With heavy breaths and a racing heart, she searched through the sterile, steel halls.
She lunged forward into room after room, surprising the analysts and maintenance crew beyond the doors, but she could not find the person she was searching for. Every hall felt the same and every room as well. She had never been in the vast halls of a dreadnought before. At most she had ridden in frigates. There were so many places to search, multiple floors and halls, and she had so little time.
How had it come to this?
After everything they went through together, would she not even be able to say ‘Goodbye’?
Her head felt tight and simultaneously airy and empty.
She breathed in and out, heavily and audibly, her lungs feeling like they were compressed under her bodysuit and pilot vest. Standing in the middle of a hallway– what hallway? Where was she?
Where was she?
Murati thought she would have a panic attack.
All she wanted at that moment was to see Karuniya. She did not care how she looked.
Maybe she was in the wrong hall? She jumped in a lift, smashed the button to go up.
When the lift doors opened, she nearly tumbled out. A guard stared at her in confusion.
From across the hall, Murati peered into an instrument room.
She would have never mistaken her in a crowd. Even when they were strangers.
“Um, ma’am, this is the command deck, deployment is down–”
Murati ran past her.
Storming into one of the dreadnought’s decentralized instrument rooms, she saw Karuniya looking over a seismograph, hydrophone readings, a screen collecting data from a water density probe. Karuniya looked up from the LCD control screen and stood up with a muted gasp upon seeing her.
Over the protests of the security officer, Murati grabbed hold of Karuniya.
In turn, Karuniya sank her head into Murati’s chest.
A couple of other analysts stared. One younger girl chirped with delight and clapped.
“Karu, I’m going out. I’m sorry.” Murati said.
“What are you apologizing for? Don’t say that. Be a big hero and protect us.”
Karuniya was sobbing.
At the door to the room, the officer seemed to ask himself how any of this was happening.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, can I please escort you down to the Diver deck?”
For a moment, Murati was frozen in Karuniya’s arms.
Just like– just like mere hours ago.
While the two of them spent the night together, the Union slowly realized an imminent threat and put in orders to begin mobilizing. These orders crawled through the acoustic network. First from a patrol cutter that caught sounds of a battle on hydrophone; then to an outpost, which established a relayed laser over to Thassal. By the time the Navy HQ puzzled through the situation, it was morning.
Murati awoke with a spent Karuniya laying still asleep on top of her.
An alarm sounded almost as soon as Murati came to. People came banging at her door.
“Officers Nakara, Maharapratham! I’m sorry for bothering you, but you’re being called, it’s an emergency deployment! Combat alert ma’am! You need to make it up to the Formidable, you’re reassigned!”
At first, Murati didn’t even realize what she had been told. She was groggy and annoyed.
Of course, they knew she had been fucking Karuniya because of the room logs.
That was the first uncharitable thought that came to mind in that situation. That and throwing a wet condom down the recycling chute. Her room lights started to climb, and her moving around a bit was shifting the still-sleeping Karuniya and prodding her slowly out of her slumber.
“What’s all that noise? Is that an alarm?” She asked.
Murati realized her music was muted. All the noise was from outside.
At that point, the two of them bolted up.
“Can I borrow a uniform?”
In a panic, those were some of the last words they said to one another.
The Formidable was a massive Union dreadnought, one of the few in the fleet. Over 300 meters long and over 65 meters wide, its curved, cylindrical hull fielded two heavy coilguns, a dozen light coilguns and over a dozen gas gun emplacements, four torpedo tubes, and the capacity for six Diver mecha. This was top of the line firepower. As she walked along the walkways to the berths, and stared out at it through the glass, Murati realized the gravity of the situation. Formidable wasn’t alone. Thassal was at capacity, docking, in addition to its civilian complement, over thirty or forty military ships.
There were people everywhere, rushing to ships, using Rabochiy suits to push cargo crates into the loading chutes on the docks, working powerful cranes to lift equipment onto the supply ships docked at the stations’ heavy-duty loading areas. Officers and commissars directed foot traffic, calling out for people to assemble in this or that area of the dock for boarding specific ships.
Karuniya and Murati arrived at the Formidable along with at least a hundred more hastily drawn-up members of the crew. In peacetime, the Formidable ran a skeleton crew. Now it needed to be fully crewed for battle, which would take over three hundred souls to do separated between several departments. All of those people would ride this massive machine into battle.
Battle– nobody had told Murati yet what was happening.
It wasn’t until she and Karuniya were finally separated into their particular departments and assignments that the situation was laid bare before them. There had been an attack by the Empire over the Thassal trench. A ship had been lost. The Imperial border fleet quickly used this an excuse to take unilateral actions and would likely meet them, in anger, just past the trench in a few hours.
They could expect to be heavily outnumbered.
Backing down would mean that Thassal station would be put in danger.
And all of Ferris, too. Reinforcements were beginning to muster, but–
“We will have to commence battle by ourselves.”
The Formidable bore the command of Thassal Fleet Admiral Deshnov. He addressed the crew over the submarine’s loudspeaker system. Deshnov was an old man who spared no one the grim details of their situation. He embellished nothing. It was likely to be 30 on 75 out there, he claimed, and if you wanted a good luck charm, instead of praying, you should promise yourself to a gas gunner.
There would be a lot of torpedoes to interdict.
“The Imperial Southern Border Fleet is large, but their equipment has not been updated. We may well outnumber them in one inventory: Divers. So perhaps, also, tell your nearest Diver that you love them very much. It will be their spirit and heroism that may yet see us through this.”
Deshnov’s voice rumbled through the ship.
“Each individual department’s business will be outlined to them soon. Carry out your tasks to the best of your ability. Your counterparts in every other ship will do the same. That is all; there is no grand strategy or trick that we have. We are not fighting just to wait for reinforcements. We do that, and we will all be destroyed one by one. Our plan must be aggressive. And it will be.”
Murati had been on her way to the diving deck, having received her orders from a LAN terminal from one of the habitation areas. She had stopped to listen to Fleet Admiral Deshnov. More than anything, it was that which gave her a sinking feeling. Everything was happening so fast; one thing was clear. She was not in command. She had no agency, no control over anyone’s lives, not even her own.
As a Diver what was asked for her, was to charge forward and fight to the death.
This realization, that she would be out in the waters amid the shellfire, led to panic.
Seeing Karuniya only further cemented all of her fears.
It was not a bad dream. They would not wake up together in bed.
There was no science expedition in a week anymore.
This feverish, lightspeed march that they were on, had one destination.
She held Karuniya in her arms and did not want to let go.
For a moment, the security officer indulged her.
He then laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder. It was not brusque but understanding.
Karuniya looked up at her, and brushed the hair off her ear, stroked one of her cheeks.
“Be a big hero, ok?”
Murati did not respond. She allowed herself to be led away, silently.
The security officer took her to one of the lifts between the dreadnought’s floors.
“You can take it from here, right hero?” He said.
Murati, still feeling like an observer in her own life, unable to fully come to grips with the moment she was in, simply acted automatically, and stepped into the lift. As she did so, she saw the security officer step forward and tap her on the shoulder again, as a form of comfort perhaps.
“My girl is a pilot. They need you down there. Hell, more than anyone needs me.”
With that send off, he winked and saluted before sealing off the lift and sending it.
Soon the elevator was moving.
Murati shook her head, trying to come to her senses, alone in the dim box.
She was needed. Karuniya– no, not just her. Everyone needed her too.
This was war and she was going to have to fight.
Not how she planned, but nothing was going to plan anymore.
Murati descended into the bowels of the dreadnought.
Her destination was at the very lowest deck in the middle of the ship.
It was there that the ship carried its complement of Heavy Divers.
The Formidable had a Diver compartment suitable to deploy and support six Heavy Divers, twice more than most Imperial dreadnoughts. For the nation that practically invented Dive combat, the suits were an integral part of their combat power. From the Diver hangar, the machines would be supplied weapons and ammunition, their agarthicite batteries charged, and through the deployment chutes at the bottom of the hull, they would go out into the water to engage the enemy.
Stepping off the lift landing she saw three maintenance gantries on each side of the room. Each of them had a suit, presently strapped into the gantry and attended to by a pair of workers. LED lights overhead made this room as bright as the rest of the ship’s sterile steel hallways. Between the gantries were the hatches down to the deployment chutes. Computer terminals near the walls connected the hangar to the ship LAN and could be used to call any other compartment.
All six of the machines on the hangar for this deployment were Strelok models.
No other model was in quite as widespread manufacture as the Strelok. Developed nearly ten years ago to replace kit bashed, armed Rabochiy labor suits, it was routinely updated with new developments and weapons, and nobody could not argue with the basic craft of the design.
After all, they made it look like a person.
A stocky, odd person with a square head, perhaps. But in every respect, it was an extension of the human body, in the same way that old lift exoskeletons were, and in the same way that their successors, powered armor Laborers, also were. It was a human body adapted for the sea, pushing water through jets on its back, below the shoulders, and in the legs, for propulsion through the difficult medium of the sea.
Atop, there was a flat, square “head” with sensors and cameras. There were additional cameras situated around the frame, but the one with the highest resolution was the frontal “eyes.” The body was very geometric: there were several angled armor surfaces over the hull. Armor plates sloped around the oblong control pod housing the pilot. Square shoulder-guards and a flat “skirt” of armor protected the arm and leg sockets. On the sides of the body, around the “hips” and “flanks” and beneath the shoulder, there were rectangular water intakes for the hydro-jets the Strelok wore like a “backpack” behind itself. The thrusters on the back could turn slightly to move the body along with the leg jets. Inside each shoulderpad there was a jet anchor, a steel cable and hook for rescue and utility.
They had many uses.
The Strelok had sturdy legs with electric thrusters and gripping feet, along with two arms with digits capable of some degree of manipulation. Those legs could lift the weight of the Diver on land, albeit nowhere near as fast as it moved through water, and those arms could lift heavy loads. They were, after all, based on suits used for doing manual labor. These design features were enough to allow them to carry upscaled human weapons in their hands that worked just like the smaller versions.
On the far wall there were many such weapons on racks. Ubiquitous 37 mm Assault Rifles, the larger 76.2 mm guns for heavy support, 40 mm machine guns, and 88 mm torpedo launchers for taking down ships. There were close-in weapons also. Thermal knives, diamond-bladed saws, piston-driven spears. These were sometimes the most effective weapons for pilots with limited combat training.
Aiming a gun underwater, and hitting with it, wasn’t easy.
Anyone, however, could charge at something with a spear or a saw.
And these particular saws and spears could rend metal with enough effort and anger.
Murati could not take her eyes off the suits as she assembled with the other pilots.
Everything about the Strelok was typified Union design. It was not pretty, it was only as sleek as it needed to be, and as thick as they could get away with while maintaining acceptable speed and hydrodynamics. It was reliable and its manufacture was very standardized. Perhaps the Empire’s divers were sleeker, just a bit quicker, just a bit more rounded with better parts, more aesthetically pleasing; the Union’s sturdy designs could endure incredible punishment, however, for all their ungainliness.
The Strelok was an absolute beast. Looming over them, over six meters tall.
Weapons that could turn humans into giants.
Outside the ship, at this depth, a human would be crushed by barotrauma, dying in agony before they could even drown. Their lungs would fill with congealed blood fat before they filled with water. Unlike a human, the Strelok was pressurized and treated for the deep. It was a body; a surrogate body that allowed a human to live in the deep, where light barely penetrated– and to kill in this environment.
Murati had seen them before, both in simulations and physically.
She had even piloted one before.
Now, however, the suits were fully armed and setting out in anger.
This was completely different than before.
And yet, in her mind, she could already see the cockpit, feel the controls in her hands.
Soon she was snapped out of her reverie by a voice over the intercom.
“Attention all stations. Be advised that biomass density in the waters around the Thassalid has climbed to over 100 Katov scale. Expect that communication between ships, and between ships and their divers, will be unstable in battle. Trust in each other to carry out the fleet’s strategy to the letter.”
That was Karuniya’s voice. She must have been put in charge of the oceanography station.
Murati smiled. That woman was always overachieving. She had to do her best too.
For a few minutes, the pilots had loitered around the hangar, waiting for their superior officer to arrive and to brief them on the fleet strategy. Murati stood with five other women in pilot suits: full black bodysuit with an additional thermal layer. It was thick enough to be worn on its own, not like the tighter, thinner, casual wetsuits that most people wore with their station clothes. Over the suit they also had thin vests with pockets and holsters for their emergency air tanks and other needs.
Murati did not know any other Pilot in the lineup; but one of them stood out to her, when Murati caught a glimpse. She was skinny, long-limbed, pale with dusty white hair. Her lightly pink lips and indigo eyes were the only color on her. She must have been barely over twenty years old. What most struck Murati, was the sharpness of her gaze, compared to the softness of her face and features.
In the next instant, she shifted on her feet, perhaps nervous. Those piercing indigo eyes then met the auburn eyes that had been spying on her. There was a brief flash of realization.
For a second, she flashed grit teeth. Her face twisted into a bitter scowl.
Murati almost felt a dark energy being directed at her. There was a strange, grim and ghostly beauty to that petulant expression. Her delicate, doll-like appearance curled into a vicious snarl.
Auburn avoided indigo: Murati broke eye contact, and the other girl turned her back.
At that point, the lift opened to reveal their superior.
Rear Admiral Goswani arrived, carrying a minicomputer under her arm. She called for everyone to meet her, pilots and maintenance personnel alike. They huddled around a table with the minicomputer in the middle. The Rear Admiral slid a flat square disk into a slot in the computer. The screen promptly displayed grainy footage, the perspective of something navigating out in the water.
“Our scout submarine captured this footage with a spy tentacle a few hours ago.”
At first the picture showed only vague shadows in the distance. When the scout realized they had something important on camera they frantically adjusted the picture, zooming in on the shadows. Once properly captured, the shadows appeared much more like a tight cluster of imperial ships. Suddenly, a second shadow started to bloom from the first, and move its own way.
“Our enemy is the Southern Border Fleet of the Imperial Navy.” Rear Admiral Goswani said. “They were created from the remnants of the forces that fought us in the Revolutionary War twenty years ago and tasked with patrolling our border. They haven’t taken offensive action against us until now: we believed it was simply not their mission to do. We had brief altercations with them at the border with hardly a shot fired. We’re still investigating the recent events, but whatever we did to trigger their entry, the fact is they are now invading our territory. Most of their ships are as old as their mandate, but they have a lot of them, and enough firepower to challenge us. If they break through, they can cause disastrous damage.”
Goswani swiped a pen-shaped object across the minicomputer’s screen, switching from the camera footage to a diagram with projections of the enemy’s fleet movement. Murati saw two groups.
One was headed straight over the trench while the other seemed to be moving southwest.
“They have split their forces into two groups to try to flank us. Both groups have a roughly equal number of ships. We are going to deploy multiple battlegroups and try to merge the battle lines as best as we can in the center of the Thassal plain. It is unlikely that the enemy will arrive all at the same time, so if we can preserve our strength, we can fend off one group and focus all our power on the other.”
More diagrams flashed by, including their own fleet position.
“Divers will stay with the fleet and help defend them from barrage. You’ll be torpedo hunting, so keep your distance, spread out, and remember it’s better to let one go and potentially miss its target than to detonate it right amid our fleet. You all know these formations: do us proud.”
When she examined the diagrams being shown, Murati found herself disagreeing with that course of action. She did not know whether it would be proper to respond. Would she lose face again? Would she be seen as an upstart who had no idea what she was saying? But she had to speak up.
As a student of strategy herself, but also as a Pilot, she felt this was a mistake.
“You’ll be assigned pairs closer to deployment. Until then, get to know all of your fellows.”
Rear Admiral Goswani asked for any questions. Nobody raised their hands.
Murati did not have a question. She had a statement she wanted to make.
She just had to think of the right words to say.
As everyone dispersed, she cut through the crowd and approached the Rear Admiral.
“Murati Nakara. I look forward to seeing how you in particular do out there.”
Goswani reached out a hand and Murati shook it.
“Ma’am, I would like to have a word with you in private, if I may be allowed.”
“Oh? Of course. If you want to talk about the mission, we could call everyone together–”
“I would rather not, ma’am.”
Murati tried to steel herself and project confidence. She balled her hands up into fists to try to keep them from shaking. It must have still been so obvious how fast her heart was beating.
She kept thinking about their conversation yesterday.
Would this be seen as pointless social climbing?
“Very well. Follow me.”
The Rear Admiral led Murati to a side-room with several private communication booths for officers. Officers were meant to speak most of their decisions out loud to their subordinates to “foster a culture of transparency.” For the worst sort of news, or to take care of personal affairs, private LAN terminals were available with their own little rooms to sit inside and have privacy with the officers.
“Is something wrong, Lieutenant?” Goswani asked.
Some people could make the word Lieutenant sound so dismissive, but Goswani seemed genuinely concerned for Murati. This gave her a bit of a morale boost. Maybe she would listen.
“Rear Admiral, I would like to make a suggestion for the mission.”
Goswani’s eyes drew a little wider. “That’s unusual for someone of your rank. But go on.”
They were seated in one of the booths and gathered around a terminal set into a table.
Murati picked up the digital pen and switched the minicomputer in the table to a drawing mode. She drew the enemy fleet groups and drew little arrows from them to the Union fleet.
“In the current water conditions, the enemy dividing their forces represents an enormous weakness that we need to do more to exploit, ma’am. We should not divide our own fleet too.”
Goswani said nothing in response. She looked over what Murati was drawing in silence.
Murati took that as her queue to continue with a fuller explanation.
“Their communications will have been fully cut off from one another for hours, so they will have assigned separate fleet commands. It is also not a matter of whether one of the enemy forces will lag behind the other. The flanking force will absolutely arrive after the main force, maybe well after. This is because the main force will be able to maintain altitude, heading and speed since its separation. Meanwhile, the flanking force is taking a circuitous route, which means they will correct course at least once. Since they are moving to the southeast, they will also have to correct their elevation at least once, over Konev’s Mountain, because the ocean floor rises and falls so much. They could very well appear thirty minutes to an hour later. Even when they join, their coordination will be minimal, as they can’t rely on lasers in these water conditions. We need to take advantage of the separation of the fleets and the lag between.”
These ideas had come to Murati’s head in bits and pieces as Goswani briefed the pilots. When she spoke it, she managed to put everything together far more eloquently than she thought she could. It was a miracle that she had mustered the determination to speak without faltering once.
“There’s also another grave weakness we can exploit.” Murati then said.
Rear Admiral Goswani was not speaking.
She was looking over everything Murati was drawing and scribbling on the board as she spoke, with her arms crossed and a neutral expression. She made eye contact with Murati exactly once after this particular offer to continue her monologue. Murati thought this meant she should continue speaking.
“During the Revolutionary War, the Imperial forces were impressed with our improvisation of laborer suits into underwater, armored forces. Because we mostly used Laborers and other light watercraft in ambush tactics at the trench and around stations and habitats, the Empire’s own Divers came to be used in protection roles, sticking close to the fleet. As we’ve learned through smuggled books from the Empire, as well as leftover books from the time of the Revolution, the Empire is entrenched in the doctrine of Big Guns: the idea that the main firepower of a fleet are dreadnoughts and cruisers, and all other watercraft, ships, and now also divers, serve to safeguard the ability of these larger ships to engage in prolonged barrages on enemy targets. Overly concerned with force protection, they have limited maneuver–”
Finally, the Rear Admiral spoke again. “I know the history, Murati.”
She had used her first name. Hearing an Admiral call her by name gave Murati chills.
“Explain what you intend for us to do.” Goswani said. Thankfully still sounding calm.
“Yes ma’am. Because each fleet is divided, but its subordinate units are clustered so tightly, it does not make sense to me for us to do the same. I’ll draw for you what I have in mind.”
Murati began to sketch out her own battleplan.
Goswani watched. She mumbled something inaudible at several of Murati’s strokes.
Both of them seemed, strangely enough, to agree at the end of it. Goswani asked her several questions about the forces at play, about how they would communicate, about what their orders would be and how they would react to certain situations. Murati had to think for a moment each time but she ultimately came up with answers for each of the problems. For a moment, Goswani even seemed excited.
“Murati, if we survive this, you’re coming with me to Fleet Planning HQ.”
Rear Admiral Goswani smiled the rare smile of a soldier who smelled blood in the water.
A soldier who had found an effective way to kill and who realized that glory would follow.
Murati was intimidated for an instant. Goswani composed herself quickly, however.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll promise you this. Let’s call the Fleet Admiral right now and I will help you make your case to him.” The Rear Admiral pulled a lever down from the side of the table that lifted the minicomputer up, so it could be used as a videophone communicator. “If you can convince him, we will go with your strategy as a fleet. Otherwise, you’re on your own out there, Lieutenant.”
Nodding, Murati watched in silence as Goswani got in touch with Fleet Command.
Stationed at this very vessel, the Formidable, bearing the flag of Fleet Admiral Deshnov.
On the screen appeared the old, scarred visage of Yervik Deshnov. Wherever there were not deep, burned gashes on his cheek and over his lips, there was scruffy white beard. His skin was the color of baked leather, and without his cap he was fully bald. His eyes, however, burned with recognition. Through the videophone picture, Murati could tell he was staring at her. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Rear Admiral, good to see you, as always. May I then inquire as to the presence of the Lieutenant with you?” Deshnov said. “Are you trying to bribe your way back to shore, Murati?”
Rear Admiral Goswani turned to face Murati with great surprise.
And yet, when the Fleet Admiral said her name, Murati was not shocked.
In fact, it emboldened her.
“Absolutely not Yervik. And you know it.” Murati said.
Fleet Admiral Deshnov laughed heartily.
“I would send you back, if you absolutely wanted.” He said. “But I know that what you seem to want more than anything is to fight. You are in a great hurry to die with a ship these days, I hear.”
Murati gave Deshnov the same grin that Goswani had given her before.
Talking to the Fleet Admiral, who was not an unfamiliar character, gave her confidence.
It was not just in the battle ahead that she would win. She would win her battle now.
“I will always listen to you Murati. It’s the least I could do for you. I can’t guarantee that I will join whatever scheme you seem to have convinced the Rear Admiral to participate in.”
At that point Goswani stepped in. “Sir, the Lieutenant has devised a strategy that I want to vouch for with the fleet. I believe it will result in fewer losses for us, and perhaps, victory.”
“That’s modest.” Deshnov said. “Murati’s bloodthirsty face, I thought it would be more.”
Since they were using the same minicomputer as before, it was easy to send through the images of what Murati had drawn up and planned, as well as a record of their conversation from before. Goswani explained the details Murati had given her. Deshnov’s expression remained unchanged throughout the explanation. Inquisitive, with a wizened glint behind his eyes. He was definitely convinced.
“Murati Nakara. To think, all those years ago–”
Yervik Deshnov sighed deeply. Murati blinked. Was he about to mention her parents?
He mastered himself. Not in front of Goswani, they couldn’t recapitulate that here.
“Murati,” Deshnov said gravely, “A hundred generations live in you. Keep that in mind.”
This was a sentimental saying among the old guard of the communists to the youth.
“I will disseminate orders to the rest of the fleet.” He said. “Lieutenant: return to us, ok?”
Her heart soaring with triumph, Murati saluted the Fleet Admiral with a grin on her face.