Sword in one hand, rifle in the other, matching her fated opponent.
For a moment they simply stared each other down.
Even the shooting of the Irmingard’s main guns did not stir the two veterans.
There was chatter on an open frequency. A coy, bloodthirsty voice.
“I know it’s you, Red Baron! The two of us have a bloody ball to attend!”
Ever since Khadija spotted that overgrown Jagd pulling that sommersault trick with its sword, she just knew. She did not even need the machine to be painted red to tell. Nobody in the entire world had the gall to try those pretentious underwater ballet moves except for that bitch. Rationality flew out the window for Khadija.
On simple instinct, on reading the current, she knew.
Not once did she question her own sanity or her urges and instincts.
When she had got tired of talking, she threw herself at that machine with a vengeance.
Soon as Shalikova left her side, Khadija charged the Red Baron, sword drawn.
Reacting to her attack, the Red Baron suddenly climbed.
“Predictable! How much younger are you than me?”
Khadija rose immediately to meet her, shooting diagonally up and intersecting her leap.
Swords clashing, the two veterans became locked in struggle
Vibrating blade met furious saw, kicking up short-lived sparks and bubbles of vapor as they ground together. Sword arms locked chest to chest for seconds, struggling to push each other back, before the two broke off. Khadija opened fire from her AK-96 as she descended, and the Red Baron responded with her Sturmgewehr assault rifle as she rose.
Khadija swung a left; the Red Baron threw herself right.
A burst of bullets flew past Khadija’s shoulder, grazing her anchor pod.
Several bullets detonated just off of the Baron’s hip, almost striking the water intake.
Through open water they circled like spiraling, orbiting stars, dozens of meters apart but perfectly equidistant, mirroring moments second to second. Between them grew a raging fusillade, bursts of gunfire that buzzed by within millimeters of each machine and detonated above, behind, around them in every direction, until it was impossible to tell through the fog of their war where each machine stood amid the vapor and explosions. Hundreds of rounds, the drumbeat of the dance. Spent magazines sank out of view, an unseemly clock putting a limit on their night of fire.
Two sharp clicking noises, two mag ejections, and the music stopped.
Though she almost wanted to throw out her rifle Khadija had the presence to stow it.
Up and above, the Red Baron did simply discard hers. It made Khadija incensed to see.
“Not just an Imperial but a show-off bitch besides. I’m going to make you pay.”
She took her sword in both hands and briefly scanned the diagnostics screen.
Some of the saw teeth had been ground off, but the chain was alloyed with depleted agarthicite and strong enough to cut. Her arm verniers still had enough fuel and the motor on the diamond sword was running strong.
Khadija took a deep, resentful breath.
Back when they last fought, swords, whether the Imperial vibroblade or the Union diamond sword, were a luxury afforded only to them. Something so standard now, in 959 only six diamond swords existed, and only the Red Baron had a vibroblade. Real weapons were given to the people who’d survived tearing each other apart with handheld bombs, industrial drills, undersea welding equipment, rock cutter heads attached to ship propellers, rocket-poles with makeshift grenades at the end, and all sorts of other unreliable, improvised weapons hastily given to the early Divers.
Launching out of sandbanks and gorges and caves to do any sort of damage to an imperial ship in Labor suits with bolted-on armor made out of bulkheads. While early Volkers made out of bathysphere materials tried desperately to guard the ships and patrol the sites of guerilla activity, wielding gas guns extracted from their mounts or scaled-up jet harpoons and even handheld shields and piston spears. Death was nearly instant for whoever got hit first.
Every attack was deadly.
Every exchange was to the death. Weapons met, and only one fighter survived.
That was the war she and the Baron had once fought. That was the war they survived.
The Union’s desperate ingenuity met the Imperial struggle to industrialize a response.
It was the war that crashed these two and their machines together again and again.
“I got you once back then. But it isn’t enough.” Khadija said. “You need to hurt more.”
Taunting let off steam when Khadija thought she might explode inside.
Suddenly, her heart quickened, when she finally heard a response back to her taunts.
“What will be enough?”
That deep and powerful voice which sounded so desperate and hurt.
At first Khadija could not even believe it.
Because this was the first palpable, human interaction she had with her mortal enemy.
Before, the Red Baron had been nothing but a machine that barred her way, a machine that had killed her comrades. An obstacle that had impeded her own revolutionary legend again and again. A fated foe that she thought had disappeared alongside Imperial control of Ferris. Now that same demon was speaking to her in that pathetic voice?
Her mind struggled to come up with a response, as if she had been spoken to in an incomprehensible language; but it was just Imbrian. It was all the same for all of them. Her heart quivered, her soaring spirit felt almost deflated.
Khadija’s voice sounded audibly weary even to herself.
“Feeling remorseful? Then just drop dead!”
She engaged all thrust that she could muster to throw herself forward.
The Red Baron reacted to the initial forward thrust by lifting her sword in defense.
She was waiting, trying to react to Khadija.
There were no allies, no supporting fire, no ranged weapons available to the Baron. Nothing but knives. Just like old times, when they carried ordnance they could count with their fingers and were reduced to banging each other with whatever crude melee weapons they had. The less options a pilot had available, the less sophisticated their tactics became. Khadija had experience with this. But it was not the revolution, and their equipment for this bout was very different. Pound for pound, purely in the quality of equipment, a diamond sword was not going to survive smashing against a vibroblade for as long as its counterpart. A duel would not favor Khadija in these waters.
To think she’d let things get this desperate. She had been so foolish to fight like this.
Her intention was not to duel, however. For the first time in a long time she keenly felt all her 42 years.
She felt like a long-suffering veteran; she knew her duty, she knew her mission.
She knew her options.
Murati still had her bomb. If she could tie up this woman long enough, she triumphed.
When the two threw themselves at each other once more, their motives differed.
As soon as their swords met anew, Khadija armed the bomb on her back with a short timer.
“I’ll take this grudge to hell. Until I see you eat the fruit of Zaqqum personally.”
“Soyuz is down! Repeat, Soyuz is down!”
“God damn it.”
As far as the eye could see there were groups of ships exchanging gunfire, a wicked line of grey and black ships on one side and hundreds of different color liveries standing their ground on the other. Water bubbles and vapor clouds, hundreds more than even the amount of ships, multiplying in the no-man’s-land between the opposing fleets. Partially in the frame of these massive forces was a massive station from which torpedoes and flak periodically flew out.
All of this saturating ordnance, the distant star-like flashes of explosives, the spreading cloud of bubbles and debris, roaring shockwaves that boomed in the thousands every minute. This violence transpired over a dismal, rocky sandbank over which Cascabel station had stood sentinel. Over this gorge the two sides were deadlocked.
It was the “winter” of A.D. 959, and the now-called “Union” fought desperately for its existence.
In the eyes of the little girl watching on the Bridge of that ship–
This was the apocalypse. It was the end of all things. It could be nothing else.
She was nine years old, and had some understanding of the world, but she had never seen the water stir so violently. She had never explosions and felt the rattling of the metal around her, the metal protecting her from the ravages of the endless Ocean outside. She did not understand that death was a part of what she was seeing; but this was also the first time she witnessed death. All of the destruction she saw hinted at death to her, in a way she did not grasp.
And yet, she never cried. Not once. It was as if she was mesmerized.
“Captain, should this child really be here?”
“After what happened just now, Goswani, it doesn’t matter where she is.”
Murati Nakara could not hear them at that point. She was not acknowledging other people.
She was transfixed on the massive screen in front of her.
Her parents had been killed on that screen and she did not even really know it.
Behind her, Captain Yervik Deshnov of the Union’s remaining dreadnought, the Ferrisean, grit his teeth, and pulled down his peaked cap. He pounded his fist on his seat in frustration. An Imperial Diver had gotten to the Soyuz and detonated an explosive on it. It was the same kind of trick they’d been pulling on the Empire for months, but the Empire had hardly used their own nascent Divers against the Union. There was an air of frustration, shock, grief, and sudden hopelessness aboard. They had pushed the Empire all the way to Cascabel. Would they collapse here?
“We can’t fall apart from just one attack, Captain! I’ll avenge them!”
A determined voice came through on the comms. A face appeared on the screen.
A Shimii, blond-haired, with piercing green eyes, and a fiery expression.
“UND-001-A Khadija al-Shajara, deploying!”
Like a shooting star, the armed labor suit flew out from under their vessel.
On the main screen, the computers all honed on this unit for a brief moment.
From the teetering wreckage of the Soyuz, an opposing force sailed out to meet her.
A rotund suit, all in red, wielding what looked like a sword alongside its rifle.
The much-more human shaped and green Union suit sped to a collision with this red suit.
Twin comets met in the waters with Cascabel looming behind, a sorrowful steel giant.
Clashing in instants, moving faster than anyone had ever seen, shooting, parrying.
Dashing at one another, breaking apart, their vicious duel spiraling amid the rest of the chaos.
“Why are we all doing nothing! Helmsman, advance! Target all fire on the enemy center!”
Deshnov shouted himself hoarse, and the Ferrisean was shaken out of its stillness.
Meanwhile Murati watched the Divers attentively.
Even when the main screen shifted the duel to a picture in picture and expanded its focus again back to the broader fleet action, she was taken in by the little picture in the corner, staring at it intently. Her mind was fully blank save for the unreal fighting in that tiny square. They were so evenly matched, despite the clear viciousness of their violence, that it seemed more like a sport or a sparring match than an actual battle. This was also death in a way Murati didn’t see.
And then, the red suit gained the upper hand, or so it seemed–
Trying to flip over its opponent to attack it from behind, upside down–
Suddenly the opponent, the green suit, threw its arm in the way.
It could not be sliced through. She caught the sword in her gauntlet and wrist-blade.
Her rifle flashed at her enemy, punishing the red suit with many serious blows.
Battered, the red suit retreated with all its might.
And missing a functioning arm, the green suit withdrew as well.
In an instant, they had drawn blood and their battle was closed.
“Captain, an enemy Cruiser is moving out of position!”
Deshnov drew his eyes wide in the Captain’s chair.
“What is it doing?”
“It may be trying to recover the red suit!”
“Focus all fire on the gap it left! It’s open season on their escorts!”
Even as the picture in picture camera was left desolate, with both combatants retreating.
That seemingly interminable duel remained buried in Murati’s little brain.
She continued to stare at that corner, until the last gun sounded.
“I see you’re hellbent on giving me a heart attack lately.”
Yervik Deshnov found the girl standing at the entrance to the port of Ferris’ Sevastopol Station, watched over by a port attendant. Her dark skin and messy dark hair were unmistakable, as were her fiery auburn eyes. What was unusual was the military cadet jacket and pants. Deshnov was not exactly chasing after the girl every single day, but he had no idea where she would have gotten that uniform under his nose. Unlike the usual trouble she got into, this was serious.
Was she trying to run away to Solstice? He’d play dumb for now and just ask her.
Arguing with Murati over assumptions would always bite him in the ass. She was too smart.
In response to his consternation, Murati crossed her arms and put on the most serious face she could muster. A girl of barely fourteen, she was tall and slight and tomboyish. Despite her best attempts her expression still read to Deshnov as distinctly bratty. A bratty teen rebelling at random. And he always knew; he was always informed first whenever she tried to do anything strange. He always came and made sure she was unharmed.
It was the least he could do for the parents she lost.
“I came all the way out here, on short notice, so what is all this about?”
“You only ever visit to stop me doing what I want with my life.” She cried out.
“That’s cruel. I gladly said yes to all those medications you wanted to get on.”
“Hmph! Like you had a choice in that! The Union constitution–”
Deshnov sighed. She always had an answer for everything.
“Doesn’t apply, Murati! All your affairs are under my strict guardianship per your parent’s last will. You legitimately do not have all those rights you’re rattling off all the time until you leave my guardianship, because you’re not an ordinary war orphan. Listen. I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. But I’m here now. I just want to talk.”
Murati grit her teeth. “I didn’t think you’d get here so quickly.”
“Okay, so this is not a funny stunt, and you did intend to run away to Solstice? For what?”
“I’m joining the military academy, uncle Deshnov! I’m joining and you can’t stop me!”
“Of course. I knew it’d come to this someday. You are his kid after all.”
He ran a hand over his wizened face, sighing deeply.
“Murati, all I want is for you to lead a healthy, happy, peaceful life, you know that?”
It was tough for Murati to say anything to that. She simply averted her gaze.
“I’d really like nothing better than for you to go to school for something good and kind.”
“I’d like nothing better than for you to stop pretending to parent me.”
Deshnov smiled and tried to play it off like that didn’t hurt as monumentally as it did.
He felt it rush through his skin like electricity. But he’d been preparing for this moment.
“I’m sorry for the trouble and the time spent, and I hope you’ll forgive us the awkward scene on here.” He said to the woman in the port attendant uniform, shifting uncomfortably to one side and watching their drama unfolding. “Per the terms of guardianship, please revoke this young lady’s boarding pass and–”
“My parents fought and died for this country!” Murati said. “I have a right to–”
“Do the same? Do you hear yourself? Do you just want to die then?” Deshnov snapped.
“No! Of course not! Ugh! You never understand!” Murati shouted back.
“Then what is it? I would let you go if you could tell me a single constructive thing you plan to do with your military academy degree and with some kind of position in the Navy. What do you think people do in the Navy, huh young lady? Have you given it any thought at all? Do you have anything in your head except empty platitudes of civil duty? Or worse, maybe even petty revenge? Do you want to kill people, or do you want to die?”
Murati balled up her fists and looked positively livid.
“How cynical! For a Rear Admiral to be saying this! If your soldiers could hear you!”
“I am cynical because I’m experienced! Because I’ve seen what happens to people like you: young and ambitious but with your heads full of duty and martyrdom! Because hundreds of thousands of people died to create a safe place where someone like you doesn’t have to board a metal coffin to survive! You think your parents want this for you?”
In his eyes, this was nothing short of a tragedy. To see Murati in this awful uniform.
What did she want with this?
“You don’t know anything.” Murati said, her eyes downcast.
“Then tell me.”
“You think I’m just a stupid little girl who can’t do anything–”
“Murati that’s the last thing I think–”
“I’m going to end this war! I’m going to make all the Ocean safe for us.”
Deshnov blinked. He stood there, speechless, for a moment.
When he looked at that brooding girl, he really thought all she wanted was to kill.
To kill the Imperials who took her parents. He’d seen it, again and again.
“You’re going to end what war?” Deshnov said. “Our war with the Empire? You?”
Murati raised her eyes from the ground.
At that moment, Deshnov was taken aback by what he saw and felt from her.
That tear-stained grimace that should have seemed small and bratty and petty and pitiful– but instead her gaze was cutting, powerful, as if there was truly something behind it. Something deep and massive; her gaze was filled with presence beyond its years. A determination far surpassing his own. A real, inspired sense of righteousness.
Those auburn eyes had a red glimmer, like a raging fire burning deep inside her.
“Uncle Deshnov, let me go. I will– I’ll become the best soldier you’ll ever see. I’ll become the strongest. Nobody will get hurt anymore. Nobody will die anymore. Not me; not anyone. Someday, the Empire might come back. I’ll drive them out of Ferris just like you did. And I’ll chase them all the way to the Palatinate. I’ll fight their soldiers and their knights and inquisitors, I’ll fight the Emperor! I’ll free us all and then nobody will need to fight a war again.”
Yervik Deshnov felt a deep shame at those words. He could hardly keep from crying.
Those words coming out of this teenage girl– that should have been him, God damn it.
That’s what he and all the losers who called themselves the admiralty of this nation should have done! That was what they were promising to these kids. That it was ended, that they could live their lives now. How could he reiterate what he told Murati before, with a straight face? She knew none of this was over. That none of it had been finished. She was too smart. She had lost too much. So she knew better than anybody that the utopian paradise of the Union was still paper thin as long as the waters outside Ferris still teemed with the sharks of the Imbrian Empire.
Deshnov’s worst nightmare had been that these kids would have to finish his war.
That Murati would have to finish his war.
He wanted to yell at her to go back home and study math and the arts and trades.
But his voice would not rise for such sophistry. It couldn’t. Not anymore.
Especially because he was always running around and never even saw her grow.
“Don’t call me Uncle anymore.” He said. “I’ll–”
At that moment, the port attendant received a call on her earpiece. Her eyes drew wide.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Deshnov, but I’ve orders to let her through.” She said.
“Excuse me?” He felt suddenly defensive. He still had the right of guardianship–
“Murati’s guardianship has been revoked. She’s been declared an independent orphan– a legal adult.”
Even Murati looked taken aback by this. It must not have been something she did.
“Someone will be coming to speak with you. I have to take her– the ship is leaving.”
Deshnov watched, in helpless confusion, as the port attendant turned Murati around and gave her what she wanted and had arranged for. Passage aboard the ship bound for Solstice, where she would enroll in the military Academy and live much of the next decade of her life, learning the sciences and arts of battle and preparing for war. She looked back at him one last time, but he knew not what kind of look Murati gave him and never would.
Instead, he had turned around to face the other end of the port corridor, where two figures arrived.
Dressed in the dark olive shirt and dark brown pants of the Navy, and the black coat and peaked, serpent-adorned cap of the Ashura, the internal security troops answering exclusively to the outbound Premier herself.
Deshnov grit his teeth.
Who else could it have been to greet him on this evil day? No one else but Commissar-Commandant Bhavani Jayasankar; and her lackey Parvati Nagavanshi, returned from her ship duties just in time to join up.
Those two always somehow found their way to each other.
“I’d be truly blessed to know what the hell internal security wants with one girl.” He said.
Jayasankar put on a conniving smile and crossed her arms.
“Well, children are our future. What’s that saying, Nagavanshi?”
“A thousand generations live in them.” Nagavanshi replied with a deadpan tone of voice.
“Don’t fuck with me. Who gave you the authority to overturn my guardianship?” He said.
Nagavanshi withdrew some papers from her coat and began to explain. “Citing Murati Nakara’s room records, you’ve visited her about 60 times in the past five years? While it is a double digit number, it’s not a lot, considering the average parent in the Union visited their children at their school boards an average of about 190 days every single year. So it seems to me, and forgive me if I’m wrong, that she was not a high priority in your life.”
“How dare you? It was the Navy itself that kept me from her! You don’t think–”
He went on a tirade that the two of them clearly weren’t interested in.
Shouting was all Deshnov could do to keep from striking Nagavanshi.
That would’ve been really bad.
“At any rate!”
Jayasankar shouted over Deshnov and produced a series of official documents from her own coat.
Guardianship transfer, from Yervik Deshnov to Daksha Kansal. Signed by Daksha Kansal.
Then in the next document, simply dissolved by Kansal, making Murati a “legal adult” citizen.
That meant Murati had agency in administrative decisions regarding her person, though she was still a child. She could sign for her own medications, join the academy without anyone’s consent– but still couldn’t drink or drive.
Deshnov could hardly believe it. “The Premier? Daksha? Why would she–?”
“You weren’t the only one who owed the Nakara family something.” Jayasankar cut in.
“Now everything’s squared away. We’re all released from this past.” Nagavanshi added.
Those words sparked a sudden paranoia in Deshnov’s brain. A weary, angry fear.
But there was nothing he could say. He had no power in the face of these two.
“Nobody owes anyone, anything, anymore, Deshnov. We can all look toward the future.”
Jayasankar smiled that devilish smile of her and Deshnov felt a helpless anger.
All of them were playing politics still, even around Murati and her dead parent’s names. Was this truly what they all died fighting for? So Jayasankar and Nagavanshi could manipulate their daughter’s life? He looked over his shoulder at the departing vessel. Murati was nowhere to be seen, of course. He had missed his chance. He should have just said he was proud of her answer to him. Instead, he may have just left her with the idea he was abandoning her.
Could he even rectify that? Could he explain or take back what he said?
He turned back to the women in front of him with the evilest look he could give them.
“Neither of you have any respect for the dead. Neither of you should be saying that family’s name in any context, you vultures don’t deserve it. We don’t owe them anymore? Maybe you people don’t. But they are a part of the soul of this country. Whatever it is you think you are scheming, or whatever advantage you’re trying to get, I will not be quiet while you do so.” Deshnov said in a low voice. “Were it not for our positions, Bhavani, I’d sock the both of you.”
Jayasankar shrugged her shoulders with one winking eye, smiling.
“Oh? Such big words! But you can’t attack me, right Yervik? You can’t lift a finger to me no matter what. Well, if you went on a rampage right now, you’d certainly get Nagavanshi at least; I’d be more of a fight, however.”
Nagavanshi scoffed. “Hey. Don’t push it. I’m perfectly able to defend myself.”
They were joking among themselves. Those two went back a few years.
Even with the long gap in their ages they still understood each other a little too well.
Neither of them was taking him seriously still. Not that he was worth taking seriously.
He was being quite childish himself. But he couldn’t help but be bitter toward them.
“You respect the invisible shield that is political power.” Jayasankar grinned to herself.
“I know that you certainly came out of their tragedy a little better than everyone else.”
Deshnov did not want to respond too much to the provocations of this particular group.
Among the revolutionaries, there had been a few different cliques.
He had always wanted to believe in Commander Ahwalia and his promise of a better future.
This earned him the scorn of rigid materialists like Jayasankar and Nagavanshi.
Upon hearing his remarks, Jayasankar’s face turned cold. She turned a chilling glare on him.
“We entombed ourselves in steel and poured our blood into making this country, the same as you. Yet you hate us for not deceiving kids like her with sappy dreams. Daksha sent me here because you and I go back to five years ago, and she wanted you to understand that you have to let the Nakara family go. They do not influence the Union anymore, and in the coming stages, whatever they wished to do no longer matters. Yervik, you can stay stuck in the past, or you can keep fighting for our future. As a respected military man, there will come a time soon where you’ll influence the future of kids like her. I hope you recognize what it is appropriate to do when that time comes.”
Nagavanshi added. “Kansal will depart soon. There will be a wave of change. Don’t cross us, Yervik.”
Jayasankar and Nagavanshi turned their heels and departed, leaving Yervik behind, helpless.
They could say such things to him precisely because they knew he would do nothing. He could not.
He almost wanted to spit with anger. Those two were always plotting something.
As much as he detested them, however, they were as much the heart and soul of the Union as the Nakaras.
That much he could not deny, deep in his bitter heart, even if he hated their politics.
But Jayasankar was right in one sense. He couldn’t give up now. He couldn’t just run away.
While he could not stand to look at these snakes and the future in their minds, he could pin his hopes on the future he saw in Murati’s eyes instead. Whether they were led by an idealist like Ahwalia or a militarist like Jayasankar, their children owned the future. Not any of the old soldiers. It didn’t matter to these kids how much they schemed.
All of this shame, all of this bitterness; he would endure it for the future Murati might build.
When the Irmingard’s main guns fired, Murati’s time started moving once again.
She lowered her mecha’s shooting arm, the magazine depleted.
Her breathing quickened. She felt like she was waking from a nightmare.
“I was useless. I was completely useless.” She gasped. She checked her monitors.
Shalikova was safe, the flak had quieted to avoid friendly fire.
Khadija was staring down the enemy unit that had made a fool of Murati.
For the moment, the battle had stood completely still.
As if the monumental shocks of those 203 mm guns had stunned them all to reverence.
And yet, it was those guns that awakened Murati from a shameful, desperate stupor.
In her cockpit, Murati struggled with the controls for the Cheka. She was trying not to fall too deep into her own despair. She still had a mission to do, and she told herself that she situation remained fundamentally unchanged– that had to be a bluffing shot, and Murati still had two bombs available to take down the flagship.
But the appearance of that unknown suit complicated things.
“Arm joint failing, some electric fluctuations, messiah defend.”
That cut through the shoulder must have damaged some of the ancillary electronics. While there was still thrust, power to secondary systems was inconsistent. Murati kept a panicked eye on the pressure and atmosphere readings. She was alive, so she was not breached, but if there was damage to atmosphere control, or a microscopic leak from the tanks, it could make her sick. Everything was under control at the moment, but she was nearly helpless.
“Murati! Please respond!”
Due to the energy circulation issues her radio was cutting in and out intermittently.
At that moment, however, she could still hear the desperate voice of Sonya Shalikova.
Sighing with a deep shame in herself, trying to suppress the urge to pity herself, she replied.
“Combat ineffective. Repeat, combat ineffective.”
“Murati? Did you say, ‘combat ineffective’? Who cares! Are you hurt?”
Shalikova’s voice came in and out every other syllable it seemed.
Nonetheless, the emotional, worried tone of her voice came through for Murati.
“Unhurt. Repeat, I’m unhurt. Just shaken up. Repeat, shaken up.”
In order to be understood with the state of her electronics and power, Murati had to be fairly monosyllabic. She could not say what she was really feeling, nor even the version of it she really wanted Shalikova to hear. “I was useless, but you were splendid,” or “I’m sorry for failing you, but you did great out there.” Maybe “I’m proud of you,” might have gone through. But it wasn’t the time to praise Shalikova and hear her characteristic groaning back. They were still in danger. They still had a mission to do. And they needed to know the status of the Brigand as well.
“Wait. Bombs, how many do we–”
Murati checked the inventory on the Cheka quickly. She found that the serial port that should have been connected to her bomb had been reporting nothing connected to it. Her magnetic strip was showing a significant loss of weight as well. Had that mecha managed to unseat her equipment while they were maneuvering? It must have been when she slashed across her shoulder– Murati grit her teeth. She must have kicked them off or something.
To think she had been so careless, with an opponent like that!
Shalikova’s voice cut in. Murati was barely able to make out one word.
She slammed her fist on the switchbox for the communicator.
“What can I even do? I’m just a passenger at this point.”
On a corner of her central screen, a little flashing waveform appeared.
Incoming laser connection.
Murati put it through immediately.
She found herself face to face with the narrowed, unfriendly glare of Alex Geninov.
For only an instant. Nearly immediately, Alex passed her off to Semyonova.
In this situation, that familiar round-faced, bubbly blond was such a relief to see.
Even with a laser connection, the video was lagging. The Cheka was in bad shape.
“Khadija engaging enemy! Lost bomb undetonated! Repeat–”
She had to communicate sparsely, as if the connection would be cutting in and out.
On the screen she saw Semyonova turn to relay to the Captain–
Then the video connection cut out.
Murati had feared that the flak had restarted and knocked out the drone the Brigand had sent to connect them, but she noticed her communicator had powered of suddenly. She switched the diagnostic touchscreen to a troubleshooting mode and tried to restart the communicator through it. She tried routing power from a different cell– instead the camera feeds began to darken, not liking having their already fragile power tampered with.
Frustrated, Murati nearly hit the diagnostic screen again.
Briefly she saw her frustrated, sweating face reflected on one of her dead screens.
“So much for you, fearless leader.” She mumbled.
She dipped her head, her bangs falling over her eyes.
There was a flash as her cameras returned to life.
When Murati looked up to appraise the situation, she was transfixed by what she saw.
In the middle of the ocean between all of the warring ships, framed by clouds of vapor and steel debris, two machines soared like a pair of comets, their dance punctuated by the trials of explosive rounds and the bubbles that blossomed from their detonations. Weaving chaotic patterns of vapor and lead, the combatants captivated all of Murati’s senses as she watched them, following the dim flashes of rifle shells, the zigzagging lines of bubbles and disturbed water left in the wakes of their jets, the thin clouds of exhaust from the solid fuel boosters mixing with the water vapor.
There was a shuddering in her chest, her heart carried on a current of twenty years.
Murati recognized the sight as one she saw in 959 A.D.
On a ship she had snuck into, amid the gravest emergency the nascent Union had yet seen.
Where she watched ships explode, and Divers sink, and a station die.
In front of her, the flashing stopped, the combatants bereft of ammunition.
Murati felt a warmth behind her eyes and saw colors emerging in the water.
That enemy Diver, colored yellow and green, full of fear, regret, disgust–
That plain grey Strelok, red and black with rage, bloodlust, a resignation to death–
Her eyes drew wide with the sudden realization.
“No! Khadija– the bomb–”
Instinctually she understood what would transpire if she did not act–
–her thoughts raced, thinking of something, anything she could do, to prevent the tragedy–
Shalikova’s Strelok appeared right in front of her, taking up her cameras.
At her side was a second, bare Strelok with no damage to it. Valya Lebedova’s unit.
“Murati, she sent me here to take you back, give your bomb to Lebedova–”
Hit with a spark of inspiration, Murati made a sudden move for Lebedova’s unit.
Shifting her hands to the verboten controls flashing on her joysticks.
All of the diagnostic and power warnings briefly made way for the user interface of the Energy Recovery System. Power poured from the extra reserved cells on the Cheka and for a moment, thrust improved dramatically, all systems reconnected, and the battered suit moved like it should. Shalikova and Lebedova were both taken aback.
Throwing herself forward to them, Murati grabbed hold of Lebedova’s grenade.
Seizing it from her magnetic strip, before rushing away into the open water.
“Murati! What are you doing? You’ve got damage!”
Shalikova’s shouting was picked up loud and clear now that comms had returned.
Murati ignored the radio chatter and slammed the pedals down as far as they would.
As soon as she got up to speed, warnings began appearing in their dozens once again.
Oxygen system, atmosphere controls, everything stressed under the speed building up so suddenly after taking so much damage to the innards. Her damaged arm refused to budge under this degree of acceleration, so Murati had to use the other arm for her sudden plot. She attached Lebedova’s grenade to her own magnetic strip, unlocked the strip, and forcibly pulled the entire length free from the Cheka’s back using the non-magnetic handles on the ends.
She was then able to hold it like a magnetic pole on her hand with the grenade on one end.
Heedless of the energy percentages ticking down and down–
And the number of things that were broken or breaking in the suit–
In her mind, Murati had only one destination: home.
Her plan had gone awry, but as a leader, she would bring everyone back home, even if it killed her.
“Khadija! Stop! Step back!”
Dead ahead, the enemy suit and Khadija’s charged each other and became locked in a brief clash with their respective melee weapons. Chainsaw teeth and vibroblade ground each other down. They traded several vicious blows and parries before each one in turn noticed Murati hurtling toward them. Her presence ended the deadlocked duel.
That enemy suit responded first and darted back carefully from Khadija.
Khadija pulled back only slightly as her ally approached at high speeds.
Murati swerved toward the enemy suit and it responded by thrusting up and away from her.
Then Murati arced toward Khadija instead, circling around behind her.
“Murati! What are you–?”
Soaring past Khadija’s back, Murati snatched the bomb she had given her using the magnetic pole.
At the speed she was going, the serial cable simply snapped off.
“Everyone retreat! Right now! Back to the Brigand!”
Accelerating once more, Murati barked her orders into the communicator.
Using the remaining shoulder camera she checked the status of the bomb.
She noticed it had been armed. She felt a chill run down her spine, briefly, unable to dwell on the confirmation of her horrifying suspicions. Was Khadija really willing to die to take out this one enemy unit? They would have to discuss this later. Murati held out the contraption in her hands and thrust toward the Irmingard class once again.
With an armed bomb on the strip she could not tarry for very long.
Within seconds, she was close enough to put the plan into action.
Assault rifles, gas guns and coilguns all used a combination of special ammunition and shooting mechanisms that allowed them to shoot underwater and launch supercavitating shells. Their ammunition moved through an air bubble, defeating the resistance of the water and altering their kinetic profile. Melee combat relied on the mechanical power of a Diver’s arms, as well as boosters on the weapon and the arm itself to improve thrust. Even so, raw kinetic impacts were not effective. Union swords used saw blades to inflict damage; the Empire used sophisticated vibrating blades made of exotic materials. Any simple cutting edge would have been much less effective underwater.
Similarly to swinging a plain sword, objects thrown by a Diver could not be expected to be effective.
They would not travel very far without assistance.
Grenades had their own built-in rocket to compensate for water resistance instead.
To propel the Grenade’s 50 mm warhead, it needed thrust akin to a Diver’s vernier booster.
That was enough thrust to propel the grenade quite far, quite fast.
And more than enough to take the strip and the bomb attached along for the ride.
“Here goes something!”
Holding out the strip in front of her, Murati armed the grenade at the back of it.
When she let go an instant later, the grenade’s thruster kicked in and launched the pole.
This sent the armed bomb hurtling toward the side of the Irmingard.
Moving faster than the flak curtain could be restarted to stop it.
As soon as she released the improvised rocket, she threw the Cheka into a steep turn. Without being able to detonate it in a controlled fashion from a safe distance, Murati was in immediate danger. She arced away from the Irmingard as quickly as she could and swung toward the Brigand. To escape the blast she needed every possible meter–
Her eyes glanced up at the ERS screen in time to watch the power drain entirely.
Then her cockpit suddenly went pitch black. Murati’s breath caught in her chest.
There was a sudden silence as the whirring of the pumps and turbines pushing water through her machine stopped abruptly. Her body jerked forward slightly and suddenly as water resistance killed her momentum, causing her cockpit to shake briefly. Red, intermittent flashing red within the darkness, indicating auxiliary power. Enough to maintain life support. She was stranded. Stranded in the open water with the bomb about to go off behind her.
Murati freed herself from her seat, crawled to the side of the cockpit and slid open a moveable slit.
There was a periscopic glass viewing pane, through which she could see nothing but water.
Then she saw something flash. That was the bomb– the bomb had gone off.
Her cockpit rumbled as all the water displaced by the blast slammed into her.
What was happening? She could be sinking to the sea floor! Or about to rip apart!
She grit her teeth and grabbed hold of the catches on the wall, repeatedly striking metal as everything around her shook violently. Rolling around on the inside of her own metal coffin, packed in like a canned vegetable.
Her senses almost went as her head struck the metal wall.
Blood dribbled down her face. Her grip started to slack, her wrists overextended.
And yet the cockpit continued to rattle and roll in the maelstrom.
Was she going to die? Was she really going to die like this?
Two distinct impacts tossed her further, one on each side of the cockpit– then she stopped.
She was stable. Rushing her eye to the viewing pane she caught sight of metal.
There was a red flash from it. Was that– a Diver? A Diver igniting a vernier?
Her cockpit shook again–
She felt the Cheka move. Water started rushing around her.
Consistent, purposeful movement.
Someone had rescued her.
With the cockpit stable, she came to settle against the wall. Bloody, battered, isolated.
Falling limp within her “metal coffin,” Murati started to weep into her own arm.
It must have been Shalikova or Lebedova.
Someone rescued her! She would live! She survived– they defeated that Irmingard class.
Unable to see them, unable to thank them, unable to determine who was alive–
What a way to end the battle! All that fire and thunder, and in the end it was all dark, all silent.
But she was alive. And the Brigand was alive. So despite everything, their mission was still alive.
She struck her fist against the metal wall, again and again. Grinding her teeth, weeping her eyes out.
“Messiah defend! Some fucking hero I turned out to be!” Murati shouted, screaming at herself in the dark.
Schicksal’s panicked voice heralded the coming insanity.
“Explosion off the port side! Significant sidepod damage– we’re destabilizing–!”
“God damn it!”
Gertrude would have pounded her fist on her seat but holding on to it was all she could do to keep herself from flying off her chair as the Iron Lady began to list to starboard dramatically, now heavier due to loss of both solid and liquid weight. Inside the Bridge it was pure chaos. Flashing red warning lights, dozens of people shouting at each other all at once, the helm crew struggling to adjust the ship’s weight and right it. As the ship slanted, a few unprepared officers fell back out of their seats and slammed into the nearest station behind them. It was nearly impossible to control the crew in this chaos, but Dreschner shouted himself hoarse at Gertrude’s side, keeping the bridge functional.
“Side hydrojet intakes completely severed! Weight distribution dramatically uneven!”
On the main screen a diagnostic updated, with the breaching and flooding that had been dealt to the sidepod area. Were it not for the Iron Lady’s enormously thick armor even the hangar would be flooding. That was not an ordinary depth charge, it had the kind of destructive power reserved for blast mining charges.
How had Sieglinde let such a thing through to them? Had she even survived?
To think despite every advantage they would lose to these thugs!
“Captain, Inquisitor! The Ludlow is not moving from our starboard!”
Schicksal turned a horrified look to meet Gertrude’s wild eyes and Dreschner’s pallid face.
They were listing toward their remaining Frigate, which was itself struggling to stay afloat.
Everyone in the Bridge grabbed hold of the closest thing they could.
Only the helm continued working until the last second that they could, struggling to stabilize the ship, but not in time to prevent what the prediction on the main screen showed them. Seconds later, the Iron Lady crashed into the Ludlow, crushing its side fin and caving in the port side of the pressure hull, sending the smaller vessel careening toward the ocean floor. This did relatively light damage to the Iron Lady itself, but it was clear the Ludlow would not survive. By then, the small amount of flooding on the Iron Lady weighed down its stricken side enough to stabilize the ship.
All the while, Gertrude watched the main screen with rage-filled eyes.
That insignificant little hauler and its measly little divers began to flee.
She raised her hand to the screen, nearly giving in to desperate, grief-stricken delusion.
Right in front of her, so close, close enough for her hand to reach. That damnable ship.
“Pandora’s Box. You won’t get away. Not as long as I can chase. Elena–”
Hyperventilating, eyes burning in the prelude to tears.
Her mind blanking out with fury as she seared the sight of that little ship into her brain.
They had not escaped. They had not gotten away. They couldn’t run.
As long as she was chasing, they would never escape.
“Call for reinforcements! Send it through the encrypted network! As soon as possible!”
Dreschner and Schicksal looked like they could hardly believe her words.
Nevertheless, they set about their tasks as soon as they could. Whoever came could be made useful.
Though the Bridge soon quieted, the tense, erratic energy of the moment never left.
“Send out a drone to chase after Pandora’s Box as soon as the electronics are stable.”
Because Gertrude’s eyes never left the screen; because she never forgot the shadow of her prey.
She was High Inquisitor Lichtenberg, and as long as she was chasing, no one could escape!