Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.12]

This chapter contains explicit sexual content.


“Ensign Anahid, how do you feel about the Republic of Alayze? You can be candid.”

It’s a dump.

A failed state.

We should be ashamed. We should beg for forgiveness.

“I think as the sole remaining democracy of the sea, it’s worth fighting for.”

Ensign Samuel “Sam” Anahid stood in the middle of a dim blue windowless room with a high ceiling. In this room there were only three things. The desk of the Director of the General Intelligence Agency, the director himself, behind the desk, and a miasma of palpable deceit that was everywhere in the Republic of Alayze. No adornments, no windows; this cell-like room was the heart and the soul of the G.I.A.

Wearing a neutral expression, Sam told a lie. Not a muscle in his face twitched out of place.

“Good answer, candid and honest. You are quite correct Ensign. Ours is not a perfect country; everyone can see this easily. But our role, nonetheless, is to protect it with all of our might. Because its people can still make it great. If we surmount the firestorm of this era, because we are a democracy, we can achieve anything. Those despots in the Imbrian Ocean can only lord over an unchanging and stagnating relic.”

It was customary for G.I.A. officials with important missions to take on new identities.

To become Director, the man before Samuel had to abandon his old name. That plaque on his desk, which read Albert Ford-Reagan, was just another falsity that was borne out of this room and its mission. For a man who sat behind a desk all day and gave orders, he was solidly built, broad-backed, square-jawed. He had an open case of cigars on his desk from which many pieces were missing. His eyes were crystalline and upon them information could be seen flitting– cybernetics. His hair was voluminous for his age, slicked back. There had been an older Director when Sam first joined. But he looked like this too.

Maybe if Sam did outstandingly, he might someday be reborn as a broad-backed blond bear.

Rather than a narrow-chested, slender-limbed twink, hiding half his face behind his long hair.

But the thought of becoming like that man– disgusted him.

He had some unreachable ideas of what he wanted–

No use contemplating it. Not here anyway.

“Indeed, Director.”

Sam was sparse with his words. What could he say?

He didn’t even know why he was summoned.

And no matter what he said, he would find out sooner or later.

“From now on, you will go by Blake McClinton.” Director Albert said suddenly.

Sooner–

“Sir?”

“We’re assigning you a valuable mission in the Imbrian Ocean. Your right to forfeit this mission was the question that I asked you earlier.” Director Albert said. “You will receive field training and full details in the coming weeks. You are now a full-fledged field agent, Ensign. Congratulations.”

It was that sudden.

And that was, truly, all the Director said, or needed to say.

Every blank he left was filled in by the culture of the G.I.A. Sam did not even have to acquiesce or accept the mission. He had accepted such a mission already, every time he lied in order to protect his career prospects. He had done the work to remain in the office, to continue to don his badge, and he had done enough that there was no running away from it anymore. He was the best analyst, so there was only one way for him to go. The G.I.A. had more desk officers coming, and the Republic’s war was endless.

All of this because I was too much of a pussy to fight on the front lines from the start.

He made Ensign off the back of being able to read better into data than his colleagues.

All because he didn’t want to die in a Cutter’s bridge fighting the Hanwans or Imbrians.

Now he was getting field duty– in Imbria, no less.

Sam quietly left the office after the conversation with the Director.

There was nothing more to be said.

He left for home while he had the chance.

Madison Station was the home of the G.I.A Central Directorate. It was a squat cylindrical station with only two stories, the top tier having discrete buildings inside while the bottom provided transport infrastructure to outlying habitation spires. Overhead, the thick titanium roof was like an eternal gray sky. There was a fake, grassy park stretching out from the white slab of the Central Directorate building, surrounded by high fences patrolled by quad-rotor drones. Each stretch of the park had a sun-lamp to keep the grass alive that was uncomfortable to stand under. And in fact, even agents would be chased off by the drones if they loitered in the lawn anyway– to say nothing of the few bubbles which contained trees. Everything was look-don’t-touch, the tiniest splash of aesthetics below the grey horizon.

Outside the fences, there were long roads for personal electric cars and for the electric ferry. There were few such cars parked near the street. Cars were like toys; you could drive your car if you lived in the habitat in Madison itself, and you drove it from your work which was a few blocks away and back to your home. It was a novelty. If you lived in an outlying hab like Sam, you could not possibly take your car there and back. Some people did keep a car in the car park in Madison, so they would tube to their hab and back, but drive to work using their car– it was nonsense. He had the money, but why would he bother?

Besides the cars, the streets around the Directorate were sparse with people.

Across the road, however, the crowd was much thicker.

The Central Directorate was an isolated bubble.

Everywhere else stood the teeming mass of the Republic’s people. Madison was nowhere near the most crowded, but Sam still had to push in a little after crossing the road. Office buildings, restaurants, store-fronts, no matter where he walked, the street was teeming. Dim lights. Everything was dim, as if the city feared any bright colors. Amid a crowd of people in similar office-wear to his own, all dimly looking around as if dazed. Sam had been places where walking down the street felt like a queue system.

Madison was not that bad– yet. It would get there someday.

There were less and less stations going up these days. Building them had become very convoluted.

Politically and financially–

No sense in thinking about it too much.

He made his way to an elevator and rode it down into the lower tier.

Here, the steel guts of the station were on full display. There was nothing but metal, tubes and vents and pipes, sealed off rooms with mechanisms. No attempt to embellish anything. Wide and broad hallways full of people led between tube stations out to the outlying spire hab blocks that surrounded the main structure of Madison. There were some shops here and there for the people coming and going, cramped little restaurants that were literally holes in the wall, kiosks with patriotic trinkets for folks visiting the Capital. With his hands in his pockets, Sam made his way to the tube out to Hab block “Clancy.”

Entering a tight train car, standing in the center holding himself up with a bar.

Once the train got going, fake windows would project an idyllic view of the outside.

Madison had been built at 300 meters depth on the Great Alayze Reach.

That was the base. These tubes were actually at 250 meters depth.

The Great Reaches were sacred places rendered safe by some poorly understood force, maybe some weather pattern, magnetic field, some forgotten surface device, God knew why– but there was none of the aggressive megafauna, wild currents, storms, red tides, and residual corruption that plagued the rest of the photic layers of the ocean. So when Sam peeked out of those false windows there was a bit of light outside, the marine fog was not as thick. Everyone felt safe. Nobody was terrified of the water.

You could see schools of fish, life, a place teeming with biological hope.

To leave Madison for the neighboring Pennsylvania Station you had to cross the Upper Scattering Layer and dive down into the aphotic depths, as most of the Republic lay between 900 to 1500 depth in the Cogitum Ocean. The USL was called that because most of human civilization was beneath it, but Madison was one of the few places above the USL where the moniker made no sense to the ruling class of people who got to live in this privileged bubble. Sometimes Sam nursed a catastrophic idea– if the Surface got worse, and the Great Reaches became as dangerous as the rest of the photic ocean around them.

Madison and the entire Republic government would be completely annihilated.

Maybe that was what it would take. The Imbrians, Hanwans, Katarrans, they could not end the Republic.

But maybe someday God would strike the Republic down just as He struck the surface down.

When the tube stopped inside of Clancy hab, the view became a lot less pretty.

Out on the platform, a police officer had pulled aside a civilian. There was a brief argument before the officer laid an unprompted beating that Sam could not bear to watch it and hurried away.

Leaving behind the depressing tube platform he found himself at the base of the hab, a cylindrical promenade around the elevators, where there was a shabby cafeteria and a few sparse storefronts. Nothing staffed by people, everything was pay-to-operate and self-serve. Sam hated these– he would not eat here unless the situation in his apartment was truly dire. But he was well paid, he could afford to keep his own food at home. Most of the people in this hab were immigrants in the service industry.

Yellow lights gave the halls leading to his apartment a gloomy ambiance.

Everything was so dim– why? Why couldn’t they have some brightness for once?

When Sam arrived at his own hall there was an enormous mess in front of him.

There was an eviction happening in his hall, so a person’s belongings were getting dumped out of an apartment like trash by several police officers. Sam had to navigate a maze of trash bags and furniture to get through, and the police officers gave him a disdainful look for it and barked at him to hurry up. There was a bloodied young man up against a wall, his nose punched deep purple — Sam didn’t know anyone here so he didn’t know who it was. He assumed that was the former inhabitant after the police got him.

Evicted from here, he’d be taken directly to a prison station.

He would either rot in jail or be sentenced to a Debtors’ Corps for work or war.

When Sam finally got to his own door, the hallway lights were blinking on and off.

He sighed. They couldn’t even have steady power– how would they manage color?

Then, he got his colors–

Inside, the first thing he saw was a big red flashing warning on his wall.

Rent due: $2000 Republic New Dollar or RND.

That warning would flash like a mental assault at him from every wall until it was paid.

Exasperated, Sam easily dispersed the warning by flashing his bank card at the wall.

Turning the dire red light back to the dim, depressing yellow.

$2000 RND was like a fifth of his monthly salary. It was barely anything to him.

For the laborers it could be close to three quarters of it.

Sam imagined that for that evictee, this warning flashed at him for a whole month.

He saw it every day awaiting the knock from the police, helpless.

Some holy land, the Great Alayze Reach. Some country, the great Republic of Alayze.

Sam slammed the door behind himself and laid back against it, breathing heavy.

He almost thought he would have a panic attack.

Rotten fucking day– rotten fucking place–

“What do I think of this place? I fucking hate it. I can’t imagine Imbria is any worse.”

Sam took in a deep breath.

Using the wall to help himself stand back up straight.

Thumbing the wall touchpad to bring up the lights, brightening up his 7 by 5 meter space.

They never got too bright, but it was a less dim yellow than the halls now.

The apartment was divided into three sections, the living space, kitchen, and bathroom.

There was an island that separated the living space and kitchen, while the bathroom was tucked away behind another door. From the hallway door, Sam was in his living space, with a combination sofa and bed, that folded out, a table, a combination video-screen and terminal mounted on the wall that had its own processor, making it just a bit faster and nicer than using the room computer. In his kitchen, there was an electric cooktop with a small convection box, and an icebox and pantry.

Sam used to pay to get his food automatically restocked, but he stopped. It was people from Clancy that delivered it, and he hated the idea of his neighbors running to Madison and back for him.

So he just made it part of his routine to shop in Madison and bring stuff back sometimes.

It also gave him an excuse to stick around Madison– sometimes he needed that.

Soon as the lights went on, Sam pulled off his tie, dropped his suit jacket on the floor. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it too but kept his pants on. He had a little ritual– he was deeply ashamed of it, but it gave him a specific thrill that made him feel more at home with himself. He would grab a smoke, lay on the sofa in just his pants, shirtless, no shoes– but he would put on a woman’s brassiere.

A black, padded bra that fit tight on him, sleek, with a floral pattern. He had picked it out, bought it “for a girlfriend” that he obviously did not fucking have. Then he wore it at home– it felt sexy.

Between drags of his cigarette he would look down at his chest. It titillated him a bit.

“I’m nothing but a fucking pervert. But so is everyone fucking else in this country.”

This wasn’t something that was wholly unknown to the Republic–

Tranvestism– no, it was transgenderism— whatever. Wanting to be a woman.

Sam could have talked to a doctor, gone through psych evals, gotten real-looking tits.

He could afford it– but–

But–

It’d have ruined his career.

That sort of thing was tolerated, but not truly permitted.

He was in his early 20s and already Ensign. He was good at lying and fucking people over and arranging schemes for the most evil and savage freaks on this planet so they could keep killing in the name of democracy and freedom. That was his job, and he was good at it, and if he showed up to those people in a pencil skirt and tights and makeup with a pair of C-cups they would politely make her a lowly accountant who could just barely afford her room and diet until she just quit.

Sam considered himself far too entrenched in his work, and too useless at anything else.

He looked feminine enough in his own estimation to feel like a woman at home.

That would have to be enough. He was barely alive now; if he was fired it’d really kill him.

Smoking cigarettes at home in women’s underwear, hair long and loose, lounging.

He’d tried makeup, sometimes. It was fine. Everything was just fucking fine–

“I wish I’d been brave enough to just fucking die in the wars.”

Sinking in an awful little ship somewhere that was peaceful before the Republic got there.

Torn apart by a torpedo from a Katarran or a Hanwan or an Imbrian even.

“Maybe I’ll have a chance soon.” He thought morbidly, his mood crashing.

He was headed to the Imbrium to do God knows what. He would almost certainly die.

And even if Blake McClinton did not die then, Samuel Anahid was already dead.


The Republic of Alayze had a single connection to the Imbrium Ocean that was indisputably under their control and contiguous to their territory. Navigating the Cogitum into the northern Nubium sea that lay within the continent of North Occultis, to a small gap in the continental wall into the Imbrium, called Ratha Flow. Ratha Flow served as the most recent Naval Headquarters of the Republican Navy, having moved there from the inner Cogitum hundreds of years ago when the Republic and Empire declared war.

The Republic had a much larger share of the world’s wealth than any other power.

It spent an outsize amount of these resources on its military, crusading for “global democracy.”

The Hanwans and the Katarrans were the nearest enemies, but the chief evil of the world, according to the Republic’s politicians and media, was the Imbrian Empire, hegemon of the western hemisphere of Aer.

At all times, the Nubium Sea was required to host at least 800 to 1000 vessels, for defense.

Then, when the Republic war machine really got going, it would send an additional 800 to 1000 vessels to Ratha Flow, which had to possess the capacity to temporarily host them. This reinforcement was always in preparation for a concerted attack on the Imbrium Ocean. Across from Ratha Flow was the conflict zone known as the Great Ayre Reach. Beyond the Ayre Reach they could attack the Empire’s throne state of Palatine, or the economically powerful financial-industrial state of Rhinea. If the Republic could successfully occupy either state, it’d be a death-blow to the Empire in their great war.           

There had been numerous battles for Ayre Reach in the history of the Great War.

Because of the war, the Nubium Sea bases and Ratha Flow itself, were overcrowded, dismal and miserable. Everywhere, so-called elite soldiers lived shipment to shipment from the Cogitum.

There was no production of anything in the Nubium, it was all bases and stockpiles, nothing but huge dock-stations and barracks-stations and depot-stations. Nothing was made there, everything had to be shipped, so there would be space to hold the massive fleets in place ready at a moment’s notice, as well as the absurd mass of human life required to fight for, direct and maintain the war machine.

Stockpiles were jealously guarded, to be cracked into only if there was a delay in the tight logistic chain from the Cogitum’s rich core stations to the “trenches” of the Nubium Sea and Ratha Flow.

The Republic of Alayze almost felt like it was designed to be this rich, this powerful, so it could afford the insane, bleak task of having 2000 ships in an 800 by 200 kilometer stretch of habitable water, surrounded on all sides by either the hopeless ice wall of the pole or the corrupted mass of the continent and its evil weather and monstrous fauna. The Nubium, and Ratha Flow, were the vilest fucking places on Aer, Blake McClinton thought, as he stared at the scope of the human suffering contained in each base.

Everywhere, the soldiers tried to put on a brave face. It had been drilled into them that they were the front line in a global war between democracy and despotism. They had to suffer endless days with poor food and little entertainment, working hard to keep their equipment ready and their skills sharp, their boredom broken up by drills and military panic, so that they could “defend their way of life” by invading the Imbrian Empire and being repulsed, time and time again, with only the Ratha Wall staving off defeat.

“This is a pure atrocity. Only we could’ve done this shit this bad.”

It was no wonder the Empire continued to defeat them. Who would have the energy to fight for this?

Nevertheless, the Great War for Global Democracy continued apace.

There were always soldiers, whether the brave and bold, the poor and hungry, or prisoners without choice. Despite his relative privilege– Blake characterized himself as a prisoner without choice.

“Imbria, here I come.” He joked dismally to himself.

When Blake McClinton arrived at Ratha Flow, preparations were underway for a massive attack, perhaps the largest in the history of the Great War. He would not be part of it. Instead, he would be sallying out with a small raiding force that would provide cover for him to infiltrate the Empire in a tiny vessel.

At the moment, the Empire was facing some unrest within its southern colonies.

There were rumors of rioting and a potential slave revolt that could brew in the coming months if something was not done. The Republic did not have much hope of these actions leading to a larger revolt within the Empire and felt they would be put down very quickly; but they could use the distraction, if they could attack while the Empire was gathering or in the process of a punitive expedition.

To support a potential upcoming attack on the Great Ayre Reach, Naval HQ had requested for the G.I.A. to reinforce its intelligence gathering position in the Empire with extra field assets. Priority was placed on gaining access to the Imperial dynasty– if unrest could be spread into the Emperor’s court, the Republic believed that the “despotic top-down leadership structure” of the Empire could be brought to a crisis point. Combined with the southern unrest and a massive attack from Ratha Flow, the scales would tip.

And so, Blake’s duty was to become an “extra field asset” in the Palatine state for this purpose.

Aboard the infiltration cutter Mata Hari, Blake waited in a small, cramped break room alongside two other agents destined for the Imbrium Ocean. Cutters due to their size had few amenities. On most ships, the roof was at least two meters up, but here, even someone Blake’s size would feel like they were a fish being canned. His compatriots, both taller than him, seemed to relish getting to sit down somewhere.

One was a dark-skinned man, hair packed into tight braids which were themselves tied into a ponytail. He looked young, just a bit older than Blake perhaps. He was tall, physically fit, and looked friendly.

They were both accompanied by an older gentleman, who exuded a bit of adventuristic charisma, the sort of man who smelled heavily like whiskey and cigarette smoke, slicked silver hair, a mustache and shaved beard but with such a deep shadow that one could imagine how thick it must have been. A man who looked like he belonged on the cover of a thriller movie poster holding a woman a fraction of his age.

He introduced himself first, before anyone asked: “Piedmont’s the name, Dusan Piedmont. Is this your first time venturing out into the Imbrium? Don’t worry one bit– I’ve got everything down to a science.”

Blake immediately disliked him.

“I’m Burke, Burke Zepp.”

The dark-skinned man beside Blake reached across a tiny fold-out table between the two cramped little couches in the Cutter’s break room. Piedmont looked delighted to be shaking his hand.

Blake noticed Piedmont seemed to be making much more effort with the shake than Burke.

“Firm grip, Petty Officer Burke! That’s good. You can tell a lot about a man by–”

Blake started to tune him out. He was careful not to roll his eyes too obviously.

“Blake McClinton.”

He introduced himself in the least dismissive voice he could muster.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. McClinton.” Piedmont said, briefly looking Blake over. “May I inquire as to your specialty? I like to know the skills of those I am working with– Mr. Zepp’s faculties are quite evident, but I’m very interested in what you bring to the table. It’s always the unassuming agents who end up being the most critical for the mission in the end, in my vast and credible experience.”

Burke did not respond to Piedmont’s clear typecasting of him.

Blake sighed internally.

He was going to have to get along with this fucking cartoon for months, maybe years.

“Disguise.” Blake said. “I’m good at disguises, makeup, forging identities.”

“Disguises? Fantastic! And if I may be so bold as to say– both genders, correct?”

Blake had not wanted to bring it up. Now he understood why Piedmont was staring at him.

“Yes.” He said bluntly, and no more. Piedmont must have thought he was a fucking queer.

Though it was something he did recreationally, the makeup skills and cross-dressing had ended up being part of what his G.I.A. handler noted about him as a potential asset in his ascension to field agent.

New agents were put through simulations of fieldwork to prove they had what it takes to be sent to the Imbrium or Hanwa as infiltrators. Blake characterized himself as a good liar and during the simulations deceit was, in his estimation, his key weapon to the fieldwork problems given to him to solve.

He was not going to fight his way into or out of anywhere and he frankly thought such a meatheaded approach would have made any intelligence he acquired along the way functionally useless. In his mind, field agents should get close to objectives and secure them wholly unnoticed to maximize their value. A lot of his solutions ended up incorporating constructed identities, creative use of fashions, and even impersonating people to get in and out while being able to interact with the operational space.

He played to his strengths a little too well.

To the point that the kit of gear prepared for his Imbrium journey now had a set of professionally-crafted breastforms, a full makeup kit and a fitted cocktail dress so he could cross-dress like a pro. He was not necessarily ashamed of his assessment, since as long as he was thought of as male it was only a skillset he used in his job and not something about him that was viewed as strange. But of course, a fossil like Piedmont who groomed his fucking mustache must have seen him as a limp-wristed freak.

Thankfully he had precious little time to say anything to Piedmont right then and there.

Alarm lights flashed red in every compartment.

“Imbrian vessels dead ahead! There’s– there’s a lot!”

On a nearby monitor the bridge crew piped in footage from the predictors of the larger vessels in the fleet. The Republican flotilla numbered six ships, a cruiser, a destroyer and three frigates escorting the disguised cutter. Opposite them, the Imbrian fleet– had several dozen ships. Led by a Koenig class dreadnought, there must have been at least thirty. An entire combat group approached.

“I’m fucking dead.” Blake whispered under his breath.

Staring at the monitor, that projection of barely-lit black water replete with clouds of brown biological dust, the distant outlines of the mass of enemy vessels, it was like swimming at full speed into a wall. Every nightmare Blake had ever had about fleet combat, what he had always ran away from, what he lied and struggled not to experience, it was all right here in front of him. He had run away too strongly and too well– he had circled right around back to the feared Imbrium and its deadly machines.

Maybe it was for the best to die alone with nothing but fantasies of a better life–

As soon as the Imperial ships began firing, Blake’s ship dove right to the ocean floor and cut away from the battle, moving within the chaos. On the monitor, a text overlaid on the video bid the crew to be silent as the cutter slinked away. Blake briefly watched the fleet being blasted to pieces on the cameras while his own ship stole from the battlefield beneath the notice of his absolutely massive enemy.

Somehow, within minutes, he had put that nightmarish sight of the enemy fleet behind him.

It would not be the first time that people would die to propel his journey forward.


Piedmont, that fucking idiot!

Blake seethed internally.

He scanned his eyes across the colorful ballroom from the second story. Overhead, the grand gilded arch of the ceiling played host to chandeliers with LEDs providing a sensuous, simulated ambiance below. Used to the dim but consistent yellow from ordinary station lights, Blake had trouble spotting his man in the crowd below. Besuited men, women in colorful dresses, dancing in the glamorous ballroom floor. On a small stage a brunette in a revealing red dress sang a song of love and longing that stirred his heart.

An ostentatious festival of barely-hidden sexuality– Blake even smelled it in the air.

That hedonism which characterized the Empire to him in the past few months.

On some level he had come to respect it. Despite all the money it had, the Republic was a bleak place utterly without aesthetics or sensuality. For the imperial ruling class, money was about the aesthetics. Rich finery, beautiful homes, retinues of servants and frequent, feverish trysts. To have power was to exert it for pleasure. Blake would have felt a bit more alive if he performed all his misdeeds for a beautiful and lively woman like the Lady of the House, Leda Lettiere. He had heard many rumors about her. It was the gravest misfortune of his birth that he instead worked for the tasteless, anhedonic stock-hoarders of the Republic.

Today the theater in which his continuous misfortune played out was Schwerin Island.

A beautiful station in the Palatinate, it once served as the “summer palace” of the Emperor, now given over to his newest, youngest wife as a semi-permanent abode. The Lady of this House was the mysterious and much sought after Leda Lettiere. She was not the target tonight– the G.I.A.’s mission was not so ambitious yet. But this was a place where they could gamble on finding a steppingstone to Leda, and from there, to begin building a network adjacent to the ruling Fueller family in some capacity. Because of the gamble and the rewards it could bring, the G.I.A. had to be absolutely, ironclad cautious tonight.

“It’s already cocked up. We’ve already fucked it up completely.”

Blake muttered to himself, scanning the vast room in a panic.

That moron, Piedmont, was nowhere to be seen. They had gone out of contact!

Blake was supposed to stand in the upper story with a fan over his richly dolled-up face.

Wearing his red cocktail dress, made up to be ‘Christina Becker’, aspiring theater actress.

With his dark hair done up in a fancy bun. He surprised himself how well he pulled it off.

Christina was supposed to stick to the second story to signal Piedmont, who was “Lord Beck.”

There were a few dangerous individuals here tonight, to be avoided at all costs.

Blake nearly choked on his wine when he spotted the worst one of all.

There would be a single person in attendance wearing a gray uniform–

–with a blue and green shoulder cape and a stylized semiconductor symbol upon it.

Norn Tauscherer, the most feared of the ruling Fueller family’s bannermen.

Nowhere that the G.I.A. went in the Imbrium did they fail to uncover myth and legend surrounding this vastly evil woman. Invincible, unkillable, seemingly all-knowing, plots broke upon her like tides on rock. She alone was responsible for more G.I.A. casualties in the Imbrium than the entire Imperial Navy, and it was her doing that an entirely new cell had to be created to gather intelligence. An entire cell fell to her a few years ago. The silver lining was that, reportedly, Norn had done such a thorough job of uprooting them that she believed she had wiped out the G.I.A. in the Imbrium entirely, and of course, she could have had no awareness of when or where they would rebuild their networks. This allowed Blake to do his job without having her immediately on his back — for now. And it absolutely had to stay that way.

From up above Blake spied her in the crowd, the cape an easy beacon of her position among the peacocks and doves playing out their grand mating rituals below. She was a good-looking, fair-skinned blond of unexciting stature with a sabre gleaming on her hip. Both handsome and beautiful as if each angle of her face could show a new and different side to her– each side still grinning maliciously.

Even going near this woman was game over for them.

“We have to abort if Norn even looks at you. We can’t take any risks.” Blake had said.

“Of course, of course. I’ve also heard of how scary she is, I’m not deaf to it.”

“You’re not deaf, but you’re too proud. Don’t chase anything if the cost is her attention.”

Piedmont hadn’t responded to that in their briefing. Of course he hadn’t.

He was off being a big trumped-up hero somewhere– until Norn caught up to him.

Then he would be an extremely dead hero.

Blake tracked Norn from the second story while trying to spot Piedmont in the crowd.

They had all these novel physical signals they practiced so as not to have to carry hidden equipment. And all those signals depended on Piedmont being the hall and looking up! Helpless, Blake scanned the entrances he could see, the middle of the ballroom, the positions of servants, back to Norn–

He felt something like a wind rushing past him.

His exposed back shuddered.

Norn had tipped her chin up, brought up her eyes, scanned across the second story–

–seen him?

Blake thought for a brief instant they had made eye contact– and it terrified him.

Those vast red eyes and the promise of their infinite violence–

He looked away and began to fan himself with his carbon-fiber fold-out fan.

It had a red back and a green front. If Piedmont saw him he would know to abort.

Thankfully Norn continued to walk among the crowd. But her behavior–

She’s looking for something. God damn it. She’s not mingling at all.

Her trajectory was like a shark sniffing blood from kilometers away.

Why does everything go wrong for me? Literally everything!

There was no training on Aer that could prepare an agent for the plan going awry.

At that point, it was down to experience, instinct, luck, x-factor, whether an agent survived.

Blake tried to calm himself down. He tried think about his options rationally.

All he could do was to weigh the pros and cons and optimize for the best outcome.

For the moment Blake could at least keep track of Norn. However, she was clearly heading through the crowd and might leave into one of the adjoining halls. When she did so, Blake would lose track of her. And unless Piedmont magically showed up from the opposite end of the ballroom like a fucking cartoon character, Blake would have no agent to support and no enemy to track. He could stand around uselessly until he was certain Piedmont was not coming back for good, or he could leave his position.

If he left his position, he could either escape, try to gather information on his own, perhaps approaching one of the lesser noblemen or women– or try to find Piedmont and extract together.

“If I go looking for him I might expose myself. It’s a huge risk.”

Blake’s fingers tightened on the fan. He knew in this situation that he should run away.

They had a lot riding on this. It was not so easy to leave empty handed.

Despite the legendary graciousness of the hostess, Schwerin Island only rarely opened to the aristocratic masses rather than a few intimate, select invitees. While the crowd below was quite rich it was not entirely exclusive. Leda Lettiere was giving the bourgeoise and aristocracy a rare chance to network within her home, to potentially meet her, thus displaying her social power. The G.I.A. had worked hard to create the conditions for Piedmont and Blake to attend this ball while remaining anonymous and being able to leave behind their identities if needed, and it was the design of the party itself that allowed for this. They could not have been invited to such a thing, at least not yet. It was a juicy opportunity.

However, if they all got caught it would be for nothing.

Their cell was still relatively new. Living to fight another day was warranted.

Blake could run away, rendezvous with Burke, return to the cell and hatch new plans.

Empty-handed, maybe having lost Piedmont, but with hope for a future.

There were other nobles, other social events, entire other avenues of networking to pursue.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck me.”

Muttering under his breath Blake gathered all his strength into putting up a smiling façade.

And ventured into the adjoining halls, walking delicately on his heels, fan aloft.

Piedmont, if I can get you out of here I’m going to kill you myself.

He was just going to do some reconnaissance. Ready to leave at any moment.

That’s what he told himself.

Blake took the stairs down on the opposite side of the building from where he had seen Norn going. Downstairs and in the outlying hallways there were very few people. Most of the crowd stuck to the ballroom hoping to get a chance to see Leda Lettiere come down to meet them. Those few who were out in the halls were typically younger, perhaps children of the social climbers in the ballroom area or perhaps romantically eager lords and ladies hoping for more pleasure than business on this evening.

Everything was absolutely ostentatious, the walls in the hall looked like they had been made of pearl, the corners etched like false colonnades. On the southern-facing halls there were gaps in the wall with long horizontally stretched oval windows out into the vast green fields outside. Blake could not just run through the halls at full speed without drawing attention, so he walked, smiling, and acknowledging the few people that he passed by, stealing glances into the ballroom through the doors as he passed them.

He saw servants refreshing the caviar, crostini, and drinks for the ball.

No sign of Norn Tauscherer. He had completely lost her from this vantage.

He would have to be extremely careful.

When he circled around the eastern halls adjacent to the ballroom there were far more people.

That eastern hall connected with the central wing of the palace, through which there were still people arriving, some latecomers, and some caterers getting ready to serve a banquet in the palace interior. Blake had initially that hoped Piedmont would have found someone to sit at the banquet with, and then he himself could have held back and avoided the whole situation, since his own position was more precarious when it came to finding himself a “date” for the evening. No such luck now.

Now he had to leave, to escape. But if he saw Piedmont somewhere–

From afar, at the other end of the hall.

A tall, silver-haired gentleman in a suit, walking away with urgency.

Toward the northern wing, perhaps out to the interior garden in the center of the palace.

Blake could not call or signal to him. Nobody was supposed to go back there.

He looked around, briefly, trying to see if anyone could have been following Piedmont.

No one that looked obvious– certainly not Norn.

God damn it Piedmont!

Masking his anger, Blake gracefully followed the trail of Piedmont from afar, walking across the eastern hallway, waiting until no one was looking and then sneaking out of the ballroom wing entirely, taking the main hall in the north out of the palace entirely to a hallway encircling an open air garden. Under a stone ceiling lifted by more fake colonnades, half without a wall. Simulated moonlight shone down upon a tree grown on a mound of rich soil in the center, surrounded by grass and flower bushes. There was a small path which led through the garden from one end to the other, but Blake would not take it.

He walked around the corner from the garden, got his first glimpse of the moonlight–

And immediately saw Piedmont face to face with Norn Tauscherer.

In that instant Blake, praying to have not been seen, hid with his back to the corner.

Out of sight. No one else around.

“Madame, I’m afraid your treatment of me tonight has been quite irregular.”

Piedmont, you useless fossil.

Then, for the first time, Blake heard the deep, viper-like voice of the fabled Norn Tauscherer.

“Good men with nothing to hide don’t approach me so brazenly, lord Beck. It is only the scoundrels of the world who will flirt with Norn Tauscherer after everything said about her. I was immediately suspicious of you, but your rat-like behavior since your initial error can only possibly point to conspiracy. This garden is off-limits to guests, lord Beck. You will now follow me to the police station for a chat instead.”

That fool must not have realized it was Norn! But he was debriefed?! How the fuck–?

How did all of this happen? After all their preparations, how? Was he just not listening?

“Oh dear. It’s funny, lord Beck. Even now, you truly don’t know who I am, do you?”

Blake had no weapons, and even if he did, escape after shooting Norn would be impossible.

He peered around the corner again–

–and saw Piedmont turning a firearm on Norn. Blake was speechless.

His heart sank. Where had Piedmont gotten a gun? They had agreed not to bring any gear!

All of this time, that old bastard was doing everything his own way!

He had thrown all of their preparations into the trash!

“I’m afraid it is you, my dear, who does not–”

Blake hid back behind the corner. Piedmont did not get to speak a final sentence.

Cut off, abruptly, and then a gurgling sound–

Though Blake did not know how, there was no gunshot, and everything became silent.

Frightened out of his wits, Blake started walking back toward the ballroom area again.

He had to escape, he could not possibly remain in Schwerin now.

Norn Tauscherer could have glimpsed him and taken off down the hall.

Every moment he heard nothing his imagination grew more vivid in its terror.

Halfway down the hall, he saw another figure come turning into the palace interior. Trying to mask his fear and discomfort, Blake kept walking. He recognized the woman as they closed. It was the singer, from the ball. Red dress, brown hair– a pair of spectacles perched on her nose. Blake tried to act like he belonged there. Walking casually, without acknowledging anyone, despite his quick-beating heart.

Blake barely walked past her–

–when he felt something jab him in the side, sharp and hot.

His legs turned to jelly, his vision swam, and he fell into a sudden darkness–


Something hot and fast struck his face but only half-awoke him to his surroundings.

His vision was blurry, he was nodding off. Colors, snatches of a face, a glint of metal.

Everything smelled strangely sweet. And there was gentle music playing.

A shot of pain right through the core of his body jolted him awake.

That glinting– a knife. He had been cut across the chest with a knife.

Pain burned across the center of his chest, but he was still only barely aware.

Running on animal instinct–

Blake struggled, tried to get up–

He could not move.

His field of vision was filled with the sight of a person– pearlescent skin, long hair–

a woman in a pale blue dress– a radiant woman framed in an arch of blue moonlight–

–smiling as the knife laid shallow upon his skin and easily drew his blood,

“Is this what brings our mystery woman back to the world? Does she respond only to pain?”

She had his arms bound.

He was bound to something, soft below, hard behind.

Bound to–

He was on a bed. Her bed; arms bound behind him to the rear post.

That sliver of glinting light that had already tasted his blood retreated from his chest.

Blake felt a brief, cold touch between his legs.

He was nude.

He was nude and bound and at the mercy of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

His captor was staggeringly, blindingly beautiful. Had she not had the backdrop of arched balcony doors letting in a beam of white-blue light, Blake felt she would have shone on her own, hair blowing light in the gentle midnight breeze. Her skin, an unblemished pearl-pink, her indigo hair lustrous and long. Long-limbed, lithe in figure, almost diaphanous in her silken dress. Red lips ever so expressive with the slightest movement of her cheek. Her ears were a bit sharp. She was an elf– a most uncommon ethnicity in Imbria.

“I can be cruel or kind at your behest.” She said. “Crueler or kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

Her voice was as a melodious as the orchestra music playing in the room.

“Please don’t. Please.”

Finally voice managed to escape Blake’s dry, burning throat.

She smiled at him. But the knife hovered close to his dick, nonetheless.

“You had no identification on your person. And not even in your coat and purse. I had a feeling about you, seeing you from afar, but you went into the inner garden. Did you think I would not notice it? Were you so desperate for an audience? Now Norn Tauscherer made a scene– I’m quite concerned.”

She turned the knife on its side and stroked Blake’s genitals with the cool, blunt metal.

Blake shuddered and squirmed. He was beyond caring if he looked pathetic.

His mind and body torn between pain and pleasure driven into erratic physical reactions.

“Who are you? You looked fantastic in a dress– are you a woman or a good actor?”

She winked at him. She was just toying with him now. He was truly helpless.

Blake was not going to fight it. He wanted to give up– he wanted to surrender to her.

He tried to rationalize his cowardice, but he was in truth completely broken down.

Emotions like he had never felt swelled in his chest.

Nevertheless in his mind he thought– Piedmont is gone.

Burke, by design, would have no idea if anything went right or wrong until they returned. He was just on a clock and if they did not come back to station then he had to live on and do what he could for the G.I.A. until more agents arrived. Blake could not possibly rat him out– they had agreed to disband their current hideout and switch after this mission and only Burke knew where he would go if Blake and Piedmont never returned. So it was not as if Blake had much to give up to his captors anyway.

However–

That wasn’t even the salient point. Blake had suffered so much– and for what?

The Republic, the G.I.A, it was all a bunch of crap. None of it was worth dying for.

Even if giving himself up to this woman so immediately and without resistance would end up constituting the beginning of the end for the Republic somehow, Blake would not mourn it. He went so far as to think– maybe the Imbrian Empire deserved to crush the Republic of Alayze! Fuck their so-called democracy, individual liberty, fuck all of it, none of it was real, it was slogans, hot air! There was no act of bravery or cowardice that mattered to the soulless inhuman ghouls running Alayze! Blake was nothing to them despite all of his service and anyone beneath Blake was less than nothing to them!

None of them were worth defending!

Blake had told himself time and again that he had no choice. The G.I.A. had been his only means of escape from a life of either poverty and struggle or suffering and exploitation on the front lines. Now he had a choice, the clearest choice that ever faced him. Painful death; or even a second more of life.

He could get his dick chopped off or he could surrender to the sliver of moonlight filling his eyes.

There was no question, between his bleak colorless masters and this richly glowing fairy.

“I’m Blake McClinton! General Intelligence Agency. I will cooperate. Please just– don’t hurt me anymore. Please. I’ll tell you everything I know without lies. I’ll give it all up I swear but– I– I can’t tell you what I don’t know. Our structure is semi-decentralized, so no matter what you cut, there’s shit I can’t–”

“That’s fine enough, Blake. I’d prefer you resist dashingly than start crying.”

Smiling, she set the knife aside, and with a slender finger, tipped his chin up.

She looked him directly in the eyes, just centimeters away. “G.I.A you said? Interesting.”

That touch sent a thrill right down his core. And her scent– it was incredible–

Blake started to weep, overcome with emotion. Leda Lettiere simply continued smiling.

“Would you consider leaving the Republic to work for me when I rule the world, Blake?”

Her eyes–

Blake stared directly into those crystalline eyes that seemed themselves to glow. Her voice, the gentle movement of her lips as she whispered to him. There was power, so much power that suffused her, power and beauty and ambition. Just being touched by her sent an ardor through Blake like he had never felt in the Cogitum Ocean. She was unreal, sorcerous, pleasure made flesh, setting his synapses alight.

“I would do anything for you.” Blake whimpered. “Anything. Just– please–”

“I won’t hurt you. I have a good feeling about you. You weren’t sent here to kill me.”

“I wasn’t! That was never my intention! I would never do anything to hurt you.”

“We can be more than allies. It might be impulsive– but I feel a resonance from you.”

He felt her fingers, silk-soft touch teasing where the blade once was.

Gentle and firm between his legs with a playful smile. Caressing him first– then stroking.

His back shuddered, his toes curled. He thought his head might go hazy.

Was he really awake? There was so much color, such a rush of sensations.

He could barely breathe as if emotion like he had never felt before stood to choke him.

“Blake, I meant it when I said I could be crueler and kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

One gentle stroke of her hands across the length of his shaft–

Blake gritted his teeth, sucking in air.

He thought he might cum just from the briefest brush of her skin on his own.

She leaned in over his shoulder, whispering into his ear.

“Let’s use each other.” She said. “I’m a powerful woman. I can give a lot to the G.I.A.– but so much more to you. You want to make war on the Empire? I could be your greatest weapon, Blake McClinton, and you mine in turn. All I ask is that you put me ahead of your paymasters and have a little fun. I’m a jealous woman. When I get a hold of a treasure,” her fingers squeezed to punctuate, “I cannot just let go.”

“I’m– I’m a treasure to you?” Blake said. It was the most beautiful thing anyone ever told him.

Leda laughed, gentle and songbird-like. Even just hearing her laugh drove Blake crazy.

“It’s just a feeling I have. Something subtle and soft that I feel from your aura.”

“My aura–? I don’t–“

She laid a finger over his lips– while her other hand squeezed his cock.

Blake was stunned to silence, not as much by her bidding but by the overwhelming heat in him.

“Quiet now. Over time, we can substantiate it. We can call it anything we like. But for right now–”

She reached for the knife and dexterously maneuvered it behind the bedpost.

Setting Blake free– but he was so shocked, his hands remained as if bound behind him.

Even as her own free arm coiled around him and took him into her sensuous embrace.

Eye to eye, lips grazing, her weight bearing on —

“For right now just take in the mood. Your miraculous survival and my glorious mercy.”


“Let’s go. We don’t want to linger here.”

“Bethany–”

“Marina, don’t disobey the head maid.”

Bethany winked at her. ‘Marina’ was a female name Blake had been feeling out.

They departed from the central palace building at Schwerin, making their way out north, to the “back.”

The two of them were made up to look like Leda’s maids, in long frumpy dresses and aprons. Bethany did this often, and was, essentially, already Leda’s head maid. Marina, however, was always disguised one way or another. She felt somewhat uncomfortable to have a disguise chosen for her this time. Especially last minute. After everything they had worked on for the past year, she felt a creeping dread that day.

And not just for Leda alone– not anymore.

“Don’t worry. Leda is not afraid of Norn. She’ll handle her and we’ll wait until it blows over.” Bethany said.

Contrary to their intention, those words shook Marina even more.

“She should be afraid Bethany. Norn is a demon.” Marina replied, clutching her hands together.

Schwerin Island had been their fortress for months. From here the three of them, Leda the mastermind, Marina her attack dog and Bethany in support, lied and fucked and killed and ran through every documented sin in their ambitious climb to the throne room in the Imperial Palace at Heitzing, and the death of Konstantin von Fueller. But not only that– had Leda wanted him dead, Marina felt she could have done it. Killed him out of passion and vengeance and suffered the consequences for it.

Leda wanted to replace him. She wanted to take on Konstantin’s power.

That took more than just killing him. She could not just stab him in his bed at Heitzing.

They needed contacts, supporters, resources. To isolate the Emperor at his court.

Little by little, blackmailing, corrupting, bribing and liquidating, using every dirty trick.

They were almost poised to make a move on Heitzing.

And it was that which, on that fateful day, brought Norn Tauscherer to Schwerin Island.

Despite all the care Marina had taken– she couldn’t help but feel responsible.

Somewhere along the line, she fucked up. Despite her paranoid attention to detail.

Marina had made some mistake that led Norn to suspect something.

Clutching her heart, gritting her teeth, feeling unworthy to stand beside her partners.

Hating herself, powerfully hating herself, for even potentially hurting Leda and Bethany.

“Listen, Marina, if Leda is confident, we should be too. Don’t worry yourself sick.”

“If you say so.”

Trying to avoid the imperial inspection, Bethany and Marina stepped out of the palace into the garden in the far north of the grounds. There was a gentle breeze carrying the smell of flowers all around them.

Outside the pearlescent archway of the rear door a tiled path flanked on all sides by bushes led to a small hill upon which sat a naturally growing tree. Encircling the hill were vast fields of all manner of flowers, like a biological rainbow carefully tended. Overhead the artificial lights were configured to resemble the sun, and a sophisticated projection system created a blue sky. Marina had never seen anything like it in the Republic. She still marveled at it even if she could now see such things frequently. It baffled her that the Republic, with all its wealth, never tried to create something this beautiful, this organic and real.

Perhaps it was a waste– but if you were rich, why not live it up?

After years of dim, stultifying existence in the Republic, Marina refused to surrender this bliss.

At the top of the hill, Marina expected to see Elena, Leda’s daughter. Five years old or so, an incredibly beautiful and energetic kid that took after her mother. She was sent back here to play with a friend, a child of the Schwerin guards’ captain. Gertrude, Marina thought it was, Gertrude something or other. Elena was a precious little elf in a long-sleeved dress, hair a lighter a hue of purple than her Leda’s, while Gertrude was a swarthy dark-haired little tomboy in a long shirt and pants with suspenders.

However, when Marina and Bethany got outside, they saw that the children were not alone.

There were two figures sitting down with them, playing, and laughing with them.

One was a tall man, brown-haired with dog-like ears on his head and a bushy tail. Dressed all in black, with an impressive cape upon which he was casually seated while next to the children atop the hill. Beside him was a blond woman dressed in Imperial navy grey, a blue and green armband on her right arm, gloved hand stroking Gertrude’s hair and laughing with the little tomboy. Elena, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to whistle and started spitting on the dirt in her efforts– this caused all the laughter.

Marina tried not to panic.

“Keep trying!” Norn Tauscherer said, laughing and encouraging Elena who continued to spit on the dirt. “You’ll get it eventually! Remember Elena, you can only fail if you give up and do nothing!”

“Can she run out of spit? I’m worried she’ll run out of spit.” Gertrude joked.

“I will not!” Elena said determinedly. “I will whistle, and I will not run out of spit.”

“That’s it! That’s the indomitable Fueller spirit!” Norn guffawed.

“I believe in her. She’s got her mother’s force of will.” Said the man sitting with them.

“She’s got her mother’s everything!” Norn said. “That’s why she’s such a delightful kid!”

Marina eyed Bethany, who laid a hand on Marina’s own and squeezed to comfort her.

She raised a finger to her lips to signal for Marina to be silent.

Then she led her toward the hill, approaching the merry little group that had formed there.

Marina could not allow herself to panic– the sight of Norn sent a chill down her spine, but a maid would not have thrown at the fit at the sight of a Fueller bannerman. After all, Norn was supposed to also be one of Leda’s bannermen, she was part of the Fueller family. Elena was the Emperor’s daughter.

Above all the bannermen, Norn was extraordinarily privileged, too.

She was the favorite enforcer of Konstantin von Fueller, someone rumored to be loved by him as much as he loved his wives. She had defeated many obstacles in his path over the years. Nobody could criticize her, and by all accounts, while brutal with her enemies, she behaved honorably and did not harm anyone with which she had no personal quarrels. She was certainly welcome to play with Elena and Gertrude and there was no fear that she would have caused them any harm or endangered them.

Looking at that woman, laughing and smiling with the kids– who would have panicked?

If Marina broke down at the sight of Norn, it was a clear sign that something was off.

And Norn was an expert at noticing the tiniest things wrong with her surroundings.

Marina had spent considerable effort and resources to escape Norn’s notice.

Now, she was walking right up to that demon who had killed so many people like her.

“Excuse us, lords! We were sent to care for the children. I hope they are not troubling you.”

Bethany called out with a smile and bowed her head to Norn from the foot of the little hill.

Beside her, Marina bowed as well.

“I am Bethany Skoll, and this is Marina Holzmann. We are maids in our Lady’s service.”

“Greetings, greetings. Of course the children are not troubling us. Pardon our intrusion.”

Norn stood up from the floor, wiping dirt from her pants.

Beside her the man in Inquisitorial garb stood up as well.

“How may I assist you today? Are you the guests our Lady is waiting for?” Bethany said.

“Indeed. We were simply inspecting the garden. It’s magnificent.”

Norn turned a smile on them completely unlike how she looked with the children.

Marina realized she had been genuinely happy with the kids, but with them–

That dark, malicious grin, with her billowing blond bangs lightly shadowing her eyes.

“I am Norn Tauscherer, a humble bannerman of the Fueller family.”

Norn put a fist to her own chest then waved over her companion.

“This is Vekan Inquisitor Pavel Andrevi Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

At her side the Inquisitor gave a shallow bow back, running a hand through his brown hair.

“Pleased to make the acquaintance of such lovely ladies. Call me Andrevi.”

“Do not call him Andrevi. Call him Inquisitor or Lord Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

Norn elbowed him gently and the Inquisitor laughed. His dog-like ears folded slightly.

“Norn let’s not take up their time. We saw what we wanted back here anyway.” He said.

Marina felt a flash of fear at that comment. What had Norn and the Inquisitor seen?

At that point, as if in the very instant that Marina’s fear actualized in her own mind–

Norn turned her eyes on her, walking down from the hill with the Inquisitor.

Giving that devilish smile to Marina who tried strongly to hide her own expression.

She was good at lying. She was the best liar in all of Madison Station.

All of them had believed that she was a democratic, patriot man who would die for them.

When she purged her face of all emotion, when she got into the character of the maid.

Marina was assured of her own success. She felt relief– she felt like she mastered herself.

She was sure she was able to lie to Norn Tauscherer right to her face–

–until Norn stopped at her side, briefly, and looked her over.

And for a second, Marina’s calm face struggled titanically to hide the storm in her chest.

Those bright red eyes–

and the unfathomable depth of the violence they had seen and committed–

“Marina Holzmann? It’s nice to see Lady Lettiere has help of such fine breeding.”

The Inquisitor laughed. “She sure knows how to pick ‘em.”

With that brief tease, Norn continued, and the Inquisitor followed.

Until both of them were out of sight.

“Calm down, Marina.” Bethany said. “They don’t know anything. Let’s just stay here.”

“Bethany, what if they want to hurt Leda?” Marina whispered.

They were trying to keep the kids from overhearing.

Bethany fixed Marina with a serious look.

“Can you stop them? Could you heroically fend off Norn and Samoylovych and whatever small army awaits behind them and save Leda then?” Bethany said. “Norn is a threat that can’t be physically defeated. I believe you are well aware of this. However, she is not a ravening beast. She is here to carry out an inspection, and I am almost positive she will not work one more second than she has to or do anything other than follow the letter of what she was told to do. She is just a servant– just like us.”

“Just a servant?” Marina asked. Nearly reeling– how could Bethany be so sure?

“Marina, the Imbrian Empire is the thing Leda fears– not just someone like Norn.”

“Bethany–”

“I know you love her, Marina. But if you love me too– just calm down and trust me.”

“Fine.”

Leaving behind the garden path the two of them reached the top of the little hill.

“It’s okay if you can’t whistle. I’ll do all the whistling for you.”

“You will? You really will?”

“Sure! I’ll whistle whenever you want!”

Gertrude began whistling while Elena clapped her hands joyfully.

Marina and Bethany sat under the tree’s shadow, looking at the massive palace sprawling before them, surrounded by fields of flowers. Wind gently blowing their hair. Aside from the breeze the only sound was the children playing. Gertrude and Elena hardly paid the maids any attention, and ran into the flower field, laughing and jumping around, calling each other’s names and saying silly things. They were so carefree. In their minds, there was nothing sinister or wrong happening around them. Those happy days of theirs would stretch on forever under the false blue sky and in the carefully tended flower garden.

Marina wished she had the same confidence that they did. Everything felt so fragile.

No matter how well they lied to Norn today everything felt like it was teetering.

They were always close to the edge. Everything they loved and had could be taken.

“Bethany, I do love you.” Marina said.

“As much as you love Leda?” Bethany said. She had on a mischievous grin.

“Don’t do that, it’s really not funny.”

“What if I said I loved you more than Leda?”

“I wouldn’t believe you.”

Bethany shrugged. “Hardly matters anyway. You’re still a good lay even if you hated me.”

Marina sighed. But she felt a little less burdened after a bit of teasing. Leda Lettiere’s head maid was really something else– she had to be as much a woman as her Lady to keep up with her, after all. She had grown to really admire her, to desire her, to love her. She and Leda meant the world to Marina.

That little storm of laughter they were looking after finally wound its way back up the hill.

Gertrude sat down under the tree near Marina, catching her breath with a big smile.

Close behind her, Elena walked up, face flushed, hiding something behind her arms.

“What do you have there?” Bethany asked the little princess in a playful tone.

Smiling, Elena unveiled a crown of flowers, and set them playfully on Gertrude’s head.

“It’s for Gertrude! She’s my prince now, just like how I am a princess!” She declared.

Gertrude squirmed a little bit, clearly embarrassed by the younger girl’s effusive affection.

It was such a beautiful sight. Marina could not help but liven up.

“You hear that, kid?” Marina said, finally speaking up, giving Gertrude a mischevious little look. “You’re her prince! You need to take care of her, okay? You gotta make her smile from now on, you hear?”

In response, Gertrude rubbed her hands together, but smiled gently.

“I will.” She said.

She looked down at the grass, cheeks turning a little red.

“I will. I love her a lot.” She whispered.

As if only for Marina to hear and not for Elena or for Bethany.

Marina laid a hand on Gertrude’s head, stroking her short hair.

“I know you’ll make her happy, kid.” She said. In her heart, truly wanting to believe it.


It felt like the ocean had never been darker.

Why? Why do I always come up short? Why do I always fuck everything up?

In front of her, the enemy Diver stood as an insurmountable obstacle/

This knight-armor clad pilot had completely dismantled Marina McKennedy.

Looming powerfully in the sea before her, shield in one arm, assault rifle in the other.

In the cockpit every red flashing warning that could do so pulsed and throbbed in her face.

Fuck. Fuck. Some fucking hero I am! I can’t do anything but fail her, over and over!

The S.E.A.L.’s chest was pitted with dozens of shallow detonations, one of the shoulders was nearly destroyed, the jet anchor’s inner workings spilled out like entrails. Some of the hip armor was gone, exposing a leg joint, and one of the leg verniers on the opposite side had blown. One of the arms had a broken extension rod so she could barely flex it anymore. She had maybe 70% of her normal thrust if she blasted with her remaining verniers every time she tried to move from now on. Meanwhile that colossus in front of her was unblemished, its pilot clearly far more experienced than Marina, practically dancing around her while taking initiative to attack wherever they pleased with a superior machine.

Only one thing had saved her– the pilot wanted to get away.

They were desperate to attack the Brigand. Marina was just a waste of time for them.

And all Marina could do was stand in their way, take a lump, and stand in the way again.

She was buying time but for what? Nobody else was backing her up.

On the communications all she heard was a bunch of inaudible trash. She was alone.

Alone with her ghosts, the burden of her failures, and the reaper that had come for her.

Her vibro-axe was nearly broken in half from blocking the enemy’s sword.

She had reloaded her rifle in the last exchange, but her aim was garbage.

What the fuck am I going to do?

Die, she thought. I am going to die here. I was never made to be a soldier.

All of the things she endured that did not kill her.

For all of the people that she had loved who were no longer with her.

And now, she was going to be killed here at her lowest point.

No, forget about me, damn it.

Marina cracked a grin, her own grim reflection on one of the darker screens.

All of this sorrow and frustration she felt was the result of one thing.

Unlike when she called herself Sam, she now had something worth fighting for.

More than the vapid ideas of Republic “democracy” or the paycheck to make rent with.

She could not surrender to this enemy. She could not brush off this defeat.

She had too much to lose.

“What’s there to feel sorry for? I never had any expectation of living a life worth feeling sorry for. Right now, nobody would mourn me– but we’ve all given up so much for that little girl with the purple hair. Even if she doesn’t mourn me or doesn’t care. She’s a victim of all this too, but she’s helpless to do anything about it. That’s just– that’s always stuck in my fucking craw. Elena deserves better!”

Smiling to herself, pumping herself up (lying to herself).

Her grip tightened on the sticks. She was still standing between that pilot and the Brigand.

That pilot would charge again, as they had been doing.

They knew that they were wearing Marina down while minimizing their own damage.

All of this could be Marina’s advantage. After all– she was a great liar, wasn’t she?

And as bad as she was at tactics, she still knew deception was important on the battlefield.

She quickly switched weapons between the S.E.A.L.’s hands.

Axe to the good arm —

Rifle to the damaged arm–

If I’m right, this might get her to draw her sword–

Marina could not lift her rifle arm, so she used the rifle camera to align herself with the enemy, an obvious movement to shoot. Before she could pull the trigger, that mecha came hurtling toward her.

Rather than shoot, however, Marina charged as well, brandishing her vibroaxe to retaliate.

Trying to throw her one good shoulder forward.

They were not far apart, and they cut the distance to each other within seconds. Rather than its powerful grenades or rifles, the enemy lifted its vibrosword to finish her, conserving its precious ammunition — it did everything to spare its resources for the Brigand while being rid of a pest barring its way.

I got you, you son of a bitch.

That blade rose and fell with a flash and Marina’s vibroaxe clashed with it.

Already damaged, Marina’s vibroaxe practically snapped like a twig.

Holding its shield in front of itself, the enemy suit launched a vicious overhead slash that sundered her axe from head to handle and crashed into her functioning shoulder. Slicing through layers of metal armor, power routing cables and gear, the water system for the backpack– and entombing itself in the steel.

Her enemy’s sword did not go through one end of her mecha and out the other.

Chopping vertically through her axe into the thick tangle of systems within her armor, it became stuck.

She could pull it out but, but–

For a split second, Marina had the enemy suit where she wanted it!

Without moving her arm, Marina held down the trigger for her rifle.

At point blank range 37 mm explosive shells crashed one another after into the shield.

Her cockpit shook from the repeated close blasts.

Under a dozen pressure bubbles and shockwaves the shield pitted, buckled, and shattered.

With a panic, the enemy thrust back with everything it had, absorbing stray shots to its chest once its shield split into pieces, pulling out its sword and clumsily retreating several meters away.

Debris and gases and water vapor obscured the two enemies from each other momentarily.

Marina hovered on one side of the cloud, completely helpless.

Several systems went completely offline. She could not move either arm.

Her backpack thrust was nearly dead. She could only thrust with the legs.

Electrical power was uneven. If she made any more effort her life support might blink out.

She had broken the shield and pushed her enemy back one last time.

One last time– there would be no further resistance. She had nothing.

Without the rush of adrenaline, without another option, without the ability to claw for life.

Everything seemed to come crashing down.

Her hands left the useless controls of her now disabled machine.

Madison, Ratha Flow, Schwerin, Heitzing, Vogelheim–

Her life flashed before her eyes. She had seen so much, felt so much–

Pain,

Love,

Elation,

Despair,

Had her journey been for nothing? Had she finally failed all those people she loved and lost?

She raised her hands to her face and felt compelled to cry out. “Elena,” Marina said, hoping and praying that it might reach the Brigand somehow. “Please survive this and find your own strength. That’s what your mother would have wanted– and–” she sighed, tearing up. “Bethany, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t do anything. I love you so much Bethany. After everything you gave up– if we meet again this soon, will you spit on me in heaven? Have I really lived a life that was worthy of you and Leda?”

When the gases dispersed enough, Marina could see the enemy mecha across the cloud.

Their rifle unfolded from its stowed position.

Lifting the barrel, the machine took aim at her.

Slight pits from shell impacts and detonations on the breastplate– not enough to stop it.

Had they only wanted the Brigand they could now sweep past her useless machine.

Now, however, they were furious.

To deliver the coup de grace. To finally end Marina’s long, arduous journey.

But she felt no peace. She had lost everyone and left everything unfinished.

In that moment, she prayed, she begged, pleaded dearly for even one more day of life–

“Agent McKennedy! Don’t give up!”

Her once useless communicator suddenly sounded with a crisp, clear voice.

Rather than shoot, the enemy dashed to the side to avoid the grasp of a pair of jet anchors.

They retracted to the chest of a Diver that shone like a sun underwater.

As if in its presence it was suddenly easier to see through water.

Interposing itself between Marina and the enemy, a golden knight against her silver reaper.

“I’ve only known you for a short time– but you’re still a comrade to me. I don’t want to see anyone who fights bravely for the Brigand lose her life. Please retreat, Agent McKennedy! Let us handle this!”

Marina could not help but smile at the foolish voice of Murati Nakara on the communicator.

You don’t know anything about me– but thanks, you big-hearted commie fool!           

She tried to wipe her tears, but she found herself weeping even more.

Weeping for the life she had again–

Back in Schwerin, she thought she had been blessed with life by a being of moonlight.

And just when she really thought everything was going to end–

Now, that life was protected by a colossus made of the sun.

Broad-shouldered, with strong limbs, clad in bright, perfectly sculpted armor.

Appearing out of nowhere to confront that mysterious enemy.

Those commies, even in their darkest hour, they always came up with something.

Her prayers had been answered.

Even despite everything, Marina McKennedy was still fighting for the light she had found.

“This one’s no joke!” Marina called out, heart soaring. “Give ‘em hell, commies!”

“Acknowledged!”

Her heart lifted–

As she bore witness to nothing short of a miracle.

Like Leda had once said– a glorious mercy.

“Murati Nakara–”

“–Karuniya Maharapratham!”

Two pilots called out over the communicator from the machine.

Both voices finished as one with a roaring determination–

“Arrived at the combat area! SF-014X Helios, ready!”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.4]

“Gamer, your risible thighs have once again violated the threshold of my station.”

“Then move your chair farther away! I have less legroom here than you do!”

“A pathetic conspiracy to surreptitiously touch me born of your involuntary celibacy!”

“You’re the one who made your entire identity from trashy novels for pathetic virgins!”

Zachikova could not help but stare at the farce playing out as she entered the bridge. She ignored late-shifters Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa, who always found some stupid thing to argue about, and instead sat herself down at her station. She checked to make sure the drone was online and not in Geninov’s control– and unfortunately, it was locked in use by Geninov’s station.

Behind her the late shifters shouted themselves hoarse, then began talking in normal voices.

“Bah, so much for nights off! I can’t believe officers still have to work all the time. I want to go back to my room. I’ve almost got motion controls for Leviathan Fury II working in the room terminal.”

“Hmph! You’re welcome to retreat timidly from the darkness if it suits your nature, gamer. I for one, am a child of the night, and I thrive when the clock strikes midnight, and the shadows fall. It is within the curtain of the witching hour that I am able to weave my strongest of magicks.”

“Huh?”

Normal being a strongly relative term.

Despite previously calling each other ‘incels,’ and ‘fujoshis’ and other unendearing terms born of modern network culture, they seemed to have silently forgiven the obscenities, as if it was a ritual clearing of grievances between them. What kind of relationship did these two idiots even have? Zachikova would not even be thinking about this if she did not have to report to them. Even if they had not noticed her walking into the bridge, she ultimately needed Geninov’s station for her plan.

“Ahem.”

Zachikova stood up and loudly cleared her throat; not that it perturbed the night shifters.

“What are you reading tonight anyway? Is it still the Witchdeemer?”

“If you must know, it is indeed. Think you that I would abandon the SaGa partway?”

“Do Pythiria and Tritipha actually fuck in this one?”

“Such vulgar terms are always crossing your lips! Their relationship, I’ll have you know, is quickly approaching a thrilling apex of titillating hurt/comfort escalation in volume three.”

“Which one’s the top? It could go either way from what you told me.”

“Could you two shut up for even one millisecond of your lives?”

Zachikova shouted over them. Her volume surprised even herself.

Both Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa turned their heads and stared.

“Oh, Zachikova, didn’t see you there.” Geninov said. She raised an absentminded hand to the messy bundle of brown hair pinned to the back of her head and twirled a strand around her finger. At her side, Santapena-De La Rosa seemed to doing the same thing with a purple-streaked lock of her blond hair while leering Zachikova’s way. She truly hated to use a gaming metaphor when faced with Geninov’s presence but seeing them both enter the same fidgeting ‘animation’ immediately after being called to attention made Zachikova wonder if ‘the simulation had broken’ right in front of her.

Or maybe those two just spent too much time together.

“Geninov, I’m taking over drone recon from you. I have something I want to test with the drone’s software performance. You can go play games in your room if you want or whatever.” Zachikova said.

“Wouldn’t it be better to run tests in the morning, when we have sonar up?” Geninov said.

Why was this idiot trying to be responsible now?

“No, it’s better now when it’s not in anyone’s way.” Zachikova replied.

Geninov looked at Santapena-De La Rosa as if for an opinion; she shrugged back.

“Well, if you say so.” Geninov said. “I’ll keep an eye on sonar while you do.”

“You really don’t have to.” Zachikova snapped back.

“I don’t want the Captain to say I’ve been slacking off or being irresponsible.”

“It’s really unnecessary.”

Santapena-De La Rosa spoke up, arms crossed.

“Is it such an imposition upon you to allow the gamer to exercise her duties?”

Zachikova nearly threw her hands up. “Why are you backing her up? Ugh, whatever.”

She turned back around and sat at her station with her head in her hands.

Geninov flipped a switch to unlock software control and sent the drone over to Zachikova’s station. She then wandered over to the sonar station as if skirting around an angry animal who may have threatened to bite. She put al-Suhar’s earphones in her ears and stared at the displays on the sonar console, while Zachikova got the drone’s bearings and began preparing for her excursion.

“Geninov,” Zachikova said, trying to rein in her tone. “I’m going to transfer my mind to the drone. Don’t talk to me while I’m doing so. Send a text message to the drone if you must.”

“Um. Got it. I guess.”

She seemed to try to avoid eye contact with Zachikova after that.

Good. Zachikova didn’t need her for anything anymore now.

That pair of milk chocolate and vanilla flavored idiots could go about their business.

She had a mission she needed to complete.

Having failed to contact the Dancer earlier that day, she felt a strong need to try again.

To do that, she would have to control the drone again.

Her antennae adjusted their angle, which was more a physical ritual than anything actually necessary for her work. She felt like it helped her “toggle” the “interface” in her brain that connected her to digital devices. Everything that needed to be done was done with her mind. Within the Brigand, she could connect wirelessly to the ship’s network and from the network access any device in the ship.

Connecting was a difficult action to describe physically. There were people she had met with imaginations vivid enough to generate imagery which they could “see” in their own heads, with their eyes closed or even open. ‘Playing a movie in your mind’ or ‘listening to a song in your mind’ were close metaphors to what Zachikova did. Except in her case, she was executing the logic that allowed one digital device to connect to another, in her mind, and parsing the results.

In laymen’s terms, she could control computers with her brain.

On the Union intranet, anyone in their station room could pull up the news or even watch state television via the network. Zachikova could do the same in her own head. Her brain sent a digital call to the host computer, and it could receive the news page or the government broadcast and interpret that data, using the correct codec to “play” any audio or video, the correct “fonts” to display text, she could parse the stylesheet. A computer had been grafted to her brain, and it did all that computers could do from the comfort of her skull and all of it senses. Zachikova was special in that way.

Kids who got the surgeries and recovered couldn’t just go and do this.

Their instinct would be to remain tethered to their physical bodies. The Union fostered in Hartz sufferers a proclivity toward software and engineering work and would install the digital interfaces on every person who recovered. Even then, most would treat machines as machines, and even if they could connect to them wirelessly, they would operate them from the center of their human body. They would not play movies in their head, they would play them on a screen. Their head just pushed the button. Zachikova’s ability to “become” a machine wasn’t unique, but it was hard-won in practice.

Her skills were not common, and her implants were heavily regulated.

Brain implant surgery had an extravagant mortality rate and required specific parts. 

Zachikova was special — she conceived of herself as a “robot,” a sapient machine.

And she was candid with anyone who asked how it felt to use her “powers” to their utmost.

Dissociating was the first step. Feeling, for a moment, like she was seeing her body in a third person perspective, like she was no longer in it, like she was something apart from it. It was that ability to become separable which took the most practice, because it was not something which her interfaces did for themselves. Her mind wasn’t a machine, her perspective wasn’t inherently mechanical. Having the interface did not allow, by itself, displacement of the senses from the center.

She had to teach herself, psychologically, to detach, to discard her flesh and blood body.

Once she dissociated, there was a sense that she “pushed” away the senses of her body. That “movie” which played in her head of the drone’s cameras, the “sounds” she heard in her mind’s ear of the drone’s hydrophone and sensors, these became primary. No longer confined to the back of the mind but fully dominating the neural pathways that fed stimulus to the brain.

In a sense, it was her physical body that became a dreamlike decoration in her mind palace.

Her mind adjusted to the rules and limitations of a new body fairly quickly. There were a few seconds where she felt quite like she was confined in a box, so heavy and so cold and so stiff, but these moments passed quickly and without panic. Her mind came to understand the “weight” as she input commands for the drone to deploy, the hydrojets to start, the fins to adjust. She felt keenly the feedback from her new limbs and the time it took to manipulate them to motion.

When she set out into the water she felt the pressure around her hull, tight, cold.

There was something pleasurable about it, however, something freeing.

Having a new body with a new set of skills and a new environment. It was exciting!

She cut through the water with alacrity, exploring a world her flesh and blood body could never have. She was not so vulnerable, not confined by the physical constitution she dealt with on a daily basis. Her senses were keener, she was faster, her stride more confident. She was untroubled by breathing and the inelegant sliding of muscles and joints. She was a fusiform machine without a floor and with hardly a ceiling to her activities, and before her lay only the truly limitless horizon of the sea.

To her human eyes, the world around her would be cut off by the wall formed by the water itself and the biomass called “marine snow.” She would have been barely able to see a few dozen meters ahead of her own nose. With the supercomputer’s predictive ability, using sound, laser, and thermal data, her vision was instead a near-perfect picture of the surroundings. Below her, rising and falling, was the topography of the ocean floor. Above and around, the water column, dark and deep blue and green.

Small details like scuttling crabs, bubbling geysers, ghostly skeleton coral that thrived near vents far away from the sun, benthic creatures playing about a massive carcass. Perfect mechanical senses helped her navigate and experience the beauty of the ocean in a way her human body never could have.

Her tether to the brigand was kilometers worth of fiber optic cable, her lifeline.

So stretching this umbilical cord, she dashed behind the Brigand, farther and farther.

Searching with all of her senses for a familiar biological noise pattern.

Until she found the noise. Her unique song across the featureless depths of Sverland.

I have to try to communicate with her.

Zachikova had some ideas. Light patterns, sounds, movements; mimicking its behaviors.

When she had gotten close to the Dancer she had noticed colors around it. Feeling that this was perhaps some kind of bioluminescent display, she wrote a program to create a light pattern using various tools available to the drone, like the floodlights, UV and bluelight effectors, status LEDs, flares, and beacons. She also extracted the sounds the creature made during her encounters with it and mapped them to another program, creating a series of “calls” she could perform.

I don’t know if she’ll understand– or even the content of what I’m saying to her.

But I have to try. I think coupled with my peaceful approach, she’ll respond to it.

At least, hopefully, she would understand it as an attempt to broach peaceful contact.

An attempt to expiate for the “wrong thing” she felt she had done to scare it.

(Perhaps an attempt to receive a touch for which she had grown desperate.)

Zachikova descended as close to the seafloor as she could, decelerating to reduce noise and weaving slowly between the rocks as the pulse of the Dancer came closer and closer. When she was about a hundred meters away, the prediction algorithm finally showed her the figure of the Dancer swimming cheerfully overhead, freely weaving lines of bubbles through the liquid sky.

Please work.

With the same degree of effort as “thinking” to breathe or “thinking” to move a muscle Zachikova ran the script she had written and loaded into her station. Through the drone’s audio equipment, normally used for sonar pings or alarm noises, the melodious call of the Dancer played, once audible only through the sonar station hydrophone. Zachikova could not describe the sound in naturalistic or humanistic terms, but the gentle slope of the waveform it generated gave her a strange comfort.

Please respond!

There was no noticeable difference in the movement of the Dancer, so Zachikova lifted off from behind the rocks and rose gently, as slowly as she could move and still exceed the creature’s own pace. In addition to playing the call, she ran the software she had coded to control the light display. In front of the drone there were UV and bluelight effectors, like flashlights for scientific purposes, and along the spine of the drone there were LEDs which began to glow in patterns. There were floodlights on the rear and on the front, but Zachikova only lit the rear floodlights, and angled them such that the drone appeared to be leaving brilliant light in its triumphant wake as it climbed the water table.

Please listen to me! Please look at me!

Why was she feeling so strongly? But she couldn’t help it! Her heart was breaking!

I’m sorry! Please don’t hate me!

I don’t hate you!

Barely a dozen meters separated Zachikova from the soft, pale form of the Dancer, wrapped as if in a gorgeous shawl and skirt of shimmering, trailing color, predominantly bright blue as the sky that had been denied to humanity. With a burst of speed, the creature dove toward Zachikova, and touched the front of her body to the front of the drone, nose to nose, a soft, playful little hit.

Zachikova was rendered speechless. She felt a tingling all across herself.

That sensation of touch, so warm, so soft– it was fleshy, but she didn’t hate it. In fact that affection made her think something she never thought she would. It felt like for the first time ever, a flesh and blood body, with its pliability, softness, smoothness, attracted Zachikova the most. She wished, as she tried to return the Dancer’s physical affection, that her body, the flesh, and blood body she now recognized as hers, could be out in the water with the creature, could touch it.

That touch was perfect– it made her body feel like it was perfect.

I wish I could tell her to follow me.

I will follow you.

Zachikova must have been imagining things. She thought that she kept hearing a voice speaking back to her, but it was speaking back to her in the voice associated with her flesh and blood body, and of course regardless of its provenance, the Dancer had no way to generate voice, no understanding of speech. It must have been something with the connection, or even just stress.

She had been so stressed, but now, she felt an unbridled joy, a sense of euphoria.

It was such an odd feeling, but she did not resist it.

For half her life, she had simply accepted her lot. She was sick, broken, in her mind, not truly human. She was going to die. And when she survived, having already given up on living, she treated herself like the machine she felt she had become. She sought challenges, occupations, to be fully used, to be fully utilized, maximized and challenged. Those moments amused her, engaged her mind.

Amusement, engagement; but perhaps not joy. Perhaps not actual fulfillment.

In the middle of this desolate ocean, alone with this beautiful creature– She felt captivated, her soul felt healed. She felt like she was seeing life as she never had. A creature so beautiful and so free, without obligations, danced before her eyes, danced only for her, returned to her willingly.

Touch; was it really so sublime? When was the last time her body felt so warm, so loved?

Zachikova’s world of metal corridors had become full of colors.

Colors that captivated her mind. Colors challenging her understanding like never before.

Giving herself onto an insane thought–

What is she? Is she really just a leviathan?

Hmm. Maybe.

No, they could not possibly be speaking.

Zachikova wanted to sigh deeply.

She started to feel a little ridiculous, but she truly, really was so happy to see the Dancer again and to know that she was okay, that she was playing with the drone and didn’t run away. She was still curious and still affectionate toward the false metal fish that Zachikova wore as a body. Zachikova didn’t want to hate herself for those feelings. Having settled her anxieties, she let herself enjoy the moment for a while, but ultimately felt she needed to try to rein in the hysterics of the past few days.

Before they brought her embarrassment in front of her crew.

So she began following the fiber-optic cable back to the Brigand.

And trying not to be too surprised or too assured by the fact that the Dancer was following.

Following the drone with joyous, acrobatic maneuvers, all the way, to Goryk’s Gorge.


Next morning.

“Umm. Huh. Well. That’s interesting.”

Standing in front of the captain’s chair, Braya Zachikova held up a portable terminal that was playing a video for Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to watch. A large fish-like Leviathan, its body mainly white but beautifully streaked with red, like a large koi fish, pirouetted around the drone capturing the video, before suddenly unhinging its jaw to enormous degrees. Seamlessly, it stopped being cute and began to clumsily filter-feed with its enormous maw through the marine snow, as if it had utterly forgotten what it was previously doing. While it fed, its otherworldly lilac eyes assumed what Ulyana anthropomorphized as “a very stupid-looking expression,” though she did not say this thought aloud.

“It’s a brilliant display of animal evolution, isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

Standing next to Zachikova, Karuniya Maharapratham was part of the demonstration as well. Seated close on the captain’s right was Commissar Aaliyah Bashara, her cat-like tail swaying gently as she watched the video with her usual look of stern focus on her face. Together they were reviewing footage of the creature, which had some of the crew unnerved as it began following the ship.

“Zachikova and I discovered it while calibrating the drone.” Karuniya said. “We saw it was harmless and made it a subject of study so nobody here would shoot it down. Honestly, I know it’s big enough to show up in the bearing monitors, so it has people worried, but it’s really docile. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s my duty as a scientist to get as much data on it as possible.”

Zachikova repeatedly pointed her finger on the display as if to say, “look at it, isn’t it neat?”

Ulyana was looking. It did seem harmless, but while feeding, not terribly majestic.

“Fine, I’ve got more important things to worry about. Just keep an eye on it, Zachikova.”

“Will do!” Zachikova said. Did she sound excited? Was Ulyana just imagining things?

“It might even come in handy.” Aaliyah said. “You can pass the spy drone off as a biological being more easily if there’s another, louder biological being there to hump it and draw attention away from enemy sonars. If it’s playing with the drone while you patrol, I say just let it do so.”

“Colorful imagery there.” Ulyana said. She sighed.

“If anyone has any questions, you can refer them to me.” Karuniya said.

Waving a hand, she quickly took her leave. She wasn’t usually a fixture in the Bridge.

Ulyana looked away from her and at Zachikova specifically, causing her antennae to raise.

“I feel I’ve been working you too hard since we escaped the Iron Lady. You deserve a break, Zachikova. You’ve been out on that drone so often, I can decisively say we’re not being followed right now.” the captain finally said. Zachikova seemed to go from visibly tense to softening and slacking, the expression on her face never once changing but her anxiety visible in her grip on the portable. Ulyana wondered briefly about her body language but decided not to comment on it. “No more night shifts until further notice. We’ll find someone else to cover for Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa.”

“Umm. Thank you ma’am.” Zachikova said. Her voice betrayed absolutely no emotion.

“Ma’am, the topography shifts drastically up ahead. I’m getting imaging up; we’re here.”

Fatima al-Suhar spoke up from the sonar section and pointed a finger forwards. 

Ulyana turned to face the bridge main monitor and practically gasped.

Soon the landscape of Goryk’s Gorge appeared in its vast, overwhelming magnitude.

The Brigand had been traveling about 100 meters above the seafloor, which had put them between 900 and 1000 meters deep. Now they were practically flying, as the ground descended dramatically, a steep slope about 500 meters down that evened out into a semi-circular clearing that then dropped even farther and more dramatically down the jagged, rocky edge of a canyon.

Goryk’s Gorge itself was a vast fissure in the rocky seafloor, stretched long as the eyes could see and perhaps one kilometer wide and thousands deep, as enormous as the vast Khaybar mountain range that it had cut from the rest of Sverland. The Gorge was a yawning abyss, thick with biomass that the predictive algorithm detected and rendered as essentially a roiling cloud behind which it was impossible to “see,” blocking the soundwaves, LADAR, thermals and other data sources for their imagers.

At the very edge of this precipitous hell-maw there was a small, squat station, a disc-shaped circular habitat standing on many thick legs for support. This was the smallest possible kind of station design, which was neither rested atop nor built around a Core Pylon. Without this uniquely powerful kind of reactor, the station was instead likely run with a ship’s reactor core, or a few depending on the grade of the engines. Beneath the habitat there was probably a wet berth for one or two large ships at a time, at most. Serrano supported a million lives and was commensurately vast enough to hold an entire city; a station like this could support only hundreds of lives in much tighter confines.

Nobody lived on stations like this. They were always built for a specific task.

“Our maps completely undersold this place.” Aaliyah said, sounding as shocked as Ulyana.

“Any mechanical activity detected?” Ulyana asked suddenly.

“Negative. I’m only getting biologics.” Fatima replied. “If there’s anything docked down there, it’s fairly dormant, or it has sound stealth decades ahead of ours. I think it’s safe for now.”

Ulyana sighed. “I don’t feel safe. Semyonova, what is the status of the Diver team?”

“We have Khadija al-Shajara and Valya Lebedova awaiting orders.” Semyonova replied.

The Captain could hardly believe what she heard. “Really? Only those two?”

Semyonova nodded, briefly glancing at her console for incoming details. “Sameera Al-Shahouh and Murati Nakara have doctor’s orders not to pilot; Sameera for a week and Murati for potentially several. Murati claims she heals fast, but still– anyway, Sonya Shalikova was made the squad leader and was assigned the Cheka, but it had a surprise battery issue, so she isn’t ready. Dominika Rybolovskaya is in the medbay right now, I’m not sure why. Only Khadija and Valya are ready to deploy.”

“If Rybolovskaya isn’t injured have her sort herself out quickly.” Ulyana said. She turned to the right side of the Bridge. “Geninov, load a torpedo just in case, and Santapena-De La Rosa, prime the guns. We need everyone on alert for a potential ambush, I want rapid responses here.”

Ulyana was cautious for a reason. She had been born in the Empire, so she knew.

She assumed from Maryam’s story that this outpost was set up by Katarran mercenaries. This “Foundation” she was talking about was likely a Katarran warband. Maryam had good reason not to say that up front, but it could be inferred. Katarrans in the Empire didn’t have a lot of choices.

And growing up in the Empire, Ulyana knew all kinds of stories about Katarrans.

Even with top tier military training and equipment, elite Union soldiers still had something to fear from warbands. Katarran bandits and mercenaries had something that a lot of armies in this world did not — a vast amount of realistic and practical combat experience. Palatinate and Vekan soldiers had infrequent battles with the Republic or the Empire of Hanwa to look back on, but Katarrans were always fighting, at home or abroad, every month, every year. Famous for their ferocity, it was their resourcefulness and adaptability that made Katarrans actually dangerous. Many mercenary warbands learned to thrive on irregular logistics for fuel, food, and ammunition, and with poor equipment repair.

A professional might see an outpost like this and think nothing of it, but Ulyana knew that Katarrans could make do with this and even use the fact you would overlook it against you.

Compared to a battle-hardened Katarran warband, the Brigand were rank amateurs.

Not only that, but Katarrans were known for the sort of warfare the Brigand was supposed to perform but had so far proven dismal at executing — asymmetrical guerilla fighting. Ambushes, hacking, mine warfare, stealth attacks, attrition, running warfare, Katarrans practically invented the book of dirty tricks from which they famously drew to use “every dirty trick in the book.” They could build hideouts from seemingly nothing and launch raids with fewer weapons and numbers that succeeded in catching larger forces off-guard, and then brought that legendary Katarran ferocity to bear in full.

Marina had blithely said she would always take dealing with Katarrans over Lichtenberg.

She didn’t know what the hell she was talking about!

“Captain!”

Almost soon as Semyonova had turned back to her station to contact Rybolovskaya, she turned over her shoulder again on her seat to address the Captain anew. Her soft face had an expression Ulyana had come to associate with something eventful, lips quivering, eyes wide. “C-C-Captain, we received an acoustic message all of a sudden. It’s a laser connection request!” She said. “It’s from that station below us! They apparently have a wired laser relay post, atop the slope we just passed.”

Overlaid on the visual of Goryk’s Gorge, Semyonova’s map showed the apparent location of the laser relay post; they had just passed it minutes ago. They had seen nothing. It simply was not rendered on the visual. It must have been hidden as a rock– fine details like that were tough to render and detect. They were limited in how much they could blast an area with sonar pulses without drawing too much attention. Setting up a hidden communications relay like this was quite ingenious.

“Zachikova, we’ll be accepting the request. Watch the network closely.” Ulyana said.

Returning to her station, Zachikova confidently nodded her acknowledgment.

“Semyonova, send them to my screen when they’re ready.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova saluted stiffly, clearly quite nervous. “Y-Yes Captain!”

At her side, Fatima gave Semyonova a pat on the shoulder to comfort her.

“Time to flex that silver tongue, Captain.” Aaliyah said, closely at Ulyana’s side.

Ulyana took a deep breath, readying herself for whoever would appear on the terminal screen attached to the captain’s chair. Semyonova exchanged a few acoustic messages with the mysterious contact before connecting them, and then sent the video to Ulyana’s screen. She expected a Katarran, maybe with blue skin, odd colored eyes and a few fins in their hair– and she was surprised not to find one.

“Are we connected? Greetings to the fine cargo vessel. I am quite fortunate to reach you.”

On the monitor, the crisp, clear image of a woman appeared on the screen. Perhaps it was the slimness of her shoulders and the softness of her facial features, but she seemed young to Ulyana, certainly younger than herself. Her eyes were her most prominent feature, they were quite extraordinary, crystal blue and gold. When the connection was most stable and video fidelity was at its best, for a few seconds Ulyana could see digits and tiny text scrolling over those incredible eyes which belied that they were cybernetic implants. She did not have the antennae, so it was not part of a Hartz treatment package. She must have either gotten those implants herself, or they were installed by her employer.

Her skin was fair, but her hair was light blue as the color of her eyes, wavy and cut short at the level of her jaw, but voluminous and a bit messy. One streak of white would have seemed like a sign of aging on an average person, but it was likely bleached, the same as the rest of the hair was likely dyed. Her facial expression was blank, even when speaking she seemed neither to smile nor hold any scorn, and her tone of voice was so even and controlled, perfectly pitched, it seemed rehearsed.

Not only that, but the texture of her white coat and shirt– were those biological materials?

Who was this character? How did they end up in this dismal place?

“Greetings.” Ulyana said. Trying not to betray any outward signs of her emotions to her counterpart. “I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya, captain of this ship, the Pandora’s Box. We are hauling cargo for Treasure Box Transports. I’m going to need to get to know you a little better, ma’am, and quickly.”

Her counterpart nodded her head in acknowledgment. “I am Doctor Euphemia Röntgen. I work as a materials analyst for an engineering firm, ‘Solarflare LLC.’ We develop equipment for hazardous environment exploration. My team was running a trial in Goryk’s Gorge when we had a critical equipment failure and took refuge in this small station. We could use any help you can provide.”

The Brigand would have to get nearer to the station to confirm some of these details.

One thing was certain, this woman was not a Katarran. She could, perhaps, be a captive used by Katarrans for a ruse, but it seemed doubtful. She was too calm for a civilian who was in danger and if she harbored ill intentions, her acting was supernaturally good. Ulyana decided to play along for now. Her story of having run into equipment trouble near an abyssal gorge was not implausible.

As if she realized she needed proof of what she was saying, Doctor Röntgen held up an ID card.

It had her picture, in a blue shirt and waistcoat, and was a security card for Solarflare LLC.

They had quite an avant-garde looking logo of a sunburst, and the card itself was made of a reflective material that seemed to have a code imprinted on the foil. It would have been a lot of effort for a fake. So it did appear that this woman worked for Solarflare LLC — and that she understood her situation enough to try to dispel Ulyana’s concerns. Ulyana allowed herself to feel more comfortable.

“Thank you, Doctor. What’s your story? How many people do you have down there?”

“Three personnel counting me, uninjured.” Euphemia said.

That was shockingly low. Ulyana was immediately suspicious again.

For a lie, it was a pretty stupid one to tell.

“Doctor, I must have misheard you. Did you mean to say thirty? I’d expect you would need at least thirty personnel to sail to a place like this.” Ulyana said, scrutinizing the doctor’s response.

Even the smallest type of blue water naval vessel had around ten officers and twenty-five to forty sailors. At the minimum, a Cutter could run with five officers sharing the duties of ship communications, navigation, weapons, leadership and detection and electronic warfare, and about a dozen exhausted sailors, enough to run maintenance, tend to the reactor and electrical systems, respond to repair emergencies, and handle duties such as rations, cleaning, rearming the internal magazines of the torpedo and shell weapons, and so on. You would have several duties assigned to a single man, and it would be a nightmarish task to run like that for any given amount of time, but you could.

Larger crews could perform duties more efficiently in rotations, making sure there were always personnel assigned to any given duty at any given time of the day who were fresh, rested, aware and ready. Larger vessels needed crews of hundreds of people, however, not just for rotations but to be able to physically cover the large amount of machinery that needed to be inspected and maintained. This was reflected in the total crew numbers for blue water vessels, whether commercial or naval in scope.

Blue water being the key term. Vessels that had endurance at sea, far away from stations, needed these large complements of professional crew in order to sail. Personal vessels could be run much leaner, but they would have never made it this far from a major station. To explore a place like Goryk’s Gorge that was foul with biomass and far off the beaten path, you would absolutely needed at least a Cutter for the journey. You would need a real reactor for power, not a battery, and you would need enough space for supplies. You would need redundancy in personnel in case of emergencies.

Three people? It was not possible. It had to be a clumsy lie or a joke.

Doctor Röntgen looked like she meant every word, however.

That expression of hers had not changed. She was speaking with perfect confidence.

 “Three people, me, an engineer colleague and one security professional.”

“How did you pull off that miracle, doc?”

Despite Ulyana’s pressuring her, the good doctor continued speaking without affect. “We were testing a semi-automated ship called an L-CEV, the Lightly-Crewed Exploration Vessel. We wanted to explore the viability of studying abyssal zones with such a ship, to limit the personnel needed.”

Though it was a somewhat farfetched detail, it did fit with her description of what Solarflare LLC did. Certainly, more hostile environment exploration would be waged if less lives could be put on the line. Ulyana found that goal to be quite a fool’s errand, however. Even if you could run the systems that lean, to carry out any maintenance on a ship large enough to have a real reactor would have been impossible with only three human bodies. Physically, you would still need at least a dozen.

And to run that much maintenance you would need bodies, not simply computer routines.

Companies in the Empire spent money far too loosely.

This L-CEV must have been an incredible ship indeed to fulfill this insane purpose.

“So what happened to this engineering marvel you described to me?” Ulyana said.

Doctor Röntgen treated this request with the same stoic professionalism as before. “We had a water system failure due to the red biomass concentrations in the Goryk Abyss. Thankfully, this station was in good enough condition to host us and we got our ailing ship into port here. We transferred supplies from the damaged ship to this station and then destroyed the ship to protect Solarflare’s intellectual property. If you would dock below the station, you’ll be able to find the wreck in plain sight.”

A poor invitation; even a drunk Ulyana wouldn’t accept that as pretext to be taken home.

Let alone lead her entire crew down there without further information.

“No offense Doctor, but we didn’t even know this station would be here. And I have no idea how you could have stumbled upon it — seems like too much serendipity. I have no plans to go near you until we have definitively sorted out what this station is for and what your situation really is.”

Ulyana wanted to test what her reaction would be.

For the first time in the conversation, Doctor Röntgen put on a small smile.

She began to explain in a calm, matter-of-fact voice– almost like a teacher.

“Very well, I’ll assuage your fears. This outpost has a colorful history. It was set up by Katarran mercenaries, that’s how our contractor knew of its existence, but even Katarrans can’t operate so freely without a certain degree of consent from the authorities. It’s like any criminal organization, Captain. From the way you speak, I know you are a learned woman, to whom I can speak to as a peer. Once upon a time, this outpost was used by a certain Admiral Gottwald to run supplies and weapons that were skimmed off the allotments for the Southern Border Fleet. They moved to passing Katarran vessels, or even to the pirates at Khaybar. This station was a link in a long chain of traded favors and ill-gotten gains of all sorts, that enriched corrupt Imbrian men and kept their hired guns afloat and killing.”

Admiral Gottwald was the Commander of the Southern Border Fleet.

He had been killed in Thassal but– that didn’t really matter.

Doctor Röntgen was being candid and Ulyana felt she was telling the actual truth of things.

If she knew so much mercenary history, the tone of her request began to make more sense.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to take you where you need to go.” Ulyana said.

“I understand completely.” Doctor Röntgen said. “You said ‘Treasure Box Transports’ correct? I can assure you nobody is going to intercept this transmission. We can be honest here, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are a mercenary company and I’m not unfamiliar with hiring mercenaries. My lips will be sealed as to everything I learn about your operation, if you’ll ferry me to wherever your cargo is going. Any station will do. I’ll find my way from there. Of course, Solarflare LLC will pay handsomely.”

“I’m flattered that you found me so eloquent, but I never said we were mercenaries.”

“Hmm, did I misread the situation? ‘Transport company’ is a common euphemism.”

Ulyana felt somewhat mortified and tried to hide her surprise. Hadn’t this come up once before?

Gertrude Lichtenberg’s voice reverberated in Ulyana’s head at that moment.

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company.” Lichtenberg had said this when confronting Ulyana.

In that instant Ulyana wished she could clap her hands over her face and never let go.

To someone from the Union, the phrase ‘transport company’ made all the sense in the world!

And yet in this twisted polity, ‘transport company’ was code for mercenaries?

That was what all their carefully falsified documents said, and they couldn’t change it all now.

Every station they docked in, they would be doing so under a euphemism.

Sighing inside, Ulyana put on her best mercenary voice, because they were mercenaries!

“I will consider working for you if Solarflare LLC can pay in-kind.” She said. “Services and supplies. We can discuss the specifics; but in this new era, I can’t feed my people Mark bills, Doctor. Is that acceptable? I truly don’t want to leave you down there, but I have to look out for my crew.”

We have enough troublesome passengers.

That was her first thought. Imperial money was also pretty useless to her in the long run.

However, allies were an important part of their mission.

And the key to everything would be logistics. They had to be able to resupply in the hardest possible times. If this L-CEV ship of Röntgen’s was real, Solarflare could be a useful partner. A company with manufacturing muscle, needed to have a strong and varied supply chain, and judging by the good Doctor’s clothing and cybernetic implants, Solarflare LLC was loaded. They had also dealt with mercenaries before, so they probably knew how to be discrete and covert.

Such an entity could be a very useful ally, over and under the table.

Based on Doctor Röntgen’s expression, it looked like she agreed.

“You’re very astute. I’m glad to be talking to a professional.”

“So you can pay our professional rates then?”

“Of course. I look forward to a long, fruitful relationship between our companies.”

She had an uncanny ability to read people. Ulyana almost felt unnerved by it.

Doctor Euphemia Röntgen– this lady was more than just some white coated nerd.

Regardless, they had a deal. If it panned out, it might just save their asses one day.

“We’ll need to dock for repairs at the outpost. It shouldn’t take more than a day.”

“I’m in no hurry. In fact, as a sign of our cooperation, we’ll help with what we can.”

Doctor Röntgen gave Ulyana her biggest smile yet, before the two agreed to end the call.

The Captain of the now-mercenary ship Brigand sighed her deepest, weariest sigh yet.


In the middle of the empty ocean wastes of central Sverland a shimmering vessel entered suddenly into view, approaching prow forward. Plates of armor which had once rippled like disturbed ocean water began to turn white instead, revealing a sleek pointed fore that tapered out from a curved, bulbous hull. It had approached silently, gliding across the water using a pair of strange rectangular engines set below the hull and around a very squat conning tower. It was not an ordinary ship design.

This was a Columbus-class cruiser, a mainstay of the Sunlight Foundation.

These ships could be so stealthy that regular military patrols simply would not see them in the water. It would take a deliberate sonar pulse to detect the mass of the object. And its specific design, the materials from which it was made, and the special equipment carried aboard, was meant to give the sonar operator launching the pulse some trouble telling what exactly the object was. It would not identify as any class of ship on any standard Imperial databank, and depending on the approach angle could be mistaken for a creature or written off as a glitch in the sensor returns. While it was not a perfect disguise, combined with a circuitous route and a swift response to detection, it made them tough for anyone to catch.

Certainly, the crew of the Antenora had not seen it coming.

They knew they were going to be resupplied before they went north to hunt Gertrude’s phantom mercenaries. However, the nature of the resupply operation had taken them by surprise.

“Scary, scary, scary.”

Norn von Fueller laughed. On the main screen of the bridge, she watched the ship appear.

Always, the Sunlight Foundation scurried in the shadows while longing for the sun.

“Sunlight Foundation Columbus-class identified. Requesting shuttle for cargo delivery.”

One of Norn’s bridge drones spoke up. The Praetorian nodded her head and acknowledged.

“Ask them if one of the rivers is aboard.” Norn said.  

The query was sent, and a reply came quickly. “Negative, milord. Only lab assistants.”

“Boring!”

Lab Assistants had barely any individuality worth speaking about.

Norn had hoped to poke one of the Rivers for information about the organization’s status.

Rivers were the flunkies they recruited rather than created. They were privy to real information.

Yangtze would not send an Immortal on an errand like this, but at least an inductee!

Clearly, she was getting too comfortable working with Norn. To send a ship full of lab assistants meant she expected nothing to go amiss. Norn felt she had to think of a way to send a message to that arrogant sociopath Yangtze, that not everything would be going her way in the future.

Her rumination was interrupted by its most frequent interrupter–

“Looks like you’ll have to settle for Potomac then, poor you.”

Adelheid van Mueller punctuated her speech with a cutesy shrug of her shoulders.

Seated beside Norn, her lover was a permanent fixture on the bridge.

While she was just trying to be a smartass, Norn had to admit she had a point!

“You’re not wrong. I’ll go make sure she’s earning her keep. Hold down the fort.”

“What if they try something while you aren’t here?”

“I trust you to make grown-up decisions.”

Sighing, Adelheid half-heartedly saluted. She leaned back on her chair as Norn departed.

The Antenora’s hangar had never been so full as it was then, at least not in recent memory. Norn finally had a full complement of Divers. The Jagdkaiser on its special gantry found itself in the company of a Jagd and a Volkannon brought aboard by Samoylovych, as well as the fancy Grenadier contributed by Gertrude and von Castille. Behind the gantries and the deployment chutes, they had launched the Antenora’s shuttle to pick up the cargo from the Columbus class and transfer it.

Norn found Gertrude and Sieglinde von Castille loitering around the hangar as well, and she waved at the two of them, wearing a broad, self-satisfied grin to meet their sullen expressions. They were not the ones who interested her whatsoever at that moment though. Instead, she made for Potomac, who was standing around in front of the grey steel shutter that had closed over the shuttle’s moonpool. She must have been awaiting for the cargo; Norn had ordered her to get more Jagdkaiser parts.

“So, what’s the haul? Are we finally getting the parts for the Options?” Norn asked.

Potomac looked surprised to see her. “Uh, well, no, actually!” She said.

“You’re being funny, right? You’re telling me a joke?” The Praetorian’s tone darkened.

Potomac crossed her arms and avoided meeting Norn’s eyes, shifting her feet nervously.

If she thought this body language would better her situation, she was sorely mistaken.

“No, Yangtze is not sending us the Option parts. She’s actually doing us one better.”

“Explain quickly before I fold your spine for not doing what I instructed you to.”

Norn’s eyes narrowed, her brows drew closer together. She had told this bitch–

“I asked her for the parts you wanted! It’s not like I have control of that woman! She actually sent us parts for a brand new version of the Jagdkaiser and a Magellan for you! And spare parts for both! We’re making off like bandits here, so you don’t have to be mad at me!” Potomac cried out.

For anyone else this may have sounded like incredible news, but Norn knew quite well that just having a preponderance of equipment lying around didn’t improve the effectiveness of a unit. Giving them a new Jagdkaiser was not entirely unexpected, but it was inconvenient since it needed a special gantry and they only had one. They would have to tear down the old one and set up the new one, and such a messy project would have to wait until they were docked somewhere safe and protected.

Furthermore, she also knew that Yangtze of the Sunlight Foundation was not running a charity. Sending a Magellan suit for Norn’s use meant Yangtze wanted her to do something with it. She would have to prioritize getting that thing put together when the shuttle returned with the crates.

“What does she want?” Norn asked. “And when were you going to tell me?”

She took a threatening step into Potomac’s space, forcing the latter to step back.

Potomac held her hands up in defense. “I didn’t think it would be a problem! We’re already heading where she wants us, so I was just going to ask you then and avoid making it an issue–”

“You were going to lie to me? Potomac, you dense bitch, do you want to die?”

Norn was barely able to restrain herself from punching Potomac’s head off her neck.

This spacey idiot– she knew that nothing made Norn angrier than being lied to–!

“Goryk’s Abyss! She just wants us to go to Goryk’s Abyss! That’s it!”  

“You’d better have my fucking Magellan set up before we get there, then.”

Norn shoved Potomac, not too hard, but it was surprising enough of an attack to push her down.

From the floor, the Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation gazed up at her with a petulant anger.

Even this minor physical humiliation was more than she had suffered in likely decades.

“You’re– You’re a monster, Astra!” She cried. “What happened to you? You used to be so–“

In the next instant, Norn was looming over Potomac on the floor with burning red eyes.

Something long held taut inside her finally and suddenly snapped.

Words she had held in her throat for decades.

You pieces of shit happened to me. Yangtze; Euphrates; Tigris; Nile; Hudson; Ganges. You.”

Her eyes were not just red-ringed from the psionic power raging inside her, not just red because they had been engineered that way to command respect and strike fear; she was seeing red, blinded with an incredible fury. She raised her hand to Potomac’s face, and in the air around it, a series of razor-sharp knives began to materialize as if out of thin air, each the crystalline white of packed ice. Potomac’s eyes drew wide with sheer terror, and Norn was one provocation from gutting her–

She hissed in Potomac’s face, tensed like a harpoon in its launcher–

“Monster? How fucking dare you? After all that you people did to me–“

“Master! Don’t! Please calm down!”

From behind her, Gertrude Lichtenberg appeared and laid gentle hands on her shoulders.

Norn turned her baleful red eyes on the tall, swarthy woman in her ornate uniform.

She had such a gentle expression at that point, as if she feared for Norn more than Potomac.

It was such a contrast with that evil title of Inquisitor that Norn helped her attain–

–which had come to define Gertrude in perhaps the same way that Yangtze had defined Astra.

And it made Norn’s righteous anger begin to turn alchemy-like into a seething guilt.

She couldn’t explain it– but Gertrude really was the last thing she wanted to see in that state.

Sighing deeply, Norn withdrew her arm. Her knives turned uselessly to vapor.

Brushing Gertrude’s hand aside, she stood up and marched out by herself.

“Gertrude, just– just see to the cargo for me.” Norn said, walking away, meeting no one’s eyes.

Taken by an anger that was ebbing but still hurt.

No one called after her, no one inquired. Sometimes, Norn was just angry. They understood it.

For now, Norn would play Yangtze’s game. She would go to Goryk’s Abyss for that bitch.

She had a resolution in her fractured heart, however.

Whatever she found there that Yangtze wanted, she would break it into a million pieces.

If the Sunlight Foundation wanted to retaliate like they retaliated against Mehmed–

Then they knew where to find her. And she knew very well where to find them too.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.3]

[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]

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

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

Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re doing this now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.

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

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

“That was a large part of it, yes.”

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

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

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

And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.

Who did this woman think she was–?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”

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


It’s her!

You’re here Braya!

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

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

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

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

She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.

A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.

Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.

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

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

“We’re going to get out of here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if at her.

Inquisitive, aren’t you?

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

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

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

Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–

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

“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mourning the image of it.

Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to find her again.”

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

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

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


“How many fingers are we holding up?”

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

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

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

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

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

For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”

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

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

“Karuniya!”

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

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

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

However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”

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

“I promise. I really do.”

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

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

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

Murati would pin her hopes on that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did we lose anyone?”

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

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

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

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

“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.

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

“Huh?! Shali-Shali?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.

“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”

The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for understanding.”

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


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

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

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

But not for the next few days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck!”

Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.

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

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

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

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

“Fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty-two years.

Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.

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

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

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

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

Someone on crutches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had tried to put that experience away.

To train and fight another day and move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.2]

For Blake McClinton the summer palace at Schwerin Island had become a green purgatory. Those vast beautiful fields which surrounded the castle endlessly on each side made him feel insane as he relentlessly climbed sets of staircases, looking out onto the unchanging world below, rushing from the bottom of the palace to the garden several stories above. Staircase after staircase after staircase fashioned from stone, boasting artsy diagonal hex-shaped windows ever at his side.

Intermittent snapping gunfire punctuated his steps.

“Leda– oh my god Leda–”

He gasped for breath. Tenth story. Almost there.

That morning he’d had an ominous feeling in his chest. He had wanted to meet with Leda.

With his status as a G.I.A. agent they had to be discrete, but–

Ever since they got word that woman was coming, Blake couldn’t sit back and watch.

Leda had said she would meet him in their special place. She must have meant the garden.

But with this invasion happening would they really meet there?

Blake had no choice but to follow her directions. Even if they were given before the chaos.

On the twelfth story, when he looked out at the green, he could see a shadow in the falsely blue sky. An impression of what was looming outside Schwerin past the illusion they had created for themselves. Judging by the presence, in the gardens below, of those damnable powered armors that the Empire had begun building to fight the communists, this was a Dreadnought that was sent to suppress them.

That shadow signaled the end of their ambitions– but they could still escape!

And so Blake charged up the stairs again, silenced pistol in hand.

He began checking the corners, aiming up the staircase.

“Leda! I’m here! I’ll get you out of here!”

He shouted, almost hysterical in his desire to hear anything from the garden.

Charging through the door out to the enormous ceiling-garden in one of the Schwerin palace towers. Beautiful rows and beds of tall flowering plants, grapevines, berry bushes. Blake called out Leda’s name and ran through the rows. He reached the center of the garden structures, begging whatever cosmic force toyed with their fates to please let him find Leda standing there.

“My, my.”

Blake should have known his fate could be nothing but cursed.

In Leda’s place, there was a woman in the field grey Imperial officer’s uniform, boots and peaked cap, blond, fair-faced, hair tied into a ponytail. She carried no visible weapons and had her arms crossed over her chest. She did not appear so formidable that she could simply stand there alone, but that mischievous glare and wicked grin could have belonged to no other than the famed Fueller enforcer Norn Tauscherer. Standing atop the garden tower and below Schwerin’s darkened skies.

“Where is she?” Blake shouted. He took aim directly at Norn’s head.

Norn put on an expression that felt surreal to Blake. Was she– was she laughing?

Nonetheless, she raised her hands in surrender with this amused expression on her lips.

“Blake McClinton is it? G.I.A special agent? No– there are more relevant names.”

Suddenly, Blake felt something press against the back of his head.

He ran his fingers through his long black hair as if he could’ve felt what was touching him.

“Samuel Anahid.”

Blake’s eyes drew wide as Norn’s smile grew wider. How could she–

“No– oh dear. I quite apologize. I found a more fitting name: Marina McKennedy?”

“Shut up! I’ll perforate that fucking stupid grin of yours!”

Terror stirred in Blake’s heart.

How could she know, how could she possibly fucking know?

Only Leda and Bethany called her Marina– only they knew what he felt deep down.

Only they encouraged his questioning.

Something so intimate, so strange; how was it possible for Norn to know?

Unless–

No, even in captivity Leda would have no reason to speak of that!

And Bethany would never betray them!

“You’re wondering how I know? It’s because your mind is such an open book.”

Norn’s expression was filled with such evil delight it shook Blake’s gun arm.

This woman was a monster– this was the only explanation.

There was no time to ponder it any further than that.

Fueller’s monster had come for them. As Blake had feared in his worst nightmares.

Blake was hardly listening to her ramble– he had to move with haste. Leda was in danger.

“Where is she? Where is Leda Lettiere? Where are you keeping her?”

Blake stepped forward with his pistol trained on Norn’s forehead.

“Miss McKennedy, it is truly not my desire to cause any harm to Leda Lettiere.” Norn said. For a second, Blake’s heart rushed with a misplaced sense of relief. It didn’t last long, just until Norn finally spoke up again. “I am one of her many admirers. Oh, such pain and heartache that she brings to that stupid man. When Konstantin sent me here, I was expecting to turn up evidence of her sleeping around, and then to thoroughly ignore it so long as she was discrete. Unfortunately, you were here, G.I.A.”

“What do you mean? What the fuck do you mean Norn?” Blake asked desperately.

Norn sighed. “If only you hadn’t been here. I could have even ignored Leda’s plot to kill Konstantin, but if it’s supported by the G.I.A., that won’t do. I can’t let the Republic become emboldened.”

“You’re talking really confidently for a woman with a gun to her head.” Blake said.

She tried to regain her confidence. Norn was not some superhuman.

Blake had all the situational advantages. Strategically they had been completely outdone but in this particular moment all she needed was to shoot Norn and escape with Leda. She just needed to know where Leda was. She had a few assets still in play, she could still potentially slip by those Diver armors. She had tricks up her sleeve. If Norn was up to talking she could let her talk.

“What did you do with Leda? You’ve captured her, haven’t you?” Blake said.

“Do you really think Leda would honor your little rendezvous here in this situation?”

Norn tilted her head, gesturing toward one of the higher rear towers of Schwerin Palace.

Of course. Blake had been so stupid. Leda was going to get Elena from the tower.

How could he have believed Leda would choose him over her own daughter?

“Unfortunately, I have to put an end to these fantasies.” Norn said.

Blake bared her teeth at her in fury. “Says the bitch on the other end of my gun! Shut up!”

Norn took a casual step forward in defiance of the agent’s orders, hands still raised.

There was no hesitation on Blake’s part. He was a trained killer.

He pulled the trigger, twice in quick succession, a bullet each in Norn’s neck and chest.

Shooting a gun gave a brief sensation of recoil and an instantaneous sense of violence. The imagination of the layperson could have never accounted for the speed of a bullet. It was as if they were summoned into the world instantly in collision with their targets within the blink of an eye. So Blake’s response to the attack was trained, purposeful; at such close range, he knew when he hit something.

That made the shock he felt as Norn continued to step toward him even greater.

Blake stepped back, retrained his aim, and fired, both hands, center mass, no fancy shit–

Norn closed in from across the garden, closing meter by casual meter, step by step.

“What the fuck?”

His head felt blurry with anxiety. Had he been drugged? Why was he missing?

There was no way. No one had any opportunity to tamper with his gun or with him.

He fired, twice, three times, fired at Norn until the gun clicked empty.

Nothing, not a single bullet had even grazed her. It was if they went through her.

“What’s wrong? Want me to stand still so you can hit me?”

Norn stopped, scant meters distance from Blake, shrugging her shoulders.

Blake drew a knife from his belt and rushed toward Norn with all his might.

Desperate, foolish, ignorant–

Nothing to lose–

She was unarmed, he would take her down and rip out her fucking guts on the floor!

There was no way she could avoid that!

“Pitiable.”

Norn swung her arm and batted aside Blake’s knife.

It was such a precise, dismissive gesture that Blake could hardly believe it as he staggered back from it. His knife arm had been stricken with such force he thought his wrist might have snapped. In the midst of that sharp and sudden pain he never realized how quickly Norn had stepped inside of his guard. Her fist flew like a bullet. In an instant, it was summoned to his stomach and battered him.

Blake fell back on the floor, grabbing hold of his belly, coughing, struggling to breath.

Norn’s punch was like a battering ram. He felt like stomach was moved out of place.

No way! No way! No way!

How was she so strong? How the fuck was this Imbrian bitch this strong?

Blake’s mind raced. Could she be a fucking Katarran–?

“How insulting.”

With a look of disgust on her face Norn kicked Blake on the floor.

Coming in from the side, he felt the hard boots strike his ribs and cried out.

Blake turned on his other side, tried to crawl away–

When that same boot came stomping down on his hand.

He gritted his teeth. She was not trying to break it. Just holding him in place.

He could not help but notice how quickly she had moved from one side of him to the other.

“I don’t do this without pity or sympathy for your cause. Konstantin should not be the winner here.” Norn said. Blake’s heart was racing, and he was in such pain, that all he could do was spit on the floor, not even on her shoe. He could not speak. He could do nothing but act defiant where no defiance was possible. Norn continued. “I’ll avenge the two of you one day. If what you want is the death of Konstantin von Fueller, then have patience. That day will come; just not by your hand, G.I.A.”

Behind them one of the towers suddenly exploded, casting debris and fire into the air.

Norn looked at it briefly, cursed in indignation, and turned suddenly back to Blake.

Her foot came down on his face and shut the light from his eyes–

–Transporting her back to the UNX-001 Brigand, almost twenty years later in 979 A.D.

Marina woke in a bed and quickly closed her eyes again.

She resisted the urge to wake with a start.

It was not only that she wanted to excise what she had just seen in her mind with all of her concentration. That was only one consideration. But it was also part of her professional paranoia. In some situations it was more advantageous to pretend to be asleep or dead, this too was part of her training. Whenever she woke, she closed her eyes and took stock. As she pushed away the fragmented memories being cast as nightmares in her messy subconscious, she also remembered where she had been last.

She remembered arguing with Elena.

Her heart hurt, scarcely remembering that Elena had been furious with her.

Something happened after that. Maybe an attack on the ship knocked Marina out.

Everything was a little fuzzy. To her consternation, her dream was more vivid than that moment.

They had been in a dangerous situation, but she was not dead, so they must have escaped.

Or been captured.

She quickly opened her eye–

And closed it.

Union ship layout with automated doors with no locks; every Imperial quarter had a digital lock so it could be shut out by officers in case of mutiny. Bare metal walls, bedframes made of interchangeable bare plates of carbon fiber that fitted together and could be used to make chairs or tables or other furniture, as opposed to Imperial single-cast bespoke furniture molds. And the other beds were occupied by women with sandy or dark skin. She was probably still on the Brigand.

That didn’t mean they were not captured, but it did mean she could probably be awake.

Marina sat up in bed.

She had a headache, but her body was as whole as it could be. Both arms, both legs.

Her cybernetic eye was doing fine.

In a corner of the room, a young, slim blond girl wearing her hair in two long braids spun around on her office chair. She had a stun gun clipped to her hip and wore the thick bodysuit of a Union security officer, with bits of ceramic bulletproof plate over her ample chest and slender limbs. When she noticed Marina, she stopped spinning around, gasped, and walked over to the bed.

“Afternoon!” She said. Her voice was very cheerful. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

She made a peace sign. Marina sighed audibly.

“I’m fine. You’re Klara Van Der Smidse, right?” Marina said.

“Yes! You know, I didn’t think you’d recognize me!”

“I memorized the roster as much as I could. You’re Gallic, is that right?”

“I mean, ethnically. My family is Gallic, I guess. It’s not a huge deal in the Union.”

Gallics were one of the ethnicities persecuted by the Empire and deported to the Union. Particularly Eastern Gallics, with their “Van Der” names. Despite being fair-skinned blonds even.

They had an independent kingdom in Skarsgaard once– so they resisted integration. And as the borders of Imbrian identity strained to cover the entire ocean, the Empire could not tolerate an ounce of resistance.

Marina shook her head. That was not pertinent, but with the Union, she just could not help but think about the roots. After all, everyone from the Union now was probably once a slave or the child of a slave, or a “criminal” or otherwise “undesirable” element. This Klara Van Der Smidse looked sweet and cheerful at face value, but she probably had a lot of pain she had to deal with.

Understanding this was important to making allies.

Or manipulating enemies.

That was the north star of the Republic’s General Intelligence Agency.

Empathy was useful: but only insofar as it could be used and never a drop more.

“What does my ethnicity matter though?”

“I just wanted you to see that my mental faculties are in order.” Marina said.

“Ah, yeah, it looks like you’re okay. The doctor told me to test everyone who wakes up.”

“Did she tell you to give them any drugs if they’re groggy?”

“Oh, yep, I’ve got a stimulant–”

“Administer it anyway. I can use all the help I can get staying awake.”

“Uhh.” Van Der Smidse blinked at her. “I mean– I guess I will.”

She went to the table she had been spinning near, withdrew a punch injector and returned.

“This goes into–”

Marina practically snatched it out of her hand and punched it into her arm.

Nonchalantly she discarded the case.

“Uh, wow!” Van Der Smidse put her hands behind her head. “Are all GIA this prompt?”

“We’re in a critical situation. It’s all of you who are acting too lax. I take it we escaped?” Marina said.

“From the Iron Lady? Yes, that was a few days ago. All thanks to our pilots.”

“Good. Then I need to speak with your Captain. I want to know what the plan is now.”

Van Der Smidse sighed. “The plan is you need to slow down and wait for the doctor to clear you.”

Marina abruptly stood up out of bed. She still had all her clothes on, and her bodysuit.

Good — nobody had touched her. Or at least, she felt confident not thinking about it.

She started to walk away and practically dared Van Der Smidse to stop her.

That girl never did, however. She shouted after her a bit, but then stayed behind sighing.

Marina had to keep moving. Her past was trying to catch up. She couldn’t just stay still.

It was not only a critical situation for the ship, but for herself too.

That dream shook her a bit.

But she had to be done mourning the past. What mattered now was getting Elena through this.

Norn Tauscherer and Leda Lettiere, were far, far away, as far out of reach as Schwerin Island.

If she ever saw any of them again, it would only be in death.


Lately the Brigand’s laboratory and its adjoining hall were blessed with the sound of a beautiful voice, humming, and sometimes singing, no discernible lyrics or songs, just little notes strung innocently together with great sweetness. In the storm of activity and the danger of the outside world, it was a touch of humanity that reminded those around of what they stood to lose if they faltered.

That voice belonged to Chief Specialist Karuniya Maharapratham.

She didn’t really know any songs by heart, and she wasn’t good with lyrics, but she had been told she had a cute singing voice, so sometimes her lips released vaguely musical noises while she was working. In the laboratory, the day to day work lately had involved the algae and fungus gardens, and it was repetitive. So Karuniya sang while she began to prepare and move along batches of mushrooms.

Union mushrooms began their lives as preserved cultures in vials which could be taken aboard ships in large containers. All agrisphere mushroom cultivars had been chosen specifically for their fecundity, and each of these vials by itself could grow enough fruiting bodies to cover large sections of the garden wall. Karuniya had a climate-controlled chest which stored the vials, and that chest, properly cared for, represented enough food to give everyone on the ship at least a meal a day for eight months in the direst circumstances. And in certain circumstances she could renew the mushrooms a bit too, or even introduce cultivars from stations or from cave systems if they went near the continent.

After retrieving a vial, Karuniya seeded the mushrooms in a nutrient-rich substrate made of a cardboard-like recycled vegetable matter that was enriched with phosphate fertilizer mined near the lower continent wall in Lyser and Solstice. These media were kept in an atmospherically regulated unit. When she seeded one medium, she took the previous medium from the enclosure. Once there were signs of initial growth, the fertile medium was added to the garden wall on the side of the laboratory. From there, the fungi would spread across the environment of the wall. One box could grow a lot of food.

Then she set to work on the algae.

This was much less work because the algae wall was a fully enclosed aquaponic device. There were less blocks of glorified cardboard to shuffle around. Karuniya had the algae starters in vials too, but she rarely needed to start algae because algae were constantly growing in the tank and if she didn’t liquidate the whole thing she could get more out of it. Instead what she needed to pay attention to was canisters of nutrients and the atmosphere regulator. All in all, the algae wall could provide a vitamin rich accompaniment to one meal a day for even longer than the mushroom wall.

Though, in such a situation, misery would set in long before starvation did.

Still, Karuniya felt happy with the fact that she was helping sustain life.

There were also some frozen cultivars in the cargo; and of course, canned and freeze dried mushrooms and other foods ready to heat and eat for the kitchen. But having some kind of fresh food was good for morale, so Karuniya, since the beginning of the trip, had decided to make tending the gardens a priority. This was more important work for the mission than ocean salinity reviews or writing histories of biomass concentrations. Karuniya had a lot of respect for the basic gardening work.

After all, was it not the work of humans now to be responsible for life, after all the death they had caused? That was a key part of the philosophy of her work in oceanography. Aer had essentially been destroyed. If aliens from outer space looked at the planet she imagined they would see an inhospitable rock, its atmosphere steeped in runaway agarthic reactions, devoid of any life.

To survive now, the planet needed stewardship. It could not fix itself.

Aer was a garden, it was artificial, it was tended to. Much of its biomass was unnatural in origin now. Or at least, whether or not Leviathans were natural, they wouldn’t exist without human tampering and agarthicite. If humans could tamper with the world to such a disastrous point, should they not run with it and design more of the world such that life could be sustained indefinitely?

In the same way that Karuniya grew garden walls to feed the ship–

Maybe someday, the people of Aer could come together and grow themselves a better world; clean the waters, create communities sustainable not just for humans and not just for the next few hundred years, but that promoted the growth of helpful species, that rebuilt the natural life cycles of the world from the tormented half-alive state in which they were. Understand the place of Leviathans instead of destroying them as threats or hiding from them indefinitely. Cease to waste resources in endless wars and instead share everything humans had left in communities of mutual benefit.

A bitter laugh escaped from those lips which had been singing.

“What a stupid thing for a soldier who married a soldier to be thinking about.”

When the thought of Murati entered her mind again, she almost wanted to cry.

In fact, it was not simply that gardening was good and necessary work.

It was strenuous and time consuming and kept her mind off her fiancé in the medbay.

“This is how it’s going to be, huh? For God knows how long? If we even survive?”

Maybe she should have persuaded Murati not to follow her ambitions.

“No, hell no. Don’t lose sight of what you love about her.”

Those weren’t just ambitions. Murati could have never been an artist or a teacher.

Murati’s justice would have always led her to soldiery. Her character was defined by it.

Because Murati believed strongly that social problems could perish as if by military force.

As strongly as Karuniya believed that social solutions could be grown like algae in a tank.

And yet, that was what attracted her to Murati in the first place. That strong sense of justice.

Those strong shoulders too–

That time before they started dating that she saw Murati fucking her roommate so hard–

“Ah man, I don’t want to think about weird shit like that! What the fuck am I doing?”

Karuniya clapped her hands against her head.

“Excuse me.”

A voice from behind startled her so badly she nearly jumped at the algae tank.

Karuniya suddenly turned around as if nothing had happened, and nothing had been said.

“Y-Yes?”

Behind her, Braya Zachikova tilted her head in confusion, staring at her with an utterly expressionless face. Zachikova’s large grey antennae had their LEDs blinking profusely, but no bit of her from that tawny spiraling ponytail to those mechanical eyes of hers nor any part of that slender frame, showed much discernible consternation. Karuniya surmised that Braya had not heard her thinking out loud and so she tried not to be embarrassed about her sudden appearance.

“What do you need Ensign?” Karuniya said. “Are you going to play with the Super again?”

That was Karuniya’s shorthand for the supercomputer box at the far end of the lab.

“I don’t play with it. Anyway, that’s not what I am doing. I have a request.”

Zachikova did not usually request anything. She was a bridge officer and had been broadly authorized to perform any kind of computer related work with the least red tape possible. So she did not need to make requests of Karuniya and she usually did not. She would come and go and do what she needed as she pleased. Karuniya basically served at her pleasure on such matters.

“Sure, I mean, I dunno how much help I could be.” Karuniya said.

“You like Leviathans, don’t you?” Zachikova said.

“Huh?” Karuniya made a face at her. “Who the heck would like those ugly things?”

She did like them– but that would have been a weird thing to admit to.

Zachikova was unfazed by the response.

“I’m not talking like they’re cute or cuddly, I mean they fascinate you, right?” She pressed.

“They’re one of my fields of study.” Karuniya said. What the hell was this conversation?

“You wouldn’t want us to unnecessarily waste resources hunting a Leviathan, correct?”

“Um, well, I mean, if it’s not threatening us, I guess. What is your point, Zachikova?”

Zachikova’s ears seemed to adjust their angle very slightly on her head.

As if beckoned by an invisible hand, the wall-mounted monitor near the garden beds began to display a video feed. It looked like it was taken by cameras on one of the Brigand’s spy drones. Internal and external camera footage was retained for 96 hours and was briefly reviewed by Karuniya, Zachikova, a security team member, and the Captain or Commissar. Anything important was backed up to tape and the rest was deleted. They had a ton of storage on the ship. Civilians were still dealing in sub gigabyte files, but the Brigand housed several petabytes of storage for high quality predictive imagery, algorithmic real-time video editing, and a ton of other fancy stuff. That being said, it would be reckless not to have storage management processes, so they held those meetings.

Knowing all of this, Karuniya realized immediately what Zachikova was asking.

There was a creature in all of the videos. Beautiful, certainly. Docile, perhaps.

Judging by the contrails of its exhaust — hell, by the very presence of an exhaust–

This was recent footage about a Leviathan coming very close to the Brigand.

“You want me to declare it a subject of study. So we won’t cull it.” She said.

Zachikova nodded. She spoke with a dispassionate tone, but–

“Out at sea, the ship science officer is an authority on matters regarding Leviathans. You can declare Leviathan alerts, issue a request for culling; ultimately, if I’m deemed negligent for not reporting the footage, you’ll be the key witness in that process. I want you to scrub this footage, make a request for study with the drone, and I’ll operate the drone and we can come into contact with the Leviathan again. Then you can name it, categorize it and declare it a subject of study.”

–Karuniya could tell that she really did care about not hurting this animal.

There was something almost touching about that.

She had always thought of Zachikova as a standoffish girl who only cared about her work.

All of these other soldiers would have shot down a Leviathan without hesitation.

“Well, if the Leviathan was out there now, wouldn’t Fatima pick it up?” Karuniya said.

“She’s not out there now.” Zachikova said. She said this with a strange note of confidence, as if she could actually tell something this uncertain. “Fatima would ignore biologic noise at this point. I think we’re all too nervous about being attacked by a ship again to really care too much.”

Wait a minute– “Did you mean to say ‘she’ to refer to the Leviathan?”

Zachikova briefly averted her gaze. “Yes. I believe it is a young female.”

That was such a weird thing to say. But Karuniya would not tease her for it any further.

“It does look really interesting. I will file a request for study right now. So sit tight. We’ll go look for her. It’s not like I have anything better to do. I welcome being able to do my real job.”

Karuniya gave her a mischievous smile and made a little peace sign to lighten the mood.

While she was playing it cool, she really appreciated having a project in that moment.

Zachikova bowed her head a little. “T-t-thanks.” For the first time– a bit of emotion.

“You can be really cute when you want to, you know?” Karuniya winked.

She turned and walked to her work terminal to begin the project in earnest.

Zachikova followed behind with an almost pitiable expression, like a lost puppy.

Karuniya thought then: even the most hardcore soldier types could be wonderful people.


Rousing gently from sleep, Elena, for a brief moment, saw the familiar four walls of her room at Vogelheim, sunlight peering through her window, the chirping of birds and the feeling of warm air. She was afraid to shut her eyes, to the point of tears, but inevitably, she did. In a blink, the familiar scene dispersed like color peeling off the walls, like a painting burning in her face.

Elena was on the UNX-001 Brigand.

For a brief moment she recalled where she had been last.

Looming tyrannical over Marina’s mind with the strange power Victoria had admitted she had.

She had wanted to hurt Marina, to force her submission, to destroy her soul.

And the thought of it scared and disgusted her now.

What had come over her?

“Feeling better? How many fingers am I holding up?”

A voice shook her out of her contemplation.

Seated on a chair near her bed was a young woman in a thick black bodysuit, interlocking plates of bulletproof armor covering her slender chest and limbs. She had a baton and a stun gun clipped to a utility belt, and there was a first aid kit spread open on an adjacent chair. Elena focused on the fingers, two slender, black gloved digits making a peace sign. Elena let out a tired sight.

“Two fingers. I’m alright. You don’t have to worry.” Elena said.

“You’ve been out for days, but you at least you were stable enough to stay in your room.”

Though Elena felt a bit self-conscious to think of it, the girl across from her–

She was– exotic?

Her long, silky black hair framed her face with perfectly blunt bangs, and the rest gathered in a handsome ponytail. Her facial features were a little different than Elena was used to. Her eyes had a slight fold, and the tone of her skin was fair but with what felt like a golden sheen. Elena did not know what race or ethnicity she belonged to. She knew the Union had a lot of peoples who were once minority populations in the Empire, like North Bosporans and Shimii. But she could not at all place the woman in front of her. And something about that made her hate herself a little, made her feel inadequate.

Luxembourg School For Girls had been Elena’s taste of a “cosmopolitan” world and even in a place seen as a liberal haven, she had one Shimii friend and nothing but Imbrian companions otherwise. She hardly saw even the “fair-skinned blonde” foreigners of the Empire like Volgians and Gallics. She was sheltered; and this ship of communists seemed to keep reminding her of sheltered-ness.

“Your name is Elen, right? I’m with security. My name is Zhu Lian. Zhu is my surname.”

“Nice to meet you. I am– I’m Elen, yeah. I’m an analyst.”

Despite Marina’s paranoia, Elena was well aware of her script and character.

Zhu Lian smiled at her and seemed to have no suspicion or malice toward her.

“Can you stand up? We had you on an IV for a bit, but you must be feeling pretty weak.”

“I think I can stand, thank you.”

Elena shifted her legs off the bed and lifted herself up to a stand. It was not difficult.

She noticed immediately that she was wearing nothing but her bodysuit.

“Could I get a moment to change?” Elena asked.

“Of course. I’ll step out. Before that, though: I’m joining my companion Klara Van Der Smidse to eat soon. Why don’t you come with us to the canteen? That way we can make sure you’re ok.”

Elena hesitated at first, unable to get a firm grasp on her own feelings. She realized that she couldn’t keep avoiding the communists and hiding in her room. This was a good step forward. These girls were security officers for the communists but they might not be enemies. They might just be two girls.

“I could really use a good meal. Thanks for the offer, Miss Zhu.”

For a moment before she left, the security officer looked mildly taken aback. “Miss Zhu?”

Once Zhu Lian was out of the room, Elena found her suit had been laundered for her, so she switched to a fresh bodysuit and donned the button-down, pants and jacket. She checked to make sure she still looked inconspicuous. The dye job on her hair was still solid, and in a ship full of young, physically active and attractive people she probably did not look like a remarkable beauty.

Outside, Elena found alongside Zhu Lian a familiar blond girl with a flighty demeanor and a matching suit of armor. Klara Van Der Smidse waved vigorously at Elena before turning to Zhu.

“Oh Lian! Are you finally sick of me? Dumping me for a nerdy girl?” She wailed.

“Hey, don’t be rude to her. You don’t know if she’s nerdy.” Lian replied coolly.

“She’s a stark contrast to my vibrant physicality. You’re really trading down!”

Lian laughed. “Don’t worry, you’re my obligation for good. If I ever let you go, someone else would have to bear your evil little head. I couldn’t live with myself unleashing that on society.”

“How mean! If you’re going to play along, don’t put me down so strongly!”

Klara puffed up her cheeks in childish anger, while Lian gave her a smug look.

Elena was reminded of the banter between Victoria and Sawyer.

Sawyer would always shout and start some kind of argument.

Victoria would coolly and dispassionately dress her down.

Gertrude would intervene if Sawyer looked like she was going to hit Victoria.

And Elena watched quietly from the sidelines, just as she watched Klara and Lian now.

Somehow they continued to hang out, the four girls always together despite this chaos.

Seeing the security officers rile each other up gave her bittersweet memories.

“Lian, can’t you see she’s not feeling the vibe? You shouldn’t keep dragging things on.”

Klara pointed at Elena with a snickering grin on her face.

“It’s your fault that nobody on Aer can stand your vibe. C’mon, let’s go eat.”

Lian started walking without waiting on Klara or anyone’s response.

So Elena followed after, trying to match her stride, quick and elegant, almost gliding.

She had such a confident posture and step– Klara did too, Elena noticed it when she looked.

They must have been well-trained. Was everyone on the Brigand some kind of Union elite?

Or maybe Elena was just too stupid to tell if they were really professional or not.

In sharp contrast to the escalated level of activity in the halls and adjoining areas, there was nobody sitting down to eat at the canteen. Long row tables full of lines of empty chairs. People mainly seemed to rush to the canteen, fill a thermos with soup from the dispensers on the wall, grab some crackery-looking bread from containers near the soup dispensers, and then rush back out.

Elena supposed those were workers with something important to do. They were dressed in jumpsuits like the repairmen at Vogelheim sometimes did. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse led Elena to the back of the canteen, where there was a kitchen counter with hot food trays encircling the cooks.

The main cook was a dark-haired lady in the middle of chopping mushrooms. She reminded Elena of Bethany Skoll, her head maid back at Vogelheim. The focus and precision with which she worked on the food, like she was in her own world from which she could not be moved until her task was done. That same level of intensity surrounded Bethany in everything she did for Elena. She felt a little melancholy; the cook and Bethany even looked a bit like they were the same age, they had a motherly aesthetic.

While the cook was engaged in her work, an unfriendly looking blond served their food.

“No substitutions shall be abided, you knaves. Secure thy blessings and be grateful.”

“We know, we know.” Klara said.

She filled plastic trays with a scoop of white rice, a large spoonful of wilted greens in a runny brown sauce, one slice of a strange cutlet that looked like no discernible cut of meat to Elena’s eyes, and a baked brown pie that seemed like the only edible thing in Elena’s plate. While Klara and Lian took their plates quickly, Elena hung back and waved for the blond serving girl.

“Excuse me.” She asked, as politely as she could.

“Hmm? Yes, yes, you desire to savage additional portions, do you not?”

“Um.” Elena’s hands trembled slightly, holding her tray. “Can I have a bit of olive oil?”

Across the counter the blond serving girl’s eyes narrowed at her. Then she laughed.

“I’ve beauty akin to royalty, so I understand your confusion, but I’ve not a royal’s ransom to my name that I could give you olive oil. You’re the Republican, are you not? Mayhaps you can vote yourself some olive oil, for you will find none here. Now scram before I become enraged.”

Elena stood speechless as the blond tossed her hair with agitation and went about her way.

Completely ignoring what Elena thought was a simple, easy request for a bit of olive oil.

Back home she always had fresh baked meat pies with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Did the communists not have olive oil? They had oil for cooking, didn’t they?

“Elen! Stop bothering Fernanda and join us already!” cried Klara, from a row seat nearby.

Still dumbfounded, Elena took her tray over to the security girls and sat down with them.

She looked down with a wan expression at her food, while Lian and Klara dug in.

“Excuse me.” Elena said. “Do you not have olive oil available as a condiment?”

“As a condiment? That’s pretty wild.” Klara asked.

“It is? I always had it back home.” Elena felt suddenly ashamed.

“You Republicans sure are care-free huh?” Lian said, sighing. “Elen, we absolutely don’t have olive oil for you to just dunk your food in. Union oil is mainly corn oil or soybean oil and its just used for cooking in. It’s pretty flavorless on its own. The margarine or shortening is a little bit better because it has extra salt and flavorings added in, but still, you weren’t going to get any.”

“In the Union it’s pretty rude to ask for more stuff on your meals.” Klara clarified. “If you need a special diet you go on a special meal plan, but the cooks work their butts off to make food for like hundreds or even thousands of people who register at their canteen, not to mention walk-ins too. They can’t do that if everyone asks for extra oil all the time, does that make sense?”

“I see. I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was like that.” Elena said, staring down at her plate.

“I’m sure nobody would hold the culture shock against you. Union life is a little bit strict.”

“Well, you know, at least the food is free.” Klara said. “Lian and I walked around a bit in Serrano city, and it was crazy how such a big place that was crammed full of people also just had guys out on the street starving to death and begging for scraps. You don’t see that in the Union.”

“It was pretty disturbing. I’m hoping the entire Empire isn’t like that.” Lian said.

Elena didn’t have the heart to speak up about that.

She knew that the Empire — her Empire — was a difficult and violent place to live.

Though perhaps often naïve she wasn’t completely ignorant to the Empire’s history.

While she was sheltered in Vogelheim she read books and sought out information on the network and tried to learn the things they just would not teach her in Luxembourg, or that she would never get to personally see. She knew that housing cost money and certain people couldn’t pay. She knew that food prices went up and down with supply, demand, price controls or subsidies, tampering by bad market actors — and in turn she knew, at times, people couldn’t afford food, and it led to riots or even wars. And she knew that the Empire persecuted and ejected people for their ethnicity, and that this led to them losing housing, food and even their lives. Elena was sheltered, not stupid.

However, there was a gap in her knowledge about what anyone could do about it.

The Empire felt like a force of nature.

A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.

When her father took power from the Nocht dynasty, he had declared a grand project known as the “Fueller Reformation” that was supposed to end the unrest, the ethnic cleansing, the instabilities in food and housing, corruption among the nobles– a grand and sweeping rejuvenation of the Empire. Clearly, however, he must have failed. Had the Fueller Reformation truly succeeded the Empire would not be split into warring sides. Vogelheim would not have been destroyed.

Bethany would not have had to die, and Elena could have had olive oil on her pies still.

But those were things that could not concern Elen. Elen had an entire other life.

So in front of Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse, Elen began to eat her food.

Despite the lackluster appearance, the flavors of the food were acceptable.

Everything was well seasoned. There was plenty of unctuous mouthfeel and umami flavor.

Nothing could beat the feasts Bethany made with the highest quality ingredients.

But Elena could understand that the Union had acceptable substitutes for such things.

Perhaps the life of the communists was not so bleak and joyless as she thought.

“I have a question. Maybe it’s a stupid one.” Elena said.

“Those are my favorite kind of question!” Klara said. “Throw it out there, Elen!”

Elena gathered her breath, laying her spork down on the pool of sauce left in her plate.

“Do you all really believe in the communist government?” Elena said.

Lian and Klara turned to face each other and turned back to Elena with puzzled expressions.

“Uhhh; are you lookin’ to start a fight, Republican?” Klara said, cocking an eyebrow.

It sounded like she was teasing her– at least Elena certainly hoped it was just teasing.

“Klara don’t scare her. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t really care about what the government calls itself or how they justify it when they do things.” Lian said. “What I care about is that the government does good things for us. And in the Union, the way we organize things has been good for us. Everyone gets a little slice of something. Enough of a life to be pretty happy.”

“I was a little kid when my family was deported to the Union.” Klara said. “I was like two or three years old so I can’t remember the Empire exactly or what happened to us. As a little kid we had some rough times when the Union was formed, but every time there was a shortage, the government was completely up front about it. They told us in school, you know? So I couldn’t blame them when that stuff happened. It felt like it was everyone’s shared problem, or something.”

“My family has a crazy history.” Lian said. “We were from this station in the Cogitum Ocean, like, far, far east, called Zhongshan, and our country had an enemy, Hanwa, who captured us and pressed us into service aboard their ships. Those ships went to war against the Empire and were defeated by the Vekans. The Vekans then deported us to the colonies as POWs. When the Union was formed, it didn’t matter that we were foreigners who had been shuffled around so many countries. We became people of the Union. We all had the same lot, and we shared the same space and resources. That’s always what I’ve called communism, even if I don’t know all the theory.”

Elena listened intently to their stories. Communism had always been the evil ideology of the Empire’s enemies. Communism tricked people into suffering and famine, killed billions, turned neighbor on neighbor, faithful servant against generous master. It was a tempting succubus that threatened to drain the soul of a nation. When Marina told her they would be fleeing to the Union, it felt like she was making a deal with the devil. This was all quite unlike what she had been taught.

In the Empire, communism was taught like it was a force of nature.

A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.

The Union had rebelled against the Empire, but Elena knew how rotten the Empire was.

Could she blame them? Did she need to fear them like Marina said?

While the communists did not hide the fact that they faced difficulties and hardships in their nation, they did not speak as if they were subjects of a dictatorship who had everything stolen from them and were brainwashed into believing and participating in an evil plot. Everyone on the Brigand were just people. They were soldiers, but– also just people who just had lives and homes.

Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse– in the Empire, would they be hated? Persecuted?

And so, then, was it the Union that was truly just? Was the Union the truly virtuous state?

“I’m sorry for the heavy question. Things are different in the– in the Republic, is all.”

Elena deflected from this subject. She had quite enough on her mind already.

Without having to ponder the weighty questions of national politics.

“You two seem really close.” Elena said. “How did you meet?”

She put on a bubbly smile in the hopes they would play along with the lighter topic.

Thankfully Klara seemed to require little input to get going and ran with it immediately.

“Hah! Lian and I go way back. We used to be rivals in the infantry!”

Klara shot a little look at Lian, who returned it with equal intensity– and fondness.

“Back in camp, whenever I did 100 pushups, this dork would go and do 101.” Lian said.

“And when I set fast times in the obstacle course, you would go and top them!” Klara said.

“Yeah but I wasn’t loud about it like you. You’d go around bragging, it was obnoxious.”

“Of course! What’s the point in beating you at everything and keeping quiet about it?”

Lian looked at Elena, pointing a thumb at Klara. “I hated this bitch for the longest time.”

“I wanted to fucking kill her.” Klara said casually, gently shoving Lian in the shoulder.

“Um.” Elena started to go pale. Had she set them off in an even worse way?

Both were still smiling though. And they each threw an arm over each other’s shoulder.

“One time though, we ended up paired up in a mock battle!” Lian said excitedly.

“We smoked everyone. It was crazy how tuned up our frequencies were!” Klara added.

“After that, we ended up in the showers.” Lian said. She gave Klara a mischievous look.

Klara laughed it off, cheeks red, winking. “Couldn’t keep my eyes off her ever since.”

“Or your hands.” Lian said. The two of them rubbed their heads together affectionately.            

Were people in the Union always so openly romantic? Elena felt herself shrink a little, feeling awkward around the two of them, but at the very least, they had gotten away from politics. There was another little bittersweet memory here. Elena was reminded of her childhood crushes, Gertrude and Sawyer. Of her friend Victoria who perhaps also loved her, too. Of the fighting and frolicking of their youth.

All of those people felt so far away. Perhaps she would only ever see them again in death.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.1]

“Huh. It’s really beautiful. I want to play with it.”

Through the visual sensors of a recon drone, Braya Zachikova observed a novel creature in the middle of the desolate, rocky oceans of northern Sverland. It had appeared from out of nowhere as many things in the ocean did, seen first as a blip of biological noise in the sonar before flitting in front of the cameras. In a rare fanciful mood, Zachikova felt it looked like a beautiful dancer in a red and white dress. A fuciform fish-like body pure white and mottled with red, ended in a sleek head and possessed grand and ornate fins that seemed almost silken, gently swaying in the water. On its rear, a pair of small biological hydrojets hidden behind similarly lovely curtain-like fins, like the hem of a dress, spun spiraling patterns into the ocean that indicated that this organism was not something ordinary.

Only Leviathans of various descriptions used biojet propulsion.

Large as the drone itself, which was the size of a car, this was something Zachikova should have reported as an “incident” worthy of a combat response. Instead, she found herself watching the animal idly. It was curious, closing in with gentle, elegant strokes of its fins, circling around the drone such that Zachikova had to flip a mental switch to move from camera to camera and follow it. She began to track the creature closely.

It was graceful, taking care not to bump into the silver-blue steel chassis of the drone.

Her optics made brief contact with the dancer’s bright lilac-colored eyes.

Greetings!

Zachikova almost thought she heard it say something.

She would have snickered, but the drone had no such faculties to convey emotions.

Her human body, connected to the drone through her antennae, snickered in her place.

“Nothing wrong with playing a little. It’s not like I’m behind on my work at all anyway.”

Perhaps uncharacteristically, Zachikova loved animals. They fascinated her.

They were like machines, built to purpose and perfection from birth.

She extended the arms of the drone, hoping for a response but not too invested in one.

Her heart swelled for a brief moment as the dancer complied with her.

Twirling in shimmering arcs around the arms as if it understood what she wanted.

A fleeting tactile sensation. Softness. Those diaphanous fins brushing on her arms.

“Beautiful!” Such emotion as Zachikova had not felt in a long time. Pure innocent joy.

It was so agile and elegant! So intelligent too– it definitely divined her intent and played along with her. It– no, she, for the dancer had to be female– she was moving deliberately. Zachikova had never seen a creature move like the dancer and had never had such an interaction with an animal before. With her mind almost entirely contained within the chassis of the drone, she almost felt like a peer to the creature. She felt a strange sense of euphoria.

Unfortunately, something interrupted her by touching her flesh and blood body.

Flipping that mental switch again, Zachikova switched from the optics of the drone to her own optics. Those two transplanted mechanical eyes which had been installed in her head due to the destruction of her own by Hartz syndrome. When she looked through them, she saw a round-faced, chubby blond girl waving at her and trying to get attention. Switching her gaze from one machine to another machine was not such an effort– but it took Zachikova quite a few seconds more to pull her self, her personhood out of the drone and to establish her center of gravity and thought in her own body. It was only then that she could talk to humans again.

I’m sorry. Please wait for me. She almost wanted to say this to the beautiful dancer.

And she really wanted to believe she had heard ‘Of course, Braya’ back from it.

That was of course entirely a fantasy.

“Semyonova.” Zachikova said, nodding her head in acknowledgment.

“Good evening Zachikova! I’m here to relieve you! You ought to go rest.”

Natalya Semyonova patted her on the shoulder with a friendly eagerness and a splendid smile.

Despite her cheerfully pushy personality, Zachikova could not make herself be rude to Semyonova.

Beautiful, smart, possessed of a powerful voice, Semyonova really had no faults.

Even Zachikova had to respect the efficiency with which she adapted to her purpose.

They were of course on the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand– Zachikova felt some of the residual chill of the deep waters on her body, part of the strange psychosomatic effects of shifting her consciousness into a machine through the use of her cybernetic implants. She started to recall that she had been working the late shift. In a seven day work-week, four or five of the late shifts were usually worked by perennial lateshifters Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa. However, Semyonova made sure they had days when they were middle shifters so they could have rest.

On those days, she always worked one of the late shifts herself.

“As the Officer’s Union Representative, I’d be remiss to avoid this responsibility!”

Those were her reasons at the time.

Zachikova usually took a late shift as well in such cases and worked as long as she could.

“I’m here for a challenge, not for the accommodations. If I can be doing something, I will.”

Those were her reasons at the time.

And those same reasons, and new ones, compelled her to shake her head at Natalya.

“I’d rather keep working, Semyonova. Without Geninov, I’m the only drone-certified officer around.”

Semyonova crossed her arms at her.

“I know you would prefer to work all day and night, but we didn’t fight a whole revolution to act like slaves now! Even someone as dedicated as you needs to rest, Zachikova! Otherwise it will definitely catch up to you one day. I’m sending you away to bed right this instant. I can keep track of everything with the sonar.” She said.

“The Captain wanted active drone surveillance whenever possible.”

“Yes, and you’ve been splendid! But tomorrow’s splendid work, starts with having good sleep today.”

She said that with a tone of voice that seemed to indicate it was a touchy subject for her.

Zachikova knew not to fight this unwanted gesture of kindness. A few days had passed since the Brigand confronted the Iron Lady, and everyone was tense and anxious. They were working nonstop in case another threat arose. Fleeing as fast as they could while trying to find a place they could hide and repair the ship.

In the meantime, the bridge was running at breakneck speed, staffed at varying capacities 24/7. After being caught off-guard once before, rapid response became paramount and there were even plans to run surprise readiness drills. Semyonova herself was running a bit ragged with all the hubbub but she didn’t complain.

As the Union rep she must have felt the responsibility to set an example.

And she was also the chief of communications, so she always processing messages.

“I’ve got piles of work, but I know there’s no point in arguing.” Zachikova droned.

In reality, what she really wanted to do was play, and perhaps her disappointment showed.

“Ahh, what’s that face? Now I feel kinda bad for pulling you off work, you know?”

Semyonova sighed and looked conflicted for a moment.

Zachikova didn’t feel guilty even though in a sense, she was sort of lying. Whether it was exploring around the Brigand with the trailing drone or a spy tentacle or writing scripts and programs to run the various hidden functions of the ship, or performing any maintenance needed on the supercomputer, there were lots of things Zachikova could be doing at any given moment. Right then she was just slacking; but it was true that she was busy. Sleeping was still inconvenient.

Back in the Special Forces she was even known as Black Bags Braya. Sleeping was an unwelcome obstacle.

Sleep was nothing but a defect in the human machine and she despised it.

But it was what it was; Zachikova made the situation easier by standing up, unplugging her antenna from the console, and walking away without further notice. She heard nothing from the Bridge and didn’t stop. Her room was not even that far from the bridge. Without a goodbye or well wishes, she simply left Semyonova. Her demeanor was not aggravated. She simply saw no need to make pleasantries. They were just on this ship for a mission after all.

Stepping through doors that closed behind her, she found her room as she had left it. She spent very little time in her room. Nothing but bunks and sheets and a big grey passcode locked case thrown in a corner. That case had all her special tools. It was Zachikova’s only personal property. Clothes or food goods, she brought no such items from home. This was the room of a girl whose brain was practically the only thing she needed to work.

“If she wants me to sleep, I guess I’ll sleep. I kinda wish I could see her again though.”

Zachikova threw herself on her unmade bed and laid on her side.

She closed her eyes.

Instead of the darkness inside her eyelids, she imagined the Ocean again.

She could see it vivid and firsthand as if through the drone optics. Except the fidelity was impossible; like a painting of what she Ocean should be. Beautiful gemstone-like greens and blues as if rather than inundated in water the landscape was coated in an aquamarine glaze over kelp, shellfish, and beautiful corals. Seeing through the muck that had become of it into the most pristine waters of what it could be in a perfect world.

Amid everything, the dancer, swimming beautifully with Zachikova’s mechanical body.

They had the whole Ocean to themselves and it was pure bliss. There were no imperfections.

We’ll meet again. I want to touch you again, Braya.

Drifting off to sleep, Zachikova thought, she really wanted to touch her and to be touched again too.


Maryam often dreamt of the Aether.

In her dreams the landscape was an indeterminate stone circle, but it swirled with brilliant color. Within a maelstrom of colors and gradients, her hair blowing as if there was a wind, Maryam stood amid everything, as if in the center of the very world and all who lived within it, and she felt the emotion carried on that wind. That current which tied every person together no matter the violence they committed to each other, that bound them into action and consequence, that made their lives matter to each other no matter the degree of physical disconnection.

She could always see the colors in her life, but for the longest time, she never understood them, save the volatile red and black of the Warlord Athena whom she served. She learned to associate this with pain and the sight of death. But there was color everywhere, around people, and in her dreams. Even in the murky red seas of Katarre she could see blue and green around contented people, yellow around the sick, purple around the proud.

Associations that she grew to make.

Euphrates of the Sunlight Foundation explained it to her.

“Aether is a current that we couldn’t see until we immersed ourselves in the currents of the Ocean. Like a current, it flows. Forward and backward through space but also through time as humans could never hope to experience it. It is unbound, flowing everywhere, going places we can’t follow. But it is only visible where it touches humans, and it warps in response to our neurological energy. To see Aether, even at its most disturbed, takes psionic talent.”

Maryam liked the idea of the Aether.

She felt that, someday, everyone would be able to see it.

And like her, they would understand everyone around them without fail.

Maybe wars would finally end if that happened.

How naïve! If humans perfectly understood each other, they would use that power for war.

She was not dreaming.

But she was not back on the UNX-001 Brigand.

Still standing in that stone circle, but hearing the voice returned control of her body to her.

Her eyes narrowed; her cheerful smile contorted with disgust.

“Don’t speak to me anymore. I don’t trust you.”

You have such vast psionic potential, and you waste over half of it containing me.

He spoke in her own voice, but the tone was distinctly his.

And upon acknowledging him, he appeared, standing across the stone circle from her.

She saw her body, dressed in her habit.

Slender figure, long purple hair, w-shaped pupils in her eyes, her tentacles stretching from the side of her head camouflaged as if long tufts of her hair. But He always wore her colorshifting skin a sandy brown tone. And he lifted her tentacles into her hair such that the pads stuck up out from under her hair, like they were Shimii ears.

“I’m not going to trust you again.” She said.

He used her slim shoulders and arms to shrug, grinning at her with her own face.

Even in the prison of her mind, He could not speak, because he had no mouth but hers.

Instead he used psionics and projected his own thoughts into their brain.

This is how you repay me for saving us?

“I didn’t need your kind of saving.”

We would’ve never made it out of that damned church otherwise.

“You just wanted to hurt people for no reason. I could’ve escaped without killing anyone.”

Suit yourself. We’ll see how you deal with the world with that stupid attitude.

“I’ve been dealing just fine.”

How is mind controlling everyone any better than what I did?

“Because they lived through it, and I even made their lives better.”

You used to be such a nice girl to me. We would play together all the time!

“Yeah and I’ve matured to know playing with a thousand year old man was weird.”

I protected you!

“I don’t need you anymore.”

Across from her, her own face contorted into sudden confusion.

Perhaps even embarrassment or shame.

And then anger.

I hope you die then, Maryam Karahailos! Maybe my next roll of dice will be better!

“If you sabotage me, then may God curse your next hundred lives Faiyad Ayari!”

Maryam was not afraid of him. She cursed him because she could control him.

But for a small instant before he vanished, she thought she saw–

Sadness–?

Regret–?

Could not have been. He couldn’t make such faces. Not even using hers.

He was nothing but a monster that needed caging in her.

Wallahi, I will never hurt you. I swear that on the God that has already cursed my lives.

That was not–

Where did that voice–?

Maryam’s colors became distorted, and she fell back into the current of dreams.


Sonya Shalikova bolted upright in bed and nearly screamed.

She grabbed hold of the sheets over her chest, casting eyes about the room.

No alarm lights.

Everything was still dim, but she could see Maryam Karahailos in the other bunk.

Sleeping soundly, a big dumb smile on her face, mumbling to herself. Changing colors as she slept, like a little wave sweeping across her hair and skin. There was a soft green glow from a strip of bioluminescent skin perpendicular across the bridge of her nose and under her eyes, but the rest of her colors were dim and shadowed.

Her snoring almost sounded like–

Sonya~hehe–!” She snorted.

Shalikova shook her head to try to rattle herself to consciousness.

She could not be hearing something that stupid.

“Nightmares.” She mumbled to herself. “It’s been nothing but nightmares since I got out to fucking sea. Nightmares and a god awful tinnitus. Maybe I should go see the doctor for once.”

There was nothing more mortifying than talking to a doctor about her feelings. Receiving some kind of practiced clinical response back. When her sister– no, her mind refused to go there. She had gone to therapy before for various reasons and not for anything conclusive, and it had been annoying. But she was clearly rattled, and it was affecting her. She was up two hours earlier than the already early schedule she set for herself.

And then there was the contents of the dreams.

Shalikova raised her hands to her face with shame.

“No way. How do I tell her I dreamt a monster was jerking me off?”

That was not the only thing she dreamt but it was the strongest image she retained.

All of the dreams had similar patterns: voices, colors, tentacles. Vulnerability, helplessness, sex

“Ugh. Whatever.”

Shalikova threw herself back onto the bed and curled up with Comrade Fuzzy beneath the sheets. When it was dark, her room felt cavernous and consuming, like she could get lost in it. Her bed was her little corner where she could be safe. Ever since the battle with the Iron Lady, the most mundane things around her felt enormous and difficult to come to grips with. When she closed her eyes, but before she dreamed, what she saw was the Ocean through the cameras of the Diver. Massive curtains of flak fire, the great roaring of guns, the clashing of sawteeth on vibroblades.

She gritted her teeth. Frustrated at herself but unable to shake off these anxieties.

It had only been a handful of days since they escaped the Iron Lady.

And most of those days Shalikova spent in her room staring at the ceiling.

Today couldn’t be another of those days. Her shame would not permit it, and also–

Maryam’s voice reverberated in her head. Before bed last night, they sealed a pact:

“Tomorrow, you’ll show me around right? And we’ll eat together! Promise?”

“She was probably trying to shake me out of my rut.” Shalikova said to herself.

Regardless, in that moment, Shalikova had promised to hang out with Maryam. It would have been terribly low of her to completely disregard that promise. Especially with how badly Maryam seemed to want to be her friend ever since they met. Shalikova was not unaware of that. She found it a bit bizarre, but she was not so cold as to categorically dismiss Maryam’s desires. Despite everything, she could try to be welcoming to Maryam.

If she just wanted to walk around the ship and eat together at the canteen, that was doable.

Shalikova tried to relax and return to sleep– but she couldn’t manage it.

After a few hours her room lights brightened.

Shalikova turned her gaze from the ceiling and looked across the room at the other bed. There she found a pair of W-shaped pupils staring at her. A gentle pink face framed by long, silky, bright purple hair hiding a pair of tentacles. Thin, soft lips spread into a broad smile as those exotic purple-and-green eyes met the indigo across the room. Peeking out through her hair from the crown of her head two silken cephalopod wing fins stood on end when she realized Shalikova was awake.

“Sonyaaaaaaa~! Good morning!”

She was so cheerful that it was almost ridiculous.

Looking at her, Shalikova put on a tiny smile. Maryam had an infectious energy.

“Good morning. Have you been wearing that habit all this time?”

“Hmm? My habit? Yes, I have!”

She covered herself in blankets, but Shalikova could see the tall collar of her black dress. It was the kind that Solceanos “sisters” or “nuns” wore even in the Union. Long sleeved, with a very modest, almost grandmotherly design. Because of how roomy it looked, Shalikova imagined Maryam as maybe much more skinny or ephemeral than she really was, wrapped in loose cloth.

“We need to get you new clothes.” Shalikova said. “I’ve got an extra Treasure Box uniform you can use. Even if you haven’t really done anything the past few days, it’s not hygienic to keep wearing the same outfit.”

Maryam raised a hand to her mouth, hiding a silly little snickering face.

“Sonya, I don’t know that your spare clothes will fit me. I’m less hydrodynamic than you.”

She sat up in bed and pressed her dress a bit tighter to her chest to accentuate the curve.

Shalikova grunted. “Shut up. Your figure is not that different, and the material is stretchy.”

“Hmm! Well, if you want to see me dress up, I won’t complain!”

In that instant, Shalikova turned her back on Maryam and tapped on the wall.

Near Maryam’s bed, a wall panel opened.

Extending a small metal arm from which the uniform hung in a plastic bag. Along with the uniform there was a container of cleansing body spray which could clean the body in place of a shower. Shalikova had that compartment prepared in case she needed to get to work in a hurry, and now it served to give everything Maryam needed to make herself fresh and presentable.

Shalikova pointedly continued to stare at the wall.

She heard a small sigh, and the shifting of blankets and sheets on the other bed. Gentle footsteps, the ripping of the plastic bag, ruffling of synthetic fabric, the sound of spray discharging from the container, and more tiny noises of exertion before there was finally a bit of silence.

“Are you done yet?” Shalikova asked.

“Sonya this is silly! We’re both girls!” Maryam said.

“Tell me when you’re done changing and I’ll turn around.”

“I am done! Gaze upon my radiant beauty!”

Shalikova turned herself over on the bed.

Maryam looked indeed radiant but mostly because she was making her skin glow brighter using her chromatophores. However, Shalikova had to admit that the teal half-jacket, tight button-down shirt, and short skirt did flatter Maryam quite a bit. She did look much more eyecatching to Shalikova than in the black grandmother’s dress.

And maybe her figure was a little fuller than Shalikova’s.

“Good. Now turn around.”

“Huh?”

Shalikova sat up in bed.

For the past few days she had been mostly sleeping so she had been dressed only in the same tanktop and shorts she wore to bed. What she wanted most was a shower but– with Maryam around a can of body foam would do nicely. That being said, she would do none of those things until a certain girl turned her W-shaped eyes to a wall.

“I’m not going to undress in front of you. I’m not that familiar with anyone. Turn around.”

Maryam sighed and crossed her arms. “I suppose this is also a cute side of Sonya.”

She turned her back on Shalikova. Her tentacles rose and covered her eyes with their pads.

“Thanks. Stay turned around until I tell you.”

Even with Maryam turned away, it was still strange to undress with someone in a private room together. Shalikova had gotten used to it in the bathroom, but she had considered her room to be her little fortress. Nevertheless, she threw her tanktop and shorts down the laundry chute, sprayed herself down with a can of cleaning foam, and dressed in the Treasure Box corporate uniform. She had started to like wearing just the sleeveless button-down and black tie with the pants and without the teal jacket. She tied the jacket around her waist instead. She thought it looked good that way.

As an Ensign she did not have a formal cap, only a beret as part of her Union navy uniform.

She could imagine herself looking good with a cap with this outfit, but she left the beret behind.

“Let’s go get some food first and then I’ll show you the hangar.” Shalikova said.

Maryam circled on her heel and laid eyes on Shalikova, positively beaming with delight.

“Handsome as always! No wonder you are one of the ‘four princes of the Brigand’!”

Shalikova felt her heart leaping in her chest. “Wait, wait– what did you say? I’m what–?”

“Oh nothing~!” Maryam started out of the room with a spring in her step. “Let’s go Sonya! We have a wonderful day ahead of us! Eating together, visiting the most romantic spots–!”

“What romantic spots? It’s a warship?” Shalikova said but was quickly spoken over.

“–I can even tell our fortunes in a secluded nook! It’ll be the best day ever!”

Sighing heavily, Shalikova followed along behind her.

As far as Shalikova knew the current state of the Brigand was one of escalated alertness.

Outside the rooms the hall was characterized by nervous activity. There was a great awful gash cut into the flank of the Brigand that needed repair, and the sailors were doing what they could while the Brigand was in motion. She saw men and women in the hall returning half-disrobed in pressure suits, wearing heavy magnetic boots and rope pulleys that others helped them to take off. They had come back from adjoining halls deliberately flooded and drained and flooded anew and with their pressures carefully adjusted to allow safe access to the damage sites. Full repairs to the exterior could not be conducted while the Brigand was moving “ahead full,” but they could make reinforcements to the walls of the flooded sector and set up tools and safety anchors to make future work much easier.

People were coming and going, at all times there was movement and chatter. Seeing so many sailors out working so hard made Shalikova feel so small. All she had been doing was sitting around and feeling sorry for herself. There was so little a soldier could do when there wasn’t fighting. She felt useless– and yet she also did not want any battles to break out, of course. They nearly lost Murati and Sameera in their first confrontation.

Both were still in the hospital as far as Shalikova knew.

“Pilot! You were awesome out there! Whoo!”

What was even more mortifying was that the sailors in the halls would greet her and cheer.

For the Sailors, the fastest way to the breach caused by the Iron Lady, was through the access ways linked to the upper pods of the Brigand’s double-deck layout. So many sailors from belowdecks who did not normally see Shalikova every day now got to pass her on the halls, closer than ever. She even thought she recognized a few of them from that big huddle and cheer that everyone held when she returned from the last battle.

So everyone who passed by made some kind of gesture or expression at her.

She tried not to wither from the sudden attention, but it was hard to wave back.

You guys are the heroes! I’m just going to get breakfast; I’m not doing shit!

“Wow Sonya! Everyone really loves you!” Maryam said.

Shalikova wished she had a hat to pull down over her eyes.

There was one upshot to all this, which was that the sailors were so busy in they were not crowding the canteen much at all. There were always a handful of them running in and out, taking bread and thermoses full of soup, but very few were sitting down to eat. Not only was there repair work (and the work of supporting those doing the repairs) on top of the regular maintenance work, but down at the hangar, the Cheka was in an abhorrent state and the other Divers had either hull damage, damaged weapons, or internal systems damage, or all three.

Everyone was so busy, and she did not hear a single person complain or look down.

They were all motivated. Maybe just by their own survival; maybe by mutual support.

Still, the enormity of the bodies at work made Shalikova feel tiny and worthless.

Behind the kitchen counter at the canteen, Logia Minardo looked much more relaxed than normal. She had her apron and plastic work clothes and her hair up in a blue bandana. Humming while she glided from one half of the kitchen to the next, multi-tasking like it was a partner dance with the equipment. Many of the heating elements on her stovetops had pots going with mushroom and algae broths destined for a sailor’s thermos. There were sheets of stretched dough ready to be cut into cracker-y biscuits, to refill the self-serve table. Every oven was running, probably baking those biscuits. Up front, there were a few trays of hot food kept gently heated by tray warmers.

“Ohh, she’s happy!” Maryam said.

Those hot food trays contained fluffy white rice, leafy greens in garlic sauce, soy cutlets flavored with beet sugar and soy sauce, and baked pirozhki each bigger than a fist with carrots, cabbage, and mushroom for filling. Flecks of oil glistened on the surface of the syrup-brown cutlet sauce and the crust of the pirozhok had a golden sheen likely achieved with a finish of margarine or shortening. Cooking for a warship was the art of making frozen and canned ingredients appealing. Shalikova knew the artifice. She could see the bio-stitcher built into the kitchen wall already processing a block of frozen vegetable matter into more “leafy greens” in the garlic sauce.

Maryam, however, was dazzled by the presence of the fake biostitch lettuce.

“Wow! Military ships have the best food everywhere in the world huh?” Maryam said.

“Yeah, we eat like kings.” Shalikova sarcastically said, unable to deal with her optimism.

Maryam put a finger on her chin and started reminiscing.

“Sonya, you may not have heard these names and places, but I used to serve on the flagship of the warlord Athena in Eastern Katarre. At first it was tough for food, I basically ate nutrient pellets as a larva, but when I turned nine years old, I think, Athena conquered and enslaved a food producing region with three stations. Then we were eating like true conquerors, even the lowest Naftis on the flagship got to have some meat and veggies.”

“Um.” Out of everything Maryam had just spouted, one particular word stuck. “Larva?”

She imagined a little purple worm with a smile and knew that couldn’t possibly be it.

“Oh that’s what Katarran kids are called. You know how Shimii are ‘kittens’.”

“We just call them kids or babies or children or whatever. Larva’s just– it’s weird.”

“It’s not inaccurate though.” Maryam said. She looked genuinely confused.

Thankfully Minardo wasn’t alone, and this awkward episode was ultimately broken by the appearance of Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa behind the counter, the day’s designated kitchen assistant. Her blond hair was bunched up in a bandana and she was not wearing her usual array of dark purple makeup, which made her look ordinary. Shalikova did not know much about her– she saw her in the halls, and sometimes begrudgingly sharing the showers with Alexandra Geninov. Those two were known as the “perennial late shifters” and had matching schedules.

“Salutations. Peruse of the vittles, but substitutions shall not be permitted.” She said.

Her unfriendly voice and glare gave the kitchen counter a walled-off, antagonistic vibe.

“You’re supposed to serve our share.” Shalikova said pointedly.

It was not often that she criticized another worker like this. But it had its intended effect.

Fernanda rolled her eyes and began to, quite begrudgingly, fill a multi-section plate for each of them. Despite her clear lack of motivation, she did serve equal portions for both of them, along with a prepackaged condiment and utensil pack for each of them. So she did do her job right. Maryam and Shalikova took their trays away, with Fernanda’s evil gaze burning into their backs like she wanted to lay a curse on them.

“She talked funny, but I think she’s nice deep down.” Maryam said.

“You think that about everyone.” Shalikova said. “Develop a bit of malice, wouldn’t you?”

They sat in a corner of the canteen, as was Shalikova’s habit. Maryam sat next to her and got started. She withdrew her reusable utensils, made of carbon fiber, from the bag which certified they had been cleaned and inspected aboard the Brigand itself prior to issuance. She quickly split the crunchy crust of her pie to reveal the creamy mushroom and crisp vegetables inside. With her spork, she poked at the biostitched lettuce happily.

“It all looks wonderful!”

With an enormous smile on her face, Maryam took a big bite of the pie.

Chromatophores on her cheeks gave her a softly glowing flush as she chewed.

“Delicious! Oh Sonya, the crust is so buttery! And the mushrooms are so meaty!”

Shalikova blinked hard. She picked at her own pirozhok and took a bite.

“It’s pretty good I guess.” She said.

Living in the Union wasn’t always easy. One had to get well accustomed to having what one needs over what one desires. There were always shortages of something so having a favorite food that was not biscuit or soy was asking for frequent heartbreak. And outside of canteen meals, it was difficult to get fresh food. However, the degree of privation a person had to experience to be this excited over pirozhki was something else entirely. Shalikova felt her heart stir with a sense of painful sympathy for Maryam. She had been a slave aboard some evil ship, to the point that the confines of the Brigand and its comfortable but basic rations were making her head explode.

As much as she wanted to judge Maryam sometimes–

There was no way she could.

Maryam really was someone who had suffered a lot. Her optimism was not naïve to pain.

Shalikova tried her best to make lighter conversation over the meal.

“You said you could tell my fortune, right?”

Maryam’s face lit up. Less from the chromatophores this time; more just her expression.

“Indeed! After I left the church, I supported myself through soothsaying.”

“Is that stuff actually real? Or was it just tricks?”

For an instant Maryam turned pure white. She seemed to do this out of distress sometimes.

“Of course it is real! I’ll tell your fortune right now Sonya!”

“Okay, but you have to promise you won’t tease me.”

“Tease you?”

“You can’t say stuff like ‘you’ll have a future full of romance’ or whatever.”

“But what if it’s the truth?”

“Maryam–!”

“Okay, okay.” Maryam’s fins drooped. “Fine, I will be completely honest.”

Shalikova didn’t believe something like fortune telling could ever be honest.

Nevertheless, she was curious to see what Maryam could do.

There was something about her– the way the colors played about her sometimes.

Those colors–? Was it just her chromatophores?

Maryam reached out and took Shalikova’s hand into both of her own.

She took a deep breath and then gazed directly into Shalikova’s eyes.

Shalikova fixed her gaze on the one being cast at her.

Around Maryam’s eyes glowing red rings appeared that made the colors swimming around her head suddenly come into striking relief. Before Shalikova could have almost ignored them, like the lights dancing inside her eyelids when she stared at a screen for too long or a trick of room LEDs but now it was like a gas that seemed to drawn to Maryam. Like pictures of nebulas from when teachers talked about what lay beyond the sky of the surface world; like the aurora said to have once existed in the far northern skies when such things were visible to humans.

For a moment, Shalikova felt something.

Like–

A tentacle or a tendril, rubbing– rubbing the back of her mind.

Not her cranium, not her brain, not the flesh– but the thoughts, the space of feeling–

There was a trickle of blood that dripped down Maryam’s nose.

“Maryam! What the hell? You’re bleeding!”

Shalikova reached out and touched Maryam’s shoulders.

Her wide-open eyes seemed to register motion again, as if she had woken from sleep.

One of her tentacles reached out to her nose and wiped some of the blood on the pad.

“Oh dear! I really went too far. Sorry Sonya, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Shalikova couldn’t believe what she had seen and heard.

Those colors around Maryam, bright blue, and a stripe of yellow and green and black–

All of it dissipated, as if it had been a daydream, a delusion.

“You can actually read fortunes?” Shalikova asked. Her own voice sounded distant.

Maryam nodded. “I said I could Sonya, and I don’t lie. I was trying to read yours.”

“But you couldn’t?” Shalikova asked. “You couldn’t and it made you bleed?”

“Ah, no, the bleeding isn’t related, that just happens sometimes.”

“Maryam, what was my fortune?”

“Ah.” Maryam shook her head. “I couldn’t read it, sorry. This must sound really dumb.”

“How do you read people’s fortunes? When you do it, do you see colors around them?”

Shalikova must have gone insane.

She thought she really had to be completely losing her mind to ask such an insane question.

But the colors, she had seen the colors before! In the hangar, around people’s heads–!

Did– did Zasha have– the colors around her when she left– was it all black–?

“Maryam, please don’t tease me or joke about this. Are your fortunes based on the colors?”

Maryam nodded her head. Innocent, straightforward, without malice.

“I was hoping to dive into your aura, yeah.” Maryam said. Her voice was so untroubled.

How could she just say such things? Aura? “My aura? Is that what you call the colors?”

“Sonya, you look really distressed. If you want, I can teach you how to do it too.”

Shalikova’s heart briefly stilled.

It was stupid, it was so completely fucking stupid to be having this conversation.

How was it that Maryam so conveniently appeared, aware of all this complete nonsense?

“Maryam, you’re not teasing me right? You would teach me what you just did?”

“Of course. Anything for you, Sonya. I know you’ll pick it up quickly, you’re very skilled.”

Again she just smiled. That broad and bright and beatific smile bereft of mockery.

For a moment, Shalikova finally realized just how elevated her breathing had become.

She heaved a deep sigh and tried to calm herself down.

“I’m sorry. I know this must sound insane. But I feel like I’ve seen those colors before.”

“Oh yes, those colors like you call them, they’re everywhere that people are.”

“Is it some kind of religious thing? Like do I need to convert to Solceanism?”

Maryam narrowed her eyes a little and wore a growing distress on her face.

“Let’s pick that back up later, okay? I still want to see the ship. I promise I’ll explain it.”

Shalikova heaved another sigh. Maryam was right. She was being completely insane.

All this stuff was just her being stressed out and broken inside.

It had to be.

There was no way she had seen any fucking colors when her sister died.

“Right. I’m sorry. I’ll relax and we’ll continue the tour. I’m just exploding with stress.”

Shalikova let out a little laugh at herself. Like pressure being released to avoid a blowout.

“It’s okay! I promise I’ll make everything better. Let’s clean our plates and go!”

Maryam reached out and touched Shalikova’s shoulder reassuringly.

It was more comforting than Shalikova wanted to let on.

After the meal, they returned their trays and utensils and got back to the halls.

Shalikova did not consider herself much of a tour guide, but she knew a few places to take Maryam in the upper compartments just so she would know where things were. She showed her to the doctor’s quarters, carefully avoiding drawing the attention of the actual doctor; to the showers, explaining the open shower plan and watching Maryam turn completely white again in response; past the rooms of several more officers; each of the elevators and bulkheads, including the emergency escape hatch and pressure suit storage, unlikely as it was they would survive sinking long enough to escape; and finally to the recreational and social area. Several game tables were set up but stood unused. Those sailors who were there on break were lounging in the couches to slow jazz music.

“Wow! Sonya, are those game tables? Let’s play!” Maryam said.

“Huh? I mean– I wasn’t really planning to–”

Maryam took her by the hand and with prodigious strength pulled her to the tables.

“Hey–!”

They stopped around an air hockey table, and Maryam took her place opposite Shalikova.

She grabbed one of the paddles and took up a combative stance, grinning confidently.

“Sonya~! If I win this game, you owe me a real date at the next city or town we go to!”

“Huh? What are you talking about–? A real date?”

Shalikova imagined herself and Maryam in a city or a town station. She had seen station dates plenty of times in romance and comedy films they played at the Academy’s many mandatory social outings. She could see it: going to little restaurants, Maryam ordering the most elaborate thing on the menu each time; walking by shops or trade kiosks, Maryam picking out clothes and candies and bobbles from each and making Shalikova carry all of them; getting approved for an animal to care for together; putting their names together in the room register–

Opposite Maryam, a driven, deadly serious Shalikova picked up her own paddle.

“Maryam, you don’t know this, but I was known as ‘the terror of the tables’ whenever we had mandatory social time at the academy. You should surrender and give up your foolish dreams.”

Her grave tone of voice underscored the degree to which everything hinged on her success.

Meanwhile, Maryam turned red as a cherry and started clapping her hands together.

“Sonya! You are so cool! Wow, your serious face is so handsome! It’s getting me excited!”

“Shut up and hit the start button!”

When Maryam dutifully hit the button the table lit up and spat out a puck on the center.

There was a digital die roll that Maryam won so the puck was sent her way.

With a big warm smile on her face, Maryam smashed the puck with a savage thrust.

Oh right, Shalikova thought in the split second she had.

She’s a Katarran Pelagis– so even though she comes off like a purple marshmallow–

Shalikova threw a parry she was sure could catch it–

There was such force behind the puck that Shalikova sent it to the wall near her goal line and it angled back into her goal all the same, giving Maryam the first point of the game. She started clapping her hands again and wiggling in place– she was so excited to have scored that it was, even for Shalikova, almost cute to look at.

Would have been cuter if she hadn’t been scored on.

“You’ve got a good arm, but have you even played before?” Shalikova said.

“Here and there.” Maryam said, putting her hands to her hips and puffing herself up.

Shalikova swung, angling her shot such it bounced off the walls diagonally as it went–

Maryam smashed it back so fast Shalikova barely moved her arm before it slipped past.

What did they put in her vat that made this softie so strong?

“No more Ms. Nice Shalikova.”

When Shalikova was given the next puck, she reared back like she was pitching a ball.

Maryam braced herself.

Shalikova swung–

Maryam moved to parry–

No puck– Shalikova hit nothing! She had feinted!

In the next moment she swung back around and struck the puck while Maryam was out of position.

She could taste the 2:1 score and the powerful comeback win that would soon follow. Table masters and gamers alike referred to this hidden technique as yomi. No matter how physical she could get, Maryam was less experienced in the battlefield and its language. She did not understand the layer of mind games that surrounded a pitched combat between two foes no matter how unequal their strengths. Shalikova had her now.

Seconds later, with a clumsy circular motion that seemed like she was trying to clean the table more than hit the puck, Maryam nonetheless sent the puck flying back to Shalikova’s goal. Too caught up in her triumph, it was Shalikova who was now off-guard against the incoming attack from the opposite side of the table, and despite the relative weakness of the shot, it passed through her sloppy guard leading to ignominous defeat.

Thus the match ended with a score of 3:0.

On the table, Maryam’s side lit up with LEDs and triumphant little noises.

Shalikova’s shoulders slouched, her eyes drew wide. She was on the hook for a date now.

“Yippeeeeee!”

Maryam cheered and jumped and clapped her hands.

Her whole body strobed with colors like if a glowstick had become a person.

“Sonya~! It’s a date! Next town over!”

She put her hands behind her back and leaned forward on the table, smiling.

Shalikova sighed and resigned herself.

“Sure. Whatever. But you have to promise to behave.”

“Yippeee! Of course I’ll behave! Thank you Sonya! It’s going to be so much fun.”

“Right.”

Shalikova supposed it could be fun to go out with Maryam on the town.

She could call the game they just had a fun time. It was certainly distracting.

“Alright, I’ll take you down to the hangar now. Just stick close and don’t bother anyone.”

Without thinking, she offered to hold Maryam’s hand to guide her there.

Maryam of course wasted no time grabbing hold of Shalikova and squeezing her fingers.

Her face flushed, with a bubbly, fluttery smile.

Once it dawned upon Shalikova–

–well, it’s not like she could just snap her hand back immediately.

That would be rude.

And Maryam’s hand was nice and soft and warm anyway. It was just nice to hold.

So she held on to it for a bit.

But only a bit!

Shalikova showed her the way to the elevators, and they rode together down to the hangar. She almost forgot to let go of Maryam’s hand before the elevator doors opened– there were too many people, and it would have been misunderstood. Thankfully, Maryam did not seem to mind. She was immediately captivated by the scope of human activity in the hangar. Soon as they stepped out of the elevator doors there was already a crowd right in front of them. A large, dark-blue section of the Cheka had been stripped off the machine and laid on the hangar floor. It looked like a shoulder mechanism. They were installing battery cells into connectors along the shoulderblade.

That meant a crowd of several men and women all crawling on the chunk of mecha.

“Wow! There’s so many people!” Maryam said. “It’s almost a little overwhelming.”

“It is.” Shalikova raised a hand to her head, feeling a headache coming on.

She took Maryam around the hangar, showing her the workshops where various small parts were being machined for use in the repairs. Worn tools were being actively maintained in order to be quickly put back to use, and Zero Space Packaging crates that had to be disassembled to access the contents were being handled to expose extremely tightly packed spare parts and raw materials. There was so much engineering activity Shalikova felt they should hurry along, so she showed Maryam the simulator pods and dissuaded her from going in them.

“I’ll show these to you some other time; we don’t want to get in the way or distract people.”

“Aww. Well, alright. How about this, one of these nights, let’s sneak out to the hangar!”

Maryam’s eyes shone with a mischievous light.

Shalikova narrowed her own eyes at her.

“Sneak out? It’s not like there’s a curfew or anything. Do you just want us to be alone down here?”

“Yeah! I only promised to show you my special powers. It’s for your eyes only~!”

Her voice took on a playful little turn at the end. Shalikova thought about it for a second.

“Oh, so you’re thinking we’ll come down here and trade? I show you how to pilot–”

“And I’ll teach you how to gaze into the world beyond!” Maryam excitedly interrupted.

Maryam’s instincts were ultimately right.

It’d be too embarrassing to talk about fortune telling with a ton of people around, with how seriously Shalikova was intent on taking it. She was glad the canteen was empty when she was stressing before. It would be a relief to talk to Maryam about this nonsense without anyone around to see it, and finally get it out of her mind for good.

“Alright, it’s a deal then. But probably not tonight. I woke early, so I shouldn’t be up late.”

“Deal!” Maryam clapped her hands. “Sonya, show me the big robot you pilot.”

“It’s not a robot. It can’t do anything on its own. It’s a vehicle.”

“Show me the big robot!”

“You’re not even listening.”

Shalikova took Maryam to the other side of the hangar from the pods, navigating the crowds of people working on the many disassembled sections of the Cheka. Her Strelok was only lightly damaged in the battle, so it was already back on its gantry with new, unblemished armor plates swapped in and there was only one sailor at its feet, running tests on the water circulation system with a computer and a pump machine. Maryam was taken aback by the size, craning her head up to stare up at the head of the machine from up close. It was over four times their size, and it was easy for Shalikova to forget the enormity of it because she was always climbing inside.

“Amazing! It’s so bright and smooth, it’s like a shining knight armor!” Maryam said.

“I’m glad you like it, I guess. Do they have Divers in Katarre?” Shalikova asked.

Maryam’s fins wriggled as she pondered it. “When I was a larva they didn’t, but then, I think someone stole one from the Empire because I remember by the time I became pre-adult, they were kinda everywhere. You would always see Hoplite class armor in every cargo space they could cram one in. It was really big and rough and spiky and scary.” She shuddered briefly. “Nothing like yours, Sonya! Yours is so gallant, it fits you perfectly! I can see you fighting like a hero in it!”

“I’m not a hero. I’m just– I’m just staying alive.” Shalikova said.

“You’re a hero to me Sonya. You saved all of our lives after all.”

She hated this kind of compliment and hated this kind of conversation.

“You didn’t have to come out here on this mission right? But you’re risking your life–”

“Maryam, please, that’s enough.” Shalikova interrupted. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Oh! Okay then. Absolutely I’ll stop. Maryam is keeping cuttlequiet for Sonya.”

Maryam ran her fingers over her lips as if sealing them– they really disappeared for a bit!

Shalikova burst out laughing. She was so affected she hardly knew where it came from.

“You really are something else sometimes!” She cried out, holding her own stomach.

“Pelagids can do really funny things.” Maryam’s voice was muffled by her sealed lips.

She ran her fingers over her lips again and they reappeared. An ordinary human girl’s face.

“Is this also ‘soothsaying’ or just slapstick?” Shalikova asked, in good nature.

“This is just the power of biology! Having been made in a can is fun sometimes.”

Maryam gave Shalikova a thumbs-up and closed a transparent grey eyelid over one eye.

Her crooked little grin– she was winking! It was as if she was winking with a fish eyelid.

Shalikova could not help it. That ridiculous sight made her start laughing again.

Laughing and goofing off in front of the Strelok. It was in this state that two of them were approached by a tall, lean, long-haired blond woman in uniform who was quite amused to see them. She paused behind them and laughed and when they finally noticed, they quickly identified her as Ulyana Korabiskaya, the Captain of the Brigand. Her uniform was always well in order, and her face was always done up lightly and professionally.

She had the sort of air of womanly confidence Shalikova couldn’t even dream of.

Their interactions were pretty limited, which only heightened the mystique around her.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.” Ulyana said. “Your laughter was so innocent, it was cute.”

“I was showing Maryam around the ship, ma’am.” Shalikova said, remembering to salute.

Ulyana waved down her saluting hand as if to say such formality was unneeded.

“That is very kind of you Ensign. I’m glad the two of you seem to have hit it off.

“Hit it off? I guess you could say that.” Shalikova said.

Maryam made a mischievous little face behind her that Ulyana laughed at.

“I’m happy for the two of you! Honestly, we’d been hoping that you would finally let her out of your room sometime soon!” Ulyana said in good cheer, winking at Shalikova who immediately frowned at the implication. “Getting serious for a moment, we have to talk to her about the information she promised us. Now more than ever, we need all the intel we can get if we are going to survive. We’ve got a staging room ready upstairs. That ok?”

“Of course. I understand.” Shalikova said. “Maryam, you’re okay going with the Captain?”

Maryam’s fins dropped a tiny bit. But she smiled at them, nonetheless.

“Of course. I’m not just here to play with Sonya after all. I’ll do my part for the ship.”

“Splendid. I’ll be taking her then; you’ll have her back before dinner, so don’t fret.”

Ulyana winked at Shalikova again. Sensing the mischief in it, Shalikova turned her cheek.

Nevertheless, as the captain led Maryam away from the hangar, Shalikova felt herself coming down from the rush of trying to keep up with the cuttlefish girl. She had to admit it felt a little bit emptier and a little bit too quiet now that Maryam wasn’t there, goofing off, pushing her to go out and eat and play. Had she been on her own Shalikova would have simply sank further into her own morbid thoughts. Maryam had been so kind to her.

In her absence, the world felt suddenly emptier, both in the hangar and in Shalikova’s heart…        


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.5]

This chapter contains graphic sexual contenT and references to suicide.

A horrific wail escaped the gurgling throat of a mangled man twitching on the steel floor.

Her ears barely heard it, no matter how loud he screamed, she simply did not receive something audible from it. Instead, the vibrations of the sound on the bio-sensors in her body let her know the direction in which the sounds came from. This was useless: everyone was screaming, and so there was sound everywhere.

It would be more useful in the water, where she wasn’t.

She was in the middle of a metallic hall. Her claws were caked in gore burned black.

Rendered fat helped her digits slide to retain some motion, no time to clean off the crud.

Two bodies cast aside in two brutal swings– in a snap she charged the remaining man–

Her jaws closed on the shooting arm of a guard devouring the limb gun and all.

Separated processing centers received six different views of his shock-stunned body — and past it!

Movement–!

Two of her eyes spotted a machine gun pod crawling across the ceiling over the corpse.

With a flick of her tail, she instantly sent a spike flying at the speed of cannon fire.

Piercing the gun pod and spearing it against the rail it was attached to, ending the threat immediately.

A second pod followed on the same rail, but it was stuck behind the first one and fell silent.

She charged out of the hall and onto the hangar, away from the possibility of their gunfire.

Heck! That was close! I coulda been churned up bad! How many more of these are there?

She dimly wondered why the automated defenses hadn’t been spun up sooner.

But the tactics of station-dwellers were not her forte. She was a Hunter; she simply hunted.

Hunter III of the Third Sphere.

This was the name given to her by a leader of their kind: Arbitrator II of the First Sphere.

She never questioned it. She simply was who she was. She was an Omenseer.

Omenseers were the guides to the eldritch heavens and alien hells of the Ocean.

To take into the light those station-dwellers who were useful and worthy and willing to part with treasure.

That was all she needed to know about herself; and all anyone needed to know about her.

Her role was not to strategize. Norn did that– or whoever she worked for. She had no idea what the enemy’s plan was: she assumed the defenders were just stupid. And that was why she was tearing through them so easily. Anything more complicated than that was not her business. Ship-dwellers, station-dwellers, fake humans, whatever whoever called them– Hunter III knew they could be tough. Norn was absolutely terrifying for example.

These Ajillo humans were not very tough. Maybe they just weren’t ready to fight.

Expecting to kill more in the arrival gate, Hunter III was surprised to find that the red carpet and chute that Norn had come through was already secured. There were a few bodies, cleanly killed with one bullet through the brain, and Norn’s security detail stood guard in front of the entry chute, equipped with full power rifles that had made some dents in the steel walls. Five men stood in attention and saluted when Hunter III appeared as if she was their boss but said nothing to her. These same men had watched her sneak around and said nothing then too.

Now though, they did make signs using electric torches, predetermined signs.

They signaled that Norn had taken the control center. Everything was suddenly over.

Hunter III stared at the lights, unmoving, for the first time not thinking about the next jump, charge, slice, bite, or shot; for the first time finding herself with no further hostile targets and no further violence to commit.

Her brains were flooded with intense emotions.

Her whole reptilian-insectoid body vibrated with the weight of adrenaline and anxiety.

She had been killing, non-stop, target to target; killing and eating and tearing skin from meat and meat from skin to the point she could barely taste what was going through her, could barely feel what was entering her body and melding into it and burning in it for energy to fight on. For the first time she settled on the feeling of her sticky hot claws coated in God knows how much filth, barely able to flex one digit from the next to the point she had been swinging the claws as one thick cutting edge. She felt the pain of dozens of bullet holes barely patched by her “biopower.” Her body felt suddenly like a rubbery sheathe that she was buried in, hyperventilating for free air.

When her six visual sensors closed her mind staggered; she saw the pink and brown rubbery meat around “her” “own” “body.” Such a thing could not be said to exist, not in the middle of a transformation and yet, she was seeing that disturbing sight as if entombed in this form rather than in control and in synchronicity with it.

It signaled her disassociation from the “leviform” body her “biopower” had built.

Even if she wanted to, at this point, she probably couldn’t fight any more for a while.

Hunter III sat down on her rump, tail curled around her, and let the shaking go through her.

She had not hunted in what was maybe closer to months but felt like even years before now.

And it was getting to her mind, her heart. She was not a machine or a monster.

In fact, if you asked Arbitrator II, she would say Hunter III was the only “real” human here.

I let myself get too soft. I gotta toughen up again. It’s only gonna get crazier from now on I think.

She looked up at the men guarding the deployment chute.

They paid her attention when she moved her head to face them but said nothing.

All of the drones communicated with her only with flashing lights.

Nothing they were saying was important anymore and Hunter III paid them no heed.

Norn taught them Hunter III couldn’t understand them without “brainpower” in this form. Leviforms had different physical senses, but all shared the ability to do omenseeing and use brainpower. Almost nobody at this station had any “brainpower” that Hunter III could tell, much less the ability to do any “omen-seeing.” Norn’s crew did not, that’s why she could manipulate them so easily. Anyone Norn did not control had an amount of brainpower or even omenseeing.

Like Adelheid. Adelheid was being manipulated in some other kind of way.

Love maybe? Hunter III did not really know this stuff too much, though she sort of felt it.

She, in some kind of way, had feelings toward Norn too. Norn was–

Norn was– strange. She was just– strange– Norn was a lot of things!

She could be scary, frustrating, generous– she gave Hunter III a lot of emotions.

Norn said she would free me from Arbitrator II. Why free me though? I’m not trapped…

It was tough to get a handle on her thoughts and feelings.

Her brains were flooding with all kinds of thoughts. Some even the Leviform’s own–

There was not much point in thinking about it further than that.

She had to prepare to leave behind the leviform. Her mind clearly couldn’t take it anymore.

Hunter III quickly ran up a mental inventory of everything that had gone into her body.

She did not understand fully what everything was. Norn could say words like lipase and glycol to her but she did not understand her own body that way. She knew there were hard things, soft things, chemicals in her stomach, fats stored in her tissues, bones sheathed in muscle, sinews and nerves connecting everything. She knew instinctively what to do with the resources of her body to make structures like bio-jets, biocannons, and other secrets locked away in her flesh.

Once she ate the fruit, everything became looser, more flexible, easier to grow and change.

That fruit was filled with the marrow of life, with the power of humanity. Or so the Omenseers said.

Her instinctive control over this power let her understand her body instinctively, like breathing and walking.

In her stomach the guard’s arm she ate sat like a big lump, undigested.

His gun was partially digested.

She had used some of the metal to make the spike she threw at the gun pod.

This was something she did so automatically that she only took stock of it now. There was a lot of yucky stuff that made up a gun, like lead and gunpowder. She would leave that behind in the leviform exuvia and not take it into her “person body,” for the sake of her health. Anything in the exuvia was wholly separate from herself.

She concentrated on establishing her body within the leviform and separating from it anything deleterious. For a moment this increased the feeling of drowning within a pile of meat, and at its height, it almost led her to panic. No amount of discipline could surmount that sudden and torturous feeling when her own body formed within the leviform and the monster she had once been started to slough off, like a relentless shower, heavy and hot droplets of flesh sliding off her face and shoulders, digging herself out of a rancid-smelling miasma of meat and blood–

Hunter III screamed as her head was fully released, dilated eyes darting frantically–

Screaming at the top of her lungs through the bubbling, sliding, shedding fat and meat–

Feeling dizzy as her body turned suddenly lighter, released from the weight, stumbling–

White long hair, skin pale enough to almost see through, a skinny and vulnerable girl staggered forward her feet leaving behind a flattened gelatinous body like a macabre costume, bleeding from the slit along the back that her body escaped through. She was scarred, pronounced spikes growing on her spine and shoulders, the stub of a tail, thick scar tissue on her wrists, all connectors into the machine of meat that lay discarded–

Her vision swam in and out as her feet slipped on the metal floor.

She saw the men move to collect her, but nevertheless she fell. The cold and stale-smelling air of the station and the slight pungency of the body she left behind all vanished along with the colors trapped dancing in its atmosphere. Everything was black, everything was numb, silent, odorless, as her mind darkened with the feeling of falling, the sound of rushing air, a final twist of motion, a sharp thud as she hit the floor– and kept falling.

Falling;

Into the Ocean once again, into the ocean surrounding them all.

A black body glided through the water, briefly breaching the surface.

Blue sky flecked purple; something distant, massive, drove a thick metal spire into the water–

Pinpricks of violet from the air lashed at her, randomly, painfully–

Driven back into the water by the pain;

Through the currents and the endless blue where there was nothing to see but the dancing microscopic bodies of the tiniest chains of living matter, undisturbed by the events unfolding above the ocean, final stronghold of life in this tortured world. Time and space and place and identity meant nothing to the water that moved by the will of systems so complex as to appear alien, mythical, connecting the past, future and present in a chain of impossible causalities no one human life could have possibly linked and truly comprehended, not in their time, not in the times to come.

On this journey that body went not knowing where or when or why it was and simply eating, growing, mating, fighting, living, never the most massive being in its food chain but quick, clever, knowing when to charge and when to retreat. Rather than a hard shell it formed supple scales and gelatinous membranes; rather than a few thick jets it had many looping fins through which it could carefully guide out the water it sucked in through its gills.

On this journey, it went. Through times, places, unknown.

Outmatched;

An enormous body, a truly gigantic, massive being that was like a mountain of meat with great roaring jets, numerous remoral pods that fired a brilliant fusillade of spikes, hundreds of sensing organs that never failed to track. A dozen upright beings with arms that expelled terrible projectiles. A great gaping maw opened that swallowed and brought an end to that life, time yet unknown, purpose never found, position remaining a mystery, somewhere, sometime, in the unnamed immensity of the water. To be eaten, digested, broken down, and part of another life.

She;

Suspended in the bowels of a great being, situated firmly in a space, but unable to move, no current, sucking in but feeling no water to move through, no sound waves to see through. Hazy colors, a hazy picture forming in her once-useless eyes of a dark writhing black-and-red place. She (she?) was not yet eaten, not yet banished back to the carbon chain at the lowest rung of creation. She was still alive, but she was alive in a different way than before–

Her skin, her bones, they were no longer stiff, as if restraints had been torn off her–

“Awaken, become aware, and see the omens. Hunter III of the Third Sphere.”

Below her a group of upright beings with slender limbs, two eyes, hair, smiling mouths, watching her.

All of them smelled like the memories that were quickly fading from her shifting brain.

Red circles around their eyes and red circles around hers as she finally began to See.

Time;

Space;

Place;

Bodies;

When the feeling of weight returned to her Hunter III slowly awoke.

Laying in a soft bed, hazy eyes wandering, she was–

In the Antenora’s infirmary.

There were several beds, lockboxes full of medical goods, a variety of equipment. Hunter III had been fed things from here before. She spotted someone on the other end of the room, a woman, who was unaware she was being watched by the swimming, sleepy eyes of Hunter III. She pulled up her long, quite wavy blonde hair and unlatched a choker that was around her neck. A series of round red and purple bruises was joined by a new one as she injected herself with a large punch-needle full of a light blue fluid. She sighed with great satisfaction before fixing the choker.

Letting herself fall back on her chair with a placid smile for a moment.

Her eyes turned and saw Hunter III out of the corner of her thin-framed glasses.

“Sooner than I expected. Though, I suppose I can’t ever expect anything with you.”

The Antenora’s doctor, Livia Van Der Meer, turning a snake-like grin Hunter III’s way.

“How are you feeling? Anything irregular?” She cooed. Her eyes were a little red.

“Dunno.” Hunter III said. Her own head was still a little woozy.

“Norn forbid me from running any tests or taking blood, so all I could do was take your vitals and set you down somewhere comfy. All I know is that you turned into a monster and back; as you’re known to do.” Livia tittered. “But Norn’s off sulking right now so she can’t interfere if we wanted to have some fun. I’d love to study that interesting body of yours. What do you say? I’ve got plenty of drugs with interesting pharmacokinetics.”

“I dunno what that means.”

“Ah, forget it. I’ll draft something for you to read and sign; informed medical consent is important.”

“Are you ok? All ya keep sayin’ is nonsense to me.”

“I’m feeling splendid, little Hunter.”

Livia stood up from her chair and set down a hand on Hunter III’s head, ruffling her hair.

“Simply forget I said anything earlier. I don’t want to antagonize you.”

“I ain’t antagonized.”

“You won’t tell Norn?”

“Tell Norn what?”

“Good girl.” Livia ruffled her hair even more. “How was your sleep?”

Hunter III feebly defended herself from the petting.

“I dreamt I was a fish.” She mumbled.

“Hmm. That’s a very common dream. Moreso with children, but also adults too.”

“I don’t dream a lot.”

“Are you getting enough sleep? It takes at least 90 minutes to enter an REM cycle.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s the deepest form of sleep. It is regenerative, inspiring. Quite sought after.”

“Will I dream I’m a fish again?”

“Ah, forget it, cute little Hunter.”

Livia sat by the bedside, smiling as she turned half-shut eyes on Hunter III.

She sighed and adjusted the tie on her tight-chested button-down shirt. Her hands were covered in the black rubber sleeve of her bodysuit. Her coat, which was dragging down her shoulders, she also pulled back up, as if she needed to make herself look somewhat professional again before she could continue speaking. Pushing up her glasses and making a winking eye at Hunter III, she sat back, one leg over the other, arms crossed.

Tapping the side of the bedframe with the tip of one black pump.

“Norn says you’ll be resting and in reserve for now. You’ll be getting a reward, too.”

“Reward?”

“Norn has half a steer in the freezer. Prime red meat. Cooked however you like.”

Hunter III’s eyes opened wide. Her mouth started to water.

“It don’t need to be cooked much! Just thaw it out and torch it a teeny bit!”

Her heart swelled, animated and excited once more, practically jumping in bed.

“Blue rare then? I do love a bloody steak myself. I’ll let Norn know.” Livia said jovially.

Hunter III was so excited she could have leaped on Livia.

For that moment and the hours to come, all she could think about was: meat!


When the Jagdkaiser was returned to the hangar it was in a relatively poor condition.

At least, the part of the Jagdkaiser that Potomac cared about the most was in poor condition.

Sure, the mecha part was fine, and could have operated perfectly well sans the advanced psionic equipment, but who would call that an engineering triumph? Potomac’s inspection after Selene unplugged turned up extensive desynchronization of the homunculus brought about by acute psychomechanical stress. And Norn concerned herself with stuff like the Options — this was the real problem! Without orders and without thanks, Potomac set about recalibrating the Homunculus, so it aligned properly with the mechanical systems again.

While the entire Ocean moved around her, Potomac focused singularly on her task.

Hers was a single-minded focus, and things which did not interest her, she did not notice.

She dug into the cockpit of the Jagdkaiser, and there she stayed while the ship was stocked and inspected and finally made ready to depart from Ajillo. All manner of things had happened in there which Potomac was not concerned with, people were moving about, crates of stuff brought in, bloody people and things— it didn’t matter. Norn killed people seemingly every other day and her reasons were her reasons. Science did not concern itself with the ideology of the donors. As far as Potomac was concerned the sea could have turned upside down, as long as she could continue to work uninterrupted she would not have noticed. And presently, the sea looked quite upright.

Those outside of her organization might have seen her as odd, but among her peers she was entirely ordinary. Save for a rare few like Euphrates, the Immortal Council of the Sunlight Foundation was made up of malcontents that the “normies” would never understand. Her peers were people like Hudson, obsessed with internal organ cybernetics and making herself a machine, and Nile, who was obsessed with tinkering up viruses, parasites, and bacteria.

Potomac thus felt downright dignified to be obsessed with advanced computing instead.

But they were all disconnected from the world because they were seeking a greater truth.

That was the way of the Sunlight Foundation.

After all, if ordinary people could have done it, humanity would already be under the sun.

Because the Homunculus acted as a middleman between the neural input of the pilot and the mechanical systems of the Jagdkaiser, it could get desynchronized both ways, either becoming too sensitive to psionic signals (neurophillic) or too sensitive to digital signals (mechanophillic), creating lag and feedback everywhere. Potomac worked using a sensor which received a psionic waveform from the Homunculus, along with an electrical signal, and she used an electromagnet and her own psionic power to recalibrate the machine back to the desired balance. To untrained eyes it must have looked like she was poking the machine or waving at it — it was more than that!

This was science so advanced that it was verging on magic! Still, it was only science!

It was only the flexible ethics of this generation’s Yangtze that could have led them to finally develop machines like this. They had come close before, but psionic machines were a slow and nearly verboten development for the previous generations of Immortals. A new Yangtze, and new blood like Hudson, and heck, even Norn herself– the past thirty-to-forty years had been fun. They had made progress like they hadn’t in hundreds of years before.

Potomac was excited. She could not wait to see what these Homunculi could do–

–In less barbaric settings as this droll military vessel full of grunting, violent fools.

“Potomac.”

From below, a voice sounded up at her. How long had it been since she started?

She did not recognize the voice because she rarely recognized anyone’s voice.

When she was completely engaged, there were no other humans around her.

“One moment.” She said dismissively.

“You don’t even have to turn around.”

“Just a minute.”

“I’m just gonna ask a question.”

“Sure thing, sure thing, I’ll be ready in a second.”

“POTOMAC!”

Her sixth sense piqued; she felt a psionic outburst behind her–

Potomac turned in time to catch piece of torn carbon fiber hurled her way.

Below her, glowing with a bright red and yellow aura was–

Slender girl, pilot suit, purple hair, long rainbow-colored rabbit antennae, bright yellow eyes–

“Merrimack?”

“That’s not my fucking name you spacey bitch! It’s Selene!”

Selene balled up her hands into fists at her side, gritting her teeth, glaring up at Potomac.

Potomac sighed and shrugged.

“Your inventory codename was Merrimack. Forgive me for not keeping up.”

“Fuck you. Answer my question or I’ll split your head in half.”

Selene picked up another piece of carbon fiber, bits shorn off the Jagdkaiser’s legs.

Potomac looked around, briefly annoyed.

“Where’s Norn? Or Adelheid? Can someone please wrangle this lost child?”

None of the drones were paying attention. Such a thing was not their problem.

Another psionic spike–

Potomac pushed on the projectile and gently deflected it despite Selene’s furious intent.

“Alright! Alright!” Potomac shouted. “I’m sorry! Can we talk about this?”

She was unplugged, and wandered off by herself– why was she back now, and this belligerent?

“I want to know what’s inside that thing!”

Selene pointed past her at the homunculus system Potomac had been tinkering with.

Potomac stared speechlessly, unable to comprehend what was so upsetting.

“That’s all? You’re just curious about it? You didn’t have to throw things at me then!”

“It bled on me!” Selene shouted at the top of her lungs, her eyes tearing up. “I saw it, blood was dripping from between the plates on the dome! What the hell have you stuffed in there? What is it doing to me?”

“What? It doesn’t bleed– and it’s not possible for the organic matter to spill out of it.”

“Huh? It doesn’t– but it’s in there then? There’s something in there?”

Selene stood stunned; her violence suddenly halted.

Had the plates been able to drip at all, it would have compromised everything.

Potomac sighed and continued, matter-of-factly. “There is organic matter inside it, yes, but it could not have dripped on you. It’s a computer made from a neural organoid. It’s a bunch of tissue and I/O plugs in a contained environment. We made it out of pluripotent stem cells. Kind of like how we made you!” She tried to sweeten her tone as she watched Selene visibly stagger back a step, as if shocked dumb to hear this. “It’s completely normal! And it would not be able to bleed on you, the chassis is completely tight, and would need a major rupture before it spilled.”

Selene’s jaw shook. She stared up at Potomac and the Homunculus with drawn-wide eyes.

“It didn’t spill– but I saw– what did I–?”

Her body started to shake. Was this a fear response? Anxiety? She was mumbling too.

Feeling pressured to take some kind of responsibility, Potomac climbed down, out of the cockpit of the Jagdkaiser. Walking calmly, she stood closer to Selene, who made no move to respond or get away, transfixed on the interior of the Jagdkaiser’s cockpit and babbling something through her quivering lips only to herself.

Potomac begrudgingly spread her arms wide and drew Selene into a big hug.

“There, there. Clearly the current events are getting to you and your mental state isn’t 100%. You’re a sensitive girl. I forgive you. All that violence is unhealthy for you! I’ll ask Norn to give you a break from–”

At that moment, Selene screamed at the top of her lungs. She burst out crying.

Burying her head into Potomac’s chest and screaming right into the woman’s bosom.

Potomac hardly knew how to respond. She rubbed her head. She ruffled her hair.

With a sour look on her face, Potomac stood in the hangar holding the screaming girl.

Selene continued to scream, cry, to shove her head against Potomac. It went on; and on.


Hours after the incident that would be known as the “Ajillo Mutiny,” the Antenora departed from the station, having expunged all records relating to its visit save for small signs of the macabre violence which they had committed. It did not matter to Norn, who had gotten what she had wished for most of all: a chance to mete out the fullness of her violence on a suitably deserving fool. To test the freedom and dominance she attained, to flex the powers she had collected on her journey. A show of force not unlike those she performed under Konstantin.

After causing this scene, however, she quickly retreated back to her quarters.

Her physical appearance was causing her a thin mist of disgust and distress.

Dancing in the back of her head as if the tiniest insect had slipped beneath her skin.

Her skin which was no longer so fair, and in large part had become blueish-gray.

Her vibrant blond ponytail was returning to its natural silver-white coloration.

Norn shed her bloodstained and torn clothes and walked naked around her room, the wall surfaces mirroring her on every third panel. A warm yellow and wine-red radiance spread from the dim light sources sensually coloring the room. She could have banished the mirrors but she never did. Instead she stared at herself in them, as if equally fascinated and reviled, obsessed, and repelled. Her figure was no different, her stature, the sleekness of her limbs or the slenderness of her torso, none of it was any different. And yet she still felt like she was seeing herself as a monster.

She caught sight of her tail– a tiny little stub of a tail. It was growing. Again.

In an instant, almost automatically, she sliced it clean off with a telekinetic thrust.

A little bloody piece of blueish-gray katarran flesh landed on the floor.

Instantly, a tiny little round drone activated, picked it up, and took it out of sight.

Over the wound the blood curdled nearly instantly — Norn froze it shut.

When she cut her tail for the first time it had been agony.

Now, there was hardly feeling left.

Shutting her eyes, Norn walked over to the shower.

As much as Norn had wanted to keep her room spartan and miserable as possible, as much as she would have loved to hide herself in a literal can like a sardine, she did have a few necessities. Some particularly for the sake of certain others; the bed, for example, was a double-wide and plush, and there was a bedside table upon which there was a bottle of wine. For herself, she needed a personal shower and toilet. She could never allow anyone to see her so vulnerable. And there was a desk, too, with a dedicated terminal, which was the part of the room Norn used the most.

On the side of the room, the seemingly steel wall became clear glass and slid open, showing its true nature as the door to a spacious integrated shower with porcelain up to the knee, enabling it to serve as a bath also. There was an adjustable shower head with a variety of pressure settings, a set of fragrant bath and hair gels, scrubbing pads, and it even dispensed a black bath robe in a waterproof case for her use after the deed was done.

Norn slipped inside and shut the glass door and obscured it from no one’s eyes.

On a wall panel she set the water pressure and temperature digitally.

Pulling the shower head down, she stood directly under the gentle jets of warm water.

Hands up against the wall, head bowed, her soaked hair falling over her face, mist rising.

There was a sudden self-loathing thought that she could have frozen herself to death here.

Amid the prurient luxury of her pearlescent private shower, within the fog, a frozen statue.

Mehmed was never burned by his own flames; this was something the Sunlight Foundation once set down as a rule for the powers observed from the Apostles. Only Apostles had the ability to induce the extreme effects that characterized them. Accreting dust into boulders to fling, stirring gusts that hit with the force of a wrecking ball, hurling stalactites and searing flames drawn from seemingly nowhere. Apostles could not be hurt by their own powers–

–until Norn was observed.

Norn was unique among them.

She knew Majida could burn with impunity, just as Mehmed once did.

Had Norn not tampered with it, the little girl’s power would have also worked similarly.

It stood to reason to change the “rule” once there was an exception.

But Norn always believed she was totally unique, and unique in one specific way.

None of the Apostles hated themselves as much as she did.

So, of course, she could stop her own heart, freeze her own flesh off.

Psionics was the product of the human mind brought to its utmost extremes, living in a world that could kill humans at any moment with complete impunity, a world of such random and brutal cruelty. A mind subjected to the background stress of an existence which would never be truly comfortable, never be truly safe. A mind brought to an alien place and its alien pressures. The Sunlight Foundation believed the human mind was expanding somehow, underwater. The human mind was tapping into some kind of current which had existed unseen beneath the waves.

Mehmed once believed his power had a lineage to the surface — to the soul of the Shimii’s holy savior.

Majida doubtless believed the same, as the one now, essentially, carrying that exact “soul.”

Norn understood her psionics as the product of her own relationship to her ailing mind and the world around her. She had no special soul, no grand religious lineage. That she was an Apostle was a coincidence, an absurdity of life. She was born in a vat, tampered with using fossilized fish DNA. She was a Katarran, a twisted thing in the image of a human, made from tinkering with cells for the purpose of war. Normal Katarrans were sharks, jellyfish, crabs– she was a Panthalassian and so some of her DNA was drawn from mummified panderichthys tissue. She was a constructed thing, a walking falsehood. And she wasn’t even the constructed thing she wanted to have been.

She hid herself behind an Imbrian aesthetic, an Imbrian identity; and it gave her comfort.

Norn butted her head against the metal wall, shouting at the top of her lungs.

No one could have heard through the soundproofed walls, it was liberating, cathartic.

She hardly felt the pain. Only a tiny trickle of red trailed down the wall.

Water flowed through her hair, down her neck and over her shoulders and back.

Drops fell with rhythmic pops against the sleek porcelain floor of the shower.

Save for that, and the heavy panting of the woman inside it, the place was soundless.

Her own little world with as false a sense of peace and security as she herself was false.

Tears drew from her eyes that collected down the drain with the rest of the water.

Fangs bared; a ferocious grin appeared on her face as she began to weep.

“Konstantin, can you see me now, from where you are? Are you hurting too?”

Like the human brain screamed psionically for new powers with which to survive, a new world itself was screaming to be born within the Imbrium Ocean. A world that started with the abortive revolution of the Fueller Reformation and now reached its climax. Norn shed her tears in the shower and indulged her thoughts of self-destruction; because she had to walk outside of that glass cage where her fury and sorrow was bared and fertilize the ground of the new world with all of the vermin of the old. Their bodies, their minds, their ideas, their goals; compost for her garden.

Most of all, Konstantin’s body, mind, ideas, and goals.

His was the most potent fertilizer of all, and the one Norn most sought after.

She would hurt him, to his grave and beyond it. In a way that he finally truly felt.

“Fair’s fair, isn’t it? You never understood my pain.”

She started to laugh, clapping one of her hands over her eyes.

Eyes still copiously shedding tears.

“You took advantage of me. But I was always going to have the last laugh. I told you!”

Grinning with gritted teeth.

“All of your treasures would be mine, to enjoy, to discard, to break. No hard feelings!”

Thin red circles appeared around her eyes as she punched the wall.

Enough to deform the metal; while only lightly hurting her fist.

Katarrans were built pretty sturdy. That was the whole point of them as a people.

Her other hand reached for the gel dispenser.

Foaming suds spread across her hair, her body, as she rubbed herself down with it under the water. Switching the shower head to a special spray mode meant to blast dirt off her body — however effective it was at actually cleaning her, it had a soothing effect on her body, like the massage that Adelheid had promised and likely would not deliver. Having lounged around enough and achieving the end result of taking a shower at all, a cleaner, much less emotionally fraught Norn stepped out of the shower, wearing a black robe open down the middle.

Sighing deeply as the cool air of the room caressed her bare chest.

“For everyone’s sakes, I have to–” She started to speak but paused when she heard a titter.

When she took stock, she found someone sitting at her bed, legs crossed.

Smiling a vixen’s smile, giggling to herself, one hand lightly over her lips.

“Oh my~ what a lovely sight. I barged in just in time.”

Adelheid’s gaze disrespectfully traced Norn’s exposed body from her breasts to her dick.

There was really no other way to interpret that lascivious expression. Sitting there in her button-down shirt and tie, her open coat, her little skirt and leggings, her hair pinned up, and her bodysuit curiously missing.

Staring right at Norn’s groin.

“You’ve got some nerve lately.” Norn said.

“I’ve been curious actually, do all Katarran women have one?”

She pointed between Norn’s legs, causing Norn to follow her finger mindlessly.

Staring down at herself, she sighed, already exhausted with Adelheid’s manic play-acting.

“We’re all genetic freaks. It’s not something consistent. We are whatever comes out.”

“So it’s not something that’s really chosen, it just happened?”

“No Adelheid, as a fetus, I did not choose to be born with a dick.”

“So sarcastic! But you don’t dislike it, I know that much.”

“You’re right, there are things about myself I hate far more.”

Norn wandered to the other side of her room, pacing near her desk.

Adelheid smiled and tipped her head a little, making a cutesy shrug.

“I think you’re beautiful.” She said. “All of you is. In whatever form I see you in.”

Norn shot a glance at her.

“Trying to cheer me up?” Norn grunted.

“That or watch you sulk more in the nude, either works!” Adelheid teased.

Norn turned her back.

She reached for a plastic band from her desk and tied her hair up in a ponytail again. A seemingly innocuous action but she carried on with it methodically, in silence, for a minute or two. Waiting to see if she heard another peep out of Adelheid, her emotions simmering to a calm but constant bubbling. When she turned back around, she walked as if going past Adelheid on the bed. Her eyes stared past the beautiful redhead as if in disdain.

Then she stopped in front of Adelheid.

She turned toward the younger woman and raised a hand to her cheek.

Tracing the outline of her jaw, the softness of her chin, a grin growing on Norn’s face.

Adelheid looked up at her, sitting on the bed with a tiny halfway smile, lips barely parted.

Norn’s fingers lifted off that rosy cheek and gave it a few soft taps.

“Norn–? What’s with you–?”

Upon hearing her voice again, Norn’s fingers came down much faster, striking the same cheek.

Watching Adelheid cringe and grit her teeth in response to the slap– pure endorphins.

Grinning, Norn grabbed hold of Adelheid’s hair by the bun and pulled her head back.

Leaning forward and taking in Adelheid’s wide-eyed surprise, staring deep and close.

“Norn–! I–!”

Shut up.”

Norn stared directly into her eyes and Adelheid submitted instantly, her lip quivering, vocalizing nothing.

Internally she was satisfied with the reaction, but outwardly Norn scoffed.

“You called me Astra Palaiologos– don’t think I forgot. It’s been burning in my head. You’ve tested my patience before, acted out in all manner of stupid ways. I trusted you with that name, and you just spat it back at me. It is not my fault for trusting you: it’s your fault. You’ll behave– You’ll learn to behave because I’ll make you.” She pulled Adelheid’s red hair enough to loosen it from the bun, the silver hairclip fell clanging to the ground. Her dexterous fingers quickly seized upon the loose hair to retain firm command of Adelheid’s head, with a brusqueness that led the redhead to reach up to Norn’s hand reflexively. “And who said you could touch me? Hands off, now.”

Rather than strike Adelheid’s hand, she slapped her across that same reddening cheek.

Adelheid brought her hands down to the side of the bed, gripping the sheets.

Norn glanced at the door; eyes briefly glowing. All of the locking mechanisms engaged.

Then she turned her gaze, now bereft of psionic potency, back on her prey.

“Passphrase. Tell me now.” Norn demanded.

In a muttering little voice. “Cusp.” Their passphrase; something that couldn’t be misheard.

It was a weak, but instant reply. It almost prompted Norn to praise her– almost.

Not yet though. Nowhere near close.

“And if you can’t speak?”  

A more animated voice came out of Adelheid, between a little gasp as Norn’s hand crawled down her neck and grabbed hold of her collar and tie as if to force an answer. “Clap my left hand, three times.” She said.

“Correct.” Not good, acceptable, satisfactory. Nothing for her to feel lifted by.

Only ‘correct’.

Without warning Norn pulled her tie up, suddenly forcing Adelheid to stand up straight.

“Norn, I can be–!”

Shut up.”

Just taking her, pulling her, having control of her, sent blood rushing through Norn.

She felt herself coursing with vigor, every part of her standing alert.

Whenever she raised her voice, whenever she exerted physical force– pleasure swelled.

Feeling the tiny pulses of Adelheid’s life through the collar, through the grip on her hair.

“Can you be good?” Norn asked; but gave no time to answer.

In an instant Norn served herself the girl’s lips, stealing the lacquer taste of red lipstick and the bitter bite of the wine she had left out. Possessive tongue intruding past, longer, deeper than Adelheid’s own like she could taste the back of her throat, warm breaths captured from the girl squirming in her grip. Holding her tight by the neck and hair, asserting her control. Adelheid’s eyes shut from a brief but sharp scraping of teeth as Norn suddenly parted.

Adelheid’s jaw hung slightly open, a tiny pinprick of blood on the inside of her lip.

Tongue drawn back, labored shuddering breaths, a droplet of sweat down her red flecked cheek.

Her eyes were cloudy. As if she was staring past Norn.

Norn’s fingers crawled, between the tie, into the collar, running over that soft pink skin.

Adelheid shivered as if electrified by the touch. She locked eyes with Norn.

“Can you be good?” Norn asked her again.

“I can be good.” Adelheid said. Her voice drawling, distant.

Those words in that tone– they were a jolt of pure pleasure down all of Norn’s veins.

“We’ll see.”

As if there was no weight to her, Norn suddenly threw Adelheid back down to the bed–

Holding the tie–

“–!”

Adelheid vocalized something incoherent as she jerked forward on her leash.

Pulled to the end of the bed once more, her head coming to rest against Norn’s belly.

That hand which had been holding her hair from the back now held it from the top.

Palm resting over Adelheid’s crown and guiding her head farther below.

“Do I need to remind you what to do?”

She didn’t.

Adelheid’s lips closed around Norn’s cock with no further prompting.

For a moment Norn almost lost her iron-like composure.

That touch, that feeling of pressure and tightness over her most sensitive skin– Warmth, the slickness of Adelheid’s lips and tongue as she took Norn in deep and drew back over the shaft– to see those soft lips stuffed full of her erection and incapable of backchat– it was intoxicating, it started to flood over Norn’s mind, to draw out the fullness of her senses, from below her belly to her hips and the tips of her breasts, like electricity and fire–

Above all else, the sense of control

Looking down at the cascade of red hair parting for that pearl-pink face so focused on her.

She hardly needed to be told. She was so dutiful, so instantly bound.

Pulling back, sliding her tongue over the blueish-pink head–

Staring up with her cloudy eyes while kissing playfully on the very tip–

“Don’t get too full of yourself.” Norn mocked, briefly shutting her eyes.

In response, Adelheid took her into her mouth fully once again.

Norn drew in a breath, shutting her lips. Holding back any sound of satisfaction. Trying to appear composed despite the quaking in her gut and groin. Norn stroked Adelheid’s hair with increasing intensity as her lover eagerly tasted her. A fluttering feeling for her lover soared in her heart; as burning a passion as she felt below.

At that point, Norn felt, her own body was perfect. Paired with Adelheid, it was perfect.

“You’re trying so hard. I’m going to test you then.”

Her free hand crawled to Adelheid’s face.

Caressing fingers on one white cheek, briefly pulling the hair out of her lover’s eyes.

Drumming on the silk-soft flesh, one-two-three–

Drawing back from that cheek–

Striking sharply–

Adelheid groaned through a mouthful of cock.

As she recoiled from the slap there was the briefest brush of teeth on Norn’s shaft.

That fleeting sting sent a thrill rushing through to Norn’s hips, made her quiver.

Adelheid knew not to bite down. She struggled and succeeded in controlling herself.

Norn loved the threat of it. That ephemeral press of the hot vice on the skin of her dick.

Her fingers dug into Adelheid’s head, her feet shifted, she bent forward, beginning to shake her hips and thighs in rhythm to Adelheid’s mouth, to lose herself to the tight, rushing sensation suddenly reaching its peak. A smile, a wild mad smile on Norn’s face– she fought back laughter. It was all she could do to let off steam, in a way that would not give in and show too much leniency. All the while the tension continued to build inside her.

“Let’s see if you’re really a good girl.”

Stroking her hair with one hand while holding her head with the other–

Then seizing her by the back of her head, playfully going deeper in her mouth.

Pushing her closer, sliding every millimeter she could–

Her tip held tight in Adelheid’s throat–

“Nothing– nothing to say–?” She teased but in reality Norn could barely breathe.

Such emotion, such a swelling surge of pleasure, Norn could hardly remain upright, feeling Adelheid’s shaking body coming closer, enveloped in her flesh, savoring the wet gagging noises and closed-eyed focus from her partner who was so compliant, who made no protest as Norn thrust ever deeper into her mouth and into climax. Shuddering from her core, feeling all of the pent-up tension come washing over her, doused in that passion–

“Good girl. Good girl.” Norn gasped for breath.

A trickle of fluid spilled from Adelheid’s mouth as Norn pulled back, mixed spit and cum trailing from those obedient red lips. Adelheid’s deeply flushed face glistened in the light with beaded sweat. Red hair hanging messy, framing fog-lost eyes gone to a world of their own. Chest rising and falling, panting, plaintive in posture, arms holding weakly onto Norn for support. Legs shaking, toes curling, her heels discarded meters past the foot of the bed.

Norn watched her, drawing back, recovering her own breath and composure.

Watched her, as the smallest impression of a smile began to form on her face.

“Don’t get complacent. I’m nowhere near done with you.”

She bent down to fix Adelheid’s distant eyes with her own focused gaze.

When their eyes met, Adelheid quivered again.

Norn crawled into bed, imposing herself once more.

Adelheid folded as Norn advanced, lying back and letting her lover loom over.

Laying one forceful hand over Adelheid’s wrist for support, Norn let her free hand roam.

Tracing a line from navel to breast as she popped every button on the girl’s shirt.

Unveiling a fashionable black brassiere, sheer cups with a butterfly wing pattern.

Norn pulled it down gently.

Basking in the glow of those pert, pale breasts soon exposed.

Her eyes broke from Adelheid’s hazy gaze. It was her turn to lavish Adelheid’s body with attention, to worship at her altar as she had been worshipped. Of course, her worship had a different tone. She was slavish in her own way but Norn wanted to see red, wanted to leave a claiming mark. Slowly, methodically Norn brought her lips to the tip of one of Adelheid’s breasts, taking the dark-pink flesh into a kiss while stroking the other breast, squeezing it in her hands until the tips of her fingers dug. She felt Adelheid quake as her tongue flicked over the girl’s nipple.

Heard her whine and felt her shifting legs as sharp teeth grazed past the nipple–

And closed on the areola, leaving a circular impression on the pliable skin–

“–!”

Adelheid made delightful little noises, whining and panting as Norn teased her breasts roughly.

Tongue tasting sweat, mismatched teeth marks and bright red spots of sucking kisses–

Relishing in the feeling of that perfect soft skin giving in so easily, turning so red–

Feeling every tiny vibration of the skin against her lips, the little moans and sharp intakes of breath–

“Turn over.”

By the same hand she had been squeezing against the bed, Norn helped Adelheid to shift position. Her prey dutifully showed her back, and Norn pulled her shirt all the way off to expose it. Another ocean of white to turn blissfully red. Adelheid was strong for a rich girl, but still soft all over, the slightest trace of Norn’s hands leaving red trails on the girl’s skin. She was sensitive, shuddering predictably at the claws awaiting the taste of skin.

Norn’s wandering hands crawled down that beautiful back to the waist, taking their time.

Short blunt fingernails tight enough to draw a scarlet path that caused her back to arch.

Over the gentle slope of the lower back to the curve of the buttocks, beneath black and silver fabric.

Skirt and tights went down below thin, silky panties designed to match the bra.

They slid down off her firm, round rear quite easily. Norn pushed her head down.

She couldn’t see Adelheid’s face anymore, only the waves of red hair.

Yet she had a vivid picture in her mind. Those entranced eyes half-shut, biting her lips, taking in sharp breaths. Her hands drawn together against the headboard as if bound despite being left quite free. The moment Norn finally cupped a greedy handful of her ass, Adelheid’s entire body visibly shuddered in anticipation. Fingers dug, released; a firm slap drew a surprised little cry from Adelheid’s lips and left a red imprint as bright as the bite marks.

Bent over, rear up and head down, with Norn’s face now buried in her hair.

Shaking from outstretched hands to curled toes, her back drawing in and out with the exertion of breath.

While Norn loved to see her expressions, she relished in having only body language to divine from.

“Good girl, good girl. You’re really improving. You’ve earned a reward.”

Once more Norn’s hands traveled skillfully where they wished, but so did her lips.

Sucking, biting kisses tracing down that slender white neck, those soft, round shoulders, and the supple impressions of the shoulderblades. She found a spot, silk-soft and firm, right behind the shoulder, to leave a bite, to sink her teeth and carve an impression of her hunger on Adelheid’s white flesh once more. Adelheid gasped, cried out in surprise, and her shuddering and shaking transferred to Norn who had fully climbed over her, skin to skin, breasts against back, pressing her soft dick against softer flesh and her fangs tasting a bead of sweat and iron–

And in response to that wavelength which formed between their flesh–

Norn slipped her hand between Adelheid’s thighs while biting down on her back.

“Ahh! Norn! Norn!”

Hearing her yell that name in passion was almost enough to get Norn hard again.

Her agile fingers split Adelheid open, massaging her needy clit–

“Ahh–! I love–! I love you–! –Norn!”

That was all she had wanted to hear.

Such a thing as she could not say with words, Norn said with her hands, with her lips.

Brought to her peak by the touch Adelheid bucked her hips, threw her back, squirmed, and moaned in Norn’s embrace while those fingers continued to work her clit in perfect sync drawing out every possible second of passion. Norn felt her stiffen, straightened, slacken, hands coming down from the headboard. Her whole body softened; tension released by the swelling rhythm of an orgasm that shook her hips and thighs with a final throes.

Adelheid fell silent and still, insensate in her own ocean of blood and pleasure.

Norn’s teeth released Adelheid’s shoulder and caught in her own passion Norn suddenly laid copious kisses wherever she could reach, on the neck, on the cheek. Not to paint over the reddening white of her lover’s skin but to satisfy her own irrepressible, flooding desire to love the girl whom fate had given her.

Coming to lie behind her, to take her a gentle embrace, holding her tight.

No need to speak, to say, “good girl,” and disturb the moment.

She knew she was a good girl. And she knew that Norn, certainly, loved her back.

Norn pressed her forehead to Adelheid’s face, feeling her peaceful breaths.

She treasured her so much. She wanted to grab hold of her and never let go.

For a moment, she felt perfect. All of her past disappeared, all of the souls tethered to her.

Born Astra Palaiologos; became Norn and then Norn von Fueller.

Created in Katarre in a bid to end the desperate struggle there.

Holding her beloved close, Norn felt like a person made in heaven instead of a vat.

Now she had a new Ocean to rule with a new purpose.

I’ll protect you. I’ll protect you and everyone else from all of this.

They couldn’t simply say these things to each other. But their bodies always knew.


Hours passed, with Adelheid sleeping soundly on Norn’s bed under wine-red sheets.

Norn herself rested, for a time.

However, she soon received a message, and then a call. Dressed in the Fueller family coat over her robe, closed and buttoned down, she took the call on her desk. A two-way video window appeared on the wall of the desk. With the way it was oriented, Adelheid was vaguely visible in the background. She was bundled up and decent, however.

“Is this a bad time–? Oh. I did not intend to force you to appear in that skin, Aunt Norn.”

“I could’ve declined. I’ll be looking the picture of Imbrian perfection again soon.”

“I see. Very well. I have a few things I wanted to discuss before I leave the capital.”

On the screen was a young man with golden blond hair, his beautiful features clashing with the drab rigidity of his pristine military uniform, grand epaulets, and red cape, his chest adorned with dozens of honors, all framing him as some mighty conquering force and not the boy she knew him as. To Norn, this was someone she always thought of as “a boy”: Erich von Fueller, first in line to the throne in the traditional order of things, oldest son of the late Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. A boy with the same emotionless face as he had in childhood.

“You’re leaving Heitzing? Is it time for the Bosporan campaign, this soon?”

“No, not yet.” Erich said. “The Volkisch Movement to the south is testing our patience.”

“That’s not all they are testing. They are goading you, but you also don’t have the freedom to rise to every provocation, little man. To conquer the west and south, is to leave the east and north without forces. You do not have the power to conquer both, and you will not ever have it if you choose your targets poorly.” Norn said.

“I am not going to conquer the Volkisch. At the moment, they are too useful.”

“Ah, so a show of force to bring them to heel.”

“Precisely.”

Norn felt terribly amused by all of this, wearing a broad grin as she listened to her newphew.

“It’s also foolish to call too many bluffs. Your father was too fond of ‘showing force’, to the point he ‘showed force’ everywhere at once and had no position from which he could mount an effective, transformative campaign. You would do well to know where you can afford to commit and for how long.” Norn said. She smiled casually.

Erich’s expression did not change in response to her.

“I understand. Thank you for the wisdom. I believe this skirmish will be punctual and short. Unlike father I am leading this show of force myself. I could fail; but if I do, I will do so personally.”

“Entertaining the possibility of defeat was so not like you, years ago. You’ve matured.”

“I’ve grown quite independent. But I also have something to lose now. I’ve fallen in love.”

Norn grinned. Such a funny thing to say! “Fallen in love? I can relate to that.”

Erich nodded. “Adelheid van Mueller is the girl on the bed?”

“Indeed. How are the Muellers doing lately?”

There was no shame between them. It was like an exchange between fond friends.

“Adelheid’s connection to you has irreparably tied them to the Fueller family. It prevented them from running away to be at the head of the Royal Alliance, despite being the number two family in influence. They are instead a functional but not spectacular part of my logistics network. Serviceable but not splendid. To think that girl’s love for you destroyed the second family of the Empire so thoroughly. It gives me hope for the future.”

“I’m glad you find it charming. I’ve been feeling like I’m twenty years old again.”

“I am happy for you. However, there is a reason I called beyond catching up.”

“Of course.”

Erich’s expression had never turned smiling nor overtly serious. He was just not like that with anyone as far as Norn knew. He was always stone faced and neutral. However his tone of voice could indicate his mood. He had been animated, speaking out of a sense of love for the one family member whom he wanted to be cordial to.

However, now his voice had become graver.

“It’s about father. I tell you in the hope that our alliance will persevere despite–”

Norn smiled broadly and interrupted him quickly. “I know you killed Konstantin.”

There was no surprise in Erich’s face. He had anticipated that reaction. Of course he had.

“You grew to become chiefly responsible for his security. So of course you knew.”

“I knew. Knowledge of your plot was, in fact, what prevented me from killing him.”

“In a sense then, you raised me for the task. Or it was favorable to you how events played out.”

“This was the outcome that caused Konstantin the most pain. So of course I desired it.”

Erich nodded his acceptance. It did not faze him.

“I made sure he knew it was me, and that he was too crippled to say so until his end.”

“You’re wrong that he couldn’t say so, Erich. We talked plenty in his dying days. Nobody but me knows how long he had been truly ill nor the characteristics of his illness. He knew it was you. It killed him more than the injection.”

Erich blinked and kept his eyes shut for a moment. “I see. You talked, but he wouldn’t say it aloud.”

“He was so proud of you. He never knew he was so hated. By you and in general.”

“I despised him utterly. Him and everything he stood for. I wanted to avenge mother.”

“Well, now he is dead and everything he stands for is in pieces.” Norn said, grinning.

“Not everything.” Erich’s gaze drifted. “Aunt Norn I must know: did my father love you?”

“Oh?”

Norn put on a bloody grin in front of her nephew’s deathly serious face.

“Do you think I’m one of his treasures that still needs breaking?” She said coyly.

“Not necessarily. Should we ever come to blows, I hope it would not be over something so petty and pointless as this. Furthermore, whatever the answer, you’ll always be my favorite family member.”

How amusing; playing the sweet boy still when he had grown into a schemer himself.

“So just out of curiosity? We had a complicated relationship. He loved me sometimes and hated me other times. I at best found him amusing and at worst disgusting. I am certainly thankful for all the power and authority he conferred unto me, even as I was abusing it to torment him. I– I never loved him.”

She hesitated only slightly.

If she ever loved Konstantin, it was more like an awful younger brother than anything else.

Erich seemed satisfied with the answer.

“I have been preoccupied with understanding father. Now that I have to exercise power in his absence. What drove him to take power? What led him to fail to enact his so-called Reformation? Did he struggle against the forces trying to restrict his revolution or did he embrace them? Was it hedonism, nihilism– why did he fall?”

Norn scoffed. “He has nothing valuable to teach you. Just forget about him.”

Erich nodded. “No one wishes to forget him more than I do, Aunt Norn.”

“Is that why you let me take over the Fueller family without objection?”

“Yes. I surrendered the stewardship because I despise the Fueller name and its people.”

“Even Elena?”

Erich briefly paused. He was clearly surprised and collecting himself for a response.

Norn pressed him. “Enough to kill her, even?”

“When her mother was killed, I felt thrilled because it would hurt father. As for Elena herself, I have always contained myself to doing the bare minimum to support her, and I did the bare minimum. I treated her well, but I could never love her. It is good that she is gone; she was too helpless for this world and would have only been used her entire life. She is doubtless in a more merciful place now. But I did not kill her. I would never do that.” Erich said.

A carefully crafted response, but still a completely snake-like one.

“Your choice of action and inaction was tantamount to sanctioning murder.” Norn said.

“I miscalculated the degree of danger she and I were in. It was one of doubtless many errors I will make.”

That was the thinnest veneer of an excuse. As far as Norn cared, Erich did kill Elena.

He killed her as soon as he scheduled that party and he knew it.

However, it did not matter. Just as it did not matter that he killed Konstantin.

In Konstantin’s case, Norn was in the same place as Erich was for Elena.

Action and inaction tantamount to sanctioning murder.

Doubtless Norn had premeditated Konstantin’s death far more than Erich had for Elena’s.

Erich did not dwell on it. He seemed to finally say what he came here to say.

“I wanted to reaffirm our alliance. Not from my end, but from yours.”

“Oh? Surely you see that I am enjoying the lovely ship you have granted me.”

“Aunt Norn, your existence and power is a threat and moderating influence on the Sunlight Foundation and this is why I want to continue to equip and supply you. Working with them has shown me that they are the next terror that must be destroyed after the Imbrian Ocean is reunited. From Nile’s poisons to Hudson’s machines, to Yangtze’s foul intellect, they have broken their self-styled scientist’s creed and cannot be trusted to continue on in the shadows. They have wronged you in the past. I believe you can agree with me. And that it can continue to unify us for the moment.”

“I’m hurt. You act as if it’s inevitable I’ll betray you unless we have a common enemy.”

Norn pouted and feigned injury, making a face almost like what Adelheid would have.

“You have a track record of needing those common enemies, I’m afraid.” Erich said.

“Is that so?”

“As much as I esteem you, Aunt Norn, I know you will give me no choice but to fight you.”

Norn fixed his eyes with a suddenly proud, red-ringed stare. “You’d be a fool to even try, my sweet boy.”

His mind was as guarded as his father’s was. A vexing mental labyrinth.

But the sensation of her probing must have still bothered him. He did not let it show.

Instead, he nodded solemnly. “Will I see you at the Fueller family reunion soon?”

“I’ll try to make it, of course.” Norn said. Her eyes softened and she smiled again.

Bounding back from threats to casual family talk had become quite a Fueller pastime.

“Very well. It is always refreshing to speak to you. I hope that those defectors prove useful.”

“Best of luck to you on campaign, my precious nephew.”

She truly meant it. It would be a pity for him to exit the stage this early.

Especially if what he said was true, and he had learned to love another person.

As always, the Imbrium Ocean was simply replete with dramas and tragedies.

Erich’s face disappeared from the screen, but there was another call lined up.

Norn put it on one-way video. She could see who it was, but they would not see her.

A woman with copious, wavy blonde hair and a devilish smile appeared.

“I’m here.” Norn said.

“Good evening boss. I have prepared everything for the procedure.”

She gestured to a machine behind her, and a visible container of biomaterials.

“Splendid. Can’t wait to be in your care again, doctor.”

“I’ll even be a bit sober for it. I’ll await your arrival, then.”

Doctor Livia Van Der Meer disappeared from the screen.

Norn sighed. Her new Second Skin was ready to be applied.

Looking over her shoulder at Adelheid, she wished she could sleep so soundly.

Before she could leave the desk and return to bed, there was yet another message.

“As soon as they see my computer is on they just start flooding me.” Norn grumbled.

This one, however, piqued Norn’s attention.

It was a distress signal forwarded from the bridge to her room.

From the Iron Lady — flagship of the Inquisition and its flagship Inquisitor, Lichtenberg.

Norn flashed a sudden smile.

“Little Gertrude? My foolish little Gertrude is here? Oh, this I must see.”

Truly the drama of the abyss never ceased! What brought Gertrude out here?

Could it be–?


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