The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.6]

Murati navigated away from the Imperial fleet over the plains as the barrage intensified.

Along with her squadron, she watched as the disorganized Imperial fleet absorbed blow after crushing blow from the Union. Losing a dreadnought in the center of the formation should not have been such a catastrophe for the Imperials, from a purely material perspective, as long as they handled it with discipline. They could have still had the upper hand if they rallied.

Now in front of her there were vessels falling over the plain in the pairs, in the tens, with great gaping holes, or split in half, or with their prows blasted open like gaping, bloody maws.

This was what war looked like. Twenty or so vessels destroyed immediately.

Depending on the crew complement, between 2000 and 3000 souls dashed to pieces.

She had no sympathy for them. Viewing the spectacle, she could only think:

“You brought all of this upon yourselves, you cowards.”

As soon as every vessel started fleeing in whichever direction they found open, their battle was over. It was the fear that got them; without the protection of a disciplined mass, any individual ship would easily succumb to the ordnance, even to the stray shockwaves. That had not been Murati’s initial intention when she suggested the plan. She wanted to use Divers as the main striking power and riddle the enemy’s center with torpedoes, causing real material damage.

The psychological tactic was the more mature touch of Rear Admiral Goswani at play.

She believed a force of ten or fifteen Divers could penetrate and rout the fleet.

All that was required for her to unlock that knowledge was the realization that a different paradigm could exist in this battle. That Divers could be counted upon to operate independently, with the endurance and striking power to carry out a mission, and that the enemy’s erroneous doctrine would limit their ability to retaliate. It was that bit of thinking that was outside the box.

Murati did not know it at the time, but her mind had concocted a terrifying notion.

Her little bit of innovative thinking, her desire to use her position as a Pilot to determine the course of the battle, her drive to do more than hang back and see her comrades fall around her. To her, everything she had done should have been common sense. It was just a small step she had conceived of from a fuller, broader understanding of basic Fleet warfare, and the present situation.

The collective of which she was a part of would be irrevocably changed by this moment.

From that spark of insight in her mind, flowed a wave that swept across the Oceans.

She looked at the surface of what was happening, not seeing the ripples in the water that took the consequences of her actions so far, far afield from her. As she hovered gently in the water and watched the Southern Border Fleet’s “Detachment Kosz” flounder and sink into the sand. Each impact of blasted metal on the ground bore with it the death rattle of an era that she had killed.

“We’re not done yet.” Murati said to herself.

The squadron moved to rejoin the fleet. Halfway to the fleet’s regrouping point, the Divers were met by a watercraft. Behind a thick, sloped cockpit attached to a pair of hydrojets there was a cargo module that could open to the water, close, and drain out again. It was converted from an ore hauler that would strap boulders into its cargo hold and ferry them from quarries. Instead of ore, there were magazines, fresh weapons, additional liquid fuel, and a battery charger.

From the cockpit, an engineer could also man a pair of crane arms to help mount weapons.

It was everything the Divers needed to resupply for the next leg of their journey.

Two shuttles had been dispatched, one for each of the assault teams.

Murati and her squadron tethered themselves to the shuttle’s agarthicite charging station. A purple glow flowed from the cabling to the batteries in their suits, connecting to their power sources through the backpack. The quick charge could give them about 20% of the battery back in ten or fifteen minutes. Enough to keep them from running empty in the middle of the next firefight.

Unfortunately, there were no provisions for fixing Murati’s broken shoulder.

All the engineer could do was apply a gelatinous sealant to keep the parts from dangling.

“Ensign, how are you doing on supplies?” Murati asked.

“I shouldn’t need much more, ma’am.” Shalikova said.

Though the Ensign said this, Murati had seen how much she would shoot before.

“Take an extra magazine.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Shalikova sounded like she did not like the suggestion.

However, she only allowed the merest hint of displeasure to be heard in her voice.

Professional and collected for someone her age.

“Murati Nakara, you have a message. Please download it over laser.”

While the Strelok was charging, the engineer messaged Murati. The Shuttle had a computer with enough space to carry important data and transmit it to the Strelok over laser. It could also carry personal messages from loved ones or the crew. In Murati’s case, it was both.

Once the laser download was completed, Murati saw a video from Karuniya.

She was recording from a minicomputer in a personal room.

“We’re all safe here, thanks to you guys. When we get back, I’m going to need you to be extra nice to me. Look, I am wearing one of your shirts! Everyone here asks me why it fits so weird. If I’m wearing a girlfriend shirt to work, it’s only fair I come home to a girlfriend.”

Karuniya smiled, blew a kiss and ended the transmission.

It was the kind of message that really, truly screamed Karuniya!

Murati smiled and laughed to herself.

She barely ever heard Karuniya say the G-word and it warmed her heart.

As the “refueling” progressed, Murati noticed an ally Cutter coming closer.

On the shuttle, a laser beacon on the cockpit linked up with the Cutter, and in turn relayed the Cutter’s laser communications to the docked Streloks. The ship’s Captain, a young man who had been clearly tossed about in the previous battle and barely recomposed himself, addressed all of the Divers in the Squadron. He had orders to relay from the flagship, as well as a diagram.

“We’ve made a slight alteration to the original plan. Rather than having Divers in Anti-Diver roles in the coming battle, we have provided sufficient equipment here to arm everyone with anti-ship ordnance. Your Squadron will act as part of a flanking force. We’ll exploit the vulnerable ground of the remaining Imperials and overwhelm them with fire from two directions.”

Murati blinked as the Captain calmly delivered those words.

They were following her original idea. Divers are a separate, self-sufficient strike force.

As the Captain spoke, the engineer in the shuttle frantically manned the crane arms and began to mount a frame on Murati’s backpack for a pair of torpedo tubes. Instead of her assault rifle, she would be issued a 76.2 mm cannon from a rack inside the shuttle cargo. It was a bottom-loader with four shots. Enough to poke holes in thin spots on Destroyers and Frigates, certainly. A cannon shot into an emplacement or a coilgun could potentially cascade into internal damage.

“Murati Nakara,”

Done relaying the general message from HQ, the Captain in the Cutter cut laser connections to everyone but Murati. He saluted at her. “Is something the matter, Captain?” She asked.

“Admiral Deshnov sends his regards and wishes you ‘Good Hunting’.”

“Thank you Captain.”

He could have sent a personal message like anyone else.

Now that she was just a little bit in the spotlight, Murati was almost wilting at the attention. Nothing had transpired the way she wanted it to. Maybe it would still land her a command in the end– at that moment, she cut off her own train thought, shaking her head. “Focus on surviving,” she told herself, “We’ll worry about less important things when we get back home.”

It was a bit eerie to recognize how quickly her priorities had changed.

Was this what wartime truly felt like? Had there really been peace before this?

On the cockpit, a bar showed the remaining battery charge at an acceptable 60%.

“Ensign, let’s get going.”

“I was just about to say, I think the enemy is here.”

As Ensign Shalikova responded, her words were then made eerily prescient by the sound of a distant blast. Several hundred meters away the Union fleet had regrouped. This was in the diagram they had received from the neighboring Cutter. The Union fleet reformed into a spread-out square formation with the Formidable and five frigates on one corner, and mixed groups in the other corners. A group of Divers would swim ahead of the fleet. Murati’s group would flank.

There would be 20 Union vessels participating in total, compared to the over thirty remaining Imperial vessels. The Union left a few vessels behind to perform rescue operations on the handful of downed Union ships. And then, if they had time and if they felt magnanimous, they might even go search for Imperial lives to save from the debris field they had left in the Plains.

That square formation was meant to force the enemy to either split their fire or target a group preferentially with focused fire. It was meant to reduce further losses. Unbeknownst to most, Murati knew it was the kind of formation one would use against an inferior enemy who could not hope to win but might do damage beyond its means if allowed to fire into a tight formation.

With the Divers acting as separate forces, the Union felt assured of victory.

“Full ahead, Ensign!”

Murati pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go.

The Ensign naturally rocketed ahead of her.

She had uncanny reflexes. And a Strelok without damage, that could make its full speed.

Murati was swimming at maybe 90% of Shalikova’s speed now.

Her pumps and jets made a heroic effort to keep her in Shalikova’s orbit.

Soaring over the Thassalid plains, the Divers saw the brief, distant flickers in the inky darkness, that accompanied torpedo blasts. Below them the seafloor was starting to disappear as they climbed over 100 meters above the sand, to the level of the lowest ships in the enemy fleet. On Sonar a variety of objects appeared. Within minutes they would arrive close to the enemy fleet.

Somewhere in the dim blue water out there, the Union fleet was also fighting.

Owing to the diagrams they had been given, the computer on Murati’s Diver estimated that the Union fleet was within 800 meters of the Imperial fleet now. Her sonar was programmed with acoustic signatures for Union and Imperial ships, so her computer could tell with decent accuracy where her friends and enemies were. Having the diagram of the fleet action also helped.

The Divers would need to “see” the enemy with only their sensors.

At the range they would start firing, the Imperial fleet would be fully invisible in the murk.

Ahead of them, the fire intensified.

Moving at speed in the ocean, across the vastness of the water, was a surreal experience.

For a moment it felt like rushing through a void.

Rather than landmarks, and visuals, Murati had to develop an additional sense.

She kept glancing at her instruments, at the computer predictions.

Her cameras, pointed at the endless blue, were no use except to follow her allies.

And the brief flashes of the battle, quickly subsumed by the cold and the dark.

“We’ve reached the firing line. Use counter-thrust to stabilize.”

Murati hefted the 76.2 mm cannon with both hands and set the suit’s shoulders to prime the torpedo tubes. An electric motor within the torpedo preemptively spun a propeller in its tail. On one of her screens, a camera feed showed the torpedo’s perspective. Data was fed by wire back to her suit, and guidance traveled by wire as well. A light on the tube indicated readiness.

Along with Ensign Shalikova, and the four other units, the squadron assembled several hundred meters away from the flank of the Imperial fleet. Murati saw the readiness lights go on for all their torpedo tubes. There was no use aiming the torpedo, not right away. She waited for the specific time that they had been instructed to fire, displayed on her computer.

When the time came, the torpedoes launched out of their tubes with little recoil.

A long, thin wire trailed behind them as they accelerated.

Once the torpedo was underway, the picture on the screen only got worse.

It was a wonder the camera was included at all.

Instead Murati followed the diagnostic data from the torpedo.

Her computer collected this data and showed a very rough graph of the torpedo’s position and if anything was close. Taking this into account, and by squinting at the camera, she would be able to tell if she was near a target. At first the torpedo swam level from the firing tube, but it could be commanded to move in a specific direction by adjusting control surfaces on its tail.

As a novice torpedo pilot, Murati was not planning anything fancy.

She would swim the torpedo under an enemy ship and swing up into its keel.

Doing this, she had a chance of striking in a place no ship could easily recover from.

For several tense seconds she waited for her torpedo to get close and closer to the fleet.

Great grey shadows finally revealed themselves in the endless blue.

Murati pressed a toggle on the right-hand joystick to allow inputs to the torpedo.

She tugged sharply on it, sending the torpedo shooting up into the enemy fleet.

After a slight lag, the camera abruptly cut off. There was no other indication that she struck a target except for the final diagnostics, sent just before impact, and the computer’s prediction of what type of vessel she hit, based on the acoustic signature. According to the data, she had hit something like a Frigate or a Destroyer. That would have been 100 or 150 people dead.

Without giving it much thought she fired the second torpedo.

She could not completely trust the computer on a Diver to get everything right.

And whether or not she hit, it was a target-rich environment, and she had ordnance.

“Ensign, catch anything?” She asked.

“Dreadnought.” Shalikova responded, terse and unexcited.

Had anyone else struck a Dreadnought they would be dancing in their cockpit.

“What, really? I’ll treat you to something when we get back!” Murati declared.

She was barely keeping an eye on her own torpedo as she spoke.

“I’d rather you did not.”

Murati heard the alert ping from her torpedo as it detected nearby mass.

Repeating the same movements as before, she pushed her stick back as far as it would go.

Her torpedo jerked surface-ward and sent over the data for its final moments.

Another Frigate. It figured — they were the most numerous ships in a fleet.

“Cutter.”

Ensign Shalikova offered her second “catch” unprompted.

“Looks like everyone’s out of torpedoes.” Murati declared. “We should advance–”

A red light blinked from one of her monitors, drawing her attention.

At that moment, her sensors detected a large object approaching.

“Wait,”

She switched on every filter she could on her cameras, peering into the water ahead.

Ensign Shalikova saw it too. “Ma’am, something is–”

“I know!”

Murati switched to the routinely useless thermal imaging and surprisingly found a blob of heat approaching. She had little time to think about it and acted almost purely on reflex.

“Shell! Disperse!”

Engaging her thrusters, she jerked sideways into Shalikova.

A coilgun shell flew past them and exploded alone in the empty water behind them.

Several more coilgun shells peppered their location.

“Lieutenant, careful!”

Shalikova engaged her own thrusters and pulled away from Murati.

Ahead of them, a truly massive silhouette cut through the water.

Hundreds of cavitation bubbles projected from it. All kinds of guns were shooting now.

Everyone in the squadron ejected the extra mass of their spent torpedo tubes and scattered.

Within 100 meters, the beak-shaped prow of a Koenig class came into view.

A golden prow indicated that this was a flagship, or otherwise an important ship.

“It must be trying to escape!” Murati shouted.

On the upper hull dozens of gas gun turrets fired endlessly.

Coilguns emptied out into the ocean with abandon.

There were no Divers accompanying the Dreadnought.

All it had was guns, and those guns bristled, their barrels red hot as they dumped their magazines into the ocean. It was a remarkable sight, a terrifying sight. Endless, dismal popping and booming sounds, bubbles blowing in the thousands all around the ship, the copper-colored bullets slashing through the seas. Collapsing into steam bubbles ranging from the size of a fist to the size of a human body when the ordnance detonated. Pure saturation, the most savage expression of what the most immense military vessels of their era could do to their surroundings.

Murati and her Strelok companions dispersed in every direction and buzzed around the incoming Dreadnought. Shalikova and Murati had remained close, but the rest of the squadron went in vastly different angles, wherever their snap reactions took them. At first Murati jerked the Strelok this way and that, continuing to circle around the target, firing off her thrusters to avoid the gunfire. She looped in the water, briefly hanging against the limits of the seat harness.

Her targeting reticle went all over the place as she moved. Her cameras showed the dim circle of blue light that should have lain far, far overhead as suddenly under her, and the cloud of dust that floated off the seafloor took the place of the surface that was once above her head. With a lick of thrust from the Vernier thrusters on the hip, she threw herself diagonally, upside down.

Viewing the world from this new vantage, she realized the gunfire was not meant for her.

In fact, it was not meant for anyone. It was not meant to do anything.

Even with its attackers obviously in sight, there was no control of the guns, and no need to dance with all their might to survive. The Dreadnought was truly just firing in every conceivable direction and hoping to hit something. None of it was targeted. Nobody had her in sight.

Murati sat in place just long enough to confirm.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of bullets flew well past her, striking nothing.

The Dreadnought lumbered past them, locked in battle with only itself.

“Shalikova! Everybody! Open fire! Target the tower, jets and emplacements!”

Righting herself, Murati grabbed hold of her cannon with both hands.

She pressed the trigger.

There was a shock, absorbed and dispersed through the suit and gun.

A shell encased in a cavitation bubble hurtled out of the barrel.

In plain sight it swiftly cut through the water and smashed into the conning tower.

Punching a hole in the thin, flat side armor of the tower, it detonated inside. A steam bubble folded, vibrated, and tore the metal, leaving behind disgorged cabling and dead sensors. This was a pinprick on the Dreadnought, and it lumbered mightily forward despite the damage.

Murati’s companions followed her lead.

Amid the trails of bubbles and bullets emitted from the Dreadnought’s fire, lines drew across the water around it and into its armor. Turrets went up, some detonating savagely as the magazine inside exploded from a penetrating shot. More and more holes appeared on the Conning Tower. A fin blew clean off the prow. Murati swerved around the back of the vessel, punching shell after shell into the rear winglets, into the massive hydrojets that propelled the beast.

When her cannon thumped, bereft of ammunition, she brandished her diamond cutter.

Beside her, Shalikova launched her own last shell.

Her aim was almost prescient, like a work of magic.

Striking between several holes left by Murati, it punched through to one of the jets.

Instead of a stream of water, the rear of the Dreadnought began to eject shrapnel.

A cascade of internal damage ensued.

Murati received a warning on her screens.

Putting a filter over her cameras she detected the tell-tale purple glow.

Agarthicite runaway effects.

Something must have gotten to the reactor. Either Shalikova, or a suicide pact.

“It’s done! Run away, as fast as possible!” Murati shouted.

She pulled her control sticks back as far as they would go, full reverse.

Atop the surface of the Dreadnought, hex-shaped scars started to form.

Material crumbled off the ship’s hull as tongues of visible indigo energy slashed across it.

There was, for a brief moment, an alien rotation that would have mirrored that of the reactor rods. Parts of the dreadnought turned about like the surfaces of a puzzle cube. This was evident for such a brief moment that viewing it felt like insanity. Like it was something that Murati had dreamed, a vision that a deranged God had willed into her brain and not anything natural.

Perhaps it was not the metal bending and warping. Maybe it was space around the metal.

As soon as she saw this mad sight, it was gone.

Expanding out from the compromised reactor, as it ate away all of its Osmium shielding, the Agarthicite annihilation bubble flashed the brightest light that anyone could have possibly seen under the ocean. A purple sphere of dim yet bright light that felt solid and yet translucent, that expanded and contracted, that was curved and yet flat, a captivating, terrifying sight.

Murati’s felt something in the back of her head. Her senses dulled. Her eyes glazed over.

Ensign Shalikova, too, stopped moving, as the purple void expanded toward them.

Tiny flickers of hexagonal material peeled gently off the surface of their divers.

“Get a grip you two!”

Seeing them slack, the rest of their unit grabbed hold of their suits.

Murati felt like a passenger to her own body. She could not move.

Her hands slacked from the controls. Crucially, the thrust mode was already locked in.

Against the vacuuming strength of the annihilation sphere, all their jets struggled.

Holding the Lieutenant and Ensign between them, they put every ounce of liquid fuel and all of the power their batteries could muster into a mad forward dash away from the indigo. Behind their backs, stray flickers of runaway agarthic energy lapped at their backpacks and legs like the hungry cilia of a great, greedy anemone. Against all odds, deep in the Ocean where all blue and green light would die to the crushing depths, that indigo glow flashed as if through surface air.

“Shit! Shit!”

Praying, hoping, the pilots who flew beside them without name struggled to save them.

Never abandoning Murati and Shalikova whom they barely knew.

In an instant, they thrust forward at full speed, escaping the foul gravity.

Behind them, quickly as it had appeared, the sphere of annihilation was gone. In its place, there was the tip of a massive prow, a perfectly curved wound upon its back, and scattered debris.            

With the destruction of the Strasser, so ended the 3rd Battle of the Thassalid Trench.


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