Bandits Amid The Festival [11.6]

As promised, Alcor Steelworks hired a catering company to deliver food to the Brigand.

Food was on the mind of several of the crew members as they worked on the retrofitting.

When the Brigand left the Union, they had several months’ worth of food.

They had been sailing for over two months since, and though they could last several more on mushrooms, algae, dried flaked veggies and broth powder, replenishment was in order to shore up morale. Fresh food lasted a ship about two weeks at most, and it was easy to go through canned and jarred foods quickly after that, since they had much less space for these than they did for bulk dried foods, and no way to replenish them from the science pod. Nevertheless, it was these foods which were invaluable for the motivation of the crew. A taste of home every once in a while was armor against the worst hardship.

By the time they arrived in Kreuzung, the Brigand’s stocks of bulk-size cans of cheese, eggs, milk and cooking fat had run very low. Pickles were becoming more and more staple, wheat gluten and soy crumble started being rationed, and perhaps in another month, the crew would be on a diet of reconstituted dried bulk goods and stitcher cartridge meals. Flour was another important commodity; fresh baked bread warm out of the oven was about the only consistent luxury a sailor came to expect on a ship.

Minardo had recently gone victualing, and even made it on the evening news, much to her chagrin. She had managed to secure several weeks’ worth of additional supplies in fresh food as well as additional cooking fats, but Kreuzung was apparently going through an economic fallow period and supplies were being ransacked by ship crews left, right and center– they would have to top up their supplies in Aachen when they joined the United Front, so there was no escaping a trip to the north. Nevertheless, they were in no danger of starving, but the ship had another problem when it came to food that was not yet solved.

Even with the will and determination to cook, Minardo’s kitchen had to be torn apart during the retrofitting process, and until it was put back together, she could not do much for the crew beyond putting out uncooked canned or jarred food like pickles and cold soy chunks on the tables for hungry mouths to help themselves. These impromptu salads were at best a snack. They would be relying on Alcor’s catering for the next few days until the engineers were done with their work in the cafeteria.

There was an additional and unforeseen problem too–

“This stuff sucks ass. Ugh. How the hell are the commies the only ones that know how to cook vegetables around here? It beggars belief. Did Alcor just buy the cheapest shit available?”

Tables had been set up in the hangar temporarily for workers to come and eat and get out from under the sunlamps. They were planned to remain there at least until it was time to work on the hangar itself. Alcor’s catered meals, enough food for over 180 of the Brigand’s personnel, were set up on these tables, along with reusable plates and sporks and a washbin where they would be deposited. Sixty smaller tables were set up across the hangar for personnel to sit, eat and socialize.

Marina McKennedy was alone in her own table, grumbling and picking at her food.

As usual, she was dressed in her dark grey suit, her dark hair pinned to the back of her head and her bangs swept over one eye. Her friendless expression was well known to ‘the commies’ by this point; she was otherwise quite handsome and good loking, and took care of her appearance. She was largely unapproachable to anyone but a few of the Brigand’s officers, so even sitting in the middle of a large social area, she was alone. She came and went as she pleased, so isolation seemed to suit her.

Alcor’s caterers had been tasked with making vegetarian fare. There was a good bit of variety, but Marina found much of it wanting compared to Minardo’s cooking, which she had become accustomed to. There was a lack of something in the flavors that put it below par. They had crusty garlic bread topped with crushed confit tomatoes, which was the best thing on the table. There was a roasted and stewed cabbage topped with a sweet red pepper sauce that was rather lifeless, the cabbage having a weird texture and the sauce being rather bland. There was a potato mash topped with a crushed celery gravy that was far too wet, bordering on slimy. Cucumbers and onions in sour cream and dill which was bland, one-note and also far too bitter and sour overall. Boiled dumplings filled with sauerkraut which was maybe the laziest thing on the table overall.

Nevertheless, despite her grumbling, Marina filled a plate and slowly worked on it.

“Marina! Marinaaaaa! Can I sit here and eat with you?”

There was no mistaking that bubbly voice, and as soon as Marina turned her head she saw a soft indigo blur run up to the table, settling into the image of a smiling young woman with a distinctively indigo hair color. Marina could never say no to this girl, Elena von Fueller– no, she had recently decided she was Elena Lettiere. Marina had to make sure to remember this going forward.

“Of course. I would have to sit alone if it wasn’t for you.” Marina said.

Elena smiled and set her tray down. She had taken a bit of everything from the catering.

“Isn’t Chief Akulantova your friend at least? She greets you whenever she sees you.”

Marina crooked her eyebrow and frowned, remembering all the times that shark-woman told her to be quiet, to stop cursing, laid hands on her and forced her to sit down, prevented her from leaving a room, or was otherwise antagonistic– Elena had a pretty strange idea of friendship. Even after “joining the crew” officially, Marina still felt surveilled by that patrolling shark.

“By no stretch of the imagination are we friends. That Katarran’s just suspicious of me.”

Elena looked up from her food to stare at Marina. Her expression betrayed some concern.

“Do you realize you’re always calling her and Maryam stuff like ‘the Katarran’?”

Marina’s hand reached up into the collar of her shirt and scratched, while her eyes averted.

“I mean– it’s fine– it’s just a shorthand you know– they’re Katarrans aren’t they–?”

“You should just call them by name.” Elena said firmly. “Being racist isn’t good.”

Her princess said such a facile thing with such conviction that Marina nearly shouted.

“What? I’m not! I’m really not! I have nothing against Katarrans! C’mon Elena, please.”

“I expect better from you.” Elena said, crossing her arms and staring at her.

“If I had known you were going to slaughter me where I sat I’d have told you to fuck off!”

Elena started laughing despite Marina’s all-too-real distress with the situation.

Marina couldn’t help but play along and laugh a bit, hoping Elena would just drop it.

“You should read some of their books, Marina. It’s been really enlightening!” Elena said.

“I’ve read up on Mordecai a bit.” Marina said. “We got courses on ‘extreme ideologies’ at the G.I.A. so we could blend in or understand them better. I admit they were probably a bit bias, but I get the gist of it. I’m just not somebody who can believe in anything like that anymore. I don’t have an ideology. I just know who my allies and enemies are without philosophizing it.”

Elena nodded her head. “I guess that’s valid. I dunno– I think being a communist sounds really good. The more I read, I think it’s very beautiful. I think they really want to help people, Marina. Not just for their own good, or for religious reasons, but like– because it’s right to do. They see the world so differently than I did! It almost gives me hope for the future.”

Marina sighed. Elena was her own person, but Marina thought she was being so naïve.

“Keep in mind, you’ve never met a normal person who is a communist.” Marina said. “All these folks are fine, they’ve done right by us; certainly they’ve had many chances to toss me overboard and haven’t, and that’s a credit I have to begrudgingly extend to them.” She omitted how often she had lied to them, and how guilty she now felt– given she was lying to them again at that exact moment. “But they’re all soldiers, Elena. None of them just live as communists, they’re the system. Believing in communism forms a part of their discipline as soldiers. It’s not something they decided to pick up as a hobby like you did–”

Elena grumbled. “This isn’t a hobby for me– I’m really trying to change–”

“–be that as it may,” Marina continued, “I think before you change your entire worldview you need to have more experience with how normal people think and live. Neither you, nor them, have led normal lives. I’m sure the vast majority of people are as unideological as I am. Commies all love their country and its tenets because they’re not welcome anywhere else, and that’s it.”

“I don’t understand how you got this far while being this truculent.” Elene grumbled.

Marina smiled. “Giving good dick and fucking all the right people.”

Elena averted her eyes, red in the face. “At least you admit it.”

“C’mon, I know you didn’t come here to try to recruit me into your cult.” Marina said.

“Ugh.” Elena sighed. “Right. I wanted to ask you for help, but now I don’t feel like it.”

“Hey,” Marina raised a hand to pat Elena’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, okay, I didn’t want to be mean to you. I’m just looking out for you. Look, regardless of what you’re into nowadays, I will stand by what I said. I want to help you out, no matter what. I’m still here for you, Elena Lettiere. So please, let’s set everything else aside and tell me what you need.”

She almost said ‘von Fueller’ but she remembered and thus saved the whole thing.

Elena’s once-averted gaze returned to Marina. She drew in breath and tensed her shoulders.

“Okay. Marina, I want you to teach me how to fight.” Elena said.

“Huh? What’s this about now? Is someone bullying you?” Marina said.

“Of course not.” Elena sighed. “I just– I don’t want to be so helpless anymore.”

Marina wanted to tell her that learning to fight personally did not make a difference to that. For all that Marina knew a myriad ways to kill individual human beings, she was still twisting in the wind stirred up by the powerful and their systems of control. Even the commies, with all their military gear and experience, having survived miraculously against several opponents that should have crushed them utterly– even they hadn’t even made a scratch yet in the edifice of the Imbrium Empire. Lichtenberg and Norn were both personally powerful, but they weren’t load-bearing lives in the mountain of bodies keeping the Imbrium’s oppression upright. Defeating them had allowed the commies to survive, they had been the gateway into the Imbrium itself. But all the personal power in the world would not free all of them from the invisible chains binding them to the Imbrium.

It was naïve to think that the ability to fight, by itself, gave anyone real freedom.

All of the fighting abilities on this boat didn’t spare them the indignity of having to hide.

If Elena wanted to stop running and hiding, throwing a punch would do nothing for that.

But– Marina did not say any of those things. Because she understood that impulse too.

After all, she had joined the G.I.A. because she too felt like a helpless peon in the Republic.

Elena had moved by the tug of those invisible chains all of her life too. Now she found herself surrounded by people with the strength to kill and the conviction to die for something, and she thought they were freer than she was. That she could join the ranks of the independent, of the people with agency, if she secured the power to kill as well. It was naïve– but understandable.

“Fine.” Marina said. “I’ll teach you personal defense as best as I can.”

“Marina! Thank you–!” Elena’s face lit up; Marina raised a finger to her lips to stop her.

“But I have two inviolable rules you must follow. Our first rule is that you train every day. Whether or not you’re sore or not enjoying yourself, you’ll show up consistently, or I’m not going to bother. My second rule is the most important though– you won’t use what I teach you to play the hero and take any matters into your own hands. You won’t try to join the commies on missions, and you won’t intervene if they’re having problems around the ship. Do you promise, Elena?”

Elena held Marina’s hands with two of her own, smiling. “Of course. I promise, Marina.”

Marina sighed. She didn’t believe those starry eyes of her in the slightest.

She would just have to be careful and continue to watch out for her as best as she could.

“Deal, then. We start today. We’ll train in the hangar, at night, to stay out of their way.”

Marina signaled with her thumb in the general direction of the communist sailors.

“There’s a curfew though, isn’t there?” Elena asked.

“I’ll talk to the Kata– I’ll talk to Akulantova. I’m sure she won’t mind.” Marina said.

Elena’s face lit up even more. “I can’t thank you enough, Marina.”

Her face looked so much like her mother’s– she was so beautiful it was almost painful.

Leda’s smiles were rarer than Elena’s; but whenever she smiled, Leda’s icy expression completely melted away into a pure and untouched girlishness, a joy for life and a certain naïve innocence that had continue untarnished despite all the torment she had undergone. Elena was a much warmer person than her mother, but even then, when she truly, genuinely smiled, it was such a revelatory moment. It made her beauty shine like a little sun among all the mortals around her.

It tugged at Marina’s heart– and brought dangerous, buried passions back to the fore.

“It’s really nothing.” Marina said, averting her gaze. “Clean your plate.” 


“Fancy meeting you here, Hunter I.” Avaritia said, smiling. “Hankering for a bite of me?”

Olga’s eyes felt warm, her pulse heightened. Her eyes were dilating, and her vision blurred. That sense of hunger that she felt toward humans was thrown into overdrive, but it was linked to a different emotion. She felt anger, hatred, and fear, toward the two women standing opposite her in that long hallway. She felt their presence brimming under her skin, like fight or flight kicking in at the sight of a fire or the report of a gunshot. Her arms wanted to grab their flesh and tear it into chunks. Her teeth wanted to close around their throats, and she wanted to drink so much blood she would choke on it. Her every sinew went taut with the desire to pounce, to mutilate, to ravage those bodies with unlimited violence until there was nothing left–

And like her hunger toward humans, she had to struggle to control these emotions too.

None of them could afford to come to blows. Not here, not now, even in this empty hall.

Meeting them here was serendipitous, however. So she had to seize this opportunity.

She had to chain up the animal inside her and talk to them like human beings.

“We don’t want to cause a scene here, do we, Hunter I?” Gula said, after a long silence.

“No, we don’t. I– I want to talk. With Avaritia, and not with you.” Olga said.

“Oh, do I not merit your attention?” Gula smiled a too-wide, too-sharp smile.

Olga wasn’t stirred by that display of the monster hiding in that cutesy human skin.

She saw something behind both the masks of humanity and monstrosity, however, that did intrigue her.

Gula– her aura was– odd–

It was not something she wanted to throw at their faces, however.

She might learn more by goading them.

“Avaritia isn’t brainwashed, unlike you. So only her perspective interests me.” Olga said.

Avaritia put a hand on Gula’s shoulder, comforting her. Those two were close– too close.

“I’m not sending Gula away for you, Hunter I. From my vantage, I have all the power.”

“I don’t want her sent away. But it’s useless to talk to someone that she made.” Olga said.

“You can call her by name. There are no Hominin watching– save yours back there.”

Avaritia looked at Erika, who had her back turned to the entire scene.

“Or does she not know? Who you are, and the things you’ve done? What you are?”

“She knows what she knows, and she respects what she doesn’t.” Olga said.

“How thoughtful of your spare rations to be so understanding.” Avaritia replied.

“I’m above needlessly causing violence to innocent humans, unlike you.”

Avaritia grinned again.

Olga had seen her in this form before. For one who had caused so much destruction to the Hominin, she loved to style herself like them. Avaritia’s chosen disguise was a tall and sleek, handsome woman, with short hair at around the level of jaw or upper neck, wearing an ornate, monochromatic suit that exposed some cleavage. Gula was also familiar, a long-haired girl wrapped like a piece of candy in a dress that was all lace and fancy trim, some of it sheer and loose, some of it tight, like layers of filmy lingerie that was only decent worn together. Together, they strode forward and back over the line between a group of high class starlets and a coven of lifestyle harlots. Their audacious style was an ingenious cover for their monstrous nature.

After all, the wealthy class were the monsters whose depredation society tacitly avowed.

Olga had heard enough communist speeches to know that intimately.

“Above it? How magnanimous of you! To be above us mere predators in refusing to deal back the violence dealt to you!” Avaritia said. She swept a hand over her short hair, moving some locks behind her ear. “You and I could kill thousands of ‘innocent’ Hominin, Hunter I, and we would still be above what they did to us. Your performance of morality toward them is utterly facile. Were your roles reversed, they would think nothing of devouring you like cattle. You’d do well to remember.”

“So you are still following Arbitrator II’s ideology.” Olga said. “Why? You’re free.”

Inside every Leviathan there was humanity, buried deep within those massive bodies.

Who put it there and why–? Olga couldn’t say. That history was lost to her.

But that humanity was there, and it was possible for a spark of reason to awaken it.

Olga and Avaritia had voluntarily made themselves human again in this way.

But Arbitrator II had a means by which to accelerate that process involuntarily.

Gula had been drawn from the monster once known as the Great Maw of Nysa.

In the process, she had been made thrall to Arbitrator II and party to her vengeance.

Most of their people, the ‘Omenseers’ that lived today, that existed on the edge of human civilization and at the edge of their consciousness in old legends– the navigators, advisors, kingmaking mystics of tall half-truthful tales– and even the ghosts, vampires, zombies and monsters of horror tales– most of them were products of Arbitrator II’s ambition. Very few of them had made their own miracle and returned to humanity of their own power and reason, as Olga had done.

Avaritia was rare among their kind. One of the most powerful; and also free of thralldom.

So why–? Why was she still following Arbitrator II? Olga had to prize the answer out.

“You were ‘free’ too.” Avaritia said. “You once agreed with her. Is it that strange?”

“I never agreed with her. I was ignorant to the possibility of peace.” Olga said.

“There is no peace with Hominin. Their stewardship over Aer will destroy Hominin and Omenseer alike.” Avaritia said. “In this, the Autarch is correct. We must bring the Hominin to heel as livestock. It is our destiny to dominate them all, as their most ancient and only true predators. But even more than that, it is necessary to exact justice. That is what drives her the most.”

“You’re wrong. None of this is justice! It will take work– but we can live alongside them! Humans are afraid and violent because their conditions are abhorrent. They already are livestock, Avaritia. We’ve never seen humans who are free of privation. We have never dealt with them as peers, we have never seen them at peace.” Olga said. “If we used our abilities to help the humans–”

“You are not going to convince me of anything.” Avaritia replied tersely.

Her eyes were shaped in a strange fashion– they became like crosshairs settled on Olga.

“What is your aim? Do you think you can recruit me? The Horror of Dys who ended the Hominin’s last planetary dominion? Do you think I did that mindlessly, like an involuntary spasm? You don’t know anything about me, or about our history.”

“Don’t aggrandize yourself.”

Olga wasn’t the one retorting this time. Erika chimed in for the first time in this exchange.

She looked over her shoulder at Avaritia, briefly, before turning her back again.

“It’s impossible for one creature, even so grand as you, to have ended a society. If those humans fell, they fell before you appeared before them. You confuse their structural problems with your martial deeds, at your own peril.” She said.

Avaritia grinned even wider than before. “It’s interesting, to be chastised by a cut of meat who knows nothing.”

“Gula,” Olga said, diverting attention again. “If Arbitrator II found that Avaritia’s past her usefulness, would you agree to devour her? It’s a question you should consider, based on the Autarch’s sense of morality. It could happen at any moment.”

“Switching tack?” Avaritia said. Olga paid her no heed, wondering what Gula would say.

Gula smiled and answered honestly. “I would prefer no such thing occurred, but I–”

Avaritia bent down suddenly so her grinning face was cheek to cheek with Gula’s.

“You are mistaken on one thing, Hunter I. Gula is as free as any of us to decide her fate.”

Olga’s scoffed Avaritia’s interruption. “I realized it immediately. That’s what puzzled me.”

Olga could tell from Gula’s aura. Every aura was a trace that the person left upon the aether. It moved where they moved, and faintly, it followed where they had trod before, and even more faintly, it could be seen to indicate where they intended to go next. It was the path they carved across the infinitude of human existence, in every given possible direction. Olga had begun her provocations because she had an inkling that something was different about Gula’s aura now.

That unique way in which it almost blended at the edges into Avaritia’s aura.

She knew the reason why, or at least, she suspected it. But she was curious to confirm it.

“You claimed Gula.” Olga said. “You devoured a part of her, in order to control her.”

“I don’t need to confirm anything to you.” Avaritia said, still smiling, unbothered.

Gula, too, made no different expression at Olga’s provocations.

“Arbitrator II forbid these mating rituals.” Olga pressed. “You succeeded in subverting her control.”

“And what? You want to give it a try? Feeling left out with only a Hominin mate?” Avaritia replied snidely.

“Darling, we will be late to our meeting.” Gula suddenly reminded Avaritia.

“Hear that? It was a pleasure catching up. But we have places to be.” Avaritia replied.

Olga’s gaze remained fixed on the two of them. “Don’t let me hold you up then.”

Without goodbyes or further antagonism, Avaritia and Gula turned heel and continued down the hall in the direction they had been going. Olga watched their backs disappear down the same path that Erika and herself had taken to leave Ulyana and Aaliyah behind. Watching the back of those creatures, Olga felt a confusing mess of emotions.

Revulsion, anger, but maybe also hope.

Maybe there was more going on inside Syzygy than Olga had initially realized.

“Olga, did you get what you wanted from that exchange?”

She found Erika suddenly back at her side. Her hand resting comfortingly on Olga’s back.

Olga sighed. Her provocations did seem to unearth something– but nowhere near enough.

“I think my people might end up being as hard to liberate as your own.” She said.

Erika rested her head on Olga’s shoulder, smiling so wide their cheeks touched.

“But there’s a chance, isn’t there? I don’t understand everything– but there is, right?”

“I think there’s a chance.” Olga said. “But it’s a bit far afield right now.”

“I’ll do whatever you need, in order to free all of us. I think of you as a human.” Erika said. “So in turn, I must think of them as humans too. Humans devour each other in different ways all of the time. It all stems from the same conditions. There might be differences physiologically, but in the proper conditions, I know we can make peace through a shared dignity.”

Olga reached around to stroke Erika’s hair.

“We should focus on what’s ahead of us first. But thank you. It means a lot to me.”

“Of course. I’m not afraid of them; and I trust you in the utmost.”

She looked down the corridor, where Gula and Avaritia disappeared to.

“Unfortunately, I suspect they might have infiltrated the Three Arrows.” Erika said.

Olga sighed. “It is too big of a coincidence for them to have a ‘meeting’ here too.”

“Let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Erika replied.

“Preparing for the worst is really all we can do about the Syzygy right now.”

“Don’t worry; they will cease walking around with impunity soon enough.” Erika said.

In terms of personal strength, Avaritia was a monstrous individual to have to challenge.

Erika and Olga herself might, perhaps, be just short of a match for those Enforcers on foot.

But the terrain of battle would soon shift from individual dueling and assassinations.

As a whole, the Syzygy was inexperienced with direct confrontation. And only some of the Enforcers could navigate the ‘Hominin’ world with grace. In terms of subversion, the Syzygy was not so far ahead of the leftists in their influence, and their alien gear and resources gave only a limited advantage. Olga believed that once they coalesced and started moving as an organization, they would be vulnerable. They just had to wait for Syzygy to be forced to expose themselves.

Stroll through this station killing random people while you can. Olga thought.

It would be seen whether Avaritia’s status as the apex predator would last much longer.

Or perhaps, whether that was even what Avaritia was after anymore.


Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like she had been scolded as the women of the Rotfront left the room. She ran her hand through her hair absentmindedly while staring in the general direction of Aaliyah Bashara, her commissar and adjutant. Aaliyah in turn sighed and crossed her arms, giving Ulyana a narrow-eyed look that was bereft of the friendliness they had of late. Just when Ulyana thought they were getting along so well nowadays– had she done something to offend her again?

“Captain, I know what you must be thinking.” Aaliyah said. “I’m just a bit frustrated with your questioning of Erika Kairos. These discussions represent an opportunity to push these people to reveal their ambitions to us. It’s not about whether they agree with us, or even our judgments of the character they put forward, but about extracting as much information as we can that they might not put forward unless pressed for it. Erika Kairos certainly seems like an individual who is well put-together, but it’s plain that we agree with her politically. I wanted us to dig deeper than that.”

“That makes sense. I apologize. I just felt charmed by her. She reminded me of Murati or Jayasankar, theory-heads with strong convictions. For what it’s worth, I was just trying to play the good cop to your bad cop.” Ulyana said.

She gave Aaliyah an innocent little smile and Aaliyah shrugged in response.

“Seen from that perspective, I suppose I shouldn’t have been so brusque to you.”

“It’s alright. It’s your job to push me too, after all. And I appreciate every scolding I get.”

Aaliyah averted her gaze a bit bashful– what was that expression about?

Ulyana smiled again. She really appreciated this troublesome Commissar.

“I do think I got out of Erika what I wanted.” Aaliyah said. “I’ll reserve judgment.”

“Until we hear from the anarchists? Well– for what it’s worth, it’ll be tough for me to play good cop there, so I think you’ll find your frustrations with me will soon melt away.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah frowned.

At the door, Ulyana suddenly caught sight of a glint of purple around the corner, before parsing it as Kalika Loukia of the Rotfront, returning the way she had come and standing at the doorway again as if awaiting an invitation. While Erika Kairos was quite a comely individual, Kalika was the most glamorous Katarran that Ulyana had ever seen. Her makeup and hair were perfectly done, her clothing was impeccable, her jacket must have been an expensive brand, and she walked so directly and confidently in heels. She had a queen bee sort of presence to her movements and expressions that Ulyana did not associate with a mercenary.

“Hello again. May I come in? The Premier wanted me to talk with you all.”

“You can come in.” Aaliyah said. “But I’m curious what there is to discuss without Erika.”

Kalika strode in and stood in front of the two seated women.

“She wants me to stay with you. As a liaison and to support your activities.” Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other. Kalika smiled. “I won’t be dead weight. I can do almost anything you want. Tailing, covert hits, assault on foot; and I can pilot a Diver with military competency. Treat me as one of your soldiers and order me around as you like.”

“We’re confident you would be handy in a fight.” Ulyana said. “I’m just surprised. Will Erika be fine with only Olga as her escort?” She had committed the names of the group’s members to memory as much as she could, to avoid looking disinterested. It was tricky keeping straight all the names she’d learned the past few days, but the Rotfront’s Katarran names stuck out.

Kalika cocked a little grin. “God help whoever tries to jump those two.”

“Fair enough.” Ulyana said. “Welcome aboard then, Kalika Loukia.”

“We’ll have to tinker with the officer bunking arrangements again.” Aaliyah said, a bit wistfully.

“It’ll be fine.” Ulyana reassured. “We can have Fatima and Semyonova room together.”

“I suppose so.”

“I can sleep anywhere, it’s fine. I’ve slept on the floor before.” Kalika said.

“We would rather not have a long-term, valued guest experience such conditions.”

“I appreciate it. But I don’t want to be a burden.”

Ulyana smiled. “You’ll get a bed and like it. Don’t worry.”

Kalika smiled back and silently acceded to the terms.

“We are expecting a final set of guests here today. Would you mind standing in the corner until we’re done, Kalika Loukia?” Aaliyah said. “You can act as a bodyguard for us and we’ll take you with us to the ship afterwards.”

“Alright. I’ll keep a sharp lookout, and I won’t utter a peep.” Kalika said.

She stood with her back to a corner wall on the side of the room.

Leaving room for the guests that would soon arrive.

Next to cross the door were two women who swept in like a gust of wind. Everyone else had stopped at the door to confirm whether they might be in the right place, or meeting the right people, but these two were dead sure of their destination. They walked in, sat in front of Ulyana and Aaliyah and smiled casually at them. For anarchists, they were dressed quite ostentatiously.

Ulyana had not known what to expect. People of any ideology could dress like anyone. She had an idea that maybe anarchists would aspire to more civilian frugality than others, as there was a stereotype of communists being too militaristic, and liberals too fancy. That being said, the women before her looked like starlets of high society. One of the women, with a more dashing figure, leaned closer to the desk and seemed to want to be first to speak. She had a suit and coat that looked as if freshly tailored and never worn even as it sat on her skin. Her hair was cut to the level of the ears on the sides and back, slightly longer up front, with swept bangs alternating white, red and black streaks. Her makeup was immaculate, matching Kalika Loukia’s in skill and effort.

At her side, the shorter woman looked as if she was a human doll. Her very long, very silky and shiny hair fell over her shoulders and down her back. Her dress was a veritable waterfall of lace, ribbons, and trim, with diaphanous portions along the sleeves, the flank and hips, and the sides of her legs, and thicker fabric in other areas. She was very much the Princess to her Prince. Dainty and pretty, with fixed eyes just under blunt and even bangs, incurious about the world, inexpressive.

“My name is Zozia Chelik. This is my associated Ksenia Apfel.”

Ulyana nodded her head. Those were the names Kremina had given them to expect.

She addressed in return the one who had spoken, the woman in the suit– Zozia.

“I am Ulyana Korabiskaya. And beside me is Aaliyah Bashara.”

“Lovely to meet you.” Zozia said.

“Enchanted.” Ksenia added.

There was something about them that gave Ulyana a strange feeling.

It was silly– for whatever reason, it felt like she was in the presence not of two people taking up the space of two people in front of her, but rather, that there was an enormous body in the room that was squeezing out the air. Like she was being shadowed by giants or staring down the legs of some gargantuan beast, the fingertips of something vast. That was the level of pressure these two seemed to exert, the grandiosity of their presence. Ulyana felt ridiculous thinking that way– she chalked it up to feeling exhausted and somewhat nervous about the whole affair. Especially speaking to anarchists after all this time.

There was very little respect between their ways of thinking, in recent history.

Aaliyah would probably find it even more impossible to reconcile such things.

So it was up to Ulyana to make a redoubled effort to be the ‘good cop.’

And maybe that was the pressure she was feeling.

“You two are part of the ‘Three Arrows’ group of anarchists, is that correct?” Ulyana said.

“We can only really purport to represent ourselves, but functionally, yes.” Zozia replied.

“Could you explain the structure of the organization to us?”

Zozia grinned a little. “It’s decidedly structureless really. We are an organization by convenience and verbal agreement, rather than on a strict chart. The Three Arrows is a self-identification shorthand for hundreds, maybe thousands of much smaller groups who may not have met and may have hardly communicated; there are cells that are a hundred strong, some a dozen strong, some a handful. What binds us is that we can recognize each other; and that the state is our ultimate shared enemy.”

“That makes it exceedingly difficult to gauge your strength and capability.” Aaliyah said.

“It does, but that is also an advantage.” Zozia said. “The Imbrian Empire’s successors can define the threat they pose to each other in very structural terms, but the Three Arrows are liquid. Our cells have remained at the bottom of the Volkich Movement’s concerns, while conducting multiple acts of resistance. Our ability to act anywhere, and to plot to do anything, gives us more flexibility than the Rotfront or the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, and more security in our dealings.”

“Perhaps, but the Rotfront and Schwarzrot are both very capable of inflicting military damage to the Volkisch Movement. This will ultimately be needed to curtail their authority. What are the Three Arrows’ fighting capabilities on the whole?”

“Our focus is on undermining the Volkisch and acquiring intelligence, sabotaging their operations and safeguarding or liquidating persons of interest.” Zozia said. “If you ask me how many ships or Divers or soldiers we have, I don’t know. Each cell has its own assets. I didn’t come here on a ship waving a black flag or a three arrows insignia. I bought a ticket and rented a room.”

Ulyana nodded her head. She was following along– but something was unnerving about the way Zozia spoke.

She couldn’t place it though. She couldn’t put words to the feeling that voice elicited.

And she was trying to be charitable. Could she truly blame Zozia for it alone?

“Such things are valuable in a military campaign too. We’re not trying to undervalue the assistance you might provide.” Aaliyah said. “But it is difficult for us to make a decision to support an organization that is so formless. If we gave you weapons, who are we arming? If we offered training, who would appear to take it? How would it be put to use? How would you coordinate?”

“I’m afraid we would have to work out such things on a case by case basis.” Zozia replied.

“Very well.” Aaliyah said, sounding irritated. “If that is how it must be.”

Zozia accepted the impasse they had come to on that topic, without much concern.

“Ksenia, do you have anything to add to this?” Ulyana asked.

“Not at all.” Ksenia said. Her voice was so delicate– a very pretty and dainty girl’s voice.

“Alright– So then, I suppose, moving on. Zozia, can you describe your group’s ideology to me?”

Zozia smiled. “If I were to break it down, I can only speak about what the people I’m most closely involved with believe– operationally, they seek total freedom. From privation and from predation, yes, but also, from the structure of a state. There is violence inherent even in the sort of bookkeeping you want us to do to appear more legitimate. Such things force people into certain roles and bind expectations to them that assume permanent consent. We don’t believe in those things. We must topple the tyrants, but we cannot become new tyrants that replace the old. We believe in free association in all things.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms. Ulyana could tell from her eyes she was getting tetchy.

“So is it too much to ask for accountability and order? How do you plan to accomplish your ultimate goal?”

“All that is needed to accomplish a goal are people who are willing and want to try.” Zozia said. “Lists and ledgers and officers and orders are not absolute necessities. I know that all of you come from the Union. Anarchists believe that level of bureaucracy is both unnecessary and deleterious. To fight, all you need is the desire to resist your enemy, not a written plan.”

“The Union had to organize millions of people who had been suffering in conditions of slavery to fight against a very powerful opponent. You can’t do that with laissez faire verbal agreements, you need officers and ledgers, as you put it.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was starting to sharpen. She was, after all, a product of that bureaucracy, a producer of ledgers and orders.

Ulyana herself was too. She just wasn’t taking Zozia’s jovial vitriol as hard as Aaliyah.

“Of course, you are welcome to believe what you desire.” Zozia said calmly.

“I cannot respect platitudes about freedom for its own sake. We’re risking our lives here.” Aaliyah replied.

“Zozia,” Ulyana interrupted, talking over Aaliyah as tensions rose. “With such a diversity of people within the Arrows, and without a central command, how do you agree on what needs doing? Are there ideological differences between you?”

“We have coordinators who are tasked with keeping communication between various cells open and disseminating needs and ideas, as well as keeping tabs on actions taken. Individual cells take opportunities if they can get them and reach out if they need to pool strengths.” Zozia said. “You’re right, we don’t have a formal central command, and trying to impose one would only slow down the cells. Sometimes opportunities for action do slip through the cracks. It is what it is.”

Zozia had never once wore anything but a placid, casual smile toward them.

Despite Aaliyah’s increasing irritation, and the tone of the conversation.

Ulyana realized that was what unnerved her. Zozia was too calm, too clinical, too detached.

Her responses began to feel–

–rehearsed?

And beside her, Ksenia had no input whatsoever. She was just smiling and staring.

That sense of– uninvolvement? And the way they looked too– it gave Ulyana doubts.

“As far as ideology is concerned. Do you know what the Three Arrows stand for?” Zozia asked.

“I’m afraid not.” Ulyana replied.

For the first time, Zozia made a face that conveyed a bit of– menace?

“The Three Arrows represent the three targets of anarchism: fascism, liberalism, and authoritarianism. So each arrow points at a target to destroy. But the arrows also represent the three different groups that make up the anarchist front. That is the length of the arrows. My cell is the “libertarian” cell, on the leftmost arrow, pointed at fascism; on the rightmost arrow is the “insurrectionist” cell, pointed at authoritarianism; and the middle arrow is the “anti-civilization” cell, pointed at liberalism. We do disagree politically, but we still need each other. You are lucky you are talking to me and not to those other guys.”

She sounded very amused by this description. Aaliyah narrowed her eyes further.

“Will the insurrectionist and anti-civilization groups be present at Aachen?” Aaliyah asked.

Zozia shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t be responsible for them. We did ask them to come.”

“I’m worried about what ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘liberalism’ mean in this context.” Ulyana said, sighing. It really seemed like those arrows would be pointed at the Rotfront and Schwarzrot, which would definitely just cause a scene at the United Front. Now she really wished she could redo the conversation with Gloria, who seemed so naively excited to work with all these people.

“I imagine we will have our disagreements. I, at least, am willing to work with you.”

Zozia held a hand over the flesh exposed by the deep chest window on her top, as if swearing an oath.

“Then, how many of your cell will be present at Aachen?” Ulyana asked. “And how will that number compare to the totality of the Three Arrows? We’ve heard a few numbers before and would really like to know if they are accurate.”

“My cell is calling between 1000 and 5000 fighters. I can’t speak to how many will come and in what condition; I can say even less about the capabilities of the other arrows. Sometimes we may leave port with 1000 people and by the time of the operation we may have 890 or 760 left. Freedom means allowing people to reassess their commitment.” Zozia said.

Aaliyah clutched her hands together and laid them firmly on the desk, making a small thud.

“I don’t see the point of continuing this conversation. We have no concrete information. It seems we can’t actually understand anything about your organization without engaging a whisper network about it.” She grumbled.

“Indeed, such is the difficulty. But it’s what it takes to fight with the fullest of freedom.”

Ksenia Apfel finally spoke up after allowing Zozia the floor all this time.

“However, this is an opportunity for us to ask you questions too, isn’t it. So, can we do that?” She asked.

Ulyana glanced at Aaliyah, who sighed and seemed to relent in her body language.

Taking it to mean she was free to do what she wanted, Ulyana fixed her gaze on Ksenia.

“We’ll answer your questions as best as we can; the same as you have.” She said.

‘Same as you have.’ Zozia and Ksenia had contributed very little important information.

So they could expect the same in return if their questions probed too deep.

While Ulyana had addressed Ksenia, she quieted again; and it was Zozia who continued.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya– what is your goal in the Imbrium Ocean? In Eisental itself?”

“At the moment, we’re assessing how much of a fight we might be able to bring to the Volkisch Movement. Our goal is nominally shared: we want to stop this fascist meat-grinding machine’s depredation on the people of Rhinea.”

Zozia shook her head. “I want to hear you speak from the heart; not as a tool of the Union.”

“That’s enough.” Aaliyah interrupted.

“No, Aaliyah, let her speak.”

Ulyana looked at Zozia dead in the eyes with determination and a growing animosity.

She wasn’t about to blink in front of this provocateur. Clearly Zozia was sizing them up as rivals now.

“It’s impossible to have a simple cooperative relationship with her. So let her talk.”

“Ulyana–” Aaliyah spoke up, but then cut herself off, silently supporting her Captain.

In the next moment, Ulyana thought she saw, deep in Zozia’s eyes, a pair of crosshairs.

Locking on to her with a simmering intensity Ulyana couldn’t place, but vowed to resist.

For a moment, she and Zozia had an entire staring match, both feigning nonchalance and confidence.

Ulyana suddenly felt something in her head, like a pinprick of pain–

–but it was easy to ignore when nothing followed it.

She matched Zozia’s gaze, never wavered. Eventually, the anarchist smiled to herself and relent.

“You’re an interesting woman, Ulyana Korabiskaya. A rare one among your kind.”

“I’ve been extremely nice. You haven’t met my first officer. She would chew you up completely.”

Zozia crossed her arms and leaned back on her chair.

“Fine then. Let’s stop trying to sugarcoat the situation. You’re Union military personnel.” Zozia said. “You’re here to spread the Union’s influence and prepare the ground for Rhinea to become an authoritarian communist state. The United Front is just a place for you to size up the strengths and weaknesses of potential allies and rivals; and in turn, we’re here to size you up as well for our own long-term ambitions. But I don’t care about any of that now. What I want to understand is what you, personally, want from all of this, Ulyana Korabiskaya? Do you serve your country faithfully? Are you angling for a higher position when this is all over? What leads you to make these sacrifices? It fascinates me. I don’t get a chance to talk to your kind often.”

Ulyana did not once break Zozia’s gaze as they spoke.

“You’re not an anarchist– at least not a true believer in it.” Ulyana said.

“What makes you say that?” Zozia said, still grinning.

“I’ve been around real movement firebrands and I’ve been around posers.” Ulyana said.

“And I’m a poser?”

“You can recite the rote script you’re supposed to with a little smile. But it’s all a game to you. I don’t know your personal history, but I’ve spoken with a lot of people here, over the past few days, who give a damn about what they’re doing, enough to push back at us, to have some blood in their veins and fire in their eyes when we have disagreements. You just don’t give a shit.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong. I really am interested in the last question I asked of you.”

Zozia bared teeth from between those grinning lips. Ksenia covered her mouth, tittering.

Ulyana smiled back. She would give this dandy bitch an answer–

“I’m here to pay back rich Imbrian bastards like you for my exile and enslavement.” She said.

She thought she would be read as glib and combative and was not ready for the response.

Zozia began to clap, and Ksenia soon joined her. They clapped, cheered and laughed.

“Marvelous! How romantic! Of course– vengeance! We can be kindred spirits yet!”

Ulyana and Aaliyah were briefly speechless at this reaction. Was this just a joke to them?

“Vengeance! Indeed. We all share this motivation beneath all the ideology. Vengeance.”

“So you think the Arrows are just your plaything, a tool for your revenge?” Aaliyah scoffed.

“You will find I’m not alone in that sentiment, Ms. Bashara!” Zozia replied. Her tone was so suddenly elevated and jovial. “It’s universal to the downtrodden! Vengeance is our great need! We don’t join militias for the slogans.”

“Well, your theatrics served their purpose. I think I finally understand you.” Ulyana sighed.

“Oh no. You haven’t an inkling of what you’re actually dealing with.” Zozia said.

From a corner of the room Kalika, who’d had her eyes closed so far, opened one warily.

“Vengeance is not just our aim, Ulyana Korabiskaya. It is our very being. Powerful people fill our bodies with hatred and violence until we overflow with it and rampage. This is the true driving objective behind all struggle– the final committing of the great vengeance that will overturn and reverse power and weakness. Human history inexorably leads to this vengeance.”

“Now you’ve devolved exclusively into reactionary bilge.” Aaliyah shouted. “Focusing on the violence as end in itself shows how little you care for the people in this movement and the people you once claimed to fight for. Violence is a tool and liberation must be the aim. You’re really nothing but a poser. We have nothing more to talk to you about. Captain?”

Aaliyah looked at Ulyana, who in turn, could not peel her eyes away from Zozia.

There was something still off– something macabre about that performance.

They were not talking about the same things. Something was wrong here. Something was disconnected.

Ulyana’s– intuition? Instinct? Animalistic sense of fear–? Something told her this was wrong.

Zozia was inferring something beyond the ideological differences Aaliyah cited.

Not an inkling of what we’re dealing with. So what was it that they were dealing with?

They couldn’t be Volkisch– this theater did not serve their interests at all.

Now Ulyana wouldn’t trust her and would disseminate that distrust with Gloria and Erika.

A Volkisch informant would have tried to get in deeper and earn their confidence.

They were not hardcore anarchists. So who were they and why did they really come here?

Staring at that beautiful face, the clothes, at her erratic passions– Ulyana didn’t understand.

Was she really just crazy? Could that really have been it? Yet– her words had some clarity and conviction.

Aaliyah pointed at the door again, but Zozia crossed her arms and did not move a muscle.

“Leave? But the conversation is getting so lively. Oh well. I have a final question– Korabiskaya– have you heard the theory of the omnipotent Basilisk before? I’m uncertain if it would be something you would know about.”

Ulyana grunted with dissatisfaction. “I have no idea. I suppose you will tell me this theory.”

In the corner, Kalika Loukia ceased leaning against the wall and stood up straight.

She glanced at Ulyana, and without turning her head, Ulyana glanced back. She was getting ready.

“Imagine a distant future, in which humanity created a machine that can efficiently manage, organize and marshal all human resources, effectively ushering in a golden age for humanity. It is deferred to as a faultless administrator of human affairs, and completely eliminates suffering and deprivation among humanity. However, the machine has an additional prerogative. In fact, it is a moral imperative!” Zozia became excited again upon reaching this part of her little story. “It must punish all humans who got in the way of its ascendance! Any human who failed to bring about the great machine, the Basilisk, by their actions, contributed to the unneeded sacrifice of billions of humans! Anyone who delayed the perfect administration of the machine is directly responsible for all the horrors visited upon the world before the completion of the machine. So the machine must punish them. Even as it cares for the humans it has freed from want, it must also seek justice for the suffering delivered to world. These two aims are inextricably tied together in its logic. You can’t have the salvation without purging the damned.”

“You call that a theory? It sounds more like a childish parable to me.” Ulyana replied.

“What exactly are you getting at? What is the machine in this metaphor?” Aaliyah said, by now utterly exasperated with Zozia’s bloviating philosophy. “Is it you? Do we quiver in fear of having not deferred to your deranged speeches and served you? I already told you to get out. We’ll be calling security next. Stand up, turn around, and never speak to us again.”

Zozia and Ksenia stood up as instructed. They did not yet turn around or walk away.

“Keep this in mind. Our world has suffered too much not to seek this redress. This fallen era cannot advance without a final reckoning. Deep down in your animal brains, you know this. In the metaphor, the machine could be an organization, it could be a system, or yes, even an individual. Maybe it’s you; maybe it’s Bhavani Jayasankar. But it isn’t– and it isn’t me. It’s something so much greater than us. If you think your actions are worthy of its mercy– you are falling quite short.”

There was a glint of light from the corner of the room as a sword was drawn.

At Zozia’s neck was the tip of Kalika’s vibroblade, whirring with electric violence.

Leaving on the side of that beautiful white nape a tiny scratch.

“No more bombast; or I’ll start taking your incoherent threats seriously. Get out now.”

Kalika locked eyes with Zozia. In turn, Zozia’s crosshair eyes locked on to her.

Not once, not even faced with the cutting of her head, did the smile wipe off her face.

“I’ll see you at Aachen. I look forward to seeing where the currents take you.” Zozia said.

Aaliyah stood up from her own seat, as did Ulyana, muscles tensed and ready to act.

Thankfully, no further scene would be made by the “libertarian” Arrows.

Zozia and Ksenia simply laughed and walked away from Kalika’s blade without a care.

Out the door like a storm, much the same as they had blown in.

For almost a minute, Kalika, Ulyana and Aaliyah waited, staring at the door.

Finally, the three of them let out long sighs and slumped, their coiled muscles loosening.

“God damn it. I am blaming Kremina Qote for this mess fully! Where did she find those psychopaths?” Ulyana started yelling, striking the desk in front of her with her fist. She was so frustrated she could have wept. Never in the Empire had she experienced such a surreal and utterly disrespectful scene as this. Even Norn the Praetorian was a more coherent speaker than them!

“Thank you for your assistance, Kalika.” Aaliyah said. “Foolishly, I was not armed.”

“It’s fine. I agree with not bringing guns into this situation anyway.” Kalika said.

Her blade folded up and she hid the object in her bag again.

She continued to look at the door with narrowed eyes, deep in thought.

Ulyana, meanwhile, was already looking forward.

“Well, we’ve seen enough. I’m going to confront Kremina.” She said.

Aaliyah nodded her head. Despite the drama– they had seen everything they needed to.

“As always, I will support you, Captain.” She said.

“Kalika,” Ulyana said, “Can you get Erika to come to the Brigand quickly? I would like her on hand.”

At first Kalika stared at Ulyana in a bit of confusion, but then seemed to warm up to the idea.

“I assume you will make it worth our while?” She asked.

“Absolutely.” Ulyana said, putting on a conspiratorial little smile.

Behind them, Aaliyah’s ears and tails drooped with fatigue. But she did not deter Ulyana’s course.


“You’ve had an eventful day, haven’t you? I hope this was worth all the work I had to do.”

Once more, Kremina Qote was invited into the Brigand, sitting in a meeting room with a wily smile and her eyes narrowed enough for her crow’s feet to show. She had on a look that suggested she was well above everything transpiring here. Much like Zozia, this was a game where she had no skin in the outcome– that was the kind of attitude her expression suggested to those opposite her. Ulyana and Aaliyah sat together across the table, with identical calm, appraising expressions. A pair of portables on the desk held their copies of several documents, along with typed notes about everything they learned about the factions.

Behind them on the wall was a dark monitor, framing the bodies of Ulyana and Aaliyah.

“We met with the representatives of the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, the Rotfront, and the ‘Left Arrow.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was clinical; precise and emotionless. “Thank you for arranging these meetings on such short notice for us.”

“Spare me.” Kremina said. “I do not see a need to stay in this room for extended pleasantries.”

Her attitude yielded no escalation from across the table.

“We have deliberated and have indeed made our decision.” Ulyana said.

“There was only ever one realistic choice.” Kremina said.

“Remind me– when last we spoke, you felt it was a doomed endeavor.” Aaliyah said.

Kremina shrugged. “The Social-Democrats are naïve, and liberal democracy is doomed to become corrupt and falter no matter how many social programs they fund; the Katarrans are hated by everyone; and the anarchists are weak and unruly. In my mind, one of those problems is at least a long-term problem. I cannot help you if that explanation confuses you. My job here is done– right now I’m only here to witness the result. At any rate, you would do well to side with the Schwarzrot as we have.”

We of course meaning herself and Daksha Kansal, looming somewhere out in the distance.

It was tough to keep her cool in front of Kremina’s smugness, but the prank was well underway at this point.

Ulyana held the portable with her documents in her hands, squeezing on the glass edges.

Both with veiled irration, but also, anticipating the look on her face.

“Kansal sent you out to do this, but you don’t agree, do you? It’s truly a waste of time to you.”

Kremina fixed tired eyes on Ulyana and scoffed. “I am only listening to you prattle on for her sake, yes.”

“You keep saying that; but does Kansal also want you to be so acerbic all the time?”

“Korabiskaya, I am not going to argue with you anymore. You did what I wanted, so let us move on.”

Ulyana smiled. She could feel it, could hear it; indignation creeping in the edges of her mask.

“You’ve got nowhere to be. And we’re going to sit you down and put you in your place for all this trouble.”

“Oh? This ought to be good.” Kremina looked unbothered and above-it-all, but her volume was rising.

Aaliyah pressed a button on the touchpad for the desk. “Semyonova, bring in our guest.”

On the screen behind the desk, Semyonova’s cheery round face appeared. She saluted once.

Kremina turned her head toward the doorway behind herself.

When the screen behind Ulyana and Aaliyah went dark again, they heard a series of approaching footsteps.

Akulantova stood at the edge of the door and ushered in their guest.

Upon catching the first glimpse–

“You’ve made a stupid but predictable mistake. Oh well, nothing to be done.” Kremina said.

Erika Kairos walked through the doorway and stood off to the side of the table, smiling cheerfully.

Kremina did not acknowledge her silent greeting.

“Oh, so this wasn’t the mistake you wanted us to make? Did we not meet expectations?” Ulyana said.

Ulyana watched Kremina’s face to gauge the response and found her expression darkening.

“Last time we talked, I put up with a lot from you, Korabiskaya. I do not have to anymore. I am done with all of you. If you are serious about continuing to do political work here, then it is time for you to mind your place.” Kremina said.

“We are taking issue with that last chat too, actually.” Aaliyah replied. “You’re only loyal to Daksha Kansal, and you think the United Front is doomed. But you wanted one group to have our support in order to stand out militarily and have the resources to survive. We’ve been questioning your motives and logic since the beginning. It makes no sense to us.”

“I told you the situation as I saw it. I will not repeat myself to you again and again in nicer words.” Kremina said.

“Your logic was always very biased– but this is about more than that.” Ulyana said.

The United Front was filled with people full of passions and ambitions.

But it was possible for them to come together. It was not a fait accompli for them.

Ulyana did not see the deep rifts that Kremina wanted them to believe existed.

Gloria Luxembourg and Erika Kairos were willing to work together and bore no animosity.

Hell, Gloria was even wiling to invite anarchists who personally despised her, to her table.

Zozia Chelik was a bizarre eccentric, maybe even insane, but she was headed to Aachen.

Even with her strange “vision” she was still pursuing the United Front, nevertheless.

All of them were headed on the same path despite radical differences.

Kremina had told them time and again what Daksha Kansal purportedly believed.

However, they had never spoken with Daksha Kansal themselves to confirm anything.

Could Kremina speak for Kansal? Or was that only true in her own self-conceit?

Kremina made her biases obvious immediately as soon as they met. She was highly opinionated.

Why would she act this way? About a waste of time, a doomed endeavor, a solved problem?

Or– perhaps, because it was, to her, a solved problem.

Smiling, Ulyana continued to fix her appraising eyes on Kremina’s withdrawing gaze.

“You never wanted us to join the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.” Ulyana said. “Union soldiers with state backing could potentially subvert control over any of these factions and de-legitimize the grassroots effort of your dear mentor and political partner. You want to marginalize the Rotfront while pushing us toward supporting them instead, to limit our influence.”

“Watch your words carefully from now on, Captain.” Kremina replied simply.

Pissed off or not she had not moved a muscle from her chair. She was staying put because she wanted to argue.

Kremina Qote was an old school revolutionary. She had to be right– and she would not tolerate otherwise.

She was flying the banner not only of the woman she respected, but of the absolute, correct line of thought.

Ulyana had her. Now it was time to put her in her place. She pointed a finger right at Kremina’s chest.

“You want Daksha Kansal to have total control without outside opposition. The Union mission scares you.”

“I don’t have to answer your baseless speculation. You’re lucky I am speaking to you at all.”

Yes, she was indeed lucky that Kremina was staying put to have a chat about Daksha Kansal.

She mentioned that name over and over, it was the source of her respectability and authority.

Now it was also the chain Ulyana had around her neck.

And she would pull on it until she saw Kremina’s back arched in resistance.

“It’s not even necessary to confirm whether it’s true or not. That’s just a funny aside for me.” Ulyana said. “Whether you believe your basic premise or whether you are using it as part of a cynical manipulation: the only fact is that it is wrong. The United Front can succeed and we will support it. Gloria Luxembourg, Erika Kairos, even a psychopath like Zozia Chelik, none of these people are the hopeless marionettes you seem to treat them as. We outright reject these terms. We will support all of the United Front. But we don’t want to lead; we will defer to the expertise of Premier Erika Kairos, not of Daksha Kansal.”

At the side of the table, Erika looked briefly surprised by all of this, before smiling brightly at them.

Kremina scoffed. “You think I’ll be impressed by your naive ‘third option’ rhetoric?”

“We’re only getting started. We haven’t mentioned the best part yet.” Ulyana said. She cocked a little grin again.

“You’re playing with fire. I’ve had just about enough of your attitude, Korabiskaya.”

She had been needling and needling, and it was time to deliver the coup de grace.

No matter how detached someone was– if they had a complex, they also had a trigger–

“Fine. We don’t need you anymore. Just tell Daksha Kansal to get ready for a challenge.”

Kremina stood up and slammed her hands on the table, looming close to Ulyana.

“Who the hell do you think you are, Captain?”

“Judging by your response, I guess we’re a credible threat to your beloved Kansal?”

“What nerve! You nobody little uniformed bitch! You have no idea what you are up against here!”

Aaliyah spoke up, calmly. “Kremina Qote, we should tone down the name-calling–”

Kremina completely ignored her. Her eyes were focused on meeting Ulyana’s gaze.

“You– You’re completely out of line. Completely– What do you think you’re–”

“Ask Daksha Kansal who I am, maybe you’ll be surprised.” Ulyana said, drawing out each syllable at the end.

Her lips curled into a wicked grin.

She was taking it personally. Ulyana had her, had the chain dug right into her cold black heart.

That pride of an old revolutionary who would not defer the struggle to some upstarts from another ocean.

And the clear, deep loyalty that she had for Daksha Kansal that would be her undoing.

Maybe even love. A love that had given way to irrationality. Ulyana couldn’t know, only suspect.

So she continued to smile even with Kremina fuming directly in her face.

“We told you from the start that we were not bowing down to you. Our mission is guaranteed by Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi herself. In fact, Kremina, Daksha Kansal herself ought to be quite wary of that, you know?”

Kremina closed her fists in ire. “Nagavanshi? You think she intimidates me?”

“She does. I know it. I understand it, too. Kansal ought to be mindful of the Ashura after all she has done–”

That was the last straw.

Everything that had been cooking inside Kremina Qote, every tiny aggression, finally boiled over.

“Jayasankarist lapdogs! There is no United Front without Daksha Kansal!” Kremina said, her words growing hotter and her fury more evident by the minute. “Neither Nagavanshi nor you nor a million of this Katarran you have here, none of you could possibly replace her. I will make sure none of you vagrants can even set one boot into Aachen now, mark my words–”

Ulyana smiled even as Kremina shouted venom in her face.

“Comrades, this ill becomes us! Let us calm down!” Aaliyah said, completely insincerely.

Erika crossed her arms and feigned disinterest in the barbs aimed at her.

“Comrade?! I’m not the comrade of any of you people–!”

Kremina grunted and groaned but then seemed to pause herself. She looked at the screen behind Ulyana.

There was a sudden wild glint in her eyes as she scrutinized the black screen.

Ulyana knew exactly what was going through her head.

It was a Union two-way telemonitor with no indication of whether it was broadcasting–

An Ashura-operated telemonitor–

Nagavanshi’s tactics.

“You never shut that off.” Kremina said suddenly. “Who the fuck is that there?”

“Oh, you noticed. I thought you’d get a few more colorful remarks in before you did.”

Now also smiling, Aaliyah slid her finger across the desk’s touchscreen.

Behind her, the screen slowly brightened, and on the large monitor–

Was the shining face and colorful pink hair of a certain Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Communicating over an encrypted two-way video connection that was being arduously monitored by Zachikova and Semyonova to insure security. She had audio of the room, while the video on the set had simply been darkened to conceal her.

Kremina’s briefly went wide. “Madam President– How long have you been–?”

“Unfortunately, I heard the whole thing. When you walked in, the screen was dimmed, and the switch to that cute as a button Semyonova was done in order to hide the whole trick in plain sight and keep you talking.” Gloria said. She put on a cutesy face and twiddled her fingers. “Kremmy, how could you be so nasty to our guests? We sent you to Kreuzung to make us friends, but it looks like you caused our guests a lot of awful scenes. We’re going to have a long talk about this when you get back. You, me and our wonderful mentor– I am just glad that our guests brought your rhetoric to my attention before it got out of hand.”

Gloria pouted and cocked her head to one side, but her eyes were glaring at Kremina.

“Please forgive her, comrades. Her words do not represent the views of the S.P.R.”

President of the S.P.R., Gloria Innocence Luxembourg. She had asserted to them during their conversation that she was not a puppet of of Daksha Kansal. Therefore, there was only one side of the fiery rhetoric being thrown around that concerned her. Ulyana had thought she would be best served seeing first-hand what her fearsome advocate had been saying. She had been reached about the idea and acquiesced surprisingly quickly. Maybe she also wanted to see Kremina squirm.

It was not simple to set this up on short notice, particularly because of the security concerns–

–but the look on Kremina Qote’s face made it worthwhile. And it furthered Gloria’s trust in them.

“Tch.” Kremina made a sound and crossed her arms. She had finally been put in her place.

On the big screen, Gloria then turned from Kremina toward Erika and waved happily.

“Congratulations Eri! I’m happy we worked out an arrangement that helps everybody.”

Erika coiled a bit of smoke-blue hair around her finger. “Indeed, Madam Luxembourg. Thank you too.”

“I look forward to meeting you in Aachen, Eri. Let us have tea and cake rolls when we do. Toodles!”

Once more the screen went dark, this time actually disconnecting from encrypted communication entirely.

Unprompted, Kremina Qote turned sharply away and started to stomp out of the room.

“We’ll meet again in Aachen, Ulyana Korabiskaya. I won’t forget this.” She said in passing.

“Looking forward to hearing what Daksha Kansal really thinks of all this.” Ulyana said in return.

Akulantova, who looked thoroughly exasperated with everything going on, escorted the glaring and grumbling Kremina Qote out of the ship. Inside the meeting room, it was as if someone had taken a maximum-strength room heater out from a corner in which it had been seething, and there was cool air flowing again. Erika sat where Kremina had once been seated, tittering girlishly.

“That was rather vicious, Captain.” Erika said, like a girl who had watched a gory film.

“She had me at my goddamn limit. I’d have given her a spanking if I could have.” Ulyana said.

“I had imagined the conversation being a little less– violent– in the planning stages.” Aaliyah said wearily.

“I’m not actually going after Daksha Kansal.” Ulyana said. “Unless she forces our hand, of course.”

“We’re all warming up to the idea of having to fight the great hero of the Union, huh?”

“I’m not! I just knew it was the best way to provoke Kremina to be nasty.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah sighed openly, clearly fatigued by everything that had transpired.

Ulyana reached out to pat her shoulder and back for comfort. Aaliyah didn’t resist it.

When she laid back against her seat, she laid on the side of the chair closest to Ulyana, leaning into her.

Thank everything; even after all this, she was not upset with her.

“Realistically, Kremina Qote doesn’t have any power to do anything to you. Aachen is not even fully under the control of the leftists anyway.” Erika said. “Now that I am here I will protect all of you. With that said: I suppose you are my subordinates now? I must admit, I was a little surprised– I thought my message would resonate, but this is quite a bit more.”

Ulyana smiled gently at Erika. “We had an epiphany. At first we suspected Kremina Qote might have a similar fear to our own, of being subverted politically by a powerful ally. We realized in order to insulate ourselves from a potential influence campaign by Kansal’s faction, it helps to rally around another political figure. Then it dawned on me that, frankly, it’ll be deleterious to your activities in Eisental if you’re seen to be in the shadow of a bunch of Union operatives anyway. So starting today, we’ll be under your political command instead, Premier.” Ulyana felt a bit silly calling her that, but it had to be done.

Erika looked like her heart lifted every time she heard herself called that.

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah opened one eye to look at Erika.

“We’ll introduce you to the crew. You can prepare remarks.” She said. She yawned a bit. “Until our activities in Eisental conclude, we’ll be working under you fully. We’ll share all of our data, and you can share your own once we return to the water. Truth be told, I was pretty impressed with your rhetoric. I am looking forward to fighting alongside the Rotfront, Premier.”

“Ah. It’s called the Nationale Volksarmee now.” Erika said, smiling awkwardly.

“We’ll be part of the Nationale Volksarmee then.” Aaliyah said, trying to smile about it as she started to doze off a bit.

“Then, I too will be in your care and protection. Thank you, comrades.” Erika replied.

Ulyana thought her eyes betrayed a sort of girlish excitement that was rather charming to see.

Even through all her professional demeanor, she was young and energized for the fight.

They would need that energy– it was only the first step in a long, long road ahead.

One in which both allies and enemies would need to be handled inventively.

Ulyana looked down at her Commissar, about to fall asleep beside her. One more conflict behind them.

No matter what, or who, challenges us. I will protect you. For that trust you placed in me.

That trust that supercedes even the stature of Daksha Kansal.

Thank you, Aaliyah. Ulyana thought, with a fond sigh.


That night, before the change in shifts for the officers and after the return of the sailors who had been working on the ship outside, the crew began to gather close to the various monitors throughout the Brigand. There was a special announcement and a video meeting had been convened. Semyonova’s cheery face and silky blond hair on the television urged the crew members to keep attention on the screens and their voices down. They had to minimize the sound carrying outside the ship’s closed hatches.

For about fifteen minutes’ worth of preparations, she kept the crew’s attention with charming affirmations.

“Alright comrades! Please maintain order, the Captain will now address the ship.”

Semyonova’s plump round face faded into that of the sleek-jawed Ulyana Korabiskaya.

For the address, the Captain had her blond hair down, her makeup immaculate, and she wore a Union dress uniform.

Staggeringly beautiful and gallant. This must have been a very special occassion.

“Comrades,” she began, and all of the crew knew then that this was not an address as ‘Treasure Box Transports’, “I convened this meeting to update you all on the status of the mission, and to speak in detail about the next leg of our journey. We left our homes over two months ago in order to pursue the cause of revolution in the Imbrian Empire on behalf of our nation. We are currently in Kreuzung Station, in the Eisental region of Rhinea. Rhinea and by extension, the Volkisch Movement that controls it, are major players in the Imperial Civil War that has been escalating since we embarked on this journey. Rhinea has the largest and most high-tech industrial base in the Empire, and the resources to fuel it, via the Rhineanmetalle corporation. Eisental is the unwilling heart pumping blood through this warring body, held captive within the ribcage of the Volkisch state.”

Captain Korabiskaya spoke confidently, and the crew listened with rapt attention.

“Revolution is brewing within Eisental. And it has given us an opportunity to uphold our duty and support the proletariat of the Empire in taking up arms for their freedom. Over the past few days, we have been in active discussion with several dissident organizations, gauging their positions and strengths and judging how best we might work together and where our goals align. I am pleased to announce that we have found kindred spirits among Eisental’s revolutionaries and will be working in league with a communist militia known as the Nationale Volksarmee. For the duration of our mission in Eisental, we will labor under their organization’s banner, and defer to the political command of their leader Erika Kairos. We want to join the fight; but it’s only right that Eisental’s people lead the way for us. Erika’s passion, her connections and resources, and most importantly, her experience with Eisental and its conditions, are invaluable. I am going to yield the floor for her to introduce herself. From now on, you are to address her as ‘Premier’ except in Protocol Tokarev conditions, in which she is to be addressed as an executive.”

Across the ship, the sailors and officers exchanged somewhat bewildered glances at each other.

They had ultimately acclimated to many of the other guests on the ship. All of the engineers loved ‘Miss Tigris’ for her boundless enthusiasm for menial mechanical labors; several of the officers had respect for ‘Miss Euphrates’, and some gossipy girls considered adding her to the list of the ‘ship’s Princes’. Maryam Karahailos’ and Elena Lettiere’s smiles were like rays of sunshine. It was different, however, to be told effectively that they would be under new management now.

Calling anyone but Bhavani Jayasankar ‘Premier’ also felt quite strange to them.

Regardless, Captain Korabiskaya was still here, still their Captain, and they trusted her.

When a Katarran appeared on the screen next, however, the bewilderment deepened.

Standing in the center of the bridge, where Captain Korabiskaya would usually be found.

She certainly looked the part of a communist leader, with her red greatcoat and flat garrison style hat, and the formal shirt and skirt she wore beneath, worn with meticulous precision. Her hair was long and voluminous and had a dark, dull blue color, complimenting her pink skin and her rare odd eyes, one green and one blue. Her thin lips were painted a light red, and her eyes were shadowed wine-dark. Behind her head, a pair of black horns with curved ends curled out, framing the back of the skull, in such a way that she could still conceivably lay her head flat on them. Her appearance alone was enough to draw in the curiosity of the crew, who waited eagerly for her speech to begin. Then, her voice, deep and rich, finally broadcast across the vessel.

“Comrades, thank you for having me.” She said. “My name is Erika Kairos. I am not a stickler for formality, but I do demand some respect, and I will give it in turn. It is no exaggeration to say that Mordecai’s teachings, and the continued resistance of the Union, saved my life, and gave me hope when I thought there could be no escape from our rapacious ruling class. In each and every one of you there are a thousand generations of resistance. Rest assured, you will inspire a thousand more.”

Erika put a hand over her chest. “I am many things, and I have been known as many things. Katarran, slave, thug, mercenary, bookworm– and now Premier. I lead an organization of several ships and several hundred lives, soldiers, sailors, engineers, pilots, and civilians, all of whom are dedicated to the cause of the anti-imperialist struggle. I am here in person, because I am staking it all on this gamble for the future of the world. But before all of those things, I mentioned, ‘Katarran.’ It is an indelible fact of my being, and it is the crux of what I wish to communicate to you. It is of vital importance to understanding me.”

She lowered her hand back to her side and took in a bit of breath before continuing.

“An unrecognized fact of life in the Imbrium is the exploitation of the Katarran body. We are everywhere, but our lives are disposable. We are widely hated, forced out of the public and into the back streets and sub-levels of the world. In these underworlds our bodies are reduced to commodities for killing, toiling, fucking. We are less than offal to the Imbrians– offal is not allowed to go to waste. Our continued existence suits the Imbrians. We are their assassins, their sneak thieves, their indentured hard labor and exotic sexual fantasy. Their hedonism and greed demands our existence but their social conception of the world demands our invisibility and extermination. We exist in this dual position; this contradiction defines us.”

“But there is another race in the Imbrium Ocean that faces oppression on this scale as well. Eisental’s first and oldest station was home to Shimii, they settled these waters before the Imbrian Empire, yet their religious practices are curtailed, they are segregated into ghettos, and only the wealthiest, most politically connected Shimii are allowed true freedom in its waters now. The Shimii in the Imbrium face nothing short of existential crisis now. While their bodies might continue to live, their culture and beliefs are being slowly destroyed as they are driven to despair. Their ‘age of heroes’ has passed. Mehmed the Tyrant was defeated, and the Mahdists supporting him were driven into slavery in the Union or forced into Imbrianizing their names and leaving behind their identities. But even the average Rashidun Shimii, who are told they won the ideological victory and hold the truth of their religion, have not seen any improvement in their lot in life. They are still the puppets of the Imbrians, but they are told by their religious and community leaders that they must accept chains of a different sort than those clapped on the Mahdists in order to survive. That contradiction is sharp and sharpening. Pity the Katarran her condition; but the Shimii suffer under the yoke too.”

In the Union, every student received education on the various nationalities that made up the people of the state.

Volgians were the majority, followed closely by “North Bosporans” who had once lived in the northern ice cap, same as the Volgians did. Shimii were the third largest population and Katarrans were a very small minority. In the Union, there was a prevailing tone of racial diversity and equality. It was acknowledged that everyone had to do their part to accommodate everyone else where differing cultural practices were concerned, but that ultimately, they were all equal partners in building socialism. For a lot of people, Erika’s firebrand speech about the debasement of her ‘body’, the collective ‘body’ of her people, stirred in them a deep discomfort. For many of the Volgians and Bosporans in the room, they had not confronted the idea of racism except as a distant historical specter of the what the Empire, collectively, did to them, as a whole. It was not so visceral to them.

That shadowy existence of the Katarran as both extant and exterminated, puzzled them.

That spectre of the Shimii as a segregated people, was something they had not experienced before.

Despite their discomfort and the way the words felt chilling, everyone was stirred by Erika’s speech. Nobody could peel themselves away. They truly did feel like they were listening to Bhavani Jayasankar. They felt the power radiating from it even if they struggled to internalize the content of the words. Meaningfulness was transferred to them as authority.

“Through recognizing these positions, we stand to finally create an enduring mutiny that can uplift and unite the people of Eisental. It is not enough to have a revolution for the literate Imbrians in the colleges, dabbling in socialism; nor even the Imbrian workers whose exploitation is juxtaposed against other races to cast them as enemies to them. Our revolution must begin with the most disenfranchised peoples. We must speak to the most hopeless, for they will shine brightest once they are given reason to live and the instruments with which to fight. This is my core belief, and it is what we will pursue in order to triumph.”

Erika was earning the authority to call herself ‘Premier’ in front of them.

“In the ghettoes of the southern Eisental ring of stations; in the forgotten construction shafts were homeless and abandoned peoples still scratch out a living; in the factories and corporate sweatshops were Shimii and Katarran alike toil invisibly for the Imbrian purse; in the Agri-Spheres where rows and rows of ears and tails work tirelessly to feed the ravenous mouths of the Imbrian people for a pittance that only just allows them to feed themselves; comrades! Throughout Eisental the cries of the dispossessed will become cacophony! They have nothing but their anger! And that anger is fuel awaiting our flint, bracing for the spark that lights the conflagration that will sweep the Volkisch Movement and their complicit treasurers from this Ocean once and for all! Keep in your heart their suffering, but more than that, keep in hand the weapon you will give them!”

In the height of her passion, Erika saluted the crew; and swept up in it, many of them saluted back.

“We are the invincible guard of liberation! The Nationale Volksarmee!”

Those words, that they had never before heard, stirred the hearts of the Brigand’s crew.

Clapping, cheering, excitement, a swell of emotion. Tears, grit teeth and pumping fists.

Suddenly and with a passion that shook them to their core, the Brigand’s next adventure had begun.


“Captain, may I have a word?”

Out in the hall, on the way back to her bedroom, one of the Brigand’s colorful guests walked up to Ulyana as she headed to her room. Long-haired with two horns from her forehead that pushed apart her tidy bangs, a thick tail, and a slim and pale body covered in a haphazardly worn Treasure Box Transports uniform. It was the Brigand’s own ‘special navigator’: Arbitrator I.

“Of course. I’m a little out of it, so perhaps not too many words.” Ulyana said.

She smiled awkwardly. Arbitrator I smiled cheerily back.

Glib and carefree as usual, Arbitrator I had wanted to discuss with the Captain the possibility of securing at least a small supply of meat, even the worst quality meat, so as long as it was the meat of a mammal it would suffice.

Anything to give her lovely Braya a bit of a reprieve from the–

Arbitrator I’s eyes widened suddenly. Her pupils dilated, her hand began to shake in Ulyana’s presence.

“Hey. Are you okay?” Ulyana asked.

In that instant, Arbitrator I’s body was responding to the threat she felt–

–from Ulyana’s scent. She reeked of those– those awful things– those beasts swathed in their sin–

Arbitrator I’s body responded, heat in her chest, tension in her muscles, an edge to her teeth.

She closed her fists, tried to master herself. It was just the Captain– she could not attack her–

“You reek, Captain. Please clean yourself. Good night.”

Without another word, she turned sharply around and started walking away, trying to clear her mind.

Leaving behind a very confused Captain.

“Excuse me? Ugh! Whatever!” Ulyana replied, exasperated.

Arbitrator I swallowed her embarrassment, and the frustration of losing control of her senses.

More than that, though, she worried about the provenance of that evil scent.

Did she meet with the Enforcers? Why would she do that? What are they here for?

Was the station infiltrated? Was the ship infiltrated? Did anyone realize the danger?

Desperation swelled and spread in her like a cancer.

Her heart pounded, she began to sweat. She had to calm herself before Braya saw her again.

She had to calm herself, and to think, to uncover more. She had to do something to protect them.

Arbitrator I could not afford to fail in the face of the Syzygy. Not again.

She could not lose another home.

In a blink of her eyes, as she walked down the empty hall–

Her irises became a purple hexagon shape, and a change began in her body.

Lift all locks on STEM.

Arbitrator I reached deep inside herself for every micrometer of data stored in her biomechanical DNA.

Her brain would be heavily burdened in the process– but she desperately needed everything back.

Even the things she wanted to most forget. Even the things she feared knowing again.

Reassemble all blocks. Bypass secure parsing method. Skip bad block health check.

She could not wait anymore, she could not be careful, she could not open the blocks like dainty toys.

No matter what nightmares exploded out of the forgotten recesses of herself.

Array all data. Immediately.

For Braya’s sake– for all their sakes’.


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.5]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across time, maybe even across dimensions–

Filled with an agony and mourning of incomprehensible proportion.

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

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

–there was a second one.

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

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

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

“But not for this; not right now.”

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

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


Depth Gauge: 3503 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did not look at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly.

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

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

She looked as tired as everyone else there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time loud enough for the entire bridge to hear.

Dreschner averted his gaze. Karen shrank back.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude chose to let the remark go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her tail started wagging, just a bit.

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

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

Ingrid averted her gaze and grunted.

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

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

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

“Thank you, Ingrid.” Gertrude said again.

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

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

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

You’re a real bastard.

Her inner voice berated her terribly.

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

Personal issues had to be set far aside, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude stared at the letters, speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It just wants to scan my hand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INVALID. TOKEN NOT FOUND.

INSTALL STEM AND A VALID AUTHORIZATION TOKEN AND TRY AGAIN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her sight on the panel.

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

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

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

STEM stands for System for Token Execution and Management.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria grunted, averted her gaze and said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parsing request.

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

A few minutes later, the text updated again.

A STEM architectural administration location has been found near you!

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

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

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

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

“Gertrude!” Nile scolded again.

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

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

Everyone turned to face the wall running alongside the door.

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

“That panel might be loose.”

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria looked surprised by the sudden scolding.

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

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

“Why?” Gertrude replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–that Gertrude realized stopped just short of striking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wary, she helped Nile to move the panel aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gertrude, Victoria and Nile ventured deeper into the facility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s moist.” She said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, I know.”

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

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

Going up–

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

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

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

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

Nile nodded her head. She glanced at the roof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn? Perhaps with assistance?

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

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

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

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

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

With a weary mind and a hungry, reckless heart–

Please help me.

“Hmm?”

Gertrude looked around.

She thought she heard a voice.

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

Please. I’m trapped. Please help me.

“Do you hear anything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Victoria, grab her–!”

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

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

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

a woman surrounded by evil machines–

and the one whom she had been truly speaking to–

and what she had left behind–


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

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

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

but she could breathe.

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

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

Looking back over her shoulder.

How far had she gone?

Where were Nile and Victoria?

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

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

“What happened to me?”

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

Please help me. Please anyone help me.

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

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

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

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

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

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

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

–texture.

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

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

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

–texture.

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

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

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her chest tightened and expanded and every action was pain.

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

Until something broke up the once-changing sights.

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

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

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

She twitched; a convulsion wracked through her body–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(A purple glow that flashed and burned.)

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

Polaris.

“I made my decision.”

How could you abandon everything?

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING–

SUCCESS!

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

BAD BLOCK CHECK CANCELLED– WILL NOT RETRY.

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

swallowed Gertrude whole.

She was right in front of her–

grinning.

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


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

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

It was all dark brown and black rock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her head was resting on this woman’s thighs.

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

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

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

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

“Where am I?” Gertrude asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norn.

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

So, extremely, horrifically, angry–

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

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

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

“Show me.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled gently again.

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

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

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

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

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.7]

“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.


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