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 [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


Previous ~ Next

Overheard In The Waves #1

On a particular evening that could have been like any other, the perennial pair of late shifters Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa found themselves once more drawn by duty to the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand. Both of them were ordered to stand ready for another night that would be assuredly full of petty bickering and sniping. Though they tried their best not to do so, procrastinating some amount of time in their rooms to give the other a head start, the two quickly ran into one another in the hall and found themselves at the exact same pace to their destination.

Fernanda gave her blond-and-purple hair a haughty toss and turned her cheek.

“One would think you were shadowing my steps, gamer, with how regrettably often I meet thee!”

Alex rolled her eyes, but made no effort to keep her lanky frame at length from the smaller officer.

“Well, since you’re here, listen: you can’t just drop a thee at random when you already used you.”

Fernanda bared gritted fangs and closed her fists. “Oh, just be quiet, Geninov!”

Alex raised her hand to her own cheek and put on a silly expression.

Had her silky brown hair not been tied up in its usual bun, she would have tried to do a mocking toss of it.

Silence, ye pitiable gaming worm— or something like that, would be more appropriate.”

“You–!”

Met with narrowed, unfriendly eyes, Alex felt rather satisfied with herself until, distracted as she was, she stumbled right over a folding chair which had been left in the middle of the hall. Even in the evening, with the hall to the bridge becoming quite uninhabited, one would not have expected a folding chair to be in the way, and so Alex hit her leg with it, lost her balance over it, tipped right across the seat and slid off, coming to rest on her back with the wind knocked out of her. Staring up at the ceiling, with the world spinning around her, she almost thought, maybe Fernanda did have dark powers locked in her eyes, or the ability to perform vile hexes, or all the other strange things she talked about.

“Be careful with the chairs please.”

At that point, Alex thought she heard the droning voice of Braya Zachikova.

But it couldn’t have been. Why would she be out in the middle of the hall for no reason?

In a strange display of camaraderie, Fernanda stood over Alex and actually helped her to get back up.

It was at that point that Alex noticed that along with the folding chair, there was a table in the hall.

A black folding table, behind which was a second folding chair.

And sitting on this particular folding chair was, indeed, Braya Zachikova.

That spiral-shaped ponytail was unmistakable, as well as those two thick antennae she had for ears.

“Please return the guest chair to its neutral position.” She said, giving Alex an unkind look.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Alex started shouting.

Fernanda let go of her in response to her thrashing, and Alex nearly fell over again after being released.

“Zachikova, the fate of certain gamers aside, this behavior stands much unreasonable from you.”

The haughty gunnery officer put her hands to her hips and gave Zachikova a stern look that did nothing to faze her.

“‘What I am doing’ is I’m setting up a fortune-telling station.” Zachikova said.

Her unaffected tone of voice made it sound like the most natural thing to be doing at this hour.

“You’re setting up a fucking, what?” Alex asked. “And fucking, why?”

“An absolute refuse heap of vocabulary, Geninov.” Fernanda shook her head.

Zachikova gave the two a smug little grin. “There is a simple reason. I am bored. Entertain me.”

“I’m gonna flip this table right into your face!” Alex shouted.

“Will you flip it over with your entire body, like the chair?” Zachikova teased.

Fernanda grabbed hold of Alex before she could do something she may have regretted.

While the two of them vainly struggled in this way, Zachikova withdrew a minicomputer.

She set it down on the table, turned it toward the pair and pressed the power button.

Focusing on the screen for a moment, Alex and Fernanda stopped horsing around.

Green text on a black background scrolled by, to be replaced by a logo formed by text characters.

It resembled a crystal ball, lightly shaded, with the words “AugRy v.1.4” below it.

“While the graphics may look unimpressive, this is a fortune telling program honed by advanced machine learning of the sort used for our algorithmic predictors. All it needs from you is for you to touch the screen and speak any word. Using the underlying mathematics behind acoustics, it will divine your future, just as it can divine geometry and the classifications and bearings of enemy ships. And just for tonight, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is yours.”

Zachikova waved her hand over the device like a magician proudly revealing a trick item.

“What kind of sense does that make?” Alex said. “Just touch it, and say anything? Acoustics?”

Zachikova nodded her head silently and without expression. At Alex’s side, her blond companion scoffed.

“Fortune telling finds its provenance in the grandeur of the romantic epics.” Fernanda said. Her thin lips took on a serious expression. “It is unconscionable that a mere machine could divine the twisting fates of mortal souls!”

“What she said.” Alex replied, pointed with her thumb at Fernanda.

“Everything about ‘fate’ can be determined by mathematics.” Zachikova said. For a moment a tiny hint of passion crept into her voice. “From the moment you were born everything about you is a formula that a computer could have already figured out with the right data. Except when this idiot touched a Dendy and allowed it to ruin her entire life.”

“Well I bet your stupid computer wouldn’t have known I actually started on an Imperial Poly-Play–”

“I don’t care about your tedious opinions whatsoever. Just do the thing or go away.” Zachikova said bluntly.

Zachikova stamped her index finger on the table repeatedly like a demanding kiosk owner.

Fernanda and Alex glanced briefly at each other, sighed, and shrugged their shoulders.

“You know what, fine, I’m curious now what the hell this thing will even say.”

Alex put her finger down on the touchscreen and spoke into the hidden microphone at the bottom of the compact, square minicomputer. “Leviathan Fury.” She said. It was the first thing that came to mind — a title she loved to play and for which she held official high score records. Soon as the words left her mouth, the screen on the minicomputer turned into a scrolling wall of green text. Alex watched as the computer slowly generated a coherent message.

You will find lasting love in an unlikely place. Look near before you look far, and keep an open mind.

“That’s it? You just have an RNG in there don’t you? Sophisticated machine learning my ass.”

Alex crossed her arms and casually looked over to Fernanda, who was giving the screen a deathly glare.

“I– I believe I shall concede my own turn! For what adventure is one’s fate, if not unknown?”

There was a tiny tremor in her voice and a blush on her cheeks that Alex simply couldn’t place.

Regardless, all of the mystery had gone out of Zachikova’s little theater, and they were late for work.

“Well, the witch and I are needed on the bridge for late shift, so, uh, bye I guess–“

“I would rather you stay for a moment, actually.”

A gentle voice came from down the hall that send a chill down Alex’s spine.

Fernanda and Alex turned their heads and found a very large figure casually approaching the trio.

Waving one hand, long overcoat draped over her powerful shoulders, a smile on her soft and girlish face; it was none other than Security Chief Evgenya Akulantova, the enormous grey phantom stalking the halls of the Brigand ready to chomp on unsuspecting night shifters found goofing off. Despite her size and power, she could be whisper quiet when she wanted to, and never missed her mark. Alex and Fernanda had a powerful reaction even to the cheerful and maidenly demeanor of the Security Chief, who came to a stop between the two and looked down at the table.

“This is such a novel way of causing trouble that I’m more excited than pissed off.” Akulantova said.

She crossed her burly arms over her broad chest and stared directly at Zachikova.

Zachikova’s dull, unemotional expression did not change with Akulantova’s appearance.

“So, since you’re seated at the table that’s presently being a safety hazard right smack in the hall like this, Zachikova, can you explain to me what you’re even up to? Are you all gambling? I frankly can’t read this situation at all.”

“I’m administering a sophisticated fortune-telling program created by advanced machine learning.” Zachikova said.

Akulantova smiled and let out a toothy, jovial laugh.

“Fortune telling? Why are you doing this out in the hall at the start of the late shift?”

“I am bored and wanted attention.” Zachikova said simply.

“Kinda childish, don’t you think? You have important work to do, you know?” Akulantova said.

“I have already completed all my important work. My superior IQ and untroubled neurology renders me much more efficient at my tasks than the rest of you. This is both good and bad. It allows our ship to operate in the information space at much higher capacities than crews of which I am not a part of. It also means I am frequently very bored.”

After explaining herself, Zachikova’s lips curled into a tiny self-satisfied grin.

Akulantova smiled vacantly at Zachikova for a moment.

She set her jaw, and clicked her tongue.

“You two can go.” She said, briefly clasping her hands on Alex and Fernanda’s shoulders.

For her part, Alex felt like she was close to passing out from the brief but intense pressure.

“Zachikova, since you’re so bored, I’m going to give your mighty self something to focus on.”

Akulantova gently took Zachikova’s computer with one hand, and seized the folding table with the other hand,.

With a metallic creak, the table began to warp and buckle in Akulantova’s clearly wrathful grip.

“To make amends for your flagrant safety violations, you’re going to keep an eye on the bearing monitor in the hall here for two hours, and while you do that, just so you don’t fall asleep on me, and to get your blood pumping, you’ll do squats. Hundreds of squats. If you don’t know the form, I can show you like I’m showing this table I got in my hands how to squat.” Akulantova’s grip tightened on the table to the point her fingers went through the plastic surface.

Zachikova, still seated in her chair, did not hesitate to stand up and walk across the hall to the bearing monitor.

Standing in front of it, she lowered herself into a perfect squat and made sure she was being watched complying.

Watching her squat away, Akulantova sighed deeply and shook her head, murmuring “Officers,” to herself.

She then looked down at the minicomputer in her hand with a weary curiosity.

“Hey Chief, if you want your fortune told, just touch the thing and say a word.” Alex said.

She was trying to be amicable, but Akulantova merely glared at her sidelong.

Alex and Fernanda took the hint, saluted, and quickly went about their way.

Once they were out of earshot and Zachikova was well engaged in her punishment, Akulantova laid her thumb on the touchscreen and raised the underside of the minicomputer near her lips. She whispered a name, “Syrah,” into the machine and watched the text churn for a few moments. Looking about in a conspiratorial fashion, hoping no one else would appear in the halls, she then looked back down at the screen in time to catch her fortune spelling itself out.

Do not expect a second chance. Forgive yourself even if she doesn’t forgive you, and seek a new flame.

Akulantova stared at it for a while and sighed to herself, running her free hand over her face.

“Ugh, god damn it. Doesn’t take sophisticated machine learning to know that.” She mumbled bitterly.

The Day [4.9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get closer.” She whispered to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh shut up, quit being a wuss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Commander! Commander!”

“Contact! Contact in the forest!”

The Volkisch descended into hysterical shouting over the radio.

Without their commander they were in disarray.

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

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

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

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

“Open fire! Open fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh god! Oh god no!”

She heard the woman on the radio pleading and screaming.

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

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

Victoria confidently threw forward her lance.

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

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

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

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

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

That was its only effect on metal.

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

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

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

A new voice over the radio.

Sawyer.

Victoria was briefly shocked.

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

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

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

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

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

A hapless soldier started relaying the situation.

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

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

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

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

Victoria turned around to face where Sawyer was coming from.

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

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

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

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

Sawyer was still the same as always.

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

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

Victoria felt a strong sense of anxiety and anticipation.

It might have been the drugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep talking, you stupid brute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria was finally ready. She opened fire.

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

“We’ll see about that, bitch!”

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

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

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

She launched past Sawyer’s flank.

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

Metal debris went flying off of Sawyer’s Panzer.

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

There was still no breach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawyer launched manic bursts of gunfire into the forest.

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

Click.

Sawyer’s rifle ejected a spent magazine.

“God damn it! Come back here!”

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

She moved the theater toward the center of the forest.

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

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

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

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

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

She would have seen the artificiality of Vogelheim firsthand.

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

Victoria adjusted immediately to underwater movement.

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

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

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

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

Turning instantly, the Jagd swept away from the bullets.

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

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

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

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

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

“AGH!”

Sawyer shouted with frustration that came across the scratchy video.

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

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

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

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

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

“No! No!”

Sawyer began to swing furiously and helplessly.

Victoria saw an opening.

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

That tube launcher she was caring was split in half.

Her sword caught in the armor.

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

A shockwave blew through the water as the lance engaged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was shouting, furious, near incoherent.

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

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

Her computers started sounding alarm.

Shockwaves were being felt across the station.

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

Flooding.

Victoria realized the station must have been flooding profusely now.


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

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

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

Marina was in a daze.

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

And yet, that journey came to an abrupt end.

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

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

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

Then, she continued her journey, step by step.

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

Suddenly, a maid appeared in front of her.

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

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

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

She had to get past them.

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

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

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

It was barely audible.

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

The maid approached. Marina was starting to panic.

“I– I– really I– I have to–”

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

This was torture.

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

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

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

“I– I’m so sorry I–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God damn it. God damn it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must have been Marina’s “asset.”

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

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

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

Bethany took a deep breath.

There was no turning back anymore, no running.

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

That was how soldiers lived their lives, right?

That was how Knights lived their lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany finally opened fire anew.

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

Another long reloading period followed.

Bethany grit her teeth, watching her cameras.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four enemies to go.

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

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

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

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

“Record to the chronicle box, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She switched off the computer assist.

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

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

She took aim, fired.

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

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

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

Her fingers absentmindedly pressed her triggers.

Again the Volkannon rattled, launching two more shells.

These were manually aimed.

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

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

She put both rounds on a target.

One of the Volkers disappeared into a cloud of fire.

Her computer put up a warning. Internal magazine critical.

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

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

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

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

There was no reason to look at the monitors.

Bethany was fully consumed by the past.

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

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

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

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

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

Those were years that Leda cultivated a deep suffering.

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

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

There was another loud rumbling of her machine.

Bethany peered up at her monitors.

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

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

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

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

An enemy round had penetrated the armor.

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

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

She clutched her wound but could not feel it anymore.

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

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Leda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside, the Volkers were moving cautiously toward her.

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

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

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

Bethany pressed the triggers.

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

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

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

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

And yet it was gentle, and soft.

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

A silken dress, indigo hair–

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

Overhead, the missiles perforated the sky.

There was a final, glitchy burst of video static.

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

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


Vogelheim was dead.

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

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

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

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

Already submerged before the disastrous floods, they survived everything.

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

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

Bursts of 37 mm gunfire flashed incessantly from behind her.

Vapor bubbles nipped at her heels and flanks.

Victoria swerved, ducked and spun away.

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

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

“GET BACK HERE!”

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

Suddenly the Panzer started to accelerate.

Heat readings off its surface tripled in intensity.

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

Psionics?

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

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

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

“No more running then.”

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

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

“You’re fucking dead!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck?”

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

Without hesitation, the Panzer charged through the bubbles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had started just saying things to rile her up.

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

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

Sawyer would always be her enemy.

Gertrude would always be an obstacle.

Elena would always be the unattainable prize.

She was the Empire they were all fighting for.

The Empire they would all destroy.

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

Sawyer’s aura was palpable through the water.

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

She responded to it.

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

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

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

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

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

Alerts appeared on her status monitor.

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

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

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

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

Sawyer threw her wildest, most violent swing yet.

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

Victoria could see all of it.

Red and yellow and black contaminating the water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At which point was I able to choose anything?

Everything was always set against me.

I wish I could have helped you escape.

I could have saved you.

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

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

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

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

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

Solid fuel and parts leaked out into the water.

Victoria reacted near instantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the guns clicked completely empty.

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

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

It was empty.

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

Sawyer must have been out of ordnance.

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

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

“I– I– I’m– I can– still–”

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

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

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

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

She turned the Jagd around and immediately fled.

Her objective was complete.

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

And now she had to flee herself.

“No more tears.”

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

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

In that sense–

Sawyer was just an enemy.

Gertrude was just an obstacle.

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

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

So why did it hurt so much?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mere skip and a jump to the Union.

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

Everything was shaking.

Sometimes subtly, but increasingly, with great violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where– What is–? Who are you?”

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

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

Not right then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes wept and reddened.

Marina felt so powerless, so helpless.

Helpless as she had never felt before in her life.

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

At her drawn, horrified eyes.

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

It dawned upon the Princess then, what had happened.

Her whole body shook.

She screamed.

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

Until her voice gave out into heaving sobs.

Elena screamed with an agony unimaginable.


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