The Day [4.9]

Entry Teams Anton and Berta forced their way to the main surface of Vogelheim through the cargo lift from the farm and orchard, which had a direct connection to the hydroponics gardens in Engineering. Ten Volker-class Divers took the lifts up in groups of two until they were all assembled on the hilly terrain. They did not marvel at the scenery for very long.

With a ponderous gait, the nearly 7 meter tall machines began to stomp their way toward the villa and town. While remaining a cohesive unit through wireless communications, which worked through Vogelheim’s air far better than in the water, they separated about 100 to 200 meters from one another and began to traverse the fake countryside, moving into the forests, across the fields. On their arms, they hefted sturmgewehr assault rifles. These 37 mm guns fired explosive shells with enough firepower to demolish a two-story home in a single three-round burst.

Moving through air was far different than water. They could make significant speeds in the water, but on land they moved at a few kilometers per hour. Though their turbines could suck in air for a little boost, it could, at most, stabilize their weight and balance during a 10-20 km/h sprint rather than the 80 or 90 or even 100 km/h that they could develop at full power when submerged.

Between their speed, and the size of the machines, Victoria could easily see them coming. However, she knew that her chances were not optimistic.

She was heavily outnumbered. She could count on no support. She was not significantly better armed, but the Jagd was faster and lighter, even on land. All of these facts quickly assembled in her head and gave her a practical course of action.

Her objective was not to save the station. She hoped Marina and Elena were clear away from the battlefield by now. There was no way she would get all of them. But she would make a ruckus.

She had enough drugs in her system to dampen the pain and heighten the adrenaline.

Hiding in the forest, under her active camouflage tarp, she found herself in the middle of the Volkisch’ formation, when taking into the account the full width of the attack. Three Volkers were combing the forest near her, four were farther afield toward the false coast, and the rest were traversing the hills and fields downstream from the forest. In her mind, there were six Volkers that posed the most immediate threat to the Villa, and she would have to let the other four lie.

“Get closer.” She whispered to herself.

Her Dive computer, enjoying the luxury of scanning through air instead of water, gave her nearly flawless prediction of their movements and positions. On one screen she had the leaked maps of Vogelheim, which she marked with the real-time enemy locations. Second generation Divers could have electronic warfare packages, alerting them to her presence due to her scanning in the environment. Volkers’ computers were not so sophisticated. They relied on a ship to do any electronic warfare and scanning for them. And there was no ship looking at her position.

In addition, the Volkisch, novices at fighting on land, were enamored with their radios. There was such a novelty to being able to speak wirelessly, with such great clarity. Nobody would shut up, and nobody was taught proper discipline. They did not understand the range at which anyone could pick their unencrypted voices up.

“This is Anton-2, moving into the forest.”

“Beautiful place. Weird damage in the sky. Should we be worried about that?”

“Our orders are to capture the Villa. No one’s going to play engineer until we do that.”

“Identify yourselves when you speak? Commander, where are you at?”

“Fine. This is Anton-Actual, I’m in the middle of the forest.”

“Okay, so I’m still by your side. Fighting on land is so weird! Keep me safe, Commander.”

“Oh shut up, quit being a wuss.”

“I’m the only girl here! Isn’t it your social role as big tough men to protect me?”

“If you’re out on the front lines, you’re just a man to me.”

“Hey Commander, do you believe the the same thing about ol’ Fuhrer Sawyer?”

“No woman here is more a man than that Sawyer. No man here, either.”

Victoria cracked a vicious little grin in the shadow of her cockpit, listening to everything.

She touched one specific unit marker on the screen. The one closest to her.

“I’ve got you, ‘Commander’.” She said to herself, feeling a sudden rush of satisfaction.

When she began her attack, she began from a position of near-perfect stealth.

Twenty-five meters away, a Volker stomped through the gaps in the woods, knocking down any younger, thinner trees and ripping up any bushes in its way. Assault rifle at its chest, pointing at nothing. It moved directly into her field of vision. Victoria pulled back her sticks and striggers.

Throwing off the camouflage tarp, the Jagd stood and fired off her jet anchors.

From her shoulders, two unfolding hooks on steel cable flew toward the Volker.

Before it could react, she hooked it between the arms, but the location scarcely mattered.

“Contact!” screamed the Commander, “I’ve been hit by something–!”

Motors inside the Jagd’s shoulder pulled on the enemy Volker. Rather than budge the enemy, what they did was help Victoria dash toward it.

She sprang forward out of her cover and drove her jet lance into the back of the Volker.

Her charge was so vicious she briefly lifted the enemy Volker onto her arm.

A miniaturized cannon coil along with a solid fuel booster propelled the jet lance. Once engaged, the lance sprang instantly from inside the housing like a bullet. Extending a meter and a half from the wrist, the lance stabbed clean through enemy armor.

Hot metal was punched into the cockpit with such force the front hatch blew open.

Her lance perforated the backpack and cockpit so quickly it blew smoke out the other end.

Victoria didn’t even hear a death rattle through the radio.

Reversing the coil mechanism, the spike was retracted back into its neutral firing position. Upon returning, the lance point was caked in gore.

The Volker dropped onto the ground, unmoving, bearing wounds the size of a human torso. All of this happened in scarcely seconds.

“Commander! Commander!”

“Contact! Contact in the forest!”

The Volkisch descended into hysterical shouting over the radio.

Without their commander they were in disarray.

From the woods, two more Volkers lumbered into view, hefting their assault rifles.

Sucking in air through her turbines, Victoria took the Jagd into a sudden sprint.

Heavy footfalls scored the soft earth. She would have fallen, were it not for the air blasting out of the back of the machine. It had a small effect on the top speed achievable by the mecha on land but pulling in air through it and blowing it out the back kept the machine’s weight stabilized, preventing it from tipping over in any direction as it ran out into the open.

As soon as she dashed out, the enemy had seen her. She adjusted her center of balance and hit a quick turn, trying to sweep around their flank.

“Open fire! Open fire!”

Sturmgewehr barrels flashed relentlessly. Bursts of 37mm rounds flew past Victoria, tearing up trees and turf, setting bushes alight.

Her attackers did not count on the far lesser resistance of air against their bullets.

They overcompensated, used to shooting in water, and shot everything but her. She quickly whipped back around and dashed toward the Volkers.

Between the chassis and arms, wedged into the shoulders, her two machine guns swung on their limited horizontal and vertical traverse. All of the Jagd’s weapons were intended for close quarters to essentially hit whatever the Jagd was facing. Inflexible, but always ready to kill. So as she charged into melee, her own cannons burned, firing off a dozen explosive rounds.

Unlike the Volkisch, Victoria had trained herself to fight both on land and in the water. Aiming almost instinctually, her own burst of gunfire peppered the Volker dead-on.

One 20 mm round was in itself far less powerful than most Naval ordnance.

Gas guns used this round to try to destroy enemy torpedoes and other soft targets.

Victoria put dozens of them into the Volker in the span of a few seconds.

Successions of tiny blasts pitted the cockpit armor then blew the hatch clean open; scored the shoulder and arm plates with round after round until finally one punched through the weakened armor and blew the arm right off; perforated the lean armor on the head and blew up the enemy’s all-around sensors, leaving them blind if they were still alive inside.

Her enemy crumpled, slumping forward with no signs of life from the pilot.

In the next moment, her sprint took her right past the corpse and upon the remaining enemy.

“Oh god! Oh god no!”

She heard the woman on the radio pleading and screaming.

Dead ahead, the remaining Volker tossed its assault rifle and quickly drew a melee weapon. A vibro-machete carried on the backpack as a last resort. Her Volkisch opponent brought up the machete in both hands and swung.

That machete had a depleted agarthicite flat and a motor that vibrated it to aid the monomolecular edge. Even this modest weapon was a feat of engineering and posed a threat if used properly. But it did not matter.

Victoria confidently threw forward her lance.

Before the weapons clashed, she engaged the jet-lance.

Her point launched forward, snapping the machete like a twig. Such was the force of the thrust that the Volker’s arm completely shattered.

The Diver fell helplessly backward, and Victoria pounced. Rearing up her own vibro-blade arm, she thrust between the Volker’s shoulder plate.

She pierced the cockpit and twisted her sword toward the pilot.

This time she did hear cries of anguish over the radio. A vibrating blade dealt greater structural damage when it clashed with a machine.

That was its only effect on metal.

For a flesh and blood human to be anywhere near an engaged vibroblade was a source of unbearable agony. Besides the heat, the thrumming would go right into the gut. It was horrifying. And soon, Victoria heard no further screaming from that cockpit. Whether the pilot had died of a heart attack, shock or choking, Victoria did not know and had no desire to confirm.

She pulled her sword out of the Diver and retracted her lance to its neutral position. Three enemies down, and several more to go. She had to make up–

“Entry teams! What is all this gibbering? Report on your situation!”

A new voice over the radio.

Sawyer.

Victoria was briefly shocked.

As much as she had characterized the events as a battle between her and Sawyer, she had thought it would transpire through proxies, rather than having to face Sawyer herself appear–

“Advanced scanning coming from the woods! What the hell is going on?”

In that moment, Victoria detected Sawyer as well. She was in a second-generation model Diver and just clearing the orchard hills. Her Diver counter-scanned Victoria, who was still actively monitoring everything.

That red blip that represented her was charging into the forest, and fast.

“Sawyer? Ma’am, an attack! An enemy in the forest got the Commander!”

A hapless soldier started relaying the situation.

“Sawyer let’s get this fucker! Let’s surround the woods!”

“Fucking, no! We need to seal the station breaches, or everything’s fucked!”

“Ma’am, we’re not equipped for repair duty–”

“Then I’ll fucking do it! Advance on the Villa!”

Victoria turned around to face where Sawyer was coming from.

As soon as the blip got close enough, she sent out a laser request.

“Wait– One unit? And you wanna talk? You’ve got some fucking guts–”

Sawyer mindlessly accepted the laser request while berating her. In the next moment, their mecha both emerged onto a clearing in the forest.

They were instantly connected by the lasers on their sensor arrays. On video in each other’s screen, they were finally able to meet, “face to face.”

Sawyer was still the same as always.

An unembellished girl with striking cheekbones, an aquiline nose, pearl skin. Her voluminous brown hair gave her the appearance of a rustic sort of royalty, as wild and earthy as the barbarians from Veka that her Volkisch so decried. Her icy blue eyes were drawn wide, and that wonderful jaw was quivering with confusion and an obvious fury. She looked good in uniform. Victoria wished she would have never had to acknowledge that.

“You,” Sawyer paused, mouthing expletives, “You are fucking kidding me.”

Victoria felt a strong sense of anxiety and anticipation.

It might have been the drugs.

“It’s been a long time. I didn’t come here to see you, but I guess it is fate.”

“I don’t believe this shit. Victoria?” She laughed. “Victoria van Veka?”

“I’m surprised Volkisch intelligence keeps track of the romantic dalliances of us savages. But yes, I am indeed Victoria van Veka these days.”

“It’s that exact, bitchy tone of yours on that exact bitchy face. Oh my god.”

Sawyer raised her hands to her face, letting out brief bursts of laughter.

“I can’t believe it. You utter bitch. You absolute, complete fucking bitch. I should’ve put my entire fist up your fucking–”

Keep talking, you stupid brute.

Victoria quickly reoriented her priorities. She could not hope to stop the enemy anymore. Sawyer was piloting a new Diver, a Panzer unit. She did not know how Sawyer rated as a pilot, but that unit by itself spelled danger.

Heavily armored, and heavily armed. Sawyer had a tube launcher of some kind on her backpack, she likely had a sword, and she also very visibly had an assault rifle. Her second generation backpack and turbines could develop much better speed than a Volker. And that armor could probably withstand a lot more punishment than a Volker. Victoria was given pause.

Victoria’s mind was rushing, kept clear only by the chemicals. Her breathing quickened. In the water, she would have had a small advantage still, but on land? It was a desperate situation.

“I never liked bullying you, Victoria, you were too pathetic. I’ve no idea what Veka’s witch has done to you, but I’m willing to forgive you if you will turn yourself in and be useful to me–”

While Sawyer taunted her, Victoria made tiny, subtle adjustments to her machine guns.

Consumed as she was with attacking Victoria verbally, Sawyer did not notice the gentle movement of Victoria’s shoulders, as her hands, just off of Sawyer’s view, turned her control sticks with tense precision. One wrong move and Sawyer would have noticed her sleight of hand.

“It’s your turn to get bullied, Sawyer.”

Victoria was finally ready. She opened fire.

20 mm barrels flashed relentlessly, spitting bullets at Sawyer’s Panzer.

“We’ll see about that, bitch!”

Sawyer shouted, and the Panzer surged forward through the gunfire.

Across its surface, dozens of tiny blasts left dents and dings on the cockpit armor, but there was too much metal and it was too dense to be blown off. Maybe in water she could have inflicted more damage, due to the pressures involved, but in the air, the Panzer was practically unharmed. Victoria hardly paid this any mind. Her intention had not been real damage.

Instead, as Sawyer charged, Victoria engaged her thrusters, both solid fuel and her air jets. Using all of her thrust, Victoria threw the Jagd sideways.

She launched past Sawyer’s flank.

Before the Panzer recovered, Victoria turned and threw her momentum into a sword swing. Her vibroblade smashed into the side of the Panzer.

Metal debris went flying off of Sawyer’s Panzer.

Victoria had expected to cut through to the cockpit. Her blade made a ghastly wedge-shaped wound in the side of the machine’s chest.

There was still no breach.

“You can’t do shit to me, Vicky! You never could and you still can’t!”

Sawyer half-turned her bulky mecha to train her rifle on Victoria.

Victoria pulled back with all rearward thrust, withdrawing her arm.

She switched weapon control to her jet anchors and fired both.

When Sawyer opened fire the spreading hooks on one of the anchors took three blasts. It exploded in mid-air, scattering shrapnel and billowing smoke from the explosive rounds. Victoria cut loose and ejected both of the cables. Her second anchor then smashed into Sawyer’s shoulder.

Trailing behind it, the cable whipped across the Panzer’s head.

Between the jet anchor slamming it and the cable snaking over the cameras, Sawyer was momentarily distracted by the seemingly random carnage.

“What the fuck are you doing? Are you that desperate you fucking gnat?”

This was sufficient distraction for the Jagd to retreat out into the woods.

Sawyer launched manic bursts of gunfire into the forest.

Trees blasted apart, bushes went up in smoke, turf churned up everywhere. 37 mm explosive rounds were no joke, especially not in a half-dozen bursts of three. Victoria swerved from cover to cover, trying to put some distance between herself and the gunfire trailing her. She knew, at any moment–

Click.

Sawyer’s rifle ejected a spent magazine.

“God damn it! Come back here!”

The Panzer went charging into the woods after Victoria. She saw it on the rear camera, sprinting heavily while fumbling for a new magazine from those kept on stored on the waist. Victoria would not turn around and fight.

She moved the theater toward the center of the forest.

“Please be deep enough.” She mumbled to herself.

There was a large pond that she saw on the leaked maps, and it was dead ahead. It was a gamble, but if the pond were connected the way she thought, it would work. Victoria took a leap of faith.

She didn’t know whether it was her heightened senses or the drugs anymore. But she had to take a chance.

The Jagd dropped into the water and immediately took off, swimming freely within a space larger than it seemed. That pond was connected to water circulation and acted as a reservoir.

All the fresh water that was used to keep the forest ecosystem alive and irrigate the farms was filtered and collected here, and from here channeled to other places. As such, while on the surface it was a pond about the size of the farmhouse, below the water, the walls curved like a bowl and it was dozens of meters deep and wide. Had Elena ever tried to swim in it?

She would have seen the artificiality of Vogelheim firsthand.

But she was too delicate for that. She never jumped in the water to see the metal below.

Victoria adjusted immediately to underwater movement.

From an ungraceful sprint on land, it was now soaring with the grace of Veka herself. Her laser connection to Sawyer was immediately interrupted. On her monitors, the cameras adjusted to the water with filtered video.

Suddenly the Panzer dropped right in behind her and began accelerating.

In one hand Sawyer had her reloaded assault rifle; in the other, her sword.

As it gave chase in the water, the Panzer opened fire. Three rounds, then six, then nine, sailed from the gun barrel with dim flashes. Supercavitation bubbles and lines traced the water between Victoria and Sawyer.

Turning instantly, the Jagd swept away from the bullets.

They crashed into the metal walls, harmlessly exploding into vapor bubbles.

Victoria looped upside-down, soaring over Sawyer’s head.

She circled behind the Panzer and engaged the jet on her vibroblade arm.

Twirling like a dancer, using the momentum and the blade jet to overcome the resistance of the water, Victoria slashed the Panzer’s shoulder and kept moving, smashing and splitting in half the shoulder guard. When Sawyer turned and swung her sword, Victoria was no longer there to hit.

Using the Jagd’s superior mobility she swam circles around the Panzer.

“AGH!”

Sawyer shouted with frustration that came across the scratchy video.

Victoria was no longer paying it attention. She swerved around the Panzer, avoiding bullet and blade, always a half-step ahead of Sawyer’s attacks.

When she found an opportunity, she closed in, turned and sliced.

A perfect gash across the right side of the chest to match the left.

A wide dent into the armored legs that exposed a battered joint.

Leaping skyward, over and around the Panzer, under it, across its flanks.

“No! No!”

Sawyer began to swing furiously and helplessly.

Victoria saw an opening.

She went around the back and sliced vertically across Sawyer’s backpack.

That tube launcher she was caring was split in half.

Her sword caught in the armor.

Using that grip for leverage, she pulled the Panzer toward her. Embracing her from behind, Victoria brought her jet-lance up against the Panzer.

A shockwave blew through the water as the lance engaged.

Victoria drove the spike up through the Panzer’s flank and out the shoulder.

It was a testament to the Panzer’s armor that its entire flank didn’t explode.

“You’re breached! Eject before you drown!” Victoria shouted.

Had they been fighting in the ocean Sawyer would have died in moments. She was fortunate the water in this reservoir was maintained at the pressure it was. Her cockpit must have been slowly filling up instead.

“Sawyer! Stop this! Eject! I’m taking you into custody!”

“You stupid bitch. You– You fucked everything. Now it’s all ruined!”

Suddenly, the Panzer engaged its jets, blowing torrents of water at the Jagd.

Separating from the Jagd, the Panzer swung around just as suddenly.

Victoria could not back off in time, she was caught well off guard.

Sawyer’s vibroblade sliced into across the surface of the Jagd’s right arm. Pieces of the jet lance’s housing floated away, and solid fuel leaked out of the booster. Following up her attack, Sawyer fired off a burst of gunfire.

While the Jagd easily avoided the shots, Victoria was shaken. Her concentration and speed lagged as she felt suddenly pressured. How had the cockpit not been breached? How was this monster that survivable?

She was running out of options with which to fight back effectively.

Despite the pitted armor, various slashes, and the hole in its shoulder and back, the Panzer was still running, and Sawyer was livelier than ever.

She was shouting, furious, near incoherent.

“Victoria! That launcher was full of sealant! I was going to save this station! At every turn you have done nothing but make things worse! I’m going to make sure you never see light again, you bitch! I’m going to rip your arms off, put your eyes out, burn the skin off your tongue! I’m going to give your ears the last scritch they’ll ever get when I flay them both off your head!”

Before Victoria could respond to that tantrum, the water began to stir.

Her computers started sounding alarm.

Shockwaves were being felt across the station.

Both the Panzer and Jagd were put off balance as everything started shaking. Water was starting to rush into the reservoir.

Flooding.

Victoria realized the station must have been flooding profusely now.


A long, near-lightless corridor of steel and concrete connected the Villa to the mechanized underworld of Vogelheim, all Maintenance paths and tunnels connecting workspaces and devices together that kept this underwater haven alive when it should not be.

To Marina, this path was a maw to hell. Her every step was pained and hollow. Elena felt light as a feather in her arms compared to the burden that bowed her shoulders and scored a deep, black mark in her brain.

There were periodic quakes that shook the steps down so harshly Marina bumped into the wall and had to watch that she did not drop Elena or strike the Princess’ head on the surrounding metal. While unnerving for their power and proximity, what worried Marina the most was how soundless the place was. She was afraid that at any moment she would find the path below blocked by water and find herself condemned to die uselessly after having accomplished nothing.

Marina was in a daze.

She could not accurately tell the time anymore. Everything that had been palpable to her senses felt years removed. It was as if, between Bethany’s kiss and the last ten steps she took in the evacuation tunnel, hundreds of years had passed. She had wasted away, spending an eternity regretting events that transpired in seconds. How long had she been walking?

And yet, that journey came to an abrupt end.

Before she could ponder it further, the mechanical action of taking one step and then the next, holding the Princess up over her own shoulder, staring dead ahead into dark nothingness; all of it had carried her to a room that was dim but starkly better lit than the evacuation tunnel. At her side, there was a craft, aligned with a deployment chute. Yellow light from inside the craft shone too brilliantly in Marina’s face and made her squint her eyes, like a door to heaven not meant for a demon like her. Around the door, almost cherubic, were the group of Vogelheim’s maids.

Not just them, but inside the craft, Marina could see farm-hands, an engineer or two, a bartender, a kiosk vendor. People from all of Vogelheim’s little attractions. Many of them had managed to flee here, and the maids appeared to be organizing an evacuation. Marina almost wanted to tell them to please get on with it. Tarrying any further was borderline suicidal.

She was not going with them. She looked at them with a brief, vacant stare.

Then, she continued her journey, step by step.

“Hey, wait! Where are you going? Who is that–?”

Suddenly, a maid appeared in front of her.

“Oh my god! That’s the Princess! She’s got the Princess!”

That maid who stood barring her path, sounded the alarm for the others.

Several came out from the craft. Most of the girls were too meek, and remained at the door, but two of the bigger girls did run down to meet their friend, blocking Marina’s way. Behind them all, was the path from the evacuation chute into one of the Maintenance tunnels. That was the way to Marina’s Diver, the SEAL model she had snuck into Vogelheim with.

She had to get past them.

“What are you doing with her? Where’s Lady Skoll?”

None of the maids knew her. Marina had been sneaking around everywhere. Her face was void of emotion. Her eyes, distant, inexpressive.

“I have to take her. We’re evacuating.” Marina said, weakly.

It was barely audible.

“What did you do to Lady Skoll? Why do you have the princess?”

The maid approached. Marina was starting to panic.

“I– I– really I– I have to–”

“I’m not letting you pass! The Princess is going with us! You can’t take her!”

This was torture.

This was the judgment of the hell she had made for herself.

Voices reverberating in her head, demanding to know why she killed Bethany. Not just because the maids may have suspected such a thing. But because in Marina’s mind her actions were starting to morph into that.

She had killed Bethany and stolen the Princess. That these maids believed some version of that story too — it was pure agony think about.

“I– I’m so sorry I–”

“What the hell? Lady Skoll should’ve been back– Give her back right now–”

That one brave maid, who had jumped in first, stepped too close, too fast.

Marina focused too much, too anxiously, on the sight of her hand closing in.

She had wanted to touch the Princess, perhaps, or maybe shove Marina gently. For Marina, that was a killing blow and invitation to receive one.

In a snap response, the G.I.A agent slapped the maid’s arm away.

Off-balance, the young girl could do nothing to avoid the kick that struck her. Marina connected right between her belly and breasts like a club.

Screaming, brought down to her knees, the Maid slobbered on the floor, gasping for air.

That moment sent all manner of emotions to Marina’s brain. She was reeling from it.

A strange feeling of catharsis accompanied the attack. That kept her in the rush of events.

At the door of the craft, the bystander maids covered their mouths in horror. Doubtless, Bethany shielded them from any sort of this violence before. Seeing their comrade go down, the other two bigger girls rushed without thinking.

With her free arm, Marina drew a combat knife from her hip, flashing it at the girls.

Both of the maids stopped dead in their tracks, instantly powerless at the sight. Teeth grit, eyes tearing up, the most they could do was stand in defense of their friend. They were maybe half Marina’s age. None of them had probably ever even thrown a punch.

“Take your friend and go. Now.” Marina said. She could still barely speak above a whisper.

She turned the knife over in her fingers, to hold it in a reverse grip, and raised it.

Her lightless eyes, behind the glint of the blade, glared out at the two terrified girls.

For a moment, Marina felt powerful. With that knife, she felt she could cut fate itself.

Shaking with fear and frustration, they helped the other maid off the floor and back to the craft, comforting her the whole way about how brave she was, and swearing that they would find a way to do something to get the Princess back. Marina could hardly hear them after they left her orbit. All she could see, and acknowledge, was that the way forward had opened for her.

She stepped out of the light coming from the craft, moving again into the shadows.

Down another long, empty stairwell, alone with her thoughts.

“God damn it. God damn it.”

Marina grit her teeth. Weeping profusely, sobbing, enraged at herself.

No one could be proud of beating down a helpless girl. But Marina told herself it was necessary. Everything she was doing was necessary.

That was who Marina McKennedy was. A figure of scorn who lurked in shadows, sacrificing to do what needed to be done.

That was who she told herself, over and over, that she was. As the accusatory voices pummeled her in her mind in the absence of other sounds.

“I needed to do it. I needed to do it. There was no other way. I couldn’t have changed it.”

Marina paused for a moment. She raised her sleeve to her face and wept into it.

“Bethany needed to stay also. She needed to do it. There was no other way.”

Her legs trembled. It was not a quake. It was just the weight of her burden.

“Bethany was just like me. She did what needed to be done. Yeah; that’s it, huh?”

She didn’t want to think that it was all pointless and out of their control.

So, step by step Marina went into the dark, smiling through her broken heart.


Behind the Villa, the flower field had split in half.

A lift had brought up a gantry holding a bulky Diver, its shoulders burdened with two powerful 88 mm cannons and their internal magazine. Its legs had been thickened, and a pair of balancing anchors added to the back. There were a pair of missiles attached to the backpack for additional firepower. In all other respects, it was an old Volker model, awaiting a pilot.

A newer Volker with cannons was called a Volkannon, and so was this one.

Bethany Skoll climbed onto the legs of the machine and into the cockpit.

She closed the cockpit hatch, sealing herself in the machine.

There were no fancy computers on this model. But she had one amenity installed for the possibility of terrestrial warfare at the Villa.

Plugging in a minicomputer into the side of the cockpit, she connected the Volker to the Villa’s security system. From the flower field, a quadrotor drone lifted off and climbed high in the sky, pointing a camera down at the world below it. Between the Villa’s security system and the drone camera, Bethany could triangulate on the main screen the positions of the enemies.

From the northern road to the coastal town, there were four units moving in fast. From the fields further south, there were three units. All of them were Volkers. And in the forest, three enemies were reduced to a smoking heap. She could see smoke and fires and explosions rising around them.

That must have been Marina’s “asset.”

She had not been lying about having something up her sleeve.

Some part of Bethany was shaken then. She had thought Marina had been lying in order to get her to leave with her. Out of pure sentimentalism, so she would not have to sacrifice anyone to escape. And yet, while Marina’s friend was not a fiction, she had not been an effective deterrent.

Most of the enemy force was clear past her, and closing in.

Bethany took a deep breath.

There was no turning back anymore, no running.

She told herself, she had stopped being Bethany Skoll at that point. For Elena, for Marina, for Leda, she had become a weapon. Interred in a tomb of steel, the rangefinders and cameras became her eyes. And the guns were the only hands she had, and shooting was the only touch she had left.

That was how soldiers lived their lives, right?

That was how Knights lived their lives.

Bethany released the Volkannon from the gantry. She took a few heavy steps away from the flower field, aiming downhill. In the distance, her computers made out the silhouettes of the southern group of Volkers.

Gripping the control sticks, she allowed the computer to adjust her cannon’s direction.

Once she had a target lock, Bethany pressed her triggers.

The Volkannon shook as two 88 mm shells soared toward her targets.

In an instant, a cloud of smoke billowed up in front of one of the Volkers.

One of her monitors showed a diagram with shell impacts on the shoulder and chest. Her shells were was powerful as light torpedoes, quite able to tear into a Volker. That enemy unit was entirely disabled by the blasts.

This was war; a desensitizing display of violence, viewed through cameras.

From beside the downed unit, the other two Volkers pushed themselves forward in a sprint. They had noticed what had befallen their ally.

After shooting, the Volkannon loaded the second pair of rounds into the cannon. It took four or five seconds to load both cannons, an eternity for Bethany. Sweat broke out on her brow as she waited for the computers.

She tracked the Volkers rushing down the fields, coming closer and closer.

Assault rifle fire flew toward her, shells crashing all around her.

Flowers blew up into the sky and into the wind, a rain of red petals.

Even if she had wanted to run, Bethany did not have the speed to avoid the gunfire. Resilient under fire, by Leda’s grace not a shell grazed her then.

Bethany finally opened fire anew.

This time she saw the cannon shells touch her target, briefly. Before the explosions consumed the unit in fire and smoke, and made it vanish.

Another long reloading period followed.

Bethany grit her teeth, watching her cameras.

Sprinting toward her, the last Volker had made it to the Villa grounds. Growing larger and larger in her vision, reaching 200 meters, 150 meters, 100 meters. At that distance, the Volker suddenly stopped to aim at her.

The Volkannon reloaded just as the Volker fired its first aimed burst.

88 mm cannons flashed; two shells went flying over the assault rifle rounds.

Bethany shook violently in her cockpit as shells crashed into the Volkannon.

Around 50 to 80 meters away the enemy Volker was reduced to slag.

Groaning, shaken up, Bethany brought up a screen with the damage. She saw a diagram of the Volkannon, two massive craters punched into the forward armor. Not breached. Yet. And that was what mattered in the end.

Four enemies to go.

With heavy footfalls, she turned the Volkannon away from the field, northward. The enemy hurried out of the forests and hills from the direction of the coast. All four Volkers charged toward her at a full sprint.

Assault rifles in one hand, vibro-machetes in the other.

Wild bursts of gunfire hurtled across the fields from the Volkers.

Turf kicked up around Bethany, flowers burned, holes punched into the hedges. A shell hit a wall of the villa and completely collapsed the side storage room. Another shell struck the fountain and sent water spraying.

“Record to the chronicle box, please.”

One of Bethany’s screens turned into a microphone symbol, to signal recording.

It had dawned on her that she never got to say goodbye to Elena.

There was no way to guarantee she would get the message.

But she wanted to leave it. Even if a Volkisch ruffian got it. Everything she had was on the verge of disappearing. She needed to leave a legacy.

“My name is Bethany Skoll. I don’t know who will see this, or in what context. I am the head maid of Elena von Fueller’s household. I always loved her like my own daughter. And that was because, thirty years ago, when I was just coming into adulthood, I fell madly in love with her mother Leda Lettiere. I loved her like no other. I loved her like it was an obsession.”

She pressed her triggers, launching a pair of shells at one of the Volkers.

One shell flew past the target and sent streams of soil flying toward the sky.

The second crashed into the mecha’s leg and sent it tumbling into the dirt.

All three remaining Volkers started to swerve wildly to avoid her shooting.

Their own bullets hit everything but the Volkannon as they charged.

Bethany’s own computer-assisted aim was troubled by the movements.

She switched off the computer assist.

“Leda– I can’t begin to describe her. She was a student, but she mastered anything she wanted. Poetry, mathematics, singing, dancing, politics. I wanted nothing more than to marry her and make love to her every night for the rest of my life. But Leda’s beauty and magnificence brought the eye of Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. He took her for himself.”

Bethany felt an ancient anger come bubbling back up to the surface.

She took aim, fired.

Her shells sent turf flying but did not slow down her opponents.

“I– I could not suffer my fantasies to be ruined. Not even by the Emperor himself. Leda and I continued our affair in secret. I was an esteemed guest of her household. I had many opportunities to love her, to drink of her nectar. It was stressful, but I did everything in my power to be with her. I used every trick and cheat. I manipulated people, I lied to people– I even killed people. For Leda, for our love to survive. The Emperor only cared about Leda when he was– when he was using her. Elena von Fueller, the last thing I want is for her to feel ashamed of this. Her mother loved her dearly, despite everything. I loved her too. In my mind– Elena was my child with Leda. The Emperor was a cloud that sometimes darkened our sky, but we lived for each other, with each other, when we could get away with it.”

Tears welled up in Bethany’s eyes. She found it hard to aim, amid the storm of bullets, and the storm of emotions that was rising in intensity within her mind. She felt a strange sense of clarity and freedom. In that moment she felt like a fool for never telling her story to anyone. It felt like such a relief, to cast out into the air those emotions that she had buried so deeply within.

Her fingers absentmindedly pressed her triggers.

Again the Volkannon rattled, launching two more shells.

These were manually aimed.

She remembered briefly when she went “hunting” with Leda one time.

Leda had taught her to shoot through the air. To lead her shots correctly.

She put both rounds on a target.

One of the Volkers disappeared into a cloud of fire.

Her computer put up a warning. Internal magazine critical.

“Leda could no longer stand it. I fooled myself into thinking she wasn’t suffering, but who wouldn’t be in her situation? She was a plaything for the Emperor. Then a G.I.A. agent got close to her. The Republic wanted to assassinate Konstantin von Fueller. Leda wanted to usurp him. Not to work with the Republic, but to take over the Empire herself. We– all of us banded together for this. We used each other. Leda, Marina and I, we felt so powerful. In our love and our dalliances, our secrets, the nights I spent with Marina– the nights Marina spent with Leda, with so many others. We traded in lies, sex, torture, death– and still. We failed. We were never so powerful as we thought ourselves to be. We felt invincible and we failed.”

Bethany sat back in the Volkannon’s chair, letting go of the triggers.

She raised her hands to her face, covering up profuse weeping.

“Elena was scarcely five years old. I was the only one who was uncompromised. Marina and Leda both fell in our battle against the Empire. I promised to take care of Elena. All of us had, but I was the only one who really survived what happened. I had to watch it all come down, holding my breath, unable to say I took part. I spent twenty years trying to hide this shame. Erich von Fueller, Elena’s teenaged brother, took me in as part of his household. As part of Elena’s new household. To protect her.”

There was no reason to look at the monitors.

Bethany was fully consumed by the past.

She pounded her fist against the side of the cockpit, over and over.

“I was the only survivor.” She mumbled. “I was the only one. Only me.”

It was so unjust. Why did Leda have to continue to suffer until her death?

How was Bethany so stupid? How could she fool herself so much?

All of those years, none of them were so blissful as she liked to imagine.

Those were years that Leda cultivated a deep suffering.

A suffering so great she sank all of it into Bethany’s bosom, between Bethany’s legs. Such suffering that it made that woman want to kill.

“I was the only one. I survived. Leda was being punished the whole time.”

There was another loud rumbling of her machine.

Bethany peered up at her monitors.

The Volkers made it up to the Villa and began to aim their shots. Several shells struck around her feet, across the shoulders and head of the mecha.

One shell struck the side of the Volkannon’s cockpit.

There was a red hole circle, the size of a fist, that formed inside the cockpit.

From this circle, splashed a jet of hot metal the width of a finger.

An enemy round had penetrated the armor.

Bethany screamed. Her flank was slashed open. Her stomach was stabbed.

Hot, searing, agonizing pain slashed across her body. Blood flowed copiously from her. She grew numb. She was in such a shock from the initial pain. It was as if her body could not possibly feel all of the pain.

She clutched her wound but could not feel it anymore.

Laughter escaped from her lips like the involuntary action of a cough.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Leda.”

She had never had enough rounds prepared for the cannons to deal with so many enemies. Not without being able to reload from the gantry.

Bethany felt she had done an impressive job getting as far as she had.

“Imagine. Continuing to live. After everything that has happened.”

Marina would tell her all about those times. Elena had Marina. Marina had survived too. Somehow, despite everything. Marina was still alive.

“I’m sorry. I could never be your hero Leda. I could never save you.”

With the last burst of adrenaline in her stricken body, she engaged the backpack missiles. Bethany aimed straight up at the sky.

Outside, the Volkers were moving cautiously toward her.

Since the Volkannon had ceased firing, or moving, perhaps they thought she was dead. It was a good assumption. But she was not dead enough.

Some part of her, somehow, survived so much worse than this pain.

“I hope whoever is listening to this takes pity. Please treat this as you would the chronicle of a ship. Tell the world about the brave maid who took an Emperor’s wife and schemed against his Empire for her love. Farewell.”

Bethany pressed the triggers.

From the back of the Volkannon, the two missiles soared toward the sky.

Enemy mecha, startled by the launch, resumed firing on the Volkannon.

Bethany saw spectacular flashes. All kinds of colors, beautiful colors.

Everything was flashing in all the of the colors of the rainbow.

And yet it was gentle, and soft.

An aura, a pale curtain. A purple glow on the other side.

A silken dress, indigo hair–

“Leda. You look so beautiful. It’s just like when we met.”

Overhead, the missiles perforated the sky.

There was a final, glitchy burst of video static.

Two holes in the firmament slowly started to form massive voids.

More and more of the sky would fall, and a deluge would fall with it.


Vogelheim was dead.

Between the 150 mm blast outside and various cascading damages to the interior of the structure, there was no way to save the station anymore. Water began to pour in unchecked. Pressure was being lost. Every hole that opened to the Imbrium expanded exponentially as more and more water forced its way into the structure. With its central structure compromised, the “ceiling” or “cap” of the Vogelheim pillar would soon collapse upon the biome it contained and raze everything beneath its rubble.

A sudden deluge swept away mechas and any stragglers that had remained on the surface. The Imbrium laid its claim on the storybook landscape with terrifying speed. Everything was cast in the dismal blue of the ocean.

Amid this calamity, Victoria van Veka soared through the flooded forest.

At her heels, a roaring, rampaging Heidelinde Sawyer gave chase.

Already submerged before the disastrous floods, they survived everything.

Victoria knew they had to get away before the central pylons shattered. They would be crushed under the collapsing weight of the upper station otherwise. She did not know what was going through Sawyer’s head — other than violence. So she accelerated and began to flee from her enemy.

Rising up the water, which had now flooded almost all of the biome.

Bursts of 37 mm gunfire flashed incessantly from behind her.

Vapor bubbles nipped at her heels and flanks.

Victoria swerved, ducked and spun away.

All around her the landscape was eerie. Visibility had diminished entirely. Remnants of the land, like the forest, the hills, the orchard trees, they were flooded so quickly and terribly, much of it was ripped up or crushed down into the dirt, and yet much of it still remained, tinged blue but standing, rendered alien by sudden transposition. Those beautiful landscapes were cast in the dark, murky water of the Imbrium as if put inside of a toy globe.

Since she did not know how compromised the lower structures were, her best chance to escape was through whatever hole had opened to the ocean in the central structure. Elena’s artificial horizon had shattered. If Victoria could find the source of the flood within this terrifying landscape, then she could escape through there without being blocked by debris.

“GET BACK HERE!”

There was an eerie flash that was picked up by Victoria’s cameras.

Suddenly the Panzer started to accelerate.

Heat readings off its surface tripled in intensity.

Was it a hidden booster? An energy recovery system perhaps?

Psionics?

“I’d know if it was that.” Victoria told herself.

Regardless of what it was, Sawyer’s acceleration began to exceed her own.

She was cutting the distance between her and Victoria’s Jagd unit.

“No more running then.”

Victoria turned the Jagd around in a shallow arc to meet Sawyer.

Sawyer in turn lifted her vibroblade, engaging the booster on it.

“You’re fucking dead!”

They were only transmitting audio at that point. Water and their violent movements made the laser video connection difficult to maintain.

So Sawyer did not see Victoria’s eyes go red at that point.

She focused on the Jagd’s arm and pushed on it.

A sharp pain ran through her head. But she maintained her concentration.

Her blade swung to meet’s Sawyer’s attack.

And with a brutal parry, she smashed Sawyer’s arm aside.

“What the fuck?”

Training her guns on the Panzer’s center mass, Victoria unleashed a relentless fusillade. Dozens of vapor bubbles blossomed across the Panzer as exploding bullets crashed into it, peeling away parts of that tough armor.

Without hesitation, the Panzer charged through the bubbles.

“Why are you here?” Sawyer shouted. “Why did you come back now?”

“To save Elena!” Victoria shouted. “From you!”

The Panzer swung its vibro-sword and the Jagd’s vibro-blade met it. Both blades were designed to help overcome the resistance of water to breach armor. And the boosters helped deliver that final bit of punch.

The two pilots clashed blades, sizing each other up, waiting for an opportunity. The Panzer was built much more solidly. Even applying an equal amount of force, in a protracted fight, the Panzer would survive.

The Jagd’s arm would just fall off if it kept being slammed so brutally.

Nevertheless, Victoria met Sawyer’s blade, and she met her with words too.

She put on a grin, a battered, weary little grin. Her head was burning.

Maybe the drugs were fading. If she could just hold on a little longer!

“I saw it in a dream! I saw you killing her! I won’t let it happen!”

This wasn’t a lie and yet it was the exact kind of thing Sawyer hated to hear.

“In a dream? Are you fucking crazy? You came here to say that to me?”

“I came to save Elena, because despite everything, out of all of us, she’s the one who has only ever been a victim, Sawyer. All of us can fight and kill each other, but Elena shouldn’t! Elena has suffered enough in her life.”

“Shut up! Stop holding her up on a pedestal! I fucking hate that!”

I know, Sawyer. That’s why I’m saying it.

Victoria felt like weeping over the whole situation, just a bit. It was surreal, to be encased in this metal machine, in her cute little dress. Fighting her old friend who was marching down a horrible path. Atop the ruins of another friend’s devastated home. As rubble began to come down all around them. As Elena’s beautiful little forest was submerged in the blue below them.

“I already saved her, Sawyer. You’ll never have her now.”

“I DON’T CARE! I DIDN’T COME HERE FOR HER!”

Her swings started to grow sluggish. Her burst of power must have been an energy reserve system, and it was running out after her berserk rage.

“We were all destined to come here Sawyer. To sever the red string.”

She had started just saying things to rile her up.

But with tears in her eyes, Victoria had made herself believe them too.

All of those memories they had. That strange childhood that was neither idyllic, nor agonizing, because they shared it. It was so distant. No matter what happened, no matter who won out, they could never recover that.

Sawyer would always be her enemy.

Gertrude would always be an obstacle.

Elena would always be the unattainable prize.

She was the Empire they were all fighting for.

The Empire they would all destroy.

“Shut up. Shut up! I’m sick of it. You’ve no right to judge me. No right!”

Sawyer’s aura was palpable through the water.

Furious, wracked with agony, tinged with sorrow. Victoria saw it.

She responded to it.

“I’ve every right to judge you! You and your Volkisch want to expel me from my home!”

“What was I supposed to do, Victoria?” Sawyer shouted. “To be a fucking saint like you?”

She began interjecting words between ever more wild and furious swings of her blade.

“Was I supposed to follow Elena’s tail all my life?” Swing. “Submit myself to be ruled by the nobles that gave as little a shit about me as you three did? Run off to sell my pretty little ass to the Duchess like you did?” Thrust. “I was never special like all of you! All of you got the power and skills! I was always beat down and all I could do was fight!” Her blade smashed over and over. “I seized an opportunity! You can’t judge me for that, you bitch!”

Victoria endured the onslaught, blocking, dodging with her thrusters, clashing blades. Her Jagd’s arm was starting to overstress.

Alerts appeared on her status monitor.

Chunks of the station ceiling started to come down all around them.

It was nearly over. This was it; she had to make her move now or never.

“You were as powerful as everyone at school! You were standing so high above the world you knew nothing of it, just like us! But you always had power Sawyer! More power than most. You chose the Volkisch!”

“You don’t understand shit! I don’t want to hear your fucking voice again!”

Sawyer threw her wildest, most violent swing yet.

Her hatred, her anger, screamed out into the surrounding water.

Victoria could see all of it.

Red and yellow and black contaminating the water.

Rather than evade, Victoria thrust directly into the water in front of her.

She saw something in that aura. She became lost within its space.

A little girl receiving a beating from her mother and a scolding from her father. A young girl derided by both parents for being unable to speak properly. A bigger girl who could hardly see or understand what was up on the video board at school. A teenager who threw a punch unprompted and liked the sight of a body on the floor. A group of girls, who formed out of necessity, like wilting plants growing in the same patch. A young woman, standing in a line of soldiers, telling herself it was all she could do now.

An adult woman, berated by a uniformed man, and slapped across the face.

Two uniformed women, side by side, carrying sandbags as punishment.

A woman listening to someone tell her that in spite all that, she was strong.

Victoria saw shadows and heard distant voices and felt even when she could not see. Amid the color, amid two machines frozen in their violence, all those thoughts coalesced. Sawyer’s thoughts and Victoria’s thoughts.

At which point was I able to choose anything?

Everything was always set against me.

I wish I could have helped you escape.

I could have saved you.

Victoria reentered the world. Full of emotion but bereft of understanding.

She threw the Jagd’s arm in the way of Sawyer’s attack.

Sawyer’s blade stabbed into the remains of the jet lance coils.

She had swung with such force that she nearly pierced the Jagd’s head.

Her blade stopped just short of Victoria’s cameras, lodged into the arm.

Solid fuel and parts leaked out into the water.

Victoria reacted near instantly.

Pulling back her sticks and ramming her pedals. Thrusting up and back, the Jagd extended the Panzer’s arm and threw the mech off-balance.

As she did so, Victoria swung her remaining blade at the Panzer’s arm joint.

Her blade chipped, but it bit right through the metal.

Sawyer’s arm split at the elbow with a crunch, hanging off the Jagd’s.

Victoria then ejected the Jagd’s jet lance, losing an arm herself. Both Victoria’s lance and Sawyer’s sword drifted, joining the rest of the debris.

The Jagd turned its torso machine guns on the Panzer and opened fire.

One tiny burst crashed into the Panzer’s heavily-armored chest.

Gashes and pits formed on the armor. The machine rose out of the vapor.

Then the guns clicked completely empty.

There was no barb from the Panzer’s pilot. The machine advanced silently, solemnly. Sawyer lifted her sturmgewehr rifle with her remaining arm.

When she tried to fire her magazine was ejected by the feed system.

It was empty.

The Panzer stood, unmoving, threatening with its empty rifle.

Sawyer must have been out of ordnance.

Victoria lifted her sword arm and pointed it at the unarmed Sawyer.

She looked at the screen. Since they were unmoving for long enough, their laser connection stabilized. Victoria could see Sawyer’s haunted face on the video, wide-eyed, shaking and weeping with fury, frustration, confusion. Victoria felt those feelings spreading into the ocean around Sawyer’s mech also. Her auras were never more visible nor easier to read than right there.

“I– I– I’m– I can– still–”

Sawyer was reduced to a furious stammer as she searched for any remaining weapons. That was a sight she had not seen in close to ten years.

A flustered, helpless Sawyer, out of steam once her rage reached its peak.

Victoria smiled. A bitter, pained smile that punctuated their shared agony.

“Goodbye, Sawyer. I’m sorry. I couldn’t save you — I didn’t even try.”

She turned the Jagd around and immediately fled.

Her objective was complete.

She distracted Sawyer. Elena got away (she hoped).

And now she had to flee herself.

“No more tears.”

Victoria grit her teeth. As the Jagd emerged from the teetering rubble of Vogelheim, her heart wrenched. She had decided what she would do a long time ago. Victoria had chosen her banner. And she had found someone dearly special to her. Someone she wanted to fight for, to elevate, to love.

Someone who represented the future she realistically hopes to bring about.

In that sense–

Sawyer was just an enemy.

Gertrude was just an obstacle.

And Elena remained an orbiter, a helpless ephemera caught in the midst.

She had made her decisions and held herself responsible for them.

So why did it hurt so much?

Why, as she escaped, did the young empath weep for Sawyer?


Marina’s screens came to life and began to run diagnostics.

Soldier of Enterprise And Liberty S.E.A.L [SpecOps]

Below the S.E.A.L’s full model name, Marina had edited the boot menu to scrub out the Republic motto. She couldn’t bear to even think to uphold those ideals anymore. Dimly, she even wondered where the Republic ever stood for them in the first place. What even was all this liberty bullshit?

Marina’s S.E.A.L. was a special model, but it fit the Republic’s ethos of highly efficient, cost-conscious, utilitarian design. An oblong cockpit surrounded by thick, shaped plates of sloped chest armor, to which two tapered off, square shoulders attached a pair of sturdy arms. A round, helmet-like head with a visor served as the primary sensor array. The waist was slightly thicker than that of a Volker or Strelok, because the S.E.A.L.’s backpack was attached lower, closer to the legs. This allowed for more direct intake of water straight through the center of mass to the jets in the lower back.

She had an M480 37 mm assault rifle attached by magnet to the backpack, some grenades, and a boosted vibro-handaxe that was a result of Republic efforts to steal Imperial vibro-weapon technology, coupled with an inability of Republic industry to properly replicate the miniature form factor of Imperial blades. All of these weapons were capable but cheaper alternatives to Imperial designs, the pride of the Republic. Interesting as they all were, Marina had no intention to use any of them at that moment.

Instead, she was more interested in the long-range travel unit on the back.

Two hydro-jets with their own energy, designed to produce less sound. They had taken her from Pluto station to here and had enough energy to take her back. When she returned, the Pluto cell of the G.I.A. would disband, its resources spent. Then she would escape to Serrano, Sverland.

A mere skip and a jump to the Union.

That was the plan. She had to keep the plan in mind.

Everything was shaking.

Sometimes subtly, but increasingly, with great violence.

She had laid Elena atop the storage space behind her chair.

Once the SEAL was ready to go, Marina dove into the water.

Vogelheim was an old station, with a major weakness in the size of its desalination and water treatment ducts and systems. Modern, efficient designs needed less water volume and thus did not have giant openings for Marina to go swimming in. Dipping down into this system, Marina guided her SEAL out of Vogelheim through chaotic, rushing water in the underground. She moved fast enough to avoid the collapse.

Outside the station, with the structure between herself and her enemies, Marina had a moment of peace. The SEAL could simply hover in the water for a time, watching the place where she rekindled her love and rediscovered her sorrows crumbling before her, slowly, inevitably.

Vogelheim’s biome was collapsing under the force of the invading ocean along with the weight of the station’s crown, housing all the mechanisms for the light and weather and sky that had so enchanted Elena. That sky under which Leda had given birth and tried to raise her. That sky that her brother Erich turned into a prison for her. It was shattered, coming down.

From outside the station, in the blue vastness of the Imbrium, attached to the rocky seafloor and surrounded by the rising and falling stone of the ocean’s geography, the Vogelheim pillar slowly toppled onto itself. The eastern wall collapsed near totally, so the station’s cap fell lopsided over the biome. Perhaps there was some eerie, flooded place that still survived.

Marina knew then that most of the interior was utterly destroyed.

She prepared to turn and leave the scene when she heard a noise from behind her.

“Where– What is–? Who are you?”

Confused mumbling, the soft and helpless voice of a young girl.

Marina felt her panic grip her heart. This could not be happening.

Not right then.

“Elena please don’t look. Please just go back to sleep.” Her voice was weak, pleading.

Elena paid her no heed. She sat herself up, peering around the side of the cockpit chair. She pulled herself forward. Her eyes were fixed upon the exterior camera screens.

Fixed on the image of the ruined, collapsed Vogelheim that was on every video feed.

“That can’t be it.”Elena’s voice started to crack. “Is that Vogelheim? That can’t be.”

Her eyes filled with tears. Her lips quivered; her hands shook.

“Vogelheim can’t be like that. It just can’t be. How will we go back inside?”

Elena covered her own mouth. “Bethany? Where is Bethany?”

She had not blinked or drawn away from the light in so long.

Her eyes wept and reddened.

Marina felt so powerless, so helpless.

Helpless as she had never felt before in her life.

Staring at Elena’s face, the blood fading from her cheeks.

At her drawn, horrified eyes.

“I’m so sorry.” Marina said. There was nothing she could say or could do.

It dawned upon the Princess then, what had happened.

Her whole body shook.

She screamed.

Elena screamed until her throat was raw, until her lungs were empty.

Until her voice gave out into heaving sobs.

Elena screamed with an agony unimaginable.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.8]

“I fucked it all up. God damn it. God fucking damn it.”

Marina McKennedy had extensively compelled herself to think of herself in that way: to think of herself as “Marina McKennedy.” But that particular I was primeval in nature. It cut deep, to the most recessed parts of her very self. She was so full of self-loathing and disgust that she felt like vomiting — even more than she already had. Her whole body shook with that revulsion.

A meltdown had been long since coming.

Even when she was with Bethany–

Maybe even because of that.

She had let her guard down.

Because she had to play it cool; but also, because she fooled herself.

Slowly, she staggered to her feet. Her skin burning and itching and shaking.

When that Shimii girl grabbed her (did she? Was that her?) it brought to the surface a vortex of emotions that had been brimming under the surface of her skin for years now. She felt the fingers, felt the knives, holding her, by her arms, by her hair, pinning her down– it brought to mind the darkest rooms she had ever been in. She could even smell the blood.

And while the timing was inconvenient, it was not the weakness itself that disgusted her.

She had aimed and fired out of emotion, out of passion, out of panic.

And she regretted immediately that she had done so.

She had hurt that girl; but also Elena.

Elena. She had hurt Elena.

Maybe worse than anyone in her life, so far, had hurt her.

Seeing Elena’s broken-down expression over the corpse of that girl–

With a streak of her friend’s blood on her cheek–

Bearing witness to the horrors of war–

Marina got herself standing against a tree and averted her eyes.

Her face reminded her of Leda.

It was like Leda’s, but softer, less mature. More vulnerable.

“Leda could do that. She could– she could touch you from afar. Right?”

For a moment, memories of rusty iron rooms with drains in the center and chains on the walls disappeared from her subconscious, slowly melting into a sunny vineyard balcony. She saw a towering, strikingly beautiful woman, with skin as unblemished white as porcelain and shining, indigo colored hair. She was dressed in a pure silk dress that clung closely to her body, and she moved as though a wind followed in her wake, swift and gracefully.

Leda. Leda Lettiere.

She had so much power, will, charisma.

Maybe even– magic.

“When I rule the world, will you leave the Republic and come with me?”

Marina said yes. Of course she said yes. They were just flirting.

How could she say no?

She couldn’t have known how suddenly everything would turn against them.

Elena was feeling this now too.

Just like Leda– everything crumbled for her, suddenly, brutally, with no time to process.

“Protect her for me.”

Marina had crawled out of the deepest pits of hell to do that.

Her eyes stung; she found herself weeping.  

She tried to move toward Elena, and Elena briefly looked back at her.

For a moment, for one painful instant, she did see so much of Leda in her.

She then tripped and fell.

As Marina hit the ground unceremoniously the sky tore apart and the earth shook.

Off in the distance, in the gaps between trees, she could see the Imbrium Ocean in place of the horizon. And in that cruel ocean, a flotilla of ships seemed to be approaching Vogelheim.

I can’t protect anyone. God damn it.

Even in Leda’s paradise, even for her daughter–

Marina forced herself to stand again.

She had been forcing herself to move for so long. Just a little bit longer.

Once Elena was safe.

She could give up on this whole dirty business of living.

She took stock of the situation. There was no water coming in where she could see, but there was internal damage to the station. So it must have taken a sizable hit. Probably from the Cruiser looming enormously on the algorithmic projection. If the station were under attack from the exterior, there would be a boarding team coming in soon. Probably in Heavy Divers.

If she could get Elena to her S.E.A.L unit she would have a chance to escape.

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Marina snapped out of her contemplation.

That girl she had shot, Victoria, started to stand back up. Elena helped her, gently holding her back and waist, taking one of the girl’s arms over her shoulder. Victoria reached into her hair and produced a tiny piece of metal, blunted into a flat circle and covered in blood. She gestured for Elena to let her go and was able to stand firm. She turned the piece in her fingers.

It was Marina’s bullet.

Her tail twitched as she stared at the bullet that had not killed her.

She turned it over in her fingers with one hand and touched her head with the other.

With Elena watching nervously, she then turned to face Marina.

“I don’t trust you. But can you actually get Elena away from Vogelheim safely?”

Her voice was cold and unshaken as it had always been.


Marina hesitated, as if not knowing what to say in return.

Victoria van Veka narrowed her eyes and looked over the G.I.A. agent with skepticism.

She could feel Marina’s surface level thoughts, mired in anguish and regret. She did not want to look too much further inside: it was nearly useless to read someone’s mind, as the thoughts were too complicated and abstract. And when they weren’t, they were too painful. Victoria saw what Elena went through when she empathized too strongly with Marina.

Victoria would avoid it.

To think Elena had such a degree of power with no control over it.

But there was not enough time to do anything about that.

Surface level thoughts and emotions were more useful to read. When she first appeared, there was a palpable aggression to Marina that put Victoria on edge. Now, Marina looked spent. And though Victoria had tried to kill her, and certainly the animosity must remain, she seemed much more sedate now, having seen Victoria’s abilities. Victoria did not trust her, but she knew that at this moment, Marina’s intentions were not violent, and that was good enough.

“I’ll keep Elena safe. I’ll give my life for her if I have to.” Marina said.

She finally spoke. Was she trying to sound tough? It wasn’t a lie, however.

Elena was shocked to hear such a thing and stared at Marina with her jaw trembling.

Victoria shook her head.

“Nothing but useless posturing that nobody wants from you. That said, I’ll believe you.”

She felt a sting in her forehead. She had blocked the bullet. By exerting a massive amount of kinetic force against the bullet she blunted the impact. Her head had been stricken as if by a truncheon or a club, rather than perforated by a bullet. She was bleeding, and probably concussed, but not dead. In her state, she still fancied her chances in a fight if it came to it.

However, she realized that if she tried to escape with Elena at this point, without any more assistance, Sawyer would likely catch them. So Victoria ran through a different possibility.

“You have a craft you came in, right? Take Elena and escape. I’ll distract Sawyer’s men.”

“You’ll distract them? How?”

Marina crossed her arms, staring Victoria down in confusion.

Elena balked at Victoria’s words.

Her eyes spread wide with surprise and she put her hands on Victoria’s shoulders.

“Victoria, no, absolutely not!” Elena shouted. “You’ll be killed!”

“If Sawyer has to split her forces, we have a better chance of escaping.” Victoria said.

“That doesn’t matter!” Elena said. “I don’t want anyone to– to get hurt defending me!”

She couldn’t even say ‘die’. Maybe she thought it would jinx everything.

There was something a little cute about it. Even Victoria had to admit that.

But it was a fact that they had no other options.

Victoria felt a grave anxiety toward the unfolding situation, but she did not show it.

She had thought of her options and made up her mind that this was the best one.

When she came up with a pragmatic solution, all she could do was execute.

“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to die here. I have a lot of things I want to do.”

Elena knew she was this way. Elena called it “stubbornness”, but Victoria did not see herself as stubborn. She was right; she made a correct decision. There was no sense, if she had found the best option available, to choose to do something else for the sake of anyone’s feelings. Her plan had the best chances of success, so she set her trepidation aside and committed to it.

“What will you do? Can you use your weird magic on ships?” Marina said.

“It’s not magic.” Victoria replied. “And I’m not strong enough to use it against a ship.”

“Of course she can’t!” Elena shouted, almost as soon as Victoria answered. She did not know anything about Victoria’s psionic powers. Rather, she was just being emotional, so she just screamed an objection. “She’s just a girl, she can’t do anything to stop a whole fleet! That’s why she can’t go!”

“That’s not fully correct. I have an answer to that hidden nearby.”

From her dress, Victoria produced a small, square object.

She pressed a button on it. “Reinhardt, please move the Jagd over here.”

Marina drew back a step. “Wait, a Jagd?”

From the woods, a small, hovering drone suddenly appeared and took Victoria’s side.

“That’s not a Jagd.” Marina said.

The drone, “Reinhardt,” was a hexagonal body on four air-jets for propulsion, a camera and a manipulator arm. It was pulling something. As it reached Victoria, the drone pulled far enough to reveal that the hazy object it was dragging was an active-camouflage tarp. Once the tarp was off, a large piece of equipment was revealed to have been in the woods nearby.

That piece of equipment was a Diver unit that began to stomp its way out into the open.

Marina blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.

That’s a Jagd.”

Developed originally by Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Equipment GmbH and produced with a license in Veka, the Jagd was among the Empire’s new 2nd Generation Diver suits and shared little DNA with the Volker. The objective of the Jagd’s design was to make a faster, lighter close combat Diver with built-in weapons, such that it could deploy quickly “unarmed.” Among Veka’s stock of Divers, the Jagd had become Victoria’s preferred machine.

Throughout her rescue mission, it had been her hidden trump card.

Among its design innovations was its “one-piece” sleek, loosely triangular hull, boasting a curved and flared shoulder design. Most of the suit appeared to be one contiguous piece because of this. Sloped armor plates over the chest peeled back into three separate elements to open the way for the pilot. Between the long arms and the shoulder armor on each side there was a 20-mm autocannon that fired from internal cylindrical magazines. The two guns formed a pair. Housed in the shoulders were a pair of jet anchors. The “head” sensor array was a subtle, dome-like “face.”

This chassis stood on a pair of sturdy legs that economized space and weight with efficient shapes and vernier thrusters better incorporated into the design than they were on the chunkier Volker legs. Meanwhile the arms were just a bit out of proportion in length, such that the profile appeared more “slouched” than that of the Volker, but the arms ended in a weapon, rather than digits with which the suit could hold tools. One arm ended in a “jet sabre,” a vibroblade with a thrust booster, while the second arm was mostly taken up by the cylindrical launcher for a retractable coil-spike. These were the Jagd’s chief weapons, able to cut or smash her enemies.

Volkers had been born out of labor machinery.

The Jagd was exclusively made to kill.

Behind the back of the Jagd was its other major innovation. Rather than the four jets on a Volker, the Jagd had a slightly larger, more powerful housing for six Hydrojets. Rather than a few large intakes, the Jagd had multiple subtle intakes that channeled much more water (or air) through its turbines and allowed it to adjust the weight on any side of the hull on the fly.

Both Elena and Marina were struck dumb by the appearance of this incredible machine. To think Victoria, and Veka, had acquired such things.

“You can control that by remote?” Marina shouted.

“Only simple commands. My custom drone ‘Reinhardt’ helps me with it.”

Marina had her hackles up, but Victoria was not concerned.

“I can hold off the enemy while you two escape.” Victoria proposed.

“What’s with the change of heart? Did the bullet scramble your brain?” Marina said. “No offense, but I can’t trust someone who– who did that sort of thing to me. I can’t trust you with our safety as it stands.”

Victoria had not meant to inflict as much psychological harm on Marina as she did.

In the moment, the way she saw it, eliminating her instantly, humanely, with one bullet, was better than choking her to death, twisting her neck, impaling her on a tree branch, bashing her head in with a rock, slicing her throat, or any other way she had come up with to kill Marina.

It was only after she was already in the middle of the attack that she felt the complex feelings in Marina’s response. And at that point it wouldn’t have mattered if it violated her trauma — she’d be dead in a few moments.

She had not counted on Elena being able to feel all of that too.

She had not counted on a lot of what transpired.

All of her plans were useless at this point.

All she could do was think on her feet.

“I promised Elena I wouldn’t hurt you anymore.” Victoria replied.

As far as Victoria was concerned that should have fixed everything.

Unfortunately, people were more complicated than that.

“Color me skeptical.” Marina said. “Time is of the essence here, but it’d be useless for me to try to survive with a backstabber in tow. Give me something useful. Prove that I can trust you.”

This was starting to get frustrating.

She realized how little time they had but she was still playing these cheap rhetorical games?

Victoria sighed openly. Her tail curled around her waist from the stress.

“As a gesture of good faith: my ability is known as psionics. Elena possesses the same ability. You, on the other hand, don’t have a shred of potential and are susceptible to it. I could make you do what I say, but as I said: as a gesture of good faith. I will not use my powers on you.”

Victoria looked down at a rock on the ground.

She saw a rock, and in her mind, she thought about pulling it toward her.

That rock started levitating off the ground, rising higher and higher alongside Victoria.

Marina flinched, as if expecting the rock to be turned against her.

Elena watched, speechless.

Victoria dropped it shortly thereafter.

“A brief demonstration. We don’t have time for a full lesson. So, G.I.A., do you accept my proposal? I’ve shown you what I had hidden, and I’m not asking anything from your end. I want your cooperation, so I am asking you and not using my powers to compel you in any way.”

“Having felt what it was like when you controlled me before, it’s obvious you aren’t now.”

Marina looked past Victoria, over the tops of the trees, at the deep blue outside the station.

“Fine. That works for me.” Marina said. “I will take Elena to the villa, and we will use the emergency escape there to get down to my escape craft. You do whatever you want, Victoria van Veka. If you want to shoot us in the back, I guess I can do nothing to stop you anyway.”

What an absolutely frustrating woman.

“I will not. I made a promise. I already said this.”

Elena looked between the two of them in disbelief.

She had been quiet up until then.

She suddenly let out her pent-up feelings again.

She started to cry with renewed fury.

“Stop it! Neither of you are considering my feelings here!”

Elena grabbed hold of Victoria’s hands.

“Victoria, come with us. If we have to run away, then come with us!”

She looked at Victoria directly in the eyes, pleading.

Years and years ago, god almost a decade ago, Victoria would have acquiesced. How could she ignore those bright, beautiful, innocent eyes?

Even Sawyer could not deny Elena when she made those eyes in the past.

Things had changed. Back then, the worst trouble they ever got in was ending up in places they shouldn’t be or sneaking off when they weren’t supposed to. They had some scary, close calls of their own stupid making, more than most noble kids. But they were problems within the scope of teenagers to solve. Everything had changed, but it seemed, Elena had not.

Elena did not know the Empire was as broken as her little group of friends.

That, just like them, it had crumbled overnight and could not be mended.

Suddenly and terribly, without much hope of reconciliation.

Victoria smiled, and reached out to touch Elena’s cheek.

“Deep down, you’re still so selfish. You have to grow up, Elena.”

Victoria was comforting her and distracting her.

She could see what was coming.

In the next instant, Elena’s eyes emptied, and she twitched forward, limp.

From behind her, Marina scooped her up.

She quickly holstered the stun gun in her hands.

Stricken in the back of the neck, Elena had fallen unconscious immediately.

“No objections?” Marina asked.

“No. I was trying to do the same, essentially.” Victoria said.

“Alright. Well. Godspeed.”

Marina turned around, holding Elena’s unconscious body in both arms.

Victoria stood there and watched her go.

She allowed herself one last childish outburst of her own.

“We will meet again G.I.A. And I will take her from you.”

Marina said nothing in response.

She began to pick up the pace, disappearing out of the wood.

Victoria sighed.

Why did she even say that?

She wondered if Elena knew more than she let on and was using telepathy on her.

Then, the cockpit of the Jagd opened to admit Victoria into the control seat.

“I guess it’s our turn to meet, Sawyer.” Victoria put on a bitter little smile now that she was alone. Her eyes teared up a little. She tried to push those feelings out, into her aura, into the air. “Elena was half right. I did have a crush on her. Maybe I still do. But idiot that I was– I liked you, Sawyer. It was weird how we got along sometimes. I still remember that time– ah, forget it. No matter how much I project this, you won’t hear it.”

Victoria raised a hand to her wound.

What was she even feeling so sentimental for?

 Her head felt airy.

At her side, her drone was prodding her to enter the Jagd.

The Diver’s claw arm moved to aid Victoria in climbing aboard.

She leaped onto the arm, climbed into the cockpit and took her seat and the controls. Darkness closed all around her as the Jagd’s hatch shut.

Vogelheim briefly disappeared, and the control screens lit up in front of her.

RKD-004 JAGD [TRIUMPH] appeared on the operating system boot screen.

Beneath that text was the Vekan motto, “Our first gunshot sounds the hunt.”

To some, it symbolized the duplicitous nature of Veka.

Shooting first from ambush.

Victoria viewed it as a positive.

Sounding a horn, or crying out for battle, was just hubris.

She reached beside her seat for a medicinal kit. Dispassionate, untroubled, she jabbed a dispenser full of “combat drugs” into her neck.

“I will dedicate the first victory of this war to Empress Carmilla von Veka.”

Pressing down on her pedals and forward on her sticks, the Jagd broke into a sprint. Her prey would soon hear the commencement of the hunt.


Sawyer left the bridge of the Greater Imbria, headed for the hangar.

“Rue; have the Panzer prepared for me.”

She said this into an ear-piece.

On the bridge, Rue, who was left in charge, heard it clearly.

“It’s already being done. But I’m against this. You’re our leader.”

“That’s why I have to go lead. Don’t worry; everyone here will listen to you.”

“That’s not what concerns me.”

“I’ll be safe, don’t get fucking sentimental on me.”

Sawyer rushed down the stepladder hatches to the bottom-aft hangar.

There was no way to contact the entry team except to join the attack herself.

She knew they still had time.

They still had a chance to save the station. They had to.

Even if they only spared it complete destruction and not widespread damage.

Sawyer’s head overflowed with macabre thoughts.

She tried to focus on the physicality of running, on the mechanism of her steps, on the gray steel bulkheads and the regal corridors that they connected. She tried her hardest to turn the world into a fast-moving blur and become lost in its lack of definition. To avoid grappling with it.

 Turn the pain into a muscle action. That was Sawyer’s coping mechanism.

Aggravation? Hit something, hit someone. Break something.

Depression? Run, jump, move. Leave it behind. Sweat it out.

Confusion? Stab it; strangle it; kill it; bury it. Tangible things bled and died.

Physicality was easy to understand.

Emotion tortured her.

She didn’t even want to think what her foremost emotion was at that time.

When she finally got down to the hangar she spared no time for the engineers and officers working frantically to prepare the sudden deployment. Urging them to hurry, she climbed aboard her prepared Diver, a slightly larger, bulkier and more intimidating example than the rest, the Rhineanmetall Group’s own 2nd Generation Diver, the Panzer model.

Unlike the Volker, the cockpit was placed in a rectangular chassis, though the sloping armor surfaces on the chest, as well as those connecting the shoulders and the legs were as refined as the complex surfaces on other Imperial Divers. Rectangular shapes were prevalent on the shoulders, arms and on the legs, giving the Panzer a much more distinctly humanoid silhouette. Even the sensor array appeared to be a heavyset, helmeted head.

Sawyer soon found her weapons were loaded.

Her chute was also set up for her.

Inside the cockpit, alone, surrounded by lights, soundless.

She was vulnerable again.

In the midst of her stress high she felt a thought bubble up to the surface.

Her other two “friends” had come to mind before.

She remembered the third: Victoria.

That antisocial Shimii with a twisted personality.

She remembered when they ran off and got stranded in an old station–

Victoria had stuck with her when Elena and Gertrude couldn’t stand her attitude.

As much as Sawyer wanted to take her anger out on her, Victoria stuck around with her.

And she thought– she thought she heard Victoria say something to her back then–

“You’re straightforward; you don’t hide anything. That’s what I really like about you.”

“Fuck you. What are you even saying? At a time like this?”

“I followed you because I like you best, Sawyer. That’s what I’m saying.”

Sawyer punched herself in the forehead.

In that restrained way that one did, where it was impossible to hurt oneself as badly as such a strike might hurt others. But enough that it shook her out of the train of thought that she had been following. Why the fuck would she be thinking about Victoria, and about their school years? What the fuck did it matter? None of them were those people anymore. None of it mattered!

None of them were teenagers who were lost and confused and begging for attention.

Sawyer certainly wasn’t. Not anymore. She was an adult; she had power.

Neither Victoria, nor Gertrude, nor Elena, mattered anymore. Only Sawyer mattered here.

And only the Sawyer that was here right now.

She had severed that past a long time ago.

“Sturmbannführer, you read?”

She heard Rue in her earpiece. There was a sense of urgency in her voice.

As soon as she hit the water, Sawyer wouldn’t be able to hear her again.

“Any last minute updates?” She asked, clearly aggravated.

“Yes. We have a vessel coming in. Our spy drone picked it up a few kilometers away.”

“What? At combat speed?”

“They’re flooring it. It’s got to be reinforcements. Profile is Irmingard class.”

“Rue, that’s fucking impossible! It can’t be a fucking dreadnought, Rue!”

She was shouting.

Sawyer reached out and punched the wall of the cockpit.

Gertrude.

She commanded an Irmingard class.

Could she be coming here for Elena?

“We knew the patrol fleet would call for reinforcement when they spotted us.” Rue said.

“We weren’t prepared for a capital ship! We were prepared for more fast attack craft!”

Rue sighed into the microphone.

“What will you do, Sawyer?” She asked. “Come back to the bridge?”

Was she stupid? There was only one thing to do!

“Of course I’m still launching, idiot! I can’t just turn tail and run now.”

Sawyer was going to be seen as a mass murderer.

Unless she did everything she could to stop the station from collapsing.

Politically, it wouldn’t hurt her.

The Volkisch were ready to do anything for power.

Despite herself, however, Sawyer did not just act out of power politics.

There was more going on in her head than Volkisch ideology.

“What should we do when the cavalry arrives?” Rue asked.

“Slow them down, but–”

She paused, hesitated. “Rue, prioritize yourself– I mean the fleet.”

Sawyer misspoke. She had let out her actual feelings. Rue let it go, however.

“Heard you loud and clear. But I– we won’t abandon you. So make it quick.”

Sawyer sighed. She took the controls.

The Panzer started walking toward the chute, dropped in, and closed the door.

There was no escape from her thoughts, nor from offering Rue a final response.

“I’ll try.” She said grimly. Rue’s signal disconnected.

On the screen, the Diver’s OS was loaded up and doing initial checks.

RMD-006 PANZER [SIEG] was prominently displayed.

Below the model was the motto, Ein volk! Ein kampf! One people, one struggle.

“Heidelinde Sawyer, Panzer Sieg. Deploying!”

Beneath her, the way to the Imbrium opened. No more dwelling, no more doubts.

Sawyer was ready to lose herself in the violence outside.


Gunshots and explosions sounded in the distance.

At the door to the villa, Bethany Skoll watched the path, gritting her teeth with anxiety.

Marina had gone to get Elena. Neither of them had returned.

And then everything to went hell.

Bethany and Elena’s maids had been watching the chaos unfold, up until the breach.

“All of you need to evacuate. Now. No talking back.”

All of the maids were speechless. They were terrified, but they also, collectively, could not endure abandoning Bethany here. The Villa staff had a special evacuation route, and enough craft to get everyone out along with the Princess in an emergency. Surely, they could all stay and help, and they could all leave together. That was the argument cried back at Bethany.

“None of you understand the situation. I want all of you out, now. Someone has to stay behind to secure the princess. I’m the only one of you with real security training. Please listen to me when I say you girls have to leave, now. I want no deaths on my conscience!”

That speech seemed to imply Bethany had no thoughts of self-sacrifice. As such, it placated the maid’s worries, and the gaggle of them joined a miserable march down into the basement. Bethany would stay behind and bring up the rear, with Marina and Elena, once they arrived.

“It has been a pleasure working with you girls. I hope you go on to better things.”

Bethany said this mostly to herself, after the maids had left.

All of them were well educated and hard-working and could ply their skills elsewhere.

If it had just been a natural disaster they could have all left together.

However, it was an invasion.

So someone had to delay and distract the invaders.

“Ronda, Illya, Gwendolyn, Charlotte, Yennefer,”

She started reciting to herself the names of the staff, hoping to bring them all luck.

In this ominous hour in Vogelheim’s history, Bethany regretted that their relationship, despite working here for so long, had been so contractual. She knew their names and special skills and weaknesses. She was their management. But she had never truly been their friend. As much as she passively liked them as workers, and for all the good times they shared putting things together for the Princess, and taking pride in their skills, she just never knew them as people. It was the same between Elena and her.

She had wanted to be like a mother to her.

But really, all she could be, was a maid.

Just a maid, and the others, just her assistants and specialists.

She had a thought that sent a chill through her body.

There would not be a tomorrow where she could assuage these regrets.

Even if they all survived, Vogelheim would not. Neither physically nor what it represented.

There was a buzzing in the pocket of her maid dress. A security device.

Warning her of a perimeter breach. An enemy, moving, coming closer and closer.

Bethany sighed. Once she was sure that everyone was gone, she input a code into the side of a glass display in the foyer housing an old, reproduction flintlock and matchlock hunting guns.

In the Old Era, on the surface world, these weapons had been used, and like many other things they stayed in the imagination of humanity even after the Descent. As far as anyone knew, the codes would just allow the opening of the glass and metal case, and extraction of the repro antiques.

Instead, the code Bethany put in caused the wall to slide open entirely. Inside, was a small armory with a modest, modern arsenal. There were light automatic weapons, chambered in 7.62 mm rifle cartridges. There was riot gear: vibroblades, gas grenades, bullet-shields, even a flamethrower. Those would be useless against Divers, so she did not even bother them.

Bethany grabbed a pair of tube launchers from the wall, each loaded with a HESH missile.

She set them down.

She did not fancy her chances using them, even though they would be effective.

Instead, behind the launchers, there was a console on the wall.

Bethany stuck her master key into a slot in the console, turned it, and put in a code.

Leda Lettiere.

A name only Bethany (and Marina) would really remember her by.

On the console screen, diagnostics were quickly being run on a Volker class Diver.

She could neither hear nor feel it, but she knew at that moment the flower bed was stirring.

Behind the Villa’s main building, where the gantry had been hidden away.

She did not fancy her chances using this weapon either.

But it was the only thing in the armory that could give her any hope of defending Elena.

Bethany was all too aware of the current situation.

The Villa’s security room was plugged in to the rest of the station’s communication network. When the patrol fleet sounded the alarm, she was alerted as well. Using the station’s own powerful computers she was able to watch in horrifying detail as the patrol fleet sank, and with it, Vogelheim’s best chances to defend itself. Reinforcements were coming, but not soon.

The station was compromised: a blast caused a breach in the outer wall, and the impact and subsequent slow flooding had damaged the artificial sky. The situation could only worsen. Enemy Divers had seized the lower deck engineering and the public port. It was only a matter of time until they occupied the villa. And while they fought, the station was going terminal.

All the while, her tiny portable buzzed, shaking with a warning for every alarm triggered.

Bethany rushed back to the door, hoping to see Marina.

There was still nobody on the roads outside. She heard another stray series of gunshots.

But from where? Who was shooting? At what? How close were they now?

“Betty!”

In that instant, Marina suddenly appeared, jumping through the bushes from the east.

Bethany was blindsided, and nearly fell back. “Marina! Wait–”

She immediately noticed Elena unconscious in Marina’s arms.

“What happened to her?”

Bethany grabbed hold of Marina’s shoulders.

Marina tensed up and pulled away suddenly, shaking Bethany’s hands off.

Her reaction left Bethany feeling like she had made a mistake. Something had happened.

“Marina, what happened? Is Elena going to be ok? Are you?”

“I’m never ok, Betty. Elena will come around.” Marina sighed heavily. She regretted that she reacted the way she did. Bethany thought she saw shame in her eyes. “Look, I’m sorry.”

She set Elena’s limp, feather-light body by the door.

Then she threw her arms around Bethany.

Bethany was surprised, but she returned Marina’s embrace.

“Everything’s fucked. We need to get out of here.” Marina said.

“I know. I’ve made some preparations. You can evacuate from that corridor.”

We can evacuate. I’ve got– I’ve got an asset. I’ve got an asset who will buy us time.”

She had stopped briefly, parting from Bethany, who could tell that there was more to that.

She and Marina locked eyes, standing apart on the cobblestones just outside the door, at arm’s length in physical distance, but their hearts and souls drifting as if in the endless ocean outside. Overhead the sky had been torn asunder, and it was grey and shifting as the panels went out or overloaded or glitched. A cold wind blew through the Villa, throwing Bethany’s long hair out and lightly rustling Marina’s messy bun and the bangs she combed over one of her eyes.

To think– A maid and a spy! They made such an unlikely pair.

Giving each other weary, tired looks under the collapsing skies of their future.

Bethany felt strangely fond of Marina then. She reached out to her.

“Can I touch you?” She asked. She had come to realize Marina needed it.

“Yes.”

She brushed Marina’s cheek, gently lifting her hair.

“Why do you part it this way?”

Beneath the bangs, Marina’s eye was a slightly different color than the other.

Bethany saw tiny digits dancing over the surface of the orb.

“Cybernetic?” She asked.

“You don’t wanna know what happened to it.”

Nodding, Bethany stepped forward.

“Can I kiss you, Marina?”

Marina looked briefly confused and wary, before nodding her head.

Slowly, Bethany leaned in, as if the world were not collapsing around her.

She took Marina’s lips and rather than smoke and liquor she tasted like iron.

Bethany loved it. She would not have had it any other way.

Because it was Marina– she could love it that way.

She knew they both wanted nothing more than to freeze time on that moment.

Well– perhaps the only thing they wanted more was to freeze a moment with Leda.

When the two of them finally parted, it was mutual, as if they both knew it was time.

“We have to go.” Marina said. She was so filled with determination.

She picked up Elena once more and held her in her arms.

Not once had the elfin girl stirred. She was peaceful, her chest rising and falling gently.

Her face looked serene. She was untroubled by the world. Protected from it, even.

Bethany, meanwhile, tried to ignore the buzzing in her pocket just a little while longer.

“I wish she could stay like this. Things are going to be so difficult for her.” She said.

“Well, we’ll be there to pick her up.” Marina said.

Bethany hesitated. “Yes, that’s true.”

“We’ll tell her about Leda together. No matter what our circumstances are going forward, we’ll be there to support her. She’ll be fine.” Marina said. She cracked a little smile.

In the midst of everything, Bethany really wanted to hold on to that idea of the future.

But she knew it was not possible.

Marina walked inside the villa, Elena in tow, and Bethany followed them.

From the foyer, the evacuation bulkhead was just ahead.

A gaping maw of metal breaking up the beautiful wooden décor.

That would be their escape from all of this.

Their.

Marina started explaining her plan as she crossed the bulkhead.

“I snuck in here in a Diver, a Republic S.E.A.L [Spec Ops] unit. We should be able to get to it from the Maintenance access, according to the leaked station layout.” Marina said. “It’ll be tight, but we’ll all fit. It has a long-range travel unit attached. It’s almost spent, so we’ll ditch it as soon as we’re clear away from any enemies. Then we can go to Pluto station, then Serrano–”

“Marina, I have one last task to do here as Head Maid.” Bethany said.

Please don’t fight it. Bethany kept begging Marina, silently, over and over.

While making an innocent smile at her, hoping to calm her.

“Huh? Well, make it quick then.” Marina said. She was confused but not aggravated.

“I will. I just have to send a command to the mainframe to delete all sensitive data.”

“Is there anything there that an enemy force can use?”

“Elena’s entire biological profile, including genetic, print, retinal–”

“Ok, ok. Make it quick. Judging by the noises, my asset is hanging in there.”

Sounds of fighting played out intermittently in the distance.

Closer, and closer, or so Bethany thought.

Marina turned around to start going down.

Buzz, buzz, right in her pocket. She cursed everything; cursed the circumstances of her life.

Marina was so close still. She could still reach out and touch her. Grab her; hold her.

They were only separated by the open bulkhead, standing each on one side of a threshold.

Bethany looked down at Marina, on the first steps to the descent down the evacuation route.

She reached her hand to the side of the door and inserted her master key into a console.

 Before her, the bulkhead slammed shut and locked tight. Only she could open it now.

Marina disappeared near instantly from her sight.

That was it. She had made her decision.

Bethany turned her back on the door.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”

A muffled voice, shouting loud enough to be heard through the steel when close.

It gave Bethany pause. She wished Marina had not noticed anything.

“Bethany! Open the door!”

Marina started slamming her fist on the metal.

“Save Elena! You’ll never make it out without a rearguard!” Bethany shouted back.

Her back was still turned to the door. She felt ridiculous shouting at the Villa doorway.

And yet, tears starting to fill her eyes, she felt Marina was owed this explanation.

“No! You don’t need to! I’ve got someone distracting them already! Please, Bethany!”

“Marina, there’s more enemies than you anticipated. I need to do this.”

Whatever it was that Marina’s “asset” was doing, if such a person really existed, was not enough. Bethany knew, from the device in her pocket, and if she headed to the security room she could confirm the same thing. A force large enough to trigger all the alarms, everywhere, and nobody stood against it. They would be upon them soon — if nobody stopped them.

“No, no, no! No! You can’t do this!”

There was so much pain in her voice. Marina was utterly distraught.

Bethany briefly questioned what she was doing. Would it make any difference?

And yet– if she cost Marina and Elena their lives, she could never forgive herself in hell.

Despite everything, she still denied herself heaven. Even if Leda was waiting there.

The secret that only Bethany and Marina shared, is that they had both accepted Hell in order to protect their Leda. That was something that they had together, which Leda never had with them. Perhaps, that was part of the character of the unique love that they had for one another.

“Marina, something I learned a long time ago was that, loving someone isn’t just having them for yourself in the moment. It’s also accepting what they want for their future. Loving someone is more than a night; it’s coming back, even years later, and having a home. What I did for Leda, I did out of love. What I’m doing for you now, I’m doing because I love you, Marina.”

“You can’t say that! You can’t say that to me! Please come back! Please!”

“Fulfill your promise to her. I love you. Despite everything– you really made me happy.”

Bethany turned her back on the door and walked away.

Marina’s shouting voice became more distant, muffled and impossible to understand.

Down Bethany’s eyes ran bittersweet tears.

Her heart fluttered with the declaration of love she made, but she felt such a deep and cutting regret that she did not say those words when she and Marina really had a chance together.

Bethany accepted the finality of what she was doing.

For Marina, and for Elena.

And so, with the perfectly confident stride of the perfect maid, Bethany Skoll left the villa.

Out in the flower bed, a suit of armor waited for her to resume her self-appointed role as Leda’s knight.


Marina banged on the door, furiously, to no avail.

“You don’t have to do this! You don’t! Please Bethany! Come with me! Please!”

No answer.

“Please don’t leave me alone! Please! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! Please come back!”

No matter how much she shouted, how many tears she shed, no matter how much she punched and kicked and screamed that door would not open. Bethany was not coming back through. Marina put her forehead to the door, slumping forward, defeated. Broken. Empty.

Teeth grit, eyes shut. It was settling in. She would never see Bethany again.

She had lost everything dear to her. She had not been able to protect anybody.

Marina wanted to slump beside that door and wait for death. She was shaking, sweating.

But in the shadows of that hallway, she saw Elena. Helpless. Because of Marina’s actions.

Marina felt like a ghost, wandering in a world with no evidence she had ever truly lived.

Elena, however, was alive. Elena was alive and– and Marina had promised Leda.

So, weeping, sobbing, groaning, she picked her up again. And she started her descent.

Every step felt like she was taking it right through 96 atmospheres of the Imbrium itself.

Or the thick, burning, shifting soil of Hell itself.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.6]

This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.

Every soldier dreamed about their beloved on long, lonely voyages.

Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.

She expected nothing, knowing the impossible social positions they occupied.

And yet, despite everything, on this one insane, false nightfall in this forgotten island–

Was it actually a dream? Would she wake up in the Iron Lady, alone again?

Gertrude scolded herself internally.

No fantasy could ever measure up to the feeling of lying in bed, holding Elena in her arms, squeezing the princess’ back against her chest. Skin to skin, with nothing between them. Sweating profusely despite the best efforts of the climate control system. Shivering when touched, still tender and sensitive. Gertrude could have never imagined the Princess would have sought her out not just for emotional support but physical pleasure.

She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!

It was a sight, that indigo head of hair enthusiastically exploring between Gertrude’s legs, clumsily returning the affection that Gertrude had given without expecting anything back. The memory would last her a few more years at sea, though hopefully it would not be so long. It could have never been a dream; Gertrude would not have let herself dream it.

“Gertrude.”

Agitated, a little weakened, facing away from Gertrude, the Princess’ voice rose up.

“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not staying the night.”

Gertrude held her even tighter.

Elena felt almost diaphanous in her hands. Like she was made of silk.

She had her strengths. She didn’t see herself as weak.

But she was frail, delicate, precious.

In the times that they lived in now she was more vulnerable than ever before.

“I have to go. But I will stay until the very last second I can.”

“Just– just hold me for a bit. If you do that, I’ll last a few more years too, like you said.”

Elena giggled a little. Gertrude was surprised to hear it.

She turned around in Gertrude’s arms, locking eyes with her.

“I’m glad you were my first time.”

She craned her head and kissed Gertrude softly on the lips.

Gertrude laid a hand on Elena’s hair and pulled her head into her chest.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. You were my first too, Princess.”


“Those two remind you of yourself and Leda. That’s why you let her into Vogelheim.”

“Shut up. Don’t bring that up. The Prince made his decision, and so I made mine.”

“So then, it’s true. After all, if you wanted to, you could have stopped her–”

Bethany struck Marina’s bare back with her palm. Marina nearly jumped.

“You don’t get to be cheeky, you whimpering little spoon. Be glad I’m this kind to you.”

Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.

“Fine, fine. Be tender with me! I can’t ask this of just anyone I seduce, you know?”

“God, I feel so special right now.”

Save for a few indiscretions over the years, Bethany’s sex life was nonexistent.

So, she could not help but actually feel a bit special about Marina.

Not that she would tell the fucking spy those honest feelings.

Moreso than just sex, as good as the sex had been, Marina wanted to be held and comforted, and in a way, that comforted Bethany as well. It had been even longer since she had a lover who stayed the night, who stayed in her bed, with whom she could share a bit of warmth. A lover whose hair she could smell, whose sweat she could taste as she nuzzled her neck. In the same way that Marina could not ask this “of just anyone,” Bethany was also restricted in whom she could have this kind of affection with. This was the sort of simulacra of love that required a shared history to maintain the illusion. Anyone else whom Bethany could love like this was already dead.

Marina and Bethany had a connection: revolving around a third woman they had loved.

A colossus of a woman who was going to shake the entire world, and certainly shook theirs.

A dead woman that both of them failed in their own ways, and then abandoned.

These two women lay in a big, ornate bed together like royalty, one holding the other.

Bethany rubbed Marina’s back briefly. As she suspected, Marina had artificially hidden her scars. It felt like there were even new ones.

Her only visible scar was the one Leda put on her chest; so Bethany would recall it.

Were you tortured? What have you been doing? Why are you Marina now?

Why didn’t you return to the Republic when the plot failed?

Those were the questions she wanted to ask. But that just wasn’t their relationship.

“Might I hope for a massage tonight? Dare I dream of such luxury?”

“Maybe. You’re so pathetic that I’m considering it.”

“Do you have a smoke around?”

“No. Your lungs will thank you for it.”

“I could really go for one.”

Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.

All of this was far too nostalgic and idyllic for Bethany.

She knew that the world was a bleak place where people used and abused each other.

“Marina, why are you here? You didn’t come to Vogelheim just for me.” She said.

She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.

“I told you, completely honestly, I wanted to reconnect. It’s our last chance for that.”

Marina was not lying. Bethany knew that. But she was not telling the whole truth.

“You want to take Elena away. Tell me why.” Bethany said.

There was no other possible reason.

Had it been anyone else, she might have said ‘You want to kill Elena.’

But she knew that, even for the G.I.A., this particular spy would not do such a thing.

“She just looks so much like her mother. I can’t help myself.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“Yeah, I was grossed out by myself the moment I said it. I apologize.”

“Apologize by telling me the truth.”

Bethany started to rub Marina’s back, working her way up to her stiff shoulders.

Marina was quiet for a few moments, taking in the touch.

She still quivered, every so often, when there was a new movement she was not used to.

It was obvious that she had been hurt. She had been hurt really badly.

“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”

“The Union? Are you insane?”

Bethany was quite scandalized. Even someone like her, who had been part of subversive plots in the Empire, and who held quite a few grudges against her government, still nursed the Empire’s prejudice against the vicious communists to the South. What was the G.I.A. doing?

“We’re allies. The Union and the Republic; right now, the communists are our only remaining military power in the Western oceans. We can depend on them. They’re more reliable than you think.”

“Marina, I could understand taking her to the Republic, but–”

“How? The Empire is occupying the Ayre Reach. If we take Elena to the Union she can be safe until the Republic’s counteroffensive opens a route to get her to Alayze. That’s my plan. Listen, Bethany, I got some new contacts. I have some assets I can rely on to smuggle me and Elena into the Union. This is incumbent on us moving quickly. I can have her in the Union in a week.”

Bethany sighed into Marina’s back. She squeezed her shoulders a bit harder than before.

“Hey, careful.”

“I’ve done unthinkable things for Elena’s safety. And yet, this is giving me pause.”

“Bethany, this location won’t be safe anymore. Erich leaked it for a reason. It’s his way of telling you that he will not protect Elena anymore. They are not blood related, and she has no place in his Empire. I don’t know what kind of resources you have or what sort of deal you had with him, but it’s done now. He invited a bunch of nobles to meet him here, then he stood you all up. That’s his signal. Those people are on the chopping block and so is this entire island now.”

Bethany turned Marina around to face her.

For a moment, Marina struggled. She turned a pair of blank, panicked eyes on Bethany.

“Solceanos defend, I thought you wanted to garrote me or something!”

“Garrote you?”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m running an anxiety high here.”

Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.

She was tired, weary. Spent, even. Why was she doing all of this?

“It’s incredibly lame for a spy to keep telling me how fucked up she is.”

“It’s all part of my play, darling.”

“Marina tell me what you know. Do you have information on a plot against Elena?”

Bethany looked Marina dead in eyes. Not with anger, but with hope.

Hope for some kind of cooperation. To break the barrier that made them lie to each other.

Marina looked back at her. Again, her eyes were completely weary.

“I don’t have anything on an actual plot, but I can surmise one will happen. Vogelheim’s location has made it outside the ring of nobles invited to this meeting. I know because the info was sold to me. Ever since the Web network expanded to encompass the Empire instead of individual station LANs, it’s become huge in the underworld. Elena’s location is spreading, Bethany.”

“I’m not so savvy about this interweb stuff. But I get the point. Vogelheim is not secret anymore. So you’re afraid that Elena can’t stay here because someone could possibly target her.”

Marina sighed, as if it were worse than Bethany described.

“Erich told the nobles that he invited to Vogelheim that he would be meeting them here. You know this. If one of those nobles leaked that information then they leaked his presence too.”

At that point, the real danger of the situation finally hit Bethany.

She had been so stupid! She had been so stupid about everything!

It was not just that Elena was here. It was not in fact about Elena at all.

Outside entities had information that led them to believe that Erich was in a vulnerable location. He was not among his invincible, all-conquering fleet, he was hiding in a backwater station. He had gone to Vogelheim, a place that was now known to be important, to those who sought such information, to celebrate his sister’s birthday with a coterie of close aristocrats.

To know about Vogelheim was one thing. To know Erich would be there was much more.

For all of his rivals, it would seem a perfect chance to squash him and any alliances he was hoping to build within the aristocracy. Elena and Vogelheim would just be collateral damage.

“Solceanos protect us.”

“No, I will protect her. You have to let me take her, Bethany.”

Bethany was stunned speechless.

All those years ago, she had promised Leda that she would protect Elena.

She had stood by Elena’s side through her teenage and adult life.

Under the guise of teaching her, seeing to her, being the servant every noblewoman needed to have at hand to succeed in high society. Bethany also protected her. Marina was right when she said Bethany could have refused Gertrude entrance to Vogelheim. She had that right; that power. It was not only Erich who had granted it. Bethany had prepared defenses and contingencies.

She had never prepared for Erich himself to betray Elena. It was impossible to prepare for such a thing. It was like preparing against the wrath of God. Like trying to stop heaven from falling.

“I can protect her, Bethany.”

Marina looked into her eyes again. There was suddenly conviction, behind them.

Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.

“Tomorrow. Please. Let her have this for tonight. Let– let me have this.”

Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.

She returned Bethany’s embrace. Slowly; probing, as if fleetingly afraid of the touch.


The Iron Lady was the seventh ship of the Irmingard class of dreadnoughts designed in the 970s, and she was the latest to launch.

Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.

Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.

At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.

Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.

Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.

Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.

She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.

And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.

For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.

Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.

Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.

Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.

So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.

Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.

“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.

Gertrude winked at him.

“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”

“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”

“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”

“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”

“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”

“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”

Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”

“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”

Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.

After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”

He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.

How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.

Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.

Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.

Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.

“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.

“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”

“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”

Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.

Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.

She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.

Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.

“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”

“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”

Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.

“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.

Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.

“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”

“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”

“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”

“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”

Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.

She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.

“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”

“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”

That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.

“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”

“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.

“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.

She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”

Gertrude smiled.

“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”

The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.

“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.

“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”

Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dreschner shook his head.

“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”

Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.

“Perhaps.”

He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.

“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”

“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.

She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.

Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.

Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.

“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”

That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.

“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”

“I’m always decent.”

Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.

As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.

She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.

‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.

“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.

“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.

Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.

She did perfume herself before she left–

Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.

Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.

“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”

Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”

“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”

She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.

“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”

Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.

She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.

“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”

Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.

She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.

“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”

“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.

She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.

Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.

“As a matter of fact–”

Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.

“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”

“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”

Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.

“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.

She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.

Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.

She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.

“Awoo! This is amazing!”

She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.

“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”

Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.

“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”

“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”

Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.

In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.

Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.

“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”

For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.

Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.

“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”

Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.

“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”

“Oh my god, Ingrid–”

“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”

For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.

“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.

“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”

Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”

Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.

That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.

“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.

Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.

Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.

“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.

“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.

“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”

For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.

When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.

“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”

“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”

Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.

“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”

Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.

Ingrid was too headstrong for it.

She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.

Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”

“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”

“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”

Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.

“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?

“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”

“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”

“Not this one!”

Gertrude was once again laughing.

Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.

“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”

“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.

“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”

“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”

“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”

“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”

“Ok, let’s trade then.”

“Shut up!”

Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.


In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.

There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.

Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.

She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.

Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.

Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.

She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.

Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.

Words were exchanged.

Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.

Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.

“Victoria–”

Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.

She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.

She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.

There were no answers to be found in dreams.

There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.

“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.

Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.

She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.

“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”

There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.

Sawyer.

Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.

Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.

Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.

“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”

Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.

But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–

–In a nightmare,

“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”

She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.

“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”

In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.

“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”

Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.

She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.

Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.

A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.

“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”

She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.

Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.

She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!

And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.

In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.

Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.

Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.

She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.

She was lonely.

For how much longer would things go on like this?

Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?

Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.

And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.

Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?

Had she really done all those things?

Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?

Did her mother have to suffer like this too?

Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.

But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.

She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.

Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.

Fresh air would do her good.

Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.

It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.

She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.

A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.

All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.

It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.

Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.

Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.

There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.

Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.

For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.

Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.

She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.

While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.

Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.

Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.

It induced mourning.

“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”

She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.

That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.

Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.

She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.

And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.

“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”

Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.

“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.

In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.

She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.

Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.

Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.

“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”

“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”

Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.

A familiar voice.

When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.

“Victoria?”

The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.

The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.

Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.

Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.

“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.

Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.

She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.

“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”

“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”

Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.

“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”

Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”

For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?

Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–

“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.

“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”

Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.

“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”


Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.

Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.

Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.

Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.

This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.

Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.

When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.

“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”

At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.

“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”

After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.5]

This chapter contains explicit consensual sexual content and one flagrant violation of personal boundaries.

At one curious point in Elena’s prosaic evening, Gertrude herself became a hot topic.

“Oh, yes, I am that Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg. Yes, I’m part of internal security.”

She began answering questions fielded at her, and everyone suddenly became interested.

Elena thought it was no surprise Gertrude could become a center of attention herself. After all, she was tall, handsome, and had a variety of talents. And also she was a Grand Inquisitor at the age of 29, no mean feat. Particularly because she led a purge of her predecessor to get there.

Once the little group that had formed around Elena caught wind of it, they began to move the conversation politely and gently as they could toward Gertrude, with a heavy focus on acquiring her aid for their troubles.

A young man whose private shipyard had issues with labor unionists brought up the subject to Gertrude, who told him it would be easier to compromise with them than beat them; a woman expressed discomfort at the fact that homeless people congregated in a station block she bought for renovation, and Gertrude suggested charitable works; such conversations continued from there. After a point, more people, particularly young women, asked for Gertrude to recount her own tales, and such companionship felt much more sincere to Elena.

Gertrude would not become their personal attendants.

She was already bound to a promise.

And neither money nor brutality had ever formed part of her interests to begin with.

It seemed that the opportunists learned this at last.

And so the discussion lightened up.

Still it very much centered around Gertrude.

Everyone became impressed with her.

Maybe they had become bored of Elena.

That was fair; she found them all boring too.

While her companion was getting wrapped up in socializing, Elena felt she finally had a chance to take a breather and recuperate. She really was something of an introvert at heart, and she happily took the opportunity to slip out of the dull crowd as they mobbed Gertrude. She could have a drink in a corner near the band, collect herself. Maybe even ask Bethany about, well, everything.

As she broke from the group, however, someone called out to and approached her.

“Milady! Milady!” A woman stepped forward excitedly while calling for Elena. When the Princess stopped to acknowledge her, she clapped her hands together and beamed at her. “Milady, I wish you a wonderful birthday and many more to come. May I take your side for a moment?”

Her solicitor was a tall, blond woman. Her hair was styled so it fell partially over one eye, lending her an air of mystery. She wore a beautiful dress that was simple in its design but ornate in decoration, black with glittering blue gradients and a plunging neckline. Blue gloves and stockings with similar blue touches covered her arms from the hand to just above the elbow, and from thigh to foot. So while the dress showed off skin in some provocative places, she was actually quite well covered. What she chose to uncover left an impression: she had a scar on her chest, between her breasts, that was quite obvious. It looked to Elena like a surgical scar, but she did not want to inspect it for too long. It might have put her in a compromising position.

Elena was instantly curious about this woman and allowed her to take her arm for a brief walk, and she led her to a nearby table, where they had a drink of wine. While Elena only took a sip, her new companion downed the entire glass and set it back down on the table with a boisterous smile.

There was clearly something about her.

Not nobility; likely petite bourgeois, a capitalist.

“Only the best for the young lady.” She picked up a second glass, and this one she toasted with before taking a single sip. “Princess Elena von Fueller. Your location was a closely guarded secret, until today. We live in interesting times! I must say, I wish your brother had come too.”

Elene felt something off about the conversation. They were mostly out of earshot of anyone, and the woman’s tone bordered on impolite. Why did she walk her over here to drink in an unsightly fashion and whine like this?

“That’s a popular sentiment. But do you not think it rude to ask for my arm, only to talk about my brother? If you wish only to speak of him, contact his publicist instead of myself.”

She launched a barb, allowing her tone of voice to show some of her deeply held irritation. If her assumption proved correct, then this woman was not an aristocrat, and as such, insulting or humiliating her would have no consequence for Elena. While having money could make one materially equivalent to a noble, the petite bourgeois were not socially equivalent to nobles or even to the highest and most respected echelons of the military.

Someone like Gertrude while less wealthy, commanded more respectability; someone like Elena could treat any capitalist, however rich they were, like a filthy commoner, if she desired to do so. They were owed no more respect.

Her response did not move the woman one centimeter.

Her confidence was unshaken.

“I apologize. I was simply making an observation, but I may have been too blunt. I’m a keen observer of the court’s political atmosphere. To wit, I had been trying to find you, milady, for some time now. But it proved impossible, until you were allowed to be discovered for this party.”

Her dark red lips curled into a sly smile.

Elena was taken aback. “Why were you searching for me? If you think I am more pliable toward your business interests than my brother or my departed father, you are mistaken. I’m not looking to invest.”

What was her deal?

Elena was wracking her brain trying to find out. She could read so little from the woman’s self-aggrandizing expression. She was not like all the dressed-up bimbos and scheming clods whom her brother had invited to cause Elena grief. Behind those black eyes there was something going on. Did she just want money? Elena almost felt a sense of danger from her.

“Nothing so vulgar as that. It concerns your mother.”

Elena was briefly stunned speechless.

For her mother to come up twice in one evening–

The woman smiled and cut her off. “I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, I’m Marina McKennedy. I would like to request a private audience tomorrow. I wish to bequeath to you something that was once your mother’s, and was kept with me, and rightly belongs to you.”

“You knew my mother?” Elena said, almost a whisper, a gasp.

Her heart pounded.

“She was the star of the court. More people knew and loved her than will speak of it today. She had many trusted friends, I was but one among them.”

Marine reached out a hand suddenly and patted Elena on the head, ruffling her hair slightly. The Princess looked around as if in a dream.

Nobody was paying attention to her.

Trapped in her own isolated corner of the world with this Marina McKennedy. Since nobody could see it, she smacked away Marina’s hand with clear aggression. “Don’t touch me! What are you playing at?”

“I apologize, it was a reflex. It’s because you look just like her.” Marina said. “It’s almost uncanny. So, is it permissible for me to visit tomorrow?”

Elena felt reduced to a child, and her emotions spiraled.

“Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.”

“My, my; manners, princess. I’ll come at teatime, then I will be gone.”

“You’ll be gone right now before I have the Grand Inquisitor remove you.”

Elena balled up her fists at her side, seeing red.

Marina looked if anything, more amused.

She bowed her head mockingly, turned around, and casually left the ballroom. Elena almost wondered if anybody else saw her, or if she was some kind of mocking ghost or spirit. She seemed almost to glide in under anyone’s notice. Elena knew somehow that she was not invited. She must have snuck into Vogelheim, and the eve of the party was just her opportunity to get close to Elena. But for what reason? Her mother? Really?

That being said, when that aggressive mood finally passed her, Elena realized that Marina could have easily hurt her if that was her intention. Maybe she really was an eccentric friend of her mother. Elena had heard that her mother was a free spirit, deep into the arts and culture and with many eccentric acquaintances, such as philosophers and poets and fashionistas. None of the people who had told her they knew her mother had been truly normal. Elena should have been used to this by now.

She knew so little about her.

If Marina was inviting herself, perhaps it was best to let her.

With that dark cloud over her head, Elena returned to the party.

Gertrude had really gotten sucked into the crowd.

She was laughing and being chummy and looked like she was finally opening up more. Perhaps the drink in her hand helped as well. Elena was not in the mood to feel positive about her special friend making chatter with people who were not her, on her own birthday. Elena let herself be as gloomy and unfriendly as she felt while she pushed her way back into the circle of aristocrats that had gathered around Gertrude.

Mid-conversation, the Inquisitor noticed Elena’s appearance and tried to make an escape.

“Ah, I’m getting peckish, I’m going to meet with a charcuterie plate, ciao!

She surreptitiously took Elena’s hand and silently urged her to follow.

Elena gave no resistance.

Around them, the crowd’s attentions were diverted.

Far in the background, Bethany had gone through a few songs already. Giving her vocal cords a break, she let the band take the lead, and left the stage with an announcement, wishing the partygoers well and to await her return. Her parting and the vigorous clapping that followed from the animated crowd of nobles gave Elena and Gertrude a chance to slip away.

Gertrude grabbed a pair of drinks from a plate and urged Elena to follow.

“You’ve had enough of this party haven’t you? What’s a good place to hide?”

“My room?”

Elena looked like a deer in the headlights for a second.

“Your room? Really? Well, I suppose I wouldn’t look for you there.”

With this agreement, they ditched the party entirely.

The Villa was completely deserted.

Everyone was at the party. There were more maids in the floor below, whipping up food when needed, but on the second floor, Elena’s so-called party was the nexus of all activity. Gertrude and Elena walked the empty halls together, making it all the way to Elena’s room without bumping into anyone or eliciting any suspicion. They locked the door behind themselves and were confident they had not been seen nor followed.

“Ah, it’s spacious.” Gertrude said. She looked over the arrangements briefly.

Gertrude had never been invited to Elena’s room before. When they were kids, they played together in approved settings, such as the school, or a park; as adults, when Gertrude visited, they had tea and went on walks. Since relocating to Vogelheim, Elena had never had a guest in her room. Gertrude’s eyes fell upon Elena’s stuffed toys and her humble bookshelf.

“I would have thought you would have way more stuff though.”

“I don’t really ask for much. My brother is always late delivering anything I order anyway.”

“He really has you go through him for anything huh?”

“He’s so overprotective, it’s honestly unnerving.”

Aside from her stuffies, Elena prized possessions were mainly her books as well as various pieces of learning software such as a universal encyclopedia, which were installed on the Villa’s main computer and could be accessed through thin clients on the network. She also had a Nexus 32-bit console and a few romantic adventure games, but she had thoroughly exhausted all of them and the console lay unplugged in a corner of the room. There was also her wardrobe, of course. That was not valuable at all.

“It’s cozy. I’m jealous; you can wake up to a breeze and look out at the sun.”

Gertrude walked over to the window and looked outside.

“It’s kind of annoying though. You can’t sleep in because of the sunlight.” Elena said.

“That beats staring at grey walls for months.” Gertrude winked at her.

“Everything out there is just as artificial as the walls in your ship.” Elena said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She sat on Elena’s bed, and Elena sat beside her.

They drank, and sat close, mostly quiet, contemplative.

The Princess glanced sidelong at the woman she fashioned as her knight and felt a thrilling sensation in her chest, a prickling electricity under her skin as she drank more. She knew that their positions in life were not supposed to cross, and furthermore, that she even endangered Gertrude by coveting her as she did. But the Princess could not help it. And so her hand snuck over Gertrude’s on the bed and squeezed tightly against it.

Gertrude, making no change in expression, squeezed back.

This touch set off a tiny transfer of body heat that sparked Elena’s heart.

At first she chided herself for what she wanted to say.

They were in a locked room, alone.

Though they were both women it was amply clear that they both viewed the same sex in a certain light. Their relationship to each other was special; Elena could call Gertrude her knight, her bosom friend, her dearest, all manner of beautiful words only for her. What she wanted then, what she coveted, was a lover. Someone who would fulfill her physically.

Elena had been raised to have certainly lady-like virtues.

She was also canny, however.

Ladies fucked around; probably even Bethany did.

Would a virtuous lady sit around making euphemisms all night until her promised pounced on her out of sheer starvation of touch? Elena could not imagine the aristocrats led such cold lives. No, there was certainly a language for asking for what she desired. And to some degree she knew it. That being said, it was difficult to overcome the programming of a puritanical society.

She wanted to have her first time with Gertrude. That was her romantic, storybook wish.

It was selfish to think about this when the entire Empire could fall apart in its present crisis.

That was what she told herself, she was selfish, she was a pervert, and yet–

And yet, it was the insanity of the moment which led her to seek comfort in Gertrude.

All of this then led Elena to make her case in the most roundabout way.

“You know, Gertrude, if you were a boy, this would be a grand opportunity for you.”

She said this, and tugged gently on Gertrude’s sleeve, wearing an embarrassed smile.

Gertrude fully turned her head to make eye contact. She blinked twice, quietly.

“Elena?”

“I just mean– we’ve had quite a hot date already, haven’t we? Now we’re here alone.”

Elena made this insinuation almost in a joking fashion, as if trying to back off, but the bevy of emotions swirling in her head belied the truth behind it. Gertrude, sitting with her on the bedside, made little response. Both of them had their cheeks turning red. The warmth transferring between their hands became hotter. For a few moments, they exchanged glances in an awkward silence.

She thought it only proper, that if something were to happen, Gertrude should initiate.

It was also an insurance policy for her own heart, perhaps.

She didn’t want to ask something scandalous directly, and then be turned down.

And yet, she also wanted that feeling of being taken.

Of losing control; being controlled by someone else, not being sole master of her body.

Losing responsibility, for a moment, for being The Imperial Princess.

All of these thoughts brewed like a perverted tea in her brain, but nothing happened.

Maybe Gertrude just was not as much as a deviant as Elena herself.

In the next instant, this fantasy had a brush with death. Elena nearly discarded her hopes.

Then Gertrude had a little laugh burst out of her. A laugh slick with a surging devilishness.

She turned fully around and extended an arm past Elena on the bed and pinned her down.

Now Gertrude hovered over her.

“Like this, you think? Sudden, rough, unexpected; how a real dirtbag would treat a lady.”

One of her knees been set between Elena’s legs so that she could not close them.

Elena’s thighs pressed against it.

Gertrude came suddenly very close.

Her lips brushed against Elena’s. They didn’t kiss, not fully, but the touch set off electricity all across Elena’s face, down her neck. Instead of taking her lips, Gertrude stalked closer, seeking something more. Elena was surprised. Gertrude really was pressing her weight right on top of her.

She supported herself looming over Elena with both hands at first.

One over the left shoulder, one under the right arm.

On her face was a sly expression, narrowed eyes, subtly spread lips.

Elena did not try to move out of her grasp. Her eyes drew wide.

Such a bold response set Elena’s heart afire. Her chest pounded. Her breathing quickened.

Sweat, formed glistening beads on her chest.

Gertrude’s hand moved from her shoulder, down her flank, over her hip.

Her fingers snuck beneath Elena’s skirt and grabbed a deep handful of her buttocks.

Elena tittered. Rather than panic, she found herself smiling at this act.

She was excited. She raised her arms to Gertrude’s hips as if inviting more.

Gertrude smiled back.

She then nearly fell over Elena with laughter.

Suddenly breaking the illusion she had created.

Elena suddenly felt a little ridiculous herself. She laughed with Gertrude, still holding her.

“We’re hopeless.” Said the Princess.

Gertrude shook her head.

“Elena, I cannot say I am personally experienced in this, but I’m also not so innocent, you know? Soldiers spend months out at sea, and we do indulge these kinds of fantasies. If you think I haven’t– However, it is just not my style to take action amid so many ambiguities and unspoken words as this.”

“What– What should I do then?” Elena said.

That dark expression appeared on Gertrude’s face again.

She leaned back down on Elena.

“Become mine and mine alone. Beg me for something no one else can give.”

Gertrude’s voice, low, slick, dangerous, her words tickled Elena’s ears.

Dark, seductive whispers that pulled Elena tantalizingly close to oblivion.

“Tell me what you want, Princess. I’ll grant your every wish. But you have to beg for it. I don’t want to do anything if we’re just fooling ourselves.”

She felt Gertrude’s knee up against her again.

A tiny, stammering sound escaped from her lips.

Her heart caught in her chest.

Was she simply so weak?

Or was Gertrude just naturally, monstrously strong?

Feeling the force in her lover’s words, Elena succumbed to the compulsion.

She whispered in Gertrude’s ears. She whispered what she wanted.

Gertrude grinned with great self-satisfaction.

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude raised her head away from Elena’s whispering lips and then suddenly descended on them. She took the princess into a deep, sudden kiss, pushing her down on the bed.

For a princess who could have nearly anything in the world which could be bought, this was the one thing she was barred from. Choosing who gets to taste her lips, to touch her body. Those choices were taken from her mother and they’d be taken from her; and yet, in the insane situation in which the world found itself, Elena finally felt free from her responsibilities.

Gertrude’s lips parted from her own, a thread of spittle briefly connecting their tongues.

Was this the thread of their conjoined fate? It was brief; but there would be more.

“I’m going to move you and undress you, ok?”

Gertrude sat up and pulled Elena up with her, sitting her on the bed.

From behind her, Gertrude carefully undid Elena’s dress and pulled it off her shoulders.

Elena felt a chill down her spine, and gooseflesh, as her skin was exposed to a cool breeze.

“Careful.” Elena said. “It’s my mother’s heirloom. I’ll do it.”

Gertrude nodded. For a moment, she instead undressed herself. She stripped off her suit, vest, button-down, until she was topless, exposing her strong shoulders and lean belly. Her toned body glistened with sweat.

Elena spotted a patch adhered to her left rib. It was her healing injury.

“Sorry you have to see this.” Gertrude winked.

“All of your scars are beautiful to me, Gertrude.”

She did not have many. But there were a few. And Elena did love them.

Every part of Gertrude was a part she loved.

Smiling, Gertrude shifted her legs off the bed for a moment and pulled down her pants, before crossing them and pulling Elena closer to her again. She could feel Gertrude’s hot, irregular breathing behind her neck. Then she felt her lips, on her shoulder, on her neck. A nip at her ear.

Her elfin ears were longer than an Imbrian’s, and particularly sensitive.

She quivered a little and let out a tiny gasp.

“Take your time undressing. Are you feeling good?”

Elena nodded her head quietly.

She gently shed the various accoutrements on her body, unveiling more pearl-pink skin.

As she did, Gertrude’s newly freed hands glided up her flanks, over her ribs.

Elena felt her back press up against Gertrude’s breasts.

She was warm and protected again. She did not realize how much bigger Gertrude was until she was wrapped in her embrace, and her lover could almost rest her head on Elena’s in the position that they were in. Her hands wandered, pressing against Elena’s skin, rising up her chest.

Just as she had grabbed hold of Elena’s rear, she squeezed both of her breasts.

“Oh!”

“That’s a cute reaction.”

That low, sultry voice kissed her ears again.

Gertrude cupped her fingers over her breasts, teasing her more.

Brief, and probing, as if it was a novel sensation.

Just a tease; soon the hands moved again.

Into the bundle of discarded dress that hung around Elena’s hips and legs.

Elena felt it instantly. A wild heat that coursed through her midsection.

As soon as Gertrude’s fingers teased down her inner thigh.

As soon as they applied pressure–

“Oh– my god–”

“You’re shaking so much. I’ve barely done anything. What a dirty Princess.”

Gertrude delivered another sultry whisper into Elena’s pointed ear.

Between Elena’s legs, Gertrude’s finger slipped down the center, gently parting soft skin.

One of her lover’s strong arms went around Elena’s stomach, holding her steady.

Gertrude nipped Elena’s neck, kissing, sucking, while her hand worked faster.

Her fingers ceased exploring; one slipped inside the princess with swift ease.

“Gertrude–”

And another flicked and pressed against her clit.

“Oh my god Gertrude–”

Elena nearly let out all the air in her lungs. She bent against Gertrude’s body.

Her hips threw back. She felt like she had hit Gertrude’s chest–

But the sensation, the heat, the feeling of pressure building and washing over her–

Gertrude smiled, her face up against Elena’s. “I hope this is how you fantasized it too.”

Her fingers worked faster.

Elena’s entire body quaked with those words, that touch.

A wave crashed over her, shuddering from her core and out to her limbs.

She let out a cry, a cry of relief, a release of pressure, a cry of joy.

She sank against Gertrude, soaked in sweat and more, tittering.

Tears started to form in Elena’s eyes. Tears of joy. “Ger– Trude I– I l-l-love–“

Gertrude kissed her cheek and embraced her with both arms.

“I know. I love you too. And I’ll always protect you, Elena. Always.”


In the middle of an encore of Lili Marlene, Bethany Skoll chided herself internally.

Everyone was going crazy over her singing; and she looked killer in a red dress.

When she wanted to, she could still sex herself up and steal anyone’s gaze.

Something about that did please her. It felt like what she got up to with Leda.

But caught up in the passion of the moment, her own gaze had lost its sharpness too.

She had lost track of the princess; and none of the drunk men or absentminded bimbos in the crowd seemed to care that the birthday girl was gone either. Bethany surmised that since the lady Lichtenberg was gone too, they must be together. She understood that they were both women who valued the same sex differently than most; so she had some inkling of what they might do.

It was a special night, they were a little tipsy, and they were alone.

Such things tugged at her matronly concerns, but it was a new world.

By the dawn, it could well be the least of their problems.

At least Elena was not in any danger with Lady Lichtenberg.

Or at least not in danger of losing anything but her virginity.

Bethany chided herself for another fact as well.

Prince Erich had never come to the party. He had invited all of these people, who truly came only for his presence and cared nothing for Elena, and then he himself had failed to show. Such a disservice could only mean that there was a plot afoot. He never intended to come because he chose not to be in Vogelheim for his precious sister’s birthday. His sister, whom he himself had hidden in Vogelheim. For her own security; to keep her away from the nobles’ resurgent devilry.

She dared not dream that Prince Erich was scheming against the princess.

However, he may well have been scheming against these people.

So Bethany was torn between the song, the dance, the ardor; and the cold, unknown reality.

For a while she simply sang and entrusted the Princess to her own judgment.

After all, she was a woman now. She had to be trusted to make her own decisions.

As the night wore on, and the assembled began to lose whatever ambition had brought them to this unknown place, as they began to lose sight of what they were hoping to find or what sort of opportunity they might score, Bethany decided to bring the night to a close for them. She and the maids doubled as a security team, so they were crafty in their own ways. Erich had dropped this mess on their shoulders quite suddenly, and they had everything under control nonetheless.

“Thank you so much for the applause. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform that your entertainment for tonight has concluded. There will be transportation awaiting you, and you may stay at the Schellen Hotel for the night or return to your personal watercraft at this time. Our dear Elena von Fueller wishes she could have entertained you personally for longer, but business has unfortunately led her away from us. Nonetheless, you will all be remembered in the Princess’ heart for your company tonight. Once again, thank you for your attendance, and have a pleasant night.”

Significant amounts of the partygoers had drank enough to have some trouble interpreting the announcement, but the cordial and pretty maids who appeared from the crowd’s flanks gently guided everybody away from the drinks and the dance hall, slowly peeling the partygoers out the door, down the stairs, and out to the garden, where a small fleet of private motorcars were waiting. Bethany did not see that particular detail, though she knew that they planned it like that.

Instead, she stood up on the stage, and viewed the empty dance floor.

She remembered when she first sang for her; when she looked down at her on an empty dance floor just like this. Back then, it was an entirely different world. Neither of them knew what attention would fall on them, what kind of life they would end up having. Bethany had a dire need of confidence in herself. Leda gave her all the confidence she lacked, helped her feel alive.

That empty, improvised dance floor, and the tables in disarray.

It was so much like that night.

“No use remembering any of this, Bethany. She’s gone.”

Everything she did now was for Elena.

Bethany walked off the stage.

She picked up a bottle of champagne that was perhaps three quarters empty, grabbing it by the neck with the same grip that would have strangled a man, and emptying the contents into her lips. A tiny amount of slipped from the side of her mouth, and for an instant, she must have really looked like a bloodsucking beast, more than a singer in red.

There were a lot of sides to her.

“I still got it. For how much longer? As long as it takes, I suppose.”

Most of the maids would still be engaged a while, so Bethany thought she would give herself a few moments to wallow and feel sorry for herself. Perhaps she always felt this way after singing. Singing helped her vent.

It flared up her emotions, and she had many emotions to burn.

Perhaps that was what made truly great singers.

Having to hide the pain that they felt.

“Great performance; I really managed to get into the mood myself.”

A chilling voice, its volume tightly controlled.

As Bethany made her way out the doors of the lodge and locked them behind her, she heard and saw a woman approach. A blond, who instantly peeled off her own blond hair to reveal shorter black hair, tied into a little bun, half up and half down, with bangs falling over one of her eyes.

Boldly dressed, and moving boldly, the woman invaded Bethany’s space.

One hand struck the locked door behind Bethany, close to the maid’s ear.

Her free hand took Bethany’s wrist.

And her knee went under and between Bethany’s legs.

She had a completely stone-like, inexpressive face.

“Miss me?” She said.

In the next instant as Bethany’s lips parted to respond, Marina McKennedy’s head tipped to one side and pressed the rest of her claim on Bethany’s orbit. Her tongue tasted like smoke and liquor in Bethany’s mouth, and for some reason that kiss and the way her lips locked against the maid’s caused eerily familiar sensations. Still, her natural reaction was to struggle against the kiss. She pushed on the woman’s stomach and chest with her free hand, while her lips continued to freely taste her as if nothing were happening. Feeling for an instant the trained muscle beneath the woman’s dress, and the strength of her grip, Bethany finally managed to shove her back.

“You cad! I’ll have you locked up!” Bethany shouted, breathing heavy.

“It’s Marina now. Marina McKennedy. Well– I mean. You know.”

Bethany was suddenly confused. “Who are you?”

“Look down.”

Marina pulled down on her already plunging neckline to expose more of her breasts. Bethany stared at her exposed chest and saw a familiar scar.

“Wait. You’re–”

“Yes, but don’t talk about it.”

“Wait is it really? Blake? But– you didn’t used to be a–”

“That name was fake too but don’t call me that. Can you drop it? Look.”

She produced a gold card.

A plaque, bearing an owl perched atop a round shield.

The symbol of the Republic of Alayze’s G.I.A, General Intelligence Agency.

Marina smiled, seeing Bethany’s shocked reaction.

“As you can see, a hell of a lot has happened to me. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not gonna say I can’t, because nobody’s here to stop me. But I won’t. Do you miss me? I have time that I wanted to spend with you. It’ll be– different this time, but I know you like it both ways.”

“Solceanos protect me. It really is you.”

Bethany slapped Marina across the face.

She struck her so hard, she wanted to draw blood.

Marina grit her teeth, still smiling, though clearly put off-balance by the strike. “I kinda deserve that.” She said, reaching for lips to see if they had broken. They had not. “But at the same time Betty when we met, you approached me, you know? And I was younger than you by a good bit. So honestly, how can you blame me for still being smitten with such a cool, mature lady?”

“Cut the crap. We were using each other. And a wealthy dilettante still ranks lower on the scale of relationship power dynamics than a secret agent, even when you factor in a few years.”

“Did you miss me?” Marina said again.

At this point, Bethany could not tell if Marina McKennedy meant to ask whether Marina had missed her as one of the party guests, a cruel joke on her successful infiltration; or whether Marina meant to ask her if she missed her company. Bethany chided herself again. Her gaze really was losing her sharpness. She had missed Elena and this dangerous character.

And yet, Bethany had mixed emotions about Marina McKennedy.

Now that she knew who it was, she almost wanted to go back to the kiss.

Even if transactional, she remembered it was almost as good with her as it was with Leda.

“Why are you here? It can’t have just been to rekindle an old flame. To get here you would have had to have known our secret. So you got access to that information. What do you want?”

“You’re too cold to yourself. You’re worth the trip.”

“Stop it. You want me to trust you after all these years? For once in your life, be honest.”

“I’m way more honest with you than any other GIA agent would be.”

Marina sighed briefly.

“Elena von Fueller is here. I want to explain to her what happened to her mother and try to convince her to leave. She can defect to the Republic. She won’t have a future here, Bethany.”

“Of course. It was always about the Princess.”

Bethany was conflicted; briefly, before Marina suddenly put a hand on her shoulder.

It was a gentle hand, grasping at her with desire.

“Bethany, I’d also love to spend the night. I– I hate to admit it, but I need to be comforted too, every once in a while. I really have been through a lot. The next few months are gonna be hell for me. Is it okay if, just for tonight, I can have a little island of peace in these stormy seas?”

“You are just using me.” Bethany said. “Maybe I have more self-respect than that now.”

“But this time I’m the one who is desperate. Can you help me? I’ve been through hell.”

Marina’s eyes teared up. Bethany almost voiced her surprise aloud at the sight.

“So much for the mighty G.I.A., all-seeing, all-knowing of the seas.”

Bethany wiped Marina’s tears; Marina recoiled at the touch as if she feared being hit again.

The head maid was surprised. The G.I.A. agent was much cooler and more collected the last time they met. Judging by the fact that she was, well, so completely changed, and her current demeanor, either she had become a far better actor or something truly awful really had happened to her. Something that made her change herself entirely, maybe to run away; maybe to be able to accept it. Bethany could not know how much of this identity was fake or how much was genuine.

As much of a schemer as Bethany was, she could not imagine what a spy went through.

That was always one thing which made Leda distant too.

Leda, herself an arch-schemer who wanted to play every side to her advantage.

Bethany had failed to soothe Leda at all; she had failed to be an equal partner to her.

Some would say, nobody could have stood up to the colossus that Leda was.

And yet, Bethany was still stung by it.

Looking at Marina’s tearful face, she remembered a scene.

Just like when she stared down at the empty dance floor.

It really was a night filled with déjà vu.

When Leda had made that face to Bethany, it was the last time Bethany ever saw her.

She did not want to fail a lonely, hurt woman again; even if she was a two-faced bitch.

“We can discuss business later. But I’m going to need you to shape up. I’m not here for you to fall apart on. I’m still going to be needing you to top.”

Those were some words she wished she had told Leda, too.

Bethany winked at Marina. For a moment, Marina was struck speechless.

She wiped her own face and smiled coolly as if nothing had happened.

“You’re right. This isn’t me. I have to be the cool spy you fell in love with.”

“Oh, shut up. Were you faking?”

“I wasn’t! You have to believe me. You weren’t this paranoid with Leda.”

Marina raised her hands in defense.

Bethany sighed.

“Follow me. And keep your hands to yourself until we get in bed.”

“I’ll be perfectly gentlemanly.”

“Shut up, too.”

That night, it was not just Elena who found a pair of arms to stave off the bad dreams.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.4]

Supper was a relaxed and refreshing affair that evening.

There were small bowls of tomato and beef consommé, perfectly clear and a rich auburn color, with a superbly clean taste. To accompany the soup they had fresh-baked, airy crackers. For the entree, they had perfectly round potato dumplings filled with crumbly cheese and bits of pork, on a bed of cabbage and vinegar and lemon juice. A comparatively light spread that nonetheless filled with the belly.

Gertrude and Elena got to enjoy it together within the Villa’s tearoom.

“I apologize that we couldn’t use the deck again milady.” Bethany said. “We’ve moved some unneeded furniture out onto it and turned the lodge into a ballroom for tonight’s event.”

“Right. Tonight’s event. Happening without my consent, on my birthday.”

Elena made narrow, evil eyes at Bethany.

For her part, the maid returned a disappointed gaze back at the unruly Princess.

“You must attend! Your brother arranged for many wonderful people to meet you; it would be a great opportunity to make some connections. Furthermore, the Prince himself will join you!”

“What? My brother is coming here? Tonight? How? I heard none of this!”

Elena stood up from the table in outrage. Gertrude was briefly taken aback.

Bethany looked confused and concerned by the response.

“Goodness. I thought you’d be overjoyed.”

“If my brother invited a bunch of his friends here, do you not think that this means he has designs towards me, and perhaps those friends, Bethany?”

Elena threw her an accusatory glare.

Bethany withered under that royal gaze.

“I’m only a maid! If you’re insinuating I can do anything about your brother trying to match you up with someone for political gain, then you vastly overestimate my power and ability. All I can tell you is to try to endure!”

“You may have no power and ability, but I do.”

Gertrude interrupted at that point, standing up from the table herself.

“Whatever do you mean, Inquisitor?” Bethany said, suddenly scandalized.

Grand Inquisitor.” Gertrude corrected. “I will be attending this party. I will go get changed into something suitable at the Iron Lady. I will accompany the Princess to the ballroom when the time comes.” Gertrude gave Elena a look that was filled with determination — and perhaps even danger.

“Of course you may. I’ll wait for you.” Elena said, preempting objections.

“We can’t delay her long!” Bethany said.

She was exasperated with this scheme already.

Elena however understood Gertrude’s aim, and she beamed with joy.

Gertrude left. The artificial skies beginning to dim to simulate the terrestrial night, Elena had to get ready for the party. Dressing up like a princess was a task she had wanted to do personally, in the best-case scenario. Instead, however, it ended up something Bethany swore to do for her, and the maid shadowed her from the tearoom, up the stairs and into her room.

“I can dress myself you know.”

“You don’t have the special attire I prepared for you for this evening.”

“Special attire? How special could a dress be?”

“As a matter of fact, I have something sublime prepared for this occasion.”

Bethany tittered with a bizarre excitement that caused Elena to feel imperiled.

After leading Elena back to her room, Bethany disappeared out into the halls again, bidding her to wait a few minutes while she returned with the dress. Elena had a half a mind to dress herself up and make all this nonsense moot, but then Bethany returned with the dress in her hands. Though it was hard to determine the fit from looking at it in the bundled-up way that it was, the rich purple and gold colors drew Elena’s eyes.

“This is really very special. Give me a moment here.” Bethany said.

The Maid took the dress into the wardrobe, where there was a slot in front of the walls with a warm press that would get all the wrinkles out and straighten up a bundle of clothes. When she returned, Elena got a good look at the style of the dress, and she was stunned. Bold was certainly one way to describe it. It had a tight, slimming fit, and the neckline was cut low and square such that displayed a lot of collarbone, and with the proper support perhaps some other things. The skirt was split along the sides with the hem at the level of the knee, and the sleeves were connected by two strips of fabric with gaps that exposed the upper arm. It had a provocative style.

Elena gave her chief maid a long look. “Bethany, I don’t know what to say. It’s a beautiful dress. But when you hand a maiden such as myself, something of this nature, I can’t help but feel maybe your eyes are going–”

“PLEASE, please, please don’t pursue that thought any further Princess. It was your mother’s dress.” Bethany sighed with exasperation.

Elena’s impish grin instantly faded away.

“Really? It belonged to my mother? You’ve been keeping it this whole time?”

“She wanted you to wear this on the night of your debut. She had worn it herself when she was a teenager, in her own entry into high society. But then– well, of course, unfortunately, she passed, and you didn’t debut.” Bethany looked conflicted. Elena could not quite understand the feelings that seemed to pass across the features of her face, so fleetingly.

“I’ll be honest Beth, I didn’t think you knew so much about my mother. I might’ve asked you more about her if I’d known.” Elena said. She took the dress from Bethany and held it in front of herself, trying to imagine herself in it. It was uncanny how well it fit. She resembled her mother much more than her father, obviously, but to think the measurements were so close!

It made her wonder: had her mother stood here in Vogelheim, in this room, in this dress? Bethany smiled softly as she watched Elena sizing the dress.

“You could say– I admired your mother. Her wishes informed some of my decisions. But enough about that. We must get you ready.” Bethany said.

This mysterious declaration brought a lot of possibilities to Elena’s mind.

Many of which she wanted to discard immediately. She knew how she felt and where her own sensibilities lay, and to try to project that onto others– Bethany had to be a normal woman with an ordinary affection for her long-passed mother. A lot of people had told her they admired her mother before. Her mother had been amazing: it had been no wonder that Emperor von Fueller sought her as his second wife from among all of the court. Beautiful, a bold dancer, a magnificent singer, a sharp wit and boundless intellect. She had been a prodigy at everything that excited her.

Of course Bethany admired her. That being said, they appeared to have been closer than merely an object of admiration and a pair of eyes that watched her from afar. For her mother to entrust personal effects to her to such a degree, they must have been friends. Close friends even. Elena did not know too much about Bethany personally, she had never been curious. Bethany was a servant, a helpful and sometimes doting and sometimes overbearing caretaker. That was all. Now that she was curious, however, it was in a setting where there was no time to ask her to tell the tale.

So rather than press further, or demand an explanation, Elena merely spread her arms. This was out of her sense of respect for Bethany.

“Help me dress, Bethany. Let’s see how much like my mother I look in this.”

“It’d be an honor, Princess.”

Bethany’s past could wait until morning.

Gertrude’s visit to the party could not.

Her maid had dressed her before, many times.

Elena had been fearful that there would be something odd or off about this particular instance, but there was not. Bethany disrobed her, even helped her out of her suit layer, with the exact same care, attention and detached professionalism with which she always worked. For the party, Elena would not be wearing a full or half suit beneath her clothes. It was seen as provincial to wear swim suits under one’s clothes at formal occasions.

Once she was fully in the nude, she donned a pair of black tights and elbow gloves, and Bethany helped her gently into the dress and zipped up the back. It was surprisingly lighter and simpler than it seemed to wear.

Elena had wondered if any part of the design would necessitate double-sided tape or some other secret tool of truly fashionable upper-class ladies; but in fact, it clung to her well. All of the skin the designer wanted to highlight with the gaps was visible in appropriate quantity, the bodice left no room for the dress to slide, and the skirt reached to the knee perfectly.

Dressed for the party, Elena thought she would now go– but her maid stopped her.

“Not without a touch-up on your face! Sit down.”

At Bethany’s command, Elena sat.

Her maid produced a makeup kit. A layer of foundation, pearl-pink concealer, and the slightest hint of blush touched up Elena’s cheeks. A gentle shadow around her eyes and a coat of glossy lipstick just a touch darker than the natural color of Elena’s lips, gave her a bright, elegant appearance that still looked natural, without too much product.

When the hairbrush came out, Elena feared they might be there all night.

Her maid turned the chair around, and gently stroked Elena’s hair.

Rather than turn it into a project, she just made Elena’s natural looks clean and proper.

To top it off, Bethany affixed a moon-shaped, diamond-studded silver hairpiece on Elena.

“There. Look in the mirror, princess.”

Elena turned around and spread her arms. She lifted the skirt just a little.

She put her back to the mirror and looked over her shoulder at the reflection.

Not too much had changed, but it really felt like her best traits were accentuated very well.

“I feared you might doll me up too much, but this is quite pleasant.”

“We don’t have to conceal your looks today. We want them to shine in their organic state.”

Bethany laid her arms on Elena’s shoulders and smiled fondly.

Elena almost got a motherly sense out of that expression.

“Leda would be so proud. But let us not tarry. We should go meet that woman of yours.”

How unfair, to mention her mother’s name with that expression, and then hurry her along! Nonetheless, Elena followed Bethany down to the foyer.

There were maids working on last minute dusting and furniture arrangement. While the foyer did not normally look like much, they had added flowers and fine glasswork decorations, a portrait of the Emperor, and extra strips of lights on the ceiling to brighten up the atmosphere. It would not be long before a modest group of guests would arrive through the doors of the Villa. Bethany pushed Elena to a sideroom where the maids kept additional furniture in storage and bid her to wait.

Gertrude would be brought to her.

“Bethany, can you explain why I am hiding with the taxidermy?” Elena pointed bitterly at a stuffed creature occupying a corner of the dim little room. “I’m the birthday girl? What kind of birthday celebration is this?”

Bethany sighed. “Do you want to stand at the doors and greet everyone? It’s what you will have to do, as the Royal Princess, if the guests see you the instant they walk through the front doors. And then imagine the scandal if you leave the guests behind as soon as Lady Lichtenberg shows up?”

“That’s a good point.” Elena sighed. Everything was so complicated!

“I won’t object to the two of you appearing together. But you have to go in after the guests have settled down. It’s the only way that it makes sense. Anything else would be an insult to them. So wait here: be quiet and still.”

Bethany shut the door to the side-room.

Elena could hear the sounds of her heels, growing ever more distant. There continued to be a muffled commotion outside for quite some time.

And so Elena waited, sitting on an old chair covered in a white blanket.

Accompanied by a fiendish creature the size of a dog, frozen in time in its own corner. It looked ridiculous. She wondered whose this thing was.

Elena noticed a sharp increasing the number of footsteps and voices outside. That meant the people her brother had invited had arrived.

She surmised then that her isolation would end soon, but it was several minutes worth of people outside, being greeted she assumed, before the foyer became quiet again. Elena feared her dress would get dusty or wrinkled, but in the dim light of the side-room she was still able to see that her worries were unfounded. The room was fairly clean, even.

She had lost track of time, but in reality she was not in there for long.

And when the door next opened, Elena felt ready to forgive the plot.

She expected Bethany, and readied to hurl some invective.

In her place, however, the one who opened the door was an extremely handsome young woman in a very fitting, buttoned up jacket, and dress pants, black with gold trim. She wore a medal the shape of a white flower on her lapel, that indicated service to the royal family — Elena had given her that medal herself. Hers was a formal uniform, worn by high-ranking officers on special occasions, and it quite flattered the tall and lean frame of Gertrude Lichtenberg. Her hair had been collected into a ponytail, and her face was very slightly made up. Elena could tell that a few blemishes on her cheek had been powdered over, and her eyes looked darker, more intense.

Elena wanted to joke that she appeared more boyish than ever, but that was not true. She was gentlemanly in the best way, not merely boyish. She was gallant and knightly, and in that way she was beautiful too, and she truly shone in that dress uniform. Elena loved every centimeter of her.

Rather than invective, no words at all escaped Elena then.

She was quite stricken.

Gertrude took the initiative and extended a hand to the princess.

“I would be honored to escort the lady to the dance.”

“Y-Yes. Of course.”

Elena offered her hand in turn, and Gertrude took it gently and kissed the back of her glove.

More than in just her hand, Elena felt that kiss as a warmth that spread out from below her belly. An electric sense, an air of romance; it was storybook in a way that felt too good to be true. And yet it was no dream, or she would not have felt that touch at all. Gertrude’s strong hand stroked hers gently, and she gestured toward the door, waiting for Elena to collect her senses.

“Shall we?”

Somehow, the friendly soldier whom Elena had known, had become this enchanted being.

“Of course, ‘Trude.”

She had called her by the nickname as if to confirm this was still to her.

Without responding verbally, Gertrude simply smiled.

Yes; this was her Gertrude.

They held hands, and Gertrude waited for her to cross the threshold first.

Aside from a few maids standing around, the Foyer was completely empty.

There were signs everywhere that the floor had been well trod upon.

Bethany was not around.

She must have had more important duties to attend to.

Now that the party was in motion, she had to coordinate the proceedings.

Like a consummate gentleman, Gertrude helped Elena up the stairs from the foyer. She led her around a corner, toward the second-floor hunting lodge, the largest room in the villa. Gertrude would not have known where it was, as she had never had occasion to visit it. Elena thought then that the maids would have cooperated with her, and maybe prepared her before she took Elena. Her knight moved through the villa with complete confidence. But whenever they exchanged glances as they navigated the halls, Gertrude would smile casually and cheerfully as ever.

That smile indicated that this was simply Gertrude; but a Gertrude trying to impress.

When they entered the lodge, all eyes were on immediately them.

A princess dressing bolder than ever, and a soldierly woman in a formal uniform.

Elena could feel everyone in the room scrutinizing them.

She hardly knew what to say when she entered the room. She started to look around, hoping that the situation would solve itself.

There were perhaps a hundred people in attendance. To accommodate them, the massive hunting lodge had been completely transformed. Elena had always found the space a waste. So much room devoted to trophies and old guns and tacky fur rugs. She imagined those things must have belonged to her father. Bethany and the maids had gotten rid of it all, at least temporarily. For once it was possible to admire the breadth of the lodge’s floor space, the beautiful tiles, the fiery red curtains and decorative rose arrangements. Torches were lit to provide a mood, and the LEDs dimmed.

Along the side walls there were a few chairs arrayed for those who preferred to sit. There were small tables filled with treats.

Mutton and fig meatballs and crunchy bread spread with bone marrow were the most common small bites, along with plates of roasted vegetables and fresh fruit with spicy fish sauce or real honey for dipping. There were maids spread around the room, dressed to impress in frilly uniform gowns, serving a choice of various wines from intricate bottles.

Far in the back, a small stage had been erected where five maids appeared, all dressed up, the more tomboyish ones in suits, and some in ornate dresses, and they sat with instruments in hand and played music for all of the guests. She knew they also had a sophisticated sound system that could back them up, but Elena had several dozen servants boasting a broad array of talents, so she wanted to hope they were all playing the vibrant, sensual music which filled the lodge.

Conspicuously missing was the sapphire-gleaming glare of her half-brother Erich.

Elena wondered if she should say some words.

It was her special occasion, wasn’t it?

It was also true she had never wanted this party.

And none of these people were her friends, or acquaintances of even minor familiarity. None of her school age friends were here save for Gertrude.

Before she could make a fool out of herself, however, a woman stepped on to the stage. A mature, dark-haired beauty in a flamboyant red dress and white gloves, perhaps the singer, she drew everyone’s attention to herself with a clack of her heels. Wearing a smile as bright red as her dress, she addressed the room in a voice that felt strangely familiar to Elena’s ears.

“Everyone! I bid you all a luxurious evening! As you can see, the honored guest has arrived, which means it is time to commence the festivities. You have drinks, good company, and the floor. What are you all staring for? Give the birthday girl and her friend some space; what kind of party is it if we all just stand in a circle? Band, give me something to work with!”

She turned around to the maids, who looked at each other with something approaching disbelief and then began to play a sultry tune at a faster tempo. It was a popular song, particularly among soldiers, about a seeing a beautiful woman at port and spending a night before a fated departure. Snapping her fingers in tune with the music, the woman in red closed her eyes, first humming on stage until she finally broke out into the familiar tune with a rich singing voice. With the lights on her, she was enchanting.

It was then Elena realized that it was Bethany up on stage.

Bethany; her maid, Bethany–

Gertrude responded with a gentle laugh.

“It is a wonderful tune, but it’s so played out with the boys.”

She turned toward Elena, who was still mildly shell-shocked.

“I owe you a dance or two, but would you rather carouse?”

Elena snapped out of her reverie. “Carouse with who? Come on.”

Gertrude did not need to be told twice.

She took the princess by the waist and hand and led her to the dance floor.

Swept up in the physicality of the moment, Elena could hardly refuse.

Elena was unskilled, but Gertrude led well. For the most part, the princess avoided looking completely useless on the dance floor. She did not stomp Gertrude’s feet, and while ungraceful, she met the sweeping movements of her escort as best as she could. She felt as if caught up in a whirlwind. Gertrude had her by the hands, by waist, by the shoulder at times.

They said nothing to one another.

Their eyes locked, their breathing in tune. Their emotions were visible only in their movements. Elena could feel it from Gertrude, from the way she was held, led, touched. A certain possessiveness, a need to assert her place. Back at the tearoom, when Gertrude had spoke up to Bethany, Elena understood what the plot meant, but perhaps, she had failed to understand the degree to which Gertrude would put herself in the position of a lover.

And there they were. While a scant few others had begun to dance as well, it really felt like a majority of the party was not there for Bethany’s surprisingly seductive voice, or the atmosphere, or the drinks, or to take anyone’s hand in dance but the princess’ — or at least, to gain her attention or favor in some other manner. And so a great many men and women remained on the fringes of the dance floor, with what seemed like disconcerted expressions. Gertrude had beaten them to it.

In a sudden move, Gertrude broke from her, extending her arm, and pulled her back in. She bent low with Elena and held her, just barely keeping the princess from the floor. Their eyes, their noses, their lips, merely centimeters apart. Millimeters, perhaps. It was the final act of the show.

Elena could almost taste Gertrude’s subtle but clearly exerted breathing.

Suspended in this position, they spent what felt like eternity lost in each other’s eyes. Elena felt something inside her, brimming under her skin.

Gertrude gently lifted her back up.

She then acknowledged the gawkers with a smug bow.

Meanwhile Elena’s face was blushing red as the curtains, red as the roses, red as the wine.

“Would you like me to stick close, or would you prefer to scout out the room yourself?”

Elena, unprepared to make decisions, wished that Gertrude would just grab her again.

“I suppose I should try to see what these people want with me.” She said, sighing.

She did not go alone, however.

Elena took Gertrude’s hand, and they walked into a small crowd of aristocrats together. Taking up drinks, they introduced themselves together. To this crowd, Gertrude became Elena’s “long-time friend” and “military advisor” in the span of a few minutes, and the words seemed to change the atmosphere with them. It became possible to talk to them about nothing for some time, and nobody was quite able to bring up subjects Elena feared.

Many of them, to Elena’s surprise, expressed a greater lamentation at her brother ghosting the party, than whatever apprehension they may have had about Elena’s choice of companion. Slowly, over the course of several of these paltry interactions with the faceless folk that had heeded her brothers’ summons, she developed a fuller picture of what was going on. None of them had really come to try to woo Elena or even to try to get her to invest her hereditary wealth in the kind of schemes the nobility and petite-bourgeoise got up to for profit. Nobody had come for her.

All of them had been brought to Vogelheim on the promise of her brother’s attendance.

First in line to the throne, overwhelmingly the most powerful man in the Empire now.

That the conversations around the party managed to become about family businesses, the rare vintage of the wines on hand, the array of fashionable suits and dresses on display, and the rare natural beauty of Vogelheim, gave Elena a sense of relief. It also unveiled the stark truth of how little power and influence she had. Nobody had come to her birthday even just to suck up to her personally. And if they were paying attention to her it was because she was inviting scandal with a woman partner. Everyone assembled, at best, thought of her as a proxy to get to her brother and nothing more.

She might have been able to endure at least one or two marriage proposals to avoid having to swallow that bitter pill. But she made the best of it.

With Gertrude at her side, she immersed herself in the people around her, she smiled, she drank. She laughed politely at jokes. She put on a convincing show pretending to be impressed at the son of a cattle magnate or the daughter of a mining industrialist and their petty little ambitions.

As Bethany advised, Elena endured the night.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.3]

Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)

There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.

As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.

“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.

Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.

“It’s a beautiful sight.”

“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”

Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.

“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.

Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.

She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.

“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”

“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”

She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.

“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”

Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.

“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.

“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”

Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.

Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.

“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”

“Gertrude?”

“Thank you. I love you, so much.”

Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.

She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.

Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.

Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.

No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.

Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.

And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.

Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.

Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.

There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.

They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.

Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.

“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.

Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”

“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”

“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”

Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.

“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.

“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.

This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.

She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.

“Whoa!”

“Hang on!”

Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!

Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.

On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.

Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.

Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.

“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”

“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”

“Oh my!”

“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”

Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’

But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.

It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.

Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.

And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.

Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.

Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.

She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.

Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.

And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.

Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.

They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.

Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.

They would not have to hide anything.

There were few people to even hide from anyway.

At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.

“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.

She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.

“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”

There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.

“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”

Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.

“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.

“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.

The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.

Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”

“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”

“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”

Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.

One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.

Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.

Before, they would just spend time indoors.

Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.

Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.

“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.

Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.

“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.

“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”

Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.

“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”

“You think something will happen?”

Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.

She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.

Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”

Elena knew that was wishful thinking.

Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.

“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.

She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.

It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.

“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”

Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.

“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”

A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.

Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.

Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.

“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”

Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.


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