Pursuers In The Deep [7.3]

An hour after meeting with her personnel leaders, Norn finally saw with her own eyes the gravestone-like block of metal that was Ajillo substation. Jutting out from the grey dirt, bedecked in dead, dying and decaying ships docked to various repair bays like bleached skulls left as tribute. It was a somber giant, a monument to modernity amid a patch of wilderness that had been left to languish, its potential untapped, rotting as much as the ships.

“All of this country is an absolute mess. It beggars belief.” Norn said, thinking out loud.

Outside of the vast, rich underwater plains of the Yucatan Gulf, the majority of Sverland was deep, rocky territory on the edge of various collapsed island landforms that gave the undersea geography a rising and falling, complicated geometry. Any flats that could be found between the rolling “hills” and jagged, rocky gorges and mounts, likely had a station or a substation dropped onto it. The rest of the land was for ships to glide over and around, too difficult to build on with the effort the Empire at large wanted to spare for its southern colony — which was almost none.

Northeast of Serrano, one of these substations was Ajillo, a stout “newtype-utility pillar” set into what looked like a sandy crater 700 meters below the surface. Along the sides of the station pillar’s trunk were several protruding “wet” repair bays which were crammed full of docked ships of various classes, anchored in their twos and threes save for a single, newer Cruiser, by itself. Men in pressure suits and unarmed labor Divers buzzed around the hulks of metal in their dozens. They were worked on in the open ocean, with pressurizing cages around any sensitive areas.

Ajillo substation had been a site of restless activity the past few weeks.

Since the border fleet’s failed expedition to the Union, its repair bays were filled with the detritus of a neglected fleet on the underdeveloped border to the rest of the former colonies. Norn knew of Gottwald’s failed expedition and surmised from the sight of the pillar that conditions were deteriorating. Work for military personnel was guaranteed, so the men likely continued to be paid, in food and lodging and partial wages, to continue working on their ships. But there was a clear state of disrepair to everything Norn could see docked into a wet repair bay.

Military materials would be at a premium, with no ready to source.

Sverland was perhaps the most dependent territory in the Empire. And this lack of self-sufficiency also made it a black sheep. Many of the other territories had the strength and territorial agency to form the variety of breakaway governments now vying for supremacy. But the Empire had always had a purely extractive relationship to Sverland. Every mark spent on Sverland was one mark less of its mineral, agricultural and industrial output in profit. In a sense, Sverland was having to make up for the loss of the Union in extracting as much as possible to feed the growing, gluttonous Imperial nation with little investment. It was essentially paying reparations to Palatine.

Konstantin’s oppressive authority was the only reason Sverland had any Imbrian identity.

Now the dependent Sverland state was fully abandoned, since, at the present, the “central government” that would have been responsible for installations like Ajillo was de-facto disbanded. Erich and the Fuellers and whatever parts of the Imperial administration had not yet defected to another side, all continued to administer the shell of this government wherever they felt safe doing so. But it was fully functional only in the Palatinate, where Erich’s mighty fleet guaranteed its existence. Rhinea, Bosporus, Buren, Solsea and Veka had all established their own nations. And the Royal Alliance had rooted in the productive half of Sverland like a cancer, stealing away the Yucatan.

“All of this is the result of Konstantin’s ego,”Norn said. Her lips curled into a tiny grin.

“It’s a depressing sight, but should you really be openly criticizing the late Emperor?”

“Hah! I have more than earned the right to. More than anyone in the damn world.”

“I suppose so. But then again, a powerful woman like you is partially responsible too.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I suppose from your point of view, you accomplished everything you wanted.”

At her side, Adelheid was dressed in proper dress uniform for the visit to Ajillo. Rather than the grey coat of the Navy, she wore instead a flattering silver tunic with gold embroidery and a tall collar with her fleet insignia, over a white dress shirt with a red tie. Her hair was arranged in a slightly messy bun with a gleaming silver hairclip, and her rosy, done-up cheeks and red lips were particularly tantalizing. Beneath her clothes she wore a bodystocking that was translucent up top and black along her legs, a perfect complement to her modest knee-length skirt and heels.

Norn herself was also outfitted more impressively than normal for the occasion.

While she hated closed layers of clothing, and particularly bodysuits, and so usually wore an open coat and a camisole for comfort, she knew the situation demanded propriety. Norn wore to Ajillo a version of the blue and green Fueller coat that was tighter fitting and closed with several gold buttons. A gold braid connected the right shoulder to the left breast, and she wore a half-cape adorned with the intricate semiconductor emblem of the Fuellers. Black trousers and boots completed the outfit, while her hair was still a simple ponytail, and her makeup fairly minimal.

Adelheid had teased her upon seeing her in the Fueller attire. “Not going to wear the hat?”

“Never again.”

Normally the Fueller family regalia included a sort of flat mitre hat that Norn hated.

It could be substituted for a pickelhaube, another object that made Norn want to vomit.

As the official head of the ruling Fueller family, Norn could have also played a cruel joke on the men at Ajillo by wearing the Imperial crown. After all, Konstantin had left instructions for Norn to lead the family, and Syrmia Fueller and Prince Erich both agreed. She was practically the Imperial heir at this point. Had she brought the crown she may even have considered it, but she had not bothered to invest in the props for such provocations.

Though aesthetically less displeasing than the alternatives, wearing the crown was just as abhorrent.

Norn scoffed. “I prefer to wear my simple ponytail like the humble retainer I am.”

Adelheid laughed. “It’s like some kind of cruel joke isn’t it? A retainer leading the remnants of the #1 family in the Empire, alongside her adjutant, the disgraced heiress of the #2 family; and both dressed up in biological fibers like royalty to meet the Admiral of a dead fleet in the middle of nowhere.”

“Our beautiful story together is just a cruel joke to you? How callous.” Norn teased her.

Soon after Adelheid and Norn dispensed their last barbs, the Antenora was guided by Ajillo traffic control to the small port near the peak of the structure. Military transports would actually dock in an underground berth, accessible through an enormous hatch near the station, and take a long elevator ride up to the barracks in the center pillar. This was a fairly standard design for Military stations. To directly berth in the upper habitat was a privilege for the officers and for the vessels of dignitaries and VIPs. There was only room for two Cruisers or one Dreadnought.

Prior to entering the port, the Jagdkaiser launched from the Antenora as scheduled.

There was not a peep from Ajillo traffic control about this.

They knew they could not defy Norn the Praetorian’s orders in this situation.

And so, as the berth doors closed and the Antenora was secured, the Jagdkaiser hovered in the waters nearby, awaiting its orders. There was no other ship docked into the port structure along with the Antenora, and the station crew managed the fairly breezy job of docking the ship and extending and pressurizing an entry chute to her bulkhead.

Soon enough, the Praetorian and her adjutant found themselves finally entering the port structure.

This was a port that accommodated two ships that would undoubtedly carry people of some military or political pedigree, and as such, the arrivals area was a red carpet affair. A white coat of textured paint made the metal walls seem warmer and more organic, while below their feet, the carpet was silky, gold-inlaid, and colorful. There was no gate, no metal detectors, no security detail. Miniature ship models hung from the ceiling or were stood up on displays flanking the arrivals and before them the wall was dominated by a grand painting of the station layout that was more baroque art than a functional guide. Busts of former station commanders dominated the opposing half of the room.

It was garish, absurd even, an assault to Norn’s eyes in every direction.

Norn had to muster a lot of willpower not to immediately criticize the men who met them in these visually cluttered surroundings. There were only two, though Norn spied a few guards in the hallway leading deeper into the habitat. Both wore uniforms similar to Adelheid’s, with silver tunics and grey pants. Of those who had come to meet them, one was clearly the adjutant, a younger man with slicked golden hair, flashy blue eyes, and a strong jaw, who was smiling gently at them. He had a broad chest and shoulders but slim legs, and slightly slacking posture.

Beside him was a shorter man with thick, brushy mustache, which was the old style among Imperial officers. He had his hands behind his back and kept a critical gaze fixed on Norn herself, unlike the eyes of his adjutant which easily wondered to Adelheid. The generational gap between them must have been similar if not identical to that which Norn had to Adelheid. Though that was where the differences ended. Norn remained a somewhat exotic figure, while this man looked to her like any other rags-on-bones member of their military gerontocracy. As if the greed and hatred found in the soul of the admiralty was peeling and cracking his skin and turning his hair brittle and gray.

“Welcome! It is a pleasure to host such renowned guests. I am Captain Obermeyer.”

They were greeted by the adjutant first. He stepped forward and bowed his head to Norn.

Then when he rose again, he suddenly took Adelheid’s hand and laid a kiss on her fingers.

His eyes moved up to meet hers and she smiled awkwardly back at him.

Norn felt a sudden spike of anger that she hurled invisibly into the captain’s lungs.

In that instant, Captain Obermeyer staggered a step, bent down, momentarily choking.

“Excuse me,” he said in a frog-like, depleted voice, “Something in my chest, very sorry.”

He coughed into the black sleeve of his bodysuit, trying to smile and play it off.

“Get yourself together if you’re going to represent us. I swear; apologies, milord.”

Rear Admiral Vespucio stepped forward and saluted Norn, rather than bow his head.

Adelheid cracked a grin, while Norn retained a surly expression through the introductions.

“You both know who I am: Grand Marshal of the Imbrian Empire, Duke Norn von Fueller. This is my adjutant, Lieutenant Viscountess Adelheid van Mueller. Since we are here on your request, we will permit you to lead the way and set the agenda. I will be blunt, however, that this visit has eaten into my schedule. I hope you realize the favor I am showing you, Vespucio, in standing here before you at all. I trust that my time will be properly respected.”

Though her tone of voice was casual and masked her full displeasure, Norn’s words were pure poison.

While the situation deserved even harsher language, she enjoyed the craft of sinking a man with a veneer of politeness. Captain Obermeyer’s boyish smile seemed to gradually fade as she spoke, while Vespucio stared straight at Norn at first but gradually let his eyes wander like a schoolboy being scolded. It was the effect she desired.

She needed no new friends in this region. She was here purely to indulge a whim.

“Milord, apologies. I was unaware of your promotion to Grand Marshal and believed you still the equivalent of a Fleet Admiral.” Vespucio said. “I congratulate you on your richly deserved ascension and I am proud to serve in a nation which recognizes such once-in-a-century talents. Tales of your exploits reach far and wide.”

“Thank you; but it will take more than flattery for my visit to be worthwhile. Shall we?”

Norn gestured toward the hallway, and Vespucio silently assented.

Past a small group of guards in special occasion wear, through a bulkhead door, the regal white of the arrivals hall gave away again to the unvarnished metal of the station only briefly as they headed to an elevator. There was a small and unadorned courtyard occupied by a few officers in transit. It connected several means of transport to other parts of the station, and they scarcely saw much of it before stepping into an elevator with bronze walls.

Their destination would be the stark opposite of the humble courtyard.

“A place for the officers’ relaxtion and for honored guests.” Vespucio replied. “We’ll start with dinner.”

From the elevator doors they stepped into a massive lounge of umber and fake gold walls replete with false wooden textures, fake wooden tables, imitation leather couches and chairs. There was a bar in the lounge behind which Norn could see a wall of ice chests, likely hiding the alcohol. There were a few side-doors; at one particular door a pair of workers, the lounge waitstaff, ushered them into the location of their fancy officer’s dinner. A comparatively smaller and more tasteful room that had only a table and chairs, a more familiar setting for dinner.

While the room had a lot of imitation wood, the darker color made it less offensive to Norn’s eyes than the burnt umber walls with imitation grain. There was no food yet, but cutlery and glasses of water had been set out for everyone. Four seats were arranged like a cross, bringing to Norn’s mind something like ritual; Adelheid and Obermeyer sat across from each other while Norn sat across from Vespucio. At the door, the pair of waitstaff in their black vests and white shirts bowed their heads and informed them that a first course would be delivered soon.

For Norn, the act of seeing was gradual, like peeling layers. When her mind was idle, she saw hovering colors of auras, dim and gaseous, as if a vaporizer had been smoked in the area and the cloud was fading. Focusing her eyes, flicking an invisible “switch”, she could nullify the auras and calm the surroundings; or she could enhance everything she saw, thereby seeing the “textures” of the aura and realizing the constellation of feelings contained within.

Everything gave off an aura. Only a few people like Norn were cursed to always see it.

This time however she was curious about the atmosphere.

Without any perceptible difference in her countenance, she focused on the auras.

In her time, Norn had developed a system by which she read auras.

Color indicated intensity and proximal emotional responses; but the texture hid the truth.

Obermeyer’s was red with a green stripe; its texture wet and roiling. Lustful, desperate, afraid.

Vespucio’s was calmly blue and green and solid as stone but with black flecks that, every so often, would bubble or vibrate, stirring the entirety of the cloud. Blue was often a signifier for calm, while green represented a disquiet or stress. It was common to see Blue and Green together. Only the most self-controlled humans were fully at peace at any given time. However, the texture and behavior of the aura told Norn that Vespucio was scheming something.

To probe further would invite a brief skirmish between her mind and Vespucio’s will.

She opted to switch targets instead. Norn actively ignored Adelheid’s aura; she focused on the waitstaff all of whom had green and blue auras. Green was far more predominant with thin lines of yellow between the blue and the green. Yellow often meant disgust or sickness, a more extreme discomfort than the comparatively less severe Green. There were two workers, and Norn was assuming one was male and one was female; the lady had more yellow in her aura.

In a few seconds, Norn had a plethora of information about the situation.

And she thought to herself, even if Vespucio held her no ill will, she would kill Obermeyer.

“Are they civilian contractors?” Norn asked, gesturing at the door as the workers departed.

“Indeed they are.” Vespucio said. “My men are too busy, and I would not disrespect them by having them serve me wine and meals, even as a punishment. They are also salt of the earth fellows, they lack refinement, so we have our own cooks here who can serve higher quality meals than the canteen, to suit our elevated tastes.”

“Interesting. Do you eat here often, Captain?” Norn asked, glancing toward Obermeyer.

Obermeyer looked surprised to be addressed by Norn at all. It shook him from a reverie.

“Ah, no milord, not often, this is quite a treat for me actually.” He said.

He laughed and looked to Adelheid as if for some measure of sympathy from a fellow lower rank. Adelheid did not meet his gaze and instead deliberately took interest in Norn as if still waiting on her, playing the dutiful servant. This put Obermeyer in a somewhat awkward position for a moment, until Vespucio finally spoke.

“Milord it is usually just me and Commodore Erbing, but not too long ago, when we easily repaired whole flotillas at this station, we would have more commodores and commanders, as well as wealthy guests, for whom we valued hospitality. Our admiral Gottwald and his family were frequent visitors. Tragic that he met his end.”

“I hear he fought with pride to the end. Is that not how we all wish to go?” Norn said.

Vespucio and Obermeyer both seemed quite put off by that remark.

Norn saw a brief spasm in their auras. A green band was thickening in Obermeyer’s own.

“Will the Commodore be joining us? I’d love to hear his side of station life.” Norn asked.

Vespucio replied curtly, “He is busy.”

“Ah, unfortunate. It would have made for an interesting layout on this table.”

There was hardly any conversation until the first dishes came in.

After all, what would any man in this evil era have to say to someone like Norn?

Now that she was seated at their table and could not be turned away–

And now that she knew the tone of the evening better–

Norn could have all the fun that she wanted with them!

Her carefully maintained countenance slowly melted into a mocking, prideful grin.

Adelheid seemed to have noticed, and even Obermeyer glanced at her more than he ogled the adjutant. While often calm in her own element, around others, she knew she was known for being something of a hyena.

She couldn’t help it; the pretensions of the Imbrians drew out her very worst.

So she put on a face that fully expressed her amusement and satisfaction.

“Happy to see you in good spirits milord. Let us enjoy this meal, dedicated to your grace.”

“Why, thank you; I shall relish testing the mettle of your contracted chefs then!”

“Um, yes, of course, of course milord.”

Adelheid sighed, perhaps partly out of fondness, perhaps partly out of understanding.

Obermeyer averted his gaze to the door.

Norn’s sadistic side was slowly coming out from under the silky layers that hid it.

When the doors opened again, the waitstaff returned with the first course. Norn caught a glimpse of green on the plate as it was brought in, but even she was a little impressed when she saw the spread laid down before her. On each plate was a bright green, fresh salad of firm lettuce leaves, glistening with vinegar and mustard, a dusting of salty cheese, and gilded with bright red, juicy chunks of tomato. Amid the bed of leaves were perfectly golden cured egg yolks, like bubbles which when lightly forked released their creamy contents to the leaves around them.

Adelheid had the tiniest grin when she began to eat.

Such foods were not uncommon to her, both because she had a rich background, but because the Muellers were once farm monopolists in the Palatinate. Adelheid had eaten fresh greens, fresh eggs. She was a spoiled girl for whom nothing was new or interesting. Nevertheless, she was clearly enjoying the rich taste of the greens.

Obermeyer admired the salad almost as much as he had admired Adelheid’s breasts.

He had the response of a boy clearly from a humbler background than anyone at the table.

Norn was someone between worlds. She knew the decadence of the upper class table and the privation of months aboard military ships eating canned ham, cured cheese and reconstituted spinach. But even Konstantin never showed off to her like this. A fresh green salad; as soon as Norn brought a forkful of leaves to her mouth she realized they were far more authentic than the wood varnish on everything in the lounge. They had not been frozen, they had not been dried, they had not been pickled, they had not been reconstituted into leaf shape out of a block by a biostitcher.

Everything was fresh and firm and asymmetrical as only genuinely grown food could be.

Delicious as it was, something about it made her angry.

Why was this backwater station that could barely function militarily growing fresh greens?

Only for Vespucio to infrequently impress his guests? They could not be growing many.

“Delicious isn’t it? Grew them myself. Something of a hobby.” Vespucio said.

Absolute crap. You couldn’t lift your gun, much less a shovel. Norn grinned to herself.

Norn glanced at the waitstaff standing at attention the instant he said that.

She could see the turn of the yellow in their auras, growing, writhing.

“What kind of growing medium do you use?” Norn asked.

There was the briefest flash of confusion in Vespucio’s face. “Growing medium–?”

Norn grinned, interrupting.

“Well, it affects the taste of course! Synthetic soils, collapse ash, micropellets, come now, you know this– oh, and what fertilizer? Human? It’d be a clever way to recycle waste. Actually, we should work on a proposal! Imagine, every military outpost growing more than mushrooms and algae. You could revolutionize military feeding, Vespucio!”

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide as Norn spoke. He was instantly put in his place.

“Let’s not– talk about human waste at the table milord, funny as your grace’s humor is–”

“Fair; but you will personally walk me through the growing setup later.” Norn said.

Once everyone’s appetite had been whetted by the crispy green morsels, the waitstaff took their plates and left behind a bronze tray containing a few crisps speared into a soft mound of an orange-colored sauce flecked with green. Norn did not partake. Adelheid picked up a crisp and took a single sauce-dolloped bite. She struggled not to recoil from it, and delicately ate the rest of the crisp sans sauce. Norn surmised from this that the sauce was too spicy for her.

To the refined Imbrian palate, hot pepper was an anomaly.

The Serrano region was once upon a time known for its hot peppers, however.

“Careful, Lieutenant.” Obermeyer said, smiling at her. “Hot sauces are a local specialty.”

“Hmph.” Adelheid grumbled. “I should hope it won’t all be so astringent.”

Vespucio shot her a look as if angered at her remarks, while Obermeyer, clearly charmed by her response, replied in a soft and assuring voice, “Fear not, milady, I’m sure we have something for a more discerning and delicate palate such as yours. We knew we would have refined ladies for guests, and the chef’s world class.”  

“Am I counted among the refined ladies visiting?” Norn asked.

Obermeyer seemed to be hit by Norn’s words as if struck by lightning every time.

“O-Of course milord!”

Norn grinned. “I just noticed I’ve only been referred to as ‘milord’ or ‘duke’ tonight.”

Adelheid smiled mischievously, gesturing to Norn. “Obermeyer, how is your etiquette?”

“How is it?” Obermeyer asked.

“Were you formally taught? In fact, let me expand the question. What is your background?”

“My background? Well, if you’re so curious, my family had some money, we were never struggling. No peerage of course.” Obermeyer said. “I was taught formal etiquette– I attended Liebknecht School for Boys.”

“Such a prestigious school, but oh dear, what even are boys taught in it?” Adelheid teased.

“Why do you say that?”

“You’ve been mindlessly calling the lady Fueller ‘milord’ this whole time.”

Obermeyer stared at Adelheid in wide-eyed confusion until Vespucio cleared his throat.

He finally decided to butt in and rescue his disappointing adjutant.

“Now, don’t be so hard on the boy. Obermeyer, we call Norn von Fueller ‘milord’ or ‘duke’, in the male form, because those are the titles she was legally given. You do not call the lady van Mueller whatever you want, you call her the title she possesses, and its specific honorifics. That is true for milord von Fueller regardless of her gender.”

“Ah, apologies Admiral. He’s such a lively lad I can’t help but tease.” Adelheid giggled.

Obermeyer squirmed for a bit, trying to laugh it off. Norn contained her own laughter.

While they were speaking of backgrounds, there was no need to go over Adelheid’s or Norn’s. Adelheid had been big news. Her family was the number two family in the Empire in terms of proximity to the throne and influence in peerage politics. Her being disinherited and having her surname struck from ‘von’ to ‘van’ Mueller was news.

Nevertheless, she was still owed respect by people without any peerage. And every military man had heard of Norn, it was impossible not to have done so. Inviting Norn to recount her past would have given her a chance to criticize and seek grievance. Not because she felt hurt or pressured but simply because she could and would do so.

Even someone like Obermeyer knew not to extend a conversation about backgrounds and social origins to cover Adelheid’s disgrace or Norn’s infamy. He knew that much etiquette. So there was no place to take such a conversation beyond himself. Vespucio’s background was not up for casual discussion either. He was a Rear Admiral. Obermeyer should already know him. Norn did — though there was not much to know about him ultimately.

He was just any other career military man, long-serving in a quiet post.

Knowing this, Adelheid had probed the only person in the room who could be probed.

Thankfully for Obermeyer, his rudimentary etiquette and upper middle class upbringing would not continue to be the center of attention for much longer. The conversation was given a reprieve by the arrival of the second course which was set into bowls brought on plates. Knowing the mores of Imbrian haute cuisine, Norn knew that the second course would be a soup course. First was an aperitif, then soup, main course, and finally tea or coffee.

Those bowls were served steaming hot with a thick golden yellow soup upon which floated circles of green onion. That creamy surface was gilded with circles of suspended oils. A single piece of bread was offered, crusty on the outside but pillowy soft and warm within. And in the middle of the table, a bottle of wine and several small glasses were set around a plate of pickled carrot and pepper with lardons. Norn tasted the soup and found it rich with a subtle tang from lemon juice. Katarrans called this avgolemono but in Imbria it was tebiye, from the Shimii.

Norn felt a bitter feeling tasting the food of two ruined cultures as Imbrian haute cuisine.

“Your chef has range, Vespucio.” Norn said.

“Glad you are enjoying it, milord.”

“Has he met a Shimii in his life? Or a Katarran?”

“I– I wouldn’t know, milord?”

Though she had been waiting for another brag, Vespucio was no longer setting himself up for Norn’s verbal counterstrokes. In fact, after this exchange he remained unpleasantly quiet for most of the dinner.

While Obermeyer tried to chat Adelheid up about the food or service life, comments which she rarely reciprocated; and Norn interrupted every so often to tease him or make a joke; Vespucio simply wouldn’t bite. The great and generous Rear Admiral had become miserly with words. Perhaps unused to receiving barbs in return for his flattery and vain flaunting of his privilege. Norn was simply not impressed with him, and he was perhaps not ready for it.

What was he hoping to gain from this? What did he even know of her character?

Once the soup bowls were emptied, the servants took them away and returned with main courses. They proudly declared that for the men, there was spicy beef bourguignon. Slices of tender steak clearly lacquered in a red sauce of wine, mirepoix, fat, and hot peppers; for the women, coq-au-vin was on order, served in a delightfully dark red wine sauce with waxy potatoes and crisp carrots. As with every other dish at the table, Norn had to hand it to the chef. Even the “blander” dish for the “female palate” was full of rich flavors, the wine sauce emulsified with the chicken fats and starch from the potatoes to a naturally unctuous consistency without a heavy hand of dairy.

Despite there being wine in the sauces, the wine for the table had been well chosen to pair. Not a rare vintage, but serviceable and complex with a gentle alcoholic bite and a sweetness that complimented the aggressive meatiness of the main course. Everyone ate, everyone looked happy, but soon no one was exchanging a word. All talk around the table had quieted down from what little there even was before the main course.

Such eerie gatherings were not unusual at the tables of the rich and powerful.

An invitation to eat was a veneer of politeness.

Friendship and camaraderie did not factor into it. It was like choosing clothing over nudity.

Bitter enemies could share a meal to prove a shared sense of civilization, a code of honor.

Many high class dinners passed in quiet indulgence, until moved to shadowy backrooms. Even a chatty series of guests often served as a veil to hide other intentions. For the upper class and military social climbers, self-interested people who sought only positions, power, advantages, it was rarer to have friends at the table than to have prey. For the conversation around Vespucio’s table to have died out simply meant everyone was being more honest.

Norn happily ate the food, and happily let the clock run on Vespucio’s ambitions.

But nobody at the table could be under the illusion that they were truly friends.

Soon, there came the first shattering of the veneer.

After the main course, coffee and sweet patisserie would be served, but–

“Milord, would you indulge me in taking our coffee in private? I wish to discuss an important matter with you, and I hope that we could do so without further interruption. Obermeyer shall entertain the lady Mueller. With our adjutants out of earshot, we can speak more candidly to one another, no offense to the lady or my good Captain.”

Vespucio interrupted the dinner to suggest their last course be taken in private.

Such a request was not unreasonable if there was a sense of urgency or a prior agreement.

However, Norn had not been invited to Ajillo under any pretext of emergency.

As such, trying to hurry her in this manner, to functionally disband the table, was rude.

Norn did not point out this fact. She had no desire to continue playing tea party.

“Gladly. Lead the way, Rear Admiral.”

She glanced briefly at Adelheid, who nodded her assent, understanding the situation.

They had already discussed the possibility of such a thing happening.

If he had a plan, Vespucio would peel his mask off and expose his scheme soon. So Norn followed him out of the room, a tiny thrill in her chest, curious of what would result. Watching the colors in his aura as a tiny, creeping black line began to appear. The fear of; acceptance of; or even experience of death.


Norn followed Vespucio out one of the side doors in the lounge to a metallic hallway, barren save for a door at the end. On the opposite end of the hallway was a single automatic bulkhead door that was locked by an officer’s keycard, and behind that door was an observation room. Reinforced glass and steel grid walls dominated half of the space, exposing the grim blue of the ocean outside. While a few fish bounced off the glass here and there, curious about the light emanating from the room, there was nothing to see, unless Vespucio was secretly a dolphin.

While normally a room like this would be filled with computing equipment and a multi-purpose detection array, this particular room had only a square island surrounded by a few chairs for sitting and taking tea, and a few cabinets that seemed to contain tea and coffee-making accoutrements. It was largely unoccupied and unadorned, though Norn could see scrapes on the floor where equipment had perhaps once stood. There was probably a gun hidden in the island. Norn could not imagine why Vespucio had this room, except as a vain attempt at grandeur.

“Have a seat, milord. I wish to have a hopefully brief discussion if you will allow it.”

“Discuss to your heart’s content, Vespucio.”

Norn and Vespucio sat across from one another.

Alone in this room, they dispensed with the pleasantries.

There was coffee in cups between them but no cakes, no shiny silverware, no servants.

Only two people staring daggers at each other and awaiting a backroom verbal spar.

Vespucio studied her, his aura thrashing as he thought of what to say.

Norn rested her chin on steepled fingers, waiting for a response.

“Milord, how much do you know about the military-political situation here in Sverland?”

He raised his cup to his lips, as if wanting to punctuate a hard stop in his words.

Norn briefly shut her eyes and smiled. There was overwhelming color around Vespucio even though his face was as stone-like as ever. She needed to shut her eyes every so often to avoid the strain. “I know that when Konstantin’s passing was unfortunately leaked to the military, your commanding officer, Gottwald, launched a sudden raid on the bandit nation to the south, without any authorization. This was shortly after Groessen, former Duke of the territories on the Union border, was provoked to launch his own mission to the Union border for unknown reasons. Gottwald and most of Sverland’s functioning military forces were slaughtered by the communists.”

“That assessment is correct regarding the preamble to our present dilemma, but I can’t help but notice that Milord makes a shocking habit of calling many men of power by familiar names and without their titles.”

“Konstantin himself allowed me his name; if I can speak his name, I can speak any.”

“Fair enough. You always had a special relationship to his majesty.” Vespucio said.

“I was a retainer beloved by all of the Fueller family, enough to be adopted.”

Konstantin was so lovesick toward his youngest wife Leda Lettiere, that after her passing some twenty years ago, rumors began to bubble around him and Norn pertaining to Norn’s rise in stature. Did his attentions shift to Norn? Such gossip completely disgusted Norn, but even an indiscrete homosexual life did not seem to dispel the suspicions, judging by Vespucio’s attitude. She was exotic, powerful, an outsider; therefore hated and feared.

“There was some shock in the high society circles pertaining to your ascendance to heading the Fueller family. Had you been a man, there may have been pressure on you to marry Duchess Syrmia in order to solidify your position within the family. Perhaps pressure to assume the throne. We live in progressive times for women: I’m curious if political alliances such as this are in milord’s plans? Anything that stabilizes our politics would be welcomed news.”

“I’m afraid my nuptials would do nothing to stabilize our society at this point.” Norn said. “Regardless of the rumors swirling around in the chaos I am not the emperor, nor am I an Emperor-in-waiting.”

“Then Prince Erich will assume the throne in the Palatinate?”

“You have a very old fashioned understanding of the situation, Vespucio.”

“Am I wrong to believe that the ascendance of an Emperor to our empty throne would do much to alleviate the present situation, where we have several illegitimate powers at work pulling the Empire in their own ways? Milord would know more than me about such things I’m sure, but filling the seat would help, no?”

“You are missing the point of our current crisis to an alarming degree.” Norn said. “Having an Emperor changes nothing. The Volkisch would not back down, for example. To them, we have entered a stage of history where the throne of the Palatinate carries no power. It does not confer to the wielder the resources of an Empire as it did before. Those resources have returned to their constituent states; filling the seat will not bring them back.”

She could have explained the motivations of any given faction.

But she wanted to introduce the word to the conversation. To be the first to say Volkisch.

His aura reacted no more strongly to this word than any, unfortunately.

“Your assessment is grim, but I’m afraid I must agree that it is quite valid, even here.”

“I didn’t get where I am by not knowing what I’m talking about, Vespucio.”

Norn narrowed her eyes at him, and Vespucio seemed to sigh at the increasing hostility.

“At the present,” he began, as if ignoring or papering over the previous conversation for now, “Sverland is in chaos. We have hardly any military power. To our south, the communists could advance at any moment if they wanted to. We have no way to stop them and no forthcoming military supplies because, to our west, a group of aristocrats have started a breakaway state and taken hostage almost all our military-industrial capacity. To our east, the Vekans, who are orientals with no Imbrian solidarity, have declared their own Empire. They have a hundred times our remaining fighting strength at their command. Milord, there is no way we can fight in the emperor’s name.”

“What do you want from me, Vespucio? Why did you invite me here?” Norn asked.

“You wield considerable powers. Any news would be good news from you. Will the Grand Western Fleet cut down through Rhinea and relieve us? Will Prince Erich ride out as Emperor and squash these rebellions? We need to know the intentions of the ruling house of Fueller. Every other territory has rebelled, only we have remained loyal. What are we expected to do? How are we going to be repaid for our loyalty? To remain loyal?” He said.

He was still betraying no emotion. Simply staring her down directly in the eyes.

Norn wanted to simply tell him to go die, but she also wanted to draw things out a bit more.

“At the moment Prince Erich is preparing for a campaign to the Bosporus-Volgia front and securing the border with Rhinea through limited engagements.” She said calmly. “The leftist movements in Bosporus and Buren concern the long-term stability of the Palatinate, as they present a threat to our most accessible supplies of Agarthicite. We are not in a position to march down to Sverland until we can secure the resources to defeat Rhinea.”

“So we’re stranded then? Is it any wonder then that there is talk in Serrano of capitulating to the Volkisch? Would you blame them, milord? Would you have us stand against them and punish them for it? My men and I are helpless in the midst of this cyclone! We can’t possibly uphold the Empire’s law in this state. We barely have weapons and supplies. At this juncture all we can afford with our funds and supplies is to surrender!” Vespucio said.

“But you have the funds and supplies for salad greens, fine wine and a private chef?” Norn said.

“Such things are easier to acquire than coilgun shells!” Vespucio shouted back. He was clearly offended by her response to his hospitality. “I invited you here milord because I need to know what the Empire expects from my men now. My wealth can’t buy them guns and ships! So will you provide them for us?”

Norn sighed mockingly and shrugged her shoulders at him with a grin.

“Vespucio you put on such a boring show. I wish you’d capitulate to the Union instead.”

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “Is this a joke to you? I have thousands of men in this station!”

Whether he meant this as a threat or to garner sympathy, he seemed to leave ambiguous.

Norn finally lifted her cup of coffee and began to drink as if ceding the floor again.

Vespucio grunted his indignation.

He began to shake his head, his hands up to his face. “This is my reward for not riding out with Gottwald? Had I turned traitor, maybe we would have defeated the Union and improved our situation. And yet despite my loyalty the Fueller family so easily abandons me? You are legitimizing the actions of men like Gottwald, Norn von Fueller!”

“I commend Gottwald’s foolish audacity. He at least took his destiny into his own hands.”

Norn smiled at Vespucio as she put down her cup. She calmly watched his aura begin to turn furiously red.

“Do you have your own ambitions, Vespucio? Tell me: what will you do now?”

Click.

“Do you think I’m afraid of you? You are a resourceful woman, Norn, but only a woman.”

Vespucio raised a firearm right at Norn’s head. Her eyes shifted to stare at the barrel now pointed between them.

She moved to raise her arms as if to yield to him. He began to rant at her.

“Without an Emperor and army to hide behind, you are nothing so frightening. In a world without titles and dynasties, without peerage and noblesse oblige, without lèse-majesté, the only thing that matters then, is this.” Vespucio gestured with his head toward his own gun. “Without an Emperor all that matters is who is holding this gun to whose head. This gun, Norn, is your doing. Through your inaction, you have forced me to put this gun to your head.”

Norn laughed. “You’re more correct than you appreciate Vespucio. It is my doing.”


“What kind of cakes do you like, Viscountess? I can get the staff on it right away. Judging by that incredible dinner spread, we may even rival the taste from the Muellers’ own kitchen.”

“Such hubris! I very much doubt you can!”

Adelheid gave Obermeyer a pleasant smile and leaned forward with her hands behind her back.

This pushed her chest very close to the suddenly flustered Captain, who was taken aback by the contact.

She poked at his chest with one slender finger while responding in a cheery voice:

“My favorite cake is tamarind-passionfruit rum cake, so what do you say to that?”

She winked at him as if; a wink she almost hoped would just behead him where he stood.

Instead he took a step back and tried to play it off with a laugh.

“Well, I guess we are completely outmatched.” He said, raising his hands as if in defense.

“As a peace offering, I can put up with any cake, as long as my coffee has milk and sugar.”

She backed up a step, hands behind her, tipping her head to one side in a cutesy way.

“That’s some tough diplomacy. But we can make it work.” Obermeyer replied.

He motioned for her to follow her out of the room where they had taken their dinner.

Informing the waitstaff that they move to the ‘private lounge’, with his guest assumed to consent, Obermeyer led her out into the main lounge and to another side area, with a short hall that seemed to branch to the bathrooms, and which ended in a keycard door. When he flashed his own card at it, it opened to reveal a cozy room with more fake nutty-brown wood varnish, lit orange yellow, with leather seats and a square island set as a table for two. Obermeyer left the door open for the waitstaff to return with coffee and cheesecake, the door finally closing after their departure.

Now it was just Adelheid and Obermeyer inside of that room.

“Viscountess, would you permit me to call you by given name?” Obermeyer asked.

“No~”

She replied with a silly little twist of her voice and took a sip of her coffee.

“Ah, I’m sorry, I meant no offense.”

“Well then, you’ve done a sorry job of looking sorry. For your information, only Master Norn is allowed to call me by name.” She said, putting on a fake pout, leaving Obermeyer momentarily confused.

Adelheid van Mueller was often accused of not acting her age.

Young as she may have outwardly looked, at thirty years old, she had no business having adventures. Many women in the Imbrian military, particularly aristocrats, served a few years, if any, got a token promotion, retired, and married a man. Those Imbrian women who passed their twenties and remained in the service were seen as lesbians, mentally ill, or otherwise having something wrong with them in the eye of polite society, even if they had great achievements.

In her mind, Adelheid was past the stage of her life where everything was so complicated.

To her, every new year meant that she had a narrower focus on what interested her.

And a greater disdain and less time to spare for anything that she found boring.

It was only Norn von Fueller who truly understood the appeal of her philosophy.

“Growing up” was to surrender to a set of orthodoxies about what a “woman” was.

Orthodoxies which included a submissive deference to boring men like Obermeyer.

“Captain, there is only thing about you that interests me.” Adelheid said, reaching across the table to poke him with a stirring stick that had been dipped briefly in the coffee, and rubbing down the brown stain on his shirt. He looked down at it with a frozen expression he once reserved only for Norn. “I’m only curious, what it is you are interested about in me. Rather than stumbling around awkwardly trying to establish a familiarity you’ll not get, you should merely shower a girl in compliments, for that is all a girl wants from a man she does not know. Once you have paid your toll in flattery I will reward your loyalty with pleasant answers to questions about myself.”

Again Adelheid sipped her coffee, discarding the stirring stick at the side of her coaster.

Obermeyer again tried to smile and laugh it off, the oafish boy.

“You high class girls are something else! I don’t even stand a chance. Very well; lady van Mueller, from the moment I saw you, it was your eyes that took me in. So dark and intelligent; I wondered how it must have been like to serve under that terrifying lord Fueller. Now I see that it’s got to be that wit of yours that gets you by.”

“You liked my eyes?” Adelheid said, “but my eyes aren’t down here?”

She ran a hand provocatively over her chest, winking again.

“I– Well, your figure is just so– it’s– Of course any lad’s eyes would–”

“Lads who are like any lad are the most boring kind by definition.”

Adelheid shot him a narrow-eyed, disgruntled look for a brief moment and sighed.

Again Obermeyer seemed frozen. At times she wondered if she had an aura like Norn.

Or if perhaps Norn was simply the first woman to disrespect him and now she the second.

“You did ask a tantalizing question though– what was it?”

“Um. Yes, I– I did want to ask about your relationship to lord Norn.”

“Well, I’m her distinguished adjutant. You’d be surprised to hear, but she can’t function without me. She’s such a hopeless woman as a matter of fact!” Adelheid declared this with such delight it seemed to stun Obermeyer again. “I bet you could never imagine it, but the powerful and frightening Norn von Fueller, left to her own devices skips her meals until her brain is screaming, hardly sleeps, and works until her body completely quits on her! And despite all of that, she will always insist it’s part of a rigid schedule, in which caring for herself was simply allotted no time.”

Obermeyer blinked several times. “I– that sounds rough– Viscountess–”

Adelheid clapped her hands together in delight.

“Oh no, it is very fulfilling work. Do you ever see a woman like lord Norn, who has such a beautiful face and body and prodigious talent, but beneath it all is a mannish, acerbic thug with such poor socialization; and of course you think to yourself ‘that’s a project; I can surely fix her’?”

“I can’t say that I do.”

“Oh, true, I suppose you wouldn’t.”

Obermeyer seemed to miss the particular tone of that response and did not comment on it.

“Well, it sounds like the two of you are quite close.” Obermeyer said.

“Do we not all live in submission to our lords?” Adelheid said.

“That’s– a curious thing to say.”

Adelheid tried a bite of the cake. It had a one-note sweetness that was acceptable.

She smiled vacantly at him, as if waiting for Obermeyer to make any kind of movement.

He finally spoke up: “Norn is coercing you, isn’t she? That’s why you can’t speak freely.”

“Hmm? Have you been listening at all?”

Obermeyer reached out and grabbed her hand suddenly.

“Such words couldn’t have come from you. I realize what it must be like, working for such a powerful, evil person that it warps how you can talk to anyone. But we are safe here.” He said.

“What are you saying? Let go of me.”

Adelheid snapped her hand back.

Obermeyer had a conflicted look on his face all of a sudden.

“It must be true. The Rear Admiral told me the rumors about Norn. That she is a rapacious deviant whose sins the emperor forgave for her viciousness in enforcing the Fueller family’s edicts. Your behavior– she’s clearly tried to ruin you– milady, you don’t have to serve her anymore!”

His voice was becoming erratic with a strange passion. Adelheid grit her teeth in anger.

“How dare you! Such things are always said by jealous men when a woman gains power!”

“You don’t have to cover for her! Lady van Mueller, Norn’s days are numbered.”

Adelheid had been prepared for this eventuality, but hearing the words still stunned her.

There was no preparing her to face a deadly threat. No matter how much she expected it.

She was too emotional a girl. So her eyes welled up with her tears, but she stood defiantly.

“Norn is no more rapacious than any of you thugs.” Adelheid said, baring the full venom in her voice. “And you will not find her easy prey. I pity you for the punishment you’ll receive.”

Obermeyer drew a firearm at her from seemingly under the table.

Or maybe from a slot in the island. Adelheid had not thought to check.

She herself carried no weapons. She was neither authorized nor issued with any.

“Soon you’ll be free.” Obermeyer said coldly. “The Rear Admiral has a plan to destroy Norn and the Fuellers. We will be your knights, lady van Mueller. Let us protect you, please. You do not have to stay with that monster.”

Adelheid smiled through her tears, her heart racing, her mind clouded with stress and anger.

“I have no need for a knight, Captain. I’m quite happy with the monster who has taken me.”

Obermeyer bared his own gritted teeth. “Then I’ll be a knave instead and you my hostage.”

He stood up from the table, still aiming the gun at her, and moved slowly and with menace.

“We wanted you to give us access to the Antenora, but we can use you in other ways.”

“That is the greatest difference between you and Norn, Captain. Men just want to use me.”

“And Norn does not? Does that vile woman truly care about you?”

“Norn needs me.”

Obermeyer narrowed his eyes with clear contempt.

“You must be brainwashed. I can’t see how anything you say makes sense otherwise.”

Adelheid grinned bitterly at him.

He would be surprised to hear she was one of the few people who wasn’t.

“Follow me to the detention center. I know enough etiquette that I won’t drag you there unless you make me do so.” Obermeyer said. His pistol hovering just short of Adelheid’s chest. He stood over her while she had remained seated, and defiantly seated she stayed, looking up at him. Tears in her eyes, a smile on her face, and a pounding heart full of trust in her master. She was emotional, but she was not afraid of him.

“I will do nothing to make you feel heroic, you bastard.” Adelheid said. “I won’t be your helpless girl. Drag me from this chair with all your strength. I’ll bite and claw and kick like an animal until you shoot me.”

Obermeyer’s finger slipped through the trigger guard. “Get up now, you shrill bitch.”

Adelheid thought of doing something rash like grabbing the gun and daring him.

Something like what Norn would do in this situation–

Her impulse was quelled stopped by a sudden crash– a sound of shredding metal, and the pitched whine of something slicing through the thin air like a bullet just barely crossing the ear–

–the sudden disappearance of Obermeyer’s hand, leaving only a wet, dripping stump.


Norn stood from behind the island table as commanded by Vespucio, the cold steel of the barrel never lifting from the bridge of her nose as she moved. At literal arm’s length, Vespucio himself moved out from around the table so they could stand face to face without obstacles. Norn demurred to only this instruction.

She continued to smile to herself as she watched him sweat.

“So who is it that you’re selling me off to? It’s not your own initiative is it? You’ve said this yourself. You’re not like Gottwald. You’re always loyal to somebody else’s orders.” Her voice turned mocking.

“You can judge me all you want from your high castle.” He said. He almost looked for a second like he would spit in disgust at her, but all he spat was more words. “I can’t do anything but to follow the currents, and down here, they favor the Volkisch Movement. Who else am I going to turn to? That Royal Alliance plundering the countryside? The Vekans? The Solceanos zealots? It is clear we only have a place with the Volkisch.”

“So you don’t see anything in the Volkisch Movement, but a process of elimination?”

Vespucio’s narrowed eyes continued to stare directly into hers without once faltering.

“Theirs is the only world I’ve been promised without rule by bloodlines or false faiths.”

“You truly believe that? You believe the Volkisch Movement professes a coherent truth?”

“I know they are the pragmatic choice, and that puts them above everyone else.” He said.

Norn grinned at him and shrugged. “I didn’t realize the sons of Campos could be so shockingly sympathetic to elaborate racism, when they themselves have been so exposed to it.”

“I’m not a Campos. I’m an Imbrian. I have done nothing but serve the Imbrian Empire.”

“You’ll find as I have, that it doesn’t work that way, no matter how high you reach.”

“Shut up. The only Campos thing I’ll say to you is how tired I am of being lectured by a puerca like you. A bitch fed by the golden spoon of the Emperor having your shamelessness. We all sucked up to you because Konstantin von Fueller looked through your eyes and struck terror in us. We all feared and respected the enforcer of the Imbrian Empire. If you’re not backed by a fleet fighting for the throne, you’re just some whore.” Vespucio said.

He pressed the barrel more tightly against Norn’s nose, gritting his teeth.

Clearly letting out all the repressed stress and disgust that had lain behind his etiquette.

“Vespucio, in your mind, what happens now?” Norn asked.

For the first time, Vespucio grinned at her, viciously, full of bloodthirst.

“Once you are in Volkisch custody, Erich’s faction will surely collapse. That boy has only coasted on the power of the Grand Western Fleet. He is no great man of state; he has amply demonstrated this. Your capture and execution by the Volkisch will level the Fuellers and any power they have after the death of the Emperor. And I just keep eating my fresh beef and greens; with Gottwald gone I may even be promoted to Fleet Admiral for Sverland.”

“Do you really think the Volkisch see you as part of the National Proletarian ubermensch?”

“They’ll see me as a willing collaborator who delivered a political prize. That’s all I need.”

He pushed the barrel against her head and his hand forward, as if cautioning her against moving, while his free hand withdrew from his coat a handset into which he spoke with a voice filled with triumph.

“I have taken the Tower. Prize claim in Observation room Ludwig. Schnell.”

“Your High Imbrian is quite good.” Norn said calmly.

Vespucio put the handset back in his coat pocket and snorted, indignant with her tone.

“Why are you so chipper? You think you can escape? You look down on me at your own peril. I’ve heard stories about your exploits, but this time, I’ve ambushed you, Norn. You’ve walked into my fortress and you are isolated here because you are a vain, self-obsessed cunt. Whatever plot you are concocting in your head, don’t try it. You’re more useful alive but I will pull this trigger the instant I see any muscle on you even twitch my way.”

“Fair enough. I will not move any muscle that you can see.”

“I can only hope when my time comes, I go out as gracefully or as insane as you.”

Seconds later, the door opened. A squadron breached the room in a quick and practiced formation. Four men in uniform with boxy, compact submachine guns entered the room and set their sights on Norn, two standing and two crouching, likely bearing frangible loads to perforate her flesh but not the walls. Behind them two other men appeared ready to collect her, with cuffs, a straitjacket, and what looked like a loup muzzle in tow, along syringes full of drugs to knock her out. The party assembled at the door, and the men approached with their cruel implements.

Vespucio briefly glanced sideways to confirm their arrival.

At that point, Norn responded without moving a muscle that Vespucio could see.

She took a calm breath and twitched the muscle in her mind.

Temporal control.

Around her, everything turned blue as if filling with water. Everyone stood frozen still.

Quickly and wordlessly, Norn grabbed hold of Vespucio’s hand. There was no reaction.

With a brutal crunch, she bent it backwards at the wrist, tore his fingers off the gun.

She ran to the men, turned their upper bodies to face each other, like playing with dolls.

Each of their fingers she squeezed against the trigger. None of them responded in any way.

Finally she stood at the flank of the two men arriving to capture her. She raised the gun to the temple of one man, making sure he lined up with his partner, and rapped the trigger. Then, and only then, head hazy without air and her heart struggling to beat, did Norn finally let out a breath. Around her, the bubble collapsed as if it never existed, returning the true colors of the room. Suddenly, everyone was moving again.

In the next instant bullets went flying, blood sprayed, corpses fell, rhythmically, all at once.

Within the time it took to blink, Vespucio found his hand shattered and his men dead.


Obermeyer gasped for breath; his chest appeared to seize with shock.

He lifted the end of his arm where his hand once was and stared at the space now empty save for blood that pooled and began to drip down what was once his wrist across the remains of his forearm. His eyes drew wide and his handsome face blanched until he was sheet-white. He lifted his other hand as though he needed a model to confirm what he was seeing. His legs shook and beads of sweat glistened on his face.

On the floor his firearm lay discarded.

Adelheid kicked the firearm away and stepped calmly back to avoid the dripping blood.

She turned to the door, covering her mouth and nose. Everything reeked of bloody iron.

On the door to the lounge was an orifice the size of a fist, blossoming like a flower with shredded steel its petals. A projectile the size of plumbing pipe had gone through the steel door flying bullet fast, and it embedded itself in the wall behind them. Much of its structure was a sharp, sleek, jet-black spike, save for the back, where a small pustule dribbled a bloody-smelling fluid and gas. Obermeyer was too focused on his injury to see this shocking thing.

There was a brief flash of motion behind the door itself, visible through the orifice.

Several thick, slimy tendrils squeezed through the hole.

One of them had an object cradled on its end, like a cylinder with flashing LEDs.

It slid this object into the side of the card-key reader on their end.

Then the door locks shifted with a chunky, metallic noise that alerted Obermeyer.

Through the hole the tentacles retreated; and through the door, a woman walked in.

Shorter than Adelheid, dressed in a blood-streaked black robe with the hood thrown back.

Her face, pale as chalk, streaked across by a splash of red, wore a vicious fang-baring grin. Her shoulder-length white hair also had a streak of blood running across to match where it had splashed on her face.

“Y’ok Addie? Norn’ll kill me if I got here too late to prevent ya bein’ ruined for marriage.”

Adelheid pouted. “I would’ve never let it get that far! I can defend myself, Hunter III.”

“Who is– How did– Why–”

Obermeyer clutched his wrist as if he could make the blood stop running.

He stared at the door with wild, unbelieving eyes.

At the pale, blood-strewn Hunter III calmly approaching–

Whose arm, exposed at the end of her long sleeve, spread like a flower of tentacled flesh.

Petals of sinewy skin that seemed to shift like a sped-up timelapse of a blossoming plant.

These protrusions collapsed into themselves, reabsorbing the tendrils into an ordinary arm.

“Monster–” Obermeyer gasped, doubled over, choking. “Help– Help me–“

“Any word from Norn?” Adelheid asked, ignoring Obermeyer’s pleas for help.

“Y’really worried for her and not ya’self?” Hunter III asked, tilting her head like a cat.

Adelheid felt that was a solid ‘no’ to her question. “How many have you eaten?”

Hunter III shrugged. “Started with one; but I tasted a disease in ‘im I didn’t wanna risk it.”

“How picky. Is that where you got the door override key? Does that work for other doors?”

“Y’think I know? I can barely get the food dispensers to work, I dunno! Norn told me the thing I needed to get, and I got it. If you tell me a thing to get with pictures I’ll go get it.” Hunter III lifted up and waved the override cylinder to prove her point. She must have found it through omen seeing; so she really did not know how it worked or what it did, or whether it was restricted. She just saw it pop into her head and knew where it was.

Just then, an LED strip running along the edges of the ceiling began to flash red.

A female voice began to broadcast.

“All stations to high alert. Mobilize all squadrons to detain vessel in the upper dock.”

“Ah heck.” Hunter III said.

Adelheid caught Obermeyer moving from the corner of her vision.

He was trying to lift a handset communicator to his trembling lips.

“You need more biomass right?” She said. “I hate this man. Eat him and let us leave.”

Hunter III’s eyes settled on Obermeyer and a wide smile spread across her lips.

“Oh he does look like a snack.” She said, licking her lips.

She lifted her arm, holding her palm out toward him, eyes glowing red.

With an audible crunch, her wrist broke, separating her hand in two unnatural halves with the fingers backwards and melding into the flesh. From the back of her hand a series of gill-like vents formed; there was a brief yellow flash and ejected gas. A bone-like bullet burst from the center of the appendage and struck Obermeyer’s hand splitting his fingers into airborne debris, blowing through his wrist before striking the wall.

There was a clatter as the handset dropped to the ground, not long before its owner did.

Obermeyer could barely let out a scream of pain as Hunter III sprang and pounced on him.

Adelheid saw their lips meet for the briefest instant as if to kiss– before Hunter III’s teeth bit down through the cheeks, the jaws, crushing Obermeyer’s teeth and tongue and– she turned away, her stomach turning over, unable to bear the sight of this violence. Behind her back, Hunter III’s impassioned chewing, tearing and smacking was met with muffled shouting, gurgling, the slamming of Obermeyer’s legs into the ground until life left him, and he could no longer thrash and scream through this horror, having no face, no throat, no life with which to do so.

Hunter III seemed to fill in the void left by him with her own contented moaning.

“I could cry! He’s so tasty! He’s tough but sooo juicy and flavorful!” She exclaimed with delight.

A shaking tail crept out from under her robe and struck the floor with a contented thump.

Long and thick, seemingly reptilian at first but segmented and shelled upon inspection.

That thumping briefly distracted Adelheid, leading her to catch a glimpse of the gore–

“Hurry up!” Adelheid shut her eyes, arms crossed. “You don’t have time to savor it!”

That it used to be a person before it became a piece of meat in Hunter III’s gullet–

–was something Adelheid had pushed firmly out of her thoughts.

“I s’pose not. But it really hit the spot. Thanks for the meal.” Hunter III said.

When Adelheid next made herself turn to look, ever so briefly, she glimpsed fully half of it (the body) gone, a pair of legs in pants smeared with something now all that remained aside from a puddle of red and brown. Hunter III was soaked in blood, it was caked in her hair, around her mouth, on her hood, on her hands. Where half of it (the body…) had gone Adelheid couldn’t say, as despite the shocking amount she ate Hunter III looked as small as usual.

Except the tail, which did not surprise Adelheid but was not an inborn trait of Hunter III.

“Do you have enough mass to transform?” Adelheid asked.

“Yep. And I’ll be gettin’ more. Stand back.” Hunter III said.

Normally her voice was higher pitched, whiny– in that moment it deepened.

Adelheid looked away from the body and focused on Hunter III, who began her ritual.

She reached into her hood pocket and procured one of those disgusting fruits she treasured.

As she brought it to her lips and took the first bite, she was overcome with euphoria.

Doubling over, hips shaking, her whole body quivered; she mashed the fruit into her mouth as if she couldn’t eat it fast enough, couldn’t get enough, like a passion, an obsession. She chewed in clumsy open-mouthed bite, masticating loudly while her eyes seemed to go into a trance. She slipped out of her hood, unveiling her pallid, perfectly white body as her skin began to thrum, as her sinews traced red under her skin as if she was an empty vessel filling with blood. She was a wet white grub of a human whose cocoon soon began to form.

From her back and hips, two wide and round, scar-tissue protrusions burst out of her skin.

She took a deep breath from gills opening on her chest and the air blew out through them.

Her legs thickened, turning muscular, while her chest and shoulders broadened–

Her head disappeared as if a new one had grown over it, long with a vertical slit mouth–

Her hands widened, the fingers tearing apart into steaming, jet black claws–

With a leap and thunderous burst of air Hunter III charged through the doorway.

And in that instant, caught the group of armed men in the hall in a press of teeth and claws.


Vespucio, his whole body shaking, flicked a switch on his communicator.

In retaliation, Norn swept her hand dismissively at him, emitting a psychic shock. An invisible force drove the man to the ground as surely as if Norn had punched him, throwing him on his back with a thud.

He looked up at her from the floor, looked down at his ruined hand, breathing heavy–

“You– you monster– you witch,” He said slowly, struggling to get the words out in his pain and desperation, “You could have– with your skills– why is this happening? Why did you allow this to happen to us–?”

Norn looked down at him, her chest tight, still recovering her breath.

Struggling to remain composed, she lowered the gun she had taken from him and scoffed.

“Allow? You’re falling short of the truth, Vespucio. I did not just allow this to happen.”

She felt a thrill down her spine and a fluttering in her chest as she spoke.

It was not entirely the truth– and yet it was certainly not altogether a lie–

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “So many– so many will suffer. So many are suffering–!”

Norn felt a surge of anger. Such sophistry! For this gerontocrat to pretend to care!

And yet, he hadn’t inkling of all of her suffering that led her to this day!

Or the vastness of the grudge that split the Imbrian Empire seven ways!

All the horrors of Katarre– the flight, homelessness, statelessness– the privations of the abyss– the threat of genocide– the terror of Mehmed– the truth of the Omenseers– Konstantin’s foolish fascination– Norn felt as if looking at her own body from outside. In that moment, she stood in another blood-stained image in the vein of these torturous memories. As if she was a third party to her own life– puppeteering herself.

Born to greatness– given unto nothing– exploited and tortured and abused in every way–

This was the only time in her life that she could ever truly say she had control of herself.

“Ordinary people have always suffered! They’ve suffered as much from you and yours as ever!” Norn said. “But there’s one thing about this new era that is truly, wonderfully just, Vespucio. For the first time, men like you will also suffer! Every self-declared man of history will be drawn out and exposed by my hatred and cast out to sea to die. Coming here was worth it just to snap your wretched elitist head and add you to the detritus of this age!”

Before Vespucio could speak again, Norn flicked her hand at him, pushing on his neck.

He may have been able to resist at least a little had he been in any stronger position. But kneeling before her, in incredible pain, already bewildered and bloodied– His head jerked to the side at an unnatural angle, and he fell dead in an ungainly position, his neck shattered and limp. In an instant, he was silent, gone.

Norn raised her hands up to her face. She laughed. She laughed! Passionately; painfully.

Alone, surrounded by corpses, she laughed, and she wept!

She wept all the tears Adelheid couldn’t be allowed to see; and laughed at the pain she felt.

As Norn let herself break, Vespucio’s discarded handset flashed a tiny red light, an omen of further violence.


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn settled back in her chair with a placid expression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn snatched a glance at her monitor.

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

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

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

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

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

Norn glared at her.

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

“Okay.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything around her was governed by such an intricate order–

For perhaps the first time in her entire life.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are these guys that lame?” Selene asked.

Norn smiled. Her vernacular was quite amusing sometimes.

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

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

“Swim around a bit, but conserve energy.”

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

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

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

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

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

Each of the NCOs saluted Norn and acknowledged their orders.

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

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

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

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

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

“Seen Hunter III around?” Norn asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then don’t.”

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

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

“Is it meat?”

“It’s better than meat.”

“Bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S’it in your coat?”

“Indeed.”

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

Her eyes drew wide open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter III opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.

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

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

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

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

Her eyes were wild with a surprising passion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One complete fruit from a Garden of Marrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncharacteristically, the shorter woman allowed this display of affection.

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

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

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

I would die without her.

She could never say such a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For most psychics that was indeed a genuine concern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mehmed– why was she remembering that name–?

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

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

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

Painfully close to how Norn herself had always felt.

It brought up bad memories.

Memories Norn had no use recalling.

“One last thing.”

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

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

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

“I will free you from her.”

Hunter III seemed to have no answer to that.

She was confused why that name had come up.

Twice, even.

“Sure thing, boss.“

She was likely not even listening anymore at this point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could say nothing back.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Current depth?”

“286 meters and descending.”

“Sonar shows all clear?”

“All clear, milord.”

Moving quickly on from one subordinate to the next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any visitors?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“700 meters.”

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

“Correct. Nearest station is Ajillo.”

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

“Yes, milord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Milord, what is our posture?”

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

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

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

Nobody planned for that.

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

“To whom should we delegate combat command?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not just from behind, but from above as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have one cartridge. Make it count.”

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

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

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

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

Vapor vented from several ports on the claw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minutes had passed since the launch of this machine.

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

A demon called the Jagdkaiser.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Selene unplugged yet?”

Norn turned to one of the technicians near the machine.

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

“Separation is almost complete, milord.”

“Did it take this long last time?”

“Average separation time is 5.45 minutes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He can backtalk me?” Adelheid pouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She won’t listen to me, but ok.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn glanced sideways at Adelheid with a sudden fierceness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost assuredly what she wanted to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

“In a minute.” She mumbled dismissively.

Right now.” Norn hissed.

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

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

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

Adelheid turned her cheek with a look of vague disgust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Duly noted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you bring it back? Where is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potomac curled her hands into fists at her side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red rings briefly flashed in Norn’s eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In the Stream [6.8]

Moments after Murati alerted the Brigand to the status of the Diver team, the connection from her to the drone went dark without warning. Semyonova handed control back to Geninov in a mild panic, who attempted to troubleshoot the connection from their end. It became clear very quickly that Murati herself was having trouble with her equipment, and her stilted cadence when they could get hold of her seemed to support that theory.

Captain Korabiskaya ran her hands down her face with frustration.

“We have got to work on more reliable communication! This shouldn’t be happening.”

“In hindsight, we should have deployed a drone with them from the beginning.” Aaliyah said. “But it seems like Murati’s machine has taken a beating, and that’s not something we could account for no matter how much we prepared. Take it from someone whose job it is to give you a hard time: you’ve done all you could.”

“Is that your job? I guess that’s how you view ‘supporting’ me.”

Ulyana allowed herself a small smile, once again grateful for the stoic Shimii at her side.

However, the situation was still fairly grim.

With only one remaining bomb, they had no margin of error for victory.

Turning around at this point was an option, but not one that was part of the plan.

“Aaliyah, do you think we could commit to a ship battle at this point? I’m uncertain.”

Her Commissar shook her head. “In the current situation we’re accepting that the enemy won’t shoot at us too seriously. If we press our advantage, in such a visible way as turning around and shooting them with our ship’s guns, we’ll alter the situation to the point it might tempt them to reconsider shooting us in desperation.”

Ulyana sank back in her chair wearily. “It would be a real all-or-nothing play on our part.”

Aaliyah joined her, reclining in her own chair. “We can’t even guarantee we’d sink them.”

“You’re right, but it’s frustrating! If this is how we’re going to be fighting from now on, I need a better way to communicate with the Divers moment to moment than this.” Ulyana said.

Command and control between ships was a largely solved problem. While the equipment could be rough and there were factors that could cause interference, it was quite possible to keep in constant contact with ships in a tenable fighting position. Ships had powerful laser transmitters and fast and reliable acoustic messaging, handled by full-size computers and large crews. Fleets could span several kilometers and still communicate with each other by bouncing signals through each other’s networks as long as every ship had a friendly ship within data range.

However, Divers were much smaller and unable to support full-power electronics.

And thanks to Murati’s tactics, they were expected to fight outside their ship’s laser range too, and since they were far more active combatants with less surface area for equipment than a ship, they could not be rigged up with powerful lasers to accept and bounce stable connections the way any ship could have.

They would have to find a solution for this! It was not acceptable!

Ulyana could not bear being responsible for people she had no means to talk to!

For all that they could do to affect this battlefield, they were essentially mute and blind.

How could she counsel and lead her frontline troops in this situation?

“Fatima, can you get a sense of what’s happening out there?” She asked.

At the sonar station, the dark-haired Shimii turned around to shake her head at the Captain.

“I’m sorry Captain, but we are not able to see it granularly. I really wish there were more that I could do– we can predict and image their positions and movements, and to some degree, the amount of gunfire around them and where the explosions are happening. But if a Diver just got cut down by a sword, we can’t tell. If it’s been shot, we can’t tell the degree of damage. And with so much happening, the prediction accuracy is not too great right now.”

Fatima’s ears drooped. She looked like she wanted to blurt out another apology.

But her voice was clearly starting to strain after everything that had happened.

“Thank you. You’ve been amazing Fatima. Return to your tasks.”

“Yes ma’am.”

In any other situation, that sensitive Shimii would have said “I’m sorry,” again.

Her energy was spent. They were all spent in their own ways.

You could learn everything there was about war in theory, or even simulations.

No one could prepare you to be ripped out of your bed and forced into battle.

No one could ask you to fight with complete stoicism when you were really in danger.

Whatever happened, Ulyana felt proud that they were still holding together.

Then a deadpan voice sounded from the Electronic Warfare station.

“Ma’am, we’ve hit a snag.”

Ulyana’s heart jumped. Not more bad news! “Explain and hope nothing interrupts you.”

Zachikova turned her chair fully around.

There was something strained about the look in her eyes. Though lifelike, they were still mechanical, and one could not imagine that red veins would creep to show her tiredness. But her expression still managed to convey how tired she was. She had been working on software to support the additional hydrojets on the Brigand’s aft.

“I’ve created a rudimentary application that reopens the routing valves to the secondary thrusters and routes power to the motors for that turbine network. I’ve been coordinating with Kamarik to run tests to make sure we can route power to the motors without anything breaking. Unfortunately, we’ve found a problem I did not foresee.”

Kamarik raised his hand and spoke up then.

“Captain, whenever we activate those jets, our girl gets some real bad cramps. She can process that much water, but we start to see more vibration in the valves and turbines of the intake system. Since there’s no additional intakes, it just draws more water through the existing ones faster than normal to keep up. Stresses out the whole system.”

There was no good way to take that news.

Ulyana took it by bending forward and running her fingers through her blond hair, undoing the tidy ponytail she had made it up into, and staring at the ground for several seconds. When she sat back up, she tossed her hair and took in a breath. Her face was sweaty, her skin was clammy, her eyes were strained. She struggled to look angry or annoyed rather than desperate or hopeless. Anger could at least be motivating for others to see.

“Messiah defend; is the end of our tunnel always an incoming train? Keep working on it.”

“Ma’am, we can keep working on it, but the physical facts won’t change.” Kamarik said.

“Keep working on it! Stress test, run simulations, give me the cost-benefit! Push the limits! How much can the intakes withstand? Can we run those boosters for a minute? An hour? If we need to have the sailors get in pressure suits and make repairs, we can do that once we’ve escaped!” Ulyana said firmly, raising her voice to Kamarik.

“Yes ma’am!”

Rather than sounding drained, Kamarik seemed a little more energized again.

Zachikova too; maybe it was the adrenaline of being yelled at.

Something like that would not last for long, and Ulyana did not particularly enjoy it.

Aaliyah nodded her head to her, as if acknowledging silently that she understood.

“Can we connect to anyone else?” Ulyana said. “Where is the drone, Geninov?”

At the torpedo station the resident gamer’s face sank.

“I’ve been poking connections all this time, but I’m like a hundred meters away from anyone, okay! I gotta keep this unarmored little shit out of visual flak range! There’s not much I can do.” Geninov replied.

“Then charge! Full ahead! Hurl it right into the flagship if you have to!” Ulyana replied.

“God damn it! If you say so! Don’t blame me–”

“Bomb detonation!”

Fatima shouted at the top of her lungs, an instant before the drone camera saw the blast.

Everyone’s heads snapped briefly toward her before turning to the screen.

A bright flash and an enormous vapor bubble blooming off of the Irmingard’s side.

Water displaced by the enormous shockwave sent the lightweight drone tumbling back.

“What’s the enemy’s status?” Ulyana called out.

“Struck on the port sidepod!” Fatima called back. “It’s listing! I think it’s listing!”

On the main screen the prediction lagged. When the picture updated, that behemoth of a flagship looked doughy, misshapen. Smaller objects had entirely disappeared. Then the flagship tipped on its side. Everyone watched speechlessly for a moment as if expecting the prediction to roll back, to be a mistake.

After moments of tumbling aimlessly in the water, Geninov finally wrestled the drone back toward the flagship. The shockwaves had died down, and the vapor bubble had disappeared. On the camera they could see the shadow of that ship turning on its side, disgorging metal from its stricken flank. It was falling farther and farther behind the Brigand, clearly unable to accelerate, and soon disappeared almost entirely from the cameras.

That muted pause in the Bridge suddenly became an explosion of celebrations.

Geninov lifted her arms off the drone controls and threw them around a surprised Fernanda.

Kamarik put his head down against his station and consoled his best dame with a smile.

Semyonova grabbed hold of the exhausted Fatima’s hands and jumped up down.

Ulyana and Aaliyah sank against each other in their chairs.

“Can we get some focus here.” Zachikova grumbled. “Look!”

She pointed her hand in the direction of the main screen.

On the drone camera, they briefly saw a group of objects moving toward the Brigand.

They were recognizable as Streloks in varying stages of disrepair.

Ulyana bolted up to her feet. She counted six! Every machine, at least, had come back!

One was being carried aloft, however. They might need emergency aid.

“Slow down to collect the Divers! That flagship isn’t going anywhere for a while.” Ulyana said. “Send Syracuse and Kappel to the hangar with stretchers in case anybody needs help. Have sailors in pressure suits with jet anchors ready in case we need to pull machines up! Get the senior mechanics and workgroup managers to schedule repairs! And be proud of yourselves, my precious crew! We weathered the storm; we sank an Irmingard-class!”

Buoyed by their moment of triumph, the crew gave one last great effort.

Fatima set her earpods back into her ear fluff and continued monitoring the sonar.

Semyonova broadcast the situation across the ship, contacting everyone who was needed.

Kamarik altered the ship’s thrust and kept it steady.

Geninov nearly collapsed over Fernanda, who patted her back with an awkward expression.

Aaliyah crossed her arms and heaved a little sigh of relief, her ears wiggling contentedly.

And Ulyana–

Ulyana wanted nothing more than to tear up. With joy, with passion, with fear, with stress.

However, she was the confident Captain Korabiskaya whom everyone had to rely on.

There would be many more opportunities to cry in the battles that were to come.

She reserved those tears as best she could. Crying in the first bout of the war wouldn’t do.


When Semyonova’s beautiful round face appeared in the hangar, and the news was given to the sailors who had been preparing for every possible eventuality, Chief Mechanic Lebedova let everyone have a few minutes of being rowdy to celebrate. There was a lot of stomping, a lot of noise, a lot of banter that echoed through those metal halls as the relieved sailors let out all their manic energy. But the sailors themselves cut short their own merriment. When they heard their Divers were returning, they seamlessly returned to their work immediately.

Like everyone in the crew, they treasured the pilots who had truly won them this victory.

So there was a nervous flurry of activity in the hangar as they accepted the returning heroes.

First came the Cossack and Strelkannon, able to rise out of the deployment chutes on their own power. The Cossack was visibly banged up, with some hull and leg damage, while the Strelkannon had been riddled with bullets on its extremities but was only superficially damaged. When the two of them rose to the hangar floor, they were ordered to stop, and were moved by machine to their gantries. Moving out of water could exacerbate damage to the limbs and thrusters. They were firmly affixed to their gantries, and work began on them almost immediately.

Next came Khadija’s Strelok. While fully out of ammunition, it had received little damage.

Finally, Lebedova and Shalikova’s Streloks helped a group of six sailors to pull the Cheka into a deployment chute and up into the hangar. It had lost power and was not going to rise without help. The sailors went out in pressurized, powered suits each about ¼ the size of a full Diver. These suits allowed them to move outside the ship to carry out repairs. Repairs which would soon be needed, as the Brigand itself had taken serious damage.

Recovering the Cheka was a fairly safe opportunity for the sailors to practice in their suits.

Everyone was astonished when they brought the Cheka up out of the water.

Some of the exposed power cells began smoking immediately upon being taken out of the water and had to be put out first with fire extinguishers and then with freezing agents. There was extensive shoulder damage to the point one of the arms hung by the thread of a pull-rod. Several impacts from debris had dented the armor on the hull and legs, and smashed part of the head. Dozens of pitted armor wounds. It would need extensive repair.

More importantly, a group of engineers, including Gunther Cohen, gathered to break open the cockpit and try to free Murati Nakara from inside it. Due to the need for the cockpit to retain atmosphere in the event of an emergency at all costs, opening the cockpit on auxiliary power without the pilot’s help was not a feature that received much consideration. So some damage to the hatch seams would have to be inflicted in order to separate them. While they worked on the Cheka, Shalikova and Lebedova were recovered, both with limited damage.

Having been recovered first, the Cossack and Strelkannon opened soonest.

Smiling pleasantly, Sameera climbed out of her suit and stepped down to the hangar floor.

Moving quickly and with purpose, Dominika left hers and traversed the hangar toward her.

Sameera seemed to realize what was coming and for a brief instant looked nervous.

Then, with a mighty sound, Dominika slapped Sameera across the face.

“You selfish idiot! You could’ve been killed! Never play the hero in front of me again!”

Her eyes were red as if she had been crying. Sameera rubbed her cheek, smiling vacantly.

“You’re right. I treated you all wrong, miss. It is a gentleman’s duty to apologize–”

Her words started to slur, and Dominika was puzzled by the response.

Sameera’s eyes were quite red themselves, but for an entirely different reason.

From the corner of one bright eye fell a droplet of blood. A tiny string of red dribbled down her nose and over her lip soon after. Her bushy, club-like tail dipped, and her ears folded slightly. Sameera started to wobble on her feet, and all the while retaining her gallant smile, she collapsed suddenly into Dominika’s arms. Surprised and horrified, Dominika almost fell with her, but managed to keep hold of the sick woman and take her into her arms on the floor.

Dominika slowly realized it wasn’t a joke or a weird form of flirting.

“Medic! Oh my god! She needs a medic!”

She shouted at the top of her lungs and the crowd dispersed with horror in their eyes.

From behind the sailors, the blue-haired doctor Kappel emerged with none of her usual cheerfulness. She was accompanied by a woman in the grey coat of the security troops, brown-haired and with orange-brown skin, the medic “Syrah” or Syracuse. The brown and yellow fins coming out from under her shoulder-length hair bristled gently as she set Sameera down while Kappel prepared the stretcher. Gently, Syracuse set Sameera on it and lifted her up, with the help of one of the sailors. Dr. Kappel would remain behind to see to any other injured pilots.

“She’s breathing.” Dr. Kappel said. “There could be hemorrhaging. Take her up and stabilize her.”

“Yes ma’am. Her atmosphere control must have been damaged in the battle.” Syrah said.

Dr. Kappel brushed Dominika’s shoulder reassuringly. “She’ll be fine. She can recover.”

“I’m coming with you!” Dominika said suddenly.

She looked almost embarrassed to be saying so and would not explain herself further.

But with the devastated look on her face, it was impossible to say no to her.

Syrah and Dominika left the hangar soon after.

By that point, Khadija, Shalikova and Lebedova had exited their cockpits.

None of them looked too worse for wear. Sweaty and tired, but with their full faculties.

Shalikova, however, left the side of her suit quickly and rushed over to the Cheka.

“We didn’t hear a peep from Murati since we regrouped with her!” Shalikova shouted. She looked from the machine to the mechanics trying to open it, and her eyes narrowed, her fists closed at her sides with visible frustration. “Have you heard anything? Did she bang on the doors at least? Do you think Murati’s awake?”

One of the mechanics turned to her and shook his head– just as the hatch slammed open.

Gunther Cohen rushed in through the hatch, peering inside the cockpit.

“Messiah defend!” He shouted, briefly terrifying the group. “She’s alive but–! Medic!”

“Murati!”

Shalikova cried out, uncharacteristically. Khadija and Lebedova urged her to back away.

An unconscious Murati was pulled free from the cockpit and set on a stretcher. She had a pulse, and she was breathing, but likely suffered a concussion. She had hit the side of the head bad enough to bleed. Her wrist was definitely broken, and the same arm was quite possibly broken as well. One of her ribs was bruised. She was in no condition to pilot again for the time being. Out of everyone she would probably need the most long-term attention in the days to come. Doctor Kappel briefly checked the other Divers and cleared them before taking Murati.

Once they had taken the injured away to the medical bay and the drama was given some time to settle, the sailors gathered around the remaining pilots and gave a round of applause and several cheers. Though more sober in their response than they would have been had all of the pilots been present and uninjured, they still showered Lebedova, Khadija and Shalikova with praise and affection. Shalikova clearly withered in the middle of this applause. Lebedova put their arms behind their back, face flushed red. Khadija waved warmly back and even blew a few kisses.

“Alright, knock it off now, give the heroes some room!”

Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova pushed her way through the crowd and sent everyone back to their work. Many of the sailors had already shouted themselves hoarse and jumped and clapped all they could muster, but even the rowdiest ones listened to the Chief and left posthaste at her command. When the crowd finally dispersed, she approached the pilot Lebedova with a big smile on her face and gave her nibling a firm smack on the shoulder to show her appreciation. Her eyes looked bright with praise and pride for her relative.

“Look at you! Such a big shot now! How did the real thing feel?” She teased.

Valya Lebedova averted their gaze. “Well, the graphics had a truly frightening fidelity.”

Shalikova stood in place, as if not knowing how to react, before wandering off.

Once the adrenaline had worn off, and everyone had caught up to the moment as gracefully or awkwardly as they would, the tireless work demanded by the Brigand’s mission continued. All of this excitement that had lasted barely hours once it commenced, had transpired at night. On the Captain’s orders, non-essential personnel could retire. A few sailors continued to run maintenance tasks, several mechanics remained with each Diver, and the workgroup management convened and began to draft their plans for the assessment and repair of all the day’s damage. Little by little, the manic activity and thick crowds that had characterized the hangar began to shrink and disperse.

For a moment, Khadija al-Shajara remained behind, seated at a workbench.

Watching the sailors peeling off from their workgroups and disappearing into the adjoining halls. The air in the hangar was far less stale and sterile than anywhere else and more organic, tinged with the odor of work: lubricants, oils, sweat. Khadija spoke to no one, merely lounged, breathing in gently, decompressing by herself.

Until she spotted Aiden Ahwalia, staring at the Cheka with a grave look on his face.

She snorted. “Caught your eye? That’s war you’re looking at, you pampered little worm.”

Without acknowledging her, Aiden grunted and left in a hurry with his fists balled up.


Sonya Shalikova did not feel like much of a hero.

As she climbed the stairs to the upper deck, she could not help but berate herself and feel a bit sickened by the round of applause and the ring of praise that had formed around her. It upset her that people so easily elevated her, because she did not feel like she had done anything worth that commemoration. It was the same in the Academy too. Everyone was so quick to praise her. Everyone kept treating her like she did something so amazing and miraculous. She always wondered if it had been because of her sister– certainly, that couldn’t be the case now.

Right?

“I was useless. Murati and Khadija both had to save me.”

That was the acid that was slashing around the inside of her brain.

She was no match for the pilot of that Diver that suddenly showed up. For a single pilot to show up and disrupt their operation so much was shameful enough. Even with Khadija’s techniques in mind, even with a dirty trick, she still could not do anything. Then Khadija left the bombing to her and Lebedova, but Murati took it upon herself to do everything. Was it because she did not trust Shalikova or Lebedova? Shalikova did not want to think about that. Now that was a poison in her mind she could recognize as such. It would not lead anywhere good.

In her mind, if she trusted everyone, and everyone trusted her in turn–

Then the only explanation was that she had simply failed personally.

And yet everyone cheered her, again and again.

They all praised and cheered, even when Zasha– when her sister didn’t come back–

“Sonya!”

Shalikova had walked automatically all the way to her room.

A cheerful voice there brought her back to her senses before she could burst out crying.

“Ah! That dreadful aura around you has faded a bit! Are you happy to see me?”

“Hmph.”

She was greeted by the smiling pink face of Maryam Karahailos, her flushed cheeks framed by her long purple bangs, and the tentacles blending in with the rest of her long hair slowly shifting and rising so the paddles could join her hands in waving Shalikova inside. The two fin-like shapes on her head wiggled from side to side vigorously, fanning the sterile air of the room around her head. She was clearly excited, and practically radiated a kind of warm, innocent joy Shalikova hardly ever saw.

Shalikova’s chest fluttered a little bit; she was unused to “coming back to” someone waiting for her after a battle. Though she also wouldn’t describe Maryam as someone who fully satisfied that narrative. Having a waiting bride to complete the heroic narrative would have been a truly intolerable imposition on Shalikova and she regretted even thinking about the whole thing.

“I’m going to bed.” She said, in as unromantic a way as she could muster.

“Good night!” Maryam said.

Shalikova perked up an eyebrow.

She had gotten it in her head they would have some big, stupid, circular argument where she would be trying to shake Maryam off herself for the next hour. Maryam continued to stare at her as she walked into the room. Shalikova withdrew a towel from one of the wall recesses and dried her sweat-soaked hair, face, the top of her chest. When her eyes peered over her shoulder, the cuttlefish katarran was still seated on her bed across the room.

Staring.

It was too awkward. This kind of situation– Shalikova couldn’t just say nothing.

“Were you OK during all this?”

“Yes! A kind sailor gave me a delicious sandwich.”

Maryam’s face lit up, and her voice was so chipper. What was her deal anyway?

“So you did leave the room and run around while we had an emergency going on?”

Maryam closed her eyes and looked smug.

“I did not go down to the hangar to bother you. I stayed in the upper deck.”

“Small triumphs.”

“I was also very helpful to the captain and the security girls!”

Shalikova dreaded trying to imagine what must have happened.

“You can tell me tomorrow. Good night.”

“Of course– Oh! By the way. Thank you for saving us. I am very grateful to be alive.”

Across the room, Maryam stood up, and did a little bow and a curtsy, lifting her skirt.

Shalikova stared at her, at first almost uncomprehending of what had been said.

A trickle of tears did finally escape her eyes at that point. Something in her had broken.

“Ah! Oh no!” Maryam reacted abruptly.

She saw Shalikova begin to cry before Shalikova herself noticed it. Either that or she “read it in her aura” — whatever that meant. Regardless, it took Shalikova feeling her eyes sting to realize that she was weeping. When they came, the tears would not stop. Shalikova turned her back on Maryam in an instant and sank into bed.

Her arms wrapped tight around Comrade Fuzzy.

Soon her tears were accompanied by loud sobs.

“Sonya! I’m really sorry. I really am grateful.”

“Whatever!” Sonya shouted back. “I’m grateful you’re alive too! Go to bed, Maryam!”

She lifted her blankets over her head and settled as close to the wall as she could.

Gritting her teeth, weeping harshly, as all the feelings she had bottled up rushed over her.


“How do we even proceed with this mission? This feels more impossible by the second.”

“Certainly, it is a difficult task, but no task is impossible, Captain.”

Deep into the night, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara remained awake.

The Bridge had been sent to bed, even the night shifters that had been assigned for the day. The Captain and Commissar took over for them. Everything that had transpired felt well behind them. Their injured were stable in the med bay, the ship itself was humming along. However, the appearance of that Irmingard class and the demands of Gertrude Lichtenberg urged them to think about the future, even after the worst passed.

By themselves in the Bridge, an enormous digital map of the world on the main screen.

They focused on their hemisphere, and the Imbrium and Nectaris Oceans.

With the Iron Lady marooned in the middle of nowhere, damaged to a degree unknown; and all their Divers recovered; the Brigand sped away at full speed, sans the dummied boosters still to be tested, headed north-northwest from Serrano. To the far north was the Khaybar Pass, a zone marked on their map as a no-go; to the far east would be the borders of Veka. That meant the only direction to go was the west. There were a few Stations along the way that they could potentially go to, though they would not be safe anywhere big and obvious nearby.

In the direction they were headed, they would hit the borders of the Imbrium Ocean.

To break into the seat of the Union’s nemesis, to the waters that had birthed the Empire and the oppression of half the livable world, they would need to travel through Rhinea. Judging by the intelligence they had on the Volkisch Movement, they would not be too safe in Rhinea’s large, public stations, due to the fascists’ current occupation with their own internal security. Surveillance and policing would not be as lax there as in Serrano.

Farther west was the Yucatan Gulf, a vast ring of deep ocean territory framed north, west and south by the wall of the continent of Central Occultis. Such vast continental access made the Yucatan’s western extremes dangerous, teeming with Leviathans, red biomass, and corrupted weather patterns. However, it also made the Yucatan extremely rich in minerals from the continent wall, as well as a source of cave soils from collapsed areas of the continent, used in certain kinds of agriculture. Its industrial population could possibly be sympathetic to Union ideology.

Unfortunately the Royal Alliance made the many Stations and Substations of the Yucatan their seat of power, straining the rest of Sverland’s access to the raw materials there and forcing them to fend for themselves. Because the Alliance was still in the process of consolidating power, the Yucatan could be dangerous as well. Public stations and large industrial works would be under greater scrutiny until the aristocrats fully settled in.

“Right now the Volkisch are far too alert. Even if we lay low, Rhinea is a lot denser with habitations than Sverland. There’s not a lot of open Ocean to sneak through and we may not be able to lay low in any major Station without having collaborators.” Ulyana said. “We could head to the Yucatan and take our chances there, but once we get in, if the border is too hot, we won’t be able to get back out. With the continent wall right there, there’s really nowhere we could go, but circling back around. It feels like none of our options are good options.”

“I think plotting where to go is premature at this point.” Aaliyah replied.

Ulyana nodded. “There’s still a lot we don’t know. But we have to keep moving no matter what. I doubt we killed everyone aboard that ship or that we put it down for good. I have a gut feeling we’ll get chased again if we stick around here too long. Back in the Revolution, they taught us that standing and fighting the Empire was suicide. But by leading them around by the nose, you could lay traps, or force them to tip their hand.”

“I know our situation, Captain. But what need to do to make informed decisions is to gather more information. We can start with Marina and Maryam, but don’t forget our mission isn’t to take down the Empire by ourselves. A civil war is brewing; all kinds of factions and cliques will form that we can exploit to our advantage.”

“Factions? Well, right now, we’ve got the Royal Alliance and the Volkisch in front of us.” Ulyana said with a sigh. “Neither of which really agree with my particular tastes in political action, you know?”

“That’s fine, because I was not referring to either of them, at least not writ large. All of these groups are themselves formed of smaller groups.” Aaliyah said. She put on a smug little face as she delivered the rest of her explanation to an increasingly frustrated and dumbfounded Ulyana. “Captain, you told Murati she needed to get better at internal politics, but you need better national politics. Political groups are never uniform. There are cliques and interests in every major political group that go through periods of friction and stability. Even in the Union this is true and there have been frictions which we had to solve. The Empire is much larger, and its political class is much more vicious and far less united than ours in even the barest basics of how their world should work.”

Ulyana blinked. “So you’re saying there’s a subfaction of the Volkisch we can get along with? That sounds franky quite absurd to me, but you Commissars certainly see things differently than us normal folks.”

Aaliyah’s tail stood on end. “Again, I’m not being that specific about this, Captain.”

“Fine. But then, I should keep an open mind about potentially giving weapons and training to people who might believe in monarchies, but don’t want this one, or who may or may not believe in democracy of some description but are at least open to shooting at the Volkisch for now. We are not just looking for revolutionaries exactly like the ones we had at home 20 years ago. Is this what you’re telling me our mission is now?”

“All the bad faith and sarcasm aside, yes.” Aaliyah said.

“I thought you would be the one most opposed to reaching across the aisle.” Ulyana said.

Her tone started to take on a bit of a teasing note. Aaliyah crossed her arms.

“Offering military aid to a group doesn’t mean we’ll approve of its aims forever.”

“Now that’s some Commissar-like thought. Backhanded as all hell.”

“Our entire mission is backhanded. To survive it, we have to use any means available.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at each other, lit only by the dim glow of the digital globe.

Both of them sighed deeply.

There was a grim tension between them neither wanted to have provoked.

“I’m sorry. I’m really tired. I’m not being productive.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you. I understand your concerns completely. I’m just trying to be constructive.”

Aaliyah gave ground, seemingly as much as she would let herself do.

By mutual agreement, the two of them dropped the subject.

They would just ride out the night shift to the best of their abilities, making few remarks while tending the stations. Letting the quiet of the moment wash over them. A hard-fought silence, after a battle that already felt distant.


“There was a veteran pilot among them who was very skilled. She acted as a distraction and held me from my defense of the ship long enough for her subordinates to execute an attack. I was too careless.”

That was all that Sieglinde von Castille had to say for herself before averting her gaze with a petulant scowl. Lavishing platitudes upon Gertrude Lichtenberg would not change anything that happened and she disliked having to prostrate herself. Whenever a pilot went out to fight, she accepted her death or defeat as an eventual outcome. She had been outmaneuvered and was lucky to have survived. That was all that needed to be said.

“That’s all?” Gertrude asked. Digging her finger into the wound.

“That’s all.” Sieglinde replied.

Equivocating would not have changed anything. It was a waste of time.

“I have to say, I’m a little disappointed in such a childish response from a storied Hero.”

“I did not promise anything except my cooperation. It is you who had false hopes in me.”

“Your lack of introspection is surely a blessing at a time like this. Well, fine then.”

Gertrude’s scorn was palpable not only in her brutal words but her wild, fierce eyes.

But Sieglinde was not moved.

She was no child: she was a very grown woman now. She was thirty eight years old. Significantly older than Gertrude herself. Nothing she could say or do would change what she had done, or what she could do next. Her life, her role, the things she was capable of or that were possible for her to do, had all ossified over decades. Her past, whether hours or ages ago, was something she could only suffer and endure having lived. It couldn’t change.

That one woman pilot shared the same pain as her.

That pilot who taunted her in the open, who knew her as the Red Baron. Truth be told, Sieglinde could not tell her apart from anyone else. So it was perhaps impossible for her to give this woman the satisfaction she craved. However, she knew implicitly that this woman’s time had also stopped, just like Sieglinde’s, frozen by their war. They were both hurt the same way, tied together by the calcified chains like two corpses to one skeleton.

It hurt her heart to think about, but–

There was nothing she could do to expiate for what she did to that woman.

“Ultimately it was my fault as the guarantor of this ship that you failed.” Gertrude finally said after a long and frustrated silence. “We did not commit our resources properly. Our escorts were unreliable. We were defeated by an enemy with more cohesion and better command, because we were far too complacent.”

Sieglinde averted her gaze once more. She was surprised to see Gertrude being lenient.

“Quite level-headed of you. I accept and commend your grace, Lady Inquisitor.”

Such moments seemed to come and go for Gertrude. Black hearted one second, gentle the next.

The two of them stood together in the middle of the Iron Lady’s vast, well-equipped hangar.

Sieglinde’s recovered Grenadier, a new class of Diver, had been set into its gantry, alongside the two heavily damaged Jagd units belonging to Ingrid and Clostermann, and the spare Volker. The Jagd were overseen by a few mechanics and two robotic repair units with powerful, precise manipulators assessing the unit and peeling off any unsalvageable parts. They were not the only crew working in the hangar that night. Operating from computerized stations, a pair of engineers commandeered drones to assess the damage outside and make plans for a repair crew which was, simultaneously, equipping themselves in the hangar, a dozen men in pressure suits with one heavy labor suit about half the size of a Diver ready to join them outside. They had been ordered to waste no time.

While Gertrude was being a rough taskmaster, the men were highly motivated, nonetheless.

At the moment they were helplessly stranded in the middle of the Ocean, after all.

Every inhabitant of the Iron Lady wanted to get the ship moving again.

If there was one thing about Gertrude Lichtenberg that impressed Sieglinde, it was the respect her crew had for her. They would take a scolding from her and rather than become depressed they would work harder. They would follow her orders slavishly. In this current, frankly insane quest of hers, they still followed, knowing only they were chasing a “VIP” and not the dire truth behind the matter. Had they known the truth it was likely they would not question the veracity of Gertrude’s information. Despite everything, they rendered no complaints.

Sieglinde had witnessed this before. It was not just discipline that inspired such feelings. It was the kind of esteem soldiers could only have for a commanding officer who they saw as an aspirational figure. She did not see Gertrude as highly skilled or overtly generous. It was not a notable bloodline, nor great wealth that drew people to her. Rather, she was someone who rose from among them and therefore understood their plight. They fought together, bled together, drank and ate together; she was not an officer to her men, but one of the men.

Every such person that Sieglinde had known had been crushed into a red mist.

Theirs was not a society that treasured and protected its salt-of-the-earth folk heroes.

The Imbrium Empire’s so-called meritocracy fed on a steady diet of the patriotic and dutiful.

For every hero that suffered and died, there was a coward who thrived and prospered.

There was nothing she could do about this, but acknowledge it, and seethe.

“What will you do now?” Sieglinde finally asked Gertrude.

“We’ll go after them. We’ll repair the ship and continue the chase.”

Her reply was almost immediate. Either the product of determination, or a profound haste to affirm her self-delusion. Her eyes were dark, her expression sullen. She was clearly shaken, but grimly determined.

“Am I to continue piloting the Grenadier?” Sieglinde asked.

Gertrude turned a weary, vindictive look to her.

“Do what you want. I won’t beg you again.” She said bitterly.

Her haste to say these words seemed to surprise even herself. Her face blanched, ashamed.

Sieglinde wanted to turn her back on Gertrude, but she did not walk away just yet.

“I didn’t ask you to beg the first time. You have such a wicked view of the world.” She said.

She could not in good conscience judge the Inquisitor for the grief that she felt. Her own heart was still soft with a wish to see in a woman like Gertrude the gallantry and righteousness that her men saw. So before the Inquisitor left her side, the broken Red Baron offered the bitterest confirmation of her own twisted feelings.

“Until you are able to speak with her. Until we hear her decision. I’ll follow you.”

Upon Gertrude’s very soul and the contents therein, Sieglinde would make this oath.

She wanted to believe. She wanted to be shown something different than she had seen.

Gertrude looked momentarily as if she did not know how to respond to that.

“I’ll hold you to it.”

Her brooding side took hold of her once more, and those words were her only reply.

Then she turned and left the hangar.

Sieglinde took this to signal her assent and retreated in the opposite direction.

Wondering how it was that the Empire’s tragedies kept sucking at the marrow in her broken old bones.

Again, and again, seemingly without end.


Several hours since the Iron Lady’s hectic battle with the mercenaries, Gertrude retreated to her room. She had left the sailors with good direction and trusted them fully to carry out all the repairs. There was nothing more she could do but stand around and look spent and miserable, so she decided to make herself scarce. Now that the adrenaline wore off and she had some distance from her emotions, she was starting to come down hard. Her exhaustion was such that she simply could neither disrobe nor make herself sleep. She merely threw herself into bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling. All that she could peel off her uniform before lying down was her cape, hat and coat.

Gertrude was not alone for very long; certainly not as long as she had hoped to be.

A deep and rough but excited voice at the door. “’Trude! Open up! Let’s get fucked up!”

From past experience, there was no use telling Ingrid to go to bed.

At least, not for Gertrude who wanted to remain on good terms with her and treasured her company. One of the worst things one could do to Ingrid was rebuff her when she was being generous. So out of all the things that could have compelled Gertrude to stand up from her bed, it was going to open the door for Ingrid.

At the doorway, she found the dark-skinned, messy-haired loup grinning at her, with a wagging tail and cheerfully alert ears. Ingrid was in an admirable state of dress, wearing a decently covering tanktop and sweatpants. Gertrude had expected her to be wearing almost nothing. She smiled from ear to ear, her face brightening the moment their eyes met. She had in one hand a canteen plate with canned ham spread, ship biscuit and a jar of oil-packed peppers. Slung from the other hand was a small box of canned beers from out of the ship reserve.

“How did you get a whole box?” Gertrude asked.

“My charisma, my charm, and the threat of my left hook.”

“Ingrid,”

Gertrude sighed, rubbing her forehead with one hand.

“I’m kidding!” Ingrid said with a big smile. “It’s ol’ man Dreschner’s treat.”

“That’s almost less believable than if you just stole it.”

“Believe whatever the fuck you want then! I’m comin’ in!”

Gertrude made for way Ingrid, feeling her lips curling into a smile despite herself.

They sat down, side to side on the bed. Gertrude’s room was a bit more ostentatious than those of the other crew. She had a double bed to herself, and it was fluffy and springy, rather than a stiff gel bed. Her room had a full desk, and several chairs or tables that could be pulled out of the ground or out of the walls. Burgundy and gold were predominant colors on plastic banners on the walls, and the filigree in her furniture, as well as the coloration of the walls themselves, though this effect was largely computer generated in nature.

Next to the bed they pulled up a chair to set the tray of food on.

From the box, they each took out a can of beer.

Ingrid popped the cap off hers and took a deep, long drink from it.

Gertrude looked at hers with reticence before taking a good drink from it. The familiar savory bitterness and light boozey bite of Imperial Navy reserve beers. A taste she could describe as “standard issue.” It had nothing on Vogelheim’s rose wine, but it could get you buzzed or drunk and that was enough.

Neither she nor Ingrid loved it; but Ingrid could relish in the drinking of it.

By the time Gertrude was halfway through a can, Ingrid was cracking open her second.

“You’re so fuckin’ slow. I’m going to end up drunk as fuck because of you.” Ingrid said.

“So did you come here for a drinking contest?”

“I just don’t know what to say to you sometimes. You’re a mess right now.”

Ingrid leaned to Gertrude’s side and dipped her head close, surprising the Inquisitor.

She was warm. A warm presence at Gertrude’s side. Someone touching her.

Gertrude realized then how little stimulation her body had had in the past weeks. How little she had been touched; how little she had been close to another human being. She had been running around like the gusts of a storm, never settling. And so, ever since Vogelheim she had been alone. Surrounded by people almost all of the time but fundamentally alone in a human sense. That lack of tenderness, and Ingrid’s reintroduction of that warm, kind sensation– It was almost enough to make Gertrude want to cry from the emotion.

She leaned in Ingrid’s direction as well, pushing just a little closer to her.

Her friend’s tail hit the bed with a rhythmic “wump, wump.”

For a moment Ingrid held on to her drink without even tasting it.

Swishing the contents in the can while Gertrude’s head rested on her shoulder.

Her whole body which had been so wound up and tense, finally found a place to rest.

“Congrats on relaxing for once.” Ingrid said.

“How could I relax before, with everything that was happening?” Gertrude said.

She wanted to turn and face Ingrid directly, but she did not want to move.

It was simply too comfortable at Ingrid’s side. It felt too nice.

“You’ve been going completely crazy.” Ingrid said. “It’s because everything’s a fucked up mess that you need some time to clear your head. I’ve been seeing you running around looking like your eyelids are stapled open. Losing your goddamn mind; I couldn’t even get a hold of you like this until the ship fuckin’ broke down.”

“I know. I saw your messages. I don’t want you to think I didn’t.”

“Yeah ‘Trude, I know! It tells me when you saw them and then didn’t reply. It tells me!”

Feeling too ashamed to reply, Gertrude took a long drink from her own can, enough to finally empty it. Wordlessly, she sat up, reached for another can, cracked it open, drank almost as much just as quickly. She wiped her lips with her sleeve and grit her teeth. It was so sudden the roof of her mouth felt like it was melting, her throat ragged. Her forehead screamed with a cold pain. But she started laughing and Ingrid instantly knew what she was doing, and it cracked her up. Her serious face melted into the biggest, warmest smile Gertrude had seen.

“You idiot!” Ingrid said. As if to decline the contest, she took a gentle sip of her own beer, not even enough to finish that second can already in her hands. “I’d say something like ‘you’ll never beat me’ but we only got four cans left. To make this a proper fight we gotta start with at least a twelve-pack.”

“I’m sorry.” Gertrude smiled, rubbing her own forehead, her vision swimming a touch.

She felt Ingrid’s hand creep around her back and grab hold of her shoulder.

Pulling her even closer, until they were almost cheek to cheek.

Another gesture that recalled bygone days.

“It’s not ‘sorry’ I want, you know?”

Ingrid sighed deeply. As if she realized that moment they were having had to end.

“The VIP you’re after; I know it’s gotta be your little princess, isn’t it?”

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide, and she gave Ingrid a sudden, wildly nervous glare.

Ingrid shook her head solemnly. “Good grief. You really think I’m an idiot, huh?”

“Ugh.” Gertrude exhaled a long-held breath. “I’m sorry Ingrid. I wasn’t even thinking–”

“About your best buddy of many many years? Yeah, you haven’t been. That’s okay; we’re soldiers, not a social club. But if it’s a choice between running yourself to pieces or letting me into your life here and there, just sometimes? I wish you’d just let yourself rely on me more often. I would’ve been there for you.”

Gertrude knew there was something else simmering under that sudden bitterness.

She did not want to touch it; or rather, she did not know what else she could say.

“I’m sorry.”

“S’ok. You were thinking about me when you told me to buzz off back to the ship.”

“Ingrid, please, come on. I was worried you’d get hurt. It was chaos out there!”

Ingrid scoffed.

“You always worry and fuss over me at the worst moments. Basically any time I don’t want you to, and you never pay me any attention when I do want it. You fuckin’ suck, ‘Trude.” Ingrid looked at Gertrude with a serious expression quickly melting into a sly, impish grin. “You’re really high-strung right now, aren’t you? Lighten up! Drink already. Or I’ll have your beer. I didn’t come here to give you grief. I really wanna help you.”

Gertrude didn’t know how she could possibly lighten up after that.

Nevertheless, she did open a third beer and did start drinking.

“Does everyone suspect it?” She said, staring down at the dark hole in the can.

Ingrid opened her third beer too. “Whose everyone? I dunno. Some of those guys on this ship are real stupid. But everyone can tell you’re a total mess just by looking at you. Just by hearing your voice.”

Gertrude sighed, her face sinking into her hand. “I know I have to shape up.”

“Shapin’ up isn’t what I’d say you gotta do. Here, shut up instead and have a bite.”

Reaching out to the table in front of them, Ingrid picked up a ship’s biscuit and one of the cans of meat. They were full of a crumbly, soft, spreadable pink ham with flecks of white, soft fat. On the can, she used the lever to pop off the top, and then used the sharp, dismembered can top to spread the soft meat over the biscuit. From the jar of peppers, she drizzled a bit of the oil over the meat. Then she used the can top to mash up one of the soft, plump peppers over the meat, resulting in a red and pink spread that moistened the top of the biscuit.

This was a little treat from back in the day. They called it ‘cadet kibble’.

Ingrid presented Gertrude with the treat. The Inquisitor took it without objection.

Biting into it, she was surprised by how soft the biscuit was, and how well the dry, crumbly bread with its intense, salty taste matched the bland but fatty meat and the slightly spicy, slightly sweet pepper. That oil was also packed with peppery taste, while lending its own vegetal note to the bite of food. For a heap of tinned meat on dried bread, it was a rich bite that felt almost decadent. It brought a little bit of life back into Gertrude’s body.

She could not help but smile a little having this kind of chow again.

“God, you look like you’re going to cum. What have you been eating lately?” Ingrid said.

“Probably not enough.” Gertrude said, slightly embarrassed.

“Then let’s get you fattened up again. That big body of yours needs meat!”

Over some light objections from the Inquisitor, Ingrid scraped up more meat and peppers on the sharp can lid and scraped them over a biscuit, handing over the result. While Gertrude picked at it with a wan face, Ingrid then fixed herself her own ‘cadet kibble’ and took a hearty bite. She kicked her feet with satisfaction.

“This is still so good! I kinda scooped this stuff up on a lark, but man, it hits the spot.”

“It is surprisingly palatable.”

“Ah, fuck you. ‘Surprisingly palatable’ it’s good, damn it.”

Ingrid shoved the remaining half of her biscuit into her mouth in one go.

All the while she gave Gertrude a critical, narrow-eyed glare.

Once she swallowed the food, her eyes remained locked on to the Inquisitor’s.

She put on a sly expression.

“Remember when I first showed you how to make cadet kibble?” Ingrid said.

“It’s that funny to you?” Gertrude grumbled.

“It was hilarious! You were so helpless, messiah defend you!” Ingrid said. “Little cadet in your prissy little cadet uniform, now that you couldn’t get your catered tea parties from Luxembourg School for Sluts.” She burst into laughter at her own joke. Her face was starting to turn a little red from all the drinking. “Running around with a grouchy gut because you didn’t want to eat pea soup and knackbrot. You would’ve died without me.”

“And you were a junior K9 who would’ve gotten the lights beaten out of your eyes if I hadn’t covered up for you stealing a bunch of food.” Gertrude said. Her own tone was starting to get out of her control. She was more annoyed than she wanted to be. It must have been the beer making her vulnerable to Ingrid’s teasing. And yet, she couldn’t keep herself from taking another long drink from the can. Ingrid couldn’t stop drinking either.

“Uh huh? But I showed you how you’re supposed to eat around these parts. So I repaid my debt to you, hell, you practically owed me for it after the fact.” Ingrid made a show of exaggerated shrugging.

Gertrude felt herself reminiscing a little. She couldn’t, at that time, in that place, recall any specific memories too vividly but she saw the texture and color of her past. She saw those blue and grey halls, those well-trod marching fields, blurs of green and brown forest. She saw a dark artificial sky under which she stole away with a hellion of a loup, two girls who should’ve never amounted to anything in the rigid society of the Imbrian Empire, friends as rare and odd as the ones she had broken with at her old school. Both struggling within their own ranks not just to be anything, but to be the most they could be. Ambitious to climb over every obstacle put in front of them.

“We made quite a pair.” She finally said.

“We could’ve fucked anyone up. You and me? Nobody stood a chance.”

“If only ‘fucking people up’ was all it took to advance in the military.”

“Hey, it worked out for us fine after we got out of cadet school. We kicked ass then.”

“That’s because the world of adults simply has none of the rules that children are taught.”

“You feelin’ better? You’re saying all kinds of crap again so you must be.” Ingrid said.

“Now it’s your turn to remember.” Gertrude teased. “What was our little motto back then?”

Ingrid snorted. “Y’think I would forget? ‘We carve out our own justice’. How corny!”

Reminiscing about the old days, the cheerful pair rubbed shoulders and touched heads.

Going over the distant past as if old friends who had seen nothing of each other for years.

Soon they had drank all of the beers. Both became a little lethargic because of it.

There was a brief silence which fell over them, punctuated by the pulse of their hearts.

Melancholy, as the world racing at breakneck speed around them finally caught up.

“How do you know it’s your girl out there? With those mercs?” Ingrid asked suddenly.

Gertrude felt her heart sink. There was no preparing for that question. “I don’t know.”

Her answer was so abrupt even Ingrid had to process it. “You don’t know?” She said.

“I can’t explain it to you. I– I saw her being loaded up into their ship. It has to be her.”

“You can’t explain it?” Ingrid sighed. “Well I guess I believe you. Doesn’t matter anyway.”

“It matters a lot, actually. But I’m thankful for your casual disinterest nevertheless.”

Gertrude was feeling suddenly just a touch embittered.

Ingrid grunted her displeasure.

They averted their gaze from each other.

“You’ve always been bleeding yourself dry for that girl. You’re so fuckin’ devoted.”

“I care about her. We’ve been together forever. Is that so disagreeable?”

Once more they locked eyes in a confrontational way.

Ingrid snorted and sidled away, one width of a body between them. “Together, huh?”

Gertrude was no longer so warm as before. Except maybe in her chest and stomach from all of the booze. It was such a sudden, stark, strong sensation, of loss, of having something taken. To her woozy, slightly out of focus vision, starting to slip from the drink, it really felt like Ingrid had gotten so much farther than she was. That whole length of the bed; maybe even farther away. Like Ingrid was disappearing just like Elena was.

It hurt– it hurt more than she wanted to admit.

“Together? Not fuckin’ now! You run around like a lunatic, barely eating or sleeping, giving nonsense orders, your mood swinging all the god damned time. With all that’s happening in the world, your obsession over this girl has us chasing down one fuckin’ ship to the middle of nowhere. People are out there killing for lands and titles, and you? What do you want? You had loftier goals when you were a blue vest in Kuban station.” Ingrid was practically grumbling, almost as if to herself. Gertrude could barely hear her and yet heard just about enough.

Unable to be the formidable Inquisitor for a second longer, Gertrude broke out into tears.

Rendered vulnerable by the drink, the reminiscing, and the sudden loneliness she felt.

“You’re like a homesick dog.” Ingrid grumbled. “You’re not together for shit right now.”

Gertrude balled up her hands into fists. She felt a scream rising out of her windpipe.

“Fuck you! You don’t understand! All my life I’ve been fighting to be her equal. That’s all I wanted. I needed to be worthy of her so they wouldn’t take her from me. When I thought I’d lost her– and then the tiny glimmer of hope that she was still out there for me– you can’t even imagine how much it hurts Ingrid!”

Ingrid scowled at Gertrude’s words. Her eyes were starting to shutter from all the drink.

“You need to be worthy of her? Because she thinks you’re a swarthy mutt like me?”

Gertrude snapped her head toward the Loup, incensed. Her heart hot with booze and anger.

“Ingrid! How dare you– She would never–!”

“Does even she even know all you’ve been through? Does she even care?”

“Ingrid, you better fucking–”

“I bet she doesn’t give a shit about you. I bet she wanted to run away with those mercs–”

Carried purely on impulse, Gertrude lunged for Ingrid and in a snap, seized her by her tanktop and pulled her close, until they were eye to furious eye. Tears streamed down Gertrude’s face as she wrung Ingrid for a moment, teeth clenched, dragging her so close their foreheads nearly struck. Her anger fueled a herculean strength in her arms that was quickly fading. Wanting to fight but being unable to raise her hand. She was unable to hold Ingrid’s gaze fixed for very long, her head beginning to dip just a few seconds after grabbing her.

“She loves me! I know she loves me!” Gertrude said, mumbling into Ingrid’s face.

Ingrid grabbed hold of her arm in retaliation and for a moment the two exchanged glares.

Then in an instant Ingrid’s other arm hooked around Gertrude’s shoulder.

For a moment the Inquisitor thought she would be attacked but before she could respond–

Pushing her head forward, Ingrid took her lips into a kiss.

Time stopped as Gertrude tasted peppers and booze on Ingrid’s intruding tongue.

She felt her friend’s overwhelming warmth again, matched with a strength of equal intensity.

Ingrid shoved forward into Gertrude, climbing atop, her hands never letting go.

With every push, every conscious shifting of her weight, their lips parted only briefly.

In the heat of the moment Ingrid stole Gertrude’s tongue numerous times, every nearest instant she could, their lips drawing close, slipping off and gliding near once more, until she had her pinned to the bed and held. She was furiously hungry, in a trance of desire, exuding a bestial love of locking lips, brushing fangs, of musk and spittle, of sinewy muscle and a tail that batted against the bed like the beat of a drum. Too shocked and absorbed into the moment, unable to challenge the shorter but stronger Loup’s sudden grip, Gertrude hardly resisted.

Until as suddenly as her passions began, they lost their strength.

Ingrid fell practically into Gertrude’s arms. Sobbing so strongly she began to cough.

Caught in a storm of tears and anguish as strong as the lust that preceded it.

“I love you! I love you, Gertrude! I don’t care about her! I love you, Gertrude!”

Gertrude felt an impulse to hold Ingrid tightly.

Her own tears began to flow anew. Her whole body was shaking under Ingrid’s weight, speechless, stupefied. Ingrid screamed at her, baring her soul and it felt unreal, and she could hardly respond except to hug her more tightly.

“I swore I’d stick with you and it wasn’t a joke! I gave you my leash to hold because I love you! I love you so much!”

“I’m sorry!” Gertrude cried back at her. “I don’t– I don’t know what you want–!”

“I want you to fucking be okay! I want you to live! I don’t want you to shut yourself out further and pretend you’re in control! Please stop killing yourself alone! Take my leash and use me, rely on me, depend on me!”

“Ingrid– Ingrid I– I don’t–”

“We can do anything together! I meant it! I want to support the woman I love!”

“Ingrid…”

“Gertrude, the woman I love– she can do anything. She’s so powerful. I’ve seen it. I love her for it.”

It hurt– to be thought of so highly, to be loved so strongly. It hurt.

Gertrude wanted to tell her that she was never strong, that she was never confident, that she had never lived with whatever power Ingrid saw in her hands, whatever strength she hung on to in her words. Gertrude had been scraping by, begging, pleading, struggling. Academically average, with few connections, with no peerage. She had begged to go to Luxembourg; she had begged to become an officer; she had begged for the status of Inquisitor.

She had her face put into the dirt more than she could remember.

You’ve never seen me beg–

But she couldn’t say that to Ingrid. She couldn’t make herself say such things.

All she could do was mumble Ingrid’s name and hold her in bed, caressing her ears.

“All I want is for the woman holding my leash to keep rising. To give me orders that inspire me, to give me a future worth a damn! I’ll never be anyone among the Loup, but you, Gertrude, you can be a Lord! You could be Emperor! All I want is to support you! You have me here! Take me! Let me help you! Stop staring glassy-eyed at after that bitch’s tail! I hate to see you like this! I fucking despise it! How much longer will I have to see that?”

Gertrude felt such a sense of helpless dread, to have Ingrid bare herself like this–

That boisterous, thick-skinned woman so confident in herself, always picking fights.

Reduced to crying and pleading in the arms of a woman who could barely look at her eyes.

She could not possibly answer Ingrid’s desires. Not at that moment. She was too weak.

“Ingrid,”

She was going to say she was sorry, truly, deeply sorry, but fate never gave her the chance.

Fate rang in Gertrude’s room as a request for communication on an adjacent wall.

In the midst of her dishevelment, Gertrude hastily slammed the nearby wall to accept, but with sound only. Ingrid put a hand over her own mouth to quiet her sobbing. She knew propriety, even though she pretended she didn’t.

This was another way Gertrude knew that she really cared.

And it hurt to see it. But what could she say? She had to put on the Inquisitor’s mask.

“I’m listening, report quickly. I made it clear I was retiring to my quarters.”

“Ma’am, this is Schicksal. We’ve received a response to our request for reinforcements. I’m sorry to disturb you. I just thought you should know, because of the nature of the response.” Schicksal’s meek little voice sounded strained and upset. “I’m sorry ma’am, but the message came from the Antenora. Whether or not we accept it, ma’am, she’s probably coming. I hope you understand now why I wanted to inform you. Schicksal out.”

On the wall, the audio feed disappeared.

Gertrude and Ingrid slowly, shakingly rose, sitting with their bodies on end, staring at one another.

Their earlier quarrel was silenced by the shock and disbelief they shared.

Both of them knew all too well what it meant for that ship to appear.

The Antenora — the Cruiser flagship of the woman called “the Praetorian.”

“Norn.” Gertrude stifled a gasp. Her heart started racing again. “Master Norn is coming.”


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.7]

Sword in one hand, rifle in the other, matching her fated opponent.

For a moment they simply stared each other down.

Even the shooting of the Irmingard’s main guns did not stir the two veterans.

There was chatter on an open frequency. A coy, bloodthirsty voice.

“I know it’s you, Red Baron! The two of us have a bloody ball to attend!”

Ever since Khadija spotted that overgrown Jagd pulling that sommersault trick with its sword, she just knew. She did not even need the machine to be painted red to tell. Nobody in the entire world had the gall to try those pretentious underwater ballet moves except for that bitch. Rationality flew out the window for Khadija.

On simple instinct, on reading the current, she knew.

Not once did she question her own sanity or her urges and instincts.

When she had got tired of talking, she threw herself at that machine with a vengeance.

Soon as Shalikova left her side, Khadija charged the Red Baron, sword drawn.

Reacting to her attack, the Red Baron suddenly climbed.

“Predictable! How much younger are you than me?”

Khadija rose immediately to meet her, shooting diagonally up and intersecting her leap.

Swords clashing, the two veterans became locked in struggle

Vibrating blade met furious saw, kicking up short-lived sparks and bubbles of vapor as they ground together. Sword arms locked chest to chest for seconds, struggling to push each other back, before the two broke off. Khadija opened fire from her AK-96 as she descended, and the Red Baron responded with her Sturmgewehr assault rifle as she rose.

Khadija swung a left; the Red Baron threw herself right.

A burst of bullets flew past Khadija’s shoulder, grazing her anchor pod.

Several bullets detonated just off of the Baron’s hip, almost striking the water intake.

Through open water they circled like spiraling, orbiting stars, dozens of meters apart but perfectly equidistant, mirroring moments second to second. Between them grew a raging fusillade, bursts of gunfire that buzzed by within millimeters of each machine and detonated above, behind, around them in every direction, until it was impossible to tell through the fog of their war where each machine stood amid the vapor and explosions. Hundreds of rounds, the drumbeat of the dance. Spent magazines sank out of view, an unseemly clock putting a limit on their night of fire.

Two sharp clicking noises, two mag ejections, and the music stopped.

Though she almost wanted to throw out her rifle Khadija had the presence to stow it.

Up and above, the Red Baron did simply discard hers. It made Khadija incensed to see.

“Not just an Imperial but a show-off bitch besides. I’m going to make you pay.”

She took her sword in both hands and briefly scanned the diagnostics screen.

Some of the saw teeth had been ground off, but the chain was alloyed with depleted agarthicite and strong enough to cut. Her arm verniers still had enough fuel and the motor on the diamond sword was running strong.

Khadija took a deep, resentful breath.

Back when they last fought, swords, whether the Imperial vibroblade or the Union diamond sword, were a luxury afforded only to them. Something so standard now, in 959 only six diamond swords existed, and only the Red Baron had a vibroblade. Real weapons were given to the people who’d survived tearing each other apart with handheld bombs, industrial drills, undersea welding equipment, rock cutter heads attached to ship propellers, rocket-poles with makeshift grenades at the end, and all sorts of other unreliable, improvised weapons hastily given to the early Divers.

Launching out of sandbanks and gorges and caves to do any sort of damage to an imperial ship in Labor suits with bolted-on armor made out of bulkheads. While early Volkers made out of bathysphere materials tried desperately to guard the ships and patrol the sites of guerilla activity, wielding gas guns extracted from their mounts or scaled-up jet harpoons and even handheld shields and piston spears. Death was nearly instant for whoever got hit first.

Every attack was deadly.

Every exchange was to the death. Weapons met, and only one fighter survived.

That was the war she and the Baron had once fought. That was the war they survived.

The Union’s desperate ingenuity met the Imperial struggle to industrialize a response.

It was the war that crashed these two and their machines together again and again.

“I got you once back then. But it isn’t enough.” Khadija said. “You need to hurt more.”

Taunting let off steam when Khadija thought she might explode inside.

Suddenly, her heart quickened, when she finally heard a response back to her taunts.

“What will be enough?”

That deep and powerful voice which sounded so desperate and hurt.

At first Khadija could not even believe it.

Because this was the first palpable, human interaction she had with her mortal enemy.

Before, the Red Baron had been nothing but a machine that barred her way, a machine that had killed her comrades. An obstacle that had impeded her own revolutionary legend again and again. A fated foe that she thought had disappeared alongside Imperial control of Ferris. Now that same demon was speaking to her in that pathetic voice?

Her mind struggled to come up with a response, as if she had been spoken to in an incomprehensible language; but it was just Imbrian. It was all the same for all of them. Her heart quivered, her soaring spirit felt almost deflated.

Khadija’s voice sounded audibly weary even to herself.

“Feeling remorseful? Then just drop dead!”

She engaged all thrust that she could muster to throw herself forward.

The Red Baron reacted to the initial forward thrust by lifting her sword in defense.

She was waiting, trying to react to Khadija.

There were no allies, no supporting fire, no ranged weapons available to the Baron. Nothing but knives. Just like old times, when they carried ordnance they could count with their fingers and were reduced to banging each other with whatever crude melee weapons they had. The less options a pilot had available, the less sophisticated their tactics became. Khadija had experience with this. But it was not the revolution, and their equipment for this bout was very different. Pound for pound, purely in the quality of equipment, a diamond sword was not going to survive smashing against a vibroblade for as long as its counterpart. A duel would not favor Khadija in these waters.

To think she’d let things get this desperate. She had been so foolish to fight like this.

Her intention was not to duel, however. For the first time in a long time she keenly felt all her 42 years.

She felt like a long-suffering veteran; she knew her duty, she knew her mission.

She knew her options.

Murati still had her bomb. If she could tie up this woman long enough, she triumphed.

When the two threw themselves at each other once more, their motives differed.

As soon as their swords met anew, Khadija armed the bomb on her back with a short timer.

“I’ll take this grudge to hell. Until I see you eat the fruit of Zaqqum personally.”


Soyuz is down! Repeat, Soyuz is down!”

“God damn it.”

As far as the eye could see there were groups of ships exchanging gunfire, a wicked line of grey and black ships on one side and hundreds of different color liveries standing their ground on the other. Water bubbles and vapor clouds, hundreds more than even the amount of ships, multiplying in the no-man’s-land between the opposing fleets. Partially in the frame of these massive forces was a massive station from which torpedoes and flak periodically flew out.

All of this saturating ordnance, the distant star-like flashes of explosives, the spreading cloud of bubbles and debris, roaring shockwaves that boomed in the thousands every minute. This violence transpired over a dismal, rocky sandbank over which Cascabel station had stood sentinel. Over this gorge the two sides were deadlocked.

It was the “winter” of A.D. 959, and the now-called “Union” fought desperately for its existence.

In the eyes of the little girl watching on the Bridge of that ship–

This was the apocalypse. It was the end of all things. It could be nothing else.

She was nine years old, and had some understanding of the world, but she had never seen the water stir so violently. She had never explosions and felt the rattling of the metal around her, the metal protecting her from the ravages of the endless Ocean outside. She did not understand that death was a part of what she was seeing; but this was also the first time she witnessed death. All of the destruction she saw hinted at death to her, in a way she did not grasp.

And yet, she never cried. Not once. It was as if she was mesmerized.

“Captain, should this child really be here?”

“After what happened just now, Goswani, it doesn’t matter where she is.”

Murati Nakara could not hear them at that point. She was not acknowledging other people.

She was transfixed on the massive screen in front of her.

Her parents had been killed on that screen and she did not even really know it.

Behind her, Captain Yervik Deshnov of the Union’s remaining dreadnought, the Ferrisean, grit his teeth, and pulled down his peaked cap. He pounded his fist on his seat in frustration. An Imperial Diver had gotten to the Soyuz and detonated an explosive on it. It was the same kind of trick they’d been pulling on the Empire for months, but the Empire had hardly used their own nascent Divers against the Union. There was an air of frustration, shock, grief, and sudden hopelessness aboard. They had pushed the Empire all the way to Cascabel. Would they collapse here?

“We can’t fall apart from just one attack, Captain! I’ll avenge them!”

A determined voice came through on the comms. A face appeared on the screen.

A Shimii, blond-haired, with piercing green eyes, and a fiery expression.

“UND-001-A Khadija al-Shajara, deploying!”

Like a shooting star, the armed labor suit flew out from under their vessel.

On the main screen, the computers all honed on this unit for a brief moment.

From the teetering wreckage of the Soyuz, an opposing force sailed out to meet her.

A rotund suit, all in red, wielding what looked like a sword alongside its rifle.

The much-more human shaped and green Union suit sped to a collision with this red suit.

Twin comets met in the waters with Cascabel looming behind, a sorrowful steel giant.

Clashing in instants, moving faster than anyone had ever seen, shooting, parrying.

Dashing at one another, breaking apart, their vicious duel spiraling amid the rest of the chaos.

“Why are we all doing nothing! Helmsman, advance! Target all fire on the enemy center!”

Deshnov shouted himself hoarse, and the Ferrisean was shaken out of its stillness.

Meanwhile Murati watched the Divers attentively.

Even when the main screen shifted the duel to a picture in picture and expanded its focus again back to the broader fleet action, she was taken in by the little picture in the corner, staring at it intently. Her mind was fully blank save for the unreal fighting in that tiny square. They were so evenly matched, despite the clear viciousness of their violence, that it seemed more like a sport or a sparring match than an actual battle. This was also death in a way Murati didn’t see.

And then, the red suit gained the upper hand, or so it seemed–

Trying to flip over its opponent to attack it from behind, upside down–

Suddenly the opponent, the green suit, threw its arm in the way.

It could not be sliced through. She caught the sword in her gauntlet and wrist-blade.

Her rifle flashed at her enemy, punishing the red suit with many serious blows.

Battered, the red suit retreated with all its might.

And missing a functioning arm, the green suit withdrew as well.

In an instant, they had drawn blood and their battle was closed.

“Captain, an enemy Cruiser is moving out of position!”

Deshnov drew his eyes wide in the Captain’s chair.

“What is it doing?”

“It may be trying to recover the red suit!”

“Focus all fire on the gap it left! It’s open season on their escorts!”

Even as the picture in picture camera was left desolate, with both combatants retreating.

That seemingly interminable duel remained buried in Murati’s little brain.

She continued to stare at that corner, until the last gun sounded.


“I see you’re hellbent on giving me a heart attack lately.”

Yervik Deshnov found the girl standing at the entrance to the port of Ferris’ Sevastopol Station, watched over by a port attendant. Her dark skin and messy dark hair were unmistakable, as were her fiery auburn eyes. What was unusual was the military cadet jacket and pants. Deshnov was not exactly chasing after the girl every single day, but he had no idea where she would have gotten that uniform under his nose. Unlike the usual trouble she got into, this was serious.

Was she trying to run away to Solstice? He’d play dumb for now and just ask her.

Arguing with Murati over assumptions would always bite him in the ass. She was too smart.

In response to his consternation, Murati crossed her arms and put on the most serious face she could muster. A girl of barely fourteen, she was tall and slight and tomboyish. Despite her best attempts her expression still read to Deshnov as distinctly bratty. A bratty teen rebelling at random. And he always knew; he was always informed first whenever she tried to do anything strange. He always came and made sure she was unharmed.

It was the least he could do for the parents she lost.

“I came all the way out here, on short notice, so what is all this about?”

“You only ever visit to stop me doing what I want with my life.” She cried out.

“That’s cruel. I gladly said yes to all those medications you wanted to get on.”

“Hmph! Like you had a choice in that! The Union constitution–”

Deshnov sighed. She always had an answer for everything.

“Doesn’t apply, Murati! All your affairs are under my strict guardianship per your parent’s last will. You legitimately do not have all those rights you’re rattling off all the time until you leave my guardianship, because you’re not an ordinary war orphan. Listen. I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. But I’m here now. I just want to talk.”

Murati grit her teeth. “I didn’t think you’d get here so quickly.”

“Okay, so this is not a funny stunt, and you did intend to run away to Solstice? For what?”

“I’m joining the military academy, uncle Deshnov! I’m joining and you can’t stop me!”

“Of course. I knew it’d come to this someday. You are his kid after all.”

He ran a hand over his wizened face, sighing deeply.

“Murati, all I want is for you to lead a healthy, happy, peaceful life, you know that?”

It was tough for Murati to say anything to that. She simply averted her gaze.

“I’d really like nothing better than for you to go to school for something good and kind.”

“I’d like nothing better than for you to stop pretending to parent me.”

“Ouch.”

Deshnov smiled and tried to play it off like that didn’t hurt as monumentally as it did.

He felt it rush through his skin like electricity. But he’d been preparing for this moment.

“I’m sorry for the trouble and the time spent, and I hope you’ll forgive us the awkward scene on here.” He said to the woman in the port attendant uniform, shifting uncomfortably to one side and watching their drama unfolding. “Per the terms of guardianship, please revoke this young lady’s boarding pass and–”

“My parents fought and died for this country!” Murati said. “I have a right to–”

“Do the same? Do you hear yourself? Do you just want to die then?” Deshnov snapped.

“No! Of course not! Ugh! You never understand!” Murati shouted back.

“Then what is it? I would let you go if you could tell me a single constructive thing you plan to do with your military academy degree and with some kind of position in the Navy. What do you think people do in the Navy, huh young lady? Have you given it any thought at all? Do you have anything in your head except empty platitudes of civil duty? Or worse, maybe even petty revenge? Do you want to kill people, or do you want to die?”

Murati balled up her fists and looked positively livid.

“How cynical! For a Rear Admiral to be saying this! If your soldiers could hear you!”

Deshnov grunted.

“I am cynical because I’m experienced! Because I’ve seen what happens to people like you: young and ambitious but with your heads full of duty and martyrdom! Because hundreds of thousands of people died to create a safe place where someone like you doesn’t have to board a metal coffin to survive! You think your parents want this for you?”

In his eyes, this was nothing short of a tragedy. To see Murati in this awful uniform.

What did she want with this?

“You don’t know anything.” Murati said, her eyes downcast.

“Then tell me.”

“You think I’m just a stupid little girl who can’t do anything–”

“Murati that’s the last thing I think–”

“I’m going to end this war! I’m going to make all the Ocean safe for us.”

Deshnov blinked. He stood there, speechless, for a moment.

When he looked at that brooding girl, he really thought all she wanted was to kill.

To kill the Imperials who took her parents. He’d seen it, again and again.

“You’re going to end what war?” Deshnov said. “Our war with the Empire? You?”

Murati raised her eyes from the ground.

At that moment, Deshnov was taken aback by what he saw and felt from her.

That tear-stained grimace that should have seemed small and bratty and petty and pitiful– but instead her gaze was cutting, powerful, as if there was truly something behind it. Something deep and massive; her gaze was filled with presence beyond its years. A determination far surpassing his own. A real, inspired sense of righteousness.

Those auburn eyes had a red glimmer, like a raging fire burning deep inside her.

“Uncle Deshnov, let me go. I will– I’ll become the best soldier you’ll ever see. I’ll become the strongest. Nobody will get hurt anymore. Nobody will die anymore. Not me; not anyone. Someday, the Empire might come back. I’ll drive them out of Ferris just like you did. And I’ll chase them all the way to the Palatinate. I’ll fight their soldiers and their knights and inquisitors, I’ll fight the Emperor! I’ll free us all and then nobody will need to fight a war again.”

Yervik Deshnov felt a deep shame at those words. He could hardly keep from crying.

Those words coming out of this teenage girl– that should have been him, God damn it.

That’s what he and all the losers who called themselves the admiralty of this nation should have done! That was what they were promising to these kids. That it was ended, that they could live their lives now. How could he reiterate what he told Murati before, with a straight face? She knew none of this was over. That none of it had been finished. She was too smart. She had lost too much. So she knew better than anybody that the utopian paradise of the Union was still paper thin as long as the waters outside Ferris still teemed with the sharks of the Imbrian Empire.

Deshnov’s worst nightmare had been that these kids would have to finish his war.

That Murati would have to finish his war.

He wanted to yell at her to go back home and study math and the arts and trades.

But his voice would not rise for such sophistry. It couldn’t. Not anymore.

Especially because he was always running around and never even saw her grow.

“Don’t call me Uncle anymore.” He said. “I’ll–”

At that moment, the port attendant received a call on her earpiece. Her eyes drew wide.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Deshnov, but I’ve orders to let her through.” She said.

“Excuse me?” He felt suddenly defensive. He still had the right of guardianship–

“Murati’s guardianship has been revoked. She’s been declared an independent orphan– a legal adult.”

“What?”

Even Murati looked taken aback by this. It must not have been something she did.

“Someone will be coming to speak with you. I have to take her– the ship is leaving.”

Deshnov watched, in helpless confusion, as the port attendant turned Murati around and gave her what she wanted and had arranged for. Passage aboard the ship bound for Solstice, where she would enroll in the military Academy and live much of the next decade of her life, learning the sciences and arts of battle and preparing for war. She looked back at him one last time, but he knew not what kind of look Murati gave him and never would.

Instead, he had turned around to face the other end of the port corridor, where two figures arrived.

Dressed in the dark olive shirt and dark brown pants of the Navy, and the black coat and peaked, serpent-adorned cap of the Ashura, the internal security troops answering exclusively to the outbound Premier herself.

Deshnov grit his teeth.

Who else could it have been to greet him on this evil day? No one else but Commissar-Commandant Bhavani Jayasankar; and her lackey Parvati Nagavanshi, returned from her ship duties just in time to join up.

Those two always somehow found their way to each other.

“I’d be truly blessed to know what the hell internal security wants with one girl.” He said.

Jayasankar put on a conniving smile and crossed her arms.

“Well, children are our future. What’s that saying, Nagavanshi?”

“A thousand generations live in them.” Nagavanshi replied with a deadpan tone of voice.

“Don’t fuck with me. Who gave you the authority to overturn my guardianship?” He said.

Nagavanshi withdrew some papers from her coat and began to explain. “Citing Murati Nakara’s room records, you’ve visited her about 60 times in the past five years? While it is a double digit number, it’s not a lot, considering the average parent in the Union visited their children at their school boards an average of about 190 days every single year. So it seems to me, and forgive me if I’m wrong, that she was not a high priority in your life.”

“How dare you? It was the Navy itself that kept me from her! You don’t think–”

He went on a tirade that the two of them clearly weren’t interested in.

Shouting was all Deshnov could do to keep from striking Nagavanshi.

That would’ve been really bad.

“At any rate!”

Jayasankar shouted over Deshnov and produced a series of official documents from her own coat.

Guardianship transfer, from Yervik Deshnov to Daksha Kansal. Signed by Daksha Kansal.

Then in the next document, simply dissolved by Kansal, making Murati a “legal adult” citizen.

That meant Murati had agency in administrative decisions regarding her person, though she was still a child. She could sign for her own medications, join the academy without anyone’s consent– but still couldn’t drink or drive.

Deshnov could hardly believe it. “The Premier? Daksha? Why would she–?”

“You weren’t the only one who owed the Nakara family something.” Jayasankar cut in.

“Now everything’s squared away. We’re all released from this past.” Nagavanshi added.

Those words sparked a sudden paranoia in Deshnov’s brain. A weary, angry fear.

But there was nothing he could say. He had no power in the face of these two.

“Nobody owes anyone, anything, anymore, Deshnov. We can all look toward the future.”

Jayasankar smiled that devilish smile of her and Deshnov felt a helpless anger.

All of them were playing politics still, even around Murati and her dead parent’s names. Was this truly what they all died fighting for? So Jayasankar and Nagavanshi could manipulate their daughter’s life? He looked over his shoulder at the departing vessel. Murati was nowhere to be seen, of course. He had missed his chance. He should have just said he was proud of her answer to him. Instead, he may have just left her with the idea he was abandoning her.

Could he even rectify that? Could he explain or take back what he said?

He turned back to the women in front of him with the evilest look he could give them.

“Neither of you have any respect for the dead. Neither of you should be saying that family’s name in any context, you vultures don’t deserve it. We don’t owe them anymore? Maybe you people don’t. But they are a part of the soul of this country. Whatever it is you think you are scheming, or whatever advantage you’re trying to get, I will not be quiet while you do so.” Deshnov said in a low voice. “Were it not for our positions, Bhavani, I’d sock the both of you.”

Jayasankar shrugged her shoulders with one winking eye, smiling.

“Oh? Such big words! But you can’t attack me, right Yervik? You can’t lift a finger to me no matter what. Well, if you went on a rampage right now, you’d certainly get Nagavanshi at least; I’d be more of a fight, however.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Hey. Don’t push it. I’m perfectly able to defend myself.”

They were joking among themselves. Those two went back a few years.

Even with the long gap in their ages they still understood each other a little too well.

Neither of them was taking him seriously still. Not that he was worth taking seriously.

He was being quite childish himself. But he couldn’t help but be bitter toward them.

“You respect the invisible shield that is political power.” Jayasankar grinned to herself.

“I know that you certainly came out of their tragedy a little better than everyone else.”

Deshnov did not want to respond too much to the provocations of this particular group.

Among the revolutionaries, there had been a few different cliques.

He had always wanted to believe in Commander Ahwalia and his promise of a better future.

This earned him the scorn of rigid materialists like Jayasankar and Nagavanshi.

Upon hearing his remarks, Jayasankar’s face turned cold. She turned a chilling glare on him.

“We entombed ourselves in steel and poured our blood into making this country, the same as you. Yet you hate us for not deceiving kids like her with sappy dreams. Daksha sent me here because you and I go back to five years ago, and she wanted you to understand that you have to let the Nakara family go. They do not influence the Union anymore, and in the coming stages, whatever they wished to do no longer matters. Yervik, you can stay stuck in the past, or you can keep fighting for our future. As a respected military man, there will come a time soon where you’ll influence the future of kids like her. I hope you recognize what it is appropriate to do when that time comes.”

Nagavanshi added. “Kansal will depart soon. There will be a wave of change. Don’t cross us, Yervik.”

Jayasankar and Nagavanshi turned their heels and departed, leaving Yervik behind, helpless.

They could say such things to him precisely because they knew he would do nothing. He could not.

He almost wanted to spit with anger. Those two were always plotting something.

As much as he detested them, however, they were as much the heart and soul of the Union as the Nakaras.

That much he could not deny, deep in his bitter heart, even if he hated their politics.

But Jayasankar was right in one sense. He couldn’t give up now. He couldn’t just run away.

While he could not stand to look at these snakes and the future in their minds, he could pin his hopes on the future he saw in Murati’s eyes instead. Whether they were led by an idealist like Ahwalia or a militarist like Jayasankar, their children owned the future. Not any of the old soldiers. It didn’t matter to these kids how much they schemed.

All of this shame, all of this bitterness; he would endure it for the future Murati might build.


When the Irmingard’s main guns fired, Murati’s time started moving once again.

She lowered her mecha’s shooting arm, the magazine depleted.

Her breathing quickened. She felt like she was waking from a nightmare.

“I was useless. I was completely useless.” She gasped. She checked her monitors.

Shalikova was safe, the flak had quieted to avoid friendly fire.

Khadija was staring down the enemy unit that had made a fool of Murati.

For the moment, the battle had stood completely still.

As if the monumental shocks of those 203 mm guns had stunned them all to reverence.

And yet, it was those guns that awakened Murati from a shameful, desperate stupor.

In her cockpit, Murati struggled with the controls for the Cheka. She was trying not to fall too deep into her own despair. She still had a mission to do, and she told herself that she situation remained fundamentally unchanged– that had to be a bluffing shot, and Murati still had two bombs available to take down the flagship.

But the appearance of that unknown suit complicated things.

“Arm joint failing, some electric fluctuations, messiah defend.”

That cut through the shoulder must have damaged some of the ancillary electronics. While there was still thrust, power to secondary systems was inconsistent. Murati kept a panicked eye on the pressure and atmosphere readings. She was alive, so she was not breached, but if there was damage to atmosphere control, or a microscopic leak from the tanks, it could make her sick. Everything was under control at the moment, but she was nearly helpless.

“Murati! Please respond!”

Due to the energy circulation issues her radio was cutting in and out intermittently.

At that moment, however, she could still hear the desperate voice of Sonya Shalikova.

Sighing with a deep shame in herself, trying to suppress the urge to pity herself, she replied.

“Combat ineffective. Repeat, combat ineffective.”

“Murati? Did you say, ‘combat ineffective’? Who cares! Are you hurt?”

Shalikova’s voice came in and out every other syllable it seemed.

Nonetheless, the emotional, worried tone of her voice came through for Murati.

“Unhurt. Repeat, I’m unhurt. Just shaken up. Repeat, shaken up.”

In order to be understood with the state of her electronics and power, Murati had to be fairly monosyllabic. She could not say what she was really feeling, nor even the version of it she really wanted Shalikova to hear. “I was useless, but you were splendid,” or “I’m sorry for failing you, but you did great out there.” Maybe “I’m proud of you,” might have gone through. But it wasn’t the time to praise Shalikova and hear her characteristic groaning back. They were still in danger. They still had a mission to do. And they needed to know the status of the Brigand as well.

“Wait. Bombs, how many do we–”

Murati checked the inventory on the Cheka quickly. She found that the serial port that should have been connected to her bomb had been reporting nothing connected to it. Her magnetic strip was showing a significant loss of weight as well. Had that mecha managed to unseat her equipment while they were maneuvering? It must have been when she slashed across her shoulder– Murati grit her teeth. She must have kicked them off or something.

To think she had been so careless, with an opponent like that!

Shalikova’s voice cut in. Murati was barely able to make out one word.

“Khadija–”

She slammed her fist on the switchbox for the communicator.

“What can I even do? I’m just a passenger at this point.”

On a corner of her central screen, a little flashing waveform appeared.

Incoming laser connection.

“The Brigand!”

Murati put it through immediately.

She found herself face to face with the narrowed, unfriendly glare of Alex Geninov.

For only an instant. Nearly immediately, Alex passed her off to Semyonova.

In this situation, that familiar round-faced, bubbly blond was such a relief to see.

Even with a laser connection, the video was lagging. The Cheka was in bad shape.

“Khadija engaging enemy! Lost bomb undetonated! Repeat–”

She had to communicate sparsely, as if the connection would be cutting in and out.

On the screen she saw Semyonova turn to relay to the Captain–

Then the video connection cut out.

Murati had feared that the flak had restarted and knocked out the drone the Brigand had sent to connect them, but she noticed her communicator had powered of suddenly. She switched the diagnostic touchscreen to a troubleshooting mode and tried to restart the communicator through it. She tried routing power from a different cell– instead the camera feeds began to darken, not liking having their already fragile power tampered with.

Frustrated, Murati nearly hit the diagnostic screen again.

Briefly she saw her frustrated, sweating face reflected on one of her dead screens.

“So much for you, fearless leader.” She mumbled.

She dipped her head, her bangs falling over her eyes.

There was a flash as her cameras returned to life.

When Murati looked up to appraise the situation, she was transfixed by what she saw.

In the middle of the ocean between all of the warring ships, framed by clouds of vapor and steel debris, two machines soared like a pair of comets, their dance punctuated by the trials of explosive rounds and the bubbles that blossomed from their detonations. Weaving chaotic patterns of vapor and lead, the combatants captivated all of Murati’s senses as she watched them, following the dim flashes of rifle shells, the zigzagging lines of bubbles and disturbed water left in the wakes of their jets, the thin clouds of exhaust from the solid fuel boosters mixing with the water vapor.

There was a shuddering in her chest, her heart carried on a current of twenty years.

Murati recognized the sight as one she saw in 959 A.D.

On a ship she had snuck into, amid the gravest emergency the nascent Union had yet seen.

Where she watched ships explode, and Divers sink, and a station die.

In front of her, the flashing stopped, the combatants bereft of ammunition.

Murati felt a warmth behind her eyes and saw colors emerging in the water.

That enemy Diver, colored yellow and green, full of fear, regret, disgust–

That plain grey Strelok, red and black with rage, bloodlust, a resignation to death–

Her eyes drew wide with the sudden realization.

“No! Khadija– the bomb–”

Instinctually she understood what would transpire if she did not act–

–her thoughts raced, thinking of something, anything she could do, to prevent the tragedy–

“Murati!”

Shalikova’s Strelok appeared right in front of her, taking up her cameras.

At her side was a second, bare Strelok with no damage to it. Valya Lebedova’s unit.

“Murati, she sent me here to take you back, give your bomb to Lebedova–”

Hit with a spark of inspiration, Murati made a sudden move for Lebedova’s unit.

Shifting her hands to the verboten controls flashing on her joysticks.

All of the diagnostic and power warnings briefly made way for the user interface of the Energy Recovery System. Power poured from the extra reserved cells on the Cheka and for a moment, thrust improved dramatically, all systems reconnected, and the battered suit moved like it should. Shalikova and Lebedova were both taken aback.

Throwing herself forward to them, Murati grabbed hold of Lebedova’s grenade.

Seizing it from her magnetic strip, before rushing away into the open water.

“Murati! What are you doing? You’ve got damage!”

Shalikova’s shouting was picked up loud and clear now that comms had returned.

Murati ignored the radio chatter and slammed the pedals down as far as they would.

As soon as she got up to speed, warnings began appearing in their dozens once again.

Oxygen system, atmosphere controls, everything stressed under the speed building up so suddenly after taking so much damage to the innards. Her damaged arm refused to budge under this degree of acceleration, so Murati had to use the other arm for her sudden plot. She attached Lebedova’s grenade to her own magnetic strip, unlocked the strip, and forcibly pulled the entire length free from the Cheka’s back using the non-magnetic handles on the ends.

She was then able to hold it like a magnetic pole on her hand with the grenade on one end.

Heedless of the energy percentages ticking down and down–

And the number of things that were broken or breaking in the suit–

In her mind, Murati had only one destination: home.

Her plan had gone awry, but as a leader, she would bring everyone back home, even if it killed her.

“Khadija! Stop! Step back!”

Dead ahead, the enemy suit and Khadija’s charged each other and became locked in a brief clash with their respective melee weapons. Chainsaw teeth and vibroblade ground each other down. They traded several vicious blows and parries before each one in turn noticed Murati hurtling toward them. Her presence ended the deadlocked duel.

That enemy suit responded first and darted back carefully from Khadija.

Khadija pulled back only slightly as her ally approached at high speeds.

Murati swerved toward the enemy suit and it responded by thrusting up and away from her.

Then Murati arced toward Khadija instead, circling around behind her.

“Murati! What are you–?”

Soaring past Khadija’s back, Murati snatched the bomb she had given her using the magnetic pole.

At the speed she was going, the serial cable simply snapped off.

“Everyone retreat! Right now! Back to the Brigand!”

Accelerating once more, Murati barked her orders into the communicator.

Using the remaining shoulder camera she checked the status of the bomb.

She noticed it had been armed. She felt a chill run down her spine, briefly, unable to dwell on the confirmation of her horrifying suspicions. Was Khadija really willing to die to take out this one enemy unit? They would have to discuss this later. Murati held out the contraption in her hands and thrust toward the Irmingard class once again.

With an armed bomb on the strip she could not tarry for very long.

Within seconds, she was close enough to put the plan into action.

Assault rifles, gas guns and coilguns all used a combination of special ammunition and shooting mechanisms that allowed them to shoot underwater and launch supercavitating shells. Their ammunition moved through an air bubble, defeating the resistance of the water and altering their kinetic profile. Melee combat relied on the mechanical power of a Diver’s arms, as well as boosters on the weapon and the arm itself to improve thrust. Even so, raw kinetic impacts were not effective. Union swords used saw blades to inflict damage; the Empire used sophisticated vibrating blades made of exotic materials. Any simple cutting edge would have been much less effective underwater.

Similarly to swinging a plain sword, objects thrown by a Diver could not be expected to be effective.

They would not travel very far without assistance.

Grenades had their own built-in rocket to compensate for water resistance instead.

To propel the Grenade’s 50 mm warhead, it needed thrust akin to a Diver’s vernier booster.

That was enough thrust to propel the grenade quite far, quite fast.

And more than enough to take the strip and the bomb attached along for the ride.

“Here goes something!”

Holding out the strip in front of her, Murati armed the grenade at the back of it.

When she let go an instant later, the grenade’s thruster kicked in and launched the pole.

This sent the armed bomb hurtling toward the side of the Irmingard.

Moving faster than the flak curtain could be restarted to stop it.

As soon as she released the improvised rocket, she threw the Cheka into a steep turn. Without being able to detonate it in a controlled fashion from a safe distance, Murati was in immediate danger. She arced away from the Irmingard as quickly as she could and swung toward the Brigand. To escape the blast she needed every possible meter–

Her eyes glanced up at the ERS screen in time to watch the power drain entirely.

Then her cockpit suddenly went pitch black. Murati’s breath caught in her chest.

There was a sudden silence as the whirring of the pumps and turbines pushing water through her machine stopped abruptly. Her body jerked forward slightly and suddenly as water resistance killed her momentum, causing her cockpit to shake briefly. Red, intermittent flashing red within the darkness, indicating auxiliary power. Enough to maintain life support. She was stranded. Stranded in the open water with the bomb about to go off behind her.

Murati freed herself from her seat, crawled to the side of the cockpit and slid open a moveable slit.

There was a periscopic glass viewing pane, through which she could see nothing but water.

Then she saw something flash. That was the bomb– the bomb had gone off.

Her cockpit rumbled as all the water displaced by the blast slammed into her.

What was happening? She could be sinking to the sea floor! Or about to rip apart!

She grit her teeth and grabbed hold of the catches on the wall, repeatedly striking metal as everything around her shook violently. Rolling around on the inside of her own metal coffin, packed in like a canned vegetable.

Her senses almost went as her head struck the metal wall.

Blood dribbled down her face. Her grip started to slack, her wrists overextended.

And yet the cockpit continued to rattle and roll in the maelstrom.

Was she going to die? Was she really going to die like this?

Two distinct impacts tossed her further, one on each side of the cockpit– then she stopped.

She was stable. Rushing her eye to the viewing pane she caught sight of metal.

There was a red flash from it. Was that– a Diver? A Diver igniting a vernier?

Her cockpit shook again–

She felt the Cheka move. Water started rushing around her.

Consistent, purposeful movement.

Someone had rescued her.

With the cockpit stable, she came to settle against the wall. Bloody, battered, isolated.

Falling limp within her “metal coffin,” Murati started to weep into her own arm.

It must have been Shalikova or Lebedova.

Someone rescued her! She would live! She survived– they defeated that Irmingard class.

Unable to see them, unable to thank them, unable to determine who was alive–

What a way to end the battle! All that fire and thunder, and in the end it was all dark, all silent.

But she was alive. And the Brigand was alive. So despite everything, their mission was still alive.

She struck her fist against the metal wall, again and again. Grinding her teeth, weeping her eyes out.

“Messiah defend! Some fucking hero I turned out to be!” Murati shouted, screaming at herself in the dark.


Schicksal’s panicked voice heralded the coming insanity.

“Explosion off the port side! Significant sidepod damage– we’re destabilizing–!”

“God damn it!”

Gertrude would have pounded her fist on her seat but holding on to it was all she could do to keep herself from flying off her chair as the Iron Lady began to list to starboard dramatically, now heavier due to loss of both solid and liquid weight. Inside the Bridge it was pure chaos. Flashing red warning lights, dozens of people shouting at each other all at once, the helm crew struggling to adjust the ship’s weight and right it. As the ship slanted, a few unprepared officers fell back out of their seats and slammed into the nearest station behind them. It was nearly impossible to control the crew in this chaos, but Dreschner shouted himself hoarse at Gertrude’s side, keeping the bridge functional.

“Side hydrojet intakes completely severed! Weight distribution dramatically uneven!”

On the main screen a diagnostic updated, with the breaching and flooding that had been dealt to the sidepod area. Were it not for the Iron Lady’s enormously thick armor even the hangar would be flooding. That was not an ordinary depth charge, it had the kind of destructive power reserved for blast mining charges.

How had Sieglinde let such a thing through to them? Had she even survived?

To think despite every advantage they would lose to these thugs!

“Captain, Inquisitor! The Ludlow is not moving from our starboard!”

Schicksal turned a horrified look to meet Gertrude’s wild eyes and Dreschner’s pallid face.

They were listing toward their remaining Frigate, which was itself struggling to stay afloat.

“Collision imminent!”

Everyone in the Bridge grabbed hold of the closest thing they could.

Only the helm continued working until the last second that they could, struggling to stabilize the ship, but not in time to prevent what the prediction on the main screen showed them. Seconds later, the Iron Lady crashed into the Ludlow, crushing its side fin and caving in the port side of the pressure hull, sending the smaller vessel careening toward the ocean floor. This did relatively light damage to the Iron Lady itself, but it was clear the Ludlow would not survive. By then, the small amount of flooding on the Iron Lady weighed down its stricken side enough to stabilize the ship.

All the while, Gertrude watched the main screen with rage-filled eyes.

That insignificant little hauler and its measly little divers began to flee.

She raised her hand to the screen, nearly giving in to desperate, grief-stricken delusion.

Right in front of her, so close, close enough for her hand to reach. That damnable ship.

“Pandora’s Box. You won’t get away. Not as long as I can chase. Elena–”

Hyperventilating, eyes burning in the prelude to tears.            

Her mind blanking out with fury as she seared the sight of that little ship into her brain.

They had not escaped. They had not gotten away. They couldn’t run.

As long as she was chasing, they would never escape.

“Call for reinforcements! Send it through the encrypted network! As soon as possible!”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked like they could hardly believe her words.

Nevertheless, they set about their tasks as soon as they could. Whoever came could be made useful.

Though the Bridge soon quieted, the tense, erratic energy of the moment never left.

“Send out a drone to chase after Pandora’s Box as soon as the electronics are stable.”

Because Gertrude’s eyes never left the screen; because she never forgot the shadow of her prey.

She was High Inquisitor Lichtenberg, and as long as she was chasing, no one could escape!


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.9]

Entry Teams Anton and Berta forced their way to the main surface of Vogelheim through the cargo lift from the farm and orchard, which had a direct connection to the hydroponics gardens in Engineering. Ten Volker-class Divers took the lifts up in groups of two until they were all assembled on the hilly terrain. They did not marvel at the scenery for very long.

With a ponderous gait, the nearly 7 meter tall machines began to stomp their way toward the villa and town. While remaining a cohesive unit through wireless communications, which worked through Vogelheim’s air far better than in the water, they separated about 100 to 200 meters from one another and began to traverse the fake countryside, moving into the forests, across the fields. On their arms, they hefted sturmgewehr assault rifles. These 37 mm guns fired explosive shells with enough firepower to demolish a two-story home in a single three-round burst.

Moving through air was far different than water. They could make significant speeds in the water, but on land they moved at a few kilometers per hour. Though their turbines could suck in air for a little boost, it could, at most, stabilize their weight and balance during a 10-20 km/h sprint rather than the 80 or 90 or even 100 km/h that they could develop at full power when submerged.

Between their speed, and the size of the machines, Victoria could easily see them coming. However, she knew that her chances were not optimistic.

She was heavily outnumbered. She could count on no support. She was not significantly better armed, but the Jagd was faster and lighter, even on land. All of these facts quickly assembled in her head and gave her a practical course of action.

Her objective was not to save the station. She hoped Marina and Elena were clear away from the battlefield by now. There was no way she would get all of them. But she would make a ruckus.

She had enough drugs in her system to dampen the pain and heighten the adrenaline.

Hiding in the forest, under her active camouflage tarp, she found herself in the middle of the Volkisch’ formation, when taking into the account the full width of the attack. Three Volkers were combing the forest near her, four were farther afield toward the false coast, and the rest were traversing the hills and fields downstream from the forest. In her mind, there were six Volkers that posed the most immediate threat to the Villa, and she would have to let the other four lie.

“Get closer.” She whispered to herself.

Her Dive computer, enjoying the luxury of scanning through air instead of water, gave her nearly flawless prediction of their movements and positions. On one screen she had the leaked maps of Vogelheim, which she marked with the real-time enemy locations. Second generation Divers could have electronic warfare packages, alerting them to her presence due to her scanning in the environment. Volkers’ computers were not so sophisticated. They relied on a ship to do any electronic warfare and scanning for them. And there was no ship looking at her position.

In addition, the Volkisch, novices at fighting on land, were enamored with their radios. There was such a novelty to being able to speak wirelessly, with such great clarity. Nobody would shut up, and nobody was taught proper discipline. They did not understand the range at which anyone could pick their unencrypted voices up.

“This is Anton-2, moving into the forest.”

“Beautiful place. Weird damage in the sky. Should we be worried about that?”

“Our orders are to capture the Villa. No one’s going to play engineer until we do that.”

“Identify yourselves when you speak? Commander, where are you at?”

“Fine. This is Anton-Actual, I’m in the middle of the forest.”

“Okay, so I’m still by your side. Fighting on land is so weird! Keep me safe, Commander.”

“Oh shut up, quit being a wuss.”

“I’m the only girl here! Isn’t it your social role as big tough men to protect me?”

“If you’re out on the front lines, you’re just a man to me.”

“Hey Commander, do you believe the the same thing about ol’ Fuhrer Sawyer?”

“No woman here is more a man than that Sawyer. No man here, either.”

Victoria cracked a vicious little grin in the shadow of her cockpit, listening to everything.

She touched one specific unit marker on the screen. The one closest to her.

“I’ve got you, ‘Commander’.” She said to herself, feeling a sudden rush of satisfaction.

When she began her attack, she began from a position of near-perfect stealth.

Twenty-five meters away, a Volker stomped through the gaps in the woods, knocking down any younger, thinner trees and ripping up any bushes in its way. Assault rifle at its chest, pointing at nothing. It moved directly into her field of vision. Victoria pulled back her sticks and striggers.

Throwing off the camouflage tarp, the Jagd stood and fired off her jet anchors.

From her shoulders, two unfolding hooks on steel cable flew toward the Volker.

Before it could react, she hooked it between the arms, but the location scarcely mattered.

“Contact!” screamed the Commander, “I’ve been hit by something–!”

Motors inside the Jagd’s shoulder pulled on the enemy Volker. Rather than budge the enemy, what they did was help Victoria dash toward it.

She sprang forward out of her cover and drove her jet lance into the back of the Volker.

Her charge was so vicious she briefly lifted the enemy Volker onto her arm.

A miniaturized cannon coil along with a solid fuel booster propelled the jet lance. Once engaged, the lance sprang instantly from inside the housing like a bullet. Extending a meter and a half from the wrist, the lance stabbed clean through enemy armor.

Hot metal was punched into the cockpit with such force the front hatch blew open.

Her lance perforated the backpack and cockpit so quickly it blew smoke out the other end.

Victoria didn’t even hear a death rattle through the radio.

Reversing the coil mechanism, the spike was retracted back into its neutral firing position. Upon returning, the lance point was caked in gore.

The Volker dropped onto the ground, unmoving, bearing wounds the size of a human torso. All of this happened in scarcely seconds.

“Commander! Commander!”

“Contact! Contact in the forest!”

The Volkisch descended into hysterical shouting over the radio.

Without their commander they were in disarray.

From the woods, two more Volkers lumbered into view, hefting their assault rifles.

Sucking in air through her turbines, Victoria took the Jagd into a sudden sprint.

Heavy footfalls scored the soft earth. She would have fallen, were it not for the air blasting out of the back of the machine. It had a small effect on the top speed achievable by the mecha on land but pulling in air through it and blowing it out the back kept the machine’s weight stabilized, preventing it from tipping over in any direction as it ran out into the open.

As soon as she dashed out, the enemy had seen her. She adjusted her center of balance and hit a quick turn, trying to sweep around their flank.

“Open fire! Open fire!”

Sturmgewehr barrels flashed relentlessly. Bursts of 37mm rounds flew past Victoria, tearing up trees and turf, setting bushes alight.

Her attackers did not count on the far lesser resistance of air against their bullets.

They overcompensated, used to shooting in water, and shot everything but her. She quickly whipped back around and dashed toward the Volkers.

Between the chassis and arms, wedged into the shoulders, her two machine guns swung on their limited horizontal and vertical traverse. All of the Jagd’s weapons were intended for close quarters to essentially hit whatever the Jagd was facing. Inflexible, but always ready to kill. So as she charged into melee, her own cannons burned, firing off a dozen explosive rounds.

Unlike the Volkisch, Victoria had trained herself to fight both on land and in the water. Aiming almost instinctually, her own burst of gunfire peppered the Volker dead-on.

One 20 mm round was in itself far less powerful than most Naval ordnance.

Gas guns used this round to try to destroy enemy torpedoes and other soft targets.

Victoria put dozens of them into the Volker in the span of a few seconds.

Successions of tiny blasts pitted the cockpit armor then blew the hatch clean open; scored the shoulder and arm plates with round after round until finally one punched through the weakened armor and blew the arm right off; perforated the lean armor on the head and blew up the enemy’s all-around sensors, leaving them blind if they were still alive inside.

Her enemy crumpled, slumping forward with no signs of life from the pilot.

In the next moment, her sprint took her right past the corpse and upon the remaining enemy.

“Oh god! Oh god no!”

She heard the woman on the radio pleading and screaming.

Dead ahead, the remaining Volker tossed its assault rifle and quickly drew a melee weapon. A vibro-machete carried on the backpack as a last resort. Her Volkisch opponent brought up the machete in both hands and swung.

That machete had a depleted agarthicite flat and a motor that vibrated it to aid the monomolecular edge. Even this modest weapon was a feat of engineering and posed a threat if used properly. But it did not matter.

Victoria confidently threw forward her lance.

Before the weapons clashed, she engaged the jet-lance.

Her point launched forward, snapping the machete like a twig. Such was the force of the thrust that the Volker’s arm completely shattered.

The Diver fell helplessly backward, and Victoria pounced. Rearing up her own vibro-blade arm, she thrust between the Volker’s shoulder plate.

She pierced the cockpit and twisted her sword toward the pilot.

This time she did hear cries of anguish over the radio. A vibrating blade dealt greater structural damage when it clashed with a machine.

That was its only effect on metal.

For a flesh and blood human to be anywhere near an engaged vibroblade was a source of unbearable agony. Besides the heat, the thrumming would go right into the gut. It was horrifying. And soon, Victoria heard no further screaming from that cockpit. Whether the pilot had died of a heart attack, shock or choking, Victoria did not know and had no desire to confirm.

She pulled her sword out of the Diver and retracted her lance to its neutral position. Three enemies down, and several more to go. She had to make up–

“Entry teams! What is all this gibbering? Report on your situation!”

A new voice over the radio.

Sawyer.

Victoria was briefly shocked.

As much as she had characterized the events as a battle between her and Sawyer, she had thought it would transpire through proxies, rather than having to face Sawyer herself appear–

“Advanced scanning coming from the woods! What the hell is going on?”

In that moment, Victoria detected Sawyer as well. She was in a second-generation model Diver and just clearing the orchard hills. Her Diver counter-scanned Victoria, who was still actively monitoring everything.

That red blip that represented her was charging into the forest, and fast.

“Sawyer? Ma’am, an attack! An enemy in the forest got the Commander!”

A hapless soldier started relaying the situation.

“Sawyer let’s get this fucker! Let’s surround the woods!”

“Fucking, no! We need to seal the station breaches, or everything’s fucked!”

“Ma’am, we’re not equipped for repair duty–”

“Then I’ll fucking do it! Advance on the Villa!”

Victoria turned around to face where Sawyer was coming from.

As soon as the blip got close enough, she sent out a laser request.

“Wait– One unit? And you wanna talk? You’ve got some fucking guts–”

Sawyer mindlessly accepted the laser request while berating her. In the next moment, their mecha both emerged onto a clearing in the forest.

They were instantly connected by the lasers on their sensor arrays. On video in each other’s screen, they were finally able to meet, “face to face.”

Sawyer was still the same as always.

An unembellished girl with striking cheekbones, an aquiline nose, pearl skin. Her voluminous brown hair gave her the appearance of a rustic sort of royalty, as wild and earthy as the barbarians from Veka that her Volkisch so decried. Her icy blue eyes were drawn wide, and that wonderful jaw was quivering with confusion and an obvious fury. She looked good in uniform. Victoria wished she would have never had to acknowledge that.

“You,” Sawyer paused, mouthing expletives, “You are fucking kidding me.”

Victoria felt a strong sense of anxiety and anticipation.

It might have been the drugs.

“It’s been a long time. I didn’t come here to see you, but I guess it is fate.”

“I don’t believe this shit. Victoria?” She laughed. “Victoria van Veka?”

“I’m surprised Volkisch intelligence keeps track of the romantic dalliances of us savages. But yes, I am indeed Victoria van Veka these days.”

“It’s that exact, bitchy tone of yours on that exact bitchy face. Oh my god.”

Sawyer raised her hands to her face, letting out brief bursts of laughter.

“I can’t believe it. You utter bitch. You absolute, complete fucking bitch. I should’ve put my entire fist up your fucking–”

Keep talking, you stupid brute.

Victoria quickly reoriented her priorities. She could not hope to stop the enemy anymore. Sawyer was piloting a new Diver, a Panzer unit. She did not know how Sawyer rated as a pilot, but that unit by itself spelled danger.

Heavily armored, and heavily armed. Sawyer had a tube launcher of some kind on her backpack, she likely had a sword, and she also very visibly had an assault rifle. Her second generation backpack and turbines could develop much better speed than a Volker. And that armor could probably withstand a lot more punishment than a Volker. Victoria was given pause.

Victoria’s mind was rushing, kept clear only by the chemicals. Her breathing quickened. In the water, she would have had a small advantage still, but on land? It was a desperate situation.

“I never liked bullying you, Victoria, you were too pathetic. I’ve no idea what Veka’s witch has done to you, but I’m willing to forgive you if you will turn yourself in and be useful to me–”

While Sawyer taunted her, Victoria made tiny, subtle adjustments to her machine guns.

Consumed as she was with attacking Victoria verbally, Sawyer did not notice the gentle movement of Victoria’s shoulders, as her hands, just off of Sawyer’s view, turned her control sticks with tense precision. One wrong move and Sawyer would have noticed her sleight of hand.

“It’s your turn to get bullied, Sawyer.”

Victoria was finally ready. She opened fire.

20 mm barrels flashed relentlessly, spitting bullets at Sawyer’s Panzer.

“We’ll see about that, bitch!”

Sawyer shouted, and the Panzer surged forward through the gunfire.

Across its surface, dozens of tiny blasts left dents and dings on the cockpit armor, but there was too much metal and it was too dense to be blown off. Maybe in water she could have inflicted more damage, due to the pressures involved, but in the air, the Panzer was practically unharmed. Victoria hardly paid this any mind. Her intention had not been real damage.

Instead, as Sawyer charged, Victoria engaged her thrusters, both solid fuel and her air jets. Using all of her thrust, Victoria threw the Jagd sideways.

She launched past Sawyer’s flank.

Before the Panzer recovered, Victoria turned and threw her momentum into a sword swing. Her vibroblade smashed into the side of the Panzer.

Metal debris went flying off of Sawyer’s Panzer.

Victoria had expected to cut through to the cockpit. Her blade made a ghastly wedge-shaped wound in the side of the machine’s chest.

There was still no breach.

“You can’t do shit to me, Vicky! You never could and you still can’t!”

Sawyer half-turned her bulky mecha to train her rifle on Victoria.

Victoria pulled back with all rearward thrust, withdrawing her arm.

She switched weapon control to her jet anchors and fired both.

When Sawyer opened fire the spreading hooks on one of the anchors took three blasts. It exploded in mid-air, scattering shrapnel and billowing smoke from the explosive rounds. Victoria cut loose and ejected both of the cables. Her second anchor then smashed into Sawyer’s shoulder.

Trailing behind it, the cable whipped across the Panzer’s head.

Between the jet anchor slamming it and the cable snaking over the cameras, Sawyer was momentarily distracted by the seemingly random carnage.

“What the fuck are you doing? Are you that desperate you fucking gnat?”

This was sufficient distraction for the Jagd to retreat out into the woods.

Sawyer launched manic bursts of gunfire into the forest.

Trees blasted apart, bushes went up in smoke, turf churned up everywhere. 37 mm explosive rounds were no joke, especially not in a half-dozen bursts of three. Victoria swerved from cover to cover, trying to put some distance between herself and the gunfire trailing her. She knew, at any moment–

Click.

Sawyer’s rifle ejected a spent magazine.

“God damn it! Come back here!”

The Panzer went charging into the woods after Victoria. She saw it on the rear camera, sprinting heavily while fumbling for a new magazine from those kept on stored on the waist. Victoria would not turn around and fight.

She moved the theater toward the center of the forest.

“Please be deep enough.” She mumbled to herself.

There was a large pond that she saw on the leaked maps, and it was dead ahead. It was a gamble, but if the pond were connected the way she thought, it would work. Victoria took a leap of faith.

She didn’t know whether it was her heightened senses or the drugs anymore. But she had to take a chance.

The Jagd dropped into the water and immediately took off, swimming freely within a space larger than it seemed. That pond was connected to water circulation and acted as a reservoir.

All the fresh water that was used to keep the forest ecosystem alive and irrigate the farms was filtered and collected here, and from here channeled to other places. As such, while on the surface it was a pond about the size of the farmhouse, below the water, the walls curved like a bowl and it was dozens of meters deep and wide. Had Elena ever tried to swim in it?

She would have seen the artificiality of Vogelheim firsthand.

But she was too delicate for that. She never jumped in the water to see the metal below.

Victoria adjusted immediately to underwater movement.

From an ungraceful sprint on land, it was now soaring with the grace of Veka herself. Her laser connection to Sawyer was immediately interrupted. On her monitors, the cameras adjusted to the water with filtered video.

Suddenly the Panzer dropped right in behind her and began accelerating.

In one hand Sawyer had her reloaded assault rifle; in the other, her sword.

As it gave chase in the water, the Panzer opened fire. Three rounds, then six, then nine, sailed from the gun barrel with dim flashes. Supercavitation bubbles and lines traced the water between Victoria and Sawyer.

Turning instantly, the Jagd swept away from the bullets.

They crashed into the metal walls, harmlessly exploding into vapor bubbles.

Victoria looped upside-down, soaring over Sawyer’s head.

She circled behind the Panzer and engaged the jet on her vibroblade arm.

Twirling like a dancer, using the momentum and the blade jet to overcome the resistance of the water, Victoria slashed the Panzer’s shoulder and kept moving, smashing and splitting in half the shoulder guard. When Sawyer turned and swung her sword, Victoria was no longer there to hit.

Using the Jagd’s superior mobility she swam circles around the Panzer.

“AGH!”

Sawyer shouted with frustration that came across the scratchy video.

Victoria was no longer paying it attention. She swerved around the Panzer, avoiding bullet and blade, always a half-step ahead of Sawyer’s attacks.

When she found an opportunity, she closed in, turned and sliced.

A perfect gash across the right side of the chest to match the left.

A wide dent into the armored legs that exposed a battered joint.

Leaping skyward, over and around the Panzer, under it, across its flanks.

“No! No!”

Sawyer began to swing furiously and helplessly.

Victoria saw an opening.

She went around the back and sliced vertically across Sawyer’s backpack.

That tube launcher she was caring was split in half.

Her sword caught in the armor.

Using that grip for leverage, she pulled the Panzer toward her. Embracing her from behind, Victoria brought her jet-lance up against the Panzer.

A shockwave blew through the water as the lance engaged.

Victoria drove the spike up through the Panzer’s flank and out the shoulder.

It was a testament to the Panzer’s armor that its entire flank didn’t explode.

“You’re breached! Eject before you drown!” Victoria shouted.

Had they been fighting in the ocean Sawyer would have died in moments. She was fortunate the water in this reservoir was maintained at the pressure it was. Her cockpit must have been slowly filling up instead.

“Sawyer! Stop this! Eject! I’m taking you into custody!”

“You stupid bitch. You– You fucked everything. Now it’s all ruined!”

Suddenly, the Panzer engaged its jets, blowing torrents of water at the Jagd.

Separating from the Jagd, the Panzer swung around just as suddenly.

Victoria could not back off in time, she was caught well off guard.

Sawyer’s vibroblade sliced into across the surface of the Jagd’s right arm. Pieces of the jet lance’s housing floated away, and solid fuel leaked out of the booster. Following up her attack, Sawyer fired off a burst of gunfire.

While the Jagd easily avoided the shots, Victoria was shaken. Her concentration and speed lagged as she felt suddenly pressured. How had the cockpit not been breached? How was this monster that survivable?

She was running out of options with which to fight back effectively.

Despite the pitted armor, various slashes, and the hole in its shoulder and back, the Panzer was still running, and Sawyer was livelier than ever.

She was shouting, furious, near incoherent.

“Victoria! That launcher was full of sealant! I was going to save this station! At every turn you have done nothing but make things worse! I’m going to make sure you never see light again, you bitch! I’m going to rip your arms off, put your eyes out, burn the skin off your tongue! I’m going to give your ears the last scritch they’ll ever get when I flay them both off your head!”

Before Victoria could respond to that tantrum, the water began to stir.

Her computers started sounding alarm.

Shockwaves were being felt across the station.

Both the Panzer and Jagd were put off balance as everything started shaking. Water was starting to rush into the reservoir.

Flooding.

Victoria realized the station must have been flooding profusely now.


A long, near-lightless corridor of steel and concrete connected the Villa to the mechanized underworld of Vogelheim, all Maintenance paths and tunnels connecting workspaces and devices together that kept this underwater haven alive when it should not be.

To Marina, this path was a maw to hell. Her every step was pained and hollow. Elena felt light as a feather in her arms compared to the burden that bowed her shoulders and scored a deep, black mark in her brain.

There were periodic quakes that shook the steps down so harshly Marina bumped into the wall and had to watch that she did not drop Elena or strike the Princess’ head on the surrounding metal. While unnerving for their power and proximity, what worried Marina the most was how soundless the place was. She was afraid that at any moment she would find the path below blocked by water and find herself condemned to die uselessly after having accomplished nothing.

Marina was in a daze.

She could not accurately tell the time anymore. Everything that had been palpable to her senses felt years removed. It was as if, between Bethany’s kiss and the last ten steps she took in the evacuation tunnel, hundreds of years had passed. She had wasted away, spending an eternity regretting events that transpired in seconds. How long had she been walking?

And yet, that journey came to an abrupt end.

Before she could ponder it further, the mechanical action of taking one step and then the next, holding the Princess up over her own shoulder, staring dead ahead into dark nothingness; all of it had carried her to a room that was dim but starkly better lit than the evacuation tunnel. At her side, there was a craft, aligned with a deployment chute. Yellow light from inside the craft shone too brilliantly in Marina’s face and made her squint her eyes, like a door to heaven not meant for a demon like her. Around the door, almost cherubic, were the group of Vogelheim’s maids.

Not just them, but inside the craft, Marina could see farm-hands, an engineer or two, a bartender, a kiosk vendor. People from all of Vogelheim’s little attractions. Many of them had managed to flee here, and the maids appeared to be organizing an evacuation. Marina almost wanted to tell them to please get on with it. Tarrying any further was borderline suicidal.

She was not going with them. She looked at them with a brief, vacant stare.

Then, she continued her journey, step by step.

“Hey, wait! Where are you going? Who is that–?”

Suddenly, a maid appeared in front of her.

“Oh my god! That’s the Princess! She’s got the Princess!”

That maid who stood barring her path, sounded the alarm for the others.

Several came out from the craft. Most of the girls were too meek, and remained at the door, but two of the bigger girls did run down to meet their friend, blocking Marina’s way. Behind them all, was the path from the evacuation chute into one of the Maintenance tunnels. That was the way to Marina’s Diver, the SEAL model she had snuck into Vogelheim with.

She had to get past them.

“What are you doing with her? Where’s Lady Skoll?”

None of the maids knew her. Marina had been sneaking around everywhere. Her face was void of emotion. Her eyes, distant, inexpressive.

“I have to take her. We’re evacuating.” Marina said, weakly.

It was barely audible.

“What did you do to Lady Skoll? Why do you have the princess?”

The maid approached. Marina was starting to panic.

“I– I– really I– I have to–”

“I’m not letting you pass! The Princess is going with us! You can’t take her!”

This was torture.

This was the judgment of the hell she had made for herself.

Voices reverberating in her head, demanding to know why she killed Bethany. Not just because the maids may have suspected such a thing. But because in Marina’s mind her actions were starting to morph into that.

She had killed Bethany and stolen the Princess. That these maids believed some version of that story too — it was pure agony think about.

“I– I’m so sorry I–”

“What the hell? Lady Skoll should’ve been back– Give her back right now–”

That one brave maid, who had jumped in first, stepped too close, too fast.

Marina focused too much, too anxiously, on the sight of her hand closing in.

She had wanted to touch the Princess, perhaps, or maybe shove Marina gently. For Marina, that was a killing blow and invitation to receive one.

In a snap response, the G.I.A agent slapped the maid’s arm away.

Off-balance, the young girl could do nothing to avoid the kick that struck her. Marina connected right between her belly and breasts like a club.

Screaming, brought down to her knees, the Maid slobbered on the floor, gasping for air.

That moment sent all manner of emotions to Marina’s brain. She was reeling from it.

A strange feeling of catharsis accompanied the attack. That kept her in the rush of events.

At the door of the craft, the bystander maids covered their mouths in horror. Doubtless, Bethany shielded them from any sort of this violence before. Seeing their comrade go down, the other two bigger girls rushed without thinking.

With her free arm, Marina drew a combat knife from her hip, flashing it at the girls.

Both of the maids stopped dead in their tracks, instantly powerless at the sight. Teeth grit, eyes tearing up, the most they could do was stand in defense of their friend. They were maybe half Marina’s age. None of them had probably ever even thrown a punch.

“Take your friend and go. Now.” Marina said. She could still barely speak above a whisper.

She turned the knife over in her fingers, to hold it in a reverse grip, and raised it.

Her lightless eyes, behind the glint of the blade, glared out at the two terrified girls.

For a moment, Marina felt powerful. With that knife, she felt she could cut fate itself.

Shaking with fear and frustration, they helped the other maid off the floor and back to the craft, comforting her the whole way about how brave she was, and swearing that they would find a way to do something to get the Princess back. Marina could hardly hear them after they left her orbit. All she could see, and acknowledge, was that the way forward had opened for her.

She stepped out of the light coming from the craft, moving again into the shadows.

Down another long, empty stairwell, alone with her thoughts.

“God damn it. God damn it.”

Marina grit her teeth. Weeping profusely, sobbing, enraged at herself.

No one could be proud of beating down a helpless girl. But Marina told herself it was necessary. Everything she was doing was necessary.

That was who Marina McKennedy was. A figure of scorn who lurked in shadows, sacrificing to do what needed to be done.

That was who she told herself, over and over, that she was. As the accusatory voices pummeled her in her mind in the absence of other sounds.

“I needed to do it. I needed to do it. There was no other way. I couldn’t have changed it.”

Marina paused for a moment. She raised her sleeve to her face and wept into it.

“Bethany needed to stay also. She needed to do it. There was no other way.”

Her legs trembled. It was not a quake. It was just the weight of her burden.

“Bethany was just like me. She did what needed to be done. Yeah; that’s it, huh?”

She didn’t want to think that it was all pointless and out of their control.

So, step by step Marina went into the dark, smiling through her broken heart.


Behind the Villa, the flower field had split in half.

A lift had brought up a gantry holding a bulky Diver, its shoulders burdened with two powerful 88 mm cannons and their internal magazine. Its legs had been thickened, and a pair of balancing anchors added to the back. There were a pair of missiles attached to the backpack for additional firepower. In all other respects, it was an old Volker model, awaiting a pilot.

A newer Volker with cannons was called a Volkannon, and so was this one.

Bethany Skoll climbed onto the legs of the machine and into the cockpit.

She closed the cockpit hatch, sealing herself in the machine.

There were no fancy computers on this model. But she had one amenity installed for the possibility of terrestrial warfare at the Villa.

Plugging in a minicomputer into the side of the cockpit, she connected the Volker to the Villa’s security system. From the flower field, a quadrotor drone lifted off and climbed high in the sky, pointing a camera down at the world below it. Between the Villa’s security system and the drone camera, Bethany could triangulate on the main screen the positions of the enemies.

From the northern road to the coastal town, there were four units moving in fast. From the fields further south, there were three units. All of them were Volkers. And in the forest, three enemies were reduced to a smoking heap. She could see smoke and fires and explosions rising around them.

That must have been Marina’s “asset.”

She had not been lying about having something up her sleeve.

Some part of Bethany was shaken then. She had thought Marina had been lying in order to get her to leave with her. Out of pure sentimentalism, so she would not have to sacrifice anyone to escape. And yet, while Marina’s friend was not a fiction, she had not been an effective deterrent.

Most of the enemy force was clear past her, and closing in.

Bethany took a deep breath.

There was no turning back anymore, no running.

She told herself, she had stopped being Bethany Skoll at that point. For Elena, for Marina, for Leda, she had become a weapon. Interred in a tomb of steel, the rangefinders and cameras became her eyes. And the guns were the only hands she had, and shooting was the only touch she had left.

That was how soldiers lived their lives, right?

That was how Knights lived their lives.

Bethany released the Volkannon from the gantry. She took a few heavy steps away from the flower field, aiming downhill. In the distance, her computers made out the silhouettes of the southern group of Volkers.

Gripping the control sticks, she allowed the computer to adjust her cannon’s direction.

Once she had a target lock, Bethany pressed her triggers.

The Volkannon shook as two 88 mm shells soared toward her targets.

In an instant, a cloud of smoke billowed up in front of one of the Volkers.

One of her monitors showed a diagram with shell impacts on the shoulder and chest. Her shells were was powerful as light torpedoes, quite able to tear into a Volker. That enemy unit was entirely disabled by the blasts.

This was war; a desensitizing display of violence, viewed through cameras.

From beside the downed unit, the other two Volkers pushed themselves forward in a sprint. They had noticed what had befallen their ally.

After shooting, the Volkannon loaded the second pair of rounds into the cannon. It took four or five seconds to load both cannons, an eternity for Bethany. Sweat broke out on her brow as she waited for the computers.

She tracked the Volkers rushing down the fields, coming closer and closer.

Assault rifle fire flew toward her, shells crashing all around her.

Flowers blew up into the sky and into the wind, a rain of red petals.

Even if she had wanted to run, Bethany did not have the speed to avoid the gunfire. Resilient under fire, by Leda’s grace not a shell grazed her then.

Bethany finally opened fire anew.

This time she saw the cannon shells touch her target, briefly. Before the explosions consumed the unit in fire and smoke, and made it vanish.

Another long reloading period followed.

Bethany grit her teeth, watching her cameras.

Sprinting toward her, the last Volker had made it to the Villa grounds. Growing larger and larger in her vision, reaching 200 meters, 150 meters, 100 meters. At that distance, the Volker suddenly stopped to aim at her.

The Volkannon reloaded just as the Volker fired its first aimed burst.

88 mm cannons flashed; two shells went flying over the assault rifle rounds.

Bethany shook violently in her cockpit as shells crashed into the Volkannon.

Around 50 to 80 meters away the enemy Volker was reduced to slag.

Groaning, shaken up, Bethany brought up a screen with the damage. She saw a diagram of the Volkannon, two massive craters punched into the forward armor. Not breached. Yet. And that was what mattered in the end.

Four enemies to go.

With heavy footfalls, she turned the Volkannon away from the field, northward. The enemy hurried out of the forests and hills from the direction of the coast. All four Volkers charged toward her at a full sprint.

Assault rifles in one hand, vibro-machetes in the other.

Wild bursts of gunfire hurtled across the fields from the Volkers.

Turf kicked up around Bethany, flowers burned, holes punched into the hedges. A shell hit a wall of the villa and completely collapsed the side storage room. Another shell struck the fountain and sent water spraying.

“Record to the chronicle box, please.”

One of Bethany’s screens turned into a microphone symbol, to signal recording.

It had dawned on her that she never got to say goodbye to Elena.

There was no way to guarantee she would get the message.

But she wanted to leave it. Even if a Volkisch ruffian got it. Everything she had was on the verge of disappearing. She needed to leave a legacy.

“My name is Bethany Skoll. I don’t know who will see this, or in what context. I am the head maid of Elena von Fueller’s household. I always loved her like my own daughter. And that was because, thirty years ago, when I was just coming into adulthood, I fell madly in love with her mother Leda Lettiere. I loved her like no other. I loved her like it was an obsession.”

She pressed her triggers, launching a pair of shells at one of the Volkers.

One shell flew past the target and sent streams of soil flying toward the sky.

The second crashed into the mecha’s leg and sent it tumbling into the dirt.

All three remaining Volkers started to swerve wildly to avoid her shooting.

Their own bullets hit everything but the Volkannon as they charged.

Bethany’s own computer-assisted aim was troubled by the movements.

She switched off the computer assist.

“Leda– I can’t begin to describe her. She was a student, but she mastered anything she wanted. Poetry, mathematics, singing, dancing, politics. I wanted nothing more than to marry her and make love to her every night for the rest of my life. But Leda’s beauty and magnificence brought the eye of Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. He took her for himself.”

Bethany felt an ancient anger come bubbling back up to the surface.

She took aim, fired.

Her shells sent turf flying but did not slow down her opponents.

“I– I could not suffer my fantasies to be ruined. Not even by the Emperor himself. Leda and I continued our affair in secret. I was an esteemed guest of her household. I had many opportunities to love her, to drink of her nectar. It was stressful, but I did everything in my power to be with her. I used every trick and cheat. I manipulated people, I lied to people– I even killed people. For Leda, for our love to survive. The Emperor only cared about Leda when he was– when he was using her. Elena von Fueller, the last thing I want is for her to feel ashamed of this. Her mother loved her dearly, despite everything. I loved her too. In my mind– Elena was my child with Leda. The Emperor was a cloud that sometimes darkened our sky, but we lived for each other, with each other, when we could get away with it.”

Tears welled up in Bethany’s eyes. She found it hard to aim, amid the storm of bullets, and the storm of emotions that was rising in intensity within her mind. She felt a strange sense of clarity and freedom. In that moment she felt like a fool for never telling her story to anyone. It felt like such a relief, to cast out into the air those emotions that she had buried so deeply within.

Her fingers absentmindedly pressed her triggers.

Again the Volkannon rattled, launching two more shells.

These were manually aimed.

She remembered briefly when she went “hunting” with Leda one time.

Leda had taught her to shoot through the air. To lead her shots correctly.

She put both rounds on a target.

One of the Volkers disappeared into a cloud of fire.

Her computer put up a warning. Internal magazine critical.

“Leda could no longer stand it. I fooled myself into thinking she wasn’t suffering, but who wouldn’t be in her situation? She was a plaything for the Emperor. Then a G.I.A. agent got close to her. The Republic wanted to assassinate Konstantin von Fueller. Leda wanted to usurp him. Not to work with the Republic, but to take over the Empire herself. We– all of us banded together for this. We used each other. Leda, Marina and I, we felt so powerful. In our love and our dalliances, our secrets, the nights I spent with Marina– the nights Marina spent with Leda, with so many others. We traded in lies, sex, torture, death– and still. We failed. We were never so powerful as we thought ourselves to be. We felt invincible and we failed.”

Bethany sat back in the Volkannon’s chair, letting go of the triggers.

She raised her hands to her face, covering up profuse weeping.

“Elena was scarcely five years old. I was the only one who was uncompromised. Marina and Leda both fell in our battle against the Empire. I promised to take care of Elena. All of us had, but I was the only one who really survived what happened. I had to watch it all come down, holding my breath, unable to say I took part. I spent twenty years trying to hide this shame. Erich von Fueller, Elena’s teenaged brother, took me in as part of his household. As part of Elena’s new household. To protect her.”

There was no reason to look at the monitors.

Bethany was fully consumed by the past.

She pounded her fist against the side of the cockpit, over and over.

“I was the only survivor.” She mumbled. “I was the only one. Only me.”

It was so unjust. Why did Leda have to continue to suffer until her death?

How was Bethany so stupid? How could she fool herself so much?

All of those years, none of them were so blissful as she liked to imagine.

Those were years that Leda cultivated a deep suffering.

A suffering so great she sank all of it into Bethany’s bosom, between Bethany’s legs. Such suffering that it made that woman want to kill.

“I was the only one. I survived. Leda was being punished the whole time.”

There was another loud rumbling of her machine.

Bethany peered up at her monitors.

The Volkers made it up to the Villa and began to aim their shots. Several shells struck around her feet, across the shoulders and head of the mecha.

One shell struck the side of the Volkannon’s cockpit.

There was a red hole circle, the size of a fist, that formed inside the cockpit.

From this circle, splashed a jet of hot metal the width of a finger.

An enemy round had penetrated the armor.

Bethany screamed. Her flank was slashed open. Her stomach was stabbed.

Hot, searing, agonizing pain slashed across her body. Blood flowed copiously from her. She grew numb. She was in such a shock from the initial pain. It was as if her body could not possibly feel all of the pain.

She clutched her wound but could not feel it anymore.

Laughter escaped from her lips like the involuntary action of a cough.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Leda.”

She had never had enough rounds prepared for the cannons to deal with so many enemies. Not without being able to reload from the gantry.

Bethany felt she had done an impressive job getting as far as she had.

“Imagine. Continuing to live. After everything that has happened.”

Marina would tell her all about those times. Elena had Marina. Marina had survived too. Somehow, despite everything. Marina was still alive.

“I’m sorry. I could never be your hero Leda. I could never save you.”

With the last burst of adrenaline in her stricken body, she engaged the backpack missiles. Bethany aimed straight up at the sky.

Outside, the Volkers were moving cautiously toward her.

Since the Volkannon had ceased firing, or moving, perhaps they thought she was dead. It was a good assumption. But she was not dead enough.

Some part of her, somehow, survived so much worse than this pain.

“I hope whoever is listening to this takes pity. Please treat this as you would the chronicle of a ship. Tell the world about the brave maid who took an Emperor’s wife and schemed against his Empire for her love. Farewell.”

Bethany pressed the triggers.

From the back of the Volkannon, the two missiles soared toward the sky.

Enemy mecha, startled by the launch, resumed firing on the Volkannon.

Bethany saw spectacular flashes. All kinds of colors, beautiful colors.

Everything was flashing in all the of the colors of the rainbow.

And yet it was gentle, and soft.

An aura, a pale curtain. A purple glow on the other side.

A silken dress, indigo hair–

“Leda. You look so beautiful. It’s just like when we met.”

Overhead, the missiles perforated the sky.

There was a final, glitchy burst of video static.

Two holes in the firmament slowly started to form massive voids.

More and more of the sky would fall, and a deluge would fall with it.


Vogelheim was dead.

Between the 150 mm blast outside and various cascading damages to the interior of the structure, there was no way to save the station anymore. Water began to pour in unchecked. Pressure was being lost. Every hole that opened to the Imbrium expanded exponentially as more and more water forced its way into the structure. With its central structure compromised, the “ceiling” or “cap” of the Vogelheim pillar would soon collapse upon the biome it contained and raze everything beneath its rubble.

A sudden deluge swept away mechas and any stragglers that had remained on the surface. The Imbrium laid its claim on the storybook landscape with terrifying speed. Everything was cast in the dismal blue of the ocean.

Amid this calamity, Victoria van Veka soared through the flooded forest.

At her heels, a roaring, rampaging Heidelinde Sawyer gave chase.

Already submerged before the disastrous floods, they survived everything.

Victoria knew they had to get away before the central pylons shattered. They would be crushed under the collapsing weight of the upper station otherwise. She did not know what was going through Sawyer’s head — other than violence. So she accelerated and began to flee from her enemy.

Rising up the water, which had now flooded almost all of the biome.

Bursts of 37 mm gunfire flashed incessantly from behind her.

Vapor bubbles nipped at her heels and flanks.

Victoria swerved, ducked and spun away.

All around her the landscape was eerie. Visibility had diminished entirely. Remnants of the land, like the forest, the hills, the orchard trees, they were flooded so quickly and terribly, much of it was ripped up or crushed down into the dirt, and yet much of it still remained, tinged blue but standing, rendered alien by sudden transposition. Those beautiful landscapes were cast in the dark, murky water of the Imbrium as if put inside of a toy globe.

Since she did not know how compromised the lower structures were, her best chance to escape was through whatever hole had opened to the ocean in the central structure. Elena’s artificial horizon had shattered. If Victoria could find the source of the flood within this terrifying landscape, then she could escape through there without being blocked by debris.

“GET BACK HERE!”

There was an eerie flash that was picked up by Victoria’s cameras.

Suddenly the Panzer started to accelerate.

Heat readings off its surface tripled in intensity.

Was it a hidden booster? An energy recovery system perhaps?

Psionics?

“I’d know if it was that.” Victoria told herself.

Regardless of what it was, Sawyer’s acceleration began to exceed her own.

She was cutting the distance between her and Victoria’s Jagd unit.

“No more running then.”

Victoria turned the Jagd around in a shallow arc to meet Sawyer.

Sawyer in turn lifted her vibroblade, engaging the booster on it.

“You’re fucking dead!”

They were only transmitting audio at that point. Water and their violent movements made the laser video connection difficult to maintain.

So Sawyer did not see Victoria’s eyes go red at that point.

She focused on the Jagd’s arm and pushed on it.

A sharp pain ran through her head. But she maintained her concentration.

Her blade swung to meet’s Sawyer’s attack.

And with a brutal parry, she smashed Sawyer’s arm aside.

“What the fuck?”

Training her guns on the Panzer’s center mass, Victoria unleashed a relentless fusillade. Dozens of vapor bubbles blossomed across the Panzer as exploding bullets crashed into it, peeling away parts of that tough armor.

Without hesitation, the Panzer charged through the bubbles.

“Why are you here?” Sawyer shouted. “Why did you come back now?”

“To save Elena!” Victoria shouted. “From you!”

The Panzer swung its vibro-sword and the Jagd’s vibro-blade met it. Both blades were designed to help overcome the resistance of water to breach armor. And the boosters helped deliver that final bit of punch.

The two pilots clashed blades, sizing each other up, waiting for an opportunity. The Panzer was built much more solidly. Even applying an equal amount of force, in a protracted fight, the Panzer would survive.

The Jagd’s arm would just fall off if it kept being slammed so brutally.

Nevertheless, Victoria met Sawyer’s blade, and she met her with words too.

She put on a grin, a battered, weary little grin. Her head was burning.

Maybe the drugs were fading. If she could just hold on a little longer!

“I saw it in a dream! I saw you killing her! I won’t let it happen!”

This wasn’t a lie and yet it was the exact kind of thing Sawyer hated to hear.

“In a dream? Are you fucking crazy? You came here to say that to me?”

“I came to save Elena, because despite everything, out of all of us, she’s the one who has only ever been a victim, Sawyer. All of us can fight and kill each other, but Elena shouldn’t! Elena has suffered enough in her life.”

“Shut up! Stop holding her up on a pedestal! I fucking hate that!”

I know, Sawyer. That’s why I’m saying it.

Victoria felt like weeping over the whole situation, just a bit. It was surreal, to be encased in this metal machine, in her cute little dress. Fighting her old friend who was marching down a horrible path. Atop the ruins of another friend’s devastated home. As rubble began to come down all around them. As Elena’s beautiful little forest was submerged in the blue below them.

“I already saved her, Sawyer. You’ll never have her now.”

“I DON’T CARE! I DIDN’T COME HERE FOR HER!”

Her swings started to grow sluggish. Her burst of power must have been an energy reserve system, and it was running out after her berserk rage.

“We were all destined to come here Sawyer. To sever the red string.”

She had started just saying things to rile her up.

But with tears in her eyes, Victoria had made herself believe them too.

All of those memories they had. That strange childhood that was neither idyllic, nor agonizing, because they shared it. It was so distant. No matter what happened, no matter who won out, they could never recover that.

Sawyer would always be her enemy.

Gertrude would always be an obstacle.

Elena would always be the unattainable prize.

She was the Empire they were all fighting for.

The Empire they would all destroy.

“Shut up. Shut up! I’m sick of it. You’ve no right to judge me. No right!”

Sawyer’s aura was palpable through the water.

Furious, wracked with agony, tinged with sorrow. Victoria saw it.

She responded to it.

“I’ve every right to judge you! You and your Volkisch want to expel me from my home!”

“What was I supposed to do, Victoria?” Sawyer shouted. “To be a fucking saint like you?”

She began interjecting words between ever more wild and furious swings of her blade.

“Was I supposed to follow Elena’s tail all my life?” Swing. “Submit myself to be ruled by the nobles that gave as little a shit about me as you three did? Run off to sell my pretty little ass to the Duchess like you did?” Thrust. “I was never special like all of you! All of you got the power and skills! I was always beat down and all I could do was fight!” Her blade smashed over and over. “I seized an opportunity! You can’t judge me for that, you bitch!”

Victoria endured the onslaught, blocking, dodging with her thrusters, clashing blades. Her Jagd’s arm was starting to overstress.

Alerts appeared on her status monitor.

Chunks of the station ceiling started to come down all around them.

It was nearly over. This was it; she had to make her move now or never.

“You were as powerful as everyone at school! You were standing so high above the world you knew nothing of it, just like us! But you always had power Sawyer! More power than most. You chose the Volkisch!”

“You don’t understand shit! I don’t want to hear your fucking voice again!”

Sawyer threw her wildest, most violent swing yet.

Her hatred, her anger, screamed out into the surrounding water.

Victoria could see all of it.

Red and yellow and black contaminating the water.

Rather than evade, Victoria thrust directly into the water in front of her.

She saw something in that aura. She became lost within its space.

A little girl receiving a beating from her mother and a scolding from her father. A young girl derided by both parents for being unable to speak properly. A bigger girl who could hardly see or understand what was up on the video board at school. A teenager who threw a punch unprompted and liked the sight of a body on the floor. A group of girls, who formed out of necessity, like wilting plants growing in the same patch. A young woman, standing in a line of soldiers, telling herself it was all she could do now.

An adult woman, berated by a uniformed man, and slapped across the face.

Two uniformed women, side by side, carrying sandbags as punishment.

A woman listening to someone tell her that in spite all that, she was strong.

Victoria saw shadows and heard distant voices and felt even when she could not see. Amid the color, amid two machines frozen in their violence, all those thoughts coalesced. Sawyer’s thoughts and Victoria’s thoughts.

At which point was I able to choose anything?

Everything was always set against me.

I wish I could have helped you escape.

I could have saved you.

Victoria reentered the world. Full of emotion but bereft of understanding.

She threw the Jagd’s arm in the way of Sawyer’s attack.

Sawyer’s blade stabbed into the remains of the jet lance coils.

She had swung with such force that she nearly pierced the Jagd’s head.

Her blade stopped just short of Victoria’s cameras, lodged into the arm.

Solid fuel and parts leaked out into the water.

Victoria reacted near instantly.

Pulling back her sticks and ramming her pedals. Thrusting up and back, the Jagd extended the Panzer’s arm and threw the mech off-balance.

As she did so, Victoria swung her remaining blade at the Panzer’s arm joint.

Her blade chipped, but it bit right through the metal.

Sawyer’s arm split at the elbow with a crunch, hanging off the Jagd’s.

Victoria then ejected the Jagd’s jet lance, losing an arm herself. Both Victoria’s lance and Sawyer’s sword drifted, joining the rest of the debris.

The Jagd turned its torso machine guns on the Panzer and opened fire.

One tiny burst crashed into the Panzer’s heavily-armored chest.

Gashes and pits formed on the armor. The machine rose out of the vapor.

Then the guns clicked completely empty.

There was no barb from the Panzer’s pilot. The machine advanced silently, solemnly. Sawyer lifted her sturmgewehr rifle with her remaining arm.

When she tried to fire her magazine was ejected by the feed system.

It was empty.

The Panzer stood, unmoving, threatening with its empty rifle.

Sawyer must have been out of ordnance.

Victoria lifted her sword arm and pointed it at the unarmed Sawyer.

She looked at the screen. Since they were unmoving for long enough, their laser connection stabilized. Victoria could see Sawyer’s haunted face on the video, wide-eyed, shaking and weeping with fury, frustration, confusion. Victoria felt those feelings spreading into the ocean around Sawyer’s mech also. Her auras were never more visible nor easier to read than right there.

“I– I– I’m– I can– still–”

Sawyer was reduced to a furious stammer as she searched for any remaining weapons. That was a sight she had not seen in close to ten years.

A flustered, helpless Sawyer, out of steam once her rage reached its peak.

Victoria smiled. A bitter, pained smile that punctuated their shared agony.

“Goodbye, Sawyer. I’m sorry. I couldn’t save you — I didn’t even try.”

She turned the Jagd around and immediately fled.

Her objective was complete.

She distracted Sawyer. Elena got away (she hoped).

And now she had to flee herself.

“No more tears.”

Victoria grit her teeth. As the Jagd emerged from the teetering rubble of Vogelheim, her heart wrenched. She had decided what she would do a long time ago. Victoria had chosen her banner. And she had found someone dearly special to her. Someone she wanted to fight for, to elevate, to love.

Someone who represented the future she realistically hopes to bring about.

In that sense–

Sawyer was just an enemy.

Gertrude was just an obstacle.

And Elena remained an orbiter, a helpless ephemera caught in the midst.

She had made her decisions and held herself responsible for them.

So why did it hurt so much?

Why, as she escaped, did the young empath weep for Sawyer?


Marina’s screens came to life and began to run diagnostics.

Soldier of Enterprise And Liberty S.E.A.L [SpecOps]

Below the S.E.A.L’s full model name, Marina had edited the boot menu to scrub out the Republic motto. She couldn’t bear to even think to uphold those ideals anymore. Dimly, she even wondered where the Republic ever stood for them in the first place. What even was all this liberty bullshit?

Marina’s S.E.A.L. was a special model, but it fit the Republic’s ethos of highly efficient, cost-conscious, utilitarian design. An oblong cockpit surrounded by thick, shaped plates of sloped chest armor, to which two tapered off, square shoulders attached a pair of sturdy arms. A round, helmet-like head with a visor served as the primary sensor array. The waist was slightly thicker than that of a Volker or Strelok, because the S.E.A.L.’s backpack was attached lower, closer to the legs. This allowed for more direct intake of water straight through the center of mass to the jets in the lower back.

She had an M480 37 mm assault rifle attached by magnet to the backpack, some grenades, and a boosted vibro-handaxe that was a result of Republic efforts to steal Imperial vibro-weapon technology, coupled with an inability of Republic industry to properly replicate the miniature form factor of Imperial blades. All of these weapons were capable but cheaper alternatives to Imperial designs, the pride of the Republic. Interesting as they all were, Marina had no intention to use any of them at that moment.

Instead, she was more interested in the long-range travel unit on the back.

Two hydro-jets with their own energy, designed to produce less sound. They had taken her from Pluto station to here and had enough energy to take her back. When she returned, the Pluto cell of the G.I.A. would disband, its resources spent. Then she would escape to Serrano, Sverland.

A mere skip and a jump to the Union.

That was the plan. She had to keep the plan in mind.

Everything was shaking.

Sometimes subtly, but increasingly, with great violence.

She had laid Elena atop the storage space behind her chair.

Once the SEAL was ready to go, Marina dove into the water.

Vogelheim was an old station, with a major weakness in the size of its desalination and water treatment ducts and systems. Modern, efficient designs needed less water volume and thus did not have giant openings for Marina to go swimming in. Dipping down into this system, Marina guided her SEAL out of Vogelheim through chaotic, rushing water in the underground. She moved fast enough to avoid the collapse.

Outside the station, with the structure between herself and her enemies, Marina had a moment of peace. The SEAL could simply hover in the water for a time, watching the place where she rekindled her love and rediscovered her sorrows crumbling before her, slowly, inevitably.

Vogelheim’s biome was collapsing under the force of the invading ocean along with the weight of the station’s crown, housing all the mechanisms for the light and weather and sky that had so enchanted Elena. That sky under which Leda had given birth and tried to raise her. That sky that her brother Erich turned into a prison for her. It was shattered, coming down.

From outside the station, in the blue vastness of the Imbrium, attached to the rocky seafloor and surrounded by the rising and falling stone of the ocean’s geography, the Vogelheim pillar slowly toppled onto itself. The eastern wall collapsed near totally, so the station’s cap fell lopsided over the biome. Perhaps there was some eerie, flooded place that still survived.

Marina knew then that most of the interior was utterly destroyed.

She prepared to turn and leave the scene when she heard a noise from behind her.

“Where– What is–? Who are you?”

Confused mumbling, the soft and helpless voice of a young girl.

Marina felt her panic grip her heart. This could not be happening.

Not right then.

“Elena please don’t look. Please just go back to sleep.” Her voice was weak, pleading.

Elena paid her no heed. She sat herself up, peering around the side of the cockpit chair. She pulled herself forward. Her eyes were fixed upon the exterior camera screens.

Fixed on the image of the ruined, collapsed Vogelheim that was on every video feed.

“That can’t be it.”Elena’s voice started to crack. “Is that Vogelheim? That can’t be.”

Her eyes filled with tears. Her lips quivered; her hands shook.

“Vogelheim can’t be like that. It just can’t be. How will we go back inside?”

Elena covered her own mouth. “Bethany? Where is Bethany?”

She had not blinked or drawn away from the light in so long.

Her eyes wept and reddened.

Marina felt so powerless, so helpless.

Helpless as she had never felt before in her life.

Staring at Elena’s face, the blood fading from her cheeks.

At her drawn, horrified eyes.

“I’m so sorry.” Marina said. There was nothing she could say or could do.

It dawned upon the Princess then, what had happened.

Her whole body shook.

She screamed.

Elena screamed until her throat was raw, until her lungs were empty.

Until her voice gave out into heaving sobs.

Elena screamed with an agony unimaginable.


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