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.


Previous ~ Next

The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.8]

Over the Great Lyser Reach, a red frigate crossed the vast plains. Lyser was dotted with Agri-Spheres that had been set up to provide much of the Empire’s food — and now the Union’s food. Only 300 meters below the surface, Lyser was brighter than any other place in the Union. Overhead, the light was visible like a halo, and it shone below, in the greenhouse spheres.

Lyser was temperamental, like any other place near the surface. Great currents flowed through it, and if one turned their scopes to the surface they would see the massively turbulent ceiling of the water. Schools of fish swam past with great urgency. Every so often, a massive Leviathan might rear its head over the plains. Mines had been laid at the border of 100 meters from the surface, inhabited by such volatile creatures. The mines triggered based on acoustic signature.

Navigating confidently at 200 meters from the surface, the Frigate Basavraj ferried a group of VIPs from Solstice to the sudden battlefront that formed in Ferris. Chief among the VIPs was a woman with a deceivingly youthful, deceivingly pleasant smile, who had claimed the Captain’s quarters as an office from which to conduct all the work she took from Solstice. It still needed to be done, after all, even in a war. Looking into decency complaints, approving media depictions of various touchy subjects, and reviewing dispute records from community safety teams.

On her right, a screen set up on the wall pretended to be a window, hooked up to a camera.

Lyser was beautiful, and she could see it. Beautiful and fragile, like the Union.

As she contemplated this duality, an officer arrived, tall, stoic-faced and disciplined.

An armband, with a serpent on it, indicated he was one of the internal security troops.

Her own troops: Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi’s troops.

“Commissar-General, Lyser routed a laser from Solstice through to us. It pleases me to inform that the preparations on the Brigand project are completed. Given the war footing, should the Brigand be deployed to the frontlines at Ferris? It could multiply our power there.”

Commissar-General Nagavanshi did not lift her head from the papers she was reading.

“Send it to Thassal Station.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Let the Navy HQ know, however, that the Brigand will be staffed, and its mission profile will be determined, by the People’s Security Directorate. It will not be under Navy command.”

“Ma’am? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of deploying it?”

“I’ll discuss that at the upcoming Strategic Council; not with you. Go on.”

She waved for the subordinate officer to leave. He left, saluting, without another word.

Nagavanshi pulled a file from one of the many rock paper documents on the desk.

She thumbed over the picture of the woman there. “Murati Nakara, hmm?”

Interrupting her train of thought, the officer she had just dismissed ran back in, with a second officer in town. This woman did not have the Naga armband of Nagavanshi’s personnel and in her bosom she clutched tightly a lot of long, floppy paper. It looked to Nagavanshi like the printouts generated by the acoustic text message printers. Why would she have so many?

“Ma’am, I’m deeply sorry to interrupt. We’ve received news from Ferris.”

“What kind of news?”

Commissar-General Nagavanshi lifted her gaze from the documents on the table to the two officers. Her man, the one with the serpent, withered under the sharpness of her stare, while the girl with the communiques seemed unaware of how grossly annoyed the Commissar had become.

“Ma’am, there was a survivor from the Imperial flagship, from the Strasser.”

“That ship went up in an agarthic annihilation. Didn’t it?”

Nagavanshi was skeptical, but clearly interested. Her expression softened.

“Yes ma’am.” Her officer took the communiques from the communications girl. “Before the ship went into battle, allegedly, the Admiral had this person booted off in an escape pod. She was found amid the debris of the fleet. Ma’am, she claims to be Abigail of the Gottwald family.”

“Some mediocre daughter of some backwater nobility?”

“Allegedly, the Admiral’s niece. There’s more to it than that though, ma’am.”

Now the officer looked through the papers again as if to try to get the story straight.

“Oh, give me that.”

Nagavanshi stood up, stomped her way around the desk and seized the papers.

Her eyes drew wide as she scanned the contents.

“Ma’am, this has to remain top secret, that’s what they say–”

“Obviously, you idiot!”

In her hands, she held the reason why the Empire was not going to attack them in force.

It answered why the Southern Border Fleet had rammed itself into the Union.

Across the border, while the heir apparent Prince Erich von Fueller was holding off a Republic fleet in the umpteenth battle of the Great Ayre Reach, it just so happened that behind his back, Emperor Konstantin von Fueller had fallen gravely ill, and quite suddenly, he had died.

Nagavanshi smiled a bloodthirsty grin, her hands shaking, clutching the papers.

Now this would change everything.


Previous ~ Next

The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.7]

Through the sphere of annihilation, there was another world.

A world with a surface. A great desert, a horrific war.

There was another. A world of travelers who tried to change the past.

A third. A place where magic was not already dead but dying.

Then a vast Ocean, a vast Ocean that was unkind and uncaring, alien to its subjects.

Countless other worlds that all changed when they viewed the purple glow.

Worlds that danced on a knife edge, driven by violence universal to all humans.

It was entrancing. Unknowable, indomitable, illuminating, wrong, evil, violent

Actions rippled across a time and space that was all vast like the Ocean and that conducted the waves of consequences that reached farther than anyone could have imagined. Histories bore witness to the tearing apart of planets, the reconfiguration of continents, the rise of ideologies, the power of nations and peoples to create and destroy. All hinged on the ability to touch one another even when one saw nothing to touch, nobody to reach. All of it lit under the purple glow.

Somewhere, their history reached a peaceful resolution.

That was all beyond the sphere. Their actions had already rippled.

And their Ocean could carry those ripples far, far away, to change everything.

Murati sat straight up in bed. She wanted to scream, but instead she gagged.

Her mind was filled in thoughts that were drifting away in a pattern of hex-shaped scars on her very soul. When she had forgotten everything, everything that she so briefly saw it could not have possibly qualified as learned, she was in a white room, in a bed, attached to a machine.

“Murati!”

In the next instant, someone’s arms wrapped around her.

Karuniya was screaming and kicking her feet and thrashing against her.

“I can’t believe you! You idiot! I hate you! You’re nothing but trouble!”

Murati looked down at her face and saw her weeping pathetically, her eyes bloodshot.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

Karuniya paused for a brief moment, sobbing, sniffling, before thrashing again.

Through her own tears, Murati held her partner close, silent and unmoving.

Neither of them kept track of how long they stayed like this.

It was calm, peaceful. It was the kind of peace that allowed the sheer weight of the violence they had both endured and committed to wash over Murati. She felt as if she stood under pressure hose and everything she had repressed was coming down upon her. She cried not only because she loved Karuniya and felt so safe and happy to sit still in embrace. She also cried because she had the sounds of bombs going off in her head, the red mist trailing from downed vessels seared into her eyes, the fear, the palpable, skin-tingling fear and rush of having to fight for her survival.

In a sense, the void left after the battle was both relieving and unnerving.

She eventually came to grips with everything that happened. She smiled, and ran her hand gently through Karuniya’s hair, and the shaking just beneath the tips of her fingers dissipated. She was not in the cockpit of a Strelok, not out in the endless ocean where nothing could be fully seen. Instead she was in a hospital back at Thassal Station. She had been out for ten hours.

“Everyone probably knows you’re my girlfriend now but who cares.”

This was Karuniya’s description of the state she was in when they dragged Murati back in a Strelok that showed clear scarring from an Agarthicite sphere of annihilation. They cracked open the Strelok and the mechanics pulled her out, applied first aid. No water had gotten into the cockpit, thankfully, and pressure was never lost. But Murati would not wake, and her vitals were weak.

Ensign Shalikova had also been in this state. She was being treated elsewhere.

“They bed people up by alphabetical order. I dunno.”

Karuniya responded weakly when Murati asked where the Ensign had gone.

“You need to forget about soldier stuff for a bit and get some rest.”

“You too.” Murati said, smiling weakly at her.

“Oh, shut up! None of that silent, stoic, dependable stuff. I’m in charge now.”

In charge of what, Murati did not know. Karuniya did remain rooted by her side.

“We won, right?” Murati asked.

Karuniya beamed. It was an incredibly, indisputably Murati response.

“Fifty-nine downed Imperial vessels, including all of the Dreadnoughts.”

“Solceanos defend, that’s incredible.”

So incredible it prompted Murati to swear on her parents’ God.

Nodding rapidly, Karuniya declared, “The Imperial Southern Border Fleet is all gone.”

During the Revolutionary War, and then the border skirmishes that followed, they had been the great enemy looming beyond the confines of the Union. The threat of annihilation that trained every day to slaughter them all if needed. And yet, they had proven a poor enemy. Had the Empire grown weaker, or had they grown stronger? What lay behind this sudden turn?

Murati laid back in her bed and sighed deeply.

“What’s that about? You should be elated. You’re a war hero now.” Karuniya said.

Not a war hero; a hero of one battle.

“This war has barely begun. The Empire has a lot of fleets.” Murati said.

“Well, you’ll be pleased to note, HQ is moving a ton of stuff over here.” Karuniya said. “We were told we’ve got reinforcements now that bring Thassal back up to 50 ships, and we have 100 ships tugging in a whole Bathysphere that will be used to berth and maintain the force. So, we’ll have one of the biggest fleets the Union’s ever assembled in Ferris. You can relax now.”

She narrowed her eyes and her voice became sarcastic as she watched Murati’s expression grow even more pensive as the conversation went on. It was almost delivered like a=— threat. Murati, as always, smiled and humored her girlfriend when she put on that venomously sweet tone.

“I guess that is a relaxing piece of news. Anything else out of the Empire?”

“Not a peep. They haven’t even sent us a scary text message over the acoustic network.”

Despite the connection at Thassal having been severed, the Empire and Union still shared some parts of the same acoustic network, a way of transmitting computer data across long distances at extremely poor bandwidth. Diplomatic text messaging was possible through this, though rare, and both sides viewed an acoustic message coming from the other with great suspicion.

Higher bandwidth connections required shorter-ranged laser communications. Laser relays were fully shut off between each nation. They had no laser connections and would never trust such a thing at this juncture should it be proposed. Texts, however, were not unheard of. Almost every one of the past skirmishes between the Empire and the Union, as bloodless as they were, ended with a flurry of messages and ultimately, an agreement between Solstice and Rhinea to a détente.

For the Empire to be quiet, after their most flagrant violation of the peace against the Union to date — Murati did not know whether to worry or take heart in such apparent disorganization.

“I see you’re thinking about war stuff again.”

Karuniya stared at her, crossing her arms.

“I’ll relax. I’ll relax.” Murati said.

Her girlfriend heaved a long sigh and averted her gaze, looking at the other patients.

Some of them were far worse off than Murati. Their next bed neighbor had no visitors and clear signs of barotrauma. Red, bloodshot veins; and an amputated limb even. There were a few people extracted from escape vessels who had been knocked about violently, bruised all over, with many broken bones, alive only by a miracle. Karuniya seemed to glance over them.

“Ugh, now I’m not able to relax. I keep thinking about what you said. War is inevitable.”

Murati nodded silently.

She was also thinking about everything she had said and done.


Previous ~ Next

The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.6]

Murati navigated away from the Imperial fleet over the plains as the barrage intensified.

Along with her squadron, she watched as the disorganized Imperial fleet absorbed blow after crushing blow from the Union. Losing a dreadnought in the center of the formation should not have been such a catastrophe for the Imperials, from a purely material perspective, as long as they handled it with discipline. They could have still had the upper hand if they rallied.

Now in front of her there were vessels falling over the plain in the pairs, in the tens, with great gaping holes, or split in half, or with their prows blasted open like gaping, bloody maws.

This was what war looked like. Twenty or so vessels destroyed immediately.

Depending on the crew complement, between 2000 and 3000 souls dashed to pieces.

She had no sympathy for them. Viewing the spectacle, she could only think:

“You brought all of this upon yourselves, you cowards.”

As soon as every vessel started fleeing in whichever direction they found open, their battle was over. It was the fear that got them; without the protection of a disciplined mass, any individual ship would easily succumb to the ordnance, even to the stray shockwaves. That had not been Murati’s initial intention when she suggested the plan. She wanted to use Divers as the main striking power and riddle the enemy’s center with torpedoes, causing real material damage.

The psychological tactic was the more mature touch of Rear Admiral Goswani at play.

She believed a force of ten or fifteen Divers could penetrate and rout the fleet.

All that was required for her to unlock that knowledge was the realization that a different paradigm could exist in this battle. That Divers could be counted upon to operate independently, with the endurance and striking power to carry out a mission, and that the enemy’s erroneous doctrine would limit their ability to retaliate. It was that bit of thinking that was outside the box.

Murati did not know it at the time, but her mind had concocted a terrifying notion.

Her little bit of innovative thinking, her desire to use her position as a Pilot to determine the course of the battle, her drive to do more than hang back and see her comrades fall around her. To her, everything she had done should have been common sense. It was just a small step she had conceived of from a fuller, broader understanding of basic Fleet warfare, and the present situation.

The collective of which she was a part of would be irrevocably changed by this moment.

From that spark of insight in her mind, flowed a wave that swept across the Oceans.

She looked at the surface of what was happening, not seeing the ripples in the water that took the consequences of her actions so far, far afield from her. As she hovered gently in the water and watched the Southern Border Fleet’s “Detachment Kosz” flounder and sink into the sand. Each impact of blasted metal on the ground bore with it the death rattle of an era that she had killed.

“We’re not done yet.” Murati said to herself.

The squadron moved to rejoin the fleet. Halfway to the fleet’s regrouping point, the Divers were met by a watercraft. Behind a thick, sloped cockpit attached to a pair of hydrojets there was a cargo module that could open to the water, close, and drain out again. It was converted from an ore hauler that would strap boulders into its cargo hold and ferry them from quarries. Instead of ore, there were magazines, fresh weapons, additional liquid fuel, and a battery charger.

From the cockpit, an engineer could also man a pair of crane arms to help mount weapons.

It was everything the Divers needed to resupply for the next leg of their journey.

Two shuttles had been dispatched, one for each of the assault teams.

Murati and her squadron tethered themselves to the shuttle’s agarthicite charging station. A purple glow flowed from the cabling to the batteries in their suits, connecting to their power sources through the backpack. The quick charge could give them about 20% of the battery back in ten or fifteen minutes. Enough to keep them from running empty in the middle of the next firefight.

Unfortunately, there were no provisions for fixing Murati’s broken shoulder.

All the engineer could do was apply a gelatinous sealant to keep the parts from dangling.

“Ensign, how are you doing on supplies?” Murati asked.

“I shouldn’t need much more, ma’am.” Shalikova said.

Though the Ensign said this, Murati had seen how much she would shoot before.

“Take an extra magazine.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Shalikova sounded like she did not like the suggestion.

However, she only allowed the merest hint of displeasure to be heard in her voice.

Professional and collected for someone her age.

“Murati Nakara, you have a message. Please download it over laser.”

While the Strelok was charging, the engineer messaged Murati. The Shuttle had a computer with enough space to carry important data and transmit it to the Strelok over laser. It could also carry personal messages from loved ones or the crew. In Murati’s case, it was both.

Once the laser download was completed, Murati saw a video from Karuniya.

She was recording from a minicomputer in a personal room.

“We’re all safe here, thanks to you guys. When we get back, I’m going to need you to be extra nice to me. Look, I am wearing one of your shirts! Everyone here asks me why it fits so weird. If I’m wearing a girlfriend shirt to work, it’s only fair I come home to a girlfriend.”

Karuniya smiled, blew a kiss and ended the transmission.

It was the kind of message that really, truly screamed Karuniya!

Murati smiled and laughed to herself.

She barely ever heard Karuniya say the G-word and it warmed her heart.

As the “refueling” progressed, Murati noticed an ally Cutter coming closer.

On the shuttle, a laser beacon on the cockpit linked up with the Cutter, and in turn relayed the Cutter’s laser communications to the docked Streloks. The ship’s Captain, a young man who had been clearly tossed about in the previous battle and barely recomposed himself, addressed all of the Divers in the Squadron. He had orders to relay from the flagship, as well as a diagram.

“We’ve made a slight alteration to the original plan. Rather than having Divers in Anti-Diver roles in the coming battle, we have provided sufficient equipment here to arm everyone with anti-ship ordnance. Your Squadron will act as part of a flanking force. We’ll exploit the vulnerable ground of the remaining Imperials and overwhelm them with fire from two directions.”

Murati blinked as the Captain calmly delivered those words.

They were following her original idea. Divers are a separate, self-sufficient strike force.

As the Captain spoke, the engineer in the shuttle frantically manned the crane arms and began to mount a frame on Murati’s backpack for a pair of torpedo tubes. Instead of her assault rifle, she would be issued a 76.2 mm cannon from a rack inside the shuttle cargo. It was a bottom-loader with four shots. Enough to poke holes in thin spots on Destroyers and Frigates, certainly. A cannon shot into an emplacement or a coilgun could potentially cascade into internal damage.

“Murati Nakara,”

Done relaying the general message from HQ, the Captain in the Cutter cut laser connections to everyone but Murati. He saluted at her. “Is something the matter, Captain?” She asked.

“Admiral Deshnov sends his regards and wishes you ‘Good Hunting’.”

“Thank you Captain.”

He could have sent a personal message like anyone else.

Now that she was just a little bit in the spotlight, Murati was almost wilting at the attention. Nothing had transpired the way she wanted it to. Maybe it would still land her a command in the end– at that moment, she cut off her own train thought, shaking her head. “Focus on surviving,” she told herself, “We’ll worry about less important things when we get back home.”

It was a bit eerie to recognize how quickly her priorities had changed.

Was this what wartime truly felt like? Had there really been peace before this?

On the cockpit, a bar showed the remaining battery charge at an acceptable 60%.

“Ensign, let’s get going.”

“I was just about to say, I think the enemy is here.”

As Ensign Shalikova responded, her words were then made eerily prescient by the sound of a distant blast. Several hundred meters away the Union fleet had regrouped. This was in the diagram they had received from the neighboring Cutter. The Union fleet reformed into a spread-out square formation with the Formidable and five frigates on one corner, and mixed groups in the other corners. A group of Divers would swim ahead of the fleet. Murati’s group would flank.

There would be 20 Union vessels participating in total, compared to the over thirty remaining Imperial vessels. The Union left a few vessels behind to perform rescue operations on the handful of downed Union ships. And then, if they had time and if they felt magnanimous, they might even go search for Imperial lives to save from the debris field they had left in the Plains.

That square formation was meant to force the enemy to either split their fire or target a group preferentially with focused fire. It was meant to reduce further losses. Unbeknownst to most, Murati knew it was the kind of formation one would use against an inferior enemy who could not hope to win but might do damage beyond its means if allowed to fire into a tight formation.

With the Divers acting as separate forces, the Union felt assured of victory.

“Full ahead, Ensign!”

Murati pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go.

The Ensign naturally rocketed ahead of her.

She had uncanny reflexes. And a Strelok without damage, that could make its full speed.

Murati was swimming at maybe 90% of Shalikova’s speed now.

Her pumps and jets made a heroic effort to keep her in Shalikova’s orbit.

Soaring over the Thassalid plains, the Divers saw the brief, distant flickers in the inky darkness, that accompanied torpedo blasts. Below them the seafloor was starting to disappear as they climbed over 100 meters above the sand, to the level of the lowest ships in the enemy fleet. On Sonar a variety of objects appeared. Within minutes they would arrive close to the enemy fleet.

Somewhere in the dim blue water out there, the Union fleet was also fighting.

Owing to the diagrams they had been given, the computer on Murati’s Diver estimated that the Union fleet was within 800 meters of the Imperial fleet now. Her sonar was programmed with acoustic signatures for Union and Imperial ships, so her computer could tell with decent accuracy where her friends and enemies were. Having the diagram of the fleet action also helped.

The Divers would need to “see” the enemy with only their sensors.

At the range they would start firing, the Imperial fleet would be fully invisible in the murk.

Ahead of them, the fire intensified.

Moving at speed in the ocean, across the vastness of the water, was a surreal experience.

For a moment it felt like rushing through a void.

Rather than landmarks, and visuals, Murati had to develop an additional sense.

She kept glancing at her instruments, at the computer predictions.

Her cameras, pointed at the endless blue, were no use except to follow her allies.

And the brief flashes of the battle, quickly subsumed by the cold and the dark.

“We’ve reached the firing line. Use counter-thrust to stabilize.”

Murati hefted the 76.2 mm cannon with both hands and set the suit’s shoulders to prime the torpedo tubes. An electric motor within the torpedo preemptively spun a propeller in its tail. On one of her screens, a camera feed showed the torpedo’s perspective. Data was fed by wire back to her suit, and guidance traveled by wire as well. A light on the tube indicated readiness.

Along with Ensign Shalikova, and the four other units, the squadron assembled several hundred meters away from the flank of the Imperial fleet. Murati saw the readiness lights go on for all their torpedo tubes. There was no use aiming the torpedo, not right away. She waited for the specific time that they had been instructed to fire, displayed on her computer.

When the time came, the torpedoes launched out of their tubes with little recoil.

A long, thin wire trailed behind them as they accelerated.

Once the torpedo was underway, the picture on the screen only got worse.

It was a wonder the camera was included at all.

Instead Murati followed the diagnostic data from the torpedo.

Her computer collected this data and showed a very rough graph of the torpedo’s position and if anything was close. Taking this into account, and by squinting at the camera, she would be able to tell if she was near a target. At first the torpedo swam level from the firing tube, but it could be commanded to move in a specific direction by adjusting control surfaces on its tail.

As a novice torpedo pilot, Murati was not planning anything fancy.

She would swim the torpedo under an enemy ship and swing up into its keel.

Doing this, she had a chance of striking in a place no ship could easily recover from.

For several tense seconds she waited for her torpedo to get close and closer to the fleet.

Great grey shadows finally revealed themselves in the endless blue.

Murati pressed a toggle on the right-hand joystick to allow inputs to the torpedo.

She tugged sharply on it, sending the torpedo shooting up into the enemy fleet.

After a slight lag, the camera abruptly cut off. There was no other indication that she struck a target except for the final diagnostics, sent just before impact, and the computer’s prediction of what type of vessel she hit, based on the acoustic signature. According to the data, she had hit something like a Frigate or a Destroyer. That would have been 100 or 150 people dead.

Without giving it much thought she fired the second torpedo.

She could not completely trust the computer on a Diver to get everything right.

And whether or not she hit, it was a target-rich environment, and she had ordnance.

“Ensign, catch anything?” She asked.

“Dreadnought.” Shalikova responded, terse and unexcited.

Had anyone else struck a Dreadnought they would be dancing in their cockpit.

“What, really? I’ll treat you to something when we get back!” Murati declared.

She was barely keeping an eye on her own torpedo as she spoke.

“I’d rather you did not.”

Murati heard the alert ping from her torpedo as it detected nearby mass.

Repeating the same movements as before, she pushed her stick back as far as it would go.

Her torpedo jerked surface-ward and sent over the data for its final moments.

Another Frigate. It figured — they were the most numerous ships in a fleet.

“Cutter.”

Ensign Shalikova offered her second “catch” unprompted.

“Looks like everyone’s out of torpedoes.” Murati declared. “We should advance–”

A red light blinked from one of her monitors, drawing her attention.

At that moment, her sensors detected a large object approaching.

“Wait,”

She switched on every filter she could on her cameras, peering into the water ahead.

Ensign Shalikova saw it too. “Ma’am, something is–”

“I know!”

Murati switched to the routinely useless thermal imaging and surprisingly found a blob of heat approaching. She had little time to think about it and acted almost purely on reflex.

“Shell! Disperse!”

Engaging her thrusters, she jerked sideways into Shalikova.

A coilgun shell flew past them and exploded alone in the empty water behind them.

Several more coilgun shells peppered their location.

“Lieutenant, careful!”

Shalikova engaged her own thrusters and pulled away from Murati.

Ahead of them, a truly massive silhouette cut through the water.

Hundreds of cavitation bubbles projected from it. All kinds of guns were shooting now.

Everyone in the squadron ejected the extra mass of their spent torpedo tubes and scattered.

Within 100 meters, the beak-shaped prow of a Koenig class came into view.

A golden prow indicated that this was a flagship, or otherwise an important ship.

“It must be trying to escape!” Murati shouted.

On the upper hull dozens of gas gun turrets fired endlessly.

Coilguns emptied out into the ocean with abandon.

There were no Divers accompanying the Dreadnought.

All it had was guns, and those guns bristled, their barrels red hot as they dumped their magazines into the ocean. It was a remarkable sight, a terrifying sight. Endless, dismal popping and booming sounds, bubbles blowing in the thousands all around the ship, the copper-colored bullets slashing through the seas. Collapsing into steam bubbles ranging from the size of a fist to the size of a human body when the ordnance detonated. Pure saturation, the most savage expression of what the most immense military vessels of their era could do to their surroundings.

Murati and her Strelok companions dispersed in every direction and buzzed around the incoming Dreadnought. Shalikova and Murati had remained close, but the rest of the squadron went in vastly different angles, wherever their snap reactions took them. At first Murati jerked the Strelok this way and that, continuing to circle around the target, firing off her thrusters to avoid the gunfire. She looped in the water, briefly hanging against the limits of the seat harness.

Her targeting reticle went all over the place as she moved. Her cameras showed the dim circle of blue light that should have lain far, far overhead as suddenly under her, and the cloud of dust that floated off the seafloor took the place of the surface that was once above her head. With a lick of thrust from the Vernier thrusters on the hip, she threw herself diagonally, upside down.

Viewing the world from this new vantage, she realized the gunfire was not meant for her.

In fact, it was not meant for anyone. It was not meant to do anything.

Even with its attackers obviously in sight, there was no control of the guns, and no need to dance with all their might to survive. The Dreadnought was truly just firing in every conceivable direction and hoping to hit something. None of it was targeted. Nobody had her in sight.

Murati sat in place just long enough to confirm.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of bullets flew well past her, striking nothing.

The Dreadnought lumbered past them, locked in battle with only itself.

“Shalikova! Everybody! Open fire! Target the tower, jets and emplacements!”

Righting herself, Murati grabbed hold of her cannon with both hands.

She pressed the trigger.

There was a shock, absorbed and dispersed through the suit and gun.

A shell encased in a cavitation bubble hurtled out of the barrel.

In plain sight it swiftly cut through the water and smashed into the conning tower.

Punching a hole in the thin, flat side armor of the tower, it detonated inside. A steam bubble folded, vibrated, and tore the metal, leaving behind disgorged cabling and dead sensors. This was a pinprick on the Dreadnought, and it lumbered mightily forward despite the damage.

Murati’s companions followed her lead.

Amid the trails of bubbles and bullets emitted from the Dreadnought’s fire, lines drew across the water around it and into its armor. Turrets went up, some detonating savagely as the magazine inside exploded from a penetrating shot. More and more holes appeared on the Conning Tower. A fin blew clean off the prow. Murati swerved around the back of the vessel, punching shell after shell into the rear winglets, into the massive hydrojets that propelled the beast.

When her cannon thumped, bereft of ammunition, she brandished her diamond cutter.

Beside her, Shalikova launched her own last shell.

Her aim was almost prescient, like a work of magic.

Striking between several holes left by Murati, it punched through to one of the jets.

Instead of a stream of water, the rear of the Dreadnought began to eject shrapnel.

A cascade of internal damage ensued.

Murati received a warning on her screens.

Putting a filter over her cameras she detected the tell-tale purple glow.

Agarthicite runaway effects.

Something must have gotten to the reactor. Either Shalikova, or a suicide pact.

“It’s done! Run away, as fast as possible!” Murati shouted.

She pulled her control sticks back as far as they would go, full reverse.

Atop the surface of the Dreadnought, hex-shaped scars started to form.

Material crumbled off the ship’s hull as tongues of visible indigo energy slashed across it.

There was, for a brief moment, an alien rotation that would have mirrored that of the reactor rods. Parts of the dreadnought turned about like the surfaces of a puzzle cube. This was evident for such a brief moment that viewing it felt like insanity. Like it was something that Murati had dreamed, a vision that a deranged God had willed into her brain and not anything natural.

Perhaps it was not the metal bending and warping. Maybe it was space around the metal.

As soon as she saw this mad sight, it was gone.

Expanding out from the compromised reactor, as it ate away all of its Osmium shielding, the Agarthicite annihilation bubble flashed the brightest light that anyone could have possibly seen under the ocean. A purple sphere of dim yet bright light that felt solid and yet translucent, that expanded and contracted, that was curved and yet flat, a captivating, terrifying sight.

Murati’s felt something in the back of her head. Her senses dulled. Her eyes glazed over.

Ensign Shalikova, too, stopped moving, as the purple void expanded toward them.

Tiny flickers of hexagonal material peeled gently off the surface of their divers.

“Get a grip you two!”

Seeing them slack, the rest of their unit grabbed hold of their suits.

Murati felt like a passenger to her own body. She could not move.

Her hands slacked from the controls. Crucially, the thrust mode was already locked in.

Against the vacuuming strength of the annihilation sphere, all their jets struggled.

Holding the Lieutenant and Ensign between them, they put every ounce of liquid fuel and all of the power their batteries could muster into a mad forward dash away from the indigo. Behind their backs, stray flickers of runaway agarthic energy lapped at their backpacks and legs like the hungry cilia of a great, greedy anemone. Against all odds, deep in the Ocean where all blue and green light would die to the crushing depths, that indigo glow flashed as if through surface air.

“Shit! Shit!”

Praying, hoping, the pilots who flew beside them without name struggled to save them.

Never abandoning Murati and Shalikova whom they barely knew.

In an instant, they thrust forward at full speed, escaping the foul gravity.

Behind them, quickly as it had appeared, the sphere of annihilation was gone. In its place, there was the tip of a massive prow, a perfectly curved wound upon its back, and scattered debris.             With the destruction of the Strasser, so ended the 3rd Battle of the Thassalid Trench.


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The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.5]

Kampfgruppe Kosz was utterly destroyed by the Union.

When Admiral’s Gottwald’s flanking force crossed the mountains on the edge of Thassal, a pair of escaping vessels stumbled upon them and relayed the bad news. At first the text messages sent over the acoustic communicator were derided by the Admiral as sheer cowardice and treason, and he nearly ordered security to seize the ships: until he saw the battle damage on them.

 There was no denying that the escaping ships had taken a beating. Coilgun scars ran across the upper hull. Emergency ballast was deployed. These were newer ships, and that was the only reason they escaped with beaten-down crews and damaged hulls. Speechless, the Admiral shouted for all of his flanking force to deploy maximum sensor power on the Plains approach.

“I want every kind of scan on the plains! Maximum power! Fleetwide!”

Admiral Gottwald ordered the fleet to scan again and again and collate all data on the Strasser’s computer, but no matter how many pings and lasers they threw at the plains on approach, it was all the same. A mass of debris and the unmentioned bodies within it was all that remained of the main Imperial force at Thassal. There was no resistance being offered whatsoever.

Ahead of them, the Union fleet, with a bloody lip but continued resolve, waited for him.

Because of all the scanning, Gottwald’s fleet had essentially pointed a flashlight at itself in a pitch-black basement. Torpedoes began to fly at them by the dozen, homing in on the sonar pings and the LADAR traces. Having knowledge of their exact heading, the Union could begin a “headless” torpedo barrage from over 2 KM away. The Imperial fleet’s computers would easily find the acoustic traces of the Union torpedoes, but the incoming attacks slowed and distracted the fleet. Headless torpedoes were normally terribly inaccurate: unless the target was very obvious. And yet, having to deal with the shockwaves before meeting your enemy was a serious issue.

To tackle the danger, Imperial Destroyers and Frigates moved ahead of the formation.

Armed with a larger number of gas guns and light coilguns than the heavier vessels, they screened ahead for torpedoes. While this reorganization briefly gave the Admiral a sense of control over the situation, it did not solve the problem at hand. Somehow the Union had routed– no, not just routed, destroyed— a fleet of equal strength. Did they possess some kind of secret weapon? Had they deployed some sort of trick? Had Kosz simply made grievous mistakes in command?

There was no point in conspiratorial thinking, so he ruled out secret weapons. And Kosz should have performed acceptably even with a basic strategy of moving forward in a protected formation. He had an equal number of ships, but superior armaments. Three Dreadnoughts was far more than the Union could muster in Ferris on short notice. They only had five operational in total.

All that was left to contemplate was the terrible truth.

The Union defeated them with the weapons at their disposal. What did they have? Nothing that was superior to Imperial weapons. Ships, ordnance, watercraft– Divers? No, the Revolution was behind them all. The Empire had superior Divers than the Union– they had to be.

To think that the Union, those bandits and barbarians, could outmatch the Empire?

It was ludicrous. And yet evidence of it now lay undeniably before Admiral Gottwald.

All of this was weighing heavily on his nerves.

Without a submissive, easily broken Union, everything he struggled for was ruined.

“Abigail,”

He turned to his niece with a grim expression. She had been standing still by his side.

In a hushed tone, grabbing her by the arm, he spoke.

“I do not need your services. I need to concentrate, and your skittishness is bothering me. Go to the escape pod room and suit up. Watch out for any alerts and go north-northwest if needed.”

Abigail’s eyes drew wide. She was momentarily stunned. “Admiral– Uncle–”

She had not been skittish at all. She had been far more reserved than he.

“Girl, I can’t concentrate with you here chirping. Leave my sight now!”

He shoved her toward the command pod lift and took seat again.

For a moment, she turned back around to stare at him.

He gave her no more heed. And she finally understood his response.

Her heart pounding, eyes weeping, she obediently ran away from the command pod.

As she hurtled down the corridors of the Strasser, the fleet marched inexorably forward.

For Gottwald, and the officers and soldiers here, there was no turning back.

To even contemplate what they decided to do was a violation of Imperial sanction. They were Imperials, but what the Union could never have been aware of was that the circumstances that led them to fight meant they would no longer be welcome in whatever would be left of the Empire in the days to come. An era of chaos was brewing. Gottwald foresaw it, and he took action.

He was tempted to act. Tempted by the blood in the water.

And behind him was a nation of sharks, bigger, stronger, and more bloodthirsty than he.

Admiral Gottwald had taken what was once the Emperor’s; all in his presumed absence.

“You old bastard. Look at what you’ve reduced us to.”

Gritting his teeth, the Admiral sent an encrypted laser text message to all crews.

Ahead full.

He had lost the nerve to say it out loud.

You did all of this to us. You planned on it, from the very beginning, Konstantin.


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The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.4]

Murati and Shalikova soared toward the enemy fleet.

They had taken their tails. The fleet cruised past them while they climbed. As they rose to the level of one of the enemy Cruisers, Murati quickly sought out targets. They had to act fast.

Several vessels were packed tightly before them, with maybe half a vessel’s width between them, their formation five ships tall and maybe five ships wide around their dreadnoughts. It was incredible seeing the wakes of their jets, the bubbles from Union ordnance forming all across the mass. It was like gazing upon a structure, bristling with guns and occupied by dozens of enemy Divers. The Volkers were stationed farther up on the ship, as if they were additional gun turrets.

They were dwarfed as humans, but even as Divers they were swimming among giants.

Briefly, Murati made note of where her allies were. There were two Streloks armed with handheld cannons and two more with torpedo launchers, all of them following in her wake. Farther east there would be another squadron of six suits looking to crack the enemy fleet from the flank. To protect their squadron’s anti-ship combat power, Murati and Shalikova had to act quickly.

“Two ahead, then the two at six o clock. Watch out for gun turrets.”

“Copy.”

“Attack!”

Murati and Shalikova charged between the enemy ships and dove upon a Cruiser.

There was no steady footing. Due to all the shockwaves, the battlefield was vibrating, shifting, moving all around them. Both of them hovered a few centimeters off the actual hull. Overhead, enemy gas guns from the underside of a Destroyer were busy with incoming torpedoes. The two of them glided gently across the sloping deck of the Cruiser and thrust across from the center of the hull to the tapering, beak-like prow, upon which two Volkers stood guard.

Pressing one of her triggers for the first time, Murati engaged her weapons systems.

Her assault rifle targeting camera appearing on one of her screens.

She rapped the trigger.

Murati unleashed a burst of gunfire that tore into one of the Volker units. Supercavitating shells launched out of the barrel of her gun like lances cutting through the water ahead in their air bubbles. Three impacts on the Volker’s back penetrated the mechanisms of the hydrojet pack and detonated a few centimeters within the works, ejecting chunks of pumps, propellers and ducting.

Filling with water and bereft of thrust, her target lost its balance and tumbled over the edge.

Ensign Shalikova remained the swifter of the two pilots.

While Murati had slowed down to aim, Shalikova continued to accelerate.

Just as Murati’s target realized its own grizzly fate, the remaining Volker on the prow turned halfway to meet them. At that moment, Shalikova crashed into the back of the unit.

One arm wedged her diamond cutter into the Volker she had bullrushed.

Her second arm raised the assault rifle toward a neighboring ship.

Ensign Shalikova opened fully automatic fire on the next pair of bewildered Divers.

There was no need for Divers to hold a gun the way humans did, lifting it to the shoulder to aim, but without being stabilized against a surface, such as the hip pack, it fired wildly. Dozens of bullets exploded into tiny vapor voids around the Divers, signs of failed impacts.

“Ensign! No fancy stuff, just aim at them!” Murati shouted.

Her cutter had sawed a hole between the hip intake and the backpack of her initial target, through which water would quickly fill the cockpit. There was no response from it — likely the diver was scrambling for survival equipment inside. Shalikova delivered a dismissive kick, sending it tumbling away, and grabbed hold of her assault rifle with both of her Strelok’s hands.

Noticing the attack, the alerted Volkers turned their weapons toward the Cruiser.

Assault rifle fire began to pepper the air around Shalikova. She returned fire briefly.

Then she stopped. Her rifle must have clicked empty. She scrambled to reload.

Murati shifted her attention. She charged toward the edge of the Cruiser and flew off toward the neighboring vessel, a Frigate. However, the enemy fleet had begun to awaken to the reality of their attack. One of the Frigate’s rotund gas gun turrets swung toward the incoming Diver.

Dozens of 20 mm bullets hurtled out of steaming hot double barrels. Lines of water displaced by the cavitation bubbles flew past Murati, like harpoons trying to spear a fish. Several bullets bounced off the cockpit’s sloped armor surfaces, failing to penetrate.

Murati was felt each impact like a jab to the chin. She quickly retaliated.

Even if she could damage no other part of this Frigate, one burst from her assault rifle tore between the two barrels of the gas gun like a bullet between the eyes on a human head and silenced the control mechanisms inside of it. Those barrels would steam no further in this fight.

From the Frigate’s prow, the pair of enemy Volkers rushed to meet her.

They were like two big white eggshells just begging for a crack.

Engaging her left hip thruster, Murati suddenly strafed the first bursts of gunfire.

In a second, she had circled around the Volkers as they charged pell-mell toward her.

From this angle she could have hit anything, but the surest kill was the hydrojet pack.

Without thrust, they were just lumps of metal and could not hope to function in battle.

Murati squeezed off a fully automatic burst, two-handed, braced against her hip.

She had far greater control of her fire than Ensign Shalikova had exhibited.

Dozens of rounds chewed up the jets on the backs of the Volkers.

Struck mid-charge they tumbled out of control and quickly rolled off the ship.

They could have kept shooting. Their momentum was lost nearly immediately and the fall out of Murati’s sight was slow enough for them to take a few chances. But the reason a thruster hit was so deadly, was that most pilot’s self-preservation would kick in at that point.

No one was going to keep fighting with shredded thrusters.

Inside those Volkers they were probably frantic, rooting around for survival equipment.

As such, they dropped out of sight like corpses, arms spread out, weapons abandoned.

“Lieutenant! Up above!”

Overhead, gas guns from the bottom of the Destroyer sprayed the deck Murati stood on.

Hundreds of bullets rained down all around her.

A chunk of her shoulder pod armor blew off, damaging the jet anchor inside.

She barely applied thrust for an escape before a response came from the deck of the Cruiser.

Ensign Shalikova turned her weapon on several of the emplacements and loosed dozens of rounds from her assault rifle on the underside of the Destroyer. Lines of displaced water slashed across the Destroyer’s keel, littering three separate recessed gun emplacements with holes.

Metal ejected violently from below the Destroyer.

Perfect magazine detonations crippled each of the guns in a shockingly brilliant display.

“I owe you one, Ensign!” Murati shouted.

Luckily, the jet anchor pod was the only casualty. No water was getting in.

Hydrodynamic loss was palpable, as there was now a hole and the flailing guts of a weapon system on her shoulder that were disturbing the flow of water around her as she moved. There was no loss of raw thrust, so she was still able to fight. Murati sighed with relief after a quick diagnostic.

It had been barely minutes since they thrust up the tails of the enemy fleet.

To Murati, every exchange of gunfire felt like a slugging match that went to several rounds, despite it flashing before her eyes in seconds. Everything was moving at a bizarre rate. She barely took notice of her ragged breathing, the sweat dripping down her forehead, her pounding heart.

“Lieutenant, more are coming.”

Ensign Shalikova swung around to intercept a pair of Volkers rising to meet them.

A pair of rifles turned on them.

Murati liked her chances. If it was just these piecemeal attacks, they could hold it off.

Volkers were the same generation of suit as a Strelok but had seen no upgrade packages to match the continued refinements that the Union had made to their own standard suits. Harkening back to their lineage as worker suits, they had bulbous, bathyspheric central bodies, heads that looked like flattened hard hats with a single, glowing red sensor in between, and thick arms with three chunky fingers. Their intakes stuck out of the side much more obviously than a Strelok’s while the backpack jets stuck out farther outside of the body shape than on a Strelok, and their rifles were larger and much more unwieldy, designed to be operated by their fewer, fatter digits.

The Southern Border Fleet’s Diver liveries were standard, factory spec stark white.

In most respects, the Volker would have been a respectable bit of engineering.

All Imperial craft had that curved, well-crafted aesthetic, and the Empire’s advanced manufacturing techniques and access to better quality raw materials allowed them to make suits that at least in appearance if not performance, appeared better machined, better put together than Union suits. But the performance was not there. For around the same weight as a Strelok, every piece of weight on a Volker felt distributed wrong, and overall performance was just a touch worse.

As such, when the Volkers flew over the prows upon which Murati and Shalikova were perched, they did not have the crucial first shot on the Union divers. Their approach had been just a few knots too slow, and the mass of bubbles kicked up by their too-detached thrusters preceded them. Shalikova engaged her own thrusters, threw herself to the side of where the Volkers expected her to be. When they came upon the Cruiser’s prow, she easily raised her assault rifle to meet them.

Shalikova did not even have to shoot.

From above and behind them, cannons delivered two rounds that exploded mercilessly between the enemy divers. When the pressure bubbles formed, they expanded and contracted against the flanks of the suits, ripping off arms and shearing the flanks of the Volkers. A cloud of blood followed in the wake the sinking suits; the pilots clearly struck down amid the carnage.

“Units 04 and 08 here, Lieutenant! We’re ready to assist.”

Both of their cannon-armed compatriots landed on the deck of the Cruiser with the Ensign.

Murati nodded, though it was unlikely any of their video feeds would pick it up.

“Are we ready then?” She asked.

“Just watch the fireworks!”

The pair of cannon-armed Divers turned to face the center of the enemy formation.

Murati heard a rushing sound as their Diver-launched torpedoes sped past them.

With the path cleared, they cut through to the center of the formation.

Ahead, there was a brief and muted flicker from an enormous detonation.

Two torpedoes struck the starboard hull of an Imperial dreadnought deep within the fleet.

Even with modern algorithmic detection there was no way to respond to a torpedo fired from such a close range. The Dreadnought didn’t even know it had been targeted until it was too late. A pair of massive holes formed in the side of the dreadnought. Newer ships and especially newer Dreadnoughts had redundant systems, temporary sealant defenses against hull breaches, auxiliary ballast, and all manner of ways to survive this sort of savage pummeling.

An old Koenig class Dreadnought would have had none of those mechanisms. Other than its thicker armor, it would have had no defense. And no armor could protect against a close-in hit from a 120 mm torpedo. Especially not the basic pressurized steel armor of an old Koenig class. Primary ballast was utterly destroyed, and the second hit had punched a hole through to the reactor room, which would begin flooding. Soon the dreadnought started to list amid the fleet.

According to plan, the Imperial fleet detachment began to panic.

With one of their prized Dreadnoughts suddenly crashing through the fleet, ships began to spread out and disperse. A frigate that could not escape the warpath of the rapidly sinking capital ship was pounded by it, lost buoyancy and began to sink alongside. Several Divers were knocked about by the explosions and the subsequent crashing of ships that followed. Those ships that could move began to swiftly abandon the tight, protective ball that the fleet had organized.

Murati’s Divers took to the water and thrust out of the enemy’s formation.

They had done their part of this phase of the plan.

Now that an opportunity had been created, the Union barrage viciously intensified.

Coilgun shells fired off like never before, and fresh volleys of torpedoes swung toward ships tearing away from the Imperial formation. A Cruiser, abandoned by the protective gunfire of the dozens of emplacements carried by its escorting Frigates, took a direct torpedo to the prow. Forward ballast emptied out into the ocean, and it quickly tipped and sunk at a full ninety-degree angle. Imperial Cutters dropped like flies as Union coilgunners scored direct, penetrating hits.

The Union fleet advanced to within 400 and then 300 meters prow-between-prow.

This was essentially “chase” range. The Imperial Fleet was no longer coherent.

Stray gunfire met the Union approach, but bereft of direction, the Imperials were doomed.

Within minutes, ship after ship became casualties. A remaining Imperial Dreadnought took two holes to the upper port hull as it limped away. It was lucky that none of the ballast was hit, and the coilguns were not as powerful as torpedoes. Amid the barrage the third of the prized capital ships lost its entire conning tower to a torpedo blast and ran away deaf, dumb and blind. Much more grizzly fates met the Frigates, which were both older and less armored than any other ship. These practically split in half by the barrage and disgorged their crews out into the ocean.            

Four Union vessels took serious damage. The Empire lost 23 ships in a 30-minute battle.


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