Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.12]

This chapter contains explicit sexual content.


“Ensign Anahid, how do you feel about the Republic of Alayze? You can be candid.”

It’s a dump.

A failed state.

We should be ashamed. We should beg for forgiveness.

“I think as the sole remaining democracy of the sea, it’s worth fighting for.”

Ensign Samuel “Sam” Anahid stood in the middle of a dim blue windowless room with a high ceiling. In this room there were only three things. The desk of the Director of the General Intelligence Agency, the director himself, behind the desk, and a miasma of palpable deceit that was everywhere in the Republic of Alayze. No adornments, no windows; this cell-like room was the heart and the soul of the G.I.A.

Wearing a neutral expression, Sam told a lie. Not a muscle in his face twitched out of place.

“Good answer, candid and honest. You are quite correct Ensign. Ours is not a perfect country; everyone can see this easily. But our role, nonetheless, is to protect it with all of our might. Because its people can still make it great. If we surmount the firestorm of this era, because we are a democracy, we can achieve anything. Those despots in the Imbrian Ocean can only lord over an unchanging and stagnating relic.”

It was customary for G.I.A. officials with important missions to take on new identities.

To become Director, the man before Samuel had to abandon his old name. That plaque on his desk, which read Albert Ford-Reagan, was just another falsity that was borne out of this room and its mission. For a man who sat behind a desk all day and gave orders, he was solidly built, broad-backed, square-jawed. He had an open case of cigars on his desk from which many pieces were missing. His eyes were crystalline and upon them information could be seen flitting– cybernetics. His hair was voluminous for his age, slicked back. There had been an older Director when Sam first joined. But he looked like this too.

Maybe if Sam did outstandingly, he might someday be reborn as a broad-backed blond bear.

Rather than a narrow-chested, slender-limbed twink, hiding half his face behind his long hair.

But the thought of becoming like that man– disgusted him.

He had some unreachable ideas of what he wanted–

No use contemplating it. Not here anyway.

“Indeed, Director.”

Sam was sparse with his words. What could he say?

He didn’t even know why he was summoned.

And no matter what he said, he would find out sooner or later.

“From now on, you will go by Blake McClinton.” Director Albert said suddenly.

Sooner–

“Sir?”

“We’re assigning you a valuable mission in the Imbrian Ocean. Your right to forfeit this mission was the question that I asked you earlier.” Director Albert said. “You will receive field training and full details in the coming weeks. You are now a full-fledged field agent, Ensign. Congratulations.”

It was that sudden.

And that was, truly, all the Director said, or needed to say.

Every blank he left was filled in by the culture of the G.I.A. Sam did not even have to acquiesce or accept the mission. He had accepted such a mission already, every time he lied in order to protect his career prospects. He had done the work to remain in the office, to continue to don his badge, and he had done enough that there was no running away from it anymore. He was the best analyst, so there was only one way for him to go. The G.I.A. had more desk officers coming, and the Republic’s war was endless.

All of this because I was too much of a pussy to fight on the front lines from the start.

He made Ensign off the back of being able to read better into data than his colleagues.

All because he didn’t want to die in a Cutter’s bridge fighting the Hanwans or Imbrians.

Now he was getting field duty– in Imbria, no less.

Sam quietly left the office after the conversation with the Director.

There was nothing more to be said.

He left for home while he had the chance.

Madison Station was the home of the G.I.A Central Directorate. It was a squat cylindrical station with only two stories, the top tier having discrete buildings inside while the bottom provided transport infrastructure to outlying habitation spires. Overhead, the thick titanium roof was like an eternal gray sky. There was a fake, grassy park stretching out from the white slab of the Central Directorate building, surrounded by high fences patrolled by quad-rotor drones. Each stretch of the park had a sun-lamp to keep the grass alive that was uncomfortable to stand under. And in fact, even agents would be chased off by the drones if they loitered in the lawn anyway– to say nothing of the few bubbles which contained trees. Everything was look-don’t-touch, the tiniest splash of aesthetics below the grey horizon.

Outside the fences, there were long roads for personal electric cars and for the electric ferry. There were few such cars parked near the street. Cars were like toys; you could drive your car if you lived in the habitat in Madison itself, and you drove it from your work which was a few blocks away and back to your home. It was a novelty. If you lived in an outlying hab like Sam, you could not possibly take your car there and back. Some people did keep a car in the car park in Madison, so they would tube to their hab and back, but drive to work using their car– it was nonsense. He had the money, but why would he bother?

Besides the cars, the streets around the Directorate were sparse with people.

Across the road, however, the crowd was much thicker.

The Central Directorate was an isolated bubble.

Everywhere else stood the teeming mass of the Republic’s people. Madison was nowhere near the most crowded, but Sam still had to push in a little after crossing the road. Office buildings, restaurants, store-fronts, no matter where he walked, the street was teeming. Dim lights. Everything was dim, as if the city feared any bright colors. Amid a crowd of people in similar office-wear to his own, all dimly looking around as if dazed. Sam had been places where walking down the street felt like a queue system.

Madison was not that bad– yet. It would get there someday.

There were less and less stations going up these days. Building them had become very convoluted.

Politically and financially–

No sense in thinking about it too much.

He made his way to an elevator and rode it down into the lower tier.

Here, the steel guts of the station were on full display. There was nothing but metal, tubes and vents and pipes, sealed off rooms with mechanisms. No attempt to embellish anything. Wide and broad hallways full of people led between tube stations out to the outlying spire hab blocks that surrounded the main structure of Madison. There were some shops here and there for the people coming and going, cramped little restaurants that were literally holes in the wall, kiosks with patriotic trinkets for folks visiting the Capital. With his hands in his pockets, Sam made his way to the tube out to Hab block “Clancy.”

Entering a tight train car, standing in the center holding himself up with a bar.

Once the train got going, fake windows would project an idyllic view of the outside.

Madison had been built at 300 meters depth on the Great Alayze Reach.

That was the base. These tubes were actually at 250 meters depth.

The Great Reaches were sacred places rendered safe by some poorly understood force, maybe some weather pattern, magnetic field, some forgotten surface device, God knew why– but there was none of the aggressive megafauna, wild currents, storms, red tides, and residual corruption that plagued the rest of the photic layers of the ocean. So when Sam peeked out of those false windows there was a bit of light outside, the marine fog was not as thick. Everyone felt safe. Nobody was terrified of the water.

You could see schools of fish, life, a place teeming with biological hope.

To leave Madison for the neighboring Pennsylvania Station you had to cross the Upper Scattering Layer and dive down into the aphotic depths, as most of the Republic lay between 900 to 1500 depth in the Cogitum Ocean. The USL was called that because most of human civilization was beneath it, but Madison was one of the few places above the USL where the moniker made no sense to the ruling class of people who got to live in this privileged bubble. Sometimes Sam nursed a catastrophic idea– if the Surface got worse, and the Great Reaches became as dangerous as the rest of the photic ocean around them.

Madison and the entire Republic government would be completely annihilated.

Maybe that was what it would take. The Imbrians, Hanwans, Katarrans, they could not end the Republic.

But maybe someday God would strike the Republic down just as He struck the surface down.

When the tube stopped inside of Clancy hab, the view became a lot less pretty.

Out on the platform, a police officer had pulled aside a civilian. There was a brief argument before the officer laid an unprompted beating that Sam could not bear to watch it and hurried away.

Leaving behind the depressing tube platform he found himself at the base of the hab, a cylindrical promenade around the elevators, where there was a shabby cafeteria and a few sparse storefronts. Nothing staffed by people, everything was pay-to-operate and self-serve. Sam hated these– he would not eat here unless the situation in his apartment was truly dire. But he was well paid, he could afford to keep his own food at home. Most of the people in this hab were immigrants in the service industry.

Yellow lights gave the halls leading to his apartment a gloomy ambiance.

Everything was so dim– why? Why couldn’t they have some brightness for once?

When Sam arrived at his own hall there was an enormous mess in front of him.

There was an eviction happening in his hall, so a person’s belongings were getting dumped out of an apartment like trash by several police officers. Sam had to navigate a maze of trash bags and furniture to get through, and the police officers gave him a disdainful look for it and barked at him to hurry up. There was a bloodied young man up against a wall, his nose punched deep purple — Sam didn’t know anyone here so he didn’t know who it was. He assumed that was the former inhabitant after the police got him.

Evicted from here, he’d be taken directly to a prison station.

He would either rot in jail or be sentenced to a Debtors’ Corps for work or war.

When Sam finally got to his own door, the hallway lights were blinking on and off.

He sighed. They couldn’t even have steady power– how would they manage color?

Then, he got his colors–

Inside, the first thing he saw was a big red flashing warning on his wall.

Rent due: $2000 Republic New Dollar or RND.

That warning would flash like a mental assault at him from every wall until it was paid.

Exasperated, Sam easily dispersed the warning by flashing his bank card at the wall.

Turning the dire red light back to the dim, depressing yellow.

$2000 RND was like a fifth of his monthly salary. It was barely anything to him.

For the laborers it could be close to three quarters of it.

Sam imagined that for that evictee, this warning flashed at him for a whole month.

He saw it every day awaiting the knock from the police, helpless.

Some holy land, the Great Alayze Reach. Some country, the great Republic of Alayze.

Sam slammed the door behind himself and laid back against it, breathing heavy.

He almost thought he would have a panic attack.

Rotten fucking day– rotten fucking place–

“What do I think of this place? I fucking hate it. I can’t imagine Imbria is any worse.”

Sam took in a deep breath.

Using the wall to help himself stand back up straight.

Thumbing the wall touchpad to bring up the lights, brightening up his 7 by 5 meter space.

They never got too bright, but it was a less dim yellow than the halls now.

The apartment was divided into three sections, the living space, kitchen, and bathroom.

There was an island that separated the living space and kitchen, while the bathroom was tucked away behind another door. From the hallway door, Sam was in his living space, with a combination sofa and bed, that folded out, a table, a combination video-screen and terminal mounted on the wall that had its own processor, making it just a bit faster and nicer than using the room computer. In his kitchen, there was an electric cooktop with a small convection box, and an icebox and pantry.

Sam used to pay to get his food automatically restocked, but he stopped. It was people from Clancy that delivered it, and he hated the idea of his neighbors running to Madison and back for him.

So he just made it part of his routine to shop in Madison and bring stuff back sometimes.

It also gave him an excuse to stick around Madison– sometimes he needed that.

Soon as the lights went on, Sam pulled off his tie, dropped his suit jacket on the floor. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it too but kept his pants on. He had a little ritual– he was deeply ashamed of it, but it gave him a specific thrill that made him feel more at home with himself. He would grab a smoke, lay on the sofa in just his pants, shirtless, no shoes– but he would put on a woman’s brassiere.

A black, padded bra that fit tight on him, sleek, with a floral pattern. He had picked it out, bought it “for a girlfriend” that he obviously did not fucking have. Then he wore it at home– it felt sexy.

Between drags of his cigarette he would look down at his chest. It titillated him a bit.

“I’m nothing but a fucking pervert. But so is everyone fucking else in this country.”

This wasn’t something that was wholly unknown to the Republic–

Tranvestism– no, it was transgenderism— whatever. Wanting to be a woman.

Sam could have talked to a doctor, gone through psych evals, gotten real-looking tits.

He could afford it– but–

But–

It’d have ruined his career.

That sort of thing was tolerated, but not truly permitted.

He was in his early 20s and already Ensign. He was good at lying and fucking people over and arranging schemes for the most evil and savage freaks on this planet so they could keep killing in the name of democracy and freedom. That was his job, and he was good at it, and if he showed up to those people in a pencil skirt and tights and makeup with a pair of C-cups they would politely make her a lowly accountant who could just barely afford her room and diet until she just quit.

Sam considered himself far too entrenched in his work, and too useless at anything else.

He looked feminine enough in his own estimation to feel like a woman at home.

That would have to be enough. He was barely alive now; if he was fired it’d really kill him.

Smoking cigarettes at home in women’s underwear, hair long and loose, lounging.

He’d tried makeup, sometimes. It was fine. Everything was just fucking fine–

“I wish I’d been brave enough to just fucking die in the wars.”

Sinking in an awful little ship somewhere that was peaceful before the Republic got there.

Torn apart by a torpedo from a Katarran or a Hanwan or an Imbrian even.

“Maybe I’ll have a chance soon.” He thought morbidly, his mood crashing.

He was headed to the Imbrium to do God knows what. He would almost certainly die.

And even if Blake McClinton did not die then, Samuel Anahid was already dead.


The Republic of Alayze had a single connection to the Imbrium Ocean that was indisputably under their control and contiguous to their territory. Navigating the Cogitum into the northern Nubium sea that lay within the continent of North Occultis, to a small gap in the continental wall into the Imbrium, called Ratha Flow. Ratha Flow served as the most recent Naval Headquarters of the Republican Navy, having moved there from the inner Cogitum hundreds of years ago when the Republic and Empire declared war.

The Republic had a much larger share of the world’s wealth than any other power.

It spent an outsize amount of these resources on its military, crusading for “global democracy.”

The Hanwans and the Katarrans were the nearest enemies, but the chief evil of the world, according to the Republic’s politicians and media, was the Imbrian Empire, hegemon of the western hemisphere of Aer.

At all times, the Nubium Sea was required to host at least 800 to 1000 vessels, for defense.

Then, when the Republic war machine really got going, it would send an additional 800 to 1000 vessels to Ratha Flow, which had to possess the capacity to temporarily host them. This reinforcement was always in preparation for a concerted attack on the Imbrium Ocean. Across from Ratha Flow was the conflict zone known as the Great Ayre Reach. Beyond the Ayre Reach they could attack the Empire’s throne state of Palatine, or the economically powerful financial-industrial state of Rhinea. If the Republic could successfully occupy either state, it’d be a death-blow to the Empire in their great war.           

There had been numerous battles for Ayre Reach in the history of the Great War.

Because of the war, the Nubium Sea bases and Ratha Flow itself, were overcrowded, dismal and miserable. Everywhere, so-called elite soldiers lived shipment to shipment from the Cogitum.

There was no production of anything in the Nubium, it was all bases and stockpiles, nothing but huge dock-stations and barracks-stations and depot-stations. Nothing was made there, everything had to be shipped, so there would be space to hold the massive fleets in place ready at a moment’s notice, as well as the absurd mass of human life required to fight for, direct and maintain the war machine.

Stockpiles were jealously guarded, to be cracked into only if there was a delay in the tight logistic chain from the Cogitum’s rich core stations to the “trenches” of the Nubium Sea and Ratha Flow.

The Republic of Alayze almost felt like it was designed to be this rich, this powerful, so it could afford the insane, bleak task of having 2000 ships in an 800 by 200 kilometer stretch of habitable water, surrounded on all sides by either the hopeless ice wall of the pole or the corrupted mass of the continent and its evil weather and monstrous fauna. The Nubium, and Ratha Flow, were the vilest fucking places on Aer, Blake McClinton thought, as he stared at the scope of the human suffering contained in each base.

Everywhere, the soldiers tried to put on a brave face. It had been drilled into them that they were the front line in a global war between democracy and despotism. They had to suffer endless days with poor food and little entertainment, working hard to keep their equipment ready and their skills sharp, their boredom broken up by drills and military panic, so that they could “defend their way of life” by invading the Imbrian Empire and being repulsed, time and time again, with only the Ratha Wall staving off defeat.

“This is a pure atrocity. Only we could’ve done this shit this bad.”

It was no wonder the Empire continued to defeat them. Who would have the energy to fight for this?

Nevertheless, the Great War for Global Democracy continued apace.

There were always soldiers, whether the brave and bold, the poor and hungry, or prisoners without choice. Despite his relative privilege– Blake characterized himself as a prisoner without choice.

“Imbria, here I come.” He joked dismally to himself.

When Blake McClinton arrived at Ratha Flow, preparations were underway for a massive attack, perhaps the largest in the history of the Great War. He would not be part of it. Instead, he would be sallying out with a small raiding force that would provide cover for him to infiltrate the Empire in a tiny vessel.

At the moment, the Empire was facing some unrest within its southern colonies.

There were rumors of rioting and a potential slave revolt that could brew in the coming months if something was not done. The Republic did not have much hope of these actions leading to a larger revolt within the Empire and felt they would be put down very quickly; but they could use the distraction, if they could attack while the Empire was gathering or in the process of a punitive expedition.

To support a potential upcoming attack on the Great Ayre Reach, Naval HQ had requested for the G.I.A. to reinforce its intelligence gathering position in the Empire with extra field assets. Priority was placed on gaining access to the Imperial dynasty– if unrest could be spread into the Emperor’s court, the Republic believed that the “despotic top-down leadership structure” of the Empire could be brought to a crisis point. Combined with the southern unrest and a massive attack from Ratha Flow, the scales would tip.

And so, Blake’s duty was to become an “extra field asset” in the Palatine state for this purpose.

Aboard the infiltration cutter Mata Hari, Blake waited in a small, cramped break room alongside two other agents destined for the Imbrium Ocean. Cutters due to their size had few amenities. On most ships, the roof was at least two meters up, but here, even someone Blake’s size would feel like they were a fish being canned. His compatriots, both taller than him, seemed to relish getting to sit down somewhere.

One was a dark-skinned man, hair packed into tight braids which were themselves tied into a ponytail. He looked young, just a bit older than Blake perhaps. He was tall, physically fit, and looked friendly.

They were both accompanied by an older gentleman, who exuded a bit of adventuristic charisma, the sort of man who smelled heavily like whiskey and cigarette smoke, slicked silver hair, a mustache and shaved beard but with such a deep shadow that one could imagine how thick it must have been. A man who looked like he belonged on the cover of a thriller movie poster holding a woman a fraction of his age.

He introduced himself first, before anyone asked: “Piedmont’s the name, Dusan Piedmont. Is this your first time venturing out into the Imbrium? Don’t worry one bit– I’ve got everything down to a science.”

Blake immediately disliked him.

“I’m Burke, Burke Zepp.”

The dark-skinned man beside Blake reached across a tiny fold-out table between the two cramped little couches in the Cutter’s break room. Piedmont looked delighted to be shaking his hand.

Blake noticed Piedmont seemed to be making much more effort with the shake than Burke.

“Firm grip, Petty Officer Burke! That’s good. You can tell a lot about a man by–”

Blake started to tune him out. He was careful not to roll his eyes too obviously.

“Blake McClinton.”

He introduced himself in the least dismissive voice he could muster.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. McClinton.” Piedmont said, briefly looking Blake over. “May I inquire as to your specialty? I like to know the skills of those I am working with– Mr. Zepp’s faculties are quite evident, but I’m very interested in what you bring to the table. It’s always the unassuming agents who end up being the most critical for the mission in the end, in my vast and credible experience.”

Burke did not respond to Piedmont’s clear typecasting of him.

Blake sighed internally.

He was going to have to get along with this fucking cartoon for months, maybe years.

“Disguise.” Blake said. “I’m good at disguises, makeup, forging identities.”

“Disguises? Fantastic! And if I may be so bold as to say– both genders, correct?”

Blake had not wanted to bring it up. Now he understood why Piedmont was staring at him.

“Yes.” He said bluntly, and no more. Piedmont must have thought he was a fucking queer.

Though it was something he did recreationally, the makeup skills and cross-dressing had ended up being part of what his G.I.A. handler noted about him as a potential asset in his ascension to field agent.

New agents were put through simulations of fieldwork to prove they had what it takes to be sent to the Imbrium or Hanwa as infiltrators. Blake characterized himself as a good liar and during the simulations deceit was, in his estimation, his key weapon to the fieldwork problems given to him to solve.

He was not going to fight his way into or out of anywhere and he frankly thought such a meatheaded approach would have made any intelligence he acquired along the way functionally useless. In his mind, field agents should get close to objectives and secure them wholly unnoticed to maximize their value. A lot of his solutions ended up incorporating constructed identities, creative use of fashions, and even impersonating people to get in and out while being able to interact with the operational space.

He played to his strengths a little too well.

To the point that the kit of gear prepared for his Imbrium journey now had a set of professionally-crafted breastforms, a full makeup kit and a fitted cocktail dress so he could cross-dress like a pro. He was not necessarily ashamed of his assessment, since as long as he was thought of as male it was only a skillset he used in his job and not something about him that was viewed as strange. But of course, a fossil like Piedmont who groomed his fucking mustache must have seen him as a limp-wristed freak.

Thankfully he had precious little time to say anything to Piedmont right then and there.

Alarm lights flashed red in every compartment.

“Imbrian vessels dead ahead! There’s– there’s a lot!”

On a nearby monitor the bridge crew piped in footage from the predictors of the larger vessels in the fleet. The Republican flotilla numbered six ships, a cruiser, a destroyer and three frigates escorting the disguised cutter. Opposite them, the Imbrian fleet– had several dozen ships. Led by a Koenig class dreadnought, there must have been at least thirty. An entire combat group approached.

“I’m fucking dead.” Blake whispered under his breath.

Staring at the monitor, that projection of barely-lit black water replete with clouds of brown biological dust, the distant outlines of the mass of enemy vessels, it was like swimming at full speed into a wall. Every nightmare Blake had ever had about fleet combat, what he had always ran away from, what he lied and struggled not to experience, it was all right here in front of him. He had run away too strongly and too well– he had circled right around back to the feared Imbrium and its deadly machines.

Maybe it was for the best to die alone with nothing but fantasies of a better life–

As soon as the Imperial ships began firing, Blake’s ship dove right to the ocean floor and cut away from the battle, moving within the chaos. On the monitor, a text overlaid on the video bid the crew to be silent as the cutter slinked away. Blake briefly watched the fleet being blasted to pieces on the cameras while his own ship stole from the battlefield beneath the notice of his absolutely massive enemy.

Somehow, within minutes, he had put that nightmarish sight of the enemy fleet behind him.

It would not be the first time that people would die to propel his journey forward.


Piedmont, that fucking idiot!

Blake seethed internally.

He scanned his eyes across the colorful ballroom from the second story. Overhead, the grand gilded arch of the ceiling played host to chandeliers with LEDs providing a sensuous, simulated ambiance below. Used to the dim but consistent yellow from ordinary station lights, Blake had trouble spotting his man in the crowd below. Besuited men, women in colorful dresses, dancing in the glamorous ballroom floor. On a small stage a brunette in a revealing red dress sang a song of love and longing that stirred his heart.

An ostentatious festival of barely-hidden sexuality– Blake even smelled it in the air.

That hedonism which characterized the Empire to him in the past few months.

On some level he had come to respect it. Despite all the money it had, the Republic was a bleak place utterly without aesthetics or sensuality. For the imperial ruling class, money was about the aesthetics. Rich finery, beautiful homes, retinues of servants and frequent, feverish trysts. To have power was to exert it for pleasure. Blake would have felt a bit more alive if he performed all his misdeeds for a beautiful and lively woman like the Lady of the House, Leda Lettiere. He had heard many rumors about her. It was the gravest misfortune of his birth that he instead worked for the tasteless, anhedonic stock-hoarders of the Republic.

Today the theater in which his continuous misfortune played out was Schwerin Island.

A beautiful station in the Palatinate, it once served as the “summer palace” of the Emperor, now given over to his newest, youngest wife as a semi-permanent abode. The Lady of this House was the mysterious and much sought after Leda Lettiere. She was not the target tonight– the G.I.A.’s mission was not so ambitious yet. But this was a place where they could gamble on finding a steppingstone to Leda, and from there, to begin building a network adjacent to the ruling Fueller family in some capacity. Because of the gamble and the rewards it could bring, the G.I.A. had to be absolutely, ironclad cautious tonight.

“It’s already cocked up. We’ve already fucked it up completely.”

Blake muttered to himself, scanning the vast room in a panic.

That moron, Piedmont, was nowhere to be seen. They had gone out of contact!

Blake was supposed to stand in the upper story with a fan over his richly dolled-up face.

Wearing his red cocktail dress, made up to be ‘Christina Becker’, aspiring theater actress.

With his dark hair done up in a fancy bun. He surprised himself how well he pulled it off.

Christina was supposed to stick to the second story to signal Piedmont, who was “Lord Beck.”

There were a few dangerous individuals here tonight, to be avoided at all costs.

Blake nearly choked on his wine when he spotted the worst one of all.

There would be a single person in attendance wearing a gray uniform–

–with a blue and green shoulder cape and a stylized semiconductor symbol upon it.

Norn Tauscherer, the most feared of the ruling Fueller family’s bannermen.

Nowhere that the G.I.A. went in the Imbrium did they fail to uncover myth and legend surrounding this vastly evil woman. Invincible, unkillable, seemingly all-knowing, plots broke upon her like tides on rock. She alone was responsible for more G.I.A. casualties in the Imbrium than the entire Imperial Navy, and it was her doing that an entirely new cell had to be created to gather intelligence. An entire cell fell to her a few years ago. The silver lining was that, reportedly, Norn had done such a thorough job of uprooting them that she believed she had wiped out the G.I.A. in the Imbrium entirely, and of course, she could have had no awareness of when or where they would rebuild their networks. This allowed Blake to do his job without having her immediately on his back — for now. And it absolutely had to stay that way.

From up above Blake spied her in the crowd, the cape an easy beacon of her position among the peacocks and doves playing out their grand mating rituals below. She was a good-looking, fair-skinned blond of unexciting stature with a sabre gleaming on her hip. Both handsome and beautiful as if each angle of her face could show a new and different side to her– each side still grinning maliciously.

Even going near this woman was game over for them.

“We have to abort if Norn even looks at you. We can’t take any risks.” Blake had said.

“Of course, of course. I’ve also heard of how scary she is, I’m not deaf to it.”

“You’re not deaf, but you’re too proud. Don’t chase anything if the cost is her attention.”

Piedmont hadn’t responded to that in their briefing. Of course he hadn’t.

He was off being a big trumped-up hero somewhere– until Norn caught up to him.

Then he would be an extremely dead hero.

Blake tracked Norn from the second story while trying to spot Piedmont in the crowd.

They had all these novel physical signals they practiced so as not to have to carry hidden equipment. And all those signals depended on Piedmont being the hall and looking up! Helpless, Blake scanned the entrances he could see, the middle of the ballroom, the positions of servants, back to Norn–

He felt something like a wind rushing past him.

His exposed back shuddered.

Norn had tipped her chin up, brought up her eyes, scanned across the second story–

–seen him?

Blake thought for a brief instant they had made eye contact– and it terrified him.

Those vast red eyes and the promise of their infinite violence–

He looked away and began to fan himself with his carbon-fiber fold-out fan.

It had a red back and a green front. If Piedmont saw him he would know to abort.

Thankfully Norn continued to walk among the crowd. But her behavior–

She’s looking for something. God damn it. She’s not mingling at all.

Her trajectory was like a shark sniffing blood from kilometers away.

Why does everything go wrong for me? Literally everything!

There was no training on Aer that could prepare an agent for the plan going awry.

At that point, it was down to experience, instinct, luck, x-factor, whether an agent survived.

Blake tried to calm himself down. He tried think about his options rationally.

All he could do was to weigh the pros and cons and optimize for the best outcome.

For the moment Blake could at least keep track of Norn. However, she was clearly heading through the crowd and might leave into one of the adjoining halls. When she did so, Blake would lose track of her. And unless Piedmont magically showed up from the opposite end of the ballroom like a fucking cartoon character, Blake would have no agent to support and no enemy to track. He could stand around uselessly until he was certain Piedmont was not coming back for good, or he could leave his position.

If he left his position, he could either escape, try to gather information on his own, perhaps approaching one of the lesser noblemen or women– or try to find Piedmont and extract together.

“If I go looking for him I might expose myself. It’s a huge risk.”

Blake’s fingers tightened on the fan. He knew in this situation that he should run away.

They had a lot riding on this. It was not so easy to leave empty handed.

Despite the legendary graciousness of the hostess, Schwerin Island only rarely opened to the aristocratic masses rather than a few intimate, select invitees. While the crowd below was quite rich it was not entirely exclusive. Leda Lettiere was giving the bourgeoise and aristocracy a rare chance to network within her home, to potentially meet her, thus displaying her social power. The G.I.A. had worked hard to create the conditions for Piedmont and Blake to attend this ball while remaining anonymous and being able to leave behind their identities if needed, and it was the design of the party itself that allowed for this. They could not have been invited to such a thing, at least not yet. It was a juicy opportunity.

However, if they all got caught it would be for nothing.

Their cell was still relatively new. Living to fight another day was warranted.

Blake could run away, rendezvous with Burke, return to the cell and hatch new plans.

Empty-handed, maybe having lost Piedmont, but with hope for a future.

There were other nobles, other social events, entire other avenues of networking to pursue.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck me.”

Muttering under his breath Blake gathered all his strength into putting up a smiling façade.

And ventured into the adjoining halls, walking delicately on his heels, fan aloft.

Piedmont, if I can get you out of here I’m going to kill you myself.

He was just going to do some reconnaissance. Ready to leave at any moment.

That’s what he told himself.

Blake took the stairs down on the opposite side of the building from where he had seen Norn going. Downstairs and in the outlying hallways there were very few people. Most of the crowd stuck to the ballroom hoping to get a chance to see Leda Lettiere come down to meet them. Those few who were out in the halls were typically younger, perhaps children of the social climbers in the ballroom area or perhaps romantically eager lords and ladies hoping for more pleasure than business on this evening.

Everything was absolutely ostentatious, the walls in the hall looked like they had been made of pearl, the corners etched like false colonnades. On the southern-facing halls there were gaps in the wall with long horizontally stretched oval windows out into the vast green fields outside. Blake could not just run through the halls at full speed without drawing attention, so he walked, smiling, and acknowledging the few people that he passed by, stealing glances into the ballroom through the doors as he passed them.

He saw servants refreshing the caviar, crostini, and drinks for the ball.

No sign of Norn Tauscherer. He had completely lost her from this vantage.

He would have to be extremely careful.

When he circled around the eastern halls adjacent to the ballroom there were far more people.

That eastern hall connected with the central wing of the palace, through which there were still people arriving, some latecomers, and some caterers getting ready to serve a banquet in the palace interior. Blake had initially that hoped Piedmont would have found someone to sit at the banquet with, and then he himself could have held back and avoided the whole situation, since his own position was more precarious when it came to finding himself a “date” for the evening. No such luck now.

Now he had to leave, to escape. But if he saw Piedmont somewhere–

From afar, at the other end of the hall.

A tall, silver-haired gentleman in a suit, walking away with urgency.

Toward the northern wing, perhaps out to the interior garden in the center of the palace.

Blake could not call or signal to him. Nobody was supposed to go back there.

He looked around, briefly, trying to see if anyone could have been following Piedmont.

No one that looked obvious– certainly not Norn.

God damn it Piedmont!

Masking his anger, Blake gracefully followed the trail of Piedmont from afar, walking across the eastern hallway, waiting until no one was looking and then sneaking out of the ballroom wing entirely, taking the main hall in the north out of the palace entirely to a hallway encircling an open air garden. Under a stone ceiling lifted by more fake colonnades, half without a wall. Simulated moonlight shone down upon a tree grown on a mound of rich soil in the center, surrounded by grass and flower bushes. There was a small path which led through the garden from one end to the other, but Blake would not take it.

He walked around the corner from the garden, got his first glimpse of the moonlight–

And immediately saw Piedmont face to face with Norn Tauscherer.

In that instant Blake, praying to have not been seen, hid with his back to the corner.

Out of sight. No one else around.

“Madame, I’m afraid your treatment of me tonight has been quite irregular.”

Piedmont, you useless fossil.

Then, for the first time, Blake heard the deep, viper-like voice of the fabled Norn Tauscherer.

“Good men with nothing to hide don’t approach me so brazenly, lord Beck. It is only the scoundrels of the world who will flirt with Norn Tauscherer after everything said about her. I was immediately suspicious of you, but your rat-like behavior since your initial error can only possibly point to conspiracy. This garden is off-limits to guests, lord Beck. You will now follow me to the police station for a chat instead.”

That fool must not have realized it was Norn! But he was debriefed?! How the fuck–?

How did all of this happen? After all their preparations, how? Was he just not listening?

“Oh dear. It’s funny, lord Beck. Even now, you truly don’t know who I am, do you?”

Blake had no weapons, and even if he did, escape after shooting Norn would be impossible.

He peered around the corner again–

–and saw Piedmont turning a firearm on Norn. Blake was speechless.

His heart sank. Where had Piedmont gotten a gun? They had agreed not to bring any gear!

All of this time, that old bastard was doing everything his own way!

He had thrown all of their preparations into the trash!

“I’m afraid it is you, my dear, who does not–”

Blake hid back behind the corner. Piedmont did not get to speak a final sentence.

Cut off, abruptly, and then a gurgling sound–

Though Blake did not know how, there was no gunshot, and everything became silent.

Frightened out of his wits, Blake started walking back toward the ballroom area again.

He had to escape, he could not possibly remain in Schwerin now.

Norn Tauscherer could have glimpsed him and taken off down the hall.

Every moment he heard nothing his imagination grew more vivid in its terror.

Halfway down the hall, he saw another figure come turning into the palace interior. Trying to mask his fear and discomfort, Blake kept walking. He recognized the woman as they closed. It was the singer, from the ball. Red dress, brown hair– a pair of spectacles perched on her nose. Blake tried to act like he belonged there. Walking casually, without acknowledging anyone, despite his quick-beating heart.

Blake barely walked past her–

–when he felt something jab him in the side, sharp and hot.

His legs turned to jelly, his vision swam, and he fell into a sudden darkness–


Something hot and fast struck his face but only half-awoke him to his surroundings.

His vision was blurry, he was nodding off. Colors, snatches of a face, a glint of metal.

Everything smelled strangely sweet. And there was gentle music playing.

A shot of pain right through the core of his body jolted him awake.

That glinting– a knife. He had been cut across the chest with a knife.

Pain burned across the center of his chest, but he was still only barely aware.

Running on animal instinct–

Blake struggled, tried to get up–

He could not move.

His field of vision was filled with the sight of a person– pearlescent skin, long hair–

a woman in a pale blue dress– a radiant woman framed in an arch of blue moonlight–

–smiling as the knife laid shallow upon his skin and easily drew his blood,

“Is this what brings our mystery woman back to the world? Does she respond only to pain?”

She had his arms bound.

He was bound to something, soft below, hard behind.

Bound to–

He was on a bed. Her bed; arms bound behind him to the rear post.

That sliver of glinting light that had already tasted his blood retreated from his chest.

Blake felt a brief, cold touch between his legs.

He was nude.

He was nude and bound and at the mercy of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

His captor was staggeringly, blindingly beautiful. Had she not had the backdrop of arched balcony doors letting in a beam of white-blue light, Blake felt she would have shone on her own, hair blowing light in the gentle midnight breeze. Her skin, an unblemished pearl-pink, her indigo hair lustrous and long. Long-limbed, lithe in figure, almost diaphanous in her silken dress. Red lips ever so expressive with the slightest movement of her cheek. Her ears were a bit sharp. She was an elf– a most uncommon ethnicity in Imbria.

“I can be cruel or kind at your behest.” She said. “Crueler or kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

Her voice was as a melodious as the orchestra music playing in the room.

“Please don’t. Please.”

Finally voice managed to escape Blake’s dry, burning throat.

She smiled at him. But the knife hovered close to his dick, nonetheless.

“You had no identification on your person. And not even in your coat and purse. I had a feeling about you, seeing you from afar, but you went into the inner garden. Did you think I would not notice it? Were you so desperate for an audience? Now Norn Tauscherer made a scene– I’m quite concerned.”

She turned the knife on its side and stroked Blake’s genitals with the cool, blunt metal.

Blake shuddered and squirmed. He was beyond caring if he looked pathetic.

His mind and body torn between pain and pleasure driven into erratic physical reactions.

“Who are you? You looked fantastic in a dress– are you a woman or a good actor?”

She winked at him. She was just toying with him now. He was truly helpless.

Blake was not going to fight it. He wanted to give up– he wanted to surrender to her.

He tried to rationalize his cowardice, but he was in truth completely broken down.

Emotions like he had never felt swelled in his chest.

Nevertheless in his mind he thought– Piedmont is gone.

Burke, by design, would have no idea if anything went right or wrong until they returned. He was just on a clock and if they did not come back to station then he had to live on and do what he could for the G.I.A. until more agents arrived. Blake could not possibly rat him out– they had agreed to disband their current hideout and switch after this mission and only Burke knew where he would go if Blake and Piedmont never returned. So it was not as if Blake had much to give up to his captors anyway.

However–

That wasn’t even the salient point. Blake had suffered so much– and for what?

The Republic, the G.I.A, it was all a bunch of crap. None of it was worth dying for.

Even if giving himself up to this woman so immediately and without resistance would end up constituting the beginning of the end for the Republic somehow, Blake would not mourn it. He went so far as to think– maybe the Imbrian Empire deserved to crush the Republic of Alayze! Fuck their so-called democracy, individual liberty, fuck all of it, none of it was real, it was slogans, hot air! There was no act of bravery or cowardice that mattered to the soulless inhuman ghouls running Alayze! Blake was nothing to them despite all of his service and anyone beneath Blake was less than nothing to them!

None of them were worth defending!

Blake had told himself time and again that he had no choice. The G.I.A. had been his only means of escape from a life of either poverty and struggle or suffering and exploitation on the front lines. Now he had a choice, the clearest choice that ever faced him. Painful death; or even a second more of life.

He could get his dick chopped off or he could surrender to the sliver of moonlight filling his eyes.

There was no question, between his bleak colorless masters and this richly glowing fairy.

“I’m Blake McClinton! General Intelligence Agency. I will cooperate. Please just– don’t hurt me anymore. Please. I’ll tell you everything I know without lies. I’ll give it all up I swear but– I– I can’t tell you what I don’t know. Our structure is semi-decentralized, so no matter what you cut, there’s shit I can’t–”

“That’s fine enough, Blake. I’d prefer you resist dashingly than start crying.”

Smiling, she set the knife aside, and with a slender finger, tipped his chin up.

She looked him directly in the eyes, just centimeters away. “G.I.A you said? Interesting.”

That touch sent a thrill right down his core. And her scent– it was incredible–

Blake started to weep, overcome with emotion. Leda Lettiere simply continued smiling.

“Would you consider leaving the Republic to work for me when I rule the world, Blake?”

Her eyes–

Blake stared directly into those crystalline eyes that seemed themselves to glow. Her voice, the gentle movement of her lips as she whispered to him. There was power, so much power that suffused her, power and beauty and ambition. Just being touched by her sent an ardor through Blake like he had never felt in the Cogitum Ocean. She was unreal, sorcerous, pleasure made flesh, setting his synapses alight.

“I would do anything for you.” Blake whimpered. “Anything. Just– please–”

“I won’t hurt you. I have a good feeling about you. You weren’t sent here to kill me.”

“I wasn’t! That was never my intention! I would never do anything to hurt you.”

“We can be more than allies. It might be impulsive– but I feel a resonance from you.”

He felt her fingers, silk-soft touch teasing where the blade once was.

Gentle and firm between his legs with a playful smile. Caressing him first– then stroking.

His back shuddered, his toes curled. He thought his head might go hazy.

Was he really awake? There was so much color, such a rush of sensations.

He could barely breathe as if emotion like he had never felt before stood to choke him.

“Blake, I meant it when I said I could be crueler and kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

One gentle stroke of her hands across the length of his shaft–

Blake gritted his teeth, sucking in air.

He thought he might cum just from the briefest brush of her skin on his own.

She leaned in over his shoulder, whispering into his ear.

“Let’s use each other.” She said. “I’m a powerful woman. I can give a lot to the G.I.A.– but so much more to you. You want to make war on the Empire? I could be your greatest weapon, Blake McClinton, and you mine in turn. All I ask is that you put me ahead of your paymasters and have a little fun. I’m a jealous woman. When I get a hold of a treasure,” her fingers squeezed to punctuate, “I cannot just let go.”

“I’m– I’m a treasure to you?” Blake said. It was the most beautiful thing anyone ever told him.

Leda laughed, gentle and songbird-like. Even just hearing her laugh drove Blake crazy.

“It’s just a feeling I have. Something subtle and soft that I feel from your aura.”

“My aura–? I don’t–“

She laid a finger over his lips– while her other hand squeezed his cock.

Blake was stunned to silence, not as much by her bidding but by the overwhelming heat in him.

“Quiet now. Over time, we can substantiate it. We can call it anything we like. But for right now–”

She reached for the knife and dexterously maneuvered it behind the bedpost.

Setting Blake free– but he was so shocked, his hands remained as if bound behind him.

Even as her own free arm coiled around him and took him into her sensuous embrace.

Eye to eye, lips grazing, her weight bearing on —

“For right now just take in the mood. Your miraculous survival and my glorious mercy.”


“Let’s go. We don’t want to linger here.”

“Bethany–”

“Marina, don’t disobey the head maid.”

Bethany winked at her. ‘Marina’ was a female name Blake had been feeling out.

They departed from the central palace building at Schwerin, making their way out north, to the “back.”

The two of them were made up to look like Leda’s maids, in long frumpy dresses and aprons. Bethany did this often, and was, essentially, already Leda’s head maid. Marina, however, was always disguised one way or another. She felt somewhat uncomfortable to have a disguise chosen for her this time. Especially last minute. After everything they had worked on for the past year, she felt a creeping dread that day.

And not just for Leda alone– not anymore.

“Don’t worry. Leda is not afraid of Norn. She’ll handle her and we’ll wait until it blows over.” Bethany said.

Contrary to their intention, those words shook Marina even more.

“She should be afraid Bethany. Norn is a demon.” Marina replied, clutching her hands together.

Schwerin Island had been their fortress for months. From here the three of them, Leda the mastermind, Marina her attack dog and Bethany in support, lied and fucked and killed and ran through every documented sin in their ambitious climb to the throne room in the Imperial Palace at Heitzing, and the death of Konstantin von Fueller. But not only that– had Leda wanted him dead, Marina felt she could have done it. Killed him out of passion and vengeance and suffered the consequences for it.

Leda wanted to replace him. She wanted to take on Konstantin’s power.

That took more than just killing him. She could not just stab him in his bed at Heitzing.

They needed contacts, supporters, resources. To isolate the Emperor at his court.

Little by little, blackmailing, corrupting, bribing and liquidating, using every dirty trick.

They were almost poised to make a move on Heitzing.

And it was that which, on that fateful day, brought Norn Tauscherer to Schwerin Island.

Despite all the care Marina had taken– she couldn’t help but feel responsible.

Somewhere along the line, she fucked up. Despite her paranoid attention to detail.

Marina had made some mistake that led Norn to suspect something.

Clutching her heart, gritting her teeth, feeling unworthy to stand beside her partners.

Hating herself, powerfully hating herself, for even potentially hurting Leda and Bethany.

“Listen, Marina, if Leda is confident, we should be too. Don’t worry yourself sick.”

“If you say so.”

Trying to avoid the imperial inspection, Bethany and Marina stepped out of the palace into the garden in the far north of the grounds. There was a gentle breeze carrying the smell of flowers all around them.

Outside the pearlescent archway of the rear door a tiled path flanked on all sides by bushes led to a small hill upon which sat a naturally growing tree. Encircling the hill were vast fields of all manner of flowers, like a biological rainbow carefully tended. Overhead the artificial lights were configured to resemble the sun, and a sophisticated projection system created a blue sky. Marina had never seen anything like it in the Republic. She still marveled at it even if she could now see such things frequently. It baffled her that the Republic, with all its wealth, never tried to create something this beautiful, this organic and real.

Perhaps it was a waste– but if you were rich, why not live it up?

After years of dim, stultifying existence in the Republic, Marina refused to surrender this bliss.

At the top of the hill, Marina expected to see Elena, Leda’s daughter. Five years old or so, an incredibly beautiful and energetic kid that took after her mother. She was sent back here to play with a friend, a child of the Schwerin guards’ captain. Gertrude, Marina thought it was, Gertrude something or other. Elena was a precious little elf in a long-sleeved dress, hair a lighter a hue of purple than her Leda’s, while Gertrude was a swarthy dark-haired little tomboy in a long shirt and pants with suspenders.

However, when Marina and Bethany got outside, they saw that the children were not alone.

There were two figures sitting down with them, playing, and laughing with them.

One was a tall man, brown-haired with dog-like ears on his head and a bushy tail. Dressed all in black, with an impressive cape upon which he was casually seated while next to the children atop the hill. Beside him was a blond woman dressed in Imperial navy grey, a blue and green armband on her right arm, gloved hand stroking Gertrude’s hair and laughing with the little tomboy. Elena, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to whistle and started spitting on the dirt in her efforts– this caused all the laughter.

Marina tried not to panic.

“Keep trying!” Norn Tauscherer said, laughing and encouraging Elena who continued to spit on the dirt. “You’ll get it eventually! Remember Elena, you can only fail if you give up and do nothing!”

“Can she run out of spit? I’m worried she’ll run out of spit.” Gertrude joked.

“I will not!” Elena said determinedly. “I will whistle, and I will not run out of spit.”

“That’s it! That’s the indomitable Fueller spirit!” Norn guffawed.

“I believe in her. She’s got her mother’s force of will.” Said the man sitting with them.

“She’s got her mother’s everything!” Norn said. “That’s why she’s such a delightful kid!”

Marina eyed Bethany, who laid a hand on Marina’s own and squeezed to comfort her.

She raised a finger to her lips to signal for Marina to be silent.

Then she led her toward the hill, approaching the merry little group that had formed there.

Marina could not allow herself to panic– the sight of Norn sent a chill down her spine, but a maid would not have thrown at the fit at the sight of a Fueller bannerman. After all, Norn was supposed to also be one of Leda’s bannermen, she was part of the Fueller family. Elena was the Emperor’s daughter.

Above all the bannermen, Norn was extraordinarily privileged, too.

She was the favorite enforcer of Konstantin von Fueller, someone rumored to be loved by him as much as he loved his wives. She had defeated many obstacles in his path over the years. Nobody could criticize her, and by all accounts, while brutal with her enemies, she behaved honorably and did not harm anyone with which she had no personal quarrels. She was certainly welcome to play with Elena and Gertrude and there was no fear that she would have caused them any harm or endangered them.

Looking at that woman, laughing and smiling with the kids– who would have panicked?

If Marina broke down at the sight of Norn, it was a clear sign that something was off.

And Norn was an expert at noticing the tiniest things wrong with her surroundings.

Marina had spent considerable effort and resources to escape Norn’s notice.

Now, she was walking right up to that demon who had killed so many people like her.

“Excuse us, lords! We were sent to care for the children. I hope they are not troubling you.”

Bethany called out with a smile and bowed her head to Norn from the foot of the little hill.

Beside her, Marina bowed as well.

“I am Bethany Skoll, and this is Marina Holzmann. We are maids in our Lady’s service.”

“Greetings, greetings. Of course the children are not troubling us. Pardon our intrusion.”

Norn stood up from the floor, wiping dirt from her pants.

Beside her the man in Inquisitorial garb stood up as well.

“How may I assist you today? Are you the guests our Lady is waiting for?” Bethany said.

“Indeed. We were simply inspecting the garden. It’s magnificent.”

Norn turned a smile on them completely unlike how she looked with the children.

Marina realized she had been genuinely happy with the kids, but with them–

That dark, malicious grin, with her billowing blond bangs lightly shadowing her eyes.

“I am Norn Tauscherer, a humble bannerman of the Fueller family.”

Norn put a fist to her own chest then waved over her companion.

“This is Vekan Inquisitor Pavel Andrevi Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

At her side the Inquisitor gave a shallow bow back, running a hand through his brown hair.

“Pleased to make the acquaintance of such lovely ladies. Call me Andrevi.”

“Do not call him Andrevi. Call him Inquisitor or Lord Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

Norn elbowed him gently and the Inquisitor laughed. His dog-like ears folded slightly.

“Norn let’s not take up their time. We saw what we wanted back here anyway.” He said.

Marina felt a flash of fear at that comment. What had Norn and the Inquisitor seen?

At that point, as if in the very instant that Marina’s fear actualized in her own mind–

Norn turned her eyes on her, walking down from the hill with the Inquisitor.

Giving that devilish smile to Marina who tried strongly to hide her own expression.

She was good at lying. She was the best liar in all of Madison Station.

All of them had believed that she was a democratic, patriot man who would die for them.

When she purged her face of all emotion, when she got into the character of the maid.

Marina was assured of her own success. She felt relief– she felt like she mastered herself.

She was sure she was able to lie to Norn Tauscherer right to her face–

–until Norn stopped at her side, briefly, and looked her over.

And for a second, Marina’s calm face struggled titanically to hide the storm in her chest.

Those bright red eyes–

and the unfathomable depth of the violence they had seen and committed–

“Marina Holzmann? It’s nice to see Lady Lettiere has help of such fine breeding.”

The Inquisitor laughed. “She sure knows how to pick ‘em.”

With that brief tease, Norn continued, and the Inquisitor followed.

Until both of them were out of sight.

“Calm down, Marina.” Bethany said. “They don’t know anything. Let’s just stay here.”

“Bethany, what if they want to hurt Leda?” Marina whispered.

They were trying to keep the kids from overhearing.

Bethany fixed Marina with a serious look.

“Can you stop them? Could you heroically fend off Norn and Samoylovych and whatever small army awaits behind them and save Leda then?” Bethany said. “Norn is a threat that can’t be physically defeated. I believe you are well aware of this. However, she is not a ravening beast. She is here to carry out an inspection, and I am almost positive she will not work one more second than she has to or do anything other than follow the letter of what she was told to do. She is just a servant– just like us.”

“Just a servant?” Marina asked. Nearly reeling– how could Bethany be so sure?

“Marina, the Imbrian Empire is the thing Leda fears– not just someone like Norn.”

“Bethany–”

“I know you love her, Marina. But if you love me too– just calm down and trust me.”

“Fine.”

Leaving behind the garden path the two of them reached the top of the little hill.

“It’s okay if you can’t whistle. I’ll do all the whistling for you.”

“You will? You really will?”

“Sure! I’ll whistle whenever you want!”

Gertrude began whistling while Elena clapped her hands joyfully.

Marina and Bethany sat under the tree’s shadow, looking at the massive palace sprawling before them, surrounded by fields of flowers. Wind gently blowing their hair. Aside from the breeze the only sound was the children playing. Gertrude and Elena hardly paid the maids any attention, and ran into the flower field, laughing and jumping around, calling each other’s names and saying silly things. They were so carefree. In their minds, there was nothing sinister or wrong happening around them. Those happy days of theirs would stretch on forever under the false blue sky and in the carefully tended flower garden.

Marina wished she had the same confidence that they did. Everything felt so fragile.

No matter how well they lied to Norn today everything felt like it was teetering.

They were always close to the edge. Everything they loved and had could be taken.

“Bethany, I do love you.” Marina said.

“As much as you love Leda?” Bethany said. She had on a mischievous grin.

“Don’t do that, it’s really not funny.”

“What if I said I loved you more than Leda?”

“I wouldn’t believe you.”

Bethany shrugged. “Hardly matters anyway. You’re still a good lay even if you hated me.”

Marina sighed. But she felt a little less burdened after a bit of teasing. Leda Lettiere’s head maid was really something else– she had to be as much a woman as her Lady to keep up with her, after all. She had grown to really admire her, to desire her, to love her. She and Leda meant the world to Marina.

That little storm of laughter they were looking after finally wound its way back up the hill.

Gertrude sat down under the tree near Marina, catching her breath with a big smile.

Close behind her, Elena walked up, face flushed, hiding something behind her arms.

“What do you have there?” Bethany asked the little princess in a playful tone.

Smiling, Elena unveiled a crown of flowers, and set them playfully on Gertrude’s head.

“It’s for Gertrude! She’s my prince now, just like how I am a princess!” She declared.

Gertrude squirmed a little bit, clearly embarrassed by the younger girl’s effusive affection.

It was such a beautiful sight. Marina could not help but liven up.

“You hear that, kid?” Marina said, finally speaking up, giving Gertrude a mischevious little look. “You’re her prince! You need to take care of her, okay? You gotta make her smile from now on, you hear?”

In response, Gertrude rubbed her hands together, but smiled gently.

“I will.” She said.

She looked down at the grass, cheeks turning a little red.

“I will. I love her a lot.” She whispered.

As if only for Marina to hear and not for Elena or for Bethany.

Marina laid a hand on Gertrude’s head, stroking her short hair.

“I know you’ll make her happy, kid.” She said. In her heart, truly wanting to believe it.


It felt like the ocean had never been darker.

Why? Why do I always come up short? Why do I always fuck everything up?

In front of her, the enemy Diver stood as an insurmountable obstacle/

This knight-armor clad pilot had completely dismantled Marina McKennedy.

Looming powerfully in the sea before her, shield in one arm, assault rifle in the other.

In the cockpit every red flashing warning that could do so pulsed and throbbed in her face.

Fuck. Fuck. Some fucking hero I am! I can’t do anything but fail her, over and over!

The S.E.A.L.’s chest was pitted with dozens of shallow detonations, one of the shoulders was nearly destroyed, the jet anchor’s inner workings spilled out like entrails. Some of the hip armor was gone, exposing a leg joint, and one of the leg verniers on the opposite side had blown. One of the arms had a broken extension rod so she could barely flex it anymore. She had maybe 70% of her normal thrust if she blasted with her remaining verniers every time she tried to move from now on. Meanwhile that colossus in front of her was unblemished, its pilot clearly far more experienced than Marina, practically dancing around her while taking initiative to attack wherever they pleased with a superior machine.

Only one thing had saved her– the pilot wanted to get away.

They were desperate to attack the Brigand. Marina was just a waste of time for them.

And all Marina could do was stand in their way, take a lump, and stand in the way again.

She was buying time but for what? Nobody else was backing her up.

On the communications all she heard was a bunch of inaudible trash. She was alone.

Alone with her ghosts, the burden of her failures, and the reaper that had come for her.

Her vibro-axe was nearly broken in half from blocking the enemy’s sword.

She had reloaded her rifle in the last exchange, but her aim was garbage.

What the fuck am I going to do?

Die, she thought. I am going to die here. I was never made to be a soldier.

All of the things she endured that did not kill her.

For all of the people that she had loved who were no longer with her.

And now, she was going to be killed here at her lowest point.

No, forget about me, damn it.

Marina cracked a grin, her own grim reflection on one of the darker screens.

All of this sorrow and frustration she felt was the result of one thing.

Unlike when she called herself Sam, she now had something worth fighting for.

More than the vapid ideas of Republic “democracy” or the paycheck to make rent with.

She could not surrender to this enemy. She could not brush off this defeat.

She had too much to lose.

“What’s there to feel sorry for? I never had any expectation of living a life worth feeling sorry for. Right now, nobody would mourn me– but we’ve all given up so much for that little girl with the purple hair. Even if she doesn’t mourn me or doesn’t care. She’s a victim of all this too, but she’s helpless to do anything about it. That’s just– that’s always stuck in my fucking craw. Elena deserves better!”

Smiling to herself, pumping herself up (lying to herself).

Her grip tightened on the sticks. She was still standing between that pilot and the Brigand.

That pilot would charge again, as they had been doing.

They knew that they were wearing Marina down while minimizing their own damage.

All of this could be Marina’s advantage. After all– she was a great liar, wasn’t she?

And as bad as she was at tactics, she still knew deception was important on the battlefield.

She quickly switched weapons between the S.E.A.L.’s hands.

Axe to the good arm —

Rifle to the damaged arm–

If I’m right, this might get her to draw her sword–

Marina could not lift her rifle arm, so she used the rifle camera to align herself with the enemy, an obvious movement to shoot. Before she could pull the trigger, that mecha came hurtling toward her.

Rather than shoot, however, Marina charged as well, brandishing her vibroaxe to retaliate.

Trying to throw her one good shoulder forward.

They were not far apart, and they cut the distance to each other within seconds. Rather than its powerful grenades or rifles, the enemy lifted its vibrosword to finish her, conserving its precious ammunition — it did everything to spare its resources for the Brigand while being rid of a pest barring its way.

I got you, you son of a bitch.

That blade rose and fell with a flash and Marina’s vibroaxe clashed with it.

Already damaged, Marina’s vibroaxe practically snapped like a twig.

Holding its shield in front of itself, the enemy suit launched a vicious overhead slash that sundered her axe from head to handle and crashed into her functioning shoulder. Slicing through layers of metal armor, power routing cables and gear, the water system for the backpack– and entombing itself in the steel.

Her enemy’s sword did not go through one end of her mecha and out the other.

Chopping vertically through her axe into the thick tangle of systems within her armor, it became stuck.

She could pull it out but, but–

For a split second, Marina had the enemy suit where she wanted it!

Without moving her arm, Marina held down the trigger for her rifle.

At point blank range 37 mm explosive shells crashed one another after into the shield.

Her cockpit shook from the repeated close blasts.

Under a dozen pressure bubbles and shockwaves the shield pitted, buckled, and shattered.

With a panic, the enemy thrust back with everything it had, absorbing stray shots to its chest once its shield split into pieces, pulling out its sword and clumsily retreating several meters away.

Debris and gases and water vapor obscured the two enemies from each other momentarily.

Marina hovered on one side of the cloud, completely helpless.

Several systems went completely offline. She could not move either arm.

Her backpack thrust was nearly dead. She could only thrust with the legs.

Electrical power was uneven. If she made any more effort her life support might blink out.

She had broken the shield and pushed her enemy back one last time.

One last time– there would be no further resistance. She had nothing.

Without the rush of adrenaline, without another option, without the ability to claw for life.

Everything seemed to come crashing down.

Her hands left the useless controls of her now disabled machine.

Madison, Ratha Flow, Schwerin, Heitzing, Vogelheim–

Her life flashed before her eyes. She had seen so much, felt so much–

Pain,

Love,

Elation,

Despair,

Had her journey been for nothing? Had she finally failed all those people she loved and lost?

She raised her hands to her face and felt compelled to cry out. “Elena,” Marina said, hoping and praying that it might reach the Brigand somehow. “Please survive this and find your own strength. That’s what your mother would have wanted– and–” she sighed, tearing up. “Bethany, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t do anything. I love you so much Bethany. After everything you gave up– if we meet again this soon, will you spit on me in heaven? Have I really lived a life that was worthy of you and Leda?”

When the gases dispersed enough, Marina could see the enemy mecha across the cloud.

Their rifle unfolded from its stowed position.

Lifting the barrel, the machine took aim at her.

Slight pits from shell impacts and detonations on the breastplate– not enough to stop it.

Had they only wanted the Brigand they could now sweep past her useless machine.

Now, however, they were furious.

To deliver the coup de grace. To finally end Marina’s long, arduous journey.

But she felt no peace. She had lost everyone and left everything unfinished.

In that moment, she prayed, she begged, pleaded dearly for even one more day of life–

“Agent McKennedy! Don’t give up!”

Her once useless communicator suddenly sounded with a crisp, clear voice.

Rather than shoot, the enemy dashed to the side to avoid the grasp of a pair of jet anchors.

They retracted to the chest of a Diver that shone like a sun underwater.

As if in its presence it was suddenly easier to see through water.

Interposing itself between Marina and the enemy, a golden knight against her silver reaper.

“I’ve only known you for a short time– but you’re still a comrade to me. I don’t want to see anyone who fights bravely for the Brigand lose her life. Please retreat, Agent McKennedy! Let us handle this!”

Marina could not help but smile at the foolish voice of Murati Nakara on the communicator.

You don’t know anything about me– but thanks, you big-hearted commie fool!           

She tried to wipe her tears, but she found herself weeping even more.

Weeping for the life she had again–

Back in Schwerin, she thought she had been blessed with life by a being of moonlight.

And just when she really thought everything was going to end–

Now, that life was protected by a colossus made of the sun.

Broad-shouldered, with strong limbs, clad in bright, perfectly sculpted armor.

Appearing out of nowhere to confront that mysterious enemy.

Those commies, even in their darkest hour, they always came up with something.

Her prayers had been answered.

Even despite everything, Marina McKennedy was still fighting for the light she had found.

“This one’s no joke!” Marina called out, heart soaring. “Give ‘em hell, commies!”

“Acknowledged!”

Her heart lifted–

As she bore witness to nothing short of a miracle.

Like Leda had once said– a glorious mercy.

“Murati Nakara–”

“–Karuniya Maharapratham!”

Two pilots called out over the communicator from the machine.

Both voices finished as one with a roaring determination–

“Arrived at the combat area! SF-014X Helios, ready!”


Previous ~ Next

Arc 2 Intermissions [II.2]

“The Battle of the Chart”

Like any major event in the Union, the opening of hostilities with the Empire would become a political tug-of-war in the shadows between the falling Ahwalian and ascending Jayasankarist factions of the Union government. While many of the events that transpired during this time received a healthy massage when committed to history, the following is a rough chronicle of the “Battle of the Chart,” a minor political victory for Premier Bhavani Jayasankar and her supporter Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.

A minor victory that would set the stage for the major political victory to come thereafter.

And a few small stories of little people who participated in it, some knowingly, some not.


“Meal B, please.”

That day the cafeteria’s B menu seemed to be a simple wrap, with a pureed eggplant salad dip and chips.

An irrelevant detail– the B menu had to be eaten. This was her duty.

No matter what was on the menu, Maya Kolokotronis always chose “B.” It was part of a ritual, and rituals had some importance to her. For someone raised in chaos she valued consistency and personal habits. There were some that called it a “Katarran superstition” but in reality it was a habit born out of nothing but Maya’s own convictions. Having an A menu or a B menu was simply a privilege that Union people took for granted. Katarran slaves got protein and vitamin slop and sometimes even in a bowl.

Maya knew about that all too well.

So when she learned that the “B” menu was generally less selected than the “A” menu–

It incensed her a little bit. She decided to do her part and exclusively eat the “B” menu.

Sometimes, Union people didn’t know how good they had it, she thought.

They were good people. Despite how much she stuck out in the Union, everyone was always unfailingly polite to her nonetheless. Nobody aside from children made comments about her horns, which were jet black and segmented, peering out from under her long dark brownish-green hair. Her skin, which was a yellowish-white color, with a few red striations and mottles, did not elicit much of a response as well.

Perhaps it was the uniform. As a Rear Admiral, she wore a very visible green greatcoat which she draped over her shoulders, along with a big cap, with a button-down shirt and black and green pants. She had a bodysuit beneath everything. For a Katarran, she was also a fairly sleek lady– rather than a shark or a whale or some other big impressive creature, her DNA was drawn from a humble deep water lobster. Most Union Katarrans were mercenary crew who were captured by the Empire and deported to the colonies. Such fighters were usually fiercer animals than a lobster, and bred to be a bit bigger– but that was actually only a stereotype the Imbrians formed. There were plenty of smaller mercenaries too.

Regardless, even as a former Katarran mercenary, everyone was kind to her.

Union people were good people– but they were naive.

She took a seat in the middle of a cafeteria on the upper level of Salsk Station, a habitat in Ferris just north of Thassal. She opened the reusable lunchbox and took a bite of her wrap. It was filled with warm cabbage, shredded boiled egg and sweet, soy-based sauce. There was a sweetness to the wrap itself, perhaps corn was used. One could not fault the corn chips and savory eggplant salad dip either.

It was a nice, efficient breakfast.

And yet, the foolish Union public, per capita, chose “A” menu because it was offered first.

“Excuse me.”

Maya looked up from her plate.

There was a young woman in front of her, round-faced, plump, radiating pleasantness. She was dressed in the red cafeteria overalls and black long-sleeved shirt, the little cafeteria worker cap placed atop her curly brown hair. She smiled when Maya looked up at her. Maya did her best to smile back, a bit crooked and unveiling sharp fangs. Even this sight did not turn away the unfailingly polite and pleasant girl.

“Thank you so much for coming to our cafeteria!” She said. Her voice trembled a bit. “We rarely have repeat visitors, so it’s nice to see you again! I hope this isn’t weird, but I’m proud of the food we serve and I want to make sure you’re enjoying it! We’re a bit out of the way of the main station thoroughfare, but we really try our best! I– I really hope we’ll see you again!” She practically bowed her head to Maya.

Rear Admiral Maya Kolokotronis developed a second conviction on that day.

She would visit this supposedly “out of the way” cafeteria exclusively.

Stupid, naive Union people– why the hell would they not visit cafeterias equally?!

Why would some be built and staffed and then have less visitors?! All areas of a station are worth serving!

Maya would have to eat at this cafeteria for all the fools who did not.

She stood up, and bowed her own head back at the cafeteria girl, who looked momentarily startled.

“No, ma’am. Thank you for your service.” She said. And she meant it.

For the next few years, and even in the lead-up to the battle of Thassal in 979, Maya would eat exclusively at this cafeteria. Nobody understood it, but for the quiet, brooding admiral, this was part of her justice. It was part of why, despite her background as a mercenary, she became a picture of Union egalitarianism.


“To me she sounds like a bit of a crackpot.”

“She’s a politically viable crackpot.”

In the Premier’s Office in Mount Raja, Bhavani Jayasankar and Parvati Nagavanshi met to go over an important personnel decision. Atop the Premier’s desk were several digital sheets each containing the dossier of one of their Admirals, Rear Admirals and Commanders. If they were going to launch an attack on Sverland they needed to revise the organization of the Thassal Fleet. So far, Deshnov and Goswani had performed a lot of ad hoc actions against various crises, and there was no faulting their performance–

But–

Such things could not be allowed to continue. Due to new intelligence from Veka, the Union had an opportunity to expand its reach into the Empire’s southern duchy of Sverland, specifically its Serrano and Cascabel regions. The forthcoming strategic operation could not become defined by a few individual’s personal heroism in responding to emergency. It had to be seen as a calculated exertion of socialist power as directed by Solstice, Naval HQ, and more importantly, the ruling Jayasankarist faction of the government. It would no longer be crisis management — it would be organized military action.

Going over the situation in detail one more time–

“Right now, in Deshnov, the Ahwalia faction has a military hero racking up accolades at the front for the first time in decades. Deshnov and Goswani took it upon themselves to respond to the last few situations in Thassal. With that in mind, it’d be politically dangerous to allow Deshnov to lead the expedition into Sverland, and potentially achieve our first liberation of an Imperial territory since the revolution.” Nagavanshi said. “Coupled with his other victories it could give him a platform to speak on his ideology or even to enter politics formally. We have to find a way to break his influence over the Thassal fleet.”

Bhavani smiled. “Deshnov is too unsophisticated to enter politics of his own volition. By himself, he’s just a careless old fool, but I agree with your assessment in general. If we keep feeding him easy victories, the Ahwalians will definitely grab him and groom him into a political weapon. He’s one of the original revolutionaries and has an unassailable combat record that commands respect. They wouldn’t use him to challenge me directly, but they might try to influence Naval HQ in favor of the Ahwalian faction.”

“We need to replace him at the front. Give another Admiral a shot and spin it as an All-Union success.”

“I agree wholeheartedly. You must have something in mind, right? You’ve been watching him.”

Nagavanshi nodded. She crossed her arms.

“I propose we make the case that Deshnov needs to cycle back to a supporting role for his own health. That he’s been pushing himself to a breaking point and needs to be prescribed a desk tour right away. Even if it’s only temporary, as long as he’s out of our hair for a few weeks we can make him irrelevant. I can manufacture an incident of some kind to give us an opening. The only question is who replaces him.”

“We could have used Murati Nakara if she was here, but you had to send her away.” Bhavani said.

Her voice had a teasing tone. She was not speaking fully seriously.

Nagavanshi grumbled. “She is more useful where she is and it would look too bizarre to jump a Lieutenant to Admiral anyway– it’d be an obvious political move. In addition, while Murati Nakara has been vocally partisan in our favor, she and Deshnov were close, so she could get sentimental.”

“Then like I said, I believe in this one. Whether or not we can get Deshnov out, she’s still my choice.”

Bhavani tapped her index finger repeatedly on the dossier of Maya Kolokotronis.

An unassuming Katarran, young-looking but old in years, smallish among her kind in the Union.

“It’s a little known fact, but Kolokotronis achieved the greatest destruction of Imperial ships in a single action in the revolution. Her flotilla sank 31 Imperial vessels by baiting them to the photic zone in the Great Lyser Reach, and when they began to ascend past the upper scattering layer, she attacked from underneath them with a detached force. Before it could reorganize, the enemy fleet was devastated. She performed this feat at the head of a mercenary crew, so in the early days of the Union state, that history was downplayed.” Bhavani said. “But I believe the time has come to honor her martial prowess.”

“Her political leanings align with ours.” Nagavanshi said, rubbing her chin as she went over the dossier that Bhavani had pointed out. “She is a pragmatic militarist, and she was one of the admirals who supported Ahwalia’s house arrest. She can easily be read as our Jayasankarist hero, and we can play her up as a genius liberator– if she proves to be a genius. We are gambling that she can carry out the operation in a way that she’ll overshadow the importance of our intelligence position. She has to be credible within the Navy too. Otherwise people will say Deshnov could’ve done the same as her.”

“I believe in her.” Bhavani said. “I think that she has a killer instinct which has been dormant.”

“If you insist, I’ll follow you.” Nagavanshi replied. “Now we have to focus on the next little skirmish.”

Bhavani grinned. “Yep. We’ll have a fistfight on our hands getting the chart just the way we like.”

“I’ll get people on it. We’ll see how known Ahwalians respond, and deal with each blow as it comes.”

Nagavanshi turned leave, but Bhavani reached out over the desk and grabbed her shoulder.

“I love it when you say you’ll ‘get people on it’. But there’s one person I want to get in my room, tonight.”

She winked, and though the gesture was not seen, it must have been felt.

Without turning around, Nagavanshi responded, “I’ll make appropriate arrangements, Premier.”


“Ah, there he is.”

It was important to the success of the operation that Yervik Deshnov be approached outside of the Formidable, his flagship, where his crew could have attempted to resist the agent serving him a notice. Such a thing would be illegal of course– but young people in the military could be foolhardy. This figured not only in the decision by Nagavanshi’s “Ashura” to approach him when he stepped out of a cafeteria in Thassal station, but also in the decision to send a lone operative who could handle herself without drawing too much attention. So after he finished his coffee and biscuits one morning, in a quiet little cafeteria away from port, Deshnov found himself faced with the friendly smile of a certain Hanko Korhonen-Adamos Rainyday, who towered nearly two heads taller than the squat old man.

“Fair currents, Admiral!” She said. “I require a moment of your time. Official business.”

Deshnov stared at her with immediate skepticism. He looked like he wanted to spit on her shoes.

“I don’t have time for you chekist thugs. Tell Nagavanshi to meet me herself if she wants something.”

Hanko continued to smile. In her heart, she felt she had a very maidenly soul. She was a tall woman, somewhere over two meters, and she would have described herself as being “pretty fit” but “retaining a womanly charm.” Her grey skin was one of the markers of her heritage, the other being her odd mix of ears. One of her ears was a fluffy, perfectly straight dog-like ear, mottled slightly brown. Her other ear looked more like a hairless, cartilaginous fin from a whale shark– one the donors for her DNA.

“That totally unreasonable demand aside, I’m afraid it concerns your health, so I’ll need you to stay put.”

When Deshnov tried to walk past her, he met with the firm, inescapable grip of a Katarran Pelagis.

And the courtesy and gallantry of a dog-like Loup. Hanko stood there with a polite smile.

Even then, he obstinately tried to shove past her.

Inside, she felt this was such a pathetic sight, that was truly making this old man look bad.

As for herself, she was fine to stand there all day if she had to. He couldn’t move her a centimeter.

“Fine, Katarran. Talk to me about my health then.” Deshnov said sarcastically, finally giving up.

“Awesome.” Hanko said. “But–“

Hanko squeezed his shoulder a bit, causing him to flinch slightly and start resisting again.

She couldn’t help it, because the ‘Katarran’ bit had made her astronomically angrier than before.

“I’m a member of the Union the same as you, comrade. My name is Hanko Korhonen-Adamos Rainyday.” Her face darkened a bit, her grin taking on some malice. “Please acknowledge that I am serving you this notice, I, being Hanko Korhonen-Adamos Rainyday. I require you to say my entire name if you please.”

“God damn it– You can’t do this to me–“

Deshnov, in an unfortunate fit, attempted to strike Hanko in the chest–

And found his fist squeezed until a few gentle cracks could be heard, in Hanko’s other hand.

“Oh dear, I can hardly believe this degree of foolishness. No one is above the law, comrade, and you have insulted me and attacked me for just trying to perform my duty and serve you a notice that you must appear for a wellness check-in at Mount Raja in Solstice. I’m afraid things have gotten more serious than that now.” Hanko said this with a noticeable glee while Deshnov struggled pathetically in her grasp.

Most details of this sad scene would be go on to be suppressed, “for the Admiral’s dignity.”

In truth, Nagavanshi had always known that it would go this way and planned for it to begin with.

Deshnov hated the Ashura and believe any sign of their presence near him was a specific sanction on Nagavanshi’s part. He was correct this time, but Nagavanshi had picked her moment. Out of magnanimity their approaches to him had been very limited for the past few years of Bhavani’s regime, and this special treatment had come to be well known internally, and resented by other bureaucrats. That magnanimity had run out– and so on that day, he met a woman with a known short fuse for all of Deshnov’s conceited personal habits toward internal security personnel. And it was this woman, then, who formally arrested him, with a smile on her face and the wind behind her sails, in a sparsely frequented cafeteria in Thassal.


Deshnov had never been very politically savvy.

He had always gone with his gut, and he was known for a few things that Nagavanshi exploited.

First, he was known to be a bit “old timey” misogynist, which was evident every time he told his crews to get married or have sex as heterosexual good luck charms before a battle or exercise. So when it became a spreading BBS rumor that he had insulted a female officer of the Ashura and been taken in for it, this was seen as somewhat predictable. Second, he was known to be a very sad lonely man with a few vices. So when he was officially listed as being drunk on the day in which he insulted an Ashura officer, that was also understood to be true and not a convenient smear. In fact, there were several people privately rejoicing that the “gerontocracy of the navy” were finally being “reigned in” when they heard of his arrest.

And his arrest was not heavily publicized. It was not treated with anywhere near the same bombast as the arrests of Ahwalia and his close supporters had been years ago. It barely merited a mention in Thassal’s local news let alone nationally, and all Union press was instructed to, for Deshnov’s sake, prevent it from becoming anything big. This lent the situation an air of normality. An unfortunate event had transpired and a man known to be somewhat erratic despite his heroic service had earned himself official reprimand.

However, the crimes were relatively minor, and there was continuity of command.

So this carefully cultivated theater and lack of theater transpired as its engineers desired.

Deshnov’s second in command, Chaya Goswani, responded to all of this by sighing deeply and developing an enormous headache. She was appointed, for a brief period, as head of the Thassal fleet. And she was kept in line, and kept from suspicion, by the next event in Nagavanshi’s chain: all criminal charges against Deshnov were dropped soon after, and it was clarified he was being sent to Solstice for a wellness check-up, and a possible community service duty as a form of reeducation through labor.

“God in heaven.” Goswani sighed. “It figures that old bastard would get assigned to reeducation.”

So far, so good.

There was barely any response from a Union public that was trying their best not to think about the times they were living in, and who were, already, being heavily messaged away from responding anyway.

Travel from Ferris to Solstice could be done in a few days, but could take up to a week depending on the route, the currents, stops along the way, the status of the fuel rods for the ship in question, acts of God, and sailor’s union approved mental health breaks for the crews aboard the ships. Needless to say, the next ship bound for Solstice was going on a slow, leisurely trip with its famous new passenger.

On the very day Deshnov was escorted to his ship to Solstice, sedate in mood–

Rear Admiral Maya Kolokotronis was appointed Admiral in command of the Thassal fleet.

And a day after, the operation to Sverland was announced in semi-secrecy.

By the time Deshnov arrived in Solstice, the guns would already be sounding.


One morning, Maya Kolokotronis sat down in her favorite cafeteria with the fullness of understanding of where she was headed and what she was being asked to do. She asked, as always, for the menu “B.”

“Good morning, miss Kolokotronis.”

“Good morning miss Federova.”

Bringing her the food box was the bright, round-faced girl whom Maya had been seeing every day now for years, Milana Federova. She sat down with Maya briefly, and the two of them ate, both from Menu “B” that Maya unflinchingly chose to eat every single day. That morning, Menu “B” was a treasure box. Savory buckwheat porridge with mushrooms rehydrated in lemon juice, spiced with paprika, and topped with a dollop of corn oil confit pickled tomato with biscuit on the side and two hard boiled pickled eggs.

“And people forego Menu ‘B’! I could give them a thrashing!” Maya said.

“Now, now, Maya, it happens nowhere near as often as before!” Milana replied, giggling.

“Well, good.” Maya said. “I suppose you have access to the stats since you work here. I’ll believe you.”

“I know it’s important to you, so I’ve actually been keeping track. I like to think you made a difference.”

“Hmph. If I can convince one more person to pick up the ‘B’ menu, I’ll die happy.”

“I think, honestly, that the Menu A and Menu B system is kind of silly, and the root of the issue.”

“No, it’s important.” Maya said. “If people got to have their way, they would always have favorite dishes and dishes they don’t like, they would start asking for things, they would put stress on the cafeteria people. This is the best way. The Cafeteria can run efficiently making dishes with a good selection of items every day, everything is standardized, controlled, accounted, and people get food that is good for them. We don’t have the luxury of every cafeteria becoming a restaurant where everyone gets their bespoke meal. You get a feel-good little choice, A or B, and if you have allergies, then C and D. It’s efficient.”

“I see. You’re right. I like how passionate you are about it, for a military person.” Milana said.

“Here, I’m not a military person. I’m just a woman who is grateful for your care.”

Maya looked up from her food. She breathe in and let out a deep sigh for a moment.

“Something wrong?” Milana asked.

“No. Everything is fine. I’m just– I’m going to do one unusual thing today.”

“I see, and what is that?”

She knew that Maya liked routine, so she looked a little sympathetic or worried.

Then Maya reached out and took Milana’s hands into her own.

Milana’s face turned bright pink.

“Milana Fedorova, please take the first step with me. I know I’m a good-for-nothing who eats your food and disappears to fantasize about fleet combat, but I will do anything to make you happy. I am going away soon but when I come back, I want you to move in with me. I even live near the cafeteria!” She said.

In response, Milana suddenly started sobbing.

“Oh god, that bad?” Maya said, her voice trembling.

And in response to that, Milana pulled Maya in for a kiss across the cafeteria table.


While the response from the Union press and from Jayasankarist organs of the government was resolutely mum, Deshnov’s arrest and removal from Thassal did cause a few firebrands within the Union to launch salvos against Nagavanshi. While the notion of defending someone being characterized as “an old sad drunk suffering fatigue” was subject to a certain indignity, the Ahwalians did not get to pick their battlefields when it came to suspected reprisals. They believed they had to stick together or fall apart.

Ahwalia himself, in house arrest in Hanza Station in southern Solstice, could not possibly comment.

He was so disgraced that such a thing would have been ridiculous.

However, from his seclusion, he did request for the Parliamentarian of the Solstice Council, Yerdlov Smolenskiy, to begin an inquiry into the events. In the Union, most government policy began at the executive level: but each region also elected a Council. Regional councils were tasked with gathering public opinion data on proposals for new law, new executive guidance, amendments to existing law, and so on. Ballot initiatives could be pursued by station populations to officially lobby the government, and citizens could also join to collectively bargain with the government or rarely even organize protests.

It was the task of the Councils to shepherd such initiatives from initial requests from the public to official debate in the government, and either conscientious and detailed rejection or commitment to policy. The Councils also weighed in on executive policy and promoted their constituency’s best interests. Each Council had a Parliamentarian who functionally led each region’s body, though different factions of the Communist Party also had whips in each Council to align their interests. (There were, of course, no official political parties allowed except for the All-Union Communist Party). In addition, Councils and specific councilmen and councilwomen could become and frequently did become pawns in executive politics.

Yerdlov was one such pawn and he knew it.

His position was precarious because he had been vocal in his support of Elias Ahwalia seven years ago.

Back then he believed strongly the government could shrug off Bhavani Jayasankar’s actions.

In his view, the public would see her acting unilaterally and condemn and reject her.

Back then it was not even about Ahwalia versus Jayasankar. To him, it had been about process.

No matter how many military ships Jayasankar parked above Hanza and Mount Raja, no matter how many flagrant accusations she threw to cover up her illegitimate and violent coup, the Council could convene, reaffirm the norms of Union democracy and send the militarists tumbling out of history.

However, he put his faith entirely in process, which was something Council people often did.

Bhavani Jayasankar, who had neither faith nor belief in Process as an entity separate from ideology, simply acted outside process, gathered forces outside process and won the Premiership, largely outside process and with only a small theatrical formality within a process that was held hostage. People did not rise up, they did not petition the Councils to stop this, there was no official animus to prevent the coup. Process would end up reeling for years, but Bhavani still didn’t rule entirely by fiat. So when Ahwalia tapped him, Yerdlov strongly believed, once again, that he could rely on process. Deshnov’s continued success in Thassal was one of the hopes of the Ahwalian faction, their beachhead inside of the Navy.

They had even thought they could someday maneuver to replace Klasnikov with Deshnov. Then Bhavani Jayasankar would not be able to do whatever she wanted with their armed forces when it pleased her.

So Yerdlov dutifully submitted to the Solstice Council: this business with Deshnov had to be investigated.

Preferably, Deshnov would be retained in Thassal until a full investigation could be concluded.

Yerdlov expected to have a full inquiry team lined up and to return Deshnov to Thassal that very day.

His demands began a process that Yerdlov had not really expected: a process of formal debate.

Several councilors voiced the need to investigate entirely different matters:

Could the Council actually investigate a formal arrest and a military safety procedure?

By what legal instrument would the Council actually do this?

How would the process of deploying this legal instrument look like?

Did it take a vote? Was it an All-Union vote or a regional vote?

When had the Council set a precedent that it could intervene like this anyway?

(Unfortunately for Yerdlov, that had been himself, inquiring into Ahwalia’s arrest.)

(There was not much cheer in the Council when this was brought up.)

Since the Council was not in a state of emergency, it could only work the same pay periods as an accountant or other office worker who dealt with sheets and numbers. Therefore, they could only work eight hours a day on this. The proposal was put forward near the end of the day, and several Councilors were adamant that debate would not run into overtime. This matter in itself became a subject of debate which consumed the rest of the session anyway. So they would reconvene tomorrow.

They agreed to reconvene to begin a formal process of inquiry–

–into whether the council’s process of inquiry could overturn an arrest–

–that was made outside the jurisdiction (should the Ferris Council be involved?)–

–etcetera.

Yerdlov and his bloc understood this immediately to be complete obstructionism.

However, acting to “overturn the obstructionism” would not result in “overturning Deshnov’s arrest.”

That result was starting to become close to impossible to achieve.

It became clear to Yerdlov at that point that he would have to fight for the process, not to win a victory now, but to insure that there was not total defeat in the future. As such, Elias Ahwalia’s request to him would go completely unanswered as he became involved in plotting and preparing for a legalistic battle to protect the right of the Solstice Council to investigate theoretical arrests made by the Ashura in the jurisdictions of other Councils. If the scope of the issue broadened any further, he would be ready for it.

For the Jayasankarist bloc, this deliberation was precisely the optimal outcome.

But they would take it deadly seriously — process was important to them as well, of course.


Naval HQ formally announced Maya Kolokotronis’ promotion to Admiral and her command of the Thassal fleet, as part of the preparations for the Union’s first ever Strategic Offensive Operation, dubbed “Operation Tenable.” The Operation itself, and its nature, would remain secret except to the Thassal fleet officers until execution. Sailors were informed that there would be maneuvers but not what sort, and to be alert for potential combat but not when– the officers on the bridge of each ship were the ones who controlled the course of the ship and use of weapons, so only they had to know the exact nature of what they were doing. Since the sailors at Thassal were on high alert anyway, they accepted this state of things.

There was a final roadblock to Bhavani’s ambition to exercise complete control over the forces at Thassal before the Sverland campaign. Since the formal founding of the Union, Fleet officers were part of a labor union that represented them in collective bargaining and other such matters. The Officer’s Union could have lodged a formal complaint about Deshnov’s replacement and potentially agitated against seating Maya Kolokotronis at the head of the Thassal fleet. To head this off, Bhavani Jayasankar met with the current officer’s union chief, Rear Admiral Charvi Chadgura, prior to the appointment of Kolokotronis.

Not to discuss Deshnov whatsoever– that was not something worth discussing in Bhavani’s eyes.

Rather, the Premier met alone with the young, quiet Rear Admiral in her office for another matter.

“I want you to know, if the labor union pushes for a slate of promotions across the fleet organization, I have your back.” Bhavani said. “With escalation almost certain, we are going to focus on recruiting and shipbuilding. We’ll have everything in place to staff up soon, and I agree with the union’s assessment that the organization is top-light on officers, particularly in bridges. I can guarantee you new capital ships, and I’m talking hard quotas you can reference on paper. Fleet staffing across the board. Guaranteed.”

Charvi Chadgura blinked at the Premier in muted surprise.

Her labor union had not been asking for sweeping promotions or ship quotas or any of that.

Or, well– they had asked a year ago, before the current security situation–

She hadn’t thought it was viable to push for that now–

Her eyes practically lit up gold with the realization of what she could secure for her members.

As chief of the officer’s union’s board, Chadgura could not possibly pass up a slate of promotions if the Premier was offering her support. That was a common complaint across all levels of seniority, that a lot of young petty officers had been made with only few making ensign, let alone anything else; Captains complained of understaffed bridges with no flexibility for shift rotations; and command officers had languished as “office commanders” without fleet openings for years and years. This phenomenon was dubbed “the Chair Force” and it vexed officers across the entire rank structure. It would make Chadgura’s union members very pleased to receive promotions, fleet openings, guaranteed ship quotas with guaranteed new staffing– and it would head off any possible discontent if the war became hotter.

“Thank you Premier. I actually began work on a new proposal in that regard– I’ll have it ready soon.”

“Of course, of course. Take your time, and make it the best it can be for your members. You all deserve it. How’s the wife? Gulab Kajari, I believe was her name? I know I was happy when you two tied the knot–“

Bhavani affably transitioned to small talk, while Chadgura became fully preoccupied in her own mind with drafting her nonexistent package for sweeping promotions across the fleet. Thinking to herself that she would go down in the history of the Officer’s Union board if she played her cards right, and thinking nothing of a certain old union member who might have wanted her to raise a stink on his behalf.

After this meeting, Bhavani needed only to watch as everything fell into place. Maya Kolokotronis was promoted and seated, Deshnov was out of the picture without bloodshed or much controversy, the Council was busy bickering, and the officer’s union found a more ambitious use of their time than resisting Nagavanshi’s sanction. The Jayasankarists now dictated the course of the battle for Sverland.


A few days after Deshnov’s arrest, a formal meeting of Thassal’s fleet command convened on Hammer-1, the Agrisphere grow-module that had been moved from Lyser to be able to dock more ships near Thassal Station. In the same room where, weeks ago, the Premier and her counterparts had convened to discuss the potential fate of the nation and the state of the Empire, now met six Rear Admirals, one of which was Chaya Goswani, and the newly appointed Admiral of the fleet, the much talked about Maya Kolokotronis.

For a Katarran, she was fairly– small? She was average height, but Goswani always expected a goliath when she heard about Pelagis. She wore her uniform in an odd way, with the greatcoat over her shoulders without her arms in the sleeves. One thing Goswani noted was a silver band on her left ring finger.

Besides that the skin color, the claw-like horns, what looked like a tiny lobster tail flapping at her rear–

Just “ordinary” Pelagis things. Goswani was much more interested in her battle strategy.

They had been tasked, after all, with occupying the Serrano and Cascabel regions of Sverland.

“Greetings, comrades. My name is Admiral Maya Kolokotronis of the flagship Typhon.”

The Admiral stood at the head of the table. She inserted something into the table computer.

Expected positions of the Volkisch Fleets appeared on a map in the table.

“You probably don’t know me, so I will go over my record and beliefs briefly. I was born in Katarre, a place so miserable, you should all be grateful to be here now, no matter what hardship brought you. I fought in the Union’s revolution as a mercenary still, following the Katarran way. Absolute self-sacrifice for martial victory. Throw everything at the enemy and achieve its total devastation. Gamble at the highest risk if it would bring the greatest payoff. Don’t settle for a rout when you can achieve a total massacre. Katarran mercenaries once fought to secure their legacies and command high prices for guaranteed slaughter.”

Kolokotronis waved her hand over table, and Union fleets appeared on the map.

“I am not a Katarran mercenary anymore. I am a Union socialist. I only eat at the cafeteria — I have a favorite cafeteria in fact, and I missed it today when I had breakfast. I believe that the Union is full of good people. But they are naive, and they need to be protected. They are imperfect and cannot all defend or even understand their way of life. They need time to mature, to grow, to see the world for what it is and to truly understand their blessings and how to preserve them for perpetuity. That is why, in this upcoming operation, I will settle for nothing less than the utter annihilation of the enemy. I will see it as a personal failure if among the enemy there are not at least 30,000 KIA. My goal is to utterly destroy their ability to make war on our fragile people, who don’t know the evil of the world the same way that I do.”

With another wave of her hand, Maya Kolokotronis solemnly set the fleets on the map in motion.

Goswani watched the data and simulations on the table with breathless, quiet shock.

As one by one, the Union fleet engulfed and utterly destroyed over 120 ships of the Volkisch Movement.

“We will cut through their defenses, we will appear in their midst, we will block their escape from behind. We will destroy their supply lines and crush their reinforcements. There will be nothing to offer rescue to. Their distant commanders will count their shattered fleets and ask themselves if this is really the Union they fought, and not the figures of military legend once told among the Katarran mercenaries. They will see their forces vanish in a red mist of overwhelming force and fear to set foot near our borders again.”

The Admiral set her hand on the table, and made the animations of the map play on a loop.

“If no one has questions about the basics, I can discuss each position in detail.” She said.

For a moment she lost the intensity in her voice as she sat back down. She sounded quiet, satisfied.

She gazed briefly over the ring on her finger with a small smile.

Goswani immediately understood everything. This woman was not anything at all like Deshnov.

Deshnov had been reactive, he feared for their lives and was skeptical of their chances–

This woman compared the Union to the vicious Katarrans. She believed they had that much power.

Goswani grinned internally, filled with a morbid interest in this “Operation Tenable.”

Smelling blood in the water like a shark herself, and victory perhaps in their grasp.


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

Arc 2 Intermissions [II.1]

“Dictatorship”

“You’re probably going to lose the election to Ahwalia. You’re aware of that, right?”

“Of course I am. He’s promising meat and wine to a population living on soy and citrus water.”

“You’re a lot calmer than I expected. You are projected to be soundly defeated.”

“Defeated? No. Bhavani Jayasankar can’t be defeated in some asinine popularity contest.”

Daksha Kansal put down a digital picture frame she was in the middle of putting away. It was the year 965 After Descent, and she was taking the last of her personal effects from her office — the office of the Premier of the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice, situated deep within Mt. Raja in the Union’s northeastern territory of Solstice. That picture, which she was picking up, had five people in it.

They were all the same ethnicity, North Bosporans with straight, dark hair, earth tone skin, dark eyes. There were four women and a man in the picture, posing in front of a modified laborer mecha which became a symbol of their war. There were other people special to her: but she treasured this picture.

She was in the center of the picture, tall, gallant in uniform, her dark-brown hair arranged in a bun. She still looked almost the same as she did back then, though the white of old age was starting to creep in between the brown strands. That picture was five years old. Around her the man and woman closest to her were a bit distracted, as their child was being obstinate just outside the confines of the image — Daksha could not forget it. They were the Nakara family, Lakshmi and her husband Karthik. Farther to the sides were Daksha’s two students, the sullen, long-haired Parvati Nagavanshi– and the woman who had just proclaimed her disdain for democracy. Shoulder-length hair, a handsome figure with a viper’s smile.

Bhavani Jayasankar, dressed in the most ornate uniform of all. Grand Marshall of the Union.

Having been the one to slaughter the Imperial governor of Solstice, she took and modified his uniform.

Kansal shut her eyes, briefly reminiscing about the events that led up to this.

It was her last day in the state she had helped found and helped lead for the past several years.

Her most prized student had come to see her off; and like always, they had begun to talk politics.

Kansal put the picture back on her desk, absentmindedly, before realizing again she had meant to take it.

Bhavani’s bold comment had caused her to lose track of what she was doing.

Her student was always careful with her words.

If she lied, it was deliberate. If she taunted, it was deliberate. Her declarations were always deliberate.

Nobody in the Union was more deliberate than Bhavani Jayasankar.

One could never attribute anything she did to incompetence. If it was malice, she intended it.

Jayasankar was a genius at making enemies; and perhaps decent at eliminating them too.

“Where does your confidence spring from?” Kansal said, picking the picture frame back up.

“The Union doesn’t have the resources to support Ahwalia’s utopia. He won’t accomplish anything.”

Kansal was in front of the desk, but Bhavani was standing behind it, looking outside the window.

“I don’t think so either, but if he takes it slow, maybe in fifteen or twenty years.” Kansal said.

“We won’t survive that long. The Empire will destroy us before then. We need to militarize more heavily.”

“I’m sure you’ll continue to be successful in politics, so why not make a formal proposal?”

“You want me to make a formal proposal to an Ahwalia government to triple our spending on the military? I’m neither as enamored or as beguiled by the morality of formal process as you are.”

Theirs was a sky of grey-blue rock. Mt. Raja was a city carved into a mountain, a bubble of stone.

The Premier’s office overlooked a grand courtyard upon which real trees had been planted, along with an array of sunlight lamps to keep them alive and thriving. In their society, a tree could never be a freestanding object. It was a contraption, either in a bubble of its own to reflect the bigger bubbles that humans lived in, or strapped to machines meant to keep it alive in the alien space it now occupied. Despite the artifice, this was a very beautiful, captivating view. Few places had “windows” in their world.

Bhavani turned around, and sat in the chair, putting her feet up on the desk irreverently.

“Ahwalia can promise all he wants to. His fully automated communism is a flat out impossible, ridiculous idea. His childish ‘post-work’ ideology is just that: ideology. It’s unrealistic to our situation as barely developed colonies. Every bit of material he puts toward robots and automatic factories and luxury goods production is one less mouth fed. His ideas about having meat production for protein here are flat out insane. He’s going to get people killed. Our people will ultimately be unable to surmount the sacrifices his vision will demand of them in the short term, and and they will flock back to the pragmatists.”

“You’ve really thought this through, huh? You sound scary, Bhavani. You want him to fail.”

Kansal pitched that childish response to mask her true feelings.

She was an impossibly old being who had seen many grand ambitions wax and wane–

–but not in this particular context. After all, Bhavani was not a petty tyrant just out for herself.

She was a petty tyrant who sought everything for her own in-group, “the masses.”

In a new and radical society, such things necessarily took on a new and radical context.

“We’ll see how things play out.” Bhavani said.

She winked at Kansal, arms crossed over her chest.

“Interesting. Well If you feel so bleakly about the future, why don’t you intervene now?”

“If I make a move unilaterally right now, everyone who has been fooled by so-called democracy will not accept it. They have to accept its failure, and they have to accept my alternative. Unfortunately, the people just aren’t politically advanced enough to accept the truth. That’ll be my work going forward.”

“That is so terribly rude of you to say; I tried my best to teach them, you know.”

Kansal’s tone was calm and teasing. She was used to the grandiose proclamations of her student.

Bhavani had always been a strongly critical girl. Sharp, opinionated, uncompromising.

She was certainly insinuating that in the past five years in which Kansal had been Premier, she had not done enough to develop political consciousness. They had formed their Union as a system of compromises between a few opinionated factions, ideological, ethnic, economic, and so on.

Even losing the anarchists very early on, they still had disagreements as Mordecists. Kansal and Bhavani sympathized with the same theory: that a revolutionary nation needed to be pragmatic and militaristic, mustering its people and resources carefully with an eye to surviving imperial aggression long term. Ahwalia’s vision was different. In his mind, there was no purpose to establishing a revolutionary nation if it did not immediately, aggressively, work toward revolutionizing the life of its people. Surviving modestly was not his aim. He promised people they would live lavishly. He promised an end to work, an end to credits, an end to economy. He believed they had the technology to accomplish this. He wanted everyone to rest, to take up creative pursuits, to advance the sciences, while eating luxurious meat every day.

To Ahwalia, physical work was a problem that had to be solved. His utopia would be “post-work.”

His vision of the future was drawing a lot of excitement from the crowds.

At the end of the war, they had all been weary.

Competing visions energized different factions while the masses just wanted to live peacefully.

It was an uneasy equilibrium. Different factions were still independently militant.

They could still have ended up fighting if one side came on too strong.

In such an environment, Kansal, the first Premier of the Union, did not feel too comfortable advocating her own side only. She needed to maintain the compromise and elevate what they all agreed upon: that they were on a path to communism, and that all of their exact forms of it shared some roots. So she navigated every faction, while doing her best to continue to build a nation that could resist the Empire and appease them all equally. Five years later, most of these factions had become less militant and more absorbed into the advancement of the nation. But that chief contradiction between Ahwalia’s idealism and Bhavani’s pragmatism remained a sore spot. Now the people were poised to speak on it.

“Do you resent the fact that I gave Ahwalia’s idealism room to exist at all?” Kansal asked.

“To me, the purpose of political power is to thoroughly achieve one’s aims.” Bhavani replied, still snickering to herself. “It was a mistake to play with this ‘democracy’ nonsense in any meaningful way. In a nascent polity, people are too easily led astray by competing ideologies. A marketplace of ideas is a strictly reactionary terrain of the imagination. We should have known this from the beginning.”

“You don’t have to insinuate things with me.” Kansal said, equally as calmly as Bhavani, but growing a bit weary of her colorful little speech. There was some part of Kansal that still had the pride of an Immortal and felt she was being talked down to by a child– but she tried to suppress it. “You can say what you want to. This room isn’t bugged, and I’ve no interest in passing on whatever dangerous thing you are thinking to Ahwalia or anyone else. Don’t give your poor Professor grief on her last day at work.”

“You can reassure me all you want, but I didn’t get to where I am without being as paranoid or more as the people I am dealing with.” Bhavani said. “But you’re right, this room isn’t bugged, because I’ve taken ample steps to make sure I can say to you whatever I want to today. Since you’ll be leaving, I do have half a mind to be brutally honest with you; so, dear Professor, let me send you off with some grief.”

“You really do hate me, don’t you? I remember when you used to call me ‘Professor’ so fondly.”

“You clearly have nothing more to teach me, ‘Professor,’ your actions are your admission of this.”

“Don’t mince words then. Tell me, Bhavani: what future do you hope to create?”

Bhavani stood up from the chair, and started to pace around the room.

Her tone grew further impassioned.

“Democracy is fundamentally an obstacle, because people are too easily led astray by competing ideologies. In my mind, a dominant ideology is promoted to people, they are thoroughly educated in it, their lives are organized around it, and they are given direct benefit from its hegemony. They go on to promote this system, to thoroughly believe in it, to reproduce it. To me, this is how a mere dictatorship becomes a dictatorship of the proletariat. When we are all the tyrant together, because we all agree on the same principles. Any inkling that a competing slate of opposed visions can coexist is a vulnerability in the system, not a feature of it. So yes: the biggest mistake we ever made was compromise. Compromise is the reason we are deluding ourselves about a future of luxury when the Empire could return any second.”

She ceased to pace aimlessly, and instead walked up to Kansal and pointed a finger at her shoulder.

“Every compromise that I put up with, I put with it because I believed you did it to remain in power. And if you had power, you would wield it. I believed in you, in your ability to ultimately create the system we wanted. All of your yielding, I believed it to be realpolitik, preparation for the future. Daksha, you are curious about the future I want to make, but what future do you want? Why are you leaving?”

Between each word she poked that finger at Kansal’s shoulder as if wanting to stab her.

Kansal sighed. “Of course that’s what you’re upset about.”

Bhavani’s tone of voice became immediately more emotional. She was clearly upset.

“How could I not be? Why are you leaving? Nagavanshi and I hung on your every word.”

“I never wanted that for either of you.”

“Clearly it was our mistake believing in you. That aside, I need you to explain yourself.”

“I told you my aim. I want to foment revolution in the broader Empire.”

“Yes, because you’ll definitely accomplish that by yourself. Fuck off. Tell me the truth.”

“It’s the honest truth, Bhavani.”

“You are an insane person. I can’t believe you. But it’s fine. I realized something already.”

Bhavani’s finger withdrew, and instead, her mocking face drew nearer to Kansal’s, grinning.

“Ultimately, had you remained, if you kept failing us– I would have removed you from power anyway. Because I don’t believe in allowing worthless leaders to drive our country to ruin. I wouldn’t have just stood by believing blindly in process while things went to hell. I would have taken power from you.”

Kansal was, for perhaps the first time, unnerved by the ambitions of her student.

For the first time, a thought crossed her mind. That at this juncture, if she truly felt her student was in the wrong, she could take action to fundamentally correct her thinking. What Kansal had the power all along to do, that she never considered for the oaths she had sworn to herself when she departed from a certain organization– she fell, in that instant of vulnerability, to her deepest temptations, neurons fired in her brain that had been dormant for half a decade. That half-decade of compromise, fear and tension–

Briefly, her eyes glowed red–

What would have happened to history if, at this juncture, she altered Bhavani’s thinking?

Her power flared; psionic tendrils reached out to caress her student’s mind–

Only to discover, to her shock, that Bhavani’s mind was off-limits.

Even to the power of the Immortal Ganges.

In that instant of shameful madness she came to understand–

–her student’s will and ambition was far more powerful than she realized.

Bhavani Jayasankar was a uniquely frightening person.

There was nothing she could say or do about it. Somehow, Kansal felt liberated by this event.

“You’ve always been a very keen girl.” Kansal said. “I wouldn’t doubt you could overthrow me.”

Bhavani retreated from Kansal’s face. Her self-confident smirk darkened, grew just a little sullen.

As if disappointed that Kansal had no will to resist her. As if she had wanted her to fight back.

Bhavani quietly dropped the subject and segued into the next issue, her voice softening.

“Ahwalia’s people are offering me a cabinet position if I concede gracefully without calling a recount or an investigation. I am going to take it and figure things out from there. I’ll be the Justice Minister. Nagavanshi and Klasnikov will be part of his government as well. Nagavanshi will be my subordinate under internal affairs while Klasnikov will head the 4th Fleet Group in southern Solstice.”

Kansal allowed her to leave her past insinuations behind and engaged with the new discussion.

“Huh. Curious. Seems to me that’s his mistake then, letting you anywhere near power.” Kansal said.

“It is. Daksha– when you leave, I never want to see you again. You will never return to the Union.”

Kansal could sense the pain in those words. She didn’t have to focus on Bhavani’s aura to tell, either.

“I was not planning to return. It is my hope to leave the Imbrium for good, once it is freed.” Kansal said.

“And then what, you’ll go to the Cogitum and give the Republic grief too?”

“Perhaps. A new Ocean to liberate could keep me motivated for another decade.”

“You’re insane. I wish I had known how much you treat the future like a toy. I would have never followed you. Daksha Kansal: people live in the day to day. They live in the now, in the short term. If they can live for five years, it’s a miracle. It is impossible to make them live for things that will happen in ten years. I don’t know how you can treat tomorrow like it’s such a given. Your people cannot; your people pray for each tomorrow and are grateful to wake up every day. And this is why you are an utter failure. If we keep thinking about next year we’ll fail to see what people need right now. You are an idealist fool.”

Though she had made a resolution not to return, it was suddenly difficult for Daksha Kansal to keep.

When she was leaving on good terms, it was easier to say that her work was complete, her students fulfilled. When she was leaving with the pride of an Immortal who had tampered with the world and made a positive change. This was the idea that Daksha Kansal had ever since she left the name Ganges behind.

In this one conversation, however, she came to realize how troubled her Union was about to become.

“Bhavani, if you believe the Union is headed for a catastrophe, please act quickly.” Kansal said.

“I will act as quickly as I can. But I’m not so politically mighty as you were five years ago.” Bhavani said. “We gave up on violence back then only to invite violence now. Nevertheless, I will work diligently– don’t you worry. It’s no longer your concern. Just leave everything to me. I’m more capable than you think.”

She made as if to leave, hands in her pockets, but she stopped closer to the door, her back turned.

“Daksha, you mark my words. My Union will span the Imbrium one day. I guarantee you. It will not fall or falter. It will grow mighty, its people the most powerful force on Aer. We will set right this cursed hellscape we’ve inherited, and all of the Ocean will feel the injustices we felt. Even if we have to fight, year by year, for however long your future lasts. Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Hmm. For you, it’s tough to say. But for me and my Union, we will fight, day by day, week by week; we will fight forever, if we must.”

Kansal felt a chill.

Though no more words were said, she really had to wonder what else Bhavani Jayasankar knew.

And how else she felt about her dear Professor that she had once admired so deeply.


“You had a chance to review our proposal before the meeting, correct?”

“Indeed. I won’t waste your time: I will lead by saying that in its current form I must reject it.”

It was the year 979 A.D. In the Premier’s office, a monitor had been set up for her to take diplomatic calls from her desk. Positioned on an arm, it allowed her guests to see her head and shoulders in great detail. And these days, she had more guests than she had imagined, from the far corners of the world.

War had broken out in the Empire between disparate factions of the ruling elite for control over the Empire’s territory and resources. Bhavani Jayasankar dressed in a pristine red and gold military uniform, with grand shoulderboards, a bevy of medals, a peaked cap: the works. She looked like what she wanted to project herself as: the former Grand Marshall of the Colonial Liberation Front, now Premier of the free Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. Whether she wanted to or not, she was increasingly part of the grand historical trauma now enveloping the Empire. She had relations to maintain with several imperial factions.

First, the Union’s backing and support of the National Front of Buren in the Empire’s far northeast.

Second, the Union’s intelligence sharing treaty with the Greater Vekan Empire to their direct east.

And now, an opening of relations with the anarchist Bosporan Commune in the north-central Empire.

On the Premier’s monitor, a young anarchist officer appeared wearing a repurposed imperial uniform, which had been repainted black and red in a striking digital pattern like an irregular checkerboard, unlike the clean, traditional colors of Bhavani’s own uniform. Her short blond hair was slicked to one side, and on the other she had it buzzed, an undercut. She had a black beret, and no decorations of any sort.

She introduced herself as a “combat coordinator” of the anarchist forces, Lexi Marusha.

As soon as Bhavani rejected her offer, her expression darkened.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, we could both benefit extensively from opening the Khaybar route! It would produce the greatest territorial extent of leftist forces in history. Between the Commune and the Union we would have more peoples and forces under our banner than any of the imperialists! Please reconsider.”

“According to your report there is a group of militant Shimii at Khaybar.” Bhavani replied. “Khaybar Mountain was an ancestral territory of the Shimii. You would be asking us to participate in settler colonialism on your behalf. The Union’s Shimii are its third largest population. We have the largest population of Shimii outside of those still left in Rhinea and Bosporus. It behooves me to consider not just our moral misgivings, but that our own Shimii community might lose trust in the Union’s leadership.”

“There are plenty of anarchist Shimii in Bosporus who are being harmed and endangered by our current situation while you have theoretical sympathy for the jihadists in Khaybar.” Lexi accused suddenly.

“Be that as it may, your proposal has another flaw. You are not only asking us to attack Khaybar for you; it would have to be an attack across the Serrano region to reach the Goryk entrance to Khaybar. You are asking us to throw ourselves blindly across Imperial territory. It’s an enormous risk for us to take.”

“If the Union is unwilling to assist, then I would humbly request that Campos Mountain be allowed to cross the Union border to Cascabel to assist us in opening a humanitarian corridor.” Lexi pressed.

Bhavani smiled. “You will have to talk to them about that. I believe they may be reticent to do so.”

Campos Mountain was isolated to the far south of Union territory, possessing the eponymous mountain station ‘Campos Mountain’ and a handful of self-declared “anarchist” stations. In essence it was an anarchist bubble in the southernmost portion of Solstice near the South Occultis continental wall.

They were nominally allies, but due to their political differences, it would be difficult for Campos to move in support of the Bosporans, as they distrusted the Union and were surrounded on all sides by Union stations and therefore, by Union fleets and troops. While the senior members of the anarchist forces had some respect for the Union, the young people routinely denounced the Union as malignant and authoritarian, which made coordination between the two powers that much more difficult. The Union would not allow Campos’ fleet to move unsupervised through Union territory, and the anarchists would never treat an escort as anything other than an imposition of the Union’s authoritarianism upon them.

And in a way, all sides were right to distrust each other. The Union had a history of exploiting Campos’ position as an outside area in their own schemes. Once upon a time, the Union’s 4th fleet under Klasnikov used the Campos border area as a staging point for covert maneuvers against Ahwalia’s government, which the Ahwalians never forgave; and the Ahwalias and their minions used Campos as a conveniently off-the-books place for their own operations as well, which led to Bhavani’s own distrust of the anarchists. It was a very thorny situation for everyone, and the Bosporans would never be able to benefit from it.

To top it all off: Bhavani had a personal disrespect for the anarchist ideology which fueled her disinterest.

“It appears we have nothing to talk to about then.” Bhavani said. “Being honest, I don’t find relations between us mutually beneficial, so I will wish you the best of luck on your endeavors, but that is all I can do. If you are able to change the offer or scenario on your own terms, we can revisit this conversation.”

Lexi Marusha scowled but nonetheless replied. “Best of luck to you as well, Bhavani Jayasankar.”

Once that call had ended, the monitor showed a waiting room period for the next incoming call, giving Bhavani a ten-minute breather to prepare for her next guest. Once the time was up, her video screen was list up with the glamorous, olive-brown face of a certain Carmilla von Veka, made up in vibrant lipstick, eyeshadow and other pigments that brought out the fineness of her skin, dressed immaculately in silk with what looked like fluffy fox-tail scarf. She was reclining in a chair with her wooden vaporizer in hand. She could not have better played the high femme to Bhavani’s military butch if she deliberately tried.

When meeting her, Bhavani felt compelled to have her own vaporizer on hand as a point of familiarity.

She took a quick drag as if to preempt Veka’s own, which led the noblewoman to titter joyfully.

“I’ve come to look forward to our chats, you know?” Veka said. “I feel like we can relate in a lot of ways.”

“It’s always a pleasure to speak to a beautiful woman, but don’t read into it too much.” Bhavani said.

Veka smiled back. “How charming. Then let us get down to business. Premier, I come bearing gifts. I know as an Imperial territory, the burden is on Veka to show we are serious about the partnership between our nations. Your intelligence service will soon receive some files over the line we opened for encrypted information-sharing. It is a detailed look at the security situation of Veka, to foster mutual understanding. I would pay particular attention to the situation in our bordering territory of Sverland.”

Did she want the Union to launch an attack on Sverland?

Their cooperation was limited strictly to intelligence sharing so far.

A joint Union-Veka military operation would be quite an escalation of their present agreements.

“Interesting.” Bhavani’s hands were off-screen from Veka’s perspective, so she began to type a text message to Nagavanshi while speaking to her counterpart. “Look toward Sverland, you say? Are you insinuating then that you would like our partnership to become more intimate, madame von Veka?”

Veka giggled. “I am saying what I am saying, miss Jayasankar. Please take a look at the information, and make of it what you will. I do not wish to compel any action from you. After all, my favorite part of the romance in a relationship is when the aggressive partner makes a surprising move on the receptive one.”

What is this raunchy bird up to? Bhavani thought, cocking an eyebrow with mild amusement.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She said. “And since I don’t like to be indebted to anyone, I’ll have my people prepare some information that might prove useful to you in return. I suggest you in turn set those pretty eyes on the Khaybar region. We want nothing to do with it, but you might find some allies in there.”

Giving up information to the Vekans was always controversial; but if it was about the anarchists, Naval HQ would hardly complain. To Bhavani, it was a no-brainer to feed their partnership this cheap snack.

Veka had already proven useful once before. Her information had helped them to intercept a whole Imperial fleet in the Cascabel region, all of whom defected. The defectors provided a trove of intelligence about the Imperial situation, as well as possessing working samples of Imperial technology like the second-generation Jagd diver. It was such a steal it buoyed Union morale greatly. Between the victory at Thassal and the “capture” of this fleet, Naval HQ fully recovered from a decades-long depression.

Nobody wanted to admit it, but the Vekans were paying back their share of the partnership well.

That being said, there were limits to what Bhavani was willing to do in return.

Anything she gave them had to be something that would end up in the Union’s favor too.

Rose bouquets full of deadly thorns; that was the Union’s diplomacy toward Veka.

Bhavani could not trust Carmilla as far as she could throw her– but if Veka was prompted to give the anarchists a black eye, that was no loss for the Union. Getting the Vekans to spend money and time turning their attention anywhere away from Lyser, Ferris and Solstice was an ultimate win for Bhavani. In her mind, it was a bunch of unsavory characters pummeling each other while the Union watched.

The Vekans probably knew this too; but they were also not in a position to turn down any aid.

Carmilla von Veka smiled brightly at Bhavani’s proposition, briefly sucking on her vaporizer.

“That’s the kind of reciprocation I love to see. I’m looking forward to our next chat then.” She said.

Bhavani cocked a smart little grin at her.

“Good then. Say, can you get little Victoria on the next call? She looks so cute, it brightens my mood.”

“Hmph. Good day, Jayasankar.”

Carmilla cut off the video call abruptly. Bhavani burst out laughing.

Impulsively, she took a drag from her vaporizer. A cloud that smelled like cinnamon blew from her lips.

She was feeling excited. What could the Vekans be cooking up now? How very dramatic!

Ten minutes later, Nagavanshi’s face appeared on the same screen that once had Marusha and Veka.

Dressed in her big hat and cape, her hair let down for once, the same surly expression on her face.

“Did you get a chance to look over what the Vekans sent us?” Bhavani asked.

Nagavanshi grunted. “I’ve got analysts on it. We’ve only had a few minutes with it so we’ve just glanced over the files and ran a bunch of programs on them. There appears to about as much information here about Veka’s ‘security situation’ as there are Shimii genes in my DNA. There are files about Solcea, Katarre and the Hanwan colony in the South Nobilis gap at Sotho Flow. So I assume they want us to think their borders are troubled right now. However, based on filesize alone, there is roughly ten times as much information available about Sverland, and it’s far more detailed. Video, audio, all kinds of pictures, planning files for syncing up fleet supercomputers. It’s like they’re giving us a detailed invasion plan.”

“Whose invasion plan though? Veka has no reason to attack into the Serrano region, its resource and industrial base without the Yucatan Gulf is tepid compared to the amount of riches Veka is sitting on locally. I doubt that they would put so much work into military fanfiction just to send to us.”

“About that–“

Nagavanshi put something up on the display that appeared next to her.

It looked like a stamp or a watermark on a fleet orgchart, taken from the files that Veka had provided.

A stylized eagle in a sunburst.

A figure usually linked to a certain “Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening of Rhinea.”

Bhavani’s face lit up with a smile. She started laughing, cautiously, but laughing.

“I don’t believe it. Tell your analysts I want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt if this is a Vekan joke.”

“Trust me, I am more skeptical even than you are.” Nagavanshi said. “But this appears to be a plan for an upcoming invasion of Sverland’s Serrano and Cascabel regions by the Volkisch Movement. It’s a very rigid plan– initial and final positions and all actions appear to be thoroughly documented. That fleet chart seems pretty realistic if we cross-reference the data provided by the Ajillo defectors. It’s possible that the Vekans have a spy among the Volkisch at a high enough level to provide fleet planning data like this.”

Bhavani glanced over the numbers on this supposed Volkisch fleet organization chart.

“Three fleets of thirty ships with a supporting fleet of twenty. That’s not that much power.” She said.

“Without the Yucatan Gulf the rest of Sverland is a husk of itself. We destroyed their only significant military potential in the South already. If this is real, it makes sense the Volkisch wouldn’t need overwhelming force to take over Serrano. If they can contain the Royal Alliance in the northern part of the Yucatan they have free reign over the rest of Sverland. They have no reason to expect much resistance.”

Nagavanshi responded soberly. Bhavani herself, however, was still quite excited by the possibility.

“I want every single byte of data in those files to be accounted for as soon as possible.” Bhavani said. “I have a few more meetings, but I will give you a visit to see everything first-hand. Make sure it’s ready.”

“Of course, Premier. I will get on it and leave you to your social calls.” Nagavanshi said.

Her voice was more than a little sarcastic sounding– Bhavani would deal with that later, personally.

Nagavanshi bowed her head and the video shut off. A ten minute timer appeared once again.

Bhavani sat back in her chair, taking off her hat and running her fingers through her short hair.

A crooked little smile began to form across her face. Her heart beat with bloodthirsty excitement.

The Volkisch Movement was attacking Sverland openly. If that was true–

And if Veka was openly fighting the theocracy in Solcea as well–

Then the Imperial Civil War had advanced beyond the stage in which its actors could form alliances.

There could be no grand unifying movement of the factions. They were killing each other.

In a situation like that, if one ordered the competing factions:

Erich von Fueller and Carmilla von Veka’s Grand Fleets each had around 1000 combat-ready vessels.

Each of the other factions had roughly a half-size of those fleets with lesser combat experience.

The Volkisch, Solcea and the Royal Alliance had roughly equivalent battle power and potential.

The National Front of Buren was slightly stronger than average; the Bosporus Commune slightly weaker.

And the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice had a fleet of 1000 combat-ready ships across its territory.

Of those, nearly 200 were now stationed around Ferris, across the border from Sverland.

The troops at Ferris were disciplined, well trained, and furthermore, they had finally tasted blood.

“In a situation like that, are we not among the strongest ‘Imperial claimants’?”

Bhavani Jayasankar smiled to herself, staring down at the military hat she had set on the table.

Picking it up, and fixing it on her head. Watching her own grinning reflection on the screen.

What if the Union joined the drama of the era as well?

Could the dictatorship of the proletariat pose a serious challenge to succeed the throne of Imbria?


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.10]

“Khadija al-Shajara, Strelok ‘I~bis’, deploying!”

Setting her jaw and shoulders stiff so as to not betray a bit of a shake as she dropped.

She was an old hat at this– she was not about to let the situation scare her.

There was an altogether different feeling than the last time she deployed, however.

Back then, she had been so prepared to die, to do anything to throw her life at her enemy like a fireball that would engulf everything, including herself. Now, as her camera feed transitioned from the metal of the deployment chute to the misty water of the Nectaris, her enemy hidden somewhere in the thickness of the marine fog and the darkness of the deep sea, she could not help a bit of anxiety.

It was so much more difficult to live than to die.

Her whole body still ached from days and days of training, but it would ache regardless.

She was old. Something always ached.

Her fingers around the sticks ached, her ankles ached as she pushed them down on the pedals, her back was hurting, the back of her neck hurt, her shoulders throbbed, the muscles on her chest and belly. The muscles connecting her ears to her head hurt, her tail hurt where it attached to her lower back. And yet those fingers effortlessly guided her way, those feet exerted graceful control of her thrust, and she sat on the chair not hunched and half-broken but upright and proud. She was ready to fight.

As soon as Squadron 114’s formation began to move she could already feel the improvements that had been made to this Strelok over the basic model. Khadija had rejected the machine at first, because part of her advantage was the intimate knowledge she had over every movement an ordinary Strelok could make, and this allowed her to be precise — but that wily Shalikova knew how to get to her.

“If you don’t take my machine I’ll give it to Aiden Ahwalia.” She said.

Incredible. What an evil-minded little girl– Khadija had no choice but to accept it.

Thankfully it was not so different from a Strelok that it hindered Khadija’s piloting style.

The weight distribution was similar, control response exactly the same, it was like piloting a Strelok but getting more from it. Khadija could tell immediately she could push it harder, she could get more thrust and get it quicker, she could make slightly tighter corrections due to the improved hydrodynamics. She tested here and there as the formation charged out into the ocean, quickly getting a feel for it.

Then–

“That little fucking worm!”

Shalikova went after Aiden Ahwalia after he brazenly took off from the formation.

Leaving her to lead it temporarily. Khadija hardly wanted that responsibility–

And she would not have it for long.

Seconds after Shalikova split off from the group, the 114th Diver Squadron caught their first glimpses of the incoming enemy. Four enemy figures appeared shrouded in the marine fog. Probing fire flew from both sides, rifle rounds briefly lighting the pitch black ocean, vapor bubbles blossoming randomly where each side last saw the enemy. Both groups broke through each other, momentarily seeing each other in plain sight as they sped past each other. Different machines then split off to probe different angles of attack, some sweeping up, some dropping down. Khadija tried to make out the models–

In that instant, Khadija caught sight of that mecha once again.

And this time, it was painted red, as if begging for her acknowledgment.

That new Diver model that had fought in defense of the Iron Lady.

Her computer had wanted to label it a Jagd before, but they had come to name this model after its pilot, Red Baron, when they updated the data on their predictors. Its triangular body plan resembled the Jagd, but it was sturdier, with swept pauldron shoulders, a helmeted humanoid head, thicker arms and legs. Unlike the hyper-aggressive Jagd built only for raw speed and close combat, the Red Baron could have replaced the Volker as a sturdy main-line grunt unit, in the same way as the Cheka was likely to replace the Strelok. It was archetype of a new generation; a new body to vanguard the imperial cause.

Clad in striking red, it looked ever more like Khadija’s recollection of her old arch-enemy.

“Valya, stick to Rybolovskaya and command her fire! I’m going after the break-aways!”

“Ma’am–? Are you passing me lead?”

“Yes! Go!”

Those were the last words of leadership that Khadija issued over the squadron’s communications before she rushed full ahead after the Red Baron. Following that red shadow up into the thickening marine fog, firing her assault rifle at the figure who immediately took her up on the offer to dance. Valya would have to contend with the rest. Khadija always knew this time would come, sooner or later.

Shalikova was nearly killed by her, Murati too. It could only be her who put an end to this history.

I’m the only one who can stop her. She’ll run circles around the rest of them.

The Red Baron thrust higher up the water table and Khadija gave chase.

Both of them breaking off from their formations, leaving their squadrons behind.

Khadija kept her main camera trained on the Red Baron, her eyes fixed on even the slightest movement by the machine. She fired one-handed from the chest in semi-automatic mode, one shot per one trigger pull, the Red Baron skillfully sweeping from side to side to avoid the explosions of the 37 mm rounds. In turn the Red Baron fired her own rifle behind herself and forced Khadija to dodge in the same way.

In the net neither gained nor was able to escape from the other, and the two Divers appeared like opposing poles spiraling within a cylinder of their own making, vapor bubbles from stray explosions foaming in their wake. Dancing as they had danced before, each a mirror of the other.

It was not that either of them was an excellent or inept marksman.

Rather they were so equal to each other’s skill and their equipment too near performance.

Khadija knew that this dance could not last, and her counterpart must have known also.

This was a distraction, buying time, making space, probing, trying to find an advantage.

Two masked killers in the final ballroom, watching each other dance with hidden knives.

It’ll be decided in melee. We both came up in a time where melee decided these fights.

She was ready to take up the sword at any second–

Drifting perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters above the battle below–

When suddenly a cloud of bubbles blew into her and blinded her.

The Red Baron had run an emergency routine and blown oxygen through her jets.

Doing so stalled her, but she fluidly executed a complete turn out of the stall–

Attacking through the cover of the cloud to forestall retaliation.

Khadija recognized it as a ploy and pulled everything back with her front leg verniers.

Throwing herself down and to one side as a wave of renewed gunfire swept past her.

She began trading fire back as the Red Baron tried to circle her with the trigger pressed down.

Lines of supercavitating shells cut through the water between them at near intersecting angles–

Still moving as opposing poles–

but the circle they formed began to tighten–

in a brief instant within the dance of evasion and counterfire–

Khadija realized first that she was within range of a charge.

Holding her rifle in front of her chest like a shield, Khadija threw herself at the Red Baron with abandon.

Through a series of explosions the size of human bodies, spreading wildly around her–

Bits of metal sheared off her shoulder, arm and leg plates–

She burst through the fire and smoke with a defiant battle cry.

Everything happened too fast for any aiming and shooting, so it became a show of dumb blunt force at arm’s reach. Boosting herself into the Red Baron’s attacks, Khadija turned a close range shootout into a melee. Swinging the broad side of her assault rifle like a battering ram, she smashed the Red Baron’s rifle, forcing the digits to release lest they be ripped from the hand and tossing the weapon aside.

Disarmed of her rifle, the Red Baron drew and dodged back in one stroke.

Khadija dodged back in turn, avoiding the wild counterslash of the hastily drawn vibroblade.

Now I have you.

Instead of drawing her sword in return she grabbed and threw a grenade.

Between the two of them an enormous shockwave spread from a growing bubble of hot gases.

The Red Baron, awaiting a melee, beat a full retreat from the ensuing explosion.

Parts of her own armor tore off from the push and pull of the blast and her own escape.

Khadija, dashing down apart from her, created a gap of two dozen meters between them.

Now it was a proper shootout again and she had the advantage.

She still had a working assault rifle in hand and her target was in a vulnerable position.

Thrown off by the shockwave, dashing back in a panic, The Red Baron was lit up in her sights–

Tasting blood Khadija pulled the trigger–

Click.

Her empty magazine immediately detached from the AK-96 having been fired empty.

It’s always something.

She immediately, desperately reached for a new magazine but–

About forty meters away, on the edge of visibility, the Red Baron suddenly stopped moving.

Sword drawn but pointed aside, her mecha posed like a regal knight suspended in the water.

An invitation to a formal duel, perhaps. Or a call to parley.

Both had been bloodied to an even degree, each attack had been perfectly answered.

Out of a sense of pride, Khadija acquiesced and tuned her communicator to the liaison channel used during the old war. There she heard the voice of the Red Baron, cutting in: “we’ll both die for–”

“Come again you miserable lout? I want to hear your last words clearly.” Khadija taunted.

“I am saying, if we keep fighting, I’m confident that we’ll both die for nothing.”

“You’ll be the only one dying if you have such little confidence in yourself.”

“We need to stop fighting. I’m not the only monster on my side. We’ll all kill each other without reason.”

“I have plenty of reason to reduce you to ground lamb in your cockpit.”

Khadija thought she heard a sigh, maybe even a sob, crackling over the low quality audio.

“You are the Lion of Cascabel. Why must we keep fighting? Both of our lives ended twenty years ago.”

Even with how distorted the channel was, Khadija still thought she felt the emotion in that voice.

She was no longer so shocked to hear it, she understood that the Red Baron was a human being, that they were both flesh and blood and not just machines when they fought each other in the past. Now she found herself facing another revelation. There were humans who though flesh and blood made themselves machines, cold and ruthless, remorseless, murder incarnate. Even if she could believe the Red Baron was human, Khadija conceived of her as inhuman in this way, in order to keep hating her.

This woman was challenging that notion. All of that emotion in her voice, almost uncontrollable.

“If only I had never met that damned woman, we could have left everything in the past.”

This girl who sounded like she would cry over the acoustic communicator–

Could she possibly be the same Red Baron? But if she called her The Lion, then she knew.

And with the way she fought, it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

But now Khadija was thinking to herself: how did I imagine this confrontation would transpire?

Khadija responded almost out of impulse. “If you are afraid to die, then surrender to me!”

Surrender? That those words came out of her mouth at all only signified how pathetic the Red Baron sounded to her, tone a prostration, a bowed head, and slack shoulders before Khadija. When she thought of her she no longer thought of an iron pillar full of blades dressed in a grey uniform. There were the features of a girl forming in Khadija’s mind, despite the fact that they were nearly the same age.

“Lion, since we last fought, our time has been frozen in Cascabel. You and I are the same.” She said, her voice almost cracking again. “Our paths are set into stone. We can neither change the past nor can we alter the future. There is no possible way that us meeting again, can end in anything but our mutual deaths. I know we will find some way to kill one another. We fought in a ruthless age, out of desperation. Now we are meeting with the weight of our pasts on our shoulders. We will both die here the same.”

Khadija clutched her fingers tight against the control sticks. She felt pain, frustration, anger.

How dare this woman come to her with this childish sophistry?

When all Khadija wanted was a snickering evil monster to kill! To put behind them that rotten past!

“I gave you an alternative! Surrender! If you have remorse then put down your weapons!”

There was that word again. Surrender.

There was a brief pause– then the Red Baron’s voice became void of emotion. That voice and the words that it spoke finally sounded like an old and embittered soul, rather than a scared, weepy little girl. She felt she could see a face like her own now, eyes staring into the distance, ears ringing with death.

“It’s impossible for me to make amends to you. I can’t surrender– what would I even do?”

Khadija smiled bitterly to herself. “So be it, Red Baron. We can only kill each other then.”

For a moment Khadija stewed in how much she hated that in her mind’s eye, the Red Baron’s face was coming to resemble her own. In total silence, she tried hard to put the image out of her mind.

Then they raised their weapons, engaged their hydrojets, and resumed the dance of death.


I’ve let too many fucking people die. Too many. I can’t– I can’t fucking lose her too.

“Marina McKennedy, Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: deploying!”

Leda, if you’re watching over me, give us a miracle.

Marina McKennedy considered herself an absolutely middling Diver pilot.

Nevertheless, she was useless inside of the ship during a naval battle, and the communists needed absolutely every gun they could put out into the water right now even if they didn’t realize it. God only knew why they weren’t throwing everyone they could possibly get in a suit out with them, they had like eighteen of the fucking things aboard didn’t they? Some misplaced sense of ethics? Marina did not fucking know. All she could do was throw her own body too with everyone else willing. There was no use trying to change how they operated at the last second. She just had to nut up and fight.

Taking a deep breath, remembering all the times she scraped by on the skin of her teeth.

She had been shot, blown up, stabbed, tied up and whipped, had a knife put to her cock–

Going out in a Diver was good clean fun compared to all of her previous escapades.

Somehow, she was starting to psyche herself up a bit. These commies had beaten the Iron Lady before, against all odds. Maybe if anyone could Norn a black eye it was these brainwashed fools.

“McKennedy.”

Once she got out into the water, she received a transmission from the ship.

It was the Chief of the Brigand’s mechanics, Galina Lebedova, on the main video feed.

A fairly big lady with a pretty face; soft-cheeked, long hair in a braid– god those shoulders, those arms though, the sleeveless overalls really flattered her. Not an unwelcome sight whatsoever.

“We haven’t touched your weapons, but we don’t have any Republic supplies aboard, so we had to ferrostitch some extra magazines for your rifle based on the spare you brought aboard. Don’t expect them to be flawless, but they’ll fit, and they have thirty rounds of Union 37 mm loaded in.”

“Copy. I can’t say anything but thanks to that — I’d be fucked with just one mag out here. Say, Chief, when I get back can we get a coffee together? No one’s properly shown me around this boat yet.”

Lebedova smiled a little but shut off the video in response.

“Worth a try.” Marina said to herself.

Beneath the ship, she formed up around the Brigand’s other Divers, awaiting orders.

Once they sallied forth she quickly got the hang of piloting her S.E.A.L. again.

Movement was probably her strong suit. She had used this S.E.A.L. on a few infiltrations.

All of them leading up to Vogelheim.

It’s not going to be a cock-up like that again. I won’t let it turn out that way.

All of this was for Elena. Even if she’d fucked up communicating that to her thus far.

“I can’t die regretting how I left things off with her.”

Last time they looked each other in the eyes, Elena had completely broken down. Marina herself had been in bad shape. She could barely remember what happened afterward, but it was an awful, hurtful confrontation. Since then they avoided one another. She thought eventually Elena would come around but maybe that was gutless of her. She had to come back and actually show she cared.

“There’s too much you’d leave undone if you died, Marina McKennedy.”

She smiled bitterly to herself, her reflection in one of the dark screens.

She looked so tired.

As much as she sometimes wanted to join Leda and Bethany and be in peace–

Marina had to see this through. Everything was for Elena. Everything left of her.

This must have been what it was like, being a parent.

Having a commitment you couldn’t just walk away from when it was inconvenient.

She had not been thinking too much about the formation until the Ahwalia kid ran off–

Then everything went into a tailspin. The squad leader ran off, the Shimii started yelling–

“I thought you commies were supposed to be disciplined?!”

Marina hardly had time to ask who was in charge when the enemy finally appeared.

In an uncanny turn the enemy formation was much like theirs. Two close combat mecha, one strange silvery-white unit, formed up around a Volkannon with a sniper rifle that was lagging behind them. The instant that the two sides saw the very faintest outline of each other, targeting computers lit up with warnings and assault rifle fire saturated the battlefield, creating a brief chaos. The Shimii communist ran off to chase a gaudy red unit on the other side– but the Union formation remained tighter than the enemy, who split off in every direction as if probing the flanks or trying to encircle them–

Marina tried to cling tight to the Katarran with the Strelkannon to guard against that–

Until she realized that one enemy unit had just charged right past them.

Heading straight for the Brigand.

“Shit! They’re not flanking, one’s going for the ship!”

It was that silver-white unit!

Marina hardly had time to communicate any further before she reacted.

Leaving Valya behind with the Strelkannon, Marina took off after the unidentified unit.

Their plan wouldn’t matter if the enemy took out the Brigand and stranded them–

–and killed Elena along with them.

“I’m going after it!”

“Huh?”

Ignoring the cry from Valya Lebedova, Marina launched herself in full pursuit.

Her head was pounding. You’re no good at this. That’s a new model. You’ll die.

You’ll die.

There was too much left to do to die now.

But if Elena was hurt it would all be meaningless, all of it.

Leda.

Bethany.

They all poured their love into Elena. Everything they did was not just for each other.

Marina still had that unfulfilled promise to free Elena from Konstantin von Fueller.

So Marina leaned into her sticks and slammed her pedals down with all her might.

And the S.E.A.L. took off with all the thrust of its jets and boosters to gain on the enemy.

A wild barrage of fully automatic fire blazed from its M480 assault rifle, launching 37 mm bullets that cut the gap between the silver-white enemy and Marina in an instant, bursting into vapor bubbles in a chaotic pattern around the enemy diver and forcing it to acknowledge pursuit. It fired its own rifle from around its flank, backwards, but Marina easily avoided the counterfire and pressed her attack.

Her reticle danced around the aiming screen, the yellow targeting box around the enemy unit beginning to turn red, a proximity alert blaring as Marina neared and neared. She reloaded her gun and reopened fire, doing everything she could to put that reticle on that silver-white figure looming larger ahead but holding down the trigger for automatic fire, knowing she didn’t have the aim to snipe it down.

It could no longer run away, in seconds they would be practically chest to back–

Folding its rifle in one shocking instant, the enemy turned around on a dime–

Marina halted with all possible counterthrust just in time to avoid the edge of a vibroblade.

Slashing directly in front of the main camera in a swift arc out of the turn.

“It’s fast!”

She gasped for breath and held it.

In the next instant the enemy rushed her, lifting a shield held in its other arm in front of itself.

An enormous ballistic shield the right size to cover the Diver, with a thick block in the center for–

–the short stub barrel of an 81 mm launcher.

There was a thumping noise and a discharge of gas as a rocket-propelled grenade flew from it.

Marina thrust back narrowly avoiding the explosion.

Barely centimeters from annihilation as the ordnance went off.

Struggling with her controls as the explosion sent shockwaves bashing against her cockpit, while the vaporized water bubble expanded and contracted warping the water directly in front of the SEAL. Everything rattled, her cameras were blocked by the vapor and water, and hot gases got pulled into her intakes which briefly stunted her hydrojet thrust. She lost sight of the enemy machine.

Marina thought it must have been a distraction in order to get her to give up the chase–

When from over the rapidly dispersing gas bubble the machine reappeared.

Vibrosword in hand, it dropped down with a two-handed slash, its shield affixed to its arm.

Drawing her vibroaxe in an instant she caught the blade at the last second with its thick, sturdy head.

That brief second of struggle as the sword dug into her axe–

Gave her the closest look she had at this new model.

Sleek, rounded and beveled white and silver armor, rounded shoulders, lots of smooth interlocking plates, it was as if the model had been cast in this form and not assembled out of a collection of individual segments. Marina knew no Imperial, Union or Republic model with such a high quality and sleek design. Those jets on the shoulders, she had never seen their like. And its performance was incredible.

That pilot, too, was no joke.

Shooting an 81 mm shell that close, to make space for a melee attack, it was nuts. It took balls.

In that moment, clashing blades with this grand and mighty paladin, Marina had one bitter thought.

Grinning in her cockpit, face lit up by the bright freedom-blue of the SEAL’s user interface.

Shit, I’m going to die here, aren’t I?

A steel knight with a red glare like death– had it come to finally punish her sins?


Ulyana Korabiskaya stood up from her chair for emphasis as the battle began to escalate.

“Report! What’s happening with the Divers?” She shouted.

“Pure chaos.” Zachikova replied.

Up on a side panel of the main video feed the projected positions and trajectories of the Divers appeared, having been found and tracked through periodic weak sonar pulses launched by the drone swimming along the edge of the cliffs. Ulyana watched them with some consternation as it appeared that they had broken up from their units and launched individual attacks instead.

“What the hell is going on?” Aaliyah asked. “Why are they so dispersed?”

She stood up at once, standing beside Ulyana in support.

Zachikova turned to face them with glassy, half-gone eyes. Her concentration was split.

“Ahwalia did something stupid.” She said, in a belabored drawl, her mind split between her body and the drone. “Shalikova had to correct. Then the enemy broke through our formation. We are chasing breakaway individuals to prevent them reaching the Brigand. Battle has been successfully kept to over a hundred meters away from the Brigand itself. We have not visually acquired any of the Divers.”

“At least they blocked them. Fine. We have to focus on what we can do.”

Ulyana sat back down and with a flourish pointed at the main screen.

“Focus all our efforts on attacking the Antenora! Gunnery section, fire main guns!”

“Acknowledged!”

Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa responded in maybe the briefest sentence she had ever spoken.

The Antenora was closing in between 1.5 and 1 kilometers away, but it was not moving directly toward them. Like the Brigand itself it was trying to snake around the flank, hoping to maximize not just the proximity of its weapons to its target, but the ability to hit a broader part of the ship for more damage.

In ship combat, the ultimate objective was to inflict enough damage on the enemy that would breach several sections of the ship, hoping to overwhelm the flood mitigation systems to compromise the ship. If possible, attacking from behind could also cripple a ship by destroying its hydrojets. Attacking from below could potentially destroy the ship’s highly complicated water system, which would at the minimum slow or stop it as ships relied on pulling the water into themselves and ejecting it out to thrust.

At its worst, it would eject the ballast and make the ship uncontrollable.

In effect, the ships were circling in orbit of the Diver battle, each hoping to take the other’s tail or flank.

Whether the Antenora or Brigand would have the opportunity depending on their helmsmen.

“Kamarik, keep us steady but slippery!”

“Don’t worry ma’am, I’m more finely tuned than ever to how this lady dances.”

Kamarik was experienced, and he kept them unpredictable, applying variable thrust to create opportunities and deceive their enemies as to their movements. The Antenora was not acting so surreptitious. It maintained a roughly even thrust, as if it had an advantage and did not need to resort to any trickery to win. Perhaps Norn the Praetorian was correct to be so unbothered by them.

But it was Ulyana’s job to find a way to rattle Norn– from her bridge and to her grave.

As the sharks circled, their weapons trained on one another.

“Main gun ready! High-Explosive Cluster round firing for effect!” Fernanda declared.

Atop the Brigand, the dual-barrel 150 mm gun turret rose from out of hiding and acquired the Antenora as a target. From Fernanda’s station, the firing solution and type of ammunition was selected.

In this case, Fernanda was firing a ranging shot with wide, spread explosive effect.

It would be optimistic to kill with this shot, but it would acquire valuable data.

Within an instant, the firing prediction appeared on the main screen.

This was the bridge crew’s window into the war they were fighting.

They were not out in the water, and even there they would have hardly been able to see anything in front of their faces. What they did see, the video put together by the ship’s supercomputer, was a best-guess prediction created by using several sources of sensory data, ingested, and interpreted by several complicated programs in a span of seconds. That blue, visible ocean, the figure of the Antenora in the distance, accompanied by an overview map that showed the terrain and all actors in semi-realtime, it was all the creation of a computer. It could be wrong, but it was more than their eyes could ever see.

War waged through screens, unfolding before them like a movie in a theater.

A movie of the circling Antenora and the cold, black ocean around them.

The projectiles had already launched by the time the screen updated.

And the hits were registered in an instant. Supercavitating cannon rounds were incredibly fast.

On the screen two explosions were drawn around the figure of the Antenora.

Broad circular bubbles with information about the predicted and recorded impact.

“No effect! Targeting data reacquired, gun draining and priming!”

Fernanda was never as professional as when she was shooting, it seemed.

“Recalibrate and get back on it.” Ulyana said. “Torpedo section, I want one fire, record effect!”

Alexandra Geninov in the torpedo section lit up with excitement.

“Yes ma’am! Firing Torpedo!”

Within moments of receiving the order, Alex triggered the launch of a 120 mm explosive torpedo from the Brigand’s forward tube. Using the control stick on her station, Alex directly guided the ordnance via a fiber-optic wire, allowing her to potentially snake it around the enemy’s close-range gas gun defenses. She had a camera on the torpedo and that feed appeared on her screen, but it was subject to a slight delay. A skilled torpedo officer had to make whatever use they could of that visual data and its delay.

Torpedoes could reach a speed of over a hundred knots, much faster than a Diver’s max speed.

Less than a coilgun round’s incredible speed, but much more precise.

Alex could currently put a round on the Antenora in somewhere under thirty seconds.

That was enough time for maneuvers. And it was enough for Ulyana to be able to watch the little blip of the torpedo on the sonar picture moving farther and farther away. It was almost maddening every time she glanced at it, and heard the rattling of Alex’s stick as she made a series of snap corrections, trying to send the torpedo on her desired path toward the enemy vessel and avoid the defensive fire.

Within 50-70 meters, Alex would be able to see the Antenora visually on the cameras.

And then she would have around one and a half seconds to react before it smashed into it.

One and a half seconds without accounting for the delay.

“Huh? What the fuck? Ma’am, something’s up!”

Alex turned from her station in a snap as the main screen despawned the screen with the torpedo video feed. That side panel became dynamically populated with a different video feed. Losing its place of semi-prominence because its camera exploded. No impact registered; as the torpedo specialist protested.

“What’s wrong now, Geninov?” Ulyana asked.

In that precise moment, the main screen flashed an alert–

And an instant later, the Brigand shook enough to rattle the crew in their chairs, struck by the Antenora’s 150 mm guns. It was a testament to the construction of the ship and the brilliance of Union engineering. Despite the violent shockwaves which rippled across the surface armor, enough to be felt on the bridge and to have caused any freestanding personnel to lose balance, the lights barely flickered, and the main screen picture remained up to the second accurate and streaming new data in flawlessly.

“Status report!” Ulyana shouted.

“No direct hit!” Semyonova reported. “Very minor surface damage off the port side!”

“God damn it! We just got done fixing the port side!” Ulyana lamented.

Aaliyah interrupted. “Captain, Geninov had something to report.”

“Right,” Ulyana said, turning to face Alex again. “Report Geninov, what’s going on?”

In any other situation, and with any other look on Geninov’s face, Ulyana might have just dismissed whatever Alex had to say as to probable nonsense. However, rather than looking scared or smug, Alex had a befuddled look on her face, as if she had seen something completely incongruous, which was an expression Ulyana was not used to seeing. And indeed, Alex had seen something odd.

“Ma’am, the instruments on the torpedo send a final snapshot just prior to impact. This has final camera data but also has data from the other sensors. According to this, we did impact the Antenora, because we exploded inside the minimum range of the gas guns, which would’ve had effect. This is recording we blew up like two meters above the armor, but it had zero effect on it, we can tell, it shot us right after.”

“Put the image on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

Alex nodded nervously, and she swiped her finger at her touchscreen to move the image over. For a moment, it shared prominence with the video feed on the main screen. Everyone who saw it looked speechless for a moment. Most of it was taken up by the silver-grey armor of the Antenora as one might aspect from an impact camera on a torpedo. But there was a purple flash captured also. Like a sheen of agarthic energy warping over some of the armor close to the center of the image.

“What the hell is that?” Aaliyah shouted. “Is it some kind of close-in defense?”

Ulyana’s heart sank. She remembered Theresa Faraday’s demonstration before the battle.

About a potential next-generation armor system that the Brigand could possibly have.

And she now began to fear the Antenora possessed a functioning example.

What can I possibly do about this?

“Semyonova, where the hell is Theresa Faraday? Order her to the bridge now!”

Semyonova ran a search, using the computer to locate Theresa through the cameras–

She turned around suddenly. “Ma’am, she’s in the hangar! She’s– something’s deploying?”


What am I doing? What am I doing?

Sieglinde von Castille labored for breath, feeling a passenger in her own body.

Watching as if from over her own shoulder as her body pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go and rammed her pedals, throwing the Grenadier into a full speed attack upon the Lion of Cascabel. Sword in hand, rifle damaged and discarded, the Grenadier cut the distance to the Lion near instantly and swung a ferocious horizontal slash that forced the Lion to launch deeper down to avoid it.

Despite her keen reactions, the Lion was unable to counter, as Sieglinde flowed out of the horizontal feint with a sudden downward slash with both arms, engaging the booster on the blade itself as well as the shoulder boosters for added thrust. The Lion lunged suddenly to the side, the Baron’s vibrosword slicing the control fin on her Strelok’s shoulder clean off as she scarcely evaded the attack.

Why am I fighting? Why am I here? Why can’t we stop?

Her own internal voice grew more desperate and distant.

And yet her downward slash flowed smoothly into a dive, giving chase to the Lion.

Their machines were face to face, the Lion jetting down, unable to turn her back without giving up advantage, while the Red Baron lifted her blade as she bore down on the Lion. Like figures in a biblical painting, a wrathful god with a thundering blade captured amid descent, and a defiant human gazing at the firmament with stolen fire in her hands, a terrible collision imminent. All around them, the dark blue of the depths, such that they were alone in battle, and nothing could be seen but their aggression.

Fully automatic rifle fire went hurtling past the Grenadier, tearing off one of the arm joint plates and chunks of skirt armor but not enough bullets struck where needed, there was no time to aim. Undaunted the Red Baron fell upon the Lion and brought her sword barely centimeters from the cockpit slicing across the plates keeping her opponent out of water and laying upon them a deep, smoking scar.

I’m going to kill her!

Like fencers stepping forward and back, the two mecha became ensnared in a melee.

Sieglinde swung again from her last successful attack, pressing her advantage.

The Lion had to pick a direction. Sieglinde read her as diving deeper, it was easiest–

Instead she thrust upward, and as she did she fired her assault rifle down at an angle.

She’s going to kill me!

Sieglinde turned out of her attack and jerked her sword up in a desperate slash.

As the Lion opened fire the Grenadier’s vibrosword sliced across the barrel of the rifle.

An explosive round went off just outside the chamber and against the blade.

Chipping the edge of the Baron’s sword and bursting the Lion’s rifle in a miraculous turn.

Please stop, please turn around, please.

No matter how much she begged herself, Sieglinde was fighting as if automatically, as if without control of herself, a passenger in her body’s war. For a brief instant she thought she might have been under mind control, but she wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t. This was not something to blame on magic or monsters or on anything but the damnable, monstrous machinations of her own fate. She was fighting despite the pounding of her heart, the tears in her eyes and the cries of her humanity because there was no other place for her to go, no other future for her to seek. Her time had frozen; this was all she had.

Her eyes could only seek enemies to fight.

Her arms could only wield weapons of war.

Her legs could only take her from one battlefield to another.

Her chest could only draw breath to keep her living from one kill to the next.

She had no power to stop the atrocities her body carried out.

No matter how much her heart hurt. This was the legend she bore: the Red Baron.

The Red Baron would continue fighting her war until it took her from the face of Aer.

As soon as she saw the opportunity to attack, she took it with a devastating finality.

The Lion was off-balance, stunned by that one-in-a-million occurrence that disarmed her.

Converting that miracle to further tragedy–

The Red Baron threw everything she had into the charge, her final charge.

Sweeping under and behind the Strelok and using all the momentum of that graceful arc.

Her signature slash went weaving across the back of her foe at an unexpected angle.

Where it was caught instantly between two sets of grinding jaws–?

What?

Sieglinde could not comprehend what had happened. Sweat streaked down her blank face.

Her sword arm drew back instantly, her entire self disbelieving–

As she saw in all of her cameras a Strelok holding two chainsaw-bladed “diamond swords” behind its back in a cross that had briefly caught her blade in the middle of its arc and nearly snapped off the already damaged tip from it. Such a sword catch as she had never seen executed, never thought even possible in all of her years of fighting, in all of her training and with all of her experience of war.

She drew back instinctively from her failed attack, creating distance with her boosters.

The Strelok turned and faced her, wielding in each hand a revving, furious diamond sword.

“You’re so predictable. I knew I could bait you into doing that move.”

Over the communicator the Lion spoke again. Her voice was just a bit shaken, but–

“War flattered your image, Baron! That flip of yours would catch any pilot off-guard the first time they see it. And fooling them once is all it takes for you to kill them and preserve your secret. However, if a pilot lived twenty years ago and survived that attack when your technique was in its infancy– well!”

She laughed. The Lion was laughing. Her voice sent shivers down Sieglinde’s back.

“You say you haven’t changed, Red Baron? But I’m still learning!”

The Lion’s Strelok charged with roaring blades and the Red Baron froze in response.

Sieglinde’s eyes darted between cameras. She had no time to close the comm channel.

She was looking for her opponent’s sword arm– but there were two!

The Strelok swung both swords horizontally from opposite sides like a closing vice–

Sieglinde threw the Grenadier down below the Strelok to try to avoid and counterattack–

Dodging out of the counterstroke, the Lion’s Strelok dove past her flank, circled quickly around her back and thrust up again. Trying to follow the dizzying attack, Sieglinde turned and slashed behind her, then she boosted down and back for space and sliced above herself, but the Lion was still moving, constantly.

Circling her diagonally in a way that made full use of the fact that they were suspended in water, a three-dimensional space in which they could move in all possible angles around each other. Sieglinde was speechless, eyes rushing from camera to camera hoping to predict the opponent’s next move–

–then the Lion inverted the arc she was taking at its peak, diving suddenly, and she appeared where Sieglinde had not been looking. Launching both blades in a powerful swing with all of the momentum they had built and clubbing the Grenadier in the flank. It was more of a smashing attack than a slash, delivered with such brutality there was no time for the blades to cut into the armor, and it sent the Grenadier tumbling down in the water. Pieces of armor chipped and sunk in, and a part of the skirt went flying. Sieglinde rattled in her cockpit, gritting her teeth involuntarily, her stomach turning.

This Strelok is faster! How is that possible? Or did I get slower?

It was not just the slightly upgraded Diver model– nor Sieglinde’s own weakness–

The Lion herself was faster, stronger, swifter than in Cascabel.

She had gotten stronger! But how was that possible? How had she changed so much?

As if their minds were attuned to this realization, the Lion answered.

“I am fighting for something, Red Baron! If your time froze at Cascabel, then what are you still fighting for? Can you even say? Why did you come here? Are you fighting for an Empire that has broken into pieces? Are you trying to recover colonies that you’ve completely lost? Say something!”

Too much was happening too fast.

“I– I–”

Sieglinde’s voice caught in her shuddering throat before the Lion’s next blow.

Bubbles blew overhead from the diamond swords as they displaced and evaporated water.

Engaging her boosters Sieglinde quickly corrected herself out of her ungainly dive.

The Strelok had briefly stopped moving to attack! This was her chance to counter!

The Grenadier pressed back, both hands on her sword, hoping to slice off the Strelok’s arm–

One of the Lion’s blades caught her attack on the flat piece of armor guarding the chainsaw motor.

And the second slashed across her cockpit, leaving the same scar she had left on the Strelok.

Sieglinde was reacting so fast, she was still reacting as if the opponent had one sword.

Her reflexes that had been perfected in the Colonial War– became nothing but a hindrance!

“You’re just refusing culpability! You’re a coward! Red Baron! A miserable coward!”

Again Sieglinde retreated, her diminishing solid fuel boosters worked to their limits.

Creating space, opportunity, buying time, desperately, as her eyes sought any weakness.

The Lion’s coordination was astounding. Most pilots were much clumsier with one sword let alone two, but the Lion maneuvered her blades ambidextrously, covering any weakness, any gap, able to attack and defend swiftly. She was taking full advantage of the greater strength and stability offered by mechanical arms. Not only that, but despite the fact that they were only boosting around each other in short range, her movements were nonetheless fluid and three dimensional without hesitation.

Sieglinde needed her to make a mistake, but–

There was no opening! She could find no means to attack her!

Sieglinde’s will was flagging, and the Lion was completely focused.

All she could do was live second to second, reacting without initiative, without a plan.

Sieglinde found herself forced to draw back her sword up in front of the Grenadier as a makeshift shield, desperately blocking blow after brutal blow from the Lion’s Strelok, smashing from every direction against the flat of her vibrosword. Bubbles blew and water displaced in the violent wake of the Lion’s relentless assault, creating a cloud of exhaust and vapor within which the onslaught took place.

“You had a choice! You always had a choice! What brought you to this ocean to fight me except your own damned choices? And you want to blame fate for this? That’s far too convenient!”

Her swords slammed against the Grenadier’s sword driving Sieglinde back with each blow.

There was no opening to retaliate, no place where she could breathe.

Sieglinde watched the blows rain down metal on metal, helpless before the sparks.

 “I’m not like you! How dare you say that? My time was never frozen! I still have something to fight for! Despite everyone begging me to retire! Teach here, train there, let the new kids have a shot, you’re a symbol, you’re the Lion of Cascabel they all said! I’m 42, unmarried, I have no partner, no kids, no legacy! But my time is still moving! I’m still alive and my story is still being written! I won’t give up!”

While between strikes her words sliced open Sieglinde and laid her soul horribly bare.

She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me!

The Red Baron had lost all control. Staring death with empty eyes and trembling lips. Tasting her own sweat and tears that ran in rivulets. Her monitors screamed about the degrading condition of her blade, of the mech’s wrists, the draining vernier fuel, and she felt the whole cockpit shake with each strike.

No! I can’t die here! I can’t! I can’t!

Out of a raging biological instinct to survive Sieglinde burned the very last of her solid fuel thrust in one desperate burst of bubbles and heat, throwing herself straight forward into the middle of the frenzied attacks, slamming into the Strelok with her whole body. Chainsaw blades tore great gashes into her shoulders, tearing out jet anchors but digging no deeper where water could enter.

Her mood swung as chaotically as the blades against her: I caught you! I can still fight!

Flushing more of her oxygen into the water system, Sieglinde kicked off enemy machine and laid a cloud of bubbles. In the momentary space she created with this maneuver, Sieglinde drew her vibrodagger.

On one hand her weapon of last resort; on the other her full-length vibrosword.

Roaring with the desperation of a cornered beast, she threw herself back into the attack.

Just like she had seen the Lion, she swung both weapons to meet her opponent’s own–

–and misjudging the length of the dagger, found a diamond sabre sawing through her arm at the elbow.

On her monitor, all of her boosters signaled empty, her only thrust coming from the hydrojets. Her sword arm sank toward the bottom of the sea, a hull integrity warning flashing. In the middle of that oppressive cockpit, the synthetic fiber of her regal uniform clung to a sweating chest, hands shaking on the controls.

She watched helplessly as the Strelok’s arms reared for a strike against her midsection.

To slice her cockpit apart, expose her to the sea and kill her.

She watched as the twin cruel-sawed blades–

–drew back and swung forward the famous claws of the Lion of Cascabel,

and pointed at the Grenadier’s chest and flank, just short of plunging into its iron flesh.

Diamond-toothed jaws revved and seethed just centimeters from her but no violence followed.

“I won’t satisfy your idea of fate. I won’t let you die and escape justice.” The Lion said.

Sieglinde sat speechless. Her arms lifted off her controls and hung limply at her side. The Red Baron, legend of the Imperial Colonial War, had been utterly defeated. Her heart pounded, her breathing labored. She struggled for something dignified to say, after how far her honor had plunged, how much the Lion of Cascabel had torn the clothes off her manicured self-image and broken her down.

She had been left with nothing. The Red Baron was practically dead even if Sieglinde lived.

Just as she began to speak, to try to absolve herself, her eyes became drawn to something.

She became mesmerized, by a streak of unnatural colors that flashed in the distance.

The Lion’s Strelok also turned to face it. She was seeing it too, the explosion of colors.

And the glowing outline of the Jagdkaiser and the Cheka locked in combat within them.

Furious reds, evil-feeling black, and the texture of an open wound in the middle of the sea.


Karuniya Maharapratham sat in the medbay, a chair pulled up next to the bed of Murati Nakara.

She held on to her partner’s arm, gently, as the ship rocked from an explosion.

On the wall, the bearing monitor and a communication screen showed data and footage of the blast.

“All that rumbling.” Murati lamented weakly. “I wish there was something we could do.”

They were in the middle of a battle, even in their isolated little pod they could feel it.

Murati turned to Karuniya with a small smile, a helpless little expression.

“If there was– I would support you, no matter what, but–” Karuniya said.

“Thank you. Don’t worry. I won’t do anything dangerous, for your sake.”

“For my sake, huh.”

Karuniya sighed. She recalled a conversation that happened not long before the battle began.

Out in the hall, between a certain Euphemia Rontgen and herself. After their conversation had petered out, and Rontgen left the room, Karuniya had gone as well since Murati had wanted to rest for a moment. At that point, she found Rontgen still in the hall, as if waiting specifically to be able to talk to her alone.

“From scientist to scientist,” she asked, “would you ever fight for Murati Nakara’s sake?”

At the time Karuniya had brushed it off. “That’s far too vague.”

“Interesting that it wasn’t an immediate yes.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s an immediate yes — if it’s really necessary. If she truly needs it. I worry about her, but I’m not going to do something stupid and get in her way. I trust her. Murati’s always been the fighter. She doesn’t need me or anyone to protect her. It’d have to be an extreme situation.”

“I see. I’m glad Murati Nakara can have such a mature relationship.”

“Tch. Weirdo. Is that all you wanted to say?”

She was starting to get irritated. Ever since she saw her in the hall.

Euphemia Rontgent was pleasant enough, but she was being deliberately cryptic.

And Karuniya was hardly in the mood to be stopped in the hall for cryptic question.

“My answer is far more cowardly. For Theresa– I wouldn’t fight. I reckon myself a pacifist of sorts.”

Karuniya glanced at her. She almost wanted to say something nasty.

Something about how they must not have been so close if that was her response.

“However, know this– because of who Murati Nakara is and the path she’s chosen to take, it’s a question that’s much more important to you than it would ever be to me.” Rontgen said by way of parting.

Some time later Karuniya returned to medbay, sat beside her fiance and tried to pore it over.

How did she really feel about fighting? Murati had very strong opinions herself, but–

–aside from silly disagreements how did Karuniya really feel? Did she had a serious opinion?

Her mind went in a loop, unproductive, without a point.

But quite suddenly, the question returned in human form.

In the middle of the battle, Theresa Faraday suddenly visited the medbay.

Dressed in a mechanic’s garb with a white coat over it, some kind of tool in her hand.

Her red hair tossed as she reared back and asked, with a grin and a surprising amount of levity:

“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.9]

While Norn began speaking to the enemy commander, Adelheid sat next to her with an active terminal and oversaw their preparations for battle. She had cameras on the hangar and logging on the mainframe for all the work done at the bridge stations. There was not much that she needed to do, because the crew was so efficient and disciplined. She thought she might at least have to yell at Selene or Samoylovych, but the two of them, Petra Chornyi and the Red Baron were ready to deploy the second Norn commanded it. Turrets were ready, torpedoes had been loaded. The Antenora was primed for battle.

Norn’s Magellan was also assembled, serviced by a crane rather than a proper gantry.

“Are you really going out there?” Adelheid had asked, prior to the hostilities.

She was already concerned the instant the sonar pulse came back with an imaged ship.

So before battle was even joined, the anxiety was clear on her face.

“I have no intention to deploy. Yangtze and Potomac can go fuck themselves.” Norn said.

Adelheid’s eyes drew open in surprise. She had nursed a fear of Norn fighting personally.

“But I thought you were going to get Elena for Gertrude too. It’s not just them.”

Norn nodded solemnly. “That is Gertrude’s business. I plan to send her out to complete it.”

“You’re right.” Adelheid said, feeling relief. “You shouldn’t be responsible for any of this.”

“You really do understand me better than anyone, Adelheid.”

Norn gave her a gentle, confident smile and stroked a few locks of Adelheid’s hair.

Seated side by side on the bridge of this ship with had committed so much violence.

That firm hand caressing her lifted Adelheid’s spirits just a bit. Her heart felt warm.

“If this ship really did that much damage to the Iron Lady, it must be dangerous.” She said.

“I know.” Norn said simply. “But Gertrude will have no better chance than this.”

“Right.” Adelheid replied. “We’re probably better armed than the Iron Lady overall.”

“There’s my adjutant sounding like all of those battle analysis courses she aced.”

Norn returned her attention to the main screen, still stroking Adelheid’s hair with affection.

“I can’t fight everyone’s battles for them. I refuse to be used like that anymore.” She said.

Miming Norn’s words, Adelheid replied, “Now there’s the rebellious Praetorian I love.”

Adelheid had been with Norn for over six years now. Their relationship was only slightly younger than their acquaintance. She had been on the receiving end of Norn’s speech about opportunity; but Adelheid refused to use her. Back then, she felt strongly that she wanted to prove her own power.

And she had succeeded in her goals, despite everything that followed.

With a lot of Norn’s help that had ultimately been freely given.

She had gone on many voyages with the Antenora since then. It never got easier. Adelheid was not someone who was used to fighting. Even if Norn ended up essentially bullying and toying with the opponents they were usually given, she was still nervous. She kept it under control. She was not so stupid as to act out and become a liability if it would put Norn in danger. So when it came time to fight, Adelheid set everything aside and played the dignified adjutant as best as she could.

Adelheid stole a glance at Norn while she was speaking.

She seemed to have everything under control. She always did. She was strong.

That strength which had held Adelheid firm, had freed her, had given her new life.

But Adelheid knew that too many people relied on Norn, viewed her only as a weapon for their ends. She could never fool herself into feeling that Norn was invincible. Because she understood Norn more than anyone. Norn would falter someday. She couldn’t hold the world on her shoulders all alone.

So she worried. Whenever they fought, she pined anxiously for everyone’s safety.

And she did her best to be ready to support Norn on the day her strength was questioned.

Once the Pandora’s Box opened negotiations, Norn instantly demonstrated her superiority.

She looked like a goddess to Adelheid. A shining being not from this world.

Ulyana Korabiskaya was a looker herself — maybe Adelheid had a thing for blondes — but nobody could match how incredibly hot Norn was when she took control. They had watched footage of the discussions between Gertrude and Korabiskaya so Norn knew to expect a few attempts at second-rate fast talking from the mercenary commander. Adelheid knew Norn would try to influence the enemy captain psionically and end the conflict easily, so she “flipped” on her psionic vision.

Focusing on the aura of Korabiskaya and Norn, she saw the brief contest that ensued.

However, the outcome was not what she predicted.

Korabiskaya resisted; she had some potential.

Not enough to fight back. Norn had simply stopped, rather than being actively countered.

When it came to psionic mind games, Adelheid knew the basics.

If Norn couldn’t control someone immediately, it was unlikely to be worth bothering with.

So the discussion continued.

“Euphrates,”

Adelheid felt a chill when she heard that name.

Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

And foremost among the people Norn wanted to revenge herself against.

While she didn’t lose her cool, Adelheid could tell that Norn was immediately altered.

As soon as she saw Euphrates, a violent red band began to widen across her aura.

“Agh!”

Then in the middle of the conversation that she appeared to be dominating–

Norn raised her hands to her face, flinching as if in pain.

Shaking briefly, drawing back against the seat.

And coming to rest, as if sleeping.

Video connection to the Brigand cut off.

Immediately, Adelheid concentrated on the aura around Norn, switching on her “sight.”

White–?

All of her aura had become a pale, soft white. Black was death– what the hell was white?!

How had this happened?

She whipped around to the adjacent station and shouted at the drone. “Communications, send orders to the hangar to deploy Selene, Samoylovych, Chorniy, and von Castille at once!”

Negotiations were over. Whether or not the Pandora’s Box was even truly aware of what had happened, a situation like this could only be dealt with by defending themselves militarily. When there was tension, they could not afford to leave an opening just to appear magnanimous. Adelheid knew enough about war to assume the Pandora’s Box would try to exploit this event.

But what had happened? How could she help Norn?

Euphrates was an Immortal, psionically powerful. Adelheid turned to face Norn again and took her into her arms, shaking her, trying to wake her. Her body was still warm, she was breathing, and there was no bleeding or other signs that she was psychically exerting herself. Adelheid knew that mental psionic attacks were extremely difficult, and the most easily resisted by gifted psions. She suspected Euphrates must have attacked Norn but how? What exactly did she do to Norn?

She could not panic. Despite everything– Norn was depending on her!

“Hunter III! Come here! Something happened to Norn!”

Though she understood psionics differently, Hunter III was more powerful than Adelheid.

She could see and understand things Adelheid did not. Maybe she would understand!

“Whatcha yellin’ about? Huh? What happened to the boss?”

Hunter III shambled to Norn’s seat with a drowsy expression, her skinny arms hanging at her sides. She pulled her hood off her white hair and set her bright eyes on Norn. One slender ghost white finger rose to poke the praetorian in the cheek. Upon touching her Hunter III immediately seemed to realize something was wrong, like a dog sniffing an intruder, and her eyes went red, she was using psionics herself.

“Huh? Her brainself is gone. Who did that?” Hunter III said.

“Brainself? What the hell are you saying?”

Adelheid yelled; and Hunter III was so taken by Norn’s condition she didn’t yell back.

Hunter III looked around the room with her glowing eyes. “Her brainself’s off swimmin’ somewhere–”

From beneath her hooded robe, a stubby tail became suddenly erect.

“Adelheid, she’s lookin’ for you! You gotta do somethin’ to reach back out!”

Hunter III turned innocent eyes and a calm expression on Adelheid–

–as if she was supposed to understand what she meant!!

Adelheid was about to start shouting back at the little fish-tailed runt–

But she did start feeling something–

–as if there was something carried on all the tiny sounds of the ship, the clicking on keyboards, the hum of the air system, the very subtle vibrations of the floor panels, the rustling of synthetic cloth. She could hear something else, distant, whispered, in the coalescing of all the noise around her. As if spoken between syllables of every voice, an enunciation in each button press, a sigh in the ventilation.

Had she been anyone else, with less experience in these matters, she would have said it was the stress and muted panic of the moment that was cause these hallucinations around her.

Norn had taught her about the powers of the mind.

About the meaning behind the colors that she could sometimes see people give off.

She looked at Hunter III briefly and saw the shades of her, blue and green and thin black.

She looked down at her own hands and saw the multitude of muddled colors of her own.

She looked at Norn’s pale white aura that had begun expanding, thinning, wafting.

Reaching.

Focusing on the color she reached her own hand down to Norn.

Approaching the white fog which had come to enshroud her lover and carried her sensation.

Her fingers crossed some kind of threshold and color diffused across the white cloud.

Adelheid felt like she had punctured a membrane. There was a brief, tactile resistance.

One final push and her hand finally touched Norn’s skin, felt the warmth of her.

And transferred the warmth of her own touch to that skin.

Adelheid saw a flash of something in her mind.

Images, sounds, feelings, years of information compressed to a flash.

There was no possible way that she could understand it. All of it was gone in an instant.

Not even the barest scraps of a dream remained of it.

In that instant of fleeting hallucination, when Adelheid’s eyes blinked–

Norn’s eyes opened. Their gazes met. For a moment, neither of them said a word.

Her eyes had red rings around them, but they followed movement, they were aware.

Her lips spread very slightly to speak–

Adelheid interrupted immediately. She threw herself atop Norn, silently weeping.

Norn’s arms wrapped firmly around Adelheid, embracing her tightly.

“I knew I could count on you.” Norn said, stroking her hair.

Adelheid separated herself, grabbed hold of Norn’s shirt, fixed her a serious look.

Norn’s eyes had red rings around them. So there was still in danger.

“What’s going on?” Adelheid asked. “Your eyes– you’re still doing psionics.”

Norn looked surprised to hear this. She looked around the room in confusion.

“Her brainself is still kinda gone. I can kinda feel the veins though.” Hunter III said.

She started wandering around the room like a dog following a trail. Incomprehensible.

Adelheid could not see whatever it was they were both following or searching for.

She felt frustrated at her own lack of power– but at least Norn was here.

“Norn, what’s happening? How can we help?” Adelheid asked, still tight on Norn’s chest.

“Euphrates dragged me into the aether current. I’m not sure exactly what she did so I can’t explain it. I think I’m puppeteering my own body right now.” Norn said. “I can sense through the currents by using Adelheid as an anchor, but it’s hazy. I need to find a permanent solution, but for right now, we need to capture the Pandora’s Box. I’m putting Gertrude in command of the Diver attack. First–”

Suddenly she grabbed hold of Adelheid by the collar and tie–

–pulling her into a deep, forceful kiss.

That instant of dominance, the taste of her tongue– it almost knocked Adelheid senseless.

When their lips parted, Norn had a grin on her face and some of Adelheid’s lipstick as well.

“All you need to do is stay by my side and believe in me.” Norn said. “Do you understand?”

“Y-Yes. Master.” Adelheid said. “I’m yours to command.”

Norn grin turned into a gentle, praising smile just for her. “Good girl. Let’s get them.”


“Master, I don’t understand.”

Time was of the essence. A combat alert had been put into place.

Samoylovych and the Red Baron were already deploying, as well as Petra Chornyi. Selene just had to know whether or not the Jagdkaiser should have a cartridge loaded, other than that she was good to go. Enemy activity was starting to pick up, with the sonar operators picking up the tell-tale sounds of the Pandora’s Box preparing its chutes to deploy Divers. The Antenora was rushing into battle.

From the hangar, Gertrude Lichtenberg called the bridge to speak to Norn.

She knew that they did not have a lot of time, but she needed to know why she was being ordered to deploy in the Magellan. Without her acquiescence, the machine had been assigned to her, and its weapons, a 30 mm autocannon ballistic shield and a vibrosword, had been prepared and linked to it. Norn’s crew had beckoned her into the machine– and it nearly caused her panic.

“I thought this machine was for your own use.” Gertrude asked.

On a terminal in the hangar, Norn and Adelheid appeared on video seated side-side.

“Potomac didn’t chain it to my leg.” Norn said. “I’m assigning it to you. It’s an effective piece of equipment and you are more than capable to operate it. Or have you forgotten how to fight for yourself after all these years leading phalanxes of ambulant body armor into battle?”

Gertrude chafed at the criticism. She knew she couldn’t get offended at Norn, however.

Trying her best to moderate her tone, she began to reply, “I sought out your assistance–”

Norn then interrupted immediately. “I’m giving you an opportunity, the best opportunity you will ever have, to rescue princess Elena from those mercenaries. If you truly believe in this endeavor and you want to see it through, then you will take responsibility for it. I never once said that I would go out and personally fight these mercenaries in your stead, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“Master,”

Gertrude was practically gritting her teeth. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt it right in her veins, the rush of blood to her extremities had become a palpable drumbeat beneath her skin. Her whole body was tense, she felt like she could hardly move or speak. She had assumed that Norn would use her powers to rescue Elena easily from the Pandora’s Box. She had been so sure that she could seize victory if Norn was leading the charge to finally crush that damnable ship once and for all.

Now her long fantasized victory was thrown into complete chaos.

“Gertrude,”

Norn interrupted again. A cruel grin spread across her soft face.

“Perhaps I am being too harsh. Here is my offer then, Gertrude. Only for you, a precious student, a part of my legacy. I will save Elena von Fueller on the condition that she be turned over to the Fueller family’s stewardship immediately. I will control all of her affairs personally from the moment she returns to this ship. Now if you rescue her, of course, you’ll become her steward.”

She clapped her hands together with satisfaction, evil red glinting eyes scanning Gertrude.

Gertrude felt her heart sink.

All of this time, she had also fantasized about being the sole steward of Elena von Fueller.

Never once did she think Norn would push the idea of returning her to the Fueller family.

Norn knew about Gertrude’s deep-seated passion for Elena.

Gertrude could not lie to her. And Norn had demanded to know when they met. More than anyone, Norn von Fueller understood the lustful covetousness that really drove Gertrude Lichtenberg to action. She knew how much Elena meant to Gertrude and she had already, several times, pulled strings so that Gertrude could inch closer to the storybook ending she desired for her and Elena. For Norn to then make this impossible, cruel “deal” was to say in many, humiliating words that Gertrude had no choice but to deploy and fight instead of Norn. It was to make her command utterly absolute.

In this single moment, Gertrude’s dreams could crumble right in front of her. All of her work, suffering, sacrifice, all the begging and cheating and the corpses she climbed– for nothing.

“I am not merely doing this to be cruel to you.” Norn said.

Her fists closed at her side, Gertrude felt like a child being scolded.

“You say that master, but this may be the cruelest thing you’ve ever done to me.”

“I’m giving you a choice, as I’ve always given you.” Norn replied, more coldly.

Gertrude openly gritted her teeth. “You know this isn’t a choice! You’re manipulating me!”

“Really? A coattail rider like you, and you believe I’m the one being manipulative?”

“Master,” Gertrude clapped her hands together. “I’ve always respected you, so please–”

She was getting ready to beg. Getting ready to drop to her knees right on the video feed.

“Stop being such a coward, Gertrude! You need to man up, this instant!”

It was not Norn who spoke then.

Adelheid interjected suddenly, in a way that completely chilled Gertrude.

Her eyes looked as imperious as those of Norn herself. A disdainful glare, and sharp words.

“Don’t you realize how cruel you are being, begging Norn to fight this battle for you?” Adelheid shouted. “Don’t you see the company that puts you in, don’t you see how sound like all of the other evil cowards who only see her as a weapon? Don’t you see that Norn wants to give you the power to take Elena away with you? Gertrude, if you can’t even defeat these mercenaries, can you possibly defend Elena from the Volkisch movement, the Royal Alliance, Veka or Millennia Skarsgaard? How can you survive all the schemes that Norn has shielded you from and continue to be so spineless? Do you want to hide behind other people forever, or do you want to be able to take control of your own damn life?”

Adelheid practically shouted herself hoarse. There were furious tears in her eyes.

Gertrude stood speechless. She almost wanted to cry herself– she was so stunned.

All of the begging and sniveling that she had done to wear her grandiose uniform.

Not just Norn, but Dreschner, Ingrid, Sieglinde, even Elena herself–

So many people had rescued her across her life, so she stood half a chance of reaching this moment, of reaching the cusp of having the love of her life in her grasp, where nobody could take her again, where they could finally stand together until death. That storybook ending she wanted ever since she was enchanted by those beautiful indigo eyes as a small child. Gertrude was not so deluded as to think she had ever boasted prodigious personal strength, she knew, acknowledged, that she had begged and scraped and needed intervention and serendipity to survive to where she was and yet–

She had never felt so seen, so seen and found pathetic, found to be truly what she was.

Another soul had never struck a blow so chillingly powerful to the edifice of her person.

And for it to not even be Norn, but Adelheid, that bratty girl perpetually fixed in her orbit.

For those words to cut as deep and hard as they did. Gertrude was left reeling, shaking.

She could have taken the scolding if it came from Norn– but Norn hardly made a gesture.

It had been Adelheid, of all people, who had cut her down to the bone instead.

Had she been told of this event without experiencing it herself, Gertrude would have laughed.

Now in the moment all she wanted to do was cry, but she fought back the tears.

“Thank you Adelheid.” Norn said. “But that’s quite enough. Gertrude, your decision.”

Even if her heart was full of trepidation, it was impossible to object. Gertrude was trapped.

All of her rebelliousness was destroyed. Adelheid was completely correct about her.

Gertrude had run too much, hid too much, begged, and bartered too much by now.

There was always going to be a battle she would have had to stand and fight through alone.

She thought when it came she would be prepared for it.

Instead she was a shuddering mess. In tears, her skin shaking over cold-feeling flesh.

Pathetic. She was pathetic, powerless, useless, a coward, a craven half-wit schemer–

“Gertrude, I need you to do this.” Norn pressed her. “But more than that: you need it too.”

Gertrude raised a shaking salute. Norn and Adelheid were right.

She needed to do this. There was nobody to champion her. Gertrude had to fight herself.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg, deploying in the SF-07 Magellan.” She said.

Steeling herself to put on the most dignified response that she could muster.

“Good. Show them your strength, High Inquisitor.” Norn said.

Gertrude bowed her head and severed the connection. When she turned her back on the terminal, her cape fluttering behind her, feeling the weight of the black and gold uniform and the tall hat on her head, Gertrude felt like nothing so much as an imposter. She had been exposed and could no longer run away. All she could was convince the world that she had any power at all in her own self.


Maryam Karahailos stepped off the elevator to the Brigand’s upper deck with her hands behind her back, her head bowed, and the chromatophores in her skin and hair dull and dark. She felt her brain fog over with worry, her skin feeling tight with tension. The Brigand was embroiled in a dangerous situation, and her beloved Sonya had taken charge of her unit and deployed for battle. Watching them go, even a girl as supernaturally gifted as her felt completely helpless and useless in this situation.

When it came to fighting a battle like this, the Apostle of Air was completely useless!

She did not want to trouble Sonya, so she did not insist on staying in the hangar.

Soon as Sonya got ready to leave, they briefly held hands, and Maryam made for the bridge.

“As long as you’re safe, I’ll have peace of mind.” Sonya said.

“You’ll definitely come back, right?”

“Of course. I still have a lot to learn from you.”

Their final exchange, out of earshot, before Sonya told her to depart and ran to the mecha.

Maryam sighed deeply.

She had spent so much time with Sonya lately, it had been such a blessing!

Now she was gone, and Maryam might never– no she couldn’t even contemplate that!

It broke her heart to even consider it!

Moping to herself, she ambled without enthusiasm down the hall.

She stumbled upon a commotion.

Out in the middle of the hall, someone had been set down on the floor. There was a woman looming over her on the ground — that doctor with the colorful hair, Kappel. Alongside her were the two women Sonya had introduced to Maryam last night: Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg. As soon as Maryam approached, Valeriya seemed to notice, and immediately lifted her mask over her nose.

She tugged gently on Illya’s sleeve and pointed behind them at Maryam.

“Run along to the bridge, we don’t want too many people getting in the way here.”

Illya was firm but not brusque. Maryam had not intended to stay in the hall but–

She noticed the blue hair and blood-soaked white coat of the woman in Kappel’s care.

Euphrates– no, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen, she was calling herself.

On the floor, unresponsive save for recurring bloody coughing, streams of blood down her nose, convulsions infrequent enough that they startled Maryam as she stared. Her eyes were blank, like the cold gaze of a corpse. Kappel had brought her out to the hall, took her pulse, checked her breathing, injected her with a drug, but she seemed helpless to provide first aid in this situation.

“She’s breathing, heart’s normal, the portable scanner shows nothing ruptured.”

Maryam stared in confusion. People spoke but the voices made no sense to her.

All of the blood, and the way her body would sometimes jump without stimuli, it was surreal, the smell of bloody iron and gauze, but not just that, not just the physical things– all around Euphrates a black cloud thicker and denser and darker than any Maryam had ever seen shrouded her until her physical body seemed almost an outline beneath its fog. Death, death, death, death was everywhere, the smell of rot, the texture of flayed flesh, the taste of blood, it clung slick like slime to the body and yet–

–she wasn’t dead. Was she? She couldn’t have been.

Maryam could vaguely see the sinewy outer edges of her aura.

Not dissipating from distance to the body, but reaching out, flowing.

The Aether Current– all of that darkness was spilling out into the aether current.

Maryam realized that Euphrates’ condition must have had to do with psionics, but–

“Hey, aren’t you going to the bridge? We don’t want people loitering around.”

Illya, clearly nervous at the unnatural sight playing out behind her.

“I– I’m sorry. I’ll keep going. It’s– it’s a lot of blood. Sorry.”

“I get it. The Captain and the Commissar are awaiting you.” Illya said gently.

Maryam did not know how to feel and what she should do.

Euphrates had been a teacher of sorts to her, a mentor. Self-described and self-imposed.

She felt a sense of great trepidation when she found “Euphemia” embroiling herself in the Brigand’s affairs. They acknowledged their familiarity in front of the Captain and the crew but did not reveal the truth about their association. Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation, a conspiratorial group that Maryam had joined and briefly worked within — all Apostles held a high and respected rank in the group, even if they did not want to, so Maryam found refuge with them.

While Euphrates taught her many things about herself and about psionics–

Maryam could not help but hate the selfish way that she behaved. To believe that you were helping the world solely by advancing knowledge and technology, but that the ethical response to conflict was to retreat from the world and hide your knowledge and technology from them; it was anathema to everything Maryam wanted to accomplish in the world. She could not abide any of it.

So if Euphrates was dying, what should Maryam do? How should she have reacted?

Mourned? Seethed? Intervened?

Maybe the world would have been better without Euphrates in it.

With a deep breath followed by a heavy sigh, Maryam started walking past the scene.

And stopped right beside Doctor Kappel, fists shaking at her sides.

“I– I can help!” Maryam shouted suddenly, unable to abandon her gentle nature.

Doctor Kappel looked up at her, blinking with confusion. She fiddled absentmindedly with some of her blue hair and got some blood on it. Behind her, Illya looked annoyed and Valeriya turned the other way to avoid the scene. The doctor looked pale as a ghost, practically in tears, her hands were shaking on the portable medical computer in her fingers. “Maryam Karahailos? How can you possibly–?”

“Please don’t ask me about what I’m about to do! I’ll explain everything later!”

Maryam dropped to her knees next to Euphrates’ body and held out her hands.

Her eyes felt hot, and she pushed her senses out to the air around her.

Just as she had shown Shalikova before a globe of air gathered quickly in her hands–

–and then dispersed.

Illya’s, Kappel’s and Valeriya’s hair blew suddenly as if there was a strong breeze.

All of them watched, dumbfounded, as the air became a visible glow around Euphrates.

Molecular Control.

Air seeped its way through Euphrates’ skin, into the tissues, sinews, into the blood.

Her gentle touch glided over wounds, through spilled blood and ruptured vessels.

While Maryam’s intellect and will traveled through the muscles, to the marrow, to the brain.

She caught the briefest glimpse, the most fleeting intimation of Euphrates’ intentions.

Norn von Fueller– Somewhere Euphrates was dueling the mighty Apostle of Ice–

Her body was here, however, in great, roaring agony–

As she tried to sew back tissues that bled indefinitely, as she tried to mend bones that broke forever and muscles that tore repeatedly, Maryam realized suddenly why Euphrates’ body was not dying. Life blossomed inside of her abnormal body every time a cell met death, like a big bang of genetic rebirth recreating the universe of Euphrates with every stroke against her skin and every twist against her bones. She was like a cancer infinitely fed of herself, and Maryam could hardly comprehend where the energy came from to sustain her. She realized in an instant how vastly old and hurt this body was.

Glimpsing for less than a second the thousand-year history of Euphrates–

From Maryam’s gentle lips ripped a wail of agony.

She fell back from Euphrates’ body, from Kappel and Illya who tried to reach out to her, shuddering and shaking on the floor with the horror of understanding. Her head felt split open with pain, and she held herself as if trying to squeeze numb all of the burning in her sinews. Even for an Apostle, where she had delved, what she had touched, memories of cells with infinitely long telomeres–

Psionic feedback ripped through Maryam’s entire body. She was not powerful enough!

“Maryam! Oh my god–!”

Illya rushed to the side of the girl clearly in pain, tearing open a plastic-bagged first aid kit–

Suddenly everything began to shake.

That first aid kit hit the floor and the security officers nearly fell with it.

Dr. Kappel grit her teeth and clung on to a handhold in the wall near the Bridge door.

Lights flashed in and out in the hallways for a few seconds before stabilizing.

“It’s started!” Valeriya said.

“Shit. This one’s going to be really serious huh?” Illya replied.

She helped Maryam to settle on her side and injected her with a punch tube from the first aid kit. Psionic feedback was already subsiding, and the painkillers flooding Maryam’s body had little to do with it, but she felt her head clearing and peace returning. Those instant, eldritch images that had terrorized her neurons for a split second were gone save for the leftover anxious tension under her skin. The world, which was still spinning around her, overcome with disorienting color as she lost control, came into sharper focus, slowly, like a picture on a faulty screen coaxed into mechanical clarity.

“Maryam, please say something. Shalikova’s already upset enough with me as it is.”

Illya laid a comforting hand on Maryam’s shoulder, as if nudging her back to life.

Joined by Valeriya, who knelt beside Illya and offered her own silent support.

Maryam promised not to make trouble– she tried her best to sit up and acknowledge them.

She thought of saying something but– It was not Maryam who raised her voice to speak.

From the lips of the presumed corpse came the smallest, weakest of pleas–

“Tigris– please–”

“She’s speaking?! Security, call Syracuse, we may be able to move her to operations now!”

Doctor Kappel looked as shocked as she was elated to see a sign of consciousness.

Euphemia Rontgen– no, Euphrates, slowly sat up, trying to speak.

Through a trickle of blood and vomit escaping from her throat.

With eyes glowing bright red, tears steaming into wisps of vapor as they were shed.

She reached out to the sleeve on Kappel’s coat and tugged weakly on it.

“Theresa– Tigris– please bring her–”

“Tigris? God help me, what is happening on this ship?” Kappel whimpered.

In that instant, there was another sudden quake all along the ship again as if in answer.


“Don’t try to be a hero. Stay in the back and offer fire support. You got that?”

Shalikova was unused to being the tough CO in a group. She was almost always the quiet workhorse who did everything she was ordered to do without objections. So it felt strange to be in the position of having to tell a contrite Aiden Ahwalia that he was on the team, for now, and that he was going out into battle. And then to have to try her best to smash down the glint he got in his eyes after.

“Of course. Of course.” He said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“You really shouldn’t be happy we’re in this position.” Shalikova sighed.

Behind her, the deployment chutes for Khadija and Valya were being drained. Both of them had gone out first. A wise decision– Khadija would have certainly had something to say about Aiden’s inclusion. She was hopefully professional enough not to complain once Aiden was actually outside with them. It was a dreadful situation to be in. Two of their most accomplished pilots in their last sortie were out of the fight, and the enemy was likely to be armed to the teeth. These weren’t just going to be patrolmen haphazardly thrown into battle. The Antenora was the Fueller flagship, part of the former ruling dynasty.

Shalikova imagined royal knights who trained constantly to protect the imperial family.

Complete opposite of the ragtag group she was working with.

But all she could do was believe; believe in her comrades and do her best.

Murati would have said something like that.

She would have also had a more complicated plan, perhaps.

“Our goal will be to distract the enemy while the Strelkannon gets into position. Between the Strelkannon’s anti-ship package and the Brigand’s weapons we should be able to overwhelm the Cruiser. If we can’t sink it, we’ll hopefully do enough damage to force a rout. You need to be ready to retreat at any point we find an opportunity to run. You got that? Don’t be a hero, Aiden.”

“Don’t worry about me! I won’t do anything foolish.” Aiden said.

His tone was much more compliant.

Not only because he was finally getting what he wanted and being allowed to pilot, but likely also because of the beating he took and the subsequent dressing down from the Security Chief. He had a bruised neck and a bandage on his forehead where Valeriya had stricken him. Nothing broken, nothing he couldn’t sleep off. Otherwise Shalikova would not have had any reserve pilots to draw upon now, except maybe asking if Valeriya and Illya could be lent to her from security.

She knew those two could pilot well.

“You’ll be with her.” Shalikova said. “But you follow my orders, understand?”

Beside the spare Strelok which had been assigned to Aiden, Marina’s S.E.A.L was set up on a gantry. It was a little rounder than a Strelok here and there, attesting to the Republic’s higher capability in precise machining, with rounded off edges and a beveled, semi-oblong body. They attached the backpack lower, and the entire mass was just a bit squatter in profile. This was the legacy of the combat data which had been given by the Union to the republic. They made a slightly prettier and stockier Strelok.

It would do as well enough as any of their machines in the right hands.

Shalikova would just have to trust Marina McKennedy’s skill too.

When Marina appeared, Shalikova took Aiden to her side for a quick introduction.

“McKennedy, this is Aiden Ahwalia, he’ll be providing fire support for you.” She said.

Aiden waved half-heartedly.

Marina nodded her head. “Okay, I’ll paint targets if I need him to coordinate.”

“Good call. Aiden, shoot what she’s shooting at, and we’ll get through this.”

Shalikova patted Aiden in the back, trying to be a bit chummy.

Murati did that sort of thing much better– she couldn’t help but compare herself.

She then hurried back to the Cheka, set up next to the Strelkannon, ready to deploy.

On either shoulder, the Strelkannon was set up with a six-slot rack for 88 mm light torpedoes.

Rybolovskaya would in addition be deploying with a 50 mm high velocity cannon.

This was essentially a Diver “sniper rifle,” firing supercavitating two-stage projectiles.

But because the Diver and its pilot could hardly “see” to the full range of this weapon, it would be up to Shalikova or the rest of the team to paint digital targets for the Strelkannon to fire upon. They had all been equipped with laser effectors on their Diver’s gauntlets for this purpose. They could also use these to help guide the torpedoes she would be firing. Their entire gambit was based around supporting this one platform. Murati might’ve balked at having such a stark failure point.

Murati was not here, however.

Shalikova was doing her best with the weapons and tactics she knew. This kind of thing was bread and butter for pilots, but the Academy must’ve taught it to her because it was effective.

Right? She wished the little nagging voice in her head was more supportive.

She raised a thumbs up to Rybolovskaya, who nodded and descended into her cockpit.

Shalikova then started to climb into her own.

Murati’s Cheka was quite an imposing monument in the hangar, at least for Shalikova’s eyes. Climbing onto its dark painted body, subsuming herself in that sleek, modern hull, it put into stark relief that she was being asked to take on far more responsibility than she ever had. For years she had been piloting Streloks as a cadet and then as arguably a professional. This design bore resemblances to the mecha she had been piloting all of this time, but it represented the turning of an era also. This machine, if the Union survived long enough, would probably supplant all of the machines Shalikova piloted.

Just as she, and Murati, and all of them, were being asked to follow in the footsteps of the previous generation of the Union’s warriors and ultimately supersede them. Khadija was among the Brigand’s pilots, sure, but other than her, Shalikova felt, for maybe the first time, the absence of veterans, of the old revolutionaries, and the placing of weight on her slender shoulders alone. When Murati could not lead them, she had been chosen instead. A mere girl barely into her twenties.

ISU-100 Cheka. For the workers’ revolution!

Shalikova closed the cockpit and watched the Diver’s computer boot up.

A thousand generations reside in you.

That was the final part of the boot-up message before her cameras came online.

“You don’t have to keep reminding me.” She mumbled.

She took in a deep breath and let it out. She grabbed hold of her control sticks.

In the absence of that tenacious generation which brought liberty to the Nectaris Ocean, it would simply have to be her and her peers who continued the fight for freedom. There was no one else here that could protect the Brigand, and she would be damned if she let everything fall on poor Khadija, who had suffered so much, and Murati, who was always throwing herself in death’s way for them.

For Zasha’s sake too. She– she didn’t die for nothing.

“Big sis– the road we chose just keeps getting more treacherous, huh?”

Shalikova put a hand to her heart, and for the first time in a long time–

–remembered Zasha’s face, her words, her encouragement, without crying.

For her sake. Shalikova had to be soldier Zasha dreamed of being but could never become.

To protect the work of all of those generations who resided in her–

–and now, she who resided in Shalikova too.

Below her, the engineers released the Cheka from its gantry and unlocked the power plant.

She hefted up her rifle and stowed a folding sword and a grenade on her magnetic strip.

The voice that left her lips was stronger and firmer than she could’ve imagined.

ISU-100 Cheka, Sonya Shalikova! Deploying!”

When she dropped into the water, her hands were at the controls, her eyes on the cameras.

Her initial fear and trepidation left her as the ocean surrounded her hull.

“How is it looking out here?”

Beneath the ship, Khadija and Valya had been standing guard, moving just enough to keep up with the Brigand as it began to turn in on the Antenora’s flank from over a kilometer away. The Strelkannon dropped down with her, and Aiden’s Strelok along with Marina’s SEAL dropped shortly after. Shalikova synced the final up to date algorithmic prediction of the surroundings that she would get to her dive computer and cameras, getting a sense of the terrain beneath and the waters around them.

She noted the position of Zachikova’s drone near the ocean floor below, trailed closely by the Leviathan she had discovered. They would be connecting to the drone for laser communication and alternate sonar positioning, since the drone had a complete sonar kit and their Divers did not possess one.

“They’re starting to make a move.” Khadija said over the acoustic comms.

Shalikova adjusted herself to face the Antenora’s direction.

Advanced soundwave detection from the drone’s instruments passed to her computer, alerting her that there was indeed movement from underneath the Antenora, and the general direction of the movement. A tight formation was headed their way. All around her the ocean was murky, brown dust floating in near black waters, but she could trust the instruments to see where her eyes could never.

“Form up around the Strelkannon. I’ll take the lead– Marina and Aiden hold the rear!”

“Aye aye!” came the voices on the communicator.

Like a cluster of missiles hurtling out from beneath the ship, the Brigand’s divers charged out into the open water to intersect their counterparts. Positional data from the drone sent and received with a slight delay every few seconds, and at the speed they were moving they would find and confront the enemy group in forty or so seconds. Shalikova took the lead, Khadija and Valya beside her.

The Cheka was a dream to pilot, completely smooth, responsive, fast.

She must have had at least eight knots advantage on the Strelok.

I can do this–

“One of them is breaking off! I’m intercepting!”

Seconds later, Aiden suddenly swerved away from the formation.

“Aiden, what? Stop right now!”

Shalikova chastised him, then received the update from the drone.

One of the enemy mecha had torn away from their formation too.

It was clearly a trick! They didn’t know what kind of enemy it was!

“Don’t chase after it! Aiden! God damn it!”

“That little fucking worm! He’s going to get slaughtered!” Khadija cursed.

“Khadija, quiet and take the lead! I’ll go after him!”

Shalikova tore from the lead of the formation and charged to the flank as well.

There was no objection. She was the squad leader and they had their orders.

She was furious but she couldn’t let Aiden be killed no matter how foolish he was acting!

Once they got back she would punch him in his stupid nose, but for now she had to save him.

Aiden had quickly vanished into the marine fog, but Shalikova could catch up. The Cheka was faster than his Strelok. She could still create an opportunity if she could take out the enemy’s flanker with Aiden and then turn this stunt into their own flanking attack. In mere seconds the battle would be joined by the main group, so as she hurtled into the open ocean at their left flank, Shalikova kept the time in her head and prepared her weapons, knowing that she would soon catch a glimpse of the enemy–

“AHH–!”

A guttural, horrified scream from Aiden sounded through the communicator.

Outlines came into view through the biomass and the dark waters lit only by floodlights.

It happened in an instant–

Horns, a great dark body like a demon, claws, and shimmering, evil red eyes.

Aiden’s assault rifle floated down toward the seafloor with the Strelok’s hand attached.

Firing into nothingness as the hand was severed before he could attack.

He swung his sword at the demon but its glowing claw seized his entire arm.

When he screamed Shalikova could hear the wailing alert sounds from inside his cockpit.

His arm tore off along with the water intakes adjacent to the joint, causing his hydrojets to seize up, and the demon let the mass of his machine float uselessly away as if it was done playing with the carcass. Its horns glowed with a rainbow gradient that trailed across the body like faint outlines of the veins beneath skin. Shalikova saw dark armor and a snout-like head, felt the palpable heft of its body–

No, not its body. Not anything physical. Those waves were coming from the pilot.

Around her was a mass of red and black color with a spreading band of purple.

Furious killing intent and a sense of warrior’s pride.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide and her breathing caught. She raised her assault rifle.

She could hear a laugh– a girl’s uproarious laughter at her own superiority.

Her eyes, even through the water and the machines, she thought she could see–

–a girl like her? Long-haired, golden-eyed, in a pilot’s bodysuit, too young–

Oh? What’s this? Another helpless rat took a wrong turn in the maze?

Shalikova blinked, and the machine turned and charged as if propelled by billowing cloak of water.

In the next instant, the clawed metal horror descended on her quicker than its bulk suggested.

She reacted with alacrity, drawing back, avoiding the first attack of the enormous, vibrating, superheated claws. Opening the vortex of destruction which inexorably drew the currents of these generational peers. Out of every possible enemy released from the bowels of the Fueller flagship’s collection of monsters, Shalikova had now come face to face with a terror that shook the deeps with its alien power.

The Antenora’s Jagdkaiser Type I fixed its eyes and those of Selene Anahid on Shalikova’s own.


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