Pursuers In The Deep [7.2]

“Milord, we’ve received an acoustic message from Ajillo substation.”

One of Norn’s drones pushed the message out from her station to the monitor on her chair.

Norn’s brows drew up in casual surprise. She blinked, dimly confused at this occurrence.

“How did Ajillo know of our presence? Did we detect any active sonar from them?”

“Negative. Only sonar pulse was from the Sowilo.”

“Did we broadcast an IFF? Or check in with the strategic network at all?”

“No milord. We observing confidentiality until you order otherwise.”

“Strange. I can’t help but wonder how they knew it was us.”

No rest for the wicked; every day on the Antenora’s bridge, there was some kind of drama.

With the Jagdkaiser left in Potomac’s acceptable care, Norn and Adelheid had departed the hangar together to take their places on the Antenora’s bridge. As soon as they settled down there was a message from the nearest military substation, Ajillo. They had no intention of visiting, as there was nothing of value for them at Ajillo, the junkyard for Sverland’s crippled fleet. And it was standard procedure for the Antenora to remain partially off the grid after a dive from the photic zone, to avoid suspicions about their itinerary. However, the invitation to dock at Ajillo had come directly from the station commander, Rear Admiral Vespucio, and been addressed directly to Norn.

As written, it was an invitation resupply and discuss recent events. It sounded benign.

Adelheid read the message from Norn’s monitor and made a little noise as she pondered it.

“We weren’t being careful about sound, so Ajillo could have found out about the battle from the noise. They would have heard us kilometers away.” She said, raising an index finger and moving it from side to side. “But they would only be able to tell the relative sizes of the ships and the types of ordnance. Do you think Vespucio had a spy drone out? That’s the only way I can think of he would know specifically that the Antenora is in his waters.”

Certainly Adelheid didn’t wear that uniform just to look pretty. She had a good assessment of the situation.

Norn agreed with her. She turned from Adelheid to address one of the drones.

“Did we detect any mechanical objects beside the Volkisch?” She asked.

“Negative, but it’s possible that something snuck in and out during the battle.”

The Praetorian rested a hand on her fist, eyes wandering as she turned these events over in her head.

“In a noisy environment anything is possible, but all my sonar technicians have golden ears. If a stray mechanical object were moving in the battlefield, I would have known about it. He must have been in communication with the Volkisch during the incident. He acted upon the knowledge of my presence without considering the bigger picture.”

Adelheid giggled. “Quite an amateur mistake! We’re not dealing with a bright one here.”

Norn briefly grinned at her plaything’s sudden smugness. She lifted her own index finger as if to mimic Adelheid’s little gestures. “Information warfare is never so simple. Knowing only part of the facts can be as dangerous to you as knowing none of them. In his case, he just doesn’t understand the Antenora’s true nature. In his mind, even if he wasn’t immediately aware of our presence through his own information, and only learned from the Volkisch, we must have sent an IFF or used the network somewhere along our journey to Sverland. He assumed we traveled in the depths; he had no way of knowing how suspicious it would be for him to contact us when he did.”

“Why do I feel like I’m the one being scolded now?” Adelheid said, shrugging playfully.

Heedless of the play-acting going on behind them, one of the drones raised their voice.

“Ma’am, do we maintain heading, or divert to Ajillo?”

“Full ahead to Ajillo. Let’s not keep the Rear Admiral waiting.” Norn said.

At once, the Helmsman drone began to turn the ship in the appropriate direction. The Chief of Communications returned Ajillo’s message with a curt reply. On the main screen, a diagram of Sverland showed them turning away from their northwesterly heading and hooking south instead. While Norn’s objective in the region was to secure some defectors to Erich’s banner, and employ them as pilots to replenish her own losses, all the intrigue on their end had already been carried out. They could wait a bit longer for a pickup. This Ajillo situation was much more interesting.

“He’s obviously got some ulterior motive.” Norn said. “Can’t wait to make him explain what he’s up to.”

“Does he have to be up to anything special? Every man inviting a woman somewhere has ulterior motives.” Adelheid said, doing an exaggerated little shrug again. “I’m more interested in the conspiracy in your head, Norn.”

Norn ignored her little flourishes. “For one thing, most people are terrified of me. I have never received an invitation to personally visit a commandery ever since I became a Fueller enforcer, much less now that I’m the head of the family. I’ve inspected plenty in Konstantin’s stead but that was coercive in nature, and I have a reputation for turning up something sanctionable every time. So in my mind, this is too bold out of Vespucio. And judging by the suspicious source of his information, it has to be some kind of trap. I bet he will try to sell me out to the Volkisch.”

“Maybe he just wants to get on your good side? Because everyone’s terrified of you?”

“It is possible he’s not working directly for the Volkisch just yet. I’d be curious to see if he tries to strike me down on his own initiative rather than something more predictable. Regardless, I’ll accept his offer and see what he’s up to firsthand; even if it’s nothing exciting in the end, at least we get the hospitality of an Admiral out of it.”

“Norn the Praetorian, who has anything she wants, mooching off an Admiral’s pantry?”

“It’s more his wine cellar I’m interested in. You never know who has good vintages.”

Norn settled back in her chair with a placid expression.

Adelheid crossed her arms and turned her cheek at such easy responses to her provocations.

Her pouting face was simply delicious— but turning her all red would have to wait.

All Norn allowed herself at the moment was to reach out and gently smack her in the cheek.

“What was that for?” Adelheid said, shrinking back slightly.

“To keep you on your toes.” Norn said smugly.

Knowing her, this would correct her attitude for maybe minutes.

But it did sate Norn’s own appetite for the moment.

On the Antenora’s bridge the two of them sat together, side by side. They were close enough that Adelheid could lean her head on Norn’s shoulder. Next to Norn’s chair was a slot on the floor from which Adelheid’s could pull up. Adelheid’s chair was more traditional, fitted with upholstery and designed for comfort. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, it did add a splash of red color to the otherwise grey room. Like Norn’s chair, and most commander’s chairs in the Empire, it had a variety of useful tools for the adjutant. From a slot on the side of this chair, Adelheid pulled up a computer monitor and began typing away on a touch keyboard for a moment.

Like Norn’s chair, Adelheid’s had access to the ship computer and network interfaces.

Norn snatched a glance at her monitor.

She was filling in a network address. Something was downloading to the device.

“Who gave you permission to use the public network?” Norn said.

“We identified ourselves to Ajillo, so that means we’re back on the grid, right?”

“No, it doesn’t, as a matter of fact. We’re not back on the grid until I say so.”

“It’s fine I’m using an encrypted requester, I’m not stupid.”

Norn glared at her.

“In the future, you will ask me for explicit permission. Understood?”

“Okay.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

Norn loosened up and cracked a tiny grin. “Just remember. We’re in a new era and have to tread lightly. That said I’m a woman of unparalleled forgiveness. So then, tell me, what are you doing on that network?”

Adelheid rolled her eyes at the speech but answered the question. “Downloading stuff.”

“Over the acoustic network? Good luck with that.” Norn said.

Adelheid crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair, sighing.

“Well, the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be able to read my magazines.”

“You should just wait until we’re at Ajillo and connect over laser.”

“I’m bored now, so I’m doing something about it now.”

Norn laughed. She was quite savoring Adelheid’s childish consternation.

“We could go hit the gym if you want.” She said with a wink. “I’m not required to be here.”

Adelheid grumbled. “I would go to the gym by myself if I wanted, but I’m not in the mood.”

“Suit yourself then. Enjoy watching a bar moving kilobyte by kilobyte.”

Even without a laser connection to a hub, the Imperial public network was still accessible via wireless connections. Using the same technology by which acoustic messages were sent and received, encrypted, and decrypted, by ship communicators, a protocol for sending and receiving data at long distances underwater was ultimately devised. As far as Norn understood, the surface society had been far more networked than theirs. Many technologies fell by the wayside in the transition from air and land to the oceans, and civilian communications was one. The Imperial Public Network came about in Konstantin’s fifties; and wasn’t even very “Public” until recently.

“Instead of those awful stories, you should pick up the local news for me.” Norn said.

Adelheid raised her hands and gestured toward the slow-moving progress bars.

“Why should I? What can some journalist in this backwater know that you don’t?”

“I’m not omniscient. Besides, seeing local perspective is more valuable than you think.”

Staring at Norn with a mock aggrieved expression, Adelheid navigated a page back to the file distributor she had contacted, from which she was grabbing her comics and magazines. She made a very flamboyant show of touching a local newspaper’s link to download it, which brought her back to her download manager’s page, and then slowly sliding its progress bar far down below all of the other files she had queued up, such that at the rate the rest were going, it wouldn’t be downloaded for hours. Norn watched the entire process with a neutral but unamused expression.

“Happy now? Aren’t I such a dutiful adjutant for you?” Adelheid giggled.

Norn turned back to the main screen, mustering all of her will in saying nothing back.

Adelheid stared at her expectantly at her before balling her fists up and sinking back into her chair with a pout, after it was clear she would not get any satisfaction out of this for the moment.

All around the bridge crew was unbothered by the scenes of their superiors’ familiarity. A few of them stood from their stations to switch shifts, and of course, had nothing to say except to tell Norn when they were expected to return and who was expected to replace them for the shift. Norn’s crew was obedient and efficient, but they could not be driven down into the dirt like draft animals. They needed time to rest, to eat, to wash, to relax. Norn had devised a tight and balanced schedule which was kept to the second by every one of the drones. It helped sustain their sense that they led normal lives, and in turn, sustained Norn’s unnatural control over their activities.

Seeing everything in such a predictable and practice stated brought her stillness, peace.

Everything around her was governed by such an intricate order–

For perhaps the first time in her entire life.

“What’s that look on your face? Anything on your mind?” Adelheid asked, staring at her.

Norn smiled placidly. “Nothing at all. Now I understand how you’re so peppy all the time.”

“Fuck you.” Adelheid said. But there was a pleasant little smile on her face too.


“We’re treating this as a combat operation. Maintain readiness and alertness at all times.”

As the Antenora neared Ajillo Substation, Norn organized several people in the hangar.

At the head of the “drones” was the Chief Security Officer, Reinhardt. Often, the security chief was selected for peak physical condition, such that he could be counted on to wrestle multiple men by himself. When choosing a Security team, the theory was that they needed to be both able to quell internal disorder and also serve as a boarding party or detached infantry force. This was not necessary in the Antenora. Instead, Reinhardt was a special forces veteran with several missions under his belt and an excellent array of combat and operational skills. His sleek build, which was flexible but strong, attested to the versatility with which he operated. He was not just muscle, but brains.

Around him there were other men and women of the Antenora’s security squadron: of similar backgrounds.

“We will uphold a zero-trust policy toward any personnel from Ajillo.” Norn said. “Do not allow them aboard, do not permit them to carouse. Treat even the most minor details about the Antenora with strict confidentiality. Refueling and resupply of the Antenora shall only be undertaken by Antenora personnel with a security escort. Act natural around Ajillo men but do not be sociable. You are here to do a job and nothing else. Bring up my name if necessary.”

“Yes milord.” Said the Security team in unison. They understood their orders instantly.

“Lieutenant van Mueller and I will meet with the base commander.”

Norn gestured toward Adelheid, standing next to her. Adelheid waved awkwardly.

This was all unnecessary, as all the drones were quite well aware of who she was.

However, Norn had only recently established her clique of drones, so she was still used to explaining her operational plans as if speaking to the average soldier who was stressed out and had an ephemeral memory for minutia. Even understanding this, she still felt compelled to convene tactical meetings. After all, part of the conditions of her control was that the drones believed their situation to be normal, and maintaining military routine, rather than dispensing with everything unneeded, helped the control to hold. So this meeting, and the way it was conducted, had a purpose.

“There may well be a situation in which either Lieutenant van Mueller or I may become imperiled on this mission. I believe strongly that Vespucio has some kind of plot in mind, and he may try to isolate or capture one or both of us. I am quite convinced of Lieutenant van Mueller’s combat skills as well as my own, and do not need any personnel to come to our rescue. However, we will need a way to suppress any unwanted response from the Station’s combat unit.”

Norn turned to face Selene, who was standing in her pilot suit next to the Security force.

It had been hours since her battle with the Volkisch. Norn assumed that Selene had gotten some rest, but she was clearly groggy and bedraggled, nevertheless. Her face was pale, her silvery-purple hair a bit messy, and her rainbow-colored antennae were even sticking up unclipped, a rare sight from her. Despite this, she seemed to do her best to remain at attention during the meeting, standing up straight and keeping her gaze moving.

“Ajillo is a ship graveyard, but they have Divers and other weapons available to them. Because of this potential threat, we will be releasing the Jagdkaiser into the water under the guise of trim testing so that we can respond quickly to any moves by the station staff.” Norn continued. “The Jagdkaiser will be armed with a single cartridge. I’ll send a signal, Selene — you’ll know if you can use it. Blow up a ship and cause a ruckus. Do not hit the Station.”

With the way Norn looked at Selene, the girl understood the signal would be psionic in nature.

She could see the red rings around Norn’s eyes as she briefly invoked the power when their eyes met.

“Okay. Got it.” Selene said. “So I’m just trying to scare them? What if they fight back?”

“Even these second-rate troops wouldn’t be so stupid. After they see the cartridge go off, they’ll certainly break completely. But, if anyone tries to be brave, just swat them down with your remaining weapons.”

“Are these guys that lame?” Selene asked.

Norn smiled. Her vernacular was quite amusing sometimes.

“They are extremely lame. You’d slaughter them in a fight.”

“Sure, okay then, no complaints from me. What do I do while I’m waiting?”

“Swim around a bit, but conserve energy.”

Selene yawned. “Got it. I’ll just take a nap in the cockpit then.”

From Selene, Norn turned back to the Security personnel and to a final group comprising the NCOs in charge of the sailors. They would organize groups to carry out any repairs and to lug around whatever supplies Colonel Vespucio offered them. While the Antenora had not taken any damage, there was wear and tear that could only be maintained properly while the ship was not moving, and the ship had been moving for a while. This was a good opportunity to catch up. Much like the Security staff, the NCOs and all the sailors were under Norn’s influence. In Norn’s view, this was mainly so they would not divulge anything out of the ordinary they saw on the ship.

As far as their work efficiency, it could not be faulted, even before they became drones.

Norn had handpicked the best of the best, after all.

“You already know what work needs to be done on the ship, so just go do it. Work smart, not hard. We aren’t in any rush. One important thing to note: Hunter III of the Third Sphere will be providing special support in the Station. If you see Hunter III in your area of operations, ignore her and act unsurprised. Don’t give away her position even if she starts acting openly near you. I will meet with Hunter III separately about her orders.”

Each of the NCOs saluted Norn and acknowledged their orders.

“You’re all dismissed. We should be docking in about an hour.” Norn turned from the departing NCOs and Security staff to her sole pilot. “Selene, go start the immersion process, and just take a nap in the cockpit if you want after that. We can always inject something to wake you up if your attention is required.”

“I’d rather you inject something to put me to sleep.” Selene stretched her arms with a heavy sigh.

Norn grinned broadly at her. “We’ve got all kinds of things to inject here! Just say the word!”

Selene cringed in response. She silently made her way to the Jagdkaiser and its technicians instead.

This left Norn and Adelheid once again alone in the middle of the hangar.

“Seen Hunter III around?” Norn asked.

Adelheid shrugged. “She hasn’t come down. She’s probably sulking in some dark corner.”

“I’ll go find her. Go mom on Selene a bit. She doesn’t like you much.” Norn said.

“What? She doesn’t?” Adelheid put her hands on her hips and leaned forward.

“She hates your guts actually. So go make nice, okay?”

Norn turned around abruptly, waving one hand dismissively and laughing as she went.

She left Adelheid standing there with no recourse but to hover over to the Jagdkaiser’s orbit after a brief bout of loud but aimless grumbling. Norn looked at her briefly as she departed. It was all well and good; Norn did not really want Adelheid to be present for her conversation with Hunter III anyway. Not because she did not trust her with the information, but because Adelheid had a weaker gut than Norn around Hunter III.

For a moment she focused on the aura of Hunter III and saw trails of color she could follow.

There was a warm feeling behind her eyes; onlookers with power would have seen it.

Often the use of Psionic power came to her as easily as breathing or moving her limbs.

She had mastered this ability from a very young age. It was not just raw power she had acquired but understanding. It was understanding that allowed her to control everyone on this ship. Her crew was founded and sustained by an intricate web of conditions and deceptions with the end result that they would never fear the things they saw on the ship, reveal her secrets or utter a word of disloyalty, and never shirk their duties.

It was rare that Norn had to think about Psionics, had to actually exert effort.

She could sustain her control over the Antenora near indefinitely with very little pain.

But it was not something she could do to the people at Ajillo. Not on short notice.

For them, if it came to it, she would need brute strength. She did not have time for tricks.

Thankfully, she had brute strength to spare. She had acquired very many powerful people.

Norn made her way up to the upper deck and traversed the Antenora’s sparse hallways, following her sixth sense. As a Cruiser, the Antenora was quite spacious and mostly comfortable compared to other warships, but Norn felt that unnecessary decorations were an assault on her senses. She already saw too much color floating around as it was, and did not need a gaudy paint job, wall ornaments and other tacky manor-style adornments in her halls. So unlike most flagships, it felt very little like a home, and far less like a manse or a palace than the Irmingard.

At least, that would be the response from typical, garish Imperial sensibilities.

As far as Norn was concerned, she had lived in far worse places and called them “home.”

To her, the Antenora was her palace, her fortress. She felt safe; she felt cared for here.

Following Hunter III’s trail led Norn to a wall with a panel which had been pulled off.

When Norn kneeled, she found within the gloomy niche an interior panel also pulled out. It was a maintenance entry into the guts of the ship, mainly for workers to access the water circulation and electrical systems, as well as some room electronics. Within the little space, she caught a trail of familiar colors, gaseous tongues, and sparks, swirling colors faded from their source, hovering like the nebulas from old pictures of the space outside Aer’s tainted surface.

“Hunter III! Come out of there. I don’t want to crawl around for you.”

“Then don’t.”

Just as she suspected and sensed; a familiar whiny voice echoed in the little metal room.

“Come out this instant.” Norn said. “Or you’ll miss out on a big reward.”

“Is it meat?”

“It’s better than meat.”

“Bullshit.”

Curiosity got the better of her. Soon Norn saw a slender shadow come crawling out.

Her name as she had given it to Norn was Hunter III of the Third Sphere.

Norn had an inkling of what this name meant: she was the third Hunter type unit of a specific numbered group within her people, the Third Sphere. Whether the ‘Spheres’ were military in nature or domestic units, Norn herself did not fully know, nor was it something high on her list of priorities to learn about the young woman.

There were other, far more curious features of this woman to be probed.

Hunter III was a slim, lithe, pale individual, so pale that when her wrists or neck were bared the major arteries were quite noticeable running just under the surface. Her face had an eerie beauty to it, with its red eyes and cold complexion, dark shadows around her eyes giving her the look of someone stressed or hardly sleeping. Her shoulder length hair was as white as her skin with a single streak of blue running through it. In terms of height, she was a fairly small woman, but quite clearly an adult in figure and strength. For clothes, she had a too-long, too-large hood, going down to her knees with sleeves longer than her arms. Norn knew this to be the only garment she had on.

When she wanted to, Hunter III could have a comically expressive face.

As she crawled out of her tunnel cubby, her face bore only a passive, tired expression.

“I’m waitin’ for this thing that’s better than meat that y’got.”

“It’s all yours, but first, I want to know: can you smell it?”

“S’it in your coat?”

“Indeed.”

Hunter III drew closer to Norn and leaned forward, catching a whiff of Norn’s scent.

Her eyes drew wide open.

At first, she recoiled, but then she drew closer again, sniffing again and again.

Her strong, slim hands grabbed hold of Norn’s coat and brought it up to her nose.

This unwanted touch bothered Norn, but only slightly. “Did I say you could do that?”

Hunter III looked up. Her eyes looked cloudy, perhaps even more tired than before.

She tugged gently on the coat, putting her head to Norn’s chest.

“Give it– Please give it here– Please I need it–”

Her entire demeanor had completely changed. She was so immediately vulnerable.

“So you can smell them. Good to know if we ever want to go find more ourselves.”

Norn produced from her coat a sliver of something. To her, it was odorless, small, and in its appearance, abhorrent. It was like finger’s-width of meat wrapped in clammy silverskin. When she peeled the silvery wrapping off it like a web, she unveiled a glob of yellow fat affixed with a pellicle-like spine to a warm, soft, pink mass. Sinews ran through the object that held color as if alive. Hunter III snapped up from Norn’s chest and stared, transfixed, at this object in her hands, her mouth drawing open, her body shaking. Her little protests grew a bit more animated.

“That’s mine–” Her voice faltered; her eyes wide open, moist. “Give it– give it here–”

Hunter III had eaten these before. But back then, the fruits had been plentiful.

This was a discovery. Norn now felt she better understood the importance of the fruit.

“That’s right. It is indeed yours.” Norn dangled it in front of Hunter III for a moment. “A sliver of fruit from a Garden of Marrow; these are important to Omenseers, aren’t they? The Sunlight Foundation destroyed a nest recently and Hudson’s machines collected this for me in the aftermath. You’ve been treating me like I’m such a slavedriver, and yet, I do so much for you. I’ll give you this taste. And there will be more if you’re a good girl.”

Hunter III opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.

Grinning to herself, Norn deposited the piece into Hunter III’s open, awaiting maw. And she watched with fascination as the woman before her savored the bite thoroughly, as if with her entire body. Skin brimming with new color, her chest shaking, holding herself with irrepressible pleasure and excitement in the act of eating this slimy thing. Her knees buckling, a tremor under her skin, her breathing heavy as she swallowed the tiny morsel.

Licking her lips as if lustfully trying to savor every last bit of the taste that she could.

“Don’t be too greedy.” Norn said. “And you’ll be rewarded with more.”

Hunter III pulled back from Norn as if suddenly snapping back to her senses.

Her eyes were wild with a surprising passion.

“I won’t be! But ya know if ya want me to go out there, I’ll need– a whole fruit!”

Her voice trembled as if even the thought of more of this food made her knees weak.

There had been a time when the Antenora had more of these in her possession.

One of the Omenseers’ ritual practices was that they did not leave ships or go into battle in person without having eaten one of these fruits. Norn surmised that it was not just superstition, and in fact most of Hunter III’s unique biology was locked away until she ate this disgusting little morsel. Hunter III had her own supply, once upon a time, but little by little, as she participated in Norn’s campaigns out of her greed for the luxuries of humans–

“I should be keepin’ it.” Hunter III said. “I promise I won’t just nibble on it willy-nilly.”

Norn scoffed. “You were a poor steward of your own wealth. If you want a cut of the treasure of this ship you will follow military logistics like the rest of us. So let’s come to the following agreement: I’ll be keeping an eye on any fruits I find or that the Sunlight Foundation bequeaths to me. If you discover a Garden of Marrow yourself then by all means you can do whatever you want with those fruits. But if I acquired the fruit, it’s mine to dispense.”

“But they ain’t yours!” Hunter III protested. “They don’t belong to you no matter what, they’re ours.”

“Are you going to rat me out to Arbitrator II for hoarding Omenseer relics?”

Hunter III snorted. “What’s she got to do with this? I hate her guts more than you.”

“Good. Then we’re agreed?” Norn grinned, leaning forward to the smaller woman.

“Fine. We’re agreed.” Hunter III grumbled.

“Good girl.”

From her other coat pocket Norn produced a second sliver of the fruit.

Hunter III, perhaps because she was sated, was not as desperate for this one.

But her eyes did follow it calmly all the way from the pocket to the air.

And stared almost incredulously as Norn deposited the object in her waiting hands.

“You can save it or eat it now. It’s all up to you.”

“I’m gonna be fightin’ soon I guess, or you wouldn’t give me none.”

Hunter III excitedly put the object into her mouth, silverskin and all.

Once again, her body seemed to go weak at the taste of it. She shivered, turned her hips.

“Does it taste that good?” Norn asked. Of course, she received no answer.

Though she had not been as enthusiastic for the morsel the second time, her weakness to its taste was precisely the same. It seemed to overtake her entire body, and only after swallowing did she return to her senses, albeit smacking her lips and clicking her tongue as if still chasing some measure of what the fruit made her feel. Her face brightened, and Norn did notice that some color had returned to her skin, which was now very slightly flushed.

She smiled, baring her fangs. More like the Hunter III that Norn remembered.

“So boss, who are we killin’?” She asked, a new enthusiasm creeping into her voice.

“My, you’re lively. I should feed you this stuff more often.” Norn teased.

“Y’ought to, cuz all that fruit belongs to me anyway.” Hunter III replied.

She put her fists on her hips and tried to puff her chest up in a way to seem larger and more confident. Her mood did not dampen despite Norn’s continued refusal to give up custody of the fruits to her. There was a large smile on her face, through which her sharp teeth could be seen. While Hunter III could be quite whiny, she could muster an attitude that lived up to her moniker. As long as it was meat, she would eat anything.

Norn smiled back at her. “You look like you’re ready enough. Here, but don’t eat it now.”

Reaching into the coat itself, Norn procured the final gift she had for Hunter III.

One complete fruit from a Garden of Marrow.

Wrapped in silverskin and a thin layer of soft white fat, flecked with deposits of sea salt within its pellicle-like outer ridges, it was not the uniform shape of a fruit from an ordinary fruiting tree, but a lopsided pink blob. Like an organ drawn from an animal, small enough to hold in the open palm of Norn’s hands, completely still and yet pulsating as if it had life. Concentrating her gaze on the object revealed the faintest trace of placid aural colors, as if it were a thing dreaming or even perhaps yearning, a potential close to life and yet unrealized. Perhaps like an egg.

This was not an object whose mystery Norn could crack alone.

So Norn entrusted the object into Hunter III’s hands and watched closely.

Hunter III stared at her master with eyes drawn wide open and unbelieving.

She looked down at the object in her hands and back up at Norn, her lips drawing apart as if to form words that caught in her throat every time. Through a few cycles of this Norn stood and watched the woman in front of her fumble, before she mustered the willpower to put the fruit into the pouch of her hood. Her face grew warm with a soft and tenuous delight. As if she did not know how she should feel about the gift.

“I guess ya really ain’t that bad huh?” Hunter III. “Or y’re sending me to my death.”

Norn smiled. She laid a hand on Hunter III’s hair and brushed it gently.

Uncharacteristically, the shorter woman allowed this display of affection.

“We’re going to a station that may be full of enemies. I am giving you this because I am entrusting you with Adelheid. Any smart enemy would use my adjutant to gain information about me or coerce me. I want you to be ready to kill to protect her. She has seen combat in the past, but not so much as you or I. So I want to be certain of her safety. If you can keep her safe, I can defeat any enemy we meet there and unravel any scheme we find.”

“So, ya do care about her this much, huh?” Hunter III said.

Those simple words caused Norn to falter for just a brief moment.

I would die without her.

She could never say such a thing.

It felt like admitting a certain weakness to say something like that in front of Hunter III.

“Her path and mine are intertwined, and where one ends, so will the other.” Norn said.

“Talkin’ like an born an’ blue-blooded Apostle now aren’t ya? Like y’ve got some kinda big destiny with her or somethin’. Hah! Y’re just down bad after all!” Hunter III joked, hugging her own belly, and giggling to herself. “But whatever! Gettin’ to eat red fruit and humans today? Really? I’m so spoilt right now! So of course I can’t say no to ya! Just gimme a peek at the station layout if ya can. They won’t know what hit ‘em!”

Norn could not be angry when faced with that unrelenting enthusiasm.

Even if she was saying things about her that she found uncouth.

“You’ll have all the information and any tools you need down in the hangar.” Norn calmly said.

“Only thing I need to get the killin’ started is this.” Hunter III said, gesturing to her pouch, where the fruit was securely stored. “What I wanna know is, how are ya plannin’ to take out a whole station by y’rself too? I can kill a lot of guys, but we’re gonna need more of a plan than that for hundreds of guys. If you get surrounded or somethin’, and you gotta rely on brainpower, you might just keel over from how much blastin’ you’ll be doin’!”

For most psychics that was indeed a genuine concern.

Norn’s whole body could suffer greatly for any irresponsible use of her great gift.

While there were mitigating factors, the basic formula was that the complexity and relative weight of the feat would determine the size of the feedback and injury. Psionics was like a muscle. Even for a practiced body, great effort over prolonged periods of time engendered pain. A power-lifter could fight brilliantly against enormous weights that would break an ordinary man’s arms, but not just any weight, and not indefinitely. And in Norn’s case the muscle she was pushing to its limits was not a sturdy, purpose-built tool like the arms and legs that could be diligently trained, but a vulnerable piece of human xenobiology that felt more miracle than material. In her case, the limits were not something physical that could be easily measured. They had to be felt; and that feeling could be dangerous.

Such ephemera was true even for an Apostle: someone who was born uniquely gifted.

It was also true even for those who trained the eldritch muscle in their own minds to its fullest.

For Norn, who trained among the Sunlight Foundation, Psionics was still not limitless magic.

And yet, in this modern era, there was always an alternative. A power-lifter could imbue his arms with new power through drugs, cybernetics, gene editing, or even being born with a selection of traits that afforded him greater strength, like the Katarran process that Norn herself was quite familiar with. Norn also had access to ways to enhance her own mighty abilities even further. Ways she had already employed to survive to see this day.

She had a simple answer for Hunter III: “I’ve already prepared for that eventuality.”

From Norn’s other inner coat pocket, she produced a long, thin object with a thick cap.

Visible through an opening along its length was a green, blue, and red spiral of fluid.

Embossed on the complex injector was a highly stylized sun emblem.

Hunter III sniffed it briefly. “Huh. Somethin’ funny from the old engineers. You trust it?”

“Your concern is becoming less endearing and more insulting. With this formula I bested Mehmed the Tyrant, who was a powerful Apostle. So don’t worry about me and focus on protecting Adelheid.”

Mehmed– why was she remembering that name–?

“Sure, boss. I guess I better go get ready.” Hunter III said, barely acknowledging the response.

Norn nodded. She felt something solemn take over her then.

Staring at the creature in front of her, so human, so alien, so in between worlds.

Painfully close to how Norn herself had always felt.

It brought up bad memories.

Memories Norn had no use recalling.

“One last thing.”

Hunter III gave her a toothy smile. “What’s up, boss?”

“If you do feel Arbitrator II’s presence, you must let me know.”

“Huh? Well– I gotta be careful with that–“

“I will free you from her.”

Hunter III seemed to have no answer to that.

She was confused why that name had come up.

Twice, even.

“Sure thing, boss.“

She was likely not even listening anymore at this point.

Maybe to some degree, she could not listen to a request like that.

Norn laid a hand on her head, feeling the silky hair on the Omenseer like the fur on a fondly loved dog.

“You will be free to help me terrorize the world, to your heart’s content.”

Those words that crossed her lips scarcely acknowledged the actual truth.

And she was so powerful in her self deception that not for a second did she allow herself to acknowledge why she was even speaking names like Mehmed and Arbitrator II so casually to Hunter III, for whom they could not hope to be memories as long, lasting and harshly lived as they were for Norn. Memories of lofty goals, foolish naivety, and half-understood truths about the deep, dark world they journeyed in. Memories that she had become adept at referencing sans their context, to never again follow to their source. Mehmed was just a name.

And Arbitrator II would soon be just another name in the recesses of her mind.

But first, she had to attend the stultifying tasks that lay ahead in Konstantin’s little farce.


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.1]

Whenever she marched up this dusty grey carpet to meet him, the grim throne room of their souls was not actually at Heitzing where it should logically be but was instead displaced to the summer palace at Schwerin Island.

She could see through the stark white pillars out to vast fields encircling the palace, fields of her favorite flower, purple Lilies. Schwerin was the terminal point of a wound that began to be cut into the emperor’s upper torso at Vogelheim. But it was at Schwerin Island where the knife fully disemboweled him and cut everything from him.

His guts, his groin; his sins spilled pathetically on this holy ground.

And so he remained surrounded on all sides by the perfectly preserved memory of his lusts.

“What vice! What tragedy! But Konstantin, I am happy you still choose to watch over me!”

It was a vision of a soul being made to dream. It was a place only the most powerful saw.

For some it could be blissful and innocent, but this Aether reflected the self in this man.

Stark white pillars caging him in a throne far from the vast colorful fields of his regret.

Upon the throne was a wasting, sickly man clad heavily in coat and cape, a marshal of vast forces long dispersed, whose gaunt countenance retained only his severity and grim expression. Any hint of his soft handsomeness was faded, replaced by the haunted, far-away gaze with which he ordered wars, enslavement, genocide, and the death of his beloved. He retained some of his vanities, such as his head of long black hair untouched atop his head as if the last remnants of life upon his body. A corpse wearing the suit of prestige, any beauty also merely part of a disguise.

Standing opposite this man was also the true self of his only remaining companion.

A blond woman, hair tied up in a functional ponytail, with a deceptively soft expression just barely touched by makeup and just barely restraining laughter. Her stark red eyes contrasted the blue and green coat of the House of the Fueller, that she wore over a sleek black camisole blouse and white pants. She looked much younger than she was, for she and the skeletal man before her were only separated by a few years. Because of her power and charisma, her beauty remained unmarred both in the Aether and in the real world. She was proud of the body she exhibited to him.

“You could have simply let it go! But now your ego has trapped you here forever!”

He could say nothing back.

“I’m beyond thrilled! You think you will get some satisfaction from this? Then keep watching me! Bear witness while everything that represented you rusts and turns to dust! Gaze upon the bountiful rewards I enjoy while you suffer! Haunt me with all your remaining strength!”

She spat on the ground before the throne and then made an act of sorting out her coat. She had come to like wearing the coat and what it represented, the climbing up of the intelligent and feared machinists of the Fuellers to the ladder of power after suffering a grievous disrespect, the first revolution this stagnant society ever saw. She admired them, collectively. But not this man.

Soon, however, the walls began to waver, turning into many-colored smoke and fading–


“–Descending through the Upper Scattering Layer in five minutes.”

A cold and inexpressive voice rose above the sounds of mechanical keys and the whirr of the individual station computers on the gloomy bridge of the Imperial cruiser Antenora. Unlike the flamboyant bridge designs common to many other Imperial ships, this one was spartan, with bare metal walls and the ship’s commander seated amid a tight square of her supporting station officers.

It was on this bridge that Lady Norn von Fueller awakened from a dream already dim and forgotten.

Though she could turn her gaze in any direction and see right over the shoulders of her subordinates, she mainly stared at the main screen with an almost bored expression. Her officers reported to her efficiently throughout the course of the descent, but she had questions of her own the whole time, which received answers just as efficient. Nothing more than what was necessary.

“Current depth?”

“286 meters and descending.”

“Sonar shows all clear?”

“All clear, milord.”

Moving quickly on from one subordinate to the next.

“How’s the red biomass in this sector?”

“1 parts per million at concentration 2 on the Schechter scale.”

Her station officers did not even turn their heads to speak to her, nor did she demand it.

“Are we detecting any imaging attempts against the Upper Scattering Layer?”

“Negative, milord. No signs of radiation or human acoustic patterns.”

“Of course they would not. And yet, for every concept under the sun, there is a someday.”

Among her bridge, it was only Norn who had spare words to say.

As far as most of the public, and even the most of the military knew, the Upper Scattering Layer was the boundary of the human world. An absolutely massive ecosystem that stretched ocean-wide containing almost all life that survived the calamity which befell Aer. When sonar and laser imaging was turned surfaceward from the deeper civilization of humankind, there was a “false roof” to their endeavors formed by fish, leviathans, and other ocean creatures.

The Upper Scattering Layer separated the Aphotic zone of humanity from the Photic zone, the ocean nearest to the surface and which received direct sunlight, even through the cover of the corruption clouds. Nothing could be built by humans in the Photic zone that wouldn’t be destroyed by its alien temperament. Navigation was nearly impossible due to the erratic currents and the touch of the surface’s most corrupted areas and their eldritch weather influencing the waters. If a ship did not get blown off-course or wrecked by a sudden turn in the waters, it could antagonize the many aggressive lifeforms that grew out of humankind’s calamity and get devoured.

Outside of the geographic locations known as Reaches, areas where the surface was miraculously tamer and humanity could therefore enter its shallows, the Upper Scattering Layer at between 300 to 500 meters depth, represented the wall between the world of light and the shadow of humanity. It was this wall through which the Imperial Cruiser Antenora now descended through, from above.  Back to the dark to rejoin the rest of humanity after a brief sojourn in the holy land.

This was but one of many powers commanded by the woman known as “the Praetorian.”

“Hunter III, you’ve been keeping mum. Anything interesting in that head of yours?”

In a corner of the bridge, a pallid woman lifted her head up as if waking from a trance.

Eyes glowing with intermittent red rings as she stared into space, called by her Lord.

“I mean whatcha wanna know anyway?” She said. Her tone was confrontational.

“How about the currents? What’s the weather looking like?”

“Currents are fine. We’ll dive through without problems.”

Her Lord, nothing but the back of a chair from her vantage, rapped fingers on metal.

“Any visitors?”

“Couple’a big ones. 5 klicks out. Fightin’ each other. Won’t follow us.”

“You sure? I’ll hurl you out there to be bait if you’re wrong.” Her tone shifted suddenly.

“I can’t be unsure, I’m seein’ it. Quit givin’ me grief. You’re always treatin’ me like trash when I’m the only reason any of ya are alive. Give me more meat if ya want me to be more accurate. Otherwise all y’all getting is my half-dead ramblings, you greedy evil witch.”

Laughter erupted from the chair. A black-gloved hand slammed the armrest with joy.

“How dramatic! Woe is you! Eating sausage and luncheon meat like us humans do!”

At the Lord’s response, the pallid, sharp-toothed woman grumbled openly.

“When are ya gonna give me real meat again?” She moaned. “Y’just starvin’ me for fun?”

“Quit acting like a dog I don’t feed. You eat every day. You’ll get something special soon.”

“Soon huh? The days’ been creepin’ and soon ain’t ever closer for Hunter III, it seems.”

None of the other bridge crew had any comment about the repartee behind them.

At the back, Hunter III pulled her hood up over her stark grey-and-white hair and sulked.

“Work hard and pray for trouble!” Norn cheered. “Then I’ll have use for you again!”

There was a crooked grin on Norn’s face as she berated Hunter III that she wore at no other time on that bridge. Everyone else was an automaton; but there was real value, and real fun, in a person whom you could not control. Particularly someone with the myriad uses Hunter III had.

“We’ve crossed the Upper Scattering Layer,” droned one of the officers.

The Antenora descended through a vast cloud of fish that parted and then closed in its wake as if shutting the door to the forbidden world behind them. Around the ship the color of water formed a slowly darkening gradient, from the brilliant light blue and green water kissed by the light of the sun to the deep blue and ultimately near-black waters of the aphotic zone. Visibility grew worse, until the ship’s cameras turned their floodlights on to achieve the familiar 50-75 meters of vision. At 700 meters, they could claim to have returned fully to the human world.

All manner of learned men dreamed of making this transition and found a depth of tragedy and poetry to this gradient in the water and light. Norn found nothing poetic about it. In her mind, there was no irony to humans’ remnants having been reduced to living in the shadows of the aphotic zone. She avoided such sophistry as to say, “we are shadows of our former selves.”

After all, she was living proof that humanity’s best was yet to come.

Her most common emotion sitting on this bridge was a sense of sheer boredom.

A blankness of the mind that only cleared once she was back in the dark world of humans.

“Depth?” She asked, back to an inexpressive, business-like tone of voice.

“700 meters.”

“Ah, home sweet home. We are in Sverland, correct?”

“Correct. Nearest station is Ajillo.”

“Ignore biologics again and inform me immediately of any mechanical profiles.”

“Yes, milord.”

Norn did not thank her bridge “drones” for their efficiency and attention.

In this role, she was as much of a drone as they were.

Soon, however, she would have cause to come alive again.

Now that she was back in the human world, her own vision started moving to other matters.

“Hunter III, feel free to nod off. I’ll wake you if I need you. Send Adelheid up.”

“It’s not sleep I’m cravin’, but as ya wish, milady.”

Behind Norn’s seat, Hunter III stood up and stormed out of the room.

Norn grinned to herself. She was back in Sverland, in the final act of Konstantin’s play.

It was not the surface world in which anything was transpiring, the poets and clergy be damned.

Movement existed only where humans could view it. That she could rise out of the world of humanity and travel through the waters above only made her anticipate her return to the dark more eagerly.

This was a time of great chaos and emotion in the world of humans, after all!

“Milord, we’ve detected a sonar pulse coming from a pair of Frigates.”

Without another word, the officer put the data she was referencing on the main screen. While a sonar pulse was a good way to be absolutely sure of everything that was around a ship, it also lit the ship up underwater like a stage spotlight. The Antenora was quickly aware of the ship that sent the pulse and their relative position. Soon, predictive imaging data came in as well.

“Milord, what is our posture?”

Norn smiled to herself, leaning back and resting her cheek on one of her fists.

“Combat. Let’s clean this up quickly, and then we can pick up our reinforcements.”

A few kilometers out were two Frigates, one of which was a missile Frigate with six bays, the other a reconnaissance ship outfitted with several domes filled with imaging and detection equipment more powerful than standard. It must have been this ship that sent out the pulse, but for what? Were they so reasonably sure that nobody meant them ill in this sector? One supposed they could not have known a ship would be descending from the photic zone.

Nobody planned for that.

“Nobody sends those missile Frigates out as part of a recon unit except the Volkisch.” Norn said. “That second Frigate has no missiles, it’s probably packed with Divers. Heidelinde Sawyer came up with that trick and now every one of those goosestepping clowns thinks they can do it.”

“To whom should we delegate combat command?”

A different drone spoke up than the one handling detection, but it didn’t matter who did.

“I’ll command.” Norn said. “But there won’t be much to do. Ping them over acoustics and tell them to stop, turn their cannons away, show their flanks to us, and prepare for inspection. All I want to know from the reply is whether they’re identifying as Volkisch or not, ignore the content. They won’t comply anyway, so just tell Potomac to get Selene and the machine ready to launch.”

Norn toyed with a long lock of blonde hair from the side of her head, briefly admiring its sheen. Adelheid was simply unmatched when it came to making Norn look beautiful. On the main screen, the Volkisch Frigates turned to meet her advance as soon as the acoustic message went out, putting them on a collision course. Norn glanced at it, gently kicking her feet while she waited.

“Fleet identified as ‘Aufklärungsgruppe Sowilo’ from the Rhinean navy.”

“Ah, fun! It’s the Volkisch. Stick to counterfire only.” Norn said. “Let Selene handle it.”

She rubbed her hands together and then spread them in a spontaneous cheer.

A grin appeared on her face from ear to ear and she could barely contain her excitement.

A grin that only broadened when she finally got the message she wanted to hear from the hangar.

Jagdkaiser Testbed, pilot Selene Anahid, cleared for deployment.” An officer said.

“I’m authorizing one cartridge, Selene. Anything goes otherwise. Have fun!” Norn said.

She then sat back to watch she show, hoping only that Adelheid might join them soon.


From the deployment chutes at the bottom of the Antenora a single machine was released.

Imaging predictors could not distinguish it from a Jagd and labeled it as such.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching.

To meet this threat the missile Frigate’s bays opened to reveal six modified Volkers. These Sturmvolkers used the smaller cockpit module of a Jagd rather than the bathyspheric torso of an older Volker, but retained the arms, legs, shoulders, and other parts of the classic imperial mecha to design a rugged but lighter footsoldier worthy of the frontline stormtroops. It was this stripping down that allowed the Sturmvolker to fit into the modified missile bays and launch from them.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching, and they had ambushed it.

Six Sturmvolkers with MP-443 20 mm submachine guns charged the enemy in formation.

Withering volleys of light gunfire cut across the ocean between the opposing forces.

Bullets soared into the dark, open water and detonated around an enemy no longer there.

An instant before they had begun to fire, the enemy Jagd veered left–

And a pair of foreign objects separated from it and veered right.

Several of the Volkisch troops opened fire on the objects believing them to be missiles. Dozens of rounds of submachine gun fire met the objects on the right flank. Much to the confusion and disbelief of the soldiers, these missiles dove, and banked, and circled around the gunfire, moving with a speed, reaction and efficacy that seemed unreal as they sped past the formation.

Taking the Volkisch’s backs, the missiles suddenly opened fire themselves.

Not just from behind, but from above as well.

Coordinating fire from two separate directions, the weapons laid down a hailstorm of frighteningly accurate 37 mm bullets while they circled over and around the Volkisch group, too fast for the bewildered soldiers to effectively respond. Two of the Volkers had their backpacks and helmets blasted apart immediately, and the rest began to panic and flee in every direction– they broke completely at the unusual weapons attacking them and without cohesion could do nothing.

Though the remaining Volkers dispersed in seemingly every direction, the strange mobile weapons simply adjusted the angle of fire and widened their strafing movements to expand the circle in which they kept the Volkisch trapped. Three more Volkers were sunk, but a single one dove down and to the left at just the right time as everyone else rose, narrowly avoiding the attack.

He lifted his submachine gun skyward and opened fire, blasting apart one of the missiles.

A shadow swept upon him as quickly as he remembered it. A massive claw ripped through the back of his armor and tore out the suit’s mechanical guts in a swift motion. With them was a red smear made unhuman by sudden decompression. Slowly the once survivor sank out of sight, arms limp, trailing ribbons of oil and gore like the machine that killed him trailed water and power.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd had torn through their forces like a storm.

Atop the Frigates, 76 mm light guns began to pound the immediate area around the machine but to no greater effect. Before it was fired upon the machine was already moving, accelerating faster, and maneuvering more swiftly than the cannon crew anticipated. Gas gun emplacements on the Frigates whipped up an intimidating fusillade of flak, but even through this, the enemy charged, unharmed, its cruel claw extending hungrily toward the Frigates as it closed in, 100 meters, 75, 50.

“You have one cartridge. Make it count.”

Within moments, the Jagd was upon the reconnaissance Frigate, face to face with the prow.

Having danced around every bullet as if it could see them before they flew out the barrels.

Dwarfed as it was by the vessel before it, the Jagd still reared back its claw to tear at it.

From within the seams in its arm’s armor plating a dim purple glow briefly escaped.

Vapor vented from several ports on the claw.

Razor-sharp digits parted to reveal an opening like a cannon barrel in the palm.

Stabilizers on each digit affixed to the central port as it snapped open.

A burst of water vapor punched forward from the opening encasing an indigo light.

On the Frigate’s prow a pulse shook the metal. Purple streaks crackled across the surface slashing up and down the prow to the keel and deck, to the port and starboard. Hexagonal bits of material peeled off the surface wherever the arcing energies danced leaving gaps momentarily smoking in place, before a second later the entire prow sunk in and burst, ejecting great plumes of bubbles and vapor as the interior decompressed. Roughly half of the ship lost structural integrity and collapsed, sinking inward or bursting open, and it toppled to the ocean floor a heap of metal.

Across the Jagd’s claw, hexagonal burnt marks were left around the weapon’s opening and all of the stabilizers had been eaten away. Dim crackling purple energy still played about the digits leaving tiny hex-shaped scars wherever they went. Parts of the armor plate on the arm had been peeled entirely off the machine revealing complex, silvery metalwork, and various electronics.

As the machine capsized a ship with one swing of its arm, its remaining weapon swiftly strafed across the deck of the missile Frigate, overflying the missile bays with its barrel pointing down and shooting directly into the openings as it went, punching holes directly to the interior of the ship. Nonchalantly, the weapon overflew the conning tower as the Frigate began to list, taking in water and expelling atmosphere. It returned to the machine and docked to the shoulder.

Minutes had passed since the launch of this machine.

Suspended amid clouds of debris and the wailing remains of hundreds of lives so easily erased, the machine was cast in a demonic gloom. Water billowing off its rear jets like wings, its blue coloration rendered black in the darkness of human waters, the horns on its head emitting strange lights. It was a demon released to haunt the oceans.

A demon called the Jagdkaiser.


Water dribbled down the armor of the recovered Jagdkaiser as it was lifted to the hangar by cranes, collecting on the orange steel floor of the Antenora’s lower deck. Soon as it arrived at the deployment chute, the pilot followed instructions to power down the machine. It was delicate and should not be made to move out of the water under its own power until set into its own gantry.

As Norn stepped out of the elevator to the hangar floor, she saw a welcome face gawking.

“Fancy looking, isn’t it?” Norn called out.

“I can’t stand it, honestly. Too many sharp edges.”

“Your skin too fine for it? Scared of getting a cut?”

“Hmph. My fashion sense is too fine for it.”

Standing apart from the sailors and engineers tending to the machine was Norn’s adjutant and first officer, a young woman named Adelheid van Mueller. Unlike Norn, who dressed however she wanted and essentially just wore her nicest shirts and pants beneath Fueller regalia, Adelheid had the grey and silver uniform of the Grand Western Fleet, a strapping coat that flattered her shapely figure, paired with a short skirt, black tights, and heeled shoes. Her glossy, deep red hair and the pastel-soft features of her face could have graced a classic portrait. She not only looked every bit the perfect noblewoman, but her every movement exuded an almost exotic grace–

–even as she blew off Norn’s high-tech prototype mecha with a bratty turn of the cheek.

“I’ve decided I quite dislike it.” She said. Her green eyes were unreadable, but her soft pink lips pouted just a little as she looked at the machine with vague disinterest, or perhaps disdain.

Norn shrugged, approaching the young woman, and standing at her side near the machine.

“You’ll have to get out of its sight, princess, because it’s not going anywhere.”

“Perhaps I will. Maybe I’ll take off and you’ll never see me again.” Adelheid laughed.

“Hunter III told you to go up to meet me.” Norn said nonchalantly.

“Hunter III ran straight to the commissary to beg for meat and told me nothing.”

“Wow. I can’t rely on her to do anything. Anyway, you know you’re not going anywhere.”

Norn briefly fixed a sharp gaze on Adelheid before setting her sights back on the mecha.

Possessed of the sleek, angular profile of the second-generation Jagd, the Jagdkaiser had a pointed face from which two steeply angled “horns” protruded, glowing with LED lights. One of its 20 mm shoulder guns was removed. That shoulder was thickened and mounted its semi-autonomous “Options” weapon system.

Rather than a backpack, the propulsion consisted of self-contained hydrojet thrusters set on exterior movable mounts. Two large ones extended from the hips, another pair on the legs, and pair behind the shoulders that, when engaged, cast a wake behind machine as if it had wings or a shimmering cape. One of its arms was equipped with a large claw, almost out of proportion to the body, sleeved in angular armor enclosing complex machinery.

Upon seeing the design, Prince Erich dubbed it Jagdkaiser. It was a marvel of engineering, the most stunning armor beneath the waves. The stagnant conflict between the Republic and Empire, which neither had the will to conclude, could have never produced such an apex predator. It could only emerge from a grand upheaval of the current order. Regardless of Adelheid’s silly attitude, even she had to have realized the significance.

“Is Selene unplugged yet?”

Norn turned to one of the technicians near the machine.

He was looking at a diagnostic computer that had a real-time image that looked like a brain-scan, showing different regions of the pilot’s neurological system in different colors. Everything was blue and green, calm. Norn could see similar colors when she focused on the aura around the machine itself. Selene was in good health.

“Separation is almost complete, milord.”

“Did it take this long last time?”

“Average separation time is 5.45 minutes.”

Like the rest of the crew the technician did not turn to face her, it wasn’t necessary.

When Norn stepped forward to look at the computer herself, she briefly saw the hard red rings around his eyes. He continued to be under her influence. There was no possibility that he was lying or trying to sabotage anything. After all, he himself would not want to do so. He himself had no understanding that he was controlled, and he was not wanting for food, rest or luxuries. He was simply working his job efficiently and enjoying it.

That being said, there was always a tiny thrill of paranoia about it, in the back of Norn’s brain.

Adelheid look over Norn’s shoulder with a curious expression.

“Norn, this time’s definitely taking longer.” Adelheid said.

“We’re well within the average time based on our tests.” The technician said calmly.

“He can backtalk me?” Adelheid pouted.

Norn grinned. “He can state the facts plainly and clear misconceptions. It’s his job.”

Taking Adelheid by the shoulder, Norn led her away from the computers and drones.

They stepped in front of the Jagdkaiser and waited until they finally heard a mechanical hissing. An efficient two part hatch slid into the bodywork, opening to reveal a young, skinny girl emerging from what looked eerily like a conglomeration of sinews attached to her head. Extricating herself from the various cables and sensors in her cockpit, the lithe girl in a black pilot suit climbed down, withdrew a visored mask from her pearl-skinned face.

She pulled a clip from the back of her head to release her long, purple-colored hair.

Two long, rainbow-colored, shimmering locks remained pinned down to the rest, however.

“I was having too much of a blast and busted one of the things. It’s whatever, right?”

Selene Anahid pointed at the Jagdkaiser’s shoulder with an easygoing smile on her face.

“Ordnance gets shot down. It’s fine. Logistics worries about that.” Norn said, shrugging.

“Hah! I knew you wouldn’t care. You’re the coolest commander I’ve had.” Selene said.

Grinning widely, Selene walked up to Norn and gave her a lighthearted little punch.

Norn refrained from roughhousing back and simply crossed her arms and smiled back.

At their side, Adelheid rolled her eyes and scoffed, loudly, performatively.

“It’s not a long list.” She said. “And I bet you’ll hate it the first time she scolds you.”

“Whatever.” Selene blew off the comment. “As long as I get what I want, I’ll be happy.”

“What you want huh? Killing people?” Adelheid said, with mock sweetness.

“That’s just a hobby. Anyway I’m bored. I’m gonna get some dinner and go to bed.”

Selene looked at Norn both expectantly but also with a great disinterest in her response. It was the kind of look only a self-absorbed kid could give. Norn couldn’t help but laugh. Such quick, almost schizophrenic swings; what a lively girl! Truly the only appropriate pilot for this test.

“Of course. If you see Hunter III over there, tell her to come down.” Norn said.

“She won’t listen to me, but ok.”

Selene waved disinterestedly and walked away with her arms behind her head, yawning.

The two of them watched her go, until the young woman had disappeared into the elevator. Norn and Adelheid looked at the interior of the Jagdkaiser and at the missing slot in the “Options” mount of the shoulder, just briefly enough to realize it was indeed a problem, before wandering away from the gantries. They would have to talk to Chief Engineer Potomac to see about fixing it.

Side by side, with Adelheid matching Norn’s contemplative pace, they marched to the ship’s workshop. There was clear and growing agitation in the First Officer’s stride, however.

“Norn, about Selene? She’s a vat kid, right? How old is she?” Adelheid asked.

“Supposed to be twenty, but who knows?” Norn asked. “And what’s with ‘vat kid’? I’m also a ‘vat kid’ I’ll have you know; I don’t want that phrase coming up in my ship again, okay?”

“Okay, fine. But you have to tell me what you promised her!” Adelheid demanded.

“What’s this mood you’re in suddenly? Are you feeling jealous? You colicky child?”

Adelheid turned her cheek. “And what if I am? I know I’m nowhere near as important–”

Norn interrupted decisively. “I’ll see to you soon. Hold on to your skirt until then.”

Her voice took a turn that seemed to put some kind of order back in Adelheid’s brains.

She started keeping pace with Norn again and her expression was slightly livelier.

“Fine, but what did you promise her? I want to know. I have to help take care of her too.”

In the face of Adelheid’s endearing determination, Norn finally relented.

“I promised her information about her past. I know who her main genetic donor is.”

“‘Main Genetic Donor’? Like, what, her father?”

“So in your mind, the principal actor behind a child’s creation is the father?”

“I mean. I guess? I wasn’t really getting philosophical with this.”

“I was just surprised by your reaction, given we’ve been through.” Norn shrugged. “Well, in her case, if I explained all the circumstances regarding her father-slash-mother, it might confuse your apparently narrow minded ideas of the world around you. So put that pretty head to good use thinking about less complicated matters, like our logistics, and onboarding our reinforcements, and let me worry about Selene.”

Adelheid took the insult to her intelligence in stride and put on a mischievous little grin.

“You’re the boss. But now I’m curious. What about your own donors? What kind of genetic powerhouses are behind the impeccable, almighty Astra Palaiologos whose company I cherish?”

Norn glanced sideways at Adelheid with a sudden fierceness.

Adelheid both saw, and felt the force of, that particular gaze, and it put her in her place.

Her flighty officer put her hands behind her back and kept quiet as they crossed the hangar.

Norn made only the tip of the iceberg of her displeasure known to her in that moment.

This particular turn in her plaything’s mood was starting to get a little annoying.

Adelheid knew everything she needed to know about Norn. More than any Imbrian knew.

Her curiosity toward boring, long-gone days was getting on Norn’s nerves.

Next time she taught Adelheid a lesson she’d make those feelings quite clear to her.

Almost assuredly what she wanted to happen.

When the pair arrived at the workshop space, a drone had just pulled in through one of the utility chutes and disgorged from its pod a heap of twisted metal and seawater collected from the battlefield. This was what remained of the “Option” that had been destroyed in the battle with the Volkisch, or so Norn presumed. There was no one paying it attention in that precise moment.

“Ugh, I wish they’d sent Tigris or Hudson instead. Potomac! Get over here and make yourself useful!”

Hunched over a table, prodding with an electrode at something wet and plastic colored encased in a metal shell to which far too many strange cables were attached, was the Antenora’s current Chief Engineer, named only “Potomac.” She was on loan from a certain distasteful group.

Potomac had turned the workshop into a circle of tables each playing host to mounds of tools and parts. Fluids of various sorts, random indiscernible pieces of machinery, worn or broken tools, and rolling hills of cabling and silicon dies littered the area. She was drowning in materials.

Clearly, she was not paying much attention to her surroundings whatsoever.

“In a minute.” She mumbled dismissively.

Right now.” Norn hissed.

Norn caught a brief glimpse of her honey-brown face as she looked over her shoulder. Where she came from, it was no obstacle to look however you wanted. Her lab coat, turtleneck and long skirt were all made of organic materials, worth thousands of marks by themselves. To the average onlooker she would have she would have been quite eyecatching, with a curvaceous figure, wide hipped, round-shouldered, an ample chest and a firm, round belly, thick legs. Her face had a soft-featured, small-nosed, gentle beauty to it that felt quite cozy, and long, lustrous black hair.

“I just need to get a few more reactions out of this neuropod. It’ll just take a second.”

Sparks flew as she jabbed the strange object in front of her with an electric prod.

Adelheid turned her cheek with a look of vague disgust.

Norn held out her hand, and in an instant, Potomac’s experiment was sent flying.

It struck the opposite wall of the workshop, a blue and white smear left in the case.

Potomac stared at it with barely any reaction. Her eyes teared up just a little.

“I– I don’t even know how to respond to that. I worked on that for hours.”

“If you value the integrity of the rest of your experiments, you will follow my commands immediately when I tell you.” Norn said. “Not one minute, not one second later. Right now.”

The engineer heaved a long sigh and turned to face them with a wan look to her face.

Her movements were very stiff, as if she were dragging herself through every motion.

“Duly noted.”

Potomac could choose to look however she wanted. Therefore, to some degree, perhaps the dark bags under her forced-open eyes, the uncared for look of her hair that was haphazardly collected and restrained with a clip behind her head, the shabbiness that had befallen her coat, the dirtiness of her glasses, were all symbolic of what she chose to do with the resources she had.

“Glad we understand each other.” Norn said. “I have something you need to fix.”

“I’m not one of your sailors, you know.” Potomac complained. “I’m not here to keep your ship’s ovens running or whatever. I’m only supposed to be working on important stuff.”

Norn crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “Like poking at slime in a jar?”

“It’s not slime! It’s so much more than slime, bah! It’s the future of computing!”           

“I don’t care. One of the Jagdkaiser’s Options was damaged in the battle. Go fix it.”

“Uh huh? Well, that is worthy of my talents.”

Potomac looked suddenly interested and began to look around the workshop.

“Did you bring it back? Where is it?”

Norn pointed over her shoulder. “It’s over there.”

“Over there? I don’t– Are you sure? Huh. I don’t see it. This might be tricky.”

“Are you blind? Over there. What do you need to fix it?” Norn asked.

She gestured to the drone as if unveiling the heap of metal they collected from the water.

Potomac blanched at it, her face sagging with growing displeasure.

“What is that? Is that really one of the Options?”

“Yes. Don’t act stupid. I’m sure you can tell from looking at it, you made it.”

“When I made it, it didn’t look like that.” Potomac bent down to stare closely at the gnarled slag that became of her invention. She shook her head, while still bent stiffly over it. “I did not expect to ever see an Option in such a state.” She stood back upright as stiffly as she bent.

“You eggheads never disappoint me with your naivety.” Norn said.

Potomac curled her hands into fists at her side.

“Look, I am an engineer advancing humanity’s digital evolution! My brain is constantly beset with world-spanning dilemmas that need cutting-edge, innovative solutions. I spare any expense to achieve my results no matter how high. I am not one of your small-minded logistics people counting beans in a bag. I will need to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”

Norn rolled her eyes at that histrionic spiel. “Problem solved then.”

“No! There is a new problem. I do not want to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”

Potomac stared dead on at Norn with those wide open eyes and that stiff posture.

For a moment, the room was dead silent. Norn grit her teeth.

“How about I stomp on your ribs until they come out of your mouth instead?”

Red rings briefly flashed in Norn’s eyes.

Potomac turned stiffly around and started an exaggerated march toward a comm booth.

“I will go have a chat with Yangtze about the parts.” She said, waving her hand.

She removed herself with more grace and alacrity than she had ever exhibited.

Throughout this exchange, Adelheid kept blissfully quiet, playing with a lock of red hair.

“You sound so heated lately.” She finally said. “Looks like someone could use a massage.”

“Now that you’re offering, I will be expecting it.” Norn said, sighing deeply.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In the Stream [6.8]

Moments after Murati alerted the Brigand to the status of the Diver team, the connection from her to the drone went dark without warning. Semyonova handed control back to Geninov in a mild panic, who attempted to troubleshoot the connection from their end. It became clear very quickly that Murati herself was having trouble with her equipment, and her stilted cadence when they could get hold of her seemed to support that theory.

Captain Korabiskaya ran her hands down her face with frustration.

“We have got to work on more reliable communication! This shouldn’t be happening.”

“In hindsight, we should have deployed a drone with them from the beginning.” Aaliyah said. “But it seems like Murati’s machine has taken a beating, and that’s not something we could account for no matter how much we prepared. Take it from someone whose job it is to give you a hard time: you’ve done all you could.”

“Is that your job? I guess that’s how you view ‘supporting’ me.”

Ulyana allowed herself a small smile, once again grateful for the stoic Shimii at her side.

However, the situation was still fairly grim.

With only one remaining bomb, they had no margin of error for victory.

Turning around at this point was an option, but not one that was part of the plan.

“Aaliyah, do you think we could commit to a ship battle at this point? I’m uncertain.”

Her Commissar shook her head. “In the current situation we’re accepting that the enemy won’t shoot at us too seriously. If we press our advantage, in such a visible way as turning around and shooting them with our ship’s guns, we’ll alter the situation to the point it might tempt them to reconsider shooting us in desperation.”

Ulyana sank back in her chair wearily. “It would be a real all-or-nothing play on our part.”

Aaliyah joined her, reclining in her own chair. “We can’t even guarantee we’d sink them.”

“You’re right, but it’s frustrating! If this is how we’re going to be fighting from now on, I need a better way to communicate with the Divers moment to moment than this.” Ulyana said.

Command and control between ships was a largely solved problem. While the equipment could be rough and there were factors that could cause interference, it was quite possible to keep in constant contact with ships in a tenable fighting position. Ships had powerful laser transmitters and fast and reliable acoustic messaging, handled by full-size computers and large crews. Fleets could span several kilometers and still communicate with each other by bouncing signals through each other’s networks as long as every ship had a friendly ship within data range.

However, Divers were much smaller and unable to support full-power electronics.

And thanks to Murati’s tactics, they were expected to fight outside their ship’s laser range too, and since they were far more active combatants with less surface area for equipment than a ship, they could not be rigged up with powerful lasers to accept and bounce stable connections the way any ship could have.

They would have to find a solution for this! It was not acceptable!

Ulyana could not bear being responsible for people she had no means to talk to!

For all that they could do to affect this battlefield, they were essentially mute and blind.

How could she counsel and lead her frontline troops in this situation?

“Fatima, can you get a sense of what’s happening out there?” She asked.

At the sonar station, the dark-haired Shimii turned around to shake her head at the Captain.

“I’m sorry Captain, but we are not able to see it granularly. I really wish there were more that I could do– we can predict and image their positions and movements, and to some degree, the amount of gunfire around them and where the explosions are happening. But if a Diver just got cut down by a sword, we can’t tell. If it’s been shot, we can’t tell the degree of damage. And with so much happening, the prediction accuracy is not too great right now.”

Fatima’s ears drooped. She looked like she wanted to blurt out another apology.

But her voice was clearly starting to strain after everything that had happened.

“Thank you. You’ve been amazing Fatima. Return to your tasks.”

“Yes ma’am.”

In any other situation, that sensitive Shimii would have said “I’m sorry,” again.

Her energy was spent. They were all spent in their own ways.

You could learn everything there was about war in theory, or even simulations.

No one could prepare you to be ripped out of your bed and forced into battle.

No one could ask you to fight with complete stoicism when you were really in danger.

Whatever happened, Ulyana felt proud that they were still holding together.

Then a deadpan voice sounded from the Electronic Warfare station.

“Ma’am, we’ve hit a snag.”

Ulyana’s heart jumped. Not more bad news! “Explain and hope nothing interrupts you.”

Zachikova turned her chair fully around.

There was something strained about the look in her eyes. Though lifelike, they were still mechanical, and one could not imagine that red veins would creep to show her tiredness. But her expression still managed to convey how tired she was. She had been working on software to support the additional hydrojets on the Brigand’s aft.

“I’ve created a rudimentary application that reopens the routing valves to the secondary thrusters and routes power to the motors for that turbine network. I’ve been coordinating with Kamarik to run tests to make sure we can route power to the motors without anything breaking. Unfortunately, we’ve found a problem I did not foresee.”

Kamarik raised his hand and spoke up then.

“Captain, whenever we activate those jets, our girl gets some real bad cramps. She can process that much water, but we start to see more vibration in the valves and turbines of the intake system. Since there’s no additional intakes, it just draws more water through the existing ones faster than normal to keep up. Stresses out the whole system.”

There was no good way to take that news.

Ulyana took it by bending forward and running her fingers through her blond hair, undoing the tidy ponytail she had made it up into, and staring at the ground for several seconds. When she sat back up, she tossed her hair and took in a breath. Her face was sweaty, her skin was clammy, her eyes were strained. She struggled to look angry or annoyed rather than desperate or hopeless. Anger could at least be motivating for others to see.

“Messiah defend; is the end of our tunnel always an incoming train? Keep working on it.”

“Ma’am, we can keep working on it, but the physical facts won’t change.” Kamarik said.

“Keep working on it! Stress test, run simulations, give me the cost-benefit! Push the limits! How much can the intakes withstand? Can we run those boosters for a minute? An hour? If we need to have the sailors get in pressure suits and make repairs, we can do that once we’ve escaped!” Ulyana said firmly, raising her voice to Kamarik.

“Yes ma’am!”

Rather than sounding drained, Kamarik seemed a little more energized again.

Zachikova too; maybe it was the adrenaline of being yelled at.

Something like that would not last for long, and Ulyana did not particularly enjoy it.

Aaliyah nodded her head to her, as if acknowledging silently that she understood.

“Can we connect to anyone else?” Ulyana said. “Where is the drone, Geninov?”

At the torpedo station the resident gamer’s face sank.

“I’ve been poking connections all this time, but I’m like a hundred meters away from anyone, okay! I gotta keep this unarmored little shit out of visual flak range! There’s not much I can do.” Geninov replied.

“Then charge! Full ahead! Hurl it right into the flagship if you have to!” Ulyana replied.

“God damn it! If you say so! Don’t blame me–”

“Bomb detonation!”

Fatima shouted at the top of her lungs, an instant before the drone camera saw the blast.

Everyone’s heads snapped briefly toward her before turning to the screen.

A bright flash and an enormous vapor bubble blooming off of the Irmingard’s side.

Water displaced by the enormous shockwave sent the lightweight drone tumbling back.

“What’s the enemy’s status?” Ulyana called out.

“Struck on the port sidepod!” Fatima called back. “It’s listing! I think it’s listing!”

On the main screen the prediction lagged. When the picture updated, that behemoth of a flagship looked doughy, misshapen. Smaller objects had entirely disappeared. Then the flagship tipped on its side. Everyone watched speechlessly for a moment as if expecting the prediction to roll back, to be a mistake.

After moments of tumbling aimlessly in the water, Geninov finally wrestled the drone back toward the flagship. The shockwaves had died down, and the vapor bubble had disappeared. On the camera they could see the shadow of that ship turning on its side, disgorging metal from its stricken flank. It was falling farther and farther behind the Brigand, clearly unable to accelerate, and soon disappeared almost entirely from the cameras.

That muted pause in the Bridge suddenly became an explosion of celebrations.

Geninov lifted her arms off the drone controls and threw them around a surprised Fernanda.

Kamarik put his head down against his station and consoled his best dame with a smile.

Semyonova grabbed hold of the exhausted Fatima’s hands and jumped up down.

Ulyana and Aaliyah sank against each other in their chairs.

“Can we get some focus here.” Zachikova grumbled. “Look!”

She pointed her hand in the direction of the main screen.

On the drone camera, they briefly saw a group of objects moving toward the Brigand.

They were recognizable as Streloks in varying stages of disrepair.

Ulyana bolted up to her feet. She counted six! Every machine, at least, had come back!

One was being carried aloft, however. They might need emergency aid.

“Slow down to collect the Divers! That flagship isn’t going anywhere for a while.” Ulyana said. “Send Syracuse and Kappel to the hangar with stretchers in case anybody needs help. Have sailors in pressure suits with jet anchors ready in case we need to pull machines up! Get the senior mechanics and workgroup managers to schedule repairs! And be proud of yourselves, my precious crew! We weathered the storm; we sank an Irmingard-class!”

Buoyed by their moment of triumph, the crew gave one last great effort.

Fatima set her earpods back into her ear fluff and continued monitoring the sonar.

Semyonova broadcast the situation across the ship, contacting everyone who was needed.

Kamarik altered the ship’s thrust and kept it steady.

Geninov nearly collapsed over Fernanda, who patted her back with an awkward expression.

Aaliyah crossed her arms and heaved a little sigh of relief, her ears wiggling contentedly.

And Ulyana–

Ulyana wanted nothing more than to tear up. With joy, with passion, with fear, with stress.

However, she was the confident Captain Korabiskaya whom everyone had to rely on.

There would be many more opportunities to cry in the battles that were to come.

She reserved those tears as best she could. Crying in the first bout of the war wouldn’t do.


When Semyonova’s beautiful round face appeared in the hangar, and the news was given to the sailors who had been preparing for every possible eventuality, Chief Mechanic Lebedova let everyone have a few minutes of being rowdy to celebrate. There was a lot of stomping, a lot of noise, a lot of banter that echoed through those metal halls as the relieved sailors let out all their manic energy. But the sailors themselves cut short their own merriment. When they heard their Divers were returning, they seamlessly returned to their work immediately.

Like everyone in the crew, they treasured the pilots who had truly won them this victory.

So there was a nervous flurry of activity in the hangar as they accepted the returning heroes.

First came the Cossack and Strelkannon, able to rise out of the deployment chutes on their own power. The Cossack was visibly banged up, with some hull and leg damage, while the Strelkannon had been riddled with bullets on its extremities but was only superficially damaged. When the two of them rose to the hangar floor, they were ordered to stop, and were moved by machine to their gantries. Moving out of water could exacerbate damage to the limbs and thrusters. They were firmly affixed to their gantries, and work began on them almost immediately.

Next came Khadija’s Strelok. While fully out of ammunition, it had received little damage.

Finally, Lebedova and Shalikova’s Streloks helped a group of six sailors to pull the Cheka into a deployment chute and up into the hangar. It had lost power and was not going to rise without help. The sailors went out in pressurized, powered suits each about ¼ the size of a full Diver. These suits allowed them to move outside the ship to carry out repairs. Repairs which would soon be needed, as the Brigand itself had taken serious damage.

Recovering the Cheka was a fairly safe opportunity for the sailors to practice in their suits.

Everyone was astonished when they brought the Cheka up out of the water.

Some of the exposed power cells began smoking immediately upon being taken out of the water and had to be put out first with fire extinguishers and then with freezing agents. There was extensive shoulder damage to the point one of the arms hung by the thread of a pull-rod. Several impacts from debris had dented the armor on the hull and legs, and smashed part of the head. Dozens of pitted armor wounds. It would need extensive repair.

More importantly, a group of engineers, including Gunther Cohen, gathered to break open the cockpit and try to free Murati Nakara from inside it. Due to the need for the cockpit to retain atmosphere in the event of an emergency at all costs, opening the cockpit on auxiliary power without the pilot’s help was not a feature that received much consideration. So some damage to the hatch seams would have to be inflicted in order to separate them. While they worked on the Cheka, Shalikova and Lebedova were recovered, both with limited damage.

Having been recovered first, the Cossack and Strelkannon opened soonest.

Smiling pleasantly, Sameera climbed out of her suit and stepped down to the hangar floor.

Moving quickly and with purpose, Dominika left hers and traversed the hangar toward her.

Sameera seemed to realize what was coming and for a brief instant looked nervous.

Then, with a mighty sound, Dominika slapped Sameera across the face.

“You selfish idiot! You could’ve been killed! Never play the hero in front of me again!”

Her eyes were red as if she had been crying. Sameera rubbed her cheek, smiling vacantly.

“You’re right. I treated you all wrong, miss. It is a gentleman’s duty to apologize–”

Her words started to slur, and Dominika was puzzled by the response.

Sameera’s eyes were quite red themselves, but for an entirely different reason.

From the corner of one bright eye fell a droplet of blood. A tiny string of red dribbled down her nose and over her lip soon after. Her bushy, club-like tail dipped, and her ears folded slightly. Sameera started to wobble on her feet, and all the while retaining her gallant smile, she collapsed suddenly into Dominika’s arms. Surprised and horrified, Dominika almost fell with her, but managed to keep hold of the sick woman and take her into her arms on the floor.

Dominika slowly realized it wasn’t a joke or a weird form of flirting.

“Medic! Oh my god! She needs a medic!”

She shouted at the top of her lungs and the crowd dispersed with horror in their eyes.

From behind the sailors, the blue-haired doctor Kappel emerged with none of her usual cheerfulness. She was accompanied by a woman in the grey coat of the security troops, brown-haired and with orange-brown skin, the medic “Syrah” or Syracuse. The brown and yellow fins coming out from under her shoulder-length hair bristled gently as she set Sameera down while Kappel prepared the stretcher. Gently, Syracuse set Sameera on it and lifted her up, with the help of one of the sailors. Dr. Kappel would remain behind to see to any other injured pilots.

“She’s breathing.” Dr. Kappel said. “There could be hemorrhaging. Take her up and stabilize her.”

“Yes ma’am. Her atmosphere control must have been damaged in the battle.” Syrah said.

Dr. Kappel brushed Dominika’s shoulder reassuringly. “She’ll be fine. She can recover.”

“I’m coming with you!” Dominika said suddenly.

She looked almost embarrassed to be saying so and would not explain herself further.

But with the devastated look on her face, it was impossible to say no to her.

Syrah and Dominika left the hangar soon after.

By that point, Khadija, Shalikova and Lebedova had exited their cockpits.

None of them looked too worse for wear. Sweaty and tired, but with their full faculties.

Shalikova, however, left the side of her suit quickly and rushed over to the Cheka.

“We didn’t hear a peep from Murati since we regrouped with her!” Shalikova shouted. She looked from the machine to the mechanics trying to open it, and her eyes narrowed, her fists closed at her sides with visible frustration. “Have you heard anything? Did she bang on the doors at least? Do you think Murati’s awake?”

One of the mechanics turned to her and shook his head– just as the hatch slammed open.

Gunther Cohen rushed in through the hatch, peering inside the cockpit.

“Messiah defend!” He shouted, briefly terrifying the group. “She’s alive but–! Medic!”

“Murati!”

Shalikova cried out, uncharacteristically. Khadija and Lebedova urged her to back away.

An unconscious Murati was pulled free from the cockpit and set on a stretcher. She had a pulse, and she was breathing, but likely suffered a concussion. She had hit the side of the head bad enough to bleed. Her wrist was definitely broken, and the same arm was quite possibly broken as well. One of her ribs was bruised. She was in no condition to pilot again for the time being. Out of everyone she would probably need the most long-term attention in the days to come. Doctor Kappel briefly checked the other Divers and cleared them before taking Murati.

Once they had taken the injured away to the medical bay and the drama was given some time to settle, the sailors gathered around the remaining pilots and gave a round of applause and several cheers. Though more sober in their response than they would have been had all of the pilots been present and uninjured, they still showered Lebedova, Khadija and Shalikova with praise and affection. Shalikova clearly withered in the middle of this applause. Lebedova put their arms behind their back, face flushed red. Khadija waved warmly back and even blew a few kisses.

“Alright, knock it off now, give the heroes some room!”

Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova pushed her way through the crowd and sent everyone back to their work. Many of the sailors had already shouted themselves hoarse and jumped and clapped all they could muster, but even the rowdiest ones listened to the Chief and left posthaste at her command. When the crowd finally dispersed, she approached the pilot Lebedova with a big smile on her face and gave her nibling a firm smack on the shoulder to show her appreciation. Her eyes looked bright with praise and pride for her relative.

“Look at you! Such a big shot now! How did the real thing feel?” She teased.

Valya Lebedova averted their gaze. “Well, the graphics had a truly frightening fidelity.”

Shalikova stood in place, as if not knowing how to react, before wandering off.

Once the adrenaline had worn off, and everyone had caught up to the moment as gracefully or awkwardly as they would, the tireless work demanded by the Brigand’s mission continued. All of this excitement that had lasted barely hours once it commenced, had transpired at night. On the Captain’s orders, non-essential personnel could retire. A few sailors continued to run maintenance tasks, several mechanics remained with each Diver, and the workgroup management convened and began to draft their plans for the assessment and repair of all the day’s damage. Little by little, the manic activity and thick crowds that had characterized the hangar began to shrink and disperse.

For a moment, Khadija al-Shajara remained behind, seated at a workbench.

Watching the sailors peeling off from their workgroups and disappearing into the adjoining halls. The air in the hangar was far less stale and sterile than anywhere else and more organic, tinged with the odor of work: lubricants, oils, sweat. Khadija spoke to no one, merely lounged, breathing in gently, decompressing by herself.

Until she spotted Aiden Ahwalia, staring at the Cheka with a grave look on his face.

She snorted. “Caught your eye? That’s war you’re looking at, you pampered little worm.”

Without acknowledging her, Aiden grunted and left in a hurry with his fists balled up.


Sonya Shalikova did not feel like much of a hero.

As she climbed the stairs to the upper deck, she could not help but berate herself and feel a bit sickened by the round of applause and the ring of praise that had formed around her. It upset her that people so easily elevated her, because she did not feel like she had done anything worth that commemoration. It was the same in the Academy too. Everyone was so quick to praise her. Everyone kept treating her like she did something so amazing and miraculous. She always wondered if it had been because of her sister– certainly, that couldn’t be the case now.

Right?

“I was useless. Murati and Khadija both had to save me.”

That was the acid that was slashing around the inside of her brain.

She was no match for the pilot of that Diver that suddenly showed up. For a single pilot to show up and disrupt their operation so much was shameful enough. Even with Khadija’s techniques in mind, even with a dirty trick, she still could not do anything. Then Khadija left the bombing to her and Lebedova, but Murati took it upon herself to do everything. Was it because she did not trust Shalikova or Lebedova? Shalikova did not want to think about that. Now that was a poison in her mind she could recognize as such. It would not lead anywhere good.

In her mind, if she trusted everyone, and everyone trusted her in turn–

Then the only explanation was that she had simply failed personally.

And yet everyone cheered her, again and again.

They all praised and cheered, even when Zasha– when her sister didn’t come back–

“Sonya!”

Shalikova had walked automatically all the way to her room.

A cheerful voice there brought her back to her senses before she could burst out crying.

“Ah! That dreadful aura around you has faded a bit! Are you happy to see me?”

“Hmph.”

She was greeted by the smiling pink face of Maryam Karahailos, her flushed cheeks framed by her long purple bangs, and the tentacles blending in with the rest of her long hair slowly shifting and rising so the paddles could join her hands in waving Shalikova inside. The two fin-like shapes on her head wiggled from side to side vigorously, fanning the sterile air of the room around her head. She was clearly excited, and practically radiated a kind of warm, innocent joy Shalikova hardly ever saw.

Shalikova’s chest fluttered a little bit; she was unused to “coming back to” someone waiting for her after a battle. Though she also wouldn’t describe Maryam as someone who fully satisfied that narrative. Having a waiting bride to complete the heroic narrative would have been a truly intolerable imposition on Shalikova and she regretted even thinking about the whole thing.

“I’m going to bed.” She said, in as unromantic a way as she could muster.

“Good night!” Maryam said.

Shalikova perked up an eyebrow.

She had gotten it in her head they would have some big, stupid, circular argument where she would be trying to shake Maryam off herself for the next hour. Maryam continued to stare at her as she walked into the room. Shalikova withdrew a towel from one of the wall recesses and dried her sweat-soaked hair, face, the top of her chest. When her eyes peered over her shoulder, the cuttlefish katarran was still seated on her bed across the room.

Staring.

It was too awkward. This kind of situation– Shalikova couldn’t just say nothing.

“Were you OK during all this?”

“Yes! A kind sailor gave me a delicious sandwich.”

Maryam’s face lit up, and her voice was so chipper. What was her deal anyway?

“So you did leave the room and run around while we had an emergency going on?”

Maryam closed her eyes and looked smug.

“I did not go down to the hangar to bother you. I stayed in the upper deck.”

“Small triumphs.”

“I was also very helpful to the captain and the security girls!”

Shalikova dreaded trying to imagine what must have happened.

“You can tell me tomorrow. Good night.”

“Of course– Oh! By the way. Thank you for saving us. I am very grateful to be alive.”

Across the room, Maryam stood up, and did a little bow and a curtsy, lifting her skirt.

Shalikova stared at her, at first almost uncomprehending of what had been said.

A trickle of tears did finally escape her eyes at that point. Something in her had broken.

“Ah! Oh no!” Maryam reacted abruptly.

She saw Shalikova begin to cry before Shalikova herself noticed it. Either that or she “read it in her aura” — whatever that meant. Regardless, it took Shalikova feeling her eyes sting to realize that she was weeping. When they came, the tears would not stop. Shalikova turned her back on Maryam in an instant and sank into bed.

Her arms wrapped tight around Comrade Fuzzy.

Soon her tears were accompanied by loud sobs.

“Sonya! I’m really sorry. I really am grateful.”

“Whatever!” Sonya shouted back. “I’m grateful you’re alive too! Go to bed, Maryam!”

She lifted her blankets over her head and settled as close to the wall as she could.

Gritting her teeth, weeping harshly, as all the feelings she had bottled up rushed over her.


“How do we even proceed with this mission? This feels more impossible by the second.”

“Certainly, it is a difficult task, but no task is impossible, Captain.”

Deep into the night, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara remained awake.

The Bridge had been sent to bed, even the night shifters that had been assigned for the day. The Captain and Commissar took over for them. Everything that had transpired felt well behind them. Their injured were stable in the med bay, the ship itself was humming along. However, the appearance of that Irmingard class and the demands of Gertrude Lichtenberg urged them to think about the future, even after the worst passed.

By themselves in the Bridge, an enormous digital map of the world on the main screen.

They focused on their hemisphere, and the Imbrium and Nectaris Oceans.

With the Iron Lady marooned in the middle of nowhere, damaged to a degree unknown; and all their Divers recovered; the Brigand sped away at full speed, sans the dummied boosters still to be tested, headed north-northwest from Serrano. To the far north was the Khaybar Pass, a zone marked on their map as a no-go; to the far east would be the borders of Veka. That meant the only direction to go was the west. There were a few Stations along the way that they could potentially go to, though they would not be safe anywhere big and obvious nearby.

In the direction they were headed, they would hit the borders of the Imbrium Ocean.

To break into the seat of the Union’s nemesis, to the waters that had birthed the Empire and the oppression of half the livable world, they would need to travel through Rhinea. Judging by the intelligence they had on the Volkisch Movement, they would not be too safe in Rhinea’s large, public stations, due to the fascists’ current occupation with their own internal security. Surveillance and policing would not be as lax there as in Serrano.

Farther west was the Yucatan Gulf, a vast ring of deep ocean territory framed north, west and south by the wall of the continent of Central Occultis. Such vast continental access made the Yucatan’s western extremes dangerous, teeming with Leviathans, red biomass, and corrupted weather patterns. However, it also made the Yucatan extremely rich in minerals from the continent wall, as well as a source of cave soils from collapsed areas of the continent, used in certain kinds of agriculture. Its industrial population could possibly be sympathetic to Union ideology.

Unfortunately the Royal Alliance made the many Stations and Substations of the Yucatan their seat of power, straining the rest of Sverland’s access to the raw materials there and forcing them to fend for themselves. Because the Alliance was still in the process of consolidating power, the Yucatan could be dangerous as well. Public stations and large industrial works would be under greater scrutiny until the aristocrats fully settled in.

“Right now the Volkisch are far too alert. Even if we lay low, Rhinea is a lot denser with habitations than Sverland. There’s not a lot of open Ocean to sneak through and we may not be able to lay low in any major Station without having collaborators.” Ulyana said. “We could head to the Yucatan and take our chances there, but once we get in, if the border is too hot, we won’t be able to get back out. With the continent wall right there, there’s really nowhere we could go, but circling back around. It feels like none of our options are good options.”

“I think plotting where to go is premature at this point.” Aaliyah replied.

Ulyana nodded. “There’s still a lot we don’t know. But we have to keep moving no matter what. I doubt we killed everyone aboard that ship or that we put it down for good. I have a gut feeling we’ll get chased again if we stick around here too long. Back in the Revolution, they taught us that standing and fighting the Empire was suicide. But by leading them around by the nose, you could lay traps, or force them to tip their hand.”

“I know our situation, Captain. But what need to do to make informed decisions is to gather more information. We can start with Marina and Maryam, but don’t forget our mission isn’t to take down the Empire by ourselves. A civil war is brewing; all kinds of factions and cliques will form that we can exploit to our advantage.”

“Factions? Well, right now, we’ve got the Royal Alliance and the Volkisch in front of us.” Ulyana said with a sigh. “Neither of which really agree with my particular tastes in political action, you know?”

“That’s fine, because I was not referring to either of them, at least not writ large. All of these groups are themselves formed of smaller groups.” Aaliyah said. She put on a smug little face as she delivered the rest of her explanation to an increasingly frustrated and dumbfounded Ulyana. “Captain, you told Murati she needed to get better at internal politics, but you need better national politics. Political groups are never uniform. There are cliques and interests in every major political group that go through periods of friction and stability. Even in the Union this is true and there have been frictions which we had to solve. The Empire is much larger, and its political class is much more vicious and far less united than ours in even the barest basics of how their world should work.”

Ulyana blinked. “So you’re saying there’s a subfaction of the Volkisch we can get along with? That sounds franky quite absurd to me, but you Commissars certainly see things differently than us normal folks.”

Aaliyah’s tail stood on end. “Again, I’m not being that specific about this, Captain.”

“Fine. But then, I should keep an open mind about potentially giving weapons and training to people who might believe in monarchies, but don’t want this one, or who may or may not believe in democracy of some description but are at least open to shooting at the Volkisch for now. We are not just looking for revolutionaries exactly like the ones we had at home 20 years ago. Is this what you’re telling me our mission is now?”

“All the bad faith and sarcasm aside, yes.” Aaliyah said.

“I thought you would be the one most opposed to reaching across the aisle.” Ulyana said.

Her tone started to take on a bit of a teasing note. Aaliyah crossed her arms.

“Offering military aid to a group doesn’t mean we’ll approve of its aims forever.”

“Now that’s some Commissar-like thought. Backhanded as all hell.”

“Our entire mission is backhanded. To survive it, we have to use any means available.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at each other, lit only by the dim glow of the digital globe.

Both of them sighed deeply.

There was a grim tension between them neither wanted to have provoked.

“I’m sorry. I’m really tired. I’m not being productive.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you. I understand your concerns completely. I’m just trying to be constructive.”

Aaliyah gave ground, seemingly as much as she would let herself do.

By mutual agreement, the two of them dropped the subject.

They would just ride out the night shift to the best of their abilities, making few remarks while tending the stations. Letting the quiet of the moment wash over them. A hard-fought silence, after a battle that already felt distant.


“There was a veteran pilot among them who was very skilled. She acted as a distraction and held me from my defense of the ship long enough for her subordinates to execute an attack. I was too careless.”

That was all that Sieglinde von Castille had to say for herself before averting her gaze with a petulant scowl. Lavishing platitudes upon Gertrude Lichtenberg would not change anything that happened and she disliked having to prostrate herself. Whenever a pilot went out to fight, she accepted her death or defeat as an eventual outcome. She had been outmaneuvered and was lucky to have survived. That was all that needed to be said.

“That’s all?” Gertrude asked. Digging her finger into the wound.

“That’s all.” Sieglinde replied.

Equivocating would not have changed anything. It was a waste of time.

“I have to say, I’m a little disappointed in such a childish response from a storied Hero.”

“I did not promise anything except my cooperation. It is you who had false hopes in me.”

“Your lack of introspection is surely a blessing at a time like this. Well, fine then.”

Gertrude’s scorn was palpable not only in her brutal words but her wild, fierce eyes.

But Sieglinde was not moved.

She was no child: she was a very grown woman now. She was thirty eight years old. Significantly older than Gertrude herself. Nothing she could say or do would change what she had done, or what she could do next. Her life, her role, the things she was capable of or that were possible for her to do, had all ossified over decades. Her past, whether hours or ages ago, was something she could only suffer and endure having lived. It couldn’t change.

That one woman pilot shared the same pain as her.

That pilot who taunted her in the open, who knew her as the Red Baron. Truth be told, Sieglinde could not tell her apart from anyone else. So it was perhaps impossible for her to give this woman the satisfaction she craved. However, she knew implicitly that this woman’s time had also stopped, just like Sieglinde’s, frozen by their war. They were both hurt the same way, tied together by the calcified chains like two corpses to one skeleton.

It hurt her heart to think about, but–

There was nothing she could do to expiate for what she did to that woman.

“Ultimately it was my fault as the guarantor of this ship that you failed.” Gertrude finally said after a long and frustrated silence. “We did not commit our resources properly. Our escorts were unreliable. We were defeated by an enemy with more cohesion and better command, because we were far too complacent.”

Sieglinde averted her gaze once more. She was surprised to see Gertrude being lenient.

“Quite level-headed of you. I accept and commend your grace, Lady Inquisitor.”

Such moments seemed to come and go for Gertrude. Black hearted one second, gentle the next.

The two of them stood together in the middle of the Iron Lady’s vast, well-equipped hangar.

Sieglinde’s recovered Grenadier, a new class of Diver, had been set into its gantry, alongside the two heavily damaged Jagd units belonging to Ingrid and Clostermann, and the spare Volker. The Jagd were overseen by a few mechanics and two robotic repair units with powerful, precise manipulators assessing the unit and peeling off any unsalvageable parts. They were not the only crew working in the hangar that night. Operating from computerized stations, a pair of engineers commandeered drones to assess the damage outside and make plans for a repair crew which was, simultaneously, equipping themselves in the hangar, a dozen men in pressure suits with one heavy labor suit about half the size of a Diver ready to join them outside. They had been ordered to waste no time.

While Gertrude was being a rough taskmaster, the men were highly motivated, nonetheless.

At the moment they were helplessly stranded in the middle of the Ocean, after all.

Every inhabitant of the Iron Lady wanted to get the ship moving again.

If there was one thing about Gertrude Lichtenberg that impressed Sieglinde, it was the respect her crew had for her. They would take a scolding from her and rather than become depressed they would work harder. They would follow her orders slavishly. In this current, frankly insane quest of hers, they still followed, knowing only they were chasing a “VIP” and not the dire truth behind the matter. Had they known the truth it was likely they would not question the veracity of Gertrude’s information. Despite everything, they rendered no complaints.

Sieglinde had witnessed this before. It was not just discipline that inspired such feelings. It was the kind of esteem soldiers could only have for a commanding officer who they saw as an aspirational figure. She did not see Gertrude as highly skilled or overtly generous. It was not a notable bloodline, nor great wealth that drew people to her. Rather, she was someone who rose from among them and therefore understood their plight. They fought together, bled together, drank and ate together; she was not an officer to her men, but one of the men.

Every such person that Sieglinde had known had been crushed into a red mist.

Theirs was not a society that treasured and protected its salt-of-the-earth folk heroes.

The Imbrium Empire’s so-called meritocracy fed on a steady diet of the patriotic and dutiful.

For every hero that suffered and died, there was a coward who thrived and prospered.

There was nothing she could do about this, but acknowledge it, and seethe.

“What will you do now?” Sieglinde finally asked Gertrude.

“We’ll go after them. We’ll repair the ship and continue the chase.”

Her reply was almost immediate. Either the product of determination, or a profound haste to affirm her self-delusion. Her eyes were dark, her expression sullen. She was clearly shaken, but grimly determined.

“Am I to continue piloting the Grenadier?” Sieglinde asked.

Gertrude turned a weary, vindictive look to her.

“Do what you want. I won’t beg you again.” She said bitterly.

Her haste to say these words seemed to surprise even herself. Her face blanched, ashamed.

Sieglinde wanted to turn her back on Gertrude, but she did not walk away just yet.

“I didn’t ask you to beg the first time. You have such a wicked view of the world.” She said.

She could not in good conscience judge the Inquisitor for the grief that she felt. Her own heart was still soft with a wish to see in a woman like Gertrude the gallantry and righteousness that her men saw. So before the Inquisitor left her side, the broken Red Baron offered the bitterest confirmation of her own twisted feelings.

“Until you are able to speak with her. Until we hear her decision. I’ll follow you.”

Upon Gertrude’s very soul and the contents therein, Sieglinde would make this oath.

She wanted to believe. She wanted to be shown something different than she had seen.

Gertrude looked momentarily as if she did not know how to respond to that.

“I’ll hold you to it.”

Her brooding side took hold of her once more, and those words were her only reply.

Then she turned and left the hangar.

Sieglinde took this to signal her assent and retreated in the opposite direction.

Wondering how it was that the Empire’s tragedies kept sucking at the marrow in her broken old bones.

Again, and again, seemingly without end.


Several hours since the Iron Lady’s hectic battle with the mercenaries, Gertrude retreated to her room. She had left the sailors with good direction and trusted them fully to carry out all the repairs. There was nothing more she could do but stand around and look spent and miserable, so she decided to make herself scarce. Now that the adrenaline wore off and she had some distance from her emotions, she was starting to come down hard. Her exhaustion was such that she simply could neither disrobe nor make herself sleep. She merely threw herself into bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling. All that she could peel off her uniform before lying down was her cape, hat and coat.

Gertrude was not alone for very long; certainly not as long as she had hoped to be.

A deep and rough but excited voice at the door. “’Trude! Open up! Let’s get fucked up!”

From past experience, there was no use telling Ingrid to go to bed.

At least, not for Gertrude who wanted to remain on good terms with her and treasured her company. One of the worst things one could do to Ingrid was rebuff her when she was being generous. So out of all the things that could have compelled Gertrude to stand up from her bed, it was going to open the door for Ingrid.

At the doorway, she found the dark-skinned, messy-haired loup grinning at her, with a wagging tail and cheerfully alert ears. Ingrid was in an admirable state of dress, wearing a decently covering tanktop and sweatpants. Gertrude had expected her to be wearing almost nothing. She smiled from ear to ear, her face brightening the moment their eyes met. She had in one hand a canteen plate with canned ham spread, ship biscuit and a jar of oil-packed peppers. Slung from the other hand was a small box of canned beers from out of the ship reserve.

“How did you get a whole box?” Gertrude asked.

“My charisma, my charm, and the threat of my left hook.”

“Ingrid,”

Gertrude sighed, rubbing her forehead with one hand.

“I’m kidding!” Ingrid said with a big smile. “It’s ol’ man Dreschner’s treat.”

“That’s almost less believable than if you just stole it.”

“Believe whatever the fuck you want then! I’m comin’ in!”

Gertrude made for way Ingrid, feeling her lips curling into a smile despite herself.

They sat down, side to side on the bed. Gertrude’s room was a bit more ostentatious than those of the other crew. She had a double bed to herself, and it was fluffy and springy, rather than a stiff gel bed. Her room had a full desk, and several chairs or tables that could be pulled out of the ground or out of the walls. Burgundy and gold were predominant colors on plastic banners on the walls, and the filigree in her furniture, as well as the coloration of the walls themselves, though this effect was largely computer generated in nature.

Next to the bed they pulled up a chair to set the tray of food on.

From the box, they each took out a can of beer.

Ingrid popped the cap off hers and took a deep, long drink from it.

Gertrude looked at hers with reticence before taking a good drink from it. The familiar savory bitterness and light boozey bite of Imperial Navy reserve beers. A taste she could describe as “standard issue.” It had nothing on Vogelheim’s rose wine, but it could get you buzzed or drunk and that was enough.

Neither she nor Ingrid loved it; but Ingrid could relish in the drinking of it.

By the time Gertrude was halfway through a can, Ingrid was cracking open her second.

“You’re so fuckin’ slow. I’m going to end up drunk as fuck because of you.” Ingrid said.

“So did you come here for a drinking contest?”

“I just don’t know what to say to you sometimes. You’re a mess right now.”

Ingrid leaned to Gertrude’s side and dipped her head close, surprising the Inquisitor.

She was warm. A warm presence at Gertrude’s side. Someone touching her.

Gertrude realized then how little stimulation her body had had in the past weeks. How little she had been touched; how little she had been close to another human being. She had been running around like the gusts of a storm, never settling. And so, ever since Vogelheim she had been alone. Surrounded by people almost all of the time but fundamentally alone in a human sense. That lack of tenderness, and Ingrid’s reintroduction of that warm, kind sensation– It was almost enough to make Gertrude want to cry from the emotion.

She leaned in Ingrid’s direction as well, pushing just a little closer to her.

Her friend’s tail hit the bed with a rhythmic “wump, wump.”

For a moment Ingrid held on to her drink without even tasting it.

Swishing the contents in the can while Gertrude’s head rested on her shoulder.

Her whole body which had been so wound up and tense, finally found a place to rest.

“Congrats on relaxing for once.” Ingrid said.

“How could I relax before, with everything that was happening?” Gertrude said.

She wanted to turn and face Ingrid directly, but she did not want to move.

It was simply too comfortable at Ingrid’s side. It felt too nice.

“You’ve been going completely crazy.” Ingrid said. “It’s because everything’s a fucked up mess that you need some time to clear your head. I’ve been seeing you running around looking like your eyelids are stapled open. Losing your goddamn mind; I couldn’t even get a hold of you like this until the ship fuckin’ broke down.”

“I know. I saw your messages. I don’t want you to think I didn’t.”

“Yeah ‘Trude, I know! It tells me when you saw them and then didn’t reply. It tells me!”

Feeling too ashamed to reply, Gertrude took a long drink from her own can, enough to finally empty it. Wordlessly, she sat up, reached for another can, cracked it open, drank almost as much just as quickly. She wiped her lips with her sleeve and grit her teeth. It was so sudden the roof of her mouth felt like it was melting, her throat ragged. Her forehead screamed with a cold pain. But she started laughing and Ingrid instantly knew what she was doing, and it cracked her up. Her serious face melted into the biggest, warmest smile Gertrude had seen.

“You idiot!” Ingrid said. As if to decline the contest, she took a gentle sip of her own beer, not even enough to finish that second can already in her hands. “I’d say something like ‘you’ll never beat me’ but we only got four cans left. To make this a proper fight we gotta start with at least a twelve-pack.”

“I’m sorry.” Gertrude smiled, rubbing her own forehead, her vision swimming a touch.

She felt Ingrid’s hand creep around her back and grab hold of her shoulder.

Pulling her even closer, until they were almost cheek to cheek.

Another gesture that recalled bygone days.

“It’s not ‘sorry’ I want, you know?”

Ingrid sighed deeply. As if she realized that moment they were having had to end.

“The VIP you’re after; I know it’s gotta be your little princess, isn’t it?”

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide, and she gave Ingrid a sudden, wildly nervous glare.

Ingrid shook her head solemnly. “Good grief. You really think I’m an idiot, huh?”

“Ugh.” Gertrude exhaled a long-held breath. “I’m sorry Ingrid. I wasn’t even thinking–”

“About your best buddy of many many years? Yeah, you haven’t been. That’s okay; we’re soldiers, not a social club. But if it’s a choice between running yourself to pieces or letting me into your life here and there, just sometimes? I wish you’d just let yourself rely on me more often. I would’ve been there for you.”

Gertrude knew there was something else simmering under that sudden bitterness.

She did not want to touch it; or rather, she did not know what else she could say.

“I’m sorry.”

“S’ok. You were thinking about me when you told me to buzz off back to the ship.”

“Ingrid, please, come on. I was worried you’d get hurt. It was chaos out there!”

Ingrid scoffed.

“You always worry and fuss over me at the worst moments. Basically any time I don’t want you to, and you never pay me any attention when I do want it. You fuckin’ suck, ‘Trude.” Ingrid looked at Gertrude with a serious expression quickly melting into a sly, impish grin. “You’re really high-strung right now, aren’t you? Lighten up! Drink already. Or I’ll have your beer. I didn’t come here to give you grief. I really wanna help you.”

Gertrude didn’t know how she could possibly lighten up after that.

Nevertheless, she did open a third beer and did start drinking.

“Does everyone suspect it?” She said, staring down at the dark hole in the can.

Ingrid opened her third beer too. “Whose everyone? I dunno. Some of those guys on this ship are real stupid. But everyone can tell you’re a total mess just by looking at you. Just by hearing your voice.”

Gertrude sighed, her face sinking into her hand. “I know I have to shape up.”

“Shapin’ up isn’t what I’d say you gotta do. Here, shut up instead and have a bite.”

Reaching out to the table in front of them, Ingrid picked up a ship’s biscuit and one of the cans of meat. They were full of a crumbly, soft, spreadable pink ham with flecks of white, soft fat. On the can, she used the lever to pop off the top, and then used the sharp, dismembered can top to spread the soft meat over the biscuit. From the jar of peppers, she drizzled a bit of the oil over the meat. Then she used the can top to mash up one of the soft, plump peppers over the meat, resulting in a red and pink spread that moistened the top of the biscuit.

This was a little treat from back in the day. They called it ‘cadet kibble’.

Ingrid presented Gertrude with the treat. The Inquisitor took it without objection.

Biting into it, she was surprised by how soft the biscuit was, and how well the dry, crumbly bread with its intense, salty taste matched the bland but fatty meat and the slightly spicy, slightly sweet pepper. That oil was also packed with peppery taste, while lending its own vegetal note to the bite of food. For a heap of tinned meat on dried bread, it was a rich bite that felt almost decadent. It brought a little bit of life back into Gertrude’s body.

She could not help but smile a little having this kind of chow again.

“God, you look like you’re going to cum. What have you been eating lately?” Ingrid said.

“Probably not enough.” Gertrude said, slightly embarrassed.

“Then let’s get you fattened up again. That big body of yours needs meat!”

Over some light objections from the Inquisitor, Ingrid scraped up more meat and peppers on the sharp can lid and scraped them over a biscuit, handing over the result. While Gertrude picked at it with a wan face, Ingrid then fixed herself her own ‘cadet kibble’ and took a hearty bite. She kicked her feet with satisfaction.

“This is still so good! I kinda scooped this stuff up on a lark, but man, it hits the spot.”

“It is surprisingly palatable.”

“Ah, fuck you. ‘Surprisingly palatable’ it’s good, damn it.”

Ingrid shoved the remaining half of her biscuit into her mouth in one go.

All the while she gave Gertrude a critical, narrow-eyed glare.

Once she swallowed the food, her eyes remained locked on to the Inquisitor’s.

She put on a sly expression.

“Remember when I first showed you how to make cadet kibble?” Ingrid said.

“It’s that funny to you?” Gertrude grumbled.

“It was hilarious! You were so helpless, messiah defend you!” Ingrid said. “Little cadet in your prissy little cadet uniform, now that you couldn’t get your catered tea parties from Luxembourg School for Sluts.” She burst into laughter at her own joke. Her face was starting to turn a little red from all the drinking. “Running around with a grouchy gut because you didn’t want to eat pea soup and knackbrot. You would’ve died without me.”

“And you were a junior K9 who would’ve gotten the lights beaten out of your eyes if I hadn’t covered up for you stealing a bunch of food.” Gertrude said. Her own tone was starting to get out of her control. She was more annoyed than she wanted to be. It must have been the beer making her vulnerable to Ingrid’s teasing. And yet, she couldn’t keep herself from taking another long drink from the can. Ingrid couldn’t stop drinking either.

“Uh huh? But I showed you how you’re supposed to eat around these parts. So I repaid my debt to you, hell, you practically owed me for it after the fact.” Ingrid made a show of exaggerated shrugging.

Gertrude felt herself reminiscing a little. She couldn’t, at that time, in that place, recall any specific memories too vividly but she saw the texture and color of her past. She saw those blue and grey halls, those well-trod marching fields, blurs of green and brown forest. She saw a dark artificial sky under which she stole away with a hellion of a loup, two girls who should’ve never amounted to anything in the rigid society of the Imbrian Empire, friends as rare and odd as the ones she had broken with at her old school. Both struggling within their own ranks not just to be anything, but to be the most they could be. Ambitious to climb over every obstacle put in front of them.

“We made quite a pair.” She finally said.

“We could’ve fucked anyone up. You and me? Nobody stood a chance.”

“If only ‘fucking people up’ was all it took to advance in the military.”

“Hey, it worked out for us fine after we got out of cadet school. We kicked ass then.”

“That’s because the world of adults simply has none of the rules that children are taught.”

“You feelin’ better? You’re saying all kinds of crap again so you must be.” Ingrid said.

“Now it’s your turn to remember.” Gertrude teased. “What was our little motto back then?”

Ingrid snorted. “Y’think I would forget? ‘We carve out our own justice’. How corny!”

Reminiscing about the old days, the cheerful pair rubbed shoulders and touched heads.

Going over the distant past as if old friends who had seen nothing of each other for years.

Soon they had drank all of the beers. Both became a little lethargic because of it.

There was a brief silence which fell over them, punctuated by the pulse of their hearts.

Melancholy, as the world racing at breakneck speed around them finally caught up.

“How do you know it’s your girl out there? With those mercs?” Ingrid asked suddenly.

Gertrude felt her heart sink. There was no preparing for that question. “I don’t know.”

Her answer was so abrupt even Ingrid had to process it. “You don’t know?” She said.

“I can’t explain it to you. I– I saw her being loaded up into their ship. It has to be her.”

“You can’t explain it?” Ingrid sighed. “Well I guess I believe you. Doesn’t matter anyway.”

“It matters a lot, actually. But I’m thankful for your casual disinterest nevertheless.”

Gertrude was feeling suddenly just a touch embittered.

Ingrid grunted her displeasure.

They averted their gaze from each other.

“You’ve always been bleeding yourself dry for that girl. You’re so fuckin’ devoted.”

“I care about her. We’ve been together forever. Is that so disagreeable?”

Once more they locked eyes in a confrontational way.

Ingrid snorted and sidled away, one width of a body between them. “Together, huh?”

Gertrude was no longer so warm as before. Except maybe in her chest and stomach from all of the booze. It was such a sudden, stark, strong sensation, of loss, of having something taken. To her woozy, slightly out of focus vision, starting to slip from the drink, it really felt like Ingrid had gotten so much farther than she was. That whole length of the bed; maybe even farther away. Like Ingrid was disappearing just like Elena was.

It hurt– it hurt more than she wanted to admit.

“Together? Not fuckin’ now! You run around like a lunatic, barely eating or sleeping, giving nonsense orders, your mood swinging all the god damned time. With all that’s happening in the world, your obsession over this girl has us chasing down one fuckin’ ship to the middle of nowhere. People are out there killing for lands and titles, and you? What do you want? You had loftier goals when you were a blue vest in Kuban station.” Ingrid was practically grumbling, almost as if to herself. Gertrude could barely hear her and yet heard just about enough.

Unable to be the formidable Inquisitor for a second longer, Gertrude broke out into tears.

Rendered vulnerable by the drink, the reminiscing, and the sudden loneliness she felt.

“You’re like a homesick dog.” Ingrid grumbled. “You’re not together for shit right now.”

Gertrude balled up her hands into fists. She felt a scream rising out of her windpipe.

“Fuck you! You don’t understand! All my life I’ve been fighting to be her equal. That’s all I wanted. I needed to be worthy of her so they wouldn’t take her from me. When I thought I’d lost her– and then the tiny glimmer of hope that she was still out there for me– you can’t even imagine how much it hurts Ingrid!”

Ingrid scowled at Gertrude’s words. Her eyes were starting to shutter from all the drink.

“You need to be worthy of her? Because she thinks you’re a swarthy mutt like me?”

Gertrude snapped her head toward the Loup, incensed. Her heart hot with booze and anger.

“Ingrid! How dare you– She would never–!”

“Does even she even know all you’ve been through? Does she even care?”

“Ingrid, you better fucking–”

“I bet she doesn’t give a shit about you. I bet she wanted to run away with those mercs–”

Carried purely on impulse, Gertrude lunged for Ingrid and in a snap, seized her by her tanktop and pulled her close, until they were eye to furious eye. Tears streamed down Gertrude’s face as she wrung Ingrid for a moment, teeth clenched, dragging her so close their foreheads nearly struck. Her anger fueled a herculean strength in her arms that was quickly fading. Wanting to fight but being unable to raise her hand. She was unable to hold Ingrid’s gaze fixed for very long, her head beginning to dip just a few seconds after grabbing her.

“She loves me! I know she loves me!” Gertrude said, mumbling into Ingrid’s face.

Ingrid grabbed hold of her arm in retaliation and for a moment the two exchanged glares.

Then in an instant Ingrid’s other arm hooked around Gertrude’s shoulder.

For a moment the Inquisitor thought she would be attacked but before she could respond–

Pushing her head forward, Ingrid took her lips into a kiss.

Time stopped as Gertrude tasted peppers and booze on Ingrid’s intruding tongue.

She felt her friend’s overwhelming warmth again, matched with a strength of equal intensity.

Ingrid shoved forward into Gertrude, climbing atop, her hands never letting go.

With every push, every conscious shifting of her weight, their lips parted only briefly.

In the heat of the moment Ingrid stole Gertrude’s tongue numerous times, every nearest instant she could, their lips drawing close, slipping off and gliding near once more, until she had her pinned to the bed and held. She was furiously hungry, in a trance of desire, exuding a bestial love of locking lips, brushing fangs, of musk and spittle, of sinewy muscle and a tail that batted against the bed like the beat of a drum. Too shocked and absorbed into the moment, unable to challenge the shorter but stronger Loup’s sudden grip, Gertrude hardly resisted.

Until as suddenly as her passions began, they lost their strength.

Ingrid fell practically into Gertrude’s arms. Sobbing so strongly she began to cough.

Caught in a storm of tears and anguish as strong as the lust that preceded it.

“I love you! I love you, Gertrude! I don’t care about her! I love you, Gertrude!”

Gertrude felt an impulse to hold Ingrid tightly.

Her own tears began to flow anew. Her whole body was shaking under Ingrid’s weight, speechless, stupefied. Ingrid screamed at her, baring her soul and it felt unreal, and she could hardly respond except to hug her more tightly.

“I swore I’d stick with you and it wasn’t a joke! I gave you my leash to hold because I love you! I love you so much!”

“I’m sorry!” Gertrude cried back at her. “I don’t– I don’t know what you want–!”

“I want you to fucking be okay! I want you to live! I don’t want you to shut yourself out further and pretend you’re in control! Please stop killing yourself alone! Take my leash and use me, rely on me, depend on me!”

“Ingrid– Ingrid I– I don’t–”

“We can do anything together! I meant it! I want to support the woman I love!”

“Ingrid…”

“Gertrude, the woman I love– she can do anything. She’s so powerful. I’ve seen it. I love her for it.”

It hurt– to be thought of so highly, to be loved so strongly. It hurt.

Gertrude wanted to tell her that she was never strong, that she was never confident, that she had never lived with whatever power Ingrid saw in her hands, whatever strength she hung on to in her words. Gertrude had been scraping by, begging, pleading, struggling. Academically average, with few connections, with no peerage. She had begged to go to Luxembourg; she had begged to become an officer; she had begged for the status of Inquisitor.

She had her face put into the dirt more than she could remember.

You’ve never seen me beg–

But she couldn’t say that to Ingrid. She couldn’t make herself say such things.

All she could do was mumble Ingrid’s name and hold her in bed, caressing her ears.

“All I want is for the woman holding my leash to keep rising. To give me orders that inspire me, to give me a future worth a damn! I’ll never be anyone among the Loup, but you, Gertrude, you can be a Lord! You could be Emperor! All I want is to support you! You have me here! Take me! Let me help you! Stop staring glassy-eyed at after that bitch’s tail! I hate to see you like this! I fucking despise it! How much longer will I have to see that?”

Gertrude felt such a sense of helpless dread, to have Ingrid bare herself like this–

That boisterous, thick-skinned woman so confident in herself, always picking fights.

Reduced to crying and pleading in the arms of a woman who could barely look at her eyes.

She could not possibly answer Ingrid’s desires. Not at that moment. She was too weak.

“Ingrid,”

She was going to say she was sorry, truly, deeply sorry, but fate never gave her the chance.

Fate rang in Gertrude’s room as a request for communication on an adjacent wall.

In the midst of her dishevelment, Gertrude hastily slammed the nearby wall to accept, but with sound only. Ingrid put a hand over her own mouth to quiet her sobbing. She knew propriety, even though she pretended she didn’t.

This was another way Gertrude knew that she really cared.

And it hurt to see it. But what could she say? She had to put on the Inquisitor’s mask.

“I’m listening, report quickly. I made it clear I was retiring to my quarters.”

“Ma’am, this is Schicksal. We’ve received a response to our request for reinforcements. I’m sorry to disturb you. I just thought you should know, because of the nature of the response.” Schicksal’s meek little voice sounded strained and upset. “I’m sorry ma’am, but the message came from the Antenora. Whether or not we accept it, ma’am, she’s probably coming. I hope you understand now why I wanted to inform you. Schicksal out.”

On the wall, the audio feed disappeared.

Gertrude and Ingrid slowly, shakingly rose, sitting with their bodies on end, staring at one another.

Their earlier quarrel was silenced by the shock and disbelief they shared.

Both of them knew all too well what it meant for that ship to appear.

The Antenora — the Cruiser flagship of the woman called “the Praetorian.”

“Norn.” Gertrude stifled a gasp. Her heart started racing again. “Master Norn is coming.”


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.7]

Sword in one hand, rifle in the other, matching her fated opponent.

For a moment they simply stared each other down.

Even the shooting of the Irmingard’s main guns did not stir the two veterans.

There was chatter on an open frequency. A coy, bloodthirsty voice.

“I know it’s you, Red Baron! The two of us have a bloody ball to attend!”

Ever since Khadija spotted that overgrown Jagd pulling that sommersault trick with its sword, she just knew. She did not even need the machine to be painted red to tell. Nobody in the entire world had the gall to try those pretentious underwater ballet moves except for that bitch. Rationality flew out the window for Khadija.

On simple instinct, on reading the current, she knew.

Not once did she question her own sanity or her urges and instincts.

When she had got tired of talking, she threw herself at that machine with a vengeance.

Soon as Shalikova left her side, Khadija charged the Red Baron, sword drawn.

Reacting to her attack, the Red Baron suddenly climbed.

“Predictable! How much younger are you than me?”

Khadija rose immediately to meet her, shooting diagonally up and intersecting her leap.

Swords clashing, the two veterans became locked in struggle

Vibrating blade met furious saw, kicking up short-lived sparks and bubbles of vapor as they ground together. Sword arms locked chest to chest for seconds, struggling to push each other back, before the two broke off. Khadija opened fire from her AK-96 as she descended, and the Red Baron responded with her Sturmgewehr assault rifle as she rose.

Khadija swung a left; the Red Baron threw herself right.

A burst of bullets flew past Khadija’s shoulder, grazing her anchor pod.

Several bullets detonated just off of the Baron’s hip, almost striking the water intake.

Through open water they circled like spiraling, orbiting stars, dozens of meters apart but perfectly equidistant, mirroring moments second to second. Between them grew a raging fusillade, bursts of gunfire that buzzed by within millimeters of each machine and detonated above, behind, around them in every direction, until it was impossible to tell through the fog of their war where each machine stood amid the vapor and explosions. Hundreds of rounds, the drumbeat of the dance. Spent magazines sank out of view, an unseemly clock putting a limit on their night of fire.

Two sharp clicking noises, two mag ejections, and the music stopped.

Though she almost wanted to throw out her rifle Khadija had the presence to stow it.

Up and above, the Red Baron did simply discard hers. It made Khadija incensed to see.

“Not just an Imperial but a show-off bitch besides. I’m going to make you pay.”

She took her sword in both hands and briefly scanned the diagnostics screen.

Some of the saw teeth had been ground off, but the chain was alloyed with depleted agarthicite and strong enough to cut. Her arm verniers still had enough fuel and the motor on the diamond sword was running strong.

Khadija took a deep, resentful breath.

Back when they last fought, swords, whether the Imperial vibroblade or the Union diamond sword, were a luxury afforded only to them. Something so standard now, in 959 only six diamond swords existed, and only the Red Baron had a vibroblade. Real weapons were given to the people who’d survived tearing each other apart with handheld bombs, industrial drills, undersea welding equipment, rock cutter heads attached to ship propellers, rocket-poles with makeshift grenades at the end, and all sorts of other unreliable, improvised weapons hastily given to the early Divers.

Launching out of sandbanks and gorges and caves to do any sort of damage to an imperial ship in Labor suits with bolted-on armor made out of bulkheads. While early Volkers made out of bathysphere materials tried desperately to guard the ships and patrol the sites of guerilla activity, wielding gas guns extracted from their mounts or scaled-up jet harpoons and even handheld shields and piston spears. Death was nearly instant for whoever got hit first.

Every attack was deadly.

Every exchange was to the death. Weapons met, and only one fighter survived.

That was the war she and the Baron had once fought. That was the war they survived.

The Union’s desperate ingenuity met the Imperial struggle to industrialize a response.

It was the war that crashed these two and their machines together again and again.

“I got you once back then. But it isn’t enough.” Khadija said. “You need to hurt more.”

Taunting let off steam when Khadija thought she might explode inside.

Suddenly, her heart quickened, when she finally heard a response back to her taunts.

“What will be enough?”

That deep and powerful voice which sounded so desperate and hurt.

At first Khadija could not even believe it.

Because this was the first palpable, human interaction she had with her mortal enemy.

Before, the Red Baron had been nothing but a machine that barred her way, a machine that had killed her comrades. An obstacle that had impeded her own revolutionary legend again and again. A fated foe that she thought had disappeared alongside Imperial control of Ferris. Now that same demon was speaking to her in that pathetic voice?

Her mind struggled to come up with a response, as if she had been spoken to in an incomprehensible language; but it was just Imbrian. It was all the same for all of them. Her heart quivered, her soaring spirit felt almost deflated.

Khadija’s voice sounded audibly weary even to herself.

“Feeling remorseful? Then just drop dead!”

She engaged all thrust that she could muster to throw herself forward.

The Red Baron reacted to the initial forward thrust by lifting her sword in defense.

She was waiting, trying to react to Khadija.

There were no allies, no supporting fire, no ranged weapons available to the Baron. Nothing but knives. Just like old times, when they carried ordnance they could count with their fingers and were reduced to banging each other with whatever crude melee weapons they had. The less options a pilot had available, the less sophisticated their tactics became. Khadija had experience with this. But it was not the revolution, and their equipment for this bout was very different. Pound for pound, purely in the quality of equipment, a diamond sword was not going to survive smashing against a vibroblade for as long as its counterpart. A duel would not favor Khadija in these waters.

To think she’d let things get this desperate. She had been so foolish to fight like this.

Her intention was not to duel, however. For the first time in a long time she keenly felt all her 42 years.

She felt like a long-suffering veteran; she knew her duty, she knew her mission.

She knew her options.

Murati still had her bomb. If she could tie up this woman long enough, she triumphed.

When the two threw themselves at each other once more, their motives differed.

As soon as their swords met anew, Khadija armed the bomb on her back with a short timer.

“I’ll take this grudge to hell. Until I see you eat the fruit of Zaqqum personally.”


Soyuz is down! Repeat, Soyuz is down!”

“God damn it.”

As far as the eye could see there were groups of ships exchanging gunfire, a wicked line of grey and black ships on one side and hundreds of different color liveries standing their ground on the other. Water bubbles and vapor clouds, hundreds more than even the amount of ships, multiplying in the no-man’s-land between the opposing fleets. Partially in the frame of these massive forces was a massive station from which torpedoes and flak periodically flew out.

All of this saturating ordnance, the distant star-like flashes of explosives, the spreading cloud of bubbles and debris, roaring shockwaves that boomed in the thousands every minute. This violence transpired over a dismal, rocky sandbank over which Cascabel station had stood sentinel. Over this gorge the two sides were deadlocked.

It was the “winter” of A.D. 959, and the now-called “Union” fought desperately for its existence.

In the eyes of the little girl watching on the Bridge of that ship–

This was the apocalypse. It was the end of all things. It could be nothing else.

She was nine years old, and had some understanding of the world, but she had never seen the water stir so violently. She had never explosions and felt the rattling of the metal around her, the metal protecting her from the ravages of the endless Ocean outside. She did not understand that death was a part of what she was seeing; but this was also the first time she witnessed death. All of the destruction she saw hinted at death to her, in a way she did not grasp.

And yet, she never cried. Not once. It was as if she was mesmerized.

“Captain, should this child really be here?”

“After what happened just now, Goswani, it doesn’t matter where she is.”

Murati Nakara could not hear them at that point. She was not acknowledging other people.

She was transfixed on the massive screen in front of her.

Her parents had been killed on that screen and she did not even really know it.

Behind her, Captain Yervik Deshnov of the Union’s remaining dreadnought, the Ferrisean, grit his teeth, and pulled down his peaked cap. He pounded his fist on his seat in frustration. An Imperial Diver had gotten to the Soyuz and detonated an explosive on it. It was the same kind of trick they’d been pulling on the Empire for months, but the Empire had hardly used their own nascent Divers against the Union. There was an air of frustration, shock, grief, and sudden hopelessness aboard. They had pushed the Empire all the way to Cascabel. Would they collapse here?

“We can’t fall apart from just one attack, Captain! I’ll avenge them!”

A determined voice came through on the comms. A face appeared on the screen.

A Shimii, blond-haired, with piercing green eyes, and a fiery expression.

“UND-001-A Khadija al-Shajara, deploying!”

Like a shooting star, the armed labor suit flew out from under their vessel.

On the main screen, the computers all honed on this unit for a brief moment.

From the teetering wreckage of the Soyuz, an opposing force sailed out to meet her.

A rotund suit, all in red, wielding what looked like a sword alongside its rifle.

The much-more human shaped and green Union suit sped to a collision with this red suit.

Twin comets met in the waters with Cascabel looming behind, a sorrowful steel giant.

Clashing in instants, moving faster than anyone had ever seen, shooting, parrying.

Dashing at one another, breaking apart, their vicious duel spiraling amid the rest of the chaos.

“Why are we all doing nothing! Helmsman, advance! Target all fire on the enemy center!”

Deshnov shouted himself hoarse, and the Ferrisean was shaken out of its stillness.

Meanwhile Murati watched the Divers attentively.

Even when the main screen shifted the duel to a picture in picture and expanded its focus again back to the broader fleet action, she was taken in by the little picture in the corner, staring at it intently. Her mind was fully blank save for the unreal fighting in that tiny square. They were so evenly matched, despite the clear viciousness of their violence, that it seemed more like a sport or a sparring match than an actual battle. This was also death in a way Murati didn’t see.

And then, the red suit gained the upper hand, or so it seemed–

Trying to flip over its opponent to attack it from behind, upside down–

Suddenly the opponent, the green suit, threw its arm in the way.

It could not be sliced through. She caught the sword in her gauntlet and wrist-blade.

Her rifle flashed at her enemy, punishing the red suit with many serious blows.

Battered, the red suit retreated with all its might.

And missing a functioning arm, the green suit withdrew as well.

In an instant, they had drawn blood and their battle was closed.

“Captain, an enemy Cruiser is moving out of position!”

Deshnov drew his eyes wide in the Captain’s chair.

“What is it doing?”

“It may be trying to recover the red suit!”

“Focus all fire on the gap it left! It’s open season on their escorts!”

Even as the picture in picture camera was left desolate, with both combatants retreating.

That seemingly interminable duel remained buried in Murati’s little brain.

She continued to stare at that corner, until the last gun sounded.


“I see you’re hellbent on giving me a heart attack lately.”

Yervik Deshnov found the girl standing at the entrance to the port of Ferris’ Sevastopol Station, watched over by a port attendant. Her dark skin and messy dark hair were unmistakable, as were her fiery auburn eyes. What was unusual was the military cadet jacket and pants. Deshnov was not exactly chasing after the girl every single day, but he had no idea where she would have gotten that uniform under his nose. Unlike the usual trouble she got into, this was serious.

Was she trying to run away to Solstice? He’d play dumb for now and just ask her.

Arguing with Murati over assumptions would always bite him in the ass. She was too smart.

In response to his consternation, Murati crossed her arms and put on the most serious face she could muster. A girl of barely fourteen, she was tall and slight and tomboyish. Despite her best attempts her expression still read to Deshnov as distinctly bratty. A bratty teen rebelling at random. And he always knew; he was always informed first whenever she tried to do anything strange. He always came and made sure she was unharmed.

It was the least he could do for the parents she lost.

“I came all the way out here, on short notice, so what is all this about?”

“You only ever visit to stop me doing what I want with my life.” She cried out.

“That’s cruel. I gladly said yes to all those medications you wanted to get on.”

“Hmph! Like you had a choice in that! The Union constitution–”

Deshnov sighed. She always had an answer for everything.

“Doesn’t apply, Murati! All your affairs are under my strict guardianship per your parent’s last will. You legitimately do not have all those rights you’re rattling off all the time until you leave my guardianship, because you’re not an ordinary war orphan. Listen. I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. But I’m here now. I just want to talk.”

Murati grit her teeth. “I didn’t think you’d get here so quickly.”

“Okay, so this is not a funny stunt, and you did intend to run away to Solstice? For what?”

“I’m joining the military academy, uncle Deshnov! I’m joining and you can’t stop me!”

“Of course. I knew it’d come to this someday. You are his kid after all.”

He ran a hand over his wizened face, sighing deeply.

“Murati, all I want is for you to lead a healthy, happy, peaceful life, you know that?”

It was tough for Murati to say anything to that. She simply averted her gaze.

“I’d really like nothing better than for you to go to school for something good and kind.”

“I’d like nothing better than for you to stop pretending to parent me.”

“Ouch.”

Deshnov smiled and tried to play it off like that didn’t hurt as monumentally as it did.

He felt it rush through his skin like electricity. But he’d been preparing for this moment.

“I’m sorry for the trouble and the time spent, and I hope you’ll forgive us the awkward scene on here.” He said to the woman in the port attendant uniform, shifting uncomfortably to one side and watching their drama unfolding. “Per the terms of guardianship, please revoke this young lady’s boarding pass and–”

“My parents fought and died for this country!” Murati said. “I have a right to–”

“Do the same? Do you hear yourself? Do you just want to die then?” Deshnov snapped.

“No! Of course not! Ugh! You never understand!” Murati shouted back.

“Then what is it? I would let you go if you could tell me a single constructive thing you plan to do with your military academy degree and with some kind of position in the Navy. What do you think people do in the Navy, huh young lady? Have you given it any thought at all? Do you have anything in your head except empty platitudes of civil duty? Or worse, maybe even petty revenge? Do you want to kill people, or do you want to die?”

Murati balled up her fists and looked positively livid.

“How cynical! For a Rear Admiral to be saying this! If your soldiers could hear you!”

Deshnov grunted.

“I am cynical because I’m experienced! Because I’ve seen what happens to people like you: young and ambitious but with your heads full of duty and martyrdom! Because hundreds of thousands of people died to create a safe place where someone like you doesn’t have to board a metal coffin to survive! You think your parents want this for you?”

In his eyes, this was nothing short of a tragedy. To see Murati in this awful uniform.

What did she want with this?

“You don’t know anything.” Murati said, her eyes downcast.

“Then tell me.”

“You think I’m just a stupid little girl who can’t do anything–”

“Murati that’s the last thing I think–”

“I’m going to end this war! I’m going to make all the Ocean safe for us.”

Deshnov blinked. He stood there, speechless, for a moment.

When he looked at that brooding girl, he really thought all she wanted was to kill.

To kill the Imperials who took her parents. He’d seen it, again and again.

“You’re going to end what war?” Deshnov said. “Our war with the Empire? You?”

Murati raised her eyes from the ground.

At that moment, Deshnov was taken aback by what he saw and felt from her.

That tear-stained grimace that should have seemed small and bratty and petty and pitiful– but instead her gaze was cutting, powerful, as if there was truly something behind it. Something deep and massive; her gaze was filled with presence beyond its years. A determination far surpassing his own. A real, inspired sense of righteousness.

Those auburn eyes had a red glimmer, like a raging fire burning deep inside her.

“Uncle Deshnov, let me go. I will– I’ll become the best soldier you’ll ever see. I’ll become the strongest. Nobody will get hurt anymore. Nobody will die anymore. Not me; not anyone. Someday, the Empire might come back. I’ll drive them out of Ferris just like you did. And I’ll chase them all the way to the Palatinate. I’ll fight their soldiers and their knights and inquisitors, I’ll fight the Emperor! I’ll free us all and then nobody will need to fight a war again.”

Yervik Deshnov felt a deep shame at those words. He could hardly keep from crying.

Those words coming out of this teenage girl– that should have been him, God damn it.

That’s what he and all the losers who called themselves the admiralty of this nation should have done! That was what they were promising to these kids. That it was ended, that they could live their lives now. How could he reiterate what he told Murati before, with a straight face? She knew none of this was over. That none of it had been finished. She was too smart. She had lost too much. So she knew better than anybody that the utopian paradise of the Union was still paper thin as long as the waters outside Ferris still teemed with the sharks of the Imbrian Empire.

Deshnov’s worst nightmare had been that these kids would have to finish his war.

That Murati would have to finish his war.

He wanted to yell at her to go back home and study math and the arts and trades.

But his voice would not rise for such sophistry. It couldn’t. Not anymore.

Especially because he was always running around and never even saw her grow.

“Don’t call me Uncle anymore.” He said. “I’ll–”

At that moment, the port attendant received a call on her earpiece. Her eyes drew wide.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Deshnov, but I’ve orders to let her through.” She said.

“Excuse me?” He felt suddenly defensive. He still had the right of guardianship–

“Murati’s guardianship has been revoked. She’s been declared an independent orphan– a legal adult.”

“What?”

Even Murati looked taken aback by this. It must not have been something she did.

“Someone will be coming to speak with you. I have to take her– the ship is leaving.”

Deshnov watched, in helpless confusion, as the port attendant turned Murati around and gave her what she wanted and had arranged for. Passage aboard the ship bound for Solstice, where she would enroll in the military Academy and live much of the next decade of her life, learning the sciences and arts of battle and preparing for war. She looked back at him one last time, but he knew not what kind of look Murati gave him and never would.

Instead, he had turned around to face the other end of the port corridor, where two figures arrived.

Dressed in the dark olive shirt and dark brown pants of the Navy, and the black coat and peaked, serpent-adorned cap of the Ashura, the internal security troops answering exclusively to the outbound Premier herself.

Deshnov grit his teeth.

Who else could it have been to greet him on this evil day? No one else but Commissar-Commandant Bhavani Jayasankar; and her lackey Parvati Nagavanshi, returned from her ship duties just in time to join up.

Those two always somehow found their way to each other.

“I’d be truly blessed to know what the hell internal security wants with one girl.” He said.

Jayasankar put on a conniving smile and crossed her arms.

“Well, children are our future. What’s that saying, Nagavanshi?”

“A thousand generations live in them.” Nagavanshi replied with a deadpan tone of voice.

“Don’t fuck with me. Who gave you the authority to overturn my guardianship?” He said.

Nagavanshi withdrew some papers from her coat and began to explain. “Citing Murati Nakara’s room records, you’ve visited her about 60 times in the past five years? While it is a double digit number, it’s not a lot, considering the average parent in the Union visited their children at their school boards an average of about 190 days every single year. So it seems to me, and forgive me if I’m wrong, that she was not a high priority in your life.”

“How dare you? It was the Navy itself that kept me from her! You don’t think–”

He went on a tirade that the two of them clearly weren’t interested in.

Shouting was all Deshnov could do to keep from striking Nagavanshi.

That would’ve been really bad.

“At any rate!”

Jayasankar shouted over Deshnov and produced a series of official documents from her own coat.

Guardianship transfer, from Yervik Deshnov to Daksha Kansal. Signed by Daksha Kansal.

Then in the next document, simply dissolved by Kansal, making Murati a “legal adult” citizen.

That meant Murati had agency in administrative decisions regarding her person, though she was still a child. She could sign for her own medications, join the academy without anyone’s consent– but still couldn’t drink or drive.

Deshnov could hardly believe it. “The Premier? Daksha? Why would she–?”

“You weren’t the only one who owed the Nakara family something.” Jayasankar cut in.

“Now everything’s squared away. We’re all released from this past.” Nagavanshi added.

Those words sparked a sudden paranoia in Deshnov’s brain. A weary, angry fear.

But there was nothing he could say. He had no power in the face of these two.

“Nobody owes anyone, anything, anymore, Deshnov. We can all look toward the future.”

Jayasankar smiled that devilish smile of her and Deshnov felt a helpless anger.

All of them were playing politics still, even around Murati and her dead parent’s names. Was this truly what they all died fighting for? So Jayasankar and Nagavanshi could manipulate their daughter’s life? He looked over his shoulder at the departing vessel. Murati was nowhere to be seen, of course. He had missed his chance. He should have just said he was proud of her answer to him. Instead, he may have just left her with the idea he was abandoning her.

Could he even rectify that? Could he explain or take back what he said?

He turned back to the women in front of him with the evilest look he could give them.

“Neither of you have any respect for the dead. Neither of you should be saying that family’s name in any context, you vultures don’t deserve it. We don’t owe them anymore? Maybe you people don’t. But they are a part of the soul of this country. Whatever it is you think you are scheming, or whatever advantage you’re trying to get, I will not be quiet while you do so.” Deshnov said in a low voice. “Were it not for our positions, Bhavani, I’d sock the both of you.”

Jayasankar shrugged her shoulders with one winking eye, smiling.

“Oh? Such big words! But you can’t attack me, right Yervik? You can’t lift a finger to me no matter what. Well, if you went on a rampage right now, you’d certainly get Nagavanshi at least; I’d be more of a fight, however.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Hey. Don’t push it. I’m perfectly able to defend myself.”

They were joking among themselves. Those two went back a few years.

Even with the long gap in their ages they still understood each other a little too well.

Neither of them was taking him seriously still. Not that he was worth taking seriously.

He was being quite childish himself. But he couldn’t help but be bitter toward them.

“You respect the invisible shield that is political power.” Jayasankar grinned to herself.

“I know that you certainly came out of their tragedy a little better than everyone else.”

Deshnov did not want to respond too much to the provocations of this particular group.

Among the revolutionaries, there had been a few different cliques.

He had always wanted to believe in Commander Ahwalia and his promise of a better future.

This earned him the scorn of rigid materialists like Jayasankar and Nagavanshi.

Upon hearing his remarks, Jayasankar’s face turned cold. She turned a chilling glare on him.

“We entombed ourselves in steel and poured our blood into making this country, the same as you. Yet you hate us for not deceiving kids like her with sappy dreams. Daksha sent me here because you and I go back to five years ago, and she wanted you to understand that you have to let the Nakara family go. They do not influence the Union anymore, and in the coming stages, whatever they wished to do no longer matters. Yervik, you can stay stuck in the past, or you can keep fighting for our future. As a respected military man, there will come a time soon where you’ll influence the future of kids like her. I hope you recognize what it is appropriate to do when that time comes.”

Nagavanshi added. “Kansal will depart soon. There will be a wave of change. Don’t cross us, Yervik.”

Jayasankar and Nagavanshi turned their heels and departed, leaving Yervik behind, helpless.

They could say such things to him precisely because they knew he would do nothing. He could not.

He almost wanted to spit with anger. Those two were always plotting something.

As much as he detested them, however, they were as much the heart and soul of the Union as the Nakaras.

That much he could not deny, deep in his bitter heart, even if he hated their politics.

But Jayasankar was right in one sense. He couldn’t give up now. He couldn’t just run away.

While he could not stand to look at these snakes and the future in their minds, he could pin his hopes on the future he saw in Murati’s eyes instead. Whether they were led by an idealist like Ahwalia or a militarist like Jayasankar, their children owned the future. Not any of the old soldiers. It didn’t matter to these kids how much they schemed.

All of this shame, all of this bitterness; he would endure it for the future Murati might build.


When the Irmingard’s main guns fired, Murati’s time started moving once again.

She lowered her mecha’s shooting arm, the magazine depleted.

Her breathing quickened. She felt like she was waking from a nightmare.

“I was useless. I was completely useless.” She gasped. She checked her monitors.

Shalikova was safe, the flak had quieted to avoid friendly fire.

Khadija was staring down the enemy unit that had made a fool of Murati.

For the moment, the battle had stood completely still.

As if the monumental shocks of those 203 mm guns had stunned them all to reverence.

And yet, it was those guns that awakened Murati from a shameful, desperate stupor.

In her cockpit, Murati struggled with the controls for the Cheka. She was trying not to fall too deep into her own despair. She still had a mission to do, and she told herself that she situation remained fundamentally unchanged– that had to be a bluffing shot, and Murati still had two bombs available to take down the flagship.

But the appearance of that unknown suit complicated things.

“Arm joint failing, some electric fluctuations, messiah defend.”

That cut through the shoulder must have damaged some of the ancillary electronics. While there was still thrust, power to secondary systems was inconsistent. Murati kept a panicked eye on the pressure and atmosphere readings. She was alive, so she was not breached, but if there was damage to atmosphere control, or a microscopic leak from the tanks, it could make her sick. Everything was under control at the moment, but she was nearly helpless.

“Murati! Please respond!”

Due to the energy circulation issues her radio was cutting in and out intermittently.

At that moment, however, she could still hear the desperate voice of Sonya Shalikova.

Sighing with a deep shame in herself, trying to suppress the urge to pity herself, she replied.

“Combat ineffective. Repeat, combat ineffective.”

“Murati? Did you say, ‘combat ineffective’? Who cares! Are you hurt?”

Shalikova’s voice came in and out every other syllable it seemed.

Nonetheless, the emotional, worried tone of her voice came through for Murati.

“Unhurt. Repeat, I’m unhurt. Just shaken up. Repeat, shaken up.”

In order to be understood with the state of her electronics and power, Murati had to be fairly monosyllabic. She could not say what she was really feeling, nor even the version of it she really wanted Shalikova to hear. “I was useless, but you were splendid,” or “I’m sorry for failing you, but you did great out there.” Maybe “I’m proud of you,” might have gone through. But it wasn’t the time to praise Shalikova and hear her characteristic groaning back. They were still in danger. They still had a mission to do. And they needed to know the status of the Brigand as well.

“Wait. Bombs, how many do we–”

Murati checked the inventory on the Cheka quickly. She found that the serial port that should have been connected to her bomb had been reporting nothing connected to it. Her magnetic strip was showing a significant loss of weight as well. Had that mecha managed to unseat her equipment while they were maneuvering? It must have been when she slashed across her shoulder– Murati grit her teeth. She must have kicked them off or something.

To think she had been so careless, with an opponent like that!

Shalikova’s voice cut in. Murati was barely able to make out one word.

“Khadija–”

She slammed her fist on the switchbox for the communicator.

“What can I even do? I’m just a passenger at this point.”

On a corner of her central screen, a little flashing waveform appeared.

Incoming laser connection.

“The Brigand!”

Murati put it through immediately.

She found herself face to face with the narrowed, unfriendly glare of Alex Geninov.

For only an instant. Nearly immediately, Alex passed her off to Semyonova.

In this situation, that familiar round-faced, bubbly blond was such a relief to see.

Even with a laser connection, the video was lagging. The Cheka was in bad shape.

“Khadija engaging enemy! Lost bomb undetonated! Repeat–”

She had to communicate sparsely, as if the connection would be cutting in and out.

On the screen she saw Semyonova turn to relay to the Captain–

Then the video connection cut out.

Murati had feared that the flak had restarted and knocked out the drone the Brigand had sent to connect them, but she noticed her communicator had powered of suddenly. She switched the diagnostic touchscreen to a troubleshooting mode and tried to restart the communicator through it. She tried routing power from a different cell– instead the camera feeds began to darken, not liking having their already fragile power tampered with.

Frustrated, Murati nearly hit the diagnostic screen again.

Briefly she saw her frustrated, sweating face reflected on one of her dead screens.

“So much for you, fearless leader.” She mumbled.

She dipped her head, her bangs falling over her eyes.

There was a flash as her cameras returned to life.

When Murati looked up to appraise the situation, she was transfixed by what she saw.

In the middle of the ocean between all of the warring ships, framed by clouds of vapor and steel debris, two machines soared like a pair of comets, their dance punctuated by the trials of explosive rounds and the bubbles that blossomed from their detonations. Weaving chaotic patterns of vapor and lead, the combatants captivated all of Murati’s senses as she watched them, following the dim flashes of rifle shells, the zigzagging lines of bubbles and disturbed water left in the wakes of their jets, the thin clouds of exhaust from the solid fuel boosters mixing with the water vapor.

There was a shuddering in her chest, her heart carried on a current of twenty years.

Murati recognized the sight as one she saw in 959 A.D.

On a ship she had snuck into, amid the gravest emergency the nascent Union had yet seen.

Where she watched ships explode, and Divers sink, and a station die.

In front of her, the flashing stopped, the combatants bereft of ammunition.

Murati felt a warmth behind her eyes and saw colors emerging in the water.

That enemy Diver, colored yellow and green, full of fear, regret, disgust–

That plain grey Strelok, red and black with rage, bloodlust, a resignation to death–

Her eyes drew wide with the sudden realization.

“No! Khadija– the bomb–”

Instinctually she understood what would transpire if she did not act–

–her thoughts raced, thinking of something, anything she could do, to prevent the tragedy–

“Murati!”

Shalikova’s Strelok appeared right in front of her, taking up her cameras.

At her side was a second, bare Strelok with no damage to it. Valya Lebedova’s unit.

“Murati, she sent me here to take you back, give your bomb to Lebedova–”

Hit with a spark of inspiration, Murati made a sudden move for Lebedova’s unit.

Shifting her hands to the verboten controls flashing on her joysticks.

All of the diagnostic and power warnings briefly made way for the user interface of the Energy Recovery System. Power poured from the extra reserved cells on the Cheka and for a moment, thrust improved dramatically, all systems reconnected, and the battered suit moved like it should. Shalikova and Lebedova were both taken aback.

Throwing herself forward to them, Murati grabbed hold of Lebedova’s grenade.

Seizing it from her magnetic strip, before rushing away into the open water.

“Murati! What are you doing? You’ve got damage!”

Shalikova’s shouting was picked up loud and clear now that comms had returned.

Murati ignored the radio chatter and slammed the pedals down as far as they would.

As soon as she got up to speed, warnings began appearing in their dozens once again.

Oxygen system, atmosphere controls, everything stressed under the speed building up so suddenly after taking so much damage to the innards. Her damaged arm refused to budge under this degree of acceleration, so Murati had to use the other arm for her sudden plot. She attached Lebedova’s grenade to her own magnetic strip, unlocked the strip, and forcibly pulled the entire length free from the Cheka’s back using the non-magnetic handles on the ends.

She was then able to hold it like a magnetic pole on her hand with the grenade on one end.

Heedless of the energy percentages ticking down and down–

And the number of things that were broken or breaking in the suit–

In her mind, Murati had only one destination: home.

Her plan had gone awry, but as a leader, she would bring everyone back home, even if it killed her.

“Khadija! Stop! Step back!”

Dead ahead, the enemy suit and Khadija’s charged each other and became locked in a brief clash with their respective melee weapons. Chainsaw teeth and vibroblade ground each other down. They traded several vicious blows and parries before each one in turn noticed Murati hurtling toward them. Her presence ended the deadlocked duel.

That enemy suit responded first and darted back carefully from Khadija.

Khadija pulled back only slightly as her ally approached at high speeds.

Murati swerved toward the enemy suit and it responded by thrusting up and away from her.

Then Murati arced toward Khadija instead, circling around behind her.

“Murati! What are you–?”

Soaring past Khadija’s back, Murati snatched the bomb she had given her using the magnetic pole.

At the speed she was going, the serial cable simply snapped off.

“Everyone retreat! Right now! Back to the Brigand!”

Accelerating once more, Murati barked her orders into the communicator.

Using the remaining shoulder camera she checked the status of the bomb.

She noticed it had been armed. She felt a chill run down her spine, briefly, unable to dwell on the confirmation of her horrifying suspicions. Was Khadija really willing to die to take out this one enemy unit? They would have to discuss this later. Murati held out the contraption in her hands and thrust toward the Irmingard class once again.

With an armed bomb on the strip she could not tarry for very long.

Within seconds, she was close enough to put the plan into action.

Assault rifles, gas guns and coilguns all used a combination of special ammunition and shooting mechanisms that allowed them to shoot underwater and launch supercavitating shells. Their ammunition moved through an air bubble, defeating the resistance of the water and altering their kinetic profile. Melee combat relied on the mechanical power of a Diver’s arms, as well as boosters on the weapon and the arm itself to improve thrust. Even so, raw kinetic impacts were not effective. Union swords used saw blades to inflict damage; the Empire used sophisticated vibrating blades made of exotic materials. Any simple cutting edge would have been much less effective underwater.

Similarly to swinging a plain sword, objects thrown by a Diver could not be expected to be effective.

They would not travel very far without assistance.

Grenades had their own built-in rocket to compensate for water resistance instead.

To propel the Grenade’s 50 mm warhead, it needed thrust akin to a Diver’s vernier booster.

That was enough thrust to propel the grenade quite far, quite fast.

And more than enough to take the strip and the bomb attached along for the ride.

“Here goes something!”

Holding out the strip in front of her, Murati armed the grenade at the back of it.

When she let go an instant later, the grenade’s thruster kicked in and launched the pole.

This sent the armed bomb hurtling toward the side of the Irmingard.

Moving faster than the flak curtain could be restarted to stop it.

As soon as she released the improvised rocket, she threw the Cheka into a steep turn. Without being able to detonate it in a controlled fashion from a safe distance, Murati was in immediate danger. She arced away from the Irmingard as quickly as she could and swung toward the Brigand. To escape the blast she needed every possible meter–

Her eyes glanced up at the ERS screen in time to watch the power drain entirely.

Then her cockpit suddenly went pitch black. Murati’s breath caught in her chest.

There was a sudden silence as the whirring of the pumps and turbines pushing water through her machine stopped abruptly. Her body jerked forward slightly and suddenly as water resistance killed her momentum, causing her cockpit to shake briefly. Red, intermittent flashing red within the darkness, indicating auxiliary power. Enough to maintain life support. She was stranded. Stranded in the open water with the bomb about to go off behind her.

Murati freed herself from her seat, crawled to the side of the cockpit and slid open a moveable slit.

There was a periscopic glass viewing pane, through which she could see nothing but water.

Then she saw something flash. That was the bomb– the bomb had gone off.

Her cockpit rumbled as all the water displaced by the blast slammed into her.

What was happening? She could be sinking to the sea floor! Or about to rip apart!

She grit her teeth and grabbed hold of the catches on the wall, repeatedly striking metal as everything around her shook violently. Rolling around on the inside of her own metal coffin, packed in like a canned vegetable.

Her senses almost went as her head struck the metal wall.

Blood dribbled down her face. Her grip started to slack, her wrists overextended.

And yet the cockpit continued to rattle and roll in the maelstrom.

Was she going to die? Was she really going to die like this?

Two distinct impacts tossed her further, one on each side of the cockpit– then she stopped.

She was stable. Rushing her eye to the viewing pane she caught sight of metal.

There was a red flash from it. Was that– a Diver? A Diver igniting a vernier?

Her cockpit shook again–

She felt the Cheka move. Water started rushing around her.

Consistent, purposeful movement.

Someone had rescued her.

With the cockpit stable, she came to settle against the wall. Bloody, battered, isolated.

Falling limp within her “metal coffin,” Murati started to weep into her own arm.

It must have been Shalikova or Lebedova.

Someone rescued her! She would live! She survived– they defeated that Irmingard class.

Unable to see them, unable to thank them, unable to determine who was alive–

What a way to end the battle! All that fire and thunder, and in the end it was all dark, all silent.

But she was alive. And the Brigand was alive. So despite everything, their mission was still alive.

She struck her fist against the metal wall, again and again. Grinding her teeth, weeping her eyes out.

“Messiah defend! Some fucking hero I turned out to be!” Murati shouted, screaming at herself in the dark.


Schicksal’s panicked voice heralded the coming insanity.

“Explosion off the port side! Significant sidepod damage– we’re destabilizing–!”

“God damn it!”

Gertrude would have pounded her fist on her seat but holding on to it was all she could do to keep herself from flying off her chair as the Iron Lady began to list to starboard dramatically, now heavier due to loss of both solid and liquid weight. Inside the Bridge it was pure chaos. Flashing red warning lights, dozens of people shouting at each other all at once, the helm crew struggling to adjust the ship’s weight and right it. As the ship slanted, a few unprepared officers fell back out of their seats and slammed into the nearest station behind them. It was nearly impossible to control the crew in this chaos, but Dreschner shouted himself hoarse at Gertrude’s side, keeping the bridge functional.

“Side hydrojet intakes completely severed! Weight distribution dramatically uneven!”

On the main screen a diagnostic updated, with the breaching and flooding that had been dealt to the sidepod area. Were it not for the Iron Lady’s enormously thick armor even the hangar would be flooding. That was not an ordinary depth charge, it had the kind of destructive power reserved for blast mining charges.

How had Sieglinde let such a thing through to them? Had she even survived?

To think despite every advantage they would lose to these thugs!

“Captain, Inquisitor! The Ludlow is not moving from our starboard!”

Schicksal turned a horrified look to meet Gertrude’s wild eyes and Dreschner’s pallid face.

They were listing toward their remaining Frigate, which was itself struggling to stay afloat.

“Collision imminent!”

Everyone in the Bridge grabbed hold of the closest thing they could.

Only the helm continued working until the last second that they could, struggling to stabilize the ship, but not in time to prevent what the prediction on the main screen showed them. Seconds later, the Iron Lady crashed into the Ludlow, crushing its side fin and caving in the port side of the pressure hull, sending the smaller vessel careening toward the ocean floor. This did relatively light damage to the Iron Lady itself, but it was clear the Ludlow would not survive. By then, the small amount of flooding on the Iron Lady weighed down its stricken side enough to stabilize the ship.

All the while, Gertrude watched the main screen with rage-filled eyes.

That insignificant little hauler and its measly little divers began to flee.

She raised her hand to the screen, nearly giving in to desperate, grief-stricken delusion.

Right in front of her, so close, close enough for her hand to reach. That damnable ship.

“Pandora’s Box. You won’t get away. Not as long as I can chase. Elena–”

Hyperventilating, eyes burning in the prelude to tears.            

Her mind blanking out with fury as she seared the sight of that little ship into her brain.

They had not escaped. They had not gotten away. They couldn’t run.

As long as she was chasing, they would never escape.

“Call for reinforcements! Send it through the encrypted network! As soon as possible!”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked like they could hardly believe her words.

Nevertheless, they set about their tasks as soon as they could. Whoever came could be made useful.

Though the Bridge soon quieted, the tense, erratic energy of the moment never left.

“Send out a drone to chase after Pandora’s Box as soon as the electronics are stable.”

Because Gertrude’s eyes never left the screen; because she never forgot the shadow of her prey.

She was High Inquisitor Lichtenberg, and as long as she was chasing, no one could escape!


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.6]

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

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

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

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

“Captain–”

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

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

Gertrude sank in her chair.

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

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

What compelled them to fight against these overwhelming odds?

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

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

“Lady Inquisitor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreschner’s expression softened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was right. No need to question it.

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude stood and walked out of the bridge.

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

She was so close, so close–

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

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

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

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

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

Elena was hers. She would take her back.

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

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

She then opened the only occupied cell.

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

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

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

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

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

And if begging didn’t work then violence would.

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

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

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

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

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

Her deep, rich voice was trembling and stammering.

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

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

“Thank you most kindly, milord.”

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

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

She was a true blue-blood after all.

Gertrude continued speaking.

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

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

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

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

They stood no chance against her legend.

Turning to her own prisoner for support was desperate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sieglinde then locked eyes with her.

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

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

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

She smiled so broadly it hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is your objective, Inquisitor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From that vacant smile, a forceful voice escaped.

Sieglinde’s expression darkened ever more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Schicksal was almost startled by the sudden appearance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreschner shook his head.

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

“Divers?”

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

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

Particularly those vicious and dreadful Katarrans.

For them to defeat Ingrid, however–

“Järveläinen, what happened out there?”

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

A Loup?

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

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

And this bunch was clearly a strange assortment.

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

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

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

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

At that point, Clostermann finally spoke up.

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

Gertrude paused for a moment.

Union equipment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

However, the content of her words quickly calmed Ulyana.

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

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

Ulyana crossed her arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Watch your tongue with me!” Aaliyah shouted.

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

Ulyana ran her hand down her face with frustration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Drone going out now.” Alex mumbled.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both sighed at the exact same time.

Alex glared out the side of her eyes.

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

Zachikova detected Alex’s snide remark and instantly responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Please,”

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

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

“Please– you can’t do this–”

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

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

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

“I’ll handle this, Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the door to the Bridge closed, separating them.

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

“Um, can we help at all–”

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

“Nothing– It’s nothing– sorry–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You hurt me!” She cried out.

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

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

“They’re– Marina they’re gonna–”

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

Elena could almost count the red veins on her eyes.

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

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

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

The Princess was almost ready to beg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marina– Please– Please tell them–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Victoria van Veka too–

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elena! What the fuck are you–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elena, stop–”

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

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

“Elena– Please– No–”

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

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

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

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

There was a flash of light.

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

Fluttering birds leaving their high perches in the dozens.

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

Elena opened her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she appeared before Elena as if a ghost that had been hiding behind a gust of wind.

Blonde hair done half up, red eyes, a soft and pretty face with pale pink skin, youthful beyond its years, often twisted into a self-amused sneer. A slight woman, neither too tall nor too large, thin but well enough endowed, fit but not too apparently so. She was dressed how Elena last remembered seeing her. A red dress with a plunging, square neckline, white pants, wearing an open blue, green and gold jacket with the heraldry of the House of Fueller, the square, intricate semiconductor of fate and the machinery of the once-engineers, who became soldiers, who became the royal family. 

Like a kid, Elena blurted out–

“Auntie?”

Standing before her as if she had traversed the length of the Oceans–

Norn the Praetorian.

Without word, Norn walked casually across Leda Lettiere’s garden to meet her daughter.

“Ah, my little elf, aren’t you sweet? Your mother was such a bohemian spirit, and yet she never accepted me as family, but you? You were always so warm. But I’m worried! If you remember this,” Norn gestured to the gardens around her as she walked, with a dramatic flourishing of her arms, “then surely, Elena, you remember the promise we made?”

Elena always found it hard to speak in front of the foremost retainer of the Fueller family.

Norn had a powerful presence. She spoke with unyielding confidence.

“I’m sorry Auntie– Lady Norn.” Elena corrected her etiquette quickly. Despite her own high status in the Fueller family, she almost felt beneath Norn, or at least, felt that Norn easily carried herself as one above even Elena herself.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I don’t recall.” Elena said, her chest fluttering with anxiety.

When her aunt responded, her voice was sickly sweet yet venomous at the same time.

“Oh, but Elena, it was a very important promise you made me. You can’t ever forget it!”

Norn stopped directly in front of Elena and stared directly into her eyes.

Red as Norn’s eyes were, in that instant, Elena saw even redder rings around them.

“Unfortunately, for us to meet here in the first place, means you broke the promise.”

The Praetorian’s fist struck fast as lightning. Elena had no time to react.

Like a film with a frame removed– one moment Norn had been standing still.

In the next, there was a fist embedded in Elena’s ribcage, pounding the air out of her.

Such was the force of that blow Elena nearly lifted off the floor.

Spit blew from Elena’s mouth, snot from her nose. She felt like her lungs went out of place.

So much pain, blinding, obliterating, all-consuming pain. More like a clubbing than a punch.

Elena dropped helplessly to her knees. Hugging herself, doubling over, retching.

“Not throwing any rocks? Or stirring up the dirt at me? Ahh. You’re still innocent.”

Norn kneeled down beside her and grabbed hold of Elena’s hair, snapping her head back.

“You promised to be a good girl for me. And it appears you still can be. It’s never too late to go back to being a powerless, pampered, cute little princess, Elena. So remain innocent; or Norn will be here to punish you.”

In the midst of her pain, images flashed in Elena’s mind. That smile– that sneering smile.

Huddled in a room in Schwerin, scared, alone, Leda Lettiere’s burning tower visible in the window.

Mother, Bethany– Marina–? No, they were gone. Only herself and this woman. Norn.

Norn kneeled next to her, just like this. Sweetly touching the head of the little scared child–

Staring deep into her with those red eyes until Elena started to lose her sense of place.

Flitting between the Norn of then and the Norn now as something appeared over her.

An icy white spike formed out of the air, instantly stabbing a deep, numbing cold into her brain.

Elena vanished from her mother’s garden and fell deeper and deeper into the dark ocean.


From the Captain’s chair came an exasperated sigh.

“Something’s wrong with those two. Can you go check on them quickly?”

“Of course.”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara stood up from her seat at Captain Korabiskaya’s request and stepped out into the hall outside the Bridge. She was skeptical of Marina McKennedy the moment she arrived — it was her job to be, after all. Now with the way she was treating that aide of hers, and the way that aide was behaving, Aaliyah was ever more suspicious of her motives. Between her two fluffy ears all kinds of ideas were percolating: maybe Marina had this girl captive and was drugging her; maybe this girl was being misled and Marina would dispose of her in secret–

Out in the hall, she found Maryam Karahailos, Klara Van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian out by the bulkheads. While Maryam was visibly panicking and looking around in confusion, Van Der Smidse and Zhu were both on the floor hovering over– people? Aaliyah hurried to the bulkhead well when she realized what was happening.

Maryam noticed this and waved her over anxiously.

“These two just dropped right out from behind this wall!” She cried out.

“What were they doing around the bulkheads?”

Aaliyah arrived and saw Marina McKennedy and her aide on the floor.

Van Der Smidse and Zhu breathed heavily over them, looking pale and tired.

“We managed to resuscitate them.” Zhu said.

“They weren’t breathing?” Aaliyah asked. “Why were they back here?”

“I think they wanted privacy. We’re sorry ma’am, we didn’t realize it’d be a thing.”

Van Der Smidse lifted herself off of Marina’s sleeping body with a heavy sigh.

“We kept an eye on them from afar, but then they just dropped to the ground.” She said. “When we got to them, they weren’t breathing. We started CPR– we told this girl to run to the security office and fetch Syrah, but she just stood there like an idiot.” Van Der Smidse shot Maryam a glare, the latter devolving into a fresh round of fretting.

“Just when we thought it looked worse than we could handle, they started breathing again. We got circulation too, their hearts don’t even sound very excited. They got lucky, I guess.” Zhu said, shrugging.

Absolutely bizarre. For Marina to drop like this too– maybe she was also using drugs?

“Good work you two– Maryam, it’s okay, calm down. You’re a civilian with no training.”

Aaliyah laid a shoulder on the fretting, weeping Maryam to try to calm her down.

“Ma’am, it’s just– I feel the despair wafting from them–” Maryam sounded hysterical.

“You’re a really sensitive girl, aren’t you?” Aaliyah said. She didn’t understand, but wanted to comfort her.

Before Maryam could complain any further, the steel floor shifted beneath their feet.

Aaliyah found herself thrown to the ground with Maryam, Zhu and Van Der Smidse as a sudden shock tilted the Brigand. Even through the metal armor Aaliyah could hear the sound of the explosive blasts going off outside, a dull booming like percussion in another room. Their feet slid out from under them and they landed in a pile over Marina.

The Commissar’s ears twitched as they picked up the distant but much more audible sound of screeching metal.

One thought consumed Aaliyah in that instant of panic — she had to get to the Bridge!

Ulyana –!

Almost leaping off the wall, Aaliyah pushed herself back onto her feet, and ran across the unsteady hall, the Brigand briefly shaking from side to side as it struggled to regain its balance amid the powerful shockwaves it was subjected to. Sliding and stumbling, holding a chilling breath in her chest, Aaliyah made it to the Bridge door and nearly fell through the opening as the door admitted her inside. Everything was still shaking even seconds after the impacts.

“Captain!” Aaliyah shouted.

She found Ulyana hanging on to her chair, with a hand over her head.

Aaliyah briefly thought she saw blood–

It was her morbid imagination. Ulyana was shaken, but unhurt and alive.

“Aaliyah, are you ok?” She asked.

Aaliyah nodded her head vigorously and then turned sharply to face the Bridge crew.

“Status report! Now!” She shouted.

“Two rounds! Main guns!” Fatima shouted, holding her chest, breathing in fits and starts.

She was completely spent.

Working at night, the first to respond, and the one responsible for tracking the whole situation on the sonar. They would have to work on her stamina, but for now it was understandable that she would shaken up. Aaliyah almost thought of relieving her, but this was not a situation where they could be as kind as they wanted to their crew.

Unprompted, the remaining reports came quickly after.

“Bulkheads automatically sealed on block C-6!” Semyonova reported. She sounded shaken but not to the degree Fatima was. “I’ve sealed additional bulkheads one sector out just in case. Freezing agents partially deployed; flood mitigation wasn’t able to do much. Draining slowly; pressure loss was mitigated in time to prevent a total loss.”

“C-6 is just a maintenance corridor in the outer hull.” Ulyana sighed with relief.

“Zachikova, did we catch the attack on video? How are the electronics?” Aaliyah said.

“We have vids. Two rounds detonated off the port side near the prow. No way we could have intercepted it. No direct hits on the hull.” Zachikova shouted, her deadpan voice the most composed out of the responders. “There was a sizable breach but freezing agents and flood mitigation are preventing the whole C-6 from peeling off. Several cameras and imagers are offline. Up to my neck in electrical errors from that sector. Shutting down power to it now.”

Ulyana laid back in her chair and raised her eyes up to the ceiling, groaning.

Aaliyah joined her, finally feeling calm enough to take her side again.

“Helmsman! How’s the propulsion? Any damage?” Ulyana asked.

“Maintaining speed. They just missed the sidepod intakes. We got lucky.” Kamarik replied.

Lucky, relatively speaking.

No ship wanted to take damage. That hole in the port-side would compromise the ship’s hydrodynamics and even with the freezing agent and flood systems slowing the build-up of water and pressure at the affected site, it was not something they could ignore forever. They would have to repair the hull properly. When and where they would do so was another matter entirely– and on that there was no point in addressing, until they had escaped.

“Okay! Nobody panic. We’re still following the plan. Keep yourselves on task and we’ll get out of her alive.” Ulyana said. “We’ve all had the dust shaken off our coats by the nice Ms. Lichtenberg, and now we just have to pay back her kindness. Kamarik, keep an eye on our thrust, and Zachikova, keep working on the software. How are our Divers? We have a battle to win here, people. Semyonova, put me through to Lichtenberg, she’s calling, right?”

“Yes ma’am, she has been the whole time. I’ve kept refusing.” Semyonova said.

“She’s clearly desperate for my attention.” Ulyana said in jest. “So I’ll reward her.”

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah looked up at the smiling blond keeping this Bridge together.

She felt almost like she was looking at an entirely different person than before.

To think this was that same woman who was clumsy with words and loose with drink.

Everyone was shaken and scared.

They were all tense, they could die any minute, and a massive shock just dealt real damage to their ship for the first time. Fatima and Alex looked like they would have respiratory attacks. Zachikova, no matter how much she hid it, was clearly struggling with the software. Despite the desperate situation they were in, Ulyana could still smile and joke, at least on the outside, and her voice had not lost the power it wielded before the blasts.

Firing the main gun should have changed the entire situation.

Ulyana was still in command of this Bridge, however.

And so they soldiered on with her.

“Captain, do we still think she’s bluffing?” Aaliyah said.

“Oh, she’s bluffing. I’ve got her grabbed by that little ponytail of hers now, don’t worry.”

Ulyana’s confidence never wavered even as she said these dangerous words.

If she was anything less than sure, she was condemning them all to sink.

Aaliyah knew she was right, however. With this attack, the Irmingard outed itself.

“Semyonova, hurry and put Lichtenberg through if she’s calling.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova nodded solemnly. Seconds later, the Inquisitor reappeared before the Captain.

Gertrude Lichtenberg was all smiles, looking quite pleased with herself on the video.

“Greetings Captain. I see it took a reminder of our relative positions to get you to respond to my calls. You’ve taught me a dangerous thing about how to deal with you, so you’d best try to accommodate me now. My main guns are loaded for another salvo, but I’d rather break this vicious cycle and parlay. So what do you say?”

“I say you’re being very selfish here. Each of those rounds must have cost a few hundred thousand marks. Seems like a waste to be dealing with a bunch of bottomfeeders like us in that way.” Ulyana shrugged comically.

“Given how much damage you’ve done it’s the only way I will deal with you.”

“I don’t want to brag; honestly, I just think you could do with better help.”

“I feel exactly the same, so I will cut to the chase here then.” Gertrude was already visibly annoyed by Ulyana once again. She clearly had skin as thin as a sheet of limestone paper. “You have a VIP aboard that I will be taking into custody. We don’t need to discuss the specifics. Don’t even pretend with euphemisms like ‘precious cargo’, I know you have her aboard. I will get her back, whether rescuing her from the wreckage or in a way that allows you to live. Give her up, and this dishonorable situation never transpired. You have my word you will go free. In fact, I may even have work for mercenaries of your caliber in the future. But I need her back right now.”

Now that was an intriguing response. She had spilled a lot of valuable information.

Off to the side of these exchanges, Aaliyah could not help but grin and find herself quite pleased with Ulyana’s performance. Thinking about what she said, Aaliyah felt that Gertrude must have been referring to Marina. By all accounts, Maryam had no trail, but Marina, if she had been captured by the Empire before, was a known fugitive. She had no idea how Marina’s presence aboard the Brigand came to be known to the authorities — but if there was anyone aboard the Brigand whom Gertrude’s words could be about, it had to be Marina. There was no doubt in her mind.

Ulyana quite accurately surmised that pushing back with her own euphemisms would work.

“Oh, but I know exactly who she is, Ms. Lichtenberg. I know who she is and how valuable she is, or I would not be resisting. I saw through her façade the instant she came aboard. However, she is still a prized client and does not wish to return to your custody. So I shall have to decline. She’s mine now, so you’d best move on from her.”

Ulyana smiled sweetly after speaking.

Gertrude’s jaw had a spasm.

“I will rip your little hauler in half and pick her out of a flooded pod if I have to.” Gertrude said.

“That’s a notion you really ought to move on from as well.” Ulyana said.

Gertrude grit her teeth.

“Who are you really working for? What will it take for you to surrender peacefully? To end this mean–”

“Are you going to say, ‘meaningless bloodshed’? Spare me the sophistry.”

“You have to be doing this for someone or something! What is it that you are after?”

“I see.” Ulyana said. She winked at Gertrude. “You’re really smitten with her, huh?”

This time it was Gertrude who cut off the video feed, flashing a furious grimace first.

Ulyana laid back in her chair, smiling to herself.

“She’s not going to shoot. Whoever she’s after, it’s personal.”

“Personal, huh?” Aaliyah said.

“I can tell. I’ve just seen a lot of girls her type. I know that kind of hysterical, horny energy.”

Aaliyah grumbled. “No kidding?”

“I’m only half-joking. But there’s more to it of course.” Ulyana laughed. “Marina said Lichtenberg got her position from a fallen predecessor, through playing politics. If I was a ruthless social climber who won herself a powerful position, why would I descend into convulsions over a single rescue mission? I would expect her to be methodical and emotionless. The Inquisition’s job is to repress people, not save them. I can only imagine this must be personal.”

“There’s another possibility.” Aaliyah said. “It’s about someone really big in the Empire.”

“True. I guess in the Empire there’s also Princes and Princesses and all that.”

“Yes, but that would be silly. Who do you think she’s really after?” Aaliyah said.

“Can’t be Maryam. Katarrans are the lowest of low in Imbrian society.” Ulyana said.

“I was thinking Marina. Maybe Marina knows something.” Aaliyah said.

“She definitely knows something.” Ulyana said. “But why go crazy about taking her alive?”

Aaliyah crossed her arms and nodded. “Thinking about it for a second. The Emperor died very recently. In his absence all kinds of backroom deals and schemes would occur. It could be that Marina has information Gertrude needs to solidify her position in the internecine political conflict. So it’s not about silencing her but getting her to talk.”

“You know, that adds up. I’m thinking it must be Marina then. We’ll need to talk to her.”

Ulyana slid the video display out of her way so she could address the crew unimpeded.

“I’m not hearing any explosions! Have we been able to contact our Divers yet?”

“Drone’s almost there.” Alex said in a choked voice, taking a deep breath.

On the main screen, the drone camera took focus amid the rest of the video feeds.

Through its eyes they approached the Irmingard dead on, flak flying in the distance.

Two fast-moving objects cut through the water over the Irmingard’s surface.

A laser call came in. Semyonova gasped, her hands grabbing hold of her own headset.

“We’ve heard a report from the Divers! Khadija’s engaging– we lost a bomb undetonated!”

Ulyana grit her teeth. Aaliyah bowed her head solemnly.

They were nothing but passengers at this point. Innocents caught up in a stream.


Previous ~ Next

The Center of Gravity (75.3)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

A photograph-like map of Solstice and its surroundings appeared, projected onto the wall behind the podium. This one had dozens of markings each of which had numbers associated with them. Cathrin Habich went over what the numbers meant, her voice calm, clear, professional. Field Marshal Haus watched the reactions from the crowd. Particularly, from McConnell and Kulbert, representatives for the Federation air force.

“Solstice City,” Cathrin began, her glossy red lips moving with subtlety and elegance, “represents perhaps the most well defended airspace in the world. Thousands of its cannons are dual-purpose 76mm guns, but a significant amount of them are dedicated rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns like the 37mm gun pictured here.” She turned the slide on the projector through a wire control, raising her hand and snapping her fingers on the little button box. Her showmanship was practiced and natural. She made no change in expression or tone as she did any little thing. “This weapon has, so far in the war, been singularly responsible for the destruction of scores of our dive bombers. In the hands of an organized defense like the one in Solstice, they may yet account for hundreds more.”

There was some scoffing from the rugged men in the crowd. Some of them could not believe that any scratch had been made in their pristine army by the Ayvartans at all.

Even the slides with official casualty and death tolls seemed not to move them at all.

Haus found it keenly necessary for everyone to understand that the Ayvartans were both formidable but defeatable. It was the contradictory nature of all of the Federation’s enemies. On the one hand, they had to be subhuman degenerates worthy of the punishment meted out by the higher order civilization represented by Nocht. On the other hand they had to be human also, formidable, powerful, fearful and worthy of respect. Otherwise they could not be fought properly, could not be bargained with and manipulated, and ultimately, could not be rehabilitated to civilization upon defeat.

Few men of the Federation seemed to have the appropriate amount of respect and hatred in them. Haus felt he himself had things correct. Von Drachen, who had been thrown out of the room, fell too closely to sympathy. Men like Wolff and McConnell dehumanized them too much and therefore could be susceptible to arrogance in dealing with them.

This could clearly not be dealt with through education.

Ultimately it would have to be experienced and endured.

“In any projected siege of Solstice, the most devastating weapon Ayvarta will turn against us are the cannons know collectively as ‘the Prajna.'” Cathrin continued, and behind her the projector image turned into grainy photograph of a complex circling three massive black structures. “These are three 800 mm super-heavy fortress guns. A shell detonation from the Prajna can rip the turrets off any tanks within a 20 meter radius, and make a 10 meter deep hole in the ground. Each gun is heavily maintained, with a rotation of several available barrels, and several thousand dedicated artillery personnel operate and maintain each weapon. Solstice can have the Prajna turned fully within an hour, or faster, and once an area is sited, all three guns can fire every 15 minutes. Because of its massive destructive power, we have a special map and special terms for its range.”

Cathrin switched to the next slide. There were old photographs of the guns and their massive railway-style turntables, as well as photos of the guns being swarmed over by men and women working on them. Special artillery cranes with multiple arms were shown lifting massive shells into gantries that then led the shells into the enormous breeches of the Prajna guns. Then, a map of Solstice, that was overlayed with a circle depicting the maximum range of the Prajna, 50 kilometers from its station. This area was labeled the Desolation of the Prajna. However, there was a smaller darker circle inside it.

“Theoretically, there is a minimum distance safe zone close to Solstice. It is essentially in the shadow of the walls, however, and tactically quite useless to us outside a close siege.”

Near the front of the small crowd, General Dreschner raised his hand with a look of skepticism in his eyes. “This seems like an anti-fortress style weapon, and useless against fast moving forces. I’m not convinced it can be tactically relevant to the defenders.”

“Any gun is tactically irrelevant by itself.” Haus responded. “Any piece of artillery is vulnerable against fast-moving forces and could potentially miss its mark. However, once a stiff Ayvartan defense halts our movements, we will become stationary targets.”

It was not even the conventional damage from the gun that concerned Haus. He remembered the “shell shock” of veterans from the great war against the Franks as they encountered comparatively tiny howitzers, 50 and 75 millimeters in shell diameter, firing in great number. He was concerned that such a massive attack on any Nochtish force would cause disarray, cowardice and desertion. Already some of the tank forces had experienced this. He had read accounts of the battle of Bada Aso, where tankers buttoned down when Madiha Nakar’s anti-tank artillery fired on them, suddenly anxious of any retaliation at all. Even when the smaller guns fired, that both Madiha Nakar and the Nochtish commanders knew would not hurt well-armored tanks like the Sentinel.

Clearly, at least one Ayvartan commander took psychology into account for her plans.

There was more to the meeting, but for Haus many of the salient points had already been made. Cathrin went over some slides of Ayvartan equipment they might meet, as well as the famous Ayvartan military officers. One underrrated individual was Madiha Nakar. Aside from Von Drachen nobody had seen this woman, nor heard much of her from before the war. After the founding of the Republic of Ayvartan by Mary Trueday, the cooperating Ayvartan officials from the various conquered local governments dug up all their records for Nochtish perusal. There was some folklore about Nakar, how she was a child soldier for the communists, how she was there in person to see the Emperor killed decades ago. They had an old photograph of her as a young officer cadet, long-haired, tall and skinny, almost passing as light-skinned in the old gray picture, with a fine-featured face that would have been pretty had its expression for the camera not been so grim.

She did not seem formidable. Apparently she had been some stripe of police woman before the war, arresting spies and traitors and turning over houses for hidden radios.

Regardless, she had been at Bada Aso, so she was one to watch. Just not obsessively.

After the meeting, the officers retreated into their cliques, tank men with tank men, air force with air force. A few of the more social officers might have been preparing their plans for the new year. There were prayers to attend, letters to family. Each new year could be the last; even in the Federation, this was the mentality toward the pall of the New Year. Grim resignation. Moreso for these men, stranded on this foreign land.

Haus was left alone with Cathrin, who was picking up the classified files from the projector and storing them into a combination-locked case. After watching the men, he turned to her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, smiling. She turned her head slightly, just enough for one of her eyes to catch a glance of him behind her.

“Meet me in about an hour in my office, will you dear?” Haus asked.

Cathrin nodded silently and with no change in expression returned to her work.

Before Haus could depart, however, a man walked in from outside and hailed him.

In the hand he waved there was a cardboard folder full of documents.

Haus recognized him as Air Commodore Robin McConnell. Young, spry and sleek, with blond hair and a smooth jaw, well-kept. He was easily handsome, casually, naturally, and not only because Luftlotte officers were barely ever in danger. After a point, many of them never even saw a forward air field again, and mainly concerned themselves with making higher order strategic and logistical decisions for their subordinates.

McConnell was in just such a position.

However, his beauty seemed nevertheless remarkable, attributable only to him.

Haus smiled at him and stretched out a hand to shake.

“I see one of the air force’s young geniuses is here with a proposition.” He said.

McConnell smiled back. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to get in touch, Marshal. I believe the Luftlotte has solutions for all of the problems you and the lovely frau Habich pointed out during our meeting. I have a plan to take a city from the air; the first one in history.”

Haus smirked, and internally he was grinning terribly.

“Habich, can you prepare a table for us?” McConnell asked.

Cathrin did not move a muscle for him.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself Robin, that’s my aide you are talking to.” Haus corrected him.

She looked to Haus for instructions and Haus nodded at her.

Then she went to fix a table for them to talk over.

This whole performance put McConnell in an obvious mood.

Once they finally convened their impromptu briefing, McConnell laid out his documents on the table. They included a review of air frames available on Ayvarta, current and potential air bases, the existence of the Task Force (a generic name representing the prototype weapons force of Wa Pruf) and its miraculous new air elements, and a map covered in spaghetti lines to and from Solstice and various other places.

After the Battle of Bada Aso, Nocht’s aircraft situation had become abysmal. Having underestimated the air defense capability of the city, and restricting themselves to mass daytime bombing by hordes of fast but poorly armored strike craft, they suffered the worst aerial losses the Federation had ever seen. In its wake, President Lehner pissed off the entire chain of command by requiring personal authorization for any more Air Operations of that nature. This meant Nocht performed almost no strategic bombing.

Because Nocht got all of its aircraft from overseas, and because the merchant marine was horribly overburdened, they spent almost all of the Aster’s Gloom, with limited air support on a tactical level. The Adjar-Tambwe front barely had any, and the Shaila-Dbagbo front stretched its remaining aircraft horribly thin and overworked them. Now the situation was improving again. Nocht now possessed heavy aircraft on Ayvarta for the first time, including hundreds of heavy escort fighters and dedicated bombers, and the number of light aircraft rose to 1000 examples of fighters and dive bombers.

Despite Lubon having armed forces on the continent now, no attempt was made to secure their aid. Not even McConnell’s plan accounted for them. Their air force was unreliable even when it was properly supplied. So that was no part of the solution.

Instead McConnell envisioned a strategy of purely Nochtish aerial terror.

“I call this ‘Big Wing’ bombing.” McConnell said. He had drawn up an example formation that contained several waves of dozens big bombers defended by many dozen fighter aircraft, attacking the same city from direct vectors, criss-crossing the air defense net at different intervals and overwhelming and confusing the air defenses. But he reasoned that the goal was not to inflict wanton devastation: it was to insure through numbers that any one bomber could put any one bomb on a factory, base, or other military target.

No matter what happened there would be mass civilian casualties, of course.

However, it was not considered important that Solstice survive the war.

McConnell knew this.

Mary Trueday had openly wanted the post-war capital of the Republic of Ayvarta to be in the agriculturally rich (and largely ethnically Umma) Shaila, not in the wastes of Solstice.

“It looks to me like the same thing you tried at Bada Aso.” Haus said.

“Light compositions look almost exactly the same.” Cathrin said.

At this the Air Commodore seemed offended by the comments of a simple aide.

“But the objective is different.” McConnell said. “Now that we have large bombers, we don’t have to be depend on lightweight fighter and dive bomber attacks to soften up our enemies, like we did at Bada Aso. We can destroy their war capacity and demoralize them with massive firepower the likes of which we simply couldn’t deploy at Bada Aso.”

“So you want us to launch a terror air campaign? What’s the objective other than spending munitions? What is this ‘one bomber’ who will get through, going to hit?”

Haus was skeptical. He would have to talk to Lehner personally about this and he truly did not want to bring any more of these fantasy air conquests to his eye. Without a direct goal, this would just look like setting a pyre in Solstice and burning money in the flames.

McConnell of course had an answer. He pulled out a copy of a slide Cathrin had shown during the presentation: the massive complex at the heart of Ayvarta’s military power.

“Armaments Hill.” McConnell said. “Across a week or two of bombing, we’ll split the Ayvartan air defenses. We’ll use diversionary attacks on targets on the edges of the city, tricking the Ayvartans into believing that we are after their precious defensive walls. This will open the ground for an all-out bombing run on the city center from three directions. We’ll take out Armaments Hill, and with it, the ability for Solstice to coordinate, supply and maintain the Prajna gun complex and the wall defenses.”

He pulled open a map of Ayvarta and plotted the courses of the three bombing attacks.

“I call it Rolling Thunder.” McConnell said, as he drew the lines.

One would fly over the central mountains and desert, starting in Dbagbo; the other would swing from Rangda and over North Ayvarta before turning inward to Solstice; the final attack had elements of the others, coming from Dbagbo but following the southern coast before swinging north toward Solstice in the center. All would be grievously fuel intensive and it would require absolutely perfect coordination and execution for the aircraft to start on a straight course but then alter their trajectory so sharply.

McConnell was quite right that this had never been done. It simply wasn’t done at all.

“We can even use the Mjolnir launch sites. There is one prepared.” McConnell said.

He became more excited with each new startling revelation of his master plan.

Haus shook his head. “I will consider this and we can make a formal presentation with Kulbert to the president in a few weeks time. But I will say that I am skeptical.”

There was for a moment nothing but silence, save the cycling of the air system.

McConnell was obviously shocked. He had a look of boyish frustration.

“That gives the Ayvartans the time to stiffen their defenses, and our ground offensive will have begun by then. I believe I can spare the lives of the infantry by destroying Solstice from the air, all I need is a week’s time to prepare starting right now.”

Haus almost rolled his eyes. McConnell pretended to have pure motives but ‘destroy Solstice’ said it all. McConnell was saving no lives: he was trying to achieve personal glory. A historic victory over a historic city conducted in the most uniquely historic way. Otherwise he would have talked to Kulbert about this too. Because he was talking to Haus, it meant he wanted to circumvent his own superiors so he would be put in charge. This was the sort of thing that was only possible in such a highly political army.

McConnell came from an influential family. He had a brother in the senate who as a protege of Lehner himself. Kulbert was just an old man who knew about warplanes.

And Haus was the grand Marshal with the President’s ear.

McConnell was playing rank games and Haus did not appreciate it.

“I’m afraid I can’t do more for you. I am a very busy man. Leave your plan here and I’ll review it when I can. It is ambitious, clearly, and I do respect your effort. We will talk.”

He waved him away.

McConnell stood there for a moment, stewing in his own anger.

He ultimately stopped staring between Cathrin and Haus to turn around and leave.

Having finished with him, Haus watched McConnell stroll off.

He let him get farther away and then turned to Cathrin.

“We’re still on, don’t forget.” He said cheekily.

Cathrin nodded and turned back to the table she now had to clean up.

Satisfied, Haus followed after McConnel had had enough space to vanish.

Outside was a long hallway with a smooth dark floor and smooth dark walls.

They were in an underground bunker, built in a hidden location for use by the regional government in case of an emergency evacuation of the councils. Ayvarta’s infrastructure in general ill suited the secrecy of the Oberkommando’s current meetings, so only this place was deemed suitable. There were few people in the halls other than stationed guards, and the few people walking had destinations in mind. Haus himself began to make his way one story up through a closely guarded staircase. He had to log himself and his destination at the staircase, and he was the Marshal in charge of Ayvarta!

Given the nature of some of the meetings here, Haus welcomed the security, and its impartiality for whom it targeted. Secret superweapons, new forms of energy, and other visions of the future were all being discussed with the Generals, allied politicians, and their most trusted and key staff. The end of the Solstice regime was being plotted here.

Haus meanwhile was headed to a meeting much less dire. In a small office with one table, perhaps once meant for interrogations, he found an older gentleman with a thick mustache and close-cropped hair, unremarkable save for his uniform. Like Haus’ own uniform, it was gray, but cut in Ayvartan fashion and with Ayvartan rank insignia. There was a symbol of a golden sword on its shoulder: the emblem of the Republic of Ayvarta’s VII corps, the “hydra killers.” This man was the first Republican general, Maraesh Jelani.

“Greetings General.” Haus said, taking a seat across from the man. He spoke in slightly tormented standard Ayvartan. He had been learning. He hoped he knew enough now.

Hujambo, Marshal.” Jelani replied, unfazed. “I hope I’m not being arrested.”

Haus laughed. “All the larger rooms are in use.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure then?” Jelani asked.

He spoke in a disinterested tone of voice. Jelani was a managerial man, brought out of retirement upon the birth of the Republic, not someone enthusiastic for battle. As far as Haus understood, there was some worry about old racial tensions with an Arjun princess taking over the old southern haunts of the Umma people and declaring it a new successor to the Empire. Republican democracy was declared as the first conciliation; and an Umma war hero to lead the new anti-communist armies was the second step.

Haus expected that in any battle, he himself would control even the Republic troops, but they all needed Jelani there to issue the orders and to act as a figurehead and example.

“How are the men?”

“Do you mean soldiers? We’ve raised about 30,000 troops so far.”

It was a constant note in Haus’ mind that Nocht referred to soldiers often as “the men,” and he had tried to say the same in Ayvartan. However, Ayvartans had a tradition of frontline fighting women, so just saying “the men” was like talking to someone about “the lads” you went drinking with. Jelani responded with “the troops” which in Ayvarta was the unisex collection of bodies that fought wars. While several officials had wanted to keep the new Republican Ayvartan army exclusive to men, Mary Trueday and Jelani had insisted that they needed to be able to field women, and they eventually got their way.

Language aside, when the communists pulled out, they evacuated a sizeable amount of civilians, mainly union workers, party members and students in state schools. Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo had massive populations and the refugees did not put a dent in those numbers, but there was something of a brain drain to deal with. Those left behind were not largely ideological people, but stubborn or withdrawn folk. They did not love the Republic as a beacon of anti-communism. They just let the world pass them by no matter who claimed to lead it. They lived only for themselves and their direct locality.

“Are they looking like a corps to you yet?” Haus asked.

“We’re all weary, but we will fight. I will lead them in the capacity I am required to.”

Such sterling enthusiasm for the coming conflict. He was sure his troops felt even less.

At any rate, this was enough introductory chatter for Haus.

Jelani was not needed as a figurehead right then. 

Haus had a different need for him.

“What do you know about Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked.

Jelani blinked. He averted his eyes. “That’s a name I had not heard in a long time.”

“But you have heard of it. I know you must have met her even.”

“Pray, Marshal, what more do you know of this tired old man’s memories?”

Why was he being evasive? He must have had some kind of fondness for her then.

Haus put aside those questions and gave him what he wanted.

“During the Civil War, you were a warlord in the South, but because you only acted for Umma independence and not as an explicit pro-Empire or anti-communist figure, you were allowed diplomacy instead of the sword. You did a tour in the war college in Solstice, because the communist party wanted to test your loyalty and have you in their grasp. You proved yourself useful and harmless and as the government mellowed out, you were allowed to leave. During that time, you trained Madiha Nakar, did you not?”

Maraesh Jelani coughed into the back of one of his fists. He breathed out harshly.

“You characterize our relationship too strongly.” Jelani said. “She was not my protege or anything; but yes, she was one of the many students who passed through my halls.”

“Right now, she’s handed us two terrible defeats. As an ally of the Federation, I had hoped you would divulge any information you know about her. Official records of her are very sparse. Ayvartan birth records from the Imperial period and Civil War period are a disaster, that much I understand. But despite spending significant time living in Dori Dobo, Bada Aso and other Southern locales, we have few recent documents for her.”

Jelani steepled his fingers and stared at the table. “She was always a favorite of Daksha Kansal, you know? I wouldn’t doubt she had official protection behind the scenes.”

“So you understand my plight.” Haus said. “I won’t demand it, but I hope you will volunteer some of your time and information. I’d like us to be partners in this.”

He meant the war effort as a whole and he hoped his language conveyed this.

Jelani seemed to take a moment to consider his words. Perhaps the language barrier between them really was that strong. But no, something told Haus that Jelani had fully understood him, he knew as soon as he saw Jelani begin to fidget on the table.

Finally, Jelani sighed and smiled to himself. “She’s a fool, she’s worthless. I don’t think you have the right girl, Marshal.” He seemed to reminisce about her, and spoke while staring past Haus at the walls. “Here’s what I know. She was my student for many years. At the college, Madiha had a few genius wargame results and did well on historical and philosophy tests. Her physical training was also impressive for an officer cadet. Good marks on athletics, shooting, hand to hand. However, she was clueless at Chess and other strategy games. Her tactical mind was unformed and inconsistent. She was moody; it was always off her official record but she was mentally ill. Clearly taking medications.”

Haus blinked. That was such an unsorted mass of random memories; it was only good to him for establishing that Jelani knew about Nakar. And that he was clearly fond of her.

“What about General Adjar Al-Haza? Did you know him?” Haus pressed him.

Jelani seemed to flinch at the name. “Now that is another name I never thought I would hear again. I will spare you my reminiscing of him: he was the one actually close to Madiha– to Nakar, for many years. She was his protege and aide for a time.”

“He was executed during your season of treasons.” Haus said. He grinned to himself. “Perhaps Nakar herself did the deed? She was a policewoman of some sort, correct?”

“Nakar became a spy hunter of some renown yes, but Al-Haza was investigated and put to death by others, not her. Whether she contributed is unknown to me. I do not know their relationship outside the bounds of my administration.” Jelani replied.

“Adjar Al-Haza was a bright star during the civil war. He was a reformer, who wanted to modernize the armies. It was in part his zeal for military expansion and buildup that prompted your old parliament to push back and clamor for limiting military power.”

“He was. He came up with numerous theories of war and mobilization.” Jelani said.

“Whether Madiha Nakar was a mediocre student of yours or not, do you think she may have become a powerful student of Al-Haza? None of your other generals defeated us.”

Jelani breathed deeply through his nose. He shook his head. “Back in the college we would host these war games using certain rules and settings, meant to test what our students would opt to do in different historical scenarios. Nakar hated these as she hated Chess. She would always complain about moving this or that unit here or there from its starting position. She chafed under the limitations imposed upon her. She would begin every game by retreating all of her units to some other location of her preference. She would waste time and make herself look foolish. She scored low on several games.”

Haus knew that Jelani was trying to under-sell Madiha Nakar as a threat to him, perhaps to protect her out of some old fondness for her childhood self. However, Haus’ eyes drew wide with the realization that they were not speaking of different Madiha Nakars, one a genius warrior and the other a failure of a student. Madiha Nakar had performed surprising retreats during both the battles of Bada Aso and Rangda, luring her enemy to her preferred ground. Under the rules of a board game perhaps Madiha Nakar looked petulant and unable to adapt; but in war time she had proven a vicious manipulator.

“Adjar Al-Haza would have fought Von Sturm, Von Drachen, Mansa and the Elves on their terms through superior fundamentals. He would have emphasized the attack. Speed of deployment, superior firepower, consistent supply, and equivalence in manpower were the tools he advocated. Madiha Nakar was no Adjar Al-Haza, and surely is not now. That she defeated Sturm, Mansa, and your Drachen, was just lady War’s dice falling her way.”

Haus smiled at him. “You are right. She is no Al-Haza. She may be his superior instead.”

Maraesh Jelani paused, his features blanching at Marshal Haus’ response.

“And furthermore: I wouldn’t count Von Drachen out of that match quite yet. After all, he was also a despicable pest at our Academy. Perhaps he will become a pest to match her.”

Haus stood from his chair, bid his guest farewell, and stepped briskly out of the room.

All the while he made a mental note to someday pit this Jelani against Nakar if he could.

Just out of curiosity; to see that look on his face again, perhaps.

He was beginning to understand Von Drachen’s obsession with this character, Madiha Nakar. That being said, obsession and exaltation were steps too far. He had to collect the facts and think soberly about the situation, not give himself in to foolish fantasies.

Haus withdrew to the third underground story, where had a temporary office composed mostly of closed boxes and file folders littering a desk and various bookshelves.

When the door shut behind him it seemed to shut out his own shadow and the air he breathed outside. He felt a sense of freedom and like he could forget the outside world.

This office and many like it had been his fortresses for years now. In these darkened crevices of humanity he could hide from the public and indulge. He could be himself.

Here he could shed that stone-faced professionalism and cocksure aggression he had to display for the men outside to deem him worthy. He could be passionate and warm.

He dropped himself on a couch on the edge of the office, unbuttoning his jacket and shirt. He breathed out a sigh of relief. For a moment, he even let himself think of his beloved. It was an illicit thing, but this was his private place. Discipline could be lax.

There was a knock on the door, but it was one he had expected and contrived himself.

Cathrin Habich arrived as she had been instructed to.

She closed the door behind her carefully and entered the room as discretely as anyone could. She approached the couch and stood deferentially before him, awaiting orders.

“Sir.” She said. Her voice conveyed little emotion.

Always prompt, no matter where she was called or what she was called on to do.

“I’ve got a job for you, Kitty.” He said, smiling.

“Anything, sir.”

Her face was expressionless, and her mannerisms carefully neutral, controlled as they always were no matter what duress she was put under. She adjusted some of her wavy golden hair behind one ear. Her pigments, a little red on her lips and a little black around the eyes, had been recently reapplied. She looked stunning as usual. Perfectly proportioned, like a classical if stoic beauty from the deepest fantasies of the artist.

Cathrin was in some ways a token of Haus’ own position, as much as he disliked characterizing it as such. There were certainly other officers who would have been pleased to have her around. Aside from her good looks, she was smart and skilled.

However, they were kindred spirits; once he discovered this, he had to choose her.

“Very well. It’s the same as usual. You know what to do.”

Haus tipped his hat over his face.

He reached out his arm.

On the desk beside her, he picked up a file folder and handed it to her.

“You can use this as an excuse. There’s enough to do for the night; judging by your typical efficiency, you’ll have time to spare where it matters. Say hello to Andrea for me.”

He smiled at her. With his hat over his eyes he could no longer see her but he almost felt the energy in the room as her carefully stone-like exterior melted with delight.

“Thank you sir.” She said, her voice hushed but clearly grateful.

“I will trust you to be discrete.”

“Yes sir!”

There was a muted note of giddy girlishness in her voice that Haus found delightful.

She practically bounced out of the room, running to the arms of her forbidden lover.

This was all he could do for her in the world they lived in, but he did that much.

He wanted to, because he wanted to nurture people like himself who still had a chance.

His own love was doomed, and he knew it. He had known it since he was a child.

But perhaps Achim might still sense the purity of it, and allow others, like Cathrin, the release of their true selves. That was one thing Haus hoped to get out of a powerful, globe-spanning Nocht Federation. Out of the light of Democracy that was expanding to shine on all shadows. True justice and real freedom for the Nochtish peoples, even those like himself who had been born strange existences longing for the most taboo carnality.

It might have been childish. Perhaps that was why his face never seemed to age.

Regardless of what Achim did or did not do, however, Haus had resigned himself to fighting this war for him. That was the monument to his love he built even as a child.

Whoever got in the way of that would be destroyed. Madiha Nakar or anybody.


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