Pursuers In The Deep [7.3]

An hour after meeting with her personnel leaders, Norn finally saw with her own eyes the gravestone-like block of metal that was Ajillo substation. Jutting out from the grey dirt, bedecked in dead, dying and decaying ships docked to various repair bays like bleached skulls left as tribute. It was a somber giant, a monument to modernity amid a patch of wilderness that had been left to languish, its potential untapped, rotting as much as the ships.

“All of this country is an absolute mess. It beggars belief.” Norn said, thinking out loud.

Outside of the vast, rich underwater plains of the Yucatan Gulf, the majority of Sverland was deep, rocky territory on the edge of various collapsed island landforms that gave the undersea geography a rising and falling, complicated geometry. Any flats that could be found between the rolling “hills” and jagged, rocky gorges and mounts, likely had a station or a substation dropped onto it. The rest of the land was for ships to glide over and around, too difficult to build on with the effort the Empire at large wanted to spare for its southern colony — which was almost none.

Northeast of Serrano, one of these substations was Ajillo, a stout “newtype-utility pillar” set into what looked like a sandy crater 700 meters below the surface. Along the sides of the station pillar’s trunk were several protruding “wet” repair bays which were crammed full of docked ships of various classes, anchored in their twos and threes save for a single, newer Cruiser, by itself. Men in pressure suits and unarmed labor Divers buzzed around the hulks of metal in their dozens. They were worked on in the open ocean, with pressurizing cages around any sensitive areas.

Ajillo substation had been a site of restless activity the past few weeks.

Since the border fleet’s failed expedition to the Union, its repair bays were filled with the detritus of a neglected fleet on the underdeveloped border to the rest of the former colonies. Norn knew of Gottwald’s failed expedition and surmised from the sight of the pillar that conditions were deteriorating. Work for military personnel was guaranteed, so the men likely continued to be paid, in food and lodging and partial wages, to continue working on their ships. But there was a clear state of disrepair to everything Norn could see docked into a wet repair bay.

Military materials would be at a premium, with no ready to source.

Sverland was perhaps the most dependent territory in the Empire. And this lack of self-sufficiency also made it a black sheep. Many of the other territories had the strength and territorial agency to form the variety of breakaway governments now vying for supremacy. But the Empire had always had a purely extractive relationship to Sverland. Every mark spent on Sverland was one mark less of its mineral, agricultural and industrial output in profit. In a sense, Sverland was having to make up for the loss of the Union in extracting as much as possible to feed the growing, gluttonous Imperial nation with little investment. It was essentially paying reparations to Palatine.

Konstantin’s oppressive authority was the only reason Sverland had any Imbrian identity.

Now the dependent Sverland state was fully abandoned, since, at the present, the “central government” that would have been responsible for installations like Ajillo was de-facto disbanded. Erich and the Fuellers and whatever parts of the Imperial administration had not yet defected to another side, all continued to administer the shell of this government wherever they felt safe doing so. But it was fully functional only in the Palatinate, where Erich’s mighty fleet guaranteed its existence. Rhinea, Bosporus, Buren, Solsea and Veka had all established their own nations. And the Royal Alliance had rooted in the productive half of Sverland like a cancer, stealing away the Yucatan.

“All of this is the result of Konstantin’s ego,”Norn said. Her lips curled into a tiny grin.

“It’s a depressing sight, but should you really be openly criticizing the late Emperor?”

“Hah! I have more than earned the right to. More than anyone in the damn world.”

“I suppose so. But then again, a powerful woman like you is partially responsible too.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I suppose from your point of view, you accomplished everything you wanted.”

At her side, Adelheid was dressed in proper dress uniform for the visit to Ajillo. Rather than the grey coat of the Navy, she wore instead a flattering silver tunic with gold embroidery and a tall collar with her fleet insignia, over a white dress shirt with a red tie. Her hair was arranged in a slightly messy bun with a gleaming silver hairclip, and her rosy, done-up cheeks and red lips were particularly tantalizing. Beneath her clothes she wore a bodystocking that was translucent up top and black along her legs, a perfect complement to her modest knee-length skirt and heels.

Norn herself was also outfitted more impressively than normal for the occasion.

While she hated closed layers of clothing, and particularly bodysuits, and so usually wore an open coat and a camisole for comfort, she knew the situation demanded propriety. Norn wore to Ajillo a version of the blue and green Fueller coat that was tighter fitting and closed with several gold buttons. A gold braid connected the right shoulder to the left breast, and she wore a half-cape adorned with the intricate semiconductor emblem of the Fuellers. Black trousers and boots completed the outfit, while her hair was still a simple ponytail, and her makeup fairly minimal.

Adelheid had teased her upon seeing her in the Fueller attire. “Not going to wear the hat?”

“Never again.”

Normally the Fueller family regalia included a sort of flat mitre hat that Norn hated.

It could be substituted for a pickelhaube, another object that made Norn want to vomit.

As the official head of the ruling Fueller family, Norn could have also played a cruel joke on the men at Ajillo by wearing the Imperial crown. After all, Konstantin had left instructions for Norn to lead the family, and Syrmia Fueller and Prince Erich both agreed. She was practically the Imperial heir at this point. Had she brought the crown she may even have considered it, but she had not bothered to invest in the props for such provocations.

Though aesthetically less displeasing than the alternatives, wearing the crown was just as abhorrent.

Norn scoffed. “I prefer to wear my simple ponytail like the humble retainer I am.”

Adelheid laughed. “It’s like some kind of cruel joke isn’t it? A retainer leading the remnants of the #1 family in the Empire, alongside her adjutant, the disgraced heiress of the #2 family; and both dressed up in biological fibers like royalty to meet the Admiral of a dead fleet in the middle of nowhere.”

“Our beautiful story together is just a cruel joke to you? How callous.” Norn teased her.

Soon after Adelheid and Norn dispensed their last barbs, the Antenora was guided by Ajillo traffic control to the small port near the peak of the structure. Military transports would actually dock in an underground berth, accessible through an enormous hatch near the station, and take a long elevator ride up to the barracks in the center pillar. This was a fairly standard design for Military stations. To directly berth in the upper habitat was a privilege for the officers and for the vessels of dignitaries and VIPs. There was only room for two Cruisers or one Dreadnought.

Prior to entering the port, the Jagdkaiser launched from the Antenora as scheduled.

There was not a peep from Ajillo traffic control about this.

They knew they could not defy Norn the Praetorian’s orders in this situation.

And so, as the berth doors closed and the Antenora was secured, the Jagdkaiser hovered in the waters nearby, awaiting its orders. There was no other ship docked into the port structure along with the Antenora, and the station crew managed the fairly breezy job of docking the ship and extending and pressurizing an entry chute to her bulkhead.

Soon enough, the Praetorian and her adjutant found themselves finally entering the port structure.

This was a port that accommodated two ships that would undoubtedly carry people of some military or political pedigree, and as such, the arrivals area was a red carpet affair. A white coat of textured paint made the metal walls seem warmer and more organic, while below their feet, the carpet was silky, gold-inlaid, and colorful. There was no gate, no metal detectors, no security detail. Miniature ship models hung from the ceiling or were stood up on displays flanking the arrivals and before them the wall was dominated by a grand painting of the station layout that was more baroque art than a functional guide. Busts of former station commanders dominated the opposing half of the room.

It was garish, absurd even, an assault to Norn’s eyes in every direction.

Norn had to muster a lot of willpower not to immediately criticize the men who met them in these visually cluttered surroundings. There were only two, though Norn spied a few guards in the hallway leading deeper into the habitat. Both wore uniforms similar to Adelheid’s, with silver tunics and grey pants. Of those who had come to meet them, one was clearly the adjutant, a younger man with slicked golden hair, flashy blue eyes, and a strong jaw, who was smiling gently at them. He had a broad chest and shoulders but slim legs, and slightly slacking posture.

Beside him was a shorter man with thick, brushy mustache, which was the old style among Imperial officers. He had his hands behind his back and kept a critical gaze fixed on Norn herself, unlike the eyes of his adjutant which easily wondered to Adelheid. The generational gap between them must have been similar if not identical to that which Norn had to Adelheid. Though that was where the differences ended. Norn remained a somewhat exotic figure, while this man looked to her like any other rags-on-bones member of their military gerontocracy. As if the greed and hatred found in the soul of the admiralty was peeling and cracking his skin and turning his hair brittle and gray.

“Welcome! It is a pleasure to host such renowned guests. I am Captain Obermeyer.”

They were greeted by the adjutant first. He stepped forward and bowed his head to Norn.

Then when he rose again, he suddenly took Adelheid’s hand and laid a kiss on her fingers.

His eyes moved up to meet hers and she smiled awkwardly back at him.

Norn felt a sudden spike of anger that she hurled invisibly into the captain’s lungs.

In that instant, Captain Obermeyer staggered a step, bent down, momentarily choking.

“Excuse me,” he said in a frog-like, depleted voice, “Something in my chest, very sorry.”

He coughed into the black sleeve of his bodysuit, trying to smile and play it off.

“Get yourself together if you’re going to represent us. I swear; apologies, milord.”

Rear Admiral Vespucio stepped forward and saluted Norn, rather than bow his head.

Adelheid cracked a grin, while Norn retained a surly expression through the introductions.

“You both know who I am: Grand Marshal of the Imbrian Empire, Duke Norn von Fueller. This is my adjutant, Lieutenant Viscountess Adelheid van Mueller. Since we are here on your request, we will permit you to lead the way and set the agenda. I will be blunt, however, that this visit has eaten into my schedule. I hope you realize the favor I am showing you, Vespucio, in standing here before you at all. I trust that my time will be properly respected.”

Though her tone of voice was casual and masked her full displeasure, Norn’s words were pure poison.

While the situation deserved even harsher language, she enjoyed the craft of sinking a man with a veneer of politeness. Captain Obermeyer’s boyish smile seemed to gradually fade as she spoke, while Vespucio stared straight at Norn at first but gradually let his eyes wander like a schoolboy being scolded. It was the effect she desired.

She needed no new friends in this region. She was here purely to indulge a whim.

“Milord, apologies. I was unaware of your promotion to Grand Marshal and believed you still the equivalent of a Fleet Admiral.” Vespucio said. “I congratulate you on your richly deserved ascension and I am proud to serve in a nation which recognizes such once-in-a-century talents. Tales of your exploits reach far and wide.”

“Thank you; but it will take more than flattery for my visit to be worthwhile. Shall we?”

Norn gestured toward the hallway, and Vespucio silently assented.

Past a small group of guards in special occasion wear, through a bulkhead door, the regal white of the arrivals hall gave away again to the unvarnished metal of the station only briefly as they headed to an elevator. There was a small and unadorned courtyard occupied by a few officers in transit. It connected several means of transport to other parts of the station, and they scarcely saw much of it before stepping into an elevator with bronze walls.

Their destination would be the stark opposite of the humble courtyard.

“A place for the officers’ relaxtion and for honored guests.” Vespucio replied. “We’ll start with dinner.”

From the elevator doors they stepped into a massive lounge of umber and fake gold walls replete with false wooden textures, fake wooden tables, imitation leather couches and chairs. There was a bar in the lounge behind which Norn could see a wall of ice chests, likely hiding the alcohol. There were a few side-doors; at one particular door a pair of workers, the lounge waitstaff, ushered them into the location of their fancy officer’s dinner. A comparatively smaller and more tasteful room that had only a table and chairs, a more familiar setting for dinner.

While the room had a lot of imitation wood, the darker color made it less offensive to Norn’s eyes than the burnt umber walls with imitation grain. There was no food yet, but cutlery and glasses of water had been set out for everyone. Four seats were arranged like a cross, bringing to Norn’s mind something like ritual; Adelheid and Obermeyer sat across from each other while Norn sat across from Vespucio. At the door, the pair of waitstaff in their black vests and white shirts bowed their heads and informed them that a first course would be delivered soon.

For Norn, the act of seeing was gradual, like peeling layers. When her mind was idle, she saw hovering colors of auras, dim and gaseous, as if a vaporizer had been smoked in the area and the cloud was fading. Focusing her eyes, flicking an invisible “switch”, she could nullify the auras and calm the surroundings; or she could enhance everything she saw, thereby seeing the “textures” of the aura and realizing the constellation of feelings contained within.

Everything gave off an aura. Only a few people like Norn were cursed to always see it.

This time however she was curious about the atmosphere.

Without any perceptible difference in her countenance, she focused on the auras.

In her time, Norn had developed a system by which she read auras.

Color indicated intensity and proximal emotional responses; but the texture hid the truth.

Obermeyer’s was red with a green stripe; its texture wet and roiling. Lustful, desperate, afraid.

Vespucio’s was calmly blue and green and solid as stone but with black flecks that, every so often, would bubble or vibrate, stirring the entirety of the cloud. Blue was often a signifier for calm, while green represented a disquiet or stress. It was common to see Blue and Green together. Only the most self-controlled humans were fully at peace at any given time. However, the texture and behavior of the aura told Norn that Vespucio was scheming something.

To probe further would invite a brief skirmish between her mind and Vespucio’s will.

She opted to switch targets instead. Norn actively ignored Adelheid’s aura; she focused on the waitstaff all of whom had green and blue auras. Green was far more predominant with thin lines of yellow between the blue and the green. Yellow often meant disgust or sickness, a more extreme discomfort than the comparatively less severe Green. There were two workers, and Norn was assuming one was male and one was female; the lady had more yellow in her aura.

In a few seconds, Norn had a plethora of information about the situation.

And she thought to herself, even if Vespucio held her no ill will, she would kill Obermeyer.

“Are they civilian contractors?” Norn asked, gesturing at the door as the workers departed.

“Indeed they are.” Vespucio said. “My men are too busy, and I would not disrespect them by having them serve me wine and meals, even as a punishment. They are also salt of the earth fellows, they lack refinement, so we have our own cooks here who can serve higher quality meals than the canteen, to suit our elevated tastes.”

“Interesting. Do you eat here often, Captain?” Norn asked, glancing toward Obermeyer.

Obermeyer looked surprised to be addressed by Norn at all. It shook him from a reverie.

“Ah, no milord, not often, this is quite a treat for me actually.” He said.

He laughed and looked to Adelheid as if for some measure of sympathy from a fellow lower rank. Adelheid did not meet his gaze and instead deliberately took interest in Norn as if still waiting on her, playing the dutiful servant. This put Obermeyer in a somewhat awkward position for a moment, until Vespucio finally spoke.

“Milord it is usually just me and Commodore Erbing, but not too long ago, when we easily repaired whole flotillas at this station, we would have more commodores and commanders, as well as wealthy guests, for whom we valued hospitality. Our admiral Gottwald and his family were frequent visitors. Tragic that he met his end.”

“I hear he fought with pride to the end. Is that not how we all wish to go?” Norn said.

Vespucio and Obermeyer both seemed quite put off by that remark.

Norn saw a brief spasm in their auras. A green band was thickening in Obermeyer’s own.

“Will the Commodore be joining us? I’d love to hear his side of station life.” Norn asked.

Vespucio replied curtly, “He is busy.”

“Ah, unfortunate. It would have made for an interesting layout on this table.”

There was hardly any conversation until the first dishes came in.

After all, what would any man in this evil era have to say to someone like Norn?

Now that she was seated at their table and could not be turned away–

And now that she knew the tone of the evening better–

Norn could have all the fun that she wanted with them!

Her carefully maintained countenance slowly melted into a mocking, prideful grin.

Adelheid seemed to have noticed, and even Obermeyer glanced at her more than he ogled the adjutant. While often calm in her own element, around others, she knew she was known for being something of a hyena.

She couldn’t help it; the pretensions of the Imbrians drew out her very worst.

So she put on a face that fully expressed her amusement and satisfaction.

“Happy to see you in good spirits milord. Let us enjoy this meal, dedicated to your grace.”

“Why, thank you; I shall relish testing the mettle of your contracted chefs then!”

“Um, yes, of course, of course milord.”

Adelheid sighed, perhaps partly out of fondness, perhaps partly out of understanding.

Obermeyer averted his gaze to the door.

Norn’s sadistic side was slowly coming out from under the silky layers that hid it.

When the doors opened again, the waitstaff returned with the first course. Norn caught a glimpse of green on the plate as it was brought in, but even she was a little impressed when she saw the spread laid down before her. On each plate was a bright green, fresh salad of firm lettuce leaves, glistening with vinegar and mustard, a dusting of salty cheese, and gilded with bright red, juicy chunks of tomato. Amid the bed of leaves were perfectly golden cured egg yolks, like bubbles which when lightly forked released their creamy contents to the leaves around them.

Adelheid had the tiniest grin when she began to eat.

Such foods were not uncommon to her, both because she had a rich background, but because the Muellers were once farm monopolists in the Palatinate. Adelheid had eaten fresh greens, fresh eggs. She was a spoiled girl for whom nothing was new or interesting. Nevertheless, she was clearly enjoying the rich taste of the greens.

Obermeyer admired the salad almost as much as he had admired Adelheid’s breasts.

He had the response of a boy clearly from a humbler background than anyone at the table.

Norn was someone between worlds. She knew the decadence of the upper class table and the privation of months aboard military ships eating canned ham, cured cheese and reconstituted spinach. But even Konstantin never showed off to her like this. A fresh green salad; as soon as Norn brought a forkful of leaves to her mouth she realized they were far more authentic than the wood varnish on everything in the lounge. They had not been frozen, they had not been dried, they had not been pickled, they had not been reconstituted into leaf shape out of a block by a biostitcher.

Everything was fresh and firm and asymmetrical as only genuinely grown food could be.

Delicious as it was, something about it made her angry.

Why was this backwater station that could barely function militarily growing fresh greens?

Only for Vespucio to infrequently impress his guests? They could not be growing many.

“Delicious isn’t it? Grew them myself. Something of a hobby.” Vespucio said.

Absolute crap. You couldn’t lift your gun, much less a shovel. Norn grinned to herself.

Norn glanced at the waitstaff standing at attention the instant he said that.

She could see the turn of the yellow in their auras, growing, writhing.

“What kind of growing medium do you use?” Norn asked.

There was the briefest flash of confusion in Vespucio’s face. “Growing medium–?”

Norn grinned, interrupting.

“Well, it affects the taste of course! Synthetic soils, collapse ash, micropellets, come now, you know this– oh, and what fertilizer? Human? It’d be a clever way to recycle waste. Actually, we should work on a proposal! Imagine, every military outpost growing more than mushrooms and algae. You could revolutionize military feeding, Vespucio!”

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide as Norn spoke. He was instantly put in his place.

“Let’s not– talk about human waste at the table milord, funny as your grace’s humor is–”

“Fair; but you will personally walk me through the growing setup later.” Norn said.

Once everyone’s appetite had been whetted by the crispy green morsels, the waitstaff took their plates and left behind a bronze tray containing a few crisps speared into a soft mound of an orange-colored sauce flecked with green. Norn did not partake. Adelheid picked up a crisp and took a single sauce-dolloped bite. She struggled not to recoil from it, and delicately ate the rest of the crisp sans sauce. Norn surmised from this that the sauce was too spicy for her.

To the refined Imbrian palate, hot pepper was an anomaly.

The Serrano region was once upon a time known for its hot peppers, however.

“Careful, Lieutenant.” Obermeyer said, smiling at her. “Hot sauces are a local specialty.”

“Hmph.” Adelheid grumbled. “I should hope it won’t all be so astringent.”

Vespucio shot her a look as if angered at her remarks, while Obermeyer, clearly charmed by her response, replied in a soft and assuring voice, “Fear not, milady, I’m sure we have something for a more discerning and delicate palate such as yours. We knew we would have refined ladies for guests, and the chef’s world class.”  

“Am I counted among the refined ladies visiting?” Norn asked.

Obermeyer seemed to be hit by Norn’s words as if struck by lightning every time.

“O-Of course milord!”

Norn grinned. “I just noticed I’ve only been referred to as ‘milord’ or ‘duke’ tonight.”

Adelheid smiled mischievously, gesturing to Norn. “Obermeyer, how is your etiquette?”

“How is it?” Obermeyer asked.

“Were you formally taught? In fact, let me expand the question. What is your background?”

“My background? Well, if you’re so curious, my family had some money, we were never struggling. No peerage of course.” Obermeyer said. “I was taught formal etiquette– I attended Liebknecht School for Boys.”

“Such a prestigious school, but oh dear, what even are boys taught in it?” Adelheid teased.

“Why do you say that?”

“You’ve been mindlessly calling the lady Fueller ‘milord’ this whole time.”

Obermeyer stared at Adelheid in wide-eyed confusion until Vespucio cleared his throat.

He finally decided to butt in and rescue his disappointing adjutant.

“Now, don’t be so hard on the boy. Obermeyer, we call Norn von Fueller ‘milord’ or ‘duke’, in the male form, because those are the titles she was legally given. You do not call the lady van Mueller whatever you want, you call her the title she possesses, and its specific honorifics. That is true for milord von Fueller regardless of her gender.”

“Ah, apologies Admiral. He’s such a lively lad I can’t help but tease.” Adelheid giggled.

Obermeyer squirmed for a bit, trying to laugh it off. Norn contained her own laughter.

While they were speaking of backgrounds, there was no need to go over Adelheid’s or Norn’s. Adelheid had been big news. Her family was the number two family in the Empire in terms of proximity to the throne and influence in peerage politics. Her being disinherited and having her surname struck from ‘von’ to ‘van’ Mueller was news.

Nevertheless, she was still owed respect by people without any peerage. And every military man had heard of Norn, it was impossible not to have done so. Inviting Norn to recount her past would have given her a chance to criticize and seek grievance. Not because she felt hurt or pressured but simply because she could and would do so.

Even someone like Obermeyer knew not to extend a conversation about backgrounds and social origins to cover Adelheid’s disgrace or Norn’s infamy. He knew that much etiquette. So there was no place to take such a conversation beyond himself. Vespucio’s background was not up for casual discussion either. He was a Rear Admiral. Obermeyer should already know him. Norn did — though there was not much to know about him ultimately.

He was just any other career military man, long-serving in a quiet post.

Knowing this, Adelheid had probed the only person in the room who could be probed.

Thankfully for Obermeyer, his rudimentary etiquette and upper middle class upbringing would not continue to be the center of attention for much longer. The conversation was given a reprieve by the arrival of the second course which was set into bowls brought on plates. Knowing the mores of Imbrian haute cuisine, Norn knew that the second course would be a soup course. First was an aperitif, then soup, main course, and finally tea or coffee.

Those bowls were served steaming hot with a thick golden yellow soup upon which floated circles of green onion. That creamy surface was gilded with circles of suspended oils. A single piece of bread was offered, crusty on the outside but pillowy soft and warm within. And in the middle of the table, a bottle of wine and several small glasses were set around a plate of pickled carrot and pepper with lardons. Norn tasted the soup and found it rich with a subtle tang from lemon juice. Katarrans called this avgolemono but in Imbria it was tebiye, from the Shimii.

Norn felt a bitter feeling tasting the food of two ruined cultures as Imbrian haute cuisine.

“Your chef has range, Vespucio.” Norn said.

“Glad you are enjoying it, milord.”

“Has he met a Shimii in his life? Or a Katarran?”

“I– I wouldn’t know, milord?”

Though she had been waiting for another brag, Vespucio was no longer setting himself up for Norn’s verbal counterstrokes. In fact, after this exchange he remained unpleasantly quiet for most of the dinner.

While Obermeyer tried to chat Adelheid up about the food or service life, comments which she rarely reciprocated; and Norn interrupted every so often to tease him or make a joke; Vespucio simply wouldn’t bite. The great and generous Rear Admiral had become miserly with words. Perhaps unused to receiving barbs in return for his flattery and vain flaunting of his privilege. Norn was simply not impressed with him, and he was perhaps not ready for it.

What was he hoping to gain from this? What did he even know of her character?

Once the soup bowls were emptied, the servants took them away and returned with main courses. They proudly declared that for the men, there was spicy beef bourguignon. Slices of tender steak clearly lacquered in a red sauce of wine, mirepoix, fat, and hot peppers; for the women, coq-au-vin was on order, served in a delightfully dark red wine sauce with waxy potatoes and crisp carrots. As with every other dish at the table, Norn had to hand it to the chef. Even the “blander” dish for the “female palate” was full of rich flavors, the wine sauce emulsified with the chicken fats and starch from the potatoes to a naturally unctuous consistency without a heavy hand of dairy.

Despite there being wine in the sauces, the wine for the table had been well chosen to pair. Not a rare vintage, but serviceable and complex with a gentle alcoholic bite and a sweetness that complimented the aggressive meatiness of the main course. Everyone ate, everyone looked happy, but soon no one was exchanging a word. All talk around the table had quieted down from what little there even was before the main course.

Such eerie gatherings were not unusual at the tables of the rich and powerful.

An invitation to eat was a veneer of politeness.

Friendship and camaraderie did not factor into it. It was like choosing clothing over nudity.

Bitter enemies could share a meal to prove a shared sense of civilization, a code of honor.

Many high class dinners passed in quiet indulgence, until moved to shadowy backrooms. Even a chatty series of guests often served as a veil to hide other intentions. For the upper class and military social climbers, self-interested people who sought only positions, power, advantages, it was rarer to have friends at the table than to have prey. For the conversation around Vespucio’s table to have died out simply meant everyone was being more honest.

Norn happily ate the food, and happily let the clock run on Vespucio’s ambitions.

But nobody at the table could be under the illusion that they were truly friends.

Soon, there came the first shattering of the veneer.

After the main course, coffee and sweet patisserie would be served, but–

“Milord, would you indulge me in taking our coffee in private? I wish to discuss an important matter with you, and I hope that we could do so without further interruption. Obermeyer shall entertain the lady Mueller. With our adjutants out of earshot, we can speak more candidly to one another, no offense to the lady or my good Captain.”

Vespucio interrupted the dinner to suggest their last course be taken in private.

Such a request was not unreasonable if there was a sense of urgency or a prior agreement.

However, Norn had not been invited to Ajillo under any pretext of emergency.

As such, trying to hurry her in this manner, to functionally disband the table, was rude.

Norn did not point out this fact. She had no desire to continue playing tea party.

“Gladly. Lead the way, Rear Admiral.”

She glanced briefly at Adelheid, who nodded her assent, understanding the situation.

They had already discussed the possibility of such a thing happening.

If he had a plan, Vespucio would peel his mask off and expose his scheme soon. So Norn followed him out of the room, a tiny thrill in her chest, curious of what would result. Watching the colors in his aura as a tiny, creeping black line began to appear. The fear of; acceptance of; or even experience of death.


Norn followed Vespucio out one of the side doors in the lounge to a metallic hallway, barren save for a door at the end. On the opposite end of the hallway was a single automatic bulkhead door that was locked by an officer’s keycard, and behind that door was an observation room. Reinforced glass and steel grid walls dominated half of the space, exposing the grim blue of the ocean outside. While a few fish bounced off the glass here and there, curious about the light emanating from the room, there was nothing to see, unless Vespucio was secretly a dolphin.

While normally a room like this would be filled with computing equipment and a multi-purpose detection array, this particular room had only a square island surrounded by a few chairs for sitting and taking tea, and a few cabinets that seemed to contain tea and coffee-making accoutrements. It was largely unoccupied and unadorned, though Norn could see scrapes on the floor where equipment had perhaps once stood. There was probably a gun hidden in the island. Norn could not imagine why Vespucio had this room, except as a vain attempt at grandeur.

“Have a seat, milord. I wish to have a hopefully brief discussion if you will allow it.”

“Discuss to your heart’s content, Vespucio.”

Norn and Vespucio sat across from one another.

Alone in this room, they dispensed with the pleasantries.

There was coffee in cups between them but no cakes, no shiny silverware, no servants.

Only two people staring daggers at each other and awaiting a backroom verbal spar.

Vespucio studied her, his aura thrashing as he thought of what to say.

Norn rested her chin on steepled fingers, waiting for a response.

“Milord, how much do you know about the military-political situation here in Sverland?”

He raised his cup to his lips, as if wanting to punctuate a hard stop in his words.

Norn briefly shut her eyes and smiled. There was overwhelming color around Vespucio even though his face was as stone-like as ever. She needed to shut her eyes every so often to avoid the strain. “I know that when Konstantin’s passing was unfortunately leaked to the military, your commanding officer, Gottwald, launched a sudden raid on the bandit nation to the south, without any authorization. This was shortly after Groessen, former Duke of the territories on the Union border, was provoked to launch his own mission to the Union border for unknown reasons. Gottwald and most of Sverland’s functioning military forces were slaughtered by the communists.”

“That assessment is correct regarding the preamble to our present dilemma, but I can’t help but notice that Milord makes a shocking habit of calling many men of power by familiar names and without their titles.”

“Konstantin himself allowed me his name; if I can speak his name, I can speak any.”

“Fair enough. You always had a special relationship to his majesty.” Vespucio said.

“I was a retainer beloved by all of the Fueller family, enough to be adopted.”

Konstantin was so lovesick toward his youngest wife Leda Lettiere, that after her passing some twenty years ago, rumors began to bubble around him and Norn pertaining to Norn’s rise in stature. Did his attentions shift to Norn? Such gossip completely disgusted Norn, but even an indiscrete homosexual life did not seem to dispel the suspicions, judging by Vespucio’s attitude. She was exotic, powerful, an outsider; therefore hated and feared.

“There was some shock in the high society circles pertaining to your ascendance to heading the Fueller family. Had you been a man, there may have been pressure on you to marry Duchess Syrmia in order to solidify your position within the family. Perhaps pressure to assume the throne. We live in progressive times for women: I’m curious if political alliances such as this are in milord’s plans? Anything that stabilizes our politics would be welcomed news.”

“I’m afraid my nuptials would do nothing to stabilize our society at this point.” Norn said. “Regardless of the rumors swirling around in the chaos I am not the emperor, nor am I an Emperor-in-waiting.”

“Then Prince Erich will assume the throne in the Palatinate?”

“You have a very old fashioned understanding of the situation, Vespucio.”

“Am I wrong to believe that the ascendance of an Emperor to our empty throne would do much to alleviate the present situation, where we have several illegitimate powers at work pulling the Empire in their own ways? Milord would know more than me about such things I’m sure, but filling the seat would help, no?”

“You are missing the point of our current crisis to an alarming degree.” Norn said. “Having an Emperor changes nothing. The Volkisch would not back down, for example. To them, we have entered a stage of history where the throne of the Palatinate carries no power. It does not confer to the wielder the resources of an Empire as it did before. Those resources have returned to their constituent states; filling the seat will not bring them back.”

She could have explained the motivations of any given faction.

But she wanted to introduce the word to the conversation. To be the first to say Volkisch.

His aura reacted no more strongly to this word than any, unfortunately.

“Your assessment is grim, but I’m afraid I must agree that it is quite valid, even here.”

“I didn’t get where I am by not knowing what I’m talking about, Vespucio.”

Norn narrowed her eyes at him, and Vespucio seemed to sigh at the increasing hostility.

“At the present,” he began, as if ignoring or papering over the previous conversation for now, “Sverland is in chaos. We have hardly any military power. To our south, the communists could advance at any moment if they wanted to. We have no way to stop them and no forthcoming military supplies because, to our west, a group of aristocrats have started a breakaway state and taken hostage almost all our military-industrial capacity. To our east, the Vekans, who are orientals with no Imbrian solidarity, have declared their own Empire. They have a hundred times our remaining fighting strength at their command. Milord, there is no way we can fight in the emperor’s name.”

“What do you want from me, Vespucio? Why did you invite me here?” Norn asked.

“You wield considerable powers. Any news would be good news from you. Will the Grand Western Fleet cut down through Rhinea and relieve us? Will Prince Erich ride out as Emperor and squash these rebellions? We need to know the intentions of the ruling house of Fueller. Every other territory has rebelled, only we have remained loyal. What are we expected to do? How are we going to be repaid for our loyalty? To remain loyal?” He said.

He was still betraying no emotion. Simply staring her down directly in the eyes.

Norn wanted to simply tell him to go die, but she also wanted to draw things out a bit more.

“At the moment Prince Erich is preparing for a campaign to the Bosporus-Volgia front and securing the border with Rhinea through limited engagements.” She said calmly. “The leftist movements in Bosporus and Buren concern the long-term stability of the Palatinate, as they present a threat to our most accessible supplies of Agarthicite. We are not in a position to march down to Sverland until we can secure the resources to defeat Rhinea.”

“So we’re stranded then? Is it any wonder then that there is talk in Serrano of capitulating to the Volkisch? Would you blame them, milord? Would you have us stand against them and punish them for it? My men and I are helpless in the midst of this cyclone! We can’t possibly uphold the Empire’s law in this state. We barely have weapons and supplies. At this juncture all we can afford with our funds and supplies is to surrender!” Vespucio said.

“But you have the funds and supplies for salad greens, fine wine and a private chef?” Norn said.

“Such things are easier to acquire than coilgun shells!” Vespucio shouted back. He was clearly offended by her response to his hospitality. “I invited you here milord because I need to know what the Empire expects from my men now. My wealth can’t buy them guns and ships! So will you provide them for us?”

Norn sighed mockingly and shrugged her shoulders at him with a grin.

“Vespucio you put on such a boring show. I wish you’d capitulate to the Union instead.”

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “Is this a joke to you? I have thousands of men in this station!”

Whether he meant this as a threat or to garner sympathy, he seemed to leave ambiguous.

Norn finally lifted her cup of coffee and began to drink as if ceding the floor again.

Vespucio grunted his indignation.

He began to shake his head, his hands up to his face. “This is my reward for not riding out with Gottwald? Had I turned traitor, maybe we would have defeated the Union and improved our situation. And yet despite my loyalty the Fueller family so easily abandons me? You are legitimizing the actions of men like Gottwald, Norn von Fueller!”

“I commend Gottwald’s foolish audacity. He at least took his destiny into his own hands.”

Norn smiled at Vespucio as she put down her cup. She calmly watched his aura begin to turn furiously red.

“Do you have your own ambitions, Vespucio? Tell me: what will you do now?”

Click.

“Do you think I’m afraid of you? You are a resourceful woman, Norn, but only a woman.”

Vespucio raised a firearm right at Norn’s head. Her eyes shifted to stare at the barrel now pointed between them.

She moved to raise her arms as if to yield to him. He began to rant at her.

“Without an Emperor and army to hide behind, you are nothing so frightening. In a world without titles and dynasties, without peerage and noblesse oblige, without lèse-majesté, the only thing that matters then, is this.” Vespucio gestured with his head toward his own gun. “Without an Emperor all that matters is who is holding this gun to whose head. This gun, Norn, is your doing. Through your inaction, you have forced me to put this gun to your head.”

Norn laughed. “You’re more correct than you appreciate Vespucio. It is my doing.”


“What kind of cakes do you like, Viscountess? I can get the staff on it right away. Judging by that incredible dinner spread, we may even rival the taste from the Muellers’ own kitchen.”

“Such hubris! I very much doubt you can!”

Adelheid gave Obermeyer a pleasant smile and leaned forward with her hands behind her back.

This pushed her chest very close to the suddenly flustered Captain, who was taken aback by the contact.

She poked at his chest with one slender finger while responding in a cheery voice:

“My favorite cake is tamarind-passionfruit rum cake, so what do you say to that?”

She winked at him as if; a wink she almost hoped would just behead him where he stood.

Instead he took a step back and tried to play it off with a laugh.

“Well, I guess we are completely outmatched.” He said, raising his hands as if in defense.

“As a peace offering, I can put up with any cake, as long as my coffee has milk and sugar.”

She backed up a step, hands behind her, tipping her head to one side in a cutesy way.

“That’s some tough diplomacy. But we can make it work.” Obermeyer replied.

He motioned for her to follow her out of the room where they had taken their dinner.

Informing the waitstaff that they move to the ‘private lounge’, with his guest assumed to consent, Obermeyer led her out into the main lounge and to another side area, with a short hall that seemed to branch to the bathrooms, and which ended in a keycard door. When he flashed his own card at it, it opened to reveal a cozy room with more fake nutty-brown wood varnish, lit orange yellow, with leather seats and a square island set as a table for two. Obermeyer left the door open for the waitstaff to return with coffee and cheesecake, the door finally closing after their departure.

Now it was just Adelheid and Obermeyer inside of that room.

“Viscountess, would you permit me to call you by given name?” Obermeyer asked.

“No~”

She replied with a silly little twist of her voice and took a sip of her coffee.

“Ah, I’m sorry, I meant no offense.”

“Well then, you’ve done a sorry job of looking sorry. For your information, only Master Norn is allowed to call me by name.” She said, putting on a fake pout, leaving Obermeyer momentarily confused.

Adelheid van Mueller was often accused of not acting her age.

Young as she may have outwardly looked, at thirty years old, she had no business having adventures. Many women in the Imbrian military, particularly aristocrats, served a few years, if any, got a token promotion, retired, and married a man. Those Imbrian women who passed their twenties and remained in the service were seen as lesbians, mentally ill, or otherwise having something wrong with them in the eye of polite society, even if they had great achievements.

In her mind, Adelheid was past the stage of her life where everything was so complicated.

To her, every new year meant that she had a narrower focus on what interested her.

And a greater disdain and less time to spare for anything that she found boring.

It was only Norn von Fueller who truly understood the appeal of her philosophy.

“Growing up” was to surrender to a set of orthodoxies about what a “woman” was.

Orthodoxies which included a submissive deference to boring men like Obermeyer.

“Captain, there is only thing about you that interests me.” Adelheid said, reaching across the table to poke him with a stirring stick that had been dipped briefly in the coffee, and rubbing down the brown stain on his shirt. He looked down at it with a frozen expression he once reserved only for Norn. “I’m only curious, what it is you are interested about in me. Rather than stumbling around awkwardly trying to establish a familiarity you’ll not get, you should merely shower a girl in compliments, for that is all a girl wants from a man she does not know. Once you have paid your toll in flattery I will reward your loyalty with pleasant answers to questions about myself.”

Again Adelheid sipped her coffee, discarding the stirring stick at the side of her coaster.

Obermeyer again tried to smile and laugh it off, the oafish boy.

“You high class girls are something else! I don’t even stand a chance. Very well; lady van Mueller, from the moment I saw you, it was your eyes that took me in. So dark and intelligent; I wondered how it must have been like to serve under that terrifying lord Fueller. Now I see that it’s got to be that wit of yours that gets you by.”

“You liked my eyes?” Adelheid said, “but my eyes aren’t down here?”

She ran a hand provocatively over her chest, winking again.

“I– Well, your figure is just so– it’s– Of course any lad’s eyes would–”

“Lads who are like any lad are the most boring kind by definition.”

Adelheid shot him a narrow-eyed, disgruntled look for a brief moment and sighed.

Again Obermeyer seemed frozen. At times she wondered if she had an aura like Norn.

Or if perhaps Norn was simply the first woman to disrespect him and now she the second.

“You did ask a tantalizing question though– what was it?”

“Um. Yes, I– I did want to ask about your relationship to lord Norn.”

“Well, I’m her distinguished adjutant. You’d be surprised to hear, but she can’t function without me. She’s such a hopeless woman as a matter of fact!” Adelheid declared this with such delight it seemed to stun Obermeyer again. “I bet you could never imagine it, but the powerful and frightening Norn von Fueller, left to her own devices skips her meals until her brain is screaming, hardly sleeps, and works until her body completely quits on her! And despite all of that, she will always insist it’s part of a rigid schedule, in which caring for herself was simply allotted no time.”

Obermeyer blinked several times. “I– that sounds rough– Viscountess–”

Adelheid clapped her hands together in delight.

“Oh no, it is very fulfilling work. Do you ever see a woman like lord Norn, who has such a beautiful face and body and prodigious talent, but beneath it all is a mannish, acerbic thug with such poor socialization; and of course you think to yourself ‘that’s a project; I can surely fix her’?”

“I can’t say that I do.”

“Oh, true, I suppose you wouldn’t.”

Obermeyer seemed to miss the particular tone of that response and did not comment on it.

“Well, it sounds like the two of you are quite close.” Obermeyer said.

“Do we not all live in submission to our lords?” Adelheid said.

“That’s– a curious thing to say.”

Adelheid tried a bite of the cake. It had a one-note sweetness that was acceptable.

She smiled vacantly at him, as if waiting for Obermeyer to make any kind of movement.

He finally spoke up: “Norn is coercing you, isn’t she? That’s why you can’t speak freely.”

“Hmm? Have you been listening at all?”

Obermeyer reached out and grabbed her hand suddenly.

“Such words couldn’t have come from you. I realize what it must be like, working for such a powerful, evil person that it warps how you can talk to anyone. But we are safe here.” He said.

“What are you saying? Let go of me.”

Adelheid snapped her hand back.

Obermeyer had a conflicted look on his face all of a sudden.

“It must be true. The Rear Admiral told me the rumors about Norn. That she is a rapacious deviant whose sins the emperor forgave for her viciousness in enforcing the Fueller family’s edicts. Your behavior– she’s clearly tried to ruin you– milady, you don’t have to serve her anymore!”

His voice was becoming erratic with a strange passion. Adelheid grit her teeth in anger.

“How dare you! Such things are always said by jealous men when a woman gains power!”

“You don’t have to cover for her! Lady van Mueller, Norn’s days are numbered.”

Adelheid had been prepared for this eventuality, but hearing the words still stunned her.

There was no preparing her to face a deadly threat. No matter how much she expected it.

She was too emotional a girl. So her eyes welled up with her tears, but she stood defiantly.

“Norn is no more rapacious than any of you thugs.” Adelheid said, baring the full venom in her voice. “And you will not find her easy prey. I pity you for the punishment you’ll receive.”

Obermeyer drew a firearm at her from seemingly under the table.

Or maybe from a slot in the island. Adelheid had not thought to check.

She herself carried no weapons. She was neither authorized nor issued with any.

“Soon you’ll be free.” Obermeyer said coldly. “The Rear Admiral has a plan to destroy Norn and the Fuellers. We will be your knights, lady van Mueller. Let us protect you, please. You do not have to stay with that monster.”

Adelheid smiled through her tears, her heart racing, her mind clouded with stress and anger.

“I have no need for a knight, Captain. I’m quite happy with the monster who has taken me.”

Obermeyer bared his own gritted teeth. “Then I’ll be a knave instead and you my hostage.”

He stood up from the table, still aiming the gun at her, and moved slowly and with menace.

“We wanted you to give us access to the Antenora, but we can use you in other ways.”

“That is the greatest difference between you and Norn, Captain. Men just want to use me.”

“And Norn does not? Does that vile woman truly care about you?”

“Norn needs me.”

Obermeyer narrowed his eyes with clear contempt.

“You must be brainwashed. I can’t see how anything you say makes sense otherwise.”

Adelheid grinned bitterly at him.

He would be surprised to hear she was one of the few people who wasn’t.

“Follow me to the detention center. I know enough etiquette that I won’t drag you there unless you make me do so.” Obermeyer said. His pistol hovering just short of Adelheid’s chest. He stood over her while she had remained seated, and defiantly seated she stayed, looking up at him. Tears in her eyes, a smile on her face, and a pounding heart full of trust in her master. She was emotional, but she was not afraid of him.

“I will do nothing to make you feel heroic, you bastard.” Adelheid said. “I won’t be your helpless girl. Drag me from this chair with all your strength. I’ll bite and claw and kick like an animal until you shoot me.”

Obermeyer’s finger slipped through the trigger guard. “Get up now, you shrill bitch.”

Adelheid thought of doing something rash like grabbing the gun and daring him.

Something like what Norn would do in this situation–

Her impulse was quelled stopped by a sudden crash– a sound of shredding metal, and the pitched whine of something slicing through the thin air like a bullet just barely crossing the ear–

–the sudden disappearance of Obermeyer’s hand, leaving only a wet, dripping stump.


Norn stood from behind the island table as commanded by Vespucio, the cold steel of the barrel never lifting from the bridge of her nose as she moved. At literal arm’s length, Vespucio himself moved out from around the table so they could stand face to face without obstacles. Norn demurred to only this instruction.

She continued to smile to herself as she watched him sweat.

“So who is it that you’re selling me off to? It’s not your own initiative is it? You’ve said this yourself. You’re not like Gottwald. You’re always loyal to somebody else’s orders.” Her voice turned mocking.

“You can judge me all you want from your high castle.” He said. He almost looked for a second like he would spit in disgust at her, but all he spat was more words. “I can’t do anything but to follow the currents, and down here, they favor the Volkisch Movement. Who else am I going to turn to? That Royal Alliance plundering the countryside? The Vekans? The Solceanos zealots? It is clear we only have a place with the Volkisch.”

“So you don’t see anything in the Volkisch Movement, but a process of elimination?”

Vespucio’s narrowed eyes continued to stare directly into hers without once faltering.

“Theirs is the only world I’ve been promised without rule by bloodlines or false faiths.”

“You truly believe that? You believe the Volkisch Movement professes a coherent truth?”

“I know they are the pragmatic choice, and that puts them above everyone else.” He said.

Norn grinned at him and shrugged. “I didn’t realize the sons of Campos could be so shockingly sympathetic to elaborate racism, when they themselves have been so exposed to it.”

“I’m not a Campos. I’m an Imbrian. I have done nothing but serve the Imbrian Empire.”

“You’ll find as I have, that it doesn’t work that way, no matter how high you reach.”

“Shut up. The only Campos thing I’ll say to you is how tired I am of being lectured by a puerca like you. A bitch fed by the golden spoon of the Emperor having your shamelessness. We all sucked up to you because Konstantin von Fueller looked through your eyes and struck terror in us. We all feared and respected the enforcer of the Imbrian Empire. If you’re not backed by a fleet fighting for the throne, you’re just some whore.” Vespucio said.

He pressed the barrel more tightly against Norn’s nose, gritting his teeth.

Clearly letting out all the repressed stress and disgust that had lain behind his etiquette.

“Vespucio, in your mind, what happens now?” Norn asked.

For the first time, Vespucio grinned at her, viciously, full of bloodthirst.

“Once you are in Volkisch custody, Erich’s faction will surely collapse. That boy has only coasted on the power of the Grand Western Fleet. He is no great man of state; he has amply demonstrated this. Your capture and execution by the Volkisch will level the Fuellers and any power they have after the death of the Emperor. And I just keep eating my fresh beef and greens; with Gottwald gone I may even be promoted to Fleet Admiral for Sverland.”

“Do you really think the Volkisch see you as part of the National Proletarian ubermensch?”

“They’ll see me as a willing collaborator who delivered a political prize. That’s all I need.”

He pushed the barrel against her head and his hand forward, as if cautioning her against moving, while his free hand withdrew from his coat a handset into which he spoke with a voice filled with triumph.

“I have taken the Tower. Prize claim in Observation room Ludwig. Schnell.”

“Your High Imbrian is quite good.” Norn said calmly.

Vespucio put the handset back in his coat pocket and snorted, indignant with her tone.

“Why are you so chipper? You think you can escape? You look down on me at your own peril. I’ve heard stories about your exploits, but this time, I’ve ambushed you, Norn. You’ve walked into my fortress and you are isolated here because you are a vain, self-obsessed cunt. Whatever plot you are concocting in your head, don’t try it. You’re more useful alive but I will pull this trigger the instant I see any muscle on you even twitch my way.”

“Fair enough. I will not move any muscle that you can see.”

“I can only hope when my time comes, I go out as gracefully or as insane as you.”

Seconds later, the door opened. A squadron breached the room in a quick and practiced formation. Four men in uniform with boxy, compact submachine guns entered the room and set their sights on Norn, two standing and two crouching, likely bearing frangible loads to perforate her flesh but not the walls. Behind them two other men appeared ready to collect her, with cuffs, a straitjacket, and what looked like a loup muzzle in tow, along syringes full of drugs to knock her out. The party assembled at the door, and the men approached with their cruel implements.

Vespucio briefly glanced sideways to confirm their arrival.

At that point, Norn responded without moving a muscle that Vespucio could see.

She took a calm breath and twitched the muscle in her mind.

Temporal control.

Around her, everything turned blue as if filling with water. Everyone stood frozen still.

Quickly and wordlessly, Norn grabbed hold of Vespucio’s hand. There was no reaction.

With a brutal crunch, she bent it backwards at the wrist, tore his fingers off the gun.

She ran to the men, turned their upper bodies to face each other, like playing with dolls.

Each of their fingers she squeezed against the trigger. None of them responded in any way.

Finally she stood at the flank of the two men arriving to capture her. She raised the gun to the temple of one man, making sure he lined up with his partner, and rapped the trigger. Then, and only then, head hazy without air and her heart struggling to beat, did Norn finally let out a breath. Around her, the bubble collapsed as if it never existed, returning the true colors of the room. Suddenly, everyone was moving again.

In the next instant bullets went flying, blood sprayed, corpses fell, rhythmically, all at once.

Within the time it took to blink, Vespucio found his hand shattered and his men dead.


Obermeyer gasped for breath; his chest appeared to seize with shock.

He lifted the end of his arm where his hand once was and stared at the space now empty save for blood that pooled and began to drip down what was once his wrist across the remains of his forearm. His eyes drew wide and his handsome face blanched until he was sheet-white. He lifted his other hand as though he needed a model to confirm what he was seeing. His legs shook and beads of sweat glistened on his face.

On the floor his firearm lay discarded.

Adelheid kicked the firearm away and stepped calmly back to avoid the dripping blood.

She turned to the door, covering her mouth and nose. Everything reeked of bloody iron.

On the door to the lounge was an orifice the size of a fist, blossoming like a flower with shredded steel its petals. A projectile the size of plumbing pipe had gone through the steel door flying bullet fast, and it embedded itself in the wall behind them. Much of its structure was a sharp, sleek, jet-black spike, save for the back, where a small pustule dribbled a bloody-smelling fluid and gas. Obermeyer was too focused on his injury to see this shocking thing.

There was a brief flash of motion behind the door itself, visible through the orifice.

Several thick, slimy tendrils squeezed through the hole.

One of them had an object cradled on its end, like a cylinder with flashing LEDs.

It slid this object into the side of the card-key reader on their end.

Then the door locks shifted with a chunky, metallic noise that alerted Obermeyer.

Through the hole the tentacles retreated; and through the door, a woman walked in.

Shorter than Adelheid, dressed in a blood-streaked black robe with the hood thrown back.

Her face, pale as chalk, streaked across by a splash of red, wore a vicious fang-baring grin. Her shoulder-length white hair also had a streak of blood running across to match where it had splashed on her face.

“Y’ok Addie? Norn’ll kill me if I got here too late to prevent ya bein’ ruined for marriage.”

Adelheid pouted. “I would’ve never let it get that far! I can defend myself, Hunter III.”

“Who is– How did– Why–”

Obermeyer clutched his wrist as if he could make the blood stop running.

He stared at the door with wild, unbelieving eyes.

At the pale, blood-strewn Hunter III calmly approaching–

Whose arm, exposed at the end of her long sleeve, spread like a flower of tentacled flesh.

Petals of sinewy skin that seemed to shift like a sped-up timelapse of a blossoming plant.

These protrusions collapsed into themselves, reabsorbing the tendrils into an ordinary arm.

“Monster–” Obermeyer gasped, doubled over, choking. “Help– Help me–“

“Any word from Norn?” Adelheid asked, ignoring Obermeyer’s pleas for help.

“Y’really worried for her and not ya’self?” Hunter III asked, tilting her head like a cat.

Adelheid felt that was a solid ‘no’ to her question. “How many have you eaten?”

Hunter III shrugged. “Started with one; but I tasted a disease in ‘im I didn’t wanna risk it.”

“How picky. Is that where you got the door override key? Does that work for other doors?”

“Y’think I know? I can barely get the food dispensers to work, I dunno! Norn told me the thing I needed to get, and I got it. If you tell me a thing to get with pictures I’ll go get it.” Hunter III lifted up and waved the override cylinder to prove her point. She must have found it through omen seeing; so she really did not know how it worked or what it did, or whether it was restricted. She just saw it pop into her head and knew where it was.

Just then, an LED strip running along the edges of the ceiling began to flash red.

A female voice began to broadcast.

“All stations to high alert. Mobilize all squadrons to detain vessel in the upper dock.”

“Ah heck.” Hunter III said.

Adelheid caught Obermeyer moving from the corner of her vision.

He was trying to lift a handset communicator to his trembling lips.

“You need more biomass right?” She said. “I hate this man. Eat him and let us leave.”

Hunter III’s eyes settled on Obermeyer and a wide smile spread across her lips.

“Oh he does look like a snack.” She said, licking her lips.

She lifted her arm, holding her palm out toward him, eyes glowing red.

With an audible crunch, her wrist broke, separating her hand in two unnatural halves with the fingers backwards and melding into the flesh. From the back of her hand a series of gill-like vents formed; there was a brief yellow flash and ejected gas. A bone-like bullet burst from the center of the appendage and struck Obermeyer’s hand splitting his fingers into airborne debris, blowing through his wrist before striking the wall.

There was a clatter as the handset dropped to the ground, not long before its owner did.

Obermeyer could barely let out a scream of pain as Hunter III sprang and pounced on him.

Adelheid saw their lips meet for the briefest instant as if to kiss– before Hunter III’s teeth bit down through the cheeks, the jaws, crushing Obermeyer’s teeth and tongue and– she turned away, her stomach turning over, unable to bear the sight of this violence. Behind her back, Hunter III’s impassioned chewing, tearing and smacking was met with muffled shouting, gurgling, the slamming of Obermeyer’s legs into the ground until life left him, and he could no longer thrash and scream through this horror, having no face, no throat, no life with which to do so.

Hunter III seemed to fill in the void left by him with her own contented moaning.

“I could cry! He’s so tasty! He’s tough but sooo juicy and flavorful!” She exclaimed with delight.

A shaking tail crept out from under her robe and struck the floor with a contented thump.

Long and thick, seemingly reptilian at first but segmented and shelled upon inspection.

That thumping briefly distracted Adelheid, leading her to catch a glimpse of the gore–

“Hurry up!” Adelheid shut her eyes, arms crossed. “You don’t have time to savor it!”

That it used to be a person before it became a piece of meat in Hunter III’s gullet–

–was something Adelheid had pushed firmly out of her thoughts.

“I s’pose not. But it really hit the spot. Thanks for the meal.” Hunter III said.

When Adelheid next made herself turn to look, ever so briefly, she glimpsed fully half of it (the body) gone, a pair of legs in pants smeared with something now all that remained aside from a puddle of red and brown. Hunter III was soaked in blood, it was caked in her hair, around her mouth, on her hood, on her hands. Where half of it (the body…) had gone Adelheid couldn’t say, as despite the shocking amount she ate Hunter III looked as small as usual.

Except the tail, which did not surprise Adelheid but was not an inborn trait of Hunter III.

“Do you have enough mass to transform?” Adelheid asked.

“Yep. And I’ll be gettin’ more. Stand back.” Hunter III said.

Normally her voice was higher pitched, whiny– in that moment it deepened.

Adelheid looked away from the body and focused on Hunter III, who began her ritual.

She reached into her hood pocket and procured one of those disgusting fruits she treasured.

As she brought it to her lips and took the first bite, she was overcome with euphoria.

Doubling over, hips shaking, her whole body quivered; she mashed the fruit into her mouth as if she couldn’t eat it fast enough, couldn’t get enough, like a passion, an obsession. She chewed in clumsy open-mouthed bite, masticating loudly while her eyes seemed to go into a trance. She slipped out of her hood, unveiling her pallid, perfectly white body as her skin began to thrum, as her sinews traced red under her skin as if she was an empty vessel filling with blood. She was a wet white grub of a human whose cocoon soon began to form.

From her back and hips, two wide and round, scar-tissue protrusions burst out of her skin.

She took a deep breath from gills opening on her chest and the air blew out through them.

Her legs thickened, turning muscular, while her chest and shoulders broadened–

Her head disappeared as if a new one had grown over it, long with a vertical slit mouth–

Her hands widened, the fingers tearing apart into steaming, jet black claws–

With a leap and thunderous burst of air Hunter III charged through the doorway.

And in that instant, caught the group of armed men in the hall in a press of teeth and claws.


Vespucio, his whole body shaking, flicked a switch on his communicator.

In retaliation, Norn swept her hand dismissively at him, emitting a psychic shock. An invisible force drove the man to the ground as surely as if Norn had punched him, throwing him on his back with a thud.

He looked up at her from the floor, looked down at his ruined hand, breathing heavy–

“You– you monster– you witch,” He said slowly, struggling to get the words out in his pain and desperation, “You could have– with your skills– why is this happening? Why did you allow this to happen to us–?”

Norn looked down at him, her chest tight, still recovering her breath.

Struggling to remain composed, she lowered the gun she had taken from him and scoffed.

“Allow? You’re falling short of the truth, Vespucio. I did not just allow this to happen.”

She felt a thrill down her spine and a fluttering in her chest as she spoke.

It was not entirely the truth– and yet it was certainly not altogether a lie–

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “So many– so many will suffer. So many are suffering–!”

Norn felt a surge of anger. Such sophistry! For this gerontocrat to pretend to care!

And yet, he hadn’t inkling of all of her suffering that led her to this day!

Or the vastness of the grudge that split the Imbrian Empire seven ways!

All the horrors of Katarre– the flight, homelessness, statelessness– the privations of the abyss– the threat of genocide– the terror of Mehmed– the truth of the Omenseers– Konstantin’s foolish fascination– Norn felt as if looking at her own body from outside. In that moment, she stood in another blood-stained image in the vein of these torturous memories. As if she was a third party to her own life– puppeteering herself.

Born to greatness– given unto nothing– exploited and tortured and abused in every way–

This was the only time in her life that she could ever truly say she had control of herself.

“Ordinary people have always suffered! They’ve suffered as much from you and yours as ever!” Norn said. “But there’s one thing about this new era that is truly, wonderfully just, Vespucio. For the first time, men like you will also suffer! Every self-declared man of history will be drawn out and exposed by my hatred and cast out to sea to die. Coming here was worth it just to snap your wretched elitist head and add you to the detritus of this age!”

Before Vespucio could speak again, Norn flicked her hand at him, pushing on his neck.

He may have been able to resist at least a little had he been in any stronger position. But kneeling before her, in incredible pain, already bewildered and bloodied– His head jerked to the side at an unnatural angle, and he fell dead in an ungainly position, his neck shattered and limp. In an instant, he was silent, gone.

Norn raised her hands up to her face. She laughed. She laughed! Passionately; painfully.

Alone, surrounded by corpses, she laughed, and she wept!

She wept all the tears Adelheid couldn’t be allowed to see; and laughed at the pain she felt.

As Norn let herself break, Vespucio’s discarded handset flashed a tiny red light, an omen of further violence.


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn settled back in her chair with a placid expression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn snatched a glance at her monitor.

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

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

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

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

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

Norn glared at her.

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

“Okay.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything around her was governed by such an intricate order–

For perhaps the first time in her entire life.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are these guys that lame?” Selene asked.

Norn smiled. Her vernacular was quite amusing sometimes.

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

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

“Swim around a bit, but conserve energy.”

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

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

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

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

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

Each of the NCOs saluted Norn and acknowledged their orders.

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

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

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

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

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

“Seen Hunter III around?” Norn asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then don’t.”

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

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

“Is it meat?”

“It’s better than meat.”

“Bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S’it in your coat?”

“Indeed.”

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

Her eyes drew wide open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter III opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.

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

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

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

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

Her eyes were wild with a surprising passion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One complete fruit from a Garden of Marrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncharacteristically, the shorter woman allowed this display of affection.

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

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

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

I would die without her.

She could never say such a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For most psychics that was indeed a genuine concern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mehmed– why was she remembering that name–?

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

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

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

Painfully close to how Norn herself had always felt.

It brought up bad memories.

Memories Norn had no use recalling.

“One last thing.”

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

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

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

“I will free you from her.”

Hunter III seemed to have no answer to that.

She was confused why that name had come up.

Twice, even.

“Sure thing, boss.“

She was likely not even listening anymore at this point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In the Stream [6.8]

Moments after Murati alerted the Brigand to the status of the Diver team, the connection from her to the drone went dark without warning. Semyonova handed control back to Geninov in a mild panic, who attempted to troubleshoot the connection from their end. It became clear very quickly that Murati herself was having trouble with her equipment, and her stilted cadence when they could get hold of her seemed to support that theory.

Captain Korabiskaya ran her hands down her face with frustration.

“We have got to work on more reliable communication! This shouldn’t be happening.”

“In hindsight, we should have deployed a drone with them from the beginning.” Aaliyah said. “But it seems like Murati’s machine has taken a beating, and that’s not something we could account for no matter how much we prepared. Take it from someone whose job it is to give you a hard time: you’ve done all you could.”

“Is that your job? I guess that’s how you view ‘supporting’ me.”

Ulyana allowed herself a small smile, once again grateful for the stoic Shimii at her side.

However, the situation was still fairly grim.

With only one remaining bomb, they had no margin of error for victory.

Turning around at this point was an option, but not one that was part of the plan.

“Aaliyah, do you think we could commit to a ship battle at this point? I’m uncertain.”

Her Commissar shook her head. “In the current situation we’re accepting that the enemy won’t shoot at us too seriously. If we press our advantage, in such a visible way as turning around and shooting them with our ship’s guns, we’ll alter the situation to the point it might tempt them to reconsider shooting us in desperation.”

Ulyana sank back in her chair wearily. “It would be a real all-or-nothing play on our part.”

Aaliyah joined her, reclining in her own chair. “We can’t even guarantee we’d sink them.”

“You’re right, but it’s frustrating! If this is how we’re going to be fighting from now on, I need a better way to communicate with the Divers moment to moment than this.” Ulyana said.

Command and control between ships was a largely solved problem. While the equipment could be rough and there were factors that could cause interference, it was quite possible to keep in constant contact with ships in a tenable fighting position. Ships had powerful laser transmitters and fast and reliable acoustic messaging, handled by full-size computers and large crews. Fleets could span several kilometers and still communicate with each other by bouncing signals through each other’s networks as long as every ship had a friendly ship within data range.

However, Divers were much smaller and unable to support full-power electronics.

And thanks to Murati’s tactics, they were expected to fight outside their ship’s laser range too, and since they were far more active combatants with less surface area for equipment than a ship, they could not be rigged up with powerful lasers to accept and bounce stable connections the way any ship could have.

They would have to find a solution for this! It was not acceptable!

Ulyana could not bear being responsible for people she had no means to talk to!

For all that they could do to affect this battlefield, they were essentially mute and blind.

How could she counsel and lead her frontline troops in this situation?

“Fatima, can you get a sense of what’s happening out there?” She asked.

At the sonar station, the dark-haired Shimii turned around to shake her head at the Captain.

“I’m sorry Captain, but we are not able to see it granularly. I really wish there were more that I could do– we can predict and image their positions and movements, and to some degree, the amount of gunfire around them and where the explosions are happening. But if a Diver just got cut down by a sword, we can’t tell. If it’s been shot, we can’t tell the degree of damage. And with so much happening, the prediction accuracy is not too great right now.”

Fatima’s ears drooped. She looked like she wanted to blurt out another apology.

But her voice was clearly starting to strain after everything that had happened.

“Thank you. You’ve been amazing Fatima. Return to your tasks.”

“Yes ma’am.”

In any other situation, that sensitive Shimii would have said “I’m sorry,” again.

Her energy was spent. They were all spent in their own ways.

You could learn everything there was about war in theory, or even simulations.

No one could prepare you to be ripped out of your bed and forced into battle.

No one could ask you to fight with complete stoicism when you were really in danger.

Whatever happened, Ulyana felt proud that they were still holding together.

Then a deadpan voice sounded from the Electronic Warfare station.

“Ma’am, we’ve hit a snag.”

Ulyana’s heart jumped. Not more bad news! “Explain and hope nothing interrupts you.”

Zachikova turned her chair fully around.

There was something strained about the look in her eyes. Though lifelike, they were still mechanical, and one could not imagine that red veins would creep to show her tiredness. But her expression still managed to convey how tired she was. She had been working on software to support the additional hydrojets on the Brigand’s aft.

“I’ve created a rudimentary application that reopens the routing valves to the secondary thrusters and routes power to the motors for that turbine network. I’ve been coordinating with Kamarik to run tests to make sure we can route power to the motors without anything breaking. Unfortunately, we’ve found a problem I did not foresee.”

Kamarik raised his hand and spoke up then.

“Captain, whenever we activate those jets, our girl gets some real bad cramps. She can process that much water, but we start to see more vibration in the valves and turbines of the intake system. Since there’s no additional intakes, it just draws more water through the existing ones faster than normal to keep up. Stresses out the whole system.”

There was no good way to take that news.

Ulyana took it by bending forward and running her fingers through her blond hair, undoing the tidy ponytail she had made it up into, and staring at the ground for several seconds. When she sat back up, she tossed her hair and took in a breath. Her face was sweaty, her skin was clammy, her eyes were strained. She struggled to look angry or annoyed rather than desperate or hopeless. Anger could at least be motivating for others to see.

“Messiah defend; is the end of our tunnel always an incoming train? Keep working on it.”

“Ma’am, we can keep working on it, but the physical facts won’t change.” Kamarik said.

“Keep working on it! Stress test, run simulations, give me the cost-benefit! Push the limits! How much can the intakes withstand? Can we run those boosters for a minute? An hour? If we need to have the sailors get in pressure suits and make repairs, we can do that once we’ve escaped!” Ulyana said firmly, raising her voice to Kamarik.

“Yes ma’am!”

Rather than sounding drained, Kamarik seemed a little more energized again.

Zachikova too; maybe it was the adrenaline of being yelled at.

Something like that would not last for long, and Ulyana did not particularly enjoy it.

Aaliyah nodded her head to her, as if acknowledging silently that she understood.

“Can we connect to anyone else?” Ulyana said. “Where is the drone, Geninov?”

At the torpedo station the resident gamer’s face sank.

“I’ve been poking connections all this time, but I’m like a hundred meters away from anyone, okay! I gotta keep this unarmored little shit out of visual flak range! There’s not much I can do.” Geninov replied.

“Then charge! Full ahead! Hurl it right into the flagship if you have to!” Ulyana replied.

“God damn it! If you say so! Don’t blame me–”

“Bomb detonation!”

Fatima shouted at the top of her lungs, an instant before the drone camera saw the blast.

Everyone’s heads snapped briefly toward her before turning to the screen.

A bright flash and an enormous vapor bubble blooming off of the Irmingard’s side.

Water displaced by the enormous shockwave sent the lightweight drone tumbling back.

“What’s the enemy’s status?” Ulyana called out.

“Struck on the port sidepod!” Fatima called back. “It’s listing! I think it’s listing!”

On the main screen the prediction lagged. When the picture updated, that behemoth of a flagship looked doughy, misshapen. Smaller objects had entirely disappeared. Then the flagship tipped on its side. Everyone watched speechlessly for a moment as if expecting the prediction to roll back, to be a mistake.

After moments of tumbling aimlessly in the water, Geninov finally wrestled the drone back toward the flagship. The shockwaves had died down, and the vapor bubble had disappeared. On the camera they could see the shadow of that ship turning on its side, disgorging metal from its stricken flank. It was falling farther and farther behind the Brigand, clearly unable to accelerate, and soon disappeared almost entirely from the cameras.

That muted pause in the Bridge suddenly became an explosion of celebrations.

Geninov lifted her arms off the drone controls and threw them around a surprised Fernanda.

Kamarik put his head down against his station and consoled his best dame with a smile.

Semyonova grabbed hold of the exhausted Fatima’s hands and jumped up down.

Ulyana and Aaliyah sank against each other in their chairs.

“Can we get some focus here.” Zachikova grumbled. “Look!”

She pointed her hand in the direction of the main screen.

On the drone camera, they briefly saw a group of objects moving toward the Brigand.

They were recognizable as Streloks in varying stages of disrepair.

Ulyana bolted up to her feet. She counted six! Every machine, at least, had come back!

One was being carried aloft, however. They might need emergency aid.

“Slow down to collect the Divers! That flagship isn’t going anywhere for a while.” Ulyana said. “Send Syracuse and Kappel to the hangar with stretchers in case anybody needs help. Have sailors in pressure suits with jet anchors ready in case we need to pull machines up! Get the senior mechanics and workgroup managers to schedule repairs! And be proud of yourselves, my precious crew! We weathered the storm; we sank an Irmingard-class!”

Buoyed by their moment of triumph, the crew gave one last great effort.

Fatima set her earpods back into her ear fluff and continued monitoring the sonar.

Semyonova broadcast the situation across the ship, contacting everyone who was needed.

Kamarik altered the ship’s thrust and kept it steady.

Geninov nearly collapsed over Fernanda, who patted her back with an awkward expression.

Aaliyah crossed her arms and heaved a little sigh of relief, her ears wiggling contentedly.

And Ulyana–

Ulyana wanted nothing more than to tear up. With joy, with passion, with fear, with stress.

However, she was the confident Captain Korabiskaya whom everyone had to rely on.

There would be many more opportunities to cry in the battles that were to come.

She reserved those tears as best she could. Crying in the first bout of the war wouldn’t do.


When Semyonova’s beautiful round face appeared in the hangar, and the news was given to the sailors who had been preparing for every possible eventuality, Chief Mechanic Lebedova let everyone have a few minutes of being rowdy to celebrate. There was a lot of stomping, a lot of noise, a lot of banter that echoed through those metal halls as the relieved sailors let out all their manic energy. But the sailors themselves cut short their own merriment. When they heard their Divers were returning, they seamlessly returned to their work immediately.

Like everyone in the crew, they treasured the pilots who had truly won them this victory.

So there was a nervous flurry of activity in the hangar as they accepted the returning heroes.

First came the Cossack and Strelkannon, able to rise out of the deployment chutes on their own power. The Cossack was visibly banged up, with some hull and leg damage, while the Strelkannon had been riddled with bullets on its extremities but was only superficially damaged. When the two of them rose to the hangar floor, they were ordered to stop, and were moved by machine to their gantries. Moving out of water could exacerbate damage to the limbs and thrusters. They were firmly affixed to their gantries, and work began on them almost immediately.

Next came Khadija’s Strelok. While fully out of ammunition, it had received little damage.

Finally, Lebedova and Shalikova’s Streloks helped a group of six sailors to pull the Cheka into a deployment chute and up into the hangar. It had lost power and was not going to rise without help. The sailors went out in pressurized, powered suits each about ¼ the size of a full Diver. These suits allowed them to move outside the ship to carry out repairs. Repairs which would soon be needed, as the Brigand itself had taken serious damage.

Recovering the Cheka was a fairly safe opportunity for the sailors to practice in their suits.

Everyone was astonished when they brought the Cheka up out of the water.

Some of the exposed power cells began smoking immediately upon being taken out of the water and had to be put out first with fire extinguishers and then with freezing agents. There was extensive shoulder damage to the point one of the arms hung by the thread of a pull-rod. Several impacts from debris had dented the armor on the hull and legs, and smashed part of the head. Dozens of pitted armor wounds. It would need extensive repair.

More importantly, a group of engineers, including Gunther Cohen, gathered to break open the cockpit and try to free Murati Nakara from inside it. Due to the need for the cockpit to retain atmosphere in the event of an emergency at all costs, opening the cockpit on auxiliary power without the pilot’s help was not a feature that received much consideration. So some damage to the hatch seams would have to be inflicted in order to separate them. While they worked on the Cheka, Shalikova and Lebedova were recovered, both with limited damage.

Having been recovered first, the Cossack and Strelkannon opened soonest.

Smiling pleasantly, Sameera climbed out of her suit and stepped down to the hangar floor.

Moving quickly and with purpose, Dominika left hers and traversed the hangar toward her.

Sameera seemed to realize what was coming and for a brief instant looked nervous.

Then, with a mighty sound, Dominika slapped Sameera across the face.

“You selfish idiot! You could’ve been killed! Never play the hero in front of me again!”

Her eyes were red as if she had been crying. Sameera rubbed her cheek, smiling vacantly.

“You’re right. I treated you all wrong, miss. It is a gentleman’s duty to apologize–”

Her words started to slur, and Dominika was puzzled by the response.

Sameera’s eyes were quite red themselves, but for an entirely different reason.

From the corner of one bright eye fell a droplet of blood. A tiny string of red dribbled down her nose and over her lip soon after. Her bushy, club-like tail dipped, and her ears folded slightly. Sameera started to wobble on her feet, and all the while retaining her gallant smile, she collapsed suddenly into Dominika’s arms. Surprised and horrified, Dominika almost fell with her, but managed to keep hold of the sick woman and take her into her arms on the floor.

Dominika slowly realized it wasn’t a joke or a weird form of flirting.

“Medic! Oh my god! She needs a medic!”

She shouted at the top of her lungs and the crowd dispersed with horror in their eyes.

From behind the sailors, the blue-haired doctor Kappel emerged with none of her usual cheerfulness. She was accompanied by a woman in the grey coat of the security troops, brown-haired and with orange-brown skin, the medic “Syrah” or Syracuse. The brown and yellow fins coming out from under her shoulder-length hair bristled gently as she set Sameera down while Kappel prepared the stretcher. Gently, Syracuse set Sameera on it and lifted her up, with the help of one of the sailors. Dr. Kappel would remain behind to see to any other injured pilots.

“She’s breathing.” Dr. Kappel said. “There could be hemorrhaging. Take her up and stabilize her.”

“Yes ma’am. Her atmosphere control must have been damaged in the battle.” Syrah said.

Dr. Kappel brushed Dominika’s shoulder reassuringly. “She’ll be fine. She can recover.”

“I’m coming with you!” Dominika said suddenly.

She looked almost embarrassed to be saying so and would not explain herself further.

But with the devastated look on her face, it was impossible to say no to her.

Syrah and Dominika left the hangar soon after.

By that point, Khadija, Shalikova and Lebedova had exited their cockpits.

None of them looked too worse for wear. Sweaty and tired, but with their full faculties.

Shalikova, however, left the side of her suit quickly and rushed over to the Cheka.

“We didn’t hear a peep from Murati since we regrouped with her!” Shalikova shouted. She looked from the machine to the mechanics trying to open it, and her eyes narrowed, her fists closed at her sides with visible frustration. “Have you heard anything? Did she bang on the doors at least? Do you think Murati’s awake?”

One of the mechanics turned to her and shook his head– just as the hatch slammed open.

Gunther Cohen rushed in through the hatch, peering inside the cockpit.

“Messiah defend!” He shouted, briefly terrifying the group. “She’s alive but–! Medic!”

“Murati!”

Shalikova cried out, uncharacteristically. Khadija and Lebedova urged her to back away.

An unconscious Murati was pulled free from the cockpit and set on a stretcher. She had a pulse, and she was breathing, but likely suffered a concussion. She had hit the side of the head bad enough to bleed. Her wrist was definitely broken, and the same arm was quite possibly broken as well. One of her ribs was bruised. She was in no condition to pilot again for the time being. Out of everyone she would probably need the most long-term attention in the days to come. Doctor Kappel briefly checked the other Divers and cleared them before taking Murati.

Once they had taken the injured away to the medical bay and the drama was given some time to settle, the sailors gathered around the remaining pilots and gave a round of applause and several cheers. Though more sober in their response than they would have been had all of the pilots been present and uninjured, they still showered Lebedova, Khadija and Shalikova with praise and affection. Shalikova clearly withered in the middle of this applause. Lebedova put their arms behind their back, face flushed red. Khadija waved warmly back and even blew a few kisses.

“Alright, knock it off now, give the heroes some room!”

Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova pushed her way through the crowd and sent everyone back to their work. Many of the sailors had already shouted themselves hoarse and jumped and clapped all they could muster, but even the rowdiest ones listened to the Chief and left posthaste at her command. When the crowd finally dispersed, she approached the pilot Lebedova with a big smile on her face and gave her nibling a firm smack on the shoulder to show her appreciation. Her eyes looked bright with praise and pride for her relative.

“Look at you! Such a big shot now! How did the real thing feel?” She teased.

Valya Lebedova averted their gaze. “Well, the graphics had a truly frightening fidelity.”

Shalikova stood in place, as if not knowing how to react, before wandering off.

Once the adrenaline had worn off, and everyone had caught up to the moment as gracefully or awkwardly as they would, the tireless work demanded by the Brigand’s mission continued. All of this excitement that had lasted barely hours once it commenced, had transpired at night. On the Captain’s orders, non-essential personnel could retire. A few sailors continued to run maintenance tasks, several mechanics remained with each Diver, and the workgroup management convened and began to draft their plans for the assessment and repair of all the day’s damage. Little by little, the manic activity and thick crowds that had characterized the hangar began to shrink and disperse.

For a moment, Khadija al-Shajara remained behind, seated at a workbench.

Watching the sailors peeling off from their workgroups and disappearing into the adjoining halls. The air in the hangar was far less stale and sterile than anywhere else and more organic, tinged with the odor of work: lubricants, oils, sweat. Khadija spoke to no one, merely lounged, breathing in gently, decompressing by herself.

Until she spotted Aiden Ahwalia, staring at the Cheka with a grave look on his face.

She snorted. “Caught your eye? That’s war you’re looking at, you pampered little worm.”

Without acknowledging her, Aiden grunted and left in a hurry with his fists balled up.


Sonya Shalikova did not feel like much of a hero.

As she climbed the stairs to the upper deck, she could not help but berate herself and feel a bit sickened by the round of applause and the ring of praise that had formed around her. It upset her that people so easily elevated her, because she did not feel like she had done anything worth that commemoration. It was the same in the Academy too. Everyone was so quick to praise her. Everyone kept treating her like she did something so amazing and miraculous. She always wondered if it had been because of her sister– certainly, that couldn’t be the case now.

Right?

“I was useless. Murati and Khadija both had to save me.”

That was the acid that was slashing around the inside of her brain.

She was no match for the pilot of that Diver that suddenly showed up. For a single pilot to show up and disrupt their operation so much was shameful enough. Even with Khadija’s techniques in mind, even with a dirty trick, she still could not do anything. Then Khadija left the bombing to her and Lebedova, but Murati took it upon herself to do everything. Was it because she did not trust Shalikova or Lebedova? Shalikova did not want to think about that. Now that was a poison in her mind she could recognize as such. It would not lead anywhere good.

In her mind, if she trusted everyone, and everyone trusted her in turn–

Then the only explanation was that she had simply failed personally.

And yet everyone cheered her, again and again.

They all praised and cheered, even when Zasha– when her sister didn’t come back–

“Sonya!”

Shalikova had walked automatically all the way to her room.

A cheerful voice there brought her back to her senses before she could burst out crying.

“Ah! That dreadful aura around you has faded a bit! Are you happy to see me?”

“Hmph.”

She was greeted by the smiling pink face of Maryam Karahailos, her flushed cheeks framed by her long purple bangs, and the tentacles blending in with the rest of her long hair slowly shifting and rising so the paddles could join her hands in waving Shalikova inside. The two fin-like shapes on her head wiggled from side to side vigorously, fanning the sterile air of the room around her head. She was clearly excited, and practically radiated a kind of warm, innocent joy Shalikova hardly ever saw.

Shalikova’s chest fluttered a little bit; she was unused to “coming back to” someone waiting for her after a battle. Though she also wouldn’t describe Maryam as someone who fully satisfied that narrative. Having a waiting bride to complete the heroic narrative would have been a truly intolerable imposition on Shalikova and she regretted even thinking about the whole thing.

“I’m going to bed.” She said, in as unromantic a way as she could muster.

“Good night!” Maryam said.

Shalikova perked up an eyebrow.

She had gotten it in her head they would have some big, stupid, circular argument where she would be trying to shake Maryam off herself for the next hour. Maryam continued to stare at her as she walked into the room. Shalikova withdrew a towel from one of the wall recesses and dried her sweat-soaked hair, face, the top of her chest. When her eyes peered over her shoulder, the cuttlefish katarran was still seated on her bed across the room.

Staring.

It was too awkward. This kind of situation– Shalikova couldn’t just say nothing.

“Were you OK during all this?”

“Yes! A kind sailor gave me a delicious sandwich.”

Maryam’s face lit up, and her voice was so chipper. What was her deal anyway?

“So you did leave the room and run around while we had an emergency going on?”

Maryam closed her eyes and looked smug.

“I did not go down to the hangar to bother you. I stayed in the upper deck.”

“Small triumphs.”

“I was also very helpful to the captain and the security girls!”

Shalikova dreaded trying to imagine what must have happened.

“You can tell me tomorrow. Good night.”

“Of course– Oh! By the way. Thank you for saving us. I am very grateful to be alive.”

Across the room, Maryam stood up, and did a little bow and a curtsy, lifting her skirt.

Shalikova stared at her, at first almost uncomprehending of what had been said.

A trickle of tears did finally escape her eyes at that point. Something in her had broken.

“Ah! Oh no!” Maryam reacted abruptly.

She saw Shalikova begin to cry before Shalikova herself noticed it. Either that or she “read it in her aura” — whatever that meant. Regardless, it took Shalikova feeling her eyes sting to realize that she was weeping. When they came, the tears would not stop. Shalikova turned her back on Maryam in an instant and sank into bed.

Her arms wrapped tight around Comrade Fuzzy.

Soon her tears were accompanied by loud sobs.

“Sonya! I’m really sorry. I really am grateful.”

“Whatever!” Sonya shouted back. “I’m grateful you’re alive too! Go to bed, Maryam!”

She lifted her blankets over her head and settled as close to the wall as she could.

Gritting her teeth, weeping harshly, as all the feelings she had bottled up rushed over her.


“How do we even proceed with this mission? This feels more impossible by the second.”

“Certainly, it is a difficult task, but no task is impossible, Captain.”

Deep into the night, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara remained awake.

The Bridge had been sent to bed, even the night shifters that had been assigned for the day. The Captain and Commissar took over for them. Everything that had transpired felt well behind them. Their injured were stable in the med bay, the ship itself was humming along. However, the appearance of that Irmingard class and the demands of Gertrude Lichtenberg urged them to think about the future, even after the worst passed.

By themselves in the Bridge, an enormous digital map of the world on the main screen.

They focused on their hemisphere, and the Imbrium and Nectaris Oceans.

With the Iron Lady marooned in the middle of nowhere, damaged to a degree unknown; and all their Divers recovered; the Brigand sped away at full speed, sans the dummied boosters still to be tested, headed north-northwest from Serrano. To the far north was the Khaybar Pass, a zone marked on their map as a no-go; to the far east would be the borders of Veka. That meant the only direction to go was the west. There were a few Stations along the way that they could potentially go to, though they would not be safe anywhere big and obvious nearby.

In the direction they were headed, they would hit the borders of the Imbrium Ocean.

To break into the seat of the Union’s nemesis, to the waters that had birthed the Empire and the oppression of half the livable world, they would need to travel through Rhinea. Judging by the intelligence they had on the Volkisch Movement, they would not be too safe in Rhinea’s large, public stations, due to the fascists’ current occupation with their own internal security. Surveillance and policing would not be as lax there as in Serrano.

Farther west was the Yucatan Gulf, a vast ring of deep ocean territory framed north, west and south by the wall of the continent of Central Occultis. Such vast continental access made the Yucatan’s western extremes dangerous, teeming with Leviathans, red biomass, and corrupted weather patterns. However, it also made the Yucatan extremely rich in minerals from the continent wall, as well as a source of cave soils from collapsed areas of the continent, used in certain kinds of agriculture. Its industrial population could possibly be sympathetic to Union ideology.

Unfortunately the Royal Alliance made the many Stations and Substations of the Yucatan their seat of power, straining the rest of Sverland’s access to the raw materials there and forcing them to fend for themselves. Because the Alliance was still in the process of consolidating power, the Yucatan could be dangerous as well. Public stations and large industrial works would be under greater scrutiny until the aristocrats fully settled in.

“Right now the Volkisch are far too alert. Even if we lay low, Rhinea is a lot denser with habitations than Sverland. There’s not a lot of open Ocean to sneak through and we may not be able to lay low in any major Station without having collaborators.” Ulyana said. “We could head to the Yucatan and take our chances there, but once we get in, if the border is too hot, we won’t be able to get back out. With the continent wall right there, there’s really nowhere we could go, but circling back around. It feels like none of our options are good options.”

“I think plotting where to go is premature at this point.” Aaliyah replied.

Ulyana nodded. “There’s still a lot we don’t know. But we have to keep moving no matter what. I doubt we killed everyone aboard that ship or that we put it down for good. I have a gut feeling we’ll get chased again if we stick around here too long. Back in the Revolution, they taught us that standing and fighting the Empire was suicide. But by leading them around by the nose, you could lay traps, or force them to tip their hand.”

“I know our situation, Captain. But what need to do to make informed decisions is to gather more information. We can start with Marina and Maryam, but don’t forget our mission isn’t to take down the Empire by ourselves. A civil war is brewing; all kinds of factions and cliques will form that we can exploit to our advantage.”

“Factions? Well, right now, we’ve got the Royal Alliance and the Volkisch in front of us.” Ulyana said with a sigh. “Neither of which really agree with my particular tastes in political action, you know?”

“That’s fine, because I was not referring to either of them, at least not writ large. All of these groups are themselves formed of smaller groups.” Aaliyah said. She put on a smug little face as she delivered the rest of her explanation to an increasingly frustrated and dumbfounded Ulyana. “Captain, you told Murati she needed to get better at internal politics, but you need better national politics. Political groups are never uniform. There are cliques and interests in every major political group that go through periods of friction and stability. Even in the Union this is true and there have been frictions which we had to solve. The Empire is much larger, and its political class is much more vicious and far less united than ours in even the barest basics of how their world should work.”

Ulyana blinked. “So you’re saying there’s a subfaction of the Volkisch we can get along with? That sounds franky quite absurd to me, but you Commissars certainly see things differently than us normal folks.”

Aaliyah’s tail stood on end. “Again, I’m not being that specific about this, Captain.”

“Fine. But then, I should keep an open mind about potentially giving weapons and training to people who might believe in monarchies, but don’t want this one, or who may or may not believe in democracy of some description but are at least open to shooting at the Volkisch for now. We are not just looking for revolutionaries exactly like the ones we had at home 20 years ago. Is this what you’re telling me our mission is now?”

“All the bad faith and sarcasm aside, yes.” Aaliyah said.

“I thought you would be the one most opposed to reaching across the aisle.” Ulyana said.

Her tone started to take on a bit of a teasing note. Aaliyah crossed her arms.

“Offering military aid to a group doesn’t mean we’ll approve of its aims forever.”

“Now that’s some Commissar-like thought. Backhanded as all hell.”

“Our entire mission is backhanded. To survive it, we have to use any means available.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at each other, lit only by the dim glow of the digital globe.

Both of them sighed deeply.

There was a grim tension between them neither wanted to have provoked.

“I’m sorry. I’m really tired. I’m not being productive.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you. I understand your concerns completely. I’m just trying to be constructive.”

Aaliyah gave ground, seemingly as much as she would let herself do.

By mutual agreement, the two of them dropped the subject.

They would just ride out the night shift to the best of their abilities, making few remarks while tending the stations. Letting the quiet of the moment wash over them. A hard-fought silence, after a battle that already felt distant.


“There was a veteran pilot among them who was very skilled. She acted as a distraction and held me from my defense of the ship long enough for her subordinates to execute an attack. I was too careless.”

That was all that Sieglinde von Castille had to say for herself before averting her gaze with a petulant scowl. Lavishing platitudes upon Gertrude Lichtenberg would not change anything that happened and she disliked having to prostrate herself. Whenever a pilot went out to fight, she accepted her death or defeat as an eventual outcome. She had been outmaneuvered and was lucky to have survived. That was all that needed to be said.

“That’s all?” Gertrude asked. Digging her finger into the wound.

“That’s all.” Sieglinde replied.

Equivocating would not have changed anything. It was a waste of time.

“I have to say, I’m a little disappointed in such a childish response from a storied Hero.”

“I did not promise anything except my cooperation. It is you who had false hopes in me.”

“Your lack of introspection is surely a blessing at a time like this. Well, fine then.”

Gertrude’s scorn was palpable not only in her brutal words but her wild, fierce eyes.

But Sieglinde was not moved.

She was no child: she was a very grown woman now. She was thirty eight years old. Significantly older than Gertrude herself. Nothing she could say or do would change what she had done, or what she could do next. Her life, her role, the things she was capable of or that were possible for her to do, had all ossified over decades. Her past, whether hours or ages ago, was something she could only suffer and endure having lived. It couldn’t change.

That one woman pilot shared the same pain as her.

That pilot who taunted her in the open, who knew her as the Red Baron. Truth be told, Sieglinde could not tell her apart from anyone else. So it was perhaps impossible for her to give this woman the satisfaction she craved. However, she knew implicitly that this woman’s time had also stopped, just like Sieglinde’s, frozen by their war. They were both hurt the same way, tied together by the calcified chains like two corpses to one skeleton.

It hurt her heart to think about, but–

There was nothing she could do to expiate for what she did to that woman.

“Ultimately it was my fault as the guarantor of this ship that you failed.” Gertrude finally said after a long and frustrated silence. “We did not commit our resources properly. Our escorts were unreliable. We were defeated by an enemy with more cohesion and better command, because we were far too complacent.”

Sieglinde averted her gaze once more. She was surprised to see Gertrude being lenient.

“Quite level-headed of you. I accept and commend your grace, Lady Inquisitor.”

Such moments seemed to come and go for Gertrude. Black hearted one second, gentle the next.

The two of them stood together in the middle of the Iron Lady’s vast, well-equipped hangar.

Sieglinde’s recovered Grenadier, a new class of Diver, had been set into its gantry, alongside the two heavily damaged Jagd units belonging to Ingrid and Clostermann, and the spare Volker. The Jagd were overseen by a few mechanics and two robotic repair units with powerful, precise manipulators assessing the unit and peeling off any unsalvageable parts. They were not the only crew working in the hangar that night. Operating from computerized stations, a pair of engineers commandeered drones to assess the damage outside and make plans for a repair crew which was, simultaneously, equipping themselves in the hangar, a dozen men in pressure suits with one heavy labor suit about half the size of a Diver ready to join them outside. They had been ordered to waste no time.

While Gertrude was being a rough taskmaster, the men were highly motivated, nonetheless.

At the moment they were helplessly stranded in the middle of the Ocean, after all.

Every inhabitant of the Iron Lady wanted to get the ship moving again.

If there was one thing about Gertrude Lichtenberg that impressed Sieglinde, it was the respect her crew had for her. They would take a scolding from her and rather than become depressed they would work harder. They would follow her orders slavishly. In this current, frankly insane quest of hers, they still followed, knowing only they were chasing a “VIP” and not the dire truth behind the matter. Had they known the truth it was likely they would not question the veracity of Gertrude’s information. Despite everything, they rendered no complaints.

Sieglinde had witnessed this before. It was not just discipline that inspired such feelings. It was the kind of esteem soldiers could only have for a commanding officer who they saw as an aspirational figure. She did not see Gertrude as highly skilled or overtly generous. It was not a notable bloodline, nor great wealth that drew people to her. Rather, she was someone who rose from among them and therefore understood their plight. They fought together, bled together, drank and ate together; she was not an officer to her men, but one of the men.

Every such person that Sieglinde had known had been crushed into a red mist.

Theirs was not a society that treasured and protected its salt-of-the-earth folk heroes.

The Imbrium Empire’s so-called meritocracy fed on a steady diet of the patriotic and dutiful.

For every hero that suffered and died, there was a coward who thrived and prospered.

There was nothing she could do about this, but acknowledge it, and seethe.

“What will you do now?” Sieglinde finally asked Gertrude.

“We’ll go after them. We’ll repair the ship and continue the chase.”

Her reply was almost immediate. Either the product of determination, or a profound haste to affirm her self-delusion. Her eyes were dark, her expression sullen. She was clearly shaken, but grimly determined.

“Am I to continue piloting the Grenadier?” Sieglinde asked.

Gertrude turned a weary, vindictive look to her.

“Do what you want. I won’t beg you again.” She said bitterly.

Her haste to say these words seemed to surprise even herself. Her face blanched, ashamed.

Sieglinde wanted to turn her back on Gertrude, but she did not walk away just yet.

“I didn’t ask you to beg the first time. You have such a wicked view of the world.” She said.

She could not in good conscience judge the Inquisitor for the grief that she felt. Her own heart was still soft with a wish to see in a woman like Gertrude the gallantry and righteousness that her men saw. So before the Inquisitor left her side, the broken Red Baron offered the bitterest confirmation of her own twisted feelings.

“Until you are able to speak with her. Until we hear her decision. I’ll follow you.”

Upon Gertrude’s very soul and the contents therein, Sieglinde would make this oath.

She wanted to believe. She wanted to be shown something different than she had seen.

Gertrude looked momentarily as if she did not know how to respond to that.

“I’ll hold you to it.”

Her brooding side took hold of her once more, and those words were her only reply.

Then she turned and left the hangar.

Sieglinde took this to signal her assent and retreated in the opposite direction.

Wondering how it was that the Empire’s tragedies kept sucking at the marrow in her broken old bones.

Again, and again, seemingly without end.


Several hours since the Iron Lady’s hectic battle with the mercenaries, Gertrude retreated to her room. She had left the sailors with good direction and trusted them fully to carry out all the repairs. There was nothing more she could do but stand around and look spent and miserable, so she decided to make herself scarce. Now that the adrenaline wore off and she had some distance from her emotions, she was starting to come down hard. Her exhaustion was such that she simply could neither disrobe nor make herself sleep. She merely threw herself into bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling. All that she could peel off her uniform before lying down was her cape, hat and coat.

Gertrude was not alone for very long; certainly not as long as she had hoped to be.

A deep and rough but excited voice at the door. “’Trude! Open up! Let’s get fucked up!”

From past experience, there was no use telling Ingrid to go to bed.

At least, not for Gertrude who wanted to remain on good terms with her and treasured her company. One of the worst things one could do to Ingrid was rebuff her when she was being generous. So out of all the things that could have compelled Gertrude to stand up from her bed, it was going to open the door for Ingrid.

At the doorway, she found the dark-skinned, messy-haired loup grinning at her, with a wagging tail and cheerfully alert ears. Ingrid was in an admirable state of dress, wearing a decently covering tanktop and sweatpants. Gertrude had expected her to be wearing almost nothing. She smiled from ear to ear, her face brightening the moment their eyes met. She had in one hand a canteen plate with canned ham spread, ship biscuit and a jar of oil-packed peppers. Slung from the other hand was a small box of canned beers from out of the ship reserve.

“How did you get a whole box?” Gertrude asked.

“My charisma, my charm, and the threat of my left hook.”

“Ingrid,”

Gertrude sighed, rubbing her forehead with one hand.

“I’m kidding!” Ingrid said with a big smile. “It’s ol’ man Dreschner’s treat.”

“That’s almost less believable than if you just stole it.”

“Believe whatever the fuck you want then! I’m comin’ in!”

Gertrude made for way Ingrid, feeling her lips curling into a smile despite herself.

They sat down, side to side on the bed. Gertrude’s room was a bit more ostentatious than those of the other crew. She had a double bed to herself, and it was fluffy and springy, rather than a stiff gel bed. Her room had a full desk, and several chairs or tables that could be pulled out of the ground or out of the walls. Burgundy and gold were predominant colors on plastic banners on the walls, and the filigree in her furniture, as well as the coloration of the walls themselves, though this effect was largely computer generated in nature.

Next to the bed they pulled up a chair to set the tray of food on.

From the box, they each took out a can of beer.

Ingrid popped the cap off hers and took a deep, long drink from it.

Gertrude looked at hers with reticence before taking a good drink from it. The familiar savory bitterness and light boozey bite of Imperial Navy reserve beers. A taste she could describe as “standard issue.” It had nothing on Vogelheim’s rose wine, but it could get you buzzed or drunk and that was enough.

Neither she nor Ingrid loved it; but Ingrid could relish in the drinking of it.

By the time Gertrude was halfway through a can, Ingrid was cracking open her second.

“You’re so fuckin’ slow. I’m going to end up drunk as fuck because of you.” Ingrid said.

“So did you come here for a drinking contest?”

“I just don’t know what to say to you sometimes. You’re a mess right now.”

Ingrid leaned to Gertrude’s side and dipped her head close, surprising the Inquisitor.

She was warm. A warm presence at Gertrude’s side. Someone touching her.

Gertrude realized then how little stimulation her body had had in the past weeks. How little she had been touched; how little she had been close to another human being. She had been running around like the gusts of a storm, never settling. And so, ever since Vogelheim she had been alone. Surrounded by people almost all of the time but fundamentally alone in a human sense. That lack of tenderness, and Ingrid’s reintroduction of that warm, kind sensation– It was almost enough to make Gertrude want to cry from the emotion.

She leaned in Ingrid’s direction as well, pushing just a little closer to her.

Her friend’s tail hit the bed with a rhythmic “wump, wump.”

For a moment Ingrid held on to her drink without even tasting it.

Swishing the contents in the can while Gertrude’s head rested on her shoulder.

Her whole body which had been so wound up and tense, finally found a place to rest.

“Congrats on relaxing for once.” Ingrid said.

“How could I relax before, with everything that was happening?” Gertrude said.

She wanted to turn and face Ingrid directly, but she did not want to move.

It was simply too comfortable at Ingrid’s side. It felt too nice.

“You’ve been going completely crazy.” Ingrid said. “It’s because everything’s a fucked up mess that you need some time to clear your head. I’ve been seeing you running around looking like your eyelids are stapled open. Losing your goddamn mind; I couldn’t even get a hold of you like this until the ship fuckin’ broke down.”

“I know. I saw your messages. I don’t want you to think I didn’t.”

“Yeah ‘Trude, I know! It tells me when you saw them and then didn’t reply. It tells me!”

Feeling too ashamed to reply, Gertrude took a long drink from her own can, enough to finally empty it. Wordlessly, she sat up, reached for another can, cracked it open, drank almost as much just as quickly. She wiped her lips with her sleeve and grit her teeth. It was so sudden the roof of her mouth felt like it was melting, her throat ragged. Her forehead screamed with a cold pain. But she started laughing and Ingrid instantly knew what she was doing, and it cracked her up. Her serious face melted into the biggest, warmest smile Gertrude had seen.

“You idiot!” Ingrid said. As if to decline the contest, she took a gentle sip of her own beer, not even enough to finish that second can already in her hands. “I’d say something like ‘you’ll never beat me’ but we only got four cans left. To make this a proper fight we gotta start with at least a twelve-pack.”

“I’m sorry.” Gertrude smiled, rubbing her own forehead, her vision swimming a touch.

She felt Ingrid’s hand creep around her back and grab hold of her shoulder.

Pulling her even closer, until they were almost cheek to cheek.

Another gesture that recalled bygone days.

“It’s not ‘sorry’ I want, you know?”

Ingrid sighed deeply. As if she realized that moment they were having had to end.

“The VIP you’re after; I know it’s gotta be your little princess, isn’t it?”

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide, and she gave Ingrid a sudden, wildly nervous glare.

Ingrid shook her head solemnly. “Good grief. You really think I’m an idiot, huh?”

“Ugh.” Gertrude exhaled a long-held breath. “I’m sorry Ingrid. I wasn’t even thinking–”

“About your best buddy of many many years? Yeah, you haven’t been. That’s okay; we’re soldiers, not a social club. But if it’s a choice between running yourself to pieces or letting me into your life here and there, just sometimes? I wish you’d just let yourself rely on me more often. I would’ve been there for you.”

Gertrude knew there was something else simmering under that sudden bitterness.

She did not want to touch it; or rather, she did not know what else she could say.

“I’m sorry.”

“S’ok. You were thinking about me when you told me to buzz off back to the ship.”

“Ingrid, please, come on. I was worried you’d get hurt. It was chaos out there!”

Ingrid scoffed.

“You always worry and fuss over me at the worst moments. Basically any time I don’t want you to, and you never pay me any attention when I do want it. You fuckin’ suck, ‘Trude.” Ingrid looked at Gertrude with a serious expression quickly melting into a sly, impish grin. “You’re really high-strung right now, aren’t you? Lighten up! Drink already. Or I’ll have your beer. I didn’t come here to give you grief. I really wanna help you.”

Gertrude didn’t know how she could possibly lighten up after that.

Nevertheless, she did open a third beer and did start drinking.

“Does everyone suspect it?” She said, staring down at the dark hole in the can.

Ingrid opened her third beer too. “Whose everyone? I dunno. Some of those guys on this ship are real stupid. But everyone can tell you’re a total mess just by looking at you. Just by hearing your voice.”

Gertrude sighed, her face sinking into her hand. “I know I have to shape up.”

“Shapin’ up isn’t what I’d say you gotta do. Here, shut up instead and have a bite.”

Reaching out to the table in front of them, Ingrid picked up a ship’s biscuit and one of the cans of meat. They were full of a crumbly, soft, spreadable pink ham with flecks of white, soft fat. On the can, she used the lever to pop off the top, and then used the sharp, dismembered can top to spread the soft meat over the biscuit. From the jar of peppers, she drizzled a bit of the oil over the meat. Then she used the can top to mash up one of the soft, plump peppers over the meat, resulting in a red and pink spread that moistened the top of the biscuit.

This was a little treat from back in the day. They called it ‘cadet kibble’.

Ingrid presented Gertrude with the treat. The Inquisitor took it without objection.

Biting into it, she was surprised by how soft the biscuit was, and how well the dry, crumbly bread with its intense, salty taste matched the bland but fatty meat and the slightly spicy, slightly sweet pepper. That oil was also packed with peppery taste, while lending its own vegetal note to the bite of food. For a heap of tinned meat on dried bread, it was a rich bite that felt almost decadent. It brought a little bit of life back into Gertrude’s body.

She could not help but smile a little having this kind of chow again.

“God, you look like you’re going to cum. What have you been eating lately?” Ingrid said.

“Probably not enough.” Gertrude said, slightly embarrassed.

“Then let’s get you fattened up again. That big body of yours needs meat!”

Over some light objections from the Inquisitor, Ingrid scraped up more meat and peppers on the sharp can lid and scraped them over a biscuit, handing over the result. While Gertrude picked at it with a wan face, Ingrid then fixed herself her own ‘cadet kibble’ and took a hearty bite. She kicked her feet with satisfaction.

“This is still so good! I kinda scooped this stuff up on a lark, but man, it hits the spot.”

“It is surprisingly palatable.”

“Ah, fuck you. ‘Surprisingly palatable’ it’s good, damn it.”

Ingrid shoved the remaining half of her biscuit into her mouth in one go.

All the while she gave Gertrude a critical, narrow-eyed glare.

Once she swallowed the food, her eyes remained locked on to the Inquisitor’s.

She put on a sly expression.

“Remember when I first showed you how to make cadet kibble?” Ingrid said.

“It’s that funny to you?” Gertrude grumbled.

“It was hilarious! You were so helpless, messiah defend you!” Ingrid said. “Little cadet in your prissy little cadet uniform, now that you couldn’t get your catered tea parties from Luxembourg School for Sluts.” She burst into laughter at her own joke. Her face was starting to turn a little red from all the drinking. “Running around with a grouchy gut because you didn’t want to eat pea soup and knackbrot. You would’ve died without me.”

“And you were a junior K9 who would’ve gotten the lights beaten out of your eyes if I hadn’t covered up for you stealing a bunch of food.” Gertrude said. Her own tone was starting to get out of her control. She was more annoyed than she wanted to be. It must have been the beer making her vulnerable to Ingrid’s teasing. And yet, she couldn’t keep herself from taking another long drink from the can. Ingrid couldn’t stop drinking either.

“Uh huh? But I showed you how you’re supposed to eat around these parts. So I repaid my debt to you, hell, you practically owed me for it after the fact.” Ingrid made a show of exaggerated shrugging.

Gertrude felt herself reminiscing a little. She couldn’t, at that time, in that place, recall any specific memories too vividly but she saw the texture and color of her past. She saw those blue and grey halls, those well-trod marching fields, blurs of green and brown forest. She saw a dark artificial sky under which she stole away with a hellion of a loup, two girls who should’ve never amounted to anything in the rigid society of the Imbrian Empire, friends as rare and odd as the ones she had broken with at her old school. Both struggling within their own ranks not just to be anything, but to be the most they could be. Ambitious to climb over every obstacle put in front of them.

“We made quite a pair.” She finally said.

“We could’ve fucked anyone up. You and me? Nobody stood a chance.”

“If only ‘fucking people up’ was all it took to advance in the military.”

“Hey, it worked out for us fine after we got out of cadet school. We kicked ass then.”

“That’s because the world of adults simply has none of the rules that children are taught.”

“You feelin’ better? You’re saying all kinds of crap again so you must be.” Ingrid said.

“Now it’s your turn to remember.” Gertrude teased. “What was our little motto back then?”

Ingrid snorted. “Y’think I would forget? ‘We carve out our own justice’. How corny!”

Reminiscing about the old days, the cheerful pair rubbed shoulders and touched heads.

Going over the distant past as if old friends who had seen nothing of each other for years.

Soon they had drank all of the beers. Both became a little lethargic because of it.

There was a brief silence which fell over them, punctuated by the pulse of their hearts.

Melancholy, as the world racing at breakneck speed around them finally caught up.

“How do you know it’s your girl out there? With those mercs?” Ingrid asked suddenly.

Gertrude felt her heart sink. There was no preparing for that question. “I don’t know.”

Her answer was so abrupt even Ingrid had to process it. “You don’t know?” She said.

“I can’t explain it to you. I– I saw her being loaded up into their ship. It has to be her.”

“You can’t explain it?” Ingrid sighed. “Well I guess I believe you. Doesn’t matter anyway.”

“It matters a lot, actually. But I’m thankful for your casual disinterest nevertheless.”

Gertrude was feeling suddenly just a touch embittered.

Ingrid grunted her displeasure.

They averted their gaze from each other.

“You’ve always been bleeding yourself dry for that girl. You’re so fuckin’ devoted.”

“I care about her. We’ve been together forever. Is that so disagreeable?”

Once more they locked eyes in a confrontational way.

Ingrid snorted and sidled away, one width of a body between them. “Together, huh?”

Gertrude was no longer so warm as before. Except maybe in her chest and stomach from all of the booze. It was such a sudden, stark, strong sensation, of loss, of having something taken. To her woozy, slightly out of focus vision, starting to slip from the drink, it really felt like Ingrid had gotten so much farther than she was. That whole length of the bed; maybe even farther away. Like Ingrid was disappearing just like Elena was.

It hurt– it hurt more than she wanted to admit.

“Together? Not fuckin’ now! You run around like a lunatic, barely eating or sleeping, giving nonsense orders, your mood swinging all the god damned time. With all that’s happening in the world, your obsession over this girl has us chasing down one fuckin’ ship to the middle of nowhere. People are out there killing for lands and titles, and you? What do you want? You had loftier goals when you were a blue vest in Kuban station.” Ingrid was practically grumbling, almost as if to herself. Gertrude could barely hear her and yet heard just about enough.

Unable to be the formidable Inquisitor for a second longer, Gertrude broke out into tears.

Rendered vulnerable by the drink, the reminiscing, and the sudden loneliness she felt.

“You’re like a homesick dog.” Ingrid grumbled. “You’re not together for shit right now.”

Gertrude balled up her hands into fists. She felt a scream rising out of her windpipe.

“Fuck you! You don’t understand! All my life I’ve been fighting to be her equal. That’s all I wanted. I needed to be worthy of her so they wouldn’t take her from me. When I thought I’d lost her– and then the tiny glimmer of hope that she was still out there for me– you can’t even imagine how much it hurts Ingrid!”

Ingrid scowled at Gertrude’s words. Her eyes were starting to shutter from all the drink.

“You need to be worthy of her? Because she thinks you’re a swarthy mutt like me?”

Gertrude snapped her head toward the Loup, incensed. Her heart hot with booze and anger.

“Ingrid! How dare you– She would never–!”

“Does even she even know all you’ve been through? Does she even care?”

“Ingrid, you better fucking–”

“I bet she doesn’t give a shit about you. I bet she wanted to run away with those mercs–”

Carried purely on impulse, Gertrude lunged for Ingrid and in a snap, seized her by her tanktop and pulled her close, until they were eye to furious eye. Tears streamed down Gertrude’s face as she wrung Ingrid for a moment, teeth clenched, dragging her so close their foreheads nearly struck. Her anger fueled a herculean strength in her arms that was quickly fading. Wanting to fight but being unable to raise her hand. She was unable to hold Ingrid’s gaze fixed for very long, her head beginning to dip just a few seconds after grabbing her.

“She loves me! I know she loves me!” Gertrude said, mumbling into Ingrid’s face.

Ingrid grabbed hold of her arm in retaliation and for a moment the two exchanged glares.

Then in an instant Ingrid’s other arm hooked around Gertrude’s shoulder.

For a moment the Inquisitor thought she would be attacked but before she could respond–

Pushing her head forward, Ingrid took her lips into a kiss.

Time stopped as Gertrude tasted peppers and booze on Ingrid’s intruding tongue.

She felt her friend’s overwhelming warmth again, matched with a strength of equal intensity.

Ingrid shoved forward into Gertrude, climbing atop, her hands never letting go.

With every push, every conscious shifting of her weight, their lips parted only briefly.

In the heat of the moment Ingrid stole Gertrude’s tongue numerous times, every nearest instant she could, their lips drawing close, slipping off and gliding near once more, until she had her pinned to the bed and held. She was furiously hungry, in a trance of desire, exuding a bestial love of locking lips, brushing fangs, of musk and spittle, of sinewy muscle and a tail that batted against the bed like the beat of a drum. Too shocked and absorbed into the moment, unable to challenge the shorter but stronger Loup’s sudden grip, Gertrude hardly resisted.

Until as suddenly as her passions began, they lost their strength.

Ingrid fell practically into Gertrude’s arms. Sobbing so strongly she began to cough.

Caught in a storm of tears and anguish as strong as the lust that preceded it.

“I love you! I love you, Gertrude! I don’t care about her! I love you, Gertrude!”

Gertrude felt an impulse to hold Ingrid tightly.

Her own tears began to flow anew. Her whole body was shaking under Ingrid’s weight, speechless, stupefied. Ingrid screamed at her, baring her soul and it felt unreal, and she could hardly respond except to hug her more tightly.

“I swore I’d stick with you and it wasn’t a joke! I gave you my leash to hold because I love you! I love you so much!”

“I’m sorry!” Gertrude cried back at her. “I don’t– I don’t know what you want–!”

“I want you to fucking be okay! I want you to live! I don’t want you to shut yourself out further and pretend you’re in control! Please stop killing yourself alone! Take my leash and use me, rely on me, depend on me!”

“Ingrid– Ingrid I– I don’t–”

“We can do anything together! I meant it! I want to support the woman I love!”

“Ingrid…”

“Gertrude, the woman I love– she can do anything. She’s so powerful. I’ve seen it. I love her for it.”

It hurt– to be thought of so highly, to be loved so strongly. It hurt.

Gertrude wanted to tell her that she was never strong, that she was never confident, that she had never lived with whatever power Ingrid saw in her hands, whatever strength she hung on to in her words. Gertrude had been scraping by, begging, pleading, struggling. Academically average, with few connections, with no peerage. She had begged to go to Luxembourg; she had begged to become an officer; she had begged for the status of Inquisitor.

She had her face put into the dirt more than she could remember.

You’ve never seen me beg–

But she couldn’t say that to Ingrid. She couldn’t make herself say such things.

All she could do was mumble Ingrid’s name and hold her in bed, caressing her ears.

“All I want is for the woman holding my leash to keep rising. To give me orders that inspire me, to give me a future worth a damn! I’ll never be anyone among the Loup, but you, Gertrude, you can be a Lord! You could be Emperor! All I want is to support you! You have me here! Take me! Let me help you! Stop staring glassy-eyed at after that bitch’s tail! I hate to see you like this! I fucking despise it! How much longer will I have to see that?”

Gertrude felt such a sense of helpless dread, to have Ingrid bare herself like this–

That boisterous, thick-skinned woman so confident in herself, always picking fights.

Reduced to crying and pleading in the arms of a woman who could barely look at her eyes.

She could not possibly answer Ingrid’s desires. Not at that moment. She was too weak.

“Ingrid,”

She was going to say she was sorry, truly, deeply sorry, but fate never gave her the chance.

Fate rang in Gertrude’s room as a request for communication on an adjacent wall.

In the midst of her dishevelment, Gertrude hastily slammed the nearby wall to accept, but with sound only. Ingrid put a hand over her own mouth to quiet her sobbing. She knew propriety, even though she pretended she didn’t.

This was another way Gertrude knew that she really cared.

And it hurt to see it. But what could she say? She had to put on the Inquisitor’s mask.

“I’m listening, report quickly. I made it clear I was retiring to my quarters.”

“Ma’am, this is Schicksal. We’ve received a response to our request for reinforcements. I’m sorry to disturb you. I just thought you should know, because of the nature of the response.” Schicksal’s meek little voice sounded strained and upset. “I’m sorry ma’am, but the message came from the Antenora. Whether or not we accept it, ma’am, she’s probably coming. I hope you understand now why I wanted to inform you. Schicksal out.”

On the wall, the audio feed disappeared.

Gertrude and Ingrid slowly, shakingly rose, sitting with their bodies on end, staring at one another.

Their earlier quarrel was silenced by the shock and disbelief they shared.

Both of them knew all too well what it meant for that ship to appear.

The Antenora — the Cruiser flagship of the woman called “the Praetorian.”

“Norn.” Gertrude stifled a gasp. Her heart started racing again. “Master Norn is coming.”


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.5]

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath, lifting her shoulders, stretching her legs.

Remembering the wine she had back on board the Brigand.

“Valya, how do I sound?”

“Legible!”

“Good. Mind if I take the lead?”

“You’re in the lead ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

Valya sounded slightly nervous.

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

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

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

Twenty years in the cockpit made those things seem small.

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

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

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

It’s why she fought in the first place.

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

“Contacts.” Valya said.

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

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

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

This would keep her pedals jammed down.

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

Valya shouted. “What was that?”

“Relax and stick to the plan.”

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

That was not her concern for now.

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

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

As I thought. You fellas are half-baked.

“Ma’am–”

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

“Yes! Sorry!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had a Frigate to sink.

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

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

They made a wonderful distraction, however.

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

Khadija approached from below the Frigate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This guy is different!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, however, Khadija was right on his heels–

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so much with being looked down upon.

Without another word she stepped into the pod nearest her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova recalled Khadija’s magnificent, snaking movements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khadija beamed at her and quietly accented.

They had a few more matches that night.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Contact!” Murati shouted.

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

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

Against that wall of fire Shalikova felt suddenly dwarfed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A diagnostic display showed the objects attached to it.

“I do, but only one.” She said.

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

“Got it!”

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova cut Murati off.

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

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

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

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

But Shalikova could hardly pull trigger before the Volkers grew enormous in her cameras.

She sped right into their midst, dodging a second round of gunfire as she neared them.

Her enemies threw themselves aside, perhaps fearing that she intended to ram them.

Breaking in between them, and roaring well past, she threw her Strelok into a climb.

“God damn it.”

She was trying to fight like Khadija, but she was unused to shooting while moving this fast.

In the simulator, Khadija had time to set up her cameras–

Because she created space for it! Shalikova realized that’s why she circled around so much.

“I’m an idiot! I just flew in without thinking!”

At these speeds, she wasn’t able to shoot! She couldn’t even think fast enough to shoot!

She had to slow down, but–

“I know!”

In the middle of her climb, Shalikova twisted her Strelok around, going over the Volkers.

Bursting the top two jets in the backpack– along with the legs, and solid fuel boost from the shoulders– manipulating the fins– moving more weight into the shoulder– her little hands moved all over the controls in her cockpit, flipping what felt like every switch and every button– she hardly realized Khadija had to put this much effort into moving, she was sweating so much–

Her frantic actions within the cockpit, invisible to her opponent, had a dramatic result.

She tumbled, head over feet, descending behind her opponents while upside down.

Much of the momentum she built up dissipated in the snap changes in directions.

But her bewildered enemies could not even turn as she riddled their backs with bullets.

Dozens of rounds of fully automatic fire, until the magazine ejected. Impact after impact crashing into the first Volker, before she jerked the gun toward the second. Bullets smashing into ducts, blowing up on top of the jets, perforating the spare magazines kept on the rear magnetic strip and causing secondary explosions, the Volkers twisted and torn by the blasts. Severed cockpits leaking oxygen and blood slowly descending with arms gone limp and legs asunder.

Shalikova’s snap maneuver took her beneath the ruined Volkers, now swimming chest up.

For a brief instant she was a girl floating as if on the surface of a vast pool.

Gazing up at a sky of broken metal falling around her.

She could almost see colors, colors other than the dim, dark blue of the water.

Red, anguished colors.

Green, sickly colors.

Blueish-Black, the specter of death–

Silvery white. Peace and departure–

Shalikova shook her head and climbed as a wave of renewed flak swept past her position.

Dozens of small explosions dissipated the colors and further tore up the remains.

“What colors?” She murmured to herself. “There weren’t any colors.”

Rising in a wide arc to retain speed and avoid fire, Shalikova doubled back to the Destroyer.

“Volkers down. Squad leader, I thought you’d have blown it up by–”

Before Shalikova could finish, she heard two loud shocks over the hydrophone.

Dozens of meters ahead of them, an earthshaking blast sent the Frigate on the Irmingard’s right wing plummeting into the sea floor. A shockwave rippled out from the explosion that had even Shalikova’s chassis vibrating. It could only have been one of the bombs since the Brigand’s 76 mm aft guns could not have had such a dramatic effect. Only a moment later, she heard the sound of knocking metal and realized that the Destroyer was descending and stalling.

“You were saying, Shalikova?” Murati laughed.

That thundering curtain of flak slowed to a sputter of feeble warding fire.

Unable to fight off Murati or keep up with the fleet, it began to turn and flee.

She must have done some damage to the rear like she planned.

All of the fighting they were doing took place in the context of the Irmingard chasing the Brigand. It was easy to forget with how fast their mecha were moving, and how massive all of the ships around them were, that the entire battlefield was in motion. It was only when the Irmingard fleet’s tight formation was broken so completely that Shalikova paid heed to this fact once again. The Irmingard lumbered forward, while its escorts were now falling or fleeing.

Shalikova could find no more ship contacts in the immediate vicinity.

“We’ve opened the way. Sameera used her bomb, but I’ve still got mine.” Murati said.

The Cheka regrouped with Shalikova. There was mild cosmetic damage on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?”

Murati sounded unshaken. “Just got exposed to a bit of ventral fire– it’s not a big deal.”

“If you say so. I’ll go on ahead of you and draw the flagship’s fire.” Shalikova said.

“Good job taking care of those Divers by yourself. I have full confidence in you.”

“It’s nothing. Could’ve gone better even.”

“Do you have damage?”

“No. I just mean– it’s not worthy of praise.”

Before her squad leader could continue flattering her Shalikova charged ahead.

The Cheka was not very far behind. Shalikova reloaded her weapon and grit her teeth.

When they turned away from the Destroyer their view was dominated by the colossal grey frame of the Irmingard class dreadnought. A Frigate or a Destroyer was already many, many times the size of a Diver. And yet there was no comparison to how that flagship made Shalikova feel like a speck of plankton helplessly spinning in the water. Its vaguely spoon-shaped prow and thick, enormous cylindrical chassis with its swept wing fins and sharply flared rear were so regal and aggressive. There was no truer representation of the fearful violence they were up against.

That ship was the Imbrian Empire, cruel tyrant over half of what remained of their world.

Shalikova’s grip tightened on her controls. Her hands were cold, her palms moist.

For the sake of everything they believed in, they had to be the arrow that hobbled this beast.

As they approached, homing in on the center of that wall of grey, long lines of flak erupted from the gas gun pods lined up in front of them. Different pods coordinated to fire together in groups of six barrels. Their fire discipline was completely unlike that of the other ships. Shalikova found herself swerving far more violently away from gunfire that crept closer and closer.

Her chassis rattled as a bullet deflected right off the left shoulder.

Thankfully, it didn’t explode right on the armor. She accelerated even more.

“I’m breaking off, they’re on me.” Shalikova said.

“I think they’re on both of us!”

Shalikova threw the Strelok into a sudden climb, wrenching up with a kick of the vernier thrusters. While boosting up and momentarily out of the gunfire she glanced at one of the side camera feeds.

Murati’s Cheka was targeted wholly independently of her own Strelok.

Different sections of the Irmingard’s flak guns were coordinating different targets.

A half-dozen barrels peppered Shalikova’s surroundings and a half-dozen harried Murati.

It was nothing like the basic saturation fire of the other ships.

They would not take Shalikova as a piece of bait so easily. They were more experienced.

“With this much gunfire I won’t be able to get to the aft. I’ll bomb the main guns!”

Murati’s Cheka broke off from Shalikova and into its own climb, spiraling away from intense gunfire. Her destination lay atop the Irmingard’s deck, central to the hull and just behind the spoon prow, a squat, double-barrel turret: the feared 203 mm main guns that supported the smaller guns fixed on the prow itself. As a military flagship, the Irmingard bore its guns fixed on the deck, they could never be hidden or stowed unlike the Brigand’s guns. Shalikova knew the main magazine was buried deeper in the ship and would not go off if the turret itself was destroyed.

Preventing the Irmingard from shooting effectively would accomplish their mission.

Even if the ship itself was not sent to the bottom of the sea floor.

Shalikova did not like it– but perhaps it was an object lesson on their lack of power.

As they climbed higher, flak intensified. Deck gas guns joined the port-side guns in firing.

Murati accelerated in a high arc, leaving behind the port-side fire but trailed by the deck guns. Dozens of vapor bubbles bloomed around her. Shalikova’s own chassis vibrated relentlessly with the shockwaves of bullets going off all around her, their impacts just close enough to make her feel it without tearing off any metal.

While Murati kept climbing Shalikova overflew the prow.

Her side camera was not just for following Murati’s positioning.

It was also coordinating with the camera on her assault rifle, held to her chest.

Shalikova ranged the triangle formation of gas gun pods covering center of the deck.

Their barrels lifted high as they chased Murati, flashing repeatedly in the dim water.

“Here’s your opening, Murati!”

Short, practiced rapping on the triggers, three presses, pause, three presses.

She saw the bursts of gunfire fly off into the blue on her gun camera.

Her bullets flew amid the gas gun pods and struck metal with brilliant, fleeting blasts.

A brighter flash, erupting suddenly from among the gas gun formation.

One pod went off, its magazine cooked.

Dozens of popping, flashing blasts from the pod’s magazine sent metal spraying.

Meanwhile the other pods went dead silent.

Whether Shalikova struck them, or damaged the electronics or optics, she did not know.

Nevertheless, she realized she had quieted the deck fire on Murati’s side.

Her own safety on the prow was far less certain.

All around her, gas gun pods on the prow now enfiladed her, firing from every direction.

Bullets crashed into her hip armor and a stray shell even smashed into the cockpit armor.

Warnings flashed on her diagnostics. Real hull damage. No breaches.

Shalikova nearly had a heart attack. “Warn me about any breaches first you trash!”

Cockpit shaking violently, Shalikova threw herself into a roll and dove, touching down on the actual surface of the enemy ship and crouching. She hoped to avoid most of the gunfire this way, and for the briefest moment she found respite from the shooting– until she realized that there were no barrels flashing anymore.

All of the flak on the deck had quieted down just as she landed.

She was pointing her assault rifle at completely dormant gun pods.

“They’re avoiding friendly fire– Murati!”

Her suspicion proved correct almost immediately. Murati’s crackling voice responded:

“No chance to bomb–! Incoming!”

Shalikova leaped off the prow surface with microsecond boost from the vernier thrusters.

Charging across the shallow curve of the prow, in time to spot the enemy attacking Murati.

When she got close enough to see both of their figures clearly–

Murati leaped back off the deck as an enemy Diver pounced.

A trail of assault fire struck where she stood, and her enemy glided over the deck.

The attacker smoothly overflew the deck surface while raising her rifle.

Accurate, disciplined bursts crept closer and closer to Murati’s position.

Murati had been facing the enemy, climbing diagonally away from it with all of her thrust.

When she opened fire, the enemy below side-stepped it without losing any speed.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide. It reminded her of the gulf between her and–

“Murati! I’m coming! Hold on!”

As her words carried through the communicator the enemy Diver launched up.

In an instant the Diver drew a vibroblade from its magnetic strip with its free hand.

In the open water just off of the Irmingard’s surface the duelists clashed.

Sword met steel– Murati’s assault rifle, held by barrel and stock to block the overhead slash.

Shalikova drew closer and closer but not soon enough.

She thought the Diver would hack through Murati’s rifle but when it found its slash blocked, the machine moved fluidly with its own sword and leaped over Murati with a kick of its own auxiliary vernier thrusters, leaving a cloud of vaporized water and solid fuel exhaust where Murati was once clashing with it. The attacker rolled its body over Murati’s Cheka, and in a flash that sword swung once again, upside down at the Cheka’s shoulder.

There was an ephemeral red burst as the sword’s thruster briefly kicked in.

A burning crimson wound as the monomolecular, vibrating edge cut through the Cheka’s shoulder.

Murati threw her weight down and aside.

A chunk of metal blew off the Cheka, the shoulder in pieces, the roll of steel cable floating away in the debris as her left jet anchor pod ejected from the machine’s body. Murati torturously wrenched her mecha to face the attacker and shoot, but she was out of balance, damaged, and her enemy was still moving. Now fearless with a tumbling, dazed opponent, the attacker flew right through Murati’s desperate gunfire and swung its sword, this time to take the head–

“Murati! Get back!”

Shalikova shouted in desperation and surged ahead.

Shoulder set, she rammed herself in between Murati and the attacker.

Reacting with incredible alacrity, the enemy threw itself back from Shalikova.

There was no word from Murati, but the Cheka still looked stable in the water.

“Damn it.”

Every time, just like Khadija, the attacker went from motion to motion, fluidly, perfectly.

Others would have been disoriented for even a second having to wrench their machine back. This pilot expertly used the verniers to retreat as Shalikova entered their space, and to then thrust upward and resume maneuver. It all happened so fast that there was no distinction between the two separate instances of thrust. Just like Khadija, who moved like a serpent through the waters, perfectly conserving momentum throughout. This was a whole other level from the enemies they had faced so far, and it was only from observing a veteran like Khadija as keenly as she had that Shalikova understood the gulf between herself and this foe. She understood enough to fear them.

That machine was no ordinary Volker either.

Volkers were almost comical in how round they were, the arms practically came out of the central orb with slanted shoulders barely covering the joint, their helmeted heads affixed in an exposed mount right atop the hull. Any angled armor surfaces were clearly bolted on as an afterthought. Nothing like the machine now in front of her.

In place of the orb-like body was a robust, three-piece, interlocking chest, waist/hip, and shoulder chassis. Armored surfaces concealing the cockpit boasted complex geometry to help deflect and absorb impacts. Broadly triangular, the silhouette had wider shoulders and a humanoid, helmeted “head” with multi-directional, almost snake-eyed, visor-like cameras. Its arms and legs were modified with light but steeply angled armor over the joints. There was no bulge anywhere for a battery, and an extra jet on the back, with small intakes all around the machine, all “second gen” traits.

A new second generation mecha, to add to the Empire’s advantage–

Nevertheless, Shalikova charged after this enemy.

“That cat wouldn’t turn away from something like this!”

Her voice coming out of her lips was desperate, exhausted, cracking with fear.

Her mind was working so fast her brain pounded with pain.

And still, she went after that enemy with all her might, just moments after it bested Murati.

There was no reason to attack the Irmingard if she was not willing to lunge at the monsters that came from it. That flagship already outclassed the Brigand in every way. The Imbrian Empire already outclassed the Union in every way. And yet, Khadija, that brilliant pilot who had mastered the sea, still fought these unspeakable odds in the revolution. She saw herself dwarfed and outmatched by enormous guns and ships and fought on regardless.

Shalikova couldn’t bear losing to that woman in this too.

Steeled by her fear, with beasts of death before and behind her, she attacked.

“Where will it move, where–”

Shalikova centered the enemy in her vision and opened fire with her assault rifle.

Once more the opponent thrust upward out of the firing line.

“You like going up, huh?”

She tried to put her barrel ahead of where the enemy would go, rapping the trigger.

With graceful banking movements the enemy avoided fire and arced toward her. A quick burst of gunfire responded, and Shalikova thrust herself deeper down to avoid it. All the while facing the enemy, shooting up at them at the edge of her vision. Chasing a shadow that moved faster than she could hope to track, briefly lighting it with feeble bursts of gunfire that did not even graze the wake of its jets. Between her own evasive maneuvers and the dexterous way her enemy moved she was shooting into the water and doing nothing but stirring up empty bubbles. She was shooting more wastefully than her opponent, and soon found herself close to having to reload.

Luckily, she wasn’t trying to hit them directly.

She was just trying to get them moving.

Shalikova ceased running away from the enemy and burst forward in their direction.

Already facing the enemy as she retreated, the abrupt switch to charging in her direction caused her no disorientation. Firing all her solid fuel thrusters and ramming down the pedals for all the jet power she could muster, Shalikova threw herself at an enemy that was dashing at her, cutting their distance dramatically. From the magnetic strip behind her mecha she withdrew and quickly unfolded her diamond sword, revved up the motor and spun the teeth. Along with taking the sword she also threw out everything else on her magnetic strip, shedding some precious weight.

In a second, she was in the enemy’s face, sword out, swinging, with all her momentum.

Her opponent did not stand for such a thing and with a snap thrust, leaped over her.

Just like with Murati she was trying to swing at her from behind.

“I’ve already seen that trick!”

Practically cackling, Shalikova angled every fin, reallocated all the movable weight, and threw all of her thrust into a lurching motion that took her suddenly down and to the left. Her body wrenched in her chair at the sudden twisting of the chassis, but the enemy’s swing completely missed her, slicing through the water and leaving her overextended.

She was in no position to fight back and that mecha was now right behind her–

“Got you! I got you, you bastard!”

Behind her, a grenade that had been on her magnetic strip, armed and discarded, went off.

Water vaporized rapidly around the explosion forming an enormous bubble just a handful of meters away.

The shockwave threw Shalikova into total disarray. She spun feet over head, carried on the sudden wave generated by the explosion. Too close, suicidally close, but–

Struggling with her controls and trying to right herself she adjusted the cameras–

Looking for debris–

From behind her, that mecha suddenly reappeared, sword overhead and coming down.

There was nothing Shalikova could do. She had no time to respond.

She closed eyes that were stinging with sweat and tears and grit her teeth.

Her hydrophone picked up the clanging of metal on metal in the waters.

When she heard it over the headset, she also heard herself breathe.

Felt her heart beating, faster and faster.

Then a burst of gunfire.

Shalikova’s eyes opened wide, and she looked frantically at her cameras.

Murati’s Cheka was approaching, opening fire with a shaking arm and a damaged rifle.

Clearly limping in the water, having lost some energy cells from the attack it endured.

Her shooting was missing the mark, no better than the flak from the patrol ships–

But between Shalikova and the enemy, a different ally stood, suddenly formidable.

“You did good, Shali~”

Over the communicator, sounded the soft, playful, calm voice of Khadija al-Shajara.

Holding her own sword and standing face to face with the mecha in front of them.

Both having stopped moving for an instant as if respecting each other.

That enemy did not fear Murati’s shooting or Shalikova’s tricks, but this gave her pause.

“Khadija–”

Shalikova was almost going to apologize. She felt so helpless.

Khadija interrupted her immediately.

“Leave this to me. You’ve done everything you could. Give Valya the other bomb and take Murati’s limping remains away from here before she hurts herself or us.” She paused, and after a deep breath, released a bit of laughter. Her tone changed. “I’m not one to recite the name of the Lord for every detail like some other Shimii do, but this is fated, Shalikova. The Red Baron of Cascabel. I was fated to meet her here. We’re gonna settle a little score, she and I.”

Her voice was slick with a bloodthirst that Shalikova had never heard from her before.

Had the fighting gotten to her so badly? What was she babbling about?

Shalikova was in no position to do anything but what she was told, however.

Without openly questioning Khadija, she started to move away.

It was at that point, that whatever fated bell tolled for Khadija tolled for the rest of them.

Twin, massive, concussive shocks into the water that left the Union soldiers speechless.

In that moment, the Irmingard dreadnought fired its 203mm guns in anger.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.4]

“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’, Sameera–”

There was always a brief pause in her mind when she was about to leave the deployment chute. No matter what was happening, whether a Leviathan was coiled around the ship, or a group of smugglers was getting away. It spanned the briefest period of time that one might acknowledge as a complete thought. Pilots always stated their designation and name as a courtesy to the Bridge crew, so the officers could confirm exactly who was going out and in which machine.

What was her name? She surely couldn’t say the whole damned thing–

“Sameera Al-Shahouh. Deploying!”

Whenever she launched off a ship, she always chose the side of her Shimii mother. It was confusing. She had never felt like either a Loup or a Shimii. Thankfully it was a short-lived anxiety. Her name ceased to matter once she was launched into the endless blue of the ocean. Her Diver pushed down into the water from the deployment chute, free of the ship, adrift in the waters. From the earbuds Sameera wore in lieu of a pilot’s headphones, she caught Dominika’s voice.

“UND-114-C, ‘Strelkannon’, Dominika Rybolovskaya– Deploying!”

Around her, in that dark, murky blue, Sameera picked up the other Divers in her cameras. She had been one of the first to deploy alongside Dominika, Murati and Sonya; Khadija and Valya would be coming out in a few moments. She fixed one camera on Dominika to try to keep her position in mind at all times. More than being a beautiful girl, she was her squad mate, after all.

“Nika, is your heartbeat rising?” She asked.

“I’m closing the audio channel too if you’re going to keep being annoying.”

Sameera smiled, but Nika pointedly kept their video channel closed. “I’m just being nice!”

“Whatever.”

Sameera’s own heartbeat was certainly quickening. Those moments just after deployment but right before the melee were excruciating. It was too surreal to be sitting around idly in a war machine. She became preoccupied with the isolation of her human body within the cold cockpit. It was only the promise of the glorious hunt that lay ahead which steeled her resolve.

“Good hunting!” She finally said. Nika did not return the sentiment.

Dominika’s “Strelkannon” was armed with a launcher for underwater rockets on one shoulder and a semi-automatic cannon in the other. In her Diver’s humanoid hands she carried a 20 mm Gepard SMG just like the one Sameera was carrying too, but that was a last resort weapon.

Sameera’s job in a squadron like this was to make sure Dominika never had to fire that type of weapon. Murati must have known this was a role she was familiar with and thinking about this fact flattered Sameera. As part of the Border Forces’ Leviathan control squadrons, she often partnered with Strelkannon pilots, acting as a bodyguard for those bigger, slower frames.

“Keep steady for a moment, until Khadija and Valya are ready.” Murati said.

After deploying from the chute, the Divers immediately engaged their engines. Because the Brigand was moving, and the enemy fleet was moving, they had to actively pursue the Brigand for a few moments in order to stick with it themselves. At full tilt, their Divers could move much faster than the Brigand, which itself was not moving too quickly at the moment. So it was not much effort for them to orbit the ship’s keel for a few seconds to maintain formation.

Khadija and Valya descended shortly thereafter. All six frames were in the water.

Over the communicator, the voice of Electronic Warfare Officer Zachikova sounded.

“Jamming munition going out!”

Something then emerged from the utility chute near the Brigand’s aft in a flurry of bubbles.

“Everyone, switch off your audio for the next minute and follow me.” Murati said.

Sameera acknowledged.

Beneath the armrest to which her control stick was attached there were physical controls for some of the touchscreen functions. Sameera preferred these, to quickly get her hands back on the sticks if she needed. She switched off the audio from there. With the audio off, it also meant all the predictors, which used acoustic data, became useless, frozen on their last prediction of what the surroundings looked like. Sameera focused on the physical cameras.

She then engaged her accelerator, pushing the pedal into a slot in the chair to lock it in.

Her ‘Cossack’ thrust out from under the Brigand, propelling itself on jets of ocean water.

Murati’s Cheka, with its sleek design and dark paint job led the charge into the murky ocean ahead, Shalikova’s slightly modified Strelok keeping close behind. Sameera had tested the Cheka, so knowing its speed, she knew exactly how fast she needed to go in order to keep some kind of pace with it, while also staying near Dominika, who was definitely bringing up the rear. The Strelkannon’s armament made it a couple knots slower than everyone else in all respects.

At first the loose assemblage of Divers stuck close beneath the keel of the Brigand, but after clearing the jets on the back of the mothership and entering the open water between their ship and the enemy fleet, the group broke into their sections with practiced understanding. Even without communication, they all knew the prerogatives of a Diver pilot in a combat situation. Don’t stack up, or a flurry of torpedoes or concentrated gunfire could kill the whole squad; keep moving with your squadmate toward your objective. Always assume your squadmate is going after the objective and move together. Sameera and Dominika dropped altitude together. Fifteen meters apart from each other, and many more from Murati or Khadija, they charged directly through the center.

Without the predictor, there was nothing concrete on her cameras but Dominika. No ground below them, nothing ahead but the dark blue water and dusty traces of organic matter filtering down from the photic zone. She was suspended in water. It was sometimes hard to come to terms with. Within her metal bubble, the movements of her machine felt dream-like without an enemy in sight or any landmarks to give her any feedback. She felt airy, as if descending forward; it felt like gravity was taking her through the murky nothingness around her more than her own power.

All she had to go on was the last positions of the fleet and her own instincts.

Her heart beating fast, a cold sweat building on her chest, Sameera counted the seconds.

She hated those slow, vulnerable moments. She wanted to be in the fight– sixty seconds.

Electronic Warfare was sophisticated enough now that it was basically impossible for such a munition to jam the enemy’s acoustic computers for very long. Computers by themselves could digitally attenuate the noise with surprising speed, and a skilled Electronic Warfare officer could potentially take less than a minute to shut out the attack and restore functionality. Because the jamming munition was so disruptive to its owner too, it was set to disable itself within a minute. It was a distraction, nothing more, but blinding every acoustic data device for a minute was enough.

Like every weapon, it was not just the capabilities, but the tactical use, that mattered.

At their top speeds, the enemy fleet was well over a minute away.

Being able to cut any amount of that distance undetected was a blessing.

For those sixty nerve-wracking seconds there was nothing but the feeling of her clammy, slick skin, the sound of her heightened breathing, and the sight of the empty ocean all around her. She waited two additional seconds just in case, since the munition’s noise could have hurt her hearing; she then flipped on the audio.

She was greeted by Murati’s crackly, low quality voice.

“Stay in contact with your squadmate and keep moving! We’ll see them ahead soon!”

Her computer began collecting acoustic information again.

Though her predictor and sonar were nowhere near as sophisticated as those on the Brigand, they could cross-reference data compiled by the Brigand to keep track of objects as overlays on the cameras. Before she could see them physically, the enemy fleet appeared as red squares denoting hostile positions dead ahead.

Seeing something, anything, in her cameras stilled Sameera’s heartbeat just a bit.

Being able to hear the ocean and her squad again also calming.

It helped her ease out of the physical isolation of her body and become her machine instead.

And her machine saw four smaller squares, flanked by two larger squares, and a massive one even farther out ahead. As she got closer, the shapes became slowly more and more distinct in the dark water. She picked up speed to approach. For the next few seconds, every reaction counted.

Ignoring the massive square representing the Irmingard class flagship, she focused instead on the lighter prey. Attacking from below enabled them to get at the keels and maybe pop some of the ballast tanks. She dove several dozen meters down with Dominika before turning back up toward the fleet. Moments later she saw the first hint of metal appearing in the waters overhead.

Dozens of rounds of gas gun ammunition from the ventral guns rained down on them.

Though she could hardly see the guns, she did see the lines of bullets cutting through water.

All around her, explosions went off leaving vapor bubbles the size of an adult’s head.

Her cockpit stirred as weak shockwaves flowed past her machine from every direction. No direct hits; just pervasive weak vibration. Gas gun bullets had proximity and flight fuzes so they would go off even without a direct impact. Their goal was for at least some of those blasts to nip at her armor, at her gear. If the ocean could stick even a finger into her cockpit, she would die.

In Sameera’s mind, the best defense against this was a rapid offense.

“Nika, I’m engaging the–!” Sameera called out.

Launching missile,”

Before Sameera could finish her sentence, a rocket sailed past her on a trail of vapor.

One of the cutter’s keels erupted with an enormous vapor bubble, disgorging metal. From the epicenter of the explosion, a shockwave shook the waters around the vessel. Gunfire from the stricken craft ceased instantly, and the conning tower tipped sideways as the ship began to sink.

Three remaining cutters began to swerve close together to put up a tighter curtain of fire.

“Jump left; I’ll release another missile!” Dominika called out.

“Got it!” Sameera replied.

From behind her, Dominika’s Strelkannon launched a second missile.

With the increasing volume of enemy flak all around them, Dominika’s missile detonated just short of the mark, struck by the errant gunfire. Vapor from the explosion created a brief screen between themselves and the fleet that the pair used to reposition. Sameera engaged her jets and solid fuel boosters and veered quickly to avoid the guns, keeping her cameras trained on both the enemy and Dominika to insure they were not separated. Dominika hit a sharp right instead.

Rising up the water table, Sameera swept up and to the left out from under the ships.

While the ventral guns shot at nothing, the dorsal guns retrained on Sameera as she rose.

All around her the water parted in white lines pushed aside by supercavitating bullets. Brief muzzle flashes indicated continuing gunfire. Bubbles and water vapor dispersed like fog around the Cutters as the disturbances from previous explosions settled and the white clouds of fresh blasts bloomed amid the dim blue ocean. A geyser of water bubbles erupted from the sinking cutter below as another section failed due to pressure. Soon it would fall out of sight and strike the sea floor.

All of this was happening in such a brief span of time, it could hardly be thought about. Seconds, moments, instants of Sameera’s life, flashes too minute to ever be memories. Punctuated with more violence than any ordinary person would ever see in a lifetime. Sameera let out a breath, her eyes were starting to tear up from the stale air in the cockpit. She was focused, steeled.

I was insane enough to stare those fucking things in the face. I can handle this.

Sameera always put her body on the line. She had to; it was the only place she belonged.

For a brief instant, on the edge of one of her cameras a new, flashing red square appeared.

Sameera noticed it and reacted immediately, darting at full speed in its direction.

“Incoming contacts, Nika.”

“Intercept them and quit calling my nickname so much.” A calm, stoic voice immediately responded.

Sameera loved that. She didn’t have any expectation that Nika would ever like her anyway.

Grinning to herself, she withdrew a weapon from behind the Cossack’s backpack.

Upon taking the gear off the magnetic strip it was attached to, this seemingly rectangular, unintelligible object sprang to life in her mech’s hand. One half released and snapped into place atop the other. A handle attached to a blade with an armored rear end protecting a rail, battery and driving gear for the saw-blade cutting surface. Called variously diamond swords or diamond cutters, depending on the size and shape, these were the Union’s simpler version of the Imperial vibrosword. A long, spinning blade made of diamond and depleted agarthicite, wielded in hand.

Sameera’s sword could have cut into a ship, but it would not be turned on them for now.

Her “Cossack” shone brightest when it came to fighting other Divers.

It was almost the same as cutting up Leviathan meat. They were prey; she was the hunter.

“Sorry fellas, but I’m the only one who has a date with this lady~!”

Swerving to avoid flak, she launched into a sudden charge toward the incoming Divers.

Within sight a pair of rotund imperial Volkers appeared from the murk with 37 mm rifles in hand. Like an egg tapering down into a waist where legs could go, and shoulders that arms could slide into, these were quite basic enemy Divers. They had traced the explosions to Dominika’s Strelkannon and were moving in the direction their predictors told them the missiles came from.

Their rear cameras must have seen Sameera closing in.

Likely it was the inexperience of the pilots that led them not to pay attention to their flank.

Sameera raised her SMG and fired a burst of 20 mm gunfire ahead of them, mid-charge.

Five bullets exploded harmlessly in their vicinity, and in a panic, they came to a dead stop.

Sameera was on top of them in the next instant.

Bursting up above them and then suddenly shifting all her thrust downward, she smashed her sword on nearest Volker, digging into the shoulder and the helmeted head at the front of the round chassis. Her sword’s spinning teeth ripped a jagged wound right over the enemy’s cockpit.

Dead. Not even the faintest response from that unit as Sameera changed targets.

Acting fluidly in that same instant of violence, she ripped her sword from her first victim and raised her Gepard to the second, firing off a five-round burst into the side of the second Volker point blank. Fist sized blasts tore bits of armor off the arm and hip, but one bullet got deep into the arm joint before exploding under the shoulder. Bubbles and foam burst out of this tiny orifice.

Pressure ripped open the machine, spewing gore and debris from the expanding wound.

Dead. A lucky shot from Sameera and an unlucky one for this pilot.

One finger of the Ocean had gotten into the cockpits through the leg joint. One instant amid this dance of steel; enough for two lives to end so suddenly. But she was not alone, and the fighting had not stopped because a few targets were dead. As she threw herself into that melee, she was well aware that they were dancing within a storm of steel as the enemy flak trained on her.

It took seconds to score those kills, and then she had to run again.

In response to her charge a fusillade erupted from the Frigates’ own gas gun turrets ahead.

Matching the intensity of the fire from the nearby Cutters, it threatened to enfilade her.

Engaging her jets, she retreated from before the Frigates to arc back over the Cutters.

She beheld the looming, murky shadow of the flagship, the Irmingard class, moving ever closer. Tangling with the Volkers was like fighting a duel in front of a monument shrouded by fog. She was so dwarfed, that what she could see of the enemy ship occupied all of her field of vision. Even the Frigates also moving into range did not make up anywhere near as much of the space.

To that ship, Sameera and the Volkers were nothing but specks of dust dancing in the water.

For a moment, she thought of herself, a tiny thing framed before that colossal figure.

But only for a moment. Sameera’s innocence toward battle had been taken long ago.

And she hated thinking of herself as small. She had to be huge; she had to be the biggest.

All the while she thought this she sped away toward Dominika’s position. There were at least six other Divers lurking somewhere and she had made it her personal mission that none of them would touch a hair on her precious Nika’s head. It was this sort of thing that most easily motivated her to action. Fighting, not only to survive, but to excel, to prove herself, for glory.

“I’ve dealt with our rude onlookers! Nika, has my absence made your heart grow fonder?”

As if in response Sameera saw a flash from just ahead.

Nika’s remaining rockets rained down on the remaining Cutters from above.

Four missiles crashed onto the decks and towers of two cutters and detonated into bubbles broad enough they vanished the ocean directly in front of Sameera for several seconds. Ordnance that went off in the water evaporated and created a bubble. Both the volatile forces within the vapor bubble, the disturbed water around it, and the water then moving in to refill the bubble, placed massive pressures on whatever the ordnance targeted. When fleets full of heavy guns went to war, the blue expanse of the ocean filled with these deadly clouds, shearing, and pounding on the metal.

Sameera engaged rearward thrust to avoid the blasts and circled to the front of the fleet.

There was a massive hole in the flak cover as two cutters sank with heavy damage.

One remaining Cutter began to rise up the water table, dumping ballast to make an escape.

There was nothing in the fleet’s center but debris and two Streloks a hundred meters apart.

Sameera saw the door opening in front of them. That massive Irmingard, dead ahead.

“We’ve opened up the center.” Sameera said.

“Link back up with me now and stop mumbling, we’ve still got the Frigates.”

She wished Dominika would say something more emotional than that.

Not even out of a particular interest in her per se– simply to alter the mood.

Would it have hurt her to say I need you? Not that anyone ever told Sameera that.

“Right now, the way to the flagship is clear.”

“Are you nuts? It’s teeming with enemies around here still. Don’t be a hero!”

“The Lieutenant said we should take opportunities! We could end this battle right now.”

“This is an opportunity to get yourself killed. I’m coming to you, so just wait there–”

Sameera felt a growing frustration. She was not even asking Dominika to go with her.

Right in front of that Irmingard, the way had never looked more open. On the left flank, the Frigate was not moving to cover the gap. Maybe Khadija and Valya? And on the right flank, the other Frigate was starting to catch on to what was happening. Meanwhile that remaining Cutter had fully deserted its position and was no longer firing. Above them, the Destroyer’s gunfire was trailing after something Sameera could not see, likely Murati and Shalikova’s doing.

They had it right there– a breakthrough!

And the more they tarried, the more it closed! Only Sameera had this shot to secure victory. When she hunted Leviathans, every instant with the snapping predators invited death. Even the slightest twitch that allowed Sameera to attack was one she had to exploit. Squad or no squad, she was done negotiating with Dominika about this.

“I’ll take my chances with being a hero. Hang back and avoid the enemy Divers!”

“No! Absolutely not! Cossack– Stop! Sameera! SAMEERA!

Dominika shouted at her over the comms but Sameera paid no heed as she hurtled forward.

Even though it did feel good to have a lady shout her name– her eyes were full of glory.

Sameera always went for the biggest prey. She had to. Nobody would acknowledge her otherwise. Bigger prey, a bigger fight, escalating, drawing more and more blood– it was where she belonged!

Before the second Frigate could accelerate far enough ahead of the Irmingard to cover the gap left by the broken vanguard, Sameera rushed in among the fleet with everything her machine could give her. Stray gunfire from the accelerating, maneuvering Frigate flew well past her as she hurtled toward that metallic grey beast ahead. Looming larger and larger, that thick spoon-like prow like the head of a monster, and more of the enormous body behind it taking up her vision.

Her computers ran down the numbers every microsecond, closing in–

75 meters, 67 meters, 56 meters, 42 meters, faster, faster, she almost had the trophy–

Flashing red–

Sameera responded in an instant.

Engaging rearward thrust, she avoided an object rushing at her from below.

A vibrosword swung past her, the edge barely sliding off the skirt armor on the left hip.

“You’re no ordinary mercenaries! This’ll be fun!”

In front of her appeared an enemy Diver, a semi-triangular chassis with a flat head.

Jagd. Transmitting into the water; the acoustics picked up the voice.

Sameera had studied the second generation models like the Jagd. When she tested the Cheka, leaked design information for the Jagd was part of the project. Armed with a claw, a sword, and built-in SMGs, it could develop higher speeds than a Strelok due to its light weight, but it wasn’t all-powerful. That small performance gap that existed between the Volker and the Strelok was about how much a Jagd had on a Strelok too: in the simulations anyway.

Everything would depend on the pilot.

The Jagd had probably come out of the flagship. There was no flak coming in their direction anymore. It could have shot down the Imperial diver. For a moment, the two pilots floated on low thrust with maybe twenty meters between.

“Complying, merc? Good idea. Your jailer today is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

That pilot was taunting her. She had a woman’s voice, but a deep, violent register.

Judging by that name–

She was a loup, an actual Imperial loup. Sameera had heard the stories.

That was half her bloodline, the Empire’s vicious vanguard and recon troops. Attack dogs.

Sameera switched to the public frequency. Her hair was standing on end.

For a moment, she almost hesitated before speaking: “Sameera Raisanen-Morningsun.”

Giving her Loup surname– what did she even think it would do?

Ingrid’s crackling laughter erupted from the radio. It almost shook Sameera.

Her ears hung on that voice, that was so familiar, so like her own, like her father’s–

“You’ve got an interesting name, you stray! You ought to have stayed in your village and left the mercenary work to the Katarrans! Fitting that I’ll be the one to discipline you. I’m not unkind to my people! I have no love for the Empire. I’m only doing this for the lady in that ship. You mercenaries have no more conviction than to follow who is feeding you, so I’ll make you a deal. Come here where you belong, like a good puppy, and help us apprehend these criminals–”

No, it was nothing like her father!

It was nothing like her!

In that instant, Sameera had enough of Ingrid’s evil words.

This woman was nothing else but an enemy. Nothing else mattered.

“Absolutely not!”

Sameera felt her heart surge as she threw the Cossack into a sudden charge.

Her sword clashed with the Jagd’s claw and sent a finger flying into the water.

“Go fuck yourself! I’d sooner die than end up like you!” She shouted, seeing red.

She was almost angrier at herself and taking that frustration out– but she wouldn’t admit it.

Ingrid was utterly unfazed by the sudden attack.

“Happy to oblige then! I have nothing against tearing the throat off a hollering stray!”

From the shoulder, the Jagd launched into a thrust with its bladed arm.

Sameera disengaged the rotation of her blade to have a solid block to parry with.

She pounded the Jagd’s sword aside, reengaged the motor on the blade, swung–

From the moment she parried, however, that Jagd had her where she wanted.

As if fluidly playing along with the parry, Ingrid suddenly slipped past Sameera.

Those four remaining digits of her claw glowed red and gave off vapor.

Imperial claw weapons used both heat and sudden, snapping pressure to tear off metal.

Swinging right into her exposed flank, hoping to tear a chunk right out of her belly–

Sensing the danger, Sameera gave up her attack.

Using all available thrust she threw herself away from the Jagd to create space.

“Aww, the puppy is running away! After all that barking!”

Ingrid met speed with speed and charged after Sameera almost instantly. Her sword came down on the Cossack’s in a blink. This was nothing like fighting those Serrano patrolmen.

She was a Loup, a real Loup! She was vicious and had the reflexes and hardware to support it.

Sameera found herself on the defensive as a rain of blows came down.

That Jagd’s arm sword snapped back and forth through the water with punishing ease. Repeatedly the blows came, and all Sameera could do was meet each of them with the flat, armored back of her sword, watching the integrity of the wrist and arm joint on the Cossack. As soon as Sameera tried to create space that Jagd was back on top of her, the difference in power-to-weight proving horribly decisive.

With every move, Ingrid would chase her down, leaving her no chance to retaliate.

If she could even lift her gun– but Sameera hesitated– the arm might be sliced off–!  

“Trying to shoot? And I thought we had a nice duel going!”

Ingrid backed off just suddenly as she once attacked.

The Jagd’s twin shoulder guns flashed. Dozens of rounds of 20 mm erupted from the barrels.

Explosions bloomed all around the Cossack and followed it as Sameera fled.

She thrust directly upward, her cockpit shaking as a few blasts pitted her chest armor.

Gaining just a bit of distance and height on the Jagd. Couldn’t shoot– couldn’t swing–

In a flash of inspiration, Sameera smashed the utility buttons on her sticks.

“What?” Ingrid shouted, confounded by what followed.

The Cossack’s shoulder hooks blasted out of their pods and slammed into the Jagd.

Sameera barely had time to check if she hooked anything on the steel line.

She engaged both forward thrust and the motors for the hooks to reel in.

One hook had slammed hard into the left shoulder gun and jammed it–

But a second hook had grabbed hold of the complicated shoulder joint on the claw arm.

Thicker and larger because of the power supply for the claw’s heating elements and motors.

There was a lot of surface area for the hook to grab tight.

As she engaged the hook motors, the Cossack hurtled forward and snapped the Jagd up.

Ingrid’s gunfire went nowhere as the two mechs careened toward each other.

Sameera’s gambit had paid off.

Unable to think or plan ahead, relying on the pure feral instinct of hunter and prey.

She sped to the Jagd, barely swung her sword, and smashed right into the enemy mech with the blade between them. Her blade bit furiously into the central chassis for a second, chewing metal and kicking up fragments, before the Jagd rocketed back with every lick of thrust it could afford. Kicking up a brief cloud of vapor between itself and Sameera’s Cossack, snapping off the hook with the force of its flight, the Jagd retreated over thirty meters out of the melee.

In the surrounding waters, parts of the shoulder and one of the gun barrels floated as debris.

For a brief moment, a pinprick of agarrthic energy licked the water surrounding it. Some of the Jagd’s battery cells must have shorted out. Like the Cheka, they were distributed throughout the body: a second generation trait. Less weight overall, but the arrangement had some drawbacks.

Ingrid’s furious breathing was all that was coming through. No more taunts.

Sameera’s nervous eyes turned briefly to the diagnostics display.

Her sword was going. Ingrid’s attacks had deformed the motor housing. It was seizing.

Hull integrity was starting to dip right in the center of the chest, but still ocean-worthy.

And the left leg intake was partially compromised. That would affect her speed–

“Sameera!”

That was not Ingrid’s voice–

Dominika!

Shit. Sameera thought. Shit, shit, SHIT.

She had been so stupid. She had let herself get separated; diverted to fight one measly unit!

“Sameera, I need backup, now!”

There was not even an instant of thought or hesitation in Sameera’s mind.

If Nika was killed due to her stupidity, Sameera’s soul would have died with her.

Her body was put into the world to protect others– how could she have forgotten?

“Sameera! I need you!”

Without another pointless word exchanged with Ingrid, Sameera took off at full thrust.

“I’m coming! Hold on!” She shouted.

One of her cameras and monitors had always been set to track Nika.

Her attention had been drawn off it for her brief skirmish with Ingrid, but it had always been doing its best to track her. Each Strelok had a unique acoustic signature — slightly different hydrodynamic structures would create unique wakes. Dive computers were able to keep track of team members this way.

On this camera, a green square overlayed in the distance represented Nika’s general area.

Two red squares overlapped with hers.

Sameera saw a yellow warning on the diagnostic screen.

She was losing thrust on the left leg.

Would she make it? It was a matter of seconds she didn’t have–

As she got away from Ingrid, gunfire from the Irmingard class intensified.

Long lines of gas gun bullets flew past her and burst, a constellation of dangerous blasts.

Sameera swerved, losing even more speed as she evaded the fire.

At the head of the fleet, the Frigate had advanced to close the gap in the flagship’s defenses just as Sameera had predicted. There was a red square around it as well, overlayed on the camera, but Sameera did not need it to see the clear danger it presented. Gunfire from this Frigate framed the melee between Nika and the enemy Divers, preventing her from escaping. She was completely surrounded. Sameera rammed her pedals, trying to get the left leg to push more water through, but it did nothing but physically vent her frustration. She could not go any faster than she was.

“They’ll kill her.” Sameera’s eyes drew wide, cold sweat streaking down her face.

Her sword was useless; her SMG didn’t have the range to respond; and she was losing thrust.

Murati or Khadija would not make it in time. It had to be her; only she could do anything!

She wracked her brain thinking about all the weapons and systems she had at her disposal.

Her mind flashed back to her fight with Ingrid. She had one hook that hadn’t broken.

One hook– and a bomb. She still had the bomb!

Sameera mumbled to herself, her mind stumbling over possibility.

“Murati, I’m so sorry. If we survive, I’ll accept any punishment.”

Beneath the backpack jets on her Diver’s chassis, there was a magnetic strip. Her sword attached to it when it folded, but her bomb was also there. She withdrew the pipe-shaped demolition charge. It was a pure chunk of explosive without any lining or penetrators, fixed with a simple detonator connected by wire and triggered with a switch in her cockpit. Sameera popped out her one remaining hook from its shoulder pod and affixed the bomb to the hook.

“If I throw it, and then start up the hook’s hydrojet–”

Sameera faced her mecha toward the overlapping red boxes of the Frigate and Volkers.

And the green box, Nika.

“Nika! Pull away from them now!”

She pulled back her arm, engaged one of the solid fuel boosters and made a snap throw.

Smashing the utility button on her trigger, she engaged the hook’s jet.

At once, the hook sped away fully unimpeded.

Farther and faster than Sameera’s Cossack could ever go in this instant.

It was so fast it was hard to track.

She had about 80 meters of cable, and she could also cut the cable loose–

“Shit, with the explosion–!”

Realizing she had no idea how wide the blast would be, she did release the tow cable.

“Nika, please get away!”

As soon as the green square of the bomb overlapped the red squares of the enemy, all outside of Sameera’s direct field of vision, she took a deep breath and pressed the second of her utility triggers. Through the enormous length of thin electric wire to which the bomb was attached, a digital detonation command was sent from the Diver to the pipe, and the detonator engaged.

With a second press, Sameera overrode the detonator and set the bomb off immediately.

In the next instant, the murky shadows ahead of her lit up for less than a second.

Sameera heard the muffled booming sound of the explosion through her hydrophone.

Then there was a shockwave that reached all the way to her and rattled her cockpit.

Water instantly evaporated and collapsed around the bomb’s blast radius. An enormous bubble formed in the sea as the heat from the explosives evaporated the water around it and pushed away the rest. Extreme heat and pressures in and around the bubble sheared and crushed metal, and there was no more gas gun fire coming from that general area. All of the red squares vanished, her predictor telling her that the hostile objects had ceased moving or were unavailable to track.

From afar, there was only murky ocean and a rapidly collapsing cloud of vapor.

As Sameera approached, she witnessed the devastation for herself.

Parts of the Frigate’s underside had been disgorged by the explosion, the ship listing on its side and sinking slowly amid a cloud of its own debris. There was nothing of the enemy Divers to be seen, just a cloud of drifting, falling metal chunks robbed of any semblance of form. There was a sudden, intense calm upon the ocean as all the gunfire forward of the Irmingard was silenced.

“Nika! Nika, respond!”

Sameera looked through each of her cameras on the separate monitors, hoping to find any trace of Dominika. That explosion had disturbed the acoustic predictors enough that everything being tracked in that area was momentarily lost. She adjusted and readjusted the cameras, feeling a dawning realization that her desperate attempt to save her could have just as easily killed her too.

“Nika!”

She swept through the area, as the debris drifted slowly down to the ocean floor.

One hand moved thoughtlessly to the communications equipment, fingers trembling.

Could she switch to the squadron channel? Call for help?

What would she even say to Murati about all of this? Everything had spiraled out of control.

Sameera grit her teeth. She had been so stupid, so completely, impossibly stupid.

Her desperation to be the hero, to be the one acknowledged, the one sang about–

“Where the fuck do you belong now? You stupid, useless mutt.” She berated herself.

Tears started to well up in her eyes.

Nothing in the cameras, nothing anywhere around.

Her hand retreated from the communicator.

She could not face Murati like this.

“Nika, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled into her microphone.

“If you weren’t I’d make you be sorry.”

One of the top cameras placed a green box several meters above.

Sameera’s eyes drew wide. She lifted her head, staring at the ceiling of her mecha.

Her lips drew wide in a trembling smile.

“Nika!”

From the murk above, the Strelkannon slowly descended to join the Cossack’s side.

Armor pockmarked with gunshot wounds, the head battered; but functional, with its owner very much alive.

She had escaped in time. Sameera had managed to save her.

“When we get back, I’m slapping you across the fucking face, hero.” Dominika growled.

Sameera felt a mixture of relief and apprehension at those words.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.3]

Despite her commissioned rank, Shalikova was not a bridge officer, and she did not report to the bridge during the alert. Her place was in the hangar, awaiting orders to deploy in her Diver for battle, and that is where she went, after sternly telling Maryam to stay in her room and out of the way of the sailors and officers.

Not that she believed Maryam would have heeded her.

That Katarran really seemed used to doing whatever she wanted.

Shalikova ran down to the hangar wearing a pair of pants and her sweaty tanktop undershirt, her hair tied up into a hasty, messy ponytail. She found several of the remaining pilots and half the sailors in similar states.

Dominika was dressed in what looked like yoga pants and a sweatshirt; Sameera had her TBT uniform pants with her sleeveless button-down half done up; Khadija had thrown her jacket on over what was clearly a lacy nightshirt, with a pair of sweatpants. Out of the regular crew, Valya was the one wearing the green, brown and black pilot’s bodysuit.

“My, my, look at you,” Khadija teased them. “How did you get ready so quickly?”

“Um, I was already down here.” Valya replied. “I was tuning up some stuff in my Diver.”

“I’ve always just gone out in what they give me. How much do you gain from your tuning?”

Valya looked bashful. “Well, every microsecond counts in a fight, Ms. al-Shajara.”

“Please, please do not.” Khadija raised pair of delicate fingers to her forehead. “Khadija.”

“I’m sorry, Ms– Khadija.” Valya averted their gaze while Khadija shook her head gently.

Murati, the squad leader, was a bridge officer in addition to a pilot and had not yet reported to the hangar, so the pilots were left in the lurch at first. Shalikova looked blearily at the scenes around her, marveling at the scale.

Covering the vastness of the lower deck was a flurry of human activity. Sailors in the dozens ferried parts, power tools and ammunition and pushed weapon racks into place using forklifts, so that the mechanics and engineers would have everything they needed at hand to run the final maintenance checks on the Divers. Mechanics ran hasty final tests on the Divers, checking the joints, the batteries, the internal computers, checking every part of each available weapon on the racks, tuning up the diamond sabres and drill lances, AK rifles and Gepard SMGs. There were a dozen people on and around every gantry and maybe two dozen per gantry moving equipment to and from stations.

Within those tall grey walls, on those bare, wide open floors dotted with splashes of lubricants and oil and grase, underneath the sterile glow of white strips of light; within this enclosure of steel, the six Divers and their gantries were the most dominating presence. All of the workshops and stations around them were like islands that seemed to gravitate around these giants they had bound to the walls. And people moved about those islands like schools of fish, in an anxious panic. Shalikova felt a sensation akin to synesthesia; as if there were colors and sounds and tastes associated not with these people but the feeling of their motion, their activity. As if halos lifted off their heads–

Shalikova shook her head vigorously. She was clearly spacing out.

At that point, the Chief Mechanic, Lebedova appeared as if she had come out from under the floor, suddenly in the middle of the crowds. She raised her hands and shouted over the cacophony in a deep, commanding voice.

“We’ve gotten word from the bridge that a situation brief is coming! Keep at it!”

Though they had briefly paused to listen to her, the workers resumed with undiminished vigor. Shalikova felt stupid standing around in the middle of all this activity, but there was nothing she could do but pilot the damn things. She would just be in the way otherwise, even more so than she was just standing in the middle of the hangar with the rest of the pilots. Her whole body was brimming with anxiety. She had been in combat at Thassal, but she sailed toward the danger with a full account of what she was getting into. In this situation, her imagination was far too free.

Meanwhile her fellow pilots were all seemingly too carefree for her own liking.

“Nika, were you working out? You look good! Flexible! Glowing with strength!”

“Who said you could call me by a nickname? And stop staring at my legs!”

“I just think you have really good definition! Show me your leg routine sometime!”

“As a matter of fact, it’s high kicks. Want me to demonstrate one right now?”

Sameera tried her luck again, but Dominika was having none of it, even in yoga pants.

“To think, for once I managed to fall asleep at 20:00 sharp, and this happens.”

“Do you suffer from insomnia ma’am?”

“Truth be told, I was just bored and lacking for company, or I’d have stayed up later.”

“Oh. Well. I see. Is that so?”

Valya tried to humor Khadija, who kept complaining with a bored expression on her face.    

Shalikova wanted to scream.

It was not even just the stupid things they said, but the sheer control of their body language.

How did these sociopaths manage to maintain their composure in this kind of situation?

Before Shalikova got an opportunity to scream, their idle time was finally at an end.

Semyonova’s face appeared on the large screens around the hangar.

Everyone in the hangar received an abridged version of the officer’s discussions.

Soon, Semyonova was replaced on the screen by acoustic predictions of an enemy fleet.

There was a brief pall of silence as the sailors beheld a diagram of the Irmingard class.

However, they were far too busy with their own strict tasks to panic for very long.

Shalikova had no such luck. She felt as if her heart had stopped in her chest.

“When did I become such a coward?” She chided herself internally.

But she still couldn’t help it. And she hated herself for being afraid in this situation.

Especially when the other pilots had much more muted reactions.

Moments later, Murati Nakara arrived from the bridge dressed in parts of her TBT uniform.

“Form up! You saw the brief; we’re going into battle. It’s the real thing.” She said.

She gathered everyone near a wall monitor, which she commandeered for a demonstration. Using a minicomputer, she swiped onto the wall monitor a projection of the enemy fleet, as it was last seen and assembled by the algorithmic predictors. A tight formation, with a vanguard of cutters and two frigates leading the flagship, which was covered by a destroyer. There was a prediction that at least eight Divers would be present as well, but not fully confirmed.

It was this point, when Murati was about to discuss her plan, that Aiden Ahwalia appeared.

He had his arms crossed over his chest, and a disgruntled expression.

Unlike everyone around him but Valya, he was wearing his full pilot’s suit already.

“Lieutenant, can you really look at this sorry ensemble and tell me I’m not ready yet?”

Shalikova rolled her eyes. Khadija practically growled at his appearance.

He seemed to have missed the irony in talking like that to a half-dressed Murati, too.

“Aiden if you interrupt me again during a briefing, I’ll demote you from Pilot trainee to Sailor for a month. You’ll get your chance someday. Listen, observe and build some character, or get ready to swab the hangar.”

Murati’s tone and the disdainful eyes of the rest of the pilots cowed Aiden into silence.

Khadija cracked a little grin.

“I want everyone’s attention on this monitor. Now.” Murati withdrew a laser pointer from the pocket of her button-down shirt and aimed it at the diagram of the fleet. All the pilots turned from gawking at Aiden to the Lieutenant. “Good. Our mission will be to draw the attention of the enemy away from the Brigand, penetrate the enemy fleet formation and inflict some damage on the Irmingard class flagship. Our weapons won’t even scratch it, so we’ll need to plant demolition charges and detonate them to breach the hull. With any luck, even if we don’t sink it, we’ll break enough electronics to keep it off our backs for now. Once the charges go off, we’ll be fleeing immediately.”

Everyone looking at the board waited with eerie silence for Murati to continue.

Shalikova had never seen this rowdy bunch actually stay so still before.

Murati had a fire in her eyes; she was speaking with confidence and strictness.

She was not shouting or overcompensating. It was as if she was in her element at last.

“Captain Korabiskaya is going to parlay with the commanding officer of the Irmingard to buy us a few minutes to deploy and get moving. It’s unlikely the fleet will take initiative without the commander’s explicit say-so, since these all look like old patrol craft from Serrano. So hopefully that will give us some time without big guns in the fray. Once we’re in the water, we’ll close in and engage the enemy in close quarters battle. They’ll have to watch their friendly fire, while we’ll have carte blanche to bring everything we got to the fight. We should prioritize disabling their Divers and any enemy Flak guns, both so we can get in and plant the charges, and so we’ll have an easier time escaping.”

On the monitor, the computer overlayed patterns around the individual ships in the enemy fleet indicating the range and possible traverse of their gas guns as well as the volume of their fire. Flak, an ancient loanword of indeterminate origin, was the term given to 20 mm gunfire from gas guns which would form the primary response by the fleet against the fast-moving Divers. Each of the smaller, slender cutters had two gas gun turrets and a primary 76 mm main gun, providing a limited Flak coverage. Both of the larger frigates had four gas gun turrets to support the covering barrage. The Irmingard had several, but the real danger was the Destroyer. Sitting between Frigate and Cruiser size, the Destroyer bristled with over a dozen turrets meant to ruthlessly defend the flagship from incoming fire.

Every Diver pilot knew to properly respect Flagships, but to fear the cover of Destroyers.

“The Brigand has three 76 mm guns on the aft, but we can’t expect the Bridge’s fire support to do our jobs for us. I’ve got a plan, but it’ll depend on all of our skills for it to work.” She aimed her laser pointer in a straight line to the Cutters at the head of the fleet. “One group will attack the cutters and any Divers around them, trying to maximize damage. That will be up to Sameera and Dominika as the heavy firepower team.” She moved her pointer up in a semi-circle around the outer edge of the fleet formation. “Shalikova and I will attack from higher up on the water table, hoping to draw out the Destroyer and engage it. Valya and Khadija will engage targets of opportunity on the opposite flank. There will be three bombs, carried by Khadija, Sameera and myself. Those are our three shots at the objective.”

Murati dropped her laser pointer back into her pocket and crossed her arms.

“You’re all here because you’re pros. You’ve been around Diver operations or studied them extensively. There’s nothing I can say that will make you ready if you aren’t. Follow the plan as best as you can, trust your instincts, protect your squadmate, and if you see a shot at the objective, seize it! Above all else, make it back to this hangar. Understood?”

“Sounds good to me!” Shalikova spoke up suddenly and sharply as soon as Murati had paused.

As if trying to release all the pressure that had built up inside her, her face lightly red.

There was a brief silence before, all around her, the other pilots nodded in accent.

“Yeah, everything makes sense.” Sameera says. “You even had graphs! That’s so cool!”

“It felt quite, official.” Dominika added in a low voice, averting her gaze from Sameera.

“You’re impressed by the graphs? That’s what’s surprising?” Murati asked, taken aback.

“Oh my, who knows what these two experienced in their backwater assignments.” Khadija sighed, pointing over her shoulder at Dominika and Sameera’s general direction. Sameera seemed not to mind but Dominika was practically glaring at Khadija for the remark. “Lieutenant, it does feel like you really covered all your bases well. And here I was, wanting to tease you the first mistake you made. Maybe next time.” Khadija winked at Murati, who averted her gaze briefly. “Of course, the old adage states that even the best plans are built to fail, so we should be careful.”

Valya merely pointed their fingers in Khadija’s direction as if to silently say, “what she said!”

Shalikova sighed. She felt more and more like she was the idiot among these idiots.

Before long, the pilots dispersed across the hangar, standing in front of their machines, and waited for the cockpits to be released by their supporting engineers. Shalikova had a moment to look up at the suit of mechanized armor in front of her, standing at more than four times her size. She had gotten into and out of machines like this dozens of times now. Whether it was training with real equipment, simulations, or combat at the battle of Thassal, it was the same. This was what she had chosen to do, she told herself. With a deep breath, she tried to ready herself for battle.

Right then, no one else on that ship, but those six pilots, could protect the rest from danger.

One life on the line in one piece of machinery, to potentially save two hundred others.

No one had ever embellished to her, the promise of death that came with piloting a Diver.

Shalikova chose this path knowingly; because it was just, because it was necessary.

Opening and closing her fist, tapping her feet, she examined her weapon to center herself.

This Strelok was very slightly different than the stock models Valya and Khadija had. Perhaps standing partway between the common, simpler shapes of the Strelok and the more extreme Cheka design, all of the armor surfaces complicating the oblong body were sharper, more angular. Its rectangular head, barely more than a box for cameras on the original Strelok, was rounded and flared to disperse water. On the back, there was an additional thruster fed through a newly introduced intake atop the cockpit, the grille almost like a mouthpiece for the head.

She wondered how many milliseconds this would earn her over Valya’s “tuning.”

Moments later, the cockpit plates spread open to admit her.

Shalikova climbed inside the Strelok and strapped herself in.

It was her first time deploying in this machine, so she took some time to adjust the monitors to her preferred arrangement: one in the center, two off to one side and three off to the other. Main forward camera was right in the middle, just like if she were strapped into an actual suit of armor with a natural viewport. She then locked the controls and then tested the tactile feel of the control sticks, the click of the buttons, the pressure on the trigger. Everything was pristine. Nothing like the well-worn training machinery she had used before. Now reasonably certain of the quality of her gear, she unlocked the controls and began the startup procedure along with her engineer.

Shalikova looked with forlorn eyes at the familiar startup screen.

She saw the Union’s standard, a plow and a sword crossed over the opaque dome of an Agrisphere.

A thousand generations live on in you,” was a saying often paired with that standard.

Most of the time, she thought nothing of it. But in that particularly vulnerable state of mind–

Shalikova could not help but think: “Zasha, are you living on in me?”

Stupid, foolish, fearful sentimentality that was useful to no one, much less herself.

For everyone’s sakes, she had to be stronger. She had to be tough. She could not waver.

Or else, she would really be nothing but a burden on the world around her.

Soon the Divers were armed, released, and made the way to their deployment chutes.

On one of Shalikova’s monitors, Murati appeared in a feed from within her own cockpit.

“Thanks for the support back then, Shalikova. I was actually a bit nervous.” She said.

Shalikova scoffed. “We all were. I didn’t do anything. You– You did fine, Nakara.”

Murati nodded her head and seemed to understand Shalikova wanted no further comment.

Deep down, Shalikova truly appreciated the silence between them as they deployed.


“Can I have a sandwich?”

Outside the door to Shalikova’s room, Maryam Karahailos found a sailor pushing along a trolley full of food.

Having eaten nothing but dried vegetables, cornmeal gruel and vitamin bars in her exodus, her eyes practically shone in the presence of an enormous tray of sandwiches, slick with cheese spread, pickles and what looked like thin slices of juicy protein cutlet. Everything was as fresh as could be cooked on a ship, lovingly assembled from scratch. To her deprived eyes this was a buffet for the senses. Her surface colors turned just a little flushed with anticipation.

“Ah, sorry ma’am, you are–?”

“I’m a VIP, Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam said. She was echoing what the Captain said to refer to her.

In truth, she was not sure what the crew viewed her role as or how they intended to treat her.

Maryam sold herself as a useful informant, but that meant different things to different people. In her travels she had been a soothsayer, a priestess, a matchmaker — whatever made sense for the people she needed to get on her side. Whatever made sense to survive. She was still thinking of what she would tell the Brigands; and with the alert, she did not know when she would be able to meet with the Captain. So for the moment, she was just, vaguely, “the VIP.”

“VIP? Sorry, I wasn’t really informed– I’m just taking these down to the hangar crew.”

“Can I have one? They won’t miss one, right?”

Maryam asked purely innocently. It seemed silly to fight over one sandwich out of a pile.

“Well, we actually counted these, so they would miss one.”

His aura was starting to harden against her.

She could tell his disposition was worsening even if he didn’t show it, she was perfectly sure of it. Aura was an additional feeling that Maryam got from people, that she associated with colors, smells, tastes, and sometimes textures in their space. Like dust in the air, or a distortion of light within fog; perceptible, but hard to describe.

Turning her head briefly, Maryam found the hall mostly deserted.

She turned back to the sailor and stared deep into his eyes.

Something in her brain just clicked.

A sensation, that lay between the purely automatic, like breathing, and actions that were technically driven by choice, but that were so natural that the locomotion surrounding them was viewed as less than deliberate. Like taking a step, or having a cough, or the turning of the eyes. For a moment there was a sense of warmth felt right behind her eyes.

Molecular Control.

Maryam overcame his mind through the oxygen he was breathing.

Traveling within that tiny current, into his blood, into his nerves, into his brain. She touched what his body interpreted as sensations, facts, thoughts. She could neither see them, nor finely control them. She had not yet perfected such a technique. Instead, she felt them, and influenced them, like a gentle pluck on the cords that sang truth to him.

The ultimate expression of her god-given mastery over the Air.

“I’m really peckish. I think they won’t miss just one.” She said sweetly, compelling him.

“You’re right. I’ll just give you mine, and I’ll come back for something else.”

The Sailor quickly handed her a sandwich wrapped in a reusable polymer towelette.

“Thank you! How kind! You don’t know how much this means to me!”

“Not a problem ma’am. It was nice meeting you. You take care now, alright?”

To make it up to him, she had influenced his aura as she released her control, tinging it soft and blue.

With his morale gently lifted, the Sailor marched the trolley on its way, whistling a cheerful tune.

I’m making people happy. Myself, and others. Isn’t that the godly thing to do?

Maryam giggled and started to nibble on the sandwich. Just as she had envisioned, it was delicious. While that creamy spread was probably less milk than it was emulsified oil and yeast, it was the first “cheesy” thing she tasted in ages, savory and satisfying. With the pickles providing a tiny bit of spice and sweetness, and the pillowy, but firm bread, and the smooth, meaty flavor of the cutlet– it was delightful. That was the best meal Maryam had eaten in months.

Well worth employing her special gifts to obtain it.

“I wonder how many of them are susceptible?”

Though she found it unconscionable (and physically impossible) to use Molecular Control on everyone on the ship, it was useful to have susceptible people here and there. Maryam had not been around enough to get a sense of the potential of the crew as a whole, but there were a lot of folks who felt like they had strong resistance, some who seemed as though they had an actual seed, and very few who seemed to have with no potential whatsoever.

One particular individual fascinated her: Sonya Shalikova. From the moment she saw her.

Sonya was–

Firstly, she was very pretty. Those eyes, her soft skin, and that pure white hair–

Her long limbs, the slight curve of her chest, her long, slender fingers–

Maryam’s purple hair and light pink skin started turning starkly red.

She had to make a conscious effort to reel herself in.

Second: she was so funny! Sonya had a sharp tongue and made a lot of scrunched up faces.

Third, she was extremely, extremely dangerous! Her senses were extremely sharp, and she surveyed her environments like a predator at all times. What was she searching for? Her indigo gaze was filled with something deep and intense– was it Lust? Dominance? That manner in which she surveyed everyone and pierced them with her eyes– there was no one like Sonya. Not on this vessel and nowhere in this Ocean. Maryam was deeply taken by Sonya.

“Sonya said not to get in anyone’s way. Well, that’s fine, because no one will complain.”

Maryam happily trotted off from Sonya’s room and up the length of the habitation block.

Ships were ships. Katarrans were born in them and many lived most of their lives in them. Small or large, they were all confining and there was no difference there. While the Brigand was cozy, Maryam was not really terribly impressed. After all, she had served a Warlord at one point. She knew what a truly ostentatious, hedonistic ship could be like. Feeling that there was not much more to see after having walked a dozen meters down, Maryam paused.

It was at that point that she saw someone coming out of a room farther ahead.

“Marina McKennedy! Hello!”

Maryam waved her arms cheerfully. She made her colors a little brighter for Marina’s sake.

“Oh, it’s you. Do you know what’s happening?” Marina said, agitated.

That G.I.A. agent tagging along. A friendless person, tall, handsome, reeking of blood.

Decade’s worth of blood. Her own blood. The blood of her past victims; the blood of loved ones.

Not that Maryam knew much about that. “I think we’re under attack.” She said simply.

“Under attack?”

Despite the shock in her voice, her aura flashed brilliantly for only the briefest instant and her face returned to its neutral, reserved expression very quickly. As if she could be surprised, but then her cool rationality brought her back as a force of habit. That G.I.A. agent always had a very sorrowful aura around her. Tinged the colors of others’ auras, as if dragging their spirits with her. Whether they wanted to be with her– not that Maryam could really tell.

“I need to go talk to the Captain. Could you do me a favor, Katarran?”

Maryam made no expression but turned her colors just a bit darker in response, to bristle.

“I’d be happy to help if you call me by my actual name and say the magic words.”

Marina crossed her arms with a low grunt.

In front of her, the G.I.A agent took a step forward trying to impose on Maryam’s space.

“Don’t be fucking childish. You’re not doing shit right now, so just help me out here.”

Such an intimidation tactic would not work. Particularly from someone with such pathetic resistance and potential. What would Marina do to her? Try to shoot her? Maryam did not like to brag. But if someone tried to shoot her, she would simply dodge the bullet. Marina stood no chance. And if she tried to hit her, she’d really find out quickly.

Still, there was no sense in returning this antagonism. Maryam needed to lie a little low.

“I’ll do you a favor from a few centimeters farther than you are right now.” She said.

Marina backed off a step. Intimidation did not work. So her dull aura turned gentler.

“Fine. Look. I need someone to make sure my analyst doesn’t get anywhere she shouldn’t.”

“You mean Elen? She looks pretty grown up!” Maryam said. Careful not to let any malice into her words. “Does she really need much looking after? And can’t you just tell her to stay in her room if so? You’re her boss.”

“Look, you and I are the odd ones out among all these commies. We should start developing some mutual respect here, okay? Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; just go stand in the hall near her room and if she comes out, stick to her for a bit. Act chummy. Given how you act toward me, it shouldn’t be too hard for you. Deal, Katarran?”

Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam spelled out her name in a slow, mocking voice.

Marina raised her hands in frustration. Her aura shifted wildly through dull colors.

Always a little muddy, like whatever color it was had been caked in blood and petrol.

“Okay, please, Maryam. I’m serious, it would trouble me if she got in anyone’s way.”

“Sure thing Marina McKennedy! I’ll take care of things back here. You hurry on along.”

“Good. Great. Harder than it needed to be, but great. I’ll remember this, Maryam.”

Without another word, Marina brushed her shoulder past her as she continued on her way.

“Jeez, what a deplorable woman.” She really did think she had everything under control.

One tiny breeze of Maryam’s miasma and she would have been completely helpless.

There was no sense in that, of course. Nothing to be gained. Maryam calmed herself.

Using the ability of the Apostle of Air in a passion never seemed to end well.

She had been impulsive with it recently. And it had been silly, very silly, and pointless, and yet–

Maryam had tried to influence Sonya.

She had really wanted Sonya’s help and affection. Or at the very, very least, to foreclose on Sonya developing any antipathy toward her. Whenever she used her ability on someone with a strong resistance or who had a seed of potential, she could feel herself being rejected, as if her limbs had hit a wall or a door had been shut in front of her. Sonya was different. When she tried to influence her, she felt nothing. No sensation whatsoever.

Clearly it hadn’t worked. Sonya was just so powerful it was beyond comprehension.

So Maryam watched her. And thought about her. And made up little scenes with her in her own head.

Never before had she been struck with such a feeling, but she had never seen a girl like Sonya.

“Katarran Warlord” was really how Maryam had started to think about her.

She just felt– superior. Superior was the only way Maryam could describe it.

Sonya was a superior being. There was no way in which Maryam measured up to her–

At that moment she remembered the words that an Old Engineer told her and felt ashamed.

Maryam raised her tentacles and clapped them together against her own cheeks, sighing.

She had to fight the hierarchical thinking that had been beaten into her in Katarre.

And yet, faced with her feelings for Sonya, it was tough to understand any other way.

“Hopefully, I’ll live long enough to sort out all this mess.” Maryam said cheerfully.

Her tentacles fell like hair from the sides of her head, thin and slender, like an extra pair of arms ending in a soft paddle. She looked at the soft little suckers at the end of it. It was easy to think of herself as just a human being, but she was a Katarran Pelagis, born in the southern reaches of Katarre amid its chaotic, centuries-long civil war that had warped everything in that kingdom. She did not look like a stereotypical Katarran, due to her garb and demeanor. So the ship crew did not fear her and so far, had not avoided her like people did to stereotypical Katarran fighters.

She figured then that Marina’s analyst friend would not mind her either.

Putting Sonya out of her mind, for at least a few minutes, Maryam wandered to the far end of the habitation for the officers and found the open door that Marina had exited out from. Inside the room, a girl dressed from her neck to her ankles in only a bodystocking sat on the edge of a bed, wrapped in blankets. Dark-haired, with bright indigo eyes. Her aura was like a soft blue breeze, calm amid the storm. Her body was waifish, almost as ephemeral as that breeze.

Maryam felt a strong sense of weariness from her. Resignation, perhaps.

She poked her head inside the door. For a moment the girl was surprised but responded politely.

“Oh, hello. You’re that girl from Serrano. Maryam?”

“You got it! Did you know we’re under attack?”

“I figured that was the case. What else would prompt all of this activity?”

Elen the analyst raised a hand to gesture around her environment.

A few minutes ago, there would have been red alert lights going off.

“True! You really are an analyst huh?” Maryam said, without a hint of sarcasm.

“I’m nothing of the sort. I was just– I was useless. Marina just drags me around.”

“Did that stuffy G.I.A. agent say that to you? She’s a really demotivating person.”

“She didn’t have to say shit for me to feel like this. Did she send you here?”

“Hmm. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think God sent me.”

Elen looked at her with narrowing, skeptical eyes, like she was crazy.

Maryam got a very special impression from Elen’s aura.

She understood intuitively that Elen was a very special and gifted person.

And like Sonya, maybe someone dangerous– albeit, nowhere near as attractive.

“Pay me no mind!” Maryam said happily. “People tell I’m a little too emotional.”

For the moment, it would indeed be worth keeping an eye on this girl too.

Once she knew enough about her to confirm her suspicions, then she could explain it to Sonya.


Elena stared skeptically at the Pelagis girl trying to make conversation.

All around them, the ship was vibrating, gently, but more perceptibly than normal. Something was happening, Elena thought. Maybe some hatches were opening, or they were speeding up, or there was actual gunfire exchanged. She did not know. And she was not important enough to anyone here to be privy to that information.

She felt so weary. She had meant what she said to Marina in their shouting match before.

It would have been fantastic to be able to sleep until this was all over: one way or another.

She wondered dimly about Gertrude.

She missed Gertrude so much.

From the news Marina had been able to gather as they escaped into Serrano, she was aware that Gertrude was alive somewhere and attending to her duties. Elena had never really seen Gertrude’s ship, and had only a foggy understanding of the realities of warfare. In her mind, Gertrude could have been dead at any moment, because she was a soldier, and there was now, suddenly, a war. She had no understanding of the intensity of the Empire’s internal conflict. Still, if Gertrude was alive, was she looking for her, thinking about her? Had she given up?

She had thought she saw her in Serrano– but that was impossible.

Elena had been tired and far away on an elevator. That woman could have been anyone.

“Your aura is looking really gloomy.” Maryam said.

“My aura?” Elena asked. “What are you talking about?” She barely even wanted an answer.

Maryam giggled. “It’s like a halo around you, but it’s also like a gentle breeze. It smells earthy and flowery and musty. You have a soft heart.” Elena narrowed her eyes further while the Pelagis continued to talk, undeterred by the clear confusion in the princess’ face. “I haven’t really told anyone, but I’m actually a soothsayer! I can read your fortune!”

Elena groaned. “No thanks. If things are only getting worse, I’d much rather not know.”

“They might get better!” Maryam said. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope.”

Elena stood up, wrapped a blanket around herself and walked out into the hall, sighing.

She had seen the hall had monitors showing status reports. She wanted to examine one.

Maryam followed along sticking close to her, but Elena paid her no mind.

Outside her room there was indeed a display that had a fleet diagram along with several basic safety warnings.

So, they were indeed being attacked. By whom? Elena squinted her eyes, trying to read the tiny text on the algorithmic diagrams. There were all kinds of things scrolling by, and she reached up to touch the screen and freeze the picture. Looking closely, she saw it: Inquisition Flagship “Iron Lady” on one of the ships in the diagram. An Irmingard class?

Her eyes started drawing wide as she came to understand.

Her lips trembled; her grip closed tight around the blanket held shut against her chest.

Wasn’t that ship– hadn’t she heard that name– her mind was spinning, turning, racing.            

“Gertrude.” She mumbled to herself, eyes wide and weeping. “No– oh please no. Please.”

Before her mind was finished processing the events, she took off running.

Maryam shouted after her, but Elena was no longer thinking.

Weeping profusely, her wide open eyes burning as the cold, sterile air of the Brigand’s halls swept over a gaze she could not close. Staring as if through the steel, at the bullets and missiles she could only imagine being exchanged–

No, no, no, no, no! Gertrude– they were going to kill her!


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