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

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

Thieves At The Port [5.4]

“Captain, is this correct?”

After several days, the hangar was finally fully prepared and every mech in the Brigand’s squadron had been assembled, charged up and assigned its gantry and equipment. Murati could finally convene and formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron. On the morning of this triumphant day, she set aside some time to look over the official roster and the files on each pilot.

That was when she spotted an oddity. She sought official confirmation from the Bridge.

“First Officer on bridge!” Commissar Bashara called as Murati stepped through the door.

Everyone in the room turned to meet her briefly. Murati felt a little overwhelmed. She was, strictly speaking, their superior and depending on the health of the Captain she might even have to command them someday, but she was not very familiar with the bridge crew. She saw Semyonova on ship broadcasts and had met Zachikova recently, but the rest she had no occasion to speak to.

“It’s really not necessary.” Murati said to the Commissar. She spoke in a low voice.

“Not necessary? As First Officer you should always demand the respect you are owed.”

At the Commissar’s side, the Captain laughed. “I also tell her it’s not necessary.”

You more than anyone need to command more respect also.” Said the Commissar.

She glared sidelong at the Captain in a way that caused her to visibly shrink for a second.

“Let me see there, Murati.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

Murati handed her the tablet with the pilot roster. Murati already had the offending page up.

“Ah, right, this situation.”

The Captain sighed as if it would be a wearying thing to explain.

On the roster, one of the reserve pilots was a young man, younger than Shalikova. Maybe the youngest person on the ship. His name was Aiden Ahwalia. Murati recognized the surname immediately. Anyone in the Union would. Elias Ahwalia had been one of the Union’s founders, and after Daksha Kansal, he was the second Premier of the nation. He was Premier for nearly nine years of the Union’s 20 year life as a state, so he certainly made an impression on the Union.

However, his term was remembered for many bitter difficulties the Union suffered.

Many people felt that after Kansal left, the Union was close to falling apart.

The Union’s recent, comparatively “prosperous” period was thanks to Bhavani Jayasankar rising to power and removing the Ahwalia family from the political sphere. Her administration dispensed with the ideals of the Ahwalian period, where the Union was steered toward fully automated, high-tech utopianism. Bhavani’s Union was more analog, thrifty, and highly militarized in comparison to Ahwalia’s, but everyone had food, everyone had education, health, and some small comforts. As a student of history, Murati could not help but find the Ahwalia surname on her roster ominous.

“I don’t need to explain to you who the Ahwalias are, right?” the Captain asked.

“No ma’am. I’m well aware. I’d like to know why Ahwalia’s youngest is on this ship.”

Commissar Bashara joined the conversation. Her tail was swaying, gentle and relaxed.

“You must think there’s some ulterior motive?” She looked up at Murati from her seat.

Murati felt like that was a trick question, coming from the Commissar.

Captain Korabiskaya was quite relaxed as well, however. They were both untroubled.

“In fact, there is an ulterior motive.” Captain Korabiskaya said plainly, shrugging her shoulders.

“That’s what I was afraid of!” Murati said. “With all due respect, I don’t want–”

“Keep him away from a Strelok and you have nothing to worry about. He’s in reserve.” Commissar Bashara said. “Aiden Ahwalia is here as a punishment on Elias Ahwalia; if you were assuming that then you are correct, Lieutenant Nakara. He’s here because Premier Bhavani and Commissar-General Nagavanshi want to apply pressure to his father through this assignment. Ahwalia will think twice about making any kind of moves if internal security has his sons.”

“His father was purged from the party. His family can’t take public office.” Murati said. “Isn’t this a bit ridiculous? Elias Ahwalia is under house arrest. I don’t see any reason for this.”

Murati felt the Commissar would be predisposed to take the side of the security arm and the intelligence arm of the government on this issue. She looked to the Captain for support, but was met with only a soft, sympathetic expression, like a mother unable to go against the father on some household disagreement. Captain Korabiskaya stood up from her chair to meet Murati’s eyes.

“You’re a really good combat soldier, Murati.” Said the Captain. “But if you want to be a ship Captain or even go to Headquarters, you have to understand politics a bit better. And I don’t just mean Mordecist theory. There are some distasteful things you have to accept. So I accepted Aiden Ahwalia’s posting to the Brigand. That decision is final. If you don’t trust him to pilot a Strelok then don’t give him one. However, as far as he knows he is here on a legitimate mission. He thinks he’s just fulfilling his military duty. So, let him think that while he sits in the reserves, or let him go out if you need him. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”

Commissar Bashara nodded. “The Captain’s assessment is uncharacteristically thorough.”

Captain Korabiskaya balked. “Uncharacteristically–?”

“At any rate, Lieutenant, I believe you have work to do. Does this satisfy your inquiry?”

Murati grit her teeth. Her grip tightened around the tablet computer with her roster files.

“Yes ma’am.” She said. She did not like it, but she had no choice.

Commissar Bashara turned her eyes from Murati and forward to the rest of the bridge.

“Keep on keepin’ on, Murati. You’ll be fine.” The Captain said, by way of parting.

Swallowing some nasty things she wanted to say, Murati turned and vacated the bridge.


Despite everything, Murati was pretty excited that the pilot group was so diverse.

They had a few dark-skinned North Bosporans (herself included), a few Volgians, a Pelagis and a pair of Shimii. There were three other transgender women with her, a transgender man, and even a pilot identifying as nonbinary. She shouldn’t have been surprised — there were a lot of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the Union military, particularly transgender women who got to transition after the revolution. A lot of them became pilots for the respect afforded them.

Almost everyone in the Union had a military background these days, and the Union was pretty colorful.

It made sense the military reflected that.

The Union was fairly socially progressive: it was after all the place where the Empire sent many “undesirable” people to “cleanse” its internal population, so it made sense there would be a lot of their causes championed institutionally in the Union. That by itself did not stop social prejudices, but it did mean the state would protect Murati’s rights. And it also meant she could end up leading a squadron that was so varied in gender expression and sexuality. As a bit of a social activist herself Murati was a champion of workplace diversity — even if Gunther might have been disappointed in her sidelining of some other workplace ethics.

Her pilot group looked very strong. She put a lot of faith in them.

Everyone was different and everyone had different experiences and situations.

Some of their history was a bit more complicated than Murati would have liked.

As a leader, however, she set aside those issues.

Her goal was to lead the people she had. To lead them to safety; to lead them to victory.

At 1200 hours Murati and her pilots finally convened in the hangar.

Even wearing the same uniform, they really did seem like an eclectic group.

“Welcome, comrades! I am Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara. I apologize for the idleness of the past few days, but I am pleased to formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron! Today we begin our mission to uncover, unite, train, and equip anti-imperialist forces in the Imbrium. This was a doctrine originally envisioned by our founder and first Premier, Daksha Kansal. We’ve had many difficulties as a nation since then, but the tide of history turns in our direction and the Union Navy is finally ready to do whatever it takes to seize victory! We have finally embarked on this historic mission, and I wouldn’t have any other crew but this one at my side. Let us work together to topple imperialism in our Oceans!”

Murati had spent some time in her books researching for her little speech.

To say Kansal created this doctrine was putting a heavy coat of paint on the events. She had insinuated in her Premiership speech that she wanted the Union to serve as a beacon for other revolutions in the Empire, and on more than one occasion believed the Empire would someday be split up by revolutions. When she ultimately left the Union, it was broadly believed that she did so in order to foment unrest in the Empire using the skills she gained during the revolution.

That being said, Murati was the only military and political history expert among the pilots.

So she thought it was a good way to get them thinking positively, if they knew no better.

After all, if Kansal had thought of it, then it wasn’t some random idea thought up yesterday.

Despite her passion, however, the response to the speech was a bit muted.

A blond Shimii woman among the pilots gave her an energetic clap and a big smile.

Next to her, a second Shimii started clapping slowly when the blond woman wouldn’t stop.

Shalikova averted her gaze.

Everyone else stood eyes forward with hands behind their backs like good soldiers.

Murati moved as fluidly as she could away from the subject.

“Now, I want each of you introduce yourselves to the group. It would be pretty frustrating to operate day to day without names, so let’s all become more familiar. I will go first and then I will select the rest of you to come up one by one. I’m Murati Nakara, I’m 29 years old. I piloted at Thassalid Trench, and before that, I did every odd job you can think of in the military. I really like electronic music and I actually played in a football club, so I’m going to push for us to get some nets down here sometime.”

She smiled at everyone, and a got a few small smiles in response, except from Shalikova.

“Alright, Ensign Sonya Shalikova!”

There was an almost audible groan from Shalikova as she walked forward to join Murati.

Stiff and unsmiling, Shalikova turned reluctantly to face the rest of the squad. Murati had seen this unfriendly face before at Thassalid Trench. Shalikova was thin and pale, with long, white hair and wonderfully indigo eyes that really popped amid her pristine skin and girlish facial features. For some reason she had stopped wearing her jacket since they embarked on their journey. With the sleeveless TBT button-down, Murati could see her arms and shoulders had a bit of wiry, athletic definition to them.

“I’m Sonya Shalikova. I’m 23 years old. I also piloted at Thassalid Trench.”

Shalikova started to walk back and Murati gently tapped her on the shoulder to stop her.

“Do you have hobbies or interests Shalikova? Anything you want to go back home to?”

Shalikova briefly turned a gaze full of violence to Murati.

With much consternation, she turned back to the group.

“I like hardbass music. And I like crafts. I like– making stuff. I made a bear once.”

“That’s great. Thank you Shalikova. I can have some supplies brought to you–”

Shalikova interrupted Murati. “It’s really not necessary. I’m going back to the line now.”

She returned to the lineup with a bit of desperation in her voice.

However instead of returning to the side of the blond Shimii woman, where she had once been standing, she conspicuously walked all the way to the other end of the line and stood there next to Aiden Ahwalia. Perhaps it had been because the Shimii had been making rather energetic gestures of support throughout Shalikova’s introduction and she did not want to be near her now.

“Well, alright.” Murati suppressed a laugh. “Next up is Lieutenant Khadija al-Shajara.”

Once more, the bubbly blond Shimii clapped her hands together.

She walked to the front with a long, graceful stride and took her place beside Murati.

Her very fluffy tail swayed gently.

“Hello darlings! As she said, I’m Khadija al-Shajara– ah, do I really have to say my age?”

Murati blinked, surprised. “Err, I suppose it’s not really necessary.”

Khadija clapped her hands together again, keeping incessantly cheerful.

Everything about Khadija seemed to shine brightly. She had a confident, foxy appearance, and her makeup was glamorous. Dark wine-colored eyeshadow; long black lashes; well-kept, slightly thick eyebrows; a rich, dark red color on her lips. She had a sophisticated air, more like an actress or a singer than a soldier. Her figure was more rounded off than Murati’s or Shalikova’s, but still plenty fit. Her natural Shimii features were charming enough on their own too, with her long, tapering ears and fluffy tail.

“Let’s forget about my age then. Let’s just say, I’m a woman in the prime of my life. I’ve been a Diver pilot longer than anyone among us, and I would love to see how all of you keep up with me in the ocean waters. As for my hobbies, I love board and card games, so if you ever want to lose a few social credits to a very beautiful gal, we could play some mahjong or poker.”

She winked at the other pilots with her hands crossed over her breast.

Murati had her official age in the roster, forty one, and she could see the gray in that voluminous and otherwise golden ponytail, and the hint of crow’s feet mostly hidden by her makeup. Khadija definitely wore her beret, nestled between her cat-like ears, to hide some of the gray where her hair parted. Murati found her little vanities charming. She could only hope she would look like Khadija did when she herself turned forty-one years old, after decades of intensive military service.

Maybe she would ask Khadija for her secrets some other time.

“Next, I’m calling on,” Murati paused briefly to look over the entire name before saying it. It was quite a mouthful. Like the name of the bridge officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa it was a combination of the mother’s and the father’s surnames. So it ended up being long and somewhat foreign to Murati: “Senior Ensign Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.”

“Ha ha! Oh my god– please just use al-Shahouh or Raisanen, not both, and not my Loup soulname.”

From beside Khadija, the other Shimii on the team walked forward with a serene smile.

“You want me to pick?” Murati said. “I guess I’ll use al-Shahouh.”

She shrugged as if amused by the decision. “Heh, do I look more Shimii than Loup then?”

Murati simply did not know enough about Loup to answer. Certainly, Sameera had the ears and the tail that resembled those of some kind of heritage mammal. Shimii ears had all kinds of shapes, so it was hard to tell whether Sameera’s tall and bristly ears were more cat-like or dog-like. Her tail was certainly a bit different. Most Shimii swayed their tails gently, but Sameera was wagging hers fast, and the shape had slightly clublike girth — maybe more like a dog. Who could say?

 Loup were a rare sight in the Union. By the numbers among the rarest ethnicities there. Many dissident Shimii were incarcerated and deported to the colonies that would become the Union by the Empire, starting over forty years ago, creating a significant population in the Nectaris ocean. Loup retained a privileged position among the minorities of the Imbrian Empire, and few were deported. Sameera’s roster entry listed her as biracial, both Loup and Shimii — a testament to the barriers that could be broken in the Union.

There was more to her than her ears and tail of course. Everything between them was quite distinctive.

With a sleek nose and a sharp jawline, a tall and lithe build and a confident, graceful demeanor, if Murati was “husband” material in women’s eyes, she felt Sameera would have been a trophy husband. With her brown hair tied in a long ponytail with messy bangs and her light, sand-brown skin completely unembellished, she had an earthy, handsome beauty that was easy on the eyes.

“I’m Sameera. Just call me Sameera or ‘Sam’ please. I’m 27 years old, and single.”

She did a cheeky little bow in front of everyone, with one arm crossed over her chest.

One of her ears did a little twitch. Her tail continued to wag excitedly.

“My previous piloting experience has actually all been Leviathan hunting. I was also the test pilot for that fancy new mech in the back there for a few months,” she pointed over her shoulder at the Cheka with a little grin on her face.

“Unfortunately, Murati stole my girl from me–”

“–Huh?”

Ignoring Murati’s brief confusion, Sameera went on.

“As for my personal life, I like games, drinking, get-togethers, that kinda thing. I prefer being able to host a few friends, or maybe a single special someone.” She winked. Nobody reacted. “If I’m by myself, I like to do yoga actually.”

She walked back to the line of her own accord and stood between Khadija and another pilot, a colorful young Pelagis woman who briefly glared at her from the corner of her eyes. It just so happened that this was the next person Murati wanted to call.

“Thanks ‘Sam’. Maybe I’ll see you at the gym! Next, Ensign Dominika Rybolovskaya.”

Dominika wore a gloomy face as she walked to Murati’s side. That friendless expression, however, was framed with vibrant color. Her hair was a base of red with brown highlights, long and silky. There were black-striped strands of red that blended in with her hair but were actually cartilaginous pelagis fins. Her face looked soft, unblemished, and very uniformly pink, while her eyes were a bright pink with a blue limbal ring — unique and captivating. Her figure was almost as skinny as Shalikova’s. Curiously, Dominika wore the top three buttons of her shirt undone, exposing what looked like a series of tiny bumps of tissue running down her neck and presumably chest. Murati thought she saw a bit of a glow to them, but maybe it was just the lighting.

“I’m Dominika Rybolovskaya. If that’s too much of a mouthful you can call me Nika, but I’d prefer you don’t. I’m 25 years old. I was in the border troops along Campos and the ice frontier. I like target practice, archery, knife throwing. Anything with a target, I’ll be able to hit it.” She briefly and mysteriously sighed. “I guess I also like yoga– Don’t get your hopes up!”

Dominika was so quick that Sameera went from sudden elation to being put down into the ground in an instant.

“Um, thanks, Dominika.” Murati said. She opted to not acknowledge Sameera at all.

Notably, however, Dominika returned to Sameera’s side defiantly, without trying to avoid her but also without giving her any attention. She averted her gaze and Sameera stayed quiet. Khadija, to the right of both, looked between them with growing delight in her eyes. Shalikova stared dead straight at Murati, or maybe even past her, unwilling to acknowledge the rest of them.

A lively bunch, for sure.

Everyone on the Brigand was a little eccentric.

Murati looked down at her roster again.

There were two members of the squadron left to introduce, and one was listed as a reserve for rather dire reasons, so Murati did not have to think much about who she would call next. It was the one nonbinary member of the roster.

“Next to step forward will be Ensign Valya Lebedova. Gender neutral pronouns, correct?”

“Yes, thank you Lieutenant.”

Valya’s voice trembled just a little as they stepped forward in front of everyone.

They pushed their glasses up the bridge of their nose and held their hands behind their back.

“I’m Valya Lebedova. I’m 26 years old. I identify as nonbinary, um, thanks to everyone for respecting this.”

They bowed their head a little bit, their bangs briefly obscuring their gentle, demure face.

Valya took a rather guarded stance as they stood up in front of the squadron, their slight, curvy frame shaking from the knees up. They had a small nose and thin lips with a gentle expression, their face framed and partially hidden by messy, neck-length salmon-colored hair. Their long, straight bangs swept to the right side of their face, with one bright green eye peeking out. From what Murati could see, it was a stylistic choice — not covering up any kind of mysterious scars or anything so stereotypical. They wore the TBT pants and half-jacket uniform, all buttoned up over a dark blue bodysuit, quite tidy, with no customization.

“I’ve only had simulator experience, but um, my performance in the simulator was used to program the Veteran level OPFOR. So you may have actually fought against me in training. I really enjoyed simulator work but I was called on to join the team here, so I couldn’t really say no! Um, for my personal life, I like computers, programming, tinkering with stuff. I know how to solder!”

Their last words escaped them like an anxious gasp. Their cheeks flushed lightly.

“Thank you, Valya; relax, you’re among friends!” Murati said.

Finally, Murati got to the last name she wanted to speak about on the roster.

Not knowing what to expect, good or bad, she drew in a breath and prepared herself.

“Last but not least, our reserve team member, the cadet Aiden Ahwalia.”

Valya, Khadija, and Dominika all turned to face Aiden when his name was spoken.

Shalikova looked to be actively ignoring her surroundings.

Sameera was confused by everyone else’s response.

Murati nearly cringed. She had really hoped to avoid things like this.

Aiden looked a little annoyed, but he walked forward with his head held high. He was a thin, athletic, smooth-faced young man with long, tidy black hair, tied into a short ponytail. His bright red eyes stood out more in contrast with his dark brown skin. His expressions and movements conveyed a bit of arrogance, and it only made him look more like a kid putting on airs. Even compared to Shalikova or Valya who had somewhat similar height and figure to him, and were not much older, he looked somewhat babyfaced and far too young to be among them.

“I’m Aiden Ahwalia. You all know my family, from the looks on your faces, so I won’t need to explain it. I’m 19 years old. I completed my initial enlistment like everyone else. I scored highest in the simulator against the Valya-level program out of any cadets in my class.” He put on a little grin. “My outstanding scores and performance are why I’m here. I want to represent my family and restore our standing. You all probably hold it against it me, but to be frank I don’t believe we deserve–”

“You’re doing nothing but taking up space here, you brat.” Khadija butted in.

 Aiden’s outrage was immediate. Almost as if he had been ready to put on that face.

“Hey, nobody else got interrupted! You see what I’m talking about here?”

Aiden looked to Murati for support, but Khadija quickly continued to argument.

“I interrupted because you’re talking a load of shit. Like your god damned father–”

Khadija turned and poked her finger right into Aiden’s chest accusingly.

“Everyone, calm down!” Murati raised her voice. While she did not like Aiden’s attitude, she did not want this to escalate further. Khadija really looked ready to beat him up — and capable of it. “The Captain approved of him coming aboard, and I’m responsible for him. It won’t be a problem unless we all collectively make it a problem, so please, just treat him professionally.” 

“I have no problem with anyone but him. I’m probably not the only one.” Khadija said.

“I know where you’re coming from.” Valya replied. “But Lieutenant Nakara is right.”

“We must listen to the commander.” Dominika said, arms crossed and head down.

“I agree, let’s just relax. Why don’t I treat you later, Lieutenant al-Shajara?”

Sameera tried to sweet-talk Khadija, but the older woman was clearly not in the mood.

“I apologize, Nakara. Please continue. I would like permission to retire for the day after assignments.”

“Permission granted. Aiden, come talk to me after I finish the assignments.”

Murati looked down at Aiden at her side. She nodded, directing him to leave.

He crossed his arms and returned to the line of pilots in a huff.

Now that everyone was introduced, the final official step in establishing the squadron was the assignments. Khadija would have known that — she was a veteran who had been through several missions already. Union Divers worked in pairs, often two to three pairs per squadron. Working as a pair gave everyone in the squadron a buddy to rely upon. Pairs were more resilient than individuals and gave the squadron more flexibility. Originally the Brigand had five Divers with two reserves, but Murati successfully lobbied the Captain for Valya to become a full member.

“I’ll start giving the pair assignments. This will be short for today, but we’ll flesh out our roles and capabilities more in the coming days, when we really start training and when we will be expected to be on call 24/7 as part of the ship’s combat power.” Murati said. “First off, the flanking unit will consist of myself in the Cheka alongside Ensign Shalikova in the Strelok ‘I-bis.’”

Murati looked to Shalikova with a big, happy smile that was not returned in the slightest.

“Ok.” Not even a ‘looking forward to working with you’ or anything of the sort.

Hopefully, that withdrawn attitude was something they could work on together.

“Next, our breakthrough firepower unit will consist of Ensign al-Shahouh in the Strelok C.Q.C. ‘Cossack’ and Ensign Rybolovskaya in the Strelkannon ‘Modular Weapons Platform.’”

Sameera turned cheerfully to Dominika for acknowledgment. Dominika turned her cheek.

Clearly the assignments Murati had made on paper would need some work in practice.

“Lieutenant al-Shajara and Ensign Lebedova will pilot Streloks in our support unit.”

Khadija walked over to Valya and gave them a friendly squeeze on the shoulder that took the latter by surprise. Valya nearly jumped, and then tried to smile at Khadija to play it off. No sooner had the Shimii’s hand lifted off her assigned enby’s shoulder than Khadija took off casually toward the hangar elevator, wanting to leave the hangar as soon as possible. Murati sighed.

“Finally, Cadet Ahwalia will be in reserve. Everyone is dismissed for the day. At ease.”

As soon as they were released, the pilots wandered away. Shalikova waited for everyone else to take the elevator first; Valya headed toward their Strelok’s gantry to inspect it; Dominika found herself closely followed by Sameera who was quiet but had a cheeky expression as she quite clearly and obviously shadowed her partner but pretended to be merely going her own way.

Murati, meanwhile signaled for Aiden to come forward to talk to her. She whispered:

“I don’t care who your family is. I won’t judge you or protect you for it. Next time you get a rise out of anyone, it will be up to Akulantova to get the boots off your face, because I won’t.”

Aiden grit his teeth but said nothing back to her.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.2]

Late at night, manning the Torpedo Warfare station on the bridge of the Brigand, Alexandra Geninov leaned forward and rested her head against the controls on her computer, yawning and moaning. She was supposed to get up and check the other stations soon. Bored out of her skull and just a little bit antsy, she began to drift in and out of various fantasies. Looking at each station reminded her of her officer cadre. There was a good crop of officers on the Brigand. A whole bridge full of beauties.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh.”

From the station on her right, a wheezy laugh echoed through the nearly empty bridge.

She ignored it.

Her station clock read 23:15 — the graveyard shift. The Captain said it was her turn for it.

Alex stood up from her station and walked over to Fatima’s, the buxom, raven-haired Shimii officer who worked on sensors. She picked up Shimii-compatible headphones and listened in for a moment at the sounds of the Ocean, while thinking about what it would be like to have cat ears. She tried not to think too much about touching Fatima’s ears. That was not professional– but like, everyone was thinking it, you know. That was Alex’s justification for herself. Fatima was hot as hell. No one would blame her for thinking that.

Alex sighed. She could not parse a single god damn sound she was hearing.

However, the station itself had a trained computer that could classify the sounds, and it was classifying everything Alex was hearing as “biologics.” As far as Alex was concerned this meant she did not have to care about it. Aside from a gorgeous and elegant profile, Fatima also had golden ears; only she could tell anything from the mess of sounds coming through the passive sonar.

Alex could not.

Still, as the graveyard shifter, it was her job to monitor the stations.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Ignoring the grating laughter coming from behind her, she moved on to Semyonova’s station.

Communications was the easiest thing to check. Everything was digital and user-friendly. Contrary to a layman’s understanding of it, the Ocean was extremely noisy, because water was amazing at conducting sound waves. Not all of those sound waves were audible to humans, however. Unaided human ears out in the water would not hear too much more than water itself moving around them, but ship instruments could parse the subtle cacophony of the seas with such high fidelity that it was possible to hear fish bubbles and crabs walking on the rocks. Ships would be bombarded with sounds at all times.

However, modern acoustic messages were special sounds that a computer interpreted data from. It was very rare that a whale call or something of the sort was incorrectly interpreted as an acoustic message. Because the throughput on acoustic messages was abysmal, they could only transmit text. So Semyonova’s station showed her the result of the ship’s constant parsing for the unique sounds of acoustic messages, and dumps of the translated text from the messages.

She had a few other tools for connecting laser calls, broadcasting over the ship monitors and other advanced stuff. Alex loved all the pre-recorded messages Semyonova had set up for minor itinerary items. There was a tool on her screen that controlled them. She almost thought of setting up the breakfast message to run several times — Semyonova had a really sexy laugh in that one. Instead, however, she just peeked into the inbox to spy on whatever military comms they got.

There was nothing on that screen for her to see, of course.

After printing messages to sheets of rock paper, they were passed on to the Commissar, who determined whether they would be stored and where, or destroyed them herself. Semyonova always deleted them from her station once she was done. It was standard operating procedure.

Semyonova was very dutiful, but she had such a happy-go-lucky charm too.

Blond, busty, plump; a lady you could hang on to. Semyonova was pretty hot too.

And of course, there was the first time they met. She had a messy side!

That discrepancy was something true connoisseurs like Alex referred to as a gap moe.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

A laugh that was like nails scraping furiously on a chalkboard.

Alex ignored the chill down her spin and drummed her fingers on the station, sighing deeply.

She was just a hopeless woman of culture, astray in an ocean of luscious temptations.

“Keep it together Alex. You’re a professional.” She mumbled to herself.

In situations like this, the devil on her shoulder always won out over the angel.

After all, what was she supposed to do while just sitting here? The Captain wouldn’t let her have video games on the Bridge. And of course, that bitch Captain also made her take the graveyard shift even though Alex argued passionately against it. At least she had the decency to have that air of sultry, mature, experienced beauty while she chided Alex. Captain Korabiskaya was a woman who really could have taught a younger girl like Alex a thing or two in private–

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex’s daydreams of being corrected by her blond bombshell of a Captain were cut short.

SHUT UP.

She had wanted to shout it out, but she was ultimately too cowardly to do so.

Alex stomped over to the electronic warfare station.

Unlike most of the other stations, which were very specialized instruments, the electronic warfare station was an ordinary terminal running a shell displaying a running log of ship computer diagnostics and networking data while idle. Alex knew a little bit about computer programming from her mastery of video games. Electronic warfare was pretty esoteric, but this officer station was also linked to the supercomputer.

She barely knew Zachikova, the electronic warfare specialist. During the Leviathan attack a few days ago she had been indisposed. When she came back, she stuck to her duties and said very little. She had a cold, robotic air; kind of skinny and pale, but with a certain edge to her. Maybe Zachikova was a special operations psycho, tempered through a life of peril and action. Someone who had seen all kinds of horrible things.

Alex had matured, complex tastes. She could appreciate a lady who could kill her.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Listening to that laugh was the mental version of stepping barefoot on glass.

“I can’t hear myself think through your stupid cackling! Could you shut up?”

“Hmm?”

Before she realized it, Alex had said it aloud. There was no taking it back.

From that corner of the bridge, a young woman made a noise to communicate her offense.

She put down the hand-held she had been reading from.

“Do you take offense to me using this time to enrich myself with cultural experiences as opposed to staring at the walls as you have been? Is my serene and maidenly laughter so vexing to you?”

Right next to Alex’s Torpedo Warfare station was the Main Gunnery station.

Seated at this station was Alex’s erstwhile “partner” in the graveyard shift, Ensign Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa. She was pleasant to look at, if not to hear, but something about her was simply off and Alex couldn’t stand it. Her expression hardly helped, her soft lips were often curled into some domineering evil grin, and her disconcerting pink-red eyes could open much too wide when she was speaking. She wore a lot of makeup, purple on her lips and dark wine-red shadow around her eyes. Her hair was a colorful blond with a few purple highlights, slightly wavy, worn long with fluffy bangs and tied low with a thick band.

She wore the Treasure Box Transports skirt uniform over a black bodysuit, with a dark purple tie and the top buttons undone so that her collar stuck out. Her bodysuit was sleek and thin, and the tight, sleeveless design of the TBT shirts accentuated the soft curve of her shoulders and the ampleness of her chest, while the skirt complimented the length and definition of her legs–

Alex stopped and mentally shook herself out of such observations.

For her pride, she wanted to remain angry at Fernanda. In her unique estimation she would only say that Fernanda had interesting aesthetics ruined by a challenging personality that made Alex want to fight back.

“Fern, as it turns out you’re insanely fucking annoying, and I guess you want to be that way?”

“Hmph! You should be happy that I am here to grace your lonely self with my presence. Of course, how can I expect a refined appreciation of beauty from some droll competitive gamer?”

“What did you say to me? Talking shit about gaming? Do you wanna have a go?”

“Woe betide me! I am so threatened! Will you jump on my head until a coin comes out?”

“I’ll jump on your head when I’ve put it to the ground you fucking bitch–”

“Cut it out, now, you two.”

A sudden shout startled both Alex and Fernanda and ended their squabble immediately.

On the doorway to the bridge, the huge figure of Security Chief Akulantova appeared.

Partially shaded in the dim hall outside, her face looked much more unfriendly than usual. She was human, all Pelagis were human, but the gloom over her was just terrifying. Her height, the width of her shoulders and chest, she was built like she could squash Alex– particularly in her thighs–

No! That mindset had to be put to bed. Alex had to get serious now. The Chief was there!

Akulantova stared at the two of them and sighed, scratching her long, pale hair idly.

“Look, this is unbecoming of you two. I can understand it when sailors get rowdy but seeing officers fighting is just distasteful.” She said. “If I have to break up an officer slap fight, I’ll be mighty cranky about it.” She smiled at the two of them in a way that exposed some sharp teeth and turned her words into threats. “You two should kiss and make up. Graveyard shift sucks without a buddy. Trust me, I’m well aware.”

 “Yes ma’am!”

Fernanda and Alex pacified at once. Not in a million years would they challenge the Chief.

Akulantova smacked her hand against the steel wall of the bridge interior, as if just to make a loud noise. It caused Fernanda and Alex to jump again. Laughing at the two of them, she turned around and left the room. Alex watched her go. She realized she really had been extremely immature– in her defense, she had also been extremely bored, and she was not much of a night person, she told herself.

Both of the officers stared at one another in shock for a few moments, before taking note of the awkward silence and simply turning the other cheek on each other, still feeling too catty.

Fernanda picked her tablet back up and started reading again.

Alex finished checking the stations.

She was then confronted with having to return right to Fernanda’s side.

Their stations were closely adjacent. Why did she have to have that bitch for a neighbor?

Get a hold of yourself, Alex thought, finding her composure, Chief Shark is right. This silly shit is beneath you. You’re going to apologize because you’re the strong, confident, sexy biracial chick. Sometimes you just let the uppity bottom get the W on you, and it makes you look cool.

“Fernanda, maybe I’m a little sorry–”

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex grabbed hold of her own hair and grit her teeth at the sound of that laugh.

What was with that laugh? How did it penetrate the recesses of her brain so deeply?

Sighing deeply, she walked over to her station and sat down.

She had about several hours left in her night shift. Then Fatima would relieve her and Fern.

Looking over to her right, Alex saw Fernanda deeply immersed in her tablet.

Hoping for a truce, she made the best effort she could to reach out.

“So, what’s got you guffawing so much anyway? Are you reading something?”

“Hmm?”

Fernanda looked up from the tablet as if she had to physically peel herself away from it.

She turned a narrow-eyed glare at Alex as if she were suspicious of her.

“Oh? Taken an interest now? Would you like my head to remain raised then?”

“Hey, I’m trying to be nice, ok? And I said I was sorry, but your wheezy laugh cut me off.”

“My laugh is beautiful. I will suffer no one to impugn the dignity with which I–”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“My speech is sophisticated, full of culture–”

“Okay, okay. You’re perfectly lovely and fine. Truce?”

Alex held up her hands like she had a gun pointed at her.

Fernanda studied her expression carefully and then seemed satisfied with herself.

Truly a wretched character! Who knew what was going on behind all the eyeshadow?

“Well, I shall take this as supplication. It is a long-running series of fantasy stories.”

Fernanda turned her tablet around to show Alex that she was indeed reading books.

“How come you get to read fantasy novels and I can’t play video games at my station?”

“If I were the arbiter of such things I would not abide you to pursue your shooters or platformers in here either. We all have borne witness to how easily your attention drifts at the mere mention of anything–”

“Wait, what, you know game genres? What do you play then?”

Alex blinked and stared at Fernanda, who puffed herself up with pride in return.

She put the back of her slender, gloved hand to her lips, and let out a terrible laugh.

“Perhaps that shall become a mystery you could unveil with time– or perhaps never!”

“Why are you like this? If you know the kind of games I play and you know enough to bug me about them specifically, you must also be a gamer! What do you play, RPG games; text games?”

Fernanda continued to stare down her nose at Alex. “Puzzle this out: what if one could peruse interactive digital entertainments without being cursed to wear the filthy appellation of gamer and what it constitutes. Ever thought of that? Perhaps I am above such plebeian labels, unlike you.”

“Plebeian? What the hell are you talking about? It’s your brain that’s fucking filthy!”

There was a slam on the back wall that caused Fern and Alex to jump again.

One long, lean, muscular arm reached out from the hall through the automatic door.

Soon as Fern and Alex looked, Chief Akulantova had retreated back to her rounds.

Both of them felt a chill down their spine and a certain pressure to cooperate.

“So, fucking, anyway, your book. Is it a comedy? You’re always laughing at it.”

Fern switched just as fast as Alex had away from their previous dead-end conversation.

“It is nothing so base and low as mere comedy. They are sweeping epics of high adventure that encompass all facets of the human emotional experience. I am drawn to excitement when characters I love seize upon the chances which they are given by fate, to make their destinies–”

Alex reached out and snatched the tablet from Fern’s hands.

“Huh? Hey, give that back– I mean, how dare you abscond with–”

Rotating on her chair, Alex turned her back on Fern and flipped to a random page.

Hovering behind her, Fern seemed to quickly resign herself while Alex read.

She found herself in a scene where a young knight confronted a powerful witch. Magic spells were flung at the knight with great detail, and the knight’s cleverness in evading the attacks or rendering them null with her own innate skills or magic items filled out the page. Alex began skimming the explanations, she wouldn’t get anything out of it without reading the whole story. Eventually, the knight overcame the witch through some long-form trickery and pinned her against a wall.

Then the witch began to weep. She cried in pain, lightly wounded by the knight’s attacks, begging the knight to explain why she had abandoned her and why she had only returned now to hurt her, why she had taken the side of the knights who had wronged them. Alex’s interest was piqued but they were also recounting pages and pages of Witch backstory that referenced other previous Witch backstory and Alex just could not keep up with it without having read everything.

Skimming ahead a bit more– then she hit a page with something odd.

She skimmed back a few paragraphs to try to confirm what was happening.

The Knight, having heard the entreaties of the Witch, responded.

“I am impoverished in verbal expression, but I will make my true self known to you with deed instead of word. I brought you low in battle solely so I could open you to my real feelings.”

She grabbed hold of the Witch’s head with one hand and kissed her strongly.

Her other hand grabbed hold of the Witch’s groin, fingers entering her slick folds–

That was quite enough.

Alex turned back around, laughing through her teeth at Fernanda.

She tapped her fingers on the tablet. “So, hey, about this human emotional experience–”

“Parlay!” Fernanda cried out, flustered. Her face was beet-red. It was actually– cute?

“Parlay?”

“Return the device to me, and we can discuss terms to seal your lips about this matter.”

Fernanda was extremely serious. She really looked concerned Alex would expose her.

“I’m just making fun; I’m not gonna tell anyone! You don’t have to be so stuck up.”

Alex handed over the tablet and sighed openly.

Fernanda looked to be her age, but clearly there was something odd going on upstairs. She had heard Fern was an incredible shot who scored kills with secondary guns at the battle of Thassalid. Like everyone on the Brigand, she was competent at her station. And like everyone at the Brigand, she was an eccentric.

An eccentric genius, with a terrible laugh that juxtaposed her fairy-like, demure beauty.

Maybe that was a way to look at her if Alex was feeling charitable.

Feeling exhausted, the resident gamer turned back around and returned to her station.

At her side, Fernanda put down her tablet and tapped on her shoulder to get her attention.

A socially depleted Alex turned a tired expression to Fernanda. “What’s up now?”

“How shall I say this– I am willing to acquiesce to the truce you proposed earlier.”

She stretched out a hand.

Alex thought of doing something quirky like laying a kiss on it.

Instead, she just shook her hand. But she couldn’t help trying to get the last word.

“Maybe I’ll even learn to ignore that harpy-like shrieking you get up to every so often.”

Of course, Fernanda would not take that lying down either.

“It is your sole good fortune that I am indebted to you and in a good mood, gamer.”

So much for a truce! Both of them were just catty bitches by nature, Alex realized.

As the night shift dragged on, however, the two of them were able to keep the peace.

“You definitely play roleplaying games.” Alex said. “You look like an RPer to me.”

Fernanda turned her cheek. “Do not push your luck, gamer, or I might hex you.”

A small semblance of peace, at least.

As much peace as anyone who agreed to this insane mission could hope for.


What was it like to live on a ship?

Moribund in the Ocean with a terrifyingly, overwhelmingly massive mission?

Surely, the nature of the Brigand’s mission must have weighed on everyone’s minds; and yet, there was one woman, for whom it must have been a burden, who slept soundly. She had a dreamless sleep, and when the clock decided that day had come, in lieu of an alarm, a soft, almost mournful voice sang through her room. It was a woman’s voice, singing about lost love and opportunities missed in a rich, deep voice.

Gently and comfortably, this sumptuous voice lifted the owner of the room out of sleep.

Life on a ship did not preclude such little pleasures.

Everything was digital, after all.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sat up gently in her bed. She reached out to the wall and where her fingers touched, a keypad manifested. She executed a command to shut the music off. Everything was a little more difficult on a ship than it was on a station, due to all the high security. However, this was perhaps the most graceful awakening the Captain had in her bed in months. On any other day she might have been nursing a hangover. That morning, she was perfectly sober.

No headache, no nausea, no acid in her throat.

“You’re such a mess, Yana. When you’re clean, you just think about being drunk.”

She chided herself, took a deep breath, and stood up from her bed.

In her mind, she bounced around her duties for the day as she buttoned up her shirt and patted down her skirt; as she did her tie and collected her blond hair into a neat, professional bun; as she donned the teal jacket with the fake logo for the fake company she was pretending to work for.

She thought, briefly, of wearing the jacket off shoulder. She was proud of the lean, strong curve of her shoulders. She had let herself go a bit from her peak, but she was still pretty fit overall, and those shoulders were a gift from God that even a poor workout regime wouldn’t take from her.

“No, no. I’m the Captain. I should keep it regulation.”

Yana pulled her jacket back over her shoulders. She did keep it unzipped.

She dabbed on some red lipstick and a bit of concealer for a mature, feminine touch.

Then she set out for the bridge.

Everyone was counting on her to be the center, the rock of stability. No mission was easy.

Every ship was always in danger. At all times, the Ocean around that ship was trying to crush it, the life-giving oxygen within the ship threatened to escape, food dwindled away, precious energy was lost, and enemies moved invisibly within the distant waters. If one truly wanted to live in unending anxiety, one could. There were all sorts of things one could worry about. This was why even the Captain could so easily set aside the enormity of her mission and simply carry out her tasks and responsibilities. Fomenting rebellion in the Empire was ultimately no grander an endeavor than living under the Ocean, where humanity was unwelcome. She got over that enormity, the same way she got over staring at the oxygen meters.

So, what was left, was the routine, and keeping in mind the things she needed to do.

Her head swam with maps, diagrams of fleet strategy, a list of ship duties to check up on.

Out in the halls of the ship, there were always a few people around, coming and going. When Yana exited her room, she found herself confronted with a panel bolted off, exposing the wiring and tubing that ran through every wall of the ship. There were a pair of sailors in protective gear digging into the cabling with a woman overlooking their work. They had several instruments with them for a purpose the Captain could not immediately discern, so she smiled and approached.

“Good morning, Chief Lebedova. Anything interesting?”

Yana addressed the woman standing with the two sailors. She half-turned her head when spoken to, smiled, and saluted when she noticed it was the Captain speaking to her. “Good morning Captain. Just a routine checkup, voltages, and water pressure and all that. Nothing to worry about.”

“I assumed so, but it’s curious to see the Chief Technician overseeing work personally.”

“I do have more technical things I could be doing, but when it’s early days like this, I like to watch my boys and girls working.” Lebedova said. “I’ve been to a lot of workgroups today already. I want them to know I’m a resource for them and that I’m available to help with any task.”

Chief Galina Lebedova crossed her arms with a delighted expression, looking at the working sailors in front of them. Yana had met her in full uniform before the voyage and thought she seemed a bit unassuming for a chief mechanic. She expected a rough taskmaster, but found a round-faced, soft-cheeked woman in a pristine skirt uniform, mature, tidy, and fairly soft spoken.

Now that she was on duty, she really blew Yana’s stereotypical preconceptions away.

She was dressed primarily in padded coveralls worn over a black bodysuit, with a utility belt around her hips with a host of common tools and a pair of fastening loops from which a metal welding mask and a gas mask hung at her sides. However, she wore the coveralls to the waist with the sleeves tied around her belly since she was not directly involved in rough work at that time. This exposed her upper body, and especially the definition of her shoulders, back and arms, and the ampleness of her chest– while she was no Akulantova, she clearly worked out at least half as much as the Security Chief did.

Certainly, she hit the gym more often than Yana ever had.

“On duty” Lebedova wore a bit of red lipstick and concealer just as Yana had, but in that sense looked more improvised than when they had previously met. She was a bit shorter than Yana, which was convenient for someone who had to squeeze into small spaces at times. Her long, black hair had blue streaks, and she tied it into an elegant braid behind the back of her head. That much was unchanged.

On the whole, she looked like the second strongest woman that Yana had met.

Yana tried to conceal her admiration but still gave Lebedova a bit of praise.

“I see. It sounds like our ship is in really good hands.”

“I’m flattered, Captain.”

She turned a lovely smile and laughed out loud with Yana.

Despite their conversation, the two sailors with them were diligent and did not allow themselves to be distracted. With the chief watching, they were a little tense, and really making sure to document everything, take no shortcuts, and do everything exactly by the book. Or at least, their stance and the way they whispered to each other gave Yana that sort of impression.

That’s a good mentality– to be a resource for your crew.

Yana had to give it to Chief Lebedova, they were the same age, but she had such a confident maturity to her. She supposed this was the kind of strength one built by remaining in the world of the sailors, rather than the pampered confines of the Bridge crew. Roughly two thirds of the crew of any ship was composed of sailors, and while they did none of the fighting, they were the lifeblood of the ship. Sailors maintained and repaired the ship, and there was a lot of ship to maintain and repair. They routinely crawled into the guts of the ship that an officer rarely ever saw.

“What is your impression of the ship so far, Chief?” Yana asked Lebedova.

For people like the Chief Technician and the Chief of Security, as well as the Chief Reactor Engineer and other such positions, despite them ranking below the Captain, everyone was used to calling them ‘Chief’, even the Captain. Lebedova was technically a Senior Specialist, but everyone knew her as the ‘Chief’ of her broader technical area. That was the sort of respect she had earned.

“It’s a very curious vessel.” Lebedova replied. “It almost feels generational, in a sense, like you can dig into the cabling and find the layers an archeologist would in cored rock. I did hear that it was built over the past decade. Some of the instruments are so brand new they have no regulation and some look like they slapped together a bunch of parts that got surplused out to a station plaza.”

“Well, I really hope the latter aren’t very important.” Yana said, giggling a bit.

Lebedova responded with a little grin. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep everything running.”

She winked. Yana really hoped it wasn’t the guns or anything like that.

“You have a meeting with that girl, Zachikova, to discuss that matter today, right?” Lebedova asked.

“Oh, yes. Has she spoken with you?”

“Spoken? It was practically an interrogation. That Zachikova is relentless. A very scary girl.”

Yana had given the Electronic Warfare officer, Zachikova, a special mission to look for more eccentricities in the ship design and catalog everything. After Helmsman Kamarik found extra thrusters on the ship, and Torpedo Officer Geninov complained about the layout of the torpedo tubes, Yana wanted to get far ahead of any other curious bits of the Brigand’s design.

“I did get the feeling she might get carried away.” She said.

“I survived it. I think she will have a lot to report back to you. Don’t keep her waiting.”

Lebedova turned back to the sailors and bent close over them to look at their work.

Yana took this as a good opportunity to make her way to the bridge and continue her day.

Along the way, she just happened to meet the person whom she ranked as the strongest woman she had ever seen. Chief Akulantova came walking down the hall to the bridge just as Yana was coming up to it. As always the Chief of Security was wearing her long coat, her baton and grenade launcher clipped to her pants. She never wore a hat, likely because of the fin-like cartilage on her head. Her hair was very smooth and shiny. She might have come back from a shower, or maybe she just took better care of it than Yana realized.

When she saw the Captain, she smiled and waved from afar.

“Good morning, Captain!”

“Good morning.”

They paused briefly upon crossing paths.

“You know, I always seem to see you on rounds. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“I’m fine! Fit as a white shark. Do I look tired? See, when my eyelids are like this–”

Akulantova pointed at her face. By all accounts she had a perfectly normal profile for a woman, but her eyes had a second set of thin lids. When the Captain looked at her as prompted, she closed them. It looked like her eyes were open but covered in translucent gray plastic for a moment.

“–I can sleepwalk my rounds! It’s a secret Pelagis trick and why we never get tired.”

Yana blinked at her. “Wait, really?”

“Of course not! You should look us up on an encyclopedia sometime!”

Akulantova burst out laughing.

“I’m in almost all respects a perfectly ordinary woman, Captain! How silly of you!”

“Fine, I walked into that one.” Yana sighed. “But then, are you sleeping enough?”

“I’m a bit of an insomniac, but trust me, if that becomes a problem, I’ll deal with it.”

The Pelagis crossed her well-muscled arms in front of her chest with pride.

“I will trust you, but please take care of yourself.” Yana reached out and patted Akulantova on the shoulder. “Not just if there’s a problem, but because you deserve rest like anyone else.”

“Well said! You’re quite right. I will keep that in mind; I suppose I’ll go on break then.”

From her coat, Akulantova withdrew a little tablet computer. It looked like a book reader. She raised the tablet to the Captain, as if to say ‘See? I’m going on break’. Then she went on her way, beaming and whistling, into the Security office. Presumably, Yana hoped, to rest a little bit.

“She is a pretty gentle soul, all things considered.”

Everyone on the Brigand was really such a hard worker. Yana hardly ever saw a Chief of Security patrolling all the time along with her staff on any of the ships served before. She hardly ever saw a Chief Technician running around either. She felt inspired to do her own part too.

Finally, after what already felt like an eventful morning, Ulyana made it to the bridge.

As soon as she went through the door, she found Commissar Aaliyah Bashara coming out.

Aaliyah nearly bumped into her, but she recovered with remarkable alacrity.

Her ears rose just a little straighter, and her tail stuck out.

For a moment, Yana saw herself in those bright orange eyes as they held contact.

“Captain on bridge! Attention all stations!”

Aaliyah turned from the door to face the main screen and the stations.

Yana waved at everyone on the bridge with a smile. “Good morning everyone! At ease!”

There were a few officers joining her on the bridge that morning.

There was Helmsman Abdulalim Kamarik, always punctual and engaged in his work as he made tiny corrections to the heading and engine power. Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova welcomed Ulyana to the bridge with a big, shining smile. Fatima al-Suhar stood sentinel on the sonar station, her headphones firmly on her fluffy, cat-like ears and actively immersed in the sounds of the ocean. Both of the main combat stations were empty. Ulyana had assigned Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa to the late night shift. Both of them had earned a few extra hours of rest that morning.

Ulyana took her place in the Captain’s chair. Every day, she started official Captain business by checking the computer attached to her chair and bringing up the Bridge logs, a simple dashboard with records of every officer’s work. They could bring specific things to her attention from their stations or simply leave it to the Captain herself to look through the logs. Ulyana liked to look at both, checking the pins but at least skimming over the logs also. Because it was early on in their voyage and they were still in calm waters, there was nothing notable. Semyonova had not received any communications and al-Suhar had not reported anything. Kamarik’s log had coordinates for where the Brigand was traveling and logged energy usage and speeds.

After checking the logs, she looked at her own itinerary.

She had one meeting later with Zachikova and a few others, and she had made time to visit the lab and the reactor. Then she would return to the bridge, sit in the big chair, talk to the officers, take her meals. When a Captain was not giving orders, she had to remain available. Emergencies were never pinned on her itinerary. Her priority was to be responsible, and to be responsible she had to be aware and on top of things.

She realized at that point, looking at the clock, that she had failed to be available on time.

“I was about to go find you, you know.” Aaliyah said.

“I stopped along the way to meet a few people. I’ll be here at 0900 sharp next time.”

The Commissar took her place next to the Captain. When Yana started smelling the minty scent coming off Aaliyah’s hair, she began to realize just how close the seats were. She could have easily wrapped her arm around Aaliyah’s shoulder or touched her ears — if she wanted to invite a slap across the face.

Had Nagavanshi sat this close to her on Ulyana’s previous ships? Yana had a cool head, but it flustered her ever so slightly to have this specific Commissar seated so close.

“Communication is key, Captain. I will always gladly hold down the Bridge for you if you need it, but you must actually let me know. You have a direct line to me for that purpose. And our rooms are right next to each other.” Aaliyah did not sound offended, but she was stern as usual.

“It all happened rather spontaneously. But I’ll keep what you’re saying in mind.”

“You could do with being a little less spontaneous.”

That was not fair. Ulyana had been doing her very best to schedule everything.

She did not say anything back, however. No use trying to get the last word on Aaliyah.

“Kamarik, where are we now, and where are we headed?” Yana asked.

Below her, the Helmsman drew back from his station, turning in his chair to face her.

“We’re currently crossing the demilitarized zone at Cascabel to get through to Sverland and Imperial waters. It’s a popular spot for smugglers, I hear; insanely rocky terrain, real rough, plenty of cover from Imperial patrols. If you’re on my level, you can weave a dreadnought through here though. Pull it up on the main screen, you’ll see nothing but rocks for kilometers, Captain.”

“But there are no patrols right now. In fact, the Union’s moving to occupy Cascabel.”

Aaliyah added a bit of additional context. She put on a serious expression and continued.

“Do you know the history of Sverland, Captain?”

“I know some, at least, I know what I lived through myself. Lyser, Ferris and Campos were the most productive colonies in the Nectaris, while Sverland and Solstice essentially served as Imperial management and logistics hubs and Imperial military bases. When the productive colonies revolted, they put the Imperial hubs on a clock. Sverland went through a famine after the revolution because they relied heavily on food from Lyser. They went from princes to paupers.”

Ulyana did not often go back to those times.

It had felt like living in another world entirely; but it was an indelible fact of her life that she had fought in the revolution. She was sixteen when the call to action went out. She joined the revolutionary infantry and even piloted a Diver. Her first act of war had been to ambush and stab to death two guards at Sevastopol Station, which was once essentially a prison for mine workers. She put a screwdriver with a rounded head through a man’s eyes. All the abuse she suffered, all the killing she did– she truly didn’t want to remember it.

“That’s right, but do you know what happened after the revolution?” Aaliyah asked.

“There was a huge exodus of Imbrians from the Union territories to Sverland.” Ulyana said. This was still tapping into her own memories. She was not much of a historian — she truly was not fully aware of what the accepted historical narrative had become. “The Imbrians were the managerial class; they didn’t get along with the Volgians, Shimii and the dark-skinned North Bosporan workers. Some of them we actually exiled, but many ran away as if they feared us lynching them.”

Aaliyah nodded. “Union leadership in the ensuing years believed that the exodus would lead to a rebuilding of Sverland as an Imperial fort. So, our border here always felt very tenuous.”

 “It ended up not being much of a problem in the end, right?” Yana said, a bit too glibly.

“Well, it was fine thanks to people like Murati Nakara and no thanks to you.” Aaliyah said.

Ouch. Yana simply bit that one down. It was true. She’d chickened out of Thassalid Trench.

“It became an accepted orthodoxy that the Empire had a powerful standing border force, larger than the fleet that counterattacked during the Revolution. With any standing fleet, the challenge is being able to supply them enough to maintain readiness. We believed the Empire capable of supporting a huge fleet in Sverland. We could only have a small border force in Ferris.”

Aaliyah looked to the Captain to continue the conversation. Yana was nearing her limit.

“Right.” Yana said. “That’s logical. Our stations used to be prison factories, not big plentiful cities.”

 “Recently we’ve been able to interrogate Imperial soldiers and found that the Cascabel border is not as impregnable as we believed. Sverland’s readiness has fallen dramatically as the Empire refocused on fighting the Republic.” Aaliyah said. “Aside from remnants of the Imperial logistics train, the battle at Thassalid wiped out the combat power of the Cascabel border. There was not going to be a second wave from Sverland. So, HQ decided to extend Ferris’ patrols over the demilitarized zone before the Brigand set out.”

Ulyana whistled. Aaliyah really knew her stuff from working in security and intelligence.

“So that means we’re still in calm waters, basically.” Yana said. “We should probably not expect a ready force of warships that could counter us until we’re deeper into Sverland. If I had to take a guess, probably Serrano would be the next hub capable of supporting one. Am I correct?”

Yana smiled at Aaliyah, who in turn nodded her head and returned a little smile of her own.

“I think you’re right, Captain.” Aaliyah said. “We should always be alert, of course.”

“Whether or not there’s patrols out there is irrelevant, because we’re not getting seen.”

Kamarik bragged and returned to his station, continuing to monitor the ship’s movement.

“Aaliyah, could I trouble you with something?”

For a Captain, part of being a resource to others, was knowing how to use others as well.

Aaliyah’s cat-like ears perked up. She nodded her head. “I am at your disposal, of course.”

“Could you prepare situation reports for me? I like the way you explain things. I think I would be better informed if I discussed such matters with you. I give you full authorization for it.”

Captain Korabiskaya put on a cheerful face for her Commissar as she made her request.

Aaliyah looked like she was surprised to be receiving praise. Her cheeks reddened a bit.

“I can do that. It’s not unheard of. I assume Nagavanshi once did this for you?”

“For me? Nagavanshi? Hah! She did compile reports, but not because I asked her, and not for my benefit.”

Aaliyah’s tail curled. She looked a bit mystified at that response.


Previous ~ Next

First Blood (52.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

“G-1 this is Thunder actual, report.”

Behind the sandbag wall guarding the approach to the base gate, a soldier of the 8th Division’s “Lion Battalion” answered the radio. His response was swift: there had been no activity from the 1st Motor Rifles all night. He had at times seen flickers of movement, shades in the dark, but for all he knew it was his eyes tricking him. His enemy was invisible to him.

Across the street from his position there was a brick wall about five meters tall topped with metal spears. Barbed wire wound between each spear and barred entry to prospective climbers. These walls fully encircled the base save for a pair of gates: the one before him, and one facing north. They were strong steel-barred gates topped with barbed wire. Past the gate stood a pair of concrete structures for the gate guards, and then a road that wound down in the base proper. Quite distantly, if he squinted, the radio officer could see nondescript buildings, bereft of people.

“G-1, maintain a high alert. We’re reinforcing your position soon.”

With those words, the platoon commander became silent anew.

This was only the second set of orders G-1 had been given.

The radio-man felt like they were all being sacrificed to give an early warning of 1st Regiment activity. He looked around himself for support.

At his side, a young woman grabbed hold of the padded handles on the sides of a Khroda water-cooled machine gun, keeping the gun raised on the gate barring them from their old barracks. She was tense; her grip on the handles was stiff and rigid. Crouching behind the sandbags were eight riflemen, armed with a single grenade and a Bundu rifle with 100 rounds. In the middle of the night two men and two women had run in from around the corner carrying a light mortar in three pieces. It had been assembled just behind the bus bench, and they crouched around it.

“We may be getting reinforcements soon.” said the radio man.

“Thank the ancestors for that!” replied the machine gunner, exasperated.

“No matter how many reinforcements we get there’s still thousands of people in there.” one of the mortar crew said, pointing into the base.

“It’s fine, they haven’t moved.” said the radio man. “Once the governor gives the go-ahead we’ll surround them and that’ll be the end of it. They had their chance to attack and they didn’t all night. We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, these folk ain’t Nocht.” said one of the riflemen.

Everyone went silent then. The rifleman’s clumsy implication was that the 1st Regiment was full of weak Ayvartans like themselves who had been bested by Nocht before. But that was not entirely true. For one, the 1st Regiment had defeated Nocht before. And most importantly, the 8th Division was, in a way, affiliated with Nocht. They were like Nocht, now.

Like them in allegiance, in whom they fought against; not in experience or equipment or in numbers, but in the dark deeds they committed.

But the fact was that there was nowhere for them to go but that sandbag wall overlooking the gate. It was either that or a stay in a prison camp, Nochtish or Ayvartan. Or worse. They had thrown their lot in with their own comrades over comrades in the broader sense. Without the mutual support of their dire pact they were nothing, and so, they remained.

So thought the radio man, until the machine gunner stomped her boot.

“Something’s happening!” She called out, holding her gun steady.

Across the road and behind the gate, a thin white mist had begun to spread. At first it the haze was barely noticeable, as thin as a cloud of smoke coming from the tip of a cigarette, blowing away in a gentle wind. Within minutes it had thickened into fog as thick as in a lowland swamp. Behind the bars there was no longer a road or gatehouses, only smoke.

“What do we do? What do we do?” shouted the machine gunner.

Forming a firing line to both sides of her, the riflemen aimed for the gate. Behind them the mortar crew scrambled to rip open the crates for their rounds, which they had not thought to unpack and lay out for use earlier. The radio officer thought his heart would climb out of his throat, so hard was it beating and thrashing in his chest. He mustered the will to speak.

“I’ll call it in.” He shouted back. “Calm down and don’t shoot.”

He lifted the handset to his mouth and switched on broadcasting–

From the speaker in his ear he heard a sharp, horrendous thrashing noise.

Wincing, he put down the handset and grabbed his head in pain.

But the noise was still there, distant, boring in his head. Was it a tinnitus?

He strained to raise eyes toward the gate, and found a black shape moving toward them within the smoke, tall as an elephant and just as broad.

In a split second’s glance the radio man noticed the gate had opened.

Everyone around him was paralyzed with fear.

At the edge of the cloud the black figure paused and shifted its weight.

There was a great thunderous cry and a bright flash that parted smoke.

From the edge of the street a 152mm round cut the distance to the sandbag wall in an instant. Detonating just over the sandbag wall it sent men and sandbags alike flying every which way. Metal sprayed in the faces of the riflemen, blinding and killing them; the machine gunner was flung back from her gun and died from the shock before hitting the floor again.

Surviving the first shot with only deafness and disorientation to account for it, the mortar crew rose from the ground and abandoned the position and their weapon, holding their heads low while hurtling down the street.

Lying on the ground, his stomach speared by an enormous chunk of shell casing, the radio man watched them go. He prayed for their escape with his last breaths; but in his final moments, he saw as a massive vehicle, with a turret like a destroyer’s mounting an absolutely enormous gun.

He did not see the vehicle shoot again.

Instead, seemingly a dozen men and women clinging to the tank’s rear and turret opened fire on the retreating mortar crew and picked them off before they could escape. In his final moments the radio man witnessed the birth of a new kind of Ayvartan warfare, and realized that nobody would know of his death, and that Nakar had dealt first blood.

She was throwing her iron fist right into the gut of the Lion battalion.

On the ground, at his side, the radio was still emitting alien noise.


 

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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges IX

This chapter contains bigoted words used in a fit of self-loathing by a character, against herself; it also contains violence, and familial abuse and manipulation. 


37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

After an agonizingly tense dinner with the queen and her maiden, Salvatrice retreated to a room set aside far in advance. It was a room that she had perhaps been meant to stay in several times, but those visits never came to pass. Decorated pastel pink, it was larger than her apartment at the academy, containing a bedroom, a living room, and a small study.

In place of the kitchen there was a massive wardrobe.

Salvatrice ran her fingers across the hundreds of outfits in her size that hung from the long racks across the musty wooden room. There were plaques with her name emblazoned on them everywhere. Their presence disturbed her. ‘Salvatrice’s shoes;’ Salvatrice’s hats.’ It was eerie, like staring at a not-quite-right reflection in the mirror; or another world.

Was there a Salvatrice somewhere who had been enjoying these goods?

There were dresses, beautiful, ornate, gilded and silver in the same fashion as her mother’s clothing. They made her fine silks look humble. There were all manner of sporting outfits befitting an active young woman. A rider’s uniform with a crop; a duelist’s coat and pants, paired with a crystalline blue sabre; a modern tennis uniform with a skirt. There were fur coats, so many that it almost seemed like a zoo had been depopulated to furnish them.

Hats, seemingly hundreds, in every conceivable style and every acceptable color.

Enough shoes to equip every fashionable girl at the Academy, lined the walls.

Salvatrice picked up one of the uniforms and pressed it against her chest. It seemed surprisingly well tailored to her slender and petite shape, as well as her height and the length of her limbs. She reasoned that she could put on any of these and it would fit.

She also reasoned that the spying she suffered was more intrusive than she thought.

Behind her, Byanca Geta panned across the room in silent awe, staring at all the coats and the various hats, the numerous shawls and fox-tail scarves and other accessories.

She picked up the sword and examined it briefly. “Do you know how to use this?”

“I took lessons as a teenager. But that was some time ago.” Salvatrice replied.

“Ms. Mariel told me the Queen practices every night. I guess she wanted to share her hobby with you; maybe you can spar with her some time.” Byanca amicably said.

This remark Salvatrice ignored. She examined the furs along the rack instead.

“Salva, how many paychecks do I have to save to get a place like this?” Byanca asked.

Salvatrice shook her head. She was too absorbed in the room to take offense at her bodyguard’s familiarity. “Infinite paychecks. You can’t buy something like this. It’s something that can only be granted or stolen. It’s a privilege of power.” She said bitterly.

She spread her fingers and allowed a beautiful mink shawl to fall to the floor. It was despicable, to think that through all her sufferings the Queen was collecting all of these expensive things in this room. What was the purpose of it? Did stocking Salvatrice’s future room provide enough stimulation to replace Salvatrice’s actual presence in it? Did she consider herself a great providing mother for stuffing an unused closet full of silk?

Salvatrice stormed out of the wardrobe in disgust, slamming the door behind her.

Byanca then opened the door again, letting herself out, and slammed it behind her.

Every room was lavishly furnished. It felt like a crime to sit in the plush living room seats, gathered around a television set the size of a bed and with just as much wood around its screen, along with a radio set and jukebox loaded with a massive stack of shellac records. There was a pearl coffee table upon which a jade tea set had been left. Salvatrice absent-mindedly touched the pot, and recoiled; it was still hot, and there was warm tea inside.

“For all the trouble they went through, they didn’t leave any biscuits.” Byanca said.

Salvatrice shot her a dirty look, and Byanca sank into her couch in response.

“What are we going to do now?” asked the Centurion.

“I do not know.” Salvatrice said. “I was not planning to stay more than a few days.”

“But it feels like we’re trapped, doesn’t it? There’s an oppressive atmosphere.”

The princess deeply shared her Centurion’s feelings. She thought she felt them much more acutely. These walls felt as if built to keep her trapped. This was not a cage for Byanca.

From the first brick these walls had been made to contain Princess Salvatrice Vittoria, the future Queen Vittoria II. However much Byanca must have felt her freedom curtailed by the etiquette, the stuffy atmosphere, the imbalance of power between the royals and herself, a lowly soldier in the Palazzo; Salvatrice felt those bonds strangling her with tenfold strength. Byanca was beneath their notice; but all their covetous eyes were on Salvatrice.

In this palace her wings were destined to be clipped.

But she was also keenly aware of her mother’s designs.

For the moment, they guaranteed some measure of freedom.

“She will release us. She needs me outside the walls to complete her plot.”

“Plot?” Byanca asked.

Salvatrice felt her breathing momentarily quicken.

Just thinking about the near future gave her terrible anxiety.

“I’ve become bait, to lure out the leader of the so-called anarchists.” She said.

Byanca opened her eyes wide and sat up straighter.

“THAT’S what you two talked about?”

Salvatrice bowed her head, her shaking fingers tightly gripping her skirt. “My sister was exiled to a nunnery for participating in a plot to kill my mother and usurp her. That is the reason why I’m the First Princess now. Her co-conspirator can no longer get to my mother, now that my sister’s intentions are in the open. But he can get to me.”

She could see her bodyguard’s heart sinking. Her torment was plain on her face.

“I thought I was prepared to hear something unpleasant, but this is too much.”

Salvatrice almost felt comforted by Byanca’s sympathy. Were it not for the string of torments she suffered the past day she would have felt tender enough for an embrace.

“Salva, this is too dangerous. You must protest this! Not only does it put you in peril, it could turn the academy itself into a battleground! These people have bombed buildings before, they’ve driven trucks through gates, they’ve shot up police stations midday. They will not bat an eyelash at gunning down the academy to get to you. Your mother has gone mad!”

In her despair, this was an angle that Salvatrice had not considered. She had been focused inward; on the danger to herself, now that her mother relaxed her security and revealed her intentions. Everyone suspected she would be a target, and she believed it now; but her surroundings would be just as much a target on any attack targeted at her.

She envisioned a car bomb going off at the Academy gate, the same as on that night at the Previte estate, pursuing its vengeance regardless of who might become involved.

How many innocent young women would die alongside her then? Women like the late Lady Mina, gunned down mere meters away fom her? She felt a wave of helplessness, like a cascade rushing down her shoulders and weighing her down on the couch.

She licked her lips absentmindedly, having no words to offer.

“Princess, let’s go after the Queen right now! We can’t just give up!”0

Byanca stood up to punctuate her insistence.

Salvatrice, however, felt only weariness.

“Please stop being so loud.” Salvatrice moaned. “Turn on the radio.”

The Centurion stared as the princess gave a dismissive wave of the hand.

Defeated, Byanca bowed her head and ambled stiffly to the radio, turning the knob. From the speakers blared crackling noise and a chaotic mixture of voices, changing with every millimeter turn of the frequency switch. Once Byanca let go of the knob the wailing settled into the calm, baritone voice of a popular opera singer.

She returned to her chair and took a sip of tea. Under the heart-wrenching melodies of betrayal and bitter destiny that characterized this opera, Byanca drank in silence, alone. Salvatrice did not touch her tea. Cozzi was such a horrible thing to have to listen to; Salvatrice almost wanted to throw her cup of tea at the radio in the hopes of a short-circuit. But she felt so weak and beaten that she did not manage to do anything.

In his handsome voice, the male lead sang of the two sisters, both beautiful and wealthy. Though his courtship should have been directed at the eldest, his eyes wandered to the youngest, and there was all manner of acrimony as lust destroyed them.

A despicable tale of women swooning and dying, and rapacious, pathetic men.

Not the type of man nor the type of woman Salvatrice would ever want to be.

“Could you change the frequency? Put it on Cybelle.” She said.

Nodding her head, Byanca put down her cup, stood, and twisted the knob again.

For a second the voices mixed again before settling on the awkward speech of an older woman, slowly enunciating the winning numbers for a small lottery. After this, she began to discuss the local weather for the week. Though far less dramatic, Cybelle was a reliable news station with round-the-clock programming. It was a sweet background nothingness. But the sting of Cozzi’s warring sisters lingered in her mind. It made her think.

Salvatrice wondered whether, trapped in that nunnery, her sister hated her.

She wondered whether things could have been different had Clarissa succeeded.

Had her sister taken power, what would have become of Salvatrice Vittoria? They were only half-related by blood, each created by vastly different fathers. They had little contact over the intervening years. Certainly no familiarity bound them to each other. Would she have gotten rid of Salvatrice? Would she have hid her like an embarassment, in the way her mother did? Would she have set her free after taking her mother’s head?

Shaking her head, Salvatrice brought herself out of her thoughts in time for the news.

“At the top of the hour, we’ve got an update on a breaking story from earlier in the day. Agents of the Queen’s Coorte 17th Legion have reportedly carried out a wave of highly successful arrests aimed at suspected terrorists around the Palladi region.”

Byanca raised her head from the tea. Salvatrice felt her body tense.

“This operation became possible after a Coorte agent captured an insurgent after a shooting at the Pallas Academy where one student was killed and several injured. The 17th Legion took the man into custody and extracted information which then led to several more arrests in and around the Palladi region. The 17th Legion has also confirmed that they have captured the ringleader responsible for planning the attack on the Previte estate, the grenade attacks in Ikrea and the shooting at the Academy, along with numerous cohorts.”

Though a more credulous person would have felt relief, Salvatrice immediately thought that something had to be wrong here. She turned to Byanca, silently demanding an explanation.

“It’s impossible; a minion like him wouldn’t have known any important anarchists.” Byanca said. “I interrogated him myself. He was in hysterics. Nothing from him is credible.”

Salvatrice turned again to the radio as the news-woman continued to speak.

“The 17th Legion has published a list of names of those arrested. Should you have any further information on these men, you are advised to visit the legionary office immediately.”

Calmly the woman began to read the names on the air.

Byanca’s eyes drew wide and her jaw hung, her lips spread. Her fingers shook.

Each name seemed to knock her words further down the throat.

Only once the full list had been read did Byanca find the strength to speak again.

“Those are all people connected to my investigation.” She said, her voice quivering.

“Why would they be arrested?” Salvatrice demanded.

“I don’t know! They’re all pub crawlers and poets and beatniks. Some of them might write bawdy lyrics about the Queen but none of them have the spine to throw a bomb!”

“So then you’re telling me that everyone who testified that they were friends with the shooter has been falsely rounded up as an anarchist?” Salvatrice shouted back.

Byanca clenched her fists. She bowed her head in disgust.

“Not just those who testified. There are names on there that I just got from people, but never managed to interview. It’s practically everyone who had any tenuous link.”

Salvatrice covered her mouth with her hand, not knowing what to think or feel.

Over their silence the broadcast continued in a cheery tone.

“17th Legion Legatus Marcel has gone on record as saying that owing to the swift capture of the perpetrators, enhanced security around the Palladi region will be relaxed. To quote him: ‘citizens of Lubon should sleep soundly and walk proudly, knowing their land is now safe.'”

That was it; the final piece slid into place. She was bait and this was the lure shaking in the water. Now that the anarchists had been “caught” everyone could rest easily.

Especially the real anarchists, who would soon catch on to the fabricated blunder.

Innocents sacrificed to enable the princess’ own sacrifice. God save the Queen.

Her heart burning with rage, Salvatrice thrust to a stand and stormed away from the couch and into the hated wardrobe, so fast Byanca nearly tripped with surprise trying to follow her. Inside the wardrobe she ripped the duelist’s uniform from the racks and drew the saber from its sheathe. She swung it once, testing its weight and her own strength.

Laying eyes on the weapon, Byanca held out a shaking hand in defense.

“Princesss, please calm down.” She pleaded.

Over her shoulder, Salvatrice laid a fiery gaze on the Centurion.

“Help me out of this dress.” She ordered.


Perhaps it was a ballroom on certain nights, with a chandelier like a blossom of glass hanging over the dancers. Certainly the piano was still in the corner, and could have been played. On the wooden floor the tapping steps struck with quick sounds that then echoed across the high ceiling and broad walls. Tonight, however, Queen Vittoria was not dancing.

Instead her steps took her closer and father from an invisible opponent, a shadow, that she fought with an ornate saber. Quick lunges and careless sweeps sliced the air. A subtle rush of noise accompanied each swing. In her dueling uniform the Queen had an entirely different air from the tantalizing, extravagant clothing she often wore.

She was covered up to her neck in a purple jacket, and dark pants. Her hair was collected in a simple ponytail. As she swung and stepped, practicing her stances, the Queen looked almost rugged. Alone in this grand stage, the Queen seemed to be in her own far-off world. There were no guards, no servants, just the fairy queen, and the swirling air around her.

Salvatrice spied her from afar as she traversed the long connecting hallway.

She was almost a mirror to her mother then, dressed in a duelist’s jacket and pants herself. Her own hair, shorter than her mother’s, was instead clipped behind her head.

Nevertheless, she thought they must have looked keenly alike. Perhaps everything in that wardrobe was meant to make her more a picture of her mother, in all her forms.

Even when dressed in a more masculine fashion.

Bloodthirst as ancient as the uniform and blade directed the Princess then.

Saber in hand, Salvatrice made to walk into the room, when a hand seized her shoulder.

Behind her, Lillith Mariel appeared suddenly and seemingly without a door.

At her side there were only paintings and stone.

Salvatrice did not see her coming.

She had perhaps been waiting in ambush in a niche, like a counter-assassin.

“Your mother does not wish to be disturbed.” She said sternly. “I will not ask why you take a weapon to her presence if you surrender it to me and turn back around now.”

Salvatrice glanced side-long at the maid with a snarl on her face.

She did not stop walking, and she had no intention to surrender anything.

“Byanca, get her out of my way.” She commanded.

From farther down the hall, the dutiful servant dashed into action.

In a moment, the Centurion approached and quickly seized the older maid by the arms, ripping her from Salvatrice’s presence and pulling her kicking and cursing back into the long hall behind them. The Princess strode confidently into the ballroom, her saber swaying casually in the air as she walked, her steps light, imperious, entering the Queen’s stage.

Behind her the maid and Centurion struggled in each other’s arms.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Mariel, but please stay out of this!” Byanca gently said, trying to hold down the Queen’s maid. Though the woman periodically thrashed, the Centurion seemed to have her well in hand, maneuvering behind and then taking her by the shoulders.

“You’re the one who will be sorry.” Lillith replied.

Though Byanca was well younger, Lillith was a woman not yet old in spirit.

Byanca seemed to take note of the woman’s zeal far too late.

She threw herself back suddenly, butting Byanca’s nose with the back of her head. In shock, the Centurion released the maid, who followed the assault with a sweep of her feet that knocked Byanca to the floor. Spinning around, the maid started down the hall, but Byanca had presence enough to leap after her shoes, seizing her and bringing her to the floor too.

Salvatrice ignored the scuffle and approached the center of the room.

Ringed by the gilded lines on the floor and by the chandelier above, the Princess stopped, and unsheathed her sword. The sliding of metal finally caught the Queen’s attention.

As if awakening to reality, the Queen half-turned to meet the new arrival.

She stared incredulously at her daughter.

There was one instant of panic on her face before her composure returned.

“Surprised?” Salvatrice said, a savage grin on her face.

“I arranged for the lessons, so I’m not completely surprised.” Vittoria said.

Perhaps for a moment she had thought this an assassination, but she no longer seemed to fear. Salvatrice was perplexed; did she not consider her a threat? What was going through her head now? Salvatrice had a weapon in hand, and they were all alone in here.

“Before I departed, I thought I’d show you the fruit of that labor.” She said.

Vittoria shook her head. “I am not in the habit of sparring at my age.”

“Do you fear twisting something tender, mother?” Salvatrice cockily replied.

“Yes. But something of yours rather, not mine.” The Queen calmly said.

Her demeanor was infuriating. Salvatrice wanted the panic in her eyes back.

“So you’ll deign to strike this misbehaving child then?” Salvatrice shouted.

“I will not strike you, Salvatrice.” Vittoria said, ignoring the outburst.

Salvatrice held up her blade and sized up her opponent. Her mother had her children young. Salvatrice was only a few years older than Clarissa, and only just pushed into her twenties. Vittoria was hardly of age when she first bore a child. Even though she saw both her children come of age, the Queen had not yet reached her fifties. She was sprightly and healthy and youthful not just for a woman her age but for a woman in general.

Still, that was only the skin. There was more to the body than that.

Salvatrice was less than half her age, and though her own constitution was poor, she was decently rested, and she felt the adrenaline and anger course through her veins. It might have been the fire of youth, but she thought she had an advantage on her mother.

She might not best the Queen but she could hurt her; and she so terribly desired to inflict pain on her mother at that moment. All she wanted was to lay sword on the Queen, whatever she hit, whatever it took. Whether it cut a cheek or sliced an eye, whether it grazed or killed. Salvatrice was seeing so red that any outcome would feel just.

Soon as Vittoria began to raise her sword, Salvatrice lunged forward.

Hoping to disarm her mother while her blade was still low and off-balance, she struck down upon the body of the opposing weapon with all of her strength. She felt her blow deflect off the flat of the Queen’s saber, hastily turned and held firm against the attack.

After the contact the blades suddenly separated, and the Queen stepped back and fully formed her guard. Salvatrice brought up her own blade to defend as well.

For the Queen to have avoided dropping that sword, she must have had a monstrous wrist. Salvatrice already felt an aching across her arms and back after only one swing.

“I take up the saber to relieve stress. There is no point in this for me.” Vittoria said.

“It is a relief for me!” shouted the Princess. “Hitting you is a great relief!”

Salvatrice stepped forward and swung her arms in a fury, striking her mother’s raised blade over and over. She felt as if striking glass, as if battering down an effigy. She pounded her saber against her mother’s guard, driving the Queen back step by step.

Mindlessly Salvatrice beat at the blade until her arms were raw from the savage outburst. Looking up she found her mother’s calm visage behind the blade and grit her teeth.

“I hate you!” Salvatrice shouted at her. She swung her sword again, smashing the blade like a metal bar against the iron wall before her. “I hate you!” She shouted, dividing the words among blows, repeated again and again, while her arms shook and her face glistened. She tasted fluid salt seeping down her lips from her brow, from her eyes.

With a mad grimace, the raging Princess switched from a battering downward swing to a sudden sideways sweep. Blood drew from the Queen’s hand as she was surprised by the new attack. Her blade fell to the ground, and she staggered back, holding her injured hand. Now there was not only red in Salvatrice’s eyes, but in the air and on the floor.

Gasping for breath, trapped in the throes of sadness and hate, Salvatrice threw her own blade to the floor and charged her mother with her arms out and brought her to the ground. They grappled beside the fallen swords, Vittoria pushing her away but never shoving, nor kicking, or putting up much fight. Salvatrice quickly gained an advantage.

With a closed fist she struck her mother in the eye and pinned her face-up on the floor.

Laying over the Queen, Salvatrice dug her fingers into her mother’s neck and squeezed.

“What do you think of me now?” She shouted. “What do you think of your half-elf androgyne freak child? Are you happy now to be getting rid of me once and for all?”

The Queen’s stony expression resisted admirably the physical pain she must have felt.

Tears drew from the Princess’ eyes as she savaged her mother.

“What do you hide behind that mask of yours? Tell me you hate me already!”

Salvatrice lifted her mother’s head and thrust her down against the hard floor.

Vittoria briefly winced. Her own eyes reddened, and voicelessly, she wept.

But her expression did not change. Beyond the merest and most basically necessary expressions of pain, the Queen had no emotion for Salvatrice, no dramatic reaction to her attack. She merely lay, weeping, coughing and choking, as though prepared to die.

Staring deep into those moist, bleak green eyes Salvatrice felt her grip slacken.

Failing to draw any reciprocal reaction, the fire in her breast burnt out.

Her curled fingers shook and shrank back from the marks left on the Queen’s flesh.

Salvatrice stood from the floor, stunned, shaking. Without the rage driving her, she was bereft of mind and memory. For a moment she almost wondered where she was, but it all hit her again in the next instant. She felt a fear that shuddered in her chest like a crawling worm, sinking deeper in. She doubled over suddenly, sick to her stomach.

She had failed again; she had done nothing that mattered.

In front of her, Queen Vittoria stood. Her eyes were still stained red, bloodshot and tearful, but the empty expression on her lips remained. Fluid dribbled from her nose, and she coughed periodically, struggling to regain her breath after Salvatrice’s attack.

“I do not hate you.” Vittoria slowly said, as her voice returned.

Her voice was so imperious that Salvatrice was again left speechless in her presence.

“You are the child I chose, Salvatrice.” She continued. Her words sounded almost heartfelt. “I could never hate you. Even if you hate me; even if you kill me.”

Salvatrice’s lip quivered. She reached for words, and found, hearing her mother’s voice, another brief burst of violence inside her. “Shut up! How could I ever believe that? I was treating as nothing but an embarrassment to you! You kept Clarissa and discarded me!”

Vittoria shook her head. “Clarissa was but an imposition of this place! I am your Mother, more than I am anyone else’s Mother! Your birth sex does not and has never mattered to me. Your blood does not and has never mattered to me. From the moment you were born, you were my treasure. In unfavorable circumstances I did everything for your better–”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Salvatrice shouted. Her own voice was losing its power. “You say all these things to get into my head! I know you mean none of them! You’re just using me!”

“We are both being used to further this Crown.” Vittoria said. “Because without it, I cannot survive, and neither can you. I am doing all of this so we can survive. You might not understand my methods, but you must believe my motive.” She took a step.

Extending her bloody hand, Vittoria caressed Salvatrice’s cheek.

Upon it she left a spatter of red upon the light brown flesh.

“You are my beautiful daughter, the most beautiful, wonderful, special child that any mother in this land could have. Everything I have done, I have done for you.”

Salvatrice drew back, her expression blank save for a nervous twitch along her cheek. She was shaking, though her back was ramrod straight. Where the blood had spattered her jaw shuddered and ached. Her mind was in chaos, and she knew not what to do.

In front of her, Vittoria knelt down and picked up Salvatrice’s saber.

“I respect you, Salvatrice, more than you know. It is because I respect you, because I believe in you, that I am pushing you to take charge of our current predicaments. However, if your ambitions have grown this much, I am willing to step aside. Here, my daughter.”

She pointed the blade between her breasts and pushed the handle toward Salvatrice.

“Under this crown, everything you hold dear will be in jeopardy. If you believe you can resist it better than I, and that you can shoulder this cursed Kingdom, slay me and take it. Nobody will retaliate against you. I will make your designs reality if you desire them. But be forewarned: the moment I draw my last breath, so will you. Salvatrice Vittoria will die and this crown will take her place. No matter how much I struggled against it, I am nothing but this crown in the end. It will always win. Over you and over me. I pray that the legends about your third sex are true: that you possess the will of a woman with the endurance of a man.”

Again she pushed forward, blade against breast, the handle out to the Princess.

“You will not be punished for ambition as Clarissa was. If you hate me, then kill me.”

Vittoria took another step, and once more Salvatrice drew back from her, horrified.

“Whether today or within decades, you are going to carry this weight.” She said. “Because I love you, because I respect you; I will honor whatever you decide, my daughter.”

Weight; the word echoed within all of Salvatrice’s being, tearing her apart from inside.

Salvatrice reached for the handle, seized it– and threw the sword down on the ground.

There was a sudden and agonizing lapse in her murderous desires, and just as sudden an all-encompassing fear of the gravity surrounding her mother’s presence. As if witnessing a walking ghost, Salvatrice turned from the Queen and fled blindly back down the hall, past the brawling Centurion and maid, past a pair of confused guards, past torches and doorways and stone and banners, not knowing where she was headed, running without end.

Into the labyrinth of the palace, and her own mind, she fled screaming.


38th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

“How is the tea?”

“It is fair, dear mother.”

“Only fair? It appears Lillith will never enter your heart as she did mine.”

“Oh ho ho! I have no designs to that extent. I’ve a royal already.”

“Of course. I would not tolerate my dear maid stolen from me.”

“I would never steal from my own mother. It would mean falling quite low.”

Byanca stared quietly at the trio with a skeptical expression.

Salvatrice drank her black tea in delicate sips with a demure expression. Her depature dress was a bit more extravagant than those of the past two days, with pink lace that nearly matched the color of her hair, and an open back. She had been surprised to find it among her things in the morning. Byanca supposed Canelle packed it a bit too well. A pity she could not have worn it to the dinner instead, the better to match her mother’s fashion.

She looked quite flashy. Her face was fully made up, with a brush of light gold pigment on her lips, and red shadow over her eyes. Her light figure was well represented.

Across the table, Vittoria was, in turn, rather modestly dressed. Her long sleeves and shaped skirt showed no skin save for her neck and some collarbone. Scrunchy lace and frills decorated the end of a fluffy shawl. A lacy white choker matched the bandage around her black eye and over her injured hand. It covered the marks Salvatrice had left on her neck.

Like her daughter, she was nicely made-up and appeared in decent spirits. A small smile played over her lips as she and her maid made polite chatter. Byanca could have confused her for a gentle, doting older mother, had she not had so much prior cause for skepticism.

There was quite a spread on the table. Tea, biscuits, grapes, honey cheeses, in beautifully garnished plates. The Centurion tasted the food and was nearly moved to tears. Byanca turned to Lillith with a special regret, in light of how delicious the honey cheese turned out.

There were visible marks on the maid’s exposed neck and shoulders, and a scratch across her cheek, all where Byanca had beaten and banged and otherwise manhandled her. It had been all she could do to keep the woman trapped in melee and a way from the royals. That maid had proven too tough an opponent the night before. Had she decided to fight instead of trying to run, Byanca was sure she would have been beaten to a pulp by her.

Lillith seemed to notice the attention, and shook her head with a smile on her face.

“You look tense, Centurion. Drink your tea and take in the lightness of things.”

Byanca couldn’t understand how after everything that happened the night before, they could gather in the morning for tea as if they were a family. She was sure, though perhaps it had all been a dream, that Salvatrice had tried to kill the Queen last night. She remembered returning to Salvatrice’s room and finding it locked, after she had run away. Only God knew; perhaps the Queen had just tripped and hurt herself. Maybe Salvatrice wasn’t screaming her lungs off all night. Who knew; who knew? Byanca sighed helplessly and sipped her tea.

At around noon, the Princess and her Centurion had gathered their things and were once more ready to depart the grand Palazzo. At the outer gates, back into the city, the Queen herself rode out on a sleek white horse to bid her daughter adieu. From inside the car, Salvatrice waved her goodbyes to her mother, and their driver took them into the city and out into the country once more. Back to the familiar setting of the Messianic Academy.

Salvatrice stared glumly out the windows, holding her head up by one hand. Though the landscape scrolled by them as beautiful as it always was, she seemed as if she were staring through it or past it, into a world for her eyes only. She was not taking in the sights.

Byanca sat back in the car, feeling restless from the silence.

“Got anything in mind, Princess?” She asked.

Salvatrice shook her head. “I’m going to take care of some things first, to clear my head. Then we will take care of all of this. I’m going to need your help more than ever.”

The Centurion nodded her head, satisfied with the response.

In fact, she felt a bit happy that the Princess was going to rely on her.

But she could not keep her mind off the past night’s events. She had to speak.

“Salva, about your mother–”

“That never happened.” Salvatrice replied.

Byanca nodded her head again. At least it was some kind of acknowledgment.

“Do you really hate her?” She asked.

Without turning her head, Salvatrice spoke in a dull tone of voice.

“I hate her. But right now, I need her. I will find a solution.”

For the rest of the journey, the Princess was silent, staring out the window.

However, Byanca felt no tension from her. She was either determined, or resigned.


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