“Khadija al-Shajara, Strelok ‘I~bis’, deploying!”
Setting her jaw and shoulders stiff so as to not betray a bit of a shake as she dropped.
She was an old hat at this– she was not about to let the situation scare her.
There was an altogether different feeling than the last time she deployed, however.
Back then, she had been so prepared to die, to do anything to throw her life at her enemy like a fireball that would engulf everything, including herself. Now, as her camera feed transitioned from the metal of the deployment chute to the misty water of the Nectaris, her enemy hidden somewhere in the thickness of the marine fog and the darkness of the deep sea, she could not help a bit of anxiety.
It was so much more difficult to live than to die.
Her whole body still ached from days and days of training, but it would ache regardless.
She was old. Something always ached.
Her fingers around the sticks ached, her ankles ached as she pushed them down on the pedals, her back was hurting, the back of her neck hurt, her shoulders throbbed, the muscles on her chest and belly. The muscles connecting her ears to her head hurt, her tail hurt where it attached to her lower back. And yet those fingers effortlessly guided her way, those feet exerted graceful control of her thrust, and she sat on the chair not hunched and half-broken but upright and proud. She was ready to fight.
As soon as Squadron 114’s formation began to move she could already feel the improvements that had been made to this Strelok over the basic model. Khadija had rejected the machine at first, because part of her advantage was the intimate knowledge she had over every movement an ordinary Strelok could make, and this allowed her to be precise — but that wily Shalikova knew how to get to her.
“If you don’t take my machine I’ll give it to Aiden Ahwalia.” She said.
Incredible. What an evil-minded little girl– Khadija had no choice but to accept it.
Thankfully it was not so different from a Strelok that it hindered Khadija’s piloting style.
The weight distribution was similar, control response exactly the same, it was like piloting a Strelok but getting more from it. Khadija could tell immediately she could push it harder, she could get more thrust and get it quicker, she could make slightly tighter corrections due to the improved hydrodynamics. She tested here and there as the formation charged out into the ocean, quickly getting a feel for it.
“That little fucking worm!”
Shalikova went after Aiden Ahwalia after he brazenly took off from the formation.
Leaving her to lead it temporarily. Khadija hardly wanted that responsibility–
And she would not have it for long.
Seconds after Shalikova split off from the group, the 114th Diver Squadron caught their first glimpses of the incoming enemy. Four enemy figures appeared shrouded in the marine fog. Probing fire flew from both sides, rifle rounds briefly lighting the pitch black ocean, vapor bubbles blossoming randomly where each side last saw the enemy. Both groups broke through each other, momentarily seeing each other in plain sight as they sped past each other. Different machines then split off to probe different angles of attack, some sweeping up, some dropping down. Khadija tried to make out the models–
In that instant, Khadija caught sight of that mecha once again.
And this time, it was painted red, as if begging for her acknowledgment.
That new Diver model that had fought in defense of the Iron Lady.
Her computer had wanted to label it a Jagd before, but they had come to name this model after its pilot, Red Baron, when they updated the data on their predictors. Its triangular body plan resembled the Jagd, but it was sturdier, with swept pauldron shoulders, a helmeted humanoid head, thicker arms and legs. Unlike the hyper-aggressive Jagd built only for raw speed and close combat, the Red Baron could have replaced the Volker as a sturdy main-line grunt unit, in the same way as the Cheka was likely to replace the Strelok. It was archetype of a new generation; a new body to vanguard the imperial cause.
Clad in striking red, it looked ever more like Khadija’s recollection of her old arch-enemy.
“Valya, stick to Rybolovskaya and command her fire! I’m going after the break-aways!”
“Ma’am–? Are you passing me lead?”
Those were the last words of leadership that Khadija issued over the squadron’s communications before she rushed full ahead after the Red Baron. Following that red shadow up into the thickening marine fog, firing her assault rifle at the figure who immediately took her up on the offer to dance. Valya would have to contend with the rest. Khadija always knew this time would come, sooner or later.
Shalikova was nearly killed by her, Murati too. It could only be her who put an end to this history.
I’m the only one who can stop her. She’ll run circles around the rest of them.
The Red Baron thrust higher up the water table and Khadija gave chase.
Both of them breaking off from their formations, leaving their squadrons behind.
Khadija kept her main camera trained on the Red Baron, her eyes fixed on even the slightest movement by the machine. She fired one-handed from the chest in semi-automatic mode, one shot per one trigger pull, the Red Baron skillfully sweeping from side to side to avoid the explosions of the 37 mm rounds. In turn the Red Baron fired her own rifle behind herself and forced Khadija to dodge in the same way.
In the net neither gained nor was able to escape from the other, and the two Divers appeared like opposing poles spiraling within a cylinder of their own making, vapor bubbles from stray explosions foaming in their wake. Dancing as they had danced before, each a mirror of the other.
It was not that either of them was an excellent or inept marksman.
Rather they were so equal to each other’s skill and their equipment too near performance.
Khadija knew that this dance could not last, and her counterpart must have known also.
This was a distraction, buying time, making space, probing, trying to find an advantage.
Two masked killers in the final ballroom, watching each other dance with hidden knives.
It’ll be decided in melee. We both came up in a time where melee decided these fights.
She was ready to take up the sword at any second–
Drifting perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters above the battle below–
When suddenly a cloud of bubbles blew into her and blinded her.
The Red Baron had run an emergency routine and blown oxygen through her jets.
Doing so stalled her, but she fluidly executed a complete turn out of the stall–
Attacking through the cover of the cloud to forestall retaliation.
Khadija recognized it as a ploy and pulled everything back with her front leg verniers.
Throwing herself down and to one side as a wave of renewed gunfire swept past her.
She began trading fire back as the Red Baron tried to circle her with the trigger pressed down.
Lines of supercavitating shells cut through the water between them at near intersecting angles–
Still moving as opposing poles–
but the circle they formed began to tighten–
in a brief instant within the dance of evasion and counterfire–
Khadija realized first that she was within range of a charge.
Holding her rifle in front of her chest like a shield, Khadija threw herself at the Red Baron with abandon.
Through a series of explosions the size of human bodies, spreading wildly around her–
Bits of metal sheared off her shoulder, arm and leg plates–
She burst through the fire and smoke with a defiant battle cry.
Everything happened too fast for any aiming and shooting, so it became a show of dumb blunt force at arm’s reach. Boosting herself into the Red Baron’s attacks, Khadija turned a close range shootout into a melee. Swinging the broad side of her assault rifle like a battering ram, she smashed the Red Baron’s rifle, forcing the digits to release lest they be ripped from the hand and tossing the weapon aside.
Disarmed of her rifle, the Red Baron drew and dodged back in one stroke.
Khadija dodged back in turn, avoiding the wild counterslash of the hastily drawn vibroblade.
Now I have you.
Instead of drawing her sword in return she grabbed and threw a grenade.
Between the two of them an enormous shockwave spread from a growing bubble of hot gases.
The Red Baron, awaiting a melee, beat a full retreat from the ensuing explosion.
Parts of her own armor tore off from the push and pull of the blast and her own escape.
Khadija, dashing down apart from her, created a gap of two dozen meters between them.
Now it was a proper shootout again and she had the advantage.
She still had a working assault rifle in hand and her target was in a vulnerable position.
Thrown off by the shockwave, dashing back in a panic, The Red Baron was lit up in her sights–
Tasting blood Khadija pulled the trigger–
Her empty magazine immediately detached from the AK-96 having been fired empty.
It’s always something.
She immediately, desperately reached for a new magazine but–
About forty meters away, on the edge of visibility, the Red Baron suddenly stopped moving.
Sword drawn but pointed aside, her mecha posed like a regal knight suspended in the water.
An invitation to a formal duel, perhaps. Or a call to parley.
Both had been bloodied to an even degree, each attack had been perfectly answered.
Out of a sense of pride, Khadija acquiesced and tuned her communicator to the liaison channel used during the old war. There she heard the voice of the Red Baron, cutting in: “we’ll both die for–”
“Come again you miserable lout? I want to hear your last words clearly.” Khadija taunted.
“I am saying, if we keep fighting, I’m confident that we’ll both die for nothing.”
“You’ll be the only one dying if you have such little confidence in yourself.”
“We need to stop fighting. I’m not the only monster on my side. We’ll all kill each other without reason.”
“I have plenty of reason to reduce you to ground lamb in your cockpit.”
Khadija thought she heard a sigh, maybe even a sob, crackling over the low quality audio.
“You are the Lion of Cascabel. Why must we keep fighting? Both of our lives ended twenty years ago.”
Even with how distorted the channel was, Khadija still thought she felt the emotion in that voice.
She was no longer so shocked to hear it, she understood that the Red Baron was a human being, that they were both flesh and blood and not just machines when they fought each other in the past. Now she found herself facing another revelation. There were humans who though flesh and blood made themselves machines, cold and ruthless, remorseless, murder incarnate. Even if she could believe the Red Baron was human, Khadija conceived of her as inhuman in this way, in order to keep hating her.
This woman was challenging that notion. All of that emotion in her voice, almost uncontrollable.
“If only I had never met that damned woman, we could have left everything in the past.”
This girl who sounded like she would cry over the acoustic communicator–
Could she possibly be the same Red Baron? But if she called her The Lion, then she knew.
And with the way she fought, it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.
But now Khadija was thinking to herself: how did I imagine this confrontation would transpire?
Khadija responded almost out of impulse. “If you are afraid to die, then surrender to me!”
Surrender? That those words came out of her mouth at all only signified how pathetic the Red Baron sounded to her, tone a prostration, a bowed head, and slack shoulders before Khadija. When she thought of her she no longer thought of an iron pillar full of blades dressed in a grey uniform. There were the features of a girl forming in Khadija’s mind, despite the fact that they were nearly the same age.
“Lion, since we last fought, our time has been frozen in Cascabel. You and I are the same.” She said, her voice almost cracking again. “Our paths are set into stone. We can neither change the past nor can we alter the future. There is no possible way that us meeting again, can end in anything but our mutual deaths. I know we will find some way to kill one another. We fought in a ruthless age, out of desperation. Now we are meeting with the weight of our pasts on our shoulders. We will both die here the same.”
Khadija clutched her fingers tight against the control sticks. She felt pain, frustration, anger.
How dare this woman come to her with this childish sophistry?
When all Khadija wanted was a snickering evil monster to kill! To put behind them that rotten past!
“I gave you an alternative! Surrender! If you have remorse then put down your weapons!”
There was that word again. Surrender.
There was a brief pause– then the Red Baron’s voice became void of emotion. That voice and the words that it spoke finally sounded like an old and embittered soul, rather than a scared, weepy little girl. She felt she could see a face like her own now, eyes staring into the distance, ears ringing with death.
“It’s impossible for me to make amends to you. I can’t surrender– what would I even do?”
Khadija smiled bitterly to herself. “So be it, Red Baron. We can only kill each other then.”
For a moment Khadija stewed in how much she hated that in her mind’s eye, the Red Baron’s face was coming to resemble her own. In total silence, she tried hard to put the image out of her mind.
Then they raised their weapons, engaged their hydrojets, and resumed the dance of death.
I’ve let too many fucking people die. Too many. I can’t– I can’t fucking lose her too.
“Marina McKennedy, Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: deploying!”
Leda, if you’re watching over me, give us a miracle.
Marina McKennedy considered herself an absolutely middling Diver pilot.
Nevertheless, she was useless inside of the ship during a naval battle, and the communists needed absolutely every gun they could put out into the water right now even if they didn’t realize it. God only knew why they weren’t throwing everyone they could possibly get in a suit out with them, they had like eighteen of the fucking things aboard didn’t they? Some misplaced sense of ethics? Marina did not fucking know. All she could do was throw her own body too with everyone else willing. There was no use trying to change how they operated at the last second. She just had to nut up and fight.
Taking a deep breath, remembering all the times she scraped by on the skin of her teeth.
She had been shot, blown up, stabbed, tied up and whipped, had a knife put to her cock–
Going out in a Diver was good clean fun compared to all of her previous escapades.
Somehow, she was starting to psyche herself up a bit. These commies had beaten the Iron Lady before, against all odds. Maybe if anyone could Norn a black eye it was these brainwashed fools.
Once she got out into the water, she received a transmission from the ship.
It was the Chief of the Brigand’s mechanics, Galina Lebedova, on the main video feed.
A fairly big lady with a pretty face; soft-cheeked, long hair in a braid– god those shoulders, those arms though, the sleeveless overalls really flattered her. Not an unwelcome sight whatsoever.
“We haven’t touched your weapons, but we don’t have any Republic supplies aboard, so we had to ferrostitch some extra magazines for your rifle based on the spare you brought aboard. Don’t expect them to be flawless, but they’ll fit, and they have thirty rounds of Union 37 mm loaded in.”
“Copy. I can’t say anything but thanks to that — I’d be fucked with just one mag out here. Say, Chief, when I get back can we get a coffee together? No one’s properly shown me around this boat yet.”
Lebedova smiled a little but shut off the video in response.
“Worth a try.” Marina said to herself.
Beneath the ship, she formed up around the Brigand’s other Divers, awaiting orders.
Once they sallied forth she quickly got the hang of piloting her S.E.A.L. again.
Movement was probably her strong suit. She had used this S.E.A.L. on a few infiltrations.
All of them leading up to Vogelheim.
It’s not going to be a cock-up like that again. I won’t let it turn out that way.
All of this was for Elena. Even if she’d fucked up communicating that to her thus far.
“I can’t die regretting how I left things off with her.”
Last time they looked each other in the eyes, Elena had completely broken down. Marina herself had been in bad shape. She could barely remember what happened afterward, but it was an awful, hurtful confrontation. Since then they avoided one another. She thought eventually Elena would come around but maybe that was gutless of her. She had to come back and actually show she cared.
“There’s too much you’d leave undone if you died, Marina McKennedy.”
She smiled bitterly to herself, her reflection in one of the dark screens.
She looked so tired.
As much as she sometimes wanted to join Leda and Bethany and be in peace–
Marina had to see this through. Everything was for Elena. Everything left of her.
This must have been what it was like, being a parent.
Having a commitment you couldn’t just walk away from when it was inconvenient.
She had not been thinking too much about the formation until the Ahwalia kid ran off–
Then everything went into a tailspin. The squad leader ran off, the Shimii started yelling–
“I thought you commies were supposed to be disciplined?!”
Marina hardly had time to ask who was in charge when the enemy finally appeared.
In an uncanny turn the enemy formation was much like theirs. Two close combat mecha, one strange silvery-white unit, formed up around a Volkannon with a sniper rifle that was lagging behind them. The instant that the two sides saw the very faintest outline of each other, targeting computers lit up with warnings and assault rifle fire saturated the battlefield, creating a brief chaos. The Shimii communist ran off to chase a gaudy red unit on the other side– but the Union formation remained tighter than the enemy, who split off in every direction as if probing the flanks or trying to encircle them–
Marina tried to cling tight to the Katarran with the Strelkannon to guard against that–
Until she realized that one enemy unit had just charged right past them.
Heading straight for the Brigand.
“Shit! They’re not flanking, one’s going for the ship!”
It was that silver-white unit!
Marina hardly had time to communicate any further before she reacted.
Leaving Valya behind with the Strelkannon, Marina took off after the unidentified unit.
Their plan wouldn’t matter if the enemy took out the Brigand and stranded them–
–and killed Elena along with them.
“I’m going after it!”
Ignoring the cry from Valya Lebedova, Marina launched herself in full pursuit.
Her head was pounding. You’re no good at this. That’s a new model. You’ll die.
There was too much left to do to die now.
But if Elena was hurt it would all be meaningless, all of it.
They all poured their love into Elena. Everything they did was not just for each other.
Marina still had that unfulfilled promise to free Elena from Konstantin von Fueller.
So Marina leaned into her sticks and slammed her pedals down with all her might.
And the S.E.A.L. took off with all the thrust of its jets and boosters to gain on the enemy.
A wild barrage of fully automatic fire blazed from its M480 assault rifle, launching 37 mm bullets that cut the gap between the silver-white enemy and Marina in an instant, bursting into vapor bubbles in a chaotic pattern around the enemy diver and forcing it to acknowledge pursuit. It fired its own rifle from around its flank, backwards, but Marina easily avoided the counterfire and pressed her attack.
Her reticle danced around the aiming screen, the yellow targeting box around the enemy unit beginning to turn red, a proximity alert blaring as Marina neared and neared. She reloaded her gun and reopened fire, doing everything she could to put that reticle on that silver-white figure looming larger ahead but holding down the trigger for automatic fire, knowing she didn’t have the aim to snipe it down.
It could no longer run away, in seconds they would be practically chest to back–
Folding its rifle in one shocking instant, the enemy turned around on a dime–
Marina halted with all possible counterthrust just in time to avoid the edge of a vibroblade.
Slashing directly in front of the main camera in a swift arc out of the turn.
She gasped for breath and held it.
In the next instant the enemy rushed her, lifting a shield held in its other arm in front of itself.
An enormous ballistic shield the right size to cover the Diver, with a thick block in the center for–
–the short stub barrel of an 81 mm launcher.
There was a thumping noise and a discharge of gas as a rocket-propelled grenade flew from it.
Marina thrust back narrowly avoiding the explosion.
Barely centimeters from annihilation as the ordnance went off.
Struggling with her controls as the explosion sent shockwaves bashing against her cockpit, while the vaporized water bubble expanded and contracted warping the water directly in front of the SEAL. Everything rattled, her cameras were blocked by the vapor and water, and hot gases got pulled into her intakes which briefly stunted her hydrojet thrust. She lost sight of the enemy machine.
Marina thought it must have been a distraction in order to get her to give up the chase–
When from over the rapidly dispersing gas bubble the machine reappeared.
Vibrosword in hand, it dropped down with a two-handed slash, its shield affixed to its arm.
Drawing her vibroaxe in an instant she caught the blade at the last second with its thick, sturdy head.
That brief second of struggle as the sword dug into her axe–
Gave her the closest look she had at this new model.
Sleek, rounded and beveled white and silver armor, rounded shoulders, lots of smooth interlocking plates, it was as if the model had been cast in this form and not assembled out of a collection of individual segments. Marina knew no Imperial, Union or Republic model with such a high quality and sleek design. Those jets on the shoulders, she had never seen their like. And its performance was incredible.
That pilot, too, was no joke.
Shooting an 81 mm shell that close, to make space for a melee attack, it was nuts. It took balls.
In that moment, clashing blades with this grand and mighty paladin, Marina had one bitter thought.
Grinning in her cockpit, face lit up by the bright freedom-blue of the SEAL’s user interface.
Shit, I’m going to die here, aren’t I?
A steel knight with a red glare like death– had it come to finally punish her sins?
Ulyana Korabiskaya stood up from her chair for emphasis as the battle began to escalate.
“Report! What’s happening with the Divers?” She shouted.
“Pure chaos.” Zachikova replied.
Up on a side panel of the main video feed the projected positions and trajectories of the Divers appeared, having been found and tracked through periodic weak sonar pulses launched by the drone swimming along the edge of the cliffs. Ulyana watched them with some consternation as it appeared that they had broken up from their units and launched individual attacks instead.
“What the hell is going on?” Aaliyah asked. “Why are they so dispersed?”
She stood up at once, standing beside Ulyana in support.
Zachikova turned to face them with glassy, half-gone eyes. Her concentration was split.
“Ahwalia did something stupid.” She said, in a belabored drawl, her mind split between her body and the drone. “Shalikova had to correct. Then the enemy broke through our formation. We are chasing breakaway individuals to prevent them reaching the Brigand. Battle has been successfully kept to over a hundred meters away from the Brigand itself. We have not visually acquired any of the Divers.”
“At least they blocked them. Fine. We have to focus on what we can do.”
Ulyana sat back down and with a flourish pointed at the main screen.
“Focus all our efforts on attacking the Antenora! Gunnery section, fire main guns!”
Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa responded in maybe the briefest sentence she had ever spoken.
The Antenora was closing in between 1.5 and 1 kilometers away, but it was not moving directly toward them. Like the Brigand itself it was trying to snake around the flank, hoping to maximize not just the proximity of its weapons to its target, but the ability to hit a broader part of the ship for more damage.
In ship combat, the ultimate objective was to inflict enough damage on the enemy that would breach several sections of the ship, hoping to overwhelm the flood mitigation systems to compromise the ship. If possible, attacking from behind could also cripple a ship by destroying its hydrojets. Attacking from below could potentially destroy the ship’s highly complicated water system, which would at the minimum slow or stop it as ships relied on pulling the water into themselves and ejecting it out to thrust.
At its worst, it would eject the ballast and make the ship uncontrollable.
In effect, the ships were circling in orbit of the Diver battle, each hoping to take the other’s tail or flank.
Whether the Antenora or Brigand would have the opportunity depending on their helmsmen.
“Kamarik, keep us steady but slippery!”
“Don’t worry ma’am, I’m more finely tuned than ever to how this lady dances.”
Kamarik was experienced, and he kept them unpredictable, applying variable thrust to create opportunities and deceive their enemies as to their movements. The Antenora was not acting so surreptitious. It maintained a roughly even thrust, as if it had an advantage and did not need to resort to any trickery to win. Perhaps Norn the Praetorian was correct to be so unbothered by them.
But it was Ulyana’s job to find a way to rattle Norn– from her bridge and to her grave.
As the sharks circled, their weapons trained on one another.
“Main gun ready! High-Explosive Cluster round firing for effect!” Fernanda declared.
Atop the Brigand, the dual-barrel 150 mm gun turret rose from out of hiding and acquired the Antenora as a target. From Fernanda’s station, the firing solution and type of ammunition was selected.
In this case, Fernanda was firing a ranging shot with wide, spread explosive effect.
It would be optimistic to kill with this shot, but it would acquire valuable data.
Within an instant, the firing prediction appeared on the main screen.
This was the bridge crew’s window into the war they were fighting.
They were not out in the water, and even there they would have hardly been able to see anything in front of their faces. What they did see, the video put together by the ship’s supercomputer, was a best-guess prediction created by using several sources of sensory data, ingested, and interpreted by several complicated programs in a span of seconds. That blue, visible ocean, the figure of the Antenora in the distance, accompanied by an overview map that showed the terrain and all actors in semi-realtime, it was all the creation of a computer. It could be wrong, but it was more than their eyes could ever see.
War waged through screens, unfolding before them like a movie in a theater.
A movie of the circling Antenora and the cold, black ocean around them.
The projectiles had already launched by the time the screen updated.
And the hits were registered in an instant. Supercavitating cannon rounds were incredibly fast.
On the screen two explosions were drawn around the figure of the Antenora.
Broad circular bubbles with information about the predicted and recorded impact.
“No effect! Targeting data reacquired, gun draining and priming!”
Fernanda was never as professional as when she was shooting, it seemed.
“Recalibrate and get back on it.” Ulyana said. “Torpedo section, I want one fire, record effect!”
Alexandra Geninov in the torpedo section lit up with excitement.
“Yes ma’am! Firing Torpedo!”
Within moments of receiving the order, Alex triggered the launch of a 120 mm explosive torpedo from the Brigand’s forward tube. Using the control stick on her station, Alex directly guided the ordnance via a fiber-optic wire, allowing her to potentially snake it around the enemy’s close-range gas gun defenses. She had a camera on the torpedo and that feed appeared on her screen, but it was subject to a slight delay. A skilled torpedo officer had to make whatever use they could of that visual data and its delay.
Torpedoes could reach a speed of over a hundred knots, much faster than a Diver’s max speed.
Less than a coilgun round’s incredible speed, but much more precise.
Alex could currently put a round on the Antenora in somewhere under thirty seconds.
That was enough time for maneuvers. And it was enough for Ulyana to be able to watch the little blip of the torpedo on the sonar picture moving farther and farther away. It was almost maddening every time she glanced at it, and heard the rattling of Alex’s stick as she made a series of snap corrections, trying to send the torpedo on her desired path toward the enemy vessel and avoid the defensive fire.
Within 50-70 meters, Alex would be able to see the Antenora visually on the cameras.
And then she would have around one and a half seconds to react before it smashed into it.
One and a half seconds without accounting for the delay.
“Huh? What the fuck? Ma’am, something’s up!”
Alex turned from her station in a snap as the main screen despawned the screen with the torpedo video feed. That side panel became dynamically populated with a different video feed. Losing its place of semi-prominence because its camera exploded. No impact registered; as the torpedo specialist protested.
“What’s wrong now, Geninov?” Ulyana asked.
In that precise moment, the main screen flashed an alert–
And an instant later, the Brigand shook enough to rattle the crew in their chairs, struck by the Antenora’s 150 mm guns. It was a testament to the construction of the ship and the brilliance of Union engineering. Despite the violent shockwaves which rippled across the surface armor, enough to be felt on the bridge and to have caused any freestanding personnel to lose balance, the lights barely flickered, and the main screen picture remained up to the second accurate and streaming new data in flawlessly.
“Status report!” Ulyana shouted.
“No direct hit!” Semyonova reported. “Very minor surface damage off the port side!”
“God damn it! We just got done fixing the port side!” Ulyana lamented.
Aaliyah interrupted. “Captain, Geninov had something to report.”
“Right,” Ulyana said, turning to face Alex again. “Report Geninov, what’s going on?”
In any other situation, and with any other look on Geninov’s face, Ulyana might have just dismissed whatever Alex had to say as to probable nonsense. However, rather than looking scared or smug, Alex had a befuddled look on her face, as if she had seen something completely incongruous, which was an expression Ulyana was not used to seeing. And indeed, Alex had seen something odd.
“Ma’am, the instruments on the torpedo send a final snapshot just prior to impact. This has final camera data but also has data from the other sensors. According to this, we did impact the Antenora, because we exploded inside the minimum range of the gas guns, which would’ve had effect. This is recording we blew up like two meters above the armor, but it had zero effect on it, we can tell, it shot us right after.”
“Put the image on the main screen.” Ulyana said.
Alex nodded nervously, and she swiped her finger at her touchscreen to move the image over. For a moment, it shared prominence with the video feed on the main screen. Everyone who saw it looked speechless for a moment. Most of it was taken up by the silver-grey armor of the Antenora as one might aspect from an impact camera on a torpedo. But there was a purple flash captured also. Like a sheen of agarthic energy warping over some of the armor close to the center of the image.
“What the hell is that?” Aaliyah shouted. “Is it some kind of close-in defense?”
Ulyana’s heart sank. She remembered Theresa Faraday’s demonstration before the battle.
About a potential next-generation armor system that the Brigand could possibly have.
And she now began to fear the Antenora possessed a functioning example.
What can I possibly do about this?
“Semyonova, where the hell is Theresa Faraday? Order her to the bridge now!”
Semyonova ran a search, using the computer to locate Theresa through the cameras–
She turned around suddenly. “Ma’am, she’s in the hangar! She’s– something’s deploying?”
What am I doing? What am I doing?
Sieglinde von Castille labored for breath, feeling a passenger in her own body.
Watching as if from over her own shoulder as her body pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go and rammed her pedals, throwing the Grenadier into a full speed attack upon the Lion of Cascabel. Sword in hand, rifle damaged and discarded, the Grenadier cut the distance to the Lion near instantly and swung a ferocious horizontal slash that forced the Lion to launch deeper down to avoid it.
Despite her keen reactions, the Lion was unable to counter, as Sieglinde flowed out of the horizontal feint with a sudden downward slash with both arms, engaging the booster on the blade itself as well as the shoulder boosters for added thrust. The Lion lunged suddenly to the side, the Baron’s vibrosword slicing the control fin on her Strelok’s shoulder clean off as she scarcely evaded the attack.
Why am I fighting? Why am I here? Why can’t we stop?
Her own internal voice grew more desperate and distant.
And yet her downward slash flowed smoothly into a dive, giving chase to the Lion.
Their machines were face to face, the Lion jetting down, unable to turn her back without giving up advantage, while the Red Baron lifted her blade as she bore down on the Lion. Like figures in a biblical painting, a wrathful god with a thundering blade captured amid descent, and a defiant human gazing at the firmament with stolen fire in her hands, a terrible collision imminent. All around them, the dark blue of the depths, such that they were alone in battle, and nothing could be seen but their aggression.
Fully automatic rifle fire went hurtling past the Grenadier, tearing off one of the arm joint plates and chunks of skirt armor but not enough bullets struck where needed, there was no time to aim. Undaunted the Red Baron fell upon the Lion and brought her sword barely centimeters from the cockpit slicing across the plates keeping her opponent out of water and laying upon them a deep, smoking scar.
I’m going to kill her!
Like fencers stepping forward and back, the two mecha became ensnared in a melee.
Sieglinde swung again from her last successful attack, pressing her advantage.
The Lion had to pick a direction. Sieglinde read her as diving deeper, it was easiest–
Instead she thrust upward, and as she did she fired her assault rifle down at an angle.
She’s going to kill me!
Sieglinde turned out of her attack and jerked her sword up in a desperate slash.
As the Lion opened fire the Grenadier’s vibrosword sliced across the barrel of the rifle.
An explosive round went off just outside the chamber and against the blade.
Chipping the edge of the Baron’s sword and bursting the Lion’s rifle in a miraculous turn.
Please stop, please turn around, please.
No matter how much she begged herself, Sieglinde was fighting as if automatically, as if without control of herself, a passenger in her body’s war. For a brief instant she thought she might have been under mind control, but she wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t. This was not something to blame on magic or monsters or on anything but the damnable, monstrous machinations of her own fate. She was fighting despite the pounding of her heart, the tears in her eyes and the cries of her humanity because there was no other place for her to go, no other future for her to seek. Her time had frozen; this was all she had.
Her eyes could only seek enemies to fight.
Her arms could only wield weapons of war.
Her legs could only take her from one battlefield to another.
Her chest could only draw breath to keep her living from one kill to the next.
She had no power to stop the atrocities her body carried out.
No matter how much her heart hurt. This was the legend she bore: the Red Baron.
The Red Baron would continue fighting her war until it took her from the face of Aer.
As soon as she saw the opportunity to attack, she took it with a devastating finality.
The Lion was off-balance, stunned by that one-in-a-million occurrence that disarmed her.
Converting that miracle to further tragedy–
The Red Baron threw everything she had into the charge, her final charge.
Sweeping under and behind the Strelok and using all the momentum of that graceful arc.
Her signature slash went weaving across the back of her foe at an unexpected angle.
Where it was caught instantly between two sets of grinding jaws–?
Sieglinde could not comprehend what had happened. Sweat streaked down her blank face.
Her sword arm drew back instantly, her entire self disbelieving–
As she saw in all of her cameras a Strelok holding two chainsaw-bladed “diamond swords” behind its back in a cross that had briefly caught her blade in the middle of its arc and nearly snapped off the already damaged tip from it. Such a sword catch as she had never seen executed, never thought even possible in all of her years of fighting, in all of her training and with all of her experience of war.
She drew back instinctively from her failed attack, creating distance with her boosters.
The Strelok turned and faced her, wielding in each hand a revving, furious diamond sword.
“You’re so predictable. I knew I could bait you into doing that move.”
Over the communicator the Lion spoke again. Her voice was just a bit shaken, but–
“War flattered your image, Baron! That flip of yours would catch any pilot off-guard the first time they see it. And fooling them once is all it takes for you to kill them and preserve your secret. However, if a pilot lived twenty years ago and survived that attack when your technique was in its infancy– well!”
She laughed. The Lion was laughing. Her voice sent shivers down Sieglinde’s back.
“You say you haven’t changed, Red Baron? But I’m still learning!”
The Lion’s Strelok charged with roaring blades and the Red Baron froze in response.
Sieglinde’s eyes darted between cameras. She had no time to close the comm channel.
She was looking for her opponent’s sword arm– but there were two!
The Strelok swung both swords horizontally from opposite sides like a closing vice–
Sieglinde threw the Grenadier down below the Strelok to try to avoid and counterattack–
Dodging out of the counterstroke, the Lion’s Strelok dove past her flank, circled quickly around her back and thrust up again. Trying to follow the dizzying attack, Sieglinde turned and slashed behind her, then she boosted down and back for space and sliced above herself, but the Lion was still moving, constantly.
Circling her diagonally in a way that made full use of the fact that they were suspended in water, a three-dimensional space in which they could move in all possible angles around each other. Sieglinde was speechless, eyes rushing from camera to camera hoping to predict the opponent’s next move–
–then the Lion inverted the arc she was taking at its peak, diving suddenly, and she appeared where Sieglinde had not been looking. Launching both blades in a powerful swing with all of the momentum they had built and clubbing the Grenadier in the flank. It was more of a smashing attack than a slash, delivered with such brutality there was no time for the blades to cut into the armor, and it sent the Grenadier tumbling down in the water. Pieces of armor chipped and sunk in, and a part of the skirt went flying. Sieglinde rattled in her cockpit, gritting her teeth involuntarily, her stomach turning.
This Strelok is faster! How is that possible? Or did I get slower?
It was not just the slightly upgraded Diver model– nor Sieglinde’s own weakness–
The Lion herself was faster, stronger, swifter than in Cascabel.
She had gotten stronger! But how was that possible? How had she changed so much?
As if their minds were attuned to this realization, the Lion answered.
“I am fighting for something, Red Baron! If your time froze at Cascabel, then what are you still fighting for? Can you even say? Why did you come here? Are you fighting for an Empire that has broken into pieces? Are you trying to recover colonies that you’ve completely lost? Say something!”
Too much was happening too fast.
Sieglinde’s voice caught in her shuddering throat before the Lion’s next blow.
Bubbles blew overhead from the diamond swords as they displaced and evaporated water.
Engaging her boosters Sieglinde quickly corrected herself out of her ungainly dive.
The Strelok had briefly stopped moving to attack! This was her chance to counter!
The Grenadier pressed back, both hands on her sword, hoping to slice off the Strelok’s arm–
One of the Lion’s blades caught her attack on the flat piece of armor guarding the chainsaw motor.
And the second slashed across her cockpit, leaving the same scar she had left on the Strelok.
Sieglinde was reacting so fast, she was still reacting as if the opponent had one sword.
Her reflexes that had been perfected in the Colonial War– became nothing but a hindrance!
“You’re just refusing culpability! You’re a coward! Red Baron! A miserable coward!”
Again Sieglinde retreated, her diminishing solid fuel boosters worked to their limits.
Creating space, opportunity, buying time, desperately, as her eyes sought any weakness.
The Lion’s coordination was astounding. Most pilots were much clumsier with one sword let alone two, but the Lion maneuvered her blades ambidextrously, covering any weakness, any gap, able to attack and defend swiftly. She was taking full advantage of the greater strength and stability offered by mechanical arms. Not only that, but despite the fact that they were only boosting around each other in short range, her movements were nonetheless fluid and three dimensional without hesitation.
Sieglinde needed her to make a mistake, but–
There was no opening! She could find no means to attack her!
Sieglinde’s will was flagging, and the Lion was completely focused.
All she could do was live second to second, reacting without initiative, without a plan.
Sieglinde found herself forced to draw back her sword up in front of the Grenadier as a makeshift shield, desperately blocking blow after brutal blow from the Lion’s Strelok, smashing from every direction against the flat of her vibrosword. Bubbles blew and water displaced in the violent wake of the Lion’s relentless assault, creating a cloud of exhaust and vapor within which the onslaught took place.
“You had a choice! You always had a choice! What brought you to this ocean to fight me except your own damned choices? And you want to blame fate for this? That’s far too convenient!”
Her swords slammed against the Grenadier’s sword driving Sieglinde back with each blow.
There was no opening to retaliate, no place where she could breathe.
Sieglinde watched the blows rain down metal on metal, helpless before the sparks.
“I’m not like you! How dare you say that? My time was never frozen! I still have something to fight for! Despite everyone begging me to retire! Teach here, train there, let the new kids have a shot, you’re a symbol, you’re the Lion of Cascabel they all said! I’m 42, unmarried, I have no partner, no kids, no legacy! But my time is still moving! I’m still alive and my story is still being written! I won’t give up!”
While between strikes her words sliced open Sieglinde and laid her soul horribly bare.
She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me!
The Red Baron had lost all control. Staring death with empty eyes and trembling lips. Tasting her own sweat and tears that ran in rivulets. Her monitors screamed about the degrading condition of her blade, of the mech’s wrists, the draining vernier fuel, and she felt the whole cockpit shake with each strike.
No! I can’t die here! I can’t! I can’t!
Out of a raging biological instinct to survive Sieglinde burned the very last of her solid fuel thrust in one desperate burst of bubbles and heat, throwing herself straight forward into the middle of the frenzied attacks, slamming into the Strelok with her whole body. Chainsaw blades tore great gashes into her shoulders, tearing out jet anchors but digging no deeper where water could enter.
Her mood swung as chaotically as the blades against her: I caught you! I can still fight!
Flushing more of her oxygen into the water system, Sieglinde kicked off enemy machine and laid a cloud of bubbles. In the momentary space she created with this maneuver, Sieglinde drew her vibrodagger.
On one hand her weapon of last resort; on the other her full-length vibrosword.
Roaring with the desperation of a cornered beast, she threw herself back into the attack.
Just like she had seen the Lion, she swung both weapons to meet her opponent’s own–
–and misjudging the length of the dagger, found a diamond sabre sawing through her arm at the elbow.
On her monitor, all of her boosters signaled empty, her only thrust coming from the hydrojets. Her sword arm sank toward the bottom of the sea, a hull integrity warning flashing. In the middle of that oppressive cockpit, the synthetic fiber of her regal uniform clung to a sweating chest, hands shaking on the controls.
She watched helplessly as the Strelok’s arms reared for a strike against her midsection.
To slice her cockpit apart, expose her to the sea and kill her.
She watched as the twin cruel-sawed blades–
–drew back and swung forward the famous claws of the Lion of Cascabel,
and pointed at the Grenadier’s chest and flank, just short of plunging into its iron flesh.
Diamond-toothed jaws revved and seethed just centimeters from her but no violence followed.
“I won’t satisfy your idea of fate. I won’t let you die and escape justice.” The Lion said.
Sieglinde sat speechless. Her arms lifted off her controls and hung limply at her side. The Red Baron, legend of the Imperial Colonial War, had been utterly defeated. Her heart pounded, her breathing labored. She struggled for something dignified to say, after how far her honor had plunged, how much the Lion of Cascabel had torn the clothes off her manicured self-image and broken her down.
She had been left with nothing. The Red Baron was practically dead even if Sieglinde lived.
Just as she began to speak, to try to absolve herself, her eyes became drawn to something.
She became mesmerized, by a streak of unnatural colors that flashed in the distance.
The Lion’s Strelok also turned to face it. She was seeing it too, the explosion of colors.
And the glowing outline of the Jagdkaiser and the Cheka locked in combat within them.
Furious reds, evil-feeling black, and the texture of an open wound in the middle of the sea.
Karuniya Maharapratham sat in the medbay, a chair pulled up next to the bed of Murati Nakara.
She held on to her partner’s arm, gently, as the ship rocked from an explosion.
On the wall, the bearing monitor and a communication screen showed data and footage of the blast.
“All that rumbling.” Murati lamented weakly. “I wish there was something we could do.”
They were in the middle of a battle, even in their isolated little pod they could feel it.
Murati turned to Karuniya with a small smile, a helpless little expression.
“If there was– I would support you, no matter what, but–” Karuniya said.
“Thank you. Don’t worry. I won’t do anything dangerous, for your sake.”
“For my sake, huh.”
Karuniya sighed. She recalled a conversation that happened not long before the battle began.
Out in the hall, between a certain Euphemia Rontgen and herself. After their conversation had petered out, and Rontgen left the room, Karuniya had gone as well since Murati had wanted to rest for a moment. At that point, she found Rontgen still in the hall, as if waiting specifically to be able to talk to her alone.
“From scientist to scientist,” she asked, “would you ever fight for Murati Nakara’s sake?”
At the time Karuniya had brushed it off. “That’s far too vague.”
“Interesting that it wasn’t an immediate yes.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s an immediate yes — if it’s really necessary. If she truly needs it. I worry about her, but I’m not going to do something stupid and get in her way. I trust her. Murati’s always been the fighter. She doesn’t need me or anyone to protect her. It’d have to be an extreme situation.”
“I see. I’m glad Murati Nakara can have such a mature relationship.”
“Tch. Weirdo. Is that all you wanted to say?”
She was starting to get irritated. Ever since she saw her in the hall.
Euphemia Rontgent was pleasant enough, but she was being deliberately cryptic.
And Karuniya was hardly in the mood to be stopped in the hall for cryptic question.
“My answer is far more cowardly. For Theresa– I wouldn’t fight. I reckon myself a pacifist of sorts.”
Karuniya glanced at her. She almost wanted to say something nasty.
Something about how they must not have been so close if that was her response.
“However, know this– because of who Murati Nakara is and the path she’s chosen to take, it’s a question that’s much more important to you than it would ever be to me.” Rontgen said by way of parting.
Some time later Karuniya returned to medbay, sat beside her fiance and tried to pore it over.
How did she really feel about fighting? Murati had very strong opinions herself, but–
–aside from silly disagreements how did Karuniya really feel? Did she had a serious opinion?
Her mind went in a loop, unproductive, without a point.
But quite suddenly, the question returned in human form.
In the middle of the battle, Theresa Faraday suddenly visited the medbay.
Dressed in a mechanic’s garb with a white coat over it, some kind of tool in her hand.
Her red hair tossed as she reared back and asked, with a grin and a surprising amount of levity:
“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”