Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.5]

In the middle of the endless white forest, there was a tree with a trunk that reflected light like glass.

Images upon its length began as static, but cohered into something as the tree awaited a visitor.

Raised over an ankle-deep puddle, surrounded by its rising and falling roots that were like gnarled bodies half-interred and half-dug back up. She saw it in the distance, and she ambled toward it like an animal in an endlessly dark cave, as if her senses only allowed her to perceive and follow its light. Step by slow, plodding step, her mind a fog, while the trees sang around her, their colors drifting in the air like a sky full of ribbons. Cheering for her, encouraging her, warming her, lavishing her with their endless affection.

She stepped into that puddle and looked up at the reflection on the trunk of the tree.

There was a familiar environment. A window into a world of metal.

There was a woman, hair tied up in a brown ponytail, wearing a long shirt and pencil skirt and tights, and a long lab coat. She had a pin on her lapel, depicting a globe beneath a rainbow of falling stars, and a second pin beside it, at times clutched in her shaking hand, with a logotype: “Shooting Stars.” These tokens looked almost childish, and the way she was clutching them nervously even more so. It made her look too young, too new, particularly in the indistinct violence of her surroundings. Metal, dark and jagged and industrial, pipes and mechanisms, tubes, fluid, fuels, gases. She stood on a platform deep in the midst of a gargantuan mechanism, staring helplessly as it unfolded before her, loomed over her.

Staring as it seemed to menace her; as it seemed like it grew endlessly outside of her grasp.

And up above, emblazoned in the center of everything, a flag.

Linked purple hexagons around a tiny blue globe, accompanied by a logotype: “Aer Federation.”

That mystery woman in the reflection contemplated the flag, then turned her head over shoulder–

–and smiled, an expression so tragic that blood should have come out of her eyes as tears.

As if staring out of the picture in the tree; as if she could see the lost soul in the endless forest.

Across time, maybe even across dimensions–

Filled with an agony and mourning of incomprehensible proportion.

“I’m sorry. I know that this will trouble you greatly, but I have made my decision.” She said. She was not speaking into the forest, not speaking to the woman in the puddle, but to the owner of the memory. “I’ve failed Nobilis, I’ve failed Nocht, I’ve failed Ayvarta; I’ve failed all of humankind, every hand that gave me third and fourth and fifth chances.” Tears drew from her eyes and though she continued to smile it was clear that her heart was broken. “If there’s anyone left to remember me, it will only be as a dismal failure; but the thing I regret most is how I failed you. We’re the only two left; and I can’t make this decision for you. But I made it for myself. I– You’ll probably think I’m such a coward. But I can’t– I can’t keep–“

Suddenly, at the side of the woman in the puddle, who had been watching the memory–

–there was a second one.

Red-haired, horned– lavish white robe– a disdainful look in her yellow on black eyes.

“Interesting finding. Somehow, this graveyard keeps opening its holes for you subhuman scum. I wonder– who is she talking to? Maybe I will let you explore and see if you turn up more.”

She raised her hand, and the colors collected around it like tendrils–

“But not for this; not right now.”

–and the tendrils lashed out at Gertrude Lichtenberg and tore her entirely to pieces–

“There’s nothing I want to be reminded of less– than of that spineless bitch Polaris.”


Depth Gauge: 3503 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)

Gertrude Lichtenberg awoke with a start and ran her hands over her body in a panic.

Breathing heavy, checking that she had arms, legs, a torso, shoulders, breasts–

With the source of her panic rapidly fading, unable to piece together what she had experienced, Gertrude was overcome with exhaustion once again. She threw herself back on her back, kicked her legs, sighed.

Despite the nap Gertrude felt very little relief from her previous exhaustion. It felt like lying down in her bed only caused time to move forward and did nothing for her body otherwise. There was a thought that swam vaguely in her mind and started to drift farther and farther away in wakefulness and it infuriated her. Something she had to do? Something she had to be worried about? She grunted with anger.

“This is really starting to get to me. I’ll– I’ll talk to Nile again. After I come back.”

They should already be at the same depth as the suspected habitat in the rock wall.

She could not stop now. She had to see this thing through to the end– or to its next step.

Gertrude slipped out of bed, fixed her clothes and left the room.

She took with her the gadget that Nile had given her, lying on her bed, stowing it in a pocket.

She did not look at it.

Since she did not understand it anyway, she was not curious whether anything had changed.

She made her way to the Iron Lady’s bridge. At the door, she was immediately met by Karen Schicksal, who handed her a vitamin jelly pouch without saying anything. She looked more disarranged than ever before, with her hair uncombed and dark bags under her glassy eyes. As soon as Gertrude accepted the vitamin drink, Karen withdrew another such drink from her jacket and began to drink it. They were starting to go through these quicker than Gertrude could have imagined– everyone looked exhausted.

In addition to Karen, Nile was standing with her back a corner of the room, and Victoria was standing beside Dreschner near the central throne. Gertrude sucked her vitamin jelly while making her way to her own chair, nodding her head at Nile and Victoria along the way, both of whom nodded back. They both appeared about as haggard as everyone else, but standing a little more alert than some of the crew.

“High Inquisitor,” Dreschner said, by way of acknowledgment. He yawned, pointing at the main screen.

On the main screen, their next destination loomed in front of them, enormous in its scale.

Its size easily outmatched the enormity of the Iron Lady herself.

“What is this supposed to be?” Victoria mumbled to herself.

In front of them, the structure that had been partially embedded into the rock wall appeared like an enormous, metallic stack of four plates where each pair was stacked well to well, so there was a thinner “neck” between the two main structures. It was absolutely massive, at least 300 meters tall. Some of the outer armor showed signs of damage, like shearing and gaps in the plates, but miraculously, there was no wear from the saltwater. Certainly this structure could not have been new as it was the size of a larger substation and nobody could have built it in such a precipitous location, so one would have expected an array of creatures to have accumulated over it over time, and for the elements to have worn its surface.

“It fits much too snugly into the rock wall.” Nile said. “I’m no engineer, but this looks deliberate.”

She appeared beside Dreschner’s seat, standing in conference with the rest of them.

“Not one of yours, I take it?” Victoria asked, her voice exhibiting a hint of derision.

“I would have ditched all of you and gotten myself a nice can of espresso if it was my lab.” Nile said.

“Don’t get started, you two.” Gertrude grumbled.

“I have something of an idea regarding its provenance.”

Dreschner raised his voice to match the women beginning to argue. Everyone looked his way.

“Lady Lichtenberg,” he continued, “do you remember your father well?”

Gertrude shook her head. This was a topic on which she had no strong feelings.

She remembered Dreschner from her childhood more than she remembered her own father.

“He was a very busy man, and the years of my childhood which are still clear in my memory did not feature him prominently. Not to sound callous– that’s just how it is.” Gertrude replied.

Dreschner nodded. “I would never accuse you of being anything less than filial. At any rate: the reason your father was first employed by Leda Lettiere was not as a guard, much less as guard captain. He secured those positions due to his bravery in a clandestine effort. He participated in an abyssal expedition to recover an ancient technology. A surface-era technology. I never learned what it was, but your father told me of the existence of such ruins. There are allegedly even some under Heitzing. It’s not well known.”

Gertrude was not aware of this history, but in her somewhat addled state, she simply could not muster a lot of emotion about her father. However, there was one tantalizing bit of information there–

“Wait a minute– surface era? As in, over a thousand years ago, before– the Ocean?” Gertrude asked.

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly.

“Maybe even before the corruption.” Nile said suddenly. “He’s not wrong– such things exist.”

Gertrude and Dreschner’s eyes turned sharply to stare at Nile, who crossed her arms.

She looked as tired as everyone else there.

“They do– I bet your organization has unjustly pilfered many of them.” Victoria hissed.

“No more than you biofascist brutes have destroyed unknowingly in your pointless wars.” Nile snapped.

“Stop it already!” Gertrude shouted. “Don’t speak another word to each other. Dreschner– how do you know this structure is related to the surface? What did my father tell you about such structures?”

“That they did not decay, and they never lost power.” Dreschner said. “We have confirmed both. While this station has received seemingly random acts of violence, there are undamaged plates that look brand new. No wear, not even saltwater corrosion. Furthermore, we probed around the area with a spy tentacle and found that there is a lower intake which is still sucking in water. This structure has electric power.”

“Can we signal it with the laser? Do we get anything back?” Gertrude asked.

Karen raised her voice, having stood in the periphery of the discussion. “We attempted to connect to the exposed laser array near the top of the structure, but we kept receiving incompatible protocol errors. I even had the computer attempt a Free Interface Generation process just to see if we got something, but the Iron Lady’s learning computer could not figure out how to communicate with this system at all.”

“It might be designed not to respond even when passive.” Victoria said.

“It’s unsafe to make a system like that! If the human operators were all incapacitated, there would be no way to determine the status of the station and respond to emergencies!” Karen said, sounding helpless.

“That’s our safety standard, but not necessarily theirs.” Gertrude said. “Nile, how much do you know?”

“I’m afraid it isn’t much.” Nile said. “Our resident deep-divers were a pair of ladies by the names Euphrates and Tigris. I was not as much a woman of action. I preferred to stay behind and work in lab or clinic settings, not run around. That being said, we had friendly chatter about it. So I can confirm that the most peculiar characteristics of old era structures are their continuing access to power, pristine condition, and the difficulty in extracting anything from them. Euphrates never successfully recovered old era data from any of the structures she uncovered. I doubt we will be able to do any better ourselves.”

“We may want to consider turning back, Gertrude.” Victoria said, her ears folding slightly.

Gertrude wasn’t about that to heed that advise. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her or even insinuate that this had been fruitless. In fact, if this was a Surface Era facility, then Gertrude’s journey may even have become more important than ever before. She felt a sudden attack of grandiosity– Norn wanted her to see this thing. Norn wanted her to discover it. That meant there was a way inside, or there was something to see inside. There was something she had to uncover, something that she had to understand.

There was no force on Aer that would have made her turn back now.

That inferno, raging where her heart should have been, dispelled some of the exhaustion she felt.

“We’re not ascending.” She told Victoria. “And you’re coming with me. We’re going into that thing and we’re going to see what we find in it.” She then told Nile bluntly. Nile did not seem surprised, and simply hid her hands in her coat pockets. “Have we found an entry? Can we connect a chute anywhere?”

She was raising her voice. She did not intend to sound so angry, but she was– impassioned.

“I know we’re all exhausted and we’ve been working nonstop. We’ll have a break as soon as I return from that structure. But I don’t want to hear talk of turning back. We are not returning to Konstantinople empty-handed. I am grateful for your continuing effort. Now, remain alert!” Gertrude declared.

This time loud enough for the entire bridge to hear.

Dreschner averted his gaze. Karen shrank back.

Across the bridge, there were a few half-hearted nods and salutes.

“Let’s start working on a way in there. The boarding party is already decided.” Gertrude said.

Everyone on the bridge resumed their duties, and so, with a sigh, the expedition continued.


The Iron Lady neared the structure and extended its boarding chute, holding onto the surface around the suspected entryway via its magnetic clamps. A similar process to the entry into the Cutter was undertaken, but ultimately found to be unnecessary. The engineers brought a wheeled scanning array to attempt to predict the structure of the door, which would have subsequently told the engineers where to drill. However, as soon as the first few seconds of laser and sonar scanning commenced, the door simply opened, as if it detected the sound and light waves and responded solely to that level of activity.

Behind the door was a brightly lit corridor at the end of which there was another door.

This one, the engineers did not probe. They tested the environment for habitability and turned back.

There was oxygen, everything was lit up and temperate. They had power, heating– and a big door.

“The door seems to have an LCD panel for interaction. We figured you would want to look at it first.”

The engineers were clearly tired, and anxious about the structure, but holding back any criticism.

While Gertrude found the situation unnerving, it was not nearly enough to get her to back down.

At this point, nothing would be– perhaps not even certain death.

She tried to keep her crew in mind– but they slowly fell by the wayside of her obsession.

“As long as there’s breathable air, I’m going. I can delve inside on my own if that’s what it takes.”

Victoria sighed openly at Gertrude’s behavior– or maybe out of personal exhaustion too.

“I swore that I would protect you. Quit being so pig-headed. I’ll follow you in.” She said.

With the help of some of the girls from the security team, Gertrude and Victoria once again donned their armor and flip-up bulletproof glass visors. Gertrude had her club and vibroknife and pistol, but in addition, she had a trio of portable door-breaching charges clipped to her belt. These would do nothing to a bulkhead, but could punch through an interior sliding door’s locking mechanism and thereby force the door to slide open. She even convinced Victoria to carry an additional two on her own person.

Victoria and Gertrude were a given, but there was a third member of this particular sortie.

Her face was again covered by her special muzzle, but that and her collar, glowing green, were the only pieces of apparel that Nile had in common with her previous appearance. She had been forced to leave behind her turtleneck and coat in favor of a durable, long-sleeved blue shirt like Gertrude’s– along with a suit of K9 skirmishing armor. This resembled Imbrian composite riot armor, but it was lighter, and made up of more individual plate segments that could bend together with the natural curve of her body to allow greater flexibility and freedom of movement. K9 armor units also included a tail and ear section, as well as Loup-scale vibroclaws retractable into the gauntlets. It suited her height and physique perfectly.

Like Gertrude, her long hair was tied up to keep it out of the way. That detail, the long pants and boots, and her distant eyes, gave Nile a very rugged look in the armor. Gertrude thought it was quite attractive.

She was the picture of K9 excellence, armored, deadly, swift on her feet, and proud-looking.

And as a nod to Nile’s particular status, her armor had the badge of a K9 medic, and a medicine bag.

“You look handsome, doctor.” Gertrude said. “How do you feel? How’s the fitting?”

Nile shut her eyes and sighed. “Never in my life did I imagine myself wearing this kind of thing again.”

“Again?” Victoria asked, narrowing her eyes. Nile ignored her completely.

Gertrude chose to let the remark go.

“Might as well use stuff we have that we know fits and works. Gets around the issue Victoria had.”

“I’m not objecting. It’s just surreal. If you’re expecting me to sic on command, you’re delusional.”

Gertrude grumbled. “I’m protecting you! I outfitted you so you won’t die if you get shot or stabbed. I have no expectations of you as a fighter. You’re here because I need your brain, and I need it safe.”

“Here’s hoping there’s nobody around in there to shoot or stab me.” Nile said.

She made to put her hands in her coat pockets, and found herself wearing no coat.

Sighing again, she hid them behind her back, interlocking the fingers.

Meanwhile, near a Jagdkaiser with its cockpit open, Ingrid stood with her arms crossed, staring from afar.

Before setting off, Gertrude drew nearer to her, drawing her lover’s full attention.

“Ingrid, I really want to thank you for doing your job so diligently.” She said.

Ingrid raised a hand to hover in front of her mouth while she yawned loudly.

Her tail started wagging, just a bit.

“When don’t I, huh? I’ve always been your loyal dog that gets shit done.”

“I promise, after all this, I’ll make some time specifically for you again, okay?” Gertrude said.

Ingrid averted her gaze and grunted.

“I’m not a puppy, I don’t need you to placate me. I’m fine over here. I have nothing against what’s going on and I completely trust and believe in you. So just go, so that this whole mess can be over.”

Her tone was not agitated in the slightest, even though she looked slightly annoyed.

She was being so much more mature about all of this than Gertrude previously imagined.

“Thank you, Ingrid.” Gertrude said again.

She was so strong. If only Gertrude could have a quarter of her strength– or loyalty.

God damn it. It’s not like I’m cheating– I haven’t done anything.

And the two of us aren’t even– god damn it. God damn it, Gertrude Lichtenberg.

You’re a real bastard.

Her inner voice berated her terribly.

She closed her hands into fists and walked away. Feeling terribly guilty for a moment.

Personal issues had to be set far aside, however.

She had to make ready to tackle the supposed old era structure.

For everyone’s sakes. It wouldn’t matter what she and Ingrid were or felt, if she was still powerless.

That prospect of “old era technology” that might grant her an advantage was far too tempting.

Without some kind of forward progress, Gertrude was convinced she would lose everything again.

So she took her resolute and desperate and half-mad steps, one foot in front of the other.

Crossing the bridge suspended in the middle of the ocean, into the walls encasing the unknown.

Past the threshold from the Iron Lady’s boarding chute, the interior of the structure was exactly as simple as the engineers described. Plain steel walls that were nonetheless polished and unblemished, a wide lobby bereft of anything save for a single shut door with an LCD panel beside it. As soon as they crossed the the threshold, Nile turned around and looked at the ceiling over the door-frame.

“There are vents up there. If there’s vents, there’s potentially pumps. That might explain why this room is barren and has nothing but another bulkhead.” Nile said. “This room opens to the exterior, possibly when it detects radiation, admitting people inside. It’s not necessarily meant to be a secure bulkhead.”

“Why would anyone design it like that?” Victoria asked.

“It might be their safety regulations.” Gertrude said.

“Is that euphemism meant to mean ancient surface humans? Because I’m not convinced.” Victoria said.

“Skepticism is healthy.” Nile said. “Fearless leader, go interact with that door, and we can confirm.”

“I know. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.” Gertrude replied, grumpy at the teasing.

Gertrude approached the door with Victoria at her side and Nile following a few steps behind.

Up close, the door looked remarkably thick and solid. It almost appeared seamless with the surrounding walls, with only the thick doorframe belying its true nature. The LCD panel was crisp and almost clear enough to be a mirror, completely unblemished. It was about the size of a human head. Gertrude approached and laid her hand on the panel, because its size reminded her of a palm scanner.

Blue light filled the screen and began to display a picture in response.

White text on a blue background, a bit difficult to see.

“What is this? It’s all in High Imbrian?” Victoria said. “Then we can safely say it’s from this era, no?”

Nile shook her head. “It isn’t exactly the same grammar as High Imbrian.”

Gertrude stared at the letters, speechless.

Across the Imbrian Empire, the common language was “Low Imbrian.” Low Imbrian was a somewhat universal language in the Imbrium and its surroundings. Cogitan captives understood Low Imbrian to an extent; and their Imbrian captors, following another pointless battle for the Ayre Reach, could mostly understand their common tongue, Republic Common Speech. The Union spoke and wrote Low Imbrian as “Union Communication Standard.” Katarrans called it “Street Talk.” Hanwans understood it and spoke a frighteningly similar language they called “the Public Tongue.” This language must have had an ancestor that was common to all races and cultures of Aer, and its inter-legibility survived stalwartly to this day.

High Imbrian was not like this. High Imbrian was a highly rigid and formal language with a completely different structure to Low Imbrian (though Low Imbrian was littered with High Imbrian loanwords). High Imbrian was not spoken in conversation, but was often learned and used as an academic status symbol. Doctors like Nile would know quite a bit of High Imbrian; an Inquisitor like Gertrude was supposed to learn it rigorously because large parts of the legal code were written in it. There were other prestigious languages of this sort. The Shimii boasted a dying tongue called “Fusha” that their surviving religious scripture was written in. The Union used a lot of High Volgian and High Bosporan in the same way Imbrians employed High Imbrian. Hanwans spoke a tongue that Imbrians called “High Altaic.”

These were niche languages that had largely died in their cultures save for loanwords in whatever dialect of the common tongue was actually spoken by the masses. It was widely believed that the High languages belonged to specific ethnic groups from the surface and slowly faded, while the common tongue was evidence of a global network of cultural exchange that necessitated a lingua franca.

It was in this context that Gertrude experienced shock when she only somewhat understood what she was seeing on the screen, but understood enough to tell it was High Imbrian. She could not hold a very vivid conversation in High Imbrian, but she should have been able to read it. And she could, mostly, but there were some grammar stumbles, it was just different enough that it read stilted and wrong in her mind.

“My High Imbrian is deeply rusty.” Nile said. “But I think it is asking for a ‘signal’?”

“No, it’s asking for a ‘Token’.” Gertrude corrected. In her own mind, making some best guesses, it said:

Welcome! We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Only authorized personnel can access the Island-3 crown spire. If you are here by mistake, assistance has been dispatched for. If you possess a valid authorization token, please lay the flesh of your hand on the panel and we will scan for evidence of STEM activity.

More or less that was what Gertrude understood. It was just a little bit off, but probably not too much.

Gertrude took off her glove. Victoria shot her a sharp glare.

“What are you doing?” Victoria asked. “You don’t know what will happen.”

“It just wants to scan my hand.”

Gertrude laid her hand on the screen once more, the bare flesh of her hand against the cold panel.

In the next instant, she felt a burning pain and jerked her hand back on pure, naked instinct.

Crying out in pain, shaking it, as if trying to cool it off. But the pain was localized too.

It was not “burning” but something like thousands of hot needles pricking her hand.

Her heart raced as she held her palm up in front of her eyes, looking for blood.

“What happened?” Victoria shouted. “Gertrude!” She snapped toward Nile. “Take a look at her!”

Nile had been staring with surprise at the panel, and Victoria jolted her back to reality.

“Gertrude! Let me tend to it! Stop shaking it!” Nile stepped forward.

“It stings, god damn it!” Gertrude cried out.

But there was no blood, there were no wounds, not even the needle pricks she felt.

Nile gently took Gertrude’s wrist and looked over her hand. Her eyes narrowed, she was puzzled.

From her belt pouch, she withdrew a plastic pack inside of which was a soaked cloth.

“This has an analgesic and mild sedative solution. It will relieve the pain and clean– the area.”

She could not say wound– there was no visible wound, no blood, no damage to the skin.

Gertrude grabbed hold of the little cloth in her affected hand, squeezing all the healing moisture from it with a sudden desperation. Soothing cool sensations flooded over the hot needles that had once invisibly scored her flesh, leading to relief, both from the pain and the sense of panic. She grit her teeth, breathed deeply but in a controlled rhythm, slowly regaining her center under Nile’s comforting ministration.

On the door panel, the text had updated to read:

INVALID. TOKEN NOT FOUND.

INSTALL STEM AND A VALID AUTHORIZATION TOKEN AND TRY AGAIN.

“HURENSOHN!” Gertrude screamed at it in High Imbrian, as if the panel understood–

Please refrain from vulgar language or verbal commands will be disabled.

“Huh, it accepts speech? That said speech, right?” Nile said.

She was gently stroking the back of Gertrude’s “wounded” hand to try to soothe the Inquisitor.

Gertrude, meanwhile, was growing ever more irritated as the pain in her hand lessened.

“It said ‘verbal commands’.” Gertrude grumbled.

“Interesting. Was that option previously available?” Nile asked.

“We haven’t been talking in High Imbrian until Gertrude called it a son of a horse or whatever it was– so maybe that activated it.” Victoria said. “Can one of you two talk to it about how to get in?”

“We know how to get in!” Gertrude replied brusquely. “We need some fucking, token or whatever.”

Nile sighed through her respirator. “Calm down, Gertrude.”

She turned her sight on the panel.

“Well, lets hope it understands me through my mask.”

Nile called out to the panel in somewhat tormented High Imbrian, inquiring about “STEM.”

Almost instantly, before Nile was even done talking, the text on the panel updated once more.

STEM stands for System for Token Execution and Management.

STEM is the ground-breaking technology back-end supporting the advanced endurance, comfort and security that have made the Island-series a leader in colonization solutions for extreme environments.

“What the hell? Say more than that! Elaborate!” That last word Gertrude shouted in High Imbrian.

On command, the panel spat out a longer and more complicated explanation.

STEM is a zero-trust secmodel installed at a mechanical root operating layer or in a neurological subject cortex that allows the reading and execution of “rich data blocks” or the storing of permissions and contracts into “tokens”. A STEM token or block can be tied to biological identity with strict permissions, a model that insures only authorized personnel are able to employ the access and execute the code associated with that token or block. STEM and tokens bridge the gap between analog and digital by imprinting cutting-edge smart contract tokens and encrypted data-rich blocks onto both electronics and the personnel that use them.

“What the hell does this gibberish even mean?” Gertrude shouted. She just barely understood it.

“I’m having a truly difficult time parsing it. What is– what is a Sicherheistmodelle?” Nile asked.

“You’re supposed to be the genius scientist!” Gertrude continued shouting.

Nile stared at her dead in the eyes. Her ears erect, her tail straightened out.

Gertrude felt a chill from the directness of that gaze, the tightness of that body language.

Her fingers, which had been stroking the furious Gertrude’s hand, stopped moving over her flesh.

They pressed down, without causing pain, but the grip became firmer, less comforting and warm.

“This childish conduct ill befits you.” Nile said. “I am a doctor, and I am a doctor who talks to patients and reads books and writes papers in a language people actually speak.” Despite the muzzle, Gertrude could tell that Nile was setting her jaw. She was agitated. “I am doing my best. I will continue to do so. Now, if the two of you want to get through the door, you will ask it where you can get a ‘STEM’. From what I can parse, a STEM is necessary to be able to hold the “signal” or “token” to open the door. Clear?”

“Yes.” Gertrude said simply and promptly as a scolded schoolchild. “Sorry.”

Victoria grunted, averted her gaze and said nothing.

Nile’s fingers began to move over Gertrude’s afflicted hand once more, as gently as before.

“I know you’re upset.” Nile said, her voice returning to its soft register. “But from what I’m seeing, it’s unlikely the door meant you harm, and it is even less likely that any lasting harm will result. Your hand will be fine. I’m here to support you, Inquisitor. Keep your wits about you, or the little lady here will worry.”

“Hmph. I’m not going to worry over her.” Victoria replied. “But you’re right. Gertrude, please calm down.”

“You could stand to be at least a little bit gentler with me.” Gertrude mumbled.

“What was that? You need to speak up for the door to hear you. It’s not updating.” Victoria replied.

Did she really not hear, or was she just being a bitch?!

Gertrude sighed. They were right– she was being stupid and losing her temper at a computer.

But they had essentially confirmed it now. This place, Island-3, was not built by Imbrians.

While the door recognized a variant of High Imbrian, Gertrude had never heard of a “STEM.”

Whatever cybernetic system this was, it was used to delegate access controls.

Imbrians used biometrics like fingerprints and eye-scanners, but they didn’t call that “STEM.”

They also didn’t describe those systems in the same way, even factoring translation errors.

Gertrude caught enough strange words in the description of “STEM” to think it must have been quite different from standard biometrics. It wasn’t just making a key based on Gertrude’s retina or fingerprint. Maybe it was storing the key itself onto her. That might have been why it fried her hand– it needed to sample her skin or blood or something else, biological, to know Gertrude had a STEM inside her.

This was equal parts surreal, arresting, but also, exciting.

Had Norn explored this structure? If so, how had she gotten past the door?

And what was behind this barrier that was worth such a complicated security system?

“How to install STEM in myself?” Gertrude asked the computer in High Imbrian as she knew it.

Parsing request.

“Don’t get mad at it.” Nile said. She must have noticed the tension in Gertrude’s arm.

A few minutes later, the text updated again.

A STEM architectural administration location has been found near you!

Suddenly a garbled, glitchy-looking and unreadable map appeared along with a series of coordinates.

“That map is bunk, but the coordinates may be correct. That Z axis is 5000 meters deeper than we are right now. It might somehow know that there’s another ancient installation in the abyss.” Nile said.

“Five thousand meters?” Gertrude cried out. “So, what, we leave with nothing and dive deeper?”

In another fit of passion, Gertrude lost control of herself and kicked her steel-lined boot against the wall.

“Gertrude!” Nile scolded again.

Gertrude grit her teeth, ignored her doctor’s reprimand and readied to kick the wall again–

“Huh?” Victoria’s ears stood up, and her tail curled. “Over there. Something shook.”

Everyone turned to face the wall running alongside the door.

At the edge, the seam between the corner and the wall was beginning to widen.

“That panel might be loose.”

The trio gathered at the corner and found that the seem between the panels was indeed widening.

“This wall can’t be that thin?” Gertrude said.

“There might be electronics hidden behind this panel.” Nile said. “I don’t know why it would be so flimsy.”

“Gertrude, you believed Norn was hiding something in here, didn’t you?” Victoria said, crossing her arms. “If so, a brute like her probably has no idea what that STEM thing is either, but she may have forced her way in violently. We need to move this panel and see if there’s a crawl space or a gap behind it.”

Don’t insult Norn.” Gertrude said with a sudden sharpness. “But yes, we should try to move this.”

Victoria looked surprised by the sudden scolding.

Gertrude made to leave to get equipment, but stopped when Nile touched her shoulder.

“Leave it to me. I want to limit how many people we involve in this.” She said.

“Why?” Gertrude replied.

“Just be quiet, trust me, and get back from the wall.” Nile said.

Victoria stared at her with narrowed eyes, but took a few steps back.

Gertrude almost feared she would reach for her sword. She stepped back from Nile as well.

Nile turned to the wall. She let her arms hang at her sides, loosened up, moved her fingers.

“It’s been a while since I did this. I would beg Allah for forgiveness– but I’m beyond forgiving anyway.”

In the next instant, Gertrude saw Nile’s eyes acquire red rings around the irises.

She drew in a breath, and delivered a punch to the wall–

–that Gertrude realized stopped just short of striking.

Victoria’s eyes turned red as well– she must have been seeing it.

There was a brief flash of green across the panel, and it shook and fell loose from the wall entirely.

Nile casually reached out her hand and caught the panel before it collapsed on top of her.

“Help me move this aside.” She said calmly.

Victoria stood in place, wary, while Gertrude stepped forward with a troubled look on her face.

She had felt it, that hair-raising invisible pressure; this was the power Norn possessed.

When she beat Gertrude back on the Antenora, when she attacked so quickly it was as if time slowed.

That beating was replete with the colors and presence that Gertrude now felt again.

Wary, she helped Nile to move the panel aside.

Revealing, behind it, several electronics that had been rearranged away from a very narrow path.

At the end of which Gertrude could see a distant metal wall– was that the interior?

“We found our entryway. And perhaps also Cocytus’, if what you believe is actually true.” Nile said.

She looked at Gertrude, and found herself holding a narrow and serious gaze from the Inquisitor.

“Nile, explain what you just did. I want to trust you, but I need to know.” Gertrude said.

From a few meters away, Victoria lifted her hand from the butt of her sword and sighed.

Nile shrugged and began to recite in a professor-like voice:

“Loup call it Volshebstvo and its practitioners Zirnitra. They have a belief that these are knacks which can be obtained by feats of strength or the whimsy of spirits. Khedivate Loup and Shimii hold these arts to be forbidden by God, calling them Sihr. Practitioners are called Majus, which is a highly pejorative term for Shimiists of all sorts as it implies godlessness and idolatry. To them, these abilities are provided by Jinn, evil spirits or demons that bend light to create illusions that deceive and lure people away from God. Khanate Vekans believe that Bayatars attain these powers from taking in the blood of their monarch’s horse, or having sex with the monarch– they call it Id Shid and call its practitioners the Mergid.”

She cast a glance at Victoria as she spoke the last sentence, and Gertrude cast a glance over to her too.

“What are you trying to say?” Gertrude replied. “That you’re some kind of folkloric legend?”

“No. I am saying you have nothing to fear. People with this ability have always existed.” Nile replied. “It’s neither unattainable nor inherently evil. In fact, I could show you how to do it– provided we had time.”

“She’s correct.” Victoria said. “And, Gertrude, if she wanted to kill us, she had many chances to do it.”

It was surprising to see Victoria agreeing with Nile on anything, and that surprised lent additional tension.

“Taking her side now?” Gertrude snapped. She realized, immediately, how stupid that sounded.

Nevertheless, she had said it, and let it hang in the air, awaiting the crash–

“I’m on the side of being logical and not lashing out at people for no reason. Unlike you.” Victoria said.

Gertrude felt pure shame down to her bones with the way Victoria and Nile were both looking at her.

Nevertheless, there was also a rebellious little part of her that didn’t want to have to apologize.

“Whatever.” She mumbled. “Let’s just carry on. I’ll go through the opening first.”

Nile and Victoria stared briefly at each other, then at Gertrude, with defeated looks on their faces.


Gertrude, Victoria and Nile ventured deeper into the facility.

Crawling through the narrow gap in the wall that had been concealed behind the loose panel, they found themselves in a hall behind the STEM-locked door. Following that hall, the space opened up into a lounge that was two stories tall. A pair of staircases along the sides of the space led to a narrow walkway connecting a few doors, but most of the space was taken up by untouched furniture that looked like it was made of glass, but must have been some kind of carbon or plastic. There were tables, chairs, what seemed like a couch lacking any kind of soft padding, completely empty vending machines. A bar with a counter, housing machines for preparing food that were also too clean to have seen any recent use.

The entire room had a hyper-modern style, featuring many abstract shapes, swirls, curves, everything from the railings on the staircases to the hanging LED lamps, the handles on the doors and the armrests and legs on the chairs, it all seemed like an objet d’art more than a functional set of furnishings. Gertrude was silent and serious as she looked over the pieces. The trio tried a few of the doors; several were locked via STEM tokens, while the ones that weren’t appeared to be empty storage rooms or backrooms.

That the supposed people of the ancient era lived so much like the people now, did not once enter into Gertrude’s mind. Her archeological curiosity was purely self-centered and power-driven. She had no interest in this time capsule, even though she was now sure that it was such a thing. Rather, what mattered was the treasure at the end; and therefore, finding the road that led to the end.

“Someone picked this place to the bones.” Victoria said. “No food, no drinks, not even napkins or hand soap. The bar has nothing, the vending machines have nothing, even the furnishing looks like it should have padding or cushions but no longer does. But they also left it superbly clean. It’s surreal.”

“It doesn’t matter. There must be a way through here. I’m going to blow one of these doors.”

Gertrude reached for one of her breaching charges, but Nile bid her to calm down.

“Those panels are probably just blocking off executive offices.” Nile said. “This place looks like a corporate lobby. Those offices probably just have devices and computers with STEM interfaces. Let’s check upstairs and try to find a connection to a different area. We may have more luck if we can get farther up.”

“We should also keep an eye out for more damage.” Victoria said. “Our mysterious infiltrator may have made their own functional path through the structure. I’m positive they did not have a STEM.”

“That gap they made in the first room was meticulous. None of the electronics were damaged.” Nile said.

Gertrude did not have as much of a low opinion as Victoria did of Norn– but she was beginning to think it may not have been Norn who first discovered this place. It had to have some connection to her, or else Norn would not bother sending her to Kesar. Either Norn visited this place, or perhaps she was taken here, or found it in a classified file or something like that– but she might not have been responsible for it. That move with the hidden panel was not Norn’s style. She would have blown a hole through.

Norn was not surreptitious. She was direct. She had no motivation to lie; she had the power not to.

So this place had to mean something or she would not have sent Gertrude there.

But, perhaps she also didn’t make the paths herself either. She was not meticulous.

“Ugh. What a situation– fine, let’s check upstairs.” Gertrude brusquely replied.

Climbing the staircases, they found more locked doors, with panels as verbose as the one before all asking for STEM tokens– but of a slightly different type. These doors asked for “verification” tokens rather than “authorization” tokens. Gertrude knew enough about machines to know such a distinction was significant, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t about to let the door sting her again, she knew she did not have a STEM and therefore, it was fruitless to play around with the panels for too long.

There was a plant pot in each corner of the upstairs hall, next to one of the locked doors.

They had short, thick green trunks and long fronds, like “tropical-style” plant decorations.

Gertrude, on a whim, rubbed her fingers on one of the fronds and nearly jumped.

“This– this doesn’t feel like plastic!” She called out.

Victoria dipped a finger into the soil in the pot. She withdrew it and shook it, with wide-eyed surprise.

“It’s moist.” She said simply.

Nile crossed her arms. “Someone has been here recently, and they’re taking care of this place.”

“How the hell?” Gertrude said. “They won’t communicate with anyone, but they’ll water the plants?”

“Maybe they can’t actually operate the main computer; they’re not able to pay attention to a security system or acknowledge intrusion remotely.” Nile said. “They have no administrative ability, but can get around somehow and are trying to keep the spaces inhabitable as much as they can. So they are unable to respond to contacts from outside and can’t operate these locked STEM doors but they keep what they can reach clean, and have wound their way through the facility over time without causing damage.”

Gertrude couldn’t imagine this scenario, it was too farfetched.

“That’s insane, they would still need food and water. For what end would they stay trapped here?”

Nile shrugged. “I’m just guessing. I have no idea. But these are real plants, and someone watered them.”

“Whoever it is, they are fastidious. Everything is impeccably clean, it looks brand new, and it can’t just be because the materials are durable. It does fit a potential profile of our mystery infiltrator.” Victoria said. “There may be sources of food and water deeper in. I hate to say it, but it’s not so implausible.”

“Fine. That gets me no closer to anything.” Gertrude complained. “We need to find another path.”

Nile and Victoria stared at her again, but this time Gertrude did not stay put long enough to see it.

Though she felt their gazes in the back of her head. They simply vanished in the flame of her passion.

They looked over the lounge and bar area, as well as the upper story, a second time.

“Wait, I know.”

Gertrude had an idea. The front door panel had called this placed the “Island 3 Crown Spire.”

That did suggest verticality was important– it was like Nile said. They had to find a way further up.

Going up–

Maybe one of these doors had an elevator or a staircase but everything was locked by STEM and it was impossible to tell which doors were important and which weren’t. They couldn’t blow up everything for fear of damaging something important. It was likely the person or persons who infiltrated the front door ran into the same obstacle. They were on a landing though– so they must have tried going up.

Gertrude had been checking the doors and walls and the floor, on both the first and second stories–

“Nile, can you use your ability to try to disturb the ceiling panels?” Gertrude asked.

Higher up the spire from this “lobby”– to get higher up, maybe–

Nile nodded her head. She glanced at the roof.

Her eyes briefly lit up and red, and suddenly there was a series of loud knocks, dozens of them.

“Ugh! Be careful!” Victoria shouted, folding her ears down against her head with her hands.

Reverberating across the ceiling, Gertrude thought she could almost see the strikes on each panel.

Like waves of vague color rippling out from a center point in each panel.

Nile had not moved a muscle other than to give the ceiling a look.

Was her power even more impressive than Norn’s? That simply couldn’t be–

In the midst of her awe, however, Gertrude saw one of the panels shake and drop.

Along with a carbon-fiber rope ladder that stretched into the ceiling.

“There! God damn, we finally found it!” Gertrude cried out with joy. “Nile, you’re amazing.”

Nile shut her eyes and looked down at the floor but was clearly smiling behind her mask.

Victoria huffed. “I’m choosing to trust you for now, criminal, but I’m watching you. Every thing I learn about you makes you seem more dangerous, and Gertrude doesn’t understand it at all.”

“At least you’re choosing to trust me, that’s all I care about.” Nile replied.

“Hey. I understand perfectly what I’m doing. Quit your bickering. We can go up! Onward!”

Gertrude called out to the two, and ran to the ladder, which had come down in front of a second story doorway. She began to climb up into a crawlspace that separated the lobby from whatever was above. It was, like the interior of the wall hidden behind that loose panel, full of cables and vents and pipes, that had been carefully rerouted away from a tight path, at the end of which was a light coming down. It was another loose panel that had been completely pulled away, allowing exit up into a new hallway.

As before, the space was fastidiously clean. But it also answered a lot of questions.

After Victoria and Nile had made their way up to the new hall, which was a pristine blue steel like the other ones, they wound their way through several habitations and habitation-supporting facilities. Here, there was noticeable damage. STEM panels had been messily removed, and doors hung open with their sliding locks sticking out like limbs half-amputated. Aside from the door damage, everything was pristine, without a speck of dust. There was an area with bunks, dozens of them; a bathroom with showers; another lounge, with empty and open offices that also had their STEM locks disgorged; and an algae and mushroom cultivation room that was overgrown but tended, still producing food that must have been regularly consumed. There was a wall full of crates of material for both the algaea and the mushrooms.

Gertrude was amazed at the the size of the grow operation and the sheer amount of supplies in it.

“There’s decades worth of food in here. There must be a hundred crates of preserved material.”

“Some of these crates have Imbrian and Katarran national symbols.” Victoria said. “But there’s one in the corner that’s just blocking off a vent that has an entirely different symbol. I’ve never seen this one.”

That last crate was made of plastic slightly yellowed and had seen a lot of use. That symbol on its lid was barely legible, but appeared to be six hexagons, arrayed in a hexagon pattern, around a globe.

“Is that an old Republic symbol or something? What polity is that?” Gertrude asked.

Nile’s eyes were shut. She took in a deep breath. “I’m afraid it’s much older than that.”

“You know something, so just come out with it. We’ll believe any crazy thing at this point.” Victoria said.

Nile nodded. “It’s an ancient polity that spanned the surface. The Aer Federation.”

“Aer like the planet?” Gertrude asked, in mild disbelief despite Victoria’s assertion.

“Yes. In the Sunlight Foundation’s research on abyssal locations and recoverable old era technology, which has borne little fruit, I must add–” Nile sighed. “This symbol came up a bit. It’s on broken pieces of ancient vehicles that Yangtze and Euphrates studied. On old cargo crates, ancient debris, shipwrecks.”

“I thought you said old era things were untouched by time.” Gertrude replied.

“Structures, yes. They are made of an extremely dense and high quality form of agarthic alloy that we have no capability to reproduce. The amount of heat, material and time that must have taken to produce a structure like this Island-3 would be mind boggling to us, infinitely too expensive and we simply don’t have the facilities and logistics to do it. But even the surface dwellers could not make everything out of this material, so they left behind debris. Things like ancient shuttles or transport ships, maybe even cargo pods and escape craft, that were ultimately destroyed long before our time and lost in the depths.”

“And your people just happened to turn up their bits and pieces in your expeditions.” Gertrude said.

“Why is that the part you’re skeptical about? You just don’t understand the time scale the Sunlight Foundation operates on.” Nile replied. Her eyes looked suddenly wistful. “For us, it’s as if time stops, and we have infinity itself to accomplish our goals. With that outlook, scouring every centimeter of a deep ocean trench or a gorge or overturning every grain of sand in a Reach is not daunting at all.”

She looked at Gertrude in the eyes. “It’s only recently, that I’ve felt like my time is moving again.”

Despite her ardor and desperation– Gertrude recognized the humanity in those eyes, in that look.

She stopped questioning Nile. She began to feel like she just wanted to embrace her.

And she had to choke down some of that unneeded empathy. To keep going; to keep the fire.

“Let’s keep looking around then. We might be able to find someone– or readable records.”

Nile nodded her head in response. Victoria put down the box back where she found it.

If there were Katarran and Imbrian supplies stockpiled here, then there had been an intruder.

It was just as they thought– someone had gotten to this old era structure before them.

Norn? Perhaps with assistance?

What do you want me to see here? What do you want me to experience?

Gertrude’s obsession with the purpose of coming here– made her lose sight of other things.

She barely acknowledged the magnificence of what she had found– what she had learned.

Knowledge and experience in itself was useless to her. Unless it was actionable as power.

So she kept wandering through this grave of an unknown ambition.

With a weary mind and a hungry, reckless heart–

Please help me.

“Hmm?”

Gertrude looked around.

She thought she heard a voice.

They were just walking down another corridor with more empty rooms–

Please. I’m trapped. Please help me.

“Do you hear anything?”

That voice had such pathos to it– it really sounded like somebody was hurt or distressed.

There was a growing alarm in Gertrude’s heart at the voice. Nile and Victoria stared at her.

“Hear what? There’s just a bit of whirring, probably the vents.” Victoria said.

I can’t get out. I need to leave. I’m trapped in here. Please. You have to save me.

“How can you not hear it?” Gertrude asked.

Nile looked at the Inquisitor, quizzical at first, but then her eyes drew wide with alarm.

“Victoria, grab her–!”

Victoria had been far too late to realize and then to respond–

Gertrude had already taken off running down the corridor. She was convinced that there was somebody deeper inside the facility that was desperately crying for help and it awakened every bound-up and coiled tense muscle in her body to sudden action. That voice, which was filled with so much emotion, it reminded her of something that she felt suddenly responsible for, and it made her despondent and desperate. She ran and her eyes teared up and her chest hurt and everything began to change–

rippling mirrored images of emotional colors
walls warped into half-remembered vistas of dreams
moaning forests full of silver trees
puddles reflected ribbons of flying sensation
sky as crowns of world-spanning white branches
reflecting past present future roots digging through–

a woman surrounded by evil machines–

and the one whom she had been truly speaking to–

and what she had left behind–


There was loud slamming sound as an automatic bulkhead shut itself behind Gertrude.

When she came to her senses, she was in a dark, cavernous place with a damp floor.

No longer surrounded by metal walls, Gertrude panicked and clutched her chest and neck–

but she could breathe.

Her breathing was ragged, moaning, exhausted, but she could breathe.

She was outside Island-3. When she looked back, she saw a closed bulkhead, but everything around her, in front of her, over her, was rock that had been carved into some kind of tunnel. It was dark, but there were a few LED strips on the walls glowing dimly and intermittently on failing batteries. There was air in this tunnel– she even thought she could still hear the whirring of a pump somewhere. She was not cast out at sea and the pressure was not going to tear her apart. She was inside the gorge wall somehow.

Looking back over her shoulder.

How far had she gone?

Where were Nile and Victoria?

And where was the voice that had led her to run so desperately?

She was so shocked, she felt numb, utterly confused, so she walked forward, there was nowhere else.

“What happened to me?”

Soon as she stepped farther into the tunnel ahead, that pathetic whimpering returned–

Please help me. Please anyone help me.

Gertrude was also hearing something else– a static-filled and broken, horrifying voice–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

There was buzzing noise inside Gertrude’s head like she was a radio for some dismal frequency–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

“I don’t have a STEM. That computer said it.” Gertrude mumbled to herself.

It couldn’t be her STEM that was breaking down– she had none–

These weren’t her thoughts– they couldn’t be– they didn’t have her–

–texture.

Gertrude was certain she was hearing someone else’s internal voice, but inside herself.

“It doesn’t feel like Nile, or like Victoria, or like Norn–“

It wasn’t like any of those powerful presences she had felt in the past, but it had the same–

–texture.

Every time she heard it, booming inside her skull, it made her panic ever worse.

Please help me– Please, I’m trapped– I can’t take it anymore–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Gertrude grit her teeth, going from a brisk walk back to a headlong run.

Her own ragged breathing began to overpower the voices in her head as she sprinted into the darkness.

In front of her the shadows parted to reveal ever more and deeper shadows.

She ran and ran in the mounting and encroaching dark, her chest muscles tightening, her legs burning.

Indistinct rock sliding past her, the same flat shadow in front of her tears-warped vision.

She felt the walls enclose, the world tighten around her like black shackles, why couldn’t she advance?

Her chest tightened and expanded and every action was pain.

But she kept running, kept tearing at the indistinct shadow in front of her–

Until something broke up the once-changing sights.

Gertrude brought herself to a sudden halt, gasping with surprise.

In the middle of a circular room littered with debris. Ripped plastic and cardboard, wrappers, fish bones.

All surrounding a woman in a long, black dress, standing with her head bowed, arms hugging herself.

She twitched; a convulsion wracked through her body–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Her lips spread gently and she whispered. “Please help me. Please, anyone.”

Gertrude stepped forward. That voice was so soft, gentle, needful–

She reached out a trembling hand and touched the woman on the shoulder–

and felt a jolt of something hot and quickly-spreading, like electricity through her veins.

Her eyes immediately began to weep, blistering hot like they were melting.

Around her everything broke down and blurred away in copious tears.

In between blinking eyes, flitting in and out of focus before her she saw–

Oceans. Mountains. Skies. Trees (not silver, but reaching high). Roads. Buildings.

(A purple glow that flashed and burned.)

Metal hallways. Depth. Darkness. Pale bodies by their hundreds.

(A clicking sound like thrown dice. A feeling like an equation resolved.)

Duty. Order. Repetition. The same halls, the same tasks.

(A rising pillar, ambition, an eagle on a flag.)

A monstrous metal landscape that glowed and throbbed with sinew and bone as if alive.

“I’m sorry.”

Polaris.

“I made my decision.”

How could you abandon everything?

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING–

SUCCESS!

Welcome to STEM R12.2. Isolating corrupted blocks until bad block check resolves–

BAD BLOCK CHECK CANCELLED– WILL NOT RETRY.

Eyes with glowing blue hexagons around orange irises deep and bright as pools of fire,

swallowed Gertrude whole.

She was right in front of her–

grinning.

And when her fingers touched Gertrude’s head, it felt like her skull split open.


Her body was in a different position and there was now a dim light in her eyes.

Directly in front of her– no, she was supine, so it was the ceiling above–

It was all dark brown and black rock.

She was not lying on the rock. Her head was lifted a little bit, and rested on something soft.

Her vision was still swimming. Something slowly started to come into focus.

On the periphery of her vision; black, a long black sleeveless dress, a black cape; slim pale arms;

A pale woman with a soft and beautiful countenance, a mature and gentle expression, regal even;

long silver-gray hair; an ample, gently rising bosom; two tall, fluffy, black ears;

silk-sleek hands stroking Gertrude’s hair and shoulder, around her neck;

Fingers crawling into her shirt and massaging her neck and collarbone in a sensual way.

Her head was resting on this woman’s thighs.

Bright eyes colored a deep orange locked onto Gertrude’s own.

She felt comfort. She felt rest for the first time in a while. She felt, strangely, safe.

“Are you awake now, master?” The woman asked. She shut her eyes and smiled gently.

Her voice was very attractive– deep, sonorous, worldly.

“Where am I?” Gertrude asked.

“You are in the Island-3 Crown Spire, the VIP module of the Island-3 colonization project.”

“What does that mean? Island-3?” Gertrude mumbled, still recovering her senses.

“Island-3 was a project to explore the deep ocean trenches and expand humanity’s reach into the place known as ‘Agartha’ in search of energy sources. I’m afraid that’s all I’ve uncovered. Most importantly, master, what you are now is safe. Your body is so worn, and you are full of anxiety. Let me help.”

Her lips were painted a very slight violet. With her every word, they moved so tantalizingly.

“Who are you?” Gertrude asked. Her tense body started to loosen up.

“I am a humble caretaker of humans– of people. You can call me–”

She paused and looked up for a moment as if in deep thought.

“–it looks like you can call me Azazil An-Nur. I am Azazil An-Nur. I am here to serve, master.”

The woman looked around the room. She seemed puzzled by her own surroundings.

“Well– I suppose it cannot be said that you are in Island-3 anymore. Years and years ago, someone carved this tunnel, and trapped a girl here in the dark. They loved her because they had been born to love her– but their hearts resented her and wanted her shut away from sight. They were both ashamed and disdainful, grateful and proud; such is the dual nature of Duty. Those powerful feelings still linger in this place. They have become more important than Island-3’s original purpose. Do you feel it, master?”

Gertrude felt it. She could feel the entire room, beating, like it had a pulse, a pulse of long-lost voices.

There was a familiar texture that once felt so distant, but was now so plain, so obvious.

She could feel it so strongly that it was as if the colors in the room brought the woman to them–

Norn.

Norn had been here before. This entire room felt like her– abandoned, confused, angry.

So, extremely, horrifically, angry–

“Master, are you curious what happened here? I can show you– if you open your mind to it.”

Gertrude’s head still felt hazy, and there were a million alarms buzzing in back of her mind.

Despite this it only took her a few seconds to respond.

“Show me.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled gently again.

“It shall be done, master. Hold on tightly to your sense of self– I’ll hold on to it too.”

Around Gertrude, the colors that were previously dancing in their dimmest hues exploded with brilliance.

Azazil’s eyes glowed with red rings, and a whirlwind of emotion swept Gertrude away.

To the time of Mehmed’s Jihad– and before.

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.9]

While Norn began speaking to the enemy commander, Adelheid sat next to her with an active terminal and oversaw their preparations for battle. She had cameras on the hangar and logging on the mainframe for all the work done at the bridge stations. There was not much that she needed to do, because the crew was so efficient and disciplined. She thought she might at least have to yell at Selene or Samoylovych, but the two of them, Petra Chornyi and the Red Baron were ready to deploy the second Norn commanded it. Turrets were ready, torpedoes had been loaded. The Antenora was primed for battle.

Norn’s Magellan was also assembled, serviced by a crane rather than a proper gantry.

“Are you really going out there?” Adelheid had asked, prior to the hostilities.

She was already concerned the instant the sonar pulse came back with an imaged ship.

So before battle was even joined, the anxiety was clear on her face.

“I have no intention to deploy. Yangtze and Potomac can go fuck themselves.” Norn said.

Adelheid’s eyes drew open in surprise. She had nursed a fear of Norn fighting personally.

“But I thought you were going to get Elena for Gertrude too. It’s not just them.”

Norn nodded solemnly. “That is Gertrude’s business. I plan to send her out to complete it.”

“You’re right.” Adelheid said, feeling relief. “You shouldn’t be responsible for any of this.”

“You really do understand me better than anyone, Adelheid.”

Norn gave her a gentle, confident smile and stroked a few locks of Adelheid’s hair.

Seated side by side on the bridge of this ship with had committed so much violence.

That firm hand caressing her lifted Adelheid’s spirits just a bit. Her heart felt warm.

“If this ship really did that much damage to the Iron Lady, it must be dangerous.” She said.

“I know.” Norn said simply. “But Gertrude will have no better chance than this.”

“Right.” Adelheid replied. “We’re probably better armed than the Iron Lady overall.”

“There’s my adjutant sounding like all of those battle analysis courses she aced.”

Norn returned her attention to the main screen, still stroking Adelheid’s hair with affection.

“I can’t fight everyone’s battles for them. I refuse to be used like that anymore.” She said.

Miming Norn’s words, Adelheid replied, “Now there’s the rebellious Praetorian I love.”

Adelheid had been with Norn for over six years now. Their relationship was only slightly younger than their acquaintance. She had been on the receiving end of Norn’s speech about opportunity; but Adelheid refused to use her. Back then, she felt strongly that she wanted to prove her own power.

And she had succeeded in her goals, despite everything that followed.

With a lot of Norn’s help that had ultimately been freely given.

She had gone on many voyages with the Antenora since then. It never got easier. Adelheid was not someone who was used to fighting. Even if Norn ended up essentially bullying and toying with the opponents they were usually given, she was still nervous. She kept it under control. She was not so stupid as to act out and become a liability if it would put Norn in danger. So when it came time to fight, Adelheid set everything aside and played the dignified adjutant as best as she could.

Adelheid stole a glance at Norn while she was speaking.

She seemed to have everything under control. She always did. She was strong.

That strength which had held Adelheid firm, had freed her, had given her new life.

But Adelheid knew that too many people relied on Norn, viewed her only as a weapon for their ends. She could never fool herself into feeling that Norn was invincible. Because she understood Norn more than anyone. Norn would falter someday. She couldn’t hold the world on her shoulders all alone.

So she worried. Whenever they fought, she pined anxiously for everyone’s safety.

And she did her best to be ready to support Norn on the day her strength was questioned.

Once the Pandora’s Box opened negotiations, Norn instantly demonstrated her superiority.

She looked like a goddess to Adelheid. A shining being not from this world.

Ulyana Korabiskaya was a looker herself — maybe Adelheid had a thing for blondes — but nobody could match how incredibly hot Norn was when she took control. They had watched footage of the discussions between Gertrude and Korabiskaya so Norn knew to expect a few attempts at second-rate fast talking from the mercenary commander. Adelheid knew Norn would try to influence the enemy captain psionically and end the conflict easily, so she “flipped” on her psionic vision.

Focusing on the aura of Korabiskaya and Norn, she saw the brief contest that ensued.

However, the outcome was not what she predicted.

Korabiskaya resisted; she had some potential.

Not enough to fight back. Norn had simply stopped, rather than being actively countered.

When it came to psionic mind games, Adelheid knew the basics.

If Norn couldn’t control someone immediately, it was unlikely to be worth bothering with.

So the discussion continued.

“Euphrates,”

Adelheid felt a chill when she heard that name.

Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

And foremost among the people Norn wanted to revenge herself against.

While she didn’t lose her cool, Adelheid could tell that Norn was immediately altered.

As soon as she saw Euphrates, a violent red band began to widen across her aura.

“Agh!”

Then in the middle of the conversation that she appeared to be dominating–

Norn raised her hands to her face, flinching as if in pain.

Shaking briefly, drawing back against the seat.

And coming to rest, as if sleeping.

Video connection to the Brigand cut off.

Immediately, Adelheid concentrated on the aura around Norn, switching on her “sight.”

White–?

All of her aura had become a pale, soft white. Black was death– what the hell was white?!

How had this happened?

She whipped around to the adjacent station and shouted at the drone. “Communications, send orders to the hangar to deploy Selene, Samoylovych, Chorniy, and von Castille at once!”

Negotiations were over. Whether or not the Pandora’s Box was even truly aware of what had happened, a situation like this could only be dealt with by defending themselves militarily. When there was tension, they could not afford to leave an opening just to appear magnanimous. Adelheid knew enough about war to assume the Pandora’s Box would try to exploit this event.

But what had happened? How could she help Norn?

Euphrates was an Immortal, psionically powerful. Adelheid turned to face Norn again and took her into her arms, shaking her, trying to wake her. Her body was still warm, she was breathing, and there was no bleeding or other signs that she was psychically exerting herself. Adelheid knew that mental psionic attacks were extremely difficult, and the most easily resisted by gifted psions. She suspected Euphrates must have attacked Norn but how? What exactly did she do to Norn?

She could not panic. Despite everything– Norn was depending on her!

“Hunter III! Come here! Something happened to Norn!”

Though she understood psionics differently, Hunter III was more powerful than Adelheid.

She could see and understand things Adelheid did not. Maybe she would understand!

“Whatcha yellin’ about? Huh? What happened to the boss?”

Hunter III shambled to Norn’s seat with a drowsy expression, her skinny arms hanging at her sides. She pulled her hood off her white hair and set her bright eyes on Norn. One slender ghost white finger rose to poke the praetorian in the cheek. Upon touching her Hunter III immediately seemed to realize something was wrong, like a dog sniffing an intruder, and her eyes went red, she was using psionics herself.

“Huh? Her brainself is gone. Who did that?” Hunter III said.

“Brainself? What the hell are you saying?”

Adelheid yelled; and Hunter III was so taken by Norn’s condition she didn’t yell back.

Hunter III looked around the room with her glowing eyes. “Her brainself’s off swimmin’ somewhere–”

From beneath her hooded robe, a stubby tail became suddenly erect.

“Adelheid, she’s lookin’ for you! You gotta do somethin’ to reach back out!”

Hunter III turned innocent eyes and a calm expression on Adelheid–

–as if she was supposed to understand what she meant!!

Adelheid was about to start shouting back at the little fish-tailed runt–

But she did start feeling something–

–as if there was something carried on all the tiny sounds of the ship, the clicking on keyboards, the hum of the air system, the very subtle vibrations of the floor panels, the rustling of synthetic cloth. She could hear something else, distant, whispered, in the coalescing of all the noise around her. As if spoken between syllables of every voice, an enunciation in each button press, a sigh in the ventilation.

Had she been anyone else, with less experience in these matters, she would have said it was the stress and muted panic of the moment that was cause these hallucinations around her.

Norn had taught her about the powers of the mind.

About the meaning behind the colors that she could sometimes see people give off.

She looked at Hunter III briefly and saw the shades of her, blue and green and thin black.

She looked down at her own hands and saw the multitude of muddled colors of her own.

She looked at Norn’s pale white aura that had begun expanding, thinning, wafting.

Reaching.

Focusing on the color she reached her own hand down to Norn.

Approaching the white fog which had come to enshroud her lover and carried her sensation.

Her fingers crossed some kind of threshold and color diffused across the white cloud.

Adelheid felt like she had punctured a membrane. There was a brief, tactile resistance.

One final push and her hand finally touched Norn’s skin, felt the warmth of her.

And transferred the warmth of her own touch to that skin.

Adelheid saw a flash of something in her mind.

Images, sounds, feelings, years of information compressed to a flash.

There was no possible way that she could understand it. All of it was gone in an instant.

Not even the barest scraps of a dream remained of it.

In that instant of fleeting hallucination, when Adelheid’s eyes blinked–

Norn’s eyes opened. Their gazes met. For a moment, neither of them said a word.

Her eyes had red rings around them, but they followed movement, they were aware.

Her lips spread very slightly to speak–

Adelheid interrupted immediately. She threw herself atop Norn, silently weeping.

Norn’s arms wrapped firmly around Adelheid, embracing her tightly.

“I knew I could count on you.” Norn said, stroking her hair.

Adelheid separated herself, grabbed hold of Norn’s shirt, fixed her a serious look.

Norn’s eyes had red rings around them. So there was still in danger.

“What’s going on?” Adelheid asked. “Your eyes– you’re still doing psionics.”

Norn looked surprised to hear this. She looked around the room in confusion.

“Her brainself is still kinda gone. I can kinda feel the veins though.” Hunter III said.

She started wandering around the room like a dog following a trail. Incomprehensible.

Adelheid could not see whatever it was they were both following or searching for.

She felt frustrated at her own lack of power– but at least Norn was here.

“Norn, what’s happening? How can we help?” Adelheid asked, still tight on Norn’s chest.

“Euphrates dragged me into the aether current. I’m not sure exactly what she did so I can’t explain it. I think I’m puppeteering my own body right now.” Norn said. “I can sense through the currents by using Adelheid as an anchor, but it’s hazy. I need to find a permanent solution, but for right now, we need to capture the Pandora’s Box. I’m putting Gertrude in command of the Diver attack. First–”

Suddenly she grabbed hold of Adelheid by the collar and tie–

–pulling her into a deep, forceful kiss.

That instant of dominance, the taste of her tongue– it almost knocked Adelheid senseless.

When their lips parted, Norn had a grin on her face and some of Adelheid’s lipstick as well.

“All you need to do is stay by my side and believe in me.” Norn said. “Do you understand?”

“Y-Yes. Master.” Adelheid said. “I’m yours to command.”

Norn grin turned into a gentle, praising smile just for her. “Good girl. Let’s get them.”


“Master, I don’t understand.”

Time was of the essence. A combat alert had been put into place.

Samoylovych and the Red Baron were already deploying, as well as Petra Chornyi. Selene just had to know whether or not the Jagdkaiser should have a cartridge loaded, other than that she was good to go. Enemy activity was starting to pick up, with the sonar operators picking up the tell-tale sounds of the Pandora’s Box preparing its chutes to deploy Divers. The Antenora was rushing into battle.

From the hangar, Gertrude Lichtenberg called the bridge to speak to Norn.

She knew that they did not have a lot of time, but she needed to know why she was being ordered to deploy in the Magellan. Without her acquiescence, the machine had been assigned to her, and its weapons, a 30 mm autocannon ballistic shield and a vibrosword, had been prepared and linked to it. Norn’s crew had beckoned her into the machine– and it nearly caused her panic.

“I thought this machine was for your own use.” Gertrude asked.

On a terminal in the hangar, Norn and Adelheid appeared on video seated side-side.

“Potomac didn’t chain it to my leg.” Norn said. “I’m assigning it to you. It’s an effective piece of equipment and you are more than capable to operate it. Or have you forgotten how to fight for yourself after all these years leading phalanxes of ambulant body armor into battle?”

Gertrude chafed at the criticism. She knew she couldn’t get offended at Norn, however.

Trying her best to moderate her tone, she began to reply, “I sought out your assistance–”

Norn then interrupted immediately. “I’m giving you an opportunity, the best opportunity you will ever have, to rescue princess Elena from those mercenaries. If you truly believe in this endeavor and you want to see it through, then you will take responsibility for it. I never once said that I would go out and personally fight these mercenaries in your stead, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“Master,”

Gertrude was practically gritting her teeth. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt it right in her veins, the rush of blood to her extremities had become a palpable drumbeat beneath her skin. Her whole body was tense, she felt like she could hardly move or speak. She had assumed that Norn would use her powers to rescue Elena easily from the Pandora’s Box. She had been so sure that she could seize victory if Norn was leading the charge to finally crush that damnable ship once and for all.

Now her long fantasized victory was thrown into complete chaos.

“Gertrude,”

Norn interrupted again. A cruel grin spread across her soft face.

“Perhaps I am being too harsh. Here is my offer then, Gertrude. Only for you, a precious student, a part of my legacy. I will save Elena von Fueller on the condition that she be turned over to the Fueller family’s stewardship immediately. I will control all of her affairs personally from the moment she returns to this ship. Now if you rescue her, of course, you’ll become her steward.”

She clapped her hands together with satisfaction, evil red glinting eyes scanning Gertrude.

Gertrude felt her heart sink.

All of this time, she had also fantasized about being the sole steward of Elena von Fueller.

Never once did she think Norn would push the idea of returning her to the Fueller family.

Norn knew about Gertrude’s deep-seated passion for Elena.

Gertrude could not lie to her. And Norn had demanded to know when they met. More than anyone, Norn von Fueller understood the lustful covetousness that really drove Gertrude Lichtenberg to action. She knew how much Elena meant to Gertrude and she had already, several times, pulled strings so that Gertrude could inch closer to the storybook ending she desired for her and Elena. For Norn to then make this impossible, cruel “deal” was to say in many, humiliating words that Gertrude had no choice but to deploy and fight instead of Norn. It was to make her command utterly absolute.

In this single moment, Gertrude’s dreams could crumble right in front of her. All of her work, suffering, sacrifice, all the begging and cheating and the corpses she climbed– for nothing.

“I am not merely doing this to be cruel to you.” Norn said.

Her fists closed at her side, Gertrude felt like a child being scolded.

“You say that master, but this may be the cruelest thing you’ve ever done to me.”

“I’m giving you a choice, as I’ve always given you.” Norn replied, more coldly.

Gertrude openly gritted her teeth. “You know this isn’t a choice! You’re manipulating me!”

“Really? A coattail rider like you, and you believe I’m the one being manipulative?”

“Master,” Gertrude clapped her hands together. “I’ve always respected you, so please–”

She was getting ready to beg. Getting ready to drop to her knees right on the video feed.

“Stop being such a coward, Gertrude! You need to man up, this instant!”

It was not Norn who spoke then.

Adelheid interjected suddenly, in a way that completely chilled Gertrude.

Her eyes looked as imperious as those of Norn herself. A disdainful glare, and sharp words.

“Don’t you realize how cruel you are being, begging Norn to fight this battle for you?” Adelheid shouted. “Don’t you see the company that puts you in, don’t you see how sound like all of the other evil cowards who only see her as a weapon? Don’t you see that Norn wants to give you the power to take Elena away with you? Gertrude, if you can’t even defeat these mercenaries, can you possibly defend Elena from the Volkisch movement, the Royal Alliance, Veka or Millennia Skarsgaard? How can you survive all the schemes that Norn has shielded you from and continue to be so spineless? Do you want to hide behind other people forever, or do you want to be able to take control of your own damn life?”

Adelheid practically shouted herself hoarse. There were furious tears in her eyes.

Gertrude stood speechless. She almost wanted to cry herself– she was so stunned.

All of the begging and sniveling that she had done to wear her grandiose uniform.

Not just Norn, but Dreschner, Ingrid, Sieglinde, even Elena herself–

So many people had rescued her across her life, so she stood half a chance of reaching this moment, of reaching the cusp of having the love of her life in her grasp, where nobody could take her again, where they could finally stand together until death. That storybook ending she wanted ever since she was enchanted by those beautiful indigo eyes as a small child. Gertrude was not so deluded as to think she had ever boasted prodigious personal strength, she knew, acknowledged, that she had begged and scraped and needed intervention and serendipity to survive to where she was and yet–

She had never felt so seen, so seen and found pathetic, found to be truly what she was.

Another soul had never struck a blow so chillingly powerful to the edifice of her person.

And for it to not even be Norn, but Adelheid, that bratty girl perpetually fixed in her orbit.

For those words to cut as deep and hard as they did. Gertrude was left reeling, shaking.

She could have taken the scolding if it came from Norn– but Norn hardly made a gesture.

It had been Adelheid, of all people, who had cut her down to the bone instead.

Had she been told of this event without experiencing it herself, Gertrude would have laughed.

Now in the moment all she wanted to do was cry, but she fought back the tears.

“Thank you Adelheid.” Norn said. “But that’s quite enough. Gertrude, your decision.”

Even if her heart was full of trepidation, it was impossible to object. Gertrude was trapped.

All of her rebelliousness was destroyed. Adelheid was completely correct about her.

Gertrude had run too much, hid too much, begged, and bartered too much by now.

There was always going to be a battle she would have had to stand and fight through alone.

She thought when it came she would be prepared for it.

Instead she was a shuddering mess. In tears, her skin shaking over cold-feeling flesh.

Pathetic. She was pathetic, powerless, useless, a coward, a craven half-wit schemer–

“Gertrude, I need you to do this.” Norn pressed her. “But more than that: you need it too.”

Gertrude raised a shaking salute. Norn and Adelheid were right.

She needed to do this. There was nobody to champion her. Gertrude had to fight herself.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg, deploying in the SF-07 Magellan.” She said.

Steeling herself to put on the most dignified response that she could muster.

“Good. Show them your strength, High Inquisitor.” Norn said.

Gertrude bowed her head and severed the connection. When she turned her back on the terminal, her cape fluttering behind her, feeling the weight of the black and gold uniform and the tall hat on her head, Gertrude felt like nothing so much as an imposter. She had been exposed and could no longer run away. All she could was convince the world that she had any power at all in her own self.


Maryam Karahailos stepped off the elevator to the Brigand’s upper deck with her hands behind her back, her head bowed, and the chromatophores in her skin and hair dull and dark. She felt her brain fog over with worry, her skin feeling tight with tension. The Brigand was embroiled in a dangerous situation, and her beloved Sonya had taken charge of her unit and deployed for battle. Watching them go, even a girl as supernaturally gifted as her felt completely helpless and useless in this situation.

When it came to fighting a battle like this, the Apostle of Air was completely useless!

She did not want to trouble Sonya, so she did not insist on staying in the hangar.

Soon as Sonya got ready to leave, they briefly held hands, and Maryam made for the bridge.

“As long as you’re safe, I’ll have peace of mind.” Sonya said.

“You’ll definitely come back, right?”

“Of course. I still have a lot to learn from you.”

Their final exchange, out of earshot, before Sonya told her to depart and ran to the mecha.

Maryam sighed deeply.

She had spent so much time with Sonya lately, it had been such a blessing!

Now she was gone, and Maryam might never– no she couldn’t even contemplate that!

It broke her heart to even consider it!

Moping to herself, she ambled without enthusiasm down the hall.

She stumbled upon a commotion.

Out in the middle of the hall, someone had been set down on the floor. There was a woman looming over her on the ground — that doctor with the colorful hair, Kappel. Alongside her were the two women Sonya had introduced to Maryam last night: Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg. As soon as Maryam approached, Valeriya seemed to notice, and immediately lifted her mask over her nose.

She tugged gently on Illya’s sleeve and pointed behind them at Maryam.

“Run along to the bridge, we don’t want too many people getting in the way here.”

Illya was firm but not brusque. Maryam had not intended to stay in the hall but–

She noticed the blue hair and blood-soaked white coat of the woman in Kappel’s care.

Euphrates– no, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen, she was calling herself.

On the floor, unresponsive save for recurring bloody coughing, streams of blood down her nose, convulsions infrequent enough that they startled Maryam as she stared. Her eyes were blank, like the cold gaze of a corpse. Kappel had brought her out to the hall, took her pulse, checked her breathing, injected her with a drug, but she seemed helpless to provide first aid in this situation.

“She’s breathing, heart’s normal, the portable scanner shows nothing ruptured.”

Maryam stared in confusion. People spoke but the voices made no sense to her.

All of the blood, and the way her body would sometimes jump without stimuli, it was surreal, the smell of bloody iron and gauze, but not just that, not just the physical things– all around Euphrates a black cloud thicker and denser and darker than any Maryam had ever seen shrouded her until her physical body seemed almost an outline beneath its fog. Death, death, death, death was everywhere, the smell of rot, the texture of flayed flesh, the taste of blood, it clung slick like slime to the body and yet–

–she wasn’t dead. Was she? She couldn’t have been.

Maryam could vaguely see the sinewy outer edges of her aura.

Not dissipating from distance to the body, but reaching out, flowing.

The Aether Current– all of that darkness was spilling out into the aether current.

Maryam realized that Euphrates’ condition must have had to do with psionics, but–

“Hey, aren’t you going to the bridge? We don’t want people loitering around.”

Illya, clearly nervous at the unnatural sight playing out behind her.

“I– I’m sorry. I’ll keep going. It’s– it’s a lot of blood. Sorry.”

“I get it. The Captain and the Commissar are awaiting you.” Illya said gently.

Maryam did not know how to feel and what she should do.

Euphrates had been a teacher of sorts to her, a mentor. Self-described and self-imposed.

She felt a sense of great trepidation when she found “Euphemia” embroiling herself in the Brigand’s affairs. They acknowledged their familiarity in front of the Captain and the crew but did not reveal the truth about their association. Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation, a conspiratorial group that Maryam had joined and briefly worked within — all Apostles held a high and respected rank in the group, even if they did not want to, so Maryam found refuge with them.

While Euphrates taught her many things about herself and about psionics–

Maryam could not help but hate the selfish way that she behaved. To believe that you were helping the world solely by advancing knowledge and technology, but that the ethical response to conflict was to retreat from the world and hide your knowledge and technology from them; it was anathema to everything Maryam wanted to accomplish in the world. She could not abide any of it.

So if Euphrates was dying, what should Maryam do? How should she have reacted?

Mourned? Seethed? Intervened?

Maybe the world would have been better without Euphrates in it.

With a deep breath followed by a heavy sigh, Maryam started walking past the scene.

And stopped right beside Doctor Kappel, fists shaking at her sides.

“I– I can help!” Maryam shouted suddenly, unable to abandon her gentle nature.

Doctor Kappel looked up at her, blinking with confusion. She fiddled absentmindedly with some of her blue hair and got some blood on it. Behind her, Illya looked annoyed and Valeriya turned the other way to avoid the scene. The doctor looked pale as a ghost, practically in tears, her hands were shaking on the portable medical computer in her fingers. “Maryam Karahailos? How can you possibly–?”

“Please don’t ask me about what I’m about to do! I’ll explain everything later!”

Maryam dropped to her knees next to Euphrates’ body and held out her hands.

Her eyes felt hot, and she pushed her senses out to the air around her.

Just as she had shown Shalikova before a globe of air gathered quickly in her hands–

–and then dispersed.

Illya’s, Kappel’s and Valeriya’s hair blew suddenly as if there was a strong breeze.

All of them watched, dumbfounded, as the air became a visible glow around Euphrates.

Molecular Control.

Air seeped its way through Euphrates’ skin, into the tissues, sinews, into the blood.

Her gentle touch glided over wounds, through spilled blood and ruptured vessels.

While Maryam’s intellect and will traveled through the muscles, to the marrow, to the brain.

She caught the briefest glimpse, the most fleeting intimation of Euphrates’ intentions.

Norn von Fueller– Somewhere Euphrates was dueling the mighty Apostle of Ice–

Her body was here, however, in great, roaring agony–

As she tried to sew back tissues that bled indefinitely, as she tried to mend bones that broke forever and muscles that tore repeatedly, Maryam realized suddenly why Euphrates’ body was not dying. Life blossomed inside of her abnormal body every time a cell met death, like a big bang of genetic rebirth recreating the universe of Euphrates with every stroke against her skin and every twist against her bones. She was like a cancer infinitely fed of herself, and Maryam could hardly comprehend where the energy came from to sustain her. She realized in an instant how vastly old and hurt this body was.

Glimpsing for less than a second the thousand-year history of Euphrates–

From Maryam’s gentle lips ripped a wail of agony.

She fell back from Euphrates’ body, from Kappel and Illya who tried to reach out to her, shuddering and shaking on the floor with the horror of understanding. Her head felt split open with pain, and she held herself as if trying to squeeze numb all of the burning in her sinews. Even for an Apostle, where she had delved, what she had touched, memories of cells with infinitely long telomeres–

Psionic feedback ripped through Maryam’s entire body. She was not powerful enough!

“Maryam! Oh my god–!”

Illya rushed to the side of the girl clearly in pain, tearing open a plastic-bagged first aid kit–

Suddenly everything began to shake.

That first aid kit hit the floor and the security officers nearly fell with it.

Dr. Kappel grit her teeth and clung on to a handhold in the wall near the Bridge door.

Lights flashed in and out in the hallways for a few seconds before stabilizing.

“It’s started!” Valeriya said.

“Shit. This one’s going to be really serious huh?” Illya replied.

She helped Maryam to settle on her side and injected her with a punch tube from the first aid kit. Psionic feedback was already subsiding, and the painkillers flooding Maryam’s body had little to do with it, but she felt her head clearing and peace returning. Those instant, eldritch images that had terrorized her neurons for a split second were gone save for the leftover anxious tension under her skin. The world, which was still spinning around her, overcome with disorienting color as she lost control, came into sharper focus, slowly, like a picture on a faulty screen coaxed into mechanical clarity.

“Maryam, please say something. Shalikova’s already upset enough with me as it is.”

Illya laid a comforting hand on Maryam’s shoulder, as if nudging her back to life.

Joined by Valeriya, who knelt beside Illya and offered her own silent support.

Maryam promised not to make trouble– she tried her best to sit up and acknowledge them.

She thought of saying something but– It was not Maryam who raised her voice to speak.

From the lips of the presumed corpse came the smallest, weakest of pleas–

“Tigris– please–”

“She’s speaking?! Security, call Syracuse, we may be able to move her to operations now!”

Doctor Kappel looked as shocked as she was elated to see a sign of consciousness.

Euphemia Rontgen– no, Euphrates, slowly sat up, trying to speak.

Through a trickle of blood and vomit escaping from her throat.

With eyes glowing bright red, tears steaming into wisps of vapor as they were shed.

She reached out to the sleeve on Kappel’s coat and tugged weakly on it.

“Theresa– Tigris– please bring her–”

“Tigris? God help me, what is happening on this ship?” Kappel whimpered.

In that instant, there was another sudden quake all along the ship again as if in answer.


“Don’t try to be a hero. Stay in the back and offer fire support. You got that?”

Shalikova was unused to being the tough CO in a group. She was almost always the quiet workhorse who did everything she was ordered to do without objections. So it felt strange to be in the position of having to tell a contrite Aiden Ahwalia that he was on the team, for now, and that he was going out into battle. And then to have to try her best to smash down the glint he got in his eyes after.

“Of course. Of course.” He said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“You really shouldn’t be happy we’re in this position.” Shalikova sighed.

Behind her, the deployment chutes for Khadija and Valya were being drained. Both of them had gone out first. A wise decision– Khadija would have certainly had something to say about Aiden’s inclusion. She was hopefully professional enough not to complain once Aiden was actually outside with them. It was a dreadful situation to be in. Two of their most accomplished pilots in their last sortie were out of the fight, and the enemy was likely to be armed to the teeth. These weren’t just going to be patrolmen haphazardly thrown into battle. The Antenora was the Fueller flagship, part of the former ruling dynasty.

Shalikova imagined royal knights who trained constantly to protect the imperial family.

Complete opposite of the ragtag group she was working with.

But all she could do was believe; believe in her comrades and do her best.

Murati would have said something like that.

She would have also had a more complicated plan, perhaps.

“Our goal will be to distract the enemy while the Strelkannon gets into position. Between the Strelkannon’s anti-ship package and the Brigand’s weapons we should be able to overwhelm the Cruiser. If we can’t sink it, we’ll hopefully do enough damage to force a rout. You need to be ready to retreat at any point we find an opportunity to run. You got that? Don’t be a hero, Aiden.”

“Don’t worry about me! I won’t do anything foolish.” Aiden said.

His tone was much more compliant.

Not only because he was finally getting what he wanted and being allowed to pilot, but likely also because of the beating he took and the subsequent dressing down from the Security Chief. He had a bruised neck and a bandage on his forehead where Valeriya had stricken him. Nothing broken, nothing he couldn’t sleep off. Otherwise Shalikova would not have had any reserve pilots to draw upon now, except maybe asking if Valeriya and Illya could be lent to her from security.

She knew those two could pilot well.

“You’ll be with her.” Shalikova said. “But you follow my orders, understand?”

Beside the spare Strelok which had been assigned to Aiden, Marina’s S.E.A.L was set up on a gantry. It was a little rounder than a Strelok here and there, attesting to the Republic’s higher capability in precise machining, with rounded off edges and a beveled, semi-oblong body. They attached the backpack lower, and the entire mass was just a bit squatter in profile. This was the legacy of the combat data which had been given by the Union to the republic. They made a slightly prettier and stockier Strelok.

It would do as well enough as any of their machines in the right hands.

Shalikova would just have to trust Marina McKennedy’s skill too.

When Marina appeared, Shalikova took Aiden to her side for a quick introduction.

“McKennedy, this is Aiden Ahwalia, he’ll be providing fire support for you.” She said.

Aiden waved half-heartedly.

Marina nodded her head. “Okay, I’ll paint targets if I need him to coordinate.”

“Good call. Aiden, shoot what she’s shooting at, and we’ll get through this.”

Shalikova patted Aiden in the back, trying to be a bit chummy.

Murati did that sort of thing much better– she couldn’t help but compare herself.

She then hurried back to the Cheka, set up next to the Strelkannon, ready to deploy.

On either shoulder, the Strelkannon was set up with a six-slot rack for 88 mm light torpedoes.

Rybolovskaya would in addition be deploying with a 50 mm high velocity cannon.

This was essentially a Diver “sniper rifle,” firing supercavitating two-stage projectiles.

But because the Diver and its pilot could hardly “see” to the full range of this weapon, it would be up to Shalikova or the rest of the team to paint digital targets for the Strelkannon to fire upon. They had all been equipped with laser effectors on their Diver’s gauntlets for this purpose. They could also use these to help guide the torpedoes she would be firing. Their entire gambit was based around supporting this one platform. Murati might’ve balked at having such a stark failure point.

Murati was not here, however.

Shalikova was doing her best with the weapons and tactics she knew. This kind of thing was bread and butter for pilots, but the Academy must’ve taught it to her because it was effective.

Right? She wished the little nagging voice in her head was more supportive.

She raised a thumbs up to Rybolovskaya, who nodded and descended into her cockpit.

Shalikova then started to climb into her own.

Murati’s Cheka was quite an imposing monument in the hangar, at least for Shalikova’s eyes. Climbing onto its dark painted body, subsuming herself in that sleek, modern hull, it put into stark relief that she was being asked to take on far more responsibility than she ever had. For years she had been piloting Streloks as a cadet and then as arguably a professional. This design bore resemblances to the mecha she had been piloting all of this time, but it represented the turning of an era also. This machine, if the Union survived long enough, would probably supplant all of the machines Shalikova piloted.

Just as she, and Murati, and all of them, were being asked to follow in the footsteps of the previous generation of the Union’s warriors and ultimately supersede them. Khadija was among the Brigand’s pilots, sure, but other than her, Shalikova felt, for maybe the first time, the absence of veterans, of the old revolutionaries, and the placing of weight on her slender shoulders alone. When Murati could not lead them, she had been chosen instead. A mere girl barely into her twenties.

ISU-100 Cheka. For the workers’ revolution!

Shalikova closed the cockpit and watched the Diver’s computer boot up.

A thousand generations reside in you.

That was the final part of the boot-up message before her cameras came online.

“You don’t have to keep reminding me.” She mumbled.

She took in a deep breath and let it out. She grabbed hold of her control sticks.

In the absence of that tenacious generation which brought liberty to the Nectaris Ocean, it would simply have to be her and her peers who continued the fight for freedom. There was no one else here that could protect the Brigand, and she would be damned if she let everything fall on poor Khadija, who had suffered so much, and Murati, who was always throwing herself in death’s way for them.

For Zasha’s sake too. She– she didn’t die for nothing.

“Big sis– the road we chose just keeps getting more treacherous, huh?”

Shalikova put a hand to her heart, and for the first time in a long time–

–remembered Zasha’s face, her words, her encouragement, without crying.

For her sake. Shalikova had to be soldier Zasha dreamed of being but could never become.

To protect the work of all of those generations who resided in her–

–and now, she who resided in Shalikova too.

Below her, the engineers released the Cheka from its gantry and unlocked the power plant.

She hefted up her rifle and stowed a folding sword and a grenade on her magnetic strip.

The voice that left her lips was stronger and firmer than she could’ve imagined.

ISU-100 Cheka, Sonya Shalikova! Deploying!”

When she dropped into the water, her hands were at the controls, her eyes on the cameras.

Her initial fear and trepidation left her as the ocean surrounded her hull.

“How is it looking out here?”

Beneath the ship, Khadija and Valya had been standing guard, moving just enough to keep up with the Brigand as it began to turn in on the Antenora’s flank from over a kilometer away. The Strelkannon dropped down with her, and Aiden’s Strelok along with Marina’s SEAL dropped shortly after. Shalikova synced the final up to date algorithmic prediction of the surroundings that she would get to her dive computer and cameras, getting a sense of the terrain beneath and the waters around them.

She noted the position of Zachikova’s drone near the ocean floor below, trailed closely by the Leviathan she had discovered. They would be connecting to the drone for laser communication and alternate sonar positioning, since the drone had a complete sonar kit and their Divers did not possess one.

“They’re starting to make a move.” Khadija said over the acoustic comms.

Shalikova adjusted herself to face the Antenora’s direction.

Advanced soundwave detection from the drone’s instruments passed to her computer, alerting her that there was indeed movement from underneath the Antenora, and the general direction of the movement. A tight formation was headed their way. All around her the ocean was murky, brown dust floating in near black waters, but she could trust the instruments to see where her eyes could never.

“Form up around the Strelkannon. I’ll take the lead– Marina and Aiden hold the rear!”

“Aye aye!” came the voices on the communicator.

Like a cluster of missiles hurtling out from beneath the ship, the Brigand’s divers charged out into the open water to intersect their counterparts. Positional data from the drone sent and received with a slight delay every few seconds, and at the speed they were moving they would find and confront the enemy group in forty or so seconds. Shalikova took the lead, Khadija and Valya beside her.

The Cheka was a dream to pilot, completely smooth, responsive, fast.

She must have had at least eight knots advantage on the Strelok.

I can do this–

“One of them is breaking off! I’m intercepting!”

Seconds later, Aiden suddenly swerved away from the formation.

“Aiden, what? Stop right now!”

Shalikova chastised him, then received the update from the drone.

One of the enemy mecha had torn away from their formation too.

It was clearly a trick! They didn’t know what kind of enemy it was!

“Don’t chase after it! Aiden! God damn it!”

“That little fucking worm! He’s going to get slaughtered!” Khadija cursed.

“Khadija, quiet and take the lead! I’ll go after him!”

Shalikova tore from the lead of the formation and charged to the flank as well.

There was no objection. She was the squad leader and they had their orders.

She was furious but she couldn’t let Aiden be killed no matter how foolish he was acting!

Once they got back she would punch him in his stupid nose, but for now she had to save him.

Aiden had quickly vanished into the marine fog, but Shalikova could catch up. The Cheka was faster than his Strelok. She could still create an opportunity if she could take out the enemy’s flanker with Aiden and then turn this stunt into their own flanking attack. In mere seconds the battle would be joined by the main group, so as she hurtled into the open ocean at their left flank, Shalikova kept the time in her head and prepared her weapons, knowing that she would soon catch a glimpse of the enemy–

“AHH–!”

A guttural, horrified scream from Aiden sounded through the communicator.

Outlines came into view through the biomass and the dark waters lit only by floodlights.

It happened in an instant–

Horns, a great dark body like a demon, claws, and shimmering, evil red eyes.

Aiden’s assault rifle floated down toward the seafloor with the Strelok’s hand attached.

Firing into nothingness as the hand was severed before he could attack.

He swung his sword at the demon but its glowing claw seized his entire arm.

When he screamed Shalikova could hear the wailing alert sounds from inside his cockpit.

His arm tore off along with the water intakes adjacent to the joint, causing his hydrojets to seize up, and the demon let the mass of his machine float uselessly away as if it was done playing with the carcass. Its horns glowed with a rainbow gradient that trailed across the body like faint outlines of the veins beneath skin. Shalikova saw dark armor and a snout-like head, felt the palpable heft of its body–

No, not its body. Not anything physical. Those waves were coming from the pilot.

Around her was a mass of red and black color with a spreading band of purple.

Furious killing intent and a sense of warrior’s pride.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide and her breathing caught. She raised her assault rifle.

She could hear a laugh– a girl’s uproarious laughter at her own superiority.

Her eyes, even through the water and the machines, she thought she could see–

–a girl like her? Long-haired, golden-eyed, in a pilot’s bodysuit, too young–

Oh? What’s this? Another helpless rat took a wrong turn in the maze?

Shalikova blinked, and the machine turned and charged as if propelled by billowing cloak of water.

In the next instant, the clawed metal horror descended on her quicker than its bulk suggested.

She reacted with alacrity, drawing back, avoiding the first attack of the enormous, vibrating, superheated claws. Opening the vortex of destruction which inexorably drew the currents of these generational peers. Out of every possible enemy released from the bowels of the Fueller flagship’s collection of monsters, Shalikova had now come face to face with a terror that shook the deeps with its alien power.

The Antenora’s Jagdkaiser Type I fixed its eyes and those of Selene Anahid on Shalikova’s own.


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