Pursuers In The Deep [7.2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn settled back in her chair with a placid expression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn snatched a glance at her monitor.

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

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

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

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

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

Norn glared at her.

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

“Okay.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything around her was governed by such an intricate order–

For perhaps the first time in her entire life.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are these guys that lame?” Selene asked.

Norn smiled. Her vernacular was quite amusing sometimes.

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

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

“Swim around a bit, but conserve energy.”

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

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

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

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

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

Each of the NCOs saluted Norn and acknowledged their orders.

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

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

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

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

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

“Seen Hunter III around?” Norn asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then don’t.”

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

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

“Is it meat?”

“It’s better than meat.”

“Bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S’it in your coat?”

“Indeed.”

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

Her eyes drew wide open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter III opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.

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

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

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

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

Her eyes were wild with a surprising passion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One complete fruit from a Garden of Marrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncharacteristically, the shorter woman allowed this display of affection.

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

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

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

I would die without her.

She could never say such a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For most psychics that was indeed a genuine concern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mehmed– why was she remembering that name–?

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

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

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

Painfully close to how Norn herself had always felt.

It brought up bad memories.

Memories Norn had no use recalling.

“One last thing.”

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

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

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

“I will free you from her.”

Hunter III seemed to have no answer to that.

She was confused why that name had come up.

Twice, even.

“Sure thing, boss.“

She was likely not even listening anymore at this point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.6]

“Wait– What? I’ll– I won’t stand for such cheap tricks you bitch!”

Captain Korabiskaya was long gone from the monitor before she could even be insulted.

Gertrude snapped her head up at the ship’s main displays and saw her predictors going out of control.

One by one her sonar operators threw their headsets off as quickly as they could.

“Captain–”

“Yes ma’am. Leave this to your crew. We can fight off some cocky mercenaries.”

Dreschner needed only to take one look at her before realizing he needed to take command.

Gertrude sank in her chair.

She was partially shielded from the surrounding crew by her chair’s monitors, so she could raise her hands to her face and fight off tears into them, in some measure of privacy. Only Dreschner and Schicksal knew that she was in turmoil. Her heart was in tatters, her mind was faring little better. Furious, frustrated, helpless, everything around her swimming.

Who were these people? Why did they stand between her and Elena?

What compelled them to fight against these overwhelming odds?

And yet, she knew she had been had. Because the odds were unfavorable to her as well.

Sinking the Pandora’s Box was easy. Rescuing Elena, if the mercs fought back, if the mercs knew–

“Lady Inquisitor.”

Dreschner looked over his shoulder at her with a stern expression.

She was practically cowering in her chair when he saw her there. She almost thought he would rebuke her weakness. For a Captain like Dreschner, serving under a whimpering girl like this must have been mortifying.

“Permission to deploy Divers to counterattack.” He asked instead.

“I– Of course.” She had expected him to strike her down. Maybe she expected this of everyone now.

Gertrude felt disgusted with herself. Torn and broken, a toy soldier in a garish uniform.

Her sword arm shaking, afraid to move, and afraid of being struck down.

“I trust your judgment, Dreschner. I always have.” She stammered out.

“May I have a word then? As Einschel Dreschner to Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

Dreschner’s expression softened.

Averting her eyes, Gertrude nodded her head at him. So permitted, Dreschner spoke.

“Recent events have been difficult and will get worse, for all of us. I made an oath to support you. Everyone else on this ship follows you, Gertrude Lichtenberg, because you lead them with determination. They see you have something to fight for when they themselves have nothing. So they fight for your cause. Among the tyrants of this coming era, you are their tyrant. I will always support you; do not give up. Show them your determination to keep fighting.”

The Inquisitor’s eyes drew wide. She felt her heart drumming with anxiety.

How could he say something like that when she was visibly in pieces before him?

Was it all just because of his promise? His promise to–

She raised her sleeve to her eyes and wiped her tears.

He was right. No need to question it.

Gertrude was a tyrant. A tyrant in this evil time. She had to be strong, ruthless.

All she had was a single goal, one thing she desired the most. One overwhelming focus.

There were more cards to play. She would make good on her threat to that Volgian bitch.

“Contact the brig, tell the guards I’ll be headed there. Keep things together for me here.”

Dreschner turned back around and resumed commanding the fleet’s counterattack.

Gertrude stood and walked out of the bridge.

Tears of injustice kept building in her eyes that she had to fight back again and again.

She was so close, so close–

Only for obstacle after obstacle to get in her way. Furious, but helpless– she wielded power that could have credibly erased those mercenaries from existence in an instant, and yet, that power was useless to her. She knew, she knew those mercenaries had Elena captive! So she could not fire on them, lest she gamble with Elena’s life. She would never forgive herself if she came this close only to kill Elena herself. She had hoped to force their surrender; that Captain Korabiskaya instead chose to fight meant the situation could easily spiral out of control and end in another tragedy.

Setback after setback after setback, straining her hope, driving her to madness.

But despite everything, Dreschner was right. She had no reason to fear or to stop.

All of her people followed her, became instruments of her power, because she was never lost for something to fight for. Because of her obsession, her fixation, the only thing she wanted. Because ever since she had begged and bled and gone through hell and back to attain the position she now had, her fury had a single-minded focus. There was only one thing her heart craved, and she was willing to do anything, destroy anyone, to achieve it.

Elena was on that ship. All Gertrude needed to do was stop that ship and bring her back.

Elena was hers. She would take her back.

Leaving the bridge with fire in her eyes and heart, Gertrude knew what she had to do.

Just off of the hall leading to the Bridge, was the door to the ship’s brig. Common criminals would be held in holding cells on the lower deck. The brig was for VIP criminals and mutineers. White walls, four cells before her, like standing on the doorway into heaven, stark and bright, inhumanly, brilliantly lit. Each cell was a solitary confinement space lit just as brightly. Gertrude ordered the guards out of the room to await further instruction, and closed the door.

She then opened the only occupied cell.

Soon as the door opened, the lights in the room dimmed, ceasing to unsettle the occupant.

Gertrude dropped to the ground and without thinking, suddenly prostrated herself.

“Milord, I throw myself at your mercy. You’re the only one who can help me.”

Her voice broke as she begged, and the begging finally led her to tears. She would do anything to have Elena back. She had no use for pride. No humiliation was too unbearable, no atrocity was too great. Whoever had to die; whoever she had to beg. Just as she had begged Norn the Praetorian for her support; just as she had schemed against and killed her own predecessor; just as she had secured Dreschner’s undying support and the Iron Lady’s matchless power.

Whatever she needed to save Elena, she would acquire. Any weapon, any person–

And if begging didn’t work then violence would.

Opposite her, sitting on the bench within the blaring white cell, was Sieglinde von Castille.

She could imagine those sad blue eyes gazing down at her.

In her mind the Baron was going to look down upon her, and when the woman shifted her weight, she almost expected a contemptuous foot to land upon her head. She expected haughty words to deny her, for the woman’s pride to refuse her. She expected to have to extract from the beautiful Baron with bayonet what her pathetic words would not. Her mind was a haze of fantasies, predicting and preparing for coming violence.

Instead, the Baron simply stood before her quietly, shifting her feet uncomfortably.

“I– I don’t want to see this! Stop this, please. Just tell me what you want from me.”

Her deep, rich voice was trembling and stammering.

When Gertrude lifted her head from the cold white ground, she saw the Baron with her fists balled up at her sides and her eyes gently weeping as if she had been the one who had thrown herself to the ground. She had such a troubled expression; a face that looked almost as troubled as Gertrude herself felt. Had the lights in the room been that unsettling? Had only a few hours of solitary confinement gotten to her? Though Gertrude felt keenly that she was missing something about the Baron’s response, she had at least gotten through to her.

Sometimes, humility drew out what violence would not. Gertrude sighed with relief.

“Thank you most kindly, milord.”

She stood from the ground and mastered herself. Her choice of words would be key.

“Baron, I am in great distress, and can trust only in your discretion as a woman of peerage. Only you are able to support me in this dark hour.” She said. Sieglinde wiped her tearful eyes and turned a serious expression on her, saying no words to interrupt the conversation. Though she did not assent, Gertrude knew she could count on her discretion.

She was a true blue-blood after all.

Gertrude continued speaking.

“I am pursuing a group of mercenaries who stole Elena von Fueller from Vogelheim. Whoever is behind them has paid handsomely enough, or perhaps has enough power, that these mercenaries are refusing to surrender her. I seconded the Serrano patrolmen to form a fleet, hoping to intimidate the mercs into negotiating the Princess’ release. But now that the enemy has chosen to do battle, I do not trust the patrolmen to disable the ship without putting the Imperial Princess at risk. My troops are limited in their abilities and only know that they are going after a VIP. They do not understand the true significance of all this. It is for this reason that I must turn to you, milord.”

She studied the Baron’s expression as she delivered her explanation.

None of this was embellished. This was everything Gertrude knew and believed.

Sieglinde was a veteran of the Empire’s recent wars. More than that, she was a peerless soldier and pilot who was well respected. Gertrude recalled the legend of the Red Baron who downed a Union flagship at Cascabel and kept the Union’s revolution from spreading to Sverland. Ingrid and Clostermann could not measure to her degree of skill. If Sieglinde joined her side, it made no difference how much the Pandora’s Box thrashed at her.

They stood no chance against her legend.

Turning to her own prisoner for support was desperate.

But Gertrude had always been intending to make the offer to Sieglinde.

Even if this battle had gone her way from the outset, there was still the rest of the war.

So she studied the Baron’s conflicted countenance for several desperate, silent moments.

“You would turn me loose to capture this ship? What is your plan?” Sieglinde said at last.

“Among the Empire’s pilots, you are legendary.” Gertrude said. “I have a machine suitable to your abilities. Once you deploy, you’ll serve as my ultimatum to the crew of the Pandora’s Box. They might think I can’t shoot them with my guns, for good reason; but you are a much more precise and dangerous instrument than any gun, and unaccounted for. Once you have gotten through, once they see you in action, they will have no recourse but to surrender.”

“If they fought back, they must have a greater and more complicated plan to stop you.” Sieglinde said, averting her eyes. There was a muscle in her cheek that seemed to twitch with some deep seated anxiety. “Do you think merely giving me weapons will change this situation? Do you have that much faith in me?”

“Nothing in their arsenal could hope to match the Red Baron of Cascabel.” Gertrude said.

Gertrude saw the Baron grit her teeth for a brief moment before her countenance softened.

Her hand raised to her breast, and she took a deep breath.

Sieglinde then locked eyes with her.

“Don’t call me that again. I’ll follow your orders, but only for Elena’s sake.”

Gertrude barely heard the Baron’s request. She was far too elated to have secured her aid.

Her eyes drew so wide she felt they might pop out of her head.

She smiled so broadly it hurt.

To get to see the Red Baron of legend in glorious battle.

Such fitting theater for her grand rescue of her beloved, the culmination of her sufferings.

The Inquisitor’s spirit was soaring. All of these mercenaries would pay. They would pay.

“I can’t thank you enough, milord. I will deputize you as a Lieutenant immediately. Your armor awaits in the lower deck. Sortie and deal with the ship as you feel fitting. I will soon give that bastard mercenary a reason to fear me, and this time, I will negotiate from a position of absolute dominance. You’ve won me this day, milord.”

Sieglinde sighed openly in front of Gertrude, who was too inside herself to read the gesture.

Her expression went from sad to weary to finally stern, casting prying eyes at Gertrude.

“What is your objective, Inquisitor?”

Gertrude blinked suddenly. She felt a rush of electricity from the Baron.

Her words gained a force in that moment they had lacked through the whole discussion.

“I– I already explained, milord. We don’t have much time.”

“I don’t mean in this moment. I am referring to your custody over Elena von Fueller.”

“I’ll rescue her and keep her safe, of course. That is my duty to her.”

“Will you return her to the Fueller family? In this time of political chaos?”

Gertrude smiled vacantly, but she wanted to grit her teeth. What was this interrogation?

“Once she’s safe with me, she can decide for herself.”

“What if she doesn’t feel safe with you, Inquisitor–”

“Baron, I apologize, but we really must go. Our Imperial Highness is in danger.”

From that vacant smile, a forceful voice escaped.

Sieglinde’s expression darkened ever more.

She said something then that Gertrude heard but did not ponder.

Something Gertrude did not even think about answering. Those words scarcely penetrated the world which Gertrude had built for herself. Even the Baron’s powerful voice rang like a dull thud to the Inquisitor’s emotional armor. Whether or not Sieglinde expected a response, she received none when she said, simply:

“You don’t understand what it is like to have been made something without a choice.”

As soon as the words left Sieglinde’s lips, Gertrude was on her way back to the Bridge.

“We can’t tarry any longer milord. I will give you all the support you require to triumph.”

Whatever the Baron felt upon hearing those words, she did not make it known.

Following Gertrude’s direction, the guards escorted Sieglinde down to the lower deck.


“Clostermann and Järveläinen are retreating with damage!” Schicksal called out.

On the Bridge, Gertrude returned to an unfolding chaos. Every gas gunner was engaged in furious control of their stations, the torpedo and main gunners input targeting coordinates that were immediately denied by Dreschner. Spreading out before all of them was an absolutely massive display with all kinds of predictions, camera feeds and diagnostics, by itself the size of an entire wall of some luxurious manse. On this display, Gertrude quickly scanned the tattered state of the fleet. As she arrived, the Irmingard’s pilot section had already been defeated and put to flight.

Gertrude arrived at the side of the Captain and his adjutant like a wraith.

Schicksal was almost startled by the sudden appearance.

With a grim but determined expression, Gertrude directed the adjutant.

“Put them through to me. Have the hangar ready to accept them.”

Gertrude’s almost voice caught in her throat for a moment.

Ingrid was a star pilot herself and her machinery was new and well-equipped.

Clostermann may have gotten caught up in the enemy’s tactics, but Ingrid?

It was almost enough to give her pause. Almost. She just could not afford to show it.

“Welcome back, Lady Inquisitor.” Dreschner said. “It’s been a surprising turn of events.”

Gertrude sat on the ornate, throne-like seat reserved for her in the center of the Bridge.

“I see those patrolmen wound up being no use at all.” She said.

Dreschner shook his head.

“Regrettably so. Our enemies deployed several Divers. They are well-armed.” He said.

“Divers?”

Gertrude turned quickly to connect a call through to her pilots. They would know more.

On the screen attached to her grand command station, the faces of Ingrid and Clostermann appeared, both sweating and bedraggled. Their mecha had taken a pounding and were in the process of being recovered through the chutes on the aft-side of the ship’s keel. Clostermann barely made a noise, but the moment Gertrude’s face appeared on her camera, Ingrid bowed her head and grunted. Mercenaries owning Divers was not unheard of.

Particularly those vicious and dreadful Katarrans.

For them to defeat Ingrid, however–

“Järveläinen, what happened out there?”

“I’m sorry, Lady Inquisitor.” She said. In the presence of the rest of the crew she knew to be as formal as she could muster. “I underestimated these bastards. One of them was a Loup and I got a little careless with her. I want a chance to redeem myself. Do we have any other suits? If you let me back out, I’ll murder ‘em, Inquisitor.”

A Loup?

Of course, leave it to Ingrid to get carried away trying to bully some random pup.

Not that Gertrude could blame her. They were used to having the upper hand.

And this bunch was clearly a strange assortment.

“You’re not going back out.” Gertrude said. “The Grenadier as now spoken for. We’ve got a Volker left in the hangar, but if you could not succeed in your Jagd I’m not having you die in a worse suit. I’ve got an ace in the hole, don’t worry. Come back in here and get yourself checked into medical. You’ve done more than enough.”

Ingrid looked ashamed of herself, but she understood the undertone of that response.

Gertrude loved her and was not going to put her in further danger.

“If you say so, boss.” Ingrid said. She cut her camera feed, perhaps feeling too disgraced.

At that point, Clostermann finally spoke up.

“Lady Inquisitor, these are not ordinary thugs. I admit they caught me off-guard; in the moment, I thought they could be Katarrans because of their skill. But Katarrans are individualistic. They are powerful fighters, but you never see them helping each other. These pilots are fighting as fireteams using real unit tactics, and they are equipped with high spec Union gear. It’s not my place to make assumptions, but something is wrong here ma’am.”

Gertrude paused for a moment.

Union equipment?

It was not unheard of for illegal forces to gain access to Union weapons. Sometimes they went on to the black market as a result of Katarrans or other forces making deals with Union smugglers. But these were a trickle of suits and hard to get a hold of. It would be much easier for Mercenaries to modify labor units or to acquire Volker hardware through clandestine means. For an entire squadron of Union Divers to appear, after she spoke to that Volgian bitch?

“You’re right, it’s not your place to make assumptions. Get to medical ASAP.”

This time it was her who cut the feed to the pilot. She sat back and sighed to herself.

What was she getting into here? Could these really be Union soldiers?

There was no reason for Union soldiers to be taking Elena von Fueller to the northwest.

Something was wrong. Union involvement was not something she accounted for.

Then on the main screen, a confirmation from the hangar appeared of a Diver going out.

“RKD-X06 ‘Grenadier’, Sieglinde von Castille, deploying now.”

At that point, it once again ceased to matter to Gertrude what motivation these fools had.

Ultimately what mattered is that they had swam near the shark, and now came the teeth.

“Captain, have Sieglinde clear out any remaining vermin with our flak support.”

“Understood.” Dreschner said. He gave her a slightly wry smile as he did so.

Gertrude smiled back. She had an ironclad vision for how this was going to unfold.

“Ready the main guns. We’ll be sending a message to one Captain Korabiskaya, shortly.”

Elena would be back in her arms soon. And this nightmare would retreat into memory.


“Predicting direct hit by heavy ordnance on Frigate marked L1!”

On the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand, the loudest voice belonged to Fatima al-Suhar, Chief Petty Officer in charge of sonar detection and related systems. Because her station received raw acoustic prediction data and she saw everything imaged in real time, before it was output to the main screen for the rest of the crew, she could act as a commentator to the events. For a Cruiser-size ship, the Brigand had a relatively small and lean bridge, with only an officer per station.

Thankfully, Fatima was keeping up well, and had yet to give a single piece of bad news.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sighed with relief. Her body tensed whenever Fatima raised her voice. Would this be the time she would hear the name of someone they would have to bury in effigy when they got back home? If they got back home– a lot of dangerous thoughts burdened her whenever the sonar officer spoke.

However, the content of her words quickly calmed Ulyana.

“Frigate marked L1 is sinking! Sameera must have deployed a bomb!”

“That’s one of Murati’s bombs. So we have two left.” Aaliyah sighed.

Ulyana crossed her arms.

While the 114th was dominating the enemy’s escorts, no one had put a scratch on the Irmingard flagship yet. There was a sense to which any celebration of their victories was premature. In any other battle, knocking down three Cutters and a Frigate would be worthy of decoration. In this one, it meant nothing as long as that gunmetal grey tyrant still floated. They could knock out escorts all day long. If that dreadnought was still chasing, there was no victory.

“It was always going to be the case that they would need to use these to get close.”

“I know. I’m just trying to keep track.” Aaliyah replied.

“Zachikova,” Ulyana spoke up, raising her voice from the volume she used to address her Commissar in relative privacy, to the strong voice with which she called on her crew. “Can you get a laser relay drone out to them, and tap into their communications? We’ve got predictions of damage on Sameera and Dominika from both the acoustics and the laser imagers and I need someone to report something to me verbally about what’s going on. Do you have capacity?”

“Negative. I’m working my brain raw here trying to program controls for those dummied out boosters.”

Zachikova was feverishly going over text at her station. Ulyana turned to Semyonova.

“Semyonova, if I hand you drone control, can you get it out there and route the comms?”

Semyonova ran a hand through her blond hair and for a moment, looked nervous.

“It’ll be tough ma’am. I’m still handling comms between us and the hangar, and the Iron Lady has been sending comms requests I’ve been having to filter out too. I can do it if you need.” She flashed a brilliant little smile.

Leave it to Semyonova to explain why she couldn’t do something and then volunteer to do it.

“No, you’re right. There is someone more fitting for this anyway.”

Ulyana turned to the right-hand side of the Bridge. “Geninov! Fly a laser relay drone out!”

“Don’t I get to refuse huh?” Alex Geninov shouted back. “Why is it only an order for me!”

“You’re not doing anything presently, Geninov.” Aaliyah raised her own voice too.

“Oh great, mom and dad are shouting now?”

“Watch your tongue with me!” Aaliyah shouted.

“Sorry! Ok! I’m sorry! I’m more jittery than normal! It’s a tough sitch we’re in!”

Ulyana ran her hand down her face with frustration.

“You piloted relay drones before, when Zachikova was unavailable.” She said sternly.

“I mean, duh, I can pilot it that’s whatever.” Alex said. “But what I want is to shoot that damn flagship with a torpedo! I’ve got an 80 mm torpedo locked, cocked and ready to rock! I don’t understand why you aren’t letting me, and this witch over here, riddle that thing with explosives already!”

Alex pointed indignantly at fellow late-shifter and gunnery officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa.

“Let it be proclaimed that I refuse to become party to this fool’s schemes.” She said.

“Such solidarity for your comrade in the shooting section, you black-hearted–”

“Stop shouting already.” Ulyana said. “Tell me this: in your current state, can you shoot a torpedo out of the front of the Brigand and swing it around behind us with a 100% guarantee you will not hit any part of our vessel, any stray objects, any of our Divers, and inflict significant damage on the flagship? I will authorize you to shoot if you will take complete responsibility for this. And if anything happens to compromise the mission–”

With the Captain talking so fast, Alex merely turned back around to her station, defeated.

Visibly she switched the torpedo interface to the controls for a laser relay drone.

“Drone going out now.” Alex mumbled.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both sighed at the exact same time.

Alex glared out the side of her eyes.

“Maybe if someone had gotten that top-mounted launcher ready in time–”

Zachikova detected Alex’s snide remark and instantly responded.

“Maybe if someone here had learned to code in secondary school instead of playing video games, she could assist me in writing military grade software on the fly in a hostile working environment day in and day out.”

Alex bowed her head and defeated again, said nothing while deploying the drone.

“Wait, hold on, what do you mean that this is a hostile working environment?” Semyonova said, snapping her head up from her station for a moment. “Zachikova, has anyone harassed you?”

“I mean we could be killed literally any second. Like right now.” Zachikova said.

“Oh. I thought you meant like, someone grabbed at your–”

Deadpan, Zachikova turned away from her. “Please leave me alone, I really need to work.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah both raised their hands to their faces at the same time.

Somehow everything was functioning despite being short-handed and having these hands.

When the door to the bridge next opened, Ulyana expected Akulantova with updates on the crew morale and any incidents that may have transpired amid the sailors. She did not expect, however, for Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse to appear escorting Marina McKennedy into the bridge. The security girls were wearing bashful expressions, while Marina looked annoyed. They had been deployed as Bridge security while Akulantova held the lower deck.

“She really insisted on coming in ma’am, but far as I can tell, she has no clearance.” Zhu Lian said.

“We know she got picked up in Serrano though. So we thought we’d ask.” Van Der Smidse added.

Marina grunted.

“There hasn’t been time for formal clearances.” Ulyana said. “Let her through, she’s fine.”

Guardsmen Zhu and Van Der Smidse bowed their heads and stepped back outside.

Marina stepped up to the Captain’s and Commissar’s station and stood in orbit of them.

Hands crossed, facing the monitor, watching predictions slowly and haphazardly update.

“It’s pandemonium out there. So this is a real battle, huh?” Marina said.

“Never been in a fleet action before?” Aaliyah asked.

“Not in this capacity.” Marina said. “What do our chances look like? That’s a big-ass ship.”

“I believe in our pilots and crew. The situation is fluid, but we’re in control.” Ulyana said.

Ulyana was not saying that purely for the sake of the foul-mouthed G.I.A. agent.

She needed to truly believe it herself. And watching the battle unfold, she felt it.

They were in control. Everything was in flux, everything was dicey, but they had initiative.

As powerful as that Irmingard flagship was alone, it was caught flatfooted, its escorts appeared to be far lower quality than expected, and it was hobbled by its mission parameters. Of all the missions a ship crew could be given, trying to board or capture a ship that was resisting was the most difficult. And on top of that, securing the safety of a VIP within that ship, which made it impossible to shoot at the ship and cripple it– All of the advantages lay with the Brigand.

“I’ve heard the name of that flagship before.” Marina said. “Gertrude Lichtenberg, right?”

“That’s who I talked to.” Ulyana said. She grew curious. “What do you know about her?”

“Youngest Grand Inquisitor in history. She rose to her position off the fall of a previous Inquisitor, so she’s got some cunning and a lot of connections. Some say she is personal friend of the ruling Fueller family.”

Marina’s expression darkened. She gritted her teeth a little bit and tightened her fists.

“It would honestly make things a lot simpler if she just dropped dead.” Marina said.

At that point, another intruder ran through Zhu and Van Der Smidse, and into the Bridge.


When Elena pushed through the guards and into the bridge she practically doubled over.

Gasping for breath, her eyes stinging and burning with tears and her own sweat.

Had she heard what she thought she did? She thought– she thought she heard Marina–

“Please,”

Her choked voice escaped from her lips, her hair hanging over her face.

Staring at the Bridge floor, dressed in nothing but a bodysuit with a blanket around her.

“Please– you can’t do this–”

“Marina, is she ok? She’s not even wearing–”

The Captain, Korabiskaya, spoke up with a kindly, concerned tone of voice.

When Marina McKennedy raised her own voice, it bore an unfamiliar venom.

“I’ll handle this, Captain.”

Elena raised her head and felt a powerful grip taking her by the shoulder and arm.

She felt lighter than a leaf on Vogelheim’s wind, as Marina forced her out of the Bridge.

That icy, ironclad grip from her caretaker’s fingers digged into her flesh. The dainty princess felt a spike of pain through her skin that drew fresh tears. It was enough to send her into a sudden panic. She struggled against Marina, struggled to stay on the Bridge, struggled to speak for herself. She was being hurt! Marina was hurting her!

Elena was so unused to being treated so roughly that she wanted to let out a mortal scream.

Only the wide-eyed, terrifying glare from Marina kept her silent.

For a brief instant Elena caught sight of the blond Captain staring at her with disbelief.

Then the door to the Bridge closed, separating them.

Those two girls guarding the door stood dumbfounded, staring at her and Marina.

“Um, can we help at all–”

When the blond one with the braided tails started to speak, Marina quickly snapped back.

“Nothing– It’s nothing– sorry–”

All the while forcing Elena around the corner, to one of the bulkhead wells connecting the pods.

There she leaned over Elena, putting her against the door, briefly out of sight of the hall.

They stood there, eye to eye. It was impossible for Elena not to feel tiny and cornered.

For a moment, Marina said nothing. She was angry. She was angrier than ever.

Elena could feel anger radiating. Red, but frayed on the edges with a sickly muddle of colors–

“Can you explain to me what the fuck you think you are doing?” Marina said.

Elena stammered, her words getting caught in her lips several times.

She was trapped, she was trapped in Marina’s grip, unable to think straight–

“You hurt me!” She cried out.

Marina shut her eyes and bowed her head. Her jaw twitched ever so slightly.

“You were acting like a lunatic.” Marina said. “Do you want to end up in the brig?”

“They’re– Marina they’re gonna–”

At that moment, her guardian’s head snapped up and they locked eyes again.

Elena could almost count the red veins on her eyes.

Her face was flushed, her breathing agitated. Her whole body was tense.

“They’re in the middle of a battle! Whatever you want to tell them they won’t listen.”

“Would they listen to you? Marina, can you talk to them?”

The Princess was almost ready to beg.

Had she had mastery of herself she would have been on the ground begging in front of Marina McKennedy. She would have done anything to call off this ridiculous, pointless, evil bloodshed. She was sure if she could speak to Gertrude they could avert this tragedy and maybe even work together. That’s all she wanted to beg from them.

Just a chance to speak to her! To speak again to the woman she loved!

“Gertrude– they’re going to kill Gertrude.” She mumbled.

Marina glanced over Elena’s shoulder. Perhaps making sure no one else was there.

“I was afraid this was going to be the case.” Marina ran a gloved hand down her own face in exasperation. “Elena, I’m sorry, but your friend is currently trying to kill us. I know it’s the most difficult and awful thing in the world to you right now, but unless you want us to be dead you are not going to walk out of here with your friend in hand. You had best accept that fucking reality right now. You’ll never see her again. Just put it through your head right now.”

“Please, Marina. Please talk to them. They’ll listen to you. Tell them I’ll–”

“You’ll what? You’ll tell the communists you’re an Imperial Princess? You’ll compel them with your Imperial Authority to let you talk to an Imperial Inquisitor currently in the process of trying to vaporize us from the fucking face of the planet? Are you out of your fucking mind? Have you given any kind of thought to any of this? Of course you fucking haven’t. Messiah defend! Think about your situation for a moment! You are being ridiculous!”

Her words came like punches at Elena’s ribcage, beating the air out of her again and again.

“Marina– Please– Please tell them–”

There was no room to move with Marina on top of her, but she wanted to kneel, to beg.

Her voice broke. Fresh tears were flowing from her eyes.

“All I’m going to say to the commies is that you need Propofol and a bed right now.”

In that instant Elena thought she felt something from Marina that infuriated her.

All of those colors she saw hovering over Marina in her distress began to calm. She realized that Marina was starting to resign herself; to reach a state of peace. Because she was going to get rid of Elena. She was going to have the communists take her away, and then she would be out of Marina’s hair for a while. That realization, that right now Marina saw her as a burden, saw her as a problem to be rid of, that Marina did not care how she felt.

Marina would never help her. She never wanted to. She never even listened to her.

How had she come to be so powerless? So helpless? Dragged around everywhere like this?

Elena saw herself holding Gertrude’s hand again. Remembering that feeling, the roughness and softness of them, the slightly swarthy color of her olive skin, her striking eyes. She was across such a vast gulf from her now, in a world that Elena seemed like she could never join her in. Elena thought of all that transpired and all the friends she left behind. All of the people she had already lost. Bethany was gone; everyone at Vogelheim who used to accommodate her, coddle her, all gone; Gertrude herself; even someone like Sawyer was involved in this despicable tragedy too.

And Victoria van Veka too–

The princess’ eyes drew wide. In her agitated state, a little smile crept up on her lips.

All this time she had been so caught up in herself.

Those moments in Vogelheim had been so stressful, beyond stressful, nothing but scenes of chaos. Chaos that Elena had not wanted to sort out. In that instant of insanity in which she felt her heart filling with hatred for Marina, where she wished with all her heart to dash her to pieces, to free herself of her evil grip and to stop whatever deeds she had become involved in– within that moment of anger and sadness and desperation Elena remembered Victoria van Veka.

Suddenly she raised her hand to Marina’s face and laid it on her forehead.

Touching her. Wanting nothing more than to hurt her. To hurt her until she submitted.

Elena was the Princess. Marina should listen to her. Marina had to listen to her.

“Elena! What the fuck are you–”

“Let me go. Let me go now. Do what I say and let me go. Let me go, you peon–”

She recalled what it was like to feel controlled by Victoria.

Victoria had tried to do this to her. To stop her, to drag her towards her, to control her.

And she had tried to do it to Marina. Elena had felt what Marina had felt during that time too.

That feeling of thousands and thousands of hands crawling over her body.

Elena channeled that feeling. A feeling of being seized, of being pushed and pulled, of her skin and eyes and brain feeling an alien heat that wanted to seep in everywhere and fill her with itself, to forced her submission. Elena focused on this feeling, focused on using whatever Victoria saw inside her to push Marina, to pull Marina, to hurt Marina, to enter Marina in every pore of her being that was open to Elena’s will, to make Marina submit to her–

“Elena, stop–”

Intermittent red rings flashed on Marina’s eyes. She was not in, but she was close–

The G.I.A. agent’s jaw set, her arms shook, her brow sweated, her eyes teared up.

“Elena– Please– No–”

Elena could feel it, she could feel herself tearing Marina open–

Her physical sight of the world was submerged into the colors erupting from her victim.

Elena like a body drifting down the endlessness of the sea, falling, falling into the colors–

“Oh my. What an unladylike thing to be doing!”

There was a flash of light.

Sunlight. Artificial, likely, but the only kind of sun she had ever known.

Fluttering birds leaving their high perches in the dozens.

Fragrances of all sorts, flowers, and herbs, all carried on a buffeting, cool breeze.

Elena opened her eyes.

She was high up in a palatial garden, the peak of a castle overlooking lush plantation lands.

White stone banister and railing with gold ornamentation, tall green beds of various plants.

“Schwerin Island.” Elena said to herself. “My mother’s palace at Schwerin Island.”

Her breath caught in her chest. Her heart beat hard. She was alive, physical– right?

Why was she here? And she was not a child. She looked down at herself–

But she was not dressed as she should be. Back on that ship, she was basically naked.

Now she was wearing one of her ornate dresses. That dress she had worn on Vogelheim.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? Too bad about everything that happened here.”

Elena was not alone. That voice that had called her ‘unladylike’ spoke up again.

At first, no matter where she looked, she could not see anything.

Then she appeared before Elena as if a ghost that had been hiding behind a gust of wind.

Blonde hair done half up, red eyes, a soft and pretty face with pale pink skin, youthful beyond its years, often twisted into a self-amused sneer. A slight woman, neither too tall nor too large, thin but well enough endowed, fit but not too apparently so. She was dressed how Elena last remembered seeing her. A red dress with a plunging, square neckline, white pants, wearing an open blue, green and gold jacket with the heraldry of the House of Fueller, the square, intricate semiconductor of fate and the machinery of the once-engineers, who became soldiers, who became the royal family. 

Like a kid, Elena blurted out–

“Auntie?”

Standing before her as if she had traversed the length of the Oceans–

Norn the Praetorian.

Without word, Norn walked casually across Leda Lettiere’s garden to meet her daughter.

“Ah, my little elf, aren’t you sweet? Your mother was such a bohemian spirit, and yet she never accepted me as family, but you? You were always so warm. But I’m worried! If you remember this,” Norn gestured to the gardens around her as she walked, with a dramatic flourishing of her arms, “then surely, Elena, you remember the promise we made?”

Elena always found it hard to speak in front of the foremost retainer of the Fueller family.

Norn had a powerful presence. She spoke with unyielding confidence.

“I’m sorry Auntie– Lady Norn.” Elena corrected her etiquette quickly. Despite her own high status in the Fueller family, she almost felt beneath Norn, or at least, felt that Norn easily carried herself as one above even Elena herself.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I don’t recall.” Elena said, her chest fluttering with anxiety.

When her aunt responded, her voice was sickly sweet yet venomous at the same time.

“Oh, but Elena, it was a very important promise you made me. You can’t ever forget it!”

Norn stopped directly in front of Elena and stared directly into her eyes.

Red as Norn’s eyes were, in that instant, Elena saw even redder rings around them.

“Unfortunately, for us to meet here in the first place, means you broke the promise.”

The Praetorian’s fist struck fast as lightning. Elena had no time to react.

Like a film with a frame removed– one moment Norn had been standing still.

In the next, there was a fist embedded in Elena’s ribcage, pounding the air out of her.

Such was the force of that blow Elena nearly lifted off the floor.

Spit blew from Elena’s mouth, snot from her nose. She felt like her lungs went out of place.

So much pain, blinding, obliterating, all-consuming pain. More like a clubbing than a punch.

Elena dropped helplessly to her knees. Hugging herself, doubling over, retching.

“Not throwing any rocks? Or stirring up the dirt at me? Ahh. You’re still innocent.”

Norn kneeled down beside her and grabbed hold of Elena’s hair, snapping her head back.

“You promised to be a good girl for me. And it appears you still can be. It’s never too late to go back to being a powerless, pampered, cute little princess, Elena. So remain innocent; or Norn will be here to punish you.”

In the midst of her pain, images flashed in Elena’s mind. That smile– that sneering smile.

Huddled in a room in Schwerin, scared, alone, Leda Lettiere’s burning tower visible in the window.

Mother, Bethany– Marina–? No, they were gone. Only herself and this woman. Norn.

Norn kneeled next to her, just like this. Sweetly touching the head of the little scared child–

Staring deep into her with those red eyes until Elena started to lose her sense of place.

Flitting between the Norn of then and the Norn now as something appeared over her.

An icy white spike formed out of the air, instantly stabbing a deep, numbing cold into her brain.

Elena vanished from her mother’s garden and fell deeper and deeper into the dark ocean.


From the Captain’s chair came an exasperated sigh.

“Something’s wrong with those two. Can you go check on them quickly?”

“Of course.”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara stood up from her seat at Captain Korabiskaya’s request and stepped out into the hall outside the Bridge. She was skeptical of Marina McKennedy the moment she arrived — it was her job to be, after all. Now with the way she was treating that aide of hers, and the way that aide was behaving, Aaliyah was ever more suspicious of her motives. Between her two fluffy ears all kinds of ideas were percolating: maybe Marina had this girl captive and was drugging her; maybe this girl was being misled and Marina would dispose of her in secret–

Out in the hall, she found Maryam Karahailos, Klara Van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian out by the bulkheads. While Maryam was visibly panicking and looking around in confusion, Van Der Smidse and Zhu were both on the floor hovering over– people? Aaliyah hurried to the bulkhead well when she realized what was happening.

Maryam noticed this and waved her over anxiously.

“These two just dropped right out from behind this wall!” She cried out.

“What were they doing around the bulkheads?”

Aaliyah arrived and saw Marina McKennedy and her aide on the floor.

Van Der Smidse and Zhu breathed heavily over them, looking pale and tired.

“We managed to resuscitate them.” Zhu said.

“They weren’t breathing?” Aaliyah asked. “Why were they back here?”

“I think they wanted privacy. We’re sorry ma’am, we didn’t realize it’d be a thing.”

Van Der Smidse lifted herself off of Marina’s sleeping body with a heavy sigh.

“We kept an eye on them from afar, but then they just dropped to the ground.” She said. “When we got to them, they weren’t breathing. We started CPR– we told this girl to run to the security office and fetch Syrah, but she just stood there like an idiot.” Van Der Smidse shot Maryam a glare, the latter devolving into a fresh round of fretting.

“Just when we thought it looked worse than we could handle, they started breathing again. We got circulation too, their hearts don’t even sound very excited. They got lucky, I guess.” Zhu said, shrugging.

Absolutely bizarre. For Marina to drop like this too– maybe she was also using drugs?

“Good work you two– Maryam, it’s okay, calm down. You’re a civilian with no training.”

Aaliyah laid a shoulder on the fretting, weeping Maryam to try to calm her down.

“Ma’am, it’s just– I feel the despair wafting from them–” Maryam sounded hysterical.

“You’re a really sensitive girl, aren’t you?” Aaliyah said. She didn’t understand, but wanted to comfort her.

Before Maryam could complain any further, the steel floor shifted beneath their feet.

Aaliyah found herself thrown to the ground with Maryam, Zhu and Van Der Smidse as a sudden shock tilted the Brigand. Even through the metal armor Aaliyah could hear the sound of the explosive blasts going off outside, a dull booming like percussion in another room. Their feet slid out from under them and they landed in a pile over Marina.

The Commissar’s ears twitched as they picked up the distant but much more audible sound of screeching metal.

One thought consumed Aaliyah in that instant of panic — she had to get to the Bridge!

Ulyana –!

Almost leaping off the wall, Aaliyah pushed herself back onto her feet, and ran across the unsteady hall, the Brigand briefly shaking from side to side as it struggled to regain its balance amid the powerful shockwaves it was subjected to. Sliding and stumbling, holding a chilling breath in her chest, Aaliyah made it to the Bridge door and nearly fell through the opening as the door admitted her inside. Everything was still shaking even seconds after the impacts.

“Captain!” Aaliyah shouted.

She found Ulyana hanging on to her chair, with a hand over her head.

Aaliyah briefly thought she saw blood–

It was her morbid imagination. Ulyana was shaken, but unhurt and alive.

“Aaliyah, are you ok?” She asked.

Aaliyah nodded her head vigorously and then turned sharply to face the Bridge crew.

“Status report! Now!” She shouted.

“Two rounds! Main guns!” Fatima shouted, holding her chest, breathing in fits and starts.

She was completely spent.

Working at night, the first to respond, and the one responsible for tracking the whole situation on the sonar. They would have to work on her stamina, but for now it was understandable that she would shaken up. Aaliyah almost thought of relieving her, but this was not a situation where they could be as kind as they wanted to their crew.

Unprompted, the remaining reports came quickly after.

“Bulkheads automatically sealed on block C-6!” Semyonova reported. She sounded shaken but not to the degree Fatima was. “I’ve sealed additional bulkheads one sector out just in case. Freezing agents partially deployed; flood mitigation wasn’t able to do much. Draining slowly; pressure loss was mitigated in time to prevent a total loss.”

“C-6 is just a maintenance corridor in the outer hull.” Ulyana sighed with relief.

“Zachikova, did we catch the attack on video? How are the electronics?” Aaliyah said.

“We have vids. Two rounds detonated off the port side near the prow. No way we could have intercepted it. No direct hits on the hull.” Zachikova shouted, her deadpan voice the most composed out of the responders. “There was a sizable breach but freezing agents and flood mitigation are preventing the whole C-6 from peeling off. Several cameras and imagers are offline. Up to my neck in electrical errors from that sector. Shutting down power to it now.”

Ulyana laid back in her chair and raised her eyes up to the ceiling, groaning.

Aaliyah joined her, finally feeling calm enough to take her side again.

“Helmsman! How’s the propulsion? Any damage?” Ulyana asked.

“Maintaining speed. They just missed the sidepod intakes. We got lucky.” Kamarik replied.

Lucky, relatively speaking.

No ship wanted to take damage. That hole in the port-side would compromise the ship’s hydrodynamics and even with the freezing agent and flood systems slowing the build-up of water and pressure at the affected site, it was not something they could ignore forever. They would have to repair the hull properly. When and where they would do so was another matter entirely– and on that there was no point in addressing, until they had escaped.

“Okay! Nobody panic. We’re still following the plan. Keep yourselves on task and we’ll get out of her alive.” Ulyana said. “We’ve all had the dust shaken off our coats by the nice Ms. Lichtenberg, and now we just have to pay back her kindness. Kamarik, keep an eye on our thrust, and Zachikova, keep working on the software. How are our Divers? We have a battle to win here, people. Semyonova, put me through to Lichtenberg, she’s calling, right?”

“Yes ma’am, she has been the whole time. I’ve kept refusing.” Semyonova said.

“She’s clearly desperate for my attention.” Ulyana said in jest. “So I’ll reward her.”

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah looked up at the smiling blond keeping this Bridge together.

She felt almost like she was looking at an entirely different person than before.

To think this was that same woman who was clumsy with words and loose with drink.

Everyone was shaken and scared.

They were all tense, they could die any minute, and a massive shock just dealt real damage to their ship for the first time. Fatima and Alex looked like they would have respiratory attacks. Zachikova, no matter how much she hid it, was clearly struggling with the software. Despite the desperate situation they were in, Ulyana could still smile and joke, at least on the outside, and her voice had not lost the power it wielded before the blasts.

Firing the main gun should have changed the entire situation.

Ulyana was still in command of this Bridge, however.

And so they soldiered on with her.

“Captain, do we still think she’s bluffing?” Aaliyah said.

“Oh, she’s bluffing. I’ve got her grabbed by that little ponytail of hers now, don’t worry.”

Ulyana’s confidence never wavered even as she said these dangerous words.

If she was anything less than sure, she was condemning them all to sink.

Aaliyah knew she was right, however. With this attack, the Irmingard outed itself.

“Semyonova, hurry and put Lichtenberg through if she’s calling.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova nodded solemnly. Seconds later, the Inquisitor reappeared before the Captain.

Gertrude Lichtenberg was all smiles, looking quite pleased with herself on the video.

“Greetings Captain. I see it took a reminder of our relative positions to get you to respond to my calls. You’ve taught me a dangerous thing about how to deal with you, so you’d best try to accommodate me now. My main guns are loaded for another salvo, but I’d rather break this vicious cycle and parlay. So what do you say?”

“I say you’re being very selfish here. Each of those rounds must have cost a few hundred thousand marks. Seems like a waste to be dealing with a bunch of bottomfeeders like us in that way.” Ulyana shrugged comically.

“Given how much damage you’ve done it’s the only way I will deal with you.”

“I don’t want to brag; honestly, I just think you could do with better help.”

“I feel exactly the same, so I will cut to the chase here then.” Gertrude was already visibly annoyed by Ulyana once again. She clearly had skin as thin as a sheet of limestone paper. “You have a VIP aboard that I will be taking into custody. We don’t need to discuss the specifics. Don’t even pretend with euphemisms like ‘precious cargo’, I know you have her aboard. I will get her back, whether rescuing her from the wreckage or in a way that allows you to live. Give her up, and this dishonorable situation never transpired. You have my word you will go free. In fact, I may even have work for mercenaries of your caliber in the future. But I need her back right now.”

Now that was an intriguing response. She had spilled a lot of valuable information.

Off to the side of these exchanges, Aaliyah could not help but grin and find herself quite pleased with Ulyana’s performance. Thinking about what she said, Aaliyah felt that Gertrude must have been referring to Marina. By all accounts, Maryam had no trail, but Marina, if she had been captured by the Empire before, was a known fugitive. She had no idea how Marina’s presence aboard the Brigand came to be known to the authorities — but if there was anyone aboard the Brigand whom Gertrude’s words could be about, it had to be Marina. There was no doubt in her mind.

Ulyana quite accurately surmised that pushing back with her own euphemisms would work.

“Oh, but I know exactly who she is, Ms. Lichtenberg. I know who she is and how valuable she is, or I would not be resisting. I saw through her façade the instant she came aboard. However, she is still a prized client and does not wish to return to your custody. So I shall have to decline. She’s mine now, so you’d best move on from her.”

Ulyana smiled sweetly after speaking.

Gertrude’s jaw had a spasm.

“I will rip your little hauler in half and pick her out of a flooded pod if I have to.” Gertrude said.

“That’s a notion you really ought to move on from as well.” Ulyana said.

Gertrude grit her teeth.

“Who are you really working for? What will it take for you to surrender peacefully? To end this mean–”

“Are you going to say, ‘meaningless bloodshed’? Spare me the sophistry.”

“You have to be doing this for someone or something! What is it that you are after?”

“I see.” Ulyana said. She winked at Gertrude. “You’re really smitten with her, huh?”

This time it was Gertrude who cut off the video feed, flashing a furious grimace first.

Ulyana laid back in her chair, smiling to herself.

“She’s not going to shoot. Whoever she’s after, it’s personal.”

“Personal, huh?” Aaliyah said.

“I can tell. I’ve just seen a lot of girls her type. I know that kind of hysterical, horny energy.”

Aaliyah grumbled. “No kidding?”

“I’m only half-joking. But there’s more to it of course.” Ulyana laughed. “Marina said Lichtenberg got her position from a fallen predecessor, through playing politics. If I was a ruthless social climber who won herself a powerful position, why would I descend into convulsions over a single rescue mission? I would expect her to be methodical and emotionless. The Inquisition’s job is to repress people, not save them. I can only imagine this must be personal.”

“There’s another possibility.” Aaliyah said. “It’s about someone really big in the Empire.”

“True. I guess in the Empire there’s also Princes and Princesses and all that.”

“Yes, but that would be silly. Who do you think she’s really after?” Aaliyah said.

“Can’t be Maryam. Katarrans are the lowest of low in Imbrian society.” Ulyana said.

“I was thinking Marina. Maybe Marina knows something.” Aaliyah said.

“She definitely knows something.” Ulyana said. “But why go crazy about taking her alive?”

Aaliyah crossed her arms and nodded. “Thinking about it for a second. The Emperor died very recently. In his absence all kinds of backroom deals and schemes would occur. It could be that Marina has information Gertrude needs to solidify her position in the internecine political conflict. So it’s not about silencing her but getting her to talk.”

“You know, that adds up. I’m thinking it must be Marina then. We’ll need to talk to her.”

Ulyana slid the video display out of her way so she could address the crew unimpeded.

“I’m not hearing any explosions! Have we been able to contact our Divers yet?”

“Drone’s almost there.” Alex said in a choked voice, taking a deep breath.

On the main screen, the drone camera took focus amid the rest of the video feeds.

Through its eyes they approached the Irmingard dead on, flak flying in the distance.

Two fast-moving objects cut through the water over the Irmingard’s surface.

A laser call came in. Semyonova gasped, her hands grabbing hold of her own headset.

“We’ve heard a report from the Divers! Khadija’s engaging– we lost a bomb undetonated!”

Ulyana grit her teeth. Aaliyah bowed her head solemnly.

They were nothing but passengers at this point. Innocents caught up in a stream.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.5]

Upon exiting the Brigand, a certain wily cat was trying to think of something mischievous to say.

“Make it back in one piece, squad leader; I wouldn’t want to have to tease a corpse for its owner’s mistakes.”

Murati, of course, had no reply to that. It was her youth and inexperience perhaps.

With a macabre flair sharpened by her long military service, Khadija al-Shajara broke off from the rest of the squadron, leading Valya Lebedova through the gloomy seas towards the left flank of the enemy’s formation. Khadija controlled her mech with practiced ease, each turn of the stick or press of the pedal as smooth or as harsh as it needed to be. Their Streloks were basic in comparison to some of the customized models favored by the other pilots, but Khadija liked hers basic. She had a relationship to this kind of machine that no one else could ever match.

She tried to purge herself of useless emotions when she went out into the water.

Deep breath, lifting her shoulders, stretching her legs.

Remembering the wine she had back on board the Brigand.

“Valya, how do I sound?”

“Legible!”

“Good. Mind if I take the lead?”

“You’re in the lead ma’am!”

“That’s a good little enby. Judging by how much ordnance is strapped to that Strelkannon I think Sam and Nika will be fine in the front. We should prioritize trying to cripple the Frigate’s flak on our end. If the Cutters are destroyed or rout, those Frigates will try to move up to encircle the center team. Does that sound like a plan?”

“I’m fine with it! We can put a couple bursts in those gas gun pods at least.”

“One shot beneath the left barrel will set off the magazine. No need to seal it with a kiss.”

“I don’t know that I can fire just one shot off this AK, but I’ll try ma’am!”

Valya sounded slightly nervous.

Khadija’s flighty sense of humor never left her, but she was speaking with a stern tone of voice even as she compared the killing of a gas gun pod to the writing of a letter. There was a professional ease that came over whenever she piloted, a sense of giving up responsibility. It allowed her to be honest with herself and everyone around her.

She made the best of every day precisely so she could go out into the water without regret.

An old– mature woman, no children, unmarried, no family: it didn’t matter if she died.

Twenty years in the cockpit made those things seem small.

And the stakes involved in this particular mission made them even smaller.

Khadija flew through the water like a missile. Rookie pilots felt a sense of disorientation or confusion fighting in the Ocean because they could see nothing on their cameras most of the time, save for the overlays labeled by their predictive computers. Then when they found a landmark, they’d suddenly start orienting themselves in two dimensions, as if trying to plant their feet on it. And if anything came at them too suddenly it would be like a jump scare in a movie.

Even back when she started piloting, she never gave in to such vulnerabilities. Khadija was suspended in the water. As long as she had power she would not fall. Nevertheless, she did not hold inexperience against most people in the Navy. Her baptism under fire had taken place in an entirely different era, after all. She could not begrudge them being a little soft now.

It’s why she fought in the first place.

If they were too soft, it only meant those hard old veterans like her should set an example.

“Contacts.” Valya said.

“I see them. I’ll engage. Break off from me, lock your thrust and strafe the ship.”

“Uhh, wait, ma’am who locks their thrust ever? I don’t–”

Without responding, Khadija used the tips of her feet to flip two locking switches.

This would keep her pedals jammed down.

She lifted her AK rifle and fired a three round burst blindly into the ocean below.

Valya shouted. “What was that?”

“Relax and stick to the plan.”

Dead ahead of them was the red square for the Frigate and one additional red square most likely representing a pair of enemy Divers moving close together. Some twenty or thirty meters farther out from these squares was the great and murky looming shadow of the Irmingard class flagship. Quietly, inexorably advancing toward the Brigand.

That was not her concern for now.

Moving at the speed she was Khadija knew she would see the enemy Divers on her camera in seconds.

When they appeared on her screen, the two Volkers were swimming ahead with their rifles to their chests, pointing at nothing and descending rapidly. Toward the last thing that their predictors had pointed them to. The loudest noise they could hear in the middle of the murky ocean: a burst of rifle bullets blowing up in the middle of nowhere. This was how a Rookie saw the world underwater. Large overlay boxes representing “enemies,” and the loudest noise in the box.

As I thought. You fellas are half-baked.

“Ma’am–”

“Stop calling me ma’am and do what I tell you.”

“Yes! Sorry!”

Valya hurtled onward to attack the Frigate moving rapidly into full view.

While Khadija swooped down from above to attack the two Divers below.

Without stopping to aim, she glanced at the rifle’s camera and put a burst into the water.

Like gas gun bullets, rifle bullets were mainly explosive and had special fuzes. Her burst flew off into the blue surrounding the Volkers and detonated around them. She did not aim and had not meant to hit. Startled, the Volkers thrust backwards in opposite directions away from the explosions, separating them from one another.

Never once slowing down or stopping, Khadija fluidly descended in a wide arc circling around the enemy Volkers. Rather than turn her entire chassis to face them, she kept her chest forward, head down, and jets thrusting, strafing past the enemy in tight coiling lines that framed them like a cage of water and bubbles. Her gun camera and one shoulder camera kept her locked on her targets. She did not need to stop and stand among them to shoot.

Khadija rapped the trigger, waiting a fraction of a second between each pull.

For each careful press, she sent a bullet toward the enemy.

Her gunfire arced into the Volkers, exploding into vapor bubbles the size of a dog.

Both Volkers finally set their sights on her and turned their rifles, laying down fire.

A trail of bullets exploded in her wake, never making their mark.

Khadija kept moving. In and around them, like a serpent, leaving them in confusion.

Her chassis cut through the water with great alacrity, weaving, climbing, and rolling, never stopping, keeping as much speed as she could between maneuvers. While strafing the Volkers, her speed protected her from their fire. She could manipulate the arms and cameras to fire a few ranging shots back at them in the middle of her maneuvers. Her enemy, meanwhile, was reduced to lurching in place, jerking ungracefully away from the direction of her gunfire.

Against a two-man section that knew how to defend itself Khadija would have been cut down by coordinated gunfire or dragged into a melee. She could not have been so cocky. But she knew what she was dealing with, and amateurs stuck in two dimensions could never hope to stop her. She had the measure of them, and it was time to end it.

Sweeping up suddenly and unexpectedly, she stopped overhead for just a moment.

The Volkers expected her to keep moving and overshot their next bursts of gunfire, leaving themselves completely open. Khadija braced her assault rifle with both arms to control her aim more tightly.

Two trigger pulls, two bullets, with just one snap correction between each shot.

Two explosions through the heads of the two Volkers below her.

Bubbles blew up from each chassis. A tell-tale sign: gases were escaping.

Without staying for a moment longer to inspect her handiwork, Khadija took off again.

She discarded her magazine and loaded a fresh one into the AK-96.

A brief glance at the rear camera as she headed toward the Frigate.

Both Volkers were sinking, barely damaged but damaged where it mattered.

Khadija knew that an overhead shot on a Volker could penetrate the head on the pure kinetic energy of a 37 mm round which would then detonate inside the camera housing. That meant the explosion would damage the pressure hull at the top of the cockpit through the thin aperture where the visual electronics connected and routed through. As much as the Volker’s camera housing looked like a helmet, it was not well armored and represented a vulnerability.

From one target to another. No use thinking about the debris.

She had a Frigate to sink.

Imperial Marder class Frigates were wide, boxy ships with tear-drop prows and squat conning towers, with large, steeply angled fins like wings attached to the flared rear end. The Irmingard’s Marders served as Diver tenders, loaded with external gantries, two on each side of the ship. Overburdened with these modifications, they were slower and less stable in the water than ordinary Marders, but still able to serve as a wall between Khadija and the flagship.

On the deck, several gas gun turrets spun around firing trails of bullets out of their double barrels as they chased Valya’s Strelok. Their movements were predictable, overflying the deck and circling back around the fin several times; but the fire discipline from the Frigate was abysmal. It was a pathetic chase as the Strelok that moved fast but without particular splendor stayed a step ahead of sputtering lines of bullets– even so, Valya was hardly able to shoot back.

They made a wonderful distraction, however.

 “Valya, watch yourself, they’ll range you soon enough! I’m coming in!”

Khadija approached from below the Frigate.

While the deck guns were all busy with Valya, the ventral guns had been lying in wait for targets. Several were out of position however, their barrels facing the sides of the vessel. Waiting for Valya to come down perhaps, which they never did. So Khadija flew right down the middle of the keel between the distracted guns. She would not have been so cocky if all the guns were tracking her, but they were clearly in no position to fire upon her.

Twisting her chassis around, she soared under the Frigate with her chest facing it.

All the while rapping finger on the trigger, three times, pause, three times.

Shifting her aim quickly from one side of the keel to the other.

Her 37 mm bullets ripped into the bases of several ventral turrets, going off against the keel armor. In her wake, a series of explosions rocked the underside of the vessel. When she pulled out from under the ship and soared behind the flared rear armor and around the wings. As its keel reeled with secondary explosions and ballast started to leak, the ship was forced to accelerate in order to correct itself as it was beginning to tip to one side. Aft gas guns followed Khadija’s ascent with a hail of gunfire, but the ship’s rocky course shattered their ability to aim.

Attached to the magnetic strip beneath the backpack of her Strelok there was a single rocket-propelled grenade with a 50 mm explosive head. Standard issue for ordinary Streloks like hers, it could be thrown, and unguided it would burn solid fuel, race forward and go off like a light torpedo. Rising behind the Frigate, Khadija had the perfect target in mind as she avoided the turbulent outwash from three large hydrojets exposed so directly in front of her.

She took the grenade by the handle, armed it, reared just as she came level to the top jet–

A red flash on the corner of her eye alerted her–

Khadija veered to the right on her climb and twisted out of the way of a burst of gunfire.

This guy is different!

She disarmed her grenade, stowed it away and focused on movement.

Her opponent was barely on her cameras, a red box marking its relative position behind.

Automatic fire peppered everywhere she had been, a trail of explosions creeping on her.

From both the Frigate and the new assailant. Keeping both in mind, she had to act quickly.

To break a chase she had to either shake him or challenge his position.

Keeping on the move, trying to retain her momentum while maneuvering her way around the Frigate’s left fins, Khadija climbed and angled the Strelok’s fins and thrusters steeply. As she climbed she shifted her weight in the opposite direction and turned in an arc, coming to face and charge the enemy she now saw for the first time. Her movements were so fast and tight that her opponent was forced to give up the chase as she came suddenly toward them.

The enemy Diver broke away from her with a burst of solid fuel thrust and took off his own way.

Turning in another steep arc, she was suddenly behind them and chasing.

“Not an amateur, but not on my level.”

There was no reason that pilot had to stop– except that they were not confident they could avoid her without halting their momentum and throwing themselves in an entirely different direction than they had been moving in. Such jerking maneuvers were standard for pilots who saw engagements as two foot soldiers scrambling in terrain. Khadija, however, knew she was flying. And she knew objects flying through the water needed to retain as much speed as they could.

He stopped then restarted movement, and so Khadija had gone from prey to predator.

Rather than a Volker, this new enemy was a brand new Jagd, armed with a jet lance.

Its power-to-weight advantages and hydrodynamic triangle shape were wasted on its pilot.

Had it been her, she would have met any charge with that lance and let physics transpire.

Now, however, Khadija was right on his heels–

From outside her cameras, a sudden burst of gunfire crashed into the Jagd’s hull.

Suffering extensive hull damage, and attacked from two directions, the enemy suddenly showed its acumen for battle in a far more shameful fashion — it retreated. Breaking off from Khadija’s pursuit with all available thrust in its frame, heedless of energy or fuel concerns, the Jagd suddenly disappeared into the murk, likely tailing back to the Irmingard. Valya reappeared on Khadija’s cameras then and rejoined Khadija’s side, just barely keeping up as they maneuvered back toward the troubled Frigate. In minutes, the left wing of the enemy’s escort had been broken.

“How was that ma’am?” Valya asked, laughing to themselves with satisfaction.

Khadija laughed. “Quite acceptable.” And only that much.


After their formal introduction, the pilot group had some time to themselves before their arrival at Serrano Station.

Shalikova wanted to get in some practice in the simulator, which had just been set up in the hangar along with the rest of their equipment. That particular night would be the best chance she had prior to arrival. After a late dinner, she made her way back down to the nearly-deserted hangar on the lower deck. She approached what looked, to the unknowing eye, like pair of odd metal boxes suspended on stilts and struts, shoved off into a corner of the hangar.

Inside them, however, was a full set of Diver controls and monitors. They were constructed so that they would tilt and turn like a Diver would, with cameras that could be specifically oriented, and weights that simulated every kind of movement one could make in a Strelok. This would provide accurate control feedback, even though the pilot would be staring at computer-generated environments and opponents. As fake-looking as the graphics were, the physicality of holding the controls, and building up accurate muscle memory, was invaluable, at least to Shalikova.

There were two paired units set up so that pilots could spar with each other.

At that moment however, Shalikova only wanted to try her luck with the AI–

Until she heard a voice calling out to her from a nearby elevator door.

“Ah ha, lovely to see another pilot tuned to the same frequency.”

Arriving at Shalikova’s side was Khadija al-Shajara, sipping from a half-drunk mug of something richly red. A frequent member of the kitchen crew and supposedly veteran pilot, her sly expression was accented by all her makeup.

Shalikova had just come down from dinner, where Khadija would have observed her. It was no coincidence for the cat to suddenly appear to tease her. That mug of alcohol was the prize she received for helping Logia Minardo so often.

“Such a friendless expression. I just wanted to thank you properly for helping with the kitchen sometimes.”

“Well, I didn’t help tonight, so there’s no reason to thank me.”

“Ah, but I see you’re doing something interesting, so I can’t help but butt in.”

Her ears did a little twitch and her tail swayed gently as she gestured to the simulator pod.

“Why don’t we have a little spar? I’d love to see what my fellow pilots can do!”

Shalikova had heard that Khadija fought in the revolution and that she was a real hot-shot ace.

Nevertheless, she had not earned being so flighty, vain and above-it-all.

“I just wanted to warm up before anything happens.” Shalikova said bluntly, hoping that would end it.

Khadija winked and crossed her arms. “I can be as docile as the Novice AI if you want!”

Shalikova grunted and glared daggers at the older Shimii, frustration bubbling up.

There was a conceited pang in her heart that simply hated being underestimated.

Being observed was bad enough; being praised was rather annoying.

Fundamentally, however, Shalikova was familiar with praise. Praise heaped on her constantly.

Not so much with being looked down upon.

Without another word she stepped into the pod nearest her.

Khadija left her teal half-jacket and her drink outside and wordlessly stepped into the other pod.

When her challenge appeared on Shalikova’s screen, the younger pilot accepted almost impulsively.

Because she was annoyed with this old cat; she planned to be thoroughly discourteous.

“Ah, how lovely! Let’s have a clean match! Show me what you can do!”

As soon as her controls unlocked to simulate deployment, Shalikova charged Khadija.

It was a simulation, so she did not have to care about the health of her battery or turbines, the amount of ammunition she was carrying, the damage she might sustain. She could slam the pedals and hold down the trigger and declare unrelenting aggression. In an academic setting there would be points docked off her piloting, but Shalikova was no longer in school. This was war. She would use every advantage to put down this annoying old woman.

When her first magazine depleted and Khadija’s frame remained at its full integrity despite the violent outburst of automatic fire, Shalikova got an inkling that there was a problem. Then within a single blinking instant Khadija fully disappeared from her field of view, perfectly rolling over and under the hurtling Strelok and taking Shalikova’s back, fully within the blind spots of her cameras as she had set them up. It was only by rotating the backpack cameras to a torturous extent that she found Khadija’s gun barrel stuck right between the backpack and waist of her Strelok.

At that point, the younger pilot realized the extent to which there was a problem.

“Was your thrust locked? Happens sometimes out of the gate with these old sims.”

Shalikova could feel Khadija’s shitty little grin through the radio.

“Reset?” She offered sweetly. “We can break off and approach properly for a spar–”

Instead of a reset, Shalikova engaged her solid fuel vernier boosters.

She expected Khadija to attack, so she jerked herself away and retaliated; shooting only water as her opponent sped away. For the briefest instant she thought she had Khadija on the run, but this was quickly disproven.

Shalikova never even came close to putting a single bullet on her.

Though she would desperately shoot, dodge, reposition, and try to aim ahead of her enemy; Khadija snaked around her like a serpent, evading her blow and firing back at her leisure. Their match grew thoroughly one-sided.

By the time the simulator pods wound down and let the pilots out, Shalikova had gone the full range of emotions from annoyed to furious to deeply ashamed and humiliated, watching herself caught in a whirlpool within which she could do nothing. These machines kept all kinds of data, but Shalikova did not want to look at any of the comparisons.

She was upset. Not even just with Khadija but the way she herself acted. After all, had she not gotten it in her head to fight Khadija she would not have been in this situation to begin with. What rottenness had gotten into her anyway?

More than anything, she felt stupid. Like she had just wasted her time.

Shaking her head, Shalikova fully intended to walk away from the pods and go to bed.

“In a real fight you wouldn’t have time to sulk, you know. I just want to help you.”

With twitching ears and hands on her hips, her Shimii senior stepped out of her pod.

Khadija’s voice had lost its playful tone. She sounded soft and concerned.

It was this tone of voice only that caused Shalikova to pause and hear the rest.

A caring voice uncharacteristic of this particular cat. A voice begging to be listened to.

“You’re a good pilot; I want to believe you’re a pilot who can be great, too.”

Shalikova grit her teeth and balled up her fists. “I’d settle for alive.” She said.

Her frustration was still talking, but Khadija continued to respond gently.

“No you wouldn’t. Not with the way you swam back there. Come back and let’s talk.”

Khadija picked her cup up, took a gentle sip, and led the way, her bushy tail swaying gently.

Still hanging her head, and avoiding eye contact, Shalikova followed Khadija to an empty workbench.

During the night shift, there were few sailors out in the hangar. Those who did work late were tasked with inspecting the pressure and atmospheric conditions, looking for leaks, and otherwise passing through rather than staying in the hangar. This at least meant Shalikova was seen by nobody else but Khadija in this state of obvious depression.

Sitting across from the cat, Shalikova could not even look at her face at first.

Even as much as she was chastising herself for being sulky, she couldn’t help but sulk.

Her senior emptied her mug, and pushed it down onto the table with a thud.

“Shalikova! Chin up now! You’re a good pilot and you must not forget that.” Khadija said, after a brief moment of simply staring at Shalikova. Her tail swayed gently behind her. She was very relaxed, despite how intensely she must have been piloting to pull those amazing stunts Shalikova had seen firsthand. “You have great reflexes, you’re quick and accurate with your movement and thrust, and you have good control of your weapon even in burst fire. In any ordinary battle, you would charge out of your ship, engage an enemy, get the first shot on them, and go home.”

Was that not enough? What else was there to Piloting then? Shalikova grumbled.

“I won’t respond to flattery. Just tell me what I did wrong already.”

She finally raised her head to look at Khadija. Her indigo eyes met the Shimii’s bright green eyes, carefully manicured with wine-colored shadow. She almost saw herself reflected there, in the depths of those old wily eyes.

Khadija was looking directly at her with a smile. Her gaze was confident, unbroken.

“It’s not ‘what you did wrong.’ You did well. What I want is for you to do better.”

She raised her hands and used her thumb and forefinger to make a box shape.

“You have good awareness of what is occupying your surroundings Shalikova, but you are not understanding what your surroundings are and how they work, nor how you can best navigate them. It’s not about your basic piloting skill but getting the most you can out of the machine. That’s how you’ll get to the next level in your career.”

Shalikova frowned. “I don’t get what you mean. I thought I was being pretty agile in that fight.”

“Let’s look at it more broadly. Tell me, what are you moving through?”

“I mean. Water? What are you getting at? I’m not stupid.”

“Relax! Don’t take everything so personally. Alright, here.” Khadija raised her palm, wiggling her fingers. “Look at my hand. First, think of my hand as your Diver. You were moving primarily like this.” Khadija thrust her hand forward, palm out, as if to shove someone. “I was moving like this. Can you spot the difference?” She lowered her palm and pushed forward fingertips first. Shalikova blinked. She was trying to imagine a Diver moving like this instead of a hand.

“No? We’re both going forward.” Shalikova said. She immediately felt stupid for saying so.

Surface area. Water is not like air!” Khadija said. “Most of your thrust is in the backpack. So in the Academy they teach you to move forward while standing upright, like a soldier on the march, holding your gun in two hands: many Divers still fundamentally move this way because it is easier to orient yourself, watch your surroundings and respond. However, you will actually move faster if you tilt the Diver’s upper body forward of the rest. You present less surface area to the water; there’s less tension! You get more out of the leg jets too. Think of how you swim in a pool!”

Thinking about it further, Shalikova herself did swim parallel to the bottom of the pool. It was just– natural.

“By tilting forward, your upper body and shoulders break the water for the rest of you.”

Khadija lowered her chest and stuck her shoulders out with a wink, as if demonstrating.

Shalikova recalled Khadija’s magnificent, snaking movements.

Dashing through the water like– like a torpedo, a missile, a bullet. All the objects Shalikova wanted to compare it to were flat and long. There was indeed much less surface area trying to break through the water if the object was shaped like a bullet and launched out of a barrel with the same orientation a bullet had. That made some kind of sense.

“You weren’t always moving that way.” Shalikova said, trying to find some kind of caveat.

Khadija rested her head on her heads and shut her eyes in a placid little expression.

“Of course. You have to know when to use every tool in your arsenal. You are not piloting a bulkhead door through the sea, you know? Your Diver has four backpack jets, two leg jets, solid fuel boosters on the arms, legs and shoulders, fins on the hips, shoulders; you can pivot your upper body slightly, you can move the arms up and down, you can tilt the chest forward, you can tuck the legs back. All this range of movement gives you options. You can’t move any one way forever. It’s too predictable! I prefer to remain moving as much as possible, but even stopping can be a tool.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Shalikova said. “I guess I never really thought about it.”

It made sense. It got her thinking, imagining herself back in the cockpit. Moving.

“Another thing of fundamental importance.” Khadija said, smiling ever more broadly, perhaps realizing she had Shalikova’s attention. She really could pull an rector’s voice out of herself. “Underwater, you can move in any direction. You can dive deeper, you can climb the water table, you can thrust upward in a diagonal trajectory, you can move upside down, you can face the surface or the sea floor while thrusting yourself forward. You have to move in three dimensions. Most pilots will just move parallel to their enemy. It’s too easy to exploit them.”

There was a smug look to the cat’s red lips as she explained herself.

Shalikova blinked. Her eyes drew a little wide. She started thinking, ever deeper and with more detail. She could see her Diver, the ocean, every piece of gear, every possible movement. She was indeed not on a flat plane.

Khadija’s fluid movements had seemed so stunning in the moment.

Now Shalikova truly felt like she could see them. She saw herself at the controls–

“If you want, we can hop back in and I can show you what I mean.” Khadija said.

Shalikova stood up immediately. Her heart was surging. She wanted to fight Khadija again.

“Let’s go. One more round.” She said, trying her best to restrain her energy.

Khadija beamed at her and quietly accented.

They had a few more matches that night.

Her low opinion of Khadija improved somewhat. She was, at least, a decent teacher.


I did my quota of freaking out on the ship. Now I have to be firm. Shalikova told herself.

This was not a simulation. That was days ago. It was the real thing, out in the open Ocean.

There wouldn’t be thirty other Divers and a fleet picking up the slack like in Thassal either.

She was one of two, and she had to make every bullet and every moment count.

When the 114th Diver squadron left the Brigand’s orbit and separated into their sections, Shalikova followed Murati on an almost fifty meter climb up the water table. They would need the altitude to go over the Destroyer’s deck. Most of the gas guns on an Imperial Wespe class Destroyer were ventral double-barrel pods, so the escort would float several meters above its charge and spray down at its enemies. This forced any engaging Divers to separate physically.

Ascending through the murk was more difficult than simply charging ahead. She had no landmarks to go off of except the vague “enemy squares” on the predictor overlay, each of which represented a square area several meters across and not a direct, pinpoint location. So she had to orient herself and keep track of her direction to the square that represented the Destroyer while hurtling through the water, unable to see anything but particles of biological matter dancing in the beams of her flashlights, black specks on white, against the dark blue of the surrounding ocean.

She was also mindful, however, not to move wholly relative to the Destroyer either.

“Contact!” Murati shouted.

Before she knew it, Shalikova was met with a withering fusillade from just out of sight.

Wespe class destroyers were like a dagger-shape covered in double-barreled gas gun pods, slicing through the Ocean. A gunmetal grey sentinel looming over the behemoth below, hundreds, thousands of lines of bullets flew from it and saturated the surrounding water with the small pops and bangs of gas gun bullets exploding all around them.

Against that wall of fire Shalikova felt suddenly dwarfed.

As she looked at Murati ahead, she saw her orienting the Cheka’s chest forward.

“Give it everything you have Shalikova! Follow me!”

Shalikova tilted her own chest forward, with her teeth grit, kicked the thrust pedals down.

She was used to speeds of 60 or 70 knots; suddenly she felt she was going past 80!

Hurtling over the deck of the destroyer, she and Murati buzzed right past the conning tower in an instant, leaving in their wake the trails of enemy bullets. Dozens of muted muzzle flashes below like ephemeral spotlights in the nearby murk. It felt like there was not one meter of surface on that Destroyer that was not spitting bullets at them. Vapor bubbles swarmed all around them, beset on all sides by rattling shockwaves, it was like swimming in the middle of an underwater storm. On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but the snapping of the guns and bursting of the shells.

Out of that great roaring barrage, not one bullet had struck her directly.

It was some combination of Shalikova’s own acumen and the ship’s poor fire control.

“Shalikova!” Murati called over the radio. “Good maneuvering! We’re staying ahead of the barrage, but we can’t take out every pod individually with this much gunfire. I have an idea. You have a grenade on you, right?”

While maneuvering over the raging Destroyer, Shalikova checked her magnetic strip for inventory.

A diagnostic display showed the objects attached to it.

“I do, but only one.” She said.

“Good! We’ll strike one of its jets! Even if it doesn’t sink, it’ll lag behind the Irmingard!”

“Got it!”

Just as Shalikova began to reach for her grenade, a burst of gunfire soared past them.

She stowed her grenade on her magnetic strip and swerved. Bullets went off around them leaving bubbles size of a small animal. A larger caliber than the gas gun bullets flying everywhere before.

Judging by the angle and the caliber, it had not come from the ship but from–

A red flash, and a new box appeared on one of her side monitors.

“Incoming! Shalikova, get around behind the Destroyer–”

Shalikova cut Murati off.

“No, I’ll break off the Destroyer and tie them up! You have bombing to do!”

Without waiting for Murati’s assent, Shalikova turned fluidly around in an arc and darted toward a pair of Volkers coming in from below them. They appeared from around the side fins of the Destroyer but quickly separated from it into the open water between the escorts and the Irmingard. If they stuck too close to either ship, they would risk becoming victims to friendly fire.

Thinking about what Khadija taught her, Shalikova soared past the Destroyer, zigzagging the flak curtain, and moving to intercept the Divers. She fought her instinct to straighten out her Strelok and shoot at them from the shoulder– it was difficult not to treat the mecha exactly as she would her own body, while still remaining as immersed in her maneuvers as she normally was.

Khadija could fire from the chest at these speeds, whether charging or strafing–

But Shalikova could hardly pull trigger before the Volkers grew enormous in her cameras.

She sped right into their midst, dodging a second round of gunfire as she neared them.

Her enemies threw themselves aside, perhaps fearing that she intended to ram them.

Breaking in between them, and roaring well past, she threw her Strelok into a climb.

“God damn it.”

She was trying to fight like Khadija, but she was unused to shooting while moving this fast.

In the simulator, Khadija had time to set up her cameras–

Because she created space for it! Shalikova realized that’s why she circled around so much.

“I’m an idiot! I just flew in without thinking!”

At these speeds, she wasn’t able to shoot! She couldn’t even think fast enough to shoot!

She had to slow down, but–

“I know!”

In the middle of her climb, Shalikova twisted her Strelok around, going over the Volkers.

Bursting the top two jets in the backpack– along with the legs, and solid fuel boost from the shoulders– manipulating the fins– moving more weight into the shoulder– her little hands moved all over the controls in her cockpit, flipping what felt like every switch and every button– she hardly realized Khadija had to put this much effort into moving, she was sweating so much–

Her frantic actions within the cockpit, invisible to her opponent, had a dramatic result.

She tumbled, head over feet, descending behind her opponents while upside down.

Much of the momentum she built up dissipated in the snap changes in directions.

But her bewildered enemies could not even turn as she riddled their backs with bullets.

Dozens of rounds of fully automatic fire, until the magazine ejected. Impact after impact crashing into the first Volker, before she jerked the gun toward the second. Bullets smashing into ducts, blowing up on top of the jets, perforating the spare magazines kept on the rear magnetic strip and causing secondary explosions, the Volkers twisted and torn by the blasts. Severed cockpits leaking oxygen and blood slowly descending with arms gone limp and legs asunder.

Shalikova’s snap maneuver took her beneath the ruined Volkers, now swimming chest up.

For a brief instant she was a girl floating as if on the surface of a vast pool.

Gazing up at a sky of broken metal falling around her.

She could almost see colors, colors other than the dim, dark blue of the water.

Red, anguished colors.

Green, sickly colors.

Blueish-Black, the specter of death–

Silvery white. Peace and departure–

Shalikova shook her head and climbed as a wave of renewed flak swept past her position.

Dozens of small explosions dissipated the colors and further tore up the remains.

“What colors?” She murmured to herself. “There weren’t any colors.”

Rising in a wide arc to retain speed and avoid fire, Shalikova doubled back to the Destroyer.

“Volkers down. Squad leader, I thought you’d have blown it up by–”

Before Shalikova could finish, she heard two loud shocks over the hydrophone.

Dozens of meters ahead of them, an earthshaking blast sent the Frigate on the Irmingard’s right wing plummeting into the sea floor. A shockwave rippled out from the explosion that had even Shalikova’s chassis vibrating. It could only have been one of the bombs since the Brigand’s 76 mm aft guns could not have had such a dramatic effect. Only a moment later, she heard the sound of knocking metal and realized that the Destroyer was descending and stalling.

“You were saying, Shalikova?” Murati laughed.

That thundering curtain of flak slowed to a sputter of feeble warding fire.

Unable to fight off Murati or keep up with the fleet, it began to turn and flee.

She must have done some damage to the rear like she planned.

All of the fighting they were doing took place in the context of the Irmingard chasing the Brigand. It was easy to forget with how fast their mecha were moving, and how massive all of the ships around them were, that the entire battlefield was in motion. It was only when the Irmingard fleet’s tight formation was broken so completely that Shalikova paid heed to this fact once again. The Irmingard lumbered forward, while its escorts were now falling or fleeing.

Shalikova could find no more ship contacts in the immediate vicinity.

“We’ve opened the way. Sameera used her bomb, but I’ve still got mine.” Murati said.

The Cheka regrouped with Shalikova. There was mild cosmetic damage on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?”

Murati sounded unshaken. “Just got exposed to a bit of ventral fire– it’s not a big deal.”

“If you say so. I’ll go on ahead of you and draw the flagship’s fire.” Shalikova said.

“Good job taking care of those Divers by yourself. I have full confidence in you.”

“It’s nothing. Could’ve gone better even.”

“Do you have damage?”

“No. I just mean– it’s not worthy of praise.”

Before her squad leader could continue flattering her Shalikova charged ahead.

The Cheka was not very far behind. Shalikova reloaded her weapon and grit her teeth.

When they turned away from the Destroyer their view was dominated by the colossal grey frame of the Irmingard class dreadnought. A Frigate or a Destroyer was already many, many times the size of a Diver. And yet there was no comparison to how that flagship made Shalikova feel like a speck of plankton helplessly spinning in the water. Its vaguely spoon-shaped prow and thick, enormous cylindrical chassis with its swept wing fins and sharply flared rear were so regal and aggressive. There was no truer representation of the fearful violence they were up against.

That ship was the Imbrian Empire, cruel tyrant over half of what remained of their world.

Shalikova’s grip tightened on her controls. Her hands were cold, her palms moist.

For the sake of everything they believed in, they had to be the arrow that hobbled this beast.

As they approached, homing in on the center of that wall of grey, long lines of flak erupted from the gas gun pods lined up in front of them. Different pods coordinated to fire together in groups of six barrels. Their fire discipline was completely unlike that of the other ships. Shalikova found herself swerving far more violently away from gunfire that crept closer and closer.

Her chassis rattled as a bullet deflected right off the left shoulder.

Thankfully, it didn’t explode right on the armor. She accelerated even more.

“I’m breaking off, they’re on me.” Shalikova said.

“I think they’re on both of us!”

Shalikova threw the Strelok into a sudden climb, wrenching up with a kick of the vernier thrusters. While boosting up and momentarily out of the gunfire she glanced at one of the side camera feeds.

Murati’s Cheka was targeted wholly independently of her own Strelok.

Different sections of the Irmingard’s flak guns were coordinating different targets.

A half-dozen barrels peppered Shalikova’s surroundings and a half-dozen harried Murati.

It was nothing like the basic saturation fire of the other ships.

They would not take Shalikova as a piece of bait so easily. They were more experienced.

“With this much gunfire I won’t be able to get to the aft. I’ll bomb the main guns!”

Murati’s Cheka broke off from Shalikova and into its own climb, spiraling away from intense gunfire. Her destination lay atop the Irmingard’s deck, central to the hull and just behind the spoon prow, a squat, double-barrel turret: the feared 203 mm main guns that supported the smaller guns fixed on the prow itself. As a military flagship, the Irmingard bore its guns fixed on the deck, they could never be hidden or stowed unlike the Brigand’s guns. Shalikova knew the main magazine was buried deeper in the ship and would not go off if the turret itself was destroyed.

Preventing the Irmingard from shooting effectively would accomplish their mission.

Even if the ship itself was not sent to the bottom of the sea floor.

Shalikova did not like it– but perhaps it was an object lesson on their lack of power.

As they climbed higher, flak intensified. Deck gas guns joined the port-side guns in firing.

Murati accelerated in a high arc, leaving behind the port-side fire but trailed by the deck guns. Dozens of vapor bubbles bloomed around her. Shalikova’s own chassis vibrated relentlessly with the shockwaves of bullets going off all around her, their impacts just close enough to make her feel it without tearing off any metal.

While Murati kept climbing Shalikova overflew the prow.

Her side camera was not just for following Murati’s positioning.

It was also coordinating with the camera on her assault rifle, held to her chest.

Shalikova ranged the triangle formation of gas gun pods covering center of the deck.

Their barrels lifted high as they chased Murati, flashing repeatedly in the dim water.

“Here’s your opening, Murati!”

Short, practiced rapping on the triggers, three presses, pause, three presses.

She saw the bursts of gunfire fly off into the blue on her gun camera.

Her bullets flew amid the gas gun pods and struck metal with brilliant, fleeting blasts.

A brighter flash, erupting suddenly from among the gas gun formation.

One pod went off, its magazine cooked.

Dozens of popping, flashing blasts from the pod’s magazine sent metal spraying.

Meanwhile the other pods went dead silent.

Whether Shalikova struck them, or damaged the electronics or optics, she did not know.

Nevertheless, she realized she had quieted the deck fire on Murati’s side.

Her own safety on the prow was far less certain.

All around her, gas gun pods on the prow now enfiladed her, firing from every direction.

Bullets crashed into her hip armor and a stray shell even smashed into the cockpit armor.

Warnings flashed on her diagnostics. Real hull damage. No breaches.

Shalikova nearly had a heart attack. “Warn me about any breaches first you trash!”

Cockpit shaking violently, Shalikova threw herself into a roll and dove, touching down on the actual surface of the enemy ship and crouching. She hoped to avoid most of the gunfire this way, and for the briefest moment she found respite from the shooting– until she realized that there were no barrels flashing anymore.

All of the flak on the deck had quieted down just as she landed.

She was pointing her assault rifle at completely dormant gun pods.

“They’re avoiding friendly fire– Murati!”

Her suspicion proved correct almost immediately. Murati’s crackling voice responded:

“No chance to bomb–! Incoming!”

Shalikova leaped off the prow surface with microsecond boost from the vernier thrusters.

Charging across the shallow curve of the prow, in time to spot the enemy attacking Murati.

When she got close enough to see both of their figures clearly–

Murati leaped back off the deck as an enemy Diver pounced.

A trail of assault fire struck where she stood, and her enemy glided over the deck.

The attacker smoothly overflew the deck surface while raising her rifle.

Accurate, disciplined bursts crept closer and closer to Murati’s position.

Murati had been facing the enemy, climbing diagonally away from it with all of her thrust.

When she opened fire, the enemy below side-stepped it without losing any speed.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide. It reminded her of the gulf between her and–

“Murati! I’m coming! Hold on!”

As her words carried through the communicator the enemy Diver launched up.

In an instant the Diver drew a vibroblade from its magnetic strip with its free hand.

In the open water just off of the Irmingard’s surface the duelists clashed.

Sword met steel– Murati’s assault rifle, held by barrel and stock to block the overhead slash.

Shalikova drew closer and closer but not soon enough.

She thought the Diver would hack through Murati’s rifle but when it found its slash blocked, the machine moved fluidly with its own sword and leaped over Murati with a kick of its own auxiliary vernier thrusters, leaving a cloud of vaporized water and solid fuel exhaust where Murati was once clashing with it. The attacker rolled its body over Murati’s Cheka, and in a flash that sword swung once again, upside down at the Cheka’s shoulder.

There was an ephemeral red burst as the sword’s thruster briefly kicked in.

A burning crimson wound as the monomolecular, vibrating edge cut through the Cheka’s shoulder.

Murati threw her weight down and aside.

A chunk of metal blew off the Cheka, the shoulder in pieces, the roll of steel cable floating away in the debris as her left jet anchor pod ejected from the machine’s body. Murati torturously wrenched her mecha to face the attacker and shoot, but she was out of balance, damaged, and her enemy was still moving. Now fearless with a tumbling, dazed opponent, the attacker flew right through Murati’s desperate gunfire and swung its sword, this time to take the head–

“Murati! Get back!”

Shalikova shouted in desperation and surged ahead.

Shoulder set, she rammed herself in between Murati and the attacker.

Reacting with incredible alacrity, the enemy threw itself back from Shalikova.

There was no word from Murati, but the Cheka still looked stable in the water.

“Damn it.”

Every time, just like Khadija, the attacker went from motion to motion, fluidly, perfectly.

Others would have been disoriented for even a second having to wrench their machine back. This pilot expertly used the verniers to retreat as Shalikova entered their space, and to then thrust upward and resume maneuver. It all happened so fast that there was no distinction between the two separate instances of thrust. Just like Khadija, who moved like a serpent through the waters, perfectly conserving momentum throughout. This was a whole other level from the enemies they had faced so far, and it was only from observing a veteran like Khadija as keenly as she had that Shalikova understood the gulf between herself and this foe. She understood enough to fear them.

That machine was no ordinary Volker either.

Volkers were almost comical in how round they were, the arms practically came out of the central orb with slanted shoulders barely covering the joint, their helmeted heads affixed in an exposed mount right atop the hull. Any angled armor surfaces were clearly bolted on as an afterthought. Nothing like the machine now in front of her.

In place of the orb-like body was a robust, three-piece, interlocking chest, waist/hip, and shoulder chassis. Armored surfaces concealing the cockpit boasted complex geometry to help deflect and absorb impacts. Broadly triangular, the silhouette had wider shoulders and a humanoid, helmeted “head” with multi-directional, almost snake-eyed, visor-like cameras. Its arms and legs were modified with light but steeply angled armor over the joints. There was no bulge anywhere for a battery, and an extra jet on the back, with small intakes all around the machine, all “second gen” traits.

A new second generation mecha, to add to the Empire’s advantage–

Nevertheless, Shalikova charged after this enemy.

“That cat wouldn’t turn away from something like this!”

Her voice coming out of her lips was desperate, exhausted, cracking with fear.

Her mind was working so fast her brain pounded with pain.

And still, she went after that enemy with all her might, just moments after it bested Murati.

There was no reason to attack the Irmingard if she was not willing to lunge at the monsters that came from it. That flagship already outclassed the Brigand in every way. The Imbrian Empire already outclassed the Union in every way. And yet, Khadija, that brilliant pilot who had mastered the sea, still fought these unspeakable odds in the revolution. She saw herself dwarfed and outmatched by enormous guns and ships and fought on regardless.

Shalikova couldn’t bear losing to that woman in this too.

Steeled by her fear, with beasts of death before and behind her, she attacked.

“Where will it move, where–”

Shalikova centered the enemy in her vision and opened fire with her assault rifle.

Once more the opponent thrust upward out of the firing line.

“You like going up, huh?”

She tried to put her barrel ahead of where the enemy would go, rapping the trigger.

With graceful banking movements the enemy avoided fire and arced toward her. A quick burst of gunfire responded, and Shalikova thrust herself deeper down to avoid it. All the while facing the enemy, shooting up at them at the edge of her vision. Chasing a shadow that moved faster than she could hope to track, briefly lighting it with feeble bursts of gunfire that did not even graze the wake of its jets. Between her own evasive maneuvers and the dexterous way her enemy moved she was shooting into the water and doing nothing but stirring up empty bubbles. She was shooting more wastefully than her opponent, and soon found herself close to having to reload.

Luckily, she wasn’t trying to hit them directly.

She was just trying to get them moving.

Shalikova ceased running away from the enemy and burst forward in their direction.

Already facing the enemy as she retreated, the abrupt switch to charging in her direction caused her no disorientation. Firing all her solid fuel thrusters and ramming down the pedals for all the jet power she could muster, Shalikova threw herself at an enemy that was dashing at her, cutting their distance dramatically. From the magnetic strip behind her mecha she withdrew and quickly unfolded her diamond sword, revved up the motor and spun the teeth. Along with taking the sword she also threw out everything else on her magnetic strip, shedding some precious weight.

In a second, she was in the enemy’s face, sword out, swinging, with all her momentum.

Her opponent did not stand for such a thing and with a snap thrust, leaped over her.

Just like with Murati she was trying to swing at her from behind.

“I’ve already seen that trick!”

Practically cackling, Shalikova angled every fin, reallocated all the movable weight, and threw all of her thrust into a lurching motion that took her suddenly down and to the left. Her body wrenched in her chair at the sudden twisting of the chassis, but the enemy’s swing completely missed her, slicing through the water and leaving her overextended.

She was in no position to fight back and that mecha was now right behind her–

“Got you! I got you, you bastard!”

Behind her, a grenade that had been on her magnetic strip, armed and discarded, went off.

Water vaporized rapidly around the explosion forming an enormous bubble just a handful of meters away.

The shockwave threw Shalikova into total disarray. She spun feet over head, carried on the sudden wave generated by the explosion. Too close, suicidally close, but–

Struggling with her controls and trying to right herself she adjusted the cameras–

Looking for debris–

From behind her, that mecha suddenly reappeared, sword overhead and coming down.

There was nothing Shalikova could do. She had no time to respond.

She closed eyes that were stinging with sweat and tears and grit her teeth.

Her hydrophone picked up the clanging of metal on metal in the waters.

When she heard it over the headset, she also heard herself breathe.

Felt her heart beating, faster and faster.

Then a burst of gunfire.

Shalikova’s eyes opened wide, and she looked frantically at her cameras.

Murati’s Cheka was approaching, opening fire with a shaking arm and a damaged rifle.

Clearly limping in the water, having lost some energy cells from the attack it endured.

Her shooting was missing the mark, no better than the flak from the patrol ships–

But between Shalikova and the enemy, a different ally stood, suddenly formidable.

“You did good, Shali~”

Over the communicator, sounded the soft, playful, calm voice of Khadija al-Shajara.

Holding her own sword and standing face to face with the mecha in front of them.

Both having stopped moving for an instant as if respecting each other.

That enemy did not fear Murati’s shooting or Shalikova’s tricks, but this gave her pause.

“Khadija–”

Shalikova was almost going to apologize. She felt so helpless.

Khadija interrupted her immediately.

“Leave this to me. You’ve done everything you could. Give Valya the other bomb and take Murati’s limping remains away from here before she hurts herself or us.” She paused, and after a deep breath, released a bit of laughter. Her tone changed. “I’m not one to recite the name of the Lord for every detail like some other Shimii do, but this is fated, Shalikova. The Red Baron of Cascabel. I was fated to meet her here. We’re gonna settle a little score, she and I.”

Her voice was slick with a bloodthirst that Shalikova had never heard from her before.

Had the fighting gotten to her so badly? What was she babbling about?

Shalikova was in no position to do anything but what she was told, however.

Without openly questioning Khadija, she started to move away.

It was at that point, that whatever fated bell tolled for Khadija tolled for the rest of them.

Twin, massive, concussive shocks into the water that left the Union soldiers speechless.

In that moment, the Irmingard dreadnought fired its 203mm guns in anger.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.4]

“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’, Sameera–”

There was always a brief pause in her mind when she was about to leave the deployment chute. No matter what was happening, whether a Leviathan was coiled around the ship, or a group of smugglers was getting away. It spanned the briefest period of time that one might acknowledge as a complete thought. Pilots always stated their designation and name as a courtesy to the Bridge crew, so the officers could confirm exactly who was going out and in which machine.

What was her name? She surely couldn’t say the whole damned thing–

“Sameera Al-Shahouh. Deploying!”

Whenever she launched off a ship, she always chose the side of her Shimii mother. It was confusing. She had never felt like either a Loup or a Shimii. Thankfully it was a short-lived anxiety. Her name ceased to matter once she was launched into the endless blue of the ocean. Her Diver pushed down into the water from the deployment chute, free of the ship, adrift in the waters. From the earbuds Sameera wore in lieu of a pilot’s headphones, she caught Dominika’s voice.

“UND-114-C, ‘Strelkannon’, Dominika Rybolovskaya– Deploying!”

Around her, in that dark, murky blue, Sameera picked up the other Divers in her cameras. She had been one of the first to deploy alongside Dominika, Murati and Sonya; Khadija and Valya would be coming out in a few moments. She fixed one camera on Dominika to try to keep her position in mind at all times. More than being a beautiful girl, she was her squad mate, after all.

“Nika, is your heartbeat rising?” She asked.

“I’m closing the audio channel too if you’re going to keep being annoying.”

Sameera smiled, but Nika pointedly kept their video channel closed. “I’m just being nice!”

“Whatever.”

Sameera’s own heartbeat was certainly quickening. Those moments just after deployment but right before the melee were excruciating. It was too surreal to be sitting around idly in a war machine. She became preoccupied with the isolation of her human body within the cold cockpit. It was only the promise of the glorious hunt that lay ahead which steeled her resolve.

“Good hunting!” She finally said. Nika did not return the sentiment.

Dominika’s “Strelkannon” was armed with a launcher for underwater rockets on one shoulder and a semi-automatic cannon in the other. In her Diver’s humanoid hands she carried a 20 mm Gepard SMG just like the one Sameera was carrying too, but that was a last resort weapon.

Sameera’s job in a squadron like this was to make sure Dominika never had to fire that type of weapon. Murati must have known this was a role she was familiar with and thinking about this fact flattered Sameera. As part of the Border Forces’ Leviathan control squadrons, she often partnered with Strelkannon pilots, acting as a bodyguard for those bigger, slower frames.

“Keep steady for a moment, until Khadija and Valya are ready.” Murati said.

After deploying from the chute, the Divers immediately engaged their engines. Because the Brigand was moving, and the enemy fleet was moving, they had to actively pursue the Brigand for a few moments in order to stick with it themselves. At full tilt, their Divers could move much faster than the Brigand, which itself was not moving too quickly at the moment. So it was not much effort for them to orbit the ship’s keel for a few seconds to maintain formation.

Khadija and Valya descended shortly thereafter. All six frames were in the water.

Over the communicator, the voice of Electronic Warfare Officer Zachikova sounded.

“Jamming munition going out!”

Something then emerged from the utility chute near the Brigand’s aft in a flurry of bubbles.

“Everyone, switch off your audio for the next minute and follow me.” Murati said.

Sameera acknowledged.

Beneath the armrest to which her control stick was attached there were physical controls for some of the touchscreen functions. Sameera preferred these, to quickly get her hands back on the sticks if she needed. She switched off the audio from there. With the audio off, it also meant all the predictors, which used acoustic data, became useless, frozen on their last prediction of what the surroundings looked like. Sameera focused on the physical cameras.

She then engaged her accelerator, pushing the pedal into a slot in the chair to lock it in.

Her ‘Cossack’ thrust out from under the Brigand, propelling itself on jets of ocean water.

Murati’s Cheka, with its sleek design and dark paint job led the charge into the murky ocean ahead, Shalikova’s slightly modified Strelok keeping close behind. Sameera had tested the Cheka, so knowing its speed, she knew exactly how fast she needed to go in order to keep some kind of pace with it, while also staying near Dominika, who was definitely bringing up the rear. The Strelkannon’s armament made it a couple knots slower than everyone else in all respects.

At first the loose assemblage of Divers stuck close beneath the keel of the Brigand, but after clearing the jets on the back of the mothership and entering the open water between their ship and the enemy fleet, the group broke into their sections with practiced understanding. Even without communication, they all knew the prerogatives of a Diver pilot in a combat situation. Don’t stack up, or a flurry of torpedoes or concentrated gunfire could kill the whole squad; keep moving with your squadmate toward your objective. Always assume your squadmate is going after the objective and move together. Sameera and Dominika dropped altitude together. Fifteen meters apart from each other, and many more from Murati or Khadija, they charged directly through the center.

Without the predictor, there was nothing concrete on her cameras but Dominika. No ground below them, nothing ahead but the dark blue water and dusty traces of organic matter filtering down from the photic zone. She was suspended in water. It was sometimes hard to come to terms with. Within her metal bubble, the movements of her machine felt dream-like without an enemy in sight or any landmarks to give her any feedback. She felt airy, as if descending forward; it felt like gravity was taking her through the murky nothingness around her more than her own power.

All she had to go on was the last positions of the fleet and her own instincts.

Her heart beating fast, a cold sweat building on her chest, Sameera counted the seconds.

She hated those slow, vulnerable moments. She wanted to be in the fight– sixty seconds.

Electronic Warfare was sophisticated enough now that it was basically impossible for such a munition to jam the enemy’s acoustic computers for very long. Computers by themselves could digitally attenuate the noise with surprising speed, and a skilled Electronic Warfare officer could potentially take less than a minute to shut out the attack and restore functionality. Because the jamming munition was so disruptive to its owner too, it was set to disable itself within a minute. It was a distraction, nothing more, but blinding every acoustic data device for a minute was enough.

Like every weapon, it was not just the capabilities, but the tactical use, that mattered.

At their top speeds, the enemy fleet was well over a minute away.

Being able to cut any amount of that distance undetected was a blessing.

For those sixty nerve-wracking seconds there was nothing but the feeling of her clammy, slick skin, the sound of her heightened breathing, and the sight of the empty ocean all around her. She waited two additional seconds just in case, since the munition’s noise could have hurt her hearing; she then flipped on the audio.

She was greeted by Murati’s crackly, low quality voice.

“Stay in contact with your squadmate and keep moving! We’ll see them ahead soon!”

Her computer began collecting acoustic information again.

Though her predictor and sonar were nowhere near as sophisticated as those on the Brigand, they could cross-reference data compiled by the Brigand to keep track of objects as overlays on the cameras. Before she could see them physically, the enemy fleet appeared as red squares denoting hostile positions dead ahead.

Seeing something, anything, in her cameras stilled Sameera’s heartbeat just a bit.

Being able to hear the ocean and her squad again also calming.

It helped her ease out of the physical isolation of her body and become her machine instead.

And her machine saw four smaller squares, flanked by two larger squares, and a massive one even farther out ahead. As she got closer, the shapes became slowly more and more distinct in the dark water. She picked up speed to approach. For the next few seconds, every reaction counted.

Ignoring the massive square representing the Irmingard class flagship, she focused instead on the lighter prey. Attacking from below enabled them to get at the keels and maybe pop some of the ballast tanks. She dove several dozen meters down with Dominika before turning back up toward the fleet. Moments later she saw the first hint of metal appearing in the waters overhead.

Dozens of rounds of gas gun ammunition from the ventral guns rained down on them.

Though she could hardly see the guns, she did see the lines of bullets cutting through water.

All around her, explosions went off leaving vapor bubbles the size of an adult’s head.

Her cockpit stirred as weak shockwaves flowed past her machine from every direction. No direct hits; just pervasive weak vibration. Gas gun bullets had proximity and flight fuzes so they would go off even without a direct impact. Their goal was for at least some of those blasts to nip at her armor, at her gear. If the ocean could stick even a finger into her cockpit, she would die.

In Sameera’s mind, the best defense against this was a rapid offense.

“Nika, I’m engaging the–!” Sameera called out.

Launching missile,”

Before Sameera could finish her sentence, a rocket sailed past her on a trail of vapor.

One of the cutter’s keels erupted with an enormous vapor bubble, disgorging metal. From the epicenter of the explosion, a shockwave shook the waters around the vessel. Gunfire from the stricken craft ceased instantly, and the conning tower tipped sideways as the ship began to sink.

Three remaining cutters began to swerve close together to put up a tighter curtain of fire.

“Jump left; I’ll release another missile!” Dominika called out.

“Got it!” Sameera replied.

From behind her, Dominika’s Strelkannon launched a second missile.

With the increasing volume of enemy flak all around them, Dominika’s missile detonated just short of the mark, struck by the errant gunfire. Vapor from the explosion created a brief screen between themselves and the fleet that the pair used to reposition. Sameera engaged her jets and solid fuel boosters and veered quickly to avoid the guns, keeping her cameras trained on both the enemy and Dominika to insure they were not separated. Dominika hit a sharp right instead.

Rising up the water table, Sameera swept up and to the left out from under the ships.

While the ventral guns shot at nothing, the dorsal guns retrained on Sameera as she rose.

All around her the water parted in white lines pushed aside by supercavitating bullets. Brief muzzle flashes indicated continuing gunfire. Bubbles and water vapor dispersed like fog around the Cutters as the disturbances from previous explosions settled and the white clouds of fresh blasts bloomed amid the dim blue ocean. A geyser of water bubbles erupted from the sinking cutter below as another section failed due to pressure. Soon it would fall out of sight and strike the sea floor.

All of this was happening in such a brief span of time, it could hardly be thought about. Seconds, moments, instants of Sameera’s life, flashes too minute to ever be memories. Punctuated with more violence than any ordinary person would ever see in a lifetime. Sameera let out a breath, her eyes were starting to tear up from the stale air in the cockpit. She was focused, steeled.

I was insane enough to stare those fucking things in the face. I can handle this.

Sameera always put her body on the line. She had to; it was the only place she belonged.

For a brief instant, on the edge of one of her cameras a new, flashing red square appeared.

Sameera noticed it and reacted immediately, darting at full speed in its direction.

“Incoming contacts, Nika.”

“Intercept them and quit calling my nickname so much.” A calm, stoic voice immediately responded.

Sameera loved that. She didn’t have any expectation that Nika would ever like her anyway.

Grinning to herself, she withdrew a weapon from behind the Cossack’s backpack.

Upon taking the gear off the magnetic strip it was attached to, this seemingly rectangular, unintelligible object sprang to life in her mech’s hand. One half released and snapped into place atop the other. A handle attached to a blade with an armored rear end protecting a rail, battery and driving gear for the saw-blade cutting surface. Called variously diamond swords or diamond cutters, depending on the size and shape, these were the Union’s simpler version of the Imperial vibrosword. A long, spinning blade made of diamond and depleted agarthicite, wielded in hand.

Sameera’s sword could have cut into a ship, but it would not be turned on them for now.

Her “Cossack” shone brightest when it came to fighting other Divers.

It was almost the same as cutting up Leviathan meat. They were prey; she was the hunter.

“Sorry fellas, but I’m the only one who has a date with this lady~!”

Swerving to avoid flak, she launched into a sudden charge toward the incoming Divers.

Within sight a pair of rotund imperial Volkers appeared from the murk with 37 mm rifles in hand. Like an egg tapering down into a waist where legs could go, and shoulders that arms could slide into, these were quite basic enemy Divers. They had traced the explosions to Dominika’s Strelkannon and were moving in the direction their predictors told them the missiles came from.

Their rear cameras must have seen Sameera closing in.

Likely it was the inexperience of the pilots that led them not to pay attention to their flank.

Sameera raised her SMG and fired a burst of 20 mm gunfire ahead of them, mid-charge.

Five bullets exploded harmlessly in their vicinity, and in a panic, they came to a dead stop.

Sameera was on top of them in the next instant.

Bursting up above them and then suddenly shifting all her thrust downward, she smashed her sword on nearest Volker, digging into the shoulder and the helmeted head at the front of the round chassis. Her sword’s spinning teeth ripped a jagged wound right over the enemy’s cockpit.

Dead. Not even the faintest response from that unit as Sameera changed targets.

Acting fluidly in that same instant of violence, she ripped her sword from her first victim and raised her Gepard to the second, firing off a five-round burst into the side of the second Volker point blank. Fist sized blasts tore bits of armor off the arm and hip, but one bullet got deep into the arm joint before exploding under the shoulder. Bubbles and foam burst out of this tiny orifice.

Pressure ripped open the machine, spewing gore and debris from the expanding wound.

Dead. A lucky shot from Sameera and an unlucky one for this pilot.

One finger of the Ocean had gotten into the cockpits through the leg joint. One instant amid this dance of steel; enough for two lives to end so suddenly. But she was not alone, and the fighting had not stopped because a few targets were dead. As she threw herself into that melee, she was well aware that they were dancing within a storm of steel as the enemy flak trained on her.

It took seconds to score those kills, and then she had to run again.

In response to her charge a fusillade erupted from the Frigates’ own gas gun turrets ahead.

Matching the intensity of the fire from the nearby Cutters, it threatened to enfilade her.

Engaging her jets, she retreated from before the Frigates to arc back over the Cutters.

She beheld the looming, murky shadow of the flagship, the Irmingard class, moving ever closer. Tangling with the Volkers was like fighting a duel in front of a monument shrouded by fog. She was so dwarfed, that what she could see of the enemy ship occupied all of her field of vision. Even the Frigates also moving into range did not make up anywhere near as much of the space.

To that ship, Sameera and the Volkers were nothing but specks of dust dancing in the water.

For a moment, she thought of herself, a tiny thing framed before that colossal figure.

But only for a moment. Sameera’s innocence toward battle had been taken long ago.

And she hated thinking of herself as small. She had to be huge; she had to be the biggest.

All the while she thought this she sped away toward Dominika’s position. There were at least six other Divers lurking somewhere and she had made it her personal mission that none of them would touch a hair on her precious Nika’s head. It was this sort of thing that most easily motivated her to action. Fighting, not only to survive, but to excel, to prove herself, for glory.

“I’ve dealt with our rude onlookers! Nika, has my absence made your heart grow fonder?”

As if in response Sameera saw a flash from just ahead.

Nika’s remaining rockets rained down on the remaining Cutters from above.

Four missiles crashed onto the decks and towers of two cutters and detonated into bubbles broad enough they vanished the ocean directly in front of Sameera for several seconds. Ordnance that went off in the water evaporated and created a bubble. Both the volatile forces within the vapor bubble, the disturbed water around it, and the water then moving in to refill the bubble, placed massive pressures on whatever the ordnance targeted. When fleets full of heavy guns went to war, the blue expanse of the ocean filled with these deadly clouds, shearing, and pounding on the metal.

Sameera engaged rearward thrust to avoid the blasts and circled to the front of the fleet.

There was a massive hole in the flak cover as two cutters sank with heavy damage.

One remaining Cutter began to rise up the water table, dumping ballast to make an escape.

There was nothing in the fleet’s center but debris and two Streloks a hundred meters apart.

Sameera saw the door opening in front of them. That massive Irmingard, dead ahead.

“We’ve opened up the center.” Sameera said.

“Link back up with me now and stop mumbling, we’ve still got the Frigates.”

She wished Dominika would say something more emotional than that.

Not even out of a particular interest in her per se– simply to alter the mood.

Would it have hurt her to say I need you? Not that anyone ever told Sameera that.

“Right now, the way to the flagship is clear.”

“Are you nuts? It’s teeming with enemies around here still. Don’t be a hero!”

“The Lieutenant said we should take opportunities! We could end this battle right now.”

“This is an opportunity to get yourself killed. I’m coming to you, so just wait there–”

Sameera felt a growing frustration. She was not even asking Dominika to go with her.

Right in front of that Irmingard, the way had never looked more open. On the left flank, the Frigate was not moving to cover the gap. Maybe Khadija and Valya? And on the right flank, the other Frigate was starting to catch on to what was happening. Meanwhile that remaining Cutter had fully deserted its position and was no longer firing. Above them, the Destroyer’s gunfire was trailing after something Sameera could not see, likely Murati and Shalikova’s doing.

They had it right there– a breakthrough!

And the more they tarried, the more it closed! Only Sameera had this shot to secure victory. When she hunted Leviathans, every instant with the snapping predators invited death. Even the slightest twitch that allowed Sameera to attack was one she had to exploit. Squad or no squad, she was done negotiating with Dominika about this.

“I’ll take my chances with being a hero. Hang back and avoid the enemy Divers!”

“No! Absolutely not! Cossack– Stop! Sameera! SAMEERA!

Dominika shouted at her over the comms but Sameera paid no heed as she hurtled forward.

Even though it did feel good to have a lady shout her name– her eyes were full of glory.

Sameera always went for the biggest prey. She had to. Nobody would acknowledge her otherwise. Bigger prey, a bigger fight, escalating, drawing more and more blood– it was where she belonged!

Before the second Frigate could accelerate far enough ahead of the Irmingard to cover the gap left by the broken vanguard, Sameera rushed in among the fleet with everything her machine could give her. Stray gunfire from the accelerating, maneuvering Frigate flew well past her as she hurtled toward that metallic grey beast ahead. Looming larger and larger, that thick spoon-like prow like the head of a monster, and more of the enormous body behind it taking up her vision.

Her computers ran down the numbers every microsecond, closing in–

75 meters, 67 meters, 56 meters, 42 meters, faster, faster, she almost had the trophy–

Flashing red–

Sameera responded in an instant.

Engaging rearward thrust, she avoided an object rushing at her from below.

A vibrosword swung past her, the edge barely sliding off the skirt armor on the left hip.

“You’re no ordinary mercenaries! This’ll be fun!”

In front of her appeared an enemy Diver, a semi-triangular chassis with a flat head.

Jagd. Transmitting into the water; the acoustics picked up the voice.

Sameera had studied the second generation models like the Jagd. When she tested the Cheka, leaked design information for the Jagd was part of the project. Armed with a claw, a sword, and built-in SMGs, it could develop higher speeds than a Strelok due to its light weight, but it wasn’t all-powerful. That small performance gap that existed between the Volker and the Strelok was about how much a Jagd had on a Strelok too: in the simulations anyway.

Everything would depend on the pilot.

The Jagd had probably come out of the flagship. There was no flak coming in their direction anymore. It could have shot down the Imperial diver. For a moment, the two pilots floated on low thrust with maybe twenty meters between.

“Complying, merc? Good idea. Your jailer today is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

That pilot was taunting her. She had a woman’s voice, but a deep, violent register.

Judging by that name–

She was a loup, an actual Imperial loup. Sameera had heard the stories.

That was half her bloodline, the Empire’s vicious vanguard and recon troops. Attack dogs.

Sameera switched to the public frequency. Her hair was standing on end.

For a moment, she almost hesitated before speaking: “Sameera Raisanen-Morningsun.”

Giving her Loup surname– what did she even think it would do?

Ingrid’s crackling laughter erupted from the radio. It almost shook Sameera.

Her ears hung on that voice, that was so familiar, so like her own, like her father’s–

“You’ve got an interesting name, you stray! You ought to have stayed in your village and left the mercenary work to the Katarrans! Fitting that I’ll be the one to discipline you. I’m not unkind to my people! I have no love for the Empire. I’m only doing this for the lady in that ship. You mercenaries have no more conviction than to follow who is feeding you, so I’ll make you a deal. Come here where you belong, like a good puppy, and help us apprehend these criminals–”

No, it was nothing like her father!

It was nothing like her!

In that instant, Sameera had enough of Ingrid’s evil words.

This woman was nothing else but an enemy. Nothing else mattered.

“Absolutely not!”

Sameera felt her heart surge as she threw the Cossack into a sudden charge.

Her sword clashed with the Jagd’s claw and sent a finger flying into the water.

“Go fuck yourself! I’d sooner die than end up like you!” She shouted, seeing red.

She was almost angrier at herself and taking that frustration out– but she wouldn’t admit it.

Ingrid was utterly unfazed by the sudden attack.

“Happy to oblige then! I have nothing against tearing the throat off a hollering stray!”

From the shoulder, the Jagd launched into a thrust with its bladed arm.

Sameera disengaged the rotation of her blade to have a solid block to parry with.

She pounded the Jagd’s sword aside, reengaged the motor on the blade, swung–

From the moment she parried, however, that Jagd had her where she wanted.

As if fluidly playing along with the parry, Ingrid suddenly slipped past Sameera.

Those four remaining digits of her claw glowed red and gave off vapor.

Imperial claw weapons used both heat and sudden, snapping pressure to tear off metal.

Swinging right into her exposed flank, hoping to tear a chunk right out of her belly–

Sensing the danger, Sameera gave up her attack.

Using all available thrust she threw herself away from the Jagd to create space.

“Aww, the puppy is running away! After all that barking!”

Ingrid met speed with speed and charged after Sameera almost instantly. Her sword came down on the Cossack’s in a blink. This was nothing like fighting those Serrano patrolmen.

She was a Loup, a real Loup! She was vicious and had the reflexes and hardware to support it.

Sameera found herself on the defensive as a rain of blows came down.

That Jagd’s arm sword snapped back and forth through the water with punishing ease. Repeatedly the blows came, and all Sameera could do was meet each of them with the flat, armored back of her sword, watching the integrity of the wrist and arm joint on the Cossack. As soon as Sameera tried to create space that Jagd was back on top of her, the difference in power-to-weight proving horribly decisive.

With every move, Ingrid would chase her down, leaving her no chance to retaliate.

If she could even lift her gun– but Sameera hesitated– the arm might be sliced off–!  

“Trying to shoot? And I thought we had a nice duel going!”

Ingrid backed off just suddenly as she once attacked.

The Jagd’s twin shoulder guns flashed. Dozens of rounds of 20 mm erupted from the barrels.

Explosions bloomed all around the Cossack and followed it as Sameera fled.

She thrust directly upward, her cockpit shaking as a few blasts pitted her chest armor.

Gaining just a bit of distance and height on the Jagd. Couldn’t shoot– couldn’t swing–

In a flash of inspiration, Sameera smashed the utility buttons on her sticks.

“What?” Ingrid shouted, confounded by what followed.

The Cossack’s shoulder hooks blasted out of their pods and slammed into the Jagd.

Sameera barely had time to check if she hooked anything on the steel line.

She engaged both forward thrust and the motors for the hooks to reel in.

One hook had slammed hard into the left shoulder gun and jammed it–

But a second hook had grabbed hold of the complicated shoulder joint on the claw arm.

Thicker and larger because of the power supply for the claw’s heating elements and motors.

There was a lot of surface area for the hook to grab tight.

As she engaged the hook motors, the Cossack hurtled forward and snapped the Jagd up.

Ingrid’s gunfire went nowhere as the two mechs careened toward each other.

Sameera’s gambit had paid off.

Unable to think or plan ahead, relying on the pure feral instinct of hunter and prey.

She sped to the Jagd, barely swung her sword, and smashed right into the enemy mech with the blade between them. Her blade bit furiously into the central chassis for a second, chewing metal and kicking up fragments, before the Jagd rocketed back with every lick of thrust it could afford. Kicking up a brief cloud of vapor between itself and Sameera’s Cossack, snapping off the hook with the force of its flight, the Jagd retreated over thirty meters out of the melee.

In the surrounding waters, parts of the shoulder and one of the gun barrels floated as debris.

For a brief moment, a pinprick of agarrthic energy licked the water surrounding it. Some of the Jagd’s battery cells must have shorted out. Like the Cheka, they were distributed throughout the body: a second generation trait. Less weight overall, but the arrangement had some drawbacks.

Ingrid’s furious breathing was all that was coming through. No more taunts.

Sameera’s nervous eyes turned briefly to the diagnostics display.

Her sword was going. Ingrid’s attacks had deformed the motor housing. It was seizing.

Hull integrity was starting to dip right in the center of the chest, but still ocean-worthy.

And the left leg intake was partially compromised. That would affect her speed–

“Sameera!”

That was not Ingrid’s voice–

Dominika!

Shit. Sameera thought. Shit, shit, SHIT.

She had been so stupid. She had let herself get separated; diverted to fight one measly unit!

“Sameera, I need backup, now!”

There was not even an instant of thought or hesitation in Sameera’s mind.

If Nika was killed due to her stupidity, Sameera’s soul would have died with her.

Her body was put into the world to protect others– how could she have forgotten?

“Sameera! I need you!”

Without another pointless word exchanged with Ingrid, Sameera took off at full thrust.

“I’m coming! Hold on!” She shouted.

One of her cameras and monitors had always been set to track Nika.

Her attention had been drawn off it for her brief skirmish with Ingrid, but it had always been doing its best to track her. Each Strelok had a unique acoustic signature — slightly different hydrodynamic structures would create unique wakes. Dive computers were able to keep track of team members this way.

On this camera, a green square overlayed in the distance represented Nika’s general area.

Two red squares overlapped with hers.

Sameera saw a yellow warning on the diagnostic screen.

She was losing thrust on the left leg.

Would she make it? It was a matter of seconds she didn’t have–

As she got away from Ingrid, gunfire from the Irmingard class intensified.

Long lines of gas gun bullets flew past her and burst, a constellation of dangerous blasts.

Sameera swerved, losing even more speed as she evaded the fire.

At the head of the fleet, the Frigate had advanced to close the gap in the flagship’s defenses just as Sameera had predicted. There was a red square around it as well, overlayed on the camera, but Sameera did not need it to see the clear danger it presented. Gunfire from this Frigate framed the melee between Nika and the enemy Divers, preventing her from escaping. She was completely surrounded. Sameera rammed her pedals, trying to get the left leg to push more water through, but it did nothing but physically vent her frustration. She could not go any faster than she was.

“They’ll kill her.” Sameera’s eyes drew wide, cold sweat streaking down her face.

Her sword was useless; her SMG didn’t have the range to respond; and she was losing thrust.

Murati or Khadija would not make it in time. It had to be her; only she could do anything!

She wracked her brain thinking about all the weapons and systems she had at her disposal.

Her mind flashed back to her fight with Ingrid. She had one hook that hadn’t broken.

One hook– and a bomb. She still had the bomb!

Sameera mumbled to herself, her mind stumbling over possibility.

“Murati, I’m so sorry. If we survive, I’ll accept any punishment.”

Beneath the backpack jets on her Diver’s chassis, there was a magnetic strip. Her sword attached to it when it folded, but her bomb was also there. She withdrew the pipe-shaped demolition charge. It was a pure chunk of explosive without any lining or penetrators, fixed with a simple detonator connected by wire and triggered with a switch in her cockpit. Sameera popped out her one remaining hook from its shoulder pod and affixed the bomb to the hook.

“If I throw it, and then start up the hook’s hydrojet–”

Sameera faced her mecha toward the overlapping red boxes of the Frigate and Volkers.

And the green box, Nika.

“Nika! Pull away from them now!”

She pulled back her arm, engaged one of the solid fuel boosters and made a snap throw.

Smashing the utility button on her trigger, she engaged the hook’s jet.

At once, the hook sped away fully unimpeded.

Farther and faster than Sameera’s Cossack could ever go in this instant.

It was so fast it was hard to track.

She had about 80 meters of cable, and she could also cut the cable loose–

“Shit, with the explosion–!”

Realizing she had no idea how wide the blast would be, she did release the tow cable.

“Nika, please get away!”

As soon as the green square of the bomb overlapped the red squares of the enemy, all outside of Sameera’s direct field of vision, she took a deep breath and pressed the second of her utility triggers. Through the enormous length of thin electric wire to which the bomb was attached, a digital detonation command was sent from the Diver to the pipe, and the detonator engaged.

With a second press, Sameera overrode the detonator and set the bomb off immediately.

In the next instant, the murky shadows ahead of her lit up for less than a second.

Sameera heard the muffled booming sound of the explosion through her hydrophone.

Then there was a shockwave that reached all the way to her and rattled her cockpit.

Water instantly evaporated and collapsed around the bomb’s blast radius. An enormous bubble formed in the sea as the heat from the explosives evaporated the water around it and pushed away the rest. Extreme heat and pressures in and around the bubble sheared and crushed metal, and there was no more gas gun fire coming from that general area. All of the red squares vanished, her predictor telling her that the hostile objects had ceased moving or were unavailable to track.

From afar, there was only murky ocean and a rapidly collapsing cloud of vapor.

As Sameera approached, she witnessed the devastation for herself.

Parts of the Frigate’s underside had been disgorged by the explosion, the ship listing on its side and sinking slowly amid a cloud of its own debris. There was nothing of the enemy Divers to be seen, just a cloud of drifting, falling metal chunks robbed of any semblance of form. There was a sudden, intense calm upon the ocean as all the gunfire forward of the Irmingard was silenced.

“Nika! Nika, respond!”

Sameera looked through each of her cameras on the separate monitors, hoping to find any trace of Dominika. That explosion had disturbed the acoustic predictors enough that everything being tracked in that area was momentarily lost. She adjusted and readjusted the cameras, feeling a dawning realization that her desperate attempt to save her could have just as easily killed her too.

“Nika!”

She swept through the area, as the debris drifted slowly down to the ocean floor.

One hand moved thoughtlessly to the communications equipment, fingers trembling.

Could she switch to the squadron channel? Call for help?

What would she even say to Murati about all of this? Everything had spiraled out of control.

Sameera grit her teeth. She had been so stupid, so completely, impossibly stupid.

Her desperation to be the hero, to be the one acknowledged, the one sang about–

“Where the fuck do you belong now? You stupid, useless mutt.” She berated herself.

Tears started to well up in her eyes.

Nothing in the cameras, nothing anywhere around.

Her hand retreated from the communicator.

She could not face Murati like this.

“Nika, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled into her microphone.

“If you weren’t I’d make you be sorry.”

One of the top cameras placed a green box several meters above.

Sameera’s eyes drew wide. She lifted her head, staring at the ceiling of her mecha.

Her lips drew wide in a trembling smile.

“Nika!”

From the murk above, the Strelkannon slowly descended to join the Cossack’s side.

Armor pockmarked with gunshot wounds, the head battered; but functional, with its owner very much alive.

She had escaped in time. Sameera had managed to save her.

“When we get back, I’m slapping you across the fucking face, hero.” Dominika growled.

Sameera felt a mixture of relief and apprehension at those words.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.3]

Despite her commissioned rank, Shalikova was not a bridge officer, and she did not report to the bridge during the alert. Her place was in the hangar, awaiting orders to deploy in her Diver for battle, and that is where she went, after sternly telling Maryam to stay in her room and out of the way of the sailors and officers.

Not that she believed Maryam would have heeded her.

That Katarran really seemed used to doing whatever she wanted.

Shalikova ran down to the hangar wearing a pair of pants and her sweaty tanktop undershirt, her hair tied up into a hasty, messy ponytail. She found several of the remaining pilots and half the sailors in similar states.

Dominika was dressed in what looked like yoga pants and a sweatshirt; Sameera had her TBT uniform pants with her sleeveless button-down half done up; Khadija had thrown her jacket on over what was clearly a lacy nightshirt, with a pair of sweatpants. Out of the regular crew, Valya was the one wearing the green, brown and black pilot’s bodysuit.

“My, my, look at you,” Khadija teased them. “How did you get ready so quickly?”

“Um, I was already down here.” Valya replied. “I was tuning up some stuff in my Diver.”

“I’ve always just gone out in what they give me. How much do you gain from your tuning?”

Valya looked bashful. “Well, every microsecond counts in a fight, Ms. al-Shajara.”

“Please, please do not.” Khadija raised pair of delicate fingers to her forehead. “Khadija.”

“I’m sorry, Ms– Khadija.” Valya averted their gaze while Khadija shook her head gently.

Murati, the squad leader, was a bridge officer in addition to a pilot and had not yet reported to the hangar, so the pilots were left in the lurch at first. Shalikova looked blearily at the scenes around her, marveling at the scale.

Covering the vastness of the lower deck was a flurry of human activity. Sailors in the dozens ferried parts, power tools and ammunition and pushed weapon racks into place using forklifts, so that the mechanics and engineers would have everything they needed at hand to run the final maintenance checks on the Divers. Mechanics ran hasty final tests on the Divers, checking the joints, the batteries, the internal computers, checking every part of each available weapon on the racks, tuning up the diamond sabres and drill lances, AK rifles and Gepard SMGs. There were a dozen people on and around every gantry and maybe two dozen per gantry moving equipment to and from stations.

Within those tall grey walls, on those bare, wide open floors dotted with splashes of lubricants and oil and grase, underneath the sterile glow of white strips of light; within this enclosure of steel, the six Divers and their gantries were the most dominating presence. All of the workshops and stations around them were like islands that seemed to gravitate around these giants they had bound to the walls. And people moved about those islands like schools of fish, in an anxious panic. Shalikova felt a sensation akin to synesthesia; as if there were colors and sounds and tastes associated not with these people but the feeling of their motion, their activity. As if halos lifted off their heads–

Shalikova shook her head vigorously. She was clearly spacing out.

At that point, the Chief Mechanic, Lebedova appeared as if she had come out from under the floor, suddenly in the middle of the crowds. She raised her hands and shouted over the cacophony in a deep, commanding voice.

“We’ve gotten word from the bridge that a situation brief is coming! Keep at it!”

Though they had briefly paused to listen to her, the workers resumed with undiminished vigor. Shalikova felt stupid standing around in the middle of all this activity, but there was nothing she could do but pilot the damn things. She would just be in the way otherwise, even more so than she was just standing in the middle of the hangar with the rest of the pilots. Her whole body was brimming with anxiety. She had been in combat at Thassal, but she sailed toward the danger with a full account of what she was getting into. In this situation, her imagination was far too free.

Meanwhile her fellow pilots were all seemingly too carefree for her own liking.

“Nika, were you working out? You look good! Flexible! Glowing with strength!”

“Who said you could call me by a nickname? And stop staring at my legs!”

“I just think you have really good definition! Show me your leg routine sometime!”

“As a matter of fact, it’s high kicks. Want me to demonstrate one right now?”

Sameera tried her luck again, but Dominika was having none of it, even in yoga pants.

“To think, for once I managed to fall asleep at 20:00 sharp, and this happens.”

“Do you suffer from insomnia ma’am?”

“Truth be told, I was just bored and lacking for company, or I’d have stayed up later.”

“Oh. Well. I see. Is that so?”

Valya tried to humor Khadija, who kept complaining with a bored expression on her face.    

Shalikova wanted to scream.

It was not even just the stupid things they said, but the sheer control of their body language.

How did these sociopaths manage to maintain their composure in this kind of situation?

Before Shalikova got an opportunity to scream, their idle time was finally at an end.

Semyonova’s face appeared on the large screens around the hangar.

Everyone in the hangar received an abridged version of the officer’s discussions.

Soon, Semyonova was replaced on the screen by acoustic predictions of an enemy fleet.

There was a brief pall of silence as the sailors beheld a diagram of the Irmingard class.

However, they were far too busy with their own strict tasks to panic for very long.

Shalikova had no such luck. She felt as if her heart had stopped in her chest.

“When did I become such a coward?” She chided herself internally.

But she still couldn’t help it. And she hated herself for being afraid in this situation.

Especially when the other pilots had much more muted reactions.

Moments later, Murati Nakara arrived from the bridge dressed in parts of her TBT uniform.

“Form up! You saw the brief; we’re going into battle. It’s the real thing.” She said.

She gathered everyone near a wall monitor, which she commandeered for a demonstration. Using a minicomputer, she swiped onto the wall monitor a projection of the enemy fleet, as it was last seen and assembled by the algorithmic predictors. A tight formation, with a vanguard of cutters and two frigates leading the flagship, which was covered by a destroyer. There was a prediction that at least eight Divers would be present as well, but not fully confirmed.

It was this point, when Murati was about to discuss her plan, that Aiden Ahwalia appeared.

He had his arms crossed over his chest, and a disgruntled expression.

Unlike everyone around him but Valya, he was wearing his full pilot’s suit already.

“Lieutenant, can you really look at this sorry ensemble and tell me I’m not ready yet?”

Shalikova rolled her eyes. Khadija practically growled at his appearance.

He seemed to have missed the irony in talking like that to a half-dressed Murati, too.

“Aiden if you interrupt me again during a briefing, I’ll demote you from Pilot trainee to Sailor for a month. You’ll get your chance someday. Listen, observe and build some character, or get ready to swab the hangar.”

Murati’s tone and the disdainful eyes of the rest of the pilots cowed Aiden into silence.

Khadija cracked a little grin.

“I want everyone’s attention on this monitor. Now.” Murati withdrew a laser pointer from the pocket of her button-down shirt and aimed it at the diagram of the fleet. All the pilots turned from gawking at Aiden to the Lieutenant. “Good. Our mission will be to draw the attention of the enemy away from the Brigand, penetrate the enemy fleet formation and inflict some damage on the Irmingard class flagship. Our weapons won’t even scratch it, so we’ll need to plant demolition charges and detonate them to breach the hull. With any luck, even if we don’t sink it, we’ll break enough electronics to keep it off our backs for now. Once the charges go off, we’ll be fleeing immediately.”

Everyone looking at the board waited with eerie silence for Murati to continue.

Shalikova had never seen this rowdy bunch actually stay so still before.

Murati had a fire in her eyes; she was speaking with confidence and strictness.

She was not shouting or overcompensating. It was as if she was in her element at last.

“Captain Korabiskaya is going to parlay with the commanding officer of the Irmingard to buy us a few minutes to deploy and get moving. It’s unlikely the fleet will take initiative without the commander’s explicit say-so, since these all look like old patrol craft from Serrano. So hopefully that will give us some time without big guns in the fray. Once we’re in the water, we’ll close in and engage the enemy in close quarters battle. They’ll have to watch their friendly fire, while we’ll have carte blanche to bring everything we got to the fight. We should prioritize disabling their Divers and any enemy Flak guns, both so we can get in and plant the charges, and so we’ll have an easier time escaping.”

On the monitor, the computer overlayed patterns around the individual ships in the enemy fleet indicating the range and possible traverse of their gas guns as well as the volume of their fire. Flak, an ancient loanword of indeterminate origin, was the term given to 20 mm gunfire from gas guns which would form the primary response by the fleet against the fast-moving Divers. Each of the smaller, slender cutters had two gas gun turrets and a primary 76 mm main gun, providing a limited Flak coverage. Both of the larger frigates had four gas gun turrets to support the covering barrage. The Irmingard had several, but the real danger was the Destroyer. Sitting between Frigate and Cruiser size, the Destroyer bristled with over a dozen turrets meant to ruthlessly defend the flagship from incoming fire.

Every Diver pilot knew to properly respect Flagships, but to fear the cover of Destroyers.

“The Brigand has three 76 mm guns on the aft, but we can’t expect the Bridge’s fire support to do our jobs for us. I’ve got a plan, but it’ll depend on all of our skills for it to work.” She aimed her laser pointer in a straight line to the Cutters at the head of the fleet. “One group will attack the cutters and any Divers around them, trying to maximize damage. That will be up to Sameera and Dominika as the heavy firepower team.” She moved her pointer up in a semi-circle around the outer edge of the fleet formation. “Shalikova and I will attack from higher up on the water table, hoping to draw out the Destroyer and engage it. Valya and Khadija will engage targets of opportunity on the opposite flank. There will be three bombs, carried by Khadija, Sameera and myself. Those are our three shots at the objective.”

Murati dropped her laser pointer back into her pocket and crossed her arms.

“You’re all here because you’re pros. You’ve been around Diver operations or studied them extensively. There’s nothing I can say that will make you ready if you aren’t. Follow the plan as best as you can, trust your instincts, protect your squadmate, and if you see a shot at the objective, seize it! Above all else, make it back to this hangar. Understood?”

“Sounds good to me!” Shalikova spoke up suddenly and sharply as soon as Murati had paused.

As if trying to release all the pressure that had built up inside her, her face lightly red.

There was a brief silence before, all around her, the other pilots nodded in accent.

“Yeah, everything makes sense.” Sameera says. “You even had graphs! That’s so cool!”

“It felt quite, official.” Dominika added in a low voice, averting her gaze from Sameera.

“You’re impressed by the graphs? That’s what’s surprising?” Murati asked, taken aback.

“Oh my, who knows what these two experienced in their backwater assignments.” Khadija sighed, pointing over her shoulder at Dominika and Sameera’s general direction. Sameera seemed not to mind but Dominika was practically glaring at Khadija for the remark. “Lieutenant, it does feel like you really covered all your bases well. And here I was, wanting to tease you the first mistake you made. Maybe next time.” Khadija winked at Murati, who averted her gaze briefly. “Of course, the old adage states that even the best plans are built to fail, so we should be careful.”

Valya merely pointed their fingers in Khadija’s direction as if to silently say, “what she said!”

Shalikova sighed. She felt more and more like she was the idiot among these idiots.

Before long, the pilots dispersed across the hangar, standing in front of their machines, and waited for the cockpits to be released by their supporting engineers. Shalikova had a moment to look up at the suit of mechanized armor in front of her, standing at more than four times her size. She had gotten into and out of machines like this dozens of times now. Whether it was training with real equipment, simulations, or combat at the battle of Thassal, it was the same. This was what she had chosen to do, she told herself. With a deep breath, she tried to ready herself for battle.

Right then, no one else on that ship, but those six pilots, could protect the rest from danger.

One life on the line in one piece of machinery, to potentially save two hundred others.

No one had ever embellished to her, the promise of death that came with piloting a Diver.

Shalikova chose this path knowingly; because it was just, because it was necessary.

Opening and closing her fist, tapping her feet, she examined her weapon to center herself.

This Strelok was very slightly different than the stock models Valya and Khadija had. Perhaps standing partway between the common, simpler shapes of the Strelok and the more extreme Cheka design, all of the armor surfaces complicating the oblong body were sharper, more angular. Its rectangular head, barely more than a box for cameras on the original Strelok, was rounded and flared to disperse water. On the back, there was an additional thruster fed through a newly introduced intake atop the cockpit, the grille almost like a mouthpiece for the head.

She wondered how many milliseconds this would earn her over Valya’s “tuning.”

Moments later, the cockpit plates spread open to admit her.

Shalikova climbed inside the Strelok and strapped herself in.

It was her first time deploying in this machine, so she took some time to adjust the monitors to her preferred arrangement: one in the center, two off to one side and three off to the other. Main forward camera was right in the middle, just like if she were strapped into an actual suit of armor with a natural viewport. She then locked the controls and then tested the tactile feel of the control sticks, the click of the buttons, the pressure on the trigger. Everything was pristine. Nothing like the well-worn training machinery she had used before. Now reasonably certain of the quality of her gear, she unlocked the controls and began the startup procedure along with her engineer.

Shalikova looked with forlorn eyes at the familiar startup screen.

She saw the Union’s standard, a plow and a sword crossed over the opaque dome of an Agrisphere.

A thousand generations live on in you,” was a saying often paired with that standard.

Most of the time, she thought nothing of it. But in that particularly vulnerable state of mind–

Shalikova could not help but think: “Zasha, are you living on in me?”

Stupid, foolish, fearful sentimentality that was useful to no one, much less herself.

For everyone’s sakes, she had to be stronger. She had to be tough. She could not waver.

Or else, she would really be nothing but a burden on the world around her.

Soon the Divers were armed, released, and made the way to their deployment chutes.

On one of Shalikova’s monitors, Murati appeared in a feed from within her own cockpit.

“Thanks for the support back then, Shalikova. I was actually a bit nervous.” She said.

Shalikova scoffed. “We all were. I didn’t do anything. You– You did fine, Nakara.”

Murati nodded her head and seemed to understand Shalikova wanted no further comment.

Deep down, Shalikova truly appreciated the silence between them as they deployed.


“Can I have a sandwich?”

Outside the door to Shalikova’s room, Maryam Karahailos found a sailor pushing along a trolley full of food.

Having eaten nothing but dried vegetables, cornmeal gruel and vitamin bars in her exodus, her eyes practically shone in the presence of an enormous tray of sandwiches, slick with cheese spread, pickles and what looked like thin slices of juicy protein cutlet. Everything was as fresh as could be cooked on a ship, lovingly assembled from scratch. To her deprived eyes this was a buffet for the senses. Her surface colors turned just a little flushed with anticipation.

“Ah, sorry ma’am, you are–?”

“I’m a VIP, Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam said. She was echoing what the Captain said to refer to her.

In truth, she was not sure what the crew viewed her role as or how they intended to treat her.

Maryam sold herself as a useful informant, but that meant different things to different people. In her travels she had been a soothsayer, a priestess, a matchmaker — whatever made sense for the people she needed to get on her side. Whatever made sense to survive. She was still thinking of what she would tell the Brigands; and with the alert, she did not know when she would be able to meet with the Captain. So for the moment, she was just, vaguely, “the VIP.”

“VIP? Sorry, I wasn’t really informed– I’m just taking these down to the hangar crew.”

“Can I have one? They won’t miss one, right?”

Maryam asked purely innocently. It seemed silly to fight over one sandwich out of a pile.

“Well, we actually counted these, so they would miss one.”

His aura was starting to harden against her.

She could tell his disposition was worsening even if he didn’t show it, she was perfectly sure of it. Aura was an additional feeling that Maryam got from people, that she associated with colors, smells, tastes, and sometimes textures in their space. Like dust in the air, or a distortion of light within fog; perceptible, but hard to describe.

Turning her head briefly, Maryam found the hall mostly deserted.

She turned back to the sailor and stared deep into his eyes.

Something in her brain just clicked.

A sensation, that lay between the purely automatic, like breathing, and actions that were technically driven by choice, but that were so natural that the locomotion surrounding them was viewed as less than deliberate. Like taking a step, or having a cough, or the turning of the eyes. For a moment there was a sense of warmth felt right behind her eyes.

Molecular Control.

Maryam overcame his mind through the oxygen he was breathing.

Traveling within that tiny current, into his blood, into his nerves, into his brain. She touched what his body interpreted as sensations, facts, thoughts. She could neither see them, nor finely control them. She had not yet perfected such a technique. Instead, she felt them, and influenced them, like a gentle pluck on the cords that sang truth to him.

The ultimate expression of her god-given mastery over the Air.

“I’m really peckish. I think they won’t miss just one.” She said sweetly, compelling him.

“You’re right. I’ll just give you mine, and I’ll come back for something else.”

The Sailor quickly handed her a sandwich wrapped in a reusable polymer towelette.

“Thank you! How kind! You don’t know how much this means to me!”

“Not a problem ma’am. It was nice meeting you. You take care now, alright?”

To make it up to him, she had influenced his aura as she released her control, tinging it soft and blue.

With his morale gently lifted, the Sailor marched the trolley on its way, whistling a cheerful tune.

I’m making people happy. Myself, and others. Isn’t that the godly thing to do?

Maryam giggled and started to nibble on the sandwich. Just as she had envisioned, it was delicious. While that creamy spread was probably less milk than it was emulsified oil and yeast, it was the first “cheesy” thing she tasted in ages, savory and satisfying. With the pickles providing a tiny bit of spice and sweetness, and the pillowy, but firm bread, and the smooth, meaty flavor of the cutlet– it was delightful. That was the best meal Maryam had eaten in months.

Well worth employing her special gifts to obtain it.

“I wonder how many of them are susceptible?”

Though she found it unconscionable (and physically impossible) to use Molecular Control on everyone on the ship, it was useful to have susceptible people here and there. Maryam had not been around enough to get a sense of the potential of the crew as a whole, but there were a lot of folks who felt like they had strong resistance, some who seemed as though they had an actual seed, and very few who seemed to have with no potential whatsoever.

One particular individual fascinated her: Sonya Shalikova. From the moment she saw her.

Sonya was–

Firstly, she was very pretty. Those eyes, her soft skin, and that pure white hair–

Her long limbs, the slight curve of her chest, her long, slender fingers–

Maryam’s purple hair and light pink skin started turning starkly red.

She had to make a conscious effort to reel herself in.

Second: she was so funny! Sonya had a sharp tongue and made a lot of scrunched up faces.

Third, she was extremely, extremely dangerous! Her senses were extremely sharp, and she surveyed her environments like a predator at all times. What was she searching for? Her indigo gaze was filled with something deep and intense– was it Lust? Dominance? That manner in which she surveyed everyone and pierced them with her eyes– there was no one like Sonya. Not on this vessel and nowhere in this Ocean. Maryam was deeply taken by Sonya.

“Sonya said not to get in anyone’s way. Well, that’s fine, because no one will complain.”

Maryam happily trotted off from Sonya’s room and up the length of the habitation block.

Ships were ships. Katarrans were born in them and many lived most of their lives in them. Small or large, they were all confining and there was no difference there. While the Brigand was cozy, Maryam was not really terribly impressed. After all, she had served a Warlord at one point. She knew what a truly ostentatious, hedonistic ship could be like. Feeling that there was not much more to see after having walked a dozen meters down, Maryam paused.

It was at that point that she saw someone coming out of a room farther ahead.

“Marina McKennedy! Hello!”

Maryam waved her arms cheerfully. She made her colors a little brighter for Marina’s sake.

“Oh, it’s you. Do you know what’s happening?” Marina said, agitated.

That G.I.A. agent tagging along. A friendless person, tall, handsome, reeking of blood.

Decade’s worth of blood. Her own blood. The blood of her past victims; the blood of loved ones.

Not that Maryam knew much about that. “I think we’re under attack.” She said simply.

“Under attack?”

Despite the shock in her voice, her aura flashed brilliantly for only the briefest instant and her face returned to its neutral, reserved expression very quickly. As if she could be surprised, but then her cool rationality brought her back as a force of habit. That G.I.A. agent always had a very sorrowful aura around her. Tinged the colors of others’ auras, as if dragging their spirits with her. Whether they wanted to be with her– not that Maryam could really tell.

“I need to go talk to the Captain. Could you do me a favor, Katarran?”

Maryam made no expression but turned her colors just a bit darker in response, to bristle.

“I’d be happy to help if you call me by my actual name and say the magic words.”

Marina crossed her arms with a low grunt.

In front of her, the G.I.A agent took a step forward trying to impose on Maryam’s space.

“Don’t be fucking childish. You’re not doing shit right now, so just help me out here.”

Such an intimidation tactic would not work. Particularly from someone with such pathetic resistance and potential. What would Marina do to her? Try to shoot her? Maryam did not like to brag. But if someone tried to shoot her, she would simply dodge the bullet. Marina stood no chance. And if she tried to hit her, she’d really find out quickly.

Still, there was no sense in returning this antagonism. Maryam needed to lie a little low.

“I’ll do you a favor from a few centimeters farther than you are right now.” She said.

Marina backed off a step. Intimidation did not work. So her dull aura turned gentler.

“Fine. Look. I need someone to make sure my analyst doesn’t get anywhere she shouldn’t.”

“You mean Elen? She looks pretty grown up!” Maryam said. Careful not to let any malice into her words. “Does she really need much looking after? And can’t you just tell her to stay in her room if so? You’re her boss.”

“Look, you and I are the odd ones out among all these commies. We should start developing some mutual respect here, okay? Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; just go stand in the hall near her room and if she comes out, stick to her for a bit. Act chummy. Given how you act toward me, it shouldn’t be too hard for you. Deal, Katarran?”

Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam spelled out her name in a slow, mocking voice.

Marina raised her hands in frustration. Her aura shifted wildly through dull colors.

Always a little muddy, like whatever color it was had been caked in blood and petrol.

“Okay, please, Maryam. I’m serious, it would trouble me if she got in anyone’s way.”

“Sure thing Marina McKennedy! I’ll take care of things back here. You hurry on along.”

“Good. Great. Harder than it needed to be, but great. I’ll remember this, Maryam.”

Without another word, Marina brushed her shoulder past her as she continued on her way.

“Jeez, what a deplorable woman.” She really did think she had everything under control.

One tiny breeze of Maryam’s miasma and she would have been completely helpless.

There was no sense in that, of course. Nothing to be gained. Maryam calmed herself.

Using the ability of the Apostle of Air in a passion never seemed to end well.

She had been impulsive with it recently. And it had been silly, very silly, and pointless, and yet–

Maryam had tried to influence Sonya.

She had really wanted Sonya’s help and affection. Or at the very, very least, to foreclose on Sonya developing any antipathy toward her. Whenever she used her ability on someone with a strong resistance or who had a seed of potential, she could feel herself being rejected, as if her limbs had hit a wall or a door had been shut in front of her. Sonya was different. When she tried to influence her, she felt nothing. No sensation whatsoever.

Clearly it hadn’t worked. Sonya was just so powerful it was beyond comprehension.

So Maryam watched her. And thought about her. And made up little scenes with her in her own head.

Never before had she been struck with such a feeling, but she had never seen a girl like Sonya.

“Katarran Warlord” was really how Maryam had started to think about her.

She just felt– superior. Superior was the only way Maryam could describe it.

Sonya was a superior being. There was no way in which Maryam measured up to her–

At that moment she remembered the words that an Old Engineer told her and felt ashamed.

Maryam raised her tentacles and clapped them together against her own cheeks, sighing.

She had to fight the hierarchical thinking that had been beaten into her in Katarre.

And yet, faced with her feelings for Sonya, it was tough to understand any other way.

“Hopefully, I’ll live long enough to sort out all this mess.” Maryam said cheerfully.

Her tentacles fell like hair from the sides of her head, thin and slender, like an extra pair of arms ending in a soft paddle. She looked at the soft little suckers at the end of it. It was easy to think of herself as just a human being, but she was a Katarran Pelagis, born in the southern reaches of Katarre amid its chaotic, decades-long civil war that had warped everything in that kingdom. She did not look like a stereotypical Katarran, due to her garb and demeanor. So the ship crew did not fear her and so far, had not avoided her like people did to stereotypical Katarran fighters.

She figured then that Marina’s analyst friend would not mind her either.

Putting Sonya out of her mind, for at least a few minutes, Maryam wandered to the far end of the habitation for the officers and found the open door that Marina had exited out from. Inside the room, a girl dressed from her neck to her ankles in only a bodystocking sat on the edge of a bed, wrapped in blankets. Dark-haired, with bright indigo eyes. Her aura was like a soft blue breeze, calm amid the storm. Her body was waifish, almost as ephemeral as that breeze.

Maryam felt a strong sense of weariness from her. Resignation, perhaps.

She poked her head inside the door. For a moment the girl was surprised but responded politely.

“Oh, hello. You’re that girl from Serrano. Maryam?”

“You got it! Did you know we’re under attack?”

“I figured that was the case. What else would prompt all of this activity?”

Elen the analyst raised a hand to gesture around her environment.

A few minutes ago, there would have been red alert lights going off.

“True! You really are an analyst huh?” Maryam said, without a hint of sarcasm.

“I’m nothing of the sort. I was just– I was useless. Marina just drags me around.”

“Did that stuffy G.I.A. agent say that to you? She’s a really demotivating person.”

“She didn’t have to say shit for me to feel like this. Did she send you here?”

“Hmm. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think God sent me.”

Elen looked at her with narrowing, skeptical eyes, like she was crazy.

Maryam got a very special impression from Elen’s aura.

She understood intuitively that Elen was a very special and gifted person.

And like Sonya, maybe someone dangerous– albeit, nowhere near as attractive.

“Pay me no mind!” Maryam said happily. “People tell I’m a little too emotional.”

For the moment, it would indeed be worth keeping an eye on this girl too.

Once she knew enough about her to confirm her suspicions, then she could explain it to Sonya.


Elena stared skeptically at the Pelagis girl trying to make conversation.

All around them, the ship was vibrating, gently, but more perceptibly than normal. Something was happening, Elena thought. Maybe some hatches were opening, or they were speeding up, or there was actual gunfire exchanged. She did not know. And she was not important enough to anyone here to be privy to that information.

She felt so weary. She had meant what she said to Marina in their shouting match before.

It would have been fantastic to be able to sleep until this was all over: one way or another.

She wondered dimly about Gertrude.

She missed Gertrude so much.

From the news Marina had been able to gather as they escaped into Serrano, she was aware that Gertrude was alive somewhere and attending to her duties. Elena had never really seen Gertrude’s ship, and had only a foggy understanding of the realities of warfare. In her mind, Gertrude could have been dead at any moment, because she was a soldier, and there was now, suddenly, a war. She had no understanding of the intensity of the Empire’s internal conflict. Still, if Gertrude was alive, was she looking for her, thinking about her? Had she given up?

She had thought she saw her in Serrano– but that was impossible.

Elena had been tired and far away on an elevator. That woman could have been anyone.

“Your aura is looking really gloomy.” Maryam said.

“My aura?” Elena asked. “What are you talking about?” She barely even wanted an answer.

Maryam giggled. “It’s like a halo around you, but it’s also like a gentle breeze. It smells earthy and flowery and musty. You have a soft heart.” Elena narrowed her eyes further while the Pelagis continued to talk, undeterred by the clear confusion in the princess’ face. “I haven’t really told anyone, but I’m actually a soothsayer! I can read your fortune!”

Elena groaned. “No thanks. If things are only getting worse, I’d much rather not know.”

“They might get better!” Maryam said. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope.”

Elena stood up, wrapped a blanket around herself and walked out into the hall, sighing.

She had seen the hall had monitors showing status reports. She wanted to examine one.

Maryam followed along sticking close to her, but Elena paid her no mind.

Outside her room there was indeed a display that had a fleet diagram along with several basic safety warnings.

So, they were indeed being attacked. By whom? Elena squinted her eyes, trying to read the tiny text on the algorithmic diagrams. There were all kinds of things scrolling by, and she reached up to touch the screen and freeze the picture. Looking closely, she saw it: Inquisition Flagship “Iron Lady” on one of the ships in the diagram. An Irmingard class?

Her eyes started drawing wide as she came to understand.

Her lips trembled; her grip closed tight around the blanket held shut against her chest.

Wasn’t that ship– hadn’t she heard that name– her mind was spinning, turning, racing.            

“Gertrude.” She mumbled to herself, eyes wide and weeping. “No– oh please no. Please.”

Before her mind was finished processing the events, she took off running.

Maryam shouted after her, but Elena was no longer thinking.

Weeping profusely, her wide open eyes burning as the cold, sterile air of the Brigand’s halls swept over a gaze she could not close. Staring as if through the steel, at the bullets and missiles she could only imagine being exchanged–

No, no, no, no, no! Gertrude– they were going to kill her!


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


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