War and tragedy didn’t simply alter space. In a sense, they also altered time.
The threshold between an ending and a beginning was thin, ludicrous, and maddening.
A step through the invisible, past a shadow; the delineation between an era and the next.
Nobody had quite come to terms with the fullness of their condition before the ship had begun to move. In the preceding days they had not been able to; and the maybe in the subsequent days they would fail to do so as well. When war came to Thassal, everyone’s connection to their previous future had shattered. Since then they were just pantomiming with fate.
Needless to say, nobody was truly situated when Brigand began disembarking procedures.
They had a tight schedule, and a crew that was not used to launching a “brand new ship.”
So there were a lot of sailors lollygagging still, but three conditions had been met.
First, the essential bridge crew was assembled. They had the Captain, Commissar, Helmsman, and Communications, and they also had Sonar operational. Those were the basics for running the ship.
Second, the Reactor crew had come with the ship from Solstice.
So they were accounted for, already in position, and knew what they were doing.
Third and finally, Specialist Semyonova’s beautiful, calming voice had called out to everyone on the ship to please access their nearest terminal or use any portable minicomputer to answer a roll call, which she then initiated. Within moments, the entire roster was accounted for.
At that point it didn’t matter if the sailors were looking for their rooms still.
Most of the systems were automatic anyway.
And the ship absolutely had to move.
Perhaps before anyone could regret what they had chosen.
As suddenly as everything else, and with as little fanfare as everything else, the Brigand undocked from Thassal Station. It was officially in open water and would officially begin its months long journey through the heart of the Empire. In the same confusion, surreality and haste that had characterized the rest of the crew’s life for the past few days, the Brigand now departed.
When it did, Murati Nakara did not quite notice it because she was passing through one of the workshops leading to the hangar. She marveled at all the amazing tools they had and became excited when she walked down to the massive, wide-open hangar to inspect the Divers they had. The Hangar was bigger than the Formidable’s, which was impressive considering the Brigand was the size of a cruiser. Big, but not dreadnought big.
There was equipment everywhere, being moved, or set up, by a platoon of sailors, so the final workspaces were still heavily in flux.
Most of the sailors on the Brigand were mechanics or engineers, and it felt like Murati was staring at all of them working right there. She felt a different sensation from her past forays. She felt proud.
This was her ship, in part, that these folks were setting in order.
She almost wanted to help them. To pick up a pneumatic bolt-driver and get to work on the gantries and get the charging stations cabled-up and tested. That was not her role, however.
It was at that point that a message finally went out.
“UNX-001 Brigand has officially departed Thassal Station!”
It was the saccharine voice of Specialist Semyonova, handling bridge communications.
Murati whistled with amazement. She had felt nothing stirring in the secondary hull.
Just like that, without even knowing it, she was now at sea. Her mission had begun.
Semyonova continued with an update on initial crew duties.
“All sailors not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time to inspect their quarters and the amenities of the ship, before joining their work cohorts for their first briefing. All officers not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time as well. All essential personnel have already been engaged with their work cohorts and will have two hours of free time available in four hours.”
“How organized. Launch is really going smoothly, isn’t it?” Murati asked.
“I guess so. But nothing announced for essential officers?”
At Murati’s side, Karuniya was also inspecting the ship with ample curiosity.
They had been basically inseparable since their cohabitation agreement.
Though they would work different roles, they could at least live together in their habitat.
“Important officers would already be in the bridge. I’m guessing we’re not essential.”
“You’re the First Officer Murati. You should put in an appearance at the Bridge.”
“I will! I need to inspect the Divers first. I’m also Diver Leader, you know?”
“You’re just a hopeless military nerd.”
Ignoring Karuniya’s bullying remarks, Murati headed to the center of the hangar.
“Can you go ahead and see if our stuff got to the room ok?”
“Seriously? You’re going to treat me like the disposable wife already?”
Karuniya had a sly face on. Murati felt uncomfortable with the teasing.
“I’m really not trying to, and I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“You’re so defensive! I’m just teasing. You better make this up to me though.”
Murati smiled nervously. “I’ll think of something.”
Still grinning like a devil, Karuniya willingly left Murati’s side.
At the hangar there were six Divers in place, five of them in various states of disarray. Only one had a complete gantry and was set in its proper place, with seemingly all of its parts assembled. The rest were sitting against corners for lack of proper gantries to dock to, missing weapons and even limbs, and had their battery packs uncharged and laid out nearby. It was a mess, but it was exciting to see the Streloks that she may someday command into battle, in their nascent state.
However, it was the remaining Diver, the assembled one, that really caught her eye.
This Diver looked like an entirely different model. It was not just a Strelok.
Rather than the almost oblong shape of the Strelok’s central body, the new model had a somewhat sleeker and more angular body shape, with rounded flanks and a thinner trunk, and leaner shoulders. The head, rather than being flat and square, was shaped more like a triangle pointed forward, with a central double-eyed visor. Angled points stretched from the “cheeks” of this “head” with additional sensors.
While the arms were slightly sleeker than a Strelok’s, they had armored extensions covering the elbow verniers, and the legs and feet much the same. It was a much more aggressive design. She could see that the back had been completely redesigned as well, the backpack bulged out a little less and there were five hydrojets rather than four. Two were set on either side of a new central jet. The intakes had been integrated into the main hull rather than being run out to attachments on the hips and upper chest. There was an extra intake around the “collarbone” of the Diver’s torso for the extra jet.
“Diver Leader Nakara, right? Taken in by the new model?”
Coming in from behind her, a man called for her attention.
He wore a yellow and orange work vest over the white and blue of the fake company they pretended to be, “TBT.” He had a hard hat and safety goggles, but removed them when he approached, revealing a strong, square face with a friendly smile and slick blond hair. He reached out, and she shook his hand.
“That’s me. Are you a mechanic?” Murati asked.
“Engineer, actually. I’m a Warrant Officer instead of a Sailor. Gunther Cohen.”
“Nice to meet you, Warrant Officer Cohen.”
He raised his arms behind the back of his head and laughed, in an affable gesture.
“Nah, nah, call me Gunther! We’re going to be at sea for a while, you know?”
“I suppose so. I’ve never served on a ship for long enough to get over the formalities before.” Murati replied. All of her missions lasted days or weeks. This was her first long-term post.
“Then let’s get over them right now. Most of the comrades here are on a first-name basis.”
He had such a chummy look on his face that she couldn’t help but be nice about it.
“Well then, I suppose you can call me Murati then.” She said.
Gunther nodded his head in acknowledgment and turned right around to the Diver.
“In truth, I had been hoping that you would pilot this one.”
Murati had not really given it any thought.
She figured they would be assigned machines.
“The Diver Leader should get the best machine. It’s only proper, isn’t it? And in truth, this one’s a little tougher to handle than the Streloks. It could use somebody with a bit more experience in the cockpit.”
“So it’s not a Strelok, then?”
Just by looking at the machine it was plain to see that it was not a Strelok.
Murati still felt compelled to ask the question out of her own curiosity.
Gunther seemed to know a lot about the suit, and he was open about his desire to show it.
“Well, we can’t deny that the Strelok is in the DNA of all our Diving suits, the same way the Rabochiy is in the Strelok’s DNA. But they’re vastly different machines. We made this one to really push Union war manufacturing to its limits. We thought, if we could imagine anything we wanted, without worrying about the cost; and there it is, the ISU-100 Cheka.”
“What does ISU stand for? Diver models had UND designations before.” Murati asked.
“Ah, I guess a connoisseur would stumble into the grimmest part of this huh?”
Murati could not decipher Gunther’s bashful response to her question.
“Well, we don’t have to go into it, I was just curious.”
“No, it’s ok. I helped with this project for the past few months, to get it over the finish line. A couple of different groups worked on it, and we kind of put together everything at the end. But the genesis of the idea was for the Cheka to be a small production line of Internal Suppression Units for the Ashura’s security division. It had to be better than a Strelok, to suppress a mutiny, in case something happened where some rebel force got ahold of our current ships and divers.”
Murati’s eyes drew wide with the recognition of this machine’s purpose. She supposed even in the kind and caring society that the Union tried to be, there were people who were tasked with upholding the peace, and they had to be prepared for the worst possible circumstances. At least she could take heart that the machine would not be used on Union citizens now.
“So that’s why it is an ISU. It’s not a Union Navy Diver, but an Internal Suppression Unit.”
Gunther finished his explanation running his hand through his hair, looking offput.
“It’s fine.” Murati said. “Thank you for explaining it to me. I don’t hold anything against you or against that machine. I’m happy that it will get to see a more worthy use. I will pilot it.”
If for no other reason that no one else should be responsible for that kind of firepower.
“Great!” Gunther clapped his hands together and brightened up instantly. “I saw data from your recovered Strelok in Thassal. For someone who had never fought a real battle in a Strelok before, you showed a lot of potential. And, I mean, I say that as number-crunching nerd– I’m absolutely terrible as a pilot. From the data, I think you’ll love what the Cheka can do.”
“At a glance, it looks much more sophisticated. But what can it do, better than a Strelok?”
Gunther rubbed his hands. “I’m glad you asked. The Cheka is a meter taller than a Strelok, but it’s actually faster. It has more rear thrust, stronger verniers for better snap maneuverability in combat, and instead of using those huge battery packs, it has Agarthic energy cells built-into the works of the hull and backpack. That’s how we saved so much on space and weight in the design.”
“I see, but then, that means the power unit is not interchangeable. So if it gets damaged, it has to be repaired in place, and then it can’t just be hot swapped in the field, isn’t that true?”
Almost thoughtlessly, Murati came out with a criticism that floored Gunther.
“I mean– well, yes. That’s true. But the performance gains are crazy to make up for it!”
“And it has all the standard weapons, correct?”
“It can use the AK-pattern rifles, and tube-launched torpedoes. Um, well, funny you ask, but another place where we differ from the Strelok is encumbrance. It can’t really support huge cannons or a lot of the shoulder weapons. The Strelok just has a heavier, stabler center mass.”
Gunther sounded embarrassed every time he had to mention a flaw in the Cheka.
Murati understood the changes, however. This was a Diver meant for a new era, when outmaneuvering enemy fire and clashing with enemy Divers would become more important. It was forward-looking and highly specialized. Maybe it really was a suit tailored for her own ideas.
“That’s fine. I would love to take it out for a test.” Murati said.
“Absolutely! I can get authorization right now.” Gunther said.
He patted her on the back in a cheerful fashion, as if they were all best friends who had agreed to go to the bar for some drinks. Murati was nearly swept up in his frenetic energy.
“Wait, right now?”
As she asked that terribly important question, there was a sudden blaring of klaxons.
Everyone in the hangar stopped what they were doing.
First they looked up, at the alarm lights and sounds being played.
They then turned to the nearest console for an explanation.
For messages like this, a video from the bridge crew would play.
Soon enough, the pretty, round face of Communications Officer Semyonova appeared, her blond hair expertly tied up, her makeup neatly applied. Many of the sailors were captivated with her and began to joke that being startled by a test of the emergency system was a small price to pay for getting to finally see the face of the beautiful siren-like voice that had been bossing them around. For a moment, as they watched her appear, they smiled and waved at the screens.
It was not a test.
“Battle stations! All crew, battle stations!”
All of the sailors, men, women, both and neither, who had been expressing their feelings for Semyonova, practically fell over backwards on their discarded tools and messy work areas. They scrambled to find something to do or some place to be. Many had not been fully briefed. While the chaos reigned in Engineering, Semyonova continued to explain the situation.
“At roughly 1135 hours, our bridge crew detected the active biosonar of a Barding-class Leviathan approaching from roughly north-northwest in what we assume is a steep, high speed dive. Due to our heading, we must assume we have now been detected by the Leviathan. We don’t know the reason for the Leviathan’s appearance, but it is possibly injured, and therefore erratic and aggressive. We are now 10 kilometers from Thassal Station and must assume we will be the only responders. By procedure we have labeled this Leviathan “Union-Sighted Leviathan 96” or USL-96. All crew assume battle-stations and await further orders for action against USL-96.”
Semyonova’s face vanished from the consoles, which now displayed diagrams drawn up by the predictive computers. This showed the Brigand and its heading, and the potential route of collision with the Leviathan. They would do their best not to near it, but the Leviathan moved faster and with greater agility than any ship, so it was likely they would have to euthanize it.
Murati ran from Gunther’s side and made for the nearest console.
Authorizing herself as the First Officer she was able to get a priority line to the bridge.
In a moment, Captain Korabiskaya’s face appeared on the screen.
“Lieutenant, good to see you. I’m glad you were in the Hangar as I assumed.”
“I was inspecting the Divers. I apologize for not coming up.” Murati said.
There was no aggression whatsoever in the Captain’s response.
“It’s all fine. We expected to have more time to sort things out. We’ve barely left port!”
Murati nodded. “Ma’am, I need to deploy in the Cheka.”
Captain Korabiskaya drew back with surprise at this sudden demand.
“That experimental Diver in the equipment list? Is it even set up yet?”
“It is completely ready.”
In terms of firepower, any ship could potentially kill a Leviathan. However, firepower was the least important factor in a confrontation between humans and beasts. Larger vessels suffered much more from the impacts and attacks of Leviathans. They presented larger targets that a Leviathan’s biosonar would interpret as another Leviathan class enemy, and it would bring out the worst and most targeted of their aggression. Bigger, slower ships could not avoid a Leviathan easily, and might suffer terrible damage trying to fight off the faster, more flexible creature.
If they had a fleet, they could use their faster escort ships to engage the monster.
They did not have a fleet. They had one large ship, and Divers.
Murati’s heart was full of determination, and her face reflected it.
She believed strongly that if she did not protect everyone their mission could be over.
Captain Korabiskaya seemed to sense the stubbornness engraved in her brows and lips and sighed with exhaustion. “Lieutenant, I’m hesitant to authorize this. Right now nothing is set up, you’ll have no backup out there.” She said. “We need to get everyone organized, and then–”
“I’ve got enough help right here. Gunther!”
Murati turned around. Gunther was still near the Cheka, standing around in confusion as the world moved at a frenetic pace around him. Calling his name seemed to snap him out of his anxiety and he ran over to the console. When he laid eyes on the Captain, he immediately saluted.
“What was all that about formalities?” Murati said.
“It’s the Captain! It’s different!” He said stiffly.
“Captain,” Murati turned back to the console and locked eyes with Korabiskaya. “This man worked on the Cheka. He knows more than just what’s on the datasheets or programmed into the computers. Gunther, do you think the Cheka could stand up to a Barding-class Leviathan?”
Gunther scoffed. “It was designed to fight Streloks 1 against 3 and win, of course it can!”
He collected himself immediately and made a nervous gesture at the Captain.
Murati gestured with her palm up toward Gunther and winked at the Captain.
“I have Gunther here who will help me deploy. And the Cheka can handle the rest.”
“You’re too stubborn, Murati Nakara. You’ll have to work on that when you return.”
Captain Korabiskaya’s gaze avoided her, and her lips turned in a worried expression.
At that point, the video feed cut off, and a message authorizing the launch appeared.
On the Cheka’s gantry, the locks were undone automatically by the bridge crew.
The suit’s heavily angled forward surfaces moved to reveal a hatch, allowing entry.
Murati was still dressed in the TBT half-jacket and pants, but she wore a full bodysuit under it, and told herself this was adequate enough for a snap deployment. Without changing into a diving suit, she rushed over the front of the gantry, climbed up to the Cheka’s hull and slipped into the cockpit. Behind her, the frantic energy of the Hangar was silenced as the hatch closed.
For an instant, she was alone in the pitch black. She could hardly believe where she was.
Then her instruments began to light up. It was all familiar.
She was a Diver; ready to fight.
On one of the screens, the words ‘For the workers’ revolution!’ briefly appeared.