Upon exiting the Brigand, a certain wily cat was trying to think of something mischievous to say.
“Make it back in one piece, squad leader; I wouldn’t want to have to tease a corpse for its owner’s mistakes.”
Murati, of course, had no reply to that. It was her youth and inexperience perhaps.
With a macabre flair sharpened by her long military service, Khadija al-Shajara broke off from the rest of the squadron, leading Valya Lebedova through the gloomy seas towards the left flank of the enemy’s formation. Khadija controlled her mech with practiced ease, each turn of the stick or press of the pedal as smooth or as harsh as it needed to be. Their Streloks were basic in comparison to some of the customized models favored by the other pilots, but Khadija liked hers basic. She had a relationship to this kind of machine that no one else could ever match.
She tried to purge herself of useless emotions when she went out into the water.
Deep breath, lifting her shoulders, stretching her legs.
Remembering the wine she had back on board the Brigand.
“Valya, how do I sound?”
“Good. Mind if I take the lead?”
“You’re in the lead ma’am!”
“That’s a good little enby. Judging by how much ordnance is strapped to that Strelkannon I think Sam and Nika will be fine in the front. We should prioritize trying to cripple the Frigate’s flak on our end. If the Cutters are destroyed or rout, those Frigates will try to move up to encircle the center team. Does that sound like a plan?”
“I’m fine with it! We can put a couple bursts in those gas gun pods at least.”
“One shot beneath the left barrel will set off the magazine. No need to seal it with a kiss.”
“I don’t know that I can fire just one shot off this AK, but I’ll try ma’am!”
Valya sounded slightly nervous.
Khadija’s flighty sense of humor never left her, but she was speaking with a stern tone of voice even as she compared the killing of a gas gun pod to the writing of a letter. There was a professional ease that came over whenever she piloted, a sense of giving up responsibility. It allowed her to be honest with herself and everyone around her.
She made the best of every day precisely so she could go out into the water without regret.
An old– mature woman, no children, unmarried, no family: it didn’t matter if she died.
Twenty years in the cockpit made those things seem small.
And the stakes involved in this particular mission made them even smaller.
Khadija flew through the water like a missile. Rookie pilots felt a sense of disorientation or confusion fighting in the Ocean because they could see nothing on their cameras most of the time, save for the overlays labeled by their predictive computers. Then when they found a landmark, they’d suddenly start orienting themselves in two dimensions, as if trying to plant their feet on it. And if anything came at them too suddenly it would be like a jump scare in a movie.
Even back when she started piloting, she never gave in to such vulnerabilities. Khadija was suspended in the water. As long as she had power she would not fall. Nevertheless, she did not hold inexperience against most people in the Navy. Her baptism under fire had taken place in an entirely different era, after all. She could not begrudge them being a little soft now.
It’s why she fought in the first place.
If they were too soft, it only meant those hard old veterans like her should set an example.
“Contacts.” Valya said.
“I see them. I’ll engage. Break off from me, lock your thrust and strafe the ship.”
“Uhh, wait, ma’am who locks their thrust ever? I don’t–”
Without responding, Khadija used the tips of her feet to flip two locking switches.
This would keep her pedals jammed down.
She lifted her AK rifle and fired a three round burst blindly into the ocean below.
Valya shouted. “What was that?”
“Relax and stick to the plan.”
Dead ahead of them was the red square for the Frigate and one additional red square most likely representing a pair of enemy Divers moving close together. Some twenty or thirty meters farther out from these squares was the great and murky looming shadow of the Irmingard class flagship. Quietly, inexorably advancing toward the Brigand.
That was not her concern for now.
Moving at the speed she was Khadija knew she would see the enemy Divers on her camera in seconds.
When they appeared on her screen, the two Volkers were swimming ahead with their rifles to their chests, pointing at nothing and descending rapidly. Toward the last thing that their predictors had pointed them to. The loudest noise they could hear in the middle of the murky ocean: a burst of rifle bullets blowing up in the middle of nowhere. This was how a Rookie saw the world underwater. Large overlay boxes representing “enemies,” and the loudest noise in the box.
As I thought. You fellas are half-baked.
“Stop calling me ma’am and do what I tell you.”
Valya hurtled onward to attack the Frigate moving rapidly into full view.
While Khadija swooped down from above to attack the two Divers below.
Without stopping to aim, she glanced at the rifle’s camera and put a burst into the water.
Like gas gun bullets, rifle bullets were mainly explosive and had special fuzes. Her burst flew off into the blue surrounding the Volkers and detonated around them. She did not aim and had not meant to hit. Startled, the Volkers thrust backwards in opposite directions away from the explosions, separating them from one another.
Never once slowing down or stopping, Khadija fluidly descended in a wide arc circling around the enemy Volkers. Rather than turn her entire chassis to face them, she kept her chest forward, head down, and jets thrusting, strafing past the enemy in tight coiling lines that framed them like a cage of water and bubbles. Her gun camera and one shoulder camera kept her locked on her targets. She did not need to stop and stand among them to shoot.
Khadija rapped the trigger, waiting a fraction of a second between each pull.
For each careful press, she sent a bullet toward the enemy.
Her gunfire arced into the Volkers, exploding into vapor bubbles the size of a dog.
Both Volkers finally set their sights on her and turned their rifles, laying down fire.
A trail of bullets exploded in her wake, never making their mark.
Khadija kept moving. In and around them, like a serpent, leaving them in confusion.
Her chassis cut through the water with great alacrity, weaving, climbing, and rolling, never stopping, keeping as much speed as she could between maneuvers. While strafing the Volkers, her speed protected her from their fire. She could manipulate the arms and cameras to fire a few ranging shots back at them in the middle of her maneuvers. Her enemy, meanwhile, was reduced to lurching in place, jerking ungracefully away from the direction of her gunfire.
Against a two-man section that knew how to defend itself Khadija would have been cut down by coordinated gunfire or dragged into a melee. She could not have been so cocky. But she knew what she was dealing with, and amateurs stuck in two dimensions could never hope to stop her. She had the measure of them, and it was time to end it.
Sweeping up suddenly and unexpectedly, she stopped overhead for just a moment.
The Volkers expected her to keep moving and overshot their next bursts of gunfire, leaving themselves completely open. Khadija braced her assault rifle with both arms to control her aim more tightly.
Two trigger pulls, two bullets, with just one snap correction between each shot.
Two explosions through the heads of the two Volkers below her.
Bubbles blew up from each chassis. A tell-tale sign: gases were escaping.
Without staying for a moment longer to inspect her handiwork, Khadija took off again.
She discarded her magazine and loaded a fresh one into the AK-96.
A brief glance at the rear camera as she headed toward the Frigate.
Both Volkers were sinking, barely damaged but damaged where it mattered.
Khadija knew that an overhead shot on a Volker could penetrate the head on the pure kinetic energy of a 37 mm round which would then detonate inside the camera housing. That meant the explosion would damage the pressure hull at the top of the cockpit through the thin aperture where the visual electronics connected and routed through. As much as the Volker’s camera housing looked like a helmet, it was not well armored and represented a vulnerability.
From one target to another. No use thinking about the debris.
She had a Frigate to sink.
Imperial Marder class Frigates were wide, boxy ships with tear-drop prows and squat conning towers, with large, steeply angled fins like wings attached to the flared rear end. The Irmingard’s Marders served as Diver tenders, loaded with external gantries, two on each side of the ship. Overburdened with these modifications, they were slower and less stable in the water than ordinary Marders, but still able to serve as a wall between Khadija and the flagship.
On the deck, several gas gun turrets spun around firing trails of bullets out of their double barrels as they chased Valya’s Strelok. Their movements were predictable, overflying the deck and circling back around the fin several times; but the fire discipline from the Frigate was abysmal. It was a pathetic chase as the Strelok that moved fast but without particular splendor stayed a step ahead of sputtering lines of bullets– even so, Valya was hardly able to shoot back.
They made a wonderful distraction, however.
“Valya, watch yourself, they’ll range you soon enough! I’m coming in!”
Khadija approached from below the Frigate.
While the deck guns were all busy with Valya, the ventral guns had been lying in wait for targets. Several were out of position however, their barrels facing the sides of the vessel. Waiting for Valya to come down perhaps, which they never did. So Khadija flew right down the middle of the keel between the distracted guns. She would not have been so cocky if all the guns were tracking her, but they were clearly in no position to fire upon her.
Twisting her chassis around, she soared under the Frigate with her chest facing it.
All the while rapping finger on the trigger, three times, pause, three times.
Shifting her aim quickly from one side of the keel to the other.
Her 37 mm bullets ripped into the bases of several ventral turrets, going off against the keel armor. In her wake, a series of explosions rocked the underside of the vessel. When she pulled out from under the ship and soared behind the flared rear armor and around the wings. As its keel reeled with secondary explosions and ballast started to leak, the ship was forced to accelerate in order to correct itself as it was beginning to tip to one side. Aft gas guns followed Khadija’s ascent with a hail of gunfire, but the ship’s rocky course shattered their ability to aim.
Attached to the magnetic strip beneath the backpack of her Strelok there was a single rocket-propelled grenade with a 50 mm explosive head. Standard issue for ordinary Streloks like hers, it could be thrown, and unguided it would burn solid fuel, race forward and go off like a light torpedo. Rising behind the Frigate, Khadija had the perfect target in mind as she avoided the turbulent outwash from three large hydrojets exposed so directly in front of her.
She took the grenade by the handle, armed it, reared just as she came level to the top jet–
A red flash on the corner of her eye alerted her–
Khadija veered to the right on her climb and twisted out of the way of a burst of gunfire.
This guy is different!
She disarmed her grenade, stowed it away and focused on movement.
Her opponent was barely on her cameras, a red box marking its relative position behind.
Automatic fire peppered everywhere she had been, a trail of explosions creeping on her.
From both the Frigate and the new assailant. Keeping both in mind, she had to act quickly.
To break a chase she had to either shake him or challenge his position.
Keeping on the move, trying to retain her momentum while maneuvering her way around the Frigate’s left fins, Khadija climbed and angled the Strelok’s fins and thrusters steeply. As she climbed she shifted her weight in the opposite direction and turned in an arc, coming to face and charge the enemy she now saw for the first time. Her movements were so fast and tight that her opponent was forced to give up the chase as she came suddenly toward them.
The enemy Diver broke away from her with a burst of solid fuel thrust and took off his own way.
Turning in another steep arc, she was suddenly behind them and chasing.
“Not an amateur, but not on my level.”
There was no reason that pilot had to stop– except that they were not confident they could avoid her without halting their momentum and throwing themselves in an entirely different direction than they had been moving in. Such jerking maneuvers were standard for pilots who saw engagements as two foot soldiers scrambling in terrain. Khadija, however, knew she was flying. And she knew objects flying through the water needed to retain as much speed as they could.
He stopped then restarted movement, and so Khadija had gone from prey to predator.
Rather than a Volker, this new enemy was a brand new Jagd, armed with a jet lance.
Its power-to-weight advantages and hydrodynamic triangle shape were wasted on its pilot.
Had it been her, she would have met any charge with that lance and let physics transpire.
Now, however, Khadija was right on his heels–
From outside her cameras, a sudden burst of gunfire crashed into the Jagd’s hull.
Suffering extensive hull damage, and attacked from two directions, the enemy suddenly showed its acumen for battle in a far more shameful fashion — it retreated. Breaking off from Khadija’s pursuit with all available thrust in its frame, heedless of energy or fuel concerns, the Jagd suddenly disappeared into the murk, likely tailing back to the Irmingard. Valya reappeared on Khadija’s cameras then and rejoined Khadija’s side, just barely keeping up as they maneuvered back toward the troubled Frigate. In minutes, the left wing of the enemy’s escort had been broken.
“How was that ma’am?” Valya asked, laughing to themselves with satisfaction.
Khadija laughed. “Quite acceptable.” And only that much.
After their formal introduction, the pilot group had some time to themselves before their arrival at Serrano Station.
Shalikova wanted to get in some practice in the simulator, which had just been set up in the hangar along with the rest of their equipment. That particular night would be the best chance she had prior to arrival. After a late dinner, she made her way back down to the nearly-deserted hangar on the lower deck. She approached what looked, to the unknowing eye, like pair of odd metal boxes suspended on stilts and struts, shoved off into a corner of the hangar.
Inside them, however, was a full set of Diver controls and monitors. They were constructed so that they would tilt and turn like a Diver would, with cameras that could be specifically oriented, and weights that simulated every kind of movement one could make in a Strelok. This would provide accurate control feedback, even though the pilot would be staring at computer-generated environments and opponents. As fake-looking as the graphics were, the physicality of holding the controls, and building up accurate muscle memory, was invaluable, at least to Shalikova.
There were two paired units set up so that pilots could spar with each other.
At that moment however, Shalikova only wanted to try her luck with the AI–
Until she heard a voice calling out to her from a nearby elevator door.
“Ah ha, lovely to see another pilot tuned to the same frequency.”
Arriving at Shalikova’s side was Khadija al-Shajara, sipping from a half-drunk mug of something richly red. A frequent member of the kitchen crew and supposedly veteran pilot, her sly expression was accented by all her makeup.
Shalikova had just come down from dinner, where Khadija would have observed her. It was no coincidence for the cat to suddenly appear to tease her. That mug of alcohol was the prize she received for helping Logia Minardo so often.
“Such a friendless expression. I just wanted to thank you properly for helping with the kitchen sometimes.”
“Well, I didn’t help tonight, so there’s no reason to thank me.”
“Ah, but I see you’re doing something interesting, so I can’t help but butt in.”
Her ears did a little twitch and her tail swayed gently as she gestured to the simulator pod.
“Why don’t we have a little spar? I’d love to see what my fellow pilots can do!”
Shalikova had heard that Khadija fought in the revolution and that she was a real hot-shot ace.
Nevertheless, she had not earned being so flighty, vain and above-it-all.
“I just wanted to warm up before anything happens.” Shalikova said bluntly, hoping that would end it.
Khadija winked and crossed her arms. “I can be as docile as the Novice AI if you want!”
Shalikova grunted and glared daggers at the older Shimii, frustration bubbling up.
There was a conceited pang in her heart that simply hated being underestimated.
Being observed was bad enough; being praised was rather annoying.
Fundamentally, however, Shalikova was familiar with praise. Praise heaped on her constantly.
Not so much with being looked down upon.
Without another word she stepped into the pod nearest her.
Khadija left her teal half-jacket and her drink outside and wordlessly stepped into the other pod.
When her challenge appeared on Shalikova’s screen, the younger pilot accepted almost impulsively.
Because she was annoyed with this old cat; she planned to be thoroughly discourteous.
“Ah, how lovely! Let’s have a clean match! Show me what you can do!”
As soon as her controls unlocked to simulate deployment, Shalikova charged Khadija.
It was a simulation, so she did not have to care about the health of her battery or turbines, the amount of ammunition she was carrying, the damage she might sustain. She could slam the pedals and hold down the trigger and declare unrelenting aggression. In an academic setting there would be points docked off her piloting, but Shalikova was no longer in school. This was war. She would use every advantage to put down this annoying old woman.
When her first magazine depleted and Khadija’s frame remained at its full integrity despite the violent outburst of automatic fire, Shalikova got an inkling that there was a problem. Then within a single blinking instant Khadija fully disappeared from her field of view, perfectly rolling over and under the hurtling Strelok and taking Shalikova’s back, fully within the blind spots of her cameras as she had set them up. It was only by rotating the backpack cameras to a torturous extent that she found Khadija’s gun barrel stuck right between the backpack and waist of her Strelok.
At that point, the younger pilot realized the extent to which there was a problem.
“Was your thrust locked? Happens sometimes out of the gate with these old sims.”
Shalikova could feel Khadija’s shitty little grin through the radio.
“Reset?” She offered sweetly. “We can break off and approach properly for a spar–”
Instead of a reset, Shalikova engaged her solid fuel vernier boosters.
She expected Khadija to attack, so she jerked herself away and retaliated; shooting only water as her opponent sped away. For the briefest instant she thought she had Khadija on the run, but this was quickly disproven.
Shalikova never even came close to putting a single bullet on her.
Though she would desperately shoot, dodge, reposition, and try to aim ahead of her enemy; Khadija snaked around her like a serpent, evading her blow and firing back at her leisure. Their match grew thoroughly one-sided.
By the time the simulator pods wound down and let the pilots out, Shalikova had gone the full range of emotions from annoyed to furious to deeply ashamed and humiliated, watching herself caught in a whirlpool within which she could do nothing. These machines kept all kinds of data, but Shalikova did not want to look at any of the comparisons.
She was upset. Not even just with Khadija but the way she herself acted. After all, had she not gotten it in her head to fight Khadija she would not have been in this situation to begin with. What rottenness had gotten into her anyway?
More than anything, she felt stupid. Like she had just wasted her time.
Shaking her head, Shalikova fully intended to walk away from the pods and go to bed.
“In a real fight you wouldn’t have time to sulk, you know. I just want to help you.”
With twitching ears and hands on her hips, her Shimii senior stepped out of her pod.
Khadija’s voice had lost its playful tone. She sounded soft and concerned.
It was this tone of voice only that caused Shalikova to pause and hear the rest.
A caring voice uncharacteristic of this particular cat. A voice begging to be listened to.
“You’re a good pilot; I want to believe you’re a pilot who can be great, too.”
Shalikova grit her teeth and balled up her fists. “I’d settle for alive.” She said.
Her frustration was still talking, but Khadija continued to respond gently.
“No you wouldn’t. Not with the way you swam back there. Come back and let’s talk.”
Khadija picked her cup up, took a gentle sip, and led the way, her bushy tail swaying gently.
Still hanging her head, and avoiding eye contact, Shalikova followed Khadija to an empty workbench.
During the night shift, there were few sailors out in the hangar. Those who did work late were tasked with inspecting the pressure and atmospheric conditions, looking for leaks, and otherwise passing through rather than staying in the hangar. This at least meant Shalikova was seen by nobody else but Khadija in this state of obvious depression.
Sitting across from the cat, Shalikova could not even look at her face at first.
Even as much as she was chastising herself for being sulky, she couldn’t help but sulk.
Her senior emptied her mug, and pushed it down onto the table with a thud.
“Shalikova! Chin up now! You’re a good pilot and you must not forget that.” Khadija said, after a brief moment of simply staring at Shalikova. Her tail swayed gently behind her. She was very relaxed, despite how intensely she must have been piloting to pull those amazing stunts Shalikova had seen firsthand. “You have great reflexes, you’re quick and accurate with your movement and thrust, and you have good control of your weapon even in burst fire. In any ordinary battle, you would charge out of your ship, engage an enemy, get the first shot on them, and go home.”
Was that not enough? What else was there to Piloting then? Shalikova grumbled.
“I won’t respond to flattery. Just tell me what I did wrong already.”
She finally raised her head to look at Khadija. Her indigo eyes met the Shimii’s bright green eyes, carefully manicured with wine-colored shadow. She almost saw herself reflected there, in the depths of those old wily eyes.
Khadija was looking directly at her with a smile. Her gaze was confident, unbroken.
“It’s not ‘what you did wrong.’ You did well. What I want is for you to do better.”
She raised her hands and used her thumb and forefinger to make a box shape.
“You have good awareness of what is occupying your surroundings Shalikova, but you are not understanding what your surroundings are and how they work, nor how you can best navigate them. It’s not about your basic piloting skill but getting the most you can out of the machine. That’s how you’ll get to the next level in your career.”
Shalikova frowned. “I don’t get what you mean. I thought I was being pretty agile in that fight.”
“Let’s look at it more broadly. Tell me, what are you moving through?”
“I mean. Water? What are you getting at? I’m not stupid.”
“Relax! Don’t take everything so personally. Alright, here.” Khadija raised her palm, wiggling her fingers. “Look at my hand. First, think of my hand as your Diver. You were moving primarily like this.” Khadija thrust her hand forward, palm out, as if to shove someone. “I was moving like this. Can you spot the difference?” She lowered her palm and pushed forward fingertips first. Shalikova blinked. She was trying to imagine a Diver moving like this instead of a hand.
“No? We’re both going forward.” Shalikova said. She immediately felt stupid for saying so.
“Surface area. Water is not like air!” Khadija said. “Most of your thrust is in the backpack. So in the Academy they teach you to move forward while standing upright, like a soldier on the march, holding your gun in two hands: many Divers still fundamentally move this way because it is easier to orient yourself, watch your surroundings and respond. However, you will actually move faster if you tilt the Diver’s upper body forward of the rest. You present less surface area to the water; there’s less tension! You get more out of the leg jets too. Think of how you swim in a pool!”
Thinking about it further, Shalikova herself did swim parallel to the bottom of the pool. It was just– natural.
“By tilting forward, your upper body and shoulders break the water for the rest of you.”
Khadija lowered her chest and stuck her shoulders out with a wink, as if demonstrating.
Shalikova recalled Khadija’s magnificent, snaking movements.
Dashing through the water like– like a torpedo, a missile, a bullet. All the objects Shalikova wanted to compare it to were flat and long. There was indeed much less surface area trying to break through the water if the object was shaped like a bullet and launched out of a barrel with the same orientation a bullet had. That made some kind of sense.
“You weren’t always moving that way.” Shalikova said, trying to find some kind of caveat.
Khadija rested her head on her heads and shut her eyes in a placid little expression.
“Of course. You have to know when to use every tool in your arsenal. You are not piloting a bulkhead door through the sea, you know? Your Diver has four backpack jets, two leg jets, solid fuel boosters on the arms, legs and shoulders, fins on the hips, shoulders; you can pivot your upper body slightly, you can move the arms up and down, you can tilt the chest forward, you can tuck the legs back. All this range of movement gives you options. You can’t move any one way forever. It’s too predictable! I prefer to remain moving as much as possible, but even stopping can be a tool.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Shalikova said. “I guess I never really thought about it.”
It made sense. It got her thinking, imagining herself back in the cockpit. Moving.
“Another thing of fundamental importance.” Khadija said, smiling ever more broadly, perhaps realizing she had Shalikova’s attention. She really could pull an rector’s voice out of herself. “Underwater, you can move in any direction. You can dive deeper, you can climb the water table, you can thrust upward in a diagonal trajectory, you can move upside down, you can face the surface or the sea floor while thrusting yourself forward. You have to move in three dimensions. Most pilots will just move parallel to their enemy. It’s too easy to exploit them.”
There was a smug look to the cat’s red lips as she explained herself.
Shalikova blinked. Her eyes drew a little wide. She started thinking, ever deeper and with more detail. She could see her Diver, the ocean, every piece of gear, every possible movement. She was indeed not on a flat plane.
Khadija’s fluid movements had seemed so stunning in the moment.
Now Shalikova truly felt like she could see them. She saw herself at the controls–
“If you want, we can hop back in and I can show you what I mean.” Khadija said.
Shalikova stood up immediately. Her heart was surging. She wanted to fight Khadija again.
“Let’s go. One more round.” She said, trying her best to restrain her energy.
Khadija beamed at her and quietly accented.
They had a few more matches that night.
Her low opinion of Khadija improved somewhat. She was, at least, a decent teacher.
I did my quota of freaking out on the ship. Now I have to be firm. Shalikova told herself.
This was not a simulation. That was days ago. It was the real thing, out in the open Ocean.
There wouldn’t be thirty other Divers and a fleet picking up the slack like in Thassal either.
She was one of two, and she had to make every bullet and every moment count.
When the 114th Diver squadron left the Brigand’s orbit and separated into their sections, Shalikova followed Murati on an almost fifty meter climb up the water table. They would need the altitude to go over the Destroyer’s deck. Most of the gas guns on an Imperial Wespe class Destroyer were ventral double-barrel pods, so the escort would float several meters above its charge and spray down at its enemies. This forced any engaging Divers to separate physically.
Ascending through the murk was more difficult than simply charging ahead. She had no landmarks to go off of except the vague “enemy squares” on the predictor overlay, each of which represented a square area several meters across and not a direct, pinpoint location. So she had to orient herself and keep track of her direction to the square that represented the Destroyer while hurtling through the water, unable to see anything but particles of biological matter dancing in the beams of her flashlights, black specks on white, against the dark blue of the surrounding ocean.
She was also mindful, however, not to move wholly relative to the Destroyer either.
“Contact!” Murati shouted.
Before she knew it, Shalikova was met with a withering fusillade from just out of sight.
Wespe class destroyers were like a dagger-shape covered in double-barreled gas gun pods, slicing through the Ocean. A gunmetal grey sentinel looming over the behemoth below, hundreds, thousands of lines of bullets flew from it and saturated the surrounding water with the small pops and bangs of gas gun bullets exploding all around them.
Against that wall of fire Shalikova felt suddenly dwarfed.
As she looked at Murati ahead, she saw her orienting the Cheka’s chest forward.
“Give it everything you have Shalikova! Follow me!”
Shalikova tilted her own chest forward, with her teeth grit, kicked the thrust pedals down.
She was used to speeds of 60 or 70 knots; suddenly she felt she was going past 80!
Hurtling over the deck of the destroyer, she and Murati buzzed right past the conning tower in an instant, leaving in their wake the trails of enemy bullets. Dozens of muted muzzle flashes below like ephemeral spotlights in the nearby murk. It felt like there was not one meter of surface on that Destroyer that was not spitting bullets at them. Vapor bubbles swarmed all around them, beset on all sides by rattling shockwaves, it was like swimming in the middle of an underwater storm. On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but the snapping of the guns and bursting of the shells.
Out of that great roaring barrage, not one bullet had struck her directly.
It was some combination of Shalikova’s own acumen and the ship’s poor fire control.
“Shalikova!” Murati called over the radio. “Good maneuvering! We’re staying ahead of the barrage, but we can’t take out every pod individually with this much gunfire. I have an idea. You have a grenade on you, right?”
While maneuvering over the raging Destroyer, Shalikova checked her magnetic strip for inventory.
A diagnostic display showed the objects attached to it.
“I do, but only one.” She said.
“Good! We’ll strike one of its jets! Even if it doesn’t sink, it’ll lag behind the Irmingard!”
Just as Shalikova began to reach for her grenade, a burst of gunfire soared past them.
She stowed her grenade on her magnetic strip and swerved. Bullets went off around them leaving bubbles size of a small animal. A larger caliber than the gas gun bullets flying everywhere before.
Judging by the angle and the caliber, it had not come from the ship but from–
A red flash, and a new box appeared on one of her side monitors.
“Incoming! Shalikova, get around behind the Destroyer–”
Shalikova cut Murati off.
“No, I’ll break off the Destroyer and tie them up! You have bombing to do!”
Without waiting for Murati’s assent, Shalikova turned fluidly around in an arc and darted toward a pair of Volkers coming in from below them. They appeared from around the side fins of the Destroyer but quickly separated from it into the open water between the escorts and the Irmingard. If they stuck too close to either ship, they would risk becoming victims to friendly fire.
Thinking about what Khadija taught her, Shalikova soared past the Destroyer, zigzagging the flak curtain, and moving to intercept the Divers. She fought her instinct to straighten out her Strelok and shoot at them from the shoulder– it was difficult not to treat the mecha exactly as she would her own body, while still remaining as immersed in her maneuvers as she normally was.
Khadija could fire from the chest at these speeds, whether charging or strafing–
But Shalikova could hardly pull trigger before the Volkers grew enormous in her cameras.
She sped right into their midst, dodging a second round of gunfire as she neared them.
Her enemies threw themselves aside, perhaps fearing that she intended to ram them.
Breaking in between them, and roaring well past, she threw her Strelok into a climb.
“God damn it.”
She was trying to fight like Khadija, but she was unused to shooting while moving this fast.
In the simulator, Khadija had time to set up her cameras–
Because she created space for it! Shalikova realized that’s why she circled around so much.
“I’m an idiot! I just flew in without thinking!”
At these speeds, she wasn’t able to shoot! She couldn’t even think fast enough to shoot!
She had to slow down, but–
In the middle of her climb, Shalikova twisted her Strelok around, going over the Volkers.
Bursting the top two jets in the backpack– along with the legs, and solid fuel boost from the shoulders– manipulating the fins– moving more weight into the shoulder– her little hands moved all over the controls in her cockpit, flipping what felt like every switch and every button– she hardly realized Khadija had to put this much effort into moving, she was sweating so much–
Her frantic actions within the cockpit, invisible to her opponent, had a dramatic result.
She tumbled, head over feet, descending behind her opponents while upside down.
Much of the momentum she built up dissipated in the snap changes in directions.
But her bewildered enemies could not even turn as she riddled their backs with bullets.
Dozens of rounds of fully automatic fire, until the magazine ejected. Impact after impact crashing into the first Volker, before she jerked the gun toward the second. Bullets smashing into ducts, blowing up on top of the jets, perforating the spare magazines kept on the rear magnetic strip and causing secondary explosions, the Volkers twisted and torn by the blasts. Severed cockpits leaking oxygen and blood slowly descending with arms gone limp and legs asunder.
Shalikova’s snap maneuver took her beneath the ruined Volkers, now swimming chest up.
For a brief instant she was a girl floating as if on the surface of a vast pool.
Gazing up at a sky of broken metal falling around her.
She could almost see colors, colors other than the dim, dark blue of the water.
Red, anguished colors.
Green, sickly colors.
Blueish-Black, the specter of death–
Silvery white. Peace and departure–
Shalikova shook her head and climbed as a wave of renewed flak swept past her position.
Dozens of small explosions dissipated the colors and further tore up the remains.
“What colors?” She murmured to herself. “There weren’t any colors.”
Rising in a wide arc to retain speed and avoid fire, Shalikova doubled back to the Destroyer.
“Volkers down. Squad leader, I thought you’d have blown it up by–”
Before Shalikova could finish, she heard two loud shocks over the hydrophone.
Dozens of meters ahead of them, an earthshaking blast sent the Frigate on the Irmingard’s right wing plummeting into the sea floor. A shockwave rippled out from the explosion that had even Shalikova’s chassis vibrating. It could only have been one of the bombs since the Brigand’s 76 mm aft guns could not have had such a dramatic effect. Only a moment later, she heard the sound of knocking metal and realized that the Destroyer was descending and stalling.
“You were saying, Shalikova?” Murati laughed.
That thundering curtain of flak slowed to a sputter of feeble warding fire.
Unable to fight off Murati or keep up with the fleet, it began to turn and flee.
She must have done some damage to the rear like she planned.
All of the fighting they were doing took place in the context of the Irmingard chasing the Brigand. It was easy to forget with how fast their mecha were moving, and how massive all of the ships around them were, that the entire battlefield was in motion. It was only when the Irmingard fleet’s tight formation was broken so completely that Shalikova paid heed to this fact once again. The Irmingard lumbered forward, while its escorts were now falling or fleeing.
Shalikova could find no more ship contacts in the immediate vicinity.
“We’ve opened the way. Sameera used her bomb, but I’ve still got mine.” Murati said.
The Cheka regrouped with Shalikova. There was mild cosmetic damage on her shoulder.
“Are you ok?”
Murati sounded unshaken. “Just got exposed to a bit of ventral fire– it’s not a big deal.”
“If you say so. I’ll go on ahead of you and draw the flagship’s fire.” Shalikova said.
“Good job taking care of those Divers by yourself. I have full confidence in you.”
“It’s nothing. Could’ve gone better even.”
“Do you have damage?”
“No. I just mean– it’s not worthy of praise.”
Before her squad leader could continue flattering her Shalikova charged ahead.
The Cheka was not very far behind. Shalikova reloaded her weapon and grit her teeth.
When they turned away from the Destroyer their view was dominated by the colossal grey frame of the Irmingard class dreadnought. A Frigate or a Destroyer was already many, many times the size of a Diver. And yet there was no comparison to how that flagship made Shalikova feel like a speck of plankton helplessly spinning in the water. Its vaguely spoon-shaped prow and thick, enormous cylindrical chassis with its swept wing fins and sharply flared rear were so regal and aggressive. There was no truer representation of the fearful violence they were up against.
That ship was the Imbrian Empire, cruel tyrant over half of what remained of their world.
Shalikova’s grip tightened on her controls. Her hands were cold, her palms moist.
For the sake of everything they believed in, they had to be the arrow that hobbled this beast.
As they approached, homing in on the center of that wall of grey, long lines of flak erupted from the gas gun pods lined up in front of them. Different pods coordinated to fire together in groups of six barrels. Their fire discipline was completely unlike that of the other ships. Shalikova found herself swerving far more violently away from gunfire that crept closer and closer.
Her chassis rattled as a bullet deflected right off the left shoulder.
Thankfully, it didn’t explode right on the armor. She accelerated even more.
“I’m breaking off, they’re on me.” Shalikova said.
“I think they’re on both of us!”
Shalikova threw the Strelok into a sudden climb, wrenching up with a kick of the vernier thrusters. While boosting up and momentarily out of the gunfire she glanced at one of the side camera feeds.
Murati’s Cheka was targeted wholly independently of her own Strelok.
Different sections of the Irmingard’s flak guns were coordinating different targets.
A half-dozen barrels peppered Shalikova’s surroundings and a half-dozen harried Murati.
It was nothing like the basic saturation fire of the other ships.
They would not take Shalikova as a piece of bait so easily. They were more experienced.
“With this much gunfire I won’t be able to get to the aft. I’ll bomb the main guns!”
Murati’s Cheka broke off from Shalikova and into its own climb, spiraling away from intense gunfire. Her destination lay atop the Irmingard’s deck, central to the hull and just behind the spoon prow, a squat, double-barrel turret: the feared 203 mm main guns that supported the smaller guns fixed on the prow itself. As a military flagship, the Irmingard bore its guns fixed on the deck, they could never be hidden or stowed unlike the Brigand’s guns. Shalikova knew the main magazine was buried deeper in the ship and would not go off if the turret itself was destroyed.
Preventing the Irmingard from shooting effectively would accomplish their mission.
Even if the ship itself was not sent to the bottom of the sea floor.
Shalikova did not like it– but perhaps it was an object lesson on their lack of power.
As they climbed higher, flak intensified. Deck gas guns joined the port-side guns in firing.
Murati accelerated in a high arc, leaving behind the port-side fire but trailed by the deck guns. Dozens of vapor bubbles bloomed around her. Shalikova’s own chassis vibrated relentlessly with the shockwaves of bullets going off all around her, their impacts just close enough to make her feel it without tearing off any metal.
While Murati kept climbing Shalikova overflew the prow.
Her side camera was not just for following Murati’s positioning.
It was also coordinating with the camera on her assault rifle, held to her chest.
Shalikova ranged the triangle formation of gas gun pods covering center of the deck.
Their barrels lifted high as they chased Murati, flashing repeatedly in the dim water.
“Here’s your opening, Murati!”
Short, practiced rapping on the triggers, three presses, pause, three presses.
She saw the bursts of gunfire fly off into the blue on her gun camera.
Her bullets flew amid the gas gun pods and struck metal with brilliant, fleeting blasts.
A brighter flash, erupting suddenly from among the gas gun formation.
One pod went off, its magazine cooked.
Dozens of popping, flashing blasts from the pod’s magazine sent metal spraying.
Meanwhile the other pods went dead silent.
Whether Shalikova struck them, or damaged the electronics or optics, she did not know.
Nevertheless, she realized she had quieted the deck fire on Murati’s side.
Her own safety on the prow was far less certain.
All around her, gas gun pods on the prow now enfiladed her, firing from every direction.
Bullets crashed into her hip armor and a stray shell even smashed into the cockpit armor.
Warnings flashed on her diagnostics. Real hull damage. No breaches.
Shalikova nearly had a heart attack. “Warn me about any breaches first you trash!”
Cockpit shaking violently, Shalikova threw herself into a roll and dove, touching down on the actual surface of the enemy ship and crouching. She hoped to avoid most of the gunfire this way, and for the briefest moment she found respite from the shooting– until she realized that there were no barrels flashing anymore.
All of the flak on the deck had quieted down just as she landed.
She was pointing her assault rifle at completely dormant gun pods.
“They’re avoiding friendly fire– Murati!”
Her suspicion proved correct almost immediately. Murati’s crackling voice responded:
“No chance to bomb–! Incoming!”
Shalikova leaped off the prow surface with microsecond boost from the vernier thrusters.
Charging across the shallow curve of the prow, in time to spot the enemy attacking Murati.
When she got close enough to see both of their figures clearly–
Murati leaped back off the deck as an enemy Diver pounced.
A trail of assault fire struck where she stood, and her enemy glided over the deck.
The attacker smoothly overflew the deck surface while raising her rifle.
Accurate, disciplined bursts crept closer and closer to Murati’s position.
Murati had been facing the enemy, climbing diagonally away from it with all of her thrust.
When she opened fire, the enemy below side-stepped it without losing any speed.
Shalikova’s eyes drew wide. It reminded her of the gulf between her and–
“Murati! I’m coming! Hold on!”
As her words carried through the communicator the enemy Diver launched up.
In an instant the Diver drew a vibroblade from its magnetic strip with its free hand.
In the open water just off of the Irmingard’s surface the duelists clashed.
Sword met steel– Murati’s assault rifle, held by barrel and stock to block the overhead slash.
Shalikova drew closer and closer but not soon enough.
She thought the Diver would hack through Murati’s rifle but when it found its slash blocked, the machine moved fluidly with its own sword and leaped over Murati with a kick of its own auxiliary vernier thrusters, leaving a cloud of vaporized water and solid fuel exhaust where Murati was once clashing with it. The attacker rolled its body over Murati’s Cheka, and in a flash that sword swung once again, upside down at the Cheka’s shoulder.
There was an ephemeral red burst as the sword’s thruster briefly kicked in.
A burning crimson wound as the monomolecular, vibrating edge cut through the Cheka’s shoulder.
Murati threw her weight down and aside.
A chunk of metal blew off the Cheka, the shoulder in pieces, the roll of steel cable floating away in the debris as her left jet anchor pod ejected from the machine’s body. Murati torturously wrenched her mecha to face the attacker and shoot, but she was out of balance, damaged, and her enemy was still moving. Now fearless with a tumbling, dazed opponent, the attacker flew right through Murati’s desperate gunfire and swung its sword, this time to take the head–
“Murati! Get back!”
Shalikova shouted in desperation and surged ahead.
Shoulder set, she rammed herself in between Murati and the attacker.
Reacting with incredible alacrity, the enemy threw itself back from Shalikova.
There was no word from Murati, but the Cheka still looked stable in the water.
Every time, just like Khadija, the attacker went from motion to motion, fluidly, perfectly.
Others would have been disoriented for even a second having to wrench their machine back. This pilot expertly used the verniers to retreat as Shalikova entered their space, and to then thrust upward and resume maneuver. It all happened so fast that there was no distinction between the two separate instances of thrust. Just like Khadija, who moved like a serpent through the waters, perfectly conserving momentum throughout. This was a whole other level from the enemies they had faced so far, and it was only from observing a veteran like Khadija as keenly as she had that Shalikova understood the gulf between herself and this foe. She understood enough to fear them.
That machine was no ordinary Volker either.
Volkers were almost comical in how round they were, the arms practically came out of the central orb with slanted shoulders barely covering the joint, their helmeted heads affixed in an exposed mount right atop the hull. Any angled armor surfaces were clearly bolted on as an afterthought. Nothing like the machine now in front of her.
In place of the orb-like body was a robust, three-piece, interlocking chest, waist/hip, and shoulder chassis. Armored surfaces concealing the cockpit boasted complex geometry to help deflect and absorb impacts. Broadly triangular, the silhouette had wider shoulders and a humanoid, helmeted “head” with multi-directional, almost snake-eyed, visor-like cameras. Its arms and legs were modified with light but steeply angled armor over the joints. There was no bulge anywhere for a battery, and an extra jet on the back, with small intakes all around the machine, all “second gen” traits.
A new second generation mecha, to add to the Empire’s advantage–
Nevertheless, Shalikova charged after this enemy.
“That cat wouldn’t turn away from something like this!”
Her voice coming out of her lips was desperate, exhausted, cracking with fear.
Her mind was working so fast her brain pounded with pain.
And still, she went after that enemy with all her might, just moments after it bested Murati.
There was no reason to attack the Irmingard if she was not willing to lunge at the monsters that came from it. That flagship already outclassed the Brigand in every way. The Imbrian Empire already outclassed the Union in every way. And yet, Khadija, that brilliant pilot who had mastered the sea, still fought these unspeakable odds in the revolution. She saw herself dwarfed and outmatched by enormous guns and ships and fought on regardless.
Shalikova couldn’t bear losing to that woman in this too.
Steeled by her fear, with beasts of death before and behind her, she attacked.
“Where will it move, where–”
Shalikova centered the enemy in her vision and opened fire with her assault rifle.
Once more the opponent thrust upward out of the firing line.
“You like going up, huh?”
She tried to put her barrel ahead of where the enemy would go, rapping the trigger.
With graceful banking movements the enemy avoided fire and arced toward her. A quick burst of gunfire responded, and Shalikova thrust herself deeper down to avoid it. All the while facing the enemy, shooting up at them at the edge of her vision. Chasing a shadow that moved faster than she could hope to track, briefly lighting it with feeble bursts of gunfire that did not even graze the wake of its jets. Between her own evasive maneuvers and the dexterous way her enemy moved she was shooting into the water and doing nothing but stirring up empty bubbles. She was shooting more wastefully than her opponent, and soon found herself close to having to reload.
Luckily, she wasn’t trying to hit them directly.
She was just trying to get them moving.
Shalikova ceased running away from the enemy and burst forward in their direction.
Already facing the enemy as she retreated, the abrupt switch to charging in her direction caused her no disorientation. Firing all her solid fuel thrusters and ramming down the pedals for all the jet power she could muster, Shalikova threw herself at an enemy that was dashing at her, cutting their distance dramatically. From the magnetic strip behind her mecha she withdrew and quickly unfolded her diamond sword, revved up the motor and spun the teeth. Along with taking the sword she also threw out everything else on her magnetic strip, shedding some precious weight.
In a second, she was in the enemy’s face, sword out, swinging, with all her momentum.
Her opponent did not stand for such a thing and with a snap thrust, leaped over her.
Just like with Murati she was trying to swing at her from behind.
“I’ve already seen that trick!”
Practically cackling, Shalikova angled every fin, reallocated all the movable weight, and threw all of her thrust into a lurching motion that took her suddenly down and to the left. Her body wrenched in her chair at the sudden twisting of the chassis, but the enemy’s swing completely missed her, slicing through the water and leaving her overextended.
She was in no position to fight back and that mecha was now right behind her–
“Got you! I got you, you bastard!”
Behind her, a grenade that had been on her magnetic strip, armed and discarded, went off.
Water vaporized rapidly around the explosion forming an enormous bubble just a handful of meters away.
The shockwave threw Shalikova into total disarray. She spun feet over head, carried on the sudden wave generated by the explosion. Too close, suicidally close, but–
Struggling with her controls and trying to right herself she adjusted the cameras–
Looking for debris–
From behind her, that mecha suddenly reappeared, sword overhead and coming down.
There was nothing Shalikova could do. She had no time to respond.
She closed eyes that were stinging with sweat and tears and grit her teeth.
Her hydrophone picked up the clanging of metal on metal in the waters.
When she heard it over the headset, she also heard herself breathe.
Felt her heart beating, faster and faster.
Then a burst of gunfire.
Shalikova’s eyes opened wide, and she looked frantically at her cameras.
Murati’s Cheka was approaching, opening fire with a shaking arm and a damaged rifle.
Clearly limping in the water, having lost some energy cells from the attack it endured.
Her shooting was missing the mark, no better than the flak from the patrol ships–
But between Shalikova and the enemy, a different ally stood, suddenly formidable.
“You did good, Shali~”
Over the communicator, sounded the soft, playful, calm voice of Khadija al-Shajara.
Holding her own sword and standing face to face with the mecha in front of them.
Both having stopped moving for an instant as if respecting each other.
That enemy did not fear Murati’s shooting or Shalikova’s tricks, but this gave her pause.
Shalikova was almost going to apologize. She felt so helpless.
Khadija interrupted her immediately.
“Leave this to me. You’ve done everything you could. Give Valya the other bomb and take Murati’s limping remains away from here before she hurts herself or us.” She paused, and after a deep breath, released a bit of laughter. Her tone changed. “I’m not one to recite the name of the Lord for every detail like some other Shimii do, but this is fated, Shalikova. The Red Baron of Cascabel. I was fated to meet her here. We’re gonna settle a little score, she and I.”
Her voice was slick with a bloodthirst that Shalikova had never heard from her before.
Had the fighting gotten to her so badly? What was she babbling about?
Shalikova was in no position to do anything but what she was told, however.
Without openly questioning Khadija, she started to move away.
It was at that point, that whatever fated bell tolled for Khadija tolled for the rest of them.
Twin, massive, concussive shocks into the water that left the Union soldiers speechless.
In that moment, the Irmingard dreadnought fired its 203mm guns in anger.