Bandits Amid The Festival [11.4]

Once again Murati Nakara found herself in a place that was becoming familiar: Euphrates and Tigris’ solar within the wing of Solarflare LLC’s headquarters. This time, her hosts had summoned her to a room which appeared to be a convertible court. There were a variety of balls, racquets and other sporting equipment on a rack in the wall, and there were slots on the floor and the walls to affix nets, baskets, goals, whatever was necessary. The floor had the same sort of digital projector plating that the walls of living quarters would have, but this was used to display the correct markings for whatever sport was being played. It was not a full-size court for any given sport, but it was more than large enough for recreation.

Murati was surprised by its very existence.

“You two didn’t strike me as the sports-playing type.” Murati said.

Immediately her hosts delivered their expected reactions:

“That’s so fucking rude! I keep extremely fit! Don’t lump me in with this nerd!”

“Can you defend yourself without abusing me? I exercise a bit too, you know.”

In the middle of the court, Tigris and Euphrates welcomed Murati inside.

“We’re not here to play ordinary games today. It’s time for your training, Murati.”

Euphrates lobbed an easy baseball pitch and Murati caught it in her hands.

She felt a string of anxiety plucked in her chest, rendering an arrhythmic little tune that caused her to shudder. It was these two, and it was this place, so clearly they were talking about psionics, and Murati had been hesitating to try so much as shaking an object lightly. She had caused nothing but disasters to herself and her environment every time she attempted to use psionics.

“I’m a bit worried about this. I’ve been having a lot of issues controlling my psionics.” Murati said.

“Both of us can recover very quickly from injury.” Euphrates said.

“That doesn’t help me. I could throw something too hard and hit myself.” Murati said.

“You heal up from injuries unnaturally quickly too.” Tigris said.

“It’s– It’s not unnaturally quickly.” Murati said. “My ribs were broken for–”

“Less than two weeks? Maybe even less than one?” Tigris said, with a little grin on her face.

Murati blinked. She felt like she didn’t know where to put her hands.

All her life she had recovered a bit quicker than others from injuries, but that wasn’t–

Her anxious train of thought was interrupted.

“Regardless, don’t be afraid.” Euphrates said. “We’ll keep things from getting out of hand.”

“Chuck it at me as hard as you can with psionics.” Tigris said. “I’ll demonstrate.”

Tigris clapped her hands together and took in a deep breath. She was concentrating.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Murati sighed.

It’s not just whether anyone could recover from her uncontrolled blows or how quickly. Murati did not want to hurt people she cared about with her psionics. It was like being taught how to shoot with live targets. Even with rubber bullets in the chamber, battering and bruising your comrades in front of you was not a good learning environment. It discouraged her from wanting to try it at all.

However, Euphrates and Tigris were not ordinary people.

She was not about to walk out and refuse when they were prompting her to take action.

Maybe she could trust them and see where it went– but she was still not enthused about it.

“Okay, here it goes.”

She reared back with the ball in her hands and made to throw it.

In her mind, she pulled the mental trigger that unloaded her psionics on the object.

Her eyes felt warm, and in an instant, the optics of her psionics covered her vision.

Auras appeared in front of her, emanating from Euphrates and Tigris.

Her own aura transferred from her arm into the ball she was throwing, tinging it green.

She felt like she had no control over that color specifically– it was just how it happened.

As soon as the ball left her hands, she pushed on it with her mind. She concentrated on her desire for the ball to snap in Tigris’ direction as strongly as it could. And snap, it did. It felt like there was a barely perceptible instant where the ball transitioned from moving under the power of Murati’s ordinary throw, the energy of her arm muscles on the ball’s mass; to moving under the power of Murati’s mind, violently accelerating the ball perhaps five times as fast as she could ever hope to throw it.

It would strike Tigris, across the court, before Murati’s arm was done moving–

Oracle’s Voice. Saint’s Skin.

Ball struck hand with a soft thump despite all the brutal energy behind it.

“There, wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Murati blinked, and Tigris was holding the ball in her hand without a care.

“Are you still afraid of hitting me?” Tigris asked in a teasing tone of voice.

Murati was briefly speechless. She stammered. “I– I thought I– I heard you speaking–”

“You didn’t hear it. You felt what I was doing as I did it, but it would have all happened way too fast for you to hear it with your physical senses.” Tigris said. “As you get more used to it, your mental sense of psionic things happening around will alert you with greater fidelity. Can you describe it?”

There was no describing it. It was like a mix between a sound and a feeling.

“I don’t know. I thought I heard a voice.“ Murati said.

“Ah, a voice you say?“ Tigris looked like she understood more than she was letting on.

“Basically,” Euphrates added, “Tigris performed a psionic trick to predict your throw.”

“And to be able to catch it safely. That was what you felt.” Tigris finished.

“It’s actually really promising that you perceived what she was doing.” Euphrates said.

“Is it? I can’t really articulate what I heard– what I felt, as you say.” Murati replied.

Euphrates and Tigris both nodded their heads together.

“Even people who, baseline, know psionics exist and can see auras, can’t necessarily tell like you could that something was going on with me in that moment.” Tigris said. “That voice you think you heard, your psionic reckoning, is called the Oracle’s Voice– it’s a gift not many people have, even people who, like I said, can see auras and understand that psionics exists. But that’s totally not 101 stuff.”

It must not have been, because Murati had no idea what to make of it whatsoever.

Even in the recesses of her own mind. It was impossible to articulate again what that voice in her head had told her she had felt and experienced. It had already faded like a dream– or if she were to use Tigris’ own word, fidelity, then it was like barely hearing a message while tuning a communicator’s frequency but quickly losing it to the noise, never to be found again. Like almost everything about psionics, it felt so frustratingly vague and immaterial that she was not sure how to approach it and master it.

“Even if I could be a generational psionic talent or something– I’m not right now! I have no idea how to even begin to exert precise control over this!” Murati said, hands closing into fists.

She had raised her voice in frustration. Euphrates and Tigris remained as steady as ever.

“It all starts with having emotional control, Murati.” Euphrates said. “Psionics is the power of the mind, but, more than that, it’s really the power of human emotion. Your mind is a conduit that turns your intention into power, but that intentionality is ultimately steered by emotions. Control emotion and you will control your psionics. It will never be perfect, but it can be managed and directed.”

“We’re not going to leave you in the lurch. I’ll teach you how to get started.” Tigris said.

Murati tried to pull herself back to the center, dial down her anger and anxiety.

She took a deep breath. “If you have some baby’s first psionic exercises to share–”

“Eh, you’re past that stuff.” Tigris said. “You figured out how to ‘turn on’ your psionics without anyone telling you anything. You can flip it on and off when you want. That’s the first part; and being able to throw stuff on command too. You’re solidly in the intermediate range of psychics now.”

Murati had not thought that was anything special. It felt like a perquisite to any psionics.

Clearly, she had to find a way to turn off the auras or she would have gone insane.

So she developed that intentionality before the colors everywhere fried her brain.

How was that not ‘step 0’ to learning psionics? It felt so natural when she did it now.

“Okay.” Murati triggered her psionics, rendering the auras visible. “What now?”

She intended for Tigris and Euphrates to see the red around her eyes, deliberately.

“Now you have to start developing intentionality in other parts of the process.”

Tigris took the ball she had in hand, showed it to Murati, and threw it up in the air.

Up in the air, the ball suddenly veered to the left with a thud, as if something had stricken it from the side. This sent it flying quickly to the other western end of the court– where with another loud thud, the ball was struck again in mid-air and soared toward the eastern end of the court instead. Tigris was not even looking at it. Throughout the rest of their conversation that ball would continue to be struck from side to side in the court as if by an invisible bat, over and over without affecting Tigris at all.

“When you begin practicing with kinetics, it makes sense to think of the psionic force as coming from you, like it moves forward from your position.” Euphrates began. She had shifted into her very professor-like voice and demeanor. “You’ve been characterizing kinetics as thrusts that push something forward, bearing from your physical position. However, psionics is the power of your mind. It isn’t that limited.”

“For an object that is in your physical presence, you don’t actually need to be able to touch it physically in order to affect it. Hell, it doesn’t need to move in a direction that makes sense for the position of your body. I could stance up to pitch forward but have the ball go over my shoulder.” Tigris said. Murati looked at Euphrates, then at Tigris, and then up at the ball, which was still being batted around over their heads as Tigris spoke. “Your psionic force can come from any direction and from any position around you.”

Murati’s eyes drew wider. She kept trying to follow the ball.

Then, she focused on the impact, where the ball changed directions–

She thought she saw something– a strange, visible burst as if illustrating a collision–

“You’re a quick study.” Euphrates said. She smiled proudly. “You see it, Murati.”

“Can you explain what I’m seeing?” Murati asked, blinking rapidly in disbelief.

“We call them vectors to help visualize the phenomenon, but it’s not entirely correct to treat them like physical objects.” Euphrates said. “It’s just a helpful illustration of the actual fact: you can decide the direction and location where psionic force executes and takes effect on an object, as well as its strength. There are limits, for example, a human’s body will resist being vectored just as much as their mind resists other kinds of psionic intrusion. Vectoring from inside an object means the object’s entire internal structure will distribute the force more or less evenly– etcetera. For now, think of it like a bat you can summon to hit a ball in any direction you want. That’ll help you get started on using vectors.”

“Using them?” Murati said. “I can’t even begin to conceive of how this works.”

“Catch!” Tigris declared suddenly.

From the eastern side of the court, the ball was subjected to one final snap, and tumbled in the air toward Murati. That final strike had been much softer than those preceding and Murati found it easy to grab the ball out of the air once it neared her. She looked at the soft surface of the ball, which had started to look a little beat up from all the strikes it had received. She turned it over in her hands.

She got a very fleeting sensation, the feeling that this ball had been struck by Tigris.

It had her aura on it, faint traces of it, a similar texture– that was how she conceived it.

There was a trace of Tigris on it, of Tigris’ emotion, the signature of her psionic power.

“Here’s an exercise you can do.” Tigris said. “With your hand, throw the ball up, not hard, just enough to get it in the air. Then, bat it over your own head in the opposite direction to where you’re looking. Try to imagine you’re creating an object in front of yourself to strike the ball while it’s in the air.”

“It doesn’t matter the shape.” Euphrates said. “Just imagine something hitting the ball.”

Murati suppressed a desire to continue complaining. It wouldn’t help her.

She would just follow their instructions to the letter and see where it led her.

Holding the ball in one hand, palm up, she casually pitched it into the air.

Following it with her eyes, Murati pulled her trigger.

Imagining– something— striking the ball and launching it behind her–

There was an enormously loud bang, followed by a shower of shredded fibers and cork.

One instant, Murati had been staring at the ball, and the next– it was completely destroyed.

There was a dull aching on one side of her head, and she flinched from the sound.

Everyone present was left momentarily speechless as the debris collected on their heads.

“I’d never seen someone reach this extreme on their first try.” Tigris whined.

She batted fragments out of her hair while Euphrates softly brushed her own shoulders.

Then she suddenly picked up a fragment of the ball from Tigris’ hair and looked at it.

Murati could see debris had a faint trace of red aura on it. Euphrates must have seen it too.

“Murati– how do you conceptualize using your psionics?” Euphrates asked.

Tigris sighed openly and swatted Euphrates’ hand away as she tried to pick another ball fragment out of her ponytail without asking. “Don’t ask her that way, she’ll overthink things too much. Murati– take this completely at face value. Imagine you’re a star football player: name your signature kick right now.”

As instructed, Murati took it at face value. “The Nakara Cannon.” She replied easily.

Euphrates and Tigris both grimaced, staring at the fragments of the ball with worry.

Murati gestured with her hands, exasperated. “What do you want from me?” She cried.

“She’s normally such a sweet girl, but her heart is just full of violence.” Tigris mumbled.

“Murati, can you try hitting the next ball with less– repressed fury?” Euphrates smiled.

Murati closed her hands into fists and shut her eyes, sighing deeply.

Even her most pessimistic assumptions of the task of learning psionics now felt too kind.


Shalikova and Maryam sat on one of the beds in their room and Elena Lettiere sat on the other.

While her cuttlefish partner was smiling brighter than the sun and stars as depicted in books and movies– Shalikova herself had a dour and somewhat confused expression turned on Elena.

Despite everything else she had seen and experienced on her journey, this was still a scene that felt a little too storybook for the young ensign. She had never sat this close to anyone politically important, just peers and higher ranking officers. Not any politicians, not even local apparatchiks– there was a public safety corps officer, once upon a time when she was younger, but that hardly counted, they were just playing detective. In essence, she had never been near political power, and did not know how she felt about those figures generally– and there was the fact that this was a princess. Some part of her was fascinated by the improbability of meeting a princess. Having a princess sitting across from her– with bright indigo hair and pointed ears and such a vibrant and pretty face. Just like a cartoonish storybook.

Even though she had been briefed on the basics of Elena’s situation, she felt compelled–

“Uh. Forgive me for asking but– are you really a Princess?” Shalikova said.

Maryam eyed Shalikova for a moment, her skin and hair colors turning slightly duller.

It was an awkward question, but she felt she needed to hear it to truly process.

“I used to be!” Elena said. “But I am no longer a member of the bourgeoisie!

She proudly showed them a book– a primer on communism for Union schoolchildren.

Shalikova had not seen a book like that since she was eleven or twelve years old.

With it in her hands, Elena was as cheery and smiley as Maryam had been.

“I’ve forfeited all of my titles and lands and am adopting a proletarian outlook on life!”

“Well– congratulations.” Shalikova said awkwardly. This all felt incredibly surreal.

“Sonya, she really is– was– a princess– and not only that, but she’s also got psionics too!” Maryam said. “She’s not as strong and cool as you of course, but I felt it from her! That’s why I helped her before. Also because I think she looked a little bit pitiful I guess.” Her head fins flapped a little as she spoke.

“Thank you for your help, wise sister!” Elena said. She bowed her head, a little bit pitifully.

“Oh no! No bowing! It’s fine. I’m just a very helpful girl.” Maryam said, her skin turning tomato-red.

“Maryam, what did you do to help her?” Shalikova asked, narrowing her eyes.

“That doesn’t matter Sonya!” Maryam said with a nervous little smile and a voice full of casual levity, raising her tentacles up like hands in her own clumsy defense. “Look, Elena is asking for help again! We should hear what she has to say and try to help her! Good deeds will do the soul good after all!”

Shalikova couldn’t help but smile. Maryam was a harmless marshmallow anyway.

“Fine. Fine.” Shalikova sighed a little. “Elena, tell us what’s happening.”

“Thank you! Wise sister– and gallant ensign!” Elena declared, clapping her hands together.

The Princess proceeded to tell them about her history with psionics.

She told them about her friend, Victoria van Veka, who left her life one day and just as suddenly returned in a time of a crisis with a strange new power. Elena explained what she had seen her do, and Shalikova immediately realized it. Telekinetics, possibly aura reading– the way that she seemed to “see through” Elena. She even attempted to control Elena’s body, and Marina McKennedy’s too, but both of them were able to muster some level of resistance and completely foiled Victoria’s attempts. Then she began to talk about her own experience trying to use psionics to “calm down” Marina McKennedy–

Shalikova could tell she was lying about some of the events and some of her motivations.

Elena was a sloppy liar. She must have been used to being believed at face value or having her lies accepted due to her status. Shalikova did not need to read auras to know this. Elena’s own tone of voice elevated and fell with the ebb and flow of her embellishments. She had a particularly awkward pause and rise in pitch when she said, “I was trying to calm Marina down– she was scaring me–” Her soft cheeks subtly tightened or twitched too, and it never happened when she was saying words she had clear confidence in. “My schoolfriend Victoria van Veka,” “she seemed to know that our other friend, Sawyer,” etcetera. She spoke with such a noted contrast in both the statements and the shifts in her mannerisms.

Shalikova was too observant, had seen too many such expressions and statements.

She knew all too well when a young girl was blatantly spinning a narrative for her.

Despite this, she allowed Elena to finish her story and kept her reservations to herself.

“When I try to use psionics now, I see a vision of Norn– and she hurts me.“ Elena finished.

In the end, it didn’t change anything whether or not Shalikova and Maryam knew the tiny details of her life to the letter. She already had the power and already could not use it anymore, and Shalikova trusted Maryam would judge her character and deem whether or not she was worthy of it–

“Wah! That’s so tragic! You’ve been through a lot! Come to the cuddlefish right now!”

Maryam practically jumped across the room and wrapped Elena into a tight embrace.

Elena sat speechless and stiff as a sculpture while Maryam hugged her.

Her tentacles relentlessly patted Elena’s head all the while.

“Sister! I appreciate your sympathy! But I’m truly okay, I’m– I’m healing and growing!”

Shalikova narrowed her eyes at the two of them. Maryam started openly weeping.

“Of course we’ll help you! Sonya and I would never turn down a girl in need!”

“Maryam, you– ugh, whatever.” Shalikova mumbled.

Some judge of character she was! Marshmallow-for-brains!

–and yet that was part of what Shalikova truly loved about her too.

Even if she was getting pulled into another surreal event– she would do it for Maryam.

“Sister Maryam, do you really think you could help me?” Elena asked, smiling.

Maryam let go of Elena, walked solemnly back to Shalikova’s side and sat there.

Her tentacles positioned themselves under her chin, as if she was steepling her fingers.

“It’s tricky-inky.” Maryam said.

“Tricky-inky?” Elena asked.

“Maryam, please be serious.” Shalikova sighed.

“Sorry. I’m just trying to cheer you all up! It was such a sad story!” Maryam said. She deflated and sighed and the chromatophores in her skin turned a little duller. “How much do you know about Norn the Praetorian?” She looked principally at Shalikova, causing Elena to turn to face her as well.

“Huh? I don’t know anything.” Shalikova said. “I know what happened recently and that she’s a bigshot Fueller family noblewoman or something like that. We don’t get history for people like that in the Union, it doesn’t really matter to an Ensign. Whether or not I know her history, if she shows up, I have to deploy and then fight her and her troops. Out of all of us officers, probably only the Captain and Commissar would be aware of who an enemy commander is, so they can strategize against her.”

Maryam nodded. “And to you, she’s your aunt, right?” She looked at Elena.

Elena averted her gaze, hands folded over her lap. “She became my aunt when I was a kid. She was adopted into the Fueller family, as an honorary sister to my father, Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. So she became Norn von Fueller that way. I think back then, my father must have been thinking his heirs needed more time to grow into leadership, so he wanted to leave the family in the hands of his strongest retainer. But– before she was my aunt, Norn was just a really scary knight my father employed.”

Maryam nodded again. “Okay. Well– the way I know her is as Cocytus, maybe the most accomplished psychic in the world right now. She was the woman who killed Mehmed Khalifa, the greatest psychic who was ever born or lived. So that’s why it’s going to be tricky to undo her psionics, princess.”

“I’m not a princess. Please call me Elena; or Lettiere if you want to be formal.” Elena said. “And– as for Norn, I sort of guessed she had to have a lot of power to be able to do this strange thing to me.”

“Hold on.” Shalikova said. “Maryam, is she even more powerful than you?”

Maryam smiled a little. “Speaking in terms of ‘power’ is not really accurate. Sonya, if you were issued a Kratov pistol or an AK assault rifle, would you always take the largest caliber weapon?”

“No–” Shalikova was already realizing her foolishness. “It depends on what I need for the job.”

“Indeed! In the same way, psychic ability can’t be summed up as power. I have a lot of psychic things I’m good at. I would say I’m really good with auras for example. I can read and influence moods really well–” Maryam’s fins stood straight up, and she started gesticulating defensively with her hands and tentacles, “–but I haven’t done it to you Sonya! Please don’t distrust me for saying that kind of thing!”

“I trust you!” Shalikova said, smiling and patting Maryam on the back to console her.

Elena meanwhile averted her gaze from the two of them again. She looked– embarrassed?

“Ah, sorry, sorry. I got nervous– Anyway.” Maryam said, smiling. “I couldn’t tell you what Norn has been doing with her powers. Hazarding a guess, she’s probably gotten really good at killing people with them. What I know Norn has on us that’s a huge advantage is experience. It’s a pure function of time– I’ve been practicing psionics since I was an older larva, but Norn is several times my age. Sonya, you have had your powers for a few weeks, and Elena has never been able to use hers properly. Norn is a veteran.”

“How do you know so much about Norn, Maryam?” Shalikova asked.

“Foundation stuff.” Maryam said. She smiled her ‘not saying more’ little smile.

“Oh, like Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday.” Shalikova said.

She recalled that when they had docked at the Goryk Substation, Maryam was very familiar to those two, they treated her like a kid. She had worked for their mysterious foundation, once upon a time. Shalikova had not brought that back up, and Maryam had been avoiding their guests from Solarflare LLC since then. Or rather, she was avoiding them because Shalikova herself was avoiding everybody.

“You could say, they have a catalog on really powerful psychics.” Maryam continued.

“Can they help us?” Shalikova asked.

“We shouldn’t let them know about Elena.” Maryam said. She looked serious again.

Elena looked nervous. Her voice trembled. “W-Why not? Will they dissect me?”

“Um.” Shalikova turned to Maryam and saw her squirming in her side of the bed.

“Of course not!” Maryam replied, once again waving her tentacles and hands in distress and surprise. “They’re not going to dissect you, that’s crazy! But first of all, they’re busybodies so they would want to give you a funny name and have you join their little club, which you shouldn’t because it’s full of selfish and weird people I don’t like. And then second of all, they probably wouldn’t help anyway.”

Maryam’s eyes narrowed and her tentacles snuck into her hair and wrapped up some of it.

She was trying to imitate Euphrates’ voice, expression and short wavy hair.

“We shouldn’t intervene in anything. It’s actually bad to help people and save the world.”

That was her imitation. Shalikova would have to take it for granted that it was accurate.

“Huh, Maryam is really talented.” Elena said.

“It’s in her genes.” Shalikova said jokingly.

Maryam’s cheeks puffed up and she turned red as a tomato– then she began to strobe red.

It was almost frightening to have that little marshmallow-y warning light beside her.

“Nuh-uh! I learned to do all this stuff! You need to drop the genes talk for good Sonya!”

“Sorry. I’ll stop. It was stupid of me.” Shalikova said, feeling properly ashamed.

Maryam’s skin returned to its normal pink color and her hair turned purple again.

She smiled sweetly. “I can’t stay mad at you Sonya.”

Shalikova could tell what was about to happen but did not avoid Maryam’s embrace.

Again, Elena averted her gaze. Shalikova wondered if they were embarrassing her with their PDA.

“Well, I’m glad I’m not going to have to sleep in the hall tonight.” Shalikova said, partially returning her girlfriend’s embrace. Maryam rubbed her soft, pliable cheek against hers. “We should get back to the problem at hand though. So Norn is way more experienced than us, and she has laid some kind of curse on Elena to prevent her from using her psionics. Is there anything we can even do about that? I had no idea psionics could even work this way. I thought it was just pushing objects and looking at colors.”

“Well,” Maryam’s voice was initially muffled as she was rubbing her cheeks very fervently on Shalikova, but she finally paused enough to speak coherently and separated herself. “It’s the power of the mind over matter, you know, there are a lot of unique things you could do if you believed in it hard enough.”

Maryam finally let go of Shalikova and then crossed her arms.

“I know what she did though. Sonya, look at Elena’s aura.”

“My aura?” Elena asked.

“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt or anything. Just relax.” Shalikova said.

In the next instant, she tapped into the power.

“Wait, her eyes? Is that her doing things?” Elena said.

Indeed, she must have seen the red rings around Shalikova’s irises.

Indicating that Shalikova was performing psionics.

Around and behind Elena, the colors that had she gave off corresponded to an ordinary spectrum of the human emotional experience. Green and blue and a little yellow. Anxiety and a bit of sickness, maybe butterflies in the stomach from the situation at hand, but ultimately, every human had some blue in their aura to indicate they were okay. Blue signified peace, but all humans exhibited some blue in their aura regardless of the situation. Shalikova thought this was the guarantee of life– there was at least always the confidence that a human being could take a step forward and see another day, and that was their blue.

She wondered if, perhaps, on their deathbed, a human’s aura would be consumed in black.

So, this meant Elena had a pretty ordinary aura. Its texture was soft; it was faintly fragrant.

An innocent young girl who truly bore no malice– at that moment.

“Look closely Sonya. You can see it at the very edge, can’t you?” Maryam said.

Shalikova focused. There was no “edge” to an aura, not really, it was amorphous.

And yet, Shalikova could see it, like a thick outline of a hand-drawn character.

There was a very thin band of black around Elena’s aura.

“Elena, are you afraid of dying? Or are you thinking about death?” Shalikova asked.

“No, I’m not.” Elena said. She put a hand over her chest. “I admit I’m pretty nervous and my mood is not in the best of places, I guess. But I at least know I’m safe with all of you. It’s safer than I have felt in months, maybe even years. So no– I’m not concerned with death. Why do you ask?”

“Your aura is a series of colors that psychics can see on you that give a little clue as to your state of mind.” Maryam explained. “We’re seeing a band of black color– that usually means that the person is concerned with death. Either thinking about it or thinking about inflicting death on another person.”

“I’m not thinking about either!” Elena said.

For a moment, the band of black shook and expanded just a little.

“She’s thinking about death now.” Shalikova said. “But not before.”

Elena blinked. She looked like she wanted to crawl away from sight.

“Maryam is that what Norn did to her?” Shalikova asked. “Did she tamper with her aura?”

Maryam nodded. “She affected her aura, yeah. That black band is Norn’s influence. It’s not just the color. When you’ve seen enough auras, you can feel a texture and stuff– it feels Norn-like to me.”

“Norn can really do something like that? Victoria could only smash stuff.” Elena said.

“Anything is possible.” Maryam said. “But, within anything, there are a few specific things which people have observed. It is definitely possible to mess with auras– I can do it to some degree even. That is kind of like, a sub-discipline inside Psionics. You could call it Aetherics. It’s actually really rare, but there are people who can just inject aura into you to change your emotions to what they want.”

Shalikova had never thought it was possible to interact with aura.

She could see it, sure, and she could read it– but to think that she could alter it?

Then she remembered when she saw Maryam completely change the color of her aura.

“Maryam, can you do that?” Shalikova asked.

Maryam shook her head.

She then lifted her hand, holding up the middle three fingers.

“There are three aetheric abilities known by the Foundation. We call them the gifts because they’re rare, when you compare everybody who could do psionics– that’s because only some people figure out they can interact with aura, and even fewer do it a lot.” Maryam said. “The three gifts are Oracle’s Voice, Saint’s Skin and King’s Gaze. They have these names because people who have Oracle’s Voice can feel that this is what the abilities should be referred to as when they experience them. Almost anyone can figure out Oracle’s Voice, it’s just an extension of being able to see auras. Saint’s Skin comes next, it’s the ability to manipulate your own aura and the environmental aura in complex ways. And then– very, very few people in the world are able to use King’s Gaze. It’s the one that lets you manipulate other people’s auras.”

Maryam’s fins drooped and her colors dulled again. “I’m only able to use two.”

She lifted two fingers on her left hand and wiggled them, strobing the colors of their skin.

“So you don’t have the King’s Gaze.” Shalikova said bluntly, coming to a quick conclusion.

“Nope.” Maryam shook her head. “It’s rare! People used to call it the divine right of kings!”

Shalikova felt a shiver of fear deep in her chest. “But Norn has that ability somehow.”

“If anyone alive right now has the power of kings– it’s definitely Norn the Praetorian.”

“I’m doomed.” Elena moaned, holding her face in her hands.

“No you’re not!” Maryam said in a dismissive, whiny little voice. She cleared her throat and crossed her arms and tried to look terribly serious. “Give me some time to think and come up with a plan. This isn’t something we were ever going to confront on a whim one afternoon. Put it out of your mind for now, don’t tell anyone and don’t try to do any psionics. I will think about how to fix this, and Sonya will help me, right Sonya?” She turned to her girlfriend with big, bright and expectant W-shaped eyes.

“Of course. I told you before, I’ll stick with you and protect you, no matter what.”

Shalikova replied quickly. She was not only adamant on upholding the oath she made to herself, to protect her heart and cherished treasure– but also curious about these powers that Maryam had explained and interested in seeing how Maryam tackled another psychic’s antagonistic devilry. It struck her that it would be their first confrontation with psionics that were inflicted on someone to do harm. She felt a grim sense that it would be the first of many if they stuck to their chosen path.

For a girl who desired to spread psionics to the world and make a positive impact–

–exorcising the evil deeds of other psychics would likely play a tragically large part too.

Elena smiled. “Of course. Thank you. I’ll be patient and follow your instructions, sister.”

“You can just call me Maryam.” She pointed her two tentacles to her right. “And Sonya.”

“Don’t call me Sonya.” Shalikova said quickly to Elena. “Shalikova will be fine.”

“Thank you, Maryam, Shalikova.” Elena sighed with relief. “I feel better already.”

“Yeah! That’s the spirit. We’re two heroes chosen by God– we’ll reverse Norn’s curse!”

Maryam hyped herself up, but Shalikova couldn’t imagine it would be easy.

She herself had absolutely no great talent for psionics.

And Maryam herself had admitted to being less accomplished than Norn.

Elena looked quite satisfied, however, as if she had gotten it all off her chest now.

She left the room with a bubbly smile and a spring in her step.

As soon as the door closed, Maryam hooked an arm around Shalikova’s shoulder.

She started rubbing her soft, squishy cheek up against Shalikova’s face.

“Didn’t that feel good Sonya? Don’t you feel so fulfilled?” Maryam asked.

“Not especially.” Shalikova replied, sidling closer to Maryam to return her affection.

Maryam giggled. “She called me wise sister.” She seemed elated by this for some time.


“Apologies for the wait, valued clients. Here are your goods.”

A tall blonde woman set down a case on the table and opened the lid. Inside, in three neat rows, there were a variety of ID cards organized alphabetically and by type, and a fourth row had several plastic lanyards in packs. Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara picked up their own cards which were slightly above the rest, in order for Cecilia Foss to be able to easily pick them out to explain the differences.

“Madam Bashara has a Shimii work permit ID, you can tell it apart by the green stripe.” Cecilia said. “This allows her freedom of movement in Kreuzung for the purposes of going to and from work, as well as frequenting restaurants and shops in Kreuzung between the hours of 0800 and 2000. This means she is subject to a curfew in the core station. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the law, and we can’t get around it.”

Cecilia touched the top of Aaliyah’s ID, running her trimmed red fingernail over the stripe.

“There are 39 work permit IDs here for every Shimii that you disclosed to be aboard. For Katarrans and North Bosporans there are 31 temporary access permits each of which lasts thirty days with a single potential sixty day extension. Those are the ones with the red stripe. You, Madam Korabiskaya, are holding a provisional Station ID. I secured an appropriate amount of these for all Volgian and Imbrian personnel. We have registered all Volgians as Imbrians. Those IDs are the ones with the blue stripe, and provide full freedom of movement without curfew, as well as 180 days of stay. These can’t be extended, but you can apply for a full citizen’s ID within that time period if anyone wants to stay long-term.”

She spoke quickly but with clarity, and with an easy confidence in herself.

“For your security, we went through a process of identity laundering. Each individual should check their card for the name written on it, but it will only matter if they are stopped. Anyone who looks too closely and has enough access can determine the documents are fake and that the personages referenced do not exist, but no station security guard will go that far unless they request a departmental investigation, rather than just a stop or even an overnight arrest. A departmental investigation is unlikely, but possible.“

Ulyana was quite impressed with Cecilia Foss. She could understand easily how Euphrates entrusted her with day-to-day management of Solarflare’s personnel operations. She was the image of a high-powered lawyer, with her pencil skirt and business attire, long orderly blond hair, perfect makeup, steeply angled black pumps. Every movement she made looked deadly precise, and every word she spoke was said without any hesitation. It was as if her every second was planned ahead. Not only that, but she had these connections to the underworld and seemed to have an impressive ability to break the law.

“I’ve provided lanyards for all personnel that were disclosed. I would strongly advise for all personnel to wear their IDs around their necks for the duration of your stay. In the event that one of your personnel is stopped by a law enforcement officer, their ID card will be scanned and will show that they are legitimately registered with the Kreuzung government, and their false identity will not be questioned right away. Please insist upon your crew not to backtalk or argue with Kreuzung security personnel– every single word can be incriminating, and every officer is looking for an excuse to take punitive action. Should an incident occur, it is imperative that I be contacted right away. But your personnel must request that I be contacted. If you desire, I can offer a script you can pass along to them to memorize as well as my business card for representation. The script is short, simple and it’s all they ever need to say to an officer.”

“Thank you kindly, Madam Foss.” Aaliyah said. “We would be most grateful for it.”

“Duly noted. I’ll send everything to Madam Semyonova for dissemination. Is that acceptable?”

“That would be great. Thank you.” Ulyana said. It was hard to say anything more.

Cecilia smiled at them and bowed her head. “Again, I apologize for the time it took to secure these permits and IDs. And don’t worry about us– in the event there is a full investigation, we will be able to escape liability, even if you are forced to escape.” She gestured with a hand towards the wall. ”Your crew is always welcome at Solarflare LLC, even past curfew. May I escort you to our premises now?”

“We’ll take you up on that offer.” Ulyana said. “We have a meeting coming up over there.”

“Indeed. I was already informed. Whenever you are ready, I can lead the way to our campus.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana clipped their ID cards to the provided lanyards, left the rest of the IDs in the meeting room for Semyonova to distribute, and followed Cecilia Foss out of the Brigand and to the tram station that would take them to Tower Five. Aaliyah marveled at the buildings, the wide open space, the false skies and the sheer scale of the operation being carried out to repair and refit the Brigand. Her wide-eyed wonder was incredibly cute to behold as they trailed together behind Cecilia. Ulyana felt relieved and elated that Aaliyah finally able to leave the ship and get a breath of the station’s air.

Especially owing to the purpose of the day’s meeting. She needed Aaliyah by her side.

They were headed to Solarflare to meet with Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Despite receiving some heartening news about the Union’s exploits farther south, Ulyana and Aaliyah agreed that their mission and its parameters had to remain the same for now. They had to help train, equip and support dissidents in the Empire with the ultimate goal of safeguarding the successful revolution in Buren. Pursuing that goal gave them options and opportunities, and it let them interact with what was directly in front of them. Allies, enemies, and the moment to moment. So they had to pursue their leads with the United Front, and only then could they dream about joining the Union war effort.

“Ultimately, our course and actions aren’t changed because the Union occupied Sverland.”

Aaliyah had said that during their discussion.

Ulyana agreed wholeheartedly with that wisdom. They would stay the course for now.

“Once we leave Kreuzung, we’ll launch a comm buoy and request additional information from Nagavanshi.” Ulyana said. “Then we’ll keep going our won way until we hear back via the ELF.”

Staying the course, meant tackling the opportunity Kremina Qote had given them.

They would pursue her leads to the United Front, in order to train, equip and support them.

First on the agenda was the S.P.R. and their militant wing, Reichbanner Schwarzrot.

Euphrates and Cecilia had organized a little office for the meetings to take place on the Solarflare campus. White walls, a door with a digitally-operated lock, no windows. There were gel-cushioned chairs, a long table, plenty of outlets and ports for devices, a monitor on an arm if it was necessary, and a dispenser for coffee, water or mushroom and algae broth. There was a bathroom nearby, and small wheeled table in a corner had writing implements and stone paper if it was needed. Aaliyah and Ulyana waved goodbye to Cecilia Foss, who had a packed schedule, and set up in the office.

“They know to come here, right?” Aaliyah asked.

“They know to meet us at Solarflare. The receptionist will send them here.” Ulyana said.

At the appointed hour, someone knocked on their door.

Hallo? Any comrades here? Is this the right place?” A casual and relaxed voice.

“There are comrades here, of a sort.” Ulyana called out. She unlocked the room remotely.

When the door opened, a fair-skinned man in formal attire walked in with an easy gait and sat down in front of them. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, Ulyana thought. He had a long-limbed and somewhat thin physique with strong shoulders. He had a good jaw and was clean shaven, but seemed to pay little attention to the state of his hair, which was cut short but a little bit fluffy as if uncombed. His eyes looked distant and tired, narrow with the beginnings of bags under them.

He wore a very nonchalant expression. Ulyana would have described him as an “everyman,” a cipher for the average Imbrian man who might still have been derisively called “boy” sometimes by his superiors. His dark grey suit was spectacular however, it was easily the most notable part of him, exceedingly well-tailored, perfectly fitted, and it looked almost as if it had been made with actual cotton or even silk.

It was the kind of suit that took a guy like this from 5/10 to 7/10 somehow, Ulyana thought.

He had a portable computer with him that was the size of an adult’s head, and which came with its own stand by which to prop it up. With a sort of briefly exasperated look on his face, he set up the computer on the table so that it would face Ulyana and Aaliyah. There was a frame around the screen that had embossed pink roses and gold filigree. When he had stood it up, he pressed down a switch on the side, before sitting down next to it on the other end of the table, crossing his arms and sighing.

Ulyana and Aaliyah watched him go through this process silently.

“Her highness will be connecting shortly. I hope. May have to muck about with the WiFi.”

“Gloria Innocence Luxembourg?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s her. Hopefully you weren’t expecting her in person.” Said the man.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, I suppose.” Aaliyah said.

“Can you introduce yourself? Are you able to speak for the S.P.R?” Ulyana asked.

“Uhhh– in some capacity.” He said. “My name is Orlan Aries. I guess I’m not a particularly political guy, but I got caught up in all of this for some reason. I don’t have strong opinions. The pay is good, and I like to say I see things through to the end, so here I am. Um– I was originally just joining the security team at Raylight Beauty, but I guess my hard work was noticed. Gloria must like me, or I wouldn’t be here. I’m representing — forgive this extremely presumptuous name — the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.”

Ulyana did not believe a single word of that.

It wasn’t that she was predisposed to distrust anything the United Front groups said.

Far from it– she wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt as potential partners.

However, for someone rich, connected and powerful like Gloria Innocence Luxembourg to trust someone to “accompany her” (in this unique capacity) to this exclusive, clandestine meeting, that person could not possibly have been someone who viewed his own career with so many somehow, I guess and Um. His too-casual demeanor was definitely a front for something, but she couldn’t say what it was.

Orlan eyed the display with his jaw set. “Any day now, princess.”

Beside him, the screen suddenly flickered the manufacturers logo and then displayed a video feed, as if beckoned by Orlan himself. It happened with such little sense of transition that he was looking at the display with exasperation as it was turned on. In his surprise, he jerked away from it and nearly fell– this reaction looked humorous when contrasted with the overwhelmingly saccharine girl that appeared.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long! Thank you so much for your time!”

On the screen appeared a young lady, soft featured and pretty with dark eyes that glimmered in the center like they had a small starry sky for pupils and irises. Her pink hair was voluminous and long but very fastidiously orderly, with a neat and trimmed fringe and sidelocks. Some of her hair was collected with a red rose ribbon into a single small ponytail on the side of her head. She appeared to be wearing a white, long sleeved top or dress with a tall, lacy and frilly collar, along with a white capelet with red rose decorative trim. On the video feed, she appeared from the shoulders up, emphasizing her smile.

“I hope you are having a blessed day. Allow me to introduce myself.” She said. “My name is Gloria Innocence Luxembourg. I am the Presidential Candidate and chairwoman of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Rhinea. I am also the founder of Raylight Beauty Products GmbH; the biggest private employer of women in the Imbrium. My blood type is O, my constellation is Leo, and I love cute girls.”

Gloria flashed Ulyana and Aaliyah another sun-bright smile.

“This is an encrypted connection, right?” Aaliyah asked, staring at Orlan.

Orlan looked surprised to have been addressed. “Uh yes. Yes– it is, isn’t it ma’am?”

He looked with a sudden nervousness at Gloria as if he could no longer be sure.

“Absolutely. Unless you changed all my cute little settings on my portable.” Gloria said.

“Wouldn’t dream of touching the damn things.” Orlan sighed.

“Alright, since we can speak freely. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya, Captain of–”

“–the super-cool UNX-001 Brigand!” Gloria interrupted happily. “Alias Pandora’s Box.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes slightly. She was starting to get fed up with Gloria’s whimsy.

“Looks like Kremina did fill you in.” Aaliyah said. “I’m Aaliyah Bashara, Commissar.”

“Indeed! Then we are all meeting the right people. Isn’t it lovely, Orlan?” Gloria asked.

Orlan again looked confused about being addressed. “Yes, it’s a little tea party alright.”

Even he sounded exasperated with her already. Gloria continued smiling, so carefree.

“A tea party! How wonderful– I truly would love to host you someday, Ulyana, Aaliyah– circumstances permitting. However, I know we’re all short on time and long on business, so I will stop fooling around. I want you to know, even if you decide not to join our Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, I will still regard you as fellows, and I’d be happy to collab someday! To me, we are all part of one struggle. Now then, I also want to answer all of your questions today and see if I can’t snatch you away for myself, of course.”

Gloria winked at them. She spoke and acted so casually, with an easy, natural confidence.

Ulyana appreciated her friendly openness, but she wasn’t completely sure of its sincerity.

It felt too easy to like Gloria, or to overlook her. Was she just being manipulative?

“We are certainly open to working with you. Kremina may have told you, but we would like to assist the United Front that is forming in Aachen. We have combat equipment we can distribute to you, and we can offer training– and of course we can also fight alongside you if you have operational plans.” Ulyana said. “I’m curious about the S.P.R. You’re an underground party, so we can’t just find your agenda recorded on our computers. Can you explain the S.P.R.’s origin and your own involvement in it?

Gloria’s cheeks lifted, her biggest, most girlish smile accompanied with a tittering laugh.

“Perhaps ironically, I learned that the world was fundamentally unjust at my family’s own Luxembourg School for Girls.” She said. “My older brother controls the school now, but I attended as a teenager. I tried my best to lead a normative life, but I realized that regardless of my name and wealth, there were elements of myself which made me lesser than other people in the right-wing culture of Imbria. I began to take an interest in dissident literature and in secret became one of the rebels of Luxembourg school. The seed of the S.P.R. was my secret reading group back then.” Gloria looked proud of herself when she spoke up next. “I even met with the dissident queen herself, Leda Lettiere, one fateful day.”

Ulyana made note of that. It was name she had heard a few times already.

Queen Leda von Fueller, Elena’s mother; Marina’s lover; victim of the Emperor himself.

Leda Lettiere was executed directly after the Union’s victory in the Revolution.

For Gloria to have met her as a student, she couldn’t be a cutesy girl in her twenties.

She had to have been in her late thirties. Ulyana’s age– maybe even older.

“How did you feel about what happened to the lady Lettiere?” Aaliyah asked.

For a moment, Gloria seemed to pause. Her arm shifted just a little bit. It tensed.

“It was such an atrocity.” Gloria said. She was still smiling or trying to smile. But she did look just a bit dimmer than before. “She was taken from her previous life by a man whom she could not deny, and then he destroyed her utterly. One of the most iconic women of our time, who did her best to inspire women to strive for better. A beautiful angel who even fought a secret battle from inside that cage in order to liberate us all.” Gloria’s tone took a slightly sharp edge but then suddenly became a little more upbeat.

Ulyana thought, maybe she felt she had said too much that was too personal. So she corrected herself.

“Politically, that moment did not affect me. I already knew that women were disposable. Eccentric women, rebellious women, queer women, even more so. We are allowed to work, to speak; to own property and earn money; even to fight in the military; but we are always lesser-than. It’s an inextricable pall which Imperial society casts over us. Right-wing society; fascist society. I founded Raylight Beauty as a haven for women and girls. A place where they would be valued, selling things which made other girls feel beautiful and confident. But my goal was always to do what Lettiere couldn’t. To build a weapon that could strike against Konstantin von Fueller. Of course, there’s necessarily a different target for it now.”

“Was Mordecai among your dissident readings?” Ulyana asked.

“He featured prominently. His work on class conflict is absolutely necessary.” Gloria said.

“What led you to align your party specifically with social democracy?” Ulyana asked.

Gloria’s smile returned in its full force. “Mordecai did not advocate any specifics for how to organize a government in his works. He did not talk about how ministries and bureaus would come about once the old ones fell, or how to distribute power. But he did hold the fight for the suffrage of the lower classes in high regard as a condition for the social advancement of the proletariat. I believe that representative democracy with a one-person to one-vote approach is the fairest way to communicate the desires of the total mass of the proletariat; and like Mordecai, I believe that the failure of representative democracy in Rhinea specifically is due to its class character rather than the sum minutia of its mechanics.”

While many people would have argued the Union was not democratic whatsoever, and that it was a dictatorship now ruled by Bhavani Jayasankar, the distinction cited by Gloria for her vision of democracy was very specific in nature. In the Union, there was a practice of “council democracy” though the democracy part was, nowadays, often left out, and Bhavani Jayasankar did not acknowledge that word. She called it instead “council governance” or “sovietism.” There was universal suffrage in the Union but the mechanics of this suffrage was not carried out as specifically individually as it was in Rhinea.

In the Union, the mass of the working public was represented by delegates. A station’s population was organized into workplace unions, student unions for higher level educational institutions, and for Shimii, the Marja was its own institution with delegation as well. Each group directly voted for delegates (Shimii got to vote for delegates for their workplace and for delegates of the Marja as well), and those delegates represented them at their station council or soviet. In turn, station councils chose delegates for regional councils, and regional councils chose delegates for the Supreme Soviet. After being elected, the delegates made any legislative decisions in the interests of their constituents, with the check that recall or dismissal was possible if they failed to secure the population’s interests. Beyond local policy, a lower-level council could influence the higher-level council that they voted into power by petitioning in the interest of their local constituents for a regional or supreme policy action, again with the implied danger of dismissal.

It did not always play out this way– local and regional eccentricities abounded in the specifics of governance, but that was the model and that was how it worked on average. Policy was supposed to be set at each level, while also percolating up and down between them. It was a delicate balance that still allowed local decisions to be made by locals, and national decisions to be made collectively, nationally. There was an element of direct democracy in petitions, which were available at all levels of the system to reflect the desire for a certain policy, and communicate that desire to the appropriate level of council.

It wasn’t perfect– but it existed. It was the Union’s own version of “representation.”

Everyone outside the Union would find this unconvincing. After all, Bhavani Jayasankar ”took power in a coup” and now enjoyed ”supreme leadership;” but the power she took was that of the Premier, who was supposed to be beholden to the national and Supreme Soviets. The Premier faced a “vote to retain,” in which the Soviets had to express positive sentiment toward her rule in order for her to stay in power. In addition, Bhavani was not so all-powerful, even after her “military coup,” that she was able to directly set local water-use policy in Sevastopol or arbitrarily set holiday benefits for textile workers in New Karach.

Rather the system was supposed to be read as such: the Premier set the direction of the country, led the military, drafted economic plans, and tried to create an agenda for the country; the Supreme Soviet took that agenda and created “national legislation;“ the regional councils handled “legislation for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice individually;“ and station councils created “legislation for the people living in the station.“

Regardless; Ulyana felt she read a certain defensive undertone in Gloria’s statements.

She was doing something fundamentally different than the Union. She was asserting that fact.

People voted directly for national representatives in a congress, and voted directly for a President.

According to Gloria, this she derived from Mordecai himself, the “fairer” form of democracy.

Ulyana was not someone like Murati, however, so she would not argue the point.

But the point had been clearly laid out before her by the ever-smiling Gloria.

“We are Union communists. Do you feel comfortable working with us?” Aaliyah asked.

Now that was the response of someone slightly closer to Murati than Ulyana was.

Their guest did not appear to be perturbed by the question whatsoever.

“Like I said, I believe we are friends in this struggle. Both of us despise the Volkisch Movement and we want to see it destroyed and that is what ultimately matters to me. I’m happy to work with anyone who will oppose the spread of their evil– in fact, the United Front was my idea.” Gloria replied. Ulyana and Aaliyah both lifted their brows a little with surprise. “I reached out to some of the anarchist cells that use the Iron Front insignia, and I reached out to the Rotfront. I’ve even reached out to some of the ousted politicians– unfortunately, it was even I and my group who confirmed the death of Ossof Heidemann, who opposed Adam Lehner in the presidential election. The Volkisch’s petty revenge, no doubt.”

Kremina had never said it was Gloria’s idea initially, though she also never said otherwise.

But both of them had assumed that it was Daksha Kansal’s doing as they learned more.

“That’s a pretty impressive organizational lift, especially to keep hidden.” Ulyana said.

“I have a lot of help, and I pay really well!” Gloria said. “Isn’t that right, Orlan?”

Orlan glanced sidelong at the display, crossing his arms and leaning back.

“Huh? My pay? It’s fine. I could make more as a mercenary– but with no benefits.”

“Hmph! My benefits package is industry-leading! How could you want to be a mercenary?”

“I didn’t say I wanted to be one! I just believe in myself a bit is all, your majesty!”

“Hmph! Hmph! Hmph!”

Gloria acted comically upset by Orlan’s ungratefulness for a few moments.

Before sighing serenely and putting on a smile again.

“Don’t mind him. That’s the kind of relationship we have.” Gloria said.

“Duly noted.” Aaliyah replied dryly.

“How strong is the United Front militarily?” Ulyana asked, trying to move forward.

Gloria put a long finger on her lips and made a little ‘thinking pose.’

“We would have to see who shows up at Aachen for the formal establishment.” Gloria said. “I can only speak for myself. I told you I was building a weapon to destroy Konstantin before. While I have been organizing the S.P.R.’s political contacts surreptitiously, I have also been forming my own military. We use Raylight Beauty’s security corps as a front. I dubbed the group Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, after the black and red Rhinean ducal flag. We have amassed eleven vessels of our own design, and we have the numbers of Divers and infantry to match. You should see my flagship! It’s super great!”

She clapped her hands cheerfully. Ulyana nodded her head and jotted down notes.

“So we’ll have to join you at Aachen to really get a sense of its scope? Works for me.”

“Indeed! Until everything’s properly signed up, I can’t really speak with certainty. I hope that all of the friends I made will join me in my battle against the Volkisch, and all that is unjust in our Imbrium Ocean.” Gloria said, holding a hand up over her heart as if swearing an oath in front of them.

“Gloria, what role does Daksha Kansal have in your organization?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana was glad that Aaliyah was taking it upon herself to tackle the tougher questions.

It was nice to have her there as a counterpart. Good Captain; mean Commissar.

“She is one of my advisors in the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. We talk about politics and about military moves– but I don’t want to cause a misunderstanding.” Gloria’s eyes narrowed just a little bit. “I’m in command of the S.P.R. and the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. Daksha Kansal’s support is greatly appreciated, but she’s as appreciated as you, or the rest of my war buddies, and no better than anyone.”

Much like Ulyana and Aaliyah acted toward Kremina Qote, Gloria had to set her foot down.

It was another way of saying, I’m not Daksha Kansal’s subordinate.

A revolutionary leader with proven success was a potential problem to an up-and-comer.

Even if her charisma and experience was invaluable– it was the same tension they had felt.

“One last question.” Ulyana said. It was her turn to ask a very tough one. “We’ve been in Kreuzung for a few days and it’s been awful. What do you think of the attitude of Rhineans toward other ethnicities?”

Gloria continued smiling, unfazed by the question.

“Oh, it’s deplorable, surely. Eisental has a long history with Shimii and all of it has been truly regrettable. You know, working folk here keep to themselves a lot. I don’t want to blame them for a lack of social education– but it’s definitely something that must be set to right. I believe in universal suffrage, and universal participation. My presidency would entail an egalitarian revolution for Rhinea.”

Ulyana wasn’t impressed, but she kept that to herself. Gloria had no substance here.

Aaliyah wore no expression on her face as she heard Gloria’s response.

“I think we’ve got what we wanted out of this.” Aaliyah said. “Thank you for your time, Lady Luxembourg. We shall most assuredly take you up on that offer for tea in Aachen Station and discuss further.”

Gloria clapped her hands rapidly again. “Goodie! I look forward to it. Tah-tah!”

She performed a cutesy military salute, and the screen went dim as suddenly as it had lit.

Orlan looked at it for a moment before picking it up.

“Uh. Do you have any questions for me?” He asked.

“No, thank you for your time as well Orlan.” Ulyana said.

Orlan made a cutesy salute similar to Gloria’s before leaving with Gloria’s portable.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Ulyana and Aaliyah each let out a long-held sigh.

That was the first of the groups, and also the one directly supported by Daksha Kansal.

“What exactly is our esteemed first Premier thinking?“ Aaliyah moaned, lying her chest on the table, her cat ears folded. Ulyana laid a comforting hand on her back, thinking the same thing…


“Please, I’ll do anything you want. I’ll give you anything you want.”

“Hmm? You broke easily. That’s not terribly romantic, you know?”

Pavel Rovski was not someone known to ‘break easily’–

–except when staring at the crosshair eyes of the woman sitting back on a chair before him, whose legs she had lifted to rest directly through the center of his desk. He seemed to lose all composure as if he was no longer witnessing something human. Though she was startlingly beautiful, her presence was wrong.

But Rovski was cornered. They had found him out and he was not ready.

Behind him, the open door leading to the reception hall was guarded by two women, both very pale as Pavel’s assailant was. One was far more intricately dressed and decorated. The other appeared spartan, dressed in what seemed like a white uniform, with a capelet and pants and a weapon that looked like a cross between a rifle and a drying wound, covered in dark bruised flesh with a black barrel.

He spared not a second to stare at that alien sight, however.

His eyes were locked on those of Enforcer I of the First Sphere, Avaritia.

He could not tear them away. He was not being allowed to.

“Pavel Rovski of the ‘Rovski’ cell.” Avaritia smiled to herself. “It’s so delightful to meet you. I do love this scenario– you made such a beautifully romantic mistake. I thought of anarchists as being very mechanical, but I should have known, you have a very libertine ideology after all.”

Avaritia was overcome with joy at the circumstances that led to this meeting.

Pavel Rovski was a central figure (not leader, he never would have said leader, none of them would) of the ‘Rovski’ anarchist cell. It was only referred to this way outside of its ranks. To its members, this was the “Left Arrow” or “Third Arrow.” But Rovski was one of the secret keepers of the cell’s ranks– one of the few who could rally an entire thousand-strong battalion of the anarchist ranks, who were otherwise distributed in groups of fours and fives that communicated very sparingly and surreptitiously. He would only gather them when the time was right to take an action that ‘would mean something’.

Unfortunately, he was not dispassionate enough about the whole scheme.

He became interested in one particularly fiery young woman on his list, and sought after her.

That she was a lesbian– didn’t seem to deter him at all. He went to meet her in person.

Avaritia laughed at him. Such foolishness that brought him to this day!

She recalled something the Autarch had once told her.

“We have always been with them. Watching them. Laughing at them.”

Avaritia was laughing. But in her mind, she was not being cruel. Hominins were just so interesting.

She just loved the romance of it. Pavel Rovski, an unromantic man in a romantic situation.

From the doorway, her lover Gula spoke up, her arms behind her back, smiling daintily.

“Zozia is here with us today, you know? But you won’t meet her– she wouldn’t want you to. She was disgusted with you. You were an old man, and you should’ve never spoken to her. I do hope that you will not hate us for today. Hate yourself instead; despise yourself for your betrayal of your comrades.”

Pavel winced but was limited in his responses.

Avaritia’s green aura seeped into him, through green tentacles he could not see.

That had perforated him in a dozen places.

Filling him with crippling fear and anxiety that utterly warped his personality.

All of his much-vaunted bravery stood for nothing in the face of Avaritia’s commanding gaze.

“To think, a simple family lawyer could have been involved in a terrorist group!”

Avaritia laughed again.

Today, the site of their infiltration was a law office in Tower Six’s central commercial space. Beautiful brown interiors like fake wood, offices and halls amply varnished, the desks too, all earth tones, very peaceful. There were about two dozen clerks, lawyers, and the big boss of the place, Raszyn Grebber– Rovski was but one of many lawyers who worked here. An unassuming older man, average in every way, tucked away into a corner of this humble office, scheming to take down the Imbrian Empire!

Rovski’s jaw lightly unhinged, but he could not speak. He was far too crushed to do so.

“Gula, is it not terribly romantic? Is it not?” Avaritia said.

Gula, looking almost small beside her prince, tipped her head in a cute gesture.

“It is, my darling, atrociously romantic.”

Savagely romantic.”

Gula approached from the door and wrapped her arms around Avaritia’s shoulders.

Her head, peeking out beside Avaritia’s, bared suddenly sharp, saw-like teeth.

“So what happens to Monsieur Rovski now, my prince? Can I eat him?” Gula said.

Avaritia, still leaning back on her chair, raised a hand and stroked Gula’s hair gently.

“I’m afraid not, beloved princess. I need to disseminate the information he knows soon, and it would take too long if we ate him and loaded his blocks into our STEMs. We have an important meeting later today, after all. And like you said, it would be disgusting if he went near Zozia and Ksenia. It wouldn’t be romantic at all. So neither of us will eat him. We’ll transport him, and talk on the way.” Avaritia said.

“That makes a world of sense. You are so wise and so cultured, my prince, my knight!”

Gula stretched a long tongue from her mouth and licked Avaritia’s neck

Avaritia felt a sudden desire to bite her– but a voice from the door caught her attention–

“Um. I apologize for interrupting, exalted beings. But Vanguard L may perish from having to synthesize more gas– so, without casting judgment on your wisdom, I believe we should extract soon.”

Behind the two of them, guarding the door, in uniform and hat and wielding a bio-spike launcher disguised as a rifle, was Wizard III of the Second Sphere. She was one of the subcommanders of the Syzygy forces under Enforcers I and III. It had been difficult to convince the Autarch to part with Wizard and Observer type units, particularly to part with them for Enforcer I specifically– but eventually their exalted leader saw the wisdom in it. Just two people would not make a convincing force.

They would need to wield military power like the Hominins did, for the tasks that lay ahead.

Avaritia got her feet off the table and stood up, carefully gesturing for Gula to move aside.

Her gaze caused Wizard III to shudder as soon as it fell upon her.

She was, like most Omenseers born this side of the Holocene, a very pale girl with long, white hair and fairly thin and lean physique. She divided her hair into two tails, between which she laid the flat military cap that Avaritia had given her as part of Syzygy’s new, more “hominin”-fashionable uniform. Her twintails each had a stripe of blue hair running through them, which helped her to stand out more.

“F-Forgive me, Exalted Being. I spoke out line. Please forgive me.” She mumbled.

Avaritia smiled. She reached out and stroked Wizard III’s cheek.

“Wizard III of the Second Sphere.” Avaritia said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Um– of course– you’re our most exalted flesh, Enforcer I of the First Sphere.”

“Indeed. Do you know any more than that?”

“I was not afforded any additional information, your biological excellence. I apologize greatly.”

Avaritia grinned at her, bearing teeth. “When I was a Leviathan, I was a dreadnought class known among the Hominin as the Horror of Dys. I was the Island-Sinker, the Eater of Skies. Such is my power that I awakened myself too– the Autarch did not have to lift me from sleep as she did you.”

Her fingers squeezed just a little bit on Wizard III’s jaw. Not enough to cause any pain.

That is terribly impressive. I am blessed with this knowledge, exalted, superior being.

Because her mouth was seized, Wizard III communicated telepathically.

Perhaps so as not to disgrace herself to the Enforcer by babbling.

Avaritia lifted her hand from Wizard III’s face.

“Ultimately, my point is–”

She put that hand on Wizard III’s shoulder and smiled at her, winking one eye.

“Relax! Relax and be neither so scared nor so formal! Such things are not romantic at all. Had I wanted to punish you, my dear Wizard III, the violence would have been fast and vicious and required no dialog. Your assessment is correct, and we should indeed get moving soon before poor little Vanguard L has to exert herself again. With all the chemicals I made her digest, she must be in quite a state.”

Gula clapped her hands together with tittering delight. “Wonderfully said, my prince.”

Wizard III’s wide-open eyes narrowed, and she sighed with relief.

“How much do you know about anarchism, Wizard III?” Avaritia asked.

“Not a thing, exalted– err, Enforcer I.” Wizard III said.

Behind them, out in the halls and other rooms of the law office of Raszyn Grebber, there were several hominin toppled over wherever they had been sitting or standing due to the highly concentrated knockout gas that they had spread through the building. Vanguard L could be seen with her back to the wall farther outside, her jaw hanging open, coughing wisps of gas, her eyes twitching, limbs limp.

“Well, it is as I thought. We’ll need to teach you all how to be anarchists very quickly.”

Avaritia turned back to Mister Rovski, her crosshair eyes locking on to him.

She walked the way few steps back from the door, and Wizard III, to the side of the desk where Rovski was staring at them, crushed with fear, alive but immobile, no part of him having even twitched save for his horribly aware eyes that were tracking the alien figures, and his shaking jaw trying to cry for help to no one in particular. Avaritia walked over to him, and laid her hand on his shoulder, gripping her fingers. Hard at first, and harder still, until blood began to draw, until her fingers began to sink into him

“His resistance is weakened enough.” Avaritia said.

Around her irises, the red circles of psionic ability began to strobe and deepen.

She could feel his defenses collapsing one by one, until–

Biokinesis

drawn blood drawing backward into wound

reversing fingers spreading as stream

bone and sinew soft and malleable

skin and organ digesting into thread

spinning loom turning body about axis

hominin–

dehomininized–

“Oh! That is clever, clever indeed!” Gula smiled, with a sadistic edge to her little grin.

Avaritia had been careful not to spill anything despite how quickly she worked.

The tendrils which her hands had become, became hands again; in her grasp she had a rough white box of bones and skin the size of a human torso. There were a few silly decorations here and there– a crown of teeth along the top edge, filigree in sinew. Inside the box was a brain and everything a brain needed to be cozy for a little while, enough that they could probe its knowledge using telepathy.

Once they were done it, the box would be placidly ready to die permanently.

Left on the chair, behind the desk, was everything the brain didn’t need to be cozy.

It was most of the body, compacted, bagged-up–

–and it was the thing Avaritia now acknowledged as “Rovski.”

“Wizard III, please quickly clean up the remains of Monsieur Rovski, so we can leave.”

Avaritia shot an authoritative glance at Wizard III.

Staring at the unappetizing collection of offal on the chair, Wizard III sighed deeply again.

“As you command, exalted– I mean, Enforcer I.” She said, ambling toward the chair.

With a grimace, she knelt down near the chair as Avaritia left, and began to chew on the thing.

“Gula, please leave the rest of these kind folks in the office with the sense that nothing in particular worth recalling transpired during the past hour.” Avaritia said. “I would love it if they had calm blue auras and a sense of fulfillment and no earthly reason to care about Pavel Rovski for a long time. Though if any of them are psionic and resisting– Tristitia can make them disappear too I suppose.”

“It shall be done, darling.” Gula replied.

“Please don’t sneak a taste of any of them for now, dearest.” Avaritia added.

“I am more than satiated by the sight of you in command, beloved prince.” Gula replied.

Avaritia nodded. She started walking outside while stroking her own chin.

“From now on, my name is Zozia Chelik and you are Ksenia Apfel, my dear. We will take the place of the ‘Third Arrow’ at the Aachen conference, and with the Pandora’s Box today.” Avaritia said. “The Rovski organization had already contacted twenty people, of which we have intercepted twelve by now. The remaining eight will disappear and be replaced with Wizard and Observer units.”

Gula followed dutifully behind her prince. “Is there any risk of word getting out?”

“Thankfully the other two Arrows are not aware of the specifics of this organization, only their affiliation and their upcoming rejoining at Aachen.” Avaritia said, shaking her head while explaining. “They probably don’t expect to talk to Rovski specifically, even in Aachen. I think we can pretend to be them pretty easily. Rovski’s remaining 1000 members have not been contacted, and we won’t contact them. We’ll fill out our troops with Vanguards and Sentinels and if we have to, Hunters, to make up reasonable numbers.”

“Sounds fun.” Gula said. “Horror of Dys.”

Avaritia grinned. “Don’t call me that, Great Maw of Nysa.”

Gula raised fingers to her lips and giggled to herself.

Behind them, a miserable Wizard III lifted chunks of poor quality meat into her mouth and swallowed.

“I do wonder, my love,“ Gula said, “will this bring us any closer to the Origin Tree?“

Avaritia shrugged. “Anything brings us closer than we are now. Trust me, beloved Gula.“

She could not logically explain, but she certainly felt that it would bring them closer.

Every Hominin clawed and devoured so far had earned them meters toward the goal.

There were currents of aether gathering serendipitously around Kreuzung, around Aachen.

Eisental was a crossing of numerous fates. There was tension in the air among the Hominins.

It was in such times and such places– that homininkind was closest to their ancient keepers.

Rhinea, Solcea and Bosporus formed a triangle– and somewhere in there, the Tree slumbered.

“Step by step, hominin by hominin. We will lay hands on our venerated elder again.” Avaritia said.

She lifted her hand up as if reaching for something ephemeral, endlessly distant.

Grinning all the while. Her crosshair eyes locking on, in a growing obsession.

It would be romantic indeed.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.3]

For the overall majority of the population of Kreuzung, the world outside of their rooms was mostly a long series of hallways and elevators. Long lines of identical doors, fake carpeting, beige walls. A pretense of warmth that hid cold metal. Hypocrisies large and small that had to be endured in order to live.

How did the people of Kreuzung live?

The ordinary people with no other recourse but to keep living?

Those who worked in the service industry, if they worked for a strong brand, would leave this world of halls once a day to go to a mall or food court, where they would find another enclosed space that would occupy most of their day. Those who served “local” shops in the lower districts would trade one hallway for another, or if they were lucky, trade a street without a sky, flanked by identical squat plastic buildings, for a hall flanked by plastic or metal doors. Since those older “street” modules often had defects that led to accidents or flooding, this was not a particularly good trade in terms of their well-being.

Some people did not leave their rooms at all to work– even when they wished they could.

All of this toil was presided over by the vastness of the Imbrium Ocean. Deeper and darker.     

Kreuzung was home to millions of people– who lived largely below the tower’s centerpoint.

“Upward mobility” was not as such literally. For someone close to the bottom of the tower and compressed into a block that had dozens of modules each with several hallways, all of it cramped into the tightest livable space– if they even completed their education or achieved some certifications in a field they were competent in, there was no guarantee of a job. And in addition, virtually no guarantee of actually ever moving out of the comparatively cheaper and smaller rooms in the lower part of the tower to the slightly better habitats in the core’s upper reaches. It was impossible to ever believe someone like that would ever work or live in A or B block at the top of the Kreuzung Core. Certainly, a few people did do so– but collectively, it felt like it took a miracle. Most people would never climb from those depths.

In Kreuzung, a large majority of people did not “have a job” in the sense of a stable position in a company. Instead, most people were “contractors.” Contractors technically worked for an agency that connected them to jobs in exchange for a fraction of the pay. These agencies arose from the distrust between the highly stratified classes in the Empire and were a common feature in most imperial stations– an Agency could guarantee that the people it hired were not lowborn scum of the earth, but humble and servile folk with good skills; if they were not they could be easily discarded and replaced.

That was an agency’s promise to the employers; employees were promised nothing but a wage.

All service work was contract work where Agencies vetted candidates that would not harm the upper and middle class sensibilities of those shopping and dining in the middle to upper tier of businesses.

Heavy industry had a culture of “tradesmanship” where workers traditionally formed guilds or unions and had access to better pay, benefits and a slightly better lifestyle than contractors, even as collective power began to be eroded. The tradeoff was in difficult certification requirements, as well as the possibility of losing life or worse, limb. Guild and union health benefits were good, but cybernetics were still expensive. Even with the best possible healthcare plan, this would ultimately saddle the worker with medical debt and a period of recovery that would wipe out some of those other good benefits like the paid time off and vacations. Regardless, this was seen as one of the only ways “up” (relatively) for a lower class worker.

The most on-demand jobs in Kreuzung beside customer-facing services were behind-the-scenes hardware jobs, particularly in monitoring, reporting on and responding to system events. A lot of Kreuzung systems administration had been privatized to the agencies, particularly the grunt work of keeping eyes on sensors and pressure valves and other such things. Contractors did these dull tasks from their homes, until something broke, at which point they would have to go out on the field and assume risk for much less money than a trade union worker did– which was ultimately the point of privatization.

Nevertheless, there were some parts of station administration and customer-facing services that did manage to remain trade-union owned, and there were also good jobs that were not agency-controlled. Dockworkers, for example, had a union, and non-union private dock workers at least didn’t have to go through an agency and could keep all their pay. And it was always possible, even if somewhat unlikely, for a very poor person to excel and become a journalist or a teacher or a nurse or some other “legit” career outside Contracting. These were the elites, comparatively, of lower class labor in Imbria.

One could also always join the Navy.

In Rhinea, in 979 A.D. during the Pandora’s Box’s stay in Kreuzung, joining the Navy meant becoming a National Socialist and participating in the Volkisch Movement’s conflicts– this was less attractive even than contracting. But for some people the food and shelter was enough incentive. Adding insult to injury, however, was that the Volkisch wouldn’t take all comers. No shirt, no shoes– no military service for you. In reality, the Volkisch remained a solidly volunteer army, more than a poor and desperate one.

Middle class labor entailed direct career work in the major corporations or public groups. These jobs were highly class stratified– someone with a parent that was a university teacher, would be able to go into higher education and would be much more likely to also become a teacher. For the children of contractors and service workers, it would be unlikely though not impossible to attain the needed licensing and higher education due to the difficult development environment for the child.

Working directly at a corporate office was the common hallmark of middle class work. Successful corporations and major brands had data, premises and equipment that they did not trust agency contractors to handle. Interviewing was deliberately difficult– people could be weeded out as soon as the recruiter saw their address. Technically, however, the jobs were open for anyone to interview for.

Some people dreamed of making it big by working seemingly outside “the system.” Trying out for roles in films, writing hot novels, creating innovative software, or even putting on personal shows to become influential in the burgeoning network culture– but these things already favored people with existing money and connections, so an “outsider hit” was unlikely as the hits were already being dictated by what could only be considered to be “the system” itself. Just enough “miracles” happened to keep people dreaming, but overall, the structure remained stable and firm. Class was ossified in the Imbrium.

All of this was Imbrian society as it was seen and accepted by the public at large.

There was a tier below Imbrian society, however, below even the most miserable parts.

In Kreuzung, it existed literally below the baseplate of the tower.

In the unkempt, spiraling viscera of the tower’s ancient history, dating back to its construction. Some of the uppermost of the maintenance tunnels still saw a good bit of official use, particularly by very unlucky contractors maintaining and repairing the interstice of the bottom rung of society just a hair above the baseplate itself. Deeper below, there were tunnels that had not been visited by an official contact of the station in decades or more. Most of them had become a sprawling nest of society’s most unfortunate.

Because the tunnels connected back to the ancient construction shafts, which had oxygen systems, they became homes for the dispossessed and unfortunate. Groups both openly criminal and secretly so, took advantage of these lost and invisible places as well to build and hide their own enterprises.

It was in this space below and between “the system” of Kreuzung and Imbria itself, that there existed the parallel society home to myths and legends: such as that of the fearsome “Katarran mercenaries.”


“Hmm? ‘Tarot Chocolate’? What are you giving me this for?”

“It’s dark stuff. It’s too sophisticated-like. It suits you better.”

“Hmm. This is a bit fancy. Where did you get it?”

“There was a boy selling them out of a box. Maybe he stole it– but who cares.”

“As long as the box is real, and these aren’t full of meth or razors.”

“None of that would kill you anyway. Quit being so prissy and take it.”

“I’m just confused as to why you’re giving me anything, even if it suited me.”

“We’re all comrades aren’t we? God damn– look, I got it for Chloe. But she hates dark chocolate. And I don’t eat this kind of shit at all. So there you go. Happy, detective? Just take it already.”

With finality Dimmitra threw the chocolate bar she had been showing off and left the room.

It landed in the hammock beside Kalika. She picked it up, turning it over in her long fingers.

Tarot Chocolate had the logo of Atelier Paradis, a premium brand in talks to join Volwitz Foods. Kalika always thought about those sorts of things, turning over goods in her hands. That fancy font on the Atelier logo, the royal purple mineral paper wrapper around the chocolate. This was a product worth thirty marks with competitors that sold for ten marks. But businesses had hierarchies just like the people around her. She was branded for being a Katarran, for not having any opportunity for some Imbrian desk job; no matter how she dressed or the airs she put on, she was always lesser-than and had to use her body in illegitimate ways to survive. In the same way that a Premium Brand like Atelier Paradis which made high-class and expensive products– was still lesser to a Major Corporation like Volwitz Foods.

She was holding in her hands a symbol of all the things that she fought against.

A story of inequality and alienation starting from the harvest to the final setting of prices.

At each link in the chain, the company that sold this item had stolen from somebody to do so.

Slowly, almost mindlessly, she unwrapped the paper around the dark chocolate squares.

Inside the packaging, she found another little piece of mineral paper.

It was a fortune that read: today you will meet the person who will change your life.

“So this is the sort of malarkey that turns 3 marks of chocolate into a 30 marks bar.”

Kalika sighed and took a bite of it. The complex taste that coated her tongue gave her some pause. Not just the dance of bitterness and sweetness, but the accompanying fruity notes and the glossy texture that seemed to hold its shape only until it met the warmth of her mouth, and then delicately melted. Perhaps this was actually eight or nine marks worth of chocolate in raw material. This was– the good stuff.

“It tastes premium, I must admit. I wouldn’t mind having another one.”

She was speaking only to herself at this point. Dimmitra had already left.

“Maybe I’ll keep my eye out for the little hawker with the box on my way out.”

Kalika slid her legs over the side of the plastic hammock she had been sleeping in. She had strung it up between two pipes on opposite walls in a 3 by 5 meter room. She and her comrades had claimed the space, in one of the many abandoned maintenance tunnels beneath the baseplate and dug around the old construction shaft above which Kreuzung’s baseplate and lower floors were ultimately built.

The Katarran’s room had once upon a time been a pressure monitoring room of some sort, from before the station was completely built. Valves and dials stared at her from every wall, completely motionless. Everything above the baseplate had sensors that were read by computers, so rooms like this were useless. Now it was nothing but pipes and an abused electrical panel in an otherwise empty room.

There were hundreds of places like this. But the locals did not particularly like the rooms farthest afield of the central construction shaft. There were rumors that people went missing in them– one of the tamer superstitions was that there was a syndicate of organ harvesters in the vicinity of the very room Kalika was standing in. It wasn’t too farfetched, but she had not yet seen any. More than likely, one too many opportunists robbed or killed someone here and imagination did the rest to create this myth.

Her own organs were perfectly safe. Even with one arm, she liked her chances in that fight.

“My arm–”

Kalika ran the fingers of her biological left arm over the bicep of her mechanical right arm.

Underneath the sleeve of her shirt, she felt the frayed metal and the torn syntheskin.

She tried to move the arm. Extending it felt alright. However, trying to bend the arm toward her, as if to flex her bicep, resulted in a shot of pain through the nerve bundles that remained of her original limb, which had been affixed to the prosthetic’s transmission couplers. She winced, and she could hear the metal scraping in a way that it should not. There was no way she could trust that arm to swing a vibrosword or even throw a punch. She had to get it fixed before anything went down.

“Hey,”

Through the crack in the door, Dimmitra peeked back into the room.

“You’re gonna go up, right?” She asked.      

“I have to. Nobody down here is going to be able to fix this.” Kalika said.

She gestured to her arm. Dimmitra nodded her head.

“The Premier shouldn’t need us today.” Dimmitra said. “You should be clear.”

“I’m just worried I won’t find anyone who will treat a Katarran.” Kalika said.

“If you don’t, you don’t. Nothin’ you can do. We can have you taken care of at Aachen.”

“We should teach Chloe how to run maintenance on prosthetics.” Kalika smiled.

“She’s fine.” Dimmitra said. Her voice took on a slightly more serious tone.

“I didn’t say otherwise.” Kalika replied. “Thank you for the chocolate.”

Dimmitra, Kalika and Chloe were all Katarrans. “Pelagis” was the race– Katarre was a nation.

But most Pelagis came from Katarre, and in the Imbrian imagination, all Pelagis were Katarrans.

Being Katarre-born Katarrans, real-deal Pelagids born in vats by the dozens and destined to die, they had deliberate genetic embellishments. All of them had been created using the DNA of armored gurnards, small fish with mortifyingly ugly appearances that thankfully did not transfer in almost any way. This was most evident in the pair of roughly rectangular and thin horn-like structures which grew from the back of their heads. In Kalika’s case, her horns framed her ponytail. These resembled a gurnard’s snout. Like a lot of Katarrans in her natural state her skin would have been grey, and her hair would have been white, but aside from their strength, durability and the few signs of embellishment, they were human.

Two legs, two arms; a head and neck; shoulders, breasts, hips. She was just a woman.

Kalika used cheap pigment treatments to alter her skin and hair and appear at least a little bit more presentable and less monochromatic. Imbrians disliked the cheaper cosmetics because it made the skin unnatural colors– it was tough to get that Imbrian pinkish-white fairness using the cheap skin pigments. That usually required a second skin to get just right. For Kalika, it sufficed to make her skin go from grey to a stark pink flush. It made Imbrians less nervous of her, and in her eyes, it made her look prettier.

Raylight Beauty’s budget products sufficed to keep up this appearance.

Her hair, meanwhile, she dyed a shiny grape-purple color and tied into a long ponytail.

For Katarrans, even mercenaries, such preening was not uncommon nor beneath them.

It was all part of coping with the warped relationship they had to their bodies.

Every Katarran mercenary in the Imbrium was more than likely someone who escaped from Katarre itself and service under a Warlord. It only made sense for anyone with that kind of repressive background to assert their individuality. Kalika had an ideal of her own body and her own sexuality which she expressed for her own comfort. She wore wine-colored lipstick and a similar type of eyeshadow, she wore toner on her face, she dressed in the nicest shirts she could afford and even owned a brand jacket from Lanzknecht, Epoch Clothiers’ edgy line of streetwear itself inspired by Katarrans. It was “steel-silver” colored and cut sharply, with see-through sleeves. She loved that jacket– it felt like skin.

Tights and a pencil skirt accentuated her long legs and figure. Heels made her feel more sophisticated (and feminine– for a woman who punched people’s heads open sometimes, this was more vital than it might have seemed). She even wore perfume sometimes. It was all part of the product she sold to the world– a Katarran’s body, born to kill and ready to die. (And look good doing it.) It showed to the discerning eye that she cared about herself, had a sophisticated personality, spent money on herself.

In this way, Katarrans survived, trying to retain the soul of human living despite all the abuse they suffered– and despite the extremist Solceanist belief that Katarrans did not actually have souls.

Dimmitra was a bit more spartan in her own style, but even she had one. Her grey trench-coat had beads sewn into it by Chloe. Her pain black shirt had the midriff quite literally ripped from the rest to expose her toned belly. Her black boots were stained and left as such. She had fingerless gloves. Her hair was dark, which meant she dyed it, but she cut it short and manageable. Like many mercenaries she communicated, ‘I am tough, and I can kill you– or whoever you pay me to kill’ but she also demonstrated self-care.

“Where is Chloe anyway?” Kalika asked.

“She’s visiting Platform Town.” Dimmitra said. “She wants to grab a souvenir.”

“She can be such a kid sometimes.” Kalika replied.

“So what? That’s good. You want her to be a nihilist?” Dimmitra said.

“Relax.” Kalika said. “I am just making observations. I am not criticizing her.”

“Hmph.”

Dimmitra walked to the other edge of the room, where her own hammock was strung.

“I’m staying here. Waiting for Chloe to come back.” She said.

“Figured. Don’t worry too much about her.”

“I’m not.”

She was clearly on edge, but Kalika did not push it any further.

She liked those two– they were cute together. They felt like they had a future ahead.

Kalika picked up a false leather bookbag from a corner of the room and slung it over her shoulder. There was a vibroblade inside, and she had a vibroknife hidden in an arm harness under the sleeve of her clip-down shirt. No guns– it was too easy to make a ruckus and get caught that way. Guns had to be a weapon of last resort when there were unfriendly eyes and ears everywhere.

Or a weapon for the final stages of an operation. Never at the beginning.

For now, nobody knew they were any different than any other Katarrans in Kreuzung.

From the metal door into the room, Kalika exited out into a long, circular tunnel, two meters tall. There were a few doors down from the hallway and an obviously riveted elbow piece on the corner. These tunnels were built out of a standardized series of ferristitched sewer tunnel sections that were used for water treatment, waste management and pressurization. Kalika nonchalantly walked the halls in her heels. There was a massive maze of these kinds of tunnels all around them.

From what Kalika understood, the process for building Kreuzung required a huge hole be drilled at the bottom of the crater and a substation to be buried under the baseplate. This building was known as the central construction shaft. It doubled as part of the foundation, as well as housing the construction equipment, elevators and supplies to begin the building process. The workers extended out supports in weak parts of the ground and built out infrastructure for themselves within these tunnels, since they could not live comfortably in the substation. Materials were partially mined out of the surrounding crater, but also brought in from the rest of the Imbrium along with the rations for the workers. It was a gigantic undertaking, and the suffering of those workers was still evident in the suffering way that people still lived below the baseplate. They were forgotten; much in the same way the old workers were.

Those workers were never counted among the heroes and glories of Kreuzung.

And the people of Platform Town wouldn’t either; unless something dramatically changed.

“Maybe Erika would say ‘we are the change’– but I don’t hold such presumptions.”

Kalika traveled through several similar-looking tunnels, ambling confidently in her high heels without missing a step. She knew where she was going even though the path was dim, lonely and so identical it could have easily confused someone into thinking they were going in circles. Another reason a lot of the locals avoided these less-traveled outer tunnels. Eventually, however, Kalika found an old and out of service bulkhead into a pressurization room, and there was a woman and her daughter sleeping inside.

Out the other door, and she was in a hall with a small crowd.

While there was a stereotype of homeless or impoverished people as being filthy or nasty, you would not see it from the platform town residents. They kept their clothes clean, nobody smelled, the hall was dusty and there were some wrappers and bags about because it was simply not possible to keep dozens of metal halls completely clean without vacuum drones or formal staff. Almost everyone she passed had a hoodie or a jacket and a good pair of pants. Sturdy, comfortable clothes that they could sleep in and keep warm that also held up to walking daily. Shoes were the sore spot for many of them, because the tunnels and the platforms were rough on cheap plastic sneakers. Because they washed with saltwater that was let in from partially dismantled desalinators, there was a bit of wear and graining on their mainly plastic clothes, but nobody was living in filth. Everyone did their best to keep the place livable.

There was a lot of hustling in the corridors. Mainly people selling or trading in miscellaneous goods they kept in boxes or blankets, always something easily portable and commonly in need like snacks or tray dinners, first aid supplies (and illegal drugs), shoes, sundries; provenance unknown and priced suspiciously. While hawking was much more profitable (relatively speaking) above the baseplate, there were people selling or bartering things around Platform Town nonetheless. Maybe because they had heat up above and were hiding; maybe because they were trying to flip NGO aid supplies or stolen goods.

Nobody tried to hawk anything to Kalika. They could tell immediately she was strange.

Platform Town and its residents had dignity. No amount of poverty would prevent them from having it. People tried their best to live whole and healthy lives. They tried to keep things as clean as possible. They maintained a quiet peace. What was palpable, however, was caution and distrust among the residents. Kalika definitely stuck out among them, and there were a lot of idle eyes thrown her way, but it wasn’t in here that she needed to blend in– it was up above. Nobody could blame them for staring at a Katarran who was vain enough to wear makeup and tights and heels down here among the desperate folk. Her relationship to the space was fundamentally different and she knew she must have looked like a voyeur. She didn’t have to live here, like them; she was just passing through here on a mission.

She would leave here– go on to the next thing. Until she lost her life to the violence.

Like a lot of other underworld travelers that hid in places like this from the public eye.

That she had supposedly loftier goals didn’t help her feel like any less of a parasite.

Kalika strolled by one of the entrances out into Platform Town itself, which was built by parking all the cargo elevators on the same level within the construction shaft in the center of the ancient substation infrastructure, creating a sort of “town square” for the entire underground town. Platform Town’s elevating mechanisms were then struck in place so it could not be plunged down the shaft. It resided about 100 meters below the baseplate, separating it from the tunnels that still saw some use farther above, but keeping it accessible to the underground dwellers. This was done out of necessity and safety. Keeping out of the way kept them relatively safer from the authorities.

Platform Town had been raided before. But it was a difficult and ugly sight for the people above, so it was mainly forgotten, its own world separated by 100 meters of empty vertical space and several more of winding old tunnels. For a station that was less than two kilometers tall and a few more wide, Kreuzung was vast inside of its own walls. One could give as many objective measurements of space and distance as one wanted– but the reality was, in terms of class, Kreuzung contained within it several entire worlds that may as well have been measured in hundreds of kilometers of distance apart from one another.

Kalika traversed one and now she had to leave to another.

At the end of the hall, there was a smaller personnel elevator. There were some things that did not get core power down here, and people improvised portable battery-pack devices to power them. But the elevator was always powered from the core above. However, it was also always guarded by someone. On that day it was an older man with a red face and a heavily white beard. He had on a brown jacket and a flat cap, and his hands were in his pockets. He had boots, unlike a lot of people here.

“I’m going up.” Kalika said. He was standing in the way of the elevator door.

“You are, are you?” He asked.

Kalika tried not to roll her eyes. It was always something like this.

“We already talked to the Watchman.” She said.

The guard’s bloodshot eyes locked with her black on yellow eyes.

They had done more than talk, too. Erika — the Premier — had sent a crate of supplies.

“Okay. Watchman isn’t here. Maybe nothing you gave the Watchman got to me?”

“How much do you want?”

“Maybe it ain’t bribes? What if I just don’t like you fish fuckers?”

What if I rip your fucking head off? What if I kill your entire family?

She recalled, in Erika’s cheery voice, before delivering what was a routine threat–

It’s not their fault; their attitudes are a result of abuse and exploitation; we must be kind.

Exercise the fortune you have that allows you to simply walk away, Erika would say.

Sighing internally, Kalika lifted her hand from her bag, and therefore from her sword–

“That would be pretty unfortunate, but my life would go on. And my journey, too.”

“Your journey– pfeh– fancy bitch aren’t you?”

Begrudgingly, he stepped aside just enough for her to walk past.

Kalika made no more eye contact, no aggressive gestures and kept a neutral expression.

Erika was right– there was no point in upsetting or fighting these people.

It wasn’t their fault they had been cast into the deepest darkness of the world to rot.

Into the elevator she went and up and out of the world below the world.

Platform Town’s elevators could take someone to the tunnels directly under the baseplate, and from there, the safest way up without anyone knowing you had been in the underground was to take an emergency ladder up above. It was common knowledge passed around the inhabitants of the underground which ladders had their panels ripped off already and were easily accessible, and these took the would-be trespasser into discrete places out of sight from crowded thoroughfares.

In this fashion, Kalika climbed a ladder in a dark room, opened a hatch, and stepped out of the dim alleyway next to an automatic desalination plant on the lowest tier, rejoining the above-ground world on a street in one of the lower modules of Kreuzung. The ceiling was low, and there were squat plastic buildings with scratched-up unpainted metal streets between them. The sunlamps were maybe half-working. But compared to how people lived in Platform Town, it was downright luxurious. There were shops, eateries, there were small crowds of people with merry expressions, and there was an unimpeded way up higher. Kalika pulled out a portable from her jacket, checked her route, and got moving.

She had to find someone to repair her arm– before she needed to use it seriously again.

Her first thought was to go to the medical NGOs that served the lower level folks.

Not because she was lacking in funds– but because they might actually agree to see her.

Traversing several of the tight halls that adjoined the street module where she had entered the station, she finally found herself two or three street modules away in front of a large, temporary plastic building which bore the logo of Khumeia Pharmaceuticals, one of Rhinea’s major medical manufacturing corporations. Despite the logo, there was a line of people, and signs calling out free healthcare services, including biostitching, which could take care of lacerations and broken bones by itself.

It felt promising, so Kalika stood in line. Maybe they could ferristitch her arm joint.

She was in line for almost an hour, about thirty minutes of which she spent staring straight at a desk with a nurse behind it, who would take people’s information and then point them to a room inside the building itself for procedure. Soon as Kalika walked up, the nurse raised her hands.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we can’t help you here, ma’am. Our grant specifies primary care services to Imbrians. We are beholden to the terms of our grant, so we can’t see any Katarrans.”

Rotten luck– not even charities in the lowest rungs would look at Katarrans!

“Incredible. So I stood in line for nothing? You couldn’t have just shooed me out?”

“I recommend looking for a private practice to assist you. Have a nice day.”

Grumbling, Kalika walked out, clutching the sling on her bookbag tightly.

There were very few private medical practices in the lower levels of the station. They were mostly run by samaritans who could shoulder the unique pressure of existing in places with higher levels of poverty, and therefore, desperation. Those few that existed were booked out months in advance because there was high demand for any kind of healthcare. That piece of advice from that wretched nurse would not help. Kalika took another elevator, though she was loathed to climb further as she knew that Imbrian racism only got worse the more affluent the population became. Her hopes began to dim.

From her next elevator, she exited onto a beautiful park full of white flowers.

She had looked up a cybernetic augmentation prosthetics service center that had a walk-in storefront near the park. They took walk-ins because they essentially took someone’s entire arm off them, repaired it, and then called them back a few hours later to reinstall it, it was all very process-driven. This process and the specialization of their service meant they could easily treat the dozen or two dozen people who would coincidentally all have broken cybernetic arms or legs the same day. Kalika was hopeful as she walked in through the sliding glass doors of the ritzy “Capua Limb Service Center.”

There was nobody inside, so she could walk right up to the gentleman behind the counter.

Hallo,” Kalika said, waving the hand of her prosthetic arm with a little difficulty. “I’m having a bit of trouble with this one. I think it’s the joint– it got bashed hard in an accident.”

“Can I have your name, sex and date of birth ma’am?”

She sighed.

“Name is Kalika Loukia. Date of birth is tough. Sex– Look, I’m a Katarran, you know–?”

The man at the counter seemed to make up his mind quite quickly hearing her name.

“Unfortunately ma’am, we only service prosthetics we installed. You’re not on the list.”

“What?” She held up her portable. “But I read that you’re a walk-in service center.”

“We are, but we can’t work on just anything, we don’t know your specific needs.”

“Is that how it is? Then how am I supposed to get this thing to looked at?”

“We might be able to see it with a referral from your doctor. We can look them up.”

“Thank you. Please give it a try. Her name is Hilana Tarik.”

“A Shimii?” Again the receptionist immediately gave her a skeptical look. He did not even attempt to search that name. “You might have better luck asking around Tower Eight then.”

Kalika closed the fist on her biological arm and shut her eyes with frustration.

“She was a Khedivate Loup actually– but I get the picture. I’ll see myself out.”

She stormed out of the building, clicking her heels as hard as they would take.

Her next idea was to look up prosthetic sales shops– places with actual manufacturing.

Since she could not get the thing she was wearing serviced, she would get a new one.

While her arm was special, she could live with an inferior model that just worked.

So she made her way to a small workshop tucked into a corner of a business block–

“Sorry, but we don’t service existing hardware in here ma’am. We can take your measures and build a new arm for you, but we’ll need to see a prescription from the doctor who installed that one, so we know what kind of work’s been done on your biological arm’s remains. Do you have a prescription?”

Surrounded by models of arms all in cases on the walls. Kalika was briefly speechless.

Not even in a place that just sold arms could she actually purchase a new arm?

“I don’t– I haven’t seen the doctor who installed this in years.”

“Then I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t help you with that. It’s the regulations.”

“So let me get this straight. You only replace someone’s broken prosthetic if you get an okay from the original doctor? What happens if they died or went missing? I’m in pain right now!”

“It’s unfortunate ma’am but the rules are the rules. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

This particular receptionist was much less patient with her than even the last.

Feeling a knot in her chest of anger and shame, she left the shop and wandered aimlessly.

At first, she had been merely annoyed.

Then she spent so much of the day so awful fruitlessly.

Now, she was actually afraid. Now she felt helpless. She felt the weight of her prosthetic, she felt acutely every defect that it possessed, she heard the scraping of the metal like it was being broadcast through a booming speaker, felt the roughness where the synthskin had broken like the texture of sandpaper, and the pain felt like it was worsening. There was nothing she could do to make herself better, to return to normal, and every step felt more troubled than the last she took. Her arm was heavier, clunkier, less mobile, it felt like it would pull her through the floor and into the water itself to drown.

Useless, with only one arm, she would fail to defend the people she loved again–

“Agh!”

She had not been paying attention. Walking mindlessly around a corner–

Kalika bumped directly into another person, and both fell to the floor.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I made you drop your bag! I’ll get it!”

A girl had bumped into her.

Fallen right off her heels and on her rear, her bag off her shoulders.

Thankfully nothing spilled and nothing broke.

She laid eyes on the person she had bumped into– and her gaze lingered for a moment.

Collecting her bag– was a Shimii, a young woman with long, dark hair, short, fluffy ears and a little fluffy stub of a tail that was comically short.  She had a brown jacket that was clearly a bit worn-in, over a very fine button-down shirt and a pair of pants and shiny shoes. Dark-eyed, with sleek features, handsome. But with a soft, pretty smile, clearly nervous. Kalika was a little bit speechless looking up at her.

Having recovered more quickly, the Shimii girl extended a hand to help her.

“I’m sorry for bumping into you! I wasn’t paying any attention. Let me help you up.”

Kalika took her hand– warm, firm. She was a bit lean, strong. An active kind of girl.

Good upper body. She worked those shoulders. Legs a little less so, but still solid.

With her assistance, Kalika stood up and dusted herself off. The girl handed over her bag.

“Thank you. It’s not a problem. No need to be nervous.” Kalika said, smiling.

“Ah– well, I’m glad then. I hope you have a nice day ma’am–”

“Wait.”

Kalika stretched out a hand.

“Kalika Loukia.”

“Um. Homa Baumann.”

They shook briefly. Kalika locked eyes with the younger woman.

“Homa, you live in Tower Eight, don’t you? Are there any Shimii medical device shops?”

“Medical devices? Um.”

“My prosthetic arm is broken. None of the Imbrians around will see me.”

“A prosthetic arm, huh–?”

Homa looked slightly bewildered. Kalika should have known it was a long shot–

Then, from their shared handshake, Homa pulled Kalika’s hand forward.

“I think I know a place. Follow me. Tower Eight’s not very far from here.”

“Oh! Well, thank you! Can Katarrans actually–?”

“I’m sure you can! I’ll raise a stink otherwise! Imbrian bastards are always allowed in!”

Homa pulled Kalika along by the hand at a quick clip– she was surprised by the girl’s initiative.

They strolled by the park from before, through a few elevators, down a crowded mall with a high pavilion and to a tram station. Homa badged her way through the tram station gate, and still holding Kalika’s hand, led her through. The guards did not express any interest or concern over Kalika. She and Homa rode the tram together, crossed another gate. They were both quiet. Homa stared out into space during the elevator rides and in the tram, her expression a little dark– she seemed to notice this eventually.

“Ah– sorry. I’m not ignoring you. I have something on my mind.” She mumbled.

“It’s okay. You don’t need to say anything.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded.

“I’ll take you to a place– you can get back. You’re not a Shimii, they won’t stop you.”

“Thank you. Will you be alright? I didn’t bump into you too hard, did I?”

“I just want to go home– and kinda forget everything today. I– I’ll be okay.”

“I get it. I also want to put today’s nightmares away before receiving tomorrow’s.”

They crossed another guard gate at the other end of the tram. No questions asked.

Down another elevator, and Homa again took Kalika’s hand firmly and led her around.

And– strangely enough, she always seemed to grab the artificial hand too.

Her tug on it was just a little bit painful due to the arm’s condition– but Kalika did not mind.

Such nonchalant attention made her feel just a little bit girlish, she had to admit.

They arrived at a colorful street full of plastic buildings from which Shimii sold goods, services, food. There were so many ears and tails about, hijabs worn, beautiful Fusha calligraphy, the sound of song-like prayer and the smell of spices — it brought back certain memories. Homa took her down the street, past a few grocers, turning a corner on a flat-topped mosque filled with folk and animated conversation, decorated with a series of banners advertising the day’s philosophical topics for open discussion.

“I thought there was–there!”

Homa animatedly called out and pointed farther up the street–

And in the next instant, her ears dropped, and her tiny tail sagged.

“Aww, man.”

They stopped in front of a two-story plastic building. It had exterior windows facing the street, but they were all shut and colorful curtains drawn over them. The front door was locked, the doormat in front dusty and forlorn. There was an old sign which read “Fahrooz Orthetics” with the logo of the Imbrian Khumeia Pharmaceuticals to show they were affiliated. But the building was clearly disused. The sign was fading, and the plastic had not been treated for sunlamp exposure for a good bit and was beginning to discolor. The only thing which had been kept was the bubble bush in front of it– because that was community managed and not actually the property of the building owner in any way.

Homa grunted. She let go of Kalika’s hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so useless, dear god.”

She raised a hand to cover her face in shame. She was taking it so much harder.

“It’s completely fine. Thank you. It was lovely of you to try.” Kalika said.

Homa made another frustrated little sound. “Will you be okay?” She said.

“Yes. I will be fine. Run along home, Homa Baumann. Have some rest.”

“Thank you– again, I’m really sorry for the trouble.”

“Don’t be. And furthermore,”

Kalika put a hand on Homa’s shoulder and smiled directly at her.

“It’s her loss if she turned down such a handsome and courteous young lady as you.”

Homa’s ears stood back up. Her face flushed red. She nodded and walked away.

Kalika could see her tail swishing as she left. Awkward girl; so cute when she was flustered.

Her intuition must have been right. Homa must have really come back from a bad date. Poor girl; it was worth it to follow her along, even if it didn’t turn up anything for her search.

At least Kalika felt more stable now. She had almost had a meltdown over her arm.

“Ah– the glow of youth. Or, you know– I’d say that if I was that much older than her.”

Kalika sighed. She felt just a bit foolish herself. She looked at the building again.

She lifted her arm. It was a bit sore– Homa could not have known but with the bad elbow the arm’s balance was all wrong and it was starting to hurt the remains of her flesh. She was having even more trouble bending it than before. There was an awkward feeling, as if her brain expected the arm to have already bent at a certain angle, but the mechanical arm was not all the way there.

I guess I’ll sit this one out. I’ll get transferred to the Rostock and wait for everyone

“Oh ho? Interested in this old clinic, are you? Is there perhaps an emergency?”

From behind Kalika, a Shimii woman approached.

Her features were mostly concealed by a green and white hoodie, but through the holes in the hood exposing her ears, Kalika could see that the color of her fur was honey-yellow, therefore the woman was a blond. Aside from the hoodie she had long pants, with a voluminously fluffy yellow tail swaying behind herself. Her stature was fairly small, her figure short, wide and round, but her mannerisms had such a confident and easy presence that her stature did not matter. She exerted a certain pressure.

Kalika could tell her aura was particularly dense despite her emotions appearing ordinary.

She was suspicious, but at the same time, if she could get her arm repaired–

“I’m looking for a cybernetic prosthetic repair. My arm was damaged in an accident.”

The hoodie wearing Shimii nodded her head in acknowledgment, her face barely visible.

“Unfortunately, that clinic closed down over a year ago. However, you’re in luck. I happen to have been the one who leased the place to its former occupants, and I taught them everything they knew about the practice too. I came here for nostalgia’s sake, but I can see you just this once. Just don’t tell anyone– it would inconvenience me and the folks here if people mistook this for the reopening of the clinic.”

It’s a bullshit-sounding story, but I don’t have a choice but to try my luck.

Erika and the Rotfront needed her. She couldn’t afford to be out of action if something happened. She couldn’t afford to be dead weight. None of them would ever say that to her– because they were all too nice. But Kalika would not forgive herself if she stood around helplessly while they died–

She had to get this fixed and return to her post. Had to; today. She was dead set on it.

“I can’t turn down such rare courtesy.” Kalika said.

She saw the golden eyes beneath the hood for a brief instant.

“Lovely. Follow me, then. You can call me ‘Hudson’. But I must stress– please don’t tell anyone.”

“I’m Kalika Loukia. On my pride as a Katarran, my lips are sealed.”

Hudson walked around the side of the building, between it and the next one there was about two meter gap. Behind the building was the wall of the module, and Kalika had assumed the buildings were flush together with it. However, there was also about a meter gap between the buildings and the back wall of the module. Probably for access to electrical paneling or something like that. Hudson led her to a rear door that opened with a keycard, and into the interior of the building itself.

“Watch your step. We’re going upstairs. Follow me closely.”

It was pitch black inside the building. There were blackout curtains on the windows, and the lights weren’t on inside. The only illumination was a tiny green LED on a wall panel indicating that the building still had electricity. Everything must have still been up to date and paid for, and the interior was not really dusty or unkempt. Human activity must have been utterly nil since it closed down, and yet, it was maintained.

Kalika could track Hudson fairly well through the interior of the structure. From the back door they hooked a right through a tight room, and then another left to the stairs. At the top of the stairs, Hudson led her down a short hall to a room in the front corner of the building’s second story.

Inside that room she finally switched on a light by placing her hand on the wall touchpad. A largely undecorated room became visible around them, white walls, an air circulator unit on the ceiling, a storage unit with multiple drawers. In the middle of the room there was a table with a stitcher.

It was this machine that caught Kalika’s eye. “Nanostitching machines” were ubiquitous in manufacturing and in mechanical repair, but also in medicine. Biostitchers, Ferristitchers, Synthistitchers, and others, were all conceptually this same type of machine. They were equipped with cartridges of material which was manipulated and used by extruder arms to build something nanometer by nanometer.

In a kitchen, a biostitcher could be loaded with mulched up vegetable matter, a flavoring cartridge and a vitamin solution to create edible, aesthetically pleasing “fresh” veggies; in a medical setting, that same machine with minor modifications to the extrusion arms could be loaded with body-compatible materials to sew up wounds or even fill in the gaps in broken bones or lacerated flesh. Ferristitchers melted down metal in tiny amounts to “stitch” together steel parts and plates bit by bit. For someone working on human cybernetics, the weapon of choice would likely be a combination of all of these machines.

“Okay! I’m going to need you to pull your sleeve back up or something.” Hudson said.

She pulled down her hood. Her face was unremarkable– pretty, but certainly with nothing to hide, one would think. Golden eyes, a round jaw and tall fluffy ears. Long, flowing blond hair styled in a way that it exposed her forehead and fell around her shoulders. She looked like she could have been any other Brennic or Volgian Shimii, though there were also blond Shimii of other heritage. Her skin was a sandy pink color. She truly looked like any other bystander could have. An ordinary Shimii woman.

Kalika obliged. She took off her jacket, unbuttoned her shirt most of the way and slipped her arm out of the sleeve and out of the shirt entirely. On most of it, the synthetic skin shredded and peeled. While it was affixed tight to the outer sleeve of the prosthetic, it could be dyed to look like the rest of Kalika’s skin, but when it was coming off, it turned completely white and unnatural. Where the arm had been struck, close to the elbow, there were jagged bits of material as the surface sleeve and a bit of the internal ligaments had been shorn. She was surprised it wasn’t more broken, as she had blocked a vibrobaton strike in a snap reaction without heeding the consequences. Hudson examined the extent of the damage.

When Kalika tried to bend the arm, working the joint, there was visible friction between the broken parts of the forearm and the parts that moved the joint, creating a creaking metal sound that seemed to be getting worse the more that Kalika moved the arm. Hudson raised a hand as if to tell her to stop.

“I recognize this model. You’re in luck. Full fix coming right up.”

She approached, and with Kalika’s consent, she used a tool to separate the prosthetic arm from the ring that had been installed farther up the arm. When Kalika had lost the arm, all she had was a little bit of flesh and muscle close to the shoulder. That flesh was melded into a ring cap that hosted the couplers, to which her prosthetic attached. Because she lost most of her arm, the prosthetic needed to have its own elbow joint. From what she understood, that was much more complicated than just a forearm would have been. Without the prosthetic, the coupler array hung loose and exposed that ring of metal and screws and a lot of bloodshot veins and visible nerves where it met Kalika’s flesh. When she tried to move her arm now, only the stray coupler-links wiggled uselessly like steel worms. Her nerves were sewn into the coupler and thus into them. Their only purpose was to translate between the flesh and metal.

“Technology is wonderful, isn’t it? But– it’s still a pity, to lose a limb. Especially for you!”

Kalika said nothing. She stood with her back to the wall and averted her gaze.

“Katarrans’ natural bodies are already stronger and more durable than an ordinary Imbrian body, so it’s extra tragic for them to lose a limb. You can get away with losing a leg, but they call Katarrans who lose their arms, ¾ of a Katarran, don’t they? It’s seen as such as a tragic shame among your kind!”

Hudson tittered while tenderly stroking Kalika’s prosthetic, and taking it to the table.

“So that is why,” she continued, hooking one finger into the orifice resulting from the damage near the elbow, “only something I made would suffice for a Katarran warrior who retains her pride.”

Kalika’s eyes narrowed. She hated being spoken about in the abstract like this.

Those words piqued her interest, however. “So you’re affiliated with that Loup doctor?”

“Oh! So Nile installed this for you? That makes sense– that woman is such a good samaritan.”

Years ago– Kalika had been riding with an entirely different crew altogether.

She risked her life for them, and her limb. Then she left them behind.

That was when she had the fortune to meet that doctor. Hilana Tarik– or “Nile.”

“Do you know where she is now? It’s so much harder than I thought to get this serviced.”

Hudson shook her head. “I’m afraid she and I don’t have much contact these days.”

Kalika was not going to pry into it any further then. She felt it was pointless to push it.

While Kalika watched, Hudson opened the glass hatch at the top of the ferristitcher. Most of the operating table was taken up by the machine. She set the arm down in the center of the table and closed the hatch. As soon as she powered it on, lasers scanned the prosthetic and on an attached LCD screen a highly detailed wireframe model appear. Extruder arms and manipulator arms from the floor and walls of the ferristitcher box arrayed themselves around the prosthetic in preparation for the operation.

Hudson took a look at the LCD screen attached to the stitcher machine. She used the touchscreen to zoom in on the minute details, swished her finger over it. She made corrections to the default plan that the machine had drafted after scanning the arm and she gave new instructions to the machine. Once she was satisfied with her work, she turned back to Kalika briefly, her golden eyes cheerfully wide.

“We’ll spot-melt some of the imperfections and then spot-fill them.” Hudson said. She sounded almost like she was talking to herself even though she was addressing Kalika. “Once the structure is repaired, I’ll pull out the old elbow tensioner and the broken ligament, ferristitch new ones, and then ferristitch them into the arm.” Her eyes fixed on Kalika’s shoulder, twitching one ear. “As far as repairs are concerned, I’d be happy to fix it for you if it breaks again. Get in touch with Sunspot Health Cooperative and someone will help you. Failing that, you can ask Theresa Faraday from Solarflare LLC, based in Kreuzung.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. How much will I owe you?” Kalika asked.

“Owe me? Nothing. Don’t mention payment– I find it gauche, you know? I’m an artist.”

Kalika crooked one eyebrow. “I’m sorry, but I don’t trust that you’re doing this for free.”

“Well, start trusting. I categorically refuse your money.”

Inside the ferristitcher, the arrayed arms began to work.

It looked almost like a swarm of rigid metal crab legs dancing all over her arm.

Barely visible sparks appeared, the contacts being made at such a minute level it was hard to imagine.

“Nothing in Imbria is given without an ulterior motive.” Kalika said.

Erika would have hated her for saying such a thing– but it was her natural reaction.

Charity — with a few exceptions — was a two-faced strategy, a conspiracy, however gentle.

In response to her skepticism, Hudson chuckled.

So far, for as long as Kalika had seen her face, she had a placid little smile.

Now she put on a grin as she gave her answer. Swinging her arms open in a grandiose fashion.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am not doing this for you because I care about you as a person. Anything I built, I maintain. There is a legacy, woven into the metal crafted under my watchful eyes. It is my DNA, my seed, my egg! You are gravid with my legacy, Kalika Loukia, and I would be remiss to be bias against you and allow the work which you have been blessed with to rot and become useless. That would invite others to say my craftsmanship was less than legendary– and I will never accept that. On my pride as well.”

Something about being gravid with anyone’s legacy made Kalika feel sick to her stomach.

Having to depend on people like this was so rotten. Everyone had some awful ideology.

At least this pervert was fixing her arm for free.

“Suit yourself then.” Kalika said. She averted her eyes, staring at the wall.

Hudson continued to grin to herself with satisfaction as the machines did her bidding.

“These tensioners are based on the same materials as the housing for vibroblade oscillators. One of my cleverer ideas. It’s lightweight but tough and can endure a lot of force being put into it. It supports depleted agarthicite nanowire muscles to achieve Katarran levels of biomechanical labor output. This is the only model of prosthetic that will suit a Katarran mercenary. You are quite lucky indeed.”

For a few minutes, Hudson ran her mouth about the prosthetic.

Until the ferristitcher stopped halfway through.

“Oh! Hand me a cartridge please. Use the one labeled Mixture III.”

Hudson pointed to a drawer just over Kalika’s shoulder.

She turned around, opened it with her good arm and pulled out the one cylinder left.

It was just a little annoying, not being able to use a second arm to pick the object up.

Having to pull out the drawer, stop, and then use the same arm– it was a little frustrating.

Missing an arm– was frustrating. That was how effective her prosthetic had been.

She was drawn back to the time shortly after losing her arm, trying to go without.

She hated it. It triggered feelings of anxious self-loathing she had not felt in a while.

Without a warning, she lobbed the cartridge across the room into Hudson’s awaiting hands.

Judging by the materials she was working with, Hudson really didn’t care about money.

“You said that has depleted agarthicite in it? You’d leave something that expensive here?”

“What’s the worst that can happen? Someone breaks in here, is not stopped by any locals or by Arabie’s enforcers, and makes away with nothing but a ferristitcher cartridge? It doesn’t matter to me. Plus I do think you overestimate how criminal the people around here are, nobody would bother.”

Hudson opened a hatch on the side of the table and pushed the cartridge into the underside of the table, where the spot-smelter was located that softened up the material so it could be piped to the arms. Once the machine was reloaded with material, it resumed ferristitching automatically, and within minutes, it had completely repaired the sunken-in part of her arm and the frayed metal near the elbow. Then, the manipulator arms separated the elbow mechanism and one ligament from the structure, setting them aside. Hudson opened the hatch into the main workspace, pushing the prosthetic arm out of the way of the manipulators and extruders. She then began to swipe and swish her finger on the ferristitcher’s computer using the touchpad, issuing updated instructions the machine began to follow.

Pecking and spinning and slicing across an axis– they were building something now.

“Do you ever feel dysmorphia for the body you used to have?” Hudson asked.

Kalika grumbled. “I don’t view myself as having lost my body.”

“But do you feel a phantom pain? Like now, with your arm nothing but couplers.”

“No.” It was a lie. Kalika felt terribly uncomfortable and eerie with a missing arm and the hanging couplers coming out of the remains of her arm. She could not help but ‘move her arm’, it was something unconscious and automatic, especially because of how restless Hudson made her.

Each time her brain and nerves sent that command, it just made the couplers shudder.

Whenever that happened it did unnerve her. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

“Did you know– once you become fully biomechanical, that feeling goes away. You are set to right; you reach an apotheosis.” Hudson said suddenly. Kalika narrowed her eyes at her.

Her aura shifted– her intentions– “Have you reached an Apotheosis, Kalika Loukia?”

Hudson absentmindedly raised her arm–

One of her hands suddenly launched from the wrist as if launched by a jet anchor.

It all happened so fast–!

Kalika dropped her good arm, releasing the knife hidden in her sleeve, catching it and swinging up.

One fluid motion– was it fast enough–?

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

Hudson’s hand, glowing yellow with a sickly aura,

met Kalika’s knife, burning red with furious conviction and deflected it,

sending the object to the floor in an instant.

“What the fuck are you playing at?” Kalika shouted as the hand fell to the floor.

She had the knife in hand, held out in defense.

“Sorry, sorry! I just couldn’t help but check you out. I’ll stop now!” Hudson cried out, folding her ears.

There was a whirring noise, and Hudson’s hand was pulled by the cable back into its wrist.

She raised her fingers to her eyes, removing two lenses that had been covering them up.

Rather than gold, their actual color was a metallic, ice grey, with dozens of tiny digits and symbols visibly playing about the surface of the clearly mechanical orbs. When she smiled bright and wide, Kalika noticed, for the first time, the presence of the tiny seams around her cheeks like surreptitious plate joins. Her wrist, having fired its hand, now had a visible seam between the hand and forearm. And as if to further demonstrate the illusions of her body, that big bushy tail split into several mechanical, sharp-tipped implements, which quickly rejoined back into the original form of a bushy cat’s tail.

Kalika had never seen anything like it. Was her whole body robotic?

No– her body seemed soft on the outside. It was not just mechanical– it was biomechanical.

Just like a prosthetic– a full-body prosthetic.

“You used Saint’s Skin. Do you have the other two gifts too?” Hudson asked innocently.

“Fuck you.” Kalika said. “I’m not just going to forget you tried to attack me.”

“Then, how about you attack me, and we’ll call it even? I’ll resist only as much as you.”

“Give me back my arm. I’m leaving.” Kalika shouted.

Hudson’s expression darkened. Her eyes narrowed.

“No! Not until it’s repaired!”

Her cry boomed across the room and not just because she had shouted it.

Kalika hesitated to agitate her further but kept her guard up.

That punch she threw had been clearly imbued with yellow aura.

Saint’s Skin was not able to force that aether directly into someone else, but the addition of aether passively empowered any ordinary blow, necessitating aether to deflect it. Employing Saint’s Skin could change the ambient auras for the worse, slowly poisoning Kalika with its intentions and causing her emotions to shift unless she controlled them; but if it was King’s Gaze, being struck by the punch would have instantly made her feel sick. She may have devolved into a vomiting fit from just touching it.

Such was its awful power. The ability to force one’s aura, one’s emotions, directly into someone else.

Those who had the King’s Gaze had every other Gift by necessity.

She had not been paying attention and Hudson had concealed her intentions well. Without having prepared with Oracle’s Voice, she could not tell whether Hudson had used Saint’s Skin or King’s Gaze. Fighting someone with the King’s Gaze was incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. So she had to hold off for now in case that was a possibility and assess the nature of the situation.

Hudson’s aura was powerful. She was practiced in not just psionics but aetherics too.

When Kalika mentioned taking her prosthetic and leaving, Hudson’s aura flared.

That provocation triggered a band of undisguised, hateful-feeling black aura.

Nothing else the Shimii attempted had been done with killing intention behind it.

Kalika relaxed and laid back against the wall again, sighing deeply. No use in pushing it.

As if realizing she was being seen in a different light, the Shimii’s aura softened.

“Offer still stands, by the way.” Hudson said. “Give me a good hit and let’s be friends.”

“I’ll never be your fucking friend, you freak. Just hurry up over there.” Kalika said.

“That’s too bad.” Hudson smiled. “Maybe I can befriend that cute girl you were with–”

Snap. Inside Kalika’s self a taut and fraying string holding her back burst utterly.

In the next instant, a red flash; a swing of the arm; an error noise; the ferristitcher paused;

From across the room, a wave of force blew past that stirred the ferristitcher instruments.

Its wake a shining bloody red trail that started in a furious swing of Kalika’s vibroknife–

–and connected with Hudson’s cheek, splitting the artificial skin over the side of her face.

Kalika’s eyes flashed as furiously red as the harmful aura which she had hurled at Hudson.

Her brain screamed with pain that she ignored. Shaking, teeth bared in unremitting fury.

Struck by the red aura, and visibly wounded, Hudson’s aura started to take on Kalika’s anger.

Kalika realized what she had done and drew back. Stupid. Stupid move. God damn it.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.” In a second, the polluting red completely disappeared.

Hudson took direct command over her aura, preventing Kalika’s anger influencing her.

She sighed heavily, with one hand over her injured cheek. She then smiled again.

Her aura normalized completely. Blue and green, the colors of humanity. No red or black.

“So you do have the King’s Gaze! It really was so serendipitous that we met!” She cheered.

Absentmindedly, she restarted the ferristitcher. It completed the parts it was building.

Without paying Kalika further heed, Hudson opened the ferristitcher’s hatch and set the arm back on the center of the workspace. A manipulator arm took the elbow piece, and another took the new ligaments and the machine set about quickly reassembling these parts into the arm to make it complete. Kalika was speechless. She thought she would have provoked a horrific response from that attack.

Hudson’s joking threat had gotten the absolute worst rise out of her.

It had been stupid– but she could not have stood by for that Homa girl to be victimized.

Not on a whim– not on anyone’s whim. Kalika would not tolerate an innocent to be hurt.

But Hudson cleansed her own aura of Kalika’s infused anger so quickly and easily.

She was back to her unbothered self. It really was all nothing but a joke to her?

King’s Gaze is extremely rare. Mahdist Shimii once saw it as a sign of a divine right to rulership, without knowing what it really was and what it meant. And yet, a few people with this ability are on this Station right now. Who knows– maybe even somebody you met on the street today could possess great power. Kreuzung has become a place of destiny; I can feel it brimming in the aether itself.”

From the ferristitcher, Hudson withdrew Kalika’s arm and took it in her hands. While the synthetic skin was all gone, the carbon-fiber sleeve was a sleek shiny black, and all of the damage had been fully repaired. It looked brand new. In fact, it looked even better than when Kalika first received it.

“It’s fixed. Let me install it.” Hudson said. “Can I come closer?”

“Yes. Fine. I don’t want to spend another second here.” Kalika grunted.

She was so vulnerable. In an untrustworthy person’s “care.” It pissed her off.

To be treated like this– just because of what happened to her body.

When she should have been allowed to rest, instead she had to keep fighting.

“You better not try anything.” Kalika said.

“Okey-dokey. I don’t want to hurt you. Please trust me for a moment.”

Hudson ambled over to the other side of her room.

She gently gathered the couplers and led them into the associated ports in the arm. She pushed until the prosthetic locked into the steel ring bolted on the remains of Kalika’s old arm. Then she turned the upper arm ring until it locked the prosthetic tightly into place. Kalika could feel the couplers attached to the correct synthetic nerve bundles. When Hudson pulled back a step, Kalika could move her arm.

Once the deed was done, she slipped her arm back into her shirt and clipped it back up, closing it over the lacy purple brassiere she had to partially expose throughout in order to let her arm out.

She donned her jacket anew and put away her knife back into its trick sleeve.

Hudson smiled at her, with her synthetic skin broken, partially exposing the soft carbon-fiber muscle that formed part of her face. Kalika fixed eyes on her. This individual was extremely dangerous, no doubt about it. However, she did not seem intent on killing or causing injury, for the moment.

“You keep acting like this is all a big joke. What is your agenda?” Kalika asked.

“I’m building the greatest machine in the world. My greatest work of art.” Hudson said.

Kalika grunted. And yet, there was no sense that Hudson was actually lying about this.

“Hey c’mon I was just messing with you! I helped, didn’t I?” Hudson cheerfully cried out.

“Whatever. Go to hell. I’m not thanking you for any of this.” Kalika grumbled.

She started on her way out but stopped into the door to Hudson’s operating room.

Without turning around to look at her again, Kalika warned:

“Touch a hair on Homa Baumman’s tail, and I’ll rip your entire fucking head off.”

“Sensitive to the plight of innocents?” Hudson asked jokingly. “I have no interest in her.”

“That better remain the case. Or you’ll make an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.”

“Whether enemy or friend– just remember, to take care of that arm for me, okay?”

Kalika hissed and continued on her way, leaving Hudson behind with finality.

Stepping back out into the street, thoroughly aggravated by what had transpired.

After spending the entire day, and being socially, verbally and physically manhandled, she finally had a working arm back. She could resume her duties with the Rotfront now, but everything was upside down. They knew other militants might be operating here; but enemy psychics too?

She would tell Erika that the Rotfront had some rival conspirators aboard the station.

Not that there was anything they could do about it quite yet. Their hands were tied for now.

They could not afford to cause a ruckus until their meeting with Kremina Qote concluded.

For all her big talk, Kalika herself was no great defender of the innocent anyway.

She had been helpless to do so even under the guidance of the “hero” Radu the Marzban

–and now, she felt just as helpless anyway with the naïve idealists of the Rotfront.

Staring at her arm in her sleeve, opening and closing her black, segmented hand.

There was always so much Ocean, deeper and darker and more mysterious, out there.

On any given day, she could meet with something too powerful to deal with herself.

Even with all the mysteries she had been inducted into, she could become a victim too.

“We have to get stronger. I have to– I can’t let the same thing happen again.”

Visions of beautiful memories forever burned in the pyre of violence and hatred.

Any moment, any wrong decision, and it could all happen again. She could lose everything.

She could not afford to be lackadaisical at all. Fighting until death was the Katarran way.

Thinking of it as a fruitless struggle that could meet an insurmountable wall and just end–

–was too cruel to consider.


Kalika made her way from Tower Eight back to the baseplate of Kreuzung core.

Homa had been right. The guards at Tower Eight did not care whether Imbrians, Katarrans or other races went in or out of Tower Eight as long as the Shimii’s movement was being monitored and controlled. She thought Katarrans had it bad– these conditions must have been so dehumanizing for the Shimii.

With that bleak thought in her brain, she located one of the hatches to the tunnels below the baseplate and took another elevator back down to Platform Town. It was about 22:00 in the evening by the time she got to the underground, so the surly guard at the door had been replaced by an indifferent-looking young woman with a hoodie. She gave Kalika a brief glance before proceeding to take her eyes off her again, briefly rubbing the butt of a vibrobaton clipped to her pants while leaning on a wall.

“Watchman told me to tell you that your ‘Premier’ is expecting you.” She said.

“What? She came down here?” Kalika asked.

“Yeah. Erika, right? She gave everyone stuff. She’s kinda alright.”

“Jeez. Thank you for telling me.”

“Just doin’ what the boss says ma’am.”

Kalika hurried into the ancillary tunnels and out into the exterior ones.

Hurriedly crossing the labyrinth to make it back to the room where she had left Dimmitra.

She saw yellow light coming from the door. Torchlight. So they were in there.

Kalika rushed into the room, and immediately heaved an exasperated sigh.

“Why are you down here? Do you have something against your own personal safety?”

In the middle of the room, between Dimittra, Chloe and her own bodyguard Olga–

A woman in a red greatcoat and hat, with long, smoke-blue hair down to her waist. Black horns protruding from the back of her head curled up, just a bit more rounded than Kalika’s rectangular horns. When she turned with a gently pink grin on her face and with a flourish of her slender arms, locking her mismatched eyes, blue and green, on Kalika’s own with such confidence. Beneath the coat, she had a skirt with a high waistband and a button-down shirt tucked into it, worn with tights and heels.

Soon as Kalika acknowledged eye contact, she tossed her hair.

And winked one perfectly shadowed eye. Incorrigible, stupid, reckless girl

Erika Kairos, Premier and Commander-in-Chief of the militant communist band Rotfront.

Whose name she recently declared was instead the Nationale Volksarmee.

“I’m staking it all on this, Kalika! I already said so! Hiding away ill befits a leader!”

“Getting killed ill befits a leader too!” Kalika grumbled.

“I’m stronger than that. Don’t worry about me. But now that you’re here, you can be on-hand for tomorrow, if you’re so worried.” Erika crossed her arms, smiling. “I’ve secured us an audience with some real hardcore communists, Kalika– I’ll be meeting with actual Union special operatives!”

Kalika blinked, briefly left speechless. If she heard that correctly– what was going on?


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.1]

“–Copy. No sign of target. Standing by, over.”

“Keep it mobile. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“Got it. On the move.”

He turned off his communicator. She saw it go completely dark on the network.

Despite his claim on the radio, the K.P.S.D. officer did not move a muscle.

He remained with his back to the corner, procuring from one of his pouches a cigarette and a lighter. His grip was unsteady on both of the items, shaking. His submachine gun hung on a sling in front of his chest. Tactical armor, probably just nanomail and kevlar. No helmet. As he brought the cigarette over to his lips he dropped it, the nerves getting to him. It landed in the heel-high water below.

“Fuck me. This whole situation– those goddamn Volkisch queers should be the ones here.”

He reached back around to his pouch.

“Fuckin’ whatever. It’s overtime pay. God damn it– I know I had another one–“

In that moment, she saw an opportunity and stepped out of the shadows.

Rushing in from a dark recess shrouded in the wall, she made it to him in a few silent paces.

While he rummaged through his pack, she withdrew a diamond knife and engaged it.

When he heard the whirr of the sawing blade it was too late.

She wrapped an arm around him and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him back over her and to the ground with the leverage. At the same time, before they crashed into the water, she brought the diamond saw to his face. They struggled with their backs to the water only briefly. Blood spraying, horrific gurgling cries; the saw crunching his teeth, chewing his nose, ejecting blood and bone, the jelly of his eyes.

His neck, his chest, all protected, but not his face. She sawed indiscriminately through it all.

Sure that he was dead, Braya Zachikova slid out from under the body.

Gasping for breath. From the effort; had he been any bigger, she would have had to shoot.

He was just large enough that she could still take him down without gambling her life on it.

She felt nothing from killing him. People she needed to kill weren’t human to her.

Nothing except a little satisfaction. A wry grin across her face. A little bit of hope.

Despite the struggle, she had preserved stealth. All of the officers were dispersed enough to be operating alone. They were far enough away from each other that she could take them out without alerting others as long as their communicators were not broadcasting. And they frequently took their communicators and body cameras offline to slack off. Smoking, staring at things on portables. They weren’t taking this seriously. It was just a night out with their tactical toys to follow a suspicious report.

“Two down. Six to go. I need to be quick. They’ll start getting suspicious soon.”

Her foremost worry was that nobody had sighted the “target” just yet.

She was relying on their communications to navigate. While the Kreuzung Station Network itself was a tough nut to crack that she had to be careful with, these smaller police devices formed their own local network during independent operation. This separation from the station supercomputer allowed the police to falsify information for their own convenience– and allowed Zachikova to easily eavesdrop on them and breach their security. Thanks to her cybernetic enhancements, her own brain could insert into their network as an extremely low latency middleman while avoiding passive tamper detection.

It could also prevent them from talking to anyone outside their little party.

Zachikova was for all intents and purposes the web authority handling their messages.

So if the K.P.S.D. tactical team had not found the target, then neither had Zachikova.

That’s fine. That’s fine. As long as they don’t find her. I still succeed.

There was a note of desperation to those thoughts.

She pulled the body into the shadowed passage from which she had sprung.

He would not be found here for a very long time, possibly even if anyone thought to look.

Zachikova and the K.P.S.D. were both searching in the spacious storm sewers of the wealthy A-Block of Kreuzung’s core station. They were designed to provide ample siphoning of water if one of the higher blocks sprang a bad enough leak, and if necessary, to pump active floodwater down into E block and below, sacrificing the integrity of the lower modules to give the wealthier citizens and Kreuzung government room to escape or survive a catastrophe. These tunnels made up the interstitial point between A, B, C and D blocks and E, F, G, and H blocks. As such, the tunnels and tanks were tall enough to stand in, tall enough to walk in, wide enough to fight in– and large enough to hide within.

Arabella–

There was no use pining– Zachikova cut herself off and started toward the next target.

I have to find her. I have to find her– before they do. Or– rescue her from them.

She was dressed in a dense one-piece bodysuit and gloves lined with tough nanomail, with shoes designed to lessen footfall noise and a respirator over her face. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a spiraling ponytail that trailed behind her as snuck around the tunnels. Over her chest and back, she had belts with some gear, her knife, grenades– and an AKS-78u shortened assault rifle.

But her biggest assets were her cybernetics. Her tall, grey metal antennae, attached at an angle where her ears would be, and the accompanying mechanical cortex inside her skull, gave her an unparalleled ability to interact with networked devices as if she herself was a powerful and flexible computer.

“Hey shitheads. Some of you keep coming in and out on positional. What’s going on?”

“It’s the walls, chief, this place is thick as hell titanium, and we’ve got shitty little wifi.”

“Quit slacking off. Let’s do this and go home. The Volkisch want any excuse to criticize us.”

She spoofed the positions of the two officers she killed briefly and intermittently.

Just to make it seem like they were alive but just slacking off.

Unfortunately she had not recorded enough of their audio to convincingly fake messages.

I better hurry. They’re getting suspicious– they’re sick of loitering around in here.

Zachikova tried to pick up the pace, rushing down the identical-looking corridors.

Keeping an eye on the positions of the officers.

She could see the positional map, the layout diagram, in her mind’s eyes–

Swapping between whatever active body cameras–

“Hey. Hey. There’s something– Hey! Don’t move! K.P.S.D, don’t–!”

Zachikova felt like her heart sank into a hole in her chest.

Immediately and almost mindlessly, on pure instinct, she swapped to that officer.

He flipped his body camera on and crouched through the opening into a side reserve tank.

“Hey! Stay the fuck where you are or I’ll shoot–”

In the next instant, something struck the officer. There was blood, a gurgling noise–

His body camera went flying. Three down, five to go–

Zachikova took off running again.

She had seen it, running the video in her head– something like a scorpion’s stinger.

Arabella! Arabella!

“What the fuck? Everyone converge on Wilco! Wilco down, everyone converge!”

“Shit, shit he’s gone–”

Every blip had honed into the downed officer’s last position instantly.

They were freaking out and running pell-mell toward–

ARABELLA!

Zachikova took a corner and ran to intercept the officers that she could.

She kept an eye on the moving blips, grabbed hold of a grenade from her belt.

As soon as she heard the splashes coming in from a perpendicular hallway ahead–

Zachikova threw the grenade and slipped into a hole in the wall for a recessed grate.

There was a flash, an explosion, air sucking in, smoke billowing, and screams–

Frags sprayed against the walls around her and landed in the water, steaming, smoking–

“Fire! Fire!” Through coughing and shrieking with his last breaths–

“It’s sticking! It’s sticking!” Splashing, metal thuds from thrashing kicks–

In the hall ahead two officers caught fire and thrashed for their lives, but the burning fragments would not come off. Incandescent bits of metal instantly set them ablaze and anything that could melt on them melted to their skin. Zachikova ran past them through the smoke as their uniforms melted into their skin, her respirator mask allowing her to see and breathe while the burning men choked and died.

Arabella!

She tried to call out to her as she ran, just as she herself had been called to–

But there was no response. Arabella had not given her the power of psionics.

Please hold on! Please!

Three men left, all of them met up and began to advance toward the same position.

“God damn it.”

She checked the magazine for her AKS-78u as she ran.

Safety off, loaded, engaging the bolt–

Her own position was one corner away from the four blips.

Zachikova stacked at the corner.

Peeked once– saw them approach the open grating, guns out–

Stacked again. Assault rifle in hand, finger on the trigger–

Light ‘em up

Illya’s voice, still in her head. From a long time ago now, but–

Zachikova was alone. Illya and Valeriya weren’t there to shoot. Only her. All on her.

One step around the corner, rifle up, man on the right, another directly adjacent–

Automatic. Press, depress, press, depress– shifting her aim a few centimeters from the right–

A hail of deadly precise gunfire swept across the group from the flank. Three bursts, one turn to the right between each. A patter of bloody exit wounds sucked out one man’s abdomen and sprayed it into the wall. Right next to him, another man’s hip pack burst into pieces, blood sprayed from a graze that sent him stumbling with a hole on the side of his hip, a chunk separated off his body armor.

Nine rounds, five direct impacts.

Shit–! My shooting still sucks–!

“Gunfire! Back up, back up!”

“D.A.P, D.A.P! Depleted Agarthicite!” Cried the man who had survived the shots.

Zachikova put her back to the wall again. Dozens of bullets sparked against the metal.

“HQ! Reinforcements! We got shooting down here–HQ? HQ?!”

“Can’t get through! Fuck! Keep shooting!”

They were shouting for nothing. She had isolated them completely. But she was alone.

Dozens of rounds sprayed across the tunnel–

Arabella– God damn it– Please say something–

Alone with her gun to her chest.

Two men remaining. Couldn’t use explosives– she might harm Arabella.

Her position was known. There was no way to outflank.

How– How did it come to this?

Arabella– please–

Zachikova sucked in a breath, slipped her finger into the trigger guard.

Held the handguard tight and inched nearer to the corner.

Ducking her body, throwing herself low over the water, squeezing the trigger–

“Arabella!”

How had it come this?


Several days earlier...

At first glance, Treasure Box Transports’ Pandora’s Box was a heavy cargo hauler vessel with an old fashioned and unflattering appearance. Its hull was a cross between a cylinder and a box, all brown. While it was moving at a decent clip, it looked bulky and difficult to maneuver from outside observation. Its conning tower was an old style triangular fin. Its control fins were the first thing that would have caught an expert’s eye, as the designs looked exceedingly hydrodynamic and adjusted quickly. It was as if top of the line engineering resources had gone into hydrotunneling the control surfaces and nothing else.

In reality, the whole thing had gone through a hydrotunnel, and extensively.

It was, in fact, designed to look bulky, ugly and old, while being lighter, newer and swifter.

No one would have guessed from outside observation that the Pandora’s Box had a suite of hidden cannons of three different calibers, as well as torpedoes and other arms aboard; and most importantly, that it carried soldiers and mecha pilots of the communist Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. The Pandora’s Box was actually the UNX-001 Brigand, and its mission to foment unrest in the Imbrian Empire to support the uprising of the Bureni nationalists was going, by all accounts, awful poorly.

They were not in Buren’s waters whatsoever. In fact, they were across the hemisphere from their supposed ultimate destination. The Brigand was a half hour away from docking into the core station of the Kreuzung Complex, a vast multi-tower city in the northern province of the central-western territory of Rhinea. A variety of odd and unlucky circumstances had forced the Brigand and its crew to venture into the Imbrium through these waters. This despite the fact that Rhinea had fallen under the control of the fascist Volkisch Movement. However, it was only here that they could safely refit and resupply, thanks to the connections of the mysterious scientist Euphrates– that situation in itself was a storied mess.

“Murati, I’m going to be heading out soon on port business– what do you need?”

“Apologies, ma’am. I have to something to report I’d like to be kept between us.”

“You look awful serious. Alright– I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“Ma’am– I think Sonya Shalikova is avoiding me because she has psionic powers.”

From the main hall of the top tier of the Brigand, Lieutenant Murati Nakara and Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya ducked out into a meeting room. They were a study in contrasts; Murati a brown skinned and dark-haired woman, young, with a lean profile and a sharp and unembellished expression; Ulyana a tall, fair-skinned, full-figured blond with a soft face, lightly touched up with makeup, that had already begun to show the first signs of the years that she had over the Lieutenant.

“Explain quickly, Murati.” Ulyana said.

“It was almost a week ago. Shalikova approached me, she wanted advice on something.” Murati said. “But then, I tried to look at her aura, to see what she was feeling. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t see any aura around her. And then, I saw her eyes glow red almost immediately, like a ring around the irises. That’s how you can tell if someone is performing psionics if you are psionic yourself.”

Ulyana sighed and raised the fingers of one hand to her forehead.

“Nothing could have prepared me to start having conversations like this.” She moaned.

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing.” Ulyana crossed her arms. “So you’re dead certain she has psionic powers?”

“I have no doubt.” Murati said. “But she’s been avoiding me ever since. She’s burned through almost all of her allotted personal sick days, tactically avoiding any meetings I set up. We had a huddle a few days ago to formally demote Ahwalia, and she wasn’t even there to back up my rationale, so it got heated.”

“I see. So that’s part of why things got the point where Khadija kicked him.”

Ulyana sighed again. She had been doing a lot of sighing over the past few days.

“I’ll be frank, ma’am, as a worker, I don’t really like reporting colleagues. I did my best for Shalikova’s circumstances.” Murati said. “But I feel like we need to do something about it.”

“Shalikova is not dangerous to our mission.” Ulyana said.

“I never said as such. I don’t think she is either.” Murati said.

“Then we’re in agreement about the most important thing.” Ulyana laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder and leaned into her a little, smiling. “Something you will come to learn about leadership, Murati, is that at times, you need to trust other adults that they will resolve their situations and pull through on their tasks when necessary. You need to give them space. It’s entirely possible Shalikova has been like this the whole time, and we just never knew– we didn’t have the capability to know her secret. Now we do.”

Murati blinked, silently, while Ulyana continued.

“Imagine how shocked she must have been? How long she had been carrying on like this was a burden only on her shoulders? But regardless of how much we speculate on her powers, Murati, Shalikova is a responsible woman, who has never faltered when we needed her. Meetings, and things like that, they can come and go, for days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. But Shalikova is still doing everything we require of her. I’m sure if she needed to fight, she would come out and fight to protect everyone. Sameera and Khadija and Valya don’t mind being standby pilots. Just give Shalikova room to figure things out.”

“I just wish there was something I could do for her.” Murati said. “I want to let her know that we can talk about it and that I am here to support her– and that I share her burden too.”

“You’re a lovely soul, Murati.” Ulyana said. “But being a leader entails a certain distance. Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and hundreds of people might look to you for support. It’ll be hard to have conversations with everyone, like we are having. Your lovely soul will hurt a lot. You’ll have to learn how to handle it eventually. But take it from me, for now– in Shalikova’s case, you need to give her space.”

Murati looked dissatisfied with the answer– but she deferred to Ulyana’s experience.

“Thank you. Sorry for holding you up, Captain. You should go get ready.”

“It’s perfectly fine. I’m glad you didn’t bottle this up for any longer.” Ulyana said.

Murati averted her eyes, as if to say ‘I don’t always bottle things up’ with her face.

But she did always bottle things up and basically everyone knew that about her.

She had been hoping for the Captain to dispense some wisdom about bringing Shalikova over to their side to talk. During the conversation, however, she felt a little childish about that kind of tactic. As much as it gnawed at Murati’s chest every time Shalikova shirked a meeting to avoid confronting the issue, Ulyana’s take on the situation still sounded the most reasonable. Murati would have to give Shalikova time to disclose, and in the interim, continue to trust in her pilot without pressuring her.

Anything else would require pulling rank– which Murati wasn’t quite ready to do.

She wanted to command– but not to be a snobbish officer who was always shouting.

Some part of her wanted to be respected enough for such problems to never arise.

In the same way that she respected her own superiors and always went to them first.

Shalikova avoiding Murati and keeping secrets, was a failure of Murati’s command.

Ordering Shalikova to disclose her psionic ability would not fix that fundamental issue.

That was how Murati came to see it– depressing as it was to live with that reality.

“No use beating myself up. Just keep things moving, Murati.” She mumbled to herself.

As the Brigand neared Kreuzung, the daily duties of the ship continued regardless. Murati had called for Euphrates and Tigris to meet her in the hangar, in front of the gantry holding the latest of the Brigand’s bizarre and impromptu technology acquisitions. A large and heavy Diver, broad-chested and thick-limbed with broad shoulders and all manner of technology hidden inside of its chassis.

Standing almost a meter taller than every other Diver, stood the next generation “HELIOS.”

Or at least, “next generation” was how its proud creators had billed it.

Murati made her way down to the hangar. With a ceiling over nine meters tall, it was the most open and spacious area of the ship. Gunmetal grey walls and a red floor, with eight hatches in the middle covering deployment chutes. It had been specifically designed for the purpose of housing, maintaining and deploying several Diver mecha, and its gantries were occupied now with a colorful array of different models– several of which were ruined remnants from their last battle, in the process of repair. Along with the Diver gantries, there was a surprisingly full-featured workshop area where mechanics could manufacture or repaired a variety of parts via an industrial Ferristitcher, along with traditional tools to smooth out any modeling errors or assemble complicated products from the ferristitched parts.

At the foot of the Helios’ gantry, Murati found a familiar pair of women waiting for her.

“Greetings, my dear apprentice.”

“Don’t give this bitch any reason to be smug, Murati! Tell her off immediately!”

One was calm, with a bright smile and a gentle demeanor. Her hair was a dark teal-blue color and cut to the shoulder, slightly curly and messy, framing her face. She wore the same uniform as Murati, button-down, tie, teal half-jacket, black pants. Her counterpart who was yelling and glaring had darker skin, red hair tied up in a long ponytail with a tall arch, and dressed in a grey jumpsuit, a mechanic’s coverall.

When touched, their skin had an otherworldly softness that hinted at augmentation. Both of them had bright eyes with numerous digital lines flitting across their surface. When they focused, one could see, for a split second, the mechanism focusing lenses. Cybernetic organs of that level of quality were expensive and rare in the Imbrium; but that was far from the only thing hidden beneath the surface of these two. While both of them looked almost younger than her, both were many, many times Murati’s age.

Euphrates and Tigris. Holding the title of “Immortal” in a clandestine scientific organization known as the Sunlight Foundation. It was these two in large part who were responsible for the Brigand’s current course. Kreuzung Station hosted one of their research campuses, and they offered to help refit the Brigand. They were also responsible for the Diver they were standing under, having designed and constructed the HELIOS. It was for that reason that Murati had called them together– to discuss the machine’s fate.

“She can call me whatever she wants as long as she’s being helpful.” Murati said.

Tigris crossed her arms. “That’s the thing, Murati! You have to put her in her place and have a healthy level of suspicion of her. Otherwise she’ll act all smug, and she’ll pretend like she’s being helpful. But in reality, she’ll tell you a bunch of useless stuff, and lead you on a wild goose chase, and you won’t be none the wiser. You’ll be tricked into earnestly believing all of her nonsense and waste all of your time.”

“I feel like I walked into something.” Murati replied.

“Firstly– I have never once done such a thing to her.” Euphrates said calmly. “Murati, you should know this woman has very little patience, and a lot of disdain for process. What she calls a ‘wild goose chase’ is my theoretical work and adherence to the scientific method, which is the foundation of any appropriate research. Furthermore, I am teasing you by calling you ‘my apprentice’, but this isn’t to ingratiate myself with you. It’s just to make fun of you in and of itself without ulterior motives.”

“I– Okay.” Murati took a deep breath. “Do you have any further bloviating to vent out?”

Euphrates narrowed her eyes. “How rude– I thought you were a nice girl, Murati.”

“Hah!” Tigris laughed. “You can be harsher Murati! You can be meaner! Get her ass!”

“I’m a girl with a schedule to keep. Unlike you two care-free souls.” Murati sighed.

A few minutes later, a fourth young woman joined them under the machine.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, hubby dearest!”

“Hubby dearest now, huh.”

Her teasing tone made Murati’s cheeks turn a little redder than before.

Karuniya Maharapratham approached with her hands behind her back, and an enormous, shining smile on her face targeted directly at Murati. Like Murati, she was a dark-skinned and dark-haired young Bosporan woman, but a good bit fairer in both complexion and hair color than her ‘hubby.’ Her hair was kept much longer as well and more orderly than Murati’s messy bangs and uneven sides.

Like almost everyone aboard, Karuniya wore the standard uniform of Treasure Box Transports, the fictitious corporation for which the Brigand’s troops pretended to work, which constituted the button-down and half-jacket. But unlike Murati, she wore a skirt and leggings with her uniform, rather than the pants. When she had a chance to express herself with fashion, Karuniya was always bold and bright, and even when she was just wearing a uniform, she carried herself as confidently as any fashionista.

A casual observer could have very well likened her and Murati to a traditional “butch and femme” type lesbian couple, though Murati did not style herself that masculine for a woman. It was an interesting subject owing to her gender transition– but Murati ultimately didn’t mind being the “hubby.“

“So, we’re all here.” Karuniya said. “What is this about, Murati? Why did you want to meet here?”

She sidled up to the Lieutenant and practically rubbed her cheek against her.

Murati pored over what to say, but there was no amount of rhetoric that could make the question more palatable. So she tried to be as direct as she could. “Karuniya– I know I asked you in the heat of the moment, back at Goryk’s Gorge, to pilot this unit with me. But now–” Murati paused briefly. “The HELIOS will always need two pilots. I don’t know if you’re comfortable with having to fight regularly. It’s not your job, and I understand that. So I wanted you to have the final say in whether we keep it.”

“Whoa!” Tigris interrupted. “You are going to keep it! I’m not taking it back!”

“Don’t be unreasonable, Tigris.” Euphrates said. “Murati is right to offer her this choice.”

Tigris crossed her arms and grumbled near inaudibly to herself while staring at Karuniya.

For her part, Karuniya continued to smile. Her bubbly behavior toned down just a touch.

She let go of Murati and looked up at the machine that towered over all of them.

“Jeez, Murati, all this time and you still didn’t understand my feelings at all?”

“Huh? I’m just– I’m trying to be cautious about your feelings! You’re a scientist!”

“I am also a soldier.” Karuniya said. “I agreed to help you pilot this thing and I will.”

“I don’t want you to feel coerced into this.” Murati said. “It’s not an emergency anymore.”

“Murati, I’m your wife.” Karuniya said. “I want to support you. Besides, now that you’re healed up, you’ll be doing all the fighting anyway, right? I’ll just be handling the computing stuff.”

“She’s correct!” Tigris said. “She doesn’t have to fight! She can just man the drones!”

“Now, I’m not that naïve either.” Karuniya said. “I’m not saying that I’m washing my hands of any violence Murati inflicts either. I’m in the machine; my hands will have blood too.”

Karuniya locked eyes with Murati.

In that moment, Murati felt a renewed admiration for her wife– and felt foolish, too.

She was very lucky to have such a strong and wise woman by her side.

Especially in moments like this, where she felt her earnestness caused her to blunder.

“Oh c’mon!” Tigris said. “Are you two keeping it or not? I’m scrapping it if you say no!”

“I apologize for her hysterics.” Euphrates said, shaking her head.

“Of course we’re keeping it. I’d rather Murati pilot the HELIOS than any other machine.”

Karuniya shut her eyes and flashed Murati a lovely little grin. She was so beautiful–

“We can triumph together or die together– really, what more could a military wife want?”

“I’m sorry, Karu. I shouldn’t have second guessed you.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Both of them gazed into each other’s eyes, smiling, laughing a little bit.

Tigris, meanwhile, inflicted Euphrates with perhaps the most antagonistic gaze yet.

“Anyway!” Tigris said. “Is that all? You just wanted to get enthusiastic consent?”

Both Murati and Karuniya stared at her, making the same disdainful expression.

Euphrates crossed her arms and averted her gaze. “I again, apologize, for her hysterics.”

“Shut up! I’d knock your head off if it wouldn’t just grow back!” Tigris shouted.

“Huh?” Karuniya stared between the two of them.

She was aware of most of their eccentricities, but not where it concerned Euphrates’ immortality.

That particular detail would definitely attract unwanted attention.

Shocked by the suddenness with which it came up, Murati quickly improvised a diversion–

“It’s just their PDA!” Murati said. “Please ignore them. I’ve told them to cool it down.”

Karuniya stared between the two of them. Her confusion seemed to only deepen.

“Murati– nevermind. Let’s just move on from this.” Euphrates sighed.

She and Tigris were now fixing the same disgusted glare at Murati.

God damn it. I can’t win today– I want to disembark and scream without an echo.

After a few minutes of silence, Murati finally collected her thoughts enough to continue.

“There were a few other things I wanted to discuss. For one, I want to rename it.”

Tigris shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“Okay? Just do it then, who cares. There’s no form you have to submit to me.”

Murati nodded.

“I want to call it the ‘Bhavani Jayasankar’.” She said suddenly.

“VETO! I’m vetoing that name! I am completely against it!”

Karuniya shot a hand straight up into the air like a student in a classroom.

“Overruled! Absolutely not!” She then cut Murati off again. “Not Mordecai either!”

Murati, who had been about to speak, fell awkwardly silent.

Euphrates laughed gently. “But it’s so typical of her to name it that? It’s quite charming.”

“I don’t care what you name it.” Tigris huffed. “Just agree on something already.”

“Fine.” Murati said. “If I can’t use the names of communist leaders– let’s name it ‘Agni’.”

Tigris’s head snapped up to look at her. “What? That name I don’t use? Why the hell?”

“I think that’s a lovely name.” Karuniya said.

“Why? Murati, I want to know– this isn’t some awful joke on me is it?” Tigris asked.

“Of course not.” Murati replied.

Ever since she met Euphrates and Tigris, Murati had been surprised by the two of them.

There was no particular way that one would expect members of a clandestine organization to behave. Both Euphrates and Tigris had lied to the crew of the Brigand before and in some sense, brought danger upon them. However, they were enthusiastic in making up the inconvenience.

They showed a strong sense of ethicality in the way that they treated the people around them, and humbly submitted themselves to work under others, despite possessing immense powers that they could have used to control or subvert the crew. With their cooperation, the Brigand had learned a lot of valuable information. And Tigris, in particular, was an incredible asset, as an extremely technically skilled and indefatigably hard working mechanic and engineer who was not afraid of dirty jobs.

Euphrates, too, was someone whom Murati had a certain admiration for.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, she had touched that woman’s heart, and the sorrow and pain she carried with her was so immense that it moved Murati to tears. She felt an intense drive to comfort and protect her. Even a percentage point of the suffering Euphrates had gone through would have ruined and embittered any ordinary person. She couldn’t explain it rationally, but she could feel it.

And Murati also got the sense that despite her prickliness, Tigris was truly devoted to her.

That devotion was something Murati could understand and admire quite easily.

In the end, Murati had grown fond of them. Even in the short amount of time she had known them.

“Agni is a High Bosporan name that means ‘fire’. I think it’s only right that the product of your passions be named after you and named like that.” Murati said, acknowledging Tigris as she spoke. “I admire your hard work and dedication, and how you’re so humble despite all the skills you possess.”

“Hey, c’mon.” Tigris shrank back. “I’m not doing anything to look good or get praised.”

“She only seeks praise from me.” Euphrates said.

“You fucking shut up. Nobody asked for your stupid input.” Tigris replied, wilting visibly.

Murati smiled. “See, the two of you– you really have made me feel like–”

A bit overwhelmed with emotion, Murati gesticulated vaguely with her hands.

Karuniya stared and nodded along. “Huh. You really left your impression on her.”

“You understand that?” Tigris said, pointing at Murati. “Because I sure as hell don’t!”

For a moment, Murati was truly unable to put her feelings into words.

Thankfully, everyone around her understood the sudden difficulties and gave her time.

Everyone agreed that henceforth, the HELIOS would be dubbed ‘Agni.’


Viewed from the outside in, Kreuzung Station was absolutely, monumentally massive.

To approach the station, any vessel had to first descend into the Kreuzung crater, which was an enormous maw in the earth, many kilometers across, over a thousand meters deep from the cliffs around it to the bottom with the tower baseplates. As the vessel approached, the imaging computer would struggle for a few seconds to capture it in its entirety. Staring down at this enormous machine — with its vast central tower surrounded by smaller, but no less grandiose twelve surrounding towers — conveyed the ultimate triumph of humanity over the circumstances which had driven them from the face of their planet and into the sea. It was a city in the seafloor, but for the people outside, it could’ve been a planet in space.

Kreuzung’s core station alone was a remarkable endeavor. There were perhaps a half-dozen other stations in the Imbrium as large as Kreuzung’s core. Spanning a few kilometers in width and over one kilometer in height, the cubiform station had the presence of a mountain. But unlike Solstice’s Mt. Raja, its deliberate construction meant there was no wasted space. In Mt. Raja, people could only live in modules attached to the central stab and whatever tunnels were bored in the rock, with a natural limitation beneath the rocky surface; Kreuzung was packed corner to corner with systems and modules. To construct it, the Imbrians hundreds of years ago worked slowly, building one corner of the central tower, and then another, and another, and then building up top– this meant that the modules closer to the baseplate were the more spartan lodgings for the ancient workers, while the modules up top, built upon this foundation, were the works of art in which the wealthy lived. Most of the population density lay closer to the baseplates.

All throughout the journey, there could be hundreds of other vessels of all sizes and shapes coming and going from Kreuzung, above the crater, down in the walls, between the towers. At the peak of traffic, there would be orderly lines of vessels lining up at the port entrances throughout the central tower, as well as the towers that could accept ships, of which there were about four with capable berths. Many ships had to access the station through exterior scaffold berths with attached deployment chutes, unable to pay for the privilige of disembarking from within the station’s ports at peak capacities.

Millions of human beings inhabited these towers, and every day, perhaps millions more could potentially visit and depart on routine business in the region. Visibly massive commerce flowed through here.

Upon descending between its towers, the visiting vessel would feel as if enclosed between walls of steel broken up by columns of ocean. It was here that the true magnitude of the endeavor became evident, as even the smallest towers dwarfed the largest dreadnoughts that were only hundreds of meters long and dozens of meters tall. For those working out in the water in pressure suits and divers, it would have felt like the towers framed the whole world, and there was only steel, rock, as far as the eye could see, dividing humanity from the unreachable heaven impossible to see overhead.

Tower baseplates dominated the seafloor with only a few regions of sand between, particularly near towers Seven and Eight which were closer to the old mines in the crater wall. Those walls of the crater visible between each tower gave the view a sense of connectedness as well, rock enmeshed with steel. There were were facilities in the crater wall and on top, mainly for industrial and military use. A dirty secret of the complex was that there were desperate people squatting some of the disused modules on the crater top and within the rim of the crater too– a touchy subject for immigration officers.

All manner of drama, tragedy and conspiracy transpired in this nexus of Eisental’s prosperity.

For the UNX-001 Brigand, calling itself The Pandora’s Box, there was safety in this sense of enormity and grandeur. Despite their secrets, they were only one vessel amid the many, all of which brought their own little conspiracies aboard this massive edifice. Even the brutal Volkisch movement had not yet taken full control of this enormous place, as they had in other, smaller cities across Rhinea.

Soon as the Brigand entered port, on every screen across the cruiser, appeared the round, cheerful face of Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova. Blond and incredibly pretty, with a soft, plump and ample figure, she was the idol of the Brigand, who delivered every important message with a lovely voice and a winning smile. Whether it was the daily announcements or periodic affirmations for the workers, when Semyonova appeared on the screen, everybody paid rapt attention to her voice and face.

“Attention all crew! Our vessel has just entered port at Kreuzung’s core station. We will have a roughly two hour ride on a conveyor belt in the station interstice, before the ship will be dropped off at Alcor Steelworks. It is vital that we go over how operations will proceed from here on out.”

Accompanying Semyonova’s face on the screen, was a map of a shuttle tram route from the H block of Kreuzung to its fifth auxiliary tower. That map was given to the sailors as a stone paper synthestitched handout for them to keep on hand. Workgroup managers for the sailors were handed additional instructions on paper by officers of the Brigand like Murati and Karuniya, while the briefing continued.

“For the next few weeks, we’ll be using Alcor’s facilities per a cooperation agreement between Treasure Box Transports, Solarflare LLC, and Alcor Steelworks Inc.” Semyonova said. “Alcor’s own workers will not be working on the ship, but they will be facilitating our use of their equipment and handling local permits and procedures. Only Solarflare and Treasure Box workers will be allowed to work on the ship. We will be allowed to travel to Solarflare’s campus in Tower Five as well as Alcor Steelworks’ workshops and campus in H-block, as part of shore leave. That means that Protocol Tokarev is in effect. Solarflare will handle our transportation, but you must adhere to Protocol Tokarev with more strictness than we did at Serrano station. As much as you may desire to do so, do not wander away from Solarflare’s minders, and let Solarflare and Alcor employees do any talking with the Kreuzung station’s authorities that may need doing. Treat Solarflare and Alcor representatives with courtesy and follow their kind instructions and directions, but do not disclose any information to them. All they need to know is your given name and your role. Workgroup managers can be consulted with any specific questions about this.”

There was a bit of chatter, but the sailors aboard the Brigand had been handpicked for their professionalism and trustworthiness and could be counted upon to uphold the secrecy doctrine, dubbed Protocol Tokarev. Tokarev was the “T” in the Union phonetic alphabet, and in this case stood for “Treasure box.” It meant that the sailors would be expected to uphold the crew’s cover story and guard their secrecy. Commissar-General of the Union’s Internal Security, Parvati Nagavanshi, had handpicked even the sailors for the Brigand’s mission, of which there were over a hundred. Once given appropriate instructions, even the rowdiest of the sailors would not dare betray their comrades and the mission.

“Operationally,” Semyonova continued, “this will be the most complicated mission that our crew has undergone yet, with technical, intelligence and social elements that will require precise and delicate coordination. All of these elements hinge on your judgment in the face of adversity and the unknown. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya believes that all of you are more than capable of achieving success– and I believe wholeheartedly in all of you as well. Trust in your officers and managers, diligently complete your daily tasks and goals, and you will find that together, we will be able to safely depart Kreuzung fully repaired and provisioned in no time! Continue your work– the Captain will address the ship later!”

And thus, the little conspiracy that the Brigand brought to Kreuzung officially began.

As soon as the screens returned to normal, released from the control of Semyonova’s station in the Brigand’s bridge, the blond immediately bent over her desk and breathed a deeply-held sigh of relief. She pulled her headphones off and left them hanging off the desk by their cord. She let her half-jacket fall a little bit off her plush round shoulders while she openly sulked, kicking her legs in a silly fashion.

“Aaah that was horrid. I overslept again and didn’t do my makeup right.” She whined.

At her side, a dark-haired Shimii woman reached out a comforting hand, patting her back.

“Everyone thinks you are lovely, Natalia.” Said Fatima al-Suhar, sonar and sensors officer.

“Yes, Miss Semyonova! Your voice is as bewitching as the sirens of the deep!”

One station down from Fatima, was the electronic warfare desk of Braya Zachikova, who had not been the one to speak. Zachikova stared narrow-eyed at the walls, her tawny, spiraling ponytail twitching as if in precise indignation of the actual speaker. That errant comment had been made by a woman sitting with her back to the side of Zachikova’s desk. Long red and white hair almost below the back, and a bloodlessly pale face with sky-blue eyes which had been emerald-green yesterday, and golden yellow the day before. A woman with an unfathomable, alien beauty; and a long tail ending in a fork.

Arbitrator I, the “guest navigator” and newly-added threat to the peace on the Brigand’s bridge.

Zachikova reached down and flicked her index finger, striking the woman’s nose.

“Stop shouting on the bridge. You’re not twelve, behave yourself like an adult.”

At the site where Zachikova’s finger had struck, a deep, purple and black bruise appeared.

“Ah– I am castigated with such potent agony–!” Arbitrator I cried.

“Stop faking it! Change your skin color back immediately! I didn’t hit you hard!” Zachikova shouted.

That use of the word ‘castigated’ piqued the curiosity of the last person to have said it.

Across the room, a blond, skinny young woman with purple streaks dyed into her hair–

“Is that pale recusant now pilfering my advanced vocabulary?” pondered Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa. She briefly stared over her shoulder at the scene behind her.

“I hope not. One person talking like a roleplaying middle schooler is enough.”

Unprompted, the woman at Fernanda’s side offered her own commentary. Tall, dark, her brown hair tied up in a bun, cutting a dashing figure with her lean shoulders and long limbs, that mostly went disused– it was Torpedo and Missile Officer Alexandra Geninov. As soon as the words left her lips, Fernanda’s attention immediately switched to her recurring nemesis with an oft-heard cry.

“Not a soul here wished the curse of your voice upon them, GAMER!”

In the middle of all this chaos–

“Order on the bridge! Use your inside voices! Do you need the same spiel as the sailors?”

The Brigand’s bridge was divided into three tiers like a stepladder, each connected by sets of a few metal steps. Most of the officers were in the middle tier, about a meter below the top tier with the door, where there were stations for Communications; Sonar, Imaging and Sensors; Electronic Warfare; and opposite them, Torpedo and Missiles; Gunnery; and the Helm. Above and behind them, the top tier extended roughly between the lower stations so the Captain was raised but also somewhat central to the other stations. Below all of them were the four gas gunnery stations providing defensive flak fire.

While the polite and humble gas gunners heard all the commotion above and behind them, they were usually separate from the goings-on of the rest of the bridge, and even had their own manager down there. As such, whenever Commissar Aaliyah Bashara shouted at the bridge officers, it was implicitly understood by them that she was shouting mainly at Alex, Fernanda, Zachikova, and the like.

Astaghfirullah,” Aaliyah moaned, lapsing into Shimii ‘Fusha’ speech. In this case, it was expression of a mild shame at the frequent disorder around her. Her dark cat-like ears twitched, and her tail stood on end. Normally she wore a Commissar’s military uniform with a dark coat and pants, gold filigree, a red armband and a peaked cap on her long, dark hair, to command respect befitting the ship’s chief political officer– but in Kreuzung due to Protocol Tokarev, she wore the same uniform as everyone else.

She occupied the second seat of the top-center, in whispering range of the Captain.

Missing at the time– she was in a communications booth making calls to the station.

However, almost as soon as Aaliyah began to think of her–

Through the door, the Captain stepped onto the steel floor of the top tier.

“Captain on bridge!” Aaliyah declared.

She saluted, as did everyone else on the bridge– even the unruliest of the officers.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled and took her seat at the head of the bridge. She was an impressive woman that easily caught the eyes, tall and mature with lustrous blond hair falling over her shoulders, lush red lips, bright green eyes and a tasteful amount of cosmetics. More than pretty, she was in good shape, with an excellent figure and physique. Her jacket was wrapped up and carried in one arm, revealing the sleeveless button-down of the Treasure Box uniform in full and baring her strong shoulders and lean arms. Her skirt and leggings accentuated her long legs and precise gait.

“Captain,” Aaliyah said.

“Commissar,”

Ulyana sat beside Aaliyah, and immediately upon doing so, slouched and breathed in deep.

“You look exhausted.” Aaliyah said. She had known the Captain intimately enough to tell.

“It’s been nerve-wracking.” Ulyana said. “Talking to all these Imbrians trying to hide how thick my Volgian accent is. Euphrates warned us that this place is extremely racist– it became the subject of a few awkward conversations I had to have with Solarflare and the station representatives. We’ll have to debrief everyone, especially the Shimii crew members. There’s legal segregation in place here, can you believe it?”

“Barbaric.” Aaliyah said. “But not unexpected. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”

“There was a cute Shimii girl working at the dock though.” Ulyana said. “Really short tail.”

“Bobtail usually means a Shimii is mixed.” Aaliyah said. “Maybe the Imbrians trust her more because of that. Or it suggests there’s a permit scheme– I’m sure we have options available.”

Aaliyah answered firmly and seriously, even though Ulyana had a teasing tone of voice.

Unable to get her cherished Commissar to respond to the provocation, Ulyana deflated.

“Right, it’s just, every request we need to make is one more chance to raise suspicion.”

Her voice began to convey more and more of her exhaustion.

Aaliyah surreptitiously stroked her hand, out of view of the rest of the crew.

“We can do this, Captain. I’m here to support you.” She whispered.

“Thank you. If I might trouble you for that support– I’d like to take a nap.” Ulyana said.

“I will keep the bridge in line as I always do.” Aaliyah said, with a proud little smile.

“And I don’t–? Nevermind– wake me up when we’re transferring the ship to a trailer.”

Ulyana leaned back into her chair. She procured her hat from beside her seat and dropped it over her head, using the peak to cover her eyes. On the main screen, there was nothing to see but endless walls of metal as the conveyor took them through the bowels of the station interstice.

A series of elevators and conveyors would slowly bring the “Pandora’s Box” to Alcor’s industrial module in the H-block several hundred meters up from where they entered. The Pandora’s Box was cruiser-sized, over 200 meters in length, almost 40 in height, and close to 50 meters wide. On the conveyor, however, it easily moved, if not from the conveyor belt’s power alone then with the help of jet anchors attached by awaiting Kreuzung workers to help the ship navigate the passages.

“The Kreuzung Station complex, huh.” Aaliyah said to herself, almost admiringly.

Such a vast place, so full of humanity– surely, they could slip under the radar here.

There could not be that much trouble in store for them, right?

And it was a chance for the officers and sailors to leave the ship and walk around.

Even if it was just between the Alcor and Solarflare campuses. Shore leave was shore leave.

For a time, the officers all went quiet, as there was nothing to do. All advanced systems had been shut off in order to keep the mechanisms and core cooled since they wouldn’t be cycling in as much cold water outside of the ocean until they reached their destination. Everything was running on battery and running lean until they could get water circulating again. The Brigand was quite useless outside the water.

Finally, brightening light from the main screen awakened everyone on the bridge.

One final cargo elevator lifted the ship into the light of an artificial sun. Blacktop roads and courts connected several enormous workshop buildings made of thick plastic walls, and a main office at the distant end of the road that looked like an art sculpture, with a swirling irregular façade and glass dome. Overhead, there was an artificial blue sky, enormous sunlamps hidden by tricks of the light.

And so the Pandora’s Box had made its understated entrance into Kreuzung’s H-block.

“How high up is that sky? It’s just lamps, right?” Alex asked, looking with wide eyes.

“It must be less than a hundred meters to fit into the block.” Zachikova said calmly.

“It just looks like it’s so high.” Alex said. “Like a kilometer or more. Like a real sky.”

“As if any firmament interred with us in this sea could ever be so far overhead.” Fernanda said. “Gamer, this castle in itself is at most a kilometer high. Is math another of your debilities?”

“Excuse me for trying to have a bit of fancy, oh princess dark and erotic.” Alex said.

“Gamer–!”

“Don’t start, you two.”

This time the reprimand did not come from the Commissar.

Instead it was the tired voice of Captain Korabiskaya herself, suppressing a yawn.

She sat up straight in her chair, pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through the waves of her hair. In the cameras, she watched with half-opened eyes as people and machines came out to unload the Brigand. From one of the tall workshops, an enormous trailer on super-thick threads trundled its way toward them along with four enormous cranes. Atop the trailer, there was a sturdy scaffold into which the ship would be balanced so that even the underside was accessible to workers during the refitting.

“So this is it, then. Alcor Steelworks.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova lifted her head off her desk suddenly. “Ma’am, we’ve got a call.”

In a moment, Ulyana took the call on a video screen affixed to a movable arm on her chair.

On video, was a woman dressed in a colorful yellow vinyl blazer with see-through sleeves that showed the shorter sleeves of the button-down beneath. She had skirt of the same material with similar see-through gaps along the sides. Her high powered executive fashion seemed at odds with the simple, rustic style of her long, brown-blond hair, tied up with a corny-looking neon-pattern cloth.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya I presume? My name is Amelia Winn, I’m an executive officer of Alcor’s Kreuzung branch. I hope that I am finding you well on this momentous day.”

“Thank you, Madam Winn. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya. I am doing fine. A bit of travel fatigue.”

Amelia smiled. “I am calling on behalf of Alcor Steelworks to thank you for choosing us for a million mark project like this! Solarflare LLC has been a partner for us in Kreuzung for many years, and we are always glad for their business. Because of the sensitivity requested by all parties, I just wanted you to know I will be personally on site to insure your intellectual property rights.”

“Thank you Madam Winn.” Ulyana said. “We’re happy to be aboard as well.”

“As for your fatigue, you may feel free to avail yourselves of our executive campus! We have gel beds, hot baths, refreshments of all sorts. Allow us to warmly welcome you to Kreuzung! You paid for it, after all!”

Welcome to Kreuzung indeed, Ulyana thought, smiling awkwardly at the bubbly Amelia.


“Maryam, can I ask you something?”

“Always, Sonya!”

“What would you do if a previously trustworthy person was making overtures that you can come to them with your problems, in a way that made you uncomfortable spilling your guts to them?”

“Hmm. Well I think if I trusted someone, then I just I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to them!”

Sonya Shalikova sighed loudly.

Of course, Maryam, because you’re such a saccharine, naive marshmallow!

She would have to discard that advice immediately.

Lodging on the Brigand was divided between Officers, who resided on the top deck, and everyone else, who resided below. Aside from some managers, like Chief Mechanic Lebedova, most people on the bottom deck lived in the dorms abutting the hangar. Each dorm room had 4 bunks, and each bunk had some storage space. That was it– very few amenities and no extra space. There were several dozen such rooms, and two bathrooms between them with an open shower plan and a few toilets. Comparatively, the officer’s quarters were a bit more luxurious. They lived two to a room, with beds big enough they could potentially hold two people together (which mattered for clandestine fraternization), and each room had amenities in the walls, such as clothes drying and pull-out chairs and desks for added comfort.

Supposedly, this separation was meant to reward Officers and furthermore to give Officers distance from Sailors so that they could enforce discipline without developing too many personal feelings about their subordinates. In reality, this was basically a post-hoc rationalization for continuing to build ships with the exact same internal structure that the Imbrian Empire used. Continuing the technology legacy of the Empire helped the Union to simplify construction by limiting ship plans to proven blueprints. Attempts to make ships with “equal” lodgings were rejected time and again as idealistic because of this.

In the end, what this meant was that Sailors led a more public life than Officers.

An Officer had a comfortable room to retreat to when they did not feel sociable.

Sailors got their dose of spaciousness from being outside their rooms. In their rooms they only had a gel bed bunk to look forward to. So the Sailors were more often out and about, they took any excuse to walk about the ship, they frequented the cafeteria, and they made thorough use of any public entertainment or social space on the ship. In stark contrast, a certain silver-haired, somewhat skinny young lady with indigo eyes had been making thorough use of the private spaces afforded to her as an officer.

Sonya Shalikova did not mind the four walls of her room at all.

Compared to the alternative, at least they were uncomplicated.

She laid down on her bed, stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

Her days confined to her room were made better, and bearable at all, by the presence of her partner, a pink-skinned, purple-haired young woman who had been taking up the other bunk of Shalikova’s room as much and as often as Shalikova took up her own. Dressed in a nun’s habit, the cuttlefish-derived Katarran, Maryam Karahailos, was unknowingly the center of Shalikova’s current worries.

Maryam was too kind, too soft– it wasn’t her fault. It was all Shalikova’s own fault.

She had been too careless. Those two passengers, Euphrates and Tigris, were psionic; and now Murati was suddenly psionic too. She had never imagined there would be more psychics aboard. She was not even flaunting the powers Maryam had given her. She had just used it once, because she saw Murati give off power– and that one time was enough for Murati to see it and understand it immediately.

“Ugh. Murati.” Shalikova mumbled.

It was already difficult enough to talk to Murati.

Not because she was unapproachable, but exactly the opposite.

Murati cared so much, in a way that Shalikova did not know how to deal with.

She always felt like Murati, the instant Shalikova appeared, would trouble herself over her.

It was often mortifying to deal with Murati’s overemphasized kindness.

And just when she had finally worked up the courage to try to ask Murati for help–

–the entire situation unfolded from there.

Now, it was mortifying to think of confronting Murati about it.

Murati’s circumstances did not matter to her so much. She was incurious about how Murati achieved her powers or who had given them to her. What was foremost in her mind was whether Murati had found out about Maryam, and then whether Murati might make Shalikova talk about Maryam’s involvement. It was the obvious question to ask upon confronting Shalikova– where did you get this ability? Murati had to know that someone else had to have given it to Shalikova. Nobody had come to confront Maryam, so on some level, the information was still under control and Maryam was ultimately safe.

And maybe nothing would happen– Murati didn’t seem like the capital punishment type.

But it was different now that Shalikova was involved with Maryam.

She worried about her and felt responsible. She couldn’t bear to risk her at all.

Shalikova loved Maryam. And that love warped how she could respond to this fiasco.

Especially because Maryam was so untroubled by the whole thing.

When Shalikova had brought it up to Maryam–

“Oh, yes, I did notice that the Lieutenant had awakened to psionics. Probably she received it from Euphrates. Euphrates was a member of my old organization. She is a good woman though. You don’t need to worry about her, I don’t think. She’ll teach that Murati lady how to do things properly.”

Maryam said that so innocently that it unnerved Shalikova.

She felt that she needed to protect Maryam from her naivety once again.

Hiding in her room was a childish way to do that.

It’s not like it blocked Murati in any way if she wanted to force her to confess. And it wasn’t a solution to the problem either. Time was just stopped– nothing was moving in any direction and nothing was being decided. But nevertheless, Shalikova still stayed in her room for days, only venturing out in the dead of night, avoiding Akulantova’s night patrols, to shower and grab some basic food items.

Every day, if there was an event scheduled by Murati, Shalikova would declare a sick day.

She would have demanded that Maryam shelter with her, but it wasn’t necessary.

Maryam mostly stuck to Shalikova’s side, and she was thankful for that.

Not only because she felt safer that way; but because she would have gone insane in her room alone for days without Maryam to talk to. During those days, Maryam had been her shining light.

Waking up to her girlfriend, across the room, gently breathing, her skin color shifting erratically as she dreamed– it was like nothing she had ever felt in her entire life. She began to love talking to Maryam about anything at all, just to hear her voice. Shalikova’s intention was not to breach any difficult subjects, and she mainly made small talk about food and passtimes– but Maryam always seemed to–

“Do you know about video games?”

“Hmm? Like the simulator you showed me?”

“Kind of like that. But just for fun. There’s stuff like that in the Union.”

“I see. We didn’t have things like that for fun.”

“How about for training? Simulators are pretty common for the Union navy.”

“Most Katarran warlords don’t really have simulator type things except for their really elite troops like their diver pilots or special operators. Infantry are cheap and the really good ones will survive and pick up skills over time. For most of us, we kinda, just fought each other with real weapons to train.”

“You fought with real weapons? What if you got hurt? That’d just cost the ship its troops.”

“Well, Katarrans are pretty tough. But if you die, you just weren’t good enough, I suppose.”

“I– I see. I should’ve guessed it’d be like that. Maryam, can I hug you?”

“Ah! I’d love that Sonya! Come here!”

Regardless of the content, just hearing Maryam’s voice set Shalikova’s heart aflight.

It was such a new feeling. It was so strange. And she didn’t wear these feelings on her face.

She allowed herself to feel it though. It was like her heart was softening and warming.

It was– it was strange. That was it– strange, but comforting.

In addition to talking among themselves, another common activity they shared during their self-imposed quarantine was practicing psionics. Shalikova felt determined to master the power Maryam had given her.

“So, this might sound corny, but psionics is all about your heart, Sonya.” Maryam said. “Your emotions play a huge role in it! Psionics starts in the mind, but it’s your emotions that have the greatest power to alter your perspective and affect how your psionics work. What you feel, will wash over your true intentions, and come out in the power, even if it’s not convenient for you. You remember the colors? Each color means something, and you have all of those colors in you. They will express themselves in your power. You could end up making a really awful mistake in a crucial moment because of your emotions. So, I think, what you should practice first is to act while controlling your emotions.”

She pitched an object across the room for Shalikova to catch.

It was a small but dense metal rosary on a plastic cord necklace.

Despite its size, it felt very solid and a little heavy in Shalikova’s hands.

“Alright, Sonya– try to lift that rosary slowly and gently with your mind. Relax and try not to let your emotions sway you while you control the rosary. If you feel scared or nervous, try to relax. If you feel frustrated, then don’t give in to your anger. And, the really difficult part is, if you feel pain, you can’t let it scare you or you’ll definitely fail. Breathe deeply, return to your center, and act very carefully.”

“Can you see what colors I have around me now?” Sonya asked.

Maryam shook her head. The tentacles that were enmeshed in her hair lifted in a little shrug.

“Nope! Your aura is not visible Sonya. So I can’t tell what kind of emotion will dominate.”

Right– Shalikova had this bizarre ability to hide her aura without even trying to.

“I guess I’ll have to feel it out without help. Okay– I’m going.”

Shalikova held the rosary in her palm and focused on it.

Even before this practice session, Shalikova had already been working on getting familiar with calling her psionics, in order to see auras, mainly Maryam’s aura. By the time the incident with Murati transpired, it was already fairly easy for Shalikova to take that first step and begin to summon the power to her eyes. But reading auras was somewhat passive, like a camera that automatically calculated the lighting for a picture. Moving something was a second-by-second decision-making process, it was active.

So she called the power, and the rosary stirred in her hands.

It did not lift, however.

Shalikova was immediately wracked with indecision.

She was being cautious not to use too much force, but not to apply too little, not to push or pull or squeeze the rosary too tight. Not to flick it or fling it, not to throw it to the ceiling. In that moment Shalikova imagined and then discarded every possibility, and so the little rosary shook in her hands but did not lift, did not go flying, did not do anything. As soon as she felt both a little bit of pain pricking the back of her head, and the frustration of inaction– Shalikova immediately stopped.

After shaking in the palm of her hand for only a few seconds, the rosary stopped moving.

“Even someone special like you can’t always win on the first try, Sonya!”

Maryam tried to console and encourage her, but it was undoubtedly frustrating.

“I take it then that you can control your emotions deliberately, Maryam?”

“Yep! You can see it, Sonya! Here– focus on my aura, and I’ll show you.”

Shalikova wordlessly invoked the power, putting on that filter over her eyes.

Focusing on the color around Maryam, that miasma of luminous aether called an aura.

For most humans, their common colors were green and blue.

Anxiety and peace, almost always mixed, for humans were never free of worry.

Red was also common to see, as most people always carried some frustration or passion.

Yellow, for injury, illness or sickness, was also common, at least a tiny band for daily aches and pains.

When Shalikova first looked at her, Maryam had strong, thick bands of blue and green, representing that basic state of human emotion. She had a very small band of yellow, which could mean anything from wounds to a stomachache; and she also had a band of purple in her little personal rainbow. Purple was associated with pride, but also represented a strong self-consciousness or self-absorbedness.

“Alright. Watch closely, Sonya.”

Maryam shut her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.

Shalikova felt a near unintelligible psionic whisper coming from her girlfriend.

In an instant, the band of purple in Maryam’s aura spread to engulf every color.

Until, in seconds, the cuttlefish nun’s entire aura was lustrously purple as her long hair.

Shalikova had never seen an aura change so suddenly and completely.

Wrapped in that gaseous purple color, Maryam opened her eyes and spread her arms.

Her lips spread into a self-satisfied little grin.

She stood from her bunk, walked up to Shalikova, and leaned forward into her.

Throughout, her aura remained steadily purple.

“It’s not a trick I can really teach you, but you might be able to discover it!”

In the next instant, she tipped forward and took Shalikova’s lips into a quick but full kiss.

When she drew back, smiling at the dumbfounded Shalikova, her aura started to distort.

Returning the rest of the colors as the purple receded.

Shalikova blinked, tasting Maryam on her tongue for just a moment.

She smiled back– she couldn’t help it. “You’ve become really wily huh?”

“I always have been! You just haven’t been on the receiving end of my cuttle-tricks.”

In that way, the two lovers spent their days together. Despite Shalikova’s strange moods, Maryam was never anything less than comforting, and she quietly acquiesced to the unreasonable attitude that her lover had taken up lately. They remained in their little room, passing the time together.

Unperturbed, apart from the public world of the ship.

Soon, though, they would have to disembark. Shalikova had to confront the issue.

An issue which she herself created, and which she herself supported with her fears.

“Maryam, I’ll protect you, no matter what.” Shalikova said.

“Hmm? Of course, Sonya! And I’ll protect you with all my strength too!”

She loved her so much.

So much she was afraid to lose her. Like she had already lost someone else before–

Shalikova was stuck in her own head for days, unable to make a decision.

It was a mood unlike any she ever had. She did not know how to deal with it.

Until, on the fateful day–

“Sonya, open up. You’re not keeping this door closed to me, missy.”

Shalikova and Maryam had been lying in bed dozing off the afternoon–

“Illya?”

That voice belonged to someone quite familiar.

Someone Shalikova had not considered at all when it came to her current affairs.

“You’ve been in there for days. You’ve got shore leave. Open up.”

“She’s coming out! Don’t worry!” Maryam called out cheerfully.

“Maryam–!” Shalikova grumbled.

“We want to see you, Sonya.”

A low and deadpan voice joined Illya’s– of course, Valeriya was there too.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

There was no avoiding this. Those two would put a breaching charge on the door if they had to.

Giving Maryam a quick dissatisfied glare that the nun did not have any response to, Shalikova got up from bed and walked the few steps to the door. Standing dead center in front of the door frame with her arms outstretched, Shalikova ran her hand across the touch sensitive wall of the room, which became a context-sensitive digital button. The door slid into the wall to open, right in front of Shalikova.

“You’re alive then. That’s good. I almost suspected the nun had killed you.” Illya said.

Do not joke about that.” Shalikova said, practically growling.

“Sorry~”

Illya raised her hands in self-defense, with an amused little smile.

At her side, Valeriya shook her head and sighed.

She curled a bit of Illya’s long hair between her fingers– only Shalikova seemed to notice.

From inside the room, Maryam waved innocently at the women gathered at the door.

“Anyway. Now that we’ve got proof of life, I’m dragging you out.” Illya said.

“I thought I had shore leave. I’ll go when I want to go.” Shalikova said.

“We have an all-Officer’s meeting about the shore leave. You can fuck back off after that.”

Both women at the door were quite familiar with Shalikova, and Illya certainly acted like it. In the absence of her only remaining family, Illya had practically become something of a big sister to Shalikova. Like Shalikova, Illya Rostova was a silver-haired Volgian, but she was taller, with more defined muscle in her lean limbs and strong core, and she carried herself with a confident brusqueness that Shalikova could never have hoped to match. Normally she wore the security team’s padded bodysuit armor and carried a rifle, but under Protocol Tokarev, she wore the Treasure Box uniform. Like Shalikova, she dispensed with the jacket and bared her shoulders. Unlike Shalikova, she had decent shoulders to bare.

At her side, stood an expression-less, long-haired blond woman with a soft face and a demure stance, arms around herself, averting her gaze. Valeriya Peterburg, another close friend of Shalikova’s departed older sister. Wearing a skirt and leggings instead of pants, with her hair grown long to almost her waist, she was the perfect match for Illya, whisper-silent where she was loud, reserved and distant where Illya was confrontational, seemingly more feminine where Illya was more tomboyish. For as long as Shalikova had known them, they had been together. She thought of them almost as soulmates.

“We were worried.” Valeriya said, again in a near-whisper.

“It’s really none of your business–” Shalikova started to say, but Illya leaned in close.

“It is absolutely our business. You didn’t call me auntie Illya for like 8 years as a kid, for it to not be my business now. I promised Zasha I’d look after you if anything happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because you never tell anyone shit. But we’re responsible for surveillance, and we were worried sick that we practically never saw you around anymore, and you’ve used all your sick days in a row.”

“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just want to be alone. I can take care of myself.” Shalikova said.

“I don’t care, Sonya. If you behave like this, I’m intervening. Always. So get used to it.”

Illya poked Shalikova in the cheek. Shalikova cringed away from her hand.

“Fine, fine. There’s no use trying to say no to you two.”

Shalikova crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“You’re acting like I’m bullying you.” Illya sighed. “Collect your girlfriend and lets go.”

Shalikova’s heart was full of anxiety that she tried her very hardest to restrain.

There was no use– ultimately, Illya was right. Illya was right that this was stupid of her.

It took Illya coming here and shouting at her for her readily admit it to herself.

She had been a fool– but she was still not going to talk to Murati unless forced to.

Now she was a stubborn fool instead. She still didn’t feel ready to spill her guts.

Ugh. Get your mess under control, Sonya Shalikova.

She berated herself, but it brought her no closer to controlling her emotions.

So she remained as stuck in her own head leaving her room as she was inside of it.

Shalikova and Maryam followed Illya and Valeriya down to the hangar, where all of the ship’s officers were assembling in the center, between the gantries that held the unpowered Divers upright. One of the deployment hatches, the farthest and rightmost, was propped open and there was a ladder going through it, guarded by Akulantova. The Brigand must have been set up in drydock at the station– Shalikova had heard something about that in Semyonova’s announcements but had not paid that much attention. The officers, the sailors’ managers, were arranged in short lines, waiting for the Captain.

Immediately, Shalikova spotted a head of shoulder-length, dark and messy hair.

Thankfully, Murati had her back turned and Shalikova slipped to the back of the group.

Illya and Valeriya stayed off to the side of the lined-up officers.

So in the back, it was Shalikova, Maryam– and a woman Shalikova suddenly bumped into–

“Oh? I’m glad you’re alive, devushka. I’d wondered where you’d been.”

Shalikova had been focusing on evading the notice of Lieutenant Murati.

She had not been paying attention to whom she was sidling up to in the group.

So she hit someone, and–

A sultry, mature voice with a teasing laughter that oozed confidence snapped her to reality.

She was taken in by her appearance. Voluminous, wavy sandy-blond hair with fluffy bangs, tied into a ponytail with a purple ribbon that matched the sophisticated wine-dark color of her eyeshadow and lipstick. Tapering cat-like ears, dark-yellow with white fluffy inner-ear fur; and a lustrous, velvety tail to match. Lean limbs and a busty figure; a refined beauty, vibrant olive skin with the slightest hint of crow’s feet around the eyes, and a vivacious, self-assured smile, keen green eyes. There was no doubting it–

–Shalikova had foolishly bumped into Khadija al-Shajara, ace of aces among their pilots.

There should have been no missing her. Khadija was one-of-a-kind. Shalikova admired her!

But she was so distracted.

Normally she was far more perceptive of her surroundings. She felt quite embarrassed about this.

Khadija was deserving of an apology, but thinking about the situation, Shalikova went mute.

Because Khadija was also a pilot and an officer, she must have known about Shalikova’s absences.

So then, what would she think about it? Did she had a low opinion of her now?

As Shalikova hesitated, Khadija turned her head a little just to wink and grin at her.

“Don’t be so stiff. You don’t need to excuse yourself to me. I’m glad you’re well.”

Khadija looked across from Shalikova at Maryam next to her and waved with her fingertips.

Maryam waved back with an innocent smile.

Of course– nothing bad happened at all. Shalikova felt even more foolish.

“Attention! Captain at the head of the meeting!”

Shalikova’s flushed face snapped from Khadija over to the front of the assembled officers.

Staring around the side of Alex Geninov, who was taller than Shalikova and blocking her view in front, she saw Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara. Thankfully there was no whiteboard or other accompanying presentation tool that Shalikova had to be able to pay attention to. It looked like the meeting was just for the Captain to debrief them before they were allowed to disembark.

There was a camera drone floating in front of the Captain too– Shalikova realized the meeting was being broadcast. Only Officers had been summoned, but sailors would be watching through monitors.

“Good afternoon, my precious and illustrious crew!” Captain Korabiskaya. “We’re once again very lucky to have received a chance to disembark the ship and walk solid ground within a station, thanks to the courtesy of our allies Euphemia and Theresa and our new technology partner Solarflare LLC. However, unfortunately for us, Kreuzung is a station that is far less welcoming to people like us than Serrano was, and so we must take special care to follow the laws here, distasteful and rightist as they are.”

“Kreuzung has a deep history of racism and segregation,” continued the Captain. Her tone of voice sounded audibly embittered compared to before. “Most of us have thick Volgian accents and will get odd looks from the Imbrians. We will need to mind our speech, and who we speak to. But anti-Volgian racism is the least of our concerns. Unfortunately, this place has a much deeper history with Shimii.”

“Because of the segregation regime in place on this station, we will need all Shimii crew to visibly wear permits on lanyards.” Captain Korabiskaya delivered the new with a grave tone of voice. “Cecilia Foss, our legal adviser from Solarflare LLC, is working on procuring papers for us. Until they are approved, I’m afraid that any Shimii crew will have to remain with the ship. Pelagis crew members are a notable grey area. Certainly there is no shortage of racism toward Katarrans in the reactionary Imbrian Empire– but we will only know on a case by case basis whether the authorities take issue with our Pelagis comrades because there is no codified segregation of Pelagis, but there are ‘anti-crime’ laws that racially profile Katarrans. Our legal guidance for now is to await IDs and treat our Pelagis crew and guests the same as Shimii.”

“With one exception,” Commissar Bashara added. “Maryam Karahailos has the natural ability to alter her appearance, so as long as she looks like an Imbrian woman, she won’t arouse suspicion.”

Shalikova eyed Maryam, feeling a stab of personal indignation at this injustice.

To think she would have to disguise her beautiful and unique appearance–

Maryam, however, looked completely unbothered by it.

“Don’t worry Sonya. I can fake being a blond, blue-eyed doll no problem!” Maryam said.

Maryam– you’re too nice. Shalikova patted her on the shoulder.

“As a token of solidarity, Alcor Steelworks’ executive Amelia Winn will be bringing fresh food to crew members on the ship every day.” The Captain continued. “It will be brought aboard by Zhu and Van Der Smidse of the security team. We’ve requested strictly vegetarian fare. We will also be setting up encrypted channels to Solarflare’s campus network so you can connect to the station safely and get access to digital content from the Imbrium. Just have some common sense with that– don’t let the Commissar catch you with any anti-communist films or you’ll be spending some time in reeducation.” The Captain said that in the tone of a joke, but beside her, the Commissar had her arms crossed and looked dead serious.

“Unlike in Serrano, we have some special guests this time around.” Commissar Bashara now took the reins. “We debated how to balance our security with their personal rights, but we ultimately decided to place them in the custody of officers who have shown interest. First, Sieglinde Castille will be in the custody of Khadija al-Shajara. She will only be allowed to leave the ship with Khadija– however, because Khadija is a Shimii, neither are allowed to leave the ship until our permits arrive. Sorry about that.”

Shalikova looked surreptitiously beside herself and found Khadija glaring daggers at a woman standing about a meter distance off to her side. A regal-looking woman with a soft face that was almost as meticulously rouged as Khadija’s, and richly wavy blond hair. She stood taller than almost anyone on the ship except Akulantova, and had an athletic, broad-backed physique that seemed rare in a pampered noblewoman. Shalikova had not been in the loop too much about this individual, but she knew they had picked her up from the Diver battle back at Goryk– once upon a time, she was Sieglinde von Castille.

“I’ll be watching. Just try something. I dare you.” Khadija muttered.

“I– I’m not–” Sieglinde murmured back, averting her gaze.

That was Khadija’s problem now, and Shalikova avoided catching either of their gazes.

Commissar Bashara continued. “Arabella, our guest navigator, will be in the custody of Braya Zachikova. She is only allowed to leave the ship alongside Zachikova. Finally, Maryam Karahailos is under the custody of Sonya Shalikova. She is a Katarran, but she possesses a natural affinity for disguise. If she maintains an Imbrian appearance, she can disembark with Shalikova without issues. And those are all of our special guests. Euphemia and Theresa will freely come and go. As for the rest– I don’t want people to be too suspicious, but because of the circumstances, if you see something unusual, please report it.”

There was a natural bit of staring going around at the people who were mentioned.

In front of her, perennial shower room pest Alex Geninov and a shorter blond woman with a purple dye-job stared over their shoulders back at Shalikova with smiles on their faces. Shalikova tried to stare around them and not engage. She had her eye out for Murati to wander over and start trying to get Shalikova to talk but– no such thing ever happened during the meeting or afterwards.

Captain Korabiskaya resumed speaking after the Commisar was done, delivering some final remarks.

“Aside from that, we will follow normal disembarking procedure. If you are working on the ship, obviously you cannot take off whenever you please, but we want you to have fun too. We will rotate workers, and if you are on free time, you will have free travel to the Alcor executive campus no questions asked; but visiting Solarflare LLC will require permission from your manager if you are a sailor. Officers are trusted to go to Solarflare and back of their own accord. Venturing anywhere else other than Alcor and Solarflare’s campuses, will require individual approval from either myself or the Commissar. We will go through these requests once a day, at night. So submit requests prior to that each day so we can get to them.”

“Put Protocol Tokarev ahead of all other concerns.” Commissar Bashara added. “All of our lives depend on it. We’re not here to play around, but take care of yourselves and balance work and life while you can. We’ve been through a lot and have earned some luxuries. Apply your best judgment, be on your most exemplary behavior and report any problems to a manager or Officer. Salute; Dismissed!”

Everyone saluted the Captain, and the group dispersed; their adventure in Kreuzung was underway.

And despite all of her anxiety– nobody questioned or hassled Shalikova at all. Her secret remained safe.


Because they had arrived late enough in the station’s day/night cycle, nobody actually went out of the ship on the first day the ship spent at Kreuzung, despite all the hubbub. Ulyana and Aaliyah had a lot of last minute business on the ship, so they were seen almost all day rushing between teams and meetings. With the resources of Alcor, and Tigris’ and Euphrates’ support from Solarflare LLC, the ambition of the crew now became to “finish” the Brigand. They had been in operation over two months now, and the sailors and mechanics had found all kinds of things they would change, and many officers had opinions about tuning up the ship as well. Now they had the facilities and resources to fulfill these wishes. Not just to repair all the damage properly and clean up the outside– but to add additional capabilities.

With Alcor’s tools and Solarflare’s specialized labor, there was a lot they could do even in just a week.

There were a lot of proposals, but none of them conflicted with each other. It felt like the sailors had organized their vision for the ship before putting them forward. However, there was a lot of material to look over and approve, and a few things felt unrealistic. Ultimately, they could not afford to tear the Brigand apart completely, but there was room to upgrade many systems, tighten up others, and to make use of some of the ship’s eccentricities, like the agarthic circuits running through the armor, the extra jets in the back, and the vertical launcher on the top deck. What poor Zachikova had not been able to accomplish with software, they could make a reality with an actual overhaul of the hardware.

By nightfall, Ulyana and Aaliyah were confined to a meeting room together, trying to read through as many of the proposals as they could before work started in earnest tomorrow, and to come up with a detailed work plan so that the sailors and engineers could hit the ground running. In the middle of this task, the large screen in the meeting room flashed on and Semyonova’s smiling face appeared.

“Ma’am, you have a call from Solarflare LLC. It’s Madam Euphemia.” Semyonova said.

In Kreuzung, they had to take care to use Euphrates’ professional identity in ordinary conversation.

However, they had ways of speaking confidentially as well.

“Put her through and encrypt the call. Have Zachikova watch the network like a hawk.” Ulyana said.

“Acknowledged, Captain! I’ll route the call!” Semyonova said.

At her side, Aaliyah laid back on her seat and stretched her arms. Her tail and ears also stretched.

They had both been working hard and sitting stiffly– this served as a bit of a break from paperwork.

Semyonova vanished from the screen, and the dark blue-haired Euphrates appeared in her stead.

Calling from behind a false wood desk with several physical books stacked on one side.

“Good evening, Captain, Commissar.” Euphrates said. “I just got back to my office.”

In ordinary communication, Aaliyah was now an “adjutant,“ but the call was reasonably secure.

“Evening.” Ulyana said. “I take it you haven’t had time to put your affairs in order yet?”

“Not at all. However, I did find an affair waiting for me that I wanted to pass along quickly.”

Ulyana blinked, interested in that choice of words. “Something that concerns us?”

“Yes. It involves Ganges– Daksha Kansal.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both, at once, snapped to tighter attention on the screen.

“Did you find her, that quickly?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates shook her head. “No, but an associate of hers wishes to meet me. Her codename is Tamsa, but you may recognize her by another name. Kremina Qote. She left an encrypted message using a Sunlight Foundation specific code-language, stating that wished to speak to me in person, among other things; but with your blessing, I can put the three of you in touch. You would have much more to say to her than I; I think that would be more productive, and it would advance one of my promises to you.“

“Kremina?“ Ulyana said. “She was Kansal’s Chief of Internal Security– but she retired with her.“

“I was not aware that Qote departed the Union. I thought she had just retired quietly.“ Aaliyah said.

“They are attached at the hip.“ Euphrates said. “She must be involved in whatever Ganges is currently doing. The Union believes that Ganges is adventuring out in the world to bring revolutionary justice, isn’t that right? I can absolutely believe she is doing just that– and Kremina must know more.“

Ulyana felt a nervous pang in her chest.

How much of Kansal’s government was involved with Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation?

The existence of the Sunlight Foundation was not so impossible to believe if they thought of it as an illegal syndicate. A mafia-style underworld existed everywhere in the Imbrium, and in places at a very large scale. However, that truth became far more painful to deal with when Ulyana started to wonder if perhaps the Union’s founding had something to do with a conspiracy by a clandestine organization–

“I can already sense your trepidation.” Euphrates said, unprompted. “Which is why I think you must talk to her, in order to start clearing the air. I personally think Ganges is a good person– but you’ll have to determine for yourself what you believe, because she did hide many things from you. But I also think the issue Kremina wants to meet with me about, suits your interests and skillset far better too.“

“That issue being what?“ Aaliyah asked as soon as Euphrates brought it up.

Euphrates grinned a little. “She wanted to talk to me about a resistance movement forming in Aachen. She called it The United Front. I have little to contribute to such an endeavor, even with Solarflare’s resources. So, what do you think, Captain– should I set up a meeting tomorrow?“

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged glances. They narrowed their eyes, felt their shoulders heavy.

The United Front.

A resistance movement, in Aachen? Here and now?

And Daksha Kansal was involved?

So much for their untroubled time at Kreuzung station.

This was not something they could run away from or ignore.

That wave of change which was sweeping across Kreuzung and Eisental– would sweep them up too.

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.4]

“Let me at that mouthy little bitch Gertrude! This is none of your business!”

“You’re getting violent over nothing! Calm down!”

“Don’t tell me to calm down, Gertrude! Don’t FUCKING tell me to calm down!”

Four girls in a metal room full of eerie tubing, lit intermittently by LEDs and their own lamp. They had snuck down here after hours, below the beautified illusion of green grass, tall trees and blue skies that pervaded Luxembourg School For Girls for the unremarkable guts of the station. It began as a little challenge, then became a sleepover. But their little adventure had turned sour– while a violet-haired girl sat on the floor with her gaze averted, hands nervously grasping her skirt, the other three girls were locked in a standoff. A tall girl with brown hair and broad shoulders and a fiery expression locked eyes with a taller girl, swarthy and black-haired, a bit leaner but equally strong. Behind her was a smaller girl, light chestnut hair collected into two long pigtails, shaken and hiding behind the black-haired girl.

“She treats me like shit! All the time! And you always fucking ignore it!” Sawyer shouted.

“She’s not doing it on purpose!” Gertrude shouted back. “You should fucking know by now! That’s how she talks! She can’t help it! She’s not trying to disrespect you for fuck’s sake! Sit back down!”

“Please, the two of you–” Elena whimpered from the floor, but couldn’t finish her sentence.

Heedless of the outcome, Sawyer took two steps forward and got up in Gertrude’s face.

Close enough to smell the candies they had been eating in Sawyer’s breath.

Close enough to kiss, even–

“Gertrude, if you want to stand in the way, then you’re taking the punches for her!”

As soon as the words left Sawyer’s mouth, Gertrude punched first.

Her fist collided with Sawyer’s throat. Staggering backward, eyes drawn wide, the surprise attack caused Sawyer to trip over her own feet and topple backward. Gertrude rushed to her, despite a brief pull on her shirt by Victoria and a shout from Elena, both trying to stop her, but she lunged nonetheless. Throwing herself on top of Sawyer, punching her in the chest, in the shoulder, barely avoiding her face–

Until Gertrude saw Sawyer holding up her own hands in self-defense, weeping–

“Fuck. Please. I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please, I’ll stop. I’ll stop.”

In that empty maintenance tunnel, the shouting and crying of her other friends felt suddenly distant.

Muffled.

Everything but the sounds of Sawyer’s own cries, folding under Gertrude so easily despite her bravado.

Whatever it was that Sawyer intended to do– in that moment, Gertrude had thrown the first punch.

She had done it to protect Victoria, but nobody was happy with her.

And looking down at the battered, whimpering Sawyer, Gertrude was not satisfied with herself.

She had thrown the first punch, escalated the violence– and she hated herself for having that reaction.

She would be forgiven, after several days of awkwardness and the little private pains of teenage friends.

Forgiven, this time, in the ways that teenagers can forgive while remaining wary, hurt, for some time–

This time–

This time– but if something didn’t change, there would be more–

And Gertrude, at the time, did not have the ability to change herself, or anyone else.

Especially not someone like Sawyer.


Depth Gauge: 3002 m
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)

The Iron Lady maneuvered slowly such that the anarchist Cutter floated at its port-side.

From the dreadnought’s own sidepod, a boarding chute extended and locked onto the sidepod airlock door of the Cutter. Once Monika and the engineers deemed the connection stable, they opened the chute door on the Iron Lady’s side. One of the engineers donned a pressurized suit and crossed the chute to the Cutter’s door, while the Iron Lady’s door temporarily closed behind him. With Monika on the radio, he checked the Cutter’s airlock door and found it to be sealed. He returned to procure needed tools.

“Looks like we’ll have to drill into this and unlock it with a tentacle. This will take a while.” Monika advised.

While engineering worked on the door, the boarding team got ready to move.

Some of the security team’s female members brought out armor supplies and assist in fitting them.

Gertrude would be taking point, and she dressed for the occasion. Her grandiose uniform was discarded in favor of more practical clothes. She had a blue, long-sleeved uniform with long blue pants, plain, but what was inside the sleeves and pants was important. With the advent of ferristitching, her sleeves and pants were lightly armored with liners of tough and thin nanomail which could ablate stray small arms fire as well as partially deflect the force of a stab from a knife, or blunt force from a club. It wouldn’t prevent injury altogether, but it could turn a messy and fatal exit wound into bruises and broken bones.

To augment this protection, Gertrude also wore a chestplate with the letters IMP in block white, for “Inquisitorial Military Police.” The chestplate had nanomail as well, but it also had kevlar and a ceramic plate. Between these three materials, Gertrude could get shot by an assault rifle and experience the attack as a blast of blunt force distributed across her chest, rather than a fatal sucking chest wound. It would hurt, but she would live. She had similar plates in multiple pieces on her upper leg and forearms, as well as separate guards on her knees and elbows, and a smaller and thinner liner in her tall boots. Thick black gloves protected her hands. She had her black hair tied up in a tight bun behind her head, out of the way.

Gertrude forewent a helmet, and opted instead for a clear flip-up visor of bulletproof glass. She carried a ballistic shield, a riot club and a vibroknife. She took a pistol with her, armed with a single magazine of eight frangible 10 mm bullets. In the tight quarters of a Cutter, shooting was usually out of the question, since it could damage something important or cause unpredictable ricocheting inside. Frangible bullets would shatter on impact with the walls to avoid penetrating anything important, but ultimately, firearms were a weapon of last resort in this particular scenario. Gertrude would not count upon this weapon.

“A suit that befits the vanguard.” Victoria said, upon spying Gertrude getting outfitted in the hangar.

“You’re getting one too.” Gertrude said. “I’m not letting you go in nothing but your little dandy shirt.”

“Well– Of course I wasn’t planning to do that.” Victoria said, briefly averting her gaze.

Victoria was presented with similar protections at first but there were problems with fitting. Gertrude’s musculature was well honed and practiced in bearing such loads and she kept in shape for it. Because Victoria found it troubling to move in a full suit of riot armor, she ended up wearing light armor pieces fastened with straps over her arms and legs, along with a lighter chestguard sans the ceramic plate. K9-spec ear and tail armor was fastened over her Shimii ears and tail and fit decently well, and she was given a visor to wear just like Gertrude. She insisted on carrying her vibrosabre, and resisted taking a pistol.

“I can manage. I’ve been in close quarters fights before. Just trust me.” Victoria protested.

“Fine. I will be trusting you to have my back. So if you go down, I will– keep that in mind.” Gertrude said.

Victoria held her hand to her chest and locked Gertrude’s eyes with a fierce gaze.

“I swear that will not allow an enemy to touch a single strand of your hair.” Victoria said.

“Um– Well. I can’t possibly turn away an oath like that, can I?”

Gertrude was slightly taken aback by Victoria’s smoldering eyes, and held them for some time.

She smiled. Victoria’s emotions were hard to read sometimes, and she had difficulty emoting.

But when she did, there was so much passion in that pampered cat.

Gertrude could not help but– admire her.

Off to the side, Ingrid, dressed in a pilot’s bodysuit, stared at the two of them with a sulky expression and her arms crossed. She was going to be the pilot on standby, so she was already not the first candidate for an entry team, and with how tight Cutter interiors were, it was standard to use two personnel per team, and employ only one or two teams for entry. Victoria was dead set on going, and Gertrude wanted to make herself personally responsible for their diplomatic guest– so the team was instantly configured.

Was she jealous? Gertrude noticed and felt an instant spike of anxiety.

“Hey, listen, I trust you with my life, and I’d take you if she wasn’t insisting.” She tried to mollify her.

Ingrid narrowed her eyes, throwing a look at Victoria. She then sighed and shrugged.

“It’s fine. I’m on standby anyway, and we don’t have that many pilots.” Ingrid put on a mischievous expression while staring at Victoria. “If there’s anyone I’d trust you with, it’s a Vekan ‘special agent’ anyway. You don’t know this Gertrude, because you just keep hearing and saying ‘special agent’ in Low Imbrian, but the Vekans actually have a specific word for that title, and boy, does it have history.”

Clearly this was some attempt to make fun of Victoria and raise her hackles.

Gertrude frowned. She was curious, but she knew what this was. “Come on, don’t antagonize her.”

Ingrid stared, perplexed. “Huh? I’m not antagonizing her! Hey, am I bothering you?”

Sighing, Gertrude looked to Victoria, about to apologize for Ingrid trying to bait a response.

Victoria, however, had no expression on her face. She didn’t seem to even recognize it as mockery.

“I’m not bothered.” Victoria said. “She’s correct about my title. She can tell you the story if she wants.”

“So then, you do have the title of Bayatar?” Ingrid pressed. “Is that what you mean by special agent?”

Her eyes were wild with some strange fascination. Gertrude did not like this interaction.

If she could have helped it, she would have prevented Ingrid from ever talking to Victoria, but–

“Yes. I am a Bayatar appointed by Empress Carmilla von Veka.” Victoria said nonchalantly.

Victoria responded simply as if she did not understand Ingrid’s tone.

Didn’t she realize she was being made fun of? Ingrid sounded like she was just mocking her.

Perhaps– was Ingrid really not making fun of her–?

“Can somebody explain?” Gertrude mumbled.

Ingrid grinned wider. “That’s so wicked! I guess I gotta trust whatever Veka sees in you.” She turned back to a confused Gertrude to explain. “Gertrude, Bayatar is the High Vekan word that this girl keeps saying means ‘special agent.’ In reality, it means hero, but even that doesn’t explain it at all. For the Vekans, the Bayatar are the greatest warriors. Even just saying ‘special forces’ doesn’t cut it. Bayatars kill so that their rulers do not have to fight unworthy battles. This ruffled-up kitty cat is invested by the Empress with the power to kill anyone— and to attain that title, she must have demonstrated a lot of fighting ability.”

“That’s correct. She knows her Vekan history.” Victoria said. She had seemingly no additional response based on Ingrid’s tone of voice or the bloodthirsty pleasure in which she spoke about the title.

Gertrude had been afraid Ingrid was going to joke about Victoria prostituting herself or something equally heinous, but she seemed to be just stating facts. It was rare to see Ingrid extend any kind of courtesy to strangers, especially to Shimii or Vekans, who were widely maligned in the Empire. Now Gertrude just felt bad for assuming Ingrid was going to be discourteous to Victoria automatically.

“I see.” Gertrude said, feeling awkward. “Ingrid, I didn’t know you had a thing for Vekan history.”

“It’s not just Vekan history. It’s also my family history here.” Ingrid said.

“How so?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. She paused for a second before speaking.

“During the Fueller rebellion, the Northern Host of the Loup sided with the Fuellers, while the Southern Host of the Loup sided with the Nocht dynasty.” Ingrid said. “At the time there was a Loup Bayatar. You’ve heard the surname, Samoylovych, from that one fucking bitch. Well, her ancestor in this story was Bayatar Samoylovych-Daybringer. My grandfather Arvokas Järveläinenn Tenderheart nearly died fighting him, but got the upper hand in the end. I heard all about this story– our family honored that duel a lot.”

Samoylovych– the old High Inquisitor was perhaps related to Samoylovych-Daybringer. Certainly that woman Samoylovych-Darkestdays was related. Perhaps that explained some part of her freakish strength.

Gertrude nodded silently as Ingrid spoke. She had never heard of this story in detail from her lover.

She knew the basics, but it seemed like every time Ingrid was prompted to bring it up, she learned something new that her lover had never wanted to say before. On the one hand, she was happy to understand her better– but on the other, she felt a stab of anxiety at this conversation. She rarely saw Ingrid approach others in this way– she was someone who was often incurious and brusque toward strangers. Victoria prompting Ingrid to delve into her family’s past was probably not wholly positive.

“The Samoylovych family ended up traitorous to Veka.” Victoria said. “Your grandfather did us a service.”

“Wonder if that confrontation would be any different today.” Ingrid said, in a slightly altered tone of voice.

There it was– now that was a provocation. Gertrude was prepared to step in again–

“Back then, the Fueller forces were simply superior. It would depend on who is backing you, I suppose.”

Once again, Victoria wasn’t taking the bait. Ingrid sighed openly, shook her head and walked off.

“You’re no fun whatsoever, Victoria van Veka. Watch how you speak of other’s families in the future.”

Gertrude also sighed and ran her hand down her face, feeling the culmination of her mute panic.

“Did I offend her? I apologize. It wasn’t my intention.” Victoria said.

“You– forget it. Just forget it right now. God, it’s just like before. We’ll talk about it later.”

Please don’t turn out like Sawyer with her, Ingrid. That’s the last thing I need.


Finally, Gertrude and Victoria were equipped, and stacked at the end of the boarding chute.

Entry from the Iron Lady into the boarding chute remained closed in order to mitigate potential damage in case the boarding chute collapsed or something happened with the Cutter’s airlock. . Communicating via radio, the engineers let Monika know of their progress, and she in turn let Gertrude know.

They had drilled through the length of the bulkhead door and inserted a spy tentacle. This was a little legged drone with a camera for a head, at the end of a long, ribbed cable. Snaking it through the hole, they saw that the airlock was open on the other side, into the interior of the Cutter. None of the heliolights that provided “sun” to the humans aboard were on, but there was very dim bluelight from devices still receiving electricity, like the airlock door touchpad. With this brief foray inside completed, the engineers crawled the spy tentacle to the bulkhead door’s physical lock and pulled the lever.

A shunting metal noise reverberated across the boarding chute.

Gertrude felt her guts tighten–

It was nothing. Just the door mechanisms. The engineers called back in. The Cutter was open.

“I’ll stay here in case emergency engineering is needed.” Monika said. “I have some combat training.”

Monika would remain in the Iron Lady’s airlock room along with one guard chosen by Vogt.

The bulkhead into the Iron Lady’s hangar would remain locked behind them. Then the door into the boarding chute would be opened. This precaution meant if anything happened, the tragedy would be limited to the four people in the airlock. Thankfully, work had been done to prevent such an occurrence. The anarchist cutter was tied to the Iron Lady by jet anchors, and remained buoyant of its own accord. They had been working in the boarding chute for over an hour to open the door and there had been no incidents. Precautions were part of the protocol, but so far, the situation had been very stable.

Once the bulkhead door behind them was locked, Gertrude and Victoria bid farewell to Monika and the guard, and walked through the boarding chute, a 5 meter long tunnel that extended from within one ship’s sidepod to another ship’s airlock door. It was equipped so that the opposite end of the chute could attach to a ship’s sidepod and hold it tightly for boarding. Pumps and pipes emptied the chute’s interior of water and normalized the pressure between the two vessels, so that when the doors opened on either side, it would be as natural as walking from one room to another in the same building.

Then, they stood on the threshold into the Cutter’s airlock, which was already open into the ship interior.

Through their earpieces, Monika could communicate with the two of them if they hailed her.

“We briefly tested the atmosphere and it seems fine. Nevertheless, you should both have respirators handy, just in case.” Monika advised, as the team stacked up at the outer bulkhead.

“Got it. They’re on our belts. We’ll be limiting radio contact when go in.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Hail if you need anything. Good luck.” Monika said.

“Thank you. I’ll be back without a scratch. Victoria promised.”

“I’ll give her an earful if she fails.”

Victoria’s ears twitched as she seemed to start paying attention. “Hmm?”

Monika was just being friendly, but Gertrude hoped that she was feeling better too.

It was hard to tell whether she was still mad at Gertrude through her radio chatter.

At the door, Victoria remained largely unaffected by the circumstances.

Gertrude’s heart was pounding.

She had breached a lot of doors in her life in the Inquisition– it never got easier.

Even with an open threshold. Anything could be out of sight, and anything she overlooked could be fatal.

Not just for herself, but for her team, whose lives had been entrusted to her.

“Ready, Victoria?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course.” Victoria replied.

“Lights on.”

Both of them switched on the torches attached to their visors, parting some of the shadows ahead.

Shield up, club in hand, Gertrude walked through the open threshold into the dim interior of the ship.

Behind her, Victoria stuck close, with one hand on her vibrosaber and another on Gertrude.

Gertrude could feel the Shimii’s body close to her own back.

Imperial Cutters were often built to between 50 meters and 80 meters in length, depending on the equipment aboard. Much of the difference was made up by the size of their sensor arrays– patrol Cutters were smaller because they could offload their imaging and sonar array burdens partially to buoys, relays and stations in their patrol area. A long Cutter like the one these anarchists had claimed was fully equipped to sail on its lonesome, able to detect and respond to threats of its own accord.

However, the width of any Cutter was very similar and the true source of the cramped interiors– under fifteen meters, generally. The Iron Lady was over 300 meters long and maybe nine or ten times the width, so it was equipped with far more internal space. Much of the Cutter’s width was the watertight hull of the exterior of the ship. Inside the pressure hull where people lived, the ceilings were only 2.5 meters overhead, whereas inside the Iron Lady, they would be 3 or 4 in the upper deck, and close to 10 meters tall in the hangar. The halls of Cutter were in places a little over a meter wide, with necessary equipment in the walls and tightly packed little side-rooms making up much of the space of the pressure hull. The place with the most leg and arm room was the galley and staging rooms– maybe the reactor too.

Gertrude had led that life for a bit, and did not miss it. And she was not very happy to be back.

Directly from the threshold into the ship, Gertrude and Victoria found themselves in an absolutely tiny landing. They had a tight and dark hall directly to their left, and to the right, the room opened up ever so slightly more into a galley, divided into two parts. One had tight seating arrangements in an open side-room. The other was enclosed by a prep table with a waist-high door, that served as the partial wall of the hall in which they arrived, it looked like it contained a pair of electric ovens and a wall-mounted microwave, along with storage space for plastic plates and cutlery, and a dishwasher. The touchpad LCDs on the appliances were dimly lit in standby mode, counting down to the next “chow time.”

Aside from their visor torches and the LCDs, there was no other light inside the hull.

And everything smelled strange– this was because of the chemicals used by the CO2 scrubbers. On a larger ship, there would be scent purifiers, in addition to the oxygen generators, CO2 scrubbers, and other environmental controls. Purifiers rendered the air a bit “stale” but concealed the fouler odors of the equipment hidden in the walls. On a Cutter, sacrifices had to be made for the space involved, and to bring down costs. Those scent purifiers, a luxury, were among the first things sacrificed, and so the entire hull interior often smelled salty and fishy because of the particular chemical used in the CO2 scrubbers.

“I’m going to look down. Keep an eye on the hall behind me.” Gertrude said.

“Acknowledged.” Victoria replied.

Gertrude had thought she had seen something on the floor in the hall when she scanned over the galley.

In the hall, she and Victoria could not fit side to side. Gertrude needed room to move her shield.

So they continued in a single file. Gertrude stepped inside, Victoria followed, watching her back.

Then, Gertrude brought her gaze, and her light, down to the floor of the Cutter.

Lighting up a pair of glassy eyes and a pale head–

“Found a corpse.” Gertrude said. “Moving closer.”

“Acknowledged.”

There was no tremble in Victoria’s voice, no hesitation.

She had become much stronger since Gertrude last saw her. Perhaps more used to death.

Ahead of them, the tight center hall led to few rooms. First up would be the staging rooms, containing needed equipment in lockers, such as basic clothes, a few pressure suits, heavy tools for the mechanics and engineers, and any firearms. Then farther behind, were the dormitories. At the far end of the hall, there was a bulkhead door locking up the reactor and engine room. But much closer to Gertrude than all of these, was the body– the bodies. As she got closer, she saw there were two people on the floor.

“Two men– maybe? Hard to say– kinda androgynous–“

“What does that matter?” Victoria asked. “What happened to them?”

“They fell together, it looks like. They’re almost on top of each other.”

Both bodies were pale, but that was in the light of Gertrude’s torch. It was hard for her to tell how long they had been dead, but they were dead. She knelt, with her shield up in front of her, and stowed her club briefly on her belt, to check their pulse. They were truly dead. There was no visible signs of injury however. Both were wearing grey jumpsuits partially unzipped with white shirts beneath. There was no blood on them, no signs of shooting, stabbing. They could not have been beaten to death, not bloodlessly.

“Respirators?” Victoria asked. Her tone of voice was a little more agitated.

“I don’t think it was poison gas or anything like that.” Gertrude said. “They’re all leftists, right? Why would they gas each other? To me that scenario doesn’t make sense– in addition, if they were dying out in this hall from poison, the end result would look different. They fell over together like this, and didn’t even hit their heads that hard. Their eyes aren’t bloodshot, their mouths look normal, there’s no discoloration, it doesn’t seem like poison. It’s like they laid down to sleep here and just passed away quietly.”

“How much crew would this ship have? There’s only two people in this hall.”

“Sixty or seventy in the Imperial Navy. You can run as lean as twenty though, and if these are anarchists then they don’t need to follow regulations. They may have stolen this ship and ran it very lean.”

None of the bodies had any imperial identification. No tags, no security cards on lanyards.

“If they weren’t using keycards, then everything must be unlocked.” Gertrude said.

“We should find a terminal and test your theory.” Victoria said. “We could get all their data that way.”

“Let’s go to one of the staging rooms ahead. Are you doing okay back there?”

“Don’t worry about me. There’s nothing behind and I’m keeping sharp.”

“Okay. Watch your step. I’m advancing.”

Gertrude stood up from her knees, and began to move step by step further into the hall.

Club once again gripped tightly in hand.

She thought she felt Victoria’s fingers tighten on her back as they crossed over the bodies.

“I’ve only ever served on Cruisers or Dreadnoughts. I had no idea Cutters were this tight.”

“It’s tough, but the crew gets to commiserate. You know everyone’s names and get familiar. You don’t have that on a dreadnought. It’s too big and there’s too many people to keep track of closely.”

Victoria had finally expressed some genuine emotion, so Gertrude did the same in return.

She thought of giving her a hard time for being pampered– but she refrained.

Step by step as they inched along the hall together, they finally got to talking in whispers.

“My flag is in the Aranjagaan, but in reality, I go wherever the Empress needs. I’ve worked on a few ships over the past few years. I have never formed the kind of bond you have with your crew.” Victoria said.

“It’s the nature of your work and I’m sure your crew respects it. You shouldn’t compare it.”

“Perhaps you’re right. But, you know– I was surprised by how professional your crew was.”

“You thought I wouldn’t run a tight ship?”

“It’s not that. I felt that they were proud of you and proud to be there.”

“They’re serving on a dreadnought. They’re elites– that’s what they’re proud of.”

“No. It’s more than that. I could see it– maybe we’ll talk about it later.”

“Right. I’d love to. Door on the left?”

“Got it.”

“Usually the left staging room is equipment. Right is food storage.”

“I trust your judgment.”

Gertrude truly wished they had a chance to sit down and talk over coffee.

Maybe it could be possible to mend their broken bonds. But not in this situation, of course.

Her heart was buoyed by Victoria’s trust– but it was just necessary professionalism.

During an operation, they sank or swam together. Gertrude just wanted to believe it was more.

In the derelict Cutter, they made it between the doors without any surprises.

With her club, Gertrude prodded the door on their left.

Then she extended a finger off the club and used it to open the door via its touchpad.

The door slid open. There was a mess of shadows inside the room. Gertrude swept her visor across.

“It’s chaos in here.” Gertrude said. “Watch your step.”

“Noted.”

Inside the staging room, three of the walls were occupied with lockers, with an aisle down the middle were men and women could sit to suit up. At the far end of the room, a chain-link door fenced off an area where bigger tools were once kept locked up. But the door was thrown open, and the tools scattered in the room. Several lockers hung open, their contents spilled. There were six or seven people on the floor, men and women both it seemed. Gertrude stepped further into the room, allowing Victoria inside.

Victoria sat on her knees beside one of them, turning the body of a woman around.

“No wounds. She fell on her face, but it doesn’t look like she hit her head very hard.”

Gertrude grit her teeth. “It’s almost like she laid down on her belly deliberately. What the hell?”

She was a woman with cropped blond hair, fit, heavyset, wearing nothing but a tanktop and pants. There was a preponderance of tools beside her body that she might have reached for to hit someone, a crowbar, a hammer, wrenches, thick industrial flashlights, likely ripped from the open lockers that loomed over her body. There were no wounds anywhere on her. There were several other people in varying states of dress around the room. One of them had apparently managed to take the vibrocutter tool from the unlocked storage area, but he was laid back against a wall with the tool discarded at his side.

No uniforms. A lot of different hairstyles. Tattoos, body modifications; no wounds, on anyone.

“I don’t get it. It’s like they were trying to grab the tools? But then they fell?” Gertrude asked.

At her side, she thought she saw a brief flash and turned partially to face Victoria.

Whose eyes, she could have sworn, had gone briefly red– but only for a split second.

Enough that the red almost felt like a fabrication of her mind–

“They were panicking. Not acting rationally.” Victoria said.

Not a farfetched conclusion.

But the gravity with which she spoke– it felt like there was something more to her words.

Gertrude had suspected Victoria might possess a strange ability, like Norn.

Maybe she really could see something in this room that Gertrude could not.

“I can’t explain it any other way, I guess. Let’s check the dorm and then double back to the bridge.”

“I’m dreading the amount of bodies we’ll find.” Victoria said.

Gertrude lifted her shield and directed Victoria to follow her again.

In the same formation and process as before, they carefully made their way a few meters down the hall from the staging rooms to the dorm doors. Cutter dorms were essentially bed bunks packed into every square centimeter of wall that could be afforded to hold them, with a gap in the floor plan between them so people could actually get into and out of the room. They were even more cramped than the eight-man sailor rooms on Frigates and Cruisers. There were dozens of beds packed into only two small rooms. Each bunk had barely enough space to fit an adult body lying down. Everyone had a small drawer to hold a few personal necessities and that was the extent of their space– clothing was kept in the staging room lockers. Each bunk had some additional amenities, like lights, a fan, and headphones that played music.

Gertrude presumed that everyone aboard had met the same strange fate, and she expected to find dozens of people dead in behind this door. However, for completeness’ sake, they had to look. There was something deeply wrong about this situation, and every room was a new piece of evidence.

At the door, Gertrude heard a low, continuous noise from inside the room.

“Something from inside. Keep sharp.” Gertrude whispered.

“I have your back.” Victoria whispered.

Gertrude touched the door’s pad and it slid open.

Immediately she caught sight of a body on the floor, surrounded by all the beds.

One red-headed girl in a long, brown one-piece dress.

She looked like she had come into the room and immediately collapsed.

“She was being chased.” Victoria said.

“By what?”

“I don’t know.”

“It makes as much sense as anything based on her posture, but how do you figure?”

“Just a hunch. Nevermind me.”

Gertrude went down to one knee, and found that the girl was clutching a portable.

It was a newer type, one of those handheld, slate-type personal terminals.

That noise was coming from the slate. It had been recording something and ran out of space.

So it was throwing errors and making noise.

“This is a personal device with its own storage. We’ll take it back with us.”

She picked up the portable and tucked it into a pouch behind her back.

“If it’s still active, maybe these people haven’t been dead for very long.” Victoria said.

“We detected them last night. These devices have a long battery life. It’s possible.”

Victoria waited at the door as Gertrude checked the beds. There was not enough room for both of them and the body in the middle of the dormitory, not without stepping directly over it. As she scanned across the bunks, she found at least ten more people. Not as many as there were bunks. She surmised that the ship was being run very lean. She took the pulses of the bodies she could reach and found them in the same state as the previous ones. Untouched and dead– no signs of struggle, choking, anything at all.

“Now I’m starting to worry about gas.” Gertrude said. Though it went against her experience.

“It’s not gas. I think something did attack them.” Victoria said. “I know this will make no sense to you, but you should trust me– I feel a lot of fear in this place. These people witnessed something terrifying.”

Gertrude believed her. But she did not want to let on the extent to which she understood this type of talk.

Norn was like this too. Like she could see through people. Maybe Victoria could see through the dead.

“Some secret Vekan detective technique I’m unaware of?” She said, to brush it off.

“Let’s go to the bridge.” Victoria said.

“Sorry– I didn’t mean to offend you.” Gertrude said.

“I’m not offended. There’s just no point in responding to that.”

Gertrude supposed Victoria was not about to give her an explanation of her ability any time soon.

From the dormitory, the two of them ventured back the way they came, down the hall, briefly peering over the separator between the galley and the hall and finding nothing of note, and then venturing toward the ship’s prow. Checking doors as they went, stumbling upon a few utility closets before finally opening the door into the Cutter’s bridge. Immediately upon entering, Gertrude had to bow her head.

The Bridge was no larger than the rest of the ship’s spaces. From the door, the ceiling slanted down, and there were a few steps leading down to additional stations, all of which were packed tight together, with their monitors, station desks and seats and barely any additional legroom. At the highest point of the bridge, just off of the entrance, there was a recess for the captain’s seat and terminal. To reach it, Gertrude had to duck down at the entrance, and then walk with her shoulders slouched for a few steps, before slipping a foot into the recess so she could begin to slide between the chair and desk and finally sit. She discarded her shield at her side and slid her fingers along the side of the monitor, feeling for buttons.

“Good lord.” Gertrude sighed. “I don’t miss this.”

Victoria walked inside and leaned over Gertrude’s shoulder, looking at the Captain’s terminal monitor.

Her sudden weight and warmth, the closeness of her cheek to Gertrude’s own–

It sent a shiver down the Inquisitor’s spine.

“Is something wrong?” Victoria asked. “You must be able to operate this.”

“Yes, I can do it. Nothing is wrong. This seat is just uncomfortable.” Gertrude deflected.

Victoria leaned forward a little more. Had she not been wearing that breastplate–

Gertrude powered on the display with the button on the side.

Everything turned on without a hitch. The Inquisitor breathed a sigh of relief.

She found herself on the Administration dashboard for the Captain. No prompt for a passphrase or to insert a keycard or provide any kind of authentication. It was just unlocked, and dumped her right in the middle of a trove of information. The Captain’s terminal home screen was an Administration dashboard with a summary of everything the Captain needed to know. Statuses of the main modules, agenda items set by the Communications officer or by an adjutant, a small and abstracted map of their current position, bearing and destination supplied by the helm, and easy access links to communicate with other officers.

“They departed from Antioch in Bosporus. Looks like they were headed to the Union– specifically to that little Campos anarchist state in the far south.” Gertrude said. “Judging by the bearing anyway.”

“That makes sense.” Victoria said. “They would have never reached it though. The Union keeps significant skirmishing forces surrounding it. Under Jayasankar’s regime it has been practically blockaded, ever since the anarchists took action against her. But even the Republic just recognizes it as an unruly chunk of the Union rather than its own state. These anarchists were on a doomed journey from the beginning.”

“What does Veka think about ‘Campos Mountain’?” Gertrude asked, suddenly curious.

“We acknowledge the Union’s sovereignty over it, and would support its annexation.”

“Would the Union really attack these little lost anarchists?”

“The word ‘attack’ implies a greater effort than would be necessary.” Victoria said. “They would run into a Union patrol frigate and stand no chance of anything but capture. It is my understanding that the Union gives captives like this the option of joining Union society under invasive surveillance for a few years until they assimilate and acknowledge Mordecism-Jayasankarist Thought, or to self-righteously opt for jail time so as to not betray their ideologies. If they choose the latter, the Union drops them in the deepest pit it can find and they’re never heard from again. The Union’s Internal Security doesn’t mess around.”

Gertrude snickered. “So you can be chatty when you want to be.”

Victoria made a slightly grumbling noise.

“These are basic facts about the Union that aren’t too hard to uncover, not top secret Vekan information.”

“Fair enough. But tell me– do you really trust the Union’s forces at all?”

“I trust in their self-interest. Same as anybody else’s.”

At the top of this dashboard there were tabs that opened up more detailed pages for communications, helm, gunnery, electronic warfare, sensors and so on. Gertrude immediately went to the tab for Core Engineering and held her breath as the status of the Reactor updated. Thankfully, everything looked green. At the behest of what seemed like a random person, the Reactor core had been put into resting mode. It would fill the backup batteries and keep the environment on, as well as power on any devices that were deliberately accessed, but everything else would be shut down until further notice.

“I’m tired of the darkness in here. What do you say?” Gertrude asked.

“It looks safe to turn things back on. It’s not like we’ll awaken the corpses.” Victoria replied.

“The Lady has spoken. Let there be light.”

Gertrude sent a command to begin the Core wakeup sequence.

She watched as a command line prompt appeared with dozens of lines of text indicating the status of each computerized operation necessary to bring the Core back from its resting state. While the main computer slowly brought the Reactor back to full functionality, Gertrude sat back on the chair, sighing. Their adventure was almost over and without incident. Once the ship was powered up, they would connect to the Iron Lady and allow Schicksal and the Electronic Warfare station to remotely operate it, ceding all functions to the Dreadnought. It would be easy to do, since the permissions were unlocked.

“All of these systems are unlocked and the permission scheme was edited so everyone aboard the ship could access any of the functions. These anarchists were certifiably insane. Imagine they have some nutcase among them that is plotting something– would they even be suspicious of anything?”

“It’s non-hierarchical thinking. It makes sense for them, even though we wouldn’t adopt it.”

“But you want to be the big boss of things, right Bayatar?” Gertrude teased.

“I want my orders to be followed unquestioningly.” Victoria said.

Gertrude glanced at her shoulder, where the Shimii was looking the slightest bit sulky.

“We make a good team, don’t you think? We were pretty in sync.” Gertrude said.

“We’re both professionals who have had good training. And nothing really happened.”

“I’m a little hurt that you disagree.” Gertrude said, with a little laugh to show it wasn’t serious.

“I didn’t disagree, I qualified.” Victoria said. “I just said exactly what I wanted to say.”

While it made Gertrude smile warmly, this was the kind of attitude that always got this cat in trouble.

Still, she couldn’t help but notice a tiny but glowing little smile appearing on Victoria’s lips.

Within a few minutes, all of the heliolights suddenly turned on in the Bridge, and possibly throughout the ship, illuminating everything with the soft yellow light of human life and activity. Immediately, Gertrude caught sight of a body bent over one of the lower stations. She turned off the torch on her visor, and Victoria did the same. The Shimii left Gertrude’s side and went to check the body further below.

Gertrude switched over to the networking tab and issued a request to the Communication station to connect to a nearby vessel– in this case, the Iron Lady. She asked for Victoria to accept it on the communication station below, on the way to the body. The Bayatar gracefully slid her finger across the screen to accept and carry out the order automatically. Within minutes, the mousy-haired Karen Schicksal appeared on the main screen of the Cutter’s bridge, her lips quivering and shoulders shaking, breathing in and out heavily, clearly slick with sweat. Her eyes drew wide with relief upon seeing Gertrude.

“Ma’am! I’m– We’re all glad to see you safe– IS THAT A CORPSE?”

An enormous Schicksal on the high-resolution main display pointed down nervously.

Her index finger vaguely pointed at the dead man on the lower station.

Victoria looked up from taking the body’s pulse. “Yes, I’m afraid that it is.”

“It’s a long story, Schicksal.” Gertrude said. “I’m giving you and the bridge full control over the derelict. Download all operation logs, chronicles and recent camera footage from the supercomputer– no need to copy the protocols or any infrastructural stuff, they left that all the same. We’re heading back.”

“Yes ma’am–” Schicksal fidgeted nervously. “We can send a team to escort–“

“No need. Don’t worry about us. There’s nothing in here.” Gertrude said.

“Acknowledged! We’ll carry out our orders and see you soon, ma’am!”

Schicksal saluted and the main screen shut back off with the call ending.

Gertrude cautiously stood back up from the Captain’s chair, trying not to hit her head.

Below, Victoria nonchalantly walked back up from the lower stations.

Her very gently smiling face looked quite arresting to Gertrude in the heliolights.

“You can probably imagine by this point. But that man was also dead.” Victoria said.

“There has to be something in the main computer that can tell us more. Let’s go back.”

“Acknowledged. Good work, Gertrude. I appreciated your calm professionalism.”

“Likewise. I do think we make a good team.”

“Hmm.”

As Victoria moved past her and began to walk out of the room, Gertrude noticed something that had been impossible to see when the heliolights were shut off. In the focused light of their torches, it was impossible to discern in the environment, but there was something in the air– it was so fine, that it was hard to tell whether it was her eyes adjusting to the light or an actual phenomenon. But Gertrude thought she saw a fine red powdery mist playing about the room. Exceedingly fine but eerily textured and yet completely without volume. It very well could have been a trick of her tired eyes, it was so thin.

“Victoria, do you see something red around us?” Gertrude asked.

“Red?”

Gertrude followed Victoria out of the room, the Shimii inadvertently leading since the mission was over.

Victoria turned over her shoulder.

Her eyes flashed briefly red–

As they did, they drew wide with a sudden and wild panic.

“Gertrude! Behind–!”

In a snap reaction, Gertrude half-turned and it was enough to see–

At the dead end of the hall which led to a service door to access the sensor array for maintenance–

Stood a figure–

Wispy, red and black, bound up in frayed cloth and chains, amorphous, tall, thin–

Masked face carved jagged smile red giving off furious red eyes–

Lifting

a dragging arm fused iron and flesh

metal point drawn back like a jet spear

giving off furious red heat

as the spike launched to Gertrude’s face,

“Gertrude!”

In the next instant, Victoria leaped past Gertrude with incredible speed and precision.

Her vibrosaber swung, its blade picking up the red in the air and becoming wreathed in it.

Like pale digital fire, translucent, insubstantial but extant and hot and filled with power.

Saint’s skin!

She thought she heard Victoria’s voice emanate from the surroundings–

The Bayatar’s keen edge met the metal spike with that red sheen that coated the blow.

Deflecting the thrust, Victoria transitioned into a horizontal slice that flashed bright red.

Her blade hung in the air after completing its arc, having cut through–

Nothing.

There was nothing at the end of the hall.

Gertrude stood speechless. She had been unable to move her body to respond.

But– respond to what–?

She thought she had seen a metal spike launching at her head.

She thought she had seen a horrific mangled figure wielding the weapon.

She was sure she felt the weight, the impact of Victoria’s parrying the enemy attack.

Victoria stood in front of her, coiled into a stance with her sword in front of her.

Her breathing heavy, turning to face every which way.

“You saw it, right?” She cried out.

“I did. There was something there.” Gertrude said.

“It’s– It’s gone.”

Victoria’s eyes had red rings around the irises as she looked around the hall.

Gertrude could notice them plainly. She kept herself from remarking upon the fact.

“It’s gone. It’s not anywhere.” Victoria said. “Anger. It was cloaked in so much– anger–“

Coming down from the terror of that moment–

In the next instant, Gertrude stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Victoria from behind.

“Agh! Gertrude!”

Her face sank into the Shimii’s shoulder. She could smell her hair, feel her warmth.

Victoria’s tail stood on end and she was paralyzed in Gertrude’s embrace.

“You saved my life. From whatever that was– thank you. Thank you, Victoria.”

In that moment, Gertrude felt like she could cry, she was so overwhelmed with–

“It’s nothing–! We’re allies! Let me go– we have to leave this place!”

Feeling foolish, Gertrude suddenly withdrew back a step from Victoria.

“Sorry. It was the stress. You’re right– let’s form up again.”

Victoria’s cheeks and the fleshy interior of her cat-like ears were a little bit red.

Clearly flustered, she followed behind Gertrude, who led with her shield up.

There was nothing around them, but they were both suddenly tense.

“Victoria– you know something, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

“I don’t know— I’ll tell you about my hunches when I’m sure we’re safe and alone.”

“You saw that creature too. Is it still around?”

“I don’t think so. I– I think I repelled it. But we should still be cautious.”

“Nobody can come back in here. I’ll tell Schicksal to melt the core down.”

“Good idea. Nothing will survive that.”

Gertrude began to think that whatever that creature had been, it must have been responsible for all of the deaths aboard the Cutter. In the past she would have felt foolish and irrational, but after seeing what Norn could do, she had become more open to strange events. She imagined a phantom that hurled its invisible weapon to kill without leaving wounds– it made no rational sense, but if she invited the idea of the supernatural, it cold explain what her eyes had seen and her mind had actually felt.

Had that spike gone through her head, would she have fallen to her knees, peacefully dead?

It was insane– it wasn’t something that she could decipher by reasoning through it.

But it was the closest thing she had to an answer to everything she saw.

“Victoria, I’m not insane, right?” Gertrude asked.

“I saw something attack you and I kept my oath not to let harm come to you.” Victoria said.

Gertrude understood the subtext. If she was seeing things and had gone insane– Victoria was even crazier for reacting physically and launching an attack as if against a real enemy. She was right. Both of them had seen something. They had been affected by a presence. They couldn’t pretend it was fake and they couldn’t rationalize it away. Gertrude at least wasn’t alone in having reacted to that figure.

“Trust me, Gertrude, there was something. But let’s keep it to ourselves for now.”

“I need to know, Victoria.”

“I’ll tell you when I’m ready– until then, please believe that I’ll protect you. Will that suffice?”

She felt powerless and ignorant, having to rely on others so much.

But there was no use fighting Victoria on this. She was cooperating more than before.

And– the thought of Victoria swearing to protect her, put a little warmth in Gertrude’s heart.

“I’ll trust you. Confirm your hunch, but please tell me what you know as soon as possible.”

“Thank you. I swear, I won’t let anything happen to you. I won’t let it end like on this ship.”

“You have sworn a lot of oaths today– but I’ve not heard what you are swearing by.”

Gertrude cracked a little grin, feeling just a little bit cocky toward Victoria again.

Only to be immediately disarmed–

“I swear by us, Gertrude. I swear my oath on the friendship we had and could have.”

Gertrude felt her heart skip a beat. She kept walking, pace by pace, shield up.

But it hit her like a battering ram. She felt Victoria’s hand on her back closer than ever.

“It’s no use swearing by the Empress. You don’t believe in that. You don’t believe in my sincerity where it regards Veka. But you said you still believed in us. As part of that, you must trust me.”

Victoria’s voice was so full of determination.

Gertrude couldn’t see her face, but she imagined the expression. It filled her chest with fond feelings.

She almost laughed. “You got me there. Then, on us, I’ll swear to trust you.”

“I would shake hands on it, but let’s skip that. You already hugged me pretty tight, that’s enough.”

Despite the grave atmosphere inside the derelict, Gertrude felt her heartstrings strum along to the melody of an undeserved affection. She had been longing terribly for any sign of it.

For the first time– it felt possible.

And carried on that wind of determination, the two of them escaped the derelict without further incident.


Once the data from the derelict Cutter had been collected, the Iron Lady retracted its boarding chute back into its sidepod, and the armored hatch which allowed it to deploy sealed the armor shut over it. Again the derelict was released into the water, but this time, the derelict was remotely operated to sever its anchor cables, and to descend far into the gorge. Three kilometers away from the Iron Lady, it would autopilot to the seafloor and then withdraw all cooling and shielding from its reactor while draining maximum power from it. Having voided all advanced permissions on their ship, the anarchists made this task easy to accomplish. Soon, the cutter would disappear in a flash of purple far out of sight.

“There’s something a little macabre about sending a ship to its death this way, I must admit.”

In a meeting room, Schicksal and Gertrude had a monitor with a diagram of the cutter as well as a live feed from one of its cameras as it descended, for as long as the connection could hold up in the katov mass– which wouldn’t be very long at all. Seated around a table, they went over preliminary discoveries by the analysts of the recovered data. Gertrude turned her head from the monitor and crossed her arms.

It was macabre indeed– everything about that ship was macabre.

“We couldn’t have done anything else for them. At least they’ll have a burial at sea.” Gertrude said.

“In a sense, however, they’re still ‘lost forever’ aren’t they? I don’t know– it gives me the creeps.”

Karen Schicksal let out a little yawn. Her eyes glanced aside at nothing. Fidgeting; nervous.

“We have a roster. If we wanted to, we could notify Bosporus about this.” Gertrude said.

“Well– my pity doesn’t extend that far.” Schicksal said. “I apologize Inquisitor. I’m being silly.”

“It’s okay. I’ve never asked you not to be human. But there’s nothing we can do for the dead.”

“Right. Then let’s focus on what we’re doing for ourselves, the living.”

Aside from telling Vogt to keep rotating patrols in the halls, just in case, Gertrude had not yet ordered her crew to perform any tasks that might be seen as a reaction to her adventure on the derelict. She had not informed them of the mysterious phantom, or anything about Victoria’s “hunches.” All she had told them were the basics: mysterious deaths, uncertain timeline– a mystery scenario. She could not appear too shaken up or paranoid. It would only cause undue concern. Gertrude figured that the analysts would organically turn up a smoking gun within the data, and at that point, she could take action on it.

She had not gotten a chance to talk to Victoria yet, either. They would need to prepare for their next adventure into the mystery habitat below, and the Inquisitor felt that the adventure in the derelict was too fresh anyway. Victoria was a blunt person who said what she wanted and did what she wanted. She would approach Gertrude when she was ready, and approaching her before that was likely pointless. Judging from her guardedness on the derelict, it would take more than a few hours distance to coax her.

And so, Gertrude was left in a bit of a lurch. She could only move forward, but on unsteady ground.

Schicksal put down on the table a portable terminal in the shape of a clipboard.

She slid it over to Gertrude, who picked it up.

“I have a preliminary report on the data we collected.” Schicksal said, stifling another yawn. She leaned over the table and pointed her finger at the items recorded on the portable, which Gertrude was already looking at. “Unfortunately, it’s going to take us longer to determine a timeline of events. Everything on the computer was classified as personal data, and there is only partial metadata for the entries. Upon learning of this, we initially hoped to narrow our efforts by isolating and analyzing only the data logged by the bridge crew. But it looks like the crew had no specified roles, and traded duties between all members. Everyone also wrote in the ship’s chronicle on a rotating basis. Because of this, we’ll have to parse through every crew member’s contributions as a big blob of data, separating items of importance out from the random junk, while also going over hundreds of hours of camera footage.”

Gertrude knew the job could not possibly have been done in thirty minutes or an hour.

But she felt a tight knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach upon hearing the magnitude of it.

God damn anarchists– their utter disorder was only going to slow her down even more.

They had paid the ultimate prize for having no discipline– but she still begrudged them for it.

“What about that little personal portable I found?” She asked.

Schicksal nodded her head in acknowledgment, and then looked at her own hands on the table.

“That portable belonged to the youngest member of the crew. She was just a girl.” Schicksal averted her gaze. “It was used for keeping video diaries. Addressed to family members. They vary in length from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes, but most recent one is four hours long. We have a hunch that she was recording an entry, and then the catastrophe struck– so we’re watching it. But it’s long, and we’ve only gotten started– we’re doing our very best to extract every clue from the material, ma’am.”

There were tricks that analysts could use to quickly get a big picture from a lot of data, but in this case, it was not going to yield results. Algorithmic video profiling would be useless because what had happened to the ship was so mysterious that they could not rely on the computer to draw any patterns from the footage. They weren’t looking at a billion samey camera frames for the ones that had faces. And because the metadata on all the log files was screwed up, they could not use an algorithmic text parser. Because the sample size was still an amorphous blob of all the computer’s data, it would distort the results, since useless personal anecdotes were mixed in with official records of the ship’s operation.

It was going to take good old fashioned detective work– pouring over dozens of terabytes of data.

“I know it’s a tough ask, but it’s important.” Gertrude said. “I want every forensic analyst on this. If it’s going to take brute force, then pile on the force. Hell, if there’s engineers who have nothing to do, have them watch video too. I think the camera footage will be the most important material here.”

“I agree. I’ve already gotten all of forensics on the job. But still– I’m sorry ma’am. It’ll take time.”

Schicksal averted her gaze again. Gertrude handed her back the portable with a smile.

“It’s fine. It’s just my job to spur people on, you know?” Gertrude said. “So then– what next?”

“We’ve set a course for the suspected habitat, as you requested.” Schicksal said. “It’ll be a few hours ma’am. If I can make a suggestion, you ought to get some rest, if you’ll be going out again.”

Gertrude sighed openly. “Good idea. I slept horribly last night.”

“May I escort you out ma’am?”

“No, return to the bridge. You’ve been fantastic at organizing all this, Schicksal. Keep it up.”

Schicksal looked down at her hands and rubbed her two index fingers together.

“Thank you ma’am– I’m quite unworthy, I’ve only been doing what I can is all–“

“Without you, this ship would fall apart.” Gertrude said. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

“Ma’am– Yes!”

Schicksal saluted stiffly. She must have been taken off-guard by the praise.

While she was just a little bit neurotic, Schicksal was a dreadnought-tier officer in action.

She had good instincts, communicated well between teams, and delegated work efficiently.

Her nervousness caused her to be slow to react to shocks sometimes– but once she got a hold of herself she exceeded the expectations of a Chief Communications Officer. Of her own accord, Schicksal could take Gertrude’s orders and immediately find the right teams and prioritize the right tasks to maximize effort, drawing on her experience without needing a thorough strategy plotted out. She could see that Dreschner did not choose her out of pity or obligation. Schicksal was a prodigal talent of her own.

“Alright, I’ll see myself back to my room. Tell forensics I wish them luck. I’ll swing by myself later.”

“Yes ma’am! Rest up!”

As she said this, Schicksal stifled another yawn.

This caused Gertrude to have to stifle her own yawning as she walked out of the meeting room.

Everything felt both stuck in place and yet inexorably in motion.

In a few hours, she would finally be able to see–

Norn– what did you want me to see here? What happened to you here?

Thinking about the woman she once called “master,” who taught her much and yet precious little–

Gertrude, stripped of much of her armor, dropped into her bed. Soaked in sweat, exhausted.

Her arm, extended out at her side, fell upon the object which Nile had given her, discarded on her bed.

Fingers curled around the band. She picked it up and lifted it in front of her eyes.

She looked at the face of the watch and saw the fluid gather on the blue part of the gradient.

Strobing wildly it formed a pattern of hexagons, twisting on itself. What did that even mean?

Gertrude tied it around her wrist. She would ask Nile about it later. Maybe show it to Victoria.

For the moment, it was all too easy to sleep and wait to see how events played out.

As the Iron Lady descended ever further into the depths of Kesar.

Depth Gauge: 3108 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.3]

Depth Gauge: 2155 m

“Alright, lets calm down. We’re all in this together now.”

In an unremarkable meeting room, Gertrude sat across the table from a very remarkable pair of guests. The Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation known as “Nile,” and the special agent of the Vekan Empire, Victoria van Veka. Circumstances had brought these three together on the Inquisitorial flagship Iron Lady, and not a minute had gone by since they sat next to each other, but antagonism was already brimming. Gertrude wanted to get on the topic of the abyssal expedition, but Victoria would not allow it. She launched into accusations without a moment’s rest, while Nile simply sat there with her arms crossed.

“Gertrude, this woman is extremely dangerous. You think you can make use of her, but you’re completely out of your depth. She stands accused of not only building clandestine infrastructure, but we have found evidence of human experimentation, including organs and tissue cultures from god-only-knows-where.”

Gertrude could have imagined it was something like that, with it being the Sunlight Foundation and all–

Nile turned her cheek and scoffed, her tail wagging so fast it was drumming on the chair.

“You completely misunderstand the assets you stole from me. I use my own tissue and DNA to test my products. But of course, you Vekans and your ignorant government are entirely run by biofascist superstitions. If you think an organoid is a living person, then I am a genocidaire par excellence.”

Nile fired back with some science, but allowing this debate was an intolerable can of worms to open.

“This is not the time or the place to define the meaning of human life.” Gertrude interrupted.

Victoria turned her own cheek. “The fact remains, Gertrude, she assembled a large amount of clandestine infrastructure for the purpose of drug manufacturing, away from prying eyes. God knows how many years it took to build all of this, where the funding came from, how it was staffed– other than being full of Katarran mercenaries! I don’t believe she is being altruistic for one second. She and this ‘Sunlight Foundation’ of hers cannot be trusted, and with her capture, the Vekan Empire would be one step closer to unraveling this syndicate and their misdeeds. Even with all of our resources, we’ve only scratched the very tip of the iceberg of what they’ve been doing. You must at least sympathize with that goal.”

Gertrude sighed. “I’m willing to share with you any information we uncover, and any information that Nile wishes to disclose. However, I am curious how you intended to extract information from her if you were to take her into custody. Nile did not strike me as someone who was willing to cooperate with you.”

Nile scoffed. “The Vekans would torture me, obviously. I’m from there, I know what it’s like. Especially to Loup who don’t practice Orthodoxy. Shimiist Loup like me are outright persecuted by the old believers, and Veka has always supported such savagery. Oh, am I getting to you now, you puffed up kitten?”

Victoria had her fists balled up at her side. “We would not have tortured her. This is ridiculous.”

“Trude, I’ll disclose to you our operating methods– but only in the Holy Land of Konstantinople, at the seat of the Inquisition. I am claiming Asylum from the Vekan Empire’s persecution. Until then, I demand that I be judged by my character and deeds, rather than by inferences marred by her bias.” Nile said.

These two were tearing Gertrude apart already. She almost wanted to scream at them.

However, she had her own convictions and her own beliefs which were playing a part.

Though she could believe that Victoria would not support torture herself, Gertrude was not so naive as to believe the Vekans would share her objections. When the Vekan Empire was just the Duchy of Veka, it was widely known to be a less civilized place than the broader Imbrian Empire. Vekans declared clan feuds, engaged in dueling, committed honor killings, practiced blood oaths and rituals, and certainly torture was neither novel nor rare for their military. High Inquisitor Samoylovych, one of Gertrude’s predecessors, had rescued Monika Erke-Tendercloud from a Vekan Sanitarium for the mentally ill. Her Orthodox family had interned her in this facility to “fix her,” and she was awfully abused. Such things were not uncommon in the hinterlands, and upon accession to the office of High Inquisitor, Gertrude witnessed them too.

Though Gertrude tried not to develop a bias, it was hard for her to ignore all the horror stories.

It was convenient for the Empire that Veka had a “warrior culture” that was internally stimulated.

This made them excellent guards for the Empire’s flank to the Mare Crisium and its strange cultures.

Despite fearing them and being disgusted by some of their traditions, the Imbrians let Veka be.

They wrote off the unsavory aspects as simply “Vekan culture” that couldn’t or shouldn’t be opposed.

So if it was Vekan culture and couldn’t be changed, then Victoria had to deal with the consequences.

“Victoria, the fact of the matter is that Nile is under my custody now.” Gertrude said, putting up a firm front. “I have a strong suspicion, and it is growing stronger, that she would have been abused in the custody of the Vekans. This is not a judgment on you personally, but releasing her to your allies is out of the question as they cannot be trusted not to violate her humanity. Since it is out of the question, I demand the issue be dropped, and I further demand that the two of you cease these needless hostilities.”

She laid out her concerns and conditions as gently but firmly as she could, hoping to stifle further tension.

First she looked to Victoria–

“Fine. I will pay close attention to your own much-vaunted ethics and see if there is any merit to your treatment of this criminal.” Victoria said, arms crossed, tongue dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“Thank you. I will endeavor be so inspiring that you come to mean that sincerely.” Gertrude replied.

Then she turned to face Nile–

“I will cherish the trust you put in me, ‘Trude.” Nile said, wagging her tail and smiling with her eyes.

Gertrude frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t trust either of you quite yet. But I hope I can at least expect you to be honorable. I want you two to shake hands right now, and at the very least, to swear to stay out of each other’s way. I don’t want to have to summon Vogt every time you two meet eyes. Are we clear on this?”

Then she stepped between the two of them, grabbed their hands, and brought them close.

Are we clear?” Gertrude asked again.

Begrudgingly, Victoria and Nile shook hands, neither making eye contact with the other.

No curses under their breath at least, not that Gertrude could detect.

“Anyway. I’ll describe the Expedition I am undertaking. Please hold your tongues until I’m done.”

And so, Gertrude began–


The Imbrian Empire officially dated its founding to A.D. 418 with the rise of Heitzing as a city-state in the northeastern Imbrium Ocean. Before this date, records were scarce, owing to a vast underwater conflict known as the “Age of Strife,” where Stations acted individually to cut each other off, sabotage each other, fight each other or steal from each other without an overarching authority– presumably after the ultimate fall of the remaining surface civilizations and total loss of contact. Owing to this mass hysteria and a resulting regression in society of hundreds of years, little was empirically known about the Strife.

Because of this, the Strife era was thought of as a sort of tribulation that ended in a miracle, where divinity graced humanity and saved them from assured extinction. There were a multitude of stories, myths, legends. Some of these were recorded into the remains of the early station computers which had lost much of their function due to civil collapse and neglect. It was from these accounts that Solceanism’s first precepts were drawn; as well as the only records of the origins of the first Emperor of the Imbrium.

Azazel Nocht I had a number of associated legends, but the most common was that he descended into what would become known as the Abyss of Nocht, now the site of the Imperial Capital of Heitzing, and from the abyss, he returned with the power to end the strife and unite the stations of what would become the Palatine state. By some accounts he pulled Heitzing from the Abyss, and this explained why Nocht’s Gorge had collapsed and shut. Others said he was graced by the divine and accepted as a God Emperor.

From Heitzing and the formation of the Palatine, the Empire expanded to encompass Rhinea (displacing declining Shimii kingdoms in the process), as well as Bosporus’ North and South (subjugating more Shimii, Loup and dark-skinned Bosporan peoples), to Buren to the northeast, with Katarre as the limit, and what would become Skarsgaard, or now the Holy Empire of Solcea (previously the Gallian Kingdoms and other small station-states.) Contact was made with the Vekan proto-state which was vassalized, and the Empire stabilized, slowed down, but eventually, expanded to the Nectaris to form the Colonies.

Azazel Nocht I crowned his own sons, establishing a dynastic line and creating the Imbrian Empire, but from 516 A.D., where the Empire first encountered the Republic of Alayze and went to war with them, records of Nocht I became scarce, and his dynasty took prominence. He must not have been a God, and thus met mortality. This is what was commonly accepted to have occurred and taught in schools.

Even with station computers and other such technology, time and political convenience eroded what was known and shaped what was thought. Over time, the Nochts became more divine than human, until they ceased to be either of the two. Eventually, the line of Nocht ended with the Fueller Reformation between 932 and 934 A.D. All record of the divinity of the Nocht family and their mythical exploits was expunged and driven from the public consciousness. Konstantin von Fueller, the first non-Nocht Emperor, struck the name of Nocht from the Empire itself, and declared that the “hypnosis” that the Nocht family had put over the Empire was now broken. The Nochts were mere men, and they had been defeated. The Engineers of the Fueller family brought about an age of secularism and materialist rhetoric.

But of course, hundreds of years of superstitions did not just die with one man nor with his family.

There still remained the mythical descent, etched into the collective imagination.

The Abyss continued to tempt the people of the Imbrium with its alluring legends of power and splendor. It had almost the same reputation as the photic zone, of a place where daredevil explorers could find mythical realms and lost islands of Strife era civilization to plunder. But such people were only legends. Outside of the Katarran mercenary culture and its tall tales, there were few successful stories of descent into the Abyss. Horrific beasts, sights so terrible they melt the mind of the beholder, disorientation and the threat of being spirited away– people who ventured into the abyss never came back. Or perhaps, it was easier to believe that if they came back whole and hale, then they never went at all and were lying.

Most of them were probably lying; but who could determine truth from fiction in such a situation?

The governments of the Imbrium, whose base of control lay in the zone of human activity, had let the Abyss rest unperturbed for hundreds of years. There was always a greater problem or a more lucrative venture right in front of them, between 1000 and 2000 meters– governments rarely saw need to venture further. Whenever they did, they sponsored some quackish expedition that was already dead set on doing so. If they came back, it was always in failure with nothing to show for it. If they never came back, it didn’t matter one bit. Even the secular Fueller regime had done little to stir the pot of Abyssal exploration, sponsoring ultimately less such trips than even the Nocht family, and publicizing none of them at all.

Perhaps that was the influence of a certain someone at play– someone who had experience in this realm.

According to Norn von Fueller, Kesar’s Gorge held a habitat below 3000 meters depth. Gertrude Lichtenberg believed staunchly that this habitat held her origin story, and perhaps the origin of her power. And she did not intend to stop there. Norn had taunted her to go even deeper into the Katov mass, and Gertrude intended to do so. This was her last gambit. She would retrace Nocht’s steps into the eldritch shadow that lay beneath humanity’s eternal coffin in the depths of the Imbrium. Come hell, high water, or madness.

She already felt like she had been through hell in spirit. So now she would sink in it, and rise again.


“Norn is just trying to get rid of you. She is sending you on a suicide mission.” Victoria bluntly said.

After a brief explanation of the history of abyssal exploration as Gertrude understood it, Gertrude laid out her grand ambitions for the trip to Kesar’s Gorge. Of course, it was immediately shot down by Victoria.

“Norn would not do that. We have a history together. I know her better than you.” Gertrude said.

Victoria briefly seemed to bristle at the idea. As if offended in a snap reaction to the second statement.

“You don’t understand.” Gertrude continued. “Norn doesn’t lie. She doesn’t feel the need to do so. Norn believes she is so powerful that deception is beneath her. If Norn wanted me dead she would have killed me. She thinks she’s above the law. She was being sincere, Victoria. There is something in the Gorge she wants me to find and I’m going to get it. And If I need to, I’ll turn it against her. That’s my goal here.”

Gertrude of course withheld that Norn delivered this information after nearly killing her.

That detail made Gertrude all the more certain that Norn was not cheating her.

But she had no ill will toward Norn and some part of her didn’t want Victoria to think ill of Norn either.

Some part of her was still a bit soft-hearted about her “Master,” to whom she owed so much.

She had to pretend that Norn was an antagonist– but deep down, she felt like she had wronged her.

“How has Veka’s abyssal exploration turned out? I’m genuinely curious.” Nile asked.

“I don’t need to disclose anything to you.” Victoria responded.

She was back to her emotionless and blunt tone of voice. Gertrude took this to mean she was calm.

However, she was still being uncooperative.

Nile meanwhile–

“The Sunlight Foundation has never ventured too deep into the Abyss.” Nile said. She gestured with a palm toward the floor. As if in response to Victoria’s uncooperative demeanor, she started an impromptu lecture that surprised Gertrude. “We have sent instruments into those holes which picked up all kinds of anomalous readings. It is difficult to communicate between the Abyss and the Aphotic Zone, and there are problems with navigation also. Euphrates and Tigris, two of my colleagues, have the most experience with such things, and even they limit their activity to no more than 3500 depth. For an outfit like ours, which has to be careful with the assets it is moving, there’s always something more important to do, relative to the effort. The Abyss is teeming with life that is only rarely agitated by human activity– they respond aggressively and view us as prey. Scientific expeditions cannot hope to survive. They must be accompanied by military assets. This massive ship might give us a ghost of a chance to succeed.”

“Um. Thank you for the disclosure.” Gertrude said. “I take it you’re invested in giving it a shot?”

“I’m uninterested in the Abyss.” Nile said. “I am only speaking as a Doctor hoping to mitigate what will be obvious harm. I am willing to offer the limited expertise I have in order to prevent possible casualties. Speaking of which, Trude, do you have a clinic aboard? I don’t believe I saw one open.”

Gertrude blinked at her. Ship’s clinics were established at the discretion of the commander, and–

“We have medics aboard, with the security team. They can administer first-aid. Our doctrine entails we should go to a Station or to a Hospital Ship after we have stabilized people for follow-up care. We’re an elite and fast-moving unit that gets a lot of requests, it’s not a good environment for long-term care.”

–she had never recruited a ship’s doctor to the Iron Lady. It had not seemed necessary before.

Inquisition soldiers could get care anywhere– until now, when that was impossible.

“You don’t have any stations or Hospital ships to go to now. Let me open a clinic here.” Nile said.

She wasn’t entirely wrong, but Gertrude was still immediately nervous about the idea.

Victoria shot Gertrude a skeptical glare. Nile sounded quite invested in her request.

“At least let me give a health check to your crew. I bet they haven’t had preventive care in months. I’ll show you how much you need a doctor, and you can decide whether you approve of my care or not.”

Gertrude glanced at Victoria, meeting her suddenly evil-looking stare. She then looked back at Nile.

“It can’t hurt, I guess. You can set up in one of the meeting rooms to do check-ups, and only check-ups, with a limited selection of tools overseen by Security. Then I’ll evaluate whether to keep it or close it.”

Victoria crossed her arms. Nile wagged her tail more vigorously and smiled with her eyes again.

“So, then–” Gertrude tried to steer back to the main topic–

“Veka’s attempts to explore the Abyss have not been successful.”

Suddenly, Victoria spoke up. Arms crossed, eyes shut, cheek turned. Her own tail stood straight out.

“There are three Abyssal gorges in Veka, the Abyss of Temujin, the Abyss of Mansa and the Abyss of Hus. We sent small military expeditions into the Temujin and Mansa gorges down to 4000 meters. Both of which were attacked by Leviathans as well as buffeted by strange weather patterns and returned with damage and not much else to show for it. In the Abyss of Hus, we found the main base of this individual at 3000 depth and aborted our mission to go deeper.” It seemed this was the most polite way that Victoria could refer to Nile in that moment. “Then we tracked her down again to a smaller, lower depth site within an inactive subaquatic volcano. I am willing to disclose that it was not only that we desired to bring her to justice– we wanted to acquire someone who had real experience with depth sites.”

“You’ve got the wrong woman for that. You want Euphrates instead. Good luck.” Nile replied.

“Hence,” Victoria ignored her and continued speaking, “why I am here now, why I was chasing her, and why I have interest both in this individual but also in your expedition Gertrude. Not everyone has an Irmingard class dreadnought to spare for a journey like this. So it is beneficial for me to join you. Perhaps if you can uncover something valuable, I will rescind my intentions toward this individual.”

Gertrude felt her heart leap. That withdrawn cat had finally begun to cooperate!

“I am glad you actually opened up. It looks like everyone stands to profit here.” She said.

“Don’t get used to it. I’m only here to safeguard Vekan interests.”

Gertrude felt her heart tumble off a rooftop and crash into the street.

Nevertheless, at least everyone could finally agree that they wanted to be here now.

“Since it appears everything else is in order, the meeting is adjourned. You two have room assignments in the officer’s hall, get some rest.” Gertrude said. “I need some too. Your quarrel woke me up at like 0200.”

“Of course. A poor sleep schedule does explain your depressed countenance.” Nile said.

“I don’t care what you do. Just inform me if I’m required for anything.” Victoria said.

Without another word, Gertrude left the room feeling thoroughly exhausted by those two.


Depth Gauge: 2498 m

Gertrude shut the door to her room behind herself. She promptly dropped her coat on a nearby chair, undid her tie and the buttons of her shirt, and practically ripped her hair loose from its bun, and fell down into bed. Her black bra clung close to her swarthy olive skin, slick with sweat. She began feebly reaching around behind her back, but aborted trying to unhook the bra. She was completely wiped out.

Staring at the roof, at first without expression. Then, compelled as if by a mad passion to smile.

To laugh– to crack up into nearly sobbing laughter.

“What a farce! What a stupid farce!”

She raised her arm over her eyes, covering them with her sleeve.

“Do I really think I’m capable of any of this? Am I suddenly dreaming of being Emperor Nocht now?”

She was so exhausted. That burst of laughter felt like it took the last of her strength.

Unable to move, all she had was the ceiling above and her own wicked passions.

Gertrude was nothing more than a trumped-up military policewoman.

This enormous ship, all of her weapons and her crew, all of it was just from playing politics.

She hadn’t won any of it from just her strength.

Her weakness and helplessness frustrated her to no end.

Ultimately, she was just a coward. Hiding behind Norn without ever truly understanding her.

Without an Imbrian Empire, she was nothing. Her uniform meant nothing, and so she herself didn’t.

But it was not just the expedition that felt farcical either–

No. That was just the very start. Beneath the skin, everything about Gertrude was despicable.

“What rotten luck. Victoria is here too. God, I’m so pathetic. She reminds me of–“

Don’t even say it.

Don’t even think it.

Stop now. There’s only hurt down that way.

Gertrude laughed. Heavy on the bitter notes this time. Weak, sputtering laughter.

“What if I want her? Why can’t I have anything? Why do I have to lose everything?”

No response from that inner voice of self loathing.

After all, what did her mixed-up, wicked heart truly even want now?

Could she have Elena back?

Could she keep Ingrid?

Could she have–

Gertrude heard the door luck to her room slide open.

In a panic, she sat up instantly in bed–

Finding herself staring up from the edge, with legs spread and her shirt open, at Nile.

She had moved so fast that her vision was blurry, her brain rattled. She couldn’t believe this.

“I wanted us to talk alone.” Nile said. Her eyes scanned over Gertrude.

“I locked that door.” Gertrude said incredulously. Too confused to be upset.

Nile reached out and dropped a tube shaped thing with a trigger on it and a tiny screen.

“Masterkey. Creative name, isn’t it? Some irascible little woman made it. You can have it now.”

Gertrude realized how bad her posture was.

She closed her legs and held her shirt closed with one hand.

“I am this close to having you locked up in a black room for the rest of the journey.” Gertrude said.

“That would be a pity. There’s so much I can do for you after all.” Nile said.

God damn it, don’t respond to that–

Her body was instantly responding to it. But Gertrude still had her mind to resist with.

Even if her loins did stir–

“What the hell do you want? Ingrid’ll tear you apart if she notices you snuck in here.”

“That lovely lass in the next room over? She’s sleeping like a log. Relax. I am not here on any nefarious purpose. I just wanted to ask if you knew about Agarthic Weather. I have something for you.”

From her coat, she produced another object. It looked like a watch.

However, the face was completely different. Rather than numbers and hands, the face of the watch had a gradient etched into the back, and some kind of fluid trapped behind the glass. Gertrude had never seen anything like it. Nile dropped it on the bed next to the Masterkey without a second’s hesitation. She picked it up but no amount of observation could elucidate the true purpose of the little gadget.

“What is this? Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“That’s an Aetherometer. You can use it to tell the color and intensity of Agarthic Weather.” Nile said. “And I wanted you to be prepared. We’re already very close to the boundary line after all.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about!” Gertrude said.

Nile’s face looked like she was smiling behind her mask. Mysteriously pleased to be able to explain.

“Cocytus clearly didn’t train you. But I’ll oblige– our world has a layer of passively resonant emotional energy that is everywhere humans are, but invisible. This is called Aether. You can think of it almost like dark matter or the quantum world. It is observable with the right tools, but not with human eyes– most human eyes, anyway. But unlike other observable phenomena, which neatly conform to behaviors that can be documented, Aether can be as irrational as humans themselves are. Are you following me?”

In that moment, Gertrude could not possibly have responded. She was tired and aggravated and hearing nonsense which, indeed, not even Norn had ever spoken about to her. So she made no response to Nile’s sudden pseudoscience lesson beyond drawing her brows in and narrowing her eyes at the Loup.

“In the Abyss,” Nile continued, “the Aether exists in a state of agitation that has profound psychological effects on humans. It starts anywhere from 2500 to 3000 meters deep. I will make recommendations as to how to deal with the Weather once I see which color of weather we are going into, and you can use that Aetherometer to keep track of the weather and its severity, so you won’t be caught off-guard.”

Nonsense, pure complete nonsense.

She might as well have been whispering gibberish words like a baby.

And all the while Gertrude was trying to keep her own tits in her shirt–

“Get out of my room.” Gertrude said. “Get out. Right now.”

“As you wish. Perhaps I can accompany you some other time.”

Gertrude stood up from bed, but Nile retreated quickly with a little bow, the door locking behind her.

She stared at the locked door, briefly, her legs wavering under her weight.

Looking back at the bed with the aetherometer on it.

“God damn it.”

She lost her temper. And she was losing the battle she had been fighting with her own stamina.

“Ingrid is right. I’ve been running myself too ragged for too long.”

She practically collapsed into bed moments later, sleeping deeply and dreamlessly.

While on her bed, the fluid on the discarded aetherometer turned a pale blue.


Depth Gauge: 2540 m

True horror reared its head the next day, after a night that felt like a blur.

“I’m not even well rested! I still feel like crap!”

Gertrude put her head down against the cafeteria table. Her muscles ached, her head was pounding.

Opposite her, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong reached a hand and brushed the top of her head gently.

In that moment, Gertrude’s heart was filled with love for that wild and beautiful brunette.

“There, there.” She cooed. “You’ll be okay. Why not rest your head on my lap?”

A lap pillow– the panacea which had cured the ails of many heroes.

Ingrid was an angel. Gertrude ill deserved her kindness.

However, she couldn’t be seen to rest her head atop Ingrid’s lean, alluring thighs.

Such a thing would call into question the High Inquisitor’s vigor and alertness.

Alas– Gertrude could have nothing. She truly was not allowed any happiness!

“Thank you. But I probably just need strong coffee. And something to eat.” Gertrude groaned.

“I’ll go get you some food. But stop whining. If you’re going to be pathetic then go all in on it and let me take care of you. This tiptoeing shit you have going on just ends up annoying me.” Ingrid said.

“I’ll rest on your lap when we’re out of this place.” Gertrude moaned.

“I’ve half a mind to break into your room somehow and make damn sure about it.”

Ingrid winked at her.

Gertrude looked up at her blearily.

“Please don’t sneak into my room. I have enough trouble with that already.”

“Huh?”

“Nevermind! Please get me some food and coffee, my head is killing me.”

“God. You’re being extra whiny today. Hopefully coffee is really all you need.”

Ingrid gave her a worried look before leaving for the cafeteria’s serving counter.

Breakfast that morning was a savory porridge with dried beef and frozen spinach mixed in, topped with a dab of margarine. It was rich, creamy, just lukewarm, imbued with a meaty flavor from having the dried beef and dry rolled oats cooked slowly in the same pot of reconstituted milk. It went down easy, just the sort of unchallenging dish Gertrude could really appreciate that morning. It was served with a side of “compote” that was essentially just tangy fruit mush as the frozen fruits disintegrated upon defrosting, and a piece of plain biscuit that had been steamed soft, presumably to spread the compote over.

Ingrid, however, had other ideas.

“Trude, where would you be without me? Here.”

She took the compote and dabbed it into the beef porridge before bringing the spoon into her lips.

Her tail wagged vigorously.

Gertrude mimed her and found the combination surprisingly tasty.

“You need to think outside the box more, Trude. Defy norms and shit!” Ingrid said.

She guffawed with a spoon in her mouth and Gertrude almost felt like kissing her.

Her smile, her enthusiastic unpretentiousness in both kindness and criticism– she was a treasure.

I wish I could feel like I haven’t lost anything just from having you.

It was a sick thought that sawed her heart in two. But she couldn’t help thinking it.

Along with the meal, Ingrid had brought her a strong black coffee.

Gertrude practically downed the whole thing as if hoping to drown her thoughts.

“Whoa! Jeez. I didn’t know you were such a coffee freak. I’ve never seen you tear into alcohol that enthusiastically.” Ingrid said, watching with wide-eyed horror as Gertrude drank and drank.

Immediately after putting her glass down Gertrude felt an immense headache.

But the dagger with which she had stabbed her brain had quieted her evil thoughts.

She did feel much more alert too.

“I’m fine.” Gertrude said, through a slight bodily tremble. “Let’s check in at the bridge.”

“Alright. But hey– is something the matter?” Ingrid asked.

She stood up and followed Gertrude along the Iron Lady’s halls.

While they walked, Gertrude thought of how to put her feelings delicately.

“Victoria van Veka is an old school friend of mine.” Gertrude said. “She and I and Elena von Fueller went to school together. I was horrible to her in the past. It was rather painful to get her cooperation now.”

Gertrude expected the worst after mentioning the circumstances to Ingrid. It might have stoked her envy.

But her bristly-tailed lover was not offended or threatened by the sound of it.

“You can’t take back bullying her in school or whatever the hell you did, and you won’t ever change her mind if she doesn’t want it.” Ingrid said, with casual ease. “It sucks, but you can’t go back and change it. Nothing you do in the present will make the past hurt less. All you can do is ask for forgiveness. Tell her you want to put in the effort to mend things, and ask her if there’s anything that can be done.”

“What if the answer’s no?” Gertrude said. It felt like an immediately childish question.

Ingrid smiled gently. “Trude, I know really, really well what it’s like having something you can’t take back and that you will never, ever be forgiven for. It’s fucked– but you have to live with it. Be happy for her; she’s alive, and she moved up in the world. And then carry on your own way with your chin up.”

Her words brought to mind the episode with the Antenora’s crew. Gertrude remembered the insinuations made by Norn’s subordinate, Yurii Anneccy Samoylovych Darkestdays, that Ingrid’s family had killed their own kind, and particularly, killed southern Loups. This was different than what Gertrude had gone through. While the scale was monumentally different, it was also the case that Gertrude was personally responsible for her own troubles. Ingrid was damned not by her own sin, but her grandfather’s crimes. Her response to that accusation was unfortunate, but it had been Samoylovych’s intention to needle her about it. Among Loup, maybe Ingrid had to deal with that situation so much, she could only get angry. Maybe that same scenario over and over drilled into her head that there was nothing she could do.

Gertrude had made her mistakes with her own hands, and would have to carry the weight of them. But that advice was still resonant. She felt gently happy that Ingrid had demonstrated such sympathy to her, even though her worries felt so pointless and childish. Ingrid was right– whether she could mend things with Victoria or not, Gertrude would have to live with the result. There was nothing else she could do.

If Ingrid could live with the legacy of her grandfather’s murders–

Gertrude could survive Victoria’s disdain.

“Ingrid, you’re really strong, you know that?” Gertrude said, smiling at her lover.

“Of course I do. I’m extremely sexy too.” Ingrid laughed. Her tail started wagging incessantly.

“I’m extremely lucky to have you by my side.” Gertrude said.

“You are! Praise me more!” Ingrid laughed raucously.

God– she was so beautiful. Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid! Gertrude momentarily felt her troubles leave her.


Average days on the Iron Lady still found themselves subject to a background hum of anxiety.

It was the stereotype that sailors and mechanics are a little bit more personable and salt of the earth, and officers are either a bit more stodgy or far more eccentric; but on a Dreadnought, the whole affair was colored through the lens of an unshakeable elite status. For naval personnel, service on a dreadnought was “making it.” A dreadnought, with its thick armor and powerful guns, was the safest ship to be on. It was the most prestigious, often in a command position in its fleet group. And because it was the largest, it had better amenities. Sailors had actual ranks, and the best of the sailors slept four to a room instead of eight to a room. Chief mechanics and engineers as well as work managers had their own rooms.

There was better food and more of it. There was a gym, the showers had stalls separating them, there was a social area, people could take more personal belongings with them on voyages. There was more freedom and more luxury, relative to other vessels. All of these incentives gave the crew the feeling that their hard work was finally being rewarded. There were few dreadnoughts in service. There was stiff competition for these posts. They had made it; they had gotten to the peak of their sailing career.

With those rewards came an expectation. Elite status had to be maintained through elite work. Sailors were expected to maintain a spotless standard of maintenance on the ship. Service level expectations were prompt. A service ticket could never “wait,” even a second. Preventive care was of the utmost importance. Not one centimeter of the ship could be overlooked. Meanwhile, officers had to be exemplary. Service on a dreadnought was such a sought after and exclusive position that an officer who made a mistake could be replaced by thousands of others that might not. Officers were expected to be highly experienced, experts in their fields and stations, with the most developed military thinking.

Orders could never be questioned. You made it to the peak; you followed along or fell from it.

Backchat was for low ratings on Frigates, dime a dozen people on dime a dozen vessels.

That expectation was not always fulfilled, and failing to live up to it was not always punished. It was said that Gertrude Lichtenberg ran a tight but compassionate operation in the Iron Lady. Because she valued long term stability, she only discarded flagrantly abusive people or those with unsalvageable failings. She did not see herself as having a crew that was elite in and of itself, but that became elite through hard work and demonstrated its status by growing stronger and tighter throughout its operations.

Nevertheless, that did not diminish the existence of that expectation. Walking down the halls was not like seeing happy faces in a station hallway, but almost like a line of students on a permanent examination period. Focused expressions, nervous expressions, confident but inwardly contrite expressions. A low hum of anxiety– this was the public life aboard a dreadnought, as one crossed the halls to and from work.

But everyone had friends, everyone had moments where they could privately let themselves be a little silly or a little loose. They were in this together, and trying to help each other succeed. Having good friends made up a good crew, and a good crew didn’t lose any of its members to outside recruitment. A good crew stayed together and grew together, and that was the feeling within dreadnoughts as well. This camaraderie protected the individuals by protecting the group, and kept everyone honest. Pure social climbers existed, but they risked shaking apart a stable house for the rest, and were not well liked.

Gertrude Lichtenberg and her closest confidantes shared such moments of lighthearted camaraderie.

They were not alone in doing so– perhaps it was the actual truth, that everyone on a dreadnought was a bit eccentric, but that everyone, also, could put on a strong face and get their work done when needed.

Perhaps the same could be said of all people, writ large.


On the bridge, the main screen had a split view.

One half had an expanded picture from the conning tower cameras. Outside the ship, the environment, wherever it was lit by the ship’s spotlights, had turned an unexpectedly deep blue. Gertrude had expected that with the katov mass density, everything outside would look red. One could still see the thick cloud of particulate matter all around the ship, but it was a deep, almost algal blue, like staring into a growth tank. On the port side of the ship, it was possible to see the distant, vague shadow of the rocky gorge wall.

On the other half of the main screen, there was a topographical map generated by sonar and laser imaging. It showed the Iron Lady as a wireframe object within a simulation of the gorge, to allow the crew to gauge its position relative to the surroundings. There were a few objects in the gorge with the ship. At that moment, they were maintaining 2500 depth. 500 meters below them in the murk, and a kilometer east, there was an object which was floating in the middle of the gorge. At 3500 depth, there was an object that appeared to be wedged into the gorge’s wall. At 5000 depth, the gorge widened, and there was a seafloor, but 2 kilometers farther east, there was a hole through which they could descend further.

“Inquisitor, Sotnyk.” Karen Schicksal greeted Gertrude and Ingrid, stifling a little yawn as she did.

On the center island seats, Captain Dreschner covered his mouth, yawning as if infected with it.

Throughout the bridge, everyone seemed a little bit fatigued and less alert than normal.

“Not just me, huh?” Gertrude asked. “Pass around vitamin drinks to everyone.”

Their vitamin jelly drinks not only contained vitamins– in fact they had more caffeine than vitamins.

“Yes ma’am. Good idea. I’ll call the kitchen.” Schicksal replied.

Gertrude and Ingrid climbed the steps to the center island and stood next to Dreschner, looking over the main screen. Ingrid whistled, impressed by the depth of the gorge, and the objects within it. Certainly, Gertrude never thought she would be down here, and she had never thought it would look blue. It was almost beautiful to behold, though truly there was nothing to actually see. All that beautiful color was just murky water and contaminated biomass wafting up from the abyss. It was a cloud of beautiful emptiness.

There was something out there, just beyond Gertrude’s reach. Centimeters from her fingertips.

That emptiness had to mean something. It had to contain something she could not see.

Otherwise, her entire life up to this point had led her to nothing, and she would die with nothing.

“What’s the situation so far, Captain?” Gertrude asked. “Anything dangerous?”

“No leviathans quite yet.” Dreschner said. He pointed at the map. “We’ve found two points of interest. There appears to be an 80 meter long metallic object below us. It could be a derelict ship. Might be worth looking into. There is additionally a larger object farther below, which may be what Norn the Praetorian desired you to find, Lady Lichtenberg. From what we can see, the exterior is at least 100 meters across and 50 meters tall. It is embedded into the gorge wall, so there is likely more to it than we can see.”

“Why is everything blue? Isn’t all that stuff out there just katov gunk?” Ingrid asked.

“Affirmative, Lady Jarvelainen.” Dreschner said. “You are correct, everything we are seeing is still shrouded in ordinary Katov mass. It has become blue instead of red, and I can scarcely imagine a reason why.”

“Is still just acting like Katov stuff normally does? Nothing is different?” Ingrid’s ears folded a little.

“As far as we have observed, it is exactly like any other cloud of Katov mass based on its turbidity. The Katov scale is still accurately predicting laser and visual fall-off. It is simply blue instead of red.”

Hadn’t there been something about blue–? It was just off the edge of Gertrude’s memory.

“It’s kinda creepy, you know?”

“Indeed. But it is still predictable, at least.”

Despite Ingrid’s lower rank, the Captain treated her respectfully as a courtesy to Gertrude.

Ingrid and Gertrude were common enough companions aboard the ship. Even before they started having clandestine trysts. Everyone knew from observing them that they were good friends and they never hid this aspect of their relationship. But Dreschner was keener still– if anyone suspected the depth to which Gertrude favored her loyal Sotnyk, it had to be him. Thankfully, he would never air such thoughts.

“What’s the scale of the mass out there?” Gertrude asked.

“At the moment, 200 Katov. We can expect worse to come.” Dreschner said.

“What’s our current speed of descent?” Gertrude said. “I’m surprised we aren’t deeper yet.”

“I ordered the helm to limit our speed to a small handful of knots.” Dreschner said. “The Iron Lady is such a large vessel that we wouldn’t have time to correct any mistakes if we descend quickly. Visibility, communications and detection are all going to get poorer and poorer, so we need to be careful.”

“I don’t want to spend more time here than we have to. But your concerns are valid.” Gertrude said.

“At our pace, we can reach the derelict or the suspected habitat in an hour or three.” Dreschner said.

“Alright. Let’s go look at the nearest object first then.” Gertrude said, without much hesitation. She understood the concerns and deferred to Dreschner’s experience here. “If it’s a derelict then we need to see what the status of its core might be. I don’t want to leave a ticking time bomb out here.”

“I was going to suggest that as well, Inquisitor. I will inform the helm of our course.” Dreschner said.

While they talked, Ingrid stood off to the side, arms crossed, tail wagging gently, staring at the screen.

“I’ll leave it to you. I’m going to go check on the hangar crews. Ingrid, coming with?” Gertrude asked.

Ingrid yawned a little. “Of course. Let’s grab one of those vitamin drinks before we go though.”

“We’re all at 10% battery, aren’t we?” Gertrude said. “Captain, tell the crew to relax a little.”

Dreschner nodded solemnly. “I know they will appreciate a more measured pace. Thank you, milady.”

Gertrude could not afford for her crew to fall apart now. Especially not by her own hands.

They were so close, so tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. There was something down there.

She stared at the diagram of the gorge, at the small Iron Lady on the screen descending meter by meter.

There had to be something down in the dark. And she had to claim it and live to tell the tale.

Or else– everything was meaningless–


Depth Gauge: 2625

Down in the hangar, the crew had put up the gantry for Victoria’s Jagd, which was painted royal purple but otherwise appeared a fairly ordinary member of its class. Now the hangar engineers were engaged in the production of small spare parts using the ferristitcher and CNC machines located in the workshop near the shuttle bay. Melted down pieces from damaged equipment could be recycled to some degree in this fashion, making for new pushrods, bolts, pump parts for hydrojets, steel tubing, turbine blades, even bullets as long as there was available powder. They could easily ferristitch a whole assault rifle out of junk.

In this case, much of the junk had come from the formerly torn to pieces Jagdkaiser, which had been largely reassembled from Jagd parts. And now, much of the reconstituted junk seemed to be going into the Magellan, which had been its torso suspended, and the limbs separated to different parts of the hangar. Work seemed to have started on it. In front of the torso, Gertrude and Ingrid found Monika Erke Tendercloud, the small woman seated on the floor and looking up at the mecha with a drawing tablet in hand. She yawned audibly, and dropped onto her back, lying down. She then saw the arrivals looming.

“Oh, hello.” She said. Gertrude thought her voice sounded a little sad. Though perhaps she was just tired.

“Is everyone having trouble sleeping?” Gertrude asked.

“I think I just overdid it. I pulled an all-nighter preparing a work program for this thing.” Monika said.

Her cheerful, hopping around levels of energy were clearly gone.

Now instead, she fidgeted slowly with the tablet, drumming fingers on it, spinning the pen.

She pointed the digital pen from her drawing tablet at the Magellan’s torso.

“I’ve got plans to turn it into a cool super-robot.” She said.

Gertrude sat down on the floor next to her, unprompted, and looked up at the Magellan.

As if it was the most casual thing in the world, and it was. It was easy to sit next to Monika.

Ingrid stared at the two of them briefly before sitting down herself.

So that the three of them were all together on the cold floor, staring up at the enormous machine.

In the presence of company, Monika’s tail began swishing gently behind her.

“Monika, I wanted to apologize–“

“No harm, no foul.” Monika replied immediately, shutting Gertrude down.

Gertrude tried to quiet her instinctual doubling down on her own guilt, and accept Monika’s grace.

Still, she felt like she should make amends somehow. She would have to think of a way.

“Puppy, do you think Gertrude is good enough to pilot a third generation super-Diver?” Monika asked.

“Don’t call me that.” Ingrid grumbled. “I think she ought to stay in the ship, to be honest.”

“Your feedback is acknowledged, appreciated and discarded.” Gertrude replied.

“Go to hell.” Ingrid said.

“Manners, puppy.” Monika replied.

“You runt, just because you’re older–“

“Manners, puppy.” Gertrude added.

“I’m going to knock both your heads together.”

Monika and Gertrude laughed.

Eventually Ingrid let herself have a bit of a snicker toward the moment.

“I’m serious though. I want to know what you think of the Inquisitor’s piloting skills.” Monika said.

“Gertrude is a fancier pilot than me.” Ingrid said. “But she lacks aggression, so she can’t capitalize on it.”

“You have too much aggression.” Gertrude said.

“She’s a fucking pussy.” Ingrid finally said.

“Manners, puppy–“

“Gertrude, don’t even.”

For the slightest moment, Gertrude let herself loosen up a bit and laughed. She glanced at Monika.

“Monika, are you just joking, or do you have a plan to push this thing’s performance even higher?”

She was briefly excited– the Magellan was already so strong–

Suddenly, Monika’s ears drooped and her gaze went down to the floor.

To her surprise, she found the previously cheerful demeanor of her chief engineer quickly darkening.

“I was just joking. I’m not good enough to beat all the brains at Rhineametalle and Rescholdt-Kolt. Or this mysterious Sunlight Foundation of yours. But I think I can at least get it back to ordinary working order.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down.” Gertrude said. “You’re fantastic, Monika. You’re a miracle-worker here.”

Ingrid wrapped an arm around Monika’s shoulder and pulled the woman’s head close to her own chest.

“Now who’s behaving like a puppy? Come on, you’re a huge brain. Biggest among the Loup.”

“I heard you brought one of them aboard, and that she was a Loup.” Monika said.

“What? Are you sulky because of that? No one is gonna replace our runt.” Ingrid said.

“I’m not a runt and I’m not sulky about that.” Monika said, averting her gaze.

“Nile is a medical doctor. She has no idea what to do with this.” Gertrude said, pointed at the Magellan.

Ingrid let go of Monika, who sighed and stared at her own feet.

“I was just thinking I’d like to chat with her about the cartridges. Pick her brain.” Monika said. “See what being a genius with the resources to make magic happen feels like. Their whole situation fascinates me. I wonder what they’re up to? Trying to make a difference in this horrible world– or making it worse?”

Of course– Gertrude should have known this could happen.

She knew Monika was a bit fragile when it came to her feelings, even though she was quite grown.

For Gertrude to have caused all this commotion to bring aboard a new scientist–

She should have considered how it would look to Monika.

“Nile will be around. You can always talk to her. But you’re worth ten of her around here.”

Gertrude reached out and fussed with Monika’s blonde hair, vigorously petting her head and dog ears.

Monika had an annoyed little expression but leaned into Gertrude’s hand a few times as she stroked her.

“Thanks for trying to cheer me up.” Monika said. “I’ve been feeling out of sorts. You can probably tell on my face, huh? I’ve been trying to get this thing fixed, but it’s been an uphill battle. All kinds of awful things have happened and I haven’t been able to do anything about it. Repairing the Divers isn’t good enough for me. I need to come up with more power. I feel awful about Baron von Castille too. I couldn’t even develop any kind of rapport with her, and she took the Grenadier. I– I should’ve done more.”

Gertrude could sympathize with Monika to such a degree that it almost hurt.

Those words sounded frighteningly like the ones swimming in the most toxic sludge of her own mind.

She felt guilty that all her failures were affecting the poor little woman, who had done no wrong.

“That Castille woman was a mess. It wasn’t your fault. She didn’t talk to anyone.” Ingrid said.

“I guess. I don’t know. It’s not enough for me to forget it like I had no involvement.” Monika replied.

“All of our tribulations are my responsibility.” Gertrude said suddenly. “I’m the one who failed.”

“Gertrude–“

“Monika, none of this reflects on you. I’m the one who has to–“

Monika closed her fists, averted her eyes, and then stood up just as suddenly as Gertrude had started.

“Gertrude, this ship doesn’t run on your own passion alone, you know?” Monika said.

And the way her words sounded, almost like a low growl, alerted Gertrude– she was mad.

“You can’t just keep saying ‘don’t worry, it was all my fault.’ You can’t keep pretending like all of us didn’t individually fall short of our own aspirations. We were all part of this. We failed in our roles. Trying to collect all our injuries on your own body doesn’t help any of us heal. It’s just frustrating, okay?”

Monika turned her back and walked away, half-running. Gertrude tried to say something, but felt Ingrid’s firm hand on her shoulder and pulled her back, forcing her to sit back on the floor and quieting her.

“Let her go.” Ingrid said firmly.

“But–“

Gertrude watched Monika storm off feeling an upswell of worry for the fragile little Loup–

“She needed to tell you that and she needs you to listen. Not to patronize her further.” Ingrid said.

“God damn it.” Gertrude put her fist to the floor. “That’s the last thing I wanted with her.”

“Monika doesn’t hate you, she’s just trying to help you. And she’s right.” Ingrid said.

“How is she right? She’s blaming herself! Did you see her? She’s so depressed!” Gertrude shot back.

Ingrid’s expression darkened.

“None of us feel proud of what’s happened since we left Vogelheim.” Ingrid said. “We fucked up, Gertrude, and now we’ve fallen from our big deal status to all of this mess. But you fucking piling it all up on your shoulders– it sucks! It doesn’t acknowledge that the rest of us are trying really hard to make up for that, and to work harder and keep this thing afloat. If it’s all your fault, where does that leave us? People who are only on this ship because you made a big deal for them to be here? And now we don’t have anywhere else to go, and can’t do anything to fix it? We don’t need this from you right now.”

Gertrude raised her hands to cover her face. She almost wanted to cry into them.

“Ugh.”

She couldn’t ever win, could she? Everything was always a fucking failure–

“Listen, I don’t want you to have a meltdown about this.” Ingrid said. “Just think about it, okay? Think about Monika’s feelings, and my feelings– not just your own for once. All of us admire you for achieving your rank, despite being just some bitch– that’s where we all want to be too. So you need to act like you deserve to be here, so that we can deserve it too. Anyway. Fuck– I’m gonna go– it’s my turn on standby. You should check in on that Sunlight Foundation creep you brought in. Keep yourself busy.”

Every word was like jamming a knife into the cracks of glass in Gertrude’s soul.

“Not you too–“

Gertrude mumbled. Ingrid fixed a sharp glare on her.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” Gertrude sighed. She had to calm down. Ingrid was right. “Okay. I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah.” Ingrid said. “I’m not abandoning you, okay? But you need time to think. For Monika’s sake.”

Ingrid patted Gertrude on the shoulder twice, stood up, and left, waving at the Jagdkaiser’s mechanics.

Leaving the High Inquisitor seated on the floor with her cape collected behind her, hugging her knees.

Staring up at the hanging torso of the Magellan, still pockmarked with the battle damage Gertrude took.

“It’s frustrating for me too.” Gertrude mumbled. “I just don’t want the rest of you to hurt like this.”

There was nobody to hear it. Nothing but the machine that had fallen apart due to her failure.


Eventually, Gertrude did pick herself up off the floor and went to inquire about Nile.

The Iron Lady had an upper and lower tier of modules, and in the upper tier, near the bridge, there was a hall that had a dozen meeting rooms. After Nile expressed her intention to open a clinic and Gertrude accepted it, she had blearily told Dreschner to allow her to set up in a meeting room of her choice. Apparently, Nile had taken up two. One had much of its furniture pushed to the second, adjacent room, which had become a warehouse for Nile’s medical supplies. In the other, she was seeing patients.

Gertrude found the room because a portable LCD had been pinned to the wall with signage.

There was a hand-drawn logo of a sunburst, a streak of water, and letters spelling NILE’S CLINIC.

Below the name, it also read FREE HEALTH CHECKUPS!

Gertrude walked up to the threshold and knocked on the wall beside the door twice.

“Letting myself in, Doc.” She called out.

“Of course! I’m almost done here. I can see you next.” Nile said.

“Inquisitor? Ma’am?”

Inside the meeting room, everything had been removed except for a small table and a pair of chairs. Nile had a wheeled table beside her chair for her tools: a stethoscope and blood pressure monitor, a roll of measuring tape and a portable scale to measure weight, and a portable with a pen, acting as a digital clipboard. Seated on the second chair was Karen Schicksal, who was taken by surprise by Gertrude’s arrival and looked like she had gone pale with fright. Nile was taking her blood pressure at the time.

“The High Inquisitor’s appearance is causing your heart rate to spike immensely.” Nile said. “That’s not unusual since she’s your boss, but I just want you to know, this clinic is a safe space, and if you don’t feel safe at your job, I will do everything in my power to protect and advocate for you, Miss Schicksal.”

“Um! It’s really fine!” Schicksal said, putting on a fake, nervous smile. “She’s quite kind to me!”

Nile held Schicksal’s hand gently in both her own, which nearly caused Schicksal to jump out of her chair.

Stroking her skin, she cooed. “If I am allowed to continue operating, I’d like to discuss the possibility of a short term of anti-anxiety medications, just to see whether they help you cope with these episodes.”

“Episodes?!” Schicksal pulled at her own collar. “Uhh, ma’am, I’m fine! I’m truly fine, and alright.”

Gertrude stood by the door like a looming shadow and watched this play out without expression.

Once Schicksal had left, in a particular hurry, Nile jotted down something on her digital clipboard while patting the chair that Schicksal had just vacated with the palm of her hand. Signaling for Gertrude to approach. But for a while, Gertrude remained at the door, because she noticed that Nile was not wearing her respirator that morning. She also noticed another thing– that Nile was quite beautiful, with a delicately curved nose, a rosy-red gloss on her lips, a smooth jaw. Her features fit her striking eyes.

Her ears twitched slightly, and their eyes met briefly, contact which the Inquisitor quickly broke.

Gertrude’s gaze then fell upon and lingered on Nile’s neck, where her infection monitor–

–was brightly green.

“I already told you; you can trust me to be responsible. I’ve been living with this for decades.” Nile said.

“Right.” Decades?! How old–? “I just didn’t think– you’d discard the respirator so soon.” Gertrude said.

She raised a fist to her mouth and cleared her throat to avoid putting her foot in her mouth any further.

“I wear it the majority of the time.” Nile said. “But with new patients, I like to show them my face as a proof of my sincerity. Of course, if there’s even the slightest risk of infection, I will wear my mask.”

She patted the chair again with her hand.

“Alright, alright. I’ll get to see first-hand how you work.” Gertrude said.

Conceding, Gertrude sat on the chair. As she was arranging her cape, Nile shook her head.

“Take the cape off. And the coat too, I need better access to your body.”

Sighing, Gertrude’s hands went from the cape to its clasps, undoing it completely. She went button to golden button on her black coat, pulling it off the long-sleeved button-down shirt she wore under it. There was the visible impression of her back swimsuit top beneath– she did not wear lingerie under it. The underwear Nile had seen her in before was a result of being woken for battle past midnight.

Feeling surprisingly freer without the coat and cape, Gertrude let them fall on the floor.

Alight with a mixture of disdain and catharsis from the sound of them sliding off.

“Good.” Nile said. They were seated next to each other–

For the first time Gertrude realized how close she was and her heart skipped a little beat.

As Nile’s hand firmly took her own arm and ran fingers down the length of it.

“Keeping fit, that’s good. Lean and firm muscles, flexible, what I’d expect from a soldier.”

Her fingers traveled to Gertrude’s shoulders, to her neck– the Inquisitor grimaced–

“Can I touch your chest? I’m just trying to get a sense of your physique.” Nile asked.

“Um. Sure.”

Gertrude imagined Nile’s hands squeezing her breasts like stress bags–

But much like before, her fingers just ran across her chest and belly, gently but firmly.

“Raise your arms over your head.”

Gertrude did as instructed. Nile narrowed her eyes and shook her head.

“You’re so stiff.” She said. “Do you stretch in the morning? How long do you spend seated?”

“I guess I sit still for a lot of my day. I never really thought about it.”

“You need to get up more. Stand up, stretch your arms, back, waist and legs. Gently– don’t treat it like a workout. Every two hours or so, more often if you don’t feel any soreness when sitting back down. Honestly, you should take this opportunity to make this a crew standard. It’d help everyone.”

Her hands slid down Gertrude’s back. “Can I get the contour of your legs?”

“Um. Yes, just–“

Gertrude sat up straight as Nile’s hands squeezed briefly around her black pants at the thigh.

“Skinny, but lean. You need to incorporate leg exercises. I bet you also skip meals regularly.”

“I–“

Before the Inquisitor could defend her self-destructive work habits any further, she stiffened up again.

Nile had picked up the digital pen and tapped on one of Gertrude’s breasts.

“That’s why these stayed such a humble size.” Nile smiled at her, her tall dog ears shaking a little bit.

“HEY.”

“It does contribute to your handsome profile.”

Gertrude would have shouted more if Nile didn’t look so lovely when she was cheerful–

“You’re the sort of person who is pretending to be healthy while destroying herself behind the scenes. As your doctor, I’m going to make sure we take the last step together to actually leading a healthy life.” Nile took her digital clipboard and jotted down something. It was the sort of portable touchscreen device that could turn her vibrant swishes of the pen into neat block text on the page. “You have to eat 3 meals a day, of regular size cafeteria portions, and I am recommending a morning and evening snack that has protein but also a healthy fat content. Furthermore, you have to stand more. Moving your body is not something you should only do at the gym after work. Your body is very stiff and your posture is not helping.”

For a moment Gertrude felt extremely self-conscious of how she was sitting and straightened up.

“You can tell all that just by manhandling me?” She replied, fixing Nile with a critical stare.

“And from watching you move around and interact with people for a few hours.” Nile said. “I can make educated guesses as to your lifestyle from my own experience. You’re not the first person I’ve told this. I have been working with the most self destructive people on this planet for decades. Chasing them around about their health, whenever I had the chance to, has prepared me for practically any patient.”

“Fair enough.” Gertrude sighed. “You really are a doctor, huh?”

Nile stared at her blinking. “You thought I was joking?”

“I thought you were some mad scientist type, not a kindly pediatrician type.”

“What do you think now?”

Gertrude felt compelled to smile. “I’m still thinking.”

Nile smiled brightly back at her. She looked amused. “Then let us continue the assessment.”

Measurements and weight came next, then reflex tests on the knee. Throughout, Gertrude allowed Nile to move her around like a doll, posing her in whatever way was needed so she could observe everything she needed to and take down all of the data that she desired. Sit up, arms out, sit down, knees bent– there was something that warm and comfortable, almost liberating, about having someone’s close attention.

They had a very animated discussion as the assessment continued.

“How many people have you seen so far?”

“Twenty-six, with you. Mostly officers. Mind releasing some sailors to me soon?” Nile asked.

“I’ll think about it. Can I get a look at their assessments?”

“Denied. As their boss, you could use any healthcare data I give you against your employees.”

“I wouldn’t do that!”

“Doesn’t matter. Doctor-patient confidentiality is a pillar of medical work. Period, end of story.”

“I just want to know if anyone needs help.”

“That’s my job. I’ll recommend changes to the work process on the ship once we are done.”

“Fair enough. But I’m telling you– I wouldn’t use the information in a biased way!”

“I don’t care. Not everything is about you personally.”

Gertrude snickered to herself, feeling like she had found a weakness in this unshakeable woman’s facade. “I thought that you joined a clandestine organization to defy norms, and here you are insisting about doctor-patient confidentiality. Are ethics only important when they’re convenient for you?”

She was being childish but– damn it, she was allowed to be childish sometimes!

Nile met her eyes, confidently, firmly. “Ethics between people are important. Confidentiality engenders trust, which creates an environment of compassion, and allows medical work to be efficient and tailored to the patient. Legislating against good tools and bold projects, are just barriers to progress.”

“Are you pro-human experimentation?”

“An unfair and loaded question.”

“How so?”

“I believe a person, given the full context and understanding of what a procedure might do to their body, should be allowed to have it from a provider who will undertake it. That is the side of bodily autonomy that our biofascist society doesn’t want to accept, including yourself, asking that question.”

“Can you give a person a ‘full context and understanding’ of being experimented on?”

“You’re missing the point. They’re not being ‘experimented on’. You are treating it like an attack on them from a mysterious source. Yes, I can fully explain to a human person with full faculties, what a gene therapy drug or a new treatment tool could do to them. Then I can trust them to make a decision for themselves, and honor it. Especially, if the alternative is certain death or a lifelong disability.”

Nile withdrew her stethoscope and began to listen to Gertrude’s body, first on her arms, her back.

Gertrude felt a little shiver wherever the doctor touched.

“I guess that’s not really what I viewed as ‘human experimentation’.” She said.

“That’s your problem, and why it’s a loaded question.” Nile replied.

Despite her passion, Gertrude never got the sense Nile was angry at her for asking.

In the clinic, her tone of voice was always measured, she was always calm.

Unlike when their video call got a bit heated yesterday. Maybe it was her bedside manner.

Maybe she didn’t feel she was being judged by a complete stranger anymore.

Still, Gertrude felt a bit better being able to converse with her like this.

“Victoria said she found evidence of human experimentation, and you told Victoria that you experimented on yourself. I guess I imagined you might be drugging people or performing surgery–“

“–without their consent? Like some boogeyman with a scalpel, maybe kidnapping babies?”

Gertrude felt like an idiot for bringing it up. “I apologize. I put it in a sensationalized way.”

Was there any other way to think about the “Sunlight Foundation” but sensationalized?

How could an Imbrium-wide conspiracy to commit scientific and medical fraud be anything but?

Still, Nile’s gentle responses made Gertrude feel like the villain, made her feel contrite.

“I use my own cells as well as special stem cells to create organoids for first round medical testing.” Nile said. “These things are living organisms, but they are not ‘people.’ You can be disgusted about that if you wish, but they are important tools. I can create a beating heart, or a semi-functional brain, or some other individual piece of a body, and then I can infect it with disease and treat it with drugs, tools, therapies, without violating a person. Once I am more certain of the effects, I seek an affected individual to care for.”

Gertrude tried to hold her own tongue and not judge Nile for her approach.

Everything she said still sounded kind of disgusting. Gertrude didn’t fully trust her about all of it.

“Has anyone turned you down?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes. There are people who would rather die or suffer on their own terms. That’s the fault of our society.”

She sat Gertrude down, and pointed with her pen at her shirt.

“Open a few buttons and hold this to your heart.”

Nile handed her the contact for the stethoscope and Gertrude did as instructed.

Unbuttoned her shirt a bit, holding the end of the scope in place while Nile listened.

“Agitated. Your blood pressure is a bit high, but it might be a temporary spike due to anxiety. Next time I check up on you, we’ll avoid difficult subjects and I will ask you to relax alone for a bit before we take the reading. To be safe, I think you ought to make sure to drink water and take your breaks from work. Avoid salting your food further after it comes out of the cafeteria– your diet is likely high in sodium already.”

She was assuming that there would be a next time– and Gertrude found herself wanting it to be so.

Gertrude began to believe this woman was a real doctor, and a good doctor at that.

Finally, Nile was done the assessments. She had been jotting everything down on her touch clipboard.

“Stand up.”

Gertrude did as instructed. Behind her, the door to the room closed.

Nile also stood with her, and took a step forward.

“Can I embrace you, in a chaste, private and professional manner?” Nile asked.

It was in the same tone as her other instructions, but the request affected the patient differently.

In a moment, the Inquisitor found herself answering as if a dam had broken and her emotions spilled out.

Her reaction was rapid and unreasoning.

“Please.”

Then, just as quickly Gertrude found herself swept up into Nile’s chest.

Her arms around Gertrude’s back, one hand stroking her head, guiding her face to the doctor’s shoulder.

“You’ve had a very difficult time of things.” Her voice cooed in Gertrude’s ear. “All of that pain is inscribed on your body and blood. Tensions bound up like knots inside you. Because you’re the Commander, you can’t let yourself falter, so you keep everything shut tightly, and you don’t show it even to your friends. You’ve done well to come this far, and you are someone who is indeed strong and strong-willed. But I am your doctor; you can let yourself be honest here. Your doctor won’t tell anybody. You can cry, if you want to. Crying to a person, honestly and without judgment, can be different than crying to yourself.”

Gertrude hardly needed prompting. Hiding her eyes in Nile’s shirt, she was already crying.

Feeling the gentle hand stroking her hair, and the soft, sweet words in her ears.

She did vent her frustration, crying, gripping the woman hard, letting herself be lost in irrationality.

She did not know for how long, but Nile held her exactly as long as she needed.


Gertrude donned her coat and cape once more. Nile unlocked the door to the clinic again.

Despite how hard and for how long she cried, the Inquisitor felt curiously refreshed.

“You can run your clinic.” She said, unprompted. “Judging by all the yawning I’m seeing around, we do have need for a ship’s doctor, and you feel like a real doctor. I’ll have you formally inducted as a member of the crew when I can. You’ll be on a Chief Petty Officer’s pay scale to start with.”

“I don’t need a wage.” Nile said. “I just need food, lodging, sundries and medical supplies.”

“You’re getting a wage. Don’t be difficult about it. It’ll be easier to justify to Victoria.”

“Do you need to justify anything to her?” Nile asked.

“Just let me handle things and don’t cause me any more stress.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Your health is my utmost concern. I will play along, then.”

Gertrude stared at her. Her skepticism had been fading, but was not completely gone.

“Is it really your utmost concern? You’re not thinking about escaping?”

Nile immediately smiled at her and wagged her tail. She looked her most girlish, almost innocent.

“Escaping? Not at all! Initially I was desperate to prove my value so I wouldn’t be imprisoned– but after today, I’m simply happy to be working on a ship again. Research environments, particularly the ones Sunlight Foundation Immortals have set up for ourselves, are lonely and sterile places. I forgot how good it feels to care for living people. How motivating other people can be for me. I’ve been working in an isolated and antisocial way for so long– it’s good to have gotten out. Do I like the circumstances perfectly well? Not at all– but the work is good. So I’ll stay, earn your trust, and clear my name to you.”

Nile winked on eye and saluted with one hand. “Commander– I look forward to taking care of you.”

Such a coquettish little response– Gertrude saluted back. Laughing a little inside.

Outside, smiling in a professional, chaste and measured way.

“Glad to have you aboard, doctor.”

When Gertrude turned to leave, Nile exclaimed to herself and hailed her again.

“Oh! Inquisitor– did you wear the aetherometer that I gave you?”

Gertrude paused, and half turned to meet Nile’s gaze again.

“That thing you gave me when you snuck into my room? I want to forget that whole episode.”

She had left it in her bedroom, completely forgotten.

“It’s important. Right now, I believe a lot of the crew are becoming fatigued due to the Blue Weather.”

“Blue Weather?”

Nile put her fists to her hips. “You really retained none of what I told you?”

Gertrude had a snippy response. “It was late! I was in lingerie almost collapsing! Look, if the crew is fatigued, I’ll let Dreschner and Schicksal know you have authority to issue nutritional supplements and raise concerns as ship’s doctor. Work with them to adjust the work schedule. You can debrief me about your color theory later. We’re about to embark on a mission and I need to be available.”

“Ya Allah!” Nile groaned, momentarily lapsing into Shimii-speak. “You need to work on that stubborn attitude of yours– Fine then. I’ll do what I can about the crew without bothering you for now.”

“Look, I’ll be available later. Thank you for everything Doctor. I have to go.”

“My pleasure.”

Folding her ears with a bit of a sigh and a bit of shrug, Nile let Gertrude leave the clinic.

It had been close to two hours since she left the Bridge and she felt a sense of urgency.

They must have been close to the “object” by now. Gertrude started running in the hall.

By the time she arrived at the bridge, Gertrude found Victoria standing by the center isle–

–and something enormous on the main screen that was captivating all eyes on the bridge.

“We were just about to call you, Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “Look there!”

Gertrude stood off to Victoria’s side, staring up at the main screen, taking in the picture.

“It’s an anarchist ship. Look at that rough marking on the hull.” Victoria said.

Just ahead of the Iron Lady’s spoon-shaped prow, there was an Imperial cutter, close to 80 meters in length, holding depth but unmoving. A pair of jet anchors led from it into the marine fog, and judging by the stiffness of the cables, they had dug into the cliff wall about 150 meters to the left. One of its fins was turned up and the other down for no particular reason. Its 76 mm single gun turret mounted on the deck was pointed backward from the prow as if aiming for its own conning tower. On the hull, where the flag of the ducal or station patrol fleet or the specific naval insignia might be found, the old livery was scratched out. In its place, there was a rough red A within a circle and framed by a drawing compass.

“Have we had any contact with them?” Gertrude asked.

“We tried. No response.” Schicksal said. “What’s eerie is that we can ping the ship and get an automated signature packet back from the acoustic router, so the ship has electric power but the crew isn’t communicating even in the simple ways. For a derelict, we would expect nothing back, and if there’s people to rescue, and operational systems, we would receive an SOS back. It’s– It’s kinda scary.”

Gertrude looked back at the screen. She had expected a derelict, but not like this.

An unresponsive but operating anarchist ship, stuck in place amid the blue biomass.

Not what she had come into the abyss for– but maybe something she should have been expecting.

“Are you planning to board it?” Victoria asked.

“I am. I want to see what happened to them. So we can avert it here.” Gertrude replied.

“Good. I will join the boarding team then. No objections.” Victoria said.

An alarming declaration, but there was nothing Gertrude could do to dissuade her from this course. Not with the determination on her face. All she could do, then, was to join the boarding party herself as well. Because the Cutter was tight, the boarding party would be small. It might just be the two of them, even.

Delving into the bowels of a ghost ship in the Abyss. What could possibly have happened?

Depth Gauge: 3002 meters
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins Of The End [S1.2]

“Gertrude,”

A soft voice that was difficult to read into. Void of emotion, but direct and determined.

She was blunt, and never wore her thoughts on her face. Gertrude knew this very well.

That chestnut-brown haired, cat-eared girl with the olive skin, much fairer than Gertrude’s own.

She was a head shorter, but she never spoke as if she had to speak up, or endure being spoken down to.

“Her life is going to be far more dangerous and complicated than you seem to realize. It’s not enough to have this little dream world with her here. She’ll be taken away from you. You need to start thinking about how you’re going to protect her. If you don’t– then I’ll take her away from you myself.”

There was no one else whom Victoria spoke to with such conviction and passion.

It was because she actually respected Gertrude enough to criticize her.

Nevertheless, Gertrude slapped her across the face.

She was a teenager. She couldn’t control herself. It didn’t matter that they had a rapport.

It didn’t matter that they could have had feelings for each other.

Gertrude swung her hand with so much more strength than the girl in front of her.

Victoria face snapped aside, red in the cheek. She lost her balance and fell, heaping insult on injury.

Her accusatory gaze met Gertrude’s again very quickly. Defiant, righteous, because she was.

She didn’t say anything else. She’d said what she wanted to, and Gertrude gave her response.

Gertrude had saved Victoria from such abuses from their “friend” Sawyer before.

Striking Victoria was a horrifically low moment. A snap instant that destroyed possibility. Perhaps, had she any power to conceptualize, she would have realized back then what an omen this was. How it presaged all the evil she was capable of, all the harm she would do, how she would hurt everyone she loved.

Back then, she was full of wicked feelings, but–

In her heart, through all the wickedness she felt in that moment, she was ashamed of what she had done. Immediately ashamed as soon as she swung her hand, as soon as fingers struck the soft, fair flesh of Victoria’s cheek. That was not how she wanted to conduct herself, but it was never how she had intended to behave toward that girl specifically. She had always wanted to view her as someone she could protect. So she was ashamed of failing to live to that. Ashamed if Elena found out about that unjust deed.

But shame was not enough to set her on the right path. She lost something– but not enough.

Victoria.

Victoria,

Victoria–! as much as Gertrude hated to admit it, back then, she was becoming someone–

Someone, in the gentle haze of her school memories, whom Gertrude thought she might– feel–

burgeoning– but like everything about those unlucky girls, it was nipped in the bud–

Watching her walk away, back then, a younger Gertrude felt an immense frustration with herself.

But her path did not change at Luxembourg School For Girls.

It led, painfully, inexorably, to where she stood a decade later.


Depth Gauge: 2112m

“Situation report! I saw the preliminaries but I need a status update now!”

Gertrude rushed into the Iron Lady‘s bridge, fully in uniform, sucking down a vitamin jelly pouch and discarding it into a waste chute as she stepped onto the center island next to Captain Dreschner. She made her declaration, but there was already a good amount of information just on the main screen. There was a positional map that showed the inner and outer radius of a sonar and imaging scan, with the Iron Lady at its center. Five kilometers away and approaching, there was a small ship, perhaps a custom civilian vessel. Fifteen kilometers away and approaching, was a much larger ship– an Imperial Ritter-class.

“Ma’am!”

Karen Schicksal stepped below the center island and saluted.

“At 0200 hours, our sensors issued a warning that we had been struck by a powerful active pulse from an enemy detection array. Per protocol, we responded with our detection and imaging efforts, and discovered two approaching vessels from the Vekan direction!” Her voice was trembling only slightly. Her posture was stiff and her shoulders deliberately locked as if keeping her head in place. Despite looking a little ridiculous, Karen was delivering her report quite well. “We have no prior profile data on the smaller vessel, but it is the size of a personal yacht, so we believe it must be a custom civilian model. Such models hit the private market every year. But the larger ship had its profile entered into the Navy Database. It’s the Vekan Ritter-class Cruiser Leader, Aranjagaan! Both vessels are moving toward us at top speed! Neither ship made any attempt to disguise its posture ma’am! I believe they may be in combat!”

She was sputtering out a little at the end, but Gertrude nonetheless smiled affirmingly.

“Thank you, Communications Officer! Captain, what is your read on the situation?” Gertrude asked.

At her side, Dreschner briefly shut his eyes to consider his words.

Gertrude had a hunch that the smaller vessel might be victim of some kind of persecution.

For a military Cruiser to be chasing a private yacht, it had to be a political crime.

Otherwise patrol cutters would have been the ones going after smugglers or enforcing border crossings.

“There is a possibility that the smaller vessel is a runaway Vekan aristocrat or industrialist.” Dreschner said. “Or an otherwise high society or connected individual. Otherwise, for a high profile vessel like the Aranjagaan to be chasing it doesn’t make sense to me. One thing we’ve witnessed since the death of the Emperor is the rise of many highly ideological factions– it could be that this is someone hoping to flee to Rhinea, Heitzing or even the Union. It may be worth contacting them and ascertaining the situation.”

“I agree, Captain.” Gertrude said. “But what rotten luck. All we wanted to do was go into this gorge.”

There was an element to this confrontation which hung foremost in Gertrude’s heart, sending a painful chill through her core. She would not tell it to anyone. But she knew well who was in command of the Aranjagaan now. Before the Empire fully collapsed, when such information was still being shared willingly into the databases at Naval HQ. Gertrude had already learned of Victoria selling herself to the Vekan monarch Carmilla, but she would thereafter discover her appointment as a “special agent” whose flag was borne by the Ritter-class Aranjagaan, fastest and newest of the Grand Eastern Fleet’s Cruisers.

God damn it, I don’t want to hurt her.

Out of that ill-fated little clique of lost souls at Luxembourg School For Girls–

Fighting Sawyer was not a problem, she had always despised Sawyer anyway and even at their friendliest moments their repressed antagonism was only barely affable in nature. They couldn’t have been said to be rivals, even that was too positive. When they laughed together, when they smiled at each other, it never moved them more than centimeters away from blows. Sawyer was someone Gertrude wanted to draw and quarter her, to strip and brand her with hot iron. She could have tortured her and laughed.

Such vitriol rose out of her heart when she heard that name, it almost caused her to feel ashamed.

But, the thought of fighting Victoria was awful– Victoria was someone that Gertrude had once–

I can’t even say it. I can’t even say it. I’m such a god-damned coward.

Their school days at Luxembourg had been a whirlwind of confusing emotions.

But all of them had been broken apart too quickly to resolve them.

They were too young to sort anything out before all their decisions were made for them.

Despite this– Gertrude did not want to have to fight Victoria (van Veka.)

However, she was torn, because this could also be a good opportunity. Veka was riding pretty high and mighty at the moment, and an escapee with sensitive information could help Gertrude’s position. She needed intelligence, desperately. She at least had to confirm with the smaller vessel what situation they were in. Even if it led to a confrontation with Victoria. She couldn’t escape the drama hurtling toward her, because she needed to enter the abyss. So she might as well see if she could turn it into some advantage.

There was nothing to decide. There was only one card to play if she wanted to stand her ground here.

It really was such devastatingly bad luck that they would come here of all places.

Gertrude stood from her seat and made her declaration to the crew.

“As soon as the smaller ship is in laser range we must hail it immediately and demand a connection. We need to take custody of it so we strengthen our position here when the Vekans arrive. Depending on what their story is, we will release them to the Vekans or grant asylum– so we must make preparations to resist the Vekans as well. Have Jarvelainen sortie in the Jagdkaiser, and Clostermann in the Jagd. We will negotiate with the Vekans but we must maintain standoff posture. I want weapons ready, just in case. In the event of battle we will want to quickly disable the Aranjagaan’s weapons and preferably capture it.”

In a shooting battle, the Iron Lady had all the advantages on the Aranjagaan.

That was not the tension Gertrude felt in that moment. She was confident she could win if it became a battle, but she did not want a battle to proceed to begin with. She did not want to start a shooting war with the Vekan side of this border, or worse, to kill Victoria van Veka in such an event. She dearly hoped that everything could be resolved smoothly, somehow– but she had to be ready for the worst.

“Tell Erke–“

For a moment, Gertrude felt the weight of what she was saying and it made her pause.

“Tell Erke to load the cartridge, but instruct Jarvelainen that she cannot fire without permission.”

“Cartridge, ma’am?” Schicksal asked. The crew had not all been briefed on what the Jagdkaiser could do.

To avoid unnecessary anxiety among them.

“Monika Erke-Tendercloud will know what it means.” Gertrude replied. “And so does the pilot.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Schicksal was a professional. She would not complain about classified information.

The crew at the hangar got underway with combat preparations, and the helm turned the Iron Lady to face the direction of the enemy. Detection staff paid close attention to the data sources being fed into the prediction model from the sensors, with hydrophone witnesses keeping an ear out for anomalous sounds in case the computers missed anything. Gunnery and missile staff ran health checks on their weapons.

Gertrude sat back on her chair and watched the blips on the map inch closer to Kesar’s Gorge.

She took her tall inquisitor’s hat off and laid at her side, revealing her dark hair, tied in bun.

“Crown feeling too heavy?” Dreschner asked.

“I don’t think of it as a crown. It’s been closer to horse blinders.” Gertrude said bitterly.

“Well, if you take full control of the Inquisition, you can decree a new hat design.” Dreschner replied.

That drew a bit of a laugh from Gertrude.

While the Inquisition had been her vehicle to try to remain at Elena’s side, it alienated her from almost every other possible friend and ally. The Inquisitor was a figure of dread. The uniform of the High Inquisitor was proof of Gertrude’s single-minded devotion to serving Elena– a devotion that now felt foolish and shameful. She couldn’t discard everything, but she could discard the stupid hat.

Fifteen minutes later, the smaller, faster-moving vessel had entered the Iron Lady’s communication range.

“We’ve sent an acoustic text message to the ship demanding they stop and open laser communication.”

Gertrude nodded her acknowledgment.

“Schicksal, if they respond, put them through to my personal terminal.” She said.

“Yes ma’am!”

No resistance from the runaway vessel. They stopped 1.5 kilometers away as instructed, and opened a line of laser communication, transmitting video to the Iron Lady for a teleconference. Gertrude pulled up the flat LCD which was attached to an arm on the side of her chair, bringing the screen forward so she could watch, and so it could broadcast her own face back to the yacht. In a few seconds, the video quality of both sides normalized enough for them to see and hear each other almost in real time.

“This is High Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. You will follow all of my directions or I will arrest you.”

“Greetings, High Inquisitor. I may be the happiest woman you’ve ever threatened to arrest, right now.”

On Gertrude’s screen appeared a woman, clearly seated in the tight bridge of a personal yacht, lit primarily by her main screen and various instruments. Some of the objects around her looked just a little too complicated to be in a commercial yacht– Gertrude thought she saw a sonar monitoring station over her shoulder. Nevertheless, this confirmed some of her conjectures about the smaller vessel.

Her appearance brought up several fresher questions however.

Immediately, Gertrude took notice of the woman’s tall, narrow dog ears, dark brown bordering on black with a lighter brown streak partially on one side. She had very bright golden eyes and earth-toned skin, from what Gertrude could see of her face. Much of it was taken up by a mask. Stylized as a dog’s snout, it also resembled a muzzle to Gertrude’s imagination. There were vents on the sides, and when the woman spoke, her voice was clearly being output by equipment on the mask. It gave the impression it was not a simple facial covering but actually a respiration mask, like the kind issued to powered armor troops. On her neck, there was also a collar, with a square-shaped device that had a series of LEDs glowing yellow.

Beside the mask, she appeared an ordinary Loup– ordinary in the sense that she was not abnormal, but not plain. Gertrude admitted a certain affinity for Loup, but she imagined under the mask the woman must have been very beautiful, as she appeared quite arresting even while wearing it. Her hair was back-length, smooth and well kept, shiny in the lighting of the woman’s bridge, parted down the middle with short, side-swept bangs. She wore a green turtleneck sweater and black pants with a white coat, with a lanyard full of ID cards around her neck that were illegible with the quality of the video call. Her figure, from what Gertrude could tell and what her imagination automatically filled in, was tall and buxom.

“I’ll take that as intent to cooperate then. So, whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to so late in my ship’s night cycle, and what is her business that has the Vekan Empire mounting a combat response?”

“I’m afraid names are a very distant formality for me. I suppose you can call me Nile.”

Gertrude narrowed her eyes at her. A one-word codename, and she had never heard the word before–

“You will suppose nothing. Give me a real name that I can search in a database.” Gertrude replied.

Could this woman be related to that group Norn was affiliated with? The Sunlight Foundation?

“Fine.” Nile’s eyes shut briefly and she sighed in her mask. “A name I never use is Hilana Tarik.”

That did not sound like a Loup surname–

“Before you say anything, I’m a Khedivate Loup. Or was– whatever. We’re rare these days, but we exist.”

“Don’t presume I’m so ignorant, Hilana Tarik.”

Gertrude was just about to ask why she had a Shimii name. Thankfully the woman interjected.

And so Gertrude could pretend she was not about to make an ass of herself.

“Ugh. I’d honestly rather you call me Prisoner B or anything else.” Nile said.

“Fine. I’ll call you Nile on one condition–“

It was a gamble, but at worst she would just look foolish. She needed to confirm her hunch.

Gertrude flicked a switch, and a shield of soundproof sheets rose around the island in the middle of the bridge. It encompassed Gertrude and Dreschner’s raised seats only, leaving out even Schicksal.

Dreschner gave her a brief look before turning his gaze back to the main screen.

Once she was sure the crew would not be listening to her speaking out loud, Gertrude continued.

“–Are you familiar with the ‘Sunlight Foundation’?” She asked.

“Oh. Interesting. Very well. In that case, you should call me Nile. I am a boss of that outfit, after all.”

Behind the mask, the woman’s expression was hard to read, but she sounded obviously elated.

Gertrude’s hunch was right. An eccentric-looking woman insisting on a one-word name.

Gallivanting around the ocean doing whatever she wanted, even if it flew in the face of the law.

Norn had always kept the Sunlight Foundation’s affairs distant from Gertrude.

Though she knew of them through Norn, she knew little else, little overall. Only that they were helping to supply equipment for Imperial clandestine operations under Prince Erich’s orders. She had interacted only briefly with Potomac, the SF’s representative aboard the Antenora, who kept largely to herself. Norn had attacked Potomac, so their relationship must have been fractious. Based on the technology in the Jagdkaiser, this was a dangerous group and did not seem like the sort of people Norn would get along with. Not that Gertrude could judge Norn for her affiliation whatsoever– the Inquisition had their fair share of grotesqueries at their beck and call, such as the Jäger corps, that Gertrude also kept hidden.

“I am an acquaintance of Norn von Fueller. Through her, I came into contact with your organization.”

“Cocytus? Oh dear. You must have a very negative impression of us, I assume.” Nile said.

“You’re correct. I don’t think highly of you whatsoever.” Gertrude said. “But it is not negative enough that I’d let the Vekans strip you and tear your in half on a rack when I could make use of you myself.”

“Ah, what an interesting imagination you have. I wouldn’t mind letting you use me, Lady Lichtenberg.”

Gertrude saw the woman’s golden eyes narrow and briefly lost composure at that lustful tone of voice.

“Keep it professional or you’re coming with me in chains.” Gertrude demanded. “I know you people are not normal. I won’t fall for your tricks, Nile. Without mincing words or playing games, explain yourself.”

“Of course, High Inquisitor.” Nile replied. “It is as you suspected– I am part of the Sunlight Foundation and I am in fact one of its managers, or ‘Immortals’ as a certain theatrical woman deemed to term us. I don’t have as much of a big head as her. I am part of this organization because they are at the bleeding edge of science. Without arbitrary regulations or religious proscriptions. I have no grander interests.”

She sounded like a psychopath who wanted to toy with human lives outside the bounds of ethics.

Or maybe that’s just what they all sounded like to her after learning about the Jagdkaiser.

“I see. What did you do for this organization, Nile? Tell me about your role.”

Nile shut her eyes again and crossed her arms. “I am by profession a medical doctor, specifically an epidemiologist, but lately I have been working in logistics. I founded a project within our organization to find ways to increase production of certain medical drugs and lower the cost to produce.”

Now she sounded proud. Gertrude did not really believe the magnanimity she was trying to imply.

“Then I assume this has to do with why a Vekan Cruiser is on your tail.” Gertrude said.

“Normally, our facilities are hidden inside abyssal gorges, just within the concealment of red biomass waves but not deep enough to create further difficulties. Unfortunately, the Vekan Empire has of late become very interested in abyssal exploration. Veka was my territory, so it’s been an issue.”

“The Vekans found your drug lab, toppled over your operation, and put you to flight.” Gertrude replied.

In that instant, the woman’s ears rose straighter than ever and she shot a glare at the Inquisitor.

“Leave it to an Inquisitor to make it sound so criminal.” Nile grunted, sounding aggravated. “My ‘drug lab’ as you put it, was working on gene therapy and anti-retroviral solutions. Imbrian companies charge hundreds of thousands of marks per treatment for these, while I have been working to make them available at cost of production. I am not some street dealer feeding people’s vices. You can hand me right back to the Vekans if you think the misgivings of Cocytus are enough to condemn my work.”

Gertrude was taken aback by that sudden passion. For a moment she felt like a child put in her place.

Her impression of the woman completely changed. That wasn’t the sound of a cynical profiteer.

She wanted to apologize, but it would have betrayed too much weakness in the middle of this discussion.

“I believe you. Your passion sounds genuine.” Gertrude said. Her voice trembled very slightly at first as she said her first words since Nile raised her voice so potently. “It explains your equipment as well.”

“My equipment? You mean this?” Nile ran a finger along her muzzle. “This is for the protection of others, not myself. I am a victim of orphan diseases as well, Inquisitor. That’s where my passion comes from.”

Gertrude blinked. She struggled to find an inoffensive way to ask what she wanted.

“Is it– Is it safe to have you aboard? Do you need to quarantine?” She asked.

She was sure that despite her best efforts she had made an ass of herself.

“No, I am fine. My personal protective equipment is more of a precaution.” Nile pointed out her collar. She sounded, thankfully, like Gertrude’s bumbling about her condition did not offend her. “These lights represent my viral load. I’m only infectious when they are Red. Yellow means I’m due for treatment, which I’ll administer as soon as I have time and a sense of safety. As long as they’re Green, I am a completely ordinary individual. I can join the crowds, be close to people, even have penetrative sex, without issue.”

Gertrude tried not to think anything at all about the last item– and failed to do so.

She was composed enough to say nothing about it, however, and air none of her lurid visions.

“Alright– Umm, well, thank you. For being up front about it.” Gertrude replied.

“It’s nothing. So– we had business we got sidetracked from.”

“Right. Nile– if you request asylum, I will grant it. But to the Vekans, I’ll present it as an arrest.”

“I must admit I don’t quite relish coming into the custody of anyone involved with Cocytus.” Nile replied. “But I have no choice at this juncture. You do feel different from Cocytus– and even kind of cute.”

Gertrude tried not to visibly wither under the attention. “I am not a copy of Norn. I make my own decisions. I’ll be up front. I’m only taking you in to acquire more information. I am on a journey into the abyss here to unearth Norn’s secrets. Since I am only using you, you had better prove useful.”

Nile laughed. “It’s as I said before, High Inquisitor. I don’t mind you using me. In any capacity.”

“Quiet with the innuendos.” Gertrude grumbled. “You better behave when we bring you in.”

“I’ll be as a puppy on her leash.” Nile replied, clearly smiling behind her muzzle, her ears wiggling.

Gertrude would have been lying to herself if she pretended it was only a naked power grab.

Her soft spot for Loup, an exploited and oppressed people, made Gertrude want to view Nile through a lens of sympathy, especially after what she said. She had to be cautious about having a narrative spun on her, but it was difficult to be stone-hearted toward her story. Perhaps Nile was different from Potomac. Maybe there was merit to the Sunlight Foundation. She would hope to find out through Nile’s conduct.

However, that was not something the High Inquisitor could admit to anyone.

To everyone else, she would only say what was the most obvious truth about the situation.

Gertrude had to use the law and position she was invested in, or it would become meaningless.

On some level, she had to resist the Vekans to prove the Inquisition still had independence.

Furthermore, anything the Vekans took was something Gertrude herself would never have access to.

This was an opportunity to potentially recruit a talent Gertrude would need to reach Norn’s level.

Or if she had any faint aspiration of surpassing her and winding her own path in this era of chaos.

It only made sense in the moment to take Nile from them– whatever the future consequences.

However, now, it was impossible not to confront Victoria. But perhaps that had always been impossible.

“Nile, dock into the port sidepod chute. We’ll help you extract any equipment from your vessel. I’m afraid we can’t bring the entire thing into the Iron Lady, so we’ll have to ditch it afterward.” Gertrude said.

“I won’t miss it, don’t worry. I look forward to meeting you in person, Lady Lichtenberg.”

Nile bowed with one hand over her chest, and ended the video call.

Before lowering the soundproofing and giving her directions–

Gertrude fell back against her chair with a deep sigh.

I’m in over my head, aren’t I?

At her side, Dreschner had pretended not to hear anything he wasn’t told, as usual.


“We have met with the guest. We are processing her with caution and inspecting the vessel.”

Gertrude received a call from her head of security, Vogt, a broad, burly, and big-shouldered blond boy with a nearly blank expression. He and his men and women were armored up and had plastic visors over their faces. Nile was on camera, in the background behind Vogt, and looked pretty calm and collected for a woman surrounded by burly men with shields and prods. Nobody was being aggressive– Gertrude’s forces were very well trained and disciplined. Anyone who had broken under pressure while Gertrude was in command was dismissed immediately. She had no use for loose cannons or cowards.

These were not only her standards, but those of a dreadnought crew.

An Irmingard’s bountiful amenities were reserved for elite and prodigies.

Lesser-thans served in Frigates.

“Thank you Vogt. I’m about to get into another lengthy discussion. Hold Nile for now. Treat her well.”

“She will be treated with the utmost courtesy, High Inquisitor.” Vogt said.

That of course meant– if she threatens you, High Inquisitor, she’s paste. Until then, she’s perfectly safe.

Gertrude was glad to have found someone like Vogt in the trenches of the Inquisitorial police.

“High Inquisitor, the Aranjagaan entered communication range.” Schicksal said. Her voice was firm, but her face was shimmering with sweat. Her hair was damp. That woman’s anxiety always came out somehow. Nevertheless, she carried on professionally. “We sent an acoustic text to desist at a 3 kilometer range. We have instructed them send comm buoys one kilometer out and that we will do the same.”

“Good idea. A meet in the middle buoy relay– it’ll keep both of us in standoff range.”

“Yes ma’am– I thought it would be amenable to all parties, ma’am– prevent an escalation–“

“You’re doing a great job Schicksal. Keep it up.”

A little bit of praise–

Schicksal’s eyes drew wide and she nodded her head vigorously. “Thank you ma’am!”

–and the desired result. Schicksal was a good soldier. She just needed to be built up a bit.

On the main screen, Gertrude kept her eyes peeled for any signs of compliance.

Moments later–

“Ma’am, the Aranjagaan has stopped at the 3 kilometer standoff range.”

Her sonar and imaging detection team updated her on the situation.

Gertrude breathed out, relieved. “Send out a drone buoy and try to connect to them.”

“Yes m’am!”

Her electronic warfare section was ready with the drone as well.

Everything that was process-driven was going smoothly.

But soon, the human element would be fully at play. For both the Vekans– and herself.

“We are receiving a video communication from the Aranjagaan.” Schicksal said.

“Put them through to me.” Gertrude replied.

It was the moment of truth.

And immediately–

Gertrude saw the face she wished she wouldn’t have on the other end of the call.

“It’s been a long time, Gertrude. Misfortune compels us to meet once again.”

“I am still hopeful that we can have a pleasant chat, Victoria.”

She smiled, but inside, she was twisted in a knot.

Bah– why did she have to look so good–

Gertrude did not know what to expect. She was surprised, in a complicated fashion, by how closely Victoria still resembled the girl in her fondest old memories. As a woman, she still looked young and petite, with almost as much of a babyface as Elena. Rather than the pigtails Gertrude remembered, she wore her light chestnut-brown hair in a ponytail. Her ears were rounded, fluffy and soft-looking. Her olive skinned and soft features were so exact to the memories, those appraising eyes and guarded expression.

Victoria hardly ever smiled. To see her neutral, unsmiling face was the most familiar sight of all.

Her style was quite different, however.

Gertrude was used to seeing Victoria in little dresses, blouses, bloomers. She had really taken to the imperial lifestyle of late, it seemed. She was dressed in what appeared to be a button-down shirt and tie, the collar peering out of a dark green waistcoat. She had on high dark colored socks along with very dark blue shorts that met the socks mid-thigh. On top of this attire she wore a cape that fanned out from her back, almost triangular, clipped on her shoulders, black outside and dark green in the interior.

Had it been the old days Gertrude would have jokingly referred to her by “young master.”

Unfortunately those days were as far removed now as Veka was from Konstantinople.

“Let’s skip the pleasantries.” Victoria said. Her voice and mannerisms were always blunt. She spoke her mind. It was one of the reasons Sawyer often wanted to tear her in half back then. “I am a special agent for the Vekan throne and I am pursuit of a wanted individual. Hand her over, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

She always was a little softer with Elena– with Gertrude, the fullness of her personality came out.

“I’m on the Sverland side of the gorge.” Gertrude replied. “I’ve not intruded on Vekan territory. So from the start, the Vekan Navy has no reason to advance any further, or pursue anyone beyond these bounds. Furthermore, I have already made an arrest for this individual to stand fair trail in Konstantinople, on the grounds that she is potentially being unfairly persecuted in her home nation. She is a Loup, and there are special provisions for her legal safety. This is a critical role that the Inquisition plays in our legal system. I am willing to listen to your case, Victoria, as to why this individual should be released to you.”

Gertrude had hoped that Victoria would divulge some information she could use against Nile, but–

Victoria was completely unmoved.

Her expression did not once change during Gertrude’s entire speech.

Until she was done speaking.

“Your rhetoric is entirely empty.” Victoria said. “There is no Sverland side of this gorge anymore. Sverland has ceased to exist as a state. The Inquisition, also, has ceased to exist as a force for law in this region. The law here is on my side now. I am going to contact my Union liaison and summon a Union Fleet Combat Group to protect the Union side of this gorge. Even your mighty ship can’t stand against that much firepower. And you won’t receive the slightest bit of sympathy from them. So I suggest you give up.”

Gertrude was taken aback. She knew Victoria was blunt but this sudden aggression?

She was bluffing. She had to be bluffing. Gertrude held her tongue to avoid a snap response.

A Union Fleet Combat Group was 30 to 40 ships; they could not possibly be loitering nearby.

“Victoria, let’s not escalate to threats. Especially to threats as equally empty as you say my rhetoric is.”

“I’m sending you some data. Think of it as good will from me to help speed this discussion along.”

Gertrude looked down and to the side at Schicksal’s station. Schicksal nodded her head vigorously.

“We’re definitely receiving something! It looks like a few minutes of real time imaging data.”

“Put it on the main screen.”

For a moment, Victoria cracked a tiny smile on Gertrude’s screen.

As the High Inquisitor looked up at the main screen and for a moment couldn’t control her expression.

Disbelief flashed clear on her face.

“Impossible.” Under her breath, but, barely audible.

Victoria crossed her arms.

On the main screen, an image of the farther off surroundings of Kesar’s Gorge, to dozens of kilometers.

Closer to the Narodnaya range, about twenty five kilometers south, was a clearly labeled Union FCG.

Thirty ships, led by the Yaksha, a Union Cruiser under Admiral Chinedu Kimani.

How are they this far out already? I knew the Serrano Region had fallen, but this rate of advance–

Victoria finally spoke up.

“To support our cooperation, Veka and the Union set up coordinate exchanges near our borders. I will offer the Union your Irmingard-class vessel in exchange for taking custody of the crew under force of arms and turning them over to Veka. I hold all the cards here Gertrude. You don’t have a choice.”

This bitch— this fucking expression-less self-absorbed snake-tongued BITCH

I’m going to get my hands around that pretty neck and choke you

Gertrude tried to put a chain around all the wickedness spewing from her evil heart.

Melting down is exactly what Victoria wanted. Victoria knew Gertrude as well as Gertrude knew her.

“Schicksal, keep everyone on alert. But this discussion has become sensitive now.”

“Yes ma’am! I understand!”

In a moment, Schicksal and the rest of the bridge disappeared behind soundproof shutters again.

Dreschner gave Gertrude a worried look that she did not return.

She was focused back on Victoria van Veka. Nothing else existed for them.

“You could have fabricated this data.” Gertrude said, trying to be calm. “I have no way to verify.”

“Try me then.”

Snap.

“You egocentric bitch–“

“I don’t care if you insult me.”

Victoria had done it again. She’d gotten a rise out of Gertrude.

Pathetic– so pathetic–

God damn it.

“Enough.” Gertrude grunted. “Is this person really so valuable to you as to confront the Inquisition?”

“Yes. There’s no Inquisition Gertrude, just you. Turn her over and I’ll allow you get on with your business.”

“Allow me? You have no authority and I will not be swayed by your threats. Take her from me then.”

Victoria shut her eyes and breathed a little sigh.

“I should have known that you would respond like this. Block-headed to the last.”

They weren’t getting anywhere. It was exactly the worst situation Gertrude envisioned.

And she still stupidly walked into it anyway.

“Victoria,”

Gertrude brought up a hand to her chest, and locked eyes with her counterpart seriously.

“I swear to you that I do not want to fight with you.”

Again, Victoria was infuriatingly blank in the face.

“Then don’t.” She said simply.

“God damn it! Give me even a centimeter here! We’re on the verge of shooting here!”

“Any blood is on your hands. I am acting fully within the moral rights and self determination of Veka.”

It didn’t help that Gertrude knew she was ultimately the one without a case.

She only wanted to retain Nile for her own selfish purposes.

Maybe Victoria did have a good and just reason to pursue her.

But at that moment, if Gertrude gave up, she was not just giving up Nile.

She was giving up the Inquisition’s ability to resist the tyrants of this era.

And Gertrude’s ability to resist them as well.

“The Inquisition doesn’t surrender its prisoners to ducal authority. It is the Inquisition’s role to see justice done across the Empire, and above regional bias, and I still believe in that, even if the Empire has been fragmented. I am on the side of justice, Victoria, and I will see justice done in the end.”

Pure sophistry, empty rhetoric–

Victoria narrowed her eyes.

“You’re lying to me, but you’re also lying to yourself. This is bordering on pathetic. You pursued a higher status for your own self-gain and the Inquisition was the opportunity available to you. That’s it.”

“Then I’m only following your lead, Victoria van Veka! You seduced a woman decades your senior and shamelessly claim moral authority drawn from her? And you have the gall to criticize me?”

She snapped without thinking. Again– she had lost her composure like a fool.

And this time she’d said something truly horrible–

A bitter little laugh escaped from Victoria’s lips. An uncharacteristic sound from the stoic girl.

“You and I are like oil and water still, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

Gertrude grit her teeth.

God damn it. She kept fucking up! She kept fucking everything up! With all of her friends!

“We don’t have to be, Victoria! We can let this go and avoid escalating it. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Victoria met Gertrude’s eyes with an unfamiliar expression on her face. A little grin.

And sharp, glowing red rings around her eyes– familiar ones–

“How is Elena?” She asked.

Gertrude grit her teeth. This woman had grown capable of much greater cruelty.

She now knew who Victoria reminded her of. That expression– Norn.

“Thanks to our mutual acquaintance, she is gone from me forever.” Gertrude said.

“No, that’s thanks to you Gertrude, isn’t it? It’s not just Sawyer who is responsible anymore.”

Her voice had an unsettling tone of voice. Her entire presence–

Power. She radiated power. Power that Gertrude did not have.

Was this real? Was Gertrude going insane and cracking under the pressure?

“Sawyer attacked Vogelheim, and you were nowhere. But I saved Elena– you should owe me for the second chance that you got. A chance that you squandered. You pushed her away again.”

It was like she could see through Gertrude now, like the Inquisitor’s facade was just paper burning away to reveal the secrets beneath. Victoria had always been perceptive and intelligent, but this was beyond the bounds of perception. For the first time since leaving Norn, Gertrude felt the awful presence of a power beyond her understanding, the chill of helplessness that came with being read and the guardedness that it engendered in her. There was nothing Gertrude could do about it.

But how did Victoria acquire this power?

It was frustrating– everyone else had come so far, and she was always a step behind–

“You don’t know anything, Victoria. Neither now nor back then. But you love to run your mouth.”

All she could do was talk! And anything she could say wasn’t worth a damn!

Victoria was again utterly unaffected by her words.

“I never ‘run my mouth.’ I always say what I want to say. Gertrude, there’s no more Inquisition. All of your remaining subordinates are hiding in Konstantinople, even the Inquisition’s precious Jagers have not made a move. It’s only you, out here, with nothing to back you. You must accede to my demands.”

She even knew about the Jagers— and she was more informed on current events.

Gertrude felt the shame and helplessness growing inside her. She had lost the verbal spar.

Or maybe she could have never won it to begin with. Not in this kind of scenario.

Victoria had all the cards. Gertrude was isolated.

It was the worst situation. Victoria did not know about the Jagdkaiser, but it did not matter. Firepower did not matter. Gertrude could kill Victoria, could run heedlessly at her and annihilate her in one blow, to no avail. It accomplished nothing. The Union would be tipped off to attack her immediately; she would not be able to stay in Kesar and uncover its secrets. She would have failed in every way. In this game, there was only one possible winner no matter the circumstance, and it was Victoria van Veka. She was the only winner because Gertrude could only possibly lose, no matter what action she decided to take.

That was the story of her life. No matter what, she was always losing everything she loved.

But still– her heart continued to fly with a tiny, smothered conviction she could not repress.

There was more to the game. There was them, the two of them.

And what Gertrude’s heart desired.

Something that perhaps superseded the game of ships and guns and politics being played.

If she could let herself drop the mask and speak from the heart–

“Victoria, I wasn’t lying when I said I don’t want to hurt you. To me, you are still someone whose life I cherish. I am sorry. I am really sorry and I am really ashamed about everything I’ve done to you.”

She was defeated. So she let herself be honest. It was the most sincere thing she had said yet.

Victoria’s self-satisfied smile disappeared from her face. She broke eye contact with Gertrude.

“Cut the theatrics.” Victoria replied. “Done to me? I don’t care–“

“I’m sorry that I slapped you back then. It wasn’t right. I threw away our friendship.”

“What? Slapped me?” Victoria blinked, bewildered. “That was years ago.”

“Like a whole other world. And I’ve carried that weight forever. It wasn’t just Elena I fucked up with.”

Gertrude tried to fight tears building in her eyes, but a few did slip out.

“God damn it. I don’t want to be put in this situation. I don’t want to keep fighting all of you.”

Victoria looked confused, for the first time in their confrontation.

“Gertrude–“

“Victoria, I want to work together with you. If you’ll cooperate, I can be on your side.”

Victoria looked like she had taken a blow to the chest. She had clearly not expected this.

And to a great extent, neither had Gertrude expected it.

“I can’t possibly trust you. You are Erich von Fueller’s pawn now, Gertrude.”

“I’m nobody’s pawn. Prince Erich didn’t lift a finger to save Elena. In fact– he’s responsible for it.”

Her anger when she spoke that sentence was palpable. And Victoria clearly felt it too.

Dreschner looked like it was taking all of his willpower to pretend not to be interested in this.

Gertrude continued to make impassioned declarations.

“I am nobody’s pawn, not Erich’s, not Norn’s. I am not going to be your pawn either, Victoria. But I can extend my hand to you as an ally. I need your criminal on my side, Victoria. She, and the abyss, hold answers that I seek. In Imbrian literature, Nocht, the first Emperor, descended into the abyss for power. Norn did as well– and I am here to uncover this secret. Then I will take command of Konstantinople and make it my fortress. I have no intention of it becoming another foothold for Erich von Fueller.”

On the screen, the Shimii closed her fists. Her posture tightened ever so slightly.

“So you want me to stand aside and let you go on your little quest, based on nothing but your word? It’s all well and good to say this when it’ll get you out of trouble!” Victoria said, raising her voice. “But if Erich comes knocking, what will you do then? Will you also promise him things with gilded words?”

“I will attain the power to become a bulwark against Erich von Fueller.”

Gertrude smiled at her, weeping but full of determination. She had finally stated her aim.

Airing words and thoughts that had been formless in her mind since Vogelheim.

At first spoken in wild anger after the loss of Elena– but now fully reasoned.

If the price of power was losing the support of the Fuellers– then she would choose power.

If she had to lose Victoria as well to remain on the side of the Fuellers– then she would betray them.

It was too unjust to live otherwise. To keep losing everything she loved and gaining nothing.

“Everything that I am doing is to try, however much in vain it is, to protect the people I love and the people who swore fealty to me, from this era of chaos and injustice. I know I am a hypocrite, because I helped bring all of these tragedies about and I helped support the people responsible. I was completely heedless to the consequences of my actions. But I want to make amends. Let me make amends, Victoria. Under my own power, but for your benefit as well as mine. I want to protect you.”

Gertrude reached out her hand to the screen. Tears glinting in the sides of her eyes.

Victoria reached a hand up to her face. Eyes shut, lips slightly drawn.

“Protect me?”

“I never gave up hope for us. I want you to be safe.”

“Liar. You awful, damned liar.”

Her ears twitched. Her frustration was clear and visible and it was tearing her up.

She did not speak for several seconds. Gertrude’s smoldering gaze continued to lock on to her.

Finally, she heaved a sigh as if she had been holding a breath since they first saw each other.

“Very well. The Vekan Empire will look the other way, just this once, on one condition.”

“Name it.” Gertrude quickly said.

Victoria lifted her hand from over her eyes and pinned a serious gaze back on Gertrude.

“I will join you on your expedition. The Vekan Empire is also trying to explore the abyss. I will join you on the Iron Lady as a temporary liaison and intelligence agent. I will ascertain your intentions, freely record any information you encounter explicitly for Vekan use, and if you harm me or Vekan interests, then as soon as you come back up, this journey is over for you. I will be watching the criminal Nile as well. If you prove unable or unwilling to manage the criminal’s affairs, Veka will also turn against you.”

Gertrude had to roll with the punches but she was briefly stunned herself at this concession(?).

Maybe as stunned as she had left Victoria when she first started speaking from the heart.

“Of course. You are welcome aboard. But won’t your allies feel uncertain about this?”

“My allies have unquestioning faith in me, as the Empress’ special agent. You are my ally too now; so I demand unquestioning faith from you. I will set my affairs in order and depart on a shuttle.”

“Well– I suppose I will be seeing you in the flesh shortly.”

“I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. But at least it’s amicable to both parties, without bloodshed.”

Gertrude thought she saw a small smile before the video connection severed.

Without the Shimii to yell at on the other end, the entire exchange felt utterly surreal.

As if Gertrude had exited a wind tunnel, and her body was still shaking, her senses confused.

Victoria might still have a soft spot in that hard heart for her old school friends.

Just like me.

Gertrude sighed. She really was in over her head. Everything was in turmoil.

“Hmm.”

Dreschner glanced at her briefly before returning his gaze to his own computer.

“With me, or against me, on this one?” Gertrude asked.

Dreschner let out a short laugh. “I am always with you, Inquisitor. Or should I say, Emperor?”

Her expression darkened immediately. “Oh, don’t even joke about it.”

“You’re right, I should treat it as seriously as you do. We shall see where your ambition takes us.”

Dreschner was far too enthused about this.

Gertrude fell back on her chair, wishing she could become a soft jelly and slide right off.


After a tense couple of hours, the Aranjagaan backed off from standoff range. The Cruiser retreated to a 5 kilometer line further into Veka, and informed the Union 8th Fleet FCG-F of a Vekan operation in the Kesar’s Gorge area, in order to avoid potential hostilities between allies. The Union acceded to this, and the Aranjagaan shared all information with the Iron Lady pertaining to the Union position in the area. Before leaving, the Aranjagaan released Victoria van Veka, and then awaited the return of their shuttle.

Collectively, the crew of the Iron Lady breathed a sigh of relief.

“You are such a shrewd negotiator, High Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “We got out without a bullet fired!”

Gertrude laughed, more than a little nervously.

Please, God, let me have a power other than groveling someday.

Nile’s vessel was fully unloaded, and the woman was admitted into the Iron Lady’s interior. Aside from a pitiable amount of food and water, Nile’s vessel was packed almost wall to wall and corner to corner, in every possible place she could find, with boxes and vials and bags of medicines. Gertrude’s security team was greatly confused. There were large amounts of staple antibiotics, painkillers, sterilizing and saline fluids, gauze and stitches, scalpels and scissors and picks and other cutting and twining tools, but also bio-stitcher cartridges of various sorts, hormone therapy drugs, insulin for diabetics, inhalers for asthmatics, eye drops, in addition to rarer and more exotic drugs. Rather than being named, some of the boxes had long formulas and strings of compounds to designate them and were full of vials.

Everyone had assumed there would be weapons somewhere but found not a single one.

“Why would I need weapons? I’m a medical doctor. Medicine is my weapon.” Nile said.

Nile was unbothered by the attention of the security team and cooperated fully throughout the inspection. After overseeing the unloading of her medical supplies and leaving behind instructions for their safe long term storage, Nile was gently ushered to a meeting room to await debriefing.

Shortly thereafter, a small, cylindrical shuttle arrived to convey Victoria van Veka to the Iron lady.

Victoria brought with her one wheeled trunk full of luggage, which was scanned on entry and found to be inoffensive, full of nothing but clothes and needed sundries. On her hip, she had a ceremonial vibrosaber which was given to Vekan armored cavalry. Since it was a symbol of office, and as a gesture of good will, she was allowed to keep it. Processing her into the ship was much faster and less tense than with Nile.

On the shuttle there was only one piece of larger equipment that had been brought from the Aranjagaan for Victoria’s use– a Jagd model Diver. This item was cleared by security and brought aboard into the hangar through the underside cargo hatch. Monika and the engineers would have to set up another wall gantry to hold it. Until then it was sat up against the wall like a sad, claw-armed child in timeout.

With such deference, the Iron lady welcomed Victoria van Veka to their quest for the Abyss of Kesar.

Despite the verbal scuffle with Gertrude, Victoria was unfailingly polite to the Iron Lady’s crew.

“Such a splendid security detail. I hope that choleric woman treats you properly.” Victoria said.

“The Inquisitor is a good commander. Please do not insult her, milady.” Vogt replied gently.

It did not escape anyone that the target of the phrase “that choleric woman” was immediately known.

Gertrude was not too fond of that when she reviewed the processing reports and footage.

Nevertheless, once Victoria’s shuttle departed, the Iron Lady’s expedition officially resumed.

Thus, Gertrude found herself in a meeting room sitting across a table from Nile and Victoria.

A black-eared dog and a light-eared cat– the tension was thick enough to coat a spoon.

Gertrude had to debrief them on the situation and the coming expedition, but–

Victoria was staring daggers sidelong at Nile, who was untroubled by the antagonism.

And Nile was smiling too noticeably behind her mask, and clearly up to something.

“Lichtenberg, your name is too long to say formally. Let me call you ‘Trude.” Nile said.

“Absolutely do not let her call you that.” Victoria said suddenly.

Gertrude briefly felt like hurling herself through the outer bulkhead.

What have I gotten myself into?!


Previous ~ Next