Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
After months as a member of the land-based arm of the Imperial Fusō Naval Air Service, Shizuka Hattori was pleased to learn that she still possessed the skill at ship recognition that had been drilled into her during her abbreviated career as an academy cadet. As she brought the 501st JFW's Zuiun into the pattern to land at the station's seaplane base, she could mentally name off, if not the precise individual ships, at least the class of ever vessel she could see moored in the harbor.
"There it is, the Atlantic Fleet," she announced to her passenger with a proud smile. "The biggest concentration of Fusō ships outside the Pacific. The heavy cruisers Atago and Chikuma; the battleship Nagato; the carriers Amagi, Zuihō, Katsuragi..."
"And more destroyers than you can shake a stick at," agreed Gryphon from the rear seat. "Looks like they've got some empty docks, though."
"The rest of the fleet is at sea," Shizuka explained, making the turn for final approach. "They're never all here at one time. The last I knew, there were at least two other carriers, several heavy and light cruisers, and a number of submarines based here. And Yamato, technically, though she spends most of her time in Antwerp these days."
Gryphon said nothing, just grunted agreeably, and let her get on with the business of landing the seaplane. This she did with the sort of smooth competence he had come to expect from her over the months he'd known her, despite her youth; she put the floats down so smoothly that only the rushing noise of the water indicated that they'd touched down at first, then taxied to the pier that a shore crewman was waving them toward.
"Welcome to Folkestone," said the crewman with a salute, one Shizuka had cut the engine and rolled back the cockpit canopy. "Rear Admiral Sugita's waiting for you in his office. Let's get your ship tied up and I'll take you there."
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Our Fighting Fleet"
As they followed the anonymous crewman through the bustle of the base toward the headquarters building, Shizuka dropped back slightly and murmured to Gryphon, "Still don't have any idea why we're here?"
"Nope," he replied. "You?"
"I've been racking my brain since we left Saint-Ulrich," she admitted, "and I'm drawing a blank."
"Mm," Gryphon agreed, nodding. "Well, I suppose we'll find out." Then, with a wry grin, he added, "It's probably not a court-martial, or we'd be under guard," causing her to roll her eyes and consider hitting him.
Inside the headquarters building, it was less noisy than it had been outside, but just as buzzing with activity; officers and enlisted personnel moved to and fro with a calm, purposeful efficiency. It was all very Fusōnese, very buttoned-up; quite unlike the easygoing flow at Château Saint-Ulrich, and for a brief moment it made Shizuka very homesick for the regular Navy.
The feeling passed quickly, and she was feeling a bit unworthy about it as the crewman showed them into the base commander's office, declaring with a brisk salute, "The visitors from the 501st, sir!"
"Thank you, Seaman, that'll be all," said the white-uniformed man standing by the room's bay window, returing the salute crisply. Tall, broad-shouldered, with close-cropped steel-grey hair, Rear Admiral Junzaburō Sugita was the central-casting Fusō naval officer, the kind of man who belonged on recruiting posters. Both Shizuka and Gryphon knew him only by reputation and anecdote. He had only recently come to his flag rank; before that he had been captain of the battleship Yamato, and before that of the carrier Akagi.
Akagi had been lost to the Neuroi during the Warlock Incident in 1944, and Yamato had nearly shared that fate during the ill-conceived fiasco that was Operation Mars the following year, but neither incident appeared to have damaged Sugita's career; he had retained command of Yamato during the Ardennes campaign, and his reward for that service was promotion to command of the IFN's chief outpost in European waters, here at the gracious invitation of the King of Britannia.
Gryphon said nothing, only waited to be addressed, but Shizuka - ever conscious of the proprieties of the service - gave her best salute and barked, "Hattori Shizuka-gunsō, 501st Joint Fighter Wing, reporting as ordered, sir!"
Sugita returned the salute gravely, then said, "At ease, Sergeant. This isn't a disciplinary action."
"Sir," Shizuka replied, and switched to a parade-rest stance, feet braced shoulder-width apart, arms behind her back. Sugita caught Gryphon's eye and smiled very slightly - these kids today - then seated himself behind his desk and gestured to the chairs facing it.
"Take a seat," he said; Shizuka hesitated, but an order was an order, so she sat - at the very edge of the chair, her back very straight, knees together with her hands resting on them. Gryphon took the other chair with a slightly more normal posture, regarding the admiral curiously.
"I asked the two of you here for different reasons," said Sugita, shuffling a few file folders on his desk blotter. "Hattori, let's start with you."
"Sir?" said Shizuka, looking faintly startled.
"You left the Imperial Naval Academy ten months ago on a temporary assignment to escort Dr. Miyafuji's daughter to medical school in Helvetia," the admiral said, leafing through a file. Gryphon couldn't keep a little smile off his own face at the sight, knowing it for what it was - pure theater; Sugita already knew everything he was saying by heart. The file folder was to give him an excuse not to keep the poor girl under constant eye contact while he talked to her. It was a trick Gryphon had used himself more times than he could count.
"That's... correct," said Shizuka slowly, almost reluctantly, when the admiral's pause became long enough that it was clear he expected her to say something.
"Upon arrival in Europe, the two of you got caught up in the Neuroi's Ardennes offensive, and by the time it was all over, Miyafuji had rejoined the 501st. You elected to remain on the front line with her rather than return to Fusō and resume your academy studies."
"Yes," Shizuka confirmed, then offered, "I felt I could contribute more to the war effort by staying with the 501st."
"Hmph," Sugita said, then closed the folder and played that deferred eye-contact card. "Did it ever occur to you that the Empire invested a great deal of time and money in the officer training you abandoned to stay close to your idol?"
Shizuka's face couldn't decide whether to flush or go pale at that. She stammered for a moment, but before the admiral could press her further, she shook off the reaction and got hold of herself with a visible effort, a hint of steel coming into her eyes.
"Admiral, I've logged more combat-ready hours in the last ten months than any of the officers in what would've been my graduating class will see in their first four years," she said. "In the process, I've learned first-hand what it takes to be a fighting witch from some of the best there have ever been, and helped drive the Neuroi to the Rhine and beyond. With all due respect to the Academy, sir, I'm ten times the witch now that I would be if I'd gone back there instead of staying with the 501st."
Sugita regarded her impassively for just long enough to convince her that she'd said entirely too much, then chuckled and replied, "Well said. As it happens, certain persons back in Kyōto agree with you." Turning the folder he'd been consulting around, he slid it across his desk to her and said, "Which is why I have here your battlefield commission. Congratulations, Lieutenant Hattori."
Dumbfounded, Shizuka just stared at him for a moment; then she picked up the document and read it. Sure enough, it was a certificate signed with the Emperor's seal, declaring her a commissioned officer of the Imperial Naval Air Service with the starting rank of kaigun shōi - naval ensign, or second lieutenant in the peculiarly army-style way the Air Service rendered its ranks in English.
"I - thank you, sir," she said, finally finding her voice, and she bolted out of her seat to attention and saluted again.
"No need," Sugita replied, rising to return it properly. "You earned it. If you'd like to step outside for a few moments, my quartermasters will see to it that you have the proper uniform." With another slight smile, he added, "Count von Katädien and I can manage by ourselves for a little while."
"Of course," said Shizuka, who knew a dismissal when she heard one; tucking the folder with her commission in it very correctly under her arm, she saluted once more, about-faced, and left the office.
Sugita watched her go, then sat down with a chuckle. "She's a good girl, Hattori," he said. "I know her father. You should see Sakamoto's reports on her. She practically demanded that we commission Hattori after Freiburg."
"And rightly so," Gryphon replied.
Sugita sat back a bit in his chair and regarded the mysterious Liberion with the Karlslandic noble title for a few moments, then said, "You haven't asked why I invited you here."
"I assumed you'd get to it," Gryphon replied mildly.
Sugita laughed. "Fair enough," he said. "It's an irregular business, asking you here, but I'm faced with an irregular situation, and based on what I've heard through the rumor mill, I think you might be the only person who can help me straighten it out. I'm told you're an expert in unconventional weapons. And that you have some kind of ineffable insight into the workings of magic. I've heard it said that you're the reason Sakamoto and Wilcke are still in harness, even though the former's nearly twenty-two and the latter nearly killed herself defending the Kaiser earlier this year."
"Well," said Gryphon modestly. "I wouldn't presume to take all the credit. Let's say I'm a reason."
"Mm." Sugita considered him for a moment longer, then said - more to himself than his guest - "Well, why not. We haven't much to lose. Are you familiar with the polar convoy system?"
Gryphon nodded. "Supplies and war matériel for the free part of Orussia, transported by sea from North Liberion to one of their Arctic ports in order to bypass the occupied Continent," he said.
"Exactly. Well, three weeks ago, one of those convoys was hit by a Neuroi air attack in the Barents, north of Baltland. Rotten weather, the escort flotilla's witches couldn't launch. We lost seven ships, including the heavy cruiser Mogami. The bastards cut her in two with their plasma beams; she sank in minutes. The waters there average around five degrees, even this time of year. By the time the destroyer Akebono reached her position, she'd gone down with all hands... but one." He touched another of the file folders on his desk, making ready to slide it across, then paused and said, "It never occurred to me - can you read Fusōnese? I didn't think to have it translated."
<No need, I'm fine with fusō-go,> Gryphon replied in that language. Arching an eyebrow, Sugita slid the folder to him; Gryphon picked it up, opened it, and saw that it contained what, after a few seconds' consideration, he recognized as a military personnel file. Clipped to the top of the first page was a black-and-white photograph of a young, fresh-faced individual with short dark hair.
"That's the personnel file of Mogami's only survivor, Able Seaman Mamoru Satō. Or," the admiral went on, "as we have recently discovered, Megumi Satō."
Gryphon glanced up from the file, intrigued, then looked more closely. Yes, he saw it now - she was a boyish-looking girl, the person in the photo, but now that he knew...
"It's more common than a lot of my superiors back in Kyōto would like to admit," Sugita said. "Apart from witches, women aren't permitted to serve in combat roles in any of the Imperial Armed Forces, but that doesn't stop a certain type of girl from trying; and sometimes they succeed. Often, when they're finally discovered, they turn out to be some of our best people. Seaman Satō there has an exemplary record - she's a credit to the service."
"Mm," said Gryphon, reserving whatever other comment he might have had on the personnel policies of the Imperial Navy.
"Unsurprisingly, she was severely traumatized by the incident," Sugita went on, not without sympathy. "The medics who treated her aboard Akebono did what they could, but according to their reports, she was essentially catatonic for the rest of the voyage. They didn't know what else to do with her, so they took her the rest of the way to Archangel, and then back here, and she didn't say a word the whole time. It wasn't until we got her into the hospital here on the base that she finally came out of it... and that's when things started getting strange."
"How so?" Gryphon inquired.
Sugita sat looking at him for a few moments, as if weighing something he saw there; then, without further preamble, he leaned forward slightly in his chair and said,
"She now says she's Mogami."
Gryphon tilted his head inquisitively. "Do what now?"
"She insists that she's the ship she served on," Sugita told him. "The one that was sunk from under her in the Barents last month. She isn't physically delusional, she doesn't believe she literally is a 14,000-ton warship," he explained, "but nevertheless, she identifies herself as the heavy cruiser Mogami, name ship of the Mogami class. Built at the Kure Naval Arsenal between 1931 and 1934. She can tell you the names of all her captains from Samejima on down, every chief engineer she ever had, all the ports she's visited... all of that is information on the public record, but still, if it's some kind of game, it's an incredibly well-researched one.
"More intriguingly," he went on, "and possibly more importantly... though she never showed any sign of it before in her life, the medics say she's magically active now."
"Hm!" said Gryphon, then referred back to the file. "How old is she?"
"Fourteen," said Sugita, just as Gryphon found the entry in her file that said she was seventeen. "She lied about that, too," said the admiral with a wry smile. "That's another interesting point - she was born the same day Mogami's keel was laid down - October 27, 1931. In the same city, no less."
"Curiouser and curiouser," Gryphon mused, leafing through the file some more; then he looked up and asked, "What magical abilities has she shown?"
"None that we can identify," Sugita said. "She hasn't manifested a familiar or been able to activate a Striker, but the medics say she has a definite magical aura now, where before she had none. They don't know what to make of it. Nobody does. But I..." He trailed off, turning to gaze out the window at the ships in the harbor, then swiveled back and said, "Are you by any chance a navy man, Count von Katädien?"
"Just call me Gryphon," said the visitor. "And I have been. I was a gunnery officer in a light cruiser, very similar to your Sendai class, once... oh, a long time ago," he said, his eyes taking on a faraway look for a moment.
"I see. Then maybe you will understand my reasoning," Sugita said. "You see... some of my colleagues, particularly on the army side of things, would shut her away in an asylum and have done with it. With the kindest of intentions, I hasten to add. They think the poor girl's simply lost her mind. Snapped from the trauma of being the sole survivor of a shipwreck. But I'm a sailor. I've known since I was a boy that our ships aren't just... things. They have spirits, personalities, lives of their own. Two years ago, when the Neuroi took Akagi, I'm not ashamed to say I wept for her.
"And that's why... if this girl truly believes that she's the... I don't know, the incarnate spirit of that sunken cruiser... then I believe her. I believe her... and I want to help her. But I don't know how. I don't know anything about magic, and our own witches here in the fleet are at a loss. That's why I reached out to you." The admiral rose to his feet, then bowed. "I know it's a long shot, and a terrible imposition, but I hope you can do something for her."
Gryphon got up and considered the bowing admiral for a few seconds, his face hard to read; then he returned the bow and said, "I don't know if there's anything I can do either, Admiral, but I can promise you this much: Whatever I can do for her, I will." Then, straightening, he added with a smile, "I had probably better start by meeting her..."
To be continued...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
"Our Fighting Fleet"
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
and Kantai Collection
designed by Kensuke Tanaka
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2015