[N.B. I had five different things I was trying to work on last night. This... wasn't any of them. :) --G.]
Tuesday, July 13, 2410
Even in the middle of July, the waters to the north and east of Asgard were cold and unforgiving, a zone of misery and hardship where few mariners cared—or dared—to venture. This suited Captain Bjarik just fine; in fact, he was counting on it. For his own venture to be successful, he and his ship would have to go unnoticed in their deep penetration of the Hrakning, and the absence of any other vessel in those waters would go a long way toward that end.
This was as well, for Bjarik's ship had precious few hopes of avoiding notice other than no one being around to observe it. Though it was registered with the Jötunheim Maritime Authority (under the peculiar but evocative name Plundersea) as a fishing vessel, it was nearly a thousand feet long, which was ambitious even by jötunn standards. Its heavy armor and the distinctly non-fishing-related nature of its deck hardware (which mainly consisted of enormous cannon turrets) also rather argued against the truth of the assertion made on the registry certificate.
And yet it was true, after a fashion, for the prey Bjarik and his crew sought was no ordinary haul of cod and hake.
Now the captain strode onto the bridge of his vast ship, surveyed the slate-grey horizon with eyes of a similar color for several frigid seconds, then snapped, "Report."
"In position, Captain," his first mate replied. "The Himinioðurr Deep lies dead ahead."
Bjarik folded his arms, still brawny even ten years after he'd last hauled a net, and allowed himself a small, satisfied smile.
"At last," he said. "Reduce speed to one-half and prepare the charges. It won't escape us this time."
"Aye aye, Cap—" the mate said, only to be cut off by the cry of the mainmast lookout:
"Contact! One point off the starboard bow, range 1500 yards!"
"Fifteen hun—" Bjarik began, astonished, then cut himself off and stormed out onto the starboard wing of the bridge to bellow up at the lookout,
"How in the name of Hel do you let a ship get that close before you deign to notice it, Hengdr? Damn your useless eyes, if we're found out—"
"It's not a ship, sir!" the lookout replied, sounding utterly baffled. "It's... I don't know what it is!"
Bjarik might have sworn at Hengdr some more, but he had known the man a long time, and considered him generally reliable; if he sounded that startled, he must be looking at something truly startling. Biting off further profanity, the captain instead went to the end of the bridge wing, took up the binoculars there, and trained them on the horizon.
For a moment he saw nothing, but then a glint of the filmy sunlight filtering through the thin overcast caught his eye. Centering the blurred form of the mystery object, he focused the optics and resolved...
... well. No blaming Hengdr for being flummoxed by the sight of that. Bjarik himself couldn't compute what it was at first, so unexpected was it: a woman. Coolly, regally beautiful, dressed mostly in white, she wore a miniature crown at a jaunty angle on her pale-blonde head and an elaborate silver necklace at her slim throat. For a moment Bjarik wondered if she might be Freyja, princess of the Vanir, but no—though Freyja's father was Njörd, Æs of the sea, she was not known to frequent the waters. Besides, her famous necklace was gold.
Whoever she was, the white-clad woman was seated with legs elegantly crossed on a contraption that Bjarik could only think of as what a battleship would look like if it were an armchair: a sort of boat-hulled metal shell with a heavy double-barrelled gun turret on either side, and a high back flanked with what looked like miniature fire director towers. In her left hand she cradled a black iron orb like an old-fashioned cannonball; her right held a peculiar cruciform sceptre with the aspect of a ship's mast, its crossbar like yardarms. Not an armchair, then; a throne.
To a hard-bitten seaman like Captain Bjarik, the whole assemblage should have been absurd—comically ridiculous—but somehow, Bjarik couldn't bring himself to laugh.
The radio speaker mounted near the bridge door crackled, and then the woman in white spoke through it, her voice calm and touched with an accent Bjarik didn't recognize.
"Ahoy there, Captain. I don't care to spend a moment longer out in this beastly cold than I must; so listen carefully. These are restricted waters, as you well know. Put your ship about and return to port, and let us say no more about it, there's a good fellow."
Something in the woman's calm, superior tone broke through Bjarik's astonishment and replaced it with simple fury. Snatching up a microphone, he snarled,
"Who in Hel's name are you to give me orders, woman?"
The woman gave a faintly put-upon sigh. "You don't recognize me? And here I thought anyone mad enough to be out here today would be an experienced enough mariner to know His Majesty's battleship Warspite on sight."
Bjarik uttered a sharp, mirthless laugh at that. "Battleship! One woman in the least seaworthy boat I've ever seen. Get out of my way or I'll run you down in your... your... battle dinghy. I'm bound for the Trench and there's nothing you can do to stop me."
"I fear you may have overestimated my concern for your safety, Captain," said Warspite, sounding somewhere between amused and insulted. "I've no intention of dirtying my hands trying to stop you. If you carry on, you are standing into grave danger and I shan't be responsible for the consequences."
"So noted," Bjarik snapped, then banged the mic onto its hook and barged back into the bridge, ordering, "Number three turret to watch her. If she makes a move, blow her out of the water. We continue the operation."
"Aye aye," the mate replied.
Plundersea steamed past Warspite, its armaments readying for action, though not (apart from the one turret that watchfully tracked her as they passed) against her. For her part, she simply sat, the jötunn ship's wake moving her much less than it ought, and watched them go with an air of bemused resignation.
"In position," said the mate, his nerves still on edge after the bizarre non-confrontation with the strange woman in the chair. Bjarik seemed to have put it entirely out of his mind, though, so focused was he on their mission.
Now he nodded, his eyes fixed on the dark sea ahead, and ordered, "Launch the charges."
"Aye aye, launching," the mate replied, and an array of mortar-like tubes arranged on the foredeck, forward of number one turret, launched a collection of drum-like objects far ahead of the ship in a fanning arc. They dropped into the water a half-mile ahead, scattering across a wide swath of sea, and for a moment nothing happened; then the surface erupted in a sequence of explosions, sweeping from port to starboard and momentarily blotting out the horizon in an undulating curtain of white foam and spray.
"Come on," Bjarik muttered, his huge hands white-knuckled on the forward rail. He peered into the distance as if trying to penetrate the mist with sheer force of will, repeating in a louder voice, "Come on..."
The foam subsided, the sea's surface resuming its light chop, and the mate felt a strange combination of disappointment and relief at the thought that it hadn't worked...
... and then the sea in the target area began to boil, masses of bubbles and displaced water thrusting up and churning the surface into a chaos of conflicting waves.
"There it comes, boys," said Bjarik with an air of immense satisfaction. "Ready on all guns, wait for it to show itself—and let's get paid!"
Seconds later, the source of the disturbance appeared, breaking the surface and rising, glistening and black, into the bleary daylight. The look of triumph on Bjarik's face faltered, slipped, and then melted away into dawning horror as the object rose... and rose... and rose, until it towered at an impossible angle, blotting out the sun, like some terrible crooked tower from the ancient tales.
At last it slowed, water streaming down its colossal flanks; hesitated, and began to descend, not sliding back whence it came but tilting, swinging downward, the blade of a vast world-splitting axe. It crashed down like a calving iceberg, sending out a wave that rocked even Plundersea's massive bulk with a violence greater than the wildest storm any man aboard had ever experienced. Only because the jötunn ship was perpendicular to the wave, steaming into it, was the vessel able to ride it out. Parallel to such a sea, the ship would surely have been capsized.
"Mother of Frost," the mate cried. "What is that?!"
As with the apparition of the woman in the floating chair, Bjarik's consciousness couldn't take what he was seeing on board at first. It required a few seconds for him to piece it together in his mind and realize that it was a ship, not a creature out of myth. He had been expecting a creature out of myth, the legendary diamond-scaled dæmonfish that was reputed to haunt these waters. To hunt such a thing was the whole purpose behind Plundersea's imposing size and heavy armaments—the reason why the "fishing vessel" was a warship in all but name.
This... this was a warship. This was the mother of all warships, fully half again the size of Plundersea and bristling with so many weapons the jötunn captain could not readily count them all. Black as night, water still streaming from its turrets and superstructure, it had a weird, fey angularity to it that put Bjarik abstractly in mind of dökkalfr weapons, their peculiar fixation on spiders and the undead. Great, jagged armor plates of a dead bone white were affixed to its raked bow like massive teeth, streaked with rust like the blood of a recently devoured enemy. At the stern, abaft the towering, oddly angled funnel, was a great expanse of flat and empty deck, unencumbered by turrets like those forward and amidships.
"O... open fire!" Bjarik roared, regaining his wits as the gigantic ship's funnel belched black smoke and it began, with a ghastly slow majesty, to put on speed. Along the length of Plundersea, his gunners shook off their own shock at the command and did as they were told, the ship's great primary and numerous secondary guns opening up. Designed to battle and slay a beast of nearly its own size with a hide plated in diamond, Plundersea could throw a weight of high explosive shot that would have been the envy of any battleship captain in history; and for all that they were nominally civilians, Bjarik's crew was well-trained in the use of those guns. The first broadside was mostly on target, the shells landing home all along the length of the colossal black ship.
Wherever they struck, they burst without penetrating, the explosions raising bright hexagonal patterns of scarlet light on the night-black armor, and did the ship no harm at all.
The black ship's return fire, on the other hand, did considerable harm. Bjarik's practiced eye, after compensating for the misleadingly enormous size of the ship itself, judged the caliber of its main armament to be in the neighborhood of twenty-five inches, a good ten more than Plundersea's main guns, and the shells they hurled tore gaping wounds in the jötunn vessel's armor and topside works. Even the monster's secondaries were powerful enough to hole Plundersea's armor belt.
"Number two turret knocked out!" the mate screamed, struggling to keep his feet as the deck heaved beneath them. "Fire in the machinery spaces!"
"Flood number two magazine," Bjarik ordered. "Come about and cross him. Let's see how he likes torpedoes."
He liked torpedoes just fine, or rather, they had no more effect than the guns, apart from making bigger splashes to go along with the scarlet light show.
"It's no use!" the mate cried. "Nothing we have can even scratch that thing. Number three turret is down to one operational, ten men effective! Forward hold is breached and taking water, but the watertight doors are holding."
Bjarik gritted his teeth, then nodded. "Right, then. Lay smoke and prepare to withdraw. We'll make for Tjårlangen and hope the damned thing's size slows it down."
Five miles away, Warspite watched the smoking ship's evolutions through her opera glasses and shook her head. A reasonable maneuver, and one executed in a seamanlike manner, but the outcome of this matter was already decided. The jötunn captain, she decided, had not recognized his enemy's flight deck for what it was.
The aircraft—roughly triangular, festooned with similar tooth-like plates, packing heavy guns and aerial torpedoes—cut off the jötnar's retreat and left them dead in the water, a burning, gunless, engineless hulk. The survivors were abandoning ship when the black colossus loomed up alongside, and for a moment they counted themselves among the dead; but it did nothing, merely hove to a mile off and waited, recovering its aircraft, while they lowered the boats and rowed away.
Then, when they had reached a distance of perhaps 2,000 yards, the survivors of Plundersea's crew got to witness the most remarkable thing on this day of remarkable things. Before their terrified eyes, the jagged-toothed "mouth" on the front of the monstrous ship opened, the pointed prow rising up, to reveal a strange mechanism like a giant turbine within. This glowed with the same eerie red color as the apparent energy shields they had seen in action before, brighter and brighter, as a hair-raising whine grew louder and louder—
—with a sound so loud Bjarik and his surviving men could perceive it only as a sort of shriek, a beam of scarlet light limned in black lightning issued from the "mouth" of the black demon ship, carving a furrow like a river canyon in the surface of the sea. It raced to the horizon and seemed to plunge over, following the curve of the world, and along the way all but atomized the mortal remains of Plundersea. Only the very ends, stem and stern, remained, to sink out of sight in boiling clouds of smoke as the insulted sea crashed back together and wiped away the canyon.
With an air of something like contempt, the monstrous ship closed its jaws on the still-sputtering weapon within and got underway, turning to the north and steaming off without a care for its victim's survivors.
Captain Bjarik sat in his lifeboat and watched it go, then turned his attention to the matter of getting what was left of his crew to Tjårlangen alive.
Warspite intercepted the black ship at roughly the point at which the original engagement had begun. She took no aggressive action, merely placing herself in its path and waiting; and as it approached, its slowed, then halted a conversational distance away.
For a few seconds, woman and colossal warship silently regarded each other. Then a figure stepped out of a door onto the towering ship's flying bridge, considered the situation for a second, and leaped without evident effort from there to the very tip of the bow. Balancing at the point of the forward rail, this figure looked down and considered Warspite from her lofty perch for a moment.
She had the likeness of a girl in her middle teens, clad only in a black hoodie dress unzipped to the waist to reveal a bikini top, with a black-and-white-striped scarf around her neck; short but shaggy white hair fell partway into her face from the edges of the upraised hood. Her skin was also white, combining with her clothes and black combat boots to give her a completely monochrome appearance—apart from the electric scarlet glow in her eyes.
After looking Warspite over for a couple of seconds, the girl in the hoodie grinned, revealing a mouthful of pointed shark's teeth. "Well, well, well, the Old Lady herself," she said, her high voice flavored with a touch of an accent similar to Warspite's own. "What an honor."
Then, drawing herself to attention, she saluted in the old Royal Navy style and said with faint but not malicious sarcasm, "HMS Reckless, pennant number X204, all present and correct, ma'm."
Warspite returned the salute with a similarly sardonic air, then said dryly, "As you were."
Reckless took her at her word and sat down at the point of the rail, her legs dangling one on either side. "So. What brings the likes of you out to this wretched abyss? This can't be a social call."
"No indeed," Warspite agreed. "I have a message from Fleet Coordinator Nagato. You aren't answering her wireless signals."
"I don't work for Nagato," Reckless replied shortly, her cheery façade slipping. "We sorted that out a long time ago."
"Quite," Warspite said, raising a hand to indicate that she didn't care to argue. "Nevertheless, she has information you may find interesting. Are you familiar with Corwin Raven-Haired?"
"Sure. Skuld's son by what's his name, the mortal, killed Fenris in the Big One," Reckless replied. "I mean I wouldn't know him if I ran into him in the street," she added wryly, "but I've heard of him, yeah. Passed his Trial a few years ago, god of... what... those giant robots or summat. Yeah?"
"His purview is great machines," Warspite corrected patiently. "Giant robots are only one part of it. It also includes large-scale mobile machinery of other sorts. Construction equipment. Combat vehicles." She paused for emphasis, then said with cool precision, "Warships."
Reckless folded her arms. "So? Am I supposed to worship him? OK. Tell Nagato I'll make a note. Maybe put together a shrine or something. Do they sell action figures? Maybe dakimakura?"
Warspite shook her head. "No," she said. "For once in your lives, listen when someone is telling you something important. Lord Corwin has recently come into... well... possession may not be the correct word, but it will suffice for now... of a fleet of personified ships. Beings like us, except that they're still on their original lives. He's coming to New Yokosuka soon to discuss the matter with Nagato and Admiral Tōgō."
Reckless eyed her senior skeptically. "Still not seeing what this's got to do with me," she said.
"His fleet, Reckless," said Warspite tesily. Setting her globus cruciger aside, she rose to her feet, paused for a moment as if gathering herself, then sprang up to Reckless's deck.
She favored her left leg on landing, catching herself on her mast-sceptre as if it were a cane, but waved aside Reckless's hand as the other ship girl moved to help her. Rebuffed, Reckless stood gazing at Warspite, her usual insouciance absent, as the dreadnought collected her dignity and straightened to her full height.
"His ships," Warspite continued, as if none of that had happened. Her blue gaze bored into Reckless's crimson eyes as she went on, "They are of the Fog."
Reckless stared silently back at Warspite for several seconds, then very slowly blinked.
"Well," she said. "I guess I'll have to meet him."
"Reckless"—an Order of the Rose Fleet Record Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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