Red lights flashed silent alarm across the UNX-001 Brigand, while a calm voice spoke through every implement from which sound could be heard. “Alert Semyon!” She said, careful not to shout or betray anxiety, while still speaking in a clear voice. Alert Semyon would only be raised verbally three times and then Fatima would go quiet on the audio system.
Everyone on the ship understood what this meant. Sailors hurried to their positions, crossing paths in the halls. Sailors who had been resting in their barracks rushed to their assignments upstairs; sailors eating in the cafeteria or taking a break in the social pod rushed downstairs to the hangar. They checked on the walls, were bearing monitors indicated current information of the threat and ETA until probable active combat.
Upstairs, the sailors assigned as rapid response had their tools handy. They would watch out for any malfunctions or damage and make spot repairs. They would sound the alarm if they thought circuitry or water system functions were threatened by the stresses of the battle. Several of them received a new assignment that had been worked out during training in Kreuzung: clearing out and locking down the social pod and cafeteria and other unnecessary facilities with anti-flood barriers, to prevent a repeat of the scare that resulted when the Antenora breached their sidepod in Goryk, almost destroying the social area.
Downstairs, the main focus of the sailors was in getting the Divers ready.
Batteries were checked twice a day and refilled if necessary, so there was not much charging that needed doing to top the Divers off. All repairs and maintenance had already been completed on the main combat units. Owing to the recovery of Homa’s “DELTA” as well as the stripping-down of one of the reserve Streloks, there was an area of the hangar that was quite messy and in disarray, but the mess was pushed to the far side. Deployment chutes were prepared to be opened into the hangar in case of mobilization. Weapons were loaded and equipment attached to the Divers based on the pilot’s stated desires.
Throughout the ship, people communicated in whispers, sign language and hand signals, or by writing on portables and showing the words to one another. Sailors were trained to walk quickly with soft footfalls and to work with precision and care so as to not bang on metal. This minimized the amount and intensity of identifiable noises that an enemy could potentially pick up prior to combat. It was very little, and the ship was not entirely stealth capable, but it could be very quiet if the distance and conditions were right. Once the cannons were firing, all bets were off, but until then, there was an eerie combination of haste and silence as the alert was sounded, and then executed upon.
Many of the upper pods were soundproofed, however, and the Bridge was no exception.
On the bridge, Captain Korabiskaya arrived and took her seat, followed by Commissar Bashara. At their side, Premier Erika Kairos also arrived along with her bodyguard and attendant Olga Athanasiou, both taking their places. Kalika Loukia had briefly held the bridge while the rest got ready to coordinate another day’s worth of rationalizing the inventories of the Brigand and Rostock and connecting the two ships and their crews– but that work would be put on hold. Fatima al-Suhar stood from her station, ready to give her report. She pointed at the main screen, where the simulated silhouette of a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate appeared along with those of Imbrian Cutters and Frigates, as well as an old, very large and bulbous shaped cruiser, two generations old, a Serclaes-class.
“Captain! Our situation is as follows–”
One more time, the door to the bridge opened.
Scurrying inside and trying to appear as if they had not interrupted–
Murati Nakara, in the company of an unfamiliar face.
A young lady that had the same uniform as the rest but making her first appearance on the bridge. Cheerful-looking, her pretty face unbothered even as the red alarm lights cast an eerie color over her– the brown-haired Loup with the ponytail and makeup elicited a few curious glances. Murati wanted to say nothing upon entering the bridge, but practically everyone was looking at her directly, even Fatima, who was also waiting to speak.
“Sorry to interrupt– I was kept– taking care of something. Um. This is my new adjutant.”
Stumbling over her words, Murati at first gestured toward the woman beside her.
Almost immediately she underwent every conceivable human emotion in an instant.
What would anyone think if Aatto talked some nonsense? She nearly interrupted herself–
“My name is Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather. I will give everything to support your cause.”
She spoke politely and vowed her head and held her portable computer to her chest.
Wearing a demure and innocent smile.
Murati stared at her for a moment. She could not believe what she had heard.
And everyone else’s gazes shifted between Murati and Aatto with confusion.
“Okay, thank you, Aatto.” Commissar Bashara said, clearing her throat. “Fatima.”
Standing next to the sonar station, Fatima al-Suhar’s ears and tail stood on end.
“Oh! Yes. My deepest apologies. I was simply being polite. So, the situation–”
Ten minutes ago, Fatima first detected distant noises in the water that to her golden ears registered as explosions from middle caliber ship ordnance. Soon after the predictive computer parsed the same sounds as ordnance, and in addition, detected a wide-area active sonar pulse. Per protocol, Fatima responded to being picked up by active sonar with a return pulse scan from the Brigand, and the Rostock responded similarly.
They discovered the combatants several kilometers away in the northwestern direction. There was a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate, so called for its two rows of guns in fixed positions integrated into the ship’s bow– chasing it was an Imperial Marder-class Frigate, a fairly ubiquitous class that everyone on the bridge was familiar with.
Complicating the situation, the Marder, having acquired a Republic Frigate and begun to chase, also reported the discovery to other nearby Imperial ships. Converging on the republicans were three additional Frigates from the North-Northwest as well as an old Serclaes-class Cruiser from the North. All of these ships were assumed with reason to have belonged to the Rhinea patrol fleet. If these patrol ships received the retrofit that other Volkisch Frigates did, then this entire force could be said to include 20-30 Divers in addition to the ships themselves, as each ship likely carried 4-8 Divers. Though she did not know the reaction her command would have to these discoveries, Fatima called for Alert Semyon just in case– they had been detected by sonar, so they had to be prepared.
“That was a quick and sound judgment Fatima. We commend you.” Ulyana said.
Fatima’s ears wiggled slightly and she smiled.
“Now we have to decide how to respond.” Aaliyah added.
“Right now, we have some cover for our actions, I believe,” Erika said, pointing at the screen, “As far as they know, what they have on sensors is a dumpy-looking hauler, no offense,” she smiled and waited a second as if to allow anyone to take offense if they would, but finding nobody disagreeing with her on the Brigand’s comeliness, she continued, “and an Imperial Ritter-class. Much of the time we have found that low level patrols will ignore the Rostock’s movements because they assume Ritter cruisers are led by big shots who they couldn’t hold accountable for anything if they tried. So we end up slipping by without effort.”
“In that case, all of those forces will converge on the Republicans.” Ulyana said.
“They won’t be able to survive it.” Murati said. “They will absolutely be overwhelmed.”
“Zachikova, get a graph of all enemy positions on the main screen.” Ulyana said.
On the electronic warfare station, Zachikova got to work. Arabella peeked over the top of her desk curiously, having been sitting beside it the whole time. After a few seconds of typing, the predictor displayed for everyone in the room the surrounding area.
To think they were so close to Aachen’s hydrospace– but this situation was even closer. Murati took a few steps from the entrance to look more closely at the main screen. There were no landmarks to speak of. Any battle would take place in open ocean. So everything came down to the state of the combatant’s equipment, their tactics and formation, and whether they could gain any advantage in the information space. In terms of pure hardware on all sides, the Brigand and Rostock could be put at a disadvantage.
There was something of a plan forming in her mind, but she did not have enough data–
“Would it not be prudent to avoid this battle entirely?” Aaliyah asked.
Murati turned around and stared at her. Aaliyah seemed to notice but ignore her gaze.
“I’m positive if we decided to intervene, we could also still get away.” Erika said.
“Right, but– the Republicans in this area have all carried themselves awfully and they did not even want to join the United Front to begin with. They have caused us major inconveniences, they wasted significant manpower, and for what? Very nearly destroying a station full of innocent people. We could just leave them to their fate and speed on to Aachen.”
“That’s a bit cold.” Ulyana said. She smiled a bit nervously at Aaliyah’s words.
“But not unwarranted.” Aaliyah said. “Our intervention could cost us lives and equipment.”
“You are right.” Ulyana said. “Our most practical response is just leaving this be.”
“I will defer to your counsel in this matter.” Erika said, crossing her arms.
“They’re our allies! You’re going to hand out a death sentence to this one frigate crew?”
Murati raised her voice near to a shout, her hands curled up into fists.
Ulyana stared at her a bit in disbelief; Aaliyah rolled her eyes; Erika smiled suddenly.
“It’s true that the command of the Republic fleet in this area supported a heinous atrocity for very little strategic gain. It’s the truth that they went out on their own, foolishly. They could have never held Kreuzung. It was more likely they would destroy the core than successfully occupy it.” Murati said. “I am not denying that. But it’s horribly disproportionate to abandon these soldiers to die for that, when we could rescue and recruit them!”
“Then moralizing aside, our personnel could die carrying out this rescue.” Aaliyah said.
“That’s always a risk! It’s a risk of anything we do! That in itself is not an argument!”
“Now who is being cold toward other’s lives, Lieutenant?” Aaliyah spat back.
Having that statement turned on her gave Murati a brief pause to consider her words.
Her chest felt like it constricted and prevented her from making an angry response.
Was she being callous toward her comrades lives–?
Her head fogged from the sudden anxiety.
No– of course she was not– she was just trying to get them to see sense–
There was a loud clapping of two hands from the side of the bridge.
“Enough!” Erika said.
Firmly but not unkindly.
A sound that prompted Murati to take a deep breath and right herself.
Erika seemed more amused than aggravated about the argument. “Murati is correct. For the insurgent any action taken is done at the risk of their lives. If we wanted to preserve our equipment and lives we would bury them in a hole and do nothing, but that does not advance our objectives. So then the question is, how do we turn the cost and benefit of this situation to our advantage. In this, Aaliyah is not wrong to say, we have no idea what we are dealing with when we deal with the Republic here. We could be fighting for nothing and thus dying for nothing. So it is not so easy as to rush in and save the day at any cost either.”
For a brief moment, the room was silent– until one still-unfamiliar voice sounded.
“In that case, we just need to come up with a battle plan that will lower our risk.”
Stepping out from near the door and joining Murati’s side was Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.
Murati looked almost surprised to have her support despite her supposed adjutant status.
“I strongly believe we can succeed if we entrust our strategy to my master!” Aatto said.
She gestured toward Murati as if framing her with her hands, smiling brightly.
Murati felt like her heart dropped lower into her chest.
Eyebrows furrowed and raised all across the bridge in confusion.
Ulyana stared at Aatto, speechless; Erika suppressed laughter; Aaliyah looked livid.
“What did she say? What did she call you? Is this your instruction, Murati?!”
“I– It really isn’t– she’s just–” Murati tugged on her own collar with growing anxiety.
“Now, now,” Ulyana spoke up suddenly, “it’s my turn to say not to indulge in silliness.”
She patted Aaliyah’s shoulders as if gently trying to prevent her jumping over the divider.
“Ms. Jarvi-Stormyweather is not wrong either!” Erika said. “I’ve read the files; this is Murati’s specialty, is it not? Her tactical plans have turned around some bad situations before! I do think having the Republicans in our debt might be advantageous in the future– and besides, the destruction of five patrol ships, including a Cruiser, can only be helpful to us.”
“I am not being silly.” Aaliyah said. She sat back in her chair. “I just want to clarify.”
“Don’t worry. We all understand you, Commissar.” Erika said, amused.
“It is my job to provide perspective. I am not mad and I am not being silly.” She said again.
“Yes, that’s very true. Thank you Commissar.” Ulyana said, also amused.
“Okay, okay, the first matter is concluded. We are intervening.” Olga said, sighing audibly.
Murati breathed a sigh of relief herself. She then made eye contact with Aatto.
Putting on such a furious gaze that she almost sent a psychic wave out to her.
Aatto seemed to notice and looked bashful for the very first time since they met.
You will ask permission to speak!! Murati shouted in her mind.
It was very rare that she spoke like this with anyone, so she was not sure it worked–
Yes, master!! A million apologies! No, a billion! I will accept any punishment!
Thankfully it seemed Aatto really did have some modicum of psionic experience.
Where she got it from and how far it extended was a question for another time.
For now, it was good enough that she did actually support Murati when it mattered.
As objectionable as some of her language and habits were– maybe she could actually help.
“Since we are intervening, we need a plan and we need it soon.” Erika said. “Tarrying too long will be effectively the same as abandoning this ship– they are taking fire as we speak.”
Murati knew this quite well. She turned back to the main screen.
At the moment, her thinking was that this reminded her of the Battle of Thassal.
That Republic frigate could hold out against that single Marder, if not in the long term then at least for the moment. In this scenario the real problem was the reinforcements. They were divided up and trying to converge on one target to overwhelm it. Murati was trying to think of a way to keep them from coming together and thereby disrupt their operation. She could not assume that each element of the patrol was moving closely and with coordination the way that the enemy fleet groups were in Thassal, however. Depending on the speed of each different element, the timing to defeat them in detail might be too tight.
One solution could be splitting their own forces. Should she recommend the Rostock engage the Marders while the Brigand commits to the rescue? That would depend on whether the enemy Marders were modified to carry more Divers, like she knew other Volkisch units had been. It was possible if they sent the Rostock alone it could be overwhelmed by that many Divers. The same might happen if the Brigand went alone. The more she thought about it, dividing their own forces was out of the question. She grunted. What was the answer?
“Aatto.” Murati said. “Is the Serclaes-class roughly as fast or faster than the Marders?”
Aatto smiled. “As a matter of fact master, it is actually slower than a Marder.”
“Really?” Murati asked. “Tell me more about it. I know it didn’t see front-line service.”
Behind them Aaliyah seemed to want to ask why Murati kept being called “master”–
Ulyana continued to work to calm her down, however–
“It’s true, the Serclaes class never saw service in the Grand Fleets.” Aatto said. “Because the class is heavily overburdened compared to thrust and while well-armed and armored, it was considered a crippled design due to its lack of speed. After all, a fleet is only as fast as its slowest element, and it is unacceptable for a Cruiser to be that slow. It was used in Imperial propaganda to emphasize its size and armament and was dubbed a ‘Heavy Cruiser’ but that was all it was, propaganda. Few were built and only used for interior defense.”
“Then out of this group, the Serclaes will surely arrive last.” Murati said.
“Significantly so, I predict.” Aatto replied.
A small smile crept across Murati’s features. Newly energized she turned left.
“Zachikova, can I get a more accurate depiction of the distance between the Marders?”
“I’ll try to get the computer to rerun it with greater fidelity. No promises.” Zachikova said.
On the main screen, the Marders were zoomed in on. A different became apparent.
In the broader picture of the scenario, the Marders looked like they were grouped together.
Upon zooming in on them, however, they were not arrayed in a standard arrow-head.
Two were coming in a line together and were not observing a shooting formation.
And the third was two kilometers behind the rest and moving as if to flank, not join them.
Murati pointed at the screen as if her finger would stab the frigates out of existence.
“I’ve got you!” Murati said excitedly. Her smile turned into a bloodthirsty grin.
Aatto wagged her tail and joined Murati in smiling– hers more admiring than violent.
“Captain, Commissar, Premier, I have a plan. But once we deploy, we have to be quick.”
Murati turned around to look her superiors in the eye. Determination swelling in her chest.
Even Aaliyah was not looking so skeptical as before. Ulyana looked a bit relieved.
“Go on, Murati. I’m ready to see your sorcery in action.” Erika replied.
For a moment, Murati was surprised to see it referred to as sorcery– but she liked it too.
At no time was she as conceited as when she figured out a problem like this.
“First, we need to converge all forces on the Republic In-Line-2 and rescue it. Then–”
Murati laid out her thoughts before anyone.
Though she felt her observations were not so revolutionary– people were impressed.
“Remind me to doubt you a bit less next time, Murati.” Ulyana said, as the plan unveiled.
Orders from the bridge relayed down to hangar engineering, and to the Rostock as well.
The Brigand and its new sister ship changed course, veering north-east together.
On the Brigand’s hangar, the pilots of the 114th rushed to their machines and suited up in black, thermal-padded pilot bodysuits. Murati Nakara ordered a quick huddle and advised on the overarching plan. For the pilots, it was not anything too complicated.
At first, the overall goal for everyone was to eliminate all targets and secure the Republic frigate from enemy fire. Then they would have to switch strategies. Dominika Rybolovskaya and Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun, with their Strelkannon and Cossack, would be tasked with guarding the fleet from ordnance and Diver attacks. Khadija, Shalikova, Valya and Murati would intercept the incoming enemies and look for openings.
“We can’t be too reckless, but speed is of the essence. Unless we can break through each enemy in turn, it is possible that we may be outnumbered and encircled.” Murati said. “Rostock and the Brigand outgun the enemy ships significantly, so our focus needs to be the enemy Divers. If we allow the enemy Divers to act freely then we will be defeated.”
Around Murati, her fellow pilots nodded their heads in acknowledgment.
“Any questions?” Murati asked. She intended this to be about the plan, but–
“Yes. Who is that?” Khadija, smiling mischievously, pointed over Murati’s shoulder.
Behind Murati, a set of tall, brown-furred dog-like ears wiggled; a very fluffy tail wagged.
“That is my new adjutant, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Murati said, as if it was enough.
“Huh?! Isn’t that the woman who was threatening you in Kreuzung? Isn’t she a fascist?”
At Murati’s side, Tigris spoke up, her jumpsuit stained with accidentally spilled lubricants.
“She defected– we’re working on it– she’s– she’s a reform fascist.” Murati said nervously.
“What? What does that even mean? Are you okay, Murati?” Shalikova said, confused.
“I am not a fascist anymore. I am for the supreme power of the proletariat.” Aatto said.
“Do you mean the national proletariat?” Khadija said, suppressing laughter.
“The proletariat is the proletariat. It’s all the same isn’t it?” Aatto said, shrugging.
“She’s a reform fascist.” Murati said. “Stop asking me about my adjutant and move out!”
With a few laughs and stares, the pilots left Murati’s side and headed to the machines.
Tigris stayed behind for a moment. She pointed a wrench in her hands at the Agni.
“I’ve got some fancy ideas I haven’t gotten around to, but for now, it can hold a gun.”
“Thank you, that’s all the capability I really needed.” Murati said.
“I also removed some of the ‘hadal armor kit’ I developed. Since it won’t be going below 3000 meters deep or encountering Leviathans, probably– with the extra weight off, it’ll be faster. I recommend you do not try to play the hero. Hang back, and act as support for now.”
Tigris briefly explained the changes and then left Murati’s side to assist around the hangar.
All of the pilots were taking care of final personal and practical matters before deploying.
Murati turned to face her new adjutant. Her heart was a bit heavy.
Certainly she was sympathetic to Aatto or she would not have tolerated being a made to look foolish in front of people to cover up for her. She knew Aatto must have been dealing with trauma. And she was beginning to see first-hand what she hoped to get from Aatto– someone who had lived in the Empire, worked for them, had access to regional knowledge Murati lacked. In the best case, Aatto would not just take over some of Murati’s busywork, but she would help cover up her blind spots or gaps in her strategies. That was the role of an adjutant– like the Commissar and Captain, who had a productive rapport.
However, Aatto had a long way to go in terms of fitting in with the Brigand.
Murati could not help but feel, still to that moment, that this might all be a mistake.
“Yes, master?” Aatto said.
“Ugh.” Murati gave up on dissuading her from saying that. “What do you see in me?”
Aatto seemed to understand Murati wanted a serious answer.
She took a moment to think before speaking.
“I see power, intellect, determination and the will to sunder the petrified Imbrium Ocean.”
“I think you have me wrong. I’m not that big of a deal. I’m not vying for power here.”
“Perhaps not yet. But I see it in you. You want to topple the current order, don’t you?”
She recalled the things Aatto said in her cell. Some of them with great nervousness.
“I want to topple it because it hurts people. Not for my own sake– or because of Destiny.”
“That’s more than enough for me, master. I will assist you in this endeavor regardless.”
“You need to do more than that. You must realize there is a burden to being a defector.”
Murati took Aatto’s digital computer from her hands and showed her the files on it.
“There are books on Union politics. Read them. You’ll take the pledge too.”
Aatto nodded her head. She had a demure smile throughout. It reminded Murati of cafeteria workers. Service personnel had difficult jobs, and smiling was a part of the job. In the Union cafeteria workers were treated well, and they were respected, because they had been entrusted an important task. But it was strenuous labor that they would often perform regardless of how they were feeling. That smile was just a part of preparing and serving food. Murati felt that Aatto’s smile was for her, and so ‘part of the job’. It hid whatever Aatto was feeling inside. That was why she would not stop smiling for anyone on the ship, even after all she had been through. It troubled Murati that she felt this was the case.
But there was nothing she could do about it in that instant.
“I would say, ‘good luck, master’ but I have the utmost confidence in you.” Aatto said.
“And why is that?” Murati asked, meeting her eyes and trying to smile.
“Because I saw the look in your eyes when you realized your strategy. You don’t just want to carry out your duty solemnly for its own sake. You want to destroy this enemy.” Aatto said.
At first it was Murati’s snap reaction to deny to herself that this was the case–
However, it was entirely true.
Murati wanted to punish the imperials and bring justice to them since she was a child.
At Thassal she had gotten her first taste of their blood.
Standing amid Imperial ships exploding, thousands of their people dying, she thought,
All of you deserve this.
So she could not deny what Aatto was saying– but neither would she acknowledge it.
“What kind of plan would you have come up with, Chief Petty Officer?” Murati asked.
Aatto kept her answer succinct– after all, it was almost time to deploy.
“I would have just abandoned the Republicans. But– I like your way much better.”
“Well. Thank you. It’s your first day on the job, so do your best.”
“In service to you, I will never falter, master.”
Murati turned around and left Aatto’s side, heading for the Agni. Her heart remained heavy.
At the foot of the Agni, she found her fiancé Karuniya Maharapratham in her pilot suit. She had been tasked by Murati with overseeing the loading of the HELIOS drones into the shoulder binders on the Agni. Upon Murati’s arrival, she turned to face her, put her hands on her hips, smiled and leaned into Murati’s personal space. She had a strange look on her face.
In that moment, Murati feared for the worst.
“Soooo, I heard a weird woman is following you around and calling you ‘master’ now.”
All of Murati’s fears cascaded over her shoulders until she thought she would fall.
“Who told you that? It’s nothing. She’s– she’s just a little– odd in the head.” Murati said.
Karuniya continued to grin and stare at Murati. Chest out, hands on her hips, smug.
“Nothing untoward is happening! Why are you looking at me like that?” Murati whined.
“Oh nothing~– to be honest, I’m glad you made a friend. Maybe you can be besties.”
“Karuniya, I have friends.” Murati said suddenly. “I have no problems making friends.”
“None of the officers count. And I don’t count either– I’m your wife~” Karuniya teased.
“It’s not fair that you don’t count– okay, fine, let’s just drop it. We need to get moving.”
Similar scenes seemed to play out at some of the other gantries in the hangar.
At the foot of the Cheka, Sonya Shalikova held hands with Maryam Karahailos.
“Sonya, I believe in you! Score super awesome kills and become a Diver Ace!”
Shalikova blinked. “Maryam– that’s a bit macabre– it isn’t a game you know–”
“Oh, but I heard that for every kill you get to put a notch on your Diver, and at five–”
“That’s not untrue, some people do that– but it’s kinda weird when you just say it.”
Between the open cockpits of the Strelkannon and Cossack, their two pilots met.
The taller Sameera looking down at Dominika, who put on an aggrieved expression.
“I’m warning you to reign in your gallivanting attitude this time.”
“I will control myself if you promise me a reward when we get back.”
In front of the Strelok One~bis, a tall and pensive blond woman stood with her head bowed. Compared to the Shimii she was speaking to there was a visibly humorous contrast of their size difference and the level of deference of one to the other. Sieglinde von Castille was nearly bowing to Khadija al-Shajara, who looked none too amused by the body language and nervous stuttering. She waited for a moment for Sieglinde to struggle with speaking.
“Khadija, I– I’m here because– I just wanted to– for you–”
“Oh come on, hold your head up! Speak clearly! This is pathetic!”
Khadija reached out and with one index finger forced Sieglinde’s chin up.
Sieglinde looked briefly stunned by this level of physical approach.
For an instant she seemed to flinch as if she was expecting to be struck.
“Is that really what you wanted to say to me?”
“No.” Sieglinde sighed. “I wanted to wish you good fortune. On the sortie.”
Khadija put on a smug little smile, her tail waving behind me.
“Unlike you, dear, I don’t need good fortune. It’s all skill in this cockpit.”
With a teasing little wave, Khadija hopped onto the ramp and ducked into the open Strelok.
Sieglinde stood watching as the cockpit closed as if in disbelief of Khadija’s response.
And rushed out of the way when the gantries released the trundling mechas.
“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’! Sameera al-Shahouh, deploying!”
Mother’s surname again. Perhaps it just felt right for Eisental.
Under the feet of Sameera’s modified Strelok, the deployment chute piped in water and piped out any air until the chute equalized to the outside and then opened its hatch, releasing the machine into the ocean beneath the Brigand. Because the Brigand was moving at speed, Sameera had to immediately hit the pedals in her cockpit in order to begin generating thrust and avoid being left behind by the ship. Once she got to speed, she could keep up with the ship easily. Her feet on the pedals, her hands on the sticks, fingers ready to flick switches and press buttons installed by the stick housing or on the stick itself.
Sameera quickly checked her cameras.
She had a multi-sectioned screen in front of her that was technically split into 16 regions that could have different pictures. Most of the time, she split the picture only three ways. One main forward camera occupying half the real estate but directly in the center of the monitor; a rear camera on the left quarter; and a variable camera on the right quarter of the screen that she flipped between an upward and a downward camera, sometimes compulsively.
Below her camera monitors her communications equipment was installed. This box parsed communications data and piped it to her headset and monitor. Presently neither the Brigand nor a fellow pilot was in direct communication so the picture contained only her camera feeds. By default, communication was wireless data brought by laser, the most efficient means of data transmission underwater. Acoustic data transfer was the first fallback, because laser was incredibly range dependent, while acoustic wave decoding was less so. Imperial communicators, and old Union communicators, had a second fallback to radio, but radio equipment was not installed anymore on the latest Union designs as it was nearly useless underwater. They saved a bit of weight omitting traditional wi-fi and radio.
At the moment, there was nobody on the screen, and the communicator was silent.
That state of affairs would not last much longer, however.
From an adjacent chute, Dominika’s Strelkannon dropped out soon after.
Her machine was designed for heavy fire support.
For this mission, however, the heavier shoulders of the Strelkannon had been equipped with two pods each housing a double-barreled 20 mm ‘gas gun’, the same sort that ships equipped. With this equipment her role was ostensibly to fire light caliber munitions at dizzying rates hoping to intersect enemy munitions. Sameera, meanwhile, had to make sure she got to fulfill that role by killing anything that got too close to her.
Sameera quite fancied such a protective role.
She had set her sights on making Dominika her woman, after all.
“Dominika, how’s the water?” Sameera asked cheerfully.
“Dark like always.” Dominika replied, her disinterested voice coming out of the earphones.
At that moment Dominika’s expressionless face appeared on a corner of the screen.
“Unquestionably it is dark– but I don’t feel like it is ‘dark as always.’”
It was her first time out in it, and Sameera felt that the water in Eisental was much darker.
Fighting against Leviathans in Lyser, or against the imperialists in Serrano, there were still blues and greens to be seen in the water. Faint, but nevertheless apparent. In Eisental, an additional thousand meters down from those locations, her spotlights parted nothing but pitch black water. Not even with strained eyes could she see any green or blue.
“Sameera, I’m going to conserve ammo as much as I can. Can I count on you?”
“Got it. Don’t worry about a thing. They won’t get through me.”
“Also– I’m serious when I say this. Don’t run off like when we were escaping Serrano.”
“I won’t. I have someone who needs me now. I don’t need to impress anyone but her.”
For once, Dominika did not respond to that with sarcasm or a sour remark.
Soon after, the entire squadron formed up under the Brigand.
To the right of the communicator there was an LCD with sensor output. For most Divers the only capability of this device by itself was to display directional sound acquisition, and this was nearly useless in combat. However, in the presence of a ship, the Diver could sync with its higher-fidelity sensor data and acquire a sonar picture and even LADAR topography.
Once the 114th had formed up, this screen began to display a map with marked targets.
Updating in real time as the ship and the squadron approached their objective.
And even marking distant boxes on the camera feeds using overlays.
On the monitor corner, Dominika disappeared.
There was a priority shared feed to all pilots from the squad leader’s mecha, the Agni.
Karuniya Maharapratham in a pilot suit smiled and waved.
“Operator Maharapratham here! How is everyone? We will begin scattering the HELIOS drones shortly. Scanning and network propagation will follow after. It’ll take some time, but please wait warmly and look forward to all the data goodness coming soon!”
Distantly in Karuniya’s audio, Murati could be heard saying something.
Sameera laughed to herself for a bit.
Between her comrades’ speech, she could hear distant sounds of ordnance.
Low volume booming that seemed to wash over her.
As they neared, the sound was accompanied by vibrations that stirred her machine.
On the map, the object marked “VIP” and the object marked “TARGET 1” approached.
“It’s time, disperse!” Murati ordered. “You know your roles! Begin the operation!”
On Murati’s command, the Divers of the 114th launched out from under the Brigand, breaking up into loose sections of two units in mutually supporting range. Sameera led the way for Dominika, the Cossack and Strelkannon grouped closely together as they charged out into the black, empty expanse in front of them. There was neither seafloor beneath them nor sky above them and the Brigand grew distant in the marine fog.
Soon they knew of its existence only in the tracking data.
Similarly both VIP and enemy vessels were nothing but overlay elements and map blips.
Until they came into view.
First as brief flashes of ordnance in the water. Stronger vibrations accompanying each.
Then in the middle of the void of water appeared a long, rectangular silhouette.
Lines of gas gun fire burst from its midsection and aft, intercepting torpedoes and middle caliber rounds hurtling toward it every minute. Specks of light going off by the dozens followed by much larger explosions from the intercepted ordnance. The ship was fighting for its life, enduring explosive fire every minute. Though she could not yet see the Marder-class chasing after the frigate, she could track it, based on positional data which her computer would update in real time using logic given by the Brigand during the sync. In this way, she knew where her enemy was relative to the ship that they were trying to rescue.
“Captain Korabiskaya has made contact with the Republic ship.” Murati said to her pilots.
Regardless, they would have to be careful of its gas gun fire.
Having confirmed the position of the VIP ship, the 114th veered eastward away from it.
Moving towards the enemy instead.
“Avoid enemy ordnance, but intercept if you have a shot.” Murati said.
“I’ve got a hundred shots a minute, Lieutenant.” Dominika replied.
“Use them judiciously.” Murati instructed.
Dominika acknowledged, moving her Diver closer to Sameera but farther behind her.
“Acknowledged. I’ll take the lead.” Sameera said.
On her diver’s arm, she revved up the engine on her diamond spear in preparation.
Rotation was good and smooth. No motion lag– it had good heft when she moved the arm.
She grinned to herself, leaning forward just a little and flooring her pedals for more thrust.
Minutes after contact with the VIP, a second silhouette began to emerge from the dark.
Along with six figures disturbing the water, as they broke away from the “Marder” frigate.
Their first enemy had shown itself and the battle was joined.
Republic “In-Line-2” class Frigates resembled the Union Soyuz class in overall silhouette, but in the sum total could not have been more different. Integrated main guns on the bow meant that the Republic frigate had very stable shooting and twice as many barrels as the Union vessel, but could only bring its main guns to bear on targets it was directly facing.
This design was born out of the Republic’s obsession with breaking out from Ratha Flow and through the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach, reasoning that there was little opportunity to maneuver in that type of warfare and not caring what would happen in a prolonged campaign in Imbria. Everything else seemed designed to paper over this.
Beveled surfaces on the bow and aft gave a rounded and aesthetically pleasing appearance to the ship, unlike the boxy, completely rectangular Soyuz. Because of the guns in the prow it had a flat face that was not efficient in water-breaking. Integrated hydrojets in an armored stern gave the ship’s thrusters greater resilience, unlike the Imbrian-style exposed hydrojets that only had a flared skirt around them, but this also added weight. Despite the supposed higher efficiency of the Republic hydrojets, the added armor made the craft only slightly faster than a Marder or Soyuz. While viewed from the side the ship appeared to be a single rectangular block, the design actually possessed two broad sections. There was a very slight taper near the midsection to a thinner rear. It was there that the rear fins attached. They had a different design from Imbrian fins, slightly diagonal and strangely adjustable.
In total, this meant the In-Line-2 could never completely outrun a “Marder” or “Soyuz.” Whenever a Republic ship turned, it lost maneuver efficiency compared to Imbrian designs. On the maneuver this meant that despite higher top speed, the nimbler Imbrian frigates would catch up. All they had to do was keep shooting to force the Republic ship to snake.
Thankfully, the Republic ship in this particular chase had outside assistance.
As the 114th moved to engage the “Marder” chasing after it, the UNX-001 Brigand and the Volksarmee Rostock moved to cover it. The Brigand moved parallel to the Republic frigate while the Rostock sailed past and moved to engage the chasing Volkisch Marder-class along with the 114th Diver Squadron. Diver gunfire would soon begin trading.
Captain Korabiskaya sent an acoustic message to the Republic frigate along with the shared Union-Republic diplomatic cipher attached. This would inform the ship computer on the Republic side that it was allied traffic being received. Even if the Republic ship wanted to do anything drastic out of paranoia, it had to turn around to face and fire at them, so neither the Rostock’s Captain Daphne nor Ulyana on the Brigand felt threatened.
“Captain, the Republic ship answered.” Semyonova said, her fingers slowly brushing some of her blond hair behind her ears as she spoke. “They are identifying themselves as the ‘R.N.S. John Brown’ and the Captain is requesting a laser transmission to speak with you.”
“Right. Is HELIOS up? Can Daphne join the video meeting?” Ulyana asked.
“HELIOS coverage is at 43% but there are drones we can bounce to.” Zachikova replied.
“Semyonova, Zachikova, hail the John Brown and Rostock and connect us.” Ulyana said.
On the main screen, the picture displaying the LADAR topography and the sonar-based live target tracking was shrunk and pushed to one side. Still visible as needed but subordinate to an incoming laser call taking up most of the screen. In a picture-in-picture, there was a small square with Daphne, who was muted because she was soon to engage the enemy directly– but the larger picture unveiled the captain of the John Brown. Ulyana had not known what to expect, as she had met few Cogitans in her life and knew little about their demographics.
She was still somewhat surprised to see a woman around her age.
“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya. I can’t thank you enough for your assistance. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Eithnen Ní Faoláin — in the Republic database this is rendered as Ethna Whelan to simplify. I, technically, am the Captain of this fighting vessel.”
She had given two slightly different pronounciations.
Ulyana was not sure her Volgian accent could handle either of them well.
The John Brown’s bridge was notably more cramped than the Brigand’s as there were several heads of hair visible around on the bottom edge of her main camera picture. Eithnen was a fair skinned and good-looking woman, the middle of her face full of freckles, her cheekbones high and slim, with brown eyes and a slightly long nose. Her hair was long and voluminous and shockingly red, so bright that any individual darker strand seemed to stand out, of which there were few. Parted more to one side with longer bangs on that side as well. She was dressed in a button-down shirt that was partially unbuttoned over sweat-slick skin, along with a blue military coat worn loosely, paired with a skirt and tights. There was a hat hanging on a guard-rail off to her side. Eithnen’s bridge seemed to be tight and concentric, with herself in a small central enclosure without much legroom and surrounded by her officers on a ring slightly below her. The door seemed to be directly behind her.
Certainly such a design was efficient, but Ulyana could not imagine fighting like that.
“Our nations stand united, and so do we, Captain.” Ulyana said. “What is your current status? More enemies are on the way from the north. We have a plan to attack each approaching enemy group to rescue your ship; but your support would maximize our success.”
“My crew is exhausted, Captain, but we have been exhausted for days. We will continue fighting to the best of our ability. To do otherwise would mean lying down to die.” Eithnen replied. Her expression did not change as she relayed her situation. She had a look of almost amused resignation in the face of this danger– bitterness, too. “We lack in almost every human need except ammunition for the ship’s guns. No medicine, eating a meal a day, and with nary the supplies to do more than keep the ship afloat if a bit leaky.”
“Those are desperate conditions. Should we prepare an evacuation?” Ulyana said.
“No, the ship can endure a bit more yet. I appreciate your concern.” Eithnen said.
“Then once the waters are calm again, we can at least make sure you can get to Aachen.”
“I do not relish returning there– but you are right, there is no other choice long-term.”
“It is admirable that you have maintained control of things in such a situation, Captain.”
“We have a new lease on life Captain– we can almost see the light at the end. While at first I and my crew consigned ourselves to death, we disabled the trap that was set to detonate our ship in case of our escape from our Republic Navy captors. Therefore I would greatly enjoy living at least a little bit longer– and in that, we do require your assistance.”
Ulyana narrowed her eyes in confusion. “What happened to all of you?”
Eithnen’s eyes drifted away from the screen, as if she was looking at her crew below.
She sat back in the little seat cushioning she was given in her tight bridge.
One hand running through her hair.
“Captain Korabiskaya, I hope you can be sympathetic even knowing this– but the John Brown is a penal ship. We are the 808th Penal Battalion.” Eithnen said. She spoke quickly as if she did not want Ulyana to have time to react before hearing her whole story. “We are all former prisoners and in fact former prisoners slated for execution. However, none of us here are violent offenders or sexual exploiters! All of us are victims of social and economic discrimination! That we are trapped here is a horrific injustice, Captain!”
“Captain Faoláin,” Ulyana smiled while troubling the pronunciation she had heard from Eithnen, “Regardless of your circumstances I would not just abandon you to be killed by the Volkisch Movement, having taken painful efforts to reach out to you. I have seen first-hand that the Republic can be quite unjust despite its promotion of ‘liberty.’”
Eithnen bowed her head to Ulyana, her hands clapped together in a gesture of submission.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Captain. If I am the last Republic officer alive here that can be held to account for the Core Separation at Kreuzung then I will submit to any punishment. I understand I have participated in heinous actions and that my own survival is not an excuse. I only want the rest of the hundred innocent souls on this ship to be safe.”
“There is no justice in punishing you in place of those who coerced you.” Ulyana said.
“I agree with the distinguished Captain Korabiskaya as well.” Daphne said suddenly, her first shared opinion in the discussion. “Forgive my interruption, I am Daphne Triantafallos of the Katarran communist ship ‘Rostock.’ I will be leaving the call now– battle will soon be joined!”
Daphne looked strangely cheerful to be on a collision course with an enemy ship.
Her face disappeared from the picture in picture, and the square disappeared with her.
“Communist Katarran mercenaries?” Eithnen asked.
“Communist Katarran comrades. Much more reliable.” Ulyana said with a smile.
“I see. Captain, allow us to join your attack. We don’t want to sit helplessly.” Eithnen said.
“We’ll take every gun we can get. Do you have any Divers?” Ulyana asked.
Eithnen shook her head. “We were not trusted to serve as more than interdiction support.”
“So human shields essentially.” Ulyana said. “The Republic– I’ll hold my tongue for now.”
“Hah! Insult that rubbish country all you want. I’ll gladly join you there too.” Eithnen said.
Ulyana found herself full of compassion for the plight of that lone frigate. Judging by Eithnen’s expressions and hesitations, her story felt genuine. Increasingly she felt such a distaste for the Union’s ‘greatest ally’– but for now she had to settle the immediate account.
One by one the missile hatches atop the forward deck of the Marder-class sprang open.
Trails of bubbles floated up from each bay as its Sturmvolker diver launched, six in all.
These modified Volkers lost their round chassis for a body plan closer to a Strelok.
Looking more like the intimidating footsoldiers they were meant to be, armed with 20 mm Diver caliber submachine guns, the Sturmvolkers dispersed from the side of the Marder they were meant to be guarding, charging into an expected melee. None of them stayed together in units. In every direction a lone Sturmvolker went, hunting after the blips on their synced sonars. One particular unit shot straight up over the battlefield before pulling into a steep dive, employing gravity and its superior position to attempt to meet its enemy with an advantage in maneuver. It moved with great confidence as if it would surely score a kill.
In the middle of its dive, it crossed the path of Sameera’s Cossack as she darted forward.
Stopping, turning, raising its submachine gun to open fire believing it had taken her back.
And meeting a spinning drill that instantly bored through the thin chassis of its SMG.
Through arms that shredded to pieces–
Into the hull directly through the cockpit seams in the chest armor.
Water pressure doing bloody work.
Perforated, the Sturmvolker imploded suddenly.
Bursting pieces deflecting off the drill.
Nothing but a cloud of red foam and formless metal shreds gently falling down the water.
Sameera retracted her blood-flecked drill and accelerated away from the debris.
“Finally got to debut this Diamond Spear. Simple, yet delightfully brutal.”
Anyone in a mecha she was ordered to kill was no longer a person in Sameera’s mind.
Like Leviathans in Lyser, they were just things to be hunted.
For a moment, she had thought, “would it be more taxing to kill humans than Leviathans?”
Then, in battle with those humans it never crossed her mind. She had her orders.
On the hunt for humans doomed to the wrong side of her attentions.
Because there were as many enemies as the attacking mecha of the 114th, the battle was not immediately intense. Pops of confused gunfire from the Marder’s gas guns sounded the loudest and punctuated the chases transpiring around its hydrospace, but these fusilades were ineffective. The dispersed Sturmvolkers swam in directionless arcs, briefly firing their SMGs at the flitting shadows of the Union mecha darting all around them but failing to make contact with their targets. Shalikova and Khadija took to the chase, and went after a Sturmvolker each as soon as they saw one. Murati and her Agni hung back. Valya drew away one of the Sturmvolker from the reach of supporting units. Sameera scored first blood.
“HELIOS will be up momentarily!” Karuniya replied. “Zachikova, you can start!”
Sameera spotted Zachikova’s vaguely cetacean-shaped drone go swimming past.
Dragging behind it a crate on a hook that it was taking to the east.
“Moving to block the laser relay.” Zachikova informed the team.
“Sameera, Dominika, can you tie up the Marder’s guns?” Murati asked.
Sameera waited a second for Dominika to speak up first.
So she could then say: “I’ll do you one better than tying them up, Lieutenant!”
Though the battle had begun far enough from the Marder to only vaguely see its outline in the distance, the ship was only a hundred or so meters away– and closing. Flashes from its 20 mm defensive gas guns shone brighter and faster but began to dim anew. Owing to the 114th attacking, the Marder ceased to shoot at the John Brown and turned northward, away from the Rostock. Sameera wondered if they knew the Rostock was an enemy.
“Dominika, can you follow me as close as possible?” Sameera said.
“The gas gun pods aren’t as heavy as the cannons, I can keep up.” Dominika replied.
“Awesome. This is how we used to do it to bigger Leviathans in Lyser. Floor that pedal!”
Sameera began the attack run approaching the Marder-class from the starboard side. Gun pods on the Marder were divided into four bow, two aft, four keel and two each port and starboard. Hurtling toward the ship on final approach, Sameera was acquired by two of the bow guns and one of the starboard guns, turning and opening a flurry of gunfire. She approached high and threw herself into a diving turn to break through.
A dozen shells detonated in a long trail sweeping over her.
Flashing light briefly overcame her cameras.
Booming noises; tinnitus in her ears.
Heavy vibrations transferred into her cockpit, rattling over her back and under her fingers.
Explosion after explosion, bursting in the surroundings, blossoming fiery bubbles–
“Dominika!” She cried out.
“Still here! Focus!” She was relieved to hear a response.
Shrapnel bounced off her armor, pockmarked it, she could feel each impact–
Nevertheless she broke through the interdiction fire with minimal damage.
Sameera and Dominika swept across the broad side of the ship, too close to be fired on.
Close enough that the forward camera view was like a looming horizon of metal.
Within seconds the skirt of armor around the hydrojets came into view.
“Near the aft; up and on the deck!”
The Streloks climbed suddenly, swept gracefully over the aft armor skirt.
Turned sharply, banking in a half-moon arc–
and began to cross the length of the deck, passing the conning fin,
completely under the firing arcs of the gas guns.
“Now cause some havoc!”
Taking the neck of the ship, its Divers too distracted to come to its rescue.
Sameera reared up her drill as she charged, and landed on the deck with a thrown punch.
Thrusting her diamond spear through a gas gun pod and gouging its magazine from inside.
Meanwhile Dominika planted herself in the middle of the three remaining deck guns.
From the Strelkannon’s shoulders, quick, controlled bursts of gunfire hammered the pods.
Perforating the housing and detonating each gun into a bubble of gas and debris.
“Rostock, the deck guns are out!” Sameera called out.
The Rostock’s Katarran operator picked up the message immediately.
“Got it! Torpedo incoming!”
Having created an opening, Sameera and Dominika thrust up with all of their power.
Within seconds the enormous sword-shape of the Rostock penetrated the shadows.
Filling the hole in the Marder’s defenses with fire.
Sameera noticed the brief flash of the explosion on her underside camera.
Faster than she could see in the darkness, the torpedo hurtled toward the starboard side of the Marder’s deck detonated just short of a direct hit, but it was enough. Enormous shearing forces caused by the detonation, expanding and contracting as the air bubble “stuck” to the ship’s side. Such was its fury that it tore a gash separating parts of the deck from the starboard plate. Water rushed in. Atop the ship, the main gun turret was paralyzed.
Though the watertight interior was not penetrated, the Marder listed.
Tilting just enough to expose the upper deck directly to the Rostock’s 150 mm guns.
From behind and under Sameera the guns thundered.
Twin massive flashes lit up the deck of the Rostock for a brief instant.
Lancing across the water splitting the sea, the munitions put two massive holes in the deck.
Penetrations too violent and too near for the anti-flooding measures to prevent.
In moments the Marder began to unravel beneath Sameera, bulging apart with successive compartment implosions until it was split open like a ration box. Everything transpired with devasting speed. Debris and blood, foaming clouds of shredded humans and ripped steel and crushed objects, lines of ripped-up cabling. From the top of the disemboweled hulk that was once a ship teeming with life, everything that had constituted its strength now bled out into a homogenous cloud. Its remains slowly descended to the sea floor.
For a moment Sameera floated amid that macabre geyser with a neutral expression.
Another hundred or so human souls cast into the water never again to return.
“No– it isn’t as hard as killing a Leviathan.” She said to herself.
Too low for the communicator to pick up and transmit.
When she took a Leviathan’s neck and drove her weapons into it, wrung its life out herself.
She had to see the face of a dead creature before her and meet its lightless eyes.
Something she saw moving with vigor and purpose just seconds ago, became extinguished.
With humans, in their ships and Divers– there was too much metal between all of them.
That was quite lucky. She wouldn’t be much use to anyone if she could not kill people.
“Sameera, are you alright? Don’t just suddenly go silent on me!”
Through the communicator, Dominika’s voice. Her lag-distorted face on the screen.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve been through much worse.” She said, smiling at the screen.
Once again engaging her controls, Sameera’s Cossack rejoined Dominika’s Strelkannon.
Diving back down to where the sinking Marder once was, and now the Rostock settled.
“Marder down! No danger of agarthic detonation!” the Katarran operator called out.
Murati’s voice sounded next.
Sameera realized the fidelity of her sensor package had now improved. HELIOS’ high-bandwidth information network was established and she could see the surroundings much more clearly both on her map and even on her cameras due to the predictive overlays. It was as if there was actually some light and air down here in the depths of the Imbrium.
“All enemies down. Good work! But it’s only the first phase of the operation.” Murati said.
“Distress signals from the Marder to the relay were successfully intercepted by the net.”
Zachikova’s voice. In the distance Sameera could see an unfolded, massive sail-like object.
An X-shaped rigging between which there were enormous sectioned aluminum nets.
The Marder had been slain, and due to the laser-blocking net, its communications with the nearby laser relays were blocked, preventing its allies from knowing the details of its final fate. Nevertheless, despite the flawless execution of the first phase, the enemy, to whom the plan was unknown, continued making their own adjustments to alter the situation.
“W-what’s going on? Is there fighting? They’re fighting the Volkisch?”
At first Homa could hardly believe any of this was happening.
Soon she felt that the truth was washing over her like ice-cold water.
She was going to die.
From her hospital bed, Homa watched the bearing monitors on the wall. Hands shaking, teeth chattering. She felt suddenly cold because of how much she was sweating, and her chest quaked with the rushing of her heart. She felt that if she took her eyes off the monitors that would be the moment where her life suddenly ended. On every wall there was an update on the battle– the enemy ships, cycling topographic maps.
Along with a message, also cycled every so often–
Steel yourself and keep fighting! These monitors were meant for the sailor’s edification.
This propagandistic affirmation did nothing for Homa, however.
In her mind, this felt like the same hopeless folly she had engaged in back at Kreuzung.
The steel colossus of the Volkisch, immense and immovable, was coming for them.
Homa was not safe. She felt this in every centimeter of her skin.
She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to–
“Homa! I’m so sorry, I was setting up the aid stations. Are you okay?”
“I’m– of course– I’m not–”
Homa struggled to breathe and speak. Alarmed, Dr. Kappel rushed to her side.
Dr. Kappel held her by the shoulder and laid a hand on her forehead.
“Your temperature feels normal. I thought you might be having a rejection symptom–”
“How can it be normal?!” Homa cried out.
For an instant the doctor looked surprised by her shouting. She was not angered, however.
“I’ll get you a serotonin inhibitor– it’ll help you calm down.” Dr. Kappel said gently.
“How are you so calm?!” Homa shouted. “They’re going to kill us all!”
Dr. Kappel sat beside Homa’s bed, still smiling gently.
She reached out and carefully held Homa’s hands in her own.
“I understand your fear. But I’ve seen them do miraculous things before.” Dr. Kappel said.
Homa’s eyes filled with tears. She could not stop shaking. She looked down at her hands.
“Is– Is Kalika out there too? Where– where is she–?” Homa stammered heavily.
“Kalika is not fighting. She is helping in the hangar. She’ll be fine. I’m here for you.”
Dr. Kappel stayed at Homa’s side in the infirmary. Stroking her hands and comforting her.
“HELIOS is at full propagation! Please enjoy the scenery and thank your gracious host!”
Karuniya Maharapratham’s cheerful voice rang throughout the Brigand’s bridge.
On the main screen the prediction overlay on the camera feeds became clearer and slightly brighter. They could almost see the seafloor and the undersea mounts in the distance became outlined as if in fog. It was impressive, but even a miracle technology like HELIOS could not perfectly part the sea in such a dark and deep place as Eisental. It was comparatively far less rich in visual quality than it was in Goryk, when they first used it. They would not be able to navigate exclusively by sight even with the HELIOS network.
However, they were not using it for the visual overlay effects.
High-fidelity real time positional tracking and seamless laser communication with all of the pilots and ships in the fleet was the actual boon– and that was still working quite well, even over 2000 meters deep. On the Brigand’s bridge, the faces of their six pilots appeared on the main screen. Everyone had come out unscathed after the last sortie, but this was only the halfway mark. After a quick evaluation of the battlefield, the 114th returned to the Brigand as the Rostock and John Brown also formed back up around it. In an arrowhead formation, they headed for the next set of Marder-class. They had about twenty minutes before the next sortie, so the divers stayed in their deployment chutes.
Sailors passed charging cables and additional ammunition to them.
There was light damage on the Cossack and Valya’s Strelok that was assessed to not to be compromising for the machines. Shalikova and Khadija had each scored two enemy kills and received light shrapnel damage from close-range SMG munition bursts, while Sameera had taken out one enemy diver and Valya another. Murati’s Agni was the least worn and torn of the divers, as she had done no combat maneuvering and only focused on giving orders and covering for the HELIOS drones. While Ulyana ribbed Murati on her passivity in the last sortie, Tigris actually spoke up to agree with her decision to stay back.
“I’m recommending the Agni not engage in intense combat if possible.” She said.
“So when is Murati going to be required to do any work again?” Ulyana teased.
“Why is everyone suddenly acting like I’m lazy? This isn’t funny!” Murati shouted.
“She can go crazy once I’ve finished up the ‘Tigris Pack 1’ for the Agni.” Tigris said.
“Very well, I can accept that for now.” Ulyana replied.
“Why are you ignoring me now?!” Murati cried out, to a few laughs from the pilots.
On the video feed, they could see Karuniya’s hand reaching down to squeeze her shoulder.
Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah shook her head with a sigh, and turned to Zachikova.
“Can we get an updated picture of the incoming frigates? Has their course altered at all?”
Zachikova nodded her head and did as she was told, prompting the main screen to update.
In place of the pilots, the tracking map with predicted movements of the enemy returned.
Showing the two Frigates still in a line as they approached– and the third now closing in.
“It appears that their formation is tightening relative to what was calculated before.” Zachikova said. “We will meet them all together. No more than a minute apart.”
For a moment, Murati seemed to freeze up.
There was an unexpected change in the enemy’s composition.
And it was the most dangerous group too– those Marders and all their Divers.
Regardless, if Murati was afraid she was not showing it.
“We will adapt then.” Murati spoke up. “Captain, are we willing to use our missiles?”
“They’re difficult to replenish so I hoped to save them for a worse situation.” Ulyana said.
“Well, this situation is worsening. I think this a good idea from the Lieutenant.” Aaliyah said, gesturing to the main screen, where Murati’s face once was. “With the Rostock also shooting, we could drop sixteen missiles right into the core of their formation and cause a lot of chaos if not an outright rout. Patrolmen might not retain cohesion after that.”
“I’d gladly spend some missiles to seize the day. The Rostock will assist.” Erika said.
“Very well. We’ll prepare the missiles to fire.” Ulyana said. “But what about the timing?”
“Good point. Fatima, have we detected any more active sonar?” Murati asked.
“No, not since they sent us into alarm.” Fatima said. “They’re likely going quiet now.”
“Zachikova blocked the final communications from the other Marder. Jamming started before the Rostock attacked the Marder. It’s likely the enemy is missing some critical details about that battle.” Murati said. “They will know there was fighting and they will know something of our composition depending on what the Marder reported. But do they all know that the Rostock was also their enemy? We could use the situation against them by constructing a false narrative to have them take up a predictable formation.”
“How can we manipulate them in this situation? They’ll be on alert.” Aaliyah asked.
“Does the Rostock still have its original Imperial communications equipment, Premier?”
Erika smiled. “I think I see what you’re getting at Murati. Yes, we do have it.”
Zachikova altered the main screen picture so Murati’s face could be seen over the map.
“You said that regional patrol crews assume the Rostock is an imperial vessel with a higher command authorization than themselves. That means they are not aware of each specific ship in the inventory and they are not doing due dilligence and demanding authentication.” Murati said. “Zachikova could use the Rostock to send an Imperial-encrypted acoustic communication to the Marders informing them to predeploy their divers in a boxed defensive position. We will pretend we are chasing the Rostock toward them.”
“Clever.” Erika said. “I quite like the idea. Let’s contact Daphne to set things up quickly.”
“Zachikova, do you think you can do it? And do it quickly?” Murati asked.
Zachikova stared at the picture of Murati in her cockpit with clear irritation.
“Who do you think I am? This is technically really easy to do. But will they believe it?”
“Is it underestimating the enemy’s intelligence if we all agree they’re not too bright?”
Murati smiled confidently on the screen. Zachikova sighed once more and got to work.
The Rostock pulled out ahead, deliberately being missed by a small amount of gunfire.
Alerted to enemy activity but not exactly what kind, three Marder-class did their best to pull tightly together before making their final approach to the expected battlefield. Hatches opened on all three, their missile bays releasing sixteen Sturmvolker divers divided into sections of four, each occupying a cardinal direction as to guard their intended ships.
As far as the patrol knew their mission had changed. From capturing a Republic vessel that had somehow penetrated Eisental’s defenses, to stopping a large-scale enemy operation that was even threatening a Ritter-class Cruiser responding to the nearby battle. Since their local heavy support, a Serclaes, was lagging behind as usual, the brunt of the response was their responsibility. They were just patrol– they would not question orders.
Approaching to within a kilometer range was the Ritter-class that had sent the orders.
Trailing behind it as expected were a pair of enemy vessels launching ineffective attacks.
Aside from the Imperial cipher the ship had attached no relevant authentication.
Nevertheless, the patrol crews could come up with their own excuses for that.
When a brand new Cruiser like that gave an order they simply complied for their own sake.
The Marders in their defensive box sailed confidently. With a Ritter, they had the numbers.
Then, within 750 meters, the Marders spotted a series of successive flashes.
From behind the Ritter– and from the Ritter’s own missile bays.
Over a dozen lines cut across the water. Supercavitating missiles had been launched.
Both Imperial Taurus class missiles and Union Biryuza class hurtled toward the flotilla.
At this range the Marders had roughly 7 seconds to respond to being fired upon by missiles.
In that time gas guns could engage and fire a few rounds in haphazard directions.
Divers could be issued and execute single-word orders.
It was not enough.
“INCOMING!” was all that went out across the patrol flotilla.
Explosions blossomed violent gas bubbles across the top of flotilla’s hydrospace.
Gas gunners and divers struck some of the missiles, but even those intercepted munitions traveled too close to the fleet. Such turbulent detonations inflicted shockwaves that shook the frigates and sent Divers flying out of place. Cavitation bubbles formed by the explosion expanded and collapsed, pulsating violently. The walls of these bubbles “stuck” to steel when expanding and inflicted shearing force on the same metal when collapsing. Unlucky Divers caught in their wake imploded, torn open; ships within the radius of the explosion had armor and gun turrets and sensor bundles torn off their hulls and cast out into the sea.
Each missile warhead caused an explosion large enough to engulf two divers.
Tightly packed and not expecting such an attack, the flotilla quaked from the blasts.
No direct hits were scored, but significant damage was inflicted to turrets, fins, towers.
In an instant, combat capability had dropped from near-overwhelming to nil.
A predictable formation and a well-chosen attack made the difference.
Ephemeral flames and streams of bubbles and clouds of hot vaporized water spread a fog throughout the formation that the flotilla’s ships and divers struggled to escape. Once certain that they had survived, the individual ships lost cohesion, realizing it was a trap, and began to flee outside of mutually supporting range. In the confusion their divers floated helplessly, gathering their wits and tentatively fleeing in random directions.
Little did they know that while focused on the death raining down from above,
their keels had been taken.
Beneath the enemy flotilla, several divers shot up and attacked from the sea floor.
Khadija al-Shajara was at the head of the group and rushed at heedless speeds, her targeting computer putting a yellow box around a nearby Sturmvolker that had been spotted on her path. She reared back one of her swords as she climbed, sweeping up and just over the Sturmvolker suddenly. Twisting her Strelok’s body, engaging the jet on her diamond blade and cleaving diagonally through the center armor around the cockpit.
Saw-teeth chewed-metal disintegrating in front of her as her target imploded.
“One more for me, little Shali-Shali~!” Khadija said sweetly.
“It’s not a contest! Focus up!” Shalikova shouted back.
One blade in each hand; Khadija engaged both saws and rushed to the next target.
She was unaware of how many enemies had survived, she was not looking at her sensors.
Her mind had a honed instinct for moving quickly and attacking without hesitation.
Above them, there was a Frigate trying to climb away–
From the distance, a thundering cannonade. Three blasts perforated the side of the ship.
The Rostock, Brigand and John Brown were bringing firepower to bear on the flotilla.
Thanks to HELIOS, they did not have to worry much about hitting their own divers.
Metal rained down from heavens. Khadija navigated the debris of the dead and dying ships.
Pieces of the ships deflected off her armor as she charged.
Snaking toward a Sturmvolker overwhelmed by the chaos.
Within the rain of blood and iron it sprayed its SMG haphazardly.
She could almost hear the pilot screaming and shaking within the cascade of death.
Bursts of ineffective gunfire grazed her shoulderplates and hurtled past her hip armor.
Not once did she slow down; not once did she lose confidence in her approach.
Khadija crashed into the enemy with her swords in front of her and tore across.
Ripping two massive gashes in the metal, severing an arm, engulfed in skin-color foam.
Barely recognizing a kill before engaging her vernier thrusters and kicking off the carcass.
Her computer had already identified the next enemy within the storm.
She reveled in it.
“Looks like I’ll be the one carving a notch on my cockpit today, Shali-Shali~!”
By the time Serclaes-class Cruiser arrived, it was to the scene of a slaughter.
Heavy and roughly spearpoint-shaped, the Serclaes bristled with 76 mm guns on its angled surfaces, as well as a single 150 mm gun turret with one barrel designed for precision fire. It would avail itself of none of these accoutrements. Arriving blind, having received only a few panicked transmissions from the Marder-group and nothing more, and now unable itself to reach the nearby laser relay to communicate with the rest of the patrol, it saw an enormous field of mutilated debris spread out before it– and two enemy Cruisers banking away.
Drawn to the enemy it could see, the Serclaes moved to bring its guns to bear on them.
Unaware of a third enemy, the original target of the chase, that had been laid in wait.
Coming in quickly from the opposite flank just as the Serclaes committed to turn.
Four resounding blasts from the 100 mm guns on the John Brown impacted the Serclaes.
Tightly grouped, the shots punched deep into the armor in quick succession causing the ship’s interiors to disgorge from the wounds like a bag turned inside-out. Water violently filled the ship and disgorged each compartment in turn. Once the remains of the ship began to list, it seemed a beast wounded, red frothing humanity and steel innards copiously bleeding from the perforations as its body gracefully arced toward the sea floor.
Demonstrating the inflexible but brutal firepower that characterized the “In-Line-2” class.
“They called us cowards. But here we are.” Captain Eithnen Ní Faoláin solemnly declared.
Not even a murmur got out about this engagement. The Serclaes died quietly.
In the distance, an aluminum sail folded back into its rigging and ceased blocking the relay.
Within the cockpits of several divers, pilots broke out into laughter, tears, or sighs.
Inside each ship, the officers and sailors stood briefly speechless at the circumstances.
Before breaking out into celebration.
Five ships, twenty-four divers, over 500 enemy lives. No casualties of their own.
Mere minutes decided whom would pay the balance with their dead.
An advantage that would have seemed overwhelming swung from one side to another.
Quick decisions; lucky guesses; irreparable mistakes, parceled out between combatants.
Incomparable levels of experience played a part; but so did the plan and its execution.
So did quick thinking and the determination to do battle in the first place.
For the Volksarmee it was an unlikely victory against the type of enemies they would have once run away from. Fighting the patrol in open water– it signaled a change in the era.
“All of you really have me believing in miracles here.” Erika Kairos said. “Good work.”
In each pilot’s cockpits and throughout the Brigand and Rostock, her voice broadcast.
Even after all they had been through, it proved that their survival had not just been a fluke.
Somehow, almost before they even knew it, they fought and won the Battle of Haaren Hills.
Opening the way to Aachen, testing their cooperation, rescuing a stray Republic ship–
And catching the attention of several different forces, once word of the event spread.
“We’re recovering the Agni! Get the crane here! C’mon, don’t leave our hero waiting!”
Chief Galina Lebedova shouted amicably at the surrounding sailors in the hangar.
Everyone had a smile on their face as they got the mobile crane over to the deployment chute and hooked the chain to Agni, pulling it up and onto the floor of the hangar. When the cockpit door opened, Murati stepped out into a wave of hands, patting her back, shaking her shoulder, clapping. They called her a hero and a genius. They saluted and cheered.
Ulyana had credited her with the battle plan.
Murati wilted under all the attention. She barely knew how to take a step forward.
So many people were smiling and laughing that she could not help but laugh awkwardly.
And she had some experience speaking in front of people, so it was not stage fright.
Rather, the sheer size of the group in the hangar led her to realize–
how many lives were at stake
in her conceited decisions,
recalling the Comissar chastised her
was all of this what she put at stake–?
“Hey, hey, don’t crowd us like this, I have a migraine! We need to rest!”
Karuniya stepped down from the rear seat of the Agni, gently pushing Murati forward.
Murati silently thanked Karuniya for being there with her.
Urged by Karuniya, Murati stepped off the cockpit ramp.
All of the sailors made way for them to go through to the elevator. Partway through they started clapping. Murati did not know why but the clapping bothered her a lot in that moment. It sounded much louder in her ears than it should and it rattled through her chest. Booming, thundering, vibrations transferring from metal through to her– no not from metal she was out of the metal. It couldn’t have been so loud as to move through the floor. She could barely meet the eyes of the sailors– they became an indistinct mass around her. Did Karuniya see all of this? Murati thought that she might stumble and fall–
“Please allow the Lieutenant through! She must attend her post-combat checkup!”
At the entrance to the elevator the crowd cleared away from a shouting Aatto.
She helped Karuniya to usher Murati through the elevator door.
Once the doors shut, all of the sounds shut out with them.
It was like a pair of hands had clapped in Murati’s ears and awakened her from a dream.
“Murati, are you okay?” Karuniya asked. “You look so pale– and you’re shaking!”
“I’m fine.” Murati said. “Really. I haven’t eaten today, I must be hungry.”
“Jeez. I should have had you eat a survival bar or something.” Karuniya said.
Karuniya turned from Murati to the Loup woman who had entered the elevator with them.
“You must be Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! It’s our first time meeting isn’t it?”
“I believe so! I was only officially elevated to this role this morning.”
Aatto reached out a hand across Murati’s chest to shake with Karuniya on the other side.
Karuniya shook her hand with a strangely cheerful expression.
“I’m Murati’s wife, Karuniya Maharapratham. Pleased to meet you.”
She emphasized the word. Was she angry? Aatto had no reaction to this.
Between the two of them Murati felt like she had been trapped in a cage.
Everything was happening across the length of her like she had been made an object.
A firm hand shake. Smiling faces. An almost mock-saccharine atmosphere.
Aatto’s fingers then slipped from Karuniya’s grasp, to hold her hand by the tips instead.
She leaned forward in front of Murati and kissed Karuniya’s hand.
Karuniya went red. Murati drew her eyes wide.
“The Queen herself!” Aatto said. “I can already see it– a worthy partner to a king!”
Murati almost wanted to scream at her–
But the two of them were chirping too much for her to get a sound in edgewise.
“Oh my! She’s such a charmer!” Karuniya laughed.
Now it was Aatto’s turn to smile in a strangely cheerful fashion.
“I studied the roster. A formidable scholar is a perfect match for a consummate soldier.”
“Oh ho~! Murati, I already like her. You’ve got a keeper here.”
“I am flattered you think so. I simply wish to support unique talents in this world.”
“Thank you Aatto. My hubby can be difficult, so please be patient with her.”
“Of course, of course–”
“I’m the one who is being monumentally patient here.” Murati spoke up, fists tightening.
Aatto and Karuniya both giggled at the same time and in a frighteningly similar fashion.
Murati wondered if she might break their camaraderie by reminding Karuniya that Aatto had been a non-commissioned officer of the Volkisch Movement, but she decided against it. She did not want to hurt Aatto’s feelings when she could just be the bigger woman and endure her wife joking as she always did. It might even do Karuniya some good, Murati thought, if she made a friend. For as much as Karuniya joked about this, the same rules of friendship that she used to say Murati was friendless applied just as much to her.
At least the two of them were not fighting.
Karuniya could have easily decided to be offended by Aatto rather than amused.
After the door opened to the upper tier, it revealed Erika Kairos standing in the hall.
Murati saluted to her. Erika waved for her to put her hand down.
“Ah, Murati. May I accompany you for a moment? I wanted to talk.” Erika said.
“Of course.” Murati said. She turned to look at Karuniya and Aatto.
Karuniya waved her fingers as if to tell Murati to go on ahead, staying with Aatto.
Erika started down the hall with Murati following at her side.
“How are you feeling? Triumphant?” Erika asked.
“Not really. A little shaky I guess.” Murati said. “I haven’t eaten today.”
She was beginning to suspect it was more than food and maybe her nerves were shot.
But she did not want to admit that nor seek support for it.
Preferably, it really was just hunger affecting her.
“Does it feel surreal, to come out the other end of a successful plan?” Erika asked.
“A little bit. I don’t know whether to feel like we clawed out a victory, or won too handily.”
“When a battle starts, there are no even odds between the combatants. Nothing is fair and nobody is keeping score. There is just, always someone who will triumph, and someone who will die. You know– I felt that you are someone who would not appreciate being called a ‘genius’, so I called you something whimsical on the bridge, a ‘sorcerer.’”
“Even that feels unearned.” Murati said. “I’m not special for just making observations.”
“Perhaps not, but you are the one who spoke up. You had the courage of conviction.” Erika said. She smiled a bit more than she was before. Shutting her eyes and grinning with satisfaction. “Murati, what I find special about you is not how much you know about military matters– it’s what’s in here.” Erika reached out and suddenly tapped her fingers just above Murati’s breasts. “Before you chastised us, we were going to leave those people on the John Brown to die. I was leaning that way too. It was your words that saved their lives. It was your determination to abhor injustice even if looking the other way was the easier path.”
Murati had honestly never given her ‘attitude’ such as it was, that elevated sort of merit.
In her mind, what mattered was all the time she spent thinking about war, studying history, trying to determine correct understandings. Her heart, was just that of a communist, she thought. Anyone could have made that judgment; anyone with her knowledge could have made that plan. Everyone in the world should have had her convictions.
“I’m of the opinion you could use a bit more malice.” Erika said. “But I also just like you.”
Erika met her eyes with such a fond and gentle gaze.
Murati felt a bit embarrassed suddenly.
She felt like she needed to justify herself better to someone like Erika.
“I wouldn’t have made the suggestions I did, if I did not believe we could win.”
“And when the situation changed? You know– we could have run away at many points!”
“I still believed we could rout them. And I believed it was the best action long-term.”
“Keep believing wholeheartedly. Speak when you must, and then argue with whoever you need to, including myself. If needed, I’ll put my foot down as the malice that you lack.”
Erika reached her hand out again and patted Murati on the back.
Murati smiled at her and felt her head clearing just a bit more than before.
Her heart just a little bit less heavy than it had been. She felt just a bit less burdened.
She was not singularly responsible for everyone’s lives, not today, and not ever.
They had not done all of this just because Murati said so, but because they believed her.
Someday, if she was wrong, if they thought she was wrong–
There were many people with their own judgments around her who would guide her.
Murati was stubborn, she knew she would argue her own way no matter what.
But everyone was responsible together. Erika was right.
She needed to have confidence.
Sometimes the most callous thing toward life was to stand by saying nothing.
“I appreciate it, Premier. But I am not afraid to deploy the little malice I have.”
“Then I won’t underestimate you again. How do you feel now?”
“Better.” Murati said. “Could you tell I was troubled?”
For an instant, Erika flashed the red rings around her eyes that indicated psionics.
Then she crossed her arms over her breasts, shut her eyes, and looked a bit smug.
“You could say it was a mix of my own judgment as a leader; and a little diagnostic.”
“I see. Nevertheless– thank you, Premier.”
“My pleasure. Ask me someday to tell you the story of how I stole the Rostock.”
“Was it a plan comparable to what we pulled off today?”
“It was so much better. Intrigue, death-defying risk, with Katarran soul. Pure noir.”
“I thought noir stories are supposed to have bad endings?”
Erika remained quiet to that question but continued smiling to herself.
Eventually she ducked into another meeting room and bid Murati goodbye for the moment.
Murati thought that perhaps the story of the Rostock did have a bad ending.
And that there could be ‘bad endings’ where Erika still lived to tell that story anyway.
Whatever else she intended to communicate, Murati was simply glad for the reassurances. When she arrived at the infirmary some of the cheer she lost the past few days had returned.
After the sinking of the patrol fleet’s Serclaes-class Cruiser, the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown quickly fled the scene of the battle. Though each fleet had been prevented from transmitting to the relay during battle and therefore to the rest of the patrol, it must have already been common knowledge that the flotilla was moving to engage a Republic ship in the first place. If that specific operation took too long and suddenly went out of contact, then more of the patrol would immediately be sent to the area to investigate.
Ulyana gave the order to depart as close to combat speed as possible without raising further suspicion from any arriving patrol fleet vessels. An object moving too fast underwater would stick out too much– commercial vessels and off-duty military ships all traveled at restricted speeds either due to hardware, legal or doctrinal limitations. The Volksarmee had to get to Aachen as soon as they could, but without raising too much dust in the process.
“According to Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, the patrol fleet in Eisental was stripped pretty bare so most their newer ships could be assigned to the Volkisch navy and their war in the south. However, we must retain a sense of urgency. Even a dozen Cutters can be a problem. Furthermore, we have to assume that Violet Lehner’s forces will be moving north to secure personal control over the region. They will likely be far more formidable.”
That was Erika’s assumption but Ulyana supported it, having watched video of her speech.
Violet Lehner’s “Zabaniyah” would be their eventual biggest problem.
For the moment, however, the state of the John Brown was the immediate concern.
To that end, Ulyana contacted Eithnen Ní Faoláin.
In the hangar, the Brigand’s shuttle was prepared.
Over the past week they had gotten some good practice with shuttling people and supplies while on the move between the Brigand and Rostock. This time the shuttle would be loaded with a large crate of tightly packed dehydrated ration bricks, making up a week’s worth of meals for 150 people eating three bricks a day. Part of the Brigand’s survival stash– but it would last the John Brown a bit, and provide needed calories efficiently.
Along with the crates, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara would hitch a ride.
The Brigand’s shuttle was a wide, semi-cylindrical craft. It exited the ship via a moonpool that essentially acted as a much bigger deployment chute near the back of the hangar. Its cargo bay could hold one Strelok lying on its back, but was most useful in ferrying people and cargo crates to and from ships and stations without docking. Just like the Brigand, the shuttle had undergone an upgrade too. Its cargo bay and crew pod pressurized separately, so it was possible to actually dump out a Strelok somewhere as a neat trick.
Ulyana had no idea when they would make use of that, but Murati had suggested it.
So she would defer to that wunderkind’s judgment on such matters.
Aaliyah and Ulyana boarded the crew pod, containing the pilot and co-pilot’s seats and compartments where they could store emergency equipment and personal effects for their own use, and behind them, one long seat that could hold six passengers. Additional passengers could ride with the cargo. The seats were slightly stiff but comfortable enough for a quick shuttle trip. With just the two of them, the ride was not too cramped.
For this trip, their pilot and co-pilot would be Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse.
The two young stars of the Brigand’s security team, frequently seen patrolling together.
Over their security team armored bodysuits they wore work coveralls with grey hats.
Both of them had tied up their hair into buns. Klara was all smiles and amused with herself.
Zhu Lian retained a professional demeanor, while occasionally cracking a grin at Klara.
“The Captain should not visit another ship without an escort.” Lian said as they stepped in.
“I understand, but,” Aaliyah spread her jacket to reveal her revolver on a holster.
“Chief Akulantova insists.” Lian said, opening a compartment to reveal a submachine gun.
Klara showed that there was a grenade launcher under her chair in addition.
“I don’t think we’ll need any of these things, actually! Please calm down!” Ulyana said.
Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse engaged the electric power of the shuttle and locked down the compartments. Much like every other vessel, the shuttle was completely windowless. Cameras were used for navigation instead, and like a Diver, the shuttle could sync to the Brigand’s sensors as long as it was within laser or acoustic data range, receiving sonar and LADAR updates from it to navigate more accurately. For the passengers, a “window” was projected on the walls at their sides. Pilot and co-pilot had a multi-section display that could be divided among the shuttle’s cameras. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were not dedicated pilots, but every marine trained enough to be a capable shuttle pilot.
Below them, the moonpool filled, and the shuttle descended.
Once the hatch above them was closed, the hatch below opened to let them into the sea.
Hydrojets propelled the shuttle, quick enough to keep up with the ships in the fleet.
Their journey would only take a few minutes, but Ulyana still laid back against her seat.
She had not been on a small craft for a very long time.
Looking out the projected window and at the ocean next to her. On the bridge, the main screen picture made the ocean look so much smaller and easier to understand. While the view she had in the shuttle was no more authentic than that which she had on the bridge, it still felt closer, and the water outside felt darker and more vast. At the head of a ship, there were so many people and so much equipment working to give Ulyana a sense of what was out in the water with them. She never had to contemplate it herself for an instant.
In this shuttle, there was only her eyes and the unvarnished feed of a camera.
And the endless, teeming darkness of the Imbrium yearning to swallow her whole.
It unsettled her, momentarily. It made her feel weaker than she otherwise thought she was.
None of their pretensions mattered to the crushing, overwhelming fury of that water.
“What do you see out there, Captain?” Aaliyah asked.
“A lot of nothing.” Ulyana replied, covering up her brief bout of introspection.
“Truly? You looked like you would say something poignant about it.” Aaliyah smiled.
Ulyana looked amused. “Our pilots go out there all the time; none have come back poets.”
Aaliyah had a friendly laugh at the remark, sitting back along with the Captain.
Maneuvering with ease through the waters disturbed by the passing of the ships, the shuttle approached the underside of the John Brown. A hatch opened and a cable anchor helped guide the shuttle up into the ship. The hatch under them closed, and the top hatch opened. Three cranes lifted the shuttle from the water and the hangar hatch closed beneath them, setting the shuttle back down. Zhu Lian and Klara checked to make sure the atmospheric pressures inside the Brigand and John Brown matched, which they did– then shut off the motor and opened the side doors, putting down a step-ladder using a crank.
“You two will unload the cargo.” Ulyana said.
Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse both stared at her.
“Unload the cargo and stay here. We’re not going to have any trouble, I assure you.”
However, regardless of what Akulantova said to do, the Captain’s orders were absolute.
So they remained behind, watching like a pair of predatory birds while unhooking the crate.
Outside, Ulyana and Aaliyah stepped out onto a comparably very small hangar.
For whatever reason, everything was painted some shade of an odd and unwelcoming set of greens. Compared to the Brigand’s hangar it was narrow and the ceiling was low, which Ulyana expected, but the degree to which it was both of these things still took her by surprise. It was tighter than a Soyuz’s insides. There was only barely enough space for the shuttle in the back. The John Brown perhaps had the space for a Diver or two on the other half of the hangar, but there was only a single deployment chute, and no gantries. There was no workshop. The John Brown did not have stitcher machines of any kind.
If they kept any equipment here, it would be tough to maintain it.
Perhaps owing to the lack of space there were very few sailors in the hangar. All of them wore blue jumpsuits, and they were sitting and lying, overturned in various corners. Blankets and pillows had been given to them, as if the hangar had been converted into an infirmary. Someone who looked like they might be a nurse was tending to them, but had no supplies on hand. Several men looked only partially conscious. Simple hunger was not the only cause of this. Ulyana recalled that Eithnen told her they were without medicine also.
These sailors were ill, and going without treatment.
“You can see plainly our situation here, Captain. Thank you again for your support.”
An elevator opened near the shuttle bay and Eithnen Ní Faoláin stepped out to greet them.
She was accompanied by a shorter, comely woman with a thinner figure, properly wearing the blue Republic military skirt uniform that Eithnen wore only loosely. She had very dark skin, and black hair that was tied back into a braided tail. A pair of sleek glasses perched on her nose. Atop her head, she had a beret. Because the uniform was blue it reminded Ulyana of the cadets of the Union’s Academy in Mt. Raja. However, she recognized her uniform from her diplomat training. Eithnen’s companion must have been part of Republic military intelligence as an attaché. Not every ship in the Republic navy had an officer like that.
“Let me introduce you to my indispensable adjutant, Tahira Agyie.” Eithnen said.
“Pleased to meet you. On behalf of the crew, thank you, Ulyana Korabiskaya, and you as well, Commissar Bashara. We could scarcely hope for any relief. We were prepared to die.”
Tahira shook hands with Ulyana and then Aaliyah in turn. Hers was a quick, efficient shake.
She wore at all times a measured expression on her pretty face, betraying no emotion.
Ulyana did not judge her for this. It was not easy to smile in their circumstances.
Eithnen on the other hand was very affable, so it was an interesting contrast.
“We come bearing some gifts. Enough food for the journey.” Ulyana said.
She gestured to the back of the shuttle, where Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were working on getting the ramp down using cranks to conserve battery. Once the ramp was down they hooked the heavy crate to a winch and gently slid it down to the ramp and onto the floor of the hangar, before unhooking the crate and leaving it. While they were doing this, the Captain, Commissar and their counterparts continued their conversation off to the side.
“We can shuttle in medicine next.” Aaliyah said, glancing at the lethargic sailors.
“I can’t thank you enough. Some of these men, we have known about their deteriorating conditions for weeks now. Some have chronic illnesses, others just picked things up in Aachen. Most got worn down over time from lack of food, but kept working to keep us afloat.” Eithnen said. “Before the fleet was dashed to pieces in Kreuzung, our ‘commanders’ treated us like dirt. We were afforded nothing and kept locked up inside this ship.”
“That is horrific.” Ulyana said. “We’ll do what we can to assist your crew.”
“Thank you again, Captain.” Eithnen said. “Let us move to a meeting room in order to talk more comfortably. They’re also pretty cramped, but at least we can sit down there.”
“Of course. We can discuss the situation in-depth.” Ulyana said.
“This way.” Tahira gestured to the elevator.
Before leaving, Aaliyah turned around and shouted for Klara and Lian.
“You two put on some masks, get the first-aid kits and help out where you can!” She said.
Aaliyah pointed at the shuttle and then at the medical staff looking over the sick men.
Klara and Lian, sitting on the crate, looked helpless for a moment before moving to comply.
They were not medical staff, but Union marines received basic aid training too.
At least it gave them a different context for interacting with foreign sailors than suspicion.
“You’re all frankly amazing to me. I haven’t died and gone above, have I?” Eithnen said.
“We’re communists, it’d be a sad sight if we just sat around while people suffered.” Aaliyah said. “Trust us that you’re quite alive; we just have a different spirit than the Republic.”
Tahira stared at Ulyana and Aaliyah wordlessly for a moment before averting her gaze.
Eithnen put on a big, cheerful grin. “Well then! God bless the commie spirit!”
Aboard the Brigand, the door to the medbay slid open and closed quickly.
Hurried clacking steps from a pair of heels.
“Homa, are you okay? We’re out of danger now. I’m sorry I couldn’t support you.”
Homa recognized the horns and ponytail first, at the edge of her vision.
Kalika had come to visit.
Homa was lying sideways in bed, clutching her blankets as Kalika took a seat beside her. Even though she had her prosthetics installed, she was under observation until she had a few days’ worth of therapy. Her gait was still clumsy, though she was making progress.
More than that, she did not want to leave the infirmary during the commotion–
Because her heart had been gripped by an ice cold fear.
A shameful, chilling, awful fear.
Even now, lucid and medicated, she felt like she had been dowsed in ice water.
“Thanks to the crew, we were able to pull through.” Kalika said. “You’re safe now.”
Homa grumbled. She was ashamed. Ashamed of how frightened she had gotten.
“Did you go out and fight?” Homa asked, her lips trembling.
“All I fought were a few leaking pipes near the infirmary and the cafeteria. And some of the anti-flooding shutters.” Kalika said. “I was just doing this and that, trying to help out.”
“Why did they go pick a fight with the Volkisch?” Homa asked. “It’s just crazy.”
“They were rescuing some poor folks.” Kalika said. “It’s just the way they operate.”
“It’s useless– trying to be big dumb fucking heroes like that– they’ll just get killed–!”
Kalika did not respond. Homa snatched a look at her face. She was just silently smiling.
For some reason Kalika never judged Homa, never called her an asshole or a coward.
Sometimes it infuriated her. She wished someone would just slap her across the face.
Someone should just tell her already that she was worthless and lower than dirt.
They should just leave her crippled husk behind! Just launch her into the sea!
There it went again– she was crying. Crying and blubbering and shaking.
It was all she could do. Unlike Kalika, she could do nothing. She was utterly broken.
“Kalika,” Homa whimpered, “Can you– can you get me that necklace– on the table–”
Kalika nodded her head. She picked up Homa’s necklace from the bedside table.
Kneeling close to Homa’s bed, she put the necklace in her fingers directly.
“Rest up Homa. When you’re feeling up to it, we’ll resume your therapy.”
Homa did not respond to that. Once she had her necklace she hid under the blankets.
She clutched the necklace tight against her chest with her biological hand, crying openly.
Wishing she could hear the stupid little voice calling her ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ again.