“Victoria, what are you talking about?”
Elena hardly knew what to say, think or do.
Amid the trees of Vogelheim, suddenly the falsest element of her landscape had become the face of her cat-eared childhood friend, reappearing after years of absence. What did she mean it wasn’t safe for her? How could she possibly know anything after all this time? And it was absurd to think Elena would simply go with her. To where?
Was she plotting to take her back to the Duchy of Veka?
Furthermore, that surname, van Veka. It made Elena fear for what may have happened to Victoria. She had heard a lot of things about the eccentricity of Duchess von Veka, ruler of her family’s ancestral holding, the Duchy of Veka. To the heartland Imbrians of Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the Palatinate, the land of Veka was a wild frontier, and its aristocracy were often viewed as exotic foreigners in the court. Elena fell to such prejudices: she easily believed the stories of Veka as a wild, rapacious witch. What if Victoria had been abducted? What if she was being coerced into doing this?
“You weren’t at my party last night because Gertrude would have objected to all of this.”
Victoria sighed openly at Elena’s response, as if it were the dumbest thing in the world.
She lifted a hand to Elena, but it was not in offering.
Instead, she closed her fingers as if she were trying to squeeze Elena’s head from afar.
Her eyes glowed red, with bright rings around the pupils. Normally– they were blue.
Was this all a delusion? Was Elena truly seeing such a thing transpire?
Elena felt a breeze blow by the two of them.
This was not a dream. It was really happening.
She was taken aback. She thought she felt something brush her shoulder.
What was Victoria doing?
Elena could almost see it.
A projection, a dim, translucent aura, scarcely real–
Victoria lowered her hand. She looked, for the first time, to be worried.
“You resisted it? But you came here, so you answered my suggestion.”
“Your suggestion? What are you talking about?”
Elena remembered something then. Her dream.
She had dreamt of Victoria’s parting.
Back then, had Victoria really said they would meet again?
Had that part happened?
She wracked her memory. Suddenly, she could not remember the specifics.
But it was insane to think that Victoria had made herself appear in her dreams.
What was Victoria doing?!
“Victoria, I need you to talk like a person right now, or I’m calling for help.”
She wanted to believe that Victoria was merely confused.
Her friend had always been bad at speaking. In school she used to be shy and reserved. Others would call her cold and attribute this to her being a Shimii. But Elena had seen her when she opened up. Victoria could be kind and expressive in her own way. Elena hoped she could appeal to this better nature. Maybe even help Victoria out of whatever trouble she was in.
She extended her hand.
Victoria, blue-eyed again, briefly flinched as if she expected to be struck from meters away.
But Elena simply wanted to reach out a hand for her friend to hold.
“I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in, but I can help you.”
Elena intended her words to carry her conviction, her sympathy.
Victoria, however, just seemed annoyed with her.
Her tail dipped low and started flicking.
“I’m here to help you. There’s nothing you can do, Elena. That’s the problem.”
Her words carried no venom. They were blunt and matter of fact, like when she was a child.
“Of course I can help you! I’m the Imperial princess!” Elena said.
Even she, however, no longer believed that mattered. And Victoria certainly didn’t.
“Times are changing.” Victoria said. “A lot has changed already, as a matter of fact.”
“Victoria, this is frustrating. You’ve always been difficult to talk to, but you’re so cryptic I can’t even understand you. Just come to the Villa and have tea with me.” Elena said, pleading.
Victoria shook her head. “I don’t require accommodations. As it is, I’m not far enough ahead of Sawyer. Look, I’m anxious too Elena! I don’t want to force you to do anything, but I will have to if you don’t make up your own mind to come with me. Gertrude will not make it back in time. Nobody is here to rescue you except this one right here. So come with me, now.”
Something in Elena’s head simply snapped the wrong way at that time.
To the princess, everything Victoria was saying was nonsense. It was sudden, it was insane, and it simply did not fit with anything Elena knew. She was not in danger. Vogelheim could not be in danger. Vogelheim was her sacred home; her brother’s home for her. Her brother had always protected her, and her brother was the strongest man in the Empire, the most respected. Nobody could target Vogelheim. Nobody would even try.
They all understood how impossible that was.
So Elena’s logic threw everything Victoria was saying right out.
She quieted a tiny screaming voice that was telling her to run, to hide, to do anything.
Instead, Elena smiled charmingly, tipped her head, put her hands behind her back.
“I know what’s up.” She said in a funny little voice. “Vicky, you still have a crush on me.”
Victoria, for a moment, put on an expression like she couldn’t believe she heard that.
Elena, however, continued to pile on what she viewed as friendly, teasing charm.
She really, for a moment, thought she had everything figured out.
That she had seen through a mild deception, and everything around her was still normal.
“You and Gertrude fought over me back in school. I kind of– I kind of realized that, but I didn’t want to believe it. You know, for a while, I had a crush on Sawyer; but Gertrude was always there for me, and I came to treasure her most. Vicky, I still love you as a friend. You don’t need to do any kind of stunts to try to get my attention. You must have gone through a lot of effort to become titled, but Gertrude isn’t, and I still hold her as my most precious person, so–”
“Elena, you’re being absolutely, frustratingly ridiculous.”
Victoria swept her hand.
At Elena’s side, the ground burst up into the air, as if something had struck.
As if a massive force had struck–
Something strong enough to make a watermelon-sized dent in the ground.
Elena screeched and drew back from the hole.
She nearly fell backwards in shock. Barely able to stay standing.
Victoria’s eyes had those red rings again.
Red glowing rings around her eyes.
Was Victoria doing this?
What was– Victoria– WHAT WAS VICTORIA DOING?
“You can resist telepathy, but I can just knock you out and take you away.”
Victoria mumbled that almost as if to herself.
Her eyes then returned to their normal blue.
“I got over my infatuation with you. I am not here for that! I am here as your friend because I don’t want to see you killed by the Volkisch, which is what will happen soon Elena!” Victoria was screaming. Elena’s mind was a blur. What was Victoria screaming about? None of what she said made sense. It was almost like Elena was hearing it through a filter. Was she going insane? Victoria saw Elena’s blank eyes and fearful, broken expression, and moderated her tone. “Elena. In all of her graciousness and wisdom, my beloved mistress, the Grand Duchess Carmilla von Veka, signed off on my mission and gave me the resources to come take you to the east. She’s very powerful, Elena; she will keep you safe even if things continue to worsen.”
Elena was not ready to hear that impassioned declaration.
“What do you think is going to happen?” Elena said. She was stammering.
“You know what Sawyer was like! She’s even more dangerous now, Elena!”
It was unimaginable to Elena that not one, but two of her lost childhood friends could possibly return on the same day, with grand pronunciations about their newfound powers. It was so sudden that it simply felt impossible, fake, delusional. Elena would have been assured that she was dreaming, but when Victoria rent the earth next to her, a tiny peddle made a tiny cut on her legs. That cut itched, stung. It itched bad enough that it continued to drag Elena back to her flesh. She was not in a dream.
She was sweating, her head felt airy, her vision was clouded with tears.
Her entire world felt like it was collapsing right on top of her.
“Victoria, you said Sawyer right? Sawyer is coming? Why? Why does she–”
“She thinks Erich is here! Elena, please come with me. We’re out of time.”
“Gertrude will come back– I have to be here for Gertrude to–”
Elena’s mind twisted and wrenched in an entirely different direction.
“She will not make it in time.”
Victoria’s eyes turned red again.
Something grabbed hold of Elena.
She felt a strong, invisible power gripping her, pulling her forward.
Toward Victoria; she squealed and resisted and was barely able to remain standing in place.
It was like the force trying to drag her had an arm that Elena could somehow outmuscle.
Frustrated again, Victoria cried out, “How are you this gifted, and still so powerless?”
Elena finally fell to the ground. Unable to resist, or escape, but Victoria could not pull her.
She started to weep openly, to cry and to scream where she sat.
She was powerless! She could neither understand, deflect nor resist what Victoria told her.
All of Elena’s static little world had made so much sense.
It was the only form of control that she had. Understanding the falsity all around her.
Everything was happening too suddenly, too urgently. Sawyer; Victoria–
“Victoria, I can’t leave here. Gertrude is waiting for me here. Please just leave, Victoria.”
Elena managed to say this between panicked little sobs.
“I can’t leave here. Bethany is here. This is my home, Victoria. It’s safe here, it really is.”
Victoria started to walk toward her. Her eyes were blue again. No red rings.
“Elena you’ve always known this was a cage but you keep choosing to stay here! All of this was built to delude ourselves of what our world is, and now you can’t leave when you need to! But it’s not safe! Six meters beneath this soft bed of earth there is just metal. Maintenance passages for the climate control and water systems, cargo elevators for the port and warehousing, secret passages for your security detail. This place is not impregnable. I snuck in here and I can take you with me in the same way. Sawyer cares even less about this place than me. Sawyer will shoot her way in, Elena!”
She finally reached where Elena was sitting, and physically grabbed her arm.
“Come with me, now.”
“That’s no way to talk to a lady.”
From Victoria’s side came a rushing figure.
Fast enough it took Elena by surprise.
She delivered a kick right to Victoria’s gut and sent her staggering back to the ground.
Then she placed herself in front of Elena with an arm outstretched.
“Thanks for the intel. If this place is unsafe, I will be the one evacuating her highness.”
At first, Elena had a crazy thought that it was Bethany who rescued her.
But nothing matched. Her defender was taller, with a head of black hair, partially in a haphazard bun, bangs partially over one eye. Messy. She was wearing a suit, it seemed. Pants, a sportcoat or a blazer, and a grey bodysuit that was translucent in the front. When she turned briefly toward Elena, her shirt and coat and suit exposed enough of her to see a scar on her chest.
“Marina McKennedy, G.I.A. Princess, I know this will sound crazy, but I’m on your side.”
She cracked a confident smile and drew a pistol on Victoria.
Victoria slowly drew herself up, and wiped dust from her dress.
She was winded, but those red-ringed eyes turned on Marina with the fullness of her malice.
“That’s a cute look.” Marina said. “But you don’t scare me. I’ve fought 2-meter tall Pelagis who could snap my spine in half before.”
“You have no idea. Get out of my way, republican.” Victoria said.
Marine laughed. “I got here in time to catch the gist of the conversation. Let the adults handle it, little girl. If you want to keep Elena safe, all you have to do is leave her to me. But you’re not just here out of altruism, so stop pretending you have Elena’s best interests in mind.”
Elena was so speechless.
She wanted to warn Marina that Victoria had some dangerous power that Marina was likely unaware of, and had not seen, if she arrived at the events unfolding too late. But her entire body refused to move, and her tongue was as trapped in her mouth as all of them were in Vogelheim. She was unable to say anything. All she could do was weep helplessly.
Then, Victoria’s eyes flashed their deadly red again.
Lieutenant Ionu Patrosku sat on the bridge of his Cutter with great trepidation.
He was shaking but could not let anyone know. He was sure he would not get out alive.
He was in command of a Cutter. A Cutter was all a Lieutenant could command.
Cutters were torturously cramped. His command seat was only slightly raised above the gunner, helmsman and torpedo man. All communications and sonar went through his first officer on an adjacent seat. They sat as if in adjacent rows in a cramped little movie theater, but with the roof barely a meter overhead, and the screens not much farther out. It was maddening.
It was a cage. He was going to die screaming in this cage.
These were brand new model cutters too. There was no excuse. Whoever designed these ships simply wanted them to be this way. Armed with one gas gun, one 75mm light coilgun, and one torpedo tube. Barely 60 meters long in total, most of it taken up by the reactor, engines, control surfaces and weapons, carrying no amenities. They were staring down the barrel of an absolutely massive Cruiser and its 150mm heavy coilguns and all their conviction to fight was leaving them.
And yet, the strength of the merciless training they received, was such that they remained rooted in place, knowing they could not hope to win and yet could not run. It was their sacred duty to defend the Palatinate, the holiest of the Empire’s domains. Vogelheim was a backwater, and what this Sawyer character was saying was absolutely insane, but they had to stand their ground.
Patrosku, however, knew differently than most how sacred their duty was.
The Lieutenant was one of the men directly in charge of Vogelheim’s security.
He knew it was the home of Elena von Fueller.
He had been specifically tasked by Erich von Fueller with his sister’s naval defense.
Patrosku knew, more than anyone, that Erich von Fueller was not present to be arrested by these extremist nationalists. And he also knew why they might have such a suspicion. He was not a stupid man. He was putting together the details of what might be happening with Vogelheim.
And he could do nothing anyway. He could only stand his ground in defense.
Even besides the great authority such a man commanded, Patrosku knew firsthand how terrifying the wrath of Erich von Fueller was, and how far it could reach. He almost felt that the Prince would make sure he suffered in hell for failing him, so even if he died, Patrosku could not run from what was expected of him. He might even go after Patrosku’s family and friends.
His compatriots had trusted him to open communications with the Volkisch.
So he stared down their commander on his screen.
He had no choice but to appear strong.
“Heidelinde Sawyer, if you are keen on a peaceful solution then turn your fleet around.” Patrosku replied, to the brown-haired woman on the screen with fiery eyes and words. “Erich von Fueller does not reside in this station. Starting a battle here will get you no closer to him.”
“Of course you are covering for the traitor. You think my conviction is this weak?”
Patrosku braced himself for her to fire. Thankfully, the Cruiser made no moves.
Was she just giving him a chance to respond?
“We are all proud citizens of the Empire. None of us want to fight you or any of our brothers and sisters here.” He said. He thought he had tapped into a font of eloquence and felt confident. “Soon our leaders will convene. Let them render justice and trust their decisions!”
The Volkisch leader, Sawyer, looked thoroughly unamused with his answer.
“Let them render justice? You suggest we allow the tyrant Fueller to convene with the foreigner harlot Veka and all those who have made a mockery of Imbria, and parcel out our homes among themselves, to continue to exploit us and guide us down into ruin? You and I are not both proud citizens! We are the Volkisch of Rhinea, and we will make our own destinies. You can join us, or you stand against us. We have been preparing to fight, and now we are here to do so.”
At that moment, through sound-wave detection, laser imaging and other predictive methods, the computers aboard Patrosku’s Cutter began to yell about some kind of movement coming from the missile frigates. They were beyond visual range, but he did not need to be a genius to know what was happening: the hatches were opening, which meant the missiles were primed.
Sawyer cut off her laser communications abruptly. Every computer sounded alerts.
There was no avoiding it. Hesitating further would mean certain death.
“All ships to combat speed! Target the frigates first, move to isolate the Cruiser!”
Patrosku called out, and the Cutters advanced on the enemy fleet.
Single-barreled light coilguns sought targets and began to fire. Light torpedoes leaped from the tubes at the front of each cutter. Because there were twenty cutters, they managed to whip up a brilliant fusillade for their side, and hundreds of rounds hurtled across the Vogelheim plains toward the enemy. The double-barreled 20mm gas gun turret on each Cutter readied to intercept incoming enemy missiles from the Frigates.
Battle had finally been joined for Vogelheim.
Accelerating, the Cutters sliced the distance to the enemy flotilla.
Before them, the Cruiser stood unflinching as dozens of rounds shot past its flanks.
On the top deck, the main gun rose and adjusted its barrels.
One pair of 150mm coilgun rounds loosed from the gun and punched through the water.
In an instant, one of Patrosku’s allied cutters had its prow disappear in a vapor bubble.
Between the massive forward damage and the shock of the impact, all of the stricken Cutter’s electronics would have failed and it is unlikely the crew inside could survive. As the Cutters advanced, their downed ally descended miserably, trailing bubbles and bits of debris.
“Keep moving! Once we’re on top of it, it will have to surrender!”
Mobbing was the only tactic they could count on against that ship, with their light weapons.
The Cutters advanced in a snaking envelopment, like nineteen fingers trying to wrap around the enemy fleet from all directions. Each individual ship kept enough distance from each other so that no one enemy weapon could destroy multiple ships. They stayed in enough of an orbit to maintain laser communication and coordinate their attacks, while having room to maneuver.
Meanwhile the enemy frigates responded quickly with their own barrage, peppering the Cutters with light coilgun and gas gun fire. Deadly vapor bubbles erupted around the Cutters, signifying the explosions of ordnance. Even being grazed by such a blast would put incredible stress on the hull and could compound into internal damage, and even cause slow breaches.
Vogelheim’s plain took on the eerie characteristic of underwater war.
A storm of vapor bubbles and lines of displaced water formed by explosive ordnance and supercavitating munitions stirred between the opposing sides as they advanced toward each other. Due to the dimness of the ocean, it would have been impossible to see the spectacle of it from afar, but their computers could see the ocean whipped into a frenzy amid all the barrages.
Even with this horrifying chaos before them, the patrol fleet did not slow their charge.
Taking a haphazard trajectory, the speedy little ships made themselves hard to hit, a quality that only they possessed in this engagement. Cutters’ only defense was being able to move around larger ships like the insects that they were. As they advanced they pummeled the enemy with a rhythmic barrage from their little guns. One round, a swift cooldown and drain of the gun housing, a second round; the Cutters sent over a dozen rounds flying at the enemy every minute.
While the Cruiser was cooling down, the Cutters cut the distance, to 500 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters, swerving and rising and making looping trails of bubbles in the water as they avoided enemy gunfire. Then the Cruiser’s heavy coilgun emplacement was once again ready to fire. Two massive rounds erupted from the barrels; two cavitation lines linked the gun to a cutter.
Upon striking their targets, or even flying near them, the supercavitating rounds detonated.
Underwater, kinetic energy was constantly lost. Even supercavitation designs had limits.
Explosive force, however, was magnified through the medium of the ocean water.
So even the kinetic rounds were rigged with explosives and made to blow.
For a Cutter to suffer two direct hits and the two explosions that followed was unlucky.
Nothing was left of the ship but piles of bubbling slag, sheared beyond recognition.
All of this gunfire, death and mayhem had transpired in mere minutes.
Patrosku barely registered the loss from his command pod. He was gritting his teeth.
On the edges of the Volkisch formation, one of the gun frigates altered its elevation.
“Any ships that can spare a torpedo, hit that Frigate! It moved out of place!”
At his side, a pair of his allied Cutters were able to heed his command.
Two light torpedoes burst from their tubes and soared ahead of the fleet.
Guided by the torpedo gunners in each respective ship, the projectiles snaked through enemy gunfire and exploited a hole in the enemy’s interception fire that had opened when that one Frigate moved suddenly out of formation. In so doing, it had blocked a nearby Frigate’s vital covering fire from its top deck gas guns, and exposed the entire left flank of the Volkisch flotilla.
Both torpedoes swooped past the Cruiser and dove into the sides of the raised Frigate.
Two impacts blossomed into vapor bubbles that rent massive holes in the metal.
More and more plates began to peel from the Frigate’s side due to the sheer pressure.
An entire compartment disgorged crates and equipment and mangled bodies into the ocean.
It was as if the torpedo was a hand reaching into the Frigate’s gut, pulling out the viscera.
There was no more gunfire from that Frigate. It began to list, its engine firing off haphazardly and sending it on a terminal dive into the ocean floor. Around it, the Volkisch flotilla adjusted their positions quickly to avoid the stricken ship. And yet, an opportunity to rout them did not appear. Gas gun fire intensified, and the Volkisch returned to a disciplined formation.
Once more, the Cruiser at the head opened fire.
This time, the shells flew past their intended targets.
Not too far past.
Detonating right behind one of the Cutters, the vapor bubble grazed an engine.
Patrosku felt his own Cutter shake, and for an instant thought himself dead.
Such was the sheer explosive power of both shells detonating so close by.
He survived; the Cutter on his direct right lost its engines and became a sitting duck.
It was not long before the Gun-Frigates noticed.
Relentless gunfire tore the stranded Cutter apart where it stood motionless.
Patrosku thought claiming that Frigate kill would have given them momentum.
In truth, the situation remained the same. And it was about to worsen.
Within 200 meters, or two or three ship lengths of the enemy, the Cutters began to put themselves into position to sweep through the enemy formation, and come out behind them, around their flanks, and above them, ultimately enveloping the enemy. At this range, their instruments gave them a form of visibility using predictive imaging. Though they could not “see” physically farther than maybe 75 meters, their computers created a picture from other forms of sensory data.
As such, when Patrosku “saw” what was about to happen next, it was all on the computer.
And for an instant, he disbelieved it. Predictions were not flawless, and what separated a seasoned veteran of undersea warfare from a rookie was not relying on instruments but using them as a tool. So Patrosku trusted his gut that what was happening ahead of him was impossible.
He was wrong, and the computer was right, and he discovered this very quickly.
Objects began to appear as emerging from the hatches on the missile frigates.
Though the computers identified these as Volker class Divers, Patrosku felt it had to be a glitch. Volkers rising out of missile launch bays was ridiculous.
Would Volkers even fit inside them?
Obviously, those were the missiles. Missile Frigates carried slim, fast torpedoes powered by rockets that launched overhead and then arced down. They were not guided by wire, but they were fast and disruptive and provoked an answer whenever they were fired.
So Patrosku answered.
“We need a curtain of fire to intercept those missiles! Now!”
“Sir, those are Divers, the computer is saying–”
“I know what it’s saying! Curtain fire, now!”
The Cutters responded to the predicted incoming missiles — until a squadron of five Volkers swam into their formation.
Just as a Cutter was lighter and faster than any other ship, a Diver was lighter and faster than a Cutter. Dashing through the water with a grace seemingly mismatched with their rounded chassis, the Volkers suddenly skirted the rapid-fire gas guns on the Cutters and brought to bear their 37mm Sturmgewehr assault rifles at shockingly close range.
Disciplined, three-round bursts from the assault rifles punched holes the size of a fist into the armor of several of the Cutters. Alarms sounded, and exposed compartments were locked quickly, with the Cutters’ automated self-repair deploying emergency sealants to close the gaps and bind the armor together enough to resist pressure again. But Cutters were so small that these disruptions ended up disabling several systems and rendering the limping ships unable to fight.
Suddenly, the battle was hopeless again as the patrol fleet fell into complete disarray.
To think, the Volkisch contrived such a way to deploy Divers!
Patrosku watched in terror as amid the barrage from the Flotilla, several Volkers charged right past the patrol fleet and headed straight for Vogelheim. His computer calculated at least fifteen Divers deployed, maybe twenty. There was no hope of stopping them anymore.
Sturmbannführer Hiedelinde Sawyer stood on a raised platform in the middle of the bridge of the battlecruiser Greater Imbria, arms crossed, her chair empty right behind her. They had lost the Venable and who knew how many souls aboard, but the Volkisch were not deterred so easily by loss.
Once the battle was won they could mount a rescue operation.
Sawyer was confident in her plan. And she knew the leadership was behind her. Lehner had personally given his approval for her mission.
Greater Imbria and its crew, as well as the two missile frigates Gladius and Spartan, had professional staff who had been turned to the side of the national proletariat by agents of the “Volkisch Movement For The National Awakening.” They had essentially defected from the Imperial Navy to join the Volkisch. But the gun Frigates were staffed by militia and the vessels were fresh out of Rhineland Shipyards.
Sawyer knew who she could and could not rely upon.
“Order the Divers to attack! I want a squadron to defend us, another to secure the station exterior and two squadrons to enter the station. All groups be careful when firing your weapons!”
As she said this, one of the gun frigates discharged a volley of 75 mm coilgun rounds that flew straight through the enemy Cutters and past.
It was impossible to tell whether damage had been done to the station, but Sawyer grit her teeth. Telling them to stop firing was not an option, but the undisciplined gunners might do more harm than good.
She had to get a hold of the situation.
“Tell the Frigates to mind their guns! We can’t damage the station!”
“We should moderate our own fire as well.”
Her yelling attracted the attention of the First Officer, returning from doing rounds around the ship to inspect the combat stations. She put on a little grin as she arrived. Sawyer glanced over to her when the door opened and then turned back around to continue following the battle on the monitors. She hopped up onto the island in the middle of the bridge and patted Sawyer on the shoulder. “We’ve taken minor damage, mostly to the armor.”
“I knew I could count on you to move fast, but even I’m impressed.”
Sawyer had sent her to check the hangar and weapons when the battle started.
For her to have returned in a few minutes was extraordinary considering the ship’s size.
“I didn’t have to go too far. I have these, remember?”
Sawyer barely looked at her while she spoke, but that remark prompted her to glance at her first officer. Holding the rank of Untersturmführer in the Volkisch, her name was Rue Skalbeck. She was a fit young woman, blond hair decorated with red highlights, wearing a pristine, all-black uniform much like Sawyer’s. She was neither as tall, nor as strong as Sawyer but the closest physical match to her on the ship. Her most distinctive feature, however, were the cybernetics on her body, a pair of black antennae the width and length of a finger along the sides of her head.
Those implants helped correct deformities in her brain, and allowed her to interface easily with machines, as well as perform some often-forgotten tasks of electronic warfare that were usually delegated to algorithms and subroutines of the computers automatically. There were some strains of Volkisch ideology that balked at people such as Rue being allowed to serve, or even to live; but for Sawyer, military power and potential was everything, and Rue was strong enough. It was the fact that she would kill for the National Proletariat that made her a peer member of it.
Her relationship with Rue exemplified the essence of the Volkisch modus.
It was the barest simplicity in the world. There were those who deserved, or indeed, who had to be killed, and those who would kill them, for the volk to survive. Other fringe theories aside, it was this strand of thought that unified the Volkisch. At the present, they agreed on who had to be killed to protect the future of the National Proletariat, and its core in Rhinea.
Sawyer would end Erich von Fueller’s reign here.
And perhaps commence her own.
One step at a time; dialing back from that bloodthirsty series of thoughts, Sawyer merely smiled. “Sometimes I forget that you have those bits.” She said, looking Rue in the eyes.
“That’s kind of you. I knew you were sweet for me.”
Rue put on an antagonistically cheerful expression, full of mockery.
Sawyer stopped looking at her at that point.
Before joining the Volkisch Movement, Rue outranked her in the Imperial Navy.
Within the Volkisch she was the equivalent of a Leutnant due to her “physical deformity.”
Not that you could tell that cheerful, pretty girl was “deformed” without a lot of ideology.
“Did you beam the instructions over to the entry team?” She asked.
“Taken care of a long time ago. The Entry Team is already past the enemy fleet.”
“Good. Do you think those blueprints were authentic?”
“You’ve asked me this three times.”
“Answer a fourth time then, Untersturmführer.”
Rue rolled her eyes. She could do this precisely because of Sawyer’s constant tough girl act. She really wasn’t even looking at Rue and couldn’t have seen her expressions behind her.
“Yes, I fully believe in their integrity. I know you’d punch me in the face if I did things half-assed, so of course I wouldn’t show you any bullshit. As soon as I scraped the contents of the leaks off the network, I compared similar station diagrams which are public. Vogelheim is just another NewType-Castle Mod. IV station. Since the similarities are so exact, the differences must be the real deal, or else, structurally, the diagram wouldn’t make any sense in comparison.”
“I’m counting on you.” Sawyer said.
“Yes, I’m the degenerate, subhuman brain to your ubermenschen brawn.”
“Oh, shut up. You chose to be here.”
“I do it all for you, my love.”
Rue blew a kiss behind her back, but Sawyer didn’t see it.
In the stations around them, the men and women looked briefly concerned.
But it was far, far above their station to say anything.
Sawyer sighed openly but gave no response to the love-comedy Rue was putting on.
Rue took notice and sighed herself. She then changed the subject.
“At any rate, you’re overlooking the piece of information that can’t be corroborated.”
“The presence of Erich von Fueller, you mean?” Sawyer said. Rue smiled.
“According to the leaks, Vogelheim has been the home slash prison of Elena von Fueller for the past several years. She could be anywhere, so it doesn’t really matter, but Erich von Fueller’s visit coinciding with her birthday is time sensitive. For all we know, he came and went already, or he never came at all. That’s information that we are basically just gambling on.”
Sawyer hadn’t really thought of that name in a long time.
Elena von Fueller.
She remembered that bitchy elf girl from Luxembourg who drew together a band of other weirdos who fit in nowhere else. Self-absorbed, and stubborn, and sickeningly kind, never wanting to see the faults in others. And yet, she was not popular at the school. Nobody else wanted to deal with her and her baggage; everyone else was terrified of her. So she had no one in the world, but Sawyer; and her other two “friends,” Victoria and Gertrude.
Gertrude: that bitch never saw eye to eye with her.
Another nasty name to remember.
Sawyer almost felt a grim satisfaction at being able to potentially snatch something from Gertrude.
Elena was useless in and of herself but could be an asset with the nobles.
Rue shrugged, continuing to speak. “So really, this could all just be tragically pointless.”
“It’s not pointless.”
Sawyer replied brusquely. Rue took note of her tone and checked herself.
“Someone had to make the first move. We’re making an example. We can attack deep into the Palatinate’s territory. Those useless aristocrats will have to take us seriously after today and come to terms with our uprising. We will make them see that nobody can protect them anymore.”
Rue grinned at her.
“Will you break the taboo then? Take down the whole station as a show of force?”
“Of course not.”
Sawyer snapped back. Something like that was unthinkable.
Living space in the Imbrium was precious. Destroying a station was an unholy act.
For Rue to even consider it showed her utter morbidity of character.
But also why Sawyer treasured her as a companion.
Rue, ultimately, was her kind of crazy.
“We’re going to claim this station, minimize damage–”
“Then we should restrain our violence. Sawyer, the main gun–”
At that point both of them were interrupted. Both by a shouting voice and a screen.
“Heavy coilgun ready to fire again, Sturmbannführer!” shouted a gunnery officer.
“What are you waiting for then? Fire at will! Destroy those patrol cutters!”
Before Rue could explain herself further, the main operations screen displayed a prow-facing camera that briefly showed high-definition footage of the main gun firing. Two projectiles launched carving neat, symmetrical lines into the water around them. Quickly the screen switched from the camera view to a broader view which was not possible underwater with cameras: it was an algorithmic reconstruction of the battlefield, rendered to enable them to “see” the battle.
Water was displayed as a pale blue filter over a world of floating objects, and these objects were outlined within so that they were crisp and easy to perceive out to several hundred meters — if only real water was anything like that! In areas where an explosion had gone off the water was darkened or reddened, using sensor data to show the intensity of the explosion or how recently the water was disturbed in the wake of a fading blast. It was like watching the world through the eyes of a God with mastery over the ocean. Like seeing through air instead of water. Hundreds of lines split the water, representing the trajectories of the shells being exchanged. Divers rushing to destroy enemy ships at close range and enemy ships fighting them were all marked for the viewer.
They could see the terrifying fusillade raging between their fleets in all of its glory. On camera, only the closest explosions registered. You could die before you ever saw what killed you. You might see the projectile a split second before it smashes into the deck. Sawyer and Rue were both used to staring at these screens, and so was anyone who was a veteran of aquatic combat.
“Sawyer, the main gun sensor alignment is off! The computer isn’t calculating properly!” Rue finally said.
“What? How did it–?”
On the algorithmic display, the digital “camera” that was once placed so as to mimic a real camera watching the ocean from the prow of the ship, pulled out into an “overhead” view that was impossible with any cameras they had deployed. This view showed the topography, predicted trajectories of enemy and allied ships, divers, and of course, all of the ordnance travelling between.
Both the rounds fired from the main gun appeared quickly on this view.
An alert then sounded. Something had misaligned. A shot had “missed.”
One round carved into the side of an enemy Cutter and split the ship in half.
A red bubble was placed around the second round to alert Sawyer of the problem.
That second 150mm round was predicted to fly past the enemy to strike Vogelheim.
According to the computer it would climb and detonate on the station pillar’s outer layer.
A breach was predicted: sizable enough that it would need a containment response.
There would be no response. Wireless communication was short distance underwater. They could not contact their entry teams to tell them. And the entry teams would be fighting the guards and engineers at Vogelheim, preventing them from responding. It would be a disaster.
At the speeds that they were dealing with, by the time Sawyer and Rue fully viewed the alert on the screen, if the prediction was correct, the munition had already hit Vogelheim. Every second precipitated calamity.
And this time, it was not something that they could see or confirm unless they charged ahead. Until they had an entry team tapped into Vogelheim, they could not contact them in any way. All of this had happened without them seeing with no time to respond.
Silence fell upon the bridge for a moment.
Everyone felt the vibrations of an intercepted torpedo, transferring through the floor. It was that silent, silent enough that all the things their loud lives hid from them were suddenly laid bare. There were explosions going off all around them. When they were engaged in work it was easy to forget the sheer hostility that was outside the ship. And yet, now, they were all transfixed. Nobody said a word, and everyone raised their heads from their personal screens to stare at the alerts.
In that moment they had destroyed a station. It was starting to dawn on them.
“Rue, connect us to the Socrates!” Sawyer said suddenly. Socrates was their engineering ship, which had been working on battlefield communications. “If they’ve got the groundline ready, you can tap into the station network and contact the entry team! Get creative, use whatever you can! We have to tell them to check for a breach. Emergency sealant can slow it down!”
Sawyer was gripped in a passion, her eyes fiery, her words loud — but trembling.
Rue could not muster such passion. Almost bleary-eyed, she saluted.
It was an eerie, surreal feeling. To have destroyed a little world without even seeing it.
That was the nature of war under the ocean.
What did it mean when Victoria’s eyes turned red?
Elena could not figure it out.
“I’m not in the business of shooting at girls. I’d like to think of myself as a friend to all girls. So, since you care so much about Elena, just turn around and go. She’ll be safe.”
Marina continued to taunt her.
Elena wished she knew what to do to set things right.
For a moment, there was tense silence between them. Marina had her gun out but wasn’t shooting. Victoria had fully stood up from the ground but was not moving. They were sizing each other up. Marina had obviously discarded any possibility that Victoria could be a threat to anyone but the weak and panicking princess on the ground behind her. She had no weapons to threaten Marina with, while Marina had a pistol.
Victoria was clearly clever; but was she outmatched?
Then Victoria lifted her hand to Marina, who was puzzled by the reaction.
“Stop right now. I’ll shoot your fucking knee. No ballroom dancing for you anymore. I said stop it–!”
Victoria made a pulling motion with her hands, her eyes glowing bright red.
“What the–? I’m not joking you little twerp, I’ll shoot–”
Before Marina could get out another threat, the floor suddenly slipped out from under her.
Something had struck at her feet and shifted the dirt she was standing on.
Marina fell over backwards, almost on top of Elena, who scampered away in shock.
Her gun remained in her hands.
As she hit the ground she raised the weapon.
Then her finger stopped right inside the trigger guard, unable to press down.
Her hand tensed and shook. From a seated position, she had the gun trained on Victoria.
Her hand wouldn’t fire. And it was not her own trepidation.
It was if something was holding her trigger finger.
Victoria twisted her hand in mid-air.
Marina’s whole body tensed up. Her jaw clenched. She choked out words.
“Stop– Stop touching me– Stop–”
In that instant, Elena was suddenly bombarded with sensation.
She understood what Marina was feeling.
She could almost hear what Marina was thinking.
Sparks were flying just under Marina’s skin. She hated being touched; she was afraid of it. So many people had touched her in terribly wrong, terribly painful ways. That traumatic sense of danger she felt whenever someone touched her started to flare up, but nothing was touching her. Elena was not, and Victoria was nowhere near. But something was grabbing her hair, twisting her wrists, squeezing her fingers, stepping on her feet, and forcing her mouth to grit closed.
Elena could almost see it, like millions of little fingers all pressing on her at once.
All of Marina’s senses were firing, screaming.
And so, in turn, did all of Elena’s.
Elena nearly vomited. Her eyes were burning.
She was overwhelmed with empathy for Marina’s overwhelming disgust.
Her eyes started to weep. It wasn’t even her own tears.
They were Marina’s. Tears for Marina’s own unweeping eyes.
And when Elena looked at those eyes, physically, rather than mentally–
Red rings appeared around Marina’s eyes, matching those around Victoria’s.
She was shaking from the peak of her head to the tips of her fingers.
Then, suddenly, Marina’s hand started to move, irrespective of her own wishes.
Her arms and legs were used to stand her body up, despite all of her resistance.
Slowly, trembling, she removed the magazine from her pistol and discarded it.
There was one round in the chamber still.
Victoria dispassionately watched with those frightening eyes as Marina lifted the pistol up to her head, putting the barrel over one of her eyes. Her struggling jaw and tongue made whimpering, terrified noises, but she could not speak, move or resist. She was completely helpless.
Elena had to finally stand.
She could not endure anymore what was happening.
“Victoria! Stop! Please, oh my god, stop!”
Elena rushed from the floor and embraced Victoria, throwing her arms around her.
She could think of nothing else to do. Nothing that would fix what was happening.
She wept openly in Victoria’s shoulders, while the Shimii continued to glare past her.
“Stop it! Please stop! I can’t– I can’t bear to see this! Please! Please! This isn’t you!”
“You’re wrong. This is me. I have the fullness of my faculties.”
Victoria swept her hand. Elena screamed and shut her eyes.
Rather than a bang, she heard a dull thump.
Marina was lifted bodily and thrown back against a tree, where she came to feebly slump.
Victoria’s eyes turned a clear blue color again. Her voice was as cold as ever.
She shoved Elena’s arms from around her, and then grabbed her by the wrist.
“Are you finally going to do what I say?” Victoria asked.
Elena, eyes swollen with tears, her body trembling, gave a despondent nod of the head.
“I’ll go with you. Please, just don’t hurt anyone here.”
“Fine. For you, I’ll promise I won’t.”
Elena tried to smile, but a sudden report shut out all of her senses.
She heard a discharge so loud that the noise ripped through her stomach.
Victoria’s head bobbed suddenly.
Something splashed on Elena’s chest, on her cheek.
A streak of blood.
There was a clatter on the ground behind them.
Marina dropped her empty gun, fell to her side, and started to retch and vomit.
Victoria toppled over.
“No. Please. No. No. No! No–”
Elena sank to her knees next to Victoria’s body and tried to pick her up, to shake her. There was so much blood running down her forehead that it was impossible to see a wound, but Elena was sure she was dead.
Her fingertips could not feel anything anymore, but she was sure all the warmth was draining from Victoria as she held her.
Marina had killed her; she had killed Victoria.
Little Victoria from school who loved books and was quiet and a little cold, and nobody could get along with– except perhaps the forgotten, useless princess, the brusque school bully, and the stuck-up aspiring knight whom fate had brought together and then so suddenly torn apart.
People who had overnight disappeared from her life.
And here, maybe she had a second chance and then– and then everything happened. It was so sudden that Elena’s life had gone from the stasis of her prison in Vogelheim, to recalling the day to day shocks of her school days with her rocky little group and having to reconcile it.
Why was all of this happening? Why now?
What had gone wrong? What could she have done to avert all of this?
You’re really hard to love— had Sawyer been right?
Was all of this Elena’s fault? Her mind was racing through the horrible possibility.
Behind them, Marina was starting to stand on shaking legs.
She appeared almost as shocked at her own actions as Elena was with them.
“God damn it.” She mumbled. She grabbed hold of her own stomach.
She dropped back to her knees, holding herself up by her hands, gagging.
Elena felt the ground shake.
She nearly fell back herself, and she was just sitting.
The quake transferred through her body, from deep in her gut to the tips of her fingers–
Elena looked down at her, eyes drawn wide.
Fresh tears immediately followed.
“Victoria! You’re alive!”
Through the blood that had spilled over them, Victoria opened her eyes.
Staring past Elena, up into the sky overhead.
“It’s failing.” She said, breathlessly.
Again the ground rumbled.
Victoria’s cat-like ears twitched. She raised her hand toward the heavens.
Elena looked up at the sky, following Victoria’s fingers.
Bands of color began to break across the blue sky and its fake clouds.
Something formed that split the firmament. A streak, a crack of visual noise.
There was a brief flash as the sky fully lost its contours.
What was once the sun was revealed to be a complex array of mechanical lights.
All around them, the illusion of a horizon and a sky was fully torn down.
Those massive panels that once created a sky now showed what was really outside.
When the heavens came down, there was only the dim, endless blue of the Imbrium.
Elena could not identify it, but what she was seeing was an algorithmic predictive image of the ocean. That was why she saw in all its vivid horror and glory the massive Cruiser Greater Imbria approaching Vogelheim, surrounded by the shattered and shattering remains of several other vessels which had failed to protect the station and flanked by many other ships and divers.
Her mind was reeling from the sight of her little storybook world coming suddenly down.
Victoria’s voice strained. “You can’t run from this anymore, Elena.”
Issue 1: Imbria’s Death March
Episode 4.7: The Day [[Her Sky Shattered]]
If there’s a single stepping-stone left of the world you wish for — fight for it.