Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.3]

[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]

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

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

Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re doing this now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.

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

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

“That was a large part of it, yes.”

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

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

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

And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.

Who did this woman think she was–?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”

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


It’s her!

You’re here Braya!

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

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

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

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

She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.

A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.

Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.

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

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

“We’re going to get out of here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if at her.

Inquisitive, aren’t you?

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

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

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

Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–

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

“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Mourning the image of it.

Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to find her again.”

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

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

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


“How many fingers are we holding up?”

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

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

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

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

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

For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”

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

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

“Karuniya!”

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

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

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

However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”

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

“I promise. I really do.”

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

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

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

Murati would pin her hopes on that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did we lose anyone?”

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

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

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

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

“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.

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

“Huh?! Shali-Shali?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.

“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”

The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for understanding.”

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


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

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

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

But not for the next few days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck!”

Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.

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

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

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

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

“Fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty-two years.

Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.

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

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

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

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

Someone on crutches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had tried to put that experience away.

To train and fight another day and move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.2]

For Blake McClinton the summer palace at Schwerin Island had become a green purgatory. Those vast beautiful fields which surrounded the castle endlessly on each side made him feel insane as he relentlessly climbed sets of staircases, looking out onto the unchanging world below, rushing from the bottom of the palace to the garden several stories above. Staircase after staircase after staircase fashioned from stone, boasting artsy diagonal hex-shaped windows ever at his side.

Intermittent snapping gunfire punctuated his steps.

“Leda– oh my god Leda–”

He gasped for breath. Tenth story. Almost there.

That morning he’d had an ominous feeling in his chest. He had wanted to meet with Leda.

With his status as a G.I.A. agent they had to be discrete, but–

Ever since they got word that woman was coming, Blake couldn’t sit back and watch.

Leda had said she would meet him in their special place. She must have meant the garden.

But with this invasion happening would they really meet there?

Blake had no choice but to follow her directions. Even if they were given before the chaos.

On the twelfth story, when he looked out at the green, he could see a shadow in the falsely blue sky. An impression of what was looming outside Schwerin past the illusion they had created for themselves. Judging by the presence, in the gardens below, of those damnable powered armors that the Empire had begun building to fight the communists, this was a Dreadnought that was sent to suppress them.

That shadow signaled the end of their ambitions– but they could still escape!

And so Blake charged up the stairs again, silenced pistol in hand.

He began checking the corners, aiming up the staircase.

“Leda! I’m here! I’ll get you out of here!”

He shouted, almost hysterical in his desire to hear anything from the garden.

Charging through the door out to the enormous ceiling-garden in one of the Schwerin palace towers. Beautiful rows and beds of tall flowering plants, grapevines, berry bushes. Blake called out Leda’s name and ran through the rows. He reached the center of the garden structures, begging whatever cosmic force toyed with their fates to please let him find Leda standing there.

“My, my.”

Blake should have known his fate could be nothing but cursed.

In Leda’s place, there was a woman in the field grey Imperial officer’s uniform, boots and peaked cap, blond, fair-faced, hair tied into a ponytail. She carried no visible weapons and had her arms crossed over her chest. She did not appear so formidable that she could simply stand there alone, but that mischievous glare and wicked grin could have belonged to no other than the famed Fueller enforcer Norn Tauscherer. Standing atop the garden tower and below Schwerin’s darkened skies.

“Where is she?” Blake shouted. He took aim directly at Norn’s head.

Norn put on an expression that felt surreal to Blake. Was she– was she laughing?

Nonetheless, she raised her hands in surrender with this amused expression on her lips.

“Blake McClinton is it? G.I.A special agent? No– there are more relevant names.”

Suddenly, Blake felt something press against the back of his head.

He ran his fingers through his long black hair as if he could’ve felt what was touching him.

“Samuel Anahid.”

Blake’s eyes drew wide as Norn’s smile grew wider. How could she–

“No– oh dear. I quite apologize. I found a more fitting name: Marina McKennedy?”

“Shut up! I’ll perforate that fucking stupid grin of yours!”

Terror stirred in Blake’s heart.

How could she know, how could she possibly fucking know?

Only Leda and Bethany called her Marina– only they knew what he felt deep down.

Only they encouraged his questioning.

Something so intimate, so strange; how was it possible for Norn to know?

Unless–

No, even in captivity Leda would have no reason to speak of that!

And Bethany would never betray them!

“You’re wondering how I know? It’s because your mind is such an open book.”

Norn’s expression was filled with such evil delight it shook Blake’s gun arm.

This woman was a monster– this was the only explanation.

There was no time to ponder it any further than that.

Fueller’s monster had come for them. As Blake had feared in his worst nightmares.

Blake was hardly listening to her ramble– he had to move with haste. Leda was in danger.

“Where is she? Where is Leda Lettiere? Where are you keeping her?”

Blake stepped forward with his pistol trained on Norn’s forehead.

“Miss McKennedy, it is truly not my desire to cause any harm to Leda Lettiere.” Norn said. For a second, Blake’s heart rushed with a misplaced sense of relief. It didn’t last long, just until Norn finally spoke up again. “I am one of her many admirers. Oh, such pain and heartache that she brings to that stupid man. When Konstantin sent me here, I was expecting to turn up evidence of her sleeping around, and then to thoroughly ignore it so long as she was discrete. Unfortunately, you were here, G.I.A.”

“What do you mean? What the fuck do you mean Norn?” Blake asked desperately.

Norn sighed. “If only you hadn’t been here. I could have even ignored Leda’s plot to kill Konstantin, but if it’s supported by the G.I.A., that won’t do. I can’t let the Republic become emboldened.”

“You’re talking really confidently for a woman with a gun to her head.” Blake said.

She tried to regain her confidence. Norn was not some superhuman.

Blake had all the situational advantages. Strategically they had been completely outdone but in this particular moment all she needed was to shoot Norn and escape with Leda. She just needed to know where Leda was. She had a few assets still in play, she could still potentially slip by those Diver armors. She had tricks up her sleeve. If Norn was up to talking she could let her talk.

“What did you do with Leda? You’ve captured her, haven’t you?” Blake said.

“Do you really think Leda would honor your little rendezvous here in this situation?”

Norn tilted her head, gesturing toward one of the higher rear towers of Schwerin Palace.

Of course. Blake had been so stupid. Leda was going to get Elena from the tower.

How could he have believed Leda would choose him over her own daughter?

“Unfortunately, I have to put an end to these fantasies.” Norn said.

Blake bared her teeth at her in fury. “Says the bitch on the other end of my gun! Shut up!”

Norn took a casual step forward in defiance of the agent’s orders, hands still raised.

There was no hesitation on Blake’s part. He was a trained killer.

He pulled the trigger, twice in quick succession, a bullet each in Norn’s neck and chest.

Shooting a gun gave a brief sensation of recoil and an instantaneous sense of violence. The imagination of the layperson could have never accounted for the speed of a bullet. It was as if they were summoned into the world instantly in collision with their targets within the blink of an eye. So Blake’s response to the attack was trained, purposeful; at such close range, he knew when he hit something.

That made the shock he felt as Norn continued to step toward him even greater.

Blake stepped back, retrained his aim, and fired, both hands, center mass, no fancy shit–

Norn closed in from across the garden, closing meter by casual meter, step by step.

“What the fuck?”

His head felt blurry with anxiety. Had he been drugged? Why was he missing?

There was no way. No one had any opportunity to tamper with his gun or with him.

He fired, twice, three times, fired at Norn until the gun clicked empty.

Nothing, not a single bullet had even grazed her. It was if they went through her.

“What’s wrong? Want me to stand still so you can hit me?”

Norn stopped, scant meters distance from Blake, shrugging her shoulders.

Blake drew a knife from his belt and rushed toward Norn with all his might.

Desperate, foolish, ignorant–

Nothing to lose–

She was unarmed, he would take her down and rip out her fucking guts on the floor!

There was no way she could avoid that!

“Pitiable.”

Norn swung her arm and batted aside Blake’s knife.

It was such a precise, dismissive gesture that Blake could hardly believe it as he staggered back from it. His knife arm had been stricken with such force he thought his wrist might have snapped. In the midst of that sharp and sudden pain he never realized how quickly Norn had stepped inside of his guard. Her fist flew like a bullet. In an instant, it was summoned to his stomach and battered him.

Blake fell back on the floor, grabbing hold of his belly, coughing, struggling to breath.

Norn’s punch was like a battering ram. He felt like stomach was moved out of place.

No way! No way! No way!

How was she so strong? How the fuck was this Imbrian bitch this strong?

Blake’s mind raced. Could she be a fucking Katarran–?

“How insulting.”

With a look of disgust on her face Norn kicked Blake on the floor.

Coming in from the side, he felt the hard boots strike his ribs and cried out.

Blake turned on his other side, tried to crawl away–

When that same boot came stomping down on his hand.

He gritted his teeth. She was not trying to break it. Just holding him in place.

He could not help but notice how quickly she had moved from one side of him to the other.

“I don’t do this without pity or sympathy for your cause. Konstantin should not be the winner here.” Norn said. Blake’s heart was racing, and he was in such pain, that all he could do was spit on the floor, not even on her shoe. He could not speak. He could do nothing but act defiant where no defiance was possible. Norn continued. “I’ll avenge the two of you one day. If what you want is the death of Konstantin von Fueller, then have patience. That day will come; just not by your hand, G.I.A.”

Behind them one of the towers suddenly exploded, casting debris and fire into the air.

Norn looked at it briefly, cursed in indignation, and turned suddenly back to Blake.

Her foot came down on his face and shut the light from his eyes–

–Transporting her back to the UNX-001 Brigand, almost twenty years later in 979 A.D.

Marina woke in a bed and quickly closed her eyes again.

She resisted the urge to wake with a start.

It was not only that she wanted to excise what she had just seen in her mind with all of her concentration. That was only one consideration. But it was also part of her professional paranoia. In some situations it was more advantageous to pretend to be asleep or dead, this too was part of her training. Whenever she woke, she closed her eyes and took stock. As she pushed away the fragmented memories being cast as nightmares in her messy subconscious, she also remembered where she had been last.

She remembered arguing with Elena.

Her heart hurt, scarcely remembering that Elena had been furious with her.

Something happened after that. Maybe an attack on the ship knocked Marina out.

Everything was a little fuzzy. To her consternation, her dream was more vivid than that moment.

They had been in a dangerous situation, but she was not dead, so they must have escaped.

Or been captured.

She quickly opened her eye–

And closed it.

Union ship layout with automated doors with no locks; every Imperial quarter had a digital lock so it could be shut out by officers in case of mutiny. Bare metal walls, bedframes made of interchangeable bare plates of carbon fiber that fitted together and could be used to make chairs or tables or other furniture, as opposed to Imperial single-cast bespoke furniture molds. And the other beds were occupied by women with sandy or dark skin. She was probably still on the Brigand.

That didn’t mean they were not captured, but it did mean she could probably be awake.

Marina sat up in bed.

She had a headache, but her body was as whole as it could be. Both arms, both legs.

Her cybernetic eye was doing fine.

In a corner of the room, a young, slim blond girl wearing her hair in two long braids spun around on her office chair. She had a stun gun clipped to her hip and wore the thick bodysuit of a Union security officer, with bits of ceramic bulletproof plate over her ample chest and slender limbs. When she noticed Marina, she stopped spinning around, gasped, and walked over to the bed.

“Afternoon!” She said. Her voice was very cheerful. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

She made a peace sign. Marina sighed audibly.

“I’m fine. You’re Klara Van Der Smidse, right?” Marina said.

“Yes! You know, I didn’t think you’d recognize me!”

“I memorized the roster as much as I could. You’re Gallic, is that right?”

“I mean, ethnically. My family is Gallic, I guess. It’s not a huge deal in the Union.”

Gallics were one of the ethnicities persecuted by the Empire and deported to the Union. Particularly Eastern Gallics, with their “Van Der” names. Despite being fair-skinned blonds even.

They had an independent kingdom in Skarsgaard once– so they resisted integration. And as the borders of Imbrian identity strained to cover the entire ocean, the Empire could not tolerate an ounce of resistance.

Marina shook her head. That was not pertinent, but with the Union, she just could not help but think about the roots. After all, everyone from the Union now was probably once a slave or the child of a slave, or a “criminal” or otherwise “undesirable” element. This Klara Van Der Smidse looked sweet and cheerful at face value, but she probably had a lot of pain she had to deal with.

Understanding this was important to making allies.

Or manipulating enemies.

That was the north star of the Republic’s General Intelligence Agency.

Empathy was useful: but only insofar as it could be used and never a drop more.

“What does my ethnicity matter though?”

“I just wanted you to see that my mental faculties are in order.” Marina said.

“Ah, yeah, it looks like you’re okay. The doctor told me to test everyone who wakes up.”

“Did she tell you to give them any drugs if they’re groggy?”

“Oh, yep, I’ve got a stimulant–”

“Administer it anyway. I can use all the help I can get staying awake.”

“Uhh.” Van Der Smidse blinked at her. “I mean– I guess I will.”

She went to the table she had been spinning near, withdrew a punch injector and returned.

“This goes into–”

Marina practically snatched it out of her hand and punched it into her arm.

Nonchalantly she discarded the case.

“Uh, wow!” Van Der Smidse put her hands behind her head. “Are all GIA this prompt?”

“We’re in a critical situation. It’s all of you who are acting too lax. I take it we escaped?” Marina said.

“From the Iron Lady? Yes, that was a few days ago. All thanks to our pilots.”

“Good. Then I need to speak with your Captain. I want to know what the plan is now.”

Van Der Smidse sighed. “The plan is you need to slow down and wait for the doctor to clear you.”

Marina abruptly stood up out of bed. She still had all her clothes on, and her bodysuit.

Good — nobody had touched her. Or at least, she felt confident not thinking about it.

She started to walk away and practically dared Van Der Smidse to stop her.

That girl never did, however. She shouted after her a bit, but then stayed behind sighing.

Marina had to keep moving. Her past was trying to catch up. She couldn’t just stay still.

It was not only a critical situation for the ship, but for herself too.

That dream shook her a bit.

But she had to be done mourning the past. What mattered now was getting Elena through this.

Norn Tauscherer and Leda Lettiere, were far, far away, as far out of reach as Schwerin Island.

If she ever saw any of them again, it would only be in death.


Lately the Brigand’s laboratory and its adjoining hall were blessed with the sound of a beautiful voice, humming, and sometimes singing, no discernible lyrics or songs, just little notes strung innocently together with great sweetness. In the storm of activity and the danger of the outside world, it was a touch of humanity that reminded those around of what they stood to lose if they faltered.

That voice belonged to Chief Specialist Karuniya Maharapratham.

She didn’t really know any songs by heart, and she wasn’t good with lyrics, but she had been told she had a cute singing voice, so sometimes her lips released vaguely musical noises while she was working. In the laboratory, the day to day work lately had involved the algae and fungus gardens, and it was repetitive. So Karuniya sang while she began to prepare and move along batches of mushrooms.

Union mushrooms began their lives as preserved cultures in vials which could be taken aboard ships in large containers. All agrisphere mushroom cultivars had been chosen specifically for their fecundity, and each of these vials by itself could grow enough fruiting bodies to cover large sections of the garden wall. Karuniya had a climate-controlled chest which stored the vials, and that chest, properly cared for, represented enough food to give everyone on the ship at least a meal a day for eight months in the direst circumstances. And in certain circumstances she could renew the mushrooms a bit too, or even introduce cultivars from stations or from cave systems if they went near the continent.

After retrieving a vial, Karuniya seeded the mushrooms in a nutrient-rich substrate made of a cardboard-like recycled vegetable matter that was enriched with phosphate fertilizer mined near the lower continent wall in Lyser and Solstice. These media were kept in an atmospherically regulated unit. When she seeded one medium, she took the previous medium from the enclosure. Once there were signs of initial growth, the fertile medium was added to the garden wall on the side of the laboratory. From there, the fungi would spread across the environment of the wall. One box could grow a lot of food.

Then she set to work on the algae.

This was much less work because the algae wall was a fully enclosed aquaponic device. There were less blocks of glorified cardboard to shuffle around. Karuniya had the algae starters in vials too, but she rarely needed to start algae because algae were constantly growing in the tank and if she didn’t liquidate the whole thing she could get more out of it. Instead what she needed to pay attention to was canisters of nutrients and the atmosphere regulator. All in all, the algae wall could provide a vitamin rich accompaniment to one meal a day for even longer than the mushroom wall.

Though, in such a situation, misery would set in long before starvation did.

Still, Karuniya felt happy with the fact that she was helping sustain life.

There were also some frozen cultivars in the cargo; and of course, canned and freeze dried mushrooms and other foods ready to heat and eat for the kitchen. But having some kind of fresh food was good for morale, so Karuniya, since the beginning of the trip, had decided to make tending the gardens a priority. This was more important work for the mission than ocean salinity reviews or writing histories of biomass concentrations. Karuniya had a lot of respect for the basic gardening work.

After all, was it not the work of humans now to be responsible for life, after all the death they had caused? That was a key part of the philosophy of her work in oceanography. Aer had essentially been destroyed. If aliens from outer space looked at the planet she imagined they would see an inhospitable rock, its atmosphere steeped in runaway agarthic reactions, devoid of any life.

To survive now, the planet needed stewardship. It could not fix itself.

Aer was a garden, it was artificial, it was tended to. Much of its biomass was unnatural in origin now. Or at least, whether or not Leviathans were natural, they wouldn’t exist without human tampering and agarthicite. If humans could tamper with the world to such a disastrous point, should they not run with it and design more of the world such that life could be sustained indefinitely?

In the same way that Karuniya grew garden walls to feed the ship–

Maybe someday, the people of Aer could come together and grow themselves a better world; clean the waters, create communities sustainable not just for humans and not just for the next few hundred years, but that promoted the growth of helpful species, that rebuilt the natural life cycles of the world from the tormented half-alive state in which they were. Understand the place of Leviathans instead of destroying them as threats or hiding from them indefinitely. Cease to waste resources in endless wars and instead share everything humans had left in communities of mutual benefit.

A bitter laugh escaped from those lips which had been singing.

“What a stupid thing for a soldier who married a soldier to be thinking about.”

When the thought of Murati entered her mind again, she almost wanted to cry.

In fact, it was not simply that gardening was good and necessary work.

It was strenuous and time consuming and kept her mind off her fiancé in the medbay.

“This is how it’s going to be, huh? For God knows how long? If we even survive?”

Maybe she should have persuaded Murati not to follow her ambitions.

“No, hell no. Don’t lose sight of what you love about her.”

Those weren’t just ambitions. Murati could have never been an artist or a teacher.

Murati’s justice would have always led her to soldiery. Her character was defined by it.

Because Murati believed strongly that social problems could perish as if by military force.

As strongly as Karuniya believed that social solutions could be grown like algae in a tank.

And yet, that was what attracted her to Murati in the first place. That strong sense of justice.

Those strong shoulders too–

That time before they started dating that she saw Murati fucking her roommate so hard–

“Ah man, I don’t want to think about weird shit like that! What the fuck am I doing?”

Karuniya clapped her hands against her head.

“Excuse me.”

A voice from behind startled her so badly she nearly jumped at the algae tank.

Karuniya suddenly turned around as if nothing had happened, and nothing had been said.

“Y-Yes?”

Behind her, Braya Zachikova tilted her head in confusion, staring at her with an utterly expressionless face. Zachikova’s large grey antennae had their LEDs blinking profusely, but no bit of her from that tawny spiraling ponytail to those mechanical eyes of hers nor any part of that slender frame, showed much discernible consternation. Karuniya surmised that Braya had not heard her thinking out loud and so she tried not to be embarrassed about her sudden appearance.

“What do you need Ensign?” Karuniya said. “Are you going to play with the Super again?”

That was Karuniya’s shorthand for the supercomputer box at the far end of the lab.

“I don’t play with it. Anyway, that’s not what I am doing. I have a request.”

Zachikova did not usually request anything. She was a bridge officer and had been broadly authorized to perform any kind of computer related work with the least red tape possible. So she did not need to make requests of Karuniya and she usually did not. She would come and go and do what she needed as she pleased. Karuniya basically served at her pleasure on such matters.

“Sure, I mean, I dunno how much help I could be.” Karuniya said.

“You like Leviathans, don’t you?” Zachikova said.

“Huh?” Karuniya made a face at her. “Who the heck would like those ugly things?”

She did like them– but that would have been a weird thing to admit to.

Zachikova was unfazed by the response.

“I’m not talking like they’re cute or cuddly, I mean they fascinate you, right?” She pressed.

“They’re one of my fields of study.” Karuniya said. What the hell was this conversation?

“You wouldn’t want us to unnecessarily waste resources hunting a Leviathan, correct?”

“Um, well, I mean, if it’s not threatening us, I guess. What is your point, Zachikova?”

Zachikova’s ears seemed to adjust their angle very slightly on her head.

As if beckoned by an invisible hand, the wall-mounted monitor near the garden beds began to display a video feed. It looked like it was taken by cameras on one of the Brigand’s spy drones. Internal and external camera footage was retained for 96 hours and was briefly reviewed by Karuniya, Zachikova, a security team member, and the Captain or Commissar. Anything important was backed up to tape and the rest was deleted. They had a ton of storage on the ship. Civilians were still dealing in sub gigabyte files, but the Brigand housed several petabytes of storage for high quality predictive imagery, algorithmic real-time video editing, and a ton of other fancy stuff. That being said, it would be reckless not to have storage management processes, so they held those meetings.

Knowing all of this, Karuniya realized immediately what Zachikova was asking.

There was a creature in all of the videos. Beautiful, certainly. Docile, perhaps.

Judging by the contrails of its exhaust — hell, by the very presence of an exhaust–

This was recent footage about a Leviathan coming very close to the Brigand.

“You want me to declare it a subject of study. So we won’t cull it.” She said.

Zachikova nodded. She spoke with a dispassionate tone, but–

“Out at sea, the ship science officer is an authority on matters regarding Leviathans. You can declare Leviathan alerts, issue a request for culling; ultimately, if I’m deemed negligent for not reporting the footage, you’ll be the key witness in that process. I want you to scrub this footage, make a request for study with the drone, and I’ll operate the drone and we can come into contact with the Leviathan again. Then you can name it, categorize it and declare it a subject of study.”

–Karuniya could tell that she really did care about not hurting this animal.

There was something almost touching about that.

She had always thought of Zachikova as a standoffish girl who only cared about her work.

All of these other soldiers would have shot down a Leviathan without hesitation.

“Well, if the Leviathan was out there now, wouldn’t Fatima pick it up?” Karuniya said.

“She’s not out there now.” Zachikova said. She said this with a strange note of confidence, as if she could actually tell something this uncertain. “Fatima would ignore biologic noise at this point. I think we’re all too nervous about being attacked by a ship again to really care too much.”

Wait a minute– “Did you mean to say ‘she’ to refer to the Leviathan?”

Zachikova briefly averted her gaze. “Yes. I believe it is a young female.”

That was such a weird thing to say. But Karuniya would not tease her for it any further.

“It does look really interesting. I will file a request for study right now. So sit tight. We’ll go look for her. It’s not like I have anything better to do. I welcome being able to do my real job.”

Karuniya gave her a mischievous smile and made a little peace sign to lighten the mood.

While she was playing it cool, she really appreciated having a project in that moment.

Zachikova bowed her head a little. “T-t-thanks.” For the first time– a bit of emotion.

“You can be really cute when you want to, you know?” Karuniya winked.

She turned and walked to her work terminal to begin the project in earnest.

Zachikova followed behind with an almost pitiable expression, like a lost puppy.

Karuniya thought then: even the most hardcore soldier types could be wonderful people.


Rousing gently from sleep, Elena, for a brief moment, saw the familiar four walls of her room at Vogelheim, sunlight peering through her window, the chirping of birds and the feeling of warm air. She was afraid to shut her eyes, to the point of tears, but inevitably, she did. In a blink, the familiar scene dispersed like color peeling off the walls, like a painting burning in her face.

Elena was on the UNX-001 Brigand.

For a brief moment she recalled where she had been last.

Looming tyrannical over Marina’s mind with the strange power Victoria had admitted she had.

She had wanted to hurt Marina, to force her submission, to destroy her soul.

And the thought of it scared and disgusted her now.

What had come over her?

“Feeling better? How many fingers am I holding up?”

A voice shook her out of her contemplation.

Seated on a chair near her bed was a young woman in a thick black bodysuit, interlocking plates of bulletproof armor covering her slender chest and limbs. She had a baton and a stun gun clipped to a utility belt, and there was a first aid kit spread open on an adjacent chair. Elena focused on the fingers, two slender, black gloved digits making a peace sign. Elena let out a tired sight.

“Two fingers. I’m alright. You don’t have to worry.” Elena said.

“You’ve been out for days, but you at least you were stable enough to stay in your room.”

Though Elena felt a bit self-conscious to think of it, the girl across from her–

She was– exotic?

Her long, silky black hair framed her face with perfectly blunt bangs, and the rest gathered in a handsome ponytail. Her facial features were a little different than Elena was used to. Her eyes had a slight fold, and the tone of her skin was fair but with what felt like a golden sheen. Elena did not know what race or ethnicity she belonged to. She knew the Union had a lot of peoples who were once minority populations in the Empire, like North Bosporans and Shimii. But she could not at all place the woman in front of her. And something about that made her hate herself a little, made her feel inadequate.

Luxembourg School For Girls had been Elena’s taste of a “cosmopolitan” world and even in a place seen as a liberal haven, she had one Shimii friend and nothing but Imbrian companions otherwise. She hardly saw even the “fair-skinned blonde” foreigners of the Empire like Volgians and Gallics. She was sheltered; and this ship of communists seemed to keep reminding her of sheltered-ness.

“Your name is Elen, right? I’m with security. My name is Zhu Lian. Zhu is my surname.”

“Nice to meet you. I am– I’m Elen, yeah. I’m an analyst.”

Despite Marina’s paranoia, Elena was well aware of her script and character.

Zhu Lian smiled at her and seemed to have no suspicion or malice toward her.

“Can you stand up? We had you on an IV for a bit, but you must be feeling pretty weak.”

“I think I can stand, thank you.”

Elena shifted her legs off the bed and lifted herself up to a stand. It was not difficult.

She noticed immediately that she was wearing nothing but her bodysuit.

“Could I get a moment to change?” Elena asked.

“Of course. I’ll step out. Before that, though: I’m joining my companion Klara Van Der Smidse to eat soon. Why don’t you come with us to the canteen? That way we can make sure you’re ok.”

Elena hesitated at first, unable to get a firm grasp on her own feelings. She realized that she couldn’t keep avoiding the communists and hiding in her room. This was a good step forward. These girls were security officers for the communists but they might not be enemies. They might just be two girls.

“I could really use a good meal. Thanks for the offer, Miss Zhu.”

For a moment before she left, the security officer looked mildly taken aback. “Miss Zhu?”

Once Zhu Lian was out of the room, Elena found her suit had been laundered for her, so she switched to a fresh bodysuit and donned the button-down, pants and jacket. She checked to make sure she still looked inconspicuous. The dye job on her hair was still solid, and in a ship full of young, physically active and attractive people she probably did not look like a remarkable beauty.

Outside, Elena found alongside Zhu Lian a familiar blond girl with a flighty demeanor and a matching suit of armor. Klara Van Der Smidse waved vigorously at Elena before turning to Zhu.

“Oh Lian! Are you finally sick of me? Dumping me for a nerdy girl?” She wailed.

“Hey, don’t be rude to her. You don’t know if she’s nerdy.” Lian replied coolly.

“She’s a stark contrast to my vibrant physicality. You’re really trading down!”

Lian laughed. “Don’t worry, you’re my obligation for good. If I ever let you go, someone else would have to bear your evil little head. I couldn’t live with myself unleashing that on society.”

“How mean! If you’re going to play along, don’t put me down so strongly!”

Klara puffed up her cheeks in childish anger, while Lian gave her a smug look.

Elena was reminded of the banter between Victoria and Sawyer.

Sawyer would always shout and start some kind of argument.

Victoria would coolly and dispassionately dress her down.

Gertrude would intervene if Sawyer looked like she was going to hit Victoria.

And Elena watched quietly from the sidelines, just as she watched Klara and Lian now.

Somehow they continued to hang out, the four girls always together despite this chaos.

Seeing the security officers rile each other up gave her bittersweet memories.

“Lian, can’t you see she’s not feeling the vibe? You shouldn’t keep dragging things on.”

Klara pointed at Elena with a snickering grin on her face.

“It’s your fault that nobody on Aer can stand your vibe. C’mon, let’s go eat.”

Lian started walking without waiting on Klara or anyone’s response.

So Elena followed after, trying to match her stride, quick and elegant, almost gliding.

She had such a confident posture and step– Klara did too, Elena noticed it when she looked.

They must have been well-trained. Was everyone on the Brigand some kind of Union elite?

Or maybe Elena was just too stupid to tell if they were really professional or not.

In sharp contrast to the escalated level of activity in the halls and adjoining areas, there was nobody sitting down to eat at the canteen. Long row tables full of lines of empty chairs. People mainly seemed to rush to the canteen, fill a thermos with soup from the dispensers on the wall, grab some crackery-looking bread from containers near the soup dispensers, and then rush back out.

Elena supposed those were workers with something important to do. They were dressed in jumpsuits like the repairmen at Vogelheim sometimes did. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse led Elena to the back of the canteen, where there was a kitchen counter with hot food trays encircling the cooks.

The main cook was a dark-haired lady in the middle of chopping mushrooms. She reminded Elena of Bethany Skoll, her head maid back at Vogelheim. The focus and precision with which she worked on the food, like she was in her own world from which she could not be moved until her task was done. That same level of intensity surrounded Bethany in everything she did for Elena. She felt a little melancholy; the cook and Bethany even looked a bit like they were the same age, they had a motherly aesthetic.

While the cook was engaged in her work, an unfriendly looking blond served their food.

“No substitutions shall be abided, you knaves. Secure thy blessings and be grateful.”

“We know, we know.” Klara said.

She filled plastic trays with a scoop of white rice, a large spoonful of wilted greens in a runny brown sauce, one slice of a strange cutlet that looked like no discernible cut of meat to Elena’s eyes, and a baked brown pie that seemed like the only edible thing in Elena’s plate. While Klara and Lian took their plates quickly, Elena hung back and waved for the blond serving girl.

“Excuse me.” She asked, as politely as she could.

“Hmm? Yes, yes, you desire to savage additional portions, do you not?”

“Um.” Elena’s hands trembled slightly, holding her tray. “Can I have a bit of olive oil?”

Across the counter the blond serving girl’s eyes narrowed at her. Then she laughed.

“I’ve beauty akin to royalty, so I understand your confusion, but I’ve not a royal’s ransom to my name that I could give you olive oil. You’re the Republican, are you not? Mayhaps you can vote yourself some olive oil, for you will find none here. Now scram before I become enraged.”

Elena stood speechless as the blond tossed her hair with agitation and went about her way.

Completely ignoring what Elena thought was a simple, easy request for a bit of olive oil.

Back home she always had fresh baked meat pies with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Did the communists not have olive oil? They had oil for cooking, didn’t they?

“Elen! Stop bothering Fernanda and join us already!” cried Klara, from a row seat nearby.

Still dumbfounded, Elena took her tray over to the security girls and sat down with them.

She looked down with a wan expression at her food, while Lian and Klara dug in.

“Excuse me.” Elena said. “Do you not have olive oil available as a condiment?”

“As a condiment? That’s pretty wild.” Klara asked.

“It is? I always had it back home.” Elena felt suddenly ashamed.

“You Republicans sure are care-free huh?” Lian said, sighing. “Elen, we absolutely don’t have olive oil for you to just dunk your food in. Union oil is mainly corn oil or soybean oil and its just used for cooking in. It’s pretty flavorless on its own. The margarine or shortening is a little bit better because it has extra salt and flavorings added in, but still, you weren’t going to get any.”

“In the Union it’s pretty rude to ask for more stuff on your meals.” Klara clarified. “If you need a special diet you go on a special meal plan, but the cooks work their butts off to make food for like hundreds or even thousands of people who register at their canteen, not to mention walk-ins too. They can’t do that if everyone asks for extra oil all the time, does that make sense?”

“I see. I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was like that.” Elena said, staring down at her plate.

“I’m sure nobody would hold the culture shock against you. Union life is a little bit strict.”

“Well, you know, at least the food is free.” Klara said. “Lian and I walked around a bit in Serrano city, and it was crazy how such a big place that was crammed full of people also just had guys out on the street starving to death and begging for scraps. You don’t see that in the Union.”

“It was pretty disturbing. I’m hoping the entire Empire isn’t like that.” Lian said.

Elena didn’t have the heart to speak up about that.

She knew that the Empire — her Empire — was a difficult and violent place to live.

Though perhaps often naïve she wasn’t completely ignorant to the Empire’s history.

While she was sheltered in Vogelheim she read books and sought out information on the network and tried to learn the things they just would not teach her in Luxembourg, or that she would never get to personally see. She knew that housing cost money and certain people couldn’t pay. She knew that food prices went up and down with supply, demand, price controls or subsidies, tampering by bad market actors — and in turn she knew, at times, people couldn’t afford food, and it led to riots or even wars. And she knew that the Empire persecuted and ejected people for their ethnicity, and that this led to them losing housing, food and even their lives. Elena was sheltered, not stupid.

However, there was a gap in her knowledge about what anyone could do about it.

The Empire felt like a force of nature.

A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.

When her father took power from the Nocht dynasty, he had declared a grand project known as the “Fueller Reformation” that was supposed to end the unrest, the ethnic cleansing, the instabilities in food and housing, corruption among the nobles– a grand and sweeping rejuvenation of the Empire. Clearly, however, he must have failed. Had the Fueller Reformation truly succeeded the Empire would not be split into warring sides. Vogelheim would not have been destroyed.

Bethany would not have had to die, and Elena could have had olive oil on her pies still.

But those were things that could not concern Elen. Elen had an entire other life.

So in front of Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse, Elen began to eat her food.

Despite the lackluster appearance, the flavors of the food were acceptable.

Everything was well seasoned. There was plenty of unctuous mouthfeel and umami flavor.

Nothing could beat the feasts Bethany made with the highest quality ingredients.

But Elena could understand that the Union had acceptable substitutes for such things.

Perhaps the life of the communists was not so bleak and joyless as she thought.

“I have a question. Maybe it’s a stupid one.” Elena said.

“Those are my favorite kind of question!” Klara said. “Throw it out there, Elen!”

Elena gathered her breath, laying her spork down on the pool of sauce left in her plate.

“Do you all really believe in the communist government?” Elena said.

Lian and Klara turned to face each other and turned back to Elena with puzzled expressions.

“Uhhh; are you lookin’ to start a fight, Republican?” Klara said, cocking an eyebrow.

It sounded like she was teasing her– at least Elena certainly hoped it was just teasing.

“Klara don’t scare her. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t really care about what the government calls itself or how they justify it when they do things.” Lian said. “What I care about is that the government does good things for us. And in the Union, the way we organize things has been good for us. Everyone gets a little slice of something. Enough of a life to be pretty happy.”

“I was a little kid when my family was deported to the Union.” Klara said. “I was like two or three years old so I can’t remember the Empire exactly or what happened to us. As a little kid we had some rough times when the Union was formed, but every time there was a shortage, the government was completely up front about it. They told us in school, you know? So I couldn’t blame them when that stuff happened. It felt like it was everyone’s shared problem, or something.”

“My family has a crazy history.” Lian said. “We were from this station in the Cogitum Ocean, like, far, far east, called Zhongshan, and our country had an enemy, Hanwa, who captured us and pressed us into service aboard their ships. Those ships went to war against the Empire and were defeated by the Vekans. The Vekans then deported us to the colonies as POWs. When the Union was formed, it didn’t matter that we were foreigners who had been shuffled around so many countries. We became people of the Union. We all had the same lot, and we shared the same space and resources. That’s always what I’ve called communism, even if I don’t know all the theory.”

Elena listened intently to their stories. Communism had always been the evil ideology of the Empire’s enemies. Communism tricked people into suffering and famine, killed billions, turned neighbor on neighbor, faithful servant against generous master. It was a tempting succubus that threatened to drain the soul of a nation. When Marina told her they would be fleeing to the Union, it felt like she was making a deal with the devil. This was all quite unlike what she had been taught.

In the Empire, communism was taught like it was a force of nature.

A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.

The Union had rebelled against the Empire, but Elena knew how rotten the Empire was.

Could she blame them? Did she need to fear them like Marina said?

While the communists did not hide the fact that they faced difficulties and hardships in their nation, they did not speak as if they were subjects of a dictatorship who had everything stolen from them and were brainwashed into believing and participating in an evil plot. Everyone on the Brigand were just people. They were soldiers, but– also just people who just had lives and homes.

Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse– in the Empire, would they be hated? Persecuted?

And so, then, was it the Union that was truly just? Was the Union the truly virtuous state?

“I’m sorry for the heavy question. Things are different in the– in the Republic, is all.”

Elena deflected from this subject. She had quite enough on her mind already.

Without having to ponder the weighty questions of national politics.

“You two seem really close.” Elena said. “How did you meet?”

She put on a bubbly smile in the hopes they would play along with the lighter topic.

Thankfully Klara seemed to require little input to get going and ran with it immediately.

“Hah! Lian and I go way back. We used to be rivals in the infantry!”

Klara shot a little look at Lian, who returned it with equal intensity– and fondness.

“Back in camp, whenever I did 100 pushups, this dork would go and do 101.” Lian said.

“And when I set fast times in the obstacle course, you would go and top them!” Klara said.

“Yeah but I wasn’t loud about it like you. You’d go around bragging, it was obnoxious.”

“Of course! What’s the point in beating you at everything and keeping quiet about it?”

Lian looked at Elena, pointing a thumb at Klara. “I hated this bitch for the longest time.”

“I wanted to fucking kill her.” Klara said casually, gently shoving Lian in the shoulder.

“Um.” Elena started to go pale. Had she set them off in an even worse way?

Both were still smiling though. And they each threw an arm over each other’s shoulder.

“One time though, we ended up paired up in a mock battle!” Lian said excitedly.

“We smoked everyone. It was crazy how tuned up our frequencies were!” Klara added.

“After that, we ended up in the showers.” Lian said. She gave Klara a mischievous look.

Klara laughed it off, cheeks red, winking. “Couldn’t keep my eyes off her ever since.”

“Or your hands.” Lian said. The two of them rubbed their heads together affectionately.            

Were people in the Union always so openly romantic? Elena felt herself shrink a little, feeling awkward around the two of them, but at the very least, they had gotten away from politics. There was another little bittersweet memory here. Elena was reminded of her childhood crushes, Gertrude and Sawyer. Of her friend Victoria who perhaps also loved her, too. Of the fighting and frolicking of their youth.

All of those people felt so far away. Perhaps she would only ever see them again in death.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.1]

“Huh. It’s really beautiful. I want to play with it.”

Through the visual sensors of a recon drone, Braya Zachikova observed a novel creature in the middle of the desolate, rocky oceans of northern Sverland. It had appeared from out of nowhere as many things in the ocean did, seen first as a blip of biological noise in the sonar before flitting in front of the cameras. In a rare fanciful mood, Zachikova felt it looked like a beautiful dancer in a red and white dress. A fuciform fish-like body pure white and mottled with red, ended in a sleek head and possessed grand and ornate fins that seemed almost silken, gently swaying in the water. On its rear, a pair of small biological hydrojets hidden behind similarly lovely curtain-like fins, like the hem of a dress, spun spiraling patterns into the ocean that indicated that this organism was not something ordinary.

Only Leviathans of various descriptions used biojet propulsion.

Large as the drone itself, which was the size of a car, this was something Zachikova should have reported as an “incident” worthy of a combat response. Instead, she found herself watching the animal idly. It was curious, closing in with gentle, elegant strokes of its fins, circling around the drone such that Zachikova had to flip a mental switch to move from camera to camera and follow it. She began to track the creature closely.

It was graceful, taking care not to bump into the silver-blue steel chassis of the drone.

Her optics made brief contact with the dancer’s bright lilac-colored eyes.

Greetings!

Zachikova almost thought she heard it say something.

She would have snickered, but the drone had no such faculties to convey emotions.

Her human body, connected to the drone through her antennae, snickered in her place.

“Nothing wrong with playing a little. It’s not like I’m behind on my work at all anyway.”

Perhaps uncharacteristically, Zachikova loved animals. They fascinated her.

They were like machines, built to purpose and perfection from birth.

She extended the arms of the drone, hoping for a response but not too invested in one.

Her heart swelled for a brief moment as the dancer complied with her.

Twirling in shimmering arcs around the arms as if it understood what she wanted.

A fleeting tactile sensation. Softness. Those diaphanous fins brushing on her arms.

“Beautiful!” Such emotion as Zachikova had not felt in a long time. Pure innocent joy.

It was so agile and elegant! So intelligent too– it definitely divined her intent and played along with her. It– no, she, for the dancer had to be female– she was moving deliberately. Zachikova had never seen a creature move like the dancer and had never had such an interaction with an animal before. With her mind almost entirely contained within the chassis of the drone, she almost felt like a peer to the creature. She felt a strange sense of euphoria.

Unfortunately, something interrupted her by touching her flesh and blood body.

Flipping that mental switch again, Zachikova switched from the optics of the drone to her own optics. Those two transplanted mechanical eyes which had been installed in her head due to the destruction of her own by Hartz syndrome. When she looked through them, she saw a round-faced, chubby blond girl waving at her and trying to get attention. Switching her gaze from one machine to another machine was not such an effort– but it took Zachikova quite a few seconds more to pull her self, her personhood out of the drone and to establish her center of gravity and thought in her own body. It was only then that she could talk to humans again.

I’m sorry. Please wait for me. She almost wanted to say this to the beautiful dancer.

And she really wanted to believe she had heard ‘Of course, Braya’ back from it.

That was of course entirely a fantasy.

“Semyonova.” Zachikova said, nodding her head in acknowledgment.

“Good evening Zachikova! I’m here to relieve you! You ought to go rest.”

Natalya Semyonova patted her on the shoulder with a friendly eagerness and a splendid smile.

Despite her cheerfully pushy personality, Zachikova could not make herself be rude to Semyonova.

Beautiful, smart, possessed of a powerful voice, Semyonova really had no faults.

Even Zachikova had to respect the efficiency with which she adapted to her purpose.

They were of course on the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand– Zachikova felt some of the residual chill of the deep waters on her body, part of the strange psychosomatic effects of shifting her consciousness into a machine through the use of her cybernetic implants. She started to recall that she had been working the late shift. In a seven day work-week, four or five of the late shifts were usually worked by perennial lateshifters Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa. However, Semyonova made sure they had days when they were middle shifters so they could have rest.

On those days, she always worked one of the late shifts herself.

“As the Officer’s Union Representative, I’d be remiss to avoid this responsibility!”

Those were her reasons at the time.

Zachikova usually took a late shift as well in such cases and worked as long as she could.

“I’m here for a challenge, not for the accommodations. If I can be doing something, I will.”

Those were her reasons at the time.

And those same reasons, and new ones, compelled her to shake her head at Natalya.

“I’d rather keep working, Semyonova. Without Geninov, I’m the only drone-certified officer around.”

Semyonova crossed her arms at her.

“I know you would prefer to work all day and night, but we didn’t fight a whole revolution to act like slaves now! Even someone as dedicated as you needs to rest, Zachikova! Otherwise it will definitely catch up to you one day. I’m sending you away to bed right this instant. I can keep track of everything with the sonar.” She said.

“The Captain wanted active drone surveillance whenever possible.”

“Yes, and you’ve been splendid! But tomorrow’s splendid work, starts with having good sleep today.”

She said that with a tone of voice that seemed to indicate it was a touchy subject for her.

Zachikova knew not to fight this unwanted gesture of kindness. A few days had passed since the Brigand confronted the Iron Lady, and everyone was tense and anxious. They were working nonstop in case another threat arose. Fleeing as fast as they could while trying to find a place they could hide and repair the ship.

In the meantime, the bridge was running at breakneck speed, staffed at varying capacities 24/7. After being caught off-guard once before, rapid response became paramount and there were even plans to run surprise readiness drills. Semyonova herself was running a bit ragged with all the hubbub but she didn’t complain.

As the Union rep she must have felt the responsibility to set an example.

And she was also the chief of communications, so she always processing messages.

“I’ve got piles of work, but I know there’s no point in arguing.” Zachikova droned.

In reality, what she really wanted to do was play, and perhaps her disappointment showed.

“Ahh, what’s that face? Now I feel kinda bad for pulling you off work, you know?”

Semyonova sighed and looked conflicted for a moment.

Zachikova didn’t feel guilty even though in a sense, she was sort of lying. Whether it was exploring around the Brigand with the trailing drone or a spy tentacle or writing scripts and programs to run the various hidden functions of the ship, or performing any maintenance needed on the supercomputer, there were lots of things Zachikova could be doing at any given moment. Right then she was just slacking; but it was true that she was busy. Sleeping was still inconvenient.

Back in the Special Forces she was even known as Black Bags Braya. Sleeping was an unwelcome obstacle.

Sleep was nothing but a defect in the human machine and she despised it.

But it was what it was; Zachikova made the situation easier by standing up, unplugging her antenna from the console, and walking away without further notice. She heard nothing from the Bridge and didn’t stop. Her room was not even that far from the bridge. Without a goodbye or well wishes, she simply left Semyonova. Her demeanor was not aggravated. She simply saw no need to make pleasantries. They were just on this ship for a mission after all.

Stepping through doors that closed behind her, she found her room as she had left it. She spent very little time in her room. Nothing but bunks and sheets and a big grey passcode locked case thrown in a corner. That case had all her special tools. It was Zachikova’s only personal property. Clothes or food goods, she brought no such items from home. This was the room of a girl whose brain was practically the only thing she needed to work.

“If she wants me to sleep, I guess I’ll sleep. I kinda wish I could see her again though.”

Zachikova threw herself on her unmade bed and laid on her side.

She closed her eyes.

Instead of the darkness inside her eyelids, she imagined the Ocean again.

She could see it vivid and firsthand as if through the drone optics. Except the fidelity was impossible; like a painting of what she Ocean should be. Beautiful gemstone-like greens and blues as if rather than inundated in water the landscape was coated in an aquamarine glaze over kelp, shellfish, and beautiful corals. Seeing through the muck that had become of it into the most pristine waters of what it could be in a perfect world.

Amid everything, the dancer, swimming beautifully with Zachikova’s mechanical body.

They had the whole Ocean to themselves and it was pure bliss. There were no imperfections.

We’ll meet again. I want to touch you again, Braya.

Drifting off to sleep, Zachikova thought, she really wanted to touch her and to be touched again too.


Maryam often dreamt of the Aether.

In her dreams the landscape was an indeterminate stone circle, but it swirled with brilliant color. Within a maelstrom of colors and gradients, her hair blowing as if there was a wind, Maryam stood amid everything, as if in the center of the very world and all who lived within it, and she felt the emotion carried on that wind. That current which tied every person together no matter the violence they committed to each other, that bound them into action and consequence, that made their lives matter to each other no matter the degree of physical disconnection.

She could always see the colors in her life, but for the longest time, she never understood them, save the volatile red and black of the Warlord Athena whom she served. She learned to associate this with pain and the sight of death. But there was color everywhere, around people, and in her dreams. Even in the murky red seas of Katarre she could see blue and green around contented people, yellow around the sick, purple around the proud.

Associations that she grew to make.

Euphrates of the Sunlight Foundation explained it to her.

“Aether is a current that we couldn’t see until we immersed ourselves in the currents of the Ocean. Like a current, it flows. Forward and backward through space but also through time as humans could never hope to experience it. It is unbound, flowing everywhere, going places we can’t follow. But it is only visible where it touches humans, and it warps in response to our neurological energy. To see Aether, even at its most disturbed, takes psionic talent.”

Maryam liked the idea of the Aether.

She felt that, someday, everyone would be able to see it.

And like her, they would understand everyone around them without fail.

Maybe wars would finally end if that happened.

How naïve! If humans perfectly understood each other, they would use that power for war.

She was not dreaming.

But she was not back on the UNX-001 Brigand.

Still standing in that stone circle, but hearing the voice returned control of her body to her.

Her eyes narrowed; her cheerful smile contorted with disgust.

“Don’t speak to me anymore. I don’t trust you.”

You have such vast psionic potential, and you waste over half of it containing me.

He spoke in her own voice, but the tone was distinctly his.

And upon acknowledging him, he appeared, standing across the stone circle from her.

She saw her body, dressed in her habit.

Slender figure, long purple hair, w-shaped pupils in her eyes, her tentacles stretching from the side of her head camouflaged as if long tufts of her hair. But He always wore her colorshifting skin a sandy brown tone. And he lifted her tentacles into her hair such that the pads stuck up out from under her hair, like they were Shimii ears.

“I’m not going to trust you again.” She said.

He used her slim shoulders and arms to shrug, grinning at her with her own face.

Even in the prison of her mind, He could not speak, because he had no mouth but hers.

Instead he used psionics and projected his own thoughts into their brain.

This is how you repay me for saving us?

“I didn’t need your kind of saving.”

We would’ve never made it out of that damned church otherwise.

“You just wanted to hurt people for no reason. I could’ve escaped without killing anyone.”

Suit yourself. We’ll see how you deal with the world with that stupid attitude.

“I’ve been dealing just fine.”

How is mind controlling everyone any better than what I did?

“Because they lived through it, and I even made their lives better.”

You used to be such a nice girl to me. We would play together all the time!

“Yeah and I’ve matured to know playing with a thousand year old man was weird.”

I protected you!

“I don’t need you anymore.”

Across from her, her own face contorted into sudden confusion.

Perhaps even embarrassment or shame.

And then anger.

I hope you die then, Maryam Karahailos! Maybe my next roll of dice will be better!

“If you sabotage me, then may God curse your next hundred lives Faiyad Ayari!”

Maryam was not afraid of him. She cursed him because she could control him.

But for a small instant before he vanished, she thought she saw–

Sadness–?

Regret–?

Could not have been. He couldn’t make such faces. Not even using hers.

He was nothing but a monster that needed caging in her.

Wallahi, I will never hurt you. I swear that on the God that has already cursed my lives.

That was not–

Where did that voice–?

Maryam’s colors became distorted, and she fell back into the current of dreams.


Sonya Shalikova bolted upright in bed and nearly screamed.

She grabbed hold of the sheets over her chest, casting eyes about the room.

No alarm lights.

Everything was still dim, but she could see Maryam Karahailos in the other bunk.

Sleeping soundly, a big dumb smile on her face, mumbling to herself. Changing colors as she slept, like a little wave sweeping across her hair and skin. There was a soft green glow from a strip of bioluminescent skin perpendicular across the bridge of her nose and under her eyes, but the rest of her colors were dim and shadowed.

Her snoring almost sounded like–

Sonya~hehe–!” She snorted.

Shalikova shook her head to try to rattle herself to consciousness.

She could not be hearing something that stupid.

“Nightmares.” She mumbled to herself. “It’s been nothing but nightmares since I got out to fucking sea. Nightmares and a god awful tinnitus. Maybe I should go see the doctor for once.”

There was nothing more mortifying than talking to a doctor about her feelings. Receiving some kind of practiced clinical response back. When her sister– no, her mind refused to go there. She had gone to therapy before for various reasons and not for anything conclusive, and it had been annoying. But she was clearly rattled, and it was affecting her. She was up two hours earlier than the already early schedule she set for herself.

And then there was the contents of the dreams.

Shalikova raised her hands to her face with shame.

“No way. How do I tell her I dreamt a monster was jerking me off?”

That was not the only thing she dreamt but it was the strongest image she retained.

All of the dreams had similar patterns: voices, colors, tentacles. Vulnerability, helplessness, sex

“Ugh. Whatever.”

Shalikova threw herself back onto the bed and curled up with Comrade Fuzzy beneath the sheets. When it was dark, her room felt cavernous and consuming, like she could get lost in it. Her bed was her little corner where she could be safe. Ever since the battle with the Iron Lady, the most mundane things around her felt enormous and difficult to come to grips with. When she closed her eyes, but before she dreamed, what she saw was the Ocean through the cameras of the Diver. Massive curtains of flak fire, the great roaring of guns, the clashing of sawteeth on vibroblades.

She gritted her teeth. Frustrated at herself but unable to shake off these anxieties.

It had only been a handful of days since they escaped the Iron Lady.

And most of those days Shalikova spent in her room staring at the ceiling.

Today couldn’t be another of those days. Her shame would not permit it, and also–

Maryam’s voice reverberated in her head. Before bed last night, they sealed a pact:

“Tomorrow, you’ll show me around right? And we’ll eat together! Promise?”

“She was probably trying to shake me out of my rut.” Shalikova said to herself.

Regardless, in that moment, Shalikova had promised to hang out with Maryam. It would have been terribly low of her to completely disregard that promise. Especially with how badly Maryam seemed to want to be her friend ever since they met. Shalikova was not unaware of that. She found it a bit bizarre, but she was not so cold as to categorically dismiss Maryam’s desires. Despite everything, she could try to be welcoming to Maryam.

If she just wanted to walk around the ship and eat together at the canteen, that was doable.

Shalikova tried to relax and return to sleep– but she couldn’t manage it.

After a few hours her room lights brightened.

Shalikova turned her gaze from the ceiling and looked across the room at the other bed. There she found a pair of W-shaped pupils staring at her. A gentle pink face framed by long, silky, bright purple hair hiding a pair of tentacles. Thin, soft lips spread into a broad smile as those exotic purple-and-green eyes met the indigo across the room. Peeking out through her hair from the crown of her head two silken cephalopod wing fins stood on end when she realized Shalikova was awake.

“Sonyaaaaaaa~! Good morning!”

She was so cheerful that it was almost ridiculous.

Looking at her, Shalikova put on a tiny smile. Maryam had an infectious energy.

“Good morning. Have you been wearing that habit all this time?”

“Hmm? My habit? Yes, I have!”

She covered herself in blankets, but Shalikova could see the tall collar of her black dress. It was the kind that Solceanos “sisters” or “nuns” wore even in the Union. Long sleeved, with a very modest, almost grandmotherly design. Because of how roomy it looked, Shalikova imagined Maryam as maybe much more skinny or ephemeral than she really was, wrapped in loose cloth.

“We need to get you new clothes.” Shalikova said. “I’ve got an extra Treasure Box uniform you can use. Even if you haven’t really done anything the past few days, it’s not hygienic to keep wearing the same outfit.”

Maryam raised a hand to her mouth, hiding a silly little snickering face.

“Sonya, I don’t know that your spare clothes will fit me. I’m less hydrodynamic than you.”

She sat up in bed and pressed her dress a bit tighter to her chest to accentuate the curve.

Shalikova grunted. “Shut up. Your figure is not that different, and the material is stretchy.”

“Hmm! Well, if you want to see me dress up, I won’t complain!”

In that instant, Shalikova turned her back on Maryam and tapped on the wall.

Near Maryam’s bed, a wall panel opened.

Extending a small metal arm from which the uniform hung in a plastic bag. Along with the uniform there was a container of cleansing body spray which could clean the body in place of a shower. Shalikova had that compartment prepared in case she needed to get to work in a hurry, and now it served to give everything Maryam needed to make herself fresh and presentable.

Shalikova pointedly continued to stare at the wall.

She heard a small sigh, and the shifting of blankets and sheets on the other bed. Gentle footsteps, the ripping of the plastic bag, ruffling of synthetic fabric, the sound of spray discharging from the container, and more tiny noises of exertion before there was finally a bit of silence.

“Are you done yet?” Shalikova asked.

“Sonya this is silly! We’re both girls!” Maryam said.

“Tell me when you’re done changing and I’ll turn around.”

“I am done! Gaze upon my radiant beauty!”

Shalikova turned herself over on the bed.

Maryam looked indeed radiant but mostly because she was making her skin glow brighter using her chromatophores. However, Shalikova had to admit that the teal half-jacket, tight button-down shirt, and short skirt did flatter Maryam quite a bit. She did look much more eyecatching to Shalikova than in the black grandmother’s dress.

And maybe her figure was a little fuller than Shalikova’s.

“Good. Now turn around.”

“Huh?”

Shalikova sat up in bed.

For the past few days she had been mostly sleeping so she had been dressed only in the same tanktop and shorts she wore to bed. What she wanted most was a shower but– with Maryam around a can of body foam would do nicely. That being said, she would do none of those things until a certain girl turned her W-shaped eyes to a wall.

“I’m not going to undress in front of you. I’m not that familiar with anyone. Turn around.”

Maryam sighed and crossed her arms. “I suppose this is also a cute side of Sonya.”

She turned her back on Shalikova. Her tentacles rose and covered her eyes with their pads.

“Thanks. Stay turned around until I tell you.”

Even with Maryam turned away, it was still strange to undress with someone in a private room together. Shalikova had gotten used to it in the bathroom, but she had considered her room to be her little fortress. Nevertheless, she threw her tanktop and shorts down the laundry chute, sprayed herself down with a can of cleaning foam, and dressed in the Treasure Box corporate uniform. She had started to like wearing just the sleeveless button-down and black tie with the pants and without the teal jacket. She tied the jacket around her waist instead. She thought it looked good that way.

As an Ensign she did not have a formal cap, only a beret as part of her Union navy uniform.

She could imagine herself looking good with a cap with this outfit, but she left the beret behind.

“Let’s go get some food first and then I’ll show you the hangar.” Shalikova said.

Maryam circled on her heel and laid eyes on Shalikova, positively beaming with delight.

“Handsome as always! No wonder you are one of the ‘four princes of the Brigand’!”

Shalikova felt her heart leaping in her chest. “Wait, wait– what did you say? I’m what–?”

“Oh nothing~!” Maryam started out of the room with a spring in her step. “Let’s go Sonya! We have a wonderful day ahead of us! Eating together, visiting the most romantic spots–!”

“What romantic spots? It’s a warship?” Shalikova said but was quickly spoken over.

“–I can even tell our fortunes in a secluded nook! It’ll be the best day ever!”

Sighing heavily, Shalikova followed along behind her.

As far as Shalikova knew the current state of the Brigand was one of escalated alertness.

Outside the rooms the hall was characterized by nervous activity. There was a great awful gash cut into the flank of the Brigand that needed repair, and the sailors were doing what they could while the Brigand was in motion. She saw men and women in the hall returning half-disrobed in pressure suits, wearing heavy magnetic boots and rope pulleys that others helped them to take off. They had come back from adjoining halls deliberately flooded and drained and flooded anew and with their pressures carefully adjusted to allow safe access to the damage sites. Full repairs to the exterior could not be conducted while the Brigand was moving “ahead full,” but they could make reinforcements to the walls of the flooded sector and set up tools and safety anchors to make future work much easier.

People were coming and going, at all times there was movement and chatter. Seeing so many sailors out working so hard made Shalikova feel so small. All she had been doing was sitting around and feeling sorry for herself. There was so little a soldier could do when there wasn’t fighting. She felt useless– and yet she also did not want any battles to break out, of course. They nearly lost Murati and Sameera in their first confrontation.

Both were still in the hospital as far as Shalikova knew.

“Pilot! You were awesome out there! Whoo!”

What was even more mortifying was that the sailors in the halls would greet her and cheer.

For the Sailors, the fastest way to the breach caused by the Iron Lady, was through the access ways linked to the upper pods of the Brigand’s double-deck layout. So many sailors from belowdecks who did not normally see Shalikova every day now got to pass her on the halls, closer than ever. She even thought she recognized a few of them from that big huddle and cheer that everyone held when she returned from the last battle.

So everyone who passed by made some kind of gesture or expression at her.

She tried not to wither from the sudden attention, but it was hard to wave back.

You guys are the heroes! I’m just going to get breakfast; I’m not doing shit!

“Wow Sonya! Everyone really loves you!” Maryam said.

Shalikova wished she had a hat to pull down over her eyes.

There was one upshot to all this, which was that the sailors were so busy in they were not crowding the canteen much at all. There were always a handful of them running in and out, taking bread and thermoses full of soup, but very few were sitting down to eat. Not only was there repair work (and the work of supporting those doing the repairs) on top of the regular maintenance work, but down at the hangar, the Cheka was in an abhorrent state and the other Divers had either hull damage, damaged weapons, or internal systems damage, or all three.

Everyone was so busy, and she did not hear a single person complain or look down.

They were all motivated. Maybe just by their own survival; maybe by mutual support.

Still, the enormity of the bodies at work made Shalikova feel tiny and worthless.

Behind the kitchen counter at the canteen, Logia Minardo looked much more relaxed than normal. She had her apron and plastic work clothes and her hair up in a blue bandana. Humming while she glided from one half of the kitchen to the next, multi-tasking like it was a partner dance with the equipment. Many of the heating elements on her stovetops had pots going with mushroom and algae broths destined for a sailor’s thermos. There were sheets of stretched dough ready to be cut into cracker-y biscuits, to refill the self-serve table. Every oven was running, probably baking those biscuits. Up front, there were a few trays of hot food kept gently heated by tray warmers.

“Ohh, she’s happy!” Maryam said.

Those hot food trays contained fluffy white rice, leafy greens in garlic sauce, soy cutlets flavored with beet sugar and soy sauce, and baked pirozhki each bigger than a fist with carrots, cabbage, and mushroom for filling. Flecks of oil glistened on the surface of the syrup-brown cutlet sauce and the crust of the pirozhok had a golden sheen likely achieved with a finish of margarine or shortening. Cooking for a warship was the art of making frozen and canned ingredients appealing. Shalikova knew the artifice. She could see the bio-stitcher built into the kitchen wall already processing a block of frozen vegetable matter into more “leafy greens” in the garlic sauce.

Maryam, however, was dazzled by the presence of the fake biostitch lettuce.

“Wow! Military ships have the best food everywhere in the world huh?” Maryam said.

“Yeah, we eat like kings.” Shalikova sarcastically said, unable to deal with her optimism.

Maryam put a finger on her chin and started reminiscing.

“Sonya, you may not have heard these names and places, but I used to serve on the flagship of the warlord Athena in Eastern Katarre. At first it was tough for food, I basically ate nutrient pellets as a larva, but when I turned nine years old, I think, Athena conquered and enslaved a food producing region with three stations. Then we were eating like true conquerors, even the lowest Naftis on the flagship got to have some meat and veggies.”

“Um.” Out of everything Maryam had just spouted, one particular word stuck. “Larva?”

She imagined a little purple worm with a smile and knew that couldn’t possibly be it.

“Oh that’s what Katarran kids are called. You know how Shimii are ‘kittens’.”

“We just call them kids or babies or children or whatever. Larva’s just– it’s weird.”

“It’s not inaccurate though.” Maryam said. She looked genuinely confused.

Thankfully Minardo wasn’t alone, and this awkward episode was ultimately broken by the appearance of Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa behind the counter, the day’s designated kitchen assistant. Her blond hair was bunched up in a bandana and she was not wearing her usual array of dark purple makeup, which made her look ordinary. Shalikova did not know much about her– she saw her in the halls, and sometimes begrudgingly sharing the showers with Alexandra Geninov. Those two were known as the “perennial late shifters” and had matching schedules.

“Salutations. Peruse of the vittles, but substitutions shall not be permitted.” She said.

Her unfriendly voice and glare gave the kitchen counter a walled-off, antagonistic vibe.

“You’re supposed to serve our share.” Shalikova said pointedly.

It was not often that she criticized another worker like this. But it had its intended effect.

Fernanda rolled her eyes and began to, quite begrudgingly, fill a multi-section plate for each of them. Despite her clear lack of motivation, she did serve equal portions for both of them, along with a prepackaged condiment and utensil pack for each of them. So she did do her job right. Maryam and Shalikova took their trays away, with Fernanda’s evil gaze burning into their backs like she wanted to lay a curse on them.

“She talked funny, but I think she’s nice deep down.” Maryam said.

“You think that about everyone.” Shalikova said. “Develop a bit of malice, wouldn’t you?”

They sat in a corner of the canteen, as was Shalikova’s habit. Maryam sat next to her and got started. She withdrew her reusable utensils, made of carbon fiber, from the bag which certified they had been cleaned and inspected aboard the Brigand itself prior to issuance. She quickly split the crunchy crust of her pie to reveal the creamy mushroom and crisp vegetables inside. With her spork, she poked at the biostitched lettuce happily.

“It all looks wonderful!”

With an enormous smile on her face, Maryam took a big bite of the pie.

Chromatophores on her cheeks gave her a softly glowing flush as she chewed.

“Delicious! Oh Sonya, the crust is so buttery! And the mushrooms are so meaty!”

Shalikova blinked hard. She picked at her own pirozhok and took a bite.

“It’s pretty good I guess.” She said.

Living in the Union wasn’t always easy. One had to get well accustomed to having what one needs over what one desires. There were always shortages of something so having a favorite food that was not biscuit or soy was asking for frequent heartbreak. And outside of canteen meals, it was difficult to get fresh food. However, the degree of privation a person had to experience to be this excited over pirozhki was something else entirely. Shalikova felt her heart stir with a sense of painful sympathy for Maryam. She had been a slave aboard some evil ship, to the point that the confines of the Brigand and its comfortable but basic rations were making her head explode.

As much as she wanted to judge Maryam sometimes–

There was no way she could.

Maryam really was someone who had suffered a lot. Her optimism was not naïve to pain.

Shalikova tried her best to make lighter conversation over the meal.

“You said you could tell my fortune, right?”

Maryam’s face lit up. Less from the chromatophores this time; more just her expression.

“Indeed! After I left the church, I supported myself through soothsaying.”

“Is that stuff actually real? Or was it just tricks?”

For an instant Maryam turned pure white. She seemed to do this out of distress sometimes.

“Of course it is real! I’ll tell your fortune right now Sonya!”

“Okay, but you have to promise you won’t tease me.”

“Tease you?”

“You can’t say stuff like ‘you’ll have a future full of romance’ or whatever.”

“But what if it’s the truth?”

“Maryam–!”

“Okay, okay.” Maryam’s fins drooped. “Fine, I will be completely honest.”

Shalikova didn’t believe something like fortune telling could ever be honest.

Nevertheless, she was curious to see what Maryam could do.

There was something about her– the way the colors played about her sometimes.

Those colors–? Was it just her chromatophores?

Maryam reached out and took Shalikova’s hand into both of her own.

She took a deep breath and then gazed directly into Shalikova’s eyes.

Shalikova fixed her gaze on the one being cast at her.

Around Maryam’s eyes glowing red rings appeared that made the colors swimming around her head suddenly come into striking relief. Before Shalikova could have almost ignored them, like the lights dancing inside her eyelids when she stared at a screen for too long or a trick of room LEDs but now it was like a gas that seemed to drawn to Maryam. Like pictures of nebulas from when teachers talked about what lay beyond the sky of the surface world; like the aurora said to have once existed in the far northern skies when such things were visible to humans.

For a moment, Shalikova felt something.

Like–

A tentacle or a tendril, rubbing– rubbing the back of her mind.

Not her cranium, not her brain, not the flesh– but the thoughts, the space of feeling–

There was a trickle of blood that dripped down Maryam’s nose.

“Maryam! What the hell? You’re bleeding!”

Shalikova reached out and touched Maryam’s shoulders.

Her wide-open eyes seemed to register motion again, as if she had woken from sleep.

One of her tentacles reached out to her nose and wiped some of the blood on the pad.

“Oh dear! I really went too far. Sorry Sonya, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Shalikova couldn’t believe what she had seen and heard.

Those colors around Maryam, bright blue, and a stripe of yellow and green and black–

All of it dissipated, as if it had been a daydream, a delusion.

“You can actually read fortunes?” Shalikova asked. Her own voice sounded distant.

Maryam nodded. “I said I could Sonya, and I don’t lie. I was trying to read yours.”

“But you couldn’t?” Shalikova asked. “You couldn’t and it made you bleed?”

“Ah, no, the bleeding isn’t related, that just happens sometimes.”

“Maryam, what was my fortune?”

“Ah.” Maryam shook her head. “I couldn’t read it, sorry. This must sound really dumb.”

“How do you read people’s fortunes? When you do it, do you see colors around them?”

Shalikova must have gone insane.

She thought she really had to be completely losing her mind to ask such an insane question.

But the colors, she had seen the colors before! In the hangar, around people’s heads–!

Did– did Zasha have– the colors around her when she left– was it all black–?

“Maryam, please don’t tease me or joke about this. Are your fortunes based on the colors?”

Maryam nodded her head. Innocent, straightforward, without malice.

“I was hoping to dive into your aura, yeah.” Maryam said. Her voice was so untroubled.

How could she just say such things? Aura? “My aura? Is that what you call the colors?”

“Sonya, you look really distressed. If you want, I can teach you how to do it too.”

Shalikova’s heart briefly stilled.

It was stupid, it was so completely fucking stupid to be having this conversation.

How was it that Maryam so conveniently appeared, aware of all this complete nonsense?

“Maryam, you’re not teasing me right? You would teach me what you just did?”

“Of course. Anything for you, Sonya. I know you’ll pick it up quickly, you’re very skilled.”

Again she just smiled. That broad and bright and beatific smile bereft of mockery.

For a moment, Shalikova finally realized just how elevated her breathing had become.

She heaved a deep sigh and tried to calm herself down.

“I’m sorry. I know this must sound insane. But I feel like I’ve seen those colors before.”

“Oh yes, those colors like you call them, they’re everywhere that people are.”

“Is it some kind of religious thing? Like do I need to convert to Solceanism?”

Maryam narrowed her eyes a little and wore a growing distress on her face.

“Let’s pick that back up later, okay? I still want to see the ship. I promise I’ll explain it.”

Shalikova heaved another sigh. Maryam was right. She was being completely insane.

All this stuff was just her being stressed out and broken inside.

It had to be.

There was no way she had seen any fucking colors when her sister died.

“Right. I’m sorry. I’ll relax and we’ll continue the tour. I’m just exploding with stress.”

Shalikova let out a little laugh at herself. Like pressure being released to avoid a blowout.

“It’s okay! I promise I’ll make everything better. Let’s clean our plates and go!”

Maryam reached out and touched Shalikova’s shoulder reassuringly.

It was more comforting than Shalikova wanted to let on.

After the meal, they returned their trays and utensils and got back to the halls.

Shalikova did not consider herself much of a tour guide, but she knew a few places to take Maryam in the upper compartments just so she would know where things were. She showed her to the doctor’s quarters, carefully avoiding drawing the attention of the actual doctor; to the showers, explaining the open shower plan and watching Maryam turn completely white again in response; past the rooms of several more officers; each of the elevators and bulkheads, including the emergency escape hatch and pressure suit storage, unlikely as it was they would survive sinking long enough to escape; and finally to the recreational and social area. Several game tables were set up but stood unused. Those sailors who were there on break were lounging in the couches to slow jazz music.

“Wow! Sonya, are those game tables? Let’s play!” Maryam said.

“Huh? I mean– I wasn’t really planning to–”

Maryam took her by the hand and with prodigious strength pulled her to the tables.

“Hey–!”

They stopped around an air hockey table, and Maryam took her place opposite Shalikova.

She grabbed one of the paddles and took up a combative stance, grinning confidently.

“Sonya~! If I win this game, you owe me a real date at the next city or town we go to!”

“Huh? What are you talking about–? A real date?”

Shalikova imagined herself and Maryam in a city or a town station. She had seen station dates plenty of times in romance and comedy films they played at the Academy’s many mandatory social outings. She could see it: going to little restaurants, Maryam ordering the most elaborate thing on the menu each time; walking by shops or trade kiosks, Maryam picking out clothes and candies and bobbles from each and making Shalikova carry all of them; getting approved for an animal to care for together; putting their names together in the room register–

Opposite Maryam, a driven, deadly serious Shalikova picked up her own paddle.

“Maryam, you don’t know this, but I was known as ‘the terror of the tables’ whenever we had mandatory social time at the academy. You should surrender and give up your foolish dreams.”

Her grave tone of voice underscored the degree to which everything hinged on her success.

Meanwhile, Maryam turned red as a cherry and started clapping her hands together.

“Sonya! You are so cool! Wow, your serious face is so handsome! It’s getting me excited!”

“Shut up and hit the start button!”

When Maryam dutifully hit the button the table lit up and spat out a puck on the center.

There was a digital die roll that Maryam won so the puck was sent her way.

With a big warm smile on her face, Maryam smashed the puck with a savage thrust.

Oh right, Shalikova thought in the split second she had.

She’s a Katarran Pelagis– so even though she comes off like a purple marshmallow–

Shalikova threw a parry she was sure could catch it–

There was such force behind the puck that Shalikova sent it to the wall near her goal line and it angled back into her goal all the same, giving Maryam the first point of the game. She started clapping her hands again and wiggling in place– she was so excited to have scored that it was, even for Shalikova, almost cute to look at.

Would have been cuter if she hadn’t been scored on.

“You’ve got a good arm, but have you even played before?” Shalikova said.

“Here and there.” Maryam said, putting her hands to her hips and puffing herself up.

Shalikova swung, angling her shot such it bounced off the walls diagonally as it went–

Maryam smashed it back so fast Shalikova barely moved her arm before it slipped past.

What did they put in her vat that made this softie so strong?

“No more Ms. Nice Shalikova.”

When Shalikova was given the next puck, she reared back like she was pitching a ball.

Maryam braced herself.

Shalikova swung–

Maryam moved to parry–

No puck– Shalikova hit nothing! She had feinted!

In the next moment she swung back around and struck the puck while Maryam was out of position.

She could taste the 2:1 score and the powerful comeback win that would soon follow. Table masters and gamers alike referred to this hidden technique as yomi. No matter how physical she could get, Maryam was less experienced in the battlefield and its language. She did not understand the layer of mind games that surrounded a pitched combat between two foes no matter how unequal their strengths. Shalikova had her now.

Seconds later, with a clumsy circular motion that seemed like she was trying to clean the table more than hit the puck, Maryam nonetheless sent the puck flying back to Shalikova’s goal. Too caught up in her triumph, it was Shalikova who was now off-guard against the incoming attack from the opposite side of the table, and despite the relative weakness of the shot, it passed through her sloppy guard leading to ignominous defeat.

Thus the match ended with a score of 3:0.

On the table, Maryam’s side lit up with LEDs and triumphant little noises.

Shalikova’s shoulders slouched, her eyes drew wide. She was on the hook for a date now.

“Yippeeeeee!”

Maryam cheered and jumped and clapped her hands.

Her whole body strobed with colors like if a glowstick had become a person.

“Sonya~! It’s a date! Next town over!”

She put her hands behind her back and leaned forward on the table, smiling.

Shalikova sighed and resigned herself.

“Sure. Whatever. But you have to promise to behave.”

“Yippeee! Of course I’ll behave! Thank you Sonya! It’s going to be so much fun.”

“Right.”

Shalikova supposed it could be fun to go out with Maryam on the town.

She could call the game they just had a fun time. It was certainly distracting.

“Alright, I’ll take you down to the hangar now. Just stick close and don’t bother anyone.”

Without thinking, she offered to hold Maryam’s hand to guide her there.

Maryam of course wasted no time grabbing hold of Shalikova and squeezing her fingers.

Her face flushed, with a bubbly, fluttery smile.

Once it dawned upon Shalikova–

–well, it’s not like she could just snap her hand back immediately.

That would be rude.

And Maryam’s hand was nice and soft and warm anyway. It was just nice to hold.

So she held on to it for a bit.

But only a bit!

Shalikova showed her the way to the elevators, and they rode together down to the hangar. She almost forgot to let go of Maryam’s hand before the elevator doors opened– there were too many people, and it would have been misunderstood. Thankfully, Maryam did not seem to mind. She was immediately captivated by the scope of human activity in the hangar. Soon as they stepped out of the elevator doors there was already a crowd right in front of them. A large, dark-blue section of the Cheka had been stripped off the machine and laid on the hangar floor. It looked like a shoulder mechanism. They were installing battery cells into connectors along the shoulderblade.

That meant a crowd of several men and women all crawling on the chunk of mecha.

“Wow! There’s so many people!” Maryam said. “It’s almost a little overwhelming.”

“It is.” Shalikova raised a hand to her head, feeling a headache coming on.

She took Maryam around the hangar, showing her the workshops where various small parts were being machined for use in the repairs. Worn tools were being actively maintained in order to be quickly put back to use, and Zero Space Packaging crates that had to be disassembled to access the contents were being handled to expose extremely tightly packed spare parts and raw materials. There was so much engineering activity Shalikova felt they should hurry along, so she showed Maryam the simulator pods and dissuaded her from going in them.

“I’ll show these to you some other time; we don’t want to get in the way or distract people.”

“Aww. Well, alright. How about this, one of these nights, let’s sneak out to the hangar!”

Maryam’s eyes shone with a mischievous light.

Shalikova narrowed her own eyes at her.

“Sneak out? It’s not like there’s a curfew or anything. Do you just want us to be alone down here?”

“Yeah! I only promised to show you my special powers. It’s for your eyes only~!”

Her voice took on a playful little turn at the end. Shalikova thought about it for a second.

“Oh, so you’re thinking we’ll come down here and trade? I show you how to pilot–”

“And I’ll teach you how to gaze into the world beyond!” Maryam excitedly interrupted.

Maryam’s instincts were ultimately right.

It’d be too embarrassing to talk about fortune telling with a ton of people around, with how seriously Shalikova was intent on taking it. She was glad the canteen was empty when she was stressing before. It would be a relief to talk to Maryam about this nonsense without anyone around to see it, and finally get it out of her mind for good.

“Alright, it’s a deal then. But probably not tonight. I woke early, so I shouldn’t be up late.”

“Deal!” Maryam clapped her hands. “Sonya, show me the big robot you pilot.”

“It’s not a robot. It can’t do anything on its own. It’s a vehicle.”

“Show me the big robot!”

“You’re not even listening.”

Shalikova took Maryam to the other side of the hangar from the pods, navigating the crowds of people working on the many disassembled sections of the Cheka. Her Strelok was only lightly damaged in the battle, so it was already back on its gantry with new, unblemished armor plates swapped in and there was only one sailor at its feet, running tests on the water circulation system with a computer and a pump machine. Maryam was taken aback by the size, craning her head up to stare up at the head of the machine from up close. It was over four times their size, and it was easy for Shalikova to forget the enormity of it because she was always climbing inside.

“Amazing! It’s so bright and smooth, it’s like a shining knight armor!” Maryam said.

“I’m glad you like it, I guess. Do they have Divers in Katarre?” Shalikova asked.

Maryam’s fins wriggled as she pondered it. “When I was a larva they didn’t, but then, I think someone stole one from the Empire because I remember by the time I became pre-adult, they were kinda everywhere. You would always see Ifrit class in every cargo space they could cram one in. It was really big and rough and spiky and scary.” She shuddered briefly. “Nothing like yours, Sonya! Yours is so gallant, it fits you perfectly! I can see you fighting like a hero in it!”

“I’m not a hero. I’m just– I’m just staying alive.” Shalikova said.

“You’re a hero to me Sonya. You saved all of our lives after all.”

She hated this kind of compliment and hated this kind of conversation.

“You didn’t have to come out here on this mission right? But you’re risking your life–”

“Maryam, please, that’s enough.” Shalikova interrupted. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Oh! Okay then. Absolutely I’ll stop. Maryam is keeping cuttlequiet for Sonya.”

Maryam ran her fingers over her lips as if sealing them– they really disappeared for a bit!

Shalikova burst out laughing. She was so affected she hardly knew where it came from.

“You really are something else sometimes!” She cried out, holding her own stomach.

“Pelagids can do really funny things.” Maryam’s voice was muffled by her sealed lips.

She ran her fingers over her lips again and they reappeared. An ordinary human girl’s face.

“Is this also ‘soothsaying’ or just slapstick?” Shalikova asked, in good nature.

“This is just the power of biology! Having been made in a can is fun sometimes.”

Maryam gave Shalikova a thumbs-up and closed a transparent grey eyelid over one eye.

Her crooked little grin– she was winking! It was as if she was winking with a fish eyelid.

Shalikova could not help it. That ridiculous sight made her start laughing again.

Laughing and goofing off in front of the Strelok. It was in this state that two of them were approached by a tall, lean, long-haired blond woman in uniform who was quite amused to see them. She paused behind them and laughed and when they finally noticed, they quickly identified her as Ulyana Korabiskaya, the Captain of the Brigand. Her uniform was always well in order, and her face was always done up lightly and professionally.

She had the sort of air of womanly confidence Shalikova couldn’t even dream of.

Their interactions were pretty limited, which only heightened the mystique around her.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.” Ulyana said. “Your laughter was so innocent, it was cute.”

“I was showing Maryam around the ship, ma’am.” Shalikova said, remembering to salute.

Ulyana waved down her saluting hand as if to say such formality was unneeded.

“That is very kind of you Ensign. I’m glad the two of you seem to have hit it off.

“Hit it off? I guess you could say that.” Shalikova said.

Maryam made a mischievous little face behind her that Ulyana laughed at.

“I’m happy for the two of you! Honestly, we’d been hoping that you would finally let her out of your room sometime soon!” Ulyana said in good cheer, winking at Shalikova who immediately frowned at the implication. “Getting serious for a moment, we have to talk to her about the information she promised us. Now more than ever, we need all the intel we can get if we are going to survive. We’ve got a staging room ready upstairs. That ok?”

“Of course. I understand.” Shalikova said. “Maryam, you’re okay going with the Captain?”

Maryam’s fins dropped a tiny bit. But she smiled at them, nonetheless.

“Of course. I’m not just here to play with Sonya after all. I’ll do my part for the ship.”

“Splendid. I’ll be taking her then; you’ll have her back before dinner, so don’t fret.”

Ulyana winked at Shalikova again. Sensing the mischief in it, Shalikova turned her cheek.

Nevertheless, as the captain led Maryam away from the hangar, Shalikova felt herself coming down from the rush of trying to keep up with the cuttlefish girl. She had to admit it felt a little bit emptier and a little bit too quiet now that Maryam wasn’t there, goofing off, pushing her to go out and eat and play. Had she been on her own Shalikova would have simply sank further into her own morbid thoughts. Maryam had been so kind to her.

In her absence, the world felt suddenly emptier, both in the hangar and in Shalikova’s heart…        


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.6]

“Ship detected on passive sonar. Profile is Kühne class light transport.”

“That should be them.”

Norn rested her head on her fist while watching the main screen.

Algorithmic prediction drew an ETA for seeing the ship visually of about twenty minutes. It was moving at combat speed, which for a transport ship meant escape speed. This was not what they had planned when they initially coordinated the pickup, but a lot of things had happened since then to all of them.

Oddly enough they had detected no other vessels pursuing, but they still had to be cautious.

Selene had some kind of attack and was resting in the med-bay, and Norn refused to let Adelheid start the Jagdkaiser, so their choices for defending themselves in case of an attack would be limited. Hunter III did not have enough biomass available to take on an ocean-going form of any use. Worse came to worse, Norn would have to go out there herself in the Jagdkaiser, something she was not necessarily against, but–

It shouldn’t have mattered! She gave clear instructions through her agents.

This was not the plan.

“I don’t get it. What are they doing? Keep your eyes and ears peeled.”

Unless the defectors turned on them, there shouldn’t be a problem.

But why were they going so fast? This contravened everything they had planned.

“This is the problem with bringing outside help, when you’re used to excellence.”

Norn heard the bridge door open and glanced out of the sides of her eyes at it.

Through the door, a red-head in a pristine grey uniform walked in. Her hair was loose but neatly brushed so it had a tidy look; beneath her coat, skirt, and white-button down shirt she was clearly wearing a very covering black bodysuit from the tall black boots on her feet, all the way up to the neck. Her cheeks were rosey with makeup, and she flashed a bright lacquered-red smile.

“Awaiting our guests?” Adelheid asked, her tone quite cheerful.

Norn smiled back. “Less awaiting them, more trying to puzzle out their erratic behavior.”

“No plan survives your subordinates huh? Anyway: I went to check on Selene. She’s awake, but I told her to rest up more.” Adelheid said. Her smile faded a bit. “Livia says she had a mental breakdown. She’s on anti-psychotic medication. I’m worried that Livia is just prescribing stuff to get it out of the vault.”

“You can trust her. She has good bedside manner. If she sneaks a few pills, it’s nothing major.”

“Regardless, since we have a situation, and with Selene down; what will we do if it turns into another fight? Potomac is an awful pilot. Hunter III doesn’t have a lot of monster left in her. And I’m an ace but you won’t let me pilot at all.” Adelheid shrugged. “How do we know that transport isn’t a trap and won’t try to attack us?”

“We’ll let the 150 mm guns do the talking.” Norn said. “Relax. Trust me on this one.”

“You’re so stubborn. Fine then. If the ship goes down, you better wed me before we die.”

“I promise on the honor of the Fueller family, I’ll have vows ready in that case.”

Norn put on a mischievous grin. Adelheid scoffed and turned her cheek.

“Hmph! You’re not being serious at all. Swearing on the Fueller family, you bastard.”

“Y’two ought to get married now cuz all ya do is be noisy to each other.”

From the back of the bridge sounded the sleepy voice of Hunter III of the Third Sphere.

A pale spindly girl in a black robe, her eyes closed with a smug little expression.

“You’re not required to be here. We’re in the aphotic zone now.” Norn said.

Leaning back against the wall, Hunter III crossed the overlarge sleeves of her robe.

“Well, I wanna be here, so.” She said lazily, through a long, deep yawn.

“Suit yourself.”

Norn signaled for Adelheid to sit next to her, which the adjutant did.

“We’ll be ‘engaging’ in a few minutes.” Norn said.

Imperial ship guns were usually non-retractable, unlike Union ship guns. They had nothing to hide and no need to conserve space in their station docks, which were massive and could be expanded more if needed. Those 150 mm guns Norn described were therefore always bristling like fangs atop the elegant hull of the Antenora, and it took little work to get them ready to fire at a moment’s notice. As the transport ship approached, the guns were sealed, drained, loaded, and made ready to fire in the immediate instant that Norn gave the order.

Soon that blip on the main screen began to get closer and closer.

“Send them an acoustic message to request a laser connection.” Norn asked.

One of her drones dutifully obliged.

On the main screen, the prediction, which was essentially points on a topographical chart, updated to a full visual prediction on the main screen, superimposing the predicted elements over the sharply photorealistic three-dimensional picture of the ocean around them. Now they were able to “see” impossibly far as a ship approached, five hundred meters away in a surprisingly clear ocean, instead of within a cloud of murky biomass.

“Ma’am, they responded that their laser communicator was damaged in an incident.”

“What?” Norn crossed her arms and stomped her feet, utterly perplexed. They had agreed on everything that needed to be done! “That’s the oldest fucking excuse– do they think I’m stupid? It’s like they want it to look like it’s an obvious trap! Tell those idiots to connect to laser right now or we’ll blast them out of the ocean! This instant!”

“Maybe it did break?” Adelheid shrugged.

Before Norn could scold Adelheid, the communications drone responded.

“Ma’am, they say that fighting broke out among themselves and very few survived. There was damage to internal systems. They have the ship on auto-pilot at the moment and are requesting clemency and a chance to transfer.”

Norn stared at the communications drone and back at the main screen.

“What a mess!” She cried out. “Fine, tell them to dock with us. But watch them closely.”

On the approach, Norn waited on the bridge until the Kühne class was well past the range where they could have pulled some kind of trick, like deploying Divers from the cargo hold or unloading a torpedo out of a utility tube, or even setting themselves up to ram. Hundreds of grueling meters passed as the ship simply lumbered close, efficient as autopilot could be. Ranged by every weapon on the Antenora and surveilled by every sensor, the Kühne class dutifully submitted to the Cruiser’s jet anchors allowed itself to come attached to a sidepod docking chute.

“Here.”

From a chest on the side of the Captain’s chair, Norn withdrew a six-shot revolver.

Without hesitation she handed it to Adelheid, who took it into hand easily but with a passing glance at Norn. Had any of the crew been the chatty or gossipy kind, this would have been an important gesture.

On most ships, doctrine was that only the security team carried weapons openly. The ship’s captain had a six-shot revolver in their bridge for emergencies, but it was frowned upon for them to openly carry a weapon unless they were members of the Inquisition or another special body. There were all kinds of rules of propriety and noblesse for ship commanders– for the captain to hand her revolver to another was seen as an act of deep and abiding trust.

Norn did not care about such things. She was an Apostle; she was her own gun already.

However, she did know Adelheid would appreciate the gesture in a tense moment.

Adelheid pulled out the cylinder to check the loaded rounds and then flipped it back.

She had a little contented smile on her face. Just what Norn wanted to see.

“Hunter III, you too– both of you follow me. We’re the greeting party.”

Norn stood up and started walking, expecting to be followed without hesitation.

She was correct. Adelheid and Hunter III trailed only a scant few steps behind her.

Behind the hangar was a small module that acted as the docking bay, and it was here that the mechanisms for the docking chute were kept. Pressure was equalized on the chute to match both ships, so that when the doors opened on the opposing vessel there would not be an immediate blowup and flooding. Norn watched on a small monitor in the arrival area linked to a grainy camera in the chute, allowing them to look past the thick bulkhead door. She saw a pair of figures step into the deployment chute and approach their own door. They looked unarmed and harmless.

“I’m opening the bulkhead.” Norn said, gesturing over her shoulder.

Hunter III and Adelheid backed off a step, Adelheid with her hands on her sidearm, Hunter III with her arms hanging at her side and beginning to form hot black digits like razor fingers hidden in her sleeves, trailing thin vapors. Both of them could act much less explosively than Norn, so she would prefer they handle any problems with the arrivals. With her backup ready, Norn activated the clunky bulkhead mechanisms and watched the door cacophonously unlock.

“Bonjour~!”

“Uhh, hello!”

Once the bulkhead had fully opened, Norn found herself greeted by a pair of Loup women.

At the head of the pair and wearing a smile too broad for Norn’s level of tolerance was a tall, handsome Loup woman in a white and purple suit. She was well pampered, olive skin lightly touched up, her lustrous black hair falling to the shoulder in gentle waves around and behind stiff ears, wolf-like and sharp but with the fur perfectly manicured. Bright green eyes, deep and narrow, glanced casually from Norn to Adelheid before settling back. Her coat and pants looked expensive and refined, with gold cufflinks and a ceremonial braid across the chest to denote rank — but her attire was marred in places by brown stains. Her long, slender, tapered tail wagged incessantly.

As she stepped forward, this woman spread her arms open as if in invitation.

“You can stay right there for now.” Norn said, declining whatever the Loup offered.

“Of course, of course. I would not dare impose on the great Praetorian.” She said.

“You certainly know how to sweet talk, at least.” Norn responded.

Beside her, with a big smile and a certain nervous energy to her movements, was a young woman several centimeters shorter, her short, blunt blond hair quite tidy. Folded dog ears and a skinny but flexible and fluffy tail defined this girl’s Loup features. Lightly bronzed skin, with wide open, friendly brown eyes, she seemed the stark opposite of her compatriot. While the taller woman carried herself in a way that seemed rather playfully lascivious, the shorter girl looked almost innocent, calm, and glowing with a youthful vivaciousness. Her clothes were far more standard, being the grey coat and uniform pants of an ordinary soldier of the Empire, but pressed perfectly neat.

“Allow me to introduce myself, Lord von Fueller.” Said the taller woman. Her red painted lips curled into a confident grin, her wolf-like tail batting rapidly as she bowed with an arm over her breast, cutting a dashing figure with sabre on hip. “Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays, Gallic-educated Polkovnyk in the South Kashak Host. I am here hoping to serve as a Fueller retainer– oh, and this is Petra Chornyi Sunnysea. She’s just happy to be around.”

“Hello!” Petra said. She began to speak very rapidly. “I joined the master so she would not have to flee alone! When the master was accused of various romantic improprieties I thought to myself, ‘this cannot be right, master is very moral, otherwise she would not have such an esteemed rank as Polkovnyk’ and I decided that–”

Be quiet now, Petra.” Yurii said, putting a heavy hand down on Petra’s head.

“Yes master! Of course!” Petra said happily.

Crossing her arms and staring critically, Norn noticed blood on the sabre also.

Polkovnyk is indeed a high rank within the Loup hosts. I see why you would be dressed so lavishly and boast of a classic education. But I am curious how such a refined woman allowed so much staining on her coat.”

Norn pointed at the brown on Yurii’s coat. Petra followed her finger to it and gasped.

“Master, I can clean that for you–”

“No, Petra it’s stained.” Yurii sighed. “Milord, we had unfortunate incident on the way.”

“Unfortunate how? Explain.” Norn demanded.

Yurii reached her hand up to her forehead, with a wan expression, as if she was suddenly struck by a migraine. Not exactly the gravity Norn expected from someone who had apparently survived the deaths of potentially dozens of other people on that transport. When Yurii finally spoke up after various gesticulations, her “woe is me” tone of voice quite grated on the ears. It was hard to tell whether she was taking it that seriously.

“Oh milord, it was truly a trial for me! The Vekans fabricated a scandal to try to remove me from my position, so I was forced to hire a mercenary crew to ferry me and a few companions likewise persecuted away from the Vekan state. Unbeknownst to me, those same companions had been plotting all along to make for the Royal Alliance instead. Of course, I already had agreements with Fueller family agents, and I was not about to ignore such a prized position. Unfortunately, we could not reconcile our differences save through a bloody coup of the ship.”

Upon hearing her master’s sufferings retold, Petra’s eyes teared up and she covered them.

“Poor Master! Everyone cornered her! I felt so bad, she had to send them all to God–”

“That’s quite enough Petra, thank you, wipe your tears.” Yurii grumbled.

Norn scoffed. “You roped a crew in with bribes who turned on you at the first opportunity because they were carrying a wanted criminal who was taking them on a practical suicide mission. Then when the winds turned foul you killed everybody. You should’ve just come alone. I don’t understand why you needed an entire transport for this.”

“Praetorian, I beg you to understand! For our entire history from the surface to the sea, it has been a grave dishonor for any Kashak to leave behind her sword, shield, armor and horse. It simply would not do!”

Yurii puffed out her chest with indignant pride. Norn supposed she meant her Diver.

That was a pretty unbelievable excuse from this dandy. She just wanted to be waited on.

Norn shook her head. “So I guess if I look in there now I’ll just find a charnel house?”

“So confrontational! I am the victim here you know, not all those of turncoats and thugs.”

Yurii shrugged her shoulders. Throughout, she really seemed more annoyed than anything.

Norn could see an aura around her that was untroubled, with the slightest hint of violence. Red and blue with a gradation to purple. No green, no yellow, she had no fear to her, no turbulence, no regrets. A thin black stripe suggested she was thinking of death, however. Red was usually outward violence; black was more of an inward feeling toward one’s own mortality and pain. That pattern allowed Norn to guess at her inner nature.

Yurii’s aura was colored by feelings of violence and an acceptance of violence to herself.

That kind of thinking suggested– a completely deranged individual.

Norn grinned almost as broadly as Yurii had been grinning at her.

This could be fun. It might even ultimately be useful.

“At any rate,” Norn said, “you promised us intelligence on the Vekans when we agreed to come all the way out here to rescue you. If you’re showing your face in front of me, then I assume you are able to uphold your end of the bargain. Otherwise, we will not be speaking for much longer and I’ll sink that ship with your corpse in it.”

Yurii was unfazed by the threat.

“Of course milord! In fact, this was part of the ruckus. So I couldn’t keep it on my person.”

Petra’s face lit up. “Ah yes, I kept this very safe for Master–”

Without warning and without even allowing the young girl to say anything more, Yurii then indiscreetly reached across to Petra’s chest and pulled something out of her coat, leaving her yelping and bewildered. Her long fingers produced a thin, black object with a connection port visible between halves of the plastic chassis.

“Everything I exfiltrated is in this memory stick. I can decrypt it for you.” Yurii said.

“Decrypt it huh? You’ve really covered your bases, Ms. Samoylovych.”

Norn smiled ever more broadly, feeling a rush of excitement toward this unruly cur.

Behind her Adelheid seemed to roll her eyes. Perhaps sensing Norn’s brimming sadism.

Then it was Norn’s turn to spread her arms out dramatically and speak effusively.

“Welcome aboard the Antenora! We’ll take care of the formalities soon. Just know that you serve the Fueller family now, with me at its head. Should you fail me or step out of line, I won’t hesitate to twist your head off like a doll I don’t want to play with anymore. Here we don’t care about your name or pedigree or criminal record. We only follow the law of Norn von Fueller: you do as I say, or I’ll make you hurt a hundred bodies’ worth of pain before you die.”

Yurii stared silently. Petra tipped her head to one side in a cutesy, spacey-eyed gesture.

Adelheid blinked hard and crossed her arms. Hunter III seemed to mimic Petra.

At Norn’s brazen declaration, the black stripe in Yurii’s aura expanded and flared just a little bit, having brought her feelings of death and pain further into focus in her emotional space. Her body language remained untroubled. In fact judging by the cheerful, amused smile that appeared on Yurii’s face, she may have been titillated rather than terrified by the notion that Norn could kill her easily. Norn was quite interested in that reaction.

This is someone I could get along with. She thought.

Yurii bowed with her hand across her chest in a way that again, almost made her seem handsome and mannered.

“Well met! Such terms are not uncommon to a Loup from the great eastern Hosts.”

At her side, Petra, who still looked vaguely emotional about everything, also quickly bowed in a similar fashion, her smile a bit vacant. Her aura was far simpler. It had turned almost completely green after Yurii had told her melodramatic account of why she killed her crew, and with a bit of blue when Yurii grabbed her suddenly.

Petra wore her emotions quite obviously.

Poor thing.

“At any rate, we’ll get your equipment out of the Kühne so we can continue on our journey. I believe it would be for the best if we sank that awful transport so you could forget this miserable chapter of your life, wouldn’t you agree, Samoylovych?” Norn said, stepping aside as if to allow Yurii and Petra to pass the bulkhead.

Yurii looked thrilled at the prospect.

“Oh, absolutely. I should’ve known the Praetorian would understand the situation so well.”

Adelheid sighed openly. “I’ll go get the crew started on that then. Welcome or whatever.”

She turned around and stormed off with heavy footsteps toward the hangar.

Norn wondered idly what that attention-grabbing display was about–

–probably just starting to rile her up again for next time. It was starting to work, too.

Yurii watched her go out of sight with keen interest.

“Ah, unfortunate, I didn’t get to be introduced to that bright and beautiful young lady.”

Norn’s eyes locked to hers immediately with a force that seemed to make Yurii step back.

“Adelheid van Mueller. She is my esteemed, long-time, personal adjutant.”

Yurii silently nodded her understanding. Good dog. Her hungry eyes drifted over to Hunter III.

“And this cutey? I can’t help but wonder about her unique attire. Is she the chaplain? I could use a private religious consultation you know.” Yurii brought her thumb up to her lips, curled in a fanged grin.

Hunter III stared directly at her with narrowed eyes and then openly licked her lips.

“Boss, I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna be eating this girl soon ain’t I?” She declared.

Norn grinned and shrugged as if it didn’t concern her.

Yurii stared at Hunter III with a perhaps even more lascivious expression.

“Don’t worry over her, Ms. Samoylovych. I’ll explain later.” Norn said.

Despite all the of the mysteries and insinuations, Yurii remained steadfastly upbeat.

In fact her aura seemed to become ever brighter, while her smile was ever wider.

“I had heard rumors that the Antenora was a special vessel. Even the past few minutes have me intrigued. I will serve with distinction under your command, Praetorian. I am positive the Fueller family is the winning team to be on now. Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays only plays for the winning team — for a cut of the winnings.”

Yurii casually walked past the bulkhead and cast an apathetic glance behind herself.

“Petra you can stay with the Kühne and get sunk if you want.” Yurii said dismissively.

Upon being addressed, Petra snapped her slightly hanging jaw shut and stood in attention.

“Ah! Not at all Master! I was just spacing out. Of course I’m coming with you!”

Petra followed innocently and smilingly behind, as Norn led Yurii deeper into her new life.

Welcome to the Antenora! Norn thought to herself, laughing inside. Fresh meat!


In the middle of a private garden rotunda at Heitzing Officer Cadet School, a young woman prostrated herself, putting her head to the cold white tiles largely unlit by the false sun outside. Through the gaps in the enclosing pillars of the rotunda, thick rose bushes prevented visibility from outside the building. She was caged in, surrounded, the fence-door into the interior of the rotunda having closed ominously behind her. She was trapped.

For the sake of her beloved friend, Gertrude Lichtenberg prostrated herself.

Standing in front of her, looking down from above, was a slim blond woman wearing the ornate coat of the Fueller family over a casual button-down shirt, giving Gertrude an imperious gaze and wearing a wide grin. At her side was a disinterested redhead in grey uniform. Both were beautiful, powerful women of high society, while the girl begging them was a swarthy, lanky tomboy in a blue cadet’s uniform, weeping childishly.

“Norn the Praetorian, I put my head to the floor for you. Please grant me an audience.”

Her voice was cracking. Her heart slammed against the confines of her chest.

All of her skin brimmed with unease. This was Norn the Praetorian.

Word had it that she had killed people for lesser slights than being begged like this.

“Please. I am unworthy, but I beg most humbly. Please.”

Norn sighed openly.

“How did you find out I was here? I’ve never seen a kid so annoyingly resourceful.”

Gertrude hardly expected to hear her speak.

She almost thought she would simply die right there.

“I–,” Gertrude could not possibly say how. It was purely insane. “I overhead an officer give gossip, ma’am–”

Norn laughed. “Keep lying to me and see where it leads, you arrogant girl.”

Nevertheless, she silently gestured with her hand for Gertrude to stand up.

Was she being given an audience?

She stood from the floor, and saluted Norn with her eyes red and puffy with tears.

“You cut a dashing figure when you’re not on your knees.” Norn joked.

“She’s boring.” At her side, the redhead interjected. “She should grow out a ponytail.”

Norn’s hand seemed to mindlessly toy with a lock of hair from her own ponytail.

Gertrude stood speechlessly for a moment. “I– I’ll take your advice, milady.”

“Don’t mind her.” Norn said. “Talk to me, cadet. Who are you supposed to be?”

“Yes milord. I’m Gertrude Lichtenberg. I recently achieved the rank of Junior Petty Officer.”

“Petty Officer Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Norn repeated. “You have achieved your initial rank, so you are on your way out of this Cadet School. Why are you here begging? What opportunity do you seek?”

Gertrude swallowed hard before speaking.

It was tough to speak of. It was still hard to believe.

“Milord, I believe that I am being singled out for sanction by Inquisitor Brauchitsch.”

Norn eyes widened with surprise. She crossed her arms and watched Gertrude intently.

“Brauchitsch? How is he ‘sanctioning’ you? I don’t understand.”

“I– I don’t know why he would target me ma’am, since his arrival, several officers in his orbit have insulted, provoked and even endangered me. Lord, I– I have a very important friend, a Northern Loup, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong. She was detained recently for false charges of assault– she was goaded ma’am, she was threatened and goaded into a fight with one of Brauchitsch’s supporters, to protect me. My contribution for her alibi was then stricken down!”

“I truly haven’t heard about any of this. Am I being kept in the dark? If there was an assault on an officer on campus during my stay and I wasn’t informed, I’ll definitely take it as Doenitz keeping me in the dark. I have to wonder what he and Brauchitsch are up to.” Norn said. She looked almost like she was speaking to herself or maybe to the girl at her side, staring at Gertrude’s shoes for a moment rather than her eyes, deep in thought.

“Maybe he thought it wasn’t important enough to bother the mighty Praetorian.”

Once more the red-head added a snippy-sounding comment and shrugged her shoulders.

Gertrude felt nervous again. She was being heard, but it was such an insane situation.

She felt insane saying this, but there had been so many situations recently–

Gertrude was being targeted and there was no way to escape Inquisitorial Sanction. She had some idea s to why– maybe it related to Elena– but she was helpless. Ingrid could be tortured to death for an indiscretion born of this injustice, and nobody could say anything. Gertrude herself could suffer more indignities or even be killed or have her career destroyed. She was not a noble, just a daughter of a family with good connections. She had nothing that she could do to defend herself, no way to escape the seemingly randomly cruelty that befell her.

Except–

“Milord, I need your aid and sponsorship. I need you to intervene on our behalf. Me and my friends have been the target of grave injustices, cruel, random, and violent and I believe it will only get worse. Since he stationed himself in the cadet school Inquisitor Brauchitsch has led some kind of campaign against me specifically. I do not understand why. But if I became the servant of someone more powerful than he, I could retaliate.”

Norn allowed Gertrude to complete her emotional spiel before responding.

“Honestly. You’ve got some nerve, you know that?”

She walked over to Gertrude and gave her a light smack on the cheek, firm but not too painful.

When they were close and she was standing, Norn could not look down at Gertrude.

She had to look her straight in the eyes and she did, fixing Gertrude with a powerful gaze.

Her lips curled into a demonic grin. Gertrude felt her breath catch in her own throat.

This was a deal with the devil, and she knew it.

“Retaliation, eh? I like that word. So I can’t say I’m uninterested, however, I have no time for unambitious beggars. I’m not just going to rescue you. If you have concrete demands of me, then make them. What do you yearn for? What is your heart’s desire? Do not lie to me. If you dare lie to me, I will strike you with a hundred times the strength of that last slap I dealt you. So be honest: what would you do with my power, Gertrude Lichtenberg?”

Norn felt enormous, her presence took up all of Gertrude’s vision, all of the rotunda.

Choking, monstrous power the likes of which she hardly understood.

But she couldn’t– she couldn’t just tell her– Gertrude couldn’t simply–

“Gertrude Lichtenberg. Why did a woman of no name or note come to this place?”

“I–” Gertrude hesitated. Her voice quivered when she spoke. “I want the power to rectify the injustices happening in the Empire. This is why I left Luxembourg to join the military. I wouldn’t have the power to fight for what I believe in as just a girl– I needed to be a soldier. I’ll be a soldier that checks evil men like Brauchitsch.”

She delivered her speech with as much eloquence as she could muster.

Norn’s eyes narrowed with rage and in the next second Gertrude’s vision swam.

Her fist came lightning fast, as if time had stopped before the blow was delivered.

Gertrude stepped back and doubled over as Norn pounded her stomach with such force that she felt her feet had lifted off the floor for a moment. Staggering, choking, feeling the bile rising to her throat and the spreading of brutal pain across her core that seemed to shake all the muscle under her skin. Legs buckling, she fell to her knees for support, dry hacking and heaving into the white tiles. Mind foggy, reeling, uncomprehending.

One punch, just one punch from this woman and Gertrude nearly blacked out.

“How dare you? How fucking dare you? I warned you not to lie to me. You cannot lie to me. You will not lie to me, Lichtenberg!” Norn shouted. She was suddenly impassioned. “You have nowhere near the power to be able to lie to me. All you have is the disrespect and audacity. If you lie to me again, my next strike will hurt a thousand times more than this. Choose your words cautiously, Gertrude Lichtenberg. Lie again if you dare.”

On the floor, shaking, all of her willpower crumbling, Gertrude mumbled in pain.

What would she do with the overwhelming, brutal power of Norn von Fueller?

Having experienced that power, Gertrude could not possibly lie again.

She gathered all of her breath that she could and spoke up as loud as she was capable.

“Elena von Fueller.” She gritted her teeth and wept with shame. She wished she could dig her fingers through the tiles. “My goal is Elena von Fueller. We were classmates. I want– I need to see her again. Once she graduated from Luxembourg I would lose her forever. I want– I need a high rank to have her.” Tears overcame her.

She felt Norn’s hand on her hair and flinched, expecting another blow–

Instead Norn gently guided her eyes up to meet hers.

Norn was smiling. A warm, merciful, kind smile unlike any she had worn before.

“Finally. That is indeed the truth. A simple and carnal truth, my favorite kind. And it is this truth, then, which will lead to the destruction of Ludwig von Brauchitsch and the rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg. Isn’t it dramatic? Isn’t it worthy of an opera? I relish the chance to realize it. Such a simple, beautiful dream. A dream to destroy a world for.”

More than the pain, more than the shame, Gertrude felt an overwhelming terror.

An eye-opening fear of the monsters lurking in the darkest corners of Aer.

Gertrude had sold her soul to a demon and she knew it.

At that point in her life, there was no turning back from what she would become.

But that foggy scene of cold sweat, floral scents and overwhelming fear was interrupted by a loud noise which took the young officer cadet Gertrude Lichtenberg from Heitzig all the way back to where she truly was. In the cold and desolate wastes of Sverland. Her bed on the Inquisitorial flagship Iron Lady, the living proof of the promise of power which Norn von Fueller had granted to her. Saving her life; damning her life.

Gertrude bolted upright in bed, sweating bullets, awakened into a spiraling state.

In a panic she pulled up the soaked tanktop she was wearing and found her stomach intact.

With that moment of panic passing, Gertrude felt suddenly overwhelmed and ashamed.

Panting in bed, a message on the wall beckoning her to respond in real time, a real time she was not yet ready to face. Hours had passed, so many hours, she had practically slept a whole day. All of the events prior to her passing out in bed crawled over her, icy as the sweat down her back. She staggered at the enormity of things.

Elena– Sieglinde– Norn– Ingrid–

Gertrude stretched her hand over to the wall and accepted the message as audio only.

“I’m here–”

As she said this Gertrude cast eyes at a bundle on the bed beside her.

For an instant, she feared that in some fit of stupid, drunk emotion, she, and Ingrid–

“Ma’am! It’s Schicksal! We’ve contacted the Antenora, she’ll be docking soon.”

Ignoring Schicksal with a renewed panic, Gertrude swung the blankets off herself–

And she found no trace of that emotional Loup in her bed. Of course; of course.

It was just stray pillows and the way she had bundled herself in her blankets. Ingrid was gone. And in the maelstrom of emotions she was feeling, Gertrude did not know whether she wished they had really slept together. Unbidden her brain dowsed her in all kinds of shameful fantasies. What if she had fucked Ingrid’s brains out? What if she let herself get pulled into a reckless passion, damn the circumstances? Would that have satisfied her? Would it have been cathartic? She sighed, running her hands over her face. It was almost enough to make her cry.

Schicksal spoke up again. “Ma’am? I’m sorry, is this not a good time?”

“It’s fine.” Gertrude said bluntly, trying to collect herself. “What’s their ETA?”

“About twenty minutes at the Antenora’s current heading.”

“Tell–” She hesitated to say her name then managed to say a few choppy sentences in an almost normal tone of voice. “Ingrid and Baron von Castille. We’ll greet the guests together. Set up a private table. Staging room four. Set up food and drinks. Do I really need to say more?” Gertrude practically shouted at Schicksal.

“N-Not at all ma’am!” Schicksal’s voice turned quickly nervous. “Of course! Right away!”

At once the audio message window disappeared from the wall.

Gertrude brought her hands up to her face and groaned loudly into them.

Of the twenty minutes she had, she must have spent at least five screaming.

Then she rushed to the bathroom, throwing off her tanktop and shorts along the way.

Opening the false wall panel into a 2 meter by 2 meter shower box, she stepped inside, set the temperature low and shocked herself with a blast of icy water. Her skin shivered violently from the back of her neck down her spinal cord. She gritted her teeth, put her head to the wall, and stared at the bare metal under the water for a solid minute while she shook out all the tension in her body. Her fear and trepidation, the pounding headache from having slept too long, the brimming panic beneath her skin, all of it was sent to oblivion by the sheer overwhelming force of the cold water. One thing she learned from Norn. Cold water was mighty. It could wash away anything.

Water had shaped the contours of the surface world, and now, the confines of all humans.

But it was still merciful if one understood the nature of its mercy. Just like Norn herself.

Despite everything, by the time an orderly came to collect her she was already well dressed in her ornate coat, cape, and tall hat, boots smart, hair in a tidy ponytail, projecting the dashing figure and confident, collected smile she wanted. No trace of ever having wept on the swarthy olive skin of her face. At the door, the orderly saluted her– farther down the hall, a tall blonde woman with a dispassionate expression and a shorter, grinning brunette with sharp dog-like ears and a wagging tail awaited Gertrude. She smiled and nodded, greeting both of them cordially.

Some part of her still feared a reaction from Ingrid–

“Good to see you up, you slept like a rock! I’m so happy for ya!” the Loup said jovially.

Ingrid was her best friend– of course she would not hold some kind of grudge.

“All thanks to you for the pick-me-up.” Gertrude replied.

“Hah! God don’t even mention it. Let’s just go meet this master of yours.”

Ingrid grinned brightly at her. She really was a lovely girl, a ray of sunshine.

Gertrude felt her wavering heart finally sit still for a moment.

They were fine; there was no hatred to fear between them.

Sieglinde responded to the greeting and two friends with a quiet, “Inquisitor.”

And a short nodding of her head to punctuate the greeting.

“Nice to see you too.” Gertrude said.

With that, the party was collected and took themselves down to the docking bay.


“Inquisitor Lichtenberg! I never imagined I would see my protégé in this barren sea!”

At the head of the party arriving through the Iron Lady’s docking chute, that unmistakable voice and grinning face could be none other than Norn von Fueller, fair faced, blond-haired, with a fit but unassuming physique. She had at her side her trusted adjutant Adelheid van Mueller as well as a dark-haired Loup in military garb. Upon their arrival, Norn took Gertrude’s hands into her own, looking her up and down in uniform with excitement.

“Amazing! You really do command the authority of office with that look.” Norn said.

“She even did her hair up in a ponytail. Has she grown taller?” Adelheid added.

They were doting on her like she was a kid. Gertrude sighed openly.

“It hasn’t been that long since we last met! And I was fully grown back then!” She said.

“It is the responsibility of the master to tease her foolish apprentice.” Norn said. “So, are you going to introduce me to your cohort? You’ve already met Adelheid van Mueller, who as always acts as my adjutant, while this lady is Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays, once a Polkhovnyk in the Southern Kashak Host.”

Yurii bowed upon being introduced. “Pleasure to meet the esteemed Inquisitor.”

Her words were thickly lacquered with a tone perhaps sarcastic or disdainful.

Gertrude could tell right away this lady was a problem. She was Norn’s kind of crony.

Highly skilled, greatly troubled, probably horrifically violent in some way.

Norn did not allow just anyone to speak or act freely in her presence.

All of her crew received some kind of training so as to never speak a word out of turn or divulge any secrets. Once upon a time, Gertrude had thought it had to do with bribes or benefits. She found that Norn spent lavishly on the salaries she offered and even took care of the families of her people forever. But there was something else– even Gertrude had, at times, felt utterly overpowered by something in Norn’s speech and atmosphere that smothered any notion of dissent. There was no way to explain it but people simply obeyed Norn.

If only I could have that kind of power–

Gertrude proceeded with the pleasantries.

“Proud to make your acquaintance as well. I admit quite a fondness for the Loup people.”

Ingrid made a face and sighed.

“Let me introduce my people then. I don’t have a formal adjutant, because I don’t want to take this woman out of the pilot’s seat.” Gertrude gestured toward Ingrid, who still looked a bit taken aback by her former and current comments. “This is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong. You may have briefly met?” Gertrude looked to Ingrid and finally saw her face and had to keep herself from making any comment or gesture. Ingrid sighed again.

“Nuh uh, first time seeing her.” She said. “She signed off on my release when I was getting thrown in a hole in Heitzing but I never met her. I gotta say, she looks like she could tear me in half, like the stories.”

Gertrude blanched but Norn took the comment in good humor.

“I wouldn’t do that to Gertrude’s most beloved friend.” Norn said.

Ingrid tried to keep a straight face, but she was clearly avoiding looking at anyone now.

Norn’s gaze turned to the tall, brooding blond woman on Gertrude’s other flank.

“And this is Sieglinde von Castille. I would recognize her anywhere.” Norn said.

“Good day, Lord von Fueller.” Sieglinde replied. She offered a short, perfunctory salute.

“We settled a matter on the Castille estate when her parents passed. We needed an agreement in place since she was a soldier and only heir.” Norn said, looking at Gertrude and explaining the familiarity. Norn was the Emperor’s right-hand woman on any serious matters concerning the aristocracy. “I don’t know how you ended up with the Red Baron in your retinue, but you should consider yourself quite lucky. She is a very wise and level-headed lady.”

Sieglinde joined Ingrid in casting eyes away from the party.

Gertrude felt suddenly that the mood was turning absolutely rancid.

“Let’s depart, we shouldn’t stand around talking in the docking bay. I’ve prepared a table.”

With that declaration, Gertrude led a change of scenery. From the docking bay, the party traveled to a small planning room, all white walls with little adornment. They were seated around a square table for six, its farthest ends folded so it comfortably and intimately seated only as many people as needed. There were slots for computer terminals to affix, but these had been removed as the room had a much less technical significance on that day.

In their place, there were plates of food for the guests.

Gertrude had expected some light snacks, but the kitchen went all out within the confines of all the ingredients a military vessel would have on hand. There was a panzanella salad, made with black bread and salted canned tomatoes. Even sized chunks of dry bread grew moist with a quick dressing made from the tomatoes’ own juices along with oil, mustard, and sugar. There were two types of sausages on the ship, a softer pork, fat, and buckwheat sausage and a harder, dryer, smoked beef sausage, and both were used to great textural contrast in a main dish of sausage and peppers in a beer sauce. This was accompanied by boiled potatoes, smoked cheese, and sauerkraut.

No beer was served for drinking; they had glasses of a sweet, non-alcoholic malt drink.

“Quite a spread! I had no idea that we would be dining so lavishly.” Norn said.

Gertrude stared at the table and shrugged happily. “To be honest, I didn’t either.”

Everyone began to serve themselves from the plates– though with some resistance from Adelheid van Mueller who at first wished to be served by an orderly or by Norn. Norn of course refused instantly to serve her anything and demanded in return that she serve herself. After raising her voice to her adjutant, the argument was Norn’s victory and Adelheid demurely served herself. Yurii and Ingrid seemed to want to monopolize all of the meat toward their own plates. Gertrude was not too hungry, and Norn seemed equally disinterested in her food. Sieglinde topped her plate mainly with side dishes, seeming particularly fond of the plain boiled potatoes with cheese.

“Ms. Järveläinen, you’re a Northern Loup correct?”

Across from Ingrid, Yurii hailed her in the middle of the meal, a glint in her bright eyes.

Ingrid put down a piece of beef sausage she was about to chew on.

“Uh huh, you can tell from the name can’t you? And you said you’re a Samoylovych, right? Samoylovych Darkestdays. So that means you’re a Southern Host Loup from Veka or thereabouts, that right?”

“Indeed. I’m curious– I never caught your rank, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

Ingrid narrowed her eyes. “I’m just a Sotnyk, nothing that should catch your attention.”

“Just a Sotnyk? But aren’t you a daughter of the famed Arvokas Järveläinen?”

“Grand-daughter. He wasn’t that fertile to be having kids in his nineties.”

Ingrid fixed a serious look at Yurii, and Yurii’s face darkened just a bit.

Gertrude’s gaze was finally drawn to the two. Norn, also, started watching with interest. 

“Are you trying to declare a blood feud at this table, Yurii Samoylovych?” Ingrid asked.

“I’m just curious. Did you have many friends among your kin growing up? Over sixty years ago you Northern Host sided with the Fueller Reformation. Arvokas Järveläinen was king among the kinslayers of that dark time– did your family motto not become ‘hunters of wolves’ after they slaughtered mine? So tell me, did you make many Loup friends? I would’ve been so afraid of sitting next to a ruthless kin-killer in the making who doesn’t even remember–”

Ingrid reached across the table and grabbed hold of Yurii’s collar.

This act of violence was not enough to wipe the smirk off Yuri’s face.

“Ingrid, stop.” Gertrude said. She turned to Norn. “Samoylovych is clearly provoking her!”

In that instant Gertrude felt helpless. Yurii was one of Norn’s people.

Could Gertrude even say anything?

Norn grinned to herself. “Samoylovych is telling the historical truth. It’s unfortunate they had to meet in such circumstances, but is it really up to us to intervene in this simmering ethnic pain of theirs?”

Despite Gertrude’s best efforts and racing heart the situation was not so easily defused.

Ingrid had a look of pure hatred for Yurii and the fingers on that collar shifted to the neck.

“No offense to your boss Gertrude, but if this fucking bitch doesn’t shut up right now–”

“Aww, first name basis? Does she have your leash too? Cute; so loyal for a Järveläinen.”

Yurii grabbed hold of Ingrid’s hand by the wrist and slowly pulled her fingers off her neck.

Ingrid gritted her teeth and fought back, grabbing hold of Yurii’s hand.

She could not overcome. Ingrid’s prodigious strength was not enough.

“Samoylovych is not normal.” Norn said. “So this is a mercy for you. Yurii: down, boy.”

Yurii laid Ingrid’s hands down on the table and retracted her own, smiling all the while.

Gertrude fixed Ingrid with a look that said this situation had to be over, now.

For her part, Ingrid was furious but obedient, retracting her hands.

Rubbing her wrist surreptitiously where Yurii had grabbed her.

“This bitch Katarran or what?” She was mumbling. Thankfully everyone ignored it.

Norn finally cleared her throat loudly to get everyone’s attention and quiet the room.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg, while I have I enjoyed the food,” this she said with her plate nearly untouched, “and your hospitality, I did not come here for pleasantries, and you know it. Given that our subordinates have been making trouble, we should speed this along. You are clearly in a difficult situation. How did an Irmingard class, with its vast weaponry and defenses, suffer such a brutal and crippling attack? What is your mission in Sverland; why do you need reinforcements? It goes without saying that I’ll be upset if you hide anything from me.”

Gertrude knew she would have to explain to Norn what had happened in truth and in full.

However, the atmosphere of tension in the room was exactly what she wanted to avoid.

Mortified, Gertrude began with the most obviously difficult part of the scenario.

“I’ve been chasing a group of mercenaries who have abducted Elena von Fueller.”

Norn’s eyes drew wide. Even Adelheid, bored of everything else, looked up from her food.

“I knew it had to be something like that, with you– yet I’m still in disbelief. Elena perished, Gertrude, she is dead. Nobody evacuated from Vogelheim, it was a massacre. And you say you are chasing her?” Norn said.

Hearing those words drove a hook right through Gertrude’s chest drawing out fresh hurt.

“I know this sounds crazy, but I saw her. I saw her being loaded into a ship.” She said.

Her voice felt distant, like she wasn’t the speaker. Her head was filling with anxious fog.

“Master Norn, I’ve known Elena since we were small children. We have so much history. My father was part of the Imperial Guard in the summer palace at Schwerin Isle, he gave his life to protect that family! I played with Elena when she was a little girl for years, and I went to Luxembourg School For Girls with her for years, seeing her every day, even sleeping in the same bunk. Ma’am, I would know Elena anywhere, no matter what happened.”

Norn smiled warmly. She reached her hand out to the clearly suffering Gertrude.

Closing her fingers around Gertrude’s own in a show of solidarity.

The Inquisitor was speechless, gazing at Norn with a strange fluttering comfort.

Even Ingrid and Yurii were staring, now on the same side in their bewilderment.

“You’ve learned how to speak to me. You are telling the unvarnished truth.” Norn said.

Gertrude nodded her head. She felt her heart finally holding firm with determination.

“I saw her be taken. And I need your assistance to hunt down the forces responsible.”

Norn lifted her hand from Gertrude’s and sat back in her chair.

Her lips had curled back to that broad, malicious grin she always seemed to wear.

“Of course, as the head of the Fueller Family, I can’t overlook this. It behooves me to at least pay these mercenaries a visit and confirm the truth. How Elena got out to the Nectaris Ocean and how she survived Vogelheim– if she survived, of course. Those are questions that need answering. But Gertrude, you need to learn more about the exercise of power. I am disappointed in you. You failed despite everything at your disposal and command.”

“With all due respect ma’am, I had to be cautious to protect Elena. These mercenaries are extremely dangerous. They have military-grade Union equipment and top class pilot training.” Gertrude quickly responded. She felt defensive at Norn calling her out. “We had them outnumbered and outgunned with the help of Sverland’s patrolmen, but they still folded an entire patrol fleet with just their Divers. I am asking for help for a reason, Master.”

“Then I’ll crush them for you, but you have to agree that I am in command of this operation, and we will do things my way. Furthermore, we will leave now, on the Antenora. Your mercs have a head start on us.”

Norn gazed directly into her eyes.

Gertrude blinked.

She had considered the time, but the repairs on the Iron Lady were going well.

Going on the Antenora had not exactly been part of her plans.

Then again she never considered the Antenora would have been the one to answer her calls.

“Of course, Master.” She said. “I have no objections nor would my crew.”

Ingrid crossed her arms and withdrew her gaze. Sieglinde had no expression on her face.

“Marvelous. Then we should prepare and go on the hunt as soon as possible. I’ll take you aboard the Antenora, and I have room for exactly one additional Diver and pilot. Choose your best.” Norn said.

Those words felt like a hammer to Gertrude’s chest.

Norn had her own squadron. The Antenora was a Cruiser, it was not so roomy.

So Gertrude could only take one of her pilots with her. Choose your best.

Gertrude was briefly speechless. She glanced at Sieglinde and cast a long look at Ingrid.

Her heart turned so heavy. Her voice ripped out of her throat like shattered glass.

There was only one choice. And she hated that it was so.

“I’ll take Baron von Castille.” Gertrude said, voice shaking after a period of trepidation.

At her left side, Ingrid’s gaze immediately dropped to the floor. Her shoulders slouched.

If she only had one choice– Sieglinde was clearly the better pilot. She was legendary.

It hurt like hell to leave Ingrid behind. And certainly, it must have hurt Ingrid too.

“Ingrid, you’ll hold the fort here, okay? As soon as the repairs complete, I need you to rush in after us. I’m trusting you to keep everyone safe and in line, and then bring the Iron Lady in to cut off the mercs.”

Gertrude tried to soften it, like she really had something important for Ingrid to do. Like her staying behind was not a sign of Gertrude’s hasty abandoning of her best friend whenever it was convenient but was something calculated and grand and necessary that only Ingrid could do. Like it was a special little mission worthy of the trust and intimacy that they shared. Her voice could communicate none of this grandeur. And Ingrid’s wavering posture told the truth of it all.

Ingrid finally faced Gertrude after being spoken to. She raised her head up feigning pride.

She had a smile on her face. A wan, forced little smile more painful than her silence.

It almost broke Gertrude’s heart to see it.

“Yes ma’am. I’ll make sure these louts work themselves to the bone so we can catch up.”

Ingrid gave her a little salute with a very slightly shaking hand.

Sieglinde for the first time seemed to have a conflicted expression on her face.

Gertrude almost didn’t know what to say.

They were exchanging what must have been the most pained expressions of their lives.

All the while hiding behind false smiles.

Ingrid would not let herself be a nuisance here. She accepted everything immediately.

For Gertrude’s sake, she was always accepting such awful things.

I’m a god damned bastard. Gertrude thought. I’m the lowest of the fucking low.

But for she had to save Elena– everything she was doing was for Elena–

“Very well! I look forward to watching the esteemed Red Baron at work.” Norn said.

She nodded her head to Sieglinde, who had no reaction to the gesture.

There was little else to discuss.

And so, with little fanfare, Gertrude left Ingrid behind to depart for darker seas.

It’s for Elena’s sake. I’m doing this for Elena. Once I get Elena back I’ll–

I’ll make it up to Ingrid– right?

Even Gertrude was having trouble believing this anymore.

In reality– she really was doing far too much for herself

Far too little for others–

Nothing for Ingrid–

And if Norn ever asked the right question, Gertrude would not be able to lie about it.


Previous ~ Next

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.


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