By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

Arkhangelsk, the heart of the Russian Empire, had survived more firestorms in this war than any of its citizens could count. It had endured even as Europe burned and Scandinavia was eaten away. It had withstood hundreds of barrages from the AustraloChine Federation and supplied the warheads that brought down the Americas. And yet, after all this time, there were things that could still surprise the people of Arkhangelsk. When dawn broke on the 77th day of the 77th year since the war began, all eyes turned to the northern White Sea.

There was a new island.

At first it was a silhouette on the horizon, obscured by fog and rain. Later in the morning the rain stopped and the fog cleared, and observers on the shore were horrified. This was no ordinary island. For one thing, it was moving. As the day drew on its triangular outline grew larger and sharper. Soldiers and pilots scrambled to their defense stations. Troops were mobilised inside Kolguyev, the offshore fortress whose granite walls had never been breached.

Robotic drones were launched to intercept the thing and gather intelligence. All of them were shot down – or possibly electrostunned – before they got a clear image. By midday, Russian officials were on the verge of panic.

Watchers on the shore were quick to realise what was bearing down on them. A new warship sent by the ACF, but far bigger than any ship that had come before. Estimates of its width began at ten kilometres and didn’t get any smaller. Presumably, it was even greater in length. From above it must have resembled a colossal dart aimed at the Arkhangelsk Delta.

How, people asked, did nobody see it coming? Evidently this giant craft had the technology to slip past coastal patrols, aero squads and even orbital scanners. In the mid-afternoon, one official discovered a geophysics survey that would have betrayed its trans-Bering passage from Japan… but it was too late to do anything about it.

The ship was Adacos. At its helm stood High Commander Matsukata and his six Captains, each responsible for one portion of the 18,000-strong army aboard. Matsukata had been a top-rate soldier for twenty-five years and a cyborg for twenty-two of them. He had an iron will – literally – and determination enough to strike a city-sized blow for the Federation. It would be a fierce day, and a glorious one.

Once Arkhangelsk was in range, at 3:12 pm, Matsukata stepped onto a holo-plate to broadcast himself across the entire ship. Every fighter on board was greeted by a thin, angular face with a segmented moustache and a scope in place of a right eye. First he addressed his crew and army in Japanese, then again in Yenglese, then finally in Australian.

“Brothers and sisters, this is High Commander Taisuke Saito Matsukata speaking. We have arrived!” Those who only knew him from his scripted, monotonous recruitment ads were surprised by the sharp energy in his voice. Although he had to stand still on the holo-plate, his body quivered with excitement. Thoughts of battle had electrified him. “I must keep this short, since we can expect Kolguyev to go live shortly, and I’m not a fan of long speeches anyway.”

Behind him, Captains Jacumina Sellack and Aritomo Mori checked the latest readouts from the Environmental Monitoring Division. Thermal scans confirmed that Kolguyev was indeed charging up its weapons and would soon be able to fire on Adacos.

“Today will be remembered in history as the turning point in our war against evil,” Matsukata continued. “For with this ship, the new pride of the Federation fleet, we will crush the Red Cities and turn the Empire to dust. We are here now to show them our true power. After today, the Russians will know we aren’t scrawny islanders flinging our fists in a fight we can’t win. We are stronger than they are, smarter than they are, and we will restore balance to the world!”

Behind him, the six Captains applauded. They weren’t only doing it out of politeness; they knew victory would be easy. At their hands was the kind of technology the Russians only knew in science-fiction books.

“Let’s now give them a taste of what this ship is capable of. First we must slow the engines and take up an offensive position while we are still in deep water.” (By ‘deep’ he meant three kilometres or more; off the continental shelf.) “Then we shall blast Kolguyev out of the sea. Go now, brothers and sisters, to battle stations!”

Cheers and applause were how Matsukata imagined his message was received, for that was how his Captains responded. In reality, scurrying about the vast decks, underdecks and sub-bridges he couldn’t see, his army was entirely focused on getting to their positions. Soldiers in blue and green uniforms dashed this way and that, jumping into lifts or powering up tracked Perenties. Many of them grinned at the thought of what was ahead. They had come all this way across the ocean, never a doubt in their heads, eager to strike back at the toxic Empire.

Adacos had its own transport system to help those on board access all corners of its gigantic hull. On the upper decks, from which they could be deployed as amphibious assault vehicles, the Perenties were used. They surged along metal lanes like ants down a tree trunk. In cross-shaped corridors below them, automated cars trundled back and forth over the heads of the engineers who kept everything powered up. Deep down in its gut, six fusion reactors ran to full capacity, lighting up the underdecks and bringing the ship to life.

A half-hour later, the Captains reported that Kolguyev was fully charged and ready to go hot. Matsukata was still with them, standing in the armoured, windowless bridge high above the waves. Instead of returning to the holo-plate, he simply approached a control bank and switched on the wide-cover intercom. Chinese satellites picked up his voice on a secret frequency and relayed it to speakers peppered all over the mobile island.

“Your High Commander speaking again. If everyone is in position, now is the time to strike. Divert optimum power to the ballistics deflectors. Prepare all forward railguns and ionisers. We are now converting to Attack Mode!”

“They must be pooping their pants over there,” said Captain Wren as soon as she knew the intercom was off.

“How eloquent,” Matsukata replied in his native tongue. “Are you all ready?”

The six Captains, Kido, Mori, Tāwhiao, Lauaki, Sellack and Wren all nodded and gave a two-handed salute. He returned it, then instructed them to shift a set of appropriately massive levers protruding from the floor. Screens lit the bridge up in orange with a warning message that cycled through three languages: ‘Attack Mode Initiated’.

Just as the Russian official with the geophysics report found his comrades to tell them, observers elsewhere in the building began shouting into their commsets. Before their astonished eyes, the ‘island’ changed its shape. It widened and flattened, just like a tiger crouching in the grass. Orbital scans suddenly picked up its outline from above. Stealth Mode had been dropped, so they could watch the triangular hull splitting into six sections and re-articulating, forming a new squat and sinister shape. The central sections opened out like the wings of a mythical bird. They bristled with weaponry, all of it aimed at the Russians’ island fortress.

It was then that Kolguyev’s soldiers were ordered to fire. No matter the cost, they had to stop this floating monstrosity from reaching their city. Turrets fired from the battlements and explosive-laden Kamikaze drones surged toward the ship. None of them had a chance. Bullets and coilgun rounds bounced off Adacos’ angular hull. Drones were zapped from the sky by targeted EMPs, their payloads dropping into the sea. Barely a scratch was suffered by the ship.

When Matsukata next activated the intercom, he had only two words to say, but he said them with relish. “Destroy them.”

White light exploded from the sides of the ship and a symphony of death erupted from its railguns. Each one was the size of a skyscraper, with enough recoil force to push the whole craft a few metres backward. They had been aimed at specific targets – the enemies’ turrets and fuel stations – by colossal motors and fusion power. Their projectiles melted in mid-air and streamed forward at hypersonic speeds, punching holes through Kolguyev as if its walls were cardboard. Russian weapons fell silent in a heartbeat. Burning ruins marked their former positions. Not a single gunner remained alive at the battlements.

Then the ionisers fired. Beams of raw energy flashed across the ocean, turning the sub-Arctic water into vapour that rushed forward in a blazing, electrified cloud. Seconds later, it struck Kolguyev with the force of a tsunami and the heat of a lightning bolt. Sheer power from Adacos’ fusors turned stone, soil, flesh and bone into plasma. Death was not instant; those tucked in the depths of the fortress had time to see their skin light up and feel their organs boil as the cloud surged through them. It grew and spread, engulfing other islands and sweeping down the White Sea, dissipating just before it reached Arkhangelsk.

Environmental Monitoring confirmed what the army of 18,000 had hoped for. In less than a minute, Kolguyev had been reduced from the strongest protector of Arkhangelsk to a pile of black ash. What happened next was no surprise to any of them. Up in the bridge, an open-channel broadcast arrived. Captain Wiremu Tāwhiao, a Kiwi, chuckled as he brought it to Matsukata.

“It’s from the city, sir. They surrender!”

“I don’t blame them. Not a bit,“ Matsukata replied. He smirked a malicious smirk. “But tough luck.”

 

THOMAS STEVENSON is our Deputy Editor and the author of Downfall. A tryhard geologist who spends much of his time roaming the Otago wilderness with his pet ferrets, François and Cuvier. Check out more of his work or follow him on Facebook for all the updates!

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