own fortunes, and cast out her old student, having graduated ignominiously as one of Norn’s many repeated failures to cultivate a young conqueror’s ambitions. Now, Gertrude was possibly dead in the deep abyss, or possibly awakening to her true potential, who knew; Norn and her remaining troops meanwhile headed for Aachen, a city at the crossroads between Rhinea and the Palatine heartland, separated only by the Great Ayre Reach just beyond the Aachen Massif.

They had collected and sent enough data that Yangtze had already refined the Jagdkaiser into a second version for them to test. Mass production was nowhere near possible, as the Options representing the machine’s most practical offensive potential were not able to be ferristitched just yet. Another part, the most radical part of the machine’s arsenal, could also not be mass produced yet– the exotic cannon arm containing a taboo agarthic weapon. Judging by the number of cartridges given to Norn in her last supply rendezvous, Yangtze wanted much more data on this weapon specifically in future rounds of testing.

Norn, meanwhile, wanted to rip Yangtze open and strangle her with her own intestines.

For the moment, what was she actually, officially doing was a resupply and retrofit mission.

The Antenora had been banged up, and Aachen was a place where it could receive attention that was prompt, reliable and inconspicuous. There was a faction of the Shipbuilders Guild in Aachen who supported the Fuellers, rather than the liberal trade unionists, the constellation of leftists, or the fascist breakaway government of the Volkisch Movement. With their support, the Antenora could park in Stockheim and receive everything that it needed, while Norn took a break. Adelheid was somewhat excited– Aachen was a city, and she had been out at sea for so long. She also had friends in Aachen, and Norn had friends too.

They could catch up, make some social calls.

However, what the Antenora was officially doing did not matter much to Norn.

It was just a smokescreen as she thought seriously about what she was doing anymore.

Defeat at the hands of the Pandora’s Box, and the tragic condition of Gertrude Lichtenberg, had provoked in Norn something she was unused to– serious personal introspection.

Those stupid dreams featuring her old oathsworn brother, whom she had betrayed–

That did not help matters either. Not that she felt much actual guilt over it.

What she felt was worse than guilt– more complicated and less difficult to describe.

Sitting in the chair, wearing the coat of the Fueller family, as its nominal head.

His coat– that she both helped him attain, helped him turn into a symbol of power–

–and watched him squander the splendor of its colors, before she stole them from him.

Norn was starting to feel a weight of responsibility– and the long trail of her own actions.

Even if she, personally, was an invincible body that could hardly be challenged.

Her world and the things she held dear were deeply vulnerable.

To enemies; to herself.

To their own flawed selves–

Her uncharacteristically brooding thoughts inspired curiosity in her adjutant and lover.

“Norn? Was the sitrep too boring? Would you like a massage?” Adelheid asked sweetly.

“No, I’m fine. Later.” Norn said. “I’m just thinking about what we will do at Aachen.”

It was not like Norn to lie, but she had no qualms about withholding information.

Especially where it concerned her emotional self.

“Don’t worry– as your adjutant, I will make sure your social calendar is well stocked.”

Adelheid winked at Norn and laid her hand over the back of Norn’s own hand.

Her fingernails scratched gently up and down over skin. Like a mildly rambunctious cat.

“I’ll leave it up to you then. You said you had a friend there, right?” Norn asked.

“Yes, an old classmate from Luxembourg School for Girls. Do you follow pop music?”

“I would not even know where to start following it, Adelheid.”

“I should have realized.” Adelheid shrugged. “That’s your old and unfashionable charm.”

Norn grunted. “You’re already done being ‘good’ even by your own warped definition?”

“Anyway– she’s made a tidy career as a singer.” Adelheid smiled, ignoring her. “Number one hits, magazine covers and even TV shows, all the glitz and glamour denied to me. Not that you would know. Not only that, she is getting married, unlike me, to the son of a bigshot family in Aachen that basically own the place. Maybe if we catch up at Aachen she might make me her bridesmaid, and I can experience second-hand what I will never have.”

Norn felt like every couple of words a knife was being thrown directly at her chest.

“You’ll experience first-hand the back of my hand if you keep throwing jabs at me.”

Adelheid put on an expression of utterly false and mocking contrition.

As if the slap had been delivered and she mischievously enjoyed it while feigning shame.

“Adelheid, I have a question for you. Use your brain for this one. I’m serious.”

“Oh, we’re done playing so soon? Boo. How boring.”

“Adelheid.”

“What is it?” Adelheid said, putting on a disinterested expression.

“Give me your honest assessment,” Norn began, “about the state of the civil war.”

Though she hardly ever showed it, Adelheid was actually a competent adjutant.

“Oh, it really is serious time, huh? You know, I have been thinking about it too.”

“Don’t you think it’s too quiet? It’s been months since the Emperor passed.” Norn asked.

Adelheid nodded her head.

“Indeed. Only Rhinea has made a big move to subsume another state; the Royal Alliance set up in their geographic neighborhood so they had no choice but to come to blows. So far none of the other competitors have started any outright shooting wars. There’s even still some inter-duchy commerce happening with all of the sides overlooking it.”

“Why do you think that is? Use your foreign policy brain. I need real analysis here.”

“You don’t have to tell me what brain to use, I’m not a bimbo like you think I am.” Adelheid said, now her turn to be aggrieved at the insults. She recollected herself and put out her hypothesis in a serious and even tone of voice. “If I had to hazard a guess– I think that the internal situations of the states are all worse than we think. Even the Union made a modest move with their invasion of Serrano, but from the news we gathered while leaving, it seems they haven’t capitalized further, even though the Volkisch are a mess right now. The Prince is being cautious even though his military forces are the qualitative best; and Veka, with a similarly strong military, is trying to focus on diplomacy instead. I think that politically they are too shaky for all-out war. They might risk creating opportunities for internal rivals.”

“That’s an interesting assessment. I think you’re right.” Norn said. “Honestly I don’t know what’s going on in Erich’s head– I advised him that he needed to attack Bosporus and Buren quickly to absorb their resources. But I’m not there with him. I’ve never been part of the Grand Western Fleet. I have no insight into its internal culture. He might be struggling to clean the ranks. There was a lot of corruption in the Navy. Maybe even in his fleet.”

“To think you’re being so distant with your nephew, who is now practically your son–”

“When you’re helping raise a child, you must give them room to resolve their own issues.”

“Right. I thought you’d say something like that.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

“I’m not done picking your brain.” Norn said. “You know more about the duchies than I.”

Adelheid shrugged. “I had to study foreign policy when I was the Mueller heiress.”

“How do you think these ‘internal problems’ might manifest in the competitor states?”

Adelheid brought her fingers as if to count them. “Let me see. I think– Buren’s nationalist revolution will need to be sure the old loyalist elements are fully suppressed; Veka has a strong and young officer cadre full of ambition that might need to be contained; Solcea is a theocracy, which has never been tried in the Imbrium, so I don’t know if they have the bureaucratic experience needed to keep the trams running; the anarchists in Bosporus are a mess because anarchist ‘government’ simply can’t work; Volgia can’t hide behind the ice wall forever, and the ice queen has the greatest variety of grudging subjects under her wing; The Palatine is less resource-rich than it used to be and all the social climbers in the aristocracy were located there before the split. I don’t know anything much about the Union, but I suspect they have the same problems everyone else does with ambitious officers, social climbers in government, ethnic grudges, economic constraints, and so on.”

As for Rhinea, they had already seen the problems in action. Same with the Royal Alliance.

It was a very apt assessment, befitting a woman who wished to serve the Praetorian.

Such a strange situation, where the Antenora’s skirmish with the Pandora’s Box might still merit a mention in the annals of history– because there were so few other battles in the dissolution of the Imbrian Empire that were worth mentioning so far.

It was impossible for there to be peace and unity among the fractured states, each was too ambitious to ever accept any of the others. But so far, most of them avoided immediately attacking and seizing their neighbors. While there might be skirmishing that Norn simply did not know about, if there were more all-out wars, she would have known.

Especially if those wars were being personally ordered by Erich von Fueller himself.

“It does feel like we’re, somehow, still in the calm before the storm.” Norn said.

“I don’t know whether anything will happen.” Adelheid said. “But something might.”

Norn sighed. Oh, to what depths Konstantin’s project of peace and order had fallen.

“At least Elena might be safe now– I suppose I fulfilled that promise.” She mumbled.

“What was that? Are you done quizzing me on things you ought to know now?”

Adelheid put on a fox-like grin again. Norn shot her a sharp look that made her shudder.

“Distributing some of my thinking is the role of my adjutant. And she does it well.”

Norn smiled. Adelheid looked surprised to have received praise while being a bitch.

It shut down her ability to respond with a snide remark and led her to sit quietly contented.

“Boring hominin junk! Who cares! Kill each other already and let Hunter III feast!”

From behind them, their little navigator heckled, clicked her tongue and slapped her tail.

“You’re always welcome to try to eat me, Hunter III. But you know what’s good for you.”

Hunter III quieted for a moment at Norn’s response. Her little brain must have been ticking.

“Eh– y’all bony and gross anyway. Easier to sit here and earn good meat.” She mumbled.


Selene laid on her bed, her back partially to the wall, propped up on a pillow.

Kicking her bare feet every so often as she read a magazine on a portable.

Swiping through pages full of fashion tips for young women; step by step guides to wearing some complicated outfits that required body glue or tape to pull off; makeup tutorials; reviews of the latest accessories and lingerie from the top brands. Gossip columns and celebrity talk and upcoming concerts from hot bands. It was typical for a Rhinean magazine, there were a lot of blonds even skinnier than Selene and with much flatter asses with super high cheekbones and little button noses– but she never expected to see a vat-grown intersex thing like herself in a magazine anyway. Still she read the magazine, and she thought about going on a shopping spree in Aachen, getting all the new pigments and buying up a dozen hypermodern vinyl tops and synthesilk pants and tiny lacy panties to feel sexy.

“Maybe I can bribe that buffoon Hunter III with some meat to carry all my stuff.”

Selene put the portable to her chest and laid on her side, thinking about things.

Like the girlhood she was only really getting to experience now– in a warped way.

Adelheid’s glitzy pop girlie magazines were an object of aspiration Selene would have never admitted to if she was asked. But even the clothes she was wearing presently, with her exposed shoulders and tight pants, had come out of a book like that. Selene imagined herself sometimes as a celebrity. What if she had been born with a namesake and family in the Imbrian Empire? She could have been anyone. She could have been a big name. And she dreamed that all of the eyes of the world could focus on her– she had the beauty for it, and she was incisive, quick-witted, and she was good at reading people thanks to psionics.

Even outside the impossible fantasies, however, fashion had a certain allure.

She rarely dressed up, but she wondered why she did not do it more–

it made her feel–

Human.

“Whatever. I’m actually the superior being, it’s all of them who are wrong.”

Right?

Selene idly reached out her hand to the drawer under her bed.

Producing again the cylinder of katov mass she kept hidden from everyone.

Popping it open, she induced it to become a caterpillar that crawled along her arm.

Red and shiny like slick living wax. Moving with electrically-induced purpose.

Mindless, soulless, lifeless, an imitation of life–

like herself–?

Selene shut her eyes and grit her teeth, the intrusive thought striking her like lightning.

Then she nearly jumped when there was a physical knock on the door.

“Selene. Are you decent? Get yourself up and come out here.”

Norn’s voice, undeniably.

Nearly spilled the red matter and nearly dropping her canister.

Quickly, she disassembled the red creature born of her whim and hid the canister again.

She stood up from the bed, put on her synthestitched heels and made her way to the door.

Opening it and finding herself immediately face to face with Norn, crossing her arms.

“What is it? You said I didn’t have to be alert during this trip.” Selene grumbled.

“That’s a really cute sweater. Are you proud of your shoulders?” Norn said.

“Uh huh, my shoulders are flawless, my face is angelic, my dick is sublime.” Selene joked.

“Who taught you to be this crude? Euphrates was never like this.” Norn sighed.

“What do you want already?” Selene said, leaning impatiently between the hall and door.

Norn leaned closer to her with a vicious little grin on her face.

“I thought you were just being a little shit for no reason, but it looks like you really forgot. I told you as soon as you recovered that I would put you through hell. It’s time for your training. Luckily for you, it’ll be hell for your brain, not your shoulders or your dick.”

Selene’s eyes drew wide.

She had completely forgotten that Norn had promised to train her.

Suddenly her heart was soaring.

Norn was going to train her? She would learn psionics from a powerful Apostle?

Her head filled with an all-consuming delusion.

Selene told herself, if she could ace the training in the first day without Norn’s help–

–she would prove her great power and intrinsic superiority.

How difficult could it be? Selene was already well versed in using psionics.

“Sorry Norn! I forgot! But I’ll be right down!” She said.

“You’ll be down right now. You don’t need to change clothes.” Norn said.

She gestured for Selene to follow her down the hall.

Without a word, Selene trailed obediently, down the hall with the officer’s quarters.

Norn stopped near the end of the hall and gestured for a side door.

Inside, was a meeting room that had been repurposed as storage for unused gym equipment. When the gym was damaged during the Goryk excursion, flood mitigation prevented the total destruction of the pod– some things survived and were stored. In addition, there were some leftover gym supplies that had lived in a corner here.

Dumbbells and disassembled machines and piles of rubber exercise mats.

In the center of the room, one mat and one piece of equipment had been laid out.

“I didn’t know I was going to get messy. I’d rather not in my nice sexy sweater.”

“You won’t be lifting weights the traditional way, so don’t worry.”

Norn’s eyes looked over Selene briefly and settled on her loose antennae.

“You’re not pinning down your rabbit ears anymore?” She asked, smiling.

“Yeah what about it? And don’t call them rabbit ears.” Selene said, turning her cheek.

Her rainbow-veined ‘rabbit ears’ stood up straight with a slight irritated twitch.

“I just think it’s nice. They are a unique charm point for you.” Norn said.

Selene made a face. “Gross. I’m gonna hack them off with a rescue axe now.”

“Tch. Colicky child. There’s no winning with you is there?”

Though Selene took umbrage to being called a child, she did not push her luck.

Norn gestured toward the equipment laid out in the middle of the mess.

There was a round base holding up a vertical metal weight bar. Circular weights were stacked on the pole near the base, each with a hole in the center. There were four such weights, each five kilograms. More weights were laid next to the pole, ready to be dropped on top of the rest. Selene stared at the pole and the weights, suppressing an urge to kick it over.

“Use kinesis to lift those weights.” Norn said. “If you send them flying, that’s a demerit. If you knock over the pole, that’s a demerit. If you hit me with anything– even worse. For each demerit on your psionic fitness journey, you owe me 20 physical push-ups on the mat.”

Selene shuddered. She stared at the weights, mildly annoyed at the test and consequences.

What kind of stupid training was this? Did Norn think she could flex her brain?

Bored, Selene lifted a hand and waved at the weights.

Near effortlessly, with nary a thought, the weights lifted from the base to the tip of the pole.

Just enough not to have the holes in the weights actually clear the pole.

She then let the weights drop back to the base with a loud clang.

With an emotionless expression on her face she turned back to Norn for feedback.

“Of course you can do that.” Norn said. “Don’t get too smug yet.”

Norn went around the pole, picked up more weights and dropped them on.

“Again.”

Thirty kilograms.

Selene lifted them up as easily as before. She did not even move her hand. Psionics was the power of the mind and human emotions. It was not strictly necessary to move any part of one’s body to perform psionics; however, Selene found that pointing at the object to be moved, or making a gesture at it, or even shouting at it, helped the power along.

In this case, however, she did not even need to make a noise or do anything.

Responding to the continuing lack of challenge, Norn dropped in even more round weights.

Sixty kilograms. Double what was on the pole before.

“Again.” Norn said.

Selene felt the slightest bit of intimidation.

Not because she could not lift them. Rather, she wanted to show off.

Thirty kilograms was like a throwing a kid around. Sixty was like a whole supermodel.

She could lift it, but she could not lift it effortlessly and she wanted it to be effortless!

At first she tried to lift the weights without any gestures or noises like she wanted.

However, she immediately felt the slightest pang of irritation in the back of her head.

That seed of doubt made them heavier– she had to correct herself.

Teeth clenched, she stretched out her hand and beckoned the weights with it.

Perhaps, if the thought, ‘these weights may be too heavy to lift easily’, had never entered into her brain, she would have been able to lift them easily. Psionics was tricky in that way, Selene knew this– the slightest frustration could suddenly associate a simple task with difficulty, and thus make it more difficult in the process. A self-fulfilling cognitive prophecy. Utmost confidence and belief equated to a perfect expression of power, and any sewing of doubt could conversely snowball into a spiraling loss of control over her mind.

“What’s the matter? Is that it? Sixty kilograms and you’re raring to kiss the mat?”

Selene centered herself, and ignored Norn.

As before the weights rose up to the top of the pole.

Then Selene let them drop and they hit the base with an even louder clanging.

She looked to Norn for feedback–

Norn suddenly tipped over the pole. The weights at the base slid off and into the wall.

From the mess of reserve gym equipment, Norn produced a different set of weights.

Effortlessly carrying the stack in her hands. These were each heavier than before.

Instead of five kilograms per weight, each disc was now twenty kilograms.

And Norn five four of them into the barbell. A hundred kilograms.

That was just a barbell or two under Potomac’s weight. A large or plush human adult.

“Again.” Norn said calmly, still watching inexpressibly from the sidelines.

Selene looked at the barbells with a growing apprehension.

Then– she had a very silly idea that could potentially work to skip the whole business.

Clapping her hands together close to her chest, shutting her eyes and concentrating.

Straining to hear– that impossible voice of aetheric power that rang in certain individuals.

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

From Selene’s body, waves of blue aura washed gently over the surroundings.

According to Euphrates, Saint’s Skin could not directly pierce the aura of another person, but it could influence the ambient aura in order to alter properties or concepts found in the environment and objects. Blue aura represented peace and calm and rest, but it could also represent lightness, and ease. With a strong enough will behind it, with enough concentration, and with enough desire, it could make a person move faster or feel lighter on their feet. In that moment, Selene concentrated strongly on the idea of a sheet of the thinnest paper or plastic, spilled from atop a stack and floating in the air, not quick to land, so light that it caressed even the air with its gentle, near weightless form.

She recalled Euphrates’ desk, littered in papers, sheets of plastic, micro-LCDs–

Blown as if on a strong wind, flying this way and that, their gentle swaying–

Then she opened her eyes, and instantly lifted the weights, now as insubstantial as paper–

“Nice try. But that’s cheating. King’s Gaze.”

Norn’s voice sounded as if it came from all directions at once.

In the blink of an eye the colors shifted as if the room had never been bathed in blue.

Waves of green anxiety and disquiet overcame Selene in an instant.

Suddenly the weights were even heavier than 100 kg, even heavier than 200 kg.

They were an impossible boulder by lifted up an endless mountain by a despairing wretch.

When they dropped back down Selene thought the clang would split her brain in half.

She knelt holding her head, gritting her teeth, nearly weeping. Overwhelmed with pain.

How unfair of Norn! To so thoughtlessly display her power to Selene that way!

Selene almost wanted to throw something at her– but that would have been trouble.

“Don’t look at me with such resentment. I am glad you have this sort of power but it is besides the point.” Norn said. “It was very clever of you to try to alter the conception of the weights themselves in order to lift them more easily but I am looking for something else. I want to see you crash into a wall stubbornly. I want to push you to your limits. You’ve only just begun to experience what it is like to fail, to be defeated, to experience falling short. Euphrates coddled you too much. You need to learn to deal with pain.”

Norn lifted another 20 kg from the mat, gesturing with her hand for it to drop on the rest.

“Psionics is not limited by imagination. It is limited by pain. Lift the weights again.”

Selene, wordlessly angry, her entire body shaking, lifted herself up from the ground.

Breathing in deep, she focused on the pile of weights again.

One hundred and twenty kilograms, now heavier than Potomac or any human Selene knew.

With both hands out, she bent her knees, pushed out her back and then rose suddenly.

That motion, of lifting with her legs, gave her the boost in confidence she needed.

Her mind evoked a brief rushing of great power over the weights.

All of the metal discs lifted from the base to the tip for a second and then fell again.

Selene resumed a comfortable posture, sighing and breathing heavily.

“Fantastic. See? When you shut up and stop complaining you can set your mind to things.”

Norn then easily dropped another disc of weight onto the pile. “Again.”

“So the point of this is to hurt me?!” Selene said, unable to contain the anger in her voice.

“No, the point of this is for you to work through the pain.” Norn said calmly.

“What the hell is that for? What does that do for me? Will I get stronger?” Selene said.

Norn turned from the bar and weights and stepped closer–

Selene flinched, thinking Norn might beat her like she beat Gertrude Lichtenberg–

But Norn instead laid a hand on her bare shoulder and squeezed gently.

“You will gain something that you currently lack.” Norn said.

Selene averted her gaze. “You think that cryptic shit works on me?”

“Then I’ll be blunt. You’ll learn what it is like to live; and I hope you will want to live.”

“How the hell do I learn that from lifting weights until my brain melts down.”

Selene hated that she actually understood Norn’s intentions.

All of the times she had been challenged and even hurt on the Antenora were new to Selene.

She had never known struggle. So it was easy to throw a tantrum when anything was hard.

“You are too sheltered. This is the real world. For the entire rest of the human race, Selene, they are beaten down to the floor, have their cry about the pain they are wracked with, and are then faced with however many more days, weeks, years, of more suffering ahead of them. But they continue walking forward because every new day presents them with an opportunity. It is that determination to live which you lack, and the pilot of that Union mecha must possess in spades. She struggled; compared to her, you know nothing.”

Selene met Norn’s eyes, her own filling with tears. Norn had a strangely soft expression.

“My greatest fear for you, Selene, is that you will actually give up. Completely. Someday.”

Norn lifted her hand and brought it back down, giving Selene a few soft pats on her skin.

In that moment, Selene could not deny that she had considered throwing her life away.

At Goryk’s Gorge, if it would have killed Sonya Shalikova, she would have given her life.

To have killed all of the enemies and completed her mission, at the cost of everything.

That was the fate of a soldier was it not? To die, to cease existing; now a shadow of glory.

Shining in memory and blasted apart in the physical world. Soldiers did not survive battles.

Because the thought of living with the ignominy, the pain, of failure– was too much.

Here she was– living, still, knowing that she was not perfect, nor destined for perfection.

Having achieved no glory and awarded no commemorations. Perhaps she should have died.

Living with failure, living after defeat– it felt so hollow, that maybe she did want to die.

Born without a past, struggling in the present, no hope of a future–

“Take a moment to breathe, center yourself, and then give that bar everything you have.”

Norn stepped away from Selene and resumed her cold watch over the bar and its weights.

“Your new target is one hundred and forty kilograms. Again.” She said.

Selene stared glumly at the bar and its ever-increasing number of weights.

Sighing, she gestured with her hands towards it.

There was a brief slashing pain in her head, like the barest contact of a blade on her brains.

For a moment, the weights stirred, but they barely lifted.

Fresh tears drew from Selene’s eyes. Even her arms had started feeling a bit sore.

Psychosomatic– her body was not immune to the ravages of her mind–

“You can do this Selene.” Norn said. “Think about what you want; your next step.”

Was this truly how Sonya Shalikova must have felt?

Had she lost herself and felt beaten down by hopelessness– and still continued on?

Pushing herself past her limits with everything she had, refusing to give up?

Selene recalled suddenly– during their skirmish at Goryk’s Gorge–

When that saw blade was just about to stop, failing to penetrate the Jagdkaiser’s armor–

I want to save you. Had she truly heard that voice? Followed by something impossible?

Words that had brought about her defeat, and Shalikova’s miracle, her hope for a new day.

Breathing deep, Selene restored her posture. Arms tight and close, chest straight.

Poring over Norn’s words like water over rock. Eroding into her stream of consciousness.

Out in the world, if ordinary people living their lives had to feel this pain every day–

And if every day just heaped even more pain on them as they struggled forward–

Then any given instant of pain, any second– was nothing compared to those lifetimes.

Divided, taken apart, each of those setbacks was fleeting in the fullness of a life lived.

Drops of water in a vast ocean that continued to move in its currents even in a dying Aer.

Like these weights– together 140 kg but apart each 20 kg that a single human could lift.

Selene amid the current and part of it; buoyed by the inertia of a still-living humanity.

And that current of her mental strength washed over the weights and lifted them up.

Holding them so the highest weight up was just about to rise over the pole.

Not falling, not stirring, lifted them as if effortlessly, without raising even a finger.

There she held them, for five seconds, ten, twenty, forty, as Norn watched silently.

Even as the pain of her exertions began to build in Selene’s mind, she held firm.

All of those instants were droplets of water in the vast ocean, in the rushing current.

They were nothing. By merely waiting, each moment was gone, and there was another.

Her hands started shaking. Blood began to trickle out of her nose. Her eye twitched.

“That’s enough.” Norn said. “You seem to understand something now. Congratulations.”

Selene eased up.

At once, the weights smashed onto the base one after another in a series of loud clangs.

Her lungs struggled for breath. Her throat was raw. She smelled and tasted iron.

Running her hand over her lips, and seeing her red fingers dripping with blood.

She put on a haughty grin even as her whole body ached and her knees shook.

“That was nothing to me.” She said. “You underestimate me constantly. I’m perfect.”

Norn grinned back at Selene’s renewed arrogance.

Before casually dropping another 20 kg weight on the bar with another loud clang.

Selene’s eyes drew wide. Incredulous. Hardly in control of her expression, nearly laughing.

“Clean up. I’ll bring you food and a drink. Then we go again.” Norn said, almost cheerful.


“Hey, big beak– how do the currents feel out there, huh?”

Hunter III’s mind reached out into the waters around the ship.

Below the Antenora, a Leviathan had been warded off by Hunter III, but it continued to follow the Antenora for some time. It was about the size of the smaller ships the Hominin used– Norn would have called it a ‘Cutter’. A cylindrical body with four hydrojets led, trailed by several dangling arms that surrounded an enormous vibro-cavitating beak.

Two remora-like Leviathan “drones” attached to its main body and provided support fire from the needle launchers on their own backs. Hunter III realized that it was not out of malice that the big beak had followed them, but a burgeoning curiosity about the world– a spark of something that, if it survived, might create a miracle for it.

A miracle that was denied to Hunter III– stolen from her. Stolen, to then be given, as a gift of beautiful, powerful chains that warped her completely. Her circumstances made her curious about the creature. She began to reach out to it psionically, probing it.

Waiting for a response. Soon she received it.

It is a soft current. It is a difficult current. It cries. Its sings. It is hungry. It is satiated.

Hunter III understood implicitly the response she had been given by the creature.

Just sitting in the back of the Antenora’s bridge, she could hold something of a dialog.

Neither of them were truly saying words as the Imbrians understood them, but they could communicate emotions even through the metal armor separating the interior of the ship from the Leviathan’s water. Because of this Hunter III could not have spoken what the Leviathan said to anyone else but she could feel the texture of what it meant to communicate. Its burgeoning realization that the world was complex.

Perhaps even an understanding of the voice far, far in the back of its own head.

“Keep away from ships, big guy. Ya don’t wanna die right? Y’still got growin’ to do.”

There was no response. But she could feel that the Leviathan began to drift farther back.

Hunter III grinned to herself a bit. Sentience was coming for it, as it nearly came to her.

When she ate hominins she was a bit more lucid for a time. As if the emotions that had made them up had become hers. She was still hungry; she was still energetic; her driving needs were the same. Inside her though, a metaphorical vacuum tube received a shot of electricity. Maybe, for Leviathans, eating each other, growing bigger, eating more, maybe it made them lucid too. Slowly, struggle after struggle, the sentience grew inside them.

Hunter III felt a certain uncharacteristic melancholy. She understood her position too well.

This Leviathan, if it survived all of the ravages of the sea, might eventually shed its form and become an Omenseer. If it achieved psionics, and then, came to understand itself, it could do this. Some Leviathans found psionics and only used this to hurl rocks. But a few, used it to learn about the world and ask questions– they found themselves buried in all that meat and burst out. Then they could lead their own lives. They might befriend some hominin, go on adventures, take them to the sunlit seas, get shinies and eat meat and become part of the great story of all hominins in the cold, cruel ocean. Stories that were sometimes remembered but oft forgotten– but stories a monster, an animal, could not have.

Hunter III could not imagine at all what that would have been like for her.

Everything that was her own, grew like a twisted plant from the seedling that the Autarch had injected into her body. Despite this, it was wrong. The Autarch was not fond of her own handiwork. She must have had no idea that Hunter III would be quite disinterested in spying on hominins, quite disinterested in stealing their things and watching them carefully and ingratiating herself within their structures– she was only interested in eating them. When a Leviathan became an Omenseer, how did they choose who to be? When the Autarch got her hands on Hunter III, why was she born only to be reprimanded and scorned?

Maybe the crying, singing voice that the big beak heard was like the Autarch’s own.

Out of control; unable to decide for herself who she was, much less who Hunter III was.

Leviathans might have been like that too. Maybe they could not choose their own selves.

Perhaps no matter what, Hunter III could have only been born to be a scorned slave.

“Autarch– Hunter III– Hunter III never wanted to make ya angry and upset.”

Hunter III had no idea whether the Autarch was listening or whether she would care.

“If I was gonna be your lackey, I wish ya had made me a better one.” She said.

She started to grin to herself. How dumb; as if her little sadness mattered to a God.

That was why Hunter III could only be herself.

Because she was abandoned by everything.

All she could do was eat and be merry until she received her next inevitable throttling.

It could have all been so simple, if she was either an animal or a whole human.

Instead this middle ground was full of horrid feelings she wished not to have.

That Leviathan out there did not know how good it had it– someday it would have this same sad sack conversation with itself. It would think– “out there, I could have had all the meat that I wanted, and I wouldn’t even know that it tasted bad, and I would have been so happy.” Soon its brain would be strong enough to wrap around to this question and drive itself insane with it. There would be no going back to the simple days after that.

Hunter III sighed deeply.

Maybe she would be happier if Norn fed her some damn meat!

Norn–

I’ll free you from her. She had said. Haunting words. Joyous words. More dualities.

Foolish and ignorant words from a hominin who truly must have meant them.

A Hominin as confusing as the crying, singing, current that the big beak so aptly described.

“What would that even feel like? Hunter III ain’t anythin’ without the Autarch.”

Hunter III was getting fed up with her runaway mind.

She could not keep moping about.

She decided there was only one solution: to go beg the cafeteria people for meat.

With a big piece of meat in her hands and her belly, her head would go completely empty.

She got up from the floor. There was nobody on the bridge, but it did not matter. Norn’s crew were all perfectly obedient and did everything really efficiently so when they were just cruising in empty waters nobody needed to be told anything. She would know if there were more Leviathans around and she could tell them off from anywhere on the ship. Probably enough of them had scarpered by now that the rest collectively understood not to mess with the Antenora. Younger and weaker ones might even sense her from afar and stay way.

Unbothered, she left the bridge, bare feet on cold metal, ambling happily down the hall.

Adelheid never understood the appeal of actual, real meat. Sausages had no texture and jerky was so tough and dry. It was not living to eat such things every day! Hunter III wanted real meat, with juices that leaked and fibers that tore between her teeth. Having recently tasted tender hominins, full of blood and muscle, it was that which Hunter III had on the mind– but she behaved. She knew hominin meals were unrealistic– she was neither completely dumb nor utterly lost in her own hedonism as to crave hominin every day.

That was special occasion sort of food.

Instead, Hunter III’s day to day craving was pork or steer.

Large animals, full of savory fat, fibrous muscles and delicous fluids.

Because these animals were bred to be eaten, they often tasted better than hominin too. Hominins had a penchant for not taking care of themselves, they were always stressed out, they drank disgusting stuff that made them dizzy and stuck around in their organs too long, they smoked weird herbs, and they ate dry food and were constantly dehydrated.

Because of this the average hominin, while a unique delicacy, were not in and of themselves a very tasty sensorial experience. Hominin were special because of the ritual of things.

And because if she did not eat them she would go crazy.

She needed Hominins, perhaps like Hominins needed their herbs and liquor.

Sometimes, she could appreciate a fish too– especially a fatty salmon.

A taste of nostalgia.

Her mind quickly filled with images of fresh-cut pieces from a slaughtered animal.

These pushed out any sort of introspection or sophisticated thinking from her cranium.

She deluded herself into thinking she would acquire such a meal, hurrying to the galley.

Past all the tables, to the kitchen desk and the automated serving machines.

“Listen, kitchen hominins! I’m here on business! Come on out, one of ya!”

She waved her hands and jumped up and down. Finally, a woman’s face peeked out.

“You can serve yourself from the machines, they are fully stocked.” She said.

“No, this ain’t about that.” Hunter III leaned in a bit. “Look, I know y’all are hidin’ the good meat back there, and Norn ain’t lettin’ you feed it to poor little Hunter III like all of ya want to do. But I’ve been preparin’. I got a bribe. Hominin love bribes right? I’ve got one for you.”

From the pocket of her long, hooded coat, Hunter III produced a little blue box.

When she opened it, inside, there was a ring with an enormous diamond.

“One of the hominin that I ate back at the pepper place had this with ’em. Isn’t it big? Isn’t it shiny? It’s one of the biggest shinies anyone has ever seen. You can have this shiny, and then, you’ll give Hunter III a big, juicy piece of meat. She’s not even askin’ for all of the meat! Just one big piece! This is the best deal ever– and it is only a deal for you!”

Hunter III laid the diamond-studded wedding ring in its box on the counter.

The eyes of the servant-hominin looked down at the box, and then back at Hunter III.

She took the box into the shadows behind the counter.

“We’re confiscating this and informing Lord von Fueller. Please eat from the machines.”

Then a pair of steel shutters enclosed the serving personnel.

Hunter III stood speechless.

“HEY! That ain’t how it works! Ya can’t just take the bribe and not give me anythin’!”

Hunter III jumped up and down, struck her fists on the steel shutters and the counter.

Wailing and gnashing her teeth and kicking the wall–

“Oh dear? Has the little Hunter finally lost her mind, perhaps?”

Behind her, someone stepped up and held her by the shoulders, squeezing them.

“Huh? Oh– it’s you.”

A hominin, taller than Hunter III, and unlike the drones, with a glint in her eyes and a smile on her face. A familiar face, pretty and a bit funny. She wore a lot of makeup, had a lot of brightly blond hair, and wore her clothes a bit looser than everyone else. Hunter III could see her bra. Livia Van Der Meer, the ship doctor– Hunter III had thought about biting her a few times, sometimes out of hunger, sometimes out of fleshier feelings than that. She was the person who maybe got the most out of hand with Hunter III out of anyone on the ship.

However, she could also be– interesting. Like Norn, but in a very different way.

So despite sometimes being irritating, Hunter III was always initially welcoming of her.

“I see you’re having trouble acquiring meat again.” Livia said.

She lowered her head a little to Hunter III’s eye level. Hunter III met her eyes, unmoved.

“Yeah– the serving hominins took my bribe but didn’t get me any meat!”

“Oh dear! Whatever shall you do?”

“I know! Isn’t that against everything hominin stand for?”

“Indeed. Contracts, like medical consent, must be absolutely ironclad.”

Hunter III blinked. She was mentioning the medical thing again.

A lot of the time that preceded her injecting Hunter III and writing a bunch of notes.

“Little Hunter– what if I got you some meat?” Livia said, smiling cheerfully.

With her hands behind her back, and her large chest close to Hunter III’s own.

Hunter III returned her gaze appraisingly, stroking her own chin.

“Meat, you say? Hmm. Keep talkin’.” She said, her tail swishing behind her back.

“You weren’t the only one who got her hands on some goodies in Serrano.” Livia said. “I managed to snag a few things myself, to save for a rainy day. As a doctor I have all kinds of storage capabilities. I would be happy to share my loot with you. Norn would never have to hear about it either. She’s busy with Selene at the moment, and Adelheid is taking inventory. It’s the perfect opportunity to be a little naughty, don’t you think?”

“What’s the catch?” Hunter III asked.

Livia smiled. “No catch. I’m simply quite bored, and you’re the most interesting one here.”

“Huh. I dunno that I believe that doc. No one just gives out free meat around here.”

“Call it a date– what do you say? You’ll get to eat. I’ll get to chat. It’ll be nice.”

“A date, huh?”

Hunter III felt conflicted. She understood what ‘dates’ were quite well.

Those were the special times when hominin bit and smacked and fucked each other.

Not to procreate but for fun. They just liked doing this, like Hunter III enjoyed eating.

She had seen hominin doing these kinds of things.

She had thought about them before too.

It was in this sort of way that she had come to think Livia was interesting.

So she knew Livia’s objective may well have been this, especially if she was bored.

She also did not believe Livia would actually give her any meat.

Though it would have been a pleasant surprise. Hunter III was growing skeptical.

However– Hunter III also thought, maybe she could see herself enjoying the whole thing.

“Alright. Ya got yourself a deal– but y’better not be lyin’!” Hunter III cried out.

Livia smiled placidly. “Of course not, of course not. Never.”

Heels clacking on the floor the entire way, Livia led Hunter III out to her clinic.

It was not every far down the way from the galley.

There was a separate medbay with enough beds care for a few dozen people at a time if needed, but Livia’s office and clinic was a smaller space, and doubled as her bedroom. She had a desk, a few cabinets with medicines she kept on hand, her favorite injector that had marked her neck a few times; a small bed and gurney; a few testing instruments and other such medical machines; and the door to the backroom where she slept.

Everything smelled like plastic and chemicals.

As Hunter III crossed the threshold, the door closed behind her but did not lock.

So she could leave if she wanted to. She was not trapped with Livia– but she stayed.

Livia ambled toward the bedroom, and knelt down next to her bed.

Tongues of cool gas escaped from a compartment.

With a gloved hand she withdrew–

“You weren’t lyin’! It’s really meat! You’re my savior Livia!”

“You’re calling me by name? Interesting. Very interesting indeed.”

In her fingers, Livia returned with a frozen cut of steak and a grin on her face.

She put it on a metal sample plate, and put that plate on a frame over a burner on her desk.

“This is inefficient, but it will cook eventually.” Livia said. “Please, sit down and rest.”

Hunter III obediently pulled up a plastic chair and sat close, watching the meat cook.

Livia sat on another chair and sat next to Hunter III.

Taking her medicine injector from atop the desk, pulling back some of her hair.

Sticking herself in the neck, in a spot that had a three-pronged bruise like the injector.

“Ah, now we can relax and enjoy. Well– you can enjoy. Once it’s less frozen.”

She flipped the steak over on the plate. Slowly thawing, softening, cooking at high heat.

It wouldn’t cook evenly, but Hunter III loved meat no matter what.

Frozen meat was not particularly enjoyable however, so she appreciated Livia’s effort.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

Hunter III’s tail smacked against the ground over and over and over in anticipation.

“Is it a correct assumption that you grow a tail to store your extra biomass?” Livia asked.

“Oh, uh huh.” Hunter III said cheerfully. “It’s a special trick that helps in a pinch.”

“Clever indeed. Did someone teach you that? About your powers?” Livia asked.

“Um, not really, I just kinda knew it?”

“Hereditary memories perhaps? Or maybe even– DNA-based data encoding?”

“I dunno. Both of those sound good to me?”

Hunter III was essentially just trying to please Livia by saying literally anything.

Livia seemed pleased, so everything was working accordingly.

Once more, she turned over the steak.

“What good fortune to have found this while robbing the substation supplies.” Livia said.

“Yeah! You’re so smart Livia! You’re smart and pretty and you are so good at robbin’!”

“All too true. You know, to meet you– it was worth it losing my medical license.”

Her words were starting to slur just a little bit. Hunter III did not pay it any mind.

“Uh huh! Norn is sooooo lucky to have such a fancy and good doctor!” Hunter III said.

Livia turned over the steak one more time.

Then, with the scalpels she had been using to move the steak around on the sample plate, she cut a piece. Juices were flowing. Hunter III’s eyes drew wide. She could smell it, even through the chemically smell of the room and the alcohol fire. Her jaw hung open, her nostrils wetted, her mouth grew slick with saliva. Her face went hotter.

“That is so nice of you to say. Open up. I will feed you by hand.” Livia said.

Hunter III obediently awaited the piece of steak, tongue nearly out of her mouth.

Livia took the piece of meat, pierced on a scalpel, and fed it gingerly to her date.

Instantly– the taste, the chew. Juices, fibers, the resistance of real red meat.

Her cheeks contracted from the savory taste. She shut her eyes and lavished in it.

Hunter III practically shook with pleasure. For a moment she felt like a king.

“You’re so interesting, little Hunter.” Livia said. “Beautiful, alien, unbound.”

Her hand reached for her own collar, which was already opened and unbuttoned.

“Lacking our inhibitions; master of your biology. On the cusp of nature and civilization.”

Livia cut another slice of meat; immediately Hunter III positioned herself to receive it.

It was so luxurious– Hunter III had always just bitten into bigger pieces of meat. Cut across the grain by Livia’s deft scalpel hand; still warm from the hot metal plate; it was amazing. Hunter III believed meat needed nothing, no cooking, no seasoning–

but maybe Livia’s hand helped the taste.

Each piece was slowly, deliberately enjoyed. Livia cut a smaller piece, pierced it.

Hunter III closed her eyes and leaned forward, her mind soaring with bliss.

Then she felt Livia’s hand take her hood by the neck. Pull her forward, suddenly, forcefully.

Her eyes drew wide as Livia drew her into a kiss, feeding her the meat mouth to mouth.

Their tongues entwined, the meat partially chewed– tasting the wax in Livia’s lipstick.

Livia briefly pulled back. “I wish I could taste humanity like you, little Hunter.”

Her tongue and lips parted but still connected to Hunter III’s by spittle and meat juices.

With a sudden surge of strange passion, the Omenseer pushed forward and kissed her back.

Wanting to taste Livia’s lips and tongue as much as the meat.


In the middle of the hangar, while the crew went about their tasks around her, Selene was completely clad in power armor and standing across a series of ruler marks that Norn had projected onto the floor. The girl had been equipped with the chestplate, arms and legs of an Imbrian power armor, its battery installed on her lower back. Everything sans helmet. She looked quite disgruntled, but Norn rarely saw a contented face from her anyway.

Norn had a very specific reason for setting all of this up. She walked up to Selene.

“Alright Selene, your task will be to step forward with your back straight.” She said.

“Is this a joke?” Selene said. “How does walking around in power armor help me–?”

Before Selene could complete her sentence, Norn pulled the battery out of the armor.

Selene stared at it, suddenly incredulous.

Various LED lights on the armor’s limbs and chest suddenly went dark.

“Norn– I can’t move!” She shouted. Her arms were at her sides, her legs standing.

However, judging by her head and neck, she was struggling, trying to pull her weight.

“I’m well aware.” Norn said. “Without the energy pack, the locomotion assistance on the power armor will not work. A Katarran or a strong Loup could still move, but I know you cannot. You’ll just be wearing an enormous suit of hydraulics and electric muscles and other complicated and pretty heavy gear. All of it dead weight. And your task remains– to move forward. Each fall is a demerit; every step you can take a new horizon for you.”

“How the hell am I supposed to move even one step like this?” Selene shouted.

“You just demonstrated you can lift almost 200 kg.” Norn said. She then shrugged with a grin on her face. “Put some of that prodigious genetic brainpower to good use.”

“Norn!” Selene shouted, gritting her teeth and shaking and whining ever more irascibly.

“I’ll give you a tip. Use kinesis on your arms and legs. Move with your entire body and focus on moving your entire body, not just one body part at a time. Develop a rhythm.”

Selene looked to have tired herself out with fruitless struggle, panting with her head down.

Norn was about to mock her again, when a drone stepped up to her from the sidelines.

“Milord, the bridge has decrypted an Extreme Low Frequency message for you.” He said.

“From whom?” Norn asked. Nobody should have been sending her ELF messages.

“The text purports its sender as Admiral of the Fleet Frederich Urning.” Said the drone.

“Huh? Truly. Well, hand it over– we can set up a video call once we’re at depth again.”

Norn absentmindedly took the printed ELF message, less interested in the content than the sender. He had gone behind Erich’s back to contact her, using clandestine means like the ELF. Konstantin’s biggest fan– she wondered, truly wondered. Was he up to something?

Her mind was afire, her curiosity piqued.

What was happening in the Palatine? How was Urning getting on after his idol’s death?


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