Sinners Under The Firmament [9.1]

For Ulyana Korabiskaya, her lowest point in life came when she awoke without warning within a chaotic, white-walled medbay in an adjacent substation to Mount Raja. Disoriented, with her hair cut off on one side rendering half her head more susceptible to the stale, chill air. She reached a hand to her head and ran her shaking fingers along heavy stitches. They hurt to touch, sending a jolt of pain into her skull.

Tears came to her eyes unbidden, teeth chattering.

Despite the pain she still felt trapped in a nightmare. Her vision had swam in and out of dreamscapes where her body floated amid suffociating steel rooms, water up to her chest. Ripped pipes vented gas and smoke, fires danced atop shreds of steel sewn with fiber-optic cables torn from the wall. There were people screaming, drowning, burning, dying. She tried to reach out to them, but she would vanish in one dreamscape, passed out, maybe killed– only to arrive at another with the same hopeless scene.

When her eyes adjusted to the light in that bright white room–

There were dozens, maybe a hundred people in the medbay with her. Alive, dead, dying.

Everything suffused by the din of the suffering, the hopeless whimper of human injury.

In adjacent beds were people with all manner of wounds, many maimed, some beyond recognition.

Burn victims patched from head to toe in bloody gauze. Moaning bodies with painful but not life threatening injuries who were last in line for medicine while nurses cried for more anesthetic and painkillers. A soldier assuring the medical staff that a shuttle from Mount Raja would restock them soon. Amputees, at least some of whom were, perhaps by virtue of their time of admittance, already having the remains of the limb prepared for a cybernetic implant to prevent them from being disabled permanently.

This involved bio- and ferro- stitching on the wound in cold blood. These were the loudest cries.

Ulyana did not understand at first. Everything had a very hazy, distant, surreal logic to it.

Had she not been in her bridge? Was she not– was she not the Captain of the Pravda

Through the door to the medbay, a figure dressed in black and red strode through.

She navigated the packed beds, the struggling nurses and doctors.

Her eyes did not once waver, she hardly took any of the scene around her.

Perfectly composed, she arrived at Ulyana’s bed and took off her hat.

“Yana. Are you awake? I’m so sorry. But you’re alive, for that we must be thankful.”

Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.

Ulyana’s eyes shut, filled with tears. She gritted her teeth, grabbed hold of her blankets.

“No, please, Parvati, please tell me it’s not– please tell me–” Ulyana begged.

“It’s not your fault.”

Nagavanshi reached out and took her hand for comfort.

Ulyana Korabiskaya broke down into sobbing, crying, and finally screaming.


As soon as she maneuvered her Strelok out of the deployment chute and onto the hangar proper, Khadija al-Shajara slammed the button to open the cockpit and practically leaped out of the machine before the doors even fully opened. She fell between a group of engineers. Cranes attached to the roof of the hangar were moved along rails, lowered to the chutes to help the more damaged machines up into the hangar to be secured on their gantries. Red, gaudy red– Khadija was looking for the Grenadier.

“I’ll leave it to you all to get my machine sorted. Where’s the Imperial?”

She saw the briefest hint of a red helmet and shoulders, steel lifting hooks around the hull.

Khadija ran through the mechanics and stopped at the edge of the chute.

Waiting for the machine to be lifted, and the upper hatch of the chute to close.

And then for the machine to be set down and its hatch to open.

The instant that the bottom half of the hatch lowered enough to be used as a handhold, Khadija practically leaped up into the cockpit, charged the seat and grabbed hold with both hands on Sieglinde von Castille’s collar. While the whole hangar seemed to watch, Khadija, eyes afire, fangs bared, teeth gritted, stared into the Baron’s eyes, and held her as if sustaining that gaze would kill her.

“So this is who you are.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde von Castille gazed back, eyes mournful, shoulders slouched, hands shaking.

She was almost a head taller than Khadija but looked so much smaller then.

“Red Baron.” Khadija cursed.

“Lion of Cascabel.” Sieglinde’s voice was almost a whimper.

They stared at each other for what seemed like breathless minutes, the hangar at a standstill.

Khadija clicked her tongue and shoved Sieglinde back into her cockpit.

She leaped down onto the floor of the hangar and walked away, hands balled into fists.

Chief of Security Evgenya Akulantova parted the crowd of mechanics and approached the machine, drawing her grenade launcher in one hand, though it was a two-handed weapon for most. With a rubber padded missile loaded into it, she aimed inside the cockpit and tipped her head to the side to motion for Sieglinde to come out of it. There was a gentle smile on the Chief’s soft grey face, bearing sharp teeth in an almost disarmingly amiable fashion. A gentle, maidenly giant with a brutal weapon.

“You are Sieglinde von Castille, is that correct? Until the Captain gets to talk to you in-depth, we are treating you as a prisoner rather than a defector. Peer titles don’t mean anything in here, but I hope you find the brig hospitable, nevertheless. I strongly suggest to step out of the cockpit with your hands up, and let my subordinates inspect you.” she nodded now towards Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian, who had arrived with similar grenade launchers on slings around their shoulders.

Silent, Sieglinde did as she was told and made no move to resist being pat down.

She was escorted to the brig, and the hangar resumed gawking and returned to its normal operation.

Out of the other tubes, the HELIOS of Murati Nakara and Karuniya Maharapratham was collected next, along with the remains of the SEAL of Marina McKennedy. Sameera’s Cossack was in almost perfect condition and hardly needed assistance lifting itself out of the water. Once all the Divers were collected, they were lined up abreast on gantries at each opposing wall so that they could be inspected. Chief Lebedova took one look at them and lifted her hand over her eyes, shaking her head vigorously.

“Some of these are in deplorable condition. We just got done reassembling that Cheka too.”

As had become usual, the Cheka’s electronics had nearly burnt out and several of the power cells distributed across the chassis as well as a few internal systems would need to be replaced. On one end of the hangar Sonya Shalikova and Murati Nakara (who was blamed as well despite being uninvolved this time) were both being lectured by Gunther Cohen about their repeated misuse of the machine.

Sameera’s, Khadija’s and Valya’s Streloks were all in decent condition.

The Strelkannon was already a maintenance-intensive machine so every sortie meant that a dozen people had to take care of it. That would not change here, and the Chief was already in her mind plotting out the service schedule for it. It had taken a few bumps, and specifically the torpedo launcher was damaged, and it would be a delicate operation to remove the remaining munitions and fix the pod.

Aiden Ahwalia’s Strelok was recovered from the seafloor. He himself was unharmed, but the machine was in pieces, only the cockpit was untouched. It was as if a monster had torn it apart with its bare hands. They could salvage some of the electrical parts and hydrojet components, but the chassis was basically nothing but food for the Ferricycler so they could ferrostitch simple metal parts from it.

They had no spare parts for the S.E.A.L. so that one was a complete write-off.

Sieglinde’s Grenadier was in the same category. They would probably disassemble it.

The HELIOS was in decent condition thanks to its sturdiness, but it was missing an arm which would have to be replaced by kitbashing a Strelok arm, since they, also, had no spare parts for that machine either. It had come out of the container that the Solarflare ladies had asked them to label as “spare parts.” Thankfully the most complicated part of the system, the drones that it launched, were in perfect condition. Those, Lebedova thought, would be impossible to replace if anything happened.

“We have to clone the software on this thing and get a look at the guts.” She noted.

As for the Brigand itself, there was damage practically everywhere.

No breaches, but plenty of electrical systems to replace, armor plates to sub out.

The Ferrostitcher and the Ferricycler would be running day and night.

“I’ll let the reactor engineer know just to be on the safe side.”

This time around there was no round of applause for the pilots.

Not for a lack of strong feelings, as everyone was grateful for their efforts. But because they were recovered in the middle of a continuing alert, where the sailors were still working all around the ship looking for leaks and electrical damage, or in the hangar assessing damage and beginning to put together tools and parts to begin repairs. Even with the pilots recovered, that alert was not rescinded. The Antenora was still being closely monitored as it began its retreat and the record-breaking levels of Katov mass in the water were a concern. Everyone was busy, and there was no time for heartfelt pleasantries.

It was at that point that the bridge informed the hangar of a new development.

They were so busy, and so incredulous, that at first, the danger barely registered.

But they understood implicitly — the danger was not yet over.


Sonya Shalikova stood outside the medbay doors for a moment.

Collecting the military greatcoat she was wearing over her pilot’s suit for warmth.

Clutching it to her chest, heart beating as if she had run a marathon.

The Cheka’s environment control system had broken down during the battle with Selene, so as a precaution, she was being sent to rest in the medbay for observation. However, she had a certain powerful desire pursue as well, having learned that Maryam Karahailos was also being kept in the medbay for observation. Something she had steeled herself about doing when she was out at sea.

“Ugh, is this stupid? I haven’t known her for that long.”

And yet, didn’t people go out on dates as perfect strangers? Didn’t they even have sex?

She probably knew a lot more about Maryam than most people did on their first date.

So then if she wanted to– then it made sense– it wasn’t anything weird–

“You only live once.”

It was a silly refrain but it encapsulated her current motives.

Fighting Selene pushed her to stand on the border to the afterlife and to interrogate herself. She could no longer punish herself and berate herself and live sternly in repentance for her sister’s passing. There was a vast ocean that was full of mysteries, and many people who depended on her. Shalikova had to move on from her past. She had to forgive herself as her sister would have forgiven her, and start to truly live.

And part of living was being honest with herself about what she treasured, what she desired.

This wasn’t some erratic feeling for a stranger. It was Maryam! It was different!

She could do it for Maryam!

Shalikova gathered her breath and strode through the medbay door.

Murati’s and Sameera’s beds were empty– they were both still in the hangar. She had gone ahead.

Farther down the aisle, however, a certain purple cuttlefish girl sat up in bed, humming.

Bobbing her head from side, shuffling her legs under the bedsheets, amusing herself.

She was– she was really cute– wasn’t she? Shalikova felt a fluttering in her chest.

It was as if over the past few days she had put on lenses that made her see Maryam differently.

“Oh! Sonya! Is it really you? I’m not having a medicine hallucination am I?”

Maryam put on a truly sunny smile upon seeing Shalikova enter the room.

Shalikova knew if she responded and started talking to her, that she would lose her guts.

So she strode quickly past all of the beds and up beside Maryam’s without saying a word.

Tracked unerringly by those w-shaped irises from the door all the way into her space.

“Sonya? Did I do something to make you mad–?”

At Maryam’s bedside, Shalikova bent at the waist and grabbed the sister’s shoulders.

Pulling Maryam into a clumsy kiss on the lips. Holding for a second and parting.

Looking deep into those magnificent Katarran eyes.

For Shalikova, savoring the experience of her very first kiss–

It barely felt like anything. In fact it was almost embarrassing how normal she felt about it.

Had she expected firecrackers to go off? Tongue? Her pale skin turned red as beets.

Maryam was also turning red, putting her hands up to her cheeks, swooning and giggling.

Those fins atop her head started to wiggle with delight.

“Sonya–!”

“I– I think I love you, Maryam.” Shalikova said and instantly wanted to kick herself for it.

While the two had their moment, the bearing monitors in the medbay blared a silent alarm.

Unbeknownst to the young lovers, the Brigand was dealing with a crisis yet again.


“Start moving away from it as fast as you can! Now! Right now!”

Ulyana Korabiskaya briefly stood up from her seat to punctuate the urgency of this order.

Helmsman Kamarik did not need to be told twice. The Brigand turned its prow away from Goryk’s Gorge and began to accelerate as much as it could with the damage it had previously sustained. On the main screen, amid a mass of red matter, the predictive imaging attempted to block out a “shape” for the “dreadnought” it had spotted and assigned mechanical explanations to the biological details it was seeing. Everyone on the bridge focused on their stations rather than look at the main screen.

From the electronic warfare station, Alex Geninov waved frantically at the Captain.

“Uh, ma’am, I started to clone the storage on that HELIOS thing like the hangar was asking for, and the HELIOS Information System seems to have data on that Leviathan. As soon as I started a connection to that Diver it started trying to image the Leviathan through the network. Take a look.”

“Feed it to the main screen. Let’s see what Solarflare LLC has dug up.”

Alex did just that, and after a moment to think, the predictive imager discarded the idea that the Leviathan rising out of Goryk was a known dreadnought model. Instead a fully biological classification appeared, and the picture became crystal clear as to the features of the gargantuan monster roaring to life right in front of their eyes. In the HELIOS Information System, this beast was described as a “Fortress-class” Leviathan with a unique name. It was known as “Dagon.” And there was more–

“Syzygy flagship Dagon– what the hell does that even mean? Flagship?” Ulyana said.

“Flagship implies its leading something.” Aaliyah said. “I can’t imagine this is correct.”

“I think the pictures are correct, I dunno about the description text.” Alex hesitantly added.

On the main screen the clarified image showed a creature with a long body that seemed covered in some kind of fur or fibers, black and brown. Upon its back were two sets of appendages that resembled more than anything the wings of a bird, folding on clawed joints. One pair of wings had a truly enormous span and a second, smaller pair guarded what appeared to be attached bio-hydrojets. A smaller set of these hydrojets rested on the creature’s tapering rear, where a massive dolphin-like tail stretched.

Toward the front of the creature was a small serpent-like head adorned with forward and side-facing horns, and a mouth that unhinged horribly to let out great, shrill bellows that Fatima al-Suhar described as sounding like the shrieking of a woman. She was clearly unnerved by them. As more data was fed in and more of the picture was clarified, bio-weapons could be seen, two large bio-cannons on the back and numerous remora-like “Sprayfish” class Leviathans burying into the monster’s skin like gas guns.

“It’s imitating a dreadnought?” Ulyana said. “Damn it, what on Aer is going on here?”

“Oh! Looks like my intuition was right. All of you really are still in horrible danger!”

There was an incongruously delighted voice coming from the door to the bridge.

Braya Zachikova arrived, quiet, with a sullen expression.

And she arrived with a guest.


In the middle of the near-lightless utility room, framed by the dim rays of the LEDs out in the hall, Braya Zachikova had found a woman where she had expected the corpse of a fish. Around her was a puddle of oily colorless flesh like raw leather or wet innards, sliding off her back and limbs like she was dropping a coat from her slender shoulders. That movement, the easy wet peeling of meat from off a human body, when Zachikova looked at it she felt her vision distorted, as if her brain was a predictive imager trying to make sense of something, framerate lagging, pixels out of place. An alien imitation of motion.

At first the smell of her was disgustingly fishy and salty, clinging to Zachikova’s nostrils like the flecks of oil in the puddle below, as if it would be impossible to clean the aroma out of herself. Then however it became sweet, almost floral, as the flesh further contracted and more of the creature’s new, human body appeared in its place. It stirred something inside Zachikova, something under her gut.

There was a quivering feeling, a sense of pressure or contraction in her.

Something new, never before felt.

Speechless, she took a step back, and the lights behind her shed on the woman instead.

The creature’s eyes shut for a brief moment and slowly reopened, as she adjusted to the light.

Seeing her, truly seeing her, Zachikova felt her heart stir as it had done for the dancer.

She was pale as porcelain, skin stark white except for the two thin, smooth, small, upright horns that grew from her forehead, parting her long, swept, red-streaked white bangs. Her eyes were no longer lilac but gold irises on black sclera, reflecting nothing, but striking Zachikova as containing a truly unfathomable intellect. Her hair, red and white, fell in waves of silk behind her back and over her shoulders.

Her pallid figure was slim, long limbed, slender, lithe, every adjective that could come to Zachikova’s mind as her eyes followed the smooth, gentle curve of her round shoulders, crested the hill of her breasts, followed her flat belly and the slight, firm roundness of her hips. From her hips, calves, and forearms, thin white and red fins grew sleek, diaphanous and moist. They resembled the koi fish-like profile that had so enamored Zachikova. Her slender, long fingers looked temptingly soft as the features of her face. Curled behind her was a white tail that could reach to the floor, parting at the end like a dolphin’s or whale’s.

For Zachikova, who had rarely felt physical attraction, looking at this woman sent jolts of titillating electricity into her core, over the tips of her own fingers and to the ends of her own breasts.

“Braya.”

She spoke her name, cooing it softly.

It felt as if there were flesh in her metal ears for that voice to caress.

“Braya. Do you like this form? I wanted to enter the next phase of our courtship.”

Zachikova couldn’t respond to that. She couldn’t master herself enough to speak.

When she had found something aesthetically pleasing in the past, it had often been a design, a machine, or a clever bit of software. She had felt a sense of titillation toward such things in the past on rare occasions, but she knew it was incongruous and ignored it. People had hardly ever interested her, and when she felt that she became taken with her Dancer she knew intellectually that physical affection from it, true skin to skin affection, was something impossible. But it was no more impossible to her than having sex with Semyonova, Geninov, Murati or any human person she had ever felt even the vaguest physical attraction towards. Physical and social permissibility were no different to a heart as closed shut as hers.

In short: to her she it was equally impossible to fuck machines, fish, or people.

So it never mattered. It shouldn’t have mattered. She had been happy to love her Dancer from afar.

To acknowledge her as a superlative design, and feel happy as a witness.

Knowing there was a gap in their species did not blunt her appreciation.

Now however it was as if hormones that had been repressed for decades flowed heedless.

Now– it was permissible. It was permissible to think– in physical terms–

Her imagination could scarcely handle the feelings flooding in.

She thought initially that it had to be the smell– it was enchanting her somehow.

Pheromones. Like an animal– it’s got pheromones– the sweat, the sebum, it attracts me–

“Braya~”

Zachikova stood frozen still as the body in the puddle stood clumsily on her sleek, human legs.

On her soft, delicate-looking feet, balancing herself by that long, graceful tail.

There was a brief red flash in her eyes, clearly visible amid the inky black of them.

Beneath their feet the puddle of flesh stirred one final time.

Gore and guts that had peeled from the woman began to coil around her arm as if alive again and beckoned by her. Glistening grey and brown flesh thinned, dried, and blood dribbled out from it as if wrung out, all while the mass snaked as if on the creature’s fingertips. When it finally settled, she took the mass and casually spread it, having formed a white robe parted down the middle, which she draped over her shoulders, wearing it in a way that her breasts and everything else was still exposed.

At her feet the puddle had turned dark red from all the blood and fluid drained from the robe.

Zachikova watched her, unblinking, as she approached to within a few steps of her.

“Braya. Braya, Braya, Braya– I love saying your name like this. Hearing it in my throat.”

She smiled, her cheeks spreading ever so softly on that smooth, immaculate face.

One hand laid upon Zachikova’s shoulder, and the second gripped her firmly on the hip.

Her touch was like pure ecstasy, being in her presence, held by her, a sweet warm feeling–

It wasn’t pheromones. Zachikova wanted this. Her heart pounded and not out of fear.

Everything that she thought it would feel like, to touch, to be held, to be enveloped in the flesh of another close enough to feel her heartbeat through the touch. This really was her– it really was the Leviathan who had enamored her with its graceful dance. Had she been human all along or had by some miracle a human form been given to her Leviathan, to meet Zachikova like this? Regardless, the press of physical intimacy destroyed all other thoughts in the officer’s mind. She was starving for touch.

Rather than her fantasies of swimming in the ocean together– Dancer had come to her.

That hand laid upon her shoulder glided across, to the back of her neck.

Skin to skin, for the first time. Like a wave that touch reverberated across Zachikova’s body.

As if touching not just the skin of her neck but touching every skin, even the deepest.

“Braya~”

Taller than Zachikova, the woman guided her head to tip slightly up for her access.

While her lips drew near and pressed, touching, at first, glancing.

Zachikova felt the hand behind her press on her flesh and the hand on her hip nearly lift her.

Despite the differences in size and strength Zachikova did not wait.

Reciprocating, she pushed back onto the creature with her own needy kiss.

With ardor they locked lips again and again, lingering breaches inviting brief mutual taste.

Parting less than a millimeter for less than a second before they joined again.

At first their opens eyes were fixed together as tightly as their lips, but as if one the two shut out the light, feeling only each other in the darkness. There was a trust built between their flesh, suspended in an all-encompassing embrace. Zachikova felt her mouth parted by the creature’s tongue and gave no resistance. She felt the weight of her bear slowly down. Compliant, wanting, needy, she let the creature sit her down and let her lay atop her, tongue crawling deep as throat, slender roaming fingers. Undoing Zachikova’s pants and sliding teasingly down her lower belly, across her quivering inner thigh–

Pause–

Zachikova opened her eyes with a start. The woman had turned her head to the wall, eyes glowing red.

Her distracted long tongue retreated leaving Zachikova gasping, shuddering between breaths–

Sloshing thick fluid spilled from her once invaded lips tasting salty-sweet–

Those fingers on her thighs slackening in their grip, ending the fantasy–

What had been pure physical instinct before gave way to the squeamishness of intellect. Realizing there was a woman on top of her of unknown provenance whose fingers were just about to go inside her, whose tongue she had tasted to her throat, Zachikova crawled out from under her in a sudden panic. Everything felt suddenly irrational, though not wholly unwanted– she could no longer lose herself to the longing flesh having been given time to think, and made herself deny the pleasure then.

She retreated back to the unemotional logic that governed her mind.

And away from the intoxicating taste of another body–

“Who are you? I’ll sound the alarm!” Zachikova said.

Pulling her pants up, she put her back to a wall and her hand over a red emergency button.

The creature’s fluids still trailed from Zachikova’s own lips. She had to brush it off.

Her flight triggered no chase. Her counterpart was serene in tone.

An unconcerned, gentle smile adorned the face of the creature as she stood back up.

“Of course you know who I am, Braya.”

“Quit being coy!”

Something distracted her again– the creature kept looking to the wall.

“Oh Braya. Well. I’m afraid that this vessel is not out of danger. We should sort that out first.”

“Do I need to either repeat what I said, or push this button?”

At this, the creature pouted. That expression– Zachikova’s loins stirred again.

She was so beautiful– so beautiful, with an alien eroticism to her every movement.

No, calm down– quit acting so stupid, Braya Zachikova!

“Oh dear, my little Braya– ah, well. I should have known you’d be a little closed minded at first. That’s fine then. We can start over from the beginning. You’re worth it to me.” The creature took the makeshift robe which she had put over her shoulders, and slipped her arms in the sleeves, fastening it around her hips, such that it split tantalizingly just above the knees. Zachikova tried not to stare at her.

“Give me a name or I’ll have security sort you out.” Zachikova threatened.

“You can call me Arbitrator One.” She said. “We write the number in the ancient tally.”

So it was actually written as Arbitrator I, but it was not pronounced that way.

“What kind of a name is that? It’s more like a made-up title isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

“No, it’s my name. But if you want, you and you alone can call me Arabella.”

“You’re Arbitrator I then.” Zachikova said. Trying to make herself be cold to her. To reject her.

It almost hurt. She– she wanted to treat this creature lovingly. It was irrational! She had to resist it.

Braya Zachikova was a machine. She couldn’t let herself act so foolish around this thing.

“Braya, I’m a bit disappointed.” Arbitrator I put her hands behind her back and leaned forward, her eyes narrowed, giving Zachikova a petty, hurt look. “I thought you of all people would understand me.”

“Are you the Dancer?” Zachikova said. Then she realized suddenly– would she even know that name? And before Arbitrator I could respond, clarified. “The Leviathan that– that died in the Gorge–”

“That was a part of me. I am as much exclusively it as you are only the last skin you shed.”

Her eyes lit up again and she started to look around the room again with a sudden urgency.

“It’s really surfaced.” She said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Braya, you’re all in danger. Please believe me.”

She kept repeating that. Was it true?

Then again–

At this point it hardly mattered. Zachikova felt a stab of anxiety. She had to report this– all of this.

The Captain would have to sort it out. Whether Arbitrator I was lying or not.

Zachikova lifted her hand from the emergency alarm, feeling dazed by everything that happened.

“Braya, you need to navigate this vessel away from here.” Arbitrator I insisted.

“Away to where?” Zachikova said, sighing as she humored her.

“Hmm. Preferably we’d go that way.” Arbitrator I pointed her hand straight up.


At this point, in this particular day, the bridge officers on the Brigand had seen enough people come in and make mysterious pronouncements that the moment Zachikova came through the door with her mystery guest, everyone had already made time in their busy schedules to stare at her. However, the last few people that had come in, like “Euphemia Rontgen” and “Elena” were ordinary-looking folks.

Even for a Katarran (they assumed) this new entrant was particular.

Bare-foot, wearing a tight white robe, overlong red and white hair– and those horns!

Those eyes— then again, Maryam Karahailos had strange eyes too.

However, the most salient thing for the officers was where this woman had come from.

Everyone had formally been told of the Solarflare LLC employees, and of Maryam and Marina.

“Zachikova, who is this woman? Where did she come from? Why is she on the bridge?”

Ulyana Korabiskaya was firm but not necessarily adamant.

A lot had happened that day. For the moment she was in a fey mood in which she believed she was ready for anything. Come what may! She was rolling with the punches. Her scientist guests lying about their names and what was in their crates? Fine. Marina had fooled them all into escorting the Imperial Princess this whole time? Sure. She had always expected Marina to be lying, though not with such grandiosity. An enormous Leviathan was bursting out of the Goryk Abyss? Why not, at this point. Bring it on.

She did not want to admit it, but this was a nascent panic beginning to snake through her brain.

“She came from– Um–” Zachikova paused. She raised a hand to her lips. Her face was a bit more expressive than usual, in that her brow was ever so slightly furrowed. She then proceeded to speak, after gathering her thoughts, unsmiling and with a neutral gaze. “She came from outside the ship.”

“From outside the ship? From the open ocean? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

Zachikova made no expression. Ulyana narrowed her eyes. The mystery woman smiled.

“Did the Antenora fire a boarding torpedo at us?” Ulyana said.

“We’d know if that had happened.” Aaliyah interjected, listening to the whole exchange.

“Was she a stowaway with Solarflare LLC’s cargo?” Ulyana asked Zachikova.

“No.” Zachikova said. Ulyana crossed her arms with exasperation.

“Then did she crawl through the vents? What the hell is going on?”

Aaliyah groaned and put her head against the computer terminal arm on her seat.

Ulyana’s brain had briefly pored over the realistic possibilities. None of it made sense.

Zachikova seemed unable to say anything but, “She really came from outside the ship.”

So Ulyana then turned to the mystery woman herself. “Okay, you, identify yourself now.”

“I am Arbitrator One, written with ‘I’. I come from the people known as the Omenseers.”

That woman crossed one arm over her chest and performed a short bow, smiling.

“I’ve been contending with liars all day, so forgive me, but– No, you’re not!” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I shrugged with her palms up. “Then you may call me Arabella then, I suppose.”

“Don’t call her that.” Zachikova said suddenly. “That’s– That’s clearly the fake one.”

“Aww. Little Braya is jealous– you’re right, that name is only for Braya.” Arbitrator I said.

Zachikova turned sharply to her. “Knock that shit off, they’ll misunderstand!”

Ulyana stared at Zachikova then at Arbitrator I in turn. One flustered, the other grinning.

In her mind she ran through the things she knew about Zachikova.

And the things she knew about the present situation.

Something was connecting, but she didn’t want it to connect.

Because it was too absurd. It was a desperate bit of pattern recognition and nothing more.

Last time she saw Zachikova she had run out after her pet Leviathan had sacrificed itself to save them. Ulyana had heard reports from the sailors of Zachikova running across the hangar to the utility chute near the rearmost part of the ship’s habitable pods. That was where she had recalled her drone to after the previous events. Ulyana, at the time, figured that Zachikova was in a vulnerable state and that she wanted to collect a final memento of the creature from the drone. Now she was on the bridge with–

Now–

Zachikova was here on the bridge– with a mysterious woman who–

–who looked a little bit like if someone was trying to cosplay that Leviathan,

and was saying weird things and had come out of nowhere

Oh no no no no no Absolutely no Absolutely no That is completely insane

“I’m–” Ulyana had an involuntary twitch. “I’m going to ask again and I want a rational answer.”

“Esteemed Captain,” Arbitrator I performed another little bow and raised her voice as if speaking to an audience. “This vessel is in grave danger, from which you may not be able to escape without my particular expertise. I implore you to defer the matter of my identity at least temporarily until such a time as Braya– and of course other hominins aboard– are safe from Dagon’s emergence out of Agartha.”

Ulyana only heard one word of that. “Did you say ‘Dagon’? Did I hear you correctly?”

“Indeed, that is the name of the creature.” Arbitrator I said.

“Then you’re with Solarflare LLC! Quit making up ridiculous–”

“Uhh, Captain! That big guy is doing something!” Alex Geninov shouted.

On the main screen, a Radiation warning suddenly appeared.

They had been scanned by LADAR, the sensors detected the lasers. This was shortly followed by the sensors detecting that a sonar pulse had bounced off the hull. And then another– Fatima al-Suhar withdrew from her ears her headphones, rubbing the sides of her head in pain. She must have heard the pulse, but she was too dazed– Ulyana realized that all the roaring may have been bio-sonar pulses.

That LADAR warning could not have come from the Antenora either.

Both ships had gone their own ways and the Antenora knew the Brigand’s position already.

“Fatima, are you alright?” Ulyana asked.

“That noise felt a knife cutting across my skull.” Fatima replied, nearly weeping.

Ulyana was speechless. She felt pure anxiety vibrating between her skin and flesh.

“Have you heard any technological noises since the Antenora fled?” She asked.

“It couldn’t have been technological.” Fatima said. “It had to be biological, Captain.”

There was no denying the terrible hypothesis in the back of her mind.

“Take a rest. You’ve done more than enough today.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you Captain. I’m very sorry. I should be stronger–”

“Don’t worry. Please just take care of yourself.”

Fatima nodded her head and leaned back on the padding of her chair, gently sobbing.

Ulyana trusted her. There really were no mechanical ships being caught on their sonar.

So that LADAR had to have come from the Leviathan. It really was an imitation battleship.

Leviathans were much faster than ships. This creature had seen them. Would it give chase?

And if it gave chase could they escape it? Could they fight it off in their current state?

On the main screen, the creature looked to still be extricating its bulk from the Gorge.

They still had some time to react, but how much? How vehemently would it attack?

Ulyana called on Semyonova, on the station adjacent to the despondent Fatima.

“Have Maharapratham called to the bridge right away. She needs to see this.” She said.

Semyonova nodded and began to work on her task when she was interrupted.

A pale white hand gently patted her shoulder as if to say that wouldn’t be necessary.

“Have you perhaps a clearer picture of the danger you are in?”

Arbitrator I chimed in again, reminding Ulyana and the officers of her presence once more.

“Captain, I can tell from your aura, you have acknowledged an idea of what I am. It disgusts you, but it’s the only explanation that makes sense, isn’t it? For now, we can leave it at that– I am indeed the Leviathan that was outside. I am friendly– I want nothing more than to save this vessel. Right now, understanding the situation won’t save you. You will have to trust me and verify later.”

Those eyes of hers, yellow on black like a beast. Even Katarrans didn’t have eyes like that.

Meeting those eyes and the depth of their alien intellect, Ulyana felt her heart quaver.

Then as Ulyana’s own ordinary eyes locked deep with Arbitrator I’s exotic eyes–

The latter’s, in a blink, became ordinary green irises on white sclera just like her own.

She had changed them– right? She had transformed them. They weren’t like that before.

Was she seeing things now? Ulyana relented. She wasn’t equipped to tackle this now.

“Aaliyah, are you okay with adding this to the pile of interrogations we need to do?”

“At this point, I don’t think we have a choice.” Aaliyah replied.

On the main screen, there was a sudden gust of red biomass from the gorge.

As with a flap of its “wings” the massive Dagon finally emerged fully into open water.

They were uncomfortably close to the Gorge and therefore to the creature.

The Captain tried not to show it but her breathing was accelerating heavily.

She felt a pressure so powerful that it was crushing her against her seat.

Watching that lumbering creature begin to move, and begin to turn–

Was she going to lose this ship and the lives of everyone in it, like the Pravda?

Ulyana’s voice caught in her throat. Her chest heaved, her skin felt tense over her flesh.

Her head filled with hazy thoughts of flooding, electrical fires, gorey images of the injured swimming in and out of her vision. Reaching for them, unable to take their hands and save them. Surrounded by the bodies. Would it happen again? Was she destined to lose everything again? Her own life was meaningless to her in that instant. She thought of her crew– what would happen to them? The events of the past few weeks sped through her mind like a blur, could she have done anything, anything at all to forestall this?

Could she do anything now? She was practically choking.

“It’s unmistakable now! It’s bearing right toward us!” Semyonova shouted.

Ulyana felt a stone sinking down her throat and landing heavy in her stomach.

Despite their vaunted position there was nothing a Captain could do but give orders.

They weren’t the heroes– they sent people to their deaths. She was nothing without this crew. This magnificent crew had already done so much, proved themselves so extraordinary while against horrific odds and in less-than-ideal circumstances. Despite their eccentricities, despite their differences, they had survived to this point even as things always seemed to crumble around them.

Ulyana esteemed them dearly. She would give anything to protect them.

Now however she felt like any order she could give would be suicidal.

Where could they run? How could they fight? She had no directions to give.

Every choice available felt like it would lead to their deaths.

I couldn’t redeem myself Nagavanshi. I’m still useless. I’m still powerless.

Staring at that monster on the main screen, she felt like there was nothing she could do–

“Captain.”

She felt a hand caress her shoulder and pat on her back, coming from beside her.

Ulyana glanced at her Commissar, Aaliyah, her ears erect and tail swaying gently.

Her orange eyes fixed Ulyana’s own in a way that sent a tremor into her chest.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I haven’t seen you pull off miracle after miracle just to give up now.”

“Aaliyah–”

“We can talk later. Right now, they need the Captain to be decisive. Take a leap, however insane; I’ll follow you, no matter what it is. I trust you. You’ve more than won that trust. We can interrogate all that happened, and all that we did right or wrong, after the fact. You’re not alone; I won’t let you be.”

Ulyana looked into Aaliyah’s unwavering eyes feeling foolish for her lapse in strength.

For everyone’s sake couldn’t let this become like the Pravda. So she had no other choice.

She let go of her trepidation. When it came down to it, she only had one asset remaining.

“‘Arbitrator I’, you clearly are tied into this, so tell me how we can escape.” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I stared at the main screen with those newly green eyes, smiling contentedly.

As if knowing that her time had come. She gestured her white hands to the main screen.

“Dagon is still immature. I believe its juvenile body will not allow it to rise without being damaged by the changes in water pressure. It needs the deep water to support itself.” She said matter-of-factly, with mysterious confidence. “Therefore, we can escape by going up, Captain.” With that same odd cheerfulness to her pallid expression, she pointed her index up at the ceiling.

Zachikova blinked incredulously at this.

“She mentioned this to me before, but I thought it was nonsense.” Zachikova said.

It was true that the body plans of deep sea fish meant that their flesh and organs could collapse in lower pressure water if they ascended to the photic zone, something that the Brigand as a pressurized steel vessel did not have to contend with. That would potentially prevent Dagon from pursuing if the Brigand performed a “rapid blowout” ascent. However, even if it was true that Dagon was not equipped to rise up the water table, there was nothing waiting for them in the sunlit ocean but more death.

Arbitrator I smiled as if she knew what Ulyana was worried about.

“I can keep the vessel safe from wild Leviathans. I can do nothing against Dagon.” She said.

There was no time. Ulyana had to be decisive. She had to trust this ‘Arbitrator I’ figure.

They only had one choice. They could not possibly stay and fight Dagon in their condition.

And so it was– like in the legends, like in fables told to scare and fascinate children.

To survive, they would have to make myth reality and ascend to the surface waters.

“Helmsman, blow all the ballast water! Angle fins for rapid ascent!” Ulyana declared.

Everyone on the bridge, even the gas gunners two tiers below the Captain, turned their heads over to stare at her as if they couldn’t understand. In response, Ulyana stood from her seat aiming a hand at the main screen with a flourish. “Quit tarrying! Prepare to ascend the photic zone!” For most people, heading surfaceward was an insane endeavor– but on the main screen, there was an even more insane sight, the hulking Dagon looming nearer and nearer, and appearing large and larger than their ship.

Helmsman Kamarik looked back at Ulyana from his station, first surprised then unnerved.

“Captain I– I gotta confess, I’ve never even simulated a rapid ascent.” He said.

“I’ve read about the process.” Ulyana said. She struggled not to stutter or get tongue-tied.

“Well. Okay. You’re the boss. I guess I’ll get the ballast going then.” Kamarik said.

He spoke almost as if in the form of a question but began the process.

As part of their mobility options, ships, whether Imperial or Union, had a suite of control surfaces on the exterior, particularly the main fins and the mast/conning tower fins, and internally, they had ballast tanks to control mass and density at different parts of the ship. Ballast tanks were filled with water that could be pumped into and out of the water system. The amount of water ballast could be reduced by filling them with air from vents to make the ship float more, or increased for negative buoyancy.

Truly expert helmsmen used all of these elements to their advantage for combat maneuvering.

Ascent was normal for ships — naval combat was three dimensional.

Those same mechanisms that could be used to move up and down in a controlled fashion within the aphotic waters could be used for an extreme ascent into the photic zone, the forbidden realm of sunlit ocean beyond the upper scattering layer. Nothing physically prevented them from doing so. There was less pressure in the photic zone, so it was even mechanically safer to operate there. However, the presence of corrupted weather and Leviathans made it a fool’s errand. Only a scant few rapid ascents had ever been performed by Union ships, and it was something that was useless to teach to new crews.

“Helmsman, the only tricky part will be stopping our ascent short of the surface.”

Once the ballast was blown and the ship started climbing rapidly, the water system would be strained.

In order to stop themselves quickly to prevent breaching the surface and exposing the ship to the full extent of the Corruption, they would have to dump water back into the ballast tanks and level out.

Cutters and most civilian vessels did not have internal water systems strong enough to refill the tanks in the middle of an ascension, so they never blew their tanks. Anything Frigate size or larger could do it provided there was water in the system ready to route into the tanks. Ulyana knew, theoretically, that even if water collection was compromised during the ascent, there was always enough water in one place: the reactor cooling. It could be routed into ballast temporarily, leaving the reactor to run hot for a time.

“At 150 depth, we should be able to level out if we pump heavy water into the tanks.” Ulyana said.

Helmsman Kamarik whistled admiringly. “Ma’am, this is fuckin’ crazy. But here it goes.”

“Semyonova, relay to the hangar!” Aaliyah said. “Tell everyone to secure tools, now.”

“Um, yes!”

Semyonova quickly broadcast to the ship– but she had maybe twenty or thirty seconds.

Not nearly enough time to warn everyone–

“Alright, here goes nothing!” Kamarik said. “Blowing the ballast and angling up!”

At first there was a periodic vibration, that traveled from the ship into the bodies within.

As the ballast water blasted out of its hatches and the ship tilted it became a quake.

Rumbling that presaged the beginning of a mythical flight.

Parvati Nagavanshi had been right. Ulyana could either become the greatest Captain the Union had ever seen, or a washed up nobody, reaper of ships, a death-omen if she even survived the madness she had been thrust into. She thought she had come to terms with the last crazy task she had to confront and then there would suddenly be a new, even more startling development to test her resolve.

This time, it wouldn’t be like the Pravda. They couldn’t be any more different.

She watched the main screen as the monster called Dagon left their sight.

Grabbing hold of her chair as the ship angled almost 40 degrees toward the firmament.

Shooting up faster and faster, rattling and shaking, the main computer blaring statuses.

Turbines and pumps and air vents in the water system struggled and cried out for aid.

Already damaged electrical systems reported sporadic failures with lights, circulators, network boards.

Every officer grabbed hold as best they could as the ship climbed.

Arbitrator I seized Zachikova into an embrace and held on to the post of Semyonova’s chair with her tail. Geninov, Fatima, and the rest grabbed on to their chairs which were bolted to the ground. Helmsman Kamarik struggled between holding on for life and limb and continuing to operate his station. As the Brigand tilted to an ever more violent angle and picked up speed, anything freestanding on the officer’s stations like half-empty cups of coffee or broth or cans of protein stew went flying to the back of the bridge, spilling and rattling. Every human body threatened to fly to the back as well.

It was a spectacular insanity. Nobody was prepared for this. Nobody could prepare for it.

Ulyana went from being almost sick with nerves to grinning at the sheer chaos of it.

She felt as if the judgment of God was being cast upon her. Her sins weighed like the ballast.

And despite everything, she had blown them out to begin her climb to paradise.

Having surmounted so much danger, staring the sky in the face, it led Ulyana to finally realize: the Pravda had not been her own fault. She had made no decisions as the Captain of the Pravda, she had no agency in the midst of the disaster. She was a victim. She was in command of a test voyage and the ship’s guts failed that test. It was not like the decision to fight back against the Iron Lady, to charge into Norn’s claws, to trust Elena Lettiere, or now, the decision to follow Arbitrator I, a being who had appeared and spoken mere sentences before suggesting that they ascend the heavens to escape their fate.

Those were pivotal moments where she had affected the lives of her crew.

As Captain of the Brigand, Ulyana had made several choices, pored over, and reasoned to the best of her ability, with all the information at her disposal at the time she made those choices. She gave orders, oversaw plans and organization. People, and the ship, moved as she commanded. On the Brigand, she had been responsible for the lives of many. It was not so when the Pravda met its demise.

That had been a tragedy, a wound in history which she was truly helpless to forestall.

And by contrast, on the Brigand, Ulyana was not helpless or hopeless. She had agency.

She was exercising the power and judgment she had to the best of her ability.

As the ship became free of its water weight and rose, Ulyana shed her own burdens.

No regrets. At every turn, I’ve done the best I could. Thank you, Aaliyah.

With one hand holding onto her chair, Ulyana stretched out the other.

Around Aaliyah Bashara’s shoulder, as the commissar struggled to hold on as well.

“Are you ready to follow me into hell, Commissar?” She cried out, over the rumbling and rattling.

“Always, Captain!” Aaliyah shouted as well.

On the cameras, the red waters were quickly left behind.

Katov biomass readings plummeted, and the water turned from red to black to blue.

Dagon had vanished, and the sight in front of them was a thick cloud of organisms.

“Crossing the upper scattering layer!” Kamarik shouted. “Hold on, baby, hold on!”

Sensing the advance of the ship the teeming mass of pelagic fish and the ordinary predators that thrived on them spread open suddenly as if forming among them a door. A biological gate to the heaven that was barred to humanity, and there were less than seconds of recognition of this grand feat and what it signified as the Brigand hurtled through the 100 meter strata of marine life at immense speed.

“400 depth– and climbing!” Geninov cried out in mixed awe and terror.

On their cameras the surroundings were beautiful and alien.

Blue water all around them. They could see— the water was streaked with light.

Directly above was God, white disk adorned with grand rays. 400 meters, 300 meters–

Beams of light shooting eerily into the water. It was the corrupted surface directly above.

Mere hundreds of meters away. Closing in. Humanity’s forbidden, fallen holy land.

Sinners who had been cast from heaven now leaped toward the firmament.

“Pump the reactor cooling water into the tanks! Level us out now! Right now!”

Against the force of the water the Brigand’s fins returned to their horizontal, level plane.

Through a herculean effort of every available mechanism the reactor cooling pods drained heavy water into the ballast tanks at maximum pump. Red alerts screeched as various components strained under the pressure, turbines grinding, pumps screaming. There was compounding damage everywhere–

“She’ll make it! She’ll make it!” Kamarik yelled.

Ulyana held on to hope as the ship struggled, shaking itself apart.

At her side, Aaliyah threw her own arm around the Captain, clinging tight to her.

With her at my side– we won’t fail.

Judged–

–and found worthy.

Directly below the sun disk, body of God, the Brigand leveled out, avoiding the surface.

A mere 50 meters below the edge of their world.

On the bridge, the officers nearly stumbled out of their chairs, having been leaning to keep themselves level while the ship had been tilted and now finding themselves in obscene angles with the ship righted. All the cans and cups rattled one more time. One final quake spread through the ship that rumbled right into Ulyana’s chest as they stabilized. On the main screen there was bright, blue ocean all around them.

Final labored breaths shook the terror out of their chests. They were– they were safe?

“Damage report.” Ulyana said, exhibiting a slight trepidation.

“We might have some leaky pipes and a few pumps to replace.” Kamarik said.

“We have electrical damage basically everywhere. Core’s heating up.” Geninov added.

“The hangar’s a mess. Tools everywhere.” Semyonova moaned. “A few injuries. No deaths.”

Subhaan Allah.” Fatima said, holding a hand against her breast and breathing deep.

Ulyana laid a hand over her face. What a mess. “At least we’re alive. Kamarik, get us down to 200 or 300 depth again. Take it slow and start phasing out the heavy water from the system and refilling with sea water. Prioritize refilling the core, even if we have to move at one knot or stay still. Semyonova, tell everyone not to use the faucets or anything right now, it’s going to be full of agarthic salt if they do. God, what a mess. Everyone run checks on your own systems. Are all the sensors still up? We need to plan repairs too. Get Lebedova on it if she isn’t. If she needs additional manpower the pilots can help.”

It was a lot easier to resume the act of being Captain than to take in what had happened.

At his station, however, Kamarik was smiling placidly, leaning back on his chair.

“Something wrong?” Ulyana asked, near breathless from everything that had transpired.

Kamarik shook his head. “No, just taking this whole shit in. We’re naval legends now, Captain.”

He ran his hand over his station screen like he was comforting it. “This dame really did it.”

“We’re gonna be dead legends soon!” Geninov shouted from Zachikova’s station.

Dozens of red flashes appeared on the main screen, target boxes around incoming objects.

Leviathans. Sprayfish class, Barding class, Greathorn class– leviathans of all sizes.

Great maws, long bodies, numerous jets, bio-cannons. All kinds of body plans.

They had detected the Brigand and were approaching, cautiously, curiously, in numbers.

“We traded a big one for every fucking little one in a ten kilometer radius!” Geninov cried.

Ulyana shut her eyes and drew in a breath. She tried not to panic. It was another moment.

One of many that would characterize their journey from here. All she could do was face it.

“You said you would handle this? Show me you aren’t a fraud then– or die with us.”

She turned a glare on Arbitrator I, who seemed perfectly calm with the situation.

Letting go of Zachikova, whom she had been tenderly embracing during the ascent.

She walked forward, between all the stations on the middle tier, just below the Captain.

“Of course. Please observe. I am who I say I am. And with this, I seal an oath to this vessel.”

On the main screen the pack of Leviathans approached, circling, spiraling, hurtling forth–

Arbitrator I raised her hand to the main screen, eyes glowing with red rings.

“Raise not your arms against the master of Lemuria and chosen of Shalash. Omensight.”

Ulyana felt something stir. Something that made the tiniest hairs on her skin stand on end.

In front of her Arbitrator I glowed for a split second with a myriad of colors.

It could’ve been the lights, or it could’ve been Ulyana’s own exhaustion.

These brief explanations could encompass none of what happening, however.

At her command (at her command?), the Leviathans drawing visibly nearer to the Brigand were given sudden pause, those with fish-like bodies hovering briefly in place before turning away, those with serpentine bodies directing their snaking masses in directions away from the Brigand and coiling at a distance. Those with whale-like bodies that could not easily turn their bulk dove deep to swim beneath the Brigand, unable to swim over due to the proximity to the surface. That teeming mass of life which they had attracted crossed past them and dispersed. Ahead of them the ocean became clear again.

Clear of the Leviathans, but in their place, the sunlit world was still filled with life.

With the danger passed, the main screen filled with the beauty of paradise.

White rays of sunlight penetrated the water’s surface and illuminated schools of small fish swimming in their thousands. Jellyfish with surfaces cycling through the colors of natural rainbows rose and fell in their natural diligence. Larger fish preyed on the small as if nothing had disturbed their hidden world. Those Leviathans went from being threats to rejoining nature, navigating with their own majesty amid the ordinary creatures. In contact with the light, and separated from the benthic world of humanity, nature flourished in the photic zone. Ulyana watched this serene landscape, with quiet reverence, as if still counting the seconds of life that she had left in the face of a danger now, finally, abated.

A collective sigh reverberated across the bridge. They were finally safe.

They had survived.

Exhausted officers put their heads on their station desks, deflating after the danger washed over them. Geninov was loudly sobbing. Fatima and Semyonova openly crying. Kamarik repeatedly tapped his fist on the wall near him. Fernanda stood up from her station and bowed her head over it, shifting her feet as if to keep from kicking. Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah’s ears and tail drooped so low they might have fallen off.

In place of the adrenaline and the blood boiling stalwartly in her veins, Ulyana felt a sharp stab of pain in the middle of her forehead. She hardly felt a migraine like this since she stopped drinking herself drunk. Life had stopped moving second by labored second, but she still felt the inertia brimming inside her. All of it was over, finally over. No enemies on their sensors. Just them, alone, and the open sea.

Her crew could rest. A Captain’s work was never done, however.

“Hey,”

Leaning back for comfort, calmly breathing, Ulyana fixed her attention back on Arbitrator I.

“What was all that shit you just said? Explain what the hell just happened. Right now.”

She jabbed an accusing finger at the pale woman below.

Arbitrator I beamed, bobbing her head from side to side with her hands behind her back.

“It was just the incantation to my magic spell!” She declared cheerfully.

Beside the Captain’s chair, Zachikova raised both of her hands to her face, groaning.

Ulyana felt a familiar gentle pat on the shoulder.

“We’ll save it for the interrogation, Captain.”

At her side, Aaliyah Bashare smiled, relieved and cheerful, while comforting Ulyana.

Her face might as well have glowed for how beautiful it looked at that moment.

“To hell and back again, Captain. Or I couldn’t call myself your Commissar.” She said.

Ulyana returned the smile gratefully. “You have no idea how much that means to me, Aaliyah.”

While the ship slowly got underway again, the two of them fixed gentle eyes on one another.

So it went.

For the first time in what felt like forever, the Brigand was free from external, violent threats.

It would take time for Ulyana to feel safe about everything she had learned today, however.

Their horizon was filled with fog and smoke. But they could do nothing but go forth through it.

For the next leg of their journey, the Brigand’s path would be lit by the sun itself.

An even grander journey awaited them. At least Ulyana would not have to command it alone.


Within the roiling red cloud that had burst from Goryk’s Abyss lumbered a great tyrant of the seas.

Rising out of a wound in the earth, roaring its entrance into the world of “human civilization.”

Avoiding its strength, the humans which had borne witness to its rise fled in every direction.

Its name was Dagon. With six eyes on its head and several across its body, the monster watched the machine it had sought to pursue shoot skyward at a bewildering pace. In itself, the beast scarcely understood what it was seeing or what had happened– but deep within the pressurized cavities of the monster there were symbiotic intelligences that understood what had transpired. They guided the creature to resume its flight within the shadowed wilderness of what was known as “Sverland.”

These intelligences did not answer to the beast, however, nor did the beast truly answer to them.

Both Dagon and its navigators bowed before the authority of the being Dagon was born to protect.

“We were tracking a ship, weren’t we? How come nobody’s updated me on it?”

Her voice reverberated across the interior of Dagon’s cerebral pod, stirring semi-transparent teal-blue organelles on the surrounding walls, like sinewy boils in which humanoid bodies could be seen to float, suspended in a film of dimly glowing gel, and affixed by their slender, pale necks to great bundles of nerves and arteries. Moisture glistened on the leather-pink surfaces which hardened black at the edges of the organelles. They shuddered with understanding of her requests and spoke silently to her.

Numbers and coordinates and data filtered into her mind from the minds surrounding her.

“Huh? You all let it get away? Why? There was no reason to engage it? Putting those vile excuses for homo sapiens in their place is good enough for me. It would have taken us no effort to crush them utterly, no? What do you mean? What do you mean it would have been dangerous?”

She developed an angry twitch as she conversed verbally with beings speaking mentally.

“Autarch, the vessel rose to the surface. It was a powerful vessel. We did not engage in pursuit.”

“I know. Navigation told me. But thank you for appearing, Enforcer II, to take the blame.”

In the middle of the womb-like cavity rose a black, crab-legged armored throne upon which sat the exalted Autarch of the Omenseers, known as Arbitrator II. Her current body was still immature, a slender pale figure with red hair longer than herself and a single curled horn on the side of her head. Dressed in a white robe bedecked with biologically luminescent cuticles, a tail twice her size curling around her throne.

At her feet, a pale woman with wavy brown hair kneeled. She had arrived from a sphincter leading down into the lower womb, within which prepared combat bodies were maintained. Her white and black dress had a trim of brown fibers and colored algae and flattered her mature figure. If at present the Autarch appeared like an older teen or younger adult, the creature before her was a middle aged woman.

“Autarch,” Enforcer II began, “Forgive me for the miscalculation, but I’m afraid Dagon is not yet mature enough to rise any further. It was grown in the Agartha, and its body is still soft. It must adapt to the waters of the homo sapiens and must then adapt to the waters farther above. It will take time.”

Arbitrator II rolled her eyes. “Okay but why didn’t we fire at the ship? How mature are the weapons?”

“I’m afraid the bio-cannons have only reached 40% maturity. Missiles are at 50%. Forgive me, milord.”

The Autarch’s voice became slower, deeper, evident of her displeasure. “Hold out your arm. Right now.”

Enforcer II quietly and dutifully outstretched her arm. Arbitrator II did not even move in her seat.

In a split second arm fell from elbow with a violent, bloody discharge as if sliced off.

Blood sprayed in a streak over Enforcer II’s beautiful features. She grimaced, enduring the pain.

On the ground, the severed arm rolled down the pod before the floor itself opened to consume it.

Absorbing the flesh into the surroundings such that it could not be recovered.

“While you reflect upon your gross miscalculations you can restore your arm bit by bit. Dismissed.”

Enforcer II mustered a pained smile and bowed to Arbitrator II, arm still bleeding.

Arbitrator II laid back, sighing. “Oh well. No matter. For now, I’ll just savor the journey.”

Gazing around the kingdom in miniature from which she would survey the “human” world.

Grinning with self-satisfaction. Soon, she knew. Soon, the time of the Syzygy would be upon them.

Dagon glided over the ocean surface, beginning its path through the fringes of human existence.

A great shadow of once-dormant secrets now probing out from within the depths of Aer.

Arbitrator II drummed fingers on her cheek. Idly recalling visions of her previous selves.

She had airy glimpses, passing feelings, of a great history to which she was a crucial part.

“Why hurry, after all? Let’s toy with them a bit. The Titan of Aether has an unchangeable destiny.”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.14]

Sitting in a corner of a room she never left.

Alone.

Everything was dim. Her stomach was rumbling. She hardly understood why.

She hadn’t the words, at first, to ask why she was trapped here.

Trapped in a hole in the rock in a pit that led straight to hell.

“Princess.”

They called her that– a word meant to evoke the legacy she had been bequeathed.

Those who called themselves her servants waited on her and bowed their respect.

But she was small, grey, skinny, and hungry. Her tail was the biggest part of her.

Spending her days huddled in the dark in pain, waiting miserably for food or drink.

When she ate, it was bony fish, vent worms.

Things that had no taste to her but staved off the pain of hunger.

Until one day, a traveler fed her bread.

Then the fish, the worms– they disgusted her. Even eating became painful.

“You can call me Ganges. I come from very far away. I wanted to see you.”

She came and she left hardly remembered– and the world was dimmer for it.

Astra–

Her name when she wasn’t “Princess” was Astra Palaiologos.

And every time the outside world intruded on the prison in which she was kept, it brought with it nothing but pain. Because it was so grand, so vast, everything in it so magnificent in scale that it made the dim, deep hole into which she was cast, 3000 meters below, the surface, all the darker, all the more meagre. She wished she had never tasted bread, never learned of the world outside the abyss, never learned of outsiders and the Empire from which they hailed, never learned of the Kingdom of Katarre that should have been hers, but which was taken. Never learned that all her useless retainers had failed to save her parents and brought her here to hide until she died. Never learned about duty, fealty, responsibility.

Never learned that, perhaps, she was created in a way where she might not ever die. That perhaps, this experience of life would last forever.

She wished she had never learned–

“You’re a very special girl. I hope that you can live in peace, Astra.” Ganges had said.

Astra looked up at her with dim eyes that saw only enough light not to go totally blind.

She reached her hands out to touch, desperate, weak, addled by malnutrition–

What she really wished was that Ganges would’ve never existed. That she was dead.

In a sudden fog of color that old, painful memory gave way to a new one.

A room, broad and vast, high-ceilinged, blue and green carpet streaked red.

Light had been shut out of it save for a few emergency LED flashers.

Standing at the end with a line of corpses behind her.

Before a throne, before which, a man groveled before her bloodsoaked body.

She was not Astra– she had buried that name with the rock that these men destroyed.

She loomed over Him. Blond, clean-shaved, in the prime of his life, silk-dressed, eyes wide and red with tears, on his hands the blood of a guard that had been smeared nearby and could not protect him. Upon Him the colors of his dynasty, blue and green, and the semiconductor of fate that calculated all outcomes and became the heart of industrial society. Konstantin von Fueller– Emperor of Imbria.

“Please, I beg you–”

“Be quiet.”

“A being of such miraculous power as you, surely, you have mercy in you?”

“Not for you.”

She raised a hand, and in an instant, the blood, the sweat, from all around her, congealed and crystalized in her grip as a great, jagged red and clear spear. She hefted the weapon and put the sharp end close to Konstantin’s forehead as if gauging the distance for a thrust. He stared at her, unwaveringly. He was in tears, shaking, but he looked at her, locked eyes with her, unmoving. She didn’t know whether it was a challenge, “kill me while you stare me in the eyes,” or simply a show of witless panic.

He began to speak, his voice cracking, spitting through strong sobs– and she allowed it.

“Had I the power you command, I promise you, I swear upon god and family, I would have done everything I could to prevent whatever befell you and brought you before me. I wish every day that I was a stronger man and could end the atrocities happening all around me. I know not how much you have suffered, only that we all have– but I beg you, please, allow me even a single day of life with which to right all of these wrongs. If you kill me, I can do nothing for anyone. Please, have mercy. Please.”

She scratched across his forehead with the sharp tip of the spear, drawing blood.

Blood which incorporated into the blade making its edge glint with a mirror sheen.

“You have no idea– I have already given you so many more days of life. So many.”

Her power had stopped the powerful Shimii tyrant Mehmed from annihilating Imbria.

And to what end? Killing him hadn’t ended the wars and slaughter. It had saved nobody.

All it did was liberate Mehmed’s enemies– and subject Mehmed himself to atrocity.

Those people she supposedly saved were oppressed, fearful and dying every day.

Despite the supposed authority and protection of the so-called Emperor they served.

“Then I apologize deeply; I knew not that I should reward your heroism.” Konstantin said.

He was so pathetic. A weak, helpless man trapped in this dim corner of the ocean.

Waited on hand and foot and dubbed king of a country tearing itself apart in front of him.

“Fueller,” she practically spat out the name, “why should Imbria live even one more day?”

Konstantin stared up at her. He slowly rose from his groveling and sat before her.

Legs crossed, head bowed, hands clapped as if in prayer– still begging.

“Because its people don’t deserve this era of chaos. And we can end it– we can reform it.”

“‘We’? That is a lot of people, Fueller.”

Her grip on the spear wavered just a little. Had she struck in the heat of the moment, before thinking, she would have just killed him. But now, she was thinking– would killing this man solve anything? Was it as easy as finding the right man to kill? If not Mehmed, then him? If not him then who?

Could she really revenge herself fully on this man she had never met nor seen before?

Without the violence affording her momentum– what would she do?

She had abandoned her home, her name, and the companions she had made.

“When Emperor Nocht slew my father unjustly, I acted rashly to avenge him.” Konstantin said. “I was foolish, I didn’t understand the scope of the violence I was setting in motion. I didn’t understand the truth of the challenge I issued when I killed that man. I didn’t realize that killing that man wasn’t the end of my suffering or the start of a revolution by itself. I didn’t know what it meant to revitalize this state or reform its foundations. I still don’t– but I can’t escape it now. I’ve set a great violence into motion.”

He reached out to grab the edge of the spear. It bled his palm. He held it to his head.

“If you kill me– you won’t be able to escape the pull of this vortex either.”

She gritted her teeth. Frustrated– frustrated with herself. Hopeless, without vision.

“If you let me live– if you join me. We can set things right. End the bloodshed. Build up the nation. Protect the people. I called my movement the Fueller Reformation for a reason. We have to stop the violence, along racial, religious lines, nations, castes. We have to reform the state. What is your name?”

She didn’t have a name.

“Norn.”

It was an old story told by someone she had hoped to forget.

Konstantin’s face lit up with a smile.

“Norn, the weaver of fate. Of course. Of course you are. Norn– we can do this together.”

Upon that scene which she was watching over as if peering from her own shoulder–

A voice intruded, a voice belonging to neither of them.

“Why did you believe him?”

“Because I wanted to. Because I had nothing else I wanted to believe in, over him.”

“My darkest shame is that I believe you should have become Emperor in his place.”

“Your darkest shame should be dragging me out here after Ganges told you to leave well enough alone.”

“You were the only one who could keep the world from ruin. Then, and maybe now, Norn.”

“You are always pushing others to take responsibilities that you refuse, Euphrates.”

Norn von Fueller moved away from the throne.

As her cheek turned on the scene unfolding behind her everything melted into color.

Euphrates stood before her in the void of the aether as if barring her way.

“You taught me too well, and I made the same mistake that you made with Yangtze.”

Norn locked eyes with Euphrates.

That blue-haired, fair-skinned girl in her lab coat, vest, and pants–

Shuddered in place. Shaken. That impenetrable armor of her ethicality began tearing.

“That’s an utter mischaracterization. You don’t know anything about me.”

Norn smiled. “No. It’s the whole truth Euphrates. It’s why I wanted you to see him. Konstantin turned into a brother to me. I did once, truly believe, that I could entrust the world to him. Not because he himself was so convincing or capable. But because I didn’t want responsibility for the world.”

She approached Euphrates, descending on her, jabbing her index finger like a knife on the shoulder between emphasized words, words raining like blows of the icy spear she once turned on Konstantin. “Euphrates, I wanted the world to rest solely on his shoulders. I wanted to congratulate him if the world was saved, and I wanted to excoriate him if it was destroyed. In the exact, same, manner in which you gave up your precious Sunlight Foundation to Yangtze, whom you can no longer face up to. You wanted to laud her achievements and to curse her deviations, but most of all, you wanted to remain a third party to the colossal responsibility you laid on her shoulders. You crowned her like I crowned Konstantin.”

Her grinning face within inches of Euphrates’ pale, sweating, choked expression.

“You are not here to save anybody. You are not here to stop me. Because those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility. You are here, Euphrates, to defray responsibility. Onto me, or onto Tigris, or onto whomever can confront the situation while you pretend to be the hero in the final accounting. This is the perfect power for you to wield. A power you can turn on someone to prevent you from acting.”

Her final poke of the finger shattered Euphrates’ shoulder as if she was made of glass.

A reflection of her soul. Breaking apart, speechless, demoralized, mentally defeated.

Norn had finally figured out her trap. And all around her, the void in the aether collapsed.


“–ordnance penetrated to the social module. No casualties, nobody was there.”

“I can still feel it shaking. Was it mitigated properly?” Adelheid said.

“Exterior breach sealant and flood mitigation was unsuccessful. Isolation was successful on the social pod, it is sealed, and flooding did not spread. Shield is down over that area. It will need immediate maintenance. For safety reasons, I recommend sealing off the officer’s habitat.”

Adelheid and one of the drones were assessing the situation. The Pandora’s Box had struck them.

Despite Hudson’s supposedly impenetrable shield– that cat always oversold everything.

Norn herself was bound up in a thought for a moment.

Unbidden thoughts of Konstantin von Fueller.

Her bridge crew was speaking up, but their voices felt distant to Norn for a moment.

She felt the return of her aethereal form to her material body like she was rid of a migraine that she had been enduring. It was a lightening, liberating feeling, like a plastic sheet that once restricted her movements was peeled off her skin. She had bested Euphrates in a mental contest– if it wasn’t for the fact that it was just an extension of herself, she would have thanked her aethereal self for her help.

“Norn, your eyes aren’t glowing red anymore. Are you alright?” Adelheid asked.

Norn shook her head and ran her hand down the bridge of her nose.

“As alright as I can be.”

While this was a positive development, the situation was still grim.

They had underestimated the mercenaries.

Norn had entered the battle with an overabundance of confidence. Her troops would lack in cohesion from never working with each other, but they had the right gear and decent skills. She believed them capable enough to hold off or sink a bunch of bandits in laundered Union gear. Now, however, she was sure her enemy were not such lowly peons– these were likely Union soldiers in disguise. Though they lacked cohesion too, they had experience and innovative tactics when cornered. Norn had been focusing mainly on Selene. That girl was outmaneuvered utterly and about to make an enormous mistake.

Her enemy must have unlocked their own psionics, to have stood a chance.

Perhaps Euphrates had trained all of these people– though that was not like her at all.

Nevertheless, Norn had to cut her losses now. Fighting to the death was pointless. But she also had to prevent a rout of her forces. De-escalation and an orderly retreat could still be in the cards.

“Selene, stand down. You are not authorized to fire a cartridge.”

On the main screen, the Jagdkaiser’s forward camera feed broadcast back to the Antenora via an intermediary relay buoy. Norn saw the machine’s arm, extended and ready to fire. Between Selene and her enemy stood one of the mercenaries, along with the Grenadier of Sieglinde von Castille. They were trying to dissuade Selene from firing. And the girl hesitated just enough for Norn to intervene.

In the next instant, Selene’s face appeared on the Antenora’s main screen. Sweat-soaked, red eyed. On the part of her neck visible over her suit, the sinews glowed with a rainbow gradient over the main artery. Her outer irises glowed with the same colors, and had developed a fractal pattern to their outer edges.

Tell-tale signs of overdosing on Yangtze’s psynadium drug to boost her psionic tolerance in combat.

“Norn, I have her.” Selene whimpered, near breathless. “I have them! I can kill them all!”

“You are not authorized to fire a cartridge. Your chassis is unstable. You would die too.”

“I don’t believe you! I can survive it! And if– I don’t care if I die! I’ll wipe them all out!”

Adelheid averted her gaze. This was a low, painful moment for Selene.

Norn shook her head at the girl on the screen.

“You’re not the only one who has lost face here. We are going to retreat; this entire situation was ill-advised, and I will have restitution for it. Selene, live to make them taste a future defeat. All corpses are the same in death. It is only in life that you can distinguish yourself. Thrash, gnaw and bite for every second of life you can to spite your enemies. Trading life for glory is for fools.”

Selene visibly gritted her teeth. Her eyes were overflowing with tears.

Hunched over her control sticks, ready to annihilate the enemy and herself in an instant.

Norn feared the worst for a moment; but Selene fell back on her seat, gaze averted.

Her pride as someone who viewed herself superhuman had been wounded.

Thankfully, she was not so far gone as to fully forego reason for violence.

“I have no doubt about your abilities.” Norn said. “Pull back. We’ll talk later.”

At that moment, Sieglinde von Castille also appeared on the main feed.

“Milord, you must retreat from this foolish endeavor while you have the chance.”

Norn narrowed her eyes at the defeated ‘Red Baron’ and scoffed.

“Don’t lecture me. Go talk to your intrepid leader about retreat if she’s still alive.”

“I’m not unaware of the responsibility we bear for this. I swear I will stop her.”

In that moment Sieglinde’s face disappeared from the main feed.

And shortly thereafter appeared another face, the video initially garbled–

Adelheid gasped; even the drones looked at it with a muted disbelief.

“Something is connecting to us. Unknown protocol, but we can try to next-nearest decode.”

“Interesting.” Norn grinned, leaning her chin up on one fist. “Monitor, don’t block.”

It was definitely the Pandora’s Box– because Norn knew the silhouette trying to broadcast.

When the communication was accepted, and the picture clarified completely–

Long purple hair, a slight frame in a chaste blue and green dress, bright indigo eyes that looked just a bit older than before, but cheeks still just a bit baby-soft. Princess Elena von Fueller.


Elena quietly panicked in her room as the bearing monitor displayed a familiar Ritter-class.

The Antenora was the flagship of the Fueller family. Of course she had seen it before. She had even ridden inside it once or twice. The physical ship was different now, it used to be a Prinz class and the flag was moved to the new Ritter– regardless. Her head was going at a hundred kilometers per hour trying to make sense of it. Was that really Norn von Fueller after her? What did this mean for their journey?

In her mind it could only, possibly, mean one thing.

Gertrude had survived their last battle; she was sure of that already.

Tragically, this had to mean Gertrude was back a second time.

And the Union soldiers would kill her.

Around her the ship shook. Ordnance detonated around the Brigand, an almost per-minute quaking that at times was violent enough to nearly knock Elena out of her bed. Lights flickered, her stomach churned. Surely, the Brigand was giving as good as it was getting. In her dim little metal room, she rubbed her hands together, wept, her voice caught in her throat. What could she possibly do about this?

How could she stop it?

She gritted her teeth, hating herself fiercely.

“I’m so stupid! Powerless; useless! I can’t– I can’t do anything but sit here and cry! Everything I love, everyone I care about, are all going to be killed because of me. Is it really true that all I can do is sit here? Sit here crying and suffer this over and over? Whether I die or Gertrude kills me– I can’t imagine the suffering this useless battle is going to cause. I have to do something– I have to. I have to!”

Gertrude would keep coming after her. Nothing would deter her.

There was nothing in the world Gertrude loved more than her.

Gertrude Lichtenberg was hers. Her companion, her friend, her knight, her hope, her love.

It was Gertrude who was supposed to save her from everything, right?

But–

“That’s why I’m so useless! That’s why all of this is happening!”

Elena had always been powerless. She always needed someone to rescue her.

And those people put themselves in danger again and again.

Not just Gertrude; but Marina, and even Victoria, and–

Bethany.

Her weeping and sobbing intensified as she remembered her lively nag of a maid.

Bethany had died, she had died and was gone and would never come back.

Because Elena was powerless to do anything.

Powerless to see the danger looming around her. Powerless to take precautions or defend herself. Powerless to get herself out of danger when it came. She was a burden on so many people who gave everything they had for her sake. Like a poisoned chalice, passed around the hands of anyone unfortunate enough to know her. Now it was the crew of the Brigand who was unfortunate enough to be passed the cup. But out there, everyone was taking a long drought of the poison now regardless.

Gertrude would fight no matter what; and the Brigands would unknowingly defend Elena.

Until everyone died, each one to protect her from the other.

It was too cruel. It was too evil a fate to allow to pass.

Elena stepped up from her bed–

In time for another explosion to knock her to the floor.

Falling on her face, groaning, lifting herself up on her hands.

Teeth clenched. Her arms and legs hurting, feeling like she would heave up her lunch.

She could have stayed on that floor and moped, but she slowly lifted herself up.

Running on an anxious strength drawn from nowhere and everywhere.

Amid the rumbling, she searched under her bed.

Marina had few possessions, but she did have a few things of use–

Cosmetics, and clothes. She always had a lot of clothes around to disguise herself.

Marina was taller and broader-shouldered than Elena, but she found a dress that was a lot closer to her own size among the cocktail clothes, blue and green, long-sleeved, and modest, like formalwear for a family outing. The colors reminded Elena of the Fueller family regalia. She also found a product to remove the black hair dye. As quickly as she could, she washed her hair, dressed up and set about her course.

Walking out of her room moments later, she was no longer “Elen” the analyst.

She told herself: Elena von Fueller was formally stepping into the UNX-001 Brigand.

Out in the hall, a group of sailors took a lingering look at her but said nothing. They were running down the halls checking for damage, testing the electronics, crawling into the walls to check for leaks. Farther down the hall Elena could see activity near the bridge. There were a few people together, moving someone on a carried stretcher. By the time she arrived, there was only Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse guarding the door to the bridge. They waved at her as she arrived but were still staring.

“Uh, hey!” Klara said, “Nice dye job! Purple looks good on you!”

Zhu smiled briefly at Klara’s remark, but then put on a more official face.

“Sorry Elen, the bridge is kind of in chaos right now. You shouldn’t bother them.”

Elena took in a deep breath and made herself speak.

“I know this will be a hard pill to swallow, but I think I can stop everyone from fighting.”

She had not come up with a better excuse than that.

Elena was not a grand orator– all she could do was be honest and try to keep calm.

Klara and Zhu glanced at each other briefly. More concerned than angry or suspicious.

“Elen, it’s a boulder sized pill to swallow. It’s the hardest to swallow pill ever.” Klara said.

“I don’t mean to disrespect you, but you were acting erratic in the last battle too.” Zhu said. “So tell us what you’re thinking, but we can’t let you be disruptive in the bridge for no reason. I’d like to think we’re all friendly, and we like you, but Klara and I need to do our jobs properly.”

“I understand but–”

“She’s the princess of the Imbrian Empire, Elena von Fueller.”

Behind Elena, a girl approached from the direction of the brig, where the party from earlier had gone. She must have been with them. Dressed in a nun’s habit, with w-shaped eyes, dark-pink skin, and long purple hair, some of which was wriggling at the side of her head. Diaphanous purple and blue fins wiggled atop her head. She waved and smiled and confessed to Elena’s secret without any prompting.

Everyone, Elena included, stood speechless for a moment.

“They wouldn’t know!” Maryam Karahailos said, bubbly and cheerful. Two long, thick pieces of her hair that ended in little paddle-shapes, pointed at Klara and Zhu independent of the sister’s hands. “Because they are new to the Empire, but I recognized you the moment I saw you! I’m glad you survived!”

“Maryam, this chick got some hair dye and contacts. She’s not a princess.” Klara said.

“Why don’t you let her on the bridge so the Captain can decide.” Maryam said.

Elena did not know why Maryam was suddenly helping, but she felt her heart lift.

She had one ally in here at least! Elena tried to press the security girls alongside Maryam.

“Klara, Lian, please, please let me talk to the Captain! I can explain everything!” She pleaded.

Zhu Lian grunted brusquely. “I am doubly not letting you on the bridge for this.”

Molecular Control.

Had Elena heard Maryam say something? She thought she had, but–

Klara and Lian’s eyes flashed briefly red– was Elena seeing things now too?

Was she really losing her wits? When she most needed to keep it together?

It reminded her of Vogelheim, of Victoria, but the energy she felt was so brief.

And so vastly powerful.

Then, suddenly, Klara and Lian both sighed heavily, and visibly dropped their guard.

Maryam really hadn’t moved a muscle. She was just smiling at them the whole time.

Was she really–?

“Fine, but if the captain tells you to leave, you damn well better.” Zhu Lian finally relented.

Elena could hardly believe what she was seeing. But she thought she knew what it was.

They started to move from the way, and in her desperation, Elena simply accepted the boon.

“Whoa! Hey, the sister, she’s–”

Klara pointed at Maryam with a sudden shock on her face.

“Oh, this? It just happens sometimes.”

Maryam’s nose had started bleeding heavily. Dark, inky blood trailed down her lips as she spoke.

Her words slurred slightly. Her legs clearly began to turn to jelly.

Zhu Lian stepped forward and held her steady. Maryam’s once sharp gaze started to trail off.

“What happened to you?”

“It’s nothin’– It’s nothin’–“

“No it’s always something around here.” Lian said, taking Maryam’s arm over her shoulder and helping her walk, even at Maryam’s increasingly slurred protests. “I’ll take her to medical, I think she might’ve taken a knock when she was helping Valeriya and Illya carry that Euphemia lady away. There’s been a lot of quakes and she looks like she’s made of jelly, she could have a concussion. Klara, keep an eye on Elena. Let her on the bridge but if nobody cares about her story, you gotta get her out, understand?”

“Duh. Don’t treat me like a bimbo Lian, just go.”

Klara smiled and shushed Zhu Lian away.

Gently, Zhu Lian urged Maryam to take small steps back down the hall with her.

Elena turned to Klara, with a sense of disbelief surrounding everything that had just happened.

However, she finally had an opportunity. Maryam– she would have to talk to her later.

Right now, she was closer than ever to a threshold that had felt impossible to cross moments before.

“Okay, the stage is yours, Princess.”

Klara took a deep breath, opened the bridge door, and stepped in.

Walking in behind her, Elena saw all kinds of inscrutable data and maps and video on the vast main screen, officers hard at work on the three tiers of stations in the descending bridge. At the top, just off of the door, was the Captain’s and Commissar’s chairs. They had been whispering to each other. Ulyana Korabiskaya, the gallant blond Captain, turned to her with gentle confusion.

She looked her up and down, clearly surprised by her attire and hair color.

“Elen? Is that Elen the analyst?” Ulyana said.

Elena was briefly reminded of Bethany. Maybe every pretty older woman did.

There was something comforting there. She wanted to believe the Captain would understand.

“Sorry, Captain, this lady’s got something to say to you.” Klara said.

For a moment, the bridge shook as another shell exploded somewhere near the Brigand.

Ulyana Korabiskaya turned to the main screen, gripping her chair tightly.

“God damn it, they just don’t quit. Keep shooting! We have them on the run!” She said, before turning back to Elena. “We’ve got a bit of a situation here analyst. What do you need me for? I applaud your new look, but this is a very critical moment. If you’re inquiring about McKennedy, she is alive.”

“No ma’am– I’m here to turn myself in.” Elena said suddenly. “I’m– I’m the one that they want, Captain.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah Bashara both were now staring fixated at her and then at Klara.

Nervous, Elena performed a curtsy. “I’m Elena von Fueller. The Inquisitor and the Praetorian are after me.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah turned to each other, blinking mutely. They turned back to Elena.

For a moment they just stared. Their lips moved very slightly, but the words aborted every time.

“You can ask Marina McKennedy to confirm, ma’am.” Elena said. An awkward smile, shrinking a step back.

At the same time as each other the Commissar and Captain brought hands up to their faces in despair.

“Ya Allah!” Aaliyah mysteriously cried out, lapsing into some Shimii saying out of consternation.

The Captain then shouted a strange archaic curse: “When it rains it fucking pours!”


“It really is a small ocean, isn’t it?”

On the Brigand, the brig was not very spacious, as there was not much thought given to the capture of prisoners given the mission they have been given. There was one larger containment area behind bars which could hold about five or six people humanely, or up to twenty in very inhuman conditions; and four personal containment cells each for one person, each of which could be made lightless, soundless, padded, and individually temperature controlled. There were no illusions as to their ultimate purpose.

Illya and Valeriya had moved “Euphrates” to one of the individual cells and laid her on the fold-out bed, which could be locked to the wall if they were intent on being really cruel to whoever was inside. There was no better place to put her for now, as she was stable, unconscious and under suspicion. “Tigris” joined her soon after in an adjacent cell. She had agreed to this and did not resist arrest.

But Valeriya and Illya had a secondary concern while they went about this task.

And that secondary concern was clearly concerned about them too.

Xenia Laskaris eagerly awaited them on their way out of the brig. Submachine gun slung around her shoulders, a magazine held between her gloved fingers. Her antennae flicked with recognition.  

“Don’t worry,” she said immediately, “They aren’t paying me enough to do anything about this situation. I wouldn’t risk my neck for those two. I was honestly far more interested in getting to see you two again.”

She held out a hand. Smiling, Illya shook, and then Valeriya gave her a brief shake too.

“It’s been a while. How have you been carrying on?” She asked.

“Living with things, and without them. We were also thinking about you during this mess.” Illya said.

“Oh?” Xenia said. Her tail twisted behind her back. “Were you worried for me?”

“Worried for you, and worried about what you could get up to.” Illya said.

“Like I said, they’re not paying me enough to become a problem for you.” Xenia said.

“Good. We know how big a problem you can be, and our officers really don’t.” Illya said.

“She won’t be.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head with a neutral expression.

“You think so?”

“I trust her.”

“Do you?”

“She owes us.”

Valeriya put on a tiny smile.

Xenia smiled back, stretching her arms up behind her head and leaning back.

“See? And you know your lady friend isn’t easy to get along with.” She said.

“Right.” Illya smiled. “Well, if Valeriya says so, then I really have to trust you.”

“Charming!” Xenia laughed. “So, you want something from me right?”

“Of course. You know how it is.”

For both Katarran mercenaries and special operations personnel, the world was defined near entirely by transactions, and people were what they could do, what they knew, what they promised and what they owed. Exceptions were few and had to be cherished. That was why Illya held Valeriya close.

Unbeknownst to most of the Brigand, Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg were no ordinary security guards. They had to support the mission of the Brigand, and it was a mission they believed in and which made sense to them. However, their identities gave them a separate sensibility from the rest of the crew.

Between them and Xenia, friendly as they were, what mattered most was how they could be valuable to each other, and help each other survive the violent underworlds in which they lived and moved. Illya believed in communism, but there was no economy and no charity for people like them, tasked with smoothing out the sharp, jutting edges of the world so that the peaceful folk only saw curves there. For special forces to exist at all, they had to be exceptions, in ways that were not fully understood by civilians. Not only could they kill others; but their lives were also forfeit the care and kindness given to others.

In training and thought both, Illya and Valeriya were not just security guards, they were beasts.

BEAST– short for “Benthic, Abyss and Station.” Parvati Nagavanshi’s concealed weapons.

It was a sacrifice that they chose naively but lived with wholeheartedly.

For the sake of another old friend; and the naive, fragile world she gave her life to protect.

Illya fixed the grinning Xenia with a calm, but resolute expression.

“We need information. I found this Solarflare LLC business fishy from the start. It reminded me of what we saw a few years ago, with the Ahwalias. So from one operator to another. I need to know how big a problem are those two going to be, and if they are involved in anything larger than corporate R&D.”

She motioned with her head toward the cells where the unconscious Euphrates and the irate but compliant Tigris had been locked up. For the moment, they were playing along, but surely they wouldn’t stay there. Those two were more than they let on. Their names, which were taken from old world mythology, laid a pattern for Illya and Valeriya. That was something they only realized when Tigris divulged her real name. But Illya had been wanting to grill Xenia about them ever since she realized her Katarran acquaintance from their sordid past was aboard– their responsibilities just got in the way.

Xenia knew the score. She had owed them something, and now she could square it away.

“From one operator to another. Because you two are honorary Katarrans to me. I can tell you a little something about a certain Foundation.” Xenia began. “As much as they’ll let the help know.”


Clouds of gas and bubbles dissipated from the waters around Goryk’s Gorge.

An eerie, tense calm settled over the former battlefield.

The Brigand’s laser network between Zachikova’s drone and those of the HELIOS had grown suddenly capable of delivering much higher fidelity communications across the entire area of combat as long as they routed everything through the HELIOS itself. Murati Nakara informed the Brigand as such, and this helped them concoct a plan to bring about a parley. Though a long shot, it proved initially successful.

Elena von Fueller’s pleas for the fighting to cease broadcast to every unit in the vicinity and to the Antenora itself. Despite the fierce fighting, no one on either side had been killed, but everyone had damage, and every Diver was running low on battery and vernier fuel. The Antenora also had a breach that was much more serious and debilitating than the damage inflicted on the Brigand, but the Brigand was much more vulnerable. In the final calculus, this made the decision to stand down far easier.

Without fighting, the momentary peace could not have been achieved.

Nevertheless, token forces on either side remained, as tension and distrust remained high. They met between the two ships in order to respond rapidly if their counterparts took any suspicious action.

On the Antenora’s side, Gertrude, Selene and Sieglinde.

On the Brigand’s side, the HELIOS’ two pilots Karuniya and Murati, Khadija, and Marina McKennedy.

Though the Union had other Divers in much better repair, they chose their forces to show some good will toward the Antenora. Out of all of them, Khadija still had the Diver in the best shape, giving the Union an advantage nonetheless. But as Shalikova pointed out to her Captain, Selene’s unit was still capable of rapid movement and possessed a strange, additional weapon that it had threatened to use on her.

So perhaps the Union advantage was not so great after all.

Nevertheless, the focus wasn’t on fighting anymore but on the awkward parley.

All of these parties which were deploy outside crowded the main screens of the Brigand and Antenora in a massive video call. Norn von Fueller and Ulyana Korabiskaya represented their ships, and Elena von Fueller was in the center, hands behind her back, pouting slightly on camera. To the side of her, in one of the video squares, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s eyes drew wide, clearly stunned. She started to weep.

“Elena. It really is you.” Her voice took a reverent tone. “You’re here. You’re alive.”

She lifted a gloved hand to her cover her mouth, clearly sobbing.

“It’s– It’s lovely to see you Gertrude.” Elena said. Shrinking a bit from the attention and the tone with which it was given. “I wish it didn’t have to be under these awful circumstances.”

“H-How are you?” Gertrude looked mildly hesitant to ask. “You’re not hurt are you?”

Elena smiled a little. “I am unhurt. They’ve been treating me fine, I promise.”

“They had better been–“

“They were perfectly gentlemanly.” Elena said. “They are actually kind people, Gertrude.”

“Right. I’ll trust you. It’s just– I’m really relieved to see you.”

“I was afraid we would never meet again.” Elena looked embarrassed to relay that fear.

“I’ll always be at your service Elena, no matter what.”

“Thank you, Gertrude.”

Both of them looked like they had so much more to say, but were awkwardly brief.

Were it possible for the two of them to be alone, they could have been much more candid.

However, in the current setting, it was impossible for the two close companions to truly bond again.

With all of the eyes watching, they could not be as intimate as they each desired to be.

Elena was just embarrassed, with a girlish flush; but the Inquisitor was clearly afflicted by her desires.

“Come back with me.” Gertrude said suddenly. “Elena, come back. Let’s talk things over tea.”

She reached out to the screen, her eyes wide, speaking breathlessly, succumbing to her emotions–

“Out of the FUCKING question, Lichtenberg.” Marina shouted suddenly, interrupting the Inquisitor. “I’m not letting you endanger her for whatever sick scheme Norn von Fueller and the Inquisition are plotting! You Imperials want her back, you’re gonna have to take her, you’re gonna have to take her from a veritable fucking army we got here! An army that has already proven they can kick all of your asses–”

“Korabiskaya, shut this embarrassing woman up or we have no parley.” Norn demanded.

Marina flew into an even more frothing rage. “FUCK you Norn! You and I have unfinished–”

“Don’t act like you have the authority to order me around, Norn.” Ulyana replied.

Nevertheless, Ulyana silently agreed with Norn and had completely muted Marina’s irate audio.

Murati Nakara, Karuniya Maharapratham, and various unrelated persons made awkward faces on the video call but otherwise remained mum. The discussion naturally came to involve only a few of the people watching: Gertrude Lichtenberg, Elena herself, Ulyana Korabiskaya as a moderator, and Norn as an interested party, and the one who seemed most likely to resume combat. Elena and Gertrude lost their moment to catch up as friends. Rather, the conversation became a tense, business-like affair.

“I don’t think we will get anywhere without first establishing what exactly is going on here. Elena, would you care to enlighten us on the situation?” Norn said. “Your disappearing act, and your subsequent actions, have led to a lot of suffering that I must now insist you take full responsibility for.”

Gertrude looked upset with Norn’s tone. “She’s the victim, Norn! What matters–”

“Shut up, Gertrude. And it’s master Norn to you.”

In response, Elena performed a deep, repentant bow on camera.

“Of course, aunt Norn. I’m sorry. I’ll explain everything.”

Watching this, everyone must have wondered what kind of person the princess of the Imbrian Empire must have been to make such a vulnerable gesture as bowing before someone– and not only that, but the lordly character of the person she was bowing to, Norn von Fueller. Nevertheless, Norn settled and allowed the princess to speak. With her voice just a bit stuttering and stressed, Elena began to recount her tale, saying what she could say and admitting to what she could admit, but with many gaps that she was unable to fill. She spoke matter-of-factly, outlining the events with as little emotion as she could.

Elena told Norn and everyone watching, a brief story of the events of her birthday; Gertrude’s visit, her brother Erich’s no-show to her party; the attack on Vogelheim; her escape with Marina McKennedy; the subsequent destruction of Vogelheim which she saw from outside only, as the station cylinder split and collapsed. She told them about Serrano. Though she knew the truth of the Brigands, she was kind and clever enough to speak only in the terms which everyone else was using, calling the ship the “Pandora’s Box” and referring to the group as “mercenaries.” In this narrative, Marina had employed them.

However–

“They have served excellently. I would prefer you cease your hostility toward them.”

Elena stuck up for them. Then of course was the part of the story everyone present knew.

Gertrude’s attacks, Goryk substation and ultimately, Norn’s pursuit, and the recent battle.

Throughout the story, Gertrude looked terribly affected. Shutting her eyes, grimacing.

As if she felt the pain Elena had at each moment and it moved her nearly to tears.

“It’s all my fault.” Gertrude said. “If I had stayed behind, I could have protected you.”

“Gertrude, of course not.” Elena said. She averted her gaze. “You couldn’t have known. I don’t want anyone to blame themselves, least of all you. You’ve always been so good to me. I am doing all this right now because I don’t want anyone to blame you or hurt you. So let me be the only one that needs to efface myself here right now. You can’t take all of my problems on your shoulders again.”

“I can’t accept that.” Gertrude said. “Elena, the only who has been hurt here is you.”

Elena looked somewhat frustrated with that response.

She ignored Gertrude for that moment and turned her attention back to the Praetorian.

“Aunt Norn, I understand that these events have caused you material and personal grief. However, at the moment, I don’t know who I can trust in the Empire. Vogelheim was supposed to be safe. The Volkisch came and shattered my world and all the little lies that supported it for me. I can’t just forget that.”

“You suspect your brother was involved.” Norn replied casually.

Elena was visibly disarmed by her tone. “I– I didn’t say that–”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I suspect as much. Who else would it have been?”

“I mean– Marina got a hold of the information too–”

“You don’t have to cover for him in your mind. Distrust him too.” Norn said.

Elena blinked. “I just don’t understand. You serve brother Erich, don’t you?”

Norn cracked a grin. “You and I take ‘serve’ to mean very different things. To you servitude toward the Empire is a recognition of its heavenly virtues and thus becomes a dignified duty. But I have no great respect toward the lordly qualities of individual men. Elena, right now, my position is convenient. Nothing more. My beloved nephew gets only as much as he gives to me. The Fueller Family is a useful bit of structure in my life. I am not blind to your brother’s more devilish qualities. But I will neither help you nor him in your squabbles. In fact, I’d love it if you wanted revenge on him. Then I could use you too.”

For a moment, Elena blanched. “You’re also laying claim to the throne then, aren’t you?”

“Nobody fighting right now believes that throne is worth anything. Except maybe you.”

Laying back on her chair, grinning widely, resting her cheek on one fist.

Norn von Fueller looked greatly amused by the naïve responses of her “niece.”

“All I care about is power. The throne of Imbria is a powerless fixture. You can have it.”

“Princess, it appears your aunt has made her character quite clear. She’s playing all sides.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya entered the fray with a cool-headed, motherly-sounding remark.

She turned narrowed eyes on Norn von Fueller. “However, despite my disgust, I don’t believe this is the time or place to have involved philosophical or ethical discussions. For Treasure Box Transports, the only question left unanswered in this discussion is ‘what happens from now’. And the most pertinent choice to make is whether you remain with us or join Norn instead. I have no opinion on the subject.”

Elena nodded. She took a deep breath and let out a gentle, weary sigh.

“I have been giving that some thought–” Elena said, barely squeaking out the words–

“What is there to think about?” Gertrude interrupted. “Elena, you can’t possibly be thinking about remaining with these mercenaries. How can you even consider that? I understand you did what you had to when Vogelheim was attacked, and that Marina woman and this Volgian gave you a way out. But I’m here now– you don’t need to keep paying for these mercenaries! That’s wholly unacceptable! I’ll protect you! No matter how you feel about master Norn! I’m here, and that’s all that matters isn’t it?”

Elena averted her gaze from Gertrude, unable to respond to that outpouring of passion.

“My demands remain the same.” Norn added. “I see no reason to leave Elena here.”

“Princess, they are capable soldiers with more resources than we have.” Ulyana said.

On the video, Elena fidgeted, bowing her head such that her hair hid her eyes.

“But do you trust them as much as you trust us? Or well– can you trust them?”

There were a few surprised faces as Ulyana Korabiskaya said this.

She had on a self-satisfied little smile. Norn cocked an eyebrow.

“Korabiskaya, fleecing this naive girl for more money should be beneath you.” Norn said.

“You can read into it however you want, Norn. This isn’t about you.” Ulyana said.

Norn grinned again. “I should remind you, Ulyana Korabiskaya; I didn’t sortie in a Diver during our previous confrontation. You are aware only of a fraction of the nightmares I can create for you, so don’t test me. You have no reason to be getting confident or to be pushing Elena in this conversation. All of you are breathing right now because I am limiting my involvement in this charade, nothing more.”

“Right now, I am only looking out for my employer’s best interests and nothing more.” Ulyana said.

She was not shaken at all, despite Norn’s very clear and direct threats.

Gertrude interrupted then. Raising her voice, sounding openly irritated.

“Elena, that volgian bitch is clearly trying to manipulate you!” Gertrude said. “You are too trusting, to a fault, but you don’t have to second guess yourself. I’m here. You know me. We’ve sworn oaths to each other, and I would never allow you to come to harm. I love you with all my heart! If you can’t trust master Norn, you can trust me. I will take you to the Iron Lady and you will assuredly be safe there.”

“That same Iron Lady that we bested before?” Ulyana said mockingly.

“Shut the FUCK up right now Korabiskaya!” Gertrude said. “Had it not been for the fact that I couldn’t bear to endanger Elena, whom you held HOSTAGE in your dirty little can of a ship, I would have sunk all of you in seconds flat! You wouldn’t have stood a god damn chance! I’ll boil your entire crew alive in that–

“Gertrude, you’re being awful scary!” Elena interrupted. “Please calm down! Let me speak!”

“I’m– Elena, this is ridiculous. This is completely ridiculous. You can’t–” Gertrude struggled–

“I haven’t even gotten a chance to speak and you’re already saying it’s ridiculous?” Elena shouted.

“Elena– I– I mean–” Gertrude was tongue tied. Elena shut her eyes, frustrated with her friend.

“I believe it would be helpful to clear the airwaves and let Elena speak for herself.”

Ulyana spoke up again, smiling gently. She gestured for the hesitant princess to speak.

Elena looked over her own shoulder at the captain behind her on the bridge.

Ulyana nodded encouragingly in response, visible on the video.

Again, the princess took a deep breath, with a hand clutching her dress.

She turned back toward the camera.

When she held her head high once more, she recomposed herself. She looked determined.

“Gertrude, I love you very much, and you know this. I love you in a truly unique way out of anyone I love. You’ve always been there for me, even against my wishes. I used to think it was charming. But out of the love that we have, I need you to respect my wishes now. I’m not a child; and I may not be worldly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own desires. I’ve been thinking about my place in the world and recent events. There is nothing that I can do if I join you Gertrude– and yes, I confess, I am afraid that Norn might use me as part of some plot for the Fueller family. As the Imperial Princess, I am just an object.”

Gertrude began to speak up, but she had been muted– Ulyana had muted her as moderator.

She noticed what had happened and became clearly irate– but Elena could keep speaking.

“Gertrude, please just stop and listen to me. I, Elena, as an individual and person. I want to continue to travel the Imbrium. I’ve already seen and learned so much. I’ve met new people and I’ve had my naïve ideas challenged. But it’s not enough to just be a passenger here– that’s why I’m coming forward. I’m tired of being powerless. I can’t take people sacrificing themselves for me any longer. I don’t want to be waited on hand and foot. I don’t want to dress up pretty and receive news of more deaths in my name. I know if I go with you, Gertrude, or with aunt Norn, I will remain powerless. People will keep fighting over me as imperial Princess or using me for what that title once symbolized. So I am abdicating the position of Imperial Princess. I’ll find my own strength and my own purpose, as my own person.”

Elena fixed her gaze on Gertrude, who, unable to broadcast her voice, simply stared.

Her eyes dead and wide as if she had the air punched out of her gut.

“Gertrude, if you truly love me, then I know we’ll find our way back together. But for now–” Elena clutched her chest. Tears drew from her eyes as if the words were painful to say. But they were clearly words which she had thought for very long, painfully long. “Gertrude, bury your love for Princess von Fueller here in Goryk’s Gorge. Start over with me by loving the person I want to become instead.”

Gertrude raised a hand to cover her weeping eyes.

Elena could not bear to look, and averted her own, breaking down into sobs.

There were a few silent reactions from the participants. Of these, Sieglinde von Castille, who had been staring impassively, now looked moved herself, and raised a hand to her own lips. Khadija al-Shahara nodded her head as if excited for the girl’s determination. Selene Anahid appeared utterly dazed.

Norn grunted loudly. Her grin had turned a little smaller than before.

“That’s a lovely little speech. But Elena, whether you like it or not, because of your birth, nobody will care that you have abdicated your titles or not. You have value as an object. People will still chase you, covet you and use you. You won’t be able to escape it. It doesn’t matter what you decide as an individual.”

“Aunt Norn, I realize that you were quite right, when you said the throne of Imbria is powerless.”

Elena’s gaze turned from Gertrude to Norn. In turn Norn fixed her own gaze back on the girl.

Despite those imperious eyes clashing with her, Elena never once wavered.

Wounded by the words she had to say to her lover and friend, and visibly shaken by the monumental declarations she had to make, Elena, eyes still tear-stained, shoulders quivering, small and weak in the face of Norn’s confident power. And yet, her eyes once fixed on Norn’s did not once shrink away. She looked at her as if to say, that whatever spear of rhetoric Norn would launch next, she had to launch unblinking at the girl opposite her, for Elena von Fueller would not blink in response to it.

“I’ve decided that I no longer want to hold on to something powerless.” Elena said. “I will find my own power and have my own achievements. You are right, you speak more sense than you know, Aunt Norn. I realized– I had always asked myself why my father’s Reformation failed. Why, after he declared an era of change, was the Empire still so cruel and petty, so randomly, pointlessly wicked? I think– it’s because the throne of Imbria has never had any power to change anything. The Empire can’t be reformed by it.”

Her words now hardly stuttered, a confident little grin on her eyes, those shining eyes.

Even Ulyana Korabiskaya seemed to recognize the change that had gripped her.

Elena von Fueller spoke, for the first time, with a passion wholly her own.

“Elena Lettiere. From now on, I am Elena Lettiere. And I will fight to change this world.”

“Incredible. Your eyes looked just like his, when he spoke the same sort of utter foolishness.”

Norn sighed. She played it off– but there was a change in her.

Her gaze looked upon Elena not disdainfully but with a strange fondness to them.

“I believe you will suffer for your pitiful little dreams just as your father did, when he swore an oath like that with those exact deluded eyes you are making.” She said. Elena did not waver, despite this pointed criticism. Norn continued, smiling. “Elena Lettiere, I will reassess your value as a captive and your position as friend or foe when next we meet. Until then, pray you don’t see the Antenora ever again.”

Elena let out a long-held breath in relief. She looked like she would cry.

“To clarify, you’re retreating?” Ulyana asked, raising her hand as if a student in a classroom.

“We’re retreating. Go on your merry way Korabiskaya. I will also reevaluate you if we meet again. Maybe someday I’ll throw some coin at your people myself. You’ve proven– interesting.” Norn said.

Ulyana scoffed.

“Yeah? Well, I’m going to try my damn best never to see you again, so don’t bother.”

Elena spoke up with an awkward smile. “Captain, can you allow Gertrude to speak again?”

“Since we seem to have reached a productive agreement, sure.” Ulyana said.

Gertrude was unmuted. Elena looked back at the screen expectantly.

On her face was an expression that seemed both melancholy and sweet.

“Gertrude– I still love you, but I hope you understand my feelings. Let’s just–”

In response, Gertrude’s own expression was not soft and sad but furious.

With clear anger and disdain in her eyes and a tense expression on her face.

“Elena, you are mine. I haven’t come here to just let you go.”

“Gertrude–”

“I absolutely refuse this. I won’t allow this. Selene! Fire cartridge at will!”

On the main screen of the Brigand the Jagdkaiser came into focus–

Lifting its arm, the claw separating, the magnetic field brimming around the bore–

“What?” Norn shouted. “Selene, you are not authorized! That woman can’t–”

Suddenly, there was once again chaos that gripped everyone present.

Perhaps, all along, Gertrude had noticed something where nobody else had.

That Selene had been completely gone during the call, eyes glassy and dead.

That she was perhaps susceptible–

To that final desire to succeed over her inferiors.

Having heard the words she wanted to, a demented, violent grin appeared on her lips.

And with her eyes lined by a glowing rainbow fractal, she obeyed the order she desired.

Irrespective of Norn’s cries, the Jagdkaiser armed a cartridge and readied to fire.

Steam vented from the weapon-arm, a brief purple glow–

“Despicable! Absolutely despicable Lichtenberg! I won’t endure your villainy any longer!”

At the Jadgkaiser’s side a one-armed mecha appeared instantly, brandishing a sword.

With one swift slash of her vibroblade, Sieglinde von Castille chopped off the Jagdkaiser’s remaining arm just below the shoulder, the Grenadier’s vibroblade coming out the other end of the superheated launch tube a partially molten, dull stick with a sharp point. That arm which had been raised to the Brigand thrummed as if taking on a foul afterlife, steam spouting from the severed end of the launch tube.

Sieglinde was too late, to the horror of the helpless participants watching these events transpire.

Even cut off, the firing end of the claw glowed purple and red for a split second.

Before sending an erratic bolt of consuming purple lightning snaking toward the Brigand.

Even at a velocity far slower than any conventional munition, it would soon inexorably reach its target like a ravenous serpent. Agarthic energy which annihilated matter instantly, making it disappear as if it was removed from material existence altogether. There was no way the Brigand could escape it.

Everyone watched for seconds of mute horror, unable to tear their eyes from the glow.

Until two objects threw themselves in its way.

Zachikova’s drone, too slow to transpose itself in time.

And a beautiful, graceful red and white fish that had been following it–

Launching itself headfirst between the bolt of diabolical energy and the Brigand.

For an instant, the surface of the Leviathan’s body glowed with its own purple energy, hexagonal delineations visible over its skin as if it too had a shield like the Antenora’s. When the bolt crashed into the beast, it appeared that it could surmount the assault, the projectile losing much of its coherence, breaking into multiple streams of energy like water falling over a rock, dancing and flickering around the surface of its body. Then dozens of thin streams of vapor rose from all over the skin of the great creature, and these became fissures from which red, thick blood erupted from all over its body.

Despite its resistance, enough of the obliterating bolts pierced its body to kill it.

“Lichtenberg! You have befouled everything you ever claimed to stand for!”

Having subdued the Jagdkaiser, the Sieglinde charged at the Magellan.

There was no response from the Inquisitor who had begun this disastrous attack.

Overcome by the sense of what she had done, and that it had failed, Gertrude choked.

She cried out, covered her face with her hands, pathetically awaiting her end–

The Grenadier drove its broken sword through the Magellan’s head, spearing the main camera and down into the chassis, forcing the Magellan back– but there was not enough blade left there to kill the pilot deeper inside. That vibrating tip stopped just short of piercing the cockpit and killing Gertrude. There was no mistaking the intent, however. And Gertrude visibly paled at the sudden, vicious attack.

All vessels cut off their video feeds, leaving the Inquisitor alone and adrift with what she had done.

Her assassination failed, Sieglinde von Castille suddenly fled to the Brigand’s lines.

The Antenora approached to recover Selene; the Brigrand and its forces fled with the surrendering Baron.

Everyone feared a resumption of hostilities–

At that moment, however, an even greater distraction overcame this scene of chaos.


I’ll protect them, Braya. I’ll protect you.

No!

Your body is in there– I’ll protect you.

Don’t do it. Please!

Her drone had been mere meters off from the bolt–

All of her cameras filled with the light,

and the sight of her beautiful dancer struggling, succumbing, bleeding–

no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NO

Zachikova watched, screaming inside of her own metal brain helplessly.

Within a cloud of blood that majestic form she had– she had fallen in love with

Ruined, broken, almost deflated, her softness and grace shattered utterly–

Please no, please–

One of the drone’s cameras caught the slightest twitch of movement.

Of one beautiful eye turning on her with what was clearly the last of its living strength.

No, don’t leave, please–

I’m sorry, Braya–

In the background, a great geyser of brownish-red miasma erupted from Goryk’s Gorge.

Even the ships and Divers began to stir from the currents created by the rising biomass.

Zachikova’s instruments recorded truly insane levels of Katov pollution–

However, Zachikova was completely fixed on the drifting body of her dancer.

She couldn’t let her fall to the bottom of the sea and be set upon by abyssal bottomfeeders.

There was no use– no use for the body of a dead creature– but still–

Mind racing, Zachikova could not bear to part, it would be too horrible to consider.

Extending her drone’s arms, she embraced the rapidly dying body of the beautiful dancer.

Then she issued a command to the drone to return to the utility chute with the body.

We’ll meet again– Braya– I love–

And simultaneously, Zachikova ripped herself from the body of the drone.

Awakening with a start in the bridge of the Brigand.

Her head hurt as if she had torn a piece of her own skin off, having pulled her own biomechanical plug. Reeling from the ungentle separation, sweating, eyes afire, heavy breathing. Her head pounding, tears flowing from her eyes as rivers. Unbidden thoughts and emotions flooded her brain, years of emotion she had repressed and weeks of feelings she barely wanted to admit. She thought she was going crazy.

But she couldn’t let go. She had to see her again. She had to.

On legs that nearly bent out from under her–

Zachikova took off running from the bridge, offering no explanation and heeding none of the words spoken to her. She took off down the hall as fast as she could, barely seeing where she was going, past the sailors, past Klara Van Der Smidse whom she nearly shoved down. To the elevator, mashing the buttons all the way down to the first tier, cursing every second of the ride, pounding the panel.

When the doors opened she charged across the hangar, past the deployment chutes with the returning Divers, past the shuttle bay, shoving sailors away, heedless of the shouting around her. She hurried through a side door in the rear that led to a pod adjacent the lower end of the reactor room. Down a dark maintenace corridor to the dimly lit bulkhead into the drone chute and maintenance room.

Her whole body screamed with pain, her lungs tearing themselves apart in her chest.

Wiping rivulets of sweat and tears from over her eyes with her clenched fist.

Stopping, only briefly, in front of the bulkhead door.

Glancing at the monitor on the wall. Her drone returned, and the chute had been drained, sealed, and pressurized. She feverishly ordered the drone be lifted by automatic crane from the chute into the utility room with its contents, and heard the mechanisms go off. Then she paused, a sense of trepidation.

Crossing the bulkhead in front of her she would be face to face with– the remains–

Vomit rose to her throat. She grabbed hold of her mouth, fought the urge.

Even if it disgusted her– even if it scarred her– she had to see her again.

“It’s my fault she died. It’s my fault. I have to– I have to see her.”

Teeth grit hard, body tight, dizzy with nerves, hugging herself, she shoved against the door.

Sensing her, the bulkhead opened automatically into the room.

“Gahh!”

Overwhelmed by the smell of salt, brine and a horrid, fishy smell that felt like it turned to oil in her nostrils. Zachikova gagged, but a cry sounded that was not her own. Something squirmed in the dark, the only light the dim LEDs outside the door from the hall leading to the utility room. There was a puddle in the room, jelly-like melted– her head swam, senses failed eyes clearly glitched a waking dream–

Flesh. She saw flesh sloughing off — a figure cloaked in personhood lithe, draped– with–

Hair? She has hair? She has a face? Eyes, skin, limbs, breasts, horns–?

Zachikova stared, weeping, sweating, clothes clinging, skin blanched, throat burning with rising bile–

In front of her, a woman– a woman– tore something from her head and bled onto the floor.

Pale, slender, long red-and-white hair falling over her shoulders, down her back–

To the floor, where red gore pooled like the entrails of something rapidly decaying. Long-limbed long fingers grasped a curled bone-like horn, thick as a tusk, soaked bloody. Cast aside dismissively, making a clanking noise as it struck the wall. Eyes opened once shut, filled with an intellect that glinted bright in the shadow and acknowledged the terror-frozen girl at the door. She smiled. That body smiled.

“Braya.” A cooing voice came out of the woman-body. “Is it a pleasure to see this form?”


Clouds of red and brown biomass erupted out of Goryk’s Gorge like the breath of a foul titan corrupting the waters around the gorge to an unprecedented degree. A stormwind-like current blew. Visibility even with floodlights was quickly reduced to below a dozen meters, and all around them the seething mass of dancing microorganisms in the marine fog seemed to take on a new diabolical character. Dim red as though the creatures were giving the surroundings an eldritch bioluminescence, the rushing biological tide turned the surrounding sea into a vision reminiscent of hell, save for the presence of fires.

“Biomass concentration approaching 400 Katov and continuing to climb.”

“Unknown biologics on sonar. They are increasing in number and intensity.”

“Successfully recovered Jagdkaiser and Magellan, bringing in–”

Norn cut off the drones, bolting up from her seat, fists clenched, furious.

“Order the security forces to detain Lichtenberg! I am going to rip her fucking head off!”

“Begin separation for Selene!” Adelheid added. “Norn, I’ll go get the doctor.”

“Right.” Norn said, clenching her jaw too. “Be careful, she could act out at you.”

“I can take Hunter III. She should be able to stop Selene if she gets– dangerous.”

Adelheid’s voice trailed off, stifling a tiny sob. Her features had a gentle, melancholy expression of concern, brows lightly furrowed, eyes wandering. Her hands were shaking. Norn herself had a noticeable vibration in her temples, a twitch in the cheek that indicated her concern. She was neither meeting the eyes of her adjutant nor staring directly at the main screen. Both of them were shaken.

They had all been too careless, and the Antenora had been defeated.

However–

“Norn, you don’t need to project that aura of infallibility. I’m here for you.”

Adelheid tugged on Norn’s shirt gently like a red-headed cat nipping her owner’s heel.

For the first time in what felt like hours, Norn turned a smile full of love on her.

“I appreciate it, Adelheid. But I shouldn’t have been so weak from the start–”

“She’s comin’! She’s comin’!”

Norn and Adelheid turned around. There was a mad shout coming from behind them.

Backed against a corner as if something was approaching her, crawling on the ground.

Squirming, mouth hanging in horror and the red rings of psionic power around her eyes.

“Boss, I can’t stop it! She’s comin’! The Autarch! We gotta run boss!”

Hunter III raised a shaking hand at the main screen, tears rising as steam from her eyes.

On the predictive image appeared a distant, enormous shadow read by the computer as a dreadnought.


“Hey uh, I’m not used to running this, but we’re hitting like 400 Katov out there.”

Alexandra Geninov tapped on the LCD screen at the Electronic Warfare station in disbelief.

Part of what Zachikova had been doing was monitoring part of the sensor package to free up Fatima to focus on detection and early warning. However, after the failed attack by the one-armed machine from Norn’s forces, the electronic warfare officer had run out in a panic. Respecting her feelings, the Captain allowed her time alone and ordered that nobody fetch her for a few hours unless there were problems.

Alexandra Geninov had temporarily taken her place as the most computer-savvy of the officers. The fighting had completely halted and the Brigand was poised to retreat, having recovered their divers along with one unexpected addition. As the hangar assessed that situation and detained Sieglinde von Castille, the ship began to head in the direction of the Gorge, away from the Antenora and toward Rhinea.

And closer to the heart of a seething red tide the likes of which Ulyana had never seen.

Despite the rising, thickening, furious biomass all around them, the bridge was quiet.

Eerie as it was, there was an even more eerie sight which had shaken them all.

“Zachikova was clearly affected by the death of that creature.” Ulyana said gravely.

“I’m honestly affected too.” At her side, Aaliyah patted her shoulder, briefly but gentle.

They had all seen it on the main screen. It still felt like it couldn’t have been real.

At Lichtenberg’s command, a strange projectile was fired at the Brigand. That glowing purple bolt would have punched right through their armor, in one way and out the other. It was clearly some kind of agarthicite weapon, a design so evil it was unconscionable it existed. Agarthicite was the life blood of their society, but when disturbed, it could vaporize almost any kind of matter in an instant. Without ultra-dense Osmium or a miracle, that purple projectile would have bifurcated them like a hand tearing paper.

They owed their lives to that creature Zachikova had discovered, and its curious, tragic humanity.

There was no way they could have prompted it, commanded it to do such a thing.

Whatever anyone had to say about animal intelligence– it chose to sacrifice itself.

“It saved us. It really gave its life for us. What animal would do that?” Aaliyah said.

“Leviathans are pretty mysterious.” Ulyana said. She sighed. “To think that’s what it took to survive.”

“It was a miracle.” Aaliyah said. “Don’t blame yourself. We did what we could.”

“It wasn’t enough.” Ulyana raised a hand to her forehead, feeling a coming headache.

At that moment, the cat-like ears of sonar operator Fatima al-Suhar visibly perked up.

She stood up from her station, an incredulous look on her face. Ulyana took notice.

“What’s wrong now?” Ulyana asked wearily. When it rained, it truly fucking poured.

Fatima took a moment to respond. “Biologics. All kinds of biologics. Strange ones.”

As she spoke, there was a red warning flash on the main screen.

Their predictive computer drew a box around an area of the Gorge off of the side cameras.

There, it struggled pixel by pixel to render what seemed like a gigantic shadow within the red and brown cloud. Though the computer tried to label this a “dreadnought” none of the officers watching the main screen with deep held breaths could possibly believe that, seeing what looked like a distant unfurling of enormous wings, the stretching of a pointed, horned head at the end of a neck on a massive body.

From its mouth a roar unleashed that left no doubt about its provenance.

This was a Leviathan– a Leviathan larger than the Iron Lady, rising from Goryk Gorge.

And the predictive imager, able to count on only its sonar, marked dozens of target boxes around it.

These subordinates mustering around the massive Leviathan it labeled as Divers.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.13]

“Huh, what’s going on over there?”

There was a strange commotion across the hall. At first it had only been a few students who had stood around to ogle the girl at the end of the hall, until more and more people realized what had happened back there. That she had chained herself intricately to the handles of the sliding door. This could not by itself prevent the door from being closed or open. It was an automatic door that could be remotely operated and even pressurized under emergencies, so the mechanisms boasted a lot of strength.

But if anyone tried to force the door to open in this situation–

–the criss-crossed chains around her chest and belly were arranged so they would tear the girl apart.

So it was unconscionable that anyone would do so.

Anyone who did would be recorded as a child murderer instantly.

“What a morbid idea! But it’s clever, I suppose. I wonder how she got the chain?”

Karuniya Maharapratham, a preparatory student in the science program, joined the throng of onlookers. Something like this had never happened that she knew about. Certainly there were students who misbehaved but they did so in much more ordinary ways. They talked back or cheated on tests or skipped class. They pulled harmless pranks on the teachers sometimes. This was new. She was curious so she managed to squeeze and slide closer. She was not very tall, but she got a glimpse of the perpetrator.

Chained to the door was a girl with brown skin and long, messy dark hair down to the shoulders, in a slight bob with bangs almost over her face. Her auburn eyes stared out to the crowd with strange intensity. She had on the long-sleeved blue and green uniform of the “young pioneers” of the military program. As far as Karuniya understood it was worn for ceremonial purposes — an interesting choice.

What she could not help but focus on, however, were the eyes of the delinquent girl. She was staring intensely at the crowd with unwavering auburn eyes. Arms crossed, standing straight despite all the cold gazes coming her way. She had so much confidence and determination for a teenager!

Or maybe she was scared stiff and witless. Karuniya couldn’t really say one way or another.

She wanted to think though that this gallant delinquent was being brave rather than foolish.

“Murati Nakara!”

Behind Karuniya the sea of gossipy students parted to allow a pair of teachers through.

They approached Murati Nakara and stood between her and the ring of onlookers.

“What is the meaning of this Murati? You’re blocking the way to the simulators!”

“Yes, I know exactly what I’m blocking, thank you.” Murati said coldly.

Both teachers looked at each other in disbelief. As if they had not expected that response.

“And the ‘meaning of this’,” Murati continued, “is a protest. It’s a form of protest.”

“Murati, this is highly irregular! If you have issue with something you need to–”

“Lodge a formal complaint? I’ve lodged three separate ones. All were thrown out.”

“Still–” the teachers looked quite nervous. “Murati, you simply can’t–”

Murati put on a little grin. “It’s impossible to remove me without killing or hurting me, so I will list my formal demands.” She began to rattle a series of grievances with remarkable strength behind her voice.

“This Preparatory purports to train young adult students for acceptance into college programs, but its military track is an absolute joke! We do all kinds of stupid paperwork and study but have no means to gain practical skills except by running simulations, to which we have limited access! Yet the assessment test for the non-commissioned officer program in the Academy requires us to pass a practical examination! So who is it that gets into the NCO track, and therefore gets shortlisted to make Junior Petty Officer upon graduation? Do they have to know a guy who knows a guy to get significant time in a cockpit before college? The Simulations room is barely used, so why is access so limited?”

Everyone stood speechless. Murati continued, barely allowing a pause between.

“You want to know the ‘meaning of this’? I demand 24 hour simulator room access for all students! There is no reason to limit entry! And there is no reason to limit entry specifically to a paltry 3 hours a week of simulator time on average! Less paper testing, and more practical study! That’s my demand! We need to be prepared not just for the military practicums but to fight against the Empire in case of emergency! I demand improved readiness, equitable access to resources, and better training! And I will block the simulator room off until I can negotiate with a qualified administrator! End of story!”

For the first time, Murati closed her eyes and laid back against the door.

Surprisingly, none of the teachers tried what Karuniya would have done in that situation. Nobody smacked her upside the head or kicked her or otherwise got physical. Surely Murati had to have the key to her own chains on her person. Or they could have subdued her long enough to take a diamond sabre to the chains. Karuniya thought up all kinds of practical ways to remove the delinquent.

Instead, they ordered everyone to get back to work and ignore Murati.

And perhaps Murati knew it would turn out like that. Maybe she really did have it all planned.

For the next three days, Karuniya saw her in that same hall of the Preparatory every so often. She always stopped to look, though Murati rarely acknowledged anyone who passed by the hall. Sometimes she would see her nibbling on a protein bar. She had hidden pouches of water in her uniform too that she took small, practical sips from. Several students were randomly cruel to her. Most of them jeered but a few went so far out of their way as to throw pens or other things at her every so often.

Despite this, Murati never even replied to those provocations. She just stood there, alone.

That tall slender girl in her gallant dress uniform simply brooded her in corner.

It was the most interesting thing that happened in school in all her years, and Karuniya wished she could have seen every second of the girl’s resistance, if only for personal amusement. In her mind, in that week, this Murati Nakara she had never met possessed something raw and powerful that Karuniya herself could never possibly have. But of course, Karuniya had classes and was busy. She couldn’t stand there staring.

All she had was the passing thought: “could I ever be this dedicated to something?”

Eventually, people met with the girl, there was a lot of talking, and she was removed.

Karuniya did not know, at the time, what happened to her. They lived in different worlds.

Next semester, however, Karuniya noticed some changes in simulator access and use.

There was 24/7 access, and she herself was not just allowed but required to participate.

Casually and without really considering why or how, Karuniya learned to pilot a Diver.


For the central government in Solstice, it was important that everyone in the Union see Mount Raja at least once. It became a symbol of the Union. There was a glitzy tour infrastructure in place to facilitate these trips. The centrality of the Union’s Military Academy in the education of various personnel was one way to get people to Mount Raja. But even the newest cafeteria worker at the most far flung station of the Union could easily check off Mount Raja from their bucket list given nothing but time.

And it was a sight indeed.

Mount Raja was an underwater mount with a peak at 900 depth but that was mainly accessed at 1600 depth on the benthic surface, with facilities spanning the range from the peak to almost 2100 depth underground where the main structure of the Core Pylon was located. Mountain stations such as these were a marvel of engineering that once allowed the Imbrian Empire to create a few cities that were almost as vast as those of the Surface Era colonizers first reshaping the ocean floor for habitation.

Using an enormous borer ship, the Imbrian engineers settling the Nectaris stabbed through Mount Raja and ultimately mounted their Core Pylon at its underground base, with the bored “stab” running through to it creating the first shaft out from which modules could be expanded. Made up of a series of enormous cube-shaped modules radiating out from the central shaft and capped with a sensor tower disguised as the mountain’s peak, the Raja Arcology, as it was technically named, was one of the few places not designed as a prison or barely-habitable factory for hated slaves and servants, but as the center of extraction and management for the Imperial bureaucracy and aristocracy of the colonies.

Boasting over a kilometer of vertical pressurized space, with each of its modules stretching several hundreds of meters around the central shaft, Raja was designed to support a million Imperial bureaucrats and nobles and now supported several million Union personnel. A secondary substation in an adjoining lesser peak a kilometer from Raja’s base was dug into and reachable by tram, adding even more capacity over the past decade. Raja Arcology was the heart of the Union government and the Naval Headquarters.

Elevators and staircases close to the shaft linked the modules vertically. Each module had a similar size when accounting for its space within the rock, but the internal layouts could vary. Some modules were quite novel for station-goers, with high ceilings and only one internal story, such as the module containing the main government building and the Premier’s office, which just had a giant open park surrounding it. Other modules were essentially massive buildings which just read as halls and rooms when one walked out of the elevator. A few popular spaces made use of open stories to have vertical malls with various shops and recreational facilities built encircling some monument or piece of art.

It was this latter type of space that Karuniya Maharapratham found herself in one cool evening in year 971 A.D. Overlooking a post-modern sculpture shimmering with neon lights that caressed her honey-brown skin. Leaning against the railing with a sly smile, trying to show off the fullness of her breasts in her most fashionable polycarbon dress, off shoulder, with flank and hip gaps and a belly window.

She was 20 years old, in the middle of her undergraduate education and on a date with a cool, handsome upperclassman whom, it was rumored, boasted out of this world dick game.  Karuniya was living.

She glanced aside, hoping to see her date checking her out through the gaps in her dress.

Instead, Murati Nakara seemed to be contemplating the twisted steel sculpture.

“The spirals and lights remind me of DNA. It’s a very biological piece of art.” She said.

Karuniya smiled. Sidling up closer, side by side looking down from the railing.

Her eyes moved from Murati’s soft lips to her sleek back to her plush, firm ass.

She looked amazing in the Academy’s blue dress uniform. Interesting choice for date wear.

I wonder if she would let me peg her. Karuniya thought, mischievously.

She kind of read her as the taciturn quiet service top but she could have been versatile!

If Murati took the lead though– Karuniya certainly wouldn’t mind getting taken down–

“You’ve been really quiet. I hope I’m not being boring.”

Murati glanced at her with a small smile, they made eye contact.

“Oh no! Everything is fantastic. Should we–”

Karuniya began to reply but–

“You look gorgeous.”

Murati said that in such a sudden, disarmingly casual way that Karuniya almost jumped.

That short messy hair; that sleek handsome jawline, in the multicolor glow of the sculpture.

Karuniya had fallen hard for her since they first had classes together over a year ago.

That odd smoldering loner girl from preparatory had really grown into a prince!

This was her chance– she had to turn all of her distant pining into some real intimacy!

“It’s almost time for our reservation.” Murati said. “Thanks for inviting me Karuniya.”

“Thank you for coming, Murati. It’s going to be amazing.”

Le Traiteur was a co-op restaurant with very limited seating, even despite the backing of the Cultural Ministry as a way to “elevate Union food culture to world standards.” As soon as Karuniya got wind of it she immediately made a reservation. At first she had thought of going alone, simply to treat herself nice after Exams period. But then Murati surprisingly turned out to be receptive to the invitation.

All they had done so far was meet up at the elevators and pass the time.

Karuniya had been nervous, in the days leading up, in the minutes since they met–

Now she was confident though. She looked her best; and Murati was happy with her.

Plus Murati gave off a vibe that was a bit naïve and hall monitor-esque– she always had.

Karuniya thought she could definitely turn this physical if she just played to her charms.

God I am so– I am so embarrassingly pent up. But it’ll be worth it!

Inside the restaurant the walls were tiled a light beige and there were several separated red booths enclosing the tables. Through a narrow central aisle, Murati and Karuniya were led to the farthest booth near the back, and the door was opened with a keycard from one of the staff. Inside, the ambiance was a little more romantic. Metal walls projected the appearance of sultry red silk curtains, and a fake candle-light flickered in the center of a table with two opposing but close seats.

Murati on one side, Karuniya directly across.

Looking into each other’s eyes with faces lit dimly by the wild false fire on the candle.

Karuniya leaned forward a little with a smile.

“So, Murati, I’ve seen you in some of my required military and humanities courses. What is your concentration? I assume you’re not in the Science Corps like me.” Karuniya said, breaking the ice.

“My concentration is in Historical Development of Naval Strategy but I’m not pursuing an academic career.” Murati said. She looked like she had been distracted by the ostentatiousness of the room and caught lightly off-guard when Karuniya actually demanded her attention. “Right now I’m angling for ship Captain. After a few successful campaigns I might parlay that into a role as Commander for a fleet section. But for now I’m just focusing on Captain as solid start. So I have to graduate as a Junior Petty Officer.”

Karuniya blinked. You’re 21 years old? And your goal is already in fleet command?!

“That sounds quite gallant. I’ll definitely be rooting for you.” Karuniya said.

In an environmental impact study that Karuniya had extensively researched for a paper, there was a small factoid that felt relevant here. With Premier Ahwalia having slowed shipbuilding during his first term, the Union was barely on track to complete 27 military ships in 972, even with all of the cheats that modern Union shipbuilding used, like the industrial size Ferrostitchers at Sevastopol and Kashgar stations. In the best case scenario there would be 27 military Captainships open next year when the 27 ships formally launched, since they would need to be inspected, trialed and commissioned.

The Union had something on the order of 50 million people and growing and there were over 900,000 personnel in the Navy and growing. There were hundreds of people more senior than Murati who would be tapped to become Captains ahead of her. And she could forget about becoming a Commander too. There would far less of those promotions available in her career lifetime and far more applicants.

Mathematically, nearly everything was against Murati’s ambition there.

And yet– this only made Karuniya feel fonder for Murati, who spoke so confidently.

She’s a dreamer for sure. I kinda like that. There’s more to her than meets the eye.

For someone who just did all that analysis in her head, there was a certain attraction toward a woman who could just bluntly state that extraordinary things would happen by force of will. And Murati was no fool– she probably knew the odds were against her. It was impossible to be in the career track that she was and not knowing this. And yet, she not only dreamed, but declared it without fear.

“What about you Karuniya? From afar you always struck me as a really driven person.”

“I did? Well, I have pretty humble ambitions actually, I’m just pursuing a PHD.”

“That’s pretty ambitious!” Murati said. “Not many of those are made each year.”

I could say the same for your crazy dreams! Karuniya shouted internally.

“My goal is to become an Oceanographer. I’d like to study the health of our seas.”

“I see–!”

At that point, the aperitif arrived, and Murati offered no words of praise or support like the ones Karuniya had given her. Her attention shifted immediately and fully to the food, and Karuniya could not tell if it was just something she didn’t care about or if she was just that easily distracted. There was a part of her, a bit of pride, that felt slightly wounded. Just an ‘I see’ to her own ambitions, huh? She turned her cheek.

That being said, the food was lovely.

Their starter was a faux shrimp cocktail, the shrimp biostitched from red algae and proteins. Karuniya had never eaten real shrimp, but the taste of these was savory, briny and delectable, especially with the sharp, vinegary tomato sauce in the cocktail. Quickly after it was followed by a faux tartare made with specially seasoned plant proteins and chopped pickled vegetables, served with crusty bread and the kicker– real, fresh egg cracked raw over the raw patty and mixed in. No wonder it was a hassle to get a seat.

“It’s so delicious, but it’s gone in a few bites.” Murati said.

“Yes, but the craft is incredible, isn’t it? It’s worth it while it lasts.”

“Oh, it’s magnificent, I just think their logistics have to be really tight to serve so little.”

Logistics huh? What’s going on in that head of yours, Murati Nakara…

Karuniya found her extremely charming.

“Everyone’s been talking about this place, so hopefully the Cultural Ministry will see how much people love it and invest more in restaurants in the future. It took me months to get seats. And when I said I was bringing another person they nearly cancelled. It’s kind of a miracle we’re eating together.”

She made an expression as if to demand Murati’s gratefulness.

To her credit, Murati responded quickly– though with her own little surprise.

“Karuniya, you’re absolutely amazing. I’m completely thankful. I could’ve never gotten this.”

This time, however, Karuniya would not be so easily disarmed.

Play hard to get for a bit.

“Of course I’m amazing. I’m glad you noticed.”

Murati stared at her, nodded quietly, and finished her tartare. No reaction or comment.

Karuniya smiled to herself politely. It’d be fun to tease her more.

For the last course they had a slightly larger plate than the rest. Pickled artichokes arrayed thoughtfully around a biostitched soy cutlet that was white and flaky with shreddable “meat” like the flesh of a lean fish just barely roasted, swimming in a sauce of kelp bubble “caviar” and garlic oil. While the vegetables and the meat alone did not look that novel, the addition of the kelp orbs and infused oil added a new and savory taste profile and a super-modern aesthetic. Karuniya had never seen anything like it.

With their meal, they were each served a tumbler glass of a strong corn wine.

And the bottle was there– so Karuniya felt like making the most of it.

So she immediately downed a whole glass, to Murati’s astonishment.

When their conversation resumed, Karuniya’s speech was loosening a little bit.

“What do you think of Oceanography, Murati?”

“Hmm? I don’t really think anything about it, I suppose.”

“As a future captain you don’t have an opinion on it?”

“Environmental policy is environmental policy. I don’t think I’d ever be a part of it.”

Maybe it was the alcohol, but she wanted to poke fun at Murati a bit more.

“Murati, you said I struck you as driven before. So, I take it you’ve been looking at me?”

Karuniya grinned at her over steepled fingers.

Murati blinked for a moment. “Um, I mean– we did that group project once.”

She is cute. I really want to tease her more.

“You’ve been looking, so what do you think? Ladies love it when you flatter their ego.”

There was no hesitation. “I think you’re really amazing, I already said it–

“Amazing, huh–?”

“I was actually surprised you invited me.”

“Murati,” Karuniya said, delighting in spelling out every syllable, “I’m going to need you to say more than four or five words at a time you know. A lady loves to hear herself talked about in exacting detail.”

Murati laughed a little. “I’m a lady too you know.”

“It’s the principle– it’s the principle of the thing, you understand.”

“Sure. Alright, Karuniya.” Murati, smiling, lifted a finger to her lips and seemed to think for a moment. “You always struck me from a distance as someone really organized, ambitious, a go-getter, someone who always gets what she wants. You always left class with a bunch of other girls, and I’ve seen you in the halls with big chatty groups. You’re always really fashionable too, even in school. So, I always thought you were a really popular girl, a queen bee.” Murati said. “I didn’t think I merited your attention.”

Karuniya giggled. She reached her hand across the table and briefly poked Murati’s.

She is cute, but she’s such a dork. How does she not see herself in the mirror?

“I’m flattered, I’m flattered. Then let’s have a toast! To Karuniya Maharapratham!”

She clinked her glass of corn wine to Murati’s own and took another long drink.

Murati raised her glass as well and took a drink too.

“Thank you so much Karuniya. It was an amazing meal.”

“Indeed, indeed. We have to finish this though– it’s good stuff.”

Karuniya swirled her remaining corn wine in her glass.

“Of course. But then you have to let me walk you home. You’ve drank a lot more than me.”

Murati had something of a look to her. Maybe it was Karuniya imagining things but–

She looked determined again.

That face– that expression that would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

Karuniya didn’t think she had drunk that much, but it wasn’t actually a tough decision.

Wherever Murati wanted to take her, she would go, until there was a definitive parting.

All of the sordid, sexual plots in her mind had washed away with the alcohol.

She was having fun just being with Murati. They were breaking the ice. It was lovely.

Karuniya wouldn’t push it any further than that but– she wanted to savor it a bit more.

So they drank, and they made more small talk about school.

Once their plates were cleaned out, the two of them were quickly but politely ushered out of the venue by the staff. There were people waiting, after all, and not very many booths to eat in. Plus the restaurant only opened for a few hours on a few nights– very exclusive. Having gone through the experience Karuniya almost felt it was dream-like in memory. Colored lights, lovely smells, sumptuous tastes.

And she had been through such a special event with none other than Murati Nakara.

Ever since she had that class with her– no, even before that.

That one time when she was the preparatory school’s terrifying delinquent.

Karuniya had always wondered what she was really like– whether she was nice–

–whether she would kiss her if she asked.

Childish fancies rekindled because of how small a place Solstice truly was.

As they walked to the elevator close to the main shaft, Karuniya raised her voice.

“That was lovely, don’t you think?” She said.

“It had a great atmosphere.” Murati said. “I hope they are able to expand.”

Karuniya glanced at the neon lights on the sculpture, meters away off of the railings.

Her heart fluttered a tiny bit–

“It might sound silly, but I had actually been meaning to ask you out for a while.”

“I’m happy to hear that– honestly, I’m surprised, I thought I was kind of plain.”

“I’ve had my eye on you for a while. I hope this won’t be our last date, Murati.”

Murati looked quite taken aback by that. Karuniya giggled and grabbed her arm.

“It’s that casual confidence of yours. You’re always so blunt– it’s pretty attractive.”

“I’m flattered. I– I really don’t know what to say. I would love a second date.”

“Did you know there’s rumors about you among the girls at the Academy, Murati Nakara?”

Was it the alcohol? Was it bringing out the sadist in her? Why did she say that?

“Now you’re just teasing me.” Murati said, looking a bit worried.

Karuniya brought her index finger close to Murati’s lips. “Maybe I’ll tell you– after I confirm.”

“Well, if you say so.” Murati smiled awkwardly. “So, where are we headed?”

“I have a single on the 6th level.” Karuniya said. “I live alone.”

Murati nodded. “Now I’m really glad I’m not letting you stumble down there by yourself.”

“I am not stumbling, Murati Nakara.” Karuniya said, her feet just a tiny bit slippery.

Close to the shaft, they took one of many glass elevator tubes from the 8th Tier down to the 6th and stepped off. Rather than an open space, they were immediately met with a long hall. There were vending machines with broth, bread, and dried vegetable packets available, and a small cafeteria that served out of a window, now shuttered for the evening. From there it was all internal halls, long series of doors into rooms. There was soft synthetic carpet beneath their feet, plastic plants on the corners.

This was home, for Karuniya, who wanted to get a grown-up space quickly and leave the dorms.

“I haven’t drunk that much, you know.” Karuniya said. “I have all my faculties.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’m still seeing you to your place. What’s the number?” Murati said.

“Thirteen.”

Murati dutifully accompanied her down the hall, to the left and to her metal door.

Karuniya put her ID on the door, the surface of which scanned and opened.

She didn’t really think about it, but she walked in–

–and Murati walked in right behind her. She stepped past Karuniya as the door shut.

“So, tell me more about these rumors.” Murati said, an arm outstretched to the wall.

Keeping Karuniya from advancing past her. Smiling with a devilish little glint in her eyes.

Oh, you do have some hidden depths, Murati Nakara?

It was clear from their expressions what they both wanted.

Without words, they drew closer together, and Karuniya personally confirmed the rumors.


Idiot! Meathead! Stubborn fucking–

Karuniya’s subconscious had started off yelling at Murati Nakara.

On the heels of a deeply uncomfortable, hurtful scene about their new ship assignment–

She started to feel as she stomped over to the botanical garden in Thassal Station, that she was yelling almost as much at herself as she was at Murati. For her presumptuous foolishness, for her selfishness. Yes, Murati had yelled at her and acted unreasonable and aggressive. Nobody liked to get yelled at, not especially by their partner. Nobody responded happily to that– but on some level, the monologue in her brain that had begun excoriating Murati also sounded more and more like it was about her.

Stupid, selfish, presumptuous fool. You ruined everything. You.

“I was just afraid she would abandon me. I thought–”

She thought that she could solve all of their problems in one fell swoop.

Alone.

Murati wanted a ship to command, Karuniya wanted to pursue her science career.

They could both have gotten what they wanted and stayed together if–

No. I would have gotten what I wanted. I never even thought about Murati.

Karuniya raised her hands to her eyes, stifling tears in the middle of a hall. She was the one in the wrong, she told herself. Afraid that her time with Murati would end too soon, that their relationship would shatter. Their bond that had so far taken them together all the way from Solstice to Thassal.

Soon it would separate them. It had to. Murati was a real soldier, and she was just a scientist.

She had been so afraid of that. She had not even considered how Murati would feel.

Now– had she made the biggest possible mistake? Had she been the one to tear them apart?

“I’ll apologize. I’ll dress up and go to her place and apologize. That’s all I can do.”

Despite everything, Karuniya really and truly loved Murati.

It was that love which caused her to act rashly. Love– and a distant feeling of inferiority.

“I can’t get in her way again like this. I’ll talk to her and if she wants, we’ll make things right and call the expedition off. I can’t– I shouldn’t have tried to do this. I was being selfish– I really hope she’ll take me back. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to end things like this. God damn it, I’m an idiot.”

So Karuniya dressed up, visited Murati that night. They made up; their story continued.

However, Karuniya came to understand– she and Murati existed in different worlds. This colored her approach to Murati. She couldn’t presume what was right for her or she would hurt her again like she did at Thassal. And she couldn’t afford to fuck up with Murati like that again. She wouldn’t be able to bear it.

Even after ending up on a warship together nevertheless– it was in the back of her mind.

Would she hurt Murati again? Would their divided worlds continue to tear them apart?

How could she truly, deeply support her– what did that look like, between a soldier and a scientist?


“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”

What kind of question was that? Who did this woman think she was?

Theresa Faraday stood in front of Murati and Karuniya in the infirmary, waving her arms, grinning, dressed in a mechanic’s coveralls with a white coat over them, her red ponytail dancing behind her as she gesticulated wildly– what did she think was happening here? Did she not understand the current situation? Ever since she spoke with Rontgen earlier Karuniya knew something was off with them.

They were plotting something. Maybe it was benign, but they were still plotting.

“I’ll need you to expand that question before I answer, Faraday.” Karuniya said.

“I agree.” Murati said. “What business do you have with these love quizzes, Faraday?”

Karuniya felt a bit relieved that Murati was not offended by her response and supported her so quickly.

But of course, they were both more mature than that. Karuniya should have known.

Without losing one iota of energy, Theresa Faraday resumed speechifying.

“At this very moment, this ship is facing a crisis the scope of which neither of you could possibly understand.” Theresa said. “That Antenora sails the seas with the backing of many powerful and shadowy forces. It contains elite soldiers with highly advanced technology that you can’t hope to match. In order to even the odds, you’ll need every single advantage you can get! I’m here to provide another!”

Murati and Karuniya glanced at each other and back at Theresa Faraday.

“What do you mean by advantage?” Karuniya asked.

“You two going out there and fighting the good fight! And this young lady too I guess.” Theresa suddenly pointed to a baffled Sameera in the adjacent bed, who watched the argument quietly. “Right now, your squadron is down its best pilots isn’t it? You can’t hope to win in this condition! You need to sortie!”

Murati narrowed her eyes.

“This advantage you offer us– does it concern Solarflare LLC’s ‘intellectual property’?”

Theresa grinned broadly at Murati’s question. “Indeed, indeed. You are perceptive! But– let’s just say that there are some open source components in there which you’ll be interested in, Murati Nakara. It’s based on something of value to you. After she met you, Euphrates started planning to part with it–”

“Euphrates?”

“Yeah, yeah. Our names are Euphrates and Tigris. Let’s move on from that though.”

“So you were lying–?”

“Of course were lying! Your Captain must have suspected as much throughout.”

“Forgive me for wanting to think the two of you had more character.”

Theresa– Tigris, crossed her arms and pouted.

“Euphrates’ character is the entire reason for this whole mess so don’t give me that shit. She has such a deep and boundless character that this is as much as I could possibly do for you without upsetting her. Listen, in due time, we will turn ourselves in and confess to the truth of everything. But right now, for her sake, and for your own sakes, I need you two to listen to me and get ready to go out there. Okay?”

“You’re talking awful fast for someone who might be sending us to our deaths.”

Murati glanced over at Sameera. With a knowing look, Sameera stood up from her bed.

Dressed in a medical smock, she approached Tigris cracking her knuckles.

“Please listen to her, Ms. Tigris.” She said her firm but gentle. “I’m only in bed to assuage the doc’s feelings here. I can still get a bit rowdy. You’re not calling the shots here. It’s time to quit acting like you’re the boss and start listening to the superior officer here. Are we understanding each other now?”

Sameera cracked a little grin.

Standing over a head taller than Tigris, she did cause the smaller woman to cow a bit.

“Okay, okay, whatever! You win!” Tigris said. “Look, I’m not the bad guy here!”

“You’re not.” Murati said. “Good response. Stand down, Sameera.”

“Heh, you know, I really thought you wanted me to smack her, squad leader.”

“Bah! We’re wasting time!” Tigris sighed. “What do you want from me?”

Murati sighed openly.

“Tell us what your plan actually is for starters.” Karuniya interjected.

“To put it really simple: I have a Diver you two can get into! I have a super cool state of the art Diver that you can use to fight! And like I dunno the cat can get into hers too and be a big hero as well, I don’t care! But I’m not giving my Helios to anyone else but you two. It needs reciprocity between its pilots, otherwise it won’t work properly. And since you,” Tigris pointed at Murati, “are injured, it’ll have to be her,” she pointed at Karuniya, “who does the most piloting! Does that need any further clarifying?”

“Do you want me to crawl behind her seat?” Murati said. “What are you talking about?”

“My machine boasts a two-seater cockpit! It was designed for me and Euphrates as partners!”

Karuniya scoffed. “Designed for her? I thought this ‘Euphrates’ was a pacifist.”

“That’s precisely the point of it.” Tigris said. “You’ll see when I show it to you.”

“Hold on.” Karuniya said, raising a hand. “This is going too fast. I’m not sure about this.”

Her voice trembled just a little. That idea– piloting a Diver with Murati. It felt–

“I’m not a great pilot, you know. I’m pretty crummy with Divers.” Karuniya said.

“You’re better than you think.” Murati said suddenly.

Karuniya turned to face her. Something crawled in her stomach. “Murati, I–”

“I’m not saying you have to do what Tigris says.” Murati said. “I’m just saying.”

She smiled, in a gentle and disarming way that Karuniya could not really place.

“Murati–”

“You both should really just do what I am saying to do.” Tigris interrupted.

For a moment they looked at her, and she seemed to stare at them quite intently.

Really consider doing what I’m telling you to. You really want to, I swear.”

Karuniya thought she saw a weird glint in her eyes– but maybe it was just her imagination.

There was a brief silence, and then Tigris turned around with her head in her hands.

“Can you please deliberate faster. Asking as a buddy, as a pal.” Tigris moaned.

“She’s a real bundle of energy, huh?” Sameera said, still standing guard beside her.

“Ignore her for a bit. Murati, how do you feel about this?” Karuniya asked.

Seated in bed on pillows as comfortable and fluffy as Karuniya could make them, still smiling at the group, Murati closed her eyes briefly as if to think. All this time that she had been in the hospital, Karuniya never thought she had seemed reduced in any way, she was no smaller or weaker or more vulnerable. But there was something about that smile that seemed like an inkling of who Murati was that had been missing for a moment and had suddenly sprung back. Karuniya had seen that expression before.

That smile– and the smoldering, determined gaze when her eyes next opened.

“I believe entirely in my pilots. I believe that they can accomplish this mission. I have the utmost confidence in them, Miss Tigris.” Murati said. “I don’t think that you need to worry about them. I think they could find a way to succeed. There might be casualties, but they can pull it off.”

Tigris snapped back around with her hands in the air in frustration.

“Are you serious? Don’t be facile! If it’s a war, you use everything you have to win!”

“I was getting to that.” Murati said. “I wouldn’t make this decision without reason.”

She turned her attention to her side, to Karuniya instead of Tigris.

Reaching out a hand to Karuniya’s own and laying her palm over it.

“I want to protect my comrades. That’s how I’ve always operated. But I’m not responsible exclusively for the lives of others. One hard lesson I’ve had to learn is that I’m also responsible for my own life. And furthermore, you are asking Karuniya to be responsible for her own life, my life, and the lives of others. Tigris, maybe in your mind, we’re just units in the calculus of a battle, that you can slot into your gear to make it move. But Karuniya and I need to make this decision. I am not going to do it on my own.”

“Alright! Let’s give them some space then.” Sameera said suddenly, reading the room.

Tigris stood speechless for a moment as Sameera ushered her out into the hall.

Leaving Murati and Karuniya alone for a moment to make their decision.

“How do you really feel about what Tigris said? About us fighting together?” Murati asked.

For a moment Karuniya contemplated her answer. She didn’t want to be impulsive.

Did Murati really need her? Was this the best way? It wasn’t just about Karuniya’s feelings.

When Murati went out to fight that Leviathan weeks and weeks ago, recklessly, forcing her need for heroism onto everyone until they let her go. Karuniya had been terrified. How could she not be? And then, Murati decided to take the whole fight against the Iron Lady into her own hands and got herself put in this infirmary in this condition. Karuniya felt mortified about it. She really thought, for the first time, that Murati might have died. She had to grapple with that feeling– with possibly being left behind, alone.

No matter how much she wanted to protect Murati, how much she didn’t want to let go–

She still felt conflicted now. What if– what if she just got in Murati’s way again?

She couldn’t just pretend that it was the best choice because she wanted to do it.

It felt selfish of her. It felt like there had to be a better choice. One that didn’t involve her.

“Murati, I’m no pilot and you know that. No matter what gadget Tigris gives me.”

“I understand if you want out of this situation, but don’t put yourself down.”

“I’m trying to be realistic! Murati, I’m just not as strong as you. I’ve never been!” She said. It was difficult to put into words. It sounded so childish coming out of her lips. “You’re extremely brave, you’re a good fighter, but more than anything you are impossibly stubborn. You throw yourself at life like a bullet. I’m not capable of acting as crazy self-assured as you can be. I can’t just follow you out there.”

I can’t really say it to her, but I’ve always felt like I can’t stand on the same plane as her.

When the two of them first started going out, their relationship was a bit noncommittal.

Karuniya almost wanted to think of her as a best friend she had sex with more than a girlfriend– because their relationship was characterized by a parting that was sure to come. Their positions were so separate. She wanted to study the waters of the Union and push for reforms in Union water policy, while Murati wanted to lead a war. She never said it, but that was tacitly what she wanted to do. To end the war with the Empire by her own hand. To become a grand commanding savior of the Union Navy.

Someday Murati will leave me– these words stained her love and admiration.

It was different now. They were together. They had made commitments to each other.

And yet, the conflict was still present. Murati could still leave her forever.

They did not stand on the same plane. Karuniya was not entirely Murati’s equal.

Because she could not follow Murati as a “soldier” into battle. She was no good in a fight.

It was selfish to think she could do so, when she hadn’t a fraction of Murati’s strength.

“I know how your head works. I know you don’t really mean all the stuff you said to Tigris. You will absolutely just go out there because you want to fight alongside your squadron. That’s who you are. You’re a soldier; arguing about that with you is pointless. I’ll let you go; the captain will have to let you go. Since you’re going to disobey the doctor anyway– you should just take Sameera with you. Forget what Tigris said, she’ll buckle and hand over the keys to Sameera, she has no choice.”

Karuniya got it out of her chest and sighed deeply, feeling more than a little pathetic.

What she wanted the most in that moment was to support Murati. Despite that, Karuniya loved, respected, admired Murati enough to know that if Murati needed a partner in a fight, that could not possibly be Karuniya, right? She was a spreadsheet nerd while Murati was a big strong hero.

They would always have this separation. Murati was the fighter, Karuniya could never–

“Karuniya, you’re incredibly strong too! You have no idea how much!”

Murati grabbed hold of Karuniya’s hands and lifted them, taking them fully into her own.

With tears in her eyes, she stared straight into Karuniya’s own.

Seeing Murati’s emotional expression made Karuniya want to tear up as well.

“I always felt like I didn’t deserve you. I was just some stupid meathead always being stubborn and causing problems everywhere I went. When we started dating– it was really unfair to you, but I always thought ‘Karuniya deserves so much better than this’. I thought I was selfish for wanting you for myself. Because you were this amazing and smart and dedicated woman with a real goal you were pursuing. And I was just a fool who wanted to fight. I told myself I had an enemy only I could destroy– but I’ve seen the face of it now. I can’t fight it alone. I really do need your kind of strength too, Karuniya.”

Her hands gripped Karuniya so tightly, like she was afraid to let go.

“You’ve always told me how amazing I am. And I have tried very strongly to internalize it. I wish there was something that I could say to you that could convey how much I love you and what an amazing person I think you are in return. You are so much stronger than you think. You have an enormous enemy to confront as well, and you have shown me the incredible conviction you possess to fight it. You have sharpened your own weapons against it: your theories, your intellect, your sensibility, your empathy, and your optimism, your unwavering hope in a better world. You’re incredibly strong, Karuniya.”

Murati briefly dried her eyes. “Karuniya, you told me some time back that you admired the woman who didn’t give up on her dreams no matter how crazy they were. And that seeing me inspired you to get a bit crazy too. If so, then forgive me, but I’ll say what I feel completely selfishly and without filter. I do want to go out to fight. I want to protect everyone. I feel ashamed to be stuck in here helplessly– and I want you to come with me. I have a hunch I’m not the only one who lied to Tigris about my true feelings.”

Karuniya shut her eyes, cutting off the tears for an instant. She laughed a little at herself.

God damn it. I hate that you saw through me. I’m absolutely going to tease you for it.

“Murati Nakara, you really are selfish, and a stupid meathead too.” Karuniya said.

“Huh?” Murati was briefly taken aback, until–

Karuniya reached around behind Murati’s head and pulled her close.

First touching foreheads together affectionately–

Then taking her into a kiss. A gentle kiss, held like an embrace for a few warm seconds.


“Um. Well. How to summarize the situation?” Chief Akulantova shut her eyes and crossed her arms.

She was on a video feed from the hangar to one of the secondary partitions of the main screen of the bridge. The Captain awaited her explanation while the entire Bridge crew watched with varying degrees of interest and confusion. Finally she spoke. “Fifteen minutes ago a loud red-head showed up here kind of doing and saying whatever she wants. Theresa Faraday was it? Murati Nakara, Sameera al-Shahouh and Karuniya Maharapratham came in with her. They got all the sailors hooked on some heroic scheme, and they’ve all hastily pried apart one of Solarflare’s containers. There was a Diver inside it.” Akulantova looked over her shoulder. “Chief Lebedova is kind of torn on what to do, and I personally don’t relish having to beat the paste out of a bunch of sailors who are just really worried about the situation. I think we should just let everyone go about their business and punish their unruliness individually later.”

Akulantova smiled cheerfully at her own suggestion. She looked truly unbothered.

On the Captain’s chair, Korabiskaya was holding her head in her hands with frustration.

Then the whole bridge rattled– a munition from the Antenora had gone off nearby.

There was no way they could discuss this with the length it required.

“You and Lebedova will take full responsibility for the hangar! I can’t divert my attention!”

The Captain dismissed Akulantova and returned to commanding the bridge.

Alexandra Geninov looked down at her own station with increasing concern.

It was truly unfair. That Antenora–

How could an early game boss like this have such intense final boss energy?

A boss battle–

She was wracking her brain to come up with an answer. How could she use what she had to defeat her enemy with pure gumption and systems mastery? You could pull off incredible upsets in video game battles by knowing the systems really well. That had to be true for real battles too. Alex took stock of her own loadout. She had her skills as a gamer– and she had torpedoes of a few different payloads.

Torpedoes had not worked previously.

Probably torpedoes could be counted on to keep working the same if nothing else changed.

Her skills as a gamer were her wildcard. Difficult to harness, but powerful when deployed.

(“Okay but what the fuck does that even mean?” she screamed internally at herself.)

Now she started holding her own head in her hands much like Ulyana had been.

“Firing 150 mm guns and starboard 76 mm guns!”

Alex peered beside her at Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa’s gunnery station.

Then she peered at the main screen.

Three 76 mm guns and the double 150 mm guns on the turret fired on the Antenora.

By the time the tracking items appeared on the predictive imaging the shots had already landed.

“I’m starting to be able to pick up the sound of that shield of theirs when ordnance crashes into it– it’s distinctive. It does remind me of a distant and subtle agarthic annihilation.” said Fatima al-Suhar, the sonar operator, with a downcast look. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we had an effect on target.”

“Curses!” Fernanda cried out.

“Biomass levels from the Gorge are beginning to surge. We’re breaking 80 Katov.”

Braya Zachikova spoke up in a droning, robotic voice from her own station.

“Calculating the peak– potentially close to 250 to 300 Katov within twenty minutes.”

“When it rains it pours!” Captain Korabiskaya said in frustration. “Brace for communications issues and keep shooting! I want torpedoes and gunnery to keep pressure up on the Antenora! If you can’t put a round on the target then detonate just off of the hull! The shockwaves will at least rattle them!”

Rising biomass introduced a sense of desperation. Soon their sensors would be clouded.

Ship predictive imagers and rangefinders used a combination of various sensors to correct each other and ultimately generate the best possible predictive data out of various data sources. The primary arrays for generating imagery and collecting targeting data were acoustic/SONAR and LADAR. LADAR briefly flashed extremely powerful but short-lived lasers to gather its data. These laser effectors were installed on the deck and underside of the Brigand for the fullest possible coverage of the surrounding geography.

For a LADAR scan, the key elements were power capacity and optic quality. By 979 A.D. the power output of the laser effectors and the quality of the optic lenses allowed effective range in perfect conditions up to a kilometer. For the laser arrays to image farther out in water with less scattering, they needed to consume more power and put more strain on the equipment. More power and a longer imaging period were necessary to get a higher resolution image and thus a better prediction. So it was a tradeoff between these elements to decide how good of a picture you needed to get and how often it needed to update. In open combat, using the LADAR as the primary imager could put a lot of strain on it.

One helpful innovation was the use of computer algorithms to synthesize different kinds of sensor data. First a powerful LADAR scan would create a “master image” which would be altered moment to moment using fluid data, acoustic data and complex mathematics to deliver “best guess” predictions. This allowed the LADAR to be run less in ship to ship combat where the variables of where the enemy could move were more limited. This was the venerable standard on ships– and led to a few superstitions among officers as to whether the prediction was any good, since machine learning introduced potential errors.

That was the magic of predictive imagery and how it allowed humans to kill each other underwater.

This of course assumed perfect water conditions: water turbidity levels of less than 25 Katov scale.

At 100-150 Katov of red biomass concentration in the water, continuing to image with the LADAR array would require outputting more laser power, straining even the exotic matter lenses and agarro-lattice effectors of the Union’s current imaging LADARs to their uppermost limits. They would definitely need to service the sensor array after the battle was over to prevent a breakdown later down the line.

At 300 Katov there was not an imaging system on the planet that could continue to present a clear image without burning all of the sensor equipment out. This would ultimately affect the ability of the main gunner to target enemy ships. Without LADAR to correct against the raw acoustic data, in a battlefield this noisy with munitions from the Divers and the circling ships, they could find their guns near-completely blinded. Soon they could be in a situation where it was impossible to put a 150 mm round anywhere near the Antenora. Torpedoes could work by using camera navigation, but not well.

On the bridge the tension was palpable. They could barely follow the Diver battle because everyone had scattered and Zachikova did not want to risk exposing the drone too far off the seafloor. Meanwhile the Antenora was putting a ton of pressure on them. Now the rising biomass put them on a clock too. If they could not do something about the Antenora before the area became saturated, then the initiative would fall to the enemy. With their shields and higher speed, they could close in with impunity within the biomass cloud, absorbing any retaliatory blindfire, trapping the Brigand and collecting their prize.

They weren’t faster than the Antenora, they could not withstand anywhere near as much fire, and they did not know what the situation could be like if they were crippled and boarded. Right now the only reason the Antenora couldn’t just run right up to them after shrugging off all their fire was that the Divers were in between them, and that the Antenora needed to be careful to collect their VIP. Even with that handicap they were still schooling the Brigand– it was at this point no contest between the two ships.

Alex had even overheard the captain of the Antenora was a stone cold badass from how Korabiskaya and the Rontgen lady reacted to just talking to her. That Rontgen started hemorrhaging even!

All they did was call this lady for a few minutes!

Alex bit her finger, thinking.

If someone didn’t come up with a plan soon, they were fucked.

But they didn’t even know the properties of that defense system.

So how could they do anything about it?

Alex took in a deep breath.

She tried to center herself, to dig deep into the palace of her mind.

Big screens, the latest graphics, the roar of the crowd watching her compete–

Video games.

They were not just a stupid pass-time. Video games required tactics and discipline. Alex would not be half the soldier she was without video games. Nobody believed her, but she truly thought they had taught her many things. Hand-eye coordination, quick thinking, the ability to read systems and see patterns. Fuck, her reading level would probably be shitty without all the RPGs she had played and all the time she spent arguing about the best characters on the BBSes. Video games had molded her into who she was.

Most of all, they gave her something she wasn’t useless at.

Everyone needed one of those.

Think, Alex. This is a game. What are the systems? What can you do?

And more importantly– what haven’t you done yet? What’s the unexpected trump card?

She and Fernanda held the ship’s direct combat power in their hands.

If anyone was going to break that defense it had to be them.

They had all this ordnance, and they had fired it at the enemy to no avail–

Video games, video games, there had to be something–

Wait.

Fernanda.

Of course!

Fernanda was the key! She had been the key all along!

“Combo attacks! That’s it! We haven’t tried combo attacks!”

“Huh?”

Fernanda stared as Alex shouted and threw her hands up. Then quickly retracted them.

“Combo attacks are a staple in video games.” Alex replied, lowering her voice to Fernanda.

Despite her clear skepticism, Fernanda played along and spoke only between themselves.

“Have you even the merest inkling of the situation we’re embroiled in?” She whispered.

Her drawn-wide eyes looked at Alex with a fathomless disgust.

Fernanda had no respect for her as a gamer. She had no respect for gamers whatsoever.

However, maybe, she had a little respect for Alex as a person.

Otherwise, she would have just told the captain that Alex was being gamer-y next to her.

And maybe in this situation Alex wouldn’t be scolded. But in others–

Nevertheless. Alex felt she was on the right path.

She finally had enough relationship points with Fernanda to whisper to her.

And this allowed her to open the route where she and Fernanda could execute–

–a sick combo attack.

She realized then that she should not tell this to Fernanda in that particular way.

Or else Fernanda’s small amount of favor toward her might be completely incinerated.

“Fern,”

For a moment Alex waited for Fernanda to object to the nickname. She did not. Weird.

Alex continued, “Fern, we need to try hitting the same spot together at the same time.”

Fernanda stared at her for a moment. “Coordinating a torpedo and shells simultaneously?”

“Uh huh. Cool idea right?”

“You have no idea how impossible it is to time that, do you? My shells are a hundred times faster than your torpedoes. There is no possible way that we could land the shots at the same time.”

Alex noticed she was not saying this in a cutesy complicated way. She didn’t bring it up.

“Going on like this won’t work either.” Alex said. “We have to mix it up!”

Fernanda resisted. “We may yet be able to pierce their armor with enough ordnance.”

“I don’t think individual shells are going to work. They haven’t worked yet. But if we cause a really, really huge explosion right on top of the shield, in the same place, maybe we can overload it or something. We don’t know how it works– but we know that what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, Fern! I have an um– a real strong gut feeling about my plan, you know! Can it hurt to try something different?”

“It’ll hurt in the sense of lost ordnance and time.” Fernanda said.

“I’m not joking around, I’m being serious. I believe in this– would you please trust me?”

Alex’s tone of voice went from confident to almost pleading.

Reflexively, she reached out a hand to Fernanda under their stations.

Fernanda stared at the hand below, and then at her.

They had started off on a wrong foot, but across countless night shifts–

Alex got to know her a little bit– and there was one thing she really did like about Fernanda.

“Fine. I will trust you just this once. Don’t get used to it, gamer.”

When it counts, she is really good-natured.

Under their stations, Fern’s hand gave hers a brief but firm grip.

Alex nodded her head in acknowledgment. She felt a bit hyped up– and anxious.

I– I can’t disappoint her now, right? It’d be such a bottom move.

“I hope you two had a productive conference!” the captain called out. “Keep firing!”

Alex and Fernanda looked back over their shoulders nodded and turned back to their stations. In order to satisfy the captain they each fired one more barrage as ineffective as the last few had been. The Antenora was not quick to retaliate, giving them a bit of breathing room. While their weapons cooled down they reconvened in whispers, huddling close to each other in order to enact their new strategy.

“So gamer, enlighten me as to the rest of your conspiracy?” Fernanda said.

Alex smiled, cool and collected.

“First, I’m going to DM Zachikova and ask her to crunch the numbers.”

Fernanda sighed, but she did not protest.

From her station, Alex wrote a quick text to Zachikova’s station and sent it out.

“Yo! Can you run the numbers to get a torpedo and a shell to land at the same time?”

A text message quickly returned: “Don’t @ me ever again. I will headbutt you.”

Fernanda stared over Alex’s shoulder with narrowed eyes.

“You’ve become maestro to an orchestra of irritation whose song has spread quite far.”

Alex did not comment on Fernanda resuming her flowery speech.

“Allow me to scribe the message before your plot is utterly buried in this gorge.”

“No, no, I got it.” Alex replied. “Your guns will cool off soon, fire another barrage.”

“If you say so, gamer.”

That hint of vinegar returned to the tone with which she said ‘gamer’.

Alex returned to her screen and typed a new message.

“I’ll let you into the bridge to play with the drone all you want if I’m night shift.”

Moments later a message arrived with an attachment. The accompanying message read:

“Deal. I can’t program something on short notice but try running her station clock like this.”

That attachment contained instructions for setting up their clocks to help them time the attack and how to carry it out, along with a tiny doodle of Zachikova in a graduation hat pointing at the explanations. Because Alex’s torpedoes were the slowest of the two, Alex would fire a torpedo at consistent maximum speed and Fernanda would use her station’s clock program to run a countdown and aim at an agreed upon location. She would then shoot at the appropriate time– and the shell should strike on time with the torpedo hitting the target. This execution was sort of what Alex was thinking too.

She ran the instructions by Fernanda quickly, who sighed.

“While I am a gifted witch of many arts, I am also only human, possessing only human reflexes.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem if it takes you a tiny bit to react to the clock and shoot right?”

“On the contrary, gamer, with these timings, any hesitation on my part would bring about our failure.” Fernanda sighed. “Nevertheless, since we are reduced to merely shooting torpedoes and shells into a mountain at this point there’s no reason not to try this imaginative scheme of yours.”

“Right. Right. Thanks.”

Alex felt a shiver inside her. They really were going to do it– so it could fail.

In fact it was much more likely to fail than succeed. That drove a spike of anxiety into her gut.

This wasn’t entirely about winning or losing, about a gamer’s pride, or whatever, but–

–rather,

Fuck, can I please get one thing right? One thing right in my entire life?

Her head started to get scrambled. She was near to having a meltdown, so much anxiety–

She drew in a breath, tried to fight off all the thoughts–

But everything came crashing down on her shoulders for a second.

Who was she kidding? In this situation all she could do was panic.

She was a loser– a useless loser. Always a loser.

No matter how many competitions she won and how much she touted herself.

She couldn’t ever win where it mattered.

All her trophies didn’t make up for all the things Alex had failed at.

Academy, society, family–

All the people she had let down– all the things she had run away from–

Video games became an escape in more than one way.

It was the only place she ever won anything. The only thing she felt good at.

All the pressure– how much she was pushed and how little she was accepted–

She still heard the shouting in her head. Her father, her teachers, her superior officers–

Everyone knew she was a loser! A born loser! Everyone could see it!

Despite everything she knew, the competence she had shown with torpedoes, the fact that she was on this mission– none of that made up for all the scorn of her family, her failure to achieve, and how no matter what she did, how seriously she did it, everyone always thought of her as just a weird clown. But this time– it wasn’t even about herself! If they didn’t win they’d be dead.

And that’d be the end– no more deferring her life and responsibilities, she’d have none.

I don’t get how a lot of shit works, but I don’t want to die–

–and I don’t want any of these people to die because I fucked up!

I can’t fuck up that colossally can I? Everything else would be tiny compared to that.

Thinking about the type of situation she was caught up in, she thought she’d cry.

She probably looked like a nervous wreck and a coward all the time. Nobody liked her.

It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter! Snap out of it. We can’t give up.

But she really was doing her best. She was just doing everything she could to keep calm.

Alex Geninov couldn’t help but run her mouth. She needed the story that she told of herself.

I’m the big damn hero of a weird game. A weird, sad game with a lot of ups and downs.

Telling herself this, and trying to put out of her mind all the creeping evil thoughts–

I won’t fail this one. I won’t say I sat here and did nothing. I won’t run away either.

“Torpedo out!” She declared, grasping her joystick with firm determination.

“You can do it, Geninov! Strike true!”

The Captain’s voice was so supportive. She didn’t know how much Alex needed it.

“I won’t let you down ma’am!” She replied.

At her side, Fernanda ran the clock. The plan was on.

“Port sidepod.” Alex said. Fernanda nodded, not taking her eyes off her station.

At maximum speed the torpedo would hit the Antenora in less than a minute.

Please, please, please.

On the main screen a blurry, lagging prediction of her torpedo appeared.

The Antenora circling hundreds of meters away. That little blip neared and neared.

Her torpedo felt so insignificant, like Alex herself–

Like someone who could do nothing in the face of that evil juggernaut–

No, no! Come on–!

Focused on the screen, guiding the projectile–

Through the stream of fire from the Antenora’s support guns–

Because Alex was pretty tall and the stations so close together, she brushed her leg against Fernanda’s again in the anxiety of the moment. Normally this ticked off Fernanda, who in a calm and ordinary situation wanted the least to do with Alex that she could. But at that moment, Alex felt something back– two pats on her leg. Not to tell her to retract it, but– in support of her–?

Impulsively, Alex took Fernanda’s hand into her own.

Squeezing those slender, soft, warm fingers.

Her grip was not rejected. Maybe there was a shared comfort.

On her station, the broad side of the Antenora loomed massively in front of the camera.

Her eyes felt hot. She thought she saw for a brief moment a flash of color–

Fernanda’s hand conveyed her pulse and Alex felt receptive to it.

For a second, Alex thought she understood her– they felt alike, reciprocal emotions.

We won’t fail.

There was a moment of synchronicity. A brief flash of shared joy and misery.

Holding hands, fighting together despite everything–

Now!

“Firing main gun!” Fernanda declared.

By the time Alex turned to the main screen the shot would have already hit.

On her station camera, with a short lag time, the torpedo sent back its last message.

A skin-crawling instant while they awaited the result–

“I think it’s a hit!”

Fatima al-Suhar half-stood from her station, gripping the earphones against her ear fluff.

“I think– I think I heard a blast and then water rushing!” She cried out.

On the main screen the prediction updated — effect on target. Breach on the port side.

For a moment the bridge was completely silent.

Then all at once the officers cried out with the realization of what had happened.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Ulyana Korabiskaya shouted out.

At her side, Aaliyah Bashara patted her back as if urging calm.

Fatima and Semyonova held hands and began to jump up and down near their stations.

And over on the gunnery stations–

Alex and Fernanda, holding hands, stared at the screen speechless.

“Damage assessment!” Korabiskaya called out.

“Confirmed unmitigated breach on the Antenora’s upper port sidepod.” Zachikova said.

Tears began to flow from Alex’s eyes.

It worked. It really actually worked.

“That was a brilliant shot you two! I have no idea how you did it but keep it up!”

Captain Korabiskaya hailed the gunnery section with an enormous grin.

“Keep your eyes peeled and keep up the pressure! They’ll be desperate now!”

On her screen, the last picture frozen on the moment of impact showed the shell from Fernanda’s gun entering the picture like a blur from out of nowhere. Beneath the ordnance, the purple field briefly split. Only a tiny hexagonal fracture could be seen but in Alex’s mind, she thought she imagined the whole latticework collapsing inward, allowing for the hull to be breached on that side.

Her whole body began to shake. A stupid idea from her loser brain had actually worked.

“Good job.”

She felt a hand pat her on the back.

Small and warm like the one she was still holding.

“Don’t get a big head. There’s work still in need of doing, hero.”

Fernanda’s fingers slipped out of her own.

Alex felt her heart shiver.

“Right. Thanks.”

She thought she would hear a ‘don’t get too far ahead of yourself’ or something.

But Fernanda had the tiniest smile on her face as she returned her attention to her station.

And for a moment, Alex couldn’t help but look at her as if with new eyes.


Shit, which direction is it coming from next?

Dominika Rybolovskaya was caught in a vice.

Between avoiding the shots from the Volkannon sniping at her and keeping up with the Jagd that was giving Valya Lebedova the run-around, she was going around in circles with no way to retaliate. There had already been too many close calls with both of her assailants, and she could hardly coordinate with her remaining ally to do anything about it. Valya was as overwhelmed as her, and they had no idea what was happening with Shalikova, McKennedy or al-Shahara. Dominika was a sitting duck.

Waiting to react to the next attack, alone in the water until something came out of the fog.

Sweat trickled down her face in long thin streams. Her breath caught in her chest.

In the dim light the chromatophores on her chest glowed bioluminescent green.

Caught in a fog of anxiety, her thinking sluggish, her arms raw from effort, mind blank–

Her eyes scanned around, in the silence and stillness of this dead patch of ocean–

Movement in the rear camera–!

I’m dead! I’m dead! I wasn’t sharp enough–!

“Ma’am, this guy bothering you?”

From out of nowhere–

An enormous saw-sword cleaved into the Jagd that had come rushing from behind her.

Chunks of metal tore from its shoulder, arm, and hip before it retreated once again into the fog.

And its place, at her back, was the Cossack of Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.

Briefly speechless, Dominika wandered if she was dead and dreaming.

Katarrans shared common myths about soldiers or mercenaries whom, having died, began dreaming in the instant of their death about whole lives of battle and glory. Success, victory, and joy flashed in the last moments of their biological life. Brains slowly shutting down in reality but wanting to believe that they were alive and victorious. Cold tears drew from Dominika’s eyes in that moment–

–as Sameera’s smiling face appeared on one of her secondary screens.

“Miss, can you indulge me being a romantic bonehead just this once?” Sameera said.

“Fuck you. You’re such an asshole. I could just about kick your fucking ass.”

Dominika started sobbing. Gritting her teeth, she raised her hand to her eyes.

She was so thankful– her heart was soaring with joy. She could kiss that idiot dog.

“Music to my ears. Tell me what you need, Nika, and I’ll do it with flair.”

Sameera smiled. Despite herself, Dominika found herself smiling back too.


Where the fuck did that thing come from? What the fuck is it?

Gertrude Lichtenberg stared speechlessly at the enemy that suddenly barred her way.

There was always something. Always something in her way to Elena.

She climbed over so many corpses for that radiant girl always a step farther away.

Her unblinking, stunned eyes pored over the newest stone in her path.

Suspended in the water ahead of her was a Diver with a dark gold paint job. From the body plan it suspiciously resembled a Magellan like her own Diver. She could see it in the beveled edges of the shoulders and chest, the rounded, cylinder-like construction of the forearms and forelegs, rather than the predominantly angled, square shapes of the Streloks or the S.E.A.L. from before. The head was different, however. Instead of the cyclopic hood of the Magellan it had a visored, helmeted humanoid head.

Everything was just a bit thicker-looking than the Magellan however– more rugged.

To start, it was just a bit taller than her Magellan, closer to 7.5 meters.

Over the cockpit, the armor was more solid, with a thicker upper chest that thinned toward the angled skirt. Each hand was like a thick gauntlet that extended back over the arm, the wrists mounting what were clearly revolving projectile launch tubes of some kind. On the shoulders there were thick, square guards that vaguely resembled the drone mounting points of Selene’s Jagdkaiser. Instead of accepting the drones atop the shoulder however they seemed to be able to go inside it. There were two flat delineations upon each shoulder, probably the bays for the drones or projectiles– these were probably disc-shaped rather than the long cylinders launched by the Jagdkaiser, judging by the space involved.

Propulsion seemed pretty standard. There was a backpack with intakes on the shoulder, hull and hip, jets in the legs with intakes on the knee, verniers for additional solid fuel thrust. There appeared to be six jets in the backpack, like a Second Generation Diver. On each of the intakes there was a thick cap. A red biomass filter? For weapons, it wasn’t carrying a rifle and Gertrude couldn’t spot a sword on it either, so perhaps it had internal weapons like a Jagd. What was this thing? Where did it come from?

How had these mercenaries gotten a hold of it since they last met?

On the chest there was a logo, a sunburst– and the word HELIOS inscribed.

“These mercenaries are clearly backed by someone powerful. To steal Elena from me.”

Everything was starting to make sense. After their last battle, the mercenaries must have received some kind of resupply from their masters that included this thing. For a moment she feared Elena might have been taken from these cowards and that this battle was all a ruse to ferret her away– but she could not think that way. Maybe the appearance of this unit meant Elena was still there and a prize worthy of protecting with everything they had in their arsenal. It was impossible to know the truth.

All she could do was believe.

Believe that all her sacrifices had been worth it.

Every humiliation, every instance of bloodletting, everything– for Elena.

“Get out of my way, you piece of shit. I’ll kill anyone I have to! I’ll get her back!”

On one hand she unfolded the Magellan’s advanced XM-979 rifle.

On the other, she flashed the futuristic silver vibrosword that had come with the machine.

This Magellan was the strongest machine she had ever piloted. She could absolutely take it to victory. Norn had conferred her this armor so she could become Elena’s knight. She would not fail. She could not fail. There was nothing left for her if she lost Elena here. Gertrude’s heart pounded, her whole body shivered. Her lips drew apart slowly in a bloodthirsty grin. She was ready to do anything.

Her mind was a breathless turmoil of all she had suffered and all the suffering she’d inflict.

For Elena’s sake–

Compared to all the monsters at Gertrude’s back, these mercenaries were nothing.

And compared to the monster baying for blood inside her, it was they who needed to fear.

“I’ll rescue you, Elena. I’ve always been your prince charming. I promise. I promise.”

Her unblinking eyes focused on the tiniest instant of movement from the enemy.

She had to be aggressive, the instant it put a toe out of place–

Bubbles blew from the shoulders and Gertrude charged with all her might.

Four disc-shaped drones flew out of the shoulders in opposite directions.

Gertrude expected gunfire, but if she was fast enough–

The “Helios” suddenly reversed, thrusting backward but still facing her.

From its shoulders, its jet anchors flew out at her. It had attacked with them before.

Gertrude ducked under the anchors.

She could have cut the cables, but if she pressed on she’d be inside the enemy’s guard.

With a quick kick of vernier thrust, she threw herself forward, continuing her pursuit.

In response, the “Helios” raised its arm.

A stream of bubbles blew from the seam between the gauntlet and forearm.

There was a flash–

Like a jet anchor– suddenly that closed fist went flying at her on a cable.

Speechless, unable to halt or dodge, she met the vernier-powered punch chest-first.

Her entire cockpit rattled as the punch struck her, stopping her charge in its tracks.

Gertrude tumbled, her Diver’s hull pushed back while its jets were still going.

Briefly out of control, she corrected with a quick spin and went into a controlled dive.

Overhead, she avoided the jet anchors recalled by their cables to Helios’ shoulder pods.

“What the fuck is that thing? What the fuck is it doing?”

She checked her monitors. She was shaken up, but the hull was relatively stable.

In front, the Helios ceased reversing, but rather than take advantage and attack, it resumed its wary stance right in front of her. Arms out at its sides, jets engaging only to correct its depth and remain in orbit between Gertrude and its mothership. Did it not intend to fight for real? Was it just buying time? Why did it keep shooting anchors at her? Were they trying to capture her alive?

“Is it stalling? But what the fuck is it stalling for? Do they have backup coming?”

In battle the Antenora and the Pandora’s Box were both letting off sonar pulses.

Norn would detect anything coming from a dozen kilometers away.

There was no sign that the Antenora was backing off. So a ship couldn’t be coming.

Or at least, it couldn’t be coming in a time frame that would benefit the Helios at all.

“Maybe the pilot is hopeless, and they’re making up for it with the tech.”

Circling under the enemy Diver, Gertrude raised her rifle and put the Helios in her sights.

She spontaneously opened fire, ready to gauge the reaction of the pilot as a dozen rounds tore through the water between them. With a clumsy boost, the Helios tried to dodge aside– but quickly found itself back in Gertrude’s line of fire as she corrected for those spastic, predictable movements and began to lead her shots into the Helios’ path while sweeping around its flank, now climbing.

Vapor bubbles and gas bloomed around the Helios, several shots making their mark.

Tongues of gas blew from the dented and pitted armor of the Helios.

Through the smoke, it lifted an arm, and from one of its gauntlets launched a projectile.

Gertrude climbed and backed up at full speed, out of pure reflex, but the projectile had not been aimed at her. Instead it exploded into a cloud between her Magellan and the Helios.

Dark particulate matter danced in the water, slowly dispersing through the marine fog.

“A smokescreen?”

Soon the chemicals began reacting with the water, almost like they were boiling it.

Frothing bubbles began to expand haphazardly to obscure the Helios.

Dozens of pops of color– a chemical flare? A corrosive cloud? What was it?

Gertrude’s computer was not equipped to analyze chemicals in the water.

As the effect of the munition continued to spread through the water she continued backing off from it. Her fingers tightened on the controls, teeth grit, furious. This thing was clearly just buying time, but what was it buying time for? Was the Antenora losing the battle? That could not be the case. She could not possibly have come this far for nothing. She couldn’t stand to walk out of this empty handed.

Her mind started to spiral, caught in a sudden heartbreaking madness.

Gertrude would save Elena or die. There was nothing else for her.

All of this time, ever since they had met in Schwerin, ever since they went to school together–

Elena was her light. She was the only thing making Gertrude’s existence meaningful.

That dirty little guardsman’s girl in her muddy overalls, she was nothing, lower than a beast.

Born to no one, known for nothing, denied any pleasure of living. A peon; a faceless slave.

Without the princess’ hand, if that touch had never been extended, Gertrude would be nothing.

Her life would have been meaningless.

Dead, less than dead, invisible, nonexistent, as particulate as the marine fog.

It was her love of Elena that made her anything. That made her human; worthy of living.

I can’t lose her! I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!

Without Elena von Fueller what would be the meaning of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s entire life?

Heedless of the nature of the cloud ahead, Gertrude threw all her weight into her sticks.

She would break through this final barrier– she would kill everyone between herself and Elena!


“She’s just gonna charge right through it huh?”

“Called our bluff– don’t worry and just keep it steady. We’ve got options.”

“How is it going on your end?”

“We’ll need to buy a bit more time. Sorry.”

Karuniya Maharapratham sighed.

Soaked in sweat, breathing labored, her fingers hurting as she gripped the controls.

Surrounded by metal, suspended in the deep, dark ocean.

Operating a machine, seeing only through cameras– it was unfamiliar.

Knowing that she stood between Murati and death was all that steeled her wavering mind.

Occupying the front half of the Helios cockpit, Karuniya was taking care of most of the piloting. The two-seater cockpit had Murati directly behind her, with her own set of controls that mirrored Karuniya’s, along with her own screens, though she had less of them than Karuniya did. She could look over Karuniya’s shoulder too, but she was not doing so. She was mostly busy with her part of the plan and could only advise– and maybe, she respected Karuniya enough to trust her with the present situation.

This only made Karuniya even more embarrassed at how outmatched she felt.

“I would feel so much better if I had even an ordinary rifle.”

She cycled on the touchscreen through the equipment on the Helios.

Back at the hangar it had been a whole episode trying to get this thing launched.

“What do you mean it has no weapons? Why the hell would we launch it then?”

Chief Mechanic Lebedova and Theresa– Tigris began arguing immediately.

“It’s designed for Deep Abyss exploration, so it doesn’t have built-in weapons, and it doesn’t use Union hands so it can’t wield your weapons without a conversion. However it has a lot of advanced systems and gear and it’s built extremely sturdy. Murati Nakara already has a plan for it, so just trust her!”

Behind the firebrand Tigris, Murati, with a chest brace to keep her ribs steady and walking herself on a crutch, smiled and waved passively while the scientist and mechanic screamed at each other for several minutes. Until finally the machine was allowed to launch on the condition that Tigris allow herself to be arrested and removed to the brig along with the strangely afflicted “Euphrates” for later interrogation. With that negotiated, Karuniya had taken this machine out into the water and traded a few blows in order to secure Marina McKennedy’s escape– as well as time for Murati to execute her strategy.

“You’re doing well Karu.” Murati cooed.

“I don’t believe you– here she comes!”

“Don’t panic! You’ve got room to react!”

Charging through the smokescreen, the enemy, dubbed a ‘Magellan’ by the targeting computer, covered its approach with gunfire while advancing with all of its thrust toward the Helios. Karuniya pulled back hard on the controls, launching the Helios up and back, but not fast enough. Gunfire rattled the cockpit as several shells impacted with the armor, detonating and tearing off pieces, and the Magellan corrected its path and resumed pursuit very swiftly. Karuniya had not moved fluidly and lost her momentum.

She was at a disadvantage, slowed down while the Magellan sped up.

Seeing it hurtling toward her again and again made the situation terrifyingly clear.

Karuniya was in the middle of combat. This was an enemy trying to kill her.

In this place, in this moment, she couldn’t sidestep a fight by saying “I am just a scientist.”

Murati’s here with me. This time– I have to protect her.

Thinking quickly, she selected one of the Helios’ built-in equipments–

As the Magellan appeared in all of her forward cameras, swinging its sword–

“Launching canister!”

From the gauntlet erupted a utility canister, like a barrel-shaped grenade.

The Magellan cut through the canister, scratching the surface of the retreating Helios–

–unleashing a gelatinous, quick-hardening mass of breach patching gel that stuck to its sword.

“Now’s your chance, Karu!” Murati shouted.

“I don’t know whether I love or hate your backseat driving!”

Karuniya pulled the Helios back, while striking the activation triggers for the jet anchors.

While the Magellan struggled with the bundle of concretized gunk that had affixed to its sword and hand, the Helios’ jet anchors launched like a pair of tentacles. The Magellan threw itself into an ungainly dodge to avoid the jet-powered tungsten hooks, punching the breach sealant mass repeatedly with its free hand while the jet anchors retracted and launched again and again, repeatedly whipping the water at its flank, around its shoulder, nearly smashing off a piece of the flank armor. Cracks formed and pieces began to fall from the sealant mass, soon freeing the Magellan’s sword arm from most of the gel.

In a clear fury, it swung its sword to eject any remaining matter into the water around it.

Charging forward, it swiped at the Helios, Karuniya boosting down and then to the left to avoid the close range blow. Pressing its advantage, the machine swung furiously, forcing Karuniya on the defensive. Raising the gauntlets, she managed to deflect a strike by blocking with her arms, the sword leaving a wound in the thick wrist armor but failing to cut through or destroy the launchers– the Magellan must have read this desperate guard as an attempt to parry or grab its sword, because it briefly backed off.

“Any more ideas?” Karuniya said, swallowing a lump she had held in her throat throughout the melee.

“I’ve almost got it!” Murati replied, “Just a little bit more! You can do it! You’re holding it off!”

“I’m really starting to doubt our chances here Murati!”

While they were shouting, Magellan leaped suddenly skyward with all of its thrust.

Karuniya was momentarily stunned– as if this was somehow different than how it had moved before.

Of course these machines could move in any direction in water she knew that– but she had been trying to stay on a roughly even plane to react to the Magellan more easily as it attacked. All of a sudden it was above her and she felt like she was moving with a second’s delay trying to figure out where the Magellan was going to come from, its angle of attack and the distance it needed to cross–

At the peak of its ascent it suddenly dove at her with all its weight on its sword.

Karuniya moved to intercept while desperately flipping through the available equipment–

And the briefest glimmer of a grin appeared on her face.

“This–!”

A bit of Murati had rubbed off on her somewhere. She felt a wicked thrill as she reacted.

Karuniya was unused to thinking in terms of combat, but she knew that their objective was not necessarily to return with all of this machine intact. There were parts of it that were expendable if it would preserve their lives. Furthermore, she knew that their objective was also not to sink the enemy machine necessarily, not by themselves. She needed to buy time for Murati’s plan. So she finally had a good idea.

Murati– I understand you a little better now.

Narrowing her eyes as she watched her plot unfolding–

That finality as she depressed the triggers and sticks. She was captive to that moment.

In that microsecond span of time that lasted an eternity, suspended between life and death.

She thought of Murati– and how dearly, how much, with all of her might, she wanted to bring Murati back safely to the hangar from this horrific event. How much she didn’t want to be out here, how much she didn’t want to fight. But also– how much, with Murati in danger, she would fight, and scrape and claw helplessly at the metal of the enemy machine if it would release Murati from any suffering.

That must have been how Murati felt every time she went out to fight.

All of the people who stayed behind and depended on her. Like Karuniya herself.

Now, literally behind her, it was Murati who was depending on her to save everybody.

So with this fire in her heart, she released a canister from inside the gauntlet’s launcher.

Grasped it into the machine’s jet-anchored fist between palm and fingers.

And threw a steel punch across a dozen meters to meet the Magellan’s charge. Leaning into her sticks as if it would cause her physical pushing to actually push the fist faster on its vernier thrusters.

Gritting her teeth and ready to scream in the next instant. As if piloting with all her body.

Set on its violent course, the Magellan drove its sword down to slice through the digits in the fist.

But right before the crash–

That fist clenched and squeezed the canister it was holding.

Exploding into a cloud of anti-flooding agent that froze into a bubble-shaped ice block.

With the Magellan’s sword, both arms and chest frozen into it in the act of cutting through.

Got you!

Karuniya let go of the cable. Sacrificing the Helios’ hand to watch the enemy slowly sink.

But behind the Magellan, its hydro-jet thrusters worked furiously.

Instantly the ice began to crack, the Magellan struggling with all its mechanical strength.

Thrashing like a rabid monster, its cyclopic eye livid red. But it was too late–

Inside the Helios, the monitors began to brighten.

“Karuniya, you’re amazing! It’s– It’s doing something now!” Murati cried out.

Across the walls of the cockpit, began to glow lines of circuitry with a rainbow gradient.

There was a glow, coming from below and behind her–

Karuniya realized quickly, it was she herself, and Murati. Glowing with strange colors.

On her main screen, a large square symbol that she realized was a stylized setting sun appeared.

Along with text briefly appearing over the user interface.

ARRAYS ESTABLISHED. NETWORK ONLINE.

HELIOS INFORMATION SYSTEM: May the light of our bonds create our own sun.

Outside the four drones expanded a network of bouncing laser and acoustic signals through their unique arrays that covered the entire battlespace and this picture appeared on the visual monitors.

For the first time, the imaging prediction was seeing every unit, their exact positions on the battlefield, and establishing links between each friendly machine to allow coordination. The clearest picture Karuniya had ever seen of an underwater battlefield. Their maps were updated, and even the camera feed was more legible. Those squat, fat drones loaded into this machine held something truly special.

The Helios’ equipment panel showed that a pair of antennae had risen on the head.

Then one of the ancillary screens showed something playing– a video.

Murati gasped behind Karuniya. They were both seeing the same on their own monitors.

Two people appeared on the video which appeared to be taken with a portable camera within some kind of workspace. Holding the camera, facing it toward himself, was a dark-skinned man with short, dark hair. Behind him, smiling, was a woman, her skin a bit lighter brown, and her hair dark but brownish as well. They were dressed in slightly greasy work coveralls, and there were parts lying around them.

In the woman’s hands was a large, thick, disc-shaped black drone.

Smaller than the Helios’ but undoubtedly a similar design.

“We don’t know where these little ones might end up on their long road,” the man began, “but I thought it’d be significant to document where they started, for posterity.” At that point the video became slightly distorted. Next, the two were together, both their faces close to the camera now. “This is Helios,” the man continued, “Tentative name. Inspired by a friend. It’ll hopefully get us all talking together. Even where there are no cables and no networks that serve the rich men, Helios will let us shine our own light.”

It was the woman who started speaking next. “It’d be naïve to think this will solve anything by itself. Just us two, all we can do is scratch the surface of the injustices and oppression in our world. But if this project can connect even one person to someone they can help, if it can get even two people to meet and protect each other from being exploited, they will have done everything we could have hoped for.”

At that point the woman paused, collecting a tear with her fingers. “I really do think if all of us who have borne the pain of hunger and the weariness of work could truly understand each other, if we could communicate and organize at a large scale. We are all so divided by individual stations, individual nations, thousands of kilometers of water separate us. With this, maybe we can take a tiny step toward bridging those gaps outside the control of the Empire. Maybe we’ll see nothing come from it– but I hope at least that in the future, even a fragment of what we left behind can help our children build a better world.”

They tilted the camera then, perhaps meaning to, perhaps by accident.

Showing that the woman on the video was pregnant.

“A thousand generations live on in us — and a thousand more will follow us.” The man said proudly.

At that point, the video cut off. Those two smiling, optimistic folk disappeared forever.

Karuniya did not have to turn around to realize how much Murati was crying.

She thought in her mind’s eye that she saw Murati, tears streaming down her face.

In fact, she thought, for a moment, that they were face to face.

Suspended in a void surrounded by colors.

She could reach out, touch her, and wipe the tears herself.

They would be really happy with you, Murati.

I’m really happy with you too, you know.

Despite everything that’s happened, I am grateful to share this ocean with you.

Murati smiled at her, cloaked in a euphoric white light.

Karuniya blinked. In that span of time she was back at the controls–

And a flashing red box drawn over her camera feed alerted her.

The Magellan excavated its arms from the frozen water, having lost its rifle and sword.

Despite its condition, it continued to fight.

Reaching around its back, it produced a grenade.

“Murati, brace yourself!”

That grenade left its throwing arm and there was a flash as its rocket engaged.

Karuniya once again readied to dodge–

Mere meters from the Magellan, a burst of gunfire set the grenade suddenly alight.

Taking the machine’s hand clean off and knocking it back from the shockwave.

Into a Strelok with an assault rifle raised to the Magellan’s backpack at point blank range.

“Sorry! I made it right in the nick of time!”

Over a video feed, Karuniya and Murati heard the voice and saw the crystal clear smile of Valya Lebedova, their glasses slightly askew, face glistening with sweat, salmon-pink hair thrown about. They looked almost embarrassed on the screen. “Got it under control I think. I’ve been kicked around a lot today and felt like a huge useless fool– so big thanks Lieutenant for giving me a little moment to look cool.”

Murati leaned down toward Karuniya, patting her shoulder gently. “Thanks for coming Valya.” She said.

There was a brief moment of tension but–

Wounded, out of weapons, caught off-guard, the Magellan slowly raised its damaged arms in surrender.


Dominika and Sameera floated back to back, keeping their eyes peeled for the enemy.

“That Jagd is too slippery, even with damage.” Sameera said.

“I can’t find that sniper either. We’re going to have to make a move.” Dominika said.

“Okay. I’ll rush out and make a big fuss. You try to pick out one or the other.”

“Such a boneheaded move– but it’s really all we got, huh? Fine, I’ll–”

“Wait–”

At that moment, something connected to Dominika’s machine via laser.

In an instant, her map of the surroundings and the ancillary monitors with her sensor reads update with all kinds of blips, terrain data. Her cameras looked like an entire dreadnought lined with station-size floodlights had suddenly navigated overhead and lit up the entire ocean. This was a filter, based on predictive imaging, but whose? She hadn’t gotten an update from the Brigand in a while– and all those blips! They were definitely the mapped positions of every unit. Was this really correct?

Enemies were profiled– she could quickly spot the Jagd and the Volkannon.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Sameera asked.

Dominika was, but for a moment she could hardly comprehend it.

In terms of information, it was like taking off a blindfold from over her eyes, and where she was previously stumbling, she was now able to see every step she was taking. For a brief moment the light was almost blinding, and there was so much to see. She immediately found the position of the sniper, trailing below and awaiting a laser mark from the Jagd, which itself she could now follow, a blip on the sensor map.

She had full targeting data, as if there was a laser mark being shone on every enemy.

It was almost like sniping in station combat. Seeing through open air across a vast distance.

But where had this windfall of intelligence come from?

If questioned it any longer, she would lose the opportunity to take the enemy unawares.

There could be no more hesitation.

“We’ll have to trust it! Let’s disperse and take them out before they heed the radiation warnings!”

“Acknowledged!”

Sameera rushed out into the water, not haphazardly, but with a purpose. She too was seeing her enemy.

Dominika hefted her sniper rifle and aimed precisely at the Volkannon.

Its outline appeared distantly in her sights, the camera feed enhanced by the predictive imaging. Its coordinates displayed in her scope perfectly matching the data that was being fed into her sensors. There was no mistaking it. She had the enemy in her scope, she had every advantage. She held her breath.

First at one shoulder and then between breaths at the opposing shoulder.

With two quick presses of the trigger she sent two 50 mm shells into the enemy Diver.

Two hits, in a second, dead on the mark–

Both its shoulders blew apart, sending its cannons floating away in pieces, tearing its arms.

Its rotund hull went rolling down to the seafloor.

Had it even seen what took it down? It was in the same position she had been.

In less than a moment, she had completely turned around a situation that had felt hopeless.

Behind her, Sameera met the Jagd with an alacrity that seemed divinely inspired.

Having traced its exact path, the close-combat Cossack intercepted the Jagd at top speed.

With one swing of her sword she took out its remaining arm entirely.

Battered by the attack, the Jagd twisted in the water, briefly out of control.

Then with an almost dismissive butt of her flat, Sameera sent the hull careening toward the seafloor.

Both enemies were completely disabled. In one sudden swerve, they gained the upper hand.

“Capture or finish off?” Sameera asked. “They could have valuable information.”

“I went easy on it at first– but maybe we shouldn’t take chances.” Dominika replied.

They had no idea how long this information windfall would last. They had to act quickly.

Ruthless, Dominika swung her Strelkannon around, quickly aiming her sniper rifle at the Jagd–

“Stop! Stop fighting! Everyone must stop right now! I’m begging you!”

As crisp as if it came from right beside her, a voice sounded from the communicator.

The pleading voice of a violet-haired girl who then appeared on Dominika’s monitor.

“This is Princess Elena von Fueller! Please stop fighting! Please!” 

Rather than merely from heeding the message–

Sameera and Dominika stopped fighting because they couldn’t believe what they were hearing.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.9]

While Norn began speaking to the enemy commander, Adelheid sat next to her with an active terminal and oversaw their preparations for battle. She had cameras on the hangar and logging on the mainframe for all the work done at the bridge stations. There was not much that she needed to do, because the crew was so efficient and disciplined. She thought she might at least have to yell at Selene or Samoylovych, but the two of them, Petra Chornyi and the Red Baron were ready to deploy the second Norn commanded it. Turrets were ready, torpedoes had been loaded. The Antenora was primed for battle.

Norn’s Magellan was also assembled, serviced by a crane rather than a proper gantry.

“Are you really going out there?” Adelheid had asked, prior to the hostilities.

She was already concerned the instant the sonar pulse came back with an imaged ship.

So before battle was even joined, the anxiety was clear on her face.

“I have no intention to deploy. Yangtze and Potomac can go fuck themselves.” Norn said.

Adelheid’s eyes drew open in surprise. She had nursed a fear of Norn fighting personally.

“But I thought you were going to get Elena for Gertrude too. It’s not just them.”

Norn nodded solemnly. “That is Gertrude’s business. I plan to send her out to complete it.”

“You’re right.” Adelheid said, feeling relief. “You shouldn’t be responsible for any of this.”

“You really do understand me better than anyone, Adelheid.”

Norn gave her a gentle, confident smile and stroked a few locks of Adelheid’s hair.

Seated side by side on the bridge of this ship with had committed so much violence.

That firm hand caressing her lifted Adelheid’s spirits just a bit. Her heart felt warm.

“If this ship really did that much damage to the Iron Lady, it must be dangerous.” She said.

“I know.” Norn said simply. “But Gertrude will have no better chance than this.”

“Right.” Adelheid replied. “We’re probably better armed than the Iron Lady overall.”

“There’s my adjutant sounding like all of those battle analysis courses she aced.”

Norn returned her attention to the main screen, still stroking Adelheid’s hair with affection.

“I can’t fight everyone’s battles for them. I refuse to be used like that anymore.” She said.

Miming Norn’s words, Adelheid replied, “Now there’s the rebellious Praetorian I love.”

Adelheid had been with Norn for over six years now. Their relationship was only slightly younger than their acquaintance. She had been on the receiving end of Norn’s speech about opportunity; but Adelheid refused to use her. Back then, she felt strongly that she wanted to prove her own power.

And she had succeeded in her goals, despite everything that followed.

With a lot of Norn’s help that had ultimately been freely given.

She had gone on many voyages with the Antenora since then. It never got easier. Adelheid was not someone who was used to fighting. Even if Norn ended up essentially bullying and toying with the opponents they were usually given, she was still nervous. She kept it under control. She was not so stupid as to act out and become a liability if it would put Norn in danger. So when it came time to fight, Adelheid set everything aside and played the dignified adjutant as best as she could.

Adelheid stole a glance at Norn while she was speaking.

She seemed to have everything under control. She always did. She was strong.

That strength which had held Adelheid firm, had freed her, had given her new life.

But Adelheid knew that too many people relied on Norn, viewed her only as a weapon for their ends. She could never fool herself into feeling that Norn was invincible. Because she understood Norn more than anyone. Norn would falter someday. She couldn’t hold the world on her shoulders all alone.

So she worried. Whenever they fought, she pined anxiously for everyone’s safety.

And she did her best to be ready to support Norn on the day her strength was questioned.

Once the Pandora’s Box opened negotiations, Norn instantly demonstrated her superiority.

She looked like a goddess to Adelheid. A shining being not from this world.

Ulyana Korabiskaya was a looker herself — maybe Adelheid had a thing for blondes — but nobody could match how incredibly hot Norn was when she took control. They had watched footage of the discussions between Gertrude and Korabiskaya so Norn knew to expect a few attempts at second-rate fast talking from the mercenary commander. Adelheid knew Norn would try to influence the enemy captain psionically and end the conflict easily, so she “flipped” on her psionic vision.

Focusing on the aura of Korabiskaya and Norn, she saw the brief contest that ensued.

However, the outcome was not what she predicted.

Korabiskaya resisted; she had some potential.

Not enough to fight back. Norn had simply stopped, rather than being actively countered.

When it came to psionic mind games, Adelheid knew the basics.

If Norn couldn’t control someone immediately, it was unlikely to be worth bothering with.

So the discussion continued.

“Euphrates,”

Adelheid felt a chill when she heard that name.

Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

And foremost among the people Norn wanted to revenge herself against.

While she didn’t lose her cool, Adelheid could tell that Norn was immediately altered.

As soon as she saw Euphrates, a violent red band began to widen across her aura.

“Agh!”

Then in the middle of the conversation that she appeared to be dominating–

Norn raised her hands to her face, flinching as if in pain.

Shaking briefly, drawing back against the seat.

And coming to rest, as if sleeping.

Video connection to the Brigand cut off.

Immediately, Adelheid concentrated on the aura around Norn, switching on her “sight.”

White–?

All of her aura had become a pale, soft white. Black was death– what the hell was white?!

How had this happened?

She whipped around to the adjacent station and shouted at the drone. “Communications, send orders to the hangar to deploy Selene, Samoylovych, Chorniy, and von Castille at once!”

Negotiations were over. Whether or not the Pandora’s Box was even truly aware of what had happened, a situation like this could only be dealt with by defending themselves militarily. When there was tension, they could not afford to leave an opening just to appear magnanimous. Adelheid knew enough about war to assume the Pandora’s Box would try to exploit this event.

But what had happened? How could she help Norn?

Euphrates was an Immortal, psionically powerful. Adelheid turned to face Norn again and took her into her arms, shaking her, trying to wake her. Her body was still warm, she was breathing, and there was no bleeding or other signs that she was psychically exerting herself. Adelheid knew that mental psionic attacks were extremely difficult, and the most easily resisted by gifted psions. She suspected Euphrates must have attacked Norn but how? What exactly did she do to Norn?

She could not panic. Despite everything– Norn was depending on her!

“Hunter III! Come here! Something happened to Norn!”

Though she understood psionics differently, Hunter III was more powerful than Adelheid.

She could see and understand things Adelheid did not. Maybe she would understand!

“Whatcha yellin’ about? Huh? What happened to the boss?”

Hunter III shambled to Norn’s seat with a drowsy expression, her skinny arms hanging at her sides. She pulled her hood off her white hair and set her bright eyes on Norn. One slender ghost white finger rose to poke the praetorian in the cheek. Upon touching her Hunter III immediately seemed to realize something was wrong, like a dog sniffing an intruder, and her eyes went red, she was using psionics herself.

“Huh? Her brainself is gone. Who did that?” Hunter III said.

“Brainself? What the hell are you saying?”

Adelheid yelled; and Hunter III was so taken by Norn’s condition she didn’t yell back.

Hunter III looked around the room with her glowing eyes. “Her brainself’s off swimmin’ somewhere–”

From beneath her hooded robe, a stubby tail became suddenly erect.

“Adelheid, she’s lookin’ for you! You gotta do somethin’ to reach back out!”

Hunter III turned innocent eyes and a calm expression on Adelheid–

–as if she was supposed to understand what she meant!!

Adelheid was about to start shouting back at the little fish-tailed runt–

But she did start feeling something–

–as if there was something carried on all the tiny sounds of the ship, the clicking on keyboards, the hum of the air system, the very subtle vibrations of the floor panels, the rustling of synthetic cloth. She could hear something else, distant, whispered, in the coalescing of all the noise around her. As if spoken between syllables of every voice, an enunciation in each button press, a sigh in the ventilation.

Had she been anyone else, with less experience in these matters, she would have said it was the stress and muted panic of the moment that was cause these hallucinations around her.

Norn had taught her about the powers of the mind.

About the meaning behind the colors that she could sometimes see people give off.

She looked at Hunter III briefly and saw the shades of her, blue and green and thin black.

She looked down at her own hands and saw the multitude of muddled colors of her own.

She looked at Norn’s pale white aura that had begun expanding, thinning, wafting.

Reaching.

Focusing on the color she reached her own hand down to Norn.

Approaching the white fog which had come to enshroud her lover and carried her sensation.

Her fingers crossed some kind of threshold and color diffused across the white cloud.

Adelheid felt like she had punctured a membrane. There was a brief, tactile resistance.

One final push and her hand finally touched Norn’s skin, felt the warmth of her.

And transferred the warmth of her own touch to that skin.

Adelheid saw a flash of something in her mind.

Images, sounds, feelings, years of information compressed to a flash.

There was no possible way that she could understand it. All of it was gone in an instant.

Not even the barest scraps of a dream remained of it.

In that instant of fleeting hallucination, when Adelheid’s eyes blinked–

Norn’s eyes opened. Their gazes met. For a moment, neither of them said a word.

Her eyes had red rings around them, but they followed movement, they were aware.

Her lips spread very slightly to speak–

Adelheid interrupted immediately. She threw herself atop Norn, silently weeping.

Norn’s arms wrapped firmly around Adelheid, embracing her tightly.

“I knew I could count on you.” Norn said, stroking her hair.

Adelheid separated herself, grabbed hold of Norn’s shirt, fixed her a serious look.

Norn’s eyes had red rings around them. So there was still in danger.

“What’s going on?” Adelheid asked. “Your eyes– you’re still doing psionics.”

Norn looked surprised to hear this. She looked around the room in confusion.

“Her brainself is still kinda gone. I can kinda feel the veins though.” Hunter III said.

She started wandering around the room like a dog following a trail. Incomprehensible.

Adelheid could not see whatever it was they were both following or searching for.

She felt frustrated at her own lack of power– but at least Norn was here.

“Norn, what’s happening? How can we help?” Adelheid asked, still tight on Norn’s chest.

“Euphrates dragged me into the aether current. I’m not sure exactly what she did so I can’t explain it. I think I’m puppeteering my own body right now.” Norn said. “I can sense through the currents by using Adelheid as an anchor, but it’s hazy. I need to find a permanent solution, but for right now, we need to capture the Pandora’s Box. I’m putting Gertrude in command of the Diver attack. First–”

Suddenly she grabbed hold of Adelheid by the collar and tie–

–pulling her into a deep, forceful kiss.

That instant of dominance, the taste of her tongue– it almost knocked Adelheid senseless.

When their lips parted, Norn had a grin on her face and some of Adelheid’s lipstick as well.

“All you need to do is stay by my side and believe in me.” Norn said. “Do you understand?”

“Y-Yes. Master.” Adelheid said. “I’m yours to command.”

Norn grin turned into a gentle, praising smile just for her. “Good girl. Let’s get them.”


“Master, I don’t understand.”

Time was of the essence. A combat alert had been put into place.

Samoylovych and the Red Baron were already deploying, as well as Petra Chornyi. Selene just had to know whether or not the Jagdkaiser should have a cartridge loaded, other than that she was good to go. Enemy activity was starting to pick up, with the sonar operators picking up the tell-tale sounds of the Pandora’s Box preparing its chutes to deploy Divers. The Antenora was rushing into battle.

From the hangar, Gertrude Lichtenberg called the bridge to speak to Norn.

She knew that they did not have a lot of time, but she needed to know why she was being ordered to deploy in the Magellan. Without her acquiescence, the machine had been assigned to her, and its weapons, a 30 mm autocannon ballistic shield and a vibrosword, had been prepared and linked to it. Norn’s crew had beckoned her into the machine– and it nearly caused her panic.

“I thought this machine was for your own use.” Gertrude asked.

On a terminal in the hangar, Norn and Adelheid appeared on video seated side-side.

“Potomac didn’t chain it to my leg.” Norn said. “I’m assigning it to you. It’s an effective piece of equipment and you are more than capable to operate it. Or have you forgotten how to fight for yourself after all these years leading phalanxes of ambulant body armor into battle?”

Gertrude chafed at the criticism. She knew she couldn’t get offended at Norn, however.

Trying her best to moderate her tone, she began to reply, “I sought out your assistance–”

Norn then interrupted immediately. “I’m giving you an opportunity, the best opportunity you will ever have, to rescue princess Elena from those mercenaries. If you truly believe in this endeavor and you want to see it through, then you will take responsibility for it. I never once said that I would go out and personally fight these mercenaries in your stead, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“Master,”

Gertrude was practically gritting her teeth. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt it right in her veins, the rush of blood to her extremities had become a palpable drumbeat beneath her skin. Her whole body was tense, she felt like she could hardly move or speak. She had assumed that Norn would use her powers to rescue Elena easily from the Pandora’s Box. She had been so sure that she could seize victory if Norn was leading the charge to finally crush that damnable ship once and for all.

Now her long fantasized victory was thrown into complete chaos.

“Gertrude,”

Norn interrupted again. A cruel grin spread across her soft face.

“Perhaps I am being too harsh. Here is my offer then, Gertrude. Only for you, a precious student, a part of my legacy. I will save Elena von Fueller on the condition that she be turned over to the Fueller family’s stewardship immediately. I will control all of her affairs personally from the moment she returns to this ship. Now if you rescue her, of course, you’ll become her steward.”

She clapped her hands together with satisfaction, evil red glinting eyes scanning Gertrude.

Gertrude felt her heart sink.

All of this time, she had also fantasized about being the sole steward of Elena von Fueller.

Never once did she think Norn would push the idea of returning her to the Fueller family.

Norn knew about Gertrude’s deep-seated passion for Elena.

Gertrude could not lie to her. And Norn had demanded to know when they met. More than anyone, Norn von Fueller understood the lustful covetousness that really drove Gertrude Lichtenberg to action. She knew how much Elena meant to Gertrude and she had already, several times, pulled strings so that Gertrude could inch closer to the storybook ending she desired for her and Elena. For Norn to then make this impossible, cruel “deal” was to say in many, humiliating words that Gertrude had no choice but to deploy and fight instead of Norn. It was to make her command utterly absolute.

In this single moment, Gertrude’s dreams could crumble right in front of her. All of her work, suffering, sacrifice, all the begging and cheating and the corpses she climbed– for nothing.

“I am not merely doing this to be cruel to you.” Norn said.

Her fists closed at her side, Gertrude felt like a child being scolded.

“You say that master, but this may be the cruelest thing you’ve ever done to me.”

“I’m giving you a choice, as I’ve always given you.” Norn replied, more coldly.

Gertrude openly gritted her teeth. “You know this isn’t a choice! You’re manipulating me!”

“Really? A coattail rider like you, and you believe I’m the one being manipulative?”

“Master,” Gertrude clapped her hands together. “I’ve always respected you, so please–”

She was getting ready to beg. Getting ready to drop to her knees right on the video feed.

“Stop being such a coward, Gertrude! You need to man up, this instant!”

It was not Norn who spoke then.

Adelheid interjected suddenly, in a way that completely chilled Gertrude.

Her eyes looked as imperious as those of Norn herself. A disdainful glare, and sharp words.

“Don’t you realize how cruel you are being, begging Norn to fight this battle for you?” Adelheid shouted. “Don’t you see the company that puts you in, don’t you see how sound like all of the other evil cowards who only see her as a weapon? Don’t you see that Norn wants to give you the power to take Elena away with you? Gertrude, if you can’t even defeat these mercenaries, can you possibly defend Elena from the Volkisch movement, the Royal Alliance, Veka or Millennia Skarsgaard? How can you survive all the schemes that Norn has shielded you from and continue to be so spineless? Do you want to hide behind other people forever, or do you want to be able to take control of your own damn life?”

Adelheid practically shouted herself hoarse. There were furious tears in her eyes.

Gertrude stood speechless. She almost wanted to cry herself– she was so stunned.

All of the begging and sniveling that she had done to wear her grandiose uniform.

Not just Norn, but Dreschner, Ingrid, Sieglinde, even Elena herself–

So many people had rescued her across her life, so she stood half a chance of reaching this moment, of reaching the cusp of having the love of her life in her grasp, where nobody could take her again, where they could finally stand together until death. That storybook ending she wanted ever since she was enchanted by those beautiful indigo eyes as a small child. Gertrude was not so deluded as to think she had ever boasted prodigious personal strength, she knew, acknowledged, that she had begged and scraped and needed intervention and serendipity to survive to where she was and yet–

She had never felt so seen, so seen and found pathetic, found to be truly what she was.

Another soul had never struck a blow so chillingly powerful to the edifice of her person.

And for it to not even be Norn, but Adelheid, that bratty girl perpetually fixed in her orbit.

For those words to cut as deep and hard as they did. Gertrude was left reeling, shaking.

She could have taken the scolding if it came from Norn– but Norn hardly made a gesture.

It had been Adelheid, of all people, who had cut her down to the bone instead.

Had she been told of this event without experiencing it herself, Gertrude would have laughed.

Now in the moment all she wanted to do was cry, but she fought back the tears.

“Thank you Adelheid.” Norn said. “But that’s quite enough. Gertrude, your decision.”

Even if her heart was full of trepidation, it was impossible to object. Gertrude was trapped.

All of her rebelliousness was destroyed. Adelheid was completely correct about her.

Gertrude had run too much, hid too much, begged, and bartered too much by now.

There was always going to be a battle she would have had to stand and fight through alone.

She thought when it came she would be prepared for it.

Instead she was a shuddering mess. In tears, her skin shaking over cold-feeling flesh.

Pathetic. She was pathetic, powerless, useless, a coward, a craven half-wit schemer–

“Gertrude, I need you to do this.” Norn pressed her. “But more than that: you need it too.”

Gertrude raised a shaking salute. Norn and Adelheid were right.

She needed to do this. There was nobody to champion her. Gertrude had to fight herself.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg, deploying in the SF-07 Magellan.” She said.

Steeling herself to put on the most dignified response that she could muster.

“Good. Show them your strength, High Inquisitor.” Norn said.

Gertrude bowed her head and severed the connection. When she turned her back on the terminal, her cape fluttering behind her, feeling the weight of the black and gold uniform and the tall hat on her head, Gertrude felt like nothing so much as an imposter. She had been exposed and could no longer run away. All she could was convince the world that she had any power at all in her own self.


Maryam Karahailos stepped off the elevator to the Brigand’s upper deck with her hands behind her back, her head bowed, and the chromatophores in her skin and hair dull and dark. She felt her brain fog over with worry, her skin feeling tight with tension. The Brigand was embroiled in a dangerous situation, and her beloved Sonya had taken charge of her unit and deployed for battle. Watching them go, even a girl as supernaturally gifted as her felt completely helpless and useless in this situation.

When it came to fighting a battle like this, the Apostle of Air was completely useless!

She did not want to trouble Sonya, so she did not insist on staying in the hangar.

Soon as Sonya got ready to leave, they briefly held hands, and Maryam made for the bridge.

“As long as you’re safe, I’ll have peace of mind.” Sonya said.

“You’ll definitely come back, right?”

“Of course. I still have a lot to learn from you.”

Their final exchange, out of earshot, before Sonya told her to depart and ran to the mecha.

Maryam sighed deeply.

She had spent so much time with Sonya lately, it had been such a blessing!

Now she was gone, and Maryam might never– no she couldn’t even contemplate that!

It broke her heart to even consider it!

Moping to herself, she ambled without enthusiasm down the hall.

She stumbled upon a commotion.

Out in the middle of the hall, someone had been set down on the floor. There was a woman looming over her on the ground — that doctor with the colorful hair, Kappel. Alongside her were the two women Sonya had introduced to Maryam last night: Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg. As soon as Maryam approached, Valeriya seemed to notice, and immediately lifted her mask over her nose.

She tugged gently on Illya’s sleeve and pointed behind them at Maryam.

“Run along to the bridge, we don’t want too many people getting in the way here.”

Illya was firm but not brusque. Maryam had not intended to stay in the hall but–

She noticed the blue hair and blood-soaked white coat of the woman in Kappel’s care.

Euphrates– no, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen, she was calling herself.

On the floor, unresponsive save for recurring bloody coughing, streams of blood down her nose, convulsions infrequent enough that they startled Maryam as she stared. Her eyes were blank, like the cold gaze of a corpse. Kappel had brought her out to the hall, took her pulse, checked her breathing, injected her with a drug, but she seemed helpless to provide first aid in this situation.

“She’s breathing, heart’s normal, the portable scanner shows nothing ruptured.”

Maryam stared in confusion. People spoke but the voices made no sense to her.

All of the blood, and the way her body would sometimes jump without stimuli, it was surreal, the smell of bloody iron and gauze, but not just that, not just the physical things– all around Euphrates a black cloud thicker and denser and darker than any Maryam had ever seen shrouded her until her physical body seemed almost an outline beneath its fog. Death, death, death, death was everywhere, the smell of rot, the texture of flayed flesh, the taste of blood, it clung slick like slime to the body and yet–

–she wasn’t dead. Was she? She couldn’t have been.

Maryam could vaguely see the sinewy outer edges of her aura.

Not dissipating from distance to the body, but reaching out, flowing.

The Aether Current– all of that darkness was spilling out into the aether current.

Maryam realized that Euphrates’ condition must have had to do with psionics, but–

“Hey, aren’t you going to the bridge? We don’t want people loitering around.”

Illya, clearly nervous at the unnatural sight playing out behind her.

“I– I’m sorry. I’ll keep going. It’s– it’s a lot of blood. Sorry.”

“I get it. The Captain and the Commissar are awaiting you.” Illya said gently.

Maryam did not know how to feel and what she should do.

Euphrates had been a teacher of sorts to her, a mentor. Self-described and self-imposed.

She felt a sense of great trepidation when she found “Euphemia” embroiling herself in the Brigand’s affairs. They acknowledged their familiarity in front of the Captain and the crew but did not reveal the truth about their association. Euphrates was an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation, a conspiratorial group that Maryam had joined and briefly worked within — all Apostles held a high and respected rank in the group, even if they did not want to, so Maryam found refuge with them.

While Euphrates taught her many things about herself and about psionics–

Maryam could not help but hate the selfish way that she behaved. To believe that you were helping the world solely by advancing knowledge and technology, but that the ethical response to conflict was to retreat from the world and hide your knowledge and technology from them; it was anathema to everything Maryam wanted to accomplish in the world. She could not abide any of it.

So if Euphrates was dying, what should Maryam do? How should she have reacted?

Mourned? Seethed? Intervened?

Maybe the world would have been better without Euphrates in it.

With a deep breath followed by a heavy sigh, Maryam started walking past the scene.

And stopped right beside Doctor Kappel, fists shaking at her sides.

“I– I can help!” Maryam shouted suddenly, unable to abandon her gentle nature.

Doctor Kappel looked up at her, blinking with confusion. She fiddled absentmindedly with some of her blue hair and got some blood on it. Behind her, Illya looked annoyed and Valeriya turned the other way to avoid the scene. The doctor looked pale as a ghost, practically in tears, her hands were shaking on the portable medical computer in her fingers. “Maryam Karahailos? How can you possibly–?”

“Please don’t ask me about what I’m about to do! I’ll explain everything later!”

Maryam dropped to her knees next to Euphrates’ body and held out her hands.

Her eyes felt hot, and she pushed her senses out to the air around her.

Just as she had shown Shalikova before a globe of air gathered quickly in her hands–

–and then dispersed.

Illya’s, Kappel’s and Valeriya’s hair blew suddenly as if there was a strong breeze.

All of them watched, dumbfounded, as the air became a visible glow around Euphrates.

Molecular Control.

Air seeped its way through Euphrates’ skin, into the tissues, sinews, into the blood.

Her gentle touch glided over wounds, through spilled blood and ruptured vessels.

While Maryam’s intellect and will traveled through the muscles, to the marrow, to the brain.

She caught the briefest glimpse, the most fleeting intimation of Euphrates’ intentions.

Norn von Fueller– Somewhere Euphrates was dueling the mighty Apostle of Ice–

Her body was here, however, in great, roaring agony–

As she tried to sew back tissues that bled indefinitely, as she tried to mend bones that broke forever and muscles that tore repeatedly, Maryam realized suddenly why Euphrates’ body was not dying. Life blossomed inside of her abnormal body every time a cell met death, like a big bang of genetic rebirth recreating the universe of Euphrates with every stroke against her skin and every twist against her bones. She was like a cancer infinitely fed of herself, and Maryam could hardly comprehend where the energy came from to sustain her. She realized in an instant how vastly old and hurt this body was.

Glimpsing for less than a second the thousand-year history of Euphrates–

From Maryam’s gentle lips ripped a wail of agony.

She fell back from Euphrates’ body, from Kappel and Illya who tried to reach out to her, shuddering and shaking on the floor with the horror of understanding. Her head felt split open with pain, and she held herself as if trying to squeeze numb all of the burning in her sinews. Even for an Apostle, where she had delved, what she had touched, memories of cells with infinitely long telomeres–

Psionic feedback ripped through Maryam’s entire body. She was not powerful enough!

“Maryam! Oh my god–!”

Illya rushed to the side of the girl clearly in pain, tearing open a plastic-bagged first aid kit–

Suddenly everything began to shake.

That first aid kit hit the floor and the security officers nearly fell with it.

Dr. Kappel grit her teeth and clung on to a handhold in the wall near the Bridge door.

Lights flashed in and out in the hallways for a few seconds before stabilizing.

“It’s started!” Valeriya said.

“Shit. This one’s going to be really serious huh?” Illya replied.

She helped Maryam to settle on her side and injected her with a punch tube from the first aid kit. Psionic feedback was already subsiding, and the painkillers flooding Maryam’s body had little to do with it, but she felt her head clearing and peace returning. Those instant, eldritch images that had terrorized her neurons for a split second were gone save for the leftover anxious tension under her skin. The world, which was still spinning around her, overcome with disorienting color as she lost control, came into sharper focus, slowly, like a picture on a faulty screen coaxed into mechanical clarity.

“Maryam, please say something. Shalikova’s already upset enough with me as it is.”

Illya laid a comforting hand on Maryam’s shoulder, as if nudging her back to life.

Joined by Valeriya, who knelt beside Illya and offered her own silent support.

Maryam promised not to make trouble– she tried her best to sit up and acknowledge them.

She thought of saying something but– It was not Maryam who raised her voice to speak.

From the lips of the presumed corpse came the smallest, weakest of pleas–

“Tigris– please–”

“She’s speaking?! Security, call Syracuse, we may be able to move her to operations now!”

Doctor Kappel looked as shocked as she was elated to see a sign of consciousness.

Euphemia Rontgen– no, Euphrates, slowly sat up, trying to speak.

Through a trickle of blood and vomit escaping from her throat.

With eyes glowing bright red, tears steaming into wisps of vapor as they were shed.

She reached out to the sleeve on Kappel’s coat and tugged weakly on it.

“Theresa– Tigris– please bring her–”

“Tigris? God help me, what is happening on this ship?” Kappel whimpered.

In that instant, there was another sudden quake all along the ship again as if in answer.


“Don’t try to be a hero. Stay in the back and offer fire support. You got that?”

Shalikova was unused to being the tough CO in a group. She was almost always the quiet workhorse who did everything she was ordered to do without objections. So it felt strange to be in the position of having to tell a contrite Aiden Ahwalia that he was on the team, for now, and that he was going out into battle. And then to have to try her best to smash down the glint he got in his eyes after.

“Of course. Of course.” He said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“You really shouldn’t be happy we’re in this position.” Shalikova sighed.

Behind her, the deployment chutes for Khadija and Valya were being drained. Both of them had gone out first. A wise decision– Khadija would have certainly had something to say about Aiden’s inclusion. She was hopefully professional enough not to complain once Aiden was actually outside with them. It was a dreadful situation to be in. Two of their most accomplished pilots in their last sortie were out of the fight, and the enemy was likely to be armed to the teeth. These weren’t just going to be patrolmen haphazardly thrown into battle. The Antenora was the Fueller flagship, part of the former ruling dynasty.

Shalikova imagined royal knights who trained constantly to protect the imperial family.

Complete opposite of the ragtag group she was working with.

But all she could do was believe; believe in her comrades and do her best.

Murati would have said something like that.

She would have also had a more complicated plan, perhaps.

“Our goal will be to distract the enemy while the Strelkannon gets into position. Between the Strelkannon’s anti-ship package and the Brigand’s weapons we should be able to overwhelm the Cruiser. If we can’t sink it, we’ll hopefully do enough damage to force a rout. You need to be ready to retreat at any point we find an opportunity to run. You got that? Don’t be a hero, Aiden.”

“Don’t worry about me! I won’t do anything foolish.” Aiden said.

His tone was much more compliant.

Not only because he was finally getting what he wanted and being allowed to pilot, but likely also because of the beating he took and the subsequent dressing down from the Security Chief. He had a bruised neck and a bandage on his forehead where Valeriya had stricken him. Nothing broken, nothing he couldn’t sleep off. Otherwise Shalikova would not have had any reserve pilots to draw upon now, except maybe asking if Valeriya and Illya could be lent to her from security.

She knew those two could pilot well.

“You’ll be with her.” Shalikova said. “But you follow my orders, understand?”

Beside the spare Strelok which had been assigned to Aiden, Marina’s S.E.A.L was set up on a gantry. It was a little rounder than a Strelok here and there, attesting to the Republic’s higher capability in precise machining, with rounded off edges and a beveled, semi-oblong body. They attached the backpack lower, and the entire mass was just a bit squatter in profile. This was the legacy of the combat data which had been given by the Union to the republic. They made a slightly prettier and stockier Strelok.

It would do as well enough as any of their machines in the right hands.

Shalikova would just have to trust Marina McKennedy’s skill too.

When Marina appeared, Shalikova took Aiden to her side for a quick introduction.

“McKennedy, this is Aiden Ahwalia, he’ll be providing fire support for you.” She said.

Aiden waved half-heartedly.

Marina nodded her head. “Okay, I’ll paint targets if I need him to coordinate.”

“Good call. Aiden, shoot what she’s shooting at, and we’ll get through this.”

Shalikova patted Aiden in the back, trying to be a bit chummy.

Murati did that sort of thing much better– she couldn’t help but compare herself.

She then hurried back to the Cheka, set up next to the Strelkannon, ready to deploy.

On either shoulder, the Strelkannon was set up with a six-slot rack for 88 mm light torpedoes.

Rybolovskaya would in addition be deploying with a 50 mm high velocity cannon.

This was essentially a Diver “sniper rifle,” firing supercavitating two-stage projectiles.

But because the Diver and its pilot could hardly “see” to the full range of this weapon, it would be up to Shalikova or the rest of the team to paint digital targets for the Strelkannon to fire upon. They had all been equipped with laser effectors on their Diver’s gauntlets for this purpose. They could also use these to help guide the torpedoes she would be firing. Their entire gambit was based around supporting this one platform. Murati might’ve balked at having such a stark failure point.

Murati was not here, however.

Shalikova was doing her best with the weapons and tactics she knew. This kind of thing was bread and butter for pilots, but the Academy must’ve taught it to her because it was effective.

Right? She wished the little nagging voice in her head was more supportive.

She raised a thumbs up to Rybolovskaya, who nodded and descended into her cockpit.

Shalikova then started to climb into her own.

Murati’s Cheka was quite an imposing monument in the hangar, at least for Shalikova’s eyes. Climbing onto its dark painted body, subsuming herself in that sleek, modern hull, it put into stark relief that she was being asked to take on far more responsibility than she ever had. For years she had been piloting Streloks as a cadet and then as arguably a professional. This design bore resemblances to the mecha she had been piloting all of this time, but it represented the turning of an era also. This machine, if the Union survived long enough, would probably supplant all of the machines Shalikova piloted.

Just as she, and Murati, and all of them, were being asked to follow in the footsteps of the previous generation of the Union’s warriors and ultimately supersede them. Khadija was among the Brigand’s pilots, sure, but other than her, Shalikova felt, for maybe the first time, the absence of veterans, of the old revolutionaries, and the placing of weight on her slender shoulders alone. When Murati could not lead them, she had been chosen instead. A mere girl barely into her twenties.

ISU-100 Cheka. For the workers’ revolution!

Shalikova closed the cockpit and watched the Diver’s computer boot up.

A thousand generations reside in you.

That was the final part of the boot-up message before her cameras came online.

“You don’t have to keep reminding me.” She mumbled.

She took in a deep breath and let it out. She grabbed hold of her control sticks.

In the absence of that tenacious generation which brought liberty to the Nectaris Ocean, it would simply have to be her and her peers who continued the fight for freedom. There was no one else here that could protect the Brigand, and she would be damned if she let everything fall on poor Khadija, who had suffered so much, and Murati, who was always throwing herself in death’s way for them.

For Zasha’s sake too. She– she didn’t die for nothing.

“Big sis– the road we chose just keeps getting more treacherous, huh?”

Shalikova put a hand to her heart, and for the first time in a long time–

–remembered Zasha’s face, her words, her encouragement, without crying.

For her sake. Shalikova had to be soldier Zasha dreamed of being but could never become.

To protect the work of all of those generations who resided in her–

–and now, she who resided in Shalikova too.

Below her, the engineers released the Cheka from its gantry and unlocked the power plant.

She hefted up her rifle and stowed a folding sword and a grenade on her magnetic strip.

The voice that left her lips was stronger and firmer than she could’ve imagined.

ISU-100 Cheka, Sonya Shalikova! Deploying!”

When she dropped into the water, her hands were at the controls, her eyes on the cameras.

Her initial fear and trepidation left her as the ocean surrounded her hull.

“How is it looking out here?”

Beneath the ship, Khadija and Valya had been standing guard, moving just enough to keep up with the Brigand as it began to turn in on the Antenora’s flank from over a kilometer away. The Strelkannon dropped down with her, and Aiden’s Strelok along with Marina’s SEAL dropped shortly after. Shalikova synced the final up to date algorithmic prediction of the surroundings that she would get to her dive computer and cameras, getting a sense of the terrain beneath and the waters around them.

She noted the position of Zachikova’s drone near the ocean floor below, trailed closely by the Leviathan she had discovered. They would be connecting to the drone for laser communication and alternate sonar positioning, since the drone had a complete sonar kit and their Divers did not possess one.

“They’re starting to make a move.” Khadija said over the acoustic comms.

Shalikova adjusted herself to face the Antenora’s direction.

Advanced soundwave detection from the drone’s instruments passed to her computer, alerting her that there was indeed movement from underneath the Antenora, and the general direction of the movement. A tight formation was headed their way. All around her the ocean was murky, brown dust floating in near black waters, but she could trust the instruments to see where her eyes could never.

“Form up around the Strelkannon. I’ll take the lead– Marina and Aiden hold the rear!”

“Aye aye!” came the voices on the communicator.

Like a cluster of missiles hurtling out from beneath the ship, the Brigand’s divers charged out into the open water to intersect their counterparts. Positional data from the drone sent and received with a slight delay every few seconds, and at the speed they were moving they would find and confront the enemy group in forty or so seconds. Shalikova took the lead, Khadija and Valya beside her.

The Cheka was a dream to pilot, completely smooth, responsive, fast.

She must have had at least eight knots advantage on the Strelok.

I can do this–

“One of them is breaking off! I’m intercepting!”

Seconds later, Aiden suddenly swerved away from the formation.

“Aiden, what? Stop right now!”

Shalikova chastised him, then received the update from the drone.

One of the enemy mecha had torn away from their formation too.

It was clearly a trick! They didn’t know what kind of enemy it was!

“Don’t chase after it! Aiden! God damn it!”

“That little fucking worm! He’s going to get slaughtered!” Khadija cursed.

“Khadija, quiet and take the lead! I’ll go after him!”

Shalikova tore from the lead of the formation and charged to the flank as well.

There was no objection. She was the squad leader and they had their orders.

She was furious but she couldn’t let Aiden be killed no matter how foolish he was acting!

Once they got back she would punch him in his stupid nose, but for now she had to save him.

Aiden had quickly vanished into the marine fog, but Shalikova could catch up. The Cheka was faster than his Strelok. She could still create an opportunity if she could take out the enemy’s flanker with Aiden and then turn this stunt into their own flanking attack. In mere seconds the battle would be joined by the main group, so as she hurtled into the open ocean at their left flank, Shalikova kept the time in her head and prepared her weapons, knowing that she would soon catch a glimpse of the enemy–

“AHH–!”

A guttural, horrified scream from Aiden sounded through the communicator.

Outlines came into view through the biomass and the dark waters lit only by floodlights.

It happened in an instant–

Horns, a great dark body like a demon, claws, and shimmering, evil red eyes.

Aiden’s assault rifle floated down toward the seafloor with the Strelok’s hand attached.

Firing into nothingness as the hand was severed before he could attack.

He swung his sword at the demon but its glowing claw seized his entire arm.

When he screamed Shalikova could hear the wailing alert sounds from inside his cockpit.

His arm tore off along with the water intakes adjacent to the joint, causing his hydrojets to seize up, and the demon let the mass of his machine float uselessly away as if it was done playing with the carcass. Its horns glowed with a rainbow gradient that trailed across the body like faint outlines of the veins beneath skin. Shalikova saw dark armor and a snout-like head, felt the palpable heft of its body–

No, not its body. Not anything physical. Those waves were coming from the pilot.

Around her was a mass of red and black color with a spreading band of purple.

Furious killing intent and a sense of warrior’s pride.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide and her breathing caught. She raised her assault rifle.

She could hear a laugh– a girl’s uproarious laughter at her own superiority.

Her eyes, even through the water and the machines, she thought she could see–

–a girl like her? Long-haired, golden-eyed, in a pilot’s bodysuit, too young–

Oh? What’s this? Another helpless rat took a wrong turn in the maze?

Shalikova blinked, and the machine turned and charged as if propelled by billowing cloak of water.

In the next instant, the clawed metal horror descended on her quicker than its bulk suggested.

She reacted with alacrity, drawing back, avoiding the first attack of the enormous, vibrating, superheated claws. Opening the vortex of destruction which inexorably drew the currents of these generational peers. Out of every possible enemy released from the bowels of the Fueller flagship’s collection of monsters, Shalikova had now come face to face with a terror that shook the deeps with its alien power.

The Antenora’s Jagdkaiser Type I fixed its eyes and those of Selene Anahid on Shalikova’s own.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.8]

This chapter contains a scene with uniquely graphic violence. Discretion is advised.

“What do you know about Norn von Fueller?”

Before they boarded the Antenora, Gertrude Lichtenberg had convened a private meeting with Sieglinde von Castille. It was not atypical to discuss conditions and protocol differences between ships when transferring personnel, to avoid committing any faux pas, and with someone as high profile as Norn von Fueller, it was an even greater necessity. The way Gertrude looked into Sieglinde’s eyes when she asked her about the Praetorian, however, spoke to a different and greater urgency than normal.

Sieglinde had not been too surprised to learn of their relationship.

There was a lot of gossip about the Praetorian after all.

But what was the truth? From someone who knew her more than passingly?

Seated around a meeting room table, the two of them conversed eye to eye.

With a locked door behind them, and all cameras and recording tools shut off.

“We worked together once.” Sieglinde said in response to the Inquisitor’s initial question.

“Are you at a liberty to describe in what capacity?”

Sieglinde found no need to hide anything from Gertrude. None of this was any secret.

“Lord von Fueller was dispatched by the Imperial Peership Office on behalf of the Emperor himself, upon the deaths of my parents, when I went on to inherit their assets.” Sieglinde said. “Because I am an only child, and involved in the military, and the Castille family possessed significant wealth, the Peership Office worried that there would be a feeding frenzy of lower nobles competing for Castille properties and holdings if I were to be killed in action as things stood.”

“I was not aware that Norn– I’m sorry, I meant Lord von Fueller–”

“You don’t have to correct yourself. I’m well aware of your familiarity with her.”

Gertrude seemed briefly at a loss at Sieglinde’s response.

“I had to learn the etiquette of the Imbrian nobility, but it’s all just for show. Please continue without interruption. I don’t want you to coddle my sensibilities. I am just a soldier on this ship.”

“Right. Then sure, I’ll call her Norn. At any rate, I was unaware she worked for the IPO.”

“Lord von Fueller was an enforcer, a bannerwoman; she managed whatever affairs the Fueller family needed her to manage. I’m sure that the many nobles she killed and dispossessed played some part in her wise and knowledgeable management of my case. Through her I was able to sell off extraneous possessions in an organized fashion and donate the money to charity, as well as develop a plan for my wealth to be donated or auctioned for charity in the event of my death.”

Gertrude looked downcast. “I suppose at this juncture, those plans are null and void.”

“Indeed. I had property in Rhinea, the Palatinate and Skaarsgaard. I assume it is all out of my hands, and that the Castille’s famous castles will go on to house soldiers for warring factions instead of needy women and children.” Sieglinde said. “Such things are out of my hands. I prefer to focus on what is directly ahead of us. So tell me, Inquisitor: what do I need to know about Lord von Fueller to work under her command? After that incident with Järveläinen, I don’t want any further conflict with her ranks.”

Gertrude told her a few brief and important lessons she learned about the Lord von Fueller.

Sieglinde would go on to confirm the Inquisitor’s account aboard the Antenora herself.

“The most crucial thing to understand about Norn is that there is nothing she hates more than liars. That doesn’t prevent her from lying, withholding information or speaking half-truths if she needs to, but she doesn’t really make a habit of lying. She’s blunt and straightforward in personality. She hates liars and she has a natural ability to detect lies. She doesn’t care about dishonesty, if you flatter her she will enjoy it, if you libel her she won’t care. But lying to conceal something will get you killed.”

“So if I have any ulterior motives then I would best tell them to her face.”

Sieglinde had said that with a note of sarcasm but Gertrude took it dead seriously.

“She would honestly appreciate it. She would not even consider you a threat.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Gertrude sighed. “You’re going to think I’m crazy; but please don’t judge me for what I’m about to tell you. You have to know, and you can be as skeptical as you want to, but I speak from my own experience. Norn helped me in an affair that demonstrated how powerful she is. What I’m about to say, I don’t say frivolously, and I don’t say it to aggrandize her. It’s the absolute truth.”

“After a delivery like that, I’m afraid I couldn’t judge you if I wanted to.”

What could she possibly be leading into with that dire expression?

“Norn has some kind of ability to control people. A supernatural ability.” Gertrude finally said. “It’s not just that she is intimidating or that she commands imperial authority. Everyone who succumbs to this ability becomes unnervingly loyal to Norn. They act mostly like normal people, but they will drop anything to follow Norn’s commands. A lot of the Antenora’s crew will be like this. Those who aren’t are people she can’t or doesn’t want to control this way. Maybe people she trusts; maybe people who are more useful outside her total control. I don’t know. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sieglinde’s eyes drew wider as Gertrude spoke, with dire certitude, about literal magic.

“When she becomes angered enough to commit violence, Norn–“ Gertrude saw the look on Sieglinde’s eyes and paused for a moment, self-conscious of how this was all sounding, but she closed her eyes and continued. “Norn can move faster than can be seen by the naked eye. She can also manipulate objects from afar. There’s more but I will leave it that. Norn has some kind of power, I’ve seen it.”

“Next you will tell me that she is a Katarran too.” Sieglinde said.

“Like I said, you’re welcome to believe whatever you want. Just be on your best behavior.”

Her voice took a dark turn and her eyes bore a slight but growing malice.

“I apologize.” Sieglinde said, calmly and with poise. “I will– I will keep what you said in mind.”

Having been with Gertrude for several days, Sieglinde had characterized her as a woman of dark and fitful passions, whose moods seemed as errant as the tides. Sometimes she had to be managed carefully in order to work well with her. Sieglinde had her own storms, but she felt she could work with Gertrude by practicing a conciliatory attitude. Despite this, the turn in the conversation was difficult to navigate.

Although she had seen Gertrude be both a cursing fiend and a contrite maiden, Sieglinde had never seen her so superstitious. She knew Gertrude respected Norn von Fueller, but now she felt like Gertrude revered her. Like some kind of deity with whispered attestations to her great feats.

Or perhaps like the leader of a cult.

“Tell me more about the Antenora’s crew, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said. “Those people she brought aboard. I’m curious about their relationship. They seemed like a motley group to follow someone as elite as Norn von Fueller, who could have had her pick of the Empire’s best soldiers to follow her. If we are pinning our hopes on them as our trump card to rescue lady von Fueller, I need to know.”

Gertrude smiled a little bit for the first time in the conversation.

“Those are the Empire’s best soldiers.” She said.

Sieglinde supposed enough people had died by now to pass on such a title to this crew.

But she had personally seen far greater heroes than these come and go.

“Say that I believe that. How were they assembled? How does one earn the Lord’s grace?”

“I believe Norn values people who demonstrate an ambition to attain power or to commit violence.” Gertrude said. It was a curious response that made Sieglinde raise an eyebrow, but the Inquisitor said it without hesitation. “It would not be a stretch to say she collects people who interest her. I am only guessing her criteria, but she took me under her wing, so I can’t fault her taste in companions.”

“Fair enough. I can’t say I would criticize her for wanting an Inquisitor on her side.”

Around the Empire, the ascension of Gertrude Lichtenberg some three or four years ago to the office of High Inquisitor had set off a firestorm of gossip in the private chambers of the nobles.

On the heels of a conflict between Norn von Fueller and the High Inquisitor Ludwig von Brauchitsch, Gertrude’s star began rising. Even as a noble with high standing in the army, Sieglinde had never learned the full details of what transpired. She simply put together the pieces. Brauchitsch and Norn butted heads publicly over a snap investigation into the Heitzing Officer Cadet School, and in the ensuing year, Brauchitsch would go on to lose a steady trickle of subordinates to undisclosed events, and with them went his standing in the court, culminating in the Emperor personally insulting him.

Along with the steady fall of Brauchitsch came the steady rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg, who would go on to briefly serve as a branch Commissioner of the Ministry of Justice in Heitzing before soaring in rank to the High Inquisitorship that Brauchitsch would go on to lose. Heitzing being the seat of power of the ruling Fueller Family and their esteemed Praetorian, it was easy for everyone to connect these events. However, the nobles had respect, and a certain exotic sexual fascination, with the swarthy and gallant Lichtenberg, perfect in etiquette, swift in justice, a child of the Imperial Guard whose parents died tragically defending the royal family. So the gossip around her was always glowing.

It was this history which accounted for Sieglinde’s earlier comment to Gertrude.

She understood quite well the nature of Gertrude’s relationship to the Fueller family.

In fact, Gertrude’s seeming obsession with Elena von Fueller filled a missing piece of the story.

Sieglinde felt she now understood in full, the dark passionate theater of Gertrude Lichtenberg.

“Is there anything else you would like to know? I don’t want you to be surprised.”

Gertrude interrupted Sieglinde’s train of thought.

For a moment, the Baron wished she could simply have tea with Gertrude.

Maybe give her advice from experience about duty and passion–

But Sieglinde was around Gertrude’s age when her own future became immovable.

“Where would we slot into the rank structure of the Antenora?” Sieglinde asked.

“Norn is something of an iconoclast. As such the organization of her ship is unorthodox. There are a lot of highly skilled people on the Antenora at any given time who would have some degree of friction with each other and the world at large if Norn didn’t manage them. Norn is the center, and her officers orbit her exclusively. I believe the two of us would simply be another of the powers that would be hers to command. Don’t expect a tidy chain of command in there. Just do what you are told.”

“Understood. That’s all I needed to know.”

Gertrude nodded her head. “Then as soon as the Grenadier is loaded in, we’ll depart.”

Sieglinde nodded back. “Am I dismissed?”

“I have one more thing I wish to say to you, in private, for our confidence only.”

“Speak your mind, Inquisitor.”

Gertrude gave her a suddenly grave look.

“After our affair here is resolved, I think you should go with Norn.” She said.

Those words caused the Baron’s heart to shudder with surprise and even a hint of fear.

Sieglinde crooked an eyebrow. “For what reason would I do such a thing?”

“Do you have any other place to go?” Gertrude said softly.

“Have I displeased you?”

“Of course not. This isn’t personal, you should know that!”

“Then please explain your reasoning, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said.

“You and Norn may be more alike than you think.” Gertrude said. Her words were going from honey to vinegar quite quickly. “Baron, I don’t have a grand ambition. I am confident that Norn will find Elena and bring her back to me. Once she does, I just want to keep her safe and bide our time. You, meanwhile, are an incredible warrior searching for a cause. I saw the justice in your eyes when you confessed to killing those Volkisch turncoats. If you want to purge the Empire of this rot, Norn will crusade with you. Norn’s list of targets for her vengeance should neatly coincide with your own.”

“You really think that is all I need? Targets for vengeance?”

“You’re raising your voice to me. Are you offended?”

“You’re the one becoming upset. I just want you to mind your own affairs, Inquisitor.”

Sieglinde fixed a sharp look on the Inquisitor, and her words took a sharper tone as well.

Gertrude’s own eyes narrowed, her expression darkened. She scoffed, her passion fully aroused.

“Fine. Then– just shut up and don’t question Norn! Follow your orders so we can get Elena back.”

Her storming out of the room neatly tied up their final hours together on the Iron Lady.

Sieglinde did as she was instructed. She remained quiet.

When they transferred over to the Antenora, and in the days after, she kept to herself.

The Antenora was any other military ship. Sieglinde had been in practically dozens of Cruisers. Her last ill-fated ship had been a Ritter-class with a very similar interior plan. Food was much less fancy than on the Iron Lady, the living spaces were adequate, and there were a few recreational facilities like a gym, a media lounge with films, and a social area with game tables. Everything was just a bit more cramped than in the wildly spacious dreadnought, but livable. It was as much a home as any other metal hull.

Sieglinde kept to herself.

She went to the hangar when she was called to standby.

She ate her meals quickly and quietly and spent much of her time in her own room.

While making the rounds, she confirmed many of the things Gertrude told her.

At first, it was difficult to believe. But the crew was indeed acting just a bit odd. Sieglinde had been impressed by their professionalism, but it was an inhumanly unrelenting professionalism. The Antenora, Sieglinde realized, was like the hive of Norn the queen bee. Most of the crew would be unfailingly in the same places at the same times, day by day, to the point that they felt more like part of the equipment than people. There were perfect cycles of activity. Inhumanly perfect cycles.

Then, Norn had a bout with the mystery woman who worked in the hangar, Potomac.

Suddenly she bared the icy fangs of a power Sieglinde could hardly believe existed.

As instructed, she said nothing. She made no remark and did her best to show no reaction.

At the same time, it was impossible for her not to consider what it meant.

Were there more people with powers like this?

Did Norn have anyone outside this ship under her control to suit her purposes?

Their frequent rendezvous with mysterious engineering vessels caused her great concern.

What kind of conspiracy was Gertrude asking her to overlook?

“Samoylovych.”

One afternoon, Sieglinde was on standby alongside Yurii Samoylovych, a long-haired and well-manicured lady Loup in a pristine uniform who was the most frequent standby pilot for the Antenora. Usually the Antenora put either her or Sieglinde on standby, never both, but as they were nearing Goryk Gorge and expecting some kind of presence there, Norn put both of them on standby for the entire day. Sieglinde decided it was a good opportunity to pick the brain of someone else on the ship, since they were both standing around near their mecha on the hangar floor with no other officers around.

“Samoylovych, what is your opinion of the Lord von Fueller?”

“Nice to meet you too.” Samoylovych replied with a cocky voice.

These were the first words exchanged privately between the two of them.

Sieglinde knew that this was a provocation however and did not further play along.

“I’ve only a passing affair here. I just want to know what you think, in good faith.”

“Need I have an opinion?”

“I can’t imagine someone to whom this vessel seems normal in any way.”

“She is right in front of you.”

Samoylovych raised a hand to her chest as if to acknowledge herself.

She then settled back against the leg of her Jagd and winked at Sieglinde.

“Baron von Castille, we don’t all have the privilege of skepticism. For many of us, life itself is inexplicable and our answers are incomplete. The Loup of the Kashak host– hell, all Loup for that matter– are a deeply religious people. People who believe in a creator God who made this world the way it is. The Shimii, too, are deeply religious and superstitious. Even among the secular, there is a lot of superstition and magical thinking. There are stories about explorers who ventured into the hollows of the planet and returned with great treasures. The legends of Nocht the First, founder of this nation, are entwined in fantasy. And these are things recorded on computers just hundreds of years ago.”

“I understand your point.” Sieglinde said. “You needn’t elaborate any further.”

Samoylovych had referred to it as a privilege, and in some sense it was.

Sieglinde could be this skeptical because she had the comparatively secular life of a noble.

As one of the powerful, she could look down in disbelief at the fantasies of the masses.

And she did look down on it, reflexively, without self-awareness.

To think that a world confined to metal stations in the sea could host such blind mysticism!

Now, however, she was staring that mysticism in the face.

Something about it unnerved Sieglinde, clawed at her, tore gashes inside her brain.

These were not just orthodoxies of control, crafted to perpetuate authority.

Norn was not a metaphor, or a deified ruler like Nocht the First.

She was real; and she was really tearing reality apart right in front of Sieglinde’s eyes.

Her brain could not stop reading it as a conspiracy. As a great lie told boldly in front of her.

Every time she allowed herself to feel vulnerable about these events, a million feelings burst forth. All the violence Sieglinde had committed– was it for nothing? Was it for a hidden agenda? How did she know she was not under some thrall right now? What was the extent of Norn’s power? Were there people even more powerful than her? Why was the Imbrium now in complete chaos then?

What else was real? What was truly false?

Could she have any say in the matter?

“As long as I can look forward to a filling meal and a beautiful woman in my bed, I don’t need to ask any questions that might put my job prospects in jeopardy.” Samoylovych added, perhaps noticing how sullen Sieglinde had become after her last speech. “Speaking of– if you’re having trouble acclimating to the ship, I wouldn’t mind helping you relieve some stress. I do love women bigger than me. Makes the conquest all the more fulfilling.” She turned a lascivious grin on Sieglinde–

–and Sieglinde turned the other cheek to it, bodily rejecting the offer.

That idiotic, crass, offensive request brought Sieglinde back to her infuriating reality.

Samoylovych shrugged. “You can find my room easily whenever you feel antsy.”

The nerve of that woman! For someone who was always being waited on hand and foot, Samoylovych was acting rather forward and the offer embittered Sieglinde. She was nowhere near so desperate for a partner. The Baron had given very little consideration to ‘her type’ and it had been years since she last had sex, but Samoylovych certainly was not compatible. For one who had disowned the noble’s etiquette, she still felt quite a sore spot at being asked for something so personal so easily. No woman who devoured life so easily could understand her– several times Sieglinde had thought the only way she would marry was to someone she knew to be in as much pain as her, or worse.

An insane thought, perhaps, but it was her only response to the pressure to marry.

“I would never. I would never! How dare you? Who raised you to be like this? Learn some self control before someone is forced to teach you! Turn your libido on that simpering friend of yours!”

Sieglinde responded with a venomous screed, her fist closed hard.

Samoylovych laughed gently and jovially, slapping her own knees.

“Petra? Absolutely not! She’s like an annoying little sibling! No! You are awful, Baron!”

At that precise moment, red lights began to flash in the hangar, interrupting the scene.

Sieglinde could hardly believe the timing.

“An attack?”

Adelheid van Mueller’s voice sounded over the intercom as if in response.

“All forces to combat alert! We’re intercepting the Pandora’s Box over Goryk!”

Sieglinde felt a sense of dread suddenly wash over her as the bearing monitors updated.

Pandora’s box. Gertrude’s mercenaries — and Elena von Fueller.

Given everything was on her mind, could she go out there again and fight?

She looked up at the Grenadier which had been entrusted to her.

For Lichtenberg’s evil passions– or Norn’s unknowable violence–

With the doubts lingering on her mind?

“Well, looks like I won’t get a chance to win you over. Take care, Baron!”

Samoylovych winked at her as the mechanics powered on her Jagd and the hatch opened.

“Baron von Castille milord, we’re powering on the Grenadier.”

At Sieglinde’s side, Norn’s brainwashed mechanics began to work on her Diver too.

A voice sounded, reverberating through the wickedest parts of Sieglinde’s own heart.

You’ve done as much killing for much less of a reason, Red Baron. You can’t atone for it now. Your future is decided, and the blood won’t wash from your hands even if you turn back now. You can’t escape this.

You can’t escape your own actions, much less those of Norn von Fueller.

Lips trembling, gulping through a dry throat, sweating, her skin brimming with anxiety–

Sieglinde von Castille slowly, silently, climbed inside the Diver and prepared for battle.

This was just another part of a destiny that seemed ever more inevitable, immovable.


Volleys of 20 mm gunfire from the Brigand repelled two dozen incoming missiles.

While the Brigand defended itself it also righted its course, pointing its armored prow toward the incoming Antenora. It was detected about three kilometers away from Goryk’s Gorge by its use of an active sonar pulse, likely in an attempt to image the surroundings of the gorge. Once the Brigand’s crew detected the sonar waves, the computer registered a high probability that they had been successfully imaged and identified, and the incoming missiles confirmed as much.

The Brigand responded with its own sonar pulse, which gave away its position.

But it also revealed the Antenora completely, leaving no doubt as to the ship’s class.

Ritter-class were the most modern Imperial Cruisers according to Union intelligence. They were sometimes referred to as the “sword-class” Cruisers because of their shape. Their pointed prows and long, angular hull, along with the scabbard-like fins and flared rear “winged” armor protecting the jets, made the ship silhouette resemble a sword. Its armament was top of the line, boasting a twin-barrel 150 mm turret, along with a suite of light coilguns and gas guns, and multiple launchers that could fire torpedoes and missiles. It had a complement of four Divers, with a fifth and sixth in storage. This was the Irmingard equivalent of Cruisers, a serious, state-of-the-art main combatant in any fleet.

“We’ve also got a Cruiser. If they want to slug it out, we can punch back just as hard.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya felt bolstered by the Brigand’s initial performance.

However, they had only surmounted a volley of unguided missiles.

There would be more in store, including the enemy’s Divers.

“Kamarik, set a course that takes us around the Antenora’s flank if necessary, but for now, just inch forward to communication range.” Ulyana ordered the helmsman. She then turned to her communications officer. “Semyonova, send an acoustic message to the Antenora. I want to talk to their commander. I would very much like to confirm whether it’s related to Lichtenberg at all.”

“Yes ma’am! I’ve also got Shalikova on for you! She’s preparing the Divers to sortie!”

Semyonova passed a video window from her station to the Captain’s terminal.

On it, Shalikova’s unmistakable indigo eyes were fiery and focused, her pale hair tied up.

She was dressed in her pilot suit and contacting the bridge from the hangar.

“Good readiness, Acting First Officer!” Ulyana said. “What’s the situation?”

“Khadija and Valya are deploying first ahead of us, so we have rapid response if needed. We’re affixing the anti-ship pack on the Strelkannon and I’ll deploy in the Cheka with it once it is ready. Sameera and Murati– well, you know. Aiden Ahwalia is apparently on his way here too.”

Ulyana nodded. Shalikova spoke with confidence, taking matters into her own hands. She didn’t even look tired. “I’m leaving all Diver-related decisions to you, Shalikova, make it work.”

“Then, ma’am, I have to add this. We have Marina McKennedy’s S.E.A.L ready as well.”

Beside Ulyana’s seat on the bridge, Marina stood with her back to the wall, one hand covering her eyes, breathing heavily. She was in no condition to fight. Upon hearing the name of the incoming ship, the Antenora, she began to babble a name, “Norn the Praetorian” and broke her composure entirely. It was the worst breakdown Ulyana had ever seen out of anyone in her command in a long time.

“Shalikova, I don’t think–”

“No. I heard everything captain. I’ll go. I can’t be here when you negotiate with her.”

Marina slowly stood herself up to full height and forced herself to salute Ulyana.

Ulyana wanted to say something. To stop her– to try to sympathize in any way.

There was clear pain behind the inexpressive face Marina turned to her.

Norn von Fueller had never personally participated in the Empire’s campaign against the Union twenty years ago. The Union had intelligence that she was an enforcer of the Fueller family, a sort of bodyguard and right-hand woman for the Emperor, but that was it. Intelligence about her skills and capabilities was vague. For Marina to react so adversely, they must have shared a dark past. In Ulyana’s mind, she had already formed a link between Marina and Lichtenberg, so if Marina had such a reaction to the Antenora, then Norn must be linked to the Inquisitor as well. This was all part of Lichtenberg’s chase.

This was all very bad news– but they could only play the hand they had been dealt.

Ulyana felt if she prevented Marina from going out to fight it would only insult her.

She had made a decision. Whether it was impulsive or not, Ulyana had to trust her.

“Marina, please take care of yourself out there and come back alive.” She said.

“Quit worrying about me. I’ve survived much worse than this.” Marina replied.

“I’m just glad to hear you have an intention to survive.” Ulyana said.

Marina smirked, just a little bit. “Like I said, you have nothing worry about. I’ll see you.”

She turned and left the room. Her running footsteps could be heard when the door shut.

Ulyana turned back to Shalikova, who had been hanging on the video call.

She could only pray that Marina would be okay.

Though she was a loud and offensive person, Ulyana had to protect everyone under her command.

Ulyana had already seen too many of her crews die in her lifetime.

Sometimes, however, all she could do was have confidence in them.

So she purged her doubts and put on a confident smile for her officers.

“Sorry about that, Shalikova. Marina is on her way.”

Shalikova nodded. “Ma’am, I’ll be sending Maryam Karahailos to the bridge when I deploy. I– I wanted her to be safe in the command pod, rather than down here where something could happen. If you will allow that I would be grateful. She absolutely won’t get in the way, I promise.”

“I’ll keep your girlfriend safe, don’t worry.” Ulyana responded with great delight.

The young pilot’s eyes shot wide open, and she raised her hands and flailed defensively.

“What?! No, it’s not like that–! You’re misunderstanding–!”

Ulyana cut off Shalikova, ending the call with a smirking expression.

Aaliyah stared her quizzically from the adjacent chair, having seen and heard it all.

“I’m happy she’s found someone worth coming back alive for.” Ulyana explained.

“We should all be so lucky as her.” Aaliyah said, shrugging, her cat-like ears twitching.

“Indeed. Commissar, let us once again walk into hell for this precious crew, hand in hand.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Aaliyah closed her eyes and nodded her head solemnly.

Ulyana knew that her Commissar understood at least some of the subtext of her words.

Despite the situation, her mood had livened just a little after Shalikova’s request.

When she saw how Maryam took to her, Ulyana’s romantic side started to hope.

To see that dour and standoffish girl living life after everything she had been through–

–It made Ulyana’s focus tighten. She had to surmount this. To give everyone a future.

“Captain,”

Euphemia Rontgen waited for the Captain and Commissar to turn their attention back to the main screen before interrupting. At that moment she approached the captain’s chair and stood beside it opposite the Commissar, to Ulyana’s right. There was an additional seat there that could be pulled from the wall, and Euphemia sat down there, and wiped her hands over her lap as if clearing settled dust.

“I have dealt with the Fuellers before. I might be able to get us out of this.”

“If the person on the other end allows us to get out of it.” Ulyana said.

“Do you agree to my presence? My fate is tied to this ship now. I want to help you.”

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Ulyana said. No reason to leave cards on the table now.

She looked over to Aaliyah for her opinion. Her Commissar seemed untroubled.

“You’re right, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe Solarflare LLC can pay for clemency.” Aaliyah said.

“Norn von Fueller, if it is her, won’t be swayed by money.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana blinked. “Then what would you even say to her?”

As far as she knew all Solarflare LLC really had going for it was money and supplies.

“We have history. I think I can appeal to her better nature.”

“What? The better nature of a Fueller? Well. I won’t hope for a miracle.” Ulyana said.

She would allow Euphemia to join but she had no illusions as to their situation.

In Ulyana’s mind all she could do was confirm the vehemence of their enemy.

Negotiating would be extremely difficult.

Moments later, Semyonova spun her chair around to face them again.

“Captain! The Antenora responded. They’re connecting to laser via the Goryk relay.”

“So they know about that, huh? We’ll connect too. Have Zachikova guard the network.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Put their commander on my screen when we have a connection.”

Ulyana waited, taking in a deep breath of stale smelling air, feeling acutely every little itch on her body, every hair out of place on her blond head. Talking to Lichtenberg had been touch and go, but this time she might be negotiating with the Imperial royal family, not just an overdressed thug. Those moments while her screen had nothing but connection diagnostics scrolling on them filled her with dread.

She feared as if there was something, anything more that she could do that she wasn’t, as if the seconds she spent staring at the screen could be dooming them all, the same way that the moments spent stuck in the substation had been enough for the enemy to catch up. The silence, punctuated by her officers working at their stations, was the tensest she had felt in years. She felt helpless, useless–

Deep breaths. She collected herself. Everyone was depending on Ulyana Korabiskaya.

After this was over, she could have a hearty cry in her own room.

She purged herself of emotions and waited until there was a picture on her screen.

“Greetings. Ulyana Korabiskaya, I presume?”

The woman on the other end had a fairly deep voice, but with smooth enunciation.

Her appearance was a bit more casual than Ulyana expected. A fair-skinned woman, with blond hair in a simple ponytail with short bangs and sidelocks that hid her ears. She wore what looked like a simple red camisole and pants, along with an open coat, half blue, and half green with gold trim, bearing, on the left, a series of gold embossed lines that seemed to mimic the circuitry on a semiconductor.

Her eyes were starkly red. Ulyana felt fixed into place by them, as if she was nervous to make any kind of movement that they could see. Though slight of figure, the presence of the blond woman on the other end of the call came through immediately and starkly, commanding all of her attention.

Ulyana felt as if there was an imperceptible weight around herself.

As if she had crossed into a room with a thick, palpable fog that resisted every movement.

Awash in some invisible scrutiny. She felt more conspicuous, more watched, more known.

For a moment, she thought she could understand the terror that Marina felt.

Norn von Fueller.

Her very gaze had a pressure that was indescribable.

“I am indeed Captain Korabiskaya. Your reputation precedes you mi–, milord.” Ulyana said.

That was one thing she did know– proper titles. She was almost caught right off the bat.

“Captain Korabiskaya, I am not one to dwell on pleasantries. Let me be clear and blunt, and get to the point quickly, out of respect for you and what you’ve already been through.” Norn said, raising a dismissive hand. “I feel that I have amply demonstrated that if I wanted to, I could take apart that overgrown can of sardines that you and your mercenaries are huddled in and extract just the one person I’m interested in while the rest of you die. I want you to surrender immediately.”

Ulyana felt something in the back of her head.

There was a sharp and sudden pain as if a nail was digging into her skull.

She couldn’t help it and flinched, unable to conceal it.

Just as quickly as it came, however, the pain was gone. Flinching was all she did.

“You’ll forgive me, Norn von Fueller, if I don’t find unguided missiles that impressive.”

Despite the pressure she felt, Ulyana managed to find a little humor to try to throw her off.

On the other end, Norn smiled. Not just a smirk or a little grin but a rosy, wondrous smile.

As if she had bore witness to something breathtakingly beautiful.

Ulyana could not place her sudden cheer.

“Interesting! Interesting!”

She crossed her arms and sat back. Now she was grinning to herself.

“I can see why you gave Inquisitor Lichtenberg so much trouble. Yes, you are not just a baker’s dozen of mercenaries, or else you would not have been able to fend her off like you did. Very well. Let us not mince words, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are holding the Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller on your ship. Whether you were contracted to take her by a third party, or she herself escaped to you for some reason– the story doesn’t matter to me. Work for me instead. Hand her over.”

There was nothing Ulyana could possibly say to something that sudden and that insane.

She had never been prepared to come to an arrangement with Norn von Fueller.

Because she believed that the target of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s hunt was Marina McKennedy, Ulyana knew that giving her up was impossible. Not only because of the relationship between the Republic and the Union, and not only because of the honor that a Captain owed the members of her precious crew. Where it pertained to an intelligence asset like Marina, it was impossible to believe that the Empire could act in good faith. She could never trust Norn’s word. That being said, the appearance of handing over Marina could have been used to gain an advantage, to lay a trap, to buy time or to sneak away.

Such plans were predicated on them having what the enemy wanted in the first place.

Ulyana felt an icy chill stab deep through her chest.

None of her plans could possibly work if the enemy believed that what they had on hand–

was the Imperial Princess of the entire fucking Imbrian Empire!

Something like that was inconceivably urgent! There was no possible negotiation around it!

A nervous smile crept up on Ulyana’s lips. She could not conceal it. She tried to play it off.

“Milord, I believe I do not fully appreciate your humor.”

“You made verbal sport of my young, awkward subordinate, Captain, but I’m not like her.”

“I guarantee you I am not playing games. I am more serious than ever. You are mistaken.”

“My patience is running very thin, Korabiskaya. I will gladly pay triple, or even four times, whatever amount of funds you were promised, in any media that you desire. Gold, supplies, marks, bonds, fur rugs from real wild-grown bears from Thuringia’s eighth station. I have, Captain, a near infinite power to fulfill your wildest dreams, or kill you in the most brutal, painful, and evil ways that you could possibly imagine. I want your life, Captain, its up to you whether I own and cherish it, or crush it in my hand.”

Norn held out her palm and pointed a slender finger into the middle of it.

No matter how many gestures she made, however, Ulyana was unprepared for the situation.

“Of course, milord.” Ulyana said. “I’ll hand her over, if you–”

“Don’t lie to me, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Norn raised her voice. “You can’t conspire against me.”

Ulyana found herself thrown off-balance.

Yes, she had indeed been conspiring.

She had to conspire– because it was impossible to surrender what she didn’t have!

“Norn von Fueller, we are innocent of the deeds that you unjustly ascribe to us. You have absolutely caught the wrong ship. It is ludicrous to think that a group such as ours could have possibly taken your Imperial Princess! It is my understanding that she was supposed to have perished in a collapse over two weeks ago! Isn’t that right? Have you any shred of evidence that we could have her?”

This was news that Aaliyah had learned from her time in Serrano station.

Marina had confirmed it too in one of their meetings about recent events.

Ulyana was taking an entirely different tack than she intended with Norn.

She was trying to tell the honest truth and swear the innocence of their crew.

And Norn was quite obviously unconvinced by it.

“You told Gertrude Lichtenberg you had her.”

“Gertrude Lichtenberg was speaking euphemisms. We have a VIP — she is no princess!”

Norn scoffed.

“I know you have her, Captain, because I know that you spoke with her.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Her voice is reverberating among your surface thoughts as we speak.”

“Excuse me?”

Ulyana was completely losing her cool. This was insane– farcically insane!

“Captain, allow me, please.”

From off to Ulyana’s right, Euphemia Rontgen suddenly peeked into the video call.

Norn began to stare intently as soon as she saw that hint of blue hair and teal eyes.

“Euphrates?” She asked suddenly.

“Euphrates?” Ulyana asked back.

“Quiet, Korabiskaya. Turn your monitor to face her, this instant.” Norn grunted.

Her voice took on a new urgency. She was rattled for the first time.

“Listen to her for now Captain.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana stared between Norn and Euphemia Rontgen with increasing confusion.

There was nothing she could do but play along.

She shifted her monitor– such that Euphemia could be seen but she was still in the picture.

That way she could continue to watch Norn.

At her side, she glanced to see Aaliyah’s reaction, but the Commissar shrugged helplessly.

This was moving out of their control quickly. Ulyana hoped Euphemia could do something.

“It is you.”

Norn put on a much different smile for Euphemia than she had for Ulyana before.

Cold, cruel, amused, arrogant.

For her part, Euphemia’s own softly smiling expression did not change upon meeting Norn. She had overcome even that briefest moment of concern Ulyana had seen in her eyes when she first heard the word Antenora. Having spoken to Norn now it was impossible to believe that Euphemia– Euphrates–? could possibly appeal to her “better nature.” Norn’s expression made this especially clear.

“It’s been a long time, Norn.”

“Incredible. It really is you. All of my troubles have ended up in the same ugly hauler.”

“Why are you after Elena von Fueller? Duty to your family?”

“Duty to my people, writ large.”

“So you don’t believe she died.”

“That’s neither here nor there, Euphrates.”

“Then I can’t confirm or deny the location of your princess, Norn. You’re right, it’s irrelevant.” Euphemia said calmly. “You see, these people are working for me now. Our existing agreements extend to them. I would offer to turn myself over to you in good faith, but I want to get my money’s worth out of them. So I would appreciate it if you ceased hostilities– if they do have the Imperial Princess aboard, which I highly doubt, I will do what I can to see her to safety when her business is concluded.” 

Norn turned a sharp-toothed grin on her.

“We can all get what we want here, Norn.”

“Euphrates–”

There went that name again! Ulyana felt frustrated. Rontgen was hiding far too much!

“Euphrates, Euphrates, Euphrates.” Norn shrugged mockingly, flashing a grin. “Seeing you among those hapless mercenaries confirms my suspicions. From the instant I saw you on this screen. Did you know that I met with not one, but two Sunlight Foundation vessels on the way here? Did you call for assistance when you became stranded? Why was I told to go to Goryk’s Abyss with no mention of rescuing you? Why didn’t an Alonso De Ojeda class come fetch you? I wonder, I wonder.”

Ulyana briefly glanced at the doctor to see if Norn had gotten under her skin.

She was not successful at first– but that changed very quickly as Norn spoke.

“Euphrates” looked surprised. As if there was a dawning realization on her face.

As Norn said more and more proper nouns known only between them.

“If you were sent to rescue me, then it is no longer necessary.” Euphrates said.

Her jaw was set. She was clenching her teeth.

“Rescue you? You’ve been abandoned, Euphrates. Face it. I’ve got you now.”

Norn smiled viciously.

“Norn, I’m pleading to the decency that I know you have, don’t do this–”

“This is the part where you beg for your life, Euphrates. See if it will move me.”

Ulyana sat in her chair staring at Norn and “Euphrates” in utter disbelief.

It was almost dreamlike what a sudden, inexplicable turn the negotiation had taken.

She felt like she was hearing a conversation in Shimii Fusha or in High Elvish.

To Ulyana these were all euphemisms, but Norn and Euphrates understood each other.

Euphrates let out a deeply held breath, her hands balling up into fists on her lap.

“Norn, if you’re set on revenge then go after me alone. Don’t involve these people.”

“I have all the power Euphrates, and I’m setting all the rules. I don’t hear you begging?”

Norn sat back in her chair, craning her head on one fist. Perfectly composed.

Euphrates fixed her with a smoldering stare.

A gaze full of desperation.

There was more emotion in those eyes than Ulyana saw her express since they met.

For a moment no words were exchanged. They were just two people staring at one another.

The Bridge fell so silent that the void in the sound itself felt palpable.

Ulyana was still trying to process what they were talking about previously–

Then Norn flinched on the screen, brought a hand up to her forehead clearly in pain.

Euphrates did the same–

–And the video cut out to a black screen. Sound off. Norn was gone.

Suddenly and without warning.

“What? Semyonova–!”

The Captain had scarcely called the name of her communications officer, when the bright blond girl whipped back around on her swiveling chair looking like she’d seen a ghost, pale as a sheet, her hands trembling. “I don’t know what happened, Captain! Everything was fine until now! I’m not seeing any disconnection requests logged on our end, but the channel just closed!”

Ulyana immediately suspected “Euphrates” had something to do with it.

Maybe a remote disconnection– with the implants–? She turned to accuse the woman of foul play, but when she did, she found “Euphrates” slumping forward, clutching her face. Blood trickled down her fingers. Her entire body was shaking. Ulyana laid a hand on her and there was no acknowledgment.

With one exchange of gazes she had fallen, unresponsive, and hemorrhaging.

“Call Kappel now! Right now!” Ulyana cried out.

Aaliyah shot up from her seat and rushed to Euphemia’s side as well.

Captain and Commissar grabbed hold of the doctor, peeled her hands from her face–

Immediately, blood, so much blood, from her nostrils, her mouth. Ulyana was speechless.

Euphemia shook as if freezing, her breathing was ragged, her eyes crawling into their sockets.

“Call Kappel for god’s sakes!” Ulyana shouted. “And tell Shalikova to deploy! Right now!”

Negotiations were over– and Ulyana could not possibly understand how and why.


Norn had both Euphrates and Ulyana Korabiskaya practically groveling in front of her.

She had been so excited — Euphrates! Euphrates had suddenly appeared before her!

Gertrude’s plight almost entirely vanished from her mind. This was the real prize!

Ever since Potomac had told her about Goryk’s Gorge, Norn had thought about this outcome as a distant possibility. Euphrates was always going after nests of abyssal denizens, and Potomac was no fighter. If she was sent anywhere near the Abyss of Goryk it would have been to report on the activities of someone like Euphrates to the Sovereign. Yangtze knew that Potomac was with Norn– so any mission she sent Potomac on would include Norn by default. Now Norn had a picture of the situation.

Either Yangtze was foolish enough to think Norn would just pass up an opportunity to get rid of Euphrates, or she was foolish enough to try to take advantage of Norn’s killer instinct to purge her. Norn had heard there was friction within the Immortals. Potomac being trusted as Yangtze’s right-hand woman was enough by itself to prove a rift between Euphrates and Yangtze. She never would have thought that this might lead to Euphrates falling so squarely, so helplessly into her grasp.

Norn had no intention of rescuing Euphrates. And she would not let her escape.

She would extract her from the Pandora’s Box and pop her head like a balloon.

A fitting first step in her vengeance. Unlike Potomac, Euphrates was unaffiliated with Eric.

She was alone, apart from all her defenses, out of communication with Yangtze.

In one moment, Norn was practically savoring her triumph–!

In the next, she found herself in some dark place full of swirling aether.

Without warning, without explanation, the Brigand and the Antenora vanished.

“Euphrates?”

It happened faster than a blink of her eyes. Before the instant where her vision went dark as the eyes shut, and the instant where they reopened again, she had already seen the darkness creep at the corners of the visible world like a snapshot of paint streaming down a wall. She felt a pinprick of psionic shock that her prodigious psychic defense battered down– but before she could confidently say she had repelled it, she found herself dragged into the aetheric current and brought out of the material world.

She was more annoyed and confused than she was alarmed at first.

How did this happen? An Apostle was nearly immune to mental attacks.

Even Mehmed had failed to alter her behavior or corrupt her senses, so how did this–?

“It’s not an attack. I’m inviting you here to settle our differences.”

Before her appeared Euphrates. That blue hair, those blue eyes, her butch mode of dress. It was unmistakable. Norn wanted to think at first she had blinked into existence, but she came to realize that Euphrates had always been there. Euphrates, and the glass-like floor upon which they were both standing, amid the dim void surrounded by the current of dull colored aether like the eye of a storm. They had both been in this place, and in the material world. This was their minds meeting, nothing more.

Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Good job Euphrates. I have hardly explored the currents, hardly ever seen this place. You’ve had many years of a head start on me in Clairvoyance. I commend you for exploiting this weakness and being a temporary inconvenience. There is nothing to discuss. I am going to return to the material world and kill you. You’ve only yourself to curse for this fate.”

Euphrates turned a look of gentle contrition on her that Norn despised immediately.

“All I want is to talk Norn. I don’t want to inflict any more violence on you.”

“When we last met, Euphrates, I still had hope in something. Twenty years ago. You have found me now at my most corrupted. I can think of nothing else than how much you’re responsible for this.”

“I know. I secretly hoped the Fueller Reformation would succeed and you would forget your vengeance.”

“Excuse me? I can’t believe you would even dare to say something so facile to me.”

“I know that simple contrition won’t suffice, Norn. That’s why I am here now.”

Her face was calm. Her expression toward Norn looked– resigned.

Her hand was trembling as she ran it through her hair.

Standing there in her white coat, her shirt and tie and dress pants.

“Norn, you’re right to hate me. I was the one who found you. So I’m the one responsible for everything you have suffered until now. I have regretted everything that happened between us for years. I know there is no way to expiate except to accept whatever punishment you desire, but I can’t let you endanger those people, not on my behalf, and not on Elena von Fueller’s. What you are now is not the result of their actions. I have brought you here to punish me, Norn. You can scar my soul in any way you need.”

“You’re lying.” Norn said.

Norn hated liars. Nothing infuriated her more.

Lying was an exercise of power. It belittled the recipient and aggrandized the speaker.

Everyone who knew about her powers assumed Norn could only read people psionically.

Nobody had ever realized that, perhaps, Norn knew a liar when she saw one, because of how much she had been lied to, abused, exploited. How much of her life was shaped by the lies told to her and how much proximity she had to liars. And in turn, how much those liars had belittled, underestimated, and humiliated her through the act of their lying. Liars were easy for her to spot. If she knew someone well enough she could always tell if they were lying. She could tell someone was lying through social cues, physical cues, information disparity– Norn wasn’t just reading Euphrates’ aura.

She knew that Euphrates was lying because of all these cues. Because–

“You did this to Mehmed.”

Over forty years ago, during Mehmed’s Jihad, Norn and the Immortals of the Sunlight Foundation had confronted him at the height of his power, when he was perhaps the most psionically gifted individual to have ever lived on Aer. Despite his power, skill, and unmatched understanding of psionics, in the end, Norn and Euphrates withstood him. It was Euphrates who stood by Norn in the final reckoning.

Norn felt her chest squeeze with the sudden, furious realization.

She had become Mehmed.

Euphrates had done something to her. Some kind of psionic trap in the aether current.

She could suppress people by casting them into the aether somehow–

This was how she weakened Mehmed enough for Norn to kill him.

Euphrates shut her eyes and bowed her head, her shame accepted and laid bare.

“You figured it out. I brought you into this space to keep you from hurting the Brigand. But I was not lying about my intentions. As I accepted a punishment from Mehmed, I accept a punishment from you.” Euphrates said. Her tone of voice was unnerving, infuriating. That sadness with which she spoke, that pity. “I cursed you with my knowledge and led you to be used by Yangtze, because I was too naïve. I didn’t see the Eighth for what she had become. The same thing happened to Mehmed, so I took–”

“Shut up! Shut up! You still don’t understand anything!”

Norn’s voice reverberated across the void.

The Praetorian trembled with fury, radiating her sheer seething anger.

Euphrates’ aura shrank as Norn’s furious cloud of black beset her like a tempest.

“You brought Mehmed here and he was killed Euphrates! He was killed, butchered, his body was used by Yangtze the Eighth for all manner of horrendous things, his blood begot a child who must now live with being born of a dead tyrant! You think letting him punish your soul in the aether makes up for that sin? Do you really, truly, believe that your affair with Mehmed was settled like this?”

All of that fake pity and self-aggrandizing grief faded from Euphrates’ eyes.

Panic, the panic that came with being bludgeoned by an unwanted truth.

That was what Norn wanted to see from her. To rattle her, to win the war of wills over her.

Mehmed could still move in the material world when Euphrates suppressed him. He had been slowed down, he had been clearly struggling under psionic attack. But as an Apostle, as the greatest of the Apostles, even at his weakest he was deadly strong. Norn had seen it face to face as she fought him to a standstill, as she brought him low. She could also escape from this trap.

When she escaped, she would give Euphrates the justice she had earned.

Euphrates was just using psionics. Her body could not withstand an infinite amount of the psionic feedback it would take to hold Norn down. As they spoke, Euphrates’ material form must have been suffering unimaginable pain to sustain the two of them in the Aether against their will. This was an incredible feat of mental power, but it had to have its limit. And when Norn escaped, she would command the Antenora’s attack, and Euphrates would cease to exist in any world.

In any psionic engagement, certitude was power, and doubt and fear created weakness.

“Norn– I– There’s nothing you want from me except my death, is there?”

Norn didn’t answer that pathetic whimper. Her silence spoke loud enough as a response.

Everything Euphrates had done to her could only be paid with her death.

“Death is the only thing I can’t give you, Norn.” Euphrates said, voice near bereft of breath.

That should have been a statement which was filled with defiance. Yet Euphrates looked at her with panicked eyes, the tears starting to stream down her cheeks. Her body was shaking, her gaze barely holding Norn’s own. So little composure, but the space had not yet broken down.

Norn could not place that reaction.

“How shameless can you be? Are you trying to stoke my sympathy?”

Euphrates hugged herself and fell to her knees in front of Norn.

“I can’t expiate with my death, Norn. I can’t be cleansed by death. I’ve replayed this encounter in my mind so many times, but death is the one thing I feared you most desire, but I can’t give you that, Norn. You can’t kill me. It’s been tearing me apart for years. I want so badly to release you from all of the pain that I have caused you, to allow you to lead the life you should have had. My interference ruined you and brought so much violence to this ocean; but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t satisfy you.”

“What the hell do you mean–? No– you can’t be serious–”

Norn stomped forward, grabbed Euphrates by her coat and lifted her up.

Euphrates made no attempt to resist, to struggle or fight back. Her feet weren’t kicking.

Her hands weren’t striking. Her eyes were barely meeting Norn’s own.

Norn had her completely under her power and yet the space was not breaking.

Why wasn’t she free of Euphrates’ power? She had broken her completely, and yet–

“No.”

A bitter, skeptical laugh escaped from Norn’s lips.

Her mind was running over an extremely horrible and pathetic possibility.

She knew that Euphrates was ageless, but–

“No, no, no. You’re not seriously– you’re literally saying–”

Norn’s eyes went wild. Her thinking became fogged.

In a violent impulse she seized Euphrates’ head and twisted it with all her fury.

Brutal strength issued a horrific cracking sound–

Neck snapped, the whole vertebra, sinews, and muscle tore–

Euphrates fell limp and hit the false ground of the void–

–head hanging like a bag of meat where Norn’s hands tore it.

She watched the corpse speechless.

Everything blurred from the mind fog of unreality.

Euphrates was alive.

Alive.

Glassy dead eyes staring far-gone but;

Red rings;

Psionic sight self-puppeteering;

Shaking arms rigid like a doll’s reaching;

Head snapped back into place like pushrod into hole;

Coughing breath reconnected to the windpipe like completed circuitry;

Blood spilling where neck muscle and bone tore and scarred refilling new skin;

ALIVE.

Watching as the hands worked dead. Unable to accept–

Norn;

laughing;

shaking;

seething;

crying;

To the colors of creation she had spilled red, brown, black and bile.

And yet–

Euphrates was alive.

There was no believing what she had seen. And yet the truth came to her lips quite simple.

“You can’t die.” Norn said, her voice trembling.

She reached out a hand toward Euphrates’ shaking blood-soaked body and sent a psionic pulse through her that popped her organs in her chest like bubble wrap. One after the other psychic hands pinching her heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach into boiling blood. Her corpse rattled, gore and spit spilling from her mouth, flailing like firecrackers from the force of her insides liquifying. Norn thrust her hand forward again and again and again like she was feeling the recoil of a firearm and Euphrates’ battered body with its helpless expression of death accepted each and every cruel blow like she was nothing.

“You’re not resisting! Resist it goddamn you!”

Norn shouted herself hoarse as the blood pooled in the eye of the storm.

Euphrates came to fall on her side, her arms still capable of enough motion to hold herself.

Fetal, ruined remains curled up.

In moments, her chest was rising and falling.

Blood gurgled in her throat when breathing resumed.

There was a guttural noise escaping her windpipe along with a gulp of gorey vomit.

There were holes cut into her shirt where rib bone had shredded out at acute angles.

Norn watched them recede as if her violence was playing out in reverse.

“You won’t release me.” Norn realized. “Because holding me won’t kill you.”

The Founder of the Sunlight Foundation who relinquished her dream to Yangtze the First.

She was not only ageless.

Norn had underestimated her, gravely, vastly, underestimated her.

Euphrates could be uniquely certain of her fate. She could not die.

Certitude was power in the mind. Just as her soul would not die, her body could not.

“Mehmed could still act in the material world when you were doing this.”

Norn still had to be able to influence the material world. Mehmed had done it.

She waited for Euphrates’ body to heal enough for her to speak. She picked her up again.

“Say something.” Norn demanded.

Holding Euphrates by the throat which she had not seconds ago completely shredded.

“Our hearts want to connect, Norn. That’s why I can bring you here.”

Her voice was rough. Her blood-stained lips curled into a little smile.

“Ganges’ childish philosophy.”

Norn put a hand to Euphrates’ forehead, ignoring her weak, pleading gaze.

Frost began to creep across Euphrates’ skin, bruising her, turning her purple and ghost white. Every bit of sweat and blood on her was turned into a needle that drove into her skin and released more fluids for Norn to freeze. She was in her sinews, sending cold-burning agony into her core.

Her eyes crawled back up her head, choked sounds of pain animal and automatic–

She was not resisting.

Euphrates had truly given herself up for punishment. For anything Norn could do to her. She stood holding Euphrates’ once-dignified form now frozen stiff in her hands. The closest thing Euphrates had to a soul was in her grasp. She felt nothing hurting it. She could not possibly have been satisfied.

This was not any kind of vengeance. It was not any kind of closure.

There was great certitude in what Euphrates did. A complete, unimpeachable finality.

There had to be a way– there had to be a way to break free of it.

Norn pored over everything she knew about psionics, the mind, the aether.

“Our hearts want to connect, you said?”       

Norn formed a conjecture in her mind. As soon as she did she tried to be certain of it.

She scanned around the void trying to thread the colors with her eyes, to follow the currents.

This was not a space in which only Euphrates had control.

Where she had brought her was a communal space, viewed in a way to unique to psychics.

Without vision, it still existed, in the back of everyone’s mind, in the core of everyone’s heart.

All of the colors around her represented the sum total of humanity.

Emotional footsteps which had left pain and elation imprinted onto the fabric of reality.

This was a unique place with unique possibility.

In this place, it was not only Norn and Euphrates who existed.

Their currents were the ones closest, most connected, but they were not alone.

“Ganges would have you told you. No matter where you go, you can never be alone.”

Norn focused her psionic vision to the fullest extent.

Inviting that hated swarm of aether that threatened to overwhelm her senses.

Inspecting with keen detail the feelings that swirled around her.

She felt the chains of her myriad connections that Euphrates represented–

Anger;

Pain;

Betrayal;

Entwining her and Euphrates in thorns which had driven Norn for years and now bound her.

Mehmed had been trapped by these thorns too. He could still move despite this.

To the very end, Mehmed had resisted. Resistance was his strength. His certitude.

It led to his death.

Norn was not Mehmed. She had neither his prodigious ability nor his all-abiding ambition.

But just as Euphrates had something Norn lacked, Norn had an advantage Mehmed failed to accrue.

Taking a deep breath, focusing all of her might and power–

Driving away the fear that crept in her heart as she felt the upswell of humanity–

She let go.

She let go of the grudge that tied her to Euphrates.

She let go of her guardedness, of her reticence, of her insecurity, of her need to have control.

She looked upon those scars in her heart as past things, as flesh wounds closed.

She let go of position.

From standing upright and separate amid the stream of humanity.

Norn fell through the makeshift ground that held her and Euphrates level.

Falling into the current of all the sinews which bound her heart with others.

As certain as she could ever be that there was one heart that would accept her desire to heal.

Her desire to be free. A unique possibility in this realm.

Falling–

And letting herself be filled with thoughts of a red-headed young woman’s childish grinning.

Of the look of understanding that those green eyes gave even to the darkest of Norn’s colors.

Adelheid van Mueller.

The woman to whom Norn had sworn her life.

Her gaze, her touch, her smell, the deepest depths of her being enveloped the falling Norn.

For the first time since she was introduced to the cruel Imbrium, she felt something close to bliss.


Previous ~ Next

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.


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