Surviving An Evil Time [10.6]

This chapter contains a torture sequence with a brief moment of heightened violence.


In the context of a station, the overarching structure providing power was referred to as a Core Pylon. To further understand the Pylon, its layout could be broken down into a massive superstructure housing two critical pieces of machinery: the reactor core ring and the agarthic energy array. Agarthicite “fuel rods” were contained in the energy array with complex Osmium shields. This array was submerged within the reactor core as part of normal operation and cooling. Energy was generated in several synergistic ways.

Agarthicite as a material boasted surreal properties that were observed but understood only in a very shallow fashion in the After Descent era. Most visibly, it was known that any solid matter that agitated Agarthicite too much would be annihilated entirely by a fatal discharge from the crystal. This property was not witnessed in particulate agarthicite known as “agarthic salt” but only in cubiform agarthicite “ore.”

No form of Agarthicite “annihilated” water or gas, but it was known that in annihilation of human bodies, the water would be vaporized by the heat of the reaction. Therefore, controlled annihilation of carbons submerged in water could generate heat. While any type of solid matter could be annihilated, Carbon was common, easier to process, and its reaction was well understood. Any material could suffice, however.

Osmium was the great exception. It was the only known case of a material being antagonistic to Agarthicite, both resisting annihilation and even reducing the scope of the reaction and thus allowing some control over annihilations by subjecting the reacting agarthicite to the presence of Osmium.

Osmium tools and devices could be used to mine, shape and manipulate Agarthicite– very carefully.

An eerie and less understood property was that Agarthicite would rotate in bizarre patterns when subject to controlled electrical and magnetic charges and would generate more kinetic energy than was spent agitating them. It was this property that resulted in collapsed ship reactors physically twisting the matter of the ship before annihilating it. Thus, when the energy array was physically hooked into the core ring, the array was also connected to motors that generated additional power by allowing the array to spin in the water. This generated enough power for the operations of the Core Pylon to self-sustain.

Agarthicite could become “spent.” Spent agarthicite would lose its otherworldly purple sheen and become dull and ductile, able to be spun into alloys. In this decayed state, Agarthicite was extremely useful as a metal. Together with Osmium, it was found in all kinds of technology in the After Descent era. For example, decaying Agarthicite alloys led to the electric oscillators used in monomolecular vibroblades.

Both the eldritch rotation and the heat generation could create significant usable energy.

Reactor cores, known as “Core Rings,” were designed both to house and stabilize the energy array and to employ its eldritch properties in the generation of energy. Agarthicite reactors could power the generation of their own magnetic and electrical charges while also generating enough surplus energy to power the massive stations housing underwater inhabitants. Station reactors built in 979 A.D. would be expected to run for multiple decades before needing a replacement Energy Array. Some reactors had been running since the Age of Strife and nobody had touched their Arrays since then. It was unknown by what process their ancient agarthicite was refined to such a degree as to permanently sustain reactions.

Ultimately, very little was understood, truly understood, about Agarthicite. It was only observed.

There were people who believed Agarthicite held powers beyond the mortal ability to “observe” and “deduce.” Agarthicite study was referred to as “pseudophysics.” It had both the academic social credibility of a science and the raving mad reverence of a religion. Most “normal” people beheld Agarthicite this way, no matter how much philosophers and theoretical scientists tried to dispel its myth through logic.

To the people of the After Descent Civilization, Agarthicite reactors and the Stations they lived in had an unspoken near-sacred status. Agarthicite was the true, material God of Imbria and Cogita both, a God capable of both sustaining and destroying life. It was unthinkable to tinker with these systems, innovation in the field of Core Pylons and their constituent parts was glacial wherever it was not outright outlawed. It was known that Agarthicite powered the collapsed Surface Civilization also– but the history of the Reactors for the After Descent civilization began after the Age of Strife with the first reactors created wholly underwater, their designs drawn from studying the Origin Core Pylons of the first stations.

However, it was for this reason that a fleet of Cogitan men and women could convince themselves to attack the Core Pylon of an Imbrian station. Agarthicite was their God, but this was not their land. Imbrians were lesser people, barbarous, evil, enemies of all that was right. Cogitan racism allowed them to see the Imbrians, their stations, and their Core Pylon, as violable, or even worthy of violation.

Their God wasn’t our God. Just as they were the lesser. Anything could be done to them.


Homa left some lonac in the pot in case Leija wanted to eat before she left.

It was simple food, but then again, pulao rice was her favorite meal. She might like it.

After cursing Radu and Imani, Leija said nothing more and finally fell asleep. Since then, she had been resting peacefully on Homa’s bed. Homa had eaten, showered, and laid down on the floor to play with her phone. Leija’s words joined the massive amount of things troubling her during these dark days in which she lived. She had no reason to disbelieve what Leija said: Radu had come to visit her. Since then, she had felt apologetic toward Homa but kept it close to the chest. Did Radu visiting come before or after Imani approached Leija, trying to get connected to a Shimii helper at a dockyard for her schemes?

She mentioned both of them. Why? Why would they be connected in her drunk head?

Could it be that Radu the Marzban was helping Imani? One of the Volkisch Movement?

Imani was a Shimii– but it still made no sense to her that Radu would help her.

Homa was not an authority of what the Marzban’s agenda was.

But he was a wanderer, who lived by his own justice and hid his face from the public.

Could a bandit like that really have ties to a person like Imani Hadžić?

This was something she couldn’t reason out by herself in her room. That was the most frustrating thing– talking to herself about Radu was like ruminating on the agendas of angels or djinn. There was no way to find him, there was no way to even prove his existence anywhere outside the vessel of her own memories. She couldn’t influence him. But she still worried! She couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Because if Radu was helping Imani, the world was a little bit bleaker than she thought.

Heroes and villains would make even less sense than ever before.

She had been sure that Radu was supposed to be a hero. And Imani Hadžić was a villain.

Now, even in the fantasy that supported her life, such things began to lose their meaning.

And it bothered her– because she viewed herself as someone connected to Radu.

Even if they had not seen each other in years.

She couldn’t help it. She was not connected to very many other people.

It was just him and Leija.

If you had no one, no blood– then kin were the people who occupied one’s memories.

Shimii valued kin above all else– and maybe Homa valued Leija and him as kin.

Despite everything they had done–

Homa grit her teeth. Her emotions were so twisted up. It hurt, deep in her chest and brain.

“Maybe when Leija feels better I’ll ask her about it.” Homa said.

Her hands reflexively stroked the necklace, fingers rubbing on the rough bit of silica.

Staring up at the steel ceiling in the dark. Leija’s light snoring the only sound.

Homa stroked the necklace, slowly drifting off, the fog of sleep slowly seeping in.

Peaceful Place.

She shut her eyes and saw the colored lights bouncing behind her eyelids.

Her mind went dark, her body falling gently.

To a world of great open skies, conquered by the crowns of massive trees.

Iridescent foliage casting many-colored shadows the world beneath.

Great silver-white trunks stretched down from heaven to thick, jagged roots prism-purple.

Over soft blue dirt, she sat, her back nestled against the monumental body.

A breeze swept by billowing red algae and weepy fungi and stirred the muddy puddles.

As far as she could see to the horizon and beyond, from the ground to the heaven, it was all the trunks of trees, their crowns making up the sky, their branches making up the clouds and below them the canopy of the forest, low alginic shrubbery under and around their roots, liquid dribbling down their trunks forming channels like erosion on mountainsides, and she was alone, and her mind was mile a minute and slug-like slow– and she felt greatly at peace. Amid whispering families of trees all connected among whom the colors traveled expressing pale blue and white.

Then, amid the trees–

A pale traveler, red-haired with a black horn, white robe and tail dragging on the mud.

Looking over her shoulder, her yellow amid black eyes dilating with hatred as she saw.

Between the sonorously singing trees the colors around her became painted a deep black.

WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE?

Colors became tendrils that rushed toward Homa with murderous slashing violence–

“Agh!”

Homa opened her eyes. A tiny sliver of yellow light from the hall shone in her face.

She was on the floor. A metal floor in a metal place.

Holding herself, curling up in her bed. For a moment she was in the grip of something.

A vast forest; whispering trees; the surface? She had dreamed of the surface?

As the scriptures read. A surface with a vast sky and dry ground and breathable air.

There was a monster too. It was a nightmare. Fear shook its way through her body.

It took a few minutes for her wits to fully return to her. For her to realize and admit that it was only a dream and could not hurt her. But she felt something primal before that– a need to make herself small and hidden as if some enormous presence was watching her closely. Was this how ‘mice’ once felt about ‘cats’? She knew both animals and had heard this metaphor used in educational contexts.

But such depredation no longer had many places where it could happen.

Except perhaps in dreams. Dreams, like ancestral visions of what humanity had lost.

“Ugh. What kind of stupid shit is that, Homa Baumann?”

Homa chided herself for her weakness and childishness.

Anxiety must have been getting the better of her. Her mind must have been in shambles.

No wonder she had no control over her life when dreams affected her so strongly.

Gritting her teeth, she finally made herself get up and face reality again.

It was early in the morning.

Homa reached for the wall, turned on a dim light in order to see.

Leija was still asleep. Homa was almost worried, but she was breathing regularly.

Her face was eerily peaceful. Her makeup had run just a bit, lipstick lightly streaked, eyeshadow lightly smeared. Slight lines of aging showed around her eyes and at the edges of her mouth as she rested, more visible than ever, but Leija looked so content, Homa thought she looked more beautiful than ever. When she saw her at peace like this, Homa could overcome that staggering tension she otherwise felt in her presence. There were no glaring eyes and scowling lips, no striking claws. Her prone body, escaped from the world of violence from where she came and imbued with the gentleness of sleep– Homa felt a sudden heart-shudder of sympathy for her.

“I hope you’ll be okay in here.” Homa said.

It didn’t feel right.

Some part of Homa wanted to take care of Leija, but she had no choice.

She would have to go to work and leave Leija behind.

Homa sighed to herself.

Majida had said, there was no place where Shimii could have a storybook life.

Thinking about it, Homa finally put together what she wanted to say–

“I can’t forgive you for everything. I am not the only person you hurt. You hurt people every day in so many ways I can’t even describe. But I still– I do still love you, Leija. Because I know it’s this place, and the way that being here warps people– if we’d lived anywhere else, if we’d lived peacefully, maybe you could have been good to me. You wouldn’t have neglected me– and I wouldn’t have to resent you.”

In her sleep, Leija’s eyes shut a little harder, the fingers on her hands closed and opened.

This wasn’t any kind of closure, nor was it the culmination of anything significant.

It wasn’t a big moment– just Homa coping to herself, functionally alone, in her room.

That’s all it could be and that was all she could do. But she still felt like she had to say it.

Maybe it could serve as a rehearsal for when Leija woke up and they had to confront this.

Homa dressed herself, ate a bit of lonac in a cup and left for work.

Her head felt a bit heavy and foggy. As if she was fighting back tears the whole time.

She expected her day to go by as mindlessly as ever. She hoped for it to be so. She hoped for a day she could run on autopilot. Home, to the checkpoint, to the tram, to the pavilion, to B.S.W. and back home again. Once she got back home in the afternoon, she would have to deal with what happened with Leija, but the rest of the day should have been exactly the same as always.

Leaving home–

Checkpoint–

Tram–

Pavillion–

Two elevators down to her little lost corner of the world, Bertrand Shore Works.

“Homa,”

On the corridor leading to the semi-circular bulkhead into B.S.W, a blond woman awaited her. Wearing a grandiose coat over a ruffled red shirt and a long, tight black pencil skirt and ribbed tights. She smiled and waved in front of the closed bulkhead into B.S.W. Kitty McRoosevelt could not let herself in– Homa had been leaving the bulkhead unlocked for her after she came in, since Kitty was supposed to come later in the day, after Homa already clocked in. This was part of the instructions Bertrand gave clients, so they wouldn’t waste their time while the employees set up. Only employees could work the doors.

“As-Salamu Alaykum!” Kitty said cheerfully.

“You don’t have to do it in Fusha.” Homa said. She sighed internally.

This woman–! Homa had been saying that about a lot of people lately…

“Usually the bulkhead door is unlocked when I come in.” Kitty said.

“Yeah, that’s me who does that. Only employees can open stuff here, so you have to wait.”

Homa walked past Kitty and held her keycards to the door’s reader. After the keycard swipe, she stepped in front of the card reader’s touchscreen for camera authentication. There was a metallic rolling sound shortly thereafter– the Bulkhead door unlocked and could open now.

“Ahh, I see.” Kitty replied. “It has a camera, too? That’s a lot of security.”

“It’s like I told you, only an employee can open it. So don’t come here early.” Homa said.

She walked through the bulkhead door, automatically opened, and thought nothing of this.

Kitty stood off to the side and watched while Homa put on her gloves, mask, goggles and put protective sleeves over her tail and ears and returned to work on her yacht. She had stripped, repainted, and detailed the exterior, so now she had to recoat it with poison and waterproof gel. She big Kitty stand farther back than she had been the past few days and got to work as usual.

Though she was here way too early with nothing to do, Kitty had no complaints.

In fact, the blond hardly spoke to Homa at all that day.

She would have said ‘suit yourself’ to that, but Imani was counting on her.

So she tried to poke Kitty and see if there would be anything to report to Imani today.

“So, any big plans for the yacht?” Homa asked Kitty.

“Nothing special.”

It was as if she was turning the tables on Homa now. She had become the terse one.

“How has your stay in Kreuzung been so far?”

“Amenable.”

“Been to any neat places?”

“Perhaps.”

Perhaps?!

Homa felt so stupid shouting small talk over the sound of her spray gun.

Especially when she got back next to nothing.

What was going on?

“To hell with her then.” Homa sighed. There was always tomorrow.

If Kitty was grumpy today it didn’t matter at all.

Homa hardly knew what use Imani was getting out of her information anyway.

As the afternoon went on, she focused on her work and did not bother with Kitty.

And Kitty seemed quite content to just stand around in silence this time.

It irritated Homa just a bit– what a stupid turn from how chummy she was earlier!

By the end of the day, she had wandered off out of the dockyard altogether.

Homa clocked out and put it out of her mind. She had to worry about Leija and about whether there to try her luck at the shops again today. She might try to buy something for Leija in the Imbrian shops– if the dynamic pricing wasn’t too bad, a gift might help the Madame’s mood. Perhaps a cake or a sweet?

She put away her tools and walked out of B.S.W, through the bulkhead door and then up the old cargo ramp to the elevator. She tuned out her surroundings, just like she wanted to do. Her auto-pilot took her step by step, steps farther from B.S.W. and steps closer to home, mindlessly. Looking down at the grimy green steel floor of the ramp as she climbed the makeshift steps down the side of it up to the elevator shaft, she wondered how she would approach Leija after all of this.

What would she even say?

All kinds of things floated in her head, but it was such an awkward situation.

“I found you drunk wandering the halls–”

No, not, found you. Leija might twist that to mean Homa specifically grabbed her–

But if she laid the blame on Leija herself too thick that’d piss her off too.

There was no winning–!

Suddenly, Homa hit something soft and firm.

In front of her was supposed to be the elevator, but her mind had wandered off.

When she looked up, there was something in front of the elevator door.

It was like–

A case– a huge white case, with a synthetic felt covering and a steel frame.

For a tool or maybe even a musical instrument? Homa had seen things like this, but–

Someone had left it in front of the elevator door–? Why? It was taller than Homa herself.

She made to move it, more of a reflex than anything, feeling the weight of it as she tried.

Then–

Dull tap-tapping on the floor– heels?

Danger! Cried an unheeded voice in her mind–

Homa looked aside in time to see a black-gloved hand strike her with something.

She felt a brief burning sensation, her muscles seizing up, horrible nausea.

And the hands seizing her– something pricking her– burning in her veins–

Homa struggled on sheer instinct, but her strength faded extraordinarily quickly.

She tripped over her own feet and would have fallen had it not been for the black gloves.

Gripping her by her jumpsuit, unzipping the case blocking the elevator–

Her vision went dark as she caught a flash of waving blond hair in a thickening fog.

Inside the closed case, limbs going limp, Homa’s world and mind went pitch black.


“–Oh look, she’s coming to. I guess we won’t get to see my tenth straight winning hand in a row. Get the synthestitcher ready. I’ll make her smile for the camera. Then we can really get to work.”

Footsteps on water. A voice. A familiar voice.

She quivered, from the back of her neck down to her tail.

Her stomach felt hot, her nose was running. For a moment, the world was spinning.

Slowly spreading eyelids unveiled a world of intermittent, dim red light.

She felt water. Her feet splashed as she tried to move her limbs.

Homa could move her feet just a little, but not her torso, or her arms.

Mental fog cleared up just enough to begin to understand her predicament.

B.S.W, her workplace, was where her body expected to have been.

Instead, she awakened in the middle of an empty place, three times as wide and long as a room, with a bar at one end and shuttered windowpanes on the other. Judging by the bar shelves it may have once been stocked up, but there only scattered old bottles and broken shards left. There was an entrance door and a door out to the back, the former broken open and the latter barricaded with junk drawn from the rest of the venue. There were plastic restaurant chairs whole or in pieces scattered around the room.

Because the lights were malfunctioning, there was only intermittent flashes of white light, coming on with different periods of seconds in between each flash in a way that was maddening. The only consistent light came from the red emergency alarm light, and because this light was revolving, from the high center of the wall, it cast eerie shadows over the other occupants. Taken together it was like a vision from out of nightmare, nearly panic inducing, Homa wanted to keep her eyes shut and go back to sleep.

And indeed, keeping them open was difficult, they teared up.

Struggling to breathe as more of her senses returned to her; enough to realize her arms were bound behind her back, her feet were bound. Involuntarily she started to struggle, forcing her feet apart, forcing her arms, shifting her weight forward and back on the seat. Moaning with frustration when she realized how tight her bonds were, and that they were chafing skin– skin that was out and exposed, because Homa was stripped completely naked. Her entire body shivered with sudden fear. She was bound to a chair with her arms stretched and behind her back, her legs tied apart and to the chair and naked.

“H-h-elp.” She whimpered, as her voice started to return to her. “He-He-HELP!”

“Nobody will hear you. Be quiet.”

Homa heard a voice, and she heard something, like a mechanical switch being flipped.

In front of her, a figure coming into focus threw something on the ground.

She stepped on it, her heels easily crunching it under the water.

Then she closed toward Homa, heels splashing then tapping in succession on the floor.

“Are you awake now? Can you see my hand?”

Waving her black-gloved fingers in front of Homa was Kitty McRoosevelt. She bent in.

Narrowed eyes, messy blond hair, mere centimeters from Homa’s own face. She smiled softly.

“Help me–” Homa whimpered, “Kitty– Help–”

“I brought you here, Homa.”

As if to punctuate this, she ran one of her fingers down the inside of Homa’s thigh.

Homa clenched her teeth, wracked with another full-body shudder. It was so cold here!

And Kitty’s finger was pressing hard on her skin. Near somewhere sensitive–

Homa cried out. “Please let me go! Please don’t kill me!”

“Relax. I’m not going to kill you. And you’ll be freed once everything is over.”

“Everything?”

“It doesn’t concern you. Just be quiet, put your eyes forward, and smile for me.”

Homa realized Kitty wasn’t alone.

When her vision came back in full, the blurry figures farther in the distance came into focus, shifting something on wheels towards her. It reminded Homa of the cameras in the photo booth at Ballad’s Paradise, except that they were on top of a large, enclosed metal box that was itself on a wheeled stand. It was operated by a woman in a black bodysuit with intermittent black or blue plates across the surface, like armor and she looked–

slim and slightly muscular with bright fruity orange skin,

her eyes were green and w-shaped– her hair was long and red and purple, and–

and some of her hair, was positioning the camera, while her arms and legs pushed the cart,

“She needs to look straight at the camera until the datasheet compiles.”

When the Katarran noticed Homa staring at her, she winked with a mischievous smile.

“But she’s preoccupied with other things.”

“I’ll set her straight. How long does she have to stare?”

“We’ve never done this on a Shimii. It might take longer. Maybe twenty seconds?”

At the knocked-down front door, there was a burly blue man without hair, an eel-like tail coming out of his armor. There was a third person, a similar man, who was standing by near the windowpanes. All of them were armed and lightly armored, they had guns, Homa did not know the exact models but the form factor suggested assault rifles, which she knew from studying Diver models and gear.

She felt a light smack on her cheek and shut her eyes reflexively from the touch.

“Homa, stare at the camera for me for thirty seconds with a neutral expression.”

Kitty wanted her to stare at the camera– she would not! She’d avoid it at any cost!

In response Homa shut her eyes and stared straight at the ground, gritting her teeth.

“Don’t be stupid.” Kitty said. “Do this for me and you will get to go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and go about your business like none of this happened. Just open your eyes and look natural for the camera.”

”N-n-no. Let me go. Stop this and let me go.” Homa whimpered.

”I’m doing this to keep you safe, you brat. I could drag you with me back to B.S.W, force your face into every authentication camera like you’re a piece of equipment. There are ways to make that work– cruel ways. I’m being humane here, Homa. Look at the camera, now. Or I will have to make you do it.”

She needed Homa’s face to open all of Bertrand’s doors. To get into B.S.W. illegally.

There were cameras with facial recognition. Only Bertrand and his employees, who were registered with the station, could open them. They needed their work permits and to be physically present for security purposes. For the front bulkhead, but also for the cargo elevator access and for the berth authentications– it had to be a B.S.W employee holding the authentication keys and the only way for the computer to know was using imaging cameras. That was what all this was about,

and in the morning, too, when Kitty asked–!

Homa had been so stupid! Imani warned her to be careful! Kitty really was dangerous!

“Where are my clothes? Let me have my clothes and let me go!” Homa begged.

“I’ve found people are more compliant when they can’t hide. Open your eyes, Homa.”

“Fuck you! You’re not using me! You pervert!”

Homa’s insults came out choked, quivering with the rest of her body.

She heard Kitty sigh audibly. Behind her, the Katarran cuttlefish woman laughed.

“Feisty!” She said in jest.

“You know, I had a hunch you’d be difficult. This sucks. You, hold the chair.” Kitty said.

Footsteps splashed over and someone grabbed hold of the back of the chair–

In the next instant, Homa felt her stomach almost push into her spine as something struck.

She was hit in the gut, by something fast, both blunt and sharp, with brutal strength.

Vomit rose to her throat. She choked, she wanted to double over but could not.

Her gagging and gasping for breath turned to pained screams.

There was an immense pain focused upon a point in her upper abdomen.

Kitty had kicked her! She had kicked her with those heels!

Homa was in so much pain, she thought she would die.

Her eyes forced open from the shock, spinning with panic, was that blood–?

No it was just– the water and the red light–

“Next time I’m stomping on your dick.” Kitty shouted. “Stare at the fucking camera.”

Homa gasped for breath, openly sobbing. She couldn’t believe this was happening.

Her surroundings were nightmarish, and she felt the most brutal pain in her life.

Not even the worst of Leija’s beatings had been this terrifying.

Kitty was really going to any lengths. She would mutilate her. She would kill her.

Any thought of resistance had left her body instantly. She was hurt, her mind swimming, she felt so pathetic, so weak, and helpless and useless. Acid-tasting spit dribbling from her open mouth, her stomach a tight knot of unbearable pain. Shivering from the cold that transferred from the water her feet were in and the moist air collecting on her sweating bare skin. Burning tears pouring from her eyes, fluids from her nose, tasting hot bitterness rising at the back of her throat. She couldn’t fight back!

“Please–” Homa whimpered. “Please don’t kill me.”

Click.

Homa felt something cold sliding down from her lower abdomen and stopping at her groin.

Kitty with the long, suppressed barrel of a black pistol pointed at Homa’s–

“Jeez. This is brutal. And I thought it’d be cuttle-quick.” Remarked the cuttlefish woman.

“Shut up. I didn’t pay for your opinions.” Kitty said. “Homa, I’m going to wipe your face with my other hand. Stare at the camera with a neutral expression for thirty seconds and this bullshit is over. I’m on a fucking clock. I’m doing it this way for you. I don’t have to do this. You or your corpse can suffice with a little preparation– I’m trying to be kind to you. I’m trying to put you out of harms way. Stop being so fucking difficult and look at the camera. Thirty seconds. And you never have to see me again.”

As she promised, Kitty’s fingers rolled over Homa’s eyes and nose with a stiff nylon wipe.

Homa’s mind was a blank. There was no way she could resist anymore.

One kick. One kick was all it took.

Her mind was filled with admonishments. You’re so weak, so pathetic, so useless.

Nowhere near close to a hero. Just a sad little sack of tears and blood so easily broken.

Homa looked straight at the camera, keeping as composed as she could.

A thin strip of light glowed across her features. It was a laser scanner, mapping her face.

After twenty-five seconds it stopped. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Said the cuttlefish.

After the camera captured her appearance, the attached box whirred to life. Instruments inside it slid and grinded for a minute, Homa staring at it as if in a trance. Then, from the box, the Katarran extracted what looked like a partial mask, with crosshatched colors blended into its plastic exterior. It was not her entire face, it was parts of the bridge of her nose, her lips, cheekbone, ears.

“Are you sure this is correct?” Kitty asked the cuttlefish woman, staring at the mask.

“Of course. The purpose of this mask is to trick the facial recognition. So the computer scans her face and prints out what it saw. Computers like this don’t recognize your entire face, they are not humans, they don’t see like we do. They see specific unique features that distinguish faces from each other. This mask is a perfect representation of what an authentication camera computer sees when it sees this Shimii.”

With a confident smile, the cuttlefish woman lifted the mask over her own face.

“Want a demo?” She asked.

“No.”

Homa felt the barrel of Kitty’s pistol lift from her groin.

“I’m satisfied.” She said.

”So, mind telling this humble technician what happens now?”

“You stay here. I’m going out with the rest of the team to prepare. We need to be in place for my first package. We have to dock them immediately when they arrive, and we preferably want to move after B.S.W’s work hours. Thanks to sleeping beauty here, our window is tight. Speaking of which,”

Kitty turned to the dazed Homa and looked into her eyes again.

She lifted something to Homa’s sight. It was her black slate portable.

“Unlock this for me, would you?”

Mindlessly, Homa put her thumb on the on/off button when Kitty brought the portable near.

Kitty then scrolled through, making no expression as she rifled through Homa’s messages.

Her coldly inexpressive face lit by the white screen.

After a few minutes, she held the portable away from her, and put a bullet through it.

Homa had been bracing for a booming shot, but it was a sharp thwick instead.

Nevertheless, the discharge of energy was close enough to her naked body to rattle her.

“Here you go, my little snitch.” Kitty dismissively threw the phone at Homa’s lap.

“Does that alter our plan any?” asked the cuttlefish woman, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Nope. Imani Hadžić has no idea where we are or what we’re doing.” Kitty said.

She then engaged the safety with a quick click of a finger and stowed the gun in her coat.

“You three keep an eye on her. Don’t do anything. You should only be under contract for like thirteen hours more, so just kick back and relax. If shit breaks bad, just retreat, and leave her here. Someone will find her eventually. We’re hitting up Bertrand’s tonight to avoid unnecessary issues with the staff. It’ll be tight, but we’ll make it before the packages. I’ll call you when the deed is done and you’re free to go.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Goodbye forever, Homa Baumann. I’m sorry we had to leave on such bad terms.”

Kitty waved her fingers at Homa and promptly left the bar through the front door.

Leaving Homa naked, cold, and alone with the two burly guards and the cuttlefish woman.

As soon as Kitty left, the cuttlefish woman wandered over to the bar and looked behind it.

“It’s dry here. It’s lifted above the flood level. I’m gonna move her chair over here.”

“Whatever you say.”

None of the burly men seemed particularly interested in the cuttlefish woman’s doings.

She grabbed Homa’s chair, seemingly without minding her weight, and moved the hurting and miserably cold Shimii from the flooded floor over behind the bar before setting her down. Homa’s feet touched dry ground, and she felt just a bit of relief. It felt far better when the woman cut open a bag and withdrew Homa’s jumpsuit and tanktop from it, laying the suit over Homa’s body like a blanket, and the rest of the clothes on her lap. She smiled at Homa, seemingly satisfied with the state of things.

Homa felt a brief distress, looking down at her belongings.

Her ID was still there, but her work permit keycard was gone. Kitty must have taken it.

Without it, Homa would not be able to get through the checkpoints!

That Katarran woman did not notice the shift in Homa’s expression back to a brief panic.

“There, it’s better now, isn’t it? Don’t worry– I only do what the client pays for. Wasting time hurting or killing you is just wasting my energy, and for a Katarran, time and stamina are money.”

She returned to the bar floor and pulled up one of the knocked-over chairs and sat on it.

It really did not matter that Kitty had not shot her dick off– Homa was effectively dead.

Without her papers– her mind started spiraling at the thought. All her work was undone.

Kitty had robbed her of everything she had worked so horribly hard for.

“Now we wait. Oh, you know what? Kitty left a few of these behind. These are useful.”

On the bar, the cuttlefish-woman picked up a small black plastic bag. Tearing it open, she withdrew a little black cylinder with three needles and a trigger on the back– a punch-injector.

“Here. This will make it more peaceful for you. I’m truly sorry for all the trouble.”

Reaching over the bar, the cuttlefish woman put the cylinder to Homa’s throat.

Immediately Homa recalled the sensation of the jab as if it was burned into her memory.

Homa struggled reflexively but had nowhere to move. Her tearful eyes soon shut again.

Once more, she fell unconscious, just like when Kitty had attacked her before.


Homa’s mind went black. Falling and falling incorporeally through a void of– colors.

Be At Peace. Sleep Well. Peaceful Place.

Homa’s world of pitch black became replaced with one of stark white.

Her body felt like it was suspended in mid-air, but she was not falling, she was not flying.

She realized she was lying down and staring at a sky of silver-white and gray tree crowns. Laying down in a puddle of lukewarm water, floating just above its surface. She was surrounded by enormous tree trunks. Far in the sky, the branches at the tops of the trees made up the sky, like clouds made of rocky bark. Between the trees, the colors swirled and traveled like floating rivers.

Peaceful Place. Safe Place. We’re Sorry.

That voice reverberated across the clearing in the forest, across Homa’s puddle.

It was so kind–

Homa wanted to cry. It was the kindest, gentlest voice that had ever spoken to her.

It was their voice– all of them were speaking. To each other. To her. To everything.

We’re Sorry.

“Don’t be sorry. Thank you. I can feel how much you care.”

In the next instant, Homa lost all buoyancy.

Her body sank right into the water. It was suddenly so deep, so crushingly heavy.

She sank farther and farther until the trees were impossible to view.

No matter how much she struggled, the pull of the water was inescapable.

Until the light completely vanished in front of her eyes.

Thrown from paradise down into the black depths of the Imbrium Ocean.

Awakening came like a hammer blow to her face.

Her eyes tearful, assaulted by the repugnant colors of the bar. Her sweat-soaked body, cold under the makeshift sheet of her jumpsuit, shivered as soon as sensation returned to it. Her empty lungs demanded choppy, sucking breaths that hurt her chest. She bent forward, caught between heaving from her dry, itching throat and sucking for air for her pounding chest, shaking all over.

Danger!

For the first time, Homa noticed Kitty hadn’t taken her necklace–

“Huh? You two, the door–!”

Light flashed from outside the door, briefly illuminating the room.

Thick smoke poured into the bar. The cuttlefish Katarran yelled for her companions.

Homa could see the silhouette of one of the men running to the side of the door. Putting his back to it, assault rifle in hand. He dropped a small device that he had perhaps intended to use to spy through the door, but it was useless, the smoke was thickest there. Grunting with frustration he reached the barrel of his rifle through the door and began to open fire indiscriminately–

At which point, something slipped into the room right under the gunfire.

There was a bright glint, an arcing flash like swinging a glowstick in a dark room.

In an instant the Katarran’s arm severed at the joint.

His assault rifle fell into the water. Homa heard the blood dribbling onto the floodwaters.

The assailant kicked the weapon away and in one fluid motion leaped the second burly Katarran, moving extremely quickly despite the flooded room. Homa did not even hear a splash, it was as if the figure glided over the surface, leaped in one bound. Heedless of the status of his companion, the second Katarran gunman opened fire toward the entrance of the bar. His wounded companion was cut down by the haphazard hail of bullets, a flashing muzzle in the dark, the sound of shell casings hitting water–

Immediately after, Homa saw that same glint as before, the flash of electricity–

Vibroblade– it was a vibroblade!

Having somehow avoided the gunfire, the assailant thrust the blade through the man.

Engaged to cut, it entered the Katarran’s chest, the light dimming inside him.

Flashing again, when the assailant cut free of his ribcage, spilling his flank onto the floor.

“I surrender! I surrender! I’m just a technician!”

That cuttlefish woman raised her arms and moved away from the Katarran’s gear in the corner of the room. At this point the smoke had begun to settle. Even the damaged air circulators in this disused bar could still sense smoke intermittently and began to suck it out. Once enough of the smoke had gone Homa saw more of the gory scene on the opposite side of the bar. At the door one of the Katarrans was riddled with bullets and his arm was a bloody stump. His blood streaked the water, flowing out of the bar due to the circulators struggling to dry up the floor. Farther along the windowed front wall, the second Katarran– Homa couldn’t even look. It was– it was all coming out of him. Everything inside him.

She didn’t want to think about it or see it.

Brandishing the edge of a vibroblade along the neck of the cuttlefish woman, it was–

Orderly dark blue hair, rounded, neatly manicured cat ears, a long, thick tail–

Glasses– a beautiful, coldly inexpressive, blood-spattered face–

Wearing a black uniform, cape hanging off her shoulders with clips, arms out of the sleeves.

“Imani! Imani, you came to rescue me!”

Homa screamed at the top of her lungs. Tears burst out of her eyes.

Imani Hadžić glanced her way. Her eyes briefly lingered. “I’m sorry it took me this long.”

She glanced down at the woman begging for her mercy.

“Homa, was it Kitty McRoosevelt who abducted you? These Katarrans work for her?”

At her feet, the Katarran woman clapped her hands together as if in prayer.

“Yes! It was her, and everyone here was working for her!” She cried out.

“Homa?” Imani asked again for confirmation.

“Y-Yes. It’s like she said.” Homa said. Imani had such a focused expression it was mildly frightening.

Once Homa’s mind began connecting the dots, her body started shaking again.

She had been focusing on the familiar face, reaching out for comfort.

But this wasn’t just the troubled girl she had a sweet date with, the girl she had her first kiss with. Imani Hadžić, in that uniform, was a deadly agent of the Volkisch Movement. On the sleeves of her jacket were the black sun armband and the sword and moon armband that Homa could not place, but she was still part of the Volkisch even without their common symbols. And what the Volkisch Movement did, as far as Homa knew and understood, was killing people. Imani Hadžić had come here to kill people.

Imani had killed two armed men like it was nothing. Using a personnel-size vibroblade.

None of them could even touch a hair on her head.

And now she had her sword to the throat of a third victim.

“Did Kitty tell you what she intended to do?” Imani asked the cuttlefish woman.

“We spoke in confidential language. We are just helping her deliver packages to B.S.W.”

“I see.”

Imani lifted the blade from the woman’s neck.

Her arm pulled back– Homa could already see the swing coming and held her breath–

Then their eyes met, across the room. Imani glanced at her with a troubled expression.

She swung the blade over the head of the cuttlefish woman.

Slicing the very tips of the diaphanous fins flapping up from the woman’s head.

“Think carefully about your choice of employer next time.”

Imani lifted her foot and kicked the woman in the face and into the nearby wall.

Where she came to rest, nose broken, eyes bruised and shut, lying limply in the water.

But with her chest rising and falling. She was breathing. She wasn’t dead.

Homa let out the air she had been sucking in. Accompanied by a tiny, helpless sob.

Imani sheathed her vibroblade and glanced about the room.

“Ya Allah…” She sighed. “What a mess. Let’s get you out of those bonds.”

Nonchalantly she walked behind the bar. Once she got to see Homa up close, her eyes drew a bit wide. Homa had her shoulders up, her head down, the jumpsuit falling off her and exposing her breasts. Her face was deeply flushed and felt hot. Not just from all the crying, screaming, and near-vomiting which she had suffered. She was acutely aware that she was bound and completely naked in front of Imani.

Imani pulled the jumpsuit off her and withdrew from her uniform a small vibroknife.

She crawled around close to the bar cut Homa’s hands free, and then her feet.

Homa thought she would die of embarrassment from having Imani all over her like this.

Far more material and readily present was all the pain that she felt.

Her wrists had red marks, as did her ankles. Her belly had an awful bruise. Her whole body ached from struggling against the bonds, from being stricken by Kitty, from the punctures by the drug injectors, and from the stressful position in which she had been bound to the chair. She felt like she had not eaten in a day and her limbs were like jelly when Imani helped her stand off the chair. Unfortunately, she was not so light-headed that anything felt dream-like. Homa was cursed by a sharpness of her faculties.

“Thank you, thank you, Imani,”

Homa embraced Imani tightly, and Imani gently embraced her back.

“How did you find me?” Homa asked.

Imani briefly knelt down, causing Homa’s heart to jump anew from embarrassment.

From the floor, she grabbed Homa’s portable. It had a bullet-hole right through it.

“This was designed to track you if you failed to answer my messages within a certain time.”

She handed the broken portable to Homa, along with, surprisingly, a fresh one.

“That one’s storage is still good. Copy everything over to this one when you can.”

“Imani–”

“Don’t mention it, okay? I want to stay in touch. Money is no object for my little Ho~ma~.”

Imani walked out from behind the bar with a smile.  

Homa put her clothes back on as quickly as she could and put both portables away.

She got the hang of walking again and rushed over to the Katarran woman on the wall.

Rifling through her suit, she found a communicator.

“Here, Imani! You can use this to track Kitty!”

Homa threw the communicator at Imani, who caught it.

Her own hands lingered a bit longer on the Katarran woman’s gear–

Because– a dark series of thoughts filled her mind as she noticed how calm Imani was.

“Imani, is Kitty really going to destroy the station? You don’t seem to be in a rush.”

All of this time, Imani had been content to sit passively and let Homa report on Kitty’s goings-on. At no point had Imani stopped Kitty despite knowing where she was and suspecting her of plotting some wrongdoing. She put Homa in danger, in fact, which Homa was easily willing to forgive because Imani’s face in the chaotic light of the bar looked too beautiful to hold accountable. She had been tracking Homa, so she was prepared, to some degree, for Homa to be abducted or endangered.

It looked to Homa like Imani knew everything that was going to happen.

And that she was letting it happen. She wasn’t even going to try the communicator.

This was the final tell– how calm Imani was standing in the center of the flooded bar.

Even now that Kitty’s plan was in motion. Imani did not see it as urgent.

“I’m grateful you came to my rescue. I was so scared. They even hurt me, Imani. But you have to tell me the truth now. You are not going to stop Kitty, are you? It’s like– you just wanted to use me to find out when Kitty’s plot got underway. But you aren’t going to stop it at all? I deserve to know.”

Imani averted her gaze.

“I– I wasn’t just using you. I had fun– I’d like to have a different relationship to you.”

“Imani, we can’t have a different relationship right now.” Homa said. “Right now– please tell me the truth. You owe it to me. Is Kitty going to destroy the station? If she is, then you must be completely insane. But she is not going to right? She’s doing something else. And you’re going to sit back and watch.”

Imani smiled gently. She laughed, just a little. It was a bitter laugh.

“Will Kitty McRoosevelt destroy the station? You know, I’m actually not certain, little Ho~ma~. It depends on how she feels. Hers will be the final judgment. Will her hatred toward us allow her to kill us so easily and readily? Will we deserve the fury of her broken heart? At first, I was certain she would not. But recently, Homa, I’ve been feeling like, I wish I could allow myself to destroy everything and remake it to serve my own little heart. Perhaps Kitty will indeed kill us all, profiting nobody in the process.”

She could not meet Homa’s gaze as she spoke. She arranged some hair behind her ear.

Homa silently watched her fidget. She drew nearer as if demanding a real answer that way.

“Kitty McRoosevelt is going to engineer a Core Separation to put the station complex out of live power and into on emergency backup power. Kreuzung is not well prepared for this kind of scenario. Kitty’s aim is to bring down the automated missile and gun defenses of the station complex. This will allow her to infiltrate combat troops and commence a coup. Kitty is a foreign agent, from the Cogitum.”

Speaking those words, Imani finally met Homa’s face with an eerie smile.

“Kitty doesn’t know that the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache is secretly underway to intervene. Her forces will be utterly destroyed, and the station will come under the command of my superior. Her name is Vesna Nasser. Daughter of the late Shimii revolutionary Osir Nasser. I am a member of the Volkisch because of her, Homa. I pledged myself to her cause, to fight to create a new future for the Shimii.”

Tears drew from Imani’s eyes. Smiling and weeping as she laid herself bare.

“Knowing all this, Homa– do you hate me? I don’t care if you find it unacceptable, but–”

Homa took a step in and without thinking or warning, pulled Imani into a kiss.

She threw her reluctance aside, brought her passion forward, seizing upon Imani.

Imani complied readily. Their tear-stained eyes met until hers closed.

Letting herself be taken in by Homa’s ardor, her capturing lips and the snare of her tongue.

One hand brushing Imani’s soft hair aside between kisses, stroking her cheek.

And the second, rising suddenly–

Sticking a punch injector of Kitty’s knockout drug into Imani’s neck.

She expected Imani to fight back then, to be roaring mad, to draw her blade–

Instead, both of them were weeping gently, eyes fixed again as Imani’s senses clouded.

Imani made no move to resist. As if, perhaps, she knew, and allowed it to happen.

Staring deep into her eyes, after tasting her lips– Homa could not help but cry.

“I don’t hate you.” Homa said. “I hate the things that happened to you.”

“Was that kiss real?” Imani asked. Her words slurring. Her face starting to numb.

“Yes. It was real. It wasn’t like the theater.” Homa said. “Imani I– I–”

She couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to Imani. Even though she did– painfully, she really did.

In that moment, Homa wanted to love Imani more than anything.

She wished they could keep texting and go on dates to stupid kitschy places.

But as long as Imani wore the evil skin of that uniform, Homa could not be with her.

That damned uniform, in that moment, Homa hated nothing more than the people behind it.

“Imani– I am going to make that Vesna Nasser regret putting all this in your head!”

Smiling, Imani drifted off to sleep in Homa’s arms.

Homa set her down in the corner with the remainder of the Katarran’s gear.

She quickly applied the last punch injector to the cuttlefish woman’s neck, making sure to prolong her unconsciousness so she wouldn’t wake up first and take revenge on Imani while she slept. Then, rummaging through Imani’s own gear, she took the small vibroknife– and a small pistol. Homa did not know the caliber or model, but it was suppressed, just like Kitty’s. It might come in handy. She had never fired a gun in anger, but she knew the principles behind it. Leija had shown her how to do it once.

Leija–

Swallowing hard, Homa realized what she was embroiled in and stifled a sob.

Crying hard over the sleeping body of Imani Hadžić. She took Kitty’s communicator back.

Looking at the objects in her hands. Weapons and tactical gear– it was war.

War had really come to Kreuzung Station once again. Everything was happening too fast.

All of Homa’s senses told her it was time to knuckle down and run away from this.

She was no hero, Imani would never be her princess to save, none of this was within her power.

Homa thought she was a useless girl who was unlucky enough to be dragged into a mess.

Everything attached to her spine hurt in some way.

She had never been in a real fight. Everyone in this bar could kick her ass.

And she was completely in over her head.

Just a helpless girl crying over the wreckage of everything she ever loved.

“But I can’t just sit here. I have to do something! I can’t just watch! I’d hate myself for it!”

Reflexively, Homa grabbed hold her necklace and squeezed the little rock tight.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she felt a warm, encouraging thought.

We Believe In You.

You Are Courageous.

Taken by a sudden impetus, Homa grit her teeth, put away the gear in her jumpsuit and took off running, splashing through the floor of the flooded bar, out into an unfamiliar and even more flooded street. She saw an elevator shaft in the distance and ran for it, knowing she would at least find the current block and tier on that elevator. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her through the part-flooded streets.

“I have to stop her. I have to stop her–”

Suddenly, for a second or two, everything went dark.

Darker than it had ever been. Pitch black. Every light, every monitor, everything.

Then the lights came back on. Homa stopped in her tracks.

Revolving red alarm lights flashed from every wall and the ceiling.

On every touch-capable surface, the screens began to display the same thing.

Large red letters and a symbolic image of a pillar being lifted from within a ring.

In every direction, from every surface, as total as the darkness before.

Homa stood, her shadow spinning around her with the red lights and flashing warnings.

Transfixed with eyes drawn wide and lips quivering, in water above her ankles.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING. CORE SEPARATION.


“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia?”

Deep beneath the baseplate of Kreuzung’s Core Station tower were the nearly-abandoned maintenance tunnels for some of the lower-class blocks. Several had flooded, but there were just enough operable passages for the interests of its current occupants, and the flooding in the rest was pretty convenient on the whole. In a long square room, heavily ventilated but with rather poor air circulation due to mechanical failures, the smell of iron from coagulating blood and decaying flesh lingered. Maimed corpses had been lined up against the walls. Someone had put their hands together as if in macabre prayer.

Between the dead worshipers stood two figures.

One entirely pale androgynous body, short-haired, lean, in a white robe.

Another a pale, dark-haired woman in a long black dress, long-limbed, yellow-eyed.

Her face was stark white, with beautiful but vacant features like an exquisite doll.

Over her head, orbited a halo like a circle of blood, semi-solid and spinning.

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia? Tristitia fulfilled her previous purpose.”

Her hands were stained with the blood of the room’s most recent occupant.

“I keep telling you, these are only orders or tasks. A purpose shouldn’t be something as minor as killing people and collecting their bodies! Your purpose should be grand, Enforcer VIII!”

The White-Robed Figure laid their hands on the shoulders of their companion.

“What should be Tristitia’s purpose?”

“Of course, your purpose should be to worship! To become closer to God!”

“Tristitia does not understand. How would Tristitia carry out ‘worship’?”

“Oh but that is a fraught subject! Even with our vast potential, such questions elude us!”

“Tristitia does not understand. Please try to explain Tristitia’s new purpose.”

“It is fine! A fine question! I have not come unprepared! I have been thinking about this, in fact. What should be the form of worship? Why, worship should be closeness to God. But what is God? To know God we must appreciate the form of God. But then what is the form of God? God is the greatest beauty, the greatest strength, the greatest perception– but then, what is the form of greatness? Greatness is indefatigable, unstoppable, uncontrollable, uncollapsible! Therefore–”

“Tristitia does not understand.”

Tristitia’s words were no longer being heeded. Her companion was now lost in rhetoric.

“Of course, a God can only be worshiped by sentient, living beings, and as such, a God must be perceptible to them. There is only one power that can be called greatest and unstoppable, while being perceptible to sentient beings– the power of our Lord and Savior Arbitrator II, Titan of Aether! It is the Aether that is the attainable form of God to which the living must aspire!”

They threw their hands up and smiled with vibrating, sharp teeth at the steel roof.

“Endless stillness adrift! Thought flowing downstream! Without space, time, or form, only the purity of the mind released from the impetus of flesh! This is the true form of God– so why worship through hard work and dedication? When God is peace itself? No, no, no– one can only approximate the form of God through Sloth! Sloth so unmoving and grand it reverses creation! That is true worship! That is true Sloth! Our God is only reachable through the ultimate stillness! Be it death or enlightenment!”

After their screaming tirade, the creature turned to their companion with expectant eyes.

“Well? Well?” They demanded.

“Do you have an actionable purpose for Tristitia?” She replied in a dry tone of voice.

“Actionable?”

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia, that Tristitia can actually understand.”

One deadpan voice, belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VIII, “The Despair”– or Tristitia.

And one hysterical, impassioned voice belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VI, “The Sloth.”

These were the only sounds reverberating from these old maintenance tunnels.

Until–

A series of alarms began to ring out from the upper floors.

When they finally made it to the maintenance tunnels, the warnings lit up the cracked screens on the walls behind the corners, creating and eerie scene dominated by the color red rather than the dim yellow-white of tunnel’s LEDs. The appearance of these warnings seemed to cheer up Enforcer VI once again, to the degree that they started cackling almost in tandem with them.

“A signal from God! Oh purposeless doll, it appears it is time for a task after all!”

Enforcer VI turned nonchalantly toward Enforcer VIII, and from the interior of their robe, procured a round lump of meat wrapped in a silvery skin. Enforcer VIII stood blankly staring while Enforce VI shoved two fingers into her mouth, forced it open, and tipped the morsel inside before shutting Enforcer VIII’s jaw forcefully, as if demonstrating to her how she should chew the blob.

“Create a combat form and depart! The Imbrians have begun the festivities!”

Enforcer VIII began to chew the fleshy fruit herself. Her eyes glowed with red circles.

Omenseeing.”

Around the room, the corpses began to stir, to soften, to melt down and slide away.

Coalescing around the blank-faced, angelic doll as a powerful shell of bone, blood, muscle.

“Your purpose is to stalk through this chaos and kill the heretics! Let the festival begin!”            

A choked voice sounded from within the roiling flesh.

“Tristitia will fulfill this purpose.”


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins Of The End [S1.1]

Depth gauge: 600m

Rain poured from the artificial sky in Schwerin Island, coming down in sheets that pooled over the synthetic earth around the palace in the center of the habitat. Gray clouds in the unmoving firmament and fields of bright red and yellow flowers surrounding the palace, joined by the great crystalline threads of the water. So much was coming down that it ran gentle rivers down the stone steps into the palace. Gate closed, windows shut but not shuttered. Inside, the residents enjoyed the scheduled spectacle.

On the stone steps into the palace, stood a girl.

Beside the stones, out of sight of the door or the windows.

Fists closed at her side. Teeth grit to keep from chattering. Soaking in the rain. Cold and quivering.

Dressed in a white shirt, a little bow tie, and dark brown overalls. No protection from the water.

Her skin, variously referred to as “swarthy” or “olive-colored” or “leather-tan,” was becoming grayer.

Dark, long, slightly tough hair, tied up into a braided ponytail that fell behind her back.

Tall for her age. A little tomboy out in the wilderness. Enduring the rain like a statue.

As much as she wanted to stand still as a stone she could not. She was too cold and vulnerable.

Her feet turned in place, shifted. She couldn’t help it.

But in the rain, she could not tell apart her tears from the water roaring over her body.

She wanted to scream, but not in pain. She wanted to scream with anger, with the power of violence.

Because she could not, she did not scream. She kept her voice trapped deep in herself.

Standing at the foot of the steps into the palace, in the pouring rain. Eyes shut. Teeth grit.

“Corporal punishment of this sort for a kid is rather cruel.”

Gertrude Lichtenberg opened her eyes and looked up.

In front of her was a tall man, grey uniformed, with a stiff posture and a grave face.

He was holding a small umbrella. With the grimness of his uniform and face, it almost looked silly over him. His brown eyes scanned across the stone steps and then fall back upon her. Deadly serious. This was a soldier, little Gertrude knew. A man of great gravity and dignity, peaked cap and thick boots, insignias on his coat. Gertrude knew the patches very well. He was a Lieutenant. Her own father was a Captain.

Gertrude tried to stiffen herself up also.

In return, the man knelt down in front of her, so he could look her eye to eye.

He lifted his umbrella to cover her too, just a little bit.

“My name is Einz. Einz Dreschner. What is your name?”

“Gertrude– Lichtenberg.”

Between name and surname her teeth chattered.

“Did you cause mischief?”

“I hurt someone.”

“Did the Captain send you out here?”

Gertrude could barely contain her tears thinking about it. They felt warm in her eyes and cheeks.

“No. I sent myself sir.”

Dreschner looked, very briefly, taken aback.

“This won’t make amends. You’re only hurting yourself. Come with me. I’m sure it can be sorted out.”

He extended a hand but Gertrude did not take it.

“No sir. She’s not talking to me.”

“Who isn’t?”

Gertrude sniffed hard. Fighting back sobs.

“Elena.”

Dreschner nodded. He made a serious face again. Like he grimly and fully understood.

“She’s not talking to me sir. I hurt her. So I just want to stand here and become a statue now.”

“I understand. But at least– you shouldn’t be sad and alone. Let me stand here with you.”

He closed his umbrella. Gertrude felt a shock– he must have been someone’s guest from the palace.

Dreschner took his place next to Gertrude in the pouring rain.

He did not explain. And she could not argue with him. He simply did it.

“My–” His own teeth chattered. “It is mighty cold, little soldier.”

He laughed.

Gertrude looked up at him, his smile flashing against the sheets of rain and the gray sky.

They stood, side by side in the rain like that, for a good while longer.

Perhaps Dreschner knew that in due time, the Captain would come looking for him.

And bring them both in.

And ultimately, help solve Gertrude’s little problem.

So that, then, nobody would have to stand in the rain.

Elena and Gertrude did talk again after that.

That very day even– and so soon, that Gertrude still felt soaked, even with a change of clothes.

Elena’s return to her side made her feel very warm, however.


Depth gauge: 1800m

Slowly, the rain-dewed pastures of her youth faded to the metal walls of her adulthood.

It was the year 979 After Descent.

Human life was relegated to deep beneath the surface of the Oceans on the planet Aer.

One such Ocean was the main Ocean of the western hemisphere: the Imbrium.

In this body of water, a woman once called a Knight had lost everything.

She could only dream now, of what she could have had. And what she did to let it slip from her.

Painful and unwanted dreams.

Gertrude turned in bed and almost reflexively wrapped her arms around the dark-skinned woman laying beside her. Feeling her muscled back against Gertrude’s bare breasts, holding her lean arms, burying her head in her long, slightly coarse dark hair. Her companion was still asleep. Her tail gently lifted and dropped beneath the sheets. Dog-like ears atop her head gently folded and lifted in rhythm with it.

Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.

Even her name sounded so beautiful to Gertrude.

“Mmm. You really don’t want to let me go?”

She began to mumble. Her voice pleasantly rough.

“I’m sorry to wake you. I couldn’t help myself.” Gertrude said.

“I’m flattered. You can tug on my leash anytime, Gertrude. You and only you.” Ingrid said.

She backed into Gertrude. She was shorter than her and nestled into her chest so well.

Gertrude truly never wanted to let her go.

Now that she had known loss, such loss as she had never imagined she would ever suffer–

It had taught her that she needed to keep close, jealously close, anything that mattered to her.

Ingrid was hers to hold. Hers and hers only. No matter what happened.

Gertrude wanted to squeeze her close, to taste her, devour her–

Then a pale green light glowed over the lovers. There was an accompanying sound, radio-static.

A voice-only message from the bridge of this ship– the Irmingard-class dreadnought Iron Lady.

“M-M-ma’am!”

That squeal could have only come from the Irmingard’s mousy communications officer, Karin Schicksal. Despite her auspicious surname, she was a small and skittish woman whose voice was cracking from anxiety. After a too-long pause she continued. “Y-You did say to alert you when we got closer!” There was a nervous little laugh. “We’re approaching Kesar’s Gorge. Um. Let us know if you have any orders!”

Gertrude lifted her hand from Ingrid’s chest placed it on the wall to respond to the voice-only message.

“I’ll be in the Bridge shortly.”

Ingrid grunted a little– but not enough that Schicksal would hear her.

She always made sure to toe certain lines for Gertrude’s sake.

“Dismissed.” Gertrude said, with an exasperated sigh.

“Oh! Sorry, I forgot to cut the line! Very sorry! See you soon!”

Finally the light green glow from the wall disappeared as Schicksal’s message window closed.

“Might not get many chances to fool around for the next bit.” Gertrude said.

“I’ll live. I survived a multiple-year drought in our sex lives after all.” Ingrid laughed.

Gertrude wondered but never asked how long Ingrid had felt this strongly about her.

Her own feelings were still muddled. She loved her, but–

But she had to set these doubts aside for now.

Standing up from bed, her room closet automatically extended a hanger with her uniform.

A black coat with gold and red accents, black pants, and the tall hat of the High Inquisitor.

In a lot of ways, Gertrude was still the little tomboy from Schwerin Island.

Except she was not so little at all. She had grown very tall for an Imbrian woman, though not as tall as some. And now in addition to a swarthy tomboy, she was at times called gallant, handsome. At least physically, she fit the uniform which she had been given. Its strength, its unwavering steadfastness.

Its brutality too– perhaps her mind and spirit also, regrettably, befitted the legacy of this uniform.

“Hey,”

Gertrude felt a pat on the back as she started to dress. Behind her, Ingrid smiled.

Standing with her shirt half-open, tapping her palms on Gertrude’s back and rubbing.

“Don’t look so down. Everyone wants to have faith in you. Including me. Show us some confidence.”

Seeing her acting so supportive, Gertrude could not help but smile back.

“There’s my handsome tyrant.” Ingrid said.

“Hopefully everyone else will be as charmed about it as you.”

“Hah! Hopefully not that much!”

The pair laughed at the implication.

Though this bubble of peace which they had seized for themselves could not last, they still cherished it.

Soon both women donned their uniforms and the duties that came with them, and set out into the day.


Depth gauge: 2000m

An adult bluntnose sixgill shark descended from the surface waters, looking for the ocean floor.

Struggling briefly against the titanic wake of some massive creature it could not possibly fathom.

Avoiding the current, the sixgill shark had its reckoning of its own course briefly disturbed.

Try as it might, the sixgill had chosen its dive location poorly, and the ocean floor eluded it for a while.

Instead, beneath the sixgill’s sleek body there was only darkness and further descent.

And so, in order to avoid the gigantic being in whose wake it had been traveling, the sixgill ascended.

An uncommon encounter between humans and nature, in the reality of the After Descent era.

But one that reminded these separate worlds of each other’s presence.

Between the rocky and uneven seafloors of the southern Imperial territory of Sverland and the vast, rich silt plains of the eastern Imperial territory of Veka, there was an enormous trench known as Kesar’s Abyss or Gorge. It was a connecting point between the Khaybar mountains dividing the Empire and the Narodnaya range separating the territories of the Union from Veka and Sverland both. When viewed from the Imbrium above, the Kesar trench was nearly a kilometer across and many more long, a gaping black maw screaming at the heavens. Torn open, split jagged as if by the strength of some titantic monster.

Kesar– the place where Norn the Praetorian’s journey began. Could there be an answer here?

Approaching Kesar was Gertrude’s Inquisitorial flagship. Irmingard-class dreadnoughts all shared many traits. Most distinctive was the thick, “spoon-shaped” prow, like its namesake upside down with a beautiful curved surface above and the tapering point jutting at the fore. Between the prow and the larger main body was a “neck” containing sensor equipment. All quarters in which work and daily living were contained had been spaced into the massive main hull, a semi-cylindrical, flat-topped, beautifully curved monument, bedecked with cannon pods, sensors, and winged fins and control surfaces. Flared armor “wings” around the circumference of the ship’s stern protected enormous hydrojets fed through intakes on the sidepods and below the stern. The most powerful Agarthicite reactors ever fielded on Imbrian ships powered massive turbines that drove this beast, as well as its massive main coilgun turrets.

The Irmingard class was not only the largest and most well-armored and well-armed ships designed and fielded by the Imbrians, the sheer power of their reactors and engines made them the fastest and most enduring vessels in the world in terms of speed over long distances. While they were not necessarily sprinters, the Irmingard class could chase any vessel to the ends of the earth, indefatigably hunting its prey, creeping nearer and nearer to pressure smaller and lighter ships and never allowing escape.

Per the wishes of its commander, the Iron Lady sailed without a livery, wearing only flat gunmetal gray.

But even this behemoth found itself dwarfed by the sheer size of Kesar’s Gorge.

From the circular bridge of the Irmingard, Gertrude Lichtenberg watched the yawning abyss through the picture of the main screen, taking up most of the wall at the very front of the bridge. She approached the island in the center, surrounded by the various battlestations. At this central post was the Captain, Einz Dreschner. He was the man responsible for the direct, day to day leadership of ship operations, even though Gertrude was in charge of the vessel as a whole. She counted on him to enforce her commands.

An older man with a heavily lined and severe face, hairless in head and chin both, never without his cap.

Nevertheless, that grim expression became as much of a smile as it could when Gertrude appeared.

“Inquisitor.” He said warmly, by way of greeting.

“Captain.” Gertrude said, taking his side. “So that’s Kesar.”

“Indeed it is. Just as Norn the Praetorian described it. Vast and seemingly empty.” Dreschner said.

“Seemingly. But it was here, Captain, that the Praetorian’s legend began.” Gertrude said.

Dreschner nodded. He spoke in a lower voice. “I am a very material sort of man, Gertrude.”

Only for her ears. “Do you trust me, Einz?” She asked, whispering back.

Dreschner crossed his arms. He spoke in a measured voice, like a wise man giving oratory.

“I believe that I should support you in this adventure even if I don’t fully understand it. To me, the benefit to be gained is for your confidence to be restored, and for you to be able to make clear decisions about your future. However, a part of me believes this ship should head for Konstantinople, rather than here, trying to unearth some treasure or discover some mythical secret to the Praetorian’s rise to power.”

“Do you think the crew feels the same way?”

“No.”

Drescher reached out and surreptitiously, he patted Gertrude once, in the side of the arm.

Such that nobody noticed, but she knew he was offering reassurance.

“Sailors sail. Their compact with their ship is that they are the ones who have to worry about pipes and pressures and nuts and bolts, and leave the worrying about direction and missions to the officers. And your officers, Gertrude, have nowhere to go in the world except where you tell them. In their minds, I believe they are still trying to excel to secure their livelihoods. Ultimately, all we want is to sail, as well.”

“Let’s hope you’ve read them correctly. I wonder if any of them are getting homesick.” Gertrude said.

“Like you, Gertrude, I don’t believe they have homes to return to that are any better or brighter than the bowels of this ship.” Dreschner said. He sat back farther into his seat. “For now, this ship is their home, and it is their home because they have faith in their leader. They trust your path is the correct one.”

“Thank you, Captain. I’ll make sure to walk my path confidently then.”

Gertrude stood up on the front of the island. Putting on her most stern and confident expression, and briefly preparing her voice. She face the massive abyss on the main screen and laid out her plan, which was heard not only on the bridge, but broadcast to the sailors working in the lower tiers of the vessel.

“Look sharp, soldiers! Before you lies the Kesar Gorge. Before we return to Konstantinople, we must carry out a thorough investigation of this pit. Our objective is to fully reconnoiter this area before we attempt to rejoin the Inquisition. Kesar’s Gorge contains a buried secret of the aristocrats and warlords currently vying for the throne and we cannot rest until it has been brought to light. Uncovering the truth is the justice of the Inquisition, whether the deceit comes from royal or peasant lips! This mission is the Inquisition’s first step toward ending this era of strife and setting right the current of Imbria’s history!”

It did not matter how much of that was improvised. It was a motivation they could understand.

She surprised herself with how convincing it sounded– in reality, what Gertrude was hoping for was only to find the source of Norn’s power. Perhaps even to gain such power herself, and learn to wield it.

Her officers proudly stood at attention, saluted, and followed her words closely.

With a flourish of the hand, Gertrude pointed at the main screen as if pointing a saber at it.

“We will tackle this task in stages! First, I want an imaging buoy to be lowered into the abyss to a depth of three kilometers. Once we have a clearer idea of the geography below, we will judge a course to descend into the gorge, and reconnoiter the path using a drone. Finally, the Iron Lady will descend. While we are tackling the imaging and analysis work, I want the ship to receive a quick maintenance. Check all filters, make sure nothing is leaking, and make sure all repairs to the exterior have held firmly. We will be descending into extreme depths through Katov mass. We need to be prepared and in top condition!”

“Yes ma’am!”

As one the officers on the bridge responded.

Gertrude looked down at them, all of their faces, their cleanly gray uniforms, well manicured haircuts, perfect postures. Service on a dreadnought’s bridge crew was a huge privilege, and everyone who accepted such a competitive position had to look and act the part day in and out. She saw determination on their countenances, a steel edge in their eyes. They were ready. Gertrude did not think these were the faces of people who had given up on her at all. So she felt a weight being lifted from her shoulders.

“Sonar and LADAR crews and Electronic Warfare officers will have to split their attention between the imaging and drone work and maintaining alertness! We are on the border between Veka and Sverland, and could reasonably expect responses from either the Vekan Empire or the Union, now that it has exerted control in this region. Be aware of all possible threats! Our Diver pilots will run routine patrols, but it’s up to us be their eyes and ears to threats in the far distance. We are an Irmingard class crew! We are the Inquisition! We will bring all crimes to the fore and dispense justice! Commence the mission!”

“YES MA’AM!”

All of the bridge officers shouted in chorus, offered a final salute, and returned to their stations, conferring with one another to begin the work ahead of them. Gertrude breathed in deep and sat down beside Dreschner. He gave her a quick look filled with his approval, the tiniest bit of a smile, before he joined the chorus of chattering voices, restating orders, calling officers by name to delegate tasks.

“Captain, I will recover my breath for a moment, but then I need to inspect the hangar.”

“Of course, Inquisitor. If I may comment, it does appear you are back to your old self.”

Gertrude wished that she could truly believe that was the case.

Too much had happened, however. She could never be the same again. Not completely.

That woman who fought unflinchingly, with a single-minded focus and devotion to one purpose.

If she was a monument to order and justice, she was one with deep cracks across its surface.

That purpose was gone. If not gone completely, it was shaken, warped.

She was still hurting, still vulnerable, in some soft and sad little part of herself, buried deep.

Like stepping on a tiny nail and continuing to tread upon it.

While wearing a confident smile and speaking in a proud voice to everyone who could see her.

But there was nothing to do but to keep going forward. Not just for herself.

All of these people were entrusted to her. She owed it to them as well to do more than doubt herself.

So even if it hurt, she had to walk the path laid out before her as Gertrude Lichtenberg.

To wherever it led her. To whatever end. For them.


Gertrude sighed deeply upon entering the hangar.

She had been so caught up in herself, and between Ingrid’s legs, that she forgot the state they were in.

With Sieglinde von Castille gone, so was her Grenadier— and in its place there was now a pile of scrap that was once called a “Magellan.” They were not able to do much with this machine. They had extracted data from its computer, but there was very little diagnostic information included, likely so the machine would be harder to replicate or repair outside its origin. Without spare parts, and without data on how to service it, they would have to kitbash Jagd parts into it and then pray that it could run that way.

Looking at the remains of the machine, Gertrude could almost recall, as if a sensation on the tips of her fingers and the bottom of her feet, the ease with which that machine moved. The power that it conferred to her. She almost defeated the Pandora’s Box with that Magellan. She was certain that had she fought with greater clarity and more reliable allies she could have ripped Elena from the Pandora’s Box. Now, however, it was vaguely propped up on a gantry, kept together with steel cable and thick ribbed tape.

Norn had managed to recruit and supply more pilots, but Gertrude had gotten too complacent.

She wished she had been more conservative with the Serrano patrol fleet.

To think she lost all those lives in the fighting–

–and still didn’t get her back,

“Don’t look at it so much! I’m embarrassed with it! Stop looking at it, Commander!”

From behind Gertrude came a whiny little voice.

She turned in time to watch a short, dark-blond woman hopping up and down.

Her tail wagging furiously. Her ears lightly twitching.

Dressed in a white coat over a green and black bodysuit. Spectacles perched on her nose.

“Chief?” Gertrude replied.

“Commander. If only you could see the visions I have– you wouldn’t look at the scrap so disdainfully.”

Dreadnought crews attracted two types of officers: prim and proper careerists, and unique eccentrics.

The intense hopping, paired with the warped smile on Chief Engineer Monika Erke Tendercloud’s face as she stared at the pile of Magellan parts barely retaining a shape– put her squarely in the latter category. She was a woman barely 154 cm tall, her blond hair divided in two long tails. Her small stature besides, she had a full, rounded, mature figure, and Gertrude knew for a fact she was the more senior of the two of them. Within those wide-draw orange eyes there was an intellect of inscrutable fathoms.

“Stop staring at it as it is now– stop staring at my shame. I will inform you when it is dignified again.”

She rubbed her hands together in front of herself. Gertrude crooked an eyebrow.

“Monika, this is the first I’m hearing that you have any plans for that thing.” Gertrude said.

Monika crooked her head to one side. “Of course I’m not going to just let it take up space! Now that we lost the Grenadier, I was thinking of using the Grenadier’s spare parts and some Jagd parts and making something exciting. I just need a bit more time to perfect my vision. Until then, don’t judge it.”

Gertrude acquiesced and ceased staring at the pile of junk.

“I’m– I’m sorry about losing the Grenadier.”

“Ehhh, it’s fine!” Monika put on that strange smile again. “Wasn’t my idea anyway. Maybe I’m happy it’s gone. Maybe I think it wasn’t made right and deserved to be destroyed. Maybe I’m good with it being someone else’s problem.” She turned her crooked head back right-side-up once again, shrugging. “It’s not like I have anyone to answer to about it. Rescholdt-Kolt isn’t going to call me up anymore.”

She crossed her arms and shut her eyes. Gertrude nodded her acknowledgment.

Suppressing the urge to apologize for how she had been treated, a habit which Ingrid so disdained.

Loup scientists were pretty rare. Owing to the prevailing military culture of the Northern and Southern hosts, most Loup valued spirituality and warfighting over scientific pursuits. Of course, Gertrude knew that these norms were encouraged by the Empire. It was convenient to have the Loup as an Imperial “guest culture” that produced seasoned warriors unflinchingly obedient to the Imperial officer class.

As an outlier in this arrangement, Monika would ordinarily have few opportunities. But Gertrude accepted Monika into her ranks and even convinced the R-K industrial firm to work with her on R&D. In the Empire many scientific careers began as these partnerships between military personnel and industrial firms.

Now Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries and Monika stood on opposing sides of this civil war.

Thankfully, this did not seem to be slowing Monika down one bit.

“My vision will be sweeping and grand– I will make an armor worthy of a knight like you!”

Monika raised her hands with a big smile.

Gertrude suppressed the urge to say something like ‘Knights do not exist anymore.’

That, too, was a habit people like Ingrid found distasteful.

“I look forward to taking it out then. I wasn’t aware you wanted to make a personal craft for me.”

“I got a front row seat to your last battle from the data we extracted from the Magellan.” Monika said. “You are an amazing pilot. And since we’re low on pilots, it makes sense anyway, doesn’t it? Clostermann was never going to extract the full potential of my machine– and Ingrid has her own mecha now too.”

Ingrid’s mecha–

Opposite the pile of scrap that had become of the Magellan was a symbol of Gertrude’s folly.

Standing up on the gantry, looking almost brand new–

Was the Sunlight Foundation’s Jagdkaiser Type I. Where the Magellan was beveled and beautiful, the Jagdkaiser was angled and jagged and evil-looking. Its namesake was the second-generation Jagd type, a light and sleek and fast machine designed for close quarters attack. Over-long arms, big shoulders, a compact body. The intention with the Jagd was to have a lot of thrust with a tight center mass and fully integrated weaponry that was ready to go with very little setup on the hangar’s part. The Jagdkaiser shared many of these traits with it, but its built-in weapons were far more terrifying than any Jagd.

Particularly its left arm, which was a special agarthic weapon unique to the machine.

Because of the damage it had received, even with the spare parts they had been given, it could not be fully reassembled. One of its arms once belonged to a Volker, it was repainted and kitbashed, and allowed the machine to use standard assault rifles and vibroswords, as well as to manipulate objects. The Sunlight Foundation’s wake-jet integrated propulsion was too difficult to reproduce and service, so until Monika figured it out, they had affixed an ordinary suite of thrusters, with solid fuel verniers and backpack, shoulder and foot jets, routing the water intakes and turbines wherever they could around the chassis.

While this increased the weight and bulk, it made the machine far more usable for them.

Now–

Now it was Ingrid’s machine–

At first, Gertrude had come to believe Norn delivered the machine to them as a cruel joke.

Gertrude lost Elena by commanding this machine to attack against Norn’s orders.

A moment of great shame and evil impulse that she wanted to forget.

But–

This was Ingrid’s machine now. So Norn had said; and so Ingrid greedily accepted.

For the power to fulfill Gertrude’s wishes.

“Monika, since you’re here already, tell me about that one.” Gertrude said.

“Heh.”

Monika put on her most perverse smile yet.

“That Sunlight Foundation is a strange group of folks huh? Scary scary scary.”

She crossed her arms as if beholding a master’s work of art at a gallery.

“So this is all conjecture from me, based on what we could extract from the machine’s computer, and going over the parts we were given as well as the spares that came with the damaged chassis.”

Then she began to lay out her interpretation of the art to the awaiting student.

First by pointing out the most obviously worrying feature.

“That arm is a miniature Agarthicite reactor. Except, rather than trying to capture the energy of the annihilation reaction and converting it in order to put it to good human use, all that arm needs to do is vent the annihilating force out onto a target. So it’s bulky for weapon, but significantly more compact than ordinary reactor infrastructure. Even within that use case, I’m baffled how they miniaturized a core ring to that degree while maintaining its structural integrity– but anyway. That higher chamber in the arm catalyzes the munition cartridge, which contains agarthicite and a sheet of material to trigger a reaction when certain conditions are met in the chamber. It’s like a reactor and a gun slapped together. After the reaction is triggered and the cartridge is consumed, at that point the reaction is directed by powerful magnetic fields and osmium shields out of the claw toward the target. This happens in a flash.”

She made a gesture with her hands, closing the fingers, then spreading them, moving her hands apart.

As if, between the gesturing hands, there was an expanding circle.

An Agarthicite sphere of annihilation, consuming all in its theoretical path. Gertrude understood.

“Frankly, I am not sure about the pseudophysics behind the reaction actually being able to travel to a target and smack it. It feels like it shouldn’t be possible once the reaction exits the claw and escapes the magnetic fields. Maybe it’s because of the trace amounts of matter in the water– but anyway.”

She clapped her hands together, shut her eyes, and resumed lecturing.

“Annihilation reactions depend on the amount of agarthicite used, its quality, the type of catalyzation and the resistance of the material being annihilated. So if I put a die-sized cube of very high grade agarthicite in a football size orb of Osmium and slam the whole thing into the ground, I’m inflicting violence on the agarthicite, which generates a strong reaction. But it’s got so much osmium to eat through, I’ll never see even a hint of purple. However, Agarthicite needs material to annihilate, or it will never react and yield its true power. Now, Gertrude, pop quiz time! What material can generate a reaction while offering the least possible resistance? Can you think of anything? Agarthicite only annihilates solid matter, you know.”

Gertrude was taken aback by the sudden audience participation.

“I think reactors use special nanocarbons? They’re part of the core ring fuel assembly.” She said.

“True! But, that’s a compromise for ease of manufacture and portability. There’s other possibilities.”

“I can’t imagine what. Stitcher carbon tubes are everywhere. You just have to process it.”

Monika grinned at Gertrude with a twisted delight and a dark glint in her eyes.

“Tissue. Human tissue for the most salient example.”

Gertrude was speechless, staring with a mixture of horror and disgust.

“What? That’s a pretty macabre joke Monika.”

Monika pointed over her shoulder at the rack next to the Jagdkaiser, containing a single cartridge.

“No way.” Gertrude said. “You can’t be serious.”

“Human sacrifice is indeed always an option.” Monika said. “Not only do our bodies have a good amount of carbon, they have tons of water. That water superheats during the annihilation reaction, it isn’t annihilated specifically, but it vaporizes, creating steam, heat. Energy that can actually be put to work.”

Monika gesticulated further, but this time the Inquisitor was hardly paying attention to interpreting it.

Gertrude tried to maintain her composure, but it was a titanic task in the face of what she was hearing.

“What is in the cartridge? Tell me now. I can’t believe you didn’t report this immediately.” She demanded.

Monika shrugged, unconcerned.

“After disassembling and putting it back together, I believe it contains human bio-carbon.”

“How the hell?” Gertrude said. “And why? Why would they do this?”

Monika bobbed her head to one side and stood on one leg. Her tail fiercely wagging.

“Carbons in particular are Agarthicite’s favorite meal. In reactors, carbon-based catalysts are introduced to an energy array to trigger a controlled reaction. It’s a good trade-off between the energy generated, the volatility of the reaction, and the cost in materials and processing. Agarthicite can ‘burn’ carbon cleanly and keep an entire civilization alive and warm almost perpetually. Human tissues are cheap and renewable however. They have just the right amount of carbon to make a violent but controllable reaction, without needing any processing. Simply put, humans burn good. It’s certainly an alternative!”

Gertrude had heard horrible legends about how, during the Age of Strife, superstitious and insane warlords fed people to reactors to try to keep them going after the collapse of civilization. She thought it must have been sensationalism– as if to say, look how ignorant and barbaric these people were, and how enlightened we are today. Look at how much progress we have made, and how much better we have it.

Now, she was staring right in the face of the most unconscionable barbarism–

“Whoever made this machine doesn’t give a wit about taboos. They’ll inflict any horror for science.”

“So– Inside that cartridge–“

Gertrude was nearly speechless at the thought. She had ordered this weapon to be fired!

And it contained–

Monika put both legs down on the ground again and stopped hopping.

“Human bio-carbon. I don’t know how they got it. It’s probably tissue cultures. That’d be the path of least resistance, and you could control the amount of carbon versus water. But it would also take a long time to grow the needed amount per cartridge. So who knows? Maybe the material was extracted from a willing donor or maybe it’s a human sacrifice. We can’t know. But that’s what we’re dealing with.”

Could Gertrude really let Ingrid pilot this evil machine?

Even if viewed only as a weapon, without moral constraints, it was exceedingly dangerous anyway.

“That machine also has a weird interface that assists in piloting it.” Monika continued her assessment. “Ingrid is not going to be able to use it completely, but it looks like it can work by pulse alongside a bio-port, like a prosthetic. I don’t know what it does and I’m hesitant to take it apart because we don’t have any spares for it. It might help Ingrid though. I talked with her and she agreed to hook herself up to the pulse-collector when piloting. It’s just little pads that attach to her wrists and temples, it should be fine.”

Selene Anahid, the previous pilot, was clearly unwell when she piloted the Jagdkaiser. She had been operating under the influence of drugs and psychological conditioning in order to enhance her synergy with the machine. Gertrude did not know all the details, only brief and vague explanations given by Norn. While Norn and Selene accepted this state of affairs, Gertrude didn’t want to subject Ingrid to that.

After what happened, and knowing what she did now, Gertrude was terrified of this machine.

Could it even be piloted safely at all?

Or did someone’s brain need to be as cooked as Selene’s to do so?

And each time that weapon fired– was it really consuming human material?

It was a weapon, it would kill people with every cartridge nonetheless, but this was still disturbing.

“Monika, will Ingrid be safe piloting this thing?” Gertrude said.

For once, Monika put on a serious face.

“Is she ever safe piloting a Diver, Commander?” She asked.

Gertrude wanted to shout at her for this brazen sophistry, but she held herself back.

Monika was just a blunt and unrestrained sort of person– and she was not wrong.

Ingrid risked her life every sortie. She was a soldier. Kill or be killed was the law that governed her duties.

“What if I put the question this way: will this machine traumatize or hurt her irreversibly?”

Gertrude sounded, for the first time, openly a bit desperate. Monika frowned at her.

“Commander, again, I have to say. Ingrid is a soldier. She is irreversibly traumatized already.”

This time Gertrude reflexively grabbed hold of Monika’s coat as if to shake her.

Her hands moved before she could stop herself, towering over the Engineer.

That sight of the smaller woman, her surprised face, and Gertrude’s powerful hand near her neck.

Once she realized what she had done, Gertrude’s expression softened, her eyes drew wide.

“I– I’m so sorry.” She whimpered.

She let go of Monika and took a step back, distraught. Her mind started spiraling.

It was barely seconds of aggression, but it caused her a staggering amount of sudden mental anguish.

Monika looked at her with a sad but understanding expression. “It’s fine, I get it. I’m sorry too.”

There wasn’t anything to get. Gertrude was an absolute, uncontrollable, evil monster–

–she had no right to judge the maker of that machine.

Not after everything she had done. And all that she was about to set out to do from here.

After all the people she hurt and was still hurting–

“I– I need to return to my quarters. Thank you, Monika. I leave the hangar to you.”

“Hey, Gertrude, please don’t–“

Without listening to Monika’s pleading, Gertrude turned and walked quickly to the elevator.

Keeping a stone face that finally broke when the elevator doors shut.


“You look glum again. C’mon, cheer up. We’ve got Pastete! If you’d let us have booze, we’d have a party!”

“We’re not having booze.”

“Okay, just for you, I’m going to throw a two-woman sober party. It’ll be lame as fuck, but it’ll be ours.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You cracked a smile, you bitch, don’t pretend!”

Gertrude had indeed smiled. She couldn’t help it with Ingrid.

The Irmingard’s mess was its own little food court, with both cooks and vending machines. Long row tables in the center of the mess held the most people, but there were tables for four up against the walls of the mess, and Gertrude and Ingrid had taken one in a corner. For the day’s dinner, they had Bavarian Stew, broth-boiled pieces of dried beef with potatoes, pickled carrot and a touch of sweet cream. Ingrid’s eye had been caught by the side-dish, however, which consisted of margarine-buttered biscuits and pastete, a paste of boiled liver ground up with sweet onion and garnished with pickled garlic shreds.

At Ingrid’s behest, Gertrude mindlessly smeared some of the pastete on her biscuit and bit down.

To her surprise, it had a rather sweet and earthy flavor, with only a slight hint of the iron-like taste she associated with offal. Dry biscuit should have done the pastete no favors, but somehow the textural contrast worked to the point Gertrude could not imagine eating it with a softer bread or cracker. The rich, fatty paste complimented the salty, crumbly cracker-like biscuit and kept everything balanced. She understood Ingrid’s excitement, and the delight in her face as she tasted the pastete with spoon alone.

Her tail wagged so hard it was making noises. It was as if she was eating with her entire body.

“It’s better than I thought.” Gertrude said. Unable to muster that level of emotion.

Thump thump, went Ingrid’s tail. “You Imbrians don’t know how to eat. Offal is the taste of a hunt!”

She spooned more of the pastete into her mouth like a kid enjoying an ice cream or a sherbet.

“Liver gives you vigor! It makes you want to fight! It makes you want to fuck!” Ingrid cheered.

Gertrude smiled. “You could stand to have just a little less vigor, I think.”

“And an anemia patient like you should be eating this every day!” Ingrid said through a full mouth.

Both of them laughed. Gertrude tried the stew. It was a hearty blend of flavors, slightly sweet, slightly tangy, savory and rich. It had good mouthfeel, with the potatoes and carrots easily picked apart, just soft enough without becoming indistinct mush. Clearly the cooks had thought of how to try to bring some of the unctuousness that real stewing beef had, and which the dried-up beef could never possess. Sweet cream was an interesting idea, and the broth used as the base had a decent body to compliment.

Despite the disadvantages it faced, it still managed to taste like home.

Home–

Was that still Schwerin Island?

Not that she could ever go back there. Useless to even consider.

“Ingrid,”

Gertrude looked directly into Ingrid’s eyes. Her companion looked back, in the middle of eating.

“Hmm?”

“Are you really going to pilot the Jagdkaiser?”

Ingrid stared at her, while swallowing all the food she had stuffed in her cheeks.

She washed it down with some vitamin drink, and wiped her mouth.

She sighed.

“Is that what’s got you down now? You’re so fucking fragile.”

“I– What–?”

Gertrude did not imagine that particular response.

“Do you trust me?” Ingrid asked, arms crossed, pouting.

“Of course I do!” Gertrude protested.

“No you don’t, because if you did, you wouldn’t be spiraling out over this.”

“I’m not spiraling out.” Gertrude asserted. “I’m concerned. That thing is dangerous.”

“Everything we’re doing is dangerous.”

Not that type of rhetoric again. Was this just how Loup approached everything?

“I’m afraid of this machine warping you– making you not yourself.” Gertrude said.

It took a lot for her to reach into herself and pull out and expose that anxiety.

For a moment Ingrid paused. Her expression softened. Her words became less sharp.

“‘Trude, I don’t know what you went through with Norn, but you’ve known me for how many years now? Nothing is going to happen to me. Piloting a different machine won’t change me or how I feel. I promise you I will be careful. Like, fuck, I’m doing this for you. I want to be able to protect you. I saw the data, the stuff this machine can do is crazy. Even if I think Norn can go fuck herself, the Jagdkaiser is too useful.”

An impulse took over Gertrude in that moment, and she said the first thing she thought of.

“What if you didn’t have to fight? What if you could just stay here for me?”

Ingrid’s eyes drew wide. Even Gertrude, after she was done speaking, realized how scandalous it was.

It did represent her honest feelings.

She could not bear losing Ingrid.

“What the hell? That’s so cute.” Ingrid recomposed herself and grinned at her.

“I– I might’ve gone too far–“

“Nah, you’re finally being honest. Look, being the homefront housewife is not my style.”

It really wasn’t– and Gertrude knew that part of what she loved about Ingrid was her gallantry.

Ingrid was a warrior. In her own way, she really was an old-school Loup hunter.

She was determined to fight to prove her strength and gain respect, status and accolades.

Somehow the Iron Lady had ended up the village that bore witness to her deeds.

If Gertrude tried to smother that wildness out of her– then Ingrid would really not be herself.

“Sorry.” Gertrude said. “I’ve been really stupid. You’re right.”

“Talking about it is how we get it fixed. So I’m glad you finally let me know your feelings.”

She reached out and patted Gertrude’s shoulder.

“I’m going to get so strong, Gertrude, you won’t have to worry about me ever.” Ingrid said.

War wasn’t about any one person’s strength.

That meant, to protect Ingrid, Gertrude also had to become stronger. All of them did.

She would not say that to Ingrid however. It would have ruined the mood.

“I believe in you.” Gertrude said instead.

Ingrid had no snappy comeback. She smiled gently and girlishly and accepted Gertrude’s words.


Depth Gauge: 2100m

Gertrude slept alone that night.

She and Ingrid both knew they had been too boisterous lately and people were talking.

No more midnight rendezvous for a while. It would only distract from the operation.

Laying in an empty bed again, Gertrude immediately missed the feeling of a warm body beside her.

“When did I become so needy?”

Her brain responded, ever so helpfully–

Since–

Vogelheim.

When she took Elena’s virginity.

Gertrude raised her hands to her face, gritting her teeth, cringing.

“God damn it.”

She was not about to stay up all night with these thoughts. She would drive herself crazier than she was.

Reaching out to her nightstand, she withdrew a bottle of sleeping aid pills.

She took one with a cup of water she kept on her nightstand as well, and dropped back in her lavish bed.

Spreading her arms only punctuated how alone she was. So she curled up tight under the sheets.

With the help of the drugs and her environment, Gertrude’s mind went quickly dark.

Drifting into nothingness as if falling and falling, a comfortable lack of gravity, suspension.

Freed from reality, freed in the truest sense. Floating without care for course, without need of agency.

Behind her shut eyelids she saw a road of colors upon which her consciousness drifted along.

Ferried as if by a million soft little hands, downriver to a great waterfall of colors.

Splashes of light in a great welcoming dark where she was bare and free. Free in every way.

Slowly, the colors dimmed, just a little, and the shadows faded into a stark white sky.

That sky became solid– it was not sky at all but the great white crowns of hundreds of trees interlinked, their branches and leaves making up the visible firmament. Absolutely titanic trunks of white and silver stone grooved as if through erosion brought hundreds of tiny rivulets of water from the heavens to a muddy, dark earth below. Down to this forest, she drifted, upon the oft-bending streams of color that ran in the air visible like expressions of the breeze. Thick roots that glowed gently purple tore into the earth between the trees and made up most of the geography of the forest floor in grand size and complexity.

Like cave echoes, cheerful waves reverberated between the trees, their whispering, their conversation.

They were a community, and they were happy to have a visitor.

Peaceful Place. Restful Place. Sweet Dreams.

They cheered, welcomed, in their own way. Their voices spoke directly into the senses.

But they were not alone–

In the distance, in a rare clearing between all of the trees, amid tiny red algae and scuttling crabs–

Two figures stood across from each other. One figure was gray and silver-haired, while the other was starkly white, with flowing red hair and a single horn jutting out of the side of her head. Clad in an ornate white robe, in contrast with the grey and black dress on her counterpart. The yellow over black eyes of the white figure dilated with hatred for the grey one, she grit her teeth, and inky, roiling black color expanded out from her. All other colors began to gather around her feet like snakes about to bite the grey figure.

“What are you doing here? You foul, corrupted thing! Don’t pretend as if you are worthy of this place!”

Castigating words reverberated from the white figure, silencing the happy whispering of the trees.

Without word, the grey figure withdrew and brandished a blade at the white one in response.

A blade upon which the colors gathered, as if to meet the tendrils forming around the white being.

Gertrude stood in the middle of this scene, in the middle of both sides, gathered there–

Acknowledged–

And when she was seen and when she saw herself for what was–

She bolted awake.

Gasping for breath inside the metal walls of her bedroom–

“ALERT KONRAD! ALERT KONRAD!”

Red lights began to flash in her room. Karin Schicksal’s voice sounded in the room.

Alert Konrad was–

Combat.

In the next instant, as she leaped from bed to hastily don her uniform, a message from the bridge came through. Gertrude quickly acknowledged it and scanned the contents in glances while dressing.

Once she grasped the entire meaning of the message, she paused for a moment.

Warships from the Empire of Veka were approaching Kesar’s Gorge at combat speed.

One particular ship had been detected from a previous All-Navy profile: the cruiser Aranjagaan.

Flagship of Veka’s security division– a ship that Gertrude knew.

She had intelligence on a particular person for whom this ship had become her flag during this Civil War.

“No fucking way.”

Gertrude was briefly staggered by the circumstances. Her luck– and that of a certain sad little group of strays who once shared their most precious days together at the Luxembourg School For Girls–

–their luck was rotten to the very core.


“Approach at combat speed. Target only with light guns. Fire for effect, avoid direct hits. We want to take them alive. We need to determine if they know more about this facility than the mercenaries do.”

Three vessels detached from the task force to pursue the fleeing criminal, whose escape craft had risen suddenly from a secret hangar about a kilometer from the site of the operation. Led by the cruiser Aranjagaan, with two Frigates for support, the flotilla began to give chase. In the background, the Task Force’s remaining twenty ships loomed over a depression in the silt plains where an illegal bio-laboratory had been operating. Wreckage from several Divers and some Katarran mercenary ships littered the plains.

Instruments predicted the path of the escapee– that it may attempt to lose them in Kesar’s Gorge.

“We won’t allow these cretins to do what they want in Vekan territory! Go after them!”

On the bridge of the Aranjagaan, the order to pursue was reaffirmed by a chief Vekan enforcer.

This woman was a young, chestnut brown-haired Shimii named Victoria van Veka.

Little did she know that this Vekan security operation was about to get mightily more complicated for her.

Both professionally and personally.


A woman with an infernal passion burning in her chest–

A secret a million years kept, and another kept a mere thousand–

What will be discovered in the extreme, forgotten depths of the world?

We can only descend further, enduring the deepening weight of history

Even if the truth of our pain is buried ten thousand meters deep.

KNIGHT IN THE RUINS OF THE END


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.5]

For a few minutes, Homa drifted in reverent silence through the open ocean.

Outside her cockpit, through the cameras, she could see the bubbles from her exhaust trailing up, she could see the water rushing as she descended, and the bodies of the towers growing larger and farther around her. So she knew she was falling. She had a smile on her face, she could not help but be happy. Encased in metal armor, out in the water, free from the station’s confines.

When the feet of her stripped-down Volker mech touched ground, she pressed down the pedals to engage the hydrojets and accelerated toward the base of Tower 7, where her target was.

Homa’s every muscle brimmed with excitement.

When she was in the Diver, she felt bigger, stronger, freer than ever.

Everything was quieter, too. But she wasn’t just alone with her thoughts. Controlling the machine with the sticks, the pedals, the switches, and triggers, glancing across her monitors and the instrument panels, switching cameras. She was engaged the whole time, working as if with her whole body in rapid succession, but the task was peaceful, almost relaxing, as it frequently occupied all of her faculties.

“Homa– you– hear me?”

Emma’s voice was scratchy, cutting in and out, but Homa could technically still hear her.

The headphones slotted into the fluff of her cat-like ears were connected to the Volker’s acoustic and laser-channel digital communications system. Depending on which could provide the most fidelity, the computer would switch between them automatically. The audio quality going to hell meant that Homa was far enough away now from the laser router at B.S.W to switch to acoustic data transmission. This was basically decoding long-distance soundwaves as a digital signal, from sound to bits and bytes.

Transfer rates over acoustic data protocol were atrocious.

“Barely.” Homa replied.

“Oh–”

Homa knew Emma well enough to fill in her characteristic ‘oh dear’.

She was Bertrand’s secretary, but she was a licensed sonar, radio, and laser/acoustic router operator, so when Homa went out on the Diver to work in the water, Emma was always the voice in her ears. For worker safety, Emma was supposed to fill in Homa on any weather updates from the station, or on any traffic that might be headed her way. But Bertrand cheaped out on his laser router, so most of the time, Homa could barely hear Emma unless the job was at base of the Kreuzung core tower.

Today, Homa was headed out to pry open a stuck runoff gate at the base of Tower 7.

Dockyards got jobs like these from time to time, dockworkers called them ‘gigs.’

Money was money. Getting a gig like this was more marks in her pocket.

Her rent was paid, but her conviction to leave Kreuzung was still as sharp as ever.

For that, she needed money and a lot of it. No two ways about it.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff! I’ll finish this and be back soon!” Homa said.

She was sure only every other word of that got through to Bertrand’s.

Between the towers Homa traveled over slushy dirt, made up of the same raining marine biomass that made up the marine fog swirling around her. There were many animals, pale or transparent, soft-bodied, abyssal fish and crustaceans and worms, congregating on the remains of larger animals from brighter waters that had drifted from above and made it into the Kreuzung sea floor.

There was no way to move in her great machine without disturbing these natural sites. Clouds of fish and krill felt water displace around the area and leaped defensively away, before returning to the carcasses in which they made their livelihoods once Homa moved far enough way from them. Out in the water, there was so much more life than anyone would ever see just staring out the sea viewing windows in the Kreuzung complex. It was easy to think the world outside was entirely dead. Walking through the Kreuzung seafloor, Homa got a firsthand view at everything they shared the crater with.

Somehow, while the people were all trapped in ships and stations, life teemed out here.

And up above, from where all the food for these beings fell continuously from the sky.

Homa peered toward heaven, and all her floodlights illuminated was more marine fog.

Brown dust suspended in dark water, and the distant, looming shadows of towers and their bridges. Allah and the promise of heaven. It was far out of her sight, infinitely beyond her reach. At the bottom of the Kreuzung crater she was 2500 meters from the surface. To think, even then, that there were human beings even deeper. Some parts of the complex, deeper underground, went as far as 4000 meters.

Nothing habitable– just old maintenance tunnels and mining shafts, Homa had heard.

Sometimes, when she piloted, she marveled at the enormity of what surrounded her.

But she also felt strangely powerful. She felt a thrill in the center of her chest.

Because she was out here, walking this forbidden land in her suit of armor.

As bad as she sometimes felt for the fish– she felt better than ever about herself.

Closer to each tower, the muddy, biomass-heavy earth was replaced with the steel base plate for the tower. Some of these rings contained massive entrances into underground spaces, but others were just there to provide anchor points and power supply inputs for heavy equipment. There were slots on the floor in places, contact points where construction modules could be attached to power huge cranes or massive underwater welding gear which could be used to repair or replace exterior plates on the tower. There were ships that could repair station towers too, truly massive ones that plugged into the baseplates, Homa had learned about them in school. That was neither here nor there though.

For Homa, at that moment, it only meant she was gliding over steel, rather than soil.

Slowly, the marine fog lifted as she closed in on the structure and she could see the varied man-made geometry of the exterior of Tower 7’s base. The runoff gate she was commissioned to pry open was dead ahead, its indentation in the tower wall visible once Homa got close enough with her Diver.

There were four handholds on the exterior of the gate in case it needed to be forced open, but it was otherwise a door that slid out when enough water was pumped through the connecting chute to force it open. This particular gate, Homa was told, was one of the places water was periodically pumped out to in order to empty the station’s desalination pipelines so they could be cleaned or replaced. When it became stuck, the pipes and tanks couldn’t be fully emptied. It was a quick and dirty job to go out in the water and get it open, so it was contracted out to any company with a Diver. That way the maintenance crews in Kreuzung would not have to keep, train, or assume liability for any Diver pilots and their gear.

“I’m at the site. I’ll just get this cracked open and be back shortly.”

Fuzzy gibberish came through in response. Homa slowed and stopped before the gate.

Technically it would have been possible for Homa to connect to Tower 7 itself and route back to Bertrand’s that way. She could have talked to Emma and had any guidance whatsoever from her; but B.S.W would have assumed the cost of the data transfers and she would have gotten yelled at for it. So instead Homa just assumed nobody would hear her if she died screaming in the open waters.

Not that anything would happen at this point.

She pushed her sticks forward, engaging the finger switches to spread and close the digits on the Diver’s hand. She grabbed hold of two of the handholds on the gate door and pulled back her control sticks to pull with just the mechanical force of the arms. This had no immediate effect, the runoff gate remained shut. Homa angled her hydrojets away and slowly ramped up the thrust, pulled up and back, feet leaving the ground as the current cycling through the machine lifted her completely off the base plate.

Despite the amount of force being applied, the gate remained firmly shut.

“Ugh, this is really stuck!”

Bertrand didn’t want her to use the solid fuel boosters if at all possible. Solid fuel was a misnomer — it was just what people came to call power generation other than agarthic batteries. In this case, the “solid fuel” was actually liquid– they could burn anything that burned, depending on the kind of boosters equipped. Bertrand filled theirs with diesel because it was cheap, but cheap wasn’t free. With a few licks of solid fuel boosting she could have had this open in an instant. She was starting to think she had no other choice, however. She had not come with any tools, just the vibromachete on the magnetic strip.

Cutting through the runoff gate was of course not an option.

“Well! I don’t have a choice! Hey, Emma, if you can hear, I’m hitting a booster.”

Her left hand moved instinctually toward a button panel in front of her, in order to flip open a plastic cap enclosing the trigger that unlocked the solid fuel boosters. On normal Divers the boosters were immediately accessible from buttons on the stick or pedals, but Bertrand installed a mechanism to lock those controls and then put a plastic box over it to really make Homa think about using fuel.

As soon as she unlocked the booster, however, she was alerted to sudden movement–

On her monitors there was a flashing red box placed by the computer over the runoff gate–

Which burst suddenly open, ejecting a cloud of salt residue and water stuck inside.

Unveiling flashing red eyes and a long, eerie shadow–

Homa rapped the buttons on her sticks that engaged solid fuel boost and thrust upward.

She felt her cockpit rattle as something lunged past and slammed into one of the feet.

This threw her off but not enough to completely lose control. She tried to get her bearings.

Glancing at one of her secondary monitors showed her one of the underside cameras. On the feed, there was the long, dark form of a creature about twice the height of her Diver in length, but slightly thinner. A bulbous main body like a huge four-part jaw that attached to a sack for the eyes and brain, tapering into a tail with yellow biological lights glowing across it. Two structures on the rear end of the sack-like portion of the body ejected water and dirt– bio-hydrojets, fed water from the enormous mouth and from four sets of gills on the sides and top of the sack. That meant this eel-like being was a Leviathan.

Twisting around, its jaws and four malicious eyes atop its sack-body suddenly faced her.

“Leviathan! Emma! Leviathan!” Homa cried out.

Jerking her control sticks, Homa faced down the creature, trying to gauge its next move.

A red targeting box drawn around it by the predictive computer, labeled the creature.

Gulp-class, a “lifeboat” level Leviathan. Fourteen meters long.

Had it been hiding in the runoff gate? For how long? How did it get in there?

It must have been holding it shut until Homa disturbed it.

Now it was clearly aggravated.

Engaging its hydrojets and the muscles on its tail, the Gulp-class lunged at Homa.

Rows and rows of vibrating silver teeth gleamed inside its enormous, distending maw.

Monomolecular edges, each one, just like her machete.

They would shred the unarmored Volker. Homa once more launched herself aside.

“Emma! Emergency! Leviathan!”

Homa repeated words, rather than phrases, hoping something would get through.

But there was nothing but static on the acoustic network or laser messaging.

The Gulp-class lunged past her, but this time it slammed its tail at her as it went.

Her entire cockpit rattled and shook, Homa clinging to her controls with a deathly grip.

Gritting her teeth, eyes racing between monitors, heart pounding.

She could connect to Tower 7, but she needed her hands and concentration on avoiding the attacks, she could not work on the computer to swap connections and ask for help. After sweeping past her, the Gulp-class seemed to have learned something from its short-ranged and sudden leaps, and instead gathered momentum by swimming away into the marine fog and doubling back.

“No, no– this is– this can’t be–”

Homa’s vision swam, her undershirt clung to her cold sweating chest.

Her limbs tensed and shook, her feet shook hard enough to tap her pedals.

Shrill screeching roars sounded the violence hurtling her away.

As the monster threw itself forward, Homa shrank away from it with her whole body.

Forward boosters threw her aside the charging, snapping jaw.

Three vibrating teeth grazed the exterior forearm of her Volker, scratching the metal.

And the body disappeared again into the fog, twisting to resume attack.

Had those teeth caught on a pushrod she would have been without an arm.

“No no no no no!”

Was this how she was going to die? All alone out in the ocean, torn out of a Diver by a screeching monster, screaming her heart out without a soul to hear? Every centimeter of her skin was brimming with anxiety, she felt her heart like bass echoing through her pores, into her roiling gut. She could not unclench her jaw and her fingers shook wildly enough on her controls to make up a drumbeat. Flooding tears stung her eyes and clouded her vision. She could not feel her tail.

If even one of those teeth dug deep enough her entire body would be extruded–

Teeth–

–dug,

“I’m– I’m not going to die here! I’m going to escape this place! I’ll escape! Damn you!”

Homa shouted herself hoarse and drew her vibromachete from the magnetic strip.

It was just large enough to hold in both hands like a short sword.

On her monitors a red box indicated the resurgence of the Gulp-class and its heading.

Homa engaged all thrust, throwing itself into the Gulp-class’ charge.

Holding her sword from the shoulder and thrusting with all her might and momentum.

Crashing into the Leviathan’s fat snout and driving the sword between its four eyes.

Its distended jaw slackened from the attack and could not close around her Volker.

Hysterical, Homa pounded her feet on her pedals, tugged her sticks. “Die! Fucking die!”

Furiously tearing across the soft palate and nostril, Homa drove her sword back out. In the wake of her cutting edge issued a geyser of red biomass. The mildly buzzing vibration of the monster’s teeth died out, its jets sputtered and clogged with gore, the mutilated body sank slowly away from the Diver. Coming to fall upon the tower base plate, where curious, wandering krill and shrimp convened.

Homa watched, heaving breath, eyes incredulous, as all the tiny creatures invisibly lost upon the surface of the tower base plate showed themselves. Visible in contrast with the dark body of the Leviathan, they started picking apart the corpse. To them, it did not matter whether it fell to the brown earth or to the metallic plate surface. It was a needed injection of life-sustaining biomass.

Something about the sight of the creature that had brought her so much fear, being so easily colonized by the bottom feeders, left Homa speechless. That feeding frenzy of dozens of creatures the size of one of her fingers, playing about below. Her tears continued to flow, but she fell back upon her chair, releasing her sticks, her feet slack on the pedals. Catching her breath, holding her necklace reflexively. She had fallen back into the habit of doing that, from when she was a kid.

This Is Life.

Homa– did not think that.

It felt like it came from the place of her thoughts but–

It was as if– she heard a voice–?

A very gentle– very soothing voice–?

“Homa! Come in! We bought laser access! Are you okay? Did you say Leviathan? Homa!”

Emma’s voice. Homa was snapped out of her reverie by a crisp call from B.S.W.

She almost wanted to shout back for Emma and Bertrand to go fuck themselves.

But she valued her job– she needed the money.

Homa needed the money to get out of this hellish place. Before it killed her.

So despite the swelling emotion rushing over her body like a shower of stress–

She politely explained what happened.

“Solceanos defend you Homa! Oh gosh! We’re so glad you’re okay!”

Homa practically heard the next words said before they were spoken and braced for them.

“We’ll talk about the fuel and all that when you get back. Be safe, okay?”

Mildly different than what she thought, but still. She grit her teeth.

With the runoff gate forced open and the Leviathan killed, the job was done.

“Bertrand should try to wring some more money out of them for the Leviathan.” She said.

“Oh he will! Don’t you worry!” Emma replied cheerfully.

Homa engaged her hydrojets again, gliding just off of the sea floor. She could have moved faster now that Emma was paying to talk to her, since she would know if there was any traffic. But out of force of habit, she took her time getting back to Bertrand’s to have a stern, frustrating chat about her use of fuel to save her own life from a violent death. Another day at the office.


After Homa left Bertrand’s office and finally found a moment’s peace, she pulled out her phone and found a few messages from Imani Hadžić. She stared at the mails in disbelief for a few minutes. Because she could see the previews in the notification bubbles, she knew only two messages, the first and last, contained nothing but black hearts. However, the other mails had actual content to them, so Homa took a bathroom break in order to read them in private and respond.

“Ho~ma~” began the most substantial message, “During your work, please keep an eye on Kitty McRoosevelt for me. Make idle conversation and try to get her to speak on current events or local politics if you can. Let her run her mouth. If she asks you for any favors, such as hiding or moving things from her yacht, comply promptly and let her use you. Report to me any such events, as well as any names, places, or times she mentions, for example, if she talks about going on dates or being indisposed on certain times. Earn her trust, be compliant to her requests, but take care of yourself. She cannot be allowed to suspect you. If she tries to harm you, do anything that you can to contact me.”

That message, too, ended with a little black heart.

Homa typed up a quick response from the bathroom.

“Will do. Are you okay?”

By the time she was back outside, she would find that this message had been responded to:

“You’re sweet.”

Homa took that to mean Imani was indeed okay.

And despite her complicated feelings toward Imani, she felt relief, nonetheless.

All of the rest of Imani’s messages were just her being needy or sending black hearts.

For all that she said she wouldn’t demand immediate answers, Imani harassed her anyway.

Her slate would have been buzzing nonstop had Homa not been out in the Diver.

Despite having that near-death experience, she still had half the workday to go.

Bertrand’s profits stopped for no one.

“Homa! Our little hero!”

On the dockyard, seated atop barrels of ship coating gel and fluid next to Kitty’s yacht, Becker and Aicher cheered Homa’s return. Becker had one of Bertrand’s portables in hand and showed Homa the footage they extracted from the Diver. Homa felt her stomach turn for a moment at the sight of herself shouting ‘Die! Fucking die!’ while butchering the Leviathan. It was too surreal.

“Crazy piloting out there Homa! Schecter could have never done this!” Becker said.

“I’m glad he didn’t go out then.” Homa sighed. Imagining an even more tragic scene.

“My time on patrol didn’t coincide with a lot of Diver stuff.” Becker said. “But even I can tell Homa, your reflexes are amazing! And that charge? You’re made of stern stuff little lady.”

“I was just freaking out. I’d have really rather not had to fight for my life at all.”

“Well, look at this way. Yes, you cost old Bertrand a little bit money short term for all the fuel, but long term, you’ve proven you’ve got skills Homa! Bertrand won’t have to worry about sending you out anymore. I bet once his fuel cost is covered up, you’ll have a promotion coming!”

Becker’s continued gushing caused Homa’s ears and tail to droop in embarrassment.

“Hell, Homa should just take off of here and join the navy. Better money there!”

Aicher was joking, but Becker quickly shot him a glare.

“No, Homa shouldn’t go near the navy, Aicher! It’s not managed right these days.”

“Didn’t think I’d ever hear that out of you old Beck. I thought you loved the navy.”

Becker’s expression darkened. “Not these days. It’s not– it’s not run right anymore.”

Homa knew what he meant. She recalled their earlier conversation.

The Volkisch Movement was in charge of the Navy now.

But Homa didn’t know that she could agree that the Navy was ever “run right.”

After talking with Imani, she didn’t know whether any part of the world was “run right.”

And after today, she knew she didn’t want to be anywhere near a fight again.

Thankfully, Becker and Aicher ran themselves out of steam on this topic pretty soon.

Soon Homa was left to begin the work on the yacht.

First she was tasked with the exterior, which would take a few days. She had to remove any old coating in order to insure that any new coating was applied evenly. That meant dousing the exterior with a thinner chemical, using a plastic wiper to peel off all the coating; shining, polishing and painting the bare metal and filling any dents or scratches; and then applying the new coating in layers, waiting for each layer to set. Each layer would take, by Emma and Bertrand’s calculations, about eight hours to set. So that meant it took half as much time in reality– but it did extend the work schedule by several more days.

Staring at the massive yacht in front of her, Homa recalled Imani’s message.

If she was supposed to be snitching on Kitty, that meant Kitty was also alive and around.

So Imani and her had not killed each other on that night in Ballad’s Paradise.

Homa internally berated herself for having such a stupid idea in the first place.

Of course these spy games were a lot more complicated than shootouts in public places.

Donning a plastic mask and putting a pair of plastic sheets over her ears, Homa popped a cap off one of the barrels and firmly affixed a hose to it. That hose she connected to her chemical sprayer, and set herself to work, hosing down the stock livery of Kitty’s yacht and with it, the old layers of coating. With a 40 meter long and 13 meter tall yacht there was a lot of hull to hose down.

Her sprayer could launch a jet of chemical as high up as the yacht’s bridge and even higher, but to do things safely and smartly, Homa had the nozzle set very tight, and instead used a personal elevator to get up higher. Standing close to the hull, she lifted her platform to the section she was working on and sprayed a cone of chemicals at a low speed, to get a thin film over the hull, enough to wear away at the old coating without wasting product or spraying it everywhere. This method also took more time, which was probably the actual reason that the company did it this way.

When she was done with most of the port-side prow section, she elevated herself almost on top of the deck, and saw over it, in time to spot the bulkhead door into B.S.W opening and admitting a woman into the path toward the main dockyard. Heels clacked on the steel floor, and the approaching woman threw her blond hair and waved at Homa when she saw her over the yacht. On that day she was dressed in a blue blouse with a deep v-neck, and a tight, ruffled yellow skirt, but still wore her distinctive coat.

Kitty McRoosevelt, all smiles, had come to pay them a visit again.

“It’s fine if I look over your shoulder, isn’t it?” She asked, shouting up at Homa.

Comply promptly.

“It’s fine! It’s your money!” Homa replied. “But put on a disposable face mask!”

Safety first. Homa was spraying chemicals everywhere after all.

And she supposed it would be bad if Kitty McRoosevelt had to go to the hospital.

For Homa at least, if not for Imani Hadžić.

Now that Kitty was physically around and watching her from below with her back to a barrel of coating thinners with a little face mask on, fully integrated into the surroundings– Homa had to think about how she was going to get her to talk. Clearly Imani was not just going to come down here and cuff her. So there must have been something Imani wanted Homa to learn from Kitty before arresting her, or something that she wanted Kitty to do. But Homa had no idea, and she was not the biggest social butterfly in the world, so she had no idea how to extract it from her.

And of course, far be it for Imani not to be frustratingly cryptic and actually tell Homa anything.

“Have you ever thought of just blasting the side of the hull from down here?” Kitty asked.

“Huh? Uh, no, that’d be super dangerous. This stuff is really toxic.” Homa said.

She pointed a finger at her chemical sprayer, and Kitty nodded her head.

“Well, I’m glad they’re thinking about your safety around here.” Kitty said.

“I mean, yours too. You should back off a bit more. You don’t have a zip-up suit like me.”

Kitty heeded Homa’s warning and backed up from the yacht– but only a few steps more.

“It’s really impressive how you’re the only woman here. It’s such a male-dominated field.”

“Ah, it’s not really that hard. My co-workers are all super old guys. They can still do it.”

Despite trying not to feel flattered, Homa’s little tail began fluttering in its protective bag.

While Homa worked, Kitty remained near the site, often asking questions about the process or about the equipment Homa was using. These would be interspersed with questions about Homa personally, every so often. “So how old are you kid?” “How long have you worked here?” “How was vocational school?” “Do you guys get lunch breaks? You’ve been at it for a while!”

Homa had curt answers. She was engaged in work, and it was a little bit annoying.

However, she did feel a bit flattered. Even though it must have been part of Kitty’s scheme.

Few people ever took so much interest in what she was doing.

By the end of her shift, she had spent hours with Kitty, and she felt exhausted as she waved the crew goodbye and shambled up the ramp toward the elevator and the journey home. It was like she had done twice as much work today as normal. She almost forgot to account for the fact that she had survived being eaten by a monster. It had been an eventful day and the first many, as Kitty would start visiting the dockworkers every single day, punctuating Homa’s blurry days of eating, sleeping, and working with an intrusive but not always unpleasant or unwelcome burst of color.

Kitty was not alone in disrupting Homa’s life, however.

That afternoon, as Homa exited into the pavilion, she saw new digital signage up on every shop window, and the coming-and-going crowds of busy people began to pool in front of shops, some with their portables out, others asking strangers if they knew or had heard anything about this. On the shops, the signs read ‘Dynamic pricing in effect’. When Homa approached a shop that had sweaters for sale on the front window, she saw, for the first time, a price tag’s number fluctuate before settling on a slightly higher price than before. That sweater’s price rose by 26 Imperial Mark right before her eyes.

It was not a big change, and it did not happen often– Homa kept looking for a few minutes but did not personally see another price change that night, but she thought, it must be happening all over the shopping center, probably with more dramatic effects.

What did it mean?

On the tram, Homa sent Imani a mail. She was part of the government, wasn’t she?

“Imani, the shops in Kreuzung have ‘Dynamic Pricing’ now. Did something happen?”

She received an answer as soon as she got off the tram.

“Yeah, something happened.”

This woman–!

Gritting her teeth by herself on the elevator, Homa sent another message.

“Can you tell me what happened, Imani?”

This one did not receive an answer. Not right away, anyway.

Homa looked around the Shimii market, but there was no ‘Dynamic Pricing’ there– yet.

She stopped by Hasim’s for some more marrow bones and another bag of cabbage.

Paying careful attention to the condition of his wares– everything looked normal.

Those beef cubes must have really been selling out a lot.

“Hasim, has it been tough to source beef lately?” Homa asked.

“Ah, looking to pry into my business secrets, miss Baumann?” Hasim joked.

That was his good-natured way of suggesting she not ask that question.

Nevertheless, she satisfied her own anxiety. The Shimii shops weren’t out of goods.

Prices hadn’t changed either. Yet.

So what was happening in the core station? Homa felt perplexed.

After she returned home she immediately tapped on the wall twice to bring up the launcher and tapped the icon for the television. She already had the news channel playing. While she took off her jumpsuit a few commercials played advertising for Volwitz Foods’ latest ready-meals, for data plans for portables, Epoch Clothiers’ new line of all-vinyl see-through clothing, and finally, the news anchor reappeared on screen. Homa sat in her underwear, on the edge of her bed, ears twitching and tail swishing freely from the back of her shorts, awaiting any pertinent news.

Finally, after a few local puff pieces and some reminders that a murder happened recently, the anchor introduced a colleague who was at a massive wholesaler warehouse. Three enormous cargo elevators were packed full to bursting, and there were a lot of people buzzing around in the background as the camera panned over. The warehouse itself, for all the people in it, looked pretty empty of actual goods. Homa had never seen a place like this, but she assumed the stuff that got brought into Kreuzung from the agrispheres and factories had to be kept somewhere–

“We’ve never seen anything like this!” the reporter said excitedly, “Volwitz’ wholesalers all over Kreuzung have been posting massive delays in returning stock, and its led to a feeding frenzy of ship suppliers rushing in with their bulk orders. In all my years of covering the shipping biz I’ve never seen a warehouse this empty–” the reporter caught sight of a dark haired woman near one of the elevators, clipboard in hand, coordinating a series of forklifts full of crated-up food. He approached her, using a handheld remote to maneuver his drone camera around the other side of her. A dirty trick to make people feel trapped into an interview. Homa saw this often in this news channel.

“Ma’am looks like you made off good before the warehouse got ransacked! What’s your name? Do you work for a ship in port around here? Did you have any idea it’d be this crazy?”

“Um.” The woman stared awkwardly into the drone camera. She was rather pretty, her lips and eyes lightly reddened with makeup. Her uniform looked familiar too. She had a motherly sort of look to her, Homa thought. “I’m– Minardo. I am a ship victualer. I had no idea it would be this busy. I suppose I got lucky? I’m just trying to do my job here.” The drone camera hovered closer and she shooed it away.

Homa thought her Low Imbrian sounded pretty weird– definitely not from the region.

“Got any wisdom for the viewers at home on what these wholesale shortages might mean?”

Again the drone camera got closer to Minardo’s face– meeting a gaze full of killing intent.

Homa thought it looked like when Madame Arabie got mad–

“Leave me alone already!”

In the next instant the drone camera was on the floor and the reporter was shouting.

“No! I have freedom of the press! I was just trying to get some man-on-the-street–!”

As soon as the video cut away to an embarrassed-looking anchor in the studio, Homa felt a buzzing transfer through her bed, across the sheets. Homa realized the only person it could be and practically dove to the other end of the bed to pick it up. It wasn’t a call, however, but a mail, from Imani Hadžić.

She had responded to Homa’s earlier inquiry in much more detail now.

“Rhineanmetalle’s consumer brands have temporarily formed a cartel with Volwitz Foods and Epoch Clothiers, colluding to reduce output sold specifically to Kreuzung core. The cartel is trying to collectively turn the public against further labor strikes and break the strike in Kreuzung through economic shock. It’s a play by the fuhrer Adam Lehner using his influence over the capitalists. Volwitz and Epoch Clothiers were both majority-owned by liberal stakeholders who have since been targeted by the Volkisch. They are in no position to refuse for now. Supplies won’t run out entirely, one hopes, but prices will go wild.”

Homa read the mail twice, trying to pick apart every word for comprehension. She mostly understood it– a bunch of the big brands were refusing to sell to Kreuzung as revenge for the Rhineanmetalle strikes so that people would be scared off from supporting the strikers. Despite this, she still wrote and sent a mail to Imani, her skin tingling with anxiety, that read– “What does that mean for us Imani?”

Her eyes remained glued to the portable for almost ten minutes.

Fingers quivering over the cold metal.

What does that mean for her? Would she be okay?

Then, finally another mail from Imani arrived.

“Together, the cartel represents 63% of all goods sold in Kreuzung. About the Shimii in Tower Eight: a few people like Leija Kladuša have the authority and ability to import goods produced by Shimii in other stations per certain agreements and will continue to make these available. But doing some quick back of the paw math, 43% of consumption by Shimii in Tower Eight is of cartelized goods. There’ll be shortages, especially in food. Volwitz products account for over half the Shimii’s food consumption. It’s only in local textiles and hygiene products that we begin to see a gap in local goods over cartelized goods.”

Leija– that was Madame Arabie’s name. Leija Kladuša. Few people knew it.

Madame Arabie brought in poppy from outside Kreuzung and refined it into drugs.

Homa knew this was the most lucrative pillar of her criminal Empire.

Rich Imbrians loved the heroin and the even stronger and less cut up opium she produced.

That drug money funded a lot of the Madame’s less pernicious pursuits.

There was another buzz, and a third mail appeared from Imani shortly thereafter.

“Without goods to buy, money is useless. Restaurants will get more expensive soon. While you still can, buy a bag of flour, a thing of vegetable oil and buy zlatla. You know what it is right? Western Shimii love the stuff. Half cup water + zlatla + a cup flour, mix dough in a bowl, oil the dough, and fry. Three a day to stay alive. If you can’t fry, put the bowl near your room heater, add a bit more water, cover with a plate, to steam a dumpling. If you have meat or vegetables, eat a little a time with your cakes to ration it.”

Homa blinked at the instructions. Her tail stood up on end as much as it could in surprise.

Was she expecting some kind of famine? This was starting to become surreal.

“Can’t you do anything about this?” Homa asked. “You’re a big-shot, right?”

“Nope~” came the reply. “I’m just a soldier. It’ll get worse if we lose Kitty. So just focus up, okay?”

Upon mention of that woman again, Homa felt her frustrations with Imani resurface.

“What can she do to this station that’s worse than this?” Homa furiously typed.

Promptly: “Destroy the whole thing. Kill everyone. You and I included.”

Homa froze. That had to be a joke right? Nobody would– nobody could destroy a station.

Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the message. So curt and simple, but– terrifying.

Those were the most terrifying words Homa had ever seen on a screen in her life.

Destroy a station? Kill everyone– including Homa? No– that couldn’t be what Kitty–

Nobody would do that. Nobody would. It was completely insane. Out of this world insane.

Another buzz. Another mail. Homa’s shaking hands, her spiraling vision–

“Trust me and stay on task. Love ya~” it said.

A black heart to punctuate it. Homa’s fingers were shaking too much to form words back.

Imani was done talking to her, Homa knew it right then. There would be no more mails.

She leaped off the bed, turned off the television and rushed to her closet.

Throwing on her one good casual pair of pants and a shirt, along with her jacket, she walked back out to Hasim’s with her hands in her pockets and her gaze turned almost exclusively on her own feet. Focusing on walking and breathing while she could feel the walls warping around her. A bag of flour, a tube of cooking oil, and a can of pickles. She could swing that. And it would feel like doing something– in a moment where Homa otherwise felt like she had no control of her life.

There were a lot of things stewing in her brain. Too many things.

Bubbling up to the surface of her anxieties, however, was one question.

Was Kitty really capable of destroying Kreuzung? Was that even possible?


“Homa, what do you think about how the Shimii live here?”

Kitty’s voice snapped Homa out of a reverie.

She opened her eyes wide, suppressed a gasp. She looked down at her hands. She was done dissolving the coating on Kitty’s yacht, so now she had to repaint it to Kitty’s wishes. Her chemical sprayer, after a thorough cleaning, was performing double duty as a spray paint gun with paint canisters. Hefting the object in her hands, the world around her became clearer. She was at work; she had been painting.

Her head had been heavy, brain swimming in a thick stew of her concerns.

In cases like this, she liked to immerse herself in work and drown out the world around her.

Now, one of those worries that swam in her head was also present beside her.

Because the paint was not toxic, Kitty felt like she could stick closer to Homa.

She had been pretending to be interested in the painting, but she really just wanted to talk.

Homa turned her head and tried not to shoot her a glare.

“What were you saying?” Homa asked. Masking her irritation as best she could.

Whenever she looked at Kitty, Imani’s mail came to mind and upset her more than she was.

For her part, Kitty either did not notice or ignored Homa’s attitude. She was bright as ever.

“The Shimii in Kreuzung seem to have it hard– I just wondered how you felt about that.”

Homa grunted. “I mean– What is there to say? Yeah– it sucks. We just live with it.”

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Kitty said, gesturing with her palm up.

“No? I’m just an ordinary work-a-day girl.”

“Even ordinary people can make a difference! What if you campaigned for office?”

Homa fixed Kitty a look, as if trying to physically scrutinize how she could be so ignorant.

Kitty simply smiled at her. Ignorance must have truly been bliss. She was all smiles.

“I realize it would be difficult– but not impossible.” She said, as if realizing her mistake.

“It is impossible because Shimii can’t even vote in Kreuzung elections.” Homa said.

“I see. I come from Aachen. It’s different there.” Kitty replied. It sounded like it was true.

Homa’s ears twitched with a mild interest. “How much different can it be?”

Aachen was far in the north of Rhinea, on the edges of Eisental. Its waters bordered the Great Ayre Reach to the northwest and the Palatinate to the northeast, and Khaybar’s northern range wasn’t too far. Homa did not know much about it except that there was frequent traffic between Aachen and Kreuzung, both being major cities. When she started working at B.S.W, she would routinely see customers from Aachen, just because it was a major port that issued official papers, so it was a place ships could come from.

“Aachen has a more progressive culture.” Kitty said. “It’s a border station so you have Palatine big shots, Rhinean liberals, Bosporus transplants. It’s a travel hub so all kinds of people go there. There is a big shipyard there with a strong labor culture, and a technology university. And because it’s a border town, it’s a place where there’s been significant cultural exchange across its history. I like to think melting pots breed understanding and sympathy. I guess Aachen has a stronger activist culture than Kreuzung.”

Homa furrowed her brow, skeptical. “Are there Shimii there? Can they even vote there?”

“Interested now?” Kitty chuckled. “There are Shimii. And they can vote in local elections.”

“Do they have good jobs? Can they live anywhere? Do they get to go to the university?”

Kitty’s expression darkened a tiny bit. “They do have their own habitation there–”

“So they live in a ghetto.” Homa said. “Don’t mince words about it. I’m not a dumb kid.”

Words spilled out of her. She almost regretted becoming impassioned. But not completely.

Some part of her thought she should have shouted in Kitty’s face for being so naïve.

No matter what niceties the Imbrians let Shimii have– it was always like this in the end.

“I’m sorry, Homa. I am belying my ignorance, but I do think there is always hope for change. There are places where Shimii have it better– so the Shimii in Kreuzung have models they could follow and hopes that they can have for change in their own lives here. Their struggle isn’t for nothing.” Kitty replied.

“We already live in a ghetto over here.” Homa said. “So what’s there to aspire to?”

This was stupid. She was just trying to gain Homa’s sympathy for her own purposes.

While Homa painted her boat, she was just standing there spouting empty rhetoric.

But it was also the most that an Imbrian had really shown interest in Shimii specifically.

So Homa also felt a bit taken aback, and unable to be fully aggravated with her.

And besides, Imani wanted Kitty to win Homa’s sympathy anyway.

She couldn’t be too mad– but it was still frustrating. Voting? They had bigger problems!

“Why do you care about the Shimii all of a sudden anyway?” Homa asked.

She tried to sound gentle, but it did come off extremely confrontational.

Kitty did not appear offended. She smiled. “Because you are one, maybe.”

She winked. Homa scoffed. Did she think she was being charming?

“How shallow.” (She had to admit she was the tiniest bit charmed.)

“I was joking. You could say I am something of an organizer. Maybe I see an opportunity.”

“Don’t tell Becker that. He hates workplace rabblerousers.” Homa joked.

“Duly noted!” Kitty laughed again. “You know, I wish I could tell you how I really feel.”

“Huh?”

Homa turned off the paint sprayer, pointed it at the ground and looked over her shoulder.

What was this woman about to say–?!

Kitty took a deep breath. Those seconds felt like an eternity to Homa, who had far too many wrong ideas about what Kitty intended to talk about. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of things to try to change Rhinea, and the Empire, to try to do good for its people.” Homa practically deflated like a balloon full of anxiety but tried not to show it. Kitty continued to speak– her voice sounded a tiny bit more passionate than usual. “Not only in Aachen, but across the Imbrium Ocean. I know exactly how hard you have it, Homa. And there are a lot of people who wish it wasn’t so. I can’t say more, I just hope you understand.”

“It’s tough to see it that way from in here. But I’ll keep that in mind.” Homa replied.

What she really wanted to say, was something like ‘their wishes don’t help me any’.

But she thought, Kitty was trying to sound nice. So Homa should accept it for now.

Their conversation did stick in Homa’s brain for a little bit that day.

How did the Shimii live in other places? Was there anywhere that they were truly free?

And in the places where they were discriminated against– who was standing up for them?

In Kreuzung, it did feel like nobody was doing anything to help them.

Madame Arabie’s kind of help ran on favors and debts and commitments. It was crooked.

Imani was a member of the Volkisch. Was she really able to do anything from there?

On the way home, she thought about Radu the Marzban too. He was a hero, a living legend.

There were a lot of tales of him saving people in shipwrecks, delivering supplies during emergencies, killing Imbrians who committed heinous crimes on Shimii. They said that he and his crew of raiders wandered the seas righting wrongs committed upon the Shimii– but with all his strength, then, why did the Shimii still have to live like this? Couldn’t Radu the Marzban take down all the villains exploiting the Shimii? He saved Homa– but he couldn’t save her mother. He was a legend, flitting in the shadows.

But even their myths and legends couldn’t change things for them fundamentally.

“Could Imani do it? With all her money? With her Volkisch clout? But she isn’t–”

“Hey. You look pretty troubled.”

Homa arrived at her room and was about to head in when she noticed someone standing in front of the next room door over. In fact, this person was leaning against the door, with a small cartridge vaporizer in hand– one of the disposable models, not like Madame Arabie’s pipe. A faint smell of cinnamon wafted from her fingers. To Homa’s surprise, it was Madiha al-Nakara, her pale hair wrapped in a little bun, wearing a garish, flowery green shirt of a similar style to the last.

“I– I’m okay– Miss–?”

Madiha blew out a bit of cinnamon smoke. “No, not miss. Just call me Maj– Madiha.”

Homa stared at her for a moment and then stared at the door– the room right next door.

“Huh? You’ve been staying next-door all this time?” Homa asked.

“Since a few days ago.” Madiha said. “Our schedules don’t intersect much I guess.”

Homa blinked hard. “Is that girl with you too? You’re both staying here?”

“Parinita? Yeah? She’s worn out, taking a nap inside.”

Wait a minute–

Recalling that night, where Homa overhead–

impassioned sounds of lovemaking–

through the room walls–

had Madiha– with that petite companion of hers–?

up so late like that, and the yelling–?!

“Why are you making a face? Did Arabie tell you something distasteful about me?”

Madiha scrutinized her, while Homa took back control of her hanging mouth.

“No! Of course not! I have nothing against you. It’s– It’s really not that.”

“You look even more skittish now. Are you really okay?”

“Well–”

“C’mon out with it already. Tell Big Sister Madiha what the matter is.”

Could Homa really ask her to keep it down at night?

Would Madiha not immediately wring Homa’s neck if those words left her mouth?

Madiha openly sighed, discarded her vaporizer in a nearby trash chute, and walked over.

She clapped a hand on Homa’s shoulder– she was trying to be reassuring, but her grip–!

“Look, I’ve seen that troubled urchin look before. I can at least hear you out. Okay?”

Homa nodded. “Um, Madiha– what do you think about how Shimii live here?”

Ultimately it was impossible to ask her to fuck her girlfriend more quietly.

It was the fault of the shoddy construction here anyway.

So instead another topic that had been stewing in Homa’s brain came out in its place.

Madiha nodded sagely. “Ah. You’ve got money on the brain again– can’t blame you.”

Homa wished all she had in her brain was money troubles. It’d be so much simpler.

“Homa was your name?” Madiha asked.

“Um, yeah.” Homa replied. “Homa Baumann. I’m– I’m mixed.“ She added to explain her surname.

Madiha gave her a wistful look for a moment. She looked deep in thought.

“You’re a Shimii, Homa. Your parentage doesn’t matter.“ Madiha took in a breath. Homa had never been accepted so casually and confidently. It took her aback some, until Madiha started talking again. “Homa, no matter how bad it gets for us, there will always be dancing, weddings, big pots of stew and bread. Shimii use whatever we have to try to live through the era. We survived the cataclysm and live here underwater. We’ve been through much worse than this. Our religion was nearly destroyed, our people persecuted, our homes and names stolen, but we live. Our ummah pray for better times and live their lives as best they can. So to answer your question: we all know how things are. But why are they? That’s what I ask myself. Not how people live. I know that. They live as best as they can. So ask why instead.”

Homa was surprised. It was a more in-depth answer than she thought she would get. After throwing that dumb question out, Homa imagined she would talk about the food or about parties.

That was the kind of answer Homa expected out of someone much older than Madiha looked.

She had thought of Madiha as being another gangster like Arabie was.

Maybe she was something different. That look in her eyes, it was almost tender.

Homa could almost feel her sympathy wrapping around her like warm colors–

“So if you ask me what I think about Kreuzung; the Imbrian bastards here sicken me.”

She raised an empty hand to her lips, as if so distracted she forgot discarding her vaporizer.

This seemed to make her momentarily frustrated. She closed the hand into a fist.

“Madiha–”

Homa briefly hesitated. Her head stewing again. Kitty’s words; Imani’s words–

“Madiha, can anything change what’s happening to us here?” Homa asked.

“Fighting.” Madiha responded. Quickly; as if a quietly honed reflex.

She grit her teeth. As if it bothered her to have responded so quickly.

“Fighting?” Homa asked. “But– fighting who?” The Imbrians? All of them? How?

“Bah. I’m sorry. I just said whatever. Pay it no mind.” Madiha sighed.

“I’m not going to tell anyone, Madiha. You can speak your mind.” Homa said.

She really wanted to hear what Madiha had to say. She felt like she needed to hear it.

She was so intriguing. Was there someone around here with an actual answer to things–?

Madiha grunted. “Homa, I’m not going to tell you to fight anyone personally. We’re not all fighters. But just don’t be complacent, and never say thank you for the little crumbs you get here. If someone does resort to violence, do not rush to condemn them on that fact alone.”

Those words dropped like a heavy load of ingredients into the pot boiling Homa’s brain.

“I’m just trying to understand.” Homa said. Her emotions got away with her for a second. She started to weep. “You said fighting– but fighting who? How does living get better for us? For the past few months, everything here has been going to hell. Nothing feels certain anymore. I’ve always wanted to get out of here and go out into the ocean. But lately I’m thinking– what if there’s nothing out in the Ocean for me but more of this? Even if I survived all the trouble and got out? So what am I supposed to do? If I stay here I could struggle and maybe die; and it could be the same anywhere! What do I do then?”

She raised her voice, curled her fingers into fists, turned a red weeping gaze on Madiha.

For that instant, a repressed anger she couldn’t direct at Arabie, Imani, Kitty– leaked out.

And yet, the stranger upon whom this childish injustice was done did not condemn her.

“Homa, my answer to that is pretty bleak. I won’t sugarcoat it for you.” Madiha said.

“Then just say it. Nobody around here tells me the truth.” Homa replied, bitterly.

Madiha grinned at her. She crossed her arms, locked Homa’s eyes with a red glint in hers.

“There is no place in the Imbrium Ocean where you can go and lead a happy storybook life as a Shimii. You will run into the hatred the Imbrians project onto our flesh, their hatred of our marked bodies, their hatred of our worship of Allah. But I hate them in turn, and my hatred is a prayer of fire that will consume all of their works. Allahu ackbar. If you don’t want to fight them, Homa, I will fight for you. For every life the pacifists preserve, I will take ten to assure victory. We will kill as many as it takes.”

Behind Madiha, the door to the apartment opened, and a sleepy-looking girl walked out.

Dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and a long blue skirt, yawning.

Homa and Madiha both turned their smoldering gazes her way. She pointedly stared back.

“Ma– oh, that’s the girl from the other night? Are you troubling her Ma– Madiha?”

Madiha shrugged dismissively. “We were having a lively conversation about life.”

“Elocution is a gift from Allah to our people– and you used it to make her cry.”

“I wasn’t trying to– she just asked for my opinion, and I gave it candidly.”

Homa sighed, wiping her forearm across her face. Her brain steeping in frustration.

“No, it’s okay. I appreciated her candidness. I’m sorry for the trouble, Madiha.”

She turned quickly from them and opened her door, as fast as an escape.

“Hey, listen. If you need any help, you can come to me. But think about what I said–!”

Even if Homa did not want to, she would be thinking about it, even as the door shut Madiha out. Even as the door behind her closed, and her legs gave out, and she sat back against the door weeping. Staring up at the ceiling with hands over her face. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.


As-salamu alaykum.”

“Ah, Homa, welcome, welcome. If you’re looking for the marrow bones again–?”

“Hasim I can see it. You’re all out of them. Not even the smallest bones left?”

For days now the beef bones available had been shrinking, and less in the bag, but still–

There had to be something!

“Afraid so. It’s been tough, you know, I get these specifically from the Agrisphere in Suhar, from my Shimii cousins there, they work so hard, it’s the best quality in the whole country. Homa, when you go for quality like I do, it’s tough sometimes, sometimes you just come up empty-handed if you only get the best, but I promise you, Inshallah we’re going to restock soon, and you’ll be amazed at the quality–”

Homa was barely listening to Hasim’s little speech.

She cast disgruntled looks about the shop, taking stock of the potential soup ingredients. He was out of all the frozen vacuum bag meat he normally carried. His refrigerator and freezer were empty save for the frost. He had not done anything to cover them up, so he must have run out recently. He would probably get bony stockfish and throw them in there to look like he had something on hand. In his pantry section he had cans of stuff– there were cans of shredded chicken and ground beef. There was a can of green beans packed in water and salt. It wasn’t cabbage, but it would do. She couldn’t afford to eat restaurants, so she needed to cook with what she could get.

“Pleasure doing business as always, Homa. May Allah see you to safety.”

For want of anything to polite to say, Homa said nothing at all in response.

She walked out with a can of ground beef, a can of ground chicken and cans of green beans.

None of it was her first choice, but it would fill her belly.

She wasn’t at the level of eating fried flour with zlatla just yet.

The deteriorating quality of her lonac was not lost on her, however. It was depressing.

It was a week now since she last had beef cubes. Normally Hasim’s supply was steady.

Bone marrow lonac wasn’t bad– but Homa really wanted to have a nice meal again.

She had been working so hard! On Kitty’s boat– on snitching to Imani–

Didn’t she deserve a treat? But she couldn’t afford it. Especially with things getting worse.

For someone who had been taking care of herself like an adult for years now, she felt utterly without control of her own life. For days now, she had thought of begging Imani for the money to just eat at a restaurant without it coming out of her own pocket, so she wouldn’t have to be ashamed of doing so– but she was ashamed of asking Imani for any help. (And wary of the consequences.)

Everything felt more burdensome, more intolerable. She couldn’t just keep her head down.

As she walked through town, she looked around at the conditions of the other stores.

Imani had been right.

Epoch Clothiers, Volwitz Foods, Arleiter Tools, even Raylight Beauty–

All of the stores associated with Imbrian brands had closed early that day.

Signs on the window exhorted shoppers to subscribe to stocking alerts in their rooms.

Homa wondered if they had no supplies at all, or if they were still getting anything.

Volwitz Foods shops especially concerned her.

If they didn’t restock, all the “mom & pop” food shops would get hammered with orders.

There was an air of tension on the streets. People lingered in front of shops as if in a trance, as if uncomprehending. There were groups in the middle of the street passing around gossip and information. Homa almost wanted to tell them what Imani knew, but she had no idea whether it was public knowledge, or if it could be traced back to her and cause trouble. There were fewer smiles on people’s faces, fewer women in their best dresses going to dance, fewer lads at the pubs watching the football matches. Homa wondered how the Flowing Scarlet would look today too.

Was Madame Arabie still stocked up?

Homa trudged back home, feeling like she was dragging her own body weight.

At least she had the very last pot of bone marrow lonac to look forward to.

Her tail gave a sad little twitch in anticipation.

As soon as she rounded the corner to her own hall, her heart jumped–

“Homa!”

She hardly had time to react when a woman’s arms wrapped around her.

Pulling Homa tight into her chest.

Brown hair, emerald eyes, a brown blouse with gold-painted lines.

“Madame?” Homa yelled out in shock. “What–?”

“Homa, I’m so happy! I’ve been looking all over for you!” Madame Arabie was giddy.

Her breath– she reeked of alcohol. Her words were slurred, her eyes distant.

She was drunk!

At least she was smart enough not to be using the drugs instead–

But it was still a bad situation! Homa tried to extricate herself from Arabie’s grip.

“Madame! I’m– I’m happy to see you too! Let me go and lets– let’s relocate to my room!”

Arabie was so strong! No wonder everyone was so afraid of her!

Homa had never been trapped in a hug so difficult to get herself loose from!

“Homa~” Madame Arabie’s voice slurred. “You’re such a good little kadaif. So good to me.”

Kadaif? As in the dessert? Her brain was truly going out wasn’t it?

“Allah give me patience!” Homa cried out. “Why me? Just– please get moving this way!”

Homa began pulling Arabie’s weight step by step down the hall, over to her door.

Before any nosy neighbors stuck their heads out to watch– especially one in particular.

“Because–” Madame Arabie tried to answer Homa’s cries, which were not directed at her.

She choked up for a moment, her head leaning into Homa’s shoulder.

Her fingers caressed Homa’s dark hair.

“I don’t– I don’t have anyone else.” She mumbled.

Homa grit her teeth.

She managed to shuffle the drunk Arabie all the way into her room, through the door, which she locked behind her, and then finally cast her down onto her bed. Homa stood, breathing heavily, in front of the bed, with Arabie laying down on it. Arms spread, giggling, her chest rising up and down with steady breathing, legs hanging off the end. What was she supposed to do about this?

“Madame–”

“Call me Leija! I’m too young to be a Madame!”

Madame Arabie– Leija curled up her legs on the bed and shifted over onto her side.

Looking at Homa through cloudy eyes, making herself comfortable.

Her cheeks and eyes were red, and the pale insides of her ears were flushed too.

She was completely off the precipice from the alcohol.

Homa could only imagine the disparaging things the town aunties could concoct about this.

Hopefully not too many people saw Leija in this position. Or would see her with Homa too.

“Leija,” Homa acquiesced with a sigh. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Leija shuddered in response. Her brainlessly cheerful demeanor darkened.

“It was so stressful. So stressful Homa. I just want to hide. Can I hide from them here?”

“Them? Who is them? Is someone after you?”

The only reason Homa wasn’t on the verge of a heart attack was that Leija was so drunk she could have easily been making the whole thing up in her head. Homa had enough problems as it was without having to be caught in the crossfire of Leija’s mafia troubles, but also, nobody ever messed with Leija no matter how bad things got. So she assumed it mustn’t have been anything important.

And finally, Leija herself confirmed: “Problems. Problems are always after me.”

“Fine. It’s not use talking to a drunk. Do whatever you want. I can’t stop you.” Homa said.

“You’re so nice to me, Homa.” Leija mumbled. “So good and nice and lovely. My little kadaif.

Her words began to slur much more and to trail off much more quickly.

“Take it easy and sleep it off.” Homa said, trying to sound reassuring.

Leija did not run her own businesses, it was impossible for her to be at so many places or to make so many decisions by herself. She had managers and a chain of command, Homa knew this well from being part of her organization. Homa knew that Leija was not personally needed anywhere unless there was a dispute. She imagined the scenario in her head: Leija’s various cronies gave her the bad news about the shops and prices in Kreuzung, telling her that she would lose money and that things would be rough unless something changed. Feeling helpless about it, she drank too much to cope with it, and ran away from the Scarlet on some aimless anxiety impulse and went in search of someone familiar.

Now she was here, drunk out of her mind on Homa’s bed.

Things had never gotten this out of hand with her, but Homa never put it past her.

Though, she had once imagined that the day Madame Arabie personally came to her room, it would be to drag her out and shoot her. Not to get drunk and sleep it off on Homa’s bed. Out of those two nightmarish fantasies she did not even know which one she preferred. Once Leija came to her senses, she could still very well lose her temper at Homa over the whole thing anyway.

There was no winning with this woman.

Despite how much trouble Leija was causing, Homa didn’t want to disrupt her sleep.

She withdrew a spare gel pillow and a nylon blanket from beneath the bed and made herself a little nest on the floor to lie down on and stare at the ceiling for a while. She needed to decompress. Her stomach was growling for a bowl of lonac, but she did not want to move just yet. Life kept coming at her like hammer blows one after another. Breathing deep was all she could do to surmount it.

“Homa,”

Leija’s slurred voice sounded far less cheerful all of a sudden.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Homa.”

On the floor, Homa turned her back on the bed. Leija had not moved, but if she did, Homa did not want to look at her spouting this nonsense. She grit her teeth, and her ears folded against her head as much as they could, but of course, she could still hear the woman on her bed moaning.

“I’m sorry Homa. I never took good care of you. I even– when I saw you in the suit– I even thought it would be nice to sleep with you. I’m a rotten woman, Homa. I am destined for the fire. You are a treasure that Allah sent to me. I looked you in the eye and discarded you every time.”

“Shut up. I don’t want this from you.” Homa mumbled.

“Homa. I’ve been wanting to say sorry. Ever since he came back. I’m so sorry.”

He? Radu? What was she saying? Was it still all nonsense? Homa sat up.

On the bed, Leija Kladuša was nearly falling asleep. With the last of her strength–       

“Radu and Imani Hadžić. Those bastards– those bastards–” Her voice trailed off.


“Here you go! Everything went quite professionally, even for me!”

Deep in the Kreuzung Core station, inside a pressurized maintenance tunnel just under the rim of the baseplate. A woman dressed casually in a jacket, skirt, and tights, with orange-mottled gray skin and brown hair, handed Kitty McRoosevelt a small, handheld device, put together from parts.

An analog switch, an antennae, an electric circuit, a tiny system-on-a-chip, and the contacts for a crude little battery. When she said ‘everything went professionally’ she must have been referring to the preceding courier work to set it up, because the device itself had rather crude workmanship.

It was difficult to ascertain whether it was real in the dim, intermittent light in the tunnel.

“When you toggle this device on, you’ll have 12 hours to make sure everything is ready. I would suggest taking out the batteries right afterward– the signal is encrypted, and it will be sent to the drone faster than anyone can notice it, but if it stays on, it will keep transmitting and give you away. So just chuck it and step on it when you’re done. The drone will take an 8 hour journey to your buddies in the abyss of Masud. They are ready and awaiting the signal. Then, at full combat speed, the fleet will make it here in 4 hours. I informed them of the location of the B.S.W. dock– it’s up to you to have it secured.”

“Up to me?” Kitty McRoosevelt said. “You’re not coming?”

“Perimeter defense isn’t my thing. But I got you some big strong boys and girls for that.”

Xenia Laskaris smiled girlishly at Kitty and Marina McKennedy, their other witness.

Her dark-green, exoskeletal antennae rose slightly like arms spread in joy.

“She’s kept her word.” Marina said. “I never asked her to stand and fight with you.”

“I wouldn’t have gone this far for you if it’d ultimately lead to that. It’s just not my style.” Xenia said. “Marina will take you to meet the rest of the team. I need to start limiting my involvement because the local crews are skittish about outsider Katarrans. Apparently there’s a whole fleet from the Mycenean Military Commission stuck in Eisental, demanding mercenaries join them– it’s a whole thing.”

“But they won’t object to working for ‘Imbrians’. That is apolitical to them.” Marina said.

“Exactly. Don’t tell them you’re actually Cogitans by the way.” Xenia said.

“I never intended to. Well, I suppose if this thing doesn’t work, I’ll know who to curse.”

Kitty spoke gravely. Xenia seemed more amused by it than anything.

“Trust me, I want you to succeed. I live for this kinda shit. It’s job security for me!”

Chaos, she meant. War: destruction, killings, and upheaval.

Twelve hours away as soon as Kitty hit the button. The G.I.A.’s operation would begin.

Her fingers hovered over the switch. She did not flip it, not yet.

But now, the power to kill had been placed in her hands. Her empty heart unwavering.

She only needed one more day. Kitty would get what she needed from the Shimii girl.

“Kitty.“

Marina spoke up as they left the maintenance tunnel and Xenia Laskaris behind them.

“Think before you press that button. That’s all I ask.“ She said. With an air of grave finality.

Kitty scoffed.

“Marina. I’ve done a lot more thinking than you want to admit.“

There was a current driving Kitty McRoosevelt. The weight of ages, history itself given voice to haunt her.

Through her, through her grief, pain, ignorance and bigotry, it would conclude the inevitable tragedy.


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.3]

The Medbay was finally lively enough that the sound-dampening curtains between each bed had to be extended to give each occupant privacy and peace. Within her own little curtained stall, Murati Nakara sat on the bedside. She was dressed in the TBT sleeveless shirt and long pants, with the jacket hanging from the backboard of the bed. Rather than Karuniya Maharapratham, it was doctor Winfreda Kappel, with her multi-hued blue hair, charming smile and sharp, appraising eyes, that sat at Murati’s bedside.

She examined Murati’s chest and abdomen, applying gentle pressure to her ribs.

“You’re not flinching, so I’m inclined to believe you that it doesn’t hurt. Or maybe you have a supernatural threshold for pain and you’re able to hide it. Your injuries should have taken upwards of a month to recover, and when it comes to medicine, I don’t believe in miracles. I will continue to have you come in every two days for followups. After a week of that, I might believe you’re well again.”

Murati smiled. It did hurt– a little. But she did feel she had recovered very quickly.

She knew herself, her body. She knew that she was a fast healer, for whatever reason.

“Thank you Doctor. Of course I’ll comply. I’ll even wear the brace and use my cane.”

“I’m glad you’ve decided to be responsible now. Since you helped bring about a bloodless resolution to our last battle, as a crew member, and even as a doctor, I can’t hold it against you. As a bureaucrat, however, I will have to give you a strike on your record for disobeying the doctor’s orders. It’ll be discussed when the mission is over. As ridiculous as that might sound to you.”

Doctor Kappel smiled at her as she showed her a red page on her digital clipboard.

“I would never ask you to let me off the hook.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Of course, it was incredibly silly to discuss.

They might not even come back alive from their mission, after all.

Both of them seemed to know it. Nevertheless, Murati did believe in upholding the process.

“Take care now, Murati. Don’t make your poor old doctor worry anymore.”

“I’m afraid I can’t promise that. I have a pretty grim profession, you know?”

They laughed, and Doctor Kappel left her side and went to the next curtain over.

Murati took in a deep breath and let it out to relieve some of the tension in her.

Her rib stung, just a little, but she could definitely walk. Even without the cane, too.

She would keep the chest brace for a bit, however.

There was an eerie feeling in the air. They had survived another battle. Outside the ship the ocean was bright and sunlit. It was– it was easier. It had become easier. After the Iron Lady, she was laid up in bed, but when she woke up, she really got to thinking about her brush with death. Now they had escaped the Antenora, and from the reports, something even worse after that. There were no existentialist thoughts in her brain, however. Confronting death was just getting easier.

Living with the aftermath of a battle, with the come-down from all the built-up anxiety. That was also easier now. Murati did not cry, she did not want to scream, she did not feel depressed or worried sick about the outcome. She felt, in a grim way, that this was becoming normal, routine. Dock workers got up every day, they hauled crates, checked off their manifests, got in their hard suits and performed repairs. That was normal, automatic, eventually a professional dock worker had no feelings about it. Murati Nakara got up every day and she was ready to fight, kill, and die.

Or at least, in that moment, that was how she felt.

Maybe she would reconsider when death was certain. For her, or someone she loved.

Her next visitor came through the door, distracting her from these morbid thoughts.

It was one of the senior mechanics, Gunther Cohen.

“Glad to see you up and about.” He said. “Are you really doing okay?”

“I’m fine.” Murati said.

“You’re not just being reckless again, are you?”

Murati shook her head. As if such a gesture would really change his mind.

He nodded back at her, clearly unconvinced. “I checked the storage on the HELIOS as you asked. Murati, I don’t know what to say, but there were no videos on it about your parents. There was visual data from the cameras, pattern data for recognizing leviathans and ships. That HELIOS has amazing compute capability packed in, for a Diver– but no files like the one you described.”

Another thing she did not quite know how to feel about.

“Maybe a hidden routine could have deleted it when the HELIOS network came online?”

“I was thorough. For a piece of survey equipment, any actions on its data must be logged methodically. And the logs were incredibly detailed: none of its data was deleted.” He averted his gaze briefly. He looked like he was clearly out of his depth. He had been tasked with something that was deeply personal to Murati and did not know how to break it to her that he had failed.

Or that, perhaps, she had been making it up in her own mind all along.

“Karuniya also saw it. I just wanted it as a keepsake. Could you search again, somehow?”

“I know I’m not missing anything. You may need to confront those two about it.”

His gaze was partially directed beyond the medbay walls, in the direction of the brig.

Euphrates and Tigris. The “Solarflare LLC” scientists they had rescued.

“Until the Captain clears those women– let’s not touch the HELIOS again. Is that okay?”

Murati nodded. She thanked Gunther for his help, and for his nagging but earnest diligence.

Of all the eerie things in the atmosphere– the mystery of those two women hung heaviest.


It had been a few hours since the Brigand had crossed the Upper Scattering Layer. While the alert state had yet to be rescinded, people were working slower, if they were, and a lot of others were taking a break. The Bridge had a strange confidence that nobody was going to be attacked by Leviathans and that no corrupted currents would sweep them off-course. So the sailors could not do anything about it except accept to treat it like any day, and let the officers worry about the rest.

This meant that there was a large flurry of activity to the cafeteria.

After everything that happened, Elena Lettiere was dreadfully hungry.

However, she did not want to eat with too many people– not yet. She still felt awkward.

After all, for all her convictions, and all her lovely rhetoric, she had lied to all of them.

To be Elena Lettiere– she still had to amend for what Elena von Fueller had done.

She wanted to talk to the Captain again– but first, food.

Elena waited for a while, until she saw more sailors out in the halls working again.

If they were walking everywhere else, the cafeteria was probably empty.

Still wearing her dress, Elena emerged from her room and made her way over.

Her instincts had been correct. There were a few men and women eating alone here and there, no big groups, and much of the seating was unoccupied. Those few eyes that were there on the long row seats, having their bread and soup, did not look at Elena as she approached the counter and looked over what was being served. She was so used to grabbing what she needed quickly–

That she didn’t really notice that the woman behind the cafeteria counter was watching.

When Elena looked up, the woman smiled at her.

She reminded Elena immediately of Bethany: a glamorous and energetic older woman, with dark eyeshadow, cheek-length black hair, and dark wine-red lipstick. Wearing an apron over the sleeveless uniform shirt and pants for that fictitious “Treasure Box Transports” company. Her arms were lean, with the slim muscles easily delineated. Her whole body was a good mix of sturdy and curvy– Elena almost felt envious. She approached the counter, still wearing that same smile.

“What’ll it be today, princess?” said the ship’s cook, Logia Minardo.

Elena flinched. Did she know, or was it just a term of endearment–?

Minardo leaned on the counter, closer to Elena. She was laughing, but in good spirits.

“I’m an officer too, you know. And every officer’s been informed of your situation, but the sailors haven’t. Don’t worry though. Us commies aren’t so bad to helpless princesses, and I’m just a cook after all. Now, if you are plotting to raise your own Imperial army, all bets are off though.”

Elena laid a hand over her heart and sighed deeply. Minardo was just being silly.

“I’m plotting nothing of the sort, and I’ll have you know I renounced being a princess.”

“Haha! Well, that’s good to hear! Because you definitely won’t be eating like one here!”

Minardo laid a plate out for Elena. There was a fluffy yellow mound flecked green and red, a penny roll that was warm and only slightly tough-looking for ship bread, and a dollop of beans in a thick, brown sauce accompanied with rounds of something fried to a golden, honey-like color. Everything looked and smelled– fine? Edible; nothing like Bethany’s lavish midday feasts.

But– Bethany was gone. And Minardo was here– this was Elena’s life now.

“Don’t look so glum! Take a seat right here. I want to know what you think.” Minardo said.

She pointed right behind Elena to one of the seats at the edge of a nearby row table.

Though she felt a sense of trepidation, Elena could not make herself refuse either.

Pulling the chair over, she sat at the counter and picked up her spork, looking over the dish.

“Scrambled eggs and pepper, bread, and sweet baked beans with plantain. And, for you–”

Atop the eggs, Minardo scraped off a bit of margarine from a foil packet and laid it over.

Immediately, the dollop began to melt over the eggs. They were nicely steaming warm.

Elena dug her spork into the mound of scrambled eggs. They were fluffy– fluffier than they had any right to be. Though they reminded Elena more of a quiche in texture than the light and jam-y curds of scrambled egg she was used to, they were rich, cheesy, with a nice vegetal bite from the two colors of pepper scrambled into them. She tore the bread roll in half, releasing a bit of steamy warmth from the crumb. It was firm, but softer than she thought it would be, and nicely savory. Then she tried the beans. Sweet and savory, creamy, they practically melted in her mouth, and the fried plantain complimented the soft, creamy beans with their own sweetly starchy profile.

It really wasn’t like anything Elena had eaten before. She was used to fresh green salads, ripe tomatoes with mozzarella cheese, baked baby onions and stuffed peppers, around a big meaty centerpiece of steak, scallops, salmon, or duck. This plate was nothing like what Bethany served her, but it wasn’t bad. It was delicious. It would never taste like home, but it was full of love and care in its own way. So much so, that Elena almost wanted to weep with every bite of it.

“That bad?” Minardo asked, seeing the emotion growing red on Elena’s face.

“No! Not at all! It’s really delicious, thank you.” Elena said. Hopefully it sounded as genuine as she meant. “It is just– it’s clear you put a lot of care into it. It reminds me of someone who used to take care of me. She– she couldn’t come with me. She was the best cook I ever knew.”

Minardo nodded. “I’m flattered by the comparison. I take a lot of pride in my food.”

For a moment, Minardo dipped under the counter.

When she returned, she had in hand a few slips of foil packaging she set out on the counter for Elena. One was ripped from a container of powdered egg, another foil for multicolor pickled peppers, a third canned beans, freeze-dried plantains, powdered yeast, monosodium glutamate–

“What you’re tasting is indeed, a lot of love and effort.” Minardo said, smiling warmly.

Elena looked down at the foils, which must have come from the ingredients–

–and then up at Minardo with a sudden awe and admiration. She did start to weep then.

“Welcome to the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice, comrade.” Minardo said.

She patted Elena on the shoulder gently, and then waved her hand as she left the counter.

Returning back to the appliances and ingredients with which she had worked this magic.

“Our cook is quite something isn’t she? Nagavanshi recruited the best, even in the kitchen.”

Before she knew it, Elena turned her head and found Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya pulling up a seat beside her on the counter. She and Minardo were a lot alike, tall older women with a lot of vitality and youth to them, a certain radiance, but the Captain’s blond hair and bright eyes really made Elena struggle. It was not helping her feelings about Bethany to be surrounded by women like this– she felt a certain inadequacy, dealing with women so clearly, gracefully, beautifully mature when she herself felt like a helpless, idiot, under-developed child in comparison to them.

She wiped her tears and tried to fight off any fresh ones, nodding her head silently.

“Homesick?” Ulyana asked.

Elena felt even more stupid. “Were you eavesdropping?”

“Only a little.” Ulyana smiled.

Elena bowed her head, staring at her empty plate.

Ulyana patted her gently on the back. “You’ve been through a lot. It’s okay to cry.”

“I’ve done nothing but cry.” Elena said bitterly.

“Sometimes it’s all you can do.” Ulyana’s voice was gentle, soothing, and low, she was speaking privately, so only Elena could hear her. A soft cooing. “When you are hurt so deep and so bad that you can’t possibly find the spot that’s bleeding. You feel empty and at the same time you feel so, so heavy. Drinking won’t help; believe me, I’ve tried. It was always the crying that felt the healthiest. You can move on from a good cry– it feels like a reset, even a temporary one.”

“I’m sorry about everything Captain. It was all my fault.” Elena said suddenly.

Not just Bethany, who sacrificed herself because of how helpless she was–

Not just the communists whom she lied to and endangered–

Norn and Gertrude had been dragged into the horrible theater of Elena’s life too.

And she might never even see Gertrude again. She had pushed her so far, hurt her so badly.

Was Gertrude out in the ocean, aimless, heartbroken, her own eyes silently weeping too?

“Everything went the worst way it could have. Because I’m so stupid and useless.”

“You’re alive. And as far as we know, she’s alive too. Despite everything that happened.”

Elena hung her head in shame, tears trailing down her cheeks and onto the counter.

Ulyana continued to rub and pat down her back while Elena cried. Elena didn’t mind it.

“I’m not about to have sympathy for that Inquisitor.” She said. “But it is the absolute truth that if you care for her, these events could have turned out far worse. You two are still alive, and you might meet again. Hopefully not aboard this ship though. I, personally, will be doing my best never to see Norn’s psychotic grin, or the Inquisitor’s friendless, pent-up mug ever again.”

She retracted her hand and crossed both her arms over her chest.

“I suppose so.” Elena said. She was starting to come down from the sudden spiral.

There was a moment of silence. Ulyana seemed to be thinking of what to say next.

“Okay– Elena. It still feels surreal to be speaking to an Imperial Princess, but I just want to say that I respect your wishes. So long as you don’t hold any pretensions toward reclaiming your throne, you are welcome to stay. You are Elena Lettiere, and not a Princess, nor a Republic analyst– just a civilian in our care. Right now, I believe strongly that you’ve been a victim of these events as much as us. History transpired in the Empire that none of us can be held to account for; but Marina did bring you here under false pretenses, and we will need to hold her responsible.”

Elena nodded her head. “I hope you won’t treat her roughly. She’s been through a lot.”

She was still a bit angry with Marina, deep inside. Resentful for everything that happened.

It was childish. And she would have to come to terms with it sometime soon.

Still, she could not deny it. Marina was the visible face of all that had gone wrong.

She was also the only person Elena really had left. Elena didn’t want her to die as well.

Her emotions were complex enough she could neither condemn nor defend her now.

Ulyana spoke like she understood. Her voice, both firm and gentle– Elena really liked it.

“We know. We’ll be fair; but she needs to come clean. We can’t trust her otherwise. We’re running a military operation here. I just want you to be ready for us to potentially have to isolate or punish Marina. She’s not your boss or your protector anymore. You’re a civilian and she’s not. We’re going to treat you two differently, and I want you to stay out of whatever happens to her.”

“I understand. I will trust you Captain. You’re– you’re a very good person. All of you are.”

Elena couldn’t stare her directly in the eyes. She still felt too badly about everything.

Ulyana reached out a hand over Elena’s and squeezed her fingers gently, comfortingly.

“We’re just doing our best to represent the communist spirit.” She said, with a bright smile.


For most of that night, the brig had been quiet. Each of the solitary confinement cells was locked in fully soundproof mode, but Illya and Valeriya had been informed to be careful of breakouts, particularly from the cells assigned to Euphrates, Tigris, and Arbitrator One, all of whom would be held until their interrogations tomorrow. They were unknown quantities, and at least Arbitrator I had exhibited strange abilities that might have enabled her to make an escape.

Nobody seemed interested in escaping, however.

Eventually, Illya and Valeriya left the brig. They were scheduled to switch places with Klara van Der Smidze and Zhu Lian for the midnight shift. Those two were running late– but Valeriya and Illya worked on their own schedules. They were punctual, accurate to the second, a habit from their past. They would not wait for anyone who was not as attentive as themselves. So for a moment, the brig was left unguarded. Not that the two of them knew it, but it was by design.

A design not of any malicious entity but one curious Shimii who had spoken to the girls.

Khadija al-Shajara entered the empty brig and tampered with the rightmost cell.

From the control panel, she set the cell to one-way soundproof.

That meant the prisoner couldn’t hear the outside, but she could hear the inside of the cell.

And the prisoner in question was Sieglinde von Castille.

Khadija put her back to the cell door and stood for a few minutes.

Through the audio outputs on the door, she could hear the Red Baron’s quiet breathing.

She her fingers through her golden hair, waiting. She felt her own heartbeat, accelerating.

“This is so stupid.” She sighed to herself.

What was she hoping to hear? What was she thinking she might see? Ever since she stared into the Red Baron’s eyes she had felt a widening hole in her heart. Khadija was an old woman, an old woman with a past that stretched long behind her like a trailing bloodstain. The Red Baron was another old woman, almost as old as her. But she shouldn’t have been– this was Khadija’s demon to slay, the demon with whom she would bury her painful past. Killing this demon should have avenged all of those who died in the revolution, closed shut the wound from the past. Expiated for the inconclusiveness of that war, the hardships that followed, and begun a brand new chapter.

The Lion of Cascabel did not kill the empire’s Red Baron, however.

When she heard that regretful voice and saw those tear-stained mournful eyes.

She saw herself– and she couldn’t take it. She couldn’t accept that.

So now she was here. Looking for something. She did not even know what it was.

Did she hope to hear the Red Baron gnashing her teeth? Cursing them? Plotting vengeance?

She was probably asleep. It was late. There was probably nothing to hear now.

Yet– she waited. She waited, irrationally, in the silence, for minutes on, and–

“I’m so stupid. So completely, hopelessly stupid.”

–and heard something serendipitous.

It wasn’t her own voice airing this familiar sentiment–

Khadija turned suddenly to face the door. There was another voice coming from it.

Quickly, she put her back to it again. Her fluffy golden-brown ear up against the speakers.

Sobbing.

A blunt metallic sound, a strike on the wall. She could imagine Sieglinde punching it.

“I’ve been such a child. Thirty-eight years old– I’ve wasted so much time. An entire life.”

Thirty-eight– was she eighteen years old when they fought? She was just a kid–

Khadija was twenty-two years old back then. She hardly ever wanted to acknowledge it.

Were her own twenty years since then wasted? No–

Sieglinde let out a cry of anguish that shook through Khadija’s chest.

“Twenty years since and every day I told myself, nothing will change! You can’t possibly even regret it! You can’t do anything! And that girl– you useless idiot, you have less courage, less heart, than that poor defenseless girl! She turned her back on the throne of Imbria! What are you doing? You can’t acknowledge the evils you’ve done? You couldn’t for twenty years? Twenty years a murderer, a killer, and telling yourself you knew what justice truly was? You bastard!”

She screamed at the top of her lungs. Bastard. Monster. Killer.

Stop it. You were just a fucking kid.

Some part of Khadija wanted so badly to talk down to her like she was still a child–

But this was still the Red Baron and that seed of hate was still burning in her too.

Part of her hated this spate of self-pity. Part of her did say ‘how dare you?’ How could you even pretend for a second that you were hurt in any way by this? That your wretched soul mattered even for a second compared to the lives you took? Some part of Khadija wanted to rip open that cell and choke Sieglinde von Castille to death. To inflict the ultimate punishment for her crimes twenty years past. Sieglinde von Castille, you killed men and women who were fighting for their freedom. Cloaked in blue, green and white of the Empire, you fought to spread its oppression! How dare you recognize that just now?

However–

Who could blame her for thinking this way? She was being used; and she knew that now.

She learned the hollowness and hypocrisy of her ideals — and it filled her with self hatred.

Khadija felt ashamed of herself. Because she shouldn’t have been hearing this anyway.

Whatever happened next– this was not necessarily the person that Sieglinde wanted to present to anyone in public. Khadija was peering into her heart and private thoughts without permission. It was dirty, it was unfair to her. But she couldn’t tear herself away from that door. Not when her own eyes started weeping and she wanted them to stop. Not when she wanted to hate Sieglinde von Castille and lay all of the sins of the Empire upon her so she could crush them like her own little revolution.

“Twenty years– I’ve spent twenty years running. Running from the evil I caused.”

Khadija felt a strike against the door. She heard an anguished grunt.

She thought she saw for a brief moment– thought that she felt something, behind her–

The Red Baron, back to back with her. Her and the Lion of Cascabel.

Separated by opposite sides of that prison door. Unable to communicate.

“I almost destroyed these people, who fought so righteously, who saved her in the end. I supported cretins like Norn von Fueller and Gertrude Lichtenberg in their evil ambitions. I was part of it all.”

“Shut up.” Khadija mumbled. “Just saying that won’t change anything, you coward.”

Sieglinde paused for a moment. She recovered her breath– but then sniffled again.

“I’ve spent twenty years on the wrong side. Now– now I’m on the wrong side of this door.”

She broke down crying again. Khadija lifted a hand over her face, covering her own eyes.

“Stop beating yourself up. Do something! Do something if you’re so broken up about it!”

Khadija clenched her teeth. That anchor tying her to the past felt heavier and heavier.

She hated this. She hated herself for hearing this. She hated Sieglinde for feeling this way. For feeling, at all. For not playing the faceless demon to Khadija’s golden heroine. That miserable old story of vile monsters and grand heroes– no matter how much Khadija wanted to believe it–

She knew it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be just, because Sieglinde was not just a demon.

Both of them were just old women whose stories should have ended if stories had their say.

Sieglinde should have given way to the young heroes who would kill her and cleanse her sins–

Khadija should have given way (in death) to the young heroes to take up her vengeance–

Did Khadija have any right to demand that the story of Sieglinde von Castille cease being written? When she had declared so adamantly that her own story was not yet over? Could she look this woman in those mournful eyes and say, that she had no future, that her life didn’t matter? That nothing she did, no convictions she ever held, would ever be genuine, would ever be worthy, because of that bloody chain around their legs dragged from twenty years past? Could she tell her that nothing could ever change?

Right then– she couldn’t say anything. All she could do was weep along with Sieglinde.

“Why can’t I hate you?” Khadija mumbled to herself. Banging her own fist on the door.


Walking. Alone. Step by step over the dust.

Dust of people, places, memories, emotions, whole civilizations.

Walking over the dust, alone.

Her trail of color, the impression, the shadow, that she left upon the world, wherever she went.

Every place where she ever tread. If she tread enough, there would be a mark left.

Every person who saw her, whom she saw. There would be a mark left on them.

In time they would all return to the dust.

So she could not remain. She could not interfere. She could not be responsible.

She would not let herself. For their sake (for her sake).

“The burden of being only a witness is greater than you all know or understand.”

So she walked. She walked alone over the dust of ages. Even while accompanied: alone.

You are not here to save anyone.

“If I played the hero everything would be infinitely worse.”

Those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility

On her chest formed a tiny crack, as if she was a doll made of glass.

“Everything I’ve done is to take responsibility, everything.”

I made the same mistake that you made with

Crack.

From the wound in her blew dust that reconstituted itself in a great wave of color in front of her eyes. Becoming a smiling woman, hands in her coat pockets, tall and sure, honeyed skin and lacquered eyes, dark hair tied up in a long ponytail. She reached out her hand invitingly, with a warmth like the sun.

I will walk alongside you. I will take up your burden.

I didn’t want responsibility for the world.

“That’s an utter mischaracterization. You don’t know anything about me.”

Crack.

Again the dust bleeding out of her heart blew into a cloud that swept before her. Becoming a woman, tan skin and fierce eyes, bright red hair, in a dirty coat, surrounded by machines and instruments. She reached out her hand, with a bold fire like youth, a frenetic strength that lifted her out of the grave and a smug, assured grin. She could feel that touch, the comfort, the desire, the certainty of a partnership.

I will go wherever you do. I will be your inseparable confidante.

Feelings that she had to force herself to reject.

You are here– to defray responsibility.

“Stop it. You– you don’t get to say that to me.”

Crack.

Her chest peeled away shard by shard, shattering in a slow sequence from her breasts to her stomach.

Each shard became dust, the dust of dead things left behind.

If not dead materially then dead inside her, dead of neglect where she left them.

From the dust formed a figure, grey-skinned and white haired with brilliant red eyes. Her skin lightened, her hair turned golden, and from shabby rags she changed before her eyes, shimmering like a gemstone, crust polished off of her in real time by the dancing color until she stood how she had last been seen.

Euphrates reached out her hand to her, and she made the same mistake.

“Come with me.” She said. “You have the power to avert this tragedy. I’m sure of it.”

That innocent woman took her hand, and it felt like regret, mourning, lies of providence.

As that memory became dust, the last of Euphrates’ body shattered. She, too, finally joined the dust.

while you pretend to be the hero in the final accounting.

It could only have been her who shattered Euphrates. No one else could hurt so deeply.

But the shadow of her would not stop. No matter how many times she met with destruction.

Everything around her crumbled but–

Her own pieces inexorably picked themselves together.

Continuing her eternal march.

Walking.

Alone.

Because she had to be.

Step by grueling step on legs of glass, trudging through ever thicker dunes of the dust.

Just as she felt like falling to her knees amid the dust of ages in the plain of oblivion–

All of us are drawn together by a current, Euphrates. We’ll be destined to meet again.

With the voice, a different voice than before, reverberating in the hollow of her frail chest.

Euphrates stood unsteadily atop the dust and walked.

Step by step over the dust. Alone.

Then farther ahead, collecting in a front of her like the next dune to climb–

Auburn eyes, dark hair cut messily above the shoulder, a handsome face with the smoldering gaze of a woman with singular ambition, dark skinned, proletarian and boyish in manner but carried by a resplendant elegance in her speech. Guarded by two rapidly fading shadows, her touch feeling like weapons, bursts of gas, blood in the water and thousands upon thousands of deaths.

I really don’t know what to say. Or what to feel, right now. Thank you, Doctor.

She smiled.

Euphrates’ legs gave again. Kneeling with her head down in front of her.

Her voice shook out of a throat of shattering glass. “I don’t want to fail you too.”


Commissar Aaliyah Bashara breathed in deep and released that held breath audibly.

At the head of the table in the conference room next to the brig, seated beside the Captain. Both of them looked like they were exhausted just contemplating what lay ahead of them. There were seats reserved at the end of the conference table for the various suspects. Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg stood at the far wall of the room with their assault rifles loaded with safeties off. Akulantova had assured the Captain and Commissar that those two young women were her very own “monsters” should they need to put down any aggression of their untrustworthy captives. Both of them were professional and lethal.

“I’m a peace-loving maiden with nonlethal training. Those two are real killers.” Akulantova said.

Ahead of the start of the meetings a few ‘stakeholders’ were also assembled.

Braya Zachikova and Murati Nakara sat in attendance, representing the bridge crew and the Diver pilots. Gunther Cohen was there to represent the mechanics and engineers. All of them were sworn to keep secret anything which was deemed classified, and they were all trusted to be able to do so on the pain of permanent incarceration until the end of the mission. It was a serious matter, this conference.

They had a lot of people to interrogate and many questions to pose to them.

“This is going to take us a while, so we’re going to start from the least complicated issue and work our way up to the most complicated issues. Illya and Valeriya, please escort in Marina McKennedy and sit her on the table. Zachikova, you’ll handle the official record of the meetings.”

Zachikova nodded. She plugged in a portable terminal into her tall, gray ear antennae.

She had the advantage of being able to take down notes by just thinking about it.

Illya and Valeriya escorted into the room a sedate and uncharacteristically cooperative Marina.

She sat at the end of the table, crossed her arms, sighed heavily.

“You don’t need to coerce me. I’ll come clean.” She held the Captain’s gaze.

Ulyana scoffed. “Fantastic. How is this conversation any different from the past ones?”

Marina let out a long sigh.

“You found me out already, that’s why. Look, yes, Elena von Fueller was on your fucking ship, I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I lied to you, but do you understand why I had to do it? How could I possibly have just told you that I am bringing Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller aboard? You have her aboard now, you must understand how different that is from having ‘Elen the analyst’?”

“As a matter of fact, no, Marina.” Aaliyah entered the fray. “On this ship, that girl is just a civilian. She commands no authority, and nobody here expects her titles to be fungible in any way. What did you think we would do to her? You could have just introduced her as a G.I.A. asset.”

“You’re fucking communists! One of your things is ‘eat the rich’ isn’t it?” Marina said.

“You really, honestly thought we would immediately persecute some kid, like that would be our most pressing concern?” Ulyana asked. “What does the Republic teach agents about communism?”

“The fact of the matter is, you lied to us, and we were unable to properly assess our security concerns because of it. Not only that, but you also had a tail and refused to acknowledge it.”

Aaliyah interjected again. Marina was already raising her voice again in response.

“I did not fucking know I had a tail! I had no fucking idea! I swear to you, I was not using you guys to fight Norn and Lichtenberg! I thought I had gotten away clean! I did everything I could to avoid suspicion, I dismantled an entire GIA cell to make my escape, to make sure I couldn’t be pursued, I gave up an entire mission and all of its resources to give Elena this chance to be free. I did everything I could!”

“Marina, we have always wanted to believe you, but you really burned us this time. So it is difficult for us to trust anything you say now, and it is difficult for us to trust your motivations here.” Ulyana said.

“My only motivation is that I want that girl to be safe.” Marina said.

“What’s your relation to Elena?” Aaliyah asked. “This is clearly personal for you, not a mission.”

This time, Marina did not try to deflect attention or change the subject.

She took a deep breath, held a hand over the closed buttons on her shirt, over her breast.

Speaking as if she had thought for a long time what she would say in order to come clean.

“Over twenty years ago, I was sent into the Imbrium by the G.I.A. on a mission to gather information on the security of the Emperor, to see if it was viable to assassinate him or anyone key in his regime. We told ourselves this would help achieve military victory in the Great Ayre Reach. This was in the lead-up to, what, the 30th? 31st? Some campaign for the Great Ayre Reach. It doesn’t even matter which.”

She continued.

“You all know how history shook out from there. The colonies rebelled en masse, the Republic attacked, there was a war on two fronts, the Empire retreated from both of them, but the Emperor wasn’t assassinated, the Republic didn’t break through to occupy Rhinea or Palatine to end the war– maybe the only good outcome of all this was that the Union got to stick around until now. It was a big, bloody stalemate. I failed– but the part that you don’t know is that I was involved with Leda Lettiere, the Emperor’s prized new wife, and her entourage. I was– I was intimately involved. I turned her–”

“Oh my god. Marina–” Ulyana interrupted suddenly. “Are you Elena’s real father?”

Aaliyah turned to Ulyana at that moment with a glare like the Captain had gone insane.

Indeed, Ulyana had made a very silly misreading of all the lurid drama and tension.

She felt, and looked, instantly embarrassed. Marina was speechless for a moment.

“What? Are you insane? Of course I’m not! What are you even saying, Korabiskaya?”

“I apologize.” Ulyana said. “I jumped the gun. Please go on and forget I said anything.”

“Fuck’s sake. I’m not her father! But I care deeply about her! She’s innocent in all this!”

“Lettiere– so that’s why Elena chose that surname.” Aaliyah said. “Honoring her mother.”

“We know the Emperor’s wife from that time period as Leda von Fueller.” Ulyana said. She recalled her history readings. “She’s a fairly minor figure in our history. We knew she was purged by the Emperor, and of course we knew there was a Princess Elena von Fueller. But in the Union, all of the events surrounding her death, like the storming of the summer palace at Schwerin, were cast in our narratives as just part of the Emperor’s brutal paranoia stoked by ongoing wars. We had no idea there was a real conspiracy.”

Marina nodded her head. She took a moment to collect herself, and resumed calmly.

“He had concrete reason to be afraid of her. We were this close to having his head and sending the Empire into chaos. Unfortunately, an impassable wall named Norn Tauscherer ended our ambitions. Konstantin was heartbroken about Leda’s betrayal.” Marina said. “I still don’t know why he killed Leda– he was obsessed with her. I know what he did to me, though.” She clenched her teeth.

“You don’t have to disclose any further. We can fill in the blanks.” Aaliyah said.

“Thank you for telling us all of this, Marina.” Ulyana said. “We will take a step closer to the middle with you and believe you, though we don’t have evidence of what you are saying. Can you tell us about current events, however? Aaliyah gathered information about Vogelheim and the disappearance of the princess while we were in Serrano. Those things didn’t matter to us then, but now– I want to know how you were involved. You don’t need to go into any… compromising, sort of details.”

“I was imprisoned for years– shoved in the darkest fucking pit of hell since Leda’s capture. The Empire’s hole in the ground where people go to be erased from existence, called the Ergastulum.” Marina said. She quivered a bit but mastered herself. “Time passes differently there. I couldn’t tell you whether I was there a year or thirty until my escape. I feel like I still don’t know. It had to be at least eighteen years.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana glanced at each other. They had heard something unbelievably grim.

Marina paused again, grinning a bit. “But I got lucky– it was a little over a year ago, a bunch of Bureni nationalists got bailed out. Some terrorist named Ganges staged it, she did a fucking brutal jailbreak. Really skilled Katarran mercs– they just razed everything. Killed every single guard, all the staff, even the fucking clerks got pulped. I saw them– door to door, room to room, they cleared everything methodically, they made Republic special forces look like a joke. Yours too, probably.”

Illya Rostova rolled her eyes behind Marina’s back, while Valeriya Peterburg growled.

“They came for specific guys and took them, but they opened all the cells, and there were guard ships still docked, untouched. I managed to crawl out of my cell and make my way to a ship. Most prisoners’ bodies in the Ergastulum are fucking destroyed, almost all the cells were full of zombies, there was no rioting, almost nobody could take advantage. I was scarred up to hell, and we barely got fed, but I always laid low and conserved all the strength I could. So I was alive enough to escape. Autopiloted out, ate salt pork that tasted like heaven, slowly started being able to hit the gym, and found my way back to the G.I.A in the Imbrium. Laid low for a few months, caught up with what I missed. Then I rescued Elena.”

Ulyana assumed a lot happened during all that laying low.

Like several gender affirming surgeries– possibly her entire body needing such repairs.

That was not something she would ever demand to know about, however.

In her mind, Marina had spun a satisfactory story. More than she had ever said before.

Aaliyah and Ulyana looked at each other, gauging their collective satisfaction with Marina.

“Captain.” Aaliyah said. She smiled toward Marina and then nodded toward Ulyana.

“Right. Thank you for being candid, Agent McKennedy. We hope to continue cooperating with you in the future.” Ulyana said. She smiled too. “Hopefully you won’t think ill of us for this situation.”

“No, I get it. If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have had to go through all this shit.”

Marina held a hand to her chest again and breathed in and breathed out.

“It was kind of good to finally tell someone some version of what happened.” She said.

“Whenever you’re ready to give a full account, we’ll be ready to record it.” Ulyana said.

“I’m trying not to live in the past so much.” Marina said. “Our future is looking rough.”

“We’ll tackle it with all of our skills, as it comes. Thank you, Marina McKennedy.”

Marina nodded toward the Captain and Commissar. Illya and Valeriya escorted her out.

“I have no hope for this next one.” Ulyana said to Aaliyah only. Aaliyah nodded solemnly.

“Bring Arbitrator I in next. Let’s get this over with.” She then declared to the room.

When Illya and Valeriya returned, they accompanied a lively woman, bloodless white skin covered in a robe only slightly darker, long red hair with white streaks flowing in her wake as she skipped into the room. Her thick tail trailed along the floor, white and mottled with four soft-looking wing-like paddles arranged at the distal end. Ulyana recalled that there had once been a spot on the side of her head where her hair was a bit thinner, perhaps a wound. Now her overlong locks were the same all around, falling over her shoulders when she stood at her end of the table like long sheets. Across the striking features of her exotic white face stretched a big smile– and her eyes were still the exact green color as Ulyana’s.

“One moment please, Captain.” Zachikova said.

She stood up from her seat on the side of the table and ambled over to Arbitrator I.

“Braya! I’m so happy to see you! I’ve been very polite. Is this a reward for me?”

Zachikova reached into her jacket and produced an object.

She then reached up to the taller woman’s neck and clapped something around it.

“Zachikova? What are you doing?” Ulyana called out.

“I’m taking control of her. You have nothing to worry about now, Captain.”

Turning around to the rest of the group, Zachikova showed them a remote detonator.

With a smug little grin on her face, she pointed the index finger of her free hand to Arbitrator I’s neck, which had been adorned with a black choker that stood out from the extremely pale skin. Upon that choker were a trail of LEDs and four thumbprint sized sockets each containing a shiny red object. Not gemstones, nobody had any gemstones here– it was just meant to look pretty while Arbitrator I wore it.

Ulyana couldn’t knock the craftsmanship, but it was clearly a bomb collar. She was shocked.

The Electronic Warfare officer kept pointing at it with that same quiet, self-satisfied expression.

As if to say ‘check it out, isn’t it cool’?

Murati and Gunther did not seem to understand, but the superiors knew immediately.

“Zachikova! That’s beyond the pale! I forbid this in the strongest terms!” Ulyana shouted.

Bomb collars were torture and control devices.

Beads of explosive material around the neck could cause precise lacerations, choking and bleeding out the victim. It would not be a humane death by any means as the brain would remain intact. This is what made the collar an effective threat to the victim. Once the circumstances were explained to them, they would almost assuredly buckle to their captor’s desires. As a former member of the special forces, Zachikova had surely been trained in the manufacture and use of such devices to control and coerce captives and untrustworthy assets. However, this was not a lawless “special operation” — Ulyana would not tolerate the use of such tactics on her ship. She stood up, demanding that the collar come off.

Meanwhile–

Arbitrator I smiled placidly. She raised her hand to her neck, briefly touching the object.

Then, on the finger and thumb she used, the white skin bloated and peeled back.

Everyone in attendance stared, speechless, as what were clearly two eyes appeared on her fingers.

These melted back into the skin almost as quickly as they had blossomed from it.

“Braya! It’s so beautiful! Thank you for the gift! I knew that you still loved me!”

Zachikova blinked hard, briefly speechless. She looked down at the detonator and tensed.

For the threat to be effective, she had to explain–

“Arbitrator I, if you make one wrong move, with a push of this button–”

Arbitrator I’s disarming smile, as she hung on every word Zachikova spoke–

“–ugh,” Zachikova had to pause and collect herself. “Listen, you– just, do what I say!”

She waved the detonator helplessly in front of Arbitrator I’s face as a vague gesticulation.

Ulyana stared, uncomprehending. What kind of relationship did these two have?

“Oh! I understand. It’s a form of play. You’re the master and I am the slave.”

“Shut up! I’ll blow your head clean off your neck! Shut up right now!”

What kind of relationship did these two have?!

“Ya Allah!” Aaliyah shouted, completely red in the face, ears and tail outstretched. “This is an interrogation not some raunchy kink thread on a BBS! Captain, get the meeting back in order immediately!”

“Me? You’re yelling at me?” Ulyana sighed. She was afraid this would happen.

Trying desperately to take control of the situation again, Ulyana brushed aside the issue of the bomb collar, which, while it bothered her personally, did not seem to trouble its intended victim in any way. Despite how foolish she was acting, Zachikova seemed like she was not going to send geysers of blood flying across the room either. She focused on Arbitrator I and started asking questions.

“Forget the rest of this! Your name is Arbitrator One correct?”

Arbitrator I turned her bright, smiling face on Ulyana and acknowledged.

“Indeed. You can call me Arbitrator I of the First Sphere.”

Ulyana stared at her, trying to appraise anything from her bright, smiling face.

“Not to belittle you, but I need to understand the depth of your current faculties: how much do you know about the present situation? Do you know you’re in Sverland, in the Imbrian Empire? Do you know what the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice is? Hell, do you even know what year it is?”

Arbitrator I put a pale finger on her chin and gazed up at the ceiling in thought.

“How to explain it? On the whole, I should know. But I need time to recall the specifics in detail.”

Ulyana sat back and crossed her arms.

“So, to make it simple, you don’t know where you really are or what’s going on.”

“At this precise moment, there are gaps in my understanding that are hard to explain.”

This was exactly the sort of behavior she worried about. In her mind, this person was certainly different than them, and she certainly exhibited some odd abilities — the fantasy nerd in Ulyana’s heart wanted to call it magic, but the responsible Captain in her mind did not allow this. Her ability to change her body was frightening, and that miracle she pulled off with the Leviathans– ordinary people not running on a crushing high of anxiety and caffeine might have panicked and broken down at the sight of such things.

However, Ulyana tried to take a step back and see things as rationally as possible despite everything. It did not matter what Arbitrator I’s capabilities were, not at the moment. It was her behaviors that were suspicious. Anyone could say they were an amnesiac, that they were from a vastly different culture, that they were ignorant of what they were doing and what was happening, whenever it was convenient. But when confronted with that, how did one believe it? How did one confirm it to be the actual truth?

Arbitrator I had appeared out of nowhere, and she had saved their lives from a catastrophic situation. She had dutifully remained in the brig without causing problems overnight. She seemed to wait on “Braya” to the point of obsession. She had a whimsical or idiotic response to everything said to her. What was her angle? She was cooperating, but what she did want? What were her motives and goals? Those were issues they had to resolve in order to secure the Brigand’s operational security going forward.

It was clear that the issue of who Arbitrator I was would be complicated and fruitless.

However–

“Amnesia aside: why are you cooperating with us? Is there something you desire?”

“Of course.”

Arbitrator I leaned in close to Zachikova, who nearly jumped from the touch.

“I would like to court Braya and to breed with her if she will allow it.”

Her words hung in the air for a few seconds. Ulyana could scarcely believe they were said.

Illya snickered, while Valeriya’s eyes wondered over to Illya as if she had something to say.

Gunther Cohen turned red and looked down at the table. Murati Nakara stared speechless.

“I’m going to push the button!” Zachikova shouted.

“Captain! Stop provoking her to say such things!” Aaliyah joined in the shouting.

Ulyana despaired. She thought this interrogation could be easy to get out of the way if they could reach some kind of agreement with Arbitrator I, some sort of conditions to her stay until they could divine her intentions. But it was clear that Arbitrator I was completely insane, or that she was playing dumb in a way which was uniquely disruptive to the people that were interrogating her. Whether it was stupidity or malice behind it, she was derailing everything quite effectively. Honestly; everyone was so immature.

“You’re all adults aren’t you? Just let the suspect speak already!” Ulyana shouted back.

“Oh, I apologize.” Arbitrator I said. She waved her hand, giggling. “I was– I was joking.”

“You weren’t joking! Don’t lie!” Zachikova shouted. “Answer the questions productively!”

“Oh my– Braya are you jealous again?”

“Do you realize I’m trying to keep you from being launched out of a fucking torpedo tube?”

“Oh goodness– I’m quite sorry. I just got a little eager when I thought about us.”

“For god’s sake. Arbitrator I– what is an Omenseer?” Ulyana shouted over them.

She recalled the conversation yesterday, digging in her memory for something concrete.

Silence fell over the room for a moment. Everyone’s eyes turned to Arbitrator I.

“Omenseers are a culture.” Arbitrator I said. “An ancient culture, though, I would say, its present expression is just sort of a facsimile of its true history. But, isn’t your civilization, also a facsimile of the ones that came before? At any rate– I am a relatively new member of the Omenseer culture.”

“How ancient are they, and how relatively new are you?”

Ulyana was finally getting her talking about something useful now. She pressed on.

“Hmm, the original mystery culture should be many thousands of years old, I think. However, the society that I belong to is significantly younger than that. As for my self, give or take 900 years I suppose.”

“Nine hundred?”

All around the room there were blank, staring faces. Clearly nobody could believe this.

“Hmm? You all look confused.” Arbitrator I said, furrowing her brow and frowning at the silent responses. “There was a world before your current civilizations, you know. I can’t recall much of it– but do you think 900 years is such an impossibly long time? Was the world made out of whole cloth 900 years ago? Obviously not– you are all facsimiles of that world, aren’t you? So you should understand.”

“I wouldn’t call us facsimiles of the surface world at all.” Ulyana said. “That is beside the point though. What we really can’t accept is that you, as a living being, are over 900 years old and still alive.”

“I apologize. I might be communicating ineffectively. You see, this body is not 900 years old, if that is the question you are asking. I suppose that when you refer to yourself, you refer to your current body exclusively. With that in mind, let’s say this: the totality of myself, all the experiences and knowledge that could potentially be called ‘Arbitrator I’, are over 900 years old together. Maybe older– but this body is far fresher than that. Let’s set it as a nice, spry, 22 years of age. How does that sound?”

“Right.” Ulyana said skeptically. “And yesterday, you said you were USL-0099.”

“Hmm?” Arbitrator I tilted her head in confusion.

“The Leviathan. The Leviathan outside, that withstood a mortal blow to save us.”

She was trying to word things in such a way as to universalize the specifics.

Arbitrator I nodded. “Oh, yes. That was my body for a long time. It is because of both the circumstances of its creation and destruction that I am having some difficulty remembering all that I should.”

“Whether or not you are a fish aside, you are indeed claiming amnesia?” Aaliyah said.

“Let me try to explain. You asked me what I know about the current world. I can speak, and I know many of the basic concepts which I need to know in order to interact with Hominins such as all of you, and I know enough to survive. That kind of knowledge is stored in my body. However, my old body was destroyed so I lost a lot of information with it. I still have a substantial amount of information that I can recall, in this body, because that is part of its function, as Arbitrator I. However, at the moment, it’s only contained in my body. It is not available for my immediate recall. It’s not been brought up here.”

She tapped on the side of her head. “To bring it here would be a bit of a project. Given time, I could do so. In fact, I’ve already remembered many things about being like a hominin and acting like hominins do. Give me time to acclimate, and I’ll do a better job answering questions with the information I have.”

Ulyana thought she understood in some way how this could work. Kind of like–

“Like interaction between RAM and storage.” Zachikova said suddenly, as if an epiphany.

She gestured in the air drawing two boxes– maybe to represent the different chips.

“With all due respect, that’s bunk.” Aaliyah said, scoffing and clearly frustrated. “In fact, it’s chauvinistic to think human brains act like computers. Even your cybernetics are more complicated than a computer.”

Her body might be an organic computer. She’s clearly different from us.” Zachikova said.

“It’s far easier to believe that this woman is either putting on an act, or if we take her at her word, that she has some kind of amnesia or mental instability and needs to reacclimate to society.”

“I’m not saying this from out of nowhere.” Zachikova said. “I’m not just making it up.”

“Aaah, Braya is appraising me. I can feel the warmth of her curiosity in the aether.”

Zachikova fixed her a glare and brought up the detonator again. Arbitrator I smiled.

“Captain. It’s time I told my own version of events. That might help.” Zachikova said.

She drew in a breath, her hands shaking. She looked nervous to be speaking about this.

And indeed, she sounded nervous, as she told the story.

During the battle with the Antenora, the Leviathan USL-0099 had interfered with Norn’s unknown agarthic weapon, sparing the Brigand from certain annihilation. Zachikova had felt some attachment to the creature and collected its body in a swirl of emotions and brought it aboard the ship without permission. Then she met Arbitrator I in the animal’s remains; with whom, Zachikova stated in no uncertain terms, ‘nothing happened’ in the utility hold for the drones. She took her to the captain right away.

“I’ve been flustered by her erratic behavior, because I’m not used to dealing with her– her interest in me.” Zachikova admitted. Her emotions were clearly on the rise as she told the story, and she was feeling the pressure of telling it, but she passionately continued to lay out her case. “And frankly, I am afraid that you will all try to hurt her or get rid of her for being strange– but she’s very valuable! Arbitrator I was USL-0099 that we had under observation. Because of this, I think that if we work with her, it might even let us prove the theory that Leviathans are man-made, biological machines. Also, wouldn’t it be convenient for us militarily if she can protect us from Leviathan attacks, and it wasn’t a fluke? We could go anywhere! I would like to request to continue USL-0099’s observation, personally, and that she remain a subject of study. I can take responsibility for her– it’s not necessary to involve Maharapratham.”

“I have to object. Karuniya will definitely want to be involved in this.” Murati added.

Zachikova looked annoyed to be argued with at the end of her long, impassioned speech.

“She will have to be. But clearly Arbitrator I and Zachikova have an– um– a rapport.”

Ulyana prevented herself from uttering words like tryst or in this volatile situation.

As they were speaking, the captain had come up with what she thought was a clever idea.

“Arbitrator I, imagine you lived in a world where Zachikova did not exist, but you still saved us. In such a world, what would your role be? What would you want from us?” She said.

Arbitrator I looked up at the ceiling again, crossing her arms.

“Fish don’t conceptualize a lot, so I’m a bit rusty when it comes to imagining different worlds– however, in such a case, I believe that we would abide by the ancient oaths between Omenseer and Hominin. In exchange for protein, shelter, and protection from other Hominins, I will help you navigate and act as a guardian for your journey. I will read the omens and guide you to safety, whatever your destination. In the current era, I can help you ward off the poor lost souls so you can navigate the sunlit seas.”

Read the omens– warding off lost souls in the sunlit seas–

“Like you did before. You scared off those Leviathans from attacking us.” Ulyana said.

“Indeed. I even said it in a really impressive way. Like a magic spell.” Arbitrator I said.

She looked happy with herself. Maybe she really was mostly harmless.     

“Zachikova, Arbitrator I can bunk with you then. We’ll get her a uniform.” Ulyana said.

She turned to Aaliyah. The Commissar crossed her arms and sighed audibly, ears drooping.

“I see no other solution to this. No humane one, anyway. I will support the Captain.”

Zachikova clearly tried not to look relieved– but her body language became far less tense.

Ulyana was satisfied. Somehow they had managed to get something out of Arbitrator I.

As sloppy as it had been, the interrogation had yielded some insights and stability.

“Arbitrator I, I have a few final questions for you, if you can answer briefly.”

“Of course, captain!” Arbitrator I said happily.

Zachikova stared but said nothing. Was she being overprotective? It was kind of cute.

“Dagon belongs to the Omenseers too, doesn’t it? What is its purpose?” Ulyana asked.

“Dagon is a warship.” Arbitator I said casually. “Its purpose is to kill and destroy.”

“Omenseer is a really fitting name for the lot of you.” Ulyana said. She felt a headache coming after all this mess. “Should we be worried about this thing roaming around the world? What do Omenseers other than yourself want? They just came out of Goryk Abyss all of sudden and swooped in on us.”

“Hmm. What do they want? Some of them can’t really want anything.” Arbitrator I said. “Others are following their leader and acquiring proteins. And others still are wild and free and living according to the ancient ways. At the moment, I am not able to judge the purpose of Dagon’s appearance, but the creature is also a facsimile of a preceding warship, and that Dagon was quite cruel and destructive.”

“I see. Very well. I suppose we can come back to that at a later date then.”

Ulyana was left with many more questions, but she judged that Arbitrator I was not a threat.

Had she wanted to sabotage them and kill them, she would have let Dagon do it.

It seemed like she really was interested in Zachikova.

So Ulyana would leave her in Zachikova’s hands and take advantage of her skills.

As far as Dagon was concerned– there was nothing they could do about it right now.

“Final question. Can you explain your abilities to me?” Ulyana asked.

“It’s called Omenseeing. It’s where we get our name.” Arbitrator I said. “It is an ancient calculation, learned from the great trees, that turns my will into truth. I used it to communicate with the Leviathans. After asserting my authority, they knew they should not attack this vessel. I can also alter my own body with it.”

“Well then. Okay– I guess I asked and I got an answer of some kind.” Ulyana said.

“She must be running some kind of adaptive biological program.” Zachikova said.

“We’ll leave the wild speculation to you then.” Aaliyah said, exasperated.

“I’m as satisfied as I can be.” Ulyana said, shrugging. “I had very low expectations.”

Because she never stopped smiling, it was hard to gauge, but Arbitrator I sounded contrite.

“I will commit more information to mind in the future, Captain.” She said.

Zachikova watched Arbitrator I intently. “DNA-based storage perhaps–”

Ulyana was not necessarily satisfied with Arbitrator I in perpetuity, but for the moment, she felt that the strange woman was not a threat, and perhaps was more of a victim of circumstance than anyone on that ship really knew. All she could do was file away what she knew about these fanciful new words, like Omenseer and Dagon, and trust that she could uncover more concrete answers in the future.

One thing that life had taught her was that it was impossible to wring all of the answers in one moment– answers about anything sufficiently important simply begat even more questions.

She had the answers she wanted. Arbitrator I was cooperating and did not seem to possess an ulterior motive that would bring harm to the Brigand, at least not one which was immediately discernible. Not only that, but Zachikova had hit the nail precisely on the head about the utility of this woman. They had spent close to a day in the photic zone without being attacked by Leviathans, and without running into any abnormal weather. Being able to travel in such a way, was essentially comparable to being able to fly while everyone else was stuck to the ground. It was a major boon– they would take advantage of it.

Someone more skeptical would have tried to probe further– was it really Arbitrator I who was responsible for their spate of good luck? But after everything Ulyana had seen on this insane mission already, it made no sense to be skeptical of that detail. It would have been harder to say that she had no connection to the events whatsoever, that it was all a huge coincidence. She made a big show of it, everyone saw it, and even if they couldn’t explain it, there was no way to engineer that scenario and its outcome.

Arbitrator I was an Omenseer, with strange powers over her body and Leviathans.

That would have to be accepted as fact. And they would have to live with that reality.

Perhaps they could ask their next guests about the nature of those powers.

After all, those two, Euphrates and Tigris, definitely knew more than they let on.

About everything that had happened.

“You can go, Arbitrator I. I’ll inform Kamarik to pay attention to your consultations.”

Arbitrator I bowed her head cheerfully, and with a final fond look at Zachikova, departed.

“Aaliyah,”

Ulyana turned to the Commissar next to her and spoke with her briefly in confidence.

“Let’s ask Euphrates and Tigris about the topics that Arbitrator I was dancing around.”

“Do you think they will have answers?” Aaliyah whispered back.

“HELIOS identified that monster as ‘Dagon’ too. They definitely know about Omenseers in some way, and importantly, those two can’t pretend that they knocked their heads about or that they have culture shock. And they have a longer way to go to prove their benevolence to us than Arbitrator I did. I’m almost positive we can learn more about all of this cryptic horseshit if we pressure them.”

“Good thinking Captain. Now I understand why you were so calm about Arbitrator I.”

Aaliyah really flattered her there– Ulyana had just been flying by the seat of her pants.


Aaliyah and Ulyana called for a short break for everyone involved in the interrogations.

They also reinforced that everything regarding Arbitrator I would be disseminated only to the officers, in an edited fashion. She would be introduced to the sailors as “Arabella.” There was no helping that she would probably act strange toward a sailor here or there– but contact and information about her would be as limited as possible and she would largely co-mingle with the officers exclusively. Zachikova was made the point of contact for anything regarding Arbitrator I, which everyone agreed to.

Finally, Illya and Valeriya brought in their next pair of guests. The calm, short blue-haired doctor in the pants suit and vest, Euphrates, and still wearing a worker’s jumpsuit, fiery red hair in a ponytail and fiery red temper completely out in the open, her companion Tigris. One was smiling placidly and seemed perfectly content with herself, while the other one glared at everyone opposite her.

“I can’t believe all of you!” Tigris cried out. “After how helpful I was! I can understand if you lock up this ingrate here,” she waved animatedly at Euphrates, who did not even flinch at the clear insult, “but I worked my ass off ever since I got here! I helped save you all! You should heap me with praise!”

“I’m sure they don’t disagree that you’ve been helpful.” Euphrates said calmly.

“They put us in solitary confinement!” Tigris shouted back.

“Comparing the environment I’m in now, with the environment I just left–”

“–Shut up!”

“–it was much cozier in the cell, to be frank.”

Euphrates grinned and Tigris looked like she wanted to wring her neck.

Aaliyah and Ulyana made similar expressions of putting their hands over their foreheads.

Murati spoke up in their stead. Unprompted, but Ulyana did not hold it against her.

“We are grateful for your assistance, and I believe that if you were truly intending malice, you had many opportunities to sell us out or sabotage us in the last few days. However, you still lied, and the information you’ve been withholding has exponentially increased in value.” She said.

“Well put.” Ulyana replied. “Euphrates, Tigris, we want to be able to cooperate with you. That’s why I authorized for you to be informed of events on the ship, even in captivity. We only imprisoned you as a safety measure in a chaotic situation, and to insure that you would attend this meeting.”

“In order to trust you, we’ll need you to disclose information about your real identities.” Aaliyah added.

Tigris balked at this, but Euphrates seemed to understand and accept everything.

“Tigris, please let me do the talking. You’re far too– animated.” Euphrates said.

“Bah! Why are you acting so cool? We’re both in the same world of shit right now.”

Tigris folded her arms in front of her chest, scoffed a few more times and averted her gaze.

“You could say I’m a changed woman. I’ve come to terms with what I have to do.”

“No you’re not! You haven’t changed a goddamn and you never will.”

Euphrates seemed to be trying to gently mollify Tigris– but the redhead wasn’t having it.

Ulyana cleared her throat loudly and deliberately. “Alright. First question.”

“Apologies, Captain. I’m listening.” Euphrates said.

“What is the Sunlight Foundation?”

“Ah. Interesting. That’s a good and meaty question.”

There was a very professor-like quality to Euphrates. Tigris had always acted almost like a sailor, and she had skills like a mechanic. She was boisterous and loud and interested in getting hands on. Euphrates, in her vest and suit blazer, her tie done up and her cotton shirt clean despite having spent a night in solitary confinement, projected a scholarly confidence, as if she knew how everything would unfold already. She spoke in such a clear and direct way Ulyana could almost feel the punctuation. Ulyana had hoped to rattle her with the question. She imagined, however, that Euphrates could rationalize many worlds existing, many possibilities transpiring just then. Euphrates always seemed utterly calm, always a step ahead.

In that mystery mind of hers, she probably did see a reason for them to know that name.

So of course she looked entirely unfazed by the question. Ulyana continued.

“It came up in your conversation with Norn, but Xenia Laskaris also mentioned it.”

Xenia had approached them overnight through Illya and Valeriya, telling them what little she knew.

There was not a lot of substance, but there were enough key words to ask Euphrates pointed questions.

“That girl really hasn’t been earning her paycheck recently.” Euphrates said, amused. “At any rate. The Sunlight Foundation is a community of researchers, engineers, theoreticians, and philosophers united by a shared goal that we hope to accomplish via multi-disciplinary support of the sciences.”

“Give me the explanation that’s not in your brochures, please.” Ulyana said.

“What explanation would be the most damning and sensational in your eyes? You could call us a secret society, maybe even a cult– would that be satisfying enough? It’s not even so important who we are but what we do. We acquire, create and hoard knowledge and technology; we have our fingers in a handful of key technology providers in the Imbrian Empire. Solarflare LLC is simply the one project that Tigris and I have developed over time. Our members have stakes in a dozen others.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah narrowed their eyes. This was quite a grandiose declaration.

It was unsettling, especially when accompanied by Euphrates’ subdued delivery.

“Back up a moment.” Aaliyah said. “What is the shared goal this secret society has?”

“Turning back the clock.” Euphrates said. “Returning to the surface world.”

“That’s absolutely insane.” Ulyana said. “You can’t possibly be serious with this.”

She said that– but Ulyana also couldn’t imagine someone saying something so outlandish without believing it. Without it being true in some sense. Otherwise, why say such a thing? Euphrates seemed altogether too serious an individual to make up fancy stories on the fly for no particular gain. She might as well have tried to spit across the table at their faces. If she was being cooperative, then–

Then– they had to confront a situation where there must be some truth to her assertions.

Nevertheless, in the Imbrian Empire, no organization like this could act altruistically.

Nothing was truly free under capitalism, after all.

“You’re right. It is insane.” Euphrates said. “And like any insane dream, it has ultimately become subordinate to the steps by which it could be accomplished. To realize our dream we needed space, security and technical capital. We were connected to a few influential people many years ago, so that is where we got our start. Since then, we’ve been an invisible hand. We’ve done more to parasitize upon the robotics and cybernetics industries than we ever have to move humanity closer to its ascension. I regret to say, but we spend more time interfering in the markets for reactor technology and in R&D for navigation gear than we do dreaming about the sky anymore. That’s our mundane reality. We need to acquire funds and resources, and in so doing, we tell ourselves we are stewards rather than a cartel.”

Tigris briefly fixed her with a curious expression before pretending to ignore her again.

Ulyana felt suddenly like she was talking to a rich CEO lamenting the state of her asset portfolio more than a stately professor sharing secrets. It was hard to square the two dimensions of this conversation, the absurd high-stakes conspiracy of this Sunlight Foundation with the lofty, ideological goals.

“What is your role or rank in this organization?” Ulyana asked.

She was trying to extract something more concrete than a ledger of vague goings-on.

“I’m meant to be an upper manager, but I have pretensions of being a hands-on lay-worker, much like my partner.” Euphrates said. Tigris scoffed and seemed to avert her gaze even farther from Euphrates than ever, fully turning her back on her chair. “However, I was one of the founders and am part of the board of the organization. We call ourselves the Immortals. Tigris is one also. We call the shots– but mainly, we stay in the shadows and manage proxies who handle company affairs for us. We become involved if we want to or if our proxies require our direct support. Such as when we need to cover up suspicion.”

“I’m struggling to understand the scope of your operation here.” Ulyana said.

“We don’t have any political power, so you needn’t worry.” Euphrates said. “I did everything I could to prevent us from attaining it. We have a modest security force, a few secretive campuses and compounds, and most of our wealth is in the form of technical capital. Labs and patents. You can think of us more as a mafia than coup plotters. We have valuables squirreled away everywhere, but rather than going into real estate, our money goes to chemicals and minerals. We take advantage of supply efficiencies and good long-term planning. If you think I can overthrow the Imbrian Empire for you, then I have bad news.”

“A mafia, huh? And from what Norn said, they’re trying to whack you now.” Ulyana said.

“I–”

For the first time, the briefest moment, the formidable Euphrates was given a bit of pause.

“I cannot do anything to confirm that until I am back at a Solarflare LLC branch.” She said.

Tigris loudly scoffed once more. “You still have so much unfounded faith in Yangtze.”

“So you believe anything Norn tells you without evidence?” Euphrates said.

Tigris turned back to face the rest of the table.

“I don’t trust either Norn or Yangtze. But you esteem Norn a bunch, so give up on Yangtze already.”

“Like with everything else, I owe it to Yangtze to back whatever suspicions I have with evidence.”

Before Ulyana could ask what the hell they were talking about, Tigris addressed the table.

“Yangtze is the overarching leader.” Tigris said, almost dismissive in tone. “You could call her the most Immortal of the Immortals. When we can’t come to a decision together, we give her the last word. She is formally involved in all our endeavors, so she can mediate between everyone and have a bird’s eye view of the org. Or at least, that’s what she should be doing. But she’s insane– that horrible agarthicite attack you witnessed must be her handiwork in action. She is giving Norn all kinds of crazy toys for god knows what reason and is trying to kill us now. And this idiot here has a crush on her and won’t believe it.”

“I do not have any romantic feelings toward Yangtze.” Euphrates said. “You know that.”

“Do I? Hmm? Maybe I get suspicious whenever you trust her to such insane lengths.”

“It’s not really in my nature to be offended by you, but this is coming close.”

“Hmph. Korabiskaya.”

Tigris gave a smoldering glare at the officers at the end of the table.

“I’ll gladly give you assistance and any information you need to kill Yangtze.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes at her in annoyance.

“I’ll pass. Getting in the middle of your spat is not part of our mission profile.”

This was not a genuine offer of an opportunity, so it would not get a genuine response.

“Some mercenaries you lot turned out to be! You’ll never make in the world like that.”

Tigris was clearly just trying to get Euphrates riled up now. It was shamefully childish.

Euphrates for her part withstood the provocations with almost supernatural calm.

“You look cute when you’re pissed.” She said. “I’m blessed to see it so often.”

“Go to hell. Go to fucking hell, Euphrates.”

Tigris turned her back around fully on Euphrates once more.

“You make a lovely couple.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s get things back under control?”

“Euphrates, it is pretty hard to believe everything you’ve said so far. You’ve spoken about tech sector conspiracies and shadowy figures, nothing we can actually approach. However, you two have demonstrated before that there is far more to you than meets the eye. So I am quite willing to believe there is something the matter with the two of you. I just don’t know what.” Ulyana said.

“I don’t carry evidence of the conspiracy I’m a part of on my person often.” Euphrates said.

“Would the HELIOS system have anything?”

“Oh, indeed. Good idea. It has identification data for Sunlight Foundation vessels.”

“Then with your assistance, we will go over this data later today.”

Euphrates nodded in acknowledgement. “It may not seem like it, but I want to help you.”

“You have certainly tried. During the confrontation with Norn, for example.” Ulyana said.

“Indeed. That was very foolish. I apologize for giving your doctor a scare.” Euphrates said.

That contrition in her voice sounded more emotional than anything she had said previously.

It wasn’t enough to instantly accept it as genuine however.

“You and Tigris have earned some good will from us. The HELIOS was pivotal to the bloodless conclusion of our conflict with the Antenora and we hope to be able to keep it for our mission. And I want to honor our deal with Solarflare. But to insure our operational security, we have to know who we are dealing with and what kind of a past they might have. I suppose we are closer to that than before, but it’s fair for us to have reason to be skeptical, don’t you agree? And it’s fair for us to demand information.”

This was it– Ulyana was trying to set up her further demands from Euphrates.

Euphrates was unbothered and calmly acquiesced. “Of course. Anything you want.”

“Not anything.” Tigris interjected. “Anything that’s actually in our capability.”

“Ignore her. I think it’s serendipitous that we met.” Euphrates told Ulyana.

Ulyana nodded. “First Officer Nakara told me you said as much to her before.”

Finally, Euphrates was starting to sound candid, rather than just merely matter-of-fact.

“When I saw Nakara, I felt like I was meant to be here. To make up for past mistakes.”

Murati looked briefly surprised at this.

“You’ll never make up for shit if you keep licking Yangtze’s toes.” Tigris grumbled.

“Tigris, please don’t butt in if you have nothing productive to say.” Aaliyah said.

“Hmph!”

“Euphrates,” Ulyana said, “I want to believe that you are speaking genuinely right now.”

“How can I rebuild our trust, Captain?”

Here it comes, Ulyana thought. She had to sound confident and choose her words carefully.

“You and Tigris know more than you are letting on about the events that transpired since we rescued you from Goryk. About the attack of that giant Leviathan– about Norn and about the capabilities of the Antenora. You clearly recognize the weapon that Lichtenberg tried to kill us all with. We need to know that you will cooperate us in ways that count, that we can trust and consult with you when dealing with these unprecedented situations. Your knowledge is worth more now than Solarflare’s supplies.”

Euphrates silently nodded her acknowledgement.

Ulyana, chest tight, voiced her first request. “Tell me everything you know about Omenseers.”

Tigris looked over her shoulder suddenly.

“Oh!” Euphrates briefly became serious. “Interesting. What’s the creature’s name?”

“What’s it matter to you?” Aaliyah said.

“So there is one? You met one? That name will clarify a few things–”

She sounded strangely excited. Aaliyah looked discomfited by this response.

“Arbitrator I.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah frowned and glanced sidelong at her in clear disagreement but stayed quiet.

“Arbitrator I. Interesting. This is really fate, isn’t it?” Euphrates said. “Let me explain. Omenseers are like humanoid leviathans that can navigate the photic zone. They have a unique culture– they don’t really participate in our society, they almost exclusively are nomads. They cloak themselves as beasts, but they can become humanoid to shack up with individual ship’s crews. They offer to serve as photic navigators in exchange for shelter, access to human goods, and the keeping of their secret. They originate from ancient caves within the Deep Abyss, accessible only through the bottom of the Gorges. In their original forms they were highly intelligent, pale, gelatinous, fish-like entities, with soft bodies composed of many neurons– or at least, that’s my theory about their survival in the Deep Abyss. They can alter their bodies.”

Ulyana felt her heart lift, a weight fall off her shoulders. She felt excited, energized and triumphant.

Now they were finally getting somewhere. Euphrates was actually cooperating.

All that she said squared with what Arbitrator I had insinuated, too.

One more piece of the puzzle. Many more pieces in fact. It was coming together.

“What’s the meaning behind the name?” Ulyana asked.

“Hierarchy.” Euphrates said. She then began to speak as if in lecture, and again Ulyana heard that same confident, smooth dictation. She really was cooperating with them. “The Sunlight Foundation believes Omenseers have a hierarchical structure. They are divided into grouplets called Spheres– these may have served a purpose in the far past, but nowadays its basically an odd surname system. Each Omenseer’s name contains their role, their order of birth into the role, and their sphere. First Sphere Omenseers are the closest to the original culture, while Third Sphere Omenseers are far younger. An Arbitrator is an Omenseer leader, think of it like a tribal chieftain. Or at least, this may have been the case.”

“Arbitrator I was USL-0099, which we identified before we picked you up.” Ulyana said.

Euphrates nodded, unsurprised. “Omenseers can assume humanoid or Leviathan forms, like I said.”

“Wait a minute. Are all Leviathans Omenseers then?” Aaliyah asked.

Everyone on the table was quietly watching the revelations spill out of Euphrates.

“Even with our knowledge, I can’t confirm the origin of Leviathans, unfortunately. There are theories that they could be man-made, or a result of the surfaces’ corruption– but these are just theories. Omenseers are able to assume Leviathan forms, so we call them humanoid Leviathans. They are probably connected, but they are also mysterious enough that it’s difficult to ascertain the utmost truth about them. Did the Omenseers come first, and surface humans designed Leviathans in their image? Or did Leviathans come first, and Omenseers adopted their aesthetics because they were the apex marine predators?”

“That’s good enough doc. We weren’t going to uncover all the mysteries of the universe in one meeting.” Ulyana said cheerfully. “I’m curious: you keep referring to how the Omenseers were in the past, or what you believe they used to be like. How are they different now than they were before?”

Tigris grunted. Euphrates showed no signs of reticence toward the questions.

“There is a group of Omenseers called the Syzygy who follow an Omenseer leader called Arbitrator II of the First Sphere, known as the Autarch. The Sunlight Foundation has had conflicts with them in the past. I believe this creature severely altered the customs and way of life of the Omenseer ‘tribe’ to make them more aggressive toward humans. We killed Arbitrator II before, hoping it would free Syzygy from her.”

Ulyana became wary. She had already seen the results of an Omenseer “dying” before.

“Our Omenseer came back from the dead. So maybe yours did also.” Aaliyah said.

They were on the same wavelength. That Dagon sounded more dangerous by the second.

“That’s a possibility. However, there’s nothing we can really do about it right now.”

“We can’t even confirm the truth about any of this.” Aaliyah shrugged. “It’s all stories.”

“Some of the information will be contained in the HELIOS.” Euphrates said. “HELIOS was one of our tools for studying the Deep Abyss and trying to keep tabs on Syzygy. Furthermore, Syzygy as a group routinely performed small scale biological engineering experiments that it was part of our responsibility to put a stop to. Solarflare LLC was, in part, a front for researching them and preempting their movements.”

“We’ll check out the information on the HELIOS and evaluate further at that time.”

“What, do all of you want to go hunting for Arbitrator II now?” Tigris said.

“Getting in the middle of this bizarre spat is not part of our mission profile.” Ulyana said.

“Arbitrator II also lacks the power to topple the Imbrian Empire.” Euphrates shrugged. “So for now, if she is alive, she is neither an existential threat to you nor an asset in your mission. We should leave her be.”

A solid assessment by the good doctor.

There were all kinds of things cropping up that they would have to make note of and relay to the Union as soon as they were able to confirm any concrete evidence of them. But to interfere of their own accord would have been tantamount to going hunting for cryptids– as much as it made the world far larger and scarier to note the presence of these beings in it, Ulyana had to focus on what she could do right now, and the mission she had been given did not include uncovering all of the mysteries of the Ocean.

This was good information, but nothing immediately actionable.

“You are all remarkably calm about the biological horrors running around.” Tigris said.

“I’ve stared at enough Agarthicite annihilations, seen enough Leviathans and met enough varieties of Katarrans to not be too surprised with what the world contains anymore.” Ulyana said.

“Living underwater makes us all a unique kind of insane.” Euphrates said.

“Right, our brain chemistry is expanding and all that.” Tigris replied.

“Do you have any more questions about Omenseers, Captain?” Euphrates asked.

“One last one for today. Do you know about their ability? Omenseeing?” Ulyana asked.

“Oh boy.” Tigris cried out with exasperation.

Euphrates laughed a little. “I knew it would come to that. Oh boy indeed.”

Ulyana raised an eyebrow. “What’s this response for?”

“It’s a really broad and difficult subject to get into. Would you be satisfied if we said that they have a unique brain chemistry that allows them to affect the material world with their minds?”

“Are we satisfied?” Ulyana asked, looking at Aaliyah at her side.

“I haven’t been satisfied since we interrogated McKennedy.” Aaliyah said.

“McKennedy?” Euphrates said suddenly, her eyes drawing wide.

“Do you know her? She didn’t tell us she was famous.” Ulyana said sarcastically.

“I see. This is serendipitous. A lot of souls have ended up on this ship, haven’t they?”

Euphrates crossed her arms, closed her eyes, and seemed lost in thought about something.

While Aaliyah and Ulyana waited and deliberated among themselves in whispers–

Coming to a decision, the Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation raised her head.

“Captain, I’ll demonstrate.” Euphrates said. “I will need you to trust me. I have good intentions.”

“Hmm?”

Ulyana looked up at Euphrates–

–whose eyes suddenly glowed with a red ring around the irises.

In front of her

a digital pen for writing on portable terminal LCDs

lifted in the air

and turned over itself,

with it the world turned, the ocean turned, a vast, unknown world, turned,

“I am rotating the pen in the air, Captain.” Euphrates said.

“What the fuck?”

Valeriya and Illya suddenly assumed shooting stances and aimed for Euphrates and Tigris.

“Captain, orders?!” Illya shouted.

“Stand down!” Aaliyah shouted back, though her panicked eyes remained fixed on the pen.

Ulyana wasn’t really sure what she was looking at–

It was a pen, spinning in the air. Physically, that was what it was. However, there was a constellation of questions, vast sweeping nebulas and burning suns and rotating planets worth of questions, all surrounding how and why it was spinning in the air. Euphrates had said she was the one spinning the pen in the air, but she was sitting in her chair staring at it with her arms crossed. Tigris wasn’t even paying attention. That pen was in the middle of the table out of arms reach. It was still spinning.

Euphrates wouldn’t have had time to rig the room, she wouldn’t have had co-conspirators.

Magicians set up their tricks, they had rigged gadgets and stages, plants in the audience.

Euphrates said she was spinning the pen in the air. She also said she was a tech monopolist who was involved in a secret society of scientists who were trying to figure out how to return the human race to the surface. She had also claimed to fight Omenseers, the weird Leviathan creature that Arbitrator I claimed to be. All of that– all of that seemed entirely normal compared to–

–compared to the little pen –why of all things was the pen the thing driving her insane–

Euphrates turned those red-ringed eyes on Ulyana with a little smile.

“I was fated to induct you into these mysteries, Captain Korabiskaya. It was fate for us all to meet.”

In the air in the middle of the table, the pen ceased to spin.

Before all the drawn-wide eyes bearing witness, it folded into itself, twice, thrice, compacting.

It looked almost–

–cathartic.

Euphrates smiled, a tired, bitter smile that reflected not the stately professor or the mafia monopolist, but an ancient, weary sage buckling under the burden of eyes and the responsibility she had abdicated. Somehow Ulyana could understand it– as if voicelessly they had made a connection with just their gaze. She thought, against all rationality, that she understood it– felt an inkling of years of deep-buried pain.

She thought she could feel Euphrates’ thoughts spilling from her. They were– connected–

Ulyana, for a brief moment, understood her. At a fundamental and deeply human level.

An inkling of her goals, her desires, and a crushing, ancient agony.

“Nakara, the child of the tragic couple I did nothing to save; and the people begot by Daksha Kansal’s Union, whom I refused to join; I’ve been humbled. I’ve turned my back on too many people.”

Murati stood up at the mention of her name, her fists tight against her sides.

“Euphrates, what are you–”

“This time it won’t be a mistake. I won’t let it.” Euphrates interrupted her.

Tigris kept quiet. She let the gentle and mournful words of her partner cross the room alone.

And with those words, the pen, compacted into a flawless sphere of carbon, rolled onto the table.

Everyone’s eyes followed it, as it paused just short of falling to the ground.

Murati stared, uncomprehending, given pause. That anger in her face melted away.

Euphrates raised her hand to her chest as if in pledge, to a room of uncomprehending faces.

She wept. From the edges of her cybernetic eyes, real tears began to trickle down her cheeks.

Years of emotions repressed to a neutral smile spilled out of her.

Colors erupted from behind her like a smoke projection–

Tigris finally cracked a little smile herself. Turning around, she, too, joined Euphrates’ pledge.

As the colors around them became stronger–

“Murati Nakara,“ Euphrates said. “You can see it, can’t you? I can teach you what it means.“


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.2]

“Large biological entity rising from the Goryk Abyss, 2 kilometer from stern.”

“Profile matches ‘Dagon’, fortress-class of the Omenseer military group ‘Syzygy’.”

“Shields are at 60% power, no coverage over breached area.”

“Port-side stern guns are not responding electronically. Could still be manually operated.”

“Milord, your orders?”

On the bridge of the Antenora the main screen filled with a red and brown fog as the levels of katov mass continued to climb. Deep within that fog an enormous monster had arisen. Taking turns and speaking quickly but not over each other, the drones delivered their reports. There was no anxiousness in their voices or mannerisms, but they knew this was a crisis and it necessitated alertness and alacrity.

Norn and Adelheid turned from Hunter III, who was caught in a strange panic squeezing up against a corner of the bridge, and they looked over the situation developing on the main screen.

“Retain course away from the gorge for now. Where is the Pandora’s Box?” Norn said.

“They are moving in the direction of the gorge.” Said one of the drones.

Norn’s lips curled into a self-satisfied grin. “Oh, nothing to worry about then.”

“Acknowledged.” Said the drones.

“Nothing to worry about?” Adelheid asked. “That monster’s like Hunter III, isn’t it? The drones said it belonged to those Omenseers. It’d be pretty tough to kill if that’s the case, right?”

Norn glanced at the main screen again, shaking her head.

“We don’t know the full extent of what they’re capable of, but I doubt it’s an Omenseer body. An Omenseer would need to consume an enormous amount of mass to assume such a gigantic form using their powers as I understand them. And even if they had all that mass, they would need even more mass to patch it up against damage from a ship’s gun– it wouldn’t be a fight like those soldiers had at Ajillo against Hunter III where they couldn’t harm her. Regardless, it’s the Pandora’s Box’s problem.”

The Antenora was navigating away from the Goryk Abyss and the Pandora’s Box was set on going to Rhinea, which would lead them to follow the Goryk Gorge westward, closer to Dagon. So in terms of who the monster would see and target first, the Pandora’s Box would present the closest target of opportunity. They would be worthy bait to allow the Antenora to flee easily. There was no danger to them.

Adelheid seemed to catch Norn’s drift– and seemed dissatisfied with it.

“I suppose so. I take it you’re not going to try to intervene for Elena then?”

“Why would I? She could’ve been safe with me, and she chose not to. She talked big about finding her own way– let her taste the consequences of her actions then.” Norn shrugged. “I’m quite happy for Arbitrator II’s timely return to the world. It’ll serve to put Elena back in her place.”

“Sounds like you’re holding more of a grudge than I thought.” Adelheid said, grinning.

Norn tossed some of her blond hair in a dismissive gesture. “Be quiet, you.”

Adelheid was briefly erased from her attentions, and Norn knelt in front of Hunter III again, who had her back to the wall, her eyes glowing with red rings. Hunter III was seeing past them with those eyes, past the walls, past the Katov mass, to the Leviathan in the waters behind them. She was performing psionics, which she would have referred to as Omenseeing, to try to ward off the Leviathan’s attack. And perhaps, for other reasons as well. From what Norn managed to dig up from the archives of the Sunlight Foundation, it was their understanding that every Omenseer had a connection to Arbitrator II. At this moment, if the Autarch was on that biological vessel, she was likely able to communicate with Hunter III.

That was how Hunter III was so certain that the Autarch was near.

What was she being told? Was she trying to resist her influence in some way?

It wasn’t the first time they had seen this. Hunter III and Norn went back a few years.

When she had first found the little creature, unconscious in a puddle of her own filth in the depths of an underclass station habitat, the Autarch herself had given her a warning, in Hunter III’s own voice.

“Titan of Ice, you offer sympathy to this little wretch at your own peril. I am watching.”

Presumptuous little bitch. If Euphrates and Tigris had killed her before, Norn could also.

Still, it was advantageous to be able to travel in the photic zone without coming to harm. This is why tales of things like the Omenseers were once legendary among the ocean-going caste. They had attained all kinds of names in the canon of sailing myths, but all of the stories cast the ancient navigators as kingmakers of legendary ships, bestowing power and treasure. That it came with potentially having a spy aboard at all times didn’t outweigh the benefits unless Norn needed to confront the Autarch directly.

But the arrangement always mystified her. The Autarch was up to something.

Norn had hoped to sever this connection, and thus truly command Hunter III.

However, her confrontation with Euphrates made her realize she was still lacking in ability.

She survived and outwitted Euphrates, it was only their familiarity that allowed her to find an advantage.

Challenging an entity that was powerful in the Aether was trickier than she envisioned.

Even with all of her powers and understanding, Arbitrator II felt farther out of reach than ever.

Norn knew about the act, about the exertions, about the effects of psionics– but not enough about the source of the power, and how it interacted with the invisible world. In order to become stronger she needed to understand and explore Aether itself. She needed to know more about the mechanics of Aether as force, and the makeup of Aether as the space for clairvoyance and spiritual journeys.

Her intuition was deep and broad, it made her strong.

But it was incomplete. It was not true knowledge. And so Arbitrator II still eluded her.

Norn set down her hand atop Hunter III’s head and stroked the creature’s hair tenderly.

“I’m sorry. Please endure, and do not fear for us. I promise that I will free you.”

Hunter III shuddered, blinked, and tears escaped from her eyes.


In the middle of the hangar, the crew gave plenty of space for the confrontation to play out.

The recovered Petra and Yurii, the crew extracting Selene, Adelheid, they watched silently.

“Get up.”

“Master, please–”

“Get up from the fucking floor Gertrude.”

She was kneeling, bowing. After everything she did! That shameless bitch–!

“I fucking said get up!”

Compelled by an invisible force, Gertrude Lichtenberg nearly jumped from the floor of the hangar as if picked up, lifted, and thrown onto her feet. She landed standing unsteadily, and almost fell back down, raising her hands in front of herself desperately as if trying to push Norn away. Norn approached step by daunting step, fists balled up at her sides, red eyes locked furiously on to Gertrude, and as she did Gertrude backed away step by step as if dogged by a predatory animal. In the middle of the hangar, with the drones working around them and the officers staring without expression–

“Please, Master Norn– please listen–”

Temporal control.”

Norn was too furious, so she could not stop time entirely.

She understood implicitly how slow or how fast time was moving during Temporal Control because of its effect on her heart. It was moving at about “half speed”, so Gertrude could have potentially still reacted, even if it was ineffectual, but Norn would not let her. Moving quickly, she kicked Gertrude’s legs out from under her. She controlled her strength so as not to break Gertrude’s legs.

She only wanted to trip her.

In order to allow Gertrude to begin falling, Norn breathed in–

“Norn–!”

Gertrude cried out in time for the second Temporal Control to take place.

She was suspended in air, parallel to the floor.

Norn raised her hand. She wanted to punch Gertrude to the floor.

In her mind she was already plotting the next few ways she’d inflict pain on Gertrude.

A punch to the stomach hard enough to smash her right back to the floor.

A psionic push to force Gertrude back to a stand, and as she stood, a punch to the face.

Hardening her sweat– freezing her tears against the spheres of her eyes–

Maybe ask her a few rhetorical questions to feed back into her own anger while she beat her. What did you think you were doing? Why did you countermand my order? Selene could have been killed! You could have been killed! Elena could have been killed! Did you want to subvert my command? Don’t you realize I am the one who controls you? Through your actions were you trying to control me?

Her heart and lungs moved even slower– Temporal Control had strengthened slightly.

Enough for Norn to look at her own fist, closed, ready to attack. As if she too was slowed.

That fist– her hand– it was as many things as she was. Locked in a multiplicity of states.

Apostle of Ice.

Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

Praetorian.

Head of the House of Fueller.

Commander.

Katarran–

Norn von Fueller. Astra Palaiologos. She was all things that in the world were made to kill, destroy, to unmake and reduce. Her fist was an extension of her great power to kill which she had wielded countless times. She had killed such an innumerable amount of people with her bare hands that she felt her closest instinct was not to touch but to bludgeon, to choke, to gouge, to tear apart. In her mind there was a red haze of spilt blood that reeked of iron. In her ears a tinnitus of snapping bone.

Born in a palace she couldn’t remember; growing up in a hole she wanted to forget.

Had that little creature huddling in the dark even been aware of her destructive destiny?

Was that always the person she was meant to become–?

And– could it ever– change–?

Norn peered deep into the wide, fear-stricken, tear-studded eyes of Gertrude Lichtenberg.

In the time bubble, with her heart slowly failing and her head slowly clouding, it was as if she was transported back in time to when she first met Gertrude, prostrated before her. Alone, pleading, begging for her life. Having no resources, no parents, nobody to rely on in her hour of need. For the first time she called Norn “master.” Back then– she wasn’t useful to Norn whatsoever. However–

–she reminded Norn of him, for a second, didn’t she? It tugged on her sympathy.

She realized that she couldn’t have let Doenitz and Brauchitsch have their way with her.

Now–

Gertrude had disobeyed her. She had almost killed Selene, Elena, maybe even herself.

Her body was suspended before her, awaiting punishment.

Alone, pleading, begging for her life. At her own lowest moment, having lost everything.

Norn drew in a deep breath.

Before her, Gertrude fell suddenly on the floor, on her back. She grimaced, clutching her stomach.

She realized that Norn had not struck her. “Master, thank you! Thank you for sparing me!”

“I’m not your Master anymore, Gertrude. I have nothing more to teach you.”

She wouldn’t make the same mistake as with Konstantin again and again and again.

Looking down at Gertrude, at her expression of renewed horror as she realized–

“Please forgive me.” Gertrude begged. “Master, please I still– I still need you–!”

Norn kneeled down and spoke in a low voice, one only Gertrude could hear.

“I forgive you. I have all the forgiveness in the world for someone like you. It’s my greatest flaw as a person, even greater than my rages and all the blood on my hands. My boundless sympathy for powerless people with dark ambitions. My crazed desire to give the world to fools with nothing but lofty words.” She said. “So I forgive you. But I won’t help you chase after Elena. It’s over, Gertrude.”

It hurt. It really did hurt in a way Norn thought she could never be hurt.

What was Gertrude to her? What did it mean for her to call her ‘master’?

As a teacher, she was neglectful. As a guardian, she was clearly a dismal failure.

And yet, it still hurt– not to be able to crown this pitiful girl king of her own wanton desires.

Norn had really cared about her– she had actually come to esteem her. It had been fun.

It had been fun having someone, for a while, that she thought could aspire to her position. Someone who could learn through her skin the violent language of power and humanity and become a villain as Norn had. She realized too late where she had erred — exactly as she had with Konstantin. Every damn time. She realized too late that the passion she so admired had become a blind, consuming wildfire.

Now, all she could do was continue to play the villain like she had been.

Norn von Fueller could never be a hero, after all. Not even to one single person.

So she stood, turning her back to Gertrude, leaving her in the middle of the hangar.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg! You’ve graduated from Norn Tauscherer’s own school for temerity and bastardy!” She put on a grin and shouted to let off some emotion. Hopefully it was funny to someone else. To anyone else. “I have nothing more to teach you. I will return you to the Iron Lady and should our paths cross thereafter, don’t expect I will ally with you easily. Erich has not been keen on his own support for the Inquisition. I recommend you head to Konstantinople. Your only allies lie there.”

Gertrude stood, slowly, with a grim expression on her face.

“Ma’am, I accept your terms. I have no other choice. But I’d have to go through Rhinea to return to the seat of the Inquisition, and the Volkisch bar the way. It’d be suicidal to head back.”

Even now, Norn felt compelled to give her a parting gift of sorts.

Maybe, if it was Gertrude– if it was her who saw it–

She might understand–

So, foolish as it was, vulnerable as it made her, Norn lowered her voice to the girl again–

“Between Sverland and Veka lies the Abyss of Kesar. Descend Kesar’s Gorge and seek the habitat that lies at 3000 depth, and beyond that, if you have the will, continue descending through the Katov mass. If you can’t find something there to help you, then you were not meant to succeed, Grand Inquisitor. You could give yourself up to the Union, perhaps. They’re certainly more principled than the Volkisch.”

Norn knew it was stupid and sentimental to have said such a thing, even to Gertrude.

But this was the sum total of the legacy that she could bequeath to anyone.

Kesar’s Abyss, where she had grown in the deepest darkness.

And beyond that darkness–

Agartha.

Where Gertrude might acquire greater power and understanding– or die.

Did she believe in her–? Norn didn’t want to have hope for it. She had already said enough.

Gertrude in return had nothing to say to that. Norn imagined her expression darkened and embittered, the way she had raged all throughout the time they chased the Pandora’s Box. Norn did not turn around to face Gertrude again. With her back turned, she made herself depart the hangar entirely.

Whatever happened from now would be Gertrude’s own doing under only her own power.

For the rest of her stay on the Iron Lady they would neither see nor speak to one another.

Samoylovych and Petra detained her for her misdeeds, and she remained quietly in the brig.

“You told her about Kesar. I read it in your lips. Don’t even try to hide it.” Adelheid said.

They took the elevator together, hoping to be ready in the medbay for Selene.

“It doesn’t matter.” Norn said, though it clearly did.

“You’ve never even shown that place to me.” Adelheid added.

Norn laid a hand on Adelheid’s head and ruffled her red hair dismissively.

“Norn–!” She began groaning.

“You already believe and trust me, so you don’t need to see it. But I’ll take you someday.”

“Hmph. Fine. Keep your secrets. I’m keeping mine too.” Adelheid teased, grinning.

Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Hey. What is that supposed to mean?”

As it was normal for them to do, they bickered childishly the whole way.


Floating in the water before her, crosshairs deadly sited. Enemy suspended between life and death on the instant mercy of a trigger pull. Weapons locked, vision wavering with rage and anxiety, killing blow one twitch removed. Her face reflected on glass across dozens of screens and meters, eyes on rainbow fire, sweating bullets, breath like steam, grin like a knife-slash across the bottom of her face.

Sonya Shalikova!

Your pretend powers are insult to genetic perfection!

Accept your place as a born-to-be corpse!

Die! Die as many times as it takes!

She pressed the trigger again and again and again–

Purple tongues of a great daemonic power surged across her arm.

Selene saw a white-haired white face almost exactly like her own.

Apparition on every screen, pink lips spreading with sympathy to speak,

“I will save you.”

Her arm shattered, her fire leaped back at her in judgment.

What?! No! I’m your master! Shoot her! Shoot HER!

Bolts of purple lightning tore across her own armor, tunneling hex-shaped scars through her cockpit and slicing across her seat like razor serpents, crawling over her body tearing out hex-shaped cross-sections of her face, blood bursting from her like great smoking geysers, organs melting into gore slush, her trapped body writhing and twisting and thrashing, her face frozen rictus of unimaginable agony–

“No!”

With a jump, Selene found herself suddenly no longer out at sea.

Distant furious thoughts that had spun in her brain like a whirlpool suddenly quelled.

She was in a bed, dressed in a patient gown with nothing under it.

In a sudden surge of anxiety she raised her hands to her head. Her indigo hair was all there. Her antennae were still affixed. Her cheeks, her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, everything she touched was still attached and unbroken. Selene breathed in and out. She scanned the room in a mute panic.

“Welcome back to the world of the living, little ace.”

At her side, Norn and Adelheid took up two chairs adjacent to the bed.

Across from her, the doctor, Livia Van Der Meer watched from her desk.

Selene stared at them, quivering with anxiety, struggling breaths quaking in her chest.

On a wheeled chair, Livia rolled around to the other side of Selene’s bed.

“Take a look, kiddo! It’s pretty fun-looking isn’t it?”

With an amused look on her face, Livia showed Selene a mirror. The girl observed that her right eye had aggressive red veins around the edges, and that the outline of her irises was completely distorted. Half of it had become a rainbow-colored fractal shape three branches deep into the white around it. Her heart jumped at the sight of it. Selene had never seen something like it before in her life.

“What the hell is that?” She asked, turning sharply toward Norn. “Do I have a disease?”

“No. It’s the lingering effects of a psynadium overdose.” Norn said.

“You can overdose on that shit?” Selene asked.

“You can overdose on it! You can even die! Psynadium has been described in the literature of a certain unsavory group as a ‘neural accelerator’ that increases blood flow to the brain and ‘dilates thought pathways’, whatever the hell that means!” Livia said cheerfully. “Thankfully I have been administering psioxone, a ‘neural accelerator antagonist,’ to keep you whole and hale!”

Selene was speechless. Not just at the doctor’s manic behavior, but at her own foolishness.

She had pumped a lot of psynadium during her confrontation with that girl–

Sonya Shalikova.

To think she had to go this far to try to outmatch her and even so–

“I fucked up.” Selene mumbled. “I totally fucked it all up.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t suffer permanent brain damage. Maybe you really are a fucking ubermensch.” Norn said, openly sighed once her last glib statement left her lips. “Because of the psioxone, you’ll be unable to use psionic abilities until you recover. Don’t even try to read auras or look at the aether. It will only frustrate you. You will stay put here and rest until I say otherwise. Understood?”

“Yes.”

What else could Selene say? She felt foolish, like she had lost her credibility.

That manic wind which had swept her since she learned about her origins was no longer rushing her forward. Her first real test of strength, and she had been taken apart by some nobody. She had her at the end but– only with a gun that she couldn’t really fire. A small bitterness arose when she thought of that. When she recalled the events that had transpired at the edge of memory. She needed to know.

“Norn, why didn’t you let me kill her?” Selene mumbled.

“Selene, this isn’t a bloodsport, you know? Think about the bigger picture.” Adelheid said.

Selene shot a glare at the incongruous red-head. “I wasn’t asking you.”

“You weren’t, but she’s right.” Norn added, a quick and sharp retort. “Sure, you could have killed that girl with the cartridge, you can tell yourself you won that bout if it makes you feel better. But our goal was to extract Elena from the Pandora’s Box, and you were no closer to doing so in that situation.”

“Fine, I fucked up. I fucked it all up. Then just– just toss me aside like trash, then.”

Selene’s fingers squeezed the blankets over the lower half of her body.

She gritted her teeth. A spasm of anxiety shook through her chest.

Tears started to build in her eyes. She was useless now. Complete garbage.

Without the Jagdkaiser, or any other Diver to pilot, she wasn’t anything special. Some colossus of genetics she had proven to be. She felt like she was back to square one. She wasn’t some great and invincible psionic super-being, and she hadn’t even proven herself a particular capable pilot either. That Sonya Shalikova had completely outmaneuvered her. Her psionics couldn’t reach that girl. She felt like an idiot, thinking back to every stupid misstep she made during that fight which had grown in her heart to have such a frenzied, insane importance that she had lost sight of everything surrounding it.

Norn reached out a hand and set it right on top of Selene’s head.

Gently ruffling her hair like she was petting a small animal.

“You’re still my ace and the best pilot on this ship.” She said. “I’m telling you already to stop thinking about that one engagement. That goes both ways– don’t focus on it as a source of victory or as the potential for ultimate defeat. At the end of it all, as your commander, I take responsibility for our defeat. I underestimated the enemy, and I entrusted tactical command to the wrong individual. I don’t blame you for the mess that Gertrude Lichtenberg and I created in the first place. Just lay down and relax, ok?”

That hardly assuaged Selene’s fears. It didn’t change what had happened at all.

“I don’t want your pity. How the hell am I supposed to keep going after all this?”

“Live to spite your enemies. Grow stronger to take your revenge. Remember what I said?”

Norn withdrew her hand, and patted Selene on the shoulder.

“I’m not giving you my pity. Once you recover, I’m going to put you through hell.”

Selene raised her head and fixed a quizzical look on Norn’s determined eyes.

“What is that– what do you mean–?”

“I’m going to train you personally. You’re my ace; I’ll make sure you’ll be worthy of that.”

Norn smiled at her. It was one of her usual awful grins but Selene felt it was different too.

“You shouldn’t go too hard on her.” Adelheid said, crossing her arms.

“You get ready too. Your piss-poor psionics are beneath my standards as well.”

“Excuse me?”

Selene felt a strange excitement brimming under her skin at the prospect.

Could she become the true protégé of Norn the Praetorian? Immortal Apostle of Ice?

“Norn, why?” Selene said, interrupting the lover’s quarrel playing out in front of her.

“Why what?” Norn asked.

“I don’t understand. I– I failed you. Why would you bother with me anymore?”

Selene started to actually weep. She couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.

She was a product who had failed to live up to her designed expectations.

Despite all the lofty ambitions which had been ascribed to her birth, she was a failure.

So why–?

“You mean why would I train you? Because you need it, obviously.”

“What? It can’t be that simple.”

“You cry too much. Just calm down already. I’m not such a bad commander, am I?”

Adelheid butted in again with a little shrug. “I can see where she would get the impression.”

“No one asked you. If you’re not going to be productive then be quiet.” Norn said.

“I told you Selene– you would hate it the first time she scolds you.” Adelheid teased.

Those two were putting on an act to try to make her feel better, she realized.

They always did that. They started bickering with each other like a couple of kids–

And it made any situation, no matter how awful, feel run of the mill and every-day.

What a stupid bit of theater, wasn’t it? But it made Selene chuckle just a tiny bit.

“I do think you’re something special, Selene. I didn’t lie about what I wanted with you.”

Norn looked at her again with that determined seriousness she had before.

“It’s not because of your psychotic mother’s obsession with eugenics. Nor is it because of Euphrates taking you under her wing. It’s because you remind me of another girl who felt born from nothing in a deep, dark hole in the ground, growing up secluded from everything. That girl who was whisked away from hiding and fed a grand destiny. I always wished that she could have been freed from that destiny.”

“That’s–” Selene’s face turned a little bitter. “That rhetoric is totally empty to me, Norn.”

“I want you to attain the power to surpass your obligations and protect your own freedom.”

Selene could not say anything to that. They had already had a conversation like this and back then Selene had wanted to say the same thing she wanted to say now: did she want a ‘thank you’ for that? Because Selene would not thank her for this self-serving sophistry. All her life Selene had grown up wanting an answer to a simple set of questions: “Who am I?” “Why was I born?” “What am I meant for?”      

Nobody was giving her a straight answer. All of them could go to hell for that.

She wanted to hear: “You are Selene Anahid. You were born from love and into greatness.”

For the past few days, before she sortied out to be defeated by that Shalikova.

Selene had really come to believe that she was special. That her life had meaning.

That she was born with a great destiny inscribed in her genes.

Because if you weren’t born with a such a destiny, how did you attain it?

Who could give it to you? Who could tell you your life wasn’t just an empty whim?

How did you come to know whether or not your existence had any meaning to it?

People who were born from the womb had destinies imbued into their very flesh.

Families, communities, territories, states and nations, ethnicities, all with their own history.

Selene wasn’t even a Katarran. She was a blank slate. Where did her purpose come from?

“Norn, I– I just want to be able to tell myself I’m more than nothing. Do you get it?”

Norn shut her eyes briefly. She had a little smile again. “I know. But I can’t relate to your anxiety Selene. Because I’ve regretted all the easy answers I was given. Unlike you, I wish that nobody had given me their lofty purposes and made me believe in my own grandiosity. And I don’t wish that regret on you.”

She reached out again and laid her hand on top of one of Selene’s hands.

Still looking her in the eyes. That strange tenderness disarmed Selene momentarily.

“For now, is it enough to be Selene Anahid, ace pilot of the Antenora?” Norn asked.

“I don’t know.” Selene said. Her defiance was weary and waning, however.

Hearing the word ‘ace’ and feeling Norn’s touch really did set her heart alight a little.

“Selene, I need you. Will you stay with us? At least until you have found a better answer.”

That word, ‘need’, really shot through Selene’s chest like a bolt of lightning.

She quivered. Her stomach felt fluttery. What could she say? She tried to be defiant, but–

“Quit patronizing me. It’s not like I can fucking go anywhere else.” She said.

“I can drop you off at the next peaceful dock we find. Free of obligations.” Norn said.

“Fuck no! What would I do with myself? Just shut up and just– keep using me, then.”

Selene laid back in her bed. She felt stupid, like a little kid giddy with her parent’s praise.

A facile, pathetic feeling– to be so validated by such a vacuous thing as being ‘needed’.

“I’ll rest and recover and think about my future after I’m through with your stupid training.”

Selene turned her back on Norn and covered herself up in her blankets with a huff.

Under them, her face felt red and hot, and she wanted to cry. But she felt– less bad.


“How’s life treating you, little Hunter? Oh wait– I can just see it for myself.”

Hunter III of the Third Sphere found herself in a void surrounded by all kinds of colors.

She was seeing through her brainself, dragged to meet the progenitor who lived in all of her kind.

Long red hair, a single horn, a grinning face that was white as bloodless flesh.

Hovering just above the ground. Her arms spread out so the colors could coil about her.

The Autarch of the Omenseers. Arbitrator II of the First Sphere.

“Please don’t make me hurt ‘em. I really don’t wanna. I really don’t wanna, boss.”

Hunter III kowtowed in front of Arbitrator II, weeping openly, her body shaking violently.

Arbitrator II furrowed her brow in consternation. Her lips formed a brutal grin.

“Huh? Really? Weird! But I thought all that you cared about was eating, Hunter III!” Arbitrator II said dismissively. “I was convinced that you were just a stupid little animal who just wanted to stuff your gullet with meat from whatever source you can get it. Last time I ever trusted you with anything you just ran off like an idiot to gorge yourself and ruined my plot! Do you remember? Of course you don’t! Don’t even answer! I know you only remember the taste of meat. That’s all that fills your dim little brain, is meat and eating and looking for your next meal of meat. Even after I uplifted you, rotten little vermin. So would you really be so upset if you ate the Titan of Ice and the miserable hominins in her employ?”

Hunter III looked up from the floor and Arbitrator II’s face was directly in front of hers.

Wide-open furious eyes locking with Hunter III’s own.

“Please don’t– Please. I’ll do anythin’ boss. I’ll really do anything but hurt ‘em, please.”

Hunter III’s weeping eyes just centimeters from the cold, heartless gaze of Arbitrator II.

In the next instant the Autarch returned to her hovering position, laughing to herself.

“You’re lucky that almost to the very last individual, you Hunter caste have all turned out to be totally useless to me. I don’t expect better from any of you, so don’t worry, I have no grand punishment planned. Having you eat the Titan of Ice and her crew would be really funny, even more now that I know you esteem them for some bizarre reason. But it’s better you just stay so I can keep an eye on them.”

Arbitrator II made a subtle beckoning motion with her slender white hand.

In that instant, some of Hunter III’s colors fled from her and formed a bubble.

In the Autarch’s hands, that bubble began to reflect images with Hunter III’s memories.

Eating the delicious steer– killing all the bad men Norn told her to– saving Adelheid–

Norn patting her head– and all the feelings that rushed into her chest when it happened–

“Liberate you? Oh that’s funny. I’d like to see that evolutionary dead-end try it.”

Arbitrator II closed her hand around the bubble of Hunter III’s memories, crushing it.

Colors swirled around her and drifted up into the air like gas.

“You may remain at her side. She’s a Titan, after all. We’re destined to do battle.”

Hunter III looked up from the floor again. Surprised to have received a little mercy.

When she did, Arbitrator II’s face was hovering directly in front of hers again.

“But. Remember this. You and them, are bacteria compared to me. I am infinity itself.”

Arbitrator II gave her that wide-eyed, terrifying stare once more, gauging her reaction.

“Take advantage of their kindness all you want. But if you hold any notion that you can escape from me, you will only suffer for it. I can assume control of your body any time I want. Don’t give me another reason to notice you, little Hunter. Be meek and know your preordained place in my natural order.”

Her slender white finger touched Hunter III’s cheek and laid a scratch mark upon it.

A thin trickle of blood formed on it. Hunter III felt it sting, felt the skin part.

She felt the influence of Arbitrator II’s power over flesh creeping into her body.

“Yes, Autarch! I’ll obey! Please don’t do anythin’ rash!” Hunter III begged.

“Good.”

Arbitrator II returned back to her floating position, this time on her back, facing skyward.

She held the overlong ends of her robes over her face as if shielding her eyes from light.

“Little animals who know their place get to stay in their place, unharmed and undisturbed.” She said. “I must say, I’m really disappointed though. When I uplifted you, I really thought you would appreciate the gift I had given you. Restoring your lost humanity, awakening your potential, giving you mastery over the world. We are divine beings, exalted of the flesh, the apex of biological life. And yet you would give away your holy dignity to comport yourself like a beast anyway. Beasts care only about eating and fucking. Humans should support my Godly ambitions. It makes me angry. It makes me furious that I couldn’t restore the fullness of the humanity you lost– and you don’t even care about it.”

Hunter III felt herself be pulled up as if by invisible hands.

Raised up by her wrists, dangling like a doll in front of the lounging Arbitrator II.

“It makes me seethe to think that bastards from 1000 years ago are still getting their way.”

She made a dismissive gesture, and Hunter III’s aetheric self was instantly torn apart.

Her arms limbs ripped in opposite directions, her torso pinched in half at the belly.

Head burst like a blood-filled boil squeezed by an invisible hand.

That colorful void in which she had been suspended disappeared instantly.

Her eyes had been wide open the whole time, her jaw hanging. When her brainself returned to her biological form, Hunter III blinked, and awakened as if from a daydream. For a brief instant she felt intense pain throughout her whole body, shaking itself out through her limbs, down her narrow chest. She gritted her teeth and wept. But the agony was gone as quickly as it came.

She was on the bridge, her body against a corner on the floor.

Looking up, Norn and Adelheid had gone, but–

“Finally awake, cutey?”

Hunter III looked up and saw the tall, long-haired dog-woman in the gray uniform.

Yurii Annecy Samoylovych-Darkestdays.

She waved at her. Hunter III responded with a far less enthusiastic wave of the hand.

“Where’s Norn? And Adelheid?” She asked.

“They’re tending to Selene in the medbay.” Samoylovych said. “They wanted me to keep an eye on you now that we’ve tidied up everything else around here. And of course, I couldn’t turn down taking care of a cute little snack like you.” Samoylovych winked at her with a big grin on her face. Hunter III pointed a finger at herself in confusion, as if to ask silently if she was really referring to her.

“Me, a snack? What’re you talkin’ about?”

“A delicious morsel. If you were willing, I’d absolutely devour you.”

“Y’wanna eat me? Like really eat me? No joke?” Hunter III asked in disbelief.

Samoylovych laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m a gentleman. I’ll make sure you enjoy it.”

“You gotta be jokin’. I dunno how anyone could enjoy being ate.”

“Ah ha ha! How charming! Well, maybe someday I’ll teach you personally what I mean.”

It wasn’t very alarming, if Samoylovych took a bite out of her she could grow the bits back.

More than anything it was just confusing. But at least it confirmed she had truly awoken.

Hunter III let out a deep-held sigh and collapsed against the wall, relaxing her tense body. Though the bridge’s main screen still showed a lot of red water, she couldn’t feel the Autarch anymore. That was an incredible relief. As if a dozen spotlights had ceased to burn on her specifically. She couldn’t remember exactly what the Autarch told her– but she felt it. As if it had been burned under her skin.

“Hey, can you tell Norn everythin’s okay? I wanna take a nap.” Hunter III said.

“I’ll mention it in my report. But she wants you to check in with the doctor.”

“Okay. I’ll visit Livia after I’ve had some z’s. Night night Sammy. Don’t eat me, okay?”

While an incredulous Samoylovych watched her, Hunter III shut her eyes, relaxed her breathing, her mind slowly emptying of difficult thoughts. Refilling with innocent dreams of juicy, red meat.


That night, Norn and Adelheid assembled together in one of the planning rooms, setting down a pair of bedrolls on one of the fold-out benches along the wall. The officer’s habitats were sealed off due to the breach the Pandora’s Box had carved in their social pod, so they were planning to bunk in this room for the time being. It had a central table, a few ancillary benches, and a terminal screen.

However, they also had an important conference to attend. The Antenora had left the waters of Goryk Gorge, escaping the cloud of Katov mass. They reconnected to the laser relay network once more, and established an encrypted connection to the palace at Heitzing, seat of the Fueller Dynasty and capital of the former Imbrian Empire. On the screen, a young blond man in a lavish suit appeared before them, in the background a great blue and green standard hung from a colorful wall.

A rose on his lapel suggested that he was perhaps readying to attend a party.

“What’s with the getup?” Norn asked.

“Salutations to you too, esteemed Aunt.” Erich said dryly.

He then nodded his head in acknowledgment. “And her adjutant, of course.”

Adelheid bowed her head. “May you live long and prosper, milord.”

She was on her best behavior in front of the Prince. She had already been scolded once.

“Erich, we recovered the defector. Did you know it was Samoylovych’s girl?”

Norn and the Samoylovych family had some history. Pleasant, for the most part.

“I had an idea that was the case.” Erich said. “Did you get a chance to peruse the goods?”

“Yurii is a very attractive girl, athletic, handsome, voluptuous. In full bloom, you could say.” Erich had no reaction to the joke. Adelheid clutched her skirt in clear irritation. Norn continued without acknowledging either. “We’ve discovered that the Vekans are planning a major security alliance with the Union, and furthermore, that they are under pressure from the Hanwans. I suspect the Hanwans will take the opportunity with all that’s going on to make a swing for total control of the South Nobilis gap to secure their mining colony. The question is how hard will Carmilla swing the hammer down?”

Erich shut his eyes as if contemplating what he was told.

“The Union? That’s interesting. I thought they would bide their time until the very end.”

“No reaction to a possible Hanwan incursion from the esteemed tactician?”

Erich shook his head. “Hanwa is an Empire in rhetoric only. Veka will defeat them.”

“If you say so. Then how will you respond to the Vekan overtures to the Union?”

“I’ve got a few levers I can turn when it comes to this Union-Veka alliance. We’ll see.”

“The Union could be an interesting player in all this. None of us have influence in there.”

“What we can’t get done with influence, we can get done with force. I am untroubled.”

Norn smiled to herself. That was the end of the official business she had with him. Aside from the question of what their next move would be, she turned over in her mind whether or not to tell him about Elena. Would he even have a response to it? She was certain he had engineered things such that she would come to harm from the Volkisch. Even if he had not pulled a trigger on her himself, he had implicitly told several willing gunmen where to point their cannons. Did it even weigh on him?

“I have someone that I want you to talk to.” Erich said, interrupting her train of thought.

“Oh?”

“To clarify: she wanted to talk to you.”

Without asking for permission, Erich split his own screen. Himself in one half–

–on the other half, appeared a woman with long, olive dark hair tied up in a ponytail, a pair of modern, chic black glasses perched on her sleek nose. Her skin was very lightly tan, her features typical of an Imbrian save slightly narrower eyes. Wearing a white lab coat over a dark green turtleneck that looked soft enough to have been real cotton. Seemingly youthful, but Norn knew that was all a façade.

Even this particular iteration of the Sunlight Foundation’s “Sovereign,” Yangtze, was at least thirty-nine years old if not “older,” depending on when her body was decantered and reprogrammed.

Certainly, from what Norn knew about her, her mental age may well have been as old as the world they inhabited, counting from when humans first fully settled the ocean “After Descent.” As a group with ambitions to return humanity to the surface one day, the Sunlight Foundation’s most prized talent was the ability to live long enough to see that happen. This unsavory group was therefore led by a collective of people who had cheated death, the Immortals. Yangtze, Potomac, Hudson, Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, and Ganges. Norn herself, as one of the psionic Apostles, had ‘honorary membership’ even to this day.

Once upon a time, even Mehmed– no, even to this day, Mehmed was an Immortal to them.

No matter what she wanted. They would always count her in their number, and him too.

“Cocytus, or should I say, Norn von Fueller.” Yangtze said by way of greetings.

“Don’t call me by your stupid codenames.” Norn said. “What do you want?”

“Such hostility!” Yangtze feigned injury, putting on a childishly petulant face. “Potomac contacted me and told me you treated her roughly. It’s understandable. She was never very friendly with you, and I should have realized there would be tensions. I just wanted to apologize for any offense she caused.”

“No you don’t.” Erich said. “Quit screwing around. What do you really want with Norn?”

“Everyone’s after me today!” Yangtze moped, shutting her eyes, and frowning in a very exaggerated fashion. “Norn, did you end up going to Goryk’s Gorge? Euphrates disappeared there and I wanted to know what happened to her. You must be on your way out of there now, aren’t you?”

“Don’t bullshit me. You know what I would do if I got my hands on Euphrates again.” Norn said.

“Oh dear. Maybe there are a lot of things I’m not realizing.” Yangtze feigned innocence.

“You pathological liar. I’d twist your head off if you were here.” Norn hissed.

“Did you kill her then? If anyone could, it would have to be you.” Yangtze said.

“This is interesting.” Erich interrupted. “Norn, did you kill one of the Immortals?”

“Euphrates can’t be killed. But this bitch already knows that.” Norn replied.

“I resent these accusations!” Yangtze said. “Euphrates has been awful distant from me lately, but I was sending Potomac and Norn to seek her purely out of concern for her wellbeing. I thought you would just rescue or resupply her. I had no idea that it would end in violence! None! I am innocent.”

Norn tried to push down the raging flame lit in her chest by the very sight of the Sunlight Foundation’s Sovereign. Out of anyone in that organization, nobody was responsible for more suffering than this bitch. She was a fixture atop Norn’s to-kill list. “Yangtze, I refuse to participate in your internecine drama. If you want to kill Euphrates, next time, do it yourself. I informed her that you sent me, by the way. She’ll be coming after you now. I can’t wait to see your little club torn asunder by your collective vanity.”

“Euphrates won’t attack me.” Yangtze said, waving her hand dismissively. “She isn’t like you, Norn.”

“You’re right, she’s been a complete pansy. But I’ve seen a lot of people change lately.”

“Yangtze,”

Erich spoke up. His eyes narrowed, his first display of emotion on that call.

“If you attempt to interfere with my personnel again you can consider our partnership over. I can launch simultaneous attacks on every Sunlight Foundation facility in the Palatine, where all of your most precious laboratories are situated. Don’t test my patience. Norn and I are not here to do your dirty work. You are here, and you continue to breathe, to do my dirty work. Do you understand?”

“How can I respond to that when no one believes a word I say? Hmph!”

Yangtze’s half of the screen shut off. Erich heaved a sigh, returning to fullscreen.

“Whatever. Waste of my time. Norn, as you must have realized, I have somewhere to be. Please make your way back to Heitzing. Extract any combat data from the version one Jagdkaiser for analysis and dispose of the chassis. Use the version two model from now on. If you need to make repairs, we have influence in Aachen station on the Rhinean northern border. The Volkisch authorities there are tenuous.”

“Thank you, dearest nephew. Perhaps we will make a stop.” Norn said.

He bowed his head slightly. “Take care. And keep your eyes out for that sun cult.”

At that, the screen went dark. Norn and Adelheid breathed out, releasing some tension.

They were alone in the room again, and it was about time to go to sleep–

“Norn, what the hell was that about Samoylovych?” Adelheid grumbled.

Norn grunted. “Huh? Jealous? Maybe you should tell me about those secrets of yours.”

Adelheid lobbed one of the bedrolls at her in response, a blow which Norn took gracefully.


The Antenora’s brig was entirely standard for an Imperial combatant ship. There was very little thought put into the taking of prisoners, particularly by a flagship. There was a simple brig outfitted with one barred cell that could cram a few dozen people like sardines in a can, and four solitary confinement cells equipped for a variety of punishments. They could be made lightless, soundproof, cold or hot, humid or dry, the fold-out bed could lock against the wall to be unavailable, and so on.

“Put me in a solitary cell. I don’t want anyone to look at me.”

Gertrude Lichtenberg made this request immediately as Petra Chorniy Sunnysea brought her into the brig. Petra stared at her, tipping her head to one side in mild bewilderment. She had walked ahead partway to the barred cell. For a moment she looked between Gertrude and the solitary cell. She walked over to it, opened the door, and peered inside. It was not very spacious. With the bed folded out, there was very little space to stand or walk in. Petra turned back to Gertrude with a small frown.

“Are you sure? Um, this kind is usually for driving people insane.” Petra said innocently.

Without a word, Gertrude entered the cell and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Configure it however you want. I just want to sleep and be alone.” She said, once seated.

On the adjacent wall, a touchpad panel configured the cell’s potential torments.

“If you say so. I’ll make it a little dim so you can doze off then. Nighty night!”

Petra shut the door behind Gertrude, locking all of the lights and sounds of the brig and the Antenora’s halls instantly. Even the air she breathed inside the cell was controlled differently. A cluster of LED lights provided the cell’s illumination, and these dimmed to a very dark blue. She was completely isolated from the rest of the Antenora. Gertrude pulled her legs up onto the bed and laid back upon it.

The mattress and pillow were stiff, and there was only one thin blanket.

She threw her hat on the floor and undid her ponytail, letting her hair down.

Unbuttoned her greatcoat and threw it over herself as an additional blanket.

She stared at the wall.

Without any sound in the cell, and without any sounds from outside, her brain furnished something for her ears to hear in their place. At first it was only ringing, the dull ringing or whistling of metal clashing with metal as if the battlefield had followed her even into this isolation cell. Then came the voices. Of course there were voices– Norn’s shouting, Sieglinde’s final threats, her own cries.

Bury your love for me in this gorge–

Elena’s voice hurt the most. Even more than Sieglinde, who had tried to kill her.

Gertrude turned in bed, staring directly up at the ceiling.

Minutes became hours. Hours became days. Days must have become weeks.

She tossed, turned, wept, scratched herself. Rages overcame her. She pounded on the walls.

Her moods became as unpredictable as the corrupted weather of the surface.

Alone with her thoughts she would find herself swept up in mania, thinking of herself as some ridiculous and farcical character, laughing, unable to see a future before her. Then just as quickly, just as unbidden she would be stricken with a sudden feeling of immense loss. Clutching her hair, shaking all over. Mumbling to herself. Elena. Elena. She would never see her again. She would never touch her.

Gertrude was hollowed out and quickly refilling with gut-wrenching catastrophe.

After Vogelheim Gertrude had turned the uncertainty of Elena’s disappearance into a mix of hope and despair. Knowing nothing, she could be buoyed upon fantasies of coming to her rescue, because there was no evidence she was dead and no evidence she was alive. That Elena was “out there, somewhere” and their relationship had been untouched by the destruction wrought by the Volkisch. Gertrude filled that gap. Sometimes in feverish mourning, sometimes in a grand empowering insanity.

Elena, perpetually in distress, pushed Gertrude to keep moving forward.

Those dreadful events which had transpired in Goryk’s Gorge were completely different than the tragedy at Vogelheim. Elena had “died” to her in a different way. She knew, definitively and without a doubt, that Elena was alive– and that Elena had rejected her. There was no room for doubt. No gaps to fill herself.

She knew, definitively and without a doubt, that everything was her own fault. She had attacked Elena. Boldly and without excuse. This was nothing she could fantasize about. This was a hell of her own making. There was no amount of delusion that could protect Gertrude or give her hope. She had in front of Elena and in front of many others, unleashed arms upon her, endangered her. In her desperation she called upon a weapon she hardly understood, violating the trust of her benefactors, and making herself a villain. She was lucky Elena hadn’t been killed by her hand that day, but that was no silver lining. What overcame her at that moment? What kind of madness was she capable of on a mere whim anymore?

Gertrude stirred up a storm of self-hatred that she wished would slash her skin off.

Sieglinde was right. The Red Baron had been right to try to kill her. To treat her as the villain.

In her world, Gertrude had styled herself a hero, but more and more, she knew otherwise.

As an Inquisitor she had beaten innocents, incarcerated protestors, jailed political dissidents and enforced laws she knew, without a doubt, to be evil and written for cruel purposes. For her own advancement and selfish wishes, she had reached into the guts of the Empire and pulled out handfuls of gore that caked her hands, and she had more than a taste of it. With a grimace she tore into that meat like it was medicine. Fueling her bloody climb to the highest echelons of power off the despair of weaker men.

Even as a Grand Inquisitor she would not have been a class equal to Elena.

She would have been adjacent to her, however.

Access to power meant continuing access to the woman she desperately loved.

And in loving her, protecting her, exalting her, the bloody beast consecrated herself.

It made all of the loss and the pain mean something. Made it worth anything at all.

The Empire was not worth anything to her. Elena, however, meant the world.

For Elena, she would have killed, annihilated, repressed, crushed all of Aer, with a smile.

And in the absence of Elena. She would have done those things also–

–wouldn’t she?

She would have even,

unleashed

that same

violence

upon Elena herself.

If I couldn’t have her, no one would.

That was the dark proof that unmade her delusion.

Because Gertrude Lichtenberg was a being of irrepressible violence. She was a truncheon slamming down on a skull over and over. She was a shield crashing into the ribs of a body and the steel-studded boots crunching it underfoot. She was a rubber bullet smashing the side of a skull and squeezing out the eye like spurting jelly from its socket. Gertrude was not a knight in shining armor.

Knights in shining armor ended their stories with a princess in hand, and a kingdom saved.

Gertrude was the dragon in the tower.

She was the claw and flame, the brick and steel.

Greedily coveting the Princess.

Complicit in her captivity.

Killing to get close to her, to keep her close, to prevent her being taken.

Smiling at every step of the way. I’ve saved her. I’ve made her happy.

Of course she is there only for me. Of course I know what she needs.

Elena was hers to consume. And she had consumed her. All of her that she could have.

Until

she was

gone.

Thoughts descending on her brain like knives carving, neuron as traced lines of agony.

Memories shook her like the volts of the electric chair.

Was it all so pointless, so doomed?

She held herself, held her head, squeezing herself in that bed, tension in every muscle.

“I love her. I love her. I love her so much. What was I supposed to do?!”

She screamed. “What was I supposed to do?”

She was powerless! The world was so vast and cruel! But she loved her! She loved her!

All she wanted was for her own filthy unworthy visage to fill those perfect indigo eyes!

All she wanted was a taste of the paradise promised in that pearl skin!

Could everyone but Gertrude Lichtenberg possess selfish desires?

Was it only her who was cursed to suffer the final judgment for her own?

“Ever since we met as kids! I loved her! Was that so wrong? Was it so evil?”

Elena loved her back! Elena had never said she hated her, never turned away!

She had every right to reject Gertrude’s advances and overtures before, but she never did!

Elena always had the power. She always held the advantage. And even still–

They even consummated their love! They were both in love! Elena loved her back!

If they had been any two other women, there would have been no obstacle!

Not even laws, not even political and military movements! They could have simply been!

But no–

They were Princess Elena von Fueller and Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg.

There was always that wall–

–and in trying to shatter it had Gertrude made some unforgivable sin?

“It’s this world.”

Clutching her own face, Gertrude opened her eyes peering through the gaps in her fingers.

Shaking in the dark, her tearstained, red-flecked eyes drawing wide, her mouth grinning.

“It’s this putrid Imbrium ocean and the bloodsucking amoral mob that owns it!”

I’ll kill everyone, she thought! I’ll send this whole edifice tumbling down into hell!

Erich, the Volkisch, Millenia, Carmilla von Veka, the Royal Alliance–

She would tear their heads from their necks and pull their spines from the orifice and crack their marrow with her own teeth like a fucking dog! She would send their stations tumbling into the ocean floor, send their people screaming in their stupid masses in a great all-encompassing cloud of gore that would spread across the hundred million meters of Imbrian Ocean between continents! Cast their laws into oblivion and consign their history to global amnesia by a sheer, unrelenting brutality!

You want a villain? You want an unworthy swarthy-skinned beast? Gertrude laughed.

Laughter shook through her like shell-quakes in the water.

Uproarious laughter, kicking her legs, squeezing her fingers on her face.

She laughed and laughed and laughed until she sobbed, wept, screamed, and bit her tongue.

Everything drained out of her. She laid limp in her bed rejecting any stimuli.

Mind in a fog, heart stilling, making no sounds but a few involuntary coughs and whimpers.

Cycles of mania and crashing depression wracked her. She turned the same thoughts over and over in her head until they meant nothing. Her head was a revolving door of the same agonies.

Every dreadful thing that she had done was irreversibly inscribed in history.

Sieglinde had been right. Gertrude had been made and unmade. There was no changing it.

Elena was gone. Her hands were stained. Nothing could be the same anymore.

“Excuse me.”

Light intruded suddenly upon the dark world Gertrude had entombed herself in.

She looked to the light as an intruder, an offender. She felt a surge of anger.

“What is it?” She snapped.

She was sweating, her eyes were red, her clothes all half-undone.

At the door was Petra Chorniy Sunnysea once again.

“I was going to bring you food, but actually, we made contact with the Iron Lady.”

“We made contact? How long has it been?”

“You’ve been in there for 14 hours or so. You must have been really tired.”

Gertrude felt her chest tighten with anxiety. Petra made no sense to her.

“Have I been sleeping?”

Petra nodded, her floppy dog ears shaking as she did.

“Every time I checked the camera, anyway. Sometimes you looked a bit rough.”

“A bit rough? I feel like I’ve been kicking and screaming for weeks.” Gertrude said.

“Aww! Oh, that’s so sad miss! You ought not to have stayed here!” Petra’s ears drooped. “You know, I don’t feel any grudge against you, so if you want, I can bring you a hot chocolate and some sweet bread while you wait for your friends to pick you up. We should meet them in a few hours. Norn says you can wait in the hangar if you want too! But if you do that, Master Yurii has to keep an eye on you instead.”

Gertrude could hardly muster a response to that.

She felt like her thoughts were being vacuumed out of her skull.

Raising her shaking hands over her face in disbelief.

That light which Petra had brought into her cell had obliterated her. Hollowed her out.

“I’ll stay here. I– I need to sleep a bit more.”

“Okay! If you say so! Nighty night!”

Petra cheerfully shut the door again, slowly shutting the light back out of the world.

Gertrude sat in the bed. Alone without thoughts. Minutes felt like hours.

And those hours felt like days.

There was nothing she could do alone with her own mind to solve anything.

No matter how much she hurt herself, it would neither expiate nor reverse her mistakes.

She did not want to think about what to do. Not right now.

All she wanted, all she begged for, was for something to make her feel human again.


The Iron Lady and the Antenora reconvened in the northern Serrano region.

Using a natural rock formation to hide the bulk of the vessels as they tried to dock together.

There was a sense of urgency to their meeting that neither side had counted on.

“Milord, the situation in Sverland has changed dramatically,”

On the bridge of the newly-repaired Iron Lady, now spotless compared to the damaged Antenora, Norn appeared on the main screen. Captain Dreschner and his adjutant and communications officer Schicksal exchanged information they had collected on the way to Goryk Gorge with her. Norn briefly perused the data and had a visibly surprised expression on the screen. She gestured something for one of the crew off-screen, before returning her attention to Dreschner with a darkened expression.

“Did you verify this? How are both the Volkisch and the Union here?” Norn asked.

Dreschner had handed her several files which were making their way through the Laser Relay Network from Serrano station. Civilian-captured images of black Volkisch vessels hovering outside the Serrano dock in the midst of being torn apart by shells. Packs of dark blue liveried Soyuz-class Frigates pursuing disparate Volkisch vessels like sharks descending on bloodied prey. Shuttles in Serrano’s docks unloading green-uniformed Marines with AK rifles led by black and red uniformed Commissars.

“While we repaired the Iron Lady we had routine drone patrols out to several kilometers as an early warning system. These drones picked up distant, but ferocious sounds of battle, and hours later, we began to see leisurely and confident Union patrols, and were forced to retreat our drones to avoid discovery. We accelerated our repairs and escaped as stealthily as we could.” Dreschner said.

“What’s your assessment of the current situation?” Norn asked.

“I believe the Union has the upper hand on the Volkisch forces for now. Judging by the ferocity of the acoustics alone, there was a titanic battle near Serrano. Then came the patrols, which were calm and orderly. In my experience, if the Union is now controlling the battlespace, the Volkisch may lack the forces to counterattack. We don’t have a lot of time to spare, lord Praetorian. We should move quickly.”

“Interesting. We will maneuver to dock. We have some supplies we want to drop off and Gertrude Lichtenberg will return to your care, Captain Dreschner. Then we go our separate ways.”

Dreschner bowed his head in supplication, and the two ships set about their work.

There was a hectic atmosphere within the Iron Lady from hours of high alerts brought about by the apparent Union incursion. It was an easy leap to make that if they had already been bested by some Union-equipped mercenaries, and then a Union invasion transpired some time thereafter, then there was a complex Union operation underway that was beyond their ability to contend with.

Within this stewing anxiety, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong had been unable to get a certain Inquisitor out of her head. Even as she worked hard and did her best to keep the crew focused in her own way, she was preoccupied with the fate of Gertrude Lichtenberg. She was so worried. She did not trust Norn, she did not trust Sieglinde, and she was silently furious about Gertrude chasing after Elena.

More than anything, Gertrude’s vulnerability and mortality turned over in her head.

“Gertrude should have taken me.” She mumbled to herself. “She’s got no one out there.”

Ingrid had felt bitter and hurt.

She had always stood up for Gertrude since they met. Fought for her, killed for her.

Always she had thought of herself as Gertrude’s strongest soldier, her ace, her protector.

But she wasn’t strong enough. Sieglinde was stronger. Norn was stronger.

So they could do for Gertrude what she couldn’t.

For days, she struggled to distract herself with the work throughout the ship, with morale and supervision, trying to fill in the hole that Gertrude had left. A mixture of worry and bitterness fermented in her chest. She couldn’t even drink– she was working around the clock. In time she was even grabbing tools and pushing crates with the sailors when she wasn’t yelling and leading work songs.

Then she finally saw in the bridge’s bearing monitors the approaching Antenora.

Her mind instantly emptied of its previous contents.

And immediately, she ran out to the hangar and rushed to the docking chute.

That one name rang in her mind and in her heart endlessly. Gertrude Lichtenberg.

She was back. She had returned to her. Nothing else mattered to her then.

Ingrid waited, tail wagging behind her, arms crossed, tapping her feet nervously.

Would she be hurt? What kind of violence had she gone through? How would she feel?

The name “Elena” did not occur once in her mind. All she cared about was Gertrude.

When the bulkhead door opened, it was like it had shone the sun upon her face.

There, the very first and only person that she saw was her.

Her Gertrude had finally returned. Clad in her grandiose uniform, seemingly unharmed.

Head bowed, clearly sulking, but alive. Whole. Gertrude Lichtenberg in the swarthy flesh.

Ingrid walked tentatively forward, her lips curled into a smile, her eyes bright and wide.

Gertrude cut the distance between them in a few long strides of her own.

“Gertrude–!”

In response, the Inquisitor grabbed hold of Ingrid, taking her into a tight embrace.

Those strong arms immediately took the breath out of the Loup. One hand around Ingrid’s waist and behind her back, another on the back of Ingrid’s head, stroking her hair and scratching the back of her ears. Ingrid thought she wanted to say something funny– but she felt an unfamiliar intensity in Gertrude’s grip that prevented her from even speaking. Now she really was thinking about Elena– there was no one else coming from the Antenora. Gertrude was there, alone, with only Ingrid in her arms.

For a moment they simply held each other silently. Then Gertrude finally, briefly, spoke.

“Ingrid. I have to talk to Dreschner. Once we set sail again, please come to my quarters.”

She rested her head on Ingrid’s shoulder, they were cheek to cheek.

Ingrid could not see Gertrude’s eyes, could not see her face in that sudden embrace.

Gertrude held her for several minutes more, gripping Ingrid’s clothes as if trying to prevent her from being ripped from her grasp. Subsumed into the Inquisitor’s warmth, Ingrid could not offer any glib retort, could not even interrogate what was happening. She embraced Gertrude back, leaned into the taller woman’s chest, savored the warmth between them. She shut her eyes. It was so calming.

She wanted to weep. Her Gertrude was back– the woman whose hands deserved her leash.

“Of course, ‘Trude.” Ingrid finally said. “I’m so happy to see you. I’ll do anything.”

“Thank you. I’ll see you then.”

When Gertrude released her, without another word, she quickly left the docking hallway.

She had left as fast as she had come. They both had responsibilities to carry out.

Gertrude returned to the bridge and set a course — to Kesar’s Gorge near the Vekan border.

Dreschner informed her that the Union was launching an invasion into Sverland.

“That changes nothing. Our next destination is Kesar’s Gorge. We have received a mission to investigate that area and recover important data from it. I’ll explain in greater detail tomorrow, Captain. For now, we need to escape from here, and I need to get some rest. I’m sure the crew also needs some rest.”

She had spoken with enough conviction and passion that there was no further dissent.

On that bridge, everyone felt that their commander was finally returned to them in full.

Everyone seemed glad to have a destination. It gave the crew something to focus on.

Slowly, the atmosphere of anxiety began to change. There was a plan– they had a mission.

Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg was back, and the Iron Lady was back in business.

Meanwhile, Ingrid supervised the unloading of a shuttle of goods from the Antenora.

When the rear ramp of the shuttle touched down on the hangar, it unveiled the “supplies.”

To her untrained eye it looked like two damaged Diver chassis. It was quite mysterious.

“Gertrude, what happened out there?” She asked herself. She hoped to soon find out.

Because, in addition to the Divers, which were quickly unloaded, there was also a visitor.

Norn von Fueller. The Praetorian herself– her presence gave the mechanics a bit of pause, but she waved them up and urged them to work fast in unloading. As the mechanics and engineers rushed past her, Norn walked down the ramp at a leisurely pace, grinning with the same distant malice that she always wore. Ingrid, at the bottom of the ramp, watched her approach, eyes fixed on one another.

“Milord,” Ingrid bowed her head, quickly, with the least respect she could offer.

“Sotnyk.” Norn said. “I thought I would see you. That’s what I had been hoping, anyway.”

“How can someone so lowly as me assist you, milord.” Ingrid replied without emotion.

“You desire the power to save Gertrude, don’t you? To surpass the great aces of the sea?”

Ingrid’s face briefly flashed surprise, and a bit of anger, that she had to master that instant.

Norn seemed satisfied with the reaction. “Gertrude failed in her mission, and Sieglinde von Castille is not coming back to this vessel. You must have noticed neither the Baron nor the Princess are here. You don’t need to care about transpired, but what it means is she will be relying on you more than ever.”

Before Ingrid could respond, Norn clapped a hand on her shoulder.

Her lips turned into a dark smile, eyes shaded by her hair, a macabre expression.

For that moment it was almost as if time had stopped, and Ingrid was alone with her.

“That machine was once called the Jagdkaiser, terror of the seas. If you and your crew can repair it, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong, the machine should be yours and yours only. Among these gnats, only you have the will to wield it. It will grant you incredible power. But power is nothing without an ambition to channel it. I only ask that you have it and that you use it to realize your desires. Protect Gertrude for me.”

Ingrid knew, almost implicitly, she was referring to the larger, darker-colored chassis.

With a pair of severed arms soaked in seawater. Heavy damage all over the hull.

She knew, in that moment, that she could not respond. That she was not meant to.

And as soon as Norn had spoken, in a fleeting, blink-of-an-eye instant, she was gone.

Turned back around, headed up the ramp, striding confidently away.

Leaving Ingrid wondering if a conversation had even happened.

Moments later and with little additional interaction, the Antenora and Iron Lady completed their exchange, and bid farewell. Once the ship was underway, as she had promised, Ingrid left the hangar, which had become abuzz with engineers and mechanics going over the new goods. She made her way to the end of the Iron Lady’s second tier, to the door opposite her own, where her master and friend waited.

She tried to put out of her mind what Norn had told her.

“Some gift, a bunch of junked Divers. But my Jagd is fucked up anyway.”

They could kitbash the parts from her Jagd into that Kaiser-thing. Whatever.

More importantly.

Gertrude Lichtenberg, waiting in her room. They had not seen each other in so long.

Ingrid knocked on the door, and without awaiting a response, let herself in.

“’Trude, I take it you need a shoulder to sulk on?”

Ingrid had finally made her little joke, but she was just a little taken aback as she entered the room and shut the door behind herself. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Gertrude had removed her coat and hat, draping them over a chair. Her white button-down shirt was near entirely unbuttoned, revealing a simple black brassiere which she wore beneath. She was swirling a glass of wine in her hand.

When Ingrid came in, Gertrude smiled warmly. She did not appear to have drunk much.

“I’m happy to see you.” She said. “I was waiting– I broke out the good stuff.”

She raised the glass and pointed out the bottle and an additional glass on the nightstand.

“Oh! Hell yeah!” Ingrid said. “That’s what the fuck I’m talking about, ‘Trude.”

Laughing, she made her way to the nightstand, and poured herself a glass.

Without waiting a second more, Ingrid downed the entire thing in one gulp.

A glossy mouthfeel, a complex hint of sweetness, and rich, boozy warmth. Crazy good wine.

“Shit, you weren’t kidding.” Ingrid said. “This is the good stuff.”

“It’s the finest vintage on the ship. A gift from Vogelheim, once upon a time.”

Gertrude took a sip, set her own glass on the nightstand, and stood up from the bed.

She took a step directly into Ingrid’s space.

Spread her arms and took her close; so suddenly Ingrid nearly dropped her empty glass.

“Hey! Aren’t you handsy. You sure you haven’t put down a few glasses already?”

Ingrid was more than happy to embrace her back. To feel even the briefest closeness.

She was shorter than Gertrude, so when they were close, when Ingrid was being held–

The handsome Grand Inquisitor looked down at her, just a little. Smiling softly at her.

“Ingrid. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I made so many mistakes.” Her hand stroked Ingrid’s hair.

Her touch without gloves was lightly callused yet so soft, so firm. Ingrid could’ve melted in it.

Gertrude bowed just a little deeper, touched her forehead to Ingrid’s own.

“Ingrid. Ingrid.” Her voice was so soft. Her lips so near. “Ingrid. Let me comfort you.”

Ingrid said nothing. She felt the warmth in her own cheeks, her vision hazy, tail wagging.

When Gertrude finally kissed her, she practically dissolved into her arms. She was floating.

“Ingrid. Ingrid. I love the sound of your name. I love you. I love you so much.”

Kisses, tugging on clothes, a hungry grasp upon her breasts, sucking bites on her neck–

Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid–

Her name like song, heard from lover’s lips. Gertrude finally took possession of her.

Ingrid closed her eyes and lost herself to the release of years of brimming lusts.

Collar and leash seized, pulled, with enough force to make her gasp.


Previous ~ Next

Overheard In The Waves #1

On a particular evening that could have been like any other, the perennial pair of late shifters Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa found themselves once more drawn by duty to the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand. Both of them were ordered to stand ready for another night that would be assuredly full of petty bickering and sniping. Though they tried their best not to do so, procrastinating some amount of time in their rooms to give the other a head start, the two quickly ran into one another in the hall and found themselves at the exact same pace to their destination.

Fernanda gave her blond-and-purple hair a haughty toss and turned her cheek.

“One would think you were shadowing my steps, gamer, with how regrettably often I meet thee!”

Alex rolled her eyes, but made no effort to keep her lanky frame at length from the smaller officer.

“Well, since you’re here, listen: you can’t just drop a thee at random when you already used you.”

Fernanda bared gritted fangs and closed her fists. “Oh, just be quiet, Geninov!”

Alex raised her hand to her own cheek and put on a silly expression.

Had her silky brown hair not been tied up in its usual bun, she would have tried to do a mocking toss of it.

Silence, ye pitiable gaming worm— or something like that, would be more appropriate.”

“You–!”

Met with narrowed, unfriendly eyes, Alex felt rather satisfied with herself until, distracted as she was, she stumbled right over a folding chair which had been left in the middle of the hall. Even in the evening, with the hall to the bridge becoming quite uninhabited, one would not have expected a folding chair to be in the way, and so Alex hit her leg with it, lost her balance over it, tipped right across the seat and slid off, coming to rest on her back with the wind knocked out of her. Staring up at the ceiling, with the world spinning around her, she almost thought, maybe Fernanda did have dark powers locked in her eyes, or the ability to perform vile hexes, or all the other strange things she talked about.

“Be careful with the chairs please.”

At that point, Alex thought she heard the droning voice of Braya Zachikova.

But it couldn’t have been. Why would she be out in the middle of the hall for no reason?

In a strange display of camaraderie, Fernanda stood over Alex and actually helped her to get back up.

It was at that point that Alex noticed that along with the folding chair, there was a table in the hall.

A black folding table, behind which was a second folding chair.

And sitting on this particular folding chair was, indeed, Braya Zachikova.

That spiral-shaped ponytail was unmistakable, as well as those two thick antennae she had for ears.

“Please return the guest chair to its neutral position.” She said, giving Alex an unkind look.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Alex started shouting.

Fernanda let go of her in response to her thrashing, and Alex nearly fell over again after being released.

“Zachikova, the fate of certain gamers aside, this behavior stands much unreasonable from you.”

The haughty gunnery officer put her hands to her hips and gave Zachikova a stern look that did nothing to faze her.

“‘What I am doing’ is I’m setting up a fortune-telling station.” Zachikova said.

Her unaffected tone of voice made it sound like the most natural thing to be doing at this hour.

“You’re setting up a fucking, what?” Alex asked. “And fucking, why?”

“An absolute refuse heap of vocabulary, Geninov.” Fernanda shook her head.

Zachikova gave the two a smug little grin. “There is a simple reason. I am bored. Entertain me.”

“I’m gonna flip this table right into your face!” Alex shouted.

“Will you flip it over with your entire body, like the chair?” Zachikova teased.

Fernanda grabbed hold of Alex before she could do something she may have regretted.

While the two of them vainly struggled in this way, Zachikova withdrew a minicomputer.

She set it down on the table, turned it toward the pair and pressed the power button.

Focusing on the screen for a moment, Alex and Fernanda stopped horsing around.

Green text on a black background scrolled by, to be replaced by a logo formed by text characters.

It resembled a crystal ball, lightly shaded, with the words “AugRy v.1.4” below it.

“While the graphics may look unimpressive, this is a fortune telling program honed by advanced machine learning of the sort used for our algorithmic predictors. All it needs from you is for you to touch the screen and speak any word. Using the underlying mathematics behind acoustics, it will divine your future, just as it can divine geometry and the classifications and bearings of enemy ships. And just for tonight, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is yours.”

Zachikova waved her hand over the device like a magician proudly revealing a trick item.

“What kind of sense does that make?” Alex said. “Just touch it, and say anything? Acoustics?”

Zachikova nodded her head silently and without expression. At Alex’s side, her blond companion scoffed.

“Fortune telling finds its provenance in the grandeur of the romantic epics.” Fernanda said. Her thin lips took on a serious expression. “It is unconscionable that a mere machine could divine the twisting fates of mortal souls!”

“What she said.” Alex replied, pointed with her thumb at Fernanda.

“Everything about ‘fate’ can be determined by mathematics.” Zachikova said. For a moment a tiny hint of passion crept into her voice. “From the moment you were born everything about you is a formula that a computer could have already figured out with the right data. Except when this idiot touched a Dendy and allowed it to ruin her entire life.”

“Well I bet your stupid computer wouldn’t have known I actually started on an Imperial Poly-Play–”

“I don’t care about your tedious opinions whatsoever. Just do the thing or go away.” Zachikova said bluntly.

Zachikova stamped her index finger on the table repeatedly like a demanding kiosk owner.

Fernanda and Alex glanced briefly at each other, sighed, and shrugged their shoulders.

“You know what, fine, I’m curious now what the hell this thing will even say.”

Alex put her finger down on the touchscreen and spoke into the hidden microphone at the bottom of the compact, square minicomputer. “Leviathan Fury.” She said. It was the first thing that came to mind — a title she loved to play and for which she held official high score records. Soon as the words left her mouth, the screen on the minicomputer turned into a scrolling wall of green text. Alex watched as the computer slowly generated a coherent message.

You will find lasting love in an unlikely place. Look near before you look far, and keep an open mind.

“That’s it? You just have an RNG in there don’t you? Sophisticated machine learning my ass.”

Alex crossed her arms and casually looked over to Fernanda, who was giving the screen a deathly glare.

“I– I believe I shall concede my own turn! For what adventure is one’s fate, if not unknown?”

There was a tiny tremor in her voice and a blush on her cheeks that Alex simply couldn’t place.

Regardless, all of the mystery had gone out of Zachikova’s little theater, and they were late for work.

“Well, the witch and I are needed on the bridge for late shift, so, uh, bye I guess–“

“I would rather you stay for a moment, actually.”

A gentle voice came from down the hall that send a chill down Alex’s spine.

Fernanda and Alex turned their heads and found a very large figure casually approaching the trio.

Waving one hand, long overcoat draped over her powerful shoulders, a smile on her soft and girlish face; it was none other than Security Chief Evgenya Akulantova, the enormous grey phantom stalking the halls of the Brigand ready to chomp on unsuspecting night shifters found goofing off. Despite her size and power, she could be whisper quiet when she wanted to, and never missed her mark. Alex and Fernanda had a powerful reaction even to the cheerful and maidenly demeanor of the Security Chief, who came to a stop between the two and looked down at the table.

“This is such a novel way of causing trouble that I’m more excited than pissed off.” Akulantova said.

She crossed her burly arms over her broad chest and stared directly at Zachikova.

Zachikova’s dull, unemotional expression did not change with Akulantova’s appearance.

“So, since you’re seated at the table that’s presently being a safety hazard right smack in the hall like this, Zachikova, can you explain to me what you’re even up to? Are you all gambling? I frankly can’t read this situation at all.”

“I’m administering a sophisticated fortune-telling program created by advanced machine learning.” Zachikova said.

Akulantova smiled and let out a toothy, jovial laugh.

“Fortune telling? Why are you doing this out in the hall at the start of the late shift?”

“I am bored and wanted attention.” Zachikova said simply.

“Kinda childish, don’t you think? You have important work to do, you know?” Akulantova said.

“I have already completed all my important work. My superior IQ and untroubled neurology renders me much more efficient at my tasks than the rest of you. This is both good and bad. It allows our ship to operate in the information space at much higher capacities than crews of which I am not a part of. It also means I am frequently very bored.”

After explaining herself, Zachikova’s lips curled into a tiny self-satisfied grin.

Akulantova smiled vacantly at Zachikova for a moment.

She set her jaw, and clicked her tongue.

“You two can go.” She said, briefly clasping her hands on Alex and Fernanda’s shoulders.

For her part, Alex felt like she was close to passing out from the brief but intense pressure.

“Zachikova, since you’re so bored, I’m going to give your mighty self something to focus on.”

Akulantova gently took Zachikova’s computer with one hand, and seized the folding table with the other hand,.

With a metallic creak, the table began to warp and buckle in Akulantova’s clearly wrathful grip.

“To make amends for your flagrant safety violations, you’re going to keep an eye on the bearing monitor in the hall here for two hours, and while you do that, just so you don’t fall asleep on me, and to get your blood pumping, you’ll do squats. Hundreds of squats. If you don’t know the form, I can show you like I’m showing this table I got in my hands how to squat.” Akulantova’s grip tightened on the table to the point her fingers went through the plastic surface.

Zachikova, still seated in her chair, did not hesitate to stand up and walk across the hall to the bearing monitor.

Standing in front of it, she lowered herself into a perfect squat and made sure she was being watched complying.

Watching her squat away, Akulantova sighed deeply and shook her head, murmuring “Officers,” to herself.

She then looked down at the minicomputer in her hand with a weary curiosity.

“Hey Chief, if you want your fortune told, just touch the thing and say a word.” Alex said.

She was trying to be amicable, but Akulantova merely glared at her sidelong.

Alex and Fernanda took the hint, saluted, and quickly went about their way.

Once they were out of earshot and Zachikova was well engaged in her punishment, Akulantova laid her thumb on the touchscreen and raised the underside of the minicomputer near her lips. She whispered a name, “Syrah,” into the machine and watched the text churn for a few moments. Looking about in a conspiratorial fashion, hoping no one else would appear in the halls, she then looked back down at the screen in time to catch her fortune spelling itself out.

Do not expect a second chance. Forgive yourself even if she doesn’t forgive you, and seek a new flame.

Akulantova stared at it for a while and sighed to herself, running her free hand over her face.

“Ugh, god damn it. Doesn’t take sophisticated machine learning to know that.” She mumbled bitterly.