The Day [4.9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get closer.” She whispered to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh shut up, quit being a wuss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Commander! Commander!”

“Contact! Contact in the forest!”

The Volkisch descended into hysterical shouting over the radio.

Without their commander they were in disarray.

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

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

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

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

“Open fire! Open fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh god! Oh god no!”

She heard the woman on the radio pleading and screaming.

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

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

Victoria confidently threw forward her lance.

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

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

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

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

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

That was its only effect on metal.

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

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

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

A new voice over the radio.

Sawyer.

Victoria was briefly shocked.

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

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

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

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

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

A hapless soldier started relaying the situation.

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

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

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

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

Victoria turned around to face where Sawyer was coming from.

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

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

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

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

Sawyer was still the same as always.

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

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

Victoria felt a strong sense of anxiety and anticipation.

It might have been the drugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep talking, you stupid brute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria was finally ready. She opened fire.

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

“We’ll see about that, bitch!”

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

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

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

She launched past Sawyer’s flank.

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

Metal debris went flying off of Sawyer’s Panzer.

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

There was still no breach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawyer launched manic bursts of gunfire into the forest.

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

Click.

Sawyer’s rifle ejected a spent magazine.

“God damn it! Come back here!”

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

She moved the theater toward the center of the forest.

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

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

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

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

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

She would have seen the artificiality of Vogelheim firsthand.

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

Victoria adjusted immediately to underwater movement.

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

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

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

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

Turning instantly, the Jagd swept away from the bullets.

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

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

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

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

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

“AGH!”

Sawyer shouted with frustration that came across the scratchy video.

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

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

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

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

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

“No! No!”

Sawyer began to swing furiously and helplessly.

Victoria saw an opening.

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

That tube launcher she was caring was split in half.

Her sword caught in the armor.

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

A shockwave blew through the water as the lance engaged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was shouting, furious, near incoherent.

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

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

Her computers started sounding alarm.

Shockwaves were being felt across the station.

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

Flooding.

Victoria realized the station must have been flooding profusely now.


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

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

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

Marina was in a daze.

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

And yet, that journey came to an abrupt end.

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

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

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

Then, she continued her journey, step by step.

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

Suddenly, a maid appeared in front of her.

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

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

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

She had to get past them.

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

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

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

It was barely audible.

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

The maid approached. Marina was starting to panic.

“I– I– really I– I have to–”

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

This was torture.

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

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

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

“I– I’m so sorry I–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God damn it. God damn it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must have been Marina’s “asset.”

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

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

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

Bethany took a deep breath.

There was no turning back anymore, no running.

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

That was how soldiers lived their lives, right?

That was how Knights lived their lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany finally opened fire anew.

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

Another long reloading period followed.

Bethany grit her teeth, watching her cameras.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four enemies to go.

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

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

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

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

“Record to the chronicle box, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She switched off the computer assist.

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

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

She took aim, fired.

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

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

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

Her fingers absentmindedly pressed her triggers.

Again the Volkannon rattled, launching two more shells.

These were manually aimed.

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

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

She put both rounds on a target.

One of the Volkers disappeared into a cloud of fire.

Her computer put up a warning. Internal magazine critical.

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

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

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

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

There was no reason to look at the monitors.

Bethany was fully consumed by the past.

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

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

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

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

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

Those were years that Leda cultivated a deep suffering.

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

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

There was another loud rumbling of her machine.

Bethany peered up at her monitors.

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

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

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

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

An enemy round had penetrated the armor.

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

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

She clutched her wound but could not feel it anymore.

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

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Leda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside, the Volkers were moving cautiously toward her.

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

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

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

Bethany pressed the triggers.

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

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

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

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

And yet it was gentle, and soft.

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

A silken dress, indigo hair–

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

Overhead, the missiles perforated the sky.

There was a final, glitchy burst of video static.

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

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


Vogelheim was dead.

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

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

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

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

Already submerged before the disastrous floods, they survived everything.

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

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

Bursts of 37 mm gunfire flashed incessantly from behind her.

Vapor bubbles nipped at her heels and flanks.

Victoria swerved, ducked and spun away.

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

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

“GET BACK HERE!”

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

Suddenly the Panzer started to accelerate.

Heat readings off its surface tripled in intensity.

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

Psionics?

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

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

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

“No more running then.”

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

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

“You’re fucking dead!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck?”

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

Without hesitation, the Panzer charged through the bubbles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had started just saying things to rile her up.

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

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

Sawyer would always be her enemy.

Gertrude would always be an obstacle.

Elena would always be the unattainable prize.

She was the Empire they were all fighting for.

The Empire they would all destroy.

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

Sawyer’s aura was palpable through the water.

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

She responded to it.

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

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

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

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

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

Alerts appeared on her status monitor.

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

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

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

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

Sawyer threw her wildest, most violent swing yet.

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

Victoria could see all of it.

Red and yellow and black contaminating the water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At which point was I able to choose anything?

Everything was always set against me.

I wish I could have helped you escape.

I could have saved you.

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

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

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

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

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

Solid fuel and parts leaked out into the water.

Victoria reacted near instantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the guns clicked completely empty.

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

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

It was empty.

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

Sawyer must have been out of ordnance.

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

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

“I– I– I’m– I can– still–”

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

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

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

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

She turned the Jagd around and immediately fled.

Her objective was complete.

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

And now she had to flee herself.

“No more tears.”

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

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

In that sense–

Sawyer was just an enemy.

Gertrude was just an obstacle.

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

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

So why did it hurt so much?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mere skip and a jump to the Union.

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

Everything was shaking.

Sometimes subtly, but increasingly, with great violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where– What is–? Who are you?”

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

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

Not right then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes wept and reddened.

Marina felt so powerless, so helpless.

Helpless as she had never felt before in her life.

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

At her drawn, horrified eyes.

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

It dawned upon the Princess then, what had happened.

Her whole body shook.

She screamed.

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

Until her voice gave out into heaving sobs.

Elena screamed with an agony unimaginable.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.8]

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

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

A meltdown had been long since coming.

Even when she was with Bethany–

Maybe even because of that.

She had let her guard down.

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

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

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

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

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

And she regretted immediately that she had done so.

She had hurt that girl; but also Elena.

Elena. She had hurt Elena.

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

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

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

Bearing witness to the horrors of war–

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

Her face reminded her of Leda.

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

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

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

Leda. Leda Lettiere.

She had so much power, will, charisma.

Maybe even– magic.

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

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

How could she say no?

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

Elena was feeling this now too.

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

“Protect her for me.”

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

Her eyes stung; she found herself weeping.  

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

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

She then tripped and fell.

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

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

I can’t protect anyone. God damn it.

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

Marina forced herself to stand again.

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

Once Elena was safe.

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

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

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

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Marina snapped out of her contemplation.

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

It was Marina’s bullet.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Victoria would avoid it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“You’ll distract them? How?”

Marina crossed her arms, staring Victoria down in confusion.

Elena balked at Victoria’s words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not a Jagd.” Marina said.

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

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

Marina blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.

That’s a Jagd.”

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

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

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

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

Volkers had been born out of labor machinery.

The Jagd was exclusively made to kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had not counted on a lot of what transpired.

All of her plans were useless at this point.

All she could do was think on her feet.

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

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

Unfortunately, people were more complicated than that.

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

This was starting to get frustrating.

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

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

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

Victoria looked down at a rock on the ground.

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

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

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

Elena watched, speechless.

Victoria dropped it shortly thereafter.

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

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

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

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

What an absolutely frustrating woman.

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

Elena looked between the two of them in disbelief.

She had been quiet up until then.

She suddenly let out her pent-up feelings again.

She started to cry with renewed fury.

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

Elena grabbed hold of Victoria’s hands.

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

She looked at Victoria directly in the eyes, pleading.

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly and terribly, without much hope of reconciliation.

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

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

Victoria was comforting her and distracting her.

She could see what was coming.

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

From behind her, Marina scooped her up.

She quickly holstered the stun gun in her hands.

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

“No objections?” Marina asked.

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

“Alright. Well. Godspeed.”

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

Victoria stood there and watched her go.

She allowed herself one last childish outburst of her own.

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

Marina said nothing in response.

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

Victoria sighed.

Why did she even say that?

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

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

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

Victoria raised a hand to her wound.

What was she even feeling so sentimental for?

 Her head felt airy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To some, it symbolized the duplicitous nature of Veka.

Shooting first from ambush.

Victoria viewed it as a positive.

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

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

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

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


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

“Rue; have the Panzer prepared for me.”

She said this into an ear-piece.

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

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

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

“That’s not what concerns me.”

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

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

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

She knew they still had time.

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

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

Sawyer’s head overflowed with macabre thoughts.

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

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

Aggravation? Hit something, hit someone. Break something.

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

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

Physicality was easy to understand.

Emotion tortured her.

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

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

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

Sawyer soon found her weapons were loaded.

Her chute was also set up for her.

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

She was vulnerable again.

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

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

She remembered the third: Victoria.

That antisocial Shimii with a twisted personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawyer punched herself in the forehead.

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

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

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

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

And only the Sawyer that was here right now.

She had severed that past a long time ago.

“Sturmbannführer, you read?”

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

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

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

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

“What? At combat speed?”

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

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

She was shouting.

Sawyer reached out and punched the wall of the cockpit.

Gertrude.

She commanded an Irmingard class.

Could she be coming here for Elena?

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

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

Rue sighed into the microphone.

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

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

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

Sawyer was going to be seen as a mass murderer.

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

Politically, it wouldn’t hurt her.

The Volkisch were ready to do anything for power.

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

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

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

“Slow them down, but–”

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

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

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

Sawyer sighed. She took the controls.

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

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

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

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

RMD-006 PANZER [SIEG] was prominently displayed.

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

“Heidelinde Sawyer, Panzer Sieg. Deploying!”

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

Sawyer was ready to lose herself in the violence outside.


Gunshots and explosions sounded in the distance.

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

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

And then everything to went hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, it was an invasion.

So someone had to delay and distract the invaders.

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

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

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

She had wanted to be like a mother to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She set them down.

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

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

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

Leda Lettiere.

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

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

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

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

She did not fancy her chances using this weapon either.

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

Bethany was all too aware of the current situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Betty!”

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

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

She immediately noticed Elena unconscious in Marina’s arms.

“What happened to her?”

Bethany grabbed hold of Marina’s shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

Then she threw her arms around Bethany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Why do you part it this way?”

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

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

“Cybernetic?” She asked.

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

Nodding, Bethany stepped forward.

“Can I kiss you, Marina?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she knew it was not possible.

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

From the foyer, the evacuation bulkhead was just ahead.

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

That would be their escape from all of this.

Their.

Marina started explaining her plan as she crossed the bulkhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds of fighting played out intermittently in the distance.

Closer, and closer, or so Bethany thought.

Marina turned around to start going down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina disappeared near instantly from her sight.

That was it. She had made her decision.

Bethany turned her back on the door.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”

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

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

“Bethany! Open the door!”

Marina started slamming her fist on the metal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, no! No! You can’t do this!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany turned her back on the door and walked away.

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

Down Bethany’s eyes ran bittersweet tears.

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

Bethany accepted the finality of what she was doing.

For Marina, and for Elena.

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

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


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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.7]

“Victoria, what are you talking about?”

Elena hardly knew what to say, think or do.

Amid the trees of Vogelheim, suddenly the falsest element of her landscape had become the face of her cat-eared childhood friend, reappearing after years of absence. What did she mean it wasn’t safe for her? How could she possibly know anything after all this time? And it was absurd to think Elena would simply go with her. To where?

Was she plotting to take her back to the Duchy of Veka?

Furthermore, that surname, van Veka. It made Elena fear for what may have happened to Victoria. She had heard a lot of things about the eccentricity of Duchess von Veka, ruler of her family’s ancestral holding, the Duchy of Veka. To the heartland Imbrians of Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the Palatinate, the land of Veka was a wild frontier, and its aristocracy were often viewed as exotic foreigners in the court. Elena fell to such prejudices:  she easily believed the stories of Veka as a wild, rapacious witch. What if Victoria had been abducted? What if she was being coerced into doing this?

“You weren’t at my party last night because Gertrude would have objected to all of this.”

Victoria sighed openly at Elena’s response, as if it were the dumbest thing in the world.

She lifted a hand to Elena, but it was not in offering.

Instead, she closed her fingers as if she were trying to squeeze Elena’s head from afar.

Her eyes glowed red, with bright rings around the pupils. Normally– they were blue.

Was this all a delusion? Was Elena truly seeing such a thing transpire?

Elena felt a breeze blow by the two of them.

This was not a dream. It was really happening.

She was taken aback. She thought she felt something brush her shoulder.

What was Victoria doing?

Elena could almost see it.

A projection, a dim, translucent aura, scarcely real–

Victoria lowered her hand. She looked, for the first time, to be worried.

“You resisted it? But you came here, so you answered my suggestion.”

“Your suggestion? What are you talking about?”

Elena remembered something then. Her dream.

She had dreamt of Victoria’s parting.

Back then, had Victoria really said they would meet again?

Had that part happened?

She wracked her memory. Suddenly, she could not remember the specifics.

But it was insane to think that Victoria had made herself appear in her dreams.

What was Victoria doing?!

“Victoria, I need you to talk like a person right now, or I’m calling for help.”

She wanted to believe that Victoria was merely confused.

Her friend had always been bad at speaking. In school she used to be shy and reserved. Others would call her cold and attribute this to her being a Shimii. But Elena had seen her when she opened up. Victoria could be kind and expressive in her own way. Elena hoped she could appeal to this better nature. Maybe even help Victoria out of whatever trouble she was in.

She extended her hand.

Victoria, blue-eyed again, briefly flinched as if she expected to be struck from meters away.

But Elena simply wanted to reach out a hand for her friend to hold.

“I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in, but I can help you.”

Elena intended her words to carry her conviction, her sympathy.

Victoria, however, just seemed annoyed with her.

Her tail dipped low and started flicking.

“I’m here to help you. There’s nothing you can do, Elena. That’s the problem.”

Her words carried no venom. They were blunt and matter of fact, like when she was a child.

“Of course I can help you! I’m the Imperial princess!” Elena said.

Even she, however, no longer believed that mattered. And Victoria certainly didn’t.

“Times are changing.” Victoria said. “A lot has changed already, as a matter of fact.”

“Victoria, this is frustrating. You’ve always been difficult to talk to, but you’re so cryptic I can’t even understand you. Just come to the Villa and have tea with me.” Elena said, pleading.

Victoria shook her head. “I don’t require accommodations. As it is, I’m not far enough ahead of Sawyer. Look, I’m anxious too Elena! I don’t want to force you to do anything, but I will have to if you don’t make up your own mind to come with me. Gertrude will not make it back in time. Nobody is here to rescue you except this one right here. So come with me, now.”

Something in Elena’s head simply snapped the wrong way at that time.

To the princess, everything Victoria was saying was nonsense. It was sudden, it was insane, and it simply did not fit with anything Elena knew. She was not in danger. Vogelheim could not be in danger. Vogelheim was her sacred home; her brother’s home for her. Her brother had always protected her, and her brother was the strongest man in the Empire, the most respected. Nobody could target Vogelheim. Nobody would even try.

They all understood how impossible that was.

So Elena’s logic threw everything Victoria was saying right out.

She quieted a tiny screaming voice that was telling her to run, to hide, to do anything.

Instead, Elena smiled charmingly, tipped her head, put her hands behind her back.

“I know what’s up.” She said in a funny little voice. “Vicky, you still have a crush on me.”

Victoria, for a moment, put on an expression like she couldn’t believe she heard that.

Elena, however, continued to pile on what she viewed as friendly, teasing charm.

She really, for a moment, thought she had everything figured out.

That she had seen through a mild deception, and everything around her was still normal.

“You and Gertrude fought over me back in school. I kind of– I kind of realized that, but I didn’t want to believe it. You know, for a while, I had a crush on Sawyer; but Gertrude was always there for me, and I came to treasure her most. Vicky, I still love you as a friend. You don’t need to do any kind of stunts to try to get my attention. You must have gone through a lot of effort to become titled, but Gertrude isn’t, and I still hold her as my most precious person, so–”

“Elena, you’re being absolutely, frustratingly ridiculous.”

Victoria swept her hand.

At Elena’s side, the ground burst up into the air, as if something had struck.

As if a massive force had struck–

Something strong enough to make a watermelon-sized dent in the ground.

Elena screeched and drew back from the hole.

She nearly fell backwards in shock. Barely able to stay standing.

Victoria’s eyes had those red rings again.

Red glowing rings around her eyes.

Was Victoria doing this?

What was– Victoria– WHAT WAS VICTORIA DOING?

“You can resist telepathy, but I can just knock you out and take you away.”

Victoria mumbled that almost as if to herself.

Her eyes then returned to their normal blue.

“I got over my infatuation with you. I am not here for that! I am here as your friend because I don’t want to see you killed by the Volkisch, which is what will happen soon Elena!” Victoria was screaming. Elena’s mind was a blur. What was Victoria screaming about? None of what she said made sense. It was almost like Elena was hearing it through a filter. Was she going insane? Victoria saw Elena’s blank eyes and fearful, broken expression, and moderated her tone. “Elena. In all of her graciousness and wisdom, my beloved mistress, the Grand Duchess Carmilla von Veka, signed off on my mission and gave me the resources to come take you to the east. She’s very powerful, Elena; she will keep you safe even if things continue to worsen.”

Elena was not ready to hear that impassioned declaration.

“What do you think is going to happen?” Elena said. She was stammering.

“You know what Sawyer was like! She’s even more dangerous now, Elena!”

“Sawyer?”

It was unimaginable to Elena that not one, but two of her lost childhood friends could possibly return on the same day, with grand pronunciations about their newfound powers. It was so sudden that it simply felt impossible, fake, delusional. Elena would have been assured that she was dreaming, but when Victoria rent the earth next to her, a tiny peddle made a tiny cut on her legs. That cut itched, stung. It itched bad enough that it continued to drag Elena back to her flesh. She was not in a dream.

She was sweating, her head felt airy, her vision was clouded with tears.

Her entire world felt like it was collapsing right on top of her.

“Victoria, you said Sawyer right? Sawyer is coming? Why? Why does she–”

“She thinks Erich is here! Elena, please come with me. We’re out of time.”

“Gertrude will come back– I have to be here for Gertrude to–”

Elena’s mind twisted and wrenched in an entirely different direction.

“She will not make it in time.”

Victoria’s eyes turned red again.

Something grabbed hold of Elena.

She felt a strong, invisible power gripping her, pulling her forward.

Toward Victoria; she squealed and resisted and was barely able to remain standing in place.

It was like the force trying to drag her had an arm that Elena could somehow outmuscle.

Frustrated again, Victoria cried out, “How are you this gifted, and still so powerless?”

Elena finally fell to the ground. Unable to resist, or escape, but Victoria could not pull her.

She started to weep openly, to cry and to scream where she sat.

She was powerless! She could neither understand, deflect nor resist what Victoria told her.

All of Elena’s static little world had made so much sense.

It was the only form of control that she had. Understanding the falsity all around her.

Everything was happening too suddenly, too urgently. Sawyer; Victoria–

“Victoria, I can’t leave here. Gertrude is waiting for me here. Please just leave, Victoria.”

Elena managed to say this between panicked little sobs.

“I can’t leave here. Bethany is here. This is my home, Victoria. It’s safe here, it really is.”

Victoria started to walk toward her. Her eyes were blue again. No red rings.

“Elena you’ve always known this was a cage but you keep choosing to stay here! All of this was built to delude ourselves of what our world is, and now you can’t leave when you need to! But it’s not safe! Six meters beneath this soft bed of earth there is just metal. Maintenance passages for the climate control and water systems, cargo elevators for the port and warehousing, secret passages for your security detail. This place is not impregnable. I snuck in here and I can take you with me in the same way. Sawyer cares even less about this place than me. Sawyer will shoot her way in, Elena!”

She finally reached where Elena was sitting, and physically grabbed her arm.

“Come with me, now.”

“That’s no way to talk to a lady.”

From Victoria’s side came a rushing figure.

Fast enough it took Elena by surprise.

She delivered a kick right to Victoria’s gut and sent her staggering back to the ground.

Then she placed herself in front of Elena with an arm outstretched.

“Thanks for the intel. If this place is unsafe, I will be the one evacuating her highness.”

At first, Elena had a crazy thought that it was Bethany who rescued her.

But nothing matched. Her defender was taller, with a head of black hair, partially in a haphazard bun, bangs partially over one eye. Messy. She was wearing a suit, it seemed. Pants, a sportcoat or a blazer, and a grey bodysuit that was translucent in the front. When she turned briefly toward Elena, her shirt and coat and suit exposed enough of her to see a scar on her chest.

“Marina McKennedy, G.I.A. Princess, I know this will sound crazy, but I’m on your side.”

She cracked a confident smile and drew a pistol on Victoria.

Victoria slowly drew herself up, and wiped dust from her dress.

She was winded, but those red-ringed eyes turned on Marina with the fullness of her malice.

“That’s a cute look.” Marina said. “But you don’t scare me. I’ve fought 2-meter tall Pelagis who could snap my spine in half before.”

“You have no idea. Get out of my way, republican.” Victoria said.

Marine laughed. “I got here in time to catch the gist of the conversation. Let the adults handle it, little girl. If you want to keep Elena safe, all you have to do is leave her to me. But you’re not just here out of altruism, so stop pretending you have Elena’s best interests in mind.”

Elena was so speechless.

She wanted to warn Marina that Victoria had some dangerous power that Marina was likely unaware of, and had not seen, if she arrived at the events unfolding too late. But her entire body refused to move, and her tongue was as trapped in her mouth as all of them were in Vogelheim. She was unable to say anything. All she could do was weep helplessly.

Then, Victoria’s eyes flashed their deadly red again.


Lieutenant Ionu Patrosku sat on the bridge of his Cutter with great trepidation.

He was shaking but could not let anyone know. He was sure he would not get out alive.

He was in command of a Cutter. A Cutter was all a Lieutenant could command.

Cutters were torturously cramped. His command seat was only slightly raised above the gunner, helmsman and torpedo man. All communications and sonar went through his first officer on an adjacent seat. They sat as if in adjacent rows in a cramped little movie theater, but with the roof barely a meter overhead, and the screens not much farther out. It was maddening.

It was a cage. He was going to die screaming in this cage.

These were brand new model cutters too. There was no excuse. Whoever designed these ships simply wanted them to be this way. Armed with one gas gun, one 75mm light coilgun, and one torpedo tube. Barely 60 meters long in total, most of it taken up by the reactor, engines, control surfaces and weapons, carrying no amenities. They were staring down the barrel of an absolutely massive Cruiser and its 150mm heavy coilguns and all their conviction to fight was leaving them.

And yet, the strength of the merciless training they received, was such that they remained rooted in place, knowing they could not hope to win and yet could not run. It was their sacred duty to defend the Palatinate, the holiest of the Empire’s domains. Vogelheim was a backwater, and what this Sawyer character was saying was absolutely insane, but they had to stand their ground.

Patrosku, however, knew differently than most how sacred their duty was.

The Lieutenant was one of the men directly in charge of Vogelheim’s security.

He knew it was the home of Elena von Fueller.

He had been specifically tasked by Erich von Fueller with his sister’s naval defense.

Patrosku knew, more than anyone, that Erich von Fueller was not present to be arrested by these extremist nationalists. And he also knew why they might have such a suspicion. He was not a stupid man. He was putting together the details of what might be happening with Vogelheim.

And he could do nothing anyway. He could only stand his ground in defense.

Even besides the great authority such a man commanded, Patrosku knew firsthand how terrifying the wrath of Erich von Fueller was, and how far it could reach. He almost felt that the Prince would make sure he suffered in hell for failing him, so even if he died, Patrosku could not run from what was expected of him. He might even go after Patrosku’s family and friends.

His compatriots had trusted him to open communications with the Volkisch.

So he stared down their commander on his screen.

He had no choice but to appear strong.

“Heidelinde Sawyer, if you are keen on a peaceful solution then turn your fleet around.” Patrosku replied, to the brown-haired woman on the screen with fiery eyes and words. “Erich von Fueller does not reside in this station. Starting a battle here will get you no closer to him.”

“Of course you are covering for the traitor. You think my conviction is this weak?”

Patrosku braced himself for her to fire. Thankfully, the Cruiser made no moves.

Was she just giving him a chance to respond?

“We are all proud citizens of the Empire. None of us want to fight you or any of our brothers and sisters here.” He said. He thought he had tapped into a font of eloquence and felt confident. “Soon our leaders will convene. Let them render justice and trust their decisions!”

The Volkisch leader, Sawyer, looked thoroughly unamused with his answer.

“Let them render justice? You suggest we allow the tyrant Fueller to convene with the foreigner harlot Veka and all those who have made a mockery of Imbria, and parcel out our homes among themselves, to continue to exploit us and guide us down into ruin? You and I are not both proud citizens! We are the Volkisch of Rhinea, and we will make our own destinies. You can join us, or you stand against us. We have been preparing to fight, and now we are here to do so.”

At that moment, through sound-wave detection, laser imaging and other predictive methods, the computers aboard Patrosku’s Cutter began to yell about some kind of movement coming from the missile frigates. They were beyond visual range, but he did not need to be a genius to know what was happening: the hatches were opening, which meant the missiles were primed.

Sawyer cut off her laser communications abruptly. Every computer sounded alerts.

There was no avoiding it. Hesitating further would mean certain death.

“All ships to combat speed! Target the frigates first, move to isolate the Cruiser!”

Patrosku called out, and the Cutters advanced on the enemy fleet.

Single-barreled light coilguns sought targets and began to fire. Light torpedoes leaped from the tubes at the front of each cutter. Because there were twenty cutters, they managed to whip up a brilliant fusillade for their side, and hundreds of rounds hurtled across the Vogelheim plains toward the enemy. The double-barreled 20mm gas gun turret on each Cutter readied to intercept incoming enemy missiles from the Frigates.

Battle had finally been joined for Vogelheim.

Accelerating, the Cutters sliced the distance to the enemy flotilla.

Before them, the Cruiser stood unflinching as dozens of rounds shot past its flanks.

On the top deck, the main gun rose and adjusted its barrels.

One pair of 150mm coilgun rounds loosed from the gun and punched through the water.

In an instant, one of Patrosku’s allied cutters had its prow disappear in a vapor bubble.

Between the massive forward damage and the shock of the impact, all of the stricken Cutter’s electronics would have failed and it is unlikely the crew inside could survive. As the Cutters advanced, their downed ally descended miserably, trailing bubbles and bits of debris.

“Keep moving! Once we’re on top of it, it will have to surrender!”

Mobbing was the only tactic they could count on against that ship, with their light weapons.

The Cutters advanced in a snaking envelopment, like nineteen fingers trying to wrap around the enemy fleet from all directions. Each individual ship kept enough distance from each other so that no one enemy weapon could destroy multiple ships. They stayed in enough of an orbit to maintain laser communication and coordinate their attacks, while having room to maneuver.

Meanwhile the enemy frigates responded quickly with their own barrage, peppering the Cutters with light coilgun and gas gun fire. Deadly vapor bubbles erupted around the Cutters, signifying the explosions of ordnance. Even being grazed by such a blast would put incredible stress on the hull and could compound into internal damage, and even cause slow breaches.

Vogelheim’s plain took on the eerie characteristic of underwater war.

A storm of vapor bubbles and lines of displaced water formed by explosive ordnance and supercavitating munitions stirred between the opposing sides as they advanced toward each other. Due to the dimness of the ocean, it would have been impossible to see the spectacle of it from afar, but their computers could see the ocean whipped into a frenzy amid all the barrages.

Even with this horrifying chaos before them, the patrol fleet did not slow their charge.

Taking a haphazard trajectory, the speedy little ships made themselves hard to hit, a quality that only they possessed in this engagement. Cutters’ only defense was being able to move around larger ships like the insects that they were. As they advanced they pummeled the enemy with a rhythmic barrage from their little guns. One round, a swift cooldown and drain of the gun housing, a second round; the Cutters sent over a dozen rounds flying at the enemy every minute.

 While the Cruiser was cooling down, the Cutters cut the distance, to 500 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters, swerving and rising and making looping trails of bubbles in the water as they avoided enemy gunfire. Then the Cruiser’s heavy coilgun emplacement was once again ready to fire. Two massive rounds erupted from the barrels; two cavitation lines linked the gun to a cutter.

Upon striking their targets, or even flying near them, the supercavitating rounds detonated.

Underwater, kinetic energy was constantly lost. Even supercavitation designs had limits.

Explosive force, however, was magnified through the medium of the ocean water.

So even the kinetic rounds were rigged with explosives and made to blow.

For a Cutter to suffer two direct hits and the two explosions that followed was unlucky.

Nothing was left of the ship but piles of bubbling slag, sheared beyond recognition.

All of this gunfire, death and mayhem had transpired in mere minutes.

Patrosku barely registered the loss from his command pod. He was gritting his teeth.

On the edges of the Volkisch formation, one of the gun frigates altered its elevation.

“Any ships that can spare a torpedo, hit that Frigate! It moved out of place!”

At his side, a pair of his allied Cutters were able to heed his command.

Two light torpedoes burst from their tubes and soared ahead of the fleet.

Guided by the torpedo gunners in each respective ship, the projectiles snaked through enemy gunfire and exploited a hole in the enemy’s interception fire that had opened when that one Frigate moved suddenly out of formation. In so doing, it had blocked a nearby Frigate’s vital covering fire from its top deck gas guns, and exposed the entire left flank of the Volkisch flotilla.

Both torpedoes swooped past the Cruiser and dove into the sides of the raised Frigate.

Two impacts blossomed into vapor bubbles that rent massive holes in the metal.

More and more plates began to peel from the Frigate’s side due to the sheer pressure.

An entire compartment disgorged crates and equipment and mangled bodies into the ocean.

It was as if the torpedo was a hand reaching into the Frigate’s gut, pulling out the viscera.

There was no more gunfire from that Frigate. It began to list, its engine firing off haphazardly and sending it on a terminal dive into the ocean floor. Around it, the Volkisch flotilla adjusted their positions quickly to avoid the stricken ship. And yet, an opportunity to rout them did not appear. Gas gun fire intensified, and the Volkisch returned to a disciplined formation.

Once more, the Cruiser at the head opened fire.

This time, the shells flew past their intended targets.

Not too far past.

Detonating right behind one of the Cutters, the vapor bubble grazed an engine.

Patrosku felt his own Cutter shake, and for an instant thought himself dead.

Such was the sheer explosive power of both shells detonating so close by.

He survived; the Cutter on his direct right lost its engines and became a sitting duck.

It was not long before the Gun-Frigates noticed.

Relentless gunfire tore the stranded Cutter apart where it stood motionless.

Patrosku thought claiming that Frigate kill would have given them momentum.

In truth, the situation remained the same. And it was about to worsen.

Within 200 meters, or two or three ship lengths of the enemy, the Cutters began to put themselves into position to sweep through the enemy formation, and come out behind them, around their flanks, and above them, ultimately enveloping the enemy. At this range, their instruments gave them a form of visibility using predictive imaging. Though they could not “see” physically farther than maybe 75 meters, their computers created a picture from other forms of sensory data.

As such, when Patrosku “saw” what was about to happen next, it was all on the computer.

And for an instant, he disbelieved it. Predictions were not flawless, and what separated a seasoned veteran of undersea warfare from a rookie was not relying on instruments but using them as a tool. So Patrosku trusted his gut that what was happening ahead of him was impossible.

He was wrong, and the computer was right, and he discovered this very quickly.

Objects began to appear as emerging from the hatches on the missile frigates.

Though the computers identified these as Volker class Divers, Patrosku felt it had to be a glitch. Volkers rising out of missile launch bays was ridiculous.

Would Volkers even fit inside them?

Obviously, those were the missiles. Missile Frigates carried slim, fast torpedoes powered by rockets that launched overhead and then arced down. They were not guided by wire, but they were fast and disruptive and provoked an answer whenever they were fired.

So Patrosku answered.

“We need a curtain of fire to intercept those missiles! Now!”

“Sir, those are Divers, the computer is saying–”

“I know what it’s saying! Curtain fire, now!”

The Cutters responded to the predicted incoming missiles — until a squadron of five Volkers swam into their formation.

Just as a Cutter was lighter and faster than any other ship, a Diver was lighter and faster than a Cutter. Dashing through the water with a grace seemingly mismatched with their rounded chassis, the Volkers suddenly skirted the rapid-fire gas guns on the Cutters and brought to bear their 37mm Sturmgewehr assault rifles at shockingly close range.

Disciplined, three-round bursts from the assault rifles punched holes the size of a fist into the armor of several of the Cutters. Alarms sounded, and exposed compartments were locked quickly, with the Cutters’ automated self-repair deploying emergency sealants to close the gaps and bind the armor together enough to resist pressure again. But Cutters were so small that these disruptions ended up disabling several systems and rendering the limping ships unable to fight.

Suddenly, the battle was hopeless again as the patrol fleet fell into complete disarray.

To think, the Volkisch contrived such a way to deploy Divers!

Patrosku watched in terror as amid the barrage from the Flotilla, several Volkers charged right past the patrol fleet and headed straight for Vogelheim. His computer calculated at least fifteen Divers deployed, maybe twenty. There was no hope of stopping them anymore.


Sturmbannführer Hiedelinde Sawyer stood on a raised platform in the middle of the bridge of the battlecruiser Greater Imbria, arms crossed, her chair empty right behind her. They had lost the Venable and who knew how many souls aboard, but the Volkisch were not deterred so easily by loss.

Once the battle was won they could mount a rescue operation.

Sawyer was confident in her plan. And she knew the leadership was behind her. Lehner had personally given his approval for her mission.

Greater Imbria and its crew, as well as the two missile frigates Gladius and Spartan, had professional staff who had been turned to the side of the national proletariat by agents of the Volkisch. They had essentially defected from the Imperial Navy to join the Volkisch. But the gun Frigates were staffed by militia and the vessels were fresh out of Rhineland Shipyards.

Sawyer knew who she could and could not rely upon.

“Order the Divers to attack! I want a squadron to defend us, another to secure the station exterior and two squadrons to enter the station. All groups be careful when firing your weapons!”

As she said this, one of the gun frigates discharged a volley of 75 mm coilgun rounds that flew straight through the enemy Cutters and past.

It was impossible to tell whether damage had been done to the station, but Sawyer grit her teeth. Telling them to stop firing was not an option, but the undisciplined gunners might do more harm than good.

She had to get a hold of the situation.

“Tell the Frigates to mind their guns! We can’t damage the station!”

“We should moderate our own fire as well.”

Her yelling attracted the attention of the First Officer, returning from doing rounds around the ship to inspect the combat stations. She put on a little grin as she arrived. Sawyer glanced over to her when the door opened and then turned back around to continue following the battle on the monitors. She hopped up onto the island in the middle of the bridge and patted Sawyer on the shoulder. “We’ve taken minor damage, mostly to the armor.”

“I knew I could count on you to move fast, but even I’m impressed.”

Sawyer had sent her to check the hangar and weapons when the battle started.

For her to have returned in a few minutes was extraordinary considering the ship’s size.

“I didn’t have to go too far. I have these, remember?”

Sawyer barely looked at her while she spoke, but that remark prompted her to glance at her first officer. Holding the rank of Untersturmführer in the Volkisch, her name was Rue Skalbeck. She was a fit young woman, blond hair decorated with red highlights, wearing a pristine, all-black uniform much like Sawyer’s. She was neither as tall, nor as strong as Sawyer but the closest physical match to her on the ship. Her most distinctive feature, however, were the cybernetics on her body, a pair of black antennae the width and length of a finger along the sides of her head.

Those implants helped correct deformities in her brain, and allowed her to interface easily with machines, as well as perform some often-forgotten tasks of electronic warfare that were usually delegated to algorithms and subroutines of the computers automatically. There were some strains of Volkisch ideology that balked at people such as Rue being allowed to serve, or even to live; but for Sawyer, military power and potential was everything, and Rue was strong enough. It was the fact that she would kill for the National Proletariat that made her a peer member of it.

Her relationship with Rue exemplified the essence of the Volkisch modus.

It was the barest simplicity in the world. There were those who deserved, or indeed, who had to be killed, and those who would kill them, for the volk to survive. Other fringe theories aside, it was this strand of thought that unified the Volkisch. At the present, they agreed on who had to be killed to protect the future of the National Proletariat, and its core in Rhinea.

Sawyer would end Erich von Fueller’s reign here.

And perhaps commence her own.

One step at a time; dialing back from that bloodthirsty series of thoughts, Sawyer merely smiled. “Sometimes I forget that you have those bits.” She said, looking Rue in the eyes.

“That’s kind of you. I knew you were sweet for me.”

Rue put on an antagonistically cheerful expression, full of mockery.

Sawyer stopped looking at her at that point.

Before joining the Volkisch Movement, Rue outranked her in the Imperial Navy.

Within the Volkisch she was the equivalent of a Leutnant due to her “physical deformity.”

Not that you could tell that cheerful, pretty girl was “deformed” without a lot of ideology.

“Did you beam the instructions over to the entry team?” She asked.

“Taken care of a long time ago. The Entry Team is already past the enemy fleet.”

“Good. Do you think those blueprints were authentic?”

“You’ve asked me this three times.”

“Answer a fourth time then, Untersturmführer.”

Rue rolled her eyes. She could do this precisely because of Sawyer’s constant tough girl act. She really wasn’t even looking at Rue and couldn’t have seen her expressions behind her.

“Yes, I fully believe in their integrity. I know you’d punch me in the face if I did things half-assed, so of course I wouldn’t show you any bullshit. As soon as I scraped the contents of the leaks off the network, I compared similar station diagrams which are public. Vogelheim is just another NewType-Castle Mod. IV station. Since the similarities are so exact, the differences must be the real deal, or else, structurally, the diagram wouldn’t make any sense in comparison.”

“I’m counting on you.” Sawyer said.

“Yes, I’m the degenerate, subhuman brain to your ubermenschen brawn.”

“Oh, shut up. You chose to be here.”

“I do it all for you, my love.”

Rue blew a kiss behind her back, but Sawyer didn’t see it.

In the stations around them, the men and women looked briefly concerned.

But it was far, far above their station to say anything.

Sawyer sighed openly but gave no response to the love-comedy Rue was putting on.

Rue took notice and sighed herself. She then changed the subject.

“At any rate, you’re overlooking the piece of information that can’t be corroborated.”

“The presence of Erich von Fueller, you mean?” Sawyer said. Rue smiled.

“According to the leaks, Vogelheim has been the home slash prison of Elena von Fueller for the past several years. She could be anywhere, so it doesn’t really matter, but Erich von Fueller’s visit coinciding with her birthday is time sensitive. For all we know, he came and went already, or he never came at all. That’s information that we are basically just gambling on.”

Sawyer hadn’t really thought of that name in a long time.

Elena von Fueller.

She remembered that bitchy elf girl from Luxembourg who drew together a band of other weirdos who fit in nowhere else. Self-absorbed, and stubborn, and sickeningly kind, never wanting to see the faults in others. And yet, she was not popular at the school. Nobody else wanted to deal with her and her baggage; everyone else was terrified of her. So she had no one in the world, but Sawyer; and her other two “friends,” Victoria and Gertrude.

Gertrude: that bitch never saw eye to eye with her.

Another nasty name to remember.

Sawyer almost felt a grim satisfaction at being able to potentially snatch something from Gertrude.

Elena was useless in and of herself but could be an asset with the nobles.

Rue shrugged, continuing to speak. “So really, this could all just be tragically pointless.”

“It’s not pointless.”

Sawyer replied brusquely. Rue took note of her tone and checked herself.

“Someone had to make the first move. We’re making an example. We can attack deep into the Palatinate’s territory. Those useless aristocrats will have to take us seriously after today and come to terms with our uprising. We will make them see that nobody can protect them anymore.”

Rue grinned at her.

“Will you break the taboo then? Take down the whole station as a show of force?”

“Of course not.”

Sawyer snapped back. Something like that was unthinkable.

Living space in the Imbrium was precious. Destroying a station was an unholy act.

For Rue to even consider it showed her utter morbidity of character.

But also why Sawyer treasured her as a companion.

Rue, ultimately, was her kind of crazy.

“We’re going to claim this station, minimize damage–”

“Then we should restrain our violence. Sawyer, the main gun–”

At that point both of them were interrupted. Both by a shouting voice and a screen.

“Heavy coilgun ready to fire again, Sturmbannführer!” shouted a gunnery officer.

“What are you waiting for then? Fire at will! Destroy those patrol cutters!”

“Sawyer, wait–”

Before Rue could explain herself further, the main operations screen displayed a prow-facing camera that briefly showed high-definition footage of the main gun firing. Two projectiles launched carving neat, symmetrical lines into the water around them. Quickly the screen switched from the camera view to a broader view which was not possible underwater with cameras: it was an algorithmic reconstruction of the battlefield, rendered to enable them to “see” the battle.

Water was displayed as a pale blue filter over a world of floating objects, and these objects were outlined within so that they were crisp and easy to perceive out to several hundred meters — if only real water was anything like that! In areas where an explosion had gone off the water was darkened or reddened, using sensor data to show the intensity of the explosion or how recently the water was disturbed in the wake of a fading blast. It was like watching the world through the eyes of a God with mastery over the ocean. Like seeing through air instead of water. Hundreds of lines split the water, representing the trajectories of the shells being exchanged. Divers rushing to destroy enemy ships at close range and enemy ships fighting them were all marked for the viewer.

They could see the terrifying fusillade raging between their fleets in all of its glory. On camera, only the closest explosions registered. You could die before you ever saw what killed you. You might see the projectile a split second before it smashes into the deck. Sawyer and Rue were both used to staring at these screens, and so was anyone who was a veteran of aquatic combat.

“Sawyer, the main gun alignment is off!” Rue finally said.

“What? How did it–?”

On the algorithmic display, the digital “camera” that was once placed so as to mimic a real camera watching the ocean from the prow of the ship, pulled out into an “overhead” view that was impossible with any cameras they had deployed. This view showed the topography, predicted trajectories of enemy and allied ships, divers, and of course, all of the ordnance travelling between.

Both the rounds fired from the main gun appeared quickly on this view.

An alert then sounded. Something had misaligned. A shot had “missed.”

One round carved into the side of an enemy Cutter and split the ship in half.

A red bubble was placed around the second round to alert Sawyer of the problem.

That second 150mm round was predicted to fly past the enemy to strike Vogelheim.

According to the computer it would climb and detonate on the station pillar’s outer layer.

A breach was predicted: sizable enough that it would need a containment response.

There would be no response. Wireless communication was short distance underwater. They could not contact their entry teams to tell them. And the entry teams would be fighting the guards and engineers at Vogelheim, preventing them from responding. It would be a disaster.

At the speeds that they were dealing with, by the time Sawyer and Rue fully viewed the alert on the screen, if the prediction was correct, the munition had already hit Vogelheim. Every second precipitated calamity.

And this time, it was not something that they could see or confirm unless they charged ahead. Until they had an entry team tapped into Vogelheim, they could not contact them in any way. All of this had happened without them seeing with no time to respond.

Silence fell upon the bridge for a moment.

Everyone felt the vibrations of an intercepted torpedo, transferring through the floor. It was that silent, silent enough that all the things their loud lives hid from them were suddenly laid bare. There were explosions going off all around them. When they were engaged in work it was easy to forget the sheer hostility that was outside the ship. And yet, now, they were all transfixed. Nobody said a word, and everyone raised their heads from their personal screens to stare at the alerts.

In that moment they had destroyed a station. It was starting to dawn on them.

“Rue, connect us to the Socrates!” Sawyer said suddenly. Socrates was their engineering ship, which had been working on battlefield communications. “If they’ve got the groundline ready, you can tap into the station network and contact the entry team! Get creative, use whatever you can! We have to tell them to check for a breach. Emergency sealant can slow it down!”

Sawyer was gripped in a passion, her eyes fiery, her words loud — but trembling.

Rue could not muster such passion. Almost bleary-eyed, she saluted.

It was an eerie, surreal feeling. To have destroyed a little world without even seeing it.

That was the nature of war under the ocean.


What did it mean when Victoria’s eyes turned red?

Elena could not figure it out.

“I’m not in the business of shooting at girls. I’d like to think of myself as a friend to all girls. So, since you care so much about Elena, just turn around and go. She’ll be safe.”

Marina continued to taunt her.

Elena wished she knew what to do to set things right.

For a moment, there was tense silence between them. Marina had her gun out but wasn’t shooting. Victoria had fully stood up from the ground but was not moving. They were sizing each other up. Marina had obviously discarded any possibility that Victoria could be a threat to anyone but the weak and panicking princess on the ground behind her. She had no weapons to threaten Marina with, while Marina had a pistol.

Victoria was clearly clever; but was she outmatched?

Then Victoria lifted her hand to Marina, who was puzzled by the reaction.

“Stop right now. I’ll shoot your fucking knee. No ballroom dancing for you anymore. I said stop it–!”

Victoria made a pulling motion with her hands, her eyes glowing bright red.

“What the–? I’m not joking you little twerp, I’ll shoot–”

Before Marina could get out another threat, the floor suddenly slipped out from under her.

Something had struck at her feet and shifted the dirt she was standing on.

Marina fell over backwards, almost on top of Elena, who scampered away in shock.

Her gun remained in her hands.

As she hit the ground she raised the weapon.

Then her finger stopped right inside the trigger guard, unable to press down.

Her hand tensed and shook. From a seated position, she had the gun trained on Victoria.

Her hand wouldn’t fire. And it was not her own trepidation.

It was if something was holding her trigger finger.

Victoria twisted her hand in mid-air.

Marina’s whole body tensed up. Her jaw clenched. She choked out words.

“Stop– Stop touching me– Stop–”

In that instant, Elena was suddenly bombarded with sensation.

She understood what Marina was feeling.

She could almost hear what Marina was thinking.

Sparks were flying just under Marina’s skin. She hated being touched; she was afraid of it. So many people had touched her in terribly wrong, terribly painful ways. That traumatic sense of danger she felt whenever someone touched her started to flare up, but nothing was touching her. Elena was not, and Victoria was nowhere near. But something was grabbing her hair, twisting her wrists, squeezing her fingers, stepping on her feet, and forcing her mouth to grit closed.

Elena could almost see it, like millions of little fingers all pressing on her at once.

All of Marina’s senses were firing, screaming.

And so, in turn, did all of Elena’s.

Elena nearly vomited. Her eyes were burning.

She was overwhelmed with empathy for Marina’s overwhelming disgust.

Her eyes started to weep. It wasn’t even her own tears.

They were Marina’s. Tears for Marina’s own unweeping eyes.

And when Elena looked at those eyes, physically, rather than mentally–

Red rings appeared around Marina’s eyes, matching those around Victoria’s.

She was shaking from the peak of her head to the tips of her fingers.

Then, suddenly, Marina’s hand started to move, irrespective of her own wishes.

Her arms and legs were used to stand her body up, despite all of her resistance.

Slowly, trembling, she removed the magazine from her pistol and discarded it.

There was one round in the chamber still.

Victoria dispassionately watched with those frightening eyes as Marina lifted the pistol up to her head, putting the barrel over one of her eyes. Her struggling jaw and tongue made whimpering, terrified noises, but she could not speak, move or resist. She was completely helpless.

Elena had to finally stand.

She could not endure anymore what was happening.

“Victoria! Stop! Please, oh my god, stop!”

Elena rushed from the floor and embraced Victoria, throwing her arms around her.

She could think of nothing else to do. Nothing that would fix what was happening.

She wept openly in Victoria’s shoulders, while the Shimii continued to glare past her.

“Stop it! Please stop! I can’t– I can’t bear to see this! Please! Please! This isn’t you!”

“You’re wrong. This is me. I have the fullness of my faculties.”

Victoria swept her hand. Elena screamed and shut her eyes.

Rather than a bang, she heard a dull thump.

Marina was lifted bodily and thrown back against a tree, where she came to feebly slump.

Victoria’s eyes turned a clear blue color again. Her voice was as cold as ever.

She shoved Elena’s arms from around her, and then grabbed her by the wrist.

“Are you finally going to do what I say?” Victoria asked.

Elena, eyes swollen with tears, her body trembling, gave a despondent nod of the head.  

“I’ll go with you. Please, just don’t hurt anyone here.”

“Fine. For you, I’ll promise I won’t.”

Elena tried to smile, but a sudden report shut out all of her senses.

She heard a discharge so loud that the noise ripped through her stomach.

Victoria’s head bobbed suddenly.

Something splashed on Elena’s chest, on her cheek.

Blood.

A streak of blood.

There was a clatter on the ground behind them.

Marina dropped her empty gun, fell to her side, and started to retch and vomit.

Victoria toppled over.

“No. Please. No. No. No! No–”

Elena sank to her knees next to Victoria’s body and tried to pick her up, to shake her. There was so much blood running down her forehead that it was impossible to see a wound, but Elena was sure she was dead.

Her fingertips could not feel anything anymore, but she was sure all the warmth was draining from Victoria as she held her.

Marina had killed her; she had killed Victoria.

Little Victoria from school who loved books and was quiet and a little cold, and nobody could get along with– except perhaps the forgotten, useless princess, the brusque school bully, and the stuck-up aspiring knight whom fate had brought together and then so suddenly torn apart.

People who had overnight disappeared from her life.

And here, maybe she had a second chance and then– and then everything happened. It was so sudden that Elena’s life had gone from the stasis of her prison in Vogelheim, to recalling the day to day shocks of her school days with her rocky little group and having to reconcile it.

Why was all of this happening? Why now?

What had gone wrong? What could she have done to avert all of this?

You’re really hard to love— had Sawyer been right?

Was all of this Elena’s fault? Her mind was racing through the horrible possibility.

Behind them, Marina was starting to stand on shaking legs.

She appeared almost as shocked at her own actions as Elena was with them.

“God damn it.” She mumbled. She grabbed hold of her own stomach.

Marina stumbled.

She dropped back to her knees, holding herself up by her hands, gagging.

Elena felt the ground shake.

She nearly fell back herself, and she was just sitting.

The quake transferred through her body, from deep in her gut to the tips of her fingers–

Victoria stirred.

Elena looked down at her, eyes drawn wide.

Fresh tears immediately followed.

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Through the blood that had spilled over them, Victoria opened her eyes.

Staring past Elena, up into the sky overhead.

“It’s failing.” She said, breathlessly.

Again the ground rumbled.

Victoria’s cat-like ears twitched. She raised her hand toward the heavens.

Elena looked up at the sky, following Victoria’s fingers.

Bands of color began to break across the blue sky and its fake clouds.

Something formed that split the firmament. A streak, a crack of visual noise.

There was a brief flash as the sky fully lost its contours.

What was once the sun was revealed to be a complex array of mechanical lights.

All around them, the illusion of a horizon and a sky was fully torn down.

Those massive panels that once created a sky now showed what was really outside.

When the heavens came down, there was only the dim, endless blue of the Imbrium.

Elena could not identify it, but what she was seeing was an algorithmic predictive image of the ocean. That was why she saw in all its vivid horror and glory the massive Cruiser Greater Imbria approaching Vogelheim, surrounded by the shattered and shattering remains of several other vessels which had failed to protect the station and flanked by many other ships and divers.

Her mind was reeling from the sight of her little storybook world coming suddenly down.

Victoria’s voice strained. “You can’t run from this anymore, Elena.”


Unjust Depths

Series 1: The Death March To Buren

Episode 4.7: The Day [[Her Sky Shattered]]

Even if it brings the world to the brink of ruin, you must demand justice.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.6]

This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.

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

Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.

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

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

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

Gertrude scolded herself internally.

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

She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!

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

“Gertrude.”

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

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

Gertrude held her even tighter.

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

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

But she was frail, delicate, precious.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad you were my first time.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.

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

“God, I feel so special right now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a smoke around?”

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

“I could really go for one.”

Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.

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

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

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

She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.

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

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

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

There was no other possible reason.

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

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

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

“Don’t joke about that.”

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

“Apologize by telling me the truth.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”

“The Union? Are you insane?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, careful.”

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

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

Bethany turned Marina around to face her.

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

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

“Garrote you?”

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

Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.

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

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

“It’s all part of my play, darling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Solceanos protect us.”

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

Bethany was stunned speechless.

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

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

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

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

“I can protect her, Bethany.”

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

Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.

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

Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.

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


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

Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.

Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.

At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.

Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.

Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.

Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.

She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.

And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.

For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.

Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.

Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.

Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.

So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.

Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.

“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.

Gertrude winked at him.

“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”

“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”

“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”

“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”

“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”

“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”

Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”

“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”

Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.

After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”

He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.

How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.

Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.

Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.

Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.

“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.

“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”

“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”

Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.

Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.

She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.

Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.

“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”

“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”

Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.

“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.

Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.

“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”

“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”

“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”

“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”

Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.

She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.

“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”

“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”

That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.

“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”

“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.

“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.

She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”

Gertrude smiled.

“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”

The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.

“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.

“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”

Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dreschner shook his head.

“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”

Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.

“Perhaps.”

He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.

“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”

“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.

She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.

Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.

Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.

“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”

That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.

“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”

“I’m always decent.”

Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.

As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.

She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.

‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.

“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.

“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.

Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.

She did perfume herself before she left–

Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.

Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.

“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”

Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”

“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”

She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.

“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”

Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.

She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.

“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”

Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.

She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.

“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”

“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.

She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.

Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.

“As a matter of fact–”

Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.

“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”

“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”

Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.

“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.

She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.

Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.

She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.

“Awoo! This is amazing!”

She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.

“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”

Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.

“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”

“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”

Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.

In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.

Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.

“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”

For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.

Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.

“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”

Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.

“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”

“Oh my god, Ingrid–”

“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”

For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.

“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.

“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”

Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”

Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.

That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.

“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.

Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.

Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.

“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.

“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.

“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”

For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.

When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.

“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”

“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”

Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.

“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”

Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.

Ingrid was too headstrong for it.

She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.

Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”

“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”

“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”

Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.

“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?

“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”

“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”

“Not this one!”

Gertrude was once again laughing.

Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.

“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”

“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.

“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”

“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”

“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”

“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”

“Ok, let’s trade then.”

“Shut up!”

Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.


In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.

There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.

Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.

She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.

Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.

Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.

She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.

Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.

Words were exchanged.

Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.

Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.

“Victoria–”

Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.

She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.

She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.

There were no answers to be found in dreams.

There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.

“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.

Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.

She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.

“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”

There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.

Sawyer.

Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.

Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.

Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.

“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”

Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.

But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–

–In a nightmare,

“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”

She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.

“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”

In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.

“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”

Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.

She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.

Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.

A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.

“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”

She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.

Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.

She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!

And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.

In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.

Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.

Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.

She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.

She was lonely.

For how much longer would things go on like this?

Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?

Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.

And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.

Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?

Had she really done all those things?

Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?

Did her mother have to suffer like this too?

Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.

But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.

She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.

Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.

Fresh air would do her good.

Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.

It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.

She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.

A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.

All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.

It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.

Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.

Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.

There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.

Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.

For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.

Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.

She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.

While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.

Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.

Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.

It induced mourning.

“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”

She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.

That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.

Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.

She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.

And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.

“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”

Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.

“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.

In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.

She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.

Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.

Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.

“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”

“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”

Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.

A familiar voice.

When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.

“Victoria?”

The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.

The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.

Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.

Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.

“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.

Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.

She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.

“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”

“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”

Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.

“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”

Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”

For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?

Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–

“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.

“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”

Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.

“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”


Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.

Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.

Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.

Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.

This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.

Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.

When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.

“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”

At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.

“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”

After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.3]

Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)

There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.

As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.

“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.

Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.

“It’s a beautiful sight.”

“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”

Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.

“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.

Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.

She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.

“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”

“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”

She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.

“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”

Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.

“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.

“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”

Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.

Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.

“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”

“Gertrude?”

“Thank you. I love you, so much.”

Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.

She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.

Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.

Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.

No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.

Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.

And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.

Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.

Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.

There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.

They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.

Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.

“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.

Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”

“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”

“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”

Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.

“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.

“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.

This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.

She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.

“Whoa!”

“Hang on!”

Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!

Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.

On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.

Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.

Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.

“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”

“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”

“Oh my!”

“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”

Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’

But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.

It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.

Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.

And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.

Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.

Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.

She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.

Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.

And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.

Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.

They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.

Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.

They would not have to hide anything.

There were few people to even hide from anyway.

At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.

“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.

She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.

“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”

There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.

“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”

Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.

“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.

“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.

The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.

Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”

“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”

“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”

Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.

One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.

Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.

Before, they would just spend time indoors.

Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.

Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.

“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.

Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.

“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.

“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”

Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.

“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”

“You think something will happen?”

Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.

She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.

Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”

Elena knew that was wishful thinking.

Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.

“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.

She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.

It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.

“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”

Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.

“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”

A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.

Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.

Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.

“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”

Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.2]

A bell rang from the kitchen, and the maids returned.

Soon the table was piled high with delights.

There were several plates on the table itself, and two extensions brought in and attached to the table to hold more plates. Lunch was the largest meal of the day in Imperial culture, but Elena had never seen a lunch quite like this. Bethany smiled proudly while introducing the spread.

Even Gertrude looked mesmerized by the amount and variety of foods available.

At the center of the table there were plates of meat.

First was Elena’s favorite, fatty salmon belly, lightly pan-fried, topped with a drizzle of lemon butter and sliced thinly on the plate. There was also a plate of crispy pork belly cut into cubes and rubbed with cinnamon and dried fruits; as well as a rare ribeye steak served au jus.

Arrayed around the meats were a variety of vegetable dishes.

There was fresh potato salad with vinegar and oil, pickled baby onions with dill, tiny potato dumplings, creamed cabbage in three different colors, and roast beet slices with oil and handpicked herbs. A loaf of freshly sliced black bread rounded out the table, along with three different drinks served in small pitchers on the side of the table: berry milk, hops soda and a noticeably light beer.

Once every dish was set in its proper place, Bethany led the maids in a synchronized bow before their guests, and the group departed, leaving Gertrude and Elena alone with the mountain of food. Gertrude stared at the dishes with eyes so wide, as if she were not sure of her senses.

“This is so far removed from how we eat on the ship. I barely know where to start.”

“Then, let me guide you.”

Elena forked a piece of salmon belly and leaned lightly over the table, reaching her arms across. Gertrude played along and leaned forward, opening her mouth for the princess to feed her.

“How is it?” Elena asked, ever so slightly embarrassed to be playfully feeding her friend.

Gertrude’s cheeks flushed slightly. “It’s incredible. I had no idea fish could be so soft.”

“It’s nice, isn’t it? It almost melts in your mouth doesn’t it? Fatty and sliced thin.”

Elena took a bite of salmon belly herself and felt a thrill. For a moment, she felt a sharp sensation on her lower jaw, as if it were overwhelmed by the oily, rich flavor of the salmon belly. It was the first bite of real food she had in the day, and there was nothing else she would have rather put in her mouth. Bethany and the lasses had outdone themselves with this serving.

Gertrude finally took initiative and speared a juicy slice of steak.

She brought it up to her lips, surprised that it was dripping all the way to her mouth.

“You really start to forget the taste of real meat after a long voyage.” Gertrude said.

Elena tipped her head. “Hmm? Then what is lunch like on the Iron Lady?”

“We have some freeze-dried chicken or thawed beef grounds, usually in stews or in dumplings, but most of our day-to-day meat consumption is sausages. And most of the sausage is half buckwheat, blood and lard, and half ground pork. Steak like this is unfathomable there.”

“I see.”

Eating her salmon belly, from fish caught as fresh as possible in the Empire, dressed in creamy butter and real lemon juice; Elena felt suddenly ashamed when she heard of what a soldier ate in its place. She had never done anything for this country other than to be born to its ruler. Gertrude ate slaw, hardtack and sausages on long voyages through the Imbrium to protect her from possible danger. Every day Elena had proper tea, delicious food, and precious peace and silence. She had greater privileges.

Gertrude, with the open, innocent wonder she exhibited at the food on the table, had been deprived of those things. For her sake– for Elena’s sake– for the sake of the Imperial Princess. She took those lonesome voyages, suffered injuries, ate terrible food that just barely kept her alive. For her sake.

 Elena shook her head.

She had said to herself to focus on the positive.

“You know, someday, when I run this place, I’ll make sure every soldier gets a good steak whenever possible. We can probably dry age them for the long trip, or something like that!”

Elena was relieved when Gertrude beamed happily at her suggestion.

“Fulfill that promise and the men will worship you as a goddess.”

Gertrude reached out for the pitcher of beer and poured herself a tall glass.

She took one sip and seemed to want to laugh as she drank it.

“This is so weak! We have hard liquor on the ships at least. I guess the maids want you to be just a little adventurous. Just a teeny tiny bit.” Gertrude downed almost half the glass she poured in an instant. Elena was left briefly speechless at this very stereotypically soldier-like behavior.

“Have you ever drunk before, actually?” Gertrude asked.

“Why I– Of course I have!” Elena said. She had wine every so often.

“Cheers then. To the Princess’ 25th Birthday!”

Gertrude held aloft her half-empty glass of beer.

Elena quickly poured herself some and gently struck Gertrude’s glass with her own.

She took what she considered an ambitious sip. Gertrude emptied her own glass.

For a light beer, it was still bitter and unpleasant. Elena was unprepared for the flavor.

It went down her throat harder than she had envisioned, and she had a light cough.

Gertrude had a small laugh at her expense. “We should have started with apple cider then!”

Under the circumstances, Elena couldn’t help but laugh at herself a little also.

Being able to play around with Gertrude again was just that much of a blessing.

They sampled a little bit of everything, and then filled their plates with their favorites. Elena staked a claim on the salmon and filled her plate, while Gertrude made herself an exemplary plate with all kinds of vegetables and a modest amount of the pork belly. When she had her food organized, she ate quickly, but in an orderly fashion. Elena liked to savor every bite.

“You should have some vegetables. I wouldn’t want you to die of undernourishment.”

Gertrude picked up a plate of the creamed cabbage and slid a big glob of leaves and sauce onto the side of Elena’s place. The princess gave it a dismal stare and turned the same stare over to her erstwhile protector. Gertrude then picked up a few baby onions and dropped them in as well.

In open disdain of her friend’s selections, Elena reached across the table and speared a single roasted beet from the serving plate with her fork. She brought it back, avoiding her plate, and started to munch on it instead, while the cabbage looked ever sadder in its white sauce.

“I’m eating my vegetables.” Elena grumbled.

“That’s a good girl.” Gertrude said.

“Quit teasing me; as you can see, I keep an exemplary figure. I’ve nothing to worry about.”

“Indeed. I could never overlook it, and I’ve certainly gotten an eyeful of you since I arrived. But you can be the perfect beauty on the outside and have bones full of holes on the inside.”

“Shut up.” Elena responded to the teasing by turning almost as red as beet she was eating.

There was so much food that it was not possible for two young women to eat it all. Elena wondered whether the maids cooked as much as they did, with the knowledge that there would be quite a few of these beautiful plates left for themselves. Whatever their intentions, once Elena and Gertrude slowed down and eventually ceased to pick at their food, Bethany arrived with a proud smile, and ushered in the rest of the maids to take the empty and partially empty plates away.

“We’ll serve a light supper and some sweets later in the afternoon, milady.” She said.

“Enjoy the steaks.” Elena said, staring at her.

“Why I never– at any rate, may I ask what the two of you plan to do now?”

Elena began to admonish the maid. “None of your–”

Gertrude raised her hand amicably. “I’d like to take a look around. I haven’t been around real trees and flowers in so long. Is it alright if I escort the Princess around Vogelheim?”

Her tone resembled that of a boy asking a girl’s parents if they could go out, more than it resembled that of a veteran officer at the highest ranks of the Imperial Security Service.

Bethany reached into the pockets of her apron and withdrew a single, weathered key.

She handed the little key to Gertrude.

“I’ll do you one better. The stables are out back. You can take the horses out for a ride.”

Gertrude was momentarily speechless. Elena watched her with a confused expression.

“Horses?” She finally blurted out. “Real horses? You have real horses here?”

“We sure do! Such a steed befits your knightly stature, milady. Have fun!”

Bethany lifted the hem of her skirt in a curtsy and took her leave of the two.

Elena shot her a suspicious glare as she left, and then turned back to Gertrude, who was still captivated with the old key and the concept of a terrestrial mammal meant for riding upon.

“Gertrude, are you sure you can ride a horse? You’re still recovering from an injury.”

“Milady, I have never been more ready for anything! Worry not; I’m built quite sturdy.”

Her friend’s smile convinced her; Elena took Gertrude by the hand and led her down from the deck, along a gated-off series of steps down into the gardens. They climbed down into the flowers, careful not to stomp, and then they ran hand in hand past the beds of red and yellow.

Around the side of the villa, past the massive flower garden and hidden behind tall hedges, there was a tiny wooden stable where four horses stood in separate, locked enclosures, with hay and grains, a water basin for each, and a closet for tools used by the maids to keep them clean.

To Elena, the horses were enormous animals, but she understood that as far as horses historically had been these were below average in size. It was tough to grow a full-size horse, even for them.

Gertrude was delighted with them nonetheless. She must have thought they were huge too.

“Elena, they are beautiful! So gallant, so charismatic! Look at their manes! Their muscles!”

“Gross, why are you looking at their weird veiny necks? Just pick one and let’s ride it.”

“Ride it? You want us to ride together?”

Gertrude gave Elena a dumbfounded, almost childish look, pointing at herself.

It reminded Elena of when they used to play together as kids.

For her to see such an expression from a woman fully dressed in military gear was comical.

Elena giggled. “I’m no good at riding. You need to be my knight and escort me.”

Gertrude’s eyes lit up, with understanding and perhaps anticipation.

“Your Knight–? I mean– Yes of course. Of course, milady!”

Gertrude approached the stables, clearly still flustered by the idea but definitely trying harder to seem gentlemanly. She grabbed a head collar that was hung up near the entrance to a horse’s enclosure and grabbed a slightly old carrot from a basket of horse treats propped up near the enclosure. She made friends with her chosen horse quickly, a brown beast with a perfectly trimmed black mane. It accepted the carrot, and happily munched away while Gertrude leashed it.

Gently, she led the horse out of the enclosure, and fitted it with its designated saddle.

All throughout, the horse was perfectly well behaved, and seemed quite friendly.

Elena watched from afar, the practiced care with which Gertrude equipped the animal.

“It should be ready. I think its name is Glanz, judging by the enclosure.”

At the sound of its name, the horse bent its head toward Gertrude and nuzzled her hat.

“Ah! He’s an affectionate guy. Steady Glanz! You’ll be carrying a princess today.”

Elena laughed. She wondered what her subordinates would think, watching Gertrude playing around with horses like a giddy teen at an aristocratic school. Come to think of it, she did not really know what Gertrude’s reputation was as a soldier. She knew what Inquisitors did, which was to keep the peace within the country. But was Gertrude dark, brooding and severe to her men? With her outfit and appearance, she certainly looked like a woman who could be mean to you.

To the princess, however, she had never been anything but her sweet, chivalrous knight.

Gertrude climbed atop the horse, behind the saddle, and reached her hand out to Elena.

“I’ll help you up.”

Elena took her hand and started to climb on the saddle. She found herself feeling strangely comforted as Gertrude helped her up, first with one hand and then with her other arm, pulling her up and onto the saddle, and then nestling behind her. Her grip was strong; Elena settled against Gertrude’s chest, close enough for warmth to transfer between them. It was comforting. Elena almost felt like she could sleep in Gertrude’s bosom. She almost wanted to ask if Gertrude could just swing her arms around her waist and hold her tightly. But horseback was not the place for that.

“Are you comfortable?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s marvelous.” Elena said. “I hope you are feeling well yourself.”

“I’m splendid, milady. But the saddle is a bit ratty. I’m glad you’re not put off by it.”

“Let’s just head out. How about we go to the forest first, and then ride into town?”

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude led the horse into a gentle trot out of the stables and down the side of the hill.

Elena sighed. “I’m not a child! You can speed up!”

“It’s not about you being a child. Inexperienced riders can hurt themselves; you know?”

At Elena’s request, Gertrude loosened her grip on the reins and kicked her legs gently on the sides of the horse. Glanz worked itself up from its polite trot to a quicker, but still manageable gait. Not exactly the wild, blazing gallop that Elena envisioned, but perhaps more practical for their circumstances. Fully off the grounds of the villa, the pair rode over the rolling fields.

“Still doing ok?” Gertrude asked.

Elena looked up and over her shoulder at her.

“I’ll let you know if I’m unwell; just keep quiet and look cool in the meantime, deal?”

She reached behind herself and stroked her knight’s cheek.

Gertrude laughed.

“As you command, milady.”

True to her word, Gertrude rode with her, looking handsome, saying no more.

Just trusting her, and letting the princess experience the moment.

Elena felt slowly overcome with emotion as they rode.

Far overhead, the sun occupied the center of the sky. A cooling breeze blew through the fields, causing the tall grasses and the flowers to sway. Elena felt the wind caressing her cheeks and hair. Felt the sunlight warming her face. She could see it, touch it, feel it. As far as the eyes could see, the beautiful green field, the forest of tall, clustered oak trees near a little brook, the port town and the sea it straddled, and the farms that supplied the villa with fresh produce and meat.

They were nearing the forest. It was maybe a few kilometers away from the villa.

Those few kilometers that the horse easily put behind them, encompassed Elena’s universe.

Everything she knew; so much of her life. All of it was flying past her on horseback.

Vogelheim was her home. It was beautiful and comfortable. She had spent all of the past seven years in Vogelheim and knew from the moment she grew cognizant of the ways of living, that beside school and any official journeys she had to undertake, Vogelheim would be her four walls and ceiling. She was not unhappy about this, not always. There were always things that surprised her. She had never really ridden horses. She had barely gone out into the waters of the town. Elena was a homebody, a reader, a technology enthusiast, and fawned over by nosy maids.

Elena was not naïve. She knew that everything in the landscape around her was fake.

Everything was organic. Those trees grew; the flowers bloomed; the birds were alive.

But this world was only possible as a feat of the Imbrium Empire’s engineering.

She knew that Vogelheim was a pillar of metal and glass situated 1100 meters beneath the Imbrium Ocean. Outside, everything was dark. There was no sun, there was no sky, there was no wind. There were no beautiful grasses. There was nowhere that horses could live and roam. There was no place where humans could exist without the protection of inventions such as this.

Elena knew all of this. In that moment, she chose to immerse herself in this fantasy. She and her promised protector riding through the fields for a blissful, storybook afternoon.


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