Hekate's Call, chapter 4

The second week aboard the Gestalt and Gravity, a six-bay carrier designed for rapid engagements and stealth, was quite possibly one of the worst weeks of her life. The first week was full of endless embarrassments such as not being able to properly get her hardsuit on by herself in low-gravity or getting frequently lost in the labyrinthine halls. The second week they hit a near-gate and were about to spend the next week in the in-between.

There was a setting on most displays that interpolated frames of film and television, creating a strange sense of wrongness – that movement felt unnatural in its completeness. The in-between, which she had been told at least two other more scientific names for, had that setting on but for everything. Everything felt too real until it crossed the uncanny valley and looked fake. There was also the time dilation that convinced her that she had been awake for hundreds of years in this state despite everyone's assurances it had only been a few days.

Some people seemed wholly unaffected. The few glimpses she'd seen of the other pilots, in particular Manya and Krystyn, indicated that not only were they unaffected by it but they acted like nothing was wrong. They'd pass by the door to Ilina's room laughing raucously about some omninet video Manya had grabbed before they hit the gate.

Morian checked in on her eventually, but give her little more than a freshly cleaned bucket and some easier to eat food and water, and a bit of encouragement for good measure. Morian didn't seem fazed by it either.

"They've really managed to smooth these outs," Morian laughed, "It used to be so much worse. You couldn't even keep artificial gravity on during the trip so it was disorienting as hell."

Near the end of the week, about twelve hours before they were about to exit the in-between, Morian called her to the pilot's medical bay. Which was to say that Morian gave Ilina a graceless, awkward piggyback ride down to the bay before throwing her down on one of the beds.

"I had to wait for her to stop screaming before I brought you, but the anesthetics haven't been working that well," Morian glanced over to a bay shuttered off from the rest of them.

The bay dividers were straight from floor to ceiling folding panels that could be pulled and dragged along a track. It made sense that there wouldn't be hanging cloth dividers like planet-side emergency bays had when gravity was optional.

She didn't want to be here. Why was she here? The person in the other bay was going to be Velia, wasn't it? Had she been screaming because of the horrors of the in-between or because she was in a new medical facility being tended to by the Corpse Eater again? Guilt mixed dangerously with her nausea deep in her gut worse than it had in the years she'd worked for Carrion.

"Why have you never asked me to fix her?"

Dr. Morian Kyrnn stood over her, holding her on the table by the shoulders. The habitual chain-smoker didn't even have a lit cigarette out, despite forcing through clearance to smoke wherever she damn well pleased on the Gestalt. The doctor was taking it more seriously than she'd taken nearly any conversation the two of them had ever had. But this wasn't a question Ilina had to answer, she didn't work for Morian anymore.

"You've been hauling that corpse around for years now," after several years of working beside Morian she'd somewhat internalized what the woman considered dead and alive. "But you've never asked me to put her back the way she was when you brought her to me. You knew I could, right?"

The hollow face, almost skeletal in its own right, of the Corpse Eater Morian Kyrnn towered over her like a creature of her nightmares. Too real to be real, but dashed past the uncanny valley into the depths of nightmare. Despite all the ways her brain could come up with killing the monster and escaping, her body was paralyzed with a strange new fear.

Why hadn't she ever made any attempt to heal Velia Lore?

Across the med bay, sedated, was a woman that Ilina Falke couldn't live without. Hadn't lived without since her first months with one of those stupid little rebel holdouts. Everyone in the rebellion hated Falke – they burned her belongings, trashed her gear, physically and verbally abused her constantly – because she wasn't one of them. Ilina tried to hard to be one of them.

Velia Lore came to her rescue. Waved away the abuse with ease and grace. Tended to Ilina. With care and precision the woman opened up every one of Ilina's fears and insecurities and healed them one by one. The timing was so perfect that even though Ilina knew she was being manipulated, she needed the attention and affirmation more than she needed water.

That was, of course, by design. To break the mercenary Hunter into a shape that didn't disrupt the status quo of the rebel scout faction.

She felt like nothing without Velia. And now the woman was sedated, having gone through years of torturous experiments at the hands of Morian Kyrnn, while Ilina Falke got paid a hefty salary for supervisor duty on The Necromancer's Spoils and now on the Gestalt.

The answer was simple, wasn't it?

The empty, brainless husk that was Velia Lore's corpse – in the sense of Morian's fiends, living breathing people reduced to nothing through drugs, torture, and whatever tricks the necromancer was hiding – was an effigy. A representation of control.

But across the medical bay instruments sung the songs of life in beeps and whirrs. Heartbeat. Brain activity. Oxygen levels. More that Ilina had never bothered to read or understand. Those instruments weren't like Morian and Ilina, who could rend a person into a corpse at a conceptual level.

"You should have killed her," Falke's trembling lips could barely make the words, slurring them together. "Or left her behind."

"I didn't," Morian let go of her shoulders, assured that Falke wasn't planning on bolting. "You put her in this situation. You can be the one to get her out of it. Or you can let Elisabet be the one to come to her rescue."

Falke stared at the floor. "I can't do anything for her."

"You can ask for help," the woman adjusted her glasses and yawned suddenly. "You're part of a team now, so you need to get used to it eventually."

Ilina was blessed by the worst timing for every possible catastrophe in her life. At least it made things easier for her, since she was better in an active crisis than pondering the ethics and morality of her own actions. She could push out everything else and just focus on the tasks in front of her.

The artificial gravity dropped out suddenly as the ship dropped out of subspace and rocked hard. The classic red emergency lighting activated and the captain's voice – a stern sounding woman with a thick Imperial accent – shouted, "Battle stations level 1, active combat."

Falke attempted to push by Morian but was stopped by a strong hand around her wrist. Was she really going to force Falke to have an answer right now?

"Fix her," she growled. "I have a job to do."

The Corpse Eater smiled that awful, cigarette stained but perfectly straight toothed smile, and gave an unsettling thumbs up as she helped push the frantic pilot towards the door.

By the time she got her hardsuit on everyone else had already deployed. The hanger was abuzz with people preparing for refueling and reloading operations instead of launch operations. A Parting Word sat lonely in a hanger sized to fit the Inertia, nonsensically small by comparison. Her comm line was hooked into the other pilots so she had been listening to Control and the pilots and trying to piece together what was going on.

They’d been dropped back into real space by an anchor point, slipping out of gate travel like water gushing through a sliced hose. Navigation hadn’t seemed to locate what sector or quadrant or whatever measurement of space they worked with that they’d landed in either. They were fighting multiple hostile ships that were ready for combat as they dropped out. Was it a targeted ambush or were they just sitting around the anchor waiting for anything to bite?

Ilina got the gist of the situation and mounted the Parting Word. She shuddered as it’s compact reactor span to life on her back, as the various mounts screwed themselves in place on her hardsuit. The neural links had been fined tuned by Morian such that the armor was an extension of her body rather than a bulky set of armor, which was good because she didn’t exactly have a lot of time to fiddle with controls.

Her comm lit up, “Breaching party on the starboard side, entering through the hanger!

Hey! That’s where she was!

Hear that, Hunter? Are you fucking ready yet, you stupid bitch?

“Calm down, Charlatan, I’m here,” Hunter barked into her comm.

The Gestalt had two external catapults, with big folding doors leading to them on the starboard and... the left side. She knew that the starboard side was on the right because that's where the Gestalt was breached by charges that blew the bay door inward. They were at least breach hardened, designed to crumple against those kinds of explosions in a way that made entry more difficult. The round bulky monstrosity leading the breach, about the size of the Inertia, had to reach its pudgy hands in to pry and shoulder-check the remnants of the door open.

Hunter flared the reactor, throwing herself to the wall between the catapults with enough force to crater it. It was faster than she wanted to be going but that was the general issue she was having in zero-g. Her machine was designed to be grounded, or at the very least anchored, and a lot of its power was lost in zero-g due to some science laws about reactions and stuff. She was figuring things out by feel.

She waited for the door to get pulled open just a bit more as she marched along the wall towards the crack. The breaching unit's sensor suite was almost flush with the rounded body. It was a wall meant to take up space, covering for infantry during the breach.

Big bodies were big targets.

She hit it with both barrels of her slug thrower dead-center in the chest. All the internal systems – inertia dampeners, ACS, life support – reacted differently to the kind of hit the Parting Word was capable of under gravity than they did without it. What mattered most was that they reacted at all. Its joints locked up tight as it braced against the door the moment before impact so it didn't go flying, but it meant that the pilot and internal systems took the brunt of it. Just like if they were both grounded.

Infantry, two by two, slipped through the bottom of the door. Ten of them in total, armed. She pointed her wrist-mounted scattergun at the group and fired twice. Four down, one injured. Her slug thrower was breach-loaded and used pressurized reactor exhaust to eject the casings, which she used to kill another of the boarding party. They were already scrambling and spreading out.

The mountain in the doorway shuddered back to life and pushed the lower half of the door in finally. Hunter hadn't finished reloading the slug thrower yet since she was busy clearing out the boarding party that had slipped in.

Hunter really hated what she was about to do.

She maxed the reactor output to the thrusters for a second for the big initial burst. In an ideal world she would have shoulder checked it, but she didn't have the time to maximize her forward momentum and change her posture.

A Parting Word compromised the first mech's cockpit with a headbutt that carried about the same amount of force as a ship's main battery.

It was as big a hit as the slug thrower could do, but the slug thrower didn't make her entire body sore for days after she fired it. There were two other mechs in the doorway, and more infantry slipping through the top and bottom of the entryway.

"Open the port side hanger door. Clear out."

The voice over the radio was a low growl. Hound. She sounded different in combat.

"I said clear out!"

Hunter threw herself deeper into the hanger as the door behind her opened.

In complete silence, three mechs were jettisoned directly across the hanger, taking the starboard door remnants with them, and out the other side. They crashed into the walls and against each other in what would have been the most horrific and traumatizing crash she could imagine hearing if she was in atmosphere. All three of them were burned and crumpled, and not entirely out the other side.

A Scandal In Heaven was a truly monstrous machine in it's janky, sweeping movement. It used momentum and thrusters to maneuver in quick bursts, using its gigantic fist as a counterweight. It rolled over its own fist, pointing the knuckles out the starboard door before firing a second partially-compressed jet of reactor exhaust from it. This time it pivoted around the body like it had been stuck in space by a pin, throwing the full weight of the fist into the crumpled enemy mechs to finished pushing them through the hanger.

The way the manipulators moved on the Scandal is what gave it away. The fingers adjusted the way a person's would to maneuver the wreckage out. Third or fourth layer neural connection to the machine – a huge physical burden on most pilots, but normal among Carrion's fiends because Morian Kyrnn did not care about the safety of corpses. The entire movement looked effortless and natural.

An arm splattered across her helmet, floating uselessly in its combat hardsuit without the rest of the body. A pair of wipers cleaned the blood from her vision. Nobody would know how many human-scale targets were in the boarding party, as the smears and body parts caught between the wreckage of the machines that were pushed through would never combine to assemble even one person.

A lucky, lone, survivor of the boarding crew let go of his weapon and raised his hands.

"You missed one," Hunter remarked as she splattered the top half of the pirate against the wall.


Carrion never held debriefs after missions or engagements primarily because it was just Ilina and a bunch of literal corpses or hacked-apart pilots that couldn't talk, breathe, or move autonomously outside their mech. The experience of sitting in a room with the other pilots and the commander felt as tense and awkward as the family dinners in television dramas that the corpse that piloted The Butcher watched.

"She can't even put on a hardsuit on her own!"

"She can learn. She's never been off-world before."

"Why did you even hire her for this job?"

Krystyn wasn't a fan of hers, but at least the feeling was mutual. Even still she found herself unable to protest even a single point Hecate's field commander made. Ilina hadn't even managed to launch and only fought inside the ship, primarily against soft targets. The actual boarding maneuver was quickly settled by Vigil in one sweeping action. Then, the Gestalt had broken away from the ambush, but two of the ships were still following them at a distance.

Symeon Vigil was the first voice to break the rhythmic back and forth of Crater and Krystyn. "How many casualties, sir?"

Crater checked a report. "Zero. I double checked because it seemed wrong. Not so much as a stubbed toe."

"If Falke had been deployed the number of casualties would have been higher." Vigil turned to Krystyn, arms folded in a way that seemed to emphasize their difference in builds. A threat. "She held back an entire boarding party by herself."

"Those pirates were incompetent!"

"Am I incompetent?"

Krystyn thrust forward as if she was about to spit at Vigil before getting a grip on herself and sitting herself back down. "Aren't you in a talkative mood today? Fine, let's hear it."

Vigil rolled her head a few times and sighed. Wait. The woman defending her stayed quiet, trying to form the idea in full before speaking. Did she not actually have anything to say? If that was the case she wished Vigil would have kept her mouth shut.

"You haven't gotten hit by its cannon," Vigil started, "it pushed around Scandal like a schoolyard bully, and I bet it'd do the same to Inertia. Falke single-handed held the chokepoint against three machines, while blocking boarding forces from entering past the hanger. It's in the battle log."

"I watched it. It doesn't fix her fuckup."

"It fixes your fuckup, Charlatan," Vigil growled. "That cannon has a kick but the only thing it'll do in open space is act as a very expensive thruster."

Crater raised a hand, prompting silence. Everyone respected Crater it seemed, and that was enough to pull Falke in line since it felt like everyone knew something about her she didn't. Crater turned to Falke to address her directly for the first time in the meeting.

"What would you have done, absent direct orders to deploy?"

Now this was the kind of chat she'd have with Morian after an engagement. Quietly in her office or in the break room, just a few questions about her opinions and decisions. Morian started from a place of trusting her judgements as a merc, but she probably didn't have that benefit from Crater. Morian always expected to hear her reasoning, so she needed to give it in full here too.

"We were dropped into an ambush, surrounded by four ships, and immediately engaged in ship-to-ship combat. Boarding actions are extremely dangerous, but once you're in the ship engaging in close quarters combat, your chances improve regardless of the conditions outside." Falke was regurgitating information she'd learned in her lessons at home. " The target has everything to lose and they limit their own options because of it, but the attacker has no limits to what tools they can use. It's easy to force a surrender."

"That seems like your style of combat," Crater gave a slight, affirmative head tilt and smile. "You like to target supply lines and combat logistics. So, what would your course of action have been?"

Ilina had been familiarizing herself with all of Hecate's combat logs – outside of Manya Carie's special combat logs – and learning what tools they used and what strategies they favored.

"Prepare for the boarding actions. The WFH needs the Inertia to defend it without the advantage of an ambush or cover. Scandal and the Parting Word have been outfitted for movement in low-g, but they can't stray far from the ship and both excel in close quarters. I would have kept A Parting Word in reserve to ambush a boarding party, where it's at its strongest and while the enemy still has no knowledge of it."

Manya pawed at her couchmate, Krystyn, playfully. "Better watch it, Charlotte, your job might just be in danger."