Around Bay 73 of the aerospaceport's medium-term parking area, the afternoon routine was livened up somewhat by the arrival of an antique Corellian light freighter, one which was familiar to many members of staff. As the ground vehicle lift in the vessel's underbelly began to descend, a number of those staffers paused to watch, impelled by the knowledge that the owner of that craft could generally be counted on to be driving something really interesting. This time, though, the overall reaction was one of puzzlement; exactly what was on the lift couldn't be made out in the shadow of the ship, but its silhouette was much higher and blockier than the observers were expecting.
A moment after the lift touched down came the sputter of a starter motor, followed by the cheerful buzz of an air-cooled engine. Headlights snapped dramatically on, and then the vehicle—large, rectangular, radius-cornered, resembling nothing so much as a wheeled loaf of bread in a gaily colored plastic wrapper—pulled out and headed off toward the apron exit gate. In its wake, the spaceport workers looked at each other in utter bemusement, and in some cases, more than a little disappointment. Not only had most of them never seen a 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 Deluxe Microbus before, they had been hoping that the One-Hit Wonder, of all ships, would offload something a bit more dramatic.
"OK, here's the plan," Corwin Ravenhair said over the radio as he guided the bus onto the highway connecting Asgard's main spaceport to the city itself. "I've sent word to the Fleet Operations Office that we're in town, but they won't be ready for us until tomorrow. We'll take it easy tonight, just tourist it up a little bit in town, and make it an early night. If I know Nagato, she'll want to get started first thing in the morning."
"Awright, run this by me again," said Korra from the passenger seat. "That's not the same Nagato as the one the Fog ships remember from the old days?"
Corwin shook his head. "No. She's the spirit of the original World War II battleship Nagato—though from what I hear, they seem to have fairly similar approaches," he added, glancing over his shoulder for confirmation.
In the second-row seats behind him, Iona and Ōyodo both nodded, Iona with her customary mild equanimity, Ōyodo with a businesslike expression.
"Keep in mind that my memory files of her all pre-date the development of Mental Models," Ōyodo qualified, "and none of us really had what you would think of as a personality at the time; but Coordinator Nagato was known in the Fleet for her efficiency even then."
"Mm," Iona agreed. "My memories from before my recent reactivation are heavily fragmented, but I believe what I retain agrees with Ōyodo's assessment."
From behind them, in the third-row seats, Akashi piped up: "I got nothin'. Nobody from the Big Seven ever bothered to interact directly with the likes of me. I'm sorry I can't be more help."
"Nor can I," Kaga added gravely. "I can recall..." She glanced out the window beside her, a shadow crossing her face, then went on awkwardly, "... virtually nothing before Midway."
Corwin gave her a small, reassuring smile before facing front again. "It's all right, Kaga," he said. "There won't be a quiz at the end."
"So... we're going to be having a meeting with a ship," said Korra. "Like, an actual ship."
"Not exactly," said Corwin. "Before the Ragnarök, the honored spirits of warships sunk in battle did manifest in Valhalla in the same form they had in Midgard. Most of them fought in the Last Battle, crewed by Einheri sailors who had served aboard them in life. But during that battle, something... changed. After the dust settled, reports started coming in from all over the fleet of mysterious warrior women appearing aboard Einheri ships and taking part in the fighting. They all disappeared at the end of the battle.
"The Admiralty investigated, but no one could come up with a solid explanation of who they had been, or where they came from, or where they went. Then, one day a few weeks after the Great Restart of the World-Engine, the ship spirits that had survived the battle began to disappear from Valhalla's docks."
Unaware that he had the undivided attention of his backseat passengers as well as the one in front, he went on, "Some were never seen again, but in the weeks and months that followed, people, almost all of them women, started turning up in New Yokosuka with the memories and identities of the ships they had been in the mortal world. And when the sailors saw them, they swore one and all that these women were the ones they'd seen during the Ragnarök. They were the missing ships... but in different forms. Personified. Instead of ships crewed by Einherjar, they came back as Einherjar themselves."
When he didn't go on for several seconds, Oyodo finally prompted him: "... Why?"
Corwin shrugged cheerfully. "No idea! No one knows, not even Mom. Some people thought it was a side effect of the Great Restart, but the reports pretty conclusively show that they appeared before that happened. We may never know.
"At any rate, explanation or no, there they were, so Mom and Njörd set up a fleet branch for them. For whatever reason, most of the first wave to appear were spirits of IJN ships from World War II, so it became known as Kanmusu Command, after the Japanese nickname the originals gave themselves—short for kantai musume."
Korra nodded, translating the phrase from (what she thought of as) Fire Nation Kokugo in her head. "'Daughters of the Fleet'. Apt." Turning to the crew in the back, she noted with a smile, "So I guess you guys aren't the only ones coping with this 'sudden existence' thing after all!"
Corwin nodded. "It's one of the things I hope the kanmusu will find in common with the Fog—just like with your Mental Models," he observed to the ships present, "the Einheri ships have a lot more things to do now that they have bodies." Grinning, he added, "Some of them find the damnedest things to do with their time..."
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Romance of Combined Fleet Record, Volume 2
"Open for Business"
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Matt Wagner
© 2016, 2018 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Beginning in the late twentieth century, persons interested in the ever-evolving cultural tapestry of the afterlife began to notice an interesting new trend. As soldiers from immediate pre- and post-Contact Earth began arriving in significant numbers, they found a creative off-label use for some of the qualities afforded them by their new status. Instead of fighting all day, every day, and feasting all night, every night, in the classical fashion, they took to exploiting their newly-acquired preternatural endurance by conducting massive marathon dance parties in the modern style. Epic raves.
Truth to tell, it wasn't that new an innovation. Students of the phenomenon were quick to point out to the disapproving that this was simply a new user interface applied to the ancient feasthall customs, and that such "redecorations" of the concept had occurred many times before. The only real difference, apart from the prevalence of surging electronic music and less brawling, hellraising atmosphere, was that the revelers generally didn't break off at daybreak to go and spend the day slaughtering each other. They'd just hang in and keep dancing and partying, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time.
The party at Club Yasen, one of the most popular spots in the New Yokosuka port district, had technically been running for seventeen years at this point, though no individual present at any given time had been there for more than a few days at a stretch. It was just that the club never closed, and though any given musician or DJ generally lingered for only an hour or two, there was always one up there, urging the crowd on.
The one currently on the stage was one of the club's crowd favorites, a performer whose energy and enthusiasm were renowned for intimidating even hardened partiers with their depth. She'd been known to play sets that went on for days, and indeed she was just finishing one now. Booked for a two-hour set starting at 8 o'clock on Saturday night, she'd just... stayed, laying down track after track, pausing only to slam down cans of Navy Special No. 5 and switch rapidly between a succession of costumes. She alternated between DJ sets and full-on original performances, always keeping it fresh, always with a huge smile, soaking up the crowd's attention and adulation without, somehow, ever quite coming across as narcissistic. She just seemed to enjoy being there, lighting up the joint and making people happy.
Right now she was finishing one of her live tracks. Despite being nominally tethered to her instruments, she managed to put across more than a little of the aidoru style in her performance, combining dance moves and hugely expressive body language with her keyboard playing and the duties of managing the various settings of her sophisticated equipment stack. In the last, at least, she was backed up of a small flotilla of the helper spirits popularly (if taxonomically inaccurately) called "fairies" around New Yokosuka: cute miniature personifications of various pieces of gear, each of whom managed a specific item. (Some of these fairies were so well-known in the club scene that they had followings of their own, such as the indomitable TR-808 Rhythm Composer Fairy, provider of unstoppable beats for dozens of Einheri artists.)
At the end of the song, the performer stood next to her board and caught her breath, grinning out at her cheering audience. She had been playing for almost 60 hours now, but though flecked with sweat, she seemed otherwise undimmed. Slim and athletic, currently sporting a tight-fitting tank top with the logo of her band on the front, a ruffled miniskirt over bike shorts, and chunky sneakers, she had her dark hair drawn up in a pair of dumpling-like buns apart from a couple of irrepressible sprigs that jutted up at the top like antennae. Dark eyes sparkled above her toothy, beaming smile.
"Thank you!" she cried, waving overhead with the hand not resting on her microphone. "Thank you all for coming out! I've got to go soon, but we've got just enough time for one more." With a deep bow to the crowd, she gestured to either side, taking in her phalanx of supporting fairies, and then declared, "Naka-chan loves you all! This is the 2-4-11 Projekt and we'll be back soon! Until then..." She winked, drawing a sideways V sign next to her open eye with one hand while the other started playing the opening riff of her last track. "You know what I'll be wondering!"
If anyone in the room thought it was odd that a performer in an afterlife nightclub—by definition, full of people who were, technically speaking, dead—would have a signature closing tune built around the central message "life is way too short to take it slow," none was in any mood to remark on it. That was part and parcel of Naka-chan's style, after all: relentlessly upbeat, regarding even death itself as a grand adventure. Having been scrapped once before she was even launched, Naka—light cruiser of the Imperial Japanese Navy, third and last of the Sendai class—regarded everything else as so much bonus time.
Half an hour later, Naka emerged from the back entrance of Club Yasen, weary but exhilarated. She hadn't really intended to spend pretty much her entire long weekend playing one uninterrupted set, but once she got really into the groove, sometimes she just couldn't stop. Now she had a full day's duty ahead of her back at the New Yokosuka Naval Station.
As she walked down Bard Street toward the waterfront, though, she wasn't terribly worried about that. Partially, that was because it wasn't really in Naka's nature to be terribly worried about much of anything, but mostly, it was because she knew she could count on her not-very-secret weapon to come to her rescue. She'd just turned south onto Front Street, the waters of Asgard Bay lapping at the quayside to her left, when the orange glow of the eastern horizon reached its crescendo and the first brilliant beam of the rising sun swept across the water and touched her...
... and, as it did for every Einheri every morning, restored her instantly to full health and vigor. For millennia, the immortal warriors of Valhalla and Fólkvangr had received this daily gift, originally intended to raise once more those slain, and restore those maimed, in the previous day's battles. Its efficacy as a hangover cure and restorative for those who had partied hard all night had become apparent only somewhat later in the process.
Her smile broadening, Naka quickened her pace to a trot, then a run. Now re-energized, she was more eager than ever to discover the meaning of the cryptic text message she'd received from the Fleet Communications Center toward the end of her set:
All Kanmusu interested in Returning will report to Central Briefing n/l/t 0745 hrs.
Like all installations in Asgard, the Office of Kanmusu Operations perfectly served its purpose without sacrificing comfort. An array of low-slung buildings surrounding a precisely excavated harbor, drydock, and landing pad, it had rapidly sprung up in the wake of Post-Ragnarok developments, and was ideal to meet the needs of any wet-navy or space-ship spirit. Repair bays and cafeterias stood ready to replenish any ship girl of any class who wished to partake of them. Amply appointed barracks provided both temporary and permanent accommodations for anybody who was between deployments or just visiting. And the briefing halls were infused with that particular Asgardian magic that made sure they were always the right size, no matter the number of occupants.
Grinning to herself, Naka checked her appearance with the help of her phone's self-camera, then tucked it away in the folds of her uniform. Perfect, and just on time!
"Naka-chan, Idol of the Fleet, has arrived!" the orange-clad light cruiser proclaimed as she shoved the doors open. She was greeted with welcoming waves and cheers from quite a few of the younger destroyers and corvettes who had gotten there before her, as well as acknowledging nods and smiles from the heavier cruisers, carriers and battleships. This was one of the things she lived for! Bringing smiles and happiness to her Kanmusu colleagues, regardless of their navy of origin.
She just hadn't expected there to be so many. Naka came up short, her eyes widening as she took in the sheer number of ship girls assembled among the raked seating of the briefing hall. It was only thanks to her long years of being an entertainer and student of kanmusu nature that she recognized the majority of them, and part of that was due to the natural tendency of ships to group in formation by ship class and naval organization whenever they were left to their own devices.
Over by one edge were the destroyers and cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Another section held the ships of the Kaiserliche Marine, maintaining an uneasy peace with their counterparts from the Kriegsmarine. The old ladies of the Royal Navy held court with their mix of wood and iron hulls, while the Americans traded notes with the United Earth and United Galactica Navy ships. A triad of Minbari wet-navy cruisers pointedly ignored the debates between a squad of Narn corvettes and Centauri destroyers, while some Sangheili coast interdictors tried to challenge the United States Coast Guard cutters to a friendly duel after the meeting. Naka had to stretch her legs to stand on her toes just to spot the splash of orange in the middle of the IJN formation that marked the location of her sister ships.
"SENDAIII! JINTSUUU!!" she cried out, waving her gloved hand to catch their attention.
"NAKAAA!" replied the namesake of the Sendai class with equal enthusiasm, jumping up and waving both her arms. Beside her, their sister just sighed and placed her face in her palm.
Naka grinned, and cut her way through the kanmusu tide, rapidly pulling abreast of her sisters. With no preamble, she pulled the two of them into a hug, eliciting a squeak of surprise from Jintsū and an indignant "Hey!" from Sendai.
"Careful there, you may be mistaken for a fairy next," Naka said as she released them. "That way lies madness!"
Sendai snorted, brushing out the wrinkles in her skirt. "Says the trance addict. I can't understand how you can think with all that throbbing in the background."
"No worse than when Jintsū sings 'Remnant of Searchlight', 'Night Battle, or 'Fleeting Slumber'," Naka retorted with a smirk, prompting a blush from her older sister. "Hey, I didn't say you were bad! One of these days, Naka-chan will get you on stage in front of a microphone! Unless somebody's been sneaking off to Bard Street after hours..." she added with a sly wink.
"Gaaah, Naka!" Jintsū protested, blushing even further.
Naka laughed and relented, patting her sister on the head. "Hey, hey, I'm joking here. Seriously, you're good."
Jintsū relaxed somewhat, and gestured towards their seats. "If you say so, sister. We'd better reclaim our seats before some of the Mutsukis steal them."
Sendai nodded, sparing a warning glance for the crescent-wearing destroyers who had been jockeying for position as the hour drew close. Sendai slouched down into her seat, while Naka bounced briefly in hers and Jintsū pulled a notepad and pen out for the coming meeting before sitting down.
"Hmmmm," Naka murmured, her head swiveling like one of her turrets, identifying several other notables in the crowd. Atago and Takao in their deep blue-green coats, Maya and Chōkai in their miniskirted sailor uniforms. The Akizuki sisters and their turret companions. The succession of Enterprise cruisers and carriers, from the American Revolutionary War sloop to the venerable "Big E" to the Gerald R. Ford-class fusion super-carrier. The Iowa sisters, Musashi, and several other late-model Earth and Klingon battleships were standing against the back wall - the only location where their great height would not look out of place (and not block anybody else's view of the front row). Down in front, she could see the command ship USS Blue Ridge at the secretary’s station. A trio of battleships—Hiei, Haruna, and Kirishima—sat in the front row, in a prime position to watch the upcoming meeting.
Naka's brow furrowed as she made note of the absence of the most bombastic and beloved of the Kongō sisters. Knowing her, she'd be timing her arrival for maximum dramatic effect in three... two... one...
"Yes! I just finished baking the scones, dess!"
Yep, right on time, Naka thought with a grin as the Indestructible Battleship Kongō burst through the main briefing hall doors like a high-explosive shell. Proceeding down the center aisle in a whirlwind of white and black fabric, the British-built battleship expertly lobbed freshly-baked pastry into the crowd like a snack vendor at a baseball game. Destroyers and light cruisers jumped up to catch the scones, while Fleet Carrier Akagi held her hand up and caught one of the pastries thrown directly at her, as easily as she would have caught one of her landing planes on her flight deck.
"Good catch, dess!" Kongō threw Akagi a knowing wink and a wave before finally reaching her sisters down near the front row. Naka laughed and applauded, and was joined by several others in her division (save Jintsū, who had managed to catch a scone of her own and was rapidly devouring it).
So caught up was the younger crowd by the spectacle that they failed to immediately notice the entrance of Fleet Coordinator Nagato and her sister Mutsu, even when she drew up to the center podium and cleared her throat. Mutsu gave her older sister an amused glance, and the other battleship slightly rolled her eyes before nodding towards the back of the room.
A contralto voice barked from the back across the expanse of the hall, grabbing everybody's attention as only an Iowa-class's impressive lungs could do. "ATTENTION ON DECK! SHUT UP AND SIDDOWN!"
"Thank you, New Jersey," Nagato commented as the assembled mass of kanmusu shut up and sat down. Jersey smiled back, tipping her baseball cap in acknowledgment towards the woman in charge.
Nagato directed a brief glare towards a smiling unrepentant Kongou, then cleared her throat again and straightened behind the podium's lectern. "As you were. Thank you all for coming." She waited for the crowd to settle down, her eyes and radars scanning those assembled, her brow slightly creased in concentration. Naka wondered what she was waiting for, as those around her exchanged glances. The Fleet Coordinator was not known for equivocating or hesitancy in her actions, especially when giving briefings. Unless...
With a level stare, Nagato surveyed the crowd of kanmusu once more. "Will all present submarines surface before we continue the briefing?"
"Gah!" Sendai jumped in her seat as a head popped up in the gap between their row and the seats in front of them. This head was attached to a swimsuit-clad body, which judging by its build and the ribbons attached to its multicolored hair, could only belong to the Japanese submarine I-19—and the Sendai sisters could have sworn she wasn't there a second ago.
"Awww! Iku was just getting comfortable!" the submarine pouted, before smiling at the flustered light cruisers. "Oh, hey, Sendai, I was hoping to run into you today. Maybe after the briefing you'd be interested in a little night battle with Iku~?" she asked with a trailing lilt.
Staring, Sendai shook her head negatively, feeling a furious blush creeping slowly up her face under the incredulous gazes of her sisters. "Um, no, sorry, 'fraid I'll have to take a pass on that, Iku," she managed to blurt out.
"All right," Iku cheerfully replied. "Another time, then!" she added as she waved, heading off to a seating area where many of the now-surfaced submarines were visibly congregating.
Nagato nodded curtly as the submarines came into formation. "Thank you." She then took a deep breath and addressed the audience once more.
"Ever since we have found ourselves personified in Asgard, there have been certain of our number who have wished to Return to the mortal world. That number has only been increasing in the past decade." The battleship directed her gaze across the assembled ship girls, briefly meeting the eyes of certain members of the crowd, including Naka and her sisters. The light cruisers fought off a blush (one that neither Sendai, who had the disadvantage that she was already blushing, nor Jintsū managed to suppress), but kept her attention on the member of the "Big 7" as she continued the briefing.
"It is to our regret that we have not been able to fulfill these requests, given the fervent desire of some to return to protect their home nations or to protect the spacefaring members of their species among the stars. As personified beings, we lack suitable receptacles for Return. Those who have tried anyway have met with outcomes that were not particularly... acceptable.
Nagato's mouth pressed into a flat line, and Naka winced, knowing all too well the stories of two American ships, Midway and Growler, who had attempted Return on their own and ended up stuck in their restored museum ship selves, unable to do anything further. After those two incidents, nobody had been particularly eager to force the issue.
"Regardless, the Bureau of Kanmusu Affairs continues to log requests to Return," Nagato continued. "In the past year, we have received a record high of seventy-nine requests, many of them repeat submissions from prior years."
Naka leaned forward in her seat, her eyebrows raised at the news. Somebody lowly whistled (she couldn't make out whom), and she could see various other kanmusu either looking interested or embarrassed at the revelation. Nagato let them react for only a moment, then plowed on, "These would normally be logged and deferred until sufficient resources could be devoted on the problem, but a possible solution has recently presented itself from an unanticipated quarter."
An excited murmur crossed the hall. Nagato nodded. "Here to speak with us today on this matter is 'Admiral' Corwin Ravenhair, Lord of the Great Machines," she said with a slightly deprecating smile. "Hamilton, if you would?"
"Yes, Ma'am!" saluted the USCGC Alexander Hamilton, who turned from her station by the side door and opened it. "They're ready for you now, sir, ma'am," she said to those waiting outside, and then held it open for them to enter.
"(Admiral Ravenhair?)" Sendai murmured. "(Since when? Admiral of what?)"
"(And why did Nagato say it with the audible sarcasm quotes?)" Naka wondered.
"(Shh,)" Jintsū replied. "(I think we're about to find out.)"
Naka said nothing, but her eyebrows went up for the second time that meeting. Corwin Ravenhair, the newest Æs, was easy enough to recognize (from the Asgardian news service if nothing else). The Republic-class Dìqiú battleship that had accompanied him was readily identifiable by her distinctive hull decoration (only the Zhu Li could pull off a dazzle-striped suit with such panache). But the other woman accompanying the Æs was an unknown, and didn't immediately break off to join the Dìqiú naval contingent. She had the impressive muscle tone, bearing, and camouflage pattern that marked a Water Tribe battleship, but her sleek top would not have been out of place on a United Republic submarine.
Naka shook her head, and decided to follow up on that thought heading later. She had plenty of fans among the Dìqiú ships, and judging by their reactions to the newcomer's presence, they'd know who she was if nobody else did. Up front, she saw Nagato step aside to make room for the new presenter.
Walking to the podium, Corwin gave Nagato a respectful nod, then slotted a crystal into the reader attached to it before beginning to speak.
"Morning, everyone. Thanks for having me. I know you're all busy, so let me cut straight to the chase. Last month, I made a remarkable discovery in the course of trying to fix a mistake I'd made."
Tapping a button on the lectern, the holoprojectors suddenly came on line, displaying images of a ship that many of the kanmusu were familiar with: a Japanese I-400-class sen-toku submarine. Then, as the Fleet of Fog markings began to glow to life on the projection, their murmurs of recognition took on an entirely different tone.
"This is the Fleet of Fog submarine I-401. I encountered her in battle in Dìqiú. At the time, she was under the command of a member of the Order of the Black Rose, an organization headed by Duke Trigon of Sheol."
That caused a slight murmur of consternation among those present who took any interest in celestial politics—a duke of Muspelheim mixed up in a matter that had, one way or another, involved one of the Æsir? That could be trouble, with or without the Fleet of Fog.
Corwin said no more about it, however; instead, the image shrank, moving to the top left of the projection field, and was replaced a moment later by the image of what appeared to be a pale, silver-haired young woman, dressed in a school uniform from the Japanese Maritime Institute of Technology.
"This," Corwin explained, "is also Fleet of Fog submarine I-401. More specifically, this is the Mental Model that embodies her core intelligence, who has taken the face name Iona Maruichi." He paused a moment to let that explanation sink in, with only a small groan coming out of the back of the IJN seats at the pun in her name.
"I was able to make contact with Iona, and found her to be a fully sentient and autonomous intelligence. After some... misunderstandings, she was willing to come around to the side of the good guys. Unfortunately, before that happened, her ship hull's nanomaterial was rendered inert, which meant we needed to find a replacement."
The room's attention was focused on Corwin as he continued speaking, images appearing on the holoprojector as he spoke.
"I attempted to use the original I-401 wreck of the coast of Kalaleoa as a template to create a new hull for Iona. What I didn't realize, however, was that due to the circumstances of the original ship's destruction... she already had a spirit of her own, trapped in limbo."
Another wave of shock and whispers spread through the room, as the image of another I-400-class submarine appeared, this time in the standard grey-and-red IJN livery.
"As a result...I successfully created a new Fleet of Fog vessel, but the process also provided the opportunity for the original I-401 to manifest within it."
Just as before, the schematics of this new sub moved away, and another young woman, with darker hair and skin, appeared. This one was dressed much more like the kanmusu of Valhalla expected of a Japanese submarine, in an old-fashioned school swimsuit with a cropped sailor blouse on top.
"This is Shioi," Corwin explained. "The original I-401's spirit, embodied as a Mental Model by the Fog-type hull I made out of her wreck. For bookkeeping purposes, and because Iona made a few improvements while helping her initialize her new systems, we've designated her I-401 kai."
Realizing he was getting a bit afield of the point, Corwin regrouped, saying with a wry smile, "This was a fascinating development, and would have been even more exciting if it hadn't also involved alerting about two-thirds of Earthgov's naval forces in the Pacific to our presence." That got some laughter in response, and Corwin blanked the images again.
"Like the saying goes, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. As we worked to evade Earthforce pursuit using Shioi's new hull, we eventually found ourselves taking shelter at a former Fleet of Fog depot on Midway Island. What we found there... is what brings me here today."
The room had gone quiet, rapt with attention as Corwin briefly explained the discovery of the left-behind Midway Fog detachment, and their decision to request that he act as their Admiral to prevent Earthforce from taking control of them.
"I realize it may seem a bit presumptuous of me to call myself a full admiral when my fleet is all of fifteen ships," said Corwin with a mildly sardonic glance at Nagato, "but they insisted. They also make me wear this hat," he added wryly, drawing a laugh from a few sections of the room. "Besides, my wife is already a commodore in another force, so that would just get confusing. Anyway, that's as may be. This is the important part: The Midway fleet themselves were a significant force, but the main reason Earthforce was so bent on seizing the base was what that fleet was left behind to protect."
The projector displayed an object about the size of a softball, and spherical, but oddly squashed, with little sub-spheres connecting into it at various points.
"This is a Fog Union Core, recovered from Midway. The Union Core is the essential component at the heart of every Fog vessel—the brain and central nervous system, if you will, from which the collection of nanomaterial that makes up the rest of the ship is controlled. The core pictured here is currently uninitialized, with no installed personality, but with everything present to create a full Fog ship and Mental Model once properly activated."
Finally at the meat of what he'd come for, Corwin swept the hall with a slow, meaningful look.
"We recovered over 800 of these blank cores from where they had been stored, and thanks to the repair ship Akashi, we have the technical know-how to create Fog nanomaterial in quantity. Which means the only thing missing is a driving intelligence." Corwin paused a moment, letting that sink in, then drove into his wrap-up.
"I've discussed options on how to proceed with the Midway Fleet's Mental Models, and while it's possible for them to create new Fog intelligences, given time, or to use a sufficiently advanced Machine Intelligence driver like HalOS or STACIS, we feel it would be more appropriate to offer those of you who wish to return to Midgard a method that would not only preserve embodiment of your spirits in kanmusu form, but also provide the ability to take on a form capable of helping to defend those in need, however you see fit."
Sensing that his explanation might have been too elliptical for some, Corwin summed it up: "You may know that a number of Autobot Einherjar were able to Return after the Ragnarök thanks to Optimus Prime and their Matrix of Leadership. We think this method will provide an equivalent capability for fleet girls."
With that, the hall erupted into an explosion of conversation, as nearly every kanmusu in the hall tried to volunteer, ask questions, cheer, or object all at once. Naka, for her part, just stared in shock at the implications, and found herself unconsciously gripping her sisters' hands.
Finally, after deciding it had gone on long enough, Nagato looked to the back of the hall, and New Jersey once again stepped forward, drawing breath before unleashing another titanic bellow.
"ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, ALL! RIGHT! SIDDOWN AND STOW IT, OR I'M GETTING THE SIXTEEN INCHERS!"
That got everyone's attention, and things quieted, but before anyone at the podium continued, an imposing, stern-faced US Navy kanmusu stood, clad in a long dark jacket and wearing a wide-brimmed black Homburg hat, anger blazing in her eyes as she stared down both Corwin and Nagato.
"Let me get this straight. You want us to willingly plug ourselves into those 'cores' to manifest. The cores of those things that DECIMATED my sisters and their crews, and those of our other navies? Oh, and the EA is after them with a vengeance and might have a back door to help take control of them? No. I'm not dishonoring my sisters that way. You all can do what you want, but I'm out."
As the outraged kanmusu stormed out, Nagato stepped up, clearing her throat. "I recognize this is going to be a controversial issue for many of you. If anyone else feels the same way as Higbee, we won't force anyone to do what they don't feel is right. You are free to leave, and we will not hold it against anyone. No questions will be asked."
Several other ships did leave, mostly those who had fought and fallen against the Fleet of Fog, along with some who simply had no interest in returning now that they knew how it would be accomplished. Before they could continue, another, taller blonde kanmusu stood from where many of the old Enterprise ship girls had gathered.
"I don't agree with Higbee, and I'm sorry for how she reacted." She sighed. "We're supposed to be better than that. I don't know what I want to do yet, but I do want to see if I can talk to some of the ones who left and get them to really think about what this could mean - not just see Fog hulls and go to General Quarters."
Nagato nodded, a look of relief in her eyes. "Thank you, Fordy. We don't want this to be a source of pain for anyone. This is an opportunity freely given—not a forced voyage."
"To put that in proper US Navy terminology for some of the newer kids," a soot-smudged figure in a grubby coverall under a leather welder's apron remarked around the stem of her unlit pipe, "nobody's gettin' voluntold."
That drew a mild flutter of amusement and seemed to settle some of the nerves jangled by Higbee's outburst. Once all those who were leaving had gone, Corwin returned to the podium, setting up a new set of data crystals for the display.
"OK. Before I go on, I want to echo what Nagato just said: we're not going to force anyone to take this option. All the present members of my fleet joined up willingly. If anybody got drafted, it was me," he added with a self-deprecating little smile. "That gives me a good link to the last part of my little talk, as it happens, because before I wrap up today, I wanted to give anyone who does wish to Return a look at the ships who will be there to greet them. They're looking forward to the opportunity to meet anyone who chooses to come back, and I think both sides may have some interesting things to teach the other."
"(Oh, this is gonna be good,)" Sendai murmured to Naka, while on the opposite side Jintsū drew a line below her current notes to prepare a new section.
Tapping another control on the lectern, a ship dossier appeared, displaying a sleek submarine paired with a strong-legged blonde woman, the sleeves pushed back and her blouse tied up to give a good view of her muscles. A navy cap was perched atop her bushy blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, which went well with the cocky grin she wore.
"First up, we have USS Lionfish, SS-298, or as her Mental Model prefers to be known, Léonne Poisson. As it turns out, she'd been living in Honolulu since the 2050s, deep undercover."
"So that explains why she isn't wearing a swimsuit. She's been stuck on land too long," somebody commented from the audience, which prompted a chuckle to go around the room.
"Not quite, but it's as good an explanation as any," Corwin admitted with a smile. "Next are the members of the IJN's Destroyer Division Six: Akatsuki, Hibiki, Ikazuchi (not Kaminari), and Inazuma. Don't get the last two mixed up," he added, as another set of dossiers appeared, revealing a quartet of utterly adorable destroyers clad in sailor blouses and skirts, the first two wearing stylish caps.
"Oh my god they're so cute," Naka squealed.
Sendai chuckled, nudging her sister in the shoulder. "Hey, check out Nagato," she said, nodding her head towards the battleship standing near to Corwin. The Fleet Coordinator was trying her hardest to maintain her stoic demeanor in the face of such concentrated cuteness. Matters weren't helped by Mutsu muttering something in her ear, causing her to blush heavily.
"They're joined by the Shiratsuyu-class destroyer Yūdachi, and—"
A shocked "P-poi?!" interrupted Corwin before he could continue further, and all eyes turned towards that ship's namesake, her surprised red eyes wide as she stared at the projected image of a girl who looked very much like a slightly younger version of herself. Beside her, her sister Shigure and her roommates Fubuki and Mutsuki wore matching startled expressions at their companion's outburst.
"(Yūdachi's gone bye-bye, what've you got left?)" Naka muttered under her breath to her sister Sendai.
"(I dunno, Naka. I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought,)" Sendai replied. "(Two sources of Poi in the galaxy? I don't think Midgard could survive it.)"
"(I'm more worried about how Jersey-san will handle it,)" Jintsū added, nodding towards the back wall, where the Iowa-class battleship was failing to suppress a grimace.
Corwin tried (and failed) to hold back a chuckle at the whispered interplay that had interrupted his presentation. Clearing his throat to draw focus back to him, he flipped over to another slide. "As I was saying, rounding out our destroyer force is the high-speed strike vessel Shimakaze." A long and lean two-funneled ship was displayed, armed with three dual turrets and three banks of five torpedo tubes. Alongside that image was one of a slim blonde-haired girl who seemed to have forgone full clothing coverage in exchange for weight reduction and hydrodynamics.
"... What the heck?" Sendai inquired, one eyebrow arched in surprise.
"Oh my," Jintsū murmured, her eyes wide and cheeks pink at the destroyer’s thigh-high striped stockings and lack of a significant skirt. Even Naka blushed some at the sight; the girl’s skirt was shorter than those on battleships Nagato and Iowa, and even those worthies at least wore belts with them. Shimakaze's practically was a belt.
The rest of the assembled kanmusu were similarly shocked. Grimacing, Corwin soldiered on before any other comments could emerge from those assembled. "I must emphasize that this... 'uniform'... was not Shimakaze's choice nor my idea, but rather was imposed on her by her sorry excuse for an 'admiral' in Earthforce. She's on a detached assignment that calls for civilian dress right now, and it didn't occur to any of us to revise her uniform before she left, so this is the only file image we have of her right now." He gave a helpless shrug. "This part of the briefing was kind of laid on at the last minute."
"I dunno, looks fine to me," opined heavy cruiser Maya, nodding down towards her own abbreviated uniform. "Just because you've got a shitty commander doesn't mean you can't take pride in your appearance."
Beside her, Chōkai rolled her eyes before swatting her sister on the shoulder. "Behave, Maya. You're starting to sound like Akebono. It's not her fault. If she doesn't want to wear something like that, then it behooves all of us to respect that."
"Yeah, just look at Amatsukaze and Rensōhō-kun over there. She looks ready to tear the shirt off her own back to give it to her," Yahagi remarked from the row behind them, pointing out the platinum blonde several rows down who was on the edge of her seat. The experimental prototype destroyer looked positively bursting with concern, while the ambulatory turret in the seat next to her was flapping its arm-fins while waggling its gun barrels in sympathy.
"Hmph! Those Earthforce dogs will rue the day they meddled with members of my fleet. This Musashi swears it!" came a bellow from the back of the room, as the Yamato-class battleship raised a fist in challenge.
"(Oh boy here we go,)" Sendai muttered with a sigh. "(I hope Jersey and Vengeance can hold her back before she goes charging off on some damn fool crusade.)"
"(Well, Shimakaze did rescue some of her survivors after her sinking,)" Jintsū replied with a chiding tone. "(It's only natural that she'd feel protective.)"
"(Wait, I thought those were Maya’s?)" Naka asked.
"(It was a mix,)" Jintsū continued. "(Now shush, Lord Ravenhair’s continuing the presentation.)"
Heartened somewhat by the audience's reactions, Corwin addressed the crowd once more. "Thank you, everyone. I'm sure Shimakaze will appreciate your concern and well-wishes once she's in a state to appreciate it." He blinked as a hand shot up from amidst the USN destroyers, but before he could respond to the interruption, Nagato spoke up instead.
"No, Borie, I think Lord Ravenhair and his staff will be fine obtaining clothes for Shimakaze on their own. They don't need donations," the Fleet Coordinator stated, before continuing in a sterner tone, "Now, please put your own clothes back on. We're not in the middle of the destroyer dorms."
"Awwww," replied the destroyer in question petulantly, while the crowd around her chuckled and shook their heads in amusement and resignation.
Nagato sighed, and turned to face Corwin. "Apologies, Lord Ravenhair."
Corwin managed a tired smile towards the battleship. "None necessary, Nagato. It's just been that kind of year." Taking a deep breath, he turned back towards the audience, leaving further explanations unsaid. "Continuing on... Accompanying the destroyers are the two light cruisers of the Tenryū class, Tenryū and Tatsuta. Tenryū serves as the flagship of Torpedo Squadron 1, while Tatsuta was a rescue from Earthforce."
The giant screen now revealed two small cruisers, three funnels apiece, with a reasonable spread of single-mounted guns and dual torpedo launchers for each. Their lean profiles were flanked by images of their human representations; both of them clad in outfits that would not have been out of place at a Crown Colony's private school, with the exception of the floating technological accoutrements above their heads.
Sendai whistled under her breath. "Well! That one looks like a badass," she opined, nodding towards the sword-wielding woman wearing an eyepatch. "I hope she can keep up with some of our other sword-wielders."
"We'll just have to see," replied Naka, before indicating the cruiser's sister wielding the polearm. "Hey, she looks nice."
"I don't know," Jintsū added, looking thoughtfully at the photograph. "Anybody with a smile like that—we better make sure we hide the submarines before she arrives."
Undeterred, Corwin continued his presentation. "Rounding out our cruisers and support craft are the command ship Ōyodo, who is currently serving as my fleet coordinator, and repair ship Akashi. They decided to accompany me on this trip, and after the briefing concludes they're looking forward to meeting anybody who wants to see them."
"(Hang on,)" Sendai muttered across Naka to Jintsū. "(Fog or no, those are all small ships. He said they took on an Earthfleet task force. If it was just that bunch they'd have taken casualties for sure.)"
As if he'd heard her remark, Corwin went on, "Last but certainly not least, our capital ships: fleet aircraft carrier Kaga and the battleship Yamato."
Corwin had expected that at least some of the people present might be impressed by the two mightiest ships in his fleet, but he certainly hadn't expected all hell to break loose at the mere sight of a couple of holos of them. But as they appeared, two disturbances erupted simultaneously.
One, over toward one side of the auditorium, involved a small group of colorfully-dressed figures—most of whom, he noticed, wore modified kyūdō costumes not too unlike Kaga's. Most of these all started talking at once, a few with excitable hand-waving, but the two closest to the front were quite silent: a dark-haired, pleasant-faced woman, who rose slowly to her feet with one hand clapped to her mouth in shock; and a tall, slim girl with grey-green hair in twintails, who bolted out of her seat as if stung, her fists clenched, eyes open so wide with disbelief that Corwin could see the whites all the way around.
Before Corwin had fully taken that on board, he heard Musashi's thunderous voice roar "What?!" from straight up at the back. His eyes flicked that way in time to see two other figures—New Jersey and a heavily, archaically armored Klingon—seize the burly battleship's arms and wrestle her back toward the wall before she could start hurling lesser vessels bodily out of her way and charge the stage.
A sharp clatter drew his attention back to the first group, where he saw that the tall grey-haired girl had tried to sit back down, but missed her seat and gone all the way to the floor—where she now sat, her face utterly blank with astonishment, as another girl who looked very like her, apart from her long white hair, embraced her comfortingly from behind.
It took a few seconds for the tumult to die down, in part because New Jersey was busy wrangling Musashi and so unavailable to yell everyone else back into their seats again; but eventually the Japanese battleship relented, shrugging herself free of her colleagues with a surly look and grudgingly resuming her place. Over to the left the carriers (so Corwin assumed, based on their dress) sorted themselves out. The one who'd fallen stayed on the floor, still looking stunned, and the other who'd risen knelt seiza next to her and held her hand.
Somewhat at a loss, Corwin waited until the room had gone entirely quiet again, then said, "Uh... well. Gosh. Wasn't expecting that. Anyway... yeah. That's everybody. There are fifteen ships in what we're calling the White Rose Fleet at present. Tatsuta, Shimakaze, and Yūdachi are on the detached assignment I mentioned earlier. Iona, Ōyodo, Akashi, and Kaga came with me on this trip. Everybody else is operating out of our provisional anchorage in Dìqiú for the moment.
"I'll leave the details of what the Union Core Return process will entail, both metaphysically and administratively, for a later briefing, mostly because we haven't figured any of that out yet," he said wryly, but he got no laughs this time. Not having really expected any, he continued, "In the meantime, that's all I have. Does anyone have any questions not related to the parts we don't know yet?"
Slightly to his surprise, he only got one taker: Blue Ridge put up her hand, then asked, "You said you recovered two of your fleet's destroyers from Earthforce control. Do they retain any other Fog assets you're aware of?"
"Unfortunately, yes," Corwin replied. "The flagship of the Earthfleet task group we engaged at Midway was also a Fog vessel, and unfortunately we weren't able to recover her. During the engagement, Kaga and Léonne were forced to sink her hull, although we believe her Mental Model survived. She identified herself..."
He searched the files he'd brought for a moment, not having included the ones he now wanted in the main briefing prep, then flashed up images of the opposing force's purple-dazzle-marked flagship and her Mental Model (the latter image captured by Ōyodo through the eyes of his nanomat decoy during his ill-fated attempt to make contact with her).
"... as the fast battleship Kongō."
That caused another, somewhat lesser stir, mainly among the white-clad Einheri battleships down front. One of them rose to her feet, but unlike Musashi, she didn't cry out...
... because for once in her lives, the Indestructible Battleship Kongō had been struck utterly speechless.
Earthfleet battleship Kongō and her escorts steamed southwest, bound for Taipei. From her perch atop the flying bridge, the vessel's Mental Model regarded the fine clear day in progress and considered herself reasonably satisfied.
Making a mere 45 knots, they were just loafing along by the standards of a Fog fast battleship like Kongō, but that didn't bother her particularly. They weren't in any great hurry to reach Taipei; all that awaited them there was a technical review and a quick turnaround to head back to Kure. This was by way of being a shakedown cruise for Kongō's newly reconstituted hull—just running in her new engines and making sure the dockyard in Kure had really configured everything correctly. Reconstructing the entirety of a Fog vessel's hull and machinery was a complicated job, and without a proper repair ship like the renegade Akashi on hand to supervise the process, there was always the possibility that the automated equipment might get something wrong.
That did not appear to be the case, however. They were two days out of Kure and everything seemed to be working perfectly. Gunnery tests in the Inland Sea had gone without a hitch. The brief top-speed run Kongō had indulged in once they were clear of the Bungo Strait and in open ocean had revealed no problems with her machinery or her ballasting; maneuvering was free and easy; all her sensors and communications systems were functioning properly. Everything was satisfactory.
Better still, she had no human crew aboard. After the Midway engagement, in which they had served no useful purpose and their evacuation had complicated matters generally, the Admiralty had decided to discontinue the practice of stationing human sailors aboard the Fog flagship. It had always presented a bit of a security problem anyway, given how highly secret the whole Fog project was supposed to be. Besides which, had any Earthforce personnel been aboard the lesser vessels in the squadron which had assaulted Midway, they would have been captured, if that was the right word, when those vessels deserted in the wake of Kongō's sinking, and that would have been disastrous.
No, on this trip so far, only three factors disturbed Kongō's peace of mind. The first was the constant knowledge that, absence of human crew or not, she and her escorts were still being watched closely. The Earth Alliance government's satellite surveillance network saw everything that happened on the surface of the planet, and besides, all three ships maintained perpetual connections to the Earthfleet strategic information network. Their positions, courses, and actions were known to fleet command back in Kure at all times.
The second was the fact that her consort vessel, the heavy cruiser Maya, had been at her piano pretty much constantly since they left, playing a selection of music Kongō did not know over the Joint Tactical Network. The brass back in Kure couldn't hear that (at least, Kongō didn't think they could), and Kongō supposed she could have cut her own connection for some peace and quiet, but so far it hadn't quite annoyed her enough for that.
The third was the destroyer tasked with escorting Kongō and Maya on this voyage. She was quite the most unnerving vessel Kongō had ever encountered. Everything about her was... strange. Her IFF signature claimed that she was the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Fubuki, but when introduced to Kongō in Pearl Harbor, she had spoken Russian and said her name was Buran. Her hull was a freakish patchwork of Fog technology and what looked like pieces of an ancient shipwreck. Her Mental Model was pallid and glass-eyed, utterly without any semblance of personality.
In her time as flagship of the first squadron she'd led for Earthfleet, Kongō had sometimes found the willfulness of her destroyers annoying. She'd had to keep them, particularly Shimakaze, under close override during sea operations in order to get what she and Admiral Kurita considered adequately precise performance out of them. Very often, Kongō had wished she could just have an escort that followed orders precisely and didn't feel the need to waste a lot of time having feelings about everything.
Well, she had that in Buran, and she was mildly dismayed to discover that she didn't much care for it. She would never have admitted it out loud, but she preferred Maya's flighty cheerfulness over Buran's dead-voiced obedience. The former irritated her almost beyond measure sometimes, but the latter...
... To borrow one of Maya's own phrases, the latter gave her the creeps.
Her mouth pressed into a thin line, annoyed with herself for her own mental wandering, Kongō got up and descended the ladder to her operations bridge. She didn't need to do that—all the information she could possibly have required about the task force's course, speed, and so on was instantly obtainable by her Mental Model wherever she happened to be—but it made her feel a bit more in control of her destiny to stand at her helm and consult her standard instruments.
"On course," she said aloud, and did her best to ignore the silent little voice inside her that replied rhetorically, But to what?
Far away, Utena Tenjou stood on the flying bridge of a different ship and regarded a different sky with a closed expression. No nice day here; Utena's sky was a dull, featureless grey, the choppy sea below like hammered lead. She was bundled up against the arctic cold in her Water Tribe-style winter gear, a bison-wool astrakhan hat crammed down on her head, as she scanned the sea ahead for stray drift ice.
To her left, light cruiser Tenryū's Mental Model lowered her binoculars, hunched her shoulders deeper into her fur-collared leather coat and remarked gravely, "Cold this morning, Commodore."
"Mm," Utena agreed, nodding gravely. "Cold... and hard."
The two fell silent for a few moments; then the purple trim lighting of Tenryū's radar headgear flickered to some inner signal, and she announced, "It's time, Commodore."
Utena gave another solemn nod, not taking her eyes off the sea. "Time... time indeed."
Then she turned her head, made eye contact with Tenryū, and neither woman could hold the tableau any longer; they both broke up giggling at the same moment, turned, and headed for the ladder.
"And not a moment too soon," Tenryū went on. "Let's get out of this freakin' wind."
"You're the one who just had to re-enact the scene," Utena kidded her as they went below.
"I didn't see you refusing to play along," Tenryū replied.
In the wardroom over pancakes, Tenryū brought her passenger up to date: "We made good time overnight, not a lot of shipping to stay clear of in these parts. I reckon we'll get into Northport about oh-six-hundred Zulu tomorrow—which is what, ten o'clock local time."
Utena nodded. "Good. After we eat I'll see if I can get Jinora on the WT and give her a revised estimate. Wouldn't do to waste all your hard work waiting around for a lift up to the Temple that's not expecting us until after lunch," she added with a smile.
"Eh, don't sweat that, this is pretty light duty," Tenryū assured her. "It's cold up here, but there's no typhoons in the forecast and nobody's shooting at us..."
"They tell me the weather up here can turn on you pretty quick," Utena said.
"I'm keeping my Doppler tuned," Tenryū assured her. "It's all clear as far as my scan range right now. Worst comes to worst, we can always run for it. I'm pretty slow for a Fog cruiser," she admitted, "but I ain't slower than weather."
Utena chuckled, conceding the point, then paused and regarded her forkful of pancakes thoughtfully.
"Why do you guys have food?" she asked. "I've been wondering about that for days now." Looking up to meet Tenryū's eye, she grinned wryly and added, "Do I want to know what this is made of?"
"Why, I couldn't tell you," Tenryū admitted. "Way above my tonnage rating. But as to what it is, it's just..." She made a vague piling-up gesture with her hands, initially at a loss to put it into words. "Atoms put together in the right ways. I mean, human food is chemically pretty simple, right? It's basically all just carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, maybe a little sodium or potassium here and there..."
"So it's not the same stuff you're made of, then," said Utena.
Tenryū shook her head. "No, no. It's nanoassembled, but it's not nanomaterial. That's mostly metal and weird heavy elements and... stuff." She shrugged. "I'm not Akashi, I don't really know how any of it works. They're tiny machines, and they... push atoms together. And then it's pancakes, or rice, or whatever."
"Or weapons of mass destruction."
"That's a different program," Tenryū said piously, and again they regarded each other for a couple of seconds before cracking up snickering.
"How long do you figure you'll be up at this Air Temple place once we get in?" Tenryū asked after a little while. "I'm not in any hurry or anything, I just wanna get a feel for whether it's worth starting any of the really long calibrations," she explained. "Some of them can be a pain to cancel."
"I'm not sure," Utena said. "It depends on how busy they are, and..." She paused, looking a little downcast. "... whether Anthy even agrees to see me. She might... not be ready for that yet."
The Mental Model nodded, a look of slightly helpless sympathy on her face. "Like I told the Admiral, I'm not... not really any good at this at all? But... I've got your back, Commodore. Take as long as you want up there. When you come down, I'll be right here."
Utena smiled, only a little wanly. "Thanks. I think you might be better at it than you think." Her good humor recovered, she got up and started clearing away the dishes, then observed offhandedly, "You don't have to wait around in Northport, though, you can come up with me if you want."
"Me? In a temple for flying people built on top of a mountain?" Tenryū looked dubious. "I dunno, I mean, my entire life so far has been at an altitude no higher than, let me think, sea level."
Utena looked back over her shoulder from the sink, giving the Mental Model a challenging grin. "Heheh. You scared?"
"Oh no you didn't," Tenryū replied. Then, looking puzzled, she said, "Also, why are you washing those dishes? I'm just going to recycle the mats anyway."
Utena laughed. "Step up to this sink, my young apprentice, and let me teach you the meditative value of housework."
With the briefing at last dismissed (and a great many people presumably heading off to do a bit of thinking), Corwin and Korra made their way with Nagato, Mutsu, and Blue Ridge across the Admiralty complex, toward the offices allocated for the use of Corwin's contingent.
"Well," Corwin observed. "That didn't go quite as I'd expected, particularly at the end."
"Yeah," Korra agreed. "I thought I might have to step in for a second there, but your people seemed to have it well in hand," she added with a nod to Nagato.
Nagato's face didn't change from the grim frown it had worn through most of the meeting as she replied, "My apologies, Lord Ravenhair, Avatar Korra. In light of your coordinator's fleet disposition report, I should have better anticipated the way certain likely attendees would react."
"Hey, no problem!" Korra assured her. "I've handled worse dealing with the United Republic Senate."
Corwin gave her an amused sidelong look. "Um... Korra? I'm not sure if you noticed, but everyone in there apart from us was a warship. Together, they could probably level Republic City ten times over."
"Er," said Korra, who hadn't thought of that.
"Actually, given the distribution of ships present, it would likely be twenty times over," Blue Ridge put in. "Although that's only if you assume those capable of carrying nuclear armament would really use it."
"That's not very helpful, Blue Ridge," said Nagato in a long-suffering sort of way.
"Just stating facts, ma'am," said Blue Ridge imperturbably.
"Be that as it may..." Nagato said, then let it drop and said to her sister ship, "Mutsu, could you go on ahead while we work on hashing out Lord Ravenhair's schedule?"
"Of course, neesan," Mutsu replied, then added with a mischievous smile, "I'm sure John and the rest will be very interested in what Corwin here has to say. It was nice meeting you, Corwin, Korra!"
As the battleship headed off across the complex's central quadrangle toward a different building, humming cheerfully to herself, Korra gave Nagato a curious look and said, "'John'?"
"Rear Admiral John Richardson, USN, 1970-2059," said Blue Ridge automatically, before Nagato could speak.
"Admiral Richardson and his daughter Jane both served in the Pacific Theater during the Fog War," Nagato explained. "They will likely have some insight into how to handle certain aspects of this business—in light of Higbee's reaction."
"Speaking of reactions," Corwin said, "it would be good to get a sense of how the community at large takes the news, once it filters out from the ones at the first briefing."
Blue Ridge consulted the data tablet she'd been carrying ever since they arrived, scrolling momentarily with a fingertip. "Well, unsurprisingly the #Kuchikukan discord has blown up. Twenty-five... correction, thirty-five new threads have started in the Deployments and Current Events sub-boards of the Shipgirls Online forums within the last ten minutes. Five separate betting pools have started, one for each major steel-hull ship type, placing odds on the likelihood of particular ships being accepted for the program." She glanced up and added, "Given her outburst at the briefing, Musashi is considered a sure bet."
Korra whistled, impressed. "All that in ten minutes?"
"Well, I am pretty well-networked," Blue Ridge replied modestly, glancing up at her satellite uplink headband. Then, with a wry half-smile, she added, "The downside is that I have RSS feeds in my head."
"We'll need to post some Coast Guard assets to control access to Lord Ravenhair's offices for the duration," Nagato mused. "The last thing he needs is a mob of destroyers swarming him while he and his headquarters squadron are trying to work."
"Already sending the deployment orders, ma'am," Blue Ridge replied briskly.
"Hey, now, I don't think we need to be too restrictive," Corwin said.
"Yeah, surely people around here know how to form an orderly line—" Korra said, but before she could finish the sentence, a group of people came around the corner up ahead with the distinctive figure of Zhu Li in the lead.
"There she is, ladies, just as I said," declared the battleship with a triumphant gesture.
Without further ado, Korra was surrounded and swept off by a swarm of kanmusu from Dìqiú, all talking excitedly at once—thanking her for saving them or rescuing their crews from long-ago storms or skirmishes, wanting to know what brought her to Valhalla, hoping it wasn't that, and so on. The last Corwin and the two Einheri ships saw of her, just as she was whisked around the corner by the mob and disappeared from sight, was her leaning back just long enough to meet Corwin's bemused eyes and mouth the words,
"(I stand corrected—!)"
"On second thought," said Corwin.
"That Coast Guard deployment, Blue Ridge," Nagato said.
"Already doubling it, ma'am," Blue Ridge replied.
In a conference room in the main Kanmusu Command administration building, the four ships who had accompanied Corwin on this mission waited for their admiral and Nagato to return, having been asked to keep themselves out of sight until the Einheri Fleet Coordinator could provide her own charges with sufficient warning of their presence. Each dealt with the enforced downtime in her own way. Iona sat at the table with her head pillowed on folded arms, apparently asleep. Akashi had a Future Industries GearPhone V she'd acquired in Dìqiú and was playing a game, considerately wearing headphones to avoid disturbing the others. Ōyodo, ever industrious, had produced a data console that looked like a 20th-century teletype crossed with a Holonet terminal and was working out some logistical documents to file on her return to Kiska Island. And Kaga...
Kaga was standing by the window, looking down at the fleet complex and considering what she saw. The anchorage was laid out in a neat and logical way; it was quite a lot smaller than any such facility she had ever seen before, but she could easily recognize the features and how they related to each other.
The basic layout was in the shape of a U; the building they were in now was near the "top" of the left side, and by leaning out a little, she could see that similar structures lined the waterfront all along that side. Built mostly in marble, they all had the look of administrative facilities—the offices, briefing rooms, and training facilities that made the brains of a fleet work. At the base of the U were what looked like a series of piers, as one might find in any naval base, except to Kaga's eye they seemed far too small—no bigger than the sorts of wharves one might find at a small-craft marina.
Standing behind them, on the shoreside point of the U, was a massive red-brick building with a metal roof and a number of smoky chimneys atop, plainly an industrial facility of some kind. It had a great pair of green-painted metal doors on the waterside—in fact, as Kaga looked more closely, she saw that the doors reached into the water, the sheltered harbor's small waves lapping at the metal. To the right of the large building was a jumble of smaller but similar-looking structures, which then blended into a series of larger, slightly more decorative buildings that filled out the harbor's starboard bank.
Beyond all this, through a few small gaps in the buildings, Kaga could see lesser structures—houses, shops, all the usual paraphernalia of a port town—radiating out from the port and blending into the greater borough of New Yokosuka. In the distance, she could just make out the sun-glint from the gold-tiled roofs of the Great Halls of Valhalla and Folkvángr, and the high skyline of the Golden City proper beyond.
It was quite a view, but Kaga found it perplexing. Why were the docks so small? They were vacant now, but there was no conceivable way that they could ever support the operations of warships. Indeed, assuming Kaga's estimation of scale was correct, none seemed big enough for anything larger than a rowboat to tie up alongside. And what was that door on the industrial-looking building for? Again, though it faced onto the water, large though it might be, it was too small, and its lintel too low, to permit the passage of anything bigger than a mid-sized submarine.
While she was thinking about that, yellow caution lights began rotating above that very door, and as a warning buzzer sounded, the doors parted and began sliding to either side. Kaga, her curiosity piqued, leaned out for a closer look. The space beyond the doors was too dark for her to make out anything that might lie within, but a moment later, a handful of moving figures emerged from that darkness into the afternoon sunlight.
Kaga blinked in surprise at the sight of them. Five people, all of them evidently young human women, had just come out of that big metal door and were now making their way up the U-shaped cove toward the greater expanse of New Yokosuka Harbor beyond... but they weren't aboard any vessels, small or otherwise. Rather, they were standing on the surface of the water, gliding along like ice skaters, or skiers going downhill (although they were on perfectly level water).
What was more, Kaga saw that they were all wearing equipment of some kind—equipment which, upon closer inspection, looked uncannily like miniature warship parts. The one in the lead was the most heavily loaded, sporting what looked for all the world like a number of scaled-down battleship main turrets, big slabs of armor bristling with three long gun barrels each. The others, fanning out in line abreast, were more lightly equipped. Kaga didn't know why—she had certainly never seen such a thing before—but she had the ineffable conviction that she was looking at a battleship and four escorts, probably light cruisers or destroyers, sortieing to patrol the local waters.
Fascinated, she watched them go until they went out of sight, tiny dark specks making a hard starboard turn and passing behind the pedestal of the colossal bronze statue that stood near the mouth of New Yokosuka Harbor. (She wondered idly who or what it was meant to depict; from behind, it looked like a woman wearing an ornately modified miko outfit, striking a triumphal you-shall-not-pass sort of pose.)
Once they were gone, Kaga turned to see her three colleagues engrossed in their own activities. She was considering how she might tell them about what she had just seen when the hallway door opened.
All four visitors looked up, expecting to see Corwin and Nagato; instead, they saw four women none of them recognized, all wearing hakama skirts and gi tops—very much not unlike Kaga's outfit, Ōyodo noticed, but for their color schemes. The one in their lead, in particular, was dressed almost identically to Kaga, except her skirt was red where Kaga's was blue, and her leggings white rather than black. She even resembled Kaga a bit herself, though she wore her dark hair straight rather than tied up in a side ponytail.
At the sight of Kaga, all four of them pulled up short, surprised looks crossing their faces, though they had evidently come this far in something of a hurry. Their leader stared hard at her for a long moment, then said softly,
"It's true. Kaga."
Kaga tilted her head and stared back, a look gathering on her face that combined puzzlement, recognition, and a further layer of puzzlement at the recognition.
"... Akagi?" she murmured, her voice almost inaudible.
In a blur of excited voices and colorful silk, the four new arrivals surrounded Kaga—and then, as abruptly as they had come, they were gone, taking the deeply bemused but unprotesting Fog carrier with them.
Akashi sat looking at the now-closed door for a few moments, her face blank, then turned to Ōyodo and Iona. "What just happened?"
"I don't know," Ōyodo replied. Iona just shrugged, her expression completely baffled.
Corwin, Nagato, and Blue Ridge saw the group of them from a distance, leaving the building as they themselves were approaching, but didn't know what to make of it. Blue Ridge, noting the distinctive orange and green colors of the carriers Hiryū and Sōryū, merely remarked offhandedly, "I wonder what 2CarDiv is up to..."
"Hard telling," Nagato replied, sounding distracted. "Hopefully whatever it is, we won't hear about it first from the Shore Patrol." Then, taking note of another figure who was approaching them from the same building, she said, "Ah, right on time. Lord Ravenhair, let me introduce your liaison ship."
The person approaching them presented the aspect of a girl in her mid-teens, slightly tall for her age and very slim. She had long, straight silver hair (not unlike Iona's in color or style, apart from a pair of thick sidelocks tied with pink ribbons) and penetrating eyes of strikingly unusual color: bright orange, with just a hint of a metallic cast, like polished copper. She was dressed in a white one-piece sailor dress over black tights, and sported a pair of hovering mechanical devices either side of her head, reminding Corwin of the bat-ear gadgets Tenryū wore.
When she reached them, this individual squared up to attention and saluted, her right hand almost vertical alongside her face. "Special Type destroyer, fifth ship, Murakumo," she said crisply. Then, giving Corwin a considering look, she went on, "So you're the god of Mecha, eh?"
"That's me," Corwin replied.
"Well, I'll be expecting great things from you, then," said Murakumo.
"I've assigned Murakumo to act as your secretary while you're in New Yokosuka," Nagato explained. "She'll make sure your staff is properly briefed and connected to our operations here, help screen the applicants to your program, and provide whatever other assistance you need while you're here."
"That's very kind of you," Corwin said. "Thank you."
"Not at all. I'm not sure you really understand the size of the can of worms you just opened," Nagato said with the first trace of humor he'd seen from her so far. "I have a feeling you're going to need all the help you can get." Then, to Murakumo, she said, "Are Lord Ravenhair's ships inside?"
"They're waiting in the conference room, except for the one the carriers just abducted," Murakumo replied.
"Ah," said Corwin. "So I did see Kaga with them. That... could be interesting."
Murakumo didn't comment on that, instead continuing to Nagato, "I've prepared base access credentials for all of them, and Miyuki and Hatsuyuki just finished opening up the rest of the fourth floor while I was occupied with that."
"Excellent." The battleship turned back to Corwin and said, "I'll leave the rest of the morning open for you to settle in. Admiral Tōgō is expecting you at 1300 this afternoon, and I'm sure the Admirals Richardson will want to see you as soon as Mutsu is finished briefing them. Vestal and Yūbari have requested an audience with your repair ship at her earliest convenience as well. Murakumo and Blue Ridge will coordinate everything with your command ship."
"Sounds good. I'm sure Akashi's looking forward to getting a look at your armory situation here. Thanks again for all your help."
"You're quite welcome, Lord Ravenhair," said Nagato formally. "I'll see you in Admiral Tōgō's office at 1300. Carry on, Murakumo," she added to the destroyer.
"Ma'am!" Murakumo replied, saluting again. Then, turning to Corwin once more, the destroyer said, "Would you like to inspect the facility, Admiral?"
"I'd love to," Corwin replied.
They entered the building and went up to the topmost floor, the fourth. The corridor they emerged into from the elevator had a slightly dusty air of disuse about it, putting Corwin oddly in mind of a school during summer vacation.
"This building is the only part of Kanmusu Command that was here before the Ragnarök," Murakumo explained. "It was the headquarters of the Ninth Fleet, which was mainly made up of ships from the IJN. After the Personification, the officers who chose to remain on regular sea duty moved to new quarters closer to the conventional shipyard. We've used the bottom three floors for our own headquarters staff and the human officers who stayed with us," she went on, "but we've never needed the space up here. Nagato thought it would be a good space for you to work out of—close to the action, but you won't have to put up with a lot of day-to-day traffic. Nobody's likely to come up here unless they're specifically here to see you."
Corwin nodded. "Makes sense. And we'll be out of everybody's way," he added with a wry smile.
"You said that, not me," Murakumo replied, her expression studiously neutral. "Anyway, the facilities are still kind of a work in progress, but there should be enough here for you to get a start with. Those doors down there used to be the file rooms, and they're still equipped for it, you'll probably need that... the conference room is here... and this is the office," she said, opening the door at the end of the hall.
The room beyond it was a decent size, a little bigger than the office Corwin's father maintained at the International Police Organization headquarters building in New Avalon, and it had a very large picture window that looked out onto the same U-shaped harbor Kaga had been regarding earlier... but the room itself was virtually empty. The sunlight streaming through the picture window made the weakness of the ceiling light fixture less obvious, but the almost complete absence of furnishings was hard to miss. The only proper article of furniture in the room was a large leather swivel chair, sitting with its back to the window. Instead of a desk, what sat in front of this chair with an old-fashioned telephone on it was unmistakably a cardboard packing box that had once contained a refrigerator. Corwin could even see the THIS END UP→ arrow, currently pointing to the right from where he stood, and the bold FRIGIDAIRE logotype.
"Hmm," said Corwin, his tone neutral. Crossing the room, he sat down in the chair, placed his hands on the top of the refrigerator box as if it were his desk, and wobbled it slightly before remarking,
"The box is only temporary," Murakumo said, her expression ever-so-slightly wooden with belated embarrassment.
Corwin nodded. "That's fine."
"We'll get you a proper desk soon," Murakumo went on.
"It's fine," Corwin repeated. Nodding toward another door in the side wall of the room, he said, "Does that go to the conference room?"
"It does," Murakumo confirmed.
"Good, good." After a short pause, he couldn't resist asking, deadpan, "Does it have a table?"
"It does," Murakumo repeated, her tone unchanged.
"Well then," said Corwin with a small smile. "Let's start in there." He got up, opened the door, and bowed Murakumo through. "I'll introduce you to my ships—the ones that haven't been abducted, anyway."
This he did, after which Ōyodo reported on Kaga's sudden removal and Corwin brought her and Akashi up to date on their afternoon's appointments.
While this was going on, Iona got up and looked curiously through the connecting door, then turned back and asked, "Why is there a cardboard box in your office?"
"It's only temporary," Murakumo insisted, her face going red.
"You want me to see if I can score you something better while I'm checking out the armory?" Akashi offered.
"That won't be necessary," Murakumo said, a touch frostily, before Corwin could speak. With an expression that promised unleashed hell for somebody, she added false-pleasantly through her teeth, "Please wait here, Admiral. I'll take care of it immediately."
So saying, she stormed out through the hallway door, and as her angry footsteps echoed down the corridor, they could hear her grumbling, "... could sink those two..."
A mere hour later, Corwin, Ōyodo, and Iona stood gazing in bemusement at a completely transformed office: scrubbed, its hardwood floor polished until it gleamed, the refrigerator box replaced with a huge and absurdly sturdy-looking desk made from oak timbers; two smaller desks were arranged along the wall by the conference room door, one for Murakumo, the other for Ōyodo. There were bookshelves, rich draperies flanking the window, a far nicer light fixture, and a couple of straight-legged visitor chairs. Someone had even rounded up a red leather divan for the far wall, some framed artwork, and a nice Persian carpet for the area in front of the desk.
When she finished inspecting the work, Murakumo straightened with evident satisfaction, fists on hips, then turned to Corwin with a look of triumph. Off to one side, the two sailor-suited girls who had done most of the heavy lifting—one with short, disorderly brown hair, the other's long and black, but otherwise very close in appearance—stood to attention, smudged and tired-looking.
"There," said Murakumo. "You have my deepest apologies for the state of the office as you found it, Admiral. This is how it was supposed to look when you arrived—if I had chosen more reliable help," she added with a sharp glance at the other two.
"Who sank and made you flagship?" the one with long black hair asked.
"Oh, get out of here, you two," said Murakumo with a disgusted handwave. "You're not cleared for this area anyway."
"Aren't you even going to introduce us?" asked the one with short hair, giving Corwin a look of such frank assessment that he felt his cheeks going pink.
"Go!" Murakumo roared, pointing imperiously.
"Fine, fine, we're goin'," said the short-haired one. "Come on, Hatsuyuki, there's no dealing with her when she's like this. Let's go get some ice cream."
"Suits me," said Hatsuyuki with a placid shrug, and she let herself be led out of the room.
As she passed Corwin, the short-haired girl took a slip of paper and a pen from her skirt pocket, scribbled on one with the other, then tucked the paper into the top pocket of his jacket, winking and stage-whispering as she did so, "Call me."
"Miyuki!" barked Murakumo, her face scarlet, and a giggling Miyuki beat a hasty retreat, dragging Hatsuyuki along with her.
Murakumo watched them go, then pulled a hand wearily down her face. "I'm sorry for my sisters' behavior, Admiral," she said, sighing. "I love them and I'm proud to be a Special Type destroyer, but so help me, some days..."
"It's all right," said Corwin, smiling, as he walked appreciatively around his new desk and seated himself behind it. "It's good that they're so... lively. And the three of you did great work on the room."
Then, spreading his hands on the desk blotter, he gazed around at his transformed surroundings for a moment and nodded thoughtfully. "So!" Smiling at Ōyodo and Iona, he said with satisfaction, "I guess when we get back from seeing Admiral Tōgō this afternoon... we're open for business."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Romance of Combined Fleet Record, Volume 2
"Open for Business"
in order of appearance
Long-Range Submarine I-401 (Iona)
Command Cruiser Ōyodo
Repair Ship Akashi
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Kaga
Light Cruiser Naka
Light Cruiser Sendai
Light Cruiser Jintsū
Command Ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19)
Fast Battleship Kongō
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Akagi
Fast Battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62)
Fleet Submarine I-19 (Iku)
Cutter USCGC Alexander Hamilton (WPG-34)
Battleship Zhu Li
Guided Missile Destroyer USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG-123)
Fusion Super-Carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-80)
Repair Ship USS Vestal (AR-4)
Fleet Submarine USS Seawolf (SS-197)
Special Type-I Destroyer Fubuki
Heavy Cruiser Maya
Heavy Cruiser Chōkai
Light Cruiser Yahagi
Prototype Fast Destroyer Amatsukaze
Destroyer USS Borie (DD-215)
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Zuikaku
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Shōkaku
Battleship IKN Vengeance
Fog Fast Battleship Kongō
Fog Heavy Cruiser Maya
Earthfleet Special Type-IA Destroyer Буран
Light Cruiser Tenryū
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Hiryū
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Sōryū
Special Type-I Destroyer Murakumo
Special Type-I Destroyer Miyuki
Special Type-I Destroyer Hatsuyuki
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Matt Wagner
with the EPU Usual Suspects
based on characters from
Arpeggio of Blue Steel
by Ark Performance
Romance of Combined Fleet Record
E P U (colour) 2018