The Day [4.9]

Entry Teams Anton and Berta forced their way to the main surface of Vogelheim through the cargo lift from the farm and orchard, which had a direct connection to the hydroponics gardens in Engineering. Ten Volker-class Divers took the lifts up in groups of two until they were all assembled on the hilly terrain. They did not marvel at the scenery for very long.

With a ponderous gait, the nearly 7 meter tall machines began to stomp their way toward the villa and town. While remaining a cohesive unit through wireless communications, which worked through Vogelheim’s air far better than in the water, they separated about 100 to 200 meters from one another and began to traverse the fake countryside, moving into the forests, across the fields. On their arms, they hefted sturmgewehr assault rifles. These 37 mm guns fired explosive shells with enough firepower to demolish a two-story home in a single three-round burst.

Moving through air was far different than water. They could make significant speeds in the water, but on land they moved at a few kilometers per hour. Though their turbines could suck in air for a little boost, it could, at most, stabilize their weight and balance during a 10-20 km/h sprint rather than the 80 or 90 or even 100 km/h that they could develop at full power when submerged.

Between their speed, and the size of the machines, Victoria could easily see them coming. However, she knew that her chances were not optimistic.

She was heavily outnumbered. She could count on no support. She was not significantly better armed, but the Jagd was faster and lighter, even on land. All of these facts quickly assembled in her head and gave her a practical course of action.

Her objective was not to save the station. She hoped Marina and Elena were clear away from the battlefield by now. There was no way she would get all of them. But she would make a ruckus.

She had enough drugs in her system to dampen the pain and heighten the adrenaline.

Hiding in the forest, under her active camouflage tarp, she found herself in the middle of the Volkisch’ formation, when taking into the account the full width of the attack. Three Volkers were combing the forest near her, four were farther afield toward the false coast, and the rest were traversing the hills and fields downstream from the forest. In her mind, there were six Volkers that posed the most immediate threat to the Villa, and she would have to let the other four lie.

“Get closer.” She whispered to herself.

Her Dive computer, enjoying the luxury of scanning through air instead of water, gave her nearly flawless prediction of their movements and positions. On one screen she had the leaked maps of Vogelheim, which she marked with the real-time enemy locations. Second generation Divers could have electronic warfare packages, alerting them to her presence due to her scanning in the environment. Volkers’ computers were not so sophisticated. They relied on a ship to do any electronic warfare and scanning for them. And there was no ship looking at her position.

In addition, the Volkisch, novices at fighting on land, were enamored with their radios. There was such a novelty to being able to speak wirelessly, with such great clarity. Nobody would shut up, and nobody was taught proper discipline. They did not understand the range at which anyone could pick their unencrypted voices up.

“This is Anton-2, moving into the forest.”

“Beautiful place. Weird damage in the sky. Should we be worried about that?”

“Our orders are to capture the Villa. No one’s going to play engineer until we do that.”

“Identify yourselves when you speak? Commander, where are you at?”

“Fine. This is Anton-Actual, I’m in the middle of the forest.”

“Okay, so I’m still by your side. Fighting on land is so weird! Keep me safe, Commander.”

“Oh shut up, quit being a wuss.”

“I’m the only girl here! Isn’t it your social role as big tough men to protect me?”

“If you’re out on the front lines, you’re just a man to me.”

“Hey Commander, do you believe the the same thing about ol’ Fuhrer Sawyer?”

“No woman here is more a man than that Sawyer. No man here, either.”

Victoria cracked a vicious little grin in the shadow of her cockpit, listening to everything.

She touched one specific unit marker on the screen. The one closest to her.

“I’ve got you, ‘Commander’.” She said to herself, feeling a sudden rush of satisfaction.

When she began her attack, she began from a position of near-perfect stealth.

Twenty-five meters away, a Volker stomped through the gaps in the woods, knocking down any younger, thinner trees and ripping up any bushes in its way. Assault rifle at its chest, pointing at nothing. It moved directly into her field of vision. Victoria pulled back her sticks and striggers.

Throwing off the camouflage tarp, the Jagd stood and fired off her jet anchors.

From her shoulders, two unfolding hooks on steel cable flew toward the Volker.

Before it could react, she hooked it between the arms, but the location scarcely mattered.

“Contact!” screamed the Commander, “I’ve been hit by something–!”

Motors inside the Jagd’s shoulder pulled on the enemy Volker. Rather than budge the enemy, what they did was help Victoria dash toward it.

She sprang forward out of her cover and drove her jet lance into the back of the Volker.

Her charge was so vicious she briefly lifted the enemy Volker onto her arm.

A miniaturized cannon coil along with a solid fuel booster propelled the jet lance. Once engaged, the lance sprang instantly from inside the housing like a bullet. Extending a meter and a half from the wrist, the lance stabbed clean through enemy armor.

Hot metal was punched into the cockpit with such force the front hatch blew open.

Her lance perforated the backpack and cockpit so quickly it blew smoke out the other end.

Victoria didn’t even hear a death rattle through the radio.

Reversing the coil mechanism, the spike was retracted back into its neutral firing position. Upon returning, the lance point was caked in gore.

The Volker dropped onto the ground, unmoving, bearing wounds the size of a human torso. All of this happened in scarcely seconds.

“Commander! Commander!”

“Contact! Contact in the forest!”

The Volkisch descended into hysterical shouting over the radio.

Without their commander they were in disarray.

From the woods, two more Volkers lumbered into view, hefting their assault rifles.

Sucking in air through her turbines, Victoria took the Jagd into a sudden sprint.

Heavy footfalls scored the soft earth. She would have fallen, were it not for the air blasting out of the back of the machine. It had a small effect on the top speed achievable by the mecha on land but pulling in air through it and blowing it out the back kept the machine’s weight stabilized, preventing it from tipping over in any direction as it ran out into the open.

As soon as she dashed out, the enemy had seen her. She adjusted her center of balance and hit a quick turn, trying to sweep around their flank.

“Open fire! Open fire!”

Sturmgewehr barrels flashed relentlessly. Bursts of 37mm rounds flew past Victoria, tearing up trees and turf, setting bushes alight.

Her attackers did not count on the far lesser resistance of air against their bullets.

They overcompensated, used to shooting in water, and shot everything but her. She quickly whipped back around and dashed toward the Volkers.

Between the chassis and arms, wedged into the shoulders, her two machine guns swung on their limited horizontal and vertical traverse. All of the Jagd’s weapons were intended for close quarters to essentially hit whatever the Jagd was facing. Inflexible, but always ready to kill. So as she charged into melee, her own cannons burned, firing off a dozen explosive rounds.

Unlike the Volkisch, Victoria had trained herself to fight both on land and in the water. Aiming almost instinctually, her own burst of gunfire peppered the Volker dead-on.

One 20 mm round was in itself far less powerful than most Naval ordnance.

Gas guns used this round to try to destroy enemy torpedoes and other soft targets.

Victoria put dozens of them into the Volker in the span of a few seconds.

Successions of tiny blasts pitted the cockpit armor then blew the hatch clean open; scored the shoulder and arm plates with round after round until finally one punched through the weakened armor and blew the arm right off; perforated the lean armor on the head and blew up the enemy’s all-around sensors, leaving them blind if they were still alive inside.

Her enemy crumpled, slumping forward with no signs of life from the pilot.

In the next moment, her sprint took her right past the corpse and upon the remaining enemy.

“Oh god! Oh god no!”

She heard the woman on the radio pleading and screaming.

Dead ahead, the remaining Volker tossed its assault rifle and quickly drew a melee weapon. A vibro-machete carried on the backpack as a last resort. Her Volkisch opponent brought up the machete in both hands and swung.

That machete had a depleted agarthicite flat and a motor that vibrated it to aid the monomolecular edge. Even this modest weapon was a feat of engineering and posed a threat if used properly. But it did not matter.

Victoria confidently threw forward her lance.

Before the weapons clashed, she engaged the jet-lance.

Her point launched forward, snapping the machete like a twig. Such was the force of the thrust that the Volker’s arm completely shattered.

The Diver fell helplessly backward, and Victoria pounced. Rearing up her own vibro-blade arm, she thrust between the Volker’s shoulder plate.

She pierced the cockpit and twisted her sword toward the pilot.

This time she did hear cries of anguish over the radio. A vibrating blade dealt greater structural damage when it clashed with a machine.

That was its only effect on metal.

For a flesh and blood human to be anywhere near an engaged vibroblade was a source of unbearable agony. Besides the heat, the thrumming would go right into the gut. It was horrifying. And soon, Victoria heard no further screaming from that cockpit. Whether the pilot had died of a heart attack, shock or choking, Victoria did not know and had no desire to confirm.

She pulled her sword out of the Diver and retracted her lance to its neutral position. Three enemies down, and several more to go. She had to make up–

“Entry teams! What is all this gibbering? Report on your situation!”

A new voice over the radio.

Sawyer.

Victoria was briefly shocked.

As much as she had characterized the events as a battle between her and Sawyer, she had thought it would transpire through proxies, rather than having to face Sawyer herself appear–

“Advanced scanning coming from the woods! What the hell is going on?”

In that moment, Victoria detected Sawyer as well. She was in a second-generation model Diver and just clearing the orchard hills. Her Diver counter-scanned Victoria, who was still actively monitoring everything.

That red blip that represented her was charging into the forest, and fast.

“Sawyer? Ma’am, an attack! An enemy in the forest got the Commander!”

A hapless soldier started relaying the situation.

“Sawyer let’s get this fucker! Let’s surround the woods!”

“Fucking, no! We need to seal the station breaches, or everything’s fucked!”

“Ma’am, we’re not equipped for repair duty–”

“Then I’ll fucking do it! Advance on the Villa!”

Victoria turned around to face where Sawyer was coming from.

As soon as the blip got close enough, she sent out a laser request.

“Wait– One unit? And you wanna talk? You’ve got some fucking guts–”

Sawyer mindlessly accepted the laser request while berating her. In the next moment, their mecha both emerged onto a clearing in the forest.

They were instantly connected by the lasers on their sensor arrays. On video in each other’s screen, they were finally able to meet, “face to face.”

Sawyer was still the same as always.

An unembellished girl with striking cheekbones, an aquiline nose, pearl skin. Her voluminous brown hair gave her the appearance of a rustic sort of royalty, as wild and earthy as the barbarians from Veka that her Volkisch so decried. Her icy blue eyes were drawn wide, and that wonderful jaw was quivering with confusion and an obvious fury. She looked good in uniform. Victoria wished she would have never had to acknowledge that.

“You,” Sawyer paused, mouthing expletives, “You are fucking kidding me.”

Victoria felt a strong sense of anxiety and anticipation.

It might have been the drugs.

“It’s been a long time. I didn’t come here to see you, but I guess it is fate.”

“I don’t believe this shit. Victoria?” She laughed. “Victoria van Veka?”

“I’m surprised Volkisch intelligence keeps track of the romantic dalliances of us savages. But yes, I am indeed Victoria van Veka these days.”

“It’s that exact, bitchy tone of yours on that exact bitchy face. Oh my god.”

Sawyer raised her hands to her face, letting out brief bursts of laughter.

“I can’t believe it. You utter bitch. You absolute, complete fucking bitch. I should’ve put my entire fist up your fucking–”

Keep talking, you stupid brute.

Victoria quickly reoriented her priorities. She could not hope to stop the enemy anymore. Sawyer was piloting a new Diver, a Panzer unit. She did not know how Sawyer rated as a pilot, but that unit by itself spelled danger.

Heavily armored, and heavily armed. Sawyer had a tube launcher of some kind on her backpack, she likely had a sword, and she also very visibly had an assault rifle. Her second generation backpack and turbines could develop much better speed than a Volker. And that armor could probably withstand a lot more punishment than a Volker. Victoria was given pause.

Victoria’s mind was rushing, kept clear only by the chemicals. Her breathing quickened. In the water, she would have had a small advantage still, but on land? It was a desperate situation.

“I never liked bullying you, Victoria, you were too pathetic. I’ve no idea what Veka’s witch has done to you, but I’m willing to forgive you if you will turn yourself in and be useful to me–”

While Sawyer taunted her, Victoria made tiny, subtle adjustments to her machine guns.

Consumed as she was with attacking Victoria verbally, Sawyer did not notice the gentle movement of Victoria’s shoulders, as her hands, just off of Sawyer’s view, turned her control sticks with tense precision. One wrong move and Sawyer would have noticed her sleight of hand.

“It’s your turn to get bullied, Sawyer.”

Victoria was finally ready. She opened fire.

20 mm barrels flashed relentlessly, spitting bullets at Sawyer’s Panzer.

“We’ll see about that, bitch!”

Sawyer shouted, and the Panzer surged forward through the gunfire.

Across its surface, dozens of tiny blasts left dents and dings on the cockpit armor, but there was too much metal and it was too dense to be blown off. Maybe in water she could have inflicted more damage, due to the pressures involved, but in the air, the Panzer was practically unharmed. Victoria hardly paid this any mind. Her intention had not been real damage.

Instead, as Sawyer charged, Victoria engaged her thrusters, both solid fuel and her air jets. Using all of her thrust, Victoria threw the Jagd sideways.

She launched past Sawyer’s flank.

Before the Panzer recovered, Victoria turned and threw her momentum into a sword swing. Her vibroblade smashed into the side of the Panzer.

Metal debris went flying off of Sawyer’s Panzer.

Victoria had expected to cut through to the cockpit. Her blade made a ghastly wedge-shaped wound in the side of the machine’s chest.

There was still no breach.

“You can’t do shit to me, Vicky! You never could and you still can’t!”

Sawyer half-turned her bulky mecha to train her rifle on Victoria.

Victoria pulled back with all rearward thrust, withdrawing her arm.

She switched weapon control to her jet anchors and fired both.

When Sawyer opened fire the spreading hooks on one of the anchors took three blasts. It exploded in mid-air, scattering shrapnel and billowing smoke from the explosive rounds. Victoria cut loose and ejected both of the cables. Her second anchor then smashed into Sawyer’s shoulder.

Trailing behind it, the cable whipped across the Panzer’s head.

Between the jet anchor slamming it and the cable snaking over the cameras, Sawyer was momentarily distracted by the seemingly random carnage.

“What the fuck are you doing? Are you that desperate you fucking gnat?”

This was sufficient distraction for the Jagd to retreat out into the woods.

Sawyer launched manic bursts of gunfire into the forest.

Trees blasted apart, bushes went up in smoke, turf churned up everywhere. 37 mm explosive rounds were no joke, especially not in a half-dozen bursts of three. Victoria swerved from cover to cover, trying to put some distance between herself and the gunfire trailing her. She knew, at any moment–

Click.

Sawyer’s rifle ejected a spent magazine.

“God damn it! Come back here!”

The Panzer went charging into the woods after Victoria. She saw it on the rear camera, sprinting heavily while fumbling for a new magazine from those kept on stored on the waist. Victoria would not turn around and fight.

She moved the theater toward the center of the forest.

“Please be deep enough.” She mumbled to herself.

There was a large pond that she saw on the leaked maps, and it was dead ahead. It was a gamble, but if the pond were connected the way she thought, it would work. Victoria took a leap of faith.

She didn’t know whether it was her heightened senses or the drugs anymore. But she had to take a chance.

The Jagd dropped into the water and immediately took off, swimming freely within a space larger than it seemed. That pond was connected to water circulation and acted as a reservoir.

All the fresh water that was used to keep the forest ecosystem alive and irrigate the farms was filtered and collected here, and from here channeled to other places. As such, while on the surface it was a pond about the size of the farmhouse, below the water, the walls curved like a bowl and it was dozens of meters deep and wide. Had Elena ever tried to swim in it?

She would have seen the artificiality of Vogelheim firsthand.

But she was too delicate for that. She never jumped in the water to see the metal below.

Victoria adjusted immediately to underwater movement.

From an ungraceful sprint on land, it was now soaring with the grace of Veka herself. Her laser connection to Sawyer was immediately interrupted. On her monitors, the cameras adjusted to the water with filtered video.

Suddenly the Panzer dropped right in behind her and began accelerating.

In one hand Sawyer had her reloaded assault rifle; in the other, her sword.

As it gave chase in the water, the Panzer opened fire. Three rounds, then six, then nine, sailed from the gun barrel with dim flashes. Supercavitation bubbles and lines traced the water between Victoria and Sawyer.

Turning instantly, the Jagd swept away from the bullets.

They crashed into the metal walls, harmlessly exploding into vapor bubbles.

Victoria looped upside-down, soaring over Sawyer’s head.

She circled behind the Panzer and engaged the jet on her vibroblade arm.

Twirling like a dancer, using the momentum and the blade jet to overcome the resistance of the water, Victoria slashed the Panzer’s shoulder and kept moving, smashing and splitting in half the shoulder guard. When Sawyer turned and swung her sword, Victoria was no longer there to hit.

Using the Jagd’s superior mobility she swam circles around the Panzer.

“AGH!”

Sawyer shouted with frustration that came across the scratchy video.

Victoria was no longer paying it attention. She swerved around the Panzer, avoiding bullet and blade, always a half-step ahead of Sawyer’s attacks.

When she found an opportunity, she closed in, turned and sliced.

A perfect gash across the right side of the chest to match the left.

A wide dent into the armored legs that exposed a battered joint.

Leaping skyward, over and around the Panzer, under it, across its flanks.

“No! No!”

Sawyer began to swing furiously and helplessly.

Victoria saw an opening.

She went around the back and sliced vertically across Sawyer’s backpack.

That tube launcher she was caring was split in half.

Her sword caught in the armor.

Using that grip for leverage, she pulled the Panzer toward her. Embracing her from behind, Victoria brought her jet-lance up against the Panzer.

A shockwave blew through the water as the lance engaged.

Victoria drove the spike up through the Panzer’s flank and out the shoulder.

It was a testament to the Panzer’s armor that its entire flank didn’t explode.

“You’re breached! Eject before you drown!” Victoria shouted.

Had they been fighting in the ocean Sawyer would have died in moments. She was fortunate the water in this reservoir was maintained at the pressure it was. Her cockpit must have been slowly filling up instead.

“Sawyer! Stop this! Eject! I’m taking you into custody!”

“You stupid bitch. You– You fucked everything. Now it’s all ruined!”

Suddenly, the Panzer engaged its jets, blowing torrents of water at the Jagd.

Separating from the Jagd, the Panzer swung around just as suddenly.

Victoria could not back off in time, she was caught well off guard.

Sawyer’s vibroblade sliced into across the surface of the Jagd’s right arm. Pieces of the jet lance’s housing floated away, and solid fuel leaked out of the booster. Following up her attack, Sawyer fired off a burst of gunfire.

While the Jagd easily avoided the shots, Victoria was shaken. Her concentration and speed lagged as she felt suddenly pressured. How had the cockpit not been breached? How was this monster that survivable?

She was running out of options with which to fight back effectively.

Despite the pitted armor, various slashes, and the hole in its shoulder and back, the Panzer was still running, and Sawyer was livelier than ever.

She was shouting, furious, near incoherent.

“Victoria! That launcher was full of sealant! I was going to save this station! At every turn you have done nothing but make things worse! I’m going to make sure you never see light again, you bitch! I’m going to rip your arms off, put your eyes out, burn the skin off your tongue! I’m going to give your ears the last scritch they’ll ever get when I flay them both off your head!”

Before Victoria could respond to that tantrum, the water began to stir.

Her computers started sounding alarm.

Shockwaves were being felt across the station.

Both the Panzer and Jagd were put off balance as everything started shaking. Water was starting to rush into the reservoir.

Flooding.

Victoria realized the station must have been flooding profusely now.


A long, near-lightless corridor of steel and concrete connected the Villa to the mechanized underworld of Vogelheim, all Maintenance paths and tunnels connecting workspaces and devices together that kept this underwater haven alive when it should not be.

To Marina, this path was a maw to hell. Her every step was pained and hollow. Elena felt light as a feather in her arms compared to the burden that bowed her shoulders and scored a deep, black mark in her brain.

There were periodic quakes that shook the steps down so harshly Marina bumped into the wall and had to watch that she did not drop Elena or strike the Princess’ head on the surrounding metal. While unnerving for their power and proximity, what worried Marina the most was how soundless the place was. She was afraid that at any moment she would find the path below blocked by water and find herself condemned to die uselessly after having accomplished nothing.

Marina was in a daze.

She could not accurately tell the time anymore. Everything that had been palpable to her senses felt years removed. It was as if, between Bethany’s kiss and the last ten steps she took in the evacuation tunnel, hundreds of years had passed. She had wasted away, spending an eternity regretting events that transpired in seconds. How long had she been walking?

And yet, that journey came to an abrupt end.

Before she could ponder it further, the mechanical action of taking one step and then the next, holding the Princess up over her own shoulder, staring dead ahead into dark nothingness; all of it had carried her to a room that was dim but starkly better lit than the evacuation tunnel. At her side, there was a craft, aligned with a deployment chute. Yellow light from inside the craft shone too brilliantly in Marina’s face and made her squint her eyes, like a door to heaven not meant for a demon like her. Around the door, almost cherubic, were the group of Vogelheim’s maids.

Not just them, but inside the craft, Marina could see farm-hands, an engineer or two, a bartender, a kiosk vendor. People from all of Vogelheim’s little attractions. Many of them had managed to flee here, and the maids appeared to be organizing an evacuation. Marina almost wanted to tell them to please get on with it. Tarrying any further was borderline suicidal.

She was not going with them. She looked at them with a brief, vacant stare.

Then, she continued her journey, step by step.

“Hey, wait! Where are you going? Who is that–?”

Suddenly, a maid appeared in front of her.

“Oh my god! That’s the Princess! She’s got the Princess!”

That maid who stood barring her path, sounded the alarm for the others.

Several came out from the craft. Most of the girls were too meek, and remained at the door, but two of the bigger girls did run down to meet their friend, blocking Marina’s way. Behind them all, was the path from the evacuation chute into one of the Maintenance tunnels. That was the way to Marina’s Diver, the SEAL model she had snuck into Vogelheim with.

She had to get past them.

“What are you doing with her? Where’s Lady Skoll?”

None of the maids knew her. Marina had been sneaking around everywhere. Her face was void of emotion. Her eyes, distant, inexpressive.

“I have to take her. We’re evacuating.” Marina said, weakly.

It was barely audible.

“What did you do to Lady Skoll? Why do you have the princess?”

The maid approached. Marina was starting to panic.

“I– I– really I– I have to–”

“I’m not letting you pass! The Princess is going with us! You can’t take her!”

This was torture.

This was the judgment of the hell she had made for herself.

Voices reverberating in her head, demanding to know why she killed Bethany. Not just because the maids may have suspected such a thing. But because in Marina’s mind her actions were starting to morph into that.

She had killed Bethany and stolen the Princess. That these maids believed some version of that story too — it was pure agony think about.

“I– I’m so sorry I–”

“What the hell? Lady Skoll should’ve been back– Give her back right now–”

That one brave maid, who had jumped in first, stepped too close, too fast.

Marina focused too much, too anxiously, on the sight of her hand closing in.

She had wanted to touch the Princess, perhaps, or maybe shove Marina gently. For Marina, that was a killing blow and invitation to receive one.

In a snap response, the G.I.A agent slapped the maid’s arm away.

Off-balance, the young girl could do nothing to avoid the kick that struck her. Marina connected right between her belly and breasts like a club.

Screaming, brought down to her knees, the Maid slobbered on the floor, gasping for air.

That moment sent all manner of emotions to Marina’s brain. She was reeling from it.

A strange feeling of catharsis accompanied the attack. That kept her in the rush of events.

At the door of the craft, the bystander maids covered their mouths in horror. Doubtless, Bethany shielded them from any sort of this violence before. Seeing their comrade go down, the other two bigger girls rushed without thinking.

With her free arm, Marina drew a combat knife from her hip, flashing it at the girls.

Both of the maids stopped dead in their tracks, instantly powerless at the sight. Teeth grit, eyes tearing up, the most they could do was stand in defense of their friend. They were maybe half Marina’s age. None of them had probably ever even thrown a punch.

“Take your friend and go. Now.” Marina said. She could still barely speak above a whisper.

She turned the knife over in her fingers, to hold it in a reverse grip, and raised it.

Her lightless eyes, behind the glint of the blade, glared out at the two terrified girls.

For a moment, Marina felt powerful. With that knife, she felt she could cut fate itself.

Shaking with fear and frustration, they helped the other maid off the floor and back to the craft, comforting her the whole way about how brave she was, and swearing that they would find a way to do something to get the Princess back. Marina could hardly hear them after they left her orbit. All she could see, and acknowledge, was that the way forward had opened for her.

She stepped out of the light coming from the craft, moving again into the shadows.

Down another long, empty stairwell, alone with her thoughts.

“God damn it. God damn it.”

Marina grit her teeth. Weeping profusely, sobbing, enraged at herself.

No one could be proud of beating down a helpless girl. But Marina told herself it was necessary. Everything she was doing was necessary.

That was who Marina McKennedy was. A figure of scorn who lurked in shadows, sacrificing to do what needed to be done.

That was who she told herself, over and over, that she was. As the accusatory voices pummeled her in her mind in the absence of other sounds.

“I needed to do it. I needed to do it. There was no other way. I couldn’t have changed it.”

Marina paused for a moment. She raised her sleeve to her face and wept into it.

“Bethany needed to stay also. She needed to do it. There was no other way.”

Her legs trembled. It was not a quake. It was just the weight of her burden.

“Bethany was just like me. She did what needed to be done. Yeah; that’s it, huh?”

She didn’t want to think that it was all pointless and out of their control.

So, step by step Marina went into the dark, smiling through her broken heart.


Behind the Villa, the flower field had split in half.

A lift had brought up a gantry holding a bulky Diver, its shoulders burdened with two powerful 88 mm cannons and their internal magazine. Its legs had been thickened, and a pair of balancing anchors added to the back. There were a pair of missiles attached to the backpack for additional firepower. In all other respects, it was an old Volker model, awaiting a pilot.

A newer Volker with cannons was called a Volkannon, and so was this one.

Bethany Skoll climbed onto the legs of the machine and into the cockpit.

She closed the cockpit hatch, sealing herself in the machine.

There were no fancy computers on this model. But she had one amenity installed for the possibility of terrestrial warfare at the Villa.

Plugging in a minicomputer into the side of the cockpit, she connected the Volker to the Villa’s security system. From the flower field, a quadrotor drone lifted off and climbed high in the sky, pointing a camera down at the world below it. Between the Villa’s security system and the drone camera, Bethany could triangulate on the main screen the positions of the enemies.

From the northern road to the coastal town, there were four units moving in fast. From the fields further south, there were three units. All of them were Volkers. And in the forest, three enemies were reduced to a smoking heap. She could see smoke and fires and explosions rising around them.

That must have been Marina’s “asset.”

She had not been lying about having something up her sleeve.

Some part of Bethany was shaken then. She had thought Marina had been lying in order to get her to leave with her. Out of pure sentimentalism, so she would not have to sacrifice anyone to escape. And yet, while Marina’s friend was not a fiction, she had not been an effective deterrent.

Most of the enemy force was clear past her, and closing in.

Bethany took a deep breath.

There was no turning back anymore, no running.

She told herself, she had stopped being Bethany Skoll at that point. For Elena, for Marina, for Leda, she had become a weapon. Interred in a tomb of steel, the rangefinders and cameras became her eyes. And the guns were the only hands she had, and shooting was the only touch she had left.

That was how soldiers lived their lives, right?

That was how Knights lived their lives.

Bethany released the Volkannon from the gantry. She took a few heavy steps away from the flower field, aiming downhill. In the distance, her computers made out the silhouettes of the southern group of Volkers.

Gripping the control sticks, she allowed the computer to adjust her cannon’s direction.

Once she had a target lock, Bethany pressed her triggers.

The Volkannon shook as two 88 mm shells soared toward her targets.

In an instant, a cloud of smoke billowed up in front of one of the Volkers.

One of her monitors showed a diagram with shell impacts on the shoulder and chest. Her shells were was powerful as light torpedoes, quite able to tear into a Volker. That enemy unit was entirely disabled by the blasts.

This was war; a desensitizing display of violence, viewed through cameras.

From beside the downed unit, the other two Volkers pushed themselves forward in a sprint. They had noticed what had befallen their ally.

After shooting, the Volkannon loaded the second pair of rounds into the cannon. It took four or five seconds to load both cannons, an eternity for Bethany. Sweat broke out on her brow as she waited for the computers.

She tracked the Volkers rushing down the fields, coming closer and closer.

Assault rifle fire flew toward her, shells crashing all around her.

Flowers blew up into the sky and into the wind, a rain of red petals.

Even if she had wanted to run, Bethany did not have the speed to avoid the gunfire. Resilient under fire, by Leda’s grace not a shell grazed her then.

Bethany finally opened fire anew.

This time she saw the cannon shells touch her target, briefly. Before the explosions consumed the unit in fire and smoke, and made it vanish.

Another long reloading period followed.

Bethany grit her teeth, watching her cameras.

Sprinting toward her, the last Volker had made it to the Villa grounds. Growing larger and larger in her vision, reaching 200 meters, 150 meters, 100 meters. At that distance, the Volker suddenly stopped to aim at her.

The Volkannon reloaded just as the Volker fired its first aimed burst.

88 mm cannons flashed; two shells went flying over the assault rifle rounds.

Bethany shook violently in her cockpit as shells crashed into the Volkannon.

Around 50 to 80 meters away the enemy Volker was reduced to slag.

Groaning, shaken up, Bethany brought up a screen with the damage. She saw a diagram of the Volkannon, two massive craters punched into the forward armor. Not breached. Yet. And that was what mattered in the end.

Four enemies to go.

With heavy footfalls, she turned the Volkannon away from the field, northward. The enemy hurried out of the forests and hills from the direction of the coast. All four Volkers charged toward her at a full sprint.

Assault rifles in one hand, vibro-machetes in the other.

Wild bursts of gunfire hurtled across the fields from the Volkers.

Turf kicked up around Bethany, flowers burned, holes punched into the hedges. A shell hit a wall of the villa and completely collapsed the side storage room. Another shell struck the fountain and sent water spraying.

“Record to the chronicle box, please.”

One of Bethany’s screens turned into a microphone symbol, to signal recording.

It had dawned on her that she never got to say goodbye to Elena.

There was no way to guarantee she would get the message.

But she wanted to leave it. Even if a Volkisch ruffian got it. Everything she had was on the verge of disappearing. She needed to leave a legacy.

“My name is Bethany Skoll. I don’t know who will see this, or in what context. I am the head maid of Elena von Fueller’s household. I always loved her like my own daughter. And that was because, thirty years ago, when I was just coming into adulthood, I fell madly in love with her mother Leda Lettiere. I loved her like no other. I loved her like it was an obsession.”

She pressed her triggers, launching a pair of shells at one of the Volkers.

One shell flew past the target and sent streams of soil flying toward the sky.

The second crashed into the mecha’s leg and sent it tumbling into the dirt.

All three remaining Volkers started to swerve wildly to avoid her shooting.

Their own bullets hit everything but the Volkannon as they charged.

Bethany’s own computer-assisted aim was troubled by the movements.

She switched off the computer assist.

“Leda– I can’t begin to describe her. She was a student, but she mastered anything she wanted. Poetry, mathematics, singing, dancing, politics. I wanted nothing more than to marry her and make love to her every night for the rest of my life. But Leda’s beauty and magnificence brought the eye of Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. He took her for himself.”

Bethany felt an ancient anger come bubbling back up to the surface.

She took aim, fired.

Her shells sent turf flying but did not slow down her opponents.

“I– I could not suffer my fantasies to be ruined. Not even by the Emperor himself. Leda and I continued our affair in secret. I was an esteemed guest of her household. I had many opportunities to love her, to drink of her nectar. It was stressful, but I did everything in my power to be with her. I used every trick and cheat. I manipulated people, I lied to people– I even killed people. For Leda, for our love to survive. The Emperor only cared about Leda when he was– when he was using her. Elena von Fueller, the last thing I want is for her to feel ashamed of this. Her mother loved her dearly, despite everything. I loved her too. In my mind– Elena was my child with Leda. The Emperor was a cloud that sometimes darkened our sky, but we lived for each other, with each other, when we could get away with it.”

Tears welled up in Bethany’s eyes. She found it hard to aim, amid the storm of bullets, and the storm of emotions that was rising in intensity within her mind. She felt a strange sense of clarity and freedom. In that moment she felt like a fool for never telling her story to anyone. It felt like such a relief, to cast out into the air those emotions that she had buried so deeply within.

Her fingers absentmindedly pressed her triggers.

Again the Volkannon rattled, launching two more shells.

These were manually aimed.

She remembered briefly when she went “hunting” with Leda one time.

Leda had taught her to shoot through the air. To lead her shots correctly.

She put both rounds on a target.

One of the Volkers disappeared into a cloud of fire.

Her computer put up a warning. Internal magazine critical.

“Leda could no longer stand it. I fooled myself into thinking she wasn’t suffering, but who wouldn’t be in her situation? She was a plaything for the Emperor. Then a G.I.A. agent got close to her. The Republic wanted to assassinate Konstantin von Fueller. Leda wanted to usurp him. Not to work with the Republic, but to take over the Empire herself. We– all of us banded together for this. We used each other. Leda, Marina and I, we felt so powerful. In our love and our dalliances, our secrets, the nights I spent with Marina– the nights Marina spent with Leda, with so many others. We traded in lies, sex, torture, death– and still. We failed. We were never so powerful as we thought ourselves to be. We felt invincible and we failed.”

Bethany sat back in the Volkannon’s chair, letting go of the triggers.

She raised her hands to her face, covering up profuse weeping.

“Elena was scarcely five years old. I was the only one who was uncompromised. Marina and Leda both fell in our battle against the Empire. I promised to take care of Elena. All of us had, but I was the only one who really survived what happened. I had to watch it all come down, holding my breath, unable to say I took part. I spent twenty years trying to hide this shame. Erich von Fueller, Elena’s teenaged brother, took me in as part of his household. As part of Elena’s new household. To protect her.”

There was no reason to look at the monitors.

Bethany was fully consumed by the past.

She pounded her fist against the side of the cockpit, over and over.

“I was the only survivor.” She mumbled. “I was the only one. Only me.”

It was so unjust. Why did Leda have to continue to suffer until her death?

How was Bethany so stupid? How could she fool herself so much?

All of those years, none of them were so blissful as she liked to imagine.

Those were years that Leda cultivated a deep suffering.

A suffering so great she sank all of it into Bethany’s bosom, between Bethany’s legs. Such suffering that it made that woman want to kill.

“I was the only one. I survived. Leda was being punished the whole time.”

There was another loud rumbling of her machine.

Bethany peered up at her monitors.

The Volkers made it up to the Villa and began to aim their shots. Several shells struck around her feet, across the shoulders and head of the mecha.

One shell struck the side of the Volkannon’s cockpit.

There was a red hole circle, the size of a fist, that formed inside the cockpit.

From this circle, splashed a jet of hot metal the width of a finger.

An enemy round had penetrated the armor.

Bethany screamed. Her flank was slashed open. Her stomach was stabbed.

Hot, searing, agonizing pain slashed across her body. Blood flowed copiously from her. She grew numb. She was in such a shock from the initial pain. It was as if her body could not possibly feel all of the pain.

She clutched her wound but could not feel it anymore.

Laughter escaped from her lips like the involuntary action of a cough.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Leda.”

She had never had enough rounds prepared for the cannons to deal with so many enemies. Not without being able to reload from the gantry.

Bethany felt she had done an impressive job getting as far as she had.

“Imagine. Continuing to live. After everything that has happened.”

Marina would tell her all about those times. Elena had Marina. Marina had survived too. Somehow, despite everything. Marina was still alive.

“I’m sorry. I could never be your hero Leda. I could never save you.”

With the last burst of adrenaline in her stricken body, she engaged the backpack missiles. Bethany aimed straight up at the sky.

Outside, the Volkers were moving cautiously toward her.

Since the Volkannon had ceased firing, or moving, perhaps they thought she was dead. It was a good assumption. But she was not dead enough.

Some part of her, somehow, survived so much worse than this pain.

“I hope whoever is listening to this takes pity. Please treat this as you would the chronicle of a ship. Tell the world about the brave maid who took an Emperor’s wife and schemed against his Empire for her love. Farewell.”

Bethany pressed the triggers.

From the back of the Volkannon, the two missiles soared toward the sky.

Enemy mecha, startled by the launch, resumed firing on the Volkannon.

Bethany saw spectacular flashes. All kinds of colors, beautiful colors.

Everything was flashing in all the of the colors of the rainbow.

And yet it was gentle, and soft.

An aura, a pale curtain. A purple glow on the other side.

A silken dress, indigo hair–

“Leda. You look so beautiful. It’s just like when we met.”

Overhead, the missiles perforated the sky.

There was a final, glitchy burst of video static.

Two holes in the firmament slowly started to form massive voids.

More and more of the sky would fall, and a deluge would fall with it.


Vogelheim was dead.

Between the 150 mm blast outside and various cascading damages to the interior of the structure, there was no way to save the station anymore. Water began to pour in unchecked. Pressure was being lost. Every hole that opened to the Imbrium expanded exponentially as more and more water forced its way into the structure. With its central structure compromised, the “ceiling” or “cap” of the Vogelheim pillar would soon collapse upon the biome it contained and raze everything beneath its rubble.

A sudden deluge swept away mechas and any stragglers that had remained on the surface. The Imbrium laid its claim on the storybook landscape with terrifying speed. Everything was cast in the dismal blue of the ocean.

Amid this calamity, Victoria van Veka soared through the flooded forest.

At her heels, a roaring, rampaging Heidelinde Sawyer gave chase.

Already submerged before the disastrous floods, they survived everything.

Victoria knew they had to get away before the central pylons shattered. They would be crushed under the collapsing weight of the upper station otherwise. She did not know what was going through Sawyer’s head — other than violence. So she accelerated and began to flee from her enemy.

Rising up the water, which had now flooded almost all of the biome.

Bursts of 37 mm gunfire flashed incessantly from behind her.

Vapor bubbles nipped at her heels and flanks.

Victoria swerved, ducked and spun away.

All around her the landscape was eerie. Visibility had diminished entirely. Remnants of the land, like the forest, the hills, the orchard trees, they were flooded so quickly and terribly, much of it was ripped up or crushed down into the dirt, and yet much of it still remained, tinged blue but standing, rendered alien by sudden transposition. Those beautiful landscapes were cast in the dark, murky water of the Imbrium as if put inside of a toy globe.

Since she did not know how compromised the lower structures were, her best chance to escape was through whatever hole had opened to the ocean in the central structure. Elena’s artificial horizon had shattered. If Victoria could find the source of the flood within this terrifying landscape, then she could escape through there without being blocked by debris.

“GET BACK HERE!”

There was an eerie flash that was picked up by Victoria’s cameras.

Suddenly the Panzer started to accelerate.

Heat readings off its surface tripled in intensity.

Was it a hidden booster? An energy recovery system perhaps?

Psionics?

“I’d know if it was that.” Victoria told herself.

Regardless of what it was, Sawyer’s acceleration began to exceed her own.

She was cutting the distance between her and Victoria’s Jagd unit.

“No more running then.”

Victoria turned the Jagd around in a shallow arc to meet Sawyer.

Sawyer in turn lifted her vibroblade, engaging the booster on it.

“You’re fucking dead!”

They were only transmitting audio at that point. Water and their violent movements made the laser video connection difficult to maintain.

So Sawyer did not see Victoria’s eyes go red at that point.

She focused on the Jagd’s arm and pushed on it.

A sharp pain ran through her head. But she maintained her concentration.

Her blade swung to meet’s Sawyer’s attack.

And with a brutal parry, she smashed Sawyer’s arm aside.

“What the fuck?”

Training her guns on the Panzer’s center mass, Victoria unleashed a relentless fusillade. Dozens of vapor bubbles blossomed across the Panzer as exploding bullets crashed into it, peeling away parts of that tough armor.

Without hesitation, the Panzer charged through the bubbles.

“Why are you here?” Sawyer shouted. “Why did you come back now?”

“To save Elena!” Victoria shouted. “From you!”

The Panzer swung its vibro-sword and the Jagd’s vibro-blade met it. Both blades were designed to help overcome the resistance of water to breach armor. And the boosters helped deliver that final bit of punch.

The two pilots clashed blades, sizing each other up, waiting for an opportunity. The Panzer was built much more solidly. Even applying an equal amount of force, in a protracted fight, the Panzer would survive.

The Jagd’s arm would just fall off if it kept being slammed so brutally.

Nevertheless, Victoria met Sawyer’s blade, and she met her with words too.

She put on a grin, a battered, weary little grin. Her head was burning.

Maybe the drugs were fading. If she could just hold on a little longer!

“I saw it in a dream! I saw you killing her! I won’t let it happen!”

This wasn’t a lie and yet it was the exact kind of thing Sawyer hated to hear.

“In a dream? Are you fucking crazy? You came here to say that to me?”

“I came to save Elena, because despite everything, out of all of us, she’s the one who has only ever been a victim, Sawyer. All of us can fight and kill each other, but Elena shouldn’t! Elena has suffered enough in her life.”

“Shut up! Stop holding her up on a pedestal! I fucking hate that!”

I know, Sawyer. That’s why I’m saying it.

Victoria felt like weeping over the whole situation, just a bit. It was surreal, to be encased in this metal machine, in her cute little dress. Fighting her old friend who was marching down a horrible path. Atop the ruins of another friend’s devastated home. As rubble began to come down all around them. As Elena’s beautiful little forest was submerged in the blue below them.

“I already saved her, Sawyer. You’ll never have her now.”

“I DON’T CARE! I DIDN’T COME HERE FOR HER!”

Her swings started to grow sluggish. Her burst of power must have been an energy reserve system, and it was running out after her berserk rage.

“We were all destined to come here Sawyer. To sever the red string.”

She had started just saying things to rile her up.

But with tears in her eyes, Victoria had made herself believe them too.

All of those memories they had. That strange childhood that was neither idyllic, nor agonizing, because they shared it. It was so distant. No matter what happened, no matter who won out, they could never recover that.

Sawyer would always be her enemy.

Gertrude would always be an obstacle.

Elena would always be the unattainable prize.

She was the Empire they were all fighting for.

The Empire they would all destroy.

“Shut up. Shut up! I’m sick of it. You’ve no right to judge me. No right!”

Sawyer’s aura was palpable through the water.

Furious, wracked with agony, tinged with sorrow. Victoria saw it.

She responded to it.

“I’ve every right to judge you! You and your Volkisch want to expel me from my home!”

“What was I supposed to do, Victoria?” Sawyer shouted. “To be a fucking saint like you?”

She began interjecting words between ever more wild and furious swings of her blade.

“Was I supposed to follow Elena’s tail all my life?” Swing. “Submit myself to be ruled by the nobles that gave as little a shit about me as you three did? Run off to sell my pretty little ass to the Duchess like you did?” Thrust. “I was never special like all of you! All of you got the power and skills! I was always beat down and all I could do was fight!” Her blade smashed over and over. “I seized an opportunity! You can’t judge me for that, you bitch!”

Victoria endured the onslaught, blocking, dodging with her thrusters, clashing blades. Her Jagd’s arm was starting to overstress.

Alerts appeared on her status monitor.

Chunks of the station ceiling started to come down all around them.

It was nearly over. This was it; she had to make her move now or never.

“You were as powerful as everyone at school! You were standing so high above the world you knew nothing of it, just like us! But you always had power Sawyer! More power than most. You chose the Volkisch!”

“You don’t understand shit! I don’t want to hear your fucking voice again!”

Sawyer threw her wildest, most violent swing yet.

Her hatred, her anger, screamed out into the surrounding water.

Victoria could see all of it.

Red and yellow and black contaminating the water.

Rather than evade, Victoria thrust directly into the water in front of her.

She saw something in that aura. She became lost within its space.

A little girl receiving a beating from her mother and a scolding from her father. A young girl derided by both parents for being unable to speak properly. A bigger girl who could hardly see or understand what was up on the video board at school. A teenager who threw a punch unprompted and liked the sight of a body on the floor. A group of girls, who formed out of necessity, like wilting plants growing in the same patch. A young woman, standing in a line of soldiers, telling herself it was all she could do now.

An adult woman, berated by a uniformed man, and slapped across the face.

Two uniformed women, side by side, carrying sandbags as punishment.

A woman listening to someone tell her that in spite all that, she was strong.

Victoria saw shadows and heard distant voices and felt even when she could not see. Amid the color, amid two machines frozen in their violence, all those thoughts coalesced. Sawyer’s thoughts and Victoria’s thoughts.

At which point was I able to choose anything?

Everything was always set against me.

I wish I could have helped you escape.

I could have saved you.

Victoria reentered the world. Full of emotion but bereft of understanding.

She threw the Jagd’s arm in the way of Sawyer’s attack.

Sawyer’s blade stabbed into the remains of the jet lance coils.

She had swung with such force that she nearly pierced the Jagd’s head.

Her blade stopped just short of Victoria’s cameras, lodged into the arm.

Solid fuel and parts leaked out into the water.

Victoria reacted near instantly.

Pulling back her sticks and ramming her pedals. Thrusting up and back, the Jagd extended the Panzer’s arm and threw the mech off-balance.

As she did so, Victoria swung her remaining blade at the Panzer’s arm joint.

Her blade chipped, but it bit right through the metal.

Sawyer’s arm split at the elbow with a crunch, hanging off the Jagd’s.

Victoria then ejected the Jagd’s jet lance, losing an arm herself. Both Victoria’s lance and Sawyer’s sword drifted, joining the rest of the debris.

The Jagd turned its torso machine guns on the Panzer and opened fire.

One tiny burst crashed into the Panzer’s heavily-armored chest.

Gashes and pits formed on the armor. The machine rose out of the vapor.

Then the guns clicked completely empty.

There was no barb from the Panzer’s pilot. The machine advanced silently, solemnly. Sawyer lifted her sturmgewehr rifle with her remaining arm.

When she tried to fire her magazine was ejected by the feed system.

It was empty.

The Panzer stood, unmoving, threatening with its empty rifle.

Sawyer must have been out of ordnance.

Victoria lifted her sword arm and pointed it at the unarmed Sawyer.

She looked at the screen. Since they were unmoving for long enough, their laser connection stabilized. Victoria could see Sawyer’s haunted face on the video, wide-eyed, shaking and weeping with fury, frustration, confusion. Victoria felt those feelings spreading into the ocean around Sawyer’s mech also. Her auras were never more visible nor easier to read than right there.

“I– I– I’m– I can– still–”

Sawyer was reduced to a furious stammer as she searched for any remaining weapons. That was a sight she had not seen in close to ten years.

A flustered, helpless Sawyer, out of steam once her rage reached its peak.

Victoria smiled. A bitter, pained smile that punctuated their shared agony.

“Goodbye, Sawyer. I’m sorry. I couldn’t save you — I didn’t even try.”

She turned the Jagd around and immediately fled.

Her objective was complete.

She distracted Sawyer. Elena got away (she hoped).

And now she had to flee herself.

“No more tears.”

Victoria grit her teeth. As the Jagd emerged from the teetering rubble of Vogelheim, her heart wrenched. She had decided what she would do a long time ago. Victoria had chosen her banner. And she had found someone dearly special to her. Someone she wanted to fight for, to elevate, to love.

Someone who represented the future she realistically hopes to bring about.

In that sense–

Sawyer was just an enemy.

Gertrude was just an obstacle.

And Elena remained an orbiter, a helpless ephemera caught in the midst.

She had made her decisions and held herself responsible for them.

So why did it hurt so much?

Why, as she escaped, did the young empath weep for Sawyer?


Marina’s screens came to life and began to run diagnostics.

Soldier of Enterprise And Liberty S.E.A.L [SpecOps]

Below the S.E.A.L’s full model name, Marina had edited the boot menu to scrub out the Republic motto. She couldn’t bear to even think to uphold those ideals anymore. Dimly, she even wondered where the Republic ever stood for them in the first place. What even was all this liberty bullshit?

Marina’s S.E.A.L. was a special model, but it fit the Republic’s ethos of highly efficient, cost-conscious, utilitarian design. An oblong cockpit surrounded by thick, shaped plates of sloped chest armor, to which two tapered off, square shoulders attached a pair of sturdy arms. A round, helmet-like head with a visor served as the primary sensor array. The waist was slightly thicker than that of a Volker or Strelok, because the S.E.A.L.’s backpack was attached lower, closer to the legs. This allowed for more direct intake of water straight through the center of mass to the jets in the lower back.

She had an M480 37 mm assault rifle attached by magnet to the backpack, some grenades, and a boosted vibro-handaxe that was a result of Republic efforts to steal Imperial vibro-weapon technology, coupled with an inability of Republic industry to properly replicate the miniature form factor of Imperial blades. All of these weapons were capable but cheaper alternatives to Imperial designs, the pride of the Republic. Interesting as they all were, Marina had no intention to use any of them at that moment.

Instead, she was more interested in the long-range travel unit on the back.

Two hydro-jets with their own energy, designed to produce less sound. They had taken her from Pluto station to here and had enough energy to take her back. When she returned, the Pluto cell of the G.I.A. would disband, its resources spent. Then she would escape to Serrano, Sverland.

A mere skip and a jump to the Union.

That was the plan. She had to keep the plan in mind.

Everything was shaking.

Sometimes subtly, but increasingly, with great violence.

She had laid Elena atop the storage space behind her chair.

Once the SEAL was ready to go, Marina dove into the water.

Vogelheim was an old station, with a major weakness in the size of its desalination and water treatment ducts and systems. Modern, efficient designs needed less water volume and thus did not have giant openings for Marina to go swimming in. Dipping down into this system, Marina guided her SEAL out of Vogelheim through chaotic, rushing water in the underground. She moved fast enough to avoid the collapse.

Outside the station, with the structure between herself and her enemies, Marina had a moment of peace. The SEAL could simply hover in the water for a time, watching the place where she rekindled her love and rediscovered her sorrows crumbling before her, slowly, inevitably.

Vogelheim’s biome was collapsing under the force of the invading ocean along with the weight of the station’s crown, housing all the mechanisms for the light and weather and sky that had so enchanted Elena. That sky under which Leda had given birth and tried to raise her. That sky that her brother Erich turned into a prison for her. It was shattered, coming down.

From outside the station, in the blue vastness of the Imbrium, attached to the rocky seafloor and surrounded by the rising and falling stone of the ocean’s geography, the Vogelheim pillar slowly toppled onto itself. The eastern wall collapsed near totally, so the station’s cap fell lopsided over the biome. Perhaps there was some eerie, flooded place that still survived.

Marina knew then that most of the interior was utterly destroyed.

She prepared to turn and leave the scene when she heard a noise from behind her.

“Where– What is–? Who are you?”

Confused mumbling, the soft and helpless voice of a young girl.

Marina felt her panic grip her heart. This could not be happening.

Not right then.

“Elena please don’t look. Please just go back to sleep.” Her voice was weak, pleading.

Elena paid her no heed. She sat herself up, peering around the side of the cockpit chair. She pulled herself forward. Her eyes were fixed upon the exterior camera screens.

Fixed on the image of the ruined, collapsed Vogelheim that was on every video feed.

“That can’t be it.”Elena’s voice started to crack. “Is that Vogelheim? That can’t be.”

Her eyes filled with tears. Her lips quivered; her hands shook.

“Vogelheim can’t be like that. It just can’t be. How will we go back inside?”

Elena covered her own mouth. “Bethany? Where is Bethany?”

She had not blinked or drawn away from the light in so long.

Her eyes wept and reddened.

Marina felt so powerless, so helpless.

Helpless as she had never felt before in her life.

Staring at Elena’s face, the blood fading from her cheeks.

At her drawn, horrified eyes.

“I’m so sorry.” Marina said. There was nothing she could say or could do.

It dawned upon the Princess then, what had happened.

Her whole body shook.

She screamed.

Elena screamed until her throat was raw, until her lungs were empty.

Until her voice gave out into heaving sobs.

Elena screamed with an agony unimaginable.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.4]

Supper was a relaxed and refreshing affair that evening.

There were small bowls of tomato and beef consommé, perfectly clear and a rich auburn color, with a superbly clean taste. To accompany the soup they had fresh-baked, airy crackers. For the entree, they had perfectly round potato dumplings filled with crumbly cheese and bits of pork, on a bed of cabbage and vinegar and lemon juice. A comparatively light spread that nonetheless filled with the belly.

Gertrude and Elena got to enjoy it together within the Villa’s tearoom.

“I apologize that we couldn’t use the deck again milady.” Bethany said. “We’ve moved some unneeded furniture out onto it and turned the lodge into a ballroom for tonight’s event.”

“Right. Tonight’s event. Happening without my consent, on my birthday.”

Elena made narrow, evil eyes at Bethany.

For her part, the maid returned a disappointed gaze back at the unruly Princess.

“You must attend! Your brother arranged for many wonderful people to meet you; it would be a great opportunity to make some connections. Furthermore, the Prince himself will join you!”

“What? My brother is coming here? Tonight? How? I heard none of this!”

Elena stood up from the table in outrage. Gertrude was briefly taken aback.

Bethany looked confused and concerned by the response.

“Goodness. I thought you’d be overjoyed.”

“If my brother invited a bunch of his friends here, do you not think that this means he has designs towards me, and perhaps those friends, Bethany?”

Elena threw her an accusatory glare.

Bethany withered under that royal gaze.

“I’m only a maid! If you’re insinuating I can do anything about your brother trying to match you up with someone for political gain, then you vastly overestimate my power and ability. All I can tell you is to try to endure!”

“You may have no power and ability, but I do.”

Gertrude interrupted at that point, standing up from the table herself.

“Whatever do you mean, Inquisitor?” Bethany said, suddenly scandalized.

Grand Inquisitor.” Gertrude corrected. “I will be attending this party. I will go get changed into something suitable at the Iron Lady. I will accompany the Princess to the ballroom when the time comes.” Gertrude gave Elena a look that was filled with determination — and perhaps even danger.

“Of course you may. I’ll wait for you.” Elena said, preempting objections.

“We can’t delay her long!” Bethany said.

She was exasperated with this scheme already.

Elena however understood Gertrude’s aim, and she beamed with joy.

Gertrude left. The artificial skies beginning to dim to simulate the terrestrial night, Elena had to get ready for the party. Dressing up like a princess was a task she had wanted to do personally, in the best-case scenario. Instead, however, it ended up something Bethany swore to do for her, and the maid shadowed her from the tearoom, up the stairs and into her room.

“I can dress myself you know.”

“You don’t have the special attire I prepared for you for this evening.”

“Special attire? How special could a dress be?”

“As a matter of fact, I have something sublime prepared for this occasion.”

Bethany tittered with a bizarre excitement that caused Elena to feel imperiled.

After leading Elena back to her room, Bethany disappeared out into the halls again, bidding her to wait a few minutes while she returned with the dress. Elena had a half a mind to dress herself up and make all this nonsense moot, but then Bethany returned with the dress in her hands. Though it was hard to determine the fit from looking at it in the bundled-up way that it was, the rich purple and gold colors drew Elena’s eyes.

“This is really very special. Give me a moment here.” Bethany said.

The Maid took the dress into the wardrobe, where there was a slot in front of the walls with a warm press that would get all the wrinkles out and straighten up a bundle of clothes. When she returned, Elena got a good look at the style of the dress, and she was stunned. Bold was certainly one way to describe it. It had a tight, slimming fit, and the neckline was cut low and square such that displayed a lot of collarbone, and with the proper support perhaps some other things. The skirt was split along the sides with the hem at the level of the knee, and the sleeves were connected by two strips of fabric with gaps that exposed the upper arm. It had a provocative style.

Elena gave her chief maid a long look. “Bethany, I don’t know what to say. It’s a beautiful dress. But when you hand a maiden such as myself, something of this nature, I can’t help but feel maybe your eyes are going–”

“PLEASE, please, please don’t pursue that thought any further Princess. It was your mother’s dress.” Bethany sighed with exasperation.

Elena’s impish grin instantly faded away.

“Really? It belonged to my mother? You’ve been keeping it this whole time?”

“She wanted you to wear this on the night of your debut. She had worn it herself when she was a teenager, in her own entry into high society. But then– well, of course, unfortunately, she passed, and you didn’t debut.” Bethany looked conflicted. Elena could not quite understand the feelings that seemed to pass across the features of her face, so fleetingly.

“I’ll be honest Beth, I didn’t think you knew so much about my mother. I might’ve asked you more about her if I’d known.” Elena said. She took the dress from Bethany and held it in front of herself, trying to imagine herself in it. It was uncanny how well it fit. She resembled her mother much more than her father, obviously, but to think the measurements were so close!

It made her wonder: had her mother stood here in Vogelheim, in this room, in this dress? Bethany smiled softly as she watched Elena sizing the dress.

“You could say– I admired your mother. Her wishes informed some of my decisions. But enough about that. We must get you ready.” Bethany said.

This mysterious declaration brought a lot of possibilities to Elena’s mind.

Many of which she wanted to discard immediately. She knew how she felt and where her own sensibilities lay, and to try to project that onto others– Bethany had to be a normal woman with an ordinary affection for her long-passed mother. A lot of people had told her they admired her mother before. Her mother had been amazing: it had been no wonder that Emperor von Fueller sought her as his second wife from among all of the court. Beautiful, a bold dancer, a magnificent singer, a sharp wit and boundless intellect. She had been a prodigy at everything that excited her.

Of course Bethany admired her. That being said, they appeared to have been closer than merely an object of admiration and a pair of eyes that watched her from afar. For her mother to entrust personal effects to her to such a degree, they must have been friends. Close friends even. Elena did not know too much about Bethany personally, she had never been curious. Bethany was a servant, a helpful and sometimes doting and sometimes overbearing caretaker. That was all. Now that she was curious, however, it was in a setting where there was no time to ask her to tell the tale.

So rather than press further, or demand an explanation, Elena merely spread her arms. This was out of her sense of respect for Bethany.

“Help me dress, Bethany. Let’s see how much like my mother I look in this.”

“It’d be an honor, Princess.”

Bethany’s past could wait until morning.

Gertrude’s visit to the party could not.

Her maid had dressed her before, many times.

Elena had been fearful that there would be something odd or off about this particular instance, but there was not. Bethany disrobed her, even helped her out of her suit layer, with the exact same care, attention and detached professionalism with which she always worked. For the party, Elena would not be wearing a full or half suit beneath her clothes. It was seen as provincial to wear swim suits under one’s clothes at formal occasions.

Once she was fully in the nude, she donned a pair of black tights and elbow gloves, and Bethany helped her gently into the dress and zipped up the back. It was surprisingly lighter and simpler than it seemed to wear.

Elena had wondered if any part of the design would necessitate double-sided tape or some other secret tool of truly fashionable upper-class ladies; but in fact, it clung to her well. All of the skin the designer wanted to highlight with the gaps was visible in appropriate quantity, the bodice left no room for the dress to slide, and the skirt reached to the knee perfectly.

Dressed for the party, Elena thought she would now go– but her maid stopped her.

“Not without a touch-up on your face! Sit down.”

At Bethany’s command, Elena sat.

Her maid produced a makeup kit. A layer of foundation, pearl-pink concealer, and the slightest hint of blush touched up Elena’s cheeks. A gentle shadow around her eyes and a coat of glossy lipstick just a touch darker than the natural color of Elena’s lips, gave her a bright, elegant appearance that still looked natural, without too much product.

When the hairbrush came out, Elena feared they might be there all night.

Her maid turned the chair around, and gently stroked Elena’s hair.

Rather than turn it into a project, she just made Elena’s natural looks clean and proper.

To top it off, Bethany affixed a moon-shaped, diamond-studded silver hairpiece on Elena.

“There. Look in the mirror, princess.”

Elena turned around and spread her arms. She lifted the skirt just a little.

She put her back to the mirror and looked over her shoulder at the reflection.

Not too much had changed, but it really felt like her best traits were accentuated very well.

“I feared you might doll me up too much, but this is quite pleasant.”

“We don’t have to conceal your looks today. We want them to shine in their organic state.”

Bethany laid her arms on Elena’s shoulders and smiled fondly.

Elena almost got a motherly sense out of that expression.

“Leda would be so proud. But let us not tarry. We should go meet that woman of yours.”

How unfair, to mention her mother’s name with that expression, and then hurry her along! Nonetheless, Elena followed Bethany down to the foyer.

There were maids working on last minute dusting and furniture arrangement. While the foyer did not normally look like much, they had added flowers and fine glasswork decorations, a portrait of the Emperor, and extra strips of lights on the ceiling to brighten up the atmosphere. It would not be long before a modest group of guests would arrive through the doors of the Villa. Bethany pushed Elena to a sideroom where the maids kept additional furniture in storage and bid her to wait.

Gertrude would be brought to her.

“Bethany, can you explain why I am hiding with the taxidermy?” Elena pointed bitterly at a stuffed creature occupying a corner of the dim little room. “I’m the birthday girl? What kind of birthday celebration is this?”

Bethany sighed. “Do you want to stand at the doors and greet everyone? It’s what you will have to do, as the Royal Princess, if the guests see you the instant they walk through the front doors. And then imagine the scandal if you leave the guests behind as soon as Lady Lichtenberg shows up?”

“That’s a good point.” Elena sighed. Everything was so complicated!

“I won’t object to the two of you appearing together. But you have to go in after the guests have settled down. It’s the only way that it makes sense. Anything else would be an insult to them. So wait here: be quiet and still.”

Bethany shut the door to the side-room.

Elena could hear the sounds of her heels, growing ever more distant. There continued to be a muffled commotion outside for quite some time.

And so Elena waited, sitting on an old chair covered in a white blanket.

Accompanied by a fiendish creature the size of a dog, frozen in time in its own corner. It looked ridiculous. She wondered whose this thing was.

Elena noticed a sharp increasing the number of footsteps and voices outside. That meant the people her brother had invited had arrived.

She surmised then that her isolation would end soon, but it was several minutes worth of people outside, being greeted she assumed, before the foyer became quiet again. Elena feared her dress would get dusty or wrinkled, but in the dim light of the side-room she was still able to see that her worries were unfounded. The room was fairly clean, even.

She had lost track of time, but in reality she was not in there for long.

And when the door next opened, Elena felt ready to forgive the plot.

She expected Bethany, and readied to hurl some invective.

In her place, however, the one who opened the door was an extremely handsome young woman in a very fitting, buttoned up jacket, and dress pants, black with gold trim. She wore a medal the shape of a white flower on her lapel, that indicated service to the royal family — Elena had given her that medal herself. Hers was a formal uniform, worn by high-ranking officers on special occasions, and it quite flattered the tall and lean frame of Gertrude Lichtenberg. Her hair had been collected into a ponytail, and her face was very slightly made up. Elena could tell that a few blemishes on her cheek had been powdered over, and her eyes looked darker, more intense.

Elena wanted to joke that she appeared more boyish than ever, but that was not true. She was gentlemanly in the best way, not merely boyish. She was gallant and knightly, and in that way she was beautiful too, and she truly shone in that dress uniform. Elena loved every centimeter of her.

Rather than invective, no words at all escaped Elena then.

She was quite stricken.

Gertrude took the initiative and extended a hand to the princess.

“I would be honored to escort the lady to the dance.”

“Y-Yes. Of course.”

Elena offered her hand in turn, and Gertrude took it gently and kissed the back of her glove.

More than in just her hand, Elena felt that kiss as a warmth that spread out from below her belly. An electric sense, an air of romance; it was storybook in a way that felt too good to be true. And yet it was no dream, or she would not have felt that touch at all. Gertrude’s strong hand stroked hers gently, and she gestured toward the door, waiting for Elena to collect her senses.

“Shall we?”

Somehow, the friendly soldier whom Elena had known, had become this enchanted being.

“Of course, ‘Trude.”

She had called her by the nickname as if to confirm this was still to her.

Without responding verbally, Gertrude simply smiled.

Yes; this was her Gertrude.

They held hands, and Gertrude waited for her to cross the threshold first.

Aside from a few maids standing around, the Foyer was completely empty.

There were signs everywhere that the floor had been well trod upon.

Bethany was not around.

She must have had more important duties to attend to.

Now that the party was in motion, she had to coordinate the proceedings.

Like a consummate gentleman, Gertrude helped Elena up the stairs from the foyer. She led her around a corner, toward the second-floor hunting lodge, the largest room in the villa. Gertrude would not have known where it was, as she had never had occasion to visit it. Elena thought then that the maids would have cooperated with her, and maybe prepared her before she took Elena. Her knight moved through the villa with complete confidence. But whenever they exchanged glances as they navigated the halls, Gertrude would smile casually and cheerfully as ever.

That smile indicated that this was simply Gertrude; but a Gertrude trying to impress.

When they entered the lodge, all eyes were on immediately them.

A princess dressing bolder than ever, and a soldierly woman in a formal uniform.

Elena could feel everyone in the room scrutinizing them.

She hardly knew what to say when she entered the room. She started to look around, hoping that the situation would solve itself.

There were perhaps a hundred people in attendance. To accommodate them, the massive hunting lodge had been completely transformed. Elena had always found the space a waste. So much room devoted to trophies and old guns and tacky fur rugs. She imagined those things must have belonged to her father. Bethany and the maids had gotten rid of it all, at least temporarily. For once it was possible to admire the breadth of the lodge’s floor space, the beautiful tiles, the fiery red curtains and decorative rose arrangements. Torches were lit to provide a mood, and the LEDs dimmed.

Along the side walls there were a few chairs arrayed for those who preferred to sit. There were small tables filled with treats.

Mutton and fig meatballs and crunchy bread spread with bone marrow were the most common small bites, along with plates of roasted vegetables and fresh fruit with spicy fish sauce or real honey for dipping. There were maids spread around the room, dressed to impress in frilly uniform gowns, serving a choice of various wines from intricate bottles.

Far in the back, a small stage had been erected where five maids appeared, all dressed up, the more tomboyish ones in suits, and some in ornate dresses, and they sat with instruments in hand and played music for all of the guests. She knew they also had a sophisticated sound system that could back them up, but Elena had several dozen servants boasting a broad array of talents, so she wanted to hope they were all playing the vibrant, sensual music which filled the lodge.

Conspicuously missing was the sapphire-gleaming glare of her half-brother Erich.

Elena wondered if she should say some words.

It was her special occasion, wasn’t it?

It was also true she had never wanted this party.

And none of these people were her friends, or acquaintances of even minor familiarity. None of her school age friends were here save for Gertrude.

Before she could make a fool out of herself, however, a woman stepped on to the stage. A mature, dark-haired beauty in a flamboyant red dress and white gloves, perhaps the singer, she drew everyone’s attention to herself with a clack of her heels. Wearing a smile as bright red as her dress, she addressed the room in a voice that felt strangely familiar to Elena’s ears.

“Everyone! I bid you all a luxurious evening! As you can see, the honored guest has arrived, which means it is time to commence the festivities. You have drinks, good company, and the floor. What are you all staring for? Give the birthday girl and her friend some space; what kind of party is it if we all just stand in a circle? Band, give me something to work with!”

She turned around to the maids, who looked at each other with something approaching disbelief and then began to play a sultry tune at a faster tempo. It was a popular song, particularly among soldiers, about a seeing a beautiful woman at port and spending a night before a fated departure. Snapping her fingers in tune with the music, the woman in red closed her eyes, first humming on stage until she finally broke out into the familiar tune with a rich singing voice. With the lights on her, she was enchanting.

It was then Elena realized that it was Bethany up on stage.

Bethany; her maid, Bethany–

Gertrude responded with a gentle laugh.

“It is a wonderful tune, but it’s so played out with the boys.”

She turned toward Elena, who was still mildly shell-shocked.

“I owe you a dance or two, but would you rather carouse?”

Elena snapped out of her reverie. “Carouse with who? Come on.”

Gertrude did not need to be told twice.

She took the princess by the waist and hand and led her to the dance floor.

Swept up in the physicality of the moment, Elena could hardly refuse.

Elena was unskilled, but Gertrude led well. For the most part, the princess avoided looking completely useless on the dance floor. She did not stomp Gertrude’s feet, and while ungraceful, she met the sweeping movements of her escort as best as she could. She felt as if caught up in a whirlwind. Gertrude had her by the hands, by waist, by the shoulder at times.

They said nothing to one another.

Their eyes locked, their breathing in tune. Their emotions were visible only in their movements. Elena could feel it from Gertrude, from the way she was held, led, touched. A certain possessiveness, a need to assert her place. Back at the tearoom, when Gertrude had spoke up to Bethany, Elena understood what the plot meant, but perhaps, she had failed to understand the degree to which Gertrude would put herself in the position of a lover.

And there they were. While a scant few others had begun to dance as well, it really felt like a majority of the party was not there for Bethany’s surprisingly seductive voice, or the atmosphere, or the drinks, or to take anyone’s hand in dance but the princess’ — or at least, to gain her attention or favor in some other manner. And so a great many men and women remained on the fringes of the dance floor, with what seemed like disconcerted expressions. Gertrude had beaten them to it.

In a sudden move, Gertrude broke from her, extending her arm, and pulled her back in. She bent low with Elena and held her, just barely keeping the princess from the floor. Their eyes, their noses, their lips, merely centimeters apart. Millimeters, perhaps. It was the final act of the show.

Elena could almost taste Gertrude’s subtle but clearly exerted breathing.

Suspended in this position, they spent what felt like eternity lost in each other’s eyes. Elena felt something inside her, brimming under her skin.

Gertrude gently lifted her back up.

She then acknowledged the gawkers with a smug bow.

Meanwhile Elena’s face was blushing red as the curtains, red as the roses, red as the wine.

“Would you like me to stick close, or would you prefer to scout out the room yourself?”

Elena, unprepared to make decisions, wished that Gertrude would just grab her again.

“I suppose I should try to see what these people want with me.” She said, sighing.

She did not go alone, however.

Elena took Gertrude’s hand, and they walked into a small crowd of aristocrats together. Taking up drinks, they introduced themselves together. To this crowd, Gertrude became Elena’s “long-time friend” and “military advisor” in the span of a few minutes, and the words seemed to change the atmosphere with them. It became possible to talk to them about nothing for some time, and nobody was quite able to bring up subjects Elena feared.

Many of them, to Elena’s surprise, expressed a greater lamentation at her brother ghosting the party, than whatever apprehension they may have had about Elena’s choice of companion. Slowly, over the course of several of these paltry interactions with the faceless folk that had heeded her brothers’ summons, she developed a fuller picture of what was going on. None of them had really come to try to woo Elena or even to try to get her to invest her hereditary wealth in the kind of schemes the nobility and petite-bourgeoise got up to for profit. Nobody had come for her.

All of them had been brought to Vogelheim on the promise of her brother’s attendance.

First in line to the throne, overwhelmingly the most powerful man in the Empire now.

That the conversations around the party managed to become about family businesses, the rare vintage of the wines on hand, the array of fashionable suits and dresses on display, and the rare natural beauty of Vogelheim, gave Elena a sense of relief. It also unveiled the stark truth of how little power and influence she had. Nobody had come to her birthday even just to suck up to her personally. And if they were paying attention to her it was because she was inviting scandal with a woman partner. Everyone assembled, at best, thought of her as a proxy to get to her brother and nothing more.

She might have been able to endure at least one or two marriage proposals to avoid having to swallow that bitter pill. But she made the best of it.

With Gertrude at her side, she immersed herself in the people around her, she smiled, she drank. She laughed politely at jokes. She put on a convincing show pretending to be impressed at the son of a cattle magnate or the daughter of a mining industrialist and their petty little ambitions.

As Bethany advised, Elena endured the night.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.2]

A bell rang from the kitchen, and the maids returned.

Soon the table was piled high with delights.

There were several plates on the table itself, and two extensions brought in and attached to the table to hold more plates. Lunch was the largest meal of the day in Imperial culture, but Elena had never seen a lunch quite like this. Bethany smiled proudly while introducing the spread.

Even Gertrude looked mesmerized by the amount and variety of foods available.

At the center of the table there were plates of meat.

First was Elena’s favorite, fatty salmon belly, lightly pan-fried, topped with a drizzle of lemon butter and sliced thinly on the plate. There was also a plate of crispy pork belly cut into cubes and rubbed with cinnamon and dried fruits; as well as a rare ribeye steak served au jus.

Arrayed around the meats were a variety of vegetable dishes.

There was fresh potato salad with vinegar and oil, pickled baby onions with dill, tiny potato dumplings, creamed cabbage in three different colors, and roast beet slices with oil and handpicked herbs. A loaf of freshly sliced black bread rounded out the table, along with three different drinks served in small pitchers on the side of the table: berry milk, hops soda and a noticeably light beer.

Once every dish was set in its proper place, Bethany led the maids in a synchronized bow before their guests, and the group departed, leaving Gertrude and Elena alone with the mountain of food. Gertrude stared at the dishes with eyes so wide, as if she were not sure of her senses.

“This is so far removed from how we eat on the ship. I barely know where to start.”

“Then, let me guide you.”

Elena forked a piece of salmon belly and leaned lightly over the table, reaching her arms across. Gertrude played along and leaned forward, opening her mouth for the princess to feed her.

“How is it?” Elena asked, ever so slightly embarrassed to be playfully feeding her friend.

Gertrude’s cheeks flushed slightly. “It’s incredible. I had no idea fish could be so soft.”

“It’s nice, isn’t it? It almost melts in your mouth doesn’t it? Fatty and sliced thin.”

Elena took a bite of salmon belly herself and felt a thrill. For a moment, she felt a sharp sensation on her lower jaw, as if it were overwhelmed by the oily, rich flavor of the salmon belly. It was the first bite of real food she had in the day, and there was nothing else she would have rather put in her mouth. Bethany and the lasses had outdone themselves with this serving.

Gertrude finally took initiative and speared a juicy slice of steak.

She brought it up to her lips, surprised that it was dripping all the way to her mouth.

“You really start to forget the taste of real meat after a long voyage.” Gertrude said.

Elena tipped her head. “Hmm? Then what is lunch like on the Iron Lady?”

“We have some freeze-dried chicken or thawed beef grounds, usually in stews or in dumplings, but most of our day-to-day meat consumption is sausages. And most of the sausage is half buckwheat, blood and lard, and half ground pork. Steak like this is unfathomable there.”

“I see.”

Eating her salmon belly, from fish caught as fresh as possible in the Empire, dressed in creamy butter and real lemon juice; Elena felt suddenly ashamed when she heard of what a soldier ate in its place. She had never done anything for this country other than to be born to its ruler. Gertrude ate slaw, hardtack and sausages on long voyages through the Imbrium to protect her from possible danger. Every day Elena had proper tea, delicious food, and precious peace and silence. She had greater privileges.

Gertrude, with the open, innocent wonder she exhibited at the food on the table, had been deprived of those things. For her sake– for Elena’s sake– for the sake of the Imperial Princess. She took those lonesome voyages, suffered injuries, ate terrible food that just barely kept her alive. For her sake.

 Elena shook her head.

She had said to herself to focus on the positive.

“You know, someday, when I run this place, I’ll make sure every soldier gets a good steak whenever possible. We can probably dry age them for the long trip, or something like that!”

Elena was relieved when Gertrude beamed happily at her suggestion.

“Fulfill that promise and the men will worship you as a goddess.”

Gertrude reached out for the pitcher of beer and poured herself a tall glass.

She took one sip and seemed to want to laugh as she drank it.

“This is so weak! We have hard liquor on the ships at least. I guess the maids want you to be just a little adventurous. Just a teeny tiny bit.” Gertrude downed almost half the glass she poured in an instant. Elena was left briefly speechless at this very stereotypically soldier-like behavior.

“Have you ever drunk before, actually?” Gertrude asked.

“Why I– Of course I have!” Elena said. She had wine every so often.

“Cheers then. To the Princess’ 25th Birthday!”

Gertrude held aloft her half-empty glass of beer.

Elena quickly poured herself some and gently struck Gertrude’s glass with her own.

She took what she considered an ambitious sip. Gertrude emptied her own glass.

For a light beer, it was still bitter and unpleasant. Elena was unprepared for the flavor.

It went down her throat harder than she had envisioned, and she had a light cough.

Gertrude had a small laugh at her expense. “We should have started with apple cider then!”

Under the circumstances, Elena couldn’t help but laugh at herself a little also.

Being able to play around with Gertrude again was just that much of a blessing.

They sampled a little bit of everything, and then filled their plates with their favorites. Elena staked a claim on the salmon and filled her plate, while Gertrude made herself an exemplary plate with all kinds of vegetables and a modest amount of the pork belly. When she had her food organized, she ate quickly, but in an orderly fashion. Elena liked to savor every bite.

“You should have some vegetables. I wouldn’t want you to die of undernourishment.”

Gertrude picked up a plate of the creamed cabbage and slid a big glob of leaves and sauce onto the side of Elena’s place. The princess gave it a dismal stare and turned the same stare over to her erstwhile protector. Gertrude then picked up a few baby onions and dropped them in as well.

In open disdain of her friend’s selections, Elena reached across the table and speared a single roasted beet from the serving plate with her fork. She brought it back, avoiding her plate, and started to munch on it instead, while the cabbage looked ever sadder in its white sauce.

“I’m eating my vegetables.” Elena grumbled.

“That’s a good girl.” Gertrude said.

“Quit teasing me; as you can see, I keep an exemplary figure. I’ve nothing to worry about.”

“Indeed. I could never overlook it, and I’ve certainly gotten an eyeful of you since I arrived. But you can be the perfect beauty on the outside and have bones full of holes on the inside.”

“Shut up.” Elena responded to the teasing by turning almost as red as beet she was eating.

There was so much food that it was not possible for two young women to eat it all. Elena wondered whether the maids cooked as much as they did, with the knowledge that there would be quite a few of these beautiful plates left for themselves. Whatever their intentions, once Elena and Gertrude slowed down and eventually ceased to pick at their food, Bethany arrived with a proud smile, and ushered in the rest of the maids to take the empty and partially empty plates away.

“We’ll serve a light supper and some sweets later in the afternoon, milady.” She said.

“Enjoy the steaks.” Elena said, staring at her.

“Why I never– at any rate, may I ask what the two of you plan to do now?”

Elena began to admonish the maid. “None of your–”

Gertrude raised her hand amicably. “I’d like to take a look around. I haven’t been around real trees and flowers in so long. Is it alright if I escort the Princess around Vogelheim?”

Her tone resembled that of a boy asking a girl’s parents if they could go out, more than it resembled that of a veteran officer at the highest ranks of the Imperial Security Service.

Bethany reached into the pockets of her apron and withdrew a single, weathered key.

She handed the little key to Gertrude.

“I’ll do you one better. The stables are out back. You can take the horses out for a ride.”

Gertrude was momentarily speechless. Elena watched her with a confused expression.

“Horses?” She finally blurted out. “Real horses? You have real horses here?”

“We sure do! Such a steed befits your knightly stature, milady. Have fun!”

Bethany lifted the hem of her skirt in a curtsy and took her leave of the two.

Elena shot her a suspicious glare as she left, and then turned back to Gertrude, who was still captivated with the old key and the concept of a terrestrial mammal meant for riding upon.

“Gertrude, are you sure you can ride a horse? You’re still recovering from an injury.”

“Milady, I have never been more ready for anything! Worry not; I’m built quite sturdy.”

Her friend’s smile convinced her; Elena took Gertrude by the hand and led her down from the deck, along a gated-off series of steps down into the gardens. They climbed down into the flowers, careful not to stomp, and then they ran hand in hand past the beds of red and yellow.

Around the side of the villa, past the massive flower garden and hidden behind tall hedges, there was a tiny wooden stable where four horses stood in separate, locked enclosures, with hay and grains, a water basin for each, and a closet for tools used by the maids to keep them clean.

To Elena, the horses were enormous animals, but she understood that as far as horses historically had been these were below average in size. It was tough to grow a full-size horse, even for them.

Gertrude was delighted with them nonetheless. She must have thought they were huge too.

“Elena, they are beautiful! So gallant, so charismatic! Look at their manes! Their muscles!”

“Gross, why are you looking at their weird veiny necks? Just pick one and let’s ride it.”

“Ride it? You want us to ride together?”

Gertrude gave Elena a dumbfounded, almost childish look, pointing at herself.

It reminded Elena of when they used to play together as kids.

For her to see such an expression from a woman fully dressed in military gear was comical.

Elena giggled. “I’m no good at riding. You need to be my knight and escort me.”

Gertrude’s eyes lit up, with understanding and perhaps anticipation.

“Your Knight–? I mean– Yes of course. Of course, milady!”

Gertrude approached the stables, clearly still flustered by the idea but definitely trying harder to seem gentlemanly. She grabbed a head collar that was hung up near the entrance to a horse’s enclosure and grabbed a slightly old carrot from a basket of horse treats propped up near the enclosure. She made friends with her chosen horse quickly, a brown beast with a perfectly trimmed black mane. It accepted the carrot, and happily munched away while Gertrude leashed it.

Gently, she led the horse out of the enclosure, and fitted it with its designated saddle.

All throughout, the horse was perfectly well behaved, and seemed quite friendly.

Elena watched from afar, the practiced care with which Gertrude equipped the animal.

“It should be ready. I think its name is Glanz, judging by the enclosure.”

At the sound of its name, the horse bent its head toward Gertrude and nuzzled her hat.

“Ah! He’s an affectionate guy. Steady Glanz! You’ll be carrying a princess today.”

Elena laughed. She wondered what her subordinates would think, watching Gertrude playing around with horses like a giddy teen at an aristocratic school. Come to think of it, she did not really know what Gertrude’s reputation was as a soldier. She knew what Inquisitors did, which was to keep the peace within the country. But was Gertrude dark, brooding and severe to her men? With her outfit and appearance, she certainly looked like a woman who could be mean to you.

To the princess, however, she had never been anything but her sweet, chivalrous knight.

Gertrude climbed atop the horse, behind the saddle, and reached her hand out to Elena.

“I’ll help you up.”

Elena took her hand and started to climb on the saddle. She found herself feeling strangely comforted as Gertrude helped her up, first with one hand and then with her other arm, pulling her up and onto the saddle, and then nestling behind her. Her grip was strong; Elena settled against Gertrude’s chest, close enough for warmth to transfer between them. It was comforting. Elena almost felt like she could sleep in Gertrude’s bosom. She almost wanted to ask if Gertrude could just swing her arms around her waist and hold her tightly. But horseback was not the place for that.

“Are you comfortable?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s marvelous.” Elena said. “I hope you are feeling well yourself.”

“I’m splendid, milady. But the saddle is a bit ratty. I’m glad you’re not put off by it.”

“Let’s just head out. How about we go to the forest first, and then ride into town?”

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude led the horse into a gentle trot out of the stables and down the side of the hill.

Elena sighed. “I’m not a child! You can speed up!”

“It’s not about you being a child. Inexperienced riders can hurt themselves; you know?”

At Elena’s request, Gertrude loosened her grip on the reins and kicked her legs gently on the sides of the horse. Glanz worked itself up from its polite trot to a quicker, but still manageable gait. Not exactly the wild, blazing gallop that Elena envisioned, but perhaps more practical for their circumstances. Fully off the grounds of the villa, the pair rode over the rolling fields.

“Still doing ok?” Gertrude asked.

Elena looked up and over her shoulder at her.

“I’ll let you know if I’m unwell; just keep quiet and look cool in the meantime, deal?”

She reached behind herself and stroked her knight’s cheek.

Gertrude laughed.

“As you command, milady.”

True to her word, Gertrude rode with her, looking handsome, saying no more.

Just trusting her, and letting the princess experience the moment.

Elena felt slowly overcome with emotion as they rode.

Far overhead, the sun occupied the center of the sky. A cooling breeze blew through the fields, causing the tall grasses and the flowers to sway. Elena felt the wind caressing her cheeks and hair. Felt the sunlight warming her face. She could see it, touch it, feel it. As far as the eyes could see, the beautiful green field, the forest of tall, clustered oak trees near a little brook, the port town and the sea it straddled, and the farms that supplied the villa with fresh produce and meat.

They were nearing the forest. It was maybe a few kilometers away from the villa.

Those few kilometers that the horse easily put behind them, encompassed Elena’s universe.

Everything she knew; so much of her life. All of it was flying past her on horseback.

Vogelheim was her home. It was beautiful and comfortable. She had spent all of the past seven years in Vogelheim and knew from the moment she grew cognizant of the ways of living, that beside school and any official journeys she had to undertake, Vogelheim would be her four walls and ceiling. She was not unhappy about this, not always. There were always things that surprised her. She had never really ridden horses. She had barely gone out into the waters of the town. Elena was a homebody, a reader, a technology enthusiast, and fawned over by nosy maids.

Elena was not naïve. She knew that everything in the landscape around her was fake.

Everything was organic. Those trees grew; the flowers bloomed; the birds were alive.

But this world was only possible as a feat of the Imbrium Empire’s engineering.

She knew that Vogelheim was a pillar of metal and glass situated 1100 meters beneath the Imbrium Ocean. Outside, everything was dark. There was no sun, there was no sky, there was no wind. There were no beautiful grasses. There was nowhere that horses could live and roam. There was no place where humans could exist without the protection of inventions such as this.

Elena knew all of this. In that moment, she chose to immerse herself in this fantasy. She and her promised protector riding through the fields for a blissful, storybook afternoon.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.1]

In the ocean of her memories a scene percolated to the surface.

She was warm, protected, encouraged. Someone was holding her.

Up above there was a great, massive firmament filled with stars.

At the very center of that sky, that stretched as vast and high as anyone could possibly see, was a circular, glowing blue presence that shone down upon them. It was beautiful and reassuring. It filled her with awe.

“That’s the moon, Elena.”

She was in a woman’s arms.

That woman pointed her toward that infinite sky.

“Someday, you’ll be able to see it, and the stars too. With your own eyes.”

“I can see them now, mommy! I can see them! You’re so silly!”

Elena smiled and laughed.

Her mother looked down at the ground around them.

A chill, an indescribable coldness and dread, entered the scene quite suddenly.

It had no form, but Elena felt gripped by it.

A shadow swept the kind woman away, and it shattered the beautiful sky overhead.

A shadow, bristling with devices to kill people, shining a bright red eye upon her.

Elena anxiety made her toss in just the right way to expose herself and end her dream.

White light crept in through the open window, climbing her bed across the span of a few hours until she finally turned her cheek into it.

On the windowsill, a bird pecked at breadcrumbs that had been carelessly left over from last night’s snack. It ignored a wide glass of wine that had been left alongside the crumbs.

When the bird was done with the crumbs, it chirped as if in protest.

“Ugghhhh.”

Her slumber was disturbed just enough to annoy her; Elena launched a stuffed fish toy from the bed at the window as if it were the true culprit for her disordered sleep. Though the projectile fell just short of its perch, the bird fled nonetheless. Its protests upon departing were far louder than its contented chirping, and finally shook the sleeping woman completely from her reverie.

Elena slowly pushed herself up to a sitting position on her bed.

She absentmindedly brought her hands up to her chest, soaked with sweat.

Chiffon clung to her skin. It was almost see-through. She felt embarrassed.

“Was I really sweating this much?”

It was not just the heat. She had the climate adjusted the night before.

No matter what she did, she was haunted at night.

She was beset by anxious dreams that she forgot as soon as her eyes opened.

“They’re probably about father.”

She sighed deeply.

She was clearly affected by his passing. No matter how much she denied it.

And yet she didn’t know even how she should feel about it.

Her culture and station mandated a period of mourning.

But what kind of mourning was there, for a woman who was isolated already, and could not even witness the death of the father she was meant to mourn? There were stipulations, like wearing black and avoiding public appearances– total nonsense. No one could see her or her choice of attire, and she was already strictly prohibited from “appearing” anywhere.

She brought her hands up to her eyes.

If she were going to cry, it would have been over the injustice of it all.

“I only ever really saw him in dreams; and now I suppose I can only mourn him in them.”

“Milady!”

There was a sudden, startling knock on the door.

“I can hear you mumbling. It’s 10:00 AM! Young ladies have already started their day. It is not good for beauty nor character to make a habit of sleeping in.”

“I’ll be right out.” Elena said half-heartedly.

“The lady Lichtenberg sent an acoustic message an hour ago! You need to get ready!”

At the mention of that surname, the young lady sat bolt upright.

She leaped out of bed with newfound energy.

Her gallant knight was coming!

“Why didn’t you say that first?” She cried out.

There was a deep sigh from the door.

“Because I hoped you would be more responsible of your own accord!”

That nagging voice belonged to the head maid, Bethany Skoll, a moody, dark-haired, over-dressed woman many years Elena’s senior, with eyes hiding behind her spectacles. Like the rest of the maids on Vogelheim, she was tasked not only with serving the princess but ensuring that she carried herself as a proper lady. So she always barking orders and complaints.

Elena put her out of her mind quickly; after all, Gertrude Lichtenberg was visiting!

Elena practically launched herself from bed and ran to the opposite wall. Her bedroom was spacious, and high up in the villa’s main building, so a fresh breeze was blowing through. It felt like an absolutely perfect day, and she wanted to dress for perfection. There was a discrete console attached to the wall that opened the door to her wardrobe. This was, itself, another large room.

There were massive glass containers on either side of her which contained long lines of dresses, blouses, skirts, shorts; another set contained full bodysuits, part bodysuits, swimsuits, sheer bodystockings, along with all manner of brassieres and undergarments. There was an entire display rack at the back that was filled with shoes. At the touch of a button, specific shoes moved down the rack to within arm’s reach. Her dressers also moved on a conveyor, handing her any garment she desired. It could do everything except dressing her up itself, which she preferred.

As she stood amid all her clothes, a series of mirrors and cameras captured a snapshot of her, displayed diagrams of her body on the various surfaces of the wardrobe, and began to calculate “vital data” about her weight, height and other changes. It started openly speaking to her in a robotic voice about perceived changes and dietary suggestions, as well as suggesting outfits to her.

Across every mirrored surface was the same image of a young, slender and slight woman, fair-skinned, with long lilac colored hair and bright indigo eyes. When she stared at this depiction, she saw a baby-faced girl who probably seemed as flighty and frivolous as a fairy at first glance, despite her 25 years and what she considered a series of personal hardships. She frowned at it.

“You can stop with that nonsense!” She called out to the wardrobe program, as if the computer could hear her disdain. “I don’t need you to take care of me. Just shut down already.”

Despite her protests, the data continued to churn.

Elena sighed and returned to her business.

She had all manner of clothes of various different fabrics. While some were synthetic, they were the highest quality. Her chiffon was actual silk, and she almost felt bad for how much she had been sweating in it. She only owned a handful of garments made with real silk. She pondered what she would wear for Gertrude, actively ignoring the computer’s suggestion to don a fluffy gown or a conservative habit. Maybe she would appreciate something slightly sporty today.

“I’ll take her out to the forest and the fields. Yeah; let’s do that!”

From the shoe racks she pulled out a pair of sturdy boots. She set them aside and found a white two-piece bodysuit to wear under a short-sleeved, knee-length blue dress. It was the perfect attire for an active day, she thought. Once dressed, Elana ran out of her room, giggling happily.

In passing, the computer in the closet rated her outfit selection as “unacceptable.”

At that point Elena was no longer listening to it.

She had a single destination in mind.

Every hall in the villa was broad and wide and filled with incredible treasures. The columns, walls and handrail joints had lavish carvings and etchings, depicting creatures and legends, and the mighty sun, Solceanos, who breathed warmth and life into the Ocean. There were beautiful paintings on the walls of landscapes that seemed almost to come from a world of dreams.

On the floor, the tiles formed intricate patterns that were mirrored on the vaulted roofs, which were several meters above. Everything was the warm brown color of real wood while boasting the clean, mirror sheen of polished steel. As she made her way from the second-floor staircase, she saw a variety of young women below in black and white uniforms and black bodysuits, ferrying laundry, cleaning up the lobby area and pushing carts with dishes for lunch.

Giving them no heed, Elena charged past the women with a broad, beaming smile.

“Milady! Please don’t run in the halls!”

Bethany called out to her, but Elana practically glided across the lobby, laughing.

None of the maids were offended. A few even clapped for the lady of the house.

With this beautiful, sealed-off world behind her, Elena pushed on toward freedom.

Through the double wooden doors, Elana exited the villa out into a bright, lush world far broader and grander than even the great halls of Vogelheim Villa. Far overhead, the heavens were clear and blue, with the sun shining almost directly in the middle of the sky. A gentle but delightfully cool breeze blew her hair and tickled her face. She giggled and spread her arms.

Even if it was all made by machine, the effect was so comforting, so human.

From the villa, a stone path split in half a vast field of red and yellow flowers that stretched the entire circumference of the hill that the villa was built upon. Farther afield, Elana could make out the edge of Vogelheim’s beachside resort town to the east, and to the west, the farms and forest. Directly in front of her, the path led to a circular clearing surrounded by pillars, like a ritual site.

Elena hurried to the center of the clearing.

She put her hands on one of the stone pillars, summoning a computer screen into the air.

On the screen, a diagram showed that entry had been made into the lower levels.

And something was coming up the elevator.

Excited, Elana dismissed the screen and stepped back.

Moments later, a warning sounded, and the ground in the center of the clearing split in half. Rather than dust, it was revealed to be a metal hatch, leading down into a corridor of blue LED lined walls with a massive freight elevator in between. This elevator, distinctly mechanical in stark contrast to the rest of the landscape, raised one person and a few drones ferrying crates of goods. They had all come up from a dreadnought that had arrived surreptitiously at the port: the Inquisitorial flagship, The Iron Lady.

Elena’s eyes drew wide, in awe of the visitor who had come for her.

She could not contain her smile.

Nor could she contain the spring in her step.

With an uproarious laugh, she leaped forward and threw her arms around the visitor.

“Gertrude! Oh Gertrude it’s been so long! I’m so happy to see you!”

In return, the visitor returned Elena’s embrace.

“It is a joy to see you as well, Princess.” She said.

Her voice was deep and rich.

“Ah, stop with the formalities. Come here, come here!”

Elana hugged her even tighter.

She drew back only briefly, taking a good look at her friend.

“It’s amazing, Gertrude. You keep going to war, and you come back looking ever more beautiful than you left. What’s your secret? Do you drink the blood of your fallen enemies?”

Gertrude flinched slightly.

“Compared to you, I’m nothing but a homely country girl.”

Elena disagreed strongly.

Gertrude was beautiful. That was part of her charm: her knightly, gallant aesthetic. Gertrude had always been much taller than Elena. She was older by three or four years, so as kids it was always natural for Gertrude to be bigger, but Elena never caught up. Gertrude was tall, strong, long-limbed. She was not particularly gifted with curves. Under her gold and black uniform, with its ornamented shoulders and long cape, and the tall, straight ceremonial hat that she wore, she looked even more physically “boyish.” And yet, she had a naturally regal countenance. Her aquiline nose, olive skin and green eyes were striking. She had her dark hair tied up in a ponytail, bangs parted to either side, framing her face.

“Stop it with the modesty! Oh I could kiss your face Gertrude! I’m so happy!”

In a fit of pique, Elena did hurl herself once more at her friend and kissed her cheek.

Gertrude paused for a second and rubbed the site of the kiss with a demure hand.

“Does it taste like blood, Princess?” She winked, trying to play it off coolly.

Elena huffed. “I’m serious, you know! I’ve been so lonely here! Come on, come on!”

She grabbed Gertrude’s hand, and led her off the elevator platform, toward the villa.

Gertrude did not resist for an instant. She laughed, a bit nervously, as the two of them ran.

Inside the villa, the maids led them around the lobby, past the kitchen and to a private table on a raised deck, overlooking the gardens in the rear of the villa and the vast stretches of flowers on the hill beyond the villa grounds. Gertrude and Elena took seats across from one another on the circular table. Bethany then arrived with a pot of tea and a tray of tiny cinnamon rolls.

“Lunch will be ready soon. In the meantime, please enjoy the tea, Grand Inquisitor.”

Gertrude smiled politely. Elena could tell that her countenance darkened ever slightly, when the too-formal maid referred to her title. It was something she and Elena rarely brought up.

“That would be lovely. Thank you for taking such good care of Elena.” Gertrude said.

“She’s a handful, you know; you should visit more often, it brings her spirits up.”

Elena groaned. “Hey, what are you saying? I’m right here you know. I can hear you.”

Gertrude giggled. Her laugh was the most girlish sound Elena heard her make.

Bethany took her leave, at Elena’s insistence. The two women looked out over the flowers. Then their eyes locked together, and they barely touched their tea. In the silence, Elena had time to think about what it was that she would say and do with Gertrude, what she wanted to talk about. A lot had happened since they last met one another. Elena was happy, boundlessly happy, to see her again. But she was also unprepared. Her head still felt quite scrambled recently.

Trying to buy collect her disparate emotions, Elena asked, “How is soldiery treating you?”

As soon as those words left her lips, they sounded ridiculous.

What a thing to ask a soldier! As if Gertrude was still in the conservatory or cadet school!

Elena’s cheeks turned a little red with this realization.

Gertrude smiled and sat back in her chair, her fingers rubbing on the handle of her teacup.

“Well, the voyages are always long. And I did actually see combat recently.”

“You saw combat?”

Elena was brought back to the moment where she pulled Gertrude’s arm.

She was being playful, dragging Gertrude around.

Had she seen Gertrude flinch at that time?

“Oh Gertrude, you’re hurt aren’t you?”

Elena almost stood up, but Gertrude waved her back down.

“It’s really nothing.” She said. As if to demonstrate she patted her hand over her chest.

Misjudging her own strength, perhaps, she induced herself to flinch a little bit.

“Oh no, Gertrude! What happened?”

A stark terror of a sort Elena never really experienced, entered her life just then.

She knew, intellectually, that soldiers put their lives in danger. As an Inquisitor, Gertrude was a special kind of soldier, whose work was even more abstract to Elena than usual. She was not so naïve as to not understand what it meant. Firing weapons, enduring the attacks of enemies; there had been a massive battle in Ayre recently, too! Her brother was supposed to be there.

Elena knew these things; she had learned them through books and videos.

And yet, nothing brought the danger so close and so real than her friend being injured.

“I wasn’t at the Ayre Reach if that’s what you think. So please don’t worry so much. An Inquisitor wouldn’t be the first choice for frontline troops anyway. I’m not in so much danger.”

Gertrude smiled, but Elena felt she was being coddled and did not like the response.

“So what were you doing then? Please tell me. I deserve to know.”

Elena almost let out the entire contents of her heart right then, to explain why she deserved to know. Gertrude for her part was not resistant. Elena could always turn her with a simple pout.

“I wouldn’t hold it back from you.” Gertrude said. “I was in Bosporus. We had a problem in a university. A group of students stole weapons and took over a building. They were organizing against the curriculum bans that the Central Directorate imposed. So I had to lead my tactical squad to disperse their occupation. We had conflicting directives from the University and the City Government and the Regional Government, so it took us a long time to get anything done and we couldn’t even negotiate. I was hoping we could try to flush them out of the building with flashbangs and a few stun baton strikes. But we had given the enemy a lot of time to dig in, and they had weapons. It got chaotic. Even with my shield, a bullet got me in the ribs.”

She seemed hesitant to say the last sentence. And it had a dramatic effect on Elena.

“What!” Elena shouted. Her eyes started to water. “You were shot Gertrude?”

“It wasn’t a penetrator!” Gertrude said. “It was just a rubber bullet. It was all blunt force.”

Just a rubber bullet? Blunt force? So, the difference between dead and limping around?”

“I’m not limping around. I’m fine.” Gertrude seemed more amused than anything. That attitude was really started to rub Elena, who found this all terribly serious, quite the wrong way.

Elena wiped the few tears that had built up in her eyes. She sighed deeply.

“I wish you had chosen to do anything but go into the military, you know.”

“If I hadn’t gone into the military, I would be a peon who could never see you again.”

Gertrude sounded just a little bitter for the very first time in the conversation.

“I’m sorry.” Elena said. “I’m glad you’re safe. Let’s focus on the positive! Drink up!”

The princess took a sip from her tea. Her beloved inquisitor happily followed suit.

“It’s interesting. What a complex flavor. Nothing like the tea powder we get on ships.”

“I think Bethany’s put a bunch of herbs in it again to try to ‘improve my mood’.”

Elena eyed the teacup suspiciously.

Gertrude let out another laugh.

Looking at her reflection in the clean, clear tea, Elena found herself smiling suddenly.

“I’m so glad you came for my birthday.” Elena said.

She reached out a hand to Gertrude and Gertrude took it.           

Though neither of them could change the positions they occupied in the world, at least, in these kinds of moments, they could cherish the bonds they had nurtured against all odds. A soldier whose duty was to fight her own people; a princess that nobody wanted to see.

Elena felt in her heart that she could put her worries behind her and go back to enjoying the beautiful day she had planned, with her most favorite person in the vast, unknown world beyond Vogelheim.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.10]

“They’re in trouble already, huh? Just what have you unleashed on the seas, Nagavanshi?”

“Capitalism’s contradictions are as inevitable as the surface’s corruption, Premier.”

“Don’t quote Mordecai at me! I’ve read the exact same books that you did.”

Premier Bhavani Jayasankar and Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi stood in the middle of a cozy lounge that the Premier had taken as her office in Thassal. There was a desk, over which stood the seal of the Union: a plow and a sword, crossed over an agrisphere globe.

On a monitor which had been set into the wall, they reviewed footage captured and returned by a spy probe in the Thassalid plain. The Brigand engaged a Leviathan; and using the Cheka, an experimental suit, they annihilated it completely. While the footage was rough and grainy, the speedy objects and their terrifying, superhuman battle were captured enough for casual reference.

“Well, congratulations. All your scheming really payed off.”

Jayasankar shut off the monitor with the footage playing. She sighed deeply.

“I can scarcely believe how far and how thoroughly I’ve been deceived by you.”

Nagavanshi bowed her head. “I didn’t realize you would take it so personally.”

“Don’t play dumb with me! After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me so terribly all of the time. Ugh; this is going to be so much work, you know? All those ships, food, people; all that is going into war instead of working hard. On a growth year for the Plan too! This is so bad for my reputation.”

 “If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t take me that long to set up. As a matter of fact, the previous regime was researching similar capabilities. I finished what they started, ultimately.”

“Really? Ahwalia and all those decaying mummies came up with this?”

“I didn’t say it was going well or rapidly, but it was not entirely my doing.”

“What did they have ready? How much had they worked on this before the coup?”

When Nagavanshi and Jayasankar came together, there was no topic they could not casually discuss; even something as grave as the continuing legacy of of the nation’s founding figures, like ex-Premier Ahwalia. Nagavanshi and then-Justice Minister Jayasankar disagreed with him politically and economically. And they managed to make that disagreement spread to the right people. Ahwali was ultimately made to disappear for Jayasankar’s benefit; the rest was history.

“Before our intervention, they had worked on the hull.” Nagavanshi said. “It was originally going to be a triple-height hauler and icebreaker. They were hoping to be able to open a route to the Cogitum Ocean through the southern ice caps. I can only speculate as to the costs. The hull was actually huge, Bhavani: the Brigand is only half the size of its forebear.”

“So it was part of Op. Red Star.” Jayasankar said. “We were literally starving for this.”

Five years ago, the very two people scheming in this room had unearthed a certain scheme themselves.

“All of this is beside the point, Parvati! You lied! You lied to me! For so long, too!”

Jayasankar pointed her finger at Nagavanshi with a childishly petulant expression.

“I embellished the truth because frankly, it is more effective to work without worrying you about it.” Nagavanshi replied calmly. “Most of the militarizing work on the hull was done in the past 6 months. I started working on this as a military venture because of the border skirmishes. And before you cry any more, I did everything with military resources. I did not divert a single credit worth of Plan resources. So don’t even think about comparing it to Plan Red Star, okay?”

“I wasn’t going to. I don’t want to think about Ahwalia at all. I’m thinking about us.”

Jayasankar sat down behind her desk and laid all the way back that she could on her chair.

She looked up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I wonder if I would just be better off up there.”

Nagavanshi raised her eyebrows, clearly confused by the sudden change in the topic.

“You’d be dead, obviously.”

“You don’t want me to die?” They locked eyes briefly.

Nagavanshi closed and opened her fists, balled up at her sides. She narrowed her eyes.

“If this is a joke you’re making, I’m not amused by it.”

Jayasankar laughed. “Good response! You’ve saved yourself from a purge just then!”

Nagavanshi rolled her eyes. “I am as always grateful for your many mercies, Premier.”

“You’re a demon, you know that? I take care of you, and this is how you repay me.”

“I’m grateful for your attention, but work is work.” Nagavanshi shrugged.

Jayasankar laughed. She felt eerie. All she could do was tease Nagavanshi. She had so much responsibility over so many people and over all of their needs. Clearly, she wouldn’t have ever done what Nagavanshi suggested. Only Nagavanshi had the dark intellect for this sort of thing. The right combination of power, access, ambition and lack of accountability to others.

Deep down, Jayasankar had an ingrained fear of the present circumstances. She hardly wanted to indulge the irony of the situation she had found herself in. After all, Ahwalia had been deposed for the same issues: diverting resources to secret projects at the expense of the people. He and his cohort had their own dreams; they believed they were in the right too. If they had their way, there would have still been a future for the Union. It might have even been a more utopic future than that which Jayasankar promised. There was only one difference between them. Nagavanshi and Jayasankar, fundamentally, would not sacrifice the many for a few.

Despite everything, Jayasankar trusted Nagavanshi to agree with her on that principle.

They would gladly throw a few people into the fire, here and there, to spare the multitude.

Operation Red Star had been frighteningly ambitious. It envisioned a complete reorganization of the Union into an automated society unfettered in technological growth. A second revolution, quietly happening behind closed doors, siphoning food, steel and monies for its ultimate purpose. It was a dream only capable of coming to fruition in the Union, because at that time the Union was nothing if not dreams. It was an overpopulated, under-producing hole in the ground where everyone worked their hardest, and for years, it felt like tragedy after tragedy just set them back.

Until she saw it with her own eyes, Jayasankar could have never realized the evil that nestled still in the hearts of men and women in their precious Union. In five years of being silently freed from this evil, her people were finally thriving a bit. And now, everything was in jeopardy again. She really was helpless. And worse, she could not really tell anyone the full story.

Maybe, sometimes, it was good to be lied to.

Maybe it was even liberating to be lied to.

She couldn’t say such a thing as that to Nagavanshi.

For those reasons; and for others too.

So instead, Jayasankar played the conceited character she knew Nagavanshi wanted to see.

“Tell me this. Would your plan have survived the Emperor being alive right now?”

Nagavanshi, she knew, could take any amount of grief that was launched her way.

“I would have simply use different rhetorical tactics. In the end, it wouldn’t change all the work I had already done to operate within the Empire. There would have been ample opportunity. Buren was already preparing to revolt. I was already preparing to help them. It was inevitable.”

“And it was necessary to lie to me for it to work? For months? I couldn’t have helped?”

“You’ve manipulated me before, so consider it payback. Anyway, If I came to you with no data, no ship, no plan, would you approve of all the work? Or would you say, ‘it’s a Plan Year.’?”

Once more, their gazes met with a conviction that exceeded any casual observation.

Jayasankar smiled so freely in response that it compelled Nagavanshi to smile back a little.

“Fair enough Parvati! You’re right. I concede that point.” Jayasankar said. “But I know this can’t have just been about Buren. I may agree with the plan, but I must unearth its intention.”

“Have you considered that I am doing this to protect you?” Nagavanshi crossed her arms.

“Protecting me? You’re not protecting me! You’re putting me in a vice! We’re at war, it’s supposed to be a growth year; I’ll look terrible for this! When I think about Retainment I–”

Nagavanshi finally laughed. “All of a sudden, you are worried about the vote to Retain?”

“You’ve been going around behind my back, and you ask if I’m worried?” Jayasankar grumbled. “Let me ask you this then, my beautiful, incorruptible guardian angel. With all your conspiracies and your little agents floating out there — are you gunning for the Premiership?”

“What are you saying? Of course not!” Nagavanshi snapped back, clearly flustered.

“Am I supposed to think you’re not after my power?” Jayasankar winked at the Commissar.

“You’re so frustrating! We’re in this together! What do I have to do to show you that?”

Jayasankar loved Nagavanshi’s response. She relished being able to talk to her like this.

She leaned forward on the desk, steepling her fingers and delivering an icy glare.

Nagavanshi leaned back slightly as if she were afraid of being sucked in by the Premier.

“Tell me about your lover in the Empire. Was she any good? Was she better than me? There must be a reason that you did all of this behind my back, after all. And to think, I’ve always been here when you needed comfort. I’m honestly offended you think so cheaply about me!”

Jayasankar finally delivered her bathetic salvo, and Nagavanshi groaned at the contents.

She looked for a moment like she was hitting the limits of her exasperation.

“Sorry to squash your perverted fantasies, but the person I referenced is someone I admire in a way that is not simply sexual. But a transactional cad such as you wouldn’t understand. I can’t believe that you are acting like this, and frankly, I’m offput by your sudden possessiveness.”

Her voice trembled very slightly as she delivered the last line. She realized something.

Jayasankar knew exactly the thing Nagavanshi was thinking about.

The Premier couldn’t help but to feel a thrill at the rising tension.

“Sometimes, Parvati, I really hate your guts.” Jayasankar said, her voice turning sultry.

At this, the Commissar-General seemed animated by a different impulse than before.

Nagavanshi hovered close to Jayasankar’s desk, leaning forward. Closer than they had been in an exceptionally long time. The Commissar’s gentle breath blew right over the Premier’s lips. “It’s because you can hate me that our relationship works so well. So hate me with all your being.”

Her eyes and voice grew eerily intense. Jayasankar felt a thrill rising up in her own chest.

“You’re a real piece of work, Commissar-General.” Jayasankar said, leaning closer as well.

Premier, if you’re so afraid, angry, and upset at me. Then you should punish me for it.”

Suddenly, Jayasankar lifted a hand to Nagavanshi’s cheek and put her thumb right into her mouth, pressing on her tongue. Even Nagavanshi was surprised. She moaned but offered no resistance. “I’ve been wanting to teach you a lesson.” Jayasankar said. She pulled Parvati closer.

In an instant, she was on top of her. This, too, was all part of their understanding.

Even in the darkest times they at least had this form of catharsis — and companionship.


The Great Ayre Reach on the Northern Imbrium Ocean was a colder, shallower slice of water than most of the Imperial forces were used to living in. Operating in the photic zone, they could see bright blue water and in places, at times, even the light of Solceanos playing upon the ceiling of their ambitions: the surface of the ocean, and the forbidden world that was past the water.

A trio of engineering frigates was hard at work cementing Imperial control of Ayre.

Two of them laid down a massive laser relay tower.

A third laid down cable connecting the tower to its counterpart closer to Palatine.

When the tower activated, the Grand Fleet renewed its connection to the network that joined much of the rest of the Empire, allowing them to send and receive much higher bandwidth communications than before. It was this feat that allowed Erich von Fueller to finally speak to his subordinates after many long days of campaign away from home against the Republic.

Erich von Fueller stood alone on the bridge of the Irmingard, mother ship to an entire class of new dreadnoughts. He had cleared the bridge, and all of his officers dutifully left him, without a single remark. All of them saluted him, paid him respect as Grand Admiral of the Fleet, and went on their way. He had ceased to accept the title of “Prince” to refer to himself. In his mind there was no longer any Empire, for what had held the semblance of Empire they once believed in was the shadow of his father’s exploits. He was dead, and so was the Empire. There was only territory, and the bickering landlords scheming to improve their own holdings.

“It was always going to be this way.”

When Konstantin von Fueller slaughtered Emperor Nocht II, he called out to all those who had stood on the sidelines of his war: “You are free to challenge me, as I challenged him!” At that moment, not a soul dared to step forward and fight him. But that idea had lingered in the currents.

His father had demonstrated that the Emperor was not all-powerful. He could be usurped.

Now, the man who seeded this idea had passed on, choking on his own blood and bile.

It would not be long before the disparate states of the Empire turned on each other.

“In his absence, everyone will challenge me. Like him, I now welcome it.”

He would not build an Empire over the rubble. He had other ideas.

An encrypted laser communication connected Erich to a subordinate on the video screen.

A seemingly youthful woman, her glasses reflecting the light of the video screen.

She was in a dark place, but all manner of terrifying things could be inferred from the shadows in the background. Tubes containing mutilated things; machines of unknown description. Amid all of this, a woman, her hair in a long, functional ponytail, dressed in a bodysuit and coat.

“Grand Admiral, congratulations on a successful campaign.” She said in a sweet voice.

“It’s no accomplishment. The Empire and Republic trade this piece of the Imbrium often. Doubtless they will take it back when I’ve ceased to pay attention to it.” Erich said in response.

His tone was untroubled, sober. He was calm. His mind was truly clear.

“If I might be so bold as to say, your humility is your most charming quality.”

Erich felt almost annoyed. “And your worst quality is all the false flattery.”

Mocking him, the woman made a face as though she had been struck and rendered docile.

“Well. It was you who demanded to speak to me. How may I serve you then, Herr Fuhrer?”

Her lips turned back into a grin as soon as the phrase left her mouth.

“I will soon return to Palatine, and from there I will cross into Bosporus. I will be expecting the timely delivery of your tributes. Will the Jagdkaiser be ready? Will the rest of your promises?”

“Everything will be ready, my lord. As certain as the sun rising.”

“This may surprise you, but I do not care where the sun goes or doesn’t. Therefore you would do well to understand that my tolerance toward you will end if my demands go unmet.”

Erich’s voice remained clear and confident, but his counterpart was unmoved.

“I understand. But taking a long view, all my predecessors died violently, yet the Sunlight Foundation remains. I can surpass this one body; I know one day, a form of me will see the Sun.”

She waved at him.

“But I will uphold my end, Fuhrer. May you one day bask in the light of the Sun.”

With the Foundation’s common parting words, the laser connection cut off.

Erich was suspicious, but he could do nothing but trust her, despite everything.

He allowed himself the briefest sigh. No one was watching him.

Soon he would have the power to never rely on snakes like her again.

He would continue with the plan. Lead a small fleet to Palatine, Bosporus, Volgia. Augment his power along the way with the innovations from his disdained vassals. Make a show of force. Soon, the Sunlight Foundation, the Inquisition, the Church of Solceanos: none would matter. All of them would fall. The world would be transformed. And he would be its Fuhrer.

At his bidding, a second connection traveled out of the Irmingard and made its way through the relays back to Palatine. His call was answered by a communications officer in Vogelheim, a young woman in servant’s outfit, rather than a military uniform. An apron and frilly cap; but the large headset for communications was clearly visible too. She bowed gently when she saw him.

“Tell Lieutenant Patroscu to make sure my sister’s birthday guests find their way easily.”

On the other end, the maid bowed her head once more in acknowledgment.

Erich cut off the feed. He had no emotion about what had transpired, or what would.

“Mind if I come in, milord?”

A sweet, soft voice came from the door to the bridge.

“You’re always welcome in, Carthus.” Erich said. “I was about to declare a 4-hour rest.”

Erich turned fully around from the console to meet the angelic young man coming in. Behind him the bridge door locked, with an access only the two of them possessed. The Prince looked over his guest, with his long, bright blond hair done up, and his green eyes open and inviting. The Prince was captivated with him, even when he wore just the simple blue Grand Fleet uniform. The young men stood before the throne replica on the bridge, and Carthus von Skarsgaard strongly embraced the Prince who stood like a pillar before him, offering no reciprocation but a small smile. None was needed, as the pair understood the character of the other perfectly.

“Since you’re declaring a rest, would I be able to sing for you today?”

“I would love that. I haven’t had a moment’s peace in ages.”

“I knew it. You haven’t rested at all since we left Palatine.”

Carthus got behind the taller Erich and reached over his cape to squeeze his shoulders.

Erich laughed. “Stop it, that’s not what I need from you. Perhaps soon.”

“Whatever you wish.”

He continued to hold on to Erich from behind, sinking his soft face into the Prince’s back.

“May I confess to something grave, milord?”

“Anything. You can say anything you want to me. You know this.”

“Erich, I do not wish to rule over Skarsgaard when all of this is over.”

Carthus sighed deeply. As a nobleman, that was an answer to a question that Erich’s actions had implicitly posed to him and challenged him with. It was an answer that meant dishonorable failure for any of the Empire’s top families. It was an affront to his ancestors, and an abdication of a holy duty that Emperor Nocht had given his family hundreds of generations ago.

But Emperor Nocht was dead. Emperor von Fueller was dead. And there were no Gods in heaven nor holy duties left on Earth. For the first time in weeks, Erich felt truly, transcendentally happy. He reached to his flank and took Carthus’ hand in his own. Carthus couldn’t see his face, but Erich was smiling. He was smiling so broadly and openly that he could almost cry.

“Thank you, Carthus. In the future I will create, neither Skarsgaard nor Fueller will weigh us down anymore. You will be something far greater than an Imperial Duke. I promise you.”

Without looking at the other’s eyes, the two men sealed their pact through those held hands.


In a dim, humid room in an undisclosed part of Imbria, the Sovereign of the Sunlight Foundation was both delighted and bothered by her conversation with the future Fuhrer of the Imperium. In the vastness of her thought, she found his behavior amusing. A tin-pot dictator like all of the rest who had come before him. He thought himself the most novel, of course.

The Sovereign had seen plenty of men just like him.

What bothered her then, more than anything, was that unlike with those men, whom she could safely ignore, she had to cooperate with Erich Fueller. This time, she could not simply stand idle and watch the irrelevant political histories of Imbria continue to turn. For the good of not just Imbria, but all of Aer, it was necessary — necessary ­— for the Empire to retain its unity and power. Though she abhorred the unproductive game of politics, she would have to play it, to save science and the future.

Behind her, there was the sound of a sliding door.

“I am leaving for the Northern Imbrium. I want to render a complaint.”

The Sovereign turned around to greet her guest. She found a familiar young woman, also shrouded in the dim, wet shadows of the laboratory. She was eyeing the test subjects with open disdain. The Sovereign’s present fixation was with exotic leviathans, and there were a great many, fetal and adult, large and small, complete or in pieces, in tubes and machines around her.

“Are you taking Tigris with you?” asked the Sovereign.

“Yes I am. We make a good team. About my complaint–”

“Go on. Actionable feedback is the lifeblood of any management structure.”

At this, her subordinate groaned openly at her. “Quit being coy. I sat on your inbound communication with Erich von Fueller. Supplying him with intelligence is bad enough. I cannot in good conscience see us supplying him with weapons too. What are you doing, Yangtze?”

Yangtze spread her lips in a wide, beaming smile.

Her subordinate narrowed her eyes in return.

“Euphrates, what I’m giving him is paltry compared to the scope of our power. It’s just an insurance policy to maintain the status quo in a chaotic time. I share your distaste for politics. Sometimes the only way to remain neutral, is to create the conditions for neutrality. We need to hedge our bets on an outcome to this war, if we’re not going to outright interfere.”

“I disagree; and I’ll stop at disagreeing. But you must reform your ideas.”

“Ooh, scary. Am I being threatened right now, I wonder?”

Euphrates made an irritated noise. She crossed her arms. “You are our Sovereign, and we want to trust your decisions, Yangtze. That has become harder for all of us to do lately. Rethink things; please.”

She turned around to leave, having had the last word. But the Sovereign called to her again.

“Euphrates, if you’re going to the Northern Imbrium, I’d like you to do something for me.”

“I’m not your errand-girl. You can get one of your Imperial flunkies to do it for you.”

“You’re so cold to me now! We used to be friends; you know?”

Sovereign Yangtze put on an aggrieved face, hugging herself as if shivering with pain.

Across the room, Euphrates was unmoved. She did not even turn around to see her talking.

“You and I have been peers. Don’t misunderstand. I put the Foundation first.”

“You and Tigris have been quite independent of late.” The Sovereign said.

Her tone of voice had changed, and Euphrates clearly noticed.

“We uphold the duties that others are neglecting. Is that all it takes to lose your trust?”

“Trust has to go both ways. Do something simple for me, and I’ll consider your advice as coming from a peer and not, say, a saboteur, or a usurper. How do you respond to that, friend?”

Yangtze said this casually, but she knew the barb had bitten under Euphrates’ stone skin.

Euphrates turned fully around, and coolly ran her hands back over her short, wavy hair.

“Yangtze– Sovereign. I take umbrage at having my loyalty tested again after everything I’ve done for you. I’ll acquiesce, but only to show my commitment to keeping the peace. What do you want?”

“Thank you for being so considerate.” Yangtze raised her hand toward one of the monitors hovering behind her. She thought about what she wanted it to show, and the monitor responded, and showed Euphrates a station in what was now called the Palatinate or Palatine, in North Imbria. “I want you to leak the location of this place to a Republic spy in North Imbria. She’ll do the rest.”

“I think I know who you mean. I’m not going to contact her directly, however.”

“Whatever you think will be most effective.”

“I see. Should I also leak the contents of Vogelheim to her? She’ll be interested to hear it.”

“You’ve done your homework!” Yangtze clapped her hands. “Indeed, it’s part and parcel. I trust your judgment and your intellect. Craft a suitable scenario to lead that woman to Vogelheim.”

“I’ll take care of it. Though I don’t relish continuing to participate in your political games.” Euphrates said. “But I’m glad you’re at least playing multiple sides. Ultimately my fear was that you had become obsessed with a fascist Imbrium. My criticism is not rescinded, but I feel better.”

“I’d never expect you to shut up about something so easily, don’t worry.”

Yangtze turned her back on Euphrates and made a gesture with her hands for her to leave.

“Acknowledged, Sovereign.”

Euphrates again turned, and this time departed the room through the sliding bulkhead.

Yangtze cracked up in a smile, laughing a bit at the situation.

“They’ve all become so ignorant. The world truly rests on my shoulders.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.9]

“No casualties, so I’ll call that a victory. Tell Nakara to head to the infirmary.”

Captain Korabiskaya released a profoundly weary sigh, dropping back from the edge of her chair and practically melting into the backrest. Around the Bridge there was a sense of elation. Various readouts on the different stations had tracked the battle between the Cheka and the enemy, providing diagnostics and predictions. Algorithms calculated the flow of combat and offered reams of data for the bridge crew to parse through and interpret. Much of it had not been necessary.

Now that victory had been secured, and everyone was safe, most of the bridge crew had a joyful energy to their activities. Semyonova relayed orders for the sailors to resume their scheduled work, and she contacted Nakara personally to send her off to the infirmary, on the Captain’s orders; meanwhile officers like Fatima relaxed, since their active participation had ended. Kamarik was focused on monitoring the ship and programming the autopilot’s route. On the very front of the bridge, the gas gunners practically dropped over their gun stations with heavy, relieved breaths.

At Ulyana’s side, a certain cat-eared young woman cleared her throat softly.

“I admit you carried yourself, quite decently.” Commissar Bashara said. She then sighed herself. “That being said, I believe you were being too lax on the crew with the schedule for departure. We should have been fully combat ready thirty minutes ago, not an hour from now.”

“I know, and you’re right.”

Ulyana, metaphorically putting down her Captain’s hat and becoming “Yana” once more, met the Commissar’s eyes. Aaliyah looked surprised to see her expression. Perhaps she thought there would be an argument brewing. But Yana knew that she was being too coddling. Everything was in a remarkable chaos after disembarking, and she had felt too safe in Union waters, so she did not put down her fist and correct everything. She had wanted this launch to be relaxed and comfortable, for a crew that would feel little comfort in the months to come. She was wrong.

“I wanted to give everyone time to get their bearings. I thought we had the space for it.”

“Even the Union’s waters can be breached by enemies.” Aaliyah said. “But I understand.”

For a moment, the two of them looked at one another, and then broke off their eye contact.

“Don’t get me wrong. I won’t judge you too harshly now. But be mindful of yourself.”

Aaliyah said that, staring at a wall.

“I’m getting what I deserve. But do also think of the crew’s morale when criticizing me.”

Ulyana said this, facing an entirely different wall.

“Fair enough.”

The two of them said this almost at once and they both seemed put off by the synchronicity.

Thankfully, their moment was defused almost immediately.

“Hey Captain!”

From below, the uniquely aggravating voice of Alex Geninov sounded.

“Aren’t you going to reprimand that pilot? She disobeyed orders.”

There was a smug look on her face that Yana did not like at all.

“I’ve decided to let her off easy for doing your job.” Yana said. “It’s none of your concern.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed with consternation, but she then turned back around to her station.

“It’s going to be a challenge turning this assortment into a crew.” Yana lamented. She spoke in a low voice such that it was only heard by her and the Commissar sitting beside her.

She hoped she could confide in her new Commissar — like she had once confided in Nagavanshi.

Her Commissar responded in the same volume. She did not betray the little trust Yana had granted. Despite the harshness of the words she would say, her whispers spoke to her cooperation.

“They were each handpicked by the Commissar-General for their talents, as were you. She would not have chosen this roster if she didn’t believe in each of us. I have my doubts about some people as well.” Aaliyah shook her head. She really made that some people sound as accusatory as possible. “But every officer on this crew has achievements and skills. Geninov might look like an annoying twerp, but she proved herself a prodigy in Thassal. And, then you, yourself–”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t finish that sentence.” Yana said, her tone turning severe.

“Duly noted, Captain.” Aaliyah said. Her own tone of voice was quite prickly.

That being said, Yana was happy that she was able to whisper to her when she wanted to. That she had a Commissar who would keep secrets with her, despite her criticisms and objections.

And so, despite the shaky footing in which their journey had begun, the Brigand had set off. It had overcome its first obstacle and proven it could survive a battle out at sea.

For certain definitions of proven, and for certain definitions of a battle.

At this point they were several kilometers from Thassal.

There was no way that they would turn back. Yana knew this, she was prepared for it. And she had no desire to do so. She told herself that she would rather die at sea than return, again a failure. Again proving what Aaliyah clearly thought, what most people who heard about her assignment probably thought: that she was incapable, and that she was bound to fail.

So she sat back in the Captain’s chair of a fully crewed bridge.

Again, looking down at all the beautiful faces of the officers under her command.

Each of them dragging their own histories onto this vessel.

Perhaps, like her, they were working to surpass their ignominy.


Everyone in the hangar was ordered to return to work after being given fifteen minutes to cool off, which many of them spent either trying to congratulate Murati or get a closer look at the Cheka. Once the sailors returned to their work, Murati herself was ordered to the infirmary. Her skin was brimming with excess energy and anxiety, as she came down from the stress of being out in the suit. Despite this, she felt physically fit, but she did not object to getting herself checked out.

With Karuniya close at her side, she left the hangar, feeling the vibrations of the ship through her feet in the cramped corridors between Engineering and the elevator up to the infirmary. Between every pod there were corridors, some for traversal, others exclusively for accessibility to allow maintenance work on various systems. These were divided off by bulkhead doors.

“Karu, how did you find the rest of the ship?” Murati asked.

Karuniya shrugged. “It’s a ship. Not a bad one, but it’s no pleasure cruise.”

“Hey! Wait up a moment, Lieutenant– I mean, Murati!”

Karuniya and Murati turned around to find Gunther running up through the halls.

He was panting, but he had a smile on his face that suggested great satisfaction.

“I’ve got all your combat data.” He paused to breathe. “You were wild out there, Murati.”

“It was all the machine, to be honest.” Murati said.

“She’s too modest.” Karuniya said. “We haven’t met. I’m Karuniya Nakara.”

Murati was shocked to hear that surname in that place.

Karuniya grinned devilishly as she extended her hand to shake Gunther’s.

“Ah, are you sisters or something?” He asked, genuinely and amicably.

At that, Karuniya burst out laughing in Gunther’s face. He shrank back, confused.

“She’s neither my sister, nor is that her real surname! Gunther, this is my fiancé, Karuniya Maharapratham. She’s taking you for a fool right now, but she’s actually our Science Officer.”

Murati rectified the situation quickly, but that did not stop Karuniya’s impish behavior.

Sisters, really, how sheltered can you be?” She mumbled to herself, laughing still.

“Cut me some slack! It’s not like I’ve memorized the roster.” Gunther said helplessly.

“Did you really not think ‘wife’? Come on, we don’t look anything alike.”

“Listen, I’m not psychic okay?”

Murati slapped her palm over her own face, groaning audibly.

“Gunther, ignore her for a bit–”

“–Wow, rude,”

“I wanted to ask you something about the Cheka, actually.”

Gunther side eyed Karuniya but then turned all his attention to Murati.

“I welcome changing the subject! What do you wanna know?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about the ERS function? It saved my life.”

“ERS, huh?”

Gunther crossed his arms. He looked troubled. Murati had not expected that response.

It was not like when he described every other exciting feature of the Cheka.

“You say you activated the ERS? That would explain the power spikes.”

“You really couldn’t have missed it if you looked at the data.” She said.

Scratching his head and thinking for a moment, Gunther sighed. He looked helpless again.

“This is strange. I really don’t know; see, the ERS was supposed to be dummied out.”

“Dummied out?” Karuniya asked, inserting herself into the conversation.

“Do you know what that means?” Murati asked her.

“Of course I do.” Karuniya shrugged.

“Well, ok then. Why are you asking? Gunther, go on.”

Behind her, Karuniya stuck out her tongue.

Gunther nodded his head. He rubbed his hands together.

Nervous. Thinking on his words.

“So, we didn’t remove all the mechanisms for it, it was just supposed to be removed from the software. See, the ERS is connected to the verniers, and the pumps and turbines; it builds a reserve of additional power as the verniers and turbines run, power that can be dumped through the suit. We found that the engine and batteries can’t take running with that extra power for very long. I would strongly advise you not to use it in the future. I can’t really dummy it out any more than it is without ripping the Cheka apart, and if you found it useful, then that’s great, but be careful.”

“I understand.”

Murati had been saved by that ERS feature.

To think that if it had been truly dummied out, she might have become Leviathan food.

In the future, she would have a team to work with. She wouldn’t be out there alone.

So it was less of an imperative for her own suit to have so much power.

She could not promise Gunther to avoid it entirely, however.

Not after seeing it in action.

“I’ll be careful.”

“Thank you. You were going to the infirmary, right? I’ll leave you to it.”

He made an awkward smile at Karuniya.

“Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

“Sure.”

She winked at him, but he turned around and left so quickly he may not have seen it.

“He’s a good guy.” Murati said. “Honest, straightforward and hardworking.”

“Yeah, he seems straightforward alright.” Karuniya said, chuckling to herself.

Murati frowned helplessly. “I see you woke up today to cause problems on purpose.”

At the end of one of the halls they took an elevator up to commons.

Every ship had some social areas, and the one they arrived at was quite lively as there were several sailors who were not called upon to work just yet. While it was less broad and open than the hangar, it had a higher ceiling than the corridors and was far less cramped than many other rooms. This particular room was designed to hold several dozen people carousing and having fun. It was navy blue with adjustable lighting that could fit many different moods, whether the crew was celebrating or relaxing. There were group tables and couches for the social butterflies; game tables that could be adjusted for pool, ping pong or other physical games; minicomputers preloaded with board games like chess as well as a few other approved diversions; and a small stage where a few people could sing songs or put on shows, or where someone could give a speech to a crowd.

“This is lovely. It’s the kind of atmosphere you’d expect at a nice bar.” Murati said.

“You’re right. Kind of reminds me of the places we snuck off to in school.” Karuniya said.

Murati grinned. “We have to drop by later. I want to continue my ping pong streak on you.”

“Oh ho! So high and mighty when it’s a physical game, Murati Nakara. And yet, you are fully aware that if it were chess, you would be begging for mercy.” Karuniya replied, cackling.

The two of them walked past the social space, and across a hallway past the mess. As they walked they examined this important location. There were long, tight row tables that seated many people. Box lunches were cooked and set out on the counters that fenced out the kitchen, to be picked up by whoever desired one. There were also biscuits and broth set out for anyone. Meal allotments determined the amount of biscuits and broth any given person was entitled to eat. In addition to the basics of bread and broth, everyone could get a breakfast sandwich and a lunchbox.

Dinner was their one big, nice meal.

A motivating force for getting through your day.

At that moment, however, there were very few people in the mess.

Murati expected this would be the only time she would see it so empty.

Past the mess and closer to the bulkhead into the Command Pod was the infirmary. It was divided into two rooms across from one another in the hall: there was a larger emergency room with forty beds, and then there was the examination room, which had two curtained off beds and the laboratory, medicine vault and private room of the doctor on-board.

When Murati crossed the threshold into the doctor’s office, the first thing she saw was an open door into a storage space full of medicines in safe containers, bags of nondescript fluids and chemicals, and boxes of medical devices and special equipment. A second, closed door beside it likely led to the doctor’s private room. The rest of the office was unremarkable. There were the beds, the examination table with its cushioned, adjustable surfaces, a sink with running water, and cabinets for the doctor’s tools.

Then there was the doctor, seated on a stool and working on something on the counters.

“Welcome! Murati Nakara, I presume? And does this young woman want a checkup too?”

She welcomed the two of them to her side.

The Doctor looked immediately like quite a character.

A tall, thin woman with a pleasantly deep voice, her face was fair and fine-featured. Her ice blue lipstick and eyeshadow gave her a mature air — Murati felt that she was older than she and Karu. Her hair was also pretty novel as it was colored two tones: an icy, almost white light blue and a darker blue. Some of it was tied behind the back of her head, and the rest was clipped to the sides with a pair of colorful pins.

While her mature looks, white coat and button-down uniform gave the impression of elegance and professionalism, her mannerisms were anxious and flighty. She moved her hands quite freely as she talked, and she had a smile that was perhaps a bit too excited.

On the counter behind her, she had several little cases that she had been preparing before Murati and Karuniya stepped into the room. Murati was familiar with them: they were hormone treatment kits.

“I’m Doctor Winfreda Kappel.” She vigorously shook Murati’s hands, and Karuniya’s as well. “I actually prepared this for you! I’ve been sorting everyone’s medications! It’s so fun seeing how well-stocked this ship is. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a ship with such a king’s ransom of drugs and chemicals! We’ve got prescriptions for everything. I can’t wait to care for all of you.”

She talked quickly, and after the handshakes, thrust a hormone kit into Murati’s hands.

“And by any chance, is this your partner Maharapratham?” She asked.

Karuniya seemed a bit taken aback. Perhaps not so much by the contents of the Doctor’s words as much as the overwhelming energy with which they were delivered to her.

“I am indeed! I suppose that is in the roster?” She said, suddenly shy.

“It sure is! I’ve been reading through everyone’s files. Here, this is for you!”

She pushed a little generic medicine kit into Karuniya’s hands.

“Contraceptives and sexual enhancers. If you need more, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Dr. Kappel had a triumphant look to her face, while Karuniya turned quite red.

“Hey– Umm– Well, t-t-thanks. But this is a lot to take in?” Karuniya stammered.

Murati could hardly look at the kit without feeling somewhat exposed as well.

For her part, Dr. Kappel’s mood was not darkened in the slightest.

“Nonsense! Any capable, open-minded doctor knows that sexual intercourse will happen on ships. Especially when it comes to two people who arrive on the ship as civil partners. I want it to be safe and enjoyable sex. Better to encourage good, safe sex, than to deny your needs!”

“I’ve got to wonder if you know this from experience–”

“What was that dear?”

Karuniya was mumbling in a defeated tone of voice. Dr. Kappel continued to smile.

“Nothing at all ma’am. Thanks. You’re right, I suppose.”

Neither Karuniya nor Murati were puritans whatsoever, but Murati felt terribly awkward openly discussing such things with a third party. Particularly a third party who was this apparently eager about it. And from the look on her fiancé’s face she could tell Karuniya shared this feeling.

That being said, there was no defeating this Dr. Kappel.

Her energy was simply irrepressible.

“Ma’am, I’d like to get checked up so I can go up to the bridge.” Murati said. “Karuniya is accompanying me because we’re headed the same direction. I don’t feel that I’m hurt, so–”

“Indeed, indeed! I will distract you no longer. Come here, Lieutenant!”

Dr. Kappel stood up and took Murati by the arms and pressed against her back.

She made her stretch a few different ways, and began to feel her muscles, to pat down her sides, to bend her wrists, to exert a firm grip on various parts of her limbs and trunk. She crouched in front of Murati and made her move her knees and legs and observed. The Doctor had all kinds of little tests she made Murati do and watched keenly whenever Murati accomplished them.

While this transpired, Karuniya watched with growing indignation.

Finally, the Doctor stopped back, and took one last look at Murati up and down.

“My, the Lieutenant’s quite a specimen!” Dr. Kappel winked at Karuniya. “Great catch.”

Karuniya’s tone began to fit her severe expression. “Uh, excuse me?”

Rolling on from that with no apparent acknowledgment, the Doctor turned back to Murati.

“You are healthy, but I’m sure you’ll be feeling slightly nauseous. Take care when you eat.”

“I’m feeling slightly nauseous right now.” Murati lamented.

All the stretching, if anything, made her feel even worse and more tired out.

“I shall keep you no longer. It was wonderful to meet you two. Do come again!”

Dr. Kappel waved goodbye and immediately turned around and skipped back inside the medicine vault, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the rows upon rows of medications and chemicals to which she had access. She had floated away in an instant, as if the meeting were adjourned the moment that her interest finally wavered. One word came to Murati’s mind right then: blitzkrieg.

There were all kinds of people aboard the Brigand, and some of them were menaces.

Karuniya grabbed hold of Murati’s hand and instantly stormed out of the Doctor’s office.

“What the hell is wrong with that bitch? What kind of doctor says, ‘come again?’” She said.

“Please slow down. I think the forward stretches put my guts out of sorts.”

Karuniya grunted openly and clung to Murati with a petty expression on her face.

She was practically rubbing her cheeks on Murati like a needy puppy.

One thing they could not deny is that the staffing choices so far had been interesting.

Murati was trying to look on the bright side of things as she shambled to the bridge.

Once the two of them regained enough of their composure, they entered the command pod, which was one of the smallest of the ship’s major sections. There was the bridge, the security room, a brig for detaining people and a few planning and meeting rooms. It was one hallway, and the bridge was the largest space in it. There was no missing it when crossing through the bulkhead.

They stood in front of the door to the bridge.

Murati took a deep breath.

“Feeling stage-fright? Or is it still nausea?” Karuniya asked.

“The Captain here fought in the Revolution as a teen, Karuniya.” Murati said. Stage-fright.

Karuniya took Murati’s hand and squeezed it. She looked her in the eyes and smiled.

“I’m sure nobody will mind your relative lack of experience after today.” She said.

Together, they opened the door to the bridge and crossed into it.

All eyes turned briefly over to them.

Murati saluted the Captain and Commissar and introduced herself.

“Comrades, I am Lieutenant Murati Nakara. First Officer, on bridge.”

Everyone in the bridge crew gave her a round of applause. Even Captain Korabiskaya.

She was, after all, the first beacon of hope in their long journey.


Eight hours later, at a coasting speed of 15 knots, the Brigand had traveled quite far from Thassal station and would soon cross the Imperial border, into the southern territory of Sverland, the Empire’s Nectaris border lookout. Owing to the defeat of the Southern Border Fleet, and its understaffed nature even before that, little resistance could be expected in Sverland, and there was no reason for the Brigand to be on high alert quite yet. They would make for a port town first to meet their first contact.

While they had a rocky start, the crew was starting to settle into their duties. After the Leviathan attack, the bridge had been quiet and tidy, with everyone immersed in their tasks. While recording the events of the day, Commissar Aaliyah Bashara, in her own little room, thought to herself that it was actually good they were attacked so soon, and were forced to respond suddenly.

She believed it would not be the last time the Brigand had a sudden emergency.

Their war, which began today with nary a trumpet, would be one of sudden, shocking turns.

No one had ever done what they proposed to do.

Though they had a plan to follow, she knew everything would change in the Empire’s seas.

And yet everyone on the ship accepted this insane mission, from the greenest sailor to the most experienced among them. Everyone had their own reasons for doing so, even the Commissar. Maybe it was hard to truly understand the scope of the undertaking and to be able to tell oneself that it should not be done. Maybe it was too incredible to refuse. Being told by Nagavanshi that the situation was revolutionary and world-shaking did nothing to convey the true difficulties that lay ahead. And so everyone was caught up in the glory, or maybe trying to normalize it.

Aaliyah focused on her duty as Commissar. She would be ready to do it each day.

Now that it was “night,” for her, she had another task to perform.

It was the Commissar’s duty to record the ship history.

Every ship had a chronicle of its days, from the perspective of an officer.

Ships kept all kinds of statistics, but the chronicle was different. A ship’s chronicle was far more than just records of work done or missions accomplished. Each chronicle was an organic and unvarnished look into the kind of living that was had aboard ships. It was about the life and mind of the officer who wrote it. Every Chronicle was different because every ship was different.

For centuries, Imperial Chaplains performed this duty in the Imperial Navy. It was highly likely that the Republicans also had chronicles. Commissars continued the tradition in the Union.

Aaliyah had a minicomputer made just for the purpose. It was even more ruggedized than normal minicomputers. It was the sort of computer that could survive the ship. Like a black box, except that it was recorded by hand. Perhaps the Commissar’s most sacred task lay within that inviolable record of the lives and desires of the crew, so that they could be known in death.

Even if an Imperial ship killed them, those records would be preserved.

In fact, the Chronicle of an enemy ship was a treasured thing. It was a trophy for victory.

For the defeated, it was the tiniest comfort that their names and lives would be known.

This was the honor that all sailors gave one another, even despite their most bitter hatred.

An acknowledgment of each other’s existence. Even an imperialist would give this much.

Aaliyah sighed deeply as she booted up the Chronicle.

It was not a novel or something that had to be crafted. A Chronicle, she was taught, should come from the heart, and it should include all the first things one desires to say, before the mask of modesty and other social mores colors over those raw feelings. Aaliyah found this difficult.

Nevertheless, she began to write.

She recorded that on Cycle 150 of the year 979 A.D., the UNX-001 Brigand launched–

“Can I come in?”

There was a knock on the door. A most familiar voice.

“You may, Captain.”

Through the door, the figure of Ulyana Korabiskaya took a step filled with trepidation.

Aaliyah turned around to meet her, trying to avoid her eyes.

“To what do I owe this– why are you here?” She asked, switching tones mid-sentence.

In response the Captain bowed her head. Her long, blonde hair fell over her face.

“Commissar, I wanted to apologize. I’ve stumbled over my words so many times toward you, but you are right. I was a cad, and I treated you terribly. I owed you more respect as a lover.”

She was speaking vaguely, as if she did not know exactly what part of her conduct had been wrong. She could have openly admitted to being a horny drunk or an oafish sweet talker. She could have admitted to leaving her in bed soaked in sweat and alone and ashamed, with no reassuring voice to comfort her. She could have apologized for sounding so sincere that night.

On some level, Aaliyah herself did not whether those things actually bothered her though.

She did not want to admit it, but she had reacted in a highly emotional fashion.

“Captain let us put personal things behind us. I have only been judging you on your professional merits since we stepped into this ship. I shall continue to do so.” She said.

That was not exactly true.

It did help her save face, however.

Ulyana nodded her head and raised it. She wore a bashful, almost girlish expression.

Aaliyah thought she looked beautiful and did not want to look directly at her.

“Besides which. It was stupid of me to think– anyway, no, everything is fine.”

Why did you even think you merited this woman’s attention anyway?

You’re so naïve; so easy. All she had to do was talk you up, and you spread your legs.

You let your guard down and look what happened. How was that fairy tale night of yours?

Do you think you deserve any better?

Those sorts of self-hating thoughts filled with Aaliyah’s mind when she recalled the night they shared together. Perhaps that was what she hated the most. Her feelings were muddled.

“I, too, shall swear to behave professionally. Because– I want us to succeed–”

Aaliyah caught the briefest glimpse of Ulyana’s eyes as she stammered.

For a moment, she saw an expression that was full of some unmentionable pain.

“For more than just the Union; because we have hope in ourselves.”

There was something she wanted to say, but she was clearly not ready to do so.

Aaliyah was the same. And thinking that the two of them were similar frustrated her.

“I agree. I need to write the ship’s chronicle. May I return to my work?”

Ulyana nodded her head. “Yes, yes of course. I’ll see you on the bridge next shift.”

“Indeed. Work hard, and don’t become distracted, Captain.” Aaliyah replied.

As awkwardly as she had entered, Ulyana slipped back out the Commissar’s door.

 Aaliyah closed her eyes, trying to find inner peace.

Perhaps in the months to come she would be able to forget all of this.


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