Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.3]

[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]

There was an air of tension and wicked possibility as the gathering convened.

The Brigand’s main meeting room was once again playing host to Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy on one end of the planning table and captain Ulyana Korabiskaya, and her commissar and adjutant Aaliyah Bashara on the other end. Maryam was her usual bubbly self while Marina had the same friendless look she always wore, despite having just walked out of the medbay without authorization.

Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.

“You will get lectured by Doctor Kappel. But I’m glad you could make it, it’s a welcome surprise. You’re the woman of the hour after all, Ms. McKennedy.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms.

“Despite myself, I always seem to end up in the spotlight.” Marina grumbled.

She was taking a sarcastic tone of voice, but the matter at hand was one of life and death.

Two or three days ago, depending on one’s metric for a “day” underwater, the Brigand had encountered the enormous Inquisitorial dreadnought dubbed “the Iron Lady” alongside a fleet that was likely drawn from local policing patrols at the last minute. As a clandestine ship, it was impossible to turn the Brigand in to the Iron Lady for inspection. While on the outside the Brigand looked like a civilian vessel, as long as its weapons were retracted and soundproof sealed, this secrecy depended on the hangar and the massive amounts of military equipment within it not being exposed to the wrong eyes.

As part of their plot to escape, Ulyana personally spoke with the commander of the Iron Lady, Gertrude Lichtenberg. She had been hoping to stall and distract Lichtenberg, whom Murati surmised was going to have a hard time controlling her slapdash fleet when her personal attention was drawn away from it.

She had been correct. Gertrude was barely able to keep her fleet in line, and the tighter cohesion of the Brigand’s two-man squads picked them apart. The confrontation allowed Ulyana to gather information. How did Gertrude find them? What was it that Gertrude wanted from them? They were both obviously cagey with each other in that situation, and Ulyana perhaps had a little too much fun with the younger woman, but she gleaned some valuable insight nevertheless. Gertrude wanted a VIP aboard the Brigand. This VIP was important enough Gertrude could not risk directly attacking the Brigand with her cannons.

And there were perhaps personal stakes for Gertrude Lichtenberg, who seemed too invested in the capture of this VIP, for an Imperial Inquisitor in the far reaches of the Empire. This may have accounted for the coincidence of the Iron Lady mooring next to them at Serrano. At the time there was nothing they could do about it and Ulyana did not see it as necessarily a risk. Ships of all kinds moored next to each other. On the docks, crews were too busy with their own ship to start inspecting those of others.

However, now she felt that Gertrude may have been tracking her VIP.

Perhaps Gertrude suspected something and confirmed it with new information at Serrano.

Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.

As a G.I.A. agent on the run, this made the most sense. She owned up to her cell being compromised, and to needing a snap escort to the Union to avoid capture. Perhaps she had lied to Murati about the proximity of her tail and the degree to which she was compromised, hoping for a quick out. All of these suspicions made sense in Ulyana’s head, but there was only one person who could confirm them. Whether she told the truth to them or whether she lied, Ulyana had to see Marina’s reaction to be absolutely sure. She decided that whenever she next met Marina, she’d press her for information.

While she had not expected to do this today, it would have had to happen at some point.

Maryam being in attendance wouldn’t really change anything. This had to be done.

At Ulyana’s side, the Commissar Aaliyah Bashara sat with her arms crossed and a serious expression on her face, her tail on end and unmoving. Ulyana had told her all of her suspicions and what she hoped to do with this meeting. Aaliyah would assist in the interrogation. Shimii had sharp eyes and this particular Shimii had a decent sense of people — except perhaps when she got drunk enough.

“You were knocked out for a while, Marina. What exactly happened to you?”

Ulyana started with a personal question to ease into things. She was curious however.

“We’re doing this now?”

“We’re doing this now.” Aaliyah replied, sternly. She was backing up Ulyana.

“Fine. I was in the hall with Elen when the ship was hit by the dreadnought guns. I’m pretty sure I lost my balance and next thing I knew, I woke up in the medbay.” Marina said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember it very well. Elen was completely freaking out. It was a nightmare of a day.”

“Officers Van Der Smidse and Zhu reported a physical altercation between you two.”

Marina scoffed. “Don’t you employ corporal punishment sometime, Captain?”

“It’s not my first choice to discipline a mentally unstable subordinate.” Ulyana shot back.

Her heart felt a brief swelling of anger toward Marina she had to get under control.

“I was grabbing Elen; I wasn’t in the best place mentally myself. But I didn’t strike her.”

Marina continued to respond coolly. She always acted like she was being interrogated.

Was this how all G.I.A. agents were trained to behave?

Given her conduct, Ulyana didn’t really care to conceal that this was an actual interrogation.

“What does Gertrude Lichtenberg, commander of the Iron Lady, want with you?”

The G.I.A. agent shot a bitter look at Ulyana. She crossed her arms and lowered her head.

She sighed deeply. “Look, I know what it looks like, but I swear I wasn’t being tailed.”

Aaliyah spoke up to support Ulyana again. A note of disdain crept into otherwise polite speech.

“Directly after we rescued you, the Iron Lady took an interest in us. Whether or not you were aware of the possibility hardly matters. You yourself admitted your cell was defeated by the Empire. How can you have been completely sure you would not be tracked or traced in a major city?” She said.

“You presume far too much, Commissar. We are experienced professionals. We can be chased, but what matters is that we know how to escape from the pursuers. And all of us escaped. When the Empire threw down our doors they found nothing of us left behind there. My colleagues have all probably escaped to the Union or the Republic-occupied zone in Katarre. I was the only one unlucky to end up saved by the Union’s special toy. None of us were being followed.” Marina sharply replied.

“Without evidence of this, it will remain an open question.” Aaliyah said.

“I agree. It is useless to argue; but you need to tell us everything, Marina.” Ulyana said.

“It’s not like I’m deliberately holding back any information!” Marina said.

“Are you truly not? Again, we can’t be certain.” Ulyana said. “Until we ask you some pointed questions.”

Marina grunted, casting her eyes to the table. “Fine, of course, just say what you want to.”

Ulyana nodded. She sat back and relaxed and began to ask her questions.

“Right now, the fact is that Gertrude Lichtenberg is coming after us and if she survived our attack on the Iron Lady, she and who knows who else will know what they’re up against now. Just pretend that you did get compromised if it helps your pride. What does she want with you? What information do you know? You know who she is right? Why is this apparently personal to her? How long will she pursue?”

“Do you even think she survived? Didn’t you blast her ship to pieces?” Marina interjected.

“Irmingard-class dreadnoughts are extremely durable vessels.” Aaliyah said. “Our realistic goal was never to sink it outright, but to cause enough damage to sever important systems and cripple the ship enough to allow us to escape. Killing that Inquisitor would be better luck than we’ve had.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Marina. “Back to the subject at hand–”

Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.

“Look, I know a lot about the Fueller family. They must be trying to silence me.” She said.

“So that was the G.I.A’s operation in the Empire? Spying on the imperial royal family?”

“That was a large part of it, yes.”

“That sounds like it carried a lot of risk.” Ulyana said, pressing her for more.

That response seems to have finally crossed the threshold of the G.I.A. agent’s patience.

“No operation is perfect! You’re right, it was risky and I don’t know if I was compromised, I fundamentally can’t know that information! I did my best, but I may have fucked up somewhere. You have no idea what I’ve been through, so maybe you could just accept my apologies and regrets, and we can move on to planning for the situation at hand. Is that ok with you, Captain?” Marina shouted.

And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.

Who did this woman think she was–?

Ulyana narrowed her eyes into a glare and crossed her arms sullenly. “No it’s not ok with me, G.I.A. I don’t know what you’ve been through because you won’t tell us a god damned thing about it! We were polite enough not to grill you the instant you got on this ship; we thought you would come clean with us. What use is it having you as an equal partner if you’ll just drop a bomb like this on us and then refuse to elaborate? Don’t you think we deserve to know if the Fueller family is hunting you?”

“I can explain everything, but it’s not pertinent!” Marina shouted. “The late Emperor’s bedtime secrets aren’t going to save us, goddamn it! If you can get me out of this alive, I promise you’ll get the full fucking story, okay? You’ll fucking wish you hadn’t heard some of the details.”

Maryam hid her face behind her tentacles in the midst of all the shouting.

Ulyana was about to continue the shouting match when a gentle hand laid on her flank.

Imperceptibly, out of the sight of their guests. It was her Commissar’s touch.

The captain knew then that she was going out of line and tried to reign herself back.

Aaliyah rubbed her hands on her forehead, her cat ears drooping. “I hate to say it, but McKennedy is right that the situation fundamentally doesn’t change if she gives up her salacious secrets to us. We don’t really have a way to use that information, so it would only affect our peace of mind. At least now we have some idea of why Gertrude Lichtenberg is after us. We should plan our escape and repairs.”

“When you put it that way, fine.” Ulyana said. “Any ideas on the current predicament, G.I.A?”

“Fleet combat isn’t my strong suit, so no, I don’t really have any brilliant ideas for escaping this situation. You guys did pretty well for yourselves already though, so, I dunno. Why not just attack that flagship and sink it? You’ve got to have the resources on hand to do it.” Marina said.

“The Brigand’s armaments are just not strong enough for us to trade shots dead-on with an Irmingard class dreadnought. We’ll be on the losing end of whatever happens. You’ve seen this already.” Ulyana paused, frustrated at her own helplessness. “We planned a huge production and we ended up with several people in the medbay, a lot of damage, and only a temporary reprieve.”

Marina turned her cheek. Ulyana felt her own cheek twitch. What a bratty reaction!

“How was this mission greenlit if you were going to run into this problem?” She said.

“It’s also your fault that we’re having to fight a flagship, you know.” Aaliyah grumbled.

“It was never part of the mission profile.” Ulyana added. “We’re supposed to be guerillas.”

“Then fight like guerillas do!” Marina said. “Find a hiding spot to attack from and wear it down!”

“That’s easier said than done!” Ulyana said. “Where are we going to hide, McKennedy?”

“I can’t just improvise a whole hideout for you! I’m an intelligence agent, not a magician!”

“If your intelligence is so useless then maybe we should just turn you over to–”

Both of them started shouting again. Aaliyah seemed helpless to calm them down this time.

“Please stop fighting! I have an idea!” Maryam shouted over all of them.

Ulyana and Marina both turned to face her at the same time.

Her tentacles were raised as if they were her shaking arms surrendering to a gun barrel.

Across her body her chromatophores were flashing to white and back to their original color.

Silence fell over the gathering. Ulyana felt momentarily very stupid.

She was stressed out, everything felt like it was going to shit, and she was helpless.

Beating up Marina would not change that. She needed to get a grip on herself.

Maryam spoke up again with a whimpering little voice. “Let’s all calm down, please.”

Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.

“I apologize.” Ulyana said. At first she didn’t care whether Marina accepted or not–

“Fuck, I was out of line too.” Marina admitted fault, much to Ulyana’s surprise. She looked conflicted, arms crossed and eyes practically staring down at her feet. Like a student in a classroom who had been shouted down — Ulyana didn’t exactly feel good about that. “I’m sorry, Captain, Commissar. In this situation I wouldn’t blame you if you did turn me in. But it probably wouldn’t help you much.”

“Under no circumstances am I going to do that.” Ulyana said. “I just lost my temper.”

“Let’s just put it behind us now. So, partners, I vote we listen to the Katarran’s idea.”

Marina pointed at Maryam with a thumb, forcing a smile as if to dispel the tension.

Maryam puffed her cheeks up. “I’ve got a name! I’m not just the katarran, you know!”

“Glad to see we’re all getting along.” Aaliyah sighed deeply, her cat-like tail stabbing at the air.

Ulyana felt ashamed of herself. Her conduct had been ridiculous. She let the stress speak.

At the moment, however, there was truly nothing to do but move on with it.

“Maryam, we’re certainly open to hearing your ideas. First though, I would like to know some background on you too. Our goal is to foment unrest in the Empire. Our agents marked you as a VIP we had to rescue. I assume you must have information that can help our mission.” Ulyana said.

Maryam looked quite nervous, but Ulyana chalked it up to her personality.

She seemed like someone who was very soft and scared. A total noncombatant.

“Background, huh. Umm. I was made in Katarre as a navigational aide for Athena Kyriaki. Around the time I became an instar, Athena attempted to raid Imperial territory in Skarsgaard, and it went– bad.” She shuddered a bit, and every other word came out with a stammer. “Our fleet was wrecked, I got captured, and any Katarrans that the Imbrians thought were female larva got sent the Solcean church in Skarsgaard, while everyone else got scattered. So I was part of the church for years, but eventually, I escaped. While on the run, I ended up working for a really shady group. I had to get really crafty to survive. I picked up a lot of information and skills. Some of it might be totally useless, like the going-abouts of imperial bureaucrats but, I learned a lot about places and installations! I wanted to go to the Union because I heard Katarrans can be free there, so I traveled to Buren, the Palatinate, down to Rhinea, and finally Sverland. I talked with the smugglers in Serrano, and they set me up with a Union agent. And that’s how I got to meet all of you. After talking with the agent, he said I’d be a very important VIP.”

Ulyana scrutinized the details of the story while it was told. She chalked up the nervousness to the kind of person Maryam was. She seemed like a very sweet girl who had been through a lot, and Ulyana felt a certain predilection to believing in her. When Ulyana herself was young she was forced to be “crafty” to survive enslavement in the colonies, so she understood Maryam’s telling of the story. There were details to surviving in harsh situations that were best left abbreviated and did not need retelling.

Ulyana wouldn’t push her to qualify every tiny blank that she had left.

Her route to Sverland had been incredibly long though. If the Union was her goal, she could have gone south through Veka and crossed through Nama Flow. Nama Flow was a landmass wall that divided the Union from Veka north-east to east. It was created by landmass collapses and rearrangements that seemed to have happened in the late Surface Era, whether directly by human action or as a result of the Surface’s catastrophes. The Union controlled both sides of Nama Flow.

It wasn’t easy making it to the Union from anywhere, so why choose the longest route?

“That’s a crazy route you took to get here.” Ulyana said. “How did that happen?

“I didn’t have a lot of choices. I was supposed to be on a mission for my bosses.”

Maryam smiled nervously and raised a hand behind her head, patting down her own hair.

“Can you tell us more about this ‘shady’ group of yours?” Ulyana said.

“They’re called–” She stammered again for a moment. “They’re called the Foundation.”

“Doesn’t really sound like a revolutionary organization.” Aaliyah said.

“They kept things pretty discrete.” Maryam said. She started getting the confidence to speak a bit candidly for a moment. “They’re not really ideological; they were out for themselves mainly and that’s what I didn’t like there. You can think of them kind of like a mafia I guess.”

“Organized crime, huh? I have to say, that’s not really what we wanted to hear.” Ulyana said, slightly disappointed with the story. However, it did make sense. Ulyana had learned that most immigrant Katarrans were ultimately forced to turn to crime in order to survive the rampant discrimination in the Empire. It must have been quite convenient for wealthy, corrupt Imperials to have a ready source of desperate clandestine labor at their bidding. Poor Maryam wouldn’t have had the choice to become some fabled socialist revolutionary in the realities of the Imbrian Empire.

Maryam’s colors shook briefly again. But she seemed to gather her courage after that.

“I wasn’t a big freedom fighter or anything, but I was made with a really good brain and memory, so I know tons of information that can help!” She put on a proud little smile. “In fact, I know a place we can go. It shouldn’t be too far, judging by the map I saw on the morning update!”

At Maryam’s prompting, Aaliyah turned on the display on the table and loaded that same map from Semyonova’s Morning Update to the crew. It was a zoomed in topographical cutout of Northern Sverland, generated by the navigational computer from its preloaded atlas. Stopping short of the Khaybar range that separated most of Sverland from Bosporus to the North, and the open border to Rhinea and the Yucatan gulf in the northwest and center-west of the region respectively.

The Brigand’s current position on the map was updated by the navigation computer.

“Here!”

Maryam pointed to the north, closer to Khaybar, running her finger along a specific area.

“See this dip here? That place is actually a big, long hole the locals called Goryk’s Gorge. There used to be a small outpost there, but I heard it’s been declining. I think it’s because travel through Khaybar dried up the past few years. It should have enough space though! We can dock the ship there for your repairs! There might not be many functioning amenities, but it’s a place that we can hide in that not a lot of people know. To be found there, the imperials would have to be searching the whole grid.”

Ulyana followed Maryam’s finger across the map. This Goryk’s Gorge wasn’t too far off.

However, the fact that Maryam was trying to correct their map bothered her.

Any standing station should have been listed already. So why was that location empty?

Who was it that set up this so-called ‘outpost’? What was it really for?

Aaliyah seemed to be on a similar wavelength to Ulyana and voiced her own doubts.

“Would this ‘outpost’ happen to have been set up by Katarran mercenaries?” She said.

Maryam rubbed her head nervously. “Historically. But they’ve probably moved on!”

There was another brief but awkward silence as Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Maryam.

“I’ll take my chances with Katarran mercs over Lichtenberg any day.” Marina interjected.

“And it’s relatively closer than Rhinea. I suppose it’s worth taking a look.” Ulyana said.

She was not too impressed with Maryam’s information quite yet.

And she felt she should have learned to temper her hopes about these things much sooner.

Regardless, at least they had a direction to go in. She didn’t think Maryam was lying. However, more and more, it felt like this entire excursion to Serrano had been a big mistake. What were the Union’s foreign agents doing and thinking? What did they actually see in Maryam? She was a sweet girl who had been through a lot, but she did not seem like a VIP asset worthy of this painful detour.

Ulyana tried to clear her head and push it out of her mind. Like Aaliyah had said before, it was pointless to hang onto topics like this. They could not simply dream up alternatives to reality.

“Alright, we’ve decided, we’ll set a course for Goryk’s Gorge. Marina and Maryam, you’ll be given formal security clearances as advisors. You’re welcome on the bridge any day.” She said.

Marina quietly nodded her head and Maryam beamed with delight, raising her arms.

And so the Brigand would change direction and head north to its next destination. Goryk’s Gorge, and the mysterious station supposedly at its edge. Ulyana could only pray that she was making the right choices in this awful situation. They adjourned the meeting, the future still unsure.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder as she prepared to leave the room.

Aaliyah behind her again, smiling. “Let’s talk later, just us, Captain.”

Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”

It was a labored smile but reminding herself Aaliyah was there did wonders for her morale.


It’s her!

You’re here Braya!

Her human body was seated next to Karuniya Maharapratham in the science officer’s lab, but the signals that Braya Zachikova’s brain felt as tactile sensations and visual input were now being drawn from a drone strung on a kilometer of fiber-optic wire in the open waters. She was cold, and she felt the effort of the hydrojets behind her and the sense of her body’s increased weight and stiffness. Her drone body collected data on its status, and this feedback was given directly to Zachikova’s brain.

It was a second body, a main body while the flesh and blood stayed behind.

This curved, finned metal body two and a half meters long and two meters tall deployed from the utility tube into the murky ocean, searching, following all biological noises as Fatima picked them up and discarded them as irrelevant from the Bridge’s computer. With access to this data and everything else that the ship supercomputer was processing, Zachikova was finally able to track her beautiful dancer through the gloom of the deep ocean, following featureless rock and swimming past ghostly white plants and corals and crawling rockfish and crabs, geysers of methane that drew up slight purple sparks when their bubbling hot discharge came into contact with the agarthic salts in the water.

Marine snow fell over her in great waves — this was the thick biomass suspended in the water around them, eternally raining from the rich, living environment above. Peering through the fog of decaying matter and the minuscule beings that thrived in it, Zachikova felt her human heart shudder with surprise and warm with delight. Those beautiful fins, that graceful body, the color that shone brightly under the lights cast out by the drone, even amid the dark blue-green filter of the ocean.

She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.

A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.

There was such relief in her heart. Her dancer hadn’t disappeared, hadn’t come to harm, and she could do her part now to protect her for good. She steadied the cameras and extended the arms so that Karuniya could capture footage of the animal playing harmlessly with the drone, its slender body bereft of any implements of destruction like biocannons, tail spikes or vibrating power-jaws. She lead a life free of worry or burden, unseen in the deeps. Zachikova felt blessed to see her.

“This is Science Officer Karuniya Maharapratham, we spotted this creature on–”

Karuniya had begun to record her audio to play over the evidence footage.

The Dancer would go on the Brigand’s record as a subject of study.

Zachikova could hear the voice, distant and muffled, through the antennae on her human body rather than the drone’s sensors. This mix of the two sometimes shook her out of controlling computerized devices, but in this case, she was so transfixed on the ravishing figure circling around the drone, that there was no way her sight would shift back to her human body. Zachikova wanted to touch her.

She laid the arms of the drone “palm”-up hoping for a touch as the dancer arced gracefully around her. When the sensation of those soft, silky fins played over her arms, her soul fluttered.

Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.

Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.

Bright placid blues trailed from her fins and tail and around her body that spread like a splash of paint wherever she swam, surrounding Zachikova and the cameras which could only see that majestic blue, the color that should have been the sky, she thought. Her eyes were filled the light, and she felt like she could feel colors around her own body, green and purple and blue; and around Karuniya, green and blue with a band of black around the edges; and the Brigand itself was dyed in massive colors of all kinds. Every living thing, painting a glowing tapestry in the water, Zachikova felt like she could see it all.

As the Dancer wove a circle of colors in front of her, Zachikova saw beyond the water.

“We’re going to get out of here.”

Through the clearing mist of the colors and the murk of the marine snow Zachikova saw–

Metal walls, darkness, bars, the blue glint of LEDs and a single tiny window.

Through that window, an impossible, clouded sky with purple flashes of lightning.

Within the gloom, despair-maddened eyes drawing wide illuminated with each flash.

Laughter erupted from a slim girl with copious long red hair–

–scratching at the side of her head, where a horn-like protrusion parted her skin.

“I can talk– talk to them–” She laughed and struggled to speak. “I talk to the monsters.”

Her free hand scratched on the steel floor a series of lines from bloody disfigured fingers.

“I’ll save them– You’ll be one, and I’ll be two– Then we’ll kill them all–”

Zachikova could barely make out the scene through the intrusion of the colors.

At the side of the girl that was talking, sat another girl, with bright lilac eyes, staring–

As if at her.

Inquisitive, aren’t you?

That red-lined gaze pushed Zachikova’s soul as if across the very horizon.

She felt a power squeeze her and hurl her, throw her away–

“–And that’s why I will be inducting this Leviathan as USL-0099 in our database. Positive interactions with Leviathans are few and far between and for the future we are fighting towards, we should foster an environment of understanding and progress in not only political but scientific development. Scientists work in the military to be able to explore the mysteries of the sea. It would be remiss of me, in my capacity as an advisor, to turn a blind eye to this creature and allow its needless destruction. As a subject of study, this Leviathan cannot be fired upon without my express permission.”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–

Zachikova shook her head. Her human head. A breath crossed through her human throat. From the lab’s drone control terminal, she manually switched the cameras around, moving them like machines and not her own body. The Dancer was still there, but distant, coy, starting to wander away from the drone. Zachikova had the panicked thought that she had done something wrong.

“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“

Her head was foggy, and she felt images slipping away from her like a dream fading from the wakeful mind. She had seen a girl, for some reason, and she knew she had seen some kind of strange color phenomenon in the water. It could’ve been signals issues, some kind of cybernetic synesthesia, she already experienced all sorts of odd things when she interfaced with machines.

Those situations never felt quite like this. Zachikova’s heart was shaken.

She was losing her cool. Emotion had never overcome her like this.

Zachikova thought she might cry, and she hardly knew what she was crying about!

Swept up in that current of colors swirling around the Dancer–

It was the most beautiful thing she had seen underwater, but her mind was–

–Mourning the image of it.

Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–

“Zachikova, are you okay? Did you disconnect from the drone?”

In front of her, Karuniya Maharapratham seemed to fully reappear as if stepping in through a cloud of mist. Her soft brown skin, long dark hair, white coat. Her gentle eyes. And the stark metallic lab walls and equipment returning to the background. Zachikova felt more grounded in reality, and reality set in for her anew. She shook her head and turned back to the drone console with haste.

“I’m okay. I lost connection. I’m going to link back.”

“It looks like USL-0099 swam away.” Karuniya said, looking at the monitor.

“I want to follow it.” Zachikova said suddenly. Almost interrupting Karuniya.

“It seems to be roaming around, we’ll probably see it again.” Karuniya said.

“I’m–” Zachikova paused briefly. She hated how desperate she sounded, but she could not deny the fear that had taken hold like ice in her chest. “I’m afraid I might have scared it off. I’d like to make contact again. I won’t be out for long, and I won’t need to take up your time further.”

Karuniya scratched her hair in consternation. “No offense, but I don’t understand–”

At that moment, the sound of running footsteps nearing the door caught their attention.

Through the threshold crossed an agitated Sonya Shalikova, panting heavily.

“Maharapratham!” She shouted. “She’s awake! Murati is awake!”

Whatever Karuniya was going to say to Zachikova would hang in the air for good.

Speechless, on the verge of tears, Karuniya ran past Shalikova, who then ran after.

Zachikova remained, seated on the drone station, alone. Her antennae shifted slightly.

She suddenly and immediately reconnected the drone and began to dissociate her body.

“I have to find her again.”

I have to ask her— this thought reverberated in Zachikova’s mind as it left her human body.

What would she even ask? And how would she ask a question to an animal?

Those small insanities sank to the back of Zachikova’s mind.


“How many fingers are we holding up?”

Officers Zhu and Van Der Smidse both held up two fingers to form peace signs.

They waved these fingers in front of an awkwardly smiling patient in a medbay bed.

“Is this a trick question? Two fingers in two hands, so four fingers.”

Murati Nakara answered with as much enthusiasm as she could muster energy for.

“I guess she’s ok.” Zhu and Van Der Smidse agreed.

For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.

She felt that she had not been in a deep sleep but had been sleeping and waking, finding herself first in her diver, then dragged out, in the medbay, in the ocean itself, in places unfathomable that seemed to skirt just beyond the edge of understanding. Long sandy stretches of surface land, war-torn; a great and awful tree of flesh in the middle of a romantic, gothic town; a sprawling city where people could do anything with their minds but were beset by monsters; nonsense dreams.

She had a headache, and she did not feel rested.

She was famished and had a hard time keeping her eyes wide open in the medbay.

Craning her head, she took note that she was not the only one interned in the medbay.

Sat up on her bed, Sameera seemed to have been recovering well, the mixed Shimii/Loup gently wagging her tail under the sheets, laid on three pillows and smiling placidly. Always chipper, that one. She looked like she had been awake for longer. Rather than a hospital gown, she was dressed in a long casual shirt and from one dangling leg what seemed like soft, baggy pants. However, when she tried to move, she seemed uncoordinated, as if drunk or sleepy, and ended up laying back down.

“Two days or so, if you were wondering.” Sameera said.

“Huh?”

Murati stared at her. Sameera laughed, voice deep and gentle.

“That’s how long you slept, but I think you were coming in and out. I heard you cry once.”

“You heard her cry?” Zhu Lian. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Sameera looked untroubled. “It felt like she just needed to work something out.”

“What if she was working out a heart attack?” Van Der Smidse said.

“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu glared at her for a moment, until a pair of visitors ran in.

At the door, a pale, indigo-eyed girl escorted a familiar face, one Murati longed to see.

“Karuniya!”

Murati’s exclamation was a little weak, owing to her condition.

Despite this, it reached right to Karuniya’s heart. At the door, she gasped and stood, the rest of the assembled group parting so that she could approach the bed. She held her hands over her mouth, eyes half-shut with copious tears, shoulders shaking. When she finally rushed to the bed she was mindful of Murati’s wounds. Rather than hug Murati, she laid gentle hands on her.

Karuniya leaned in her head, and they touched their faces together. It was the most affectionate form of physical contact Murati could withstand. Feeling the warmth of Karuniya’s cheek and her soft hair falling over her, the scent of the disinfectant clinging to her lab coat mixed with the woody smell of mushroom cultures. Murati almost wished she could return a full embrace.

However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.

Under her hospital gown, Murati had deep bruises in her chest and flank. Though she was on pain medication which helped her breathe normally, she could feel her range of movement limited by the sense of dull stinging that triggered when she tried to shift her weight. She supposed that she had broken ribs. Her arm was also broken and in a cast, slung over her shoulder. She had a bit of foam padding around her neck that suggested it was probably bruised or injured as well.

“Mu– Mu– Mu– rati–!” Karuniya cried out, sobbing, whimpering next to Murati.

“It’s okay Karu. I’m here for you.” Murati said, smiling with genuine elation.

“Don’t try to be fucking cool when you nearly got killed! You reckless idiot!”

Karuniya lifted her hands off Murati’s shoulder and then laid them back down.

Perhaps in lieu of the soft little punches she sometimes threw to tease or scold Murati.

She laid her head over Murati’s shoulder, gently, making sure not to lean too hard.

“I was so worried, Murati. I was so worried. I thought you– I thought you had–”

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”

“Promise me this is the worst it’s going to be. Promise me it won’t be worse than this.”

“I promise. I really do.”

Murati understood. For it to have been “worse than this” she would’ve had to come back in pieces rather than whole. Or not have come back at all. They already understood how dangerous the mission was and that either of them could die– but even the most educated soldiers had feelings when they actually confronted death. Murati reassured her as best she could. There was no need to realistically contemplate their mortality right then. After all, Murati really wanted to keep that promise.

She would do her utmost not to break such a promise.

And if that promise had any power, then maybe there was a God after all.

Murati would pin her hopes on that.

It was eerie, having come near death. It did not feel like anything.

That absence of some grand experience was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all.

She had simply been beaten senseless, halfway to death in the middle of the ocean.

Halfway, but not fully. So here she was, alive in the arms of her precious wife.

Murati looked past Karuniya. Zhu and Van Der Smidse stood off to the side with faintly flushed cheeks, perhaps a little embarrassed at the display of affection — though with their fingers intertwined between them. Shalikova stood with the tiniest, barest hint of a smile on her lips, arms crossed as if waiting for something, or perhaps satisfied with the result of her handiwork.

“Thank you Shalikova.” Murati said. “You came to visit and then ran to get Karu, right?”

Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.

She turned her cheek, her brow creasing ever so slightly with indignation.

“Of course I went to get your wife, anyone would’ve done it. It’s really nothing.” Was that the tiniest bit of flushed cheeks on Shalikova too? Maybe Murati was just seeing things this time.

Now that other people had joined the conversation, Karuniya stepped back from Murati.

Van Der Smidse graciously brought her a seat so she could stay at her “husband’s” side.

“Thank you.” Karuniya sat down. She checked the board on Murati’s bed. “Broken ribs, broken arm– well, you’re not going to die, and you might be able to walk with crutches. Sheesh, at least you’re not going to get back in that death machine for a while. For good or ill.” She sighed and turned with an irritated expression at Zhu and Van Der Smidse. “What are you two doing? Go fetch me some broth, bread, and pickles. Murati must be dying of hunger, c’mon. I’ll feed her.”

Now it was Murati’s turn to feel her face red with embarrassment. “I really don’t need–”

“Shut up.”

Karuniya glared at her. Murati laid back and accepted this as the current state of affairs.

“Sure, we’ll leave her in your capable hands then.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu seemed to sense the dark energy around Karuniya and complied.

After they left to get the food, Shalikova started to bid farewell– but Murati halted her.

“Shalikova, I need to talk to you for a second.”

Shalikova paused and returned to the side of the bed. “What is it?”

“Did we lose anyone?”

Thankfully, Murati did not have to feel the dread of asking that question for long.

“No. We’re all alive.” Shalikova said. Her confidence and quick response were a big relief.

While the time she had spent awake could be counted in minutes only, Murati was already back to thinking about the situation at hand. If she was alive and surrounded by familiar Union faces then they had escaped from the Iron Lady. She was in poor condition, however, so they had something quite important they had to settle so they could operate effectively in the near future.

“I have to talk to Khadija about it too, but– Shalikova, I’m making you squad leader.”

“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.

“Oh, good idea.” Karuniya added. “Shali-Shali has fought like an ace every single time.”

“Huh?! Shali-Shali?”

Shalikova stared between Karuniya and Murati with expressions of shock and disgust.

“That’s– But– No way! I’m an Ensign and I’ve only had two real sorties!”

“I’ve only had two real sorties too.” Murati said. “Shalikova, not only do you have excellent piloting skills, but you’ve shown decisiveness and a really fantastic situational awareness. Had you not intervened when you did, I would have almost certainly been killed out there. And you held your own against that mystery pilot and their mystery diver after that. This is not just empty flattery from me.”

Sameera, lying back with her eyes closed, spoke up suddenly from her bed.

“I agree! I think the Ensign would make a very cute squad leader.” She declared.

“Shut up and go back to sleep! Nobody asked you!” Shalikova shouted. She then turned her agitation on Murati. “Pick Khadija! You said you had to talk– why decide now?” She asked. “She’s so much more experienced and skilled than I am! Why would you pick me over her?”

“You look like you don’t even want to hear the reasons she has!” Karuniya said.

Shalikova snapped toward her but seemed unable to raise her voice at Karuniya.

Murati was thankful that she could sense the evil within Karuniya and treat her gently.

“I think Khadija is our strongest pilot, and that’s exactly why she shouldn’t be the leader.” Murati said. “She has exceptional combat skills, but– let’s say skewed judgment. At any rate, a leader doesn’t need to be the strongest. After all, you’re a better pilot than me in raw skill, Shalikova.”

Of all the comments, this one really had poor Shalikova withering under the spotlight. She crossed her arms, tapped her feet, and turned her back, grumbling a little where no one could see.

“I’ll– I’ll think about it. You won’t force me to do this. I really have to consider it!”

Murati nodded her head silently, smiling at her. “Thank you. I really believe in you–”

Shalikova immediately started to walk out of the room unprompted, but she met someone at the door that she nearly bumped into. Pink skin, red and brown hair, a below-average stature.

“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.

“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”

The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.

Long, thin strand-shaped fins bristling among her hair, an unfriendly look on her face, the woman walked to the side of Sameera’s bed, holding a bowl of what looked like a quick porridge made by crumbling bread and pickles in broth. She sat down, grunted, and then started to feed Sameera, who easily accepted the attention as the woman forced a spoonful through her lips. It was her squadmate, Dominika Rybolovskaya. Her presence, the indignation in her every movement, silenced the room.

Murati wondered how long this bleak scene had repeated across the days.

Compared to the evil energy exuding from that woman, Karuniya was a glowing angel.

At least it brought a bit of color to the drab medbay.

“Karu, can I ask for your help later?”

Murati gave a slightly pleading look to her wife, who smiled back.

“Oh jeez, of course.” Karuniya sighed. “Back to work already? You’re hopeless.”

“Thank you for understanding.”

It was such a contrast to Dominika and Sameera that even those two were staring at it.


Another “night” fell on the UNX-001 Brigand, denoted only by the moving of the clock and the moving of people, and by the artificial dimming of lights. During the day, each light fixture had a small ultraviolet system to help the humans within feel at home, as if working under the rays of the sun. At night, those UV systems would be turned off, the ordinary light would dim, snuffing out the underwater “sun”.

With that snuffing out of the sun, there was a commensurate snuffing out of activity.

There were always some workers at night — it was a warship, after all.

But not for the next few days.

“No night shifts for two days and reduced daytime work hours, for all sailors!”

Galina Lebedova, Chief of the Brigand’s sailors, passed down the decree from Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to all the sailors working in the hangar. Everyone had been working hard for days, and it was clear the laborers really needed a break. Heavy duty work would resume once the Brigand made it to Goryk’s Gorge and could settle down for the final and definitive stretch of repairs.

“Prioritize maintenance, and don’t crowd the canteen and social spaces! And thank the officers!”

As such the hangar space was almost entirely empty that night.

The only sounds were the footwork and grunts of a certain Shimii, Khadija al-Shajara. It was so quiet that when she stopped moving, one could almost hear the drops of sweat striking the hangar floor, and her heart jumping as she stepped forward and back, attacking a shadow opponent. Dressed only in a pair of workout pants and a sleeveless crop top, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Her cat-like ears bristled with each burst of physical effort, tail stabbing at the air behind her betraying a sense of anxiety.

She had in each hand a thick, solid, and heavy carbon-fiber truncheon borrowed from the armory. Standing in a corner of the hangar, with the Diver gantries blocking her from the sight of the elevators and lower hall connections, she practiced striking with the truncheons. Solid one-handed blows in quick succession; coordinated attacks with both weapons at once; overhead, from the side, from left and right at once.  She was not treating them as the two clubs she had, but as a pair of swords.

Swords like the saw-bladed, motorized weapons that her Diver could employ.

Her strikes grew more belabored, her breathing tighter, and she could hear herself, louder.

“Fuck!”

Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.

“It doesn’t matter. My body isn’t what’s on the line out there. It’s all in a fucking Diver.”

She hated how exhausted she felt. She hated the feeling that she was growing old.

Growing old; when there were other kinds of growing she still needed to do.

Her shaking fingers on the truncheons, the cold sweat of her iron grip; the explosive pain from her joints when she paused for even the briefest second, the soreness in her lithe leg muscles with each step. How she felt her shoulder nearly pop on the double overhead strikes. How hard her breathing came to her, almost as soon as she started. Khadija hated it, hated her age, hated her ailing body. She was as fit as she possibly could be, her lean, wiry muscles practiced daily, and still her strikes grew weaker.

“Fuck.”

There was a loud clatter on the hangar floor as she dropped the truncheons.

Slipping out of exhausted hands that couldn’t stop shaking.

Regardless of how sharply focused her mind had been, she could not make her body go further. Forty-two years; how was it possible that she was still alive after all of this? How had she not died back then with the Red Baron? Either in 959 or 979, whichever of the two. She doubled over, breathing ragged, hands on her knees, sweat trickling over her slim nose, her still-soft cheeks.

“Hah, man, this sucks. When did this become so much trouble for me?”

She started to think but– when was even the last time she had to train this hard?

There were always things to do. Patrols, mock battles, simulations, equipment testing, she had even done plenty of Leviathan culling alongside the Hunters. War, however, she had only practiced in a single solitary stretch, the year of absolute hell she experienced from 959 to 960. Twenty years ago, twenty whole years ago. She was treated like a senior NCO back then because she was twenty-two in an army that had a massive swell of teenage privates. What was she supposed to be now?

“Back then–” Khadija paused, still catching her breath. “I didn’t want the kids to fight.”

She still did not. And perhaps, that was the reason that, at forty-two, she was still here.

Forty-two years. No matter how much she exercised, how much makeup she wore, in this situation there was no escaping it, no embellishing. As lithe and athletic as she kept her body, as young and vibrant as she kept her face, deep down beneath skin and muscle, she was forty-two years old.

She was hurting. Even her fluffy tail felt like an old, beaten thing.

Forty-two years.

Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.

“Someone like me would’ve already been dead if this was a film. For the kid’s stories to advance.”

Maybe she should have been killed. If she could have just taken out the Red Baron back then–

There was a distant series of dull metal steps on the hangar floor.

When Khadija turned her head she saw someone approaching across the barely lit space.

Someone on crutches.

“So this is where you went. You look like you’ve been working really hard.”

Murati Nakara, step by labored step, leaning heavily on her crutches. Smiling.

She had on her uniform, and she looked like every step was pure agony.

“Ya Allah!” Khadija exclaimed, so surprised she was. “What are you doing, you fool?”

She rushed up to a stand and hastened to Murati’s side, trying to save her some walking.

Face to face, Khadija’s sweaty, bereaved expression, barely accented with a light touch of runny makeup, could not have measured to the deathly grimace on Murati’s face, sweating, panting for breath. Khadija looked around, wondering how the hell she made it out of the medbay without anyone stopping her. She helped Murati lean against her, and regardless of what the Lieutenant intended, Khadija had in mind to drag her right back. She started to gently urge her to turn so she could guide her away.

“It’s okay Khadija, Karuniya is in the hall with a wheelchair.” Murati said.

“What? Why didn’t she cart you out here? What is wrong with you two?”

“Because I want to talk to you alone, and she respects me enough for that.”

Murati continued to labor a smile, while Khadija stared at her quizzically.

“Didn’t you just wake up today? What could possibly–?”

“Khadija, I’ll get right to the point, because I’m really exhausted and hurting and honestly, this has been distressing me a lot.” Murati’s eyes looked almost tearful, as she worked her way up to asking and finally interrupted. When Khadija met her eyes she could barely look at the expression. And when she heard the words that her squad leader finally said, her body shook with shock and shame.

“Khadija, were you trying to die out there? Did you intend to martyr yourself?”

It was like her heart was perforated with a cold needle, a sharp pinprick.

When she had fought the Red Baron– She did intend to launch a suicide attack.

How could Murati have known? Did she suspect it when she snatched the bomb away?

In hindsight, it brought her a lot of pain and shame to think about that now.

She had tried to put that experience away.

To train and fight another day and move on.

Now it crashed into her exhausted mind and nearly brought her to the floor.

Especially because of Murati’s reaction. It was so shocking to see her so hurt by it.

Murati continued to look at her, openly weeping. She raised her working arm to wipe tears.

She took Khadija’s shocked silence as a confirmation. And it seemed to distress her further.

“Khadija, please promise me that you won’t consider such a thing again. I admit, I have not been in command of teams in real combat, probably nowhere near as much as you might have had. But I truly made it my duty to insure that everyone came back alive. My plan was never for a suicide mission. It hurts– I can do everything in my power to save my comrades, but if they decide–”

Murati paused as if she could not get herself to say it out loud. She sobbed openly.

Khadija had never seen her like this. She had never imagined her looking so broken up.

“Khadija, I don’t want the story of the ‘Lion of Cascabel’ to end like that. Please.”

“Murati, I–” Khadija hardly knew what to say to that at first.

She could have been offended to be called ‘the Lion of Cascabel’, a name which brought bad memories. She could have tried to explain her reasoning at that time, not that there was any. It had been pure gut, desperation, and a lot of self-loathing that led her to that. She realized what she felt, was that she was touched Murati had such a strong reaction to the idea of her dying like that– to her making a martyr of herself. At that time, Khadija had felt, if she went through with it, no one would mourn it.

Wasn’t she just a soldier? An unmarried childless old woman sharpened to kill?

Wouldn’t the success of the mission give meaning to her death?

For a long time she really thought of herself as someone disposable.

She never realized how that flew in the face of the comrades risking their life alonside her.

How it minimized their collective hope of protecting one another and returning alive.

Khadija wondered– could she really say she wanted to live at all costs? She looked back briefly at the truncheons she had dropped in the hangar. What she had felt back in the water, that desperation and frustration– she was here, fighting to never feel it again. She was challenging herself again, and if she had no intention of living, then she would not have been aching and sweating this much.

She finally knew what to say. “Murati, you’re unbelievable sometimes. I guess I have to become even stronger in the future so you kids will finally stop worrying about me so much.” Khadija made an irritated noise. “Honestly; knock it off, Murati. Go back to the medbay. I have more training to do.”

Murati smiled at her, wiping her tears. Relief seemed to wash over her like a wave.

“Thank you. Whether or not you realize it, Khadija, you’re a real hero.” She said.

Khadija looked away from Murati in a brief fit of shame.

Honestly, what was it with this girl and the earnest compliments?

But she couldn’t hate her for it. She really wanted to believe that she was.

Not just an old failed woman but the hero of a story still to be told.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.8]

“Captain, why are we doing this? We can just disembark right now.”

“A hospitality order means we have to keep them in here, but I just can’t accept doing so under the present circumstances. Not when neither of them actually knows the whole story.”

“We only have to keep one, technically speaking. Those are our orders.”

“We can’t just leave Republic Intelligence out to dry. We need them as allies.”

“Did you plan on doing this from the start? Orders are orders, you know.”

“We have to tell them. I’m not going to hold innocent people hostage here for months.”

“While I will support your chosen course of action, I disagree with it.”

“Aaliyah, I can’t live with myself if I tell them halfway to Carmen that they might never set foot on a Union station. If they end up leaving, I’ll take responsibility with Nagavanshi.”

“Ulyana, it won’t just be with Nagavanshi and it won’t just be you alone, you know?”

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya stopped in the middle of the hallway.

She and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were just meters away from the planning room.

Ulyana had not considered how her actions might have affected Aaliyah.

It was this that gave her pause as she contemplated going against her orders.

She looked back at her Commissar, visibly conflicted. Aaliyah shook her head.

“You need to have the conviction to choose your course of action, Captain.”

“Well, I don’t want to end up making decisions like this for you.”

“I happen to agree with the ethical thrust of your decision.” Aaliyah said.

She sounded a little frustrated. Ulyana felt a bit baffled at her response to this.

She was such a ball of contradictions sometimes.

Perhaps that is what it meant to advise someone. Maybe this was just her style.

“So you agree with the sentiment behind my actions but not the actions themselves?”

“I’m just saying, Captain. Orders are orders. But I will support your decision. It’s my duty.”

Ulyana nodded in acknowledgment.

Silently, she turned back to the door of the planning room and stepped inside.

Around the table, Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy waited with Akulantova.

Marina’s analyst was away: in security custody with Van Der Smidse for the moment.

“Greetings, comrades! I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya of the UNX-001 Brigand.”

Marina gave the Captain a quick salute. “What does UNX stand for? Union Navy what?”

“Experimental. I’m Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. Care to introduce yourself, Republican?”

Aaliyah interceded. She bristled at Marina for her breach of etiquette.

“Marina McKennedy, I’m with the G.I.A Directorate of Operations.” Marina said.

Republic personnel had a reputation in the Union for having sloppy decorum.

Ulyana did think that Marina looked a bit disheveled, even in that sharp suit.

“I suppose I don’t have many questions, except, ‘how long from here to Ferris’?”

Marina grinned and leaned back on her seat with arms crossed over her chest.

Beside Marina, a cuttlefish Pelagis with a gentle smile raised her hand.

“I’m Maryam Karahailos. It’s nice to meet all of you. Thank you so much for taking me in.”

“Pleasure to meet both of you.” Ulyana said. “Agent McKennedy, your appearance was unexpected, but we welcome you board. In fact, having your Diver unit aboard has really fascinated our techs. So feel free to make yourself at home. Sister Karahailos, we will want to speak with you about the information you want to share and get it on the record.”

“Indeed!” Maryam said. Her hair and skin seemed to glow just a little bit.

“How long will I be making myself at home here for? I’m hoping for a clean run south.”

Marina seemed quite impatient, and Aaliyah looked to be chafing against her attitude.

“We’re here to talk about that.” Said the Commissar, her eyes narrowed and her hands on her hips. “And the reason we’re not disembarking yet is precisely because of that, otherwise we would have just stocked you with some blankets and roomed you in one of the torpedo chambers.”

“You’re right, there shouldn’t be much to explain. So what’s going on?” Marina asked.

“Simply put, we’re not going back to the Union. You got a bit unlucky with your rescuer.”

Ulyana heaved a sigh after saying this. She tried to play it cool, but the responses were dire.

Marina stared at her, briefly speechless, tentatively raising and lowering her hands.

Maryam turned momentarily pale white as a cave mushroom. Her whole body shuddered.

Her body’s color scheme seemed to “glitch,” a wave of disturbed, “noisy” color sweeping over her.

“What the fuck do you mean by not going back?” Marina shouted, standing up suddenly.

Akulantova reached out a burly arm and casually forced her back to her seat.

“Language. Address the Captain with respect, if not for her then for me, please.”

Marina scarcely resisted. Most people didn’t once they felt Akulantova’s grip on them.

“God damn it. So I’m just your hostage then, to wherever you’re fucking off to?”

“No. You can walk back out that cargo elevator and go back to Serrano if you want.”

Ulyana pointed her thumb over her shoulder to indicate the door behind her.

“In truth, we don’t really know where we’re going next, but it’s not the Union.”

“We’re part of a train and equip mission to sabotage the Empire’s ability to suppress the Bureni insurgency.” Aaliyah said. It was an accurate enough description as any, though Ulyana felt like she was being charitable about the ultimate goal of their journey. Certainly, Buren was a destination, but whether they would be able to train and equip anyone, and what that would do to the Empire’s fighting ability where it mattered — that was very much up to luck to sort out.

Even Marina seemed able to quickly tell the obstacles in front of them.

“No disrespect to your sense of duty, but you comrades are getting sent out to die.”

“You must understand what that feels like, as a G.I.A. agent, but also why we do it.”

“Sorry commie cat, but I’m not a blood and country type like the rest of you.”

“Well, you can always be a ‘washed up on the docks with no ride’ type instead.”

Ulyana interrupted before Aaliyah could respond to the ‘commie cat’ remark.

“Fuck you.” Marina replied. Akulantova sighed audibly. “You fucking know I can’t leave!”

“Nobody knows who you are! You could go back to the dockworkers and get another ship down South. The border’s all clear! We can even give you money for bribes. You can leave right now. If you stay here, I’m going to need you to really consider the situation and acknowledge your support for us. And you don’t have long to decide.”

Ulyana leaned down to the table, setting down a fist on it, and locking eyes with Marina.

Marina’s whole body was shaking with a visible fury and frustration.

“Excuse me, may I butt in for a second?”

Maryam raised her hand, and one of the tentacles coming from the side of her head.

She had a nervous smile on her face and her colors had returned to their lively hues.

“Right, sorry we forgot you for a moment.” Ulyana said. “Sister, to us, you are a VIP that we have orders to retain in custody. Those orders came from our direct superiors. That being said, I can’t in good judgment force anyone to stay that does not want to. It could undermine morale and cohesion to have people here under false pretenses.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I will stay.” She said. “I am valuable to you, so I know you’ll keep me safe.”

For a brief moment, Maryam’s gaze looked intense, full of determination and confidence.

Ulyana looked into those odd, beautiful eyes and felt a wave of reassurance wash over her.

She smiled back at Maryam. What a relief to have somebody cooperating with them.

“I’m glad to have you aboard Sister. So what do you think, Agent McKennedy?”

Marina scoffed. “Well, you have me by the dick so what am I supposed to say?”

“You can start by apologizing for that mouth of yours.” Akulantova raised her voice.

“I need to get out of this station, Captain Korabiskaya.” Marina begrudgingly moderated her tone. “I can’t risk waiting for another ship. I don’t have a tail now, but no one knows what tomorrow will bring. I can’t gamble her– my life like this.” She paused briefly, rubbing her hands down her face. “All I have now is you people and my Diver in your hangar. So I will stay. And it behooves me then to cooperate with your mission, so I will do it. But I want access to all of your intelligence. I want to be an equal partner in this. I can stand in your bridge; I can see everything you do. Clear?”

Ulyana crossed her arms. “I suppose that’s fair. Commissar?”

Aaliyah’s ears bristled. She really seemed to hate Marina’s tone of voice.

“I’m not against sharing information, but she’s not part of our chain of command.”

“If she wants to stand on the bridge, she can stand there, and I’m sure she can make herself useful. You and Maryam can be our advisors on Imperial culture and current events. Does that sound good enough, McKennedy?”

“Sure.” Marina shrugged. “And as for Elen, my analyst, I want her exempt from ship duties.”

“She can take a pleasure cruise then. Looks like we’re all agreed finally.” Ulyana replied.

Maryam clapped her hands gently. “Welcome aboard, Agent McKennedy!”

Marina gave her a weary, dismissive look. “So, where’s my torpedo tube?”

“Good question.” Ulyana said. “We’re going to need to clear out some room space.”

“All our officers are housed alone in two-bunk rooms.” Aaliyah said. “So we can assign each our guests to bunk with one of the officers. That would be the simplest solution to get everyone housed with the least trouble.”

“I want to bunk with Elen. Is there a spare room I can have for two?” Marina said.

“You ask for a lot, you know that?” Aaliyah snapped.

“I’ll give my room to her and Elen.” Ulyana said. “That should make everyone happy, right?”

“Overjoyed.” Marina grumbled.

“Captain, where will you go then?”

Ulyana turned from Marina to Aaliyah with an awkward expression.

“Well. I was hoping my next-door neighbor could help with that–”

Aaliyah’s ears and tail darted up as straight as they could go.

“Captain– We’ll discuss it later!” She said, clearly flustered. Ulyana should’ve known it’d become an issue.


“Serrano has cleared us for departure!”

Semyonova’s face appeared on every screen aboard the Brigand, informing the personnel that the carrier was departing Serrano, only a few hours since they first arrived. While there were some groaning sailors who wished they could have gotten to see the shore at all, almost everyone felt relieved that they had entered an Imperial station and could now leave it without incident. It meant that maybe the crazy journey they were on had a chance in hell of actually succeeding.

Around the Brigand, the glass and steel of the berth shifted, isolating them from Serrano’s port and then flooding their chamber. Finally, they were exposed to the Nectaris Ocean and then released from their docking clamps. The Brigand freed itself from the port structure and began once again to make its way through the ship traffic out from under the station and into the open ocean. In tow, the ship had a VIP, a Republic G.I.A. agent and her mech, an analyst of no repute, and several crates of pack rations courtesy of Warehouse No. 6. Their first mission was a success.

“We’ll talk about our next moves tomorrow. For now, just rest up. Have a biscuit.”

Captain Korabiskaya dismissed Maryam and Marina with a gentle nod.

They had resolved the long-term situation with their guests’ lodging.

Marina and Elen would be staying in the Captain’s room.

The Commissar reluctantly agreed to bunk with the Captain temporarily.

“Oh, what a cute bear!”

Maryam Karahailos was assigned to bunk with Sonya Shalikova and arrived at her room.

When she walked through the door, Shalikova nearly jumped off her bed in a fright.

“What are you doing here?” Shalikova called out.

She shouted with such a passion that Maryam’s colors briefly turned pale.

“Ah, I’m sorry for disturbing you. I was assigned to this room.”

“Assigned? This room?”

“I need a place to stay long term. After all, you’re not returning to the Union.”

Maryam closed her eyes and smiled, her hands behind her back, with a cutesy expression.

Shalikova felt a gnawing guilt in her chest, watching Maryam trying to act unbothered.

She knew it was only just acting. Shalikova was too observant not to notice the signs.

The Pelagis had hid her hands behind her back because they were shaking.

Her whole body language spoke of someone covering up what they really wanted to say.

That smile was all false; her cutesy posture and movements meant to hide her anxiety.

She had just caused Maryam more pain in the end. She had not really spared her anything.

“I’m really sorry. I– I could have told you back then and I didn’t.” Shalikova said.

Regardless of whether she was a soldier and needed to follow orders, Shalikova was raised as a communist. She didn’t know a lot of theory like Murati did; and she was not able to just blindly follow all orders like the Commissar might. But Shalikova was a communist and a soldier because she could never stand by and let people be hurt or trampled over. And maybe that meant keeping her distance from others. So she couldn’t hurt or inconvenience them herself.

Shalikova could have told Maryam the truth.

She lied because she was pathetic.

Because as much as she hated to, she was always hurting others too.

“Ahh you have such a sad aura suddenly! I understand, it’s ok! You’re a soldier. They asked you to come fetch me. If you told me you weren’t going to the Union, and I ran off in a passion, it would’ve caused you trouble. I get it. I don’t hold anything against you. I’d hate it if you felt guilty over something so small, you know?”

Maryam’s body language visibly relaxed. Shalikova was a little perplexed.

She really expected Maryam to hate her.

To have taken this room assignment solely for the purpose of confronting her.

Or something like that.

Maybe it was her overdramatic brain, twisting herself into knots. How stupid!

For a girl with such keen senses Shalikova’s feelings had become very unclear to herself.

Her heart was twisted up in a knot. It was– it was very unsoldierly of her.

“I told you, and I meant it. You help me feel comfortable. We’re on a first name basis, even!” Maryam beamed ever more broadly. “I was so nervous that I’d bother you by showing up here, but when the Captain said I could room with anyone, there was only one person I wanted to stay with. If it’s someone I could be around for months and months, then it had to be you, Sonya.”

That impassioned speech fell on Sonya’s head like a falling light fixture.

“Why are you like this? What is your problem?” Sonya shouted suddenly, in a cracked tone of voice like a crying child. Her face was burning red. “You’re so weird! Fine! You can stay in my room if you want! But stop being so familiar!” She raised the blankets of her bunk over her head, gritting her teeth.

Maryam stared at that particular display for a moment without any reaction.

“Ah, I’m sorry. Back in the convent the other nuns always said I was too emotional–”

Sonya grumbled. “It’s not about being ‘emotional’! What you are is much too ‘forward’!”

“Eh? Well, I don’t get it, but I’m sure we’ll sort it out over time, roommate!” Maryam said.

“That’s what I mean by too ‘forward’!”

Sonya remained defiantly under her blankets.

She had wanted to rest after the mission, and even secured permission to do so from the Lieutenant, who headed straight to her bunk herself. Now the prospect of resting was furthest from her mind. Her room had been invaded by a certain cuttlefish. And that cuttlefish was bringing a bag of clothes she got from the quartermaster into the room.

“Sonya, can you come move this bear?”

Maryam asked this quite innocently.

“Why?”

“I can’t move it, or can I?”

Sonya snapped. “No! Don’t touch Comrade Fuzzy.”

She threw off her blankets and stood up from her bed.

Dressed only in a pair of shorts and an undershirt, she was quite unprepared for visitors, but Maryam should not have been there, so it was too late to lament her wardrobe choice. She stomped past the Sister with her fists closed at her sides and carefully brought Comrade Fuzzy up into her arms, before stomping back across the room and hiding with him under her blankets once more. She put her back to Maryam and grunted.

Maryam watched without expression and then giggled at her.

“I knew it was special. It gave off your aura. It is very well cared for.”

Sonya’s eyes drew wide under the blankets, but she did not respond.

“I didn’t want to touch it without your permission.”

“Okay.”

She was in no mood to say, ‘thank you for being understanding.’

Though no longer looking at her, Sonya could hear Maryam shuffle over to the other bunk and unfurl her bag of clothes on top of it. Then her locker slid open. She was putting her stuff away. While she did so, she hummed a tiny little tune. Sonya could not help but imagine it in her mind’s eyes. The purple-haired, pink-skinned cuttlefish in her black dress, skipping around. Those tentacles coming from the rear sides of her head wiggling around.

“At what times do you get up and go to sleep?” Maryam asked.

Sonya sighed. She really was just going to hash out the entire arrangement right then.

“0600 to 1800 at the ready, sleep at 2100 hours.”

“I can do that. I don’t want to disturb you. You have a really important job after all!”

“Okay.”

Sonya successfully avoided saying more than one syllable at a time to Maryam for hours.

That also meant, however, that despite her best efforts, she talked with Maryam for hours.


“Hubby! Aww, look at you, rough day?”

Karuniya entered the shared room and instantly found Murati, whom she continued to cheerfully dub her “husband,” lying down on the bed drawn out of the left wall of their room. She had a pillow over her face. Too weary to say anything, Murati merely grunted in acknowledgment from under the pillow. Then she heard footsteps.

She could see a shadow fall over what little light she saw from under the pillow.

“Get up for a little bit, make room.”

Murati felt Karuniya’s hands patting her on the shoulder.

Without giving it much thought, she pulled the pillow off her face and wearily sat up.

Then, Karuniya sat beside her, grabbed hold of her head, and pulled her back down.

“There. Isn’t that better? Just like the picnics we used to have at the Academy.”

A lap pillow: Murati’s head now rested atop Karuniya’s warm thighs.

She looked up at her girlfriend, her eyes weary. A trickle of tears drew from them.

“You can talk to me, you know?” Karuniya said, stroking Murati’s forehead.

“I got back from my mission.”

“I know.”

“It was– it was tough, Karu. I just need a moment to rest.”

“You know, I’m going to be upset with you if that’s all you end up saying.”

Karuniya looked down at Murati, smiling, her fingers running softly over Murati’s hair.

“I told you that I am quite done with your whole strong, silent type posturing.”

At her girlfriend’s behest, Murati stopped fighting back her tears and putting up a front.

She lifted her arm and put the back of her fist over her eyes, weeping openly into her gloves.

“I hate that you’re hurting, Murati. But I’m happy you’re being honest about it.”

Karuniya’s hands felt so warm over her head. Murati almost felt that she didn’t deserve it.

“I’m here to comfort you, no matter what happened. So please let me in.”

“I just feel really helpless. I feel like I don’t know what we’re supposed to do here.”

Murati finally spoke up, raising her voice through a particularly violent sob.

“People are going to keep dying here. We can never save them all. And who knows if we’ll even be able to save any? Why would they help us at all? How could they possibly see this one ship and think it’s going to change anything? Against the enormity of what the Empire has built? They just dispose of their people so easily. It’s so monstrous.”

As a soldier, Murati had always been confident that she could win battles against enemies provided she had the resources: weapons, allies, solid intelligence, and the ability to move. But in the Empire, the enemy she was up against was not just soldiers with ships and divers. This was a whole society that was unleashing violence on multiple levels. Murati felt such immense pain in her heart from staring at the injustices of the Empire and not being able to do a damned thing about it. She felt that she had lost a battle that day, and it shook her faith in their ability to win a war.

Maybe the Brigand could kill Imperial soldiers. Maybe it could kill scores of them.

But their mission was not simply to engage and kill Imperial soldiers like in a normal war.

They were supposed to build a resistance against the Empire to help them fight.

How could they do so with one ship?

How could they do it if all they could do was kill soldiers?

Killing soldiers and destroying ships wasn’t going to save the downtrodden of the Empire.

Not by itself.

And if not the common people of the Empire, who was going to fight alongside them?

Murati felt herself falling down a spiral of hopeless thoughts until her fiancé spoke up once more.

“You know, there’s something about me I never really told you.” Karuniya said.

Murati lifted her hand off her face to look at Karuniya. Her eyes were red and puffy.

“I can’t imagine what it could be.”

Karuniya smiled knowingly. “You know, Murati, I love you more than anything in the world. I love you more than my own ambitions, and more than my own beliefs. So that’s why some stuff was not worth saying.”

She winked at Murati, who failed to understand what her fiancé was getting at.

“I really don’t follow, but now I’m getting kinda anxious Karu.”

“You don’t have to be. It’s really silly. But I really used to be afraid you’d be mad if I told you.”

“Could you come out with it and stop dragging it out?” Murati pleaded.

Karuniya giggled. “Sure. It’s about a line of theory that was suppressed by the Union.”

“What? What do you mean ‘theory’? What kind of theory? Karu, talk to me.”

Was Karuniya about to confess to being a capitalist or something?

That was the last thing Murati needed to hear on this rotten day!

“Okay, I’ll just tell you then. I had a professor when I was a teenager, who was exiled from the Empire to the Union for his beliefs on environmental conservation. Truth be told, he wasn’t much liked for the same reason in the Union. He believed that agarthic salt concentration was anthropogenic and rising, which is a bit of a doomsday prophecy.”

Murati let out a loud, heavy sigh. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“Ah, well, I’m glad you disagree with Union environmental policy writ large.”

“Everyone thinks I’m some kind of zealot. There’s a lot about the Union I disagree with.”

“Name one thing, honey.”

Murati grumbled.

“What’s this theory of yours? Tell me the whole story and stop teasing me.”

Karuniya’s stroking became slower as she lost herself in thought.

“Let’s see, where can I start? I think I was still in preparatory school thinking about what I wanted my career to be. I studied introductory oceanography under Dr. Hans Wadzjik. I must have been fifteen; it was before we met. He never taught according to curriculum. There would always be fights between him and the Education commissar at Lvov Station, where I used to live. But his classes were really fun, and his ideas felt really convincing to me. He was stuck teaching in preparatory school because his life’s thesis, about agarthic salt in the Ocean, was too radical. Even the Union did not want these ideas to gain too much purchase. The Union has a dark side too; Dr. Wadzjik was always being censured. They didn’t throw him in jail or anything. But they made life just a little bit harder for him.”

“He should have stuck to the curriculum then.” Murati said callously.

Karuniya laughed. “Ah, there’s the Murati that I know and love!”

“What? He’s supposed to prepare kids for the Academy, not impart personal ideology.”

“You’d make such a horrible teacher Murati.” Karuniya said, her voice gentle and fond.

It was as if she found Murati’s attitude charming and cute. Her tone was quite annoying.

“Explain what his theory is in full and maybe I’ll agree.” Murati said.

“Okay. Basically, the activity of agarthic reactors and agarthicite mining is giving off an increase in agarthic salt in the ocean water. Agarthic salt is microscopic agarthic matter: basically the tiniest specks of dust, unable to react meaningfully. We used to believe that deposition from the surface, trickling down the water table, was responsible, but Dr. Wadzjik believed that human activity in the Ocean itself was actually responsible for the increase in Agarrhic content in the Ocean’s water table. He spent his life building as much solid evidence for this as he could. No one wanted to hear that, of course. Agarthicite is so important for our lives down here after all.”

“Without those reactors, we wouldn’t have stood a chance for survival.” Murati said.

“True, and it’s not even the station reactors that are the main culprit. It’s the inefficient miniature reactors on ships that are the problem. They’re built smaller and cheaper than Core Pylons at the cost of longevity and fuel efficiency. So of course, neither the Empire nor the Union wants to hear about this sort of thing. But I was fascinated by it. And I do believe it’s true! When I entered the Academy I swore that in my current thesis, I want to package his scholarship in a way the Union will listen to. He had one other belief that was a little too radical for anyone, as well.”

“More radical than the rest?” Murati drew up her eyebrows.

Karuniya laughed a little bit.

“He predicted in 200 years that we’d see the Calamity under the Ocean.”

“What? That’s just mad. Do you believe that Karu? The Calamity, again, down here, in 200 years?”

“No, I don’t believe it. I think the conditions under which he grew up in the Empire colored his perceptions. He was a bit of a misanthrope and a fatalist. For agarrhic salt to start reacting on its own, without human intervention to deliberately blow up the Ocean, it would take a truly insane level of salinity. Even when we try to make Agarrhic salts react, the reactions are tiny; there was a case where a red tide occurred during a black wind in Katarre, the most polluted place in the Ocean. In that case, the survey ship was coring the earth for Agarrhic deposits when it struck. The ship that recorded this event suffered extremely minor instrument degradation. So no, it won’t become a Calamity. At least, not in 200 years, at current conditions. Of course, things could become suddenly worse.”

She looked down at Murati with a cute smile, stroking her hair.

Murati sighed. Why was she telling her all of this now? It didn’t really matter.

In fact, the Lieutenant was mostly annoyed that Karuniya hid all this out of some irrational fear.

“I wouldn’t have said anything about this, you know? Are you that afraid of me?”

“I’m not afraid of you at all. I didn’t tell you this because it didn’t really matter.”

“If it’s something you’re passionate about, it matters to me. I wish I had known.”

“I’m passionate about conservation. That’s just one tiny aspect of it. That’s my point.”

Murati frowned. “You’ve neglected to make this point of yours at all, during any of this.”

“I was getting to it.” Karuniya puffed her cheeks and lifted her hand from Murati’s head.

“Well, sorry for being so annoying then, I guess.”

Karuniya laid her hand back down on Murati’s hair and ruffled it very harshly.

“My point, you blunt, stubborn, tragic fool, is that you can’t just give up because the problem is too large for you by yourself! I can’t save the Ocean by myself, but I want to promote and advance the science of Conservation to teach others to do their part, and maybe, slowly, budge society in the right direction with regards to our environment.” Murati blinked. Karuniya’s voice grew impassioned, so much that she herself started to weep just a little and started wiping her tears periodically. “If we feel helpless, the world doesn’t get better for our inaction. The Union Naval HQ didn’t see the Brigand and think ‘this will be useless because it can’t destroy every Imperial fleet by itself.’ They saw the larger battle of which we are a part and decided to act. You should know that! We can’t save everyone; but that’s no excuse for giving up. Even if all we can do is give the Empire a black eye, that in itself is not a useless undertaking.”

She raised a hand to her own face and wiped her tears.

“I think the Murati who pursues justice at any cost and never lets anything go, is really admirable and really sexy and really cute! That’s the woman I fell in love with. When you set your mind to it you keep trying, doggedly, standing in front of the same apathetic crowd again and again even if the outcome doesn’t change. You did it in the Academy, you did it in your military career, and I want you to keep doing it. That’s what I admire about you. And it makes me feel emboldened to take my own crazy ideas in front of people who don’t care. That’s it; that’s my whole point.”

Murati looked up at her fiancé as if seeing her in a new light. Was this something about Karuniya she had overlooked this whole time? She felt monumentally stupid for a moment, both deeply touched and deeply ashamed. She recalled when Karu teased her about being neglectful. Had she ever expressed to Karuniya this level of passion, of admiration?

“I’m sorry for making you sad, Karu. I seem to keep doing that.” Murati said.

“Don’t be sorry! I’m not crying because I’m sad.” Despite the presence of ever more tears, Karuniya continued to wipe her eyes frequently. Her lips slowly curled into a smile again. “I’m so happy that I’m here with you. I always thought that our careers would break us apart one day. I wanted us to be able to pursue our dreams together some day.”

“I could have stayed with you.” Murati said. “I could have left the Navy.”

“No, absolutely not. Because the woman I love doesn’t turn her back on her ambitions. All I want is for you to keep your chin up, and if you can’t take the pain, to please, please, come to me. I’m here for you. I want to be part of what makes you strong. And you don’t even know the degree to which you are part of what makes me strong too.”

Her words hung in the air for a moment. She looked down at Murati, locking eyes.

“I feel like you’re confessing to me all over again.” Murati said warmly.

“Think of it as my long overdue vows then.” Karuniya said, wiping more fresh tears.

Murati sat up from Karuniya’s lap and turned around on the bed to face her.

She took Karuniya’s hands in her own and looked deep into her eyes with determination.

Drawing out all of the feelings that she had trouble giving form to: her own vows.

“Karuniya, I admire you too. You’re so important to me!” She said. “You always felt so strong and casually confident. Like you knew you’d get anything you wanted. So maybe I haven’t been putting in the effort for you, from my end. Maybe I have been neglecting you. Ever since I met you, I wanted to be a part of your life. And I do want us to be able to pursue our dreams while having a home with each other. I’m sorry I’m telling you this on a fucking warship.”

“Sounds like we both need to practice that whole ‘openness’ thing more often.” Karuniya smiled.

“I guess so. But you know… there was always language we shared that we both understood.”

Murati took Karuniya, pulled her in and suddenly kissed her.

She seized her with such fervor that she stumbled over her in bed. Not one more word was said. Their eyes locked together, and the pair followed their hearts and bodies, laughing in each other’s faces, fumbling with each other’s shirts, kissing on the lips, on the neck, biting, clawing, breathing heavy with the weight of their passion.


Marina knocked on the door to the room but let herself in without waiting for recognition.

Not that Elena wanted to say anything to her.

When she saw who was at the door, she curled back up in her bunk and turned her back. On the floor, her coat and pants lay discarded. She had thrown herself to bed in her bodysuit alone. Covered up with the blankets, she wanted nothing more than to sleep for months, maybe years. To sleep until she couldn’t tell sleep from this nightmare.

“Settling in?” Marina asked with a sweetness Elena read as forced.

Marina stepped in and the door closed. Elena made a low, irritated noise in response.

She had stood for about an hour in the hall while Marina talked with the Captain.

Then the Captain returned, introduced herself briefly, and took her things to another room.

Elena finally got to lie down and had five minutes of peace before Marina barged in.

The more she thought about everything happening to her, the angrier Elena became.

Her feet hurt. She felt like she had never walked so much in her life without having a soft bed to settle into. The bunks in this ship were not the same. Everything seemed to be filled with a stiff gel, from the mattress to the pillows. Back in Vogelheim her pillows and her bed were feather-soft and held her body with perfect amount of resistance. Such a simple thing, and even that was denied to her in current predicament. She almost wanted to cry about it.

And she felt stupid for that. Stupid, small, helpless, unable to do anything for herself.

“I have to get a medical evaluation on the Captain’s orders. I’ll be back later.”

“Why?”

Elena turned around briefly to look at her self-styled guardian’s face as she responded.

Why would they care about Marina’s health? They would be gone in a few days, right?

That ‘why?’ seemed to go through Marina like a knife. Her face grew sullen.

“Shit. How do I explain this?”

“Explain what? Explain fucking what Marina?”

Curse words just tumbled out of Elena’s royal lips now. Maybe Marina’s influence.

Elena had become practiced in pinning every problem on that woman’s influence.

Marina sighed audibly. She covered her face with one hand.

“We’re not going to the Union anymore. The Brigand has a different mission–”

“Ugh. Whatever. I don’t even care anymore. Just go away and let me sleep then.”

After a sharp pang of anger all Elena felt was a hole in her chest, as if sucking in air.

She turned her back on the door again and covered herself in the stiff blankets.

“Tell me when we’ve arrived wherever we’re supposed to be.”

She heard a foot stomp on the room floor.

“Elena, I’m really not in the mood for your fucking attitude. You better start shaping up.”

Oh? Gears started spinning in the princess’ head and heart.

“Yeah? So what? Are you going to knock me out again? Stuff me in a crate?”

Elena gritted her teeth under her blankets. She let herself steep in hating Marina.

 “I’m strongly considering it.” Marina grunted.

There was a little, pathetic victory swelling in the heart of the lost Princess.

She had hurt Marina finally. Finally pierced through her shitty little armor.

She could feel it. Radiating from Marina like a cursed fire.

“I’m not scared of you.”

“Elena–”

“I just have to touch your bare skin; you’ll go down crying like a baby again.”

“Elena!”

“It’s Elen, stupid, don’t blow my cover, especially if we’re going to be here longer.”

Marina’s breathing grew heavier and more audible.

“I can’t believe you. You ungrateful– I’ve done nothing but protect you–”

“Looking for a reward? You won’t get one from me. I don’t have anything anymore.”

“If your mother could see you like this–”

“Shut up about my mother! Just go get your head checked already.”

In an instant she heard the door slide open and closed again behind her.

All of this was Marina’s fault. And Marina didn’t even care about her anyway.

Your mother this; your mother that. Every other word out of her mouth was about Elena’s mother. If she was doing all this for Elena’s mother, well, that woman was dead. Elena barely remembered her. Certainly, Elena was not doing a goddamned thing for her mother’s sake. Her mother abandoned her in Vogelheim to be an accessory to the Emperor’s family gatherings. Had Marina even once said she was doing anything for Elena’s own sake alone? She couldn’t recall.

“I hate you. Just leave me alone.” She mumbled to herself, tears swelling in her eyes.

She did not want to say another word to Marina ever again.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.6]

This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.

Every soldier dreamed about their beloved on long, lonely voyages.

Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.

She expected nothing, knowing the impossible social positions they occupied.

And yet, despite everything, on this one insane, false nightfall in this forgotten island–

Was it actually a dream? Would she wake up in the Iron Lady, alone again?

Gertrude scolded herself internally.

No fantasy could ever measure up to the feeling of lying in bed, holding Elena in her arms, squeezing the princess’ back against her chest. Skin to skin, with nothing between them. Sweating profusely despite the best efforts of the climate control system. Shivering when touched, still tender and sensitive. Gertrude could have never imagined the Princess would have sought her out not just for emotional support but physical pleasure.

She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!

It was a sight, that indigo head of hair enthusiastically exploring between Gertrude’s legs, clumsily returning the affection that Gertrude had given without expecting anything back. The memory would last her a few more years at sea, though hopefully it would not be so long. It could have never been a dream; Gertrude would not have let herself dream it.

“Gertrude.”

Agitated, a little weakened, facing away from Gertrude, the Princess’ voice rose up.

“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not staying the night.”

Gertrude held her even tighter.

Elena felt almost diaphanous in her hands. Like she was made of silk.

She had her strengths. She didn’t see herself as weak.

But she was frail, delicate, precious.

In the times that they lived in now she was more vulnerable than ever before.

“I have to go. But I will stay until the very last second I can.”

“Just– just hold me for a bit. If you do that, I’ll last a few more years too, like you said.”

Elena giggled a little. Gertrude was surprised to hear it.

She turned around in Gertrude’s arms, locking eyes with her.

“I’m glad you were my first time.”

She craned her head and kissed Gertrude softly on the lips.

Gertrude laid a hand on Elena’s hair and pulled her head into her chest.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. You were my first too, Princess.”


“Those two remind you of yourself and Leda. That’s why you let her into Vogelheim.”

“Shut up. Don’t bring that up. The Prince made his decision, and so I made mine.”

“So then, it’s true. After all, if you wanted to, you could have stopped her–”

Bethany struck Marina’s bare back with her palm. Marina nearly jumped.

“You don’t get to be cheeky, you whimpering little spoon. Be glad I’m this kind to you.”

Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.

“Fine, fine. Be tender with me! I can’t ask this of just anyone I seduce, you know?”

“God, I feel so special right now.”

Save for a few indiscretions over the years, Bethany’s sex life was nonexistent.

So, she could not help but actually feel a bit special about Marina.

Not that she would tell the fucking spy those honest feelings.

Moreso than just sex, as good as the sex had been, Marina wanted to be held and comforted, and in a way, that comforted Bethany as well. It had been even longer since she had a lover who stayed the night, who stayed in her bed, with whom she could share a bit of warmth. A lover whose hair she could smell, whose sweat she could taste as she nuzzled her neck. In the same way that Marina could not ask this “of just anyone,” Bethany was also restricted in whom she could have this kind of affection with. This was the sort of simulacra of love that required a shared history to maintain the illusion. Anyone else whom Bethany could love like this was already dead.

Marina and Bethany had a connection: revolving around a third woman they had loved.

A colossus of a woman who was going to shake the entire world, and certainly shook theirs.

A dead woman that both of them failed in their own ways, and then abandoned.

These two women lay in a big, ornate bed together like royalty, one holding the other.

Bethany rubbed Marina’s back briefly. As she suspected, Marina had artificially hidden her scars. It felt like there were even new ones.

Her only visible scar was the one Leda put on her chest; so Bethany would recall it.

Were you tortured? What have you been doing? Why are you Marina now?

Why didn’t you return to the Republic when the plot failed?

Those were the questions she wanted to ask. But that just wasn’t their relationship.

“Might I hope for a massage tonight? Dare I dream of such luxury?”

“Maybe. You’re so pathetic that I’m considering it.”

“Do you have a smoke around?”

“No. Your lungs will thank you for it.”

“I could really go for one.”

Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.

All of this was far too nostalgic and idyllic for Bethany.

She knew that the world was a bleak place where people used and abused each other.

“Marina, why are you here? You didn’t come to Vogelheim just for me.” She said.

She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.

“I told you, completely honestly, I wanted to reconnect. It’s our last chance for that.”

Marina was not lying. Bethany knew that. But she was not telling the whole truth.

“You want to take Elena away. Tell me why.” Bethany said.

There was no other possible reason.

Had it been anyone else, she might have said ‘You want to kill Elena.’

But she knew that, even for the G.I.A., this particular spy would not do such a thing.

“She just looks so much like her mother. I can’t help myself.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“Yeah, I was grossed out by myself the moment I said it. I apologize.”

“Apologize by telling me the truth.”

Bethany started to rub Marina’s back, working her way up to her stiff shoulders.

Marina was quiet for a few moments, taking in the touch.

She still quivered, every so often, when there was a new movement she was not used to.

It was obvious that she had been hurt. She had been hurt really badly.

“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”

“The Union? Are you insane?”

Bethany was quite scandalized. Even someone like her, who had been part of subversive plots in the Empire, and who held quite a few grudges against her government, still nursed the Empire’s prejudice against the vicious communists to the South. What was the G.I.A. doing?

“We’re allies. The Union and the Republic; right now, the communists are our only remaining military power in the Western oceans. We can depend on them. They’re more reliable than you think.”

“Marina, I could understand taking her to the Republic, but–”

“How? The Empire is occupying the Ayre Reach. If we take Elena to the Union she can be safe until the Republic’s counteroffensive opens a route to get her to Alayze. That’s my plan. Listen, Bethany, I got some new contacts. I have some assets I can rely on to smuggle me and Elena into the Union. This is incumbent on us moving quickly. I can have her in the Union in a week.”

Bethany sighed into Marina’s back. She squeezed her shoulders a bit harder than before.

“Hey, careful.”

“I’ve done unthinkable things for Elena’s safety. And yet, this is giving me pause.”

“Bethany, this location won’t be safe anymore. Erich leaked it for a reason. It’s his way of telling you that he will not protect Elena anymore. They are not blood related, and she has no place in his Empire. I don’t know what kind of resources you have or what sort of deal you had with him, but it’s done now. He invited a bunch of nobles to meet him here, then he stood you all up. That’s his signal. Those people are on the chopping block and so is this entire island now.”

Bethany turned Marina around to face her.

For a moment, Marina struggled. She turned a pair of blank, panicked eyes on Bethany.

“Solceanos defend, I thought you wanted to garrote me or something!”

“Garrote you?”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m running an anxiety high here.”

Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.

She was tired, weary. Spent, even. Why was she doing all of this?

“It’s incredibly lame for a spy to keep telling me how fucked up she is.”

“It’s all part of my play, darling.”

“Marina tell me what you know. Do you have information on a plot against Elena?”

Bethany looked Marina dead in eyes. Not with anger, but with hope.

Hope for some kind of cooperation. To break the barrier that made them lie to each other.

Marina looked back at her. Again, her eyes were completely weary.

“I don’t have anything on an actual plot, but I can surmise one will happen. Vogelheim’s location has made it outside the ring of nobles invited to this meeting. I know because the info was sold to me. Ever since the Web network expanded to encompass the Empire instead of individual station LANs, it’s become huge in the underworld. Elena’s location is spreading, Bethany.”

“I’m not so savvy about this interweb stuff. But I get the point. Vogelheim is not secret anymore. So you’re afraid that Elena can’t stay here because someone could possibly target her.”

Marina sighed, as if it were worse than Bethany described.

“Erich told the nobles that he invited to Vogelheim that he would be meeting them here. You know this. If one of those nobles leaked that information then they leaked his presence too.”

At that point, the real danger of the situation finally hit Bethany.

She had been so stupid! She had been so stupid about everything!

It was not just that Elena was here. It was not in fact about Elena at all.

Outside entities had information that led them to believe that Erich was in a vulnerable location. He was not among his invincible, all-conquering fleet, he was hiding in a backwater station. He had gone to Vogelheim, a place that was now known to be important, to those who sought such information, to celebrate his sister’s birthday with a coterie of close aristocrats.

To know about Vogelheim was one thing. To know Erich would be there was much more.

For all of his rivals, it would seem a perfect chance to squash him and any alliances he was hoping to build within the aristocracy. Elena and Vogelheim would just be collateral damage.

“Solceanos protect us.”

“No, I will protect her. You have to let me take her, Bethany.”

Bethany was stunned speechless.

All those years ago, she had promised Leda that she would protect Elena.

She had stood by Elena’s side through her teenage and adult life.

Under the guise of teaching her, seeing to her, being the servant every noblewoman needed to have at hand to succeed in high society. Bethany also protected her. Marina was right when she said Bethany could have refused Gertrude entrance to Vogelheim. She had that right; that power. It was not only Erich who had granted it. Bethany had prepared defenses and contingencies.

She had never prepared for Erich himself to betray Elena. It was impossible to prepare for such a thing. It was like preparing against the wrath of God. Like trying to stop heaven from falling.

“I can protect her, Bethany.”

Marina looked into her eyes again. There was suddenly conviction, behind them.

Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.

“Tomorrow. Please. Let her have this for tonight. Let– let me have this.”

Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.

She returned Bethany’s embrace. Slowly; probing, as if fleetingly afraid of the touch.


The Iron Lady was the seventh ship of the Irmingard class of dreadnoughts designed in the 970s, and she was the latest to launch.

Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.

Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.

At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.

Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.

Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.

Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.

She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.

And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.

For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.

Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.

Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.

Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.

So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.

Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.

“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.

Gertrude winked at him.

“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”

“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”

“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”

“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”

“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”

“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”

Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”

“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”

Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.

After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”

He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.

How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.

Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.

Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.

Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.

“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.

“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”

“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”

Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.

Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.

She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.

Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.

“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”

“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”

Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.

“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.

Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.

“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”

“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”

“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”

“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”

Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.

She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.

“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”

“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”

That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.

“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”

“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.

“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.

She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”

Gertrude smiled.

“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”

The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.

“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.

“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”

Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dreschner shook his head.

“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”

Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.

“Perhaps.”

He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.

“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”

“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.

She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.

Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.

Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.

“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”

That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.

“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”

“I’m always decent.”

Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.

As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.

She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.

‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.

“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.

“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.

Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.

She did perfume herself before she left–

Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.

Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.

“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”

Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”

“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”

She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.

“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”

Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.

She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.

“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”

Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.

She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.

“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”

“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.

She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.

Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.

“As a matter of fact–”

Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.

“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”

“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”

Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.

“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.

She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.

Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.

She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.

“Awoo! This is amazing!”

She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.

“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”

Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.

“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”

“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”

Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.

In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.

Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.

“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”

For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.

Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.

“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”

Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.

“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”

“Oh my god, Ingrid–”

“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”

For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.

“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.

“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”

Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”

Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.

That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.

“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.

Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.

Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.

“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.

“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.

“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”

For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.

When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.

“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”

“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”

Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.

“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”

Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.

Ingrid was too headstrong for it.

She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.

Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”

“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”

“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”

Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.

“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?

“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”

“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”

“Not this one!”

Gertrude was once again laughing.

Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.

“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”

“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.

“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”

“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”

“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”

“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”

“Ok, let’s trade then.”

“Shut up!”

Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.


In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.

There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.

Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.

She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.

Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.

Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.

She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.

Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.

Words were exchanged.

Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.

Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.

“Victoria–”

Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.

She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.

She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.

There were no answers to be found in dreams.

There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.

“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.

Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.

She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.

“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”

There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.

Sawyer.

Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.

Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.

Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.

“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”

Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.

But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–

–In a nightmare,

“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”

She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.

“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”

In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.

“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”

Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.

She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.

Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.

A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.

“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”

She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.

Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.

She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!

And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.

In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.

Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.

Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.

She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.

She was lonely.

For how much longer would things go on like this?

Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?

Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.

And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.

Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?

Had she really done all those things?

Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?

Did her mother have to suffer like this too?

Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.

But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.

She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.

Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.

Fresh air would do her good.

Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.

It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.

She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.

A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.

All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.

It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.

Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.

Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.

There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.

Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.

For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.

Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.

She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.

While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.

Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.

Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.

It induced mourning.

“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”

She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.

That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.

Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.

She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.

And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.

“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”

Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.

“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.

In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.

She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.

Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.

Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.

“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”

“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”

Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.

A familiar voice.

When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.

“Victoria?”

The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.

The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.

Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.

Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.

“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.

Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.

She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.

“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”

“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”

Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.

“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”

Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”

For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?

Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–

“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.

“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”

Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.

“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”


Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.

Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.

Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.

Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.

This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.

Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.

When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.

“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”

At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.

“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”

After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.5]

This chapter contains explicit consensual sexual content and one flagrant violation of personal boundaries.

At one curious point in Elena’s prosaic evening, Gertrude herself became a hot topic.

“Oh, yes, I am that Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg. Yes, I’m part of internal security.”

She began answering questions fielded at her, and everyone suddenly became interested.

Elena thought it was no surprise Gertrude could become a center of attention herself. After all, she was tall, handsome, and had a variety of talents. And also she was a Grand Inquisitor at the age of 29, no mean feat. Particularly because she led a purge of her predecessor to get there.

Once the little group that had formed around Elena caught wind of it, they began to move the conversation politely and gently as they could toward Gertrude, with a heavy focus on acquiring her aid for their troubles.

A young man whose private shipyard had issues with labor unionists brought up the subject to Gertrude, who told him it would be easier to compromise with them than beat them; a woman expressed discomfort at the fact that homeless people congregated in a station block she bought for renovation, and Gertrude suggested charitable works; such conversations continued from there. After a point, more people, particularly young women, asked for Gertrude to recount her own tales, and such companionship felt much more sincere to Elena.

Gertrude would not become their personal attendants.

She was already bound to a promise.

And neither money nor brutality had ever formed part of her interests to begin with.

It seemed that the opportunists learned this at last.

And so the discussion lightened up.

Still it very much centered around Gertrude.

Everyone became impressed with her.

Maybe they had become bored of Elena.

That was fair; she found them all boring too.

While her companion was getting wrapped up in socializing, Elena felt she finally had a chance to take a breather and recuperate. She really was something of an introvert at heart, and she happily took the opportunity to slip out of the dull crowd as they mobbed Gertrude. She could have a drink in a corner near the band, collect herself. Maybe even ask Bethany about, well, everything.

As she broke from the group, however, someone called out to and approached her.

“Milady! Milady!” A woman stepped forward excitedly while calling for Elena. When the Princess stopped to acknowledge her, she clapped her hands together and beamed at her. “Milady, I wish you a wonderful birthday and many more to come. May I take your side for a moment?”

Her solicitor was a tall, blond woman. Her hair was styled so it fell partially over one eye, lending her an air of mystery. She wore a beautiful dress that was simple in its design but ornate in decoration, black with glittering blue gradients and a plunging neckline. Blue gloves and stockings with similar blue touches covered her arms from the hand to just above the elbow, and from thigh to foot. So while the dress showed off skin in some provocative places, she was actually quite well covered. What she chose to uncover left an impression: she had a scar on her chest, between her breasts, that was quite obvious. It looked to Elena like a surgical scar, but she did not want to inspect it for too long. It might have put her in a compromising position.

Elena was instantly curious about this woman and allowed her to take her arm for a brief walk, and she led her to a nearby table, where they had a drink of wine. While Elena only took a sip, her new companion downed the entire glass and set it back down on the table with a boisterous smile.

There was clearly something about her.

Not nobility; likely petite bourgeois, a capitalist.

“Only the best for the young lady.” She picked up a second glass, and this one she toasted with before taking a single sip. “Princess Elena von Fueller. Your location was a closely guarded secret, until today. We live in interesting times! I must say, I wish your brother had come too.”

Elene felt something off about the conversation. They were mostly out of earshot of anyone, and the woman’s tone bordered on impolite. Why did she walk her over here to drink in an unsightly fashion and whine like this?

“That’s a popular sentiment. But do you not think it rude to ask for my arm, only to talk about my brother? If you wish only to speak of him, contact his publicist instead of myself.”

She launched a barb, allowing her tone of voice to show some of her deeply held irritation. If her assumption proved correct, then this woman was not an aristocrat, and as such, insulting or humiliating her would have no consequence for Elena. While having money could make one materially equivalent to a noble, the petite bourgeois were not socially equivalent to nobles or even to the highest and most respected echelons of the military.

Someone like Gertrude while less wealthy, commanded more respectability; someone like Elena could treat any capitalist, however rich they were, like a filthy commoner, if she desired to do so. They were owed no more respect.

Her response did not move the woman one centimeter.

Her confidence was unshaken.

“I apologize. I was simply making an observation, but I may have been too blunt. I’m a keen observer of the court’s political atmosphere. To wit, I had been trying to find you, milady, for some time now. But it proved impossible, until you were allowed to be discovered for this party.”

Her dark red lips curled into a sly smile.

Elena was taken aback. “Why were you searching for me? If you think I am more pliable toward your business interests than my brother or my departed father, you are mistaken. I’m not looking to invest.”

What was her deal?

Elena was wracking her brain trying to find out. She could read so little from the woman’s self-aggrandizing expression. She was not like all the dressed-up bimbos and scheming clods whom her brother had invited to cause Elena grief. Behind those black eyes there was something going on. Did she just want money? Elena almost felt a sense of danger from her.

“Nothing so vulgar as that. It concerns your mother.”

Elena was briefly stunned speechless.

For her mother to come up twice in one evening–

The woman smiled and cut her off. “I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, I’m Marina McKennedy. I would like to request a private audience tomorrow. I wish to bequeath to you something that was once your mother’s, and was kept with me, and rightly belongs to you.”

“You knew my mother?” Elena said, almost a whisper, a gasp.

Her heart pounded.

“She was the star of the court. More people knew and loved her than will speak of it today. She had many trusted friends, I was but one among them.”

Marine reached out a hand suddenly and patted Elena on the head, ruffling her hair slightly. The Princess looked around as if in a dream.

Nobody was paying attention to her.

Trapped in her own isolated corner of the world with this Marina McKennedy. Since nobody could see it, she smacked away Marina’s hand with clear aggression. “Don’t touch me! What are you playing at?”

“I apologize, it was a reflex. It’s because you look just like her.” Marina said. “It’s almost uncanny. So, is it permissible for me to visit tomorrow?”

Elena felt reduced to a child, and her emotions spiraled.

“Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.”

“My, my; manners, princess. I’ll come at teatime, then I will be gone.”

“You’ll be gone right now before I have the Grand Inquisitor remove you.”

Elena balled up her fists at her side, seeing red.

Marina looked if anything, more amused.

She bowed her head mockingly, turned around, and casually left the ballroom. Elena almost wondered if anybody else saw her, or if she was some kind of mocking ghost or spirit. She seemed almost to glide in under anyone’s notice. Elena knew somehow that she was not invited. She must have snuck into Vogelheim, and the eve of the party was just her opportunity to get close to Elena. But for what reason? Her mother? Really?

That being said, when that aggressive mood finally passed her, Elena realized that Marina could have easily hurt her if that was her intention. Maybe she really was an eccentric friend of her mother. Elena had heard that her mother was a free spirit, deep into the arts and culture and with many eccentric acquaintances, such as philosophers and poets and fashionistas. None of the people who had told her they knew her mother had been truly normal. Elena should have been used to this by now.

She knew so little about her.

If Marina was inviting herself, perhaps it was best to let her.

With that dark cloud over her head, Elena returned to the party.

Gertrude had really gotten sucked into the crowd.

She was laughing and being chummy and looked like she was finally opening up more. Perhaps the drink in her hand helped as well. Elena was not in the mood to feel positive about her special friend making chatter with people who were not her, on her own birthday. Elena let herself be as gloomy and unfriendly as she felt while she pushed her way back into the circle of aristocrats that had gathered around Gertrude.

Mid-conversation, the Inquisitor noticed Elena’s appearance and tried to make an escape.

“Ah, I’m getting peckish, I’m going to meet with a charcuterie plate, ciao!

She surreptitiously took Elena’s hand and silently urged her to follow.

Elena gave no resistance.

Around them, the crowd’s attentions were diverted.

Far in the background, Bethany had gone through a few songs already. Giving her vocal cords a break, she let the band take the lead, and left the stage with an announcement, wishing the partygoers well and to await her return. Her parting and the vigorous clapping that followed from the animated crowd of nobles gave Elena and Gertrude a chance to slip away.

Gertrude grabbed a pair of drinks from a plate and urged Elena to follow.

“You’ve had enough of this party haven’t you? What’s a good place to hide?”

“My room?”

Elena looked like a deer in the headlights for a second.

“Your room? Really? Well, I suppose I wouldn’t look for you there.”

With this agreement, they ditched the party entirely.

The Villa was completely deserted.

Everyone was at the party. There were more maids in the floor below, whipping up food when needed, but on the second floor, Elena’s so-called party was the nexus of all activity. Gertrude and Elena walked the empty halls together, making it all the way to Elena’s room without bumping into anyone or eliciting any suspicion. They locked the door behind themselves and were confident they had not been seen nor followed.

“Ah, it’s spacious.” Gertrude said. She looked over the arrangements briefly.

Gertrude had never been invited to Elena’s room before. When they were kids, they played together in approved settings, such as the school, or a park; as adults, when Gertrude visited, they had tea and went on walks. Since relocating to Vogelheim, Elena had never had a guest in her room. Gertrude’s eyes fell upon Elena’s stuffed toys and her humble bookshelf.

“I would have thought you would have way more stuff though.”

“I don’t really ask for much. My brother is always late delivering anything I order anyway.”

“He really has you go through him for anything huh?”

“He’s so overprotective, it’s honestly unnerving.”

Aside from her stuffies, Elena prized possessions were mainly her books as well as various pieces of learning software such as a universal encyclopedia, which were installed on the Villa’s main computer and could be accessed through thin clients on the network. She also had a Nexus 32-bit console and a few romantic adventure games, but she had thoroughly exhausted all of them and the console lay unplugged in a corner of the room. There was also her wardrobe, of course. That was not valuable at all.

“It’s cozy. I’m jealous; you can wake up to a breeze and look out at the sun.”

Gertrude walked over to the window and looked outside.

“It’s kind of annoying though. You can’t sleep in because of the sunlight.” Elena said.

“That beats staring at grey walls for months.” Gertrude winked at her.

“Everything out there is just as artificial as the walls in your ship.” Elena said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She sat on Elena’s bed, and Elena sat beside her.

They drank, and sat close, mostly quiet, contemplative.

The Princess glanced sidelong at the woman she fashioned as her knight and felt a thrilling sensation in her chest, a prickling electricity under her skin as she drank more. She knew that their positions in life were not supposed to cross, and furthermore, that she even endangered Gertrude by coveting her as she did. But the Princess could not help it. And so her hand snuck over Gertrude’s on the bed and squeezed tightly against it.

Gertrude, making no change in expression, squeezed back.

This touch set off a tiny transfer of body heat that sparked Elena’s heart.

At first she chided herself for what she wanted to say.

They were in a locked room, alone.

Though they were both women it was amply clear that they both viewed the same sex in a certain light. Their relationship to each other was special; Elena could call Gertrude her knight, her bosom friend, her dearest, all manner of beautiful words only for her. What she wanted then, what she coveted, was a lover. Someone who would fulfill her physically.

Elena had been raised to have certainly lady-like virtues.

She was also canny, however.

Ladies fucked around; probably even Bethany did.

Would a virtuous lady sit around making euphemisms all night until her promised pounced on her out of sheer starvation of touch? Elena could not imagine the aristocrats led such cold lives. No, there was certainly a language for asking for what she desired. And to some degree she knew it. That being said, it was difficult to overcome the programming of a puritanical society.

She wanted to have her first time with Gertrude. That was her romantic, storybook wish.

It was selfish to think about this when the entire Empire could fall apart in its present crisis.

That was what she told herself, she was selfish, she was a pervert, and yet–

And yet, it was the insanity of the moment which led her to seek comfort in Gertrude.

All of this then led Elena to make her case in the most roundabout way.

“You know, Gertrude, if you were a boy, this would be a grand opportunity for you.”

She said this, and tugged gently on Gertrude’s sleeve, wearing an embarrassed smile.

Gertrude fully turned her head to make eye contact. She blinked twice, quietly.

“Elena?”

“I just mean– we’ve had quite a hot date already, haven’t we? Now we’re here alone.”

Elena made this insinuation almost in a joking fashion, as if trying to back off, but the bevy of emotions swirling in her head belied the truth behind it. Gertrude, sitting with her on the bedside, made little response. Both of them had their cheeks turning red. The warmth transferring between their hands became hotter. For a few moments, they exchanged glances in an awkward silence.

She thought it only proper, that if something were to happen, Gertrude should initiate.

It was also an insurance policy for her own heart, perhaps.

She didn’t want to ask something scandalous directly, and then be turned down.

And yet, she also wanted that feeling of being taken.

Of losing control; being controlled by someone else, not being sole master of her body.

Losing responsibility, for a moment, for being The Imperial Princess.

All of these thoughts brewed like a perverted tea in her brain, but nothing happened.

Maybe Gertrude just was not as much as a deviant as Elena herself.

In the next instant, this fantasy had a brush with death. Elena nearly discarded her hopes.

Then Gertrude had a little laugh burst out of her. A laugh slick with a surging devilishness.

She turned fully around and extended an arm past Elena on the bed and pinned her down.

Now Gertrude hovered over her.

“Like this, you think? Sudden, rough, unexpected; how a real dirtbag would treat a lady.”

One of her knees been set between Elena’s legs so that she could not close them.

Elena’s thighs pressed against it.

Gertrude came suddenly very close.

Her lips brushed against Elena’s. They didn’t kiss, not fully, but the touch set off electricity all across Elena’s face, down her neck. Instead of taking her lips, Gertrude stalked closer, seeking something more. Elena was surprised. Gertrude really was pressing her weight right on top of her.

She supported herself looming over Elena with both hands at first.

One over the left shoulder, one under the right arm.

On her face was a sly expression, narrowed eyes, subtly spread lips.

Elena did not try to move out of her grasp. Her eyes drew wide.

Such a bold response set Elena’s heart afire. Her chest pounded. Her breathing quickened.

Sweat, formed glistening beads on her chest.

Gertrude’s hand moved from her shoulder, down her flank, over her hip.

Her fingers snuck beneath Elena’s skirt and grabbed a deep handful of her buttocks.

Elena tittered. Rather than panic, she found herself smiling at this act.

She was excited. She raised her arms to Gertrude’s hips as if inviting more.

Gertrude smiled back.

She then nearly fell over Elena with laughter.

Suddenly breaking the illusion she had created.

Elena suddenly felt a little ridiculous herself. She laughed with Gertrude, still holding her.

“We’re hopeless.” Said the Princess.

Gertrude shook her head.

“Elena, I cannot say I am personally experienced in this, but I’m also not so innocent, you know? Soldiers spend months out at sea, and we do indulge these kinds of fantasies. If you think I haven’t– However, it is just not my style to take action amid so many ambiguities and unspoken words as this.”

“What– What should I do then?” Elena said.

That dark expression appeared on Gertrude’s face again.

She leaned back down on Elena.

“Become mine and mine alone. Beg me for something no one else can give.”

Gertrude’s voice, low, slick, dangerous, her words tickled Elena’s ears.

Dark, seductive whispers that pulled Elena tantalizingly close to oblivion.

“Tell me what you want, Princess. I’ll grant your every wish. But you have to beg for it. I don’t want to do anything if we’re just fooling ourselves.”

She felt Gertrude’s knee up against her again.

A tiny, stammering sound escaped from her lips.

Her heart caught in her chest.

Was she simply so weak?

Or was Gertrude just naturally, monstrously strong?

Feeling the force in her lover’s words, Elena succumbed to the compulsion.

She whispered in Gertrude’s ears. She whispered what she wanted.

Gertrude grinned with great self-satisfaction.

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude raised her head away from Elena’s whispering lips and then suddenly descended on them. She took the princess into a deep, sudden kiss, pushing her down on the bed.

For a princess who could have nearly anything in the world which could be bought, this was the one thing she was barred from. Choosing who gets to taste her lips, to touch her body. Those choices were taken from her mother and they’d be taken from her; and yet, in the insane situation in which the world found itself, Elena finally felt free from her responsibilities.

Gertrude’s lips parted from her own, a thread of spittle briefly connecting their tongues.

Was this the thread of their conjoined fate? It was brief; but there would be more.

“I’m going to move you and undress you, ok?”

Gertrude sat up and pulled Elena up with her, sitting her on the bed.

From behind her, Gertrude carefully undid Elena’s dress and pulled it off her shoulders.

Elena felt a chill down her spine, and gooseflesh, as her skin was exposed to a cool breeze.

“Careful.” Elena said. “It’s my mother’s heirloom. I’ll do it.”

Gertrude nodded. For a moment, she instead undressed herself. She stripped off her suit, vest, button-down, until she was topless, exposing her strong shoulders and lean belly. Her toned body glistened with sweat.

Elena spotted a patch adhered to her left rib. It was her healing injury.

“Sorry you have to see this.” Gertrude winked.

“All of your scars are beautiful to me, Gertrude.”

She did not have many. But there were a few. And Elena did love them.

Every part of Gertrude was a part she loved.

Smiling, Gertrude shifted her legs off the bed for a moment and pulled down her pants, before crossing them and pulling Elena closer to her again. She could feel Gertrude’s hot, irregular breathing behind her neck. Then she felt her lips, on her shoulder, on her neck. A nip at her ear.

Her elfin ears were longer than an Imbrian’s, and particularly sensitive.

She quivered a little and let out a tiny gasp.

“Take your time undressing. Are you feeling good?”

Elena nodded her head quietly.

She gently shed the various accoutrements on her body, unveiling more pearl-pink skin.

As she did, Gertrude’s newly freed hands glided up her flanks, over her ribs.

Elena felt her back press up against Gertrude’s breasts.

She was warm and protected again. She did not realize how much bigger Gertrude was until she was wrapped in her embrace, and her lover could almost rest her head on Elena’s in the position that they were in. Her hands wandered, pressing against Elena’s skin, rising up her chest.

Just as she had grabbed hold of Elena’s rear, she squeezed both of her breasts.

“Oh!”

“That’s a cute reaction.”

That low, sultry voice kissed her ears again.

Gertrude cupped her fingers over her breasts, teasing her more.

Brief, and probing, as if it was a novel sensation.

Just a tease; soon the hands moved again.

Into the bundle of discarded dress that hung around Elena’s hips and legs.

Elena felt it instantly. A wild heat that coursed through her midsection.

As soon as Gertrude’s fingers teased down her inner thigh.

As soon as they applied pressure–

“Oh– my god–”

“You’re shaking so much. I’ve barely done anything. What a dirty Princess.”

Gertrude delivered another sultry whisper into Elena’s pointed ear.

Between Elena’s legs, Gertrude’s finger slipped down the center, gently parting soft skin.

One of her lover’s strong arms went around Elena’s stomach, holding her steady.

Gertrude nipped Elena’s neck, kissing, sucking, while her hand worked faster.

Her fingers ceased exploring; one slipped inside the princess with swift ease.

“Gertrude–”

And another flicked and pressed against her clit.

“Oh my god Gertrude–”

Elena nearly let out all the air in her lungs. She bent against Gertrude’s body.

Her hips threw back. She felt like she had hit Gertrude’s chest–

But the sensation, the heat, the feeling of pressure building and washing over her–

Gertrude smiled, her face up against Elena’s. “I hope this is how you fantasized it too.”

Her fingers worked faster.

Elena’s entire body quaked with those words, that touch.

A wave crashed over her, shuddering from her core and out to her limbs.

She let out a cry, a cry of relief, a release of pressure, a cry of joy.

She sank against Gertrude, soaked in sweat and more, tittering.

Tears started to form in Elena’s eyes. Tears of joy. “Ger– Trude I– I l-l-love–“

Gertrude kissed her cheek and embraced her with both arms.

“I know. I love you too. And I’ll always protect you, Elena. Always.”


In the middle of an encore of Lili Marlene, Bethany Skoll chided herself internally.

Everyone was going crazy over her singing; and she looked killer in a red dress.

When she wanted to, she could still sex herself up and steal anyone’s gaze.

Something about that did please her. It felt like what she got up to with Leda.

But caught up in the passion of the moment, her own gaze had lost its sharpness too.

She had lost track of the princess; and none of the drunk men or absentminded bimbos in the crowd seemed to care that the birthday girl was gone either. Bethany surmised that since the lady Lichtenberg was gone too, they must be together. She understood that they were both women who valued the same sex differently than most; so she had some inkling of what they might do.

It was a special night, they were a little tipsy, and they were alone.

Such things tugged at her matronly concerns, but it was a new world.

By the dawn, it could well be the least of their problems.

At least Elena was not in any danger with Lady Lichtenberg.

Or at least not in danger of losing anything but her virginity.

Bethany chided herself for another fact as well.

Prince Erich had never come to the party. He had invited all of these people, who truly came only for his presence and cared nothing for Elena, and then he himself had failed to show. Such a disservice could only mean that there was a plot afoot. He never intended to come because he chose not to be in Vogelheim for his precious sister’s birthday. His sister, whom he himself had hidden in Vogelheim. For her own security; to keep her away from the nobles’ resurgent devilry.

She dared not dream that Prince Erich was scheming against the princess.

However, he may well have been scheming against these people.

So Bethany was torn between the song, the dance, the ardor; and the cold, unknown reality.

For a while she simply sang and entrusted the Princess to her own judgment.

After all, she was a woman now. She had to be trusted to make her own decisions.

As the night wore on, and the assembled began to lose whatever ambition had brought them to this unknown place, as they began to lose sight of what they were hoping to find or what sort of opportunity they might score, Bethany decided to bring the night to a close for them. She and the maids doubled as a security team, so they were crafty in their own ways. Erich had dropped this mess on their shoulders quite suddenly, and they had everything under control nonetheless.

“Thank you so much for the applause. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform that your entertainment for tonight has concluded. There will be transportation awaiting you, and you may stay at the Schellen Hotel for the night or return to your personal watercraft at this time. Our dear Elena von Fueller wishes she could have entertained you personally for longer, but business has unfortunately led her away from us. Nonetheless, you will all be remembered in the Princess’ heart for your company tonight. Once again, thank you for your attendance, and have a pleasant night.”

Significant amounts of the partygoers had drank enough to have some trouble interpreting the announcement, but the cordial and pretty maids who appeared from the crowd’s flanks gently guided everybody away from the drinks and the dance hall, slowly peeling the partygoers out the door, down the stairs, and out to the garden, where a small fleet of private motorcars were waiting. Bethany did not see that particular detail, though she knew that they planned it like that.

Instead, she stood up on the stage, and viewed the empty dance floor.

She remembered when she first sang for her; when she looked down at her on an empty dance floor just like this. Back then, it was an entirely different world. Neither of them knew what attention would fall on them, what kind of life they would end up having. Bethany had a dire need of confidence in herself. Leda gave her all the confidence she lacked, helped her feel alive.

That empty, improvised dance floor, and the tables in disarray.

It was so much like that night.

“No use remembering any of this, Bethany. She’s gone.”

Everything she did now was for Elena.

Bethany walked off the stage.

She picked up a bottle of champagne that was perhaps three quarters empty, grabbing it by the neck with the same grip that would have strangled a man, and emptying the contents into her lips. A tiny amount of slipped from the side of her mouth, and for an instant, she must have really looked like a bloodsucking beast, more than a singer in red.

There were a lot of sides to her.

“I still got it. For how much longer? As long as it takes, I suppose.”

Most of the maids would still be engaged a while, so Bethany thought she would give herself a few moments to wallow and feel sorry for herself. Perhaps she always felt this way after singing. Singing helped her vent.

It flared up her emotions, and she had many emotions to burn.

Perhaps that was what made truly great singers.

Having to hide the pain that they felt.

“Great performance; I really managed to get into the mood myself.”

A chilling voice, its volume tightly controlled.

As Bethany made her way out the doors of the lodge and locked them behind her, she heard and saw a woman approach. A blond, who instantly peeled off her own blond hair to reveal shorter black hair, tied into a little bun, half up and half down, with bangs falling over one of her eyes.

Boldly dressed, and moving boldly, the woman invaded Bethany’s space.

One hand struck the locked door behind Bethany, close to the maid’s ear.

Her free hand took Bethany’s wrist.

And her knee went under and between Bethany’s legs.

She had a completely stone-like, inexpressive face.

“Miss me?” She said.

In the next instant as Bethany’s lips parted to respond, Marina McKennedy’s head tipped to one side and pressed the rest of her claim on Bethany’s orbit. Her tongue tasted like smoke and liquor in Bethany’s mouth, and for some reason that kiss and the way her lips locked against the maid’s caused eerily familiar sensations. Still, her natural reaction was to struggle against the kiss. She pushed on the woman’s stomach and chest with her free hand, while her lips continued to freely taste her as if nothing were happening. Feeling for an instant the trained muscle beneath the woman’s dress, and the strength of her grip, Bethany finally managed to shove her back.

“You cad! I’ll have you locked up!” Bethany shouted, breathing heavy.

“It’s Marina now. Marina McKennedy. Well– I mean. You know.”

Bethany was suddenly confused. “Who are you?”

“Look down.”

Marina pulled down on her already plunging neckline to expose more of her breasts. Bethany stared at her exposed chest and saw a familiar scar.

“Wait. You’re–”

“Yes, but don’t talk about it.”

“Wait is it really? Blake? But– you didn’t used to be a–”

“That name was fake too but don’t call me that. Can you drop it? Look.”

She produced a gold card.

A plaque, bearing an owl perched atop a round shield.

The symbol of the Republic of Alayze’s G.I.A, General Intelligence Agency.

Marina smiled, seeing Bethany’s shocked reaction.

“As you can see, a hell of a lot has happened to me. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not gonna say I can’t, because nobody’s here to stop me. But I won’t. Do you miss me? I have time that I wanted to spend with you. It’ll be– different this time, but I know you like it both ways.”

“Solceanos protect me. It really is you.”

Bethany slapped Marina across the face.

She struck her so hard, she wanted to draw blood.

Marina grit her teeth, still smiling, though clearly put off-balance by the strike. “I kinda deserve that.” She said, reaching for lips to see if they had broken. They had not. “But at the same time Betty when we met, you approached me, you know? And I was younger than you by a good bit. So honestly, how can you blame me for still being smitten with such a cool, mature lady?”

“Cut the crap. We were using each other. And a wealthy dilettante still ranks lower on the scale of relationship power dynamics than a secret agent, even when you factor in a few years.”

“Did you miss me?” Marina said again.

At this point, Bethany could not tell if Marina McKennedy meant to ask whether Marina had missed her as one of the party guests, a cruel joke on her successful infiltration; or whether Marina meant to ask her if she missed her company. Bethany chided herself again. Her gaze really was losing her sharpness. She had missed Elena and this dangerous character.

And yet, Bethany had mixed emotions about Marina McKennedy.

Now that she knew who it was, she almost wanted to go back to the kiss.

Even if transactional, she remembered it was almost as good with her as it was with Leda.

“Why are you here? It can’t have just been to rekindle an old flame. To get here you would have had to have known our secret. So you got access to that information. What do you want?”

“You’re too cold to yourself. You’re worth the trip.”

“Stop it. You want me to trust you after all these years? For once in your life, be honest.”

“I’m way more honest with you than any other GIA agent would be.”

Marina sighed briefly.

“Elena von Fueller is here. I want to explain to her what happened to her mother and try to convince her to leave. She can defect to the Republic. She won’t have a future here, Bethany.”

“Of course. It was always about the Princess.”

Bethany was conflicted; briefly, before Marina suddenly put a hand on her shoulder.

It was a gentle hand, grasping at her with desire.

“Bethany, I’d also love to spend the night. I– I hate to admit it, but I need to be comforted too, every once in a while. I really have been through a lot. The next few months are gonna be hell for me. Is it okay if, just for tonight, I can have a little island of peace in these stormy seas?”

“You are just using me.” Bethany said. “Maybe I have more self-respect than that now.”

“But this time I’m the one who is desperate. Can you help me? I’ve been through hell.”

Marina’s eyes teared up. Bethany almost voiced her surprise aloud at the sight.

“So much for the mighty G.I.A., all-seeing, all-knowing of the seas.”

Bethany wiped Marina’s tears; Marina recoiled at the touch as if she feared being hit again.

The head maid was surprised. The G.I.A. agent was much cooler and more collected the last time they met. Judging by the fact that she was, well, so completely changed, and her current demeanor, either she had become a far better actor or something truly awful really had happened to her. Something that made her change herself entirely, maybe to run away; maybe to be able to accept it. Bethany could not know how much of this identity was fake or how much was genuine.

As much of a schemer as Bethany was, she could not imagine what a spy went through.

That was always one thing which made Leda distant too.

Leda, herself an arch-schemer who wanted to play every side to her advantage.

Bethany had failed to soothe Leda at all; she had failed to be an equal partner to her.

Some would say, nobody could have stood up to the colossus that Leda was.

And yet, Bethany was still stung by it.

Looking at Marina’s tearful face, she remembered a scene.

Just like when she stared down at the empty dance floor.

It really was a night filled with déjà vu.

When Leda had made that face to Bethany, it was the last time Bethany ever saw her.

She did not want to fail a lonely, hurt woman again; even if she was a two-faced bitch.

“We can discuss business later. But I’m going to need you to shape up. I’m not here for you to fall apart on. I’m still going to be needing you to top.”

Those were some words she wished she had told Leda, too.

Bethany winked at Marina. For a moment, Marina was struck speechless.

She wiped her own face and smiled coolly as if nothing had happened.

“You’re right. This isn’t me. I have to be the cool spy you fell in love with.”

“Oh, shut up. Were you faking?”

“I wasn’t! You have to believe me. You weren’t this paranoid with Leda.”

Marina raised her hands in defense.

Bethany sighed.

“Follow me. And keep your hands to yourself until we get in bed.”

“I’ll be perfectly gentlemanly.”

“Shut up, too.”

That night, it was not just Elena who found a pair of arms to stave off the bad dreams.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.3]

Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)

There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.

As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.

“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.

Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.

“It’s a beautiful sight.”

“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”

Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.

“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.

Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.

She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.

“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”

“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”

She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.

“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”

Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.

“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.

“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”

Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.

Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.

“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”

“Gertrude?”

“Thank you. I love you, so much.”

Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.

She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.

Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.

Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.

No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.

Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.

And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.

Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.

Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.

There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.

They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.

Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.

“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.

Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”

“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”

“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”

Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.

“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.

“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.

This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.

She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.

“Whoa!”

“Hang on!”

Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!

Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.

On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.

Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.

Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.

“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”

“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”

“Oh my!”

“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”

Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’

But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.

It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.

Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.

And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.

Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.

Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.

She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.

Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.

And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.

Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.

They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.

Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.

They would not have to hide anything.

There were few people to even hide from anyway.

At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.

“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.

She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.

“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”

There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.

“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”

Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.

“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.

“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.

The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.

Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”

“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”

“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”

Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.

One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.

Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.

Before, they would just spend time indoors.

Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.

Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.

“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.

Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.

“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.

“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”

Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.

“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”

“You think something will happen?”

Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.

She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.

Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”

Elena knew that was wishful thinking.

Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.

“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.

She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.

It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.

“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”

Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.

“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”

A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.

Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.

Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.

“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”

Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.10]

“They’re in trouble already, huh? Just what have you unleashed on the seas, Nagavanshi?”

“Capitalism’s contradictions are as inevitable as the surface’s corruption, Premier.”

“Don’t quote Mordecai at me! I’ve read the exact same books that you did.”

Premier Bhavani Jayasankar and Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi stood in the middle of a cozy lounge that the Premier had taken as her office in Thassal. There was a desk, over which stood the seal of the Union: a plow and a sword, crossed over an agrisphere globe.

On a monitor which had been set into the wall, they reviewed footage captured and returned by a spy probe in the Thassalid plain. The Brigand engaged a Leviathan; and using the Cheka, an experimental suit, they annihilated it completely. While the footage was rough and grainy, the speedy objects and their terrifying, superhuman battle were captured enough for casual reference.

“Well, congratulations. All your scheming really payed off.”

Jayasankar shut off the monitor with the footage playing. She sighed deeply.

“I can scarcely believe how far and how thoroughly I’ve been deceived by you.”

Nagavanshi bowed her head. “I didn’t realize you would take it so personally.”

“Don’t play dumb with me! After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me so terribly all of the time. Ugh; this is going to be so much work, you know? All those ships, food, people; all that is going into war instead of working hard. On a growth year for the Plan too! This is so bad for my reputation.”

 “If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t take me that long to set up. As a matter of fact, the previous regime was researching similar capabilities. I finished what they started, ultimately.”

“Really? Ahwalia and all those decaying mummies came up with this?”

“I didn’t say it was going well or rapidly, but it was not entirely my doing.”

“What did they have ready? How much had they worked on this before the coup?”

When Nagavanshi and Jayasankar came together, there was no topic they could not casually discuss; even something as grave as the continuing legacy of of the nation’s founding figures, like ex-Premier Ahwalia. Nagavanshi and then-Justice Minister Jayasankar disagreed with him politically and economically. And they managed to make that disagreement spread to the right people. Ahwali was ultimately made to disappear for Jayasankar’s benefit; the rest was history.

“Before our intervention, they had worked on the hull.” Nagavanshi said. “It was originally going to be a triple-height hauler and icebreaker. They were hoping to be able to open a route to the Cogitum Ocean through the southern ice caps. I can only speculate as to the costs. The hull was actually huge, Bhavani: the Brigand is only half the size of its forebear.”

“So it was part of Op. Red Star.” Jayasankar said. “We were literally starving for this.”

Six years ago in 973, the very two people scheming in this room had unearthed a certain scheme themselves.

“All of this is beside the point, Parvati! You lied! You lied to me! For so long, too!”

Jayasankar pointed her finger at Nagavanshi with a childishly petulant expression.

“I embellished the truth because frankly, it is more effective to work without worrying you about it.” Nagavanshi replied calmly. “Most of the militarizing work on the hull was done in the past 6 months. I started working on this as a military venture because of the border skirmishes. And before you cry any more, I did everything with military resources. I did not divert a single credit worth of Plan resources. So don’t even think about comparing it to Plan Red Star, okay?”

“I wasn’t going to. I don’t want to think about Ahwalia at all. I’m thinking about us.”

Jayasankar sat down behind her desk and laid all the way back that she could on her chair.

She looked up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I wonder if I would just be better off up there.”

Nagavanshi raised her eyebrows, clearly confused by the sudden change in the topic.

“You’d be dead, obviously.”

“You don’t want me to die?” They locked eyes briefly.

Nagavanshi closed and opened her fists, balled up at her sides. She narrowed her eyes.

“If this is a joke you’re making, I’m not amused by it.”

Jayasankar laughed. “Good response! You’ve saved yourself from a purge just then!”

Nagavanshi rolled her eyes. “I am as always grateful for your many mercies, Premier.”

“You’re a demon, you know that? I take care of you, and this is how you repay me.”

“I’m grateful for your attention, but work is work.” Nagavanshi shrugged.

Jayasankar laughed. She felt eerie. All she could do was tease Nagavanshi. She had so much responsibility over so many people and over all of their needs. Clearly, she wouldn’t have ever done what Nagavanshi suggested. Only Nagavanshi had the dark intellect for this sort of thing. The right combination of power, access, ambition and lack of accountability to others.

Deep down, Jayasankar had an ingrained fear of the present circumstances. She hardly wanted to indulge the irony of the situation she had found herself in. After all, Ahwalia had been deposed for the same issues: diverting resources to secret projects at the expense of the people. He and his cohort had their own dreams; they believed they were in the right too. If they had their way, there would have still been a future for the Union. It might have even been a more utopic future than that which Jayasankar promised. There was only one difference between them. Nagavanshi and Jayasankar, fundamentally, would not sacrifice the many for a few.

Despite everything, Jayasankar trusted Nagavanshi to agree with her on that principle.

They would gladly throw a few people into the fire, here and there, to spare the multitude.

Operation Red Star had been frighteningly ambitious. It envisioned a complete reorganization of the Union into an automated society unfettered in technological growth. A second revolution, quietly happening behind closed doors, siphoning food, steel and monies for its ultimate purpose. It was a dream only capable of coming to fruition in the Union, because at that time the Union was nothing if not dreams. It was an overpopulated, under-producing hole in the ground where everyone worked their hardest, and for years, it felt like tragedy after tragedy just set them back.

Until she saw it with her own eyes, Jayasankar could have never realized the evil that nestled still in the hearts of men and women in their precious Union. In five years of being silently freed from this evil, her people were finally thriving a bit. And now, everything was in jeopardy again. She really was helpless. And worse, she could not really tell anyone the full story.

Maybe, sometimes, it was good to be lied to.

Maybe it was even liberating to be lied to.

She couldn’t say such a thing as that to Nagavanshi.

For those reasons; and for others too.

So instead, Jayasankar played the conceited character she knew Nagavanshi wanted to see.

“Tell me this. Would your plan have survived the Emperor being alive right now?”

Nagavanshi, she knew, could take any amount of grief that was launched her way.

“I would have simply use different rhetorical tactics. In the end, it wouldn’t change all the work I had already done to operate within the Empire. There would have been ample opportunity. Buren was already preparing to revolt. I was already preparing to help them. It was inevitable.”

“And it was necessary to lie to me for it to work? For months? I couldn’t have helped?”

“You’ve manipulated me before, so consider it payback. Anyway, If I came to you with no data, no ship, no plan, would you approve of all the work? Or would you say, ‘it’s a Plan Year.’?”

Once more, their gazes met with a conviction that exceeded any casual observation.

Jayasankar smiled so freely in response that it compelled Nagavanshi to smile back a little.

“Fair enough Parvati! You’re right. I concede that point.” Jayasankar said. “But I know this can’t have just been about Buren. I may agree with the plan, but I must unearth its intention.”

“Have you considered that I am doing this to protect you?” Nagavanshi crossed her arms.

“Protecting me? You’re not protecting me! You’re putting me in a vice! We’re at war, it’s supposed to be a growth year; I’ll look terrible for this! When I think about Retainment I–”

Nagavanshi finally laughed. “All of a sudden, you are worried about the vote to Retain?”

“You’ve been going around behind my back, and you ask if I’m worried?” Jayasankar grumbled. “Let me ask you this then, my beautiful, incorruptible guardian angel. With all your conspiracies and your little agents floating out there — are you gunning for the Premiership?”

“What are you saying? Of course not!” Nagavanshi snapped back, clearly flustered.

“Am I supposed to think you’re not after my power?” Jayasankar winked at the Commissar.

“You’re so frustrating! We’re in this together! What do I have to do to show you that?”

Jayasankar loved Nagavanshi’s response. She relished being able to talk to her like this.

She leaned forward on the desk, steepling her fingers and delivering an icy glare.

Nagavanshi leaned back slightly as if she were afraid of being sucked in by the Premier.

“Tell me about your lover in the Empire. Was she any good? Was she better than me? There must be a reason that you did all of this behind my back, after all. And to think, I’ve always been here when you needed comfort. I’m honestly offended you think so cheaply about me!”

Jayasankar finally delivered her bathetic salvo, and Nagavanshi groaned at the contents.

She looked for a moment like she was hitting the limits of her exasperation.

“Sorry to squash your perverted fantasies, but the person I referenced is someone I admire in a way that is not simply sexual. But a transactional cad such as you wouldn’t understand. I can’t believe that you are acting like this, and frankly, I’m offput by your sudden possessiveness.”

Her voice trembled very slightly as she delivered the last line. She realized something.

Jayasankar knew exactly the thing Nagavanshi was thinking about.

The Premier couldn’t help but to feel a thrill at the rising tension.

“Sometimes, Parvati, I really hate your guts.” Jayasankar said, her voice turning sultry.

At this, the Commissar-General seemed animated by a different impulse than before.

Nagavanshi hovered close to Jayasankar’s desk, leaning forward. Closer than they had been in an exceptionally long time. The Commissar’s gentle breath blew right over the Premier’s lips. “It’s because you can hate me that our relationship works so well. So hate me with all your being.”

Her eyes and voice grew eerily intense. Jayasankar felt a thrill rising up in her own chest.

“You’re a real piece of work, Commissar-General.” Jayasankar said, leaning closer as well.

Premier, if you’re so afraid, angry, and upset at me. Then you should punish me for it.”

Suddenly, Jayasankar lifted a hand to Nagavanshi’s cheek and put her thumb right into her mouth, pressing on her tongue. Even Nagavanshi was surprised. She moaned but offered no resistance. “I’ve been wanting to teach you a lesson.” Jayasankar said. She pulled Parvati closer.

In an instant, she was on top of her. This, too, was all part of their understanding.

Even in the darkest times they at least had this form of catharsis — and companionship.


The Great Ayre Reach on the Northern Imbrium Ocean was a colder, shallower slice of water than most of the Imperial forces were used to living in. Operating in the photic zone, they could see bright blue water and in places, at times, even the light of Solceanos playing upon the ceiling of their ambitions: the surface of the ocean, and the forbidden world that was past the water.

A trio of engineering frigates was hard at work cementing Imperial control of Ayre.

Two of them laid down a massive laser relay tower.

A third laid down cable connecting the tower to its counterpart closer to Palatine.

When the tower activated, the Grand Fleet renewed its connection to the network that joined much of the rest of the Empire, allowing them to send and receive much higher bandwidth communications than before. It was this feat that allowed Erich von Fueller to finally speak to his subordinates after many long days of campaign away from home against the Republic.

Erich von Fueller stood alone on the bridge of the Irmingard, mother ship to an entire class of new dreadnoughts. He had cleared the bridge, and all of his officers dutifully left him, without a single remark. All of them saluted him, paid him respect as Grand Admiral of the Fleet, and went on their way. He had ceased to accept the title of “Prince” to refer to himself. In his mind there was no longer any Empire, for what had held the semblance of Empire they once believed in was the shadow of his father’s exploits. He was dead, and so was the Empire. There was only territory, and the bickering landlords scheming to improve their own holdings.

“It was always going to be this way, father.”

When Konstantin von Fueller slaughtered Emperor Nocht IV, he called out to all those who had stood on the sidelines of his war: “You are free to challenge me, as I challenged him!” At that moment, not a soul dared to step forward and fight him. But that idea had lingered in the currents, waiting for its time.

His father had demonstrated that the Emperor was not all-powerful. He was only a man.

Now, that mere man who seeded this idea, had died choking on his own blood and bile.

It would not be long before the disparate states of the Empire turned on each other.

“Everyone will challenge me as they challenged you. And I welcome the fight.”

He would not build an Empire over the rubble. He had other ideas.

An encrypted laser communication connected Erich to a subordinate on the video screen.

A seemingly youthful woman, her glasses reflecting the light of the video screen.

She was in a dark place, but all manner of terrifying things could be inferred from the shadows in the background. Tubes containing mutilated things; machines of unknown description. Amid all of this, a woman, her hair in a long, functional ponytail, dressed in a bodysuit and coat.

“Grand Admiral, congratulations on a successful campaign.” She said in a sweet voice.

“It’s no accomplishment. The Empire and Republic trade this piece of the Imbrium often. Doubtless they will take it back when I’ve ceased to pay attention to it.” Erich said in response.

His tone was untroubled, sober. He was calm. His mind was truly clear.

“If I might be so bold as to say, your humility is your most charming quality.”

Erich felt almost annoyed. “And your worst quality is all the false flattery.”

Mocking him, the woman made a face as though she had been struck and rendered docile.

“Well. It was you who demanded to speak to me. How may I serve you then, Herr Fuhrer?”

Her lips turned back into a grin as soon as the phrase left her mouth.

“I will soon return to Palatine, and from there I will cross into Bosporus. I will be expecting the timely delivery of your tributes. Will the Jagdkaiser be ready? Will the rest of your promises?”

“Everything will be ready, my lord. As certain as the sun rising.”

“This may surprise you, but I do not care where the sun goes or doesn’t. Therefore you would do well to understand that my tolerance toward you will end if my demands go unmet.”

Erich’s voice remained clear and confident, but his counterpart was unmoved.

“I understand. But taking a long view, all my predecessors died violently, yet the Sunlight Foundation remains. I can surpass this one body; I know one day, a form of me will see the Sun.”

She waved at him.

“But I will uphold my end, Fuhrer. May you one day bask in the light of the Sun.”

With the Foundation’s common parting words, the laser connection cut off.

Erich was suspicious, but he could do nothing but trust her, despite everything.

He allowed himself the briefest sigh. No one was watching him.

Soon he would have the power to never rely on snakes like her again.

He would continue with the plan. Lead a small fleet to Palatine, Bosporus, Volgia. Augment his power along the way with the innovations from his disdained vassals. Make a show of force. Soon, the Sunlight Foundation, the Inquisition, the Church of Solceanos: none would matter. All of them would fall. The world would be transformed. And he would be its Fuhrer.

At his bidding, a second connection traveled out of the Irmingard and made its way through the relays back to Palatine. His call was answered by a communications officer in Vogelheim, a young woman in servant’s outfit, rather than a military uniform. An apron and frilly cap; but the large headset for communications was clearly visible too. She bowed gently when she saw him.

“Tell Lieutenant Patroscu to make sure my sister’s birthday guests find their way easily.”

On the other end, the maid bowed her head once more in acknowledgment.

Erich cut off the feed. He had no emotion about what had transpired, or what would.

“Mind if I come in, milord?”

A sweet, soft voice came from the door to the bridge.

“You’re always welcome in, Carthus.” Erich said. “I was about to declare a 4-hour rest.”

Erich turned fully around from the console to meet the angelic young man coming in. Behind him the bridge door locked, with an access only the two of them possessed. The Prince looked over his guest, with his long, bright blond hair done up, and his green eyes open and inviting. The Prince was captivated with him, even when he wore just the simple blue Grand Fleet uniform. The young men stood before the throne replica on the bridge, and Carthus von Skarsgaard strongly embraced the Prince who stood like a pillar before him, offering no reciprocation but a small smile. None was needed, as the pair understood the character of the other perfectly.

“Since you’re declaring a rest, would I be able to sing for you today?”

“I would love that. I haven’t had a moment’s peace in ages.”

“I knew it. You haven’t rested at all since we left Palatine.”

Carthus got behind the taller Erich and reached over his cape to squeeze his shoulders.

Erich laughed. “Stop it, that’s not what I need from you. Perhaps soon.”

“Whatever you wish.”

He continued to hold on to Erich from behind, sinking his soft face into the Prince’s back.

“May I confess to something grave, milord?”

“Anything. You can say anything you want to me. You know this.”

“Erich, I do not wish to rule over Skarsgaard when all of this is over.”

Carthus sighed deeply. As a nobleman, that was an answer to a question that Erich’s actions had implicitly posed to him and challenged him with. It was an answer that meant dishonorable failure for any of the Empire’s top families. It was an affront to his ancestors, and an abdication of a holy duty that Emperor Nocht had given his family hundreds of generations ago.

But Emperor Nocht was dead. Emperor von Fueller was dead. And there were no Gods in heaven nor holy duties left on Earth. For the first time in weeks, Erich felt truly, transcendentally happy. He reached to his flank and took Carthus’ hand in his own. Carthus couldn’t see his face, but Erich was smiling. He was smiling so broadly and openly that he could almost cry.

“Thank you, Carthus. In the future I will create, neither Skarsgaard nor Fueller will weigh us down anymore. You will be something far greater than an Imperial Duke. I promise you.”

Without looking at the other’s eyes, the two men sealed their pact through those held hands.


In a dim, humid room in an undisclosed part of Imbria, the Sovereign of the Sunlight Foundation was both delighted and bothered by her conversation with the future Fuhrer of the Imperium. In the vastness of her thought, she found his behavior amusing. A tin-pot dictator like all of the rest who had come before him. He thought himself the most novel, of course.

The Sovereign had seen plenty of men just like him.

What bothered her then, more than anything, was that unlike with those men, whom she could safely ignore, she had to cooperate with Erich Fueller. This time, she could not simply stand idle and watch the irrelevant political histories of Imbria continue to turn. For the good of not just Imbria, but all of Aer, it was necessary — necessary ­— for the Empire to retain its unity and power. Though she abhorred the unproductive game of politics, she would have to play it, to save science and the future.

Behind her, there was the sound of a sliding door.

“I am leaving for the Northern Imbrium. I want to render a complaint.”

The Sovereign turned around to greet her guest. She found a familiar young woman, also shrouded in the dim, wet shadows of the laboratory. She was eyeing the test subjects with open disdain. The Sovereign’s present fixation was with exotic leviathans, and there were a great many, fetal and adult, large and small, complete or in pieces, in tubes and machines around her.

“Are you taking Tigris with you?” asked the Sovereign.

“Yes I am. We make a good team. About my complaint–”

“Go on. Actionable feedback is the lifeblood of any management structure.”

At this, her subordinate groaned openly at her. “Quit being coy. I sat on your inbound communication with Erich von Fueller. Supplying him with intelligence is bad enough. I cannot in good conscience see us supplying him with weapons too. What are you doing, Yangtze?”

Yangtze spread her lips in a wide, beaming smile.

Her subordinate narrowed her eyes in return.

“Euphrates, what I’m giving him is paltry compared to the scope of our power. It’s just an insurance policy to maintain the status quo in a chaotic time. I share your distaste for politics. Sometimes the only way to remain neutral, is to create the conditions for neutrality. We need to hedge our bets on an outcome to this war, if we’re not going to outright interfere.”

“I disagree; and I’ll stop at disagreeing. But you must reform your ideas.”

“Ooh, scary. Am I being threatened right now, I wonder?”

Euphrates made an irritated noise. She crossed her arms. “You are our Sovereign, and we want to trust your decisions, Yangtze. That has become harder for all of us to do lately. Rethink things; please.”

She turned around to leave, having had the last word. But the Sovereign called to her again.

“Euphrates, if you’re going to the Northern Imbrium, I’d like you to do something for me.”

“I’m not your errand-girl. You can get one of your Imperial flunkies to do it for you.”

“You’re so cold to me now! We used to be friends; you know?”

Sovereign Yangtze put on an aggrieved face, hugging herself as if shivering with pain.

Across the room, Euphrates was unmoved. She did not even turn around to see her talking.

“You and I have been peers. Don’t misunderstand. I put the Foundation first.”

“You and Tigris have been quite independent of late.” The Sovereign said.

Her tone of voice had changed, and Euphrates clearly noticed.

“We uphold the duties that others are neglecting. Is that all it takes to lose your trust?”

“Trust has to go both ways. Do something simple for me, and I’ll consider your advice as coming from a peer and not, say, a saboteur, or a usurper. How do you respond to that, friend?”

Yangtze said this casually, but she knew the barb had bitten under Euphrates’ stone skin.

Euphrates turned fully around, and coolly ran her hands back over her short, wavy hair.

“Yangtze– Sovereign. I take umbrage at having my loyalty tested again after everything I’ve done for you. I’ll acquiesce, but only to show my commitment to keeping the peace. What do you want?”

“Thank you for being so considerate.” Yangtze raised her hand toward one of the monitors hovering behind her. She thought about what she wanted it to show, and the monitor responded, and showed Euphrates a station in what was now called the Palatinate or Palatine, in North Imbria. “I want you to leak the location of this place to a Republic spy in North Imbria. She’ll do the rest.”

“I think I know who you mean. I’m not going to contact her directly, however.”

“Whatever you think will be most effective.”

“I see. Should I also leak the contents of Vogelheim to her? She’ll be interested to hear it.”

“You’ve done your homework!” Yangtze clapped her hands. “Indeed, it’s part and parcel. I trust your judgment and your intellect. Craft a suitable scenario to lead that woman to Vogelheim.”

“I’ll take care of it. Though I don’t relish continuing to participate in your political games.” Euphrates said. “But I’m glad you’re at least playing multiple sides. Ultimately my fear was that you had become obsessed with a fascist Imbrium. My criticism is not rescinded, but I feel better.”

“I’d never expect you to shut up about something so easily, don’t worry.”

Yangtze turned her back on Euphrates and made a gesture with her hands for her to leave.

“Acknowledged, Sovereign.”

Euphrates again turned, and this time departed the room through the sliding bulkhead.

Yangtze cracked up in a smile, laughing a bit at the situation.

“They’ve all become so ignorant. The world truly rests on my shoulders.”


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