“Huh, what’s going on over there?”
There was a strange commotion across the hall. At first it had only been a few students who had stood around to ogle the girl at the end of the hall, until more and more people realized what had happened back there. That she had chained herself intricately to the handles of the sliding door. This could not by itself prevent the door from being closed or open. It was an automatic door that could be remotely operated and even pressurized under emergencies, so the mechanisms boasted a lot of strength.
But if anyone tried to force the door to open in this situation–
–the criss-crossed chains around her chest and belly were arranged so they would tear the girl apart.
So it was unconscionable that anyone would do so.
Anyone who did would be recorded as a child murderer instantly.
“What a morbid idea! But it’s clever, I suppose. I wonder how she got the chain?”
Karuniya Maharapratham, a preparatory student in the science program, joined the throng of onlookers. Something like this had never happened that she knew about. Certainly there were students who misbehaved but they did so in much more ordinary ways. They talked back or cheated on tests or skipped class. They pulled harmless pranks on the teachers sometimes. This was new. She was curious so she managed to squeeze and slide closer. She was not very tall, but she got a glimpse of the perpetrator.
Chained to the door was a girl with brown skin and long, messy dark hair down to the shoulders, in a slight bob with bangs almost over her face. Her auburn eyes stared out to the crowd with strange intensity. She had on the long-sleeved blue and green uniform of the “young pioneers” of the military program. As far as Karuniya understood it was worn for ceremonial purposes — an interesting choice.
What she could not help but focus on, however, were the eyes of the delinquent girl. She was staring intensely at the crowd with unwavering auburn eyes. Arms crossed, standing straight despite all the cold gazes coming her way. She had so much confidence and determination for a teenager!
Or maybe she was scared stiff and witless. Karuniya couldn’t really say one way or another.
She wanted to think though that this gallant delinquent was being brave rather than foolish.
Behind Karuniya the sea of gossipy students parted to allow a pair of teachers through.
They approached Murati Nakara and stood between her and the ring of onlookers.
“What is the meaning of this Murati? You’re blocking the way to the simulators!”
“Yes, I know exactly what I’m blocking, thank you.” Murati said coldly.
Both teachers looked at each other in disbelief. As if they had not expected that response.
“And the ‘meaning of this’,” Murati continued, “is a protest. It’s a form of protest.”
“Murati, this is highly irregular! If you have issue with something you need to–”
“Lodge a formal complaint? I’ve lodged three separate ones. All were thrown out.”
“Still–” the teachers looked quite nervous. “Murati, you simply can’t–”
Murati put on a little grin. “It’s impossible to remove me without killing or hurting me, so I will list my formal demands.” She began to rattle a series of grievances with remarkable strength behind her voice.
“This Preparatory purports to train young adult students for acceptance into college programs, but its military track is an absolute joke! We do all kinds of stupid paperwork and study but have no means to gain practical skills except by running simulations, to which we have limited access! Yet the assessment test for the non-commissioned officer program in the Academy requires us to pass a practical examination! So who is it that gets into the NCO track, and therefore gets shortlisted to make Junior Petty Officer upon graduation? Do they have to know a guy who knows a guy to get significant time in a cockpit before college? The Simulations room is barely used, so why is access so limited?”
Everyone stood speechless. Murati continued, barely allowing a pause between.
“You want to know the ‘meaning of this’? I demand 24 hour simulator room access for all students! There is no reason to limit entry! And there is no reason to limit entry specifically to a paltry 3 hours a week of simulator time on average! Less paper testing, and more practical study! That’s my demand! We need to be prepared not just for the military practicums but to fight against the Empire in case of emergency! I demand improved readiness, equitable access to resources, and better training! And I will block the simulator room off until I can negotiate with a qualified administrator! End of story!”
For the first time, Murati closed her eyes and laid back against the door.
Surprisingly, none of the teachers tried what Karuniya would have done in that situation. Nobody smacked her upside the head or kicked her or otherwise got physical. Surely Murati had to have the key to her own chains on her person. Or they could have subdued her long enough to take a diamond sabre to the chains. Karuniya thought up all kinds of practical ways to remove the delinquent.
Instead, they ordered everyone to get back to work and ignore Murati.
And perhaps Murati knew it would turn out like that. Maybe she really did have it all planned.
For the next three days, Karuniya saw her in that same hall of the Preparatory every so often. She always stopped to look, though Murati rarely acknowledged anyone who passed by the hall. Sometimes she would see her nibbling on a protein bar. She had hidden pouches of water in her uniform too that she took small, practical sips from. Several students were randomly cruel to her. Most of them jeered but a few went so far out of their way as to throw pens or other things at her every so often.
Despite this, Murati never even replied to those provocations. She just stood there, alone.
That tall slender girl in her gallant dress uniform simply brooded her in corner.
It was the most interesting thing that happened in school in all her years, and Karuniya wished she could have seen every second of the girl’s resistance, if only for personal amusement. In her mind, in that week, this Murati Nakara she had never met possessed something raw and powerful that Karuniya herself could never possibly have. But of course, Karuniya had classes and was busy. She couldn’t stand there staring.
All she had was the passing thought: “could I ever be this dedicated to something?”
Eventually, people met with the girl, there was a lot of talking, and she was removed.
Karuniya did not know, at the time, what happened to her. They lived in different worlds.
Next semester, however, Karuniya noticed some changes in simulator access and use.
There was 24/7 access, and she herself was not just allowed but required to participate.
Casually and without really considering why or how, Karuniya learned to pilot a Diver.
For the central government in Solstice, it was important that everyone in the Union see Mount Raja at least once. It became a symbol of the Union. There was a glitzy tour infrastructure in place to facilitate these trips. The centrality of the Union’s Military Academy in the education of various personnel was one way to get people to Mount Raja. But even the newest cafeteria worker at the most far flung station of the Union could easily check off Mount Raja from their bucket list given nothing but time.
And it was a sight indeed.
Mount Raja was an underwater mount with a peak at 900 depth but that was mainly accessed at 1600 depth on the benthic surface, with facilities spanning the range from the peak to almost 2100 depth underground where the main structure of the Core Pylon was located. Mountain stations such as these were a marvel of engineering that once allowed the Imbrian Empire to create a few cities that were almost as vast as those of the Surface Era colonizers first reshaping the ocean floor for habitation.
Using an enormous borer ship, the Imbrian engineers settling the Nectaris stabbed through Mount Raja and ultimately mounted their Core Pylon at its underground base, with the bored “stab” running through to it creating the first shaft out from which modules could be expanded. Made up of a series of enormous cube-shaped modules radiating out from the central shaft and capped with a sensor tower disguised as the mountain’s peak, the Raja Arcology, as it was technically named, was one of the few places not designed as a prison or barely-habitable factory for hated slaves and servants, but as the center of extraction and management for the Imperial bureaucracy and aristocracy of the colonies.
Boasting over a kilometer of vertical pressurized space, with each of its modules stretching several hundreds of meters around the central shaft, Raja was designed to support a million Imperial bureaucrats and nobles and now supported several million Union personnel. A secondary substation in an adjoining lesser peak a kilometer from Raja’s base was dug into and reachable by tram, adding even more capacity over the past decade. Raja Arcology was the heart of the Union government and the Naval Headquarters.
Elevators and staircases close to the shaft linked the modules vertically. Each module had a similar size when accounting for its space within the rock, but the internal layouts could vary. Some modules were quite novel for station-goers, with high ceilings and only one internal story, such as the module containing the main government building and the Premier’s office, which just had a giant open park surrounding it. Other modules were essentially massive buildings which just read as halls and rooms when one walked out of the elevator. A few popular spaces made use of open stories to have vertical malls with various shops and recreational facilities built encircling some monument or piece of art.
It was this latter type of space that Karuniya Maharapratham found herself in one cool evening in year 971 A.D. Overlooking a post-modern sculpture shimmering with neon lights that caressed her honey-brown skin. Leaning against the railing with a sly smile, trying to show off the fullness of her breasts in her most fashionable polycarbon dress, off shoulder, with flank and hip gaps and a belly window.
She was 20 years old, in the middle of her undergraduate education and on a date with a cool, handsome upperclassman whom, it was rumored, boasted out of this world dick game. Karuniya was living.
She glanced aside, hoping to see her date checking her out through the gaps in her dress.
Instead, Murati Nakara seemed to be contemplating the twisted steel sculpture.
“The spirals and lights remind me of DNA. It’s a very biological piece of art.” She said.
Karuniya smiled. Sidling up closer, side by side looking down from the railing.
Her eyes moved from Murati’s soft slips to her sleek back to her plush, firm ass.
She looked amazing in the Academy’s blue dress uniform. Interesting choice for date wear.
I wonder if she would let me peg her. Karuniya thought, mischievously.
She kind of read her as the taciturn quiet service top but she could have been versatile!
If Murati took the lead though– Karuniya certainly wouldn’t mind getting taken down–
“You’ve been really quiet. I hope I’m not being boring.”
Murati glanced at her with a small smile, they made eye contact.
“Oh no! Everything is fantastic. Should we–”
Karuniya began to reply but–
“You look gorgeous.”
Murati said that in such a sudden, disarmingly casual way that Karuniya almost jumped.
That short messy hair; that sleek handsome jawline, in the multicolor glow of the sculpture.
Karuniya had fallen hard for her since they first had classes together over a year ago.
That odd smoldering loner girl from preparatory had really grown into a prince!
This was her chance– she had to turn all of her distant pining into some real intimacy!
“It’s almost time for our reservation.” Murati said. “Thanks for inviting me Karuniya.”
“Thank you for coming, Murati. It’s going to be amazing.”
Le Traiteur was a co-op restaurant with very limited seating, even despite the backing of the Cultural Ministry as a way to “elevate Union food culture to world standards.” As soon as Karuniya got wind of it she immediately made a reservation. At first she had thought of going alone, simply to treat herself nice after Exams period. But then Murati surprisingly turned out to be receptive to the invitation.
All they had done so far was meet up at the elevators and pass the time.
Karuniya had been nervous, in the days leading up, in the minutes since they met–
Now she was confident though. She looked her best; and Murati was happy with her.
Plus Murati gave off a vibe that was a bit naïve and hall monitor-esque– she always had.
Karuniya thought she could definitely turn this physical if she just played to her charms.
God I am so– I am so embarrassingly pent up. But it’ll be worth it!
Inside the restaurant the walls were tiled a light beige and there were several separated red booths enclosing the tables. Through a narrow central aisle, Murati and Karuniya were led to the farthest booth near the back, and the door was opened with a keycard from one of the staff. Inside, the ambiance was a little more romantic. Metal walls projected the appearance of sultry red silk curtains, and a fake candle-light flickered in the center of a table with two opposing but close seats.
Murati on one side, Karuniya directly across.
Looking into each other’s eyes with faces lit dimly by the wild false fire on the candle.
Karuniya leaned forward a little with a smile.
“So, Murati, I’ve seen you in some of my required military and humanities courses. What is your concentration? I assume you’re not in the Science Corps like me.” Karuniya said, breaking the ice.
“My concentration is in Historical Development of Naval Strategy but I’m not pursuing an academic career.” Murati said. She looked like she had been distracted by the ostentatiousness of the room and caught lightly off-guard when Karuniya actually demanded her attention. “Right now I’m angling for ship Captain. After a few successful campaigns I might parlay that into a role as Commander for a fleet section. But for now I’m just focusing on Captain as solid start. So I have to graduate as a Junior Petty Officer.”
Karuniya blinked. You’re 21 years old? And your goal is already in fleet command?!
“That sounds quite gallant. I’ll definitely be rooting for you.” Karuniya said.
In an environmental impact study that Karuniya had extensively researched for a paper, there was a small factoid that felt relevant here. With Premier Ahwalia having slowed shipbuilding during his first term, the Union was barely on track to complete 27 military ships in 972, even with all of the cheats that modern Union shipbuilding used, like the industrial size Ferrostitchers at Sevastopol and Kashgar stations. In the best case scenario there would be 27 military Captainships open next year when the 27 ships formally launched, since they would need to be inspected, trialed and commissioned.
The Union had something on the order of 50 million people and growing and there were over 900,000 personnel in the Navy and growing. There were hundreds of people more senior than Murati who would be tapped to become Captains ahead of her. And she could forget about becoming a Commander too. There would far less of those promotions available in her career lifetime and far more applicants.
Mathematically, nearly everything was against Murati’s ambition there.
And yet– this only made Karuniya feel fonder for Murati, who spoke so confidently.
She’s a dreamer for sure. I kinda like that. There’s more to her than meets the eye.
For someone who just did all that analysis in her head, there was a certain attraction toward a woman who could just bluntly state that extraordinary things would happen by force of will. And Murati was no fool– she probably knew the odds were against her. It was impossible to be in the career track that she was and not knowing this. And yet, she not only dreamed, but declared it without fear.
“What about you Karuniya? From afar you always struck me as a really driven person.”
“I did? Well, I have pretty humble ambitions actually, I’m just pursuing a PHD.”
“That’s pretty ambitious!” Murati said. “Not many of those are made each year.”
I could say the same for your crazy dreams! Karuniya shouted internally.
“My goal is to become an Oceanographer. I’d like to study the health of our seas.”
At that point, the aperitif arrived, and Murati offered no words of praise or support like the ones Karuniya had given her. Her attention shifted immediately and fully to the food, and Karuniya could not tell if it was just something she didn’t care about or if she was just that easily distracted. There was a part of her, a bit of pride, that felt slightly wounded. Just an ‘I see’ to her own ambitions, huh? She turned her cheek.
That being said, the food was lovely.
Their starter was a faux shrimp cocktail, the shrimp biostitched from red algae and proteins. Karuniya had never eaten real shrimp, but the taste of these was savory, briny and delectable, especially with the sharp, vinegary tomato sauce in the cocktail. Quickly after it was followed by a faux tartare made with specially seasoned plant proteins and chopped pickled vegetables, served with crusty bread and the kicker– real, fresh egg cracked raw over the raw patty and mixed in. No wonder it was a hassle to get a seat.
“It’s so delicious, but it’s gone in a few bites.” Murati said.
“Yes, but the craft is incredible, isn’t it? It’s worth it while it lasts.”
“Oh, it’s magnificent, I just think their logistics have to be really tight to serve so little.”
Logistics huh? What’s going on in that head of yours, Murati Nakara…
Karuniya found her extremely charming.
“Everyone’s been talking about this place, so hopefully the Cultural Ministry will see how much people love it and invest more in restaurants in the future. It took me months to get seats. And when I said I was bringing another person they nearly cancelled. It’s kind of a miracle we’re eating together.”
She made an expression as if to demand Murati’s gratefulness.
To her credit, Murati responded quickly– though with her own little surprise.
“Karuniya, you’re absolutely amazing. I’m completely thankful. I could’ve never gotten this.”
This time, however, Karuniya would not be so easily disarmed.
Play hard to get for a bit.
“Of course I’m amazing. I’m glad you noticed.”
Murati stared at her, nodded quietly, and finished her tartare. No reaction or comment.
Karuniya smiled to herself politely. It’d be fun to tease her more.
For the last course they had a slightly larger plate than the rest. Pickled artichokes arrayed thoughtfully around a biostitched soy cutlet that was white and flaky with shreddable “meat” like the flesh of a lean fish just barely roasted, swimming in a sauce of kelp bubble “caviar” and garlic oil. While the vegetables and the meat alone did not look that novel, the addition of the kelp orbs and infused oil added a new and savory taste profile and a super-modern aesthetic. Karuniya had never seen anything like it.
With their meal, they were each served a tumbler glass of a strong corn wine.
And the bottle was there– so Karuniya felt like making the most of it.
So she immediately downed a whole glass, to Murati’s astonishment.
When their conversation resumed, Karuniya’s speech was loosening a little bit.
“What do you think of Oceanography, Murati?”
“Hmm? I don’t really think anything about it, I suppose.”
“As a future captain you don’t have an opinion on it?”
“Environmental policy is environmental policy. I don’t think I’d ever be a part of it.”
Maybe it was the alcohol, but she wanted to poke fun at Murati a bit more.
“Murati, you said I struck you as driven before. So, I take it you’ve been looking at me?”
Karuniya grinned at her over steepled fingers.
Murati blinked for a moment. “Um, I mean– we did that group project once.”
She is cute. I really want to tease her more.
“You’ve been looking, so what do you think? Ladies love it when you flatter their ego.”
There was no hesitation. “I think you’re really amazing, I already said it–
“I was actually surprised you invited me.”
“Murati,” Karuniya said, delighting in spelling out every syllable, “I’m going to need you to say more than four or five words at a time you know. A lady loves to hear herself talked about in exacting detail.”
Murati laughed a little. “I’m a lady too you know.”
“It’s the principle– it’s the principle of the thing, you understand.”
“Sure. Alright, Karuniya.” Murati, smiling, lifted a finger to her lips and seemed to think for a moment. “You always struck me from a distance as someone really organized, ambitious, a go-getter, someone who always gets what she wants. You always left class with a bunch of other girls, and I’ve seen you in the halls with big chatty groups. You’re always really fashionable too, even in school. So, I always thought you were a really popular girl, a queen bee.” Murati said. “I didn’t think I merited your attention.”
Karuniya giggled. She reached her hand across the table and briefly poked Murati’s.
She is cute, but she’s such a dork. How does she not see herself in the mirror?
“I’m flattered, I’m flattered. Then let’s have a toast! To Karuniya Maharapratham!”
She clinked her glass of corn wine to Murati’s own and took another long drink.
Murati raised her glass as well and took a drink too.
“Thank you so much Karuniya. It was an amazing meal.”
“Indeed, indeed. We have to finish this though– it’s good stuff.”
Karuniya swirled her remaining corn wine in her glass.
“Of course. But then you have to let me walk you home. You’ve drank a lot more than me.”
Murati had something of a look to her. Maybe it was Karuniya imagining things but–
She looked determined again.
That face– that expression that would not take ‘no’ for an answer.
Karuniya didn’t think she had drunk that much, but it wasn’t actually a tough decision.
Wherever Murati wanted to take her, she would go, until there was a definitive parting.
All of the sordid, sexual plots in her mind had washed away with the alcohol.
She was having fun just being with Murati. They were breaking the ice. It was lovely.
Karuniya wouldn’t push it any further than that but– she wanted to savor it a bit more.
So they drank, and they made more small talk about school.
Once their plates were cleaned out, the two of them were quickly but politely ushered out of the venue by the staff. There were people waiting, after all, and not very many booths to eat in. Plus the restaurant only opened for a few hours on a few nights– very exclusive. Having gone through the experience Karuniya almost felt it was dream-like in memory. Colored lights, lovely smells, sumptuous tastes.
And she had been through such a special event with none other than Murati Nakara.
Ever since she had that class with her– no, even before that.
That one time when she was the preparatory school’s terrifying delinquent.
Karuniya had always wondered what she was really like– whether she was nice–
–whether she would kiss her if she asked.
Childish fancies rekindled because of how small a place Solstice truly was.
As they walked to the elevator close to the main shaft, Karuniya raised her voice.
“That was lovely, don’t you think?” She said.
“It had a great atmosphere.” Murati said. “I hope they are able to expand.”
Karuniya glanced at the neon lights on the sculpture, meters away off of the railings.
Her heart fluttered a tiny bit–
“It might sound silly, but I had actually been meaning to ask you out for a while.”
“I’m happy to hear that– honestly, I’m surprised, I thought I was kind of plain.”
“I’ve had my eye on you for a while. I hope this won’t be our last date, Murati.”
Murati looked quite taken aback by that. Karuniya giggled and grabbed her arm.
“It’s that casual confidence of yours. You’re always so blunt– it’s pretty attractive.”
“I’m flattered. I– I really don’t know what to say. I would love a second date.”
“Did you know there’s rumors about you among the girls at the Academy, Murati Nakara?”
Was it the alcohol? Was it bringing out the sadist in her? Why did she say that?
“Now you’re just teasing me.” Murati said, looking a bit worried.
Karuniya brought her index finger close to Murati’s lips. “Maybe I’ll tell you– after I confirm.”
“Well, if you say so.” Murati smiled awkwardly. “So, where are we headed?”
“I have a single on the 6th level.” Karuniya said. “I live alone.”
Murati nodded. “Now I’m really glad I’m not letting you stumble down there by yourself.”
“I am not stumbling, Murati Nakara.” Karuniya said, her feet just a tiny bit slippery.
Close to the shaft, they took one of many glass elevator tubes from the 8th Tier down to the 6th and stepped off. Rather than an open space, they were immediately met with a long hall. There were vending machines with broth, bread, and dried vegetable packets available, and a small cafeteria that served out of a window, now shuttered for the evening. From there it was all internal halls, long series of doors into rooms. There was soft synthetic carpet beneath their feet, plastic plants on the corners.
This was home, for Karuniya, who wanted to get a grown-up space quickly and leave the dorms.
“I haven’t drunk that much, you know.” Karuniya said. “I have all my faculties.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’m still seeing you to your place. What’s the number?” Murati said.
Murati dutifully accompanied her down the hall, to the left and to her metal door.
Karuniya put her ID on the door, the surface of which scanned and opened.
She didn’t really think about it, but she walked in–
–and Murati walked in right behind her. She stepped past Karuniya as the door shut.
“So, tell me more about these rumors.” Murati said, an arm outstretched to the wall.
Keeping Karuniya from advancing past her. Smiling with a devilish little glint in her eyes.
Oh, you do have some hidden depths, Murati Nakara?
It was clear from their expressions what they both wanted.
Without words, they drew closer together, and Karuniya personally confirmed the rumors.
Idiot! Meathead! Stubborn fucking–
Karuniya’s subconscious had started off yelling at Murati Nakara.
On the heels of a deeply uncomfortable, hurtful scene about their new ship assignment–
She started to feel as she stomped over to the botanical garden in Thassal Station, that she was yelling almost as much at herself as she was at Murati. For her presumptuous foolishness, for her selfishness. Yes, Murati had yelled at her and acted unreasonable and aggressive. Nobody liked to get yelled at, not especially by their partner. Nobody responded happily to that– but on some level, the monologue in her brain that had begun excoriating Murati also sounded more and more like it was about her.
Stupid, selfish, presumptuous fool. You ruined everything. You.
“I was just afraid she would abandon me. I thought–”
She thought that she could solve all of their problems in one fell swoop.
Murati wanted a ship to command, Karuniya wanted to pursue her science career.
They could both have gotten what they wanted and stayed together if–
No. I would have gotten what I wanted. I never even thought about Murati.
Karuniya raised her hands to her eyes, stifling tears in the middle of a hall. She was the one in the wrong, she told herself. Afraid that her time with Murati would end too soon, that their relationship would shatter. Their bond that had so far taken them together all the way from Solstice to Thassal.
Soon it would separate them. It had to. Murati was a real soldier, and she was just a scientist.
She had been so afraid of that. She had not even considered how Murati would feel.
Now– had she made the biggest possible mistake? Had she been the one to tear them apart?
“I’ll apologize. I’ll dress up and go to her place and apologize. That’s all I can do.”
Despite everything, Karuniya really and truly loved Murati.
It was that love which caused her to act rashly. Love– and a distant feeling of inferiority.
“I can’t get in her way again like this. I’ll talk to her and if she wants, we’ll make things right and call the expedition off. I can’t– I shouldn’t have tried to do this. I was being selfish– I really hope she’ll take me back. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to end things like this. God damn it, I’m an idiot.”
So Karuniya dressed up, visited Murati that night. They made up; their story continued.
However, Karuniya came to understand– she and Murati existed in different worlds. This colored her approach to Murati. She couldn’t presume what was right for her or she would hurt her again like she did at Thassal. And she couldn’t afford to fuck up with Murati like that again. She wouldn’t be able to bear it.
Even after ending up on a warship together nevertheless– it was in the back of her mind.
Would she hurt Murati again? Would their divided worlds continue to tear them apart?
How could she truly, deeply support her– what did that look like, between a soldier and a scientist?
“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”
What kind of question was that? Who did this woman think she was?
Theresa Faraday stood in front of Murati and Karuniya in the infirmary, waving her arms, grinning, dressed in a mechanic’s coveralls with a white coat over them, her red ponytail dancing behind her as she gesticulated wildly– what did she think was happening here? Did she not understand the current situation? Ever since she spoke with Rontgen earlier Karuniya knew something was off with them.
They were plotting something. Maybe it was benign, but they were still plotting.
“I’ll need you to expand that question before I answer, Faraday.” Karuniya said.
“I agree.” Murati said. “What business do you have with these love quizzes, Faraday?”
Karuniya felt a bit relieved that Murati was not offended by her response and supported her so quickly.
But of course, they were both more mature than that. Karuniya should have known.
Without losing one iota of energy, Theresa Faraday resumed speechifying.
“At this very moment, this ship is facing a crisis the scope of which neither of you could possibly understand.” Theresa said. “That Antenora sails the seas with the backing of many powerful and shadowy forces. It contains elite soldiers with highly advanced technology that you can’t hope to match. In order to even the odds, you’ll need every single advantage you can get! I’m here to provide another!”
Murati and Karuniya glanced at each other and back at Theresa Faraday.
“What do you mean by advantage?” Karuniya asked.
“You two going out there and fighting the good fight! And this young lady too I guess.” Theresa suddenly pointed to a baffled Sameera in the adjacent bed, who watched the argument quietly. “Right now, your squadron is down its best pilots isn’t it? You can’t hope to win in this condition! You need to sortie!”
Murati narrowed her eyes.
“This advantage you offer us– does it concern Solarflare LLC’s ‘intellectual property’?”
Theresa grinned broadly at Murati’s question. “Indeed, indeed. You are perceptive! But– let’s just say that there are some open source components in there which you’ll be interested in, Murati Nakara. It’s based on something of value to you. After she met you, Euphrates started planning to part with it–”
“Yeah, yeah. Our names are Euphrates and Tigris. Let’s move on from that though.”
“So you were lying–?”
“Of course were lying! Your Captain must have suspected as much throughout.”
“Forgive me for wanting to think the two of you had more character.”
Theresa– Tigris, crossed her arms and pouted.
“Euphrates’ character is the entire reason for this whole mess so don’t give me that shit. She has such a deep and boundless character that this is as much as I could possibly do for you without upsetting her. Listen, in due time, we will turn ourselves in and confess to the truth of everything. But right now, for her sake, and for your own sakes, I need you two to listen to me and get ready to go out there. Okay?”
“You’re talking awful fast for someone who might be sending us to our deaths.”
Murati glanced over at Sameera. With a knowing look, Sameera stood up from her bed.
Dressed in a medical smock, she approached Tigris cracking her knuckles.
“Please listen to her, Ms. Tigris.” She said her firm but gentle. “I’m only in bed to assuage the doc’s feelings here. I can still get a bit rowdy. You’re not calling the shots here. It’s time to quit acting like you’re the boss and start listening to the superior officer here. Are we understanding each other now?”
Sameera cracked a little grin.
Standing over a head taller than Tigris, she did cause the smaller woman to cow a bit.
“Okay, okay, whatever! You win!” Tigris said. “Look, I’m not the bad guy here!”
“You’re not.” Murati said. “Good response. Stand down, Sameera.”
“Heh, you know, I really thought you wanted me to smack her, squad leader.”
“Bah! We’re wasting time!” Tigris sighed. “What do you want from me?”
Murati sighed openly.
“Tell us what your plan actually is for starters.” Karuniya interjected.
“To put it really simple: I have a Diver you two can get into! I have a super cool state of the art Diver that you can use to fight! And like I dunno the cat can get into hers too and be a big hero as well, I don’t care! But I’m not giving my Helios to anyone else but you two. It needs reciprocity between its pilots, otherwise it won’t work properly. And since you,” Tigris pointed at Murati, “are injured, it’ll have to be her,” she pointed at Karuniya, “who does the most piloting! Does that need any further clarifying?”
“Do you want me to crawl behind her seat?” Murati said. “What are you talking about?”
“My machine boasts a two-seater cockpit! It was designed for me and Euphrates as partners!”
Karuniya scoffed. “Designed for her? I thought this ‘Euphrates’ was a pacifist.”
“That’s precisely the point of it.” Tigris said. “You’ll see when I show it to you.”
“Hold on.” Karuniya said, raising a hand. “This is going too fast. I’m not sure about this.”
Her voice trembled just a little. That idea– piloting a Diver with Murati. It felt–
“I’m not a great pilot, you know. I’m pretty crummy with Divers.” Karuniya said.
“You’re better than you think.” Murati said suddenly.
Karuniya turned to face her. Something crawled in her stomach. “Murati, I–”
“I’m not saying you have to do what Tigris says.” Murati said. “I’m just saying.”
She smiled, in a gentle and disarming way that Karuniya could not really place.
“You both should really just do what I am saying to do.” Tigris interrupted.
For a moment they looked at her, and she seemed to stare at them quite intently.
“Really consider doing what I’m telling you to. You really want to, I swear.”
Karuniya thought she saw a weird glint in her eyes– but maybe it was just her imagination.
There was a brief silence, and then Tigris turned around with her head in her hands.
“Can you please deliberate faster. Asking as a buddy, as a pal.” Tigris moaned.
“She’s a real bundle of energy, huh?” Sameera said, still standing guard beside her.
“Ignore her for a bit. Murati, how do you feel about this?” Karuniya asked.
Seated in bed on pillows as comfortable and fluffy as Karuniya could make them, still smiling at the group, Murati closed her eyes briefly as if to think. All this time that she had been in the hospital, Karuniya never thought she had seemed reduced in any way, she was no smaller or weaker or more vulnerable. But there was something about that smile that seemed like an inkling of who Murati was that had been missing for a moment and had suddenly sprung back. Karuniya had seen that expression before.
That smile– and the smoldering, determined gaze when her eyes next opened.
“I believe entirely in my pilots. I believe that they can accomplish this mission. I have the utmost confidence in them, Miss Tigris.” Murati said. “I don’t think that you need to worry about them. I think they could find a way to succeed. There might be casualties, but they can pull it off.”
Tigris snapped back around with her hands in the air in frustration.
“Are you serious? Don’t be facile! If it’s a war, you use everything you have to win!”
“I was getting to that.” Murati said. “I wouldn’t make this decision without reason.”
She turned her attention to her side, to Karuniya instead of Tigris.
Reaching out a hand to Karuniya’s own and laying her palm over it.
“I want to protect my comrades. That’s how I’ve always operated. But I’m not responsible exclusively for the lives of others. One hard lesson I’ve had to learn is that I’m also responsible for my own life. And furthermore, you are asking Karuniya to be responsible for her own life, my life, and the lives of others. Tigris, maybe in your mind, we’re just units in the calculus of a battle, that you can slot into your gear to make it move. But Karuniya and I need to make this decision. I am not going to do it on my own.”
“Alright! Let’s give them some space then.” Sameera said suddenly, reading the room.
Tigris stood speechless for a moment as Sameera ushered her out into the hall.
Leaving Murati and Karuniya alone for a moment to make their decision.
“How do you really feel about what Tigris said? About us fighting together?” Murati asked.
For a moment Karuniya contemplated her answer. She didn’t want to be impulsive.
Did Murati really need her? Was this the best way? It wasn’t just about Karuniya’s feelings.
When Murati went out to fight that Leviathan weeks and weeks ago, recklessly, forcing her need for heroism onto everyone until they let her go. Karuniya had been terrified. How could she not be? And then, Murati decided to take the whole fight against the Iron Lady into her own hands and got herself put in this infirmary in this condition. Karuniya felt mortified about it. She really thought, for the first time, that Murati might have died. She had to grapple with that feeling– with possibly being left behind, alone.
No matter how much she wanted to protect Murati, how much she didn’t want to let go–
She still felt conflicted now. What if– what if she just got in Murati’s way again?
She couldn’t just pretend that it was the best choice because she wanted to do it.
It felt selfish of her. It felt like there had to be a better choice. One that didn’t involve her.
“Murati, I’m no pilot and you know that. No matter what gadget Tigris gives me.”
“I understand if you want out of this situation, but don’t put yourself down.”
“I’m trying to be realistic! Murati, I’m just not as strong as you. I’ve never been!” She said. It was difficult to put into words. It sounded so childish coming out of her lips. “You’re extremely brave, you’re a good fighter, but more than anything you are impossibly stubborn. You throw yourself at life like a bullet. I’m not capable of acting as crazy self-assured as you can be. I can’t just follow you out there.”
I can’t really say it to her, but I’ve always felt like I can’t stand on the same plane as her.
When the two of them first started going out, their relationship was a bit noncommittal.
Karuniya almost wanted to think of her as a best friend she had sex with more than a girlfriend– because their relationship was characterized by a parting that was sure to come. Their positions were so separate. She wanted to study the waters of the Union and push for reforms in Union water policy, while Murati wanted to lead a war. She never said it, but that was tacitly what she wanted to do. To end the war with the Empire by her own hand. To become a grand commanding savior of the Union Navy.
Someday Murati will leave me– these words stained her love and admiration.
It was different now. They were together. They had made commitments to each other.
And yet, the conflict was still present. Murati could still leave her forever.
They did not stand on the same plane. Karuniya was not entirely Murati’s equal.
Because she could not follow Murati as a “soldier” into battle. She was no good in a fight.
It was selfish to think she could do so, when she hadn’t a fraction of Murati’s strength.
“I know how your head works. I know you don’t really mean all the stuff you said to Tigris. You will absolutely just go out there because you want to fight alongside your squadron. That’s who you are. You’re a soldier; arguing about that with you is pointless. I’ll let you go; the captain will have to let you go. Since you’re going to disobey the doctor anyway– you should just take Sameera with you. Forget what Tigris said, she’ll buckle and hand over the keys to Sameera, she has no choice.”
Karuniya got it out of her chest and sighed deeply, feeling more than a little pathetic.
What she wanted the most in that moment was to support Murati. Despite that, Karuniya loved, respected, admired Murati enough to know that if Murati needed a partner in a fight, that could not possibly be Karuniya, right? She was a spreadsheet nerd while Murati was a big strong hero.
They would always have this separation. Murati was the fighter, Karuniya could never–
“Karuniya, you’re incredibly strong too! You have no idea how much!”
Murati grabbed hold of Karuniya’s hands and lifted them, taking them fully into her own.
With tears in her eyes, she stared straight into Karuniya’s own.
Seeing Murati’s emotional expression made Karuniya want to tear up as well.
“I always felt like I didn’t deserve you. I was just some stupid meathead always being stubborn and causing problems everywhere I went. When we started dating– it was really unfair to you, but I always thought ‘Karuniya deserves so much better than this’. I thought I was selfish for wanting you for myself. Because you were this amazing and smart and dedicated woman with a real goal you were pursuing. And I was just a fool who wanted to fight. I told myself I had an enemy only I could destroy– but I’ve seen the face of it now. I can’t fight it alone. I really do need your kind of strength too, Karuniya.”
Her hands gripped Karuniya so tightly, like she was afraid to let go.
“You’ve always told me how amazing I am. And I have tried very strongly to internalize it. I wish there was something that I could say to you that could convey how much I love you and what an amazing person I think you are in return. You are so much stronger than you think. You have an enormous enemy to confront as well, and you have shown me the incredible conviction you possess to fight it. You have sharpened your own weapons against it: your theories, your intellect, your sensibility, your empathy, and your optimism, your unwavering hope in a better world. You’re incredibly strong, Karuniya.”
Murati briefly dried her eyes. “Karuniya, you told me some time back that you admired the woman who didn’t give up on her dreams no matter how crazy they were. And that seeing me inspired you to get a bit crazy too. If so, then forgive me, but I’ll say what I feel completely selfishly and without filter. I do want to go out to fight. I want to protect everyone. I feel ashamed to be stuck in here helplessly– and I want you to come with me. I have a hunch I’m not the only one who lied to Tigris about my true feelings.”
Karuniya shut her eyes, cutting off the tears for an instant. She laughed a little at herself.
God damn it. I hate that you saw through me. I’m absolutely going to tease you for it.
“Murati Nakara, you really are selfish, and a stupid meathead too.” Karuniya said.
“Huh?” Murati was briefly taken aback, until–
Karuniya reached around behind Murati’s head and pulled her close.
First touching foreheads together affectionately–
Then taking her into a kiss. A gentle kiss, held like an embrace for a few warm seconds.
“Um. Well. How to summarize the situation?” Chief Akulantova shut her eyes and crossed her arms.
She was on a video feed from the hangar to one of the secondary partitions of the main screen of the bridge. The Captain awaited her explanation while the entire Bridge crew watched with varying degrees of interest and confusion. Finally she spoke. “Fifteen minutes ago a loud red-head showed up here kind of doing and saying whatever she wants. Theresa Faraday was it? Murati Nakara, Sameera al-Shahouh and Karuniya Maharapratham came in with her. They got all the sailors hooked on some heroic scheme, and they’ve all hastily pried apart one of Solarflare’s containers. There was a Diver inside it.” Akulantova looked over her shoulder. “Chief Lebedova is kind of torn on what to do, and I personally don’t relish having to beat the paste out of a bunch of sailors who are just really worried about the situation. I think we should just let everyone go about their business and punish their unruliness individually later.”
Akulantova smiled cheerfully at her own suggestion. She looked truly unbothered.
On the Captain’s chair, Korabiskaya was holding her head in her hands with frustration.
Then the whole bridge rattled– a munition from the Antenora had gone off nearby.
There was no way they could discuss this with the length it required.
“You and Lebedova will take full responsibility for the hangar! I can’t divert my attention!”
The Captain dismissed Akulantova and returned to commanding the bridge.
Alexandra Geninov looked down at her own station with increasing concern.
It was truly unfair. That Antenora–
How could an early game boss like this have such intense final boss energy?
A boss battle–
She was wracking her brain to come up with an answer. How could she use what she had to defeat her enemy with pure gumption and systems mastery? You could pull off incredible upsets in video game battles by knowing the systems really well. That had to be true for real battles too. Alex took stock of her own loadout. She had her skills as a gamer– and she had torpedoes of a few different payloads.
Torpedoes had not worked previously.
Probably torpedoes could be counted on to keep working the same if nothing else changed.
Her skills as a gamer were her wildcard. Difficult to harness, but powerful when deployed.
(“Okay but what the fuck does that even mean?” she screamed internally at herself.)
Now she started holding her own head in her hands much like Ulyana had been.
“Firing 150 mm guns and starboard 76 mm guns!”
Alex peered beside her at Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa’s gunnery station.
Then she peered at the main screen.
Three 76 mm guns and the double 150 mm guns on the turret fired on the Antenora.
By the time the tracking items appeared on the predictive imaging the shots had already landed.
“I’m starting to be able to pick up the sound of that shield of theirs when ordnance crashes into it– it’s distinctive. It does remind me of a distant and subtle agarthic annihilation.” said Fatima al-Suhar, the sonar operator, with a downcast look. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we had an effect on target.”
“Curses!” Fernanda cried out.
“Biomass levels from the Gorge are beginning to surge. We’re breaking 80 Katov.”
Braya Zachikova spoke up in a droning, robotic voice from her own station.
“Calculating the peak– potentially close to 250 to 300 Katov within twenty minutes.”
“When it rains it pours!” Captain Korabiskaya said in frustration. “Brace for communications issues and keep shooting! I want torpedoes and gunnery to keep pressure up on the Antenora! If you can’t put a round on the target then detonate just off of the hull! The shockwaves will at least rattle them!”
Rising biomass introduced a sense of desperation. Soon their sensors would be clouded.
Ship predictive imagers and rangefinders used a combination of various sensors to correct each other and ultimately generate the best possible predictive data out of various data sources. The primary arrays for generating imagery and collecting targeting data were acoustic/SONAR and LADAR. LADAR briefly flashed extremely powerful but short-lived lasers to gather its data. These laser effectors were installed on the deck and underside of the Brigand for the fullest possible coverage of the surrounding geography.
For a LADAR scan, the key elements were power capacity and optic quality. By 979 A.D. the power output of the laser effectors and the quality of the optic lenses allowed effective range in perfect conditions up to a kilometer. For the laser arrays to image farther out in water with less scattering, they needed to consume more power and put more strain on the equipment. More power and a longer imaging period were necessary to get a higher resolution image and thus a better prediction. So it was a tradeoff between these elements to decide how good of a picture you needed to get and how often it needed to update. In open combat, using the LADAR as the primary imager could put a lot of strain on it.
One helpful innovation was the use of computer algorithms to synthesize different kinds of sensor data. First a powerful LADAR scan would create a “master image” which would be altered moment to moment using fluid data, acoustic data and complex mathematics to deliver “best guess” predictions. This allowed the LADAR to be run less in ship to ship combat where the variables of where the enemy could move were more limited. This was the venerable standard on ships– and led to a few superstitions among officers as to whether the prediction was any good, since machine learning introduced potential errors.
That was the magic of predictive imagery and how it allowed humans to kill each other underwater.
This of course assumed perfect water conditions: water turbidity levels of less than 25 Katov scale.
At 100-150 Katov of red biomass concentration in the water, continuing to image with the LADAR array would require outputting more laser power, straining even the exotic matter lenses and agarro-lattice effectors of the Union’s current imaging LADARs to their uppermost limits. They would definitely need to service the sensor array after the battle was over to prevent a breakdown later down the line.
At 300 Katov there was not an imaging system on the planet that could continue to present a clear image without burning all of the sensor equipment out. This would ultimately affect the ability of the main gunner to target enemy ships. Without LADAR to correct against the raw acoustic data, in a battlefield this noisy with munitions from the Divers and the circling ships, they could find their guns near-completely blinded. Soon they could be in a situation where it was impossible to put a 150 mm round anywhere near the Antenora. Torpedoes could work by using camera navigation, but not well.
On the bridge the tension was palpable. They could barely follow the Diver battle because everyone had scattered and Zachikova did not want to risk exposing the drone too far off the seafloor. Meanwhile the Antenora was putting a ton of pressure on them. Now the rising biomass put them on a clock too. If they could not do something about the Antenora before the area became saturated, then the initiative would fall to the enemy. With their shields and higher speed, they could close in with impunity within the biomass cloud, absorbing any retaliatory blindfire, trapping the Brigand and collecting their prize.
They weren’t faster than the Antenora, they could not withstand anywhere near as much fire, and they did not know what the situation could be like if they were crippled and boarded. Right now the only reason the Antenora couldn’t just run right up to them after shrugging off all their fire was that the Divers were in between them, and that the Antenora needed to be careful to collect their VIP. Even with that handicap they were still schooling the Brigand– it was at this point no contest between the two ships.
Alex had even overheard the captain of the Antenora was a stone cold badass from how Korabiskaya and the Rontgen lady reacted to just talking to her. That Rontgen started hemorrhaging even!
All they did was call this lady for a few minutes!
Alex bit her finger, thinking.
If someone didn’t come up with a plan soon, they were fucked.
But they didn’t even know the properties of that defense system.
So how could they do anything about it?
Alex took in a deep breath.
She tried to center herself, to dig deep into the palace of her mind.
Big screens, the latest graphics, the roar of the crowd watching her compete–
They were not just a stupid pass-time. Video games required tactics and discipline. Alex would not be half the soldier she was without video games. Nobody believed her, but she truly thought they had taught her many things. Hand-eye coordination, quick thinking, the ability to read systems and see patterns. Fuck, her reading level would probably be shitty without all the RPGs she had played and all the time she spent arguing about the best characters on the BBSes. Video games had molded her into who she was.
Most of all, they gave her something she wasn’t useless at.
Everyone needed one of those.
Think, Alex. This is a game. What are the systems? What can you do?
And more importantly– what haven’t you done yet? What’s the unexpected trump card?
She and Fernanda held the ship’s direct combat power in their hands.
If anyone was going to break that defense it had to be them.
They had all this ordnance, and they had fired it at the enemy to no avail–
Video games, video games, there had to be something–
Fernanda was the key! She had been the key all along!
“Combo attacks! That’s it! We haven’t tried combo attacks!”
Fernanda stared as Alex shouted and threw her hands up. Then quickly retracted them.
“Combo attacks are a staple in video games.” Alex replied, lowering her voice to Fernanda.
Despite her clear skepticism, Fernanda played along and spoke only between themselves.
“Have you even the merest inkling of the situation we’re embroiled in?” She whispered.
Her drawn-wide eyes looked at Alex with a fathomless disgust.
Fernanda had no respect for her as a gamer. She had no respect for gamers whatsoever.
However, maybe, she had a little respect for Alex as a person.
Otherwise, she would have just told the captain that Alex was being gamer-y next to her.
And maybe in this situation Alex wouldn’t be scolded. But in others–
Nevertheless. Alex felt she was on the right path.
She finally had enough relationship points with Fernanda to whisper to her.
And this allowed her to open the route where she and Fernanda could execute–
–a sick combo attack.
She realized then that she should not tell this to Fernanda in that particular way.
Or else Fernanda’s small amount of favor toward her might be completely incinerated.
For a moment Alex waited for Fernanda to object to the nickname. She did not. Weird.
Alex continued, “Fern, we need to try hitting the same spot together at the same time.”
Fernanda stared at her for a moment. “Coordinating a torpedo and shells simultaneously?”
“Uh huh. Cool idea right?”
“You have no idea how impossible it is to time that, do you? My shells are a hundred times faster than your torpedoes. There is no possible way that we could land the shots at the same time.”
Alex noticed she was not saying this in a cutesy complicated way. She didn’t bring it up.
“Going on like this won’t work either.” Alex said. “We have to mix it up!”
Fernanda resisted. “We may yet be able to pierce their armor with enough ordnance.”
“I don’t think individual shells are going to work. They haven’t worked yet. But if we cause a really, really huge explosion right on top of the shield, in the same place, maybe we can overload it or something. We don’t know how it works– but we know that what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, Fern! I have an um– a real strong gut feeling about my plan, you know! Can it hurt to try something different?”
“It’ll hurt in the sense of lost ordnance and time.” Fernanda said.
“I’m not joking around, I’m being serious. I believe in this– would you please trust me?”
Alex’s tone of voice went from confident to almost pleading.
Reflexively, she reached out a hand to Fernanda under their stations.
Fernanda stared at the hand below, and then at her.
They had started off on a wrong foot, but across countless night shifts–
Alex got to know her a little bit– and there was one thing she really did like about Fernanda.
“Fine. I will trust you just this once. Don’t get used to it, gamer.”
When it counts, she is really good-natured.
Under their stations, Fern’s hand gave hers a brief but firm grip.
Alex nodded her head in acknowledgment. She felt a bit hyped up– and anxious.
I– I can’t disappoint her now, right? It’d be such a bottom move.
“I hope you two had a productive conference!” the captain called out. “Keep firing!”
Alex and Fernanda looked back over their shoulders nodded and turned back to their stations. In order to satisfy the captain they each fired one more barrage as ineffective as the last few had been. The Antenora was not quick to retaliate, giving them a bit of breathing room. While their weapons cooled down they reconvened in whispers, huddling close to each other in order to enact their new strategy.
“So gamer, enlighten me as to the rest of your conspiracy?” Fernanda said.
Alex smiled, cool and collected.
“First, I’m going to DM Zachikova and ask her to crunch the numbers.”
Fernanda sighed, but she did not protest.
From her station, Alex wrote a quick text to Zachikova’s station and sent it out.
“Yo! Can you run the numbers to get a torpedo and a shell to land at the same time?”
A text message quickly returned: “Don’t @ me ever again. I will headbutt you.”
Fernanda stared over Alex’s shoulder with narrowed eyes.
“You’ve become maestro to an orchestra of irritation whose song has spread quite far.”
Alex did not comment on Fernanda resuming her flowery speech.
“Allow me to scribe the message before your plot is utterly buried in this gorge.”
“No, no, I got it.” Alex replied. “Your guns will cool off soon, fire another barrage.”
“If you say so, gamer.”
That hint of vinegar returned to the tone with which she said ‘gamer’.
Alex returned to her screen and typed a new message.
“I’ll let you into the bridge to play with the drone all you want if I’m night shift.”
Moments later a message arrived with an attachment. The accompanying message read:
“Deal. I can’t program something on short notice but try running her station clock like this.”
That attachment contained instructions for setting up their clocks to help them time the attack and how to carry it out, along with a tiny doodle of Zachikova in a graduation hat pointing at the explanations. Because Alex’s torpedoes were the slowest of the two, Alex would fire a torpedo at consistent maximum speed and Fernanda would use her station’s clock program to run a countdown and aim at an agreed upon location. She would then shoot at the appropriate time– and the shell should strike on time with the torpedo hitting the target. This execution was sort of what Alex was thinking too.
She ran the instructions by Fernanda quickly, who sighed.
“While I am a gifted witch of many arts, I am also only human, possessing only human reflexes.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem if it takes you a tiny bit to react to the clock and shoot right?”
“On the contrary, gamer, with these timings, any hesitation on my part would bring about our failure.” Fernanda sighed. “Nevertheless, since we are reduced to merely shooting torpedoes and shells into a mountain at this point there’s no reason not to try this imaginative scheme of yours.”
“Right. Right. Thanks.”
Alex felt a shiver inside her. They really were going to do it– so it could fail.
In fact it was much more likely to fail than succeed. That drove a spike of anxiety into her gut.
This wasn’t entirely about winning or losing, about a gamer’s pride, or whatever, but–
Fuck, can I please get one thing right? One thing right in my entire life?
Her head started to get scrambled. She was near to having a meltdown, so much anxiety–
She drew in a breath, tried to fight off all the thoughts–
But everything came crashing down on her shoulders for a second.
Who was she kidding? In this situation all she could do was panic.
She was a loser– a useless loser. Always a loser.
No matter how many competitions she won and how much she touted herself.
She couldn’t ever win where it mattered.
All her trophies didn’t make up for all the things Alex had failed at.
Academy, society, family–
All the people she had let down– all the things she had run away from–
Video games became an escape in more than one way.
It was the only place she ever won anything. The only thing she felt good at.
All the pressure– how much she was pushed and how little she was accepted–
She still heard the shouting in her head. Her father, her teachers, her superior officers–
Everyone knew she was a loser! A born loser! Everyone could see it!
Despite everything she knew, the competence she had shown with torpedoes, the fact that she was on this mission– none of that made up for all the scorn of her family, her failure to achieve, and how no matter what she did, how seriously she did it, everyone always thought of her as just a weird clown. But this time– it wasn’t even about herself! If they didn’t win they’d be dead.
And that’d be the end– no more deferring her life and responsibilities, she’d have none.
I don’t get how a lot of shit works, but I don’t want to die–
–and I don’t want any of these people to die because I fucked up!
I can’t fuck up that colossally can I? Everything else would be tiny compared to that.
Thinking about the type of situation she was caught up in, she thought she’d cry.
She probably looked like a nervous wreck and a coward all the time. Nobody liked her.
It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter! Snap out of it. We can’t give up.
But she really was doing her best. She was just doing everything she could to keep calm.
Alex Geninov couldn’t help but run her mouth. She needed the story that she told of herself.
I’m the big damn hero of a weird game. A weird, sad game with a lot of ups and downs.
Telling herself this, and trying to put out of her mind all the creeping evil thoughts–
I won’t fail this one. I won’t say I sat here and did nothing. I won’t run away either.
“Torpedo out!” She declared, grasping her joystick with firm determination.
“You can do it, Geninov! Strike true!”
The Captain’s voice was so supportive. She didn’t know how much Alex needed it.
“I won’t let you down ma’am!” She replied.
At her side, Fernanda ran the clock. The plan was on.
“Port sidepod.” Alex said. Fernanda nodded, not taking her eyes off her station.
At maximum speed the torpedo would hit the Antenora in less than a minute.
Please, please, please.
On the main screen a blurry, lagging prediction of her torpedo appeared.
The Antenora circling hundreds of meters away. That little blip neared and neared.
Her torpedo felt so insignificant, like Alex herself–
Like someone who could do nothing in the face of that evil juggernaut–
No, no! Come on–!
Focused on the screen, guiding the projectile–
Through the stream of fire from the Antenora’s support guns–
Because Alex was pretty tall and the stations so close together, she brushed her leg against Fernanda’s again in the anxiety of the moment. Normally this ticked off Fernanda, who in a calm and ordinary situation wanted the least to do with Alex that she could. But at that moment, Alex felt something back– two pats on her leg. Not to tell her to retract it, but– in support of her–?
Impulsively, Alex took Fernanda’s hand into her own.
Squeezing those slender, soft, warm fingers.
Her grip was not rejected. Maybe there was a shared comfort.
On her station, the broad side of the Antenora loomed massively in front of the camera.
Her eyes felt hot. She thought she saw for a brief moment a flash of color–
Fernanda’s hand conveyed her pulse and Alex felt receptive to it.
For a second, Alex thought she understood her– they felt alike, reciprocal emotions.
We won’t fail.
There was a moment of synchronicity. A brief flash of shared joy and misery.
Holding hands, fighting together despite everything–
“Firing main gun!” Fernanda declared.
By the time Alex turned to the main screen the shot would have already hit.
On her station camera, with a short lag time, the torpedo sent back its last message.
A skin-crawling instant while they awaited the result–
“I think it’s a hit!”
Fatima al-Suhar half-stood from her station, gripping the earphones against her ear fluff.
“I think– I think I heard a blast and then water rushing!” She cried out.
On the main screen the prediction updated — effect on target. Breach on the port side.
For a moment the bridge was completely silent.
Then all at once the officers cried out with the realization of what had happened.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Ulyana Korabiskaya shouted out.
At her side, Aaliyah Bashara patted her back as if urging calm.
Fatima and Semyonova held hands and began to jump up and down near their stations.
And over on the gunnery stations–
Alex and Fernanda, holding hands, stared at the screen speechless.
“Damage assessment!” Korabiskaya called out.
“Confirmed unmitigated breach on the Antenora’s upper port sidepod.” Zachikova said.
Tears began to flow from Alex’s eyes.
It worked. It really actually worked.
“That was a brilliant shot you two! I have no idea how you did it but keep it up!”
Captain Korabiskaya hailed the gunnery section with an enormous grin.
“Keep your eyes peeled and keep up the pressure! They’ll be desperate now!”
On her screen, the last picture frozen on the moment of impact showed the shell from Fernanda’s gun entering the picture like a blur from out of nowhere. Beneath the ordnance, the purple field briefly split. Only a tiny hexagonal fracture could be seen but in Alex’s mind, she thought she imagined the whole latticework collapsing inward, allowing for the hull to be breached on that side.
Her whole body began to shake. A stupid idea from her loser brain had actually worked.
She felt a hand pat her on the back.
Small and warm like the one she was still holding.
“Don’t get a big head. There’s work still in need of doing, hero.”
Fernanda’s fingers slipped out of her own.
Alex felt her heart shiver.
She thought she would hear a ‘don’t get too far ahead of yourself’ or something.
But Fernanda had the tiniest smile on her face as she returned her attention to her station.
And for a moment, Alex couldn’t help but look at her as if with new eyes.
Shit, which direction is it coming from next?
Dominika Rybolovskaya was caught in a vice.
Between avoiding the shots from the Volkannon sniping at her and keeping up with the Jagd that was giving Valya Lebedova the run-around, she was going around in circles with no way to retaliate. There had already been too many close calls with both of her assailants, and she could hardly coordinate with her remaining ally to do anything about it. Valya was as overwhelmed as her, and they had no idea what was happening with Shalikova, McKennedy or al-Shahara. Dominika was a sitting duck.
Waiting to react to the next attack, alone in the water until something came out of the fog.
Sweat trickled down her face in long thin streams. Her breath caught in her chest.
In the dim light the chromatophores on her chest glowed bioluminescent green.
Caught in a fog of anxiety, her thinking sluggish, her arms raw from effort, mind blank–
Her eyes scanned around, in the silence and stillness of this dead patch of ocean–
Movement in the rear camera–!
I’m dead! I’m dead! I wasn’t sharp enough–!
“Ma’am, this guy bothering you?”
From out of nowhere–
An enormous saw-sword cleaved into the Jagd that had come rushing from behind her.
Chunks of metal tore from its shoulder, arm, and hip before it retreated once again into the fog.
And its place, at her back, was the Cossack of Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.
Briefly speechless, Dominika wandered if she was dead and dreaming.
Katarrans shared common myths about soldiers or mercenaries whom, having died, began dreaming in the instant of their death about whole lives of battle and glory. Success, victory, and joy flashed in the last moments of their biological life. Brains slowly shutting down in reality but wanting to believe that they were alive and victorious. Cold tears drew from Dominika’s eyes in that moment–
–as Sameera’s smiling face appeared on one of her secondary screens.
“Miss, can you indulge me being a romantic bonehead just this once?” Sameera said.
“Fuck you. You’re such an asshole. I could just about kick your fucking ass.”
Dominika started sobbing. Gritting her teeth, she raised her hand to her eyes.
She was so thankful– her heart was soaring with joy. She could kiss that idiot dog.
“Music to my ears. Tell me what you need, Nika, and I’ll do it with flair.”
Sameera smiled. Despite herself, Dominika found herself smiling back too.
Where the fuck did that thing come from? What the fuck is it?
Gertrude Lichtenberg stared speechlessly at the enemy that suddenly barred her way.
There was always something. Always something in her way to Elena.
She climbed over so many corpses for that radiant girl always a step farther away.
Her unblinking, stunned eyes pored over the newest stone in her path.
Suspended in the water ahead of her was a Diver with a dark gold paint job. From the body plan it suspiciously resembled a Magellan like her own Diver. She could see it in the beveled edges of the shoulders and chest, the rounded, cylinder-like construction of the forearms and forelegs, rather than the predominantly angled, square shapes of the Streloks or the S.E.A.L. from before. The head was different, however. Instead of the cyclopic hood of the Magellan it had a visored, helmeted humanoid head.
Everything was just a bit thicker-looking than the Magellan however– more rugged.
To start, it was just a bit taller than her Magellan, closer to 7.5 meters.
Over the cockpit, the armor was more solid, with a thicker upper chest that thinned toward the angled skirt. Each hand was like a thick gauntlet that extended back over the arm, the wrists mounting what were clearly revolving projectile launch tubes of some kind. On the shoulders there were thick, square guards that vaguely resembled the drone mounting points of Selene’s Jagdkaiser. Instead of accepting the drones atop the shoulder however they seemed to be able to go inside it. There were two flat delineations upon each shoulder, probably the bays for the drones or projectiles– these were probably disc-shaped rather than the long cylinders launched by the Jagdkaiser, judging by the space involved.
Propulsion seemed pretty standard. There was a backpack with intakes on the shoulder, hull and hip, jets in the legs with intakes on the knee, verniers for additional solid fuel thrust. There appeared to be six jets in the backpack, like a Second Generation Diver. On each of the intakes there was a thick cap. A red biomass filter? For weapons, it wasn’t carrying a rifle and Gertrude couldn’t spot a sword on it either, so perhaps it had internal weapons like a Jagd. What was this thing? Where did it come from?
How had these mercenaries gotten a hold of it since they last met?
On the chest there was a logo, a sunburst– and the word HELIOS inscribed.
“These mercenaries are clearly backed by someone powerful. To steal Elena from me.”
Everything was starting to make sense. After their last battle, the mercenaries must have received some kind of resupply from their masters that included this thing. For a moment she feared Elena might have been taken from these cowards and that this battle was all a ruse to ferret her away– but she could not think that way. Maybe the appearance of this unit meant Elena was still there and a prize worthy of protecting with everything they had in their arsenal. It was impossible to know the truth.
All she could do was believe.
Believe that all her sacrifices had been worth it.
Every humiliation, every instance of bloodletting, everything– for Elena.
“Get out of my way, you piece of shit. I’ll kill anyone I have to! I’ll get her back!”
On one hand she unfolded the Magellan’s advanced XM-979 rifle.
On the other, she flashed the futuristic silver vibrosword that had come with the machine.
This Magellan was the strongest machine she had ever piloted. She could absolutely take it to victory. Norn had conferred her this armor so she could become Elena’s knight. She would not fail. She could not fail. There was nothing left for her if she lost Elena here. Gertrude’s heart pounded, her whole body shivered. Her lips drew apart slowly in a bloodthirsty grin. She was ready to do anything.
Her mind was a breathless turmoil of all she had suffered and all the suffering she’d inflict.
For Elena’s sake–
Compared to all the monsters at Gertrude’s back, these mercenaries were nothing.
And compared to the monster baying for blood inside her, it was they who needed to fear.
“I’ll rescue you, Elena. I’ve always been your prince charming. I promise. I promise.”
Her unblinking eyes focused on the tiniest instant of movement from the enemy.
She had to be aggressive, the instant it put a toe out of place–
Bubbles blew from the shoulders and Gertrude charged with all her might.
Four disc-shaped drones flew out of the shoulders in opposite directions.
Gertrude expected gunfire, but if she was fast enough–
The “Helios” suddenly reversed, thrusting backward but still facing her.
From its shoulders, its jet anchors flew out at her. It had attacked with them before.
Gertrude ducked under the anchors.
She could have cut the cables, but if she pressed on she’d be inside the enemy’s guard.
With a quick kick of vernier thrust, she threw herself forward, continuing her pursuit.
In response, the “Helios” raised its arm.
A stream of bubbles blew from the seam between the gauntlet and forearm.
There was a flash–
Like a jet anchor– suddenly that closed fist went flying at her on a cable.
Speechless, unable to halt or dodge, she met the vernier-powered punch chest-first.
Her entire cockpit rattled as the punch struck her, stopping her charge in its tracks.
Gertrude tumbled, her Diver’s hull pushed back while its jets were still going.
Briefly out of control, she corrected with a quick spin and went into a controlled dive.
Overhead, she avoided the jet anchors recalled by their cables to Helios’ shoulder pods.
“What the fuck is that thing? What the fuck is it doing?”
She checked her monitors. She was shaken up, but the hull was relatively stable.
In front, the Helios ceased reversing, but rather than take advantage and attack, it resumed its wary stance right in front of her. Arms out at its sides, jets engaging only to correct its depth and remain in orbit between Gertrude and its mothership. Did it not intend to fight for real? Was it just buying time? Why did it keep shooting anchors at her? Were they trying to capture her alive?
“Is it stalling? But what the fuck is it stalling for? Do they have backup coming?”
In battle the Antenora and the Pandora’s Box were both letting off sonar pulses.
Norn would detect anything coming from a dozen kilometers away.
There was no sign that the Antenora was backing off. So a ship couldn’t be coming.
Or at least, it couldn’t be coming in a time frame that would benefit the Helios at all.
“Maybe the pilot is hopeless, and they’re making up for it with the tech.”
Circling under the enemy Diver, Gertrude raised her rifle and put the Helios in her sights.
She spontaneously opened fire, ready to gauge the reaction of the pilot as a dozen rounds tore through the water between them. With a clumsy boost, the Helios tried to dodge aside– but quickly found itself back in Gertrude’s line of fire as she corrected for those spastic, predictable movements and began to lead her shots into the Helios’ path while sweeping around its flank, now climbing.
Vapor bubbles and gas bloomed around the Helios, several shots making their mark.
Tongues of gas blew from the dented and pitted armor of the Helios.
Through the smoke, it lifted an arm, and from one of its gauntlets launched a projectile.
Gertrude climbed and backed up at full speed, out of pure reflex, but the projectile had not been aimed at her. Instead it exploded into a cloud between her Magellan and the Helios.
Dark particulate matter danced in the water, slowly dispersing through the marine fog.
Soon the chemicals began reacting with the water, almost like they were boiling it.
Frothing bubbles began to expand haphazardly to obscure the Helios.
Dozens of pops of color– a chemical flare? A corrosive cloud? What was it?
Gertrude’s computer was not equipped to analyze chemicals in the water.
As the effect of the munition continued to spread through the water she continued backing off from it. Her fingers tightened on the controls, teeth grit, furious. This thing was clearly just buying time, but what was it buying time for? Was the Antenora losing the battle? That could not be the case. She could not possibly have come this far for nothing. She couldn’t stand to walk out of this empty handed.
Her mind started to spiral, caught in a sudden heartbreaking madness.
Gertrude would save Elena or die. There was nothing else for her.
All of this time, ever since they had met in Schwerin, ever since they went to school together–
Elena was her light. She was the only thing making Gertrude’s existence meaningful.
That dirty little guardsman’s girl in her muddy overalls, she was nothing, lower than a beast.
Born to no one, known for nothing, denied any pleasure of living. A peon; a faceless slave.
Without the princess’ hand, if that touch had never been extended, Gertrude would be nothing.
Her life would have been meaningless.
Dead, less than dead, invisible, nonexistent, as particulate as the marine fog.
It was her love of Elena that made her anything. That made her human; worthy of living.
I can’t lose her! I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!
Without Elena von Fueller what would be the meaning of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s entire life?
Heedless of the nature of the cloud ahead, Gertrude threw all her weight into her sticks.
She would break through this final barrier– she would kill everyone between herself and Elena!
“She’s just gonna charge right through it huh?”
“Called our bluff– don’t worry and just keep it steady. We’ve got options.”
“How is it going on your end?”
“We’ll need to buy a bit more time. Sorry.”
Karuniya Maharapratham sighed.
Soaked in sweat, breathing labored, her fingers hurting as she gripped the controls.
Surrounded by metal, suspended in the deep, dark ocean.
Operating a machine, seeing only through cameras– it was unfamiliar.
Knowing that she stood between Murati and death was all that steeled her wavering mind.
Occupying the front half of the Helios cockpit, Karuniya was taking care of most of the piloting. The two-seater cockpit had Murati directly behind her, with her own set of controls that mirrored Karuniya’s, along with her own screens, though she had less of them than Karuniya did. She could look over Karuniya’s shoulder too, but she was not doing so. She was mostly busy with her part of the plan and could only advise– and maybe, she respected Karuniya enough to trust her with the present situation.
This only made Karuniya even more embarrassed at how outmatched she felt.
“I would feel so much better if I had even an ordinary rifle.”
She cycled on the touchscreen through the equipment on the Helios.
Back at the hangar it had been a whole episode trying to get this thing launched.
“What do you mean it has no weapons? Why the hell would we launch it then?”
Chief Mechanic Lebedova and Theresa– Tigris began arguing immediately.
“It’s designed for Deep Abyss exploration, so it doesn’t have built-in weapons, and it doesn’t use Union hands so it can’t wield your weapons without a conversion. However it has a lot of advanced systems and gear and it’s built extremely sturdy. Murati Nakara already has a plan for it, so just trust her!”
Behind the firebrand Tigris, Murati, with a chest brace to keep her ribs steady and walking herself on a crutch, smiled and waved passively while the scientist and mechanic screamed at each other for several minutes. Until finally the machine was allowed to launch on the condition that Tigris allow herself to be arrested and removed to the brig along with the strangely afflicted “Euphrates” for later interrogation. With that negotiated, Karuniya had taken this machine out into the water and traded a few blows in order to secure Marina McKennedy’s escape– as well as time for Murati to execute her strategy.
“You’re doing well Karu.” Murati cooed.
“I don’t believe you– here she comes!”
“Don’t panic! You’ve got room to react!”
Charging through the smokescreen, the enemy, dubbed a ‘Magellan’ by the targeting computer, covered its approach with gunfire while advancing with all of its thrust toward the Helios. Karuniya pulled back hard on the controls, launching the Helios up and back, but not fast enough. Gunfire rattled the cockpit as several shells impacted with the armor, detonating and tearing off pieces, and the Magellan corrected its path and resumed pursuit very swiftly. Karuniya had not moved fluidly and lost her momentum.
She was at a disadvantage, slowed down while the Magellan sped up.
Seeing it hurtling toward her again and again made the situation terrifyingly clear.
Karuniya was in the middle of combat. This was an enemy trying to kill her.
In this place, in this moment, she couldn’t sidestep a fight by saying “I am just a scientist.”
Murati’s here with me. This time– I have to protect her.
Thinking quickly, she selected one of the Helios’ built-in equipments–
As the Magellan appeared in all of her forward cameras, swinging its sword–
From the gauntlet erupted a utility canister, like a barrel-shaped grenade.
The Magellan cut through the canister, scratching the surface of the retreating Helios–
–unleashing a gelatinous, quick-hardening mass of breach patching gel that stuck to its sword.
“Now’s your chance, Karu!” Murati shouted.
“I don’t know whether I love or hate your backseat driving!”
Karuniya pulled the Helios back, while striking the activation triggers for the jet anchors.
While the Magellan struggled with the bundle of concretized gunk that had affixed to its sword and hand, the Helios’ jet anchors launched like a pair of tentacles. The Magellan threw itself into an ungainly dodge to avoid the jet-powered tungsten hooks, punching the breach sealant mass repeatedly with its free hand while the jet anchors retracted and launched again and again, repeatedly whipping the water at its flank, around its shoulder, nearly smashing off a piece of the flank armor. Cracks formed and pieces began to fall from the sealant mass, soon freeing the Magellan’s sword arm from most of the gel.
In a clear fury, it swung its sword to eject any remaining matter into the water around it.
Charging forward, it swiped at the Helios, Karuniya boosting down and then to the left to avoid the close range blow. Pressing its advantage, the machine swung furiously, forcing Karuniya on the defensive. Raising the gauntlets, she managed to deflect a strike by blocking with her arms, the sword leaving a wound in the thick wrist armor but failing to cut through or destroy the launchers– the Magellan must have read this desperate guard as an attempt to parry or grab its sword, because it briefly backed off.
“Any more ideas?” Karuniya said, swallowing a lump she had held in her throat throughout the melee.
“I’ve almost got it!” Murati replied, “Just a little bit more! You can do it! You’re holding it off!”
“I’m really starting to doubt our chances here Murati!”
While they were shouting, Magellan leaped suddenly skyward with all of its thrust.
Karuniya was momentarily stunned– as if this was somehow different than how it had moved before.
Of course these machines could move in any direction in water she knew that– but she had been trying to stay on a roughly even plane to react to the Magellan more easily as it attacked. All of a sudden it was above her and she felt like she was moving with a second’s delay trying to figure out where the Magellan was going to come from, its angle of attack and the distance it needed to cross–
At the peak of its ascent it suddenly dove at her with all its weight on its sword.
Karuniya moved to intercept while desperately flipping through the available equipment–
And the briefest glimmer of a grin appeared on her face.
A bit of Murati had rubbed off on her somewhere. She felt a wicked thrill as she reacted.
Karuniya was unused to thinking in terms of combat, but she knew that their objective was not necessarily to return with all of this machine intact. There were parts of it that were expendable if it would preserve their lives. Furthermore, she knew that their objective was also not to sink the enemy machine necessarily, not by themselves. She needed to buy time for Murati’s plan. So she finally had a good idea.
Murati– I understand you a little better now.
Narrowing her eyes as she watched her plot unfolding–
That finality as she depressed the triggers and sticks. She was captive to that moment.
In that microsecond span of time that lasted an eternity, suspended between life and death.
She thought of Murati– and how dearly, how much, with all of her might, she wanted to bring Murati back safely to the hangar from this horrific event. How much she didn’t want to be out here, how much she didn’t want to fight. But also– how much, with Murati in danger, she would fight, and scrape and claw helplessly at the metal of the enemy machine if it would release Murati from any suffering.
That must have been how Murati felt every time she went out to fight.
All of the people who stayed behind and depended on her. Like Karuniya herself.
Now, literally behind her, it was Murati who was depending on her to save everybody.
So with this fire in her heart, she released a canister from inside the gauntlet’s launcher.
Grasped it into the machine’s jet-anchored fist between palm and fingers.
And threw a steel punch across a dozen meters to meet the Magellan’s charge. Leaning into her sticks as if it would cause her physical pushing to actually push the fist faster on its vernier thrusters.
Gritting her teeth and ready to scream in the next instant. As if piloting with all her body.
Set on its violent course, the Magellan drove its sword down to slice through the digits in the fist.
But right before the crash–
That fist clenched and squeezed the canister it was holding.
Exploding into a cloud of anti-flooding agent that froze into a bubble-shaped ice block.
With the Magellan’s sword, both arms and chest frozen into it in the act of cutting through.
Karuniya let go of the cable. Sacrificing the Helios’ hand to watch the enemy slowly sink.
But behind the Magellan, its hydro-jet thrusters worked furiously.
Instantly the ice began to crack, the Magellan struggling with all its mechanical strength.
Thrashing like a rabid monster, its cyclopic eye livid red. But it was too late–
Inside the Helios, the monitors began to brighten.
“Karuniya, you’re amazing! It’s– It’s doing something now!” Murati cried out.
Across the walls of the cockpit, began to glow lines of circuitry with a rainbow gradient.
There was a glow, coming from below and behind her–
Karuniya realized quickly, it was she herself, and Murati. Glowing with strange colors.
On her main screen, a large square symbol that she realized was a stylized setting sun appeared.
Along with text briefly appearing over the user interface.
ARRAYS ESTABLISHED. NETWORK ONLINE.
HELIOS INFORMATION SYSTEM: May the light of our bonds create our own sun.
Outside the four drones expanded a network of bouncing laser and acoustic signals through their unique arrays that covered the entire battlespace and this picture appeared on the visual monitors.
For the first time, the imaging prediction was seeing every unit, their exact positions on the battlefield, and establishing links between each friendly machine to allow coordination. The clearest picture Karuniya had ever seen of an underwater battlefield. Their maps were updated, and even the camera feed was more legible. Those squat, fat drones loaded into this machine held something truly special.
The Helios’ equipment panel showed that a pair of antennae had risen on the head.
Then one of the ancillary screens showed something playing– a video.
Murati gasped behind Karuniya. They were both seeing the same on their own monitors.
Two people appeared on the video which appeared to be taken with a portable camera within some kind of workspace. Holding the camera, facing it toward himself, was a dark-skinned man with short, dark hair. Behind him, smiling, was a woman, her skin a bit lighter brown, and her hair dark but brownish as well. They were dressed in slightly greasy work coveralls, and there were parts lying around them.
In the woman’s hands was a large, thick, disc-shaped black drone.
Smaller than the Helios’ but undoubtedly a similar design.
“We don’t know where these little ones might end up on their long road,” the man began, “but I thought it’d be significant to document where they started, for posterity.” At that point the video became slightly distorted. Next, the two were together, both their faces close to the camera now. “This is Helios,” the man continued, “Tentative name. Inspired by a friend. It’ll hopefully get us all talking together. Even where there are no cables and no networks that serve the rich men, Helios will let us shine our own light.”
It was the woman who started speaking next. “It’d be naïve to think this will solve anything by itself. Just us two, all we can do is scratch the surface of the injustices and oppression in our world. But if this project can connect even one person to someone they can help, if it can get even two people to meet and protect each other from being exploited, they will have done everything we could have hoped for.”
At that point the woman paused, collecting a tear with her fingers. “I really do think if all of us who have borne the pain of hunger and the weariness of work could truly understand each other, if we could communicate and organize at a large scale. We are all so divided by individual stations, individual nations, thousands of kilometers of water separate us. With this, maybe we can take a tiny step toward bridging those gaps outside the control of the Empire. Maybe we’ll see nothing come from it– but I hope at least that in the future, even a fragment of what we left behind can help our children build a better world.”
They tilted the camera then, perhaps meaning to, perhaps by accident.
Showing that the woman on the video was pregnant.
“A thousand generations live on in us — and a thousand more will follow us.” The man said proudly.
At that point, the video cut off. Those two smiling, optimistic folk disappeared forever.
Karuniya did not have to turn around to realize how much Murati was crying.
She thought in her mind’s eye that she saw Murati, tears streaming down her face.
In fact, she thought, for a moment, that they were face to face.
Suspended in a void surrounded by colors.
She could reach out, touch her, and wipe the tears herself.
They would be really happy with you, Murati.
I’m really happy with you too, you know.
Despite everything that’s happened, I am grateful to share this ocean with you.
Murati smiled at her, cloaked in a euphoric white light.
Karuniya blinked. In that span of time she was back at the controls–
And a flashing red box drawn over her camera feed alerted her.
The Magellan excavated its arms from the frozen water, having lost its rifle and sword.
Despite its condition, it continued to fight.
Reaching around its back, it produced a grenade.
“Murati, brace yourself!”
That grenade left its throwing arm and there was a flash as its rocket engaged.
Karuniya once again readied to dodge–
Mere meters from the Magellan, a burst of gunfire set the grenade suddenly alight.
Taking the machine’s hand clean off and knocking it back from the shockwave.
Into a Strelok with an assault rifle raised to the Magellan’s backpack at point blank range.
“Sorry! I made it right in the nick of time!”
Over a video feed, Karuniya and Murati heard the voice and saw the crystal clear smile of Valya Lebedova, their glasses slightly askew, face glistening with sweat, salmon-pink hair thrown about. They looked almost embarrassed on the screen. “Got it under control I think. I’ve been kicked around a lot today and felt like a huge useless fool– so big thanks Lieutenant for giving me a little moment to look cool.”
Murati leaned down toward Karuniya, patting her shoulder gently. “Thanks for coming Valya.” She said.
There was a brief moment of tension but–
Wounded, out of weapons, caught off-guard, the Magellan slowly raised its damaged arms in surrender.
Dominika and Sameera floated back to back, keeping their eyes peeled for the enemy.
“That Jagd is too slippery, even with damage.” Sameera said.
“I can’t find that sniper either. We’re going to have to make a move.” Dominika said.
“Okay. I’ll rush out and make a big fuss. You try to pick out one or the other.”
“Such a boneheaded move– but it’s really all we got, huh? Fine, I’ll–”
At that moment, something connected to Dominika’s machine via laser.
In an instant, her map of the surroundings and the ancillary monitors with her sensor reads update with all kinds of blips, terrain data. Her cameras looked like an entire dreadnought lined with station-size floodlights had suddenly navigated overhead and lit up the entire ocean. This was a filter, based on predictive imaging, but whose? She hadn’t gotten an update from the Brigand in a while– and all those blips! They were definitely the mapped positions of every unit. Was this really correct?
Enemies were profiled– she could quickly spot the Jagd and the Volkannon.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Sameera asked.
Dominika was, but for a moment she could hardly comprehend it.
In terms of information, it was like taking off a blindfold from over her eyes, and where she was previously stumbling, she was now able to see every step she was taking. For a brief moment the light was almost blinding, and there was so much to see. She immediately found the position of the sniper, trailing below and awaiting a laser mark from the Jagd, which itself she could now follow, a blip on the sensor map.
She had full targeting data, as if there was a laser mark being shone on every enemy.
It was almost like sniping in station combat. Seeing through open air across a vast distance.
But where had this windfall of intelligence come from?
If questioned it any longer, she would lose the opportunity to take the enemy unawares.
There could be no more hesitation.
“We’ll have to trust it! Let’s disperse and take them out before they heed the radiation warnings!”
Sameera rushed out into the water, not haphazardly, but with a purpose. She too was seeing her enemy.
Dominika hefted her sniper rifle and aimed precisely at the Volkannon.
Its outline appeared distantly in her sights, the camera feed enhanced by the predictive imaging. Its coordinates displayed in her scope perfectly matching the data that was being fed into her sensors. There was no mistaking it. She had the enemy in her scope, she had every advantage. She held her breath.
First at one shoulder and then between breaths at the opposing shoulder.
With two quick presses of the trigger she sent two 50 mm shells into the enemy Diver.
Two hits, in a second, dead on the mark–
Both its shoulders blew apart, sending its cannons floating away in pieces, tearing its arms.
Its rotund hull went rolling down to the seafloor.
Had it even seen what took it down? It was in the same position she had been.
In less than a moment, she had completely turned around a situation that had felt hopeless.
Behind her, Sameera met the Jagd with an alacrity that seemed divinely inspired.
Having traced its exact path, the close-combat Cossack intercepted the Jagd at top speed.
With one swing of her sword she took out its remaining arm entirely.
Battered by the attack, the Jagd twisted in the water, briefly out of control.
Then with an almost dismissive butt of her flat, Sameera sent the hull careening toward the seafloor.
Both enemies were completely disabled. In one sudden swerve, they gained the upper hand.
“Capture or finish off?” Sameera asked. “They could have valuable information.”
“I went easy on it at first– but maybe we shouldn’t take chances.” Dominika replied.
They had no idea how long this information windfall would last. They had to act quickly.
Ruthless, Dominika swung her Strelkannon around, quickly aiming her sniper rifle at the Jagd–
“Stop! Stop fighting! Everyone must stop right now! I’m begging you!”
As crisp as if it came from right beside her, a voice sounded from the communicator.
The pleading voice of a violet-haired girl who then appeared on Dominika’s monitor.
“This is Princess Elena von Fueller! Please stop fighting! Please!”
Rather than merely from heeding the message–
Sameera and Dominika stopped fighting because they couldn’t believe what they were hearing.