Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.3]

[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]

There was an air of tension and wicked possibility as the gathering convened.

The Brigand’s main meeting room was once again playing host to Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy on one end of the planning table and captain Ulyana Korabiskaya, and her commissar and adjutant Aaliyah Bashara on the other end. Maryam was her usual bubbly self while Marina had the same friendless look she always wore, despite having just walked out of the medbay without authorization.

Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.

“You will get lectured by Doctor Kappel. But I’m glad you could make it, it’s a welcome surprise. You’re the woman of the hour after all, Ms. McKennedy.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms.

“Despite myself, I always seem to end up in the spotlight.” Marina grumbled.

She was taking a sarcastic tone of voice, but the matter at hand was one of life and death.

Two or three days ago, depending on one’s metric for a “day” underwater, the Brigand had encountered the enormous Inquisitorial dreadnought dubbed “the Iron Lady” alongside a fleet that was likely drawn from local policing patrols at the last minute. As a clandestine ship, it was impossible to turn the Brigand in to the Iron Lady for inspection. While on the outside the Brigand looked like a civilian vessel, as long as its weapons were retracted and soundproof sealed, this secrecy depended on the hangar and the massive amounts of military equipment within it not being exposed to the wrong eyes.

As part of their plot to escape, Ulyana personally spoke with the commander of the Iron Lady, Gertrude Lichtenberg. She had been hoping to stall and distract Lichtenberg, whom Murati surmised was going to have a hard time controlling her slapdash fleet when her personal attention was drawn away from it.

She had been correct. Gertrude was barely able to keep her fleet in line, and the tighter cohesion of the Brigand’s two-man squads picked them apart. The confrontation allowed Ulyana to gather information. How did Gertrude find them? What was it that Gertrude wanted from them? They were both obviously cagey with each other in that situation, and Ulyana perhaps had a little too much fun with the younger woman, but she gleaned some valuable insight nevertheless. Gertrude wanted a VIP aboard the Brigand. This VIP was important enough Gertrude could not risk directly attacking the Brigand with her cannons.

And there were perhaps personal stakes for Gertrude Lichtenberg, who seemed too invested in the capture of this VIP, for an Imperial Inquisitor in the far reaches of the Empire. This may have accounted for the coincidence of the Iron Lady mooring next to them at Serrano. At the time there was nothing they could do about it and Ulyana did not see it as necessarily a risk. Ships of all kinds moored next to each other. On the docks, crews were too busy with their own ship to start inspecting those of others.

However, now she felt that Gertrude may have been tracking her VIP.

Perhaps Gertrude suspected something and confirmed it with new information at Serrano.

Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.

As a G.I.A. agent on the run, this made the most sense. She owned up to her cell being compromised, and to needing a snap escort to the Union to avoid capture. Perhaps she had lied to Murati about the proximity of her tail and the degree to which she was compromised, hoping for a quick out. All of these suspicions made sense in Ulyana’s head, but there was only one person who could confirm them. Whether she told the truth to them or whether she lied, Ulyana had to see Marina’s reaction to be absolutely sure. She decided that whenever she next met Marina, she’d press her for information.

While she had not expected to do this today, it would have had to happen at some point.

Maryam being in attendance wouldn’t really change anything. This had to be done.

At Ulyana’s side, the Commissar Aaliyah Bashara sat with her arms crossed and a serious expression on her face, her tail on end and unmoving. Ulyana had told her all of her suspicions and what she hoped to do with this meeting. Aaliyah would assist in the interrogation. Shimii had sharp eyes and this particular Shimii had a decent sense of people — except perhaps when she got drunk enough.

“You were knocked out for a while, Marina. What exactly happened to you?”

Ulyana started with a personal question to ease into things. She was curious however.

“We’re doing this now?”

“We’re doing this now.” Aaliyah replied, sternly. She was backing up Ulyana.

“Fine. I was in the hall with Elen when the ship was hit by the dreadnought guns. I’m pretty sure I lost my balance and next thing I knew, I woke up in the medbay.” Marina said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember it very well. Elen was completely freaking out. It was a nightmare of a day.”

“Officers Van Der Smidse and Zhu reported a physical altercation between you two.”

Marina scoffed. “Don’t you employ corporal punishment sometime, Captain?”

“It’s not my first choice to discipline a mentally unstable subordinate.” Ulyana shot back.

Her heart felt a brief swelling of anger toward Marina she had to get under control.

“I was grabbing Elen; I wasn’t in the best place mentally myself. But I didn’t strike her.”

Marina continued to respond coolly. She always acted like she was being interrogated.

Was this how all G.I.A. agents were trained to behave?

Given her conduct, Ulyana didn’t really care to conceal that this was an actual interrogation.

“What does Gertrude Lichtenberg, commander of the Iron Lady, want with you?”

The G.I.A. agent shot a bitter look at Ulyana. She crossed her arms and lowered her head.

She sighed deeply. “Look, I know what it looks like, but I swear I wasn’t being tailed.”

Aaliyah spoke up to support Ulyana again. A note of disdain crept into otherwise polite speech.

“Directly after we rescued you, the Iron Lady took an interest in us. Whether or not you were aware of the possibility hardly matters. You yourself admitted your cell was defeated by the Empire. How can you have been completely sure you would not be tracked or traced in a major city?” She said.

“You presume far too much, Commissar. We are experienced professionals. We can be chased, but what matters is that we know how to escape from the pursuers. And all of us escaped. When the Empire threw down our doors they found nothing of us left behind there. My colleagues have all probably escaped to the Union or the Republic-occupied zone in Katarre. I was the only one unlucky to end up saved by the Union’s special toy. None of us were being followed.” Marina sharply replied.

“Without evidence of this, it will remain an open question.” Aaliyah said.

“I agree. It is useless to argue; but you need to tell us everything, Marina.” Ulyana said.

“It’s not like I’m deliberately holding back any information!” Marina said.

“Are you truly not? Again, we can’t be certain.” Ulyana said. “Until we ask you some pointed questions.”

Marina grunted, casting her eyes to the table. “Fine, of course, just say what you want to.”

Ulyana nodded. She sat back and relaxed and began to ask her questions.

“Right now, the fact is that Gertrude Lichtenberg is coming after us and if she survived our attack on the Iron Lady, she and who knows who else will know what they’re up against now. Just pretend that you did get compromised if it helps your pride. What does she want with you? What information do you know? You know who she is right? Why is this apparently personal to her? How long will she pursue?”

“Do you even think she survived? Didn’t you blast her ship to pieces?” Marina interjected.

“Irmingard-class dreadnoughts are extremely durable vessels.” Aaliyah said. “Our realistic goal was never to sink it outright, but to cause enough damage to sever important systems and cripple the ship enough to allow us to escape. Killing that Inquisitor would be better luck than we’ve had.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Marina. “Back to the subject at hand–”

Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.

“Look, I know a lot about the Fueller family. They must be trying to silence me.” She said.

“So that was the G.I.A’s operation in the Empire? Spying on the imperial royal family?”

“That was a large part of it, yes.”

“That sounds like it carried a lot of risk.” Ulyana said, pressing her for more.

That response seems to have finally crossed the threshold of the G.I.A. agent’s patience.

“No operation is perfect! You’re right, it was risky and I don’t know if I was compromised, I fundamentally can’t know that information! I did my best, but I may have fucked up somewhere. You have no idea what I’ve been through, so maybe you could just accept my apologies and regrets, and we can move on to planning for the situation at hand. Is that ok with you, Captain?” Marina shouted.

And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.

Who did this woman think she was–?

Ulyana narrowed her eyes into a glare and crossed her arms sullenly. “No it’s not ok with me, G.I.A. I don’t know what you’ve been through because you won’t tell us a god damned thing about it! We were polite enough not to grill you the instant you got on this ship; we thought you would come clean with us. What use is it having you as an equal partner if you’ll just drop a bomb like this on us and then refuse to elaborate? Don’t you think we deserve to know if the Fueller family is hunting you?”

“I can explain everything, but it’s not pertinent!” Marina shouted. “The late Emperor’s bedtime secrets aren’t going to save us, goddamn it! If you can get me out of this alive, I promise you’ll get the full fucking story, okay? You’ll fucking wish you hadn’t heard some of the details.”

Maryam hid her face behind her tentacles in the midst of all the shouting.

Ulyana was about to continue the shouting match when a gentle hand laid on her flank.

Imperceptibly, out of the sight of their guests. It was her Commissar’s touch.

The captain knew then that she was going out of line and tried to reign herself back.

Aaliyah rubbed her hands on her forehead, her cat ears drooping. “I hate to say it, but McKennedy is right that the situation fundamentally doesn’t change if she gives up her salacious secrets to us. We don’t really have a way to use that information, so it would only affect our peace of mind. At least now we have some idea of why Gertrude Lichtenberg is after us. We should plan our escape and repairs.”

“When you put it that way, fine.” Ulyana said. “Any ideas on the current predicament, G.I.A?”

“Fleet combat isn’t my strong suit, so no, I don’t really have any brilliant ideas for escaping this situation. You guys did pretty well for yourselves already though, so, I dunno. Why not just attack that flagship and sink it? You’ve got to have the resources on hand to do it.” Marina said.

“The Brigand’s armaments are just not strong enough for us to trade shots dead-on with an Irmingard class dreadnought. We’ll be on the losing end of whatever happens. You’ve seen this already.” Ulyana paused, frustrated at her own helplessness. “We planned a huge production and we ended up with several people in the medbay, a lot of damage, and only a temporary reprieve.”

Marina turned her cheek. Ulyana felt her own cheek twitch. What a bratty reaction!

“How was this mission greenlit if you were going to run into this problem?” She said.

“It’s also your fault that we’re having to fight a flagship, you know.” Aaliyah grumbled.

“It was never part of the mission profile.” Ulyana added. “We’re supposed to be guerillas.”

“Then fight like guerillas do!” Marina said. “Find a hiding spot to attack from and wear it down!”

“That’s easier said than done!” Ulyana said. “Where are we going to hide, McKennedy?”

“I can’t just improvise a whole hideout for you! I’m an intelligence agent, not a magician!”

“If your intelligence is so useless then maybe we should just turn you over to–”

Both of them started shouting again. Aaliyah seemed helpless to calm them down this time.

“Please stop fighting! I have an idea!” Maryam shouted over all of them.

Ulyana and Marina both turned to face her at the same time.

Her tentacles were raised as if they were her shaking arms surrendering to a gun barrel.

Across her body her chromatophores were flashing to white and back to their original color.

Silence fell over the gathering. Ulyana felt momentarily very stupid.

She was stressed out, everything felt like it was going to shit, and she was helpless.

Beating up Marina would not change that. She needed to get a grip on herself.

Maryam spoke up again with a whimpering little voice. “Let’s all calm down, please.”

Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.

“I apologize.” Ulyana said. At first she didn’t care whether Marina accepted or not–

“Fuck, I was out of line too.” Marina admitted fault, much to Ulyana’s surprise. She looked conflicted, arms crossed and eyes practically staring down at her feet. Like a student in a classroom who had been shouted down — Ulyana didn’t exactly feel good about that. “I’m sorry, Captain, Commissar. In this situation I wouldn’t blame you if you did turn me in. But it probably wouldn’t help you much.”

“Under no circumstances am I going to do that.” Ulyana said. “I just lost my temper.”

“Let’s just put it behind us now. So, partners, I vote we listen to the Katarran’s idea.”

Marina pointed at Maryam with a thumb, forcing a smile as if to dispel the tension.

Maryam puffed her cheeks up. “I’ve got a name! I’m not just the katarran, you know!”

“Glad to see we’re all getting along.” Aaliyah sighed deeply, her cat-like tail stabbing at the air.

Ulyana felt ashamed of herself. Her conduct had been ridiculous. She let the stress speak.

At the moment, however, there was truly nothing to do but move on with it.

“Maryam, we’re certainly open to hearing your ideas. First though, I would like to know some background on you too. Our goal is to foment unrest in the Empire. Our agents marked you as a VIP we had to rescue. I assume you must have information that can help our mission.” Ulyana said.

Maryam looked quite nervous, but Ulyana chalked it up to her personality.

She seemed like someone who was very soft and scared. A total noncombatant.

“Background, huh. Umm. I was made in Katarre as a navigational aide for Athena Kyriaki. Around the time I became an instar, Athena attempted to raid Imperial territory in Skarsgaard, and it went– bad.” She shuddered a bit, and every other word came out with a stammer. “Our fleet was wrecked, I got captured, and any Katarrans that the Imbrians thought were female larva got sent the Solcean church in Skarsgaard, while everyone else got scattered. So I was part of the church for years, but eventually, I escaped. While on the run, I ended up working for a really shady group. I had to get really crafty to survive. I picked up a lot of information and skills. Some of it might be totally useless, like the going-abouts of imperial bureaucrats but, I learned a lot about places and installations! I wanted to go to the Union because I heard Katarrans can be free there, so I traveled to Buren, the Palatinate, down to Rhinea, and finally Sverland. I talked with the smugglers in Serrano, and they set me up with a Union agent. And that’s how I got to meet all of you. After talking with the agent, he said I’d be a very important VIP.”

Ulyana scrutinized the details of the story while it was told. She chalked up the nervousness to the kind of person Maryam was. She seemed like a very sweet girl who had been through a lot, and Ulyana felt a certain predilection to believing in her. When Ulyana herself was young she was forced to be “crafty” to survive enslavement in the colonies, so she understood Maryam’s telling of the story. There were details to surviving in harsh situations that were best left abbreviated and did not need retelling.

Ulyana wouldn’t push her to qualify every tiny blank that she had left.

Her route to Sverland had been incredibly long though. If the Union was her goal, she could have gone south through Veka and crossed through Nama Flow. Nama Flow was a landmass wall that divided the Union from Veka north-east to east. It was created by landmass collapses and rearrangements that seemed to have happened in the late Surface Era, whether directly by human action or as a result of the Surface’s catastrophes. The Union controlled both sides of Nama Flow.

It wasn’t easy making it to the Union from anywhere, so why choose the longest route?

“That’s a crazy route you took to get here.” Ulyana said. “How did that happen?

“I didn’t have a lot of choices. I was supposed to be on a mission for my bosses.”

Maryam smiled nervously and raised a hand behind her head, patting down her own hair.

“Can you tell us more about this ‘shady’ group of yours?” Ulyana said.

“They’re called–” She stammered again for a moment. “They’re called the Foundation.”

“Doesn’t really sound like a revolutionary organization.” Aaliyah said.

“They kept things pretty discrete.” Maryam said. She started getting the confidence to speak a bit candidly for a moment. “They’re not really ideological; they were out for themselves mainly and that’s what I didn’t like there. You can think of them kind of like a mafia I guess.”

“Organized crime, huh? I have to say, that’s not really what we wanted to hear.” Ulyana said, slightly disappointed with the story. However, it did make sense. Ulyana had learned that most immigrant Katarrans were ultimately forced to turn to crime in order to survive the rampant discrimination in the Empire. It must have been quite convenient for wealthy, corrupt Imperials to have a ready source of desperate clandestine labor at their bidding. Poor Maryam wouldn’t have had the choice to become some fabled socialist revolutionary in the realities of the Imbrian Empire.

Maryam’s colors shook briefly again. But she seemed to gather her courage after that.

“I wasn’t a big freedom fighter or anything, but I was made with a really good brain and memory, so I know tons of information that can help!” She put on a proud little smile. “In fact, I know a place we can go. It shouldn’t be too far, judging by the map I saw on the morning update!”

At Maryam’s prompting, Aaliyah turned on the display on the table and loaded that same map from Semyonova’s Morning Update to the crew. It was a zoomed in topographical cutout of Northern Sverland, generated by the navigational computer from its preloaded atlas. Stopping short of the Khaybar range that separated most of Sverland from Bosporus to the North, and the open border to Rhinea and the Yucatan gulf in the northwest and center-west of the region respectively.

The Brigand’s current position on the map was updated by the navigation computer.

“Here!”

Maryam pointed to the north, closer to Khaybar, running her finger along a specific area.

“See this dip here? That place is actually a big, long hole the locals called Goryk’s Gorge. There used to be a small outpost there, but I heard it’s been declining. I think it’s because travel through Khaybar dried up the past few years. It should have enough space though! We can dock the ship there for your repairs! There might not be many functioning amenities, but it’s a place that we can hide in that not a lot of people know. To be found there, the imperials would have to be searching the whole grid.”

Ulyana followed Maryam’s finger across the map. This Goryk’s Gorge wasn’t too far off.

However, the fact that Maryam was trying to correct their map bothered her.

Any standing station should have been listed already. So why was that location empty?

Who was it that set up this so-called ‘outpost’? What was it really for?

Aaliyah seemed to be on a similar wavelength to Ulyana and voiced her own doubts.

“Would this ‘outpost’ happen to have been set up by Katarran mercenaries?” She said.

Maryam rubbed her head nervously. “Historically. But they’ve probably moved on!”

There was another brief but awkward silence as Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Maryam.

“I’ll take my chances with Katarran mercs over Lichtenberg any day.” Marina interjected.

“And it’s relatively closer than Rhinea. I suppose it’s worth taking a look.” Ulyana said.

She was not too impressed with Maryam’s information quite yet.

And she felt she should have learned to temper her hopes about these things much sooner.

Regardless, at least they had a direction to go in. She didn’t think Maryam was lying. However, more and more, it felt like this entire excursion to Serrano had been a big mistake. What were the Union’s foreign agents doing and thinking? What did they actually see in Maryam? She was a sweet girl who had been through a lot, but she did not seem like a VIP asset worthy of this painful detour.

Ulyana tried to clear her head and push it out of her mind. Like Aaliyah had said before, it was pointless to hang onto topics like this. They could not simply dream up alternatives to reality.

“Alright, we’ve decided, we’ll set a course for Goryk’s Gorge. Marina and Maryam, you’ll be given formal security clearances as advisors. You’re welcome on the bridge any day.” She said.

Marina quietly nodded her head and Maryam beamed with delight, raising her arms.

And so the Brigand would change direction and head north to its next destination. Goryk’s Gorge, and the mysterious station supposedly at its edge. Ulyana could only pray that she was making the right choices in this awful situation. They adjourned the meeting, the future still unsure.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder as she prepared to leave the room.

Aaliyah behind her again, smiling. “Let’s talk later, just us, Captain.”

Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”

It was a labored smile but reminding herself Aaliyah was there did wonders for her morale.


It’s her!

You’re here Braya!

Her human body was seated next to Karuniya Maharapratham in the science officer’s lab, but the signals that Braya Zachikova’s brain felt as tactile sensations and visual input were now being drawn from a drone strung on a kilometer of fiber-optic wire in the open waters. She was cold, and she felt the effort of the hydrojets behind her and the sense of her body’s increased weight and stiffness. Her drone body collected data on its status, and this feedback was given directly to Zachikova’s brain.

It was a second body, a main body while the flesh and blood stayed behind.

This curved, finned metal body two and a half meters long and two meters tall deployed from the utility tube into the murky ocean, searching, following all biological noises as Fatima picked them up and discarded them as irrelevant from the Bridge’s computer. With access to this data and everything else that the ship supercomputer was processing, Zachikova was finally able to track her beautiful dancer through the gloom of the deep ocean, following featureless rock and swimming past ghostly white plants and corals and crawling rockfish and crabs, geysers of methane that drew up slight purple sparks when their bubbling hot discharge came into contact with the agarthic salts in the water.

Marine snow fell over her in great waves — this was the thick biomass suspended in the water around them, eternally raining from the rich, living environment above. Peering through the fog of decaying matter and the minuscule beings that thrived in it, Zachikova felt her human heart shudder with surprise and warm with delight. Those beautiful fins, that graceful body, the color that shone brightly under the lights cast out by the drone, even amid the dark blue-green filter of the ocean.

She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.

A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.

There was such relief in her heart. Her dancer hadn’t disappeared, hadn’t come to harm, and she could do her part now to protect her for good. She steadied the cameras and extended the arms so that Karuniya could capture footage of the animal playing harmlessly with the drone, its slender body bereft of any implements of destruction like biocannons, tail spikes or vibrating power-jaws. She lead a life free of worry or burden, unseen in the deeps. Zachikova felt blessed to see her.

“This is Science Officer Karuniya Maharapratham, we spotted this creature on–”

Karuniya had begun to record her audio to play over the evidence footage.

The Dancer would go on the Brigand’s record as a subject of study.

Zachikova could hear the voice, distant and muffled, through the antennae on her human body rather than the drone’s sensors. This mix of the two sometimes shook her out of controlling computerized devices, but in this case, she was so transfixed on the ravishing figure circling around the drone, that there was no way her sight would shift back to her human body. Zachikova wanted to touch her.

She laid the arms of the drone “palm”-up hoping for a touch as the dancer arced gracefully around her. When the sensation of those soft, silky fins played over her arms, her soul fluttered.

Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.

Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.

Bright placid blues trailed from her fins and tail and around her body that spread like a splash of paint wherever she swam, surrounding Zachikova and the cameras which could only see that majestic blue, the color that should have been the sky, she thought. Her eyes were filled the light, and she felt like she could feel colors around her own body, green and purple and blue; and around Karuniya, green and blue with a band of black around the edges; and the Brigand itself was dyed in massive colors of all kinds. Every living thing, painting a glowing tapestry in the water, Zachikova felt like she could see it all.

As the Dancer wove a circle of colors in front of her, Zachikova saw beyond the water.

“We’re going to get out of here.”

Through the clearing mist of the colors and the murk of the marine snow Zachikova saw–

Metal walls, darkness, bars, the blue glint of LEDs and a single tiny window.

Through that window, an impossible, clouded sky with purple flashes of lightning.

Within the gloom, despair-maddened eyes drawing wide illuminated with each flash.

Laughter erupted from a slim girl with copious long red hair–

–scratching at the side of her head, where a horn-like protrusion parted her skin.

“I can talk– talk to them–” She laughed and struggled to speak. “I talk to the monsters.”

Her free hand scratched on the steel floor a series of lines from bloody disfigured fingers.

“I’ll save them– You’ll be one, and I’ll be two– Then we’ll kill them all–”

Zachikova could barely make out the scene through the intrusion of the colors.

At the side of the girl that was talking, sat another girl, with bright lilac eyes, staring–

As if at her.

Inquisitive, aren’t you?

That red-lined gaze pushed Zachikova’s soul as if across the very horizon.

She felt a power squeeze her and hurl her, throw her away–

“–And that’s why I will be inducting this Leviathan as USL-0099 in our database. Positive interactions with Leviathans are few and far between and for the future we are fighting towards, we should foster an environment of understanding and progress in not only political but scientific development. Scientists work in the military to be able to explore the mysteries of the sea. It would be remiss of me, in my capacity as an advisor, to turn a blind eye to this creature and allow its needless destruction. As a subject of study, this Leviathan cannot be fired upon without my express permission.”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–

Zachikova shook her head. Her human head. A breath crossed through her human throat. From the lab’s drone control terminal, she manually switched the cameras around, moving them like machines and not her own body. The Dancer was still there, but distant, coy, starting to wander away from the drone. Zachikova had the panicked thought that she had done something wrong.

“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“

Her head was foggy, and she felt images slipping away from her like a dream fading from the wakeful mind. She had seen a girl, for some reason, and she knew she had seen some kind of strange color phenomenon in the water. It could’ve been signals issues, some kind of cybernetic synesthesia, she already experienced all sorts of odd things when she interfaced with machines.

Those situations never felt quite like this. Zachikova’s heart was shaken.

She was losing her cool. Emotion had never overcome her like this.

Zachikova thought she might cry, and she hardly knew what she was crying about!

Swept up in that current of colors swirling around the Dancer–

It was the most beautiful thing she had seen underwater, but her mind was–

–Mourning the image of it.

Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–

“Zachikova, are you okay? Did you disconnect from the drone?”

In front of her, Karuniya Maharapratham seemed to fully reappear as if stepping in through a cloud of mist. Her soft brown skin, long dark hair, white coat. Her gentle eyes. And the stark metallic lab walls and equipment returning to the background. Zachikova felt more grounded in reality, and reality set in for her anew. She shook her head and turned back to the drone console with haste.

“I’m okay. I lost connection. I’m going to link back.”

“It looks like USL-0099 swam away.” Karuniya said, looking at the monitor.

“I want to follow it.” Zachikova said suddenly. Almost interrupting Karuniya.

“It seems to be roaming around, we’ll probably see it again.” Karuniya said.

“I’m–” Zachikova paused briefly. She hated how desperate she sounded, but she could not deny the fear that had taken hold like ice in her chest. “I’m afraid I might have scared it off. I’d like to make contact again. I won’t be out for long, and I won’t need to take up your time further.”

Karuniya scratched her hair in consternation. “No offense, but I don’t understand–”

At that moment, the sound of running footsteps nearing the door caught their attention.

Through the threshold crossed an agitated Sonya Shalikova, panting heavily.

“Maharapratham!” She shouted. “She’s awake! Murati is awake!”

Whatever Karuniya was going to say to Zachikova would hang in the air for good.

Speechless, on the verge of tears, Karuniya ran past Shalikova, who then ran after.

Zachikova remained, seated on the drone station, alone. Her antennae shifted slightly.

She suddenly and immediately reconnected the drone and began to dissociate her body.

“I have to find her again.”

I have to ask her— this thought reverberated in Zachikova’s mind as it left her human body.

What would she even ask? And how would she ask a question to an animal?

Those small insanities sank to the back of Zachikova’s mind.


“How many fingers are we holding up?”

Officers Zhu and Van Der Smidse both held up two fingers to form peace signs.

They waved these fingers in front of an awkwardly smiling patient in a medbay bed.

“Is this a trick question? Two fingers in two hands, so four fingers.”

Murati Nakara answered with as much enthusiasm as she could muster energy for.

“I guess she’s ok.” Zhu and Van Der Smidse agreed.

For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.

She felt that she had not been in a deep sleep but had been sleeping and waking, finding herself first in her diver, then dragged out, in the medbay, in the ocean itself, in places unfathomable that seemed to skirt just beyond the edge of understanding. Long sandy stretches of surface land, war-torn; a great and awful tree of flesh in the middle of a romantic, gothic town; a sprawling city where people could do anything with their minds but were beset by monsters; nonsense dreams.

She had a headache, and she did not feel rested.

She was famished and had a hard time keeping her eyes wide open in the medbay.

Craning her head, she took note that she was not the only one interned in the medbay.

Sat up on her bed, Sameera seemed to have been recovering well, the mixed Shimii/Loup gently wagging her tail under the sheets, laid on three pillows and smiling placidly. Always chipper, that one. She looked like she had been awake for longer. Rather than a hospital gown, she was dressed in a long casual shirt and from one dangling leg what seemed like soft, baggy pants. However, when she tried to move, she seemed uncoordinated, as if drunk or sleepy, and ended up laying back down.

“Two days or so, if you were wondering.” Sameera said.

“Huh?”

Murati stared at her. Sameera laughed, voice deep and gentle.

“That’s how long you slept, but I think you were coming in and out. I heard you cry once.”

“You heard her cry?” Zhu Lian. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Sameera looked untroubled. “It felt like she just needed to work something out.”

“What if she was working out a heart attack?” Van Der Smidse said.

“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu glared at her for a moment, until a pair of visitors ran in.

At the door, a pale, indigo-eyed girl escorted a familiar face, one Murati longed to see.

“Karuniya!”

Murati’s exclamation was a little weak, owing to her condition.

Despite this, it reached right to Karuniya’s heart. At the door, she gasped and stood, the rest of the assembled group parting so that she could approach the bed. She held her hands over her mouth, eyes half-shut with copious tears, shoulders shaking. When she finally rushed to the bed she was mindful of Murati’s wounds. Rather than hug Murati, she laid gentle hands on her.

Karuniya leaned in her head, and they touched their faces together. It was the most affectionate form of physical contact Murati could withstand. Feeling the warmth of Karuniya’s cheek and her soft hair falling over her, the scent of the disinfectant clinging to her lab coat mixed with the woody smell of mushroom cultures. Murati almost wished she could return a full embrace.

However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.

Under her hospital gown, Murati had deep bruises in her chest and flank. Though she was on pain medication which helped her breathe normally, she could feel her range of movement limited by the sense of dull stinging that triggered when she tried to shift her weight. She supposed that she had broken ribs. Her arm was also broken and in a cast, slung over her shoulder. She had a bit of foam padding around her neck that suggested it was probably bruised or injured as well.

“Mu– Mu– Mu– rati–!” Karuniya cried out, sobbing, whimpering next to Murati.

“It’s okay Karu. I’m here for you.” Murati said, smiling with genuine elation.

“Don’t try to be fucking cool when you nearly got killed! You reckless idiot!”

Karuniya lifted her hands off Murati’s shoulder and then laid them back down.

Perhaps in lieu of the soft little punches she sometimes threw to tease or scold Murati.

She laid her head over Murati’s shoulder, gently, making sure not to lean too hard.

“I was so worried, Murati. I was so worried. I thought you– I thought you had–”

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”

“Promise me this is the worst it’s going to be. Promise me it won’t be worse than this.”

“I promise. I really do.”

Murati understood. For it to have been “worse than this” she would’ve had to come back in pieces rather than whole. Or not have come back at all. They already understood how dangerous the mission was and that either of them could die– but even the most educated soldiers had feelings when they actually confronted death. Murati reassured her as best she could. There was no need to realistically contemplate their mortality right then. After all, Murati really wanted to keep that promise.

She would do her utmost not to break such a promise.

And if that promise had any power, then maybe there was a God after all.

Murati would pin her hopes on that.

It was eerie, having come near death. It did not feel like anything.

That absence of some grand experience was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all.

She had simply been beaten senseless, halfway to death in the middle of the ocean.

Halfway, but not fully. So here she was, alive in the arms of her precious wife.

Murati looked past Karuniya. Zhu and Van Der Smidse stood off to the side with faintly flushed cheeks, perhaps a little embarrassed at the display of affection — though with their fingers intertwined between them. Shalikova stood with the tiniest, barest hint of a smile on her lips, arms crossed as if waiting for something, or perhaps satisfied with the result of her handiwork.

“Thank you Shalikova.” Murati said. “You came to visit and then ran to get Karu, right?”

Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.

She turned her cheek, her brow creasing ever so slightly with indignation.

“Of course I went to get your wife, anyone would’ve done it. It’s really nothing.” Was that the tiniest bit of flushed cheeks on Shalikova too? Maybe Murati was just seeing things this time.

Now that other people had joined the conversation, Karuniya stepped back from Murati.

Van Der Smidse graciously brought her a seat so she could stay at her “husband’s” side.

“Thank you.” Karuniya sat down. She checked the board on Murati’s bed. “Broken ribs, broken arm– well, you’re not going to die, and you might be able to walk with crutches. Sheesh, at least you’re not going to get back in that death machine for a while. For good or ill.” She sighed and turned with an irritated expression at Zhu and Van Der Smidse. “What are you two doing? Go fetch me some broth, bread, and pickles. Murati must be dying of hunger, c’mon. I’ll feed her.”

Now it was Murati’s turn to feel her face red with embarrassment. “I really don’t need–”

“Shut up.”

Karuniya glared at her. Murati laid back and accepted this as the current state of affairs.

“Sure, we’ll leave her in your capable hands then.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu seemed to sense the dark energy around Karuniya and complied.

After they left to get the food, Shalikova started to bid farewell– but Murati halted her.

“Shalikova, I need to talk to you for a second.”

Shalikova paused and returned to the side of the bed. “What is it?”

“Did we lose anyone?”

Thankfully, Murati did not have to feel the dread of asking that question for long.

“No. We’re all alive.” Shalikova said. Her confidence and quick response were a big relief.

While the time she had spent awake could be counted in minutes only, Murati was already back to thinking about the situation at hand. If she was alive and surrounded by familiar Union faces then they had escaped from the Iron Lady. She was in poor condition, however, so they had something quite important they had to settle so they could operate effectively in the near future.

“I have to talk to Khadija about it too, but– Shalikova, I’m making you squad leader.”

“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.

“Oh, good idea.” Karuniya added. “Shali-Shali has fought like an ace every single time.”

“Huh?! Shali-Shali?”

Shalikova stared between Karuniya and Murati with expressions of shock and disgust.

“That’s– But– No way! I’m an Ensign and I’ve only had two real sorties!”

“I’ve only had two real sorties too.” Murati said. “Shalikova, not only do you have excellent piloting skills, but you’ve shown decisiveness and a really fantastic situational awareness. Had you not intervened when you did, I would have almost certainly been killed out there. And you held your own against that mystery pilot and their mystery diver after that. This is not just empty flattery from me.”

Sameera, lying back with her eyes closed, spoke up suddenly from her bed.

“I agree! I think the Ensign would make a very cute squad leader.” She declared.

“Shut up and go back to sleep! Nobody asked you!” Shalikova shouted. She then turned her agitation on Murati. “Pick Khadija! You said you had to talk– why decide now?” She asked. “She’s so much more experienced and skilled than I am! Why would you pick me over her?”

“You look like you don’t even want to hear the reasons she has!” Karuniya said.

Shalikova snapped toward her but seemed unable to raise her voice at Karuniya.

Murati was thankful that she could sense the evil within Karuniya and treat her gently.

“I think Khadija is our strongest pilot, and that’s exactly why she shouldn’t be the leader.” Murati said. “She has exceptional combat skills, but– let’s say skewed judgment. At any rate, a leader doesn’t need to be the strongest. After all, you’re a better pilot than me in raw skill, Shalikova.”

Of all the comments, this one really had poor Shalikova withering under the spotlight. She crossed her arms, tapped her feet, and turned her back, grumbling a little where no one could see.

“I’ll– I’ll think about it. You won’t force me to do this. I really have to consider it!”

Murati nodded her head silently, smiling at her. “Thank you. I really believe in you–”

Shalikova immediately started to walk out of the room unprompted, but she met someone at the door that she nearly bumped into. Pink skin, red and brown hair, a below-average stature.

“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.

“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”

The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.

Long, thin strand-shaped fins bristling among her hair, an unfriendly look on her face, the woman walked to the side of Sameera’s bed, holding a bowl of what looked like a quick porridge made by crumbling bread and pickles in broth. She sat down, grunted, and then started to feed Sameera, who easily accepted the attention as the woman forced a spoonful through her lips. It was her squadmate, Dominika Rybolovskaya. Her presence, the indignation in her every movement, silenced the room.

Murati wondered how long this bleak scene had repeated across the days.

Compared to the evil energy exuding from that woman, Karuniya was a glowing angel.

At least it brought a bit of color to the drab medbay.

“Karu, can I ask for your help later?”

Murati gave a slightly pleading look to her wife, who smiled back.

“Oh jeez, of course.” Karuniya sighed. “Back to work already? You’re hopeless.”

“Thank you for understanding.”

It was such a contrast to Dominika and Sameera that even those two were staring at it.


Another “night” fell on the UNX-001 Brigand, denoted only by the moving of the clock and the moving of people, and by the artificial dimming of lights. During the day, each light fixture had a small ultraviolet system to help the humans within feel at home, as if working under the rays of the sun. At night, those UV systems would be turned off, the ordinary light would dim, snuffing out the underwater “sun”.

With that snuffing out of the sun, there was a commensurate snuffing out of activity.

There were always some workers at night — it was a warship, after all.

But not for the next few days.

“No night shifts for two days and reduced daytime work hours, for all sailors!”

Galina Lebedova, Chief of the Brigand’s sailors, passed down the decree from Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to all the sailors working in the hangar. Everyone had been working hard for days, and it was clear the laborers really needed a break. Heavy duty work would resume once the Brigand made it to Goryk’s Gorge and could settle down for the final and definitive stretch of repairs.

“Prioritize maintenance, and don’t crowd the canteen and social spaces! And thank the officers!”

As such the hangar space was almost entirely empty that night.

The only sounds were the footwork and grunts of a certain Shimii, Khadija al-Shajara. It was so quiet that when she stopped moving, one could almost hear the drops of sweat striking the hangar floor, and her heart jumping as she stepped forward and back, attacking a shadow opponent. Dressed only in a pair of workout pants and a sleeveless crop top, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Her cat-like ears bristled with each burst of physical effort, tail stabbing at the air behind her betraying a sense of anxiety.

She had in each hand a thick, solid, and heavy carbon-fiber truncheon borrowed from the armory. Standing in a corner of the hangar, with the Diver gantries blocking her from the sight of the elevators and lower hall connections, she practiced striking with the truncheons. Solid one-handed blows in quick succession; coordinated attacks with both weapons at once; overhead, from the side, from left and right at once.  She was not treating them as the two clubs she had, but as a pair of swords.

Swords like the saw-bladed, motorized weapons that her Diver could employ.

Her strikes grew more belabored, her breathing tighter, and she could hear herself, louder.

“Fuck!”

Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.

“It doesn’t matter. My body isn’t what’s on the line out there. It’s all in a fucking Diver.”

She hated how exhausted she felt. She hated the feeling that she was growing old.

Growing old; when there were other kinds of growing she still needed to do.

Her shaking fingers on the truncheons, the cold sweat of her iron grip; the explosive pain from her joints when she paused for even the briefest second, the soreness in her lithe leg muscles with each step. How she felt her shoulder nearly pop on the double overhead strikes. How hard her breathing came to her, almost as soon as she started. Khadija hated it, hated her age, hated her ailing body. She was as fit as she possibly could be, her lean, wiry muscles practiced daily, and still her strikes grew weaker.

“Fuck.”

There was a loud clatter on the hangar floor as she dropped the truncheons.

Slipping out of exhausted hands that couldn’t stop shaking.

Regardless of how sharply focused her mind had been, she could not make her body go further. Forty-two years; how was it possible that she was still alive after all of this? How had she not died back then with the Red Baron? Either in 959 or 979, whichever of the two. She doubled over, breathing ragged, hands on her knees, sweat trickling over her slim nose, her still-soft cheeks.

“Hah, man, this sucks. When did this become so much trouble for me?”

She started to think but– when was even the last time she had to train this hard?

There were always things to do. Patrols, mock battles, simulations, equipment testing, she had even done plenty of Leviathan culling alongside the Hunters. War, however, she had only practiced in a single solitary stretch, the year of absolute hell she experienced from 959 to 960. Twenty years ago, twenty whole years ago. She was treated like a senior NCO back then because she was twenty-two in an army that had a massive swell of teenage privates. What was she supposed to be now?

“Back then–” Khadija paused, still catching her breath. “I didn’t want the kids to fight.”

She still did not. And perhaps, that was the reason that, at forty-two, she was still here.

Forty-two years. No matter how much she exercised, how much makeup she wore, in this situation there was no escaping it, no embellishing. As lithe and athletic as she kept her body, as young and vibrant as she kept her face, deep down beneath skin and muscle, she was forty-two years old.

She was hurting. Even her fluffy tail felt like an old, beaten thing.

Forty-two years.

Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.

“Someone like me would’ve already been dead if this was a film. For the kid’s stories to advance.”

Maybe she should have been killed. If she could have just taken out the Red Baron back then–

There was a distant series of dull metal steps on the hangar floor.

When Khadija turned her head she saw someone approaching across the barely lit space.

Someone on crutches.

“So this is where you went. You look like you’ve been working really hard.”

Murati Nakara, step by labored step, leaning heavily on her crutches. Smiling.

She had on her uniform, and she looked like every step was pure agony.

“Ya Allah!” Khadija exclaimed, so surprised she was. “What are you doing, you fool?”

She rushed up to a stand and hastened to Murati’s side, trying to save her some walking.

Face to face, Khadija’s sweaty, bereaved expression, barely accented with a light touch of runny makeup, could not have measured to the deathly grimace on Murati’s face, sweating, panting for breath. Khadija looked around, wondering how the hell she made it out of the medbay without anyone stopping her. She helped Murati lean against her, and regardless of what the Lieutenant intended, Khadija had in mind to drag her right back. She started to gently urge her to turn so she could guide her away.

“It’s okay Khadija, Karuniya is in the hall with a wheelchair.” Murati said.

“What? Why didn’t she cart you out here? What is wrong with you two?”

“Because I want to talk to you alone, and she respects me enough for that.”

Murati continued to labor a smile, while Khadija stared at her quizzically.

“Didn’t you just wake up today? What could possibly–?”

“Khadija, I’ll get right to the point, because I’m really exhausted and hurting and honestly, this has been distressing me a lot.” Murati’s eyes looked almost tearful, as she worked her way up to asking and finally interrupted. When Khadija met her eyes she could barely look at the expression. And when she heard the words that her squad leader finally said, her body shook with shock and shame.

“Khadija, were you trying to die out there? Did you intend to martyr yourself?”

It was like her heart was perforated with a cold needle, a sharp pinprick.

When she had fought the Red Baron– She did intend to launch a suicide attack.

How could Murati have known? Did she suspect it when she snatched the bomb away?

In hindsight, it brought her a lot of pain and shame to think about that now.

She had tried to put that experience away.

To train and fight another day and move on.

Now it crashed into her exhausted mind and nearly brought her to the floor.

Especially because of Murati’s reaction. It was so shocking to see her so hurt by it.

Murati continued to look at her, openly weeping. She raised her working arm to wipe tears.

She took Khadija’s shocked silence as a confirmation. And it seemed to distress her further.

“Khadija, please promise me that you won’t consider such a thing again. I admit, I have not been in command of teams in real combat, probably nowhere near as much as you might have had. But I truly made it my duty to insure that everyone came back alive. My plan was never for a suicide mission. It hurts– I can do everything in my power to save my comrades, but if they decide–”

Murati paused as if she could not get herself to say it out loud. She sobbed openly.

Khadija had never seen her like this. She had never imagined her looking so broken up.

“Khadija, I don’t want the story of the ‘Lion of Cascabel’ to end like that. Please.”

“Murati, I–” Khadija hardly knew what to say to that at first.

She could have been offended to be called ‘the Lion of Cascabel’, a name which brought bad memories. She could have tried to explain her reasoning at that time, not that there was any. It had been pure gut, desperation, and a lot of self-loathing that led her to that. She realized what she felt, was that she was touched Murati had such a strong reaction to the idea of her dying like that– to her making a martyr of herself. At that time, Khadija had felt, if she went through with it, no one would mourn it.

Wasn’t she just a soldier? An unmarried childless old woman sharpened to kill?

Wouldn’t the success of the mission give meaning to her death?

For a long time she really thought of herself as someone disposable.

She never realized how that flew in the face of the comrades risking their life alonside her.

How it minimized their collective hope of protecting one another and returning alive.

Khadija wondered– could she really say she wanted to live at all costs? She looked back briefly at the truncheons she had dropped in the hangar. What she had felt back in the water, that desperation and frustration– she was here, fighting to never feel it again. She was challenging herself again, and if she had no intention of living, then she would not have been aching and sweating this much.

She finally knew what to say. “Murati, you’re unbelievable sometimes. I guess I have to become even stronger in the future so you kids will finally stop worrying about me so much.” Khadija made an irritated noise. “Honestly; knock it off, Murati. Go back to the medbay. I have more training to do.”

Murati smiled at her, wiping her tears. Relief seemed to wash over her like a wave.

“Thank you. Whether or not you realize it, Khadija, you’re a real hero.” She said.

Khadija looked away from Murati in a brief fit of shame.

Honestly, what was it with this girl and the earnest compliments?

But she couldn’t hate her for it. She really wanted to believe that she was.

Not just an old failed woman but the hero of a story still to be told.


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.2]

“Milord, we’ve received an acoustic message from Ajillo substation.”

One of Norn’s drones pushed the message out from her station to the monitor on her chair.

Norn’s brows drew up in casual surprise. She blinked, dimly confused at this occurrence.

“How did Ajillo know of our presence? Did we detect any active sonar from them?”

“Negative. Only sonar pulse was from the Sowilo.”

“Did we broadcast an IFF? Or check in with the strategic network at all?”

“No milord. We observing confidentiality until you order otherwise.”

“Strange. I can’t help but wonder how they knew it was us.”

No rest for the wicked; every day on the Antenora’s bridge, there was some kind of drama.

With the Jagdkaiser left in Potomac’s acceptable care, Norn and Adelheid had departed the hangar together to take their places on the Antenora’s bridge. As soon as they settled down there was a message from the nearest military substation, Ajillo. They had no intention of visiting, as there was nothing of value for them at Ajillo, the junkyard for Sverland’s crippled fleet. And it was standard procedure for the Antenora to remain partially off the grid after a dive from the photic zone, to avoid suspicions about their itinerary. However, the invitation to dock at Ajillo had come directly from the station commander, Rear Admiral Vespucio, and been addressed directly to Norn.

As written, it was an invitation resupply and discuss recent events. It sounded benign.

Adelheid read the message from Norn’s monitor and made a little noise as she pondered it.

“We weren’t being careful about sound, so Ajillo could have found out about the battle from the noise. They would have heard us kilometers away.” She said, raising an index finger and moving it from side to side. “But they would only be able to tell the relative sizes of the ships and the types of ordnance. Do you think Vespucio had a spy drone out? That’s the only way I can think of he would know specifically that the Antenora is in his waters.”

Certainly Adelheid didn’t wear that uniform just to look pretty. She had a good assessment of the situation.

Norn agreed with her. She turned from Adelheid to address one of the drones.

“Did we detect any mechanical objects beside the Volkisch?” She asked.

“Negative, but it’s possible that something snuck in and out during the battle.”

The Praetorian rested a hand on her fist, eyes wandering as she turned these events over in her head.

“In a noisy environment anything is possible, but all my sonar technicians have golden ears. If a stray mechanical object were moving in the battlefield, I would have known about it. He must have been in communication with the Volkisch during the incident. He acted upon the knowledge of my presence without considering the bigger picture.”

Adelheid giggled. “Quite an amateur mistake! We’re not dealing with a bright one here.”

Norn briefly grinned at her plaything’s sudden smugness. She lifted her own index finger as if to mimic Adelheid’s little gestures. “Information warfare is never so simple. Knowing only part of the facts can be as dangerous to you as knowing none of them. In his case, he just doesn’t understand the Antenora’s true nature. In his mind, even if he wasn’t immediately aware of our presence through his own information, and only learned from the Volkisch, we must have sent an IFF or used the network somewhere along our journey to Sverland. He assumed we traveled in the depths; he had no way of knowing how suspicious it would be for him to contact us when he did.”

“Why do I feel like I’m the one being scolded now?” Adelheid said, shrugging playfully.

Heedless of the play-acting going on behind them, one of the drones raised their voice.

“Ma’am, do we maintain heading, or divert to Ajillo?”

“Full ahead to Ajillo. Let’s not keep the Rear Admiral waiting.” Norn said.

At once, the Helmsman drone began to turn the ship in the appropriate direction. The Chief of Communications returned Ajillo’s message with a curt reply. On the main screen, a diagram of Sverland showed them turning away from their northwesterly heading and hooking south instead. While Norn’s objective in the region was to secure some defectors to Erich’s banner, and employ them as pilots to replenish her own losses, all the intrigue on their end had already been carried out. They could wait a bit longer for a pickup. This Ajillo situation was much more interesting.

“He’s obviously got some ulterior motive.” Norn said. “Can’t wait to make him explain what he’s up to.”

“Does he have to be up to anything special? Every man inviting a woman somewhere has ulterior motives.” Adelheid said, doing an exaggerated little shrug again. “I’m more interested in the conspiracy in your head, Norn.”

Norn ignored her little flourishes. “For one thing, most people are terrified of me. I have never received an invitation to personally visit a commandery ever since I became a Fueller enforcer, much less now that I’m the head of the family. I’ve inspected plenty in Konstantin’s stead but that was coercive in nature, and I have a reputation for turning up something sanctionable every time. So in my mind, this is too bold out of Vespucio. And judging by the suspicious source of his information, it has to be some kind of trap. I bet he will try to sell me out to the Volkisch.”

“Maybe he just wants to get on your good side? Because everyone’s terrified of you?”

“It is possible he’s not working directly for the Volkisch just yet. I’d be curious to see if he tries to strike me down on his own initiative rather than something more predictable. Regardless, I’ll accept his offer and see what he’s up to firsthand; even if it’s nothing exciting in the end, at least we get the hospitality of an Admiral out of it.”

“Norn the Praetorian, who has anything she wants, mooching off an Admiral’s pantry?”

“It’s more his wine cellar I’m interested in. You never know who has good vintages.”

Norn settled back in her chair with a placid expression.

Adelheid crossed her arms and turned her cheek at such easy responses to her provocations.

Her pouting face was simply delicious— but turning her all red would have to wait.

All Norn allowed herself at the moment was to reach out and gently smack her in the cheek.

“What was that for?” Adelheid said, shrinking back slightly.

“To keep you on your toes.” Norn said smugly.

Knowing her, this would correct her attitude for maybe minutes.

But it did sate Norn’s own appetite for the moment.

On the Antenora’s bridge the two of them sat together, side by side. They were close enough that Adelheid could lean her head on Norn’s shoulder. Next to Norn’s chair was a slot on the floor from which Adelheid’s could pull up. Adelheid’s chair was more traditional, fitted with upholstery and designed for comfort. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, it did add a splash of red color to the otherwise grey room. Like Norn’s chair, and most commander’s chairs in the Empire, it had a variety of useful tools for the adjutant. From a slot on the side of this chair, Adelheid pulled up a computer monitor and began typing away on a touch keyboard for a moment.

Like Norn’s chair, Adelheid’s had access to the ship computer and network interfaces.

Norn snatched a glance at her monitor.

She was filling in a network address. Something was downloading to the device.

“Who gave you permission to use the public network?” Norn said.

“We identified ourselves to Ajillo, so that means we’re back on the grid, right?”

“No, it doesn’t, as a matter of fact. We’re not back on the grid until I say so.”

“It’s fine I’m using an encrypted requester, I’m not stupid.”

Norn glared at her.

“In the future, you will ask me for explicit permission. Understood?”

“Okay.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

Norn loosened up and cracked a tiny grin. “Just remember. We’re in a new era and have to tread lightly. That said I’m a woman of unparalleled forgiveness. So then, tell me, what are you doing on that network?”

Adelheid rolled her eyes at the speech but answered the question. “Downloading stuff.”

“Over the acoustic network? Good luck with that.” Norn said.

Adelheid crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair, sighing.

“Well, the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be able to read my magazines.”

“You should just wait until we’re at Ajillo and connect over laser.”

“I’m bored now, so I’m doing something about it now.”

Norn laughed. She was quite savoring Adelheid’s childish consternation.

“We could go hit the gym if you want.” She said with a wink. “I’m not required to be here.”

Adelheid grumbled. “I would go to the gym by myself if I wanted, but I’m not in the mood.”

“Suit yourself then. Enjoy watching a bar moving kilobyte by kilobyte.”

Even without a laser connection to a hub, the Imperial public network was still accessible via wireless connections. Using the same technology by which acoustic messages were sent and received, encrypted, and decrypted, by ship communicators, a protocol for sending and receiving data at long distances underwater was ultimately devised. As far as Norn understood, the surface society had been far more networked than theirs. Many technologies fell by the wayside in the transition from air and land to the oceans, and civilian communications was one. The Imperial Public Network came about in Konstantin’s fifties; and wasn’t even very “Public” until recently.

“Instead of those awful stories, you should pick up the local news for me.” Norn said.

Adelheid raised her hands and gestured toward the slow-moving progress bars.

“Why should I? What can some journalist in this backwater know that you don’t?”

“I’m not omniscient. Besides, seeing local perspective is more valuable than you think.”

Staring at Norn with a mock aggrieved expression, Adelheid navigated a page back to the file distributor she had contacted, from which she was grabbing her comics and magazines. She made a very flamboyant show of touching a local newspaper’s link to download it, which brought her back to her download manager’s page, and then slowly sliding its progress bar far down below all of the other files she had queued up, such that at the rate the rest were going, it wouldn’t be downloaded for hours. Norn watched the entire process with a neutral but unamused expression.

“Happy now? Aren’t I such a dutiful adjutant for you?” Adelheid giggled.

Norn turned back to the main screen, mustering all of her will in saying nothing back.

Adelheid stared at her expectantly at her before balling her fists up and sinking back into her chair with a pout, after it was clear she would not get any satisfaction out of this for the moment.

All around the bridge crew was unbothered by the scenes of their superiors’ familiarity. A few of them stood from their stations to switch shifts, and of course, had nothing to say except to tell Norn when they were expected to return and who was expected to replace them for the shift. Norn’s crew was obedient and efficient, but they could not be driven down into the dirt like draft animals. They needed time to rest, to eat, to wash, to relax. Norn had devised a tight and balanced schedule which was kept to the second by every one of the drones. It helped sustain their sense that they led normal lives, and in turn, sustained Norn’s unnatural control over their activities.

Seeing everything in such a predictable and practice stated brought her stillness, peace.

Everything around her was governed by such an intricate order–

For perhaps the first time in her entire life.

“What’s that look on your face? Anything on your mind?” Adelheid asked, staring at her.

Norn smiled placidly. “Nothing at all. Now I understand how you’re so peppy all the time.”

“Fuck you.” Adelheid said. But there was a pleasant little smile on her face too.


“We’re treating this as a combat operation. Maintain readiness and alertness at all times.”

As the Antenora neared Ajillo Substation, Norn organized several people in the hangar.

At the head of the “drones” was the Chief Security Officer, Reinhardt. Often, the security chief was selected for peak physical condition, such that he could be counted on to wrestle multiple men by himself. When choosing a Security team, the theory was that they needed to be both able to quell internal disorder and also serve as a boarding party or detached infantry force. This was not necessary in the Antenora. Instead, Reinhardt was a special forces veteran with several missions under his belt and an excellent array of combat and operational skills. His sleek build, which was flexible but strong, attested to the versatility with which he operated. He was not just muscle, but brains.

Around him there were other men and women of the Antenora’s security squadron: of similar backgrounds.

“We will uphold a zero-trust policy toward any personnel from Ajillo.” Norn said. “Do not allow them aboard, do not permit them to carouse. Treat even the most minor details about the Antenora with strict confidentiality. Refueling and resupply of the Antenora shall only be undertaken by Antenora personnel with a security escort. Act natural around Ajillo men but do not be sociable. You are here to do a job and nothing else. Bring up my name if necessary.”

“Yes milord.” Said the Security team in unison. They understood their orders instantly.

“Lieutenant van Mueller and I will meet with the base commander.”

Norn gestured toward Adelheid, standing next to her. Adelheid waved awkwardly.

This was all unnecessary, as all the drones were quite well aware of who she was.

However, Norn had only recently established her clique of drones, so she was still used to explaining her operational plans as if speaking to the average soldier who was stressed out and had an ephemeral memory for minutia. Even understanding this, she still felt compelled to convene tactical meetings. After all, part of the conditions of her control was that the drones believed their situation to be normal, and maintaining military routine, rather than dispensing with everything unneeded, helped the control to hold. So this meeting, and the way it was conducted, had a purpose.

“There may well be a situation in which either Lieutenant van Mueller or I may become imperiled on this mission. I believe strongly that Vespucio has some kind of plot in mind, and he may try to isolate or capture one or both of us. I am quite convinced of Lieutenant van Mueller’s combat skills as well as my own, and do not need any personnel to come to our rescue. However, we will need a way to suppress any unwanted response from the Station’s combat unit.”

Norn turned to face Selene, who was standing in her pilot suit next to the Security force.

It had been hours since her battle with the Volkisch. Norn assumed that Selene had gotten some rest, but she was clearly groggy and bedraggled, nevertheless. Her face was pale, her silvery-purple hair a bit messy, and her rainbow-colored antennae were even sticking up unclipped, a rare sight from her. Despite this, she seemed to do her best to remain at attention during the meeting, standing up straight and keeping her gaze moving.

“Ajillo is a ship graveyard, but they have Divers and other weapons available to them. Because of this potential threat, we will be releasing the Jagdkaiser into the water under the guise of trim testing so that we can respond quickly to any moves by the station staff.” Norn continued. “The Jagdkaiser will be armed with a single cartridge. I’ll send a signal, Selene — you’ll know if you can use it. Blow up a ship and cause a ruckus. Do not hit the Station.”

With the way Norn looked at Selene, the girl understood the signal would be psionic in nature.

She could see the red rings around Norn’s eyes as she briefly invoked the power when their eyes met.

“Okay. Got it.” Selene said. “So I’m just trying to scare them? What if they fight back?”

“Even these second-rate troops wouldn’t be so stupid. After they see the cartridge go off, they’ll certainly break completely. But, if anyone tries to be brave, just swat them down with your remaining weapons.”

“Are these guys that lame?” Selene asked.

Norn smiled. Her vernacular was quite amusing sometimes.

“They are extremely lame. You’d slaughter them in a fight.”

“Sure, okay then, no complaints from me. What do I do while I’m waiting?”

“Swim around a bit, but conserve energy.”

Selene yawned. “Got it. I’ll just take a nap in the cockpit then.”

From Selene, Norn turned back to the Security personnel and to a final group comprising the NCOs in charge of the sailors. They would organize groups to carry out any repairs and to lug around whatever supplies Colonel Vespucio offered them. While the Antenora had not taken any damage, there was wear and tear that could only be maintained properly while the ship was not moving, and the ship had been moving for a while. This was a good opportunity to catch up. Much like the Security staff, the NCOs and all the sailors were under Norn’s influence. In Norn’s view, this was mainly so they would not divulge anything out of the ordinary they saw on the ship.

As far as their work efficiency, it could not be faulted, even before they became drones.

Norn had handpicked the best of the best, after all.

“You already know what work needs to be done on the ship, so just go do it. Work smart, not hard. We aren’t in any rush. One important thing to note: Hunter III of the Third Sphere will be providing special support in the Station. If you see Hunter III in your area of operations, ignore her and act unsurprised. Don’t give away her position even if she starts acting openly near you. I will meet with Hunter III separately about her orders.”

Each of the NCOs saluted Norn and acknowledged their orders.

“You’re all dismissed. We should be docking in about an hour.” Norn turned from the departing NCOs and Security staff to her sole pilot. “Selene, go start the immersion process, and just take a nap in the cockpit if you want after that. We can always inject something to wake you up if your attention is required.”

“I’d rather you inject something to put me to sleep.” Selene stretched her arms with a heavy sigh.

Norn grinned broadly at her. “We’ve got all kinds of things to inject here! Just say the word!”

Selene cringed in response. She silently made her way to the Jagdkaiser and its technicians instead.

This left Norn and Adelheid once again alone in the middle of the hangar.

“Seen Hunter III around?” Norn asked.

Adelheid shrugged. “She hasn’t come down. She’s probably sulking in some dark corner.”

“I’ll go find her. Go mom on Selene a bit. She doesn’t like you much.” Norn said.

“What? She doesn’t?” Adelheid put her hands on her hips and leaned forward.

“She hates your guts actually. So go make nice, okay?”

Norn turned around abruptly, waving one hand dismissively and laughing as she went.

She left Adelheid standing there with no recourse but to hover over to the Jagdkaiser’s orbit after a brief bout of loud but aimless grumbling. Norn looked at her briefly as she departed. It was all well and good; Norn did not really want Adelheid to be present for her conversation with Hunter III anyway. Not because she did not trust her with the information, but because Adelheid had a weaker gut than Norn around Hunter III.

For a moment she focused on the aura of Hunter III and saw trails of color she could follow.

There was a warm feeling behind her eyes; onlookers with power would have seen it.

Often the use of Psionic power came to her as easily as breathing or moving her limbs.

She had mastered this ability from a very young age. It was not just raw power she had acquired but understanding. It was understanding that allowed her to control everyone on this ship. Her crew was founded and sustained by an intricate web of conditions and deceptions with the end result that they would never fear the things they saw on the ship, reveal her secrets or utter a word of disloyalty, and never shirk their duties.

It was rare that Norn had to think about Psionics, had to actually exert effort.

She could sustain her control over the Antenora near indefinitely with very little pain.

But it was not something she could do to the people at Ajillo. Not on short notice.

For them, if it came to it, she would need brute strength. She did not have time for tricks.

Thankfully, she had brute strength to spare. She had acquired very many powerful people.

Norn made her way up to the upper deck and traversed the Antenora’s sparse hallways, following her sixth sense. As a Cruiser, the Antenora was quite spacious and mostly comfortable compared to other warships, but Norn felt that unnecessary decorations were an assault on her senses. She already saw too much color floating around as it was, and did not need a gaudy paint job, wall ornaments and other tacky manor-style adornments in her halls. So unlike most flagships, it felt very little like a home, and far less like a manse or a palace than the Irmingard.

At least, that would be the response from typical, garish Imperial sensibilities.

As far as Norn was concerned, she had lived in far worse places and called them “home.”

To her, the Antenora was her palace, her fortress. She felt safe; she felt cared for here.

Following Hunter III’s trail led Norn to a wall with a panel which had been pulled off.

When Norn kneeled, she found within the gloomy niche an interior panel also pulled out. It was a maintenance entry into the guts of the ship, mainly for workers to access the water circulation and electrical systems, as well as some room electronics. Within the little space, she caught a trail of familiar colors, gaseous tongues, and sparks, swirling colors faded from their source, hovering like the nebulas from old pictures of the space outside Aer’s tainted surface.

“Hunter III! Come out of there. I don’t want to crawl around for you.”

“Then don’t.”

Just as she suspected and sensed; a familiar whiny voice echoed in the little metal room.

“Come out this instant.” Norn said. “Or you’ll miss out on a big reward.”

“Is it meat?”

“It’s better than meat.”

“Bullshit.”

Curiosity got the better of her. Soon Norn saw a slender shadow come crawling out.

Her name as she had given it to Norn was Hunter III of the Third Sphere.

Norn had an inkling of what this name meant: she was the third Hunter type unit of a specific numbered group within her people, the Third Sphere. Whether the ‘Spheres’ were military in nature or domestic units, Norn herself did not fully know, nor was it something high on her list of priorities to learn about the young woman.

There were other, far more curious features of this woman to be probed.

Hunter III was a slim, lithe, pale individual, so pale that when her wrists or neck were bared the major arteries were quite noticeable running just under the surface. Her face had an eerie beauty to it, with its red eyes and cold complexion, dark shadows around her eyes giving her the look of someone stressed or hardly sleeping. Her shoulder length hair was as white as her skin with a single streak of blue running through it. In terms of height, she was a fairly small woman, but quite clearly an adult in figure and strength. For clothes, she had a too-long, too-large hood, going down to her knees with sleeves longer than her arms. Norn knew this to be the only garment she had on.

When she wanted to, Hunter III could have a comically expressive face.

As she crawled out of her tunnel cubby, her face bore only a passive, tired expression.

“I’m waitin’ for this thing that’s better than meat that y’got.”

“It’s all yours, but first, I want to know: can you smell it?”

“S’it in your coat?”

“Indeed.”

Hunter III drew closer to Norn and leaned forward, catching a whiff of Norn’s scent.

Her eyes drew wide open.

At first, she recoiled, but then she drew closer again, sniffing again and again.

Her strong, slim hands grabbed hold of Norn’s coat and brought it up to her nose.

This unwanted touch bothered Norn, but only slightly. “Did I say you could do that?”

Hunter III looked up. Her eyes looked cloudy, perhaps even more tired than before.

She tugged gently on the coat, putting her head to Norn’s chest.

“Give it– Please give it here– Please I need it–”

Her entire demeanor had completely changed. She was so immediately vulnerable.

“So you can smell them. Good to know if we ever want to go find more ourselves.”

Norn produced from her coat a sliver of something. To her, it was odorless, small, and in its appearance, abhorrent. It was like finger’s-width of meat wrapped in clammy silverskin. When she peeled the silvery wrapping off it like a web, she unveiled a glob of yellow fat affixed with a pellicle-like spine to a warm, soft, pink mass. Sinews ran through the object that held color as if alive. Hunter III snapped up from Norn’s chest and stared, transfixed, at this object in her hands, her mouth drawing open, her body shaking. Her little protests grew a bit more animated.

“That’s mine–” Her voice faltered; her eyes wide open, moist. “Give it– give it here–”

Hunter III had eaten these before. But back then, the fruits had been plentiful.

This was a discovery. Norn now felt she better understood the importance of the fruit.

“That’s right. It is indeed yours.” Norn dangled it in front of Hunter III for a moment. “A sliver of fruit from a Garden of Marrow; these are important to Omenseers, aren’t they? The Sunlight Foundation destroyed a nest recently and Hudson’s machines collected this for me in the aftermath. You’ve been treating me like I’m such a slavedriver, and yet, I do so much for you. I’ll give you this taste. And there will be more if you’re a good girl.”

Hunter III opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.

Grinning to herself, Norn deposited the piece into Hunter III’s open, awaiting maw. And she watched with fascination as the woman before her savored the bite thoroughly, as if with her entire body. Skin brimming with new color, her chest shaking, holding herself with irrepressible pleasure and excitement in the act of eating this slimy thing. Her knees buckling, a tremor under her skin, her breathing heavy as she swallowed the tiny morsel.

Licking her lips as if lustfully trying to savor every last bit of the taste that she could.

“Don’t be too greedy.” Norn said. “And you’ll be rewarded with more.”

Hunter III pulled back from Norn as if suddenly snapping back to her senses.

Her eyes were wild with a surprising passion.

“I won’t be! But ya know if ya want me to go out there, I’ll need– a whole fruit!”

Her voice trembled as if even the thought of more of this food made her knees weak.

There had been a time when the Antenora had more of these in her possession.

One of the Omenseers’ ritual practices was that they did not leave ships or go into battle in person without having eaten one of these fruits. Norn surmised that it was not just superstition, and in fact most of Hunter III’s unique biology was locked away until she ate this disgusting little morsel. Hunter III had her own supply, once upon a time, but little by little, as she participated in Norn’s campaigns out of her greed for the luxuries of humans–

“I should be keepin’ it.” Hunter III said. “I promise I won’t just nibble on it willy-nilly.”

Norn scoffed. “You were a poor steward of your own wealth. If you want a cut of the treasure of this ship you will follow military logistics like the rest of us. So let’s come to the following agreement: I’ll be keeping an eye on any fruits I find or that the Sunlight Foundation bequeaths to me. If you discover a Garden of Marrow yourself then by all means you can do whatever you want with those fruits. But if I acquired the fruit, it’s mine to dispense.”

“But they ain’t yours!” Hunter III protested. “They don’t belong to you no matter what, they’re ours.”

“Are you going to rat me out to Arbitrator II for hoarding Omenseer relics?”

Hunter III snorted. “What’s she got to do with this? I hate her guts more than you.”

“Good. Then we’re agreed?” Norn grinned, leaning forward to the smaller woman.

“Fine. We’re agreed.” Hunter III grumbled.

“Good girl.”

From her other coat pocket Norn produced a second sliver of the fruit.

Hunter III, perhaps because she was sated, was not as desperate for this one.

But her eyes did follow it calmly all the way from the pocket to the air.

And stared almost incredulously as Norn deposited the object in her waiting hands.

“You can save it or eat it now. It’s all up to you.”

“I’m gonna be fightin’ soon I guess, or you wouldn’t give me none.”

Hunter III excitedly put the object into her mouth, silverskin and all.

Once again, her body seemed to go weak at the taste of it. She shivered, turned her hips.

“Does it taste that good?” Norn asked. Of course, she received no answer.

Though she had not been as enthusiastic for the morsel the second time, her weakness to its taste was precisely the same. It seemed to overtake her entire body, and only after swallowing did she return to her senses, albeit smacking her lips and clicking her tongue as if still chasing some measure of what the fruit made her feel. Her face brightened, and Norn did notice that some color had returned to her skin, which was now very slightly flushed.

She smiled, baring her fangs. More like the Hunter III that Norn remembered.

“So boss, who are we killin’?” She asked, a new enthusiasm creeping into her voice.

“My, you’re lively. I should feed you this stuff more often.” Norn teased.

“Y’ought to, cuz all that fruit belongs to me anyway.” Hunter III replied.

She put her fists on her hips and tried to puff her chest up in a way to seem larger and more confident. Her mood did not dampen despite Norn’s continued refusal to give up custody of the fruits to her. There was a large smile on her face, through which her sharp teeth could be seen. While Hunter III could be quite whiny, she could muster an attitude that lived up to her moniker. As long as it was meat, she would eat anything.

Norn smiled back at her. “You look like you’re ready enough. Here, but don’t eat it now.”

Reaching into the coat itself, Norn procured the final gift she had for Hunter III.

One complete fruit from a Garden of Marrow.

Wrapped in silverskin and a thin layer of soft white fat, flecked with deposits of sea salt within its pellicle-like outer ridges, it was not the uniform shape of a fruit from an ordinary fruiting tree, but a lopsided pink blob. Like an organ drawn from an animal, small enough to hold in the open palm of Norn’s hands, completely still and yet pulsating as if it had life. Concentrating her gaze on the object revealed the faintest trace of placid aural colors, as if it were a thing dreaming or even perhaps yearning, a potential close to life and yet unrealized. Perhaps like an egg.

This was not an object whose mystery Norn could crack alone.

So Norn entrusted the object into Hunter III’s hands and watched closely.

Hunter III stared at her master with eyes drawn wide open and unbelieving.

She looked down at the object in her hands and back up at Norn, her lips drawing apart as if to form words that caught in her throat every time. Through a few cycles of this Norn stood and watched the woman in front of her fumble, before she mustered the willpower to put the fruit into the pouch of her hood. Her face grew warm with a soft and tenuous delight. As if she did not know how she should feel about the gift.

“I guess ya really ain’t that bad huh?” Hunter III. “Or y’re sending me to my death.”

Norn smiled. She laid a hand on Hunter III’s hair and brushed it gently.

Uncharacteristically, the shorter woman allowed this display of affection.

“We’re going to a station that may be full of enemies. I am giving you this because I am entrusting you with Adelheid. Any smart enemy would use my adjutant to gain information about me or coerce me. I want you to be ready to kill to protect her. She has seen combat in the past, but not so much as you or I. So I want to be certain of her safety. If you can keep her safe, I can defeat any enemy we meet there and unravel any scheme we find.”

“So, ya do care about her this much, huh?” Hunter III said.

Those simple words caused Norn to falter for just a brief moment.

I would die without her.

She could never say such a thing.

It felt like admitting a certain weakness to say something like that in front of Hunter III.

“Her path and mine are intertwined, and where one ends, so will the other.” Norn said.

“Talkin’ like an born an’ blue-blooded Apostle now aren’t ya? Like y’ve got some kinda big destiny with her or somethin’. Hah! Y’re just down bad after all!” Hunter III joked, hugging her own belly, and giggling to herself. “But whatever! Gettin’ to eat red fruit and humans today? Really? I’m so spoilt right now! So of course I can’t say no to ya! Just gimme a peek at the station layout if ya can. They won’t know what hit ‘em!”

Norn could not be angry when faced with that unrelenting enthusiasm.

Even if she was saying things about her that she found uncouth.

“You’ll have all the information and any tools you need down in the hangar.” Norn calmly said.

“Only thing I need to get the killin’ started is this.” Hunter III said, gesturing to her pouch, where the fruit was securely stored. “What I wanna know is, how are ya plannin’ to take out a whole station by y’rself too? I can kill a lot of guys, but we’re gonna need more of a plan than that for hundreds of guys. If you get surrounded or somethin’, and you gotta rely on brainpower, you might just keel over from how much blastin’ you’ll be doin’!”

For most psychics that was indeed a genuine concern.

Norn’s whole body could suffer greatly for any irresponsible use of her great gift.

While there were mitigating factors, the basic formula was that the complexity and relative weight of the feat would determine the size of the feedback and injury. Psionics was like a muscle. Even for a practiced body, great effort over prolonged periods of time engendered pain. A power-lifter could fight brilliantly against enormous weights that would break an ordinary man’s arms, but not just any weight, and not indefinitely. And in Norn’s case the muscle she was pushing to its limits was not a sturdy, purpose-built tool like the arms and legs that could be diligently trained, but a vulnerable piece of human xenobiology that felt more miracle than material. In her case, the limits were not something physical that could be easily measured. They had to be felt; and that feeling could be dangerous.

Such ephemera was true even for an Apostle: someone who was born uniquely gifted.

It was also true even for those who trained the eldritch muscle in their own minds to its fullest.

For Norn, who trained among the Sunlight Foundation, Psionics was still not limitless magic.

And yet, in this modern era, there was always an alternative. A power-lifter could imbue his arms with new power through drugs, cybernetics, gene editing, or even being born with a selection of traits that afforded him greater strength, like the Katarran process that Norn herself was quite familiar with. Norn also had access to ways to enhance her own mighty abilities even further. Ways she had already employed to survive to see this day.

She had a simple answer for Hunter III: “I’ve already prepared for that eventuality.”

From Norn’s other inner coat pocket, she produced a long, thin object with a thick cap.

Visible through an opening along its length was a green, blue, and red spiral of fluid.

Embossed on the complex injector was a highly stylized sun emblem.

Hunter III sniffed it briefly. “Huh. Somethin’ funny from the old engineers. You trust it?”

“Your concern is becoming less endearing and more insulting. With this formula I bested Mehmed the Tyrant, who was a powerful Apostle. So don’t worry about me and focus on protecting Adelheid.”

Mehmed– why was she remembering that name–?

“Sure, boss. I guess I better go get ready.” Hunter III said, barely acknowledging the response.

Norn nodded. She felt something solemn take over her then.

Staring at the creature in front of her, so human, so alien, so in between worlds.

Painfully close to how Norn herself had always felt.

It brought up bad memories.

Memories Norn had no use recalling.

“One last thing.”

Hunter III gave her a toothy smile. “What’s up, boss?”

“If you do feel Arbitrator II’s presence, you must let me know.”

“Huh? Well– I gotta be careful with that–“

“I will free you from her.”

Hunter III seemed to have no answer to that.

She was confused why that name had come up.

Twice, even.

“Sure thing, boss.“

She was likely not even listening anymore at this point.

Maybe to some degree, she could not listen to a request like that.

Norn laid a hand on her head, feeling the silky hair on the Omenseer like the fur on a fondly loved dog.

“You will be free to help me terrorize the world, to your heart’s content.”

Those words that crossed her lips scarcely acknowledged the actual truth.

And she was so powerful in her self deception that not for a second did she allow herself to acknowledge why she was even speaking names like Mehmed and Arbitrator II so casually to Hunter III, for whom they could not hope to be memories as long, lasting and harshly lived as they were for Norn. Memories of lofty goals, foolish naivety, and half-understood truths about the deep, dark world they journeyed in. Memories that she had become adept at referencing sans their context, to never again follow to their source. Mehmed was just a name.

And Arbitrator II would soon be just another name in the recesses of her mind.

But first, she had to attend the stultifying tasks that lay ahead in Konstantin’s little farce.


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.1]

Whenever she marched up this dusty grey carpet to meet him, the grim throne room of their souls was not actually at Heitzing where it should logically be but was instead displaced to the summer palace at Schwerin Island.

She could see through the stark white pillars out to vast fields encircling the palace, fields of her favorite flower, purple Lilies. Schwerin was the terminal point of a wound that began to be cut into the emperor’s upper torso at Vogelheim. But it was at Schwerin Island where the knife fully disemboweled him and cut everything from him.

His guts, his groin; his sins spilled pathetically on this holy ground.

And so he remained surrounded on all sides by the perfectly preserved memory of his lusts.

“What vice! What tragedy! But Konstantin, I am happy you still choose to watch over me!”

It was a vision of a soul being made to dream. It was a place only the most powerful saw.

For some it could be blissful and innocent, but this Aether reflected the self in this man.

Stark white pillars caging him in a throne far from the vast colorful fields of his regret.

Upon the throne was a wasting, sickly man clad heavily in coat and cape, a marshal of vast forces long dispersed, whose gaunt countenance retained only his severity and grim expression. Any hint of his soft handsomeness was faded, replaced by the haunted, far-away gaze with which he ordered wars, enslavement, genocide, and the death of his beloved. He retained some of his vanities, such as his head of long black hair untouched atop his head as if the last remnants of life upon his body. A corpse wearing the suit of prestige, any beauty also merely part of a disguise.

Standing opposite this man was also the true self of his only remaining companion.

A blond woman, hair tied up in a functional ponytail, with a deceptively soft expression just barely touched by makeup and just barely restraining laughter. Her stark red eyes contrasted the blue and green coat of the House of the Fueller, that she wore over a sleek black camisole blouse and white pants. She looked much younger than she was, for she and the skeletal man before her were only separated by a few years. Because of her power and charisma, her beauty remained unmarred both in the Aether and in the real world. She was proud of the body she exhibited to him.

“You could have simply let it go! But now your ego has trapped you here forever!”

He could say nothing back.

“I’m beyond thrilled! You think you will get some satisfaction from this? Then keep watching me! Bear witness while everything that represented you rusts and turns to dust! Gaze upon the bountiful rewards I enjoy while you suffer! Haunt me with all your remaining strength!”

She spat on the ground before the throne and then made an act of sorting out her coat. She had come to like wearing the coat and what it represented, the climbing up of the intelligent and feared machinists of the Fuellers to the ladder of power after suffering a grievous disrespect, the first revolution this stagnant society ever saw. She admired them, collectively. But not this man.

Soon, however, the walls began to waver, turning into many-colored smoke and fading–


“–Descending through the Upper Scattering Layer in five minutes.”

A cold and inexpressive voice rose above the sounds of mechanical keys and the whirr of the individual station computers on the gloomy bridge of the Imperial cruiser Antenora. Unlike the flamboyant bridge designs common to many other Imperial ships, this one was spartan, with bare metal walls and the ship’s commander seated amid a tight square of her supporting station officers.

It was on this bridge that Lady Norn von Fueller awakened from a dream already dim and forgotten.

Though she could turn her gaze in any direction and see right over the shoulders of her subordinates, she mainly stared at the main screen with an almost bored expression. Her officers reported to her efficiently throughout the course of the descent, but she had questions of her own the whole time, which received answers just as efficient. Nothing more than what was necessary.

“Current depth?”

“286 meters and descending.”

“Sonar shows all clear?”

“All clear, milord.”

Moving quickly on from one subordinate to the next.

“How’s the red biomass in this sector?”

“1 parts per million at concentration 2 on the Schechter scale.”

Her station officers did not even turn their heads to speak to her, nor did she demand it.

“Are we detecting any imaging attempts against the Upper Scattering Layer?”

“Negative, milord. No signs of radiation or human acoustic patterns.”

“Of course they would not. And yet, for every concept under the sun, there is a someday.”

Among her bridge, it was only Norn who had spare words to say.

As far as most of the public, and even the most of the military knew, the Upper Scattering Layer was the boundary of the human world. An absolutely massive ecosystem that stretched ocean-wide containing almost all life that survived the calamity which befell Aer. When sonar and laser imaging was turned surfaceward from the deeper civilization of humankind, there was a “false roof” to their endeavors formed by fish, leviathans, and other ocean creatures.

The Upper Scattering Layer separated the Aphotic zone of humanity from the Photic zone, the ocean nearest to the surface and which received direct sunlight, even through the cover of the corruption clouds. Nothing could be built by humans in the Photic zone that wouldn’t be destroyed by its alien temperament. Navigation was nearly impossible due to the erratic currents and the touch of the surface’s most corrupted areas and their eldritch weather influencing the waters. If a ship did not get blown off-course or wrecked by a sudden turn in the waters, it could antagonize the many aggressive lifeforms that grew out of humankind’s calamity and get devoured.

Outside of the geographic locations known as Reaches, areas where the surface was miraculously tamer and humanity could therefore enter its shallows, the Upper Scattering Layer at between 300 to 500 meters depth, represented the wall between the world of light and the shadow of humanity. It was this wall through which the Imperial Cruiser Antenora now descended through, from above.  Back to the dark to rejoin the rest of humanity after a brief sojourn in the holy land.

This was but one of many powers commanded by the woman known as “the Praetorian.”

“Hunter III, you’ve been keeping mum. Anything interesting in that head of yours?”

In a corner of the bridge, a pallid woman lifted her head up as if waking from a trance.

Eyes glowing with intermittent red rings as she stared into space, called by her Lord.

“I mean whatcha wanna know anyway?” She said. Her tone was confrontational.

“How about the currents? What’s the weather looking like?”

“Currents are fine. We’ll dive through without problems.”

Her Lord, nothing but the back of a chair from her vantage, rapped fingers on metal.

“Any visitors?”

“Couple’a big ones. 5 klicks out. Fightin’ each other. Won’t follow us.”

“You sure? I’ll hurl you out there to be bait if you’re wrong.” Her tone shifted suddenly.

“I can’t be unsure, I’m seein’ it. Quit givin’ me grief. You’re always treatin’ me like trash when I’m the only reason any of ya are alive. Give me more meat if ya want me to be more accurate. Otherwise all y’all getting is my half-dead ramblings, you greedy evil witch.”

Laughter erupted from the chair. A black-gloved hand slammed the armrest with joy.

“How dramatic! Woe is you! Eating sausage and luncheon meat like us humans do!”

At the Lord’s response, the pallid, sharp-toothed woman grumbled openly.

“When are ya gonna give me real meat again?” She moaned. “Y’just starvin’ me for fun?”

“Quit acting like a dog I don’t feed. You eat every day. You’ll get something special soon.”

“Soon huh? The days’ been creepin’ and soon ain’t ever closer for Hunter III, it seems.”

None of the other bridge crew had any comment about the repartee behind them.

At the back, Hunter III pulled her hood up over her stark grey-and-white hair and sulked.

“Work hard and pray for trouble!” Norn cheered. “Then I’ll have use for you again!”

There was a crooked grin on Norn’s face as she berated Hunter III that she wore at no other time on that bridge. Everyone else was an automaton; but there was real value, and real fun, in a person whom you could not control. Particularly someone with the myriad uses Hunter III had.

“We’ve crossed the Upper Scattering Layer,” droned one of the officers.

The Antenora descended through a vast cloud of fish that parted and then closed in its wake as if shutting the door to the forbidden world behind them. Around the ship the color of water formed a slowly darkening gradient, from the brilliant light blue and green water kissed by the light of the sun to the deep blue and ultimately near-black waters of the aphotic zone. Visibility grew worse, until the ship’s cameras turned their floodlights on to achieve the familiar 50-75 meters of vision. At 700 meters, they could claim to have returned fully to the human world.

All manner of learned men dreamed of making this transition and found a depth of tragedy and poetry to this gradient in the water and light. Norn found nothing poetic about it. In her mind, there was no irony to humans’ remnants having been reduced to living in the shadows of the aphotic zone. She avoided such sophistry as to say, “we are shadows of our former selves.”

After all, she was living proof that humanity’s best was yet to come.

Her most common emotion sitting on this bridge was a sense of sheer boredom.

A blankness of the mind that only cleared once she was back in the dark world of humans.

“Depth?” She asked, back to an inexpressive, business-like tone of voice.

“700 meters.”

“Ah, home sweet home. We are in Sverland, correct?”

“Correct. Nearest station is Ajillo.”

“Ignore biologics again and inform me immediately of any mechanical profiles.”

“Yes, milord.”

Norn did not thank her bridge “drones” for their efficiency and attention.

In this role, she was as much of a drone as they were.

Soon, however, she would have cause to come alive again.

Now that she was back in the human world, her own vision started moving to other matters.

“Hunter III, feel free to nod off. I’ll wake you if I need you. Send Adelheid up.”

“It’s not sleep I’m cravin’, but as ya wish, milady.”

Behind Norn’s seat, Hunter III stood up and stormed out of the room.

Norn grinned to herself. She was back in Sverland, in the final act of Konstantin’s play.

It was not the surface world in which anything was transpiring, the poets and clergy be damned.

Movement existed only where humans could view it. That she could rise out of the world of humanity and travel through the waters above only made her anticipate her return to the dark more eagerly.

This was a time of great chaos and emotion in the world of humans, after all!

“Milord, we’ve detected a sonar pulse coming from a pair of Frigates.”

Without another word, the officer put the data she was referencing on the main screen. While a sonar pulse was a good way to be absolutely sure of everything that was around a ship, it also lit the ship up underwater like a stage spotlight. The Antenora was quickly aware of the ship that sent the pulse and their relative position. Soon, predictive imaging data came in as well.

“Milord, what is our posture?”

Norn smiled to herself, leaning back and resting her cheek on one of her fists.

“Combat. Let’s clean this up quickly, and then we can pick up our reinforcements.”

A few kilometers out were two Frigates, one of which was a missile Frigate with six bays, the other a reconnaissance ship outfitted with several domes filled with imaging and detection equipment more powerful than standard. It must have been this ship that sent out the pulse, but for what? Were they so reasonably sure that nobody meant them ill in this sector? One supposed they could not have known a ship would be descending from the photic zone.

Nobody planned for that.

“Nobody sends those missile Frigates out as part of a recon unit except the Volkisch.” Norn said. “That second Frigate has no missiles, it’s probably packed with Divers. Heidelinde Sawyer came up with that trick and now every one of those goosestepping clowns thinks they can do it.”

“To whom should we delegate combat command?”

A different drone spoke up than the one handling detection, but it didn’t matter who did.

“I’ll command.” Norn said. “But there won’t be much to do. Ping them over acoustics and tell them to stop, turn their cannons away, show their flanks to us, and prepare for inspection. All I want to know from the reply is whether they’re identifying as Volkisch or not, ignore the content. They won’t comply anyway, so just tell Potomac to get Selene and the machine ready to launch.”

Norn toyed with a long lock of blonde hair from the side of her head, briefly admiring its sheen. Adelheid was simply unmatched when it came to making Norn look beautiful. On the main screen, the Volkisch Frigates turned to meet her advance as soon as the acoustic message went out, putting them on a collision course. Norn glanced at it, gently kicking her feet while she waited.

“Fleet identified as ‘Aufklärungsgruppe Sowilo’ from the Rhinean navy.”

“Ah, fun! It’s the Volkisch. Stick to counterfire only.” Norn said. “Let Selene handle it.”

She rubbed her hands together and then spread them in a spontaneous cheer.

A grin appeared on her face from ear to ear and she could barely contain her excitement.

A grin that only broadened when she finally got the message she wanted to hear from the hangar.

Jagdkaiser Testbed, pilot Selene Anahid, cleared for deployment.” An officer said.

“I’m authorizing one cartridge, Selene. Anything goes otherwise. Have fun!” Norn said.

She then sat back to watch she show, hoping only that Adelheid might join them soon.


From the deployment chutes at the bottom of the Antenora a single machine was released.

Imaging predictors could not distinguish it from a Jagd and labeled it as such.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching.

To meet this threat the missile Frigate’s bays opened to reveal six modified Volkers. These Sturmvolkers used the smaller cockpit module of a Jagd rather than the bathyspheric torso of an older Volker, but retained the arms, legs, shoulders, and other parts of the classic imperial mecha to design a rugged but lighter footsoldier worthy of the frontline stormtroops. It was this stripping down that allowed the Sturmvolker to fit into the modified missile bays and launch from them.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching, and they had ambushed it.

Six Sturmvolkers with MP-443 20 mm submachine guns charged the enemy in formation.

Withering volleys of light gunfire cut across the ocean between the opposing forces.

Bullets soared into the dark, open water and detonated around an enemy no longer there.

An instant before they had begun to fire, the enemy Jagd veered left–

And a pair of foreign objects separated from it and veered right.

Several of the Volkisch troops opened fire on the objects believing them to be missiles. Dozens of rounds of submachine gun fire met the objects on the right flank. Much to the confusion and disbelief of the soldiers, these missiles dove, and banked, and circled around the gunfire, moving with a speed, reaction and efficacy that seemed unreal as they sped past the formation.

Taking the Volkisch’s backs, the missiles suddenly opened fire themselves.

Not just from behind, but from above as well.

Coordinating fire from two separate directions, the weapons laid down a hailstorm of frighteningly accurate 37 mm bullets while they circled over and around the Volkisch group, too fast for the bewildered soldiers to effectively respond. Two of the Volkers had their backpacks and helmets blasted apart immediately, and the rest began to panic and flee in every direction– they broke completely at the unusual weapons attacking them and without cohesion could do nothing.

Though the remaining Volkers dispersed in seemingly every direction, the strange mobile weapons simply adjusted the angle of fire and widened their strafing movements to expand the circle in which they kept the Volkisch trapped. Three more Volkers were sunk, but a single one dove down and to the left at just the right time as everyone else rose, narrowly avoiding the attack.

He lifted his submachine gun skyward and opened fire, blasting apart one of the missiles.

A shadow swept upon him as quickly as he remembered it. A massive claw ripped through the back of his armor and tore out the suit’s mechanical guts in a swift motion. With them was a red smear made unhuman by sudden decompression. Slowly the once survivor sank out of sight, arms limp, trailing ribbons of oil and gore like the machine that killed him trailed water and power.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd had torn through their forces like a storm.

Atop the Frigates, 76 mm light guns began to pound the immediate area around the machine but to no greater effect. Before it was fired upon the machine was already moving, accelerating faster, and maneuvering more swiftly than the cannon crew anticipated. Gas gun emplacements on the Frigates whipped up an intimidating fusillade of flak, but even through this, the enemy charged, unharmed, its cruel claw extending hungrily toward the Frigates as it closed in, 100 meters, 75, 50.

“You have one cartridge. Make it count.”

Within moments, the Jagd was upon the reconnaissance Frigate, face to face with the prow.

Having danced around every bullet as if it could see them before they flew out the barrels.

Dwarfed as it was by the vessel before it, the Jagd still reared back its claw to tear at it.

From within the seams in its arm’s armor plating a dim purple glow briefly escaped.

Vapor vented from several ports on the claw.

Razor-sharp digits parted to reveal an opening like a cannon barrel in the palm.

Stabilizers on each digit affixed to the central port as it snapped open.

A burst of water vapor punched forward from the opening encasing an indigo light.

On the Frigate’s prow a pulse shook the metal. Purple streaks crackled across the surface slashing up and down the prow to the keel and deck, to the port and starboard. Hexagonal bits of material peeled off the surface wherever the arcing energies danced leaving gaps momentarily smoking in place, before a second later the entire prow sunk in and burst, ejecting great plumes of bubbles and vapor as the interior decompressed. Roughly half of the ship lost structural integrity and collapsed, sinking inward or bursting open, and it toppled to the ocean floor a heap of metal.

Across the Jagd’s claw, hexagonal burnt marks were left around the weapon’s opening and all of the stabilizers had been eaten away. Dim crackling purple energy still played about the digits leaving tiny hex-shaped scars wherever they went. Parts of the armor plate on the arm had been peeled entirely off the machine revealing complex, silvery metalwork, and various electronics.

As the machine capsized a ship with one swing of its arm, its remaining weapon swiftly strafed across the deck of the missile Frigate, overflying the missile bays with its barrel pointing down and shooting directly into the openings as it went, punching holes directly to the interior of the ship. Nonchalantly, the weapon overflew the conning tower as the Frigate began to list, taking in water and expelling atmosphere. It returned to the machine and docked to the shoulder.

Minutes had passed since the launch of this machine.

Suspended amid clouds of debris and the wailing remains of hundreds of lives so easily erased, the machine was cast in a demonic gloom. Water billowing off its rear jets like wings, its blue coloration rendered black in the darkness of human waters, the horns on its head emitting strange lights. It was a demon released to haunt the oceans.

A demon called the Jagdkaiser.


Water dribbled down the armor of the recovered Jagdkaiser as it was lifted to the hangar by cranes, collecting on the orange steel floor of the Antenora’s lower deck. Soon as it arrived at the deployment chute, the pilot followed instructions to power down the machine. It was delicate and should not be made to move out of the water under its own power until set into its own gantry.

As Norn stepped out of the elevator to the hangar floor, she saw a welcome face gawking.

“Fancy looking, isn’t it?” Norn called out.

“I can’t stand it, honestly. Too many sharp edges.”

“Your skin too fine for it? Scared of getting a cut?”

“Hmph. My fashion sense is too fine for it.”

Standing apart from the sailors and engineers tending to the machine was Norn’s adjutant and first officer, a young woman named Adelheid van Mueller. Unlike Norn, who dressed however she wanted and essentially just wore her nicest shirts and pants beneath Fueller regalia, Adelheid had the grey and silver uniform of the Grand Western Fleet, a strapping coat that flattered her shapely figure, paired with a short skirt, black tights, and heeled shoes. Her glossy, deep red hair and the pastel-soft features of her face could have graced a classic portrait. She not only looked every bit the perfect noblewoman, but her every movement exuded an almost exotic grace–

–even as she blew off Norn’s high-tech prototype mecha with a bratty turn of the cheek.

“I’ve decided I quite dislike it.” She said. Her green eyes were unreadable, but her soft pink lips pouted just a little as she looked at the machine with vague disinterest, or perhaps disdain.

Norn shrugged, approaching the young woman, and standing at her side near the machine.

“You’ll have to get out of its sight, princess, because it’s not going anywhere.”

“Perhaps I will. Maybe I’ll take off and you’ll never see me again.” Adelheid laughed.

“Hunter III told you to go up to meet me.” Norn said nonchalantly.

“Hunter III ran straight to the commissary to beg for meat and told me nothing.”

“Wow. I can’t rely on her to do anything. Anyway, you know you’re not going anywhere.”

Norn briefly fixed a sharp gaze on Adelheid before setting her sights back on the mecha.

Possessed of the sleek, angular profile of the second-generation Jagd, the Jagdkaiser had a pointed face from which two steeply angled “horns” protruded, glowing with LED lights. One of its 20 mm shoulder guns was removed. That shoulder was thickened and mounted its semi-autonomous “Options” weapon system.

Rather than a backpack, the propulsion consisted of self-contained hydrojet thrusters set on exterior movable mounts. Two large ones extended from the hips, another pair on the legs, and pair behind the shoulders that, when engaged, cast a wake behind machine as if it had wings or a shimmering cape. One of its arms was equipped with a large claw, almost out of proportion to the body, sleeved in angular armor enclosing complex machinery.

Upon seeing the design, Prince Erich dubbed it Jagdkaiser. It was a marvel of engineering, the most stunning armor beneath the waves. The stagnant conflict between the Republic and Empire, which neither had the will to conclude, could have never produced such an apex predator. It could only emerge from a grand upheaval of the current order. Regardless of Adelheid’s silly attitude, even she had to have realized the significance.

“Is Selene unplugged yet?”

Norn turned to one of the technicians near the machine.

He was looking at a diagnostic computer that had a real-time image that looked like a brain-scan, showing different regions of the pilot’s neurological system in different colors. Everything was blue and green, calm. Norn could see similar colors when she focused on the aura around the machine itself. Selene was in good health.

“Separation is almost complete, milord.”

“Did it take this long last time?”

“Average separation time is 5.45 minutes.”

Like the rest of the crew the technician did not turn to face her, it wasn’t necessary.

When Norn stepped forward to look at the computer herself, she briefly saw the hard red rings around his eyes. He continued to be under her influence. There was no possibility that he was lying or trying to sabotage anything. After all, he himself would not want to do so. He himself had no understanding that he was controlled, and he was not wanting for food, rest or luxuries. He was simply working his job efficiently and enjoying it.

That being said, there was always a tiny thrill of paranoia about it, in the back of Norn’s brain.

Adelheid look over Norn’s shoulder with a curious expression.

“Norn, this time’s definitely taking longer.” Adelheid said.

“We’re well within the average time based on our tests.” The technician said calmly.

“He can backtalk me?” Adelheid pouted.

Norn grinned. “He can state the facts plainly and clear misconceptions. It’s his job.”

Taking Adelheid by the shoulder, Norn led her away from the computers and drones.

They stepped in front of the Jagdkaiser and waited until they finally heard a mechanical hissing. An efficient two part hatch slid into the bodywork, opening to reveal a young, skinny girl emerging from what looked eerily like a conglomeration of sinews attached to her head. Extricating herself from the various cables and sensors in her cockpit, the lithe girl in a black pilot suit climbed down, withdrew a visored mask from her pearl-skinned face.

She pulled a clip from the back of her head to release her long, purple-colored hair.

Two long, rainbow-colored, shimmering locks remained pinned down to the rest, however.

“I was having too much of a blast and busted one of the things. It’s whatever, right?”

Selene Anahid pointed at the Jagdkaiser’s shoulder with an easygoing smile on her face.

“Ordnance gets shot down. It’s fine. Logistics worries about that.” Norn said, shrugging.

“Hah! I knew you wouldn’t care. You’re the coolest commander I’ve had.” Selene said.

Grinning widely, Selene walked up to Norn and gave her a lighthearted little punch.

Norn refrained from roughhousing back and simply crossed her arms and smiled back.

At their side, Adelheid rolled her eyes and scoffed, loudly, performatively.

“It’s not a long list.” She said. “And I bet you’ll hate it the first time she scolds you.”

“Whatever.” Selene blew off the comment. “As long as I get what I want, I’ll be happy.”

“What you want huh? Killing people?” Adelheid said, with mock sweetness.

“That’s just a hobby. Anyway I’m bored. I’m gonna get some dinner and go to bed.”

Selene looked at Norn both expectantly but also with a great disinterest in her response. It was the kind of look only a self-absorbed kid could give. Norn couldn’t help but laugh. Such quick, almost schizophrenic swings; what a lively girl! Truly the only appropriate pilot for this test.

“Of course. If you see Hunter III over there, tell her to come down.” Norn said.

“She won’t listen to me, but ok.”

Selene waved disinterestedly and walked away with her arms behind her head, yawning.

The two of them watched her go, until the young woman had disappeared into the elevator. Norn and Adelheid looked at the interior of the Jagdkaiser and at the missing slot in the “Options” mount of the shoulder, just briefly enough to realize it was indeed a problem, before wandering away from the gantries. They would have to talk to Chief Engineer Potomac to see about fixing it.

Side by side, with Adelheid matching Norn’s contemplative pace, they marched to the ship’s workshop. There was clear and growing agitation in the First Officer’s stride, however.

“Norn, about Selene? She’s a vat kid, right? How old is she?” Adelheid asked.

“Supposed to be twenty, but who knows?” Norn asked. “And what’s with ‘vat kid’? I’m also a ‘vat kid’ I’ll have you know; I don’t want that phrase coming up in my ship again, okay?”

“Okay, fine. But you have to tell me what you promised her!” Adelheid demanded.

“What’s this mood you’re in suddenly? Are you feeling jealous? You colicky child?”

Adelheid turned her cheek. “And what if I am? I know I’m nowhere near as important–”

Norn interrupted decisively. “I’ll see to you soon. Hold on to your skirt until then.”

Her voice took a turn that seemed to put some kind of order back in Adelheid’s brains.

She started keeping pace with Norn again and her expression was slightly livelier.

“Fine, but what did you promise her? I want to know. I have to help take care of her too.”

In the face of Adelheid’s endearing determination, Norn finally relented.

“I promised her information about her past. I know who her main genetic donor is.”

“‘Main Genetic Donor’? Like, what, her father?”

“So in your mind, the principal actor behind a child’s creation is the father?”

“I mean. I guess? I wasn’t really getting philosophical with this.”

“I was just surprised by your reaction, given we’ve been through.” Norn shrugged. “Well, in her case, if I explained all the circumstances regarding her father-slash-mother, it might confuse your apparently narrow minded ideas of the world around you. So put that pretty head to good use thinking about less complicated matters, like our logistics, and onboarding our reinforcements, and let me worry about Selene.”

Adelheid took the insult to her intelligence in stride and put on a mischievous little grin.

“You’re the boss. But now I’m curious. What about your own donors? What kind of genetic powerhouses are behind the impeccable, almighty Astra Palaiologos whose company I cherish?”

Norn glanced sideways at Adelheid with a sudden fierceness.

Adelheid both saw, and felt the force of, that particular gaze, and it put her in her place.

Her flighty officer put her hands behind her back and kept quiet as they crossed the hangar.

Norn made only the tip of the iceberg of her displeasure known to her in that moment.

This particular turn in her plaything’s mood was starting to get a little annoying.

Adelheid knew everything she needed to know about Norn. More than any Imbrian knew.

Her curiosity toward boring, long-gone days was getting on Norn’s nerves.

Next time she taught Adelheid a lesson she’d make those feelings quite clear to her.

Almost assuredly what she wanted to happen.

When the pair arrived at the workshop space, a drone had just pulled in through one of the utility chutes and disgorged from its pod a heap of twisted metal and seawater collected from the battlefield. This was what remained of the “Option” that had been destroyed in the battle with the Volkisch, or so Norn presumed. There was no one paying it attention in that precise moment.

“Ugh, I wish they’d sent Tigris or Hudson instead. Potomac! Get over here and make yourself useful!”

Hunched over a table, prodding with an electrode at something wet and plastic colored encased in a metal shell to which far too many strange cables were attached, was the Antenora’s current Chief Engineer, named only “Potomac.” She was on loan from a certain distasteful group.

Potomac had turned the workshop into a circle of tables each playing host to mounds of tools and parts. Fluids of various sorts, random indiscernible pieces of machinery, worn or broken tools, and rolling hills of cabling and silicon dies littered the area. She was drowning in materials.

Clearly, she was not paying much attention to her surroundings whatsoever.

“In a minute.” She mumbled dismissively.

Right now.” Norn hissed.

Norn caught a brief glimpse of her honey-brown face as she looked over her shoulder. Where she came from, it was no obstacle to look however you wanted. Her lab coat, turtleneck and long skirt were all made of organic materials, worth thousands of marks by themselves. To the average onlooker she would have she would have been quite eyecatching, with a curvaceous figure, wide hipped, round-shouldered, an ample chest and a firm, round belly, thick legs. Her face had a soft-featured, small-nosed, gentle beauty to it that felt quite cozy, and long, lustrous black hair.

“I just need to get a few more reactions out of this neuropod. It’ll just take a second.”

Sparks flew as she jabbed the strange object in front of her with an electric prod.

Adelheid turned her cheek with a look of vague disgust.

Norn held out her hand, and in an instant, Potomac’s experiment was sent flying.

It struck the opposite wall of the workshop, a blue and white smear left in the case.

Potomac stared at it with barely any reaction. Her eyes teared up just a little.

“I– I don’t even know how to respond to that. I worked on that for hours.”

“If you value the integrity of the rest of your experiments, you will follow my commands immediately when I tell you.” Norn said. “Not one minute, not one second later. Right now.”

The engineer heaved a long sigh and turned to face them with a wan look to her face.

Her movements were very stiff, as if she were dragging herself through every motion.

“Duly noted.”

Potomac could choose to look however she wanted. Therefore, to some degree, perhaps the dark bags under her forced-open eyes, the uncared for look of her hair that was haphazardly collected and restrained with a clip behind her head, the shabbiness that had befallen her coat, the dirtiness of her glasses, were all symbolic of what she chose to do with the resources she had.

“Glad we understand each other.” Norn said. “I have something you need to fix.”

“I’m not one of your sailors, you know.” Potomac complained. “I’m not here to keep your ship’s ovens running or whatever. I’m only supposed to be working on important stuff.”

Norn crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “Like poking at slime in a jar?”

“It’s not slime! It’s so much more than slime, bah! It’s the future of computing!”           

“I don’t care. One of the Jagdkaiser’s Options was damaged in the battle. Go fix it.”

“Uh huh? Well, that is worthy of my talents.”

Potomac looked suddenly interested and began to look around the workshop.

“Did you bring it back? Where is it?”

Norn pointed over her shoulder. “It’s over there.”

“Over there? I don’t– Are you sure? Huh. I don’t see it. This might be tricky.”

“Are you blind? Over there. What do you need to fix it?” Norn asked.

She gestured to the drone as if unveiling the heap of metal they collected from the water.

Potomac blanched at it, her face sagging with growing displeasure.

“What is that? Is that really one of the Options?”

“Yes. Don’t act stupid. I’m sure you can tell from looking at it, you made it.”

“When I made it, it didn’t look like that.” Potomac bent down to stare closely at the gnarled slag that became of her invention. She shook her head, while still bent stiffly over it. “I did not expect to ever see an Option in such a state.” She stood back upright as stiffly as she bent.

“You eggheads never disappoint me with your naivety.” Norn said.

Potomac curled her hands into fists at her side.

“Look, I am an engineer advancing humanity’s digital evolution! My brain is constantly beset with world-spanning dilemmas that need cutting-edge, innovative solutions. I spare any expense to achieve my results no matter how high. I am not one of your small-minded logistics people counting beans in a bag. I will need to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”

Norn rolled her eyes at that histrionic spiel. “Problem solved then.”

“No! There is a new problem. I do not want to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”

Potomac stared dead on at Norn with those wide open eyes and that stiff posture.

For a moment, the room was dead silent. Norn grit her teeth.

“How about I stomp on your ribs until they come out of your mouth instead?”

Red rings briefly flashed in Norn’s eyes.

Potomac turned stiffly around and started an exaggerated march toward a comm booth.

“I will go have a chat with Yangtze about the parts.” She said, waving her hand.

She removed herself with more grace and alacrity than she had ever exhibited.

Throughout this exchange, Adelheid kept blissfully quiet, playing with a lock of red hair.

“You sound so heated lately.” She finally said. “Looks like someone could use a massage.”

“Now that you’re offering, I will be expecting it.” Norn said, sighing deeply.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.5]

Upon exiting the Brigand, a certain wily cat was trying to think of something mischievous to say.

“Make it back in one piece, squad leader; I wouldn’t want to have to tease a corpse for its owner’s mistakes.”

Murati, of course, had no reply to that. It was her youth and inexperience perhaps.

With a macabre flair sharpened by her long military service, Khadija al-Shajara broke off from the rest of the squadron, leading Valya Lebedova through the gloomy seas towards the left flank of the enemy’s formation. Khadija controlled her mech with practiced ease, each turn of the stick or press of the pedal as smooth or as harsh as it needed to be. Their Streloks were basic in comparison to some of the customized models favored by the other pilots, but Khadija liked hers basic. She had a relationship to this kind of machine that no one else could ever match.

She tried to purge herself of useless emotions when she went out into the water.

Deep breath, lifting her shoulders, stretching her legs.

Remembering the wine she had back on board the Brigand.

“Valya, how do I sound?”

“Legible!”

“Good. Mind if I take the lead?”

“You’re in the lead ma’am!”

“That’s a good little enby. Judging by how much ordnance is strapped to that Strelkannon I think Sam and Nika will be fine in the front. We should prioritize trying to cripple the Frigate’s flak on our end. If the Cutters are destroyed or rout, those Frigates will try to move up to encircle the center team. Does that sound like a plan?”

“I’m fine with it! We can put a couple bursts in those gas gun pods at least.”

“One shot beneath the left barrel will set off the magazine. No need to seal it with a kiss.”

“I don’t know that I can fire just one shot off this AK, but I’ll try ma’am!”

Valya sounded slightly nervous.

Khadija’s flighty sense of humor never left her, but she was speaking with a stern tone of voice even as she compared the killing of a gas gun pod to the writing of a letter. There was a professional ease that came over whenever she piloted, a sense of giving up responsibility. It allowed her to be honest with herself and everyone around her.

She made the best of every day precisely so she could go out into the water without regret.

An old– mature woman, no children, unmarried, no family: it didn’t matter if she died.

Twenty years in the cockpit made those things seem small.

And the stakes involved in this particular mission made them even smaller.

Khadija flew through the water like a missile. Rookie pilots felt a sense of disorientation or confusion fighting in the Ocean because they could see nothing on their cameras most of the time, save for the overlays labeled by their predictive computers. Then when they found a landmark, they’d suddenly start orienting themselves in two dimensions, as if trying to plant their feet on it. And if anything came at them too suddenly it would be like a jump scare in a movie.

Even back when she started piloting, she never gave in to such vulnerabilities. Khadija was suspended in the water. As long as she had power she would not fall. Nevertheless, she did not hold inexperience against most people in the Navy. Her baptism under fire had taken place in an entirely different era, after all. She could not begrudge them being a little soft now.

It’s why she fought in the first place.

If they were too soft, it only meant those hard old veterans like her should set an example.

“Contacts.” Valya said.

“I see them. I’ll engage. Break off from me, lock your thrust and strafe the ship.”

“Uhh, wait, ma’am who locks their thrust ever? I don’t–”

Without responding, Khadija used the tips of her feet to flip two locking switches.

This would keep her pedals jammed down.

She lifted her AK rifle and fired a three round burst blindly into the ocean below.

Valya shouted. “What was that?”

“Relax and stick to the plan.”

Dead ahead of them was the red square for the Frigate and one additional red square most likely representing a pair of enemy Divers moving close together. Some twenty or thirty meters farther out from these squares was the great and murky looming shadow of the Irmingard class flagship. Quietly, inexorably advancing toward the Brigand.

That was not her concern for now.

Moving at the speed she was Khadija knew she would see the enemy Divers on her camera in seconds.

When they appeared on her screen, the two Volkers were swimming ahead with their rifles to their chests, pointing at nothing and descending rapidly. Toward the last thing that their predictors had pointed them to. The loudest noise they could hear in the middle of the murky ocean: a burst of rifle bullets blowing up in the middle of nowhere. This was how a Rookie saw the world underwater. Large overlay boxes representing “enemies,” and the loudest noise in the box.

As I thought. You fellas are half-baked.

“Ma’am–”

“Stop calling me ma’am and do what I tell you.”

“Yes! Sorry!”

Valya hurtled onward to attack the Frigate moving rapidly into full view.

While Khadija swooped down from above to attack the two Divers below.

Without stopping to aim, she glanced at the rifle’s camera and put a burst into the water.

Like gas gun bullets, rifle bullets were mainly explosive and had special fuzes. Her burst flew off into the blue surrounding the Volkers and detonated around them. She did not aim and had not meant to hit. Startled, the Volkers thrust backwards in opposite directions away from the explosions, separating them from one another.

Never once slowing down or stopping, Khadija fluidly descended in a wide arc circling around the enemy Volkers. Rather than turn her entire chassis to face them, she kept her chest forward, head down, and jets thrusting, strafing past the enemy in tight coiling lines that framed them like a cage of water and bubbles. Her gun camera and one shoulder camera kept her locked on her targets. She did not need to stop and stand among them to shoot.

Khadija rapped the trigger, waiting a fraction of a second between each pull.

For each careful press, she sent a bullet toward the enemy.

Her gunfire arced into the Volkers, exploding into vapor bubbles the size of a dog.

Both Volkers finally set their sights on her and turned their rifles, laying down fire.

A trail of bullets exploded in her wake, never making their mark.

Khadija kept moving. In and around them, like a serpent, leaving them in confusion.

Her chassis cut through the water with great alacrity, weaving, climbing, and rolling, never stopping, keeping as much speed as she could between maneuvers. While strafing the Volkers, her speed protected her from their fire. She could manipulate the arms and cameras to fire a few ranging shots back at them in the middle of her maneuvers. Her enemy, meanwhile, was reduced to lurching in place, jerking ungracefully away from the direction of her gunfire.

Against a two-man section that knew how to defend itself Khadija would have been cut down by coordinated gunfire or dragged into a melee. She could not have been so cocky. But she knew what she was dealing with, and amateurs stuck in two dimensions could never hope to stop her. She had the measure of them, and it was time to end it.

Sweeping up suddenly and unexpectedly, she stopped overhead for just a moment.

The Volkers expected her to keep moving and overshot their next bursts of gunfire, leaving themselves completely open. Khadija braced her assault rifle with both arms to control her aim more tightly.

Two trigger pulls, two bullets, with just one snap correction between each shot.

Two explosions through the heads of the two Volkers below her.

Bubbles blew up from each chassis. A tell-tale sign: gases were escaping.

Without staying for a moment longer to inspect her handiwork, Khadija took off again.

She discarded her magazine and loaded a fresh one into the AK-96.

A brief glance at the rear camera as she headed toward the Frigate.

Both Volkers were sinking, barely damaged but damaged where it mattered.

Khadija knew that an overhead shot on a Volker could penetrate the head on the pure kinetic energy of a 37 mm round which would then detonate inside the camera housing. That meant the explosion would damage the pressure hull at the top of the cockpit through the thin aperture where the visual electronics connected and routed through. As much as the Volker’s camera housing looked like a helmet, it was not well armored and represented a vulnerability.

From one target to another. No use thinking about the debris.

She had a Frigate to sink.

Imperial Marder class Frigates were wide, boxy ships with tear-drop prows and squat conning towers, with large, steeply angled fins like wings attached to the flared rear end. The Irmingard’s Marders served as Diver tenders, loaded with external gantries, two on each side of the ship. Overburdened with these modifications, they were slower and less stable in the water than ordinary Marders, but still able to serve as a wall between Khadija and the flagship.

On the deck, several gas gun turrets spun around firing trails of bullets out of their double barrels as they chased Valya’s Strelok. Their movements were predictable, overflying the deck and circling back around the fin several times; but the fire discipline from the Frigate was abysmal. It was a pathetic chase as the Strelok that moved fast but without particular splendor stayed a step ahead of sputtering lines of bullets– even so, Valya was hardly able to shoot back.

They made a wonderful distraction, however.

 “Valya, watch yourself, they’ll range you soon enough! I’m coming in!”

Khadija approached from below the Frigate.

While the deck guns were all busy with Valya, the ventral guns had been lying in wait for targets. Several were out of position however, their barrels facing the sides of the vessel. Waiting for Valya to come down perhaps, which they never did. So Khadija flew right down the middle of the keel between the distracted guns. She would not have been so cocky if all the guns were tracking her, but they were clearly in no position to fire upon her.

Twisting her chassis around, she soared under the Frigate with her chest facing it.

All the while rapping finger on the trigger, three times, pause, three times.

Shifting her aim quickly from one side of the keel to the other.

Her 37 mm bullets ripped into the bases of several ventral turrets, going off against the keel armor. In her wake, a series of explosions rocked the underside of the vessel. When she pulled out from under the ship and soared behind the flared rear armor and around the wings. As its keel reeled with secondary explosions and ballast started to leak, the ship was forced to accelerate in order to correct itself as it was beginning to tip to one side. Aft gas guns followed Khadija’s ascent with a hail of gunfire, but the ship’s rocky course shattered their ability to aim.

Attached to the magnetic strip beneath the backpack of her Strelok there was a single rocket-propelled grenade with a 50 mm explosive head. Standard issue for ordinary Streloks like hers, it could be thrown, and unguided it would burn solid fuel, race forward and go off like a light torpedo. Rising behind the Frigate, Khadija had the perfect target in mind as she avoided the turbulent outwash from three large hydrojets exposed so directly in front of her.

She took the grenade by the handle, armed it, reared just as she came level to the top jet–

A red flash on the corner of her eye alerted her–

Khadija veered to the right on her climb and twisted out of the way of a burst of gunfire.

This guy is different!

She disarmed her grenade, stowed it away and focused on movement.

Her opponent was barely on her cameras, a red box marking its relative position behind.

Automatic fire peppered everywhere she had been, a trail of explosions creeping on her.

From both the Frigate and the new assailant. Keeping both in mind, she had to act quickly.

To break a chase she had to either shake him or challenge his position.

Keeping on the move, trying to retain her momentum while maneuvering her way around the Frigate’s left fins, Khadija climbed and angled the Strelok’s fins and thrusters steeply. As she climbed she shifted her weight in the opposite direction and turned in an arc, coming to face and charge the enemy she now saw for the first time. Her movements were so fast and tight that her opponent was forced to give up the chase as she came suddenly toward them.

The enemy Diver broke away from her with a burst of solid fuel thrust and took off his own way.

Turning in another steep arc, she was suddenly behind them and chasing.

“Not an amateur, but not on my level.”

There was no reason that pilot had to stop– except that they were not confident they could avoid her without halting their momentum and throwing themselves in an entirely different direction than they had been moving in. Such jerking maneuvers were standard for pilots who saw engagements as two foot soldiers scrambling in terrain. Khadija, however, knew she was flying. And she knew objects flying through the water needed to retain as much speed as they could.

He stopped then restarted movement, and so Khadija had gone from prey to predator.

Rather than a Volker, this new enemy was a brand new Jagd, armed with a jet lance.

Its power-to-weight advantages and hydrodynamic triangle shape were wasted on its pilot.

Had it been her, she would have met any charge with that lance and let physics transpire.

Now, however, Khadija was right on his heels–

From outside her cameras, a sudden burst of gunfire crashed into the Jagd’s hull.

Suffering extensive hull damage, and attacked from two directions, the enemy suddenly showed its acumen for battle in a far more shameful fashion — it retreated. Breaking off from Khadija’s pursuit with all available thrust in its frame, heedless of energy or fuel concerns, the Jagd suddenly disappeared into the murk, likely tailing back to the Irmingard. Valya reappeared on Khadija’s cameras then and rejoined Khadija’s side, just barely keeping up as they maneuvered back toward the troubled Frigate. In minutes, the left wing of the enemy’s escort had been broken.

“How was that ma’am?” Valya asked, laughing to themselves with satisfaction.

Khadija laughed. “Quite acceptable.” And only that much.


After their formal introduction, the pilot group had some time to themselves before their arrival at Serrano Station.

Shalikova wanted to get in some practice in the simulator, which had just been set up in the hangar along with the rest of their equipment. That particular night would be the best chance she had prior to arrival. After a late dinner, she made her way back down to the nearly-deserted hangar on the lower deck. She approached what looked, to the unknowing eye, like pair of odd metal boxes suspended on stilts and struts, shoved off into a corner of the hangar.

Inside them, however, was a full set of Diver controls and monitors. They were constructed so that they would tilt and turn like a Diver would, with cameras that could be specifically oriented, and weights that simulated every kind of movement one could make in a Strelok. This would provide accurate control feedback, even though the pilot would be staring at computer-generated environments and opponents. As fake-looking as the graphics were, the physicality of holding the controls, and building up accurate muscle memory, was invaluable, at least to Shalikova.

There were two paired units set up so that pilots could spar with each other.

At that moment however, Shalikova only wanted to try her luck with the AI–

Until she heard a voice calling out to her from a nearby elevator door.

“Ah ha, lovely to see another pilot tuned to the same frequency.”

Arriving at Shalikova’s side was Khadija al-Shajara, sipping from a half-drunk mug of something richly red. A frequent member of the kitchen crew and supposedly veteran pilot, her sly expression was accented by all her makeup.

Shalikova had just come down from dinner, where Khadija would have observed her. It was no coincidence for the cat to suddenly appear to tease her. That mug of alcohol was the prize she received for helping Logia Minardo so often.

“Such a friendless expression. I just wanted to thank you properly for helping with the kitchen sometimes.”

“Well, I didn’t help tonight, so there’s no reason to thank me.”

“Ah, but I see you’re doing something interesting, so I can’t help but butt in.”

Her ears did a little twitch and her tail swayed gently as she gestured to the simulator pod.

“Why don’t we have a little spar? I’d love to see what my fellow pilots can do!”

Shalikova had heard that Khadija fought in the revolution and that she was a real hot-shot ace.

Nevertheless, she had not earned being so flighty, vain and above-it-all.

“I just wanted to warm up before anything happens.” Shalikova said bluntly, hoping that would end it.

Khadija winked and crossed her arms. “I can be as docile as the Novice AI if you want!”

Shalikova grunted and glared daggers at the older Shimii, frustration bubbling up.

There was a conceited pang in her heart that simply hated being underestimated.

Being observed was bad enough; being praised was rather annoying.

Fundamentally, however, Shalikova was familiar with praise. Praise heaped on her constantly.

Not so much with being looked down upon.

Without another word she stepped into the pod nearest her.

Khadija left her teal half-jacket and her drink outside and wordlessly stepped into the other pod.

When her challenge appeared on Shalikova’s screen, the younger pilot accepted almost impulsively.

Because she was annoyed with this old cat; she planned to be thoroughly discourteous.

“Ah, how lovely! Let’s have a clean match! Show me what you can do!”

As soon as her controls unlocked to simulate deployment, Shalikova charged Khadija.

It was a simulation, so she did not have to care about the health of her battery or turbines, the amount of ammunition she was carrying, the damage she might sustain. She could slam the pedals and hold down the trigger and declare unrelenting aggression. In an academic setting there would be points docked off her piloting, but Shalikova was no longer in school. This was war. She would use every advantage to put down this annoying old woman.

When her first magazine depleted and Khadija’s frame remained at its full integrity despite the violent outburst of automatic fire, Shalikova got an inkling that there was a problem. Then within a single blinking instant Khadija fully disappeared from her field of view, perfectly rolling over and under the hurtling Strelok and taking Shalikova’s back, fully within the blind spots of her cameras as she had set them up. It was only by rotating the backpack cameras to a torturous extent that she found Khadija’s gun barrel stuck right between the backpack and waist of her Strelok.

At that point, the younger pilot realized the extent to which there was a problem.

“Was your thrust locked? Happens sometimes out of the gate with these old sims.”

Shalikova could feel Khadija’s shitty little grin through the radio.

“Reset?” She offered sweetly. “We can break off and approach properly for a spar–”

Instead of a reset, Shalikova engaged her solid fuel vernier boosters.

She expected Khadija to attack, so she jerked herself away and retaliated; shooting only water as her opponent sped away. For the briefest instant she thought she had Khadija on the run, but this was quickly disproven.

Shalikova never even came close to putting a single bullet on her.

Though she would desperately shoot, dodge, reposition, and try to aim ahead of her enemy; Khadija snaked around her like a serpent, evading her blow and firing back at her leisure. Their match grew thoroughly one-sided.

By the time the simulator pods wound down and let the pilots out, Shalikova had gone the full range of emotions from annoyed to furious to deeply ashamed and humiliated, watching herself caught in a whirlpool within which she could do nothing. These machines kept all kinds of data, but Shalikova did not want to look at any of the comparisons.

She was upset. Not even just with Khadija but the way she herself acted. After all, had she not gotten it in her head to fight Khadija she would not have been in this situation to begin with. What rottenness had gotten into her anyway?

More than anything, she felt stupid. Like she had just wasted her time.

Shaking her head, Shalikova fully intended to walk away from the pods and go to bed.

“In a real fight you wouldn’t have time to sulk, you know. I just want to help you.”

With twitching ears and hands on her hips, her Shimii senior stepped out of her pod.

Khadija’s voice had lost its playful tone. She sounded soft and concerned.

It was this tone of voice only that caused Shalikova to pause and hear the rest.

A caring voice uncharacteristic of this particular cat. A voice begging to be listened to.

“You’re a good pilot; I want to believe you’re a pilot who can be great, too.”

Shalikova grit her teeth and balled up her fists. “I’d settle for alive.” She said.

Her frustration was still talking, but Khadija continued to respond gently.

“No you wouldn’t. Not with the way you swam back there. Come back and let’s talk.”

Khadija picked her cup up, took a gentle sip, and led the way, her bushy tail swaying gently.

Still hanging her head, and avoiding eye contact, Shalikova followed Khadija to an empty workbench.

During the night shift, there were few sailors out in the hangar. Those who did work late were tasked with inspecting the pressure and atmospheric conditions, looking for leaks, and otherwise passing through rather than staying in the hangar. This at least meant Shalikova was seen by nobody else but Khadija in this state of obvious depression.

Sitting across from the cat, Shalikova could not even look at her face at first.

Even as much as she was chastising herself for being sulky, she couldn’t help but sulk.

Her senior emptied her mug, and pushed it down onto the table with a thud.

“Shalikova! Chin up now! You’re a good pilot and you must not forget that.” Khadija said, after a brief moment of simply staring at Shalikova. Her tail swayed gently behind her. She was very relaxed, despite how intensely she must have been piloting to pull those amazing stunts Shalikova had seen firsthand. “You have great reflexes, you’re quick and accurate with your movement and thrust, and you have good control of your weapon even in burst fire. In any ordinary battle, you would charge out of your ship, engage an enemy, get the first shot on them, and go home.”

Was that not enough? What else was there to Piloting then? Shalikova grumbled.

“I won’t respond to flattery. Just tell me what I did wrong already.”

She finally raised her head to look at Khadija. Her indigo eyes met the Shimii’s bright green eyes, carefully manicured with wine-colored shadow. She almost saw herself reflected there, in the depths of those old wily eyes.

Khadija was looking directly at her with a smile. Her gaze was confident, unbroken.

“It’s not ‘what you did wrong.’ You did well. What I want is for you to do better.”

She raised her hands and used her thumb and forefinger to make a box shape.

“You have good awareness of what is occupying your surroundings Shalikova, but you are not understanding what your surroundings are and how they work, nor how you can best navigate them. It’s not about your basic piloting skill but getting the most you can out of the machine. That’s how you’ll get to the next level in your career.”

Shalikova frowned. “I don’t get what you mean. I thought I was being pretty agile in that fight.”

“Let’s look at it more broadly. Tell me, what are you moving through?”

“I mean. Water? What are you getting at? I’m not stupid.”

“Relax! Don’t take everything so personally. Alright, here.” Khadija raised her palm, wiggling her fingers. “Look at my hand. First, think of my hand as your Diver. You were moving primarily like this.” Khadija thrust her hand forward, palm out, as if to shove someone. “I was moving like this. Can you spot the difference?” She lowered her palm and pushed forward fingertips first. Shalikova blinked. She was trying to imagine a Diver moving like this instead of a hand.

“No? We’re both going forward.” Shalikova said. She immediately felt stupid for saying so.

Surface area. Water is not like air!” Khadija said. “Most of your thrust is in the backpack. So in the Academy they teach you to move forward while standing upright, like a soldier on the march, holding your gun in two hands: many Divers still fundamentally move this way because it is easier to orient yourself, watch your surroundings and respond. However, you will actually move faster if you tilt the Diver’s upper body forward of the rest. You present less surface area to the water; there’s less tension! You get more out of the leg jets too. Think of how you swim in a pool!”

Thinking about it further, Shalikova herself did swim parallel to the bottom of the pool. It was just– natural.

“By tilting forward, your upper body and shoulders break the water for the rest of you.”

Khadija lowered her chest and stuck her shoulders out with a wink, as if demonstrating.

Shalikova recalled Khadija’s magnificent, snaking movements.

Dashing through the water like– like a torpedo, a missile, a bullet. All the objects Shalikova wanted to compare it to were flat and long. There was indeed much less surface area trying to break through the water if the object was shaped like a bullet and launched out of a barrel with the same orientation a bullet had. That made some kind of sense.

“You weren’t always moving that way.” Shalikova said, trying to find some kind of caveat.

Khadija rested her head on her heads and shut her eyes in a placid little expression.

“Of course. You have to know when to use every tool in your arsenal. You are not piloting a bulkhead door through the sea, you know? Your Diver has four backpack jets, two leg jets, solid fuel boosters on the arms, legs and shoulders, fins on the hips, shoulders; you can pivot your upper body slightly, you can move the arms up and down, you can tilt the chest forward, you can tuck the legs back. All this range of movement gives you options. You can’t move any one way forever. It’s too predictable! I prefer to remain moving as much as possible, but even stopping can be a tool.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Shalikova said. “I guess I never really thought about it.”

It made sense. It got her thinking, imagining herself back in the cockpit. Moving.

“Another thing of fundamental importance.” Khadija said, smiling ever more broadly, perhaps realizing she had Shalikova’s attention. She really could pull an rector’s voice out of herself. “Underwater, you can move in any direction. You can dive deeper, you can climb the water table, you can thrust upward in a diagonal trajectory, you can move upside down, you can face the surface or the sea floor while thrusting yourself forward. You have to move in three dimensions. Most pilots will just move parallel to their enemy. It’s too easy to exploit them.”

There was a smug look to the cat’s red lips as she explained herself.

Shalikova blinked. Her eyes drew a little wide. She started thinking, ever deeper and with more detail. She could see her Diver, the ocean, every piece of gear, every possible movement. She was indeed not on a flat plane.

Khadija’s fluid movements had seemed so stunning in the moment.

Now Shalikova truly felt like she could see them. She saw herself at the controls–

“If you want, we can hop back in and I can show you what I mean.” Khadija said.

Shalikova stood up immediately. Her heart was surging. She wanted to fight Khadija again.

“Let’s go. One more round.” She said, trying her best to restrain her energy.

Khadija beamed at her and quietly accented.

They had a few more matches that night.

Her low opinion of Khadija improved somewhat. She was, at least, a decent teacher.


I did my quota of freaking out on the ship. Now I have to be firm. Shalikova told herself.

This was not a simulation. That was days ago. It was the real thing, out in the open Ocean.

There wouldn’t be thirty other Divers and a fleet picking up the slack like in Thassal either.

She was one of two, and she had to make every bullet and every moment count.

When the 114th Diver squadron left the Brigand’s orbit and separated into their sections, Shalikova followed Murati on an almost fifty meter climb up the water table. They would need the altitude to go over the Destroyer’s deck. Most of the gas guns on an Imperial Wespe class Destroyer were ventral double-barrel pods, so the escort would float several meters above its charge and spray down at its enemies. This forced any engaging Divers to separate physically.

Ascending through the murk was more difficult than simply charging ahead. She had no landmarks to go off of except the vague “enemy squares” on the predictor overlay, each of which represented a square area several meters across and not a direct, pinpoint location. So she had to orient herself and keep track of her direction to the square that represented the Destroyer while hurtling through the water, unable to see anything but particles of biological matter dancing in the beams of her flashlights, black specks on white, against the dark blue of the surrounding ocean.

She was also mindful, however, not to move wholly relative to the Destroyer either.

“Contact!” Murati shouted.

Before she knew it, Shalikova was met with a withering fusillade from just out of sight.

Wespe class destroyers were like a dagger-shape covered in double-barreled gas gun pods, slicing through the Ocean. A gunmetal grey sentinel looming over the behemoth below, hundreds, thousands of lines of bullets flew from it and saturated the surrounding water with the small pops and bangs of gas gun bullets exploding all around them.

Against that wall of fire Shalikova felt suddenly dwarfed.

As she looked at Murati ahead, she saw her orienting the Cheka’s chest forward.

“Give it everything you have Shalikova! Follow me!”

Shalikova tilted her own chest forward, with her teeth grit, kicked the thrust pedals down.

She was used to speeds of 60 or 70 knots; suddenly she felt she was going past 80!

Hurtling over the deck of the destroyer, she and Murati buzzed right past the conning tower in an instant, leaving in their wake the trails of enemy bullets. Dozens of muted muzzle flashes below like ephemeral spotlights in the nearby murk. It felt like there was not one meter of surface on that Destroyer that was not spitting bullets at them. Vapor bubbles swarmed all around them, beset on all sides by rattling shockwaves, it was like swimming in the middle of an underwater storm. On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but the snapping of the guns and bursting of the shells.

Out of that great roaring barrage, not one bullet had struck her directly.

It was some combination of Shalikova’s own acumen and the ship’s poor fire control.

“Shalikova!” Murati called over the radio. “Good maneuvering! We’re staying ahead of the barrage, but we can’t take out every pod individually with this much gunfire. I have an idea. You have a grenade on you, right?”

While maneuvering over the raging Destroyer, Shalikova checked her magnetic strip for inventory.

A diagnostic display showed the objects attached to it.

“I do, but only one.” She said.

“Good! We’ll strike one of its jets! Even if it doesn’t sink, it’ll lag behind the Irmingard!”

“Got it!”

Just as Shalikova began to reach for her grenade, a burst of gunfire soared past them.

She stowed her grenade on her magnetic strip and swerved. Bullets went off around them leaving bubbles size of a small animal. A larger caliber than the gas gun bullets flying everywhere before.

Judging by the angle and the caliber, it had not come from the ship but from–

A red flash, and a new box appeared on one of her side monitors.

“Incoming! Shalikova, get around behind the Destroyer–”

Shalikova cut Murati off.

“No, I’ll break off the Destroyer and tie them up! You have bombing to do!”

Without waiting for Murati’s assent, Shalikova turned fluidly around in an arc and darted toward a pair of Volkers coming in from below them. They appeared from around the side fins of the Destroyer but quickly separated from it into the open water between the escorts and the Irmingard. If they stuck too close to either ship, they would risk becoming victims to friendly fire.

Thinking about what Khadija taught her, Shalikova soared past the Destroyer, zigzagging the flak curtain, and moving to intercept the Divers. She fought her instinct to straighten out her Strelok and shoot at them from the shoulder– it was difficult not to treat the mecha exactly as she would her own body, while still remaining as immersed in her maneuvers as she normally was.

Khadija could fire from the chest at these speeds, whether charging or strafing–

But Shalikova could hardly pull trigger before the Volkers grew enormous in her cameras.

She sped right into their midst, dodging a second round of gunfire as she neared them.

Her enemies threw themselves aside, perhaps fearing that she intended to ram them.

Breaking in between them, and roaring well past, she threw her Strelok into a climb.

“God damn it.”

She was trying to fight like Khadija, but she was unused to shooting while moving this fast.

In the simulator, Khadija had time to set up her cameras–

Because she created space for it! Shalikova realized that’s why she circled around so much.

“I’m an idiot! I just flew in without thinking!”

At these speeds, she wasn’t able to shoot! She couldn’t even think fast enough to shoot!

She had to slow down, but–

“I know!”

In the middle of her climb, Shalikova twisted her Strelok around, going over the Volkers.

Bursting the top two jets in the backpack– along with the legs, and solid fuel boost from the shoulders– manipulating the fins– moving more weight into the shoulder– her little hands moved all over the controls in her cockpit, flipping what felt like every switch and every button– she hardly realized Khadija had to put this much effort into moving, she was sweating so much–

Her frantic actions within the cockpit, invisible to her opponent, had a dramatic result.

She tumbled, head over feet, descending behind her opponents while upside down.

Much of the momentum she built up dissipated in the snap changes in directions.

But her bewildered enemies could not even turn as she riddled their backs with bullets.

Dozens of rounds of fully automatic fire, until the magazine ejected. Impact after impact crashing into the first Volker, before she jerked the gun toward the second. Bullets smashing into ducts, blowing up on top of the jets, perforating the spare magazines kept on the rear magnetic strip and causing secondary explosions, the Volkers twisted and torn by the blasts. Severed cockpits leaking oxygen and blood slowly descending with arms gone limp and legs asunder.

Shalikova’s snap maneuver took her beneath the ruined Volkers, now swimming chest up.

For a brief instant she was a girl floating as if on the surface of a vast pool.

Gazing up at a sky of broken metal falling around her.

She could almost see colors, colors other than the dim, dark blue of the water.

Red, anguished colors.

Green, sickly colors.

Blueish-Black, the specter of death–

Silvery white. Peace and departure–

Shalikova shook her head and climbed as a wave of renewed flak swept past her position.

Dozens of small explosions dissipated the colors and further tore up the remains.

“What colors?” She murmured to herself. “There weren’t any colors.”

Rising in a wide arc to retain speed and avoid fire, Shalikova doubled back to the Destroyer.

“Volkers down. Squad leader, I thought you’d have blown it up by–”

Before Shalikova could finish, she heard two loud shocks over the hydrophone.

Dozens of meters ahead of them, an earthshaking blast sent the Frigate on the Irmingard’s right wing plummeting into the sea floor. A shockwave rippled out from the explosion that had even Shalikova’s chassis vibrating. It could only have been one of the bombs since the Brigand’s 76 mm aft guns could not have had such a dramatic effect. Only a moment later, she heard the sound of knocking metal and realized that the Destroyer was descending and stalling.

“You were saying, Shalikova?” Murati laughed.

That thundering curtain of flak slowed to a sputter of feeble warding fire.

Unable to fight off Murati or keep up with the fleet, it began to turn and flee.

She must have done some damage to the rear like she planned.

All of the fighting they were doing took place in the context of the Irmingard chasing the Brigand. It was easy to forget with how fast their mecha were moving, and how massive all of the ships around them were, that the entire battlefield was in motion. It was only when the Irmingard fleet’s tight formation was broken so completely that Shalikova paid heed to this fact once again. The Irmingard lumbered forward, while its escorts were now falling or fleeing.

Shalikova could find no more ship contacts in the immediate vicinity.

“We’ve opened the way. Sameera used her bomb, but I’ve still got mine.” Murati said.

The Cheka regrouped with Shalikova. There was mild cosmetic damage on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?”

Murati sounded unshaken. “Just got exposed to a bit of ventral fire– it’s not a big deal.”

“If you say so. I’ll go on ahead of you and draw the flagship’s fire.” Shalikova said.

“Good job taking care of those Divers by yourself. I have full confidence in you.”

“It’s nothing. Could’ve gone better even.”

“Do you have damage?”

“No. I just mean– it’s not worthy of praise.”

Before her squad leader could continue flattering her Shalikova charged ahead.

The Cheka was not very far behind. Shalikova reloaded her weapon and grit her teeth.

When they turned away from the Destroyer their view was dominated by the colossal grey frame of the Irmingard class dreadnought. A Frigate or a Destroyer was already many, many times the size of a Diver. And yet there was no comparison to how that flagship made Shalikova feel like a speck of plankton helplessly spinning in the water. Its vaguely spoon-shaped prow and thick, enormous cylindrical chassis with its swept wing fins and sharply flared rear were so regal and aggressive. There was no truer representation of the fearful violence they were up against.

That ship was the Imbrian Empire, cruel tyrant over half of what remained of their world.

Shalikova’s grip tightened on her controls. Her hands were cold, her palms moist.

For the sake of everything they believed in, they had to be the arrow that hobbled this beast.

As they approached, homing in on the center of that wall of grey, long lines of flak erupted from the gas gun pods lined up in front of them. Different pods coordinated to fire together in groups of six barrels. Their fire discipline was completely unlike that of the other ships. Shalikova found herself swerving far more violently away from gunfire that crept closer and closer.

Her chassis rattled as a bullet deflected right off the left shoulder.

Thankfully, it didn’t explode right on the armor. She accelerated even more.

“I’m breaking off, they’re on me.” Shalikova said.

“I think they’re on both of us!”

Shalikova threw the Strelok into a sudden climb, wrenching up with a kick of the vernier thrusters. While boosting up and momentarily out of the gunfire she glanced at one of the side camera feeds.

Murati’s Cheka was targeted wholly independently of her own Strelok.

Different sections of the Irmingard’s flak guns were coordinating different targets.

A half-dozen barrels peppered Shalikova’s surroundings and a half-dozen harried Murati.

It was nothing like the basic saturation fire of the other ships.

They would not take Shalikova as a piece of bait so easily. They were more experienced.

“With this much gunfire I won’t be able to get to the aft. I’ll bomb the main guns!”

Murati’s Cheka broke off from Shalikova and into its own climb, spiraling away from intense gunfire. Her destination lay atop the Irmingard’s deck, central to the hull and just behind the spoon prow, a squat, double-barrel turret: the feared 203 mm main guns that supported the smaller guns fixed on the prow itself. As a military flagship, the Irmingard bore its guns fixed on the deck, they could never be hidden or stowed unlike the Brigand’s guns. Shalikova knew the main magazine was buried deeper in the ship and would not go off if the turret itself was destroyed.

Preventing the Irmingard from shooting effectively would accomplish their mission.

Even if the ship itself was not sent to the bottom of the sea floor.

Shalikova did not like it– but perhaps it was an object lesson on their lack of power.

As they climbed higher, flak intensified. Deck gas guns joined the port-side guns in firing.

Murati accelerated in a high arc, leaving behind the port-side fire but trailed by the deck guns. Dozens of vapor bubbles bloomed around her. Shalikova’s own chassis vibrated relentlessly with the shockwaves of bullets going off all around her, their impacts just close enough to make her feel it without tearing off any metal.

While Murati kept climbing Shalikova overflew the prow.

Her side camera was not just for following Murati’s positioning.

It was also coordinating with the camera on her assault rifle, held to her chest.

Shalikova ranged the triangle formation of gas gun pods covering center of the deck.

Their barrels lifted high as they chased Murati, flashing repeatedly in the dim water.

“Here’s your opening, Murati!”

Short, practiced rapping on the triggers, three presses, pause, three presses.

She saw the bursts of gunfire fly off into the blue on her gun camera.

Her bullets flew amid the gas gun pods and struck metal with brilliant, fleeting blasts.

A brighter flash, erupting suddenly from among the gas gun formation.

One pod went off, its magazine cooked.

Dozens of popping, flashing blasts from the pod’s magazine sent metal spraying.

Meanwhile the other pods went dead silent.

Whether Shalikova struck them, or damaged the electronics or optics, she did not know.

Nevertheless, she realized she had quieted the deck fire on Murati’s side.

Her own safety on the prow was far less certain.

All around her, gas gun pods on the prow now enfiladed her, firing from every direction.

Bullets crashed into her hip armor and a stray shell even smashed into the cockpit armor.

Warnings flashed on her diagnostics. Real hull damage. No breaches.

Shalikova nearly had a heart attack. “Warn me about any breaches first you trash!”

Cockpit shaking violently, Shalikova threw herself into a roll and dove, touching down on the actual surface of the enemy ship and crouching. She hoped to avoid most of the gunfire this way, and for the briefest moment she found respite from the shooting– until she realized that there were no barrels flashing anymore.

All of the flak on the deck had quieted down just as she landed.

She was pointing her assault rifle at completely dormant gun pods.

“They’re avoiding friendly fire– Murati!”

Her suspicion proved correct almost immediately. Murati’s crackling voice responded:

“No chance to bomb–! Incoming!”

Shalikova leaped off the prow surface with microsecond boost from the vernier thrusters.

Charging across the shallow curve of the prow, in time to spot the enemy attacking Murati.

When she got close enough to see both of their figures clearly–

Murati leaped back off the deck as an enemy Diver pounced.

A trail of assault fire struck where she stood, and her enemy glided over the deck.

The attacker smoothly overflew the deck surface while raising her rifle.

Accurate, disciplined bursts crept closer and closer to Murati’s position.

Murati had been facing the enemy, climbing diagonally away from it with all of her thrust.

When she opened fire, the enemy below side-stepped it without losing any speed.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide. It reminded her of the gulf between her and–

“Murati! I’m coming! Hold on!”

As her words carried through the communicator the enemy Diver launched up.

In an instant the Diver drew a vibroblade from its magnetic strip with its free hand.

In the open water just off of the Irmingard’s surface the duelists clashed.

Sword met steel– Murati’s assault rifle, held by barrel and stock to block the overhead slash.

Shalikova drew closer and closer but not soon enough.

She thought the Diver would hack through Murati’s rifle but when it found its slash blocked, the machine moved fluidly with its own sword and leaped over Murati with a kick of its own auxiliary vernier thrusters, leaving a cloud of vaporized water and solid fuel exhaust where Murati was once clashing with it. The attacker rolled its body over Murati’s Cheka, and in a flash that sword swung once again, upside down at the Cheka’s shoulder.

There was an ephemeral red burst as the sword’s thruster briefly kicked in.

A burning crimson wound as the monomolecular, vibrating edge cut through the Cheka’s shoulder.

Murati threw her weight down and aside.

A chunk of metal blew off the Cheka, the shoulder in pieces, the roll of steel cable floating away in the debris as her left jet anchor pod ejected from the machine’s body. Murati torturously wrenched her mecha to face the attacker and shoot, but she was out of balance, damaged, and her enemy was still moving. Now fearless with a tumbling, dazed opponent, the attacker flew right through Murati’s desperate gunfire and swung its sword, this time to take the head–

“Murati! Get back!”

Shalikova shouted in desperation and surged ahead.

Shoulder set, she rammed herself in between Murati and the attacker.

Reacting with incredible alacrity, the enemy threw itself back from Shalikova.

There was no word from Murati, but the Cheka still looked stable in the water.

“Damn it.”

Every time, just like Khadija, the attacker went from motion to motion, fluidly, perfectly.

Others would have been disoriented for even a second having to wrench their machine back. This pilot expertly used the verniers to retreat as Shalikova entered their space, and to then thrust upward and resume maneuver. It all happened so fast that there was no distinction between the two separate instances of thrust. Just like Khadija, who moved like a serpent through the waters, perfectly conserving momentum throughout. This was a whole other level from the enemies they had faced so far, and it was only from observing a veteran like Khadija as keenly as she had that Shalikova understood the gulf between herself and this foe. She understood enough to fear them.

That machine was no ordinary Volker either.

Volkers were almost comical in how round they were, the arms practically came out of the central orb with slanted shoulders barely covering the joint, their helmeted heads affixed in an exposed mount right atop the hull. Any angled armor surfaces were clearly bolted on as an afterthought. Nothing like the machine now in front of her.

In place of the orb-like body was a robust, three-piece, interlocking chest, waist/hip, and shoulder chassis. Armored surfaces concealing the cockpit boasted complex geometry to help deflect and absorb impacts. Broadly triangular, the silhouette had wider shoulders and a humanoid, helmeted “head” with multi-directional, almost snake-eyed, visor-like cameras. Its arms and legs were modified with light but steeply angled armor over the joints. There was no bulge anywhere for a battery, and an extra jet on the back, with small intakes all around the machine, all “second gen” traits.

A new second generation mecha, to add to the Empire’s advantage–

Nevertheless, Shalikova charged after this enemy.

“That cat wouldn’t turn away from something like this!”

Her voice coming out of her lips was desperate, exhausted, cracking with fear.

Her mind was working so fast her brain pounded with pain.

And still, she went after that enemy with all her might, just moments after it bested Murati.

There was no reason to attack the Irmingard if she was not willing to lunge at the monsters that came from it. That flagship already outclassed the Brigand in every way. The Imbrian Empire already outclassed the Union in every way. And yet, Khadija, that brilliant pilot who had mastered the sea, still fought these unspeakable odds in the revolution. She saw herself dwarfed and outmatched by enormous guns and ships and fought on regardless.

Shalikova couldn’t bear losing to that woman in this too.

Steeled by her fear, with beasts of death before and behind her, she attacked.

“Where will it move, where–”

Shalikova centered the enemy in her vision and opened fire with her assault rifle.

Once more the opponent thrust upward out of the firing line.

“You like going up, huh?”

She tried to put her barrel ahead of where the enemy would go, rapping the trigger.

With graceful banking movements the enemy avoided fire and arced toward her. A quick burst of gunfire responded, and Shalikova thrust herself deeper down to avoid it. All the while facing the enemy, shooting up at them at the edge of her vision. Chasing a shadow that moved faster than she could hope to track, briefly lighting it with feeble bursts of gunfire that did not even graze the wake of its jets. Between her own evasive maneuvers and the dexterous way her enemy moved she was shooting into the water and doing nothing but stirring up empty bubbles. She was shooting more wastefully than her opponent, and soon found herself close to having to reload.

Luckily, she wasn’t trying to hit them directly.

She was just trying to get them moving.

Shalikova ceased running away from the enemy and burst forward in their direction.

Already facing the enemy as she retreated, the abrupt switch to charging in her direction caused her no disorientation. Firing all her solid fuel thrusters and ramming down the pedals for all the jet power she could muster, Shalikova threw herself at an enemy that was dashing at her, cutting their distance dramatically. From the magnetic strip behind her mecha she withdrew and quickly unfolded her diamond sword, revved up the motor and spun the teeth. Along with taking the sword she also threw out everything else on her magnetic strip, shedding some precious weight.

In a second, she was in the enemy’s face, sword out, swinging, with all her momentum.

Her opponent did not stand for such a thing and with a snap thrust, leaped over her.

Just like with Murati she was trying to swing at her from behind.

“I’ve already seen that trick!”

Practically cackling, Shalikova angled every fin, reallocated all the movable weight, and threw all of her thrust into a lurching motion that took her suddenly down and to the left. Her body wrenched in her chair at the sudden twisting of the chassis, but the enemy’s swing completely missed her, slicing through the water and leaving her overextended.

She was in no position to fight back and that mecha was now right behind her–

“Got you! I got you, you bastard!”

Behind her, a grenade that had been on her magnetic strip, armed and discarded, went off.

Water vaporized rapidly around the explosion forming an enormous bubble just a handful of meters away.

The shockwave threw Shalikova into total disarray. She spun feet over head, carried on the sudden wave generated by the explosion. Too close, suicidally close, but–

Struggling with her controls and trying to right herself she adjusted the cameras–

Looking for debris–

From behind her, that mecha suddenly reappeared, sword overhead and coming down.

There was nothing Shalikova could do. She had no time to respond.

She closed eyes that were stinging with sweat and tears and grit her teeth.

Her hydrophone picked up the clanging of metal on metal in the waters.

When she heard it over the headset, she also heard herself breathe.

Felt her heart beating, faster and faster.

Then a burst of gunfire.

Shalikova’s eyes opened wide, and she looked frantically at her cameras.

Murati’s Cheka was approaching, opening fire with a shaking arm and a damaged rifle.

Clearly limping in the water, having lost some energy cells from the attack it endured.

Her shooting was missing the mark, no better than the flak from the patrol ships–

But between Shalikova and the enemy, a different ally stood, suddenly formidable.

“You did good, Shali~”

Over the communicator, sounded the soft, playful, calm voice of Khadija al-Shajara.

Holding her own sword and standing face to face with the mecha in front of them.

Both having stopped moving for an instant as if respecting each other.

That enemy did not fear Murati’s shooting or Shalikova’s tricks, but this gave her pause.

“Khadija–”

Shalikova was almost going to apologize. She felt so helpless.

Khadija interrupted her immediately.

“Leave this to me. You’ve done everything you could. Give Valya the other bomb and take Murati’s limping remains away from here before she hurts herself or us.” She paused, and after a deep breath, released a bit of laughter. Her tone changed. “I’m not one to recite the name of the Lord for every detail like some other Shimii do, but this is fated, Shalikova. The Red Baron of Cascabel. I was fated to meet her here. We’re gonna settle a little score, she and I.”

Her voice was slick with a bloodthirst that Shalikova had never heard from her before.

Had the fighting gotten to her so badly? What was she babbling about?

Shalikova was in no position to do anything but what she was told, however.

Without openly questioning Khadija, she started to move away.

It was at that point, that whatever fated bell tolled for Khadija tolled for the rest of them.

Twin, massive, concussive shocks into the water that left the Union soldiers speechless.

In that moment, the Irmingard dreadnought fired its 203mm guns in anger.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.4]

“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’, Sameera–”

There was always a brief pause in her mind when she was about to leave the deployment chute. No matter what was happening, whether a Leviathan was coiled around the ship, or a group of smugglers was getting away. It spanned the briefest period of time that one might acknowledge as a complete thought. Pilots always stated their designation and name as a courtesy to the Bridge crew, so the officers could confirm exactly who was going out and in which machine.

What was her name? She surely couldn’t say the whole damned thing–

“Sameera Al-Shahouh. Deploying!”

Whenever she launched off a ship, she always chose the side of her Shimii mother. It was confusing. She had never felt like either a Loup or a Shimii. Thankfully it was a short-lived anxiety. Her name ceased to matter once she was launched into the endless blue of the ocean. Her Diver pushed down into the water from the deployment chute, free of the ship, adrift in the waters. From the earbuds Sameera wore in lieu of a pilot’s headphones, she caught Dominika’s voice.

“UND-114-C, ‘Strelkannon’, Dominika Rybolovskaya– Deploying!”

Around her, in that dark, murky blue, Sameera picked up the other Divers in her cameras. She had been one of the first to deploy alongside Dominika, Murati and Sonya; Khadija and Valya would be coming out in a few moments. She fixed one camera on Dominika to try to keep her position in mind at all times. More than being a beautiful girl, she was her squad mate, after all.

“Nika, is your heartbeat rising?” She asked.

“I’m closing the audio channel too if you’re going to keep being annoying.”

Sameera smiled, but Nika pointedly kept their video channel closed. “I’m just being nice!”

“Whatever.”

Sameera’s own heartbeat was certainly quickening. Those moments just after deployment but right before the melee were excruciating. It was too surreal to be sitting around idly in a war machine. She became preoccupied with the isolation of her human body within the cold cockpit. It was only the promise of the glorious hunt that lay ahead which steeled her resolve.

“Good hunting!” She finally said. Nika did not return the sentiment.

Dominika’s “Strelkannon” was armed with a launcher for underwater rockets on one shoulder and a semi-automatic cannon in the other. In her Diver’s humanoid hands she carried a 20 mm Gepard SMG just like the one Sameera was carrying too, but that was a last resort weapon.

Sameera’s job in a squadron like this was to make sure Dominika never had to fire that type of weapon. Murati must have known this was a role she was familiar with and thinking about this fact flattered Sameera. As part of the Border Forces’ Leviathan control squadrons, she often partnered with Strelkannon pilots, acting as a bodyguard for those bigger, slower frames.

“Keep steady for a moment, until Khadija and Valya are ready.” Murati said.

After deploying from the chute, the Divers immediately engaged their engines. Because the Brigand was moving, and the enemy fleet was moving, they had to actively pursue the Brigand for a few moments in order to stick with it themselves. At full tilt, their Divers could move much faster than the Brigand, which itself was not moving too quickly at the moment. So it was not much effort for them to orbit the ship’s keel for a few seconds to maintain formation.

Khadija and Valya descended shortly thereafter. All six frames were in the water.

Over the communicator, the voice of Electronic Warfare Officer Zachikova sounded.

“Jamming munition going out!”

Something then emerged from the utility chute near the Brigand’s aft in a flurry of bubbles.

“Everyone, switch off your audio for the next minute and follow me.” Murati said.

Sameera acknowledged.

Beneath the armrest to which her control stick was attached there were physical controls for some of the touchscreen functions. Sameera preferred these, to quickly get her hands back on the sticks if she needed. She switched off the audio from there. With the audio off, it also meant all the predictors, which used acoustic data, became useless, frozen on their last prediction of what the surroundings looked like. Sameera focused on the physical cameras.

She then engaged her accelerator, pushing the pedal into a slot in the chair to lock it in.

Her ‘Cossack’ thrust out from under the Brigand, propelling itself on jets of ocean water.

Murati’s Cheka, with its sleek design and dark paint job led the charge into the murky ocean ahead, Shalikova’s slightly modified Strelok keeping close behind. Sameera had tested the Cheka, so knowing its speed, she knew exactly how fast she needed to go in order to keep some kind of pace with it, while also staying near Dominika, who was definitely bringing up the rear. The Strelkannon’s armament made it a couple knots slower than everyone else in all respects.

At first the loose assemblage of Divers stuck close beneath the keel of the Brigand, but after clearing the jets on the back of the mothership and entering the open water between their ship and the enemy fleet, the group broke into their sections with practiced understanding. Even without communication, they all knew the prerogatives of a Diver pilot in a combat situation. Don’t stack up, or a flurry of torpedoes or concentrated gunfire could kill the whole squad; keep moving with your squadmate toward your objective. Always assume your squadmate is going after the objective and move together. Sameera and Dominika dropped altitude together. Fifteen meters apart from each other, and many more from Murati or Khadija, they charged directly through the center.

Without the predictor, there was nothing concrete on her cameras but Dominika. No ground below them, nothing ahead but the dark blue water and dusty traces of organic matter filtering down from the photic zone. She was suspended in water. It was sometimes hard to come to terms with. Within her metal bubble, the movements of her machine felt dream-like without an enemy in sight or any landmarks to give her any feedback. She felt airy, as if descending forward; it felt like gravity was taking her through the murky nothingness around her more than her own power.

All she had to go on was the last positions of the fleet and her own instincts.

Her heart beating fast, a cold sweat building on her chest, Sameera counted the seconds.

She hated those slow, vulnerable moments. She wanted to be in the fight– sixty seconds.

Electronic Warfare was sophisticated enough now that it was basically impossible for such a munition to jam the enemy’s acoustic computers for very long. Computers by themselves could digitally attenuate the noise with surprising speed, and a skilled Electronic Warfare officer could potentially take less than a minute to shut out the attack and restore functionality. Because the jamming munition was so disruptive to its owner too, it was set to disable itself within a minute. It was a distraction, nothing more, but blinding every acoustic data device for a minute was enough.

Like every weapon, it was not just the capabilities, but the tactical use, that mattered.

At their top speeds, the enemy fleet was well over a minute away.

Being able to cut any amount of that distance undetected was a blessing.

For those sixty nerve-wracking seconds there was nothing but the feeling of her clammy, slick skin, the sound of her heightened breathing, and the sight of the empty ocean all around her. She waited two additional seconds just in case, since the munition’s noise could have hurt her hearing; she then flipped on the audio.

She was greeted by Murati’s crackly, low quality voice.

“Stay in contact with your squadmate and keep moving! We’ll see them ahead soon!”

Her computer began collecting acoustic information again.

Though her predictor and sonar were nowhere near as sophisticated as those on the Brigand, they could cross-reference data compiled by the Brigand to keep track of objects as overlays on the cameras. Before she could see them physically, the enemy fleet appeared as red squares denoting hostile positions dead ahead.

Seeing something, anything, in her cameras stilled Sameera’s heartbeat just a bit.

Being able to hear the ocean and her squad again also calming.

It helped her ease out of the physical isolation of her body and become her machine instead.

And her machine saw four smaller squares, flanked by two larger squares, and a massive one even farther out ahead. As she got closer, the shapes became slowly more and more distinct in the dark water. She picked up speed to approach. For the next few seconds, every reaction counted.

Ignoring the massive square representing the Irmingard class flagship, she focused instead on the lighter prey. Attacking from below enabled them to get at the keels and maybe pop some of the ballast tanks. She dove several dozen meters down with Dominika before turning back up toward the fleet. Moments later she saw the first hint of metal appearing in the waters overhead.

Dozens of rounds of gas gun ammunition from the ventral guns rained down on them.

Though she could hardly see the guns, she did see the lines of bullets cutting through water.

All around her, explosions went off leaving vapor bubbles the size of an adult’s head.

Her cockpit stirred as weak shockwaves flowed past her machine from every direction. No direct hits; just pervasive weak vibration. Gas gun bullets had proximity and flight fuzes so they would go off even without a direct impact. Their goal was for at least some of those blasts to nip at her armor, at her gear. If the ocean could stick even a finger into her cockpit, she would die.

In Sameera’s mind, the best defense against this was a rapid offense.

“Nika, I’m engaging the–!” Sameera called out.

Launching missile,”

Before Sameera could finish her sentence, a rocket sailed past her on a trail of vapor.

One of the cutter’s keels erupted with an enormous vapor bubble, disgorging metal. From the epicenter of the explosion, a shockwave shook the waters around the vessel. Gunfire from the stricken craft ceased instantly, and the conning tower tipped sideways as the ship began to sink.

Three remaining cutters began to swerve close together to put up a tighter curtain of fire.

“Jump left; I’ll release another missile!” Dominika called out.

“Got it!” Sameera replied.

From behind her, Dominika’s Strelkannon launched a second missile.

With the increasing volume of enemy flak all around them, Dominika’s missile detonated just short of the mark, struck by the errant gunfire. Vapor from the explosion created a brief screen between themselves and the fleet that the pair used to reposition. Sameera engaged her jets and solid fuel boosters and veered quickly to avoid the guns, keeping her cameras trained on both the enemy and Dominika to insure they were not separated. Dominika hit a sharp right instead.

Rising up the water table, Sameera swept up and to the left out from under the ships.

While the ventral guns shot at nothing, the dorsal guns retrained on Sameera as she rose.

All around her the water parted in white lines pushed aside by supercavitating bullets. Brief muzzle flashes indicated continuing gunfire. Bubbles and water vapor dispersed like fog around the Cutters as the disturbances from previous explosions settled and the white clouds of fresh blasts bloomed amid the dim blue ocean. A geyser of water bubbles erupted from the sinking cutter below as another section failed due to pressure. Soon it would fall out of sight and strike the sea floor.

All of this was happening in such a brief span of time, it could hardly be thought about. Seconds, moments, instants of Sameera’s life, flashes too minute to ever be memories. Punctuated with more violence than any ordinary person would ever see in a lifetime. Sameera let out a breath, her eyes were starting to tear up from the stale air in the cockpit. She was focused, steeled.

I was insane enough to stare those fucking things in the face. I can handle this.

Sameera always put her body on the line. She had to; it was the only place she belonged.

For a brief instant, on the edge of one of her cameras a new, flashing red square appeared.

Sameera noticed it and reacted immediately, darting at full speed in its direction.

“Incoming contacts, Nika.”

“Intercept them and quit calling my nickname so much.” A calm, stoic voice immediately responded.

Sameera loved that. She didn’t have any expectation that Nika would ever like her anyway.

Grinning to herself, she withdrew a weapon from behind the Cossack’s backpack.

Upon taking the gear off the magnetic strip it was attached to, this seemingly rectangular, unintelligible object sprang to life in her mech’s hand. One half released and snapped into place atop the other. A handle attached to a blade with an armored rear end protecting a rail, battery and driving gear for the saw-blade cutting surface. Called variously diamond swords or diamond cutters, depending on the size and shape, these were the Union’s simpler version of the Imperial vibrosword. A long, spinning blade made of diamond and depleted agarthicite, wielded in hand.

Sameera’s sword could have cut into a ship, but it would not be turned on them for now.

Her “Cossack” shone brightest when it came to fighting other Divers.

It was almost the same as cutting up Leviathan meat. They were prey; she was the hunter.

“Sorry fellas, but I’m the only one who has a date with this lady~!”

Swerving to avoid flak, she launched into a sudden charge toward the incoming Divers.

Within sight a pair of rotund imperial Volkers appeared from the murk with 37 mm rifles in hand. Like an egg tapering down into a waist where legs could go, and shoulders that arms could slide into, these were quite basic enemy Divers. They had traced the explosions to Dominika’s Strelkannon and were moving in the direction their predictors told them the missiles came from.

Their rear cameras must have seen Sameera closing in.

Likely it was the inexperience of the pilots that led them not to pay attention to their flank.

Sameera raised her SMG and fired a burst of 20 mm gunfire ahead of them, mid-charge.

Five bullets exploded harmlessly in their vicinity, and in a panic, they came to a dead stop.

Sameera was on top of them in the next instant.

Bursting up above them and then suddenly shifting all her thrust downward, she smashed her sword on nearest Volker, digging into the shoulder and the helmeted head at the front of the round chassis. Her sword’s spinning teeth ripped a jagged wound right over the enemy’s cockpit.

Dead. Not even the faintest response from that unit as Sameera changed targets.

Acting fluidly in that same instant of violence, she ripped her sword from her first victim and raised her Gepard to the second, firing off a five-round burst into the side of the second Volker point blank. Fist sized blasts tore bits of armor off the arm and hip, but one bullet got deep into the arm joint before exploding under the shoulder. Bubbles and foam burst out of this tiny orifice.

Pressure ripped open the machine, spewing gore and debris from the expanding wound.

Dead. A lucky shot from Sameera and an unlucky one for this pilot.

One finger of the Ocean had gotten into the cockpits through the leg joint. One instant amid this dance of steel; enough for two lives to end so suddenly. But she was not alone, and the fighting had not stopped because a few targets were dead. As she threw herself into that melee, she was well aware that they were dancing within a storm of steel as the enemy flak trained on her.

It took seconds to score those kills, and then she had to run again.

In response to her charge a fusillade erupted from the Frigates’ own gas gun turrets ahead.

Matching the intensity of the fire from the nearby Cutters, it threatened to enfilade her.

Engaging her jets, she retreated from before the Frigates to arc back over the Cutters.

She beheld the looming, murky shadow of the flagship, the Irmingard class, moving ever closer. Tangling with the Volkers was like fighting a duel in front of a monument shrouded by fog. She was so dwarfed, that what she could see of the enemy ship occupied all of her field of vision. Even the Frigates also moving into range did not make up anywhere near as much of the space.

To that ship, Sameera and the Volkers were nothing but specks of dust dancing in the water.

For a moment, she thought of herself, a tiny thing framed before that colossal figure.

But only for a moment. Sameera’s innocence toward battle had been taken long ago.

And she hated thinking of herself as small. She had to be huge; she had to be the biggest.

All the while she thought this she sped away toward Dominika’s position. There were at least six other Divers lurking somewhere and she had made it her personal mission that none of them would touch a hair on her precious Nika’s head. It was this sort of thing that most easily motivated her to action. Fighting, not only to survive, but to excel, to prove herself, for glory.

“I’ve dealt with our rude onlookers! Nika, has my absence made your heart grow fonder?”

As if in response Sameera saw a flash from just ahead.

Nika’s remaining rockets rained down on the remaining Cutters from above.

Four missiles crashed onto the decks and towers of two cutters and detonated into bubbles broad enough they vanished the ocean directly in front of Sameera for several seconds. Ordnance that went off in the water evaporated and created a bubble. Both the volatile forces within the vapor bubble, the disturbed water around it, and the water then moving in to refill the bubble, placed massive pressures on whatever the ordnance targeted. When fleets full of heavy guns went to war, the blue expanse of the ocean filled with these deadly clouds, shearing, and pounding on the metal.

Sameera engaged rearward thrust to avoid the blasts and circled to the front of the fleet.

There was a massive hole in the flak cover as two cutters sank with heavy damage.

One remaining Cutter began to rise up the water table, dumping ballast to make an escape.

There was nothing in the fleet’s center but debris and two Streloks a hundred meters apart.

Sameera saw the door opening in front of them. That massive Irmingard, dead ahead.

“We’ve opened up the center.” Sameera said.

“Link back up with me now and stop mumbling, we’ve still got the Frigates.”

She wished Dominika would say something more emotional than that.

Not even out of a particular interest in her per se– simply to alter the mood.

Would it have hurt her to say I need you? Not that anyone ever told Sameera that.

“Right now, the way to the flagship is clear.”

“Are you nuts? It’s teeming with enemies around here still. Don’t be a hero!”

“The Lieutenant said we should take opportunities! We could end this battle right now.”

“This is an opportunity to get yourself killed. I’m coming to you, so just wait there–”

Sameera felt a growing frustration. She was not even asking Dominika to go with her.

Right in front of that Irmingard, the way had never looked more open. On the left flank, the Frigate was not moving to cover the gap. Maybe Khadija and Valya? And on the right flank, the other Frigate was starting to catch on to what was happening. Meanwhile that remaining Cutter had fully deserted its position and was no longer firing. Above them, the Destroyer’s gunfire was trailing after something Sameera could not see, likely Murati and Shalikova’s doing.

They had it right there– a breakthrough!

And the more they tarried, the more it closed! Only Sameera had this shot to secure victory. When she hunted Leviathans, every instant with the snapping predators invited death. Even the slightest twitch that allowed Sameera to attack was one she had to exploit. Squad or no squad, she was done negotiating with Dominika about this.

“I’ll take my chances with being a hero. Hang back and avoid the enemy Divers!”

“No! Absolutely not! Cossack– Stop! Sameera! SAMEERA!

Dominika shouted at her over the comms but Sameera paid no heed as she hurtled forward.

Even though it did feel good to have a lady shout her name– her eyes were full of glory.

Sameera always went for the biggest prey. She had to. Nobody would acknowledge her otherwise. Bigger prey, a bigger fight, escalating, drawing more and more blood– it was where she belonged!

Before the second Frigate could accelerate far enough ahead of the Irmingard to cover the gap left by the broken vanguard, Sameera rushed in among the fleet with everything her machine could give her. Stray gunfire from the accelerating, maneuvering Frigate flew well past her as she hurtled toward that metallic grey beast ahead. Looming larger and larger, that thick spoon-like prow like the head of a monster, and more of the enormous body behind it taking up her vision.

Her computers ran down the numbers every microsecond, closing in–

75 meters, 67 meters, 56 meters, 42 meters, faster, faster, she almost had the trophy–

Flashing red–

Sameera responded in an instant.

Engaging rearward thrust, she avoided an object rushing at her from below.

A vibrosword swung past her, the edge barely sliding off the skirt armor on the left hip.

“You’re no ordinary mercenaries! This’ll be fun!”

In front of her appeared an enemy Diver, a semi-triangular chassis with a flat head.

Jagd. Transmitting into the water; the acoustics picked up the voice.

Sameera had studied the second generation models like the Jagd. When she tested the Cheka, leaked design information for the Jagd was part of the project. Armed with a claw, a sword, and built-in SMGs, it could develop higher speeds than a Strelok due to its light weight, but it wasn’t all-powerful. That small performance gap that existed between the Volker and the Strelok was about how much a Jagd had on a Strelok too: in the simulations anyway.

Everything would depend on the pilot.

The Jagd had probably come out of the flagship. There was no flak coming in their direction anymore. It could have shot down the Imperial diver. For a moment, the two pilots floated on low thrust with maybe twenty meters between.

“Complying, merc? Good idea. Your jailer today is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

That pilot was taunting her. She had a woman’s voice, but a deep, violent register.

Judging by that name–

She was a loup, an actual Imperial loup. Sameera had heard the stories.

That was half her bloodline, the Empire’s vicious vanguard and recon troops. Attack dogs.

Sameera switched to the public frequency. Her hair was standing on end.

For a moment, she almost hesitated before speaking: “Sameera Raisanen-Morningsun.”

Giving her Loup surname– what did she even think it would do?

Ingrid’s crackling laughter erupted from the radio. It almost shook Sameera.

Her ears hung on that voice, that was so familiar, so like her own, like her father’s–

“You’ve got an interesting name, you stray! You ought to have stayed in your village and left the mercenary work to the Katarrans! Fitting that I’ll be the one to discipline you. I’m not unkind to my people! I have no love for the Empire. I’m only doing this for the lady in that ship. You mercenaries have no more conviction than to follow who is feeding you, so I’ll make you a deal. Come here where you belong, like a good puppy, and help us apprehend these criminals–”

No, it was nothing like her father!

It was nothing like her!

In that instant, Sameera had enough of Ingrid’s evil words.

This woman was nothing else but an enemy. Nothing else mattered.

“Absolutely not!”

Sameera felt her heart surge as she threw the Cossack into a sudden charge.

Her sword clashed with the Jagd’s claw and sent a finger flying into the water.

“Go fuck yourself! I’d sooner die than end up like you!” She shouted, seeing red.

She was almost angrier at herself and taking that frustration out– but she wouldn’t admit it.

Ingrid was utterly unfazed by the sudden attack.

“Happy to oblige then! I have nothing against tearing the throat off a hollering stray!”

From the shoulder, the Jagd launched into a thrust with its bladed arm.

Sameera disengaged the rotation of her blade to have a solid block to parry with.

She pounded the Jagd’s sword aside, reengaged the motor on the blade, swung–

From the moment she parried, however, that Jagd had her where she wanted.

As if fluidly playing along with the parry, Ingrid suddenly slipped past Sameera.

Those four remaining digits of her claw glowed red and gave off vapor.

Imperial claw weapons used both heat and sudden, snapping pressure to tear off metal.

Swinging right into her exposed flank, hoping to tear a chunk right out of her belly–

Sensing the danger, Sameera gave up her attack.

Using all available thrust she threw herself away from the Jagd to create space.

“Aww, the puppy is running away! After all that barking!”

Ingrid met speed with speed and charged after Sameera almost instantly. Her sword came down on the Cossack’s in a blink. This was nothing like fighting those Serrano patrolmen.

She was a Loup, a real Loup! She was vicious and had the reflexes and hardware to support it.

Sameera found herself on the defensive as a rain of blows came down.

That Jagd’s arm sword snapped back and forth through the water with punishing ease. Repeatedly the blows came, and all Sameera could do was meet each of them with the flat, armored back of her sword, watching the integrity of the wrist and arm joint on the Cossack. As soon as Sameera tried to create space that Jagd was back on top of her, the difference in power-to-weight proving horribly decisive.

With every move, Ingrid would chase her down, leaving her no chance to retaliate.

If she could even lift her gun– but Sameera hesitated– the arm might be sliced off–!  

“Trying to shoot? And I thought we had a nice duel going!”

Ingrid backed off just suddenly as she once attacked.

The Jagd’s twin shoulder guns flashed. Dozens of rounds of 20 mm erupted from the barrels.

Explosions bloomed all around the Cossack and followed it as Sameera fled.

She thrust directly upward, her cockpit shaking as a few blasts pitted her chest armor.

Gaining just a bit of distance and height on the Jagd. Couldn’t shoot– couldn’t swing–

In a flash of inspiration, Sameera smashed the utility buttons on her sticks.

“What?” Ingrid shouted, confounded by what followed.

The Cossack’s shoulder hooks blasted out of their pods and slammed into the Jagd.

Sameera barely had time to check if she hooked anything on the steel line.

She engaged both forward thrust and the motors for the hooks to reel in.

One hook had slammed hard into the left shoulder gun and jammed it–

But a second hook had grabbed hold of the complicated shoulder joint on the claw arm.

Thicker and larger because of the power supply for the claw’s heating elements and motors.

There was a lot of surface area for the hook to grab tight.

As she engaged the hook motors, the Cossack hurtled forward and snapped the Jagd up.

Ingrid’s gunfire went nowhere as the two mechs careened toward each other.

Sameera’s gambit had paid off.

Unable to think or plan ahead, relying on the pure feral instinct of hunter and prey.

She sped to the Jagd, barely swung her sword, and smashed right into the enemy mech with the blade between them. Her blade bit furiously into the central chassis for a second, chewing metal and kicking up fragments, before the Jagd rocketed back with every lick of thrust it could afford. Kicking up a brief cloud of vapor between itself and Sameera’s Cossack, snapping off the hook with the force of its flight, the Jagd retreated over thirty meters out of the melee.

In the surrounding waters, parts of the shoulder and one of the gun barrels floated as debris.

For a brief moment, a pinprick of agarrthic energy licked the water surrounding it. Some of the Jagd’s battery cells must have shorted out. Like the Cheka, they were distributed throughout the body: a second generation trait. Less weight overall, but the arrangement had some drawbacks.

Ingrid’s furious breathing was all that was coming through. No more taunts.

Sameera’s nervous eyes turned briefly to the diagnostics display.

Her sword was going. Ingrid’s attacks had deformed the motor housing. It was seizing.

Hull integrity was starting to dip right in the center of the chest, but still ocean-worthy.

And the left leg intake was partially compromised. That would affect her speed–

“Sameera!”

That was not Ingrid’s voice–

Dominika!

Shit. Sameera thought. Shit, shit, SHIT.

She had been so stupid. She had let herself get separated; diverted to fight one measly unit!

“Sameera, I need backup, now!”

There was not even an instant of thought or hesitation in Sameera’s mind.

If Nika was killed due to her stupidity, Sameera’s soul would have died with her.

Her body was put into the world to protect others– how could she have forgotten?

“Sameera! I need you!”

Without another pointless word exchanged with Ingrid, Sameera took off at full thrust.

“I’m coming! Hold on!” She shouted.

One of her cameras and monitors had always been set to track Nika.

Her attention had been drawn off it for her brief skirmish with Ingrid, but it had always been doing its best to track her. Each Strelok had a unique acoustic signature — slightly different hydrodynamic structures would create unique wakes. Dive computers were able to keep track of team members this way.

On this camera, a green square overlayed in the distance represented Nika’s general area.

Two red squares overlapped with hers.

Sameera saw a yellow warning on the diagnostic screen.

She was losing thrust on the left leg.

Would she make it? It was a matter of seconds she didn’t have–

As she got away from Ingrid, gunfire from the Irmingard class intensified.

Long lines of gas gun bullets flew past her and burst, a constellation of dangerous blasts.

Sameera swerved, losing even more speed as she evaded the fire.

At the head of the fleet, the Frigate had advanced to close the gap in the flagship’s defenses just as Sameera had predicted. There was a red square around it as well, overlayed on the camera, but Sameera did not need it to see the clear danger it presented. Gunfire from this Frigate framed the melee between Nika and the enemy Divers, preventing her from escaping. She was completely surrounded. Sameera rammed her pedals, trying to get the left leg to push more water through, but it did nothing but physically vent her frustration. She could not go any faster than she was.

“They’ll kill her.” Sameera’s eyes drew wide, cold sweat streaking down her face.

Her sword was useless; her SMG didn’t have the range to respond; and she was losing thrust.

Murati or Khadija would not make it in time. It had to be her; only she could do anything!

She wracked her brain thinking about all the weapons and systems she had at her disposal.

Her mind flashed back to her fight with Ingrid. She had one hook that hadn’t broken.

One hook– and a bomb. She still had the bomb!

Sameera mumbled to herself, her mind stumbling over possibility.

“Murati, I’m so sorry. If we survive, I’ll accept any punishment.”

Beneath the backpack jets on her Diver’s chassis, there was a magnetic strip. Her sword attached to it when it folded, but her bomb was also there. She withdrew the pipe-shaped demolition charge. It was a pure chunk of explosive without any lining or penetrators, fixed with a simple detonator connected by wire and triggered with a switch in her cockpit. Sameera popped out her one remaining hook from its shoulder pod and affixed the bomb to the hook.

“If I throw it, and then start up the hook’s hydrojet–”

Sameera faced her mecha toward the overlapping red boxes of the Frigate and Volkers.

And the green box, Nika.

“Nika! Pull away from them now!”

She pulled back her arm, engaged one of the solid fuel boosters and made a snap throw.

Smashing the utility button on her trigger, she engaged the hook’s jet.

At once, the hook sped away fully unimpeded.

Farther and faster than Sameera’s Cossack could ever go in this instant.

It was so fast it was hard to track.

She had about 80 meters of cable, and she could also cut the cable loose–

“Shit, with the explosion–!”

Realizing she had no idea how wide the blast would be, she did release the tow cable.

“Nika, please get away!”

As soon as the green square of the bomb overlapped the red squares of the enemy, all outside of Sameera’s direct field of vision, she took a deep breath and pressed the second of her utility triggers. Through the enormous length of thin electric wire to which the bomb was attached, a digital detonation command was sent from the Diver to the pipe, and the detonator engaged.

With a second press, Sameera overrode the detonator and set the bomb off immediately.

In the next instant, the murky shadows ahead of her lit up for less than a second.

Sameera heard the muffled booming sound of the explosion through her hydrophone.

Then there was a shockwave that reached all the way to her and rattled her cockpit.

Water instantly evaporated and collapsed around the bomb’s blast radius. An enormous bubble formed in the sea as the heat from the explosives evaporated the water around it and pushed away the rest. Extreme heat and pressures in and around the bubble sheared and crushed metal, and there was no more gas gun fire coming from that general area. All of the red squares vanished, her predictor telling her that the hostile objects had ceased moving or were unavailable to track.

From afar, there was only murky ocean and a rapidly collapsing cloud of vapor.

As Sameera approached, she witnessed the devastation for herself.

Parts of the Frigate’s underside had been disgorged by the explosion, the ship listing on its side and sinking slowly amid a cloud of its own debris. There was nothing of the enemy Divers to be seen, just a cloud of drifting, falling metal chunks robbed of any semblance of form. There was a sudden, intense calm upon the ocean as all the gunfire forward of the Irmingard was silenced.

“Nika! Nika, respond!”

Sameera looked through each of her cameras on the separate monitors, hoping to find any trace of Dominika. That explosion had disturbed the acoustic predictors enough that everything being tracked in that area was momentarily lost. She adjusted and readjusted the cameras, feeling a dawning realization that her desperate attempt to save her could have just as easily killed her too.

“Nika!”

She swept through the area, as the debris drifted slowly down to the ocean floor.

One hand moved thoughtlessly to the communications equipment, fingers trembling.

Could she switch to the squadron channel? Call for help?

What would she even say to Murati about all of this? Everything had spiraled out of control.

Sameera grit her teeth. She had been so stupid, so completely, impossibly stupid.

Her desperation to be the hero, to be the one acknowledged, the one sang about–

“Where the fuck do you belong now? You stupid, useless mutt.” She berated herself.

Tears started to well up in her eyes.

Nothing in the cameras, nothing anywhere around.

Her hand retreated from the communicator.

She could not face Murati like this.

“Nika, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled into her microphone.

“If you weren’t I’d make you be sorry.”

One of the top cameras placed a green box several meters above.

Sameera’s eyes drew wide. She lifted her head, staring at the ceiling of her mecha.

Her lips drew wide in a trembling smile.

“Nika!”

From the murk above, the Strelkannon slowly descended to join the Cossack’s side.

Armor pockmarked with gunshot wounds, the head battered; but functional, with its owner very much alive.

She had escaped in time. Sameera had managed to save her.

“When we get back, I’m slapping you across the fucking face, hero.” Dominika growled.

Sameera felt a mixture of relief and apprehension at those words.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


Previous ~ Next