It had been five years, but Senior Lieutenant Reva Tuzius could pick that laugh out of a hundred—no, a million sailors. It soared and rippled in cascading, charismatic waves, hitting her right in the gut.
Reva’s fingers involuntarily spasmed, rattling her cafeteria tray as she briefly considered doing an about-face and heading straight to her cabin—and a cache of candied apples—when Junior Lieutenant Nazir caught her elbow, preventing her escape.
“You okay? What’s wrong?” her Fighter Controller asked. They balanced their own tray in one hand almost effortlessly, an elegantly plucked eyebrow quirked in concern. They dropped their hand quickly, immediately realizing their mistake at touching their senior officer.
Reva let out a deep, shaky breath as she glanced about the crowded junior officer’s wardroom, giving a slight shake to quell Nazir as she searched for—there.
In the middle of the unofficial pilots’ section, where all of the hotshots gathered to brag about their time in the air, sat Reva’s most hated enemy.
Sabine Kumalovia perched among her comrades as elegantly as the Emperum themself, perfect and regal, like nothing had ever touched her or harmed her. Nothing ever had. Bitter memory stabbed at Reva’s chest. Sabine was the product of nobility—she was Quintus of the House of Jade Topaz, now a Senior Lieutenant in the Imperial Navy’s air force, and first in the graduating Imperial Naval Academy’s class five years before.
Reva had been second.
By two fifths of a point.
All thanks to that damned letter.
“What the flying stars is she doing here,” Reva growled. The Isten Imperial Navy was enormous and there were dozens of aircraft carriers scattered throughout the seas. How the hell had Sabine landed on her ship of all places?
Memories of Sabine’s pale thighs, her soft moans and her head resting against Reva’s stomach, flashed through her mind. Her hands clenched in anger.
Her greatest rival.
Her first love.
Five years wasn’t long enough.
“Um, isn’t that the commander of the new Falcon squadron?” Nazir asked.
Reva was too far away to recognize the patch on Sabine’s navy-blue flight suit. Did it matter, though? Sabine was here, after all these years. And she had command. As a senior lieutenant. Fate really did favor the nobility. Granted, Reva was doing very well as the senior officer in the lead ship’s Combat Information Center, but still. She’d fought her way to that position. And it wasn’t command. She wasn’t a pilot. She couldn’t fly. Reva turned away, feeling her steel resolve disintegrate. “Let’s sit somewhere else.”
“Um,” Nazir began, but stopped themself. They didn’t protest as Reva led them out of officer country although they did stumble when they realized she was taking them into the chief’s territory.
There were many things sacred in the Navy, but the most sacred was the chief’s mess, where the senior enlisted on the ship ate and enjoyed their down time. Reva might outrank them all as an officer, but this was one place on the ship officers were not supposed to go. Yet the senior officer’s wardroom was being used for the captain’s afternoon physical training, and besides, she couldn’t take Nazir there. They were too junior.
Reva was desperate. And she knew her chief was grabbing his own meal at that moment.
The mess wasn’t as empty as she’d expected, and the loud chatter died completely as the two officers entered carrying their trays. Reva’s stomach clenched, but she pinched her lips and steamed forwards. She’d rather face the ire of the chiefs than her ex-girlfriend’s pity—or worse, her condescension.
“Chief Barclay!” she called, catching the attention of her Chief Scryer.
Barclay grimaced at being singled out, but motioned her over to his table. The other chiefs stared daggers at him before going back to their own meals. Reva caught one of them muttering, “So long as they don’t eat our food, the vultures,” before she reached her chief’s table.
“You’re not supposed to be in here, qara,” he hissed, eyeing her sideways but remaining respectful. Barely. He’d addressed her with the formal subordinate-to-higher qara instead of the informal emmi usually used by chiefs to their officers.
Reva winced but sat down at an empty chair. She’d already committed to this mistake. The things I’ll do to avoid her.
Despite her discomfort, she couldn’t help the differences. The aircraft carrier Peregrine Zircon had been damn near deserted leading up to the battle group-sized exercise, but the arrival of its flying squadrons one week ago had strained the junior officers’ wardroom to its breaking point. The chief’s mess was damn near palatial in comparison.
Nazir sat down hesitantly beside Reva, plopping their tray onto the polished teak table with a clatter of cutlery. They kept darting glances at the nearest tables’ occupants. A low hissing whine escape Nazir’s mouth. They clearly feared the wrath of the chiefs.
“It’s an emergency,” Reva whispered, ignoring her junior lieutenant’s panic.
Barclay’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. “What happened?” he demanded. “Is there—why are we sitting here –why—” He stopped, apparently realizing his usually staid officer was pale and tense but not truly alarmed. Not that he had ever seen her panic. Reva wasn’t called the Icicle for nothing.
“The CIC is fine,” Reva said, taking a sip of coffee. Her hand shook and she set the cup down, frowning at the betrayal of her nerves.
“How’s your stomach?” Barclay asked.
Barclay leaned back in his seat, clearly skeptical. “Then what is going on?”
Reva closed her eyes, pretended that the other chiefs weren’t there, and took a deep, steadying breath.
“I think the senior lieutenant saw someone from her past, Chief,” Nazir said. “I think?” They gave a lieutenant-don’t-know shrug.
Barclay sighed with exasperation. “Officers lose that shrug as soon as they pin their junior lieutenant shells, emmi,” he said. Nazir blushed crimson. Barclay turned towards Reva. “So what brings you here, emmi?”
“Well, I did want to discuss the upcoming training exercise in greater detail, but I also wanted to get away from my ex.” Both Nazir and Barclay perked up at the mention of Reva’s past. From her peripherals, she saw several of the eavesdropping chiefs lean closer. Reva’s lips pursed in displeasure. She was not going to be scuttlebutt on this ship. Her past with Sabine was done. Over. Sealed. “I will say nothing more on that subject, thank you very much.”
“I deserve something,” Barclay muttered. Nazir bounced slightly with barely suppressed excitement, panic forgotten at the hint of a scandal—or a story.
“Fine,” Reva growled. “She was my girlfriend at the academy. It ended when she took First and the guaranteed pilot’s billet due to nepotism.” She inhaled sharply, and before either Barclay or Nazir could say anything further, she continued, “Now. Brief me on the issue with Scryer 1 and 2 and how that will affect surface ship tracking for the exercise.”
“But she’s a squadron commander,” Nazir blurted. One of the chiefs gasped at the revelation of potentially juicy news. The conversations that had restarted around them stopped.
Reva raised one eyebrow and the issue of her ex was dropped.
The rest of the meal was spent discussing Scryer 1’s updates, and if their current location two hundred leagues from the increasingly hostile Iron Islands would trigger any response from their navy.
Reva staggered into her cabin late that night to freshen up before returning to the Combat Information Center. A small, bitter part of her seethed at how surface ship officers were notoriously overworked. Pilots get mandatory flight rest, her traitorous mind whispered. It could have been you.
Her roommate, one of the many engineer mages managing the nine boilers of the Peregrine Zircon, was already in her rack with a sleep-mask propped over her face. Reva envied Arianna’s routine work schedule. Engineering was always well-staffed. She paused. So not all surface officers were overworked. Just those who interacted with the captain on a regular basis.
Reva yawned and slowly removed her green double-breasted spencer jacket, dropping it onto her chair with a jingle of conch shell aiguillettes. She rubbed her stomach, trying to ease the knot of tension that had been building ever since lunch. Something didn’t feel right, and she wasn’t certain that it was just Sabine’s appearance and not a flare up of her intuition magic. Just her luck that her magic manifested as something similar to indigestion at best or period cramps at worst.
“What time is it?” Arianna groaned.
“You don’t want to know.” Reva unwrapped her neckcloth and shucked off her linen undershirt, dropping it into her laundry sack. Her boots came next, the socks going into the sack. She rummaged through the dresser she shared with Arianna. She had one pair of socks left, and only two clean undershirts. “Ari, have you been taking my socks again?”
Arianna snorted. “No. You really need to do laundry.”
Reva glanced at the nearly full sack and groaned. “Can you drop it off alongside yours? Please?”
“Ugh. Leave me alone. I have to get up in fewer hours than I have fingers. Fingers on one hand, Rev.”
“Love you too,” Reva teased, pulling the fresh shirt on and flopping onto her chair for her fresh socks. Her boots needed shining, too. It was a good thing it was always dark in the CIC, and generally when she went to the bridge it was late at night. With a groan, she shrugged into her jacket and straightened her short-cropped hair with her fingers.
Her stomach twinged again, but she brushed it off as actual indigestion. Dinner had been less than palatable. “Later.”
Arianna groaned in response.
Reva shut the door to their cabin tight, turned, and nearly ran over someone squishy.
“Oof,” she grunted as their bodies collided, and tried to extricate herself gently from the shorter person without too much touching.
At the voice, Reva winced and looked down, fully taking in her speed bump. A short, curly-haired brunette stared up at her, dark brown eyes wide with surprise.
“Sabine,” Reva said, recovering from her shock. She did not like the rare instances when she was surprised. And Sabine had always been a surprise.
“What’re you doing here?” Sabine asked. Spots of color flushed her pale cheeks. A flight bag was tucked under her arm.
“Funny you should ask, since this is my ship,” Reva replied.
Sabine’s flush deepened, but she didn’t look away. Her jaw worked a moment before she said, “I didn’t realize you were stationed on an aircraft carrier. What section are you in?”
Anger flared in Reva’s chest. How dare she pretend to care. Reva brushed past her, lifting her head so she didn’t have to look at her ex. There were perks to being tall. “What, are you planning to take that away, too?”
Reva was halfway down the narrow passageway before Sabine answered. “Rev, I—”
Reva stepped through the hatch and turned a corner.
She had spent five years forgetting Sabine. Forgetting the betrayal. The hurt. The memories. She could forget her now, too.
It took her another two levels, though, before her hands stopped shaking.
“Your pilot is making waves up top,” Chief Barclay remarked conversationally two nights later, as they prepared for the exercise’s first flights. He didn’t look up from where he was fiddling with one of the crystals on Scryer 1. The scanning instrument had been giving them issues all night, manifesting ghost images of surface ships that weren’t there no matter what the junior mage techs tried.
The sailor holding two of the crystal relays looked down, with the I’m invisible and very focused on my job expression all junior sailors adopted at some point or another. Nevertheless, his head cocked towards Reva. She gritted her teeth.
“She is not my anything,” Reva replied, with forced calm. The entire situation was starting to piss her off. The Piz was huge, and yet Sabine seemed to pop up in all the places Reva usually frequented. It’d gotten so bad that Reva had started taking the long way to get anywhere just to avoid her ex. Mention of a return of an ex and a bad break-up had spread through the carrier like ship fire.
Barclay continued, “Just thought you’d like to know she’s been pushing the flight tower for her squadron to get launched first for tonight’s maneuvers.”
Reva grunted. Her stomach twisted. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. She didn’t give a flying flip about whatever games Sabine was playing with the flight controllers and the other squadron commanders. The exercise flight schedule was settled.
Reva glanced at the horizontal plotter to distract herself, where all surface ships’ locations, courses and speeds were monitored. The icon for the battleship Dodecahedron Pink flashed a brilliant blue as its position was updated. Nothing was amiss with Third Battle Group. They were all set for the exercise to begin.
Reva’s stomach twisted.
Scryer 1 gave two short, sharp blips.
The sound for unknown surface ships.
Reva turned to the instrument. Five unknown ships sat at the edge of Peregrine Zircon’s range. They were too big to be fishing vessels, and they weren’t in any commercial shipping lanes. The back-up scanner, Scryer 2, blipped as well. Its readouts matched Scryer 1.
Her stomach twisted again.
This time she listened to it. Her magic was small, but it was invaluable. “Naz, radio the flight tower and Dodie. I’m getting a funny feeling about these readings.”
“Yes, emmi,” Nazir replied from their station at Fighter Control.
Her uneasiness only increased, and Reva had the sinking feeling that it wasn’t related to whatever feelings she was having over a certain short squadron commander. Phantom ships and aircraft popped onto the scanning instrumentation every so often and usually weren’t a cause for concern. But Reva had a larger helping of intuition magic than most, and something didn’t feel right. The Third Battle Group’s exercise to test the new Falcon planes was about to begin, and the Iron Islands had been awfully silent this past month.
Reva popped a peppermint into her mouth to calm her aching stomach as she waited for word from either the flight tower or Dodecahedron Pink.
Scryer 1’s screen refreshed, and the five ships vanished.
Barclay straightened and leaned over look at Scryer 2. It was also picking up nothing aside from their battle group.
Reva’s lips pursed. She had leaned over to look at the second scrying machine. One of Barclay’s eyebrows quirked and he subtly touched his stomach. Reva raised a shoulder to indicate she had a feeling but wasn’t sure what it meant.
“Emmi, we’re getting some funny reads on the Sphero,” Nazir said, breaking up the silent conversation. “Five unknown aircraft, bearing 040, range ninety-five leagues.” The unknown aircraft were forty leagues from the vanished surface ships.
“Course?” Reva asked, discreetly rubbing her stomach to avoid alarming her crew.
“Maintaining distance in relation to us,” Nazir replied. “They keep popping up and vanishing when they’re about ninety-six leagues away from us.”
“About five minutes. It’s happened twice now. They show up on screen, then disappear at ninety-six leagues out. It’s like there’s a curtain of invisibility or something.”
Again, at the edge of Peregrine Zircon’s range. Near the Iron Islands’ sphere of influence too, and right at the start of their exercise? An exercise Reva had helped organize, so she knew this wasn’t part of the plan. It was too much to be coincidence.
Everything became calm. She felt disconnected yet hyper-aware as little hints tried and failed to click into place. Her stomach clenched, nearly sending her to the floor. Whatever was about to happen, it was bad, and it was going to get worse. She raised a hand. Better to be cautious than ignore her magic. She’d learned that the hard way.
Barclay grimaced and dimmed the lights to the CIC. Immediately, the low side-conversations stopped, and her plotters and operators focused on their stations with greater intensity.
“Connect me to the bridge,” Reva said. “Start plotting all phantoms. Get Weather in here. Let me know as soon as the flight tower and Dodie report in.”
“Yes, emmi.” It was a murmured chorus throughout the darkened CIC, as if all her sailors and junior officers had been holding their breaths, waiting for her decision.
A sharp pain nearly bent her double when the telephone operator handed her the receiver to the bridge. A sailor set a mug of ginger tea on Reva’s console. She gave them a brief smile before taking the receiver.
“Combat,” she said.
“Bridge.” It was the captain. “How are we looking with the exercise prep?”
“I think we have something bigger to worry about, qara. Scryer 1 has been acting up. About five or six unknown ships pop in and out of the Scryer’s range, holding steady at bearing 035.” She gave the captain the coordinates. “About a minute ago Sphero detected unknown aircraft, at bearing 040.”
“What does your gut say?”
Reva took a breath. Released it. “My gut says wait five minutes for the flight tower and Dodie to come back with their assessments, but in the meantime launch two birds for overwatch and delay the exercise by thirty minutes.”
“What’re the latest reports on outside activity?”
“Quiet, qara. Too quiet.” Reva took a sip of the tea to try to calm her stomach. Something wasn’t right. And it definitely wasn’t Sabine’s reappearance in her life. “Nothing from the Iron Islands in the latest intel reports, just as we briefed this morning. And yet.”
The captain grunted. “Coordinate the launch. I will notify the rest of the Battle Group.”
Reva heaved a sigh of relief.
The captain added, “And Reva? Your gut better be right.”
“Yes, qara,” Reva replied. Her intuition had a ninety-seven percent accuracy rating, but there was always the chance of that three percent deciding to show up and prove her wrong. Like when she bumped into Sabine several nights before.
She set the bridge phone down.
Chief Barclay had been eavesdropping and had already picked up the flight tower phone to coordinate the fighter launch. Two planes were aloft and assigned as combat air patrol, but they were south of the Battle Group and didn’t have enough fuel to investigate.
Reva held out her hand for the outgoing phone just before it rang. The telephone operator smiled and handed Reva the receiver. “What do you have, Vols?” Reva asked.
“Dammit, I hate when you do that,” Dodie’s senior CIC officer muttered.
“You love it.” Reva took another sip of her tea. Chief Barclay accepted a note from one of the radio operators and nodded.
Reva tried to catch Barclay’s response, but Vols continued, “Nothing on our end, Rev. We’ve gotten flickers but I think it’s just a system of clouds on the outer edges of the scryer.”
“What does your Weather say?” Reva asked as she checked out the Piz’s own weather mage, who was holding a hand above the weather station and mumbling something under her breath. Blue sparks danced over her fingers.
“Unusual activity but it is summer and summer weather gets weird,” Vols replied.
“Keep tracking. We’re delaying the exercise by thirty minutes and launching two more birds.”
“You picking up something?” Vols’ voice had an undercurrent of concern.
“Just a feeling.”
“Language.” Reva thanked her lucky stars that this was a secure line. No snoopy captains to counsel them on unprofessionalism. “Just keep checking. Medium alert, live weapons.”
“Let me know if your feeling gets any stronger.”
“Will do. Piz Combat, out.”
Reva tilted her mug, draining the last drops of the tea. The ginger had helped calm her stomach, but it was really starting to hurt again. Chief Barclay winced in sympathy and motioned for another cup. Reva drained that one too, and rubbed her stomach with a grimace.
At Barclay’s nervous glance, Reva just shook her head. “Probably nothing.”
Her gut said it wasn’t.
The phantom readings continued to hold their positions at the outer ranges. Since the Piz was moving, that meant they were too—unless it really was a glitch. The blips flickered in and out, seeming to continuously retreat behind a moving line. The weather mage said the disturbance felt like a heavy cloud, then headed to the flight deck with the rest of the weather coven to summon a circle for further investigation.
Except for a quick update to the captain and the flight tower to coordinate the best ship position and bearing to launch the planes, the CIC was silent. Reva moved from station to station, mentally filing the information on the fleet’s location and bearing, plane statuses, and the Piz’s course and speed, growing a clearer picture in her head of their current situation.
After a murmured conversation, Nazir’s plotter stood and updated the flight board with the overwatch birds. Reva bit off a groan as he wrote “Firefly.” Of course Sabine was one of the hotshots going out there to investigate.
All murmurs died away with the jerk and thunk of the catapult and the shivering of the deck plates as the planes left the carrier—even three levels down in the relative safety of the center of the ship.
It was a familiar sound, but something about this launch had sweat trickling down Reva’s back despite the cooled air piped in from outside. Sabine was off and away. Towards a threat that had Reva’s magic senses reeling in suppressed panic.
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “Override audio to the flight tower.”
Nazir’s radio operator flipped several switches, and the feed between the overwatch planes and the flight tower filled the CIC with a light crackle of static and residual magic. There was nothing for a long while as the planes reached altitude and Reva’s operators plotted updates of everything they could find on the scanner’s outer edges. Weather came back, reporting that the disturbance on the horizon was nothing more than a cloud that felt a little off.
“Everything all right, emmi?” Chief Barclay asked, voice pitched low.
“I have a bad feeling about that cloud,” Reva muttered.
Barclay swore under his breath, then turned towards the Sphero plotter. “Firefly’s ETA?”
“Twelve minutes, Chief.”
While Chief Barclay swept through the room getting updates from the different stations, Reva called the weather mages, then updated the captain on the situation—as in, they knew nothing but had nine minutes before the planes would reach the cloud and the phantoms.
Reva absently chewed on another peppermint.
The phantom readings appeared.
Then vanished again, each time ducking back into where Weather had pinpointed the cloud.
Five minutes later, the first report crackled over the radio. “Firefly to Piz,” Sabine reported. Her voice was crisp, cool, and professional. “We don’t see anything. Horizon’s clear and my scryer isn’t picking up anything. Over.”
Reva gestured to Nazir, who picked up the receiver. Sabine was still too far to see anything at the Piz’s farthest scanning capabilities. “Fighter Control to Firefly,” Nazir said. “Push another forty leagues.”
“Roger that, Fighter Control.”
“Have her maintain radio communication,” Reva added, trying to ignore how Sabine’s voice felt like a knife to her stomach.
Nazir shot her a sharp glance but relayed the message. Chief Barclay raised his eyebrows at Reva. Having a pilot clog up the radio for ten minutes was an unusual breach of protocol. Reva ignored them both and updated the bridge, passing along course corrections to minimize the carrier’s profile on any possible enemy scryers.
“What do you want me to say, Fighter Control? Should I talk about my feelings?” Sabine’s voice was rich with irony.
Reva flushed and turned her head. Obviously, Sabine had uncovered what section Reva was in—and hadn’t forgotten one of their last arguments. And she wasn’t above discussing whatever it was she wanted with impunity. Fucking pilots.
“Anything you want to talk about over an open channel, Firefly,” Reva replied, trying to maintain her cool as Nazir repeated. Several sailors were glancing back to her station beside Scryer 1, and she saw more than one mouth agape at their usually cool lieutenant showing any emotion beyond intuition pangs.
Sabine chuckled, low and throaty. “Oh, I have loads to say, like how I—wait, what’s that? Do you see that?” She addressed the last sentence to her wingmate.
“Negative, Firefly. I don’t see—oh.” The other pilot swore.
“Piz, there’s a shimmer on the horizon.” Sabine relayed the coordinates in a tone that had lost all playfulness. “I think it’s magic based. We’re going to investigate.”
After a pause, she continued, “Shimmer roughly five leagues away—bearing 057 to my location. Definitely magic, possibly wind and water related. It’s going a long way and—shit!” There were several loud reports. “We’re taking fire, Piz. Permission to enter the shimmer?”
“Granted, cross through.” Reva paused. “Patrol only, do not engage.”
Reva called the bridge. “Captain, permission to fire on unknown enemy?”
The response was immediate. “Fire all. Exercise is moving live. I’m sounding general quarters. Combat, reroute combat air patrol and scramble the rest of the Falcon squadron. Keep the updates flowing, Combat.”
“Copy all, qara.”
Reva relayed the orders and turned back to the scryer after her last call, baring her teeth at those mysterious blips. If it was a fight they wanted, they’d get it. Whatever was behind the barrier was about to face the might of the Isten Empire.
“Firefly crossing the barrier now.”
Reva walked to the sphero. The two blips that were Sabine and her wingmate vanished as they crossed the invisible line.
The radio’s crackle vanished as the connection was lost.
“Firefly, report.” Nazir’s voice cut through the CIC, calm and collected. They repeated the order, but there was nothing but silence over the radio.
On the other side of the vertical plotter, the sphero plotters winced and made x’s on the transparent surface, carefully writing down the bearing, speed and coordinates backwards so the rest of the room could read the updates.
Reva picked up the bridge phone and was about to update the captain when one of the sphero plotters yelped, grabbed a marker and starting scribbling frantically.
Both scryers and the sphero flared bright green. When the screens cleared, the block that had been obscuring the readings vanished. The instrumentation wailed as a host of contacts appeared at the very edge of their range. Reva stared. It was nearly an entire enemy battle group.
The radio flared back to life.
“Piz, we’re under fire,” Sabine said tightly. “Behind the barrier is a fleet—” she grunted, then continued, voice strained, “—no flags, but Iron Islands’ makes. One light carrier, three battleships, one frigate—and I think I saw the outline of a sub—” another grunt, “—pursued by a flight of aircraft—” burst of static “—iiit Hurl is down! I repeat, Hurl is down.”
Reva was already on the phone with the bridge once more, feeling time slow down and crystalize into nothing but communications, maps and calculations. The battle had started, and she had work to do.
The entire CIC was silent save for the thunk of the catapult and the roar of engines as the Falcons launched from the flight deck. Each thunk punctuated the knowledge that Sabine was facing an entire battle group alone and that help would arrive too late.
Reva’s mind danced in rapid calculations as she went from station to station, her stomach a ball of ice, flaring up here and there to point her towards one decision or another. She moved on instinct, letting her magic propel her forward. She could not think about that lone blue dot amongst the horde of green. Could not focus on how it was still there, impossibly, against the odds.
Leaving the positioning and logistics of the aircraft to Nazir, Reva focused on maneuvering the Piz to present the smallest target while also bringing the anti-aircraft guns to bear.
One ear was on the bridge receiver as she scanned the positions, maintaining her bubble of the ever-changing situation.
The enemy carrier held back at the edges of the scryer’s range, but the battleship and frigate surged forward to close the distance and operate their big guns. Iron Islands’ ship guns didn’t have the range or size of the Imperial Navy, but their submarines were quieter, faster and had more accurate torpedoes.
Sabine—Firefly, Reva corrected, trying to ignore the stab of irrational panic—rejoined her squadron, although her fuel reserves wouldn’t be enough to last more than another four or five hours. Hopefully the battle wouldn’t take that long. But Reva couldn’t focus on the air portion. She was needed for the upcoming surface battle.
“Where’s that enemy sub?” she asked, glancing down at Scryer 2.
“Last position at bearing 044, range 20 leagues.”
Shit. There were rumors that Iron Islands research and development section had modified a super-torpedo to be powered with a combination of steam turbines and water mages for an explosive that had greater range and accuracy. Isten torpedoes had ranges of ten leagues—if this sub got any closer, the Piz would be in danger of attack.
She glanced at Fighter Control’s updated list of aircraft. “Tell the tower to launch two observation planes. Get that sub.” She’d rather have all birds in the air than sitting on a vulnerable flight deck. The enemy planes were closing in.
“Yes, emmi,” Nazir replied.
Reva kept circling her stations, keeping the picture in her mind. The planes had met and were engaged overhead—their maneuvers and updates keeping Nazir, their radio operators and the sphero plotters busy coordinating with both the flight tower and combat air patrol. The two planes that had been up before Sabine—Reva directed her thoughts firmly away—were low on fuel and had to be changed out, causing constant roars, thumps and shudders from the flight deck.
One of the enemy battleships turned, bringing its guns to bear.
“They’re aiming at us,” Chief Barclay hissed.
Reva nodded, relaying the information to the bridge. The captain ordered the Dodie to concentrate her fire on the lead enemy battleship and have the weather mages on the bridge whip up a storm around the enemy aircraft carrier. A dark green swarm of clouds began to coalesce around the carrier with malignant intent, seeking to find and swallow enemy aircraft.
Meanwhile, a second contingent of wind mages stood at the main elevator shaft in Hangar One and engaged in their own brand of defensive warfare by preventing enemy mages from affecting the weather around the Piz.
“Incoming torpedo, bearing 067. Range two leagues.”
Reva had just lifted the phone to her ear when the entire carrier shuddered and jolted, knocking her to her knees. The receiver smashed into her jaw before crashing back against the bulkhead, bouncing on its cord.
The carrier lurched alarmingly before the engineers shifted the ballast. Reva scrambled to her feet, clutching the receiver against her ringing ear. “Incoming, turn hard starboard!” she shouted, bracing herself for the impact as the carrier swung slowly and her team struggled to figure out what the hells had hit them. The torpedo was too far out to have hit them—
Then the torpedo they were tracking impacted the Piz’s stern.
Reva fell again with the second impact, her forehead smacking against the metal edge of Scryer 1. She gritted her teeth and pulled herself upright, snapping for updated reports from damage control. She focused Nazir’s efforts on coordinating fire for the ships in the fleet and relaying vectors on the incoming aircraft. Blood trickled down her cheek.
“Damage control updates, now,” Reva demanded. What the hell had that first impact been?
She glanced around the CIC, taking in the damage as reports from below flooded in. Several other sailors were rattled about from the double impacts, but none required more than buddy care. No instrumentation looked damaged.
The news was worse below decks. Compartments on the starboard sides of the bilge were filling with water, and a portion of Engineering had been damaged. Reva’s stomach was a knot of pain and worry. Arianna was down there with the boilers. Reva shook her head and refocused. She had a job to do and so did Ari. Damage Control Mages were rushing to close off compartments, rescue who they could, and put out fires igniting on levels 1 through 3 in the ship’s bowels.
Worse, the torpedo had nailed the starboard rudder, locking it in position. They wouldn’t be able to do more than go in a slow circle until it was fixed.
“Firefly got the sub,” Nazir announced, breathlessly.
There was a muted cheer—and a small part of Reva relaxed—before they remembered the battle was far from over.
Reva barked several commands for updates, as Dodie and the rest of the battle group opened fire on the enemy ships. One of their Falcon pilots had managed to knock out the enemy frigate, and the Piz’s attached submarine closed in on the enemy carrier, hoping to strike a blow that would put it out of commission and send its planes to a watery grave.
“Flight deck is operational,” Reva told the captain. “Ship’s list is 2 degrees to starboard.” They’d be able to land their planes when it was over. If it was over. Maybe Sabine would make it back. “Damage Control is filling Level 1 compartments A24—A45.”
Arianna’s battle station.
Then the enemy battleship fired its guns upon the Dodie, and Reva forgot her friend in the rush of information and decisions.
The battle ended as abruptly as it had begun, with the Iron Islands losing their lead battleship and taking significant damage to their aircraft carrier, and then limping away into the distance—the battle group having never been close enough to actually see each other with the naked eye.
The Third Battle Group coalesced to a new defensive position, ready to pursue if necessary or retreat if more of the enemy appeared.
In the CIC, however, it wasn’t over. Operational readiness was fluctuating more rapidly than the tidal charts in southern Isten.
There was the fleeing fleet to track and determine if pursuit was necessary. There were downed enemy ships and planes to be tallied, search planes flown over the wreckage, and boats to be launched if there were any survivors.
Third Battle Group hadn’t lost any ships, but there had been significant damage to the Piz, from the torpedo and what had been identified as a new type of projectile. It had hit the flight deck and significantly damaged most of the armored plates in stern, which had made landing the planes during and after the conflict more challenging—those planes that had returned.
Reva stared at the missing and confirmed losses in aircraft, and mourned the lives that had been in each plane. Reports of killed or missing sailors were forthcoming. Damage Control was still going through Engineering, and duty sections were still getting accountability, but the captain would be writing a number of letters.
The question rotating among everyone in the CIC was now why, with a close second of who was missing. Reva didn’t have ready answers—and she’d been to the intelligence briefings. The Iron Islands had been quiet for months and there had been no rumors of new military technology like the obscuring shimmer cloud. Whatever the Iron Islands had intended with their impromptu attack, they just might have started a war.
Reva frowned. It would be something to think about later, when everything was said and done. She turned back to compiling the damage reports and assessing overall battle group strength. She needed something more to keep her mind occupied away from the death and destruction, the lingering fear that someone she knew was dead or hurt.
“Emmi.” Chief Barclay was at her shoulder. He motioned her to wrap it up. “Second shift can handle the wrap-up.”
“I need—” Reva began, but her chief shook his head.
“Everyone else has been swapped out. It’s just you and me.”
Reva glanced around. Second shift surrounded her. This group had probably managed to catch a couple hours of sleep in the—Reva checked her watch—six hours since the battle. She did the math of how long she had been on shift, and the numbers just swam in her mind’s eye instead of coalescing into something painfully long. She yawned, hiding it with her notepad.
“The next brief with the captain is in three hours. Enough time to get some rest and get back into it.” Barclay paused. He didn’t need to say it, but he said it anyway. “The next couple weeks are going to be interesting.”
Reva grunted in agreement. Someone in Naval Intelligence was going to get sacked.
She turned towards her replacement, who had been quietly moving through the stations to get a grasp of the situation on her own before absorbing what Reva knew. Her replacement would handle the rest of the damage control updates and preparation for the next phase of battle.
Reva rubbed her still aching stomach as they left the CIC. The worst of the battle pains had died down, but something was still off and it was making her cranky and irritable. The battle was over—what else had happened? She brushed it off as still feeling antsy over not knowing the full extent of casualties in engineering, damage control and among the pilots.
Barclay stopped when they reached the junction at officer and chief’s quarters. “Hell of a trip, emmi.”
“Yeah.” Reva sighed. What a fucking day. It was only going to get worse. “See you in three hours, Chief.”
She was deep in thoughts of plans for the upcoming war or whatever was going to happen when she reached her cabin. Her hand was on the doorknob before she noticed the intricately braid red and gold ribbons hanging on the door.
Reva stared blankly at the mourning braid, her exhausted mind frozen at, But I’m not dead to How did they get the ends to flutter like that, there’s no wind here to What the hell happened when there was a footstep behind her.
“Oh Reva. I’m so sorry.”
Reva turned slowly.
Sabine stood before her, still kitted in her flight suit.
The scene was a mirror image of what she had looked like when they’d bumped into each other what felt like a lifetime ago, but now Sabine’s face was blackened with ash and soot. Her eyes were swollen and red. She looked exhausted, battered and beaten, a far cry from the triumphant hero who had been celebrated above decks.
Something loosened in Reva’s chest.
Sabine wasn’t dead.
Reva had known it, had tracked Sabine’s callsign as covertly as possible until the Falcon had landed safely on the flight deck, but then they had taken enemy fire and she hadn’t paid more attention.
And now she was here, and someone else wasn’t.
“I—” Reva began, and turned back to the braid.
And it hit her.
Steering had taken the brunt of the torpedo, but Engineering and the boiler mages were close enough that they would have been the first to rush in for damage control. Reports of the dead were still trickling into the CIC.
Arianna with her smiles. Her grumpiness. Her friendship and mutual commiseration. The late-night study sessions. The laundry-run trade-offs. A year and a half of sharing a small space with a roommate who understood her, who shared her need for silent recharging and enjoyed long periods of comfortable silence.
Sabine stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Reva. Her chin rested against Reva’s chest, and her tangled brown curls were so close that Reva could smell the smoke and magic. Sabine rubbed slow circles on Reva’s back, as she stood, still frozen in shock.
Slowly, Reva put her arms around Sabine.
The tears came, dripping into Sabine’s hair. Sabine’s chest heaved, pressing into Reva’s stomach, as they cried for those they had lost. Sabine reached up and cupped Reva’s cheek, a silent apology for all that had sent them apart, and for all that they had lost. And all that they would soon face.
“I’m sorry,” Sabine whispered.
Reva pressed her forehead against Sabine’s. Her hurt from the past felt so trivial, so childish, when faced with this death and destruction.
“It’s okay.” More words would need to be spoken, to heal, to move forward, to break down the walls they had built, but for now that was too much to think about.
Slowly, gently, they untangled themselves and went into Reva’s cabin.