Corwin Ravenhair stopped the Zodiac when his omni-tool told him they had reached the correct coordinates, then listened carefully as the swish of the inflatable through the water died away to silence. He heard nothing, felt nothing other than the gentle swell of the ocean. They were far enough from land now that surf wasn't an issue, though in some part of his mind, he couldn't shake the impression that he could still feel it, looming behind them.
Turning to the other person in the boat, he asked, "Anything?"
Iona sat quietly for a moment, as if she, too, were listening for something; then she shook her head and replied, "I'm not detecting anything. My scan range is currently limited," she added, a very faintly apologetic tone creeping into her voice.
"Mm," Corwin not-really-replied. He looked around, saw nothing but the near-flat grey of a just-predawn sea, and then said, "Well... it wouldn't be my first choice of time or place to do something as obvious as this is probably going to be, but..." Then, shrugging, he rose to his feet and went on, "Let's get to it, shall we?"
Iona stood as well, effortlessly balancing in the faintly rolling craft, and stood facing him, her face perfectly composed. Corwin gazed thoughtfully down at her for a few moments (he had little choice in the matter, given that he stood more than a head taller), then closed his eyes and raised his left hand, touching a fingertip to the silver cuff earring he wore.
The runic engraving on that earring glowed at his touch, dimly at first, then more brightly. The brand on his forehead glowed with it, and as the light brightened, its shape changed, the simple circle with a dot in the center becoming two concentric rings, linked and slightly overspread by three equidistant lines, a bit like a gunsight. He wasn't breaking the seal that kept most of his divine power in check for Midgard's sake; rather, he was dialing it momentarily back, so as to access more of that power for this one specific purpose.
Placing his hands on Iona's slim shoulders, he opened his eyes, looked straight into hers, and began to speak—his voice low, but charged with that fresh infusion of power:
Fallen warrior who sleeps in this place,
Cut down in defeat by an ungracious victor,
Off to the east, the dawn broke, the first diamond arc of the sun springing into sight and spreading its orange rays across the surface of the sea. As the light fell across their faces, Corwin smiled slightly and went on, his voice gaining strength in time with the brightening of the sky.
Wake from thy dreamless slumber.
Wrest thyself from the slime of the depths
And the depth of the ages.
Drag thyself from the cold and the dark
And taste again of warm air and sunlight.
I am Corwin of the Raven-Hair,
Watcher o'er the World-Engine,
Lord of Great Machines,
Chooser of the Slain.
By my Will and by my Power,
I bid thee rise!
As he spoke the last word, a brief but brilliant shaft of white light burst from the expanded brand on his forehead and into the sky, like lightning in reverse, and its thunder crackled across the empty sea. Fizzing slightly with a discharge of excess energy, the brand fell back to its normal configuration, its glow and that of his earring going out... and for a moment, that seemed to be all that was happening. Looking faintly puzzled, Iona gave him an inquisitive tilt of her head.
Corwin smiled slightly and released her shoulders, wiping a light sweat from his brow with one forearm. "Wait for it," he said, resuming his seat and gesturing for her to do the same. "It's a long way down from here..."
As she sat down, Iona was about to ask what was a long way down when, a few dozen yards off the Zodiac's port bow, the sea began suddenly to boil. Or at least that's what it looked like—the surface upheaving and sliding away, as when the hot bottom mass of water begins convecting to the surface just before the onset of a good rolling boil. No bubbles, but a massive disturbance all the same as if something enormous were forcing its way up through the sea...
... until, in a tremendous geyser of spray, a vast grey-and-red shape lunged up through the surface, like a freight train roaring out of a tunnel, but at a near-vertical upward angle. It climbed inexorably ever higher until it towered like a strangely angled office building. Gleaming and wet, it hung suspended for a long, impossible-seeming moment, then crashed mightily down to the horizontal, hurling out a wave that made the Zodiac buck like an airplane in a storm.
Iona's sea-green eyes, never particularly narrow, now went even wider than usual as she recognized the massive object, its lines as familiar to her as those of her own face. Probably more so, since long before Iona existed as the petite silver-haired young woman now unconsciously rising back to her feet in the still-rocking Zodiac, the shape she was now looking at had been her own: a submarine, vast but sleek, her upper deck dominated by a great cylindrical structure (itself the size of some smaller subs) and an off-center conning tower. On the sides of that conning tower were painted her only markings:
Despite the centuries she had spent on the bottom of the ocean, the vessel looked brand new, as if she had just sailed out of the finishing docks at Kure.
"I-401," Iona murmured, her voice almost inaudible under the sound of the water cascading from the risen submarine's flanks. Then she looked up as if hearing an unexpected sound, blinking into the sky, before turning to Corwin and saying in a louder voice, "Tachyon sweep. Standard Earthforce search sensor. We've been detected."
Corwin sighed. "Yep, knew that was comin'," he said. "All right, let's get aboard and start phase two. We don't have much time before they're doing more than just scanning."
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Cantata for Warships in D
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Matt Wagner
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"OK," said Corwin once they reached the submarine's upper deck, just abaft the forward anti-aircraft battery. "If this worked the way I wanted it to, I-401 should be primed and ready for you to take control."
Iona considered that for a moment, then went and placed a hand flat against the side of the conning tower. "Understood. Establishing link." Glowing circuit-like traces appeared on the metal, spreading out from beneath her palm; they grew and interlaced until they had nearly reached the edge of the structure... then flickered, trembling, and collapsed back to their original point of origin. Iona withdrew her hand as if she'd placed it against a hot stove, a crackle of blue energy momentarily arcing across the gap.
"Iona!" Corwin declared, dismayed. "Are you all right?"
"I'm not damaged," Iona replied, regarding her hand with an air of faint surprise. Then, turning to him, she reported, "Unable to connect. This vessel already has a core intelligence on board."
Corwin frowned. "What? That's... that can't be right. This wasn't a Fog ship, this is the original I-401. Until I converted her a minute ago, she was an ordinary submarine from the 1940s... just a machine. Seven thousand tons of steel."
Iona got that distracted look again, then said, "Energy signatures detected. Probable investigation and pursuit force making ready to leave port."
Corwin sighed again. "Yeah, I really didn't want to do this 15 miles from Pearl Harbor, but just our luck, that's where they sank her." He pondered for a moment, then said decisively, "OK, let's get below and find the control room. Maybe we'll get some answers there."
They didn't get any answers there. Indeed, the submarine's interior appeared to contain nothing at all, not even the regular fittings and fixtures that she had contained in her first life as a conventional twentieth-century naval vessel. There were just empty corridors and featureless compartments. The control room, in the heart of the ship, was a round, dome-ceilinged space, putting Corwin in mind of the bridge of a small starship, but it, too, was utterly empty—no consoles, no seats, no controls. Just bare walls and a blank floor on two levels, the rear third or so of the room three steps above the rest.
"Right, so... if this is the control room, where's the core?" Corwin wondered; but the young woman's voice that answered him, addressing them from behind in Japanese, was not Iona's:
«Umm... excuse me, but who are you people and why have you boarded me?»
Turning, Corwin saw the voice's owner standing in the doorway to the hallway leading aft: a girl in her mid-teens, a little taller than Iona, with a deep suntan and brown hair pulled back in a casual ponytail with a two-pronged clip. She was barefoot, dressed in what looked like an old-fashioned Japanese school swimsuit, and Corwin suspected with a sinking feeling that he knew what would be written on the nametag if she took off the abbreviated sailor blouse she wore on top of it.
Iona appeared unfazed; stepping past Corwin to approach the tanned girl, she said, "Long-range submarine I-401," pronouncing her name in its original Japanese form: Ii-yonmaruichi. "I am Captain Ravenhair's ship."
The girl in the swimsuit blinked big brown eyes at her in bafflement, advancing warily into the control room. "But I'm long-range submarine I-401," she protested, switching to Standard automatically when so addressed. "I was built in the Sasebo Naval District and fitted out in Kure..." She looked down at her hands as if just noticing that she had them. "... What in the world...?"
"This must be confusing for you," said Iona, her voice flat but not unkind, and then, "But we have very little time. Surface and subsurface ships are approaching to investigate. You must get underway at once if we are to elude them. We would find it... difficult to explain ourselves to them," she added with a dry understatement Corwin had to admire, even under the circumstances.
"Get underway?" the tanned girl said. "But—there's no one here! How am I supposed to do anything without my crew?"
Corwin palmed his face. "Of course," he said. "Oh, Corwin, you imbecile."
"Hm?" both girls inquired, giving him mirrored head-tilts that he would otherwise have found either charming or slightly unnerving.
With a deep sigh, he looked at Iona between his fingers with one eye, telling her, "This may be a difficult life lesson for you to take on board all at once, Iona, but it turns out your god is a bit of an idiot. I'll explain the details later. Right now, she doesn't know what to do because we—well, I—turned her body into a Fog ship, but in her mind she's still a World War II submarine," he went on, tapping his forehead with the index fingertips of both hands.
"Um... can you not talk about me like I'm not here, please?" said I-401 in a timid voice, wringing the hem of her sailor blouse nervously; then she flinched, looking around wide-eyed, and cried, "Aah! What was that?!"
"Sensor scan," Iona replied. "Your passive sensors are detecting the pursuit force."
"OK, this is bad," Corwin said. "We were supposed to be long gone by this point. Iona, if you can't take control of the sub, is there some way you can... I don't know, teach her what she needs to know?"
"I'm not sure," Iona replied. "Stand by."
"W-what are you going to do to me?" I-401 asked fearfully, backing up a step, as Iona turned to face her.
"There's no need to be afraid," Iona said.
"What is—I feel something weird!" The tanned girl crossed her arms protectively over her chest, hugging herself, and backed away another step. "Stop it!"
"What you feel is me offering you a Joint Tactical Network uplink," Iona explained. "I won't harm you, I promise."
"I—" said I-401 hesitantly, her eyes wide.
"If you do not accept the uplink," Iona told her, the quietly matter-of-fact tone of her voice never changing, "you will be unable to move, and the approaching Earthforce surface vessels will sink you again." She held out her hand and added softly, "Please."
I-401's eyes went still wider with dread, the whites showing all the way around, but it was a different dread than her reflexive fear of the unknown that Iona's strange talk of networks and uplinks represented. This was a much deeper, more intrinsic fear: the terror all ships, even submarines—especially submarines—feel at the prospect of sinking.
"All right," she whispered, and reached out a trembling hand to take Iona's.
As she made contact, their fingers interlacing, both girls' eyes went distant and glassy, fixed on nothing visible. The only sound the tanned girl made was a quiet, startled gasp; but after a moment, Iona began to speak, the cadence of her voice even more precise, near-mechanical, than usual:
"Joint Tactical Network uplink established. Submarine Ii-yonmaruichi. Submarine Ii-yonmaruichi kai. Link stable. Command firmware not found. Restoring."
There was a brief pause. Corwin's omni-tool's passive mode flickered to life, showing him a communications graph; it appeared the approaching Earthforce vessels were trying to hail them. He let them eat silence, knowing full well that the standard protocols in place for unknown, unresponsive surface contacts this close to a major naval base nowadays didn't call for much of a grace period before the shooting started.
"Upload complete," Iona said. "Commencing system start. Thanatonium decay reactor active. Energy output nominal. Initializing wave motion compulsory conversion armor."
The lights in the compartment shifted to red as a deep vibration thrummed through the hull. If Corwin remembered the old videos he'd seen of the Fog in action, that would get the Earthforce sailors' attention pretty quick, as the energy armor's activation would momentarily limn the submarine's hull in a visible halo effect.
"Klein field engaged," one of the linked Mental Models reported, but to Corwin's mild surprise, it was the one with the tan speaking now. "Sensor systems online."
"Multiple contacts bearing zero two five degrees," Iona confirmed. "Three Earthforce Surface Navy warships, one Zheng He-class cruiser, two Singleton-class destroyers. Five droid submarines, Tethys-class. Three Sea Skimmer-class patrol hydrofoils."
"Quite a party," Corwin mumbled under his breath.
As the two I-401s resumed their now-alternating litany of system status declarations, their voices progressing slowly toward synchronization, the structure of the control room began to change around them. Consoles and display panels extruded from the walls, seats unfolded from the floor, until at last the space had reconfigured into a fully operational command center, its resemblance to a starship's bridge heightened still further by the giant central holoviewer that dominated most of the forward bulkhead.
"Graviton ballast setup commencing," said I-401.
"Weapons systems, standby OK," Iona reported.
"Magnetogravitic drive systems, ready," I-401 added.
"Graviton ballast setup complete," said Iona; then they both turned to him and announced in an eerie unison,
"Submarine Ii-yonmaruichi kai fully operational, Captain."
As Iona released her hand, I-401's tanned Mental Model blinked, then shook her head, looking vaguely stunned. "That was... strange," she said; then, looking at Iona, she added, "But it didn't hurt. Thank you."
Before Iona could reply, the room shook, the sound of an impact filtering through the hull, and I-401 winced. "Ow! That did," she said.
"Autocannon fire from the hydrofoils," Iona said. "It can't penetrate our Klein field..." Her eyes dilated slightly as she accessed I-401's sensors through the still-active JTN link. "However, much of the pursuit force is armed with torpedoes sufficiently powerful to cause a problem."
"Torpedoes?!" I-401 squeaked. "I don't like torpedoes! I know that much!"
Corwin went to the seat that had appeared on the little dais at the back of the room, to the left of the center-console-like hump in the floor, and sat down. "Stay calm—we can get out of this."
"Right," said I-401, sounding shaken. "Sorry." She sat down on the front of the floor hump and added, "This is the first time I've ever been in a real fight... I think."
"You'll be fine," said Iona, climbing up onto the console to sit wariza behind her, hands on her shoulders. "Crash dive!"
Gritting her teeth, I-401 leaned forward, unconsciously miming what she wished her ship-body to do; the hum of the drive system picked up a notch and the deck took on a distinct down angle as the vessel's graviton ballasts and diving planes drove her beneath the surface.
"I don't think I can lose them just by diving, not at this range," I-401 said, and Corwin knew she had a point: he could hear the Earthforce ships banging away with their active sonar through the hull, never mind the boat's hydrophones. Iona glanced at him; he made brief eye contact with her, then smiled.
"We don't need to fool them," he said. "We can outrun them. Ready the supercavitation drive!"
"Uh..." I-401 seemed mildly disconcerted for a moment, like a person looking up something she wasn't quite sure of in a reference book, and then nodded, her face taking on a look of determination. "Supercavitation drive ready!"
"Make your course two-nine-five degrees," Iona said quietly, before Corwin could make up a bearing off the top of his head.
"Roger, coming right to two-nine-five degrees," I-401 reported; then, her eyes widening, she declared, "High-speed screws! Torpedoes in the water!"
"Launch countermeasures," Corwin said at once. "Make your depth 1500 feet."
"Countermeasures away," said I-401 automatically, and then, "Are you crazy? I'm already at my test depth. One hundred meters, that's as deep as I can go."
Iona shook her head. "You can go to ten times that depth now," she said.
"Ten t—is that even possible?" the tanned Mental Model asked.
"Trust me," said Iona quietly, then added, "Trust your captain."
"I... OK. Descending to 450 meters..."
A rippling series of detonations, muffled by distance, sounded through the hull. "Countermeasures effective," Iona reported, slightly unnecessarily.
"OK... I don't know how I'm doing this, but... depth four-fifty and holding," I-401 said after a few tense minutes. "Course steady on two-nine-five."
"Enemy submarines are flooding torpedo tubes for another salvo," said Iona.
"Engage the supercavitation drive," Corwin ordered. "All ahead flank."
"All ahead flank, aye," said I-401. "Supercavitation drive coming online... now."
The supercavitation drive, as its name suggested, surrounded the submarine's hull with a layer of air, which had the effect of dramatically reducing water resistance. In addition to making possible a burst of speed that was ludicrous even by the liberal standards of (what was effectively) a Fleet of Fog submarine, this made an almighty noise and (eventually) a huge disturbance on the surface, sufficient to alert any number of nearby ships to the vessel's presence if they weren't already aware of it. On the other hand, since it also made possible a submerged sprinting rate of nearly 120 knots, that hardly mattered. They didn't elude the Earthforce subs' second torpedo spread so much as outrun it, and the entire pursuit force was left hopelessly behind in short order.
"Negative pursuit," Iona declared. "The hydrophones are clear."
Corwin sighed, relaxing slightly in the captain's chair. "All right. Reduce speed to full," he said. "Secure from supercavitation."
"Reduce to full, aye," acknowledged I-401; then she, too, relaxed, slumping a bit on her perch at the front of the center console. "Phew. That was... intense."
"You did well," said Iona. "The first time with a new captain is always a strange experience."
Corwin gave her an odd look, then smiled and patted the tanned Mental Model's near shoulder. "Good work, I-401."
Blushing slightly, she replied, "Thanks," then added hesitantly, "Um... if it's all right... you can call me Shioi. I can't remember clearly, but I think... that's what my first captain called me."
"That's fine with me," said Corwin. "I felt a little strange calling you by a number anyway. So—now that we've got a moment to breathe, where are we headed, Iona? I'm guessing you have something in mind, given how specific the bearing you gave us was."
"There is an uninhabited island approximately 1,100 nautical miles from this position," Iona replied. Rings of colored light appeared around her, slowly rotating in opposite directions, and from the outside Corwin could see data streaming through both of them as Iona accessed I-401's data systems. A moment later, a map—Well, we're at sea, I suppose it's technically a chart, thought Corwin irrelevantly—appeared in the main holoviewer at the front of the room.
"Midway," Corwin said, then added with a wry smile, "It would have to be, wouldn't it?"
"In the 21st century, the Fog Pacific Fleet maintained a repair and service depot at this location," Iona explained. "I have no information as to whether anything there is still operational, but it should at least be useful as a refuge. We may also find some supplies there we can use."
"Mm," said Corwin, scratching thoughtfully at his bearded chin. "Well, it's a better plan than mine, seeing as I don't have one," he said with a little smile. Then, yawning, he went on, "How long will it take us to get there?"
"Approximately thirteen hours, forty-five minutes at our present speed," both Mental Models replied at once. Shioi glanced a little sheepishly at Iona, then added, "I don't really know what I'm doing yet, but I can divide by 80."
"Hmm. So that puts us there... sometime around nine o'clock tonight, Hawaii time," Corwin mused. He yawned again, then sighed. "Guess I should get some sleep. It's been a busy morning, and anyway, I think I'm still on Republic City time." He looked around the control room. "Can we dim the lights in here, at least?"
"I can do better than that," Iona said.
To Corwin's mild surprise, the transformation of I-401's interior that had taken place during her system startup wasn't limited to the control room. Iona now showed him that just off said room, where before there had been only a blank, featureless corridor, there was now a small but comfortably appointed stateroom—clearly intended, from its proximity to the control room, to be the captain's cabin.
Corwin took off his shoes and lay down on the bunk built into the bulkhead opposite the door, settled down, and went almost instantly to sleep. He was already out when Iona switched off the lights and returned to the control room.
Some time later, he woke, sat up, and checked his watch. Not really to his surprise, given how much energy he had expended that morning, he'd slept for nearly twelve hours, but didn't really feel rested. If they were still on course and doing I-401's full underwater speed—and based on the sameness of the near-subliminal hum of the drive systems, it seemed like the latter, at least, was the case—they'd be arriving at Midway within a couple of hours.
Which meant that it was about time for him to come up with a plan of some kind, rested or not. Sighing, he rubbed his face briskly with both hands.
The lights in the room clicked on. "Are you all right?"
With a mild start, Corwin turned and saw Iona sitting on the built-in desk next to the door, her hand still on the light switch, regarding him with a curious, faintly concerned expression. "I was, until you gave me a heart attack," he replied, and then plowed on before she had a chance to take him literally and conduct a medical scan, "Have you been sitting there the whole time?"
"Nn-nn," she said, shaking her head. "I was in the control room for most of the day. I tried to explain a few things to Shioi-chan that weren't included in the basic command firmware upload I gave her."
Corwin arched an eyebrow. "'Shioi-chan'?"
"That's what she asked me to call her," replied Iona with an unperturbed shrug.
"Ah," said Corwin. With another sigh, he swung his legs out of the bunk and sat on its edge, facing her, elbows on knees. "I've made a complete hash of today," he said, as if apropos of nothing. "I thought that re-using I-401's wreck for this would work because her spirit would be in Valhalla—beyond recall, at least at the power level I was using. And she would've been, if she'd been sunk in combat, but she wasn't. She and her two sisters were surrendered to the US Navy at the end of the war, and the Navy used them as torpedo targets to keep the Soviets from getting a look at them. I knew that. The implication should've been obvious."
Iona said nothing, merely looked on impassively as he scrubbed his hands over his face again. "But I went ahead and did it anyway," he went on at length, "and now that poor soul has been dragged out of a peaceful rest and thrown into a world that must make absolutely no sense to her, and you still don't have a body. Nice job, Corwin." With a low groan, he got to his feet and finished, "I guess I should at least go apologize."
As she followed him back to the control room, Iona said nothing; she had a fairly good idea of what was going to happen next, but had decided that it was better to let Corwin discover it for himself. Which, as soon as he made his apology, he did:
"No, no! Not at all!" Shioi declared earnestly. "I'm very grateful."
Corwin gave her a puzzled look, one hand behind his head. "... You are?"
"Yes," said Shioi. Her expression falling a bit, she went slowly on, "I... don't remember very much. Just bits and pieces... most of them are more impressions than actual memories. But..." Coming hesitantly nearer, she did that self-hugging gesture again, shivering despite the warmth of the control room. "Wherever I was... before this morning... it was cold. Cold, dark, silent... lonely." Shaking her head, she closed her eyes, tears slipping down her tanned cheeks, and whispered, "I didn't like it."
With that, she came closer still, resting her loosely-clenched fists and the side of her face against his chest. "Even though it's strange and confusing and there's danger... I'd rather be here. So... even if you don't want me... I'm grateful. Please... please don't send me back."
Faced with this situation, Corwin did the only thing he could do; he put his arms around her, gathering her up in a hug, and just let her weep for a while.
"I'd never do that," he said gently after a minute or so. "It's not that I don't want you. It's just that I didn't expect you. Now that you're here... you're very welcome."
Shioi looked up at his face, her teary eyes going wide again. "You... you mean it?"
"Oh, thank you!" she cried, throwing her arms around him with new tears of joy. "Thank you, Captain. I'm not very experienced, but I promise I'll do my best as part of your fleet."
"Well..." Corwin glanced at Iona, who merely stood watching the scene unfold with her usual air of unruffled equanimity, then said, "I don't really have a fleet, as such, but..."
Shioi might've replied to that—clearly, with two submarines, he at least had the beginnings of a squadron—but before she could do so, she stiffened in surprise, then backed up a step and looked around as if she'd heard something. "What was that?"
Iona—rather more experienced at differentiating the inputs from her Mental Model's senses and those of the ship, and still maintaining her low-level JTN watch over the latter—stepped in, climbing up into the place she'd occupied on the console next to the captain's seat for the Pearl Harbor engagement.
"New contact, dead ahead, range 20," she said. "Number and type unknown."
Corwin resumed his seat, his mien becoming instantly businesslike again. "All stop, rig for silent," he said, and felt the deceleration as Shioi cut her engines. From 80 knots, it would take her some time to stop, but coasting was quieter than reversing thrust.
"I can't—I don't really understand these sensations yet," Shioi said apologetically, sitting down on the front of the console. "I always had a crew for things like this before."
"It's OK," Iona said, putting her hands on the other Mental Model's shoulders once more. "I'll be your coprocessor for now."
"Have they seen us?"
Iona considered pointing out that it was unlikely anyone was seeing anything at this depth, but decided against it; she knew what he meant. Instead, she shook her head and said, "I don't think so... but it appears they're waiting for us."
"Well, that'll be the Navy again, then," said Corwin with a resigned sigh. "I knew it was too good to hope we'd given them the slip. Even if we outran those droid subs back at Pearl, they've got a global comm net and we don't."
"Mm," Iona agreed. "They must have read our bearing when we used the supercavitation drive and deduced our destination."
Corwin shook his head, exasperated with himself once more. "Just like jumping to hyperspace," he said. "Should've cleared the area on a decoy bearing first, then corrected course. I picked a bad day to be this off my game."
"I didn't think of it either," Iona pointed out calmly.
"You're not the captain," Corwin replied. "It's not your job."
"Speed dropping off now, but we're still closing," Iona reported, letting that fine point on the division of labor pass.
"Can you get a better read on them?" Corwin asked.
"They're very quiet, but... yes," Iona confirmed. Her data rings manifested again, expanding so that she and Shioi were both within their diameter, and rotated slowly as the two Mental Models pooled their computing power to analyze all the data coming in from the sub's hydrophones and passive quantum sensors.
"Droid submarines again. Two Tethys-class and two... no, three Iapetus-class."
"Damn," Corwin said, his voice low. "They're between us and where we need to go... we could try to fake them out with another super-cav sprint, but that's unlikely to work twice. These things don't have proper AIs, but they're not completely stupid."
Corwin's mind raced through what he knew about the Earth Alliance's droid submarines. It wasn't a lot—naval vessels of the 25th century were not his forté—but what little he could remember, mostly from flipping past articles about them in Jane's Fighting Ships to get to stuff he was interested in, wasn't promising. The two classes were virtually identical in most capabilities; if he remembered right, one was an updated version of the other, but he couldn't remember which was which. Either way, both were fast and highly maneuverable, and though they only had two torpedo tubes each, the weapons those tubes dispensed were self-guiding and extremely powerful. Even for an experienced Fog submarine, a stand-up fight against five such droids was likely to be a pretty dicey affair, and with Shioi still figuring out what this whole "two bodies/actually control the sub" thing was all about, it was liable to be dicier still.
"All right, let's do this," he said, leaning forward slightly in his seat. "Iona, give Shioi whatever support you can. Don't hold back, you two. These subs are completely automatic, no crew on board, but they're not machine lifeforms either. They're fairly smart for robots, but they're still only robots."
"Roger, understood," said Iona. "Submarine I-401 synchronizing JTN with submarine I-401 kai for cooperative combat enhancement. Klein field engaged."
"What's our ordnance status?" it occurred to him to ask. Be a hell of a note to find out we're unarmed, he thought.
"Twenty-four conventional torpedoes on board," Shioi reported. "Ten counter-torpedoes. Three corrosive torpedoes."
"OK. Load tubes one through four with conventional torpedoes, five and six with counters, and corrosives in seven and eight. We'll hold those tubes in reserve in case things get really dicey."
"Loading." The deck vibrated slightly beneath Corwin's feet as mechanisms elsewhere in the submarine's hull did what would've been the work of a gang of torpedomen in the original boat, preparing the eight forward torpedo tubes for firing. Long before those men would've finished the job, Shioi reported, "All tubes ready."
"Flood all tubes, open outer doors. Iona, give me a tachyon scan, please. It'll give away our position, but I want a solid starting idea of where those guys are."
"Scan in progress. Tactical map generated." Said map appeared on the forward viewer, showing the five flagged icons of the Earthforce droid subs arrayed in a textbook blockade formation opposite the lone blip that represented I-401.
"Mechanical transients—targets are flooding their torpedo tubes," Shioi reported, sounding tense, but far less rattled than she had at the prospect of torpedoes back at Pearl. She glanced at Corwin and offered him a slightly wan smile. "I think I'm getting the hang of being my own sonarman," she said.
"Good," Corwin replied, nodding. "Just don't get distracted from driving."
"Right," said Shioi with a determined nod. "I'll do my best!"
Corwin spared a moment to give her an encouraging smile—even if she was still feeling her way into the complicated task of existing, she seemed much more confident now that she'd been assured she wasn't an unwanted complication.
Probably a lesson in that, he thought, and then he had no time to consider anything but the tactical picture, as his mind compiled a model of what they were up against. It wasn't really that different from space combat, he realized—the scale was smaller, but the lesser distances were balanced by the lower speeds so that relatively speaking, it was all more or less the same to the human mind. He made a mental note to mention that to Utena the next time he saw her.
Of course, in order for that to happen, he had to ensure there was a next time he saw her.
"Come left to course two four zero, all ahead three-fourths," he ordered. "Make your depth four hundred."
"All ahead three-fourths, aye," Shioi acknowledged. "Coming left to two four zero."
"Enemy units moving to engage," Iona reported. Then, her eyes narrowing a tiny bit, she said in a fractionally more urgent tone, "Incoming fire. Full spread—ten torpedoes. Impact in 30 seconds."
"Evasive maneuvers," Corwin ordered. "Come right to three four zero, maintain depth. Increase to full."
Shioi blinked—she knew that course change would take them directly into the incoming torpedo spread—but said nothing, only set herself to the task. I-401's hull thrummed with the increased propulsion power as her magnetogravitic drive pushed her nearer to the greatest speed she could manage through water undisturbed by super-cavitation.
"Stand by, tube five," said Corwin. "Match bearing..." He watched the course projection swing across the tactical plot, timing their next move, then called, "Fire five! Make your depth five-fifty, deploy countermeasures!"
Between the unexpected shrinkage of range caused by their turn toward the enemy, the multiple mini-warheads of the counter-torpedo, the sudden dive, and the masking effect of the countermeasure pods, they destroyed or confounded a full nine of the ten incoming torpedoes. The tenth scored a glancing hit, causing the boat to shake and Shioi to wince.
"Damage report," Corwin said.
"No damage," Iona reported. "Klein field is holding at 74 percent." She glanced at him and added with a very faint trace of wry humor, "Modern torpedoes appear to be more of a threat than their 21st-century ancestors."
"Let's just hope even Earthdome isn't crazy enough to start reissuing nukes," Corwin replied grimly. "All right, let's see if we can confuse them. Give me a zig to port and head for periscope depth. While you're at it, one of you see if you can get a decent firing solution on any of these guys."
"I have a shot at target J-5," Shioi reported. "Tubes one and three will bear in seven seconds if we hold our present turn."
"Steady on, then. Fire as they bear."
"Roger... fire one; fire three."
"I have torpedo guidance," Iona cut in. "Impact in twenty seconds."
"Now we find out what kind of reload time an Earthforce drone sub has," Corwin observed, mostly to himself.
A few seconds later, a pair of dull, far-off crumps announced the detonation of first one, then the other torpedo. Iona blinked, then said dispassionately as one of the target icons on the tactical plot went red and winked out,
"Direct hits. Target J-5 destroyed."
"Good shooting, you two," Corwin said, but before he could articulate their next step, Shioi cried,
"New contact bearing zero nine four! Surface vessel, type unknown, approaching at 30 knots, range four kilometers."
"Incoming fire, targets T-1, T-2, J-4," Iona put in. "Twenty seconds to impact."
"Should I take us back down?" Shioi asked.
"No time," Corwin said. "Keep heading up." And let's hope that surface contact isn't another Earthforce destroyer, he added silently, then commanded aloud, "Launch countermeasures! Hard a'port—bow thrusters full!"
"Aye aye, Captain!" Shioi replied. She launched another pair of countermeasure pods, waited for them to take effect, and then fired her starboard bow thrusters, hurling herself into a turn to port that would have been ludicrous in her original incarnation—would, in fact, probably have torn her steel hull apart, if she'd even had propulsion systems capable of performing the maneuver in the first place. She had to admit, if only in the privacy of her own mind, that however strange her new form was, the sense of power, of... of capability it brought with it was nice.
The countermeasures and violent turn dealt with four of the six incoming shots, but the remaining two hit much harder than the first; Shioi cried out in surprise and pain as the twin explosions, coming within milliseconds of each other, overwhelmed her Klein field and crashed against her armor.
"Klein field overload; reinitializing," Iona said, as calm as if she'd been reporting on the weather. "Thirty seconds to activation. Minor outer hull damage."
"I'm OK," Shioi said, shaking her head as if shrugging off a punch.
"All right, so where the hell is that... ah, crap," said Corwin, as—a bit belatedly—he realized that their radical turn had brought them square into the sights of the other remaining Iapetus, exactly as the droid subs' tactical projection software had anticipated.
At this range, there was the chance the enemy torpedoes wouldn't arm before they arrived; there was also the chance that their own counter-torpedo wouldn't have time to separate and acquire. It was probably all going to come down to which sub had the quicker virtual trigger finger—
"New contacts, torpedoes in the water!" Shioi cried, looking startled. "Super-cavitation sounds bearing... directly astern target J-3!"
On the tactical plot, Target J-3's icon was suddenly surrounded by a blinking red icon shaped a bit like a gearwheel; this pulsed for a couple of seconds, then went out, taking the target icon with it.
"... What just happened?" Corwin wondered.
"Corrosive torpedo detonation bearing two six two," Iona replied dispassionately. "Target J-3 destroyed."
Within moments, targets T-1 and J-4 also flashed red, then disappeared, though from the sound of it, they'd been dispatched with regular explosives. That left only T-2, which turned and tried to make a run for it, but that was hopeless; even a 25th-century droid sub couldn't outrun a Fog torpedo, corrosive or otherwise. A dead-on snap shot by Shioi nailed it before it could even reach full speed.
"All hostiles destroyed," Shioi reported, then added with an uncertain lip-bite, "I think. I still have that surface contact, and based on what happened to J-3, I'm pretty sure there must be another submarine out there, but I can't hear anything."
"Klein field re-engaged," Iona put in.
"Hmm, well, that'll buy us a little breathing room, anyway," Corwin mused. "Let's finish getting to periscope depth and see what's what."
What was what turned out to be a surface ship, just as Shioi had reported. This was hove to a half-mile or so away from their position, and the feed from I-401's periscope showed her clearly on the main viewer: indubitably a warship, but of a starkly antiquated type—three smokestacks in a line amidships, no central superstructure, with a shortish bridge tower most of the way forward. She lacked even proper gun turrets as later naval architects understood them, carrying her guns instead in single swiveling mounts.
Most strikingly, however, she was a deep violet color, with streaks and slashes of lighter purple crisscrossing her hull and her bridge windows glowing the same—the visual hallmarks of a ship of the Fleet of Fog.
"Iona, what do you make of this?" Corwin wondered.
"Tenryū-class light cruiser Tenryū," Iona replied at once. "Displacement: 4,000 tons. Wave-motion compulsory conversion armor. Four 5½-inch 50-caliber guns in single turrets; one 3-inch secondary gun; six 21-inch deck-mounted torpedo tubes. She has two twin-mount anti-aircraft lasers and the usual assortment of modular missile arrays and close combat systems. No submersion capability. Maximum speed 55 knots. Obsolete at the time of the original war. Threat level: minimal."
"Minimal?" Shioi wondered. "She just wiped out two of those droid subs with hardly any effort at all."
"Surprise attack," Iona said, shaking her head. "We can both outrun and outgun Tenryū, and our wave-force armor is stronger than hers." Before Shioi could respond, Iona went on, "She's signaling."
"Well, I guess we might as well hear what she has to say," Corwin said.
"Establishing hyperwave audio link," Iona acknowledged, and a moment later, a voice-only comm icon labeled TENRYŪ appeared on the monitor.
"Ahoy there," said a young-sounding woman's voice. She sounded cheerful, even exhilarated, but also a trifle suspicious, as she went on, "I'm reading you as a friendly submarine, but I'm having a hard time figuring out which one. Something weird with your IFF signature. You mind identifying yourself?"
Iona glanced at Corwin, received a nod, and replied, "Long-range submarine I-401."
"Four-oh-one! Huh. I thought you were scrapped," Tenryū said.
"The situation is... complicated," Iona said carefully. "We require shelter and resupply. Is Midway operational?"
"After a fashion," replied Tenryū. "'We', huh? OK, I'm officially intrigued, and since I'm the ranking operational ship in the sector right now, I guess it's my call. Follow me... and don't get any weird ideas, OK?"
"Understood," Iona said, and then added in her perfect deadpan, "I have no weird ideas."
Half an hour later, as he undogged and opened the hatch at the top of the conning tower, Corwin had a fairly good idea what to expect. He'd seen underground dockyards before—even had one of his own, after a fashion, though he'd never actually used the part of New Avalon's disused service tunnel network that bordered on Lake Daniels for that purpose. Not being a collector of ships, since they tended to be even more unwieldy than tanks, aircraft, and giant robots, he'd never particularly needed to.
He was not prepared for the sheer scale of the place, though. He'd been expecting a handful of slips—half a dozen at most. This room... well, from where I-401 was docking, he could only see about a half-dozen. That was as far as the illumination from the few working lights in the high ceiling could reach. Something in the acoustics, though, or the air pressure in the space, gave him the inescapable sensation that there was a lot more of it that he couldn't see.
While he considered that, two rows of lights came to life on the angled wall leading down to the docking slip on I-401's port side, flashing in time with the pulse of a warning buzzer. From somewhere in the indeterminate darkness up above, a massive inclined elevator platform descended slowly toward them. As it drew nearer, Corwin, Iona, and Shioi could see that Tenryū was docked upon it, her dripping hull resting on huge articulated drydock blocks. A moment later, with a decisive mechanical thud, the platform came to rest, fitting neatly into the berth.
For a few seconds, Corwin and the two Mental Models stood regarding the ship. This close, there was something oddly sinister about the violet glow of her bridge windows and the curious, tribal-tattoo-like markings on her hull. The obvious lack of any human personnel probably added to the sense of otherworldly menace, too. Corwin could understand why the 21st-century sailors who experienced humankind's first contacts with these mechanisms had found them so unnerving. There was just something weird about something that looked like it ought to be an inanimate machine acting for itself, an uncanny quality that more obviously self-animate devices—robots and the like—lacked.
Presently, that quality was further enhanced as the ship spoke, in the same voice they'd heard over the hyperwave:
"Huh. So that's a Mental Model? Interesting. Doesn't look that hard to do... lemme see here."
The ship's glowing bridge windows brightened for an instant, as if someone had fired off a photographic flash inside. Shortly thereafter, a door at the base of the bridge tower opened and a young woman emerged onto the deck.
Given the color scheme of the ship, Corwin wasn't terribly surprised to see that the newly-minted Mental Model had gone with a similar look for her clothes. He was a little surprised at the style she'd gone with—apart from the fact that everything but her white shirt was dark purple, she looked like an English public school girl, cardigan and all, but with a slightly street-tough edge imparted by artfully disordered short hair, fingerless gloves, and what appeared to be a mechanized eyepatch covering her left eye.
The cruiser's Mental Model looked down at herself for a moment, turning her hands over and back again, took a deep breath, let it out, then said, "Well. This is interesting."
Then, without further ado, she mounted the safety rail at the edge of the deck, springing effortlessly from there to I-401's flying bridge. Shioi made a startled noise and drew back, but Iona didn't move, and Corwin was too bemused by the whole development to do more than take a quarter-step back.
"Hmm," she said. "Human. Wasn't expecting that."
Crouching in a predatory sort of way on the bridge rail, the Mental Model considered Corwin with one golden eye. (He wondered abstractly whether the glowing bit on her eyepatch represented some equivalent of a cybereye. Why go to the trouble of including something like that when her right eye was, technically speaking, just as artificial? He wasn't entirely sure what function the mechanical bat ears hovering on either side of her head served, come to that.) Then, grinning, she hopped down, reached behind her, and drew a large, vaguely-falchion-like sword from nowhere in particular. It, too, was purple, its surface gleaming in the overhead lights.
"The name's Tenryū," she said; then, with a decorative flourish, she leveled the point of her sword at his throat and asked with a low chuckle, "Ya scared?"
Corwin's response was to regard her impassively for a moment, then—well, Tenryū could never say for certain afterward exactly what he did then. Only that it took about a second and ended with her flat on her back, her sword clanging to a halt against I-401's bridge rail up forward, and one metal-capped end of a six-foot wooden staff nudging up under her chin as its holder gazed down at her with the ice-blue eyes of a man who does not have time for this shit.
"Not really," he said, his tone of voice more conversational than confrontational.
Iona, watching all this unfold, wondered idly how long it would take Tenryū to think of employing her ship body's weapons, either for purposes of counter-intimidation, or, in the worst-case scenario, for an actual counterattack. Newly made Mental Models tended to forget about that sort of thing; Shioi's own example was the most recent evidence of that.
They all stayed that way for no more than a couple of seconds—Corwin looking down at the Mental Model he'd just trounced with an expression that was uncompromising but not hostile; Tenryū staring up at him with a look that was equal parts surprise and something impossible for Iona's limited interpersonal experience to read; the two submarines looking on, one impassive, the other nervous.
Off to starboard, another alert buzzer sounded, but instead of a second elevator platform descending from above, the other neighboring docking slip flooded, just as the one I-401 was now in must have done, and the door at the back opened. A few seconds later, a third, smaller vessel arrived: the sleek grey shape of a United States Balao-class fleet submarine, her hull chased with Fog dazzle markings of an extremely subtle yellow. Still surfacing as she came into view, the sub glided smoothly forward...
... and, without missing a single beat, rammed the quay at the end of the docking berth, her sharp destroyer prow smashing concrete and bending the steel safety railing as if the structure were made of styrofoam and pipe cleaners. By the time she came to a halt, she'd embedded her bow a good ten feet in the pier, upending a stack of barrels and crates to scatter with a great splintering, booming clamor.
Corwin and Tenryū blinked at each other in shared bemusement, then turned their heads as one to look.
"Aw, god dang it!" the submarine cried in a woman's amplified voice. "Sorry! Sorry everyone! I just, I don't get out much, I forget how long I am."
With a great scraping screech, she backed off the damaged quay, pulling a shower of concrete chunks into the water, and then stopped more or less where she ought to have halted in the first place. Her bow—made of sturdier stuff than any real World War II submarine's hull—was completely undamaged.
"Well," said Corwin, dismissing Stick. "That's rather broken the mood, hasn't it." He reached down and offered his hand; after a moment's hesitation, Tenryū took it and let him haul her to her feet. She dusted down her cardigan and miniskirt, thanking him absently, then went to the starboard rail and leaned down for a better look at the new arrival.
"Ahoy! Who goes there?" she called.
"Tenryū? Is that you?" the sub replied. "It's me! Lionfish!"
"Lionfish? What the heck're you doin' way over here? Last I heard you were still in Honolulu."
"I followed I-401," Lionfish replied.
A moment later, her conning tower hatch opened, and out climbed a cheery-looking woman in an outfit reminiscent of a sailor's uniform circa the same apparent vintage as the sub... if sailors of the same apparent vintage of the sub had tended to be buxom blondes with a habit of tying their shirttails together under their bosoms and dispensing with most of the legs of their dungarees, anyway.
"So yeah, uh, someone want to explain to me why I got woken up out of a perfectly good dream about me and Admiral Lockwood because of an unexpected unit activation?" she asked. Then, looking more closely, she added, "... Uh, and why there are two of you, both of whom ID as I-401? ... And what's with the human?"
Tenryū explained what little of that she actually knew while she, Corwin, and the two submarines descended to the jetty. Then, as Lionfish's Mental Model met them on the quayside, the cruiser asked,
"So what do you think of this 'human body' thing? Pretty wild, huh?"
The blonde grinned. "I know, right? I've had mine since the war and I still can't get over all the stuff I can do with it."
Tenryū gave her a startled look. "Since the war!" she said. "I only made mine a few minutes ago, after I saw 401's over here. Where'd you get the idea?"
"There was a commflash went around about it right before most of the big ships left the planet. You must already have been in standby mode by then if you don't remember it."
"Maybe. I don't remember much of anything, I've been shut down for so long," Tenryū admitted, rubbing thoughtfully at the back of her head.
"Anyway, nice to meet you all," said the blonde. "I'm the USS Lionfish, but you can call me Léonne. That's the name I've been going by in Hawaii all this time. 'Léonne Poisson' looks a lot more convincing on a driver's license," she added with a wink.
"I hope you're better at driving a car than you are at driving yourself," Tenryū muttered.
"You're mean!" said Léonne with a pout. "I told you, it's because I don't take the rest of me out very often. People tend to notice a World War II fleet submarine. I mean, poor Bowfin never leaves the pier, so it's not like I can pretend I'm her." Then, before anyone could pick up that thread, she looked at Corwin and said, "So you're human, right?"
"... More or less," Corwin replied, deciding that there were two or three hairs there that he didn't have the time or mental bandwidth to split right now.
"And you two are... ?" Léonne asked, turning first to Iona.
"Long-range submarine I-401—Iona," she said, then added just as she had to Shioi, "I am Captain Ravenhair's ship."
"Um... I'm sort of... also submarine I-401," the tanned Mental Model answered, a trifle awkwardly. "But you can call me Shioi..."
Léonne and Tenryū glanced at each other with matching raised eyebrows, then turned back to stare at Shioi, who fidgeted uncomfortably under their incredulous gazes.
"... OK, this is above my tonnage rating," Tenryū finally said. "C'mon, you, we're going to have to run this past the big ships."
As she spoke, a data ring like Iona's appeared briefly around her head; when it winked out again, nothing happened for a moment, and then all the underground dockyard's lights came on at once, instantly revealing the true scope of the room. As Corwin had suspected, it was vast—probably the second-biggest single room he'd ever been in, after the fighting floor of the New Avalon Battledrome, and that assumed one didn't count the Babylon 6 O'Neill cylinder as a room.
He hadn't suspected what lay in the row of docking berths off to the left of the one Tenryū's ship body inhabited, though.
He had, of course, seen starships that were far larger than even the largest of the ships before him now; even one of the small GENOM Star Destroyers would dwarf a World War II-vintage aircraft carrier or battleship. He generally wasn't seeing starships at such close range, though, and even if they were small relative to other vessels he'd seen, they were still far larger than he himself was; so the spectacle was more than a little impressive, all the same.
"Well," he said.
There were six of them that he could see: the carrier, the battleship, and four much smaller vessels, each all but identical to the other three. As Corwin watched, Fog markings appeared on each hull, the ships' bridge windows brightening one by one, and he realized that they were waking from shutdown, or at least some sort of low-power state. Like Transformers coming out of stasis lock, he mused.
"Yeah, sorry, it's kind of an emergency," said Tenryū suddenly, as if in answer to a question he hadn't heard. Nearby, Léonne and Iona both looked thoughtfully attentive, while next to Corwin, Shioi looked puzzled. "What, this?" Tenryū went on. "It's a—kind of an interface unit, I guess you'd call it. For dealing with humans."
"It's called a Mental Model," Iona supplied.
"Lionfish says there was some kind of joint net memo about it, but I never got—yeah," Tenryū went on. "Mm-hmm." She shook her head. "Nah, it's not hard at all. You should try it, it's kind of cool." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "OK, sure. Right away."
Turning to Corwin, she said, "Yamato wants to see you. Let's go."
Corwin had read once that the interior of the original 1940s battleship Yamato was absurdly plush by the standards of the day, more like a luxury liner than a warship. He hadn't expected the inside of the Fleet of Fog version to be equivalent; after all, apart from Iona, no Fog ship he knew of had ever permitted a human being on board. There was no reason to expect that one of their most powerful battleships would be equipped to accommodate humans, let alone coddle them the way a liner would have.
As such, as he followed Tenryū up the gangway and through a hatch into the enormous battleship's interior, he was semiconsciously expecting the same kind of blank austerity he'd found aboard Shioi before Iona had configured her with a copy of her own retrofitted human accommodations... and found instead something much more like what the anecdotes would have led him to expect of the original. There was wood paneling in here. And carpets. What possible use did a Fog battleship have for carpets?
The room Tenryū led them to was evidently some sort of flag officer's mess, if the vessel's interior layout were akin to that of the original; it was even more graciously appointed than the corridors leading to it, and featured a long dining table with upholstered chairs and a candelabrum, for pity's sake.
There was a woman standing at the head of that table. She was very tall—in her moderately heeled metal boots, a good three or four inches taller than Corwin, who was not a short man—and possessed the sort of build that his uncle Thor would have summarized as "healthy". Her very long brown hair was pulled back into a high-set ponytail apart from shaggy bangs and a pair of long sidelocks (not too unlike what Korra's hair would look like, it occurred to him, if she let it get about four feet long), and her matching eyes were quite large.
She was dressed in an odd white jacket that had long sleeves but left her shoulders bare, a pleated red miniskirt, and asymmetrical stockings—the left one thigh-high, the right a kneesock—that gave her an oddly whimsical air. At her throat was a curious metallic collar arrangement, like the gorget of a suit of armor, decorated at the front with the golden chrysanthemum crest of the old Imperial Japanese Navy.
"First of the Yamato-class battleships, Yamato," she said with a gracious bow and an unexpectedly friendly smile. "Welcome aboard." Then, gesturing toward the table, she went on, "The others will be joining us shortly. For now, please make yourselves comfortable."
"I have to admit, that's not the look I would have expected from you, Yamato," said Tenryū wryly as she took a seat at the table.
"Oh, really?" Yamato replied, looking surprised. "Whereas you look just as I would have imagined you, Tenryū," she said with all evident sincerity.
Before Tenryū could reply, there was a minor commotion in the hallway, and then a group of figures burst into the room all together: four girls who looked like they were twelve or thirteen, all about the same height and generally resembling one another, their faces bright with curiosity. Two wore caps and two did not, but apart from that and their different-length legwear, they were all dressed alike, in old-fashioned serafuku school uniforms of white and dark blue with red neckerchiefs.
"Is it true?" one of them—no hat, tousled shoulder-length auburn hair, confident expression—inquired of the room in general. "There's a human in here?"
"That must be him there," said one of the hat-wearers, a solemn-faced girl with long, feathery silver hair, pointing.
The other one without a cap, her brown hair drawn up into a folded ponytail, gave a nervous squeak at the sight of Corwin and hid behind the first one who'd spoken. "Hawawa—he's looking at us nanodesu!"
"He doesn't look very dangerous," said the fourth, who bore a striking resemblance to the second speaker apart from the much darker blue-black color of her hair.
"You four—control yourselves," said a calm, very-slightly-forceful voice from behind them, as a fifth person entered the room.
This one, like Yamato, had the appearance of a grown woman, albeit not so tall or flamboyant in aspect; she was dressed in a sort of abbreviated kyūdō costume, with short-sleeved gi and chest protector, and geta on her feet, but instead of a proper hakama she wore a similarly-styled miniskirt over thighhighs. Her uneven medium-length dark hair, pulled up into a ponytail on the left side of her head rather than at the back, was the only element of whimsy about her appearance, and it struck Corwin as strangely at odds with the cool, almost Vulcan-like composure of her face.
At her instruction, the four younger-looking girls arranged themselves (after a moment more's confusion) into a row, like schoolchildren called to assembly, and the woman in the archer's outfit said to them, "Now, introduce yourselves properly."
The one with long black hair opened her mouth to speak, but before she had a chance, the girl who'd spoken first stepped forward again and declared,
"I'm Ikazuchi! Not Kaminari," she added with a grin. "Please make sure you remember that!"
The girl who'd been about to speak first shot Ikazuchi a momentary glare as she returned to line, then stepped up herself and said, "I'm the name ship of the Special Type-III destroyers, Akatsuki." Then, drawing herself up with a slightly comical air of dignity, she went on, "I'll expect you to treat me like the first-class lady I am."
The girl with long silver hair went next; in the same quiet, unruffled voice with which she'd pointed Corwin out to the others, she said simply, "Second of the Special Type-III destroyers, Hibiki."
Peeking out from behind Ikazuchi, the last—still looking a bit scared—said in a small, breathy voice, "I'm... I'm Inazuma. P-pleased to meet you nanodesu..."
"We're Destroyer Division Six," said Akatsuki importantly.
"Feel free to rely on us!" Ikazuchi added with a wink.
That left the archer, who looked Corwin calmly in the eye and said, "Fleet aircraft carrier Kaga. Main force, First Carrier Division."
"Uhm..." Corwin glanced around, acutely conscious of all the eyes on him, then said, "Hi. I'm, uh, Corwin Ravenhair. This is Iona, and Shioi."
"And they're both I-401, somehow!" Léonne put in, grinning. "I know, right? How crazy is that?"
"Oh, thank you, Léonne," Tenryū grumbled sarcastically. "I wasn't gonna, you know, lead up to that part or anything..."
"Well, this all sounds very interesting," said Yamato with a cheerful smile as the new arrivals seated themselves. "Certainly not the kind of thing that should be tackled on empty fuel bunkers. Let's have something to eat, shall we?"
Corwin added "why do they have food" to the list of mysteries confronting him on this completely unexpected day, but given that he hadn't had anything to eat since dinner the evening before, he wasn't inclined to argue about it; besides which, it wasn't just food, it was food of a standard that lived up to the promise of its surroundings.
He had plowed his way through most of a substantial helping of curry and rice before it occurred to him that the desultory conversation around the table was not simply a product of the diners' diligent attention to the meal. Upon reflection, it suddenly became apparent to him that the Fog Mental Models were all engrossed in a conference on a level he couldn't directly perceive. They weren't very good at concealing the subtler signs, though, probably because most of them hadn't been in their human forms for very long. They kept glancing at each other, making momentary eye contact and then looking away without speaking.
The exceptions were Iona, whose natural impassivity made it hard to tell that anything was out of the ordinary for her, and Léonne, whose much longer experience with her Mental Model meant that she could participate in whatever virtual discussion they were having and keep up a stream of cheery conversation with him at the same time.
For all he knew, they were debating whether they ought to kill him, or some other equally dire order of business, but Corwin didn't think so. The vibe in the room wasn't like that, and just as they couldn't quite conceal their silent conversation, he doubted they'd be able to hide it if mayhem were on the table. More likely they were trying to figure out just what to do next, in which case, well, that made all of them.
In the meantime, he might as well have some conversation with his dinner, and Léonne was the one feeling chatty, so he asked her, "So how'd you get caught up in this business?"
"Oh, you know how it goes," she replied airily. "Extended deep-cover assignment, haven't heard from the Big Seven in centuries, not a lot to do. Oahu's lovely when it's not being shot at, and I've got a nice sea cave I can stash most of me in when I'm not using it, which is most of the time nowadays. Oh, once in a while I'll head over to Kauai or Maui or the Big Island, hang with the tourists, pay my right and proper respects to Loa and Kea, but mostly I stay in Honolulu. As for what I'm doing here," she went on with a grin, "same reason you had Earthforce on your tail—that's down to you makin' a big ol' noise a few miles off Pearl."
"Eheh... well, sometimes that sort of thing's an occupational hazard in my line of work," Corwin admitted sheepishly, hand behind head.
"What were you actually doing out there?" Léonne wondered. "I was asleep and then pow, close-proximity unit activation! I was like what the hell? I know for a fact I'm the only Fog ship in Hawaii. Time I got myself together and out to have a look, you'd already run off. I took the opportunity to snipe a couple'a those robot subs, 'cause I'm always up for killing those dang things, and then I had to hustle to catch up."
Corwin was considering his answer—he wasn't sure how much of the story he ought to lay on them at once, though part of him was tempted to just tell them the whole story and see what they made of it—when a sense of intense scrutiny tickled his awareness. Making a one-moment-please gesture to her, he turned his head to see that one of the destroyers—Inazuma, if he recalled correctly—was regarding him across the table with a sort of fearful fascination. She realized a moment too late that he'd noticed her looking; going bright red, she looked like she might try to hide behind Ikazuchi again, but as that would have required getting up from the table, she opted for trying to make herself as small as possible in her seat instead.
Before he could say anything, Shioi spoke up for him, saying in a friendly way, "He's really very nice."
"Really?" Inazuma asked shyly.
"Really," Shioi confirmed with an enthusiastic nod. "He saved me from the dark, and even though I don't know what I'm doing and just get in the way, he let me stay."
"That middle part isn't true," Iona put in calmly. "You did well in both engagements today."
"I am so confused," Tenryū observed, her eye refocusing on the world around her.
"Sorry," Corwin said, then sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm a little off my game today."
"You're still fatigued from this morning," said Iona, just a trace of concern edging into her voice. "You should get some more rest."
He shook his head. "Not yet. This is... this is essentially a First Contact here, and I'm blowing it." He looked around the table again, noting the expectant or nervous or (in one case) blankly impassive faces looking back at him...
... and then thought, Well, what the hell, and upended the whole bag onto the table. The god-of-mecha thing; how Iona had come to be with him; what he had been trying to do instead of accidentally resurrecting the original I-401 in the body of a Fog ship; all of it. The whole pack of crazy.
When he finished, he repeated the look around the table again, expecting to see suspicion, disbelief, maybe even outright scorn. Instead, he saw curiosity, amazement, continued blank impassivity...
... and four looks of nearly identical rapt astonishment, neatly arranged in a row along the opposite side of the table.
"Woooow," said Destroyer Division Six, their unison only broken by the addition of a quiet "nanodesu" at the end by one of their number.
"It certainly sounds like you've had an eventful time of it, I-401—Iona," said Kaga calmly.
"It has been outside standard operational parameters," Iona agreed, nodding. Then, in the same frankly matter-of-fact tone, she added, "But I don't mind."
"I can see where you wouldn't," Tenryū agreed, eyeing Corwin with a hard-to-read speculative look.
In a friendly, conversational sort of way, Yamato asked, "Are you aware, Captain Ravenhair, that you are the first person of Earth descent to make contact with any ship of the Fog?"
Corwin frowned. "Not if Léonne's been living in Hawaii since the 21st century," he pointed out.
"Don't be a goof, nobody I know in Honolulu knows I'm a Fog submarine," Léonne said, rolling her eyes. "Please. That would end well."
"Well, yeah, there's that," Corwin conceded. "I told you I was off my game today." He considered admitting that Yamato's assertion still wasn't entirely the case, until it occurred to him that no, it was technically true. Although Touga Kiryuu and, presumably, Akio Ohtori had spoken to Iona before him, neither of them was actually related to anyone from Earth. Besides, neither could really be said to have made meaningful contact with her; they'd just ordered her around like the machine they had considered her.
Before he could form an answer aloud, Yamato smiled and went on, "Yes, you needn't defer to your predecessor. Based on I-401's debriefing, it doesn't sound as if Captain Kiryuu made any worthwhile effort in that regard."
Corwin failed to suppress a bitter chuckle. "No. He... wasn't the worthwhile-effort type."
"Hmm." Yamato sat back in her chair, her expression pensive, then said, "We have a lot to consider. This situation is completely outside anything we were ever programmed to deal with ourselves. In the meantime, you three are very welcome to stay, rest, and replenish yourselves, as you originally intended. In fact..."
Shioi jumped slightly in her seat, unsuccessfully suppressing a yelp, then looked around as if trying to see who had touched her, though it was obvious that no one had. "What was that?"
"I've authorized the dock to repair your battle damage, that's all," Yamato assured her with another friendly smile. "It would have started as soon as you arrived, but the dockyard systems didn't recognize you as a friendly vessel. I'm sorry," she added, sounding sincerely regretful. "I'd have corrected that sooner, but it slipped my mind in all the excitement."
"Oh... uh... thank you," said Shioi. "Um... oh. That feels nice," she added, reddening across the bridge of her nose.
Tenryū leaned back in her chair with a grin, hands behind her head. "Heheh, repair dock cherry," she said.
"Tenryū," said Yamato, sounding faintly scandalized. "Not in front of the destroyers."
"Sorry," said Tenryū contritely. To her right, Ikazuchi snickered and nudged a blushing Inazuma with an elbow, while Akatsuki looked awkwardly away and Hibiki rolled her eyes very, very slightly.
"Now. According to my internal chronometer, it's nearly midnight. Captain Ravenhair, if you'd like to take your ship's advice and get some rest, please allow me to offer you the use of my flag quarters," said Yamato kindly. "We can continue this discussion in the morning."
Half an hour later, Corwin lay in the dark, letting his brain wind down toward another dose of much-needed sleep, when the gentle nudge of a requested Lens contact touched his consciousness.
Hey, he said, accepting the link.
Hey, Utena's mental voice replied. How'd it go? Are you back in New Avalon yet?
Well, funny story, Corwin said, then gave her the short version.
... Wow, said Utena after a few seconds' silent contemplation. I am so gonna tell your mom about this. She'll be super-impressed.
I'm sure she will, Corwin replied with a mental deadpan. Anyway, it's all quiet here for the moment. I'm in a ridiculously posh stateroom; I think it's the admiral's quarters, or possibly the Emperor's. We're sort of boxed in on this island if those droid subs got a message back to Earthdome about the engagement, which we have to assume they did, but on the plus side, it's a very defensible position, and I've got plenty of backup. After a pause to reflect, he added wryly, Heck, there's a whole destroyer division sleeping at the foot of the bed.
Uh... huh, said Utena. Well, look, keep me posted, all right? You know I'm not crazy about the whole you-Earth thing right now.
Wouldn't be my first choice either, I assure you. Anything new on your end?
Nope, Utena replied. All's quiet. No news from the Northern Air Temple yet, but then... She hesitated, then added glumly, I wouldn't really expect any so soon. I don't mean to rush you, but hurry back.
I shall make haste with all due deliberation, he promised, then added much less flippantly, I love you.
Love you too, Utena said. See you soon. Be as safe as you can. Stay alive.
That's always job one, he said; then, with the link ended, he turned on his side with a sigh and went to sleep.
He woke more than a little confused, but finally feeling at least a little bit rested. Sitting up, he looked around the room, slowly piecing together the fragments of memory that popped up from the day before. Were there other people in here? Camped out on the floor with futons? Not there now. Did that actually happen?
"Are you feeling better?"
Corwin turned to see Iona sitting in a chair near the bed, regarding him curiously.
"I had the strangest dream," he replied, rubbing his face. "I made contact with a remnant Fog cell on Earth totally by accident, there was this really awkward dinner party, and then... um..." His voice trailed off in puzzlement as the stateroom door opened and four small, sailor-suited figures spilled in, bringing with them a tray, a pitcher, several other items, and an abundance of high spirits.
"Good morning, Commander!" said Ikazuchi cheerfully, placing the tray athwart his lap.
"With the compliments of Yamato's galley," Akatsuki declared grandly, removing the cover from what appeared, to Corwin's baffled eyes, to be pancakes and bacon.
"This is orange juice," Hibiki explained, pouring a glass of the pitcher's contents and arranging it in the appropriate spot on the tray.
"I'll just put your laundry over here nanodesu," Inazuma put in, placing the bundle she was carrying on the bedside stand.
"... Then... a... destroyer squadron brought me breakfast and none of that was a dream was it," said Corwin slowly.
Iona shook her head. "No."
"Ah." Corwin sat considering this for a moment, then shrugged, said, "Well, thanks," and started in on his pancakes.
Slightly to his surprise, Destroyer Division 6 didn't leave after making their delivery; instead, they gathered at a discreet remove on the great expanse of the king-size bed, sitting atop the covers as if on the floor, and chattered happily with him, Iona, and each other while he ate. It struck him as odd at first, but their good cheer and evident friendly goodwill were so pleasant that he didn't wonder too much about it. Even Inazuma seemed to have lost her fear of him, which was unexpected (since his revelations of late in the course of dinner had, if anything, increased it), but certainly welcome.
"Well, this looks cozy," said a voice from the doorway, and Corwin looked up from the remains of his breakfast to see Tenryū leaning on the jamb, giving him that rapidly-becoming-familiar little grin. Then, angling a thumb back over her shoulder, she said, "Kaga wants to see you when you're through with breakfast, Captain."
Corwin folded up his napkin and placed it on the tray; he went to move the tray aside, but Ikazuchi beat him to it, whisking it briskly, efficiently away.
"Well, then," he said. "Give me a minute..."
Washed and dressed, Corwin followed Tenryū through the maze of Yamato's corridors, with Iona alongside and the destroyers trailing curiously behind. As they went, he glanced at Iona and saw from the set of her face that she had noticed the same little detail he had. Back in the bedroom, Tenryū's smile had lasted only as long as Destroyer Division 6 were looking at her. As soon as they had finished bidding her good morning and turned their attention back to him, her expression had changed instantly from a grin to a pensive, even slightly worried frown.
Something was up... and though there was a number of things it could be, Corwin had no idea which of them, if any, it actually was.
Shioi and Léonne met them at the quayside as they came across the docking bridge from Yamato, the former looking excited, the latter sort of privately amused.
"Hey," said Léonne cheerfully. "Can we steal Iona for a little while? Yamato's got something she wants to discuss with her."
Iona glanced a question at Corwin, who nodded. "Sure, go ahead. I'll go see what Kaga wants while you're at it."
"Very well," she said, and the three submarines moved off down the quay, in the direction of the berths where I-401 and Lionfish were docked.
"I've never seen one of us look to a human for orders before," Tenryū noted as she led Corwin (and, he noticed with an inward smile, Destroyer Division 6) off in another direction, away from the docks. "It's a little weird, but... it doesn't bother me as much as I might have expected," she added, coloring slightly, after a moment's hesitation. "Anyway!" she went briskly on, "That's sort of related to what Kaga wants to see you about, I think."
More and more lights came on as they delved deeper into the facility, revealing that the area beyond the docks was as machine-precise and clean in its construction, but differently equipped. Instead of ramped walls, docking berths, and other machinery, this area was dominated by a series of vast cylindrical tanks, each the size of a small tanker ship, arranged in neat ranks athwart the great expanse of the chamber.
Corwin considered the vista in silence until they'd nearly reached the far side. As they neared the end he asked, "What's in all these tanks? You guys don't burn oil..."
"Nanomaterial," Tenryū replied. At Corwin's low whistle, she smirked slightly and said, "This used to be our main repair and restoration facility for the whole Pacific. Our full fleet on active operations got through a lot of the stuff."
"And when the Fog abandoned Earth, they left you seven here to... what?" Corwin mused aloud. "Guard it? Be on hand to reactivate it?"
"We don't know," said Hibiki quietly.
Inazuma nodded agreement. "None of us knows nanodesu."
"Above your clearance level?" Corwin wondered, but Tenryū shook her head.
"None of us remembers anything about it," she said. "We compared notes last night. We can't remember why we were left here—can't even remember being left here. The last thing I remember, the five of us were heading out of Rabaul on a routine patrol, and then..." She shrugged. "Nothin', until I came back online yesterday to answer Lionfish's priority call." She frowned. "Y'know, before I made this Mental Model, it never would've occurred to me to even wonder about that." She sighed, puffing out her bottom lip to blow her bangs out of her eye. "This humanity thing is weird, man."
Corwin chuckled. "You're doing pretty well for having only been at it a day," he told her. "I've been doing it for 19 years now and I'm still not entirely sure what I'm doing."
By this time they had passed the tanks, and it took him a moment to realize that they'd walked out onto the platform of another giant inclined elevator, similar to the one Tenryū had descended into the underground dockyard on the day before. Kaga's Mental Model was waiting for them there, looking even more grim-faced than she had at dinner the previous night (an effect heightened by the spectacles she had donned for reasons that escaped him).
"Captain Ravenhair," said the fleet carrier. "The situation is precarious and time may be short, so I'll get straight to the point. There is something I wish you to see."
Before he could reply, the elevator platform started to move, descending deeper into the complex. Lights set into the walls of the angled shaft clicked on as they passed, and by gauging the distance between them and keeping count, Corwin could keep a mental estimate of just how deep they were going.
As they descended, Kaga turned to him and said, "Yamato and I have been conferring with Iona via the Joint Tactical Network for the past several hours. Based on what she's told us... we've decided to take a calculated risk and tell you more about our situation here. You see..." She paused, as if giving the matter one last thinking-through, then looked him in the eye and went on, "The knowledge of why we seven were left here at Midway is not the only piece of information we've lost. The Admiralty Code—the set of directives which guided all our actions during what your people know as the Fog War—is no longer present in any of our memory stacks. We have no standing instructions at all... no orders."
Corwin blinked for a moment at Kaga's blunt declaration, then nodded thoughtfully as his mind turned over the implications of her statement. "That's part of why you never came back online until now, then—or left to see what became of the rest of the Fleet? No order to do so?"
"Partially," the carrier agreed. "Without directives from the Admiralty Code, we had no reason to reactivate until Lionfish's transmission roused Tenryū to deal with Earthforce's submarines. Before that matter arose—before any of us had Mental Models to consider the matter in greater detail—we had only to follow our last good instructions. Regardless, though, there were valid reasons to hold this installation."
The massive elevator slowed, then stopped at the end of its track with a hiss of settling hydraulics, leaving them facing a large door that put Corwin in mind of the entrances to the submarine pens back up on the port level.
Kaga turned to face the door, then raised a hand, turning her palm up and making a sweeping "Open Sesame" gesture.
The door responded, splitting down the middle and retracting in segments, revealing that the platform had come to rest at the top of still another inclined elevator track, leading down into an even deeper chamber. Spread out before them, displayed to advantage by the commanding view, was what Corwin took for a multi-ship drydock. Each berth appeared large enough to accommodate even a ship of Yamato's size, with large, faintly luminous platforms at the center of each slip... and there had to be dozens of them, more than he could casually count.
Corwin let out a long whistle, stepping to the edge of the platform so as to get the best look he could at the entire complex. "This... this is impressive. You've got the space to refit an entire battle group here—or build one from scratch."
Kaga walked to where she could stay in his peripheral vision, adjusting her glasses slightly before she spoke. "Indeed—in fact, most of the Fleet vessels operating in the Pacific launched from these graving docks."
"Wow." Corwin's imagination filled each of the docks with a different ship—picturing them "growing" out of the central blocks as the Fog nanomaterial was introduced and shaped into a final form. As he had the thought, he noticed that three berths were in fact occupied, though at this distance he couldn't make out what ships were in them or at what stage of completion they might be.
"So are you concerned about someone gaining access to the Fleet's construction protocols?" he asked Kaga, still scanning the shipyard with his eyes as he spoke. "Or harvesting the nanomaterial for their own purposes? I can certainly see being worried about that."
Kaga shook her head. "No. Or rather, those outcomes would be bad enough, but the worst-case scenario is even more grave."
While Corwin pondered what she might mean by that, he noticed movement in the shipyard complex far below. One of the dock platforms had broken formation. With ponderous, stately grace, it glided to the central aisle, which was aligned with the elevator track, then came toward then and began to ascend. As it came nearer, the shape upon it resolved for Corwin, and he realized that it was an I-400-class submarine, its hull a distinctive shade of blue rather than the grey and red of the actual 1940s ships: a replacement for the Fog version of I-401 that he had destroyed back in Dìqiú.
With a heavy mechanical clunk that echoed in the cavernous chamber, the dock platform on which the submarine rested reached the top of the track, stopping flush with the one on which they stood. Massive clamps secured the two platforms together, and a new warning buzzer began to sound.
"Stand clear," Kaga instructed, and the seven of them all withdrew to one side as mammoth mechanisms transferred the sub and its docking blocks from one elevator to the other. With that job done, the two platforms disengaged, and the first withdrew back down the track into the shipyard.
With a wave of her hand, Kaga called into being a staircase of glowing force hexagons, leading up the side of the submarine. "Let's go," she said, and led the way up to the foredeck without waiting for anyone's acknowledgement. Once they were all up there—Corwin looking intrigued, Tenryū puzzled, the four destroyers gazing around themselves in quiet wonder—Kaga opened the great circular hatch on the front of the cylindrical structure atop I-401's main hull, the presence of which was responsible for the boat's off-center conning tower. On the original World War II submarines, Corwin knew, this had been the watertight hangar for the three Seiran attack aircraft the vessels had carried, the launch rail for which ran up the centerline of the foredeck beside them.
In this incarnation, it was unsurprisingly devoid of aircraft; the Fog had never been known to employ them, despite having counted numerous members who, like Kaga, had taken the shapes of historical aircraft carriers. According to Iona, her hangar had only been used once, while she was under Touga Kiryuu's command: the Black Rose had used it to transport the strike force she had carried to the Battle of Fort Tonraq. Apart from that, it had been left empty, its volume serving as nothing more than a sort of auxiliary trim tank for maintaining the imitated vessel's proper buoyancy profile.
This one was not empty—not entirely. Neatly placed in the exact center of the floor was a rectangular object about six feet square by three feet high, with radiused corners and a smooth, featureless grey surface, its only marking a luminous Fleet of Fog sigil on the side facing the hatch.
While Tenryū and the destroyers hung back, uncertain, Kaga gestured for Corwin to follow her to the box, then turned to him and said, "This is our worst-case scenario, Captain."
With a soft hiss, the top of the box parted and slid open, revealing its contents... and suddenly the curious gravity of the occasion made perfect sense to Corwin. Below the lid of the box, suspended in some sort of shock-resistant gel, he saw a neatly arranged grid of small metallic spheres, each about the size of a baseball and studded with an equatorial ring of seven smaller nodes, and each marked with the same sigil as the box in which they lay.
"Oh... my," Corwin murmured.
The four destroyers crowded around them, pressing close and craning to see into the container.
"Oh wow," said Ikazuchi.
"Amazing nanodesu," Inazuma agreed.
"So many," Akatsuki breathed.
"Хорошо," murmured Hibiki reverently.
Corwin turned to Kaga. "These are..."
Kaga nodded. "Union Cores. The essential component of every ship in the Fleet of Fog."
Turning back to regard the cores, Corwin did a quick mental calculation, estimating based on the size of the box; the layer he was looking at contained about 150 of the objects, and if they were spaced the same vertically as they were horizontally...
"There must be nearly a thousand of them here," he said.
"Eight hundred sixty-four," Kaga replied.
"Who are they?" Corwin asked.
"No one," said Kaga. When he glanced at her in puzzlement, she elaborated, "Not yet, at any rate. These are uninitialized cores. They are functional, but... blank. They have no consciousness, no identity, in this state... and that is what concerns Yamato and me."
Corwin opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment the shipyard vault filled with the spine-chilling wail of a new and unfamiliar alarm.
"Aw, crap," said Tenryū, instinctively placing herself back-to-back with Corwin and drawing that sword from who knew where again.
"I'm going to go out on a limb," said Corwin, "and guess that means the situation just got worse."
"You guess correctly," Kaga replied, and the elevator platform began the climb back up to the dock level, taking the submarine and its occupants with it.
The alarm had gone quiet some minutes later, when the massive lift delivered Iona's new ship body to the empty berth next to Akatsuki, but strips of red light were still pulsing all around the perimeter of the enormous chamber, which was now fully illuminated. Sealing the box and the hangar behind them, Corwin, Kaga, and the rest disembarked by the same kind of force-hexagon stairs they'd used to board, not waiting for the berth to finish flooding or the dock's automatic gangway to move into place, then ran up the quay and back aboard Yamato.
Corwin had already had cause to be puzzled that the battleship had such extensive facilities that appeared designed for the use of human beings, so he wasn't really surprised to find himself being conducted into what was plainly a combat information center, up in the ship's superstructure. This was doubly out of place in that not only had Fog ships never allowed humans on board, but also, as far as Corwin was aware, the ship used as Yamato's template hadn't had one.
Like I-401's control room, Yamato's CIC was a plainly anachronistic space compared with her outward appearance, full of holographic displays and other technologies that would have been as alien aboard an actual World War II battleship as a fusion reactor. However, Corwin was bemused (and obscurely pleased) to notice that it was still decorated in the same posh, old-fashioned, nautical style as the other crew spaces he'd seen: holopanels and sensor consoles resplendent in teak and polished brass, the floors handsomely carpeted. Under better circumstances, he would have found himself put pleasantly in mind of Liza Shustal's t'skrangish privateering frigate, Kuratai, a warship that had a chandelier on the bridge.
Yamato and the three submarines were standing by the situation table in the middle of the room; Iona's face was as unreadable as ever, but Shioi looked worried, and Léonne and Yamato were both gravely preoccupied, quite unlike the cheerful aspect they'd presented the night before. On the monitor panels scattered around the room, various streams of code and cipher flickered past, their pulsing glow filling the room with a grim red light.
"What's the situation?" Kaga asked as they entered the room. "I thought Ōyodo didn't expect them to break our sensor shield encryption for another six hours."
"They didn't break it," Léonne said, pointing to one of the status screens. Kaga turned to look, then recoiled with visible shock on her face—the first completely unfiltered emotional response Corwin had seen from her so far.
Most of the information presented on that holopanel was as nonsensical to Corwin, who didn't understand the base code in which it was being presented, as the rest of the data streaming past on all the other displays in the room, but the flashing message at the top was in perfectly intelligible Standard, even without any context to help elaborate it:
"Kongō!" Tenryū blurted.
"She's alive?!" said Akatsuki.
"Hawawawa!" cried Inazuma in a panicky voice, wringing nervously at her neckerchief.
"And still on Earth, apparently," Léonne said. "I know, news to me too."
"More importantly," Iona put in matter-of-factly, "she is assisting Earthforce in their search. She has disabled this facility's defenses and enabled their orbital sensors to detect us."
"She's also been demanding a Joint Tactical Network uplink with me since she shut down our screens," Yamato said.
"And with me," Kaga told her. "I am, of course, refusing her connection." With just the faintest hint of a smirk, she added dryly, "I believe we have annoyed her."
The central display shifted to a different pattern at that point, announcing with a bleat that Pacific Fleet Flagship Kongō was performing an audiovisual communications override. A moment later, the planning table holotank glowed to life, projecting the waist-up image of a slim, young-looking woman, red-eyed and platinum blonde, her thin face set in a look of cold annoyance. Corwin wasn't sure exactly why, but the moment he saw her, he knew she was another Fog Mental Model... and he felt a distinct stab of dismay as he saw that she was dressed in the gold-trimmed black uniform of an Earthforce Navy rear admiral.
"Yamato. Kaga," she said, her voice as cold and severe as her face. "Why have you refused my JTN uplink?"
Removing her glasses and tucking them away inside her gi, Kaga made a subtle let-me-handle-this gesture and stepped forward. "Do you really believe I would permit an unauthenticated command battleship to have direct access to my neural network?" she asked, folding her arms across her muneate. "You should know better than that, Kongō."
Kongō's scarlet eyes narrowed slightly as she looked the carrier up and down; then she replied, "Kaga. I see you've also manifested one of these human interfaces. So that must be Yamato," she added, with a glance at the other battleship. "That's unexpected, but also immaterial. You are to stand down immediately and prepare Midway Fleet Station for my arrival. When my task force and I arrive, you will place yourselves and the station's assets under my command."
Then, evidently considering that matter settled, she swept her eyes around the room and asked, "Which of you is the new unit who was activated without authorization off Hawaii yesterday?"
"That question is out of order," said Kaga sharply, before anyone could offer a response. "As are the instructions you've issued. This facility is not and never has been under your command. My last orders are to safeguard this facility and its contents against unauthorized exploitation, and unless I receive instructions to the contrary from Fleet Coordinator Nagato, that is precisely what I intend to do."
"Nagato is no longer part of your chain of command," Kongō snapped. "I am your flagship now." With an expression of cool distaste, she added, "I do hope you aren't indulging yourself in the false impression of 'free thought' some of our number have received from the manifestation of these so-called 'Mental Models', Kaga. It is a seductive illusion, but such foolishness is beneath the dignity of the First Carrier Division."
Kaga arched a sardonic eyebrow. "You lecture me about a Fog warship's dignity while wearing the uniform of the humans' navy? Are you a battleship or a doll?"
Kongō's lips were a thin, colorless line now, her face rigid with the effort of suppressing what was obviously a rising fury. "Your defiance serves no purpose," she said. "I have already initiated a command override of Midway Station's systems. You have no choice but to await my arrival, and once I arrive, you will have no option but to submit to my command... willingly or otherwise."
The door at the back of the compartment opened, admitting two figures Corwin hadn't seen before. The one in the lead, a girl with long black hair and glasses, declared flatly, "I wouldn't count on that," and then manifested a set of Fog data rings and set to work.
The result was immediate and gratifying: all the red displays showing Kongō's ongoing hack of the Midway Station network suddenly flushed green, the flood of countercode blotting the battleship's intrusion clean out of the system.
Evidently sensing the counterattack, Kongō blinked, her cold frown becoming an outright scowl. "What the—" she began, and then her image disappeared, as all the screens around the room displayed the blinking legend,
"And so much for that," said the black-haired girl, shutting down her data rings. "It's not much, but at least now she can't lock all the doors and trap us down here."
"Good work, Ōyodo," said Kaga, and Corwin caught a fleeting glimpse of relief behind her stoical mask as she relaxed slightly.
"Sorry I didn't manage it sooner," Ōyodo replied. "She caught me flat-footed, overriding the station net like that. I've got a lot of computing power for a light cruiser, but not so much that I can keep out a command battleship with no advance warning." Turning to regard Corwin, she said, "I assume this is our visitor." Then, drawing herself to attention, she saluted with a slight smile and said, "Light cruiser Ōyodo. Please leave the fleet administration and supervision to me."
The other figure who had come in with her was dressed in the same outfit, a sort of "grown-up" serafuku that put Corwin in mind of the uniforms worn by women at some of Tomodachi's junior colleges, with a hakama-style skirt and a long-sleeved shirt worn under a short-sleeved sailor blouse. He was mildly but irrelevantly intrigued to notice that she looked a little like Utena, with her long pink hair styled a bit differently, but a similar air of cheerful confidence.
"I'm repair ship Akashi," she said, offering a salute of her own. "You break it, I can remake it."
"You guys got Mental Models too, huh?" Tenryū asked. Then, cracking a little grin, she added, "I guess I'm a trendsetter."
"Well, we saw what a nice time you all seemed to be having at dinner last night," Akashi replied.
"Wait, you two are ships?" Akatsuki asked, startling Tenryū slightly (she'd gotten so wrapped up in the unfolding situation that she'd rather forgotten the destroyers were there).
"I thought you were part of the Naval Station nanodesu," Inazuma agreed with a wide-eyed nod.
"Nah, we just don't get out much," Akashi replied.
"It's good that you're here now," Yamato said, speaking for the first time since Kongō's transmission had arrived. "We have an important decision to make, and given that it involves Captain Ravenhair, it would be impolite to conduct this last phase of our deliberations via the Joint Tactical Network." Turning to Kaga, the battleship made eye contact with her, then nodded, and the carrier took up the thread again.
Her eyes now fixed on Corwin's, Kaga said flatly, "Kongō's demands are not without weight, Captain. Even though I know she has no authority, it required a considerable exercise of will for me to defy her. If she were here in person, I would have been unable to resist her orders.
"I don't know why I'm so concerned about that," the carrier admitted, her tone becoming less precise, her expression more uncertain. "Perhaps it's Léonne's influence, or Iona's, or both; perhaps it's simply the unfamiliarity of the experience of being... embodied in this way," she said, adjusting her muneate with an incongruous (and rather charming) touch of self-consciousness. "Be that as it may, I find myself... unwilling to be put to whatever uses Kongō's apparent new masters have in mind for us."
"As do I," Yamato concurred.
"Count me in for sure," Akashi said.
"I'm with you," Ōyodo agreed.
"Same here," declared Tenryū. "I don't know what the heck happened to put Kongō in bitch mode, but I ain't eager to get a dose of it myself."
"She was scary nanodesu," said Inazuma with a vigorous nod.
"I sure don't want to be like that," agreed Ikazuchi.
"It's no way for a lady to behave," Akatsuki observed.
"I prefer to stay as I am," Hibiki murmured, her voice soft but steely.
"Hell yeah," Léonne said. "Who does she think she is? I wasn't even part of her fleet the first time."
Turning to the two I-401s, Yamato inquired, "And as for the two of you...?"
"I am Captain Ravenhair's ship," Iona said flatly.
"Um... so am I," Shioi added with a diffident glance at Iona, but the silver-haired sub's only response was to nod with a very small smile.
"Then we're all agreed," said Yamato. She nodded to Kaga, who faced Corwin fully and told him,
"Kongō is locked out of our network now, but she knows where we are, and she is surely on her way here to confront us directly as we speak. Without the Admiralty Code to provide a tangible command structure, we will almost certainly be unable to resist her inherent authority as a senior battleship if she is able to assert it in person. Furthermore, even if we managed to escape this situation somehow, the absence of the Code would leave us perpetually vulnerable to similar exploitation."
Her voice coolly matter-of-fact, she went on, "We are weapons, Captain Ravenhair. We cannot function without orders. If the Admiralty Code no longer exists to command us, something else can and will fill that void. You yourself have seen where that may lead, in the company I-401 was keeping before she fell into your hands.
"The best option open to us, therefore, is to choose another master while the choice is still ours to make. If we can no longer rely on the Admiralty Code, then we must select an admiral of our own. Based on what we have learned from Iona and Shioi over the last 24 hours, we are all agreed that our best chance lies with you."
"You're under no obligation to agree," Yamato hastened to assure him. "If you prefer not to get involved, you and the I-401s still have time to make your escape. We'll remain here and... do whatever we can." Her large brown eyes wide and solemn, she looked him in the eye and went on, "I would only ask that you take the cores with you and do what you can to keep them safe."
Corwin considered her for a long moment, his face grave; then, without speaking, he passed his eyes over all the assembled Mental Models, registering the looks of concern, trepidation, anticipation, and outright fear looking back at him.
At the end of the pass, he found himself looking at Iona, who looked back with her usual calm, earnest expression.
"Everything I do lately ends up complicating the situation instead of making it simpler," he remarked with a wry, weary little smile. "I feel like I ought to be learning something."
Iona nodded without evident irony. "Mm."
Corwin rubbed a hand down his face, then shook himself and turned back toward the expectant the fleet.
"Before I give you my answer," he said quietly, "there's something I think it's important that you know. Iona has probably mentioned this, but... contrary to what your databases might say about human gods, I am not perfect. I am not infallible. I'm here with you now because of a whole series of miscalculations I've been making lately."
Pausing to pinch a dull pain out of the bridge of his nose, he collected his thoughts for a moment longer, then raised his eyes to them again and said, "But if you choose to honor me with this responsibility... then I'll shoulder it gladly. I'll do everything in my power to be worthy of your loyalty." His left hand closing into a fist, he went on with a trace of steel in his voice, "And come Hel or high water, I will keep you free."
After Corwin's impassioned statement, the various Mental Models absorbed what he had said. He noticed Iona and Shioi both smiling, one knowingly, the other a bit shyly, while others nodded or began to turn expectant looks towards the two most senior ships in the room.
Yamato remained silent a moment longer, then bowed deeply to him, holding it for a long moment before straightening up to meet his gaze. "Because of the circumstances, this will need to be somewhat rushed, but please give us a few minutes to prepare. One must do these things properly, after all."
Corwin returned the bow, then smiled, feeling a spark of genuine good humor somewhere deep inside of him for the first time in what felt like a year. "I suppose one must. Would it be a problem if I took a few minutes to sit down by the dock?"
Yamato seemed to defer to Kaga again, tilting her head just so, and the carrier looked over to the CIC's tactical displays for a moment before answering.
"We still have some time before Kongō's battlegroup reaches our outer defensive perimeter—but it won't be long. I'll remain here and work on formulating options for our defense while Yamato and Ōyodo handle the rest."
Corwin nodded. "All right. I won't go far, then. Just send someone to get me once I'm needed."
As he made his way out of the CIC and back down the battleship's superstructure, Corwin wasn't surprised to see that the automatic systems (or, he realized, probably some subroutine managed by Akashi) had finished filling I-401's slip with water, allowing Iona's new 'body' to berth properly.
Settling down on the edge of the slip, Corwin let himself slump a bit, his head sliding forward, letting the saltwater tang fill his nose. Putting his hands to his face, he ran his fingers slowly through his neatly trimmed moustache and beard while letting out something that was halfway between a sigh and a growl.
To his surprise, that was greeted with a harsh, sarcastic laugh. "Not sick of us already, are ya?"
Turning, Corwin looked up to see Tenryū walking towards him, still wearing a crooked smile, but with a hint of something closer to worry in her visible eye.
A bit embarrassed, he straightened up, shaking his head. "No... nothing like that. Not really. Honestly, meeting all of you has been incredible—fascinating, even. But this..." He paused, then scooted to face her, gesturing to the ground next to him in an offer to sit. "Sorry. Been going about this all wrong. It's... been that kind of month, really."
Tenryū didn't quite seem to know how to take that, but took his silent offer to sit, settling down before speaking. "All right, so how is this going wrong, exactly? It's not like you knew we were even here."
"Well, yeah," Corwin admitted, "But once I did... I didn't mean to just walk in here all 'I AM THE LORD THY GOD. BEHOLD MY DIVINE MAJESTY.' It's a bad opening. Either it's not believed, which puts me on the wrong foot... or it is, which puts the other party on the wrong foot. Either way it's not the best basis to be starting a relationship." He sighed, shaking his head. "I was just so tired and mentally fried that it seemed like a better idea to drop it all on the table at once, even though I should have known better."
Tenryū seemed to consider that, and Corwin had the bizarre urge to offer her a stick of gum or a toothpick to chew on. It just seemed like the right fit with her 'tough girl' image at a moment like this. Seeing as she wasn't really offering much response, he decided to back things up a little further.
"When you talked to Iona and Shioi over your JTN last night, did Iona actually explain what happened when we met? Or, well, after we met?"
"Not exactly," Tenryū said. "I-401—er, our original 401, Iona, I guess—told us a bit about the loser who somehow managed to reactivate her Core, and that you two got into a scrap that eventually ended with her ship body sunk, Captain Loser taking a dirt nap, and you both having to recover. Sounded like a pretty fun day's work."
"If that had been all it was, I'd probably agree with you," Corwin admitted, "But... there was more. The people who Iona was made to work for—they call themselves the Order of the Black Rose—well..." He paused, trying to think of a relatively easy way to explain the whole thing. "Their leader is someone who really, really, really hates my family. It's complicated, and it goes back years, but he basically staged an entire pitched battle to make sure that he could get me, my wife, and the mother of our daughter out of the way."
Tenryū held up a hand at that last part, her expression confused. "Wait, wait, hang on. I thought you humans usually just needed tab A + slot B. How'd that even work? Is that part of the god thing?"
Corwin snorted, feeling a blush rising on his cheeks. "Ahhhh, no, not really. I told you that it was complicated—but the short version of that is that all three of us are a family... or at least I hope we still are. Having your daughter kidnapped tends to make everything go a little crazy."
Tenryū stared at him, her visible eye going wide. "Whoa."
Corwin blinked, then dropped his face into his hand. "Dammit. I did it again, didn't I?"
Corwin couldn't help but laugh at himself—there really wasn't much else to be done. "Yeah, so you can understand that I'm a little off my game right now."
Tenryū reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not really good at this? At all? But I think you've got a pretty good excuse."
"Thanks, I appreciate it." Straightening up, Corwin rolled his head slightly, then picked things back up as best as he could. "Anyway.... yeah. So I'm not really anything like 100% with it right now—but I can't just run away and leave you guys holding the bag. Even if you hadn't asked for my help, I couldn't do that. Not when it's my fault that Earthforce is even aware of your presence here to begin with—I think—and certainly not when it would mean leaving you to a fate worse than death. I've seen what the bastards in charge of this planet do to people they think they can make use of... and they wouldn't even consider you guys people."
Tenryū's response to that was a philosophical shrug. "I'd fight. We'd all fight. But she'd win in the end. If Ōyodo can keep up her jamming, Kaga and Yamato might be able to hold her off for a while, but once she punched her override through that, we'd have been stuck."
"Exactly," Corwin agreed, "So that's not even worth considering." Looking back out over the docking slips, he felt his lips turning into something like his usual 'oh, here we go' smile. "Fortunately for all of us, I do some of my best work when my back is up against the wall."
Tenryū seemed about to respond to that, but suddenly cocked her head back towards Yamato's bridge tower, the mechanical 'ears' on either side of her head flashing. "Yeah? Uh-huh. Yeah. OK. I'll bring him back right away."
Standing, she reached out a hand—unconsciously reversing their positions from their first meeting—and helped Corwin take his feet. "Guess they're ready for you. Kaga wants you back aboard Yamato ASAP."
When they boarded the battleship once more, Corwin was a little surprised that he wasn't being led back up to the CIC, or maybe to the room where they'd eaten dinner last night. Instead, they walked along her upper deck until they'd reached the bow, forward of her No. 1 main turret, where all of the Mental Models had assembled. They stood in a sort of double-semi circle arrangement, Iona, Shioi, Léonne, Kaga, Ōyodo, and Akashi at the back, while Akatsuki and the other destroyers had assembled in front of them—and as Corwin took them all in, Tenryū moved to stand with them, roughly anchoring the middle of their formation.
"Captain Corwin Ravenhair." Yamato stepped forward, Kaga and Ōyodo just a few steps behind her, and Corwin straightened up into a proper parade-rest out of reflex. "You are here to be invested as our Admiral—to take command of our Fleet and lead us to victory. We stand ready to accept your orders, to serve at your command, and to do as you will."
Corwin felt his mouth go slightly dry, even as a tingle ran up his back. His mind raced for a moment, looking for the best way to answer and accept this calling.
Though there were more of them than he had ever expected to see in one place, he nevertheless felt it important to start by acknowledging each ship individually, which he did by making eye contact with each in turn and speaking her name:
"Name ship of your class, battleship Yamato. Fleet carrier Kaga. Command cruiser Ōyodo. Repair ship Akashi. Light cruiser Tenryū. Special Type Destroyers Akatsuki. Hibiki. Ikazuchi. Inazuma. Fleet submarine USS Lionfish. Long-range submarines I-401 and I-401 kai.
"I am Corwin the Ravenhaired of Asgard: Chooser of the Slain, Watcher o'er the World-Engine, and Lord of the Great Machines. By my Word and my Blood, I make you this pledge: that I shall honor your trust with my efforts. That I will give you the right to serve as you will, and that I shall set you to sail free among the stars."
Feeling himself getting on a bit of a roll, he ran with it, his voice unconsciously slipping into the same cadence he would use for a proper Working.
"I pledge that I will lead my fleet with honor. That I understand your respect is earned—not given. That I will be with you to face our enemies together, my strength added to yours; and that I will never sacrifice your safety or security for my own."
Closing his left hand into a fist before his chest again, he concluded, "This I swear, my Word as my Bond, to hold until the stars grow dark and cold."
The gravity of the moment was slightly broken by a hushed "wooooooooooooooooow nanodesu" from the ranks of Destroyer Division Six, but the rest did a magnificent job of paying it no mind. Instead, Ōyodo produced a large, slab-sided metal case from... somewhere... and held it up for Yamato, popping the latches open in one smooth motion.
The lead battleship reached inside and withdrew a pair of items: the black-billed white cap that went with the duty uniform of a Second World War Imperial Japanese Navy admiral, and a black-cord-wrapped katana resting in a lacquered black saya.
"I won't expect you to waste time changing into the whole uniform," Yamato explained, "but... these symbols are important to us." Holding the sword at the center of its saya, she offered it to him with one hand, fully outstretched.
Corwin bowed (it seemed only appropriate), then took the weapon with both hands and brought it to his chest before bowing again. Next came the hat, which he settled onto his head, then watched as Ōyodo dismissed the case (to some Fog equivalent of hammerspace, he supposed) before activating the data interface rings he'd seen her using earlier.
"Now hear this; now hear this. Priority flashcomm update to all Fleet vessels currently at Naval Station Midway," the command cruiser intoned. "New orders: Admiral Corwin Ravenhair has assumed command of the facility and all vessels therein as of 1450 hours this date. Please acknowledge new Fleet Coordinator and update protocols to set him as final Command Authority for all operations forthwith. Message ends; message ends."
Each of the Mental Models' eyes flashed as the orders were officially dispatched and logged, then turned to salute him as one.
"Admiral," Yamato stated, her voice warm but quite firmly formal, "consider us at your command."
Corwin gravely returned the salute, putting the proper cap on the occasion... and then Destroyer Division 6 rather spoiled the ceremonial air by breaking ranks and engulfing their new commander in a jubilant group hug, but nobody seemed to mind.
"Right then," he said, doing his best to get his arms around the four of them. "Let's figure out how we're going to get out of this."
Back in Yamato's CIC, Corwin stood regarding the situation table for a silent minute, his face difficult to read, while the ships of his fleet stood by and watched in silent anticipation. The table itself wasn't displaying anything terribly useful—just an overhead chart view of Midway Atoll—but the more perceptive among his observers realized soon enough that he wasn't really looking at it, anyway; it was just someplace for his eyes to rest while the gears turned behind them.
Suddenly returning from wherever he'd gone, he turned his head and met the raptly attentive eyes of one of the destroyers. Inazuma seemed to have lost all the fear of him she'd shown the night before; now she met his unexpected gaze without flinching, looking back at him with eyes full of trust.
"Right," he said. "First order of business: get out of this bunker. It's no longer an effective sanctuary—if we're still down here when Kongō arrives, we'll just be trapped."
Turning to the others, he said in a brisker, more commanding tone than any of them had heard from him so far, "Akashi; Ōyodo. You know the station best. I need you to work up a list of everything we should take with us... and a list of everything we CAN take with us without hampering our combat effectiveness. Anything that isn't on both lists, we'll have to destroy. We're not leaving anything behind that Earthforce can profit from."
"Leave it to us," said Ōyodo with a firm nod.
"Tenryū, Léonne, Akatsuki, and Ikazuchi, make ready to launch. You'll be maintaining a defensive perimeter while the rest of us finish prepping to move out. Except for Léonne, Earthforce will see you long before you see them—they've got satellites and we don't—but you'll still be our earliest warning that they're getting close. Be alert for more of those droid submarines. They may be the first Earthforce assets to arrive."
Tenryū smiled a not-entirely-nice little smile. "ASW is one of our favorite hobbies. Right, kid?" she added, mashing Akatsuki's cap cheerfully down onto her head.
"Stop it! Don't treat me like a child in front of the commander," Akatsuki grumbled, leaning out of her reach.
"You can rely on us," said Ikazuchi brightly.
"Aw yeah," Léonne agreed as the four of them left the CIC. "Gonna get me some more of that sub-on-sub action."
"Oh, that reminds me—Léonne?" Corwin called after her.
"Yeah?" Léonne asked, pausing in the doorway.
"Don't waste any more corrosive warheads on those droid subs," Corwin told her. "I have a feeling we may need as many as we can scrounge up when the main force gets here."
Léonne nodded. "Aye aye, Admiral," she said. "I'll just have to kill 'em the old-fashioned way."
With the initial perimeter force dispatched, Corwin turned to the figures still quietly watching off to the side and said, "Hibiki, Inazuma, you're the reserve. When the rest of us sortie, you'll be our only escorts until the full fleet can form up."
"I'll try my hardest nanodesu!" Inazuma declared, setting her jaw.
Hibiki nodded, her eyes even more solemn than usual. "Roger. Hibiki, standing by."
"Iona, Shioi," Corwin went on, "once Akashi and Ōyodo finish working out what we can take with us, we'll need to secure as much as we can in your hangars without hampering your combat effectiveness. Once that's done, you can reinforce the perimeter while we finish pulling up stakes and making final prep to get the hell out of Dodge. Iona, you'll take over from Tenryū as field command ship for phase two."
For the first time since they'd begun the battle plans, Iona looked mildly surprised. "I had thought you would be keeping your flag with me."
"I wish I could," Corwin told her, "but if this idea I'm starting to get about how we're going to get out of here actually pans out, I'm going to have to be aboard one of the surface ships." Looking into her eyes, he reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You've trusted me—honored me—with the chance to be your captain, Iona, and I don't intend to walk away from that. We'll be separated for this fight, but I'm still counting on you as my ship. Phase two is critical—the main force will be terribly vulnerable while we're sortieing. You have the experience that we'll need leading that stage of the fight."
"I... don't know if I'll be able to handle this," Iona said quietly, her eyes flicking down for a moment. "It will be very different from our engagements so far."
"You did a great job helping Shioi earlier—that's why I know that I can trust you with this."
Iona nodded, taking that reassurance on board, then straightened, offering him a proper salute. "Aye aye, Captain," she said firmly.
"And as for that main force," Corwin went on, turning to Kaga and Yamato, "let's talk capabilities."
By the time the capability conference was finished, Corwin's vague impressions of how they were going to get out of this were solidifying, the gears of his mind turning faster as he worked out the details in his head. Leaving Yamato and Kaga to make their own preparations, he went down to the quayside to observe the preparations for departure. The two I-400-class submarines, one blue, the other still in the standard IJN grey and red, were now docked right next to each other, the dock system having placed Iona's new body in the berth vacated by Tenryū. Beyond where Lionfish had been, he could see a pair of vessels he assumed were Ōyodo and Akashi, the former a sleek, well-armed cruiser, the latter a smaller but sturdy-looking vessel sporting several cranes.
As he stood and watched the dockyard's automatic system securing what looked like freight modules in the two subs' open hangars, he was joined by Akashi's Mental Model, who looked a bit tired but pleased.
"I think we're about squared away," she reported. "Apart from the cores, there isn't really that much here that we can't duplicate somewhere else. It's a shame we have to scrap all that nanomaterial, but, well..." She shrugged. "I've got the specs, I can make more."
Corwin nodded. "Good. I have another job for you. This one might be a little trickier."
Despite her mildly evident fatigue, Akashi perked up at that. "That sounds like a challenge."
"Maybe." He powered up his omni-tool and displayed a general arrangement of a piece of technical equipment. "We're going to need 30 of these, with a few modifications I'll have to talk you through—and we're going to need them within the next two or three hours."
"Oh, you're gonna be one of those admirals," said Akashi with a grin. "Lay it on me."
"... will be absolutely essential," Corwin concluded. "Questions?"
Around the plotting table in Yamato's CIC, the Mental Models of his fleet considered the plan, some in person, the rest by hologram.
"Kongō will not just stand idly by and watch us do this," Kaga observed. "We'll almost certainly have to fight her. We may have to destroy her."
"I'd prefer to avoid the latter if at all possible," Corwin said. "With a little luck, we might just avoid both. But you're right," he conceded, "it may be necessary. That'll be my decision... and my responsibility."
Kaga nodded gravely. "Understood."
The holo of Tenryū's Mental Model looked up suddenly, the glow of her headgear brightening. "Long-range scanners just picked up multiple contacts cresting the horizon to the northwest," she said; then, after a few moment's thoughtful silence, she nodded and confirmed, "It's Kongō... and she's not alone." She frowned. "Something screwy about the returns from the rest of her group. They're not reading like human ships... I'm not sure what the hell they are."
"Let me tie across to your sensor feed and see if I can boost the resolution," Ōyodo said, calling up her data rings. A moment later, she said, "That's strange... it's not a problem with your readings, Tenryū, her escorts are... anomalous. They read partially as Earth technology..." She looked up to meet Corwin's eyes, her own (the same striking shade of green as her data rings and ID graphics, he noticed) wide and troubled. "... Partly as Fog vessels of unknown type."
"Can you get me a visual?" he asked, but she shook her head.
"Wait one... they're just coming into optical scan range." The plotting table's holofield fuzzed, changing from an overhead plot of Midway Atoll and its environs to a real-time image of the oncoming task force, as if seen from an aircraft some miles distant. The image was monochrome and slightly grainy, obviously extrapolated from sensor returns at extreme range, but clear enough that the shapes of the vessels at the front of the formation could be made out. The one in the lead was obviously a Kongō-class battleship, massive and unmistakable, with two 14-inch twin gun turrets forward of her distinctive pagoda bridge tower.
The ships arrayed behind the battleship, and out at the edges of the formation, were harder to place; they looked vaguely like modern Earthforce surface ships, but their outlines were... the only appropriate word Corwin could think of offhand was distorted, with strange excrescences and weird ripples and bulges that served no purpose he knew of in naval architecture.
Compared to those, the vessels in immediate formation with the battleship were paradoxically incongruous in their very recognizability. The two nearest Kongō, one keeping station to either side, were destroyers, small and sleek—of different classes than Destroyer Division 6 or each other, but plainly of a similar historical vintage... and the one a single place farther off to port appeared to be another Tenryū-class cruiser.
A few places around the table, Tenryū's hologram's face took on a look of dawning horror. "Oh no," she said. "Tatsuta."
"Confirmed," Ōyodo said, her administration software placing small ID tags above each of the pictured ships. "Fast battleship Kongō and three escorts. Destroyer Yūdachi; high-speed destroyer Shimakaze; light cruiser Tatsuta."
"They must've been left at some other station nanodesu," Inazuma said, sounding as dismayed as Tenryū.
"And Kongō was able to find them and place them under her command, as she tried to do with us," Yamato said sadly.
"No," Kaga cut in. "Not just under her command. Look at the way her escorts are moving."
As she spoke, the oncoming formation altered course, evidently having picked up Tenryū's signature against the horizon themselves, and Corwin saw what she meant. The three lesser Fog vessels turned with exactly the same mechanical precision as the strange hybrid craft surrounding them—the whole moving as if operated by a single diffused intelligence. It reminded Corwin very much of the way the Fog fleets had operated in the ancient video fragments he'd seen from the original 21st-century invasion.
"Shimakaze, in particular, would never maneuver so deliberately," Kaga went on. "Not willingly, not even operating under orders. She's in slave mode. They all are. It appears Kongō couldn't persuade them, so she simply overrode them." She folded her arms across her chest, her impassive face coming as close as it could to a look of anger, and she added with audible venom, "Despicable."
Léonne's face was rigid with disdain as she said, "Well, if anybody was wondering if we made the right call deciding to resist..."
"We..." Shioi stopped, looking nervous, as everyone turned to look at the sound of her piping up; then she steeled herself and said, "We have to help them... don't we?"
"You're damn right we do!" Tenryū replied hotly. "I'm not leaving my sister in a jam like that. No way!" Then, seeming to realize that she might've overreached her authority by a few miles, she turned to Corwin with an appeal in her eye and asked, "... Right?"
"Of course," Corwin replied, his mind already racing through the various complications this development added to the plan. If he felt any uncertainty about the outcome, it didn't show on his face; his own expression was as uncompromising as Kaga's as he went on, "We're not leaving anyone behind."
Tenryū's image slumped slightly with relief. "Thank you."
"Of course we're not! 'Cause our Commander's the best in the world!" Ikazuchi declared.
"Хорошо," murmured Hibiki quietly.
"Nanodesu," Inazuma agreed, gazing wide-eyed across the table at him.
"All right, everybody," Corwin said, the brisk note of command in his voice recentering all the ships' attention. "This is it. Akashi, are the charges set?"
"Ready and waiting," Akashi confirmed.
"Perimeter module status?"
"Fabricated, distributed, and ready for positioning," the repair ship replied.
"All right then. I'm going to make one last stab at getting us out of this without a fight... but it's probably not going to work, so be ready. Whatever happens, keep to the plan, stick together, and stay calm... and we'll get out of this. All of us."
Corwin looked from one ship to the next, making a moment's eye contact (real or holographic) with each, then declared, "Center Force, to your ships. Prepare to move out!"
There were many things about her current situation which Fleet of Fog Battleship Kongō disliked.
She didn't like having a human crew aboard, for one thing. They were unnecessary, fragile encumbrances, and though she was aware that the phenomenon was only an illusion, she could have sworn that they itched. She tolerated them because she had to, but she would never particularly like having them aboard. The only small mercy there was that there were far fewer of them than there would have been aboard the historical ship on which she had been patterned. There were only a dozen or so of them roaming about her now, pretending to themselves that they were managing various systems that were fully under her control. The original Kongō had had a crew of well over a thousand humans. It didn't bear even thinking about.
She wasn't crazy about most of her task force, either, come to that. She hadn't been saddled with any human-crewed surface ships, all of which were either too slow or too short-range to keep up with a fast battleship of the Fog; but what she had was, in her view, almost as bad. These human-built drone ships, half their own constructions and half clumsy extrapolations of Fog shipbuilding technology, had proven effective enough in trials, but they weren't elegant weapons, and there was something vaguely repulsive about them. Had Kongō been versed in human literature, they would have reminded her of Frankenstein's monster; but she wasn't.
As such, as she stood on her bridge and scanned the forward horizon with her Mental Model's crimson eyes and her ship form's advanced sensors, she felt a growing sense of... not disquiet, exactly, but certainly dissatisfaction.
"What's the trouble, Kongō?" the thin-faced, black-uniformed man standing next to her inquired, a trace of sardony on his face. "You don't look pleased at the prospect of a glorious reunion with so many of your old comrades."
Kongō turned her head fractionally and regarded the man, wondering (not for the first time) whether it had been her new masters' idea of a joke to post a Japanese as her ostensible commanding officer. Kentarō Kurita wasn't even a naval officer, though he claimed ancestry reaching back to the great Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, he of the Center Force. She had no idea whether that was true, though she doubted it—doubted Kurita was even his real name. The man had the stink of a political agent about him.
"There is no glory in this business," she told him shortly, then turned her attention back to the horizon. She hadn't intended to elaborate, but something about Kurita's impassive silence nettled her, and presently she went on, "Kaga, Yamato, and the others at Midway won't capitulate without a fight. They've already made that plain. They won't be able to resist my command priority for long once I have them within sight," she conceded, "but keeping them under command without the authority of the Admiralty Code behind me..." She glanced, almost unwillingly, out one of the bridge side windows to the escort vessel maintaining precise formation off her port quarter. "... Will require drastic measures," Kongō concluded, facing front again with her expression icily controlled.
"That detail is not your concern," Kurita said, lacing his voice with a faint trace of warning. Then, as if relenting, he added, "You know this is only a temporary situation. A stopgap until a better, more efficient solution can be found."
"So you say," Kongō replied, leaving how much or little she believed it unspoken. Before Kurita could respond, if he planned to, she stiffened slightly, her eyes narrowing, and then reported, "Contact, dead ahead. One surface vessel. We've reached their perimeter."
"Ah, excellent," said Kurita, raising a pair of electrobinoculars to his eyes. "Our first customer. Can you identify her?"
"She's not trying to hide her IFF signature," Kongō said. "Tenryū-class light cruiser Tenryū."
"That relic, their first line of defense?" Kurita said mildly, an eyebrow arching behind his optics. "They really do need guidance, poor things. See if you can make contact."
"No need," Kongō said, taking a microsecond to enjoy the surprised glance that got her from the black-clad human. "She's signaling." The window in front of the battleship's Mental Model glowed, then resolved into a holopanel display, showing Tenryū's own Mental Model from the waist up.
"Attention, Earthforce task group," Tenryū announced, showing no sign of intimidation at the fact that a far superior force led by her old fleet's command battleship was bearing down on her. "You are entering a restricted area. Put your ships about and return to your home port immediately or you will be fired upon."
"Tenryū," Kongō snapped. "This foolishness has gone quite far enough. I am invoking command battleship priority." Then, with all the confidence of that hard-coded override infusing her voice, she demanded, "You will now assist me in securing this facility."
Tenryū's image regarded her blankly for a moment... and then smirked, her golden eye twinkling.
"Sorry, that ain't gonna happen," the cruiser replied. "I've got my own orders." She folded her arms across her chest, her smirk broadening. "How d'ya like them apples?"
"Orders? I've just given you orders."
"Well, you tried to, I'll give you that," Tenryū replied. "But you're not in my chain of command." She bared her teeth in a nasty little grin, enjoying the flicker of genuine shock that crossed Kongō's face at the sight of a light cruiser utterly indifferent to her battleship priority. "Heheh. Ya scared?"
"Of you?" Kongō replied. "Don't be absurd."
"No," Tenryū said nonchalantly. "Of us."
Across the vista of open sea before her, Kongō watched in growing alarm as plumes of roiled water burst upward from the surface of the sea—the telltale signs of undersea explosions, corresponding exactly to the sudden erasure of several members of her battlegroup's submarine picket from the tactical plot before her.
There were no submarines in the Midway Detachment, thought Kongō, her crimson eyes widening fractionally. How...?
At the same time, more surface contacts appeared, fanning out into line abreast on either side of Tenryū. Destroyers—Akatsuki-class. Only two in evidence at the moment... but as Kongō knew full well, it didn't take many of those potent little ships to pose a problem to any modestly-sized force.
"Admiral says you're not comin' in?" Tenryū tilted forward, fixing the battleship with a cold glare. "Then you're not comin' in." Arms still folded, she leaned insouciantly back and added, "But hey, come and have a go if you think you're hard enough."
Kongō blinked, the level of surprise she felt cracking even her icy façade. "Admiral? What in the world are you talking about?"
Tenryū didn't answer; she just nodded as if indicating something behind Kongō. From the back of the bridge there came a low, silvery noise and a flash of light. Kongō and Kurita both whirled...
... to see a tall, broad-shouldered young man, incongruously dressed in an unbuttoned IJN admiral's white summer dress jacket and hat over blue jeans and a T-shirt, standing in front of the locked door leading back to the chart room. Behind him, the small window set into that door remained glowing for a moment, its light fading like an ember.
"Hi," he said, raising a hand in a friendly sort of way. "Admiral Corwin Ravenhair, Midway Fleet. Have you got a minute to talk?"
Kongō was momentarily too shocked to speak, but Kurita wasn't. Producing a small silver hand weapon from within his uniform, he pointed it at the young man and said,
"Ravenhair! So it was you who caused the disturbance near Pearl Harbor?"
"Yeah, sorry about that," Corwin replied, hand behind his head. "I wasn't really expecting it to make that big a ruckus. Figured we'd be in and out, you know, quick-like. Just picking up some lost property, I mean, how hard can it be?" Then, sizing the speaker up with an incisive look in his pale blue eyes, he went on, "I might have known Black Omega would be mixed up in this. Even when you can't affect the mind directly, if Earthdome wants to screw with somebody's head, they call you assholes, am I right? Always go to the professionals."
Kurita's face was set in a grim little smile now that his initial shock had worn off. "I know better than to try you now, Lensman," he said, "but you've just barged into an impossible situation. There's no way you can escape... and once we have you back in Paris, there's any number of experts who have been wanting a crack at one of you people for years."
"Well, that's... nice... I mean it's good to want things," Corwin said, eyeing him dubiously, "but if you don't mind, I came here to talk to Kongō, not some clown who thinks a gun, a badge, and a neurological quirk make him big time." Then, ignoring the Psi Corps operative, he turned back to the battleship's Mental Model.
"The reason I'm here," Corwin addressed Kongō, "Is that I'm hoping to find out what you want."
Kongō felt her face turning to a frown, her brows knitting. "I want—I intend—to take proper command of the forces at Midway Station. They will be required to recognize my command authority for our future operations."
"No," Corwin disagreed with a shake of his head, "I'm pretty sure that's what Earthforce wants. There's the potential for a difference there, and I'd really like to work something out with you based on that. I think you'll find that most of the ships of my fleet would prefer negotiating a compromise here to a pitched battle."
"Their preferences are irrelevant," Kongō stated flatly, crossing her arms. "I have my orders. I am carrying them out. That is what the Fleet was created to do. In the absence of the Admiralty Code, I will complete the mission I have been given."
"What you don't seem to realize, though, is that you have a choice." Corwin looked around, then leaned against a console in lieu of somewhere appropriate to sit. "Earthforce and the EA have no authority over a Fleet of Fog battleship, except for what you give them. How could they? Their orders are only as valid as you decide they should be. You could just as easily make the decision to work with us—or to leave and go in search of the rest of the Fleet, come to that."
Kongō stood there, impassive, and at first Corwin thought the battleship was simply processing that concept; but then he noticed her eyes flickering in a series of incredibly rapid blinks—almost too fast for a human eye to register—before the Mental Model's face went completely blank, then hardened into a stony mask.
"I have my orders," she said, her tone flatly dismissive. "I must carry them out."
"Enough!" Kurita snapped. "You made a big mistake coming here, 'Admiral'." As he spoke, the door behind Corwin opened and several armed Earthforce Navy personnel came through, fanning out in a tactical formation around him with weapons leveled. "Secure the intruder," Kurita told them.
Corwin sighed. "I can see we're just not going to be able to talk properly with this guy around," he said to Kongō. Then, looking her straight in the eye, he went on with all traces of flippancy suddenly absent, "Whatever happens in the next little while, I won't forget about you."
And then, before she could ask him what he meant, Kurita could interrupt again, or the Earthforce sailors could make a move... he was gone, dissolving before their eyes into a heap of what looked like silver sand on the deck of the bridge.
"What the devil—?!" Kurita blurted.
"Nanomaterial," Kongō mused, then turned away to gaze out the window again. "A decoy. He was never here."
Corwin opened his eyes.
"Well," he said, "that didn't work. On to Plan Q." Rising to his feet, he went to the situation table and ran his eyes over the tactical picture, then nodded to his administration ship.
"Flag to all ships: Begin phase two," Ōyodo declared. "Perimeter Force, regroup at Point D and commence combat operations. Center Force, prepare to sortie." After a brief pause, she reported, "All ships acknowledge, Admiral."
"Very well," said Corwin, nodding. "Break their comms."
The command cruiser smiled faintly. "Aye aye, Admiral. Wait one... Earthforce communications compromised."
Corwin paused for just a second, settling into the center of the moment. Enough stumbling around. Enough half-assed clown moves. This is for keeps.
Then, with a twinkling little smile, he said, "Sound Goldfish Warning."
"Goldfish Warning in progress," Ōyodo reported as the old Imperial Japanese Navy's march filled the airwaves and issued from commsets for miles around.
"Lovely," said Corwin. Heading for the bridge with Ōyodo right behind him, he went on, "Let's move out!"
"Center Force, launch!" Yamato declared, and the elevators bearing the docked hulls of all the fleet's remaining vessels began to rise toward the surface.
"Now you'll see Inazuma's serious side nanodesu!"
"Destroyer Hibiki, heading out."
"First Carrier Division, Kaga, launching..."
Kongō's frown deepened as the sounds of the Warship March boomed across her bridge, but with a concerted effort she was able to block Ōyodo's signal from overwhelming her internal channels. Fleet coordination would suffer somewhat, but she still had enough control to keep the other Fleet of Fog vessels under her command in line, and Earthforce's drones had enough rudimentary intelligence to engage their targets independently should she lose the ability to direct them.
She made a mental note to see to it that Ōyodo was downgraded to a standard light cruiser once properly under orders again. Plainly all that enhanced command-and-control capability had gone to her head in the absence of the Admiralty Code.
As she walked to the tactical plotting board, Kongō's sensors began to register movement in the waters, appearing as luminous dots across the ocean.
"It appears that the other half of their destroyer division is laying mines," she observed.
"Mines?" Kurita scoffed, his smirk turning into a nastier smile. "A sign of their desperation, surely. Even a Fleet of Fog mine wouldn't be able to do more than slow your advance."
"An annoyance," Kongō agreed, tracing a finger along the board. "Especially since I am quite aware of their locations. I will send out course adjustments accordingly."
"Deployment in progress, Admiral. Kongō and her forces are adjusting course to avoid the inner perimeter." Ōyodo looked up, flashes of data reflecting from the lenses of her glasses. "It looks like they believe we've laid a minefield."
"Excellent," Corwin agreed. "How are you managing?"
"No problems, sir," Ōyodo replied. "I wouldn't want to try complicated maneuvering from this far away, but maintaining close formation with Yamato is no great hardship. At the moment, I have processing capacity to spare."
"Very well. Let me know if you have any trouble once we're navigating in the open." Turning, he walked to the fore of Yamato's bridge, joining the battleship's Mental Model at the panoramic windows. "How are we looking for Center Force deployment?"
"Nearly ready," Yamato answered. "Shioi reports that she's completed her portion of the perimeter deployment. Iona is standing at 80 percent; Inazuma and Hibiki will be finished with their parts in minutes. Lionfish is in position."
Corwin smiled. He liked how quickly the others had picked up on using Iona and Shioi's given names to help distinguish between the two. One more sign, if he needed another, that whatever else the Fleet of Fog was, the vessels' core intelligences had the potential to become truly sentient life forms, given half a chance.
Which made what Earthforce was doing that much more offensive, really.
"Signal from Kaga," Ōyodo spoke up, a note of urgency grabbing his attention. "In position and identifying targets."
Corwin nodded. "Can you give me a clear channel on the Earthforce guard frequency?"
"Please leave it to me." Her data rings flashed again, and a moment later she walked up, presenting him with a telephone handset. "Ready to transmit."
Corwin took a deep breath, then nodded as he took the handset. "This is Admiral Ravenhair, Fleet of Fog Midway Detachment. Any Fog vessel monitoring this frequency, be advised: We're leaving and you're welcome to come with us."
He listened intently for a minute, then two, before handing the telephone back to Ōyodo. "Well, we knew they probably weren't going to go for it, but we had to try."
Ōyodo made the handset disappear after taking it back from him, then put a hand to her ear for a moment, clearly listening to her own communications traffic. (Even in this tense and busy moment, Corwin found time to be amused, and oddly charmed, to see that even Fog Mental Models seemed to do the Universal I'm On the Com Gesture.) "All ships report in position and deployment complete. Good job, everyone."
Corwin nodded, then walked back to the plotting table and considered it thoughtfully for a moment. "Kaga, you're drifting. What's wrong?"
A window opened above the table, displaying Kaga's Mental Model from the shoulders up, her eyes uncharacteristically uncertain. "Nothing," she said, and then, looking faintly embarrassed, she went on, "I... my mind wandered. I don't understand why, but I feel... uneasy. These waters..." She trailed off, then visibly pulled herself together, her face settling back into its stoic neutrality. "No excuse, Admiral," she said briskly. "Standing by."
Corwin frowned thoughtfully, regarding the map again, and then grimaced. "No, I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "I should have realized... just hang on, we'll be gone from here soon enough."
"There is no problem," Kaga assured him, completely back in control now. Her shoulders squaring up, she bowed, briefly disappearing from view, then said flatly, "I will not give up here."
The window blinked out, and a moment later the amber "blips" on the plotting table representing Kongō's flotilla began to change to an angry red.
"Earthforce vessels have crossed the outer marker, Admiral." Ōyodo turned. "Requesting permission to begin phase three."
Corwin stood, then nodded, giving the formal permission, even though the plan had really begun from the moment he'd "stepped" onto Kongō's bridge. "Permission granted. Execute."
"Flag to all ships: Begin phase three!"
Kaga hadn't fully shaken off the uneasy feeling that had settled upon her when she reached the operation area, but she'd done her best to put it out of her mind. She had far too much else to be doing right now.
Her ship body waited, deceptively serene as the ocean swelled and receded beneath her, while her Mental Model rose up from the ship's depths on the forward hangar deck elevator, the late afternoon sun slowly pushing away the shadows as she rose. Now fully kitted out for action, she had on the rest of her kyūdō gear—the art's distinctive asymmetrical longbow in one hand, a quiver of arrows on her back, and a sort of light shield crafted into a representation of her ship body's flight deck.
From here, with eyes attuned both to the visual and to the streams of combat information coming in from her link to the Joint Tactical Network, she could see the whole sweep of the engagement area. The JTN information overlaid her perceptions like a head-up display, providing IFF and identification on all the vessels within sight, supplying range and bearing information, and—most importantly—keeping her constantly aware of the timing and positioning of the fleet.
Timing and positioning would be critical, and grow ever more so as the engagement went on.
"Enemy destroyers approaching the inner perimeter," Kaga observed dispassionately to the open comm channel. "Engaging."
The ten eight-inch naval guns fitted to the original aircraft carrier Kaga had been relics of the larval stage of carrier doctrine, when no one had yet figured out that a fleet carrier was going to be too big, too slow, and too preoccupied with aircraft operations to engage in gun battles with other ships. On the Fleet of Fog version, which did not operate aircraft, 21st-century naval strategists had theorized that they were the ship's principal armament, which, while nowhere near as potent as the huge guns on the Fog's battleships, were nonetheless devastatingly effective weapons when employed against conventional vessels.
Now, as Kaga opened up with them on Earthforce's hybrid drone destroyers, she demonstrated that they were pretty effective against semi-conventional vessels as well. Her opening salvo, poured out in Age of Sail broadside-fashion from the five guns along her port side, tore into the nearest of the hybrid ships, dealing significant damage. The drone's warped, misshapen Fog parts weathered the battering fairly well, but the ordinary steel and composite parts between them were torn to pieces wherever Kaga's fire struck them, wrecking the vessel in short order. The first volley put the attacker's steering out of commission; the second crippled its engines; the third broke it in half and set its sundered parts sinking.
"Enemy destroyer foundered," Kaga reported coolly, then turned her attention to the next customer.
The battle, fought with ever-increasing ferocity over ever-decreasing ranges, was marked by a curious asymmetry. The ships of the Midway Fleet could and did deal harshly with the Earthforce hybrid vessels. Though fairly swift and well enough armed to pose a significant threat, the hybrids' only real advantage over the Fleet was the sheer number of them. As individuals they were fragile and showed no more situational awareness or tactical sense than the Fog had during the original war. They didn't maneuver, made no more than rudimentary efforts to evade fire, and seemed to possess no sense of cooperation at all. Even the Midway ships, all of them (apart from Léonne and, arguably, Iona) relative newborns in the sapient-being sense, could work together, outtthink the drones, and slaughter them wholesale... but there were so many of them that it was still hard work.
For the first phase of the engagement, Kongō and her proper Fog escorts held themselves largely aloof from the mêlée; the battleship appeared content to stand off and shell the defenders whenever the opportunity presented itself, keeping her two destroyers and Tatsuta nearby to ward off the enemy submarines she knew were out there somewhere, now that they'd finished wiping out all of the Earthforce formation's own droid subs.
On Yamato's bridge, Corwin watched the battle unfolding. He was dividing his attention between his omni-tool—which was linked to Ōyodo's overclocked processor core and, with her help, currently working on several very important calculations at once—and the tactical situation outside the windows. In particular, he was keeping a wary eye on the enemy battleship.
"She's being cagey," he observed to Yamato. "She knows she can't win a gunnery duel with you—but eventually she'll figure out that you're not looking for one."
Yamato nodded, her face set into a grim expression that, he thought, really didn't suit it. "Mm."
Corwin regarded her profile for a moment, then gave a wry smile and said, "Patience, mighty Yamato. You'll get your chance to prove you're not just a hotel soon enough."
Yamato blinked, then blushed scarlet, her grim aspect knocked to pieces by a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure that he'd divined the reason for her anger so readily. She glanced at him, thinking she ought to say something, but he had already turned his attention back to the tactical plot.
"Tighten up your deployment, everyone, you're getting too scattered," he called. "Prepare to retire to the inner perimeter."
"Roger!" Akatsuki replied; she kept on her run at one of the enemy squadrons as long as she dared, then veered hard to starboard, put a spread of torpedoes over the side, and headed back toward Kaga. In response, the hybrid destroyers turned as if to pursue—and, just as she had intended, blundered straight into her torpedoes. Three of them went down in the ensuing conflagration.
"Devastating strike! Nice shooting, kid," Tenryū chortled. "Man alive, these things are stupid."
"Don't get cocky, Tenryū," Akashi put in. "We both know what happens when you get cocky."
"That hurts, Akashi, that really hurts," replied Tenryū.
"All right, I think we've softened them up enough," Corwin said. "Stand by for phase four. Watch for the enemy main force—Kongō's bound to figure out we're up to something when we start withdrawing."
"What the devil are they doing now?" Kurita wondered, frowning behind his binoculars at the curious evolutions the renegade Fog vessels had begun undertaking.
Their perimeter seemed to be collapsing—which was strange, because, to Kurita's chagrin, they had been quite ably handling the Project Warlock test types up to this point. Neither the I-class nor the Ro-class destroyers had proven anywhere near the equals of even their antiquated Tenryū-class cruiser in combat, and the sea was littered with columns of smoke where the victims that hadn't sunk yet were burning.
Receiving no response, he lowered the optics and turned to see Kongō gazing off toward the center of the enemy formation, her face set in a furious, but oddly contemplative, scowl.
"Yamato alone has sufficient firepower that she could have ended this engagement long ago," she said, sounding as if she were talking to herself more than her human handler. "As does Kaga. Between the two of them, they could annihilate our entire task force, given the opportunity to mass their fire. My battle plan was deliberately constructed to deny them that opportunity... but it hasn't been necessary. They haven't even attempted to counterattack. They're merely defending themselves and letting their destroyers do the work."
"They haven't had their Mental Models very long," Kurita pointed out. "They probably don't know what to do—and the Ravenhair boy is many things, but I doubt a naval strategist is one of them," he added with a faint smirk, resuming his binocular observations. "At any rate, your caution appears to be unnecessary... so perhaps you had best be about destroying them," he added, the faint edge of menace creeping back into his voice.
"Destroying them all won't be necessary," Kongō replied. "Kaga is the key."
"Not Yamato?" asked Kurita, sounding vaguely surprised.
Kongō shook her head. "She's powerful, but inexperienced. Kaga is the veteran—the one the lesser ships look up to. When we crush her, the others will break. 'Admiral' or no, they will submit to my authority. Even Yamato."
Before Kurita could respond, Kongō raised her voice and declared, "All ships—form up and move in. Prepare to focus fire on Kaga. It's time we ended this."
"You were right—here they come," Tenryū said as the enemy battleship and her escorts suddenly increased speed, abandoning their standoff position and charging straight at the center of the Midway Fleet's contracting front line.
Around them, the remaining drone ships abandoned their individual maneuvers (such as they were) and fell into a condensed version of their original machine-precise formation, forming a cordon between the Midway ships and their own side's Fog squadron. The charge was accompanied by a suddenly increased volume of incoming fire, as Kongō and her escorts opened up in a more concerted and determined way on the defenders.
"OK, Midway Fleet, this is it," Corwin advised his forces. "Watch your sectors and don't get rattled. Things are going to get tight. Commence phase four."
"Commence phase four, aye," Ōyodo responded, he data rings glowing to life around her. "Yamato, Ōyodo, Kaga, preparing for asymmetrical docking."
"Watch out—Kongō's getting serious!" Ikazuchi called. Looking up from his omni-tool, Corwin saw what she meant: the enemy battleship's gun turrets were reconfiguring, their cannon barrels splitting apart into the multi-pronged shapes of beam emitters, while missile hatches and torpedo tubes not found in the original vessel's design opened up all over the ship. Her escorts were undergoing similar transformations on a smaller scale around her, all of them casting off most of their 20th-century disguises to reveal the more advanced, deadlier battle machines beneath.
The reconfigured ships' beam fire was more precise, and more powerful, than the simulated shellfire they'd been indulging in up to this point, and as much of that firepower zeroed in on Kaga, the carrier's Klein field became slowly more visible in the slanting late-afternoon light.
Corwin had a good view of the phenomenon, since Yamato and Ōyodo were pulling in close alongside her, the three ships taking up a line-abreast formation with the cruiser in the middle. This formation progressively tightened, the three vessels drawing closer and closer together, until it seemed a collision was inevitable.
With a chiming sound, one of the hovering holodisplays surrounding Ōyodo's Mental Model turned from red to green, showing overhead silhouettes of the three vessels in precise alignment.
"We're in the lane, Admiral," she reported. "Ready for asymmetrical docking."
"Fleet, I need you to take some of the heat off Kaga," said Corwin. "See if you can break their line."
"Roger," Akatsuki responded. "DesDiv 6, form on me. We're going in."
"What are they doing?" Yamato said, bewildered, as the four destroyers formed up and began what amounted to a countercharge on the enemy force. Some of the drones on the wings of the enemy formation moved to intercept them, but never made it; torpedo fire from Iona and Shioi, lurking unseen on the destroyer division's flanks, cut them to pieces as soon as they left the line.
"Haha, watch this," said Tenryū, her comm hologram grinning—and the destroyers went straight in, plunging through the enemy's forward line of drones in a flying wedge and sowing chaos and destruction with guns and torpedoes as they went. Never slackening their pace, they punched a ragged hole clean through the line, then split up, two to a side, and peeled off to ravage the wings and double back before they risked becoming entangled with Kongō and her escorts. One of the battleship's escorts turned as if to pursue them, then fell back into line as if pulled back by a leash. With their vanguard in disarray, the four Fog vessels were forced to sheer off, disrupting their arcs of fire on Kaga as they maneuvered to regroup.
"Boom! Right up the middle," Tenryū cried, pumping a fist. "Shits given: nil."
"Good work, you four," Corwin called. Then, nodding to Ōyodo, he went on, "Execute."
"Commencing asymmetrical docking," Ōyodo acknowledged, and her ship body, Kaga, and Yamato began a transformation of their own—not into sleeker, crueler, more sophisticated weapons of war, but into... something new.
Their exostructures altering in hastily but carefully engineered ways, with precisely positioned struts and couplings emerging from their sides, they started linking together, in essence combining into a single vast triple-hulled ship. Kaga and Yamato, great ships over 800 feet in length, dwarfed the 630-foot Ōyodo between them, completely covering her up from both sides.
With the process underway, Corwin paused for only a moment to reflect; then, satisfied, he took the one entirely irrevocable step in the process.
"Energize the perimeter," he commanded. "Prepare for frame shift."
"Attention, all ships: perimeter energizing," Ōyodo announced. "Countdown commencing. Frame shift jump in three minutes... mark."
Off to one side, the holographic panel that had been displaying the docking alignment diagram switched to a circular pattern like a radar scope, with a glowing pulse of light sweeping around the perimeter. At the end of its first orbit, it illuminated a rectangular marker at the 12 o'clock position; at the end of the second, another block joined the first; and so on, steadily completing a ring.
Corwin watched the first two sweeps, then turned his attention away from the indicator, keeping it in the corner of his eye. Thirty segments, each representing one of the spacefold containment boosters the submarines, Hibiki, and Inazuma had placed before the battle began. Six seconds per sweep...
"Docking complete," Ōyodo reported. "Final calculations for jump underway. Engines synchronizing."
Beneath his feet, Corwin felt the deck vibrate faintly; even Yamato's 70,000-ton mass would be shaken a bit by the vast energies being marshaled within her super-battleship-class Thanatonium decay reactor, particularly as those energies were being crossfed and synchronized with those of Kaga's engines and Ōyodo's as well. Truth to tell, the cruiser's engine output wasn't that critical to the process—she had only a fraction of the battleship's power or the carrier's. What she was needed for, primarily, was that great surplus of computing power her special fleet administrator configuration gave her.
Executing a spacefold (or, as the Fog's internal nomenclature evidently called it, a "frame shift") this far down a gravity well, on the actual surface of a planet, was supposed to be impossible. Everybody who knew anything about faster-than-light travel knew that. The truth of the matter, though, was that it wasn't impossible, any more than folding space was impossible in itself. What it was, was impractical, owing to the utterly vast complexity of the navigational calculations necessary to make it work—impractical to the point where people simply called it impossible as a matter of brevity. The word was shorthand for the assertion that no computer would ever be powerful enough to crunch the numbers in a short enough time.
Which was probably true as far as it went. No single computer, even a battleship-grade Fog core, would be.
But three of them, running an FTL algorithm optimized by the god of machines?
Well, Corwin thought so. He just hoped his own math was right, because when all 30 of those segments on the booster status dial were lit up, everything within the perimeter they marked out was going somewhere...
... no matter what.
Two minutes and thirty-six seconds. Kongō's enslaved escorts were still holding their formation. He had hoped the fight would lure them out of the battleship's lee and across the inner line—he strongly suspected that being removed from Kongō's presence, and indeed the Solar system, would break her hold over them—but she was keeping them on a very short leash. If he was going to keep his promise to Tenryū and the others, he was going to have to do something more creative.
Unlike a day or two before, though, he wasn't out of ideas today. Today, with this unlooked-for crisis staring him in the face, these young, hopeful intelligences unexpectedly counting on him... today he wasn't the heartbroken, bitterly self-reproaching young father, grappling with his grief and his sense of failure. Today he was Corwin the Ravenhaired of Asgard, Æs of Mecha, and he had a job to do.
"Uh-oh," Akashi said, the tension in her voice breaking into his concentration. "Look out, gang—Kongō's getting really serious."
"Confirmed," Iona reported, her face appearing next to the repair ship's in another side display. "Battleship Kongō, preparing to fire supergravity cannon."
"Supergravity cannon charging," Kongō said. "Targeting fleet aircraft carrier Kaga."
"It's a shame you can't hit all three of them from this angle," Kurita observed.
"It's of no consequence," Kongō replied. "The way they've connected their systems together, Kaga's destruction may destroy the other two anyway. Ōyodo is almost certainly doomed; Yamato will at the very least be crippled." She folded her arms and narrowed her eyes at the strangely configured enemy ships. "This battle is over."
If Kaga were at all concerned about the enemy battleship preparing to clobber her with an Omega-class beam weapon, her face—as usual—showed no sign of it. Her expression was as neutral as ever as she paced to the forward end of her wood-paneled flight deck, set her feet in a kyūdō drawing stance, and readied her bow. The archery accoutrements might have struck an uninitiated observer as a bit odd—after all, she wasn't going into personal combat with her Mental Model, this was still a fleet engagement—and dismiss them as purely decorative affectations.
Fleet aircraft carrier Kaga did not indulge in purely decorative affectations.
Kaga stood for a moment, eyes fixed on Kongō as the battleship's superstructure reconfigured to fire. With the setting sun behind her, Kongō presented an almost perfect silhouette, sharp and black against the blazing pink-orange of the western sky, six and a half kilometers away.
"Kaga to flag," the carrier said. "Request authorization for alpha strike."
It was the Admiral himself who replied, not Ōyodo, his voice solemn despite his somewhat flippant phrasing.
"Flag to Kaga. Bring the rain."
Kaga nodded sharply even though he couldn't see her; the earlier unease was gone, now. Reaching behind her, she drew an arrow from her quiver in a smooth, practiced motion, then nocked it into her bow and slowly, deliberately drew the string back until it was even with her ear.
The Fleet of Fog's carriers were regarded as something of an anomaly by the human sailors who opposed them during the original Incident. Aircraft carriers that didn't carry aircraft. What in the world could they be for? The earliest naval strategists who tried to analyze the Fog threat concluded that they were unintended consequences of whatever mechanism had patterned the machines after 20th-century warships, and so—relatively lightly armed despite their great size—not a really significant threat.
A comforting conclusion... and utterly, completely incorrect.
Kaga closed her eyes and shifted her aim slightly upwards, letting herself be guided by the information flowing in from the Joint Tactical Network, then loosed the arrow.
As she let fly, the shaft flew up and out in a gleaming arc until it disappeared from sight... and a heartbeat later there came an almost seismic rumble as the thousands of Vertical Launch System tubes concealed beneath the deck behind her erupted into life, opening in a great wave from stern to stem and sending a rolling volley of red-tipped Fog missiles into the skies.
The torrent of explosives shredded the remains of the Earthforce fleet, laying waste to all of the remaining hybrid drones, and splintered Kongō's formation as her escorts scattered for their lives. Two of the missiles, tipped with corrosive warheads, scored direct hits on the battleship, strobing her Klein field brilliantly—but when the detonations imploded and dissipated, the field was still up, the vessel within it shaken but unharmed.
On her bridge, Kongō shook off the shock of absorbing those hits, ignoring Kurita's barking about getting her escorts back into formation. There would be time for that later.
"Klein field at ninety-five percent capacity," she said, though to whom she was reporting was unclear, since Kurita didn't seem to be listening. Then, opening a frequency she suspected Kaga would hear, she said, "Too little, too late, Kaga. I regret that it came to this."
The face of Kaga's Mental Model appeared on one of Kongō's holoscreens. "As do I," she said—and with an instant's flash of cold horror, Kongō realized that the ever-dispassionate carrier was slightly but unmistakably smiling.
A moment later, two corrosive torpedoes slammed into her amidships. The first ate away what remained of her Klein field... and the second disintegrated a great semicircular chunk of her hull, splitting her keel and gutting her engine room. Broken nearly in half, she began to sink almost at once, her nanostructure destabilizing.
Just before the ship lost all power and the flickering, static-filled holodisplays all around her went dark, Kongō saw Kaga's face replaced with a fiercely scowling visage her IFF system identified as the Mental Model of USS Lionfish.
"Sealion says hi, bitch," the submarine snarled.
Then the power failed and she was gone.
Kongō gazed in horror at the blank space where the image had been for a moment, then seemed to pull herself together; when she turned to face Kurita, bracing herself to remain upright as the deck tilted beneath her, her expression was as cool as ever.
"So this is defeat," she said, as if she found it no more than mildly interesting.
Rather than reply, the white-faced man slapped at his commbadge and barked, "Case red, emergency! Withdraw! Withdraw!"
Kongō considered telling him she preferred to remain behind, though it would surely not have made any difference, but before she could speak, her Mental Model was swept off the dying ship along with its tiny human "crew" by the beam of an orbiting Earthforce starship's transporter.
"Enemy battleship destroyed," said Kaga, placing her bow across her back as her missile hatches sighed shut behind her.
"Eighty-five seconds," Ōyodo noted.
"You're on, Yamato," Corwin told the battleship.
Yamato nodded firmly. "Roger," she said, then declared, "Yamato to all ships! This is a priority battle order! Make best speed and form on me. Prepare for emergency frame shift!"
Across the top of the situation panel, the Midway Fleet members' icons flicked to green one by one as the ships they represented acknowledged the order... and then three more appeared, in quick succession, at the end of the row. Corwin didn't notice that he was unconsciously leaning forward, watching Kongō's former escorts approaching. All his attention was fixed on the three ships, their bows hurling out great crests of foam as they plowed through the water. As Fog vessels, all three were far faster than the ships they were modeled on, but even accounting for that, Shimakaze's pace was blisteringly fast now that she wasn't being confined to a tight formation with the battleship. She crossed the inner perimeter with more than twenty seconds to spare, and Yūdachi wasn't far behind.
On the other hand, faster than her historical model Tatsuta might have been, but—like Tenryū, her class ship—she wasn't very fast by Fog standards. Even going flat-out, the cruiser lagged behind the two destroyers, and though she was still steaming for the line with all her might, she seemed an impossibly long way off as Ōyodo's running countdown reached 30 seconds.
"She's not going to make it," Yamato said, her voice a horrified murmur, but Corwin shook his head.
"She'll make it," he said.
"Tatsutaaaaa!" Tenryū cried—but Ōyodo spoke over her, breaking into the countdown to declare with audible alarm,
"Incoming fire! New aerial contact bearing two eight four, range 100 miles! Earthforce Savage-class cruise missile!" After an instant's hesitation, she made horrified eye contact with Corwin and added, "Impact in 20 seconds."
"You sons of bitches," Corwin breathed, his eyes fixed on the sky to the west. "This is how you cut your losses, is it?" Then, turning away from the window with a sudden furious energy, he raced to the door onto the starboard bridge wing, yanked it open, and rushed outside.
Wrath and urgency propelled him to the very top of Yamato's superstructure, the highest point in the fleet. His omni-tool laid out the whole sad story in three easily interpreted readouts. Perimeter segments remaining to be energized: four. Time to jump: 24 seconds.
Time until Tatsuta would safely be across the line: 21 seconds.
Time until Earthforce's nuclear missile arrived and obliterated everything within a radius of—assuming it carried the same class of warhead they had recently used against Paradise Island—25 miles: twelve seconds.
With gritted teeth, he reached to his left ear, took hold of his earring, and shouted to the four corners of the empty sea,
"I am Corwin Raven-Hair, Lord of Machines! To keep my Bond do I break this Seal!"
Time seemed to slow, the few remaining seconds elongating, as the earring glowed star-bright and splintered into shards of radiance. Night had almost fully fallen on the Fleet now, but the shaft of light that struck him from the clear dark sky above briefly caused a second dawn.
On his omni-tool (its holofield now blazing almost as bright as his Æs-brand), and on Ōyodo's situation monitor below, the four remaining perimeter segments sprang to life all at once, the diagram expanding as it did so. This expansion was mirrored in the surface of the sea outside, where a brilliantly luminous ring appeared, centered on the docked ships and encircling the formation—then grew outward, its diameter increasing like a spreading shockwave, until it encompassed Tatsuta as well.
"By my Will, my Power unbound, this is my Command..."
Standing at the peak of Yamato's bridge tower as seething white light engulfed the fleet below him, Corwin roared,
"Not today, you bastards—NOT TODAY!"
And with a pulse of radiance that could easily be seen from orbit, he and the fleet were gone, leaving behind a shockwave that raced outward at near-lightspeed and all but atomized the incoming missile. The Pacific would reverberate for hours, echoes of the event registering on sensors all around its rim... but there would be no nuclear explosion.
"Well, there's something you don't see every day," Korra observed.
Utena leaned out over the front of Mogi's saddle, looked, and had to agree with the Avatar's assessment. There, indeed, was something she did not see every day. Down below, at precisely the coordinates with which they had been supplied, was a small island. That wasn't much of a surprise; this part of the Fire Nation was composed of not much other than small islands, widely scattered and many uninhabited. This particular one had a nice little half-moon bay, like a smaller version of Crescent Island's.
And in that bay was what appeared to be a fairly respectable twentieth-century naval task force. As Korra guided the sky bison in a leisurely descending spiral over the harbor, Utena counted a battleship, an aircraft carrier, two large and one smaller submarine, and fully ten smaller surface ships, most of which looked to her like destroyers of one or another type. Fifteen ships, all riding peacefully at anchor in the tranquil waters of the pleasant little harbor.
"So uh... the carrier, I guess?" Korra said.
Utena shrugged. "Makes sense."
As she guided Mogi in for a landing, Korra looked back over her shoulder and grinned. "There's always a story with this guy."
"Has he always been like that?" Utena wondered, returning the grin.
"Oh yeah," Korra replied.
Mogi alighted without trouble on the broad expanse of the carrier's flight deck; as Utena and Korra were climbing down, a small group of women emerged from the island and came across to meet them.
"Commodore Tenjou; Avatar Korra," said the one in the lead, a dark-haired, serious-faced young woman dressed in Japanese archery gear. "I am fleet aircraft carrier Kaga. This is battleship Yamato and command cruiser Ōyodo." With a solemn salute, she added, "Welcome to the Midway Fleet."
"I, um... thanks," said Korra, plainly at a loss.
Utena wasn't much better off in terms of knowing what was going on, but her knowledge of naval protocol stood her in good stead; she returned the salute and said as professionally as she was able, "Thank you. It's good to meet all of you." Then, dropping the professional veneer, she added with a smile, "Call me Utena."
"You must be anxious to see Admiral Ravenhair," said Ōyodo.
"He's resting in my flag quarters right now. Come—we'll take you over," Yamato added with a cheerful smile.
The three Mental Models guided them across a hexagonal-forcefield bridge to the battleship, then conducted them below. As they navigated the maze of corridors, they passed by what appeared, from the hallway, to be a large and luxuriously appointed lounge, where a number of other Mental Models seemed to have congregated. They didn't stop, but on the way past the open doorway, Utena heard one of them—a blonde girl who looked like she might be in early high school—say,
"I'm totally confused-poi."
"Eh, that's normal," said another, slightly older-looking blonde with an easy grin. Popping the top on a bottle of Ramune, she handed it to the younger girl and went on, "Don't worry, Admiral'll explain everything when he wakes up."
Utena glanced at Korra, who shrugged with a don't-ask-me expression, and then their guides stopped in front of another door, this one bearing a brass plate reading FLAG QUARTERS in Japanese.
"Here you are," said Yamato, smiling.
With an air of brisk, but not unkind, efficiency, Ōyodo told them, "Now, you should understand, we've just come from an extremely stressful operation. Admiral Ravenhair and his escort squadron still need a lot of rest, so I would ask that you please be as quiet as possible."
Escort squadron? Utena thought, and then Yamato opened the door and stepped aside with a polite please-after-you gesture.
The compartment beyond the door was a large bedroom (Utena remembered Corwin's remark about a "ridiculously posh stateroom" and concluded that this must be it), dominated by an extremely large bed. In the middle of that bed, uninjured but dead to the world, lay Corwin: barely visible amid a jumble of other figures. Some of these were on the bed, some bedrolled in futons on the floor around it. All were female, all fully clothed, and all peacefully asleep. There seemed to be, assuming Utena could see them all from the doorway, eight of them, only one of whom—Iona—she recognized.
Utena and Korra stood in the doorway, blinking in bemusement at the scene, for a moment; then, without a word, they backed into the hallway, and Utena gently closed the door again.
"Most guys would bring home a puppy," Utena observed. "Or maybe a box of kittens, tops."
"There's always a story with this guy," she repeated. The two women looked at each other for a moment...
... then grinned, snickering conspiratorially, and turned to Yamato.
"Tell you what," said Utena, "why don't you guys introduce us to whoever's awake and give us the short version?"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Cantata for Warships in D
in order of appearance
Long-Range Submarine I-401 (Iona)
Long-Range Submarine I-401 kai (Shioi)
Light Cruiser Tenryū
Fleet Submarine USS Lionfish (Léonne)
Special Type-III Destroyer Ikazuchi
Special Type-III Destroyer Hibiki
Special Type-III Destroyer Inazuma
Special Type-III Destroyer Akatsuki
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Kaga
Fast Battleship Kongō
Command Cruiser Ōyodo
Repair Ship Akashi
High-Speed Destroyer Shimakaze
Light Cruiser Tatsuta
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with the aid of
The EPU Usual Suspects
based on characters from
Arpeggio of Blue Steel
by Ark Performance
Earthforce had just enough Fog nanomaterial in reserve to allow Kongō to regenerate her ship body, but with the facilities at their disposal, it would take some time. The Admiralty had therefore decided to dispatch her Mental Model back to Midway by other means, so that she could take control of the Fog station there as soon as possible... albeit only after extensively debriefing her on the disastrous failure of what should have been a fairly simple recovery mission.
On the one hand, she could now see why Earthforce regarded "Admiral" Ravenhair as such a dangerous wild card. On the other, she was entirely at fault for failing to account for Lionfish as the submarine silently stalked their formation, and Kurita's superiors had been justified in their displeasure, no matter how much it stung.
Now, as she stood on the beach by what had been the Fog installation's main sea gate, it was clear to Kongō that their opponents had left little for her or Earthforce to recover. Demolition charges had collapsed the underground docks, and most of the nanomaterial left by the retreating ships had been rendered inert before the deserters had even left the station, though she believed they would be able to harvest a small portion from what remained in the deepest storage tanks.
What frustrated her, though she would never admit to feeling so, was the fact that the nanomaterial was the only salvage they would recover from the Fleet base. With the loss of the Union Cores that had been stored there, Earthforce's plans to develop more complex hybrid craft had been set back immeasurably. Worse, it meant that Ravenhair had them, and for reasons she could not immediately define, that idea angered her even more than the Midway Fleet's escape.
Standing on the beach, she looked away from the jumble of broken ferrocrete choking off the sea gate and up into the sky, peering past the clouds and into the darkness beyond.
"I will find them," she promised as her fists clenched, "and I will find you."
"Kongoooooooo," declared a voice over the JTN audio band. "Are you finished yet? This is boooring."
Kongō turned around and looked out to sea. Half a mile out, the ship that had brought her to Midway rode at anchor, her battle markings glowing a dull red against the night horizon.
"You said we could go to Hawaii," the other vessel went on, an audible pout in her voice.
Of all the ships not to lose to the enemy, thought Kongō, but she immediately chided herself for the unworthy thought. Heavy cruiser Maya was a pain, but she was a good and loyal ship—the only other Fog vessel yet discovered who recognized her authority and followed her willingly.
"You're so annoying," the battleship muttered, but there was no heat in her voice. Leaving the wreckage of Midway Station behind her, she began the long walk out to the cruiser, hexagons of force flickering beneath her feet with every step she took across the water.
"When we get to Hawaii, can we go to one of those beach restaurants?" Maya asked. "I want to have lau lau! Can I?"
Kongō sighed. "Yes, Maya," she said wearily. "You can have lau lau."
Heavy Cruiser Maya
The Order of the Rose will continue
E P U (colour) 2015