While Norn began speaking to the enemy commander, Adelheid sat next to her with an active terminal and oversaw their preparations for battle. She had cameras on the hangar and logging on the mainframe for all the work done at the bridge stations. There was not much that she needed to do, because the crew was so efficient and disciplined. She thought she might at least have to yell at Selene or Samoylovych, but the two of them, Petra Chornyi and the Red Baron were ready to deploy the second Norn commanded it. Turrets were ready, torpedoes had been loaded. The Antenora was primed for battle.
Norn’s Magellan was also assembled, serviced by a crane rather than a proper gantry.
“Are you really going out there?” Adelheid had asked, prior to the hostilities.
She was already concerned the instant the sonar pulse came back with an imaged ship.
So before battle was even joined, the anxiety was clear on her face.
“I have no intention to deploy. Yangtze and Potomac can go fuck themselves.” Norn said.
Adelheid’s eyes drew open in surprise. She had nursed a fear of Norn fighting personally.
“But I thought you were going to get Elena for Gertrude too. It’s not just them.”
Norn nodded solemnly. “That is Gertrude’s business. I plan to send her out to complete it.”
“You’re right.” Adelheid said, feeling relief. “You shouldn’t be responsible for any of this.”
“You really do understand me better than anyone, Adelheid.”
Norn gave her a gentle, confident smile and stroked a few locks of Adelheid’s hair.
Seated side by side on the bridge of this ship with had committed so much violence.
That firm hand caressing her lifted Adelheid’s spirits just a bit. Her heart felt warm.
“If this ship really did that much damage to the Iron Lady, it must be dangerous.” She said.
“I know.” Norn said simply. “But Gertrude will have no better chance than this.”
“Right.” Adelheid replied. “We’re probably better armed than the Iron Lady overall.”
“There’s my adjutant sounding like all of those battle analysis courses she aced.”
Norn returned her attention to the main screen, still stroking Adelheid’s hair with affection.
“I can’t fight everyone’s battles for them. I refuse to be used like that anymore.” She said.
Miming Norn’s words, Adelheid replied, “Now there’s the rebellious Praetorian I love.”
Adelheid had been with Norn for over six years now. Their relationship was only slightly younger than their acquaintance. She had been on the receiving end of Norn’s speech about opportunity; but Adelheid refused to use her. Back then, she felt strongly that she wanted to prove her own power.
And she had succeeded in her goals, despite everything that followed.
With a lot of Norn’s help that had ultimately been freely given.
She had gone on many voyages with the Antenora since then. It never got easier. Adelheid was not someone who was used to fighting. Even if Norn ended up essentially bullying and toying with the opponents they were usually given, she was still nervous. She kept it under control. She was not so stupid as to act out and become a liability if it would put Norn in danger. So when it came time to fight, Adelheid set everything aside and played the dignified adjutant as best as she could.
Adelheid stole a glance at Norn while she was speaking.
She seemed to have everything under control. She always did. She was strong.
That strength which had held Adelheid firm, had freed her, had given her new life.
But Adelheid knew that too many people relied on Norn, viewed her only as a weapon for their ends. She could never fool herself into feeling that Norn was invincible. Because she understood Norn more than anyone. Norn would falter someday. She couldn’t hold the world on her shoulders all alone.
So she worried. Whenever they fought, she pined anxiously for everyone’s safety.
And she did her best to be ready to support Norn on the day her strength was questioned.
Once the Pandora’s Box opened negotiations, Norn instantly demonstrated her superiority.
She looked like a goddess to Adelheid. A shining being not from this world.
Ulyana Korabiskaya was a looker herself — maybe Adelheid had a thing for blondes — but nobody could match how incredibly hot Norn was when she took control. They had watched footage of the discussions between Gertrude and Korabiskaya so Norn knew to expect a few attempts at second-rate fast talking from the mercenary commander. Adelheid knew Norn would try to influence the enemy captain psionically and end the conflict easily, so she “flipped” on her psionic vision.
Focusing on the aura of Korabiskaya and Norn, she saw the brief contest that ensued.
However, the outcome was not what she predicted.
Korabiskaya resisted; she had some potential.
Not enough to fight back. Norn had simply stopped, rather than being actively countered.
When it came to psionic mind games, Adelheid knew the basics.
If Norn couldn’t control someone immediately, it was unlikely to be worth bothering with.
So the discussion continued.
Adelheid felt a chill when she heard that name.
Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.
And foremost among the people Norn wanted to revenge herself against.
While she didn’t lose her cool, Adelheid could tell that Norn was immediately altered.
As soon as she saw Euphrates, a violent red band began to widen across her aura.
Then in the middle of the conversation that she appeared to be dominating–
Norn raised her hands to her face, flinching as if in pain.
Shaking briefly, drawing back against the seat.
And coming to rest, as if sleeping.
Video connection to the Brigand cut off.
Immediately, Adelheid concentrated on the aura around Norn, switching on her “sight.”
All of her aura had become a pale, soft white. Black was death– what the hell was white?!
How had this happened?
She whipped around to the adjacent station and shouted at the drone. “Communications, send orders to the hangar to deploy Selene, Samoylovych, Chorniy, and von Castille at once!”
Negotiations were over. Whether or not the Pandora’s Box was even truly aware of what had happened, a situation like this could only be dealt with by defending themselves militarily. When there was tension, they could not afford to leave an opening just to appear magnanimous. Adelheid knew enough about war to assume the Pandora’s Box would try to exploit this event.
But what had happened? How could she help Norn?
Euphrates was an Immortal, psionically powerful. Adelheid turned to face Norn again and took her into her arms, shaking her, trying to wake her. Her body was still warm, she was breathing, and there was no bleeding or other signs that she was psychically exerting herself. Adelheid knew that mental psionic attacks were extremely difficult, and the most easily resisted by gifted psions. She suspected Euphrates must have attacked Norn but how? What exactly did she do to Norn?
She could not panic. Despite everything– Norn was depending on her!
“Hunter III! Come here! Something happened to Norn!”
Though she understood psionics differently, Hunter III was more powerful than Adelheid.
She could see and understand things Adelheid did not. Maybe she would understand!
“Whatcha yellin’ about? Huh? What happened to the boss?”
Hunter III shambled to Norn’s seat with a drowsy expression, her skinny arms hanging at her sides. She pulled her hood off her white hair and set her bright eyes on Norn. One slender ghost white finger rose to poke the praetorian in the cheek. Upon touching her Hunter III immediately seemed to realize something was wrong, like a dog sniffing an intruder, and her eyes went red, she was using psionics herself.
“Huh? Her brainself is gone. Who did that?” Hunter III said.
“Brainself? What the hell are you saying?”
Adelheid yelled; and Hunter III was so taken by Norn’s condition she didn’t yell back.
Hunter III looked around the room with her glowing eyes. “Her brainself’s off swimmin’ somewhere–”
From beneath her hooded robe, a stubby tail became suddenly erect.
“Adelheid, she’s lookin’ for you! You gotta do somethin’ to reach back out!”
Hunter III turned innocent eyes and a calm expression on Adelheid–
–as if she was supposed to understand what she meant!!
Adelheid was about to start shouting back at the little fish-tailed runt–
But she did start feeling something–
–as if there was something carried on all the tiny sounds of the ship, the clicking on keyboards, the hum of the air system, the very subtle vibrations of the floor panels, the rustling of synthetic cloth. She could hear something else, distant, whispered, in the coalescing of all the noise around her. As if spoken between syllables of every voice, an enunciation in each button press, a sigh in the ventilation.
Had she been anyone else, with less experience in these matters, she would have said it was the stress and muted panic of the moment that was cause these hallucinations around her.
Norn had taught her about the powers of the mind.
About the meaning behind the colors that she could sometimes see people give off.
She looked at Hunter III briefly and saw the shades of her, blue and green and thin black.
She looked down at her own hands and saw the multitude of muddled colors of her own.
She looked at Norn’s pale white aura that had begun expanding, thinning, wafting.
Focusing on the color she reached her own hand down to Norn.
Approaching the white fog which had come to enshroud her lover and carried her sensation.
Her fingers crossed some kind of threshold and color diffused across the white cloud.
Adelheid felt like she had punctured a membrane. There was a brief, tactile resistance.
One final push and her hand finally touched Norn’s skin, felt the warmth of her.
And transferred the warmth of her own touch to that skin.
Adelheid saw a flash of something in her mind.
Images, sounds, feelings, years of information compressed to a flash.
There was no possible way that she could understand it. All of it was gone in an instant.
Not even the barest scraps of a dream remained of it.
In that instant of fleeting hallucination, when Adelheid’s eyes blinked–
Norn’s eyes opened. Their gazes met. For a moment, neither of them said a word.
Her eyes had red rings around them, but they followed movement, they were aware.
Her lips spread very slightly to speak–
Adelheid interrupted immediately. She threw herself atop Norn, silently weeping.
Norn’s arms wrapped firmly around Adelheid, embracing her tightly.
“I knew I could count on you.” Norn said, stroking her hair.
Adelheid separated herself, grabbed hold of Norn’s shirt, fixed her a serious look.
Norn’s eyes had red rings around them. So there was still in danger.
“What’s going on?” Adelheid asked. “Your eyes– you’re still doing psionics.”
Norn looked surprised to hear this. She looked around the room in confusion.
“Her brainself is still kinda gone. I can kinda feel the veins though.” Hunter III said.
She started wandering around the room like a dog following a trail. Incomprehensible.
Adelheid could not see whatever it was they were both following or searching for.
She felt frustrated at her own lack of power– but at least Norn was here.
“Norn, what’s happening? How can we help?” Adelheid asked, still tight on Norn’s chest.
“Euphrates dragged me into the aether current. I’m not sure exactly what she did so I can’t explain it. I think I’m puppeteering my own body right now.” Norn said. “I can sense through the currents by using Adelheid as an anchor, but it’s hazy. I need to find a permanent solution, but for right now, we need to capture the Pandora’s Box. I’m putting Gertrude in command of the Diver attack. First–”
Suddenly she grabbed hold of Adelheid by the collar and tie–
–pulling her into a deep, forceful kiss.
That instant of dominance, the taste of her tongue– it almost knocked Adelheid senseless.
When their lips parted, Norn had a grin on her face and some of Adelheid’s lipstick as well.
“All you need to do is stay by my side and believe in me.” Norn said. “Do you understand?”
“Y-Yes. Master.” Adelheid said. “I’m yours to command.”
Norn grin turned into a gentle, praising smile just for her. “Good girl. Let’s get them.”
“Master, I don’t understand.”
Time was of the essence. A combat alert had been put into place.
Samoylovych and the Red Baron were already deploying, as well as Petra Chornyi. Selene just had to know whether or not the Jagdkaiser should have a cartridge loaded, other than that she was good to go. Enemy activity was starting to pick up, with the sonar operators picking up the tell-tale sounds of the Pandora’s Box preparing its chutes to deploy Divers. The Antenora was rushing into battle.
From the hangar, Gertrude Lichtenberg called the bridge to speak to Norn.
She knew that they did not have a lot of time, but she needed to know why she was being ordered to deploy in the Magellan. Without her acquiescence, the machine had been assigned to her, and its weapons, a 30 mm autocannon ballistic shield and a vibrosword, had been prepared and linked to it. Norn’s crew had beckoned her into the machine– and it nearly caused her panic.
“I thought this machine was for your own use.” Gertrude asked.
On a terminal in the hangar, Norn and Adelheid appeared on video seated side-side.
“Potomac didn’t chain it to my leg.” Norn said. “I’m assigning it to you. It’s an effective piece of equipment and you are more than capable to operate it. Or have you forgotten how to fight for yourself after all these years leading phalanxes of ambulant body armor into battle?”
Gertrude chafed at the criticism. She knew she couldn’t get offended at Norn, however.
Trying her best to moderate her tone, she began to reply, “I sought out your assistance–”
Norn then interrupted immediately. “I’m giving you an opportunity, the best opportunity you will ever have, to rescue princess Elena from those mercenaries. If you truly believe in this endeavor and you want to see it through, then you will take responsibility for it. I never once said that I would go out and personally fight these mercenaries in your stead, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”
Gertrude was practically gritting her teeth. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt it right in her veins, the rush of blood to her extremities had become a palpable drumbeat beneath her skin. Her whole body was tense, she felt like she could hardly move or speak. She had assumed that Norn would use her powers to rescue Elena easily from the Pandora’s Box. She had been so sure that she could seize victory if Norn was leading the charge to finally crush that damnable ship once and for all.
Now her long fantasized victory was thrown into complete chaos.
Norn interrupted again. A cruel grin spread across her soft face.
“Perhaps I am being too harsh. Here is my offer then, Gertrude. Only for you, a precious student, a part of my legacy. I will save Elena von Fueller on the condition that she be turned over to the Fueller family’s stewardship immediately. I will control all of her affairs personally from the moment she returns to this ship. Now if you rescue her, of course, you’ll become her steward.”
She clapped her hands together with satisfaction, evil red glinting eyes scanning Gertrude.
Gertrude felt her heart sink.
All of this time, she had also fantasized about being the sole steward of Elena von Fueller.
Never once did she think Norn would push the idea of returning her to the Fueller family.
Norn knew about Gertrude’s deep-seated passion for Elena.
Gertrude could not lie to her. And Norn had demanded to know when they met. More than anyone, Norn von Fueller understood the lustful covetousness that really drove Gertrude Lichtenberg to action. She knew how much Elena meant to Gertrude and she had already, several times, pulled strings so that Gertrude could inch closer to the storybook ending she desired for her and Elena. For Norn to then make this impossible, cruel “deal” was to say in many, humiliating words that Gertrude had no choice but to deploy and fight instead of Norn. It was to make her command utterly absolute.
In this single moment, Gertrude’s dreams could crumble right in front of her. All of her work, suffering, sacrifice, all the begging and cheating and the corpses she climbed– for nothing.
“I am not merely doing this to be cruel to you.” Norn said.
Her fists closed at her side, Gertrude felt like a child being scolded.
“You say that master, but this may be the cruelest thing you’ve ever done to me.”
“I’m giving you a choice, as I’ve always given you.” Norn replied, more coldly.
Gertrude openly gritted her teeth. “You know this isn’t a choice! You’re manipulating me!”
“Really? A coattail rider like you, and you believe I’m the one being manipulative?”
“Master,” Gertrude clapped her hands together. “I’ve always respected you, so please–”
She was getting ready to beg. Getting ready to drop to her knees right on the video feed.
“Stop being such a coward, Gertrude! You need to man up, this instant!”
It was not Norn who spoke then.
Adelheid interjected suddenly, in a way that completely chilled Gertrude.
Her eyes looked as imperious as those of Norn herself. A disdainful glare, and sharp words.
“Don’t you realize how cruel you are being, begging Norn to fight this battle for you?” Adelheid shouted. “Don’t you see the company that puts you in, don’t you see how sound like all of the other evil cowards who only see her as a weapon? Don’t you see that Norn wants to give you the power to take Elena away with you? Gertrude, if you can’t even defeat these mercenaries, can you possibly defend Elena from the Volkisch movement, the Royal Alliance, Veka or Millennia Skarsgaard? How can you survive all the schemes that Norn has shielded you from and continue to be so spineless? Do you want to hide behind other people forever, or do you want to be able to take control of your own damn life?”
Adelheid practically shouted herself hoarse. There were furious tears in her eyes.
Gertrude stood speechless. She almost wanted to cry herself– she was so stunned.
All of the begging and sniveling that she had done to wear her grandiose uniform.
Not just Norn, but Dreschner, Ingrid, Sieglinde, even Elena herself–
So many people had rescued her across her life, so she stood half a chance of reaching this moment, of reaching the cusp of having the love of her life in her grasp, where nobody could take her again, where they could finally stand together until death. That storybook ending she wanted ever since she was enchanted by those beautiful indigo eyes as a small child. Gertrude was not so deluded as to think she had ever boasted prodigious personal strength, she knew, acknowledged, that she had begged and scraped and needed intervention and serendipity to survive to where she was and yet–
She had never felt so seen, so seen and found pathetic, found to be truly what she was.
Another soul had never struck a blow so chillingly powerful to the edifice of her person.
And for it to not even be Norn, but Adelheid, that bratty girl perpetually fixed in her orbit.
For those words to cut as deep and hard as they did. Gertrude was left reeling, shaking.
She could have taken the scolding if it came from Norn– but Norn hardly made a gesture.
It had been Adelheid, of all people, who had cut her down to the bone instead.
Had she been told of this event without experiencing it herself, Gertrude would have laughed.
Now in the moment all she wanted to do was cry, but she fought back the tears.
“Thank you Adelheid.” Norn said. “But that’s quite enough. Gertrude, your decision.”
Even if her heart was full of trepidation, it was impossible to object. Gertrude was trapped.
All of her rebelliousness was destroyed. Adelheid was completely correct about her.
Gertrude had run too much, hid too much, begged, and bartered too much by now.
There was always going to be a battle she would have had to stand and fight through alone.
She thought when it came she would be prepared for it.
Instead she was a shuddering mess. In tears, her skin shaking over cold-feeling flesh.
Pathetic. She was pathetic, powerless, useless, a coward, a craven half-wit schemer–
“Gertrude, I need you to do this.” Norn pressed her. “But more than that: you need it too.”
Gertrude raised a shaking salute. Norn and Adelheid were right.
She needed to do this. There was nobody to champion her. Gertrude had to fight herself.
“Gertrude Lichtenberg, deploying in the SF-07 Magellan.” She said.
Steeling herself to put on the most dignified response that she could muster.
“Good. Show them your strength, High Inquisitor.” Norn said.
Gertrude bowed her head and severed the connection. When she turned her back on the terminal, her cape fluttering behind her, feeling the weight of the black and gold uniform and the tall hat on her head, Gertrude felt like nothing so much as an imposter. She had been exposed and could no longer run away. All she could was convince the world that she had any power at all in her own self.
Maryam Karahailos stepped off the elevator to the Brigand’s upper deck with her hands behind her back, her head bowed, and the chromatophores in her skin and hair dull and dark. She felt her brain fog over with worry, her skin feeling tight with tension. The Brigand was embroiled in a dangerous situation, and her beloved Sonya had taken charge of her unit and deployed for battle. Watching them go, even a girl as supernaturally gifted as her felt completely helpless and useless in this situation.
When it came to fighting a battle like this, the Apostle of Air was completely useless!
She did not want to trouble Sonya, so she did not insist on staying in the hangar.
Soon as Sonya got ready to leave, they briefly held hands, and Maryam made for the bridge.
“As long as you’re safe, I’ll have peace of mind.” Sonya said.
“You’ll definitely come back, right?”
“Of course. I still have a lot to learn from you.”
Their final exchange, out of earshot, before Sonya told her to depart and ran to the mecha.
Maryam sighed deeply.
She had spent so much time with Sonya lately, it had been such a blessing!
Now she was gone, and Maryam might never– no she couldn’t even contemplate that!
It broke her heart to even consider it!
Moping to herself, she ambled without enthusiasm down the hall.
She stumbled upon a commotion.
Out in the middle of the hall, someone had been set down on the floor. There was a woman looming over her on the ground — that doctor with the colorful hair, Kappel. Alongside her were the two women Sonya had introduced to Maryam last night: Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg. As soon as Maryam approached, Valeriya seemed to notice, and immediately lifted her mask over her nose.
She tugged gently on Illya’s sleeve and pointed behind them at Maryam.
“Run along to the bridge, we don’t want too many people getting in the way here.”
Illya was firm but not brusque. Maryam had not intended to stay in the hall but–
She noticed the blue hair and blood-soaked white coat of the woman in Kappel’s care.
Euphrates– no, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen, she was calling herself.
On the floor, unresponsive save for recurring bloody coughing, streams of blood down her nose, convulsions infrequent enough that they startled Maryam as she stared. Her eyes were blank, like the cold gaze of a corpse. Kappel had brought her out to the hall, took her pulse, checked her breathing, injected her with a drug, but she seemed helpless to provide first aid in this situation.
“She’s breathing, heart’s normal, the portable scanner shows nothing ruptured.”
Maryam stared in confusion. People spoke but the voices made no sense to her.
All of the blood, and the way her body would sometimes jump without stimuli, it was surreal, the smell of bloody iron and gauze, but not just that, not just the physical things– all around Euphrates a black cloud thicker and denser and darker than any Maryam had ever seen shrouded her until her physical body seemed almost an outline beneath its fog. Death, death, death, death was everywhere, the smell of rot, the texture of flayed flesh, the taste of blood, it clung slick like slime to the body and yet–
–she wasn’t dead. Was she? She couldn’t have been.
Maryam could vaguely see the sinewy outer edges of her aura.
Not dissipating from distance to the body, but reaching out, flowing.
The Aether Current– all of that darkness was spilling out into the aether current.
Maryam realized that Euphrates’ condition must have had to do with psionics, but–
“Hey, aren’t you going to the bridge? We don’t want people loitering around.”
Illya, clearly nervous at the unnatural sight playing out behind her.
“I– I’m sorry. I’ll keep going. It’s– it’s a lot of blood. Sorry.”
“I get it. The Captain and the Commissar are awaiting you.” Illya said gently.
Maryam did not know how to feel and what she should do.
Euphrates had been a teacher of sorts to her, a mentor. Self-described and self-imposed.
She felt a sense of great trepidation when she found “Euphemia” embroiling herself in the Brigand’s affairs. They acknowledged their familiarity in front of the Captain and the crew but did not reveal the truth about their association. Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation, a conspiratorial group that Maryam had joined and briefly worked within — all Apostles held a high and respected rank in the group, even if they did not want to, so Maryam found refuge with them.
While Euphrates taught her many things about herself and about psionics–
Maryam could not help but hate the selfish way that she behaved. To believe that you were helping the world solely by advancing knowledge and technology, but that the ethical response to conflict was to retreat from the world and hide your knowledge and technology from them; it was anathema to everything Maryam wanted to accomplish in the world. She could not abide any of it.
So if Euphrates was dying, what should Maryam do? How should she have reacted?
Mourned? Seethed? Intervened?
Maybe the world would have been better without Euphrates in it.
With a deep breath followed by a heavy sigh, Maryam started walking past the scene.
And stopped right beside Doctor Kappel, fists shaking at her sides.
“I– I can help!” Maryam shouted suddenly, unable to abandon her gentle nature.
Doctor Kappel looked up at her, blinking with confusion. She fiddled absentmindedly with some of her blue hair and got some blood on it. Behind her, Illya looked annoyed and Valeriya turned the other way to avoid the scene. The doctor looked pale as a ghost, practically in tears, her hands were shaking on the portable medical computer in her fingers. “Maryam Karahailos? How can you possibly–?”
“Please don’t ask me about what I’m about to do! I’ll explain everything later!”
Maryam dropped to her knees next to Euphrates’ body and held out her hands.
Her eyes felt hot, and she pushed her senses out to the air around her.
Just as she had shown Shalikova before a globe of air gathered quickly in her hands–
–and then dispersed.
Illya’s, Kappel’s and Valeriya’s hair blew suddenly as if there was a strong breeze.
All of them watched, dumbfounded, as the air became a visible glow around Euphrates.
Air seeped its way through Euphrates’ skin, into the tissues, sinews, into the blood.
Her gentle touch glided over wounds, through spilled blood and ruptured vessels.
While Maryam’s intellect and will traveled through the muscles, to the marrow, to the brain.
She caught the briefest glimpse, the most fleeting intimation of Euphrates’ intentions.
Norn von Fueller– Somewhere Euphrates was dueling the mighty Apostle of Ice–
Her body was here, however, in great, roaring agony–
As she tried to sew back tissues that bled indefinitely, as she tried to mend bones that broke forever and muscles that tore repeatedly, Maryam realized suddenly why Euphrates’ body was not dying. Life blossomed inside of her abnormal body every time a cell met death, like a big bang of genetic rebirth recreating the universe of Euphrates with every stroke against her skin and every twist against her bones. She was like a cancer infinitely fed of herself, and Maryam could hardly comprehend where the energy came from to sustain her. She realized in an instant how vastly old and hurt this body was.
Glimpsing for less than a second the thousand-year history of Euphrates–
From Maryam’s gentle lips ripped a wail of agony.
She fell back from Euphrates’ body, from Kappel and Illya who tried to reach out to her, shuddering and shaking on the floor with the horror of understanding. Her head felt split open with pain, and she held herself as if trying to squeeze numb all of the burning in her sinews. Even for an Apostle, where she had delved, what she had touched, memories of cells with infinitely long telomeres–
Psionic feedback ripped through Maryam’s entire body. She was not powerful enough!
“Maryam! Oh my god–!”
Illya rushed to the side of the girl clearly in pain, tearing open a plastic-bagged first aid kit–
Suddenly everything began to shake.
That first aid kit hit the floor and the security officers nearly fell with it.
Dr. Kappel grit her teeth and clung on to a handhold in the wall near the Bridge door.
Lights flashed in and out in the hallways for a few seconds before stabilizing.
“It’s started!” Valeriya said.
“Shit. This one’s going to be really serious huh?” Illya replied.
She helped Maryam to settle on her side and injected her with a punch tube from the first aid kit. Psionic feedback was already subsiding, and the painkillers flooding Maryam’s body had little to do with it, but she felt her head clearing and peace returning. Those instant, eldritch images that had terrorized her neurons for a split second were gone save for the leftover anxious tension under her skin. The world, which was still spinning around her, overcome with disorienting color as she lost control, came into sharper focus, slowly, like a picture on a faulty screen coaxed into mechanical clarity.
“Maryam, please say something. Shalikova’s already upset enough with me as it is.”
Illya laid a comforting hand on Maryam’s shoulder, as if nudging her back to life.
Joined by Valeriya, who knelt beside Illya and offered her own silent support.
Maryam promised not to make trouble– she tried her best to sit up and acknowledge them.
She thought of saying something but– It was not Maryam who raised her voice to speak.
From the lips of the presumed corpse came the smallest, weakest of pleas–
“She’s speaking?! Security, call Syracuse, we may be able to move her to operations now!”
Doctor Kappel looked as shocked as she was elated to see a sign of consciousness.
Euphemia Rontgen– no, Euphrates, slowly sat up, trying to speak.
Through a trickle of blood and vomit escaping from her throat.
With eyes glowing bright red, tears steaming into wisps of vapor as they were shed.
She reached out to the sleeve on Kappel’s coat and tugged weakly on it.
“Theresa– Tigris– please bring her–”
“Tigris? God help me, what is happening on this ship?” Kappel whimpered.
In that instant, there was another sudden quake all along the ship again as if in answer.
“Don’t try to be a hero. Stay in the back and offer fire support. You got that?”
Shalikova was unused to being the tough CO in a group. She was almost always the quiet workhorse who did everything she was ordered to do without objections. So it felt strange to be in the position of having to tell a contrite Aiden Ahwalia that he was on the team, for now, and that he was going out into battle. And then to have to try her best to smash down the glint he got in his eyes after.
“Of course. Of course.” He said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”
“You really shouldn’t be happy we’re in this position.” Shalikova sighed.
Behind her, the deployment chutes for Khadija and Valya were being drained. Both of them had gone out first. A wise decision– Khadija would have certainly had something to say about Aiden’s inclusion. She was hopefully professional enough not to complain once Aiden was actually outside with them. It was a dreadful situation to be in. Two of their most accomplished pilots in their last sortie were out of the fight, and the enemy was likely to be armed to the teeth. These weren’t just going to be patrolmen haphazardly thrown into battle. The Antenora was the Fueller flagship, part of the former ruling dynasty.
Shalikova imagined royal knights who trained constantly to protect the imperial family.
Complete opposite of the ragtag group she was working with.
But all she could do was believe; believe in her comrades and do her best.
Murati would have said something like that.
She would have also had a more complicated plan, perhaps.
“Our goal will be to distract the enemy while the Strelkannon gets into position. Between the Strelkannon’s anti-ship package and the Brigand’s weapons we should be able to overwhelm the Cruiser. If we can’t sink it, we’ll hopefully do enough damage to force a rout. You need to be ready to retreat at any point we find an opportunity to run. You got that? Don’t be a hero, Aiden.”
“Don’t worry about me! I won’t do anything foolish.” Aiden said.
His tone was much more compliant.
Not only because he was finally getting what he wanted and being allowed to pilot, but likely also because of the beating he took and the subsequent dressing down from the Security Chief. He had a bruised neck and a bandage on his forehead where Valeriya had stricken him. Nothing broken, nothing he couldn’t sleep off. Otherwise Shalikova would not have had any reserve pilots to draw upon now, except maybe asking if Valeriya and Illya could be lent to her from security.
She knew those two could pilot well.
“You’ll be with her.” Shalikova said. “But you follow my orders, understand?”
Beside the spare Strelok which had been assigned to Aiden, Marina’s S.E.A.L was set up on a gantry. It was a little rounder than a Strelok here and there, attesting to the Republic’s higher capability in precise machining, with rounded off edges and a beveled, semi-oblong body. They attached the backpack lower, and the entire mass was just a bit squatter in profile. This was the legacy of the combat data which had been given by the Union to the republic. They made a slightly prettier and stockier Strelok.
It would do as well enough as any of their machines in the right hands.
Shalikova would just have to trust Marina McKennedy’s skill too.
When Marina appeared, Shalikova took Aiden to her side for a quick introduction.
“McKennedy, this is Aiden Ahwalia, he’ll be providing fire support for you.” She said.
Aiden waved half-heartedly.
Marina nodded her head. “Okay, I’ll paint targets if I need him to coordinate.”
“Good call. Aiden, shoot what she’s shooting at, and we’ll get through this.”
Shalikova patted Aiden in the back, trying to be a bit chummy.
Murati did that sort of thing much better– she couldn’t help but compare herself.
She then hurried back to the Cheka, set up next to the Strelkannon, ready to deploy.
On either shoulder, the Strelkannon was set up with a six-slot rack for 88 mm light torpedoes.
Rybolovskaya would in addition be deploying with a 50 mm high velocity cannon.
This was essentially a Diver “sniper rifle,” firing supercavitating two-stage projectiles.
But because the Diver and its pilot could hardly “see” to the full range of this weapon, it would be up to Shalikova or the rest of the team to paint digital targets for the Strelkannon to fire upon. They had all been equipped with laser effectors on their Diver’s gauntlets for this purpose. They could also use these to help guide the torpedoes she would be firing. Their entire gambit was based around supporting this one platform. Murati might’ve balked at having such a stark failure point.
Murati was not here, however.
Shalikova was doing her best with the weapons and tactics she knew. This kind of thing was bread and butter for pilots, but the Academy must’ve taught it to her because it was effective.
Right? She wished the little nagging voice in her head was more supportive.
She raised a thumbs up to Rybolovskaya, who nodded and descended into her cockpit.
Shalikova then started to climb into her own.
Murati’s Cheka was quite an imposing monument in the hangar, at least for Shalikova’s eyes. Climbing onto its dark painted body, subsuming herself in that sleek, modern hull, it put into stark relief that she was being asked to take on far more responsibility than she ever had. For years she had been piloting Streloks as a cadet and then as arguably a professional. This design bore resemblances to the mecha she had been piloting all of this time, but it represented the turning of an era also. This machine, if the Union survived long enough, would probably supplant all of the machines Shalikova piloted.
Just as she, and Murati, and all of them, were being asked to follow in the footsteps of the previous generation of the Union’s warriors and ultimately supersede them. Khadija was among the Brigand’s pilots, sure, but other than her, Shalikova felt, for maybe the first time, the absence of veterans, of the old revolutionaries, and the placing of weight on her slender shoulders alone. When Murati could not lead them, she had been chosen instead. A mere girl barely into her twenties.
ISU-100 Cheka. For the workers’ revolution!
Shalikova closed the cockpit and watched the Diver’s computer boot up.
A thousand generations reside in you.
That was the final part of the boot-up message before her cameras came online.
“You don’t have to keep reminding me.” She mumbled.
She took in a deep breath and let it out. She grabbed hold of her control sticks.
In the absence of that tenacious generation which brought liberty to the Nectaris Ocean, it would simply have to be her and her peers who continued the fight for freedom. There was no one else here that could protect the Brigand, and she would be damned if she let everything fall on poor Khadija, who had suffered so much, and Murati, who was always throwing herself in death’s way for them.
For Zasha’s sake too. She– she didn’t die for nothing.
“Big sis– the road we chose just keeps getting more treacherous, huh?”
Shalikova put a hand to her heart, and for the first time in a long time–
–remembered Zasha’s face, her words, her encouragement, without crying.
For her sake. Shalikova had to be soldier Zasha dreamed of being but could never become.
To protect the work of all of those generations who resided in her–
–and now, she who resided in Shalikova too.
Below her, the engineers released the Cheka from its gantry and unlocked the power plant.
She hefted up her rifle and stowed a folding sword and a grenade on her magnetic strip.
The voice that left her lips was stronger and firmer than she could’ve imagined.
“ISU-100 Cheka, Sonya Shalikova! Deploying!”
When she dropped into the water, her hands were at the controls, her eyes on the cameras.
Her initial fear and trepidation left her as the ocean surrounded her hull.
“How is it looking out here?”
Beneath the ship, Khadija and Valya had been standing guard, moving just enough to keep up with the Brigand as it began to turn in on the Antenora’s flank from over a kilometer away. The Strelkannon dropped down with her, and Aiden’s Strelok along with Marina’s SEAL dropped shortly after. Shalikova synced the final up to date algorithmic prediction of the surroundings that she would get to her dive computer and cameras, getting a sense of the terrain beneath and the waters around them.
She noted the position of Zachikova’s drone near the ocean floor below, trailed closely by the Leviathan she had discovered. They would be connecting to the drone for laser communication and alternate sonar positioning, since the drone had a complete sonar kit and their Divers did not possess one.
“They’re starting to make a move.” Khadija said over the acoustic comms.
Shalikova adjusted herself to face the Antenora’s direction.
Advanced soundwave detection from the drone’s instruments passed to her computer, alerting her that there was indeed movement from underneath the Antenora, and the general direction of the movement. A tight formation was headed their way. All around her the ocean was murky, brown dust floating in near black waters, but she could trust the instruments to see where her eyes could never.
“Form up around the Strelkannon. I’ll take the lead– Marina and Aiden hold the rear!”
“Aye aye!” came the voices on the communicator.
Like a cluster of missiles hurtling out from beneath the ship, the Brigand’s divers charged out into the open water to intersect their counterparts. Positional data from the drone sent and received with a slight delay every few seconds, and at the speed they were moving they would find and confront the enemy group in forty or so seconds. Shalikova took the lead, Khadija and Valya beside her.
The Cheka was a dream to pilot, completely smooth, responsive, fast.
She must have had at least eight knots advantage on the Strelok.
I can do this–
“One of them is breaking off! I’m intercepting!”
Seconds later, Aiden suddenly swerved away from the formation.
“Aiden, what? Stop right now!”
Shalikova chastised him, then received the update from the drone.
One of the enemy mecha had torn away from their formation too.
It was clearly a trick! They didn’t know what kind of enemy it was!
“Don’t chase after it! Aiden! God damn it!”
“That little fucking worm! He’s going to get slaughtered!” Khadija cursed.
“Khadija, quiet and take the lead! I’ll go after him!”
Shalikova tore from the lead of the formation and charged to the flank as well.
There was no objection. She was the squad leader and they had their orders.
She was furious but she couldn’t let Aiden be killed no matter how foolish he was acting!
Once they got back she would punch him in his stupid nose, but for now she had to save him.
Aiden had quickly vanished into the marine fog, but Shalikova could catch up. The Cheka was faster than his Strelok. She could still create an opportunity if she could take out the enemy’s flanker with Aiden and then turn this stunt into their own flanking attack. In mere seconds the battle would be joined by the main group, so as she hurtled into the open ocean at their left flank, Shalikova kept the time in her head and prepared her weapons, knowing that she would soon catch a glimpse of the enemy–
A guttural, horrified scream from Aiden sounded through the communicator.
Outlines came into view through the biomass and the dark waters lit only by floodlights.
It happened in an instant–
Horns, a great dark body like a demon, claws, and shimmering, evil red eyes.
Aiden’s assault rifle floated down toward the seafloor with the Strelok’s hand attached.
Firing into nothingness as the hand was severed before he could attack.
He swung his sword at the demon but its glowing claw seized his entire arm.
When he screamed Shalikova could hear the wailing alert sounds from inside his cockpit.
His arm tore off along with the water intakes adjacent to the joint, causing his hydrojets to seize up, and the demon let the mass of his machine float uselessly away as if it was done playing with the carcass. Its horns glowed with a rainbow gradient that trailed across the body like faint outlines of the veins beneath skin. Shalikova saw dark armor and a snout-like head, felt the palpable heft of its body–
No, not its body. Not anything physical. Those waves were coming from the pilot.
Around her was a mass of red and black color with a spreading band of purple.
Furious killing intent and a sense of warrior’s pride.
Shalikova’s eyes drew wide and her breathing caught. She raised her assault rifle.
She could hear a laugh– a girl’s uproarious laughter at her own superiority.
Her eyes, even through the water and the machines, she thought she could see–
–a girl like her? Long-haired, golden-eyed, in a pilot’s bodysuit, too young–
Oh? What’s this? Another helpless rat took a wrong turn in the maze?
Shalikova blinked, and the machine turned and charged as if propelled by billowing cloak of water.
In the next instant, the clawed metal horror descended on her quicker than its bulk suggested.
She reacted with alacrity, drawing back, avoiding the first attack of the enormous, vibrating, superheated claws. Opening the vortex of destruction which inexorably drew the currents of these generational peers. Out of every possible enemy released from the bowels of the Fueller flagship’s collection of monsters, Shalikova had now come face to face with a terror that shook the deeps with its alien power.
The Antenora’s Jagdkaiser Type I fixed its eyes and those of Selene Anahid on Shalikova’s own.