Brigands [3.8]

Murati was in her element. Her breathing quickened; her heart pounded.

She was determined.

Her only anxiety was that she did not tell Karuniya she was putting herself in danger again. Hopefully, her fiancé could forgive her in this situation.

All of the Cheka’s controls were similar to those on a Strelok. LCD screens for the cameras and computers were hovering right in front of her, as she sat in the adjustable chair with joysticks, pedals and buttons for controlling all aspects of the suit. Using handles and adjustable guiderails on some of the equipment, she moved the screens and control elements just a bit. Then she could just sit back, grab the sticks, put her foot on the pedals, and she was ready to deploy at any moment.

Just like before; a whole other body had wrapped around her own.

Fully sublimating herself into the machine, she could almost feel how it would move.

Even though she was standing still, waiting for communication.

Through the ship LAN she connected with the bridge again.

On one of her screens, was the bright, shining face of the communications officer.

“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant! I’m Natalia Semyonova, communications chief. I’ll act as your liaison to the bridge. I hear the Brigand has a few tricks for keeping communications with Divers, so you might see some weird stuff happen. We’re still working out the details here!”

“This ship really is full of new equipment, huh? Tell the Captain I’m ready to deploy.”

On another screen, Gunther’s face appeared on one of the cameras.

Murati switched on a speaker to talk to him.

“Gunther, do you know how to set up a deployment chute for me?”

Gunther waved at her from below. “Of course! I’ve been with this ship for a few weeks now, you know. If I didn’t know how to work the chutes it’d be embarrassing as a Diver engineer.”

“Less talk, more action then!”

Gunther got to work on the console attached to the Cheka’s gantry.

In front of them, a faint sound of gas whistling could be heard.

A piece of the floor slid apart in a marked area of the hangar to reveal the chute hatch.

Gunther brought a remote-controlled crane arm over to deliver a weapon to her.

Murati engaged the Cheka’s power unit.

She reached out and grabbed hold of the AK-96 assault rifle she was handed.

A small crowd began to form as more people suddenly noticed a Diver was moving.

“She’s clear, folks! Let her get through!”

Gunther parted the sea of sailors, retaining an affable smile. This was his moment too.

Everyone began to cheer and clap uproariously when the Cheka started moving.

The Brigand was deploying its very first Diver in anger.

Working with her pedals and sticks, Murati stood the Cheka up on its feet, put the rifle to her chest, and moved the machine step by heavy step toward the chute, and carefully dropped down into the tube. The hatch closed over her, and water started to fill the empty space in the tube. Soon she would swim right out of the underside of the ship, which would then rebalance.

Gunther had long since disappeared from her camera feed, but he soon resurfaced in a console feed, connecting to one of her screens. Murati took his call with great satisfaction.

“It does feel lighter and more responsive than a Strelok.” She said.

Even on the ground, the ease with which it moved was evident.

Until she got it in the water, she wouldn’t be able to tell by how much, but she had a hunch this machine was a league above the Strelok. Maybe it heralded an entire new generation of design.

“I told you so. Just ease into it, and don’t push yourself too hard.” Gunther replied.

He gave her a thumbs up and a salute. She switched from his console feed, back to cameras.

“Captain says you’re free to deploy Murati! We’re loading up the combat data for you.”

Semyonova reappeared along with a status bar for a download in progress.

“We’ll be sending a laser relay drone to follow you. You can laser to it, and it will laser back to us. It will effectively double the range of laser communications between you and the ship.”

“So that’s part of our new kit? I’ll keep it in mind.”

Below Murati, the chute opened up to the ocean.

“Good luck and good hunting!”

Semyonova saluted her.

Once again, Murati pushed herself across the metal threshold between ship and sea.

“Murati Nakara, ISU-100 Cheka, deploying!”

Above her, she watched the hatch close as her suit descended into the open water.

That dark-blue void that encompassed their entire world.

Water was all around her. Visibility was nil. There was no landscape around her.

There was only the Brigand, her metal frame and the incoming signals.

According to the diagram, the Leviathan was coming in from above, diving at a rapid angle.

Righting the Cheka as she dropped from the ship, she engaged main thrust.

In the span of a few seconds the suit went from 0 to 50 knots and climbing.

Bewildered by the speed, Murati overshot the deck of the Brigand as she rose.

Seeing the ship pass beneath her was amazing.

No number of diagrams and schematics could measure up to seeing a colossal ship cutting through the water with her own eyes. From above the Brigand did not look like the eccentric, boxy ship with the triangular conning tower and fins and its angled deck profile. It was a beast, roaring through the currents, protecting hundreds of people who now called it their home.

Bereft of the ship’s protection, floating freely in the ocean, Murati set her sights higher.

Her cameras analyzed the emptiness above using several different predictive models.

She got her rifle ready, and prepared to shoot higher, when she received a quick alert.

From below, the Brigand fired something out of a launcher built into the upper hull.

Murati’s rear and leg cameras followed the little object as it rose in a torrent of bubbles.

There was a request for laser communication. Murati accepted.

A picture of a professional-looking blond woman with a concerned expression appeared.

“Murati, can you hear me?”

Though the voice was immaculate, the image was lagging.

“I can hear you, but the video is practically a static image. It’s a good angle of you though!”

For the next few moments the image updated and froze on the Captain’s sighing face.

“We can’t overcome the effect of biomass. It’s fine. I’m glad we can do this much.”

“How’s the Leviathan doing?” Murati asked.

“At your depth, you’ll see it in about five minutes. Brace yourself, Murati. Don’t be a hero; we have Alexandra Geninov on standby with a torpedo ready. If you can draw it away from the ship, enough for the torpedo blast to not affect us, that’s all that you need to do. Don’t overdo it!”

Captain Korabiskaya was clearly worried about her.

It was an unpleasant situation. But there was no ‘being ready’ beneath the sea. Something could happen at any moment, whether it was enemy ships or Leviathans. Humans needed to sleep, to eat, to be distracted, to be disorganized. At some point, they would have had to fight under some imperfect circumstances. If this was their wake-up call, it was as gentle a one as they would get.

“I’ll be fine, Captain. I’m sure you’ve read my file. I’ve got experience.”

“I read your file. And that’s why I’m worried. Don’t be a hero. Korabiskaya, out.”

The Captain’s flickering, lagging image finally disappeared from the screen.

Murati clicked one of the buttons on her joystick to bring up weapon controls and the rifle camera. She then clicked another to extend the Cheka’s built-in hydrophone. All other audio feeds from cameras and monitor windows quieted so she could listen to the hydrophone attentively.

She caught the haunting cry of the Leviathan moments later.

A sound like a guttural, shrieking roar silenced everything else on the hydrophone. At first it sounded like the growl of a beast, low and gurgling, but as the cry tapered off it almost sounded human. It pierced through her body. She felt the roar right in the center of her gut. It was sickening.

“Endure it, Murati.” She said, catching herself shaking.

Her computers immediately pinpointed the source of the sound.

“It’s here. We can do this.”

Murati engaged full thrust and the Cheka soared into the dim blue above.

She wouldn’t see a diving Leviathan until it was dangerously close.

According to the computer visibility was fifty meters.

And the approaching object was bearing in at 60 knots.

“I’ll see it for a second.”

Murati grit her teeth. She stared through her cameras out to the water, helpless.

Suddenly, a yellow square on her screen appeared as the computer tagged an approaching object. While she still couldn’t see it, the computer flashed this warning when it was almost assured that the object matched all of the predictions of its behavior. Murati moved to center her camera and lifted her assault rifle to target the invisible enemy before it came within visual range.

Three rounds of supercavitating ammo flew off into nothingness.

That yellow square on the screen was followed by a rapidly reddening orange square.

“No chance!”

Crying out, she pulled the controls to the side with all her strength, smashing the pedals.

Engaging every Vernier thruster she could, Murati threw the Cheka sideways.

A massive, serpentine creature swept past, its sharp maw missing her by mere centimeters.

The Cheka shook and tumbled in the wake of the beast as it descended.

Murati knew this was only the beginning. She made a second sudden thrust away.

The thin, spiked end of a long tail swung contemptuously at her and missed her entirely.

Water evaporated in the red-hot wake of its supercavitating attack.

This caused enough of a disturbance for Murati to briefly lose control again.

As the Cheka struggled to correct itself, Murati opened fire.

A dozen rounds of supercavitating ammo hurtled toward the monster in a wild arc.

The Leviathan continued to charge with all of its weight, ignoring the blasts blossoming in the waters around it. It charged toward the Brigand on a collision course.

Holding her breath with terror, Murati continued shooting.

According to the computer she was landing shot after shot on the enemy mass.

“Come on! I’m shooting you! Fight me!”

She shouted at the top of her lungs as if the monster could hear.

At the speed it was moving, it was upon the Brigand in seconds.

One swing of its tail and the entire journey would end.

“Leave them alone!”

Massive amounts of bubbles blew out from around the monster.

The Leviathan suddenly swerved over the flat plane atop the Brigand’s conning tower.

Twisting its long, armored body in the water, the beast started to climb surface-ward.

Engaging its bio-hydrojets, all of its bulk thrust back toward the Cheka.

Murati had made an impression on it.

She felt both terror and relief in equal measure. Her rifle must have struck it and alerted it to the danger the Cheka posed. Enough for it to avoid the much larger and more obvious Brigand. Had it not been deterred it could have easily crashed through the conning tower and crippled the ship entirely. She got lucky. She got so lucky that she felt the anxiety brimming under her skin.

Soaked in sweat, her bodysuit never feeling so tight against her skin as it was then.

Murati now had to survive being the Leviathan’s main concern.

Her eyes drew wide as the enraged beast neared her. Her hands were shaking.

The Barding-class were serpentine fish the size of a Cutter or a Frigate, known for their armor. Their heads were sleek, whale-like with massive maws full of teeth and six eyes set in bony ridges. They had four sets of biological hydrojets fed through intakes under the head and neck and could suck in through the mouth to pump more water. Because its armor was segmented, its entire body was flexible, leading to its common attack: it could swing its tail so fast it supercavitated.

It moved too fast, and visibility was too low; Murati could not tell how injured it was.

There was a fin missing from its body, and she thought she saw a gash on its head.

Karuniya was the Leviathan expert, not Murati; but from dating her on and off for a few years, she had heard enough idle lunchtime chatter and oceanography pillow talk to surmise a few things herself. For a Leviathan to venture into the lightless aphotic zone from the bright, food-rich waters of the photic zone near the surface, it meant that either there was prey it was chasing, or it had been driven off. On the dive, its armor would be damaged by the higher pressure of the aphotic zone, but for pieces of its body to be missing entirely meant that something above had attacked it.

Something bigger and stronger even than the monster she was now seeing.

Perhaps a mating battle? Perhaps territorial conflict between broods? It could be anything.

This terrifying conjecture did not really change what was in front of her.

But when faced with such insanity hurtling toward her at 60 knots, anyone’s brain would race to explain what was happening and put it in context. And holding on to an idea that this was a natural phenomenon helped her remain steady. This was an animal, acting like an animal.

Like any animal, it could die from violence.

At the speed it was moving, Murati had a scant few seconds to react whenever she saw it.

USL-96 roared, shaking the water around it and sucking more for its hydrojets.

Its sleek maw parted to reveal rows of saw-like teeth.

Murati thrust herself away from the beast’s second charge, aiming the assault rifle down at its head and releasing bursts of practiced gunfire. The 37mm shells impacted and exploded all over the armored hide taking bits and pieces off it. In pain, the beast roared and averted its advance.

Instead, it twisted over itself twice over in a loop meant to gather momentum.

From below, the tail swung with even greater speed.

All the spikes that had grown on the end of its tail launched toward Murati.

A hail of projectiles suddenly peppered the water around her.

Like the tail itself, the spikes sheared the water with a supercavitation effect.

Six or seven tracking boxes appeared for the briefest instant.

Murati had no time to dodge. She briefly let go of her assault rifle.

She engaged the diamond cutters on both of the Cheka’s arms and swung them.

Two spikes burst apart on impact with the cutters, scattering bony shrapnel into the water.

A third spike sliced the side of the Cheka’s leg, causing a brief alert on her console.

“Cosmetic damage.” She mumbled to herself in a rush.

Done spinning, the Leviathan threw itself directly up at her once more.

Murati grabbed hold of her assault rifle again, floating in the nearby water.

Holding it in one hand, she thrust aside the Leviathan’s bulk as it stormed past her.

“Not this time!”

In a mighty effort, she thrust the Cheka back toward the monster, fighting its current.

Her joysticks gave her stiff resistance, and the entire cockpit was shaking.

Groaning with effort, Murati forced the Cheka’s arm through the currents and bubbles.

For a brief moment, her diamond cutter entered the Leviathan’s armor.

As the monster rocketed past the Cheka, its flank sliced wide open.

A burst of red fluid spread into the ocean around her, tinging the water and thickening it.

There was no time to admire the wound.

Murati was blown away as the monster made a sudden turn, blasting water everywhere.

Her diamond cutter’s chain and blade went flying in pieces, shattered by the force.

She struggled to right herself, watching the beast flail away, increasingly erratic.

On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but overwhelming cries of agony.

Murati had finally inflicted a real injury.

Another alert appeared on her screens: red biomass warnings.

She ignored them. She knew exactly where the red had come from.

Diagnostics were okay on everything that mattered. All thrusters green.

The Leviathan swam up surface-ward and disappeared from Murati’s physical sights.

Her computer did its best to continue tracking it.

She then received an alert about an object below.

Briefly switching to the underside cameras, Murati saw a little drone creeping its way up.

From a beacon on the machine’s round hull, a laser shot up to the Cheka.

Murati accepted the connection, and the smug expression of a brown-haired young woman appeared on her screen. She was making a gesture with her index and middle finger spread in a sideways V-shape over one of her odd eyes. Because of the lag, she was frozen like this for a while.

“Yo! It’s Alex, resident torpedo wizard! I need more distance for a shot ‘Rati!”

It took Murati a moment to process that.

“Ratty? Anyway I’m not sure I can get you a lot of space here. Hold your fire for now.”

“Heroics are banned, miss!” Alex said. “Captain’s orders! Let me shoot it down!”

“Too late for that!”

Murati engaged full thrust, breaking the laser connection momentarily.

From above, the Leviathan dove straight down.

Murati swept horizontally away from the Leviathan, avoiding the toothy maw and the wake of the leviathan’s charge. Her gut reaction had been perfect. She had gotten familiar enough with the Cheka’s weight, and seen enough of the Leviathan’s wakes, to dodge with time to spare.

She was steady enough to spot the Leviathan twist much tighter than before.

Unlike its previous charges, it recovered exceedingly quickly, and its tighter turn radius allowed it to throw its maw back toward the Cheka in an instant. It was no longer just charging.

It was chasing.

Those teeth bore down on Murati’s rear thrusters far sooner than she had imagined.

Now her gut had been completely wrong. She was certain she would be struck.

“Come on! Give it everything!”

A notification appeared on one of her consoles.

In the heat of the moment, Murati glanced at it briefly as she did with all her other alerts.

Energy Recovery System: Fully Charged. Deployable power available.

On her joystick, a green light shone from an out-of-place, additional button.

Heedless of what it would do, Murati jabbed the button with her finger.

All of her diagnostics screamed; power output to the main engines rose sharply.

Murati thrust straight up.

There was such a burst of power from the engine she nearly lost control.

Beneath her, the Leviathan that was about to bifurcate her hurtled well below her.

Once more it made it a tight turn with its long body.

When it swung back toward Murati she had renewed confidence in the Cheka’s power.

The Leviathan’s maw snapped several meters over the Diver’s head.

In one fluid motion she avoided the charge and swung her remaining diamond cutter.

Red biomass burst from the Leviathan’s underbelly.

Suffering further injury, the Leviathan roared and thrashed, swinging its tail, blowing water through its jets haphazardly, snapping its jaws. Witnessing the monster throwing its body and stirring up the water around it, Murati could feel its anger palpably, vibrating through her suit.

One of her eyes darted to the diagnostics.

She had 80% ERS power remaining. After that it would have to recharge.

Which meant fighting the Leviathan as fiercely as she had all throughout, on less power.

Unable to reconnect to the laser drone for assistance and forced to make a snap decision, Murati threw herself back into the fray to force a close fight. Assault rifle in one hand, and her diamond cutter extended in the second, she peppered the Leviathan with bullets while closing in.

A series of titanic exchanges ensued.

The Leviathan was no longer charging. Twice injured by the Cheka, it had coiled itself in defense, and cornered as it was, began throwing its jaws and swinging its tail at the Cheka while floating in place. Empowered by the ERS, the Cheka was moving faster than Murati had ever seen a Diver move. It was already quick, much quicker than a Strelok, but with the additional energy, she was moving so fast her guts were shaking. She rolled out of the way of the jaws, strafed around the massive tail, closing meter by meter with each evasive maneuver she performed. Each time the Leviathan swung, she deftly outmaneuvered it, and the beast struggled to launch another blow.

Counting the meters as she danced closer, Murati’s eyes darted between cameras, diagnostics, overlays. She had become the machine. Those were her eyes, and she could work her eyes, and she could think, and she could move her “body” and it was simultaneous. The Leviathan’s jaws flexed less, its neck muscles tightened, its tail swung more limply.

Holding her breath with anticipation, Murati made it inside the monster’s range.

She lifted her diamond saw to strike the scar on its head.

One of her monitors switched to a camera with a purple overlay on the image.

Glowing veins on the Leviathan’s body were highlighted in this view.

She was distracted just long enough for the Leviathan to draw its head back.

Her enemy was giving her the most desperate form of its fury, fear and respect.

It’s discharging agarthicite!

Murati saw the Leviathan’s head take over the entire forward camera, opening its massive maw. Inside, tongues of indigo-colored bioelectricity played about the Leviathan’s flesh, jumping and sizzling and collecting with greater intensity as the Leviathan charged its legendary breath weapon. Its bio-jets seized, and its tail hung limp at its back. All of the body seemed to suddenly find support only in the head, eyes drawing back and glowing blank, jaw spreading ever further.

All of the Leviathan’s energy and whatever consciousness it had was focused on this.

In much the same way that all the energy she had spent had gone out in the ERS burst.

For a moment, Murati understood something about the monster she had only known intellectually. Bearing witness to the beast in such a close battle, all by herself, alone in her suit of armor in the middle of the vast ocean that would not, in a just world, have had to be her only home.

Murati realized that these monsters had taught her people so much about their world.

“Sorry; too many people are relying on me right now. I can’t take pity on you.”

Faced with the teeming mass of annihilating agarthic energy, Murati did not turn away.

From behind the Cheka’s hip armor, she withdrew a grenade and hurled it at the monster.

Blowing the last of the ERS battery, she threw herself back, firing her AK-96 into the maw.

With an explosive force that could have opened a hole in a Frigate’s armor, the grenade detonated inside the Leviathan’s maw and split its jaw open, blasted its eyes out of their sockets, and launched its brains out into the water through the gash in its head. While much of the armored shell survived, the soft flesh was mutilated by the pressure blast. All of the agarthic energy that it had been pulling from the minerals in its body discharged haphazardly. Throughout the creature’s body, hex-shaped holes were scored by the menacing, flickering wisps of indigo energy that discharged red biomass like geysers. Robbed of life, the corpse twitched with fading agarthic energy, and then it lay there, briefly floating, then slowly falling toward the ocean floor.

All of her fear washed off her, leaving her feeling an anxious reverence.

“I’m sorry it’s come to this. Thanks for everything you taught us.”

She felt compelled to say that, witnessing the horrifying result of her violence.

Her ERS battery was fully drained, and the Cheka switched out of its highest performance mode, and back to merely being a bit quicker than a Strelok. Murati sighed. Though she hated the sight of the monstrous corpse and the red biomass spreading from it, she allowed herself to float, to breathe. The machine was no longer her body. She was sweating, and she wanted to vomit.

Once more, the floating drone managed to catch up to her and connect her to the Brigand.

She saw a wide camera shot of the bridge crew clapping their hands and celebrating.

It then zoomed in and focused, side by side, on the bright and smiling face of Captain Korabiskaya and the slightly smirking Commissar Bashara, seated at the highest point in the bridge. Together, they offered Murati two pairs of clapping hands, the same as everyone else.

“I don’t want to reward your recklessness, but that was brilliant.” Said the Captain.

“I will add to your record that on short notice and low on resources, you managed to single-handedly stop a Barding-class Leviathan, Lieutenant.” The Commissar said. “Thank you for your cooperation, and I hope you’ll forgive our Captain for the disorganized nature of this operation.”

Captain Korabiskaya turned to the Commissar in shock, raising her hands defensively.

“Hey, what do you mean? It wasn’t my fault! Everything was a mess because of that bastard slave-driver Nagavanshi. I needed to follow the itinerary, it’s not like I could delay the launch–”

The Commissar’s cat ears twitched with anger.

She turned a look on the Captain that instantly shut her up.

“We’ll discuss that later. Return to the ship, Lieutenant, unless you like the water.”

Murati laughed at the two commanders. “Oh I hate it out here right now. I’m heading back. You know, it’s good to see the command staff are getting along so well in my absence!”

Both Commissar Bashara and Captain Korabiskaya turned evil looks at the screen.

Feeling quite happy-go-lucky, Murati simply shut off the video feed.

Wasting no more time in the increasingly reddening waters in the middle of the Thassalid plain, Murati navigated the Cheka back to the Brigand, swam beneath it and up into an open chute. Beneath her the hatch closed, the water drained, and the pressure was adjusted. Then the top hatch reopened, and Murati used handholds on the side of the chute and climbed up into the hangar.

As soon as the head cleared the top of the deployment chute she saw the crowd gathered around her. The crowd gave her space as the Cheka took its first steps into the hangar. She bowed the suit’s body and opened the hatch, since it seemed like everyone wanted to greet her. When she stepped off the cockpit chair and out into the light of the hangar, everyone clapped.

“Murati!”

From among the mechanics and engineers, a familiar dark-haired young woman leaped up onto the Cheka’s knee and seized Murati by the TBT half-jacket, baring teeth at her.

“I turn my back for thirty minutes, and you do this!”

“Karu, I–”

Karuniya’s eyes moistened, but rather than cry, she pulled Murati into an abrupt kiss.

People started to cheer. A few of the younger comrades turned away with embarrassment.

“Welcome back, hero.”

Karuniya smiled.

Her relief that Murati had returned safe seemed to overcome her anger.

“I’ll leave the heroics to someone else for the next few days. Sound like a plan?”

Murati scratched the back of her head and acted cute.

Karuniya let go of her jacket and dusted it off. “That’s a deal then.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.1]

“Ferris, the iron wall of the Union. Oh how you sacrifice for us, to this very day.”

Looking out of a false window in her shuttle, an LCD with a feed of their surroundings, Premier Bhavani Jayasankar mused on the region farthest from her direct influence. A rocky, mountainous, grey place, hundreds of meters beneath the Ocean and any sign of surface light. While the political center of the Union lay in Solstice, its military heart was the border of Ferris.

This austere place was where their truest warriors were born and lived.

Soldiers from all around the Union mustered at Ferris to defend the border.

Amid this mobilization, the Premier herself was also summoned.

Beyond just speeches and reassurances, she wanted to see Ferris for herself. She would give nobody the excuse of saying she hid in Solstice while the border turned hot. Three days had passed since the battle, and she had made the journey as soon as she could. Her trip was public knowledge and there were a lot of appearances she planned to make with military and civilians.

There were also a few private matters she needed to take care of.

“Nagavanshi always gets out ahead of me somehow.” She said to herself.

Her reflection in the glass began to wane.

In the distance, the center of human life in Ferris took her place in the murky picture.

Thassal Station stood like a deformed pillar rising high above rolling hills of pockmarked stone and stripped out ore quarries. Reinforced titanium modules and the occasional glass hexagon made up the habitats, berths and weapons stations that stuck out all around the central rock formation, at once grafted upon the surface but also upholding it. In the center of the mound, a Core Pylon served as a foundation, shouldering the lives built up over the rock, tethering everything, and hiding the Agarthicite reactors. It was their purple glow that made this life possible.

“And there’s my first destination.”

Sitting on the rock next to Thassal Station was a massive structure. Like a bubble of glass and metal, resting atop a massive base laden with berths, to which dozens of ships were docked. Premier Jayasankar recalled the glowing report she gave at the start of the year about the expansion of agriculture in Lyser, and how this structure represented it. Now it was going to be used for war.

It was in this Agri-Sphere that she would decide the Union’s next military actions.

Dragged in from Lyser, this sphere now served as “Hammer-1,” temporary base of the expanded Ferris fleet. Thousands of personnel had arrived at Hammer-1 to organize logistics and supply, to run maintenance and to build stockpiles. As it was originally intended for agriculture, both hydroponic and with treated soil mediums, Hammer-1 was divided into flat, broad stories with rows of adjustable space and a lot of lamps. All of it was now taken up by cranes, Divers, shipping containers and makeshift warehousing. People were hard at work to make it war worthy.

Amid this build-up, Premier Jayasankar’s shuttle arrived at Hammer-1.

Alone, without bodyguards or attendants, she headed into the depths of the structure.

As far as anyone knew, she was much too early for her first public appearance.

She was right on time for Nagavanshi’s secretive little meeting.

A meeting that could decide the fate of the Union, she had said.

Arriving in a dark room, she became part of a troika of powerful interests in the Union. Gathered around a large table equipped with a touchscreen surface, they were there to discuss the direction of the Union in the face of imminent war with the Empire. At Nagavanshi’s behalf, they would examine all of the intelligence they had on the Empire’s direction and formulate a plan.

Vain as it was, Bhavani believed herself foremost among the attendants. She was a vision of self-control and professionalism, casually confident in expression, her face only lightly weathered with experience despite her years. Tall and athletic, with her hair in a bun and wearing a black synthetic suit with dark tinted glasses, she resembled her own bodyguard more than she did a desk worker. She was the people’s Premier. She walked among them easily and casually.

Her reflection on the table was magnificent, and she felt in command of everything.

“Commissar-General, and Grand Admiral” Jayasankar bowed her head lightly toward her two counterparts. “We last met to discuss what a good year it had been for shipbuilding. I can’t help but wonder if we are all being punished for the barest hint of complacency at the moment. Our shipbuilding is far too slow for our predicament, and now our agricultural plans are also on hold. Nevertheless, I want it to be clear that I believe in us. Let’s not be too doom and gloom.”

Grand Admiral Sorokin Klasnikov was the only man in attendance. He was a tall, bronzed gentleman with a full beard, pristinely in uniform. His beard was quite long and flowed with a greater breadth even than the hair on his head. He kept his hands behind his back and stood firmly.

“Premier, it is good to see you in cheerful spirits, despite everything,” began the Admiral, soft spoken, “I don’t believe Eloah is so merciless as to fault us for merely being optimistic.”

Commissar-General Nagavanshi meanwhile looked the youngest in the room. She had suggested they hold this meeting but hid her feelings about it behind a careful, neutral expression.

“Well, Admiral, I don’t believe in any Gods, as this Union is beyond such mysticism.”

Nagavanshi had a talent for sounding both polite and openly contemptuous.

Her face lacked even the subtle crow’s feet evident around Jayasankar’s eyes and lips, and she was very obviously of a nearer vintage than the pockmarked old Klasnikov. Her hair flowed freely from under her peaked cap, adorned with a golden serpent, and her rich brown skin had an even sheen as if it had been laid over body uniformly, unmarred by light or touch.

Her golden eyes seemed bottomless, like they might devour what they viewed.

“Everything that is happening is a result of material forces that are well understood.”

She spoke quite casually, and Klasnikov looked ready to snap at her.

“Now, now,”

Premier Jayasankar interrupted before anyone could continue that particular topic.

“Religion is something best not discussed among friends.”

She swiped her fingers over the computer screen set into the middle of the table.

A map of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans appeared on the screen. The Premier touched closer to the north Imbrium sea, where the Occultis continental line separated the North Imbrium, ruled mostly by the Empire, with the northwestern end of the Cognitum Ocean: waters that the mighty Republic shared with a few other states. The Great Ayre Reach, an expanse of calm water, with simple geography at shockingly low depth, separated the Empire and the Republic.

Ayre could have been a powerful economic asset for the Republic, but instead it had been the stage of the Republic’s righteous aggression against the Empire for what seemed like hundreds of years. Every few decades there was a terrifying campaign over the Great Ayre Reach that ended in crushing Republic defeats, allowing the Empire to occupy the Reach and block the Republic’s access to the Imbrium Ocean, until the next time the mighty foes exchanged it. A communist scholar, Mordecai, once believed that the Empire and the Republic did battle over the Reach in order to destroy surplus production of goods and stymie political and social progress.

That was neither here nor there, but it was on Jayasankar’s mind as she surveyed the map.

“Anyone have the early score from the latest Empire vs. Republic game?” She asked.

Nagavanshi glanced over to Klasnikov, with a bored look on her face.

Klasnikov gave her a critical look back. He cleared his throat loudly.

“Our intelligence indicates that the Republic brought 800 ships divided into five fleets to the Ayre Reach. The Empire brought the Grand Western Fleet. The latest estimated strength for that formation was 1000 ships divided in seven fleets. It is our understanding the Empire won.”

“Of course they did.” Nagavanshi said.

“We should not act as if this was all foretold.” Klasnikov said. “It was not merely numbers that sealed the fate of the Ayre Reach. From information we gathered over the past few days, the Republic made major strategic missteps. They feared being too outnumbered, so they adopted a wide formation to try to cover Imperial flanking attacks. This allowed the Imperials to use their numbers in a different way. Instead of matching the breadth of the Republic deployment, they concentrated their attack and crushed the Republic center, isolating the wings of the formation.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “At that point, the Republic should have swung a trap around them.”

“We can say what we want from the comfort of this chamber.” Klasnikov said. He seemed almost to pity the Republic forces. “Perhaps if they had fought on, they could have used the wings of the formation to inflict bitter damage on the Imperials. But that would have been asking troops to sacrifice their lives when they had come prepared to fight on even terms. You can’t pretend you were laying bait for the enemy just because it becomes convenient; preparing bait means that the bait was prepared for its role. For the Republic forces, they saw hundreds of their ships and thousands of their comrades killed in front of them. I can’t fault them for escaping at that point.”

“I can.” Nagavanshi said. “Because the ones picking up the pieces could soon be us. Some allies the Republic have turned out to be! Don’t give that look Klasnikov — I read the same acoustic messages you did. I don’t need explanations.” She raised an accusatory finger at the Admiral. “The Republic had a center of 200 ships and wings of 300 ships a piece. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by fleeing instead of pressing into Fueller’s flank and crushing him.”

“As far as the Republic’s politics are concerned, they don’t win from just killing the Prince if they have to sacrifice 800 ships to do so.” Klasnikov said. “They aren’t like you, Nagavanshi. You can isolate and kill an individual with your spies and thugs, but you can’t do it with a fleet.”

Nagavanshi narrowed her eyes at Klasnikov.

Jayasankar then raised her hand like a student in a classroom, smiling.

“Everyone is getting so spirited but let us move beyond the hypotheticals. The Republic has suffered another defeat and the Empire will again occupy the breadth of the Ayre Reach. They would still need to cross the North Occultis canal to advance, so the Republic will be fine. In fact they probably won’t even try to move farther than Ayre Reach. My concern is that if this battle did not hurt the Empire too, too much, we will be the next target. Am I correct in my assumption?”

“You very well could be.” Klasnikov said.

“No, you are absolutely wrong.”

Nagavanshi procured a series of documents and slid them across the table.

This was a symbolic gesture more than anything, because the table itself scanned the documents as they crossed and was able to project all of their data on tabbed windows close to the other meeting participants. By the time the papers’ momentum stopped just short of Jayasankar she was already reading what had been scanned. She brought her hand up to her hair to fidget.

Should the information in those papers prove correct then yes, Jayasankar’s assumption might be very wrong. It was not in her character to get giddy over every piece of idle speculation that came her way, however. So after reading the information, she turned her gaze on the head of the Ashura security and intelligence forces, Nagavanashi, who clearly knew more than she let on.

It had been her all along who suggested this meeting, after all.

Klasnikov, meanwhile, was reaching for the papers themselves as if he could not trust the scanner to have gotten the information correct. He flipped through all the papers, brow furrowing.

“Parvati, your most prominent source is this girl from the wreck of the Strasser. I assume you corroborated this news with other survivors from the Imperial fleet, and you’ve got your own tricks for finding information far afield. I want to know what other sources you have that you aren’t writing about on the record, and what information you’ve learned beyond this one event.”

Despite Jayasankar’s tact in describing it, this event was no small matter.

Nagavanshi did not convene meetings unless her information was explosive.

According to the documents, rescue teams found a survivor from the Imperial Fleet, who had connections among the nobility and military. In exchange for her life, not knowing that the Union intended to imprison rather than execute her, she attested to the Emperor having fallen with a terminal illness and being pronounced all but officially dead. The Grand Duchies, the major states that made up the Empire’s territory, were eager to back their own claimants to the throne. All of this, while Prince Erich von Fueller, the heir apparent, was off in the Great Ayre Reach fighting the Republic. According to the source, the reason for the Southern Border Fleet’s attack on the Union was the ambition of Admiral Gottwald to form his own faction in the coming strife.

For as little as the Premier made it seem in her casual speech, this was earthshaking news. Upon the eve of his coup, Konstantin von Fueller had dared the aristocracy to move against him. For fifty years they slumbered under his control. Now he was dead: and now, they would awaken.

“Mere imperial troops would not have had access to that kind of information. That would have only been known to Admirals and their associates, as they freely cavort with the aristocracy in a way that none below their rank are truly able to. So there was no need to interrogate the lower ranking survivors. Simply put, I trust the girl’s information. I believe we should act on it. By the time more overt signs of its veracity manifest themselves we may be too late to take advantage.”

Nagavanshi was prepared for the questioning. After all, she did not get to her own position without being meticulously confident in her words. As necessary as intelligence agents and internal security were for the Union, the power invested in them meant that not just anybody could be given the position. Her predecessors had each been politically purged after a year in office.

Jayasankar grinned. “Good answer. But I know that there is more being left unsaid.”

Nagavanshi said nothing. Her expression was purely neutral. She was hiding something.

“You used the ELF, didn’t you? I know you contacted someone with it.”

No response from the Commissar-General. In her place the Admiral was confounded.

“ELF is only for emergencies.” Klasnikov said. “And it can only contact ships.”

“Absolutely.” Jayasankar turned her gaze from the Admiral and back to the Commissar-General, putting her hands on her hips, still smiling. “Nagavanshi communicated with a ship.”

Klasnikov blinked. “Which one of our ships is going into Imperial waters?”

“Before we tightened our shipbuilding program, we supplied militarized civilian ships to Campos Mountain that were equipped with our ELF.” Nagavanashi finally said. Klasnikov stared at her in confusion. “I acquired such a ship and transferred it to an important asset. Satisfied?”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, grinning. She’d gotten her; of course she did.

The Premier had already won this exchange before they even entered the room.

“You thought I wouldn’t find out?” She asked.

“I had ultimate oversight over Extremely Low Frequency comms.” Nagavanshi said.

“You’re not the only one with agents everywhere, Parvati.”

Fiddling around with her pocket, Jayasankar produced a vaporizer and nonchalantly took a sweet drag from it that smelled of strawberries. She had hoped to see Nagavanshi wither in the silence, but unfortunately, the Commissar-General was simply too strong, too well-kept together.

“Your predecessors were purged for this sort of behavior, you know?”

She pointed the vaporizer at the Commissar-General.

Nagavanshi did not stir. Though she was caught out, she was never cornered.

“I was acting for the greater good of this nation. I came prepared today to divulge a lot of information and make the case for my methods. Foreign intelligence is an absolute necessity for modern warfare. Without the assets I have put into place, we will become increasingly blind to events in the Empire. I shall accept whatever decision our esteemed Premier makes, of course.”

Her voice was sweet as honey. She had really turned up the charm for that declaration.

Despite how much of a fucking bitch she was, Jayasankar admired Nagavanshi’s drive.

Being stricken from the communist party was not something that would bother her.

She was a purely material person who did not care one bit about appearances.

It was certain that if she were shut out of official power she would find power elsewhere.

At least she’s my little tyrant, Jayasankar told herself.

Those other Commissar-Generals served under other Premiers anyway.

“You can contact your agent via ELF. How did you get information back?”

Jayasankar stabbed her little vaporizer into the air for dramatic effect as her interrogation continued. Nagavanshi continued to betray no emotion over being put on the spot in this way.

“That’s true,” Klasnikov realized. “You can’t open laser or acoustic contact with the Empire.”

“And she’s had nowhere near enough time for an agent to physically travel back here.”

Come on, Parvati, fess up, the Premier was certain that Nagavanshi had more to unveil.

Nagavanshi withdrew something from her pocket and connected it to a serial port in the table computer. After the table had read the contents of the diskette and found it to contain nothing dangerous, it gave the attendants access to the contents. The Commissar-General drew everyone’s attention to one specific item, which was displayed on the table as a floating holographic diagram of what looked like a coilgun shell, albeit a very strange one. No warhead; only a transmitter.

Once the diagram was available, Nagavanshi explained its significance.

“I’ve been putting serious research consideration into our operational capacity behind enemy lines. We’re too sentimental about ‘revolutionary warfare’, but guerilla war is a viable path for us if we consider communications and logistics. This transmitter shell allows us to fire a radio out to the surface, where we can use waves through the air transmit information. We’ve installed a buoy in the calm water over Lyser. While the surface corruption over most of the Imbrium will damage the transmitter, it will be active long enough to send a message to our buoy.”

She swiped from the diagram of the transmitter to a diagram of the buoy.

“Information from the buoy is transmitted back to us in the aphotic zone via cable. Due to animal activity, and the surface’s corruption, even in the calm waters at Lyser it is likely that the buoy will be severed or destroyed, but we can replace it if needed. At any rate: I contacted my agent via ELF to tell her to deploy a radio-flare with the most up to date information she had.”

“Did you come prepared to divulge this information?” the Premier asked her.

“It was going to be part of my overall proposal.”

Klasnikov had been staring at her with eyes wide open.

“So, to summarize. You gave a ship, and experimental technology, to somebody out in the Empire and they have confirmed to you, via these circumspect methods, that the Emperor is dead?”

“They’ve confirmed a lot more than that, but yes.” Nagavanshi said.

“Premier, this is rather outrageous, wouldn’t you say?” Klasnikov said.

Jayasankar ignored that remark. “How trustworthy is your source?”

“She is a hero to this country. She is prepared to give her life for me, and I for her.”

Both Jayasankar and Klasnikov were stunned.

That was highly uncharacteristic of how the Commissar-General ever spoke.

And as far as Jayasankar knew, it was the sort of thing Nagavanshi didn’t believe in.

There was no denying the expression on her face, however. Gone was the peerless calm.

It looked almost as if Nagavanshi herself could not believe what she had said.

She had the face of someone who knew they had committed a youthful indiscretion.

And done so amid her venerated, powerful elders.

Jayasankar sighed heavily. For her, the expert political operator who had come prepared and plotted everything meticulously, this was the first truly unpredictable event of the day. She almost wanted to ask if Nagavanshi and her agent had ever fucked. It was an open question now in her mind. And what kind of powers did it take to chisel through the rock to Nagavanshi’s heart?

Nagavanshi knew precisely that the only way forward was for her to bare some of her soul.

And for that, Jayasankar could only think she was an even more manipulative piece of shit than she had previously imagined. To have honesty and vulnerability become your trump cards–

“You’re horrible, Nagavanshi, but I am impressed. I think at this point, you should just tell us what you convened us for and lay out your plans. This gathering has become too messy.”

Nagavanshi let out a breath with visible relief.

Klasnikov shook his head solemnly. “Let us move forward with honesty.”

He sounded as if he himself could not hope for such a rosey outcome.

“I will be blunt then. I propose we launch an operation to infiltrate the Empire. Then we will make contact with dissident forces in the eastern end of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans.”

At Nagavanshi’s behest, the diagrams of the buoys and radio-flares disappeared.

In their place there was a diagram of a ship.

Then, in the next moment, that diagram became a camera feed of the actual ship.

It was, at that very second, docked in a VIP berth in Thassal.

“You probably find this ship’s exterior unimpressive. We used old hauler hulls to make it seem civilian. However, inside, it is a radical new design. This ship is intended to carry and support Divers in battle. It can hold up to 18 Divers. Its name is the Brigand, and I have classified it as an Assault Carrier. It will carry out a long-term mission to contact and organize Imperial dissidents.”

The Brigand was a two-tiered ship, its silhouette wide and broad, almost diamond shaped due to the angle at which the two planes of the top deck and along the keel met in the centerline, with a thick, flat prow. It was not impressive: it did look like an old hauler, down to the rusty color. Its shape was poorly hydrodynamic, and it looked heavy. The conning tower was thick and square with an additional triangular surface atop. There appeared to be no weapons along its surface.

“The Ashura put this together?” Jayasankar asked. It was not beyond the realm of possibility. They were a military force. It was still impressive that they kept it so close to the chest.

“We had help from the shipbuilder’s union at Central Yard.” Nagavanshi said.

That would explain it. The Yard was the strongest labor union in Solstice.

“And your intention,” Klasnikov interrupted, “is for this ship to sail into the Empire and make contact with dissident groups? What will it do when it reaches them? If by Eloah’s mercy it manages to reach any group, without being destroyed or captured by the Empire along the way?”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Soon the Empire will be plunged into civil war. Its defenses will be porous. The Brigand is a state-of-the-art vessel, like I told you, don’t judge it by its appearances. It is fast, survivable, and has systems in place for stealth or escape. Not only that, in addition to its Diver capacity it also has a cargo hull that we will fill with more weapons and goods for our foreign comrades. It is my intention that we will supply weaponry to insurgent groups. However, our true objective is to advance one major resistance movement and prime the Empire for a revolution.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms. Nagavanshi’s true motives were unexpected.

It was true that the Union was in a difficult situation. Militarily, their combat power was maybe 1/5th of the total Imperial power. Divided across its Grand Duchies, the Empire had thousands of ships, while the Union’s total Navy was just over 1000. The Republic slammed 800 ships into the Empire, barely made a dent and lost. Conventional warfare would eventually see the Union being overwhelmed and destroyed. However, if indeed the Grand Duchies turned against the central government at Rhinea, and there was a power struggle between Prince Fueller and several other factions, that gave the Union a board with entirely different rules to play with.

Jayasankar ran the options as she saw them in her own head.

One potential reaction would be to launch a Union invasion of the Southern Empire. Such an open attack, however, could potentially unite multiple Duchies into a mutual defense pact which would lead to the Union being overwhelmed or outflanked, and which would distract the Imperial nobles from Erich Fueller, who might gain the upper hand while this Noble Alliance is distracted.

They could attempt to contact and ally with Erich Fueller, to parlay support for time or legitimacy. However, Erich was in the best position of anyone, with the strongest and most loyal military forces and civilian subjects. He was pragmatic, inheriting none of his father’s eccentricity. He was born under the uncertainty of his father’s coup. He was always ready to fight for the throne.

Allying with any one Grand Duchy was impossible ideologically. All of the Imperial boyars shared a great hatred of the Union, and the Union was held together in part by its fear and hatred of the Empire. For the Union to “upset the game,” it would need to build and deploy power entirely differently than the Empire. It could not count on traditional measures against them.

By tapping into its own history of armed, worker-led revolution; that was Nagavanshi’s idea for the Union response. While Jayasankar could definitely complain about the instruments carrying out the Commissar’s will, it was an ambitious plot. There was a lot of discontent among the lower and middle classes of the Empire, and due to its size the Empire had difficulty policing thoroughly its various territories. That the Union existed at all was a testament to the power of imperial dissident movements. The Union’s states were initially settled as penal colonies.

“Ultimately, your idea is to gather a dissident army in one place and spark a rebellion. So what movements can you contact, and in which territories?” Jayasankar asked Nagavanshi.

“We have a list.” Nagavanshi said. “And as circumstances permit we want the Brigand to meet all of them. However, our major ally in the region will be the National Front of Buren.”

“Not Bosporus?” Jayasankar asked.

Bosporus was supposed to be special, Jayasankar thought.

Historians could easily say the Union was born in Bosporus.

Even after the revolution, the two states shared a connection that was greater than merely one of historical population movements. Goods, people, currency and secrets flowed out of the far north, crossing the poles and arriving in the southern oceans of the Union. In return, Union influence spread into the Empire through the underbelly of Bosporus. Dissidents from the Empire always sought asylum within the mordecist experiment of the Union. Bosporus would be the Premier’s choice, if she had to make a decision as to where to grow Imperial dissidence.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “It is true that Bosporus is the most ideologically developed of the Imperial states in its intellectual dissidence, and the secessionists there have a leftist character that I did take into account. But Bosporus is a hotbed for communalist ideology. It would create another place like Campos Mountain, and be an ineffective partner for us. The Bureni nationalists have vanguardist organization, militancy, a leader, and mordecist leanings.”

“I don’t like this.” Klasnikov said. “This is a suicide mission, Bhavani.”

“With our current naval power, can we win militarily against the Empire?”

Jayasankar asked Klasnikov this. The Admiral was reticent to answer.

“Not now, but we can build toward the future if we don’t send this prototype ship out to die in Imperial waters. I believe we should keep it here and augment our frontline power with it.”

Jayasankar smiled. She was sympathetic to that.

But more and more she realized it was not their reality.

“Hope springs eternal.” She said cryptically. Klasnikov furrowed his brows.

“The Brigand is useless in a defensive war! Its characteristics are purposely designed for guerilla warfare. It has less direct combat weapons than any cruiser its size and it was designed purely for endurance. I refuse to assign it to meaningless fleet tasks.” Nagavanshi replied.

“Right now, Sorokin, if we keep waiting, I feel the situation will only worsen for us.”

Jayasankar stared the Admiral in the eye, calling him by his name.

“Bhavani, I know you trust this woman, but I don’t, and I can’t agree to this.”

Klasnikov stared back. Nagavanshi held her peace in the middle, between the two.

“She has already violated our trust several times.”

His eyes were almost pleading. Jayasankar was not moved.

She did not get to her own position by being fully honest with everybody.

Even in the Union, a state that was a mother to its people, politics was still played.

“Sorokin, Parvati is correct here. At the moment, if we wait and engage in conventional tactics we will lose everything. But we can take a gamble; and though we may sacrifice a few souls in so doing, we stand to fundamentally alter the world.” Jayasankar said. “You know why it has to be the Duchy of Buren. If Buren has a revolution, it will cripple Imperial Agarthicite production.”

“I understand that perfectly. However this counterveils every hard-fought lesson we know about war. How will the Brigand be supplied? How will it remain in contact? How would we even know that it is alive or dead in the waters at any given moment? After we launch it, we’ve lost control of the situation, and furthermore, have no way to aid it inside of Imperial territory.”

Nagavanshi brought up a map on the table computer.

It was a map of the broader Empire, with the Nectaris and Imbrium both represented. There were several spots on the map, tracing a potential route. She pointed at three different spots where the route brought the Brigand back to Nectaris. At other times, it was deep in the Imperial core.

“We can have it take a circuitous route that brings it close to the borders of Campos Mountain and Solstice at certain points. That will allow us to check back in with it. As for the rest, they will rely on their wits. I’m putting together a crew of people with many different skills. And in addition, if we clue in the Republic, they will use their own networks to help us also.”

“Just a few minutes ago you were attacking the Republic as a weak ally.” Klasnikov said.

“Weak, but useful and willing. If there’s anything good about them it’s their intelligence.”

“Will we see a crew roster?” Jayasankar said.

“I’ll share one when it is ready.” Nagavanshi replied.

“You really are a terrible girl. You think you can do anything you want.”

Jayasankar scolded her, but it was almost more motherly than authoritarian.

“It’s time to move quickly.” Nagavanshi said. “Do you accept my proposal?”

On the table, dozens of windows appeared with additional information.

All of it was at first shaded, but with a quick swipe of her hand, Nagavanshi dramatically decrypted every document. Names and faces, vast sheets of logistics math, numerous tables. The work of years of secretive planning, thousands of communications, all of it laid bare. Again the Admiral and the Premier were left speechless at the apparatus that Nagavanshi had constructed. Her Ashura, the serpents tasked with keeping order, had built a ship, and plotted a revolution.

“I’ve laid out everything I’ve planned, and everything that is available to me. There are no more secrets, only work that lies ahead of us. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to make sure nothing compromises our purpose. Without taking revolutionary action, our revolution will be destroyed.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, smiling. She took a long drag of her vaporizer. “Well, we can’t very well just dump all this effort in the sea, can we?” She finally said.


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The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.1]

The Imperial Southern Border Fleet had an impressive advantage in numbers over the Union defenders at Thassal. With over 70 vessels to around 30 combat-ready Union ships, even with basic barrage tactics they would have easily routed the Union vessels. But Fleet Admiral Gottwald wanted more than a rout. He would accept no less than the Union’s total destruction.

 In his view, the way to achieve this was to preemptively split into two fleets in a strategy to trap the Union forces amid a barrage from two sides. Kampfgruppe Kosz, commanded by the Admiral’s most trusted officers, remained on course for Thassal. He expected the battle would be joined in the broad, open plain just before the trench fissure itself. He would command the rest of the fleet personally, carefully maneuvering through a series of rocky highlands known to the Union as Konev’s Mountain, and then descending on the Union flank once they were out in the open.

Admiral Gottwald was convinced of the genius of his strategy. Had those Union thugs even conceived of a flanking maneuver? Did they even post scouts? They would fall to the Imperial art of war perfected over generations. He would win; he was already planning his next move.

It was not the Union that concerned him most. He’d make worse enemies soon.

Taming the barbarians was just a steppingstone to his rise.

“I’ll have to give my thanks to that moron Groessen in hell. If there was one man in this Navy who would shoot first no matter the cost to himself, it would be the good old Duke.”

In the vast, throne room-like command pod of his flagship, the Strasser, Admiral Gottwald stood above his command staff, whose stations were recessed below his own and arrayed around him. All of them had been well taught to mind their own business. There was one voice of sheepish dissent that came from his secretary. She clutched a circular medallion on a chain and mumbled.

“Sir, with all due respect, is it truly proper to slander this man in death?”

“Who’s to say it is slander? You?”

Had it not been his niece, he certainly would have treated her far worse. Instead, he found it amusing to argue with her. As a devout Solceanist she was an easy target for logical argument.

“We don’t know what happened sir–”

“What happened is immaterial. We’re already set on our course.”

Once upon a time, Duke Groessen had been the nobleman in charge of a large portion of the Thassalid territory. Upon the Union uprising, his stature vastly diminished. All Dukes had to perform military duties for the Emperor. Groessen’s domain shrunk to such an extent that all he could do was patrol a strip of border and wait with his hands on his lap, cursing his fortunes.

He was easy prey for Gottwald’s machinations. All he needed was a mission to die for.

With his death, there was immediate cause to reprimand and suppress the Union, but that was less important. There was also no legitimate claim to much of Union territory anymore.

Lands, and vassals to tap into, would soon play a major role in Imperial politics.

Gottwald was not a noble. He was pure military. He had no domains of his own, either to govern nor to exploit for advantage. However, in the coming storm, blood would only go so far. If he could capture the materials and industry of the Union, he would be a Duke in all but name.

“That old bastard will soon perish. There are already significant factions marshalling all of their resources. With Prince Erich deployed to the Ayre Reach, this will be our only chance for us to secure a potential base of power. The Southern Border Fleet is the weakest fleet in the Empire. But with the resources of Ferris at our disposal, we will be undoubtedly relevant to the outcome.”

There was a dawning realization upon the gentle eyes of his niece. As a God-fearing woman, the Lèse-majesté would not have upset her, for the Solceanists believed in the Light-Giver above the surface and placed their faith in him over their imperial duty. Perhaps, however, the scope of current events had finally struck her as an everyday citizen amid the coming chaos.

She made no comment about the state of the Empire. But her expression was troubled.

“Can the Southern Border Fleet truly overturn the Union sir? After all these years?”

Admiral Gottwald smiled.

“We have never seriously tried. They are mere gnats. If it were not for the Republic putting pressure on us, we would have crushed them already. It was the hope that Prince Erich could bloody the Republic enough for a ceasefire, allowing us to march on the Union freely. But that’s a future that’s not worth speaking of, except for this: the Union stands no chance against us.”

On a computer screen hovering just in front of his chair, was a map of the Union territories, with projected enemy deployment and the projected pace of both of his fleets. Soon the pincer would wrap around the enemy’s forces, and their total defeat would inevitably follow. Admiral Gottwald would cease to merely be the Empire’s lookout on the wild frontier. In his own right, perhaps, he could become a king. Or he might just settle for being among those to crown the next.

“Besides, we don’t need to conquer all the Union. If Ferris falls, those cowards will simply hide in the fortresses at Solstice and wait for better tides. We need only cow them into obedience. They were slaves once. A sufficient drubbing from their masters will render them docile.”

Admiral Gottwald sat back on his chair and silently bid his niece to stand at his side.

Obedient, yet sheepishly clutching her little sun icon, she joined him.

“All stations report. We should be seeing the enemy, and our allies.”

There was a generalized murmur among the specialists charged with sonar detection.

On the Admiral’s minicomputer, the sonar readings and their interpretation appeared.

Admiral Gottwald stared at it, dumbfounded.         

His hands were shaking. He could not accept what he saw.


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