Pings on the sonar heralded the continuation of a long, bitter hatred.
“Enemy detected on sonar! Speed twenty, distance fifteen!”
“We’ve got a pingback! Speed twenty-five, distance thirteen!”
“Captain, several enemies approaching! Speed and heading confirmed!”
Imperial sonar operators found the Republic 7th Fleet approaching in great number, all confirmed by previous combat data loaded into their computers. All kinds of ship classes were detected, with different speeds, sizes, headings across the Great Ayre Reach. Swarms of fast cutters and mighty cruisers led the vanguard, while lumbering dreadnoughts followed into the contested zone. Faces lit green and blue by their instruments, the operators breathlessly tracked the action.
Those faint sounds picked up by hydrophone became the first drumbeat of the war.
Technicians in the Republic fleet took notice of the Imperial Grand Western Fleet and sounded their own alarms as well. Neither side was close enough for their best weapons to take effect, but they both launched acoustic “headless” torpedoes at each other. Gas gunners stationed in the close-in defenses of both fleets would find and shoot all of these down on approach.
Both fleets mustered in formations across the Great Ayre Reach, the soft sands and scant kelp beds stretching out for vast kilometers. It was a rare, valuable place where the ocean floor rose into the photic zone at only 300 meters deep, able to receive some scant sunlight through the waves. Its currents were gentle, unlike most of the photic zone, and Leviathans rarely disturbed it.
Amid the violent seas that had long since become the exclusive home of humankind, it was one of a few paradises worth dying for, one of the few pockets of peace close to the forbidding surface of the Imbrium Ocean. Assembling over these holy lands that hid ship hulks and corpses of hundreds of years of battles, the crusading sides neared to their effective ranges of between one and two kilometers. There were hundreds of ships in each side, built from material long struggled for beneath the waves. All of this engineering power thrust toward its own place amid those sands.
“For world peace!” cried the Republicans.
“For the glory of the Emperor!” came the Imperial retort.
All laser communications were rejected from either side.
This encounter had already been spoken for. There would be no parlay.
The Great Ayre Reach would inevitably be fought for.
At the head of the 500-strong Imperial formation was the Irmingard, a massive blade of a vessel clad regal purple and gold, sporting dozens of cannons set into its hull. Within this lead dreadnought was a mock throne room that acted as the brain of this invasion force: and its id.
“All weapons stations are reporting sir.”
Aboard the Imperial flagship Irmingard, the master of this fleet stood up from his throne to the rapt attention and admiration of his most loyal retainers. There, he gave the orders which resounded across the decks of the dozens of ships arrayed for battle. Powerful laser equipment tethered the Irmingard to every other fleet, so that all of them could view the regal countenance on video. His Majesty stood stoically before the soldiers and shouted with a gallant voice:
“All ships: today, you shall unleash a fusillade bright enough to be seen from the surface.”
And so that fusillade did fly. Once more, a Battle of the Great Ayre Reach was underway.
Across those gentle waters roared jet shells, supercavitating rounds and massive torpedoes.
Lines in the water spread by the thousands as the ordnance traveled.
Criss-crossing fire punctuated by the blooming of massive bubbles as charges exploded.
There were immediate casualties. A wire-guided Republican torpedo snaked through the defensive fire from the Imperial frigates and slammed into the hull of a Destroyer, snapping the vessel in two. While the command pod survived and was immediately sealed watertight, several dozens of crew were drowned in their stations, torn to pieces in the storm of metal, or worst, cast out into the open sea to have their internal organs crushed by the pressure around them.
Just as quickly, these losses were repaid. That bright fusillade of jet shells rolled across the vanguard of the Republican fleet. Scout cutters, deployed ahead, withered under the barrage, disgorging metal and bloodied men and women. Larger vessels withstood greater punishment, with each shell that struck their hulls and exploded leaving gashes and dents in the exterior. Fires started where the crushing force of a shell damaged electrical equipment. It took dozens of shells of concentrated fire, but a Republican Cruiser, the Dignitary, was the first major casualty of the battle.
With one lucky shot to the torpedo magazine, the entire face of the Dignitary burst.
Each side watched as their fleets exchanged blows, as ships that faltered beneath the gunfire and missiles sank to the sand below, as human beings unprotected by metal were hurled and sliced and crushed. A thin red mist began to form around Ayre as the casualties mounted. For fleets of hundreds of ships, losing fifty a side was routine: but each ship was crewed by hundreds of souls. Within a half hour of the barrage, perhaps ten or twenty thousand bodies had been broken.
For the young man who bid this spectacle commence, these casualties were expected and did little to reduce his own power and potential. He had reserves and the advantage in manpower, supply and technology base. He saw beyond this moment of bloodletting that had become expected and looked to the violence that would soon follow. A beautiful chaos was coming to the world that would shake the foundations and allow men of dynamism and ambition to finally take control.
Even for all his farsightedness however, there was little inkling in his mind as to where the ripple of his bombs and guns would truly travel to and the souls that it would soon actually touch.
A wave hurtled across the waters to a calm sea one ocean away.
To a place far, far beneath Prince Erich’s notice.
When the alarm sounded, the room was as dark as when Murati went to sleep.
She jolted up in bed as if she heard an explosion go off.
According to the clock, it was 0500. She was still quite early.
“Crap.” Murati mumbled. “I thought I set the lights to go off.”
Having the lights slowly brighten in the room would have probably made her mood worsen. But she was still vexed that they did not go on when she scheduled them. She pushed herself up and slid her legs over the side of the bed. She groped her toes against the floor, looking for shoes.
Groggily, she lifted her hand up to the wall and pressed her palm on it.
There should have been something shining out at her.
She pushed against it repeatedly, but nothing lit up for her.
Come to think of it, the room was also dead quiet. Her music was not playing anymore.
It was also cold. A shiver ran up her bare legs and into her exposed stomach.
“We must have lost power in the block again.”
Murati grabbed hold of her blanket.
Wrapping herself in it for modesty, she peeked outside the door.
Outside, the hallway was dark, save for stray green beams from flashlights. It looked like there were workers checking the power cables, unearthing steel floor plates to get at the cabling.
Overhead, there was a brief flash as one of the LED blocks installed on the ceiling sparked.
Murati sighed, closed the door, and shambled over to the wardrobe in the dark.
Dim green light from her self-powered alarm clock shone over her bare, brown skin.
It was the only illumination in her gloomy three-by-three apartment.
Her bed took up a lot of the space. Her shower, heater and wardrobe occupied three panels side by side, recessed into the opposite wall. A pile of limestone-paper books and pamphlets she had borrowed from the station library took up the corner opposite her door.
She would have to think about returning all of those soon. Not today.
Sliding the wardrobe open, she pulled a smooth, form-fitting bodysuit from the rack and clumsily slipped into it, legs first, then arms. Reaching behind, she tightened and closed the back.
Over the suit, she donned a dark green military coat and black pants, both synthetic.
The coats she was issued had already been inscribed with the markings for her rank: two red stripes each with a gold star, arranged just over her breast for the rank of Lieutenant.
Murati did not bother to comb her hair in the dark. It stayed messy. She thought she might endeavor to cut it. It was nearly touching her shoulders again. She opened her nightstand drawer: inside were her reading glasses and an injector and the medicine vials labeled “E+”. She briefly considered taking them; but almost as quickly closed the nightstand drawer taking only her glasses.
Without light, she did not want to jab her hip with a needle.
“Comrades of the military council,” she mumbled under her breath. “Murati Nakara is again making a formal request,” she cut herself off with frustration. She sounded pathetic.
Walking out of her room and down the dark, labyrinthine halls of the Block, Murati went over what she would say to the Council. She went over it again and again. Would she opt for a grand speech about her numerous merits? Would she merely be forthright in her request, which many of them had likely heard before? It would be insane to be completely honest and say: ‘Here I am again, please do as I ask this time, or I will be forced to continue wasting your time.’
And yet, there was a part of her that yearned to do just that and get it all over with.
She had ascended the ranks on not just her diligence and work ethic, but clearly her skill.
They had to see that; didn’t they? (It was true, wasn’t it?)
A student of political as well as military theory, Murati had all kinds of rationalizations for what she wanted. She told herself she was not in pursuit of naval achievement, but merely serving her fellow workers, who via their production and necessary labor, uplifted the country, which itself was only given meaning by the collection of workers who lived freely under its auspices.
In a just world, a perfect world, there would be no need for soldiers like Murati.
Nevertheless, Murati was going to petition for the 5th time to be given a command.
And what she desired most after that was to deploy with her ship to a glorious battle.
In a just world, she would not need to do so. Such a dream would not even exist!
This was not a just and perfect world.
None of that would be in her request. She was still obsessing over what she would say.
Just outside of the tight corridors of the Block, lined with doors set a few meters apart that each led to someone’s bedroom, Murati passed by a thick glass wall that allowed one to peer outside the station. Aside from a few curious fish who had come close, and the faintest impression of a nearby gorge, there was nothing to see. Water and darkness. This wall and a few others like it were among the few artful touches that livened up the spartan metallic interiors in Thassal Station.
A glass wall was installed in each landing connecting each major section of the Station.
The Block was the lower residential area. It was mostly occupied by junior navy personnel.
From the Block, Murati arrived at the much more open Bubble Square.
Arrayed around her were several sights, such as distribution centers for rationed goods, government-approved shops for purchasable goods, the rationed agroponic garden, and hobbyist clubs. Bubble was several stories high and each floor had several spaces set into the walls, connected by walkways that ringed around a central plaza. This was the one beautiful place in the station. They even had a few trees set into actual soft soil lit by special lamps, that were zealously tended to by the living-space committee.
Some people lived with their businesses and lifestyles in Bubble Square, rather than in the living spaces on Block. Their accommodations were no more comfortable: space was at a premium everywhere. Murati knew that in other nations there were people who accumulated such wealth and prestige they had massive bedrooms. Such things were disdained in the Union. Everyone adapted to cramped spaces.
Bubble represented the belly of the station. Above Bubble was the shipyard and military headquarters in the Military District, with docks and moonpools and warehouses for equipment, munitions, and rationed items that the military controlled the distribution of. This was Murati’s destination. Above the Military District was the Control and Maintenance section. Highly trained personnel worked and lived round the clock there to ensure the Station withstood the waters.
And deep, deep below even the Block and other habitats, was the Agarthic Reactor powering it all.
Thassal Station had been Murati’s home for years now.
She had no affection for it, though she respected deeply what it meant for her people.
After all, it was not possible for its occupants to live out in the water.
But even beyond the basic necessities, Thassal was historic to the Union.
Murati understood that. And at first, she had been charmed by it.
However, it was not enough to keep her here forever. She wanted a command!
She had ambitions!
Perhaps, it would be she who would ride out of Thassal and defeat the imperialists!
“Hopefully in this lifetime.” She sighed to herself. “A woman can dream, right?”
Before she could think beyond the Union borders any further, a voice nearby called to her.
“Staring into the distance huh? No chores today?”
Murati turned around and greeted the source of that bubbly sing-song voice with a smile.
“I happen to have an important meeting today, so no, no chores.”
“Important huh? So, is maintaining the station torpedo tubes not important anymore?”
Murati drew back a little as the woman playfully leaned in and poked her.
“Is testing the station coilguns also beneath you now, Miss Lieutenant?”
She poked her several times in the chest with a big, beaming smile.
“Everyone’s work is important!” Murati said, flustered. “But this meeting is important.”
Murati made gestures with her hands that, owing to their familiarity, her friend understood.
Or at least pretended to understand.
She leaned back, laughing.
“I’d never seriously bring your ideological devotion into question, Murati.”
“Uh-huh. You routinely call me a meathead, troublemaker and a procrastinator.”
Her friend put a finger to her own lightly painted lips, pretending to think.
“It must be because of how meatheaded you are, all the trouble you cause, and all the time you waste.”
Whatever Karuniya’s attitude, Murati understood the gentle, joking tone of her voice.
The woman teasing her was a burgeoning researcher around Murati’s own age. Karuniya Maharapratham. Murati would never miss her in a crowd, even when they were passing strangers taking classes together at the Academy. Her dress was colorful by the standards of this station. Over her black bodysuit she wore a plastic coat that had a white bodice covering her upper chest up to her neck, but translucent green shoulders, back, sleeves, belly, and much of the hem. She wore a tiny pair of white plastic shorts too.
She was fashionable where Murati was merely utilitarian.
“I’ll have you know, Miss Lieutenant,” Karuniya flipped her long hair in a dismissive fashion. “I have an actually important meeting myself because I’m such an important and busy person with many important duties required of me. But I can still deign to make time for a cup of broth and a quick chat, with you, a factually less busy and important person than myself. So I hope that you are grateful!”
Smiling, Murati raised her hands in defense. “I get it, alright?”
Her friend narrowed her emerald eyes briefly as if interrogating the statement.
Before Murati could say anything more, Karuniya smiled and led the way to the canteen.
They walked up to the counter, behind which a young woman at a computer input their visit into a database to keep track of daily food allotments. She handed them recyclable cups that they filled at a nearby serving station with the day’s broth, which was a rich dark brown color and noticeably clear. From a table beside the broth serving station, they each grabbed a biscuit to have with their hot drinks. They sat down at a table in the little plaza outside, watching people come and go.
“Wow! Try yours Murati, before it gets cold!”
Karuniya had just had a sip of broth and she looked delighted with the taste.
Murati brought her cup up to her lips.
Today’s broth tasted savory and rich, with just a touch of sweetness.
“I think it’s corn sugar in there.” Murati said. “They must’ve had a good crop at Lyser’s.”
“I can taste the kelp like usual, and the yeast, but there’s definitely corn!”
Karuniya took another sip and sighed with contentment.
“The biscuit looks a little springy today. Maybe it’s fresh baked?”
Murati lifted the flat, crispy square to her lips for a bite. It was dense, but not too hard.
“Today’s an auspicious day Murati! Corn in our soup, fresh ship biscuit? It’s fate!”
Karuniya dipped her biscuit in her broth and took a big happy bite of it.
In moments like this Murati could not help but feel fond of her and her company.
“This is so good.” Karuniya said, giggling. “But enough about the food! Murati, you are definitely going to ask for a ship, again, aren’t you? That’s so you! Do you think you’ll finally get it this time?”
She pointed the biscuit at Murati with a sly little smile.
“I don’t like your tone when you say I’m asking ‘again’! I can ask as many times as I want! Without the right of Peership, can you say our armed forces truly give equal opportunity to all?”
“You hold the record for petitions.” Karuniya said. “With a firebrand speech every time.”
Murati recognized that while Karuniya said this, the mischievous smile on her face always meant that she was amused, never annoyed, with Murati’s unique situation. There were others on the Station and even around the Union less amused at the fact that Murati, perhaps, ‘did not know her place’ in these matters. To that, Murati always said, if she was refused a ship, then the military was nothing but a gerontocracy where old men and women got to have adventures and gave the young no say.
“If they want me to stop, they’ll give me a ship.” Murati said, cracking a grin.
Karuniya reached out an arm and laid her hand on top of Murati’s.
“You’re right, and I believe in you.” She said. “I’m always rooting for you, Lieutenant.”
“I know. Thank you.” Murati said. “And good luck to you, Miss Science Expedition.”
For a few minutes as they finished their cups and nibbled their crackers, the pair of them traded glances and talked about the little nothings of Union living. Their quick chat over broth ended up consuming them for a time: neither of them had another friend whom they could talk with just like this.
“What do you think you’ll want to do when you get your commission? Other than get on a ship and never come back here, I mean.” Murati asked. She played it off as a joke– though it wasn’t entirely.
“And leave you behind? I’m going to study the rocks on the Station Mound.”
Karuniya beamed brightly at Murati while taking a sip of broth.
“Be serious, I really want to know.” Murati said, smiling back.
“Ahh, I don’t know. I was thinking I would be an Ocean monitor. Biomass accumulation, temperature and salinity, the Leviathan infestations and all that. I’ve been worried, looking up the numbers. Temperatures, currents, krill production– it has been getting meaner out there. I’d like us to rethink our ocean policy.”
“We have been seeing more Leviathans around the Union lately.”
“That’s just the macro level manifestation of our problems. The reason they are coming down here more in the first place is that the Ocean is just– hurting. We need to take better care of it.” Karuniya paused briefly, as if trying to come up with a more poignant description of the state of their environment.
“What do you think we should do?” Murati asked seriously.
“Hell if I know? I’m just a student.” Karuniya shrugged. “Read my thesis when it’s out.”
“I’ll be the first to request a copy, in three years.”
Karuniya stuck her tongue out at her.
“Enough about work! I want to know how you have been filling the ship-shaped hole in your heart lately. What kind of diskettes are playing in your personal three by three metal box lately?”
“Still just listening to synths. For as long as I can get away with it.” Murati said.
“Your hallway is so cool. I miss living in Solstice. All I can get away with are therapeutic strings in mine.”
Karuniya put on a face like she wished she could listen to noisy loops all night.
“All the old folks in my hallway. It’s a crummy assignment.” She sighed. Murati laughed.
“You should cause trouble a little more often. Agitate for your rights.” Murati said.
“Agitate is right, because everyone would just be really pissed at me.” Karuniya said.
For a moment, they side-stepped work and kept talking about the little things.
They shared the addresses of new BBSes they had found with interesting political debates and most importantly, gossip about various personalities in the Union and even some abroad. They both agreed to rent out some minicomputers from the library and coordinate so they could participate in online discussions together. Perhaps more to cause others grief than to actually enrich themselves.
Karuniya had been visiting the botanical garden often. “It’s where I vent.” She said.
For her part, Murati had taken out more books from the library.
Real, limestone paper books and not just a minicomputer loaded with text files. She was fascinated with the old books. Many of them even included Imperial history. As a collection of colonies that had once been under Imperial rule, the Union was particularly concerned with the Imbrian Empire of Nocht, and its detritus could still be found there. It fascinated Murati; maybe even more than the vast world beyond the Empire. More than the Republic of Alaize or Hanwa or Yuelu; the Empire, the great enemy to be defeated.
“Did you know there was a homosexual Emperor?” Murati asked amid the conversation.
“I’m not surprised, I mean, I’m a homosexual and I’m right here too.”
Karuniya cracked a little grin. Murati laughed, seeing her exaggerated expression.
She felt a little melancholy, talking to Karuniya like this.
They were on the cusp of a parting. Their every interaction had an undertone of desperation.
Soon Murati would be out at sea with command of a ship. Karuniya would receive her scientific commission and leave for months at a time to study the ocean’s behaviors and how best to preserve the little, hard-won life that they had gotten for themselves in the Union’s oceans.
Maybe they took for granted how close they could have been all these years.
Stuck in Thassal where they could share broth, trade audio diskettes, go out together.
These were things they did “often” only in the context of an unchanging world.
With the future looming, it really felt like they never actually got to talk like this at all.
They would be separated.
Perhaps their paths would never cross again after today.
Even if Murati failed in her ambitions again. Surely Karuniya would succeed in her goals.
Karuniya’s important meeting had to be her scientific commission. She would leave soon.
She would leave while Murati would be stuck.
Never a fuckup like Murati was, Karuniya had always gotten ahead when she wanted.
Karuniya deserved better than being stuck here with her.
Sometimes, Murati truly feared that perhaps Karuniya only stayed because–
“Karuniya, come to my place tonight. I mean– Can you– try to make time, I mean.”
Murati felt her lips loosen with the words she had been wanting to say for a long time.
Karuniya was momentarily taken aback, and her lips hung a bit agog.
“S-Sure! I mean– I’ll try to make time. Speaking of; we’ll be late. We should get going.”
Her eyes shifted off the table, as if trying to find a can to throw her cup so it could be recycled. She brushed her hair behind her ears on one side, absentmindedly fiddling with it. Murati rarely saw her so flustered. Despite Karuniya’s evasive action, Murati was not disheartened. She laughed gently.
“Thank you. Yes. Let us get going.”
In her mind, that response could only have been affirmative.
She put her worries at ease, took her partner’s hand, and now it was her turn to lead.
“Agh! You sure know when to take the brakes off!” Karuniya shouted, dragged along.
“That’s why you like me so much!” Murati replied, laughing. “I’m just a troublemaker!”