Innocents In The Stream [6.5]

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?”

“Legible!”

“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.

“Ma’am–”

“Stop calling me ma’am and do what I tell you.”

“Yes! Sorry!”

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!”

“Got it!”

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–

“I know!”

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.

“Damn it.”

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.

“Khadija–”

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.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.4]

“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’, Sameera–”

There was always a brief pause in her mind when she was about to leave the deployment chute. No matter what was happening, whether a Leviathan was coiled around the ship, or a group of smugglers was getting away. It spanned the briefest period of time that one might acknowledge as a complete thought. Pilots always stated their designation and name as a courtesy to the Bridge crew, so the officers could confirm exactly who was going out and in which machine.

What was her name? She surely couldn’t say the whole damned thing–

“Sameera Al-Shahouh. Deploying!”

Whenever she launched off a ship, she always chose the side of her Shimii mother. It was confusing. She had never felt like either a Loup or a Shimii. Thankfully it was a short-lived anxiety. Her name ceased to matter once she was launched into the endless blue of the ocean. Her Diver pushed down into the water from the deployment chute, free of the ship, adrift in the waters. From the earbuds Sameera wore in lieu of a pilot’s headphones, she caught Dominika’s voice.

“UND-114-C, ‘Strelkannon’, Dominika Rybolovskaya– Deploying!”

Around her, in that dark, murky blue, Sameera picked up the other Divers in her cameras. She had been one of the first to deploy alongside Dominika, Murati and Sonya; Khadija and Valya would be coming out in a few moments. She fixed one camera on Dominika to try to keep her position in mind at all times. More than being a beautiful girl, she was her squad mate, after all.

“Nika, is your heartbeat rising?” She asked.

“I’m closing the audio channel too if you’re going to keep being annoying.”

Sameera smiled, but Nika pointedly kept their video channel closed. “I’m just being nice!”

“Whatever.”

Sameera’s own heartbeat was certainly quickening. Those moments just after deployment but right before the melee were excruciating. It was too surreal to be sitting around idly in a war machine. She became preoccupied with the isolation of her human body within the cold cockpit. It was only the promise of the glorious hunt that lay ahead which steeled her resolve.

“Good hunting!” She finally said. Nika did not return the sentiment.

Dominika’s “Strelkannon” was armed with a launcher for underwater rockets on one shoulder and a semi-automatic cannon in the other. In her Diver’s humanoid hands she carried a 20 mm Gepard SMG just like the one Sameera was carrying too, but that was a last resort weapon.

Sameera’s job in a squadron like this was to make sure Dominika never had to fire that type of weapon. Murati must have known this was a role she was familiar with and thinking about this fact flattered Sameera. As part of the Border Forces’ Leviathan control squadrons, she often partnered with Strelkannon pilots, acting as a bodyguard for those bigger, slower frames.

“Keep steady for a moment, until Khadija and Valya are ready.” Murati said.

After deploying from the chute, the Divers immediately engaged their engines. Because the Brigand was moving, and the enemy fleet was moving, they had to actively pursue the Brigand for a few moments in order to stick with it themselves. At full tilt, their Divers could move much faster than the Brigand, which itself was not moving too quickly at the moment. So it was not much effort for them to orbit the ship’s keel for a few seconds to maintain formation.

Khadija and Valya descended shortly thereafter. All six frames were in the water.

Over the communicator, the voice of Electronic Warfare Officer Zachikova sounded.

“Jamming munition going out!”

Something then emerged from the utility chute near the Brigand’s aft in a flurry of bubbles.

“Everyone, switch off your audio for the next minute and follow me.” Murati said.

Sameera acknowledged.

Beneath the armrest to which her control stick was attached there were physical controls for some of the touchscreen functions. Sameera preferred these, to quickly get her hands back on the sticks if she needed. She switched off the audio from there. With the audio off, it also meant all the predictors, which used acoustic data, became useless, frozen on their last prediction of what the surroundings looked like. Sameera focused on the physical cameras.

She then engaged her accelerator, pushing the pedal into a slot in the chair to lock it in.

Her ‘Cossack’ thrust out from under the Brigand, propelling itself on jets of ocean water.

Murati’s Cheka, with its sleek design and dark paint job led the charge into the murky ocean ahead, Shalikova’s slightly modified Strelok keeping close behind. Sameera had tested the Cheka, so knowing its speed, she knew exactly how fast she needed to go in order to keep some kind of pace with it, while also staying near Dominika, who was definitely bringing up the rear. The Strelkannon’s armament made it a couple knots slower than everyone else in all respects.

At first the loose assemblage of Divers stuck close beneath the keel of the Brigand, but after clearing the jets on the back of the mothership and entering the open water between their ship and the enemy fleet, the group broke into their sections with practiced understanding. Even without communication, they all knew the prerogatives of a Diver pilot in a combat situation. Don’t stack up, or a flurry of torpedoes or concentrated gunfire could kill the whole squad; keep moving with your squadmate toward your objective. Always assume your squadmate is going after the objective and move together. Sameera and Dominika dropped altitude together. Fifteen meters apart from each other, and many more from Murati or Khadija, they charged directly through the center.

Without the predictor, there was nothing concrete on her cameras but Dominika. No ground below them, nothing ahead but the dark blue water and dusty traces of organic matter filtering down from the photic zone. She was suspended in water. It was sometimes hard to come to terms with. Within her metal bubble, the movements of her machine felt dream-like without an enemy in sight or any landmarks to give her any feedback. She felt airy, as if descending forward; it felt like gravity was taking her through the murky nothingness around her more than her own power.

All she had to go on was the last positions of the fleet and her own instincts.

Her heart beating fast, a cold sweat building on her chest, Sameera counted the seconds.

She hated those slow, vulnerable moments. She wanted to be in the fight– sixty seconds.

Electronic Warfare was sophisticated enough now that it was basically impossible for such a munition to jam the enemy’s acoustic computers for very long. Computers by themselves could digitally attenuate the noise with surprising speed, and a skilled Electronic Warfare officer could potentially take less than a minute to shut out the attack and restore functionality. Because the jamming munition was so disruptive to its owner too, it was set to disable itself within a minute. It was a distraction, nothing more, but blinding every acoustic data device for a minute was enough.

Like every weapon, it was not just the capabilities, but the tactical use, that mattered.

At their top speeds, the enemy fleet was well over a minute away.

Being able to cut any amount of that distance undetected was a blessing.

For those sixty nerve-wracking seconds there was nothing but the feeling of her clammy, slick skin, the sound of her heightened breathing, and the sight of the empty ocean all around her. She waited two additional seconds just in case, since the munition’s noise could have hurt her hearing; she then flipped on the audio.

She was greeted by Murati’s crackly, low quality voice.

“Stay in contact with your squadmate and keep moving! We’ll see them ahead soon!”

Her computer began collecting acoustic information again.

Though her predictor and sonar were nowhere near as sophisticated as those on the Brigand, they could cross-reference data compiled by the Brigand to keep track of objects as overlays on the cameras. Before she could see them physically, the enemy fleet appeared as red squares denoting hostile positions dead ahead.

Seeing something, anything, in her cameras stilled Sameera’s heartbeat just a bit.

Being able to hear the ocean and her squad again also calming.

It helped her ease out of the physical isolation of her body and become her machine instead.

And her machine saw four smaller squares, flanked by two larger squares, and a massive one even farther out ahead. As she got closer, the shapes became slowly more and more distinct in the dark water. She picked up speed to approach. For the next few seconds, every reaction counted.

Ignoring the massive square representing the Irmingard class flagship, she focused instead on the lighter prey. Attacking from below enabled them to get at the keels and maybe pop some of the ballast tanks. She dove several dozen meters down with Dominika before turning back up toward the fleet. Moments later she saw the first hint of metal appearing in the waters overhead.

Dozens of rounds of gas gun ammunition from the ventral guns rained down on them.

Though she could hardly see the guns, she did see the lines of bullets cutting through water.

All around her, explosions went off leaving vapor bubbles the size of an adult’s head.

Her cockpit stirred as weak shockwaves flowed past her machine from every direction. No direct hits; just pervasive weak vibration. Gas gun bullets had proximity and flight fuzes so they would go off even without a direct impact. Their goal was for at least some of those blasts to nip at her armor, at her gear. If the ocean could stick even a finger into her cockpit, she would die.

In Sameera’s mind, the best defense against this was a rapid offense.

“Nika, I’m engaging the–!” Sameera called out.

Launching missile,”

Before Sameera could finish her sentence, a rocket sailed past her on a trail of vapor.

One of the cutter’s keels erupted with an enormous vapor bubble, disgorging metal. From the epicenter of the explosion, a shockwave shook the waters around the vessel. Gunfire from the stricken craft ceased instantly, and the conning tower tipped sideways as the ship began to sink.

Three remaining cutters began to swerve close together to put up a tighter curtain of fire.

“Jump left; I’ll release another missile!” Dominika called out.

“Got it!” Sameera replied.

From behind her, Dominika’s Strelkannon launched a second missile.

With the increasing volume of enemy flak all around them, Dominika’s missile detonated just short of the mark, struck by the errant gunfire. Vapor from the explosion created a brief screen between themselves and the fleet that the pair used to reposition. Sameera engaged her jets and solid fuel boosters and veered quickly to avoid the guns, keeping her cameras trained on both the enemy and Dominika to insure they were not separated. Dominika hit a sharp right instead.

Rising up the water table, Sameera swept up and to the left out from under the ships.

While the ventral guns shot at nothing, the dorsal guns retrained on Sameera as she rose.

All around her the water parted in white lines pushed aside by supercavitating bullets. Brief muzzle flashes indicated continuing gunfire. Bubbles and water vapor dispersed like fog around the Cutters as the disturbances from previous explosions settled and the white clouds of fresh blasts bloomed amid the dim blue ocean. A geyser of water bubbles erupted from the sinking cutter below as another section failed due to pressure. Soon it would fall out of sight and strike the sea floor.

All of this was happening in such a brief span of time, it could hardly be thought about. Seconds, moments, instants of Sameera’s life, flashes too minute to ever be memories. Punctuated with more violence than any ordinary person would ever see in a lifetime. Sameera let out a breath, her eyes were starting to tear up from the stale air in the cockpit. She was focused, steeled.

I was insane enough to stare those fucking things in the face. I can handle this.

Sameera always put her body on the line. She had to; it was the only place she belonged.

For a brief instant, on the edge of one of her cameras a new, flashing red square appeared.

Sameera noticed it and reacted immediately, darting at full speed in its direction.

“Incoming contacts, Nika.”

“Intercept them and quit calling my nickname so much.” A calm, stoic voice immediately responded.

Sameera loved that. She didn’t have any expectation that Nika would ever like her anyway.

Grinning to herself, she withdrew a weapon from behind the Cossack’s backpack.

Upon taking the gear off the magnetic strip it was attached to, this seemingly rectangular, unintelligible object sprang to life in her mech’s hand. One half released and snapped into place atop the other. A handle attached to a blade with an armored rear end protecting a rail, battery and driving gear for the saw-blade cutting surface. Called variously diamond swords or diamond cutters, depending on the size and shape, these were the Union’s simpler version of the Imperial vibrosword. A long, spinning blade made of diamond and depleted agarthicite, wielded in hand.

Sameera’s sword could have cut into a ship, but it would not be turned on them for now.

Her “Cossack” shone brightest when it came to fighting other Divers.

It was almost the same as cutting up Leviathan meat. They were prey; she was the hunter.

“Sorry fellas, but I’m the only one who has a date with this lady~!”

Swerving to avoid flak, she launched into a sudden charge toward the incoming Divers.

Within sight a pair of rotund imperial Volkers appeared from the murk with 37 mm rifles in hand. Like an egg tapering down into a waist where legs could go, and shoulders that arms could slide into, these were quite basic enemy Divers. They had traced the explosions to Dominika’s Strelkannon and were moving in the direction their predictors told them the missiles came from.

Their rear cameras must have seen Sameera closing in.

Likely it was the inexperience of the pilots that led them not to pay attention to their flank.

Sameera raised her SMG and fired a burst of 20 mm gunfire ahead of them, mid-charge.

Five bullets exploded harmlessly in their vicinity, and in a panic, they came to a dead stop.

Sameera was on top of them in the next instant.

Bursting up above them and then suddenly shifting all her thrust downward, she smashed her sword on nearest Volker, digging into the shoulder and the helmeted head at the front of the round chassis. Her sword’s spinning teeth ripped a jagged wound right over the enemy’s cockpit.

Dead. Not even the faintest response from that unit as Sameera changed targets.

Acting fluidly in that same instant of violence, she ripped her sword from her first victim and raised her Gepard to the second, firing off a five-round burst into the side of the second Volker point blank. Fist sized blasts tore bits of armor off the arm and hip, but one bullet got deep into the arm joint before exploding under the shoulder. Bubbles and foam burst out of this tiny orifice.

Pressure ripped open the machine, spewing gore and debris from the expanding wound.

Dead. A lucky shot from Sameera and an unlucky one for this pilot.

One finger of the Ocean had gotten into the cockpits through the leg joint. One instant amid this dance of steel; enough for two lives to end so suddenly. But she was not alone, and the fighting had not stopped because a few targets were dead. As she threw herself into that melee, she was well aware that they were dancing within a storm of steel as the enemy flak trained on her.

It took seconds to score those kills, and then she had to run again.

In response to her charge a fusillade erupted from the Frigates’ own gas gun turrets ahead.

Matching the intensity of the fire from the nearby Cutters, it threatened to enfilade her.

Engaging her jets, she retreated from before the Frigates to arc back over the Cutters.

She beheld the looming, murky shadow of the flagship, the Irmingard class, moving ever closer. Tangling with the Volkers was like fighting a duel in front of a monument shrouded by fog. She was so dwarfed, that what she could see of the enemy ship occupied all of her field of vision. Even the Frigates also moving into range did not make up anywhere near as much of the space.

To that ship, Sameera and the Volkers were nothing but specks of dust dancing in the water.

For a moment, she thought of herself, a tiny thing framed before that colossal figure.

But only for a moment. Sameera’s innocence toward battle had been taken long ago.

And she hated thinking of herself as small. She had to be huge; she had to be the biggest.

All the while she thought this she sped away toward Dominika’s position. There were at least six other Divers lurking somewhere and she had made it her personal mission that none of them would touch a hair on her precious Nika’s head. It was this sort of thing that most easily motivated her to action. Fighting, not only to survive, but to excel, to prove herself, for glory.

“I’ve dealt with our rude onlookers! Nika, has my absence made your heart grow fonder?”

As if in response Sameera saw a flash from just ahead.

Nika’s remaining rockets rained down on the remaining Cutters from above.

Four missiles crashed onto the decks and towers of two cutters and detonated into bubbles broad enough they vanished the ocean directly in front of Sameera for several seconds. Ordnance that went off in the water evaporated and created a bubble. Both the volatile forces within the vapor bubble, the disturbed water around it, and the water then moving in to refill the bubble, placed massive pressures on whatever the ordnance targeted. When fleets full of heavy guns went to war, the blue expanse of the ocean filled with these deadly clouds, shearing, and pounding on the metal.

Sameera engaged rearward thrust to avoid the blasts and circled to the front of the fleet.

There was a massive hole in the flak cover as two cutters sank with heavy damage.

One remaining Cutter began to rise up the water table, dumping ballast to make an escape.

There was nothing in the fleet’s center but debris and two Streloks a hundred meters apart.

Sameera saw the door opening in front of them. That massive Irmingard, dead ahead.

“We’ve opened up the center.” Sameera said.

“Link back up with me now and stop mumbling, we’ve still got the Frigates.”

She wished Dominika would say something more emotional than that.

Not even out of a particular interest in her per se– simply to alter the mood.

Would it have hurt her to say I need you? Not that anyone ever told Sameera that.

“Right now, the way to the flagship is clear.”

“Are you nuts? It’s teeming with enemies around here still. Don’t be a hero!”

“The Lieutenant said we should take opportunities! We could end this battle right now.”

“This is an opportunity to get yourself killed. I’m coming to you, so just wait there–”

Sameera felt a growing frustration. She was not even asking Dominika to go with her.

Right in front of that Irmingard, the way had never looked more open. On the left flank, the Frigate was not moving to cover the gap. Maybe Khadija and Valya? And on the right flank, the other Frigate was starting to catch on to what was happening. Meanwhile that remaining Cutter had fully deserted its position and was no longer firing. Above them, the Destroyer’s gunfire was trailing after something Sameera could not see, likely Murati and Shalikova’s doing.

They had it right there– a breakthrough!

And the more they tarried, the more it closed! Only Sameera had this shot to secure victory. When she hunted Leviathans, every instant with the snapping predators invited death. Even the slightest twitch that allowed Sameera to attack was one she had to exploit. Squad or no squad, she was done negotiating with Dominika about this.

“I’ll take my chances with being a hero. Hang back and avoid the enemy Divers!”

“No! Absolutely not! Cossack– Stop! Sameera! SAMEERA!

Dominika shouted at her over the comms but Sameera paid no heed as she hurtled forward.

Even though it did feel good to have a lady shout her name– her eyes were full of glory.

Sameera always went for the biggest prey. She had to. Nobody would acknowledge her otherwise. Bigger prey, a bigger fight, escalating, drawing more and more blood– it was where she belonged!

Before the second Frigate could accelerate far enough ahead of the Irmingard to cover the gap left by the broken vanguard, Sameera rushed in among the fleet with everything her machine could give her. Stray gunfire from the accelerating, maneuvering Frigate flew well past her as she hurtled toward that metallic grey beast ahead. Looming larger and larger, that thick spoon-like prow like the head of a monster, and more of the enormous body behind it taking up her vision.

Her computers ran down the numbers every microsecond, closing in–

75 meters, 67 meters, 56 meters, 42 meters, faster, faster, she almost had the trophy–

Flashing red–

Sameera responded in an instant.

Engaging rearward thrust, she avoided an object rushing at her from below.

A vibrosword swung past her, the edge barely sliding off the skirt armor on the left hip.

“You’re no ordinary mercenaries! This’ll be fun!”

In front of her appeared an enemy Diver, a semi-triangular chassis with a flat head.

Jagd. Transmitting into the water; the acoustics picked up the voice.

Sameera had studied the second generation models like the Jagd. When she tested the Cheka, leaked design information for the Jagd was part of the project. Armed with a claw, a sword, and built-in SMGs, it could develop higher speeds than a Strelok due to its light weight, but it wasn’t all-powerful. That small performance gap that existed between the Volker and the Strelok was about how much a Jagd had on a Strelok too: in the simulations anyway.

Everything would depend on the pilot.

The Jagd had probably come out of the flagship. There was no flak coming in their direction anymore. It could have shot down the Imperial diver. For a moment, the two pilots floated on low thrust with maybe twenty meters between.

“Complying, merc? Good idea. Your jailer today is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”

That pilot was taunting her. She had a woman’s voice, but a deep, violent register.

Judging by that name–

She was a loup, an actual Imperial loup. Sameera had heard the stories.

That was half her bloodline, the Empire’s vicious vanguard and recon troops. Attack dogs.

Sameera switched to the public frequency. Her hair was standing on end.

For a moment, she almost hesitated before speaking: “Sameera Raisanen-Morningsun.”

Giving her Loup surname– what did she even think it would do?

Ingrid’s crackling laughter erupted from the radio. It almost shook Sameera.

Her ears hung on that voice, that was so familiar, so like her own, like her father’s–

“You’ve got an interesting name, you stray! You ought to have stayed in your village and left the mercenary work to the Katarrans! Fitting that I’ll be the one to discipline you. I’m not unkind to my people! I have no love for the Empire. I’m only doing this for the lady in that ship. You mercenaries have no more conviction than to follow who is feeding you, so I’ll make you a deal. Come here where you belong, like a good puppy, and help us apprehend these criminals–”

No, it was nothing like her father!

It was nothing like her!

In that instant, Sameera had enough of Ingrid’s evil words.

This woman was nothing else but an enemy. Nothing else mattered.

“Absolutely not!”

Sameera felt her heart surge as she threw the Cossack into a sudden charge.

Her sword clashed with the Jagd’s claw and sent a finger flying into the water.

“Go fuck yourself! I’d sooner die than end up like you!” She shouted, seeing red.

She was almost angrier at herself and taking that frustration out– but she wouldn’t admit it.

Ingrid was utterly unfazed by the sudden attack.

“Happy to oblige then! I have nothing against tearing the throat off a hollering stray!”

From the shoulder, the Jagd launched into a thrust with its bladed arm.

Sameera disengaged the rotation of her blade to have a solid block to parry with.

She pounded the Jagd’s sword aside, reengaged the motor on the blade, swung–

From the moment she parried, however, that Jagd had her where she wanted.

As if fluidly playing along with the parry, Ingrid suddenly slipped past Sameera.

Those four remaining digits of her claw glowed red and gave off vapor.

Imperial claw weapons used both heat and sudden, snapping pressure to tear off metal.

Swinging right into her exposed flank, hoping to tear a chunk right out of her belly–

Sensing the danger, Sameera gave up her attack.

Using all available thrust she threw herself away from the Jagd to create space.

“Aww, the puppy is running away! After all that barking!”

Ingrid met speed with speed and charged after Sameera almost instantly. Her sword came down on the Cossack’s in a blink. This was nothing like fighting those Serrano patrolmen.

She was a Loup, a real Loup! She was vicious and had the reflexes and hardware to support it.

Sameera found herself on the defensive as a rain of blows came down.

That Jagd’s arm sword snapped back and forth through the water with punishing ease. Repeatedly the blows came, and all Sameera could do was meet each of them with the flat, armored back of her sword, watching the integrity of the wrist and arm joint on the Cossack. As soon as Sameera tried to create space that Jagd was back on top of her, the difference in power-to-weight proving horribly decisive.

With every move, Ingrid would chase her down, leaving her no chance to retaliate.

If she could even lift her gun– but Sameera hesitated– the arm might be sliced off–!  

“Trying to shoot? And I thought we had a nice duel going!”

Ingrid backed off just suddenly as she once attacked.

The Jagd’s twin shoulder guns flashed. Dozens of rounds of 20 mm erupted from the barrels.

Explosions bloomed all around the Cossack and followed it as Sameera fled.

She thrust directly upward, her cockpit shaking as a few blasts pitted her chest armor.

Gaining just a bit of distance and height on the Jagd. Couldn’t shoot– couldn’t swing–

In a flash of inspiration, Sameera smashed the utility buttons on her sticks.

“What?” Ingrid shouted, confounded by what followed.

The Cossack’s shoulder hooks blasted out of their pods and slammed into the Jagd.

Sameera barely had time to check if she hooked anything on the steel line.

She engaged both forward thrust and the motors for the hooks to reel in.

One hook had slammed hard into the left shoulder gun and jammed it–

But a second hook had grabbed hold of the complicated shoulder joint on the claw arm.

Thicker and larger because of the power supply for the claw’s heating elements and motors.

There was a lot of surface area for the hook to grab tight.

As she engaged the hook motors, the Cossack hurtled forward and snapped the Jagd up.

Ingrid’s gunfire went nowhere as the two mechs careened toward each other.

Sameera’s gambit had paid off.

Unable to think or plan ahead, relying on the pure feral instinct of hunter and prey.

She sped to the Jagd, barely swung her sword, and smashed right into the enemy mech with the blade between them. Her blade bit furiously into the central chassis for a second, chewing metal and kicking up fragments, before the Jagd rocketed back with every lick of thrust it could afford. Kicking up a brief cloud of vapor between itself and Sameera’s Cossack, snapping off the hook with the force of its flight, the Jagd retreated over thirty meters out of the melee.

In the surrounding waters, parts of the shoulder and one of the gun barrels floated as debris.

For a brief moment, a pinprick of agarrthic energy licked the water surrounding it. Some of the Jagd’s battery cells must have shorted out. Like the Cheka, they were distributed throughout the body: a second generation trait. Less weight overall, but the arrangement had some drawbacks.

Ingrid’s furious breathing was all that was coming through. No more taunts.

Sameera’s nervous eyes turned briefly to the diagnostics display.

Her sword was going. Ingrid’s attacks had deformed the motor housing. It was seizing.

Hull integrity was starting to dip right in the center of the chest, but still ocean-worthy.

And the left leg intake was partially compromised. That would affect her speed–

“Sameera!”

That was not Ingrid’s voice–

Dominika!

Shit. Sameera thought. Shit, shit, SHIT.

She had been so stupid. She had let herself get separated; diverted to fight one measly unit!

“Sameera, I need backup, now!”

There was not even an instant of thought or hesitation in Sameera’s mind.

If Nika was killed due to her stupidity, Sameera’s soul would have died with her.

Her body was put into the world to protect others– how could she have forgotten?

“Sameera! I need you!”

Without another pointless word exchanged with Ingrid, Sameera took off at full thrust.

“I’m coming! Hold on!” She shouted.

One of her cameras and monitors had always been set to track Nika.

Her attention had been drawn off it for her brief skirmish with Ingrid, but it had always been doing its best to track her. Each Strelok had a unique acoustic signature — slightly different hydrodynamic structures would create unique wakes. Dive computers were able to keep track of team members this way.

On this camera, a green square overlayed in the distance represented Nika’s general area.

Two red squares overlapped with hers.

Sameera saw a yellow warning on the diagnostic screen.

She was losing thrust on the left leg.

Would she make it? It was a matter of seconds she didn’t have–

As she got away from Ingrid, gunfire from the Irmingard class intensified.

Long lines of gas gun bullets flew past her and burst, a constellation of dangerous blasts.

Sameera swerved, losing even more speed as she evaded the fire.

At the head of the fleet, the Frigate had advanced to close the gap in the flagship’s defenses just as Sameera had predicted. There was a red square around it as well, overlayed on the camera, but Sameera did not need it to see the clear danger it presented. Gunfire from this Frigate framed the melee between Nika and the enemy Divers, preventing her from escaping. She was completely surrounded. Sameera rammed her pedals, trying to get the left leg to push more water through, but it did nothing but physically vent her frustration. She could not go any faster than she was.

“They’ll kill her.” Sameera’s eyes drew wide, cold sweat streaking down her face.

Her sword was useless; her SMG didn’t have the range to respond; and she was losing thrust.

Murati or Khadija would not make it in time. It had to be her; only she could do anything!

She wracked her brain thinking about all the weapons and systems she had at her disposal.

Her mind flashed back to her fight with Ingrid. She had one hook that hadn’t broken.

One hook– and a bomb. She still had the bomb!

Sameera mumbled to herself, her mind stumbling over possibility.

“Murati, I’m so sorry. If we survive, I’ll accept any punishment.”

Beneath the backpack jets on her Diver’s chassis, there was a magnetic strip. Her sword attached to it when it folded, but her bomb was also there. She withdrew the pipe-shaped demolition charge. It was a pure chunk of explosive without any lining or penetrators, fixed with a simple detonator connected by wire and triggered with a switch in her cockpit. Sameera popped out her one remaining hook from its shoulder pod and affixed the bomb to the hook.

“If I throw it, and then start up the hook’s hydrojet–”

Sameera faced her mecha toward the overlapping red boxes of the Frigate and Volkers.

And the green box, Nika.

“Nika! Pull away from them now!”

She pulled back her arm, engaged one of the solid fuel boosters and made a snap throw.

Smashing the utility button on her trigger, she engaged the hook’s jet.

At once, the hook sped away fully unimpeded.

Farther and faster than Sameera’s Cossack could ever go in this instant.

It was so fast it was hard to track.

She had about 80 meters of cable, and she could also cut the cable loose–

“Shit, with the explosion–!”

Realizing she had no idea how wide the blast would be, she did release the tow cable.

“Nika, please get away!”

As soon as the green square of the bomb overlapped the red squares of the enemy, all outside of Sameera’s direct field of vision, she took a deep breath and pressed the second of her utility triggers. Through the enormous length of thin electric wire to which the bomb was attached, a digital detonation command was sent from the Diver to the pipe, and the detonator engaged.

With a second press, Sameera overrode the detonator and set the bomb off immediately.

In the next instant, the murky shadows ahead of her lit up for less than a second.

Sameera heard the muffled booming sound of the explosion through her hydrophone.

Then there was a shockwave that reached all the way to her and rattled her cockpit.

Water instantly evaporated and collapsed around the bomb’s blast radius. An enormous bubble formed in the sea as the heat from the explosives evaporated the water around it and pushed away the rest. Extreme heat and pressures in and around the bubble sheared and crushed metal, and there was no more gas gun fire coming from that general area. All of the red squares vanished, her predictor telling her that the hostile objects had ceased moving or were unavailable to track.

From afar, there was only murky ocean and a rapidly collapsing cloud of vapor.

As Sameera approached, she witnessed the devastation for herself.

Parts of the Frigate’s underside had been disgorged by the explosion, the ship listing on its side and sinking slowly amid a cloud of its own debris. There was nothing of the enemy Divers to be seen, just a cloud of drifting, falling metal chunks robbed of any semblance of form. There was a sudden, intense calm upon the ocean as all the gunfire forward of the Irmingard was silenced.

“Nika! Nika, respond!”

Sameera looked through each of her cameras on the separate monitors, hoping to find any trace of Dominika. That explosion had disturbed the acoustic predictors enough that everything being tracked in that area was momentarily lost. She adjusted and readjusted the cameras, feeling a dawning realization that her desperate attempt to save her could have just as easily killed her too.

“Nika!”

She swept through the area, as the debris drifted slowly down to the ocean floor.

One hand moved thoughtlessly to the communications equipment, fingers trembling.

Could she switch to the squadron channel? Call for help?

What would she even say to Murati about all of this? Everything had spiraled out of control.

Sameera grit her teeth. She had been so stupid, so completely, impossibly stupid.

Her desperation to be the hero, to be the one acknowledged, the one sang about–

“Where the fuck do you belong now? You stupid, useless mutt.” She berated herself.

Tears started to well up in her eyes.

Nothing in the cameras, nothing anywhere around.

Her hand retreated from the communicator.

She could not face Murati like this.

“Nika, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled into her microphone.

“If you weren’t I’d make you be sorry.”

One of the top cameras placed a green box several meters above.

Sameera’s eyes drew wide. She lifted her head, staring at the ceiling of her mecha.

Her lips drew wide in a trembling smile.

“Nika!”

From the murk above, the Strelkannon slowly descended to join the Cossack’s side.

Armor pockmarked with gunshot wounds, the head battered; but functional, with its owner very much alive.

She had escaped in time. Sameera had managed to save her.

“When we get back, I’m slapping you across the fucking face, hero.” Dominika growled.

Sameera felt a mixture of relief and apprehension at those words.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.6]

Murati knew the history of the Empire and studied many theories about its economic system and social stratification. However, this was her first time seeing the Empire. Not only piercing the invincible front that the Union feared in Cascabel, but actually entering as an Imperial citizen would and setting foot within the steel colossi itself. This was entirely different than reading books.

It was the first step on their journey.

That immense mission, a quest so daunting they could hardly grasp its scope–

Serrano station would be their first step on this long, winding road.

Once the Brigand was fully docked into Serrano station’s central port, the cargo elevator descended from the rear of the hangar and touched down on the steel floor of the port landing below the ship, awaiting any goods “purchased” by the Brigand to be brought aboard. Each berth in the dock had thick glass and steel dividers that could contain the ship and either drain the water or expose the ship to water again, as well as the massive clamps that bore the ship’s weight. Everything was so gigantic, from the ships themselves to the berths that held them. Human bodies were utterly insignificant in mass compared to the fleet Serrano docked.

Steel paths with tall guardrails led from the ship landings to the port grounds.

There were warehouses and container parks for goods, a travel agency, and offices for the port authority and guards.

In contrast with the enormous architecture of the port, these places were eerily ordinary.

Murati, Shalikova and Zachikova descended with the cargo elevator.

Alongside them were two members of the security team.

Klara Van Der Smidse, the energetic platinum blond who had accompanied Akulantova to the meeting, swayed from side to side with excitement. Beside her was a second member of the security team, Zhu Lian, a long-limbed woman with a regal countenance. With her long black hair styled with even, blunt ends on her bangs and along her ears, and her easy, confident gait, she looked too sophisticated to be in the infantry with Klara. In the Union, of course, looks were very much deceiving in that regard.

Commissar Aaliyah had also come with them. She would be going in a different direction than the rest.

All of them were dressed in the Treasure Box Transports uniforms, with the teal half-jacket, white shirt and black pants or skirt. Aaliyah had left her peaked Union Commissar’s cap behind to better blend in. Zhu and Van Der Smidse had long jackets instead of the half-jackets worn by most of the crew. They concealed their pistols within the interior breast pockets of the full length jackets.

Once the cargo elevator touched down on the station, the metal and plastic scent of the treated air within the Brigand fully dispersed. In its place, the predominant scent was an herby pungency that seemed to waft from a nearby berth. To the right of the Brigand on the next berth over, a glistening, rotund crop transporter ship unloaded multiple plastic drums and steel crates full of what smelled strongly of pickled herbs. Dockworkers in light labor Diver suits were unloading this ship.

To the Brigand’s left, the next two berths were occupied by the same ship, just a bit too long for one.

That enormous ship was an Irmingard class dreadnought belonging to the Imperial Navy.           

“Do you think we miscalculated just a bit, docking here?” Klara asked, pointing at it.

“We didn’t have a choice. We docked at the cargo berth we were given.” Aaliyah said.

While everyone else would be taking the direct path out of the port, Aaliyah would walk the path to the right, alongside the agri-transporter ship and to the warehouses. Her own mission was to gather information, and the dockworkers were apparently on the Union’s side. She bid farewell with a twitch of her ears. “Good luck. Don’t do anything rash and get back safely.”

“Acknowledged!”

For a moment, the team watched the Commissar go on her way before they too set off.

Murati was filled with emotion.

Her expression was cool and collected, but her skin brimmed with energy as she moved, and her heart was beating fast. She was full of anticipation for a lot of different reasons. Her first mission as part of the Brigand’s crew; she had read and even written tactical theories for a lot of different situations, but this was the first big one. She had to put into practice everything she knew.

Not only as a member of a team, but as the leader of the team.

Everyone was counting on her. And she was confident she could succeed.

After all, it was an easy enough mission. An extraction right under the enemy’s nose. The Empire did not even know that they had to be watching. Serrano was completely normal. No alarms, no lockdowns, not a hint of suspicion. As they walked between the port structures, nobody paid them any mind. Not from the heart of the docks, and not even at the open maw into the station sprawl.

In those thick crowds ahead of them, there was no way anyone would notice them.

“Alright, this is as far as we go.” Zhu Lian said. “Nakara, take this with you.”

At the entrance to the port, where a small bridge connected the suspended structures of the port facilities with a sturdy city street, Lian and Klara stopped and fell behind momentarily. When Murati turned around to look, Lian extended her hand. There was a small bauble on her palm, with corners as if it were a cube but with round surfaces in between, nothing to indicate its purpose.

“If you’re in trouble, press down the surface I’m rubbing my finger on.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’ll come running to your rescue, my beautiful damsels.” Klara added.

She winked at them and showed them a little bauble of her own with a blinking light.

“Ours will blink faster as it nears yours. It’s a simple, concealable design.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’re good at playing hot-cold, so we’ll find you no matter what.” Klara added.

She gently bumped her elbow into Lian, who glanced at her from the side of her eyes.

Lian’s gently neutral face and Klara’s playful bubbliness painted an interesting picture.

“Thanks. Will you two be okay twiddling your thumbs here all day?” Murati asked.

“We better be. Orders are orders, you know?” Klara said, with a big happy smile.

“We’ll keep ourselves entertained somehow.” Zhu Lian added. “Don’t worry.”

“Hey Lian, we can play punch buggy.”

Zhu Lian smiled a tiny bit. “Let’s not, actually.”

Murati smiled too. They would definitely be okay. “Let’s go, Sonya, Braya.”

“Don’t first-name me.” Shalikova snapped.

Zachikova cracked a little smile.

“If you’re not going to call me mistress or goddess, only Zachikova will do from you.”

Murati felt suddenly foolish for wondering how well Zhu and Van Der Smidse got along.

Her mind returned to the task ahead.

Flowing before them was an absolute flood of humanity.

On that street adjacent to the port, alone, there must easily have been hundreds of people.

Murati fidgeted with her tie while she walked into this enormous, omnidirectional crowd.

For people used to pillar-type, segmented stations with numerous smaller floors and halls, the enormity of Serrano was a shock. City-type stations were something a Union citizen might never see since the Union only had two. In Serrano, the lower section of the station consisted of an enormous space encased in walls supported by massive steel and concrete pillars. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of discrete high-rise buildings crammed into this space and winding roads between them. Overhead, the sky was composed of massive arrays of lights suspended from the steel supports for the upper section over a hundred meters above.

Surrounded by tall, multiple-use structures on all sides, the streets themselves were bright with fixtures and the colors from video-signs, but they branched into gloomy, forbidding alleyways that the crowds seemed to avoid going through if they could help it. There were all kinds of businesses and shops that shared the same buildings and street access, and computerized directories outside each building helped passersby to know if any one of the nearly identical grey spires contained the services they needed.

On the surface, all cities had this kind of layout, or so the theories and histories claimed.

While she had read that the lower section of Imperial cities was where the less fortunate citizens lived, there was a lot of variety in the way people dressed and carried themselves around Murati. She saw fashionable youths in bold, translucent vinyl and high-grade plastics; men and women in suits and jackets; people wearing nothing but a branded t-shirt and plain pants; and workers in uniforms and coveralls. Murati had expected to encounter mainly white Imbrians in the Empire, so she was surprised at the ethnic variety. There were even a few Shimii and Pelagis. It felt as though the whole world could be contained in this one city.

Out of all the sights she saw, Murati was most captivated by the street vendors.

People on the side of the road, in simple clothing, manning carts or kiosks.

She was reminded of plaza table culture back in the Union — exchanging or gifting things you made yourself.

However, in the Empire, everything revolved around money.

Every kiosk, every crate, every car, every shopfront, had big bold numbers so you knew right away if you had the money to get anything from them. Some people were selling out of the backs of electric cars, or out of crates with improvised wheels, but everyone had their prices up as large as they could possibly write them. Five marks for a snack fried before your very eyes, ten marks for a bag of oranges, a thousand marks for minicomputers in a self-described “back of the truck” sale. Everyone who was selling was shouting at passersby to come look at their goods. And they all had wary, intense expressions.

All manner of goods were being sold, but the most common products were food items.

“Real meat, huh?”

Murati briefly paused near a kiosk where an older woman selling Milanesas.

Thin cuts of red meat breaded on the kiosk table and fried on a portable burner.

There was something bewildering about it for Murati.

Animals were a precious commodity in the Union. Nobody in the Union ate animal meat.

So to see a seemingly proletarian street vendor casually frying meat was so unusual to her.

Union cattle were heritage breeds from the Empire. They had been brought to the Union to serve as the backbone of diary production in the new colonies, for items like freeze dried bulk cheese and powdered milk that would then be sold in the Empire. The Empire did not get their diary in the end, but the Union kept the cattle and nurtured them. The Union enjoyed access to dairy products in the present day because they were careful with those original cattle and continued to breed them well. There was bulk fishing in the Union, but fish were not eaten. They were used to manufacture certain specific products like fish glues, fertilizer, skin patches, and ointments. Animals were too precious to eat. Everything Murati ate was made of plants, fungi or yeast.

It had been Murati’s understanding that even in the Empire, meat was for the wealthy.

Murati almost wanted to try one of those snacks, but she had no money, and it might have made her sick.

Instead she watched for a moment as the vendor exchanged one with a young man.

He gave her a single bill worth five imperial marks, and she fried the cutlet right there.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova appeared by her side; Shalikova had walked out of view before turning back.

“Are you hungry?” She asked.

“Oh, sorry, no.” Murati said, surprised. “I was just catching my breath here for a bit.”

“We should get moving before Shalikova decides to complete the mission without us.”

“I heard that.” Shalikova said, arriving at their side once again, arms crossed, fangs bared.

“Right. We can go in a second. Sorry, it’s the crowd. I’m not used it.” Murati said.

Though she was nowhere near tired, it was a more respectable excuse than the truth. She didn’t want to tell them that what she was actually doing was admiring a cheap snack kiosk and thinking about meat production and class politics in the Empire. Murati knew and forgave herself for what distracted her, but it was still a bit embarrassing to admit to in the middle of a mission.

Once the meat fried thoroughly, the vendor picked it up with a pair of tongs and laid it on a piece of plastic wrap. She wrapped the item and reached her hand out to the customer. He was about to take it, but right in front of Murati’s eyes, someone suddenly shoved in between them.

A young child wrapped in a hood intervened, snatching the croquette, and running past.

“You little shit! Get back here!”

The vendor shouted after the kid and waved her tongs, but the child was long gone.

Vanished into the crowd amid hundreds, maybe thousands of faces and bodies.

Sighing with frustration, the vendor promised to fry the customer another piece of meat.

Murati stood speechless for a moment.

Why would that happen? Was that child that desperate for a snack?

“Caught your breath yet, Nakara?” Zachikova asked.

“Yes. I’ll lead the way. Thank you for being patient with me.”

Murati started walking along with the crowd, keeping a cool façade but feeling a bit uneasy.

The Empire was different than she thought. In her reading, she had almost come to think of it as the Union but with a greedy upper class. Labor value was alienated from workers, who had to pay their dues to the Imperial government. Proletarians led humble lives while the Imperial aristocrats could have any luxury imaginable and as much of it as they wanted. Goods were exchanged for currency and currency was earned as a wage. Those technicalities were still true, but Murati was starting to ponder what luxury actually meant, and what kind of lives you could actually have on your wage in the Empire. That girl who stole; was that bit of meat so valuable as to directly harm another person for it? To steal their hard work and products so easily?

Murati knew that people in the Empire had to earn money for food.

Surely, anyone could earn enough for the measly five marks the vendor asked for?

How much was five marks actually worth then? It was troubling her.

In the Union, petty theft was nearly unheard of. Murati had a hard time wrapping her mind around the motivations because of this. Seeing that act transpire made her reflexively compare it to the Union context. She might have understood stealing from the aristocrats, but stealing from people in the community? And what for? For a snack? Maybe meat really was as valuable as Murati had thought and the vendor was actually much wealthier than she looked. Something was not adding up.

“I got a hold of a city map from the official Serrano visitor’s web page.” Zachikova said.  “The warehouses are to the northwest. There’s a small statue park between those two high rises,” she pointed ahead of them and to the right. “We can cut through there, less people, and it’s faster. The crowds avoid it, but those alleyways are supposedly cleaned and inspected regularly.”

“Statue park, huh?” Shalikova said, seemingly interested in her surroundings for the first time.

“Yes. There’s even a famous statue commemorating Serrano’s mascot, a stuffed pepper.”

“What? A stuffed pepper?” Shalikova’s eyes drew briefly wide in surprise.

“A stuffed pepper.” Zachikova said. She nodded her head solemnly.

Murati had not been paying much attention to Zachikova before; she wondered when she had time to look up all of this and how she had accomplished it without bringing a minicomputer along. Could she “see” data through her eyes? Murati had seen little digits flitting over the surface of cybernetic eyes in the past. Data was being downloaded to her brain technically, so maybe she had a “sense” that let her parse that data. That sounded challenging to do while walking, too.

Looking at Zachikova, she seemed completely untroubled and in command of herself.

Walking calmly and confidently, eyes forward and attentive.

She must have conquered any difficulties with her implants long ago.

They navigated the stream of bodies to an alley a block away and sneaked out.

Even in the alleys, there were people.

Delivery people bringing crates into the backs of shops from electric trolley carts, customers smoking near the side doors of clubs and restaurants after being asked to step out, workers throwing trash down chutes carefully hidden from the street view. In the gloomy world between the buildings, there weren’t crowds, but the tight alleys made every person seem like they took the space of ten. A group of three uniformed women stuck out amid scratched walls, puddles of nondescript fluids that had leaked, peeling paint and discarded refuse, and the rusty ductworks laid bare in places; but nobody gave more than a passing glance.

There were a few people who just stood in the alleys, back to the wall, as if asleep.

Murati thought they looked abandoned there. They looked as if forbidden to step outside.  

Serrano somehow contained a world so much more expansive than anything at Thassal, but also a second world much more confining and inhospitable than anything in the Union. There was a certain greasiness, a rusty smell of decay and neglect, that permeated these alleys. They were designed not to be seen. Even the poor, or at least, the non-ennobled, could be stratified like this. Some workers could be walking out in the streets or tending to shop fronts. But others did their duties in these alleys, away from the eyes of those massive crowds in the main street. Murati for a moment thought perhaps she was ascribing it too much significance and tried to check herself. As a student of history, Murati wanted to make everything a grand narrative.

To the people of Serrano, this was clearly just normal. It went wholly unacknowledged.

But then– why was there so much tension in the air?

Soon enough, the shape of that tension began to make itself clear to her.

Beyond the alleyways, the team made it to a little park which stood at an intersection between several buildings that were larger than average. The park was about thirty meters of sparse-looking green turf with a few statues on display. There was a tree, whether it was a synthetic air purifier or a real tree, Murati could not tell. And of course, the statues were indeed of a stuffed pepper with eyes and arms — a rather silly sight, but city mascots were not usually dignified.

However, this particular statue had company.

There was a group of people sitting on the green, at least a dozen scattered in different places. When they saw Murati and her group approaching three men began to wave at her. All of them looked a little shabby at first glance, but she became alarmed as she walked closer. Their clothes had seen some wear, and their shoes in particular looked completely worn out. Everyone was skinny, too skinny, their limbs and necks were too thin, and they had not had a shave in a very long time. Seeing them in such a state led Murati to accept their invitation and come closer.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova looked at Murati with confusion as the Lieutenant stepped on the green.

She kneeled in front of the men to try to make eye contact with them. They barely held her eyes with theirs. They tried to smile — they looked incredibly happy to be acknowledged at least.

“Hello, what happened to you? Are all of you okay?”

Murati asked what must have sounded to them like such a naïve question.

One of the men responded with a kind voice.

“What happened? Ah, this and that, ma’am. Everyone’s got stories. I was laid off for missing too many days of work. My head wasn’t right with me, you know. But right now, we’re just happy to see a friendly face. Me and the lads here, between the three of us we haven’t a mark to our names, nothing to eat. If you could spare anything for us, we’d never forget it.” He said.

Not a mark to their name? Nothing to eat? Did they not have a place to stay?

“You don’t have food? Do you have any place to go? We could escort you.” She asked.

“Ah, no ma’am, we appreciate it kindly, but we don’t have any place to go.” He said.

How could they not have shelter? Were they expected to sit out on the street forever?

“Are there any canteens around here that you could eat at without having to pay?”

Murati was still bewildered. All of the men gave her dejected shakes of the head.

“Hello? We have to keep moving.”

Standing a few meters away, Zachikova called out to Murati again.

Shalikova stood behind her, staring out at the people in the park in plain confusion.

Murati looked back at her over her shoulder and looked at the men again.

The man who had spoken kindly gave her a gentle expression, as if saying she could go.

“We understand ma’am. Thank you for blessing us with your pretty face all the same.”

All of them resigned themselves.

Murati was briefly speechless.

She stood fully upright and wandered back to Zachikova’s side, but not all of her was there. Her head was swimming with scattershot thoughts. She could not understand it. Why didn’t they have shelter? It was a station, under the ocean, what were they expected to do? There was only shelter and the inhospitable world outside, there should have been a place for them to go. If they didn’t have a room, if they were just laying around on the street– why? Why would it be like that? It didn’t make any sense to her.

She had read a lot about the Empire, their history, their strategies and tactical doctrines, monetary systems, the theory behind their social and economic systems. At no point did she consider that people could just lose their job and end up without food or shelter. She had spent some of her childhood as essentially a slave, and even then, the Empire fed her. Meagerly, but they did. They needed her and her parents to work, to be obedient. Didn’t they need to care for these men too in the same vein? These were workers!

How could they be abandoned here? Why?

“Zachikova, have you seen anything like this before?”

“Like what, Nakara?”

Zachikova had a relatively inexpressive response to the people at the park.

“These people don’t have homes or food.” Murati replied. “How can that be?”

“I’ve never seen conditions like this. It just doesn’t happen in the Union. That being said, we need to focus on the mission.” Zachikova said. “You’ve been terribly distracted all day. You must have a lot on your mind, but I really want to get back to the ship as soon as possible.”

Murati looked at her, feeling a little embarrassed. She had not been much of a leader so far.

“Contact the Captain for a moment.”

She looked at Zachikova with a renewed conviction. She had an idea in mind.

“Well. If you say so. But let’s step a bit farther away.”

“Agreed.”

Murati gestured for Shalikova to follow, and the three of them returned briefly to the alleys.

Zachikova tapped her finger on the side of one of her ears.

“Murati wants you, Captain.” She said, her tone hinting at reluctance.

Inaudibly, there was a response. Zachikova stared at Murati, prompting her to respond.

“Ask the Captain if we have any Imperial currency to bargain with.” She said.

Zachikova relayed the question. “She says we do have a stock in case it’s necessary.”

Murati pressed on. “Ask her how much.”

“She wants to know what for. She wants me to tell her what’s going on.”

“Tell her we found some people who need our help.” Murati said.

Dutifully, Zachikova relayed the situation as Murati explained it to the Captain.

Again, there was an inaudible response, but Zachikova’s body language clued Murati to its contents.

Zachikova shook her head and crossed her arms. “She’s just sighing at you, Lieutenant.”

“Ask her how much money we have available.”

“Lieutenant, I don’t think–”

“Ask her.”

Murati stood her ground.

Zachikova sighed to herself.

“I see it’s useless to talk to you then. Okay– she says 3 million marks.”

Murati’s face briefly lit up.

“Those meat snacks were 5 marks each. It shouldn’t take much to feed them. Zachikova is it possible somehow that I can talk to the Captain about this myself? Can you patch me in?”

Sighing, Zachikova pulled out much of the structure of one of her antennae.

That long, flat-tipped, wrist-wide metal antennae that served as her “ear” came off.

She handed the piece to Murati, who held it up like a two-way handset.

Neither the mouth nor earpiece were clearly labeled, but Murati figured it out.           

At her side, Shalikova was looking at her with an unreadable expression on her face.

She stood close as if she wanted to try to hear what the Captain would say.

Murati spoke first.

“Captain–”

She did not get more than a word in before a loud grunt cut her off.

“Murati, the answer is no.” Captain Korabiskaya said through the communicator.

Murati closed her fist and grit her teeth.

“But we can help them. We can just buy them a little food or find them shelter.”

She couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper, but she wanted to scream.

How could anyone hear of this atrocity and even consider turning away from it!

“Murati, it would attract attention we can’t afford. You will not do this. Move now.”

“It would attract attention just to give them money? Just to find them some food?”

“Yes. We shouldn’t discuss this much more. A bunch of encrypted traffic might–”

“How can you think of abandoning them! I admired you, Captain! You served in the–”

Captain Korabiskaya interrupted, frustrated. Murati had never heard her so upset before.

“This isn’t about me! I know it is unjust and I know it’s hard to ignore! Remember what we’re here for Murati! If you go off on your own to help a few people you could render us unable to help millions of people! Billions! You need to focus and do the job you were assigned!”

“What about getting them to shelter? Getting them a room? Is that so dangerous?”

“Murati, you don’t understand. Those aren’t just rooms on Imperial stations. All of that housing is owned by private people who sell it to citizens. A private owner can refuse to house people that don’t meet their standards. And food is also owned by private owners, who decide who they will sell to. You will be wasting your time trying to find someone who will give you a flat for beggars, because the landlords don’t want these people housed, and you can’t find them food because restaurants won’t sell to them! We are not in a position to help them directly, Murati!”

“How do you know this?” Murati asked, her voice rising almost to a shout.

“Because I grew up in the Empire!” The Captain replied. “I fought for the Union as a teen because I’d already had a childhood in the Empire! My family was stripped of our rights and deported! Murati, it is nothing like the Union. The Empire is not an entity that views its role as helping people who are hurting. Back then, men like these would have been deported to the colonies to work off their debts for life in mining or manufacturing. That’s what we’re up against.”

Murati listened, but she could not find it in herself to empathize with the Captain at all.

For the Captain to know of these people’s sufferings and still talk like this was monstrous!

“I can’t just stand here and do nothing, Captain. Those people will just die out here!”

“You will move from that location, and complete your assigned task, and that is how you will help them. This is an order, Murati. Think of the bigger picture, please, and keep moving.”

Murati felt something tug on her sleeve that drew her suddenly out of her building fury.

At her side, Shalikova wanted her attention.

“Lieutenant,”

She paused, briefly, finding it visibly difficult to say what she wanted.

“I understand how you feel.” Shalikova said at last. “But–”

Her eyes glanced back at the park with a sorrow that Murati could palpably feel.

Zachikova spoke up suddenly. “A public complaint was lodged on the station network.”

“A complaint? What do you mean by a complaint? What’s happening?” Murati asked.

“Citizens have reported the people in the plaza. Guards are being dispatched here.”

Murati’s eyes widened. She could not believe what she was hearing.

“Reported what about them? That they don’t have homes or food?”

Zachikova grit her teeth with frustration.

“I could read you the complaint verbatim but it’s useless, Lieutenant! We have to leave!”

“She’s right– Murati.” Shalikova added. “We can’t do anything to help them now.”

The normally icy Shalikova had such a mournful tone of voice that it shook Murati.

Murati felt so helpless then. She felt like an overgrown child, a stupid, powerless child.

A child who could not possibly do anything to affect the world around her. A child out of her depth, staring at a world cruel and callous beyond her imagination. Unable to form but the most amorphous idea of the wrongness she felt, or how she could possibly set any of it right.

All the theory she had read, all the things she understood about the Empire–

Those things leaked out of her skull like blood from a wound and emptied her mind.

Seeing those people abandoned to their deaths for no reason– Gritting her teeth with the frustration and pain of that moment– It was entirely different than anything she had experienced. Monumentally different than simply reading about capitalism. That formless, massive evil thing was flaunting its power and she was helpless before it. Her sense of justice was a bleeding wound.

“You’re right, Shalikova, Zachikova. I’m sorry for holding us up. Let’s go.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s voice came cross the handset one last time. “Thank you, Murati.”

Murati brusquely returned Zachikova’s antenna and started walking away before the rest.

Conspicuously she had not acknowledged the Captain in that final exchange.            

That child inside her who was screaming and crying as if told of death for the first time in her life hated the messenger who had forced her to acknowledge her helplessness and lack of depth. She felt a terrible, stupid, petty anger toward Captain Korabiskaya. The Captain was right; and Murati did not want to acknowledge it. She hated it. She hated her with a sudden, insane passion.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.3]

“We are now convening the first ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ on the Brigand.”

In the planning room of the Brigand’s command pod, a small group of officers gathered.

At the head of this meeting was Ensign Braya Zachikova, the Electronic Warfare Officer aboard the ship. She had been missing during the battle against ULV-96 since she was getting acquainted with the ship supercomputer at the time. Missing out on the glory did not seem to bother her at all: her response to being asked about it was to simply say, “Leviathans have no ECM capabilities.”

Zachikova was a distant young woman with a somewhat short and skinny figure. She had tawny brown hair tied into a single tail, which looped into a long, wavy spiral that was quite fantastic. This seemed to be the only point of vanity she allowed herself. Her face was rather expressionless, she used no makeup, and she wore her uniform to code.  Two metal antennae each about the width of her wrists adorned the sides of her head.

The agenda for the meeting was on a minicomputer she carried. When she set the minicomp down on the room table, she swiped the agenda text off her screen and directly onto the table screen for everyone to see. There were three particular items that she wanted to discuss with the group. Joining her in the room was Captain Korabiskaya, Commissar Bashara, First Officer Nakara and an engineer, Gunther Cohen.

At that moment, the Bridge was led by Semyonova temporarily.

“Zachikova,”

Captain Korabiskaya sighed deeply and brushed her fingers through her blond hair.

“That was a placeholder name for the project. But you still called the meetings–”

“It doesn’t really matter what they are called, does it?” Zachikova asked.

She looked at the Captain quizzically, as if she really didn’t understand the issue.

Commissar Bashara shook her head. “Don’t get distracted, Captain.”

Captain Korabiskaya crossed her arms over her chest.

“Fine then. ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ indeed. Zachikova, report your findings.”

Zachikova nodded. “First, a brief explanation for Nakara and Cohen about the project.”

Before the Brigand was handed over to its eventual crew, to prevent any leaks of its secrets, the sailors, mechanics, engineers, and officers were given very limited information about the ship in the lead-up to departure. It was understood that when the ship was underway its crew would have access to the finer details of the ship’s functions and would have a one-week shakedown period in peaceful waters. This time would be used for training, tuning and organization to make up for the secrecy and lack of onboarding.

The Captain accepted these terms. Mainly because she had no other choice.

Despite being attacked by a Leviathan almost immediately after setting off, the Brigand’s crew got underway and began to get acquainted with the ship per their schedule. Almost as soon as they started to touch things on the ship, however, they ran into numerous curiosities about the Brigand’s design.

Immediately, Helmsman Kamarik found oddities in the ship’s propulsion. Zachikova found that the ship’s supercomputer had several gaps where something was soft-deleted but the data was not zeroed out and could not be written over until it was properly reclaimed. Geninov and -de la Rosa took some mechanics to inspect the backup firing solutions on their respective weapons systems and found some strange parts in the hull armor when they dug themselves into the casemates for the guns and the guts of the torpedo tube. Supply staff found an inventory of unmarked spare parts in the cargo hold with instructions on destroying them.

The Captain halted any destruction of those parts until further notice.

Various confusing design “innovations” of this sort started to pile up.

Captain Korabiskaya tasked Zachikova with investigating as much as she could by digging into the ship’s computers and working with the engineers and technicians. As they sailed, Zachikova used drones to inspect every nook and cranny of the outer hull, gathering data on the materials and construction of the ship. She ultimately concluded that the ship had various functions that had been dummied out in the software.

“Cohen, you were part of the Cheka project, and traveled with the Brigand before. Can you shed some light on this? What do you know about the Brigand’s development?” the Captain asked.

Gunther Cohen nodded his head. “So, I will say up front, I didn’t design anything on the Brigand, and none of the guys who did were in contact with me. I know that, before the Brigand became fully seaworthy, it was a different, bigger ship. I know I heard folks talking about how they ‘chiseled’ the current Brigand out of the ‘rock’ that was the older one. I couldn’t tell you what that means, and it’s just hearsay, but this is a pretty mysterious ship. However, I’m not surprised they dummied a bunch of stuff out in the software. That’s standard procedure for Union design.”

“Standard procedure? To install a ton of extra equipment and make it inoperable?”

The Captain looked unsatisfied with the answer.

At that point, Murati interrupted briefly.

“It probably saves on R&D, doesn’t it? It’s easier than physically ripping out mechanical systems that were not properly completed, and then having to restructure the ship’s guts for it.”

“Murati has the right of it. Projects like the Cheka and the Brigand are pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff, we were dreaming big, and then we had to temper our expectations. I can imagine for a piece of machinery as complicated as a ship once you have added certain mechanical systems it’s not easy to rip them out entirely if they’re buggy or just unfinished. Those extra jets, for example, are way easier to dummy out in the software than they are to remove and redo the whole stern.”

Commissar Bashara rubbed her chin with one hand, resting the elbow on the table.

“Zachikova, could you list the equipment you were able to account for that has no available software? I would like a clear picture of the kinds of things we are talking about.” She asked.

Nodding, Zachikova read from her minicomputer. “There are two retractable devices in the prow and two above the stern that appear defensive in nature. We know they have motors, actuators and what looks like an agarthicite lattice associated with them. There’s a vertical missile tube that can fit standardized tube drones, dummies, and chaff, but Geninov can’t launch anything out of it. There are two additional small jets, but they do nothing if Kamarik tries to engage them. These are only a few of the larger objects. There may be finer systems we haven’t accounted for yet.”

“This sounds like such a massive waste of engineering.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“I can understand your perspective as a soldier, you all want to have as many options as possible, but these things were dummied out for a reason.” Cohen said. “Already the Brigand is a bit of a patchwork and it was designed as a testbed for a particular capability and purpose. I think right now, we should stick to the basics of launching Divers out of it and supporting them.”

“Sometimes equipment that is dummied out is fully operational.” Zachikova said.

“That’s true, but we can’t know that here.” Cohen said. “Everyone who designed these bits is a high-level spook, too, I’m almost sure of it. I think we should leave it well enough alone.”

Zachikova turned to the Captain with something like determination in her eyes.

“Captain, Commissar, I must admit I am fascinated by these findings.” She said suddenly.

“So are we. Cohen’s points aside, though, almost everything on this ship is digital.” Captain Korabiskaya said. “So, if we don’t have software to run it, we can’t use it. Even if we can crawl someone through the ducts to that vertical missile tube, for example, they can’t launch anything.”

“Judging by your expression, Zachikova, you have an idea.” Commissar Bashara said.

Captain Korabiskaya stared at the Commissar and then at Zachikova in confusion.

Zachikova smiled for the first time. It was a small smile, but quite self-satisfied.

“You are right, Captain, that the Brigand is a digital being and we have no analog ways of using this equipment. It is conventional wisdom that for security purposes, it is not possible to write executable code to a ship’s supercomputer, so the ship’s crew can only use the included script and software bundles to carry out their tasks and can only perform minimal customization.”

“Wait. You’re insinuating that you can crack the computer?” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“Indeed. I can potentially edit back in some of the ship’s lost functionality, with time.”

Cohen looked terrified. “Ensign Zachikova, have you read a single treatise on engineering ethics? There’s a reason, other than security, that we don’t let people just write and execute code willy-nilly on ships. We’re supposed to be guaranteeing a certified, safe environment to work in!”

Zachikova turned her cold eyes on him. “Engineer Cohen, what if I told you I was a ‘spook’ myself at one point? That I was exactly the sort of unreachable, invisible person whose intentions you feared to probe? That where my actions were concerned, the ends justified the means, far above any regulation you could name?”

“Say what? Excuse me? Did everyone just process what this woman just said?”

The engineer looked to the Captain and the Commissar for support and found none.

“Zachikova was a ship saboteur in the Union Navy special forces.” Said the Commissar, calmly.

“I guess if anyone can crack something like this, it’s her. A very lucky personnel assignment.” Captain Korabiskaya smiled, perhaps a little nervously. Zachikova puffed out her chest with pride.

Cohen looked at them as if he could not believe what he was hearing.

Murati then raised a rather soft concern, in light of the other issues.

“Wait one minute though, how can you write executable code on a ship computer?”

Cohen tried to look to her for support as well, but as a soldier, she was also not opposed to the idea of trying to rehabilitate some of the Brigand’s more eccentric features. A piece of equipment was something to be mastered and perfected, both in the realm of strategy and logistics, and in development. They were owed full control and full power over this ship. She simply did not share Gunther Cohen’s passionate sense of the sanctity of workplace regulations. At least, not aboard an experimental military ship on a black ops mission.

Zachikova, of course, had an answer to Murati’s question.

“I found an exploit that would let me install software on Union ship computers.” Zachikova says. “In order to make it work, we need to briefly cut power to the computer, causing an unexpected shutdown and recovery. Normally only thin clients specifically mated to a ship are able to connect to its supercomputer. Those clients are knocked out when the supercomputer goes down. However, I am an independent, compatible device on the ship network, so I can exploit the recovery state to take unauthorized actions. I’ll install software to guarantee us continued, privileged access to the supercomputer so we can write our own code to it.”

She pointed to the two antennae on her head and demonstrated how she could remove one to expose a tiny serial port in her head, to which one might have connected networking or data cables. This port could connect computing devices directly to the mechanical parts of her brain, which had been cybernetically augmented. Cohen stared at it speechless, while the Captain and Commissar looked quite impressed with it.

“So you’ll use yourself as a computing device through which you can access the supercomputer. Interesting.”

Commissar Bashara seemed to understand the plan. Captain Korabiskaya looked a bit lost.

“Will you be okay, Zachikova? I’m not sure of the limitations of your brain implants.”

“I appreciate the concern, Captain. I will be fine. I’ve used my status as a living machine to great effect on missions before this one. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t be on this ship otherwise.”

“You’re not a living machine, you’re a person, Zachikova. But I accept your reasoning.”

Zachikova looked indifferent to the Captain’s assurances of her humanity.

As the conversation developed, Cohen grew visibly more dissatisfied. “You asked me to come here to consult. My advice is, don’t do this. There is a world of problems with this!” He crossed his arms, seemingly offended.

“We value your input, Engineer Cohen.” Commissar Bashara said. Her tail stood straight and her voice and expression both grew stern. “However, this ship is not a collective farm. You were asked to advise us and we have listened to your advice. We have a mission, and our mission is led by a dictatorship. The Captain and I appear to agree about this course of action. We need all the power we can get. Zachikova, you will prepare the cracking software. We’ll work with you on a window of time to execute it. Then we’ll explore our options with each individual customization. We will be careful with them, and we will be as responsible as we are able.”

“Those devices were removed for our own good. But you’re right; it’s your decision.”

Cohen sat back and turned his head as if he were wiping his hands clean of this business.


After the meeting, Murati escorted Zachikova to the laboratory.

Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara headed to the bridge to set up a window for them to cut power to the computer to crash it. All of the ship had to be informed about the shutdown and to take a break until this task was accomplished. As they walked to the lab, Zachikova worked on her minicomputer.

From her jacket she withdrew a memory stick, worn and scratched, a sticker peeled off it.

“Is that the program you need?” Murati asked.

“It’s my toolkit.” Zachikova replied.

“Were you issued that, or did you make it yourself?”

Her voice turned colder fast. “No comment.”

She might have taken it with her after leaving the special forces. Maybe not fully reported.

Murati did not pry any further. It would not have been fair to Zachikova.

“I wanted to thank you for your work in proposing this to the Captain.” She said.

“Well, I’m glad at least the people who matter were happy with my presentation.”

Zachikova spoke in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone without a shred of doubt or hesitation.

“It may sound sentimental, but I respect your expertise. I trust you; because of your record.”

Everyone else had made such a big deal of Zachikova’s past in the Special Forces. Had it been her, Murati would have definitely felt ostracized by those kinds of comments. Zachikova was her peer. She had kept quiet at the meeting, but she wanted Zachikova to know she had support among her peers.

For her part, however, Zachikova did not acknowledge her intentions whatsoever.

“How do you feel about the special forces, Lieutenant?”

Interesting question.

How did Murati feel about the special forces?

She thought of what she knew about them: they handled critical missions, against external and internal threats. Asset protection, targeted liquidation, reconnaissance, sabotage, espionage. They were accountable to the internal security directorate and not formally part of the Navy. Training for the special forces was heavy, and it required a certain temperament to get approved for them. Or at least that was what Murati learned about them in her time writing papers about the military for the Academy.

She knew, basically, what they were and what they did — but how did she feel about them?

“I trust that your unit fulfilled its duty. Like all of us you worked to protect the Union.”

Even if she did not know exactly what Zachikova had done, Murati wanted to trust her.

Zachikova glanced sidelong at Murati in response. She put on a tiny little grin.

“I see. You would be really dangerous in the special forces, Murati Nakara.”

Murati waited for Zachikova to elaborate on that point, but she never did.

Zachikova stuck the memory stick into her minicomputer and connected to it via the serial cable on her left antennae. On the computer, the ordinary GUI for Union thin clients was taken over by a shell that was running a series of commands, scrolling through diagnostic text much faster than Murati could figure out. With that device plugged into her antennae, the hazy way her eyes looked while staring down at the screen, she really did look almost mechanical. When her eyes glanced sidelong at Murati once more, she briefly saw tiny digits flitting across them. They must have been cybernetic, like the antennae.

Most sufferers of Hartz syndrome needed both the antennae and the eye implants together.

She was not a machine, however. She was a person. Murati held firmly to that.

“You definitely joined this mission because you have a self-righteous streak, Murati Nakara. As for me, I just want a challenge.” Zachikova said, almost to herself. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“Did I give such a bad impression? I won’t judge you. What matters is that you’re here.”

No response from the Electronic Warfare officer. She became immersed in her work.

Murati felt mildly anxious about whether Zachikova appreciated or disdained her kindness toward her.

At the meeting she had called herself a machine. Did she really believe that?

They had barely met; Murati resolved to give it some time.

It still weighed on her mind as she traveled.

Beyond the common areas of the ship was the Science & Observation section, closer to the tail of the ship and directly plugged into the conning tower — a ship’s “top fin” that contained a multitude of sensors, cameras, and other equipment. Through the sliding doors, the first object in Murati’s sight was the ship’s tree. Encased in a habitat and attended to using drone arms controlled from the outside, the tree was almost as tall as the room with a vast, beautiful green crown that brushed against the confines of the hermetic glass in which it was kept. Like many Union trees it was planted on a black mound — a combination of synthetic soil, heritage soil that was brought to the Union’s agrispheres by the Empire, and soil extracted from continental caves.

That tree would provide some of their fresh oxygen, but it was mainly symbolic.

Even under the Ocean, after the catastrophe, surface life continued to struggle. Humanity was part of this.

Arrayed around the tree in the center was the laboratory equipment. Each station had a different purpose that would have been better understood by a science officer. There were centrifuges, containment cells for biohazardous material, burners, dessicators, evaporators, distillation equipment, all manner of glasses; a few more mysterious devices like a “vacuum oven,” a “particle accelerator” and an “ultraviolet chamber” among others. In the rear of the room was a nondescript box about the size of a locker turned on its side, containing the supercomputer and an array of cooling racks and heat sinks that looked almost like an art station.

Along the sides of the room were the agri-units, one growing mushrooms, a second growing spinach and a third housing a bubbling vat of modified yeast, which would be turned into patties. These units could provide some of the ship’s fresh food needs. They could not feed the entire crew, but they could make sure the entire crew could have a bite or two of fresh food regularly, rather than relying entirely on their packed supplies.

“Murati! You came over! I can’t believe it took this long for my hubby to pay a visit!”

Managing of all this equipment was the task of the Science Officer, Karuniya Maharapratham.

Seeing Murati, she rushed to the entryway and threw herself into Murati’s arms.

Unprepared to have to catch her fiancé, Murati nearly fell over with her.

Karuniya nuzzled herself against Murati with a big grin on her face.

Murati held her, like Karuniya clearly desired, but let a tired sigh while doing so.

“We see each other every day. We live together!” Murati then cried out.

“You think that’s enough attention for a maiden in full bloom? What a frigid husband!”

“I don’t even know where to start with that!”

“You should start by giving me a big kiss, hubby–”

Murati turned her face away with a big grin, making a show of denying Karuniya attention.

For a moment, Karuniya put on a shocked face in response.

“In the first place, I’m a woman, I don’t know where this husband business came from–”

“Women can be husbands! And cold and mean as the river Cocytus! As you demonstrate!”

“Being called frigid and mean really puts me in the mood to indulge my needy fiancé.”

“Stop casting me as the villain. If you took better care of me, I wouldn’t be like this.”

For a moment, the pair indulged in this sort of teasing as if in their own little world.

Karuniya finally peeled herself off Murati with a big smile.

Murati could not help but smile, a bit bashfully. Being a “husband” was kind of charming.

After indulging in their aura of cohabitation, the pair suddenly realized they had company.

At their side, Zachikoya briefly looked up at them from behind her minicomputer.

Just as quickly, she went back into hiding behind the screen.

“Ah, sorry Zachikova.” Murati felt her heart sink with embarrassment. “This is Karuniya Maharapratham, the Science Officer. We’re getting married, and she gets carried away a lot–”

“You were playing along too.” Karuniya said, narrowing her eyes at Murati. She reached out a hand to try to be friendly, but Zachikova was not in the mood. As soon as Karuniya reached out, she had already walked past them toward the back of the room, headed for the supercomputer.

“Let me know when the Captain authorizes the shutdown.” She said, waving her hand.

As she disappeared behind the tree, she did not even glance at them once over her shoulder.

Karuniya crossed her arms and put on a petulant expression in response to the snub.

“What’s her problem?”

Murati sighed, rubbing her temples. She was so mortified she had begun to sweat.

“I think we made a bad first impression.”

“Whatever. I don’t care.” Karuniya was clearly mad. “So, what are you here for then?”

Murati almost considered trying to tease her, but her mood was simply too oppressive.

“Zachikova is going to do some work on the supercomputer.”

“Uh huh, this isn’t surplus junk at a station plaza, you know. What can she even do to it?”

“Apparently a lot. The Captain authorized it, so don’t worry about the finer details.”

Karuniya shrugged. “I haven’t done any important work on it anyway, so go right ahead.”

“I would’ve thought you’d have more to do than me.” Murati said, commiserating.

While Murati was completely idle, being a combat soldier without any combat or training to do, Karuniya was a scientist. She had drones and sensor tentacles and other equipment at her disposal to collect samples at any point. And she had other responsibilities too: her lab housed the ship’s tree and the agri-units.

Though mainly automated, they still required some supervision.

“We’re still in the Nectaris. Cascabel’s waters aren’t really any different from the Union’s. Once we’re deeper into Sverland and even the Imbrium, I’ll have research worth doing, samples to collect and all of that. Until then I’m just looking after the nitrogen levels on the tree and looking forward to my next meal.”

“Remind me to lend you one of my mixtapes. I can really waste away the hours to those.”

Karuniya perked up a little. She laughed gently with Murati. “I guess that’d help a little.”

On one of the monitors in the lab, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara appeared.

“Alright, we’ve given her a window! Make sure she’s okay, Murati.”

“Copy.” Murati said. Karuniya saluted alongside her.

At the appointed hour, the pair of them stood by as the supercomputer went down.

There was really nothing to see.

Zachikova sat next to the supercomputer housing, plugged into it with one antenna and her minicomputer with the other. She had a placid, glassy-eyed stare as if sleeping with her eyes open. She was like that for twenty minutes. At one point, Karuniya kneeled beside her and pressed her hand to the girl’s chest to confirm a heartbeat and breathing. She was perfectly alive and fine, but her consciousness was somewhere else.

Finally, Zachikova moved. She unplugged herself from the computer and shook her head.

“Let me run a test here quickly.”

Zachikova stood up and got to work on her minicomputer.

One of the monitors in the lab graphically glitched for a second then began to display a horrid looking line of text that seemed to have been constructed out of graphical assets normally used for the UI on ship programs, like the cute swirls on the corners of the screen, and the stylized buttons, but chopped up into bits and pieces.

It read: “80085”

“Boobs?” Karuniya shouted, her jaw hanging in disbelief.            

Zachikova smiled.

“Perfect. Tell the Captain we’re in business.”


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.1]

In a dark corner of Serrano station, packed tightly between nondescript storage buildings, a young woman stood over an older man and brought her hand down to his forehead. He stared up at her with eyes wide and blank in horror, jaw hanging. He could neither move nor speak to her. She could see in the crevices of his mind that he was a Union spy. She could not see enough to form a clear picture of his deeds and capabilities, but she could feel the texture of his identity. She could reach into him and feel the fingerprints of his soul.

Molecular control.”

Small tendrils extended from her fingertips which only she could see.

Like tiny currents of air, they curled into the man’s nose and eyes.

Something called to her with a deep, mocking voice. It was not the spy’s voice.

Wow, look at you! I’m so proud! Despite your disdain, you’ve truly mastered my “evil” methods!

“Shut up!”

That voice in the back of her head quieted, though not out of respect.

She had to make a concerted effort to silence it.

Had she been less gifted, she would not have been able to both control herself, and the man prostrated in front of her. She pried from him what she wanted — a way out of Serrano. A way out of the Imbrium Empire. It was not possible to escape to the Republic, and returning East was too dangerous. The ruined state of Katarre stood in the way of any possible escape through Skarsgaard so there was only one place to run to.

She had to escape to the Union to have any kind of future.

“You will do everything in your power to get me aboard the next Union smuggling ship.”

At her feet, the man under her control nodded his head.

Blood started dribbling from her nose.

Even though this was an Apostle’s ability, and despite all the power she had, it was not enough.

She could not sustain the control for very long.

All that she could do, she found, was plant in him a way to become involved with him.

“I have information for the Union. I’m a political refugee. Get me aboard their next ship.”

“I will get you aboard their next ship. No problem, doll.”

“Contact the Union to pay the smugglers. Set everything up like a real Union job.”

“I’ve done it a million times, babe. Just relax and I’ll take care of it.”

Under her hand, the man’s lips curled into a self-satisfied smile. Her control was flagging.

As satisfied as she could be, she tore her hand away and tried to look innocent as possible.

He kept smiling as he came to his senses.

He trusted her.

She had made his memories reflect that.


There was a figure, black and white, grinning viciously. Its eyes had a red glow around them.

A hand reached out to her, its fingers going right through the bridge of her nose.

Fingers became thick tentacles. Followed by a spectacular shower of blood–

“Aaah!”

Ensign Sonya Shalikova woke suddenly, gasping for breath, struggling with her blankets.

A nightmare– then, moments after she sat up and began to breathe, her alarm sounded.

Her back shot up straight, and her head struck the hard plastic privacy cover half-closed over her bed. Falling back onto her pillow, rubbing her head furiously, images of blood and brains still rolling over in her thoughts. Tears escaped from her eyes in a tiny trickle. Everything felt the most wretched that it possibly could. She smelled sweat and the stale metallic air of the ship; everything was dark save for a strip of light through a tiny crack below her door. She was cold. She felt the movement of the air in the room on her clammy skin.

She shivered, a cold tremor running down her spine.

“Fuck.”

It was 0600 hours. She was on a ship: The Brigand, a next generation “assault carrier.”

Nothing about it felt special. It was as dismal as any other ship.

Certainly, it had nothing on the Dreadnought she had fought with at Thassalid Trench.

Shalikova stood up from the bed. She was on a ship; nothing bad had happened.

Ambling to the other side of the room, she laid down on the second bed in her room.

On this bed there was a very well cared for stuffed bear, Comrade Fuzzy.

Shalikova took Comrade Fuzzy into an embrace, laying in that empty bed in her underwear.

As a pilot, Shalikova had the luxury of an officers’ quarters all to herself.

Though the size of the accommodations was the same as that of a Sailor’s, she did not have to share it with anyone which gave her more space to work with. A space that bunked eight people was more than roomy for a single young girl with two bunks. She never really felt lonely in there: being with other people, if anything, would have been worse in her opinion. Her meals in that noisy canteen were frequently annoying.

All she needed was Comrade Fuzzy to hug when she felt too stressed.

Soon, however, a second alarm sounded at 0630 hours.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

“Sorry Comrade Fuzzy. I have to go to work.”

Not that there was any work for her to do, but she was expected to be around.

She had been sailing with the Brigand for a few days since the attack of Leviathan ULV-96, in a battle she did not participate in. Her itinerary had been empty during this time since she did not have a Diver. Her Diver was due to be set up in a day. At some point Nakara would convene the squad formally.

Until then, they were just infantry, taking up space on the ship.

Shalikova therefore had a lot more idle time to look forward to.

What did one do on a ship with that amount of time to burn?

For Shalikova, that was something she discovered day by day.

First, she really needed a shower. Her whole body felt disgusting.

Why had she sweat so much? Why was she having nightmares now?

Of course, she was no longer on a station. So, to shower, she had to go out into the hall and walk into the bathroom. Aside from the toilet stalls it was an open floor plan. For the first day, this had been a mortifying ordeal. On the second day, it had been merely stressful. She expected that today, it would only be annoying. Thankfully, everyone on the ship received a vinyl robe with their bunk that they could wear to go shower and take off and on there.

Everyone respected the code of the vinyl robe — whoever was wearing one was going to shower.

Leave them alone.

When she walked out in her robe, there were very few people out and about.

The floor was cold, even with plastic slippers. She hurried to the bathroom.

While Shalikova lived in one of the least crowded places on the ship, that never stopped her from complaining, or feeling stressed out that someone might show up. And indeed, her worst fear was confirmed as soon as she neared the sliding door into the bathroom. She could hear the shower going, and worse, someone making all kinds of noise inside. She even recognized a voice.

Sliding open the door, Shalikova peeked inside.

On the Brigand the bathroom was split into two halves. An open shower spread out right across the door so that anyone coming in was bound to get an eyeful of breasts or someone’s dick — in Shalikova’s case that morning she saw both at once. To get to the closed stall toilets or the mirrors and sinks, one had to hit a left turn from the door. Shalikova found the design completely psychotic.

Their showers amounted to little more than a slightly angled bit of the floor plan with drains and showerheads on the walls. In Stations, the showers would mist your body to conserve water so that tens of thousands of people could have enough fresh water for their daily needs. The Brigand, on the other hand, was sucking in water all of the time and could easily desalinate enough for 200 people, so it had full showerheads and amazing pressure. It was the only upside to sailing.

“Good morning! Oh! It’s you Shalikova! You’re so consistent in the mornings!”

Alexandra Geninov immediately greeted Shalikova as she entered. A tall, lean young woman with broad shoulders, of course completely uncovered in the shower. Her honey-brown skin glistening wet under a gentle spray of water; rinsing her long, silky brown hair. Shalikova had met those odd eyes in the shower before. Alex seemed to like that time before 0700 to catch a shower.

“We should all be getting up by 0700.” Shalikova said, in lieu of any explanation.

Alex was playing with the soap in her hands. Moving it from one hand to the next.

“That’s where you’re wrong! This ain’t the Academy anymore! You’re an adult now, you can make your own schedule. As long as you’re with your work group by 0900 anyway.”

Alex turned a big grin on her.

Left and then right; she passed the soap between her hands. She wasn’t thinking about it.

When she brushed the soap bar against her skin, she used her left hand preferentially.

An observation Shalikova made, quickly, unconsciously.

“If you need to be ready by 0900, you can’t put much of anything on your own schedule.”

“You can get a couple good runs of Climbing Comrades in that time!”

“Maybe you can.”

Talking to Alex further would just be stalling. Shalikova wanted to be out of the shower.

With a heavy sigh, she began to disrobe.

Alex had never stopped looking her way. She had her back to the shower and water was falling over her head, but her eyes were wide open. She kept playing with the soap– did she realize how annoying she was being? Shalikova and locked eyes with her hoping to communicate her unbridled antagonism in that moment; but the happy-go-lucky Geninov was not so easily deterred. Was she just that thick, or did she enjoy this?

“Geninov, could you turn around?”

“Huh? I thought we’d built up a rapport! Shower buddies!”

“We really have not. I don’t build a rapport with anyone by showering.”

Alex turned around, so Shalikova was now staring at her ass rather than the rest.

“Didn’t you do this kind of thing at the academy too? We all had communal showers back then. Talking in a communal shower is kinda fun, it builds trust. Don’t you think so?”

“Clearly I don’t. Trusting you wouldn’t change this situation at all for me anyway.”

“You’re so shy! You know, we’ve got the same junk, we don’t need to be ashamed–”

“Shut up and stay turned around or we’ll see who paid more attention in combat training.”

Shalikova finally discarded her robe and bra at the edge of the shower.

She walked to the wall and turned the dial to start the water jet.

Something slid across the floor and struck her softly on her foot.

A yellow bar of soap covered in foam and a bit of brown hair. Hurled by Alex’s left hand.

“Need help washing your back?” Alex said, looking over her shoulder with a smile.

Shalikova picked up the soap and started to rub it against her own skin.

“Quit teasing or I’ll hurl this back at your face.”

Alex smiled. “That’s some serious hand-eye coordination! You ever play any games?”

Shalikova gave her a violent glare. “I’ve played enough to hit your head from here easily.”

Was she really getting anything out of peeping at and teasing a skinny girl like her?

Thankfully, she really did stop teasing her when Shalikova threatened to whack her.

Done rinsing her hair, again primarily with her left hand–

And yet, Shalikova was sure she had seen her use her right hand before.

Maybe ambidextrous? Not that it mattered. Just minutia her eyes couldn’t help but pick up.

Soon, Alex was gone with a tittering goodbye, seemingly untroubled by their interactions.

Shalikova stood under the water, unmoving, in silence, until she used her allotment of shower water. At that point, there was a beep and the shower simply stopped dispensing any more water. It took around fifteen minutes. It was blissful, quiet. Nothing to see and nobody to see her.

“Whatever.”

Without fanfare, Shalikova toweled off her white hair and with her pale skin still slightly wet, she put on her vinyl robe and walked back to her room, dripping slightly on the floor. On the way back, she walked across Alex in full uniform, who waved at her. She was probably coming back from her room after having dressed. Shalikova did not wave back; she just walked past her. 

She had been correct. It had not been mortifying or stressful; it was simply annoying.

Now she could go through the rest of her morning routine.

Once she was back in her room, she pulled out a drying shelf from a nearby wall panel and hung her robe on it. A gentle, warm fan would dry it off. She pulled tube off the side of the drying shelf and blew some warm air at her hair and face. Her underwear she dropped down a chute, where a pneumatic tube would deposit it in her clothes basket in the laundry room. Before donning a new set of clothes, she kneeled in front of her bed, pulling open the personal chest beneath.

From the chest, she dug out a box of patches, simply labeled E+.

Using a cloth, she dried up a spot on her rear and applied the patch there. She then took a big yellow pill from a bottle and brought it over to the wall with the drying rack. From a panel next to the drying rack, she brought out water-dispensing arm. Taking the pill into her mouth, she bent close to the waterspout and took a drink to swallow it. She slid the arm back into the wall.

Careful that her estrogen patch remained in place, she slid into her black bodysuit.

Using a tool to reach behind her back, she zipped it up tight.

Over the bodysuit she wore the black pants and white, sleeveless button-down of her new uniform. She had no opinion on it; a uniform was just a uniform. It was not what she would wear casually, but what she would wear casually was not that much different from it. She had a couple of things to complain about, and the uniform ranked low on that list. One thing she did take some umbrage to was that “Treasure Box Transports” was such a childish-sounding fake name.

She ran her hands through her white hair. It was damp, but not dripping anywhere.

For now, she did not put on the teal jacket, and walked out of her room without it.

Her next order of business was securing some rations.

Then she would think of anything else to do.

The Canteen was big enough to sit sixty people at a time on three long tables that each had ten seats on each side. In one corner there was the kitchen counter, behind which the ship Cook whipped up meals in big batches. There was also a table that always had broth, crackers and dried veggies set out for the crew, and anyone could take some if it satisfied them, at any hour of the day. Despite the size of the crew, the Canteen ran smoothly, and was rarely filled to capacity.

Shalikova felt like an actual breakfast that morning, so she approached the counter.

 There was another woman behind the counter with the Cook. A blond, green-eyed, and olive-skinned Shimii whom Shalikova had not met before. She had foregone a hair net and had her hair tied up in a ponytail instead. Those big, tall, yellow-furred ears probably complicated wearing the net just a bit. Shalikova noticed her hair was starting to go a little gray in parts, and there were hints of crow’s feet near her eyes she had gone to some lengths to obscure with fancy red wine-colored makeup. She was holding a big plastic spoon with a grip that resembled how a pilot would hold their control sticks.

When Shalikova approached, she was unnoticed by either of the women.

“…so I did tell him that I was not interested at all! But can you imagine, the nerve?”

“Hah, that’s brazen, asking someone out two days into the trip! Only sailors would do it!”

“I was flattered, but he’s so young. Maybe if it had been a woman I would’ve been–”

Shalikova frowned and narrowed her eyes at them. “Excuse me.” She mumbled.

“Don’t let the Commissar and the Captain hear you saying things like that!”

“Oh, then you didn’t know. There’s a bit of a juicy rumor about those two.”

“Really? Do tell, do tell! I won’t be in this kitchen forever you know.”

“Well, I met with them for menu stuff the other day, and the chemistry they have–”

“Ah, I see, I see! I suppose a Captain and a Commissar is a popular romance trope!”

“Oh, this is more than just tropes. I can tell those two have some saucy history–”

Every day, a few people were “volun-told” to go help serve food to the sailor and officers. This gave them a break from their other jobs and allowed the Cook to focus on cooking. Or in the Brigand’s case, fooling around. Shalikova realized the older cat and the Cook were very immersed in their discussion. Shalikova had met the cook yesterday: Logia Minardo, a chronically energetic older woman with short dark hair and elegant red lips, dressed in a white apron over her TBT uniform and a red bodysuit. She had her sleeves rolled back showing off some strong arms.

Logia Minardo had probably been in the infantry years ago. Whenever she got distracted while chopping vegetables, Minardo briefly flipped her knife as if she were going to thrust into an enemy combatant, with a brutal reverse grip. But she corrected herself quickly, maybe so quickly she herself did not even know she had assumed a combat stance for any amount of time. Then she would chop whatever vegetables. Nobody else seemed to be paying attention to that. Someone in the Union who left basic training and went on with their life would not develop such habits.

Not that it was any of Shalikova’s business and she certainly would not have made it hers. It was solely a curious observation which she made and then filed away, never to reference. Minardo chopped vegetables routinely, however, so it was not an uncommon sight in the kitchen. That was another habit Shalikova noticed while staring at her: she composed meals very lovingly. Some cooks just threw the ingredients into a pot and made stone soup. Minardo rehydrated the dried mushrooms for the day’s meal using a bit of broth, chopped, and fried them gently in oil.

Shalikova shook her head. This was no time to write a mental dossier on this lady.

Her stomach was rumbling.

“Hello! I would like the beans please!”

Shalikova raised her voice.

She pointed her finger at the tray of white bean stew behind the counter.

Both women suddenly glanced her way and then looked terribly embarrassed.

“Oh, I’m so sorry dear! I’m such an airhead. I’ll take care of you.”

That Shimii woman was all smiles now as she served Shalikova. Having heard her earlier talk, Shalikova now viewed her chipper attitude with suspicion and maintained an unfriendly glare.

“So, you want the white bean stew; do you want any mushrooms?”

“No thank you. I’ll take the white bean stew and the pickled salad sandwich.”

“Lovely! By the way, I’m Khadija. I apologize for not noticing you.”

Every meal on a Union ship or station was composed of a protein, a vegetable or fruit, and a carb, usually a bread. Breakfast was the lightest meal of the day and usually composed of a cup of soup and a small sandwich. It was entirely replaceable by the broth, dried veggies, and biscuits Minardo and Khadija had laid out for the crew to self-serve, but there was still a cooked meal. Small triangle half-sandwiches with pickles and dressing accompanied either fried mushrooms or white bean stew. Not much of a selection, but all of it looked appetizing to Shalikova.

Whatever their faults as people, these two old women could cook.

Khadija ladled soup into a cup and set it on Shalikova’s tray with two triangle sandwiches.

She winked. “You can have an extra. Don’t tell anyone.”

Behind her, Minardo sighed. “We don’t have so much that you can give out extras.”

“Just this once!” Khadija laughed.

“Fine, fine.”

Shalikova really wanted to say this wasn’t at all necessary, but to avoid further contact with Khadija she sighed and went along with it. Yesterday, the volunteer helper was Alex Geninov, and whatever one might say about her own issues with professionalism, she at least paid attention to what she was doing and followed the rules. Shalikova held firmly to her dim estimation of Khadija as she walked away from the counter, and the two women went right back to their cheerful gossip.

Her social energy already completely exhausted for one day, Shalikova found a corner with a three-seat gap to the nearest person and sat there so as to not be disturbed and hopefully not be accompanied. She set down her plate, picked up her reusable spork, and started to eat. For a moment she felt just the slightest bit thankful to Khadija for the extra sandwich because the savory, crunchy, oily bite she took was quite excellent. The stew was rich and creamy with a hint of tomato.

People started to come in and sit down.

Shalikova watched from afar.

Everyone always had some mannerism that they did that only Shalikova seemed to notice.

Whether it was the way Alex Geninov held her hands like she had a joystick in them when she was lost in thought, or the way the cook Minardo chopped vegetables or how Khadija’s tail swung faster when she was speaking about women than men, or the way that Captain Korabiskaya rapped her fingers on the table with one hand while eating with the other– there was no end of people coming and going in this hall, and so no end of things that Shalikova saw. Sometimes it fascinated her to watch them. She also sometimes feared they were all watching her too.

No one ever looked her way. But that did not stop her from being anxious.

If she could see them to this degree, could they look back and see the same in her?

She had practically been able to measure Alex’s torpedo in the shower.

So, was Alex staring back to that degree?

What would she think?

Did everyone see Shalikova as some kind of busy-body, or a pest? Did she have some little despicable habit that made all of them miserable? She tried her best to seem as normal as possible to everyone around her, and to be sparing with her words to avoid trouble. Perhaps in doing so, she seemed unsociable or unfriendly– hell really was other people! Shalikova sighed openly.

She tried not to think of such stress-inducing things again and focused on her food.

Soon as she had finished the last of her stew and ate both her sandwiches, there was a bit of a press of bodies in front of the counter. A large workgroup of sailors showed up, all at the same time. There were so many people, it really felt like a quarter of the crew had just decided to swamp the canteen that morning. A lot of them were covered in grease and looked rather bedraggled.

Owing to their lax pace before this surge hit, the two women behind the counter were nearly out of food and between batches. Sandwiches were found in a variety of stages of completion, and the careful touch that characterized Minardo’s cooking meant there were all sorts of ingredients in pots and pans but very little out on trays for people to get. And for a crowd this big that had been working hard, biscuits and broth were not an acceptable substitute for a good breakfast.

Khadija tried her best to charm everyone, but there was a bit of unease from the crowd.

Shalikova watched for a few minutes.

Visually, it was a terrible mess.

It was impossible for her to figure out where to put her eyes.

Just an absolute mess of limbs and heads. She could make out nothing from the crowd.

Nothing except how annoyed they were and how much stress she felt.

And the line was interminable. Something had to be done.

She felt an increasing pressure looming over her, especially as grouchy people started to sit closer and closer. Either she could leave, or she could try to do something about it. What would the rest of her day be like? Without piloting duties, she just had free time. She did not even have a workgroup to show up to. Short of personally asking Murati Nakara for work to do–

“Oh god damn it.”

Shalikova stood up from her corner and walked with gritted teeth over to the counter.

She slipped between people as much as she could and made it to the side door.

“Chief! Let me in. I’ll help cook for the day.”

Screaming at herself internally, Shalikova waved her hand at Minardo.

Minardo stared at her briefly, and then beamed at her.

“Oh goodness! Our heroine has arrived. Come in! Get an apron and get the soup going!”

She opened up the side door and Shalikova stepped in with her fists at her sides.

Khadija briefly noticed her, and her eyes lit up with a sudden happiness.

Shalikova avoided her staring, picked up an apron, and set about her day’s work.

“Idiot,” she mumbled to herself, stirring a pot, “can’t ever turn a blind eye, huh Sonya?”


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