“Confirming algorithmic detection of enemy torpedoes! Enemy fleet will be close after!”
Across the Formidable, the cries of the intelligence officer resounded through the intercom to every department on the ship. This was accompanied by the sound of klaxons. Divers were already underway. All six had been sealed in their deployment chutes, awaiting final dive authorization. Everyone else on the ship was braced for battle and awaited further details.
Several other stations made ready. Gas gunners and coilgun officers controlled their weapons from gunnery consoles in the command pod. They were not physically present at the integrated mechanisms of their weapons. Those who would be on call to actually go touch a gas gun emplacement or a coilgun autoloader were the ship mechanics and engineers.
Gunners needed all the sensors at their station to have a chance against a torpedo or ship.
Murati watched through one of her monitors a diagram of the ship, with every section turning from blue to red to indicate its combat readiness. Soon the entire diagram of the Formidable turned red. There was a countdown of fifteen minutes, estimating time to deployment for the Divers. Murati had this on one screen, the diagram in another, and Sonya on a third.
She would clear all of them before battle was actually joined, to focus on her cameras.
“Be advised!” cried out a chirpy-voiced master sonar technician, “Enemy force consists of 38 vessels. Preliminary analysis of enemy acoustic signatures suggests: three Koenig class light Dreadnoughts, eight Lowe class Cruisers, two Wespe class Destroyers, ten Marder class Frigates and fifteen Ratten class Cutters. Formation is currently amorphous and at combat speed.”
“The Cutters and the Destroyers are the latest models there.” Murati said, talking to herself. “Everything else is a series of floating museums from the time of the Revolutionary War.” All of the vessels would have likely been retrofitted with the space to carry and support Divers, except for the Cutters. Newer imperial Dreadnoughts could carry four divers, but these old Koenigs could only carry two each after their retrofit. Each Wespe could carry a single Diver, same with the Lowe classes. Marder frigates could carry a diver strapped on an external gantry.
Assuming maximum force composition, that meant twenty-six Divers or so. Volkers were lighter than Streloks and about equivalently armed. Murati liked her chances against one.
Her heart was beating fast, waiting out the countdown.
Her fingers looped into the Diver controls, and she felt the joysticks, the pedals.
“We can do this.” She said. “We’re getting back home, Karuniya.”
For a brief moment she thought she saw Shalikova staring sidelong.
Just as quickly, that flash of indigo from the Ensign’s eyes was gone.
Maybe she had Murati’s feed on that monitor and had briefly glanced at her.
She had a completely stone-like face now, no emotions whatsoever.
Finally, the countdown on her screen approached zero.
“Enemy positions predicted and confirmed! Commencing barrage!”
Two voices sharing half a statement each sounded over intercom. Deshnov’s sonar officer spoke first, then the Commissar who acted as a Gunnery Chief. Murati could neither see nor feel the ship’s demeanor change in any particular way, but she knew the initial stage of the attack would be a massive forward barrage that would rake the center of the enemy’s formation.
Amid that barrage, several stray shells would hit the ground of the Thassalid plain.
Beneath her, the deployment chute hatch burst open.
Murati squeezed the sticks and pushed herself down and out into the open water.
From then on, it was like a switch flipped in her mind. Her brain’s currents flooded through a different circuit. She became master over more than just her body: the machine became her limbs. Her eyes scanned the cameras for input into the outside world; her hands moved the arms of the Strelok; the pedals and the hinges they were set into controlled the movement of the mechanical feet. When she turned her body, the machine turned with her. When she charged, it would do so.
It was natural, trained. An extension of her own body.
Heavier and more ponderous than her own. Only just so; feedback was near-instant.
She was the machine, and her body was surrounded by water.
There was a sensation of falling. Moving out of the deployment chute and into the open water, there was no perch or pressure to hold her up. The Strelok descended, at first unaided, toward the sandy seafloor of the Thassalid plain. Murati took control of her descent. She aimed her uppermost pair of rear jets upward and thrust down toward the white, sandy seafloor.
Muted rushing sounds all around them as torpedoes burst out of their tubes, brief flowing boom noises as the coilguns and gas cannons opened fire at the most extreme ranges. In a way, it was a calm before the storm. There was something eerily peaceful about that moment. Those noises sounded almost false, as if they could not have belonged to the weapons making them. It gave a surreal, almost divine quality, to the situation, coupled with the descent and the low visibility.
A vast, gloomy expanse of murky green and blue surrounded her. She knew the lay of the land. In the distance she could imagine the rising and falling, complex geography of Ferris’ border, great peaks rising in the distance as if pushed up by whatever impact split the vast, gaping wound of the Trench that was dead ahead of them. Between the trench and the distant mountains that ringed the Thassalid region was a stretch of open seafloor known as the Thassalid plains. Little of this geography was visible to the naked eye. Even the high-powered cameras of the Strelok and the various filters she had access to were limited in such thick water. Particulate matter was evident all around her, a sign of the dense biomass. Her physical visibility was limited to 50 to 75 meters. It took the high-end optics of a ship to “see” farther using computer prediction, sonar and lasers.
Thankfully, she also had a miniature sonar and the laser rangefinder on her suit.
These latter instruments began to pick up faint enemy signals on approach.
“Ensign Shalikova, how’s the feed?”
Murati’s eyes flicked toward one of the screens. In addition to suit diagnostics she had arranged a picture-in-picture of Ensign Shalikova after they were paired up. While the video was troubled, with the picture tearing and desynchronized, her audio came through quite clearly.
“I can hear you Lieutenant. Awaiting orders.”
She sounded near completely deadpan.
With that friendless expression on her face, it made Murati want to dote on her.
“Cheer up. I’ll make sure you get home safe. We have a good strategy–”
“I’m fine ma’am.”
Shalikova instantly shut her down. Her voice picked up the barest hint of emotion.
That emotion was probably annoyance.
“Copy. Stay close. Our targets will be the Volkers among the formation.”
Both of them were armed mainly with AK-96 37 mm Assault Rifles. Their Streloks also had a tungsten-alloy, diamond-toothed saw, retractable into the wrist. This could be used to cut weak spots in an enemy Diver and flood their cockpit. Both of these were standard armament for Pilots going toe to toe with enemy Divers. It was not their job to take the glory and down enemy ships, at least not at this juncture. However, they also had access to a pipe charge that could, in a pinch, bring down a Cutter or other light vessel by blowing a hole in the underside ballast.
“On my signal, apply maximum forward thrust.” Murati said.
Her suit then finally touched the dirt. The Divers took a moment to regroup.
From the underside of the Formidable, a final laser transmission occurred to Murati’s Dive computer. It was a diagram of the enemy fleet formation made by the ship using its advanced sonar and laser imaging instruments. Murati’s own rangefinders and sonar could have never created such an accurate 3D picture, but a ship could carry far more computing and sensor equipment. There was nothing in the diagram she had not foreseen, however. Three dreadnoughts were sequestered in the high center of a tight formation of ships, all stitched together by a few dozen Volker suits.
As the sides closed in their barrages intensified. Most of the fire came from many pairs of coilguns with their unguided, explosive shells. These were the fastest available missiles, creating an air bubble around themselves to travel through air instead of dense water. Due to the water they displaced, coilgun shells seemed almost like lines being cut across the ocean toward the enemy fleet. While coilgun shells were relatively smaller than torpedoes, saturation fire created rolling shockwaves that could potentially do great amounts of internal and external damage to a fleet over time.
Wire-guided torpedoes, directed personally by torpedo gunners, were the most powerful ordnance. Easily capable of tearing a ship apart on a direct hit, and inflicting damage with a graze. Close-in defense systems were able to potentially down torpedoes 75 to 100 meters or so away from a ship, minimizing damage. Even in such cases, the ensuing shockwaves could potentially rattle a ship enough to put some systems out of order. Torpedoes were never to be trifled with.
Closer and more numerous around each ship were the short-ranged gas gun emplacements. These double-barreled heavy machine guns fired 20 mm supercavitators that were intended to detonate torpedoes and hold off enemy watercraft and Divers. There was an old, crude military saying that went: give your gas gunners a wine bottle or a blowjob, you’ll both need it.
Murati had heard enough stories about the heroics of a gas gunner to almost believe it.
Like coilgun shells, the cavitation bubble around gas gun bullets made them somewhat visible in the water as they traveled. It created an impressive visual effect around the entire fleet, as hundreds, maybe thousands of cavitation bubbles blew out toward the enemy. Shells went flying, torpedoes sped across, gas guns hunted in the water for incoming ordnance. On the seafloor, Murati could look up and watch, hearing little but the distant, muted sounds of the guns.
Spread around them, a dozen other Divers hit the seafloor moments after Murati and Shalikova. Ahead of them, several shells seemed to fall well short out of the fleet’s barrage.
A dozen explosions across the plain kicked up an enormous cloud of dirt and biomass.
This was deliberate. Murati knew the plan, and this was the signal to begin.
She oriented herself toward the enemy formation, made note of where the Ensign and the rest of the Formidable’s unit was, and positioned her thrusters. She was ready to charge.
Murati and Shalikova were the first to dash forward into the cloud of dust ahead of them.
In fact, Shalikova got a split-second head start! So quickly did she react to Murati.
The Lieutenant was no slouch. Together, they led the attack.
Looking at a Strelok in the hangar, it seemed impossible it could ever move.
And yet their metal bodies cut through the water with surprising alacrity. With their arms and legs tucked up, their jets properly oriented, and the hydrojet turbines working at maximum capacity, they built up acceleration in seconds. This was not difficult to do when all they had to do was charge straight ahead. The only things faster were the coilgun shells flying in their bubbles overhead. For their weight, the Streloks would have wowed any bystander with their speed.
Four hydrojets in the back delivered the main thrust by sucking in water through the intakes and accelerating it rapidly toward the back, where the movable exhaust jets were installed. On the legs, hips, and elbows, there were additional Vernier thrusters that could be used sparingly for a boost. These used gas propulsion rather than more advanced hydrojets, and each Diver had a limited complement of fuel aboard. Use of these tools separated a novice from a veteran.
Murati and Shalikova needed none of their liquid fuel for the charge. As far as Murati was concerned, she knew enough about Diver combat to keep her liquid fuel thrusters far in reserve, for a quick advantage in the middle of a firefight or god forbid if a melee broke out.
Hurtling through the sand kicked up by the fleet’s covering barrage, Murati saw the outline of the enemy vessels growing quickly larger and more detailed in their physical optics. In less than a minute since they had left the fleet, the Diver squadron slipped under the enemy formation. No one had noticed. The enemy’s barrage remained directed fully forward at the opposing fleet.
Shockwaves moved through water in every direction, dozens of explosions blooming in the sea. Everyone inside the smaller ships would have felt the shaking, and the mechanics would be scrambling to make sure nothing broke down amid the constant barrage. Larger vessels resisted shockwaves much more strongly, and any ship designed for survivability had multi-layered hulls.
Up close, the violence was still eerie, surreal. Murati had a keener understanding than most of what all that displaced water meant. Fleet combat was a terrible, alien form of violence.
“Decelerate. Four seconds.”
In the next instant, Ensign Shalikova and Murati leaped up toward the enemy.
With their thrusters pointed to the seafloor, they climbed almost as rapidly as they charged.
Again, Shalikova moved almost before she was told, reacting faster than Murati.
Above them the fleet continued to move at combat speed.
There was a massive explosion. A torpedo grazed an Imperial cutter and detonated.
For an instant a bubble formed, the explosion displacing the water around it and quickly creating an expanding void of steam in its center. The void was short-lived, eventually collapsing, pulsing, against the hull of the Cutter. Once the water settled, it left a massive hole in the side of the Cutter, around which hovered shrapnel and ejected equipment — and people sucked out too.
Compromised, the Cutter fell toward the seafloor. Such a small, light ship had no way of surviving such a massive explosion. Murati thought she could almost see the red mist of dozens of people dying inside. Had any of her people been struck? All it took was one torpedo to get through.
But she could no look behind herself. There would have been nothing to see.
And she had no communication with the fleet right now.
“Ensign! Commence attack!”
She could not let herself get distracted by this.
Hefting up her assault rifle, she focused herself on all she could do.
Kill them before they killed any of her comrades.