Surviving An Evil Time [10.7]

At the far end of the dockyard at Bertrand Shore Works bellowed the main driving gears of the ship conveyor and cargo elevator, pulling a 50 meter long Cutter liveried in Republic green up into the bowels of the station. The station interstice was essentially a highway for cargo and ships that connected the docks to the scrapyards and shipyards and a few other modules across the vast acreage of the Station. Aside from a few junction points, it was essentially on rails and strict about where one could go.

From Bertrand’s, the Cutter entered the interstice. A high ceiling and tight walls that allowed only enough space for ships and the equipment hauling them to pass, about 100 meters wide. The conveyor forked, and the Cutter hung a right at the junction to be taken behind B.S.W’s module, where the conveyor was eerily stopped. The Cutter remained trapped in the interstice where it had paused.

From the Cutter’s side, the main bulkhead opened, and a quadrotor drone hauled a boxy piece of equipment up thirty meters from the conveyor belt, against one of the high walls. The drone moved the gear to the wall surface, where magnetic couplers attached it to the metal. Connected by a thick power cable leading back into the Cutter, the box-like device analyzed the surface it was set against and then cut a square the size of an adult into the thick steel wall, exposing a maintenance corridor. Once its work was complete the drone picked the cutting gear off the wall and returned it to the Cutter.

Along with the drone, a team exited the Cutter as well, a group of armed men and women in bodysuits protected by flexible Kevlar plates on the chest and limbs. After the cutting gear had been returned and they were ready to climb up into the wall, they handed the drone a line which it attached to a thick pipe within the exposed maintenance corridor, allowing them to use motorized rappelling equipment to pull their bodies up quickly and effortlessly to the newly exposed gap.

“Kitty, we’re going in. Hold the fort for us. Fleet’s only about an hour out.”

Clearance into the Core Pylon was normally extremely strict. Only people born in a station or who had lived a very significant amount of time in one could become Core engineers for that station. Kitty McRoosevelt could have never acquired clearance to sneak into the Pylon. However, every complex module in a station needed maintenance corridors and out-of-module infrastructure access.

The habitats, the dockyards, these were not seamlessly fitting cubes in a stack. Veins and arteries ran through and between them. Every station had a vast inner world of pipes and fiber-optic junctions and electrical connections that human hands had to be able to reach somehow.

And the Core Pylon was no exception. There had to be paths to it outside plain sight.

Kitty and her Katarrans were setting up turrets and using her yacht to block the path into the dockyard, preparing for a possible siege. While they did so, the entry team stalked their way through the maintenance corridors searching for a way into the Core Pylon. They were once a Cogitan special operations squadron from the failed Ayre Reach invasion fleet, now vying to become the successful Kreuzung occupation fleet. Once inside the Core Pylon, they would have no good way to escape, and several very direct routes through which the Imbrians could assault their positions.

But in the world of black ops, their lives were already forfeit, nonetheless. Taking out as many of the day’s enemy as they could, to the last bullet in the last mag, for the cause of freedom and democracy and enterprise– that was what they had been taught, and learned, to aspire toward.

Soon, the entry team had snaked their way to another wall and stood aside so the drone could fetch and move the cutting gear into the tight corridor they had scouted out. Orange sparks flew in the dark halls of the station interstice. They repeated this a few more times until finally, they knocked down the right bit of metal and entered a stark, white-walled corridor lined with thick, protruding sheets of a silvery metal. Osmium shielding. And from several gaps in the wall, a purple glow could be seen to shine into the white hall. They were on the exterior of the Core Ring. Inside the Core Pylon structure itself.

Some of the entry team members showed a quiet reverence for the place.

Regardless of this, they all knew what they had come here to do and could not turn back.

Raising their assault rifles and moving so as to cover all approaches.

They stacked on one of the gaps in the wall, around the purple glow shining in.

Peering around, they hit the jackpot.

Osmium and steel scaffold suspended a control platform over an enormous pool of water below, into which the energy array could be “dumped” if needed. The platform, containing instruments and computing equipment for monitoring and controlling the core, was lightly populated with only a few technicians and less guards. None of the guards had firearms, only shock prods and body armor. They could not risk causing damage to the Pylon. They were only there to oversee the technicians.

In the middle of the platform was an absolutely massive structure, its complexity such that the entry team hardly understood what they were seeing. It appeared to the naked eyes to be a polyhedron with hexagonal faces, with a seemingly flat exterior wherever perceived, and a constantly moving interior structure generating the pervasive purple glow that dominated the entire core ring. From each cardinal direction of the core ring an enormous multi-section steel shaft connected to this complex middle structure, housing the pipes and cables supplying water, collecting steam, routing electricity. Upon the “polyhedron” itself could be seen hundreds of snaking cables and pipes and other arteries such that it appeared like a terrifying mechanical heart, pumping purple glow and eldritch energy.

Seeing it up close was like madness. It was surreal and gripping and terrifying–

“Are we really doing this?” a cracked, whispering voice sounded among the Cogitans.

Without word, the lead members of the entry team breached before anyone answered.

Single shots from their assault rifles sailed across the scaffold and struck the guards in the upper chest and neck where the chestplate terminated. Tense but skillful, knowing they could not be retaliated against. Surgical. The Cogitan entry team dispatched all of the guards in a lightning attack within seconds, and the technicians in the room shrank back into the core ring computing equipment, stunned, incredulous that there could possibly be a violent, armed attack on the core.

“You want to live? Separate the fucking core! Now! No fucking questions! Just do it!”

Despite the gravity of the attacker’s demands, the technicians had no choice.

They were afraid if they didn’t comply it might cost them more than their lives.

Firing guns inside the core ring– the Cogitans could have very well destroyed the station.

This was such an extraordinary and hellish situation. An instant trauma for the technicians.

They could not have possibly responded with anything but compliance.

And comply they did.

From above the polyhedron descended an enormous pair of mechanical structures, like two planes attached to multi-jointed mechanical arms, silver-plated in Osmium, between which electricity could be seen to briefly arc. The top of the polyhedron split to allow the arms into the water in which the energy array was suspended. There was a bright flash, within the space of which every heart in the room ceased beating for an instant as if to presage their demise. Within that instant revolved all of their lives.

Nobody was killed. Not yet.

From the core, the energy array ascended.

Suspended between the devices. Plucked as if by a titanic hand.

Now unmoving, its true form seemed to continue to elude the sight for several seconds.

As if between those mechanical arms there was shapelessness itself held aloft.

Blurring and warping the light, a smooth array of agarthicite tubes and osmium shielding.

In mere minutes, the terrifying deed had been accomplished.

With its energy array secured outside the core ring and unable to impart power–

Kreuzung’s Core had been separated. They could see it; they were in its presence.

Everyone involved stood around the hanging device, staring. Their God on the gallows.

Wondering as if there was anything more to be done now. Or if time would stand still.

Instruments blared at them. Core Separation warnings would be displaying and sounding and raising alarm throughout the station, but inside the Core Pylon, there was only the gentle glow of the energy array suspended outside of its core ring. They still had energy from the Core Ring and backup systems, and they were insulated from any of the panic that could result from the actions which had been taken.

In the eye of the storm, there was calm, but also–

–the foreboding sense of coming destruction began to finally creep in.

“Kitty, it’s done. Hold fast in the dockyard. We’ll keep the Imps out of the Pylon.”

The Cogitan assault team began to prepare their defenses.

It was around 1900 hours for the people of Kreuzung station.

In the year A.D. 979 on the 203rd cycle.

A tragedy that would be recorded in history as the first offensive use of a Core Separation.

On that day, after hundreds of years, the inviolable sacredness of Agarthicite wavered.

More than any of the perpetrators at the time could possibly understand.


For just long enough to sow great unease, Laurentius lost power.

Casting the surveillance room into pitch black.

“Hmm. Well. This is mighty inconvenient. I hope it comes back soon.”

Amid the panicked whispering, the smooth, slightly accented voice of a young man.

As if responding to him, the lights came back on moments later.

Throughout the room the black-uniformed Volkisch intelligence agents slumped on their computers and desks. They were surrounded by enormous monitors subdivided into feeds that gave them dozens of eyes within the station, whether by floating drones or fixed camera pods on the walls or at street level. For a moment the cameras had no picture; several of them came back online in slow succession. There was strange movement on a few in particular, that were meant to be pointed at the bulkheads inside of the baseplate maintenance tunnels. Blurring and sliding and bubbling of something–

“Turn those off. They’re clearly glitching. We don’t need to look at the baseplate now.”

“Sir?”

“It’ll conserve energy, my dear. Turn them off.”

“Um– right away, Lord Drachen.”

“I am no longer a lord, madame. Veka is far behind me at this point.”

With Imani Hadžić missing, command at Laurentius had temporarily shifted to one of her subordinates, in this case, Sturmbannführer Raul von Drachen. A tall, slender man, with slick blond hair, a hooked nose, and heavily defined cheekbones, he looked like the actor who would leer at the protagonist and his sweetheart in a corner of the movie poster, cast as the looming villain. His sophisticated, fox-like menace was only enhanced by the black Volkisch uniform and the armbands on his sleeves, the black sun of the Volkisch’s Esoteric Order, and the black sword and moon of the 7th Stabswache Fleet, the Zabaniyah.

Despite his appearance, his voice was soft, and he was never without an easy expression on his face.

“We will have to start rerouting power to be able to respond.” Von Drachen said. “Contact the control room. We must at all costs keep the life support and our computers operable but anything else has to be temporarily shut down. Have all docked ships and Divers deploy and terminate power to those modules once they are in the water. Cannons and missiles will have to go offline with them. Organize assault squadrons to move into the tower, and once all soldiers are deployed into the Core Station, terminate social area and habitat power in order to conserve. Then we will have to quickly gather intelligence and respond in force. Find out where the Pylon was breached. Deploy a team to the Standartenführer’s last known location. Are you writing all of this down dear? Am I going too fast for you?”

At his side, a skittish intelligence officer fidgeting with her hair drew her eyes wide.

With a jump, she began to record the items that needed to be done.

“Oh it’s truly okay. I will simply repeat myself with less vigor.”

Within minutes the initial preparations for the Volkisch’s response were complete.

Power was rerouted, station defenses went offline. Dozens of Volkisch Sturmvolker Divers and the docked Cutters of the patrol fleet deployed from their berths so that the docking infrastructure could be temporarily shut down. A thousand rifle-armed troops crossed the Bridge into the Kreuzung Core and split into several heavily armed squadrons to respond. Surveillance officers began practically crawling through every centimeter of the station with cameras and drones as their eyes– except below the baseplates, where any auxiliary equipment controlled by Laurentius was shut down to conserve power.

“I do hope the Standartenführer is doing well. She is a sweet and delicate girl.”

“Sir? I– I suppose so sir.”

The intelligence officer looked up at him in barely disguised terror behind her spectacles.

As if only an insane person could see Imani Hadžić as a “sweet and delicate girl.”

“How are things inside Kreuzung?”

“Err– less than optimal, sir.”

Around them the monitors switched to only street level feeds throughout Kreuzung core.

On every LCD surface, red warnings were blaring at the citizens that a Core Separation was underway. Normally this message should have automatically cleared in 15 minutes to instead display a curfew notice or other more useful guidelines. But nobody had set what the replacement message would be. Von Drachen quickly had Laurentius’ control room create a replacement emergency announcement and push it to every screen on the station, but due to the varying states of connectivity in the multitude of different modules in Kreuzung, only some areas received the notification to shelter-in-place at first.

Responses to the Core Separation warnings varied greatly.

For the most part, people in habitats were congregating in their hallways, seeing if their neighbors had any more information than they did, or they stayed in their rooms looking for news online, anxious but not storming the elevators. People in transit were the most upset, as the trams and elevators were behaving erratically and for a brief moment had completely lost power and trapped them. However, even here, there were only some minor altercations and hard words between the commuters and staff.

Workers in industrial areas hunkered down, while the strikers in Tower Nine seemed to be pooled at their barricades as if awaiting an opportunistic attack by the Volkisch. Where there was most chaos was in the commercial areas. Shoppers rushed to the elevators and tram stations trying desperately to get back to their homes or to areas that felt safer than the long strips of storefronts with their blaring LCD windows. There were many accidents and injuries in the crowds as people shoved and struggled to get through tight corridors, to get ahead of their peers into the elevators, or for space in trams. Public workers and roving patrolmen were utterly overwhelmed and gave up on imposing any order in these situations.

Compared to the amount of people trying to get to safety or hunker down, there were relatively few instances of vandalism, assaults, or looting among the population. There were some broken storefronts, particularly in retaliation against major brands who had instituted dynamic pricing. There was very little theft or opportunism. The mass violent hysteria that the Volkisch authorities had feared could ensue as they got the first Core Separation warnings did not manifest. People were not wantonly killing and robbing one another on the streets. For a station with millions of people, the incidence of rioting and anarchy was minor on the whole. Despite this, property defense continued to be a Volkisch priority.

Infrastructure in Kreuzung responded poorly to the loss of power. The last revision to the backup power schema had been undertaken over forty years ago in the aftermath of the Fueller Reformation, and since then the systems on the station had only increased in complexity as civilians and businesses acquired more civilian scale personal computing and mechanical automation than ever existed before.

When the first blackout hit, and subsequently when backup power came on, hospitals and care facilities had to scramble to manually turn off convenient but not life-saving systems, much like Laurentius had to, in order to prevent their backup power from diminishing too quickly. Certain forms of care and certain comforts were denied to patients in order to prioritize ventilators, life support, dyalisis and so on.

Meanwhile the power grid itself began to struggle to deliver available backup power because the computer systems handling the backup power schema were themselves older, some entirely untouched, and a few had short circuited entirely from the initial shock of the Core Separation. Water systems, particularly complex ones like flood mitigation and desalination, saw their mainframes partially shut down. This led to water becoming intermittently available in residences, and sometimes the water was foul or salty, or worse. Lights all over the station flashed intermittently and erratically.

“Hmm. On the whole this is not unworkable. It could have been much worse.”

Von Drachen crossed his arms and looked almost pleased with the situation.

While across the room the intelligence officers stared at him with great worry.

They were on a clock. With how much the power draw in the station was fluctuating, it was impossible to tell when they would run out of backup power and die. They had to act quickly.

The Volkisch response to the incident was in its opening stage, but the main objective was always clear. They had to return the Core Pylon to operation, and then prevent any potential further attacks on infrastructure. Von Drachen knew a few details of the situation that none of the other officers did, but he kept it close to the chest for now. Troops would be sent down into the core, as well as into peripheral dockyards to prevent potential intrusions– just a hunch of his, supposedly.

“Any response from the Governor’s office toward the incident?” He asked.

“Not yet sir. Neither the Central K.P.S.D contingent nor any statements from his office.”

“He was caught flatfooted. It could be– fortunate, for us.” Von Drachen smiled knowingly.

“Sir, there’s a laser communication coming in. It’s the Greater Imbria, through a relay.”

“Ah, lovely! Then our cavalry is on its way. Put them through, mind the bandwidth.”

On one of the screens, appeared the face of a young woman, brown haired, in a black and silver uniform. Strong-shouldered, tall, fair-skinned with a sort of earthy, rustic beauty. This woman shared Von Drachen’s rank, but unlike him, she had been an early and true believer in the Volkisch order: Heidelinde Sawyer.

“Von Drachen, we’re escorting the Mrudah to Kreuzung to hand off its flag. We’ll be there soon. The Aleksandr and the Atyrau will arrive after with the fleet. Where is Standartenführer Hadžić?”

“She is on mission. We’d be glad to have your assistance. Events are transpiring.”

Sawyer and Von Drachen were both quite aware of the events transpiring, to some degree.

As soon as the Zabaniyah arrived, the fireworks would commence in earnest.


After the blackout hit Tower Eight, the rooms emptied out into the hallways.

Lit up by the red warnings on the walls, the neighbors in a certain bobtailed Shimii’s hall exchanged worried looks and shared any information they had. One older man who worked in maintaining the tower explained that there was no maintenance today and wondered if there was a failure. A young woman tried to make sense of the warning on the wall, wondering what a “Core Separation” even meant. This was not common language among the Shimii, many of them could not place it at all. After about twenty minutes of suspense, the red letters turned to a bright blue with an animation of a doorway shutting behind a pair of silhouettes and commanded instead for all citizens to shelter in place.

This only brought up more questions from those assembled.

“They’ll tell us to shelter in place, but not what’s going on in detail?”

“Has anyone heard from the upper tiers? Are the elevators working? Is everyone okay?”

Amid the confusion, Majida al-Khaybari walked out and excused herself as she slipped past the crowd and knocked on the door of the room adjacent to her own on the left. She understood all too well what was happening, and why, and who was the perpetrator. She had resolved herself to doing something about it, but before that, she wanted to check up on her skittish little neighbor girl and her sad little tail. Ever since their last encounter, Majida had been worried that Homa had been shaken by her words.

“Hey, Homa, open up. Are you okay in there? Power’s been sketchy.”

No response.

Majida sighed to herself and put her hand on the wall next to the door.

On the other side of that wall, there was a touch surface that was a door control by default.

Thinking about it for a second, she came up with a sound theory of how to open the door.

Her own room had a panel on that wall– these rooms must have all been identical.

Majida thought of the type of panel and focused on generating force against it.

And with the ability she had been practicing–

Spatial Control.

Seconds later, the door to Homa’s room opened.

Peering inside, Majida did not find Homa as she expected. Instead, seated at the edge of the bed, was Leija Kladuša, known as ‘Madame Arabie’. Majida’s brain instantly conjured up something that was not very godly nor polite at seeing the striking brunette beauty holding her forehead on Homa’s bed, her face a bit pale, her eyes half-shut with clear exhaustion. She did have all her clothes–

“Kladuša,” Majida said, stepping through the door and closing it. “What happened?”

Leija snapped her head to the door and fixed a contemptuous glare on Majida.

“How did you get in?” She said. Not taking the time to correct the name Majida used.

“I have my ways. Listen, I don’t want to start anything. I was just looking for Homa.”

“Homa?”

Eyes drawn wide and startled, Leija suddenly stood from the bed.

She looked around the room. Her eyes settled on the cooking pot in the back.

It was the only thing in the room which wasn’t stock furniture included in every unit.

The way her eyes lingered on it, she may have realized whose room she was in.

“Where is she?” Leija asked suddenly. Her eyes were puffy– her makeup had run.

Had she been in here crying this whole time?

“I don’t know. I thought she would be here, but I found you instead.” Majida said coolly.

“What do you want with her? She– She was taking care of me. I was ill.” Leija said.

Majida could tell that wasn’t quite the whole story. But she did not press Leija further.

“Kladuša, have you been asleep this whole time? The station’s in crisis right now.”

“What are you talking about?”

In the room itself, the curfew notice was just displayed on a wall in a relatively small size.

To demonstrate the gravity of the situation, Majida opened the door back up.

Out in the hallway, the crowd, the intermittent lights, the larger curfew notices on the walls.

Leija stared in mute disbelief. She blinked her eyes hard.

“What happened to cause this? What was the prior warning?” She asked.

Majida felt insane just stating the proper facts. There was no way to sugarcoat it.

“Core Separation.”

“I’m asking seriously!” Leija said. “Majida, I’m starting to get pissed with you.”

“Get pissed all you want. It’s a Core Separation, Leija. There was even a blackout.”

“That’s impossible.”

Leija immediately sat back down on the bed, staring down at the floor.

She ran her fingers through her hair, coming to settle over her ears, bending them slightly.

“That’s impossible. How could it be? This– this can’t happen.”

“You can ask anyone in the hall. We all saw the warning.”

“This can’t be happening! There must be a false alarm, it must be a mistake!” Leija shouted.

When her agitated cries met Majida’s unchanging expression, however, her resolve started to waver. She looked down at the floor again, lips trembling, her feet shifting on the metal, hands clutched together.

“Far be it from me to tell you how to run things, but it strikes me that the Shimii here don’t so much have leadership as a bunch of community figures, so as one of them, maybe you should say something about this? Make a statement from the station control room to calm people’s spirits. Whether or not it’s real, the residents of Tower Eight are all in the dark, and you’re the boss, right?”

Majida offered that suggestion with a mind to leave the room immediately, but–

–Leija’s distraught expression caught her attention. She started to nurse new anxieties.

“Kladuša– I would be willing to help you, if it will keep our ummah safe. I can escort you.” Majida said.

No response. Leija was still staring at the floor with a hand over her forehead.

“Kladuša!”

No response.

“Something is going on. Tell me what it is. You can’t just sit there doing nothing!”

Even if she was just shellshocked from the Core Separation, she was the big tough mafia boss in charge of this place, wasn’t she? Majida had never thought of her as being this fragile and easy to shake. Most people probably didn’t understand exactly what a Core Separation meant, but for people who were in charge of communities and made decisions for stations, it was standard to know. So Leija must have understood the gravity of the situation. Majida approached and touched her shoulder.

“Wake up already! Every second we waste could be the one where a panic starts!”

“Majida, I don’t have access to the station control room!” Leija said suddenly.

“What? How? You’re the boss around here, aren’t you?” Majida asked.

“Tower Eight is administered remotely.” Leija said. “The Imbrians don’t trust us with it.”

Majida was briefly speechless.

A Core Separation was an unthinkable event. But something more mundane, like a broken power converter or distributor, would require flipping around which modules were receiving electricity, to prevent life-saving systems from having to fight with skybox simulation or empty docks or non-emergency network traffic. This was something that even the Shimii in Khaybar Mountain could do with their hacked together homebrew systems, it was standard to support living in tightly controlled environments. Majida had assumed that the Shimii in Tower Eight had control of the tower’s physical administration through a control room– but if it was all being done remotely–

“Kladuša, don’t tell me– it’s just an automatic system, isn’t it?” Majida asked.

Leija’s hands covered her eyes and she grit her teeth. Her frustration confirmed the truth.

Of course– they couldn’t even spare a single fucking Imbrian technician to actively monitor it.

Then– that meant–

In the event of a Core Separation, their backup power was not being actively optimized.

“Allah protect us all– Everyone’s going to fucking choke or flood to death in here!”

Majida bolted out of the room, leaving the despondent, helpless Leija behind her.

Out in the hall, she saw her own door open and Raaya peeking out of it.

“Majida?”

Raaya sidestepped just in time to avoid Majida charging through the door.

She knelt in front of the bed and withdrew a steel case from under it.

Inside were four pieces of Katarran power armor. Legs, and gauntlets. No battery pack, no chestplate.

Majida had the physical strength to wear them without power. She started to clap them on.

Realizing what she was doing, Raaya withdrew an additional case from the closet.

She presented Majida with a double-sided composite personal armor, and silently helped her to put on the pieces, snapping them closed over Majida’s chest and back. It was a tight fit over Majida’s breasts, as the suit was not intended for her, but she could withstand the discomfort. She did not possess a chestplate of Katarran armor, but the arms and legs pieces would help in a fight, and security armor like the type she fitted over her chest was enough to prevent a lethal wound from small arms fire.

Finally, she donned her white-gray cloak over it– a special keepsake from Raaya’s father.

“Majida.”

After helping her suit up, Raaya stood off to Majida’s side with a gentle smile.

“I have to get everyone out of here. It’s not safe.” Majida said. “That means you too.”

“I know. I wasn’t going to complain. I married a hero, and I know I did.” Raaya said.

Majida felt relieved by those words, despite the awful situation.

Her heart resounded with a million thanks to the most exalted, who brought her this woman.

“I will follow along with the folks and mind my own safety.” Raaya said.

From the case that she handed Majida her body armor, she withdrew a pistol.

Concealing it in a jacket she then wore over one of her sundresses.

“Okay.”

Majida bent down just a little to Raaya’s eye level and kissed her.

She put her forehead to the shorter woman’s, and then they touched noses affectionately.

“If you encounter any danger, call out to me with your mind. Okay?”

“Of course. But don’t be worrying about me all the time. Do what you have to do.”

“With Allah’s guidance and vigilance.” Majida gently squeezed Raaya’s shoulders.

Her heart was filled with so much for love for this woman, she nearly wept.

To think, she had put her in this danger.

But none of the Shimii in this tower would be able to escape it without Majida’s intervention.

Those Imbrian checkpoints had to be forced open.

From the same place Raaya had drawn her pistol, Majida withdrew a Union diamond blade.

“Let’s hope those Katarrans had a decent supplier.”

They had made good couriers, running to Khaybar and back. But now she needed their gear to work.

She briefly revved the chainsaw motor and found it good.

Using a magnetic strip attached to her armor, Majida stowed the weapon under her cloak, along with a pistol similar to Raaya’s. Armored, armed, and with her inner fire burning in her chest, Majida set out, giving Raaya one final authoritative glance as if to confirm her intentions.

Raaya smiled back and just as silently bid her farewell for now.

As soon as Majida stepped out of the door to her room she found Leija right in front of her.

Leija paused for a moment, staring at Majida with eyes drawn shock-wide.

Then, she clapped her hands together, shut her eyes and pleaded.

“Majida, please– please bring Homa back safe. She’s innocent of all our quarrels. Please.”

Majida could have berated Leija in so many different ways in that moment.

She didn’t even care that much about the drug smuggling or the extortionism. It was petty to her.

As for her racism– she would have her judgment for hating Mahdists in the afterlife.

No– what Majida hated about Leija was that she took everything she built for herself.

She even failed to share it with her kin Homa, and now she was all distraught and worried.

Majida had dealt with all kinds of scum. She had to, because she and her people were barred from leading ordinary lives in the Imbrium. There were gangs, mercs, extortionists, pushers, in every corner of the Empire, playing dirty to survive. Compared to Leija, some of them at least took care of their own, just like Majida tried to do. Those were the kind of low-lives that she could respect. Leija was greedy and self-centered. Her silver tongue and deadly charisma enriched only herself. But– perhaps this day could constitute a new leaf for Leija, and maybe a better life for Homa. It wasn’t for Majida to judge. Majida reserved her true hatred for killers. She couldn’t chase after every money-grubbing crook on Aer.

For all her faults, Leija had yet to commit slaughter or engage in massacre with her influence. She was not starving the people of Tower Eight and at least in terms of economics she was not discriminating against Mahdists. When put up in a line beside other warmongers, extremists and nationalists, she was a harmless bitch to someone like Majida. Despicable, a low-life, but harmless– unworthy of her flames.

And– it was difficult for Majida to hate those distraught eyes.

Eyes like those of a mother.

She reminded Majida too much of another older woman with sad, tired eyes.

So, for all the things Majida could have said and done, her only response was–

“I’ll do what I can.”

Leija nodded her head. Perhaps she understood her pathetic position as well as Majida did.

“Thank you.” She was nearly in tears again.

Majida averted her eyes.

There was so much pain and evil in the world and she could never fight all of it.

But she knew that– which is why she fought for the Shimii.

For her Shimii, for Jabal Khaybar, her kin.

But now–

She couldn’t leave Tower Eight’s Shimii behind. Not if there was something she could do for them.

And she couldn’t leave Homa either.

Homa was just like their people as a whole. Troubled, hurt, lost, and innocent.

She had suffered so much and didn’t deserve to suffer further.

“I have to do something.”

Majida made her way through the hall, past all of the Shimii that had come out of adjacent rooms. Technically it had to be one room to one person, but there were couples and mothers with children on this hall, older men and women, young workers sharing rooms in their two’s and three’s, and so a sizeable crowd was forming end to end in the hall. Despite the intention of the station’s design, this particular hall was affordable, so all of the people without good jobs or with families that had nowhere else to go were crowded into these lower tiers, packed like sardines to enrich the Imbrian landlords.

When she rounded the corner, Majida had to excuse herself dozens of times.

As she struggled past the people to the elevator.

“Hey, no cutting!” cried some of the folks as she elbowed past.

There were all kinds of eyes on her as she finally shoved her way to the elevator.

A group of younger men stood in front of it, occupied between the control panel and keeping others from usurping their place in front of the crowd. They stared jealously at Majida when she approached, trying to look tough but clearly quivering in their shoes. Her cloak was not long enough to cover her entire body and they could see the segmented plate on her lower legs, and on her arms when she moved them. Katarran body armor had a reputation– anyone with any kind of street smarts knew about it.

Universally it was the mark of a real badass. Though that was not Majida’s true intention.

Around the backs, shoulders and heads of the men congregated tell-tale colors of aether.

Dark greens and reds, verging on black at the edges. Anger, anxiety, fear of death.

Majida could read them plain as day. Their emotions practically leaked from them.

“I don’t care what you’re up to. Is the elevator working or no?” She said.

She did not need to employ her powers to get this lot to obey. Her authoritative voice was enough.

“Panel’s out.” One of the boys said. His friends looked at him brusquely for answering.

When Majida approached, they crowded around her but did not impede her way.

She stood in front of the blank touchscreen controls beside the elevator door.

Placing a hand on the unresponsive touchscreen she tried to feel the energy inside it.

Majida was much less a fool or a brute than her enemies and detractors gave her credit for; but she wasn’t too handy with electronic repairs. However, her powers and a bit of logical deduction could substitute in some cases for real engineering skill. She couldn’t control electric charges the way that she could spontaneously create fire out of nothing (at least not yet). But she was able to feel the heat and energy like a heartbeat within machines, tracing the current in her mind back through the wires that carried them to their power sources. She realized in a moment that it was not the elevator’s power which was out, but this specific panel had broken, and it was the only obvious way to interact with the elevator. She lifted her hand from the touchscreen and placed it on the elevator door itself.

“What are you doing, sis?” Asked one of the young Shimii men near her.

“Shut up.”

Her voice was infused with just a bit of otherworldly menace. Not intended; her emotions had flared.

Whenever she used one kind of psionic power, she always risked her aura spilling out.

Raw emotional energy that altered her tone, altered her presence.

She could feel his own aura quiver at her response, and he was instantly cowed to silence.

Tracing the power from the door itself, she walked a few paces to an adjacent wall.

With a flick of her wrist, a tile of OLED material fell out of the wall as she pulled on it.

Revealing behind it a manual control for the elevator. Levers and buttons.

“Someone will have to operate this!” Majida said. She pulled a lever and the door opened.

She looked at the young men in front of her and singled one out.

“You. Operate the elevator. We’re letting the women and children up first.”

“Up? Up– where?”

Did he not think things through any further than ‘I want to be on the elevator first’?

Majida turned to face the crowded hall behind her and called out instructions.

“We’ve got a working elevator! Everyone stay organized and wait for your turn. I promise I’ll make sure everyone can get up and out of here. It’s not safe here and we need to get everyone into the Kreuzung Core station. Forget the curfew notice on the walls! The Imbrians don’t care what happens to you! We need to get out of here! So line up, let the women and children first!”

Everyone stared at her. There were incredulous looks everywhere.

No one moved. An entire crowd of resentful staring people that she had just elbowed past.

She was so used to Khaybar, where everyone listened to her when she spoke.

Awkward silence and frightened gazes. Of course, nobody knew her or trusted her. Maybe they knew of Majida al-Khaybari, distantly. But not this silver-haired woman with the strange ear that was yelling in the hall while everyone was scared and worried and being told to stay indoors. None of them knew the potential danger they were in. It was all flashing lights and hushed voices in the halls.

Perhaps she could influence them, but Majida hadn’t really mastered how to do so with any amount of tact. She knew how to instill fear or draw out anger via her psionic powers; but she did not want to act like she was press ganging a bunch of kittens and moms! She would have to try to appeal to them on rationality alone. She would have to tell them what was happening so they understood.

She would have to pray to the Almighty and All-merciful that they wouldn’t panic.

“I need everyone’s attention! There’s something you need to–”

“Listen to her and get moving! What are you waiting for? I have somewhere to be!”

From the very back of the crowd a voice carried through the halls.

In an instant, the crowd parted to allow through Leija Kladuša– Madame Arabie.

Her makeup was done again, and her hair was brushed and orderly.

Following closely behind her was Raaya– Majida could not thank her enough.

“Form a line! Women and children first!” Arabie said. “Forget the curfew!”

Raaya stood beside the elevator with a hand on the operating lever.

She winked at Majida. Majida smiled with all of her heart. That woman was God-sent!

Acquiescing to Madame Arabie’s repeat of Majida’s demands, the crowd in the hall began organizing themselves, letting women with children walk forward. As they held their kittens close they waved gently at Majida, several expressions of gratitude, and a mild mixture of confusion. Many were veiled with hijab except for the front of their faces. Majida always felt a bit inadequate in the face of very pious mothers who observed all the traditions, when she was such a hellion who barely knew Fusha and was so far behind on studying the teachings and prayers– so she averted her gaze awkwardly.

“You look so handsome when you’ve got that flustered teenager look on your face.” Raaya said, teasing Majida. “I’ll handle the elevator. You’re the first one up, aren’t you? Get on board.”

“I’m taking a different route. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Raaya.”

Majida bid farewell once more and glanced at another panel, lower on the wall.

It had a passage, which she had to crawl on all fours to get through. A maintenance tunnel.

She pulled on it, standing in front of it so no one could see it just fall off by itself.

Then she crawled inside. Through a dark vent, as tight as the shower in her room.

For light, she produced a tiny, flickering flame that danced between her fingers.

This much exertion of her power was nothing to her. The fire didn’t even need oxygen.

It burned only off her fiery, passionate aura.

On the other side, when she could finally stand, she found herself surrounded by switches, junction boxes, pipes, and meters, packed over every wall with only a 2 by 1 meter space for a human being to occupy and work in. She waved her hand slowly in front of herself so that the flame could illuminate each wall in turn. In front of her, she found what she really desired. A tight stairwell, made up of individual rungs that attached to the wall, cables routed around and through each. It was the way up.

Raising her hand and the little fire dancing between her fingers so she could see overhead.

Impossible to tell how far up it went. Her destination was several hundred meters up.

“I might be able to do it. It’ll take me forever to climb. I just need it to go all the way up.”

If there were no obstructions, then perhaps–

“With Spatial Control, could I haul myself up there?”

She had never moved anything as heavy as herself, much less moved it that far away.

There was no time to hesitate further. There would be worse difficulties ahead.

Majida put a hand over her chest and shut her eyes, concentrating deeply. Even just thinking about using Spatial Control sent a discomfort like the cold touch of a razor over her brain. It was difficult, taxing.

Shimii knew psionics as Sihr, a forbidden art attributed to illusionists leading their kin astray. But the esoterics of the Mahdist faith were interested in its characteristics and thereby more tolerant of it as an observable phenomenon of the world. Majida herself knew factually that Sihr was characterized extremely differently by the Old Engineers, by people like her mentor Norn. Because it had helped her protect her people, because it was part of her legacy– because of who her “father” was. Despite the prohibitions and taboos, despite her own pretense at Piety, Majida relied on Sihr and would need it. She knew that Sihr, as psionics, was a power of the mind that affected the world through Aether like food cooked in oil.

Aether reacted to emotion, and to the state of mind of the observer and the observed world. Aether passed on this reaction into the physical world, making the effects observable, real. Material consequence happened in Aether’s wake.  Majida concentrated herself on the task ahead, on the feat she intended to perform. Trying to pull herself from the material and make herself weightless, movable, seeking oxygen as flame did to ignite the way forward. In such a state of mind, prayer came to her. Not just because she associated concentration and power of the mind with the ascetic preaching of the Mahdists themselves–

–but because she wanted to associate the hated Sihr with God’s mercy for her personally.

“Allah is all that I require, excellent is his protection.” She murmured. “Greatest blessings unto your Prophet who is most worthy. Now that my affairs are difficult, Open the ways I could not see. Open the ways out of my difficulties that I could never imagine, most merciful of the merciful.”

Of all the many sayings, quotations, prayers, declarations, of the Shimii scripture, this one always stuck with Majida the most. Even her wayward mind could not escape rapturous attention at these words when the Mawla or Raaya recited them in the past. “Open the ways I could never imagine.” Allah was the opener of ways, the source of truths, and Majida wanted to believe that she was not born an evil witch, progeny of a tyrant with cursed powers, that had to be scorned, locked up in shadows–

–but someone who could enter a new form of supplication,

and see a new form of God’s majesty, a new opening of His ways.

Spatial Control!

Majida al-Khaybari was the Apostle of Fire.

And the Apostle of Fire could control not only things burning and violent, but the distances between persons and objects, like combustion sucking in oxygen or a detonation pushing out the world with its shockwave. Igniting the path between herself and her destination with the invisible flame of her desire, claiming the air like wildfire, Majida vanished out of the bottom of the steps in the maintenance tunnel to reappear at the landing at the very top of those steps, in a single and sudden instant.

“Alhamdulillah–”

She bent forward at the top of the steps, involuntarily dry heaving onto the metal floor.

Choking out blessed words while clutching her head, which felt like it had split open.

Her skull wracked with spasms of pain so powerful they felt like clubs striking her.

Teeth grit, fists clutched, forcing herself to a shaking stand. Eyes tearing up, nose bloody.

Step by tenuous step, each centimeter struggled for against the agony of her body.

Murmuring to herself whenever her lungs filled–

Give me guile against him who schemes against me,

 power over him who oppresses me,

 refutation of him who reviles me,

 And safety from him who threatens me.

Reciting prayer as she inched her way to the door she could see ahead.

Out of the dark maintenance tunnel, and, practically throwing herself through the threshold.

She appeared under the glass and steel roof of the top of Tower Eight.

Beneath the overwhelming darkness of the Imbrium ocean. Framed beneath the girders and the infinite sky of crushing saltwater. In her hands and in her heart, a pyre’s light burned brightly. Whether or not people hated her, she knew– God loved her. She believed it with all of her heart, that she was put on Aer with this ability to fight for her people. And she was growing ever stronger even now.

Her pain fading, she took stock in her surroundings. She had come out near one of the elevator banks. There was a gathering of people, maybe a few dozen, who had made it up the tower to the gates. Nobody she recognized from the hall below. The elevator Raaya took command of must’ve still been making its way up or down. Majida did not know from which elevator bank it’d come.

In front of the assembled Shimii, barring the way to the tram tracks into Kreuzung Core, stood the guards, five of them. Shut behind their gate and in their booth and waving their guns in front of themselves whenever anyone tried to come close to the chain link fence. Their eyes were wild with panic and anger, they were sweaty and clearly losing their wits. As Majida entered the crowd as surreptitiously as she could, an older woman walked forward to the gate, her tail curled in fear, her hands raised.

“I just want to talk sir.” She said, voice trembling. “We don’t understand–”

In front of her the guard raised his assault rifle to his shoulder.

“Stand back! What part of shelter in place don’t you understand, you fucking animals?”

“Sir– please, I apologize, but you have to understand how confusing this all is–”

“The only thing to understand is all of you fucking go back to your homes or I’ll shoot!”

“We just want some clarification! What is happening? Is it true that the reactor core–?”

Overwhelmingly loud, the rifle’s report rang through the crowd.

Everyone stepped back, gasped, cried, leaving the woman who had stepped forward.

Beside her, the round had struck the floor and dented the fake clay tile set over the metal.

Spared bodily harm, but with all of the guards sighting her, the woman dared not move.

Majida’s fist opened and closed at her side. Her toes curled in her metal boots.

Nobody in this crowd posed a threat to these men.

These were old folks, women with kids, young men. There were no soldiers here.

Except her.

She realized, however–

–that there was a woman at her side, with a baby. Could Majida splatter these men here?

No– not in front of innocent eyes.

“It’s your lucky day, Imbrian scum.”

Spatial Control.

It transpired in the blink of an eye.

Give me power over him who oppresses me.

Spatial Control was a form of psionics, and Majida had discovered it could be resisted by a strong will.

However, there was no hope for the weak minds of these panic-stricken, ignorant Imbrians.

In an instant, the men inside the booth had their bodies moved into each other.

Inside the booth, the man who could not move where Spatial Control forced him to, instead crashed suddenly into the glass and fell back onto his chair, his gun thrown wildly from his grasp and rattling against the walls before coming to land upon him. Outside the booth, the three men with guns and their officer collided with each other, pushed back as if hurled bodily off their feet, while their guns were pulled the opposite direction, coming to lay discarded on the ground. Two men struck each other perfectly in the foreheads and fell concussed, the man who had been threatening the most tripped over his feet and knocked the officer in charge down with him. In the tangle, Majida charged the fence.

Running out of the crowd and in front of them, she seized the gate, and with all her strength, tore it from its automatic hinges on the opposing wall of the tram bridge, knocking it down over the guards. The crowd stood speechless as the way forward was completely torn open for them in a surreal instant.

“Don’t question God’s blessings! We need to flee here! Come on!”

Majida called to the crowd. Tentatively, the older people and the children walked forward.

Meanwhile, a group of young men and women rushed out and reached for the guard’s guns and pulled them out from under the fallen gate, coming into possession of them. “Good instincts!” Majida praised, and she helped them and the crowd to fully subdue the guards, pulling them from under the gate, stripping them of their IDs and keys and weapons, and cuffing them all together, crammed inside the booth with the door locked where they would not disturb anyone further. More people began to arrive via the elevators, and with Majida’s direction, lined up respectfully on the platform.

“Ma’am, how will we get into Kreuzung?” asked some of the younger people.

Majida put her hand on the security booth, and on the tram platform, concentrating.

She discovered a current running between them, running out onto the track.

Over to a hidden spot off to the side of the bulkhead leading into the bridge.

There was always some kind of hidden emergency panel that had a higher level access.

These trams were “overseen” by people, but they were “operated” mechanically. If the computer told the tram to disobey the tram car personnel then the computer would always win, because the computer was assumed to be under the command of the boss. And she just happened to have an officer’s ID card that could send override commands in times like these. None of that was a problem now.

“I’ll take care of it! All of you just relax and line up. Women, children, and old folks first.”

From within the crowd around Majida, the woman who had been standing in front of the guards stepped forward suddenly. She was shaken, and there were tears in her eyes, streaming down the light wrinkles on her face. She offered her hands for Majida to hold, and Majida accepted and held them softly.

“Child– what is your name? I will pray for you every day.” The older woman said.   

After some thought, Majida smiled gently. “Madiha. Madiha al-Nakar.” She said.


“Damn it! Damn it!”

Homa Baumann smashed her fist into the unresponsive elevator’s touchscreen panel.

Water had risen to her knees in the dim slowly flooding Old Iron module now lit only by the red flashing warnings for the Core Separation. She accomplished nothing but hurting her hand. The closed doors in front of her were still shut. Without the panel it was impossible to tell whether there was any movement in the elevator because the panel was the only way to see the elevator’s position.

She put her head up to the double doors, banging her fist again and again.

Think, think.

This time it was her own mind speaking– not the other voice.

“Don’t think about stupid shit now. Come on. Focus.”

There had to be a different way to reach the higher levels. Homa had crawled all over B.S.W.’s module and there were maintenance tunnels, physical ladders between different levels. There had to ways to access the station’s guts so if a junction box or switchboard or a control computer or some other artery of the station’s exceedingly complex organs failed, a person could physically reach in and fix it. She had to look around for a way into the station interstice– the space between modules and even between blocks, inaccessible to the public but absolutely necessary to keep the station running smoothly.

But Old Iron was flooded and dark, and Homa did not have proper tools on her.

From the pocket of her jumpsuit she withdrew the vibrodagger she took off Imani.

On one side of the blade she flicked a little safety lever, and on the other, a switch.

Homa saw a tiny, dim indigo glow, heard the humming of the blade, and felt the vibrations from the oscillator spreading through the flesh of her palm and stirring the bones and sinews in her hands. Like her Volker’s vibromachete, this weapon, once engaged, possessed cutting power beyond what should have been possible for its size. It could not cut through this wall whatsoever, it was just too small and Homa was just too weak for such a monumental task. But perhaps she could cut into a vent, or pry open a panel.

If she could find a place to gain access– without electrocuting herself.

“There’s no other way. I have to get out of here.”

She had to stop Kitty McRoosevelt. She didn’t know how, but she needed to.

For the events of this day, Homa could only forgive herself if she did everything she could to stop it.

Whether to stop Kitty, to subdue her, to– to kill her– she had to do something.

(Kill Kitty? Can I possibly– would I actually– but man, taking a person’s life is no joke–)

Her own doubts reverberated across the space of her mind, but she had to silence them.

Because she felt complicit in this tragedy. She couldn’t just let it happen!

“I don’t have to kill her. I just– I’ll just make her stop! She has to be able to stop this.”

Homa started to look around the elevator. Feeling with her free hands the lines between the panels, following them lower on the wall, under the water, to see if she touched anything different. From her experience at B.S.W., panels that could come off had a slightly wider seam around the edges where they caught the wall, whereas the seams on solid panels were uniform throughout.

She knelt down in the water and begrudgingly put her head to it.

Holding her breath so water wouldn’t get into her nose, crawling along the floor.

It was just barely possible to make out the geometry of the wall with the red warning lights.

Come on, come on

That Way.

Homa raised her head.

She thought she heard a voice–

and saw a glint

a curling stream of color like the vapor off a pipe

shimmering in the dark like a sparkling dust

leading her

to the wall

“What– it’s–”

Homa pressed her hands along the wall where she had seen the colors.

She felt the seam, her fingers able to fit between the panels.

Scrambling to her knees, she put her vibroknife between the seam and pushed. It did not take much for the panel to separate, bubbles rising out as the water flooding slowly into Old Iron pushed its way down the maintenance tunnel entrance with more vigor than before. It did almost nothing to the level of the water, of course, but the vent became flooded. Homa looked down at the gap in front of her feet.

To make it to the other side, she would have to crawl on her belly through the flooded tunnel.

How far in would she have to go to breathe again? Could she tell? Could she even see?

In the adrenaline of the moment she forgot about the voice and colors–

“Damn it, there’s no time!”

First making sure any sensitive gear in her jumpsuit was in one of her handy waterproof sealable pockets, Homa hold her breath, crawled on all fours and started to drag herself through the tunnel. Elbow to elbow, pushing herself as much as she could with her knees, mouth shut, head starting to pound.

Her chest quickly began to hurt. Had her breasts been any larger she wouldn’t have fit.

Only the glowing oscillator of the vibrodagger in her hand provided dim illumination.

Ahead of her she only saw pitch dark, around her only four metal walls.

She was packed in, a bobtailed sardine in saltwater.

Crawling forward with growing desperation, every second closer from having a held breath to drowning, to dying. Her eyes clouded from the harsh seawater that had flooded in and in which she was suspended. How long could she hold her breath? How long had she been holding it? She felt her panic building across her entire cold, soaked body, shivering with every second of struggle.

Elbows forward, pull, elbows forward–

Nothing ahead but implacable darkness–

Feeling acutely the barriers in which her body was trapped–

Unable to stretch her arms out any farther wide, unable to spread her legs–

Impossible to stand–

Her vision swam, she could hardly hold her mouth closed through the pain in her head.

Everything was turning even darker than it had been, even her vibrodagger darkening.

Was she going to die here?

Lost forever in this horrible place where no one would find her?

She struggled with the last of her strength, all of her breath long since spent, desperate–

And suddenly found herself in open, rushing water–

Scrambling blindly, kicking her legs and clawing the water, every sinew in her body feeling like it would burst, her chest feeling like it would cave inward. Heedless of the surroundings, swept in an animalistic mania of pure survival instincts, flailing any kind of movement that would propel her further up. Breaching a surface, sucking in air desperately as soon as there was any breath to claim. Water was slowly rising, and she had to fight to stay up. Painful breaths wracked lungs feeling as if calcified by disuse, feeding into a brain and skin that was at once cold and burning. Had she any spare strength she would have screamed.

“What the fuck? Hey– who is down there? What the fuck are you doing?”

A flashlight shone over Homa’s eyes, briefly blinding her as she struggled for breath.

She was in a much larger space than before, with water much deeper, walls wider and taller.

On a platform outstretched from the wall, a dozen meters up and away from her, there was a man in a wetsuit and protective goggles, lit up by an OLED panel. Beside him there was a toolkit, Homa had seen the kind before, it had wire-testing prods and micro-soldering irons, it was equipment for fixing electronics. He was situated in front of an open section of the wall, in front of shadowy impressions of thick cabling and exposed electrical and computer equipment. He sounded irate.

“It’s flooding here! You’re not supposed to be here. You need to get the fuck out, Shimii.”

Homa shut her eyes hard, still gasping for breath.

Why was every Imbrian so belligerent? She couldn’t believe her rotten luck.

“Hey, are you listening? I’m not kidding, it’s dangerous, and we’re on alert, and there’s sensitive shit here! What the hell is your problem? I’ll call the K.P.S.D and tell them you’re rooting around here, you’ll never leave Tower Eight again!” That man shouted at a higher intensity with every word he said. “Are you fucking deaf? Get out of here or I’ll get you out! Can you understand Imbrian? Shimii?”

Homa tried making any kind of gesture with her head, shaking it, nodding, anything.

She started to paddle away, trying to make it to a platform or a foothold.

In one of her pockets Imani’s gun felt suddenly heavier than ever, more pronounced.

But Homa didn’t want anything to escalate to violence! She just wanted to get out of here!

“Alright, I’ve fucking had it. I’m not taking any chances you bitch.”

On the platform the man withdrew and pointed something at her.

It was bright orange with a yellow barrel, maybe a stun gun or a tranquilizer?

She hoped it wasn’t a lethal weapon. She backed up against the wall, trying to speak.

All that came out was a choked mumbling, “Please– I’m lost– I’m sorry–”

“Now you understand Imbrian huh?” mocked the man, his voice sounding desperate.

He took aim at her– he was really going to shoot– Homa froze in a moment of panic–

All that issued from the man was a wet squelching noise.

Stock still on his platform, his fingers shook and went limp and dropped his gun.

His torch rolled into the water, sent flying by a spasm of his legs as he went down to his knees. As the light spun around the room Homa briefly saw a shadow of something cast upon the wall, something long and substantial that she could not otherwise see. As the man began to audibly gag and gurgle and bleed Homa had the wherewithal to rush to the torch fallen into the rising pool and take it and point it at the platform. Where she saw again the shadow, the shadow of something great and horrific.

Not only the great long gelatinous thing trailing all kinds of spikes,

but its massive body that

stretched through the water blue and orange and red like a calcic jelly spinal cord

vague dim siphonophoric thing with jets and bulbs and prongs spiraling

through the water like a sigil of muscles and meat

leviathan–

Tristitia hates the noisy hominin. Tristitia wants the noisy hominin to quiet.

In the next instant the spines which had punctured the man’s back pierced through him.

Homa was spared the gorey detail by the darkness of the room.

But she heard his blood, and maybe more, spill into the water below him.

She was frozen in place, clutching the torch and slowly and impotently paddling back.

Leviathan– how did a Leviathan get into the station interstice?!

Had it navigated the flooded Old Iron somehow?

Was the Core Separation causing so many problems that the station was breached?

Her heart pounded, her lungs couldn’t breath fast enough.

She did not feel cold because her flesh felt dissociated from her mind and presence.

It had come from the direction opposite Homa. It was massive, amorphous.

Homa had learned about siphonophores in school, and it was the closest thing she could compare it to without an imaging computer to tell her the class associated with this monster. One enormous string-like cord the thickness of a human torso but with seemingly all the strength and muscle of some beastly tail or backbone, capable of lifting a man off his feet. Hundreds of bulbous objects connected to this central nerve, dimly bioluminescent, some appeared like biojets, many others like dagger-like vibrating spines, others like pulsating organs, and near the section that had skewered the man there were some that looked like wings, and Homa got a sense there was even more underwater. She imagined the beast was many many times the size she could see, coiled casually throughout the depths of this place.

Killing that man had been like a giant flicking its finger nonchalantly at a fly.

There was no thought of even trying to shoot it.

This would have been a terrifying opponent for a Diver or a ship.

For Homa, it was a thing out of nightmares that she had no hope of harming.

She backed slowly away from it, looking around the room for a potential exit.

Behind her, she saw rungs, rungs of a ladder that could take her up.

If she could climb out of the water, could this thing even follow under its own power?

Its body did not look like it could go very far out of the water.

Ragged breathing, her veins vibrating beneath her skin, Homa slowly, slowly backed up.

Cat-Hominin, Tristitia sees you. Cat-Hominin, are you a heretic?

Homa thought she heard something in her mind, clearly she was losing her grip–

Then she felt a shiver down her spine that told her instantly to stop moving.

Around her legs she felt the water stir like something enormous had rushed past her.

Curling around behind her back, around her side, and finally emerging in front of her.

Hundreds of sheets of veiny dimly glowing red and blue velvety flesh suspended close.

Like a flower of fleshy angel’s wings, fluttering into themselves before her eyes.

Crowned by a floating circle of blood or gore that somehow hovered in place.

And attached to that same strand-like body that stretched infinitely into the water below.

Homa wanted to see the thing before her as a face or a head, but it was faceless, headless.

She only saw herself reflected in the multitude of opaque surfaces.

Hanging, dripping, the flesh undulating as if it was performing some kind of action.

Homa’s mind wanted to process it as “sniffing” her, as a show of “curiosity” or even, perhaps, speech.

But she knew it was insane to think so.

Cat-Hominin, what is a heretic?–

Her mind and most of her body paralyzed with fear–

Homa’s hands crawled over her chest and grabbed hold of her necklace.

It felt like it had retained some of its warmth, a tiny star clutched against her breast.

Oh! Cat-Hominin is loved.

In the middle of the mass of wing-like folds, there was something directly beneath the halo.

Briefly, the wings spread enough for Homa to see it, or to think she had seen it.

Something that couldn’t be– Like a central, fleshy pearl containing–

An inquisitive face as if belonging to a girl, dark-haired, green eyed, floating inside–

Cat-Hominin is loved. Tristitia will respect this– but only this once.

Next time, you’ll despair, Cat-Hominin.

Its horrific sliding and flapping noises– Homa’s head was trying to turn it into words.

That had to be it– there was no other sane explanation–

Suddenly, the siphonophore leviathan reversed the curling of its cord from around Homa.

That winged meat thing it had shown her shut like a flower turning back into a bud.

Slithering back into the water from the direction it had come.

Homa did not miss the opportunity. She turned tail and rushed for the rungs of the ladder.

Climbing like her life depended on it, taking each rung like her hands had clawed at the water when she was drowning, moving so fast that she barely took in breaths between hand-holds. Weeping, her lips quivering, her whole body shaking, until she felt like she had climbed a hundred meters and stopped, putting her head up against the next rung on the ladder and sobbing and screaming.

For a moment, everything felt hopeless.

All of the weight of the physical pain and terror she had felt that day.

Kitty’s wounds on her– hunger and exhaustion– leaving Imani behind–

How? How could she climb even one more step on this ladder?

And how many more steps would she have to climb after that?

You Are Courageous.

She heard the little gentle voice in her head again.

That voice which she began to associate with the warmth in her chest.

With the necklace that had become her good luck charm.

“Thank you.”

Homa whimpered. She was going insane. She really was going insane.

But–

Everything she was doing was insane.

Everything that was happening was insane.

Nothing could be the same again after this, no matter what happened.

Not Homa herself, not Kreuzung, and maybe, not even the Shimii of Tower Eight.

“I have to stop Kitty.” Homa told herself. “I can’t let more people die senselessly.”

That Leviathan was not just going to kill irate Imbrian guards accosting her.

And that Leviathan was not going to be the end of the horrors unleashed this day.

Homa had to fight, she had to stop this whole nightmare from growing worse.

That determination was the only thing keeping her holding on to that ladder.

Keeping her from the infinite abyss of water below. As insane as that thought was.

She reached a shaking hand up to the next handhold. She still could not see the top.

But she climbed with all of her might regardless. She could not let herself stop.

Step by step, as long as it took, giving everything she had left.


Two trams to Tower Eight had been reported “hijacked” and “commandeered” by the tower’s Shimii in a brazen show of civil disobedience of the Kreuzung curfew. Responsibility for capturing the ringleaders and breaking up the hijackings fell onto a small squadron of K.P.S.D, the Kreuzung Public Security Department. Six men with assault rifles waited with bated breath on the platform. They had no way to stop the trams, physically, so they were waiting to threaten whoever stepped out.

The Volkisch troops had an acrimonious relationship to the K.P.S.D, who were still largely under the command of the liberal government of Kreuzung. The Volkisch would not assist them closely.

They had more important places to protect, such as the manses and wealthier districts.

The bulkhead began to rise into the Kreuzung Core’s end of the Shimii tower’s tram bridge. As the headlights of the tram shone into the gloomy tunnel, the men stationed there nearly jumped. They raised their assault rifles and began scanning the windows of the incoming trams desperately. They stood, for a few minutes, looking through the irons of their rifles, until the doors opened.

They remained standing for only a few seconds after that.

Spatial Control.

Majida appeared between the men and swung her diamond blade like a studded club.

Had she engaged the motor there would have been blood and skin flying and gore spilling.

But there were too many decent people watching– and it was not necessary.

With Majida’s God-given strength, she beat each man to the ground in a flurry of attacks.

Swinging at knees, shoulders, flanks and arms under the intermittent lights of the platform.

There was no retaliation. Every blow broke a bone on the unarmored, flatfooted men.

In moments, they were crawling on the floor, and Majida had secured their weapons.

From the tram, the group of young men and women who had been following behind her tied up the guards inside the booth and locked them there, as they had done before. They were all armed with rifles taken from the guards, but Majida ordered them to drop the things in the booth and lock them in with the handcuffed and gagged guards before entering Kreuzung. Instead, she ordered them to grab the men’s stun batons, and a riot shield that was locked up in the booth in an emergency gear kit.

“None of you know how to shoot, and if someone sees you with the guns it’ll be mayhem.”

Majida’s judgment was quickly supported by the older women following behind.

“I’ll need some of you to stay here and let everyone know what’s going on!”

Each tram could pack only pack in so many people out of a population of thousands– their impromptu evacuation would take a lot of trips. Majida could not guarantee everyone would be able to leave, but she wanted as many as possible to be able to escape. They would need to go somewhere– not the Pavilion shopping center, though they might have to. There was an enormous park that could be accessed from it. Majida ran from the tram station to try to reconnoiter that park.

When she entered the Pavilion she thought she would see more Imbrians and guards around. The top floor of the Pavilion had been vacated quickly. While it was level to the highest point of Tower Eight, it was below the midsection of Kreuzung Core and there were habitats right above it. She could still see small crowds of people in the tiers below, perhaps trying to get to the lower habitats. There were a few broken storefront windows and some people rummaging, and there were lost and bewildered people in their ones and twos throughout, and a few distracted guards here and there, but in terms of the chaos Majida had thought she might see, it was downright peaceful at the top of the Pavilion.

“Hey! Shimii, the fuck are you doing here? There’s a shelter in place–”

Spatial Control.

Majida cleared the hole in the middle of the pavilion through which the spiraling staircase descended connecting the floors. She battered a K.P.S.D guard on the other side through a storefront window with her reappearance. An Imbrian woman who saw it took off running the opposite direction. Majida looked around. It’d be so convenient if she could set these bastards on fire– having to restrain herself meant abusing abilities she was far less practiced in. Her troubled breathing betrayed weariness.

“Damn it, if this tires me out–”

While catching her breath, she let herself trail off.

There were far too many things she needed to do that required even more power.

From the Pavilion’s top tier, Majida made her way through the northeastern exit, a glass and gold filigreed archway. There was a long and wide hall beyond it with a few more closed businesses that led to a broad and high fountain plaza breaking up the mall’s hallways. This was the place Majida remembered from wandering around Kreuzung the past week. A couple thousand folks could loiter in the park and its adjacent halls comfortably. There were no Imbrians around, not even the guards or any public workers. It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but there were a few places for the older folk to sit, and at least it was safer than staying in the tower. Majida doubled back toward the tram station–

“Madiha! Madiha al-Nakar, is that you? Madiha, please–”

Majida looked over her shoulder, recognizing that deep, girlish voice even in whimpers.

She turned around to find Homa Baumann running from the other end of the park.

Her work jumpsuit was completely drenched and dribbling a little trail of water. It was like she had fallen into the ocean, she had salt in her hair, her skin was clammy, her body was shaking. Majida stood speechless as the girl stopped in front of her and doubled over, a vibrodagger in one hand and an electric torch in the other, gasping for breath, feet trembling as if hardly able to bear her weight. She couldn’t imagine where this girl had been or what her body had been put through.

“Madiha– Madiha, please–”

“Calm down. I’m here. What happened to you?”

Majida briefly knelt down, until Homa forced herself back to a stand again.

She wiped her sleeve over her face, leaving behind a bit of salt on forehead and eyelids.

Her eyes were blaring red.

She was crying; and she was must have been crying a storm before.

Or she had been swimming with her eyes open and without protection.

“Were you in the station interstice?” Majida asked, putting the pieces together.

“Madiha–”

Homa stopped and caught enough of a breath to speak a full sentence.

“Madiha, I have to stop it. The Core Separation. I know who did it!” Homa whimpered.

“Kid that’s a really hard sell right now, you realize.” Majida said.

The girl grit her teeth and closed her fists and stomped the ground.

“G.I.A. agent! Kitty McRoosevelt! B.S.W. dock! She did it– Katarrans– she did it–”

Homa devolved into shouting names, but what blew Majida away was that she was correct.

In that moment Homa Baumann truly did know exactly who was responsible for their crisis.

She knew where they were and what they had done– and she was trying to stop them?

How had she gotten mixed up in this? But she knew the truth, there was no denying it.

Knowing the truth wasn’t enough, however. This crisis had a scale far beyond Homa.

It was insane to think that she could do anything to change the course of these events.

Majida grabbed hold of her shoulders. “Homa, I believe you, but you can’t stop this.”

“I have to!” Homa shouted at the top of the lungs. “I have to stop it! I have to go–”

“You’re going to get yourself killed! You need to stay put here! I’m bringing Kladuša!”

“Kladuša? You mean– Leija–”

For a moment, Homa’s eyes drew wide, and her expression grew paler and more distant.

“Is– Is Leija okay?” Homa asked.

“Yes. She’s taking charge of evacuating tower eight. It’s not safe there.” Majida said.

“It is safer than here, Khaybari. You cannot bring them here.”

Majida and Homa turned in the direction of the third voice.

Deep, breathy, spoken through the audio outputs of a fully sealed power armor helmet. Standing suddenly in the middle of the park was an enormous figure in a cloak and black power armor, an entire suit. His armor shimmered wherever a LED from the roof shone on the plates, in a dazzling pattern.

His helmet was shaped to include covers for his ears, as well as the vaguest representation of a real cat’s snout, housing his rebreather and audio output, a face like no Shimii on Aer actually had, for they were all fundamentally human in nature. His tail moved freely behind him, with flexible plates over the top, but below the armor, she caught a glimpse of tattered and scarred flesh with patches of grayed fur. He was taller than the two of them, well over two meters, and with his powered armor, he was much broader.

There he stood, implacable, making no movements, like a statue peering at them.

A living legend to the Shimii, a man who had risen out of the short-lived “Age of Heroes.”

“Ra–”

Homa’s voice was barely audible. She choked, sobbed. Her arms shook.

She peeled herself from Majida and turned and took bewildered steps forward and back.

“Radu– Why– You’re–”

Majida grit her teeth and said his name and title like a curse.

“Radu the Marzban.”

“Majida al-Khaybari. Stay away from the girl.”

His voice sent a shiver through her, not because of any power it then contained, but–

He had said her real name aloud so nonchalantly.

And it caused Homa to look over her shoulder, flashing a look of fear.

“Majida– Majida al-Khaybari–? Radu– you said–?”

Homa nearly fell from the anxiety of that moment. Majida’s felt a bitter swell in her heart.

It was like she didn’t know whether to step back and away from Majida or from Radu.

Like she was caught between two monsters and her brain could barely process it.

Majida hated it. She hated that the girl who wanted to rely on her was now terrified of her.

Homa Baumann had been lied to so much. And now Majida had lied to her too.

“Kid, I’m really sorry! But I’m not here to hurt you, or the tower’s Shimii!” Majida said.

“Your reckless actions and incitements have already brought them harm.” Radu interjected.

Majida closed her fists. She wouldn’t take that lying down– not from this bastard!

“That’s quite rich to hear from some gallivanting bandit who hasn’t done shit for them!”

“You broke the agreement which guaranteed their safety. You crossed a line.” Radu said.

“An agreement for them to be trapped in a ghetto without even the control room keys?”

Radu stood unfazed by her shouting. “An agreement to prevent further bloodshed.”

“You fucking traitor!” Majida shouted. “Do you really think you’ve prevented anything? If you approve of this ghetto then all you’ve done is agree to killing these people slowly rather than quickly! At least in a fight they would have agency over themselves! You’ve got them confined to a prison!”

“They are not ready to fight, so defying the Imbrians is nothing but choosing their death.”

Radu stood implacable, unmoving.

Majida clenched her fist so tightly it began to heat up, to flicker with stray fires–

Homa walked a few steps in Radu’s direction and interrupted the shouting match.

“Nobody has to die!” Homa shouted. “Radu, you’re here to stop this. That’s why you came here right? You knew there was going to be a crisis coming. So you met with Leija and that’s why she chose me to work for Imani. You know about Kitty, don’t you? You’re going to stop her. You’re going to stop her and stop all of this, and then nobody will get hurt. Please tell me I’m not wrong about this, Radu.”

Judging by her broken tone of voice, Homa’s rambling was willful self-delusion.

Homa have already suspected what Majida knew the moment she saw that armored freak.

“Homa, you need to rejoin our people and return to Tower Eight now.” Radu said.

That bastard Radu wouldn’t do anything! He was just here to corral the Shimii back to the ghetto!

“Radu,”

Homa’s shock-wide eyes streamed more and more tears down her cheeks.

Her lips trembled. She had a wild expression on her face.

“Radu, you’re a hero right? You– You have to be here to save everyone– Please–”

Radu the Marzban stepped forward, his heavy armored boots thudding loudly on the floor.

“Our people will be safer by standing aside and letting the Imbrians solve their own problems.”

Homa’s shoulders slouched, her arms slowly losing their strength. She looked faint.

Majida could see her aura spiraling. She was experiencing heartbreak, disillusionment.

“She believed in you; all of them did. And people call me an illusionist, you vile fraud.”

“Majida– Please don’t insult him.” Homa said. Her trembling words pleading her.

She called her by name, but she did not say it like a slur. Majida was taken aback. “Kid–”

“Please. Majida– just let me talk to him. So, then, Radu– do you care about me at all?”

Homa turned from Majida back to Radu. It was impossible to tell the man’s response.

In that occluding shell of metal, there was only his voice. No gestures, no expressions.

“I swore I would protect you. You and Leija Kladuša. I want you to be safe.” He said.

“Radu, if you want to protect me and you want me to be safe then please listen,”

Majida could see a strip of black color forming along the edge of Homa’s aura.

“Radu, I’m an Imbrian too.” Homa said. “I’m not just a Shimii. I’m also Imbrian.”

Those words came out with such an audible pain. Like spitting out a rotting, hanging tooth.

That pathetic little voice made Majida want to tear up with sympathy. That poor girl was in tatters.

Homa gathered her breath again. She spoke, with a few pauses, a few more breaths.

But more eloquently than Majida had ever heard her. She had been thinking this over.

“This isn’t a problem for the Shimii alone. People all over this station could die. People are dying as we speak. Whether from violence or neglect or accidents, people are dying, Radu. And I could’ve done something to stop it. But I made all the wrong choices. Everything is really, really hard for me Radu. Ever since you left me here, I’ve never been just a Shimii, and I’ve never been just an Imbrian. I’m enough of both to be hated by both, and not enough of either to be loved by either. Our worlds are so separated that I don’t even know how it was possible that I was born like this. But I’ve seen innocent people in both those worlds who don’t deserve this. People who don’t deserve to have their lives toyed with by Kitty or by Imani or anyone. I was so stupid. I wanted to play the big hero and to stop the bad guys, I tried to make everything so simple in my head so I could feel okay sitting around or running away. I never understood how complicated it was– I never even knew what it really looked like when someone died. But Radu, you’re back– you’re the real hero of this story, aren’t you? Radu the Marzban.”

Homa reached out her hand. Tears still streaming down her eyes, teeth chattering.

“Please–” She begged. “Radu, you can stop Kitty and save the Station right now. Right?”

In that moment, a sudden vibration transferred through the floor and into their bodies.

Far in the distance, there was the muted sound of a blast. And then a second, a third.

Rumble after rumble, causing the lights to blink even more than they already were.

Not an earthquake, not enough to shake everyone to the floor.

But Majida felt it in her gut. They must have all felt it.

She could imagine the ships outside, jockeying for position, cannons roaring.

The Republic of Alayze versus the Volkisch Movement, now in earnest.

“Kitty’s cavalry is finally throwing its weight around.” She murmured to herself.

Homa’s hand hung in the air unanswered. Even through the rumbling, she held out hope.

Then, Radu the Marzban extended his own hand return.

Raising his palm to her as if to squeeze her head from afar. “King’s Gaze.”

From around him, his aura began to extend like a mantle, smothering Homa’s own.

Dark green tendrils leaped out from him and coiled around Homa like snakes.

“Homa, you will return to Tower Eight. You will help the Shimii to return to safety.”

Homa’s tiny tail ceased fluttering, her ears drooped, her posture started to slouch.

She struggled as if trying to speak but unable to– she was unable to resist him.

His dark green aura tinted her own, flooding her with unbearable hopelessness–

In the next instant, Majida simply reacted, her sense of justice and outrage grown too hot.

“HOMA, RUN! RUN NOW!”

Vanishing from her spot, she appeared in front of Radu as if in mid-sprint.

With her fist already wound up for a strike.

Align one vector with my arm, use spatial control to cut the distance, and PUSH!

Putting all her strength both physical and psionic into one punch–

–connecting right into Radu’s armored sternum with the force of a cannon shell.

His aura scattered in every direction like a bursting balloon as Majida struck him.

Radu staggered back, his feet lifted and gliding over the metal floor for several seconds, before planting his greaves and going to down to one knee. That he didn’t tumble rear over head was a testament to his might, managing to grind himself to a stop. Nevertheless, a deep rift the size of Majida’s fist appeared on his mighty chestplate, exposing torn up artificial muscle and power cables and the innermost layer of armor lattice, streaked a moist red. His psionic hold over the girl was instantly broken. Majida stood between him and her, her own aura beginning to expand to potentially counter his influence.

She grinned with false confidence, looking over the outcome of the attack with fangs bared.

Ah– I really hoped I would do more than that. Killing him would’ve been nice.

Several of Majida’s fingers screamed with pain, feeling like hot jelly inside her gauntlet.

Katarran power armor was fearsome stuff. Majida’s body was shaking from the effort.

Raaya, I’m so sorry– you really married such a hot-headed and foolish woman.

Look what I’ve gotten us into, playing the hero for some kitten. Allah give me strength.

She glanced behind herself and saw Homa take off running as fast as her legs could sustain.

That kid had really put her in a spot. Majida could only hope she was running back to Leija.

But she couldn’t be responsible for her anymore. She had done all she could for her now.

As Radu moved to stand, he reached behind his back and withdrew a folded vibro-weapon.

Grinning, Majida outstretched her arms, a growing pyrokinetic fire in each of her palms.

“No onlookers. I can put an end to your legend as viciously as I desire.” She said.

“You are nothing but a pathetic imitation, with none of His grace and majesty.” Radu spat.

Radu engaged his vibro-halberd, and Majida felt a vicious excitement overcome her.

”Your meaningless defiance dooms all of our kin. I will impress upon you the order of things, Mahdist.”

Majida grinned. ”Rashidist scum always bending the knee to some reprobate. I’ll burn your order down.”


Danger! Danger!

“I know! I’m running!”

Homa clutched the necklace in hand and ran as fast as her abused legs could muster.

She was crying from such a depth in her heart, she had no idea how many more tears could be left, it felt like she would cry blood next. Sorrow in her chest like tight thorny coils constricting her heart and lungs. Her entire body was a knot of pain, but nothing hurt more in that moment than her heart or spirit or whatever it could be called. She couldn’t believe it– it was just too painful. She was heartbroken.

Why, Radu– why would the Marzban–

He was supposed to be a hero!

He was supposed to stand up for the Shimii!

Radu the Marzban, stalking the deep oceans and dark shadows of the Imbrium, punishing the Imbrians, raiding those who hurt or exploited the Shimii, giving his treasures to the needy folk and protecting their homes. Where had that man gone? Had he ever even existed? Hadn’t he saved Homa’s life? Hadn’t he protected Leija when she was in danger too? Had it all been just lies all along?

“He’s just following the Volkisch’s twisted plan! They’re not going to do anything!”

What did Homa care if he thought about her safety personally? If he cared about her?

“He’s a monster! All of his rhetoric! Majida was right! He’s nothing but a fraud!”

She could understand Imani– Imani was supposed to be the villain, wasn’t she?

And maybe– maybe Imani was just an idiot swept up in things like Homa was!

But what happened to the hero? Why wouldn’t Radu move a muscle to stop the crisis?

If he wasn’t going to stop the tragedy befalling the station, Homa could only hate him!

In that moment, her entire heart hated him! She hated him and she couldn’t stand him!

All of his stupid legends, his mythical deeds, the great bandit, the bringer of retribution!

Instead he wanted the Shimii to return to their ghetto as the station collapsed around them!

“Bastard! Useless, worthless evil bastard! You’re no hero! You betrayed us all!”

There were no heroes! The Shimii had no Knights, no soldiers! It was all stupid fantasies!

Even the armor-clad legend from the Shimii’s heroic era stood back and let all this happen!

I’m such an idiot! I kept thinking there was anything to the fact that he saved me!

Homa grit her teeth. She barely knew where she was running– it was all automatic.

What could she do now? What could she even do? Everything, everyone, had betrayed her!

You Are Courageous.

In her mind, that gentle voice to which she had no answer.

Homa paused, standing in front of the elevator down from the Pavilion.

She saw a group of Shimii trickling in from the tram station.

Where she was, she could still get to B.S.W. She could still confront Kitty herself.

Follow Your Heart.

Homa.

That little voice had so much trouble pronouncing her name.

It was the most tinny and unnatural thing it had said. Like it was making a huge effort.

Homa smiled to herself.

Whatever it was– it really did believe in her, didn’t it?

“I’m going crazy, little guy– but you’re really the only one who followed me here, huh?”

She was just talking to herself. There was no ‘little guy’. Her necklace couldn’t speak.

But the idea that she wasn’t alone after all gave her comfort and even courage.

Without even wondering whether the elevator was operational, she set her destination.

Down to the habitat below, across a hall, to a service elevator, down to the grimy depths.

Somehow, everything was still operating. Her luck had held out.

Homa made her way as fast as she could down to Bertrand Shore Works’ ramp.

She covered her mouth immediately at the sight she uncovered there.

A war zone, dominated by the scent of smoke and metal. That metal both the spent shells on the ground and from the iron in the copiously running blood. At the bottom of the ramp, the main bulkhead into B.S.W.’s dockyard had been blown open. There was a collection of human bodies in dark uniforms, collapsed at the door, collapsed at the walls around it, with a leg out of the door, with a leg or an arm peeking into the door and only hints of a red mess beyond it. Blood and bits pooled at the bottom of the ramp, a sea of unmentionable fractions belonging to once-whole bodies. On the wall across from the shattered bulkhead, were hundreds of marks the size of Homa’s fist left on the thick metal.

Dead bodies– so many dead men. Homa raised her hand to cover both mouth and nose rather than the mouth alone. Slowly, as if she feared rousing the ruined bodies, she moved forward step by step. Along with the bodies there was all sorts of equipment thrown about. Discarded assault rifles and grenade launchers, riot shields splintered to pieces. There were bits of drones scattered around, stray rotors and camera bodies and eerie cylinders on shattered legs and wings with flashing LEDs that made Homa fear them being undetonated mines or bombs. She could barely stand to look at any of it.

She neared the bulkhead, step by tenuous step, keeping her head level, to avoid them

Near the door–

she felt a touch.

Homa screamed and leaped back and nearly the dropped the knife in her free hand.

Off to the side of the bulkhead was a man, staring up at her, eyes foggy.

“Turrets.” He mumbled. “Turrets. Out there.”

His shoulder shook, but he could not move his arms anymore.

Unlike many of the bodies around him, he was not missing limbs or turned to paste.

However, he had dark-red, viciously bleeding wounds on his chest.

Homa knelt down in a sudden impulse of human sympathy–

Before seeing the red and white armband emblazoned with a black symbol on the man’s uniform.

She nearly fell to the floor behind herself, standing up to full height clumsily.

That symbol greatly troubled any sympathy she was feeling. She could not help him.

Peeling herself from the sight, she stacked next to the open door.

From her pocket, she withdrew the guard’s flashlight she had picked up and threw it.

It didn’t make it to the other side of the door before a shell sailed across the door.

Breaking up into pieces on the opposing wall and splitting the flashlight in two.

Homa covered her face, but her reaction would’ve been useless, had there been a blast of shrapnel she would have already been pierced before she could even bring up her hands. Regardless she could not fight her instinct, so she huddled quietly beside the door as if time would heal her invisible wounds.

When she finally worked up the guts to move again, she cried out.

“Kitty! Kitty, it’s Homa! Please stop the shooting! All the men here are dead!”

She yelled in the direction of the bulkhead, unable to look through it.

“Kitty please! I just want to talk to you! I came all this way! Please!”

Homa thought she heard laughter, faintly, from the direction of B.S.W.

“Run through quickly.”

Kitty had raised her voice, but it was still barely audible.

Regardless, Homa took the chance she got. If Kitty was lying then this was it.

On the literal threshold toward the potential end of her life.

Eyes shut, teeth grit, head down, Homa ran headlong out of the bulkhead.

Her legs screamed from the effort, her arms, her stomach, everything hurt immensely.

Every effort was pure agony, sweat like cold razors down her back, burning nerves.

But that pain meant she was still alive, still running forward.

She opened her eyes, and quickly shut them again.

All around Kitty’s yacht were katarrans in a similar state to the men in the ramp.

Around their bodies were the remains of what seemed like dozens of drones.

Atop the yacht, Kitty’s cannon turret continued to watch the bulkhead silently.

Through snatches of vision, Homa made it past the charnel house and around the Yacht.

Doubling over on the open space where she had been working on the Yacht’s paint job.

Gasping for breath, sweat dripping down her face and stinging her eyes.

Through the haze of exhaustion she finally saw her.

Kitty McRoosevelt, sitting with her back to the yacht. Her blond hair disheveled, her coat over her lap and legs, soaked in blood. She had a ruggedized suitcase-computer, perhaps for the turret controls. Across her cheek was a deep gash that streaked the lower left side of her face with blood. Her shirt looked like she had spit up on herself. There were signs of chaos around her. More unfortunate Katarrans. More drone remains. Dozens of blackened spots on the floor, even small holes. Explosive munitions? Homa did not know enough about weapons to put together what could have happened in more detail.

She still had her life, but she was standing among the dead.

There was no processing this for her battered brain. Her head was blank of anything.

Anything, except–

“Kitty. Please stop all of this. Please order your men to fix the core and leave.”

From the floor, Kitty scanned her face for a moment. She smiled.

“It crossed my mind. Once or twice. But they won’t listen to me– not anymore.”

Homa closed her fists and shouted.

“Don’t make excuses! You’re the boss of these people aren’t you? Make them stop!”

It was childish. It was always a childish, simplistic fantasy.

To think there was any “stopping” what had been unleashed here.

“Those soldiers in the Core Pylon are resolved to leave only in caskets.”

As if to demonstrate the depth of the crisis–

Kitty briefly moved aside the suitcase computer,

and the coat she had on her lap,

just enough to show Homa,

how her legs, or what remained of them,

were no longer part,

of what was recognizable as Kitty McRoosevelt.

“There’s so much blood.” Homa gasped. Her mind reeled. She only retained a glimpse.

And even then. That blurry red and brown and black photograph in her memory.

Was the most horrible thing she had ever seen up close and in detail.

“I’m going to die, Homa.” Kitty said. She hid her wounds again.

Faced with the severity of Kitty’s situation, Homa could not barrage her with all of the admonishments and hatred that she had planned to unleash. There was no point to it anymore. For Homa, the most hateful little thing she was capable of in that moment was that she suppressed the idea of offering to get Kitty medical attention. She knew in her condition, with how much blood she had lost, and God knew how deep her injuries truly went, it was pointless to offer or to withhold such an offer.

It made no difference either way– just the same as attacking her rhetorically.

Instead, Homa felt nothing but pure, crushingly silencing misery.

She couldn’t even ask ‘why’? She couldn’t even ask ‘what for’?

Why did I get jerked around like this? Why did she have to hurt everyone so much?

For what cause; for what creed. It didn’t matter. And she became afraid to say it.

As if those questions had a devastatingly pointless answer that would kill her to hear.

Kitty averted her gaze. When she looked off into the distance, even with all her wounds.

She looked beautiful. Tragically beautiful and peaceful.

Like someone– who shouldn’t have done this. Who should have been better than this.

“Homa, I wish that I could say that I’m dying without regrets, because maybe it would assuage your tender little heart. I thought that I was hard enough, that I had fully prepared myself for it– but death has broken me.” She lifted a weak arm, holding herself. Weeping. “I’m so scared. At first, it hurt so bad. I thought I would die of shock. But now it’s numb. All of my guts are cold below this suitcase. Don’t let anyone tell you they can stare death in the face and laugh, Homa. They just don’t know– your own death will be so much different than when you see others die, even others that you deeply love. It’s so terrifying– I wish I could turn back the clock on all of it, Homa. I really, truly, wish I could.”

Homa averted her own gaze from Kitty.

“Don’t talk so much. It’ll only make it worse.” Homa said.

Maybe she meant Kitty’s injuries. Maybe she meant her own instead.

At that moment, her thoughts were so mixed up that she didn’t even know.

“I was fucked up from the start.” Kitty said. “You were a poor little thing, Homa, you had no choices, but I had everything the world could give. My family had humble wealth, we were a military family with connections, we were on the cusp of being a political family. I wanted adventure, thrills, to hold people’s lives in my hand like pieces in a game. I thought I was on top of the world and invincible. With all of the might of the greatest country in the world behind me. But I was fucked up from the start, Homa. I was never good. I was never going to be good. Because I chose to do all of this, and nothing else.”

“Shut up.” Homa said. Speaking through renewed sobs. “You’re not dead yet are you?”

“I am dead, Homa. Maybe you have the power to talk to corpses. Because I’m truly dead.”

Kitty’s arm struggled to move, but she produced something from the pocket of her coat.

A little black plastic gadget with a laser emitter. It scanned Homa’s face.

She put it on the ground and then slid it toward Homa. It stopped short of her boots.

“I’ve been dead since the beginning. I have a dead woman’s name. But you’re alive, Homa.”

In that moment, the station rumbled again. It was stronger at B.S.W. than at the Pavilion.

B.S.W. was closer to the ocean. All of the shockwaves from the munitions were closer too.

“Homa. The Volkisch are going to attack this place again and again. I expect there will be more suicide drones deployed. My turret is on its last drum of ammunition, and I’m a dead woman. You still have a chance at life. You can either run into the station interstice, or back the way you came, but in either direction, you will still be stuck inside here, without any power or hope, beset by enemies.”

She looked over her shoulder at the berths and smiled.

“Homa. You need to go out there. It’ll be risky– but I can help you escape into the water.”

Those words broke Homa out of her stupor.

Escape.

Into the water.

Leave Kreuzung and sail out into the open ocean. Wasn’t that what she wanted?

It felt so long ago, that wish of hers, it felt like a fantasy from another era.

“Can you do something for me, Homa?” Kitty asked.

Homa bent down to pick up the little gadget Kitty had slid toward her.

“What is it?” Homa asked.

Kitty smiled at her again. She looked strangely serene.

From the pocket of her coat, she withdrew a ring. A simple silver band.

She put it on her finger.

With that finger, she pointed weakly. Her gentle smile turned into a sharp grin.

“My gun ended up over there. Those drones are scary stuff. Can you bring it to me?”

Homa looked and found the gun on the ground.

She knew what it meant, but she was completely numb. She couldn’t object to it.

Almost mindlessly, she walked over to the gun, picked it up, and walked to Kitty.

Silent, with distant eyes, she handed Kitty the pistol and Kitty took it.

Her hands were shaking harder than ever.

“Homa.” Kitty’s voice was starting to slur. “Is there a Shimii prayer you can say for me?”

Those words turned to leaden weights in the pit of Homa’s stomach.

She had never learned much Fusha or practiced many prayers.

Whether or not Kitty deserved them, Homa could not fulfill this wish.

“I understand. It’s okay.” Kitty said. “Homa, do you think I’ll see her again?”

She showed Homa the ring on her finger again. Homa understood the implication.

Homa Baumann was certain that if there was a blazing fire for evildoers in the afterlife, then Kitty McRoosevelt would be burning in it. No matter what Homa herself wanted in that moment because of her soft heart and how unjust she felt this entire situation was to everyone. Kitty was absolutely hellbound. Perhaps Kitty’s wife would comfort her in the fire of their own making. Perhaps there was nothing hereafter but darkness that was so impenetrable that their souls would never find each other.

Follow Your Heart.

Once again, that gentle little voice had spoken. Homa said what she wanted to say.

“You will.” Homa said. There was little emotion behind it. She couldn’t muster any.

Kitty smiled rapturously. It was this smile, this euphoria, that told Homa the ultimate truth.

She really was going to die. She was dying right now. Maybe– she really was dead already.

In front of Homa’s eyes, was the joyous dead woman, Kitty McRoosevelt.

“Homa, turn around, and put the key I have given you into a hole in the back of my yacht. That will open up the cargo chamber and stand up a vehicle for you. I know for a fact that you can make use of it. Take it and go now. Don’t turn around even once. I don’t want you to remember me like this. From now on, your destiny is out in that ocean. If you want to stop this– then rise up above Kreuzung. Find the Cruiser Eisenhower. There is a recording loaded on the machine. Play it for them, please.”

Homa stood, paralyzed, in front of Kitty.

Then she heard the autocannon above them fire a shot.

“Homa! Turn around and go! Don’t die here! Don’t turn back!“ Kitty shouted.

In a panic, Homa did turn from Kitty and run to the back of the yacht.

She found the obvious hole in the yacht’s flat stern section and inserted the key.

One last time, the key scanned her face from inside the hole with its laser.

Then, the back of Kitty’s yacht began to open, as if unpacking a metal giftbox. Side walls separated at acute angles from the stern plates which lifted overhead, while the floor extended a pair of scaffolds that rolled something out onto the floor of the dockyard and then stood it up, nearly seven meters tall. To think that this was all the “junk” they had casually detected was in Kitty’s yacht and kept under confidentiality. It was a gantry– a gantry for a full-fledged military combat Diver.

Homa found herself in its shadow, looking up in a trance.

Her Volker had been practically nothing but a cockpit with arms, legs, a head and the thrusters.

This was a fully armored military machine with military-grade weaponry and systems. A broad chassis with an angled chestplate tapered into a waist connecting two hip thrusters and the legs to intakes with armored caps. It had sleeker arms than those of the Volker but better armored, with elegant plates patching several gaps. It had a more aggressive and angular profile while maintaining the look of a squat, stanced human with heavy shoulders and a helmeted, visored head atop the chest.

Unlike the Volker, which had a rounded backpack, the backpack equipped on this unit was rectangular and more substantial. Intakes were located on the backpack itself, as well as on the shoulders, and the jets that extended from behind the shoulders and pack almost looked like wings. Two long, rectangular pieces of equipment were attached to each side of the backpack, and there were weapons on a magnetic strip just below the backpack too. A long arm and a folding vibroaxe perhaps. Homa had never seen anything like it. Everything looked so sturdy and tightly packaged, but it looked so much more powerful.

Painted a stark white with red accents. Towering over the bobtailed Shimii.

When she took a step toward it, she saw the laser on the yacht sweep over her face again.

As if in response, the unit bent down to its knees, and the gantry released several cables.

On the Diver, the chestplate split in half to reveal the cockpit, as if beckoning her inside.

Homa stared at the titan of metal in front of her.

Looking down at her own feet and weeping. Wiping her tears for more to take their place.

Leija–

Leija and all of the Shimii of Tower Eight. She really was going to leave them behind.

“I’m sorry, Leija. I’m really sorry. I’ll– I’ll promise– I’ll see you again. I promise.”

All of this time, everything that happened. And they wouldn’t get to talk at all.

It was so stupid, but she really wanted to see her again. She wanted to thank her.

Despite everything that happened. Homa wished she could see Leija again.

But if Homa ran back or stayed here she would be killed by the Volkisch.

Kitty was right. Homa had no place to go but forward. Nowhere to turn back to anymore.

She climbed up into the open cockpit and took her seat between the controls.

Just as the cockpit closed around her, she thought she heard a gunshot ring out.

Homa would not entertain her imagination of what had happened.

Within seconds of the cockpit doors sealing, her face lit up with the boot-up screens.

Symbols of the Republic of Alayze flashed by. Homa’s eyes darted between them.

Red, white and blue flags; a sigil of an eagle grasping arrows, surrounded by a wreath.

An owl behind a shield; E Pluribus Unum. Finally, the OS booted with unit designations.

A logo for the manufacturer, RAYHEED. A stylized blue and white star.

2nd Generation Model RYHD-08 S.E.A.L “Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: Delta.”

Heavy Assault Platform was the unit role. She was just mindlessly reading things.

“Freedom and peace, even if it costs our souls.”

Homa read the motto and it sent a chill down her spine. She gripped the control sticks.

Tested the pedals, disengaged the acceleration locks, checked the battery and fuel levels.

With a slight tilt, she moved the machine– made it stand upright.

That sense of shifting metal around her, movement, mechanical, kinetic.

She faced the open berth in front of her and the darkness beyond it.

Kitty must have set the berths to two-way automatic entry. Homa could escape into the ocean.

Her eyes scanned her various cameras, the screen with the weapons display.

She took in a deep breath. This wasn’t a dream, or a fantasy. Her body was screaming at her too much for that to be the case. Her brain reeled with all that she had seen, in the span of hours she felt like everything in her life had been broken to pieces she could not put back together. Now there was death at every turn. She wanted to scream, to cry even more, but she couldn’t wait any longer.

It was a nightmare–

But she was no longer entirely powerless within the grasp of the schemers around her.

Feeling a rising sense of urgency, of catharsis, pain and adrenaline mixed–

“Homa Baumann, S.E.A.L. Delta! Launching!”

Homa cried out as heroically as she could and the Delta threw itself forward into the berth.

As soon as it closed behind her, and as soon as the exterior door began to flood.

She slammed on her pedals and pushed her control sticks forward with all her strength.

Surging out of Kreuzung and into the chaotic Imbrium ocean outside the walls.


Over Kreuzung’s aquaspace, ten ships of the Republic Navy had descended into the crater. Long, boxy profiles with heavily armored prows, thick conning towers and fins, unmistakably utilitarian and mass produced. Their main distinguishing feature were their unmoving rows of cannons which were built into the prow and not on turrets, with limited facing. It was only this weakness which allowed Kreuzung’s defenders to cling on as long as they had during the raid and resist the attackers.

Volkisch patrol cutters and a single Frigate, “flagship” of Kreuzung’s local defense fleet, rounded the towers and the core station, keeping mobile and coordinating dozens of Divers to slow the Republic’s advance. The Republic deployed their own mecha defensively as they attempted and partially succeeded in descending several vessels in between the eastern towers, Three, Four and Five.

A couple of Republic Frigates managed to break through to the seafloor along with a Troopship while the rest of the force remained mobile and covered the aquaspace higher in the water table. But their entry into the tower was on the opposite side of the complex, at B.S.W. near Tower Eight. And every meter was proving hard fought as the raiders attempted to wind around the southern towers.

Then, just when it seemed like the Republic might have the upper hand, more enemies appeared on the sonar. Unbeknownst to the Republic, they had been compromised, and there would be more enemies than the Patrol fleet coming from all directions. Headed their way first was a Ritter class Cruiser, able to fight ton to ton with any ship in the Republic fleet, the Greater Imbria. Alongside it was a strange vessel, shaped almost like a black manta ray, long with a roughly diamond shaped chassis that tapered into wings housing numerous thrusters, its round deck bearing numerous gun emplacements.

Experimental stealth vessel Mrudah, pride of the Zabaniyah fleet.

Because of its profile and relative quiet compared to the expectedly noisy Greater Imbria, the Republic found it hard to tell the position or even the existence of the Mrudah until it was upon them. The Republic’s Cruiser and remaining Frigates prepared to meet the Greater Imbria specifically, and cannons once again traded blows directly over Kreuzung’s waters, sending great shockwaves below. The arriving Volkisch forces began to accelerate, hoping to take advantage of their turrets against the stationary guns of the Republic ships, while the Republicans relied on their massed raw firepower.

“For fuck’s sakes! Shoot faster! Didn’t we have the cannons retuned?”

Heidelinde Sawyer heaped abuse on her gunners as the Greater Imbria shook around her.

There were no direct hits, but the amount of ordnance hurtling the Cruiser’s way was unnerving. The Volkisch were on edge, and Sawyer nearly jumped when Rue Skalbeck called her name.

“Sturmbannführer! We’ve got a communication from the Mrudah!” shouted the adjutant.

“Put it on for me! The rest of you, I don’t want to see a wasted second in our barrage!”

Regardless of her misgivings, Sawyer then received and accepted a set of battle orders.

The Greater Imbria would continue to engage and draw attention. Meanwhile, from the depths of the Mrudah, the main force of the Volkisch Shimii Zabaniyah got underway, dropping in a dozen Divers from numerous deployment chutes. At long last arriving to fulfill their intentions for Kreuzung.

“Model RM/SF-15X Muawiya. Vesna Nasser, launching.”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.11]

Even with floodlights the creature loomed menacingly as if in shadows of its own making.

“It’ll kill her if I don’t do something.”

She felt so small, weak, useless in the cockpit of the stolen Strelok, its seat much bigger than her, the controls difficult to turn, tuned for a grown adult rather than a skinny teenaged trainee. Taking breathless glances between her monitors as if one of the cameras would offer a solution, flipping through her weapons on the touchscreen as if begging for a grenade launcher or torpedo to appear.

Between the thick steel struts holding up the substation the creature danced, snaking its way around the captive Strelok in its thick, slimy worm-like body. Hundreds of tiny crab-like legs flailing needlessly as most of the control was provided by long dorsal fins like black curtains swaying off its thick blue segmented hide like it was both crab and eel. All of its thrust came from pairs of hydrojets coming out of its body on adjustable limbs. Its snake-like head peeled back to reveal fangs that unfolded like four extra pairs of crushing legs, tentatively scratching the surface of the mecha in its grasp.

Around it was a cloud of sheer malicious black gas that Shalikova could not place.

Perhaps it was exuded by the hydrojets? Was it corrosive?

It was not the fear of what it could do that stilled her, that forced her to watch helplessly.

It was the fear of it that paralyzed her completely, irrationally. Drowning her in evil emotion.

She thought she was brave.

She thought she could come out here and save everyone. That she would be the big hero.

That she would kill the bad guy– if she could shoot, she would kill it–

“Zasha– It’ll kill her– if I don’t something, it’ll kill her–”

They were only supposed to be training! Nothing was supposed to go wrong!

Suspended in the ocean immobile in her prison of steel.

Shalikova watched the creature squeeze, the fangs scratch curiously on metal.

She could have pressed the trigger.

She could have moved the sticks.

She could have killed it– she needed to kill it–

Done anything but sink gently centimeter by centimeter on idle thrust.

But despite all her training and all her ambition she was frozen in place.

“Sonya! Stay back!”

Reacting on impulse as if the voice had activated her paralyzed muscles, Shalikova pushed the sticks forward until her arms and shoulders went sore, slammed the pedals down until her legs could stretch no further. Her fingers twitched on the trigger and the Strelok began firing wildly as it charged the monster in front laying down a spray of explosive rounds on the back of the beast’s hide drawing blood the thickness of mud and gore a bright red color that seemed unreal to bear witness–

Six eyes fixed on her that seemed to expand to cover her entire screen–

Alien malice-filled eyes showed killing intention–

Until there was nothing around her not even steel but eyes and black cloud bloodlust–

Screaming, Shalikova found herself transition without pause to a place all white.

She felt her blood rush, her skin brim, but she was seated, she was weighed down.

Thick blankets had been put over her body. There was a pillow behind her.

She was in an all-white room in the medbay, in her own bed. Shaking. She began to weep.

Looking around–

–there was no ocean, no cameras, no metal, no guns, or monsters.

Through foggy eyes she saw two women seated next to her.

Wearing tight black pilot suits with green uniform coats loosely draped over the shoulders.

One was a blond, long hair, soft but avoidant expression;

One silver-grey haired like a proud wolf, cold pink eyes with a smile bittersweet;

They were both looking at her with tears in their eyes. Hesitant to speak.

“Where’s Zasha?”

Shalikova’s words made Illya Rostova bring a hand up to her own face.

While Valeriya Peterberg averted her gaze and whimpered, “It’s not your fault.”

Drawing her eyes wider and wider, her jaw slackening, her shoulders quivering.

That young girl in the bed felt her whole world crashing around her.

“You’re lying.” Shalikova said. “You’re lying Valeriya. It was my fault.”

Shalikova clapped her hands over her eyes, weeping, shaking, she screamed.

“It was my fault! It was my fault! It was my fault!”

Screamed helplessly and beat her own head as she realized rather than save Zasha–

“Sonya, please!” Illya said. “Please don’t. Please don’t hurt yourself.”

“It’s not your fault!” Valeriya whimpered again almost as helplessly.

Both of them leaned over the bed and grabbed Shalikova into their embrace, each of them grabbing Shalikova’s arms to prevent her from hitting herself anymore. Held in their strong grip, watching them weep on her almost as strongly as she herself was weeping, unable to run from it all–

Shalikova felt more helpless, useless, worthless, than she could possibly imagine.

She was no hero. It was her fault that Zasha was killed.


Around the enemy the cloud of colors and textures and feelings intensified.

Shalikova felt a strange heat in the back of her eyes that drew tears.

For a moment she was chilled in place by the sight of the enemy Diver.

It had taken Ahwalia apart like he was nothing– how had he not had any time to react?

She had to be careful around it. She felt– She felt power from it.

It was an insane thing to feel, but this was no Volker, this was not piloted by a patrolman.

There was no sense to thinking such a thing, she had fought soldiers before!

And still she could not deny that this enemy felt different, despite her rational self.

Around the machine some forty odd meters away a cloud of black, red, and purple roiled and seethed. Larger than the Cheka by nearly a meter, with the sleek design of the Jagd that made the shoulders and chest seem like a single unbroken triangular piece, armed with beastly claws, an autocannon, and a strange projectile on the shoulder opposite the gun. Rather than an integrated water system it had some novel-looking external jets affixed in wing-like mounts on the shoulders, hips, and legs.

Rather than a symbolically humanoid head it had an animal-like, pointed face.

She could feel sounds and thoughts sloughing off as if the machine was broadcasting, as if its eldritch signals were so powerful that they could not help but affect the surrounding waters. Without bidding the help of her nascent powers, Shalikova felt as if the machine was drawing out her psionics–

–maybe even pulling her paranormal sixth sense into its orbit.

Hah! I’ll make you bow before me too, you and the pretty little toy soldier you’re riding!

Again, a girl’s voice–

From the machine’s right shoulder, a 20 mm autocannon flashed.

With that, battle was joined. The enemy made the first move and Shalikova had to react.

It was the same kind and caliber as the defensive gas guns on ships, and in an instant dozens of vapor bubbles the size of a head began to burst all around Shalikova, forming chaotic gas bubbles and sending shockwaves rattling into her machine. Shalikova took the Cheka into a sudden dive to avoid the attack and shook her head to clear out the airy thoughts the machine had momentarily provoked in her.

She had to think about maneuver, she had to focus– build up speed, plan her attack–

Behind her, the machine pursued her, diving toward the sea floor at her back.

Despite its bulk, it was a sleek shadow when it moved, quick and agile.

Water ejected behind it in great waves that made it seem it wore a shimmering cloak.

Shalikova’s fingers tightened on the controls. “It’ll catch up if I don’t do something.”

Khadija hadn’t just taught her to move quickly but to move effectively for the situation.

In this case, the most effective move to seize the initiative back was–

Shalikova swung her sticks back and to the side and shifted pedals from the accelerator.

Without thrust, the density of the water very quickly halted her movement.

Executing a fluid turn, she came to face the enemy.

In that instant, she had her rifle trained right at the center of the approaching machine.

It was a game of chicken that the enemy unit gave up by losing its nerve.

Correcting itself haphazardly due to the suddenness of the Cheka’s stall in front of it, the enemy machine lost its own momentum and became a prime target for a few seconds of focused gunfire.

Shalikova held down the trigger on her AK-96, and firing two-handed from the hip, she sprayed a long burst of over a dozen 37 mm shells that impacted and exploded in rapid succession, obscuring her target in a cloud of bubbles and vapor, and burst shockwaves in the water.

Her sharp sight picked up nearly instantly that she had not destroyed her target–

–but its actual status bewildered her, nonetheless.

What she saw as the gas slowly wafted away from the enemy machine was its dimly glowing outstretched left arm, digits now spread radially around a palm with what seemed like the mouth of a mechanical lamprey in the center. Held out in front of it like a shield, the hand was entirely undamaged. Shalikova quickly ran through the filters on her cameras and realized that the hand was generating heat.

It was electrified or energized somehow– was it some close-in defense system?

“She just stopped and took all the shots dead-on.” Shalikova whispered to herself.

Let’s stand around staring! I could do this all day! Don’t you feel helpless?

The voice again– but it wasn’t entirely coherent because it wasn’t speech, it was thoughts–

It wasn’t that the enemy pilot lost her nerve to chase.

She wanted to prove that such an attack would not even faze her.

Shalikova could feel her heart pounding and her veins pulsing beneath her own skin.

This enemy was different — she felt less like a soldier and more like she enjoyed killing.

Like a monster–

Head pounding, fear pulsing in her veins, Shalikova took off running again.

Moving in a sweeping zig-zag to avoid gunfire that did not come.

Within seconds Shalikova realized the enemy had not charged full-tilt after her.

But her keen eyes detected the tiniest bit of movement–

That projectile from its shoulder detached and took flight through the water on its own.

Shalikova saw it arc around her flank at a devastating speed.

For an instant, swimming alongside her, there was this silver cylindrical object the size of a torpedo. She could see a small jet and some hydrodynamic surfaces on its hull, but no cables or things that she could recognize as sensors. How was it guided? Had it been anyone else that would’ve been chalked up to the imagination, but Shalikova had an eye for details, and if she could not see a cable in that moment, there had to be none. But then, how was that unit being controlled wirelessly with such responsiveness?

Nothing about this projectile made sense to her, not its speed, not its design–

Then as she almost doubted she was even seeing it the projectile it turned its nose to face her.

Arrayed around its cylindrical nosecone were four barrels that began to spin up.

Buzzing and booming like the cry of a beast barely muffled by water.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and she pulled on her controls–

As dozens of 37 mm projectiles flew from her side in a furious spray of metal.

Slicing the water over and around her, low booming as the shockwaves buffeted her.

Shalikova launched her Cheka skyward and hurtled abruptly out of the fire with every bit of thrust she could find leaving dozens of seething orbs of vapor and gas behind her. With miraculous dexterity she prevented the Cheka from being overwhelmed and escaped with barely a scrape– but behind her the lines of supercavitating gunfire paused only briefly as the pursuing gun executed a turn.

It darted behind her with incredible acceleration almost as if it was unaffected by the water.

Once its nose swung her way again its barrels started to flash once more.

Bursts of exploding shells firing with control and precision, tracking her, firing ahead and behind and around her– trying to suppress her? Alter her movement? Shalikova jerked her sticks, thrusting up and fluidly arcing back down in a dive, swinging from side to side, losing the enemy’s fire only briefly before the flashing barrels sent the next burst crashing her way creeping closer and closer.

Had she been in the Strelok that slightest loss of maneuverability would have cost her dearly.

She was barely staying ahead, barely surviving– “It’ll kill me if I don’t do something!” she thought.

Waiting until she was in the peak of an ascent–

Shalikova dove and in the same movement, turned on her heel.

She fired her rifle behind her, spraying in the direction of the autonomous gun.

As soon as she rapped the trigger she knew she was not going to hit.

Aborting from that maneuver she threw her weight forward into a dive–

And jerked back, pulling so hard she felt the joysticks would tear off their mounts.

Her forward cameras filled with bubbles and gas for a split second.

As the glowing red claw on the mecha’s right arm sliced through the water right in front of her.

That claw belonged to a beast– an alien beast that was filled with intention to kill–


All of you are getting written up! All of you! I have so many complaints!

Dominika Rybolovskaya was seething.

Never in her life had she worked with such a collection of rockheaded martyr complexes!

She could understand the squad leader feeling responsible for Ahwalia, but the rest–

“Lebedova, up front!”

With McKennedy, al-Shajara and Shalikova having dispersed suddenly, Valya Lebedova in their Strelok was all that stood between Rybolovskaya and the remaining enemies. Lebedova, having been given lead of the squadron, was probably deliberating in their cockpit– but the enemy would not wait. Just moments after the two of them were abandoned a Jagd swept out of the marine fog to attack.

Rybolovskaya hefted the heavy rifle in her Strelkannon’s hands and fired a timed shot.

Despite the chaos she managed to land the shell right where she wanted–

A vapor bubble bloomed between Lebedova and the Jagd, forcing the latter to disengage.

At that moment Lebedova seemed to realize the danger and began to fire on the Jagd.

Lines of supercavitating rounds sliced across water, making a lot of noise without effect.

The Jagd fluidly recovered from its failed attack and took off to circle around them.

That sleek, slippery mech was going to be a problem, and one that could kill them all.

She needed Lebedova to be more aggressive! She had to chase it off!

Shit. Shit. I can’t believe I wish that idiot was out of the hospital and out here with me.

Supporting fire underwater was almost a cruel joke.

Despite all the firepower she was laden with, Dominika could not target anything too far away.

Passive acoustic detection on Divers was not very precise at long ranges. It could, basically, alert the pilot that a target was coming and posit a rough angle of attack, but it was not something she could target with in any precise way. It was just a big warning box on the screen showing her in which direction something could have been coming from based on low fidelity sounds. The only way to get a precise lock in order to shoot from a long distance was a target paint from another machine. Short of a laser effector painting a target for her, all Rybolovskaya could rely on to aim her weapons was her sight.

Her sight was an extremely poor substitute for a full-fledged targeting sensor package.

In the water, Rybolovskaya’s vision was theoretically effective out to around 50 meters, and this did not account for the sub-cameras having a significantly worse resolution than the main camera on the mecha’s head, so a lot of the time her vision was essentially 50 meters in front and 25-30 behind. This was also in perfectly lit conditions– normally she was only seeing what she had her floodlight cluster pointed toward, because the rear LED effectors were far less bright than the forward floodlights anyway.

In essence, when Rybolovskaya stared at her monitors, she saw mostly a dark blue environment, made slightly brownish by the marine fog, in the direction of her lights. Otherwise everything was black. In this cone of well-lit vision she could see the figures of the Jagd and the Volkannon that had remained to fight them, but the Jagd, which was in motion, quickly darted up and over the range of the main camera, and as it circled around, the sub-cameras could barely capture it. Rybolovskaya’s Strelkannon was too heavily burdened to chase or dance with the Jagd, so she needed to anticipate its attack and then throw herself away from it with a shot of the vernier boosters. This is why she needed an escort!

“Lebedova, I can’t avoid its attack! You need to engage it!”

“I’m trying! I can’t overextend, that Jagd is fast!”

Lebedova was technically proficient, but they were hesitating due to the circumstances.

Sticking to the orbit of the Strelkannon, trying to interdict the Jagd, it became a game.

That Jagd began circling around them, taunting, making as if it would approach before backing off and going up or around them, keeping a distance of just over 30 meters as the bubbles in its wake outlined the cage that it had trapped them in. It knew the limitations of the mecha it was preying on.

The Jagd could always face them as it dove and banked around its prey, allowing it to make full use of its lights and sensors while its enemies had to rely on passive acoustics and lower resolution subcameras to track it. It was making full use of its speed and the fact that it possessed the initiative. If Lebedova never challenged it, the Jagd could simply bide its time, pick a moment and attack from any direction.

Rybolovskaya wanted to shout again and again for Lebedova to go attack it but–

She understood all too well that one could only fight in the ways one was motivated to.

They’re just not up to it. I’d be asking them to go get cleaved. No, I have to do something.

“Firing 88-mm anti-ship torpedo!”

Lebedova cried out. “Wait what? I didn’t give an order though–!”

Aiming at the empty ocean around the Jagd, Rybolovskaya loosed a single torpedo.

“Lebedova, dive down!”

Lebedova obediently launched into a dive, while Rybolovskaya took her mech climbing up.

Within the confines of the Jagd’s cage–

Its prey escaped in opposite directions, and a massive explosion went off in the center.

Caught while circling close to the center, the Jagd paused suddenly and pulled away.

For a brief moment, Rybolovskaya had her floodlights and main camera trained on it.

One snap shot from her 50 mm rifle–

There’s no shot!

There’s a shot!

In the smallest possible unit of time Dominika adjusted her aim just before executing a full press of the trigger; the tiniest movement of a muscle prompted by the briefest movement of her eyes; signals processing and acted upon in an impossible instant of human action; there’s a shot!

Like the simultaneous step and strike of a trained sword fighter, acting within thought.

One supercavitating shell cut right through the center of the explosion and struck.

One of the Jagd’s arms severed, splitting just below the shoulder, ejecting metal.

Dominika felt a rush but could not savor the victory for long.

Her cockpit monitors flashed a rare warning: a radiation effect had been detected.

That could only mean–

She was painted for an attack! That Jagd was painting her!

In the next instant, a round from out of sight impacted her shoulder, nearly destroying the missile mount that was set upon it. She was lucky it didn’t blow– she was forced to detach and abandon it.

“That Volkannon!”

After chastising Valya in her head for their poor performance, she got drawn away by that Jagd and ignored the presence of the Volkannon– now she couldn’t even see where it had gone after shooting! She had no idea where it had come from! With one hand she set the flank camera about tracing the angle of the shot from its footage, a subroutine already programmed into it, while the other hand remained on one stick, taking the Diver in a steep diagonal dive away from the Jagd, anticipating more shells.

“Valya, sniper!” Dominika shouted.

“Can you go after it? I’ll try to put any pressure I can on that Jagd!”

Can you go after it? They were supposed to be the leader!

Everything had gone to crap! Dominika could hardly believe this turn of events.

“But I’m also completely helpless here!” She shouted back. It was painful to admit.

Around her there was only the vast, dark expanse of the ocean.

Even Valya was beginning to disappear from her cameras.

She could expend some or all of her ordnance to take out the Volkannon if she knew where it was located. That would render her unable to attack the Antenora with anything but her rifle, but the plan was already cocked up. If they could at least the disable the enemy’s escorts then they had more room for the Brigand itself to become their weapon against the enemy ship, freeing Dominika from this burden.

Dominika grit her teeth. Everything was too quiet, too dark.

Alone, she was useless.


“Let Gertrude and Samoylovych do most of the work.” Norn had said. “You have nothing to prove to me, but Gertrude Lichtenberg certainly does. You’ve got one cartridge loaded by the way. Don’t use it unless I tell you to. There’s no need for you to push yourself for this mob, so don’t overdo it.”

Selene grinned and giggled to herself. Swelling with emotion and expected triumph.

Why would she leave anything to those two muscleheads?

In the water, she was the mightiest– she would fight to her heart’s content.

Norn always warned her about the cartridges, but at this rate she would not even need one. She had already taken apart one of the mercenaries and she had the other one cornered like a lab rat in an experiment box. Selene Anahid, pilot of the Jagdkaiser, was luxuriating in the sense of power that the Jagdkaiser fed into her mind. She knew who she was now: a perfectly created specimen.

All that was left was to demonstrate her superiority to one meager prey after another.

“You’re only alive because I only have one Option left, little mouse.”

That machine quivering before her was certainly interesting.

Its profile and performance put it strikingly close to a Magellan class mecha, sleek and fast and with a pilot who was no slouch, but there was no comparison between it and the Jagdkaiser. It was workman-like compared to her mighty steed. And of course, that pilot, crafty as they had proven in the few blows they had traded, could not measure up to Selene’s vast psionic abilities in the slightest.

Pirouetting about in the water to avoid the Option’s line of fire.

That pilot didn’t understand Selene’s intentions.

Corralling them about the water by denying space, Selene had trapped them into melee.

Now they were meters before her, in the grasp of her claws. She dodged once–

“It’s over, little mouse!”

Selene’s antennae stood on end, dimly glowing with sinews the colors of a rainbow.

With her mind, she guided the Option and controlled its weapon system, a four-barreled chain gun firing 37 mm rounds. Its maximum rate of fire would empty its enormous magazine in twenty seconds, so Selene fired it in quick bursts of 20-30 rounds at a time. Even this seemingly small amount of rounds was far more impressive than the 5-10 round bursts from an ordinary 37 mm rifle. Her enemy would see enormous slashing lines of gunfire chasing them across the ocean, saturating the water around them with orbs of gas and fire creating a no man’s land wherever they dared to move, trapping them.

Not only was the Option controlled psionically, but with a thought, Selene could push it with kinetics in any direction easily overcoming water resistance. Between efficient control surfaces, tightly packaged thrusters and a bit of psionic aid, the Option could turn in water with alacrity unknown to any man-made weapon or even any native of the sea. It was the ultimate psionic weapon, entrusted only to her hands. Its only small flaw was that it could not shoot while being pushed, or it would misfire. Irrelevant.

Her superheated claw slashed at the little mouse with passion and ferocity.

Dancing to the flute song of Selene’s violence the mecha thrust itself up over the claw.

Trails of frothing vapor rose from the red-hot digits nearly slashing the mecha’s leg.

With a grin on her face and a fire in her chest that burned hotter than the claws, Selene sent a snap thought to the Option and swung it in a tight spiraling turn. Circling around her, rising in the water column above even the enemy and then snapping its nose to face the little mouse in a space of mere seconds. She was trapped, no place to escape, the Jagdkaiser below, the gun above.

Lines of slashing bullets–

And the rising, surging claws of the Jagdkaiser–

“You’re mine now mouse!”

No matter which direction they fled to–

Down–?

Suddenly the mecha threw itself down at the Jagdkaiser.

Selene impulsively swung the heat claw and found her digits digging into the metal–

of an assault rifle–!

That mecha slammed rifle into claw slowly melting it into a blob over the sharp digits–

–and got past it, into the Jagdkaiser’s guard, with a burst of solid fuel thrust.

Her head camera was taken up fully by the shadow of the mech bull rushing her.

Then all of the fire from the Option came raining down upon them.

And as it did, the enemy boosted out of the Jagdkaiser’s embrace and around her flank.

A dozen rounds crashed upon the Jagdkaiser’s armor, pitting the thick hull, and severing a chunk of the shoulder with the Option’s mount, smashing a sharp bit of plate off the skirt, before Selene could spin down the guns. Gritting her teeth she ordered the gun to circle back around to the other side while she turned in place and slashed behind her, aided by a lick of solid fuel thrust on the shoulder and arm to overcome the water. A curtain of vapor swept in front of her and the molten assault rifle slid off her claw but she caught no more metal as her disarmed enemy backed just enough away.

“Damn it! God damn it! Psynadium, now!”

On command the tubes connected to the back of her neck pumped the drug through her.

She felt power surging through her like hot glass slicing through the veins in her brain. She gritted teeth, enduring a brief instant of the most horrific pain but rewarded with the clearest view of the ocean any living creature could possibly have. Her eyes glowed not red but with a rainbow gradient that matched the colorful sinews of her antennae. The Aether trails flashed and swirled before her in the sea.

Within the water she saw the outline of the enemy like a shadow in all of the lights.

Selene awaited a flash of insight as to its next movements.

The Jagdkaiser’s homunculus enhanced psionic power, along with the boost of Psynadium.

When her antennae were loose and connected to this system as well, her clairvoyance became so powerful she could vividly see everything her enemy would do before they even tried to do it. Their emotions and thereby their intentions fed into her through the aether seconds before their bodies took action. The hands of fate gesticulated for her eyes only, and she read the sign language to deadly effect.

“A cunning little mouse.” Selene cursed to herself, furious, near breathless.

This time the trap was the same, but rather than a vertical snare the two mecha stood on a horizontal plane before the fateful blow. Her enemy before her, the gun at its back and the claw to its chest. Once she charged the enemy would move up or down– she did not need to guess or use the logic of battle because she would have the truth of it. Whatever it decided in the next second she would know.

Not only that but it was disarmed of its rifle. There was no weapon at its disposal.

Clever athletics would do no good. It could no longer inflict any damage.

She was almost positive it was about to move any given microsecond of thought–

When it did–

That little mouse turned around to face her and launched– something–

Acting before thinking, Selene raised the Jagdkaiser’s special claw.

Glowing with an electric field, it deflected the projectile launched at her.

Causing it to arc around the Jagdkaiser’s body harmlessly.

Rather than being heated, the larger, rotating claw that held the muzzle for the agarthic cannon possessed a powerful magnetic field generator in the wrist with effectors located beneath the digits. While the claw could be swung as a large, sharp piece of metal it was far less capable of slashing than the heated, vibrating claw on the other arm. Designed to shape the agarthic energy from the cartridge away from the Jagdkaiser’s hull, Selene pioneered using the magnetic field on this claw defensively.

In this way bullets could be made to arc away from the claw and explode uselessly.

Instead of a weapon it became her unbreakable shield.

Selene felt momentarily like a genius, however–

It was not a bullet which she had deflected around her flank.

Her enemy had launched a grenade.

She realized it within a split second of the projectile exploding at her side.

Her cockpit vibrated wildly as she tore herself away from the blast leaving in the water a small chunk of the Jagdkaiser’s flank and a strip of the shoulder and arm plates. Wild eyes snapped to each camera looking for that enemy mech and finding it suddenly rushing her directly from the front.

“Why? Why couldn’t I see that?!”

Her head was foggy with rage, her whole body shaking as more of the drug injected.

In a rush Selene positioned the Option like a knife to the enemy’s back–

Plunging and driving the blade, the blades–

Spinning up in half a second the bullets came flying in dozens–

That enemy mecha still unarmed rushed her fool-hardy–

Selene had expected a blade but–

Mid-charge the enemy feinted her, throwing itself into a dive to avoid crashing into her.

And leaving her once again exposed to her own gunfire.

“Using me as a shield?! God damn it!”

Her own bullets arced around her claw and exploded around her harmlessly.

Again the gun spun down, again she forced it to arc to the enemy trying to take her back.

“You won’t get away! You won’t! I’ll tear you out of that cockpit and melt your guts–!”

Selene lunged behind herself opening and snapping her heat claw, trying to snatch the enemy.

A vortex of vaporized water briefly burst between her fiery claws as she seized nothing.

She could have sworn– she could have sworn it would be there–

Why wasn’t she seeing–?

On one of her monitors, something she wasn’t used to paying attention to.

Her acoustic system painted a red targeting box to alert her.

As soon as her eyes snapped down to the lower camera and back up to main.

That enemy had flown under her, behind her, and to the side in quick motion–

She had deluded herself as to its trajectory thinking that a vision would come that did not.

And in the next instant, a diamond sword swung and sliced clean off one of the metal digits.

In that brief instant in which it had gone cold after her last attack with the claw.

I’m not a lab rat! I’m Sonya Shalikova! You think this is fun? Are you enjoying yourself?

Thoughts broadcast into the aether. A girl’s voice– a girl just like her– no. Not quite.

Selene raised a hand to her glowing eyes, slouching her shoulders. Her heart leaping.

Grinning. Laughing. From the absurdity of it. So her little mouse had fangs? SO WHAT?!

This girl was clever, and apparently psionic too, a worthy opponent perhaps– but INFERIOR.

Selene’s eyes burned as her emotions surged in her chest like white-hot flames at her core–

The name of your killer is Selene Anahid, she projected, and you’ll die one order evolved, kitty!


Everything was quiet, orderly, there was a sweet scent and gentle lighting.

“It’s so peaceful here. I’m sure she loves it.”

Zasha Shalikova felt a sense of trepidation as she sought out the right door, walking down a special hall in the middle deck of Sevastopol Station. The Children’s Hall was cozy and earthy, made up with very fake wood panels and relaxing yellow light and the walls had beautiful posters with colorful characters. The posters in the hall exhorted the children to be kind to each other, to be on time for tasks and appointments, to eat their fill and instructions for using the computers to hail adults for help.

It was the year 966 AD. She was twenty years old and her sister was ten years old.

Her sister–

Yes, it was her sister who lived in a warm little room in this children’s hall.

Just beyond one of these doors. She told herself, it was important to remember.

She was a sister now, and Zasha was beyond happy for her.

Her trepidation did not come from that change in their positions.

Rather, Zasha was always afraid that Sim–

Sonya. Yes, Sonya. She was named after their mother now, not their father.

Anyway– Zasha feared that Sonya would be– too independent, perhaps?

In the Children’s Hall, the kids were taught to be responsible for their environment and toward each other. They did their own cleaning, they made their own beds, they were responsible for dressing themselves and going to their classes. They could even, once or twice a week, prepare their own meals. They could call adults for help at any point and the help would be given easily and cheerfully, but the Children’s Hall was supposed to be like their own little enclave that taught them to value the home and to value community with each other, to take care of their own space and make use of their own time.

It was part of the ideology of their ex-Premier, Daksha Kansal.

In honor of her, the current Premier, Elias Ahwalia, continued the practice.

The government wanted children to not be beholden to parents or caretakers entirely.

So the default was for children to live in children’s halls or at specific school dorms.

Parents had to beg for exceptions if they wanted to exclusively raise their children.

And if the reasons weren’t good enough, then they had to gracefully accept separation.

Zasha gracefully accepted separation. At least, outwardly so–

She had always been very protective. So it was hard to let go, but it was for the best.

There were many visit days on the calendar, but Zasha had been busy.

Hopefully, her Sonya would not resent her as she took her first visit day in a year.

Producing a portable terminal from her bag, Zasha double checked the room number.

And she found herself in front of it. 102417. She approached it and took a deep breath.

Before she could knock on it, the door opened– her perceptive sibling had noticed her.

Sonya had always had keen senses.

“Zasha! I heard you shuffling behind the door! It’s so nice to see you in meatspace!”

Sonya smiled brightly, her bright indigo eyes shining, her soft little cheeks turning up.

Zasha laid a hand on her silvery-white hair and patted her head vigorously.

“Are you being a good girl, Sonya?” She asked.

“Hee hee, you called me a girl, Zasha.”

“Of course I did! You’re my sweet little sister.”

“Ahh! I’m so happy Zasha!”

“I’m glad. Everything feels ok, right? No stomachaches or anything?

“No! It’s great! I love the medicines. Now I can be as cool as you are!”

Zasha laughed a little. What an impressionable kid– but Zasha always trusted her choices and let her have what she wanted. That was the ethos of the Children’s Hall after all. When Sonya confessed on a video-call about being Sonya and sent her a digital pamphlet about hormone therapy that a caretaker had given her, Zasha was nothing but pleased. It was important to her, more than anything else, that Sonya Shalikova got to have a say in who she was. That she wouldn’t be funneled down a path that anyone else wanted or expected. If that meant taking hormones, then Zasha was happy for her.

And if it meant living away in the Children’s Hall, then that was fine too.

“I suppose I’m so cool, you definitely needed a doctor to help you catch up.” She joked.

Sonya’s eyes stared at her wide and round. She then made a bashful little pout.

“Oh no, Sonya, I meant nothing by that. You’ve always been very cool you know?”

“I knooooow.”

She was such a sensitive kid too sometimes.

“Come in. My room is so huge!”

Zasha smiled. It really was not. And it looked like she was sharing it too.

Rather it was a standard Union single, but for a kid, it was a lot of space. And they really went all out on the kid’s decorations. The walls of the room were projecting a fake wood texture but if one touched any of them it would feel like a smooth resistive touchpad, which it all was. There were two little desks, for Sonya and a roommate, along with a combination shower, toilet and wash basin accessible behind a retractable wall panel. More colorful posters decorated the walls too. A Union single, but for kids.

“I have a roommate, Klob Hondros, but I gave her one of my recreation tickets and a bunch of credits so she would go see a movie or stuff herself or do whatever for the afternoon so we could hang out alone, Zasha.” Sonya said. “I don’t use the credits for anything, and I get them all the time.”

“I see.” Kids were paid a small wage for going to school, and bonuses for exceptional behavior.

Zasha was not concerned by Sonya’s money habits, which didn’t matter, but rather–

“I would have liked to meet your friend.” She said gently.

“Klob? I wouldn’t call her my friend– we study and do stuff together I guess.”

She was still so antisocial. They would have to work on that somehow.

“Well, maybe I’ll stick around long enough to meet her.”

“Ehhh, if you want to. She’s kind of cool I guess. She’s a fish I think. She has horns.”

Sonya sat on her bed kicking her feet happily while Zasha looked around the room.

“If you have enough money to bribe her to leave–”

“–It wasn’t a bribe–!”

“–then you must be doing really well academically.” Zasha said.

“Oh!” Sonya smiled again. “Yep! I’m doing so good. It’s like crazy how good I am.”

“Keep working hard!” Zasha said. “I’m so proud of you!”

“What about you?” Sonya asked. “Did you kill any bad guys?”

“There’s no bad guys to kill. And that’s not really what I do, you know.” Zasha said.

She cringed just a little bit– she did not want Sonya to have such bloody-minded ideas.

Nevertheless, as a child who lived through the revolution, it was inevitable.

Death and killing were always going to be part of her mind. Sad as it was to think about it.

She had not been old enough back then to understand what was happening with any nuance.

“Zasha.”

Sonya’s voice turned serious. Zasha turned around to make eye contact. She had been looking at a shelf where one of Sonya’s sewn stuffies was sitting. It looked like a big purple blob of a cuttlefish, a simple beginner stuffie. Zasha dearly wished Sonya would do more sewing and less thinking about war.

“Yes dear?”

Looking her eye to eye, Sonya stood up and seemed to be trying to look tall.

“I want to be a hero like you!” She declared.

“I see.”

Could she say ‘no’ to that? Had Sonya finally done something utterly unacceptable?

“In your own words–”

“–huh? you sound like my teacher–”

“–what does it mean to be a hero, Sonya?” Zasha asked with a firm tone but a smiling face.

Sonya’s bright round eyes glimmered with excitement.

“A hero is like, strong! They know how to fight really good and kill the bad guys!”

“Hmm. Why would you kill the bad guys though?”

“Because they’re bad, duh?”

“Not quite.” Zasha said.

She bent down a little and stroked Sonya’s head gently.

“Sonya, if you want to be a hero like me, first, you must be kind and responsible. You must make friends and help people. Take care of your tasks and avoid hurting others. Those are the important things that makes your big sister Zasha cool– it’s not my rank or being in the navy, and not ‘killing bad guys’.”

Zasha would defer telling Sonya that she had been inducted into the special forces.

For as long as humanly possible now, given the circumstances.

It would give her some funny ideas about this lecture.

Still– she wouldn’t say no if Sonya wanted to join the armed forces.

It was not in her nature to tell Sonya not to do something. Even something like this.

But she had to do it for the right reasons. She had to really understand it.

“Don’t you need to fight to be a hero?” Shalikova asked.

“Hmm, not quite!” Zasha smiled. “There’s all kinds of ways to be a hero. Heroes aren’t only those who fight. The lady at the cafeteria is a hero; your teachers are big heroes too.”

Sonya puffed her cheeks up a bit. “Big nags, actually.”

“Sonya~”

“Okay, okay. But you fight bad guys, or you train to fight bad guys, don’t you?”

“Well, yes–”

“Then why do you do that? If it isn’t to be a hero?”

Zasha continued to smile. Sonya was asking the right questions. “In my case, Sonya, I want to fight so that other people don’t have to. Fighting isn’t something soldiers want to do. But we will fight so that the cafeteria lady, and your teachers at school, and even you yourself, don’t have to do that. So you can do other things that help people more, like cook or sew cute stuffed animals.”

“You don’t think fighting helps?” Sonya asked.

There was a tiny little shudder in Zasha’s heart, but she never ceased to smile.

Whatever Sonya wanted to do– Zasha would support it with a smile and proper guidance.

“I think that we need to be really careful about fighting.” Zasha said. “We need to think a lot about why we do it and most of the time we need to find ways of sorting things out that aren’t fighting. That’s part of my job too, you know. If you can think of a really good reason to fight, Sonya, and you find that fighting is the only way that you can help or save people, only then should you fight.”

Sonya looked determined and smiled. “I’ll fight to protect you, Zasha!”

Zasha suddenly took Sonya into a tight embrace.

For some reason she felt tears in her eyes. Tears for everything her sister had been through.

“Sonya, you’re full of love. I know you’ll understand my lesson someday.”

She whispered this almost to herself, holding her fragile little sister in her hands.

And praying that everything would really turn out well for her.


Zasha

Being a hero– what Zasha had said it meant– Could Shalikova really–?

Cold sweat built on her sharply rising chest. Her breath came in fits.

Thoughts unbidden. She was getting emotional, she was swimming in pure emotion.

Everything was so desperate that she had begun to think about her sister.

After trying to push her out of her mind for so long.

What would Zasha have done? What would Zasha had said?

It was painful to remember– but the confrontation was forced–

Emotions flooding, cascading in brilliant colors, inescapable–

Black and red, she was wreathed in the ferocious void-fire of killing–

Was that her only emotion too–? Was she only colored with intention to kill–?

“Focus! Tight focus!” Sonya Shalikova told herself, trying to break free of this spiral.

She would need every neuron she could spare to survive let alone achieve any victory.

“Zasha, I have to fight.”

For the difference in power between their machines, Sonya had been doing admirably.

The Cheka had only taken a bit of cosmetic damage– and one melted rifle.

But that enemy machine had not lost any speed or power from the damage that it took.

Its armor was pitted and shredded in places, but it was still moving like a juggernaut.

Shalikova had not intended to do much damage with her tricks anyway.

She had planted a seed of possibility. That keenness she couldn’t escape had guided her.

Now Selene would nurse an expectation of how Shalikova would move in reaction to the projectile’s gunfire. If Shalikova tried to use her as a shield again, would the reaction be different?

Would she shoot at herself, or reposition it differently, or make a more adverse move in response? Any wrong move and those molten claws would destroy her completely, or she would be shredded by that flying chain-gun but when this fight had started, she was far more helpless than now.

She had an opportunity. But she had to convert it into a way to disable that machine.

Or at least try to disarm it. If only her sword could have cut that entire claw off!

“She wants to kill me. She would love to. That’s the feeling I get in the aura, but–?”

All that bleak anger and hatred radiating from that machine–

Was it really a window into the heart of the person inside?

Was Selene Anahid a monster as ferocious and evil as the one that had taken Zasha?

“No. She’s a human being just like me. I can stop her.” She said.

Selene was clearly psionic, however. Since she learned about psionics, Shalikova had been dimly considering the possibility that they might confront someone who knew about psionics too. As much as she hated the thought of relying on this strange new power, Shalikova had to give as good as she was getting– and the machine’s wild aura told Shalikova that psionics was involved here.

Remembering what Maryam had shown her–

Shalikova pulled the mental trigger and her eyes felt hot from inside.

That irregular cloud of colors in front of her came more sharply into focus.

“So I was right–”

As she had been fighting Selene she had felt that an attack was coming and this was heralded by the intensifying of the machine’s red and black aura. It was like she could feel the decision to attack before Selene made it. This allowed her to be somewhat more confident in taking risks with very tight timing, like dropping into and escaping from the machine’s grasp in order to lead its attacks into itself. It was something she only acknowledged after the fact– in the middle of things it just felt like she really good instincts and coordination. Now she recognized the source of those instincts clearly.

Because now she could see the patterns in the water among all the other colors.

Trails of red and black slowly dissipating behind their machines like scars of their battle in the aether– and trails of possibility extending ever so subtly from the machine like tendrils ready to imprint the next scar of their violent fate onto that ocean-spanning cloud of human emotions. It was tricky– she was seeing the aura shift this way and that as if nothing in the future had been settled yet.

Was Selene seeing this too? Shalikova recalled something else– Maryam’s fortune telling.

“That’s it!”

Sword in hand, suddenly inspired, Shalikova drew the Cheka back to provoke a reaction.

In the next instant Selene’s claw swiped right in front of her.

A cloud of bubbles and vapor from the superheated claws hid her intention. A burst of 20 mm bullets from the autocannon on her right shoulder kept Shalikova at bay, popping one after another in little bursts of vapor and metal. Shalikova could not see the sea floor but she knew she was close to the bottom now and so she dove further with the space created by the last exchange of attacks.

If she could drag Selene to the benthic surface there would be one less plane of movement.

Normally that would be an enormous disadvantage, but Shalikova was counting on that.

And counting on Selene’s reaction to having a sudden, seemingly massive advantage.

In response to Shalikova’s dive the flying chain gun appeared at her side.

Following her with alien ease and agility, the machine spun up its barrels to attack from her flank.

With Selene above and behind, chasing, the chain gun could safely attack from the flanks.

As soon as she saw it, Shalikova struck a button on her joystick that had been glowing green.

“Sorry Murati and Gunther!”

On a supplementary screen, the Cheka’s Energy Recovery System status appeared.

Gathered power deployed from hidden battery cells and supercharged the water system.

In an instant, the Cheka began moving much faster than it had been.

Selene’s gunfire flew right past her, not even close–

Dozens of flashing red status warnings popped up for every conceivable system.

Everything was overheating or stressed, nothing was handling the increased power well.

Shalikova began to plea silently with the machine, hold together, hold together, hold–

Below her, she could suddenly see the grey, sandy rock of the Goryk plain dominating her vision.

She had been diving headfirst, but when she saw the ground Shalikova twisted her body around and glided across the dusty surface– with her back to the ocean floor and her head and chest facing up at the machine approaching. Its horns glowing with all the colors of the rainbow, veins of color playing about its hull, and that demonic red and black aura growing thicker and thicker as it approached.

And as Shalikova glided over the surface, her water jets kicked up all the loose sand.

There was sediment! There was enough sediment–!

For an enormous cloud to blow over Shalikova and for a few dozen meters all around.

Just as she hoped– as she planned.

WHAT? GOD DAMN IT.

Shalikova heard a psychic wail emanate from the enemy machine.

She stopped, briefly caught her footing, standing up the Cheka inside the cloud.

Praying that she was right– and with each passing instant believing in her observations.

Though her cameras were blinded by the cloud seafloor deposits she could still see the enemy machine’s aura. Hovering overhead, losing initiative, moving slower and with less confidence–

Selene couldn’t predict her movements.

GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT–

Psychic screams of frustration, the red and black aura began to grow a sickly green stripe–

Maryam had said–

“When I tried to read you I couldn’t see any surface thoughts at all,”

That machine was generating such an intense amount of emotion that it stirred the aether.

Shalikova had put everything together, she knew she must have been correct in thinking–

She generated no ambient emotions for Selene to pick up. She was invisible to psionic senses.

Unless she deliberately broadcast her emotions to Selene, her enemy could see nothing.

Just like a certain powerfully psionic cuttlefish had failed to read her before too.

“Maryam, when I get back I’m going to kiss you!”

Shalikova leaned on her controls with a burst of determination.

Overhead, the machine and its projectile positioned themselves over the center of the cloud.

Within seconds, massive amounts of gunfire burst from the chain gun and the autocannon.

Since they couldn’t see her, they made use of the high ground to furiously bombard the seafloor.

Got you.

That last thought was Shalikova’s– and she made sure not to broadcast it.

Selene had already seen how fast the Cheka could dive with E.R.S. on–

–but she had no idea how quickly its horizontal and vertical maneuvering would be–

As Shalikova burst out of the cloud, still on the sea floor, right behind Selene’s machine.

Launching up nearly forty meters in just over a second as her systems cried from the strain.

Almost instantaneously the alien projectile’s chain gun snapped up from the sea floor–

Hesitating.

Selene must have realized–

–that once again she was between Shalikova and the gun.

So she made a correction.

Throwing the gun into a climb so it would shoot over her at an angle on Shalikova.

Exposing the chain gun to retaliation.

Soon as Shalikova’s keen eyes spotted that cluster of aura rising separate from Selene–

From her shoulders two jet anchors fired on their rocket boosters, cables instantly cut.

They sailed over Selene like a pair of thrown daggers.

One crashed into the center of the chain gun barrels.

Second dug between a control fin deep enough into the chassis to hit the magazine.

Shalikova knew instantly that while it could still move that gun would never shoot again.

Feral psionic screams erupted from her enemy.

As Selene furiously swung the machine’s bulk around to attack her, Shalikova threw all of her weight and thrust into a two-handed, overhead swing aimed down the middle of the mecha’s shoulder.

She only ever attacked with this claw and the shoulder cannon–

Destroying the machine was out of the question–

But if she could disable its weapons–

Shalikova’s sword plunged smashing and slicing through the new style thruster on the winged mount atop the shoulder guard and biting through to the housing for the autocannon. Diamond teeth ground furiously, chewing through the metal and composite and churning debris from all ends of the wound glowing red hot and irregular, gnawing cabling, electric cells, armor, inner supports and tubes–

For an instant it caught within the steel of the arm suspension–

Chewing up its teeth hot, violence briefly stopped–

Please, cut through, cut harder, cut deeper, push! Push!

Shalikova begged and pleaded and cried for the sword’s deadly jaws–

Her eyes welled up hot vapor streaming from her tears–

If she could only sever that arm– she could stop all of this–

“I understand, Zasha! I understand now! I just need a little more strength!”

Shalikova physically could not kill this behemoth. Had she tried she would be dead.

Aiming for the cockpit hull would have done nothing. It was thick enough to shrug off an explosion.

But the arm– she felt like if she gave everything she had she could disable that arm–

Then she would not need to kill Selene. She could make her surrender, take her prisoner–

“I don’t want to kill her! I don’t want to! I want to– I want to save her!”

Answering Selene’s cry with a determined scream of her own that sent her aura flaring–

Spurring the diamond jaws to a snap instant of violence severing the entire shoulder.

Exiting shattered ejecting the diamond chain in pieces as Selene’s gutted arm descended.

The Cheka’s entire hands snapped from the pressure and ceased to respond, letting go of what was left of the diamond sword. All of these instruments severed from their masters and descended gently out of sight onto the cloudy seafloor, the sword, the hot-clawed arm and its shoulder cannon, and the chain-gun, suddenly losing power. A silent cloud of metal debris drifted in the marine fog.

For an instant Shalikova found herself in total darkness.

Abusing the E.R.S. had downed all of the Cheka’s power. She stood blind and in silence.

Then the power came back on– and Shalikova reached for an air mask.

On the diagnostic screen, she saw that the E.R.S. had burned out the main turbines.

Smoke began to seep into the cockpit. Propulsion completely died.

She donned a mask from the emergency supplies, giving her about an hour of life–

And then glanced through her cameras in a panic.

But the enemy machine was not moving. It could not take advantage.

Shalikova sank back in her chair, sucking air through her mask while her mind reeled.

You can’t– You can’t possibly– I was born, I was made, stronger than you! I was! I am!

From the enemy machine the cloud of colors became tinged with all shades sickly and sad.

A roiling vortex that had it been physical looked like it would have crushed the machine.

Selene’s panicked, morbid, self-hating, self-hurting thoughts cascaded out of the mecha.

I’m complete, I’m perfect, I was made perfect, how can she be stronger than me? Mother, why?

Shalikova’s own thoughts poured painfully out of her own soul in return–

Please stop. Please just surrender. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.

Within the clashing aether where all human hurt and suffering had left its mark.

Shalikova felt like crying– she was crying– there was so much pouring out of her.

She knew it was irrational, but she was so affected by the emotions she felt from Selene.

As if that keenness which had haunted her eyes all her life was haunting her mind now.

All of those emotions were so much more violent than anyone could possibly feel.

And she felt them so keenly, as if they were her own, flashes of pain and insight–

Cold, indistinct halls–

Distant people’s words hung with enormity never understood–

Authorities she rejected– figures she refused to let herself rely upon– so much to prove–

Shalikova had never seen an aura like it. Even Ahwalia driven to attack Illya because of their past. Shalikova had seen that anger. She had even seen intention to kill, from when Valeriya struck Ahwalia back that same night. Those were human emotions pushed to their limits, but Selene’s intensity led Shalikova to think maybe the machine was doing something to Selene Anahid inside. Making her worse.

None of those people wanted to powerfully, so strongly, to kill, to hate, to commit violence.

None of those people had been so purposeless in their pursuit of tragedy.

We don’t have to kill each other. We don’t. Selene, please.

Above all what she felt from Selene was a great, exceptional loneliness and isolation.

There was a hole inside Selene that had been filled inside Sonya.

Thoughts of her sister Zasha and all the hurt and inadequacy that she felt came to her unbidden.

All of these years she had run away from it.

It was painful, forcing herself not to think about Zasha while living without her, it was so painful.

It was painful, pain beyond any, to accept that she was gone.

To accept she couldn’t save her. That jumping in that mecha and killing the monster did not change anything. Suspended in the middle of the ocean having fought a battle to a violent standstill, Shalikova finally stared sharply into years old scars that she had been scared to acknowledge. Zasha was gone. She had failed to save her. But she wasn’t alone– Shalikova still had everything Zasha ever left to her.

Had it not been for Zasha–

For Illya and Valeriya–

For Murati and Khadija–

For that kind and gentle Maryam Karahailos–

For what purpose or meaning would Shalikova have been comitting violence and taking lives?

Would she have been in Selene’s shoes, roaring with self-assured but morally empty anger?

Heroes kill bad guys.

Superior beings triumph over inferior ones.

Those childish things which they had both thought– had they been so dissimilar at all?

Selene, I want to save you–

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, lit up purple in the dim cockpit. An agarthic radiation warning.

Camera filters drawing a flashing purple box around Selene’s mecha as she lifted the remaining arm.

Hitherto unused except as a defense system, Shalikova had thought it wasn’t a weapon.

Claws separating radially around a hole in the palm creating a magnetic field.

Vapor vented from the thicker part of the arm closer to the shoulder as it generated heat.

A furious, rising, incredible heat– and a purple glow through a wound in the arm’s plates.

Tongues of agarthic energy each the width of hairs leaped across the surface of the machine.

“Sonya Shalikova. You are the one who needs saving. Not me– I am the strongest of us.”


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.5]

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath, lifting her shoulders, stretching her legs.

Remembering the wine she had back on board the Brigand.

“Valya, how do I sound?”

“Legible!”

“Good. Mind if I take the lead?”

“You’re in the lead ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

Valya sounded slightly nervous.

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

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

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

Twenty years in the cockpit made those things seem small.

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

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

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

It’s why she fought in the first place.

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

“Contacts.” Valya said.

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

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

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

This would keep her pedals jammed down.

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

Valya shouted. “What was that?”

“Relax and stick to the plan.”

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

That was not her concern for now.

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

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

As I thought. You fellas are half-baked.

“Ma’am–”

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

“Yes! Sorry!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had a Frigate to sink.

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

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

They made a wonderful distraction, however.

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

Khadija approached from below the Frigate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This guy is different!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, however, Khadija was right on his heels–

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so much with being looked down upon.

Without another word she stepped into the pod nearest her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova recalled Khadija’s magnificent, snaking movements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khadija beamed at her and quietly accented.

They had a few more matches that night.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Contact!” Murati shouted.

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

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

Against that wall of fire Shalikova felt suddenly dwarfed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A diagnostic display showed the objects attached to it.

“I do, but only one.” She said.

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

“Got it!”

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova cut Murati off.

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

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

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

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

But Shalikova could hardly pull trigger before the Volkers grew enormous in her cameras.

She sped right into their midst, dodging a second round of gunfire as she neared them.

Her enemies threw themselves aside, perhaps fearing that she intended to ram them.

Breaking in between them, and roaring well past, she threw her Strelok into a climb.

“God damn it.”

She was trying to fight like Khadija, but she was unused to shooting while moving this fast.

In the simulator, Khadija had time to set up her cameras–

Because she created space for it! Shalikova realized that’s why she circled around so much.

“I’m an idiot! I just flew in without thinking!”

At these speeds, she wasn’t able to shoot! She couldn’t even think fast enough to shoot!

She had to slow down, but–

“I know!”

In the middle of her climb, Shalikova twisted her Strelok around, going over the Volkers.

Bursting the top two jets in the backpack– along with the legs, and solid fuel boost from the shoulders– manipulating the fins– moving more weight into the shoulder– her little hands moved all over the controls in her cockpit, flipping what felt like every switch and every button– she hardly realized Khadija had to put this much effort into moving, she was sweating so much–

Her frantic actions within the cockpit, invisible to her opponent, had a dramatic result.

She tumbled, head over feet, descending behind her opponents while upside down.

Much of the momentum she built up dissipated in the snap changes in directions.

But her bewildered enemies could not even turn as she riddled their backs with bullets.

Dozens of rounds of fully automatic fire, until the magazine ejected. Impact after impact crashing into the first Volker, before she jerked the gun toward the second. Bullets smashing into ducts, blowing up on top of the jets, perforating the spare magazines kept on the rear magnetic strip and causing secondary explosions, the Volkers twisted and torn by the blasts. Severed cockpits leaking oxygen and blood slowly descending with arms gone limp and legs asunder.

Shalikova’s snap maneuver took her beneath the ruined Volkers, now swimming chest up.

For a brief instant she was a girl floating as if on the surface of a vast pool.

Gazing up at a sky of broken metal falling around her.

She could almost see colors, colors other than the dim, dark blue of the water.

Red, anguished colors.

Green, sickly colors.

Blueish-Black, the specter of death–

Silvery white. Peace and departure–

Shalikova shook her head and climbed as a wave of renewed flak swept past her position.

Dozens of small explosions dissipated the colors and further tore up the remains.

“What colors?” She murmured to herself. “There weren’t any colors.”

Rising in a wide arc to retain speed and avoid fire, Shalikova doubled back to the Destroyer.

“Volkers down. Squad leader, I thought you’d have blown it up by–”

Before Shalikova could finish, she heard two loud shocks over the hydrophone.

Dozens of meters ahead of them, an earthshaking blast sent the Frigate on the Irmingard’s right wing plummeting into the sea floor. A shockwave rippled out from the explosion that had even Shalikova’s chassis vibrating. It could only have been one of the bombs since the Brigand’s 76 mm aft guns could not have had such a dramatic effect. Only a moment later, she heard the sound of knocking metal and realized that the Destroyer was descending and stalling.

“You were saying, Shalikova?” Murati laughed.

That thundering curtain of flak slowed to a sputter of feeble warding fire.

Unable to fight off Murati or keep up with the fleet, it began to turn and flee.

She must have done some damage to the rear like she planned.

All of the fighting they were doing took place in the context of the Irmingard chasing the Brigand. It was easy to forget with how fast their mecha were moving, and how massive all of the ships around them were, that the entire battlefield was in motion. It was only when the Irmingard fleet’s tight formation was broken so completely that Shalikova paid heed to this fact once again. The Irmingard lumbered forward, while its escorts were now falling or fleeing.

Shalikova could find no more ship contacts in the immediate vicinity.

“We’ve opened the way. Sameera used her bomb, but I’ve still got mine.” Murati said.

The Cheka regrouped with Shalikova. There was mild cosmetic damage on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?”

Murati sounded unshaken. “Just got exposed to a bit of ventral fire– it’s not a big deal.”

“If you say so. I’ll go on ahead of you and draw the flagship’s fire.” Shalikova said.

“Good job taking care of those Divers by yourself. I have full confidence in you.”

“It’s nothing. Could’ve gone better even.”

“Do you have damage?”

“No. I just mean– it’s not worthy of praise.”

Before her squad leader could continue flattering her Shalikova charged ahead.

The Cheka was not very far behind. Shalikova reloaded her weapon and grit her teeth.

When they turned away from the Destroyer their view was dominated by the colossal grey frame of the Irmingard class dreadnought. A Frigate or a Destroyer was already many, many times the size of a Diver. And yet there was no comparison to how that flagship made Shalikova feel like a speck of plankton helplessly spinning in the water. Its vaguely spoon-shaped prow and thick, enormous cylindrical chassis with its swept wing fins and sharply flared rear were so regal and aggressive. There was no truer representation of the fearful violence they were up against.

That ship was the Imbrian Empire, cruel tyrant over half of what remained of their world.

Shalikova’s grip tightened on her controls. Her hands were cold, her palms moist.

For the sake of everything they believed in, they had to be the arrow that hobbled this beast.

As they approached, homing in on the center of that wall of grey, long lines of flak erupted from the gas gun pods lined up in front of them. Different pods coordinated to fire together in groups of six barrels. Their fire discipline was completely unlike that of the other ships. Shalikova found herself swerving far more violently away from gunfire that crept closer and closer.

Her chassis rattled as a bullet deflected right off the left shoulder.

Thankfully, it didn’t explode right on the armor. She accelerated even more.

“I’m breaking off, they’re on me.” Shalikova said.

“I think they’re on both of us!”

Shalikova threw the Strelok into a sudden climb, wrenching up with a kick of the vernier thrusters. While boosting up and momentarily out of the gunfire she glanced at one of the side camera feeds.

Murati’s Cheka was targeted wholly independently of her own Strelok.

Different sections of the Irmingard’s flak guns were coordinating different targets.

A half-dozen barrels peppered Shalikova’s surroundings and a half-dozen harried Murati.

It was nothing like the basic saturation fire of the other ships.

They would not take Shalikova as a piece of bait so easily. They were more experienced.

“With this much gunfire I won’t be able to get to the aft. I’ll bomb the main guns!”

Murati’s Cheka broke off from Shalikova and into its own climb, spiraling away from intense gunfire. Her destination lay atop the Irmingard’s deck, central to the hull and just behind the spoon prow, a squat, double-barrel turret: the feared 203 mm main guns that supported the smaller guns fixed on the prow itself. As a military flagship, the Irmingard bore its guns fixed on the deck, they could never be hidden or stowed unlike the Brigand’s guns. Shalikova knew the main magazine was buried deeper in the ship and would not go off if the turret itself was destroyed.

Preventing the Irmingard from shooting effectively would accomplish their mission.

Even if the ship itself was not sent to the bottom of the sea floor.

Shalikova did not like it– but perhaps it was an object lesson on their lack of power.

As they climbed higher, flak intensified. Deck gas guns joined the port-side guns in firing.

Murati accelerated in a high arc, leaving behind the port-side fire but trailed by the deck guns. Dozens of vapor bubbles bloomed around her. Shalikova’s own chassis vibrated relentlessly with the shockwaves of bullets going off all around her, their impacts just close enough to make her feel it without tearing off any metal.

While Murati kept climbing Shalikova overflew the prow.

Her side camera was not just for following Murati’s positioning.

It was also coordinating with the camera on her assault rifle, held to her chest.

Shalikova ranged the triangle formation of gas gun pods covering center of the deck.

Their barrels lifted high as they chased Murati, flashing repeatedly in the dim water.

“Here’s your opening, Murati!”

Short, practiced rapping on the triggers, three presses, pause, three presses.

She saw the bursts of gunfire fly off into the blue on her gun camera.

Her bullets flew amid the gas gun pods and struck metal with brilliant, fleeting blasts.

A brighter flash, erupting suddenly from among the gas gun formation.

One pod went off, its magazine cooked.

Dozens of popping, flashing blasts from the pod’s magazine sent metal spraying.

Meanwhile the other pods went dead silent.

Whether Shalikova struck them, or damaged the electronics or optics, she did not know.

Nevertheless, she realized she had quieted the deck fire on Murati’s side.

Her own safety on the prow was far less certain.

All around her, gas gun pods on the prow now enfiladed her, firing from every direction.

Bullets crashed into her hip armor and a stray shell even smashed into the cockpit armor.

Warnings flashed on her diagnostics. Real hull damage. No breaches.

Shalikova nearly had a heart attack. “Warn me about any breaches first you trash!”

Cockpit shaking violently, Shalikova threw herself into a roll and dove, touching down on the actual surface of the enemy ship and crouching. She hoped to avoid most of the gunfire this way, and for the briefest moment she found respite from the shooting– until she realized that there were no barrels flashing anymore.

All of the flak on the deck had quieted down just as she landed.

She was pointing her assault rifle at completely dormant gun pods.

“They’re avoiding friendly fire– Murati!”

Her suspicion proved correct almost immediately. Murati’s crackling voice responded:

“No chance to bomb–! Incoming!”

Shalikova leaped off the prow surface with microsecond boost from the vernier thrusters.

Charging across the shallow curve of the prow, in time to spot the enemy attacking Murati.

When she got close enough to see both of their figures clearly–

Murati leaped back off the deck as an enemy Diver pounced.

A trail of assault fire struck where she stood, and her enemy glided over the deck.

The attacker smoothly overflew the deck surface while raising her rifle.

Accurate, disciplined bursts crept closer and closer to Murati’s position.

Murati had been facing the enemy, climbing diagonally away from it with all of her thrust.

When she opened fire, the enemy below side-stepped it without losing any speed.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide. It reminded her of the gulf between her and–

“Murati! I’m coming! Hold on!”

As her words carried through the communicator the enemy Diver launched up.

In an instant the Diver drew a vibroblade from its magnetic strip with its free hand.

In the open water just off of the Irmingard’s surface the duelists clashed.

Sword met steel– Murati’s assault rifle, held by barrel and stock to block the overhead slash.

Shalikova drew closer and closer but not soon enough.

She thought the Diver would hack through Murati’s rifle but when it found its slash blocked, the machine moved fluidly with its own sword and leaped over Murati with a kick of its own auxiliary vernier thrusters, leaving a cloud of vaporized water and solid fuel exhaust where Murati was once clashing with it. The attacker rolled its body over Murati’s Cheka, and in a flash that sword swung once again, upside down at the Cheka’s shoulder.

There was an ephemeral red burst as the sword’s thruster briefly kicked in.

A burning crimson wound as the monomolecular, vibrating edge cut through the Cheka’s shoulder.

Murati threw her weight down and aside.

A chunk of metal blew off the Cheka, the shoulder in pieces, the roll of steel cable floating away in the debris as her left jet anchor pod ejected from the machine’s body. Murati torturously wrenched her mecha to face the attacker and shoot, but she was out of balance, damaged, and her enemy was still moving. Now fearless with a tumbling, dazed opponent, the attacker flew right through Murati’s desperate gunfire and swung its sword, this time to take the head–

“Murati! Get back!”

Shalikova shouted in desperation and surged ahead.

Shoulder set, she rammed herself in between Murati and the attacker.

Reacting with incredible alacrity, the enemy threw itself back from Shalikova.

There was no word from Murati, but the Cheka still looked stable in the water.

“Damn it.”

Every time, just like Khadija, the attacker went from motion to motion, fluidly, perfectly.

Others would have been disoriented for even a second having to wrench their machine back. This pilot expertly used the verniers to retreat as Shalikova entered their space, and to then thrust upward and resume maneuver. It all happened so fast that there was no distinction between the two separate instances of thrust. Just like Khadija, who moved like a serpent through the waters, perfectly conserving momentum throughout. This was a whole other level from the enemies they had faced so far, and it was only from observing a veteran like Khadija as keenly as she had that Shalikova understood the gulf between herself and this foe. She understood enough to fear them.

That machine was no ordinary Volker either.

Volkers were almost comical in how round they were, the arms practically came out of the central orb with slanted shoulders barely covering the joint, their helmeted heads affixed in an exposed mount right atop the hull. Any angled armor surfaces were clearly bolted on as an afterthought. Nothing like the machine now in front of her.

In place of the orb-like body was a robust, three-piece, interlocking chest, waist/hip, and shoulder chassis. Armored surfaces concealing the cockpit boasted complex geometry to help deflect and absorb impacts. Broadly triangular, the silhouette had wider shoulders and a humanoid, helmeted “head” with multi-directional, almost snake-eyed, visor-like cameras. Its arms and legs were modified with light but steeply angled armor over the joints. There was no bulge anywhere for a battery, and an extra jet on the back, with small intakes all around the machine, all “second gen” traits.

A new second generation mecha, to add to the Empire’s advantage–

Nevertheless, Shalikova charged after this enemy.

“That cat wouldn’t turn away from something like this!”

Her voice coming out of her lips was desperate, exhausted, cracking with fear.

Her mind was working so fast her brain pounded with pain.

And still, she went after that enemy with all her might, just moments after it bested Murati.

There was no reason to attack the Irmingard if she was not willing to lunge at the monsters that came from it. That flagship already outclassed the Brigand in every way. The Imbrian Empire already outclassed the Union in every way. And yet, Khadija, that brilliant pilot who had mastered the sea, still fought these unspeakable odds in the revolution. She saw herself dwarfed and outmatched by enormous guns and ships and fought on regardless.

Shalikova couldn’t bear losing to that woman in this too.

Steeled by her fear, with beasts of death before and behind her, she attacked.

“Where will it move, where–”

Shalikova centered the enemy in her vision and opened fire with her assault rifle.

Once more the opponent thrust upward out of the firing line.

“You like going up, huh?”

She tried to put her barrel ahead of where the enemy would go, rapping the trigger.

With graceful banking movements the enemy avoided fire and arced toward her. A quick burst of gunfire responded, and Shalikova thrust herself deeper down to avoid it. All the while facing the enemy, shooting up at them at the edge of her vision. Chasing a shadow that moved faster than she could hope to track, briefly lighting it with feeble bursts of gunfire that did not even graze the wake of its jets. Between her own evasive maneuvers and the dexterous way her enemy moved she was shooting into the water and doing nothing but stirring up empty bubbles. She was shooting more wastefully than her opponent, and soon found herself close to having to reload.

Luckily, she wasn’t trying to hit them directly.

She was just trying to get them moving.

Shalikova ceased running away from the enemy and burst forward in their direction.

Already facing the enemy as she retreated, the abrupt switch to charging in her direction caused her no disorientation. Firing all her solid fuel thrusters and ramming down the pedals for all the jet power she could muster, Shalikova threw herself at an enemy that was dashing at her, cutting their distance dramatically. From the magnetic strip behind her mecha she withdrew and quickly unfolded her diamond sword, revved up the motor and spun the teeth. Along with taking the sword she also threw out everything else on her magnetic strip, shedding some precious weight.

In a second, she was in the enemy’s face, sword out, swinging, with all her momentum.

Her opponent did not stand for such a thing and with a snap thrust, leaped over her.

Just like with Murati she was trying to swing at her from behind.

“I’ve already seen that trick!”

Practically cackling, Shalikova angled every fin, reallocated all the movable weight, and threw all of her thrust into a lurching motion that took her suddenly down and to the left. Her body wrenched in her chair at the sudden twisting of the chassis, but the enemy’s swing completely missed her, slicing through the water and leaving her overextended.

She was in no position to fight back and that mecha was now right behind her–

“Got you! I got you, you bastard!”

Behind her, a grenade that had been on her magnetic strip, armed and discarded, went off.

Water vaporized rapidly around the explosion forming an enormous bubble just a handful of meters away.

The shockwave threw Shalikova into total disarray. She spun feet over head, carried on the sudden wave generated by the explosion. Too close, suicidally close, but–

Struggling with her controls and trying to right herself she adjusted the cameras–

Looking for debris–

From behind her, that mecha suddenly reappeared, sword overhead and coming down.

There was nothing Shalikova could do. She had no time to respond.

She closed eyes that were stinging with sweat and tears and grit her teeth.

Her hydrophone picked up the clanging of metal on metal in the waters.

When she heard it over the headset, she also heard herself breathe.

Felt her heart beating, faster and faster.

Then a burst of gunfire.

Shalikova’s eyes opened wide, and she looked frantically at her cameras.

Murati’s Cheka was approaching, opening fire with a shaking arm and a damaged rifle.

Clearly limping in the water, having lost some energy cells from the attack it endured.

Her shooting was missing the mark, no better than the flak from the patrol ships–

But between Shalikova and the enemy, a different ally stood, suddenly formidable.

“You did good, Shali~”

Over the communicator, sounded the soft, playful, calm voice of Khadija al-Shajara.

Holding her own sword and standing face to face with the mecha in front of them.

Both having stopped moving for an instant as if respecting each other.

That enemy did not fear Murati’s shooting or Shalikova’s tricks, but this gave her pause.

“Khadija–”

Shalikova was almost going to apologize. She felt so helpless.

Khadija interrupted her immediately.

“Leave this to me. You’ve done everything you could. Give Valya the other bomb and take Murati’s limping remains away from here before she hurts herself or us.” She paused, and after a deep breath, released a bit of laughter. Her tone changed. “I’m not one to recite the name of the Lord for every detail like some other Shimii do, but this is fated, Shalikova. The Red Baron of Cascabel. I was fated to meet her here. We’re gonna settle a little score, she and I.”

Her voice was slick with a bloodthirst that Shalikova had never heard from her before.

Had the fighting gotten to her so badly? What was she babbling about?

Shalikova was in no position to do anything but what she was told, however.

Without openly questioning Khadija, she started to move away.

It was at that point, that whatever fated bell tolled for Khadija tolled for the rest of them.

Twin, massive, concussive shocks into the water that left the Union soldiers speechless.

In that moment, the Irmingard dreadnought fired its 203mm guns in anger.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

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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