Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.7]

“Okay, so you want to hold them like this–”

Inside one of the Diver simulation pods, Maryam Karaihalos buckled herself into the seat, while behind her, Sonya Shalikova showed her the controls. It was a fairly tight fit for Shalikova. The Diver pod was realistic in its dimensions, so there was hardly space for her behind the seat. Usually the only thing back there was a slim box containing emergency rations, an air tank, and a mostly useless survival suit. Had Maryam needed any more legroom up front, Shalikova could not have fit behind her.

Thankfully, Maryam was not especially tall.

Shalikova reached over Maryam’s shoulder and pointed out the sticks.

“Each of these controls one of the arms. You can rotate it on the socket, and you can also lock the rotation and you can tilt the stick too, and this will affect the movement of the arms. It’s really unnatural at first but you get a sense for it. As you pilot more you will start to understand the degree of motion the arms have. These triggers are for the weapons, and the grip buttons on the stick can control the fingers in groups. It’s weird at first, but you hardly ever need to flex the digits if you have your weapons. Your issued weapons will be connected to the Diver triggers by the mechanics during dive prep. Oh right, and you can push the stick assembly forward or backward like levers, that controls the leaning of the chassis; down there you have your pedals and they–”

“I see. I see! I see.”

Maryam’s eyes lit up with such excitement as Shalikova explained every detail.

Together they adjusted the cameras and diagnostic screens to Maryam’s liking.

They tested the pressure on the pedals too. At first Shalikova, once again deceived by Maryam’s outward appearance, wanted to make the pedals more sensitive, as if her companion’s feet were too dainty to have an effect. However, Maryam was actually very strong, and the pedals needed more resistance to prevent her from flooring them constantly without meaning to do so. Similarly, Shalikova had to adjust the sticks on the pod to make them less sensitive to motions.

“Remind me to readjust all of this stuff for non-cuttlefish use later…”

“You’re so considerate Sonya!”

With the controls sorted, and Maryam having been shown where everything is, Shalikova started the simulation. After the start-up screen, they found themselves in the deployment chute of a nonexistent vessel. Shalikova helped Maryam skip the deployment, and the chute deposited them into simulated water without having to open the hatches or wait for pressure to equalize.

“Ohh, it feels floaty when we sink down.” Maryam said, backing up into her chair.

In turn her chair backed up into Shalikova. “Careful, I’m back here.”

“Ah, sorry Sonya! What should I do now, can I start moving it?” She asked.

Shalikova nodded in the affirmative, leaning forward so she was almost cheek to cheek with Maryam. Maryam engaged the pedals, and pushed the sticks forward, causing the Strelok they were meant to be piloting to charge chest-first, arms at its sides, taking in water through its intakes and accelerating it out of the hydrojets in the back and the legs. The very concept of the Diver’s mechanical movements seemed to inspire fascination in Maryam, who was laughing throughout the demonstration.

“Sonya! This is so fun! No wonder you signed up to be a pilot!”

“I didn’t sign up because it was fun! It’s different if someone’s shooting at you!”

Maryam began to explore the extremes of the Diver’s movement.

In the middle of a dash, she suddenly let up on the pedals and jerked the controls back.

Unmoored in the back of the cockpit, Shalikova lurched forward.

“Maryam!”

“Ha ha ha!”

Maryam rammed the pedals and discharged all the fuel-engaged verniers.

In an instant the simulated Strelok shot straight up like a missile.

Shalikova was thrown back and up from the sudden changes in direction.

She came to land back behind the chair, her vision briefly spinning.

“It’s just a game right? Can I get more fuel for the thrusters?” Maryam asked.

“We can reset it– if you promise not to burn it all up at once again!” Shalikova said.

“Ahh, nevermind! Let’s shoot the gun a bit!”

On the screens, the simulated gloomy ocean lit up as several rounds of simulated 37 mm ammunition detonated in the distance. Maryam rammed the trigger and looked around as if she was expecting something more dramatic to happen than her ammo counter going down, and small explosions to begin blooming nearly at the edge of visibility. The 37 mm AK rifle had some recoil when not held in place with both of the unit’s hands, but nothing the pilot would actually feel.

“Hmm. That was kinda boring.”

“We could swap it out for the 76 mm braced cannon or the shoulder gun.”

“Naaaah. I think I’ll just pirouette a little bit more. Thanks for teaching me, Sonya!”

Shalikova nearly hit her head on the side of the seat as Maryam returned to her joyriding.

As an experienced pilot she couldn’t help but notice how unrefined Maryam was with the sticks in her hands. Her movements were jerky, she would lift her feet off the pedal entirely, and when she wanted to move the arms she would move the stick very stiffly as if inputting each movement separately, rather than turning the stick fluidly to achieve complete motions. It had been so long ago since Shalikova had been learning the basics– she couldn’t have remembered if her first outing in a simulator was any better. It brought to mind how far her own skills had come from where she was even at Thassal.

She breathed out a bit of a sigh.

Though the world was in shambles, there could be enemies everywhere, and the Brigand was still in the initial stages of its mission, Shalikova felt a certain sense of peace. Maryam was happy, smiling, having fun– they could still allow themselves humanity even in this situation. It felt like a release valve for the tense guardedness and helpless anxiety that colored recent days.

In a sense, Maryam had already proved herself every bit the VIP–

Hmm.

“Maryam, I have a question. I won’t judge you, okay?”

“Sure, Sonya! Anything!”

Maryam let go of the sticks and turned her head to gaze sidelong at Shalikova.

“You used psionics to trick our agents into letting you aboard the Brigand, didn’t you?”

Her hair and skin color flashed white as the shock ran through her body.

Her hands slackened on the controls and her lip trembled.

“Don’t worry.”

Shalikova reached a hand down to put it on the controls, over Maryam’s own.

She was not angry whatsoever, and she wanted to comfort Maryam.

“When you started saying you were a soothsayer and all that other stuff to me, I kind of suspected it would be something like this. I mean, I couldn’t have known it was like magic from a fantasy story but I assumed you’d turn out to be a swindler– no offense. I don’t blame you– you wanted to go to the Union to get away from mercenary work right? I’m sure tons of people have lied to be smuggled out. I’ll back you up if it becomes an issue. I just wanted to know the truth for myself.” She said.

“Sonya– thank you. I– I understand that what I did was selfish, I really do.” Maryam said. “I did not think I would end up in a military vessel that had an important mission when I fooled your agent. I thought I would be smuggled out to the Union on an ordinary ship and escape the Empire and live peacefully. But now– I want to help you! I have a lot of information and skills. I feel like this must be the will of God. I have a chance to do good deeds and make up for my selfishness.”

“The will of God? I guess you really must have been a nun once.” Shalikova smiled.

“I’m very pious, I’ll have you know. I still pray and read the book every 7th cycle.”

Maryam smiled gently. Shalikova looked into her eyes and felt contented.

“Alright. You can play for a few minutes more, then we should go back to the room.”

“I am feeling tired! I’m all cuttled out.” Maryam yawned, her head fins drooping.

Shalikova nodded. She felt that a burden had been lifted from her.

There were still so many questions to ask, mysteries to delve further into–

–but looking at Maryam, she felt satisfied for now.

When the pair left the simulation pods, they found that they were no longer alone in the hangar.

There was someone approaching the pods, who drew back as if himself surprised to see anyone there.

Shalikova recognized him– it was Aiden Ahwalia, suited up, hair tied in a bun.

“Sonya Shalikova. I’m surprised to see you here. You hardly need the simulator, do you?” He said.

When he spoke, she felt a temptation to try to view his aura, because she couldn’t read his tone. That tiny flicker of thought, that desire, was all it took to switch the auras on as if a lens had flipped over her eyes. Coiled around him like rope or chains of gas, feeling tough and stiff, the aura was mainly green and purple with notes of red and yellow. Pride and irritation, anger, disgust. That sounded about right for him. Shalikova had only ever known him as a loud, inveterate asshole.

“Or perhaps you do. Maybe the secret to your success has been harsh and intensive training every night– no, wait, I would’ve seen you. Because it’s me who usually comes out here at night to train. Despite how much you all disdain and suppress me, I continue to work so hard. I hope you’re seeing this, acting squad leader! In fact, I invite you to watch me.” He said.

She did not have the same virulently political disgust that Khadija showed him.

His conduct during their previous sortie was enough for her to be disgusted with him.

At her side, Maryam was still all smiles, not a care in the world.

“Good evening! Um, I don’t know what you meant by all that, but we were just playing around.” She said happily.

Shalikova raised her hands feebly as if that would have stopped her.

Aiden raised an eyebrow and looked irritated to have received any acknowledgment.

“Playing around? Wish the rest of us had time for date night, Acting Squad Leader.”

His disdainful gaze sized up Shalikova as if he could glean anything from staring at her.

There was something about his tone of voice which grated on her nerves.

Even when she couldn’t see his arrogance in the colors, it was plain in his mocking tone.

“You have no responsibilities Aiden, so I think it isn’t time that’s stopping you from having as much of a social calendar as me.” Shalikova said. “Come on Maryam, let’s leave now. I’m not in the mood for any more tonight–”

“Wait.”

Aiden looked over at the pods behind them, cracking a smile.

“Since we’re all here, how about you and I have a spar in the simulators, Shalikova?”

“You’re not going to provoke me. Wait for Khadija if you want a response.”

“Provoke you? Are you so afraid of facing me that you make up excuses like that–”

Maryam looked between the two of them silently, her skin and hair colors starting to blur.

Shalikova sighed. She didn’t want to put Maryam in this awkward situation.

“I’m not afraid of you Aiden, I’m more emotionally mature than you. Good night.”

Shalikova interrupted him, calmly and coolly as she could. Ayden fumed at her.

Ignoring him was both the most offensive and most healthy thing that she could do to him as a leader.

Khadija always attacked him and insulted him, and it only fed his ego to receive that kind of attention. It only made him more eager to fight back, surer of himself as the righteous martyr. Shalikova had no desire to get caught up in the whirlwind of his personal narrative, especially now that she was acting squad leader. He was just a petulant kid who needed to cool off, but Shalikova was not herself so adult as to become the one responsible for it. She just wanted him to go away.

Aiden was not going away, however. He had clearly set his sights on her now.

“So even with two pilots down, you still dismiss me, you won’t let me prove my skills–”

“You’ve already lost to me just for thinking a duel would prove anything. Good night.”

Shalikova turned her back on him and began to walk away, dead set on escaping–

“Don’t walk away from me! How dare you! How dare you treat me like–”

Aiden stepped in as Shalikova tried to walk past him–

For a brief instant, she realized, before he moved, that he would try to grab her shoulder.

Acting almost as if between time, in the interstitial between seconds–

Shalikova batted away his hand with such alacrity he staggered back in confusion.

She confused even herself with the speed of her reaction. Maryam had noticed it too.

Aiden stared at her in a brief confusion, tears welling up in his eyes, his face turning red.

“Acting Squad Leader– If you gave me a chance– I’d show you–”

Shalikova was not only irritated, she was alarmed by her own reaction.

“Aiden, I’m leaving! Just go do whatever you’re up to. Maryam, not a word. Let’s go.”

Feeling suddenly stressed, Shalikova quickly turned her back again and tried to leave–

“You–” Aiden grit his teeth, closing into a fist the hand which Shalikova had struck. “All of you are the same! All of you resort to violence because you can’t mount a legitimate challenge! You can’t confront me when I bear the truth except by trying to suppress me! Jayasankarists, this whole ship, you rigged everything, you conspired in the shadows, I’m being unfairly sanctioned–”

Shalikova could hardly respond to his sudden, loud outburst of politics.

Then she heard a loud bang in the hangar, the stomping of a thick boot on metal.

Echoing across the vast space, the sound finally got Ahwalia to stop mid-cry.

At first she imagined it was Chief Akulantova having finally found them but–

Instead two women approached. Both were wearing the tight security suits that Klara and Lian wore.

And both of them were openly armed.

Across their chests, they had AK-72 personnel size assault rifles hung on shoulder slings.

Nobody on the security team was so heavily armed, but these two wore their firearms casually.

“What’s all the racket? You’re lucky Chief Shark’s not the one who found you.” One of the women began to speak with clear irritation in her voice. “Akulantova would actually do something to make you all behave. All I want is for all of you to shut the fuck up– Oh, wait, wait, isn’t that Sonya Shalikova? Sonya Shalikova! I never thought we’d run into each other!”

Her tone of voice was altered completely when she realized it was Shalikova.

Shalikova recognized the two women who approached from the adjoining hall.

One silver-haired woman with neon pink cybernetic eyes, tall and lean with a foxy grin.

With her, a blond woman with her hair in a ponytail, shorter, skinnier, inexpressive, quiet.

They were both good looking and fit, older than Shalikova but still young. Maybe Murati’s age.

“Do you remember us, Sonya?” said the silver-haired woman.

When the woman got close enough she reached out a hand to Shalikova.

Shalikova took her hand in both of hers almost automatically. It was– a childish gesture.

Like they used to–

Her hand dropped on top of Shalikova’s head and stroked her hair.

“You’ve grown a lot. You’re just like Zasha– you should be proud. She’d be proud too.”

Zasha–

“Stop it.” Shalikova mumbled.

“Ah, I’m sorry. I’m not treating you like a kid; it’s just my honest reaction.”

Maryam looked delighted to meet them. “Sonya, are these friends of yours?”

They weren’t–

“Friends of my sister.” Shalikova said. “Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterberg.”

It made sense that they would be aboard the Brigand. Those two were Union navy elites.

Out of their cadre Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were undoubtedly the stars, good at everything.

A Brigand packed with the Union’s elite soldiers had to include them.

“Valeriya, go on, say something. It’s little Sonya! Give her some encouragement.” Illya said.

Behind Illya, her shy blond companion Valeriya raised a hand in a half-hearted wave.

She then lifted a tactical mask that had been left hanging from her neck back over her mouth and nose.

“You know how she is.” Illya said, shrugging at her companion’s symbolic self-silencing.

“I know.” Shalikova said. “What I didn’t know was that you two were marines here.”

“When Nagavanshi came to get us we didn’t have much of a choice.” Illya said with a wry smile. “Our actual job is surveillance, so we stay in the security room with Syrah. We were covering for Klara and Lian today, and checking up on the cameras while we’re at it. We’d only ever seen you on camera, Sonya! I guess we keep to ourselves most of the time.”

That struck Shalikova as more than a little strange for a way of life on a ship.

Shalikova did not want to make Illya’s business into her own, however. It was– too sudden.

Her heart felt so torn.

Illya and Valeriya looked the same as in Shalikova’s foggy memories of their past. She had not thought about them in so long, and now that they had appeared, there was a lot surfacing with them in Shalikova’s memories. They were not at fault– but they were associated with something very painful. Something she did not wish to think about at all. And Illya did not realize this, and of course Valeriya would realize even less. Illya was just being her usual self. Coy and a little too full of herself, but ultimately harmless, and quick to heap praise. Valeriya hiding behind her, inquisitive eyes scanning the surroundings, gently unsmiling beneath her mask of isolation, two inseparable companions missing their third from back in the day.

Shalikova was already tired and already reeling from feelings she wanted to set aside.

Why did it have to be them? She had no more room on this night for painful recollections.

“Secret midnight date with the VIP huh? So proud of our little ladykiller here–”

“Hey–!”

Before Shalikova could respond to the joke and try once again to leave, Illya turned to face Aiden.

He had been standing stock still and Shalikova had not looked his way since Illya and Valeriya arrived.

“–And who is this with you? Oh! It’s the Ahwalia boy? Did he get jealous of you two?”

Illya was joking still, but Aiden looked worse than Shalikova had ever seen him.

His expression came as something of a shock to Shalikova. His aura was quickly filling with red, yellow and a notable band of black. His hands were closed into fists, and he was staring at Illya with an expression that was as hate-filled as those black and red bands of gas coiling around him. They were tightening around his neck, around his wrists and ankles like binding tendrils.

Something was reaching out to bind him– it felt like the past– overwhelming regrets the texture of broken glass–

A flash of violence woke Shalikova from her rumination.

Without warning, Aiden launched forward and tried to punch Illya.

She stepped back in surprise and this was enough to spare her from the attack.

His fist swept in front of her chest, but he was taken by a sudden fury and charged anew–

In the next instant, the buttstock of an AK-72 struck him in the temple.

He staggered and fell on his back, blood drawing from his forehead–

Valeriya rushed him, dropping on top of his legs to pin him, and striking him again.

Two lightning fast, vicious attacks completely subdued him, the buttstock striking his stomach and then his upper chest in quick succession. She then pinned him by forcing the length of the weapon against his neck. Shalikova was stunned. Around Valeriya an entirely black and red cloud seethed. Her once inexpressive eyes were drawn wide, dilated with unrestrained fury. It was impossible to read her expression due to the black mask over her mouth, but her eyes told enough.

“Target suppressed. Awaiting confirmation to eliminate.” She said in an atonal voice.

Even Maryam was shocked at the violence. For that demure-looking girl to be so brutal–

“Oh jeez.” Illya had been as unable to respond as anyone else. “Lerya, stand down!”

Shalikova remembered, those distant old days with her sister–

Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were best friends, but–

Valeriya was always with Illya. She always regarded Illya as her “favorite person.”

I would do anything for her. Even kill.

Her behavior was not so bad when Zasha was alive but–

“Standing down.”

Obediently, Valeriya withdrew her rifle and stood up as if nothing had happened. In that instant, all of that evil black aura dissipated from her. Her intent changed entirely. Illya took her hand, looked her in the eye and began to gently reprimand her. She understood Valeriya’s needs. With the aura receding, Shalikova’s hazy, mystical thoughts gave away to practical feelings.

Despite the sheer aggression of the attack, Shalikova could not blame Valeriya for it.

That being said, she also felt a surging of emotion and a sudden sense of urgency. Had Murati been here she would have made it her duty to be responsible to Aiden, and so, despite her misgivings, when he was dropped, Shalikova rushed to the side of him and knelt down, trying to assess whatever injury was done to him. Maryam joined her, shocked so much her skin went pale.

Shalikova reached out to him, try to get him sat up– but Aiden struck her hand away.

“What is wrong with you?” Shalikova said. “You idiot! They’ll throw you in the brig!”

Coughing as he sat up, Aiden pointed an accusatory finger at Illya, eyes filled with tears.

“That woman was there! On the day my family was attacked! I saw her kill my mother!”

Shalikova was rendered speechless. Maryam gasped and covered her mouth in fear.

“Those eyes! Those cold metal eyes! They were looking down on me then too!”

Aiden Ahwalia, son of Elias Ahwalia– five fateful years ago, his family had been put under house arrest.

Then Justice Minister Bhavani Jayasankar announced a sweeping purge of corrupt and abusive officials in the communist party, aligned with Elias Ahwalia, who had been lying to the public about spending on social projects, the rationing of goods, and other areas of the economy in service to themselves. Shalikova had been in her third year at the Academy, just entering the military program at 18 years. Solstice’s news channels broadcast all of the evidence of the corruption, including lurid details of secret funds and diverted stores of goods and materials. Scores of projects were cancelled that had aimed supposedly to digitize and automate various functions of the economy, build new machines and advanced systems to limit human working hours. Scores more secret projects were revealed that had sucked up the people’s resources. All of it was stopped, all resources reallocated.

There was a furor in the Union. Popular mobilizations supported Jayasankar’s purge. Troops from outside the Justice Ministry’s ranks almost unanimously backed Jayasankar, including all of the Navy High Command, insuring that civil conflict would not ensue on Ahwalia’s behalf against Jayasankar’s internal troops. Ultimately, Bhavani Jayasankar went on to assume control of the country as a whole when Ahwalia was ejected from office in an emergency all-union retention vote.

It was impossible not to know this about their history– not to know this about Ahwalia.

She turned to face Illya with a dreadful understanding of Aiden’s words.

Her eyes felt painfully warm as she tried to read Illya. Her aura was resisting scrutiny.

By outward appearance, it was impossible to tell Illya’s response to that accusation. Her expression never changed. She had been frowning because of Valeriya’s actions and continued to do so out of worry for her partner. Clearly her good mood had been dampened by the events, but she didn’t look guilty or boastful or like she had any emotion toward somebody accusing her of murdering their mother. Beyond the bare fact of murdering a civilian, to murder someone’s mother in front of them

Shalikova did not want to believe Aiden but in the back of her mind, she simply knew.

She knew that Illya and Valeriya were soldiers worthy of the special forces.

The kind that would be invaluable assets, taking decisive actions in a time of turmoil.

Illya would carry out any mission. Valeriya would follow her anywhere.

Zasha too–

“Illya–”

For them to be marines on the Brigand, which was full of other elite soldiers–

The Brigand ferrying Aiden Ahwalia, who had suffered from the coup attempt–

Shalikova felt a terrible history assembling itself in her mind.

Illya sighed openly while Aiden continued to blubber accusations.

“Sonya, you don’t understand–”

“What the hell is going on here?”

Joining the ensuing drama, the broad-chested, wide-shouldered, towering figure of Chief Akulantova appeared from the adjoining hall, looking incredulously between the sedate Valeriya, the exasperated Illya, and Shalikova, Ayden and Maryam on the floor. As she stomped forward, Shalikova could only imagine how ludicrous the scene must have looked to the Chief, walking in on her two subordinates, the ship’s most controversial ward on the ground, and Shalikova, who should have been more responsible than this, in the middle of it with the ship’s weird new V.I.P.! It was mortifying– Shalikova remained dead silent.

“Why is Ahwalia on the floor? Rostova, Peterburg?” Akulantova grunted.

“Valeriya broke up a fight.” Illya said. “She was way too rough. You know how it is.”

“It was my fault.” Valeriya said sheepishly.

“Oh my god.” Akulantova raised her hands to her face.

“Chief–!” Aiden tried to raise his voice, prompting a coughing fit.

“Shut up, Ahwalia.” Akulantova said immediately. “Nobody say anything now. Especially not the two of you.” She pointed her burly arm at Illya and Valeriya. “You two have caused me maybe the biggest headache of my career right now. We’re going to have to get statements, file reports, involve the Captain– fuck, I’m going to have to call Syrah here too, I can’t believe this!”

Shalikova watched security deliberate with a wide-eyed, empty-headed expression.

It was going to be a much longer night than she bargained for…


“Why are you looking at me like that? Never seen me eating before?”

“I mean. I haven’t ever seen you eating before, that’s true–”

“Warm food and potable water are preconditions for warfare.”

“–That’s not remotely relevant to why I’m staring.”

“Stop staring then. For whatever reason it is. Get some food and sit down.”

Norn von Fueller pointed to a chair opposite her own in the cafeteria’s rows of long tables.

Selene Anahid ambled away from the lady (technically, lord) in charge of the ship and toward the self service area. The Antenora had a strangely ordinary cafeteria, with a closed kitchen that cooked two menus a day using typical appliances, and then stocked the meals in a dispenser machine at the far end of the row tables. The food dispensers stocked the morning or evening meal and kept it warm for hours. A touchscreen controlled the machine– a finicky resistive screen that Selene struggled with.

It was nothing like the sleek, responsive devices she was used to.

In addition to the dispensers containing hot meals, there was also a table set off to the side with a case of cold sausages, a tray of hard biscuits, and two automatic drink machines, one of them a kettle for hot pork broth, the other filled with lime water.

“Um. Hey. I guess I’ll have– Uh– let’s see, what are they actually cooking?”

Selene scanned the selections on the dim screen, feeling a bit discouraged.

For the centerpiece staple, there was a cornmeal and oat porridge with bits of meat in it, probably some kind of lard or pork scraps, which tended to be the Empire’s ground meat of choice. There was a dish of Wurstsalat, cut sausages with pickled gherkin, radish and onion bound in an oily dressing thickened with coarse mustard. Black bread and a simple fish soup were also on offer, along with small reusable bottles filled with a mix of coffee and sweetened condensed milk, a limited item on the Antenora.

Eyeing the available meals, Selene felt rather silly. She wanted to ask for a burger.

Back in Frederich’s Abyss, machines prepared all the meals at will.

They would cook practically anything. Selene wasn’t aware how.

She asked, and food appeared. Whatever kind of food she felt like eating!

Euphrates and her common companion, Tigris, loved to eat things like burgers and pizza.

Selene was used to getting her food from a machine at any hour, but she was not used to having her choices limited by whatever had been cooked by a real live human using a limited set of ingredients and then put into the machine at certain times during the day; and she had a somewhat spoiled palate on top of everything else. It proved difficult for her to fill her tray with the day’s meal, even when she could operate the dispensers. There was always a table with plain sausage and biscuits, so for the moment, Selene grabbed bread and sausage, a bottle of sweet coffee, and made the best of it.

When she returned to Norn’s table, the Praetorian gave her a critical glare.

“You can’t be serious. Go back there and grab some of the salad at least.”

Selene stared at her with narrowed eyes. “Huh? But I don’t like pickles.” She said.

“What?” Norn looked scandalized. “All this time you haven’t been eating the pickles?”

“Uh, I haven’t, yeah. I said I don’t like them.” Selene averted her gaze.

Norn dropped her spork and laid a hand over her face in exasperation.

“I can’t believe you. Do you want to die? When was the last time you ate a vegetable?”

“There was sausage and peppers for dinner three days ago!”

“Those peppers are pickled too!” Norn shouted.

“Oh.”

Selene did not have a come-back for that.

Norn stared daggers right into Selene’s eyes.

“Do you think we live in a palace? Put some salad on your tray this instant.”

She pointed authoritatively in the direction of the trays again.

And so once more, Selene begrudgingly took her tray to the dispensers.

When she returned, she had added a bowl of the salad– and a little bit of porridge in a cup.

She figured she could cut the salad with some of the porky porridge if it was too pickle-y.

Selene sat down and stared at her plate and at Norn, awaiting inspection.

Finally her commander looked pleased with her.

“Good girl. Pilots need a balanced diet! Especially ones like you.”

Norn’s plate had some of everything in it, porridge, salad, bread, sausage, fish soup.

Big appetite for a big personality, Selene supposed.

Thankfully Norn did not watch her eat. After commanding her to get the salad, she focused on her own plate. Selene noticed that Norn ate fairly slowly and really seemed to savor her food. Did she really like this cafeteria slop? She had heard that Norn had a hard life, so she imagined that maybe Norn savored her food so thoroughly out of fear that she may never get to eat again.

That was pure speculation, but Selene thought she hit on something deep there.

Selene picked up a bit of sausage and pickles with her spork and lifted it to her mouth. At first she recoiled a bit at the vinegary dressing, but she was surprised by the taste. Crumbly, meaty sausage with the mellow tang of the gherkins and the sweetness of the pickled radish and onion. Taken apart, perhaps they would be gross, but everything worked together somehow. She did not spit it back out — furthermore, she picked up a second sporkful and chewed it a little bit longer.

“You’re pinning down your antennae.” Norn said off-handedly.

“Huh?” Selene raised her eyes from her plate. Norn’s eyes went back down to her food.

“I just noticed you had them out when we talked in your room, but they’re pinned now.”

It was true. Selene usually tied them to her hair so they bent down as if part of it.

“It’s annoying to have them pinned down all the time, but I don’t like them sticking out.”

“How come? I think they’re kind of cute.” Norn said, pointing her spork at them.

“Why don’t you swing your tail around all the time?” Selene snapped.

Norn narrowed her eyes. “Nice joke.” She said dryly.

“Sorry.” Selene said. She knew immediately she had spoken carelessly and impulsively.

“I’ll be sure not give you any more fodder for your incredible sense of humor.”

Norn stabbed her spork into a sausage with great violence and chewed it brutally.

“Finish your salad, get out of my sight and watch your mouth in the future.”

In the next instant, a video window appeared on the surface on the table.

One of the bridge drones appeared on the screen.

Selene could tell because the officer drones had more elaborate uniforms and hairstyles.

“Milord, we have detected an approaching vessel. Sunlight Foundation Alonso De Ojeda class Frigate. We believe we’ve detected signs of deployment chute activity under the vessel. In case of Magellan-class Divers, how should we respond?”

Norn’s eyes drew wide. She stamped her hands on the table as she half stood.

“What? Tell Samoylovych to deploy immediately. Link me to the ship commander–”

Another window then appeared beside that of the bridge drone, also on the table.

This one had Potomac on it. She appeared to be down in the hangar, near a bearing monitor.

“Norn, this ship is picking me up. You can accept the Magellan that will come out of it.”

Norn blinked with surprise. “Oh this is rich. Who authorized them to meet us?”

“I’m leaving, Norn. I’m done putting up with you. I’ve arranged for a tech to replace me.”

Potomac’s window closed. Norn pounded her fist on the table again.

“Whatever then! I hate that bitch’s guts. She can fuck off! I’ll kick her out myself!”

“Milord–” the bridge drone began to ask for clarification, but Norn interrupted.

“Detain Potomac. Tell Samoylovych to deploy and escort that Magellan in.” She said.

Norn stood from the table and shot a sharp glance at Selene, who had a sporkful of salad in her mouth from when she was ordered to eat. Selene averted her gaze from the Praetorian, who in turn sighed and bid her to follow. At first Selene did not know what to make of the gesture.

“Bring your salad plate and eat on the way. Come on. I need you as backup just in case.”

Need you.

Something stirred in Selene’s heart, and she bolted up off the table, salad in hand.

Maybe if she was obedient enough Norn would forgive the slight–

Maybe she already had forgiven her.

“Good. Follow me.”

Norn turned and walked at a fast, confident pace out of the cafeteria.

As she was commanded to do, Selene followed behind her.

She was dressed in her pilot suit, but she had no weapons if a confrontation broke out.

No weapon except her mind– but her mind was unusually powerful, after all.

Potomac was an Immortal, but Norn was an Apostle, and Selene– she was special.

“Don’t worry too much. I expect this will be easily handled.” Norn said.

She must have seen Selene’s expression, deep in thought.

To try to guard against further assumptions she started eating her salad again.

By the time they reached the hangar, Selene had an empty bowl in her hands.

As soon as she could, she handed it off to a drone.

There was a commotion in the middle of the hangar.

One of the deployment chutes was held open with a white Diver half-trapped inside, while Samoylovych’s Jagd started climbing out of the adjacent one to help corral it. Four marines with shoulder-mounted anti-armor missiles were aiming at the captive Diver in the deployment chute. While most ordnance used in the water was purely explosive, since penetrators were not as effective in water as in air, those AP missiles had very small explosive effects and instead perforated armor with a tungsten cored round. This made them safe to use in this situation — they could fire on the Diver without endangering the hangar itself.

In a corner of the room, Potomac stood with her hands up, eyeing with disdain the group of infantry surrounding her with assault rifles trained. Along with this group, Petra, Adelheid and Hunter III were helping to keep Potomac trapped. Selene was surprised by the efficient response. Norn had only ordered her detained and not mentioned any specifics as to how.

She supposed Samoylovych and Petra were just doing whatever and going with the flow.

Adelheid and Hunter III though looked like they had taken good command of the situation.

“Norn!” Potomac called out. “You know I don’t like fighting! Please call off the goons!”

“Let her go. If she wants to leave I’m certainly not going to keep her.” Norn said.

Having arrived at the hangar, Norn eased the tension immediately. All of the soldiers backed off and disarmed or engaged the safeties of their weapons. The white Diver in the deployment chute was finally allowed to rise into the hangar, while Samoylovych took her Jagd to the nearest gantry to be locked in and powered down. Hunter III and Adelheid left Potomac’s side and went to join Norn and Selene. Adelheid let out a long-held breath in relief, while Hunter III looked quite eager.

“Boss, is it time to eat her yet?” Hunter III moaned.

“No.”

Norn patted Hunter III’s head like that of a dog.

Hunter III pulled her hood up over her head and sat barefoot on the cold floor, sulking.

“I saw her eyes light up.” Adelheid said. “Really briefly though.”

“Could you tell what she was doing?”

Adelheid shrugged as if that wasn’t her problem.

“I’ll set her straight. Selene, you go check on the pilot of that Magellan.” Norn said.

Selene nodded her head.

While Norn and Potomac commenced a loud, circular argument, Selene walked away.

In the middle of the hangar, the incoming Magellan-class Diver had been left stranded atop the deployment chutes without a gantry to hold on to. Selene had seen Magellans before — she had trained to pilot Divers using one. Going from that to piloting something like a Volker would have been a nightmare, but the Jagdkaiser was a decent upgrade from any other available mecha.

Still, Selene had a fondness for that white and blue Diver in front of her.

The Magellan’s body plan was like a Volker if it was done right.

Rather than simply round like a Volker or rough and angular like a Union Strelok-class, the design of the Magellan class’ body was all sleek beveled edges and complex surfaces that gave it a truly futuristic look. The upper body had round pauldrons and a rounded “neck guard”, with arms that could slot into the flanks of the body for improved hydrodynamics. Rather than trying to mimic a helmeted human head like a Volker or Strelok, the design had 360 degree armored “mono-eye” orb head that rotated on its own axis, allowing for a “main camera” with incredible vision supported by a few auxiliaries on the body.

Meanwhile the legs were thick, triple-jointed with an integrated water system with flexible channels, allowing for natural adjustment of the angle of the leg jets based on movement of the whole leg, allowing more precise lower thrust and quicker changes in direction. On the midsection, the pilot’s pod slotted between the chest plate and skirt, a loop of convex armor covering the gap. On the back, there was a standard magnetic strip and the hands could accept a variety of weapons.

While there were four traditional hydrojets, two on the legs and two on the back, there were also wake-jets on each shoulder. Like the Jagdkaiser’s jets, these were self-contained propulsion pods that accelerated water through themselves like a hydrojet but were lighter and more efficient, using a bladeless turbine– something about salt ions and heat and agarro-conductivity, Selene didn’t know all the details. Euphrates certainly made it sound impressive and it supplied all the Jagdkaiser’s thrust.

It was the pinnacle of Sunlight Foundation engineering, taking the crude concept of the Divers other nations produced, which grew out of labor suits and overblown dive bells and bathyspheres, and removing all limits to production, using only the most advanced materials and the most fit-for-purpose design methods. Or at least, that’s something Tigris once said to Selene.

When Selene stopped at the side of the Magellan’s kneeling leg, the convex armor ring in the middle expanded sideways, opening to reveal the entrance to the pilot’s pod. From inside the machine a young woman in a blue and white jumpsuit climbed out. The woman had her back turned; Selene’s eyes were immediately drawn to the definition of her shoulders beneath the tight jumpsuit, and a bushy tail with dark-brown fur swaying anxiously as she dropped down from the midsection of the machine.

“I was expecting a bit of a warmer welcome. That Jagd scared the daylight out of me!”

She turned around and nearly ran into Selene, who had wandered closer to the pilot pod.

“Watch where you’re going!”

Selene put her hands to her hips, while the pilot withdrew a step.

“Ah! Sorry! I’m a little clumsy getting off these– I still feel like I’m in the water for a bit.”

“Get yourself together already! What are you doing here?”

Selene looked her up and down.

She was a young girl, maybe even Selene’s age, slightly shorter but comensurately better built, with lean, muscled arms and shoulders and slightly wider pelvis. She had a soft rounded face that was framed with wavy brown hair, and thin-framed white glasses perched on her small nose. Atop her head she had two dark-brown, furry cat ears with visible white fluff. Her expression was strangely shy, almost withering under the disdainful look Selene gave her as she looked her over top to bottom.

Quite demure and gentle for that tough-looking body that she had.

Her suit covered most of her, but Selene noticed her fingers were subtly segmented.

Very thin grey gaps were visible, minute separations in the artificial skin.

Her eyes, too, were clearly cybernetic, with concentric cool green rings over baby blue.

“My name is Dunja Kalajdžić!” She said.

After a moment, she stiffened up and her eyes drew wide, staring dumbly at Selene.

“Ahh! No, no, no, forget that! I meant to say Neretva! My name is Neretva!”

A dramatic twitch worked itself out through her tail as she corrected herself.

Selene narrowed her eyes at her. “Okay, Neretva. What are you doing here?”

“I’m– I’m just a mechanic, here to replace Madame Potomac on the Jagdkaiser project! We’ll be partners– I mean we’ll be working together now, pilot! Rest assured that I have read all the appropriate technical manuals and memorized all of the equipment needs! I know I can’t measure up to an Immortal, but I did train under Lady Hudson!” Neretva cried out.

Selene ignored most of the blathering and focused only on what mattered to her.

“So Potomac is taking this thing back out?” She said, pointing to the Magellan.

“That’s the idea. Ojeda frigates can’t handle shuttles.” Neretva said. She looked around the hangar in confusion. “Ah– forgive me, I don’t know the whole situation, but I was told there would be a Jagdkaiser Type II to service here. I see a Type I over there that looks like it took a few lumps– and there’s some Foundation compression crates all the way over there–”

“You’re in luck!” Selene said, her voice taking on a cruel tone as she found another way to make sport of the shy mechanic. “You’ll be getting so dreadfully hands on with the Jagdkaiser Type II, in that you’ll be assembling it from scratch, because we don’t have any gantries to put it in. You’ll also be disassembling my Jagdkaiser Type I as well! Have fun!”

Neretva stared at her with nervous eyes. She then fixated on Selene’s antennae within her hair.

“Oh, are these the interfaces– you clipped them down–”

She reached out a hand absentmindedly to Selene’s head. Trying to touch her–?

“What do you think you’re reaching for? Creep!”

Selene batted her hand away and Neretva blanched in response.

“I’m sorry! I wasn’t thinking! I’m really sorry, your antennae are part of the equipment–”

“Go to hell! Norn, I’ve got your stupid pilot here, she’s fine! I’m leaving!”

Hands balled up into fists at her sides, Selene tossed her hair and turned her cheek, leaving Neretva by the side of the Magellan with an aggressively brisk walking pace. She was met halfway by Norn, escorting Potomac to the Magellan class. With one look, Norn got Selene to stop and join them briefly. Potomac had her arms crossed and was looking away from everyone around. It appeared that those two had come to a final understanding and were no longer on cordial speaking terms.

They barely wanted to look at each other, it seemed.

“Selene, got anything to say to this gasbag before we get rid of her?” Norn asked.

“Hmph!” Potomac made a noise to protest but did not follow through with words.

Selene stared at Potomac only briefly before deciding. “I have nothing to say to her.”

“Selene, I hope you won’t become embroiled in this woman’s warpath, for your sake.”

With only those words, Potomac advanced past her and Norn, past Neretva.

She climbed into the Magellan-class Diver and plunged into the deployment chute.

Soon, she was gone. Neretva took her place and quietly resumed work on the Jagdkaiser.

Of course, the Antenora hardly felt bereft of Potomac’s presence in the ensuing voyage.

There was no friendship to be had with her; and Norn just had one less person to fight with.

Briefly, an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation had graced this vessel. But like the rest of those ancient conspirators, she left no mark, and took with her all that she had learned and done. Euphrates once extolled to Selene the virtue in not interfering with the world, but Selene knew it for what it was. It was the selfishness of a woman who toyed with the world only for her own use.

“It’s the luxury of all those freaks to live like that. I won’t follow them.” Selene mumbled.

With a sense of surreal non-absence the Antenora’s course for Goryk’s Abyss continued.


“Zdravstvuyte! May I come in?”

“High Volgian is fully unnecessary. Come on in.”

“Well, I don’t get to use it very often at all. Warm greetings, First Officer, Science Officer.”

When the door the medical bay opened, a cheerful, blue-haired woman with very intricate eyes appeared to greet Murati and Karuniya in the ancient Volgian tongue. The Union had a very strong Volgian character, but High Volgian was hardly used, and certainly did not carry the cultural importance that High Imbrian did for Imperial subjects. Nevertheless, the perfect pronunciation made an interesting first impression. Murati found herself thinking that high language must have been the kind of pursuit that occupied the spare time of an intellectual woman like Dr. Euphemia Rontgen of Solarflare LLC.

Now Murati’s next question was: what did this passenger want with me?

It was very early in the morning. The Medbay was quiet, the lights dim, Doctor Kappel had not even been in yet for the morning checkup. She had stayed up late checking up on and treating Aiden Ahwalia, who had been the victim of an altercation and now occupied the third bed in the room, bruised but ultimately still whole, resting peacefully after being given a strong painkiller. Sameera had been awake overnight due to the commotion and so lapsed into a deep sleep at this hour.

Murati had been asleep for most of it, due to her own strong dose of painkillers.

She had learned of everything that happened when Karuniya had appeared with a sweet cornmeal porridge and a cup of broth to feed her that morning. Karuniya had learned of the events from Braya Zachikova, who had found out in her capacity as Electronic Warfare Officer by readingthe incident logging without permission. Those two were working together on some project.

“For some reason Aiden confronted one of the surveillance room girls.” Karuniya said. “It got ugly. They’re intelligence officers who aren’t good at handling security situations safely, not like Klara and Lian are, or even Chief Akulantova herself. I don’t know why they were patrolling, maybe Klara and Lian were overworked. But anyway, it got out of hand and one of them absolutely thrashed Aiden. Honestly, that kid had it coming, if you ask me. He gets on everyone’s nerves and acts so arrogantly.”

Murati sighed deeply. “I was afraid it’d come to that. I’m just glad it wasn’t Khadija.”

“Ah, I suppose that’s true. You’d have been the one filing all the incident reports then.”

“Worse. If it happened last night, it would be Shalikova dealing with the paperwork.”

It was at that point that Doctor Euphemia came to visit without prior warning.

Murati was decently informed about the nature of her presence on the Brigand.

She was a private science theorist working for an Imperial company who had become stranded after a failed excursion to the Goryk Abyss deeper into the gorge. It was the duty of all sailing ships to conduct rescue if they found civilians in danger. This was a maritime honor that no decent ship would ignore, so they rescued the Solarflare crew. But of course, there was much more to it than that. Euphemia and Theresa were apparently frequent employers of mercenaries, and the Brigand was doing business in that capacity in the hopes of acquiring some extra supplies. It could be a good scheme — if it ultimately paid off.

Certainly, Euphemia did not fit Murati’s picture of an avid underworld player.

“The Captain gave the green light for me to visit, on the condition I agreed not to pry into the particulars of the Brigand’s origin. She happened to drop the surname ‘Nakara’ in conversation, you see, and I wanted to see the child of Kauthik and Lakshmi Nakara. This is quite a chance meeting. Perhaps there is indeed wisdom to what a certain Daksha Kansal believed about people.”

Murati and Karuniya looked at each other in disbelief as Euphemia spoke.

Neither interrupted her, despite how long-winded she was getting.

“I was also informed the Science Officer would be taking care of Nakara, so I will defer to the two of you if I should be allowed to stay or leave.” Euphemia finally said, bowing her head in deference to the pair.

“Of course you can stay.” Murati said. “But– you sure know a lot of meaningful names.”

She was hesitant.

Her heart lit up when she heard the names of her parents spoken, and that of the first Premier of the Union, Daksha Kansal. Of Kansal much had been said and much had been written but Murati had so precious little about her parents. In the early Union, the sermons of communism which united the rebels were mainly oral in nature, and her parents had little time to write. They deferred to the teachings of Mordecai, and on writings Kansal had published before her exile explicitly for the dissemination to prisoners and slaves. She knew that her parents were also prolific activists and writers. She was old enough to understand they led dangerous lives in the Empire that ultimately led to their exile and enslavement in the Nectaris Ocean 23 years ago.

But those writings they did in the Empire, and those actions which they took, stayed in the Empire if they had been recorded at all.

In the Union’s archives, other people’s words extolled the virtues of the Nakaras among many other names in the early revolution. Their own words and own voice were hardly represented in those archives. Murati did not believe there was anything about this that was deliberate or malicious. Her parents had died to Imperial forces in battle near the end of the Union’s revolt. They had been busy with commanding and organizing people. They had the responsibility of commanding the Union’s first dreadnought. They didn’t have time to write theory or to pen memoirs before they were taken.

It was a tragedy of history, not some kind of conspiracy.

Deshnov had believed it was a conspiracy– but Murati knew better than that.

He was, after all, for all his virtues, an Ahwaliaist, and Murati was a Jayasankarist.

They had their separate biases and that was fine–

Despite the rationale, despite the logic, however, Murati still lived with a lingering doubt.

Who were her parents, truly? Were they simply and vaguely, nothing but ‘heroes’?

So when Euphemia spoke those names, she had begun to hang on every word.

Like that curious little girl searching desperately in the archives in Solstice again and again for any sign of her own history. Suddenly, a piece of that history hitherto unseen had walked in. Murati did not know where to place it.

And she didn’t even know whether she could trust it.

After all, who was Euphemia Rontgen?

“How did you come to know her parents?” Karuniya asked.

God bless her– she had overcome Murati’s hesitations for her.

Euphemia smiled, calmly and pleasantly, as if they were sitting down together for a warm cup of coffee on a peaceful day. “So to preface, I didn’t know them personally, but I am familiar with their work and I was well aware of their exploits through Daksha Kansal. Only a few people know the name Nakara in the Empire, people who had been involved in the old academic and labor movements. But for some the name ‘Nakara’ gave hope for change to an entire generation of reformers in the Empire. Many of whom only came to find their reform in founding the Union and have yet to export it back to their old home.”

The idea that her surname was famous to anyone in the Empire made Murati nervous.

“I suppose I should conceal my surname to avoid any odd questions then.” Murati said.

“Like I said, only a few people would know nowadays. Almost everyone who was involved with them back in the day would end up exiled or worse.” Euphemia replied. She looked amused at how Murati recoiled, but the Lieutenant was being practical. Euphemia should not have come to know they were all from the Union just from hearing a surname, that would have been brutally awful opsec. “Do you have any questions about them? Or about Daksha Kansal?” She said.

“Should I have any?” Murati said. “I know they were organizers in the Empire. They were deported to the Nectaris colonies for inciting riots. That’s not mundane, but it’s also not a great secret. How much more is there to know?”

That was a fact that always plagued Murati’s attempts to uncover her family’s past.

What questions do you ask to get beyond the most superficial facts?

Euphemia sat back in one of the free chairs and smiled knowingly.

“Well, firstly, young lady, they would have blanched at having their project reduced to ‘inciting riots.’ They organized mass activities with students and workers, and ultimately strung together networks of solidarity that almost lead to the Empire’s first General Strike. It was the threat of a massive stoppage of work, premised on punishing the failed promises of the Fueller Reformation, that got your parents exiled. It was not just riots. Once upon a time they resisted the idea of rioting in fact.”

Euphemia spoke with the cadence of a lecturing professor, long-winded and self assured, her cybernetic eyes scrutinizing Murati’s face for reactions, a little smile creeping as she spoke and as Murati stared speechless at her. This description did make it seem like her parent’s activity was far wider and grander than simply burning a few government offices in North Bosporus. Murati briefly looked to Karuniya to gauge her reaction and found her wife-to-be similarly stumped by the doctor.

“By trade, your parents were oceanologists.” Euphemia said, continuing unprompted. This got Karuniya to widen her eyes further. “This afforded them the pleasure to travel all over the Imbrium Ocean, which is something not many get to do. In our time, most people are bound to their station and maybe a few neighboring ones. Your parents made many connections, and studied a lot of theory that they then spread. They formed a network, a fabric between many far flung organizations and interests: because they believed that Oceanology had to be sociopolitical. To save our Ocean, to protect our resources, to sustain our lives and livelihoods, we had to completely change not just environmental policy, but our modes of production and social organization. Like Daksha Kansal, they believed that humans who had become individualized, needed to communalize to survive.”

“My parents became Mordecists because they wanted to protect the Ocean?” Murati said.

Her voice sounded more skeptical than she wanted but– she had never known this.

In her mind her parents were materialists– not idealists like her beloved Karuniya.

Oceanology was important– but it was an animal and chemical science, not a politics.

“What an interesting response!” Euphemia said. “Does it strike you as a contradiction?”

“Topics like this are my constant battle with this narrow-minded woman.”

Karuniya cracked a grin and rubbed her elbow cheerfully against Murati’s shoulder.

“Listen to her! Oceanologists can be very politically conscious!” Euphemia said, putting on a similar face.

Two of them, Murati thought. Now there were two of them ganging up against her!

“Oceanologists are constantly swearing as if ocean salinity numbers are some form of divination of where we are as a society and that all production and consumption should veer dramatically to protect corals and leviathans.” Murati said. “But if the two of you accept that Mordecist organization of production and society are correct and superior then we finally agree on something, and I can’t fault whatever alarmist nonsense has led you to that conclusion.”

Murati didn’t actually believe what she herself was saying to such a harsh degree.

She just felt defensive, and it made her want to contradict the two of them.

And what she felt was a gross mischaracterization of her positions on Oceanology.

“She’s just going to stubbornly quote the Union’s environmental policy at you next.”

“Ahh, she’s so unlike the stories of her parents! She’s so much more like Daksha Kansal!”

Euphemia and Karuniya seemed to reach a silent understanding to make sport of Murati.

So Murati’s response to them had completely backfired. She was in the nest of two snakes.

“Are you having fun?” Murati snapped. “Let’s get back to the point. I was a little kid when they passed away. In the Empire I only remember them leaving through a door and coming back in through another. I didn’t even get to go to school because we kept going from place to place and they were always out. So thank you, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen. I now know that I was entirely wrong in my conception of them, and that they were not the militarists I thought they might be.”

“Oh Murati, don’t be sore.” Karuniya said. “I think your parents sound wonderful!”

“Of course you would.”

Murati felt strange. It was, in a sense, as strange as she had felt about almost dying in battle.

She felt nothing. So her parents were pacifist idealists who wanted to “save the Ocean.”

Murati herself didn’t really put stock in such things.

She was a materialist, some would call her a militarist in bad faith, even. She believed firstly in promoting the power that humans had collectively, through the sharing of their resources, through the improvement of their systems and tools, through the things they could build — and the forces they could muster, and the enemies they needed to destroy.

Things like the condition of the waters or the affairs of animals were purely secondary concerns to her.

She saw them as something apart and distracting from human events.          

So what? That was frustratingly mundane. To find out her parents were just big dreamers.

“Were you expecting me to reveal a big secret? Like maybe you’re the heir to the Empire? A secret princess who was spirited away at birth and could return to claim the vacant throne? But who has instead been enlightened by mordecist communism to bring revolution? Perhaps you’ll develop secret magical powers too? Quite romantic!”

Euphemia smiled broadly and indulged in a little chuckle.

She really had a way with people; it was like she could read Murati’s thoughts.

And then say the most annoying thing possible.

“This is nice, you know. To bequeath a legacy to someone, however mundane.”

She gave Murati a fond look that the latter was not willing to receive.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Murati said. “So my parents were boring–”

“–Murati!” Karuniya interrupted as if scolding an unreasonable child.

Murati did not pause. “–So what about Kansal? What was their relationship like?”

“Daksha Kansal was their enabler. She knew them far better than I.” Euphemia said. She continued to speak with gentle eyes gazing as if past Murati, delivering a lecture but not necessarily engaging the audience. “If your parents were the heart of the operation then Kansal was the fist, maybe the knife or the gun. She grew to love styling herself an adventurer and a rebel, an international woman of mystery juggling many conspiracies, but in reality, by trade she was a neurobiologist radicalized by the Empire’s racist politics.” She paused for a moment as if falling deep into remembrance. Perhaps she could see Kansal in her mind’s eye. Murati could as well. Her brown and white hair tied up in a bun, her pristine uniform.

“Even Kansal was not just a plain militarist. She had an interesting belief which she infected your parents with.” Euphemia continued. “Remember when I talked about individualism versus communalism? Kansal did not just believe this in a political sense. She thought that there was a way of thinking, not just in the sense of political theory, but biological theory– literally a mode of thinking which had been lost to individualism and which had to be reclaimed via communalism. A brain chemistry that humans were developing in the tight, desperate quarters of underwater life and that could unite our society.”

How was she supposed to respond to complete pseudoscience like that?

Was this really still the same Daksha Kansal she was talking about?

“You’re telling me she believed a bunch of quackery too?” Murati said.

“But what is quack-ish about it? Isn’t it a beautiful thing to believe?” Euphemia said. “Isn’t it lovely to think that humans are destined to reach a communal enlightenment that will elevate not just their material conditions, but the very way we think and communicate? Whether or not it be empirically proven, it reflects optimism and a great love of people.”

“Murati’s rarely this entrenched in materialism versus idealism as she is today.” Karuniya said with a hearty, mocking sigh and a quick, dismissive wave of her hand. “Please forgive her, good Doctor. She’ll be less grumpy when fed.”

“What do you want me to say?” Murati protested. “Do you believe that nonsense for a second?”

“Well, not necessarily.” Karuniya said, with a little shrug and a mischevious little smile. Which she now turned on Euphemia instead. “That is a pretty out-there thing to claim about the first Premier, doctor. Other people on this ship might pick a fight with you for acting like Daksha Kansal, the great liberator and founder, was actually a weird religious freak.”

Euphemia winked at them. “But why does a band of mercenaries care so much about it?”

Karuniya covered her mouth in shock.

“Hah, don’t worry. I’m not blind, but of course I’ll keep my suspicions to myself.”

“As long as you’re professional about it.” Karuniya sighed.

Murati forgave her wife’s carelessness quite easily.

It was clear that Euphemia had them figured out from the start. If she walked through the hangar even once she must have realized it, and she and Theresa were supposedly helping with the repairs, so the fact that the Brigand was full of Union personnel couldn’t be kept strictly secret. Clearly the matter of what Euphemia knew about them was being handled by Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara in some way and Murati had to trust them. That was not at the forefront of her mind.

Daksha Kansal still was.

This idea of hers– did she really believe something so near mystical in nature?

Mordecai argued for communism from a material standpoint: economics and structural organization.

This idea that human brains were undergoing a change was purely idealist.

Did Dakshal Kansal really hold that conviction so deeply it led her to fight for liberation?

When did she, Murati’s parents, lose these ideas and take up the practical fight in the Union?

Did they ever?

“What about you, doctor? Do you believe Kansal’s ideas? Or my parent’s ideas?”

Euphemia smiled at her. “I don’t necessarily believe it. But it roused their spirits. The road that began with those ideals ended in the liberation of a nation of slaves and the downtrodden, which even today is an inspiration and refuge for dissidents; so can you truly criticize them for being idealistic? Their convictions helped them repel the world’s mightiest nation.”

Murati kept quiet.

She knew all of the story after her parents and Kansal, along with a few others like Bhavani Jayasankar and Elias Ahwalia, ended up in the Nectaris colonies together and began to organize the exiles and the enslaved. She assumed this was part that Euphemia would know less about. Murati now knew a bit more about the origins of some of these people– that their ideas were not as straightforward as they had been presented to her. They had taken their own journeys to arrive at the conclusions reached in the Union. Perhaps– perhaps that was beautiful in some way. Murati struggled to see it as Euphemia did, however.

“What was your relationship to Daksha Kansal?” Murati said. “You said she knew my parents and helped them when I was a kid. You don’t look so old as to have been a peer to her so long ago, that woman is probably pushing her sixties.”

“I’m older than I look, and I’m not afraid to admit it.” Euphemia said calmly. “Daksha Kansal and I used to be colleagues, though not in revolution. The Captain gave me assurances that my past would not pried into, so I will leave it at that. And then I won’t ask you how you went all the way to the colonies two decades ago and are all the way out here again.”

“Fair enough. Thank you for telling me so much about my parents.” Murati said.

“It’s truly my pleasure.” Euphemia said. “Daksha Kansal once believed that all of us were linked together, drawn together, by a force that was the sum total of all of our wills acting in concert. She compared it to a current. Whether you believe in that, or god’s will, or destiny, or dumb luck– I think our meeting was serendipitous, and I’m happy we got to speak, Murati Nakara. You are not a princess, but in my opinion, you are someone whose life was begot and protected by many bright people, and that is more special than any sort of heredity. Your parents were normal people — but they were passionate folk with hopes and dreams.”

She reached out a hand to Murati, and Murati reached toward her and shook with her.

Karuniya reached out as well, and Euphemia shook with her afterwards.

“I am scarcely worthy to say such a thing, but if you’ll indulge me, I think your parents would be very proud of you.” Euphemia said. “And not out of pure sentimentalism. I think they would have cheered the person you became.”

She waited a moment, as if to see if Murati would react harshly and stop her.

Again, Murati simply didn’t know how to respond.

It was something she had no feelings towards now.

As a teenager she had cried her eyes red many times over her parents.

There was no pain left there. There was little elation. “Normal” was a good way to put it.

Euphemia fixed a soft, admiring gaze on her. “Older people burden the youth with the idea that our experience was easily arrived at. We appear before them, fully formed, and even without us knowing it, we pressure them into growing up without teaching them the method behind our struggles. I think your parents would be proud that you have grown to be able to argue against their ideas. They would never want you to imitate them; they would want you to build your own convictions.”

“Thank you.” Murati said. It was all she could say. What else did one say to such a thing?

“When we make it to the Imbrium, I will return what effects I have of the esteemed Premier and the two revolutionaries that she fostered, to you, Murati. You are the correct keeper to preserve what is left of their pasts.” Euphemia said.

Murati blinked. “I– I don’t know what to say. I didn’t imagine there was anything left.”

“The Empire has tried to overwrite them in history, but the truth is not so easily buried.”

“Did her parents entrust you with something?” Karuniya asked. “What is it? Writings?”

“I was not entrusted with anything. However, as the one who they left behind, I felt it was my duty to preserve their work in the Imbrium. I saved writings, memories, curios.” Euphemia said. “You won’t find big secrets there though.”

“Right.” Murati said. “But we’ll be able to confirm what you’ve said, in their own words.”

Reading about her parents, in their own words, their own voices.

Murati felt a renewed surge of emotion that she had not expected. Her feelings were twisted every which way.

Euphemia nodded her head. “As a scientist, I don’t speak without having access to evidence, you know?”

“I really don’t know what to say. Or what to feel, right now. Thank you, Doctor.”

Murati sighed deeply. It was only the first thing in the morning, but she felt quite tired.

There was a lot of disorganized thoughts swirling in her head about all kinds of things.

But there was no point in asking Rontgen more — not if they would get the primary sources.

“They would be proud of you, Murati. Don’t let their ambitions interfere with your own.”

Euphemia stood from the chair she had taken beside Murati’s bed. Easily and mysteriously as she appeared, the doctor left with barely a wave of the hand. Karuniya looked at Murati and rubbed her shoulder in solidarity, but Murati could only watch the wake of her lab coat and wonder. How much more had this woman seen? In that old life cloaked in youth– how much did she know?


By the late afternoon, work on the Brigand had been completed ahead of schedule. Layer by layer the breach on the port-side near the prow, caused by the Iron Lady’s powerful 200 mm twin cannons, had been repaired. There were still electrical systems that were offline and needed to be physically reconnected. Tests would be needed to ensure the C6 block and other access ways connected to it could be used again safely under the correct pressure, by people unprotected by suits and without air tanks. But the hole was plugged in and the armor in that sector could withstand gunfire and the stresses of ocean travel once more.

And travel it did. Soon as the repairs were completed and hull’s exterior integrity verified, the Brigand undocked from the small substation on the edge of the abyss and gently traveled into the open water around it, performing a few circles over the station to test worthiness. While Kamarik coddled the ship back into its course, the crew got ready to leave Goryk in the past and begin the next leg of their journey into the Imbrium Ocean. Ulyana Korabiskaya felt relieved to be moving again.

“It’s not the prettiest reconstruction, but I’m pleased with the work we could do under these circumstances. Out in the middle of the ocean with only our tools and some elbow grease! It’s exhilirating to be able work up a sweat again!”

Theresa Faraday smiled with satisfaction. She arrived in the main hall dressed in a form-fitting mechanic’s scuba suit, which would be worn inside Labor armors or pressurized dive suits by sailors, in the same way pilots wore tight suits. Under one arm she had her helmet, and there was a small air tank on her back. Her red hair had been collected into a functional bun. She had gone out to work with the sailors. Ulyana initially thought it would make unnecessary trouble with the Chief Mechanic, Galina Lebedova, since they had read Theresa as someone prideful who would want to micromanage repairs, but Theresa showed humility–

“I’m not here to lead anyone’s projects. I just want to work like everyone else!”

And like everyone else, she worked. She installed and welded composite panels and steel supports, she replaced ducting and nitrogen tanks. Along with every other sailor, she heaved plates into place until the armor over the breach was as thick and perfectly joined as the untouched hull. She worked fast, efficiently, with more strength than her slim frame seemed capable of.

More than anything, this willingness to work elevated Ulyana’s opinion of her.

Euphemia Rontgen also seemed like a pretty harmless person. Acting the jovial professor, she had dropped in on Murati and had a conversation that Karuniya Maharapratham described as quite entertaining. Later, the good doctor joined the Commissar on the bridge and shared news about the Imbrium. She seemed willing to cooperate beyond anything Ulyana expected of her.

Their bodyguard Laskaris just sat around and read magazines on her portable terminal.

Ulyana started dropping her guard around the Solarflare group. They were agreeable.

She would have to take charge of finding them real lodging soon.

Maybe Fernanda and Alex could be moved to one room so the doctors could have beds–

However, as she began to contemplate such things, the doctor conveyed a personal message.

Theresa Faraday wanted to talk to her alone in one of the meeting rooms.

“I want to show you something I discovered.”

When Ulyana arrived at the meeting room, the doctor stood in her scuba suit holding a small segment of armor plate, taken from the materials which were brought out of storage. The Brigand was a unique vessel, and as such it had a large stock of its own spare parts. While they had a capacity to manufacture new parts themselves, in a pinch they had to rely on the materials already stored. Theresa brought her attention to the object, but it was just one of the surface armor plates, colored rusty beige.

When the Captain began to show obvious confusion, Theresa flipped the plate horizontally.

Now Ulyana could see the sections that composed it. Still nothing worth talking about.

“I wouldn’t know what it’s made of.” Ulyana said. “It’s not a technical detail we have any access to. Armor composition is kept secret by the factories isn’t it? So if you work with these materials doctor, you’d know more than me.”

“I guess I do then. So let me say first: this is not a normal piece of plate.” Theresa said.

She ran her finger along the flat sides of the plate. Where it would normally be welded.

“This is in fact an extremely rare form of composite plate. It has layers of alloyed metal, military grade, and a layer of complex nanoceramics. I would expect this from a high-end military vessel and won’t ask how you acquired this material. There are also layers of depleted agarthicite plate, very fancy. Even more unexpected however is that at a molecular level, low grade agarthicite has been ferrostitched into the plate. This piece of armor, Captain, is agarro-conductive. Watch this.”

Theresa set the plate on the meeting room table and withdrew a tool from a bag she had brought with her: it was like a forked prod hooked up to power block. Ulyana assumed this was Solarflare LLC property that was loaded up with the rest of her and Euphemia’s effects. Ulyana had never seen anything like it, but she wasn’t a materials scientist. There was a handle on the side of the tool that engaged the electric current, perhaps by physically sliding something between the battery and the prod–

–in Theresa’s hands, it looked like she was holding a very weird firearm.

One that glowed dimly purple, a color Ulyana had come to associate with nothing good.

“Doctor, what is that? What are you doing? Explain yourself this instant.”

Ulyana raised her hands defensively in reaction to the tool. Theresa blinked at her.

“Huh? No! It’s perfectly safe! This is just an agarro-electric catalyst, for ore reactivity–”

“It’s a reactor tool?! Does it have agarthicite in it?!” Ulyana started shouting.

“It’s totally safe to use outside a reactor testing scenario! Just stop freaking out and look!”

Before Ulyana could stop her, Theresa pointed the thrumming tool at the armor plate.

For a moment, Ulyana felt her entire body tighten, her stomach squirm, awaiting a bright purple sphere to separate every atom in her body and turn the Brigand into two perfectly sliced halves of a ship. Eyes drawn wide she watched the prong touch the armor plate– and saw a tiny purple spark fly out that singed a tiny hex-shaped burn into the table, about the width of a finger.

Theresa then shut down the tool and tossed it casually behind her as if was made of trash.

“It tried to annihilate it! So I was correct!” She said cheerfully, throwing hands up.

Ulyana took several steps into Theresa’s personal space and grabbed her by the shoulders.

She started shaking Theresa’s body vigorously in a fit of nervous passion.

“Next time you will explain what you are doing clearly, you psychopath!” She shouted.

The Captain could have almost cried. She really thought this woman had killed them all.

“Ahh! Fine! Fine! Let me go! It was my fault, I’m sorry!” Theresa protested.

Once Ulyana had sufficiently vented her anger at the Doctor, the conversation resumed.

“This type of prod is used to test agarthicite before it is used in reactor cores. You can tell whether the rocks have a useful life ahead of them by the reaction. As you saw that piece of plate reacted very minimally to the prod: it’s low reactivity agarthicite.” Theresa said. “To put it simply, this is just one plate the size of my head with very little agarthicite content, and the agarthicite being used in it is really cheap and bad. You’d have to drop a station on it to get it to implode, it’s useless in reactors, so most of the time, only miners are relieved when they smack it out of its little osmium nest in the continent wall. That being said, because it doesn’t implode if you just look at it funny or tune a magnetic field wrong, it is used for batteries and electronics. Its use in this plate is really novel though — it forms a channel with the other plates around it, across the entire outer hull.”

Ulyana followed along as best as she could. So far everything she said made logical sense even without the context of the Doctor’s knowledge. Certainly Ulyana knew that agarthic material was used in electronics and Diver batteries, and she knew the term “depleted agarthicite” was used for a somewhat common type of alloy made up of crushed non-reactive cores within a composite alloy plate. It was not just the extremely dangerous energy source that thrummed demonically in their reactors.

That being said, she also knew the material in batteries and electronics didn’t glow.

It didn’t annihilate anything, not even a finger’s width. Otherwise it wouldn’t be used!

That purple glow as a tell-tale sign that something was about to get burned in a hex pattern.

Or entirely obliterated, turned to dust in a perfect circular hole.

“So you’re saying that low quality scrap agarthicite is part of the composite for our armor.”

Theresa sighed. “You should be much more surprised than you are!”

“Like I said, a ship’s crew isn’t told what the hull is made out of, we don’t need to know.”

At no other time in her life had Ulyana cared what the hull of a ship was made out of.

Fundamentally she did not understand why this was anything more than minutia.

“Fair enough. But as a soldier, you should know this: I think there’s probably a device on the ship that can make the entire armor reactive. If that was the case, you could use it to help deflect munitions from the hull. Think about it, if the entire hull repels an incoming shell, for example, and annihilates it and all the chemical that is trying to explode against it. Just think!”

That sounded far too convenient to possibly be true. Ulyana was instantly skeptical.

“How would you know about such a system if you’ve never seen this before?”

“I have professional experience with such things!”

Ulyana fixed a sharp gaze at Theresa. Was this capitalist trying to sell her something?

Theresa crossed her arms and put on a smug little grin.

She made a gesture as if to toss her own hair, but she had it in a bun, so she tossed nothing.

“My better half theorized such a system ages ago!” She declared, with a proud little smile. Ulyana crooked an eyebrow. Did she mean Euphemia Rontgen? She was speaking so casually and looked so happy to have said such a thing, that Ulyana wondered about their relationship. Theresa did not seem to notice Ulyana staring and continued. “It has no civilian applications! Because it would only be useful for ablating direct attacks by munitions. If a leviathan smashed into your ship it would just suffer a lot of hex-shaped burns and continue smashing the ship. Furthermore a purely defensive system is not interesting to military minds, who don’t so much care about the survival of crews as the potential offensive power that can be extracted from each ship.”

Theresa ran a finger up against the bridge of her nose as if adjusting nonexistent glasses.

“And even worse,” she resumed speaking with almost no pause between, “making so much composite plate with agarthicite in it, even the cheapest lowest quality agarthicite, is incredibly expensive and would require extensive connections to suppliers of raw Agarthic materials, who in the Empire are all highly regulated. So it’s not something Solarflare is in a position to do, but it is interesting. Seeing this plate, I immediately became curious who built this ship; but I won’t pry into it.”

Theresa was not the only one now curious about the Brigand’s origins.

They had already identified dummied systems before. Zachikova had been trying to test and write software to use them, but they were focusing on only a handful of discoveries that seemed like they had practical applications. Could this defense system be part of that too? Were there more hidden modules? Ulyana sighed inside. None of this was disclosed to her. How many more experiments were covered up within the bowels of this ship? Did Nagavanshi know about all of this nonsense?

She was mildly frustrated. They would need help figuring it out. Zachikova could not do so alone. So would she have to ask Theresa and Euphemia? Their relationship was cordial and they had business arrangements, but there were many secrets between them, and Ulyana felt hesitant to be the first one to reveal any of what went unspoken in their negotations.

She hoped their party would acquiesce first.

In the middle of all these personal deliberations, Ulyana found herself interrupted.

She expected to be able to press Theresa a little further but the ocean currents brought something their way.

“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon!”

Red lights began to flash in every room. It was just like when the Iron Lady attacked.

In place of the klaxons that felt like they should be blaring, was Semyonova’s voice.

“Unguided missiles detected off the starboard side! All personnel to alert semyon!”

Ulyana ran to the bridge without thinking any further, leaving Theresa Faraday behind without a word.

How could it possibly be, the instant they entered open water again? An attack already?

On the monitors in the halls, the profile of a ship appeared: an Imperial Ritter-class Cruiser.

“Shit.”

It was the only response the Captain had to the sight as she hurried down the hall.

When Ulyana rushed through the door to the bridge, she found both Marina McKennedy and Euphemia Rontgen standing near the door, staring at the Ritter-class on the main screen. It had apparently been identified; it was broadcasting an IFF. Several secondary screens showed trajectories of missiles and camera feeds of the flak response from the Brigand. Semyonova was in the middle of broadcasting the alert, while Fatima was concentrating on the sonar. Fernanda and Alex in the gunnery section were looking at each other in disbelief, the two most prone to panic in the bridge, while beside them, Kamarik kept the ship steady.

Everything was in chaos, but everyone was doing their individual jobs.

Nevertheless, the captain’s job was to immediately turn that panic to purpose.

Ulyana quickly took her place in the captain’s seat, alongside Commissar Aaliyah Bashara.

Her Shimii companion fixed her a gentle look and seemed glad to see her.

Trying to seem confident, Ulyana winked at her.

There was a battle to fight, so once again the Captain had to look gallant.

“Gas gunners! Look lively! I want a truly brilliant flak barrage!” Ulyana shouted.

Aside from the description of the enemy ship, projections on the screen showed the gas guns taking out incoming missiles.

At the fore of the Bridge, the gas gun operators were the most frantically active people in sight.

Hundreds of rounds of 20 mm ammunition peppered the surroundings from remote controlled flak turrets.

Small explosions began to blossom harmlessly dozens of meters from the Brigand’s starboard.

The shockwaves caused the ship interior to stir ever so lightly. Ulyana could feel it in her chest.

“We’re keeping the initial volley at bay. At least it’s only one enemy.” Aaliyah said, exposing a momentary hint of relief.

“For them to come out swinging like this, they must have something to do with Lichtenberg.” Ulyana said.

“Vessel identifying itself as Antenora.” Zachikova said above the din of activity on the bridge.

Her words were a little slow and slurred. Her mind was still out in the water, still mostly in the drone.

“Stay in the drone, Zachikova, we’ll need it out.” Ulyana said. “Fernanda–“

She was trying to move quickly between orders, switching instantly into her Captaining style–

–until she was interrupted by a panicked voice that rose even higher above the rest.

“No way! No fucking way! It can’t fucking be! Not now!”

Ulyana turned her gaze back to Marina McKennedy.

She stood, lips trembling, staring with wide bloodshot eyes at the screen.

“No, no, no, please no–“

“McKennedy? What’s–“

Ulyana almost reached a hand out– then recalled Marina’s trauma and retracted it.

The G.I.A. agent’s eyes were fixed on the screen, tears building, her whole body shaking.

“Norn.” Marina said, her voice filled with despair. “Norn the Praetorian.”

Euphemia Rontgen stared at her in disbelief and then snapped her head toward the screen too.

It was the first time Ulyana had seen the doctor look shaken.

And it was the worst she had ever seen Marina break down.

Soon Ulyana would come to understand the meaning of those reactions and the depth of her bad luck.

Just as the Brigand made itself ready to leave–

–the Fueller family flagship Antenora had finally arrived at Goryk’s Gorge.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.6]

“Wait– What? I’ll– I won’t stand for such cheap tricks you bitch!”

Captain Korabiskaya was long gone from the monitor before she could even be insulted.

Gertrude snapped her head up at the ship’s main displays and saw her predictors going out of control.

One by one her sonar operators threw their headsets off as quickly as they could.

“Captain–”

“Yes ma’am. Leave this to your crew. We can fight off some cocky mercenaries.”

Dreschner needed only to take one look at her before realizing he needed to take command.

Gertrude sank in her chair.

She was partially shielded from the surrounding crew by her chair’s monitors, so she could raise her hands to her face and fight off tears into them, in some measure of privacy. Only Dreschner and Schicksal knew that she was in turmoil. Her heart was in tatters, her mind was faring little better. Furious, frustrated, helpless, everything around her swimming.

Who were these people? Why did they stand between her and Elena?

What compelled them to fight against these overwhelming odds?

And yet, she knew she had been had. Because the odds were unfavorable to her as well.

Sinking the Pandora’s Box was easy. Rescuing Elena, if the mercs fought back, if the mercs knew–

“Lady Inquisitor.”

Dreschner looked over his shoulder at her with a stern expression.

She was practically cowering in her chair when he saw her there. She almost thought he would rebuke her weakness. For a Captain like Dreschner, serving under a whimpering girl like this must have been mortifying.

“Permission to deploy Divers to counterattack.” He asked instead.

“I– Of course.” She had expected him to strike her down. Maybe she expected this of everyone now.

Gertrude felt disgusted with herself. Torn and broken, a toy soldier in a garish uniform.

Her sword arm shaking, afraid to move, and afraid of being struck down.

“I trust your judgment, Dreschner. I always have.” She stammered out.

“May I have a word then? As Einschel Dreschner to Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

Dreschner’s expression softened.

Averting her eyes, Gertrude nodded her head at him. So permitted, Dreschner spoke.

“Recent events have been difficult and will get worse, for all of us. I made an oath to support you. Everyone else on this ship follows you, Gertrude Lichtenberg, because you lead them with determination. They see you have something to fight for when they themselves have nothing. So they fight for your cause. Among the tyrants of this coming era, you are their tyrant. I will always support you; do not give up. Show them your determination to keep fighting.”

The Inquisitor’s eyes drew wide. She felt her heart drumming with anxiety.

How could he say something like that when she was visibly in pieces before him?

Was it all just because of his promise? His promise to–

She raised her sleeve to her eyes and wiped her tears.

He was right. No need to question it.

Gertrude was a tyrant. A tyrant in this evil time. She had to be strong, ruthless.

All she had was a single goal, one thing she desired the most. One overwhelming focus.

There were more cards to play. She would make good on her threat to that Volgian bitch.

“Contact the brig, tell the guards I’ll be headed there. Keep things together for me here.”

Dreschner turned back around and resumed commanding the fleet’s counterattack.

Gertrude stood and walked out of the bridge.

Tears of injustice kept building in her eyes that she had to fight back again and again.

She was so close, so close–

Only for obstacle after obstacle to get in her way. Furious, but helpless– she wielded power that could have credibly erased those mercenaries from existence in an instant, and yet, that power was useless to her. She knew, she knew those mercenaries had Elena captive! So she could not fire on them, lest she gamble with Elena’s life. She would never forgive herself if she came this close only to kill Elena herself. She had hoped to force their surrender; that Captain Korabiskaya instead chose to fight meant the situation could easily spiral out of control and end in another tragedy.

Setback after setback after setback, straining her hope, driving her to madness.

But despite everything, Dreschner was right. She had no reason to fear or to stop.

All of her people followed her, became instruments of her power, because she was never lost for something to fight for. Because of her obsession, her fixation, the only thing she wanted. Because ever since she had begged and bled and gone through hell and back to attain the position she now had, her fury had a single-minded focus. There was only one thing her heart craved, and she was willing to do anything, destroy anyone, to achieve it.

Elena was on that ship. All Gertrude needed to do was stop that ship and bring her back.

Elena was hers. She would take her back.

Leaving the bridge with fire in her eyes and heart, Gertrude knew what she had to do.

Just off of the hall leading to the Bridge, was the door to the ship’s brig. Common criminals would be held in holding cells on the lower deck. The brig was for VIP criminals and mutineers. White walls, four cells before her, like standing on the doorway into heaven, stark and bright, inhumanly, brilliantly lit. Each cell was a solitary confinement space lit just as brightly. Gertrude ordered the guards out of the room to await further instruction, and closed the door.

She then opened the only occupied cell.

Soon as the door opened, the lights in the room dimmed, ceasing to unsettle the occupant.

Gertrude dropped to the ground and without thinking, suddenly prostrated herself.

“Milord, I throw myself at your mercy. You’re the only one who can help me.”

Her voice broke as she begged, and the begging finally led her to tears. She would do anything to have Elena back. She had no use for pride. No humiliation was too unbearable, no atrocity was too great. Whoever had to die; whoever she had to beg. Just as she had begged Norn the Praetorian for her support; just as she had schemed against and killed her own predecessor; just as she had secured Dreschner’s undying support and the Iron Lady’s matchless power.

Whatever she needed to save Elena, she would acquire. Any weapon, any person–

And if begging didn’t work then violence would.

Opposite her, sitting on the bench within the blaring white cell, was Sieglinde von Castille.

She could imagine those sad blue eyes gazing down at her.

In her mind the Baron was going to look down upon her, and when the woman shifted her weight, she almost expected a contemptuous foot to land upon her head. She expected haughty words to deny her, for the woman’s pride to refuse her. She expected to have to extract from the beautiful Baron with bayonet what her pathetic words would not. Her mind was a haze of fantasies, predicting and preparing for coming violence.

Instead, the Baron simply stood before her quietly, shifting her feet uncomfortably.

“I– I don’t want to see this! Stop this, please. Just tell me what you want from me.”

Her deep, rich voice was trembling and stammering.

When Gertrude lifted her head from the cold white ground, she saw the Baron with her fists balled up at her sides and her eyes gently weeping as if she had been the one who had thrown herself to the ground. She had such a troubled expression; a face that looked almost as troubled as Gertrude herself felt. Had the lights in the room been that unsettling? Had only a few hours of solitary confinement gotten to her? Though Gertrude felt keenly that she was missing something about the Baron’s response, she had at least gotten through to her.

Sometimes, humility drew out what violence would not. Gertrude sighed with relief.

“Thank you most kindly, milord.”

She stood from the ground and mastered herself. Her choice of words would be key.

“Baron, I am in great distress, and can trust only in your discretion as a woman of peerage. Only you are able to support me in this dark hour.” She said. Sieglinde wiped her tearful eyes and turned a serious expression on her, saying no words to interrupt the conversation. Though she did not assent, Gertrude knew she could count on her discretion.

She was a true blue-blood after all.

Gertrude continued speaking.

“I am pursuing a group of mercenaries who stole Elena von Fueller from Vogelheim. Whoever is behind them has paid handsomely enough, or perhaps has enough power, that these mercenaries are refusing to surrender her. I seconded the Serrano patrolmen to form a fleet, hoping to intimidate the mercs into negotiating the Princess’ release. But now that the enemy has chosen to do battle, I do not trust the patrolmen to disable the ship without putting the Imperial Princess at risk. My troops are limited in their abilities and only know that they are going after a VIP. They do not understand the true significance of all this. It is for this reason that I must turn to you, milord.”

She studied the Baron’s expression as she delivered her explanation.

None of this was embellished. This was everything Gertrude knew and believed.

Sieglinde was a veteran of the Empire’s recent wars. More than that, she was a peerless soldier and pilot who was well respected. Gertrude recalled the legend of the Red Baron who downed a Union flagship at Cascabel and kept the Union’s revolution from spreading to Sverland. Ingrid and Clostermann could not measure to her degree of skill. If Sieglinde joined her side, it made no difference how much the Pandora’s Box thrashed at her.

They stood no chance against her legend.

Turning to her own prisoner for support was desperate.

But Gertrude had always been intending to make the offer to Sieglinde.

Even if this battle had gone her way from the outset, there was still the rest of the war.

So she studied the Baron’s conflicted countenance for several desperate, silent moments.

“You would turn me loose to capture this ship? What is your plan?” Sieglinde said at last.

“Among the Empire’s pilots, you are legendary.” Gertrude said. “I have a machine suitable to your abilities. Once you deploy, you’ll serve as my ultimatum to the crew of the Pandora’s Box. They might think I can’t shoot them with my guns, for good reason; but you are a much more precise and dangerous instrument than any gun, and unaccounted for. Once you have gotten through, once they see you in action, they will have no recourse but to surrender.”

“If they fought back, they must have a greater and more complicated plan to stop you.” Sieglinde said, averting her eyes. There was a muscle in her cheek that seemed to twitch with some deep seated anxiety. “Do you think merely giving me weapons will change this situation? Do you have that much faith in me?”

“Nothing in their arsenal could hope to match the Red Baron of Cascabel.” Gertrude said.

Gertrude saw the Baron grit her teeth for a brief moment before her countenance softened.

Her hand raised to her breast, and she took a deep breath.

Sieglinde then locked eyes with her.

“Don’t call me that again. I’ll follow your orders, but only for Elena’s sake.”

Gertrude barely heard the Baron’s request. She was far too elated to have secured her aid.

Her eyes drew so wide she felt they might pop out of her head.

She smiled so broadly it hurt.

To get to see the Red Baron of legend in glorious battle.

Such fitting theater for her grand rescue of her beloved, the culmination of her sufferings.

The Inquisitor’s spirit was soaring. All of these mercenaries would pay. They would pay.

“I can’t thank you enough, milord. I will deputize you as a Lieutenant immediately. Your armor awaits in the lower deck. Sortie and deal with the ship as you feel fitting. I will soon give that bastard mercenary a reason to fear me, and this time, I will negotiate from a position of absolute dominance. You’ve won me this day, milord.”

Sieglinde sighed openly in front of Gertrude, who was too inside herself to read the gesture.

Her expression went from sad to weary to finally stern, casting prying eyes at Gertrude.

“What is your objective, Inquisitor?”

Gertrude blinked suddenly. She felt a rush of electricity from the Baron.

Her words gained a force in that moment they had lacked through the whole discussion.

“I– I already explained, milord. We don’t have much time.”

“I don’t mean in this moment. I am referring to your custody over Elena von Fueller.”

“I’ll rescue her and keep her safe, of course. That is my duty to her.”

“Will you return her to the Fueller family? In this time of political chaos?”

Gertrude smiled vacantly, but she wanted to grit her teeth. What was this interrogation?

“Once she’s safe with me, she can decide for herself.”

“What if she doesn’t feel safe with you, Inquisitor–”

“Baron, I apologize, but we really must go. Our Imperial Highness is in danger.”

From that vacant smile, a forceful voice escaped.

Sieglinde’s expression darkened ever more.

She said something then that Gertrude heard but did not ponder.

Something Gertrude did not even think about answering. Those words scarcely penetrated the world which Gertrude had built for herself. Even the Baron’s powerful voice rang like a dull thud to the Inquisitor’s emotional armor. Whether or not Sieglinde expected a response, she received none when she said, simply:

“You don’t understand what it is like to have been made something without a choice.”

As soon as the words left Sieglinde’s lips, Gertrude was on her way back to the Bridge.

“We can’t tarry any longer milord. I will give you all the support you require to triumph.”

Whatever the Baron felt upon hearing those words, she did not make it known.

Following Gertrude’s direction, the guards escorted Sieglinde down to the lower deck.


“Clostermann and Järveläinen are retreating with damage!” Schicksal called out.

On the Bridge, Gertrude returned to an unfolding chaos. Every gas gunner was engaged in furious control of their stations, the torpedo and main gunners input targeting coordinates that were immediately denied by Dreschner. Spreading out before all of them was an absolutely massive display with all kinds of predictions, camera feeds and diagnostics, by itself the size of an entire wall of some luxurious manse. On this display, Gertrude quickly scanned the tattered state of the fleet. As she arrived, the Irmingard’s pilot section had already been defeated and put to flight.

Gertrude arrived at the side of the Captain and his adjutant like a wraith.

Schicksal was almost startled by the sudden appearance.

With a grim but determined expression, Gertrude directed the adjutant.

“Put them through to me. Have the hangar ready to accept them.”

Gertrude’s voice almost caught in her throat for a moment.

Ingrid was a star pilot herself and her machinery was new and well-equipped.

Clostermann may have gotten caught up in the enemy’s tactics, but Ingrid?

It was almost enough to give her pause. Almost. She just could not afford to show it.

“Welcome back, Lady Inquisitor.” Dreschner said. “It’s been a surprising turn of events.”

Gertrude sat on the ornate, throne-like seat reserved for her in the center of the Bridge.

“I see those patrolmen wound up being no use at all.” She said.

Dreschner shook his head.

“Regrettably so. Our enemies deployed several Divers. They are well-armed.” He said.

“Divers?”

Gertrude turned quickly to connect a call through to her pilots. They would know more.

On the screen attached to her grand command station, the faces of Ingrid and Clostermann appeared, both sweating and bedraggled. Their mecha had taken a pounding and were in the process of being recovered through the chutes on the aft-side of the ship’s keel. Clostermann barely made a noise, but the moment Gertrude’s face appeared on her camera, Ingrid bowed her head and grunted. Mercenaries owning Divers was not unheard of.

Particularly those vicious and dreadful Katarrans.

For them to defeat Ingrid, however–

“Järveläinen, what happened out there?”

“I’m sorry, Lady Inquisitor.” She said. In the presence of the rest of the crew she knew to be as formal as she could muster. “I underestimated these bastards. One of them was a Loup and I got a little careless with her. I want a chance to redeem myself. Do we have any other suits? If you let me back out, I’ll murder ‘em, Inquisitor.”

A Loup?

Of course, leave it to Ingrid to get carried away trying to bully some random pup.

Not that Gertrude could blame her. They were used to having the upper hand.

And this bunch was clearly a strange assortment.

“You’re not going back out.” Gertrude said. “The Grenadier is now spoken for. We’ve got a Volker left in the hangar, but if you could not succeed in your Jagd I’m not having you die in a worse suit. I’ve got an ace in the hole, don’t worry. Come back in here and get yourself checked into medical. You’ve done more than enough.”

Ingrid looked ashamed of herself, but she understood the undertone of that response.

Gertrude loved her and was not going to put her in further danger.

“If you say so, boss.” Ingrid said. She cut her camera feed, perhaps feeling too disgraced.

At that point, Clostermann finally spoke up.

“Lady Inquisitor, these are not ordinary thugs. I admit they caught me off-guard; in the moment, I thought they could be Katarrans because of their skill. But Katarrans are individualistic. They are powerful fighters, but you never see them helping each other. These pilots are fighting as fireteams using real unit tactics, and they are equipped with high spec Union gear. It’s not my place to make assumptions, but something is wrong here ma’am.”

Gertrude paused for a moment.

Union equipment?

It was not unheard of for illegal forces to gain access to Union weapons. Sometimes they went on to the black market as a result of Katarrans or other forces making deals with Union smugglers. But these were a trickle of suits and hard to get a hold of. It would be much easier for Mercenaries to modify labor units or to acquire Volker hardware through clandestine means. For an entire squadron of Union Divers to appear, after she spoke to that Volgian bitch?

“You’re right, it’s not your place to make assumptions. Get to medical ASAP.”

This time it was her who cut the feed to the pilot. She sat back and sighed to herself.

What was she getting into here? Could these really be Union soldiers?

There was no reason for Union soldiers to be taking Elena von Fueller to the northwest.

Something was wrong. Union involvement was not something she accounted for.

Then on the main screen, a confirmation from the hangar appeared of a Diver going out.

“RKD-X06 ‘Grenadier’, Sieglinde von Castille, deploying now.”

At that point, it once again ceased to matter to Gertrude what motivation these fools had.

Ultimately what mattered is that they had swam near the shark, and now came the teeth.

“Captain, have Sieglinde clear out any remaining vermin with our flak support.”

“Understood.” Dreschner said. He gave her a slightly wry smile as he did so.

Gertrude smiled back. She had an ironclad vision for how this was going to unfold.

“Ready the main guns. We’ll be sending a message to one Captain Korabiskaya, shortly.”

Elena would be back in her arms soon. And this nightmare would retreat into memory.


“Predicting direct hit by heavy ordnance on Frigate marked L1!”

On the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand, the loudest voice belonged to Fatima al-Suhar, Chief Petty Officer in charge of sonar detection and related systems. Because her station received raw acoustic prediction data and she saw everything imaged in real time, before it was output to the main screen for the rest of the crew, she could act as a commentator to the events. For a Cruiser-size ship, the Brigand had a relatively small and lean bridge, with only an officer per station.

Thankfully, Fatima was keeping up well, and had yet to give a single piece of bad news.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sighed with relief. Her body tensed whenever Fatima raised her voice. Would this be the time she would hear the name of someone they would have to bury in effigy when they got back home? If they got back home– a lot of dangerous thoughts burdened her whenever the sonar officer spoke.

However, the content of her words quickly calmed Ulyana.

“Frigate marked L1 is sinking! Sameera must have deployed a bomb!”

“That’s one of Murati’s bombs. So we have two left.” Aaliyah sighed.

Ulyana crossed her arms.

While the 114th was dominating the enemy’s escorts, no one had put a scratch on the Irmingard flagship yet. There was a sense to which any celebration of their victories was premature. In any other battle, knocking down three Cutters and a Frigate would be worthy of decoration. In this one, it meant nothing as long as that gunmetal grey tyrant still floated. They could knock out escorts all day long. If that dreadnought was still chasing, there was no victory.

“It was always going to be the case that they would need to use these to get close.”

“I know. I’m just trying to keep track.” Aaliyah replied.

“Zachikova,” Ulyana spoke up, raising her voice from the volume she used to address her Commissar in relative privacy, to the strong voice with which she called on her crew. “Can you get a laser relay drone out to them, and tap into their communications? We’ve got predictions of damage on Sameera and Dominika from both the acoustics and the laser imagers and I need someone to report something to me verbally about what’s going on. Do you have capacity?”

“Negative. I’m working my brain raw here trying to program controls for those dummied out boosters.”

Zachikova was feverishly going over text at her station. Ulyana turned to Semyonova.

“Semyonova, if I hand you drone control, can you get it out there and route the comms?”

Semyonova ran a hand through her blond hair and for a moment, looked nervous.

“It’ll be tough ma’am. I’m still handling comms between us and the hangar, and the Iron Lady has been sending comms requests I’ve been having to filter out too. I can do it if you need.” She flashed a brilliant little smile.

Leave it to Semyonova to explain why she couldn’t do something and then volunteer to do it.

“No, you’re right. There is someone more fitting for this anyway.”

Ulyana turned to the right-hand side of the Bridge. “Geninov! Fly a laser relay drone out!”

“Don’t I get to refuse huh?” Alex Geninov shouted back. “Why is it only an order for me!”

“You’re not doing anything presently, Geninov.” Aaliyah raised her own voice too.

“Oh great, mom and dad are shouting now?”

“Watch your tongue with me!” Aaliyah shouted.

“Sorry! Ok! I’m sorry! I’m more jittery than normal! It’s a tough sitch we’re in!”

Ulyana ran her hand down her face with frustration.

“You piloted relay drones before, when Zachikova was unavailable.” She said sternly.

“I mean, duh, I can pilot it that’s whatever.” Alex said. “But what I want is to shoot that damn flagship with a torpedo! I’ve got an 80 mm torpedo locked, cocked and ready to rock! I don’t understand why you aren’t letting me, and this witch over here, riddle that thing with explosives already!”

Alex pointed indignantly at fellow late-shifter and gunnery officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa.

“Let it be proclaimed that I refuse to become party to this fool’s schemes.” She said.

“Such solidarity for your comrade in the shooting section, you black-hearted–”

“Stop shouting already.” Ulyana said. “Tell me this: in your current state, can you shoot a torpedo out of the front of the Brigand and swing it around behind us with a 100% guarantee you will not hit any part of our vessel, any stray objects, any of our Divers, and inflict significant damage on the flagship? I will authorize you to shoot if you will take complete responsibility for this. And if anything happens to compromise the mission–”

With the Captain talking so fast, Alex merely turned back around to her station, defeated.

Visibly she switched the torpedo interface to the controls for a laser relay drone.

“Drone going out now.” Alex mumbled.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both sighed at the exact same time.

Alex glared out the side of her eyes.

“Maybe if someone had gotten that top-mounted launcher ready in time–”

Zachikova detected Alex’s snide remark and instantly responded.

“Maybe if someone here had learned to code in secondary school instead of playing video games, she could assist me in writing military grade software on the fly in a hostile working environment day in and day out.”

Alex bowed her head and defeated again, said nothing while deploying the drone.

“Wait, hold on, what do you mean that this is a hostile working environment?” Semyonova said, snapping her head up from her station for a moment. “Zachikova, has anyone harassed you?”

“I mean we could be killed literally any second. Like right now.” Zachikova said.

“Oh. I thought you meant like, someone grabbed at your–”

Deadpan, Zachikova turned away from her. “Please leave me alone, I really need to work.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah both raised their hands to their faces at the same time.

Somehow everything was functioning despite being short-handed and having these hands.

When the door to the bridge next opened, Ulyana expected Akulantova with updates on the crew morale and any incidents that may have transpired amid the sailors. She did not expect, however, for Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse to appear escorting Marina McKennedy into the bridge. The security girls were wearing bashful expressions, while Marina looked annoyed. They had been deployed as Bridge security while Akulantova held the lower deck.

“She really insisted on coming in ma’am, but far as I can tell, she has no clearance.” Zhu Lian said.

“We know she got picked up in Serrano though. So we thought we’d ask.” Van Der Smidse added.

Marina grunted.

“There hasn’t been time for formal clearances.” Ulyana said. “Let her through, she’s fine.”

Guardsmen Zhu and Van Der Smidse bowed their heads and stepped back outside.

Marina stepped up to the Captain’s and Commissar’s station and stood in orbit of them.

Hands crossed, facing the monitor, watching predictions slowly and haphazardly update.

“It’s pandemonium out there. So this is a real battle, huh?” Marina said.

“Never been in a fleet action before?” Aaliyah asked.

“Not in this capacity.” Marina said. “What do our chances look like? That’s a big-ass ship.”

“I believe in our pilots and crew. The situation is fluid, but we’re in control.” Ulyana said.

Ulyana was not saying that purely for the sake of the foul-mouthed G.I.A. agent.

She needed to truly believe it herself. And watching the battle unfold, she felt it.

They were in control. Everything was in flux, everything was dicey, but they had initiative.

As powerful as that Irmingard flagship was alone, it was caught flatfooted, its escorts appeared to be far lower quality than expected, and it was hobbled by its mission parameters. Of all the missions a ship crew could be given, trying to board or capture a ship that was resisting was the most difficult. And on top of that, securing the safety of a VIP within that ship, which made it impossible to shoot at the ship and cripple it– All of the advantages lay with the Brigand.

“I’ve heard the name of that flagship before.” Marina said. “Gertrude Lichtenberg, right?”

“That’s who I talked to.” Ulyana said. She grew curious. “What do you know about her?”

“Youngest Grand Inquisitor in history. She rose to her position off the fall of a previous Inquisitor, so she’s got some cunning and a lot of connections. Some say she is personal friend of the ruling Fueller family.”

Marina’s expression darkened. She gritted her teeth a little bit and tightened her fists.

“It would honestly make things a lot simpler if she just dropped dead.” Marina said.

At that point, another intruder ran through Zhu and Van Der Smidse, and into the Bridge.


When Elena pushed through the guards and into the bridge she practically doubled over.

Gasping for breath, her eyes stinging and burning with tears and her own sweat.

Had she heard what she thought she did? She thought– she thought she heard Marina–

“Please,”

Her choked voice escaped from her lips, her hair hanging over her face.

Staring at the Bridge floor, dressed in nothing but a bodysuit with a blanket around her.

“Please– you can’t do this–”

“Marina, is she ok? She’s not even wearing–”

The Captain, Korabiskaya, spoke up with a kindly, concerned tone of voice.

When Marina McKennedy raised her own voice, it bore an unfamiliar venom.

“I’ll handle this, Captain.”

Elena raised her head and felt a powerful grip taking her by the shoulder and arm.

She felt lighter than a leaf on Vogelheim’s wind, as Marina forced her out of the Bridge.

That icy, ironclad grip from her caretaker’s fingers digged into her flesh. The dainty princess felt a spike of pain through her skin that drew fresh tears. It was enough to send her into a sudden panic. She struggled against Marina, struggled to stay on the Bridge, struggled to speak for herself. She was being hurt! Marina was hurting her!

Elena was so unused to being treated so roughly that she wanted to let out a mortal scream.

Only the wide-eyed, terrifying glare from Marina kept her silent.

For a brief instant Elena caught sight of the blond Captain staring at her with disbelief.

Then the door to the Bridge closed, separating them.

Those two girls guarding the door stood dumbfounded, staring at her and Marina.

“Um, can we help at all–”

When the blond one with the braided tails started to speak, Marina quickly snapped back.

“Nothing– It’s nothing– sorry–”

All the while forcing Elena around the corner, to one of the bulkhead wells connecting the pods.

There she leaned over Elena, putting her against the door, briefly out of sight of the hall.

They stood there, eye to eye. It was impossible for Elena not to feel tiny and cornered.

For a moment, Marina said nothing. She was angry. She was angrier than ever.

Elena could feel anger radiating. Red, but frayed on the edges with a sickly muddle of colors–

“Can you explain to me what the fuck you think you are doing?” Marina said.

Elena stammered, her words getting caught in her lips several times.

She was trapped, she was trapped in Marina’s grip, unable to think straight–

“You hurt me!” She cried out.

Marina shut her eyes and bowed her head. Her jaw twitched ever so slightly.

“You were acting like a lunatic.” Marina said. “Do you want to end up in the brig?”

“They’re– Marina they’re gonna–”

At that moment, her guardian’s head snapped up and they locked eyes again.

Elena could almost count the red veins on her eyes.

Her face was flushed, her breathing agitated. Her whole body was tense.

“They’re in the middle of a battle! Whatever you want to tell them they won’t listen.”

“Would they listen to you? Marina, can you talk to them?”

The Princess was almost ready to beg.

Had she had mastery of herself she would have been on the ground begging in front of Marina McKennedy. She would have done anything to call off this ridiculous, pointless, evil bloodshed. She was sure if she could speak to Gertrude they could avert this tragedy and maybe even work together. That’s all she wanted to beg from them.

Just a chance to speak to her! To speak again to the woman she loved!

“Gertrude– they’re going to kill Gertrude.” She mumbled.

Marina glanced over Elena’s shoulder. Perhaps making sure no one else was there.

“I was afraid this was going to be the case.” Marina ran a gloved hand down her own face in exasperation. “Elena, I’m sorry, but your friend is currently trying to kill us. I know it’s the most difficult and awful thing in the world to you right now, but unless you want us to be dead you are not going to walk out of here with your friend in hand. You had best accept that fucking reality right now. You’ll never see her again. Just put it through your head right now.”

“Please, Marina. Please talk to them. They’ll listen to you. Tell them I’ll–”

“You’ll what? You’ll tell the communists you’re an Imperial Princess? You’ll compel them with your Imperial Authority to let you talk to an Imperial Inquisitor currently in the process of trying to vaporize us from the fucking face of the planet? Are you out of your fucking mind? Have you given any kind of thought to any of this? Of course you fucking haven’t. Messiah defend! Think about your situation for a moment! You are being ridiculous!”

Her words came like punches at Elena’s ribcage, beating the air out of her again and again.

“Marina– Please– Please tell them–”

There was no room to move with Marina on top of her, but she wanted to kneel, to beg.

Her voice broke. Fresh tears were flowing from her eyes.

“All I’m going to say to the commies is that you need Propofol and a bed right now.”

In that instant Elena thought she felt something from Marina that infuriated her.

All of those colors she saw hovering over Marina in her distress began to calm. She realized that Marina was starting to resign herself; to reach a state of peace. Because she was going to get rid of Elena. She was going to have the communists take her away, and then she would be out of Marina’s hair for a while. That realization, that right now Marina saw her as a burden, saw her as a problem to be rid of, that Marina did not care how she felt.

Marina would never help her. She never wanted to. She never even listened to her.

How had she come to be so powerless? So helpless? Dragged around everywhere like this?

Elena saw herself holding Gertrude’s hand again. Remembering that feeling, the roughness and softness of them, the slightly swarthy color of her olive skin, her striking eyes. She was across such a vast gulf from her now, in a world that Elena seemed like she could never join her in. Elena thought of all that transpired and all the friends she left behind. All of the people she had already lost. Bethany was gone; everyone at Vogelheim who used to accommodate her, coddle her, all gone; Gertrude herself; even someone like Sawyer was involved in this despicable tragedy too.

And Victoria van Veka too–

The princess’ eyes drew wide. In her agitated state, a little smile crept up on her lips.

All this time she had been so caught up in herself.

Those moments in Vogelheim had been so stressful, beyond stressful, nothing but scenes of chaos. Chaos that Elena had not wanted to sort out. In that instant of insanity in which she felt her heart filling with hatred for Marina, where she wished with all her heart to dash her to pieces, to free herself of her evil grip and to stop whatever deeds she had become involved in– within that moment of anger and sadness and desperation Elena remembered Victoria van Veka.

Suddenly she raised her hand to Marina’s face and laid it on her forehead.

Touching her. Wanting nothing more than to hurt her. To hurt her until she submitted.

Elena was the Princess. Marina should listen to her. Marina had to listen to her.

“Elena! What the fuck are you–”

“Let me go. Let me go now. Do what I say and let me go. Let me go, you peon–”

She recalled what it was like to feel controlled by Victoria.

Victoria had tried to do this to her. To stop her, to drag her towards her, to control her.

And she had tried to do it to Marina. Elena had felt what Marina had felt during that time too.

That feeling of thousands and thousands of hands crawling over her body.

Elena channeled that feeling. A feeling of being seized, of being pushed and pulled, of her skin and eyes and brain feeling an alien heat that wanted to seep in everywhere and fill her with itself, to forced her submission. Elena focused on this feeling, focused on using whatever Victoria saw inside her to push Marina, to pull Marina, to hurt Marina, to enter Marina in every pore of her being that was open to Elena’s will, to make Marina submit to her–

“Elena, stop–”

Intermittent red rings flashed on Marina’s eyes. She was not in, but she was close–

The G.I.A. agent’s jaw set, her arms shook, her brow sweated, her eyes teared up.

“Elena– Please– No–”

Elena could feel it, she could feel herself tearing Marina open–

Her physical sight of the world was submerged into the colors erupting from her victim.

Elena like a body drifting down the endlessness of the sea, falling, falling into the colors–

“Oh my. What an unladylike thing to be doing!”

There was a flash of light.

Sunlight. Artificial, likely, but the only kind of sun she had ever known.

Fluttering birds leaving their high perches in the dozens.

Fragrances of all sorts, flowers, and herbs, all carried on a buffeting, cool breeze.

Elena opened her eyes.

She was high up in a palatial garden, the peak of a castle overlooking lush plantation lands.

White stone banister and railing with gold ornamentation, tall green beds of various plants.

“Schwerin Island.” Elena said to herself. “My mother’s palace at Schwerin Island.”

Her breath caught in her chest. Her heart beat hard. She was alive, physical– right?

Why was she here? And she was not a child. She looked down at herself–

But she was not dressed as she should be. Back on that ship, she was basically naked.

Now she was wearing one of her ornate dresses. That dress she had worn on Vogelheim.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? Too bad about everything that happened here.”

Elena was not alone. That voice that had called her ‘unladylike’ spoke up again.

At first, no matter where she looked, she could not see anything.

Then she appeared before Elena as if a ghost that had been hiding behind a gust of wind.

Blonde hair done half up, red eyes, a soft and pretty face with pale pink skin, youthful beyond its years, often twisted into a self-amused sneer. A slight woman, neither too tall nor too large, thin but well enough endowed, fit but not too apparently so. She was dressed how Elena last remembered seeing her. A red dress with a plunging, square neckline, white pants, wearing an open blue, green and gold jacket with the heraldry of the House of Fueller, the square, intricate semiconductor of fate and the machinery of the once-engineers, who became soldiers, who became the royal family. 

Like a kid, Elena blurted out–

“Auntie?”

Standing before her as if she had traversed the length of the Oceans–

Norn the Praetorian.

Without word, Norn walked casually across Leda Lettiere’s garden to meet her daughter.

“Ah, my little elf, aren’t you sweet? Your mother was such a bohemian spirit, and yet she never accepted me as family, but you? You were always so warm. But I’m worried! If you remember this,” Norn gestured to the gardens around her as she walked, with a dramatic flourishing of her arms, “then surely, Elena, you remember the promise we made?”

Elena always found it hard to speak in front of the foremost retainer of the Fueller family.

Norn had a powerful presence. She spoke with unyielding confidence.

“I’m sorry Auntie– Lady Norn.” Elena corrected her etiquette quickly. Despite her own high status in the Fueller family, she almost felt beneath Norn, or at least, felt that Norn easily carried herself as one above even Elena herself.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I don’t recall.” Elena said, her chest fluttering with anxiety.

When her aunt responded, her voice was sickly sweet yet venomous at the same time.

“Oh, but Elena, it was a very important promise you made me. You can’t ever forget it!”

Norn stopped directly in front of Elena and stared directly into her eyes.

Red as Norn’s eyes were, in that instant, Elena saw even redder rings around them.

“Unfortunately, for us to meet here in the first place, means you broke the promise.”

The Praetorian’s fist struck fast as lightning. Elena had no time to react.

Like a film with a frame removed– one moment Norn had been standing still.

In the next, there was a fist embedded in Elena’s ribcage, pounding the air out of her.

Such was the force of that blow Elena nearly lifted off the floor.

Spit blew from Elena’s mouth, snot from her nose. She felt like her lungs went out of place.

So much pain, blinding, obliterating, all-consuming pain. More like a clubbing than a punch.

Elena dropped helplessly to her knees. Hugging herself, doubling over, retching.

“Not throwing any rocks? Or stirring up the dirt at me? Ahh. You’re still innocent.”

Norn kneeled down beside her and grabbed hold of Elena’s hair, snapping her head back.

“You promised to be a good girl for me. And it appears you still can be. It’s never too late to go back to being a powerless, pampered, cute little princess, Elena. So remain innocent; or Norn will be here to punish you.”

In the midst of her pain, images flashed in Elena’s mind. That smile– that sneering smile.

Huddled in a room in Schwerin, scared, alone, Leda Lettiere’s burning tower visible in the window.

Mother, Bethany– Marina–? No, they were gone. Only herself and this woman. Norn.

Norn kneeled next to her, just like this. Sweetly touching the head of the little scared child–

Staring deep into her with those red eyes until Elena started to lose her sense of place.

Flitting between the Norn of then and the Norn now as something appeared over her.

An icy white spike formed out of the air, instantly stabbing a deep, numbing cold into her brain.

Elena vanished from her mother’s garden and fell deeper and deeper into the dark ocean.


From the Captain’s chair came an exasperated sigh.

“Something’s wrong with those two. Can you go check on them quickly?”

“Of course.”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara stood up from her seat at Captain Korabiskaya’s request and stepped out into the hall outside the Bridge. She was skeptical of Marina McKennedy the moment she arrived — it was her job to be, after all. Now with the way she was treating that aide of hers, and the way that aide was behaving, Aaliyah was ever more suspicious of her motives. Between her two fluffy ears all kinds of ideas were percolating: maybe Marina had this girl captive and was drugging her; maybe this girl was being misled and Marina would dispose of her in secret–

Out in the hall, she found Maryam Karahailos, Klara Van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian out by the bulkheads. While Maryam was visibly panicking and looking around in confusion, Van Der Smidse and Zhu were both on the floor hovering over– people? Aaliyah hurried to the bulkhead well when she realized what was happening.

Maryam noticed this and waved her over anxiously.

“These two just dropped right out from behind this wall!” She cried out.

“What were they doing around the bulkheads?”

Aaliyah arrived and saw Marina McKennedy and her aide on the floor.

Van Der Smidse and Zhu breathed heavily over them, looking pale and tired.

“We managed to resuscitate them.” Zhu said.

“They weren’t breathing?” Aaliyah asked. “Why were they back here?”

“I think they wanted privacy. We’re sorry ma’am, we didn’t realize it’d be a thing.”

Van Der Smidse lifted herself off of Marina’s sleeping body with a heavy sigh.

“We kept an eye on them from afar, but then they just dropped to the ground.” She said. “When we got to them, they weren’t breathing. We started CPR– we told this girl to run to the security office and fetch Syrah, but she just stood there like an idiot.” Van Der Smidse shot Maryam a glare, the latter devolving into a fresh round of fretting.

“Just when we thought it looked worse than we could handle, they started breathing again. We got circulation too, their hearts don’t even sound very excited. They got lucky, I guess.” Zhu said, shrugging.

Absolutely bizarre. For Marina to drop like this too– maybe she was also using drugs?

“Good work you two– Maryam, it’s okay, calm down. You’re a civilian with no training.”

Aaliyah laid a shoulder on the fretting, weeping Maryam to try to calm her down.

“Ma’am, it’s just– I feel the despair wafting from them–” Maryam sounded hysterical.

“You’re a really sensitive girl, aren’t you?” Aaliyah said. She didn’t understand, but wanted to comfort her.

Before Maryam could complain any further, the steel floor shifted beneath their feet.

Aaliyah found herself thrown to the ground with Maryam, Zhu and Van Der Smidse as a sudden shock tilted the Brigand. Even through the metal armor Aaliyah could hear the sound of the explosive blasts going off outside, a dull booming like percussion in another room. Their feet slid out from under them and they landed in a pile over Marina.

The Commissar’s ears twitched as they picked up the distant but much more audible sound of screeching metal.

One thought consumed Aaliyah in that instant of panic — she had to get to the Bridge!

Ulyana –!

Almost leaping off the wall, Aaliyah pushed herself back onto her feet, and ran across the unsteady hall, the Brigand briefly shaking from side to side as it struggled to regain its balance amid the powerful shockwaves it was subjected to. Sliding and stumbling, holding a chilling breath in her chest, Aaliyah made it to the Bridge door and nearly fell through the opening as the door admitted her inside. Everything was still shaking even seconds after the impacts.

“Captain!” Aaliyah shouted.

She found Ulyana hanging on to her chair, with a hand over her head.

Aaliyah briefly thought she saw blood–

It was her morbid imagination. Ulyana was shaken, but unhurt and alive.

“Aaliyah, are you ok?” She asked.

Aaliyah nodded her head vigorously and then turned sharply to face the Bridge crew.

“Status report! Now!” She shouted.

“Two rounds! Main guns!” Fatima shouted, holding her chest, breathing in fits and starts.

She was completely spent.

Working at night, the first to respond, and the one responsible for tracking the whole situation on the sonar. They would have to work on her stamina, but for now it was understandable that she would shaken up. Aaliyah almost thought of relieving her, but this was not a situation where they could be as kind as they wanted to their crew.

Unprompted, the remaining reports came quickly after.

“Bulkheads automatically sealed on block C-6!” Semyonova reported. She sounded shaken but not to the degree Fatima was. “I’ve sealed additional bulkheads one sector out just in case. Freezing agents partially deployed; flood mitigation wasn’t able to do much. Draining slowly; pressure loss was mitigated in time to prevent a total loss.”

“C-6 is just a maintenance corridor in the outer hull.” Ulyana sighed with relief.

“Zachikova, did we catch the attack on video? How are the electronics?” Aaliyah said.

“We have vids. Two rounds detonated off the port side near the prow. No way we could have intercepted it. No direct hits on the hull.” Zachikova shouted, her deadpan voice the most composed out of the responders. “There was a sizable breach but freezing agents and flood mitigation are preventing the whole C-6 from peeling off. Several cameras and imagers are offline. Up to my neck in electrical errors from that sector. Shutting down power to it now.”

Ulyana laid back in her chair and raised her eyes up to the ceiling, groaning.

Aaliyah joined her, finally feeling calm enough to take her side again.

“Helmsman! How’s the propulsion? Any damage?” Ulyana asked.

“Maintaining speed. They just missed the sidepod intakes. We got lucky.” Kamarik replied.

Lucky, relatively speaking.

No ship wanted to take damage. That hole in the port-side would compromise the ship’s hydrodynamics and even with the freezing agent and flood systems slowing the build-up of water and pressure at the affected site, it was not something they could ignore forever. They would have to repair the hull properly. When and where they would do so was another matter entirely– and on that there was no point in addressing, until they had escaped.

“Okay! Nobody panic. We’re still following the plan. Keep yourselves on task and we’ll get out of her alive.” Ulyana said. “We’ve all had the dust shaken off our coats by the nice Ms. Lichtenberg, and now we just have to pay back her kindness. Kamarik, keep an eye on our thrust, and Zachikova, keep working on the software. How are our Divers? We have a battle to win here, people. Semyonova, put me through to Lichtenberg, she’s calling, right?”

“Yes ma’am, she has been the whole time. I’ve kept refusing.” Semyonova said.

“She’s clearly desperate for my attention.” Ulyana said in jest. “So I’ll reward her.”

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah looked up at the smiling blond keeping this Bridge together.

She felt almost like she was looking at an entirely different person than before.

To think this was that same woman who was clumsy with words and loose with drink.

Everyone was shaken and scared.

They were all tense, they could die any minute, and a massive shock just dealt real damage to their ship for the first time. Fatima and Alex looked like they would have respiratory attacks. Zachikova, no matter how much she hid it, was clearly struggling with the software. Despite the desperate situation they were in, Ulyana could still smile and joke, at least on the outside, and her voice had not lost the power it wielded before the blasts.

Firing the main gun should have changed the entire situation.

Ulyana was still in command of this Bridge, however.

And so they soldiered on with her.

“Captain, do we still think she’s bluffing?” Aaliyah said.

“Oh, she’s bluffing. I’ve got her grabbed by that little ponytail of hers now, don’t worry.”

Ulyana’s confidence never wavered even as she said these dangerous words.

If she was anything less than sure, she was condemning them all to sink.

Aaliyah knew she was right, however. With this attack, the Irmingard outed itself.

“Semyonova, hurry and put Lichtenberg through if she’s calling.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova nodded solemnly. Seconds later, the Inquisitor reappeared before the Captain.

Gertrude Lichtenberg was all smiles, looking quite pleased with herself on the video.

“Greetings Captain. I see it took a reminder of our relative positions to get you to respond to my calls. You’ve taught me a dangerous thing about how to deal with you, so you’d best try to accommodate me now. My main guns are loaded for another salvo, but I’d rather break this vicious cycle and parlay. So what do you say?”

“I say you’re being very selfish here. Each of those rounds must have cost a few hundred thousand marks. Seems like a waste to be dealing with a bunch of bottomfeeders like us in that way.” Ulyana shrugged comically.

“Given how much damage you’ve done it’s the only way I will deal with you.”

“I don’t want to brag; honestly, I just think you could do with better help.”

“I feel exactly the same, so I will cut to the chase here then.” Gertrude was already visibly annoyed by Ulyana once again. She clearly had skin as thin as a sheet of limestone paper. “You have a VIP aboard that I will be taking into custody. We don’t need to discuss the specifics. Don’t even pretend with euphemisms like ‘precious cargo’, I know you have her aboard. I will get her back, whether rescuing her from the wreckage or in a way that allows you to live. Give her up, and this dishonorable situation never transpired. You have my word you will go free. In fact, I may even have work for mercenaries of your caliber in the future. But I need her back right now.”

Now that was an intriguing response. She had spilled a lot of valuable information.

Off to the side of these exchanges, Aaliyah could not help but grin and find herself quite pleased with Ulyana’s performance. Thinking about what she said, Aaliyah felt that Gertrude must have been referring to Marina. By all accounts, Maryam had no trail, but Marina, if she had been captured by the Empire before, was a known fugitive. She had no idea how Marina’s presence aboard the Brigand came to be known to the authorities — but if there was anyone aboard the Brigand whom Gertrude’s words could be about, it had to be Marina. There was no doubt in her mind.

Ulyana quite accurately surmised that pushing back with her own euphemisms would work.

“Oh, but I know exactly who she is, Ms. Lichtenberg. I know who she is and how valuable she is, or I would not be resisting. I saw through her façade the instant she came aboard. However, she is still a prized client and does not wish to return to your custody. So I shall have to decline. She’s mine now, so you’d best move on from her.”

Ulyana smiled sweetly after speaking.

Gertrude’s jaw had a spasm.

“I will rip your little hauler in half and pick her out of a flooded pod if I have to.” Gertrude said.

“That’s a notion you really ought to move on from as well.” Ulyana said.

Gertrude grit her teeth.

“Who are you really working for? What will it take for you to surrender peacefully? To end this mean–”

“Are you going to say, ‘meaningless bloodshed’? Spare me the sophistry.”

“You have to be doing this for someone or something! What is it that you are after?”

“I see.” Ulyana said. She winked at Gertrude. “You’re really smitten with her, huh?”

This time it was Gertrude who cut off the video feed, flashing a furious grimace first.

Ulyana laid back in her chair, smiling to herself.

“She’s not going to shoot. Whoever she’s after, it’s personal.”

“Personal, huh?” Aaliyah said.

“I can tell. I’ve just seen a lot of girls her type. I know that kind of hysterical, horny energy.”

Aaliyah grumbled. “No kidding?”

“I’m only half-joking. But there’s more to it of course.” Ulyana laughed. “Marina said Lichtenberg got her position from a fallen predecessor, through playing politics. If I was a ruthless social climber who won herself a powerful position, why would I descend into convulsions over a single rescue mission? I would expect her to be methodical and emotionless. The Inquisition’s job is to repress people, not save them. I can only imagine this must be personal.”

“There’s another possibility.” Aaliyah said. “It’s about someone really big in the Empire.”

“True. I guess in the Empire there’s also Princes and Princesses and all that.”

“Yes, but that would be silly. Who do you think she’s really after?” Aaliyah said.

“Can’t be Maryam. Katarrans are the lowest of low in Imbrian society.” Ulyana said.

“I was thinking Marina. Maybe Marina knows something.” Aaliyah said.

“She definitely knows something.” Ulyana said. “But why go crazy about taking her alive?”

Aaliyah crossed her arms and nodded. “Thinking about it for a second. The Emperor died very recently. In his absence all kinds of backroom deals and schemes would occur. It could be that Marina has information Gertrude needs to solidify her position in the internecine political conflict. So it’s not about silencing her but getting her to talk.”

“You know, that adds up. I’m thinking it must be Marina then. We’ll need to talk to her.”

Ulyana slid the video display out of her way so she could address the crew unimpeded.

“I’m not hearing any explosions! Have we been able to contact our Divers yet?”

“Drone’s almost there.” Alex said in a choked voice, taking a deep breath.

On the main screen, the drone camera took focus amid the rest of the video feeds.

Through its eyes they approached the Irmingard dead on, flak flying in the distance.

Two fast-moving objects cut through the water over the Irmingard’s surface.

A laser call came in. Semyonova gasped, her hands grabbing hold of her own headset.

“We’ve heard a report from the Divers! Khadija’s engaging– we lost a bomb undetonated!”

Ulyana grit her teeth. Aaliyah bowed her head solemnly.

They were nothing but passengers at this point. Innocents caught up in a stream.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.5]

Upon exiting the Brigand, a certain wily cat was trying to think of something mischievous to say.

“Make it back in one piece, squad leader; I wouldn’t want to have to tease a corpse for its owner’s mistakes.”

Murati, of course, had no reply to that. It was her youth and inexperience perhaps.

With a macabre flair sharpened by her long military service, Khadija al-Shajara broke off from the rest of the squadron, leading Valya Lebedova through the gloomy seas towards the left flank of the enemy’s formation. Khadija controlled her mech with practiced ease, each turn of the stick or press of the pedal as smooth or as harsh as it needed to be. Their Streloks were basic in comparison to some of the customized models favored by the other pilots, but Khadija liked hers basic. She had a relationship to this kind of machine that no one else could ever match.

She tried to purge herself of useless emotions when she went out into the water.

Deep breath, lifting her shoulders, stretching her legs.

Remembering the wine she had back on board the Brigand.

“Valya, how do I sound?”

“Legible!”

“Good. Mind if I take the lead?”

“You’re in the lead ma’am!”

“That’s a good little enby. Judging by how much ordnance is strapped to that Strelkannon I think Sam and Nika will be fine in the front. We should prioritize trying to cripple the Frigate’s flak on our end. If the Cutters are destroyed or rout, those Frigates will try to move up to encircle the center team. Does that sound like a plan?”

“I’m fine with it! We can put a couple bursts in those gas gun pods at least.”

“One shot beneath the left barrel will set off the magazine. No need to seal it with a kiss.”

“I don’t know that I can fire just one shot off this AK, but I’ll try ma’am!”

Valya sounded slightly nervous.

Khadija’s flighty sense of humor never left her, but she was speaking with a stern tone of voice even as she compared the killing of a gas gun pod to the writing of a letter. There was a professional ease that came over whenever she piloted, a sense of giving up responsibility. It allowed her to be honest with herself and everyone around her.

She made the best of every day precisely so she could go out into the water without regret.

An old– mature woman, no children, unmarried, no family: it didn’t matter if she died.

Twenty years in the cockpit made those things seem small.

And the stakes involved in this particular mission made them even smaller.

Khadija flew through the water like a missile. Rookie pilots felt a sense of disorientation or confusion fighting in the Ocean because they could see nothing on their cameras most of the time, save for the overlays labeled by their predictive computers. Then when they found a landmark, they’d suddenly start orienting themselves in two dimensions, as if trying to plant their feet on it. And if anything came at them too suddenly it would be like a jump scare in a movie.

Even back when she started piloting, she never gave in to such vulnerabilities. Khadija was suspended in the water. As long as she had power she would not fall. Nevertheless, she did not hold inexperience against most people in the Navy. Her baptism under fire had taken place in an entirely different era, after all. She could not begrudge them being a little soft now.

It’s why she fought in the first place.

If they were too soft, it only meant those hard old veterans like her should set an example.

“Contacts.” Valya said.

“I see them. I’ll engage. Break off from me, lock your thrust and strafe the ship.”

“Uhh, wait, ma’am who locks their thrust ever? I don’t–”

Without responding, Khadija used the tips of her feet to flip two locking switches.

This would keep her pedals jammed down.

She lifted her AK rifle and fired a three round burst blindly into the ocean below.

Valya shouted. “What was that?”

“Relax and stick to the plan.”

Dead ahead of them was the red square for the Frigate and one additional red square most likely representing a pair of enemy Divers moving close together. Some twenty or thirty meters farther out from these squares was the great and murky looming shadow of the Irmingard class flagship. Quietly, inexorably advancing toward the Brigand.

That was not her concern for now.

Moving at the speed she was Khadija knew she would see the enemy Divers on her camera in seconds.

When they appeared on her screen, the two Volkers were swimming ahead with their rifles to their chests, pointing at nothing and descending rapidly. Toward the last thing that their predictors had pointed them to. The loudest noise they could hear in the middle of the murky ocean: a burst of rifle bullets blowing up in the middle of nowhere. This was how a Rookie saw the world underwater. Large overlay boxes representing “enemies,” and the loudest noise in the box.

As I thought. You fellas are half-baked.

“Ma’am–”

“Stop calling me ma’am and do what I tell you.”

“Yes! Sorry!”

Valya hurtled onward to attack the Frigate moving rapidly into full view.

While Khadija swooped down from above to attack the two Divers below.

Without stopping to aim, she glanced at the rifle’s camera and put a burst into the water.

Like gas gun bullets, rifle bullets were mainly explosive and had special fuzes. Her burst flew off into the blue surrounding the Volkers and detonated around them. She did not aim and had not meant to hit. Startled, the Volkers thrust backwards in opposite directions away from the explosions, separating them from one another.

Never once slowing down or stopping, Khadija fluidly descended in a wide arc circling around the enemy Volkers. Rather than turn her entire chassis to face them, she kept her chest forward, head down, and jets thrusting, strafing past the enemy in tight coiling lines that framed them like a cage of water and bubbles. Her gun camera and one shoulder camera kept her locked on her targets. She did not need to stop and stand among them to shoot.

Khadija rapped the trigger, waiting a fraction of a second between each pull.

For each careful press, she sent a bullet toward the enemy.

Her gunfire arced into the Volkers, exploding into vapor bubbles the size of a dog.

Both Volkers finally set their sights on her and turned their rifles, laying down fire.

A trail of bullets exploded in her wake, never making their mark.

Khadija kept moving. In and around them, like a serpent, leaving them in confusion.

Her chassis cut through the water with great alacrity, weaving, climbing, and rolling, never stopping, keeping as much speed as she could between maneuvers. While strafing the Volkers, her speed protected her from their fire. She could manipulate the arms and cameras to fire a few ranging shots back at them in the middle of her maneuvers. Her enemy, meanwhile, was reduced to lurching in place, jerking ungracefully away from the direction of her gunfire.

Against a two-man section that knew how to defend itself Khadija would have been cut down by coordinated gunfire or dragged into a melee. She could not have been so cocky. But she knew what she was dealing with, and amateurs stuck in two dimensions could never hope to stop her. She had the measure of them, and it was time to end it.

Sweeping up suddenly and unexpectedly, she stopped overhead for just a moment.

The Volkers expected her to keep moving and overshot their next bursts of gunfire, leaving themselves completely open. Khadija braced her assault rifle with both arms to control her aim more tightly.

Two trigger pulls, two bullets, with just one snap correction between each shot.

Two explosions through the heads of the two Volkers below her.

Bubbles blew up from each chassis. A tell-tale sign: gases were escaping.

Without staying for a moment longer to inspect her handiwork, Khadija took off again.

She discarded her magazine and loaded a fresh one into the AK-96.

A brief glance at the rear camera as she headed toward the Frigate.

Both Volkers were sinking, barely damaged but damaged where it mattered.

Khadija knew that an overhead shot on a Volker could penetrate the head on the pure kinetic energy of a 37 mm round which would then detonate inside the camera housing. That meant the explosion would damage the pressure hull at the top of the cockpit through the thin aperture where the visual electronics connected and routed through. As much as the Volker’s camera housing looked like a helmet, it was not well armored and represented a vulnerability.

From one target to another. No use thinking about the debris.

She had a Frigate to sink.

Imperial Marder class Frigates were wide, boxy ships with tear-drop prows and squat conning towers, with large, steeply angled fins like wings attached to the flared rear end. The Irmingard’s Marders served as Diver tenders, loaded with external gantries, two on each side of the ship. Overburdened with these modifications, they were slower and less stable in the water than ordinary Marders, but still able to serve as a wall between Khadija and the flagship.

On the deck, several gas gun turrets spun around firing trails of bullets out of their double barrels as they chased Valya’s Strelok. Their movements were predictable, overflying the deck and circling back around the fin several times; but the fire discipline from the Frigate was abysmal. It was a pathetic chase as the Strelok that moved fast but without particular splendor stayed a step ahead of sputtering lines of bullets– even so, Valya was hardly able to shoot back.

They made a wonderful distraction, however.

 “Valya, watch yourself, they’ll range you soon enough! I’m coming in!”

Khadija approached from below the Frigate.

While the deck guns were all busy with Valya, the ventral guns had been lying in wait for targets. Several were out of position however, their barrels facing the sides of the vessel. Waiting for Valya to come down perhaps, which they never did. So Khadija flew right down the middle of the keel between the distracted guns. She would not have been so cocky if all the guns were tracking her, but they were clearly in no position to fire upon her.

Twisting her chassis around, she soared under the Frigate with her chest facing it.

All the while rapping finger on the trigger, three times, pause, three times.

Shifting her aim quickly from one side of the keel to the other.

Her 37 mm bullets ripped into the bases of several ventral turrets, going off against the keel armor. In her wake, a series of explosions rocked the underside of the vessel. When she pulled out from under the ship and soared behind the flared rear armor and around the wings. As its keel reeled with secondary explosions and ballast started to leak, the ship was forced to accelerate in order to correct itself as it was beginning to tip to one side. Aft gas guns followed Khadija’s ascent with a hail of gunfire, but the ship’s rocky course shattered their ability to aim.

Attached to the magnetic strip beneath the backpack of her Strelok there was a single rocket-propelled grenade with a 50 mm explosive head. Standard issue for ordinary Streloks like hers, it could be thrown, and unguided it would burn solid fuel, race forward and go off like a light torpedo. Rising behind the Frigate, Khadija had the perfect target in mind as she avoided the turbulent outwash from three large hydrojets exposed so directly in front of her.

She took the grenade by the handle, armed it, reared just as she came level to the top jet–

A red flash on the corner of her eye alerted her–

Khadija veered to the right on her climb and twisted out of the way of a burst of gunfire.

This guy is different!

She disarmed her grenade, stowed it away and focused on movement.

Her opponent was barely on her cameras, a red box marking its relative position behind.

Automatic fire peppered everywhere she had been, a trail of explosions creeping on her.

From both the Frigate and the new assailant. Keeping both in mind, she had to act quickly.

To break a chase she had to either shake him or challenge his position.

Keeping on the move, trying to retain her momentum while maneuvering her way around the Frigate’s left fins, Khadija climbed and angled the Strelok’s fins and thrusters steeply. As she climbed she shifted her weight in the opposite direction and turned in an arc, coming to face and charge the enemy she now saw for the first time. Her movements were so fast and tight that her opponent was forced to give up the chase as she came suddenly toward them.

The enemy Diver broke away from her with a burst of solid fuel thrust and took off his own way.

Turning in another steep arc, she was suddenly behind them and chasing.

“Not an amateur, but not on my level.”

There was no reason that pilot had to stop– except that they were not confident they could avoid her without halting their momentum and throwing themselves in an entirely different direction than they had been moving in. Such jerking maneuvers were standard for pilots who saw engagements as two foot soldiers scrambling in terrain. Khadija, however, knew she was flying. And she knew objects flying through the water needed to retain as much speed as they could.

He stopped then restarted movement, and so Khadija had gone from prey to predator.

Rather than a Volker, this new enemy was a brand new Jagd, armed with a jet lance.

Its power-to-weight advantages and hydrodynamic triangle shape were wasted on its pilot.

Had it been her, she would have met any charge with that lance and let physics transpire.

Now, however, Khadija was right on his heels–

From outside her cameras, a sudden burst of gunfire crashed into the Jagd’s hull.

Suffering extensive hull damage, and attacked from two directions, the enemy suddenly showed its acumen for battle in a far more shameful fashion — it retreated. Breaking off from Khadija’s pursuit with all available thrust in its frame, heedless of energy or fuel concerns, the Jagd suddenly disappeared into the murk, likely tailing back to the Irmingard. Valya reappeared on Khadija’s cameras then and rejoined Khadija’s side, just barely keeping up as they maneuvered back toward the troubled Frigate. In minutes, the left wing of the enemy’s escort had been broken.

“How was that ma’am?” Valya asked, laughing to themselves with satisfaction.

Khadija laughed. “Quite acceptable.” And only that much.


After their formal introduction, the pilot group had some time to themselves before their arrival at Serrano Station.

Shalikova wanted to get in some practice in the simulator, which had just been set up in the hangar along with the rest of their equipment. That particular night would be the best chance she had prior to arrival. After a late dinner, she made her way back down to the nearly-deserted hangar on the lower deck. She approached what looked, to the unknowing eye, like pair of odd metal boxes suspended on stilts and struts, shoved off into a corner of the hangar.

Inside them, however, was a full set of Diver controls and monitors. They were constructed so that they would tilt and turn like a Diver would, with cameras that could be specifically oriented, and weights that simulated every kind of movement one could make in a Strelok. This would provide accurate control feedback, even though the pilot would be staring at computer-generated environments and opponents. As fake-looking as the graphics were, the physicality of holding the controls, and building up accurate muscle memory, was invaluable, at least to Shalikova.

There were two paired units set up so that pilots could spar with each other.

At that moment however, Shalikova only wanted to try her luck with the AI–

Until she heard a voice calling out to her from a nearby elevator door.

“Ah ha, lovely to see another pilot tuned to the same frequency.”

Arriving at Shalikova’s side was Khadija al-Shajara, sipping from a half-drunk mug of something richly red. A frequent member of the kitchen crew and supposedly veteran pilot, her sly expression was accented by all her makeup.

Shalikova had just come down from dinner, where Khadija would have observed her. It was no coincidence for the cat to suddenly appear to tease her. That mug of alcohol was the prize she received for helping Logia Minardo so often.

“Such a friendless expression. I just wanted to thank you properly for helping with the kitchen sometimes.”

“Well, I didn’t help tonight, so there’s no reason to thank me.”

“Ah, but I see you’re doing something interesting, so I can’t help but butt in.”

Her ears did a little twitch and her tail swayed gently as she gestured to the simulator pod.

“Why don’t we have a little spar? I’d love to see what my fellow pilots can do!”

Shalikova had heard that Khadija fought in the revolution and that she was a real hot-shot ace.

Nevertheless, she had not earned being so flighty, vain and above-it-all.

“I just wanted to warm up before anything happens.” Shalikova said bluntly, hoping that would end it.

Khadija winked and crossed her arms. “I can be as docile as the Novice AI if you want!”

Shalikova grunted and glared daggers at the older Shimii, frustration bubbling up.

There was a conceited pang in her heart that simply hated being underestimated.

Being observed was bad enough; being praised was rather annoying.

Fundamentally, however, Shalikova was familiar with praise. Praise heaped on her constantly.

Not so much with being looked down upon.

Without another word she stepped into the pod nearest her.

Khadija left her teal half-jacket and her drink outside and wordlessly stepped into the other pod.

When her challenge appeared on Shalikova’s screen, the younger pilot accepted almost impulsively.

Because she was annoyed with this old cat; she planned to be thoroughly discourteous.

“Ah, how lovely! Let’s have a clean match! Show me what you can do!”

As soon as her controls unlocked to simulate deployment, Shalikova charged Khadija.

It was a simulation, so she did not have to care about the health of her battery or turbines, the amount of ammunition she was carrying, the damage she might sustain. She could slam the pedals and hold down the trigger and declare unrelenting aggression. In an academic setting there would be points docked off her piloting, but Shalikova was no longer in school. This was war. She would use every advantage to put down this annoying old woman.

When her first magazine depleted and Khadija’s frame remained at its full integrity despite the violent outburst of automatic fire, Shalikova got an inkling that there was a problem. Then within a single blinking instant Khadija fully disappeared from her field of view, perfectly rolling over and under the hurtling Strelok and taking Shalikova’s back, fully within the blind spots of her cameras as she had set them up. It was only by rotating the backpack cameras to a torturous extent that she found Khadija’s gun barrel stuck right between the backpack and waist of her Strelok.

At that point, the younger pilot realized the extent to which there was a problem.

“Was your thrust locked? Happens sometimes out of the gate with these old sims.”

Shalikova could feel Khadija’s shitty little grin through the radio.

“Reset?” She offered sweetly. “We can break off and approach properly for a spar–”

Instead of a reset, Shalikova engaged her solid fuel vernier boosters.

She expected Khadija to attack, so she jerked herself away and retaliated; shooting only water as her opponent sped away. For the briefest instant she thought she had Khadija on the run, but this was quickly disproven.

Shalikova never even came close to putting a single bullet on her.

Though she would desperately shoot, dodge, reposition, and try to aim ahead of her enemy; Khadija snaked around her like a serpent, evading her blow and firing back at her leisure. Their match grew thoroughly one-sided.

By the time the simulator pods wound down and let the pilots out, Shalikova had gone the full range of emotions from annoyed to furious to deeply ashamed and humiliated, watching herself caught in a whirlpool within which she could do nothing. These machines kept all kinds of data, but Shalikova did not want to look at any of the comparisons.

She was upset. Not even just with Khadija but the way she herself acted. After all, had she not gotten it in her head to fight Khadija she would not have been in this situation to begin with. What rottenness had gotten into her anyway?

More than anything, she felt stupid. Like she had just wasted her time.

Shaking her head, Shalikova fully intended to walk away from the pods and go to bed.

“In a real fight you wouldn’t have time to sulk, you know. I just want to help you.”

With twitching ears and hands on her hips, her Shimii senior stepped out of her pod.

Khadija’s voice had lost its playful tone. She sounded soft and concerned.

It was this tone of voice only that caused Shalikova to pause and hear the rest.

A caring voice uncharacteristic of this particular cat. A voice begging to be listened to.

“You’re a good pilot; I want to believe you’re a pilot who can be great, too.”

Shalikova grit her teeth and balled up her fists. “I’d settle for alive.” She said.

Her frustration was still talking, but Khadija continued to respond gently.

“No you wouldn’t. Not with the way you swam back there. Come back and let’s talk.”

Khadija picked her cup up, took a gentle sip, and led the way, her bushy tail swaying gently.

Still hanging her head, and avoiding eye contact, Shalikova followed Khadija to an empty workbench.

During the night shift, there were few sailors out in the hangar. Those who did work late were tasked with inspecting the pressure and atmospheric conditions, looking for leaks, and otherwise passing through rather than staying in the hangar. This at least meant Shalikova was seen by nobody else but Khadija in this state of obvious depression.

Sitting across from the cat, Shalikova could not even look at her face at first.

Even as much as she was chastising herself for being sulky, she couldn’t help but sulk.

Her senior emptied her mug, and pushed it down onto the table with a thud.

“Shalikova! Chin up now! You’re a good pilot and you must not forget that.” Khadija said, after a brief moment of simply staring at Shalikova. Her tail swayed gently behind her. She was very relaxed, despite how intensely she must have been piloting to pull those amazing stunts Shalikova had seen firsthand. “You have great reflexes, you’re quick and accurate with your movement and thrust, and you have good control of your weapon even in burst fire. In any ordinary battle, you would charge out of your ship, engage an enemy, get the first shot on them, and go home.”

Was that not enough? What else was there to Piloting then? Shalikova grumbled.

“I won’t respond to flattery. Just tell me what I did wrong already.”

She finally raised her head to look at Khadija. Her indigo eyes met the Shimii’s bright green eyes, carefully manicured with wine-colored shadow. She almost saw herself reflected there, in the depths of those old wily eyes.

Khadija was looking directly at her with a smile. Her gaze was confident, unbroken.

“It’s not ‘what you did wrong.’ You did well. What I want is for you to do better.”

She raised her hands and used her thumb and forefinger to make a box shape.

“You have good awareness of what is occupying your surroundings Shalikova, but you are not understanding what your surroundings are and how they work, nor how you can best navigate them. It’s not about your basic piloting skill but getting the most you can out of the machine. That’s how you’ll get to the next level in your career.”

Shalikova frowned. “I don’t get what you mean. I thought I was being pretty agile in that fight.”

“Let’s look at it more broadly. Tell me, what are you moving through?”

“I mean. Water? What are you getting at? I’m not stupid.”

“Relax! Don’t take everything so personally. Alright, here.” Khadija raised her palm, wiggling her fingers. “Look at my hand. First, think of my hand as your Diver. You were moving primarily like this.” Khadija thrust her hand forward, palm out, as if to shove someone. “I was moving like this. Can you spot the difference?” She lowered her palm and pushed forward fingertips first. Shalikova blinked. She was trying to imagine a Diver moving like this instead of a hand.

“No? We’re both going forward.” Shalikova said. She immediately felt stupid for saying so.

Surface area. Water is not like air!” Khadija said. “Most of your thrust is in the backpack. So in the Academy they teach you to move forward while standing upright, like a soldier on the march, holding your gun in two hands: many Divers still fundamentally move this way because it is easier to orient yourself, watch your surroundings and respond. However, you will actually move faster if you tilt the Diver’s upper body forward of the rest. You present less surface area to the water; there’s less tension! You get more out of the leg jets too. Think of how you swim in a pool!”

Thinking about it further, Shalikova herself did swim parallel to the bottom of the pool. It was just– natural.

“By tilting forward, your upper body and shoulders break the water for the rest of you.”

Khadija lowered her chest and stuck her shoulders out with a wink, as if demonstrating.

Shalikova recalled Khadija’s magnificent, snaking movements.

Dashing through the water like– like a torpedo, a missile, a bullet. All the objects Shalikova wanted to compare it to were flat and long. There was indeed much less surface area trying to break through the water if the object was shaped like a bullet and launched out of a barrel with the same orientation a bullet had. That made some kind of sense.

“You weren’t always moving that way.” Shalikova said, trying to find some kind of caveat.

Khadija rested her head on her heads and shut her eyes in a placid little expression.

“Of course. You have to know when to use every tool in your arsenal. You are not piloting a bulkhead door through the sea, you know? Your Diver has four backpack jets, two leg jets, solid fuel boosters on the arms, legs and shoulders, fins on the hips, shoulders; you can pivot your upper body slightly, you can move the arms up and down, you can tilt the chest forward, you can tuck the legs back. All this range of movement gives you options. You can’t move any one way forever. It’s too predictable! I prefer to remain moving as much as possible, but even stopping can be a tool.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Shalikova said. “I guess I never really thought about it.”

It made sense. It got her thinking, imagining herself back in the cockpit. Moving.

“Another thing of fundamental importance.” Khadija said, smiling ever more broadly, perhaps realizing she had Shalikova’s attention. She really could pull an rector’s voice out of herself. “Underwater, you can move in any direction. You can dive deeper, you can climb the water table, you can thrust upward in a diagonal trajectory, you can move upside down, you can face the surface or the sea floor while thrusting yourself forward. You have to move in three dimensions. Most pilots will just move parallel to their enemy. It’s too easy to exploit them.”

There was a smug look to the cat’s red lips as she explained herself.

Shalikova blinked. Her eyes drew a little wide. She started thinking, ever deeper and with more detail. She could see her Diver, the ocean, every piece of gear, every possible movement. She was indeed not on a flat plane.

Khadija’s fluid movements had seemed so stunning in the moment.

Now Shalikova truly felt like she could see them. She saw herself at the controls–

“If you want, we can hop back in and I can show you what I mean.” Khadija said.

Shalikova stood up immediately. Her heart was surging. She wanted to fight Khadija again.

“Let’s go. One more round.” She said, trying her best to restrain her energy.

Khadija beamed at her and quietly accented.

They had a few more matches that night.

Her low opinion of Khadija improved somewhat. She was, at least, a decent teacher.


I did my quota of freaking out on the ship. Now I have to be firm. Shalikova told herself.

This was not a simulation. That was days ago. It was the real thing, out in the open Ocean.

There wouldn’t be thirty other Divers and a fleet picking up the slack like in Thassal either.

She was one of two, and she had to make every bullet and every moment count.

When the 114th Diver squadron left the Brigand’s orbit and separated into their sections, Shalikova followed Murati on an almost fifty meter climb up the water table. They would need the altitude to go over the Destroyer’s deck. Most of the gas guns on an Imperial Wespe class Destroyer were ventral double-barrel pods, so the escort would float several meters above its charge and spray down at its enemies. This forced any engaging Divers to separate physically.

Ascending through the murk was more difficult than simply charging ahead. She had no landmarks to go off of except the vague “enemy squares” on the predictor overlay, each of which represented a square area several meters across and not a direct, pinpoint location. So she had to orient herself and keep track of her direction to the square that represented the Destroyer while hurtling through the water, unable to see anything but particles of biological matter dancing in the beams of her flashlights, black specks on white, against the dark blue of the surrounding ocean.

She was also mindful, however, not to move wholly relative to the Destroyer either.

“Contact!” Murati shouted.

Before she knew it, Shalikova was met with a withering fusillade from just out of sight.

Wespe class destroyers were like a dagger-shape covered in double-barreled gas gun pods, slicing through the Ocean. A gunmetal grey sentinel looming over the behemoth below, hundreds, thousands of lines of bullets flew from it and saturated the surrounding water with the small pops and bangs of gas gun bullets exploding all around them.

Against that wall of fire Shalikova felt suddenly dwarfed.

As she looked at Murati ahead, she saw her orienting the Cheka’s chest forward.

“Give it everything you have Shalikova! Follow me!”

Shalikova tilted her own chest forward, with her teeth grit, kicked the thrust pedals down.

She was used to speeds of 60 or 70 knots; suddenly she felt she was going past 80!

Hurtling over the deck of the destroyer, she and Murati buzzed right past the conning tower in an instant, leaving in their wake the trails of enemy bullets. Dozens of muted muzzle flashes below like ephemeral spotlights in the nearby murk. It felt like there was not one meter of surface on that Destroyer that was not spitting bullets at them. Vapor bubbles swarmed all around them, beset on all sides by rattling shockwaves, it was like swimming in the middle of an underwater storm. On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but the snapping of the guns and bursting of the shells.

Out of that great roaring barrage, not one bullet had struck her directly.

It was some combination of Shalikova’s own acumen and the ship’s poor fire control.

“Shalikova!” Murati called over the radio. “Good maneuvering! We’re staying ahead of the barrage, but we can’t take out every pod individually with this much gunfire. I have an idea. You have a grenade on you, right?”

While maneuvering over the raging Destroyer, Shalikova checked her magnetic strip for inventory.

A diagnostic display showed the objects attached to it.

“I do, but only one.” She said.

“Good! We’ll strike one of its jets! Even if it doesn’t sink, it’ll lag behind the Irmingard!”

“Got it!”

Just as Shalikova began to reach for her grenade, a burst of gunfire soared past them.

She stowed her grenade on her magnetic strip and swerved. Bullets went off around them leaving bubbles size of a small animal. A larger caliber than the gas gun bullets flying everywhere before.

Judging by the angle and the caliber, it had not come from the ship but from–

A red flash, and a new box appeared on one of her side monitors.

“Incoming! Shalikova, get around behind the Destroyer–”

Shalikova cut Murati off.

“No, I’ll break off the Destroyer and tie them up! You have bombing to do!”

Without waiting for Murati’s assent, Shalikova turned fluidly around in an arc and darted toward a pair of Volkers coming in from below them. They appeared from around the side fins of the Destroyer but quickly separated from it into the open water between the escorts and the Irmingard. If they stuck too close to either ship, they would risk becoming victims to friendly fire.

Thinking about what Khadija taught her, Shalikova soared past the Destroyer, zigzagging the flak curtain, and moving to intercept the Divers. She fought her instinct to straighten out her Strelok and shoot at them from the shoulder– it was difficult not to treat the mecha exactly as she would her own body, while still remaining as immersed in her maneuvers as she normally was.

Khadija could fire from the chest at these speeds, whether charging or strafing–

But Shalikova could hardly pull trigger before the Volkers grew enormous in her cameras.

She sped right into their midst, dodging a second round of gunfire as she neared them.

Her enemies threw themselves aside, perhaps fearing that she intended to ram them.

Breaking in between them, and roaring well past, she threw her Strelok into a climb.

“God damn it.”

She was trying to fight like Khadija, but she was unused to shooting while moving this fast.

In the simulator, Khadija had time to set up her cameras–

Because she created space for it! Shalikova realized that’s why she circled around so much.

“I’m an idiot! I just flew in without thinking!”

At these speeds, she wasn’t able to shoot! She couldn’t even think fast enough to shoot!

She had to slow down, but–

“I know!”

In the middle of her climb, Shalikova twisted her Strelok around, going over the Volkers.

Bursting the top two jets in the backpack– along with the legs, and solid fuel boost from the shoulders– manipulating the fins– moving more weight into the shoulder– her little hands moved all over the controls in her cockpit, flipping what felt like every switch and every button– she hardly realized Khadija had to put this much effort into moving, she was sweating so much–

Her frantic actions within the cockpit, invisible to her opponent, had a dramatic result.

She tumbled, head over feet, descending behind her opponents while upside down.

Much of the momentum she built up dissipated in the snap changes in directions.

But her bewildered enemies could not even turn as she riddled their backs with bullets.

Dozens of rounds of fully automatic fire, until the magazine ejected. Impact after impact crashing into the first Volker, before she jerked the gun toward the second. Bullets smashing into ducts, blowing up on top of the jets, perforating the spare magazines kept on the rear magnetic strip and causing secondary explosions, the Volkers twisted and torn by the blasts. Severed cockpits leaking oxygen and blood slowly descending with arms gone limp and legs asunder.

Shalikova’s snap maneuver took her beneath the ruined Volkers, now swimming chest up.

For a brief instant she was a girl floating as if on the surface of a vast pool.

Gazing up at a sky of broken metal falling around her.

She could almost see colors, colors other than the dim, dark blue of the water.

Red, anguished colors.

Green, sickly colors.

Blueish-Black, the specter of death–

Silvery white. Peace and departure–

Shalikova shook her head and climbed as a wave of renewed flak swept past her position.

Dozens of small explosions dissipated the colors and further tore up the remains.

“What colors?” She murmured to herself. “There weren’t any colors.”

Rising in a wide arc to retain speed and avoid fire, Shalikova doubled back to the Destroyer.

“Volkers down. Squad leader, I thought you’d have blown it up by–”

Before Shalikova could finish, she heard two loud shocks over the hydrophone.

Dozens of meters ahead of them, an earthshaking blast sent the Frigate on the Irmingard’s right wing plummeting into the sea floor. A shockwave rippled out from the explosion that had even Shalikova’s chassis vibrating. It could only have been one of the bombs since the Brigand’s 76 mm aft guns could not have had such a dramatic effect. Only a moment later, she heard the sound of knocking metal and realized that the Destroyer was descending and stalling.

“You were saying, Shalikova?” Murati laughed.

That thundering curtain of flak slowed to a sputter of feeble warding fire.

Unable to fight off Murati or keep up with the fleet, it began to turn and flee.

She must have done some damage to the rear like she planned.

All of the fighting they were doing took place in the context of the Irmingard chasing the Brigand. It was easy to forget with how fast their mecha were moving, and how massive all of the ships around them were, that the entire battlefield was in motion. It was only when the Irmingard fleet’s tight formation was broken so completely that Shalikova paid heed to this fact once again. The Irmingard lumbered forward, while its escorts were now falling or fleeing.

Shalikova could find no more ship contacts in the immediate vicinity.

“We’ve opened the way. Sameera used her bomb, but I’ve still got mine.” Murati said.

The Cheka regrouped with Shalikova. There was mild cosmetic damage on her shoulder.

“Are you ok?”

Murati sounded unshaken. “Just got exposed to a bit of ventral fire– it’s not a big deal.”

“If you say so. I’ll go on ahead of you and draw the flagship’s fire.” Shalikova said.

“Good job taking care of those Divers by yourself. I have full confidence in you.”

“It’s nothing. Could’ve gone better even.”

“Do you have damage?”

“No. I just mean– it’s not worthy of praise.”

Before her squad leader could continue flattering her Shalikova charged ahead.

The Cheka was not very far behind. Shalikova reloaded her weapon and grit her teeth.

When they turned away from the Destroyer their view was dominated by the colossal grey frame of the Irmingard class dreadnought. A Frigate or a Destroyer was already many, many times the size of a Diver. And yet there was no comparison to how that flagship made Shalikova feel like a speck of plankton helplessly spinning in the water. Its vaguely spoon-shaped prow and thick, enormous cylindrical chassis with its swept wing fins and sharply flared rear were so regal and aggressive. There was no truer representation of the fearful violence they were up against.

That ship was the Imbrian Empire, cruel tyrant over half of what remained of their world.

Shalikova’s grip tightened on her controls. Her hands were cold, her palms moist.

For the sake of everything they believed in, they had to be the arrow that hobbled this beast.

As they approached, homing in on the center of that wall of grey, long lines of flak erupted from the gas gun pods lined up in front of them. Different pods coordinated to fire together in groups of six barrels. Their fire discipline was completely unlike that of the other ships. Shalikova found herself swerving far more violently away from gunfire that crept closer and closer.

Her chassis rattled as a bullet deflected right off the left shoulder.

Thankfully, it didn’t explode right on the armor. She accelerated even more.

“I’m breaking off, they’re on me.” Shalikova said.

“I think they’re on both of us!”

Shalikova threw the Strelok into a sudden climb, wrenching up with a kick of the vernier thrusters. While boosting up and momentarily out of the gunfire she glanced at one of the side camera feeds.

Murati’s Cheka was targeted wholly independently of her own Strelok.

Different sections of the Irmingard’s flak guns were coordinating different targets.

A half-dozen barrels peppered Shalikova’s surroundings and a half-dozen harried Murati.

It was nothing like the basic saturation fire of the other ships.

They would not take Shalikova as a piece of bait so easily. They were more experienced.

“With this much gunfire I won’t be able to get to the aft. I’ll bomb the main guns!”

Murati’s Cheka broke off from Shalikova and into its own climb, spiraling away from intense gunfire. Her destination lay atop the Irmingard’s deck, central to the hull and just behind the spoon prow, a squat, double-barrel turret: the feared 203 mm main guns that supported the smaller guns fixed on the prow itself. As a military flagship, the Irmingard bore its guns fixed on the deck, they could never be hidden or stowed unlike the Brigand’s guns. Shalikova knew the main magazine was buried deeper in the ship and would not go off if the turret itself was destroyed.

Preventing the Irmingard from shooting effectively would accomplish their mission.

Even if the ship itself was not sent to the bottom of the sea floor.

Shalikova did not like it– but perhaps it was an object lesson on their lack of power.

As they climbed higher, flak intensified. Deck gas guns joined the port-side guns in firing.

Murati accelerated in a high arc, leaving behind the port-side fire but trailed by the deck guns. Dozens of vapor bubbles bloomed around her. Shalikova’s own chassis vibrated relentlessly with the shockwaves of bullets going off all around her, their impacts just close enough to make her feel it without tearing off any metal.

While Murati kept climbing Shalikova overflew the prow.

Her side camera was not just for following Murati’s positioning.

It was also coordinating with the camera on her assault rifle, held to her chest.

Shalikova ranged the triangle formation of gas gun pods covering center of the deck.

Their barrels lifted high as they chased Murati, flashing repeatedly in the dim water.

“Here’s your opening, Murati!”

Short, practiced rapping on the triggers, three presses, pause, three presses.

She saw the bursts of gunfire fly off into the blue on her gun camera.

Her bullets flew amid the gas gun pods and struck metal with brilliant, fleeting blasts.

A brighter flash, erupting suddenly from among the gas gun formation.

One pod went off, its magazine cooked.

Dozens of popping, flashing blasts from the pod’s magazine sent metal spraying.

Meanwhile the other pods went dead silent.

Whether Shalikova struck them, or damaged the electronics or optics, she did not know.

Nevertheless, she realized she had quieted the deck fire on Murati’s side.

Her own safety on the prow was far less certain.

All around her, gas gun pods on the prow now enfiladed her, firing from every direction.

Bullets crashed into her hip armor and a stray shell even smashed into the cockpit armor.

Warnings flashed on her diagnostics. Real hull damage. No breaches.

Shalikova nearly had a heart attack. “Warn me about any breaches first you trash!”

Cockpit shaking violently, Shalikova threw herself into a roll and dove, touching down on the actual surface of the enemy ship and crouching. She hoped to avoid most of the gunfire this way, and for the briefest moment she found respite from the shooting– until she realized that there were no barrels flashing anymore.

All of the flak on the deck had quieted down just as she landed.

She was pointing her assault rifle at completely dormant gun pods.

“They’re avoiding friendly fire– Murati!”

Her suspicion proved correct almost immediately. Murati’s crackling voice responded:

“No chance to bomb–! Incoming!”

Shalikova leaped off the prow surface with microsecond boost from the vernier thrusters.

Charging across the shallow curve of the prow, in time to spot the enemy attacking Murati.

When she got close enough to see both of their figures clearly–

Murati leaped back off the deck as an enemy Diver pounced.

A trail of assault fire struck where she stood, and her enemy glided over the deck.

The attacker smoothly overflew the deck surface while raising her rifle.

Accurate, disciplined bursts crept closer and closer to Murati’s position.

Murati had been facing the enemy, climbing diagonally away from it with all of her thrust.

When she opened fire, the enemy below side-stepped it without losing any speed.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide. It reminded her of the gulf between her and–

“Murati! I’m coming! Hold on!”

As her words carried through the communicator the enemy Diver launched up.

In an instant the Diver drew a vibroblade from its magnetic strip with its free hand.

In the open water just off of the Irmingard’s surface the duelists clashed.

Sword met steel– Murati’s assault rifle, held by barrel and stock to block the overhead slash.

Shalikova drew closer and closer but not soon enough.

She thought the Diver would hack through Murati’s rifle but when it found its slash blocked, the machine moved fluidly with its own sword and leaped over Murati with a kick of its own auxiliary vernier thrusters, leaving a cloud of vaporized water and solid fuel exhaust where Murati was once clashing with it. The attacker rolled its body over Murati’s Cheka, and in a flash that sword swung once again, upside down at the Cheka’s shoulder.

There was an ephemeral red burst as the sword’s thruster briefly kicked in.

A burning crimson wound as the monomolecular, vibrating edge cut through the Cheka’s shoulder.

Murati threw her weight down and aside.

A chunk of metal blew off the Cheka, the shoulder in pieces, the roll of steel cable floating away in the debris as her left jet anchor pod ejected from the machine’s body. Murati torturously wrenched her mecha to face the attacker and shoot, but she was out of balance, damaged, and her enemy was still moving. Now fearless with a tumbling, dazed opponent, the attacker flew right through Murati’s desperate gunfire and swung its sword, this time to take the head–

“Murati! Get back!”

Shalikova shouted in desperation and surged ahead.

Shoulder set, she rammed herself in between Murati and the attacker.

Reacting with incredible alacrity, the enemy threw itself back from Shalikova.

There was no word from Murati, but the Cheka still looked stable in the water.

“Damn it.”

Every time, just like Khadija, the attacker went from motion to motion, fluidly, perfectly.

Others would have been disoriented for even a second having to wrench their machine back. This pilot expertly used the verniers to retreat as Shalikova entered their space, and to then thrust upward and resume maneuver. It all happened so fast that there was no distinction between the two separate instances of thrust. Just like Khadija, who moved like a serpent through the waters, perfectly conserving momentum throughout. This was a whole other level from the enemies they had faced so far, and it was only from observing a veteran like Khadija as keenly as she had that Shalikova understood the gulf between herself and this foe. She understood enough to fear them.

That machine was no ordinary Volker either.

Volkers were almost comical in how round they were, the arms practically came out of the central orb with slanted shoulders barely covering the joint, their helmeted heads affixed in an exposed mount right atop the hull. Any angled armor surfaces were clearly bolted on as an afterthought. Nothing like the machine now in front of her.

In place of the orb-like body was a robust, three-piece, interlocking chest, waist/hip, and shoulder chassis. Armored surfaces concealing the cockpit boasted complex geometry to help deflect and absorb impacts. Broadly triangular, the silhouette had wider shoulders and a humanoid, helmeted “head” with multi-directional, almost snake-eyed, visor-like cameras. Its arms and legs were modified with light but steeply angled armor over the joints. There was no bulge anywhere for a battery, and an extra jet on the back, with small intakes all around the machine, all “second gen” traits.

A new second generation mecha, to add to the Empire’s advantage–

Nevertheless, Shalikova charged after this enemy.

“That cat wouldn’t turn away from something like this!”

Her voice coming out of her lips was desperate, exhausted, cracking with fear.

Her mind was working so fast her brain pounded with pain.

And still, she went after that enemy with all her might, just moments after it bested Murati.

There was no reason to attack the Irmingard if she was not willing to lunge at the monsters that came from it. That flagship already outclassed the Brigand in every way. The Imbrian Empire already outclassed the Union in every way. And yet, Khadija, that brilliant pilot who had mastered the sea, still fought these unspeakable odds in the revolution. She saw herself dwarfed and outmatched by enormous guns and ships and fought on regardless.

Shalikova couldn’t bear losing to that woman in this too.

Steeled by her fear, with beasts of death before and behind her, she attacked.

“Where will it move, where–”

Shalikova centered the enemy in her vision and opened fire with her assault rifle.

Once more the opponent thrust upward out of the firing line.

“You like going up, huh?”

She tried to put her barrel ahead of where the enemy would go, rapping the trigger.

With graceful banking movements the enemy avoided fire and arced toward her. A quick burst of gunfire responded, and Shalikova thrust herself deeper down to avoid it. All the while facing the enemy, shooting up at them at the edge of her vision. Chasing a shadow that moved faster than she could hope to track, briefly lighting it with feeble bursts of gunfire that did not even graze the wake of its jets. Between her own evasive maneuvers and the dexterous way her enemy moved she was shooting into the water and doing nothing but stirring up empty bubbles. She was shooting more wastefully than her opponent, and soon found herself close to having to reload.

Luckily, she wasn’t trying to hit them directly.

She was just trying to get them moving.

Shalikova ceased running away from the enemy and burst forward in their direction.

Already facing the enemy as she retreated, the abrupt switch to charging in her direction caused her no disorientation. Firing all her solid fuel thrusters and ramming down the pedals for all the jet power she could muster, Shalikova threw herself at an enemy that was dashing at her, cutting their distance dramatically. From the magnetic strip behind her mecha she withdrew and quickly unfolded her diamond sword, revved up the motor and spun the teeth. Along with taking the sword she also threw out everything else on her magnetic strip, shedding some precious weight.

In a second, she was in the enemy’s face, sword out, swinging, with all her momentum.

Her opponent did not stand for such a thing and with a snap thrust, leaped over her.

Just like with Murati she was trying to swing at her from behind.

“I’ve already seen that trick!”

Practically cackling, Shalikova angled every fin, reallocated all the movable weight, and threw all of her thrust into a lurching motion that took her suddenly down and to the left. Her body wrenched in her chair at the sudden twisting of the chassis, but the enemy’s swing completely missed her, slicing through the water and leaving her overextended.

She was in no position to fight back and that mecha was now right behind her–

“Got you! I got you, you bastard!”

Behind her, a grenade that had been on her magnetic strip, armed and discarded, went off.

Water vaporized rapidly around the explosion forming an enormous bubble just a handful of meters away.

The shockwave threw Shalikova into total disarray. She spun feet over head, carried on the sudden wave generated by the explosion. Too close, suicidally close, but–

Struggling with her controls and trying to right herself she adjusted the cameras–

Looking for debris–

From behind her, that mecha suddenly reappeared, sword overhead and coming down.

There was nothing Shalikova could do. She had no time to respond.

She closed eyes that were stinging with sweat and tears and grit her teeth.

Her hydrophone picked up the clanging of metal on metal in the waters.

When she heard it over the headset, she also heard herself breathe.

Felt her heart beating, faster and faster.

Then a burst of gunfire.

Shalikova’s eyes opened wide, and she looked frantically at her cameras.

Murati’s Cheka was approaching, opening fire with a shaking arm and a damaged rifle.

Clearly limping in the water, having lost some energy cells from the attack it endured.

Her shooting was missing the mark, no better than the flak from the patrol ships–

But between Shalikova and the enemy, a different ally stood, suddenly formidable.

“You did good, Shali~”

Over the communicator, sounded the soft, playful, calm voice of Khadija al-Shajara.

Holding her own sword and standing face to face with the mecha in front of them.

Both having stopped moving for an instant as if respecting each other.

That enemy did not fear Murati’s shooting or Shalikova’s tricks, but this gave her pause.

“Khadija–”

Shalikova was almost going to apologize. She felt so helpless.

Khadija interrupted her immediately.

“Leave this to me. You’ve done everything you could. Give Valya the other bomb and take Murati’s limping remains away from here before she hurts herself or us.” She paused, and after a deep breath, released a bit of laughter. Her tone changed. “I’m not one to recite the name of the Lord for every detail like some other Shimii do, but this is fated, Shalikova. The Red Baron of Cascabel. I was fated to meet her here. We’re gonna settle a little score, she and I.”

Her voice was slick with a bloodthirst that Shalikova had never heard from her before.

Had the fighting gotten to her so badly? What was she babbling about?

Shalikova was in no position to do anything but what she was told, however.

Without openly questioning Khadija, she started to move away.

It was at that point, that whatever fated bell tolled for Khadija tolled for the rest of them.

Twin, massive, concussive shocks into the water that left the Union soldiers speechless.

In that moment, the Irmingard dreadnought fired its 203mm guns in anger.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.4]

“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’, Sameera–”

There was always a brief pause in her mind when she was about to leave the deployment chute. No matter what was happening, whether a Leviathan was coiled around the ship, or a group of smugglers was getting away. It spanned the briefest period of time that one might acknowledge as a complete thought. Pilots always stated their designation and name as a courtesy to the Bridge crew, so the officers could confirm exactly who was going out and in which machine.

What was her name? She surely couldn’t say the whole damned thing–

“Sameera Al-Shahouh. Deploying!”

Whenever she launched off a ship, she always chose the side of her Shimii mother. It was confusing. She had never felt like either a Loup or a Shimii. Thankfully it was a short-lived anxiety. Her name ceased to matter once she was launched into the endless blue of the ocean. Her Diver pushed down into the water from the deployment chute, free of the ship, adrift in the waters. From the earbuds Sameera wore in lieu of a pilot’s headphones, she caught Dominika’s voice.

“UND-114-C, ‘Strelkannon’, Dominika Rybolovskaya– Deploying!”

Around her, in that dark, murky blue, Sameera picked up the other Divers in her cameras. She had been one of the first to deploy alongside Dominika, Murati and Sonya; Khadija and Valya would be coming out in a few moments. She fixed one camera on Dominika to try to keep her position in mind at all times. More than being a beautiful girl, she was her squad mate, after all.

“Nika, is your heartbeat rising?” She asked.

“I’m closing the audio channel too if you’re going to keep being annoying.”

Sameera smiled, but Nika pointedly kept their video channel closed. “I’m just being nice!”

“Whatever.”

Sameera’s own heartbeat was certainly quickening. Those moments just after deployment but right before the melee were excruciating. It was too surreal to be sitting around idly in a war machine. She became preoccupied with the isolation of her human body within the cold cockpit. It was only the promise of the glorious hunt that lay ahead which steeled her resolve.

“Good hunting!” She finally said. Nika did not return the sentiment.

Dominika’s “Strelkannon” was armed with a launcher for underwater rockets on one shoulder and a semi-automatic cannon in the other. In her Diver’s humanoid hands she carried a 20 mm Gepard SMG just like the one Sameera was carrying too, but that was a last resort weapon.

Sameera’s job in a squadron like this was to make sure Dominika never had to fire that type of weapon. Murati must have known this was a role she was familiar with and thinking about this fact flattered Sameera. As part of the Border Forces’ Leviathan control squadrons, she often partnered with Strelkannon pilots, acting as a bodyguard for those bigger, slower frames.

“Keep steady for a moment, until Khadija and Valya are ready.” Murati said.

After deploying from the chute, the Divers immediately engaged their engines. Because the Brigand was moving, and the enemy fleet was moving, they had to actively pursue the Brigand for a few moments in order to stick with it themselves. At full tilt, their Divers could move much faster than the Brigand, which itself was not moving too quickly at the moment. So it was not much effort for them to orbit the ship’s keel for a few seconds to maintain formation.

Khadija and Valya descended shortly thereafter. All six frames were in the water.

Over the communicator, the voice of Electronic Warfare Officer Zachikova sounded.

“Jamming munition going out!”

Something then emerged from the utility chute near the Brigand’s aft in a flurry of bubbles.

“Everyone, switch off your audio for the next minute and follow me.” Murati said.

Sameera acknowledged.

Beneath the armrest to which her control stick was attached there were physical controls for some of the touchscreen functions. Sameera preferred these, to quickly get her hands back on the sticks if she needed. She switched off the audio from there. With the audio off, it also meant all the predictors, which used acoustic data, became useless, frozen on their last prediction of what the surroundings looked like. Sameera focused on the physical cameras.

She then engaged her accelerator, pushing the pedal into a slot in the chair to lock it in.

Her ‘Cossack’ thrust out from under the Brigand, propelling itself on jets of ocean water.

Murati’s Cheka, with its sleek design and dark paint job led the charge into the murky ocean ahead, Shalikova’s slightly modified Strelok keeping close behind. Sameera had tested the Cheka, so knowing its speed, she knew exactly how fast she needed to go in order to keep some kind of pace with it, while also staying near Dominika, who was definitely bringing up the rear. The Strelkannon’s armament made it a couple knots slower than everyone else in all respects.

At first the loose assemblage of Divers stuck close beneath the keel of the Brigand, but after clearing the jets on the back of the mothership and entering the open water between their ship and the enemy fleet, the group broke into their sections with practiced understanding. Even without communication, they all knew the prerogatives of a Diver pilot in a combat situation. Don’t stack up, or a flurry of torpedoes or concentrated gunfire could kill the whole squad; keep moving with your squadmate toward your objective. Always assume your squadmate is going after the objective and move together. Sameera and Dominika dropped altitude together. Fifteen meters apart from each other, and many more from Murati or Khadija, they charged directly through the center.

Without the predictor, there was nothing concrete on her cameras but Dominika. No ground below them, nothing ahead but the dark blue water and dusty traces of organic matter filtering down from the photic zone. She was suspended in water. It was sometimes hard to come to terms with. Within her metal bubble, the movements of her machine felt dream-like without an enemy in sight or any landmarks to give her any feedback. She felt airy, as if descending forward; it felt like gravity was taking her through the murky nothingness around her more than her own power.

All she had to go on was the last positions of the fleet and her own instincts.

Her heart beating fast, a cold sweat building on her chest, Sameera counted the seconds.

She hated those slow, vulnerable moments. She wanted to be in the fight– sixty seconds.

Electronic Warfare was sophisticated enough now that it was basically impossible for such a munition to jam the enemy’s acoustic computers for very long. Computers by themselves could digitally attenuate the noise with surprising speed, and a skilled Electronic Warfare officer could potentially take less than a minute to shut out the attack and restore functionality. Because the jamming munition was so disruptive to its owner too, it was set to disable itself within a minute. It was a distraction, nothing more, but blinding every acoustic data device for a minute was enough.

Like every weapon, it was not just the capabilities, but the tactical use, that mattered.

At their top speeds, the enemy fleet was well over a minute away.

Being able to cut any amount of that distance undetected was a blessing.

For those sixty nerve-wracking seconds there was nothing but the feeling of her clammy, slick skin, the sound of her heightened breathing, and the sight of the empty ocean all around her. She waited two additional seconds just in case, since the munition’s noise could have hurt her hearing; she then flipped on the audio.

She was greeted by Murati’s crackly, low quality voice.

“Stay in contact with your squadmate and keep moving! We’ll see them ahead soon!”

Her computer began collecting acoustic information again.

Though her predictor and sonar were nowhere near as sophisticated as those on the Brigand, they could cross-reference data compiled by the Brigand to keep track of objects as overlays on the cameras. Before she could see them physically, the enemy fleet appeared as red squares denoting hostile positions dead ahead.

Seeing something, anything, in her cameras stilled Sameera’s heartbeat just a bit.

Being able to hear the ocean and her squad again also calming.

It helped her ease out of the physical isolation of her body and become her machine instead.

And her machine saw four smaller squares, flanked by two larger squares, and a massive one even farther out ahead. As she got closer, the shapes became slowly more and more distinct in the dark water. She picked up speed to approach. For the next few seconds, every reaction counted.

Ignoring the massive square representing the Irmingard class flagship, she focused instead on the lighter prey. Attacking from below enabled them to get at the keels and maybe pop some of the ballast tanks. She dove several dozen meters down with Dominika before turning back up toward the fleet. Moments later she saw the first hint of metal appearing in the waters overhead.

Dozens of rounds of gas gun ammunition from the ventral guns rained down on them.

Though she could hardly see the guns, she did see the lines of bullets cutting through water.

All around her, explosions went off leaving vapor bubbles the size of an adult’s head.

Her cockpit stirred as weak shockwaves flowed past her machine from every direction. No direct hits; just pervasive weak vibration. Gas gun bullets had proximity and flight fuzes so they would go off even without a direct impact. Their goal was for at least some of those blasts to nip at her armor, at her gear. If the ocean could stick even a finger into her cockpit, she would die.

In Sameera’s mind, the best defense against this was a rapid offense.

“Nika, I’m engaging the–!” Sameera called out.

Launching missile,”

Before Sameera could finish her sentence, a rocket sailed past her on a trail of vapor.

One of the cutter’s keels erupted with an enormous vapor bubble, disgorging metal. From the epicenter of the explosion, a shockwave shook the waters around the vessel. Gunfire from the stricken craft ceased instantly, and the conning tower tipped sideways as the ship began to sink.

Three remaining cutters began to swerve close together to put up a tighter curtain of fire.

“Jump left; I’ll release another missile!” Dominika called out.

“Got it!” Sameera replied.

From behind her, Dominika’s Strelkannon launched a second missile.

With the increasing volume of enemy flak all around them, Dominika’s missile detonated just short of the mark, struck by the errant gunfire. Vapor from the explosion created a brief screen between themselves and the fleet that the pair used to reposition. Sameera engaged her jets and solid fuel boosters and veered quickly to avoid the guns, keeping her cameras trained on both the enemy and Dominika to insure they were not separated. Dominika hit a sharp right instead.

Rising up the water table, Sameera swept up and to the left out from under the ships.

While the ventral guns shot at nothing, the dorsal guns retrained on Sameera as she rose.

All around her the water parted in white lines pushed aside by supercavitating bullets. Brief muzzle flashes indicated continuing gunfire. Bubbles and water vapor dispersed like fog around the Cutters as the disturbances from previous explosions settled and the white clouds of fresh blasts bloomed amid the dim blue ocean. A geyser of water bubbles erupted from the sinking cutter below as another section failed due to pressure. Soon it would fall out of sight and strike the sea floor.

All of this was happening in such a brief span of time, it could hardly be thought about. Seconds, moments, instants of Sameera’s life, flashes too minute to ever be memories. Punctuated with more violence than any ordinary person would ever see in a lifetime. Sameera let out a breath, her eyes were starting to tear up from the stale air in the cockpit. She was focused, steeled.

I was insane enough to stare those fucking things in the face. I can handle this.

Sameera always put her body on the line. She had to; it was the only place she belonged.

For a brief instant, on the edge of one of her cameras a new, flashing red square appeared.

Sameera noticed it and reacted immediately, darting at full speed in its direction.

“Incoming contacts, Nika.”

“Intercept them and quit calling my nickname so much.” A calm, stoic voice immediately responded.

Sameera loved that. She didn’t have any expectation that Nika would ever like her anyway.

Grinning to herself, she withdrew a weapon from behind the Cossack’s backpack.

Upon taking the gear off the magnetic strip it was attached to, this seemingly rectangular, unintelligible object sprang to life in her mech’s hand. One half released and snapped into place atop the other. A handle attached to a blade with an armored rear end protecting a rail, battery and driving gear for the saw-blade cutting surface. Called variously diamond swords or diamond cutters, depending on the size and shape, these were the Union’s simpler version of the Imperial vibrosword. A long, spinning blade made of diamond and depleted agarthicite, wielded in hand.

Sameera’s sword could have cut into a ship, but it would not be turned on them for now.

Her “Cossack” shone brightest when it came to fighting other Divers.

It was almost the same as cutting up Leviathan meat. They were prey; she was the hunter.

“Sorry fellas, but I’m the only one who has a date with this lady~!”

Swerving to avoid flak, she launched into a sudden charge toward the incoming Divers.

Within sight a pair of rotund imperial Volkers appeared from the murk with 37 mm rifles in hand. Like an egg tapering down into a waist where legs could go, and shoulders that arms could slide into, these were quite basic enemy Divers. They had traced the explosions to Dominika’s Strelkannon and were moving in the direction their predictors told them the missiles came from.

Their rear cameras must have seen Sameera closing in.

Likely it was the inexperience of the pilots that led them not to pay attention to their flank.

Sameera raised her SMG and fired a burst of 20 mm gunfire ahead of them, mid-charge.

Five bullets exploded harmlessly in their vicinity, and in a panic, they came to a dead stop.

Sameera was on top of them in the next instant.

Bursting up above them and then suddenly shifting all her thrust downward, she smashed her sword on nearest Volker, digging into the shoulder and the helmeted head at the front of the round chassis. Her sword’s spinning teeth ripped a jagged wound right over the enemy’s cockpit.

Dead. Not even the faintest response from that unit as Sameera changed targets.

Acting fluidly in that same instant of violence, she ripped her sword from her first victim and raised her Gepard to the second, firing off a five-round burst into the side of the second Volker point blank. Fist sized blasts tore bits of armor off the arm and hip, but one bullet got deep into the arm joint before exploding under the shoulder. Bubbles and foam burst out of this tiny orifice.

Pressure ripped open the machine, spewing gore and debris from the expanding wound.

Dead. A lucky shot from Sameera and an unlucky one for this pilot.

One finger of the Ocean had gotten into the cockpits through the leg joint. One instant amid this dance of steel; enough for two lives to end so suddenly. But she was not alone, and the fighting had not stopped because a few targets were dead. As she threw herself into that melee, she was well aware that they were dancing within a storm of steel as the enemy flak trained on her.

It took seconds to score those kills, and then she had to run again.

In response to her charge a fusillade erupted from the Frigates’ own gas gun turrets ahead.

Matching the intensity of the fire from the nearby Cutters, it threatened to enfilade her.

Engaging her jets, she retreated from before the Frigates to arc back over the Cutters.

She beheld the looming, murky shadow of the flagship, the Irmingard class, moving ever closer. Tangling with the Volkers was like fighting a duel in front of a monument shrouded by fog. She was so dwarfed, that what she could see of the enemy ship occupied all of her field of vision. Even the Frigates also moving into range did not make up anywhere near as much of the space.

To that ship, Sameera and the Volkers were nothing but specks of dust dancing in the water.

For a moment, she thought of herself, a tiny thing framed before that colossal figure.

But only for a moment. Sameera’s innocence toward battle had been taken long ago.

And she hated thinking of herself as small. She had to be huge; she had to be the biggest.

All the while she thought this she sped away toward Dominika’s position. There were at least six other Divers lurking somewhere and she had made it her personal mission that none of them would touch a hair on her precious Nika’s head. It was this sort of thing that most easily motivated her to action. Fighting, not only to survive, but to excel, to prove herself, for glory.

“I’ve dealt with our rude onlookers! Nika, has my absence made your heart grow fonder?”

As if in response Sameera saw a flash from just ahead.

Nika’s remaining rockets rained down on the remaining Cutters from above.

Four missiles crashed onto the decks and towers of two cutters and detonated into bubbles broad enough they vanished the ocean directly in front of Sameera for several seconds. Ordnance that went off in the water evaporated and created a bubble. Both the volatile forces within the vapor bubble, the disturbed water around it, and the water then moving in to refill the bubble, placed massive pressures on whatever the ordnance targeted. When fleets full of heavy guns went to war, the blue expanse of the ocean filled with these deadly clouds, shearing, and pounding on the metal.

Sameera engaged rearward thrust to avoid the blasts and circled to the front of the fleet.

There was a massive hole in the flak cover as two cutters sank with heavy damage.

One remaining Cutter began to rise up the water table, dumping ballast to make an escape.

There was nothing in the fleet’s center but debris and two Streloks a hundred meters apart.

Sameera saw the door opening in front of them. That massive Irmingard, dead ahead.

“We’ve opened up the center.” Sameera said.

“Link back up with me now and stop mumbling, we’ve still got the Frigates.”

She wished Dominika would say something more emotional than that.

Not even out of a particular interest in her per se– simply to alter the mood.

Would it have hurt her to say I need you? Not that anyone ever told Sameera that.

“Right now, the way to the flagship is clear.”

“Are you nuts? It’s teeming with enemies around here still. Don’t be a hero!”

“The Lieutenant said we should take opportunities! We could end this battle right now.”

“This is an opportunity to get yourself killed. I’m coming to you, so just wait there–”

Sameera felt a growing frustration. She was not even asking Dominika to go with her.

Right in front of that Irmingard, the way had never looked more open. On the left flank, the Frigate was not moving to cover the gap. Maybe Khadija and Valya? And on the right flank, the other Frigate was starting to catch on to what was happening. Meanwhile that remaining Cutter had fully deserted its position and was no longer firing. Above them, the Destroyer’s gunfire was trailing after something Sameera could not see, likely Murati and Shalikova’s doing.

They had it right there– a breakthrough!

And the more they tarried, the more it closed! Only Sameera had this shot to secure victory. When she hunted Leviathans, every instant with the snapping predators invited death. Even the slightest twitch that allowed Sameera to attack was one she had to exploit. Squad or no squad, she was done negotiating with Dominika about this.

“I’ll take my chances with being a hero. Hang back and avoid the enemy Divers!”

“No! Absolutely not! Cossack– Stop! Sameera! SAMEERA!

Dominika shouted at her over the comms but Sameera paid no heed as she hurtled forward.

Even though it did feel good to have a lady shout her name– her eyes were full of glory.

Sameera always went for the biggest prey. She had to. Nobody would acknowledge her otherwise. Bigger prey, a bigger fight, escalating, drawing more and more blood– it was where she belonged!

Before the second Frigate could accelerate far enough ahead of the Irmingard to cover the gap left by the broken vanguard, Sameera rushed in among the fleet with everything her machine could give her. Stray gunfire from the accelerating, maneuvering Frigate flew well past her as she hurtled toward that metallic grey beast ahead. Looming larger and larger, that thick spoon-like prow like the head of a monster, and more of the enormous body behind it taking up her vision.

Her computers ran down the numbers every microsecond, closing in–

75 meters, 67 meters, 56 meters, 42 meters, faster, faster, she almost had the trophy–

Flashing red–

Sameera responded in an instant.

Engaging rearward thrust, she avoided an object rushing at her from below.

A vibrosword swung past her, the edge barely sliding off the skirt armor on the left hip.

“You’re no ordinary mercenaries! This’ll be fun!”

In front of her appeared an enemy Diver, a semi-triangular chassis with a flat head.

Jagd. Transmitting into the water; the acoustics picked up the voice.

Sameera had studied the second generation models like the Jagd. When she tested the Cheka, leaked design information for the Jagd was part of the project. Armed with a claw, a sword, and built-in SMGs, it could develop higher speeds than a Strelok due to its light weight, but it wasn’t all-powerful. That small performance gap that existed between the Volker and the Strelok was about how much a Jagd had on a Strelok too: in the simulations anyway.

Everything would depend on the pilot.

The Jagd had probably come out of the flagship. There was no flak coming in their direction anymore. It could have shot down the Imperial diver. For a moment, the two pilots floated on low thrust with maybe twenty meters between.

“Complying, merc? Good idea. Your jailer today is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

That pilot was taunting her. She had a woman’s voice, but a deep, violent register.

Judging by that name–

She was a loup, an actual Imperial loup. Sameera had heard the stories.

That was half her bloodline, the Empire’s vicious vanguard and recon troops. Attack dogs.

Sameera switched to the public frequency. Her hair was standing on end.

For a moment, she almost hesitated before speaking: “Sameera Raisanen-Morningsun.”

Giving her Loup surname– what did she even think it would do?

Ingrid’s crackling laughter erupted from the radio. It almost shook Sameera.

Her ears hung on that voice, that was so familiar, so like her own, like her father’s–

“You’ve got an interesting name, you stray! You ought to have stayed in your village and left the mercenary work to the Katarrans! Fitting that I’ll be the one to discipline you. I’m not unkind to my people! I have no love for the Empire. I’m only doing this for the lady in that ship. You mercenaries have no more conviction than to follow who is feeding you, so I’ll make you a deal. Come here where you belong, like a good puppy, and help us apprehend these criminals–”

No, it was nothing like her father!

It was nothing like her!

In that instant, Sameera had enough of Ingrid’s evil words.

This woman was nothing else but an enemy. Nothing else mattered.

“Absolutely not!”

Sameera felt her heart surge as she threw the Cossack into a sudden charge.

Her sword clashed with the Jagd’s claw and sent a finger flying into the water.

“Go fuck yourself! I’d sooner die than end up like you!” She shouted, seeing red.

She was almost angrier at herself and taking that frustration out– but she wouldn’t admit it.

Ingrid was utterly unfazed by the sudden attack.

“Happy to oblige then! I have nothing against tearing the throat off a hollering stray!”

From the shoulder, the Jagd launched into a thrust with its bladed arm.

Sameera disengaged the rotation of her blade to have a solid block to parry with.

She pounded the Jagd’s sword aside, reengaged the motor on the blade, swung–

From the moment she parried, however, that Jagd had her where she wanted.

As if fluidly playing along with the parry, Ingrid suddenly slipped past Sameera.

Those four remaining digits of her claw glowed red and gave off vapor.

Imperial claw weapons used both heat and sudden, snapping pressure to tear off metal.

Swinging right into her exposed flank, hoping to tear a chunk right out of her belly–

Sensing the danger, Sameera gave up her attack.

Using all available thrust she threw herself away from the Jagd to create space.

“Aww, the puppy is running away! After all that barking!”

Ingrid met speed with speed and charged after Sameera almost instantly. Her sword came down on the Cossack’s in a blink. This was nothing like fighting those Serrano patrolmen.

She was a Loup, a real Loup! She was vicious and had the reflexes and hardware to support it.

Sameera found herself on the defensive as a rain of blows came down.

That Jagd’s arm sword snapped back and forth through the water with punishing ease. Repeatedly the blows came, and all Sameera could do was meet each of them with the flat, armored back of her sword, watching the integrity of the wrist and arm joint on the Cossack. As soon as Sameera tried to create space that Jagd was back on top of her, the difference in power-to-weight proving horribly decisive.

With every move, Ingrid would chase her down, leaving her no chance to retaliate.

If she could even lift her gun– but Sameera hesitated– the arm might be sliced off–!  

“Trying to shoot? And I thought we had a nice duel going!”

Ingrid backed off just suddenly as she once attacked.

The Jagd’s twin shoulder guns flashed. Dozens of rounds of 20 mm erupted from the barrels.

Explosions bloomed all around the Cossack and followed it as Sameera fled.

She thrust directly upward, her cockpit shaking as a few blasts pitted her chest armor.

Gaining just a bit of distance and height on the Jagd. Couldn’t shoot– couldn’t swing–

In a flash of inspiration, Sameera smashed the utility buttons on her sticks.

“What?” Ingrid shouted, confounded by what followed.

The Cossack’s shoulder hooks blasted out of their pods and slammed into the Jagd.

Sameera barely had time to check if she hooked anything on the steel line.

She engaged both forward thrust and the motors for the hooks to reel in.

One hook had slammed hard into the left shoulder gun and jammed it–

But a second hook had grabbed hold of the complicated shoulder joint on the claw arm.

Thicker and larger because of the power supply for the claw’s heating elements and motors.

There was a lot of surface area for the hook to grab tight.

As she engaged the hook motors, the Cossack hurtled forward and snapped the Jagd up.

Ingrid’s gunfire went nowhere as the two mechs careened toward each other.

Sameera’s gambit had paid off.

Unable to think or plan ahead, relying on the pure feral instinct of hunter and prey.

She sped to the Jagd, barely swung her sword, and smashed right into the enemy mech with the blade between them. Her blade bit furiously into the central chassis for a second, chewing metal and kicking up fragments, before the Jagd rocketed back with every lick of thrust it could afford. Kicking up a brief cloud of vapor between itself and Sameera’s Cossack, snapping off the hook with the force of its flight, the Jagd retreated over thirty meters out of the melee.

In the surrounding waters, parts of the shoulder and one of the gun barrels floated as debris.

For a brief moment, a pinprick of agarrthic energy licked the water surrounding it. Some of the Jagd’s battery cells must have shorted out. Like the Cheka, they were distributed throughout the body: a second generation trait. Less weight overall, but the arrangement had some drawbacks.

Ingrid’s furious breathing was all that was coming through. No more taunts.

Sameera’s nervous eyes turned briefly to the diagnostics display.

Her sword was going. Ingrid’s attacks had deformed the motor housing. It was seizing.

Hull integrity was starting to dip right in the center of the chest, but still ocean-worthy.

And the left leg intake was partially compromised. That would affect her speed–

“Sameera!”

That was not Ingrid’s voice–

Dominika!

Shit. Sameera thought. Shit, shit, SHIT.

She had been so stupid. She had let herself get separated; diverted to fight one measly unit!

“Sameera, I need backup, now!”

There was not even an instant of thought or hesitation in Sameera’s mind.

If Nika was killed due to her stupidity, Sameera’s soul would have died with her.

Her body was put into the world to protect others– how could she have forgotten?

“Sameera! I need you!”

Without another pointless word exchanged with Ingrid, Sameera took off at full thrust.

“I’m coming! Hold on!” She shouted.

One of her cameras and monitors had always been set to track Nika.

Her attention had been drawn off it for her brief skirmish with Ingrid, but it had always been doing its best to track her. Each Strelok had a unique acoustic signature — slightly different hydrodynamic structures would create unique wakes. Dive computers were able to keep track of team members this way.

On this camera, a green square overlayed in the distance represented Nika’s general area.

Two red squares overlapped with hers.

Sameera saw a yellow warning on the diagnostic screen.

She was losing thrust on the left leg.

Would she make it? It was a matter of seconds she didn’t have–

As she got away from Ingrid, gunfire from the Irmingard class intensified.

Long lines of gas gun bullets flew past her and burst, a constellation of dangerous blasts.

Sameera swerved, losing even more speed as she evaded the fire.

At the head of the fleet, the Frigate had advanced to close the gap in the flagship’s defenses just as Sameera had predicted. There was a red square around it as well, overlayed on the camera, but Sameera did not need it to see the clear danger it presented. Gunfire from this Frigate framed the melee between Nika and the enemy Divers, preventing her from escaping. She was completely surrounded. Sameera rammed her pedals, trying to get the left leg to push more water through, but it did nothing but physically vent her frustration. She could not go any faster than she was.

“They’ll kill her.” Sameera’s eyes drew wide, cold sweat streaking down her face.

Her sword was useless; her SMG didn’t have the range to respond; and she was losing thrust.

Murati or Khadija would not make it in time. It had to be her; only she could do anything!

She wracked her brain thinking about all the weapons and systems she had at her disposal.

Her mind flashed back to her fight with Ingrid. She had one hook that hadn’t broken.

One hook– and a bomb. She still had the bomb!

Sameera mumbled to herself, her mind stumbling over possibility.

“Murati, I’m so sorry. If we survive, I’ll accept any punishment.”

Beneath the backpack jets on her Diver’s chassis, there was a magnetic strip. Her sword attached to it when it folded, but her bomb was also there. She withdrew the pipe-shaped demolition charge. It was a pure chunk of explosive without any lining or penetrators, fixed with a simple detonator connected by wire and triggered with a switch in her cockpit. Sameera popped out her one remaining hook from its shoulder pod and affixed the bomb to the hook.

“If I throw it, and then start up the hook’s hydrojet–”

Sameera faced her mecha toward the overlapping red boxes of the Frigate and Volkers.

And the green box, Nika.

“Nika! Pull away from them now!”

She pulled back her arm, engaged one of the solid fuel boosters and made a snap throw.

Smashing the utility button on her trigger, she engaged the hook’s jet.

At once, the hook sped away fully unimpeded.

Farther and faster than Sameera’s Cossack could ever go in this instant.

It was so fast it was hard to track.

She had about 80 meters of cable, and she could also cut the cable loose–

“Shit, with the explosion–!”

Realizing she had no idea how wide the blast would be, she did release the tow cable.

“Nika, please get away!”

As soon as the green square of the bomb overlapped the red squares of the enemy, all outside of Sameera’s direct field of vision, she took a deep breath and pressed the second of her utility triggers. Through the enormous length of thin electric wire to which the bomb was attached, a digital detonation command was sent from the Diver to the pipe, and the detonator engaged.

With a second press, Sameera overrode the detonator and set the bomb off immediately.

In the next instant, the murky shadows ahead of her lit up for less than a second.

Sameera heard the muffled booming sound of the explosion through her hydrophone.

Then there was a shockwave that reached all the way to her and rattled her cockpit.

Water instantly evaporated and collapsed around the bomb’s blast radius. An enormous bubble formed in the sea as the heat from the explosives evaporated the water around it and pushed away the rest. Extreme heat and pressures in and around the bubble sheared and crushed metal, and there was no more gas gun fire coming from that general area. All of the red squares vanished, her predictor telling her that the hostile objects had ceased moving or were unavailable to track.

From afar, there was only murky ocean and a rapidly collapsing cloud of vapor.

As Sameera approached, she witnessed the devastation for herself.

Parts of the Frigate’s underside had been disgorged by the explosion, the ship listing on its side and sinking slowly amid a cloud of its own debris. There was nothing of the enemy Divers to be seen, just a cloud of drifting, falling metal chunks robbed of any semblance of form. There was a sudden, intense calm upon the ocean as all the gunfire forward of the Irmingard was silenced.

“Nika! Nika, respond!”

Sameera looked through each of her cameras on the separate monitors, hoping to find any trace of Dominika. That explosion had disturbed the acoustic predictors enough that everything being tracked in that area was momentarily lost. She adjusted and readjusted the cameras, feeling a dawning realization that her desperate attempt to save her could have just as easily killed her too.

“Nika!”

She swept through the area, as the debris drifted slowly down to the ocean floor.

One hand moved thoughtlessly to the communications equipment, fingers trembling.

Could she switch to the squadron channel? Call for help?

What would she even say to Murati about all of this? Everything had spiraled out of control.

Sameera grit her teeth. She had been so stupid, so completely, impossibly stupid.

Her desperation to be the hero, to be the one acknowledged, the one sang about–

“Where the fuck do you belong now? You stupid, useless mutt.” She berated herself.

Tears started to well up in her eyes.

Nothing in the cameras, nothing anywhere around.

Her hand retreated from the communicator.

She could not face Murati like this.

“Nika, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled into her microphone.

“If you weren’t I’d make you be sorry.”

One of the top cameras placed a green box several meters above.

Sameera’s eyes drew wide. She lifted her head, staring at the ceiling of her mecha.

Her lips drew wide in a trembling smile.

“Nika!”

From the murk above, the Strelkannon slowly descended to join the Cossack’s side.

Armor pockmarked with gunshot wounds, the head battered; but functional, with its owner very much alive.

She had escaped in time. Sameera had managed to save her.

“When we get back, I’m slapping you across the fucking face, hero.” Dominika growled.

Sameera felt a mixture of relief and apprehension at those words.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.6]

Murati knew the history of the Empire and studied many theories about its economic system and social stratification. However, this was her first time seeing the Empire. Not only piercing the invincible front that the Union feared in Cascabel, but actually entering as an Imperial citizen would and setting foot within the steel colossi itself. This was entirely different than reading books.

It was the first step on their journey.

That immense mission, a quest so daunting they could hardly grasp its scope–

Serrano station would be their first step on this long, winding road.

Once the Brigand was fully docked into Serrano station’s central port, the cargo elevator descended from the rear of the hangar and touched down on the steel floor of the port landing below the ship, awaiting any goods “purchased” by the Brigand to be brought aboard. Each berth in the dock had thick glass and steel dividers that could contain the ship and either drain the water or expose the ship to water again, as well as the massive clamps that bore the ship’s weight. Everything was so gigantic, from the ships themselves to the berths that held them. Human bodies were utterly insignificant in mass compared to the fleet Serrano docked.

Steel paths with tall guardrails led from the ship landings to the port grounds.

There were warehouses and container parks for goods, a travel agency, and offices for the port authority and guards.

In contrast with the enormous architecture of the port, these places were eerily ordinary.

Murati, Shalikova and Zachikova descended with the cargo elevator.

Alongside them were two members of the security team.

Klara Van Der Smidse, the energetic platinum blond who had accompanied Akulantova to the meeting, swayed from side to side with excitement. Beside her was a second member of the security team, Zhu Lian, a long-limbed woman with a regal countenance. With her long black hair styled with even, blunt ends on her bangs and along her ears, and her easy, confident gait, she looked too sophisticated to be in the infantry with Klara. In the Union, of course, looks were very much deceiving in that regard.

Commissar Aaliyah had also come with them. She would be going in a different direction than the rest.

All of them were dressed in the Treasure Box Transports uniforms, with the teal half-jacket, white shirt and black pants or skirt. Aaliyah had left her peaked Union Commissar’s cap behind to better blend in. Zhu and Van Der Smidse had long jackets instead of the half-jackets worn by most of the crew. They concealed their pistols within the interior breast pockets of the full length jackets.

Once the cargo elevator touched down on the station, the metal and plastic scent of the treated air within the Brigand fully dispersed. In its place, the predominant scent was an herby pungency that seemed to waft from a nearby berth. To the right of the Brigand on the next berth over, a glistening, rotund crop transporter ship unloaded multiple plastic drums and steel crates full of what smelled strongly of pickled herbs. Dockworkers in light labor Diver suits were unloading this ship.

To the Brigand’s left, the next two berths were occupied by the same ship, just a bit too long for one.

That enormous ship was an Irmingard class dreadnought belonging to the Imperial Navy.           

“Do you think we miscalculated just a bit, docking here?” Klara asked, pointing at it.

“We didn’t have a choice. We docked at the cargo berth we were given.” Aaliyah said.

While everyone else would be taking the direct path out of the port, Aaliyah would walk the path to the right, alongside the agri-transporter ship and to the warehouses. Her own mission was to gather information, and the dockworkers were apparently on the Union’s side. She bid farewell with a twitch of her ears. “Good luck. Don’t do anything rash and get back safely.”

“Acknowledged!”

For a moment, the team watched the Commissar go on her way before they too set off.

Murati was filled with emotion.

Her expression was cool and collected, but her skin brimmed with energy as she moved, and her heart was beating fast. She was full of anticipation for a lot of different reasons. Her first mission as part of the Brigand’s crew; she had read and even written tactical theories for a lot of different situations, but this was the first big one. She had to put into practice everything she knew.

Not only as a member of a team, but as the leader of the team.

Everyone was counting on her. And she was confident she could succeed.

After all, it was an easy enough mission. An extraction right under the enemy’s nose. The Empire did not even know that they had to be watching. Serrano was completely normal. No alarms, no lockdowns, not a hint of suspicion. As they walked between the port structures, nobody paid them any mind. Not from the heart of the docks, and not even at the open maw into the station sprawl.

In those thick crowds ahead of them, there was no way anyone would notice them.

“Alright, this is as far as we go.” Zhu Lian said. “Nakara, take this with you.”

At the entrance to the port, where a small bridge connected the suspended structures of the port facilities with a sturdy city street, Lian and Klara stopped and fell behind momentarily. When Murati turned around to look, Lian extended her hand. There was a small bauble on her palm, with corners as if it were a cube but with round surfaces in between, nothing to indicate its purpose.

“If you’re in trouble, press down the surface I’m rubbing my finger on.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’ll come running to your rescue, my beautiful damsels.” Klara added.

She winked at them and showed them a little bauble of her own with a blinking light.

“Ours will blink faster as it nears yours. It’s a simple, concealable design.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’re good at playing hot-cold, so we’ll find you no matter what.” Klara added.

She gently bumped her elbow into Lian, who glanced at her from the side of her eyes.

Lian’s gently neutral face and Klara’s playful bubbliness painted an interesting picture.

“Thanks. Will you two be okay twiddling your thumbs here all day?” Murati asked.

“We better be. Orders are orders, you know?” Klara said, with a big happy smile.

“We’ll keep ourselves entertained somehow.” Zhu Lian added. “Don’t worry.”

“Hey Lian, we can play punch buggy.”

Zhu Lian smiled a tiny bit. “Let’s not, actually.”

Murati smiled too. They would definitely be okay. “Let’s go, Sonya, Braya.”

“Don’t first-name me.” Shalikova snapped.

Zachikova cracked a little smile.

“If you’re not going to call me mistress or goddess, only Zachikova will do from you.”

Murati felt suddenly foolish for wondering how well Zhu and Van Der Smidse got along.

Her mind returned to the task ahead.

Flowing before them was an absolute flood of humanity.

On that street adjacent to the port, alone, there must easily have been hundreds of people.

Murati fidgeted with her tie while she walked into this enormous, omnidirectional crowd.

For people used to pillar-type, segmented stations with numerous smaller floors and halls, the enormity of Serrano was a shock. City-type stations were something a Union citizen might never see since the Union only had two. In Serrano, the lower section of the station consisted of an enormous space encased in walls supported by massive steel and concrete pillars. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of discrete high-rise buildings crammed into this space and winding roads between them. Overhead, the sky was composed of massive arrays of lights suspended from the steel supports for the upper section over a hundred meters above.

Surrounded by tall, multiple-use structures on all sides, the streets themselves were bright with fixtures and the colors from video-signs, but they branched into gloomy, forbidding alleyways that the crowds seemed to avoid going through if they could help it. There were all kinds of businesses and shops that shared the same buildings and street access, and computerized directories outside each building helped passersby to know if any one of the nearly identical grey spires contained the services they needed.

On the surface, all cities had this kind of layout, or so the theories and histories claimed.

While she had read that the lower section of Imperial cities was where the less fortunate citizens lived, there was a lot of variety in the way people dressed and carried themselves around Murati. She saw fashionable youths in bold, translucent vinyl and high-grade plastics; men and women in suits and jackets; people wearing nothing but a branded t-shirt and plain pants; and workers in uniforms and coveralls. Murati had expected to encounter mainly white Imbrians in the Empire, so she was surprised at the ethnic variety. There were even a few Shimii and Pelagis. It felt as though the whole world could be contained in this one city.

Out of all the sights she saw, Murati was most captivated by the street vendors.

People on the side of the road, in simple clothing, manning carts or kiosks.

She was reminded of plaza table culture back in the Union — exchanging or gifting things you made yourself.

However, in the Empire, everything revolved around money.

Every kiosk, every crate, every car, every shopfront, had big bold numbers so you knew right away if you had the money to get anything from them. Some people were selling out of the backs of electric cars, or out of crates with improvised wheels, but everyone had their prices up as large as they could possibly write them. Five marks for a snack fried before your very eyes, ten marks for a bag of oranges, a thousand marks for minicomputers in a self-described “back of the truck” sale. Everyone who was selling was shouting at passersby to come look at their goods. And they all had wary, intense expressions.

All manner of goods were being sold, but the most common products were food items.

“Real meat, huh?”

Murati briefly paused near a kiosk where an older woman selling Milanesas.

Thin cuts of red meat breaded on the kiosk table and fried on a portable burner.

There was something bewildering about it for Murati.

Animals were a precious commodity in the Union. Nobody in the Union ate animal meat.

So to see a seemingly proletarian street vendor casually frying meat was so unusual to her.

Union cattle were heritage breeds from the Empire. They had been brought to the Union to serve as the backbone of dairy production in the new colonies, for items like freeze dried bulk cheese and powdered milk that would then be sold in the Empire. The Empire did not get their dairy in the end, but the Union kept the cattle and nurtured them. The Union enjoyed access to dairy products in the present day because they were careful with those original cattle and continued to breed them well. There was bulk fishing in the Union, but fish were not eaten. They were used to manufacture certain specific products like fish glues, fertilizer, skin patches, and ointments. Animals were too precious to eat. Everything Murati ate was made of plants, fungi or yeast.

It had been Murati’s understanding that even in the Empire, meat was for the wealthy.

Murati almost wanted to try one of those snacks, but she had no money, and it might have made her sick.

Instead she watched for a moment as the vendor exchanged one with a young man.

He gave her a single bill worth five imperial marks, and she fried the cutlet right there.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova appeared by her side; Shalikova had walked out of view before turning back.

“Are you hungry?” She asked.

“Oh, sorry, no.” Murati said, surprised. “I was just catching my breath here for a bit.”

“We should get moving before Shalikova decides to complete the mission without us.”

“I heard that.” Shalikova said, arriving at their side once again, arms crossed, fangs bared.

“Right. We can go in a second. Sorry, it’s the crowd. I’m not used it.” Murati said.

Though she was nowhere near tired, it was a more respectable excuse than the truth. She didn’t want to tell them that what she was actually doing was admiring a cheap snack kiosk and thinking about meat production and class politics in the Empire. Murati knew and forgave herself for what distracted her, but it was still a bit embarrassing to admit to in the middle of a mission.

Once the meat fried thoroughly, the vendor picked it up with a pair of tongs and laid it on a piece of plastic wrap. She wrapped the item and reached her hand out to the customer. He was about to take it, but right in front of Murati’s eyes, someone suddenly shoved in between them.

A young child wrapped in a hood intervened, snatching the croquette, and running past.

“You little shit! Get back here!”

The vendor shouted after the kid and waved her tongs, but the child was long gone.

Vanished into the crowd amid hundreds, maybe thousands of faces and bodies.

Sighing with frustration, the vendor promised to fry the customer another piece of meat.

Murati stood speechless for a moment.

Why would that happen? Was that child that desperate for a snack?

“Caught your breath yet, Nakara?” Zachikova asked.

“Yes. I’ll lead the way. Thank you for being patient with me.”

Murati started walking along with the crowd, keeping a cool façade but feeling a bit uneasy.

The Empire was different than she thought. In her reading, she had almost come to think of it as the Union but with a greedy upper class. Labor value was alienated from workers, who had to pay their dues to the Imperial government. Proletarians led humble lives while the Imperial aristocrats could have any luxury imaginable and as much of it as they wanted. Goods were exchanged for currency and currency was earned as a wage. Those technicalities were still true, but Murati was starting to ponder what luxury actually meant, and what kind of lives you could actually have on your wage in the Empire. That girl who stole; was that bit of meat so valuable as to directly harm another person for it? To steal their hard work and products so easily?

Murati knew that people in the Empire had to earn money for food.

Surely, anyone could earn enough for the measly five marks the vendor asked for?

How much was five marks actually worth then? It was troubling her.

In the Union, petty theft was nearly unheard of. Murati had a hard time wrapping her mind around the motivations because of this. Seeing that act transpire made her reflexively compare it to the Union context. She might have understood stealing from the aristocrats, but stealing from people in the community? And what for? For a snack? Maybe meat really was as valuable as Murati had thought and the vendor was actually much wealthier than she looked. Something was not adding up.

“I got a hold of a city map from the official Serrano visitor’s web page.” Zachikova said.  “The warehouses are to the northwest. There’s a small statue park between those two high rises,” she pointed ahead of them and to the right. “We can cut through there, less people, and it’s faster. The crowds avoid it, but those alleyways are supposedly cleaned and inspected regularly.”

“Statue park, huh?” Shalikova said, seemingly interested in her surroundings for the first time.

“Yes. There’s even a famous statue commemorating Serrano’s mascot, a stuffed pepper.”

“What? A stuffed pepper?” Shalikova’s eyes drew briefly wide in surprise.

“A stuffed pepper.” Zachikova said. She nodded her head solemnly.

Murati had not been paying much attention to Zachikova before; she wondered when she had time to look up all of this and how she had accomplished it without bringing a minicomputer along. Could she “see” data through her eyes? Murati had seen little digits flitting over the surface of cybernetic eyes in the past. Data was being downloaded to her brain technically, so maybe she had a “sense” that let her parse that data. That sounded challenging to do while walking, too.

Looking at Zachikova, she seemed completely untroubled and in command of herself.

Walking calmly and confidently, eyes forward and attentive.

She must have conquered any difficulties with her implants long ago.

They navigated the stream of bodies to an alley a block away and sneaked out.

Even in the alleys, there were people.

Delivery people bringing crates into the backs of shops from electric trolley carts, customers smoking near the side doors of clubs and restaurants after being asked to step out, workers throwing trash down chutes carefully hidden from the street view. In the gloomy world between the buildings, there weren’t crowds, but the tight alleys made every person seem like they took the space of ten. A group of three uniformed women stuck out amid scratched walls, puddles of nondescript fluids that had leaked, peeling paint and discarded refuse, and the rusty ductworks laid bare in places; but nobody gave more than a passing glance.

There were a few people who just stood in the alleys, back to the wall, as if asleep.

Murati thought they looked abandoned there. They looked as if forbidden to step outside.  

Serrano somehow contained a world so much more expansive than anything at Thassal, but also a second world much more confining and inhospitable than anything in the Union. There was a certain greasiness, a rusty smell of decay and neglect, that permeated these alleys. They were designed not to be seen. Even the poor, or at least, the non-ennobled, could be stratified like this. Some workers could be walking out in the streets or tending to shop fronts. But others did their duties in these alleys, away from the eyes of those massive crowds in the main street. Murati for a moment thought perhaps she was ascribing it too much significance and tried to check herself. As a student of history, Murati wanted to make everything a grand narrative.

To the people of Serrano, this was clearly just normal. It went wholly unacknowledged.

But then– why was there so much tension in the air?

Soon enough, the shape of that tension began to make itself clear to her.

Beyond the alleyways, the team made it to a little park which stood at an intersection between several buildings that were larger than average. The park was about thirty meters of sparse-looking green turf with a few statues on display. There was a tree, whether it was a synthetic air purifier or a real tree, Murati could not tell. And of course, the statues were indeed of a stuffed pepper with eyes and arms — a rather silly sight, but city mascots were not usually dignified.

However, this particular statue had company.

There was a group of people sitting on the green, at least a dozen scattered in different places. When they saw Murati and her group approaching three men began to wave at her. All of them looked a little shabby at first glance, but she became alarmed as she walked closer. Their clothes had seen some wear, and their shoes in particular looked completely worn out. Everyone was skinny, too skinny, their limbs and necks were too thin, and they had not had a shave in a very long time. Seeing them in such a state led Murati to accept their invitation and come closer.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova looked at Murati with confusion as the Lieutenant stepped on the green.

She kneeled in front of the men to try to make eye contact with them. They barely held her eyes with theirs. They tried to smile — they looked incredibly happy to be acknowledged at least.

“Hello, what happened to you? Are all of you okay?”

Murati asked what must have sounded to them like such a naïve question.

One of the men responded with a kind voice.

“What happened? Ah, this and that, ma’am. Everyone’s got stories. I was laid off for missing too many days of work. My head wasn’t right with me, you know. But right now, we’re just happy to see a friendly face. Me and the lads here, between the three of us we haven’t a mark to our names, nothing to eat. If you could spare anything for us, we’d never forget it.” He said.

Not a mark to their name? Nothing to eat? Did they not have a place to stay?

“You don’t have food? Do you have any place to go? We could escort you.” She asked.

“Ah, no ma’am, we appreciate it kindly, but we don’t have any place to go.” He said.

How could they not have shelter? Were they expected to sit out on the street forever?

“Are there any canteens around here that you could eat at without having to pay?”

Murati was still bewildered. All of the men gave her dejected shakes of the head.

“Hello? We have to keep moving.”

Standing a few meters away, Zachikova called out to Murati again.

Shalikova stood behind her, staring out at the people in the park in plain confusion.

Murati looked back at her over her shoulder and looked at the men again.

The man who had spoken kindly gave her a gentle expression, as if saying she could go.

“We understand ma’am. Thank you for blessing us with your pretty face all the same.”

All of them resigned themselves.

Murati was briefly speechless.

She stood fully upright and wandered back to Zachikova’s side, but not all of her was there. Her head was swimming with scattershot thoughts. She could not understand it. Why didn’t they have shelter? It was a station, under the ocean, what were they expected to do? There was only shelter and the inhospitable world outside, there should have been a place for them to go. If they didn’t have a room, if they were just laying around on the street– why? Why would it be like that? It didn’t make any sense to her.

She had read a lot about the Empire, their history, their strategies and tactical doctrines, monetary systems, the theory behind their social and economic systems. At no point did she consider that people could just lose their job and end up without food or shelter. She had spent some of her childhood as essentially a slave, and even then, the Empire fed her. Meagerly, but they did. They needed her and her parents to work, to be obedient. Didn’t they need to care for these men too in the same vein? These were workers!

How could they be abandoned here? Why?

“Zachikova, have you seen anything like this before?”

“Like what, Nakara?”

Zachikova had a relatively inexpressive response to the people at the park.

“These people don’t have homes or food.” Murati replied. “How can that be?”

“I’ve never seen conditions like this. It just doesn’t happen in the Union. That being said, we need to focus on the mission.” Zachikova said. “You’ve been terribly distracted all day. You must have a lot on your mind, but I really want to get back to the ship as soon as possible.”

Murati looked at her, feeling a little embarrassed. She had not been much of a leader so far.

“Contact the Captain for a moment.”

She looked at Zachikova with a renewed conviction. She had an idea in mind.

“Well. If you say so. But let’s step a bit farther away.”

“Agreed.”

Murati gestured for Shalikova to follow, and the three of them returned briefly to the alleys.

Zachikova tapped her finger on the side of one of her ears.

“Murati wants you, Captain.” She said, her tone hinting at reluctance.

Inaudibly, there was a response. Zachikova stared at Murati, prompting her to respond.

“Ask the Captain if we have any Imperial currency to bargain with.” She said.

Zachikova relayed the question. “She says we do have a stock in case it’s necessary.”

Murati pressed on. “Ask her how much.”

“She wants to know what for. She wants me to tell her what’s going on.”

“Tell her we found some people who need our help.” Murati said.

Dutifully, Zachikova relayed the situation as Murati explained it to the Captain.

Again, there was an inaudible response, but Zachikova’s body language clued Murati to its contents.

Zachikova shook her head and crossed her arms. “She’s just sighing at you, Lieutenant.”

“Ask her how much money we have available.”

“Lieutenant, I don’t think–”

“Ask her.”

Murati stood her ground.

Zachikova sighed to herself.

“I see it’s useless to talk to you then. Okay– she says 3 million marks.”

Murati’s face briefly lit up.

“Those meat snacks were 5 marks each. It shouldn’t take much to feed them. Zachikova is it possible somehow that I can talk to the Captain about this myself? Can you patch me in?”

Sighing, Zachikova pulled out much of the structure of one of her antennae.

That long, flat-tipped, wrist-wide metal antennae that served as her “ear” came off.

She handed the piece to Murati, who held it up like a two-way handset.

Neither the mouth nor earpiece were clearly labeled, but Murati figured it out.           

At her side, Shalikova was looking at her with an unreadable expression on her face.

She stood close as if she wanted to try to hear what the Captain would say.

Murati spoke first.

“Captain–”

She did not get more than a word in before a loud grunt cut her off.

“Murati, the answer is no.” Captain Korabiskaya said through the communicator.

Murati closed her fist and grit her teeth.

“But we can help them. We can just buy them a little food or find them shelter.”

She couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper, but she wanted to scream.

How could anyone hear of this atrocity and even consider turning away from it!

“Murati, it would attract attention we can’t afford. You will not do this. Move now.”

“It would attract attention just to give them money? Just to find them some food?”

“Yes. We shouldn’t discuss this much more. A bunch of encrypted traffic might–”

“How can you think of abandoning them! I admired you, Captain! You served in the–”

Captain Korabiskaya interrupted, frustrated. Murati had never heard her so upset before.

“This isn’t about me! I know it is unjust and I know it’s hard to ignore! Remember what we’re here for Murati! If you go off on your own to help a few people you could render us unable to help millions of people! Billions! You need to focus and do the job you were assigned!”

“What about getting them to shelter? Getting them a room? Is that so dangerous?”

“Murati, you don’t understand. Those aren’t just rooms on Imperial stations. All of that housing is owned by private people who sell it to citizens. A private owner can refuse to house people that don’t meet their standards. And food is also owned by private owners, who decide who they will sell to. You will be wasting your time trying to find someone who will give you a flat for beggars, because the landlords don’t want these people housed, and you can’t find them food because restaurants won’t sell to them! We are not in a position to help them directly, Murati!”

“How do you know this?” Murati asked, her voice rising almost to a shout.

“Because I grew up in the Empire!” The Captain replied. “I fought for the Union as a teen because I’d already had a childhood in the Empire! My family was stripped of our rights and deported! Murati, it is nothing like the Union. The Empire is not an entity that views its role as helping people who are hurting. Back then, men like these would have been deported to the colonies to work off their debts for life in mining or manufacturing. That’s what we’re up against.”

Murati listened, but she could not find it in herself to empathize with the Captain at all.

For the Captain to know of these people’s sufferings and still talk like this was monstrous!

“I can’t just stand here and do nothing, Captain. Those people will just die out here!”

“You will move from that location, and complete your assigned task, and that is how you will help them. This is an order, Murati. Think of the bigger picture, please, and keep moving.”

Murati felt something tug on her sleeve that drew her suddenly out of her building fury.

At her side, Shalikova wanted her attention.

“Lieutenant,”

She paused, briefly, finding it visibly difficult to say what she wanted.

“I understand how you feel.” Shalikova said at last. “But–”

Her eyes glanced back at the park with a sorrow that Murati could palpably feel.

Zachikova spoke up suddenly. “A public complaint was lodged on the station network.”

“A complaint? What do you mean by a complaint? What’s happening?” Murati asked.

“Citizens have reported the people in the plaza. Guards are being dispatched here.”

Murati’s eyes widened. She could not believe what she was hearing.

“Reported what about them? That they don’t have homes or food?”

Zachikova grit her teeth with frustration.

“I could read you the complaint verbatim but it’s useless, Lieutenant! We have to leave!”

“She’s right– Murati.” Shalikova added. “We can’t do anything to help them now.”

The normally icy Shalikova had such a mournful tone of voice that it shook Murati.

Murati felt so helpless then. She felt like an overgrown child, a stupid, powerless child.

A child who could not possibly do anything to affect the world around her. A child out of her depth, staring at a world cruel and callous beyond her imagination. Unable to form but the most amorphous idea of the wrongness she felt, or how she could possibly set any of it right.

All the theory she had read, all the things she understood about the Empire–

Those things leaked out of her skull like blood from a wound and emptied her mind.

Seeing those people abandoned to their deaths for no reason– Gritting her teeth with the frustration and pain of that moment– It was entirely different than anything she had experienced. Monumentally different than simply reading about capitalism. That formless, massive evil thing was flaunting its power and she was helpless before it. Her sense of justice was a bleeding wound.

“You’re right, Shalikova, Zachikova. I’m sorry for holding us up. Let’s go.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s voice came cross the handset one last time. “Thank you, Murati.”

Murati brusquely returned Zachikova’s antenna and started walking away before the rest.

Conspicuously she had not acknowledged the Captain in that final exchange.            

That child inside her who was screaming and crying as if told of death for the first time in her life hated the messenger who had forced her to acknowledge her helplessness and lack of depth. She felt a terrible, stupid, petty anger toward Captain Korabiskaya. The Captain was right; and Murati did not want to acknowledge it. She hated it. She hated her with a sudden, insane passion.


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