Throughout Kreuzung, the lights went out, and the festival commenced.
It began with the immediate panic of the K.P.S.D who were tasked with maintaining order in Kreuzung. In the suddenness of their surprise and the enormity of their failure, they exacerbated the nascent crisis by ignoring orders from the increasingly weakened central government of the station and taking matters into their own hands.
Forming their own patrols and roadblocks of both the upper and lower levels of the tower, expecting mobs and riots that, if they would not arise on their own, certainly would rise in response to random detention and profiling of civilians who were only afraid of the alarms and power outages and confused by the contradictory messaging. Nevertheless, they held the standard of policing: protecting the estate by beating the peasant.
Followed by the ineffectual response from A-block as the problem was clear as day and the solution as far as the sunlight. Kreuzung’s station government had long since subcontracted the work of maintaining Kreuzung’s core to a private entity beholden to Kreuzung’s own cabal of energy distributors. These companies who so bravely “took on the risk” of the “energy business” maintained the infrastructure in exchange for extorting rent on the piece of equipment which did the most to keep the entire population alive.
And so, the first course of action when a problem arose, even a problem so obviously out of proportion to anything the station had ever seen, was to first broadcast as much as possible that everything was actually fine– and then to make several audio and video calls.
While A-block conversed with a group of rentiers whose vested interest was to deny that anything was going on while asserting that they had everything under control, the station’s lowest bidder maintained infrastructure buckled and in several places, collapsed.
Core separation stressed the million heroic little circuits and thousands of tons of cables and all the computers and junctions and careful engineering that it took to balance and harmonize the running of humanity’s eden under the sea. There was immediately a civilian death toll. The vulnerable in hospitals with malfunctioning systems; people forgotten in areas with poor oxygen circulation; people abandoned in places with poor water control.
Without the God at the center of the tower, and its attendant angels in the walls, there was only the clamor of the frightened, the anger of the beaten, and they made the music of the festival and its dance of despair. Below strobing lights, amid sparking walls.
And the damage was disproportionately felt on the lower levels of the tower. C-block goers were trapped in elevators and trams and in hallways no one was meant to live in without oversight and stampeding to escape malls and shops and plazas to return to homes where nothing was any better; but it was even lower that the pain was most felt.
Near the baseplate, areas began to actually flood to what seemed an almost apocalyptic degree; systems that would be robust anywhere else like doors and ventilation suddenly malfunctioning, trapping, gassing and crushing a myriad forgotten innocents.
In this darkness, however, there was one growing light, shining on the coming restoration.
That light, stretching from Tower 12, was cast by the torchfire of National Socialism as practiced by the Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening. Crossing the bridges into the main station, the black uniforms and red armbands brought order and succor wherever they went. It was their time to crush the degenerate liberal structures that had Kreuzung under the sway and bring to heel both the enemy within and the wealthy hedonists above–
and everything between.
However, that grim light was yet distant; the festival had an altogether different character for the troops of the UNX-001 Brigand, awaiting the resolution of its retrofit in Alcor.
Above them, the false sky vanished, revealing the illusion machines, far simpler than those in B-block or A-block, that once made up the workman-like firmament. In their place was the intermittent red flashing of smaller alarm lights that were like eerie stars in a dark sky. Accompanying the alarms was the same message displayed hundreds of times across the walls of the module. WARNING: CORE SEPARATION. Diagrams of the station and its modules flashed by too quickly for anyone watching to process the information on them.
Warnings in High Imbrian and Low Imbrian with characters at poor resolutions for the wall passed incoherently. Sometimes the pictures on the display walls flickered and went out and briefly cast the entire module into even deeper darkness. Confusion reigned at first.
“What the HELL is going on?” Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya half-shouted, half-moaned.
She and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara rushed to a bridge full of grumpy, disheveled officers, with more on the way. Because they had been dismissed and given orders to rest, many of them were in varying states of undress, with officers like Semyonova wearing bath robes over nightwear, Kamarik in a pair of shorts and a tanktop– Santapena-De-La-Rosa and Geninov could have usually been counted on to be dressed, but they had been dismissed too, and came into the bridge in short nightwear dresses and shorts, covered only barely by their teal half-jackets. Commissar Bashara and the Captain were in no better state. The captain had laid down undressed, and had walked into the bridge hastily buttoning her uniform shirt without any underwear, wearing pants without a belt. Commissar Bashara had an actual set of pajamas, decorated with cats and moons, which would have been cute at any other time.
“Captain, apparently there’s a core separation underway.” Semyonova said in a tired voice.
“This wouldn’t happen unannounced.” Aaliyah said. “Something is not right, captain.”
“Well, it’s not our problem, is it?” Ulyana grumbled. “We’re not the K.P.S.D.”
From the helm, Kamarik raised his hand and yawned involuntarily.
“Captain, the Commissar is right, this whole thing is fishy.” He said. Ulyana paid him heed. The helmsman was fairly well versed with machines. Among the bridge officers, second only to the missing Zachikova. “They wouldn’t separate the core entirely for maintenance, you don’t need to disconnect it like that for routine stuff. Cores are the most solid builds humanity has ever devised. All of this makes zero sense.”
“We may have to consider this is an action taken against the station.” Aaliyah said.
“Maybe, but our interests and Kreuzung’s security don’t necessarily align.” Ulyana replied.
She cast a tired glance over to the Electronic Warfare console on the bridge.
“Where is Braya Zachikova?” She asked. “I would like her to monitor the network.”
Semyonova nodded and turned to her own console to check.
After a few minutes, she shook her head.
“Ma’am, she’s not responding to pings on her room, or to banners on the walls. Also, I can’t reach the surveillance team to patch me through to the cameras either.” She said.
Aaliyah’s ears folded. “Those three were in the special forces together.”
“I can’t imagine– no– they must just be out goofing off or drinking.” Ulyana sighed.
The more she thought about them being involved in something clandestine the more acute her quickly developing headache became. However, they would still need to be recalled to the ship lest they become involved in whatever panic might ensue from this mess. So something would have to be done. The captain thought for a moment about the best way to resolve the situation, when someone else ran into the bridge– she had a faint hope for it to be Zachikova but instead it was Marina McKennedy in her grey blazer.
“Captain, we need to start making final preparations for the Brigand to leave. Now.”
Ulyana turned and scanned McKennedy’s face through tired and irritated eyes.
The G.I.A. agent looked pale and shaky and unstable. It reminded her of some bad times.
“McKennedy.” Ulyana said in an unfriendly tone. “What happened? What do you know?”
“Can I please defer that to my report? Can you just trust me and get things moving?”
“I wish we could, but we clearly can’t.” Aaliyah interrupted. “I’m having bad flashbacks.”
Marina McKennedy raised her hands to her face. With everyone on the bridge staring.
“Look I said I’d help you with intel, didn’t I? I have intel that this place is about to become a battlefield and we need to get out now. All of that shit,” she pointed a hand at the main screen, which showed camera feeds from outside the Brigand. “Is the result of an– an enemy operation.” Her hesitation drew glares from the Captain and Commissar. Perhaps knowing she was in increasing amounts of trouble, McKennedy continued. “I’ll take responsibility and give you every single little detail later, but for now, can we please get things underway?”
Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara looked at each other, sighed, ran their hands over their own faces, and for a brief moment, quietly despaired together as if inwardly saying ‘AGAIN? THIS AGAIN?’ to themselves. Neither had to speak to know what the other was feeling. Marina McKennedy, unlike her proud and defiant conduct in previous deceptions, was reduced to begging, and quickly withered under their cold scrutiny.
It was an understatement to say this all sounded, looked and felt quite bad.
But there was no choice to ignore it. It made too much sense with the situation.
“What McKennedy said doesn’t leave this room until I say so.” Ulyana said.
Every officer nodded. Marina sighed in relief and covered her eyes with one hand.
“Captain, since Zachikova doesn’t seem to be around yet, I’m going to go see what I can dig up about the situation on the network. Do I have your permission?” Marina then asked.
“Good idea. Do that– but you’re not allowed to leave the meeting room.” Ulyana replied.
“Am I detained?” Marina asked.
“You are detained. We’ll talk later. Go do your job now.” Ulyana said stoically.
Sighing, Marina McKennedy nodded her head, accepting her fate without defiance.
As she shambled out of the bridge in low spirits, Ulyana turned back to her officers.
“Semyonova, raise alert Pyotr.” She said. “Have every single sailor and all of the managers and all of the pilots get up, get out there, and finish everything that needs finishing for the Brigand to leave. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to hold up to sailing. We’ll also need to contact Alcor about the elevator. Get Euphrates and Tigris to assist as well. In fact, call Euphrates up here so I can pick her brain. And call up Erika; call Erika first.”
It took some doing for Ulyana to get all her thoughts in order in this situation.
Once Semyonova was sure the captain wouldn’t ask for more, she began her work.
Alerting all of the sailors, summoning more of the officers, calling up the Premier.
–who was checked into her room, but took a few moments to respond to the audio call.
“Ahh– Captain, I apologize! I am presently indisposed I am afraid! My apologies!”
Olga Athanasiou was in the same room– they must have caught them at a bad time.
“I trust you’ll handle everything splendidly! I will be up there in twenty minutes!”
Semyonova turned a tired glance on Ulyana and shrugged her shoulders with a little smile.
Aaliyah meanwhile narrowed her eyes and threw an accusatory glare at the Captain as well.
“She’ll be here in twenty minutes.” Ulyana said in defeat.
“It’s fine. I am sure there was no way around it.” Aaliyah grunted.
Across Ulyana’s mind, there was the vaguest sense of shame at their shambolic state.
They had smartened up about their seafaring operations, then got complacent in a station.
There was nothing they could do but fight their best fight at this point, however.
Behind them, the bridge door slid open, and Ulyana once again wished dearly that she would just see Braya Zachikova walk through. Instead, it was Fatima al-Suhar, the Shimii operator for the sonar and various other ship sensors. Having had enough time to appear on bridge as the only officer who was fully dressed in uniform, she wore her long hair well-combed, even her cat-like ears getting a brush, and had even done some of her usual makeup. She saluted upon arriving on the bridge and then sat in her station besides Semyonova.
Al-Suhar then turned to the captain and clapped her hands together in a pleading gesture.
“Profuse apologies, Captain. I had imagined I had additional time to pray tonight and wanted to spend it in worship. I had to finish my prayers, so I figured I’d also clean up too.”
Ulyana shook her head, smiling. Fatima was a bit fragile and frequently apologetic.
“Don’t be sorry. You have religious freedoms. And it isn’t a big deal– for now.”
On the main screen, some of the hallway cameras now showed a stampede of activity.
Once the yellow strobing lights of alert Pyotr shone in every room and hallway outside the bridge, the crew got the hint very clearly about what they were expected to do. They began to scramble outside, gathering their tools as well as battery-powered light sources to help them work in the dark. Floodlights from the Brigand itself also shone to assist the workers, but these were designed to maximize visibility in the water, so they gave off an eerie color that could disorient anyone staring at them and were overpowered for land use.
Semyonova used only the top deck lights to add ambient illumination.
“Tell the pilots to pick up sidearms at the armory. Just in case they see anything outside.”
“How much work is there left to do?” Aaliyah asked.
Semyonova checked. “All heavy duty assembly is complete, but the systems need to be calibrated, and some mechanical systems have to be stress tested and tuned up. Making sure the new missile bays open and shut properly, testing the strength of the new intake vacuum, that turret risers are working, that the water system is compliant, and so on.”
“How much is that in terms of time, which is what we don’t have?” Aaliyah asked.
Semyonova wilted a little bit. “I– I’m sure it won’t be too long, Commissar.”
At that point, the door to the bridge opened behind them once more.
Ulyana Korabiskaya was exceptionally ready for Braya Zachikova to finally appear.
Unfortunately, her worst fears were confirmed by the appearance of Evgenya Akulantova.
Dressed in riot gear, holding a ballistic shield, and with an uncharacteristic fire in her eyes.
“Captain. Permission to leave the ship and gather my team for departure.” She asked.
Akulantova normally had such a friendly tone of voice. She sounded so grim now.
The Commissar and Captain stared at her as if they did not know what to make of this.
“I’m afraid members of my team have been insubordinate and will require disciplining.” Akulantova continued. “To do so they must, of course, be gathered aboard, in the presence of the Captain. I request permission to bring them back aboard to face your judgment. We previously discussed optimal routes through the station in case of rescue situations on any of the modules. In addition, my nose is a mighty fine tracker too. I have the means and ability to bring back the stragglers, Captain. All I need is your permission to do it.”
Ulyana was still a bit stunned by the course of events. Her brain was turning to jelly.
“Yes, of course.” She said. “I authorize the mission. Be careful out there. And be fast.”
Akulantova nodded her head, and stormed out of the bridge as quickly as she stormed in.
For almost a minute, the Commissar and Captain were left staring at each other speechless.
“Can you carry her?”
“I have cybernetic enhancements just like you two do.”
“Can you carry her while moving quickly?”
Maybe it was the adrenaline; maybe it was the fact that she could have never left this woman behind, no matter the protest, no matter what it took, after having nearly eaten human flesh for her. But despite being a bit doubtful of her long-term ability to carry Arabella in her arms while running, Zachikova nevertheless took it upon herself to lift up the pale woman in the bloodsoaked robes into her own arms, and to carry her with her own strength.
She did not feel so heavy, not when she first lifted her up.
Not when they first began running down those puddle-strewn drainage tunnels between B-block and C-block, as if trying to outrun the alarms going off around them.
“You’re not in the security biz anymore,” Illya explained while they ran, “But Chief Shark and the rest of us went through dozens of meetings on the station’s internal layout. That fucking scary lawyer for Solarflare, Foss, she got us an entire wireframe data simulation of the station. We gamed out tons of scenarios for small unit rescue or assault on several modules.”
“From B-block,” Valeriya said, emotionlessly, “down this way. C-block, then home.”
‘Home’ being the Brigand’s position at Alcor.
B-block’s drainage infrastructure connected it to the lower C and D blocks, which in turn were connected in both formal and hidden ways to the E, F, G and H blocks. Illya and Valeriya seemed to believe the fastest way was to follow the B-block tunnels due east, to find a floodwater drainage junction that they could crack open, and then rappel down to a C-block module which was designated the emergency floodbreak point for B-block.
It was some kind of statue park according to the two. Nectaris Memorial Park.
From there, a public elevator, or another tunnel jaunt, would get them right into Alcor.
Zachikova believed them instantly.
Illya and Valeriya were geniuses at breaking into places they weren’t wanted.
Asking something snide like ‘are you sure this is the right way’ to them was wasting time and breath, even if they had spent minutes running through identical tunnels. This was known implicitly to all of them. Zachikova had been with them through enough operations to trust them without reservation that if it took ten minutes to run through some place, there was no faster way, perhaps not even if the walls could be punched through directly.
Even with the red lights bearing on them.
And even without the comfort of the station network.
Something that had alarmed Zachikova as they escaped was the state of the station network. She was so used to the ability to tap into the station securely to do things like extract maps and other data to make sure she never took a wrong turn and always reached her destination. She even used it to get trivia and make snide jokes. During the Core Separation, however, the station network was frequently offline or too slow for her to use.
Computing lag was exceedingly rare for Zachikova to experience.
It was impossible for her to get used to the current unreliability of the network.
She was used to working and directly interfacing with very high fidelity, high quality and durable devices that possessed the most sophisticated technology. In the Union, all of the infrastructure was built to be predictable, reliable and robust, even in civilian areas. In the Empire, in a place like Kreuzung, the hardware felt quirky but still slick and fast, and it remained rare for a computing system to take too long to give Zachikova a response when she connected. Now, feeling the lag of Kreuzung’s reeling and out of service computing systems was too offputting. Waiting for too-slow response to a query felt like holding her breath or perhaps staring too long at pitch black darkness in the corner of a room. It made her tense and uncomfortable. She disconnected quickly after such events.
A living machine, as she called herself, a robot; and yet, she was just another thin client.
Without a supercomputer that had all the data and actual power, she was useless.
Her head felt half empty without a computer that she could query with a single thought.
And yet, she wasn’t as distressed as she might have been if she had this experience on an ordinary day. Because she had Arabella in her arms. Because she saw how weak and still hurt her companion looked. Because they could lock eyes in the middle of those dark tunnels and thus exchange silent queries with one another that were full of greater meaning that any computer query. Arabella was still there, and still needed her.
Zachikova was fighting for someone other than herself, and it helped gird her loins.
Even ‘alone’ without the help of a computer– she could find a new source of strength.
Perhaps this was why Arabella felt so light for so long as they ran.
Then, Illya and Valeriya finally raised their hands, signaling for her to come to a stop.
And Arabella started to feel a little bit heavier when they started the climb down.
Illya and Valeriya together ripped the cap off a vent in the middle of a large room that branched out from the tunnels. Everything was pristine, as if a drop of water had never tarnished any of these walls and pipes. There was enough room to drop down one by one, even with their gear, and Zachikova could also drop with Arabella in her arms if positioned properly. This would be their escape down to C-block. They attached a cable to a valve handle out in the connecting tunnels that looked sturdy. Valeriya non-verbally insisted on going down first to make sure that it was safe, and Illya did not argue with her.
It was a fifty meter drop, and they would drop inside of a maintenance tunnel.
After Valeriya confirmed it was safe, Zachikova followed.
“Arabella, can you hold on to me? So I can hold you with one arm.”
“Yes. Don’t worry about me Braya. I can be strong for you.”
Zachikova saw her raise the remains of her tail. They could use it to assist the climb down.
Nodding her head, Zachikova held on to her cable, and Arabella propped her tail against the walls of the vent hole. With Valeriya below to try to catch them if they fell, and Illya following behind, they managed to slide all the way down to the bottom of the shaft. It was not possible to see much of anything in the tunnel, and there was not enough space for Valeriya, Zachikova and her companion, and Illya, to stand together.
Valeriya looked around with her hands for a panel to tear off so they could continue their trek, and found it on the opposite wall. Illya remained tethered.
“Braya, I guess it’s no use saying, ‘you should leave me behind if I’m slowing you down’.”
Arabella whispered in her ear.
Zachikova grunted and squeezed her body tighter while holding her up.
“I don’t want to hear that again. Ever again.” She said sternly.
Arabella rested her head against Zachikova’s shoulder, sighing.
“Alright. Braya– I’ll tell the Captain everything if we get back. I promise you.”
“We’ll have to. Don’t worry– the Captain is not the type of person to cast you out.”
“We’ll vouch for her compliance too.”
Illya spoke up from farther up in the shaft, still holding on to the climbing cable.
Zachikova looked up and grinned. “Thanks. I was honestly surprised you went out for me.”
She couldn’t see Illya’s face up in the shaft, but she thought Illya must have been smiling.
“No one gets left behind. Who will mess with enemy computers for us if you die?”
“Fair enough. You tech illiterate meatheads have your uses.”
“Such a conceited tone for a woman crying her head out and almost eating a corpse.”
From below all of them, Valeriya groaned.
While Illya and Zachikova shared a laugh at her response, she finally got a vent cover off.
Dim light streamed into the room. It was a very low vent, they would have to crawl.
“Arabella, do you think you can crawl through?” Zachikova asked.
Arabella nodded her head gently.
“Valeriya can go out first, then I will put you down and follow you out.”
As Valeriya crawled out, Zachikova put Arabella on the ground gingerly and helped her crawl through the vent hole, following close at her heels. Illya finally climbed down the shaft and followed the two of them out. They had finally made it back to a relatively open area.
“Let’s move. We’re close, and this place is too exposed.” Illya said, hefting her rifle up.
Their escape from B-block had led them to a module in C-block that was entirely taken up by a park over a hundred meters long. From the vent hole that Valeriya had ripped open, they exited out onto a landing at the top of a set of descending steps, where there was a large plaque dedicated to war casualties against ‘the bandits and criminals’– referring specifically to the Union, in this case. From the plaque and its surroundings, the stairs descended through a concrete archway into the bulk of the park; composed of a small plaza and two large statues surrounded by tiered gardens with tall grasses, small trees and wide shrubs on either side of the plaza and the statues. Another set of rising steps led to a second archway, mirroring the first, and then the elevator banks all the way across the park.
Due to the core separation, the park was cast into a gloomy red tinted dimness that at times strobed, at times died, and at times intensified as if they stood beneath a red moon on a black sky. Dim yellow warnings appearing and disappearing on the walls did the lighting no additional favor. Those grand structures built as centerpieces to the park cast deep shadows that cut eerily around the open lengths of the promenade and the tall steps.
There were no audio alarms, and so the only noise aside from their own breathing and boots was a light buzzing from the walls and ceiling. It was completely desolate.
Those shifting tides of dim visibility and silent, colorless darkness created a surreal sight.
Zachikova tore herself from it, crouched beside Arabella and picked her up again.
This time, her tail wrapped around Zachikova’s waist, and she hugged Zachikova closer.
“I’m steady. Run as fast and as hard as you need to Braya.” Arabella said.
“Got it. We’ll get through this.”
She was feeling quite heavy, even with Zachikova’s cybernetic enhancements.
Her limbs had biomechanical stabilizers implanted, which were not as extreme or high-tech as the biomechanical enhancements that Illya and Valeriya received. While they mainly assisted her in precision work, they did help her lift a bit more than she would otherwise have been able to. However, she was still a sedentary individual who, in her current roles, rarely exercised, and ate somewhat poorly, eroding her already barely average stamina. Not to mention how much harder maintaining that health was with Arabella’s needs. She could have done better, become stronger– but she only now recognized that there was any point to doing such things. And now, there was no time to prepare anything.
All she could do was run as far as she needed, and carry Arabella as much as she could.
“I’ll lead.” Valeriya said. Again there was no argument from the rest.
“Then I’ll take up the rear. Let’s go, Zachi.” Illya said.
Valeriya raised her assault rifle to her chest and took off running down the steps.
Zachikova took a deep breath and ran after, following as closely as she could.
They charged down the steps, Zachikova trying to balance running quickly without losing her footing– suffering a few heart-pounding fumbles along the way that her leg stabilizers quietly assisted in recovering from. Behind her, Illya paused every so often to aim her gun in the direction of their flanks, looking through the sleek optic attached on its top rail. Valeriya led them into the archway, which was much larger up close than at the top of the steps, the path through it six meters deep and the walls three or fours meters thick.
They stacked at the other end of the archway for a quick breather.
Even in the dark, the sheer size and fidelity of the statues was arresting. Zachikova, out of pure habit, queried the network about the statue park, and in a brief burst of functionality, actually made a connection and received information in a split second. On the left, there was a statue of Konstantin von Fueller, the departed Emperor. Depicted in his late adulthood, with long hair and a full beard and a certain pity in his eyes, as if the statue had caught a glimpse of what might occur to the man in the future. Beside him was a statue of Norn von Fueller, the praetor, smiling with a glint in her eyes as if her presence here was itself a mischief. These were five or six meter tall statues, set on concrete pedestals a meter tall and two in diameter. They dominated the center of the park, white marbled walkways arranged to take the prospective visitor exclusively to and around them.
After a breather, Valeriya sprinted out to the statues. Zachikova and Illya followed.
Step by step, second by second, the statues which were about thirty meters from the first archway loomed closer and closer. There was a brief red and yellow flash as the alarm lights and wall warnings suddenly glitched again and became brighter than normal.
They buzzed louder than before, and then there was an eerie sound of several light clusters fizzling. Zachikova shut her eyes and kept running, her hands tightening around Arabella’s body. There was a disturbance in the air– but Zachikova failed to hear the first shot.
Something struck the floor just behind her foot. She hadn’t seen it nor heard it.
Zachikova was in a battle, but she was unaware for precious seconds.
Illya shouted from behind her, but it coincided with the final burst of ambient noise.
To Zachikova, rather than a warning it was just a guttural noise she heard the tail end of.
Then a bullet sailed past her antennae, and she finally felt the vibration.
“Duck! Zachi! Cover!”
Illya shouted again, Zachikova heard it, Valeriya stopped and turned and opened fire.
From the flanks, as she acknowledged the situation, two shots struck Zachikova in one leg.
Her feet lost all ability to hold her weight, even with the stabilizers.
Arabella cried out as Zachikova fell forward, gritting her teeth.
She turned in mid-air, and her body hit the ground with all of Arabella’s weight on her.
All around her, rifle barrels whined in the distance, muzzles flashed near,
and chaos reigned.
Hunter VII let out an irritatingly wet and nasal little laugh that unsettled Wizard III.
“I’ve got ‘em. I know exactly where they’re goin’.” She said.
Her pale face stretched with her cheeky grin, little dark eyes narrowing into their dark bags, each labored cackle tossing the long white hair coming out in long wisps from beneath her grey hood. She was a very slight creature, long limbed and skinny, ghastly pale for an omenseer, a bit typical of her role and sphere, standing a head shorter than Wizard III.
“Where? Do you have personal experience with the area?” Wizard III asked.
“Yeppers! I’ve been in all these tunnels. They’re goin’ to the park, follow me.”
Wizard III was not keen on the Hunters and not too happy to have to rely on them.
The Third Sphere castes, which were the youngest and most specialized, had proven a bit bizarre psychologically and were difficult to incorporate into plans. Wizard III did not understand their dysfunction. Observers were lazy; Saboteurs too violent; Sentinels too stubborn. But Hunters– Wizard III would have classed them as abject failures. They had a myriad problems. Too greedy, cowardly and perverted. They were easily distracted because of their immense curiosity and intense desires. Too quick to pick up bad habits, they were each unique in what was wrong with them, depending on their initial assignments.
However, each of them had been uplifted for their prodigious clairvoyance.
More than any other Omenseer, Hunters were powerfully in tune with omens. Their senses, both physical and supernatural, were immensely keen. They could find any target after having seen it once, and the more information they were given, the more they could see in their otherwise dull brains. And if it was a person, they could easily eliminate them.
Hunter VII was even less disciplined than most Hunters, in Wizard III’s estimation.
But she was crucial to the mission, and to Wizard III’s squad, for her clairvoyance.
Having mastered the gift of the Oracle’s Voice, Hunter VII had near infallible foresight.
–that is, as long as she was given enough sensory information she could make use of.
In order to insure success Wizard III had offered her the thing Hunters loved most of all.
“Are we sure this pus-for-brains can actually find her?” Vanguard IX protested.
“I could never mistake that delicious scent for anything else!” Hunter VII shot back.
Her perverse smiling face and oddly good mood was all because of the taste she had gotten of a piece of Arbitrator I’s flesh, sheared off when the exalted Avaritia nearly devoured the heretic. And the promise that if she led the team and cut off the heretic’s escape, she would be given far more of the false Autarch’s flesh to enjoy. This both motivated her and asssisted her tracking. Wizard III could sense the sheer elation in Hunter VII’s aura.
More than her aura, however, her sadistic and bloodthirsty little mutterings made it evident.
“I can’t wait– Oooh I can’t wait– she was so delicious. So much more than any hominin.”
“Was it a good idea to give this fiend a taste of her own kind?” Vanguard IX moaned.
“It was strategically expedient. Just endure it.” Wizard III said, glaring at Hunter VII.
Wizard III’s squadron for the mission to eliminate the false Autarch consisted of two shooting sections of six Vanguards, a Sentinel, a Hunter, herself, and Vanguard IX, whom she had taken as an adjutant. That latter position was suggested by the Enforcers, and who was she to deny their repeated and irritating attempts to inflict hominin “culture” upon her? It was not her place to disobey them. Vanguard IX was motivated and competent.
With Hunter VII locked on to her target, Wizard III and the squadron followed her as fast as possible, down B-block, through C-block, to where the heretic would go.
All around them, the hominin were in a state of utter disarray.
Their station had some sort of malfunction– Wizard III was not too sure about what was happening to them. Even in the little picturesque town in B-block there were confused hominin on the street and armed forces at every corner. Thankfully, none of the armed hominin had any effective organization. All of the guards, at least in B-block, seemed to be running around like they had their heads severed and the rest of their bodies were just twitching this way and that. Because of their vulnerable emotional states, Wizard III could quite easily walk up to a group and manipulate them psionically to her advantage.
Thanks to her temporary thralls, the squadron was given a direct route to their destination through emergency transfer shafts normally reserved for staff. Then the guards were convinced they saw nothing, which was in their best interest to internalize. The Syzygy squadron arrived at the statue park in C-block well before their prey, and this allowed Wizard III to perfectly arrange her forces as she desired to maximize the chances of success.
It would be a simple and effective ambush from the flanks of the park.
In the tiered gardens, behind trees and bushes and grasses, she hid her Vanguards. Each vanguard had a spike rifle, ninety centimeters long, a living tool and covered in a smooth scar-like tissue shell that fired modified teeth as bullets. These composite bullets were expelled using strong pulses of bio-electromagnetism assisted by internal muscles. Varying in their rate of fire, the rifles kept their ammunition stored in a helical pattern in a lower gland. Wizard III believed these to be far superior to hominin automatic rifles, because they could be grown, and required less ores and foreign materials, being mainly composed of biomass. They were also quieter, since they did not require an explosion to shoot.
These weapons would be used to shoot at the heretic as she escaped through the park.
Hunter VII and Sentinel X would be positioned at the gate closest to the elevator banks.
At first they would be hidden, but could be moved to intercept or finish off the heretic.
Wizard III and Vanguard IX would hide atop the archway opposite the elevator banks.
They had the same role as Sentinel X and Hunter VII, as well as overseeing the mission.
Everything was in place. And if Hunter VII was to be believed, their quarry neared.
No wild tactics would be necessary. They just had to cover off escapes, and seal the trap.
Site the park center and await the appearance of the enemy. Enfilade on my command.
Wizard III could speak telepathically to her entire squadron at once.
Her ability to quickly convey complicated ideas via telepathy was one of the reasons that Enforcers I and III had chosen her for their retinue. She had practiced this skill diligently, knowing that it would serve her role well, and therefore serve the Syzygy well. Her range was limited; but her thoughts could span the length of the park without issue.
An intrusive, wet-feeling and irritating thought wormed its way into her mind soon after.
I can feel ‘em, I can smell ‘em, I can taste ‘em! Deliciousness is on the way!
Hunter VII’s disgusting telepathic reply. She could feel her nasally, horrid little voice.
Her slobbering mouth and the moistness of her general being–
Wizard III sent back a telepathic image of Hunter VII being beaten with a rifle butt, directly into her stupid little brain, in order to quiet her. Hunter VII made not one peep more.
To her Vanguards, she sent final warnings to set up and be prepared to fire.
Then she heard metal clang behind her. A vent cover hitting the floor.
Atop the archway, Wizard III urged Vanguard IX to crawl on her belly.
Both of them dropped low against the edge of the archway. Hiding from the hominin, letting them pass under. They would have sight on the middle of the park when the battle was joined. Until then, they just had to hide and let their senses tell them the story.
One after another– several figures left the vent that they had forced open.
Followed by hominin speech. Meaning unclear– but there was a small group of them–
Wizard III’s eyes widened as she confirmed the voice of the heretic.
So– she had the assistance of hominin.
There’s been a development. Shoot to kill the hominin in addition to the false autarch.
Footsteps. Three pairs. One hominin was carrying the false autarch.
Down the steps, beneath the archway. Stacking inside of it, facing the center of the park.
They had not noticed Wizard III’s perch. Her critical moment fast approached.
To the squadron, she quietly broadcast the thought of the hominin’s positions beneath the archway as she imagined them. She received two quick mental affirmations from the leaders of each three-gun section. When the hominin got to moving again, Wizard III stoically gave the order to unleash their barrage. As soon as she could physically see the hominin nearing the statues in the center of the park, she felt the breaking tension of her troops.
Their moment finally arrived.
Wizard III steeled her eyes as if her sight alone would kill the Hominin below her.
She watched them, the dawning realization that they had come under attack.
Small flashes of green bioluminescence from the vegetation, and a faint electric crackling.
Followed by the first bursts of long, thin and sharp black bullets converging–
Hurtling toward the hominin– soaring in their dozens– invisible lines grazing skin–
–scratching pits into the ground –as the hominin rushed to the cover of the statues.
“Throw smokes! Now!”
Her clothes dragged along the ground, she could feel it in the skin of her back.
Smelling smoke, taking deep horrid breaths of it that made her chest contract in protest.
Vision swimming. Bright flashes on the edges of her eyes. Everything was too dim.
Clicking noises of a myriad little objects falling around. Dust, chipped concrete, casings.
Along with the familiar bursting noise of Avtomat gunfire. Tremors right in her chest.
She became aware of an immense and burning pain, from lower down on her body.
And she could no longer feel the pressure and weight that had been upon her–
Zachikova shot up from the ground, only to feel a hand push her back down.
“She’s right here! Keep your head down god damn it! We’re under attack!”
They were huddled between the statues. There was smoke, bullets.
Illya was at her side–
Her heart jumped from a sudden burst of automatic fire. Her head snapped to the source.
Valeriya peered out from cover and fired two bursts into a tree fifty meters out.
And immediately ducked back into cover, avoiding fire from two different directions.
Impossible to see, but evident in the concrete dust that went flying all around them.
Zachikova shut her eyes hard, trying to clear the sting of her own tears and the smoke.
“Braya, I’m here. Don’t worry. Just stay safe.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
There was no describing the relief it brought. On her other side, Arabella, with her back to the statue pedestal. She was alive and safe. In the darkness she could see the faintest smile. Zachikova let out deeply-held breath. They had all made it to cover.
“Permission to arm GP-34.” Valeriya said calmly, just loud enough to be heard.
“You think you can get them?” Illya shouted, over the sound of bullets hitting rock.
“Da.” Valeriya replied. Showing no emotion whatsoever even in the midst of this mess.
“Wait. Let me cover you. It will be more effective.” Zachikova said.
She quickly looked around herself.
Her gear had been on her back when she was carrying Arabella. Exerting herself, she felt pain shoot through her left leg, but she also felt the cold sting of wound gel like someone had shoved ice into the laceration. Knowing she was not bleeding, she could strain to move, searching in the dark with her hands and finding her carbine on the floor and her remaining magazines discarded near it. Her training coming to the fore again as the shocks began to wear off, she exchanged the spent magazine that was on her carbine for a fresh one.
Then she quickly stabbed herself with an injector of painkillers.
She grit her teeth from the pain, but only very briefly.
“I’ll shoot from farther back, around the statue’s legs. A different angle.” Zachikova said.
Even in the dark she knew Illya and Valeriya were exchanging glances. Valeriya did nothing without Illya’s approval. But Illya saw the value in this suggestion. She also trusted Zachikova to be able to do it. Even wounded, even in the dark, even years after their last operation.
“Good thinking. I’ll suppress the other flank first. Then Zachi can draw them out and Valeriya can put them down.” Illya said, hefting her assault rifle. “Zachi, Valeriya, on mark.”
“Acknowledged.” Zachikova said.
“Yes.” Valeriya added.
“Mark in five.”
As soon as Illya gave the word, the unit set about their tasks instantly.
In the dark, Zachikova could see the outline of Valeriya loading a 40 mm rifle grenade into the underbarrel GP-34 launcher attached to her assault rifle. Opposite her, Illya stacked at the edge of Norn’s pedestal, or as close as she could get to the edge. Zachikova crawled on her knees farther up the pedestal from where Valeriya had been shooting from, in order to draw a new angle. They had gotten lucky, or their enemy had been stupid with the positioning of their ambush. Between the statues of Norn and the Emperor, there was enough cover to keep them safe from both flanks of the ambush. If they were careful, they could still engage then quickly retreat to relative safety, as evidenced by all the useless, discarded projectiles that had begun to litter the ground just outside their stretch of cover, shimmering in the red of the alarm lights, muzzle flashes and bright tracers.
Zachikova had never seen these kinds of bullets. They were black and eerily organic.
Some part of her knew this was not the K.P.S.D., but she couldn’t connect any more dots.
Regardless of who it was–
She looked back at Arabella, briefly meeting her eyes during a flash of red lights.
For that strange and mysterious and solitary woman who had upended her life–
no matter the opponent, Zachikova would have killed anyone.
There was no need to confirm that she was in position prior to Illya’s shout.
Of course Zachikova was in position– and of course her squad mates would do their parts.
Illya rose from behind the pedestal firing controlled bursts, sweeping across the left flank.
Zachikova rose with her and from the other side of the Emperor’s legs, she opened fire on the same trees and brushes on the right flank that Valeriya had been firing at all this time. She could not see her enemy’s movements in the dark, but from her line of sight, she knew her bullets were flying through the bushes and bypassing the trees.
There was no immediate return fire.
Three long, controlled bursts, and Zachikova ducked while Illya fired her final shots.
In the same instant as Zachikova’s gunfire abated, Valeriya angled her rifle up.
There was a chunky, popping noise as a 40 mm grenade sailed out of her launcher.
Arcing up into the air and crashing to the ground with a short flash and a burst of smoke.
Obliterating the bush and sending a chunk of the tree’s slender trunk flying in pieces.
Illya retreated to coincide with the explosion of the grenade.
There was no immediate retaliation– a long lull in the once incessant enemy gunfire.
“Even the left flank is shocked. These are fucking amateurs.” Illya said. “Valeriya, trade.”
Valeriya and Illya retreated deeper into cover between the statues, and quickly switched places. Valeriya moved to Norn’s statue and Illya stacked against the statue of the Emperor. Moving the position of their grenade launcher, and enabling them to run the same tactic against the other flank. After moving, there was suddenly a renewed, but flagging salvo from both flanks, periodically sending bits of concrete flying over their heads.
Even Zachikova could tell that there were less bullets flying than there had been.
“Mark on five.” Illya called out, kicking away a dropped magazine and reloading.
“They’re encroaching.” Valeriya said. She loaded a new grenade into her launcher.
Zachikova could hear rustling and footsteps, but then they stopped and fire resumed.
“Mark on two.” Illya said. No use acknowledging.
It was their prerogative if they wanted to come closer and expose themselves.
Illya rose and opened fire on the right flank.
Zachikova rose to cover the left around the legs of Norn’s statue instead of the Emperor’s.
Valeriya loosed another grenade.
On the right flank, the explosion of the grenade lit a flame, penetrating one of the garden plots. Whether it had set a bush on fire or caused an electrical fire, it was impossible to tell. But there was fire, and smoke, and with it, the darkness parted ever so slightly.
Around the pyre light, they could finally see the figures of the enemy scattering–
along with one figure struggling on the ground.
Illya grinned, shadows playing about her face from the flame. Her finger moved swiftly.
She put two quick shots into the downed enemy, causing it to thrash and rattle in death
and then she cried out as a bullet struck her in the sternum throwing her back–
“One down.” Vanguard IX said, licking her lips, rifle in hand atop the archway.
Beside her, Wizard III was shaking with a mixture of shock and frustration and fear.
Her mind registered the anguished cries of several injured Vanguards.
Those that remained had shaking hands on their rifles and their backs to cover.
Suppressed. Too afraid to shoot back, and growing increasingly more so.
In minutes, their ambush had been thrown back on them.
By three measly hominin?
What had happened? They had advantageous positions and an outnumbered enemy!
Even discounting the demonstrably poor aim and bad fire placement and tendency to clump together behind the same cover that her Vanguards had demonstrated– such conditions should not have even mattered, because the battle should have ended in seconds. Against mere hominin. How was the discrepancy this large? What had factored into it?
It should have worked– it simply–
She had given them a perfect plan!
She had demanded nothing from them but execution!
Wizard III’s mind was racing. She was ashamed, she was in shock, she was confused.
All of her theoretical knowledge, all of her theoretical advantages.
Why didn’t it matter? Why couldn’t she, a Wizard unit, manage a simple ambush?
Had the false Autarch done something to the senses of these hominin? Made them stronger?
No– It couldn’t have been– but it couldn’t be the hominin by themselves–?
“Permission to engage in close quarters, ma’am.”
Wizard III turned to face Vanguard IX. The shock shaking itself through her body.
Vanguard IX was a lithe and sleek young woman, with red and white hair, a conceited grin.
They had never locked eyes in such a deliberate way as they had then. She was– comely.
But what did she have to be so cocky about? Her caste was doing pitifully in this battle.
And yet– perhaps– maybe– she could be reliable– those eyes– that smile–
“Y-Yes. Yes. Go. Cut through them. I’ll– I’ll call in Hunter VII and Sentinel X as well.”
“Splendid! I shall bring you their heads, superior. Simply await my triumphant return.”
In a red flash of the alarm lights, Vanguard IX’s face appeared in stark relief.
Grinning wildly, keen on a fight. She patted Wizard III’s shoulder.
Then, leaving her rifle behind, she took something from her uniform pockets.
A silvery fruit brimming with stolen life.
While locking eyes with Wizard III, she deposited the morsel into her open mouth.
As if for Wizard III to see every bite.
Down on her knees, Zachikova waved her hands in every direction, struck the palms of her hands against the floor, scratched her fingers, scrabbling around for the rest of her gear in the dark. It had been kicked around everywhere in the panic. There was a lull in the gunfire, but that sniper that got Illya must have been repositioning, and they had to move. She found her flashlight, shone it upon the ground, and found her pouches and belt.
From it, she recovered and immediately threw a smoke grenade behind themselves.
As the smokescreen thickened to cover them from the sniper, Zachikova passed the flashlight to Arabella, sat beside her, who was surprised to be given it.
“I need your help! Gather up everything that was in my pack and pouches!”
She took the flashlight, and quickly began to gather Zachikova’s gear together.
Zachikova took her assault rifle from the floor.
In the dark, she saw Valeriya on her knees in front of Illya, paralyzed.
Mumbling to herself.
“Valeriya! Move her back! Behind the pedestals!”
Whether or not Valeriya heeded her, Zachikova rose up on her bum leg and resumed shooting over the pedestal. Fire continued to spread on the right side of the park, and due to the core separation nothing was putting it out. That suited Zachikova fine.
In the light of the fire she could see a few enemies still scurrying about. Thin figures with long weapons, shadows from around raised concrete garden plots, enough to know where to direct her attacks. Forcing them to retreat and reposition, and preventing them from firing back. It bought them time, but it was not enough. She was not eliminating them.
“Arabella, did you sort out my gear?” Zachikova called out.
“Yes! I have everything laid out!” Arabella replied.
“Alright, take out any objects that have little metal pins, and hand them to me!”
“Yes Braya! I’m on it! I won’t let you down!”
Zachikova shifted positions, putting her back to Norn’s statue.
She drew a breath, reloaded her carbine and raised her barrel forward. Now aiming for the trees on the left flank of the park, she opened fire across the front of the Emperor’s statue instead. Without enemy shadows standing in contrast with the fire, it was hard to tell if anything was still there, but she could at least suppress the other half of the park–
Then Arabella darted up to a stand beside her, followed by a dozen strange noises.
In her hands, she had not just one of Braya’s grenades, nor even two–
All of Zachikova’s grenades hung on hands which now possessed a dozen fingers.
Enough fingers to lift them, pull out the pins in a chorus of clicking and clacking metal.
And enough dexterity to quickly toss them one after the other in every direction.
“Arabella!” Zachikova cried out, ducking and taking Arabella to the ground with her–
“I can smell it. I can smell it! That delicious meat!”
Hunter VII stuck her tongue out, slobbering and hyperventilating in anticipation.
She wrapped her arms around herself, and her knees were rubbing together–
“Shut up. Do you have no self-control? You were not ordered to be this disgusting.”
At her side, Sentinel X stood with her arms crossed, her back to the archway’s stone wall.
A living picture of stoicism.
Lean, well-muscled, fully in control of herself. Her face inexpressive, her pale hair cut short and without the colored streaks that brought many of the other casts such joy to dye into their hair to assert individuality. Her beret and uniform, both grey, each had a shield-shaped badge to denote her caste. Her uniform was pristine. Unlike Hunter VII, who was naked except for her hooded robe that looked to Sentinel X like she was dressed in a trash bag.
Because she was trash. Unlike the Sentinel caste, whom Sentinel X would make proud.
Her orders were to hold the position, and she would hold it with honor.
No deviation from Wizard III’s grand stratagem would be tolerated.
No enemy would escape.
Not without engaging Sentinel X herself in glorious combat.
Sentinel X was so honorable in fact that she would not leave her position for such trifles as hearing a string of explosions rocking the center of the park. Or seeing a fire begin spreading. Feeling the psionic fear and anguish of the Vanguards, whom, despite being older and higher ranked than Sentinel X, were quivering and buckling and hiding amid the carnage. Certainly they were locked in absolutely brutal battles the likes of which she could not even imagine. Certainly, such was the power of the false Autarch and her hominin escorts, to give her seniors such trouble. But Sentinel X knew her place. Wizard III was her commanding officer. And she respected her comrades. So she would follow her orders.
She would hold the position. Until commanded otherwise.
That was her solemn duty.
“Hey, the Vanguards are all screamin’ and cryin’ and pukin’– should we help?”
Hunter VII spoke up from beside Sentinel X. Sentinel glared at her.
“You will not move from this spot, unless you desire the justice of the battlefield.”
“Uh–!” Hunter VII bowed her head. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean t’cause offense!”
She waved her hands intensely, then stried to stand up straight and at attention.
Sentinel X smiled.
“Apology accepted. Little beast, in my heart, I understand that you crave blood and battle with what measly brains you possess. This is admirable, but honor binds us Third Sphere castes to the specific tasks for which we were born. Right now, you were born to stand here with me, and prevent the breaching of our encirclement. Hold firm your honor.”
“Ehh, I guess.” Hunter VII’s tongue rolled back into her mouth. “But I can’t eat honor.”
“Oh, but I thought Hunter caste ate anything. Have you tasted honor, little vermin?”
Hunter VII blinked. “Was– was that a joke? You can joke?”
Sentinel X grinned to herself and her arms still crossed over her chest, head still bowed.
In that moment, she felt something in the back of her mind.
Something that cut through the vague murmuring in her thoughts, representing the ambient terror of the Vanguards whom she was ignoring; and the bloodthirst of the Hunter beside her; all of that psionic noise quieted even further by a clear and authoritative voice.
Sentinel X stood in attention as if she was in the physical presence of her commander.
I have new orders for you! Turn and attack the hominin in the center of the park!
Wizard III’s voice, agitated and louder than she had ever heard it. Was she in danger?
“It shall be done, brilliant one. I must ask, however– what about this position?”
She saw in the back of her mind a clear image of Wizard III’s frustrated expression.
There’s nobody to defend it from! Unless someone attacks you right now, forget it!
Sentinel X dutifully stepped forward from the wall and got ready to cross the archway–
and stopped when she heard the sound of screeching metal from the elevator banks.
Something was forcing open the elevator doors.
Just as clearly as she heard the distress of her comrades, and the agitation of the officer in command, Sentinel X could feel the tension suddenly cutting across the aether. She could feel the colors shifting, the texture of the world turning, like the shifting direction of a nonexistent wind. Bristling in the back of her mind, brimming under her skin, shaking the tips of her fingers and toes. Just as the presence of meat aroused something inside Hunter VII; Sentinel X could now feel herself shaking in anticipation of the call to battle.
She tipped her head to look up, to where she had felt the clarion of challenge beseech her.
Heard the footfalls, heavy with strength and purpose, aggressive, consequential–
Atop the steps to the elevator banks, overlooking Sentinel X and Hunter VII–
Appeared a strong and tall figure, shield in one hand, a weapon in another,
eyes meeting under opposite banners amid the smoke of war,
aura tinged red and black with the determination,
to stake it all on the battlefield.
“An opponent.” Sentinel X whispered to herself.
Near breathless, heart pounding. A grin on her face.
Every cell quivering with lust.
An opponent had finally appeared to challenge her in single combat.
With a wild smile on her face, Sentinel X adjusted her beret, and reached into her pocket.
For the fruit, grown from hominin, that would elevate her strength.
Tinnitus ringing in her ears for so very long.
Her entire body was shaking hard enough it was difficult to stand, as if the explosions were still circulating energy through the ground and into her. It was not fear. She was exhausted. She had been running at the farthest edge of breathing, on the thinnest line between impetus and inertia. Shaking to stand, struggling to breath the part-smoke air, hardly able to see in the dim dream-like reds that flashed distantly around her.
“Arabella.” Her voice shook itself out of her throat, a sputtering sound.
“I’m here Braya. I’m sorry. I made everything worse.”
Arabella was standing too. In front of Zachikova. She saw her when the lights flashed.
She laid a hand on her shoulder and urged her to move. Farther back, behind the statues.
“I’m doing better Braya, let me help you move instead.”
In the dark, she felt Arabella’s hands around her.
They lifted her easily, moved her swiftly.
“Valeriya, Illya? What is your status?”
Zachikova mumbled weakly. Half expecting not to receive a response.
What would even happen if Illya died? And if Valeriya was still alive?
It would be horrific.
She recalled her flashlight, and wondered if Arabella still had it on her person.
Then she realized she had another possible source of light.
While shambling around the statues, Zachikova removed one of her antennae.
Her audio sensors were still working, it was not the same as having “damaged” her ear, they were built to be detachable and to serve as semi-independent devices. On one end of the object, there were status lights. By flicking a switch, to physically cut off digital data flow to one of the ears, more of the status alert LEDs on it would turn on.
In the darkness, these were a dim flashlight that was nevertheless bright enough to use.
As Arabella helped her walk, she shone the lights forward.
Until they fell upon Valeriya, crouched and solemn.
Her hair falling over her face such that her expression was completely obscured. Her fingers, clutching her knees. All of her weapons and gear thrown at her sides, discarded. Zachikova felt her heart accelerating as she turned the light from Valeriya, to the rear surface of the pedestal. Against which, Valeriya had propped up the stricken down Illya.
“Is she alive?” Zachikova asked. Knowing she was tempting fate to say so.
Valeriya did not respond.
Zachikova tempted fate again by stepping forward from Arabella’s presence.
She crouched beside Illya.
Pausing every so often to glance at Valeriya.
Reaching out her hand tentatively.
Holding Illya’s face by the chin and lifting it.
No response from Valeriya.
Zachikova had not been hacked to pieces– yet.
Lifting a finger to force one of her eyes open.
Feeling for vitals with her thumb.
There was a pulse–
“God damn it.”
Valeriya lifted her head a little.
Enough for Zachikova to see her eyes filled with tears.
Illya had grunted. She was awake.
“Let go of my face. I’m having trouble breathing.”
Zachikova glared at her. “Respond when I fucking ask if you’re alive.”
“Ugh. I’m spiraling in and out.” Illya mumbled. She raised a hand over her face.
On her chest, something that looked like a long, black fang, perhaps like that of a spider, shiny, but straight– it was the most bizarre projectile Zachikova had ever seen. It had pierced through Illya’s body armor. There was no question that this was the sniper’s bullet. It was long and thinner than an ordinary bullet, and even some time after being fired it remained warm, vibrating, and strangely enough, it was slightly moist. They had not designed the ballistic plates to fit the characteristics of this object, that was for certain.
Zachikova pulled out the projectile and pocketed it.
She shone her dim little lights into the orifice left in Illya’s armor.
There was blood, and ripped skin. Beneath it, however, was a second, thin layer.
Like a sheet of hexagon patterns just under Illya’s skin. Subdermal nanomail.
It had been penetrated. There would be bruising around it.
“You’ll live.” Zachikova said. She looked around herself. “But what the fuck is going on?”
Arabella approached and crouched beside Zachikova, joining the rest.
“This is my fault.” She said. “These are my people, chasing me. I’m sorry, Braya.”
“Doesn’t matter who the fuck they are.” Illya said. “We’re not letting them have you.”
She turned her face to Valeriya, who had remained dutifully at her side.
Reaching out a hand to caress Valeriya’s dirty cheek, gently pushing away her blond hair.
“Valeriya, I love you.” She said.
Valeriya nodded silently. Zachikova noticed that her mask was pulled down.
“I am sorry– you know I wouldn’t do this if I had no choice.” Illya said.
“No. Don’t be. Let me fight.” Valeriya said.
Illya nodded solemnly.
Zachikova averted her gaze. She grit her teeth, clenched her fists.
Valeriya and Illya’s gazes locked ever more deeply.
Illya held the cheek of her lover and partner in a gesture that, in any other circumstance would have been interpreted to lead into a kiss. However, they could only stare each other’s eyes with gentle and yet weak expressions. For a few seconds they held their gazes firmly before Valeriya lifted her own hand to touch Illya’s on her cheek.
Behind them, they heard footsteps encroaching in the dark on their position again.
Illya gently drew Valeriya closer to her.
Then, she clicked her tongue in Valeriya’s ear. Then, she spoke.
“Love is life; love hinders death.”
Valeriya opened her eyes wide, and the gentle smile she wore for Illya went away.
“Eliminate all hostile targets.” Illya then said.
With none of the love she put into speaking the trigger words.
Without expression, Valeriya stood to her full height, and seized a weapon.
Pulling off the hard plastic sleeve to expose the saw teeth of the diamond sword, its blade nearly a hundred centimeters long, the motor hidden in the square guard above the handle. As she walked, as if paying it little mind while doing so, she flicked the motor’s power switch with a finger and pulled the lever hidden on the blade’s guard to actuate it.
A metallic whining noise followed her from then on.
Zachikova felt a sudden and immense terror worming its way through her skin.
An otherworldly presence, an evil-feeling presence, seemed to exude from Valeriya.
Arabella, too, stared warily at the woman, but calmly and without Zachikova’s terror.
Her eyes remained fixed on the entranced Valeriya as she walked, first, and then sprinted.
Back around the statues and immediately clashing with the approaching enemy.
In the dark, the clashing of metal of metal– Zachikova shook her head.
She affixed her antennae back in its place, and began to search Illya’s pockets for gear.
“I’ll support her– or at least keep you safe. I can do that much still.” Zachikova said.
“Don’t let your girlfriend have any more of our grenades.” Illya said, grinning.
“You’re in good humor.” Zachikova sighed. “If you die nobody will be able to control her.”
Illya shut her eyes and took a deep breath, her hand resting over her wound.
“I trust her completely. That will have to suffice for you. Administer some painkillers.”
Zachikova wanted to shout at her, but she held her breath. There was no use arguing.
Showing her displeasure instead by how brusquely she jabbed Illya with an injector.
Valeriya was not looking, so this petty vengeance would not result in her dismemberment.
“I’m only going to say this once. I do not want to hurt anyone. Get out of my way. I’ll take my subordinates and we can defer whatever grief you have for another day. Otherwise, my conscience is absolved of smearing all of you across the wall. Your choice.”
Her conscience was not absolved. But she had no choice.
That hand holding her truncheon was so close to shaking.
It took all her strength not to.
Evgenya Akulantova looked down from the top of the steps.
Standing over a pair of pale women, horned and clad strangely, a skinny one in a black hood and the other in a unique uniform, not matching the Volkisch Movement or any Imperial unit she had ever studied up on. Behind her an elevator shaft she had broken into, climbed up, and forced the door open. There was no turning back. Here was the enemy.
All she could hope for is for them to see reason and avoid violence.
That hope faded quickly. She saw the expression on the uniformed woman.
While the hooded woman was terrified, the one with the uniform looked absolutely elated.
She stepped forward, flexing her fingers, grinning all the while.
Akulantova clenched her jaw.
The flashlight on her visor clearly illuminated the face of a madwoman.
“What is your name, hominin? I must know, for when I take you into my body as a trophy.”
The hell did that mean–? “Akulantova. You?”
“Sentinel X.” She said. Ten– why was she numbered?
“Sentinel X. Step aside, now.” Growing concerned she absolutely would not.
“It is my duty to hold this position. And perhaps it will be my honor to hold it against you.”
Despite being seemingly unarmed, Sentinel X merely took a striking stance with her fists.
Akulantova could still smell Illya and Valeriya. They were out there, fighting. There was blood in the air, smoke and fire, the smell of tungsten fragments and lead casings. There were many strange smells too– eerily organic smells like the skin and spit of animals. She had tracked her subordinates to this park because she knew Illya and Valeriya would follow the plans that they had already drafted for Kreuzung station, because they were efficient.
But the scent told her they were here and alive. Her tracking nose had its purpose.
“I’d like to remain a pacifist for at least a few more years. Please step aside kid.”
“Then I will have to come up there myself! I can sense the ferocious beast inside you!”
Akulantova felt herself pulled in every direction.
There was limited time to escape this emergency before the station began a crackdown; her subordinates were actively in danger and in need of rescue and a way out; there was a strange enemy barring her way; but she did not want to fight! Hadn’t her hands been stained enough? Was her body just not destined for something other than violence?
True to her words, however, Sentinel X quickly took her choices from her.
In moments, she broke into a sprint unexpected even for her lithe and agile-looking body.
Hurtling up the stairs in long bounds to punch with a fist that turned suddenly hard and hot.
Steam hissed from glistening, armored skin as if her sweat or even flesh were dissolving.
Akulantova stepped back, raised her shield and barely had time to put it in the way–
And nearly found herself bowled over as Sentinel X crashed into her at full speed.
Scarring in a fist-sized dent with an eerie torsion, into the multi-layered composite plate.
“You’re strong Akulantova! You’re so strong! This will make for a GLORIOUS battle!”
Akulantova stepped back, shield up, truncheon ready to respond to a strike.
She could not help but notice Sentinel X’s fists, vibrating and giving off heat like weapons.
Covered in what looked almost like the hard shell of a lobster, or maybe a crab.
It brought to mind a word–
Omenseer– she had been briefed by the Captain on that, but never what it entailed.
Simply, it was the kind of person the “specialist navigator” Arabella was. It allowed her to do whatever a ‘specialist navigator’ did. Akulantova did not question it. It wasn’t her right to. She put it out of her mind, giving no more thought to Arabella than whether she was being safe while messing around in the halls and whether her hyperactive antics around the ship caused any trouble. Over time, Arabella had even calmed down a bit.
Seeing this woman in front of her with crab-like vibro-weapon fists–
Arabella had gone missing– and now, there was this inexplicable maniac in the way.
“Nobody to blame but myself.” Akulantova said in a low voice.
“Not going to counterattack? Afraid of me already?” Sentinel X taunted.
Waiting her turn? Completely knackered. Her brain must have been vibrating too.
“S’not my style.” Akulantova said. “Why don’t you give it another go?”
Akulantova got ready to turn away the next strike. Her opponent took the invitation.
Sentinel X stepped forward, throwing all of her momentum into a charge.
If Akulantova could bash her back, she might have opening.
Expecting to be rushed down, Akulantova pushed back with her shield–
Where she expected to meet flesh heavily, there was air, and Akulantova nearly tripped.
At the last moment, Sentinel X arrested her movement and stepped back.
Precisely enough to avoid Akulantova’s counter while remaining in reach of her shield.
And responding with a punch flying sudden and strong as a gunshot–!
Sending the top third of the shield flying past Akulantova’s head in pieces.
Layered composites and glass shards. One cut across her cheek.
She felt the wound throb.
Each throb a slow, agonizing pulse of a heart beating for reprisal, a clamor to violence.
Despite being nearly two heads taller and probably a third again wider in the chest and back as her assailant was, Akulantova still found herself suddenly pressured by Sentinel X. It wasn’t uncommon for a Katarran to see uncanny strength in the world. But rarely was she on the other end of what her body and presence inspired in a fight.
Akulantova was a big girl. She had always been. Even as a larva.
Two meters tall, with a broad back, a big chest even discounting her bust, quite wide hips. Quite solid arms and legs and an effortlessly strong core. But people in the Union told her that she had a very pretty face too. She worked hard for that pretty face, her maidenly smile and soft features, for her silky, well-kept hair, for her easy, polite voice. Those things were difficult. She found it easy to build muscle. She found it easy to scream, to fight.
She found it easy to put people into the floor, alive or dead.
That ferocity began pouring back into her, began sizzling between her fingers.
She imagined herself crushing Sentinel X’s head like a grape and feeling the fluid drip between her hands. Like she was nothing but meat to be pulverized, and Akulantova the grinder. Like her body was a key to the lock that was Sentinel X, to make her undone and break her open. Casting her aside completely like she had been born to do.
And she hated it. Every second of it was torture.
She wanted so badly to defy that vision.
Her body had a destiny etched into it. Made to fight and kill and wreak ruin on the world. But she had made herself a body to love instead. Painstakingly. With all the world’s effort. She didn’t hate her body. Because she had etched out that evil destiny and inscribed her own.
And she didn’t want to use it to fight Sentinel X. To kill her and succumb to that fate.
But– god damn it all– without a shield, there was nothing to weigh down her arm.
And she couldn’t just punch back–
“Am I going to have to revise my estimation? Are you perhaps actually quite weak?”
Sentinel X bounded closer throwing another fast punch from the shoulder.
Clanging; the metallic sound of a truncheon falling to the ground.
Akulantova’s bare, closed fist met the Sentinel’s strike, blood drawing from the knuckles.
While a loose hand struck at her chest with enough force to drive her staggering back.
Sentinel X coughed, surprised, she had let her guard down. But smiling all the same.
Akulantova held a stance with a closed fist and a hand half-open.
Blood dripped down from sliced knuckles. Her own blood collecting on the floor.
It hurt like hell. Her wounds felt white-hot.
Despite this, a hint of a smile crept on Akulantova’s face. She had found a way out.
Her mind drifted back to her training in Union self-defense.
Maybe it was as simple as opening her fist. And knowing when to close it.
“Oh good. Two hominin down. After you, that means just one more.”
Vanguard IX grinned upon seeing the lone blond-haired hominin coming out from the fading smoke. Her body coursed with the possibilities provided by the marrow fruit, unlocking all of her innate potential. Abilities which once required much concentration came to her as easily as breathing now. She hoped Wizard III was paying attention to her deeds.
She wanted to impress her, to draw her attention.
From the back of her wrist, her flesh opened and extended. Using sinew and bone and the metals which she had ingested, as well as her own hard tissues and the enzymes from the fruit, Vanguard IX quickly grew a vibrating black blade as she walked, with nothing but a thought. Outwardly solid as any sword but composed microscopically of tight bundles of carbon and steel nanofiber the likes of which no hominin machine could manufacture. Her grown weapon ejected from her arm and hung on muscular sinews attached to the handle allowing her to control the electric vibrations and the heat that lent it killing power.
She wielded it as easily as flexing her own fingers.
Adjusting her eyes to see better in the dark, she felt she had every advantage on her prey.
Approaching, weapon in hand, full of confidence. She had killed the other hominin easily.
“Too bad for you! But as the exalted ones say: it ended romantically!”
Vanguard IX broke into a charge at the blond hominin and swung the blade in her hand–
Black edge meeting the silver teeth of the diamond sabre and grinding against it.
Vanguard IX put her weight into the clash, attempting to push the hominin back.
First a stalemate, and then, her efforts were actively thrown back, forcing her to retreat.
Her blade healing the deep gash left into its surface, sucking minerals from Vanguard IX.
Now closer and in the presence of the hominin, Vanguard IX felt an oppressive sense of bloodlust and her eyes flashed red, instinctually peering at the hominin’s aura.
She was astonished.
The blond hominin was completely wreathed in a black cloud that when examined closely had the impression of ghostly hands, mournful clawing and desperate. Some of her aura looked like it was trying to tear at her, other parts like they were pushing her forward, and the synesthesia Vanguard IX felt upon seeing it caused her to taste blood.
And yet, her mind was so poorly guarded. Vanguard IX could peer right inside–
Valeriya Peterburg, ‘Union special forces B.E.A.S.T.’
Images bubbling up through the surface of her mind so easily seen–
slashing, crushing, tearing, eviscerating, disemboweling, beheading,
shooting heads spilling brains, chests bursting hearts, belly guts flying spirals,
armbar head twisting slitting throats stabbing ribs ripping throats bare teeth
saw-sword swing cleaving corpses horizontal peak to groin
amid the vortex of violence Vanguard IX always the victim–
Screaming, she tore herself away from the psionic visions of that vicious mind–
It was no wonder it was unguarded!
There was nothing going through it but sheer brutality!
Shaking, having never seen a monster like this in her life, Vanguard IX put up her guard.
In the instant into which she had peered into this Valeriya Peterburg’s mind, the woman hefted her sword as if testing its weight, with her dead eyes permanently locked on Vanguard IX with a soulless, vehement expression. Vanguard IX felt her skin chill and the air grew hard to breathe as if the black tinge from that woman’s aura was growing to encompass everything. She could feel her mind succumbing, her own aura turning black at the edges with the fear of death just from staying near this hominin.
Was this the experience of being stricken by a King’s Gaze? But it couldn’t be!
Vanguard IX’s hands began to shake as the woman lifted her sword and broke into a run.
Valeriya swung from the right and Vanguard IX moved to block.
Holding her sword by both handle and the upper the section of the blade for added leverage, she batted away Valeriya’s attack with her flat. The clash threw Valeriya off balance, and Vanguard IX quickly seized the opening and stabbed the tip of her sword into Valeriya’s shoulder. Her thrust went through skin but she could go no deeper than flesh; Valeriya retaliated, the blade crossing mere centimeters in front of Vanguard IX’s face. Forcing Vanguard IX back, but giving her time to prepare her guard again.
Guard and counterattack– it could perhaps continue to be effective.
Her confidence was beginning to rebuild.
Valeriya was powerful, but a ravening beast.
Swinging vehemently, but how much more strength could she put behind it?
Blood drew from the wound she had left, middle of the shoulder, close to the neck.
Precise, in a place where there was nothing but that thick grey fibrous bodysuit.
There was no change in her expression. Valeriya hardly acknowledged the wound.
Exactly as before, she lunged for Vanguard IX and swung her sword.
Vanguard IX responded again with the same cover.
Holding her weapon by the handle and blade and connecting her flat with Valeriya’s diamond sabre to try to turn it away. However, she had executed much more clumsily, or perhaps, Valeriya was much more aware of it– her fingers were suddenly exposed close to the sawing teeth, and Vanguard IX had to throw herself back with a psionic thrust.
Creating a psionic pressure between herself and Valeriya in both directions.
Hoping to escape and perhaps to throw her off-balance.
She felt the moment of the blast that it had succeeded in moving her, but Vanguard IX could also suddenly see her kinetic thrust smothered in the roiling black aura around Valeriya. And rather than leaping back as she had planned, her thrust barely pushed her a few steps, and seemed to move Valeriya not at all from her position. They were still too close!
Vanguard IX felt herself shaking again and took up her guard.
Valeriya shifted her weapon from one hand, to the other– and then gripped with both.
She stepped forward, she drew her sword back in preparation, black aura crawling over it.
Swinging from the shoulder, darkness exploding behind her like a flame fed of shadows.
Suddenly panicking in the split second instant between blow and clash–
Vanguard IX fell back on the same guard that had proven effective.
Hand on blade, hand on grip, and meet the enemy’s edge to deflect it–
Flat met blade, the sawing teeth grinded for an instant,
cut through like fluid,
severed the shoulder,
cast the arm down,
sword and all leaving a hissing red mess of stringy flesh,
It had been so sudden that Vanguard IX could not even find the space to scream.
Before her Valeriya loomed ever larger,
she saw her no longer as a woman but as a titan with a black cloak and crown made of corpses, crawling over her body braying for her to kill or mourning their own deaths. Towering over her with inconceivable brutality and strength. She would join those bodies and have no future but to scream and scratch into the brain-dead ear of this gargantuan berserker when she smeared her next victim on the floor of this dying Empire.
Vanguard IX stumbled back, Valeriya recovered from the first swing,
swung again, sure to kill,
felt those horrid evil saw teeth kiss her ribs–
and gasped as a bright white light interposed itself.
Saint’s Skin: Anoint!
A brilliant white sword turned away that bloodthirsty black blade from further harm.
Valeriya was hardly unbalanced by the parry, but it was enough to spare Vanguard IX.
The Omenseer’s wavering vision and fading sense of touch registered her falling into the arms of someone holding her tightly. Someone strong, whose touch was comforting, who could hold her in her arms like she was but a doll, and whose voice she heard inside of her brain. I’ll protect you. I’m sorry. All of the fear of death and the weakness of mind had left her, and she felt a sudden ecstasy. Her eyes filled with tears of joy and relief.
Before passing out in her arms, Vanguard IX smiled fondly at Wizard III.
Wishing that, despite her failure, she could still become hers.
Sentinel X and Akulantova circled each other, locking eyes.
When one stepped forward, the other back.
Jabs flew past and retracted just as quickly, probing attacks, sizing each other up.
Even those jabs, whether deflected or allowed to hit softly, left an impression.
Sentinel X was monstrously strong.
Akulantova had always relied on her size and superior strength in a fight.
This had always posed a problem for her– because she was so big and so strong.
It was easy to hurt someone in training; she never got to hone a lot of techniques.
She had to admit however–
some of her fear had left her, because Sentinel X was so strong.
“Starting to enjoy yourself, hominin? I hope to see you die smiling. A duel’s pleasure!”
Sentinel X seemed to have gotten enough of probing.
One bound of those long, strong legs carried her far and quick in a second.
Entering Akulantova’s reach, she threw a right punch into Akulantova’s waiting guard.
Akulantova shifted her body to the side, so that her closed fist grazed Sentinel X’s fist without completely absorbing the blow. Just enough contact to shift the direction of the attack. Even glancing it this way it felt someone had smashed her knuckles with a hammer. She moved to strike herself, but in the next instant, she felt a shockwave push her.
Shifting immediately from the strike, Sentinel X suddenly bounded over Akulantova.
Clearing the floor, with what strength and what leverage she could not tell.
That leap saw her land briefly on Akulantova’s shoulder–
and kicking off it with unbelievable force.
Akulantova shoved forward, gasping with surprise, the wind beaten out of her back.
Sentinel X’s second leap took her right behind Akulantova.
In any normal situation Akulantova might have feared a grab, but she was well aware of how much this insane bitch loved strikes, and how her hands could harden or sharpen on command. She could tell in an instant that Sentinel X was bounding back toward her to strike again from behind. She was determined to keep punching until one of them died.
Knowing that, Akulantova also knew she would not just be knocked out with a head blow.
Bracing herself in the split second she had, she sucked in a breath and stepped forward.
It was now or never.
There was no escaping it. Sentinel X’s fist fell hard on her middle back.
Enduring the pain, Akulantova managed to stumble forward from the attack–
Recovered her footing, and turned around just outside Sentinel X’s second punch.
Akulantova threw herself forward and with all of her strength, she grabbed Sentinel X.
Ensnaring her in her arms, lifting her, fingers intertwined behind her back and pushing in.
Sentinel X bent slightly back, gasping, her arms captive inside Akulantova’s grapple.
Their faces, their eyes, barely millimeters away. Sentinel X’s bewildered expression.
Akulantova’s toothy, satisfied grin.
Grappling– it was a way for Akulantova to use her prodigious strength without killing.
She felt Sentinel X’s knees, but her captive had no leverage to kick.
Even with her mighty strikes and bewildering agility.
“Stop moving already! I’m being merciful here!”
Gripping even harder behind Sentinel X’s back, Akulantova reared her head.
Shutting her eyes, she smashed forehead to forehead with all of her strength.
Shattering the glass and band on her visor, sending her cap and the enemy’s beret flying.
Breaking open Sentinel X’s forehead, drawing blood that fell over her pale features in rivulets. Akulantova could physically feel Sentinel X’s struggle weakening, though not ceasing, within her grasp. Dazed from the headbutt, crushed in Akulantova’s arms, she was finally helpless enough to be put down without having to murder her.
“I don’t know who you’re supposed to be, and I won’t learn. But whatever brain cells you have left, use them well: my closed fist would have beheaded you. I hit you with my open hand and with my glass shield for your benefit. So learn your FUCKING place.”
Then, she bent her knees, bore the entire weight of her captive, and leaped back.
Akulantova took her entire body with her, drew her back, and slammed her into the floor.
There was not a scratch on the metal tiles under them, but Sentinel X landed splayed on the ground, her limbs limp, blood rushing down from her forehead over her face, dyeing the tips of her white hair a dark crimson. Her chest was still rising and falling.
She was gasping for breath.
Thankfully built of stern stuff.
Meanwhile, a shaken Akulantova rose back to her feet.
She collected the remains of her shield, and her truncheon.
She collected her hat.
Placing it on top of her head and adjusting it.
All the while, keeping alert for Sentinel X’s weird little partner.
But that coward had not moved a muscle the entire time.
She stood on the periphery, hugging herself, eyes darting, licking her lips every so often.
“Grab your partner and get out of my sight.” Akulantova said. “With you, it won’t start as a spar. I’m sick to death of this situation. I might even be sick enough of it to kill someone.”
In response, the hooded woman nodded her head rapidly and stepped forward–
“N-No. Hunter VII. We’re– holding–”
Akulantova sighed. Sentinel X rose unsteadily to her feet.
One of her eyes was red, injured. Her forehead continued to bleed profusely.
All of the scales or chitin on her fists had begun to peel away revealing shattered digits.
Despite her grievous state, she forced herself to stand to full height.
“Hunter– VII–” Sentinel X gasped for breath. “Kill– h-her– attack–”
Akulantova turned a forceful glare on Hunter VII and nearly caused her to jump.
But the choice was taken from the spindly, pallid woman soon enough.
Whether she had begun to move to grab her partner or in order to fight–
–a burst of several rounds of gunfire intercepted her path.
Hunter VII just barely avoided walking into the line of green tracers.
Automatic pistol fire– it had come from the elevator banks!
Akulantova turned around and spotted someone walking confidently toward her.
Shoulder-length brown hair, orange-brown skin with mottles on her neck. Small, sharp fins coming from where her ears would have been, from under her hair. A stern expression on a face with a round jaw and bright eyes. Her light frame and confident gait, and the careful hold her hand had on the machine pistol, all were quite familiar to Akulantova.
Security team medic– Former special forces– Akulantova’s ex-wife–
Just as the distracted Akulantova turned her head to look, Hunter VII suddenly leaped.
From under her hood, a long and muscular tail like a reptile’s suddenly lashed out.
Wrapping around Sentinel X and lifting her from the floor despite her protests.
“Hunter VII! Stand and fight!”
“It’s not worth dyin’ over! You’ll never taste meat– I mean– you’ll never fight again!”
“I don’t care! Drop me! I can still fight!”
“We’re retreating! That’s an order! You just heard it!”
With incredibly agility, Hunter VII leaped back from the steps with Sentinel X in tow.
Hitting the ground on all fours, she scurried away like an animal into the raised gardens on the edge of the park, nimbly disappearing from view. Akulantova watched them go, speechless, all of that brutality she had experienced simply dissipating from the world like a flash of thunder. Who had told them to retreat, and how? Impossible for her to know.
There was something much more pressing at hand however.
Akulantova turned around,
so surprised to be meeting Syracuse’s eyes in the middle of a battlefield,
but expecting nothing–
“I’m not here to talk to you.” Syrah said pointedly. “I’m assisting my team. Let’s go.”
–and getting nothing as she expected. Of course.
She should have known.
“Right. I know you don’t care, but I am really grateful for the assist.”
“You’re right, I don’t care.”
Syracuse reached into her pocket, stood on her tiptoes, and smacked a sticky bandage on Akulantova’s forehead, where she had opened a bleeding wound from headbutting Sentinel X. Akulantova stood stupefied for a moment while Syracuse nonchalantly walked away.
“Stupid as it was for you to keep holding back; I suppose I can’t fault it.” She said.
Said without even turning to see her, and yet, it managed to lift Akulantova’s spirits.
Before she could get too far ahead, Akulantova collected herself and followed.
She looked down at the park, taking a whiff of the air. Smoke, fire, blood, grinding metal, spent lead and the scents of those two maniacs who needed their help. Valeriya and Illya were still alive. They were as tough as Akulantova had hoped. It was no wonder that they came so highly recommended from Commissar-General Nagavanshi herself.
But they were completely out of line now.
“They were attacked by a bunch of freaks. I can’t say how many.” Akulantova said.
Syrah quietly lifted her machine pistol as if it was the only answer she needed to give.
“Judging by the last one I pummeled within an inch of her life, I dunno about that.”
“I’ll double tap. If you’re so concerned, then lead the way, Chief.”
Akulantova hurried her pace, and overtook Syrah, with the remains of her shield up.
Syrah audibly sighed, but followed close behind.
Thankfully for the both of them, the park, though heavily damaged, had found peace anew.
As they walked down the steps at a moderate and wary pace, and approached the statues in the center of the park, unbeknownst to them, Wizard III had already beat a retreat.
Akulantova would not see Sentinel X and Hunter VII waiting for her around a corner, and the shooters who had dumped so much alien ammunition into the center of the park were nowhere to be found. And with them, their ringleader would not be found also.
Without further incident, they found Illya, Zachikova, Arabella and Valeriya.
Wounded in all manner of ways; Valeriya was sitting in a corner shaking, nursed by Illya.
But alive; and ready to return.
Akulantova produced a portable encrypted communicator.
“Captain, this is the Chief.” She spoke into it. Sighing in relief. “We’re heading home.”
Giving the wounded Illya a stern glare, before bending down to lift her to safety.
Retreat! Leave no bodies behind! Rendesvouz in the B-block underground!
Wizard III issued her telepathic proclamation and fled from the park.
In her hands, she held the wavering life of Vanguard IX.
Vanguard IX was smiling– despite everything she had been through.
Wizard III felt an unfamiliar emotion as she escaped with all her power.
She was so much more concerned with Vanguard IX living than with the failure of the mission. She could take responsibility and punishment from the Enforcers, but some part of her simply hated the idea that Vanguard IX could die in her arms due to her stupidity. That Vanguard IX fought so hard and brave for her, and was failed by her command. This feeling grew in her heart, ever more desperate. When she realized the hominin were not giving chase, and had chosen to retreat as well, she had nothing else to occupy her thoughts.
Sneaking into a maintenance shaft, she adjusted her eyes to better see in the dark.
Wizard III laid Vanguard IX against a wall.
Her arm had been completely severed. She had a horrific wound, enough of her had been torn away to reveal the sides of the upper ribs. Her collarbone was shattered where her arm had been sliced off. There was so much blood and stringy mutilated flesh and strips of skin and broken bones peering out of the mess. Wizard III searched through the pouches of her uniform for a marrow fruit and chewed it briefly before swallowing it.
Inside her own body, Wizard III synthesized a fluid form of healing biomass.
It traveled up her arm, through her sinews.
Her palm opened into a toothless mouth and the gel ejected from it.
Pale-colored secretions covered Vanguard IX’s wounds.
A primordial soup of benign cells slowly growing into a covering.
Using her psionic power of biokinesis, amplified by the marrow fruit, Wizard III could carefully alter the biological material to become skin, to become sinew, to allow blood to route through. She could never replace all of the mass that was lost as the entire arm was cut off, but she could accelerate natural healing of what remained to end the body’s crisis.
Without a thought spared to the condition of the other Vanguards, or whether Hunter VII and Sentinel X had gotten away. All of her mind focused on caring for Vanguard IX’s wounds as tenderly as she could. To restoring her body, avoiding necrosis and shock. As she worked, she telepathically induced comfort and calm on Vanguard IX’s vulnerable mind.
Her chest was still rising and falling, her heart beating. She was alive.
When her wounds were finally closed, and she was as safe as she could be, Wizard III realized she was looming over her body obsessively, sweating profusely, her eyes weeping and hot and her mind ragged from having performed so much advanced and precise psionics. She laid back on the opposite side of the maintenance shaft, gathering her breath.
She shut off her night-vision in order to conserve her mental strength.
But she continued to stare at Vanguard IX, now resting soundly rather than– dying.
It filled her with emotion that she could have never conceived of having.
They had never been in any danger on this scale. It had been nerve-wracking.
Her hands were still shaking. She could still see that monstrous hominin in her mind.
It was not supposed to be like this. None of it. All of it was terrifying.
Despite this– for whatever reason– the idea that Vanguard IX was still alive–
–it was a pathetic little comfort for Wizard III. It shouldn’t have been– but it was.
“I hate you.” Wizard III said, without truly meaning it. She wished she truly hated her.
“You’ve made me– not normal anymore. Now what will I do? I am defective too.”
Wizard III raised her hands to cover her face, gritting her teeth.
Reclaiming Aer should have been as simple as wiping out all the hominin.
No culture, no deviations, nothing but the directives given to her.
All that she learned and practiced in the Agartha was to fight for the Autarch’s orders. Even their homes in the Agartha had been nothing but temporary, there should have been no attachment to anything but the mission. Command and tactics; equipment; hunting and killing enemies; what supplies they needed and how to acquire them; hominin basics.
Wizard III had never learned what to do with the feeling that she wanted to take care of Vanguard IX. She did not know how it would feel if Vanguard IX was killed.
It was a terrifying notion.
Because it made her tasks so much more complicated.
And her future so much less predictable.
Perhaps the culture the Enforcers spoke of was a curse they had laid upon her.
Perhaps that curse was what made her heart quake.
Preparations for the Brigand’s departure were underway. In Alcor, where the artificial sky was malfunctioning and there seemed to be not one single reliable source of station lighting, the ground and sky and the surface of the Brigand’s armor was cut across by a dozen mobile floodlight units worked by sailors. While a lot of the remaining work was internal, there was one major problem the crew had to tackle in order to escape.
To solve it would require a lot of manpower to make up for time.
“Well, unfortunately, we’ve confirmed the conveyor out of here is out of commission. We should still be able to force the elevators manually but without the conveyor, we can’t move the Brigand through the tunnel.” Tigris said solemnly, speaking into one of the Brigand’s exterior cameras so the bridge crew could see her. “Luckily I came up with an ad-hoc solution out here. We’re going to modify Alcor’s mobile berth to actually be self-propelled. It already has caterpillar tracks and drive gear, but it needs an independent power source and a motor. We can cobble together both. It’s not going to be pretty, but it just needs to hold together until it gets the ship to water, which I’m almost certain that it can get that far.”
At the bottom of the hydraulic elevated platform that Tigris was using to stand before the camera, Murati stood operating the controls. She thought Tigris looked just a little too happy to have something to tinker with on the spot, especially in the dire situation they were in, but if anyone could do it, it was Tigris. Murati certainly did not have a better plan, so as the officer in charge outside of the ship, she would support Tigris–
“Captain, I would like to say I highly disagree with this course of action!”
From beside the platform, Gunther Cohen, one of the engineer leads, shouted up at the camera that Tigris was standing near. He had a disgruntled expression on his face. From atop the platform, Tigris looked down at him and stuck out her tongue. This did not endear her to the man one bit. Murati turned to Gunther and waved him off from making any more gestures at Tigris. In turn she urged Tigris to continue her report.
“Cohen, do you have a better idea for moving the ship out of here?” Murati said.
“No, I don’t. But, Lieutenant, you have to understand that this is extremely risky. If that woman’s contraption breaks while we’re in that tunnel, we’re trapped. Not only that, but we’ll be stuck where it’s clear we had intent to escape, when the station announced the closure of its ports due to the emergency. It will look extremely suspicious.”
Murati crossed her arms, and shut her eyes. “I will support Tigris’ plan. We can’t stay here. We’ll deal with the rest when it comes. But Tigris is pretty good at what she does.”
“And I’m not, Lieutenant?” Gunther replied. He was taking some kind of offense.
Gunther and Murati had their problems with each other in the past.
Murati had gone against his wishes several times in using the dangerous prototype systems on the Cheka, a Diver that he knew much more intimately than her. She had also gone against his advice again by piloting the Agni, an even more obscure and experimental piece of equipment that had not passed formal Union vetting. Gunther was a good worker and stuck to the regulations to promote everyone’s safety– Murati did understand that.
He disliked Tigris, who had come out of nowhere and never followed regulations.
She understood that too. Cohen was very safety-minded. That was certainly valid.
But she also knew that under the circumstances, they couldn’t afford to be safe.
And that, under the circumstances, Tigris simply outshone him in her capabilities.
Ultimately, Murati was not an engineer with safety regulations. She was a soldier.
To complete her mission and defeat her enemy, a soldier accepted risks.
In that way, they would never see eye to eye. As much as it hurt to admit.
“Cohen, I’m not answering that question. Dismissed.” Murati said brusquely.
Gunther remained for a moment glaring at Murati before leaving her side.
She noted that he did not return to work, but losing one set of hands was no issue.
A few minutes later, Tigris signaled to be brought down from the platform. Murati flipped a switch to retract it. Tigris hopped off and waved at Murati with a little grin. She had her grey work coveralls on and the slick sheen of grease already covered her gloves. Some of it had even gotten on her otherwise bright red ponytail. She had an earpiece so she could talk to the Captain, but the Captain could only see her through the Brigand’s cameras.
“The Captain has cleared us to start working, if you agree.” Tigris said.
“Absolutely. I will defer to the Captain’s judgment.” Murati said.
Tigris smiled. “I heard you arguing with Cohen too. Thanks for believing in me.”
“All I ask is that your actions don’t lead me to regret my words.” Murati said, sighing.
“You watch! That ugly hunk of metal will be flying out of here!” Tigris cheered raucously.
Time was of the essence, so Murati was about to usher Tigris to work–
Until she heard heavy footfalls that were nearing from the direction of Alcor.
Murati did not know whether Alcor had any substantial contact with the Captain yet.
In her heart, however, she knew what she would soon see.
She reacted, before she heard the call from an authoritative voice to desist–
Murati at first withdrew her sidearm, but then she hid it behind her back.
She stood in front of Tigris, in time to meet the approaching group first.
Several flashlights shone upon her. It was hard to see at first, but there was no doubt.
Black uniforms, silver eagle insignias, red armbands with a black sun-disk icon.
The fascist troops of the Volkisch Movement.
“Stop! We told you to desist!”
Four of the men had their sidearms out, and one of them had a small submachine gun.
Murati kept one hand behind her back with her sidearm.
She felt Tigris tug on the back of her shirt. As if to say she was there in support.
“What is the meaning of this?” Murati asked. Maintaining a façade but saying little.
All of the men kept their weapons pointed at her– but parted to allow another through.
“An interesting hustle and bustle here. This is an emergency situation, you know?”
From behind the men appeared a young woman, about Murati’s age, perhaps just a little older. Surprisingly, she was a Loup, with long, brown dog-like ears atop her head of neatly arranged brown hair. Her uniform was black, the same as the rest, but unlike the troops with her, the collar of her coat had a red patch with a vertical, black symbol, the wolf’s-hook.
Murati knew the presence of that single hook meant an officer rank.
And the confidently smiling woman meeting her eyes confirmed it herself.
“Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” She said. “Rottenführer in the Sicherheitsdienst.”
Volkisch intelligence. Murati tried to steady herself. The worst was coming to pass…