Murati was in her element. Her breathing quickened; her heart pounded.
She was determined.
Her only anxiety was that she did not tell Karuniya she was putting herself in danger again. Hopefully, her fiancé could forgive her in this situation.
All of the Cheka’s controls were similar to those on a Strelok. LCD screens for the cameras and computers were hovering right in front of her, as she sat in the adjustable chair with joysticks, pedals and buttons for controlling all aspects of the suit. Using handles and adjustable guiderails on some of the equipment, she moved the screens and control elements just a bit. Then she could just sit back, grab the sticks, put her foot on the pedals, and she was ready to deploy at any moment.
Just like before; a whole other body had wrapped around her own.
Fully sublimating herself into the machine, she could almost feel how it would move.
Even though she was standing still, waiting for communication.
Through the ship LAN she connected with the bridge again.
On one of her screens, was the bright, shining face of the communications officer.
“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant! I’m Natalia Semyonova, communications chief. I’ll act as your liaison to the bridge. I hear the Brigand has a few tricks for keeping communications with Divers, so you might see some weird stuff happen. We’re still working out the details here!”
“This ship really is full of new equipment, huh? Tell the Captain I’m ready to deploy.”
On another screen, Gunther’s face appeared on one of the cameras.
Murati switched on a speaker to talk to him.
“Gunther, do you know how to set up a deployment chute for me?”
Gunther waved at her from below. “Of course! I’ve been with this ship for a few weeks now, you know. If I didn’t know how to work the chutes it’d be embarrassing as a Diver engineer.”
“Less talk, more action then!”
Gunther got to work on the console attached to the Cheka’s gantry.
In front of them, a faint sound of gas whistling could be heard.
A piece of the floor slid apart in a marked area of the hangar to reveal the chute hatch.
Gunther brought a remote-controlled crane arm over to deliver a weapon to her.
Murati engaged the Cheka’s power unit.
She reached out and grabbed hold of the AK-96 assault rifle she was handed.
A small crowd began to form as more people suddenly noticed a Diver was moving.
“She’s clear, folks! Let her get through!”
Gunther parted the sea of sailors, retaining an affable smile. This was his moment too.
Everyone began to cheer and clap uproariously when the Cheka started moving.
The Brigand was deploying its very first Diver in anger.
Working with her pedals and sticks, Murati stood the Cheka up on its feet, put the rifle to her chest, and moved the machine step by heavy step toward the chute, and carefully dropped down into the tube. The hatch closed over her, and water started to fill the empty space in the tube. Soon she would swim right out of the underside of the ship, which would then rebalance.
Gunther had long since disappeared from her camera feed, but he soon resurfaced in a console feed, connecting to one of her screens. Murati took his call with great satisfaction.
“It does feel lighter and more responsive than a Strelok.” She said.
Even on the ground, the ease with which it moved was evident.
Until she got it in the water, she wouldn’t be able to tell by how much, but she had a hunch this machine was a league above the Strelok. Maybe it heralded an entire new generation of design.
“I told you so. Just ease into it, and don’t push yourself too hard.” Gunther replied.
He gave her a thumbs up and a salute. She switched from his console feed, back to cameras.
“Captain says you’re free to deploy Murati! We’re loading up the combat data for you.”
Semyonova reappeared along with a status bar for a download in progress.
“We’ll be sending a laser relay drone to follow you. You can laser to it, and it will laser back to us. It will effectively double the range of laser communications between you and the ship.”
“So that’s part of our new kit? I’ll keep it in mind.”
Below Murati, the chute opened up to the ocean.
“Good luck and good hunting!”
Semyonova saluted her.
Once again, Murati pushed herself across the metal threshold between ship and sea.
“Murati Nakara, ISU-100 Cheka, deploying!”
Above her, she watched the hatch close as her suit descended into the open water.
That dark-blue void that encompassed their entire world.
Water was all around her. Visibility was nil. There was no landscape around her.
There was only the Brigand, her metal frame and the incoming signals.
According to the diagram, the Leviathan was coming in from above, diving at a rapid angle.
Righting the Cheka as she dropped from the ship, she engaged main thrust.
In the span of a few seconds the suit went from 0 to 50 knots and climbing.
Bewildered by the speed, Murati overshot the deck of the Brigand as she rose.
Seeing the ship pass beneath her was amazing.
No number of diagrams and schematics could measure up to seeing a colossal ship cutting through the water with her own eyes. From above the Brigand did not look like the eccentric, boxy ship with the triangular conning tower and fins and its angled deck profile. It was a beast, roaring through the currents, protecting hundreds of people who now called it their home.
Bereft of the ship’s protection, floating freely in the ocean, Murati set her sights higher.
Her cameras analyzed the emptiness above using several different predictive models.
She got her rifle ready, and prepared to shoot higher, when she received a quick alert.
From below, the Brigand fired something out of a launcher built into the upper hull.
Murati’s rear and leg cameras followed the little object as it rose in a torrent of bubbles.
There was a request for laser communication. Murati accepted.
A picture of a professional-looking blond woman with a concerned expression appeared.
“Murati, can you hear me?”
Though the voice was immaculate, the image was lagging.
“I can hear you, but the video is practically a static image. It’s a good angle of you though!”
For the next few moments the image updated and froze on the Captain’s sighing face.
“We can’t overcome the effect of biomass. It’s fine. I’m glad we can do this much.”
“How’s the Leviathan doing?” Murati asked.
“At your depth, you’ll see it in about five minutes. Brace yourself, Murati. Don’t be a hero; we have Alexandra Geninov on standby with a torpedo ready. If you can draw it away from the ship, enough for the torpedo blast to not affect us, that’s all that you need to do. Don’t overdo it!”
Captain Korabiskaya was clearly worried about her.
It was an unpleasant situation. But there was no ‘being ready’ beneath the sea. Something could happen at any moment, whether it was enemy ships or Leviathans. Humans needed to sleep, to eat, to be distracted, to be disorganized. At some point, they would have had to fight under some imperfect circumstances. If this was their wake-up call, it was as gentle a one as they would get.
“I’ll be fine, Captain. I’m sure you’ve read my file. I’ve got experience.”
“I read your file. And that’s why I’m worried. Don’t be a hero. Korabiskaya, out.”
The Captain’s flickering, lagging image finally disappeared from the screen.
Murati clicked one of the buttons on her joystick to bring up weapon controls and the rifle camera. She then clicked another to extend the Cheka’s built-in hydrophone. All other audio feeds from cameras and monitor windows quieted so she could listen to the hydrophone attentively.
She caught the haunting cry of the Leviathan moments later.
A sound like a guttural, shrieking roar silenced everything else on the hydrophone. At first it sounded like the growl of a beast, low and gurgling, but as the cry tapered off it almost sounded human. It pierced through her body. She felt the roar right in the center of her gut. It was sickening.
“Endure it, Murati.” She said, catching herself shaking.
Her computers immediately pinpointed the source of the sound.
“It’s here. We can do this.”
Murati engaged full thrust and the Cheka soared into the dim blue above.
She wouldn’t see a diving Leviathan until it was dangerously close.
According to the computer visibility was fifty meters.
And the approaching object was bearing in at 60 knots.
“I’ll see it for a second.”
Murati grit her teeth. She stared through her cameras out to the water, helpless.
Suddenly, a yellow square on her screen appeared as the computer tagged an approaching object. While she still couldn’t see it, the computer flashed this warning when it was almost assured that the object matched all of the predictions of its behavior. Murati moved to center her camera and lifted her assault rifle to target the invisible enemy before it came within visual range.
Three rounds of supercavitating ammo flew off into nothingness.
That yellow square on the screen was followed by a rapidly reddening orange square.
Crying out, she pulled the controls to the side with all her strength, smashing the pedals.
Engaging every Vernier thruster she could, Murati threw the Cheka sideways.
A massive, serpentine creature swept past, its sharp maw missing her by mere centimeters.
The Cheka shook and tumbled in the wake of the beast as it descended.
Murati knew this was only the beginning. She made a second sudden thrust away.
The thin, spiked end of a long tail swung contemptuously at her and missed her entirely.
Water evaporated in the red-hot wake of its supercavitating attack.
This caused enough of a disturbance for Murati to briefly lose control again.
As the Cheka struggled to correct itself, Murati opened fire.
A dozen rounds of supercavitating ammo hurtled toward the monster in a wild arc.
The Leviathan continued to charge with all of its weight, ignoring the blasts blossoming in the waters around it. It charged toward the Brigand on a collision course.
Holding her breath with terror, Murati continued shooting.
According to the computer she was landing shot after shot on the enemy mass.
“Come on! I’m shooting you! Fight me!”
She shouted at the top of her lungs as if the monster could hear.
At the speed it was moving, it was upon the Brigand in seconds.
One swing of its tail and the entire journey would end.
“Leave them alone!”
Massive amounts of bubbles blew out from around the monster.
The Leviathan suddenly swerved over the flat plane atop the Brigand’s conning tower.
Twisting its long, armored body in the water, the beast started to climb surface-ward.
Engaging its bio-hydrojets, all of its bulk thrust back toward the Cheka.
Murati had made an impression on it.
She felt both terror and relief in equal measure. Her rifle must have struck it and alerted it to the danger the Cheka posed. Enough for it to avoid the much larger and more obvious Brigand. Had it not been deterred it could have easily crashed through the conning tower and crippled the ship entirely. She got lucky. She got so lucky that she felt the anxiety brimming under her skin.
Soaked in sweat, her bodysuit never feeling so tight against her skin as it was then.
Murati now had to survive being the Leviathan’s main concern.
Her eyes drew wide as the enraged beast neared her. Her hands were shaking.
The Barding-class were serpentine fish the size of a Cutter or a Frigate, known for their armor. Their heads were sleek, whale-like with massive maws full of teeth and six eyes set in bony ridges. They had four sets of biological hydrojets fed through intakes under the head and neck and could suck in through the mouth to pump more water. Because its armor was segmented, its entire body was flexible, leading to its common attack: it could swing its tail so fast it supercavitated.
It moved too fast, and visibility was too low; Murati could not tell how injured it was.
There was a fin missing from its body, and she thought she saw a gash on its head.
Karuniya was the Leviathan expert, not Murati; but from dating her on and off for a few years, she had heard enough idle lunchtime chatter and oceanography pillow talk to surmise a few things herself. For a Leviathan to venture into the lightless aphotic zone from the bright, food-rich waters of the photic zone near the surface, it meant that either there was prey it was chasing, or it had been driven off. On the dive, its armor would be damaged by the higher pressure of the aphotic zone, but for pieces of its body to be missing entirely meant that something above had attacked it.
Something bigger and stronger even than the monster she was now seeing.
Perhaps a mating battle? Perhaps territorial conflict between broods? It could be anything.
This terrifying conjecture did not really change what was in front of her.
But when faced with such insanity hurtling toward her at 60 knots, anyone’s brain would race to explain what was happening and put it in context. And holding on to an idea that this was a natural phenomenon helped her remain steady. This was an animal, acting like an animal.
Like any animal, it could die from violence.
At the speed it was moving, Murati had a scant few seconds to react whenever she saw it.
USL-96 roared, shaking the water around it and sucking more for its hydrojets.
Its sleek maw parted to reveal rows of saw-like teeth.
Murati thrust herself away from the beast’s second charge, aiming the assault rifle down at its head and releasing bursts of practiced gunfire. The 37mm shells impacted and exploded all over the armored hide taking bits and pieces off it. In pain, the beast roared and averted its advance.
Instead, it twisted over itself twice over in a loop meant to gather momentum.
From below, the tail swung with even greater speed.
All the spikes that had grown on the end of its tail launched toward Murati.
A hail of projectiles suddenly peppered the water around her.
Like the tail itself, the spikes sheared the water with a supercavitation effect.
Six or seven tracking boxes appeared for the briefest instant.
Murati had no time to dodge. She briefly let go of her assault rifle.
She engaged the diamond cutters on both of the Cheka’s arms and swung them.
Two spikes burst apart on impact with the cutters, scattering bony shrapnel into the water.
A third spike sliced the side of the Cheka’s leg, causing a brief alert on her console.
“Cosmetic damage.” She mumbled to herself in a rush.
Done spinning, the Leviathan threw itself directly up at her once more.
Murati grabbed hold of her assault rifle again, floating in the nearby water.
Holding it in one hand, she thrust aside the Leviathan’s bulk as it stormed past her.
“Not this time!”
In a mighty effort, she thrust the Cheka back toward the monster, fighting its current.
Her joysticks gave her stiff resistance, and the entire cockpit was shaking.
Groaning with effort, Murati forced the Cheka’s arm through the currents and bubbles.
For a brief moment, her diamond cutter entered the Leviathan’s armor.
As the monster rocketed past the Cheka, its flank sliced wide open.
A burst of red fluid spread into the ocean around her, tinging the water and thickening it.
There was no time to admire the wound.
Murati was blown away as the monster made a sudden turn, blasting water everywhere.
Her diamond cutter’s chain and blade went flying in pieces, shattered by the force.
She struggled to right herself, watching the beast flail away, increasingly erratic.
On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but overwhelming cries of agony.
Murati had finally inflicted a real injury.
Another alert appeared on her screens: red biomass warnings.
She ignored them. She knew exactly where the red had come from.
Diagnostics were okay on everything that mattered. All thrusters green.
The Leviathan swam up surface-ward and disappeared from Murati’s physical sights.
Her computer did its best to continue tracking it.
She then received an alert about an object below.
Briefly switching to the underside cameras, Murati saw a little drone creeping its way up.
From a beacon on the machine’s round hull, a laser shot up to the Cheka.
Murati accepted the connection, and the smug expression of a brown-haired young woman appeared on her screen. She was making a gesture with her index and middle finger spread in a sideways V-shape over one of her odd eyes. Because of the lag, she was frozen like this for a while.
“Yo! It’s Alex, resident torpedo wizard! I need more distance for a shot ‘Rati!”
It took Murati a moment to process that.
“Ratty? Anyway I’m not sure I can get you a lot of space here. Hold your fire for now.”
“Heroics are banned, miss!” Alex said. “Captain’s orders! Let me shoot it down!”
“Too late for that!”
Murati engaged full thrust, breaking the laser connection momentarily.
From above, the Leviathan dove straight down.
Murati swept horizontally away from the Leviathan, avoiding the toothy maw and the wake of the leviathan’s charge. Her gut reaction had been perfect. She had gotten familiar enough with the Cheka’s weight, and seen enough of the Leviathan’s wakes, to dodge with time to spare.
She was steady enough to spot the Leviathan twist much tighter than before.
Unlike its previous charges, it recovered exceedingly quickly, and its tighter turn radius allowed it to throw its maw back toward the Cheka in an instant. It was no longer just charging.
It was chasing.
Those teeth bore down on Murati’s rear thrusters far sooner than she had imagined.
Now her gut had been completely wrong. She was certain she would be struck.
“Come on! Give it everything!”
A notification appeared on one of her consoles.
In the heat of the moment, Murati glanced at it briefly as she did with all her other alerts.
Energy Recovery System: Fully Charged. Deployable power available.
On her joystick, a green light shone from an out-of-place, additional button.
Heedless of what it would do, Murati jabbed the button with her finger.
All of her diagnostics screamed; power output to the main engines rose sharply.
Murati thrust straight up.
There was such a burst of power from the engine she nearly lost control.
Beneath her, the Leviathan that was about to bifurcate her hurtled well below her.
Once more it made it a tight turn with its long body.
When it swung back toward Murati she had renewed confidence in the Cheka’s power.
The Leviathan’s maw snapped several meters over the Diver’s head.
In one fluid motion she avoided the charge and swung her remaining diamond cutter.
Red biomass burst from the Leviathan’s underbelly.
Suffering further injury, the Leviathan roared and thrashed, swinging its tail, blowing water through its jets haphazardly, snapping its jaws. Witnessing the monster throwing its body and stirring up the water around it, Murati could feel its anger palpably, vibrating through her suit.
One of her eyes darted to the diagnostics.
She had 80% ERS power remaining. After that it would have to recharge.
Which meant fighting the Leviathan as fiercely as she had all throughout, on less power.
Unable to reconnect to the laser drone for assistance and forced to make a snap decision, Murati threw herself back into the fray to force a close fight. Assault rifle in one hand, and her diamond cutter extended in the second, she peppered the Leviathan with bullets while closing in.
A series of titanic exchanges ensued.
The Leviathan was no longer charging. Twice injured by the Cheka, it had coiled itself in defense, and cornered as it was, began throwing its jaws and swinging its tail at the Cheka while floating in place. Empowered by the ERS, the Cheka was moving faster than Murati had ever seen a Diver move. It was already quick, much quicker than a Strelok, but with the additional energy, she was moving so fast her guts were shaking. She rolled out of the way of the jaws, strafed around the massive tail, closing meter by meter with each evasive maneuver she performed. Each time the Leviathan swung, she deftly outmaneuvered it, and the beast struggled to launch another blow.
Counting the meters as she danced closer, Murati’s eyes darted between cameras, diagnostics, overlays. She had become the machine. Those were her eyes, and she could work her eyes, and she could think, and she could move her “body” and it was simultaneous. The Leviathan’s jaws flexed less, its neck muscles tightened, its tail swung more limply.
Holding her breath with anticipation, Murati made it inside the monster’s range.
She lifted her diamond saw to strike the scar on its head.
One of her monitors switched to a camera with a purple overlay on the image.
Glowing veins on the Leviathan’s body were highlighted in this view.
She was distracted just long enough for the Leviathan to draw its head back.
Her enemy was giving her the most desperate form of its fury, fear and respect.
It’s discharging agarthicite!
Murati saw the Leviathan’s head take over the entire forward camera, opening its massive maw. Inside, tongues of indigo-colored bioelectricity played about the Leviathan’s flesh, jumping and sizzling and collecting with greater intensity as the Leviathan charged its legendary breath weapon. Its bio-jets seized, and its tail hung limp at its back. All of the body seemed to suddenly find support only in the head, eyes drawing back and glowing blank, jaw spreading ever further.
All of the Leviathan’s energy and whatever consciousness it had was focused on this.
In much the same way that all the energy she had spent had gone out in the ERS burst.
For a moment, Murati understood something about the monster she had only known intellectually. Bearing witness to the beast in such a close battle, all by herself, alone in her suit of armor in the middle of the vast ocean that would not, in a just world, have had to be her only home.
Murati realized that these monsters had taught her people so much about their world.
“Sorry; too many people are relying on me right now. I can’t take pity on you.”
Faced with the teeming mass of annihilating agarthic energy, Murati did not turn away.
From behind the Cheka’s hip armor, she withdrew a grenade and hurled it at the monster.
Blowing the last of the ERS battery, she threw herself back, firing her AK-96 into the maw.
With an explosive force that could have opened a hole in a Frigate’s armor, the grenade detonated inside the Leviathan’s maw and split its jaw open, blasted its eyes out of their sockets, and launched its brains out into the water through the gash in its head. While much of the armored shell survived, the soft flesh was mutilated by the pressure blast. All of the agarthic energy that it had been pulling from the minerals in its body discharged haphazardly. Throughout the creature’s body, hex-shaped holes were scored by the menacing, flickering wisps of indigo energy that discharged red biomass like geysers. Robbed of life, the corpse twitched with fading agarthic energy, and then it lay there, briefly floating, then slowly falling toward the ocean floor.
All of her fear washed off her, leaving her feeling an anxious reverence.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this. Thanks for everything you taught us.”
She felt compelled to say that, witnessing the horrifying result of her violence.
Her ERS battery was fully drained, and the Cheka switched out of its highest performance mode, and back to merely being a bit quicker than a Strelok. Murati sighed. Though she hated the sight of the monstrous corpse and the red biomass spreading from it, she allowed herself to float, to breathe. The machine was no longer her body. She was sweating, and she wanted to vomit.
Once more, the floating drone managed to catch up to her and connect her to the Brigand.
She saw a wide camera shot of the bridge crew clapping their hands and celebrating.
It then zoomed in and focused, side by side, on the bright and smiling face of Captain Korabiskaya and the slightly smirking Commissar Bashara, seated at the highest point in the bridge. Together, they offered Murati two pairs of clapping hands, the same as everyone else.
“I don’t want to reward your recklessness, but that was brilliant.” Said the Captain.
“I will add to your record that on short notice and low on resources, you managed to single-handedly stop a Barding-class Leviathan, Lieutenant.” The Commissar said. “Thank you for your cooperation, and I hope you’ll forgive our Captain for the disorganized nature of this operation.”
Captain Korabiskaya turned to the Commissar in shock, raising her hands defensively.
“Hey, what do you mean? It wasn’t my fault! Everything was a mess because of that bastard slave-driver Nagavanshi. I needed to follow the itinerary, it’s not like I could delay the launch–”
The Commissar’s cat ears twitched with anger.
She turned a look on the Captain that instantly shut her up.
“We’ll discuss that later. Return to the ship, Lieutenant, unless you like the water.”
Murati laughed at the two commanders. “Oh I hate it out here right now. I’m heading back. You know, it’s good to see the command staff are getting along so well in my absence!”
Both Commissar Bashara and Captain Korabiskaya turned evil looks at the screen.
Feeling quite happy-go-lucky, Murati simply shut off the video feed.
Wasting no more time in the increasingly reddening waters in the middle of the Thassalid plain, Murati navigated the Cheka back to the Brigand, swam beneath it and up into an open chute. Beneath her the hatch closed, the water drained, and the pressure was adjusted. Then the top hatch reopened, and Murati used handholds on the side of the chute and climbed up into the hangar.
As soon as the head cleared the top of the deployment chute she saw the crowd gathered around her. The crowd gave her space as the Cheka took its first steps into the hangar. She bowed the suit’s body and opened the hatch, since it seemed like everyone wanted to greet her. When she stepped off the cockpit chair and out into the light of the hangar, everyone clapped.
From among the mechanics and engineers, a familiar dark-haired young woman leaped up onto the Cheka’s knee and seized Murati by the TBT half-jacket, baring teeth at her.
“I turn my back for thirty minutes, and you do this!”
Karuniya’s eyes moistened, but rather than cry, she pulled Murati into an abrupt kiss.
People started to cheer. A few of the younger comrades turned away with embarrassment.
“Welcome back, hero.”
Her relief that Murati had returned safe seemed to overcome her anger.
“I’ll leave the heroics to someone else for the next few days. Sound like a plan?”
Murati scratched the back of her head and acted cute.
Karuniya let go of her jacket and dusted it off. “That’s a deal then.”