When the elevator doors opened, the Military sector and the docks unfolded before them and instantly eclipsed them in size and scope. Taking up much of the upper level in a thick ring around the tower-like station, the Docks had the highest ceilings, the broadest views. While Karuniya marveled at the sheer amount of people and the buzzing of activity in the warehouses and the transport vehicles wheeling to and from, Murati’s eyes were drawn elsewhere. She was already used to the basic layout.
They had emerged onto a landing overlooking the berths. Panels of thick, reinforced glass at each berth allowed the most unadulterated look at the ocean outside and the ships docking. There was a massive cruiser, at least 200 meters long and maybe 40 wide without counting the control surfaces; along with smaller frigates, a small cutter about 70 meters long, and a few non-military ships. All shared similar features. Most of the ships had a rough silhouette, angled and utilitarian – the cruiser, a completely new warship, had more curves to it. Massive hydro-jets powered by an Agarthicite reactor propelled every ship. Fins, rudders and “wings” along the hulls of the ships could be adjusted to climb and to turn.
They could also retract or fold the control surfaces against the body, for a sleeker, higher-speed mode.
Atop every ship was one thick, large conning tower, like a wide, flat-topped fin, that carried laser communications, the acoustic network input and output, and other sensor equipment. Hidden along the body were the torpedo tubes, the coilguns and the close-in 20 mm gas guns used for interdiction and self-defense against ordnance. Main gun turrets were also hidden in the body until the ship saw combat. All the military ships were painted a very dark blue with a few dark red stripes. Civilian ships had liveries.
“What’s the red for?” Karuniya asked, now looking at the ships herself.
“Anti-rusting coating and also poison. For animals trying to stick to it.”
“Yuck. That’s awful.”
Karuniya made a face, shook her head, and started walking.
Below them were the dock’s walkways, leading to and from the docking tubes at each ship berth. They were packed with people coming and going to and from the docked ships and the warehousing and administrative spaces on each tier of the station docks. It was massive. There was so much activity.
Murati took one last look at the cruiser. Maybe someday– maybe even today.
“Whoa! Murati, look!”
Tugging on her sleeve, Karuniya directed her attention to the ramp leading down to the base of the docks. In front of a recessed door to one of the warehouse spaces was a worker wearing a large, thick metal suit, about four meters tall. It hauled boxed cargo off a wheeled cart and set it down to be opened and inspected. It was a power suit, running off a battery full of Agarthicite-supplied power.
Had it been out in the water it would have been known as a ‘Diver’ or ‘Heavy Diver’.
Since it was inside the station and unarmed, however, it was just a Rabochiy-class suit. A barrel-like body with two thick legs, two arms, and a visor in front of the body that looked like a funny face. Inside, the pilot could take advantage of its tremendous strength to lift several tons without tiring out or being limited by their own physical abilities. This particular type was older, at least twenty years old.
“Is that suit a Strelok?” Karuniya asked, drawing in close to Murati, almost in embrace.
“No, that’s just an ordinary suit. The Strelok’s taller, leaner, and it would have jets.”
The Strelok would also be carrying a rifle filled with supercavitating rounds.
Karuniya nodded. She watched inquisitively as the suit went about its work.
“I remember simulating a suit but not any specific one. It was just a box with a screen and controls. If I got into one now, I’d probably just be confused to be honest. You’ve actually piloted a real one.”
“I almost set a record on the Academy obstacle course in a real Strelok.”
“You almost set a course record.” Karuniya giggled.
“Why do you say that in such a devilish way?”
“You’re soooooo defensive!”
She threw little punches at Murati, laughing while the Laborer toiled in the foreground.
Murati was a perfectly acceptable pilot, but that was not her goal.
Command! She wanted to command a ship. Leave the Dive suits to the infantry.
“Let’s go! Like you said, we don’t want to be late.”
Thassal Station was home to the headquarters of the Thassal Border Military District.
While the headquarters building looked like any other space in the station, recessed into a wall to make the best use of every centimeter, the doorway leading inside was marked with a monument, stood up just outside. It was a map of the Nectaris Ocean that encompassed parts of the southern reaches of the Imbrian Empire and the entirety of Union territory.
Much of the Imperial territory was omitted and the map centered the three vast states that formed the Union. Lyser, the great agricultural expanse in the southernmost sea; Ferris, the border state that composed most of the Union territory and much of its border with the Empire; and Solstice, a mountainous territory to the east that straddled both Ferris and Lyser. The seat of the Union government lay in Solstice’s fortress-like Mount Raja by agreement of all three nations.
Thus, the full name of their country: The Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.
Almost nobody ever called this. It was simply referred to as “the Union.”
After the revolution, the three states collaborated to develop their populations. There were other independent territories that dealt closely with the Union, like the anarchists of Campos Mountain, but the three were the main Union territories bound together with one political system. Complex manufacturing was largely in Solstice but there was some in Ferris; Lyser produced food and goods for living. Ferris was formed as a group of Imperial raw materials colonies, but its greatest importance was as the gateway between the Empire and the far more valuable Lyser colonies. It was the front lines of the revolution.
Murati had grown up mostly in Ferris. She was said to have acquired a “Ferrisean” character.
Warlike and serious– but she did not believe that about herself. She was not so stone-like.
“Alright, I’m actually headed over that way to the Oceanography Department.”
Karuniya stopped at the monument and grabbed hold of Murati’s hand.
She raised it to her lips and left a soft red mark.
“For good luck. Go get them, you big hero!”
She winked and smiled.
Murati smiled back and waved her way.
“I’ll remember! Put together your favorite synth diskettes okay? You’re DJing!”
Playfully, she stuck out her tongue a little, and wandered off.
Murati watched her go for a moment, her hand still waving gently in mid-air.
Inside the Headquarters, Murati was expected by an aide in uniform.
“This way please, Lieutenant. A Special Commission is waiting to speak to you.”
Murati’s heart rate tripled in that instant. When an officer made a petition, she was judged by a Peership Council. Peership was a cornerstone of the revolutionary army: the ability for any soldier to be heard by a council composed of other soldiers selected by machine, who would review the facts of her case and issue a judgment that would be made binding. It prevented loyalties from playing into it. A Special Commission on the other hand was a group of officers who came together under extraordinary circumstances to assign a soldier to a mission, award a medal or commemoration or even to fast-track promotions. It was part of the labor union contract terms for military officers– it was different.
The aide seemed to notice Murati’s distant expression and tried to reawaken her.
“Of course, very well.” Murati said, laughing nervously. “Lead on.”
With professional courtesy, the aide led Murati down one of the halls to an unmarked conference room. There was a round table, and one of the walls was actually made of a resistive digital screen upon which pixelated drawings could be made with a special pen. White lights, the brightest Murati had ever seen, made her feel like she was suddenly thrown into a theater spotlight.
A boardroom like this could seat over a dozen people, deliberating and strategizing.
For Murati, there was only a single woman waiting.
Dressed in the ornate, dark green uniform of the high command.
A serious, professional-looking older woman with a gripping gaze.
She was a Rear Admiral. The nameplate on her synthetic coat read “Goswani.”
“Lieutenant Nakara, wonderful to see you. Please have a seat.”
Staring at the Rear Admiral with unblinking eyes, Murati sat opposite her on the table.
“Thank you, Comrade Admiral.” She said, a slight tremble in her voice.
Was this it? Was this her commission? It had to be!
“Lieutenant Nakara, I’m Rear Admiral Chaya Goswani. I handle a lot of bureaucratic tasks for the Union Navy, particularly here in Thassal. I want you to know up front that this meeting was not arranged to judge or reprimand you. So, you should relax. I have exceptionally good news for you.”
Relaxing was the last thing Murati was capable of at that moment.
Her hands were balled up on her lap, hidden under the table, turning, and squeezing.
“You’re only 29 years old, but you’ve had some good achievements already. You’ve been out on exploratory voyages as an inspector and deckhand. You have Heavy Diver experience outside of a simulator. That’s especially important. Divers are an integral part of the future of our Navy. Your cadre was also lucky to get a lot of simulator time in the command modules and gunnery modules of a ship, as well, much more than previous cadres. We’ve had to cut back a bit lately on training time.”
No mention that she was, for a time, one of the chief inspectors of the station’s guns.
That probably did not register compared to her on and off missions.
None of those missions had actually seen combat, however.
Murati’s head was racing at the mention of simulator training. She was right; Murati and Karuniya’s particular academy cadre had been blessed with more resources in their time– thanks in part to Murati’s haranguing. Tensions started to build with the Empire again, so the Academy became stressed with additional, hastily recruited cadres that all needed training. They didn’t have the luxury of giving everyone 180 hours of simulator time after that. New recruits were lucky to have 20 hours of simulator time.
“You’ve made several petitions for a command and other administrative protests and requests throughout your career. Some of the other officers involved in them found them a bit hasty, so there’s a bit of talk about you from time to time. Especially about the petition you made right after leaving the Academy.”
“With all due respect, petitioning is my right, and I stood to lose nothing from trying.”
Rear Admiral Goswani smiled warmly at her.
“You did stand to lose face, and you did lose it, Nakara. Those things are still important. But! I personally admire your spirit, and I am not alone. Your subsequent petitions were far more persuasive.”
Murati’s mood darkened just a little. She hated thinking that anyone disliked her.
“What matters is that after each time you were turned down, you went out and clocked in all the work that we assigned you. You did not complain, and you did an excellent job every time. Be it inspections, assignments to ship Diver platoons, or maintenance; you made yourself reliable every time.”
Read Admiral Goswani produced a minicomputer that had been sitting on her lap. She set it on the table and pushed it so that it slid across over to Murati. It was a thick old slate of a computer, with a 25 cm screen and weighing almost two kilograms. The screen had color, but it was a bit grainy and slightly washed out. It displayed an unmistakable image, however, one that struck Murati hard.
Loaded on the screen was the profile of a ship, the frigate Papanin.
Murati’s eyes drew wide.
They then drifted toward the mission profile to which the ship was being tuned.
She felt a second knock on her heart, almost as strong as when she was led to the room.
“Ma’am, I don’t understand.” Murati asked.
Rear Admiral Goswani clapped her hands together with a broad, beaming smile.
“Murati, you’re going to command that ship!” She said triumphantly. “You come highly recommended for a promotion, and I’ve been trying to get you a mission so you can build that experience and eventually receive a full commission. For the next three months that ship is yours to lead.”
Murati blinked. She looked down at the tablet and back at the Rear Admiral.
She was going to (temporarily) Captain a (Science) ship.
There was just something about it that did not sit right with her.
Was a ship a ship? Would any ship have done?
Something about her felt nervous about it, restless, upset.
She had wanted to Captain a military ship, on a military mission.
“I know I would be debriefed in full by a mission coordinator later, if I accept.”
“Can I get an overview of the mission now? To help me decide?”
The Rear Admiral nodded and continued to smile, clearly pleased with the outcome.
“Of course. We’re sending an expedition into the Thassal trench and the surroundings for the next few months on a few special missions. We want to commandeer an old Imperial acoustic station there, as well as to monitor biomass levels and prospect a potential mining development. Our scientific bureau organized this project, with planning led by Specialist 1st Class Maharapratham.”
Specialist 1st Class Maharapratham.
Murati’s mind screamed.
“The Bureau representative strongly advocated for you to Captain this project. We needed someone who was a calm and reliable, multi-disciplinary, adaptable soldier with developed operational skills. She vouched for you and got consensus for it from her superiors. You’re quite lucky!”
Rear Admiral Goswani gestured toward another door out of the room.
From behind it, a cheerful Karuniya strode into the room.
“Congratulations Lieutenant! I look forward to working with you.”
She made a cutesy little wave at Murati.
Murati’s face was starting to reflect her darkening mind.
She narrowed her eyes and avoided acknowledging Karuniya.
“I appreciate the praise and accept the mission.”
She did not even acknowledge Karuniya in the room. Karuniya must’ve noticed.
“Am I dismissed?” Murati asked.
Read Admiral Goswani blinked with mute surprise at her stiff response.
“Well, of course. Thank you for your dedication. You’ll debrief next week.”
Murati turned around and walked out the door.
Behind her, she heard a series of quick footsteps, but she did not stop.
She also did not listen.
It was only when they got outside, at the Union map monument, that Karuniya finally ran around Murati and got in front of her to stop her. She reached out her hands, pleadingly.
“Murati! Why are you giving me the silent treatment?”
“It’s nothing.” Murati said tersely. “I’m tired.”
She tried to get going again but Karuniya stood in front of her again.
“You’re mad, aren’t you? You’re upset with me.”
“I didn’t need you to interfere.”
Murati tried to get past, but Karuniya raised her hands again like a roadblock.
“I’m sorry, okay! I thought it would make you really happy! I got to have a say in who would Captain and of course I chose you! I wanted to help you. You’ve been wanting this for so long that I–”
“This was not what I wanted. I wanted– I wanted to earn my place.”
Without another word Murati walked past Karuniya.
She avoided looking at Karuniya’s face, every time her partner had thrown herself in front to demand her attention. She did not want to see her. From the tone of her voice she imagined Karuniya must have felt bad enough. She might have been even crying. But Murati did not want to look. She felt assured, righteous even, in the anger she felt in that moment, and she wanted to feel nothing else.
“Murati, please, let’s talk about this. I hate this, don’t just walk away!”
Karuniya pleaded, and followed for a few more steps, but Murati only briefly stopped.
“Specialist, leave me alone for right now, ok?” Murati raised her voice.
Saying that started to wear down her armor. She felt almost a bit ridiculous.
Karuniya shouted back. “Fine then, Lieutenant!”
There were no more pleas and protests from Karuniya. She turned around and fled too.
Murati did feel compelled to turn around then. She briefly saw the back of Karuniya’s overclothes, disappearing into the crowd of people around the headquarters with stomping steps.
Was that their parting then, that she had so feared?
Frustrated, Murati raised her hand to her forehead.
She gritted her teeth and struck herself. Her head was racing with erratic thoughts.
“God damn it.”
Murati had wanted a military command– to be acknowledged by her peers, to be given accolades. And to fight– to fight! She had spent so long and trained so much in everything military. She wanted to fight, to defend her country, to kill her enemies. She wanted revenge– no, to punish the imperialists! To make sure there was a Union still for all the people who survived horrid privation in the world!
It was not just revenge then– it was for all that her country suffered.
For all the people she– they– her country–
For everyone who had been lost. Everyone she could not save–
“God damn it! I’m such a fuckup.”
Karuniya had already acknowledged her. She was maybe the only one who truly ever had.
And Murati knew she was wrong-headed. She knew she was wrong, and she hated it.
She was wrong about everything and that was what worried Karuniya and made her take action.
Tears ran down her cheeks as she hurried her way back home, head bowed.
She didn’t feel like a reliable, calm, cool-headed Lieutenant then.
Murati did not feel like someone worth Karuniya’s trust and admiration.